After once again fixing the links that the Minecraft Forum broke, I now present to you...
Chapter 50: Ambitions
... a chapter which was a real pain to edit, but I finally feel satisfied with it. This chapter covers a variety of topics, including tips for auditioning for the Minecraftian Broadway, and a detailed explanation of why endermen give bad plot advice. Or was it zombies? I can't remember.
Silly Targoss, there are no musicals in Minecraft!
Also HOLY TILAPIA, 10,000 views! That is a lot of views.
Chapter 51: Not Out of the Woods, has just been released! There is no escape, not yet...
Also, on a more serious note, to anyone who has managed to read through some of Part 6, I would be curious to hear what you think of the sudden shift in the progression of the story. Part 6 is something I've been planning to write about for a while, but the more I think about it, the more I realize how experimental it really is.
Also, in general, my story is getting rather long. XD I really wish I could just say, "Bam! Here's the major plot hook! Get excited! Now, here's the major plot resolution! Yay!" but when I actually sit down to write my story, it always takes longer than anticipated because there are so many moving parts. I just hope they're interesting moving parts.
The story behind this chapter is interesting. It originally started as an introductory scene to another chapter, but ended up becoming a chapter of its own.
It could be said that the seeds of a certain philosophy were planted in this chapter, but is this really so? Perhaps the seeds have long since sprouted, bloomed, and died, spreading their decaying matter and seeds about the ground. Or perhaps the soil is already teeming with other plants...
I absentmindedly reach my fingers to my cheek to scratch it, only to again be made aware of the goggles I am now wearing. It is yet another symptom of my monstrous instincts getting the best of me.
We approach a three-story cobblestone house whose bottom story is a pub. It's just a few hundred meters from Bluesteel's gigantic spike-tipped walls. One of Bluesteel's military tunnels runs directly underneath the pub. During peacetime, the tunnel has become rather neglected by city officials. This makes it possible to enter the city out of sight of city guards, hence the name 'side entrance.'
Dan's not worried, but he should be. We are going to need all the help we can get to pass through the 'side entrance' without any trouble. Several gangs monitor the tunnel. Some are out for blood. Even if Dan gets through the tunnel peacefully, chances are there are a few folks in the pub who are sober enough to remember us passing through. Most are just as shady as Dan and most wouldn't bat an eye, but there are always exceptions. A half-blood and a limp body are two things rather hard to forget.
Dan opens the double oak door. The scent of redstone and hog dung intrudes into my nostrils. The dark room is clamoring with voices. The husky Sunshine stands so close to Dan that her fur pushes against his robe. Each of us holds the reins to one of the hogs; the hog I manage has Fristad tied to it.
I let Cousin walk in and do the dirty work. Rather than walk towards the watchmen at the back of the room where the tunnel entrance is located, he detours towards the counter and motions for some 'stone.
He is quickly presented with a sealed bottle. I was not aware the pub did wholesale. Dan pulls coins from beneath his robe and hands them to the bartender.
He holds the bottle demonstratively as he walks towards me. It is a bottle of rank brew, one of the strongest redstone drinks. "One for the road?" he says.
"Are you out of your mind?" I say.
"Nope," he says sheepishly. He unscrews the cap, tilts the bottle over his head, and takes a big gulp.
"How can you be drinking at a time like this?" I scorn. "We're about to transport a gravely injured man through gang territory, among other horrible things."
"Don't worry. I'm not going to fire magic missiles at anyone, and I am well aware of the gravity of Fristad's injury." Dan takes another gulp.
"You say that now, but the rank hasn't kicked in yet," I warn. I don't bother mentioning that 'magic missile' is not a real spell. Hopefully he meant it in jest.
"You should have a little more faith in me, Jonas." Dan demonstratively puts the bottle of rank in a leather bag hanging from one of the hogs. "I can control myself. I'm a big boy."
I sigh deeply, hoping I wasn't the only reason that Dan put the rank away. "I just wish you would take these sorts of matters more seriously."
Dan says not a word, but instead walks to the back of the room where the watchmen are. Of course he would ignore me like that. The watchmen stare at Dan, frowning threateningly. Dan pulls out a small metal trinket from a pocket, and in an instant they grin widely, as if Dan's a trusted family friend.
They of course let us through. I tighten my grip on the reins of my hog and follow Dan to the entrance of a wooden stairwell. Dan has to bend his head down a little to fit inside.
The stairs lead down into a dark, humid space lit only by redstone torches and the occasional lamp. It's especially dark with my goggles on. A few wooden shacks lean against the tunnel walls, but there are no stone buildings or modifications to the tunnel itself. How strange.
The city must have hired mages to ward the walls to keep miners from messing with it. Perhaps if I was still human, I would be able to sense the wards myself, but I have no choice but to ask Dan if I truly want to affirm their existence.
"Do you sense any wards, Cousin?" I ask.
"Very much so," says Dan. "I believe they are against rock penetration and geomorphy. They are strong ones, too. It must have taken years to complete them. Why do you ask?"
"Because I am just as interested in the structure of the tunnel as yourself," I say. "I suspected there was a ward, given the construction of the buildings here."
Much of our journey through the tunnel goes smoothly. We come across two groups of armed men, but both groups ignore us. I can now even see brighter light ahead of us.
But then a group of five people wearing hooded red robes approach us. One of them walks in front of Dan, blocking his path.
"Where do you think you're going?" he says. "This is a military tunnel. Unauthorized entry by civilians is illegal. Under Bluesteel law we are required to arrest you."
"You better watch out," Dan says, "I know a magic missile spell that can knock an ordinary Minecrafter off their feet and propel them five meters away."
What is Dan thinking, threatening another mage with a fairytale spell? He's making us look like a couple of fools!
"We are professional military magi and we outnumber you more than two to one," the man in front says. "Your magic missile spells are no match for us. You'd best cooperate peacefully."
"Is that so?" Dan inquires, a knowing smile barely visible in his shadowed face.
"Daisy, Dustface, search the hogs," says the man in front.
"Aye, aye," one of them says.
"What unprofessional behavior for military magi..." Dan remarks.
"Cousin, what are we going to do about the hogs?" I ask. "You're not seriously going to let them near Fristad and our belongings, are you?"
"Oops. My apologies." Dan lets forth a ball of light from each hand, and they crash into the two hooded folk walking near our hogs. Both of them stumble and bend down, groaning in pain.
The three hooded folk in front of us pull their iron swords from their sheaths. I soon hear the sound of gliding metal behind us.
Dan pulls out his diamond sword, grinning smugly. "Outnumbered but not out-armed, I'm afraid. Jonas, take off your gloves."
I reluctantly do as he says and tuck my gloves into my robe pocket, exposing my sweaty hands to the open air. I can already see my use of ender magic becoming a slippery slope.
"I am a trained combat mage and my friend here is an enderman half-blood," explains Dan. "Given that you five are clearly not mages as you claim to be, I hope you realize that you are at a severe disadvantage. I am now giving you this opportunity to walk away peacefully and let us be on our way."
I curse internally. If these people really aren't mages, then why did Dan bother ordering me to take off my gloves? I am not going to waste the efforts of my suppression on some civilians that pose no threat to us.
"May I ask how you came to that conclusion?" says the man in front, amused.
"It's quite simple, really. A real mage would know that 'magic missile' is not a real spell," Dan says. "It's a name solely used in fairytale stories. Any self-respecting mage would be appalled by the use of the term. Also, real mages don't wear robes quite like those."
Dan's elaborate use of logic is a bad sign. He could have easily figured out they weren't mages by sensing their mana pool. The Rank must be impairing Dan's judgment. This is exactly what I hoped would not happen!
"So, you're one of those academic types? Notch, I hate those," says the man in front. "At least that means you're rich. All the more reason to loot you. Right, guys?"
At this point it's clear that these people don't work for the military. They are no more than dirty thieves.
"Well said," says one of the hooded folk behind us, perhaps only a meter away now.
"Before we make a huge mess here," stalls Dan, "I'll have you know I am a contractor mage. I fulfill services for some organizations you may be familiar with, but I don't take sides. Given that you may need my services in the future, it is in your best interest for us to part peacefully."
"We don't need your help," one of the female hooded folk says. "Ghasted aristocratic scum! Why can't we just kill them and be done with it?"
"Let's roast 'em!"
"Shut up!" says the man in front. "The only one who gives the orders around here is me. Explain yourself, old man."
"I'm afraid I don't have much else to say. I don't discuss my clients," says Dan.
"I don't like secrets," the man in front says. "Bah, what the heck. I'm tired of waiting. Kill them both! Just don't destroy the potential merchandise."
Balls of flame materialize from the hooded folk's free hands. Turns out they were mages after all, all five of them. Dan made a huge miscalculation.
I feel the heat of the fireballs glance me before an instinctive pulse of energy snaps me into the void. The silver flames bend around my violet aura. My mind grabs onto a space of ground behind the head mage and the world snaps into place.
The light of the tunnel is inverted and strange. I feel oddly calm as my cold fingers slice through the neck beneath the fabric hood.
There is screaming, but I fear it it is my own.
As I teleport behind another hooded figure, I hesitate for a moment. I remember the ranch in Veridale. I realize I am losing an old battle I have fought so hard: a battle to save my humanity, a battle to leave behind the world of magic which has so long haunted me. With every pulse of energy, the cold liquid of ender will seep further into my veins. It won't be much longer until water starts to burn my skin.
But I kill the mage anyway. Surely it is out of necessity.
By the time I teleport behind a third mage, Cousin's sword is already poking though their back. He pulls the sword out, and the mage collapses to the ground, choking. They are the last mage to fall.
You can tell from Cousin's smile that he enjoyed the whole affair.
"Let's not linger here, shall we?" Dan says. "I do miss the daylight."
