The stone pillars to each side of the dirt road had been overgrown with moss, and lichen covered the fenceposts. The old farmstead had fallen apart once he’d left it. The sheds where the sheep wintered lay in shambles, and the animals grazed in overgrown flowerbeds. Ol’ Mag, the cow that had been ancient before Barrett had left, gazed at his carriage as it rolled up to the entryway and bellowed before returning to her grass.
Barrett stared forlornly out of the curtains. When the carriage stopped, he made no move to leave it. Why would his old home look like this? Surely the farmhands were coming out to work the land in exchange for their share. He shook his head and stood to leave the wagon before the coachman decided to encourage him. His cases greeted him at ground-level, and the shiny gold piece he flicked into the man’s hand was more than enough to pay for a bumpy, dusty ride with barely two hours of peace each day for sleep.
“How’re you gettin’ back?” the coachman asked.
A matter of professional interest, Barrett felt sure, but he kept his voice even. “A mail coach comes a week after Midsummer. I should be fine until then.”
“Yeah? Safe travels to ya then. Have a safe Midsummer Night.” The old man coughed up something from deep in his chest and spat a red gob. It flattened a daisy.
“May the weather be clear, and the bandits clumsy,” Barrett replied. The old man laughed as he clambered up onto the coach and cracked the whip over the team’s head. Barrett stood alone for a while with his luggage. He stared at the solid wood and the peeling paint taking deep breaths of forest air. Once he had braced himself properly, he lifted his pack and picked his way across stepping stones that shouldn’t have been almost covered in grass. Barrett felt his breath hitch near his heart.
No. He had nothing to be afraid of from this place. It was his home, and nothing would harm him. He raised his fist and knocked twice. He should have been able to just go in — the Wheelers never locked their door — but something held him back.
It took his mother a few moments to open the door. Barrett thought that she had never looked more like a widow. Her once-thick hair was graying and bedraggled, and bruised patches under her eyes looked so deep that he wondered if she’d been beaten. Her clothes hung too, as if she had recently lost weight.
“Who are you?” she asked, staring up at his face. At first he thought she was joking, but her blank expression forced him to doubt.
She looked up at him, this wrinkled hag, and recognition dawned in her face. Ellis Wheeler hugged him, and all he could feel was bone and sinew. Barrett did his best not to pull away.
“It’s about time you visit. You’d think a woman’s son was dead.”
“Wrote? And I have coin for post and time to visit town?” She gazed owlishly as she stood on the stoop. “And it’s all a mess. You couldn’t write to tell me you were coming? Why are we standing out here? Come in. Don’t mind the mess.”
The inside was as sprawling as he remembered. In the poor districts of Saldien, two dozen people could live in this much space and consider it plenty. A bucket filled with water and rags sat atop the stone floor his father had hand-made with river rock and mortar. Barrett smiled, remembering how his mother had harried the old man about the dirt floors until Alden Wheeler had finally began work in late autumn.
Making a floor was not just backbreaking work. In addition to hauling in the sand, and the heavy stones, to make a proper floor like his father had, you had to be mindful also of the way each rock sloped so that water wouldn’t stand in the house if there was a leak. Each rock had to be set in place, allowed to settle in the dirt, then after it had shifted, it had to be gently lifted, more dirt shuffled under it, and then re-set level.
It took Alden through the winter, making this floor. Constant elbow pains from the tedious job of lifting a rock and shuffling only a little sand under it, dropping it, then lifting it again to remove even less sand, never stopped Barrett’s obstinate father. Ellis Wheeler was thrilled, of course. She had the best floor of any goodwife in Siltenglade, and every other woman was jealous.
All that Alden got from the menfolk was, “Must’ve been a damn sight of work.”
But Ellis quickly found fault with her husband’s work. The dirt may have settled more, or Alden’s elbow had gotten too sore to set the rock properly, but moisture had a tendency to collect under the dining table. Before the Spring Equinox, her mood toward her husband’s gift had darkened.
For the next season and a half, Alden looked at his wife with hurt in his eyes, and grumbled about his elbow when only the children could hear. Then, on Midsummer’s Eve, a night Barrett had blocked from his memory, Alden drank a poisoned draught and died of it.
Barrett stared at the stones again. His gaze drifted towards the ones underneath the dining room table. They were dry. His mother continued to ramble, but he couldn’t hear her. His fingers felt numb again, like they had every Midsummer since that one.
