In the Hands of a Wizard
By Gerry Torbert
Darmon had walked many times through the main keep gates in the past, but no trek ever felt so heavy, so painful. He remembered playing games in and around the landscaping of the keep bailey, then through the wicket to the redoubts just outside, mimicking fighters of legend. He remembered climbing the rough quartzite blocks of the keep, fingers digging into the mortar joints, all the way to the machicolations, then squeezing through one of the larger murder holes to cries of "foul!" by his weaker friends. He remembered hiding behind the arcade--its continuous arch work offering ample cover for the budding fighters--and working his way arch-by-arch to his quarry, usually one of his cousins.
He never dreamed he would have to invade this, his home; and never in his wildest dreams did he think he'd have to do it to save his own people.
Slayer stayed calm and quiet as Darmon turned to the right to the main steps of the keep. A large structure, it was built as the final defense to any attack, and as such, was constructed with every type of death-dealing inconvenience imaginable. Darmon mused that if he wasn't careful, they could be used against one of its own--one of the very same people they were meant to protect; and probably its greatest hero at that. He climbed the first flight and opened the wooden door to the second floor, where his uncle Uilliam was resting.
He could see his uncle now; weak, thin and not the same man he knew as a child--or the same he knew just before leaving half a year ago. His beard was wispy, scraggly and fully white now, seeming to pull his skin back into folds from even its meager weight. His eyes were sunken now, and he was barely able to hold their lids open. His breathing was labored, as he worked to raise his chest only to let it fall under its own weight. The Clan Father he had grown to know and love was slowly dying.
One of Faugas' assistants was bent over Uilliam, administering a poultice of some sort to his forehead. Darmon recognized him from his apprenticeship as Hestor Donald, and the thin young man looked up when he heard the hero arrive. "Leave us, wizard-boy. My uncle and I 'ave things ta discuss." The apprentice was startled but bowed his head slightly, backed off, and walked briskly to the room in the rear of the quarters.
Darmon walked to Uilliam's side, slipped off Slayer's scabbard, stood his friend up against the foot of the bed and sat down, taking the old man's hand. "Uncle Uil, it's me, Darmon." The old man looked around slowly, apparently trying to focus on the blur above him. He squinted slightly, moving his head slowly to one side, then the other and slightly squeezing Darmon's hand. Suddenly, his eyes came alive with recognition and a slight smile came over his lips as he squeezed his hand as tightly as his feeble tendons could muster. "D-D-Dar..." His yellowed teeth bared in a Creagish grin that was mirrored in Darmon's eyes, and the younger man retorted, "Yes, Uncle, it's me."
Darmon looked down on one of the two men he had so respected and idolized all his younger life. It hurt him deeply to see him like this--he knew he'd die one day, as do all humans...well, all humans... but to go like this was never a Creag's wish. "I'm back now, Uncle. Things will be better, I promise ya."
But Uilliam's eyes grew wider as he glanced to his right, and a strange look of fear crept across his thin, stretched features. Darmon looked up to see Faugas walking toward them. On each shoulder was perched a bird--a crow to the left, and a hawk, on the other--somehow, the hawk looked familiar, but Darmon dismissed it--he intimately knew very few hawks. "Darmon, how nice. It's good that you could make it. I'm afraid your dear uncle is not responding as we'd like to our treatments, and it's fortunate that you could be here today." His demeanor, his speech, everything about Faugas seemed condescending, almost eerie. This was not the wizard he once knew...
Darmon seethed but resisted the attempts to say what he really felt--if his uncle was truly in the power of a spell, he couldn't afford to raise the ire of the caster. But something in him felt strange, as if he was being pulled in several directions at once. He strained to remain in control, however, and through clenched teeth, he managed to respond, "It's good that ya...been able ta...keep 'im in good stead, through whatever this is, Faugas." ...control, Darmon...that's what you need right now...I'm trying, Slayer...
Faugas smiled with an air of confidence. "Of course, hero--we've been doing our best. It seems to be a strange disease, but we hope we can find a cure." Then his features took a darker cast as he lowered his head lightly and looked strongly into Darmon's eyes. "Come now, young man. You know what's going on here, don't you? Your Creagish time is past, every one of you." A smile crept over his face; a smirk of demonic proportions, as he continued. "I'm sure that cursed God-friend of yours has told you--he's as frightened as your poor old uncle, laying there like a little child."
"That's the final stage, isn't it? We come into this world as meek, helpless children, and that's the way we leave it. He's only here because we need him--to bring you here, hero." With that, the crow left Faugas' shoulder and hovered three feet above the cold, stone floor. It began to grow a human head and feet, and slowly materialized as a human figure in a long, flowing robe. As his feet touched the floor, the rest of his body gained bulk, until a human wizard stood before Darmon.
