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The Long Dark Road to Wizardry

by Richard K. Lyon

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Book IV: The Whispering Mirror

Episode 7: Ceremony of Fire and Death

Previously: Magically disguised as a cat, Druin enters the Royal Palace to confront King Thilloden; Breen, disguised as a rat, follows him. Druin gains the information he sought, but the alarm is given and he and Breen flee the palace, pursued by armed guards, vicious dogs and a very unfriendly cobra. As they escape down a steep hill, the sun rises. Breen loses control of his body, falls, rolls to the bottom of the hill and finds that he is human again.

At the bottom, Breen just lay there for a moment, trying to catch his breath and understand what had happened. It had to be the sun. These shapeshifting spells can’t survive daylight. That’s why Druin was warned to return before dawn.

There was, however, no time to marvel at the strange ways of black magic. A few paces to Breen’s left, his cousin Druin — again in human form — was engaged in a furious sword fight with a pair of soldiers, his swift saber against their short swords. The battle was twisting and rapidly shifting as the soldiers sought to attack from opposite sides while Druin struggled to make them both face him.

For an instant, Breen missed those nice, but now gone, rat teeth and claws. Even as he had these thoughts, however, his hand moved unbidden to the sheath on his belt and drew his dagger.

Another turn in the dance of battle. The two soldiers were one in front and one behind Druin. As Druin’s blade slashed out the throat of the former, the latter thrust his sword at the nobleman’s undefended back and Breen sprang forward. The remaining soldier’s sword cut empty air as Druin ducked, twisting and turning.

Breen’s knife struck the man’s back and incredibly bounced off, while Druin’s saber flicked up and in like a serpent’s tongue, rising between the man’s legs to disembowel the wretch.

Straightening, the nobleman declared, “My thanks, Cousin Breen, for your timely aid.”

Breen was busy checking the dead soldier. His dagger had failed because under that rough wool shirt the man had worn chain mail. As he understood that minor mystery, Breen saw something vastly more disturbing: these soldiers were both Thesian!

Glancing up, Breen gazed into his hawkfaced cousin’s gray eyes.

“I know,” the nobleman said in reply to his unspoken question. “This means nothing good. Come.” Before the boy could reply, Druin had turned and was running down the street.

Damn! Breen thought as he set out after him. Running hard, he easily caught up with his cousin, but keeping up with his long-legged relative began to get more difficult.

As they labored up another hill, the aristocrat called back, “Breen, before I forget, there’s one little thing I ought to warn you about. Don’t ever shape change again; at least not to a form that has a tail.”

Nothing was further from the boy’s mind, still he couldn’t help asking, “Why?”

“You probably were too excited to notice, but that cobra did manage to bite you... on the tail. If you ever shapechange again, you could find yourself with a tail full of venom.”

Certain the snake had never been close to him, Breen protested, “But I...”

Druin glanced back and down at the former street urchin, a very cold look in his gray eyes. “Cousin,” he said softly, “I regard you with considerable friendship, so please accept my warning. In dealing with matters of this sort, you have to be most careful or you can all too easily get worse than venom in your tail.”

As Breen wondered just exactly how sincere his cousin’s friendship was, they topped the hill and came upon a sudden view. In the city streets below horror reigned. Buildings were burning with none to fight the fires, and women and children were being slaughtered, with none to aid them.

GODS!” Breen exclaimed, “the entire Thesian army is in the city and putting the people to the sword!”

The boy looked expectantly at his elder relative, desperately hoping he could do something about this appalling evil. Druin’s face, however, was a mask of dark thoughts as he murmured, “It’s a very interesting development, but we have other and more important business. Come.”

Again the aristocrat was off and running, and Breen, after hesitating an instant, went decisively after him. “Cousin Druin,” he declared, “I don’t know where you’re going but I do know I’m turning right at the next corner. Since there’s nothing we can do to save our city, I mean to do what I can for my grandfather.”

“Don’t be foolish,” the nobleman snapped back. “It’s unlikely that you’d even be able to find old Uster, let alone rescue him from this death trap. Help me, though, and I’ll reciprocate.”

Not answering, Breen reached the corner and turned. To his relief Druin said no more. As he left his cousin, tension drained from him. He was leaving a nightmarish intrigue of wizards and knew he was well out of it. While he hadn’t solved his problems this past night, he had managed to convert a seemingly insoluble dilemma into a dangerous situation: Breen would be lord and master of three dukedoms and well able to provide for his grandfather, if he could get the old man and himself out of this doomed city.

