Points of Brilliance 5: Costs of Life and Death
Revised version posted Nov 30, 1995
Originally posted Apr 18, 1995
Stay tuned after the story for a brand new Magic card!
There, you see what started me along the path of darkness. Do you think that I chose to play with the spirits of the dead lightly? Me, an elf, a creature of life and light? No, but somehow it seemed appropriate. Maybe there was a stain on my soul from my birth. But the dark arts called to me, especially after my experience as a block of stone. It is true, I command all sorts of magic, but it is the black that comes most easily. Balanced with the white. But it is an unequal balance, much like that of my plane of Scintilla.
What? You wish to know more of the planewalker that invaded my home? I suppose there is more to tell, considering the cost he caused me, far greater than lying rigid on the forest floor for a week.
Yes, I suppose that I am telling far too much for my own good, given that secrets are the coin of the planewalker, but I feel the weight of the ages starting to take its toll. I am becoming weary of the worlds, and perhaps others might benefit from my mistakes. If the Dragon cannot help me, none can.
Yes, I had merely chased the invader off, wounded heavily, at our first meeting. Yes, I freely admit that were it was not for the winsome Ariel, I would have been the one running wounded from the confrontation. And furthermore, that my bones would likely be bleaching in the sun. It is no pleasure to be ambushed by someone without any modicum of honor.
It was perhaps a week later that I decided I wished to look at the city more closely, as I had been gone a while. I would be able to lose myself within the darkness, at least for a while. Calling up a servant spirit, I asked where Ariel could be found.
"She is practicing her exertions," came the reply. The dead can be mysterious, for they lack the same perceptions as the living. But I knew exactly what this one meant, as the dead had long become comprehensible to me. I stood and began the long walk down from the tower of Sablemorn, through numerous galleries that displayed objects plundered from a hundred planes; sculpture, paintings, tools of destruction, religious artifacts, but most especially books. Of all shapes and sizes, and forms. Some took square feet to record a dozen words, while others fit whole libraries into a space the size of my hand. But knowledge, all of it. A planewalker realizes early on that gold and diamonds are worth only so much. There are places that they can be scooped from the ground. It is knowledge that is the real wealth, the power to survive.
Soon, I came to the large room used for "physical exertions." It is not something I specifically designed into Sablemorn, but it sort of grew there, a fulfillment of my subconscious wishes. Sablemorn, as I have said, took on a life of its own during construction, and I have not really been its master since. I sometimes feel that it tolerates me only out of a small appreciation for giving it life. There is no real communication, just certain instinctual behavior. Like this room.
The doors slowly opened at my approach, letting me into the room Ariel had dubbed "the gymnasium" upon first seeing it. I did not use it much, being more inclined to study a new book that I have obtained, than build any physical skills. Yes, there was Ariel, wearing so little as to almost make no difference. She would cause quite a scandal on many of the planes I have seen, but it is quite normal on Scintilla. Besides, she had informed me, she could not do these exercises of hers in a dress. Indeed, her clothing, while strictly covering most of her body, did not restrict movement much. I admit it was a pleasant sight to watch.
"Ah, Miles!" she called breathlessly, working hard at her exercise, which this time seemed to consist of stepping up and down off of a block until one was quite winded.
"Tell me again what good this is," I said, moving closer. "It certainly doesn't seem to do much good in teaching yourself to stay alive."
"What if you were being chased up some stairs by a monster?" she puffed, tugging an errant strand of red hair away from her eye.
"Maybe then, but I'm still convinced that sword practice would be more useful. Or, skipping this physical torment altogether, spell practice."
"Oh, Miles, you travel the universe, but you are so lazy!" she said with a coughing laugh. Stopping her incessant stepping and patting off some of the sweat with a towel, she continued, "And this is good, you should try it sometime. I'll outlive you yet."
"Yes," I grimaced.
She smiled and came up to hug and kiss me on the cheek. "Oh, stop pulling away. It's only sweat."
"I never sweat unless there is a good reason to."
"That's the problem with you, sorcerer. There's nothing you do for fun." Ariel stepped back and planted her hands on her hips.
"Once you live hundreds of years, you will understand," I said, and paused, studying her face. "I was coming to talk to you about going into the city today. Not to have fun, mind you, but to... learn about it." I smirked.
