Cloack and Dagger
by Aaron E Nowack
A pod of white Midsea dolphins escorted the Anaduac lateen-rigger as it glided out of Mirabalpur harbour. Their mill-pond sea home shimmered in the early morning sunlight, reflecting the colourful scarlet rigging and sea-god masthead typical of that Free city's vessels.
On deck the mostly Orasareni crew followed their skipper's orders, scooting from one end of the ship to another in well-organised chaos. Up above two lookouts stared out to sea, towards the coast of Tirmar hidden below the horizon. Up ahead, the small harbour pilot vessel slowly manoeuvred away from the larger ship's course, its' customary role fulfilled. A seaman's shout from the lookout nest confirmed a clear passage.
Below, two strangely contrasting sets of eyes focused on the breakwater at the prow of the craft.
The Archmage watched one of the pale sea mammals jump into the air, water cascading to form a momentary rainbow trail. The dolphin shrieked a greeting to the sailors it recognised on deck.
'One of these days we'll study the creatures in more detail', he mused,'and understand their strange language.'
His companion nodded in agreement. 'It is said the Dragonwrights can communicate with them and even use them as guides in the treacherous mists of the taen a myr.'
The Archmage snorted and turned to face his fellow traveller, the faint sea breeze lifting his black shoulder-length hair away from his face to reveal his Mirish complexion. 'One of these days we'll get around to study them too' he rumbled. 'Those Tana mages have far too many secrets for my liking.'
Tarfn grinned. 'You can say that again - they may be primitive pirates but they know a thing or two. Apparently they create their own fog banks in order to sneak up on their prey at sea. Astonishing!'
The Archmage smiled and returned his gaze to the scene before them, marvelling at the skill by which the playful dolphin guides herded a school of flying fish towards the hungry mouths of their pale offspring.
The dolphins abandoned the rigger as it passed through the Straits of Anorurr, preferring to remain in the calm waters of Midsea than risk the often stormy eastern ocean. The vessel reached it's re-provisioning stop at Haran in Aryisa on the evening of the eighth day, allowing the sorcerers to take a stroll in the busy portside market whilst goods were transferred.
The Archmage took the opportunity to meet in secrecy with his Second and discuss their future plans. Settling for a dockside eatery, the sorcerers hired a small room, after ordering beverages, and proceeded to confer under the cover of a stillness ward. Placing their mugs of strong Asagmari ale on the circular orif table, the magicians sat solidly on the stools provided.
'It's good not to have the ground moving under you after a week at sea, even if it's just for one night.'
The Archmage nodded in agreement and took a sip of the ale, grimacing at the musky aftertaste it produced. Wiping his mouth with his sleeve, he pursed his lips and breathed out heavily.
'Thank a god it's Framo' he quipped, mirroring Tarfn's grin, before resuming a serious expression. 'We need to thrash out the reports we've received from our informants. Some of them are rather intriguing.'
Tarfn motioned for him to continue, taking his first sip of the ale and replacing the mug on the table almost immediately, twisting his face.
'Let's start with the south. What's going on there? It looks like a war is brewing.'
Tarfn concurred. 'The Videssians are on course to wage war on their Parglug foes, and have almost managed to exterminate the poor Onagir.'
The Archmage frowned. 'Yes. The reports say some sort of casting has prevented the Videssians from completing their genocidal aspirations - we need to find out who did that - the Onagir have never been proficient enough to achieve that degree of magery.'
'Perhaps the Parglug have aided them?' proffered the Second.
'Perhaps.' The Archmage considered. 'When we get back from Celpalar, get Ehurrien to have a look at the situation down there. Which reminds me, Ehurrien passed me a report from our Rhudyn informant. The Tana have managed to set up a permanent scry over the city of Anecir. We must get our hands on one of their so called scrye gems.'
'I'll get someone onto it right away.' Tarfn withdrew a charm of recollection from his robe's deep pockets and conjured briefly.
'We also need to get someone over to Myr-Kun to ascertain what our lost brothers are up to. They discovered our last agent who attempted to gain entrance with a Torphani delegation last year.'
Tarfn nodded. 'I visited Frobilim in the infirmary just before we left Mirabalpur. The healers say he may regain consciousness soon, though they weren't too forthcoming when I asked whether he'd still be sane if he does.'
