The ruin of the battle was strewn as far as anyone could see. Lifeless and dying bodies lay tangled and piled, smoking, bleeding and stinking. There were carrion birds and other vermin feasting. Yendor awoke and the smell alone made him retch. As his consciousness came into focus on his surroundings, he fought back another gagging reflex. It was late in the morning, but other than that, Yendor had no idea how much time had passed since he had lost consciousness, but the last thing he remembered was facing three hulking soldiers. They marked the points of the compass in front of him, he realized, so he must have won that contest, but he could not bring his memory to show it to him. Presumably, he had passed out after that. He burned with the sting of a hundred cuts, but none seemed serious. He must have succumbed to exhaustion. He still had the Crescent Moon and all his other belongings on him. Somehow he had been spared by the robbers who swarm the dead for treasure as soon as they feel safe from the bloodlust of the soldiers. He had heard tales of warriors seeing their fallen comrades robbed of their belongings, fall upon the the human vermin with as much gusto as any enemy. There was no other warrior awake in sight. The armies had moved on. He remembered vaguely being told to reconnect with the rebels to the south afterwards, if he was separated. Yendor took a deep breath. He would not be rejoining the army.
He sat among the carnage and contemplated his place in the world. He had been raised a musician. It had been impressed upon him that artists were proudly peaceful members of society. They were honorable. They added value to people’s lives with entertainment and the history and news they disseminated. He had abandoned all that without a second thought when he met Danse. Their short time together was like a distant dream. He had searched for her, he had become a wizard for her. He had become a warrior for her. And he had failed at every turn. What an absolute failure he had turned out to be. The chosen one? Him? He was going to vanquish Incarnate? What a joke. What hubris. He was worthless. He had become a killer, no better than those he called enemy. What was left for him?
He found his way back to the camp. His tent still stood, though the rest of the army had fled. They had left in such a hurry, they hadn’t bothered to try to save or steal any of his things. Was this some kind of pattern? Was their defeat so crushing that no one dared linger? There was the usual abandoned garbage left of the camp, but it was more. They had left in a panic. His was not the only tent left. If what remained was any indication, their army had been decimated. He rolled everything into his pack, and turned decidedly north. Away from the rebels. Away from civilization. Away from his past. Away from everything. He set off towards the wastes. “Here there be Dragons” he muttered under his breath and disappeared into the growing mists.
Yendor walked in the rain, keeping to the road unless there were signs of soldiers. There hadn’t been any sign of them for days. The rain came relentless. Pouring, drizzling,sometimes pelting, and now sleet. It dripped down from the leaves of the poplars, found the crevices and folds of his cloak and sluiced it’s way into his jerkin. It nestled into his shirt and spread across his body until his bones shivered. This far out it could snow anytime of year.
Yendor kept to the road despite wanting to be out of sight. When he was a child, traveling with Waters and the troupe, he had taken a shortcut on the way back from town to their camp in the countryside. He had accidentally wandered onto a farmer’s land, and the farmer, tending to his fields, had taken Yendor for a poachers. He had chased Yendor with a club, and Yendor ran with escape as his only thought. The farmer chased him for hours into the woods, and only gave up when it got dark.
The farmer was as lost as Yendor and had to set up a camp in the woods. Yendor stayed close to the farmer because as much as he feared the man, he feared the woods even more. The boy stayed out of sight as the farmer built a fire. The young boy must have fallen asleep, because hen was awoken by the sounds of bandits crashing into the camp. It had beenfoolish of the man to build a fire in an unknown territory, and it had attracted these bandits like moths. The poor farmer had been out in the field when he had given chase to Yendor and had nothing for the three burly men. They weren’t too happy about that and were about to asail the man with their knives when Yendor came running into the camp. “Father!”, he said, “I’ve found the sheriff and he’s right behind me!”
The bandits wasted no time high tailing it out of there. The farmer, Yendor came to know him as Mr. Trekle, was grateful to see the boy, who explained he was no poacher, but merely a lost traveler who meant no harm. Next day, when they found their way out of the woods, and back to Trekle farm, the farmer made sure Yendor had a full meal and some to take home to Waters, who assumed Yendor had gotten himself into mischief, but reckoned that’s what boys do.
Yendor kept to the road. By and by the rain abated. He was heading into the Wastelands looking for the rebel army. Danse’s brother had joined a few years back, she said. She didn’t know if he was even still alive, because the rebels had no communication with the outside world. Incarnate’s army was merciless with any disloyalty, real or perceived. There were always rumors of rebels but no one knew if they were true or not. How Danse’s brother had found them was a mystery.
As Yendor fed himself mostly by going town to town as a traveling musician, playing in inns for his supper and maybe a bed, he spent some time in the kitchens, being ignored by the regular help, who sometimes whispered about provisions being sent out in quantity off North, towards the Wastelands. Incarnate probably had spies looking for them. Probably these spies knew finding out how the rebels fed and clothed themselves would lead to the rebels, but so far, Incarnate didn’t have enough spies in the right places to find out where the rebels were.
Yendor didn’t know what to expect if he did find them. Would he join them? Was Danse’s brother with them? Was he alive? Yendor didn’t even know his name. The Wastelands was an interesting position, tactically. Depending on how deep into the Wastelands they were, there were no towns nearby. There was no way to grow your own food, and hunting was terrible. Yendor had only been to one town on the outskirts of the vast, frozen landscape, which stretched for miles on the eastern and northern most islands of the archipelago, but the island of Dukai Skal Seemed the most likely to Yendor. There were a few harbor towns where fisherman lived and traded with the rest of Fawn, but it was large and desolate. The name Dukai Skal meant “Dragon Bones” in the old tongue.
Yendor pitched his threadbare tent as dusk came on. He got his lantern lit before full dark had set in, but his flint was about done. He would have to keep an eye out for flint in the wild, but he had been looking and he wasnt’ sure if this island had any. Probably the trading post at the port would have some imported for a price. You had to have fire, and Yendor hadn’t solved how to do that with magic, though the ghosts know he’d tried. He’d seen the weather coming on early and gathered up some dry wood that he wrapped up before it started to rain, but he knew he’d be lucky if it was enough to boil a kettle, let alone cook anything. Not that there was much. He had some dried oats, pair that with some jerky and that would have to due for tonight. Maybe he’d try his luck fishing in the morning. Yendor didn’t expect there to be much wildlife this far north. They didn’t call these isles the Wastelands for nothing.
