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Chapter II - Delving into the Unknown

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Time seemed to have slowed down. Days lasted months and nights never ended, yet Tyraz’s wounds remained as severe as ever. Jarlen thought it would be years before the young Ferfolk could leave his room, but one week after the celebration he stood at Jarlen’s doorstep, his special sword strapped to his waist.
“I told you that barbaric ceremony would delay your recovery,” said Jarlen. “How long has it been? A month or two?”
“It’s good to see you’re in a better mood,” said Tyraz, limping into the room. “Was that supposed to be funny, or were you not joking? Sometimes it’s difficult to tell.”
Jarlen answered him with a slight grin. “I should give you more time to rest, but I can’t wait in this stone prison another minute. All the men are focused on sparring outside, and in here the cooks’ fires spread noxious odors every waking hour.”
“You could have returned to the trees.” Tyraz sat on the edge of the bed. “You do know you’re free to come and go as you please.”
“I know,” said Jarlen as he tossed a few of his recently acquired belongings into a sack. “But heading into the forest wouldn’t have been much better. I couldn’t cover an elm leaf with the names of the Arboreals who’d welcome me. Are you sure you’re ready for this hike?”
“We’re going on horseback.”
Jarlen laughed. “Another joke, I assume.”
“I promise it won’t be the same as the last time we rode there,” said Tyraz. “Your mount will be the gentlest of our stock and we won’t be in a rush.”
“I wouldn’t care if the beast were tamer than a newborn pup. I’m not getting on one of them again.”
“Have it your way, but I’ll be riding in comfort all the way to the northern fort.”
He led Jarlen to the stables, climbed onto a tan horse, and trotted out of the city. As soon as trees and well-trodden dirt paths replaced brick walls and cobblestone streets, Jarlen leapt onto the trunk of an old maple tree and scrambled up to a sturdy branch.
“I’ll beat you to the waypoint,” he called out.
Hooves pounding against the ground answered his challenge. He darted to the end of the branch and jumped into the air, catching hold of a thinner limb on the next tree. Deep in the Arboreal Forest, branches were grown to overlap with one another, forming a web of paths through the canopy. An Arboreal could travel for weeks without touching the ground. Jarlen didn’t care that there wouldn’t be an uninterrupted line of trees to the mountains this far north. With wood under his feet and leaves brushing against his face, he was finally on his way to meet a human.
As he leapt into another tree, his foot slipped and he fell face-first onto the branch. He wiped a speck of blood off a tender spot on his cheek as he peeked through the leaves at the dirt path. Tyraz and the horse were nowhere in sight. Perhaps he shouldn’t have issued the challenge. Even when he’d been living with the Arboreals he was never the best at climbing, yet another source of constant ridicule.
“Slow down, Tyraz,” he shouted. “I wouldn’t want you to fall off that horse.”
He chased after the young Ferfolk, this time sacrificing speed for a bit of extra caution.
At first the mountains had been a line of tiny dots on the horizon, but over the next day and a half they grew until they overshadowed the trees. Jarlen left the branches and followed Tyraz on foot as they approached a walled structure nestled beside a sheer cliff. Beyond the wall stood a pair of plain stone buildings on either side of an ancient castle that was half buried under tons of rock and dirt. The human wizard who lived there was most likely a master of thaumaturgy, one of the two schools of magic, along with necromancy, that Jarlen had studied under Zehuti.
His master was gone now, having sacrificed himself to save the hamlet from a mystical green fire conjured by an evil spirit. Nature conspired to take away everyone that was close to Jarlen, leaving him to spend his life without any friends or family. Even if Tyraz weren’t killed in battle, the young Ferfolk would age and die while Jarlen remained relatively young.
Tyraz pushed open the gate but stopped his horse halfway through, forcing Jarlen to squeeze past the animal while holding his breath to avoid the offensive smell.
“I don’t believe it,” he said as he stepped into the compound.