"A night on the town, eh?"
"Well, yes. Remember, no fun."
"All right, no fun. Shall I wear this," she turned around with extended arms, "or shall I put on the corset and petticoats? So even the thought of a smile never hits me?"
"Ah, I think something comfortable would be appropriate," I said with a smile on my lips. "And it should be dark. I don't know where we'll have to break into."
"Oooh, I'll wear my ninja costume. See you in a while, Mr. Greymantle."
"Likewise, Ms. Bernard."
We set out soon after dark in a horseless carriage called a "car" on Scintilla. It apparently works by burning the bodies of dead animals and plants, which makes it an ironically appropriate vehicle for me to travel in. It took only minutes to make it to the center of the city, where it seemed to be more busy at night than during the day. Certainly, there were more around during the sunlight hours, but much of what happens in that bustle is empty, void of real meaning. The real, the interesting, happens at night, which is just common sense to one such as me. I am not speaking of the social gatherings that take place in rooms of bright light so much, but the things that happen in the shadows. It is said that those who stalk the night can gain or lose everything in a single night. There are those who pay the stalkers very well for the information that runs like veins of gold in those tall, dark buildings. The pursuit of knowledge I can certainly understand.
We soon stored the car and walked down the street to one of these taverns that Ariel apparently knew well. I worked magic to alter my appearance slightly, so I could easily pass as human. There are no other sentient species on Scintilla, and my appearance would be somewhat disturbing to its inhabitants.
A dark shadow stepped in front of us, something glinting in its hand. "Alright, mister, let's see your wallet."
"Your wallet, and your watch, and jewelry," explained the shadow, stepping forward into the dim light of a street lamp and waving his knife. "You know, your money." Our assailant, I could now see, was a rather unimpressive man in ragged clothes.
"Oh, I'm afraid that I left that home. Go back to your home." I added a hint of magical persuasion to my voice.
"I'm not thinking so, chum." He advanced menacingly, knife at the ready. Ariel had backed behind me, likely wondering how I would handle this. She had mentioned something about this activity, called "mugging," as popular among the less socially inclined members of the population.
"Oh, I'm sure that you'll see things my way," I replied, warping my disguise spell to reveal my true features (admittedly not too different than human) and to give myself glowing red eyes, which would very much stand out in the dimness. Then, with a jerk at the energy of the swamps around Sablemorn, I pulled Gruthelmant through extradimensional space. The runes along the length of the dark sword glowed redly, making mute promises of doom. I rarely use a sword, and even more rarely use Gruthelmant, but it seemed an interesting tY▀ to try with this assailant.
It didn't faze him. "Oooh, a sword. I'm so scared. Watch this." He reached behind his back and retrieved a sword of his own. It did not glow with runes as Gruthelmant did, but when I finally thought to check its aura, it seemed very magical. I stood there, blinking in confusion. Where had an inhabitant of Scintilla gotten a magic sword, and how did he manage to hide something of its size behind his back? Especially since he had almost no aura to speak of.
My deliberations were cut off by a swipe of his sword, which I barely was able to lean back from. "Lousy magician," he cursed. "I know about your kind. Think you're so superior since you know some parlor tricks? I know some too." He swung again, and I deflected it with Gruthelmant.
"Oh, I know much more than parlor tricks, worm." I reached inside my rune sword and caused it to psychically keen with bloodlust. I had heard tales of Gruthelmant's previous wielders using this to good effect even against armies, but it didn't seem to faze my opponent. I heard Ariel's yelp of pain behind me, though, and fought a moment to quell the distraction. All though this, I was trading blows with the man. He seemed good, but not great; not that that comforted me, as I was no great swordsman either. Ariel, with no weapon and no source of mana, could do little but watch. I cursed that I had not thought to give her a Mox for security earlier, but I didn't expect to be fighting for my life that night.
And fighting for my life was exactly what I was doing; my assailant was slowly wearing me down. This was certainly more than a simple mugging. My thoughts wandered to the missing planewalker, but they were abruptly interrupted as the sword bit into my left shoulder. Luckily, my leather longcoat blunted the affect of the blow, but my left arm was much limited in mobility. The pain made me doubly sure that I would not be able to get off a spell.
"So you bleed like us normals do," sneered the man. "Where is your magic now?"