Though he kept to back streets, still he twice passed scenes of slaughter: Thesian mercenaries were butchering the helpless. Both times he came toward them, at a dead run, shining steel dagger in his hand ready for fight. They stared at him, swords ready, content with easier prey, and watched him depart.

The third time was different. A trio of Thesians was searching the corpse of an old woman, apparently hoping to steal a few coppers from her. Two lifted swords while the third started fumbling on the ground for a crossbow. Breen was past them in a flash. He could see the corner ahead. Once around it, he knew he’d be safe. He also knew how long it would take the crossbowman to level his weapon.

He’d be almost at his sanctuary when the quarrel struck him in the back... unless he did something clever right now.

At the last instant he spun about. As the Thesian aimed his bow, Breen’s dagger arm rose, the weapon flashing in the sun, and made a throwing motion. The bolt, fired in haste, buzzed angrily above his head and, whirling, Breen raced away, the knife he’d only pretended to throw still in his hand.

On he went, pursuing a twisting course through back alleys. Finally, as the ache in his lungs was turning into fire, he turned a corner and saw his grandfather’s house. It was burning. A roaring fire. No hope that anyone in that inferno could be alive.

After a very bad moment Breen told himself firmly that this was not a disaster, that there was no reason to assume that his beloved grandsire was in that burning ruin. Problem was: if old Uster wasn’t here, where in Theba’s name was he? Drood only knew.

No. Not Drood. My dear cousin Druin knows where my grandfather is. Damn!

The boy set off at a steady dogtrot. To find his grandfather he had to find Druin, and he’d only a vague notion where the latter’s house was. Last night, during the cat-rat chase, Druin and he had gone through Saint Getro’s square. Breen decided he could backtrack it from there.

Traveling as cautiously as he could, he reached the square without incident. What he saw in the square made his stomach turn. Now the square was deserted save for the dead, but perhaps an hour ago a great crowd of helpless civilians had been trapped here by the Thesians. The bodies of the little children bothered Breen especially, but he shut his mind to such thoughts. No matter what others’ problems were, Breen intended to tend to his own affairs.

As he backtracked toward Druin’s house, he often had to pass streets littered with dead, but never did he see another living soul. Seemingly the Thesians had come this way like harvesters and gone on.

The horror of this slaughter was incongruous, for the sun was shining in bright blue heavens: ’Twas a beautiful day and a great city full of people were dying.

From time to time Breen had heard rolling crashes which he took to be collapsing buildings. Now he heard such a sound again, louder and much closer this time, and his mouth went dry. ’Twas quite impossible but that had not been a building. It was thunder on a clear day!

He could see bodies at the mouth of the alley down which he ran, strange bodies. As he drew nearer he saw that they were Thesians, a squad in full armor, dead without the slightest sign of bloodshed. Instead some had not a mark on them, while others bore odd burns. One corpse still grasped a sword in its dead hand. Half the weapon’s blade had been melted.

By all Drood’s Thousand Arms, these men were struck by lightning!

Breen hastened on. When he came out onto the wide street, he saw other piles of Thesian dead. Indeed the street was pockmarked with them.

Gods! the boy thought as he imagined what must have happened. There’d been a great battle here, the Thesians attacking the home of Druin’s wizardly grandfather, and being blasted by the wizard’s unnatural lightning. Despite staggering losses the Thesians had won through.

Breen could see the medium-sized house that had been lair and fortress to Druin and his sorcerous grandsire. The house had stood at the center of a square yard surrounded by a stone wall. Now that wall was breached in several places and though the house still stood, smoke trickled from its windows.

As Breen ran forward, he couldn’t help noticing that not all the Thesians had died by lightning. Some had instead killed themselves or their fellows, and others had perished by being slashed to pieces by demonic claws. Apparently grandfather Wizard boasted quite a variety of weapons. Still it seemed that in the end he’d failed.

As Breen picked his way through the rubble, he wondered vaguely how the wall had been blasted down. Had Ebbern been with the Thesians, giving them some sorcerous aid?

As Breen went across the corpse-littered yard, he kept looking about, not frightened he told himself, only watchful. There was no telling what was left after this arcane battle. At the far end of the yard a small black cloud roamed about, still making an occasional crackle of weak thunder. Though undoubtedly it had been what he heard as he came here, he felt little fear of it. Instead the thing reminded him of a wounded war dog, dying as it roamed the field of a recent battle.

Nearing the house the boy saw that the front door was still on its hinges. As he rushed up the front steps, it opened. Breen cringed back, his dagger raised defensively. And out stepped Druin, with the body of an old man cradled in his arms.

