First Adventure
In a dark, lonely nook of the library, Dante sat in the light of an oil lamp, hunched over, with his eyes held close to the thick, yellowed pages of a large tome. Above him, the ground shook with a particularly loud rumble, and he looked up, taking a second to imagine how the lightning storm must have looked crashing down around the iron ring of the Kleis Ethirium and the surrounding mountains. He smiled at the vision and then found his place again, reciting under his breath the sentence at which he had left off. He finished reading the right-hand page and, hungry for more, quickly flipped to the next, fanning air into the lamp flame which guttered and spat at him.
At the approach of muffled footsteps, Dante quietly slid the book under the table and produced another one in its place, making a show of reading it intently.
"Ah, but of course. Skola Dante."
Dante looked up into the face of Master Gillan, the librarian, meeting his eyes in order to avoid staring at the blackened goiter which hung off the Master’s neck, surrounded by a swath of charred skin.
"Once again you are here long after everyone else has left. What are you studying this night?"
"Master Quintana’s Nomenclature, sir."
"Hmmm yes. . .Dispersion, Compression, Infusion, Absorption, Transference, and Reversion. But surely classification is a bit below your level, Skola."
"’If one is to teach sorcery, one must understand first principles,’ sir."
"Ha. How flattering of you to quote me. You–or shall we say, ‘I’– am right, of course."
"Yes, sir."
Master Gillan rubbed his neck and Dante’s eyes wavered to the goiter. The disfigurement was the subject of both fascination and ridicule for many students. But it awed Dante. Master Gillan had earned it by drawing upon his soul-link–his personal connection to the realm of life energy–in order to cast a ball of fire that had killed eight enemies and saved the life of the Archmage. Instead of filtering the energy through a soulgate made of a metal called welden–which was the normal way to cast magic–he had used his body as a conductor for the power. The massive energy flow had taken its toll.
"So you are interested in tutoring fellow students? Be careful, for so begins the path to being stuck here permanently as a Master."
"That would not be such a bad thing, I think, sir."
"Indeed. Actually, many of us Masters were similar to you when we were younger. I distinctly remember a habit of reading late into the night and sneaking in a nap before morning obligations. But now I am old, and I must retire for the night. I suggest you do the same."
"Yes, sir."
Dante returned his books, gathered his things, and left the warm ambience of the library for the cold stone of the main passageway. He wound his way past carved arches and bracketed torches, mentally reviewing the notes he wanted to write once he got to his rooms. But just as he began to ascend to ground level, there was a hiss from off to the side. He turned and, strangely, found Master Emira gesturing at him through a half-open doorway.
"In here, Skola," she whispered.
Dante looked quickly around the passage but saw no one. Nor did he see anything that would cause a Master to be whispering at him from inside a storage closet. Her apparent desire for stealth made him uneasy.
She was his superior, though, so he entered the room. After she had closed the door, leaving them amidst the bizarre shadows cast by a single ill-placed candle, she gestured to a pile of sacks, and he took a seat. Master Emira sat across from him on a large overturned bucket.
"Well, well. Skola Dante." She smiled slyly at him.
Master Emira was middle-aged but still very attractive, long and lean with dark locks and a piercing vitality that crackled from her like lightning. He started to entertain a fantasy about the reason she had called him in there but quickly purged the thought. This was no moment for emotional weakness.
"You have quite a reputation among the students," she said.
So do you, he thought.
"Dante the Deft. Dante the Clever. Dante the Quick. Dante the Quiet." She accented each name differently, moving her voice from awe to interest. "But a true name doesn’t reflect mere attributes; it encompasses your essence, what moves you, and what you desire above all else. They call me Emira the Ambitious." She shrugged. "It is accurate. What should they call you?"
Dante had become accustomed to answering odd questions from the Masters during his years at the Ethirium, and he gave his answer quickly.
"Dante the Knowledge-Seeking."
Emira smirked.
"You think you are a knowledge seeker just because you read books? How did the people who wrote those books obtain their knowledge? Reading other people’s work?"
So this was to be a lesson then. Strange, he thought, for since he had become a Skola–a graduate of the Ethirium pursuing independent study–the Masters had entirely let him alone.
"It depends whom you’re talking about. Some through interview and story, some through translating ancient texts, some through observation–"
"And the important ones? The ones who teach us the nature of sorcery itself?"
"Experimentation."
"Indeed. The true knowledge seeker learns from experimentation. He pushes the boundaries of what we know by asking questions that have never been asked and prying the answers from nature’s grasp. But there are rules to how much prying one can do. You know them?"