He got out his oud while he waited for the water to boil. Much farther north and he’d be able to boil the snow right off the ground. He had some time tuning the instrument in the cold, but he was a pro and soon enough he was making himself homesick with some of his favorites from before his life had changed. He didn’t allow himself a lot of retrospection because he figured that way lie madness, but it kind of snuck up on him tonight. Yendor had been on his way to a lively career beside his lifelong mentor doing something he really enjoyed that was truly a gift for him to be able to do. Now when he played for his supper, he felt he was really in disguise, a spy pretending to be a bard or minstrel. With the troupe there’d been company, a family, the only family he had ever known.
He’d thrown that all away for the first pretty girl that had paid him any attention.
The two of them had spent months practicing, training, getting to know each other. Now she was in a prisoner camp somewhere and he… well he had destroyed the only wizard’s coven still extant, and carried himself into the most barren place in all Fawn on a wild goose chase.
Yendor felt he was being watched. He reached out with his senses and there was no one there. Just his paranoia. Yendor ate his oatmeal and got out the scraps from the library just to get his mind out of the dark corners it had led him to.
The path back to the coven led into the forrest. The urgency and ease of the journey into town vanished. There was a tension between Yendor and Sapphosia. They were angry and uncertain. Yendor felt the night encapsulated his entire stay with the wizards; fraught with unnecessary tribulations due to hangups based on misplaced priorities. They wanted to preserve anonymity at the cost of all else. Understandably really, since the penalty for practicing wizardry was death. Incarnate himself took a particular interest in the elimination of wizards. Many things under Incarnate’s rule were forbidden under penalty of death. Many things were considered treason against the state and carried such a penalty. Knowledge of anatomy, charting the stars, on and on… But actual practice of wizardry really was at the core of all the seemingly nonsensical things. Wearing the wrong clothes made of the wrong material could get you accused of wizardry. Any use of magic, even accidental was forbidden. Actual wizardry wasn’t just dangerous, it was madness. Yet, what was the point of taking such a risk just to preserve arcane rituals and customs that were no longer understood? That contained no intrinsic power? It was like planting the seeds of cooked vegetables; useless.
Yendor knew that Sapphosia was furious with him. He had not just endangered her, but the entire coven. They could probably never go to that town again. Maybe they would have to move. Yendor would probably be expelled. Perhaps Sapphosia would be too. But why then, had she risked the journey? Clearly the stone and the sword belonged together, but what was that to her? Certainly the sword had not had its stone for some time. And there were so many other ways they could have done that. Other than go in the middle of the night. They could have stolen it, they could have hired someone to buy it for them. Yendor figured the merchant would not seek out the authorities but there had been a stir. certainly there had been witnesses to that magical event. To not report such an occurrence was a crime and although most people wanted to avoid sorcerers, their fear of trouble would compel them to report it. If one person reported it and no one else did, all the people who didn’t would be punished. They would probably do it as a group. The merchant could face consequences even though he was the victim.
Yendor operated on instinct. It usually led him in the right direction, but there were always unintended consequences. He wasn’t always around to see how they affected innocent people.
Sapphosia stopped. She had come to a decision. “We can’t go back.” she said. “They’ll track us to the coven.” Yendor had not considered this. “They’ll probably raise that town.” She had been leading the way and when she stopped she had not turned to face Yendor. She did so now. “That was reckless. It was unforgivable.” She shook her head in the darkness.
“I’m sorry.” said Yendor weakly.
“I wasn’t talking about you. I was talking about myself.” Yendor could see her eyes glitter from an unknown light. “I allowed myself to get caught up in your…. enthusiasm. Many will die from the waves caused by our actions tonight. It cannot possibly be worth it.”
“You say this sword has killed dragon?” asked Yendor. She nodded. “Then it can kill Incarnate.” he said. Her eyes widened, whether at the realization he was right or the realization that he was mad, Yendor would never know. “Disappear into the city.” he told her. “I’ll defend the villiage. I’ll meet you at the library after.” The village was on the path to the sea and the coven lay between the ancient city and the small village where the coven had gotten its supplies from. “I’ll go to the coven to get our things. They should be warned. Maybe they should relocate before the sorcerers come looking for them.”
In the end, it was Sapphosia who warned the coven and held counsel with them. They decided to disband and scatter. They would reunite at some point but even staying in touch could be dangerous if one of them was caught. Sapphosia met Yendor in the library with his things. She was glad now. She could explore her path. She had been tethered too long.
Indeed the village went to the sorcerers as one to make their report. The merchant had disappeared with his diamond and family before the sun came up that day. Yendor watched as the sorcerers scoured the village for clues. The sorcerers concluded their search by surrounding the village with soldiers and Yendor made his appearance. He had been flitting from one spot to the next unnoticed, but emerged now walking down the main street towards the captain of the sorcery, his black cloak rustling quietly behind him, hood up. By now, the rumors of the black rebel had become legend. To them he was like a wraith, a specter from a story come to life. As he walked, Yendor unsheathed his sword. It sang like a struck bell, reverberating into the late afternoon air. They came for him, forgetting the villagers utterly. From every direction they came. He cut them down like wheat. The sword told him where they were before they were there. Like all real magic, the trick was to get out of the way. He was not the swordsman, he was an instrument of the energy that flowed through them both.
Never had the sword been held by such a one. The energy flowed through it. It bonded to Yendor. They were an extension of each other.
When it was done, the villagers fled. Yendor had not saved the town. The villagers would live, but they would never be the same. Neither would the wizards. Neither would the sorcerers. No one would.
As it was, they got to the village with dawn several hours away. The two made remarkable time. Sapphosia was not like the others, Yendor began to see. The others went through their rituals, they worked hard to achieve small things magically. Sapphosia was special and unlike Yendor, she hid it, perhaps even from herself. They had walked in the dark and not tripped or veered from the path. He picked up on how she did it in the same way that a novice tracker might learn from an expert. There was a kind of invisible light seen only by them that they used to find their way. They didn’t even have to cast it. It was already there. They just had to tune in to it.