'Typical.' The Archmage shook his head and tutted, wearily. 'What news from Vianise?'
Tarfn smiled, recalling his personal assistant's information. 'She reports that Helga's child is indeed a potential magical prodigy, but is anxious that the Coven may attempt to hide the infant from us.'
The Archmage pondered the news. 'Tell Vianise to approach the Coven covertly, without letting the royals know - no point in having the Tanimbarian aristocracy holding this over us or the Coven.'
Tarfn added the instructions to his charm whilst nodding.
'One more thing.' The Archmage absently sipped his drink once more, instantly regretting it. 'Ugh the Asagmari must have mouths of leather.'
'Give me a Pranian vintage any day,' agreed his Second.
The Archmage laughed heartily. 'Too true, my friend. The Taltherani know how to make decent wine. It's a shame they haven't taught these Asagmari to produce drinkable beer!' He scratched his goatee, a mannerism which, unknown to him, was copied by his associates when mimicking him in jest. 'It's funny you should mention Taltheran. I was wondering if you'd heard about Wyr?'
'That Therani city without magic?' Tarfn scowled. ' Yes - Rakema, our erstwhile mole in the Wizards Guild told me about it the other day. What do you think - shall we get someone to pay a visit?'
'No, not yet.' The Archmage looked concerned. ' What Rakema didn't tell you is that the Wizards sent a party themselves - only one person returned', he paused, for effect, 'and he was wiped clean of all eldritch knowledge - every little bit.'
Tarfn gasped in revulsion. 'All knowledge...' he mumbled, horrified. 'That's impossible.'
'Apparently not.' observed his master. 'The young chap is still in shock over the ordeal. The Wizards are in a quandary over what to do with him - they can't banish him as he knows too much - but without any power he has no right to be in the Guild.' He raised his eyebrows. 'I'm amazed they've let him live, to tell the truth. I suppose they'll keep him under observation to see if he regains anything.'
Tarfn was still shaking his head incredulously. 'We must find out what they did to him - that cannot be allowed to happen to one of our people.'
'Indeed,' agreed the Archmage. 'I want you personally to look into it.'
Tarfn stared at his drinking companion in abject amazement, trying to hide his alarm.
'I know it's hardly what you had in mind when we returned from Celpalar' continued the Archmage, 'but you understand how important this is. I need someone I can trust to do this.'
Tarfn only nodded, his mind reeling.
Nine days after departing the Aryisan port, the Archmage and his assistant admired the sunset over the Kelshir mountains, marvelling at the golden hues which shimmered over the snow-capped peaks.
'It amazes me that no-one's set-up a trading station on this coastline,' contemplated the Second. 'After all, you can hardly fault the weather and a provisions stop during the voyage from Aryisa up to Celpalar would make commercial sense.'
The Archmage ignored his companions deliberations. 'Tarfn. When we reach Areneth, the Celpali will want to know what our plans are.' The Archmage waited for his friend to digest the remark. 'Will the other Council members be ready? Bolshat's seasickness ...'
' ... will be dealt with.' The Second reassured his superior. 'Ehurrien remembered to buy some of those Gomellian herbs when we stopped at Haran. After he had to spend half the trip lingering outside the ship's latrine while Bolshat ...'
Tarfn paused, eyeing the Archmage's raised hand. The he felt it too. Goose pimples appeared on his bared arms as his mouth slid open in alarm. >From below deck he heard gasps as the other sorcerers sensed the eldritch force. Even the sailors had grown quiet, perhaps aware of the supernatural swirls of energy floating in the air in some instinctive manner.
'Eerith,' whispered the Archmage, 'a damn Eerith spell.' He kissed his teeth.
Tarfn blinked his piercing blue eyes and swore in Shanari dialect. 'What are they up to? They've been quiet the last few years, I thought maybe ...'
The explosion threw the sorcerers across the deck, magical energies ricocheting off their hastily formed shields to fly every which way. Crewmen ran for cover, one anxious sailor diving into a barrel of fish oil in his haste to avoid the airborne hazards.
Below decks, the other Council sitters formed a circle to bolster their comrades' wards.
But there was no need. The Eerith spell ended almost as soon as it had begun. The Archmage picked himself up off the floor and dusted off. Leaning on the bow railing he surveyed the waves below.