"No experiment involving the human body or mind. No experiment that causes suffering to human or creature alike. No experiment with artifacts of the Krvatch or that in any way seeks their unclean powers."
"Yes. And what happens if you are found to be performing such experiments?"
"You are expelled from the Ethirium, never to return."
"An interesting policy. I wonder, do you think those knowledge seekers, willing to risk their position at the Ethirium for such knowledge, stop seeking that knowledge because of a silly little setback like expulsion?"
Dante shrugged.
"Well suppose they continued their experiments. Where do you think they would go?"
"Somewhere out of the way, far from the Ethirium."
"Indeed. And who would be responsible for stopping them?"
"The Order of Mages."
"And suppose the Order had become weak and insular, ruled by frightened old men afraid to campaign against illegal sorcery because to do so would acknowledge their past failure in keeping it under control. Suppose further that the Order perpetuated the lie that everything was safe, and meanwhile, strange things were happening in villages all over. Animals going missing. People going missing. Strange weather patterns that kill crops. Physical properties of everyday objects being altered."
"The reeves would go after them, wouldn’t they?"
"Would they?"
"Sure. If there was enough pressure from the people."
"Indeed. So you’re an illegal sorcerer. You know this fact. What do you do?"
"Spread out my transgressions so as not to antagonize one locale too much."
Master Emira leaned forward and whispered, "Precisely." She sat upright again and resumed her didactic tone. "So in this hypothetical situation, we have a plethora of illegal practitioners of sorcery whom no one wants around. No authority wants to acknowledge their existence or do anything about them and yet evidence of their existence is all too plentiful. I suppose an enterprising young man might see this as an opportunity." She pierced him with her eyes in a way Dante found threatening. "All he would have to do is find the sorcerers and incapacitate them. Then he could confiscate all their possessions for his own benefit. He could even have access to all their illegal research without having to perform any of it himself."
"And why would illegal research interest him?"
She laughed. "Such a cautious boy." Emira tapped her slender fingers once across her bucket. "Based on the way he presents himself, you might suppose this young man has no interest in anything unseemly. He carefully orchestrates his reading habits to appear random. He asks innocent-sounding questions to his Masters. And yet, he is not merely seeking knowledge as he pretends. In reality, he seeks power–specifically the power of the Krvatch."
Dante focused on making his face blank. How in Desolation had she figured that out?
"No reaction at all? Impressive… I really am going to enjoy teaching you."
She smirked, waiting for Dante to respond. The idea she had suggested was tempting but dangerous, all the more dangerous since he didn’t understand her motives. What did she want? Was this some sort of trap? He had no illusions about outmaneuvering her, if it came to that. Given her Master status and her rumored political connections, she could get him kicked out of the Ethirium, or worse. Of course, he also had to consider what she might do to him if he refused whatever she was offering. He supposed that he might as well find out more.
"How would a person go about finding and incapacitating these sorcerers?" he asked.
"A list. Like this one." She pulled a tightly wound parchment from inside her robe. "And a device. . .like this one." From the other side of her robe, she produced what looked like a large golden spider. It was comprised of five double-jointed, golden spikes all connected around a central ring.
Dante failed to cover his gasp. The device was a Krvatch artifact. Powerful. Dangerous. It produced a quiet clicking sound as Emira wrapped four of the spikes around her wrist, leaving one protruding above her middle knuckle like a scorpion stinger. Candlelight gleamed off a piece of dull brown metal in the center of the ring. Welden. The source of soul-power.
"To use it, activate the device as you would an ordinary soulgate and puncture the skin with this." She pointed at the free end of the protruding spike, which was sharp and curved like a talon. "Your victim will fall into a deep sleep for about a day. Plenty of time to raid his possessions and escape if one were so inclined."
"If he were to do this, the hypothetical young man would need an ordinary soulgate as well," Dante said, with more eagerness than he intended.
Emira smiled. "Of course. We wouldn’t want him to turn out like Master Gillan, would we?" She reached back into her robe, pulled out a soulgate ring, and then held it out teasingly in front of him. "Does this mean you’re interested?" she asked.
Dante almost laughed. He hadn’t expected his life to change tonight.
"Yes."
Emira handed him the soulgate, letting her palm rub softly across his as he took it. Dante hid the ring carefully in an inner pocket of his robes, trying to mask the thrill he felt at having his very own soulgate, and at Emira’s touch.