When they reached the village, Sapphosia used a similar technique to divine the home of the jeweler. They found the area where he kept his stall by the residue of the stone Sappho had traded him. Then they identified from that an aura in his footprints, like a dog on the scent of a fox, thought Yendor. Sappho had not revealed that they would be using these techniques. She gave Yendor a look each time she showed him what she was doing that said, “This is between you and me.” Yendor understood. He had in fact, he realized also been hiding his skills from the the others. Even her until now, he realized. The others seemed to frown upon the discovery of abilities that were not formally taught.
As they approached his home, Yendor put his hand on the hilt of his sword in case there was trouble. He recoiled from it in shock to find it was hot. He put his hand back. It wasn’t really too hot to touch, just warm. He had just been surprised. Sappho turned on Yendor and hissed, “Take your hand off that thing!” Yendor moved his hand to his dagger. How had she known he was holding it? She was in front of him, and why didn’t she want him to touch it? And why was it hot? The domicile was one among a cluster of them, presumably other vendors at the market. They were all one room wattle and daub round huts with thatched roofs, including the jeweler’s, which seemed to suggest to yendor that he didn’t have the wealth of some jewelers he’d seen. There were snores coming from inside, the likes of which would have woken Yendor up and made it hard to go back to sleep if he had been part of that family.
“We should wait until market hours and simply offer to buy it back so he doesn’t suspect anything.” Yendor said.
Sapphosia gave Yendor a hard look. “We have to be back before anyone wakes at the coven!” she whispered. “Besides, it’s too late for subtleties. The sword knows its stone is here.” She seemed to steel herself to what she must do. She knocked on the door, quietly at first, but the house snored on. She rapped a little harder with no effect. She didn’t want to wake up the whole neighborhood, that would really be trouble. Yendor could smell the dew forming. This was the exact wrong time to be doing this. His stomach vacillated between a fear of what could go wrong and annoyance over the whole thing. What did it matter if the sword had one stone or another? Why had he been compelled to say anything? Why did they care if the coven discovered they were out? Why did she act like the sword was a living thing? He put his hand back on the hilt of the sword without thinking.
Well, not like a person, but like a tuning fork. A clear, loud, lovely B tone; ringing in the night. Yendor removed his hand immediately. It was too late. Far too late. The pitch died out slowly like bell struck. The look in Sapphosia’s eyes was enough to make Yendor involuntarily take a step back.
“What in the bloody fuck was that?” came the jeweler’s gravelly voice. Once again, Sappho knocked. You could almost hear the jeweler frowning in the darkness. There was a shuffling sound and the door opened. He held up a dagger.
“What in the bloody fuck do you want?” He said. “It’s you lot!” He recognized them and there was the frown, just as Yendor had pictured it. He said again quieter and lower, “What in the bloody fuck do you want?”
“I am terribly sorry to bother you in the middle of the night.” Sapphosia said, “But our mission is quite urgent. We must have back our purchase. We will give you back what you paid us, plus extra to compensate you for your inconvenience. Once again, we are most dreadfully sorry.”
“You’re too late.” he said. “I’ve sold off the lot to the four winds. Now go away back to wherever you came from. It’s the middle of the fuckin’ night!”
“Please, sir,” Yendor said stepping forward, “It’s very important or we wouldn’t come in the middle of the night. You must realize that.”
“Bugger off! I’ve told you, it’s all gone! Now get the fuck out of here before I lose my temper!” He flashed his dagger.
Yendor thought for a beat. Fuck this. “You’re lying.” he said.
“Fuck you!” said the man. “I’ll gut you like a fish! I’m within my rights!”
Yendor drew the sword. It rang out and seemed to begin to glow.
“What in the bloody fucking hell…”
Yendor poised at quarte, as if to lunge and then instinctively raised the sword straight over his head. The amethyst rattled around from somewhere in the hut, broke lose from its box and flew into the setting, resulting in a blinding flash that would later be described as lightning. Everything returned to normal. As far as the sword was concerned. Yendor fished the diamond out of his pouch. He used his thumb to flip it to the merchant. Without further ado he turned and began to walk away. He heard Sappho follow. Even in the dark, the jeweler could tell it was a diamond. Exactly the same shape as the amethyst. “What in the bloody fucking hell…”
The wizards spent hours in contemplation with incense burning. They searched caverns for specific crystals that they bonded with. They took meticulous care of their carefully crafted garments. To them, everything was a metaphor for a divine mystery that they seemed to accept was not to be solved, but rather appreciated. They were strict vegetarians and tended their garden with the same reverence they did everything. Yendor began to sympathize with those who were hostile to him: nobody could be this calm all the time, human nature would cause bottled up emotions to come out in unforeseen ways. They were ostensibly celibate, but that seemed to Yendor as if they were fooling no one but themselves. There was almost no magical training whatever. They seemed to think any magical abilities that came from wizardry were a side effect: a gift from the gods, of which there were many. Danu of the river, Bridget of the glen, Curnunnos, the horned god. There were fertility gods, harvest gods, gods of regions, weather, types of weather, morning gods, evening gods and noonday gods. Yendor was expected to know their names and the rituals connected to them, but the wizards thought it off when Yendor asked if they communicated with or knew the gods on a personal level. Yendor puzzled over much of what was expected of him. The wizards could answer few questions. When Yendor asked if would understand better with time, he was told that he would come to not question everything and just accept the mysteries.
Seasons passed and Yendor felt as though he were in a waking dream; the rituals carried him from one task to the next, from one day to the next. There was ritual bathing in the morning, washing before handling food, clothes, crystals, which were laid out in intricate patterns for various rituals to the myriad gods. Yendor felt as though he were failing Danse, and when he brought this up, he was told that life was behind him now.
They had an initiation ceremony to induct him into the coven. It came months after he had settled in, and Yendor was surprised that he was only now an initiate. How long would it take to become a master? Some wizards never became masters, he was told. In the coming months Yendor was told, he would become an apprentice. If he worked hard and showed potential, after several years, he could become a journeyman. Mastery was for the chosen few. When Yendor asked what rank the others in the coven were, he was met with rebukes at forwardness. It was not his place to know how advanced his superiors were. It was presumptuous of him.
