The crowd shifted in anticipation.
People from a dozen different kinds, humanoid and not, covered the plaza that lead to a great stone arch. Some people cried. Others wore stoic faces. A few smiled eager for the event to commence. On a normal day the arched pulon, ascending above the plaza almost twenty stories, glowed and hummed with energy. Vast numbers of citizens would walk through the shimmering field to a completely different location thousands of miles away. At this moment it remained ominously inert.
“Bring the prisoner.” The burly creature looked almost human in the bright trappings of the Council Guard. His wiry black hair snuck out between chinks in his armor. He had the dark yellow skin and small tusks common to most bugbears.
A human guard shoved what looked like a small girl forward. From a distance she appeared thirteen or fourteen years old. Although metal fetters bound her hands, she recovered easily and glared back at the guard. Her face had some childlike qualities, but she was a full grown woman of her kind: a paidion. Dark orange hair framed her soot-covered face. A breeze caught the hair as she straightened to walk upright. It whipped back behind her head, revealing small ears that swept into a point at the top.
She sneered at him. “How does it feel to be a cliché?”
“Silence!” The guard backhanded her across the mouth.
The paidion shook her head and held it up above her soiled and bloodied clothes. “You cannot silence all of us.” Her voice rose as she spoke. “One day the people of Loar will rise up against the rule of the Aeromancers-”
The bugbear reared back and punched her in the face with a meaty fist. The paidion flew more than a foot off the ground, sailing through the air toward the pulon. When her back slammed into the ground the cobblestones tore ragged holes in the once-expensive silk outfit and knocked the wind out of her.
A few in the crowd murmured in disapproval. Guards placed at key locations around the plaza silenced them by brandishing blades and mauls.
A tall human stood near the pulon wearing Aeromancer robes and symbols of the Council. He unrolled an official-looking scroll. A thin goatee gave him a sophisticated look. He smirked at the paidion as she clambered back to her feet and wiped her bleeding lip.
The bugbear grabbed her arm and half dragged her the rest of the way to the great arch. The guards forced the woman to stand under the pulon face the man with the scroll. Both smelled of sweat and metal, and the bugbear had the distinct wet-animal odor.
Only a few sniffles broke the hush.
“Lord Sophereth.” The paidion struggled against the bugbear’s grip trying to lash out against the Aeromancer.
“I would ask if you had any last words, but I believe you have said more than enough.” The Aeromancer smiled at her in triumph while addressing the multitude with a spell-enhanced voice. It sounded like a showman announcing the final act of the evening. “There are a number of crimes listed here against you, bard, but only one matters today. For attacking an Aeromancer sitting on the Council of Wind without provocation and with fatal intent...” His cheek twitched, still bleeding from the paidion’s blade. “Enamethwen Midola, you are hereby sentenced to be thrown to the Void.” He leaned in close and whispered so that only Enamethwen and the two guards heard. “I hope Elmarah finds you out there and has no mercy upon you whatsoever.”
She spat in his face, but the spittle hit an invisible barrier several inches from its target. It floated away in a fine spray before evaporating.
The Aeromancer nodded and the guards shoved the bard all the way through the arch.
Fear overtook her defiance and the woman screamed. Then she fell down below the edge of the land on the other side of the pulon and out of sight. Her scream faded after a few seconds.
With the execution over, the crowd began to disperse. None of them, not even the children, wanted to venture to the edge of the land to watch the bard actually die. Even the guards moved back with haste from the inactive pulon.
Only Lord Sophoreth leaned over to watch.
Inertia carried the woman down along the side of the landmass for a moment more, before the rock curved away underneath, leaving her to hurtle deep and alone into the endless vacuum of the Void.
Shrugging, he dismissed the criminal. She would no longer bother him...or the Council, of course.
Enamethwen’s ears began to pop. The blood running from her nose and eyes froze on her face before it ran very far. Her vision narrowed as the lack of air began to take its toll. The last thing she saw before the darkness claimed her was the bottom of the Island floating in a sea of stars.
Chapter 1: Thief
Darkness covered the mansion.
Stillness as quiet as the Void haunted the premises. A lone shadow crept past the picked lock of the front door which gave a faint ‘click’ as the latch closed. Then silence. No wind. Everything slept.
The intruder paused at the edge of the faint glow from wizards’ globes which lined the entry way. He paused to look at a series of vague images lit by the globes, portraits of powerful members of the family who lived here. The Riftwinds. The intruder, who went by the name ‘Muskrat’, knew the Council met on Pulon Island this week. He felt confident Lord Riftwind would not return for several weeks.
