May the Wind of Areni, Divine Avatar of Honesty
Blow through my mouth.
That I may gust forth with words of truth
As I recount the terrible deeds
Of five kings, cursed for all time
To dwell in darkness.
-- Thorodeus, Contra Divina
The sight of the palm trees rising up out of the desert wastes was a welcome sight for Aryk. He had been walking for the better part of the day in his armor, and the cuirass and armguards were starting to rub his skin raw with all the sand that had gotten under them. Even more welcome was the sight of a small shape coming up from the south: Naran, his son. He smiled as the shape took the full form of a ten year old boy waving eagerly at him. As he drew near, Aryk knew something was wrong. He could feel it in his feet; he could feel it in his soul. He ran up to the child, momentarily forgetting his exhaustion.
“I need you to guard this as if your life depended on it.” The voice of Aryk was tense as he handed a roughspun bag over to young Naran. His son had come to meet him at the Berin Oasis to help carry his armor. It was meant as the first step in training the boy in becoming a man, a warrior, and a mage; now it might be the end of them both. “Stay near the pool and do not leave the oasis no matter what you see or hear. Do you understand me?”
Naran nodded, clutching the rough sack close to his chest. The boy was thin and ruddy with curly hair just like his mother’s. Aryk chanced one last glance at the boy before he walked out towards the desert. There was no holding back; he had to put everything into the fight or his son would perish. Having just arrived at the oasis, he was at least fortunate enough to have his armor on, but the shield was another matter. It was still strapped to his back, and the three foot wide bronze hoplon was cumbersome enough that it would create an opening if he took it off and tried to put his arm through the strap. Instead Aryk checked the short sword with his left hand to make sure it would clear the scabbard and marched with his spear in his right hand out past the edge of the oasis and into the sand. As his sandals hit the dusty ground, he could feel every ripple, every tremor in the earth beneath his feet. Soon his foes would have a taste of his bronze and his magic.
It was no surprise when the ground burst up around him in little sand-filled plumes and four beings covered in thick blankets rose from the dirt. As the blankets fell by the wayside, Aryk could see the green, scaly skin and sharp fangs of the Reptile-people. Their yellow eyes narrowed as the four strangers hissed and spit at him, their curved blades glinting in the late afternoon sun. Reptilians were the scourge of the unwary, pillaging and robbing any who dared to brave the wastes of Sahdek. They must have followed Naran’s hapless meanderings with avarice, sensing an opportunity for plunder. Aryk took his spear into both hands and smirked at the green faces around him. If they had known exactly who they were trying to plunder, they would have moved on to a softer target. He would make sure they paid for the mistake.
When the first of the Reptilians came in, swiping low with its curved sword, Aryk stepped to the side to let the blow pass by. With his magic sharpening his sense of touch, he could feel the moment the Reptile had moved towards him and dodged the blow. With the floodgates opened, the remaining three came in for a strike, but Aryk was already moving to the open space the first had created. He came back with a lunge from his spear and skewered two.
The wounds weren’t fatal. One had taken it through the shoulder and the other had sustained a blow to the arm, but now Aryk had everything he needed. With a deep step he torqued the spear loose, flinging the two injured lizard men to the side and opening up the wounds as the shaft wrenched loose from their flesh. Blood trickled down their injuries as their two compatriots made a move for Aryk. He flung the spear back around, gripping it at the very edge to maximize the distance between himself and his attackers. They leapt back, and Aryk seized the opportunity. He grinned darkly as the markings on his armor and spear glowed bright red.
He estimated that he had three glyphs left charged in his armor. He had gone out with ten, but most had been used on the mission. He only had enough magic for one, he estimated. He reached out with his power, and the two injured lizards shot straight up in the air, frozen in place. This upset their compatriots. The two uninjured Reptilians were preparing for a quick pounce, so Aryk swung his spear around and flourished it in front of him. He had the space he needed to finally speak the incantation. His mouth opened, but his voice sounded empty and far away as he said, “Blood, hearken to your master’s call! Bend my familiar to my will!”
The Reptile with the injured arm swung his curved blade, beheading the other injured attacker. The two remaining Reptilians came in for the attack. Aryk lunged in, dodging the first blow, but the other opponent got the curved blade under the shaft of his spear. He kicked low, but only narrowly avoided the incoming blade. Aryk’s stance broken, the lizard man carried through to strip his spear away. He drew his short sword from its scabbard and sliced towards the enemy. His attack missed, but it created the opening for his familiar to stab the creature from behind. Only one opponent remained.