Yendor did not mention the sword incident, and they did not seem to know about it.
Yendor had worked so long and so hard to find and become one of them, it took a long time to realize, that this wasn’t going to ever take him to where he needed to get.
He had very little time to himself, but he did have his own small cell where he often decided to forgo sleep to practice the martial arts Danse had taught him. It didn’t just keep him battle ready. That actually seemed secondary to Yendor at this point. It kept him connected to Danse. To her memory. Amid the candles and the incense and the chanting, his life seemed a fog, but when he practiced with his sword, he felt alive.
Occasionally, the group, or some of the group would go into the city on some errand or other. When they went, they carried daggers for protection, as did all of society. Even the poorest beggar usually had a knife, no matter how crude. One day as summer waned they went into the city to get wool for winter garments. They usually had some trinkets to trade. Yendor did not know where they got them. They had acquired none in his presence.
On this occasion, they went on a market day and after getting the wool, they decided to get some tea. There was some haggling over the trade. The various knick knacks where not enough to get the amount of tea that was thought would last the winter. Nicolas produced a carved figure of the wheat God that Yendor suspected he had carved himself. Sapphosia produced an amethyst in the shape of a crescent moon. The trade was made. Yendor carried the tea. Something about that amethyst struck Yendor as odd, but he couldn’t place it. He had come to realize that unlike any other learning situation he had been in in his life, he wasn’t supposed to ask questions. It was considered rude and disrespectful. Ygraine had told him that she too had been inquisitive when she had been recruited, but learned her place after a while. Yendor wanted to know if they had all been recruited except him, but knew better than to ask.
That night, Yendor was tired from the days activity, but he dutifully retrieved his sword from its hiding place and having adopted the idea of ritualizing every aspect of his life, he knelt with the sword blade down in front of him and gave thanks for Danse, her instruction to him, the sword, its red leather hilt, the Crescent diamond, the lightweight blade… The Crescent diamond! That was what was so interesting about that amethyst. It was exactly the same size.
Sapphosia was a priestess. Unlike the other wizards, she did not fit into the hierarchy of the coven. The entire group was a religious order, but Sapphosia was ordained as a priestess and led certain special rituals and often did not participate in the activities of the others. Konstantine was ostensibly not her master, but as he was the master of the coven, she often demurred to his authority. Yendor felt a special bond with her because she was kind to him and they both felt like outsiders to him. He was not supposed to be out of his cell after the night ritual, but he crept quietly through the maze of corridors to her quarters at the behind the temple.
He knocked at her door in the dark of the hall. He could smell the lilac and lavender in her chambers. Her room was not referred to as a cell. “Come in Yendor.” She said. They all had some magical abilities but she seemed the most magical to him; not necessarily powerful, almost mysterious. As if what they were all striving for came naturally to her.
He entered. She sat at a desk with her back to him. She wore an ephemeral gown. He felt as if he were intruding. She turned to him, the candlelight flickering across her face. She saw his expression, something like confusion and wonder, and she reached slowly across to a coat rack, stretching out, the folds of her garment shimmering, diffusing pale shades of pink and shadow, and retrieved a silken robe, which she donned as she stood and turned to him. “What is it?” she asked.
Yendor seemed to come out of a trance. “I wondered what you could tell me about that amethyst you traded this afternoon.” he said.
She frowned as if trying to recall. She shook her head. “Which amethyst?” she said.
This was not like her. She didn’t play games, she didn’t have trouble remembering crystals, she wasn’t coy. What was going on? Yendor produced the sword, which had been hidden by his own robe. She looked at him. She seemed genuinely puzzled. “Where did you get that?” she asked. Yendor did not answer. He knew he was risking expulsion. “Yendor.” Sapphosia said, “Where did you get the sword of the Crescent moon?”
“What?” he said. “It’s just a sword.”
“No. Yendor, this is an ancient sword. It was last told of being in the lands of the south. In Wysteria. This sword has slain dragons.” she said. She took it and he let her. She studied it. She must be mistaken. It was just a sword that sorcerer was going to beat that kid with. She got out her dagger from its place at her desk. It flashed in the candlelight. She prized out the diamond. She held the cold gem in her hand for a moment and looked at Yendor. She shook her head. “This is wrong.” she said. She held it up and examined it. The back was flat. “What have I done?” she said to herself.
By the time the two of them were dressed, it was going on midnight. They dared not light the lantern until they were well away from the wizardary. It took about an hour to get to the market square in the daylight. They would be lucky to get back before dawn. And where would they find the tea monger? How would they get him to give up the amethyst? If they offered him the diamond, he would know its value exceeded anything he had ever owned. Worse, he might deduce that they were wizards.
The Hall of the Palace Guarde was an ancient an honored place. It was made of stones hewn from fine quarries from all over the archipelago. The outer walls gleamed with the naturally occurring sparkle within the marble, and granite. The inner rooms were inlaid with rare and exotic woods. There was a library with priceless tomes of Immaculate pedigree. There were private rooms for conferences downstairs and upstairs rooms to accommodate the weary traveler, also of Immaculate pedigree. The high ranking and well to do officers of the Elite Sorcerer’s army came here to impress each other with their accolades and fine acutrements. The jeweled swords they wore had mostly never seen battle. More important even than impressing each other, these fine weapons served the purpose of impressing the officers with themselves.
Weapons crafted by Stradivarious, or Fabrige, there were rapiers, dirks, broadswords, spathas, cutlasses and scimitars. Many carried lengthy stories of the exploits of previous owners; sorcerers, brigands, princes, slayers of hideous beasts. One such weapon was the blade of the crescent moon. Fashioned into its rain guard was a jewel: a diamond in the shape of the new moon. It was a long, thin, double edged blade.
The fable went that it was among the first of the thin bladed swords that would come into fashion in the centuries to come. It was fashioned to be lightweight, fast but able to stand up to sparring with heavier blades. Currently, its handle was a leather wrapped around a sturdy iron hilt. The blade had been used by pirates, princes, sorcerers and thieves.