"If you are so reluctant to stay here, then why do you look like you're planning to put them in a museum?" I remark sarcastically. "You seem to take pleasure in their deaths. It's frightening if I say so myself. Fristad tried to kill me and I was forced to incapacitate him. That's not a matter to smile about, is it?" I argue.
"I simply find their stupidity amusing. They tried to kill us first; they deserved to die."
Sunshine barks nervously.
"Yes, Sunshine, I agree," says Dan, his smile waning. "Let's leave this place."
I sigh. Dan is less sane than usual, but I hold my tongue.
I wish I could blame my failing suppression on Dan's poor judgement, but that wouldn't be fair. If I hadn't made the mistakes that I did, I wouldn't be here in the first place. I am the real reason that my suppression is failing, and I hate myself for that.
Chapter 56: The Fate of Death Itself
After Dan exchanges the gold sword for a reasonable sum of credits, we travel to The Cocoa Bean, a rather well-to-do teahouse in Bluesteel's theater district where Dan's brother tends to linger during his breaks.
The teahouse is busy but not crowded. Round, birch tables with wrought-iron legs are spaced neatly throughout the room. Most of the occupied tables seat people reading newspapers, but some tables are more formal, talkative, and businesslike. Plenty of natural light shines in from windows high on the walls.
We sit down in a corner of the room near the door. Dan has stored his robe away to hide his magi status. He now wears a finely tailored button shirt. I wear a newly-purchased hat and strategically sit in a chair facing away from the rest of the room.
Roughly an hour passes before Dan's brother, Cubit, comes strolling boldly through the door. He is wearing a long beige coat and many layers of thin, colorful scarves, not unlike what Dan used to wear back when Dan and I were both lads in our prime and still lived in this city. There is still a good amount of blond in Cubit's shaggy, greying hair, and his eyes shine a rare, brilliant orange. Cubit's eyes were always like this, as if he was predestined at spawn to wield fire magic.
Cubit requests a coffee from the ordering counter and sits across the table from us.
"Fancy seeing you here, my dear brother," Cubit remarks. He glances at me briefly as he sips from his mug. "And cousin Jonas."
"We came here for a reason," I point out, not in the mood to tolerate his excessive formality. I lower my voice beneath the teahouse din. "My friend Fristad is being controlled by a human demon which is using a book to ground itself in the physical world."
"Come again? A human demon?" Cubit remarks. He raises a brow, his attention now gained and his voice lowered appropriately. "I was not aware those existed."
"They certainly do," affirms Dan, likewise lowering his voice.
"Is that some sort of half-blood?" asks Cubit.
"No. Demons aren't really a species," clarifies Dan. "They are souls that have broken the rules of..."
"Let's just get on with it," I snap, reluctant to be reminded of my own past. "We need your help to stop the demon from controlling Fristad."
Discomfort flashes in Cubit's eyes at that moment.
"...It is protected by ender magic," I continue, "so Dan's void spells have no effect on it.
"So your void magic is useless against it. What's the matter with that?" counters Cubit to Dan with a sad smile. "I am sure plenty of combat-level spellbooks are within your ability. Or have you been slacking, my dear brother?"
I roll my eyes at Cubit's obvious attempt to evade responsibility.
Dan sighs. "That's beside the point. Destroying the demon's vessel is not enough to remove the demon from this world. I've encountered demons that have moved into new vessels when their old vessel was destroyed. That's why I usually use void magic to destroy the demon itself."
"That is a predicament..." Cubit muses, as he crosses his arms and leans back in his chair, "however, I fail to see how my expertise would be useful to you. I'm a performer, not an exorcist."
"But you do have access to the arcane library, do you not?" Dan points out, his growing frown echoing my own impatience.
"Vrendan, Vrendan..." Cubit shakes his head. "In your quest for knowledge about dark magic, you've made life so difficult for yourself. If only you had chosen a more pedestrian magical discipline, you would have access to the arcane library, a stable job, and everything else this city has to offer. But instead..."
Cubit leans forward again, his eyes squinted slightly, conveying seriousness with a level of authority that disgusts me.
"...you come to me. I have a reputation to uphold, Vrendan, as I'm sure you are aware, and my fellow magi are not exactly blind to my brother's questionable history."
"I am aware," responds Dan.
"Then what do you want?" asks Cubit.
"I need books on the transportation of souls," says Dan. "They should be found in the earth magic section under the category of necromancy, or perhaps in some other section labeled under metaphysics. If you could find a living expert on the subject who lives nearby, that would be ideal."
"I can't do that," Cubit states. "Necromancy is illegal. Forbidden texts of that nature are locked away in the deepest levels of the library, out of reach from all but the most esteemed magi."
"ENOUGH!" I shout, lifting myself out of my chair and pressing my hands against the table. "I am tired of your cowardice," I tell Cubit. "If you can't bring us the information we need, I'll warp into the library and get it myself!"
"I would advise against trying that, or you will atrophy into dust," warns Cubit. He stands up, drinks the rest of his mug, and sets the mug onto the table. "Gentlemen, I'm afraid I must excuse myself, as this meeting has become too ostentatious for my liking. Besides, I have a performance to attend, and I wouldn't want to disappoint my customers. Goodbye."
Cubit sprints out the door.
A wave of murmurs rises and falls through the teahouse. The name "Cubit Ti'Drannes" is uttered. "Enderman" is whispered. I realize with painful regret that my sudden outburst of rage has brought unnecessary attention to all three of us.
After Dan and I make our own swift departure from the teahouse, we head to a poorer part of the city, which will help us conserve our savings and avoid the attention of city guards. As we walk down one of the worn, eroding cobble roads of the inner city, we scout an inn with weathered red brick walls. Brick buildings like these are an artifact of an older era when clay was once prestigious and valued. Somehow, even though I never lived in that era, the sight of those red bricks feels oddly nostalgic.
Such is the power of the rosy glasses of history.
Dan and I tether our hogs to some blackened wooden posts of a small, public corral in front of the brick-walled inn. Dan lifts some bags while I untie the unconscious Fristad.
"Guard our hogs well, Sunshine," Dan says.
Sunshine the husky lets out a high-pitched, excited bark.
I feel my muscles unload their tiredness into the mattress of the inn bed.
Fristad's still form as he lays beside me is somewhat haunting. Was I wrong to cling to my suppression so badly? Was I wrong to want to be human like him?
...or is that entirely missing the point of why I stayed in Veridale in the first place?
Dan stands at the opened window, watching the streets below. It's dark enough that the monster curfew has begun.
"I forgot how much I missed the city..." Dan laments. "It's so fast and alive. It's a shame that people are convinced that void magi like me are evil."
"Void magi like me ruined it for everybody," I groan.
"It's not your fault, Jonas. Magi of all schools have made the mistakes that you've made."
"You're wrong," I say.
As I focus my vision upon the unconscious Fristad once more, I feel my self-hatred grow. My suppression never was a success. There was always one instinctual urge I could not avoid no matter how hard I tried: the creation of the ender pearls.
I should have smashed that one ender pearl when I created it. Instead, I kept it in a locked box. I was selfish. I thought that by talking to her, I could learn from her mistakes, so that I wouldn't again fall down the path of dark magic that led me to my sorry state.
"I know that look," says Dan, his brows furrowing in empathy. He walks away from the window and sits on the edge of my bed beside me. "You're thinking about the past. It's a dark part of your past, isn't it?"
"I don't want to talk about it," I say adamantly.
I should have just forgotten my past altogether.
Dan and I used to be fire magi, just like Cubit. We were students, studying at the academy at Sparrow's Bay in the early months of the year, and working in Bluesteel the rest of the year to pay our dues. We all equally aspired to follow in the footsteps of our grandmother and Arch-Mage of Fire, Chevron.
Nearly two decades into the program, Cubit cracked under the pressure. He fell behind in his studies, first in spell-writing and then in independent casting. He became consumed in his own negativity, unable to come to terms with the fact that he could never be as good of a mage as his brother Dan. Then he became cynical of academia altogether, dropping out of the academy to pursue show business.
A few years later, while Dan and I were living together, Grandmother Chevron knocked at our Bluesteel apartment door late at night, waking us from our sleep. She revealed to us that she was a void mage in secret, and admitted that she saw potential in us. She offered to share her power with us through the use of the Spark. It was an honor we accepted without question.
Dan and I continued through the program. For much of the time, Dan surpassed me effortlessly, but a few years after the Spark, I became the better mage between us.
My ambition drove me blindly forward. I was not content to surpass just Dan, but every fire mage in my class, while also secretly advancing my ability in the void just as Chevron had done. It became clear that my grand ambitions in fire and void were not sustainable. Something had to give, and my honor was the first thing to go. I squirreled away forbidden texts. I stole knowledge straight from the minds of my fellow magi. For a brief time, my strength grew faster than my ability to comprehend it.
I was foolish enough to delude myself into believing I would never be caught. I was wrong, naturally.
I read the letter of my expulsion in the entryway of my apartment. The news kindled the growing fire of evil within me. I let that fire fuel my anger... I let it control me. I killed countless neighbors and, in a grand miscalculation of my own power, ended my own life.
I opened a void rift so large and so close that I was pulled inside of it. Dan tried to save me. To this day, I still remember his brown apprentice robes, his colored scarves, and his comparatively youthful, pudgy face. I still remember the blinding silver light that shone from his panic-stricken eyes. I still remember the sound of the wind screaming past us as Dan gripped my arm tightly. I still remember the void burning the last of the air out of my lungs, filling my nostrils with the scent of iron, the heat creeping steadily up my throat as the faces of disfigured dead of my own creation flashed in my memory.
Dan could have lost his own soul, but instead he saved mine. It was a noble gesture.