This remaining lizard had run past him after he had dodged its previous attack. It was now running headlong towards Naran, who stood stock still with his eyes wide. The boy was petrified, shaking in fear at the coming blade. With precious little time, Aryk dropped his sword, got his foot under the spear, and launched it straight into the air. Catching it in his hand, he hefted it like a javelin and lobbed it. It sailed in a perfect arc before sprouting through the final lizard’s chest. The Reptile ground to a halt at the base of Naran’s feet, dead. Picking up his sword from the sand, he sliced open his familiar’s throat before going to join his son. The boy was still frozen in place, his trembling arms clutching the bag tight. Aryk could see the wet trail of urine down the front of the boy’s tunic.
He bent down and put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Everything’s okay, Naran.”
The boy didn’t say anything for a long while. Finally he looked into his father’s eyes and calm spread over his body in a wave. He put his arms around Aryk and said, “You killed them all.”
“I did what needed to be done.” He removed the boy’s arms and looked at him directly, “A day may come where you will need to defend yourself or someone you love. You must be willing to fight and kill to survive. Sometimes that’s what life is, son.”
The boy nodded, clearly still scared. He looked over at the corpse near his feet, contemplating its green scaly complexion. “Where did they come from?”
“Reptilians build immense networks of tunnels and cities beneath the sand. No one knows how, but they can tunnel as fast as a man walks.”
“What did they want?”
“They’re bandits and thieves mostly. They were after the bag that you carry.”
“Is it treasure?” The child seemed to perk up at this idea, asking with near exuberance as the barest hint of a smile lit the corners of his lips.
Aryk smiled thinly, “The greatest treasure that there is.”
“Can I see?” The excitement had built in Naran; he wasn’t even looking back at the corpse now.
“Sure, let’s go over to the other side of the oasis. There’s a nice site there for us to set up camp.”
This took some of the wind from the boy’s sails, “We’re not going home?”
“No. It is too late in the day. The Reptilians wouldn’t be so foolhardy as to send another force to attack while the sun is out, but they might consider it when night falls. Better to be in a defensible position than be taken unawares after a long day of marching.”
“They’re scared of you, huh?”
“I am Aryk the son of Oran, consul and battle mage for Aendaral, the eleventh of his line and King of Pylomet and all who owe tribute to it. Everyone is scared of me.”
Reverence filled the boy as he looked at his father with fresh eyes. They hadn’t spent much time together: it had been an agreement between Aryk and the boy’s mother that he wouldn’t interact with Naran until the boy manifested the power of magic. This had seemed a sensible arrangement at the time. Those with magic were encouraged to have many offspring, after all, but not all bore the power. Looking at the only child he had ever conceived, however, Aryk momentarily longed for a life he would never get to have.
The boy spoke after a moment, “So when the lizard guy fought on your side?”
“That was battle magic. There are many kinds of magic, and we each have our own gifts. I specialize in the magic of the blood. If I have some, I can stop an enemy’s heart like a stone, make them dizzy, or even control them completely.”
“Then why not just wound them all and make them join us for the walk home?”
Aryk smiled. “Ah! There are limits to everything, young one. To take control of a living thing takes power, more power than you can imagine, more power than a person can safely pull from their body at any one moment. That is the reason these glyphs are carved into the armor: They store up the magical power called Animus I need for later.” They had reached the campsite by now, so Aryk took off his shield and the small pack of supplies beneath it. He planted his spear in the ground and removed his helmet, showing the carved glyphs in it as he did so.
“But how do you refill it?”
“I can either put a little of my own animus into it every day or fill it using this.” He had removed his cuirass now and flipped it over to show a strange, circular symbol that took up the entirety of the inside. It was blood-red and gleamed in the light of the late afternoon sun. Naran considered it with trembling fascination. “It is called a Dark Heart. It turns the energy of life and death into the energy of magic.”
“So when you killed those four Reptilians …?”
Aryk showed the boy his armguard. One glyph lit up weakly. “It took three glyphs to make the familiar, and four lives to fill up one glyph. So you can see, my son, there is always a heavy cost to magic. There is a great balance in this world. You must always mind it or you will find the world pushing back.”
“How does the world push back?”
“Those who overuse their magic are cursed. Those who use the blood for magic, like me, will be cursed to drink and live off of the blood for eternity. Those who use nature for their magic become like beasts themselves.”
“I don’t want you to be cursed and drink blood!” Naran’s voice was perturbed; he was clearly frightened by this prospect.
“That will never happen. The glyphs protect me from that. By using the energy from them, and not the energy from my body, I will never suffer a curse.”
“But what if …”
“Come, didn’t you want to see this great treasure the lizards wanted before we set up camp?”