Air. He needed air. He turned towards the door and his eyes found the wreathes above the door.
“Why is that up there?”
“Eh?” Ellis followed his gaze. “It’s up there every summer. Just like it’s always been.”
“Take it down.”
His lips twisted. “Just take it down. It’s things like this that make city-men mock us. No reasonable person clings to these needless superstitions.”
“No reasonable person ignores ancient wisdom, and Elfsbane has hung on mantles every Midsummer for thousands of years.”
Elfsbane was an odd name for the kaleidoscopic bloom, Barrett thought. It made the flower with bruised purple leaves sound like something villagers laid out to poison their forestland neighbors. But Barrett had met solemn Harani scholars in Saldien, and he doubted that those learned beings would accidentally take poison. And if it was Elfsbane, then why was it so good at killing men?
“I don’t care. Take it down.”
His mother laughed. “No,” she cackled. “When you inherit the farmstead, you may do as you like to it. While it’s mine, you’ll do no such thing.” Her expression grew slyer then. “Oh, but you won’t be inheriting it, will you? You were written out when you went off to be a Mage… So tell me, son. Can you conjure fire? Can you summon devils and bend them to your will? Do even the angels fear your wrath?”
“I’ve learned much.”
“But for all that, you do little.”
He heard a loud crunch and felt pain reverberate up his fist into his arm. Shocked, Barrett put his hand down and only then realized that he had punched the doorjamb. Blood dripped down his knuckles and stained his father’s floor-stones.
“Excuse me,” he said in the thickening silence, and carried his bags up to his old room.
Barrett’s room hadn’t changed since he’d left it. The books he’d left lay untouched, the mattress smelled musty. Everything else seemed in good order. The first thing that he unpacked was Archmage Cogellus’s The Dawn of the Age of Reason, the very book that had guided him away from home. The book whose author, to Barrett’s excitement, would begin teaching him once he returned from this temporary leave.
As he shifted clothes from his bags into the dresser, he tried to ignore his hand’s dull ache and the prismatic wreathes above his window both. Neither were doing much for his mood.
Still, he didn’t yet regret coming back. He had grown nostalgic as the end of his General Studies had approached, but there was nothing nostalgic about this place. He had nothing in common with this bucolic clan but blood. He could never forget that again. Two minutes with his mother had woken him like a sleeper tossed, bedsheets and all, into a fishpond. When he left, he could focus again, freed from the delusion that he had left something behind that was worth returning to.
He slid the last of the clothes he’d packed into the dresser and stood. The midday heat burned his throat, so he opened the leaded glass window and gazed out upon the disordered fields.
He didn’t recall when he’d laid down and fallen asleep. The window let in moonlight, and a wind that had blown his door shut. His arms and legs tingled as he stood and closed out the cold air. He could hardly notice his hand aching through the numbness, and couldn’t remember what he’d dreamt.
Barrett turned away from the window, the flask half out of his coat before something stopped him. An orange glow glimmered between the trees. Torchlight. There were people out in the forest.
They wore goosedown-white robes that almost glowed under the resin-fueled fires. He counted ten of them: Four torch-bearers, four carrying some kind of stretcher, and two hard-eyed men with crystalline swords that caught and reflected the flames until they glowed like daylight.
No, there were eleven. She seemed little more than a child, as pale as her robes, both her hair and her skin. Her hands were folded in her lap, and she rested so peacefully that Barrett felt uncertain she still lived. The swordsmen’s spurs jingled with each step, but otherwise the procession was silent. Barrett’s flask slid from his fingers to the floor, and the clamor seemed to alert one of the swordsmen, who turned and stared towards his open window.
Barrett closed the curtains, feeling like a voyeur. He had learned much of the Harani, had even studied under a few Masters in Saldien. Siltenglade’s Harani neighbors had lived peacefully in this forest for ages, carrying on their timeless rites. Even when the villagers had torn up the ancient loam and cut it into fields, the Ancient Ones only retreated further into the forest. What business did he have gazing in on their timeless rites, rites, he did not doubt, that held more meaning than any tradition of the bovine lot that had spawned Barrett Wheeler?
