The Quarrels of Mages and Men

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Chapter Twelve - Arrival

They’d been walking only a short time before she saw where the trail was leading. They stood at the top of the hill Alida had sat upon petting the bear. Of course it leads there, she thought. The path of blood turned conveniently into the thicket that haunted her the night before. Why does it have to be there? She could still feel the vines that had gripped her neck – dream or not.

Kasall looked happy when he noticed the direction the path was taking them. Alida could tell that he was excited by the idea of adventuring into the woods, but she worried that the hole would consume the three of them.

“Let’s wait here for a few minutes,” Catherine said. “This looks like as good a spot as any to rest. Ali, this is where you came with Kasall, right?”

She nodded to her mother.

“Where did the bear stand? You said you befriended a bear,” her mother continued. She looked less believing of Alida’s earlier story, yet clearly wanted to indulge the young mage.

“It was sitting by that tree,” she said, pointing at a tree with vibrant purple leaves. Her mother glanced at the tree with a look of confusion for a moment. Alida wondered what she was thinking about, but realized she must have been confused by the tree. Alida had been, too. She had never see a tree of that colour, and figured that it must have been a rare type of tree.

They ate a few of the berries they’d been given by Jere. Kasall looked anxious to keep walking, as did Jade who paced around at the front of the trail of blood.

“Can we scale down the hill?” Kasall asked with an unwarranted excitement in his voice. “It’ll be faster than going all the way around.”

Catherine agreed that it would be the best way for them to go, much to Alida’s unvoiced behest. Her mother slid down first, dexterously, hopping off the side of the hill before the bottom, landing with her feet appropriately planted and touching the ground with one hand. Jade hopped carefully down on the sides of tree stumps and outward roots. Kasall went next, nearly falling a few times while sliding down, and tumbling over himself at the bottom.

“Good job, Kasall,” Catherine joked.

“Just another battle wound,” he said, shrugging.

Alida got ready to go down as well. She stared down into the seeming darkness at the base of the hill where her family stood. As she looked down, the darkness seemed to move toward her. The hill became taller and taller and her descent grew larger and larger. She readied herself to slide into the black pit beneath. She put a foot against the side of the hill and began to slowly move down it. She put her hands around a sapling in hopes that the tree, younger than she was, would be able to save her from her own poor balance.

Step by step she went down, far slower than her mother and Kasall. She took a similar path as Jade, but she found that she could barely see any of the branches and footholds the cat had used. It’s not always as easy to see, the words rang through her head as she gracelessly moved down the hill.

Eventually she reached the bottom of the hill. She was trembling slightly when she landed.

“Are you alright, Alida” Her mother asked. Kasall looked concerned, too. Alida nodded at her mother, but she was sure the look on her face didn’t reaffirm that. “The hill was steep, but we’re only a short distance from the entrance now.”

They walked to the entrance of the thicket. Alida froze before it. Seeing the blood proceed into the black thicket frightened her. She couldn’t say why. There was nothing to be feared about the thicket - she had Kasall and her mother, they had blades. She’d asked the bear to protect them and for some reason, Alida was certain it would. And yet, she was apprehensive because of the dream from the night before.

“What’s wrong?” Kasall asked. He seemed curious of her problem, but she knew he would not be nearly as understanding as she would have hoped him to be.

Alida didn’t want to frighten her travel companions. Jade had already run into the trees, chasing after a chipmunk, bemused by the hesitance in the party that accompanied her. Her mother went in first, while Kasall followed. Alida began to walk in and as she was swallowed by the trees surrounding her, all light faded around her.

She was in a void, traveling with little guidance. Faintly before her she could see Kasall in the faint light seeping from the ground beneath her. Their path was lit oddly by the blood. The trees that surrounded the three were raining. It’s not the sky, it’s the trees, Alida noticed. There is no sky, only leaves. The rain poured on them violently. The more it rained, the more humid it became in the woods.

“What is this trail made of?” her mother’s voice rattled out. It sounded to Alida as though her voice was bouncing back and forth toward her, coming from the front, ricocheting off trees behind her and coming back in front. But they were her mother’s words – that much she could tell.