The hawk did likewise, and within a minute stood at Faugas' other side. He now recognized the farmer--Dohmra--and realized from the description he had once heard that the frail, whitish wizard must be Claudius of Eahrcnoc.
Faugas then reached in his pocket and pulled out what appeared to be a mouse. He dropped it to the floor, but just before it landed it transformed at an even quicker rate into another wizard. "I'd like to introduce my friends, Emrus of Fuachdaimrig; Claudius of Eahrcnoc. and Dohmra of Airdbuain. You may have heard of them."
Darmon thought to reach for the tooth, but hesitated--the time for brash movement and pre-emptive maneuvers was past. But the same strange feeling he had earlier--that of being pulled or moved--pounded deep in his chest. He stood slowly, and the four wizards each took a few wary steps backward. He turned to his uncle and bent over him, kissing his forehead--as he did, the pouch of what was left from his encounter at Brian's castle fell out and landed by Uilliam's hand, seemingly of its own doing. He whispered, "Don't worry, we'll be okay," and grabbed his uncle's hand, directing it to the pouch, closing the old man's feeble fingers around it; raising, he smiled and winked at him.
"How touching, hero. Bidding your dear uncle adieu, eh? You don't know just how fitting a goodbye it is." Faugas raised his staff and brought it down in an attempt to point it at Darmon.
But the hero wasn't called a hero for nothing. He reached for Slayer, and the sword began to pull itself out of the scabbard. But Dohmra waved his hand, throwing the weapon to the side. An aura appeared between the four sorcerers, pulsing with their power, and Darmon knew this was the amplification that Tanarus spoke of so hesitantly. Faugas began to laugh.
Darmon knew it was now or never, and reached for the tooth. But a blast of lightning bolts from Faugas' staff made him release his grip, and Emrus reached forward and caught it before it hit the ground. Claudius then walked to the right and pulled power from the shroud of electricity, pointing to Darmon's chest and thrusting him against the thick, cold stone wall. Darmon was helpless to move, his arms pinned by the force; Faugas walked forward and chuckled as the air around all four crackled with the ionized particles.
"Now, Darmon, you didn't really think it would be that easy, did you? We know of the tooth's power, and I've know of your magnificent sword for years." Slayer quivered at the words, helpless to launch himself against the forces holding him down. Claudius walked forward and placed a hand on Faugas' shoulder, and as the Slaughbaethan turned to him, said to Faugas "Let me do this, friend--I've always wanted to prove I'm not weak." Faugas stepped aside and swept his arm toward the First in Line, and Claudius reached back, his hand and arm growing into a massive bulk of muscle. He let loose a haymaker that forced Darmon into an unconscious land of sleep.
* * * * *
Darmon awoke with the feeling of a cold, damp wall of stone against his bare back. Naked to the waist, his arms were held securely by stone that seemed to have grown around his wrists; he was shackled to a dungeon wall, his feet just able to reach the ground. "Ahh, sleeping beauty...you finally awaken. Seems Claudius has more power in one fist than all the orcs and oluks you've fought combined." Emrus stood facing him, wearing a smirk and mocking the prince.
Darmon managed a smile--one of desperation, perhaps--and couldn't help but chuckle. "'E's probably like the rest o' ya wizards; ya been beat up every day in school, ya 'ave no strength or guts, so ya latch onta some sorcerer an' try ta get even wi' the real men in the world. So, ya win round one, ya scrawny bastards. Where ya got me now? I dunna remember 'is place, an' I've been all through the castle as a whelp."
Emrus demeanor changed instantly to an air of indignation as he listened to Darmon's chides. "Some place you'll never get out of, heee-rooo. Faugas had us help build this dungeon over the last couple of months, while you were busy carousing all over Farland. It's so deep, no one can hear you scream--not that a heee-rooo would scream--and you'll be here to watch your proud race be scattered to the ends of Núrion.
You don't have your precious sword, and the tooth," he said, reaching into his pouch and producing the enamel trophy, "...is all mine now. Tanarus can't stop us; Uilliam is about to die; your father is under our power, Brian Caembuhl as well; Sulis is with us, and here you are, ready to thirst and hunger to death far beneath the rest. With nothing but a little gold trinket around your neck to keep you company! Sleep well, old man!" He turned and walked to the steps, laughing a heinous chortle that would have sent the hairs on Darmon's neck standing straight up, had he not reminded him...
He looked down to the necklace around his neck, with help from the minimal light from the torch Emrus had left in the sconce along the wall. Faugas hadn't taken everything from him. He closed his eyes and began to concentrate--the glob of gold-covered mithril began to glow...