Muskrat moved further into the house. As the light increased from more globes, he grew more cautious. His shadowy form coalesced into a slender humanoid shrouded in dark greys.
Hair all over his body stood on end when he passed into the main reception hall. Behind him, a spell activated with a loud crackling noise. A wall of lightning as wide as the doorframe blocked that way out. Muskrat stifled a cry. He paused to regain control. Then he turned to examine the barrier. The architects had used metal for the doorframe. The metal acted as an anchor for the spell. Without a means to disenchant it, the only other way for him to get out through that doorway would be to remove the frame.
You forgot to tell me about that one, Doogan. He sighed and turned back to face the reception hall. Doogan had told him once that Geomancers in ages past had formed the home by magic using solid stone, crystal, and metal.
The lightning wall left a pleasant electric odor in the air. Beyond it, a slight breeze moved through the home, carrying a clean smell and a moist feel. The Riftwinds liked cooler weather, and their home echoed that preference. Shivering as he adjusted to the lower temperature, Muskrat wrapped his cloak tighter.
He surveyed the room for objects of value. Eight marble pedestals stood scattered throughout the room. Each pedestal bore the full body semblance of one of the Riftwind ancestors and their spouse.
His eyes traveled across every detail looking for more traps his ‘employer’ had forgotten to warn him about and the valuables he had come for. Several marble bookcases lined the walls. They held awards, books, and fancy statuettes meant to impress the less important guests not allowed further into the house. A large aetherpine meeting table sat to one side with elegant wooden chairs surrounding it. The rest of the room remained open for standing.
Muskrat made his way across the room to a display shelf. Several baubles disappeared under his cloak. Then without hesitation, he entered a bare hallway dimly lit by ambient light.
A soft sigh behind him gave the only warning. Pulling a glass rod from a pocket, Muskrat whirled to face his attacker. A ghost-like form floated toward him. A Whisper. Vaguely humanoid in shape, this one affected feminine features. The creature raised a finger and pointed. Energy crackled at the tip, but Muskrat moved faster. “Whisperwane,” he muttered under his breath as he aimed the rod. The apparition faded from sight without a noise.
Withdrawing back under his cloak, Muskrat made his way down the hall and around a corner. He dispatched another Whisper before it even turned around.
Muskrat ascended the first of two sets of stairs. The stairs doubled back into a hallway directly above. He ignored the expensive paintings of pastoral scenes. They were too bulky to steal. A wizards' globe at each end of the hall provided faint yellow light.
His first step off of the stairs took him to the right, down the hallway; then he stopped. Doogan won’t mind a few minutes more. Instead, Muskrat headed left passing the second stairwell. At the end of the hall he stopped once more. He stood in front of a heavy wooden door with the wyvern sigil of Koribald Riftwind, the eldest son of the councilman. Another long hallway stretched into darkness across from the door. Just before it came to a dead end, one final door led to the room of Koribald’s eldest sister, Cairith.
Muskrat grinned under his hood as he considered which door to enter first. Both of the elder Riftwind children had gone with their father to the Council. Long seconds passed as he calculated the risks of entering either room.
Koribald, the eldest of one of the most powerful Aeromancers in the Islands, would be the stronger of the two siblings by far. Muskrat knew of the Elder Whisper named Khiry who guarded Kori’s room. Wards likely protected doors and important possessions. None of them would be strong enough to kill in case Kori’s younger siblings went snooping. They still might ensnare, though. Khiry, on the other hand, could recognize the Riftwind family members. She would have no qualms using lethal force against intruders.
Muskrat knew Dalgan favored Kori of all his children. Kori’s great skill in aeromancy and martial weapons complemented his natural leadership. His room would contain many worthy prizes for a talented thief, including the enchanted bow, Longbreath. The wyvern -- a sleek, winged reptile that could launch poisonous barbs from its tail -- made an apt symbol for the renowned archer.
Muskrat shook his head. Kori almost always took the bow with him wherever he traveled.
Cairith, the only daughter of Dalgan and his first wife, was younger than Kori by three years. She lagged notoriously behind her three siblings in magical power. Of an age where she should be able to charge the Atmosphere Resonance Crystals, she managed only to conjure faint scents with which to perfume herself, and even then for not more than an hour. Yet what Cairith lacked in aeromancy, she made up for with cunning and ruthlessness. Beauty was her keenest weapon.
Muskrat decided that the far room held the lesser reward but also far less danger.