Tarfn frowned and rubbed his bruised elbow. Standing next to his master, robe flapping in the remnants of the eerith enchantment, he searched the other man's face quizzically. 'You think they've gone ...'
The Archmage shook his head before Tarfn could finish the sentence. 'No, I doubt it. The Eerith don't need to take visible patterns in order to manifest.' He turned to catch the unfortunate fish-oiled seaman mutter miserably as he stepped out of the barrel. 'There's nothing we can do to stop the Eerith repeating that little show. They know where we're headed and why. I don't know what game they're playing.' The Archmage looked up at the cloudless sky. 'There could be one of the lunatic spirits there now watching us.' He glanced at his companion. 'I'm not paranoid - you know as well as I what those ghouls are capable of.'
Tarfn nodded. 'The ancient one warned us of their possible movements in the last trancing.'
The Archmage made a fist and punched the railing, wincing in unexpected pain. 'Perhaps that was a warning - perhaps even an omen of what is to come.'
'An omen?' Tarfn raised his eyebrows. 'Did you augur ...?'
The Archmage smiled wryly. 'Mayhaps if we'd had time to pay a visit to Talishara .... but with the Cedonian occupation we'll have to be more discrete on our visits to the oracle. No, no foresight - just a feeling - a premonition if you will.'
Up above, the eerith mystic mulled over its' possible courses of action, hit upon a decision, and headed off in the direction of Celpalar.
Somewhere, out of place, barely within time, a small pocket of The Dreaming awakens to the smell of burning flesh.
ACOLYTE: The sacrifice is aflame, Master. Shall I begin the chant?
MASTER: Yes. The Guide will shortly depart this life. The Razanians may be known for their stamina but they burn to death like anyone else.
The Acolyte adds more fuel to the pyre and begins to hum softly.
MASTER: We await, ancient one, we await and pray for your guidance. We await to hear your wisdom.
Infinite darkness closes in. The acolyte shudders at the sudden drop in temperature.
VISION: I am glad to hear it, faithless human.
MASTER: We hold faith in your power, ancient one.
VISION: Oh please. Your submissiveness is ludicrous and clearly a sham. What do you want?
MASTER: We wish to come to an arrangement with you, great one.
The vision sighs, uninterestedly.
VISION: You're boring me, human. I find your games childish at the best of times.
MASTER: But we're not the only ones playing games, ancient one.
The humans wait in the ensuing silence. The entity's increased attention is palpable.
VISION: What concern is that of yours?
MASTER: Only that we could combine our resources and ...
VISION: Are you Morvali? Only Morvali are this stupid. What on earth could you offer me? I could crush you like an insect.
MASTER: We propose a covenant. A pooling of resources.
VISION: What's in it for me?
Raucous laughter echoes around them.
VISION: Are you trying to be funny or is the irony of that remark lost on simpletons like you?
MASTER: In return for your co-operation, we will free you from your immortal prison.
VISION: My immortal ...
A clear sense of hope surrounds them.
MASTER: Are you willing to aid us, great one?
VISION: I'm listening.
MASTER: To begin with, we need this.
The acolyte effects a small cantrip, displaying their requirements to the entity.
The vision vanishes briefly, to reappear humming a strange refrain.
VISION: It is begun.
MASTER: Until we meet again, great one.
The acolyte extinguishes the flames, the sacrifice's bones crumbling to ash. Humans vanish from the Dreaming to return to the solid world of Celandra.
The vision moves away slowly, singing to itself.
"Zephyr in the sky at night, Bedu's delight."
Jiash'shar grins at his companion. "Zephyr in the morning, sandstorm at noon."
Sil'tejiq laughs, nodding. "I can't wait for tomorrow to come."
"Your last night under the stars." Jaish'shar pokes his boyhood friend in the ribs. "Won't you miss it?"
Sil'tejiq nudges his dwarf catayarsh round to face his clan-brother. "Sure," he replies, sarcastically. "I'll miss the wondering round this desert for hours on end trying to find some stupid kimeqr that's got itself lost. I'll miss the sand in my thawb. And as for the company ..."
"Yeah, yeah." Jiash'shar smiles. "After tomorrow you'll be a high and mighty grown up. You won't even acknowledge my existence."
Sil'tejiq purses his lips, a wicked grin slowly spreads across his face. "No change there, then."