Its current owner, Captain Branghost, had acquired it in a shop while stationed in the farthest reaches of the archipelago in the south east. He had been searching for a blade that was both beautiful and legendary. There were fancier swords, bigger swords, more expensive swords, but few had such a distinguished pedigree. The captain had never used in combat. Whenever he had to go into the field, he used a regulation bastard. This sword was for the Hall. The captain came here when he could. He liked to be around the elite. Of course there was no “Royal Guard”, nor had there been since Incarnate had become Sorcerer Supreme. There was no higher rank in all of Fawn of the Ta Sea. The kings and queens had all bowed down to Incarnate as he defeated island after island. Here on Fawn, the Hall and the Palace had become the sorcerer’s headquarters. It was said more plans were laid at the Hall. Incarnate himself traveled extensively and was rarely here. His own castle, the Black Keep, was Incarnate’s home and he spent most down time there. Incarnate rarely held court, though when he did, he came to the Palace here in Fawn.
Captain Branghost finished his brandy, which had been served to him in a jeweled goblet. He stood at the bar a moment longer, looking at himself sidelong in the polished silver mirror on the wall next to the bar where he stood. His dark mustache was loosing its curl on one side and the captain decided it was time to call it a day. He smiled at his comrades, most of whom smiled back. The captain, like many the the elite “Midnight order,” had a backstabbing reputation. It would not do to cross him. He was zealous in his work, which was collecting zeros as he referred to the riff raff that filled the prison camps. They were the rebels, the undesirables, the homosexuals, the deviants, the poor, the darks, the malformed. There were so many. The problem was they were allowed to exist on the fringes, breeding like vermin. They had to cross some line to be erased. The captain was given broad discretion when it came to determining what that line was, but still, they seemed to come in unending supply.
The captain stepped out into the night to discover a cold drizzle had come on since this afternoon. He wrapped his cloak about him and set off for home. He began loose his cheery disposition as the rain crept inside his uniform. Like most officers, he wore the helmet d’shon, which showed his rank and caused everyone he came into contact with to show him great deference. It’s size prohibited the captain to don the hood of his cloak and did not offer him equitable protection. He was debating taking it off so he could put his hood on and so was deep in thought when he collided with someone on the street.
“Look where you’re going, you oaf!” he said, without really looking.
“Beg your pardon, sir!” said the young boy, who was about to flee for his life.
“Stand to, boy!” said the captain in his captain’s voice. “Where are you going in such a rush?”
“Oh, home, sir! I just wanted to get out of the cold.” The boy was dressed in rags, no cloak or coat, his face filthy. He was skin and bones.
“You think you can just run into an officer of Incarnate’s elite and expect to go home unscathed?” bellowed the captain, warming to his sudden evening’s entertainment.
The boy fell to his knees, “Please, sir, I’m just trying to get home! I meant no harm.” He clasped his hands together, pleading. Pathetic.
Captain Branghost was already bored. There was no spirit in this one. He pulled his sword, unsure if he was going to beat the child or run him through. The boy saw the sword and let out a scream that immediately gave the captain a headache. He raised his sword, still unsure how he would employ it, when he got a surprise. A lithe figure, dressed in black, stepped between he and the boy. Things were looking up again. The intruder wasn’t more than a boy himself.
“Well, let’s hear it!” said the captain. “‘Oh, let the poor boy go! He’s just a boy! He’s unarmed!” Here the captain employed what he thought of as a stage woman’s voice. He was already telling this tale to his friends in his head.
The brigand drew his sword, slowly, still silent. It was chipped and without any shine. The edge was probably as dull as the finish. Captain Branghost smiled.
The captain brought his sword down, aiming for his opponent’s blade. He assumed he would chop it right in half, but the lad was quick and parried by catching the attack at the cross guard. Then he kicked captain Branghost in the stomach. The captain staggered back but recovered quickly. Probably this ruffian had been in a scrape or two but he had never faced a captain in the elite army before! Branghost stepped back into the fray slashing at his opponent furiously, never giving him an opportunity to take the offensive.
Branghost decided the boy had no formal training but had learned to handle himself, probably on the streets. He must be a thief. Perhaps a highwayman. The boy they were fighting over was long gone. If he did have a home to go to it wasn’t in this district. The boy was probably homeless and was a cut purse. Maybe these two were working together to rob passersby, and they had made the wrong mark.
The captain could tell his foe was desperately looking for an opening, so he decided to give him one. He pretended to slip in the rain and feinted left as if he were losing his balance. The fool went for it and lunged. Branghost pulled the thief by his wrist, using his own forward momentum against him and throwing him off balance. He placed his blade at the whelp’s neck.
“Say ‘goodbye,’ zero.” He said.
Instead of his foe’s eyes filling with fear as he had expected, they grew furious upon hearing this. No matter, just a moment…
Suddenly, there was a searing pain in the captain’s calf. The thief used the moment to break free. He had turned his sword down and stabbed Branghost in the leg, even as his sword arm was pinned. Treachery! The time for banter was over. The cut wasn’t deadly but is was more than a scratch. It was hard to put weight on that leg now. He held his blade up and waited for an attack.
Zero. That’s what the man who had taken Danse had called them. They must be from the same regiment. Yendor could see that this man was a superior swordsman. He had gotten careless with his feint, but Yendor wouldn’t get so lucky a second time. The officer was extra cautious. He was hurt, but not badly. Yendor was under strict orders not to use magic or he could expose the coven. They only ever practiced in their cavern where they couldn’t be detected by the sorcerers. The wizards would be furious that Yendor had even defended the boy at all. Keeping the coven safe was their highest priority and not even the life of an innocent boy was worth exposing them. They dreamed they’d save humanity one day, but how no one knew.
Yendor had stabbed the guy’s left leg so Yendor circled to his left, forcing the man to reposition that leg repeatedly. Yendor feigned an attack a few times but the officer was not fooled. Yendor felt energy flowing through him as when he had during the concert. He realized he had never held back before. He wasn’t sure that he could. It would be better to do it on purpose than let it come out accidentally. His back was actually burning now with the unreleased force.
Branghost could see the boy trying to figure out what to do next. He was preoccupied. He might not get a better opportunity to attack. He lunged and thrust at Yendor’s chest, and Yendor, surprised pointed his sword at the officer and a bolt of lightning pulsed from it, striking the captain in the chest. The captain fell to the ground, smoking. Yendor saw the sword. It was beautiful. He had never seen anything so beautiful. And now it was his.
