Meditations on the Abyss
We'd left the front door open after coming in, but the cabin was still very dark. I kicked piled furniture away from the rear door, and opened it. Wan red sunlight spilled across the threshold and painted the cluttered gloom the color of desert stone. Behind me, Kei, my fellow apprentice, repeated in her most soothing voice, "Jarilyn, where's your daughter? Ma'am? What happened to Cortrima?" over the hysterical wails of the Aluvian woman we'd found here.
"Cortrima," Jarilyn sobbed. "They came and took her. They took her in the night. Their hands came through the walls! I couldn't stop them."
I doubted we'd get much information from her.
"Here comes another one." At the front door, Master Celdiseth stood with arms folded across his barrel torso, staring coolly up at the monstrous Spire that howled but a few furlongs away. I hopped back across the room to look, and a jumble of furniture toppled as I went. The woman resumed flinching and shivering. Kei shot me a poisoned look and grabbed her trembling hands again.
Sure enough, the heart-like organ at the center of the Spire had begun to pulse brighter once more. Celdiseth sat, carefully arranging the folds of his dark red robe around him. I stood. I knew what was coming would hurt, but I was determined to stay on my feet.
The organ gave a final, tremendous pulse, squeezing out from between the black claws that held it.
The ground recoiled. Leaves spun away from the quivering trees. Shreth howls floated over the hill.
A thousand invisible razors entered my head from all sides and crawled and dragged themselves slowly down my spine. Light fell away into a long tunnel, with the red heart of the Spire flickering at the end. Around the edge of my vision, black shapes swam and twisted like columns of smoke. The Spire's howl washed out, and behind it I seemed to hear the distant squealing of something noisome and unnatural.
Then I heard a harsh, unwilling cry of pain, choked out by unendurable agony. The voice was my own. From back in the cabin, Kei released an unembarrassed shriek. From the ground to my right Celdiseth released a mere grunt. My legs disappeared from under me, and I was rolling on the dying grass, clutching at the ethereal blades that lacerated the space inside my skull.
With a final shudder, the ground fell still.
I panted, spitting clover blossoms and dust, and rolled onto my back. Discolored clouds squirmed across the yellow sky, like beads of oil across a puddle. Celdiseth sat quietly beside me. His face was still, though white and drawn.
"We should leave soon," he said, quietly. "Check on Kei. We'll take Jarilyn with us."
The woman, lacking any sensitivity to magic and therefore unaffected by the quake, carried on as if nothing happened. "I couldn't do anything," she sobbed. "They took her and I couldn't stop them. Blessed Mothers forgive me, I couldn't keep my baby safe . . ."
- * * *
We traveled many leagues, and as we went, the pains associated with the quakes became less intense. By nightfall, we were deep under the green shelter of Tiofor Wood. Celdiseth and I gathered up the logs we'd chopped for a large fire. "I doubt it will keep the Shadows at bay," he grunted, "but at least we'll be able to see them when they come." Kei, meanwhile, sat huddled with the Aluvian woman, stroking her fine, cornsilk hair and murmuring reassuring nothings to her. I'd wrapped Jarilyn up in a heavy woolen blanket. My mother had given it to me when I began my apprenticeship with Celdiseth in the far north. The paleness of her hair against the dark material was striking. It made her seem still more thin and frail.
Her story had come out in pieces, spaced by fits of helpless tears. Varel, the enchanter we had come in search of, had been married to her for a number of years. The pains of the Spire had apparently driven him mad, and he ran away into the woods. The loss of their child had driven Jarilyn to madness as well, though she was too defeated by the knowledge to run anywhere. Celdiseth and I had taken turns carrying her across the wilderness. My arms were quite sore, though he seemed unaffected.
After a time, Jarilyn fell into a restless sleep. I sat beside her to eat my mushroom stew. I listened to her breathe, and to the crickets that serenaded the pale rising moons. She made a small noise in her sleep, began to turn and twitch. Her breathing became fast and shallow, and her eyes and hands squeezed tight, as if dreams were showing her things she would rather not see. I reached for her, to brush the hair away from her eyes, smooth the wrinkles of worry and pain that creased her forehead -- but hesitated. I looked towards Kei and Celdiseth, feeling foolish and embarrassed, and my hand darted away.
Celdiseth had boiled water for green tea, a passion he had absorbed from the scholars of Hebian-to. He sat with his hands wrapped around a hand-carved pine stoup, a gift from a powerful Sho enchanter he knew, and watched the cracking shadows cast by the fire.
"Master?" Kei asked quietly, trying not to wake Jarilyn. She knelt on a reed mat near the fire, her hair unbound for the night, and hanging to her waist. A single ivory comb held the sable cascade away from her eyes and the flames. She pushed the loose sleeves of her robe back, so she could warm her hands. "Is magic different here? Compared to Ispar, I mean."
"The magic of Dereth is different in many ways," Celdiseth said. "The most fundamental way may be the most important."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"On Ispar, mana suffused all the land and sea, in an unseen cloud. When a mage drew upon it, there might be a gentle breeze as other mana moved to fill the void he had made. It was hard to touch, though. One needed talent and skill to manipulate the mana of Ispar, and mages rarely managed to ascend above the third circle of their spells. One who managed to reach the sixth circle was almost unheard of. Here, though . . . Tell me, young Evaen, have you ever heard a mariner speak of ocean-currents?"