"Right behind you," came another voice. He lurched forward almost into Gruthelmant's edge as a length of jagged metal debris slammed into his back. "He should really watch his back, Miles."
Seeing he wasn't felled, I cast the first spell that came to mind. A will o' the wisp's ghostly form enveloped my assailant, who screeched at its cold, deathlike touch. I stepped back quickly, calling Ariel to my side. I hastily searched my mind for a better spell, and settled on paralyzing him. He toppled to the ground, rigid.
After scanning the street for witnesses, I painfully dragged him into the dark area between buildings he had come from. And I set the wisp to guarding.
"How are you?" asked Ariel, concerned, and kneeling beside my slumped form.
"I'll be fine in a minute." There is a field towards the front of the grounds around Sablemorn, that is much out of character with Sablemorn itself. In the summertime, some of the most beautiful flowers that I have ever seen bloom. In truth, they are wildflowers, not much revered by the people of Scintilla, but they are mine, and perhaps give me hope that good can arise on its own. Unfortunately now, it is gone. Realizing I was starting to hallucinate, I shook my head to clear it and found the thread to the stela I had sown in that field. Using its power, I called forth some of the healing arts that I know. In response, the gash in my shoulder closed.
I slowly stood with Ariel's assistance. "Now let's see what this mugger knows," I said, wiping some of the blood off my leather coat. But at that moment the wisp gave off a horrible scream and dissipated. The mugger was gone. I pulled the wisp back from the brink of true death and sent it to track the man. The dim lights disappeared around the corner.
"Let's follow, Ariel." She gave a short nod and we were off. Following the wisp was easy, because I could see through what passed as its eyes, It seemed to be searching randomly, but it soon found a door that had been opened recently. It passed through the door as Ariel and I skidded around the corner. I pressed a Mox Ruby and Pearl into Ariel's hand with a whispered "Just in case." as I prepared to kick down the door. It would not budge. Planewalkers are known to be tough to kill, but that doesn't make us physically strong. And this was a solid door.
But it didn't slow down Gruthelmant much. The sword that had cleaved hundreds of skulls in its time made no complaint as it sliced through the metal of the door. Then we were inside.
It was a museum. We would have noticed that had we come from the other side of the building. I had been here before. It, like Sablemorn, held treasures of the mind, only these were of course limited to just Scintilla. Fascinating, limited though it was.
I reached out and found the wisp again. It was rushing through the galleries, still attempting to find our attacker. Despairing of its success, I hastily sought a rarely-used thread. I sent mana from the swamps of Sablemorn spiraling down this thread, and then I pulled...
A lanky greenish creature appeared in front of me, crouched. It slowly unwound itself to its full height, almost equal to my own six and a half feet. It hissed.
"Uh, Miles, what's that?" Ariel whispered from behind me.
"Shhh, a Shimian Night Stalker. Probably the best trackers that you can find outside of the forest." I stared at the stalker intently, impressing it with its task, and what its quarry looked and smelled like. It hissed, baring its fangs, and loped off.
Gruthelmant extended, Ariel and I went in the other direction. While I had not the extended senses the stalker had, I could see auras much more clearly. It is difficult to hide from a mage in the dark.
We eventually came to my favorite gallery, the one that dealt with ancient magic and magicians. I doubt that any Scintillan native actually could cast and real magic back then, but the folklore is there. Some of the lore is actually quite correct, and some is ridiculously off. But in some way, this magic-poor plane "knew" about magic. They knew more about the underlying principles of the worlds back when they were primitive. I find that fact rather amusing. Their current infatuation with replacing parts of their anatomy with bits of metal for some minor advantage actually was bringing them further away from the truth. I could laugh.
"You know," said Ariel, "I spent a lot of time here when I was a kid. Learning about magic."
"And now you can learn magic itself," I stated.
"Yes, thanks." She kissed me lightly on the cheek. "I could never make it work before. I was going about it all wrong. But in my childish excitement, I had never got it through my head that there was no such thing..."
She giggled. "According to my parents, my classmates, and especially to my older brother who always chased me with frogs and worms and..."
