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Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Spellmonger's Yule: Excerpt

The Spellmonger's Yule: Excerpt

The Spellmonger’s Yule

Drink the mead.

That phrase haunted me, once I returned to Sevendor after the horrific destruction of Duke Anguin’s palace in Vorone by dragonfire.  It had been uttered by one of my best friends in a moment of crisis, and I probably would have forgotten about it completely in the ensuing chaos if it hadn’t been so damned . . . intimate.

I came back to Sevendor into my lab, instead of the through the Waystone I’d installed in the hall I lived in now.  I wasn’t quite ready to go home yet, I realized.  And it wasn’t the acrid stench of dragon that still clung to my clothes, it was the echo of Pentandra’s – advice? Suggestion?  Mystical direction? – that kept me from going home.  Drink the mead.  As if that would do anything.

My tower was dark this time of night, but with a commanding thought the permanent magelights in the lab sprung into illumination.  The room seemed tired in its emptiness.  I felt guilty, a little, for how intensely I’d used it, searching for a treatment for Alya . . . and then how quickly I’d abandoned it, when a convenient answer proved elusive. 

It was far tidier than I usually kept it, a sure sign of my absence and the diligent efforts of my young apprentice, Ruderal.  The young lad was far more attentive to his domestic duties as my student than had any of his three predecessors been.  I wasn’t sure if that was a sign of success or mediocrity, but I had to admit that seeing my usually chaotic workbench neatly organized was a pleasant feeling that merited a contented sigh.

It was quite chilly in the lab, this time of night, this time of year.  Since the awkward Sixth Annual Magic Fair ended, and I’d essentially abandoned the place in disgust and fled to Vorone for a while.  Ruderal had deactivated the spells that warmed the place without the need of a fire, and the late autumn cold had gotten into the white stones of the tower. 

I wasn’t planning to be here long, but it was too damn cold – even after Vorone – to be at all comfortable.  Instead of re-activating them, however, I glanced instead at the disused fireplace, stacked with logs that had grown dusty.  I decided a fire was more suited to my mood than arcane heat.

It was childishly simple to ignite the wood.  It took me back to the eruption of my rajira when I was a boy. 

The first sign of my magical Talent was when I’d accidentally started a fire with the force of my anger and resentment at my sister.  Since then I’d learned a hundred ways to do it, and fire continued to me the element I had the strongest affinity with.  Draw power, focus it, form the right cantrip in my mind, select the target location, and activate.  I glanced at it, my mind invoked the right combination of runes, I poured power into it until the combination of heat and oxygen ignited . . . and a moment later the yellow flames filled the tiny chamber and began radiating heat into the lab.  I automatically held my hands out to warm my fingers as the orange flames began to lick at the sides of the dry oak logs.

Fire.  It was simple.  I contemplated it, as the light flickered across my eyes and warmed my hands.  Fire was the most intriguing of the Four Greater Elements.  Not a thing, but an event.   When a bunch of energetic matter met oxygen, a party breaks out, creating the plasma of flame which consumed and fed like a living thing.  A tool for telling tales, firing a pot, melting ore, cooking soup, warming fingers, lighting the darkness.  When it wasn’t burning down a palace or destroying your enemies. 

“Well, you’ve certainly had a busy week,” came a familiar feminine voice from behind me.  Not the one I most wanted to fill my ears, but not unwelcome, either.

“It was eventful,” I agreed, not turning around.  Abasing yourself in front of your patron goddess the first time you meet her can be forgiven.  At this point, I was over my awe of divinity.  “The sudden dragon attack was particularly exciting.”

“A gift from Sheruel,” Briga, the goddess of fire agreed.  “Retribution, which is the only way I have a hint of why he did it.  He was unhappy at the recent raids and skirmishes.   Particularly the two fortresses Anguin destroyed on his frontiers.  Some of his human servants overheard, which is the only reason I know about it.  The dragon was revenge for the attack,” she informed me. 

“Which was in response to an unprovoked assault on the Wilderlands, in violation of the precious treaty with Shereul,” I said, still not turning around.  The radiant blaze of heat was driving the chill away, and I lingered until the heat on my chest was almost uncomfortable. 