* * * * *
Gloom'ozss sat on the rock ledge nearest the opening to Clagaa Sssala (Salystra's Cave), where he pored over an ancient scroll. The youngest Yuan-ti to have ascended to the rank of Oognah Scahaht, or 'Word-Giver', he was responsible for the dissemination of the religious beliefs of his people--for a long time during their separation, the bulk of the snake-like creatures were without his guidance--but now, he had a renewed vigor toward his calling. Behind him approached the taller figure of Klarm'suth.
Klarm'suth was the leader of the fifty-odd group of half-Drow, half-reptile beings who had long ago broken free from the Dark Elves who had created them. His mantle of leadership grew not only from his larger physical stature, but from his lineage--he was 'Egg of Klaggha'suth, egg of Gkaahck'suth', and so on back as far as he could recite. It was the duty of each Yuan-ti to remember his family tree and to recite it at the Oognah Cahsstak, the religious ceremony wherein each would share his lineage and refresh their vows to Salystra. And sacrifice someone.
"Mychh-ti (young one), you are preparing for Oognah; this is good. It is important that we are one again; I can feel our power growing, waking-time to waking-time."
The priest placed a finger where he was stopped from reading and looked up from the scrolls. "Yes, Gwank-ti, Salystra has been patient in our absence; she knew of our troubles and of our situation. But now, we have a healthy Drow fighter whom we can put through the cleansing pains written in the Toom Ssstk, here..." he said as he looked to the holiest of scrolls and pointed to a particular set of glyphs.
The elder reptilian looked down and followed his fingers, nodding as he squinted to better read the scriptures. "Yes, Gloom'ozss--those are my favorite words. But what is causing your ttka-ha to gleam so?"
Gloom'ozss looked down to the several necklaces that adorned his scaly neck--each one had a meaning and a special purpose--and grasped the one that pulsed with a yellow glow. Stunned, he held it up to Klarm'suth and searched for the words that might damn him--"This one, Gwank-ti, is one that is brother to the one I gave to Darmonstuart--I told him to call if he needed us."
A dark scowl grew over Klarm'suth's leathery face and he began to drool from the corners of his mouth in anger. "You gave him the gold ttka-ha? You were to give him the silver one, priest! We cannot watch our enemies with the summoner-ttka; you needed to give him the watcher-ttka!"
The holy man dropped the necklace and turned to the scrolls, unwinding them to a particular passage and pointing; "Read these words, Gwank-ti! They say, 'Power is the utmost goal; Conquer the world for Salystra; Those who are weaker than you are yours to do with as you will.'"
The leader frowned and retorted, "This has nothing to do with humans--they are weaker; helping them will not conquer the world!"
"Gwank-ti, Salystra also defines your enemies as those who are not of the egg--those who are not of the progression of life."
"Yes, priest; I know this. But what does that..."
"Gwank-ti, Darmonstuart is of the egg of Nurm'siss. They exchanged blood. I have seen it myself--his hand talks in Yuanoogna."
Klarm'suth began to deflate from a fearsome bulk of anger to his normally huge self, as his features softened. "You are interpreter of the scrolls, holy one. I hope you are not bending them to suit a purpose, for the sake of your soul in the eyes of Salystra."
Gloom'ozss nodded, "I have given this great thought, for quite a long time. We have to remember the teachings of old Yuan-ti, of the Oogtah nacccta--humans call this 'honor'--it makes what we say we will do, to be law. It was set many eggs past, to make us true to each other and be as one. It makes our promise a guide to our actions."
"Yes, I remember the teachings. But tell me, what is this mission, the nature of his trouble?"
"From what he said, the human wizards are adding their power together, and will take the power from the very sun, maybe from the very earth we live on."
Klarm'suth shrugged, "But this has not yet happened, has it? Why do we have to aid them? Let them fight their own battles."
"But if we wait, their power will be greater as fewer humans will oppose them. We should help now, before they can defeat even us. I am sure Salystra would not want us to wait, and would not want us to turn our backs on another of our blood."
Klarm'suth nodded, apparently striving to weigh the consequences. He was not easily swayed by others, and handled the great weight of leadership on his shoulders (even if those particular body parts were difficult to discern). But he possessed the deep and abiding respect and fear of Salystra, and relied heavily on Gloom'ozss to bring the teachings to light. "Very well; how are you planning to travel the distance to this Darmonstuart?"
The priest unrolled the scriptures out fully; another roll was inside, and he pulled this one flat on the table. "I've prepared a map. It skirts the Drow lands to the north and goes beneath the Sarumvest, here..." he said, tracing the path with a claw, "...and these caves are all known to be continuous. We can use our power to clean and open any places that are fallen."
The Gwank-ti followed the path and nodded. "Yes, I know these places. How many of us will you need?"
"I think that Darmonstuart is powerful, himself; if he is in trouble, then their power may be greater than just a few of us can defeat. We should take the twelve that he helped, Nurmm'siss and another youth I have in mind."