Can the rest of them see? She wondered, afraid to ask. Is everyone else suffering like I am, or is it the magic that curses me? They mustn’t, or else she wouldn’t have asked that.

“Kasall, what do you see?” She decided to ask, figuring the question would be vague enough to prevent any worry in her travel companions.

“Very little, just the bloody trail,” Kasall replied. “Is this like your dream?”

Alida nodded. She then realized how useless that gesture was and spoke an affirmation. “Yes, brother.” She hoped he wouldn’t correct her. He didn’t.

“How much further is it until we all fall down?” He asked. She was happy about his attitude in this terrifying scenario.

“Not much,” she said, without any real knowledge of the distance. The three kept walking. Jade was running around jetting in and out of their legs, seemingly uninhibited by the lack of light. Cursed animal. Occasionally they’d hear the squeals of a critter as Jade mercilessly gutted it.

It was impossible for her to tell how far they walked. Each step they took seemed like progress, but at this point the path behind them was a black road with a streak of luminescent red down the centre.

After a few minutes they found themselves unable to move. Alida lurched forward and she worried that the family she could vaguely see before her was going to pull away from her without noticing. “What is this?” Catherine asked. “What is this magic?”

“Why, this is the only magic there is. Illusion, power, wisdom.” A voice boomed through the woods with a coaxing tone. “Who is it, now, that intends to impede into my domain?” The voice came from no clear point of origin. It was as if the voice belonged to the forest - they were inside the source of it. It resonated through each tree that surrounded them. It was everything.

“D-Do we answer it?” Kasall stuttered.

“I’m not sure, truly,” Catherine replied.

Alida shouted “It is I, Alida Jere. Who are you, fair guardian?” She hoped this would be the appropriate action. There was no reply immediately, and she felt uncomfortable. She decided to shout a command to the voice and take control of the situation. “The path of blood has shown itself to us, surely something wants us to be here.”

“You are both correct and incorrect, child. Who walks with you?”

“Kasall,” Kasall said. He didn’t take a last name.

“Catherine Jere,” her mother said.

“Poor child, you would walk with a liar in my domain? You do not truly think I wouldn't be able to perceive your friends intention, do you?”

Kasall lied, Alida thought. Kasall lied because he’s a Jere like I am.

The voice said no more, but the three of them remained bound to this spot. An unknowable distance before them, a light slowly approached. Not a body, just a light. It moved toward them slowly, the light source becoming larger and larger while somehow still not showing any more of the world than they could already see.

The figure carrying the light slowly came into the light. It was a silver figure. It had no clear form, but the light it carried was real, stemming from an oil lantern its immaterial hand held. She wasn’t sure quite how that worked - how a clearly illusory and permeable figure could carry a lamp. Surely the lamp should fall to the ground.

“Welcome,” the specter spoke. Its voice resonated around them. It didn’t sound like it came from the body itself, but from the world around it. It seemed bored. “Much time has passed since a visitor has come through these woods. Many years, many centuries. We’ve waited, patiently.”

Alida didn’t know what to think of this creature.

“Are you human?” Alida asked. “You look human, but you couldn’t be.”

Is that an inconsiderate thing to ask?

The specter before her raised the lantern to its face. There was nothing to see, no eyes or lips, just a white mess. It turned its head slightly and presented its silhouette of a visage. No discernible features were on its face, slight indentations where eyes once lived but nothing more. Its lips didn’t move. A keyring jingled around the specter’s waist.

After it reached them with the light, the area around them became illuminated. Alida looked down around her legs and saw vines had coiled themselves around her. Her mother and Kasall had met the same fate. The wall-like mass of trees that surrounded them on each side resembled a cave more than a forest. There wasn’t space between the trees - it was like wood and bark covered walls instead of an inhabitable woods.

“Once I was human, certainly. Now,” he shrugged,” let’s just say it isn’t as certain. I am a guardian of secrets,” the creature said. “You may call me a’Tellor, but - I suppose - you don’t have to. There is little reason to speak much to me, actually. In fact, after you do one thing for me, I figure you’ll forget all about me. The only time you must speak to me is during your testing. Boy, I’ll begin with you.”