Cairith’s door was made of the same material as the table downstairs. Though very lightweight, aetherpine was still sturdy enough to keep Muskrat from breaking through by main force. For a moment he admired the mythical lamia that seemed to leap from the surface of the door. Her cat-like body reared back on two legs with the forelegs clawing at the air. Her upper torso and head portrayed that of a beautiful, thinly-clad humanoid. The face looked crazed with anger.
As he reached for the door, the hair on his body stood up again. It felt like another lightning wall was about to activate. He pulled his hand back and examined the doorframe for wards and traps using an Artificer-crafted rod meant to absorb electrical shocks.
Shaking off the feeling of apprehension, he tested the door. It was locked, but that meant nothing to one of his skills. After a few seconds using his tools, he entered the room.
The scent of perfumes hung heavy in the air. A canopy bed dominated the poorly lit room. Silk curtains hung from the canopy. Someone unused to the effort had made the bed leaving the silk sheets full of ripples. It was certainly not one of the house servants. Why would Cairith, the laziest snob in Loar, make her own bed?
A smoking brazier with a low dark-green flame flickered on the far side. The flame cast the bedchamber in eery colors. His wariness increased. Near the brazier a woven lace cloth covered a large birdcage. No sound emanated from it, although it was supposed to contain Cairith’s exotic blue twitterflit, Thia. Cairith’s current suitor had courted her for more than a year. He had presented the bird to her on her twenty first birthday several weeks ago.
Against the left-hand wall near the door, the flickering light outlined the silhouette of a chest of drawers. Combs, ribbons, and dolls, appropriate for a very young girl, sat arranged in neat rows on top. An escritoire stood on the far side. Cairith had placed it near enough to the brazier to have light for writing and for easy access to the flame. No young woman’s diary or papers with fancies doodled in the margins lay out on the surface. Instead, Cairith had arranged an odd set of tools with meticulous precision, as if for some chirurgeon’s practice. There were blades, picks, hooks, and some kind of corkscrew like those used to open wine bottles, but much smaller. The green light reflected in an eerie dance from their metal surfaces. Diagrams with complex geometric shapes and runes in a language Muskrat could not read covered the leather jacket of a small book on the desk next to the tools.
A large, tempting jewelry box sat on top of the chest of drawers. Yet curiosity drew Muskrat to the the strange objects on the desk. A kind of cloying, bitter smell coupled with an ashy tinge supplanted the perfume. His movements slowed. For stealth. His hand had moved to within an inch of the book when the flame guttered and almost went out.
He backed away from the desk. His heart beat loud enough to alert every Whisper in the mansion. In his alarm, he stumbled into the birdcage. It fell to the marble floor with a muffled clang.
Thia made no chirps of protest.
A stream of muted curses escaped from Muskrat. The brazier’s flame now burned steady again. Shaking his head and laughing silently at his own foolishness, he set the cage back on its base and straightened the cloth. Assuming that Cairith had taken Thia with her, he lifted the cover on the side nearest the brazier.
His eyes fell on a ghastly sight.
The once beautiful bird lay in pieces on the bottom of the cage. Muskrat gauged the bird had died about six days past, right before the Riftwinds had left for Pulon Island. Only a few tufted feathers remained attached to her body. The rest were missing...along with her head. Someone had sliced the body open, pulled her ribcage back, and removed all of her internal organs. They had also removed both wings and feet. Only one of the feet remained in the cage.
Swallowing his nausea, Muskrat recovered the cage and ran from the room. All thoughts of theft fled. He barely remembered to keep silent as he made his way back down the hall and around the corner to the stairways. His feet kept him going down the hall into the soft, dark-blue light of another wizards' globe. He dashed around the corner and into a bathing room.
Muskrat collapsed to trembling knees and released the contents of his recent supper all over the tiled floor. Several more heaves left him dry and weak, gasping for air on hands and knees. Unable to think, he did not notice the ghostly form of a Whisper floating across the surface of the bathing pool in the center of the room. The apparition uttered a faint hollow sound just before a jolt of electricity zapped Muskrat in the arm.
“Gods take you!” Muskrat felt more embarrassment from being caught off guard than pain. The lingering fear did not help either. He scrambled away from a second spark spell aimed at him. In one fluid motion he reached inside his cloak for the glass rod and pointed.
“Wait,” a voice interrupted from the doorway in a soft baritone. “Elliwy, it is okay. He is with me.” The Whisper lowered her finger and the crackling of the spell faded. “Come, Elliwy. Sleep.” Compelled to obey, the creature floated toward the door and, with a sigh, shrank and flowed into a beautiful glass flask in the hand of a human teenager.