"And what would the person providing the location and device be asking as a price?" he asked.
Emira removed the spikes from her hand and set the device on a nearby shelf. With all pretense now gone, her tone became practical.
"You need to acquire some objects from our first lawbreaker. Unfortunately, I know about the place he is hiding but not where it is. Once you find it, you will follow these instructions. They are old and fading, so do not open them until you are ready to use them." Emira handed him a well-worn, folded bit of parchment. "Collect the items and deliver them directly to me here. Needless to say, if you were to fail to deliver any of the items I’m interested in, there would be a problem."
Dante nodded.
She handed him the roll of paper she had shown him before.
"This is a list of settlements where our target has been sighted. Abbadon is his name, a former member of the Order Esoterica. Use caution. He is both extremely clever and extremely dangerous, and I do not know what powers he might have gained since his departure from the Order. I recommend that you visit one of the towns on the list and wait for him to show himself. Then follow him back to his hiding place."
Dante took the paper and looked at it.
"Your first assignment for our private studies, Skola. I trust you will impress me?"
He met Emira’s eyes with a smile.
"Of course, Master."
***
The settlement was something between a town and a village. The square was paved with cobbles and surrounded by large, impressive buildings of wood. There were shops full of trade goods, craftsmen displaying their wares along the street, and a lively commerce that attracted people from surrounding areas. But outside the square, the paths were dirt, the people were farmers, and the houses were simple. There were no protective wall, no council, and no official guard. And the latter meant that it was the reeve who fielded the occasional complaints of strange creatures haunting the settlement at night. The reeve was more than willing to share these stories over ale, and so it wasn’t long before Dante knew the location and date of every disturbance that had occurred in the past month.
The settlement looked quite different at midnight in the light of a half-clouded moon, and even more different from Dante’s vantage point up on the inn’s high rooftop above the square. The warm brick of the chimney against his back and the pungent smell of spiced punch emanating from the flue were incredibly pleasant, and Dante found himself relaxing enough to hum a shanty song, one he had learned long ago while begging near portside taverns. His eyes darted back and forth across the rows of buildings, fixing on the places where people had sighted intruders. The carpenter’s fine house, from which had been stolen a bucket of expensive tree sap. A crofter’s ramshackle hut from which a pair of roosters had been snatched. A widow’s cottage from which a cask of ale was taken. And a trader’s shop across the square from his current outpost, from which a valuable glass orb had gone missing.
This was Dante’s third night of observation. The past two had been totally uneventful, at least in this settlement. Reports had come that morning of a theft in a nearby village. But did that mean that the intruder was more likely to strike here, or less? Dante didn’t know. In fact, he was just starting to wonder if he should change his strategy and begin a more active pursuit, when he heard the quiet clacking of steps on cobblestones.
He stopped humming and leaned forward eagerly, watching the shadows at the edge of the square. There were more sounds, but not human sounds: thudding and thunking like. . .
Like wood.
A creature emerged into the faint light of the square, still clacking on the cobbles. It was human-shaped–tall, slender, and jointed, made of a light-colored wood, polished enough to make it gleam dully in the moonlight. The head was smooth and featureless except for a single hemispherical protrusion on the center of the face that looked like a misplaced eyeball.
It was a puppet.
It moved with a strange gait, the arms wobbling clumsily side-to-side as it maneuvered around the square’s central fountain. But once it had navigated the obstacle, it shot across the remaining distance of the square with disturbingly smooth quickness, until it reached the awning of the trader’s shop, under which Dante could no longer see it.
Dante couldn’t believe his eyes. The secrets of Transference, the art of imparting motion to a distant object, had been lost long ago. Whoever had created this creature and was controlling it had done something miraculous.
There was a scraping sound and the creak of a door. Dante grabbed his travel bag from where it sat next to him and slid down the edge of his rooftop onto a sturdy beam. Then he swung himself down the face of the building, cloak flapping around him, until he was standing in the square, where the door of the trader’s stood wide open. A second later, there was a loud thump and a shout. The puppet came speeding out of the doorway, clutching a sack to its torso with one wooden hand. Dante waited until it had crossed the square and then ran after it, the hue and cry of villagers echoing behind him.
As soon as it was out of the settlement, the puppet turned into the trees of the surrounding forest, heading northwest. Despite knowing how dangerous it was to run through a forest at night, Dante followed, glad that at least he was wearing normal pants and a shirt instead of his Ethirium robes, which would have caught on every stray twig.