Amongst the muted din of early morning village life he stared wistfully ahead wishing he was here for any other reason. He could have taken a week off to travel the countryside enjoying the warm spring air before ending up here in this non descript village in some non descript valley, just because. Once here he could chat happily with village folk while watching children gleefully play before retiring to an afternoon nap, just because. This idea however seemed as real as a child’s wooden doll. The remote location he now found himself in served the purpose of repressing a panic of epic proportions. It was imperative that no one know why he was here or what was already going on in this quiet patch of sunlight and warmth. There was a moment of peaceful reflection when he once again perked his ear to the harmony of morning life outside. His vacation here would have to wait and he hoped it would be possible once this was over.
He smiled and laughed, but it was hollow.
His arm started to lift so he could look at the missive gripped in his hand but then stopped. It was pointless as he could remember verbatim what was written on the parchment and what seal it bore. For some unknown reason he felt the urge to delay, to wait just a little longer despite the reality that every second could cost lives. His gaze was still transfixed on the door in front of him as if he was waiting for its permission to proceed. It was made of a simple yet hardy wood, showing the wear of a thousand uses and the fortitude to withstand thousands more. It seemed to the visitor a door like any other you would find in this type of place. Plain yet served its purpose faithfully, eternally allowing passage from one side to the other. He noticed the pattern of wood grain as it wound and traced a hundred different focused patterns. One could get lost just staring at this plain looking door.
The loud crow of a rooster nearby startled his eyes open and he felt awoken from a long, restless sleep. No, this was no plain door in front of him. If the reports were true something terrifying lay just beyond this gate, something known only by a marked few. He remembered staring slack-jawed the first time he had heard about the growing concern in a whispered conversation with his close friend of the council. Being friends since their boyhood years he knew his compatriot well enough to share his feelings without speaking, certainly too well to be tricked by him. The news had him chilled to the bone. They had to act fast.
He laughed again.
This time the laugh was not hollow but determined. He quickly but carefully turned the knob and crossed the portal. Once inside the first thing he noticed was that it seemed exactly the same as where he had just come from. Of course it did, right? One room of a cottage should not be much different than the hallway preceding it. No, something did seem different. Even the previously warm, peaceful sunlight coming through the window of the hallway seemed now like a twisted, mocking doppelganger flowing into the room. He tried to laugh again but it fell short, coming out an annoyed and nervous sigh. Was he a child again? Did stories of invisible, sinister forces scare him as they did long ago before his mastery of magic? He almost smiled at this internal guarding pep talk until he witnessed the seriousness of his company.
The situation was dire indeed.
In each corner of the room sat a member of the Teren Council, of which he was also a member. He was surprised but also comforted by the faces he knew to be there even without seeing them. After practicing the arts for so long, especially within close proximity to each other, the wizened all knew when each was near. These were his peers and friends, three of them at least, that were more or less equal in power. The first genuine smile that traced his lips now divined a future in which he could rib them for taking the position of novices in this task. They sat cross-legged on mats specifically designed for a long session and had one hand laid down in a comfortable fashion, the other in a fist. All had their eyes closed and in perfect concentration as was laid out in the plan. They made no sound, made no movement and if you didn’t know any better were perfectly chiseled statues mean to ward off evil spirits. To an unknowing spectator this living stonework would seem strange enough but with Arentho’s natural sense and vision of magic he could see so much more.
If the greatest artist known to the races put their life’s work into one painting depicting what magic looked like, it would pale in comparison to what Arentho now gazed at. A million hues of every tone formed a harmony of color wherever the ether strands stretched. The myriad of patterns tracing most of the room wound to a central circular ward where a simple looking table was placed. Running tangent to this intricate ward were four branches of magic which wound and curved like lattice work from the four corners of the room. The beacons of power effortlessly driving this corporal machination seemed as though they would suffocate from their own abilities. Not much of them could be seen under their hoods but a glowing magical mask where their face should be, transitioning color in the same beautiful rhythm as the rest of the room. The source magic emanating out of the four corners came from the relaxed hand each of them gently rested on the top side of their knees. Like a waterfall ever pouring out the life of a forest the glowing ether continuously fed the ward, circling back through the lattice to the clenched fist. Arentho laughed when he thought about what was in those hands, how a simple but effective common metal was paramount to keeping him from certain doom. The question was why. From the clenched fist came a continuous visual popping and fizzing, as though it was filtering out something that should not be there. Or rather, something that was being kept out. The whole scene drew Arentho deep into its awe and extravagance, deeper and deeper.
