Sunday, 1 December 2013

In Which The Vanishing Has Swallowed The Terra Draconis

It is a morsel of common wisdom too kind to reflect reality that anything Avan Weatherstrong did not know about magic was probably not worth knowing. It is certainly true that the youngest son of the House of Weatherstrong was the most versatile practitioner of the magical arts to ever walk among the lands of Faerie.

For this reason the storm that consumed the dark side of the Okulas Moon did not impress Avan the way that it intimidated his young companion Saeed. All magic, fundamentally, was elemental. To make a rain cloud one could easily combine air and water manufactured from raw mischief. A gigantic black-hearted storm was air and water bound with raw white plasma and amplified using power and chaos. A gigantic storm was devastating, but it was a show piece for the easily cowed.

There was no subtlety to Okulas's working, it was achievable by any idiot with a rudimentary grasp on the basics and the coin to drop on the equipment to make it happen. It was hard to explain to an individual seeing the awesome power of the storm first hand. For this reason Avan didn't even try.

If Avan were to be honest about matters, and he tended to be, he would be forced to admit that the flying potions that enabled Saeed and himself to arc over the storm and settle upon the rim of the crater at the storm's eye was no more impressive to a master alchemist. The ingredients of the potion altered the gross weight of the flesh until it could slip through the air. There was a question of balance, a good flying potion was a hard thing to prepare, but once one had the technique the application was pretty tedious.

Again, it was hard to communicate to a non-magic user how unimpressive a thing a decent flight potion was except in the degree of its responsiveness. Avan's flight potions were something he was proud of but for technical reasons, not merely because the gifted the imbiber with the power to fly for one turn of the hourglass.

There were several flourishes that any alchemist would have been happy to tell you were very hard to pull off in Avan's potion. The potion allowed for mental control of the relative density of the flyer's flesh, the control was quite precise, different parts of the body responded the need to move in harmony with the flyer's wishes. Essentially, when you flew with Avan Weatherstrong's potion you found the business of flight surpassingly easy. The end phase was nicely feathered also, a soft landing at the end of your flight was almost always guaranteed.

This marked the difference between Avan and Okulas. The Count had money, which he had used to buy power to use as a bludgeon. Avan possessed diligence and wisdom, which he had used to craft elegant solutions that got the job done in the spirit of efficiency.

In a completely fair world it would be Avan and Saeed who easily triumphed over the rich bully with the expensive toys. Anyone who has ever encountered a rich bully with expensive toys will tell you that the world is hardly ever fair at all.

By the time Avan and Saeed landed Okulas's plan was already at an advanced stage. As Saeed crested the dark, swirling cloud bank that surrounded the crater a long silver thread became visible, emerging from a structure at the centre of the crater and curving around almost doubling over to cross the moon's horizon and disappear downwards towards the vague craggy outline of the lands of Faerie below. (For the scientific among you wondering how the sky could be filled with the distant image of the lands below, suffice to say that if geography in Faerie is eccentric, interplanetary spacial location is totally insane.)

"We need to aim for that building!" Avan shouted over the whirling, crackling mass of stormclouds.

Avan and Saeed swooped down, on a course to land outside the structure. They didn't make it halfway before an arrow zinged through the space between them. One arrow was quickly followed by more. Before long the air was filled with hurtling arrows, some of them on fire. Saeed and Avan dodged and weaved as much as they could but in the end they were forced back, eventually landing half a mile from their intended destination.

"I really hope that there aren't more glass monkeys," Saeed said.

As hopes went it was not a large one, if heavily armoured guards were an acceptable replacement for invisible simians then Saeed should have been well pleased. For a short while more arrows attempted to find them but Avan put up a glowing shield the arrows bounced off. Eventually a horde of cavalry soldiers reached the pair but, galloping past, they could not penetrate Avan's defenses.

"We must not be delayed," Avan said. "This shield cannot be moved but I can make us fast. Get ready!"