“Oh yeah!” The boy was immediately distracted from the worry about curses. Aryk remembered being that age, when the problems of the world were easily picked up and cast aside again. Such a feat was not so simple to accomplish anymore.
He took the sack from Naran then carefully undid the string at the top. The boy gazed in with wonder as Aryk produced three, large scrolls from the bag. “They call this a Book.”
“What does it do?”
Aryk carefully took one scroll and opened it up, “The markings are used to store ideas. All a person needs to do is interpret the markings, then the ideas inside will be theirs to command.”
Naran gazed curiously at the scroll then timidly spoke, “That which is of a form must necessarily be comprised of three lesser forms within itself.”
Aryk was impressed, “You know how to read?”
Naran nodded, “There are signs in the marketplace. Mother taught me how to interpret the marks.”
“Tell me what the next line says then.”
The boy’s reading was very rough, but he slowly made his way through each word. Aryk corrected him as he went. “The first form is the shape of the thing, that which you can see and interact with. There is no purpose in the mind that can overcome the obstacle of bringing to be that which has no existence. That which is, is. That which is not, can never be.” Naran looked up from the book, “What is it talking about?”
“Magic. The first tenet of magic. We will read more later. I have promised the King that this book will arrive in perfect condition.”
“You’re taking it to the Library, aren’t you?”
“You know of it then?”
“Of course! All the boys in Pylomet talk about it constantly. They say that everything that was ever known lives there. Sometimes we even climb onto the roofs of houses and try to catch a glimpse of it from over the wall.”
“You will see it tomorrow.” This lit a fire inside the boy. “You are to accompany me as I deposit this book, then I will begin your training the day after.”
The boy looked down nervously, “Training?”
“Yes, your mother wrote me that you have shown the power. I am to train you. You shall become a battle mage, like your father and his father.”
“But what if I’m no good?”
“Nobody is born with the spear in their hand. You will become skilled, because we will practice until you are so. It is the same with masons and scribes and even farmers: practice makes the measure of a man.”
The boy nodded, but still seemed reticent.
“Come. Help me make a fire, and we can talk more later.”
It was dusk by the time they had finished making a fire and setting up the small camp. There wasn’t a preponderance of things to burn in the oasis, so Aryk and Naran had to search hard to find even the material for a small fire. As the blaze burned up the brush, the boy bashfully bolstered it, burying the old ash under brand new kindling. The fire crackled and sparked as its reflection danced in Naran’s eyes, and Aryk could tell something was still troubling the child.
“It is a good fire, Naran. You should be proud.” He said circumspectly.
“You should take satisfaction in a job well done. It is one of the few joys that is truly earned.”
“Father, what if I can’t do a good job as a battle mage? What if I’m not meant to be one?”
Aryk nodded, “I’m sure you will be a fine warrior, son, but, if that should prove to not be the case, we will find another outlet for your magic.”
This cheered the boy up a bit, but he still stared at the fire. “Okay …”
“What makes you think you weren’t meant to be a battle mage?”
The boy looked away, completely avoiding Aryk with his eyes as if that made the man cease to exist. “I was scared. I was so scared when that lizard came for me. I wanted to run away. I could never be brave like you and stand up to four of them by myself. I can’t be a warrior.”
Now it was Aryk’s turn to contemplate the fire. He searched for what felt like an eternity for the right words, but they never came. Instead he used the best he had, “It is not always the best thing to be brave.”
Naran looked at him confusedly.
“If there were eight Reptilians, I would have run. It would have been too much risk, too little chance to survive.”
“But I wouldn’t have fought any of them.”
“Yes, but there is such a thing as too much bravery, just as there can be too much love, too much hate, too much kindness, and too much cruelty. These things are not fixed within us. They grow or shrink depending on how we live our lives. You have the instinct to flee. That can be good. We will grow the instinct to fight until they are in balance.”
“Is that like the great balance in the world? The one that curses people who use too much magic?”
“It is the very same balance. Ants dig in the ground, and birds fly in the air. They are given their balance from birth. We who have understanding also have a balance in the world, but we must find it ourselves. A person who is master of themselves, balanced in all things, will find they are capable of great acts. You will become such a person.”
The idea apparently comforted Naran, who nodded at the fire. Aryk chatted more with the boy about his time as a battle mage and the many great responsibilities the King had entrusted him with. He found himself embellishing on the tales, making them similar to the tales of heroes he had heard when he was a boy. He was halfway through a story about fighting a lion bare-handed when he noticed that Naran had finally drifted off to sleep. He gratefully laid his head down and looked up at the stars.
“Tomorrow,” he said as he shut his eyes, “I will show you such a thing as you have never seen, Naran.”