He found the flask again, and almost choked as the venomous spirit burned his throat. After he had drained it dry, he threw the misused thing against the wall and then tore the Elfsbane wreath from the window mantle before falling on the bed. Sleep came quickly.
His mother snored loudly, so Barrett lay awake in the predawn. The early morning was a pleasant blur spent skimming the books of his adolescence: Beyond the River and What Marrick Found There, The Iron Hand, and Durgan Undermountain’s Gurodim Phrases of Wisdom. He had just gotten to the last phrase, “If it’s dead and yet moves: Kill it,” when his mother poked her head in.
“Get up, lazy. At least keep me company while I cook.”
After a breakfast of porridge flavored with dried apple, punctuated by his mother scolding him for reading The Age of Reason at the table, he retreated upstairs to dress. Barrett was not about to show himself as he’d been. No, even his mother ought to recognize how high he’d risen when he wore the broadcloth longcoat of a Saldien Magister.
He pulled on the khaki pants and buttoned it and the starched white linen shirt before buckling his vest at the catch behind his back. He was pulling the longcoat on as he plodded down the stairs.
“Feeling cold?” his mother scoffed as they walked out the door.
Ellis Wheeler walked swiftly, and by the time they reached the village, a full three hours later, Barrett’s breath came in short gasps.
Siltenglade had grown dozens of houses since he’d last seen it, and the muddy dirt road had spawned cobblestones like mushrooms in manure. Ellis quickly left him behind to trade gossip with the goodwives of what he now had to admit had grown into more of a town than the village he remembered.
He bumped shoulders with a stout man in a blacksmith’s apron and apologized before he fully recognized the man.
“Shil?” It couldn’t be. This dour, thick man couldn’t have been the snot-nosed teen Barrett had known: the boy who had released a greased pig into an autumn barn dance floor.
It took the man a moment to recognize him too. “Barrett?” he said finally. “It is! What strange clothes. Where have you been these years?”
Barrett tried to ignore the sting. Of course no one here would know what a Magister dressed like. “My mother didn’t say where I’d gone?”
“Truth is, she’s gotten worse every year. Since little Ellie married Kellen, she hasn’t come into town till today. People went to call out on your farmstead, but she wouldn’t answer the door. Place looks awful. Where were you?”
“The City of Mirrors?” Shil glanced around, but they were relatively alone. “Why would you come back?”
Barrett’s expression must not have been pleasant, because Shil laughed.
“Look Barrett, why don’t you come with me. There’s a new pub. Well, new since you left. And I’ll buy you an ale. Is that a Magister’s overcoat you’re wearing?”
“Why, yes… Yes it is.”
By dusk, his mother had departed. Despite the festival lanterns in the streets, she had muttered some superstitious drivel about shutting out the Elves before she had gone. It was good, then, that she was not around when the Harani showed up.
All but the girl had traded the white robes for utilitarian tunic and breeches in browns and green. The girl wore an Elfsbane wreathe around her neck, and the over-saturated flowers encircled her wrists too. Barrett tried not to make a sour face at that.
The villagers grew restless, and none went near the Harani party. When the girl’s piping voice pierced the crowd, they drew further back.
“Which is Barrett Wheeler?”
He stood, a bit shakily, from where he and Shil had been drinking on the tavern’s stoop. “Me. What do you need, child?”
One corner of her lip pulled upward in a smirk. “Join me, Magister?”
“Now wait a second,” Shil began, but Barrett spoke over him, pleased that finally someone recognized his new clothes without prompting.
“Certainly,” he said to the girl, and then to Shil, “Thanks for the ale. It was nice catching up.” He was surprised to find that he hadn’t lied.
The girl led him down the road, left at a fork, and then out into the knee-high grass on the fringe of the town’s biggest pond. Her warders followed alongside him, but he kept his eyes forward on the whitewash pale girl. When she reached the pond’s edge, she didn’t kneel as he’d expected, but just stood, as solemn as a lone grave.
He folded his hands behind his back, struggling not to sway. He pressed his lips together and waited. He was no youngling, and would not speak first from impatience. The red moon rose, and then, behind it, the white moon peeked over the treetops, before she conceded the first round.
“It seems we have need of you, Magister,” the girl said. “I am called Kal Tala.”
He had won a small victory, but gloating would lose any leverage he’d gained. “I am always ready to help those who ask,” he replied. Did his voice sound slurred?