"Very well. Make it happen. I hope my trust in you is on solid rock and planted deep in Salystra's kingdom...for all our sakes."
Gloom' ozss turned to his map and began rolling it up. He was too embarrassed to tell his overlord that his cache of silver ttka-ha had come up missing...
* * * * *
Somewhere hundreds of feet below the fabulous castle of Slaughbaetha; further below a sky that had turned as black as midnight when it should have been high noon; deep into rock carved out by wizards who were beginning to think of themselves as gods, hung a man by his wrists in the dark. Too far underground to be bothered by rats and with the lone torch having flickered its last gasp, the damp air of a tomb filtered through his labored breathing. The lone necklace bearing a single glob of gold had long ago ceased its glowing, plunging this subterranean dungeon into a hellish cubicle of sensory deprivation. The gleam of psionic power stopped abruptly after half an hour, followed only by two quick flashes.
Darmon Stuart spent his hours changing between hanging on the wall and standing to relieve his aching wrists. His ability to regenerate and his inability to sleep were working in unison to drive what sanity he had from his soul. He alternated between believing that the walls were creeping closer to him, preparing to crush the life from his massive body; and imagining the walls moving outward, so that he would scarcely be able to hear an echo.
He thought of what was happening above ground, to his beloved land--he stove to drive the thoughts from his mind. He thought of the lovely Jonat; how her radiant beauty locked his gaze; how the smell of her hair burned his nostrils on the way to his brain; how her soft voice careened through one ear, then the other; how her kiss locked his lips. He imagined her now, running the best she could in her pregnant condition, alongside the rest of his clan, trying to escape the dark and the inevitable wave of vermin the collective of wizards would doubtless send their way.
He had no idea how much time had elapsed since he was knocked out; neither did he have any conception of time since Emrus left the room. To a man who cannot sleep, time is a useless concept.
To one so used to absolute nothingness, the small flicker of light in front of him felt like daggers in his eyes. It started as a swirl of ionized particles on the floor, as if some demonic fireflies were chasing themselves in circles. The swirls raised off the floor, followed by more of them as the room became brighter, and they began to form a globe. Darmon recognized his theatrics, his unending attempts to make a grandiose entrance, and began to laugh hysterically. It was a welcome sound, that of his own voice...
The globe levitated about four feet from what Darmon surmised was the floor, then a suitable body began to appear beneath it, constructing itself toward the stones, where simple shoes appeared. "Tanarus, if I could free me 'ands, I'd clap in appreciation o' the show!"
The sun god's hands went to his hips as he adopted the stance of one whose feelings were hurt. "You do me grave injustice, eternal warrior. It is the best that I could do, considering the circumstances above us."
Darmon ceased his mockery mid-chortle. "Me people, Tanarus--what's happenin' to 'em?"
"They are leaving, as the clouds of darkness sweep over the land. Your family is unhurt, but you're alone now, Darmon. You and your uncle."
"Uncle Uilliam? Is he...well, I don't expect he'd be able to get up an' run like the others. At least he's still...?"
"Yes, alive. I see that you couldn't manage to hold on to the tooth, or your sword."
Darmon nodded, "Yer right. They're just too powerful. I couldn't do a thing. Tell me, am I gonna die like 'is? No way for a warrior ta go, ya know."
Tanarus chuckled cruelly. "I think you will find a way out of this, Darmon Stuart, in your own braggadocio, your boisterous manner."
Darmon looked up with a glimmer of hope in his eyes. "You know something' I don't? I got stone manacles what grew around me wrists, Sun God. I could use a plate o' haggis, or a side o' beef right now. Me chances are nil. An' tell me, if you're a god, why can't ya fight back?"
Tanarus bristled a bit at the inference, but calmed himself enough to answer. "I am merely a demi..." he began, then seemed to catch himself. He started again, with a air of superiority. "When gods battle, they do so on a plane you would never understand, hero. At that point, we are equals. When you add the power of wizards commanding massive elemental forces, well..."
Darmon nodded. "Sorry, I guess I'm a little frustrated right now. Hangin' from a wall in the dark, an' starvin' your arse off, will do that to ya."
Tanarus nodded, then held a hand out and waved it over Darmon's stomach. "There, that will suffice--you won't starve, nor will you suffer from loss of strength, and you will rest, until the time comes..."
A feeling of well-being and strength overcame Darmon; a euphoria that he could sense from his head to his feet. He breathed a sigh of contentment and gazed at the god again. "What ya mean, until the time comes?"
"You'll know, and soon, my partner..." With that, the ions burst into a shower of particles that fell to the floor, sizzling as they bounced randomly and gave up their last bit of energy to the cold, unyielding stone. The room fell into the utter chaos of total order, once again.
"Nice talking' to ya, Tanarus," muttered Darmon as he fell asleep on his own for the first time in what seemed years.