I soon found my consciousness reawakened on the outer roads of the Red Aether, the land of the dead itself.
The threat of the end of my very existence should have convinced me of my folly. Instead, Dan saving my soul convinced me of my invincibility. I was not content with just my soul. I vowed to preserve my memories, even if that meant delaying my spawn for all eternity.
I shunned the lines of the awoken dead leading to the beckoning light of a fortified city, and instead wandered in the other direction. The road which I followed led to a forest, which was dark in the dim red light of that world. Roaming in that forest were animals that resembled those of the world of the living, except they were silent and always cast in dark shadow, even when their backs were exposed to the sky.
In that forest, I was ambushed by a group of sentient souls. It was there, while I was defending myself, that I discovered I could still control the void. This went against everything I thought I knew; magic as I knew it could not exist without a life force.
I soon discovered that these souls did not want to harm me. They knew why I had strayed from the path of the dead. They called themselves rebels, enemies of the bureaucracy of the afterlife. They offered for me to join them.
I asked if they knew of a means for me to respawn with my memories intact.
They said yes... for a price.
They brought me to an old wooden house. My initiation consisted of cutting off a sliver of my embodied soul to be stored in a box, and having a hot metal brand containing the rebel's insignia pressed into my back. It was strange to me that I should feel pain and fear in this world. I could have convinced myself that I was still alive, if it were not for the red haze, my utter lack of hunger or tiredness, and my permanent suspicion that I was dreaming.
However, the deeds I performed after that initiation were very much real. I altered documents recording the deeds of souls' past lives, erasing unbelievable crimes and good deeds alike. I stole ancient devices from the cities; strange contraptions of diamond, redstone, and glass; some which the rebels claimed to be involved in the process of spawning. With the aid of the void, I even destroyed souls, a long and painful process though it was, watching their forms fill with holes like swiftly burning paper, screaming with a fervor only ghosts could muster, until their voices faded into silence. The horror of my death seemed tame in comparison.
It was all in the name of the slim possibility that I could return to the land of the living intact.
Eventually, the moment truly came. A shoddy mechanical portal was erected, and I stepped inside.
The journey was rough and long. After a time, my form was surrounded with a cloud of white dust. The dreamy haze lifted, and... I could breathe again!
...but once I returned to civilization, I realized I was not the same Jonas that I was before. I had become a monster on the outside. People could now see me for the monster I truly was. When their eyes caught mine, my mind may have been filled with alien thoughts, but the bloodlust and hatred were my own, my violence no different than what I had made habitual in the other world.
But then, deprived of my pride and my agency, I could finally see my crimes for what they really were.
Chapter 57: Awakening
I wake up early the next morning. I look to my right and see only crumpled bedsheets. My heart twists in my chest. Is Fristad awake?
I look up and jolt out of surprise. There is Fristad standing just beyond my bedside, doing back stretches.
If I hadn't made the choice to wear my goggles to bed, I could have accidentally stared into my friend's eyes and ended his life.
I carefully tighten my goggles, pacifying my fear, before beginning my celebration.
"Fristad! My man!" I exclaim, my smile spreading widely. "You're awake!"
"That I am," says Fristad, a hint of snide humor in his voice. As he turns around, I see that he too is smiling. His eyes are alive with the confidence to take on the world.
"I would normally ask about how you're feeling, but you seem so lively," I say. "It seems you are more awake than I am!"
"Hmm... maybe you need more sleep," says Fristad.
I chuckle. "I guess I should have expected that you'd be more awake than me, given that you've slept for several days."
"Exactly," says Fristad.
I chuckle again, although this time the humor feels a bit forced.
"I guess I should bring you up to the present," I say. "Yesterday we arrived at Bluesteel, and Dan sold the gold sword. We're staying at this hotel until Dan's brother Cubit can bring us some books to help combat the book's influence. It should take a few days at most."
"Oh," says Fristad, his expression replaced with confusion and sadness.
"What's the matter?" I ask.
"The book became... inactive all of a sudden," says Fristad, his brows clenching with the same haunting worry with which he often recalls his struggles with the book. "We were fighting for hours inside of my mind. There was a loud crack, and then suddenly it disappeared. I do not know what happened... however I think we should get rid of the book as soon as possible."
Fristad's worry wipes the smile off of my face. So excited was I to see my friend awake once more, I forgot about the perilous being dwelling near him, whose control over him became strong enough to force us against each other.
"I wish I could believe that the book became inactive," I say, "but it's just too sudden. May I see the book?" I ask modestly.
"Certainly," Fristad says, immediately pulling the book out of his pocket.
I feel the book placed into my hands. Fristad's lack of resistance to parting with the book is a good sign. I open the cover and flip through each page, one by one. The pages are all blank.
"Do you mind if I hold on to this?" I ask.
"Not at all," Fristad says, "but please be careful."
I nod. I slide the book beneath my robe and tuck it into the back pocket of my pants.
I am not sure if Fristad knows, but the demon within that book was once a void mage. Even if she becomes active again, she won't be able to hurt me. I suppose the mage would have known this if she was still in control of Fristad. Thus, Fristad's willingness to give the book to me is another good sign. I feel a slight smile return to my face. Perhaps the book's influence over Fristad really has waned.
However, no action of Fristad could ensure the harmlessness of this book. She could be trying to lull us into complacency... or bide time for only Jeb knows what reason. She could be in control of Fristad right now, imitating his behavior in order to deceive me. Why should I assume the extent of her powers?
I hear the bedsprings creak in Cousin Vrendan's room. I may have woken him, but it's good that he's awake. He will want to know all about the book's strange dip in activity.
I hesitate to leave the room for a moment, wondering if I should protect Fristad, but I dismiss this worry. I have the book now. If it attempts anything strange, I will know about it.
"I will be right back," I assure Fristad.
"Alright," he responds.
I open and close our creaky door, step to the door of the adjacent room, and knock.
"Come in," Dan says without hesitation.
I open the door and see Cousin sitting upright in his bed. He is wearing wool pajamas and his silver hair is quite messy.
Despite his waking state, Dan's eyes are focused sharply upon me. He expects something of me.
"Fristad is awake," I announce plainly.
"I am aware," says Dan.
"He also claims that the book has become inactive."
"Hmm, I doubt that," Dan responds, a brow of his lifting perplexingly.
"I do as well. He gave me the book nonetheless." I pull out the book from beneath my robe and hand it to Dan. "The pages are all blank. You can see for yourself."
Dan grasps the book in his hands and stares with curiosity at the pages as he flips through them. Dan's eyes project a look that I often see when he is trying to understand some unfamiliar sentient being, or when he is trying to read into Sunshine's canine brain.
"Care to introduce yourself?" Dan speaks to the book, "or perhaps just say 'hello'?"
A moment passes. The pages remain blank. Dan's expression is unchanged.
"I don't know what to make of it," says Dan. He hands the book to me. "Given the book's irregular activity, this could be completely normal. It could also be a sign that the demon has moved to another vessel, but we would need a divining rod to confirm that. However, it's rather unlikely that would happen. I'll ask Cubit to fetch a divining rod just in case."
"Why is it unlikely for the demon to switch vessels?" I ask.
"Well, a demon's vessel is like a body," explains Dan. "The longer they inhabit it, the more attached they become to it. Thousands of years is a long time."
"Is there any other way a demon could escape its vessel," I demand, "no matter how implausible?"
"There are a few ways, yes," says Dan. "One possibility is that the demon switches vessels on a regular basis, but a demon that powerful only shows up once every few millenia. Another possibility is that the vessel was damaged, weakening the demon's bond to it, but I don't see a scratch on this book."
"But Fristad did damage the book!" I blurt out in realization. "Back in Zomem's ancient tunnels, he struck the binding of the book with an axe. Perhaps that structural damage was enough to allow the demon to escape!"
It all sums up. Fristad did indeed mention that he and the book were fighting earlier. Perhaps the book's decision to switch vessels was in response to that fight. But, in that case, where is the demon now? Is it still back in Zomem's tunnels, or somewhere along the road to Bluesteel? Will it take control of someone else?
"That is a compelling possibility," responds Dan, eyes wide with intrigue. "Disturbingly so."
I nod. "What do you propose we do now?" I ask.
"Let's go to the civilian library," Dan proposes. "Perhaps it may hold information useful to us."
"Sounds reasonable enough," I reply.
After eating some breakfast near the inn, Dan, Fristad, and I, along with Sunshine and the hogs, set out for Bluesteel Library in the east city. As we continue to walk, the sun begins to shine in earnest, the paved bricks shift in color from filth-tinted grey to a gleaming white, and the city crowds become lively.
Finally, we approach the library's towering facade of stone and bricks, leave our animals behind, and ascend its steps.
The library is no less than a feat of engineering. The bookshelves reach incredibly high, perhaps twenty meters tall. Many of the higher shelves remain empty, ready to be filled in the coming millenia.
Fristad cranes his head upward in awe at the vast array of iron beams holding up the ceiling, and its many windows into the sky above.
"Goodness," Dan says. "Every time I come here, I see books about subjects that I've never even heard of. It just goes to show how little I know."
I nod in agreement. "This vast building of knowledge is truly humbling."
Dan's eyes dart quickly from shelf to shelf as he walks down each aisle. Finally, Dan's head stops suddenly as he fixates upon an aisle in the distance, evidently struck by a discovery. We follow after him.
He brushes his finger across a row of books, grasps a navy blue binding, and pulls it from the shelf. The book is titled "Bluesteel Library Catalogue Archive: 2500 Emerald, Volume 1." The Bluesteel Library publishes this archive once every century. This is the latest version.