A cat-like smile crept onto the child’s face. “We do not ask. You have seen last night’s rites, and so you must be a part of tonight’s.”
He smiled back at her. “I was tired last night from weeks in a rickety coach. I saw nothing except my dreams.”
Barrett flinched back when one of the male warders raised a fist and almost struck him. “Do not lie. We’ve no choice, and you don’t either. If you don’t help, we all die.”
“Enough, Kal Meron,” the girl said. “You undermine our cause.”
The warder lowered his hand and his eyes, but not before Barrett caught the fear in the man’s face. Barrett’s mouth felt rough as pressboard, and he wasn’t sure if it was from the drink or his own fear. If something terrified the Elders this way, Barrett Wheeler dared not mock it.
“Forgive Kal Meron, Magister Wheeler. He is young.” Tala’s voice held no trace of irony in calling the much older man a child.
“Forgiven. But why the fear? Surely the Gods will protect us…”
The girl’s laughter sounded like wind chimes. “Piety from a Magister? How quaint. The Gods… they fight their own battles.” She cupped her hand behind one delicately pointed ear and craned her neck as if listening at a door. “Yes, we Earthbound cannot rely too much on Gods.”
Her words agreed with what he’d always been taught.
“Let’s end this banter, then. Why am I needed for this rite?”
“Because you are already a part of it. Just like another man of your house was twelve years ago.”
The breath caught in Barrett’s throat.
The girl diverted her azure gaze. “Yes, but you are a Magister.”
His fingers and toes were numb. He could remember that night again: his father’s face bruised and swollen black as if he had hung in the sun for a week. The viscous stinking mess that leaked like sweat from his pores. The static like a thunderstorm hanging in the air, and the sense of wrongness pervading the house that night. Barrett alone had watched his father’s corpse, stared at the mocking wreathe around his neck, until his mother and sisters had returned from the festival well past midnight.
“Why should I help now? Didn’t you just admit to killing my father?”
Kal Tala, for the first time, looked pained. “Our rite did not kill your father. He ended himself. He had the Potential, but could not live with what he had seen of the hidden world. You are different, Magister. You seek that which is occulted.”
Barrett wondered what Tala knew of the Academy. Yes, it was true he had seen things he might have called Magic once, but that did not mean the Masters shared their methods with even a student as earnest and gifted as him. But pride, and twelve tankards of courage, could not let him admit that to this smug, old-seeming child.
His heart beat fast as his limbs grew number. He tried his best to sound the part of a Magister. “Of course,” he retorted. “I have cast wide the doors to darkness to slake my thirst for knowledge, and I will do so again before I am dead.” He looked at the ring of Harani around him. “I will do what my father could not.”
Tala’s owl-wide pale eyes blinked slowly. “Good. Then come.”
He followed them into the forest by the twists and turns of a deer trail. The moons loomed high in the sky by the time they stopped next to a slab of granite. The wind blew oak leaves and dried brown flecks off of it into the mulch.
“Rabbit’s blood,” Tala said, too quickly for Barrett’s comfort. “Don’t be afraid, you will be safe.”
“Like my father before me,” Barrett said, a crooked smirk spreading across his face. “What should I do?”
“Stand with me,” Tala said, “and place your hand on the stone.”
The stone felt cool under his skin, as cold as the black between stars. Tala’s fingers laced between his, less warm even than the stone. He closed his eyes, and his nostrils dragged in the forest’s musk.
Something seized him. Not his body, but his core — his essence — and shook. Then the thing gripped him, its arm reaching from across the cosmos to catch him, like a cruel child planting a thumb on an ant’s back. Random sensation overran him: noises, sights, scents, and feelings, flashing from one to another uncontrolled. His mind tore open…
…And his being splashed out like water, leaking into the void. The thing waited out there. It hungered for this world like a snake wanted mice babes. Barrett struggled, but free from form, a small blob swallowed by an ocean, how could he fight?
It surged and ebbed, and each onslaught crushed Barrett inwards. How to fight an enemy you didn’t understand? No time to understand. No chance to think. How had his father fought this?
His father had fought. And won. Someone could win, so he could too. It felt like chest-pressing a cottage, but Barrett gained a fingernail’s worth of space, enough to again sense something but the load of moods and sensations from the thing.