Doogan Riftwind, Dalgan’s youngest son, leaned against the tiled doorframe at ease.
“Thanks.” Muskrat picked himself up out of the vomit. On the wall hung a basin with running water spigots, a luxury only for the rich. He washed his hands and face, familiar with the apparatus, then shook his hands dry. Turning to Doogan, Muskrat lowered his hood to reveal the angular face, still pale, and pointed ears common to the elfin race.
“You are late,” Doogan teased. His humor turned to concern when he noticed the mess on the floor and his friend’s face. “Muskrat, what happened?”
“Oh...um, bad fish.” Muskrat looked around for a towel to dry his hands. Then understanding hit him like the spark spell that had just zapped him. “Your Whisper’s named! You did it!”
Doogan smiled. “Yes...finally. Elliwy is still shaping, but she will make a fine elder Whisper in a few hours. That is, if she is not first dispelled by my best friend. Speaking of which, may I have my rod back?”
Muskrat grinned sheepishly and handed over the glass rod. “Sorry, man. I didn’t know.”
Doogan shrugged. He tucked the enchanted item away in his tunic. “Are you ready?”
Weeks of planning by the two boys were coming to fruition. At sixteen years old, Doogan already surpassed in versatility and control many of those two years older. Coming to an age where he understood the intricate politics of the Islands, Doogan found that he disagreed in a profound way with many of his father’s policies. For the past year their arguments replayed a daily ritual in the Riftwind home. Now, Doogan could stand no more.
Muskrat pulled his hood back up and glanced around the bathing room. “What about the mess?”
Doogan waved a dismissive hand at it. “There is no point in cleaning it up. The Whispers will take care of it once we leave. I need to get out of this place.”
“Alright then, I’m ready.” Muskrat swept past his friend and started back towards the stairs.
“Hold a moment. I need to get my gear. Then I have one more thing to do.” Doogan ducked into the room across hall and gathered the items he had packed for the trip. He slung a stuffed pack across his back. In his hand he gripped a stunning aetherpine staff carved personally a year ago. Simple yellow crystals adorned the staff in various places.
“Aeroshards.” Muskrat eyed the staff with respect.
“Yes. A crafter slotted the staff last week. I placed the shards just yesterday. They store a few minor spells right now, but I am hoping to obtain a larger shard for the top for a more powerful spell I have been practicing.” The young Aeromancer rubbed his hands over the crystals absent-mindedly.
After checking everything a second time, Doogan left the room and closed the door behind him. Muskrat glimpsed the etched symbol of a soaring mordhawk on the door. In his opinion, Doogan’s personal symbol, though proud, was not quite as pretentious as his older siblings’.
“Last thing.” Doogan crossed the intersection of the parallel hallway to the only other door. Carved deep into this third door was a picture of a budding aetherpine tree. An artist had depicted several smaller birds in flight or at rest in its branches.
Doogan’s youngest sister, Alassonia, lived in this room. Many of House Riftwind’s vassals reacted to the strange child in one of two ways. Either they doted on her or they steered clear. Odd things tended to happen around her, and she commanded more raw power in aeromancy than most adults. If she ever learned to tame it, the youngest Riftwind would sit on the Council of Wind for certain. She also enchanted fine jewelry, a gift most Aeromancers could not manage without the aid of a powerful World Shard or Geomancer. That particular talent she hid from everyone but her beloved brother and his elfin friend.
Doogan and Muskrat had discussed at length whether or not to bring her along. Doogan had argued for protecting her from growing up to be like his elder siblings and father, and the usefulness of her enchanting abilities. Muskrat had pointed out the absurdity of bringing a child. In the end they agreed that she was too young and the world too dangerous for her to leave the protection of home.
The two boys entered the room without sound, expecting Alassonia to be asleep. Instead, she sat in bed reading by the light of a bright green wizards' globe. Muskrat gave an involuntary shudder at the color and looked away. It was just a bird.
Muskrat heard all the love Doogan Riftwind had for his little sister expressed in that one word.
“Hey Doogie! Are you two leaving now?" Alassa's face beamed. Muskrat grinned at the pet name.
"Yes, we are leaving." Doogan ruffled her hair, the same dirty blonde as his own. She frowned at him and combed it back out.
"I'll take good care of your brother, Alassa,” Muskrat promised from just inside the room. He leaned against the door post, arms crossed over his chest in unconscious mimicry of his friend’s earlier stance.
Alassonia cried out, and reached for her brother. "Why do you have to go?"