Dan flips through the first few pages of the book, presumably a table of contents. Satisfied, Dan closes the book, sets it on the edge of the shelf, and pulls out Volume 7 from the shelf. He flips through many pages, his eyes attentively scanning, before closing the book again. He quickly opens Volume 1 again, them places both books in their proper place.
Dan leads us to another aisle, which is marked with the broad label, "Culture," along with an assortment of numbers. However, the content of the shelves which catch Dan's eye are far less innocuous: deadly mythical beasts, bizarre illnesses, inexplicable famine, all manner of instances of civilization gone horribly awry, and of course demons.
"Many would say," says Dan, "that the stories written in these books are completely false. However, we know better than that."
Dan stares at Fristad for a moment. There is a dreamy twinkle in Dan's eyes that I haven't seen in a long time. The last time I saw that look, Dan had just adopted Sunshine as a puppy.
Why would Dan look at Fristad like that? What in Jeb's name is he thinking?
Then, Dan breaks eye contact and gets to work, opening and scanning books one by one.
I set the question aside in order to focus on more immediate matters. I try to read some books myself as well, settling first upon a book of illnesses. My speed-reading skills are a bit rusty, so I cannot keep up with the pace of Dan, but I try my best. Meanwhile, Fristad borrows a book from an opposite shelf containing more innocuous subject matter.
A good deal of time passes, so I lean against a shelf. Noon sun from the skylights begins to illuminate the shelves and floating dust, yet the library remains cold. There are faint echoes of footsteps stepping on wood and pages being turned. There is a timeless quality to it all. Eventually, my stomach begins to plead for food.
"Jonas, I've been thinking," Dan muses, breaking the silence. "Our grandmother is getting old. She's not teaching anymore. Of her grandchildren, only three have pursued the practice of magic: you, Cubit, and I. Cubit, as you know, dropped school to become a stage magician. Meanwhile, you, Jeb bless you, have just been trying to get away from it all. That leaves only me to carry on Chevron's legacy..."
Dan's voice trails off for a moment. Whether he is trying to search for the right words, or perhaps preoccupied with memories of our family, I cannot say.
"It's been hard living alone in Zomem," Dan admits. "I can't trust anyone. Sunshine is a wonderful companion, but I've hit the limits of her intellectual capacity. I don't know who else to turn to but you. And Fristad..."
Dan turns toward Fristad. His eyes widen in surprise. I turn my head and see that Fristad is gone.
"Fristad, heavens, where have you wandered off to?" Dan calls.
"You go that way, I'll go this way," I order, pointing my finger right and then left.
We run off in opposite directions. I fear that the book may have taken control of Fristad again.
I run past the aisles, disturbing the occasional library patron, but I don't care. Every aisle I look, I cannot see Fristad.
Then, I hear my cousin crying out.
I run towards the front of the library, and my heart goes cold as I see Dan dragged by his shoulders by a group of magi guards.
"What in the Nether are you doing?" I yell. "He's done nothing! Let him go!"
"Stand back, you idiot!" one of the guards snarls. "This is a dark mage! He's a danger to all of us!"
"He's not! I know him. He's my cousin!" I plead.
"One more word out of you, cretin, and we'll hold you in contempt of the law!" another guard threatens.
I shut my mouth, realizing I'm powerless in this situation. I have no choice but to search for Fristad. I pray to Jeb that I have not lost two close friends in the course of an hour.
A sense of urgency consumes me. I let my body fall into the ocean of void. The blood of Ender reawakens within me again.
To the Nether with my suppression!
I let my senses branch outward through the grey expanse. Soon enough, I feel Dan's life force in front of me, slowly moving away. However, Fristad's life force is nowhere to be found.
I focus on the energy within me and draw it outward, expanding my senses even further. I feel the countless energies of humans swarming about, but none of them resemble Fristad. My range of senses refuses to expand any farther. I curse internally.
A disjointed alien voice reverberates in me, "Trapezoid, spheroid, potential, internal. Inversion. Ender. Humans, lesser beings."
I tell the alien voice to shut up. It's the last thing I need to hear when my best friend is missing.
I realize that searching for Fristad is a lost cause for now. I resolve instead to follow the life force of my cousin.
My lungs begin to beg for air. I have no choice but to surface from the void on top of a roof.
Dan is now riding on a hog cart, surrounded by the guards. His hands are shackled together, and a strange helmet covers his face. Just a couple blocks behind them, Sunshine nonchalantly follows with the hogs in tow, holding the ropes in her maw.
That dog never ceases to amaze me.
I continue teleporting from roof to roof, following Dan. The wind blows strongly up here, but strangely, I can no longer feel the cold. Eventually, the guards carry Dan inside of a wide building with barred windows, undoubtedly a prison. I sense Dan's life force descend underground, until his life force, as well as the life forces of the guards, vanish.
Chapter 58: A Symbolic Gesture
I curse as I clench my fists and resist the urge to punch the roof.
My two closest friends vanished before my eyes, and it's all my fault! We never had to come to this Notch-forsaken city!
I glance down at the streets, where Sunshine lays down soberly with her head upon her paws. I jump from the roof, walk toward her, and scratch her back, consoling her. She glances at me from the corner of her eye, the white of her eye visible, but then a moment later turns her head forward again, fixating on the building of Dan's detainment once more.
I consider for a moment Dan's claim that Sunshine can understand human speech, and decide to try and console her.
"I know you're upset, Sunshine," I speak aloud reluctantly, not quite convinced of it. "This isn't easy for me either... but you're the only other creature I can trust."
The dog whines.
"I can't just go inside the prison building and get him out. If those guards can detain a mage as powerful as Dan, they could easily detain me too. We need to get Cubit's help."
Sunshine stands up abruptly with a moaning half-howl, pushing my hand off as she does so. She scoops up one of the hogs reins and prances and jumps beside me, its impatient reaction to my proposed plan clear. My doubts of the creature's sapience are swept away, and I wonder in awe of how Dan was able to impart so much knowledge upon a dog. Then again, it does make some sense. Dan never had an apprentice, and Sunshine was his only companion. I just hope Sunshine doesn't end up becoming my companion instead.
Equally impatiently, I grab the reins of the other hog, and lead the way back to the theater district on the west side of the city.
The alley of the theater district that leads to the back entrance of Cubit's theater is stationed with two well-armed guards. I can hear the murmurs from the excited theater patrons waiting in line in front of the theater. I have tied up the hogs, and Sunshine stands beside me. I would not teleport inside, for the guards would surely hear me. It's best to be honest and confront them outside.
I do so.
One of the guards eyes me from head to toe with contempt. "Halfblood, the entrance is in the front. You did bring credits, right? This entertainment business isn't a charity."
I ignore him and speak to the other guard. "I am Cubit's cousin. I wish to see him. It's a family emergency."
"Now, do you really think I believe that?" the guard in front of me says, his brow raised as he smirks incredulously. He brushes his fingers across his chest and reaches for the hilt of his sword, pulling it slightly out of its sheath, as a threat. "What's your name?"
Do neither of them recognize me?
"You see that dog?" I point to Sunshine, sidestepping the question. "She gets really excited when-"
"I said: What is your name?" The guard reiterates, drawing the sword further from its sheath.
I do not dare say my name. I back away. "I guarantee, when Cubit comes out, the dog will react. Sometimes she even reacts when-"
"I am running out of patience, ender. Tell me your name!" The guard snaps, leaning forward with sword in hand."
"Look Sunshine, it's Cubit! Cubit!" I yell with faux glee as I point out of the alleyway.
On queue, the dog barks rapidly and zigzags out of the alleyway, her tail wagging wildly.
"We don't get paid with jokes and doggy tricks, cretin. Leave our sight or we'll cut your head off!" The guard threatens.
I capitulate and back away, seeing no other way to confront the guards without violence. I settle with waiting for someone who recognizes me.
Some forty minutes passes before Cubit's accountant approaches the alleyway. She knows me. Her dark hair is slightly frizzy, her shirt clings to her skin from sweat, and her eyes are tired and blank.
I intercept her.
"Oh, hello there, Cubit's cousin," she responds. "Guards giving you trouble?"
"Yes, could you help me get in?" I ask, relieved.
"Sure. Is that your dog?"
"Cubit's brother's dog," I correct.
We walk toward the guards. They begin to draw their swords from their sheaths at my approach.
"Don't bother," the accountant orders. "He's with me. The dog, too."
The guards step aside.
"He should have walked with you in the first place. We nearly killed him," one guard scolds.
"Noted," she answers.
We pass through the door and enter a rather dark storage room full of crates and chests and the like. The place smells of fabric, dust, and chemicals. We pass through it into a brighter room which is more well-lived in. There are a pair of desks, followed by bookshelves partitioning the center of the room. On the other side of the room is a full-length mirror surrounded by hung costumes, a half-opened crate, and a coat hanger holding the same brown cloak which Cubit was wearing earlier today. A single ceiling redstone lamp lights the room meekly, overpowered by the light from the dirt-stained windows. Yet-unlit candle stands huddle together on one of the desks.
I can hear excited murmurs faintly echoing from further inside, undoubtedly theater patrons eager to find a seat.
"I suppose Cubit is behind stage right now. Jensen, was it?" I turn to the weary accountant.
"Yes, that's my name. I'm supposing you'd still prefer I didn't ask yours, magi family secrets and such?" Jensen asks rhetorically. "Cubit should be on stage by now."
"Well, that's unfortunate. I guess I'll have to wait. I fear drawing attention to myself, and I need Cubit in a good mood if I am to get his help." I suppress a few choice words regarding Cubit's poor character. "I appreciate your discretion, Jensen. You are very professional. And hard-working, if the sweat is any indication."
Jensen looks down at her shirt, troubled. "This sweat is not usual for me. I was down in the city redstone circuits, sending tax confirmations."