The mountain had collapsed in the short time since he’d been here, burying the rest of the castle and both side buildings. Massive boulders lay scattered within the walls as if a family of giants had been digging into the cliff, searching for buried gold. If this had been Krofhaven, not a single Ferfolk would have survived the destruction.
“Did anyone else live here?” asked Jarlen.
“Just the old wizard,” said Tyraz, tying his horse to the iron gate. “After I check if he survived, we’ll bring the news to Aiax.”
“It might be dangerous to get any closer to the mountain.” Jarlen held him back. “The cliff looks ready to send another avalanche of stone onto our heads.”
“So stay there. You can relay my passing to Aiax if I get buried along with everything else.” He limped toward the nearest boulder and shouted, “Hello.”
“Go back to your horse,” said Jarlen. “You’ll never make it through all this rubble. I’ll search the ruins.”
He might have been able to find a spell to detect survivors if his thaumaturgy book hadn’t been lost in the river, but now he’d have to sift through the debris, hoping to finish before the next rockslide. He crept around the boulders, some large enough to have crushed the castle, on his way toward the mountain. Above his head, the sheer cliff disappeared into the blue sky.
“Where did all this debris come from?” he called out.
“The mountain,” said Tyraz. “Where else?”
“But the side of the cliff looks the same as it did before.”
“I thought you said all mountains look alike. How would you know if anything had changed?”
Jarlen climbed over rocks and dirt until he reached the cliff. The gray stone was smooth, thoroughly eroded from years of wind and rain.
“Look closer,” he said. “What do you see?”
Tyraz left the horse and took a few steps toward the mountain.
“The castle,” he said. “It’s still there.”
“And the other buildings?”
“Them, too,” said Tyraz. “The wizard must have cast an illusion to keep us out.”
“I’m impressed he could do that.”
Jarlen joined him near the entrance to the castle, although he still saw nothing but the devastation. Ferfolk were resistant to human magic and were often able to see through illusions such as this.
“Why didn’t he want us around?”
Tyraz took his hand and led him beneath the open portcullis. “Let’s ask him.”
As soon as Jarlen was inside, the latticed gate was visible behind him. His footsteps echoed off the barren walls as the musty air seemed to consume every ray of sunlight sneaking through the doorway. He stopped moving, unable to see his hands or feet. Although he wasn’t as claustrophobic as he used to be, the darkness was still unnerving.
“The wizard’s not here,” he said. “Maybe we should check the other buildings.”
“I think you’re right,” said Tyraz. “There aren’t any candles burning and the staircase at the back had a dim glow when we were here before.”
“Unless this is another illusion meant to trick us.”
“It is not,” said a gravelly voice from behind them. “I was barely able to keep the other illusion going for this long.”
The shadow of a short man in a flowing robe blocked half the light coming from the door—an apparition summoned from the netherworld, black and foreboding.
“Why would you have an illusion at all?” asked Jarlen.
“Why else?” The old wizard drifted forward until he was two paces away. “Because I wanted to be alone, but the two of you refused to believe my little ruse.”
Jarlen leaned forward but couldn’t see anything other than the darkness from the buried castle and the heavy robes covering the wizard.
“It’s been many years since I’ve spoken to another human.”
“Now that you’ve done so, you can leave.” The wizard spat at his feet and retreated to the bright sunshine outside.
“Not what you expected?” asked Tyraz.
“I don’t understand,” said Jarlen. “Did I offend him?”
“How should I know?” Tyraz sneered. “Wizards are always unpredictable. Who needs them?”
Jarlen backed away from him. He couldn’t believe that was how the young Ferfolk felt. They were supposed to be friends.
“I wasn’t talking about you,” said Tyraz. “You’re much different from old Methus.”
“Obviously,” said Jarlen as he strolled outside.
The wizard wasn’t in sight and the illusion had disappeared. The stone buildings stood on either side of the castle, one with a thin wisp of smoke rising from a brick chimney and the other completely enclosed without a single window.