“An attack he did not order,” Briga replied.  “That was an . . . independent operation by some of his less-disciplined forces.  Instigated by a splinter faction.  Nor does he consider the treaty binding on himself.  That was with the ‘Goblin King’s’ representatives, not his.”

“Are you arguing in the Dead God’s favor of, now?” I asked, amused and irritated at the same time  The radiant heat from the fireplace had almost saturated my chest.  It felt delicious.

“I’m reporting intelligence so that you understand the true nature of the situation,” Briga countered.  “You were supposed to be lured into a full-out assault by the raid, a plan for which neither we nor our foes are ready to consider.  It was not the Dead God’s plan.  It took Sheruel’s loyalists by surprise, as it was organized and executed among disaffected elements.  They serve mostly along the periphery of his power base, closer to the Penumbra and the Hills.  Some of his . . . more energetic auxiliaries were responsible,” she said, choosing her words carefully.

“You are speaking of the Enshadowed,” I nodded, finally turning around.  The time had come for a change of perspective.  My chest was too hot and my ass was getting cold.

“Indeed,” the red-headed goddess nodded.  She looked magnificent in a red mantle that was more red than blood, her multi-hued tresses dancing in the firelight.  “But the attack and Anguin’s response not only took Sheruel’s loyalists off-guard, it confounded their planning. Worse – for them – it sowed distrust among the various factions of the enemy.”

I wasn’t confused by what she said, but perhaps she thought I was. 

“Sheruel felt he had to respond, but couldn’t violate the treaty by sending an army.”

“Yes, I dragons were not covered in the treaty,” I chuckled.  “An oversight I shall bring to Tavard’s attention the next time we meet.  It’s at least gratifying to know that insubordination and disorder aren’t exclusively human traits.”

The pretty goddess nodded, and suddenly there were two silver flagons of wine in front of her on the worktable.  Show off

“Sheruel’s forces have always been advised by the Enshadowed, but now that they have awakened Korbal, raised him and his followers to strength, and granted them the fief of Olem Seheri, it is becoming a point of resentment among the gurvani.  The priests of Sheruel are suspicious.  Particularly as the nascent gurvani kingdom seems far too cozy with them.  Once the urgulnosti priests ruled supreme in fallen Boval.  There are Nemovorti in his court, now, advising and manipulating it for their own purposes.”

“Isn’t the gurvani king kind of a sham?” I asked, skeptically.

“Believe it or not, he’s the gurvani’s way of attempting to adapt to the situation,” Briga disagreed.  “When the invasion began, the goal for most of the gurvani was the recovery of their ancient homelands, the ones they claimed after their rebellion.  Many are satisfied with having achieved that, and are unenthusiastic about continuing the war. 

“The gurvani kingdom was originally conceived as a means of ruling the common gurvani without direct ecclesiastical supervision, while the Black Skulls and the Enshadowed prepared the rest of the war.  A puppet king through which the tribes and factions could all be administered, without the urgulnosti being bothered.

“But instead it became a hub of those who wanted to adapt to the humani civilization, the ruins of which they are now living in.  The average gurvan did not have a good life in the Mindens, the last few hundred years.  Since before the Goblin Wars.  They want to improve the lives of the gurvani within their sphere and elevate them to humani levels.  The King and his court are an opportunity to do that, to their minds.”

“But not those of the human slaves who built the civilization to begin with?”

“They are largely the property of the Black Skulls, except for the Soulless, some mercenaries, and a few experiments.  To be truthful, many new lords of the gurvani kingdom look to their human slaves for guidance and ideas.  They set up the capital at one of the old baronial castles.  The place was crawling with Soulless and human slaves.  They knew how to efficiently run an estate.  The gurvani court started depending upon them for guidance, and started adopting some of the institutions – well-changed for their liking, of course.  But they had established the rudiments of a state, largely dependent upon the advice of their human slaves.