Kasall cleared his throat and looked clearly uncomfortable, which Alida understood. “Okay, a’Tellor,” he spoke, pausing between the two words considering if the formality of acknowledgement would be necessary.

“What is your name,” the spirit asked.

“Kasall. Kasall Jere,” He spoke and Alida’s heart warmed.

“Yes, I suppose it is. Now Kasall,” he said, clearing his throat.

Does he even breathe?

“Why have you come into our woods? Surely you should have figured that no one is supposed to come into our woods, you know, that’s why they are so damn uninviting. Hell, if we wanted people in here, don’t you think we would have made it a bit nicer looking? Maybe hung up a tapestry from our decaying wall of trees?” a’Tellor spoke with a mix of condescension and disinterest.

“Well… well the path lead us here, and Alida said we’d need to follow the path.”

“Hmm, I see. Now you, Miss. What is your name.” a’Tellor changed his focus to Alida’s mother.

“Catherine Jere. I am Alida’s mother and intend to see her through these woods to help her understand her magic,” Catherine said, seemingly hoping to speed up the process of interrogation.

“Interesting you should think that, though I feel assuming this dank forest is the best place to learn about life magic is a bit of an assumption. Don’t you think so, Miss? Doesn’t that kind of suggest that, oh I don’t know, we couldn’t handle another type of magic here? What if this forest was the place to learn about death magic or fire? That’s a bit of an assumption there, miss,” a’Tellor said, losing the pretense of disinterest and striking with far more condescension. “I suppose you’ve answered me for now. And you, last girl. Who are you?”

Alida’s mother looked livid. She was certain she would spend the night hearing her mother complain about how “that damn ghost” treated her. Alida, just thought it was a bit funny.

“I’m Alida Jere, I told the loud voice that, too.” She spoke clearly to the specter.

“Yes, I suppose you did. Now Alida, what purpose do you have in these woods?”

She was caught off guard – she didn’t truly know why she was in the woods. The fact dawned on her that they were only following the trail of blood because it seemed like the right thing to do. Perhaps that’s what the specter was trying to convey. “I… the path presented itself to me. I have veins, I’m a mage, you see and… and apparently no one outside the forest knows about this type of veins, so I guess we just assumed that maybe someone inside would.”

“Hmm. Well, I suppose you may be correct, but if no one outside the forest knows about them, then how did you know to come here? Who told you this was the path to take?”

“I didn’t, but I figured it’s worth trying out. After all, if we know nobody outside the woods knows about it, but we don’t know about inside the woods, it’s worth looking into.”

She looked at her mother and as she did, the world went black again. She could no longer see her mother or Kasall. The specter had vanished and she could sense that there was something floating and flying around her. With a soft thud it landed in front of her.

She heard three voices speaking at the same time, but Alida could only focus on the words of one of them.

“What is life?” The voice spoke to her. Though she couldn’t hear the other voices, she knew their words were different.

“Life is what we’re living,” she said, thinking quickly on the matter. “You live and then you die, it’s a temporary thing I guess.”

“Is life the natural state of a human being?”

“Yes,” Alida said. “It has to be, since we can think and live while we’re alive, and when we’re dead we can’t do either”

“Think, then, of a mouse. Is it natural for a mouse to be alive?”

She was less sure about this answer. “I should think so.” The questioning creature was hard to see, a vague scramble of colour. She looked over to try and see what was bombarding Kasall and her mother with questions, and could see the outline of a person in front of her mother and a mist of sorts that enveloped Kasall.

“Then what is death?”

“The end of life,” Alida said.

“If that is so, then why would you claim life to be the natural state?”

Alida considered the spirits suggestion. Death certainly lasts longer, she thought. She very much feared death – she had her whole life. The byproducts of the battle surrounding her family’s inn had strongly shaped her view on mortality, and she dreaded the thought of dying.

“Because in death there is no more chance to consider the nature of life. Life ends and so too does thought.”

The swirling voice sighed. “You are wrong, but you will learn.” The spirit disappeared from around her. So, too, had Kasall’s. The figure of a man in front of her mother remained, however, and the voice it spoke with could now be heard. It didn’t speak in simple words and didn’t seem to be harassing her with questions – it was singing a mocking nursery rhyme.