“He must have gone into that building,” said Tyraz, pulling Jarlen toward a lonesome door. The young Ferfolk pounded on the stone and shouted, “Jarlen’s come a long way to speak with you. The least you can do is offer us a meal before our return trip.”
He turned to Jarlen and said, “My stomach rumbles at that delectable scent.”
“That isn’t food you smell,” said Jarlen. “He’s brewing a potion.”
The door creaked open a sliver, just enough to confirm his suspicion. An earthy aroma tinged with sweetness seeped out of the building.
“What did you say?” asked the old wizard, his cracked lips just visible through the slit.
“I smell seer moss, if I’m not mistaken.” Jarlen nudged Tyraz out of the way. “Which wouldn’t be wise to consume. I once ate a clump of seer moss and was punished with disturbing visions for more than a day.”
A wrinkled hand swung the door open, revealing a large chamber filled with alchemical equipment. A large pot bubbled over a fire pit in the center of the room, the crackling flames teasing a dull red glow from the iron. Curved tubes, glass beakers, and dozens of vials containing liquids of every color imaginable covered several tables.
The old wizard grabbed a handful of silky moss and stroked the light green fibers.
“I’ve never heard an Arboreal refer to this as seer moss,” he said. “Where did you hear that name?”
“Never mind that.” Tyraz barged past him into the room. “Why did you spit at us?”
“And try to fool us into believing the mountain had collapsed?” added Jarlen.
“I have no love for the humans,” said the wizard. “Good riddance to them and the Arboreals.”
“But you’re human,” said Jarlen.
“I warned them about your people. I told them to fight back against the obvious aggression, but did they listen?”
He closed the door behind Jarlen and brought a wide-rimmed ladle to the iron pot.
“Not only did they allow the Arboreals to steal our land, they shunned me for suggesting that we do something about it. They don’t deserve the gift of life.”
“I’m sorry for your difficulties,” said Jarlen, joining him by the pot, “but humans and Arboreals coexisted peacefully in my community for many years.”
“Is that where you learnt about thaumaturgy?”
He stirred the contents, releasing a heavy blast of steam.
“Not exactly,” said Jarlen, twisting out of the way to avoid contact with the hot vapor. “My mother was the last of the humans, but she died many years ago. Against the wishes of many in the hamlet, I studied the magic of blessings and miracles under Zehuti, one of the Arboreal elders. He also let me read about the basics of necromancy. The subjects were challenging but I was determined to contact the netherworld so I could speak to my parents once again.”
After old age had claimed his mother, his father—still young by Arboreal standards—redoubled his efforts to protect the community from the Ferfolk. The frequent border skirmishes turned into the bloody Brymorian War, from which his father had never returned.
The old wizard dropped the ladle and was forced to fish it out of the boiling liquid with a cleaning brush.
“I’ve changed my mind,” he said. “I could use some company for a few days.”
“Why the sudden change of heart?” asked Tyraz, resting against a lab bench. “Only minutes ago you created an elaborate illusion to keep us away.”
“Your friend and I share an interest in magic.” He dipped his pinky into the bubbling liquid and touched it to his lips. “I have a feeling we can learn something from each other.”
By the end of the week, Jarlen had devoured several ancient tomes about thaumaturgy and illusion, but Tyraz had become restless. The young Ferfolk frequently interrupted sessions between Jarlen and Methus, complaining that he’d never intended this to be an extended stay. One morning, he tossed an old sword onto the ground.
“What’s this for?” asked Jarlen.
“If I stay idle any longer, I’ll forget everything I’ve learned.” Tyraz drew his weapon and flicked the other sword toward Jarlen with the tip of his blade. “Leave your studies for a while and spar with me.”
“I don’t know anything about swordplay. What use would it be to practice with me?” Jarlen took the sword from the ground and rested it against the wall. “Besides, you’re still healing. Another week or two and you’ll be able to walk without a cane, unless you overexert yourself.”