“Or they did, before Korbal started sending his minions to the Goblin King’s court.  Now the Nemovorti are systematically controlling the institution.  They’re the ones who conspired to persuade a number of commanders to launch the summer raids.  Ostensibly at Sheruel’s command, but actually orchestrated by the Enshadowed.”

“I don’t particularly like the sound of that.”  As much as dissension among the enemy counted in our favor, theoretically, recent experience instructed me that the devious nature of the Enshadowed, and their undead allies, were far more insidious than the straightforward genocidal tendencies of Sheruel.

“You are not alone.   It has inspired a lot of resentment among the gurvani most loyal to Sheruel.  And a lot of rebellion among the units and estates of the Penumbra,” she reported  That’s what allowed the raids to be conducted without Sheruel’s permission.  The Enshadowed and their confederates inflamed the honor of the Penumbra troops who invaded, on purpose.  And for their own purpose.”

“You sure get around a lot for a barbarian goddess,” I quipped.  The heat was starting to thaw my backside.

“I can’t penetrate the Umbra,” she admitted, “but even being nocturnal, the gurvani still use candles, tapers, and fire.  More importantly, their human slaves gossip like all servants,” she added.

“I’m sure we can use that to our advantage, somehow,” I said, with a sigh.  “But with Vorone in ashes and Rard obsessing about the rebels in Enultramar, his kidnapped daughter, and his shiny new palace, it’s going to be hard to take advantage of it.”

“Yes, well, that’s human politics,” she smiled.  “That’s out of my control as well.”

“That’s out of anyone’s control,” I agreed.  “But if we don’t get our collective act together soon, then Korbal and Sheruel will work out their differences before we can exploit their acrimony.  And here I sit, without my witchsphere . . . or my wife,” I added, for no particular reason except that I felt like complaining. 

The look in her eyes immediately made me regret it.  When a goddess can’t cure what ails your wife, the guilt you feel begins to take on divine proportions.

“We’re still working on that,” she insisted.  “The three of us . . . persistent deities have each done what we could.  Alya’s body is as well as it could be.  It is her mind that is damaged.  Not even Trygg Allmother has that power, I fear.”

That didn’t seem fair.  Alya had sacrificed herself in the Magewar against Greenflower, in defense of her marriage and motherhood in general.  She never should have been there, but it was lucky for us she was.  She won the battle for us, after magelords and warmagi had fallen to Isily’s cunning wrath.  Now she was lying in a bed in an abbey two domains away, completely unresponsive to all but the most basic stimuli. 

Our children were devastated.  Minalyan was scared of his own mother, and Almina burst into tears at the sight of her.  Their mother’s body might be there, but she was . . . gone.
I could sympathize.  I was . . . well, I didn’t have a more potent word than “devastated”.  Mostly I was just doing what everyone expected me to do.  I did my best to allow myself to be distracted from the aching pit at the center of my soul, but it was hard, these days.  It took something like a dragon attack or a midnight visit from a goddess to keep me from dwelling on the hopelessness.

Once I would have said that it was in the hands of the gods.  Now that I knew some gods, I wasn’t so hopeful. 

“So which of you divinities does specialize in that sort of thing?” I asked, casually. 

“That’s . . . it’s complicated,” Briga sighed, over her wine.  “The gods are bound by the limitations of human imagination and need.  You need to start a fire or bake a loaf or cauterize a wound or gain vengeance on the warrior who slaughtered your family, I’m your girl.  If you want a deity who specializes in restoring higher brain function . . . well, your people should have conceived of one!” she said, a little defensively.

“Not even the Imperial pantheon?” I suggested. 

I’d picked up that the two loose families of gods, each based on a different culture, were often at odds.  The Magocracy’s deities considered themselves superior to their Narasi cousins, due to the great civilization they presided over, I’d gathered.  Meanwhile, the barbarically rustic Narasi pantheon resented the snooty Imperial gods and delighted over their diminution after the Conquest. 

As more than one of the deities worshiped today were syncretic fusions of both pantheons, that produced some interesting divine politics.  It’s amazing what Herus the Traveler will gossip about when he’s drunk.