“Poor little Ilya, the blade was too tempting. Fool children, all of them. Fools and monsters unknowing of the powers they hold.” The figure berated. It didn’t seem to ask her mother questions, instead just harassing.

Catherine swung at the spirit and it faded away. A’Tellor returned to them, and so too did the light.

“Good, you all should have learned about telling the truth by now. Come along, please, follow close behind,” He spoke briskly. The vines holding them in place loosened and the three walked forward, following the light of the specter. “Young girl, come to the front if you would.” Alida would, pushing ahead of Kasall in the dim lighting of the woods. “Ah yes, I can see why you were chosen,” he said, looking at her face. “I realize this is a very uncomfortable thing for me to ask you, being dead and all, but, may I feel them?”

Alida truly didn’t want a strange creature touching her face, and yet her curiosity regarding what a’Tellor was made her say yes. She wanted to know everything about this place, what this specter was, if it would be able to touch her or if it would move right through her. It did touch her, its hand tracing the veins on her face joyfully.

“My, you do have strong veins. The others will be happy to hear this,” he spoke. “You have that ring, yes?”

She looked at him with confusion, wondering how he’d come to know about her ring. Her body didn’t register her thoughts, however, and at the moment he said ring, her hand raised in the air to show it.

He kept leading them down the path, stopping abruptly after a few minutes. “Here, we’ve made it.” He spoke. “Look down, girl, and open it.”

As she glanced down, the light from the ghostly lantern showed the door beneath them. It looked like a gemstone, but it was alive. It matched Alida’s ring perfectly, a swirling green. She knelt down on it and rubbed her hands across it, hoping to see what it felt like. Nothing, she thought. It feels like nothing, and everything. It wasn’t hard, but it wasn’t soft. It seemed solid but pliable. As she pushed her palm into it, the door began to slide open, revealing a staircase leading down. At least we won’t have to fall, she thought.

She walked down, blindly following a’Tellor as the rest of her group did the same. They emerged in a well-lit room. Windows in the room showed a city around them. How? How can there be a city here when we’re underground? The room had a large oak table in it. Bookshelves lined every wall and filled the room with decaying oxygen. There were three people sitting around the table, slouched over it slightly. Their heads stretched out over it, quite dead, as far as Alida could tell.

“As you can see,” a’Tellor began, “there’s a bit of an issue with your desire to learn here. As it so happens your first lesson is going to have to be a rather abrupt one if you want to keep learning. Shock therapy, I guess it would be called.” In the light of the room, she could see that the specter seemed to wear clothing. Its face remained featureless, but it seemed to have a heap of robes and cloth hanging off of it. “Girl, if you look on the table, I’m sure you’ll find a book with some pretty direct instructions in it, yes? And beside that book, a phial of sorts?”

She looked at the table, and sure enough in front of one of the bodies head’s was the book and phial. She wasn’t sure if she should trust the suggestion of a ghost, but at the same time realized she didn’t have much of a choice.

The book was opened to a page. At the top, in clear letters read “RESURRECTION”. The instructions were scrawled in messy writing. She read them, and was surprised to not see them include an incantation of some sort. They all specified feeling a mood as opposed to performing an action. I’d just assumed it would be some words.

The book described the mood that Alida must feel. “A state of sorrow,” it said, “but with happiness and hope. A feeling of unending gloom with a silver lining.” She spent a few minutes contemplating this emotion. She thought of the people that she’d left behind and everyone she’d lost. She thought of Kasall and his missing parents, of Sim and his march north, of Lor and his loud sobbing. Then she thought of a reunion between herself and all those people.

After ten minutes of consideration, she drank the potion and thought it through. Nothing seemed to happen at first, but then she blinked. Her eyes didn’t reopen immediately, she sunk deep into her mind and could only see the three bodies on the table as she tried to evoke the described emotions. She could see the grasses and plants that existed outside, but her travel companions weren’t visible, except for Jade who stared at her bemused. She exhaled, seeing her breath spread and fill the room, moving to books that appeared as she looked around. Then her breath spread over the three dead women at the table. She opened her eyes, and eventually the three bodies in the room began coughing violently. They rose and walked in front of the travel party. Their eyes were shut, but they managed to line up perfectly with them.