Muskrat shook his head. Here we go.
Doogan took a deep breath as if to steel himself against his sister’s imminent tears. "I can no longer bear to stay, ‘Lassa. And no, you cannot come. Someone must stay here and make sure father does not become a complete despot.”
"What’s a despot, Doogie?"
"Do not call me Doogie," came the automatic response. "A despot is a tyrant."
"What's a tyrant?" She gazed intently into her brother’s eyes.
"A tyrant...grrrr. He is a mean person who tells everyone what to do and never has any compassion for the people."
Unable to help himself, Muskrat sniggered aloud. Doogan glanced toward him with a waning longsuffering look.
Doogan took a deep breath...then another. "Look ‘Lassa, I would love to stay and answer all your questions, but I must go. I will not get another opportunity as I have tonight for a long, long time. Please stay sweet and innocent for me, okay?"
Alassonia nodded quietly as the mood became even more serious. "I will." Then tears welled and poured down her cheeks. "Doogie! Don't go!" She leapt from the bed into her brother's arms.
Muskrat retreated out into the hall to give them a moment. From inside he heard Doogan sing softly.
After the song ended, Muskrat saw Doogan envelope Alassonia in a hug. "Shh. I am sorry. Koribald and Cairith have taken after Father. Lord Dalgan Riftwind of Beltair has grown ever so cold since Mo...well, for some time now. I have to leave, and I cannot tell you the all of why, my sister. Muskrat and I, we are going to make a difference in the world. We are going to make things better."
As his words grew more formal, the young girl's sobs lessened and she nodded. Watching from the doorway, Muskrat realized that they might not see each other again for some time to come.
Her face filled with resolve. Muskrat knew she would be brave for her brother’s sake. “I just remembered.” Quick as a blink she shifted moods and pulled away. “I have a present for both of you!” She dashed over to her luck chest and began digging through toy ponies and dolls until she removed two items from the bottom. The smaller she handed to her brother.
“Muskrat,” she called out into the hallway.
Muskrat walked back into the room. He stared in wonder as he unfolded a deep yellow cloak embroidered with a shiny, grey manticore.
Muskrat marveled at the gift. “Alassa, this is...”
“Kori won’t mind! He’s got lots. There’s no more Firomancers around so he doesn’t use that one. He won’t even know it’s gone.” She argued so fervently that Muskrat had no choice but to accept.
“Thanks, squirt.” Muskrat poked her in the belly making her giggle.
Doogan pulled his sister into another tight hug, kissed the top of her head, and ruffled her hair again. She attempted to pout, smile, and sniffle all at the same time as she straightened her hair.
“So long, half-pint.” Muskrat waved and left the room.
Doogan looked at his sister for a long moment. “Goodbye, Alassonia. I love you.”
“I love you, too. Bye, Doogie.” She sniffed one final time.
For once Doogan did not correct her. He smiled and slipped on her gift, a ring she recently made for him. He could feel a powerful magical enchantment mesh with his own body’s energy, another of his little sister’s enigmas. Doogan closed the door and took a deep breath before looking at the elf.
Muskrat grabbed Doogan’s shoulder and nodded in sympathy. “She’ll be alright. C’mon. Let’s get this adventure started.” With that the thief stole away down the hall, his main plunder from the Riftwind mansion following along behind.
Chapter 2: ARC
Muskrat looked thoughtfully at Doogan.
“Your father used to sing, didn’t he?” Muskrat waited for Doogan to go first down the stairs.
Doogan said nothing.
“I remember you telling me he used to sing to you before Alassonia was born. You said he had a rich baritone.”
“Father says work keeps him too busy these days. He does not have time to sing.” Doogan's chin drooped a little and his voice grew quieter. “I do what I can for 'Lassa.”
The conversation threatened to dampen their adventure so Muskrat dropped it.
The two boys made their way down to the first floor. No Whispers bothered them, even though they encountered several. Doogan grimaced at the front entryway as they passed. “I would not be able to do anything about that barrier anyway.”
Doogan led them to a more intimate meeting room with plush chairs, several cabinets, and a small bar. The young Riftwind walked over to a cabinet in the far corner. “I need you to unlock the small drawer in the middle of the second row. But do not open it.”
The complicated lock took several minutes to solve. A faint click came from inside the drawer before Muskrat withdrew his tools and he stepped back. “All done.”
“Stand back. This may take several attempts. Father’s ward is exceptionally strong.”
Muskrat moved across the room.