"Night Stalkers?" echoed a voice from the other side of the gallery. "Tsk, tsk." I squinted, trying to make out the speaker, but he was hiding. "Never send a muck-dwelling creature to do a wizard's work." I got an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach, and concentrated on the thread tying me to the stalker. It was close on the trail of its quarry, in fact just outside the other end of the gallery we were in. I warned it off, but it barged into the gallery, and it only caught a brief glint off the steel that lopped its head off.
I grimaced with the shared pain, and put my hands to my temples. I reached out for another spell...
"Oh, no, we'll have none of that." The shape of the materializing dark angel shimmered and dissipated as her soul was ripped from her body. Fortunately, Zelnastine would be able to sort it out by herself, eventually. I ducked behind a display case, dragging Ariel with me, as I commanded the wisp to home in on me. It responded with what speed it could muster.
But before it could come, the case in front of me exploded in a shower of sparks. I was dazed, but I snapped back to my feet and pulled another creature from the swamps. I sent this spirit of a long-dead warrior after my unseen opponent, but even with its mesmeric powers, it could not find the one pulling the threads, as it were. But with the distraction, I finally homed in on the swordsman that had attacked me earlier. I attempted to hit him with chilling terror, but its magical energies exploded in a shower of sparks around him.
"You have to do better than that," he sneered,
"I intend to." I tried two summonings, in the hopes that one would make it past the countermagic that was appearing from... somewhere. The angel Anastasia almost completely formed before she seemed to... melt. The energies that were to give her form on this plane flowed away sparking along the floor. Muttering a silent apology to the angel, I quickly followed with the creature I needed now.
Grettle appeared in his usual position, standing on his head. The imp quickly pushed off and started hopping around, flapping his wings. "Can I, Grey? Can I? Can I, huh?"
"Knock yourself out."
"Hey! You string bean over there!" yelled the imp at the top of his voice. "Yeah, you with the booger hanging out of your nose! You couldn't hit your own granny with that toothpick you're carrying!"
"Yeah, come prove to me that you know which end to hold! Don't trip!"
The swordsman began an almost panicked charge at the imp, who continued to make rude noises and gestures. "Your momma was so ugly..." But then the spectre I had summoned earlier appeared between the swordsman and Grettle, spear extended. The man deftly slid to the side and chopped the spear in half with his blade. With the impassivity of the dead, the spectre floated to surround the man, chilling him, but with a few swipes of his sword the apparition disappeared.
He breathed heavily for a few moments, staring at me. "Now you die, mage."
"I disagree." With a quick tug, a wall of flashing swords appeared between him and I.
"Too bad that can't stop the others."
"Others?" I wondered aloud as I was pitched forward by a large mass hitting my back.
"You should really be more aware when you duel, wizard," said the swordsman, walking around the wall of swords.
Scorpions! Giant scorpions, stinging me all over. I screamed in pain as the poison mixed with my blood. I reached toward my dropped sword... and called on its power. The song of bloodlust keened strongly, calling everything around to battle...
I was counting on the call being too strong for the scorpions, and in fact it was. They stopped their stinging and fell off me. Unfortunately, the excitement was too strong for Grettle and the wisp also, their essences hastily retreating to their home planes. The shock was so strong I almost didn't parry the swordsman's blow. The song ended, and as he circled me warily, I painfully regained my feet.
"Too bad the poison is eating away at your internal organs, wizard. Do you have a spell to help that?"
I didn't reply, staring at him intently. His blade flickered at me, but Gruthelmant knocked it aside. This continued for some more seconds, until a blow caught the side of my head and I stumbled to the floor. Gruthelmant skittered away. Fortunately, it was a glancing blow with the flat of the blade, so there was not much damage. But I was now at his mercy. He grinned, ready to deal the death blow.
But a small form leapt over me, running into the swordsman. He quickly dealt with what I now saw to be a goblin, but he had been knocked back. Now Ariel was there, wielding Gruthelmant. "Try me now!" she growled.
The swordsman laughed. "You! A lass? You've obviously never wielded a sword before!"
"You might be surprised." She then surprised me by setting the sword to keening. He growled and rushed to attack. She easily parried the first blow. The man growled softly, gritting his teeth at the song, and swung wildly at Ariel, but she flicked his blade aside. A very strange duel ensued, between a man obviously in pain and a woman whose martial ability was almost totally dependant on her sword itself. "Miles! Call something! I can't hold him off forever!"