As far as Yendor could see, he was the only witness to the parade. The sun had come out and shone upon them in that way that looks like a blessing from above, streaks of sunbeams spotlighting the park. They had staves topped with crystals, some glowing, others plain. Their holy garments were trimmed with sigils of unknown meaning which gleamed in the light. The procession came complete with choreographed gestures and chanting in archaic languages. It was glorious. One man held a brass pole atop which flowed two banners hung from a crossbeam. One banner was a deep blue with a dragon etched in gold, the other was a brilliant orange with a tiger outlined in black embroidery. One kept time on a drum while another accompanied with a flute.
When they were done, the one in red, who had winked at Yendor, turned to him and gestured for him to join them. Yendor came out and walked to them as if in a trance. His very being felt like it was covered in pins, he tingled all over. His ears were hot. The sensation was similar to when he had met Danse.
“We don’t usually have an audience.” Said the man in red. “I’m Nicholas. These are my compatriots.”
“We shall have a feast, which is only symbolic, I’m afraid. And then we shall have another procession. Will you join us?” His smile was warm and genuine, and Yendor had not seen one in a long time. Even the Solstice folk had not seemed so welcoming.
“Aren’t you late?” Yendor asked.
“Not at all. The ancients kept a different calendar. We go by the old ways.” A table had been set up and the food was being laid out. It wasn’t a lot, but it was fancy. Cheeses, expensive meats, wine.
The conversation Yendor wanted to have was dangerous but what choice did he have. He had been taught his whole life not to talk about such things. He had nervously talked with Danse about these things, but that seemed almost a lark between friends. This felt official, but he had to do it. “You’re wizards.” He said.
Nicholas said nothing, but his smile did not falter.
“I am also. That is I want to be.” Yendor felt very hot. He voice trembled and he shook a bit.
“Are you now?” said the man in purple. Like Nicholas, he had a beard. They appeared to be of an age.
Suddenly Yendor felt like a child being questioned by an elder.
“Yendor, this is Konstantine.” said Nicholas. Konstantine did not have Nicholas’s smile.
Yendor remembered his actions at the detention camp. He looked around and came to his senses. He could probably take these old men if they gave him trouble.
“I am.” He said with confidence.
“You’re a wizard if I say you are.” said Konstantine sternly. Nicholas seemed to demure to him.
“When I was born, I was delivered by Gwenchlan. Who told my parents I was to be a wizard. Do you gainsay him?” Yendor said. He hadn’t meant to speak like that. He wasn’t sure where that came from. Had he ever even said the name aloud before?
“He has a tongue, this one.” said a woman wearing blue and silver. She didn’t sound critical, but amused.
A man wearing a claret color stepped in. “Where did you hear that name, whelp?” This one was hostile. Yendor knew how to respond to that.
“My master told me, as I was given up to him upon the news.” Yendor stood a little taller.
“Speak to us with respect, or not at all!” demanded the wine colored wizard, imperiously.
Yendor was ready with a retort, when Konstantine intervened. “That’s enough.” he said. “I’ve not heard the name Gwenchlan in an age. It is not well known. How did you find us, then young Yendor?”
Yendor calmed himself. He had had little interaction that wasn’t violent in some time. “I sought you out. I came from Elphendor here to dawn to the library to find clues. The song of the Goddess, told of the parade of the solstice. I reasoned that since these traditions were popular in ancient times but no more, that they were wizard traditions. It was coincidence that it took me so long to find the right clues that it was time for the solstice.”
“There’s no such thing as coincidence, boy.” said the woman in blue.
“He is a spy!” said the claret colored one. “We are found out! This foolish adherence to tradition has been our doom!”
“I’m not a spy. I am a wizard. I need training. My power is unmanageable.”
Nicholas laughed at that. “What power is that, young wizard?”
“He has no power.” Claret said.
“Be quiet, Ambrosius.” Said the woman in blue. “I am Sapphosia.” She said. She produced a red crystal from within her garments. The coven took a step back, seemingly anxious at seeing it. “would you hold this crystal? It is the root, the muladhara. It is the beginning.
“Fool! You act impetuously. We must fly before his sorcerers arrive to destroy us forever!”
Sapphosia rose to her full height, stretched out her arms and held her scepter topped with a matching blue crystal which was now glowing furiously. “I said quiet!” So brilliant was the glow that beyond it all seemed dark. All the coven bowed before her. After a moment all returned to normal. Yendor’s heart beat within his chest. What have I gotten into? he thought.
She turned to him, smiling, to calm him. “Will you take the stone?” she asked.
He took it from her.
“Can you light it?” She asked.
The crystal was the size of a pebble. Yendor closed his fist around it, unsure how to proceed. He opened his hand and held the crystal aloft. Nothing happened.
“You see, he is a fraud!” hissed Ambrosius. Everyone glared at him.
Yendor strained, but still nothing happened.
Ambrosius could hardly contain himself. He shook his head. Yendor could hear the winter birds chirp in the nearby trees as the seconds passed. Some of the wizards shifted the weight from one leg to another.
Finally, Ambrosius could take it no longer. “He is a nothing! He dooms us. Let us forget our task and tarry here no longer.” Ambrosius moved to snatch away the stone and as he did, Yendor’s temper flared. A bolt of lightning came down from the sky and lit the stone a blinding white. Ambrosius leapt back in the nick of time. “Sorcerer!” he said, pointing.
“You see, I have trouble controlling it.” said Yendor.
Another woman, wearing brilliant white with white shiny sigils trimming her garments came forward. “May I?” she asked. Yendor nodded. She took the stone, which shone still. “It is not hot.” she said. “Yendor, I am Hildegard. We are the Coven of the Sacred Deer. Perhaps we are all that is left of the wizards.” She gestured to the others. “You have met Nicholas, Ambrosius, the priestess, Sapphosia, and our leader Konstantine. In the orange is Brigitte, wearing yellow is Tertullian. That fellow clad in green is Isidore. In the black is Aphrahat. He looks gloomy, but his harp and his cooking will bring you warmth. In the indigo is Taliesin. Wearing forest green is Ygraine.”
“That is eleven.” Said Yendor. “I thought there was supposed to be twelve. Plus the devil of course for thirteen.”