“Astrapei pauo.” Doogan waved his hand over the tiny drawer. A brief, yellow glow emanated from inside, then faded. The deep color of the light reminded Muskrat of dusk, just moments before Beltair rotated away from Loar’s star for the night. Doogan’s eyes grew wide. He took a deep breath and held it then opened the cabinet.
“Good.” Doogan exhaled in relief. “That spell would have done some serious damage. The odd thing is it only took one attempt to dispel. I suppose it was not as powerful as I first thought.” His brows furrowed, then his face lit up. “Alassa’s ring! I cannot tell you how valuable a gift this is. I need to research her abilities more when we get to Pulon.”
Muskrat walked back to Doogan and looked at the ring. Valuable gift. “The libraries in the Wayren District should have something about it.”
From the drawer Doogan pulled an intricate key shaped to look like a beautiful woman. Her arms spread down slightly away from her sides and her face pointed up. She looked like she was flying.
Muskrat’s eyes grew wide. “That’s a key to the ARC chamber.”
“Yes. Father hides a number of powerful magical tools in that room. I want to take a couple of them with us.” He tucked the key away in his tunic next to the Whisper Rod.
They left the room and headed deeper into the mansion. At a heavy crystalline door, Doogan retrieved the key. When he unlocked the door, it swung inward on its own. A slight chilly wind blew against them from the next room. Doogan barred his way with an arm when Muskrat started through. “Hold.”
As they waited, a wind swirled in the room beyond and coalesced into a translucent woman made of air. Then the elemental spoke, her voice breathy and hollow. “You are up late, Doogan Riftwind.” Her ghostly eyes turned to Muskrat. “Do you have an overnight guest?”
“Aisiliaoril, I would like to show my friend the ARC chamber.” Doogan nodded toward Muskrat.
Muskrat waved at her.
“Why are you dressed for travel, Doogan Riftwind?”
“I am going on a camping vacation for a few days with my friend here. I wanted to show him the chamber before we left.”
The elemental folded her arms. “I can not let you pass unless you know the passing word.”
“Cenessa,” Doogan stated clearly.
Aisiliaoril paused and Doogan worried that she would not let them pass despite his knowledge of the correct word. Finally she floated aside out of their way. “Very well, but do not stay long.” An energy barrier over the doorway, invisible a moment before, grew bright then vanished.
Doogan led Muskrat around the room avoiding the straight path to the door on the far side. Muskrat took note of the parts of the floor they avoided. Traps, he mused.
Another crystalline door barred their way, but the key worked here as well. Down a short narrow hallway, a circle encompassed with complex runes was inscribed on top of a slightly raised dais. Doogan walked onto the dais and waited for Muskrat to join him. “It is a wizard’s circle.” After they were both fully inside the circle, Doogan held up the key, grabbed Muskrat’s hand, and said “’arach.”
The lines of the arcane circle lit up, and every nerve ending in Muskrat’s body tingled. He experienced a kind of shift, then staggered, disoriented.
Doogan held him up by the arm. “Careful. I should have warned you. Teleportation is not like walking through the pulons to one of the other Islands.” He waited until Muskrat could stand on his own. “I promise, you become used to it.”
Muskrat smiled wanly and leaned up against a wall while Doogan retrieved his father’s stash. While he waited, he examined the room. The chamber featured a singular prominent object, the Atmosphere Resonance Crystal, the ARC. It stood five times the size of an average humanoid; the same deep yellow as Koribald’s cloak, it pulsated with a slow steady thrumming more felt than heard.
Muskrat yawned as the peaceful thrumming lulled him. Only the odd events of the night kept him awake. I’ve seen death before. Grisly, messy death. Why is that stupid bird affecting me like this? He shook himself mentally and turned his attention back to his friend.
Doogan stared at the Crystal for a moment. “When I began using aeromancy, my father taught me quite a bit about the Resonance Cyrstals. On occasion, he allowed me to perform the Ritual of Breath. If an emergency arises, I know how to keep the Island breathing.”
Muskrat stifled another yawn and opened his eyes extra wide as he focused on Doogan’s words.
“The ARCs are fascinating. They are one of the few examples we have of earth and air magic working together. The Crystals keep thousands of people alive every day. I snuck in here a lot after father first showed me how to use it. The intracacies of the patterns deep within...” Doogan visibly shook himself. “I do not have time for my obsession tonight.”
Four cream-colored marble pillars surrounded the great crystal. Doogan went to one and began fiddling with the smooth surface at about waist level. While he struggled, Muskrat blinked away the exhaustion and disorientation from the teleportation and studied the rest of the room.
“What are these paintings about?”
