Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Death and Shadow



"Is he dead?" the masked man asked.

"The Pharoah is avenged!" the second one replied, holding his bloody hammer aloft. The announcement did nothing to prevent the panic of their fellows, running amock over the many tiers of the Deliverance Engine. Whirling pistons and shrieking valves did nothing but add to the picture of bedlam. A man balancing in a large copper dish in the middle of it all really wasn't going to make any difference, even if he was waving a gory hammer and yelling about revenge.

"His body!" the first Shining Sun cultist asked. "What's happening to it?"

The hammer-wielder looked down. At his feet, the corpse of the shadow wizard was folding in on itself. He could feel it melting under him, collapsing like a bag of snow in an oven.

"I don't understand," he managed to say.

And then there was light.

-

Xander Farren walked away from the warehouses.

It was traditional. Every wizard of his order was taught this. That once you'd rooted out the evil, left it burning in the wreckage of its dark plans, you could finally let yourself be seen as the agent who'd brought the devastation about. Your long shadow would flow before you, where future enemies could see it as a warning. Where would that shadow fall next, they might wonder.

For a perfect result, you performed the Shadow Walk slowly and with utter calm.

With an exploding building just behind you.

The Deliverance Engine erupted in a shattering white blast, hurling debris and pulverised cultists hundreds of metres into the air. The pent-up tide of Light Magic, finally released from the Engine as it was destroyed, spouted upwards in a brilliant volcano.

The other reason you faced away from the blast, Xander was reminded, was to preserve your eyesight.

Creating a perfectly convicing clone of yourself was no mean feat. Giving it life from your own, imbuing it with parts of your own flesh and mind - that took skill. Once it was made, the magic was done. You merely trusted you'd copied your own intentions and memories well enough that it would get on with the tasks you needed done.

All the same, sending it to certain death was a little cruel. In a sense, at least. Xander had given his simulacrum his own strong certainty of survival. An impression that there was a plan for escape, that he knew exactly what he was doing. Which he did, of course - while the Shining Sun was busy with their theatrical rituals, he'd been planting entirely unmagical barrels of black powder every three metres under the foundations of the warehouse. Crude, you might admit.

Crude or cruel, it didn't matter. It was still effective. You did what you needed to. It didn't matter what people thought. He knew what he was doing and why, and if lesser souls didn't understand the need for such wanton destruction, they were better off not knowing. Knowledge would only corrupt them. He wouldn't darken his own soul without knowing it was for a damned good cause, and preserving the innocent? That worked for him.

The Shining Sun had been stopped, for now. But not destroyed. As long as it still existed, however, Xander would hunt it down. He liked their chosen title. They thought it referred to a new age of knowledge, of cheaply-provided power. Magic for all. Magic without mastery, of course. A fool's dream.

No, all a shining sun could ever do was cast long shadows. Smiling, he went on into the night.

-


Bruno sat in his study looking out of the window. Outside, ravens croaked in the swampy air. A thick fog drifted in banks through the cypresses. Here and there, the choked sunlight almost managed to reflect from the corroded copper lining of the ancient sepulchres.

It was his tower now. He was the master. His own was dead, murdered by the last mad rages of a wizard blinded by hurt pride. Why are we so volatile? he wondered to himself. Why had his own master committed to what amounted to a rampage of his own? Killing all those guards, challenging other wizards to mad duels.

What good does all this power do us, he wondered, if we can't temper our own worst excesses?

Even though it was years ago, the misery of that fight in the city had never left him. He had an apprentice of his own now, who chafed against the constraints of safety and caution Bruno imposed on him. He still saw amethyst eyes glittering on town cobbles when he slept. He wasn't going to pass on the Wisdom of Xereus until he was extremely sure his apprentice knew what it could do.

And now this.

The letter was in an unfamiliar hand, but from an all-too-familiar personage. Schorsch Undrache still protected the Empire's citizens from the excesses of wizards. And had also not forgotten the terrible events of that night in Altdorf. Stiff-necked wizards arguing over heraldry was bad enough. Having master wizards playing at duels had compounded the matter. A debt, the witch hunter felt, was yet unpaid.

And of course, the licensing of the Colleges still had at its heart the law that a wizard do his duty when called upon to serve.

'I have uncovered a conspiracy,' Undrache wrote. 'A dark man, not entirely dissimilar to myself in his manner of operations. Beholden to nobody, it now seems, as his own college has disowned him. He has grown old, but feels he still has work to do. He will not explain to them what this work is. He will not entrust it to them or others. He has instead turned to magics that even the Grey College describe as questionable to preserve his mission.

'He is a dangerous man. I cannot say precisely how many loyal subjects of the Empire he has murdered over the years. Not always without good cause, at first, it must be said. But his latest killings serve no apparent purpose either my order or his own can discern. He must be stopped.
I have learnt that he is attempting to copy himself, using unnatural and forbidden means. It may not be the first time he has done so, but despite this potential risk, I cannot say there will be a better or another chance to stop him.

'Under the terms of your license, I hereby require that you and those serving you are to make your way to the free city-state of Kemperbad by a time no later than the 23rd Vorgeheim. Make all haste, do not stop to requisition arms or forces beyond those you need for safe travel in these dark times. I shall meet you at the city.

'By trying to overcome the natural limitations of his body, it is made clear to me that whatever his otherwise limitless cruelty, he is still a man. He has a man's heart and a man's wisdom.

'He still fears death.'

Don't we all, Bruno thought to himself. Don't we all.



8 comments:

  1. Keyser Söze and Kemperbad! It's like the greatest hits of the 90s - I feel 15 years younger.

    I hope I can do justice to the final (i.e. cower in a corner, hugging my obsidian amulet and hope Pit of Shades gets through...). Looking forward to it!

    ReplyDelete
  2. We'll be fighting the final tomorrow night, folks - watch this space for the conclusive battle in the Wizard's Cup!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'd like to make it clear that Kraken is playing Death - the overwhelming favourite of the Wizard's Cup.

      Anything upwards of being auto-killed in the first turn will be taken as a moral victory.

      Delete
    2. I resent the implication that killing you in the first turn will be 'automatic' in some way. It will take me immense skill, courage and chutzpah.

      Delete
  3. I think I was the only one that voted for Shadow, based on the draw and his ability to swing engagements in his favour. Don't let me down, Stylus. You can do iiiit!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'll ride that Steed of Shadows to victory!

      Delete