“Perhaps,” she conceded, her nostrils flaring a bit.  “They had a lot of minor divinities, at the peak of their decadent civilization.  Some were pretty specialized.  But few of those ever incarnated,” she pointed out, quickly.  “The rule of thumb is that the more specialized a deity is, the less vibrant the energy generated by their worshipers.  The Imperials had loads of minor medical deities, but mostly they were personifications of mnemonics or technical gods.  Like Yrentia’s many children: Arkameeds, Nuton, Keplar, Planc, Bor, Haking, that lot.  Or the daughters of the Storm Lord, if you want to get exotic.  Superstition and ritual used to educate and control an increasingly ignorant people during the twilight of their civilization,” she said, defensively.

“What about Yrentia’s children?” I ventured.  The Imperial goddess of science and magic once enjoyed a vibrant cult in the early Magocracy, and many of her brilliant children had even made appearances at times.  “She manifested enough to write a bunch of vital stuff on rocks in Merwyn, among other great feats.  Wouldn’t she know-?

“That was during her mortal phase, from what I understand, something her human seed did before she ascended to divinity.”

I frowned.  “Damn.  Another glorious myth destroyed.”

“Oh, she was vital to the survival of humanity, and what she did – ensuring that the most basic scientific and magical information would not be lost by humanity – was worthy of deification.  Perhaps she could be persuaded to manifest, if you did the right rituals or something.”

“I’ve considered that,” I nodded.  “If you and the other persistents cannot repair her mind, then perhaps Yrentia . . .”

“Well, her consort Avital shows up every now and then over the centuries, but he’s more engineering focused than neural science.  Really, Min,” she said, finally, throwing up her thin arms in frustration, “if there is a god who can put Alya’s mind right, I don’t know who it is.  I’ll keep looking, and so will the other persistent deities, but . . . well, this is far outside of our realms.   If you want to restore your bride, then the answer is more likely found in thaumaturgy than theurgy.  Or maybe the Alka Alon . . .” she said, frowning.

I snorted.  “You think the Tree Folk know more about the human psyche than our own gods?”

“Not them collectively,” she conceded.  “But during the early Magocracy there was a period where they worked very closely with humanity.  Some were enraptured by the opportunity to study you.  Most of that stopped before the Inundation, for various political reasons – that was before my time – but I’ve heard rumors that the Alka studied human beings more intently than we’d ever studied ourselves.  Perhaps that knowledge still exists with them,” she shrugged. 

“None of the Alkans I’ve met seemed particularly concerned with our psychology.  Even the three Envoys were mostly ignorant of humankind when they arrived.  And Onranion has done what he can for her with songspells, but this is far outside of his area of specialty,” I sighed, the pit of hopelessness growing wider inside me.

“Then you must continue to seek, my friend,” the goddess said, softly and sympathetically.  “As will we all.  But . . . beware of your own hopelessness,” she advised.  “So much depends upon you, Minalan.  If you give in to despair and outrage, you may well doom us all.”

“That makes me feel so much better,” I sighed with bitter sarcasm.  “I am doing . . . what I need to,” I stressed, unwilling to elaborate.  She might be a goddess, but a man has a right to his own private spiritual struggle.  “And what I need to do most is find a way to restore Alya.”

“That is guilt speaking, Minalan,” she pointed out, gently. “And desperation.”

“That’s Minalan speaking,” I corrected, firmly.  “If I thought that Sheruel or Korbal held the answer and were willing to bargain with me, I might even consider it.  But I know that they don’t and they wouldn’t, so you have nothing to fear on that front,” I said, perhaps more bitterly than I intended.

“It wasn’t your treason I fear, Minalan,” she said with an irritated snort.  “Can’t you see that?  It’s your self-destruction!”  

And with that she disappeared in an entirely unnecessary and overly dramatic burst of flame.  Briga’s equivalent of slamming a door.

I turned back to the fire, knowing her eyes were still watching me through the flames.  I kept my face stoically set, unwilling to let her even guess my thoughts from my expression.  I briefly thought about extinguishing the flame by urination, but I knew that would be going too far.  I was frustrated, but I wasn’t frustrated with Briga.