"No, Master," I said. "I'm from the highlands. The Luparvium Mountains. That's about as far from the sea as you can get, and --"
"And no shipwrights or sailors have come across from Ispar," Celdiseth finished for me. "Yes. Quite so. At times, I have wondered if that might be by design." He sipped from his stoup thoughtfully, and continued. "The oceans are not simply large, stagnant puddles. Rivers, called currents, run through them. They are powerful and invisible.
"It is similar with the mana of Dereth. There is no cloud of mana here, no gentle breezes. Magic flows through the land in raw torrents. Rather like the Canfeld River in spring, I'd say, when the snows of your mountains melt. Some of that power may leak or spill, yes, and we use that to work our little magics. There is little enough of this spillage, though -- that is why our spells weaken as more learn the arts -- and that is easy to touch. Almost anyone can cast here. The mass of this world's mana seems to run unseen and untapped through the land -- far more power than any mage could hope to control. It is somehow locked up, though, and we cannot touch it. I suspect even attempting to do so would be fatal."
"Why is that important?" Kei asked. "Whether magic floats like a pollen on the wind or rushes like a mighty river, we seem to able to influence it well enough. If there is more power here than a mage could control, enough to kill even, is it not for the good that we cannot touch it?"
Celdiseth's vein-blue eyes stared at her intently from across the fire. "Because, Kei -- these are not earthquakes that have been rocking the land. Each time one occurs, these mana-currents shift. The 'rivers' are being dragged out of their courses, towards the Spires. That is why they cause some of us pain; the mana we command is literally being ripped from our bodies. What we are experiencing are . . ." one corner of his mouth twisted downwards at the inelegance of the word, "manaquakes."
"Why are they happening?" I said. "Is that what the Spires are for?"
"I believe that is their purpose," Celdiseth said. "As for why, I don't know. I have been trying to find out since they first erupted. Whatever the Shadows do has a reason, whether we understand it or not. They are a wily foe, or so the records of the last Shadow war tell us. If we do not understand their aims . . . we cannot defeat them."
"But we have defeated them," I said. "We fought at Stonehold, Kei and I, and . . ." Celdiseth shot me such a fierce look of disapproval that I stammered and fell silent.
"We were through with our studies for the day, Master," Kei said reasonably. "We couldn't let others fight where we would not. Are we not being trained to serve the good of all?"
"You're twisting my words," Celdiseth said darkly. "You are being trained so that you might, someday, be capable of serving the good of all. Until then, you risk yourself and those who think to depend upon you . . . Why do you suppose I make my apprentice robes the color I do?" he asked, suddenly.
Kei pursed her lips. "I had thought, Master, that it was in honor of the Elder Spirits. Orange is the color of breath from the Dragon of Power, from whom we might learn the discipline needed to control great magics. It is also the color of the Firebird of Splendor's wings, who teaches us to disregard the pleasures of the world and focus on our studies. Finally, it is the color of the sparks struck by the hooves of the Unicorn of Grace, who reminds us that we must help all, even should it cost us our lives."
Celdiseth chuckled. "A pretty lie. Heard that from Shoyanen Kenchu, did you?" Kei looked stricken, and Celdiseth's expression softened. "Well, perhaps she was sincere. She likes that sort of symbolism. That's not my reason, though. I make them such a bright color because, until you have learned to control your abilities, you are more a danger to yourself and your comrades than whatever you fight."
I felt my jaw hang. "You mean," I said slowly, "that we wear this bright orange . . ."
"So that experienced mages will be able to spot you in the confusion of combat. So they can be prepared to avoid your misfires and fizzles, and watch to ensure you don't get in over your head." He took another sip from his stoup as I sat back heavily, and Kei squirmed in embarrassment. "It's nothing to be ashamed of," Celdiseth added. "I wore the orange robe of an apprentice for many years myself, back in Feirgard.
"All beside the point, of course." He sighed impatiently, and his silvered brows furrowed. He peered into his stoup. "And my point is simply this: the attacks the Shadows have made cannot be their true goal. If they were, they would send greater numbers. Empyrean lore tells us that they have infinite legions, and that they slew all the heroes and heroines who tried to stand before them. If they were invading, why would they send only a few hundred at a time, and fall back so readily?
"No, their true goal is something else . . . and I will wager you an Olde Ispar Stout that it involves the Spires, and what is happening beneath us. The attacks are merely to keep us distracted, to allow their generals to assess our strength, while they achieve whatever their true goal may be. They are ancient, and we are something new in the world. Are we a force to be reckoned with, toyed with, or ignored? We do not yet have a place assigned to us in their plan."
"The release of Bael'Zharon," I said, and the words fell cold and heavy on the ground.
Celdiseth grunted. "The Hopeslayer. Probably, yes . . . Though I cannot imagine what the Spires or the old standing stones have to do with it. Frore was far from either, and the thesis that the Great Work was a piece of his crystal prison has been accepted by almost all of the wise. Regardless, the Shadows are achieving their goal someplace hidden, as we -- as you -- run hither and yon, fighting their captains and generals."
His keen eyes sought mine across the campfire. With a decisive snap, a spark was sent up towards the bloated moons. "Do you see why I want you to keep clear of the fighting, Evaen? You are not yet ready to fight legends . . . and until we understand the nature of the enemy, I believe we must hold a reserve."
(To be continued . . .)