"Is that so?" I raise a brow in intrigue. "I haven't heard much of redstone mail. I've only heard of paper mail, and mail sent through more magical means."
"Well, it's useful to prevent tax collectors from coming after us, in case one of the mailmen dies," Jensen explains.
"Yes, of course," I reply, more interested in the details of redstone mail rather than how reliable it is, but deciding not to press further, so as not to disturb her work. I order Sunshine to go back outside and watch the hogs.
I occupy myself for a few hours before Cubit's performance ends. The light outside of the windows is darkening; sunset is approaching. Cubit walks into the room chatting lively with what I would guess are his assistants. He wears a long purple cloak with feathers running along its edges, and his blond and grey hair is messy, as if blown by wind.
"I think this deserves some celebration," Cubit proposes.
"Why should we celebrate?" an assistant asks.
"Why not? It's only fair we occasionally celebrate the non-periodic anniversary of my employees," Cubit replies. His joyful face turns to confusion as he notices me. "Cousin, what are you doing here?"
"Cubit, I need to speak with you alone about something very important," I say.
"Well then... you're invited!" Cubit raises his hands in an open gesture.
"Cubit, it's urgent," I insist. "It's about your brother."
"Nothing about my brother is urgent," Cubit jokingly complains.
Cubit's carelessness enrages me... but I force myself to maintain composure.
"Jensen, you're invited too, but of course you are under no obligation to attend," says Cubit.
"No thank you."
"You are free to go, then."
With the proposal made, the three assistants, Cubit, and I travel to Cubit's home. Sunshine and I tow the hogs with them.
In a well-furnished lounge room in Cubit's home are plates of fruit, sliced meat, and fresh sweet bread. One of the assistants is slightly incapacitated from a redstone drink, while the other two enjoy some tea with Cubit.
"May I interest you in something to drink, Jonas?" Cubit asks me.
I consider asking for some tea, but the ender part of my mind quickly shuts off the idea with utter revulsion. "Quite frankly, cousin, in my current state, I don't think I could drink water."
"Well, that's unfortunate," says Cubit. He turns to his two tea-drinking assistants.
"Why don't you two set up a game of Fool's Checkers? It's in that chest over there." Cubit points to the corner of the room.
Cubit places his hand on my shoulder. "Let's go to my room."
We walk to his bedroom. Cubit closes the door behind us, sits in a fabric chair, and beckons for me to sit in the opposite chair.
I sit down. Cubit places his tea down on the table between us, and leans back in his chair.
"Jonas, I may not be a void mage, but I know why you're here. Vrendan has been captured by the city guards for his use of dark magic. He has been transported to a special prison chamber whose walls are lined with spent diamonds. At this very moment, the spent diamonds are draining away his magic, until his old age catches up with him and he dies of weakness. And you had the sense of mind to not teleport into his chamber and commit suicide."
"How can you describe your own brother's death so calmly? And how can you be so certain of it?" I demand, appalled. "Do you want your own brother to die?"
"Of course not, Jonas! How could you accuse me of such a thing?" Cubit insists. "Every time Vrendan visited the city, he put himself at risk. Even you must have known yourself that it was only a matter of time before he would be caught. As for the chamber, Chevron told me about it. Many important buildings have spent diamonds embedded in their walls to stop intruders from trying to teleport or break through them."
I recognize the nature of those clear gems, the deadly transformation of diamonds whose energy has been drained from countless years of use. Their presence must be why Cubit didn't want me to teleport into the arcane library.
"But if Chevron knows about them, surely there must be some way to get around them," I insist.
"And be in contempt of the law? Are you crazy?"
"Then we ask Chevron's help to appeal the conviction, if we must!"
"Jonas, a conviction of dark magic has no appeal," Cubit insists. "Vrendan is a lost cause. My advice to you focus your efforts on helping your friend."
"Fristad is missing!" I yell in frustration. "And even if he weren't missing, the one man best able to help him is Dan himself! How can you not see that? You're just searching for excuses to get away from responsibility, so you can keep living your fantasy life of effortless fame and luxury!"
Cubit's cheek twitches. His orange irises become vivid. "I have built up a living for myself out of nothing but my own time and will! All the while, I have abided by the very laws which safeguard the well-being of my fellow citizens. You've hardly even done the latter! You've squandered your magic to become a criminal, a murderer, and a monster! And now you blame me? Ridiculous. I guess I should have expected nothing more from the likes of you."
"I am no longer any of those things!" I insist, appalled. "I left magic behind because I had to. I took it too far and let it control me and destroy me. But what do you have to say for yourself? You didn't even try to finish mage school. You left out of laziness, and all you got out of it was some toy magic that you use to amuse clueless civilians! And you call it hard work! And now, to add insult to injury, you conspire to kill your own brother so you can claim to be the best mage. You are an insult to Chevron's legacy!"
A flame sprouts from Cubit's finger. Cubit glares at me sideways, his jaw locked.
"I left academia because I was sick and tired of its lies, claiming to impart knowledge from self-absorbed tenured mages and obsolete piles of shaved wood. I left school because I wanted to; I refused to dedicate the prime years of my life to such a complete and utter waste of time like you did! And because of that, I am more of a mage than you will ever be."
At that, I lunge at him with my claws, gloves shed. I feel a searing heat under my neck and teleport away. I topple his chair. His body is bathed in flame. I teleport behind him and reach, but the force of the flame repels me. Searing hands grab my arms; I kick and they let go with Cubit's grunt. I swing my sword. The hilt becomes molten. I drop it. I draw the ender from my veins. Fire meets fire, mine purple and the other blue. The room is warming. I teleport again. Suddenly there are two of him. Both corporeal. I throw a punch and it bounces off. A burning ball hits my stomach. I feel my energy draining.
Before I know it, my back is pinned to the ground, my body exhausted, my skin sore, and my robes burnt. Cubit leans above me, face bent in anger, orange eyes glimmering with flecks of gold, a hand on my collarbone and another hand holding my sword glowing red to my neck. There is an air of dignity and power in Cubit's expression that I have never seen.
"Maybe I should kill you now," Cubit suggests, contempt in his voice. "It would put you out of your misery."
Cubit stands up and throws my sword to the side. I get up.
"I can't believe you're what's left of my cousin," says Cubit.
"Cubit, I... I had no idea you were so strong," I state.
"I care not of your mana pool, but of things more intangible," Cubit states. "You say you've left your old life behind, but I doubt you have. You even still wear your apprentice robe."
I stare down at the remaining soot-stained rags, undoubtedly angry to lose the outfit I have worn longer than any other.
"And now you've destroyed it."
"A symbolic gesture, I know," remarks Cubit.
I take off what remains of my robe and fold it, doing the best to restrain my anger.
"I am going to see Chevron," I declare. "Even if she cannot help me save Dan, perhaps she can help me save Fristad."
With those very words, I teleport away. I consider returning to say goodbye to my cousin, or perhaps mention the hogs, but time is urgent and formalities frivolous. Each time I surface from the void, the cold night air fills my lungs like a calm wind.
Chapter 59: The Other Half
Suddenly, as I let my mind pull my body into the void again, I feel a sudden jerking motion. I turn around and assess my surroundings, and realize I am still at the same city block I was before.
I try to reach out with my mind to the void again, but this time I feel nothing. I feel my breathing getting heavier, my muscles getting sore.
Whatever the enderman equivalent of mana is, I seem to be out of it. I suppose I shouldn't have expected any better after seventeen years of near abstinence. If only I didn't let Cubit bait me into fighting him, perhaps I would have had just enough energy to reach Chevron. But now, with my ender energy completely drained, I cannot even sense the life forces around me. Or perhaps if I could sense my own ender energy, I would have known when to stop teleporting.
Or this... or that. Does it really matter? I don't want to be a mage anymore. I shouldn't have to rely on magic for anything.
So, I have no choice but to rely on others. Unfortunately, the only people that might know Chevron's location are magi. My best bet is to travel to the city arcane library, and hope some poor soul pulling off an all-nighter travels through those doors, and simultaneously is willing to reveal the location of an important city mage. It's practically impossible, but I don't know what else to do.
So, exhausted of options so late at night, I use my fragmented memory of the city to find the arcane library, and wait in front of its pillar-framed entrance. Perhaps hours and many undead monsters pass by. It is still surreal to me how creatures who once tried so hard to kill me now completely ignore me. I'm so used to avoiding them, whether by instinct, nighttime curfews, or everyone else around me being afraid of them.
To my fortune, a hooded figure appears from behind the corner of a building, walking toward the arcane library entrance. I intercept him.
"I am sorry to bother you, but I have an emergency and was hoping you could help me," I tell him.
"I'll do what I can," the hooded man replies, audibly tired but sympathetic.
I wrack my brain for what explanation I could possibly give to this man. I feel desperate. How could he expect a halfblood to be affiliated with such a prestigious mage as Chevron? I simply can't invent an explanation. With the lives of my two best friends at stake, I decide to gamble on my anonymity and tell the man who I truly am.
"This is going to be hard to believe, but my name is Jonas Lisa Ti'Drannes. I am a grandson of the Arch-Mage Chevron Ti'Drannes. A bold claim, I know, as Jonas Ti'Drannes is supposed to be human and to have died nearly a century ago."
The hooded man nods along, seemingly receptive. "That is pretty hard to believe, but please continue."
The man's openness gives me a glimmer of hope. If I tell him just how bad my situation is, is there a chance he could take my word, and truly help me find Chevron?
"My best friend and closest cousin are in grave danger," I explain. "The former is being controlled by a demon, and the latter is being sentenced to a slow death for a conviction he doesn't deserve. My grandmother is the only mage I can trust to help them. I need to know where she lives so I can get her help."