“Cousin Breen,” the nobleman announced, “let me introduce you to Mardarin, my grandfather.”

Breen lowered his weapon, started to reply politely and his tongue froze. He’d been about to speak to an old man whose eyes were glassy with death. Surely his cousin Druin could see the obvious, and yet he was carrying the dead body as tenderly as though it still housed a fragile life. Wasn’t there, Breen wondered, something in folklore about black magic being closely kin to madness?

“Druin, dear cousin,” he began, “I hate having to tell you this but... ahh...”

“Boy,” snapped a voice which Breen instantly recognized as Mardarin’s, “we have no time for polite formalities. Move along.” Seemingly the dead man had spoken, and Breen stood dumbfounded while Druin carried the old man past him.

Only as they proceeded down the walk toward the street was Breen able to stir himself and chase after them.

“What happened last night?” Druin asked.

“The enemy,” Mardarin’s voice snapped, “was smarter than we. They sent your cousin Breen, a trick that kept you out all night, and they used a dozen other cunning distractions so that I didn’t see their frontal assault coming till it was too late. They didn’t bother to destroy me completely because I’m no longer that important. Nothing’s important except that jar of polish which, damn them, they now have.”

Breen listened to this conversation with the hair on the back of his neck rising. Old Mardarin was dead. Indeed the old wizard’s head was so loosely attached to his body that ’twould probably have fallen off were it not for the extreme care with which Druin carried the corpse. It would have been bad enough to hear such a corpse speak, but what was actually happening was worse, far worse. The corpse’s lips never moved. The voice that was an exact copy of Mardarin’s came from Druin’s mouth.

It’s not magic but only madness, thought Breen desperately. My cousin’s mind has snapped and he’s talking to himself, half in his own voice, half in his grandsire’s.

While the boy wracked his brain, trying to think how to deal with this horrible madness, Druin turned, started down a narrow alley between two stone buildings.

Breen followed. Looking past his cousin, the boy could see that at the far end of the alley a fire of some sort burned. Madness, he knew, often led to suicide. “Cousin Druin,” he began as politely as he could, “I don’t believe that-- “

“Quiet, boy!” The Mardarin voice snapped.

Merciful Theba, what am I to do? My cousin’s mad and it’s impossible to reason with him. As Breen pondered this dilemma, he happened to touch one of the stone walls. To his dismay it was hot. So was the wall on the other side. As Breen wondered what kind of situation they were walking into, they reached the end of the alley. What Breen saw was even worse than his fears.

Beyond the alley was a street full of close packed houses, all ablaze. Peering round the corner and looking to either side Breen could see that both stone buildings were also filled with roaring fires. The alley in which they stood was a narrow isle of cool safety in the midst of an absolute inferno.

Assaulted by fire, the stone walls moaned ominously. “Druin,” Breen pled urgently, “please come away. We can’t stay here!”

As he spoke, the boy gently shook his cousin’s shoulder. Druin looked at him with blank, confused eyes. How, the boy wondered, could he get through? “Please,” he said urgently, “don’t spend your life on a delusion. Come with me while there’s still time. We can—”

Though Druin’s face was filled with confused indecision, from his lips came the voice of Mardarin, snapping, “Breen, or whatever your name is, be quiet! Druin, heed me! Our enemy has won this battle, but they need not win the war. Though I am dead, my power does not have to perish with me.

“There is magic in common things, especially fire. Every flame is a maze, and he who has dark wisdom may walk unharmed through that maze.

“Druin, child of my flesh, if you would become a wizard, you must carry my body into the fires and burn it.”

Despite his utter horror at this unclean madness, Breen shook his cousin’s shoulder again, pleading, “Come, please come. You must know this is madness.”

Druin’s gray eyes focused on Breen. Suddenly he seemed to be himself again, calm, fully possessed of his faculties. “Cousin,” he said mildly, “I appreciate your concern and probably you’re right: this is suicide or close to it. Unfortunately I’ve small choice.

“If you want to do some good, seek your grandfather at the city’s main gate. Climb the North watch tower and you may see and aid him. Farewell, good cousin.”

As Druin spoke, one of the burning buildings collapsed, spilling an avalanche of fire toward the mouth of the alley. While Breen instinctively retreated from the searing heat, Druin turned toward it and carried the wizard’ s corpse into the fiery holocaust.

Next episode: An Inheritance of Duels

Copyright © 2009 by Richard K. Lyon

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