“I thought you also wanted to see the Teruns.” Tyraz swung his sword in a circle, wincing when the weight of the blade pulled him too far to the side. “I’m not waiting around here forever.”
“So go to the Teruns,” said Jarlen. “Or, better yet, go back to Krofhaven and let the healers see if your recovery has been progressing as expected. By the time you return, I’ll be ready to leave.”
“So be it,” said Tyraz. “But if you’re not ready, I’ll drag you away by force.”
“Just because the rest of your people solve their problems with violence doesn’t mean you have to.”
“Do we really? I hadn’t noticed.”
Methus accompanied him to the door and picked up another dusty book his way back. He dropped the ancient tome in front of Jarlen. A pair of familiar symbols within a pentagram decorated the cover.
“I didn’t know you were a master of necromancy,” said Jarlen.
“I’m not.” Methus sat in the chair across from him. “I appreciate the fact that you’re interested in my magic, but this is the real reason I wanted you to stay.”
He patted the book. “This old body won’t last much longer, and there’s only one school of magic that shows any promise of a solution.”
“There’s not much anyone can do when it’s their time to return to the soil.” Jarlen flipped through the pages, most of them beyond his comprehension.
“Not true,” said the old wizard. “Throughout the ages a few powerful necromancers have been able to extend their life. My interest in this school came much too late, but I’m not convinced that I could perform the incantations myself even if I were a master.”
“I can’t help you.” Jarlen slammed the book shut and hopped away from the table. “I won’t.”
“Calm down,” said Methus. “I’m not asking you to bring forth any dangerous creatures.”
“I’m far from mastering human magic,” said Jarlen. “Just days ago I killed an innocent plant while I was sleeping.”
“While you were asleep?”
“Ever since I ate that handful of seer moss, my dreams have been mixed with reality. Sometimes I can’t tell the two apart. I shudder to think what I might do to you, awake or asleep.”
“What’s the worst that can happen?” The old wizard chuckled softly. “If I were to die at your hands, my descent into the netherworld would come a few weeks early. After so many years in this world, what’s a month or two less?”
He gently opened the book to the first page.
“But if you succeed,” he said, “I’d be around to teach you all I know when you return from your visit to the Teruns. I’d be forever in your debt and you’d be one step closer to mastering the school. You said you wanted to contact your parents—a trivial task for one of your skills, I’m sure.”
Even if he wanted to help, Jarlen wasn’t skilled enough and couldn’t understand many of the symbols in the necromantic tome. He stared at the open page three paces away, full of runes and diagrams inscribed by his mother’s ancestors. Perhaps the old wizard could help him decipher the text. His master, Zehuti, would have done anything for the chance to study with an actual human wizard. He stepped closer to the table. One of the drawings on the page stood out: the symbol for Dark Whey.
“Do you have any bones?” he asked.
Methus pried the lid off a wooden barrel near the far wall and dumped the contents. A mass of white animal bones spilled out across the floor, clattering against one another.
“Is there anything else you need?”
The windowless room was dark, lit only by a dozen candles around the perimeter. In the center of the floor, a large circle of Dark Whey had been inscribed with a five-pointed star set inside. Jarlen paced around the circle, checking that each line was uninterrupted. A single break in the Dark Whey could offer evil spirits the freedom to roam this world.
Jarlen would have preferred more time to prepare, but Methus’s health had been deteriorating during the past week. Tyraz could have taken him back to the healers in Krofhaven if the old wizard had been able to hold out a while longer, but that would simply have prolonged the inevitable. Methus was convinced this was the only way for him to survive, although Jarlen was unsure if this could be called survival. Drawing upon the spirits of the deceased to strengthen one’s body was sure to have detrimental side effects.
“Don’t worry,” said the old wizard, taking his place within the pentagram. “Most wizards face the unknown at some point during their studies.”