"Gosh..." the hooded man says, "I really wish I could help you. Even if I did know where Arch-Mage Chevron lives, I doubt I would be responsible enough to know whether to tell you. I just became a student of magic nine months ago. I hardly know anything. I truly am sorry. I hope you save your cousin."
With those words, the hooded man walks past me. As I hear the library door slam behind me, I perceive a strange finality to it. Every minute that passes by, I know my cousin Dan is creeping closer to his death. I can't help but imagine him, leaning on his hands and knees inside of the obsidian room, his skin sagging, the color draining from his eyes, his face locked in pain as his overtapped mana pool erodes ever-so-slowly his very life.
It is all to much to bear. How I wish I could forget the cousin and scholar I've known so well, but how can I when I have no place of solace to return to? Without Fristad, a companion to join me on the longest days, to chat with joy on the shortest, the farm is nothing to me.
I can't watch the buildings any more. I look down. My mind shuts itself off. All I perceive is a sickening past and a lonely future, a trapping fate I've condemned myself to.
A great while passes. I stand in sadness, but no other mage comes.
Then, I hear the sound of an enderman surfacing from the void right next to me. I expect it to teleport away to continue on its trek, but it stays there. I look at the creature, and the creature turns toward me. Purple sparks swarm around it. Its eyes stare into mine, conveying an aura of sadness.
"You poor creature," it speaks, in its strangely echoing voice. "A creature of Ender should never be forced to endure such pain. Your energy is drained. Please permit me to lend you some."
Never before has an enderman ever teleported to me, let alone spoken to me. I am surprised by the creature's altruism.
"I... would be grateful," I say.
The enderman shapes its hands as two C's. Purple vortexes swarm within them, coalescing into two floating teal beads which grow in size. I recognize the process; it is the very same process that I could not help but compulsively perform: the creation of ender pearls. Except... it is far faster.
The enderman places the pearls in my hands, and waits for a moment.
"You do not know how to absorb them, do you? What a shame. Remove your eye shields, and I will show you."
I pull my goggles down, a bit nervously, as I anticipate the possibility of a human appearing out of the corner of my eye.
"Look into my eyes," the enderman says.
And I do so, staring into the being's purple ellipses, at once aware of how similar it is to the strange face which stares at me in the mirror. Calmness and order fills my mind. The enderman's strangely-shaped consciousness brushes against my own, and with it a mosaic of voices far too alien for me to understand. A body silhouette is projected into my mind. I see an image of enderman hands grasping ender pearls, with the pearls rapidly shrinking. A sharp-edged, irregular polygon is etched into my mind, a concept of thought which commands an exact schematic of an ender pearl. It demands me to understand it, its assembly, its absorption, its existence as a concrete thought distinct from all others. I perceive the polygon. The ender pearls shrink from my hands, and energy surges through my arms. My muscles become restless, the world intensely real, life forces glowing unsolicited all around me, and a topology of the void superimposed over it all.
"I am finished describing the sphere to you. You may put your eye shields back on, if you want," says the enderman.
"Thank you," I mutter in amazement, as I return the goggles to my eyes.
"Before you travel on your way, may I offer some advice?"
"Of course," I say.
"To the west, where a forest clearing is cut off by mountains from the north and a stream from the east, there is a town called, 'Marblemoss.' Golemancers live there. They are human, but they can be trusted. They have the knowledge to extract human souls from bodies. They can extract the human soul fragment from you, and make you pure. They can then refer you to one of our kind, who can give you a proper body."
"I appreciate it, however I am content with the way I am," I tell the enderman.
"What a shame. You have so much potential," the enderman says. "My name is Kleisjend Domeen. And yours?"
"Jonas," I state simply.
"I will remember you, Jonas. I hope we meet again."
The enderman vanishes. I stand dumbfounded for a moment, suddenly aware of the strange world to which the other half of me is connected.
Then, my body now overflowing with energy, I continue to teleport through the city, searching for Chevron.
It is just sunrise. I am in the east quarter of the city, where the towering buildings are packed together but nonetheless well-maintained. The white road tiles are an aesthetically pleasing sun and cloud pattern. Sadly, there is not much in the way of vegetation aside from the occasional potted plants in a windowsill.
Here, I am almost certain I sense the presence of a life force which reminds me of my grandmother Chevron. However, there is only one way to know for certain.
So, hopefully for the last time, I reach with my mind into the void, and pull myself toward the source of this life.
A dark pinewood-walled living room appears around me. Candlelight continues to supplement the still-weak sunlight. In front of me is a large figure in a chair, bending over what appears to be a ledger of some sort. The figure, startled, jerks its head up at me. Its braided hair falls over its shoulder, and I see the blood orange oval eyes of Chevron. Her hair, once yellow blonde, is now a coarse and tangled light grey. Her nose is as thin as I remember, but the the rest of her is heavy-set, cheeks plumped and back rounded.
She stares at me in disbelief.
"Why is there an enderman in my apartment?" she asks shrewdly.
"Chevron, it's me, Jonas. Your grandson," I explain. "Cousin Vrendan was convicted of dark magic, and my best friend Fristad is missing. I wish I could explain everything, but there's no time."
Her eyes grow wide. She places the ledger on a side table, and stands up slowly, her height as impressive as her girth. She steps toward me, and places the palm of her hand on my chest.
"Is it really you, Jonas? In the flesh? Jeb... it's been so long..." She lowers her hand. "Vrendan told me about what happened to you. And Fristad is your farming partner? I can't believe those wolves finally took Dan! I won't stand for it... let's leave at once."
My heart nearly flips over from these words, a sudden shock of hope from Chevron's call to action.
Chevron waddles to the edge of the room, where a red robe hangs. She undresses her current wool sweater, slides on the red fabric, and fastens the grey accent cloth in place across her collarbone.
"What are you planning to do?" I ask.
"We are going to appeal Vrendan," she states.
"But Cubit said there's no appeal for dark magic," I counter.
"He's right," she says, "but I won't let formalities stop me. Can you teleport us both across the city?"
"I don't know if I have enough energy to to that," I admit.
"Then I will get you a potion."
"I can't stand water," I state quickly. "Do you have any ender pearls? I can extract energy from them."
"Yes, I will get some." Chevron walks away, and comes back bringing a brown bag. She holds the bag open in front of me.
There are other things besides ender pearls in the bag, books and potions mainly. I take two ender pearls from the bag, and recall their nature in my mind. The pearls shrink away from my hands, and my body is more restless than ever. I see many purple sparks float around me, and an alien voice compels me to create a pearl. The geometric image once again appears in my mind, and I see once again a pearl forming in my hand. The energy in my body feels less intense. I then place the remaining pearl back in the bag. Perhaps two pearls was one too many.
"Are you ready?" Chevron asks.
Chevron hands the bag to me, and holds my hand. The two of us vanish from the apartment and onto the city roofs.
Chapter 60: A Desperate Plea
Chevron and I materialize at the entrance of the very building into which Dan disappeared. Chevron raps her knuckles on the door.
After a time, it opens.
"An Arch-mage?" asks an armored guard on the other side in awe. "What honor do we have to see you?"
"It is no honor! My grandson Vrendan is dying in your walls under false claims of dark magic!" Chevron snaps.
"I understand your anger. I will inform my superiors at once about your concerns. Please wait here."
The guard shuts the door. After a time, the door opens again, and the face of another guard appears.
"What is your name?" the guard asks.
"Chevron Blade Ti'Drannes," she states.
"Why are you here?" he asks.
"To seek mutual understanding of the innocence of Vrendan Wildheart Ti'Drannes," she states.
"Is the enderman accompanying you?"
"Yes, he is accompanying me."
"Very well," the guard concludes. "Please step inside slowly. You are not being held for a crime, however we must take every possible precaution when dealing with an Arch-Mage. You will have weapons trained on you."
"I... suppose there is no sense arguing with that," says Chevron, apalled.
Chevron walks inside, and I follow. I see in front of Chevron two guards whose leather armor has obsidian squares sewn into it. They each hold a spear tipped with a sharpened clear gem, undoubtedly the deadly spent diamonds which Cubit had forewarned. Their spears are trained just to the sides of Chevron. There is an incredible latent energy to their still, symmetrical, lean-muscled forms, as if they are ready to pounce upon Chevron at any moment. Behind Chevron, two guards whose height and girth rival her own, with formidable enchanted diamond gear, stand with swords drawn. Yet another guard positions themself directly to my side.
I jump as the door slams behind me, causing the whole hall to reverberate and my ears to throb with pain.
The armed and ready guards escort us a stair level up, to what appears to be a small dining commons for the prison staff.
"You may sit if you want," a spearman states. "Our overseer Ashflame is coming to speak with you."
"I believe that's her," a diamond-clad guard states.
A woman walks before us, with well-laundered clothes, hair pulled straight back, and a sharpness in her eye that seems to revel in her audacity to not wear armor in a high-security prison.
"Mrs. Ti'Drannes?" Ashflame inquires.
"Arch-Mage," Chevron growls.
Ashflame smiles. "I believe we are acquainted. May I ask you why you are here?"
"To put it bluntly, I wish to prove Vrendan's innocence, so that he may be set free."
Ashflame frowns. "Ah yes, I do believe one of my guards mentioned your request to appeal for innocence. Unfortunately that's just not in the cards. You see, we maintain strict rules when dealing with criminals that are a threat to the safety of Minecraftian society, and dark magi are among the most dangerous criminals of them all. To leave such a mage roaming freely is to risk them wielding their powerful and immoral magic to exploit and kill the people which surround them. We simply cannot risk that. Do you understand what I am saying?"
I resist the urge to remark upon this patronizing speech, but Chevron does not.
"I am quite aware of government policies against dark magi; there is no need to give me an introductory class on that subject, nor any other. Besides, I am not here to debate government. I am here to debate Vrendan. And on that note, Ashflame, I ask you quite clearly: what were the grounds for Vrendan's sentencing?"