I struggled to consolidate my hold on the threads, and to remember an appropriate spell, but the poison made it so difficult Finally, as Ariel was just about backed into a corner (Gruthelmant's song forced our assailant to focus on her and not me, fortunately) Joshua Solace came to mind. I twisted the threads together, and brought him forth....
Solace burst into the gallery, snarling ferally. "Do you feel lucky?" he asked as he leapt with supernatural speed onto our assailant. I locked off his summons (so he wouldn't disappear when I passed out) with the last of my energy just as I lost consciousness.
One nightmare too many later, I was slapped awake. "Huh?" I asked with as much dignity as I could muster.
"Wake up, master," said a voice sounding suspiciously like Solace. "Oh, why am I calling you 'master?' Oh yeah, something about that contract in blood. But there wasn't any clause specifically about calling you 'master.' Wake up, Greymantle." ::slap:: "I mean =now=!"
My eyes fluttered open. I was treated to a sight of the pale and not quite ugly face of Joshua Solace, one of my more powerful servants. A recent recruit here on Scintilla. As well as the pretty (and pretty concerned) face of Ariel, hovering over his right shoulder.
"Now, boss, we have to move. I got that thug all wrapped up, but as cute as that girlfriend of yours is, she's useless in teleporting things. We gotta get out of here, at least, if there's more like him coming. And trust me, the police are on the way."
"Help me up." He grabbed my arms, and pulled me up to a standing position. The sudden change in altitude caused my head to swim, and I leaned against the wall for a moment. "You 'wrapped him up.' Is he still alive?"
"Oh, you know me. Business before pleasure."
"Indeed. You can have him later for your amusement."
His eyes lit up. "Sure boss. I'll grab him, while Miss Bernard can help you walk. I know a place near here." Quickly, Ariel inserted herself under my arm, and helped me hobble after my henchman.
We ended up in a small underground room by a route I was only barely aware of, sparsely furnished with only a single source of light hanging from the ceiling. I slumped on one of the two chairs, still addled from the poison, while Solace tied the man into the other one. I was only barely aware of his interrogation, as I was busy trying to burn the poison from my veins, to no avail.
"Miles, I want to help, but I don't know where to start. I've never done this before. How about some advice?"
I grimaced. "All right, all right." I slowly searched through my threads, and found the correct one. With a major effort, I called a Healer, and locked off his summons as a precaution.
"Oh dear," said the Healer, pushing horn-rimmed glasses up his nose. "Master Greymantle, what have you been doing? I can't be around all the time to patch you up." Ariel said something to him that I couldn't quite make out. "Poison? My my, this is rather serious. Planewalkers are hard to poison."
"Lateran!" I croaked.
"Yes, yes, don't get yourself all worked up. Now, Mistress Ariel, I see that you have some mana to cast spells. The master is in no condition to do so. I so hope that you know Healing Salve, and..." I passed out again.
Lateran was an old friend; he wasn't the oldest of my servants, but he was one of the eldest in wisdom and, being human, almost to the end of his days. Sad, really, as he was one of the few that seemed to understand me. The angels and demons certainly didn't, and the dead were just too... remote. Even though they did my bidding, it was completely from duty to the contracts they signed with me. Lateran did it from friendship.
And Lateran was good. When I awoke, my delirium was mostly gone. I felt motion. My eyes flickered open. I was in the car, sitting next to the comforting presence of Ariel. "Glad to see you're awake," she said.
"Don't make him move a lot," came Lateran's voice from the front of the car. "He is not completely healed yet. We need to get him back to Sablemorn so I can remove whatever is left in his system."
"Hey boss, you'll never guess what that guy was," Solace said. I imagine he was the one driving the car. "He was no human. He was a disguised Sedge Troll. You can drain a lot of blood from them before they kick off." I could imagine the feral gleam in his eyes as he said this.
I slumped against the seat and thought of what this meant. Sedge Trolls are not the most hardy creatures in the planes, unless they are able to use the energy of the swamplands. This one couldn't, because he was in the middle of the city. And there are no natural trolls on Scintilla, as far as I knew. Which meant that a planewalker, most likely the one that had ambushed me a week earlier was the presence that was stopping my spells earlier. I cursed that he had managed to ambush me again. I was so foolish! We had to get back to the safety of Sablemorn, quickly, before the planewalker could send more minions to finish us off. But why had he not taken a full hand in the battle?