Doogan answered absently still fiddling with the pillars. “That one on the north wall in reds and whites is supposed to be a representation of the Sundering. Over there on the east wall, those really bloody images? Those represent the darker ages just after.”
Muskrat turned to the wall-sized tapestry behind him. “This has to be the War of Wind and Fire.” The scenes of the War, more stylized and less harsh than the previous painting, portrayed the Aeromancers in glorious victory after victory over the rebellious Pyromancers.
On the west wall a smaller painting drew Muskrat from his perch. “What is this one?”
Doogan looked up. “That is supposed to be all four of the elemancers.”
An artist sympathetic to the current rulers of the Islands had painted this work. Or at least they were heavily paid by them, Muskrat thought. In the upper left corner, a figure wearing tattered red rags sat in a rigid metal chair. On his head sat a heavy metallic crown, his face expressionless. Below in another square, a dilapidated boat floated on a gentle river piloted by a poor, silly looking figure in blues and white. Across from the corner with the river the distinct image of a pulon stood. Four mysterious figures in grey robes stood under the arch faces lifted towards its apex.
“Do you really think the Geomancers died whenever they went through a pulon?”
Doogan shrugged. “That is the legend. Not long after they created the gates, they supposedly went in and did not come out on the other Island. It is difficult to say for sure. According to the histories kept by the Amats’elian monks, the last Geomancer disappeared more than four hundred years after they shaped the last pulon. The survivors of The Sundering did not keep many written records for the first three centuries. When the monks began to write everything down, nobody but the bards really cared to read it anyway.”
The upper right hand corner of the painting showed one of the ARCs and an Aeromancer in the midst of the Ritual of Breath. Unlike the other elemancers in the painting, this individual was clear and neatly dressed. A look of benevolent authority radiated from his face. The painted representation of a document, the charter for the Council of Wind, formed the central bridge for the whole piece.
“Muskrat, can you give me a hand with this?” Doogan frowned and blew out a deep breath. “I have seen him do this a hundred times but I cannot find the panel.”
Shaking off the sleep, Muskrat trotted over to the pillar. He blinked several times. The lingering effect of Cairith’s dead twitterflit still slowed him, forcing him to be even more careful. At this point he began to wonder if magic had induced the fear somehow.
Muskrat turned to the job at hand to fight the nagging unease. This type of magic he knew for sure. His lips pursed. His brow furrowed in concentration. Years ago, an expert craftsman had hidden the panel well. Muskrat caressed the woodwork as if it were the skin of an elf maid. He pressed his ear to it, listening to the fine polished grain. A moment later he rapped his knuckles on a panel and it popped open.
Nodding approval, Doogan reached in to the compartment and withdrew several items. The first was an ivory scroll case. The Riftwind house crest, a giant funnel of air crossed by a forked bolt of lightning, marked the circumference of the case at its center. Next appeared a small metal vial corked by a black stopper. Two beautifully crafted and obviously magical wands followed. Last, Doogan pulled out a furry medallion that he immediately hung around his neck.
“A shaman talisman for protection.”
Muskrat marveled at the treasures. Dalgan must walk in wide circles indeed to have a shaman’s charm. The barbarian monster-hunting clans kept to themselves.
Doogan took one one last look at the ARC. “That is all. Let us quit this place.”
The trip back through the teleport circle did not disorient Muskrat as much as the previous one. “So tell me how come you can use wizard magic and it doesn’t affect your aeromancy? I thought once you used anything other than air magic you couldn’t be an Aeromancer any more.”
Doogan shook his head. “I did not cast a wizard spell and could not if I wanted to. I do not know any. I used an activation word to operate the teleportation circle. It is not the same thing. The wizard who formed the circle cast the actual spell back when the circle was first made. It is the same for wizards' globes and other such devices. Even you can use those, and you do not know how to use magic. Although you have learned a bit about it since we met.”
Muskrat ignored the patronizing statements. “Yeah, I’ve picked up a couple of useful tidbits.”
Soon, the two bid good-bye to Aisiliaoril and stood back in the main hallway of the mansion.
Doogan led them away from the sparking entrance towards a storage area. “Can you still open that old panel we found back here?”
They made their way through a maze of crates and shelves. Unlike the rest of the structure, the builders paneled this area with maplesong wood and supported it by thick deep-oak posts. Something about maplesong helped preserve foodstuffs better than marble. They took two sacks from wall pegs and filled them with edibles as they passed through.
Muskrat pursed his lips. “Yeah, I think so. Will the Vapors bother us?”