He started to a rising twinge of concern moving up his spine like a viper easing into the perfect striking position. It had been years since he felt this out of focus and he began to understand why the most prestigious of his order where sitting on mats like they were twenty years their junior. To his left here was Breneran, who most dubbed the “Keg Mover” for a love of ale that seemed to equal his love of magic. Arentho was certain his jovial friend was sober right now however. Silvost, who sat directly across from Breneran, was so serious about matters of magic that he would be a higher ranked teacher if he wasn’t so brooding and sour. To the few who can the wielding of magic brings a sense of life and resets what was once important, a new yearning for knowledge and further power that hungers apart from physical satiety. Silvost has always regarded this yearning as a burden, as though mastery of the arcane didn’t benefit him but everyone else though in his name. None can resist the engrossing call of such power however so he takes his scornful addiction out on everyone around him, those who he sees as the true benefactors of his gift. He and Breneran do not get along, for obvious reasons, but on more than one occasion they have saved the other from death. Such was the way of the council. There was Verrala sitting to the left of Breneran who seemed to float on air when she walked and even now, seated with the others, her rumored touch of divinity seemed real. She could hover magically of course but it was her tranquil nature that gave the wizened woman a divinely based countenance. Most of the order wondered, and still wonder, why she hasn’t trained to be a Priest as it would seem a better use of her perceived abilities. When asked she brightens, smiles and then sighs, “Maybe someday” as though she has an eternity to wait until her current task is finished.
One could ponder forever on the wonders of eternity…
Last but never least in regards to attention within the Teren Council was Durus, sitting across the room from Verrala. Durus has gone by, and been given, so many names over the years that the only way to describe him is as a crazy and eccentric but wondrous wizard too dangerous to allow roaming the countryside. This was, in fact, how he got into the order after taking on four trainee field agents who he then added to his forming ant army. Apparently after a hasty verbal confrontation with a fruit vendor Durus, then going by the name Zer, decided the best course of action was attacking the poor old man’s fruit stand with an army of five million ants. Needing commanders for such an army he was glad that other wizards had appeared to temporarily fill the positions until Zer’s revenge was complete. He was not aware that the Teren Council had been tracking him for some time and only after many fearful pleadings of the poor old man, his real name still left out of records for his own safety, did the order finally move against Zer. Due to Zer’s new commanders, which ended in a life lesson for the powerless and enthralled trainee field agents, the ordeal ended in a complete evacuation of the small village. Senior members of the council including Arentho were called in to take care of the mass infestation, seize Zer and change the trainees back into humbled human beings. Once Zer’s ant army was finally dispersed, an action he insists to this day was justly provoked, Arentho personally addressed the council to suggest Durus be invited to join. He had spent many interesting days talking to detained but calm mage through an ether cage and was convinced Durus was no threat.
How wonderful it would be, being an ant…
A muffled scream from the back of his mind broke him from the trance, awaking him once again. He looked at the ordered piles on the table with contempt, “They are just documents” he audibly whispered to the comprehension of no one. His companions were in full meditation by now and even if he had the will to wake them, doing so could be fatal. He knew that only by their steadfast vigil over his proceedings would he be able to work without succumbing as so many others had. How strong must this mysterious force be if with the council’s elite holding it in check he was still affected? He had his own tin coin, thickly pressed with a warding sigil, to help in protecting him but it seemed now flimsy and almost nonexistent. The gravity of the situation made the twinge in his spine ache with anxiety. He thought about how merely reading documents had caused people to be driven mad, struck dumb and crippled like zombies or even have personalities swapped with loved ones. There seemed no pattern to the incidents and no motive. The documents on the table had been brought in from a checkerboard of locations and as of yet there was no theory as to why this was happening. Apparently those reading the hexed pieces weren’t really reading the documents by common sense standards but rather attempting to read a currently unknown language. That’s why he was brought in and chosen to lead the investigation instead of any one of his peers now entranced. He had a gift for deciphering languages or finding meanings in written clues no one else could. He would have to learn this mysterious new code and fast before the wards and protective measures in place could no longer hold an unknown threat, from an unknown source, for an unknown reason. He looked back to the table. How much strength must the wielder have to transfer influence like that, influence that was residual. Was it residual?
The twinge moved again but it felt different, colder…
The time had come to get to work. Once inside the warding circle it felt to Arentho as though a horse had been lifted off of him. He could think again, not just in speed but clarity. The constant threat of sinking into mindless stasis seemed to have passed, causing him to gaze adoringly at his peers once again. He carefully sat down at the polished wooden table where there were neat piles of tomes, scrolls, broken sandstone tablets and even a puzzle box. All of the documents were covered: tomes were closed, scrolls rolled up and pieces of black felt covered the legible portions of tablet. They would need to be examined one at a time until he knew what he was dealing with and whether he was truly safe within his ethereal bubble from the consuming influences.
It was an exhilarating moment, all things considered.
The first item chosen was a wide and shiny black bound tome. He stared at the blank cover and moving it right to left, witnessed a simple yet intriguing calligraphy. The words seemed to be broken down with spacing and direction similar to his other known languages which would make the process of decoding this script easier. Relieved at this thought he touched his lean finger to a line somewhere in the middle of the second page. He was instantly touched by an overwhelming sense of grief blended with anger that poured from the very core of his being. He jerked his finger off the page and with trembling hands set the closed tome back on the desk taking a deep, equally trembling breath. As his mind raced he stared at the hand that held the tin coin. As the hand that held this lifeline relic slowly opened he noticed it was turning from a red hot color back to its normal state. Though his hand was not burned the impression of the ward from the coin being so strongly held seemed permanent enough. An idea suddenly popped in his head, an explanation that seemed to have been placed there but made perfect sense.
Never in all his years would he think this possible.