"Ha ha." Narrowing his eyes, Jiash'shar's attention shifts to the horizon.
"Don't worry, I won't forget our friendship. Anyway, you'll be an adult in a couple of months." Sil'tejiq frowns. "What are you looking at?"
His companion points to a smudge just above the twilit horizon.
Sil'tejiq squints at the object. "What is it?"
Jiash'shar blinks, lost in thought. "It's the cloud of death."
His friend heaves a sigh and turns to watch a young kimeqr, it's pelt halfway through changing from the fawn of spring to the russet autumn coat. The kimeqr takes a bite from a spine-leaf bush, yelping and jumping back in surprise, stung by the sticky needles.
Sil'tejiq chuckles to himself. "So what?"
"Think, 'tejiq. Where are we?" Jiash'shar watches his companion's face change from mirth to disbelief, ending in fear.
Stunned, Sil'tejiq stares at the horizon. "It cannot be. It's moving ..."
" ... the wrong way." Jiash'shar finishes the sentence for him and takes a deep breath.
Sil'tejiq shakes his head. "We must warn the elders."
Deeply troubled, the young sandlings urge their mounts south towards the clanhold, catayarsh panting at the brisk pace they're being driven.
Jiash'shar yells to his friend, raising his voice to make sure he's heard.
"One of us should ride to the golden ones. They need to know what's happened."
Sil'tejiq waves to his companion, almost falling off his mount. "You go. My god, it's heading straight for their village."
Speeding across the desert, the sun's early rays casting long shadows in the dunes, the herders hasten to their destinations.
Far to the north Annaeyana darkens the sky, it's ominous presence a scar inthe orange radiance that is dawn in the Shadowlands.
The Archmage squinted at the monolith. "When should we begin, Tarfn?" he asked his Second.
Tarfn grunted, "Now. We cannot allow him to pass through."
Soon, the mages of Mir began a great enchantment. Lost in the work, the Archmage did not notice what happened around him, until he found himself on the ground, thrown there by a blast of magical fire. He dimming vision allowed him to see that many mages were down and that a magical battle was still going on. He struggled to rise.
A familiar face loomed over him. "Still alive, are we?" Then the life of the Archmage of Mir was cut short by a dagger.
When local Cepali later came by to investgate, they discovered that the monolith was gone, and that a dark crater now had replaced it.
The city of Talishara, in southern Tirmar, was slowly growing accustomed to the Cedonian occupation. Even the great Oracle had returned to some normality, though the priests, who had fled north to Taltheran, had been replaced by the Order of Lucia. One of them paused. He felt as though a strange cry had emerged from the inner sanctum. If any of the Oracle's acolyte's had been there, they would have understood the dire warning, but the Lucian merely continued on his normal duties.
In Videssia, plague ravages both rich and poor alike. In Rhudyn, the armies of the Free Cities prepare to face off against the invading Aixelsybani. In Mir, the remaining wizards must deal with the disapperance of the expedition to Cepalar. On the Razanian Coast, war is about to begin anew. In the skies above Myr-Kun, the floating city of Annayenna arrives, and for the first time, comes to a halt. The year 1412 will be a dark year for Qaiyore.
The figure crawled across the desert.
His robes were those of a mage, but now they were tattered and torn. He was on his last legs. The journey had been a long one, from Ceplalar to Kelshir and now to here. He had one thought in his mind: "I must reach Mir! I must warn..."
He did not complete the thought, for he fell to sleep and then woke no more.
Another mage rode across the same desert. He had a destination, far to the west.
He had laughed long and hard when he had learned of the Shanari march to the west. He laughed when his agents reported from Mir. He laughed when he heard of war and plauge, of famine and death. He had laughed when the mages set out for Cepelar, he had laughed when they had found what awaited them. His laughter fortold the doom of Qaiyore. He sent out his thoughts to the west. "Ancient one,"
"YES, MORTAL." The thought seared through his head.
"All is proceeding as we had planned. The Sorcerers chase after illusions, and the nations war among themselves."
"WHAT OF THE ORACLE?"
"Its priests have fled, and none can master its magics. And I have cast magics of my own, to cloud our enemies sight."
"THE GOLDEN MIRROR COULD PIERCE YOUR SPELLS."
"Yes, Ancient One. But that artifact is lost. And the chances of anyone finding it, and bringing the priests to the Oracle is non-existant."