Doogan shook his head at the mention of the water elementals. “We will just go around them. It is the spiders I am worried about.”
Already shaken from seeing Thia’s butchered body, Muskrat felt another involuntary shudder run through his body. All he needed was for a spider to get down into his leathers and crawl around. The complicated armor with all its buckles and ties took forever to remove.
They finished gathering what food they needed and moved towards the back of the storage area, laughing and joking. Doogan could already feel the freedom of the open road.
At the back wall of the food store, Muskrat checked the lock on a heavy wooden door. “Whoa.” Muskrat whistled low in appreciation.
Doogan moved closer to find out what caused the exclamation and reached for the latch.
Muskrat grabbed his hand. “Easy. That door’s got a complicated trap on it. I don’t know what type, but it’s definitely a gas. If I try to open this or even pick it before the trap is disabled, I’m bettin’ we’ll both get caught in the cloud.”
“A gas? I can dissipate it.”
“Wait. I wanna see if I can recover it in case we need it later. If I get it out of there, you can tell me what kind of gas it is, right?”
Doogan scratched his head. “Yes...I think.”
Muskrat rolled his eyes and pulled the necessary tools from a pouch on his chest.
At first, Muskrat felt Doogan watching intently. Probably attempting to learn some lock picking skills. As the time wore on, the feeling went away.
Muskrat stood to wipe sweat from his brow at one point. He saw Doogan use a spell to waft an empty crate over to sit on while he waited.
Minutes ticked by.
Doogan cleared his throat, clearly bored. “I know I am making the right decision, but I worry about my family. Koribald takes after Father in many ways -- calculating, methodical, hard but just. One difference I have noticed is that Kori has begun to spend more time with 'Lassa in recent months. I hope he will learn mercy and become a better leader than Father.”
Muskrat grunted noncommittally, focused on the trap.
“'Lassa, on the other hand, has Mother’s free spirit. She spends days playing with the street urchins in the local town, only to return home to books borrowed from Mother’s library. Her eccentric behavior and unorthodox use of aeromancy might preclude a position on the Council for a while, but her future holds something extraordinary. I can feel it.”
Muskrat stood up and stretched before the conversation shifted to Cairith. “This guy was good.”
“I was beginning to wonder if we were leaving tonight.” Doogan raised a mocking eyebrow.
“Heh.” Muskrat handed over the tiny parts of the trap.
After a brief examination Doogan determined only one piece held the gas and handed the rest back. “Apokalipsis.” He closed his eyes as the identifying spell worked. A minute passed and then the sorcerer chuckled. “Sleeping gas, and not very potent either.” He handed over the small tubule. “That will not affect more than one or two individuals at close range.”
Muskrat nodded. “Might be useful in a pinch.” He tucked the tube away in a pouch at his belt; one Doogan knew contained extra padding to protect more fragile objects. Five seconds later Muskrat unlocked the heavy door and they were through.
Beyond stretched a long marble hallway that went nowhere. A soft yellow wizards' globe hung from a sconce on the right hand wall a little over half the distance from the entryway. The light glowed bright enough to cover the entire corridor. Polished marble flooring enhanced this effect by reflecting the light over and over again.
“I guess your hypothesis was correct.” Doogan indicated the hall. “No one ever comes in here any more.”
“Maybe. Or maybe anyone who saw the globe thought it a funny joke to light a useless hallway. Why would someone trap the door though? We’ve been through here several times. Do you think your father figured out our back door?” Paranoid, Muskrat looked around for more traps.
“Father would not use a device like your trap. It must have been put there by someone else.”
Muskrat thought of Cairith but did not say anything. “Come on. I’m ready to get out of this place. We’ll figure it out later.” He pushed past before his friend voiced questions he did not want to answer. Trembling a bit, he placed his hands on the left wall straight across from the globe. Then he ‘walked’ them one over the other to his right six times and pushed hard with his fingertips. A hidden panel flipped out of the marble and revealed a complex locking mechanism. It would take hours for even the most skilled thief to bypass the lock. “Did you bring it with you?”
From his tunic Doogan withdrew a rod. Small tines and barbs protruded at all angles along three inches of the end.
Swiping the key in a hurry, Muskrat inserted it into one of three holes, and turned. A section of the marble wall swung outward without a sound into a hollow beyond. Natural rock surrounded the hollow on four sides. Doogan had explained once that many hundreds of years ago someone had carved the small tunnel by hand. Without waiting Muskrat grabbed the wizards' globe and headed into the cavern beyond.
Doogan grabbed the key, then scrambled past the closing door.