As if from across the valley, he heard Tala’s voice: “Remaz du levorik, balaz ku mal du.” At least, that’s what he thought she said. She repeated the strange words, and the presence ebbed just enough for Barrett to gasp a breath. His whole body tingled like it had gone to sleep on him. The power grabbed him again.
The sun through a looking glass. The depths of the Lake. All Barrett was, insignificant. Its grip strengthened. This thing would use him, whether or not he surrendered.
Barrett was bodiless in the void, but he realized suddenly that he still had form. The thing that he fought, though, had none but whatever it filled. It was everywhere, like a burning fog; indefinable, inscrutable. Did he fight a God? “Remaz du levorik, balaz ku mal du.”
The words did not lighten his burden. The thing had him deep beyond the River of Stars, where he finally saw it for what it was.
He balked, and in that moment of weakness, its presence burned what was him like acid scouring the inside of a gourd.
He screamed, but somehow held on.
“Remaz du levorik, balaz ku mal du.”
It would give him the world. If he joined to it, he could contain it, channel it, use it for his own ends. He would unmake this world and remake it again. Remake it into a place where his genius would be acknowledged. Remake it so that Academics wouldn’t hoard their knowledge like a wyvern on a clutch of eggs. Break the world to fix it. Be greater than the Gods.
“Remaz du levorik, balaz ku mal du.”
He heard his own voice this time. The thing pulled back, but only as a man might when pricked by a needle. Barrett’s disgust welled up within him. How had he thought he could control it? It was beyond control. But then had it planted that thought? How many thoughts had others planted, that he thought were his own? No. This weakness humiliated him. He would see this through.
“Remaz du levorik, balaz ku mal du.”
His voice and Tala’s. The thing fled. Harani chanted wordlessly behind them, and he drew strength from that.
“Remaz du levorik, balaz ku mal du.”
The numb receded from his body, and the thing finally lost its hold on him. Something itched around his neck.
“Remaz du levorik, balaz ku mal du.”
A wreathe of kaleidoscopic flowers, wet with dew. His voice rose.
“Remaz du levorik, balaz ku mal du.”
“Remaz du levorik, balaz ku mal du!”
The moons had set when Barrett Wheeler’s eyes opened. Cold sweat chilled his body, but his fingers didn’t tingle. Still, he felt abused. He wanted a bath to wash away the filthy feeling ground into every grain of him down to his bones.
“You did well,” Kal Meron said.
“Where is Tala?” Barrett asked.
“Bathing. The first time she performed the ritual, she lay curled in a ball crying through over a month.”
“The first time?”
“Yes, round ear, the first. This is her fiftieth, or close enough. Your father witnessed the last one.”
Six hundred years then, Barrett thought. Or close enough. How old was she, then? And why would she continue to do this if it hurt her like it had Barrett?
“Because we are what keeps it out,” the girl answered. Her pale hair hung limp and her eyes were red and swollen. “We are why the Elfsbane on the eaves is unnecessary. When the veil is weak, the Elf comes for us first. You did well, Magister.” Then she clambered onto the altar and kissed his forehead. “We must part now, but you have our gratitude. May you do many other great deeds.”
But as Barrett limped home, the Elfsbane wreathe hanging limp around his neck, he could not shake that feeling. The feeling that he was no different than the flies that clung to Ol’ Mag’s backside. Left a breath longer, that thing, that Elf as Tala had called it, would have burst from his body and ravaged Aemon-Tor.
And if that was one example of what lay hidden, waiting for proud and foolish men to entrap, then what good an Age of Reason? It could be only danger to strive, to seek, to know. Those things only offered holes for Elven claws to tear wider. Reason itself only gave Unreason more power.
A sour taste rose from the back of Barrett’s throat. His head hurt, just like a normal hangover, except that he wanted to drink this one off.
The ancient milking cow lowed as he staggered into the farmhouse just before sunrise. His gaze lingered on the little bit of water that had collected underneath the dining room table. A pot of laundry burned over the wood-fire and his mother’s snores rumbled from upstairs.
He filled an open-topped kettle with water and rested it on the coals. His fingers shook as he tore prismatic blooms from his wreathe and threw them at the water. Then he stood, and went to look for a clean cup. Archmage Cogellus’ The Age of Reason caught his eye from where he’d left it at breakfast. He sat and wearily opened its pages. It’d pass the time while he waited for the water to boil.