"I HAVE FOUND IT."
"What?! That's impossible..."
"MY MAGICS ARE FAR GREATER THAN YOURS. IT WAS HIDDEN WELL. I COULD NOT FIND IT UNTIL I WAS NEAR."
"We must destroy it!"
"SOON, WE WILL CAPTURE IT AND WE WILL RAZE ITS HIDING PLACE TO THE GROUND."
"Yes, Ancient One."
With that, the burning presence left his mind. Soon, his plan would succeed and an Empire would rise again. He saw the gameboard in his mind. There the Cedonians, here his agents, and in the pile of dead pieces the most experienced mages in the world. It would be a difficult game, but then, it would be worth it. And besides, he had written the rules...
With a laugh, the figure began to ride west once more.
In the north, an army marched on a great city, and the dagger prepared to strike. In the central regions, nations were consumed by their petty struggles, or were distracted by the cloak of lies woven by the Betrayer. In the south, amongst the ruins of an ancient nation, an ancient artifact was hidden that dating before the ruins it inhabited. It's siren call howled, attracting the interest of dark powers. But its guardians never slept.
Flames rose from the city, reaching the second city that floated above it. Not flames set by an invading horde, though one was nearby. The flames had been set from within. Myr-Kun was burning, betrayed by its citizens. Two figures stood on a hill, their sorcerer's robes stirred by the wind as their mounts shuffled.
One spoke, "Master Ta-"
A glare from the the second, he who would be known as the Betrayer, silenced the acolyte. The Betrayer's thoughts dwelled on the sucess of his plan and the Empire he would recreate.
"MORTAL." The searing voice was stronger here, closer to its prison.
"Yes, ancient one." The Betrayer said.
"THE MIRROR IS HERE. BUT, THE LIBRARY DOES NOT CONTAIN THE SPELLS TO FREE ME. IT CAN FREE MY FELLOW PRISONERS, WHO I HAVE TWISTED TO MY WILL." Despite this silver lining, the ancient one's ire was evident.
"I am sorry. My sources must have mislead me."
"NOW ONLY THE ITEM THAT MADE THIS PRISON CAN FREE ME"
"The scepter..." the Betrayer whispered. It would provide him with enough power to fulfill his dreams. "Where is it?"
"FIRST, YOU MUST CONVINCE ME OF YOUR LOYALTY TO THE CAUSE."
"My loyalty?! I have always been the second, the not as good. Now, I will be first. I slew my best friend for this. I have debased every moral, betrayed every principle. And you question my loyalty?!"
"VERY WELL. THE SCEPTER OF MIR IS HIDDEN IN THE MOST UNLIKELY OF PLACES, IN THE THE GREATEST CITY OF A PEOPLE WITHOUT MAGIC."
"NO." Amusment filled the voice.
When the voice told him, he was amazed. He would have never guessed.
At the Counil of Nations, all was going well. In that little pocket of the Dreaming used for secret meetings for centuries, the begginings of a pact against the foul menace of Alatta were being created. The Archmage leaned back in his chair with a satisfied sigh. What could go wrong? All they had to do was find the Golden Mirror, use it at the Oracle, and then destroy Alatta's disciples. Victory seemed certain.
Suddenly the archmage felt a presence iin the chamber. From the gasps about the chamber, it was obvious that the others had, as well. Glancing about, the Archmage noticed a fiery image hovering in the air above the Eerith delegation. Spells of warding were being chanted all aross the room. Then the presence spoke.
"YOUR SPELLS DO NOT WORK HERE. THERE IS NO NEED TO BOTHER WITH THEM."
The Archmage turned to the presence, "We'll stop you. You cannot win, Alatta."
"YOU THINK YOU CAN STOP ME? YOU DON"T EVEN KNOW WHO I AM. ALL YOUR PLANS ARE KNOWN TO ME. MY SERVANTS HAVE BEEN REPORTING ON YOUR ACTIVITIES HERE. I HAVE COME TO TELL YOU THAT MYR-KUN IS NO MORE."
Startled exclamations filled the chamber.
"ONE MORE THING. GUARD THE CROWN OF MIR WELL, MY UNWORTHY SUCCESOR. I WILL NEED IT WHEN I CLAIM MY THRONE."
With that the presence vanished, leaving only chaos behind.