“But that doesn’t involve the murder of a friend.”
“Whatever happens to me at your hand will never be construed as murder. This body is already dead. You’ll either be guiding my spirit to the netherworld or resurrecting me.”
“Are you sure we interpreted these symbols correctly?” asked Jarlen, opening the ancient tome beside a flickering candle. “I don’t understand half of what we studied.”
“We’ll find out soon enough.” Methus lay on the floor and stared at the ceiling with his hands clasped atop his stomach. “You may begin.”
Jarlen sang the incantation as they’d practiced, but the words still seemed foreign. He closed his eyes and imagined the old wizard’s life as a bristlecone pine, warped and drooping with age. The twisted trunk was thick with growth rings, having survived myriad seasons of droughts and floods, warmth and cold. Its branches, capped with stiff green needles, held the spark of new life: seeds within the pine cones. Jarlen reached out to pluck one of the cones but the branch shriveled before him. The same happened each time he approached.
“It’s not working,” he said. “We have to return to the books for another day.”
“Keep trying.” The old wizard’s voice was barely audible. “I feel different already.”
Different wasn’t necessarily better. Jarlen resumed his chanting, ignoring any thoughts of failure that crept into his mind. Half the pine tree had withered away but a few pine cones still hung on the remaining branches. He moved forward and tripped on a brown vine that had appeared at the base of the tree. The vine spread its roots downward as it surrounded the trunk and grew upward at a quick pace. Thin tendrils wrapped around the tree, threatening to consume it.
“Stay off him,” shouted Jarlen.
He tugged but the vine was determined to complete its deadly embrace.
Recalling the incantation to wither plants, he chanted, “Segnian bans, segnian beame,” but nothing happened. Desperate, he altered the incantation, shouting mystical words until his voice was hoarse.
The earth shook, sending hundreds of pine needles to the ground. Cracks opened in the dirt as the rumbling increased, releasing towering walls of fire. The pine needles exploded into flames, which quickly spread to the rest of the tree. The creeping vine released its grip and sank back into the soil as if it were afraid.
Jarlen sprang to his feet and rushed to Methus’s side. Several books had fallen off the shelves and a chair had been knocked over. The earthquake from his vision must have been real.
“What happened?” whispered the old wizard, struggling to take each breath.
“Something was coming for you,” said Jarlen. “I couldn’t let it take you away, so I tried whatever I could think of. I might have caused that earthquake, but you’re safe now. We didn’t learn enough about this incantation to know the dangers involved. Maybe we should look through the rest of your books before we try again.”
Methus didn’t answer. His eyes were closed and his body was motionless within the pentagram. Another mentor had been taken away too soon, leaving Jarlen alone in the cold stone building. Perhaps he should accept his fate and get used to this dreadful feeling. He blew out the candles around the room, unsure whether he should wait for Tyraz or head back to Krofhaven on his own.
Beside the laboratory, a chunk of rock had cleaved off the mountain and crushed the remainder of the castle as if the old wizard’s illusion had been a premonition. The towers that had stood for ages lay sprawled across the ground, and the iron gate had been bent into an unrecognizable blob. The two newer buildings had barely been spared, several enormous boulders having fallen only paces away.
Although the area might still be unstable, Jarlen entered the sleeping quarters to retrieve a few ancient texts. He had no reason to leave them, waiting to be buried in the next landslide. As he shoved the books into a canvas sack, a smaller tremor shook the ground.
Jarlen’s head ached. He opened his eyes but the view was no different—utter darkness. His legs were trapped beneath something heavy and he had difficulty breathing. Blindly, he pushed aside rubble until he freed his chest and his legs. He rubbed his feet, happy to feel life in his toes. After digging himself out of the building, his hands were sore and bleeding, his legs were still numb, and he’d never felt hungrier. It hadn’t been smart to go after the wizard’s books, but there was so much more he wanted to learn.
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