“The Goddess is thirteen. It is the evil one who calls her the devil.” said Sapphosia.
“Perhaps you will be our twelfth.” Said Hildegard.
Hours later, Yendor was still deep in thought, puzzling over the mysterious poetry from the library. It had taken weeks to get to the city, days to find the library through the labyrinthine and decaying old city, and days upon days longer still, sifting through endless, seemingly meaningless clues, to finally find something that felt like a clue. The wizards had set the winter solstice up a high holy holiday. They had worshiped a goddess, now only recognizable in an archaic greeting and the questionable etymology of one of the days of the week. But when wizards ruled the land, she had been the main diety.
Yendor knew as a musician, that many things we take for granted have ancient meanings, often laying just below the surface, not even hidden, just disregarded as myths, or tails for children. When searching for clues, sometimes even the apocryphal stories could lead somewhere; the old solstice was celebrated on an astronomical mistake: the sun was thought to reach its lowest azimuth of the year, and reach a standstill. The ancients calculated the day they could observe for certain that a change had occured: three days later than the actual solstice which could be calculated with more advanced equipment for Celestial observation. The correct solstice date had been referred to as “New Solstice” to differentiate from the “old solstice” the ancients used. Most people nowadays assumed “New Solsice” referred to the “renewal” of the year, when the days begin to get longer again. Yendor was unsure how any of this could help him find a coven of wizards. There were always rumors about them, but there were rumors and superstitions about so many things. Who knew what was real?
It had long since grown dark, and Yendor had simply been wandering the streets lost in thought. He realized he was hungry and decided it was time to eat and find his way back to the inn. It had started to rain around sunset and he had put up his cloak’s hood and buried himself deep within. It was a chill drizzle that had slowly insinuated itself into all the openings unprotected by the cloak. Yendor pulled back the hood to get his bearings and though the city was decaying everywhere, it became clear that this was not a good neighborhood. There was garbage in doorways and people huddled next to it.
Bone weary and wet, Yendor began to look for a place to eat, maybe to settle down for the night, and find his way back to the inn by the library in the morning. Yendor had been walking all day, everyday since Danse was taken prisoner, and had spent much of his life walking from town to town. He had covered quite a distance simply wandering the city since he had emerged from the depths of the library and he had no idea where he was. A large, gray man with a large gray jaw stepped from behind an old building and barred Yendor’s path. “Purse.” Grumbled Grayjaw. No preamble, no pretence, just a straight demand. Yendor froze. A traveling musician is a constant mark for theives; they are always strangers, they always just got paid (except when they hadn’t), and they weren’t famous for fighting skills. Yendor had been training his fighting skills for months, like a neverending boot camp. Plus, he was a wizard. Yendor hated street theives.
“Do you not see my sword and my dagger?” asked Yendor in a disgusted tone.
“They don’t look like they’re worth much. Just the purse.” said the theif, clearly unimpressed.
Yendor hated being underestimated.
The theif was close, so Yendor went for his dagger. Yendor was fast, but the burly man was faster. He had Yendor’s wrist and was in the process of breaking it off before Yendor knew what was going on. Lightning came from the sky found Yendor’s long, thin dagger as a rod and struck them both. They were knocked back from each other, Yendor with both wrists, but one less dagger. He had his sword out and his pounding heart was telling him to strike but he mastered himself and held. assessing the situation.
The theif had his sword out and if it had had a jaw it would have been square. his sword was large and wide. Yendor had never seen a blade like it. It could probably cut through Yendor and his sword in one swipe. Yendor had spent many nights strengthening his sword with magic, and he sent a bolt of energy through now to reinforce it again. Yendor could see that even if his blade remained intact, the big man would ring him like a bell. The rain fell along the big man’s form as if he were made of stone; slipping and sliding down crags and cracks. He smiled finally, and lifted his blade to back swing it down, forcing Yendor to parry backhanded, which he did with both hands. The blow did indeed ring like a bell, bringing Yendor to his knees, but the blade held and so did the block. Yendor slid his sword free and stepped back and up. He brought in a quick stabbing thrust under the big blade, but it was easily knocked away.
Yendor had killed several of Incarnate’s men in a much shorter time, but he had never come across a guy like this. Yendor put his sword in his left hand and held out his right. his dagger jumped into it from where it lay in a puddle. Yendor twirled each blade in his hands and then tossed them up to switch. His sword once again in his right hand, he thrust again, quickly hoping he had distracted the theif, but the craggy man swatted Yendor’s thrust away realizing too late that the thrust too had been a distraction, and Yendor used the opening to throw the dagger left handed at the man’s neck. Grayjaw had dodged but not fast enough and the blade cut into his neck as it flew by. Danse had always said to aim for the center mass, because you’re more likely to get a hit, but Yendor had been so sure he could make the short throw fast and acurate. And so he had, but that mountain man was so fast. He was bleeding though.
And furious. He yelled and began swinging wildly at Yendor in a rage. Yendor tried to back away as he blocked blow after blow, but on came the big man, cursing and bleeding. Yendor finally had a moment to send an energy blast at his foe. The energy came up from the ground and down from the sky and into Yendor where it centered in his chest and blew out his arms and twined from them into one thick blast that pulsed green between them for a moment before it hit the big man and knocked him back into the next building across the alley, skittered along the morter between the old bricks and dissipated back into the ground.
Yendor approached and saw the sword was blackenned, probably fizzured internally. The man had been thrust into the structure, causing a hole in the corner where the beam had been split, bricks had been blown away and he was unconscious, his wound apparently cauterized by the blast. Yendor couldn’t believe he wasn’t dead. He couldn’t believe they weren’t both dead.
Yendor walked back to the inn by the library without further thought of finding somewhere else to go. Once there, he ate his dried rations, washed in cold water, and fell into bed asleep.
Yendor had puzzled over the clues he had gleaned at the library. The songs, the maps, the fragments. It seemed clear that the old winter solstice celebrations had been important to people in a way that was no longer true. There was still a parade and gift giving, but it was no longer the most important day of the year. It also seemed obvious that the city itself, had been one of the centers of the wizards culture. In modern culture, sorcerers were the champions of good, and wizards had been irradiated because they were evil. Yendor had come to realize that this was the opposite of reality, but many people who just wanted to get through their lives with as little trouble as possible, and eek out what little joy they could never learned the truth. Incarnate had been so successful in erasing the truth that there was little left. The city had a reputation as a haunted, evil place. Yendor suspected that the reason for its reputation was its association with the old ways.