Drink the mead.

It irritated me like a pebble in my shoe while I was running for my life.  There were so many, many other things that needed my attention and required my investigation. 

Politics.  War.  Governance.  Gods.  Goblins.  As irritated as I was with Briga, she’d been correct.  Too much did depend upon what I did – or didn’t do – and lapsing into abject despair could doom us all. 

So why didn’t I care more?

I knew why, and the answer was selfish.  Doing all of this without Alya seemed pointless to me.  I’d become so dependent upon her that without her I felt like I was acting on a stage from a script written by someone else, to an empty audience.  And that was selfish.
But I didn’t care.  See why Briga was worried?

Drink the mead.  Pentandra’s unearthly message would not flee my thoughts, not after weeks.  And I was a good enough wizard to know that when your subconscious keeps pointing to something like that, it would haunt me until I dealt with it. 

When Alya and I were married, nearly gotten killed by Censors, and escaped on our honeymoon on a romantic river cruise on Pentandra’s private barge, Pentandra had followed an old Narasi custom and included (among other incredible delicacies) a hamper containing seven bottles of mead.  

Alya and I drank the first six bottles on the honeymoon, and – again, according to custom – saved the final bottle to celebrate our fifth anniversary.

Only . . . the Magewar had intervened, and Alya had fallen before we could complete that happy ritual.  I had vowed not to drink the final bottle of mead until I restored her, and we could drink it together, as intended. 

I felt a little stupid.  It was a silly peasant rite, a superstitious bit of folk religion that helped bond unruly peasants together.  There was nothing magical about that mead.  I could pour the entire bottle down Alya’s throat and it would not alter her condition one bit.  I could empty the bottle myself and, after a brief period of pleasant drunkenness, my problems would be piled in front of me as they were before.

It was a silly solution to an intractable problem . . . but part of me suspected what it meant, if not where it originated. 

To me, by opening that bottle I was accepting the fact that Alya was forever gone.  To drink the mead was to admit that I had failed, that I needed to mourn a wife who was dead in all but name, and move on with my life. 

I had no doubt that there were important lessons and deep spiritual truths involved in the process, but I could not care less about my spiritual health.  Drinking the mead was admitting defeat in the most personal battle of my life.

So, a tiny part of my mind whispered, perhaps you should do that.

That wasn’t a part of myself I wanted to listen to.  But experience had shown that when it spoke, it was usually in my interest to listen. 

I hate that part of myself.

I knew that it was my fear of letting go that was keeping me from doing it. 

I thought of our children, Minalyan and Almina, growing up without their mother.  I thought of the unborn baby we’d lost at Greenflower, and allowed my mind to take me into all sorts of dark places. 

Drinking that mead would be accepting all of that . . . accepting a life without Alya.  I was still clinging to mad hopes and desperate ideas about magically repairing her, but the fact was that I had consulted the best magical minds in the Kingdom already, to no avail.  I had even toyed with the idea of necromancy, but Alya’s problem wasn’t death.  It was . . . beyond madness.  Beyond the understanding of the mightiest minds of the age.  Even Master Icorod, head of the medical order of magi, had told me sympathetically that Alya’s recovery was “in the hands of the gods.”

Icorod is not a religious man, but he wanted to give me hope after his exhaustive examination.

But when the gods themselves declare that they are stumped, it kind of saps your confidence.  And your hope.  Perhaps it was time to face that.

It had been only months since Greenflower, and while I knew that the entire barony was shocked and in mourning over their beloved baroness, there were already whispers – even proposals – that I have my marriage annulled and seek a new wife.  No one had been brave or stupid enough to say the words to my face, but I wasn’t naive.  Or surprised. 

Alya was an integral part of running the barony.  Right now, Lady Estret and Sister Bemia were handling much of her functions, with Sire Cei conducting business as usual.  As if we were just off on holiday somewhere. 