Ashflame glances toward one of the guards and grins as if she just pulled some funny joke. Then, she turns toward us and her face turns serious. "Void magic, of course."
"That much is clear, but from what evidence did you derive that grounds?"
"Oh, so you want evidence now? Fine, then. We've captured prisoners from numerous criminal guilds. They have described Vrendan's use of void magic in painstaking detail, from using mind spells to intimidate enemies, to teleporting into fortified buildings to steal and sabotage. Overall, it was quite incriminating evidence. All it took after that was an anonymous tip to track him down."
I recoil internally, first in anger at whoever was responsible for condemning Dan to a slow death, and then in surprise at these allegations. From what I know of Dan, he would never inflict a crime upon someone who was not deserving. He always insisted to me that he restricted his crimes to legal grey areas and ancillary roles, whatever he could do to sustain himself and his research without getting caught. But perhaps my trust in his word is simple-minded? Perhaps the void has corrupted Dan's morality as it had mine?
"You condemn a man on merely hearsay?" Chevron asks rhetorically, appalled. "Unbelievable! Did it not strike you once that the cousin of a void mage gone berserk would have rumors spread about him?"
"After decades passed, it's hard to dismiss them as rumors," says Ashflame, "especially when these criminals hold Vrendan in such high regard... like he's someone they can trust."
I stand up. After Chevron's rebuttal, I feel emboldened. I cannot stand idly as this prison bureaucracy woman paints a picture of my cousin's condemnation. Even if Dan committed crimes which harmed the innocent, none of it could compare to the crimes I had done. He does not deserve to die, and I shall defend him until the end!
"Did he ever kill an innocent?" I refute. "Has there ever been a record of anything lost that only a void mage could steal?"
"I don't know the details of that, but I'm afraid the arguments of you two are both on rocky ground," states Ashflame.
"What if I told you that the real void mage was still on the run?" I conjure desperately.
Suddenly, my mind races, recalling the unknown fate of my friend Fristad. I know that the demon manipulated Fristad into running away from us, and Dan knows better than anyone else the inner workings of that being's mind. The problem is, how do I convince Ashflame of Dan's ability to track down the demon without further condemning him as a dark mage?
"Dan witnessed the void mage," I continue. "It came to our world as a demon which possessed a young man named Fristad Heltz. Dan tried to stop it, but it escaped. He is the only mage I know with the extensive knowledge of sentient beings to track a demon down."
"I swear upon my life," adds Chevron, "that Vrendan's knowledge of sentient beings is without equal, and his knowledge is not born from the fruit of evil. With him on your side, the chances of you finding this demon before it does lasting harm are far greater."
I am relieved that Chevron backs up my story, even though I forgot to tell her about what happened to Fristad.
"And I'm supposed to believe that this creature, which is simultaneously a demon and a void mage, exists somewhere?" Ashflame replies critically.
"Yes, and you will release Vrendan at once so he can help us find it," insists Chevron.
"And I'm supposed to simultaneously ignore all the evidence that Vrendan is a void mage?"
"There is a precedent for this," says Chevron. "In times of need, a Grand-Mage can order the release of a mage from prison, even a death sentence, if the Grand-Mage deems that mage's actions are necessary for the safety of the people."
"But you're not a Grand-Mage," Ashflame counters. "You can't authorize that."
"That's where you're wrong..." Chevron replies smugly.
Chevron motions toward me for her bag, and I give it to her. From it, she pulls out a quill, an ink bottle, and a single sheet of letter paper covered in the tiny symbols I haven't seen since my days at the Sparrow's Bay Academy, the runic paper I know can only be spellmail. She smooths out the bent paper upon the prison table, uncorks the ink bottle, and begins to write furiously, muttering aloud, "Dear... Grand-Mage... Peloka..." as she does so.
She demonstrably mutters aloud each word as she writes it, pleading to Grand-Mage Peloka that the matter requires their urgent attention, bringing them up to speed on Dan and the demon, and pleading for Dan's release.
Once the letter is signed and the ink is corked, Chevron motions to the letter as if to shoo it away. The letter rises itself slowly off the ground, folds itself, and becomes barred within a mesh of light which coalesces into an ornately decorated, glowing envelope. Chevron rotates her wrist, as if turning a knob, and a wax seal flattens itself upon its front, and the word "urgent" prints itself below the seal. Chevron then pulls her hand back, as if recoiling from a hot furnace, and the envelope shrinks into nothingness.
Chevron then glares at Ashflame with a, 'yes, I just did that,' look. The impact is not lost on me; sending spellmail to a Grand-Mage is no trivial matter.
Ashflame, however, is incredulous. She raises a brow. "Okay, you just wrote some magical letter and sent it into the abyss. Now what?"
"Now," states Chevron, audibly exacerbated by Ashflame's lack of faith, "we wait thirty minutes at the most, and I should receive the Grand-Mage's response. A city mage should easily be able to verify the origin of the Grand-Mage's seal. I suggest you find a mage immediately. If you delay Dan's authorized release to the point of death, it could be a criminal offense."
Ashflame sighs angrily and walks briskly away. "Your kind and your woo-houses and parallel government," she rants as her voice echoes from the stairwell, "just have to make my life more difficult."
Chevron's face is stiff, suppressing her anger.
"What utter disrespect for authority and human life," Chevron remarks.
I nod. "I hope Dan is alright."
"How long has Vrendan been in this prison?" Chevron asks.
"About eighteen hours," I state.
"Mists of Aether..." Chevron mutters, "he has only a few hours left to live."
I shiver in response to this. I try to block my mind from imagining Dan's imprisonment, but instead that is replaced with fears of my own mortality. Is my soul really half enderman, as Kleisjend said? Will the human half of my soul die on its own, and its memories with it? Am I doomed to wake up one morning seeing strangers all around me, who know me all as Jonas? Why should I be so afraid of death, when I've already died once?
I glance toward Chevron and continue to wonder. What must it have been like to watch her own children die of illness, old age, and broken bones? If I hadn't squandered my human life, what friends might I have gained and lost? If I hadn't obsessed so much over my own death, could I comprehend how much time had truly passed?
Or how much time Dan has lost in the fleeting moments of his imprisonment?
The very thought of it makes me sick, and yet I cannot stop thinking about death.
Chapter 61: A Room of Death
A few minutes later, not a moment too soon, a sealed envelope appears in front of Chevron in a flash of light. Chevron reaches her hand up toward the hovering envelope, and carefully dislodges the seal from the base of the envelope while keeping the seal intact. She extracts the letter from the envelope and reads it.
Tears well up in Chevron's eyes. She looks at me, smiling.
"He has authorized it," she proclaims. "Now we wait. And hope..."
Much longer, perhaps an hour later, Ashflame and a city mage guard walk up the stairs.
"Do you have the authorization?" Ashflame asks impatiently.
"I do," says Chevron, handing it to her.
Ashflame hands it to the mage guard. The mage guard reads the letter, and then strokes the seal with their thumb, their eyes staring distantly in concentration.
"Well? Is it valid?" asks Ashflame.
"It is." The guard hands the letter back to Ashflame.
"Very well then," Ashflame capitulates, her tone now carrying respect and duty for the word of law. Her eyes motion toward the guards who have watched over us during our whole time in the prison. "Diamond-clads, return to your posts. The rest of us will see that Vrendan Ti'Drannes is removed from his cell alive."
I follow alongside Chevron, feeling looming excitement and dread. After we walk down a second flight of stairs, the life energies from the outside world seem to vanish behind the obsidian walls.
We approach an open room whose obsidian floor and walls make shadows hard to see. A meter-and-a-half-wide square indentation occupies its center. On one side of the indentation is a handle, also obsidian, locked in place by a metal chain.
At Ashflame's command, five guards in obsidian-plated leather gather in the room. Two of them approach the center of the room, one with a key. The keyholder unlocks the chain and tosses the key and chain aside. With considerable strain and grunting, those two guards pull on the handle until the meter-and-a-half-wide trapdoor lifts from the floor and falls to the side with a bang.
A guard tosses the end of a long rope toward the trapdoor, while another guard picks up the rope and turns his back to the others. With a series of knots, the rope is tied around the back-facing guard like a harness. The other four guards bend their knees and pick up the rope.
The rope-tied guard is visibly nervous, knowing very well he is descending into a room of death. He tugs on each knot, then after a confirmation from his peers, he jumps down into the mouth of the obsidian floor, and the four remaining guards add slack to the rope until all that is left is a rope rolling across the rim of the trapdoor hole.
"Pull up!" the hanging man orders.
The four crouching guards pull arm's lengths of the rope in unison, until the rope-covered back of the guard appears in the hole once more, clinging to a limp figure. The guard at the back of the rope runs to the front and grabs the figure from the hanging guard's hands, and the hanging guard then climbs over the edge of the hole, breathing a sigh of relief as his feet are grounded again.
The obsidian trapdoor is closed and re-chained. The figure lays motionless upon the ground. Chevron and I rush to the body.
Is this man truly Dan? And if so... is he still alive?
Chevron turns the figure over to reveal the face of an old, emaciated man, lined with wrinkles. His face is still and his eyes are closed. The man's shirt and pants seem oversized for his wiry frame. Chevron feels the pulse on the man's neck, then desperately rummages in her bag for a potion, uncorks it, and tilts the contents between the man's lips.
The man coughs and spits out the liquid. His eyes open, revealing milky blue irises resting above his cheekbones. His papery hand lifts and grasps the potion bottle, pushing it against his lips as he chugs the rest. The old man then sits up and looks at me, with a familiar, innocent smile.