In the old center of the city, which had been long abandoned and lay in decay was field known as “Procession Park.” Yendor guessed that this was where the Winter Solstice parade had been in the old days of the wizards. Winter itself was setting in and though Yendor disliked the city, he decided that if the wizards still held any of the old customs it would be that one. Unable to afford staying at the inn until the day of the Solstice, Yendor found a homeless camp in the ruins near the park and pitched his tent. Most of the camp dwellers were beggars with no way to make a living and at first Yendor feared leaving his tent to forage for food. He kept to himself and avoided contact with the beggars. He was however, among them, and though they were grimy and haggared, he soon realized that they were just people.
One day, as the cold became worse, Yendor went out to get some wood for a fire and see if he could get a squirrel of a rabbit for dinner. His path crossed a ragged woman whom he pretended not to see. She greeted him, and when he appeared not to hear she shook him by the shoulder. “You there! I’m talking to you, boy.”
“Good day, ma’am,” he said.
“‘Tis too cold to be out in that thin cape.” she said. “I’ve seen you, shivering as you go out to hunt, to proud to beg.” Yendor hardly listened as he tried to find an excuse to escape. “I’ve had this shirt of my son’s since he died last year and I think it might fit you. You need it more than me.”
Yendor looked at the old woman for the first time. She held out an earth colored, heavy knit shirt. It wasn’t fancy or new, but it did look warm. “Thank you, Ma’am.” he said. She nodded and went on her way. After that, Yendor didn’t mind leaving his tent, and he greeted the others and passed the time of day with them.
Many were travelers like him. They had come for the winter solstice parade, too. No one minded such rabble, they said.
On the eve of the Solstice, it snowed a cold, wet snow that turned to slush quickly and then to mud. The gray, bitter sky hid the sun on its shortest day, but at noon, the parade started. The beggars sang, and threw confettee, and wore garish colors.
Yendor waited for the wizards to show themselves, but only the beggars were at the park. Once, near the end of the parade of rabble, as they began to lose steam, a few children showed up with a dog, but seeing the odd parade, they left.
Afterwards they all shared hot soup and gave each other trinkets. By now, Yendor was one of them. He had made the children toy animals from pinecones and bits of cloth from his summer clothes. He gave the woman cup he’d made of blue stone he’d found. She smiled at such a gift. There had been magic that day, just not the kind Yendor had expected, and despite the good cheer and festivities, he was disapointed. “Oh well.” said the old lady. “Nowadays you have to find your own magic.” He hadn’t revealed his secret, so he wondered at the expression.
The next day, they all slowly packed up and moved on their separate ways, promising to meet again the following year. By nightfall they were gone and Yendor was alone in the strange place in his strange shirt.
Yendor lay by his fire, unable to warm himself. He had tried to use magic, but that power eluded him. He thought, perhaps the wizards had concealed themselves as beggars and his failure to deduce this earlier resulted in them leaving him. After all, how would they know he was a wizard? He assumed they would be able to tell, but he couldn’t tell, so why did he expect they would be able to? He fell asleep cold and alone. More alone than even the night Danse had been captured.
The next day Yendor woke sore and cold. He lit a small fire and thought about his next move. He had no motivation. He had failed. He had invested so much time into finding some clue to guiding him to a wizard’s coven, trekking to the city, finding the library, God, that had been a nightmare in itself.
Yendor tried to keep a low profile at all times. He wanted to be invisible. He didn’t use magic unless he had to. He didn’t talk to strangers unless there was no alternative. He didn’t even want to be seen under his hood. He kept himself looking as nondescript as possible, His cloak was earth colored his clothes were dark. They weren’t ragged, but they weren’t especially nice. He even worried that his pack stood out. Many wanderers had similar packs, dressed exactly like Yendor was dressed; he was a non entity.
He had finally, had to ask directions to the library after wandering around hoping for a street sign or some clue, but what could be the harm in asking? It turned out that many people didn’t know, so not knowing didn’t make him stand out. Wanting to know did. People gave him strange looks. He began to get paranoid. Finally, a city official, Incarnate’s representative, a constable, stopped him and asked him straight out, “Are you the vagabond looking for our library?”
Yendor’s heart learched. This guy was burly, and had a professional frown. His uniform was impeccable; brass shined, everything straight and lined up. This guy took note of fine details.
“Yes, sir.” Yendor said. If he were caught lying the officer would really suspect something.
The big man looked Yendor up and down. His frown seemed to lead the head in turning this way and that. “Other side of town. About five miles.” he pointed. “Spiraling central tower on a hilltop. Can’t miss it.” He turned dismissively to more important matters.
Yendor headed in the nondescript direction he had been pointed to.
Then he had searched the library, gotten into a deadly fight, and for what? Nothing. That’s what. Yendor fished out his kit and began sewing repairs on the tent. He had to keep it in good repair in this weather. It was beginning to aquire a patchwork quality. He decided to pack it up and head out. There was no point in hanging out here anymore. Perhaps once on the road, he would get an idea what to do next.
As he trudged off towards the nearest road out, he passed a small group heading in. Neatly appointed, as if for a meeting or a convention. One man near the end of their line caught his eye and winked at Yendor with a smile. His bright red coat gleaming under his cloak. Definitely coming to town for some celebration. Yendor hung his head. These people had it together. Not like Yendor. They were organized. Marching into the park like some parade of fancy woodsmen or some such.
Yendor walked about another fifty feet before it struck him. A parade? In the park? He turned to see them stop right where Yendor had been camped, and set up a tent quickly and efficiently. They put all their extraneous belongings in it, and grouped together. They were dressed in bright colors now that they had removed their cloaks. Purple with gold trim, red with white fur, blue and silver. They began dawning capes and hats. The most unusual hats: one had four corners with a ball on top, one came to an arched point at the front. One was conical with stars and moons on it. Fucking stars and moons! One got out a large brass ball with decorative holes in it attached to a chain. He put burning incense and began to swing it around.