In the middle of my musings, the car swerved to the side, off the road and into some hard object. I blacked out again, momentarily, but then I was being pulled out of the car by Ariel. "Quick! We need to get away! Joshua is holding off the mechanical bugs while we get away!"
"He... died in the crash. But not the final one, as far as I can tell. Let's get moving!" With Ariel supporting my weight, we hobbled off into the brush along the side of the road. Lateran's death seemed unreal. It had happened often enough that I was somewhat jaded when one of my minions "dies," but it never is all that easy. I hoped I would be able to summon him again, soon. Ariel pulled power out of the Ruby suddenly and fried a bug that appeared unexpectedly. It flailed around, the lightning playing havoc with its gears, and Ariel used the time to pummel it until it moved no more.
When she returned, carrying its transparent sword, I told her, "They were created centuries ago by one of the Artificers. They're called Yotian Soldiers, and an army of them is terrible to behold. I hope that Solace can handle himself."
"I'm sure that he can," said Solace, silently gliding down beside Ariel and myself. He looked positively glowing with eldritch energy. "They're in disarray," he said, rubbing his hands together, "and I'm strong enough to carry you both back to Sablemorn now." He picked us up in is arms, and leapt into the air. "Who would have thought that robots could be so nourishing?"
We flew through the night for a while, until I imagined that we were near the sanctuary of Sablemorn. It was not to be, though. A gout of flame narrowly missed us. "Uh, boss, we have dragons behind us. Only little ones, as far as I can tell, but I can't deal with them too easily holding you and the redhead."
"Watch this, Joshua." Ariel drew more power from the Ruby, and lightning flashed out of the sky, I guess sending one of the dragons spiraling towards the ground. "I'm out, though."
"Fat lot of use you are, babe. Hold on." Solace dropped unexpectedly, and I saw the dark forms of the dragons occluding the stars shoot by overhead. He regained his altitude and set off in pursuit. Solace settled on the back of the rearmost, and clumsily put his fangs to its neck. It screamed hideously as Solace drained its life force, and all four of us started to plummet to the ground. The other dragons breathed flame at us, but missed because of poor visibility. They dived in pursuit.
"Hang on, this could be tricky." Solace rolled off the back of the dead dragon, bringing Ariel and I with him, and he frantically tried to control our fall. We grazed the tops of trees right after the sickening thud of the dragon's impact reached us. We now flew normally, but there was something wrong. "Damn, those trees made me lose my grip, and it had to be the cute one!"
"We have to go back and get her..."
"No problem, boss. Already on it." He reversed course, and descended through the trees, touching lightly on the ground. "Now, I can see in the dark, but you're the one who can see auras. Where is she?"
I struggled to look around for Ariel's familiar aura. But I didn't see it. Instead, among the faint auras of the trees, I saw what seemed to be an army of orcs and goblins.
"Uh, boss, we're in trouble." He leaned me up against a tree. "It's been nice working with you, but this is your fight, and nothing like this was in the agreement." He turned, saluted the advancing groups of goblins, and stepped into the air.
"Solace! Solace, damn you! Get back here!" I howled. Despairing of that, I forced myself to find a thread that could save me, but the effort made sleep seem such a comfortable release....
To be continued....
And, as promised, here is your free card...
3,Tap: Give all creatures +1/-1 until end of turn. All affected creatures that can attack this turn must attack. If any of these creatures attack the controller of Gruthelmant, it prevents the creature with the highest power from dealing any damage to Gruthelmant's controller. If there is a tie in power, Gruthelmant's controller decides which. Play before the attack.
"Gruthelmant's song of bloodlust has sent many a soldier to his doom."
|Copyright © 1997 Tim Bailey|
(Legendary Artifacts follow the rules for Legends. Only one of a particular name in play at a time, and any further ones that enter play are buried. Etcetera.)
The terms "Shimian Night Stalker, "Sedge Troll" and "Yotian Soldier" are property of Wizards of the Coast. The rest of "Points of Brilliance Part 5: Costs of Life and Death" is Copyright 1995 by Timothy Bailey. All rights reserved. This story may not be distributed for profit, with the exception of the normal charges for online time.