With that Avan threw a small clay pot onto the ground hard enough to shatter, a black-gold glowing powder bloomed outwards, engulfing the two men.

"Stay sharp," Avan instructed, once the dust had cleared. "I'm taking down the shield."

He did so and Saeed looked about to find himself in an even stranger world. Okulas's army was all around him, twisted faces snarling, strong arms bristling with weapons, all intent on cutting down the two men who would seek to interfere with the events unfolding in the nearby building. All of these soldiers were moving as if caughtin treacle, the air was filled with the slow throbbing growl of their cries, slowed down by Avan's magic.

"You still have to tread carefully," Avan said. "But this should last until we reach our destination."

And so they went, jumping over enemies, treading lightly upon the backs of trolls, lizard men and burly folk. Avan and Saeed raced across the army that was trying to kill them. As they reached the outer walls of Okulas's hide away the growl of the army had raised in pitch and tone, the motions of the soldiers a little faster.

"We haven't got long," Avan noted, "let's get up the wall."

Saeed and Avan scrambled up the outside of the building and ran across the roof dropping down into the courtyard just as the effect of Avan's speed bomb wore off. Saeed considered that it must have looked to the observers as if Avan and himself had skimmed over the roof like swooping birds landing precisely at a single spot each already focused on the scene before them. Saeed understood how intimidating such a display would be and understood a little more of what had made the name of Weatherstrong a central pillar of Faerie legend.

Okulas, a dark-haired, pale-skinned oily kind of individual who was, unsurprisingly, shorter than one might have expected, acted as if the arrival of the Prince and Saeed were expected and on schedule.

"Welcome, Prince Weatherstrong," Okulas said. "You will be disappointed to hear that your valiant efforts to preserve the Terra Draconis are all in vain. The skybow's arrow has tethered my moon to the continent and the apparatus I had built by a team of witches has distilled its energies into a single crystal, the crystal of quintessence. All that remains is for the quintessence crystal to be placed within the mounting on an amulet, linked to a ring of power and my claim to the title of Faerie's most powerful sorcerer will be passed into the pages of history."

Okulas was so intent on his gloating that he failed to notice Avan make a subtle hand gesture to Saeed that they had settled upon previously whilst quelling the riot in Dracopolis. They had only decided upon this signal less than three weeks ago but Saeed noticed it with some surprise.

The signal meant 'create a distraction'. Providing such a distraction as Saeed could was appropriate when you wanted to lead a group of trolls into a blind alley where they could be stunned and bound away from the main throroughfare. In this situation Saeed could not imagine a distraction such as he might take responsibility for that did not end with him being frazzled, throttled or otherwise demised by a powerful wicked sorcerer.

Saeed tried to put all of that into a double raised eyebrow aimed at Avan. Avan, lacking an organised response merely waved his thumb in a vaguely upwards direction.

"If I meet death today," Saeed muttered under his breath as Okulas finished explaining his plan. "I will not be impressed in the slightest."

"Even so he thumbed a little smoke bomb that Avan had made for him from the hidden pouch in his belt and smashed it on the ground. As Okulas's personal guard reacted by waving their pikes in his general direction Saeed took the opportunity provided by the confusion to punch a couple of them in places that Saeed knew would temporarily cripple them. Even so, these soldiers were the best that Okulas had under his command. Saeed could not hope to best them alone.

"Grab him!" Okulas shouted pointing in Saeed's direction. After that things went bad for him very quickly indeed.

The world became filled with flying crossbow bolts and swishing blades. Okulas's personal guard had clearly prepared well to take down individuals causing trouble in the vicinity of their employer. Saeed tried to see where Avan was, even as the noose of wood and steel attempted to close about him, but he could not see the prince anywhere.

Making a snap decision Saeed decided that he had to make a break for it. He couldn't hope to survive if the full focus of the guard remained on him. Saeed back flipped over a pair of surprised guards and ran away from the courtyard and into the building through a tall pair of double doors.