Slowly their eyes peeled open. “How long has it been?” One of them asked. It was a woman, though Alida doubted whether the human attributes of it remained. “How long have we waited for you? We’ve been locked away in here since the ruling of Queen Alexandra, when the fires grew brighter and more violent.”

“Queen Alexandra?” Catherine asked. “She’s been dead for hundreds of years. Maybe five hundred, even. Long before the rebellion of salt. You’ve been dead for about five hundred years, miss.” Alida wondered how her mother knew history so well, and why she’d never shared her knowledge.

“Well, it could be worse I guess. It could’ve been six hundred.” the previously deceased said, smirking.

“Introduce yourselves, you fools, these kind people have come very far to meet you,” a’Tellor said.

The resurrected mage that spoke first stepped forward. “I am Rin. I was a student in this city years before the fall of magic. Beside me stands Eir and Kim. We studied under our elders. This city once represented the life giving mages for the continent. We have much to discuss, young mage. Much to discuss, and you have much to learn about your power. For the moment, however, I must go outside and bring back the city’s appeal. There is no sense ruling a city if it is empty.”

Alida stared at her, bewildered as to how this city could exist under, yet within, the continent. She wondered also how three women who had died five hundred years prior remained intact physically, and partially wondered whether their hair was as white prior to their death or if it that was a side effect of dying.

Most importantly, Alida wondered how she’d managed to resurrect them.

The three mages walked outside. Their veins were as vibrant as Alida’s. They were the same colour, but more like snakes, coiling around their master.

“Women, and Kasall,” a’Tellor spoke. “Come with me, I’ll show you to your rooms.” The specter guided them to an inn. Alida felt very comfortable entering such a familiar building. Inside there were three rooms all set up and ready for the tired patrons? How late is it? She wondered, they had no way of keeping track of time after entering the thicket and Alida realized now that she was very tired. The yawns emanating from her family suggested the same was true for them.

“Goodnight, Alida,” her mother said. Two simple words, nothing referring to the event filled day they’d had.

“Yeah, goodnight. We’ll talk in the morning, please, I’m really tired now. I can’t focus,” Kasall said. She was understanding and retreated to her room.

She took off her clothes and lay down in the bed. She began thinking of her day, and found it made her more and more tired. “Sweet child, are you still so certain that death is a constant state? Even after those three died, life thrived around them, and now life has returned ot them.” the voice from her interrogation spoke. She didn’t respond, finding herself lulled to sleep.

She dreamt that night. It seemed to be becoming a common experience for her in the night to have vivid, miserable dreams.

This time, Alida found herself sitting on a raft. The raft was made of three logs tied together with vines. The raft was afloat in a seemingly endless ocean. A large leaf filled her hand which she was using to paddle forward. Always forward, the wind spoke to her. Always forward, never back. The winds swirled around her and spoke a slew of words that were mostly incoherent to her.

As she paddled her raft forward, the water seemed to grow further. She had a pressing desire to look back at what she was moving away from but something kept her from turning around. She kept paddling.

A small island seemed to be to her left. She steered toward it. A man stood on it beside a single tree with purple leaves. “It’s not always as easy to see” the man spoke as she floated toward him. It was the rebel’s brother again, she noticed after the fact. This time, though, his veins were all exhausted and burnt out.

In front of her, there seemed to be an end to the water. It ended in fire, fire was her future. The sun was setting into the fire, and Alida wanted to stop her raft but seemed to be unable. She managed to look behind her and saw two hands pushing the back of the raft forward.

“Please stop,” she asked the man. He looked the same as the man from her previous dream. He smiled at her, his teeth were rotted and most missing from his mouth. He shook his head slowly at her.

He kept pushing the raft until they were at the brink of the fire, stopping abruptly at the border. He turned around and began to swim away, diving deep under the water and leaving Alida. “You have no choice, anyway” a voice called out to her. “It’s not always so easy to see.”

End of Part One

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