But that was a stopgap.  With Yule approaching in just a few weeks there was a lot of baronial and domain-level work to be done, work that Alya, as baroness, should be conducting.  Yule Court was one of the central ceremonial occasions of the year, when my vassals would be feasted at the castle, gifts would be given, posts would be announced, and fealty would be pledged for another year. 

Alya loved Yule, I recalled fondly. She would be terribly upset to miss it this year.

The absurdity of that thought was what brought me back to my senses.

Drinking the mead would acknowledge the reality I didn’t want to face, but that my loyal subjects and friends were quietly urging me to.

I don’t know how long I sat and smoked and stared into the fire.  All I know is that at some point I went downstairs to our old bedroom (and my current study) and retrieved the leather-cased bottle, sealed up since we returned from our honeymoon.  I don’t even remember doing it, I just recall staring at it in the center of my worktable for what seemed like hours.
Drink the mead.  Whether it was merely Pentandra’s subconscious advice or a message from some other power through her lips, I could not ignore it.

Finally, with tears rolling down my cheeks and despair and hopelessness in my heart, my trembling fingers unsealed the top of the case and pulled the bottle out . . . along with a thick sheaf of parchment.

I wasn’t expecting that.

I stared at the roll of parchment surrounding the bottle in confusion, and straightened them.  They were filled with cramped sentences, some stuffed into margins or written at odd angles.  Most of it, I was even more surprised to see, was in my handwriting.  And Alya’s.  And I didn’t remember writing a word of it.

The leaf at the top of the stack caught my attention, as it was designed to.  It was from me.  To me.

MINALAN – Greetings from your storied past!  Either this will be an amusing tale to tell my kids, or a vital piece of intelligence.  But herein lies the story of what truly happened on my “uneventful” honeymoon.  Hopefully you’re reading it while you and Alya are wildly celebrating.  In any case, there are several details here that, for obvious reasons, you may find interesting or even important.  You are likely wondering why you have no memory of this, or even of writing this account.  Once you read this, you should understand.  Good luck, and may Ishi’s blessings keep our union as lusty and fruitful as it is now! – s. Minalan

Yes, that was my flamboyant signature at the bottom of the page.  I’d written it.  And I didn’t remember writing it.

The bottle forgotten in front of me, I eagerly devoured the tale – which occasionally rambled, as details were inserted or something was explained in more detail.  While it was far from scholarly standards, it was fascinating to read.  And it explained so much I had questions about.

Apparently, my uneventful honeymoon was a bit more eventful than I recalled.

It took me two hours to get through the sheaf, much of it spent tracking down where in the wandering narrative certain things and certain people were mentioned.  By the time I felt like I had a good understanding of the events of five years ago – events I had no recollection of – the roosters in the courtyard of the castle were starting to greet the pale sky in the east.
It was a lot to absorb.  From the sheer unlikelihood of the adventure to the unexpected conclusion, to the removal of the experience from my memory to the point where I had not even suspected a gap . . . it was a lot to absorb.

I was still mulling the details of the revelation when the laboratory door opened, and Ruderal entered, yawning.  When he saw me he stopped mid-yawn.

“Master! When did you arrive?  I thought you were still in Vorone!”

“Last night,” I admitted.  “But I am not staying long.  Fetch me some hot tea and breakfast from the kitchen and send word to Sire Cei to attend me in my lab.  And Onranion, if the rascal is around.”

“He is, Master,” Ruderal assured me.  “Is everything . . . all right?”

“Mayhap,” I admitted, grudgingly.  “Ruderal, I was in the depths of despair . . . but I think I just threw myself a rope from the past.”

Ruderal looked at me skeptically.  “That seems a bit cryptic, Master,” he said, cautiously. 
“It was meant to be,” I decided.  “Tell no one you don’t have to that I’ve returned.  I won’t be here long.”

“What . . . what did you discover, Master?” the lad asked, hesitantly but politely.  He glanced at the parchments, now scattered across the table around the bottle and its case.

“The most insidious thing a man can find, lad.  Hope, Ruderal,” I conceded.  “I discovered a tiny, almost invisible ray of hope.

More to Come, Soon!  

Happy Yuletide and Merry Christmas!