The only thing that saved Saeed's neck in that moment was that he had developed a sixth sense for the layout of unfamiliar archectural structures. He found a way down into the building's cellar and from there a trapdoor sealing an escape route into the caves below the moon. The guard, who knew the building far better, stayed in pursuit, but only because they had the home advantage.

Whatever the reason Saeed hoped that he had not made a fatal miscalculation. The narrow passages of the Okulas Moon's cave system were not an ideal place to escape from a horde of pursuing guards. Before long Saeed had exhausted all the obvious routes, perpetually finding looped passages, dead ends or sheer vertical shafts. Without any magic of his own it seemed that he had cornered himself.

In the end he found himself in a passage, hemmed in by guards on either side. Roughly half way down the passage was a shaft showing a way upwards but the rock was smooth and slippery. Saeed could not gain access to the upper shelf of rock and his small spider-silk grapple had nothing to hook onto. As the guards approached Saeed watched his options decreasing. He drew his sword but there was no real way he could defeat a small army all by himself.

As the guards drew together under the chimney, completely sealing Saeed's available escape routes Saeed focused on the fiercest looking guards and waved his sword about.

"I may be reintroduced to my mother this day," he shouted, "but I will be taking some of you with me, mark my words!"

The guards did not look impressed, Saeed swung his arm back preparing for a first blow. As his arm reached its ready position there was the sound of a crack and someone shouted: "Shiner!"

Saeed closed his eyes and blocked his ears as he always did when he heard the word shiner. The shiner was a small bomb developed by Avan that put out a loud noise and a bright white light that could stun anyone who did not protect their eyes and ears when it went off. The devices did not do much physical harm but were immensely useful in asserting a surprise tactic against a group of adversaries.

With the short warning the sound of the shiner was louder in Saeed's ears than he might have liked, but e managed to shield his eyes from the light. When he opened them again the guards were all clutching their heads and moaning. A sliver of white cord was hanging down to Saeed's side.

Saeed did not hesitate, he scaled the rope up the chimney and was greeted by Avan at the top.

"You cut that about as fine as I think you possibly could," Saeed said. "Thank you."

"Sorry," Avan said. "I had to lose pursuers of my own, then, I found these."

Avan held up a number of crystals, all of which looked like they could be the quintessence crystal.

"What is this? More magic?" Saeed asked.

"Raw mischief, trapped in dragon crystals as luminosity," Avan said. "Only one of the crystals is the one that contains the Terra Draconis, the others are decoys."

"So, the Terra Draconis is safe?" Saeed asked.

"Trapped in crystal," Avan nodded, "but out of Okulas's grasp. We need to make sure it stays safe, until the magic can be reversed safely."

"Can you do that?" Saeed asked.

"Not easily," Avan said. "I think the safest extraction method will prove to be alchemical but whoever does it will only get one chance. The responsibility for restoring this land is a grave one. I fear that, although I will be able to start upon a solution it won't be easy and I may not be the one to complete the work."

"So what do we do now?" Saeed asked.

A small light appeared in the passage behind Avan, it was about the size of a hornet, coloured a pale yellow.

"Hello, Starspark," Avan said, then to Saeed: "This is Starspark, I found her in one of Okulas's dragon crystals. She was an experiment in preserving mischief inside the lattice structure of the crystal. She was also my first experiment in extraction. Starspark, this is Saeed, an honest thief."

"Hello, Prince Weatherstrong," Starspark said. "Hello, Saeed."

"Starspark knows these caves, she can take us back through the roots of the tree to the light side of the moon and I can use magic to take us back to the haunted house in Faerie," Avan said. "After that you and I will hide the decoys, and, of course, the real crystal. Hopefully that will buy us some time to seek a remedy for this wicked act."

And this is exactly what they did, but as for the rest that will be told another day.

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