The old man then holds out his hand, anticipating the potion that Chevron places into it. He uncorks it and holds it to his lips, closing his eyes and drinking slowly as if to savor its bitterness. Once the potion is emptied, the man opens his eyes, and they are changed, no longer a milky blue, but a vibrant, almost glowing blue. In that moment, I feel a wave of realization. The blue eyes, the subtle smirk, the bushy brows, and the very demeanor of this man all converge on a character I know for certain to be Dan. A thinner, wrinklier, and more tired Dan. But still Dan.
Dan gazes at his arms, and then he pushes his fingers against his bony cheeks, and his smile vanishes.
"After all these years, it's finally happened," Dan acknowledges, in a hoarse voice which is less familiar. "And yet, here I am, alive to remember it. And it's you I have to thank for that."
Chevron nods with purpose. "Grand-Mage Peloka ordered your release so that you can track down the demon which is controlling Fristad. He has been informed that the demon is a void mage."
Dan's eyes widen in realization. "Of course..."
Chevron pulls Dan up by his arms.
"I realize I am legally forbidden from interfering," Ashflame remarks, "however, I strongly encourage you get help from the city guards, especially considering Vrendan's condition-"
"That won't be necessary," interrupts Dan, his voice bitter.
"I know a few magi that could help us," offers Chevron congenially to Ashflame, "which would be better suited to the task."
"Our city magi are some of the most highly-"
"Goodbye, Miss Ashflame," states Chevron.
With the prison overseer finally at our backs, a guard escorts us above the obsidian walls and holds open the door where the prison ends and the city begins.
After the heavy door slams, Chevron looks around her carefully to make sure no one is listening, then turns toward the aged and wrinkled Dan with a knowing look.
"So, it's really true?" asks Chevron. "Jonas' friend Fristad is being controlled by a demon?"
Dan nods. "It's true."
"And that demon is, in fact, a void mage?"
"Do you realize what the implications of that are?" says Chevron.
"What do you mean?" Dan asks.
"It means that the thing this demon is doing to Fristad may not be demonic possession at all. It may be a mind control spell."
Dan's eyes widen. "But... that's impossible! In all theoretical formulations, the mana required is far too great!"
"But the theory is there. The formulations are sound. In principle, a mind control spell could be constructed, in much the same way as a quale spell. The spell could be read, recited, and mastered just like any other, and generalized by a mage who is properly attuned to the void."
"You could bring together all the void magi in the overworld, from the dawn of humankind to the end of time, and channel all their energy together, and you still wouldn't be able to generalize a spell like that!" insists Dan.
"And that's just the problem, isn't it?" remarks Chevron. "There just aren't a lot of void magi out there. Not enough void magi to refine the theories, to preserve the knowledge."
Dan's eyes widen in realization. "Then we don't know what we're dealing with."
Well guys, after a long delay, I finally have another chapter up for you guys to read: Chapter 56: The Fate of Death Itself.
I must admit... my attention to this story has been waning as-of-late. I still have a lot of ideas, but I still need to get them into a plot-like form. In addition to that, another Minecraft project (not fanfiction) has been consuming my attention even though it will most likely never see the light of day. Unless I suddenly get a huge creative spark, it's unlikely that I will upload new chapters to The Book of Dreams at the same pace that I have in the past.
Having said that, chapter 56 is... probably one of the better chapters I've written in a while. In the first half, we meet a brand new character! What about the second half? That's classified; read it yourself to find out!
Edit: I am aware that there are some typos in Part 5 involving 1) a certain anachronistic number and 2) unintentional substitutions of the word "cloud" with other less suitable words. I will correct these when I have time and feel like going through the tedium of keeping all the documents in-sync. Right now I want to work on the story itself.
Hello everyone! I am pleased to announced I have posted Chapter 57: Awakening! In this chapter, we gain a new perspective on the book's influence, but perspectives can be... deceiving.
Edit: I am also pleased to announce that (hopefully) the butts are removed from Part 6 (with a few other small changes made as well). Moral of the story, folks: Don't install Cloud to Butt, no matter how tempting it may be to poke fun at the utter meaninglessness and pretentiousness of contemporary corporate jargon.
Wow, it's been almost 6 months already? I've been slacking! Regardless, Chapter 58: A Symbolic Gesture, has been released! What will Cubit offer in Jonas' desperate quest? What is the fate of Dan and Fristad?
More to come hopefully less than six months from now, if my backlog of semi-complete chapters is any indication. I have a TODO note that sort of sounds like a synopsis of a sci-fi film as described by a stereotypical nerd. Oh wait...
"Ladies and gentlemen, my sincerest gratitude for you joining me here. Today, I will present to you my thesis on the effect of void pressure on the distribution of alternate dimensions. My name is Kenneth Forthright. Joining me today is my colleague, Mage Sarah Spode, who will be assisting me with my demonstrations."
Kenneth motions to Sarah, who stands beside him. Between the two of them standing there in magi cloaks, and the large number of strange magical devices behind them, it is almost surreal to look at.
"As you may know, the theoretical implications of alternate dimensions are vast. It is predicted that they can have physical laws entirely different from our own, from different rules of crafting to distortions of space and time themselves. In addition, they may be home to materials and living things we have not yet discovered. The implications for the advancement of our infrastructure and technology are vast.
"Hell was proven real just seven years ago by Clayold et. al, but there has still been debate over whether Hell is actually a separate dimension, or some other place in our own world. As part of our first demonstration, we will open a gate to Hell."
Sarah rummages inside her pocket. "Um... we have a problem."
"What is it?" Kenneth asks.
"I seem to have misplaced the flint and steel."
Kenneth smiles. "That won't be necessary. I'll light it myself."
Silver sparks jump from Kenneth's fingers and coalesce into a ball, which he unleashes upon the base of the rectangular obsidian frame. In an instant, a black bubble expands and covers the inner edges of the frame. There are iridescent stars moving within the surreal nighttime blackness, in contrast to the light in the rest of the lecture hall.
"The interface is the wrong color," Sarah states, her brows clenched in confusion.
"Indeed," says Kenneth, grinning widely. "I seem to have lit the portal with void fire by accident." Kenneth turns to face the audience. "Change of plans everyone! We may have just discovered another dimension, and we will use the techniques we prepared to prove whether or not it is a dimension separate from our own!"
Kenneth and Sarah begin organizing some equipment. There is some excited chatter.
Then, a strange, unearthly sound like breaking glass in reverse echoes through the room. The chatter silences.
"I just saw a dark, tall figure with glowing eyes..." one audience member says behind me.
"Kenneth, I don't like this. Close the portal immediately," orders Miner.
"I don't know how..." Kenneth says as he probes the inside of the starry night portal with his hand.
"I'll get a pickaxe," announces Sarah as she walks away.
Suddenly another unearthly sound, similar to the first, echoes behind me. My back shivers. Two beings scream in unison. I jump up from my chair and Miner grabs me, pulling me away as fast as he can run. I look behind me and see a tall humanoid creature, with a bald head and no clothes. Its skin is black and its body is thin. My heart is pounding. People run away from it in all directions, except for the one who lays beneath the creature. I hardly get a glimpse of them before Miner pulls me around a corner through a door.
I know without a doubt that whatever that monster was, it was not from this world. If there are as many dimensions as Kenneth says there are, there are surely many other monsters.
There is another scream.
Miner's run comes to a stop.
"Where is Kenneth?" Miner demands.
I turn around and see Sarah and two other adults who I do not recognize. Sarah appears frustrated.
"He left through the northeast entrance," says Sarah.
"What in Hell's fire was that creature? Did Kenneth know about it?" demands Miner.
"Not to my knowledge," says Sarah.
"Has such a portal ever been created before?" asks Miner.
"I don't know."
"I must speak to Kenneth. Get that pickaxe!"
Miner runs with me behind him through a hall. Kenneth stands leaning against a wall, gazing at a closed door leading to the lecture hall of his presentation.
"Kenneth, what have you done?" Miner demands.
"It was an accident, I swear," insists Kenneth.
"I don't care if it was an accident. Explain what you did, why you did it, and what you saw." Miner's tone is urgent.
"I lit the portal with void magic by accident. It was a slip of concentration. There was a tall, black creature. I don't know what it was or where it came from, but it seemed to fade in and out of existence in an instant."
"Given the fact that no such creature has ever been witnessed, we must conclude that the creature came from the portal," Miner says.
Miner turns to face a red-robed woman who just walked up to us.
"What is it, Arch-Mage Steelback?" inquires Miner.
"Arch-Mage Waystream is dead, three of us are injured, and the beast is dead. Is it safe to dismantle the portal frame?"
"Yes, have Mage Spode do it at once!"
"Understood." Steelback leaves us.
"Notch bless Waystream; he was a good man," Miner notes solemnly. He turns to Kenneth. "Kenneth, I don't know what I would do if you were killed!"
"Neither would I," I say.
Kenneth smiles sadly at me.
"Don't pull any more improvisations from here on out. Stick to the plan," orders Miner. "You only have one thesis and one chance to prove yourself. Don't let my training of you be in vain."
Chapter 63: A Hint of Evil
It has been over a year since I have become Kenneth's apprentice, and yet it feels like it has only been a few months. So much has happened since it all started.
I still remember vividly the first time I could sense magic. It was only a month ago. I woke up one morning, and I thought I had suddenly gone blind. Then, when I called Kenneth into the room to help me, I realized he shone like a bright light.
Kenneth has been a strict master, never satisfied unless I do exactly what he says, and work and study as hard as he does. He makes sure my studying is not easy, and that I figure out my questions by myself. Sometimes, in the evenings, he explains the theory behind an advanced spell, or teaches me about his research on ideas and the mind. I am always in awe of its complexity.
Yet, even though I am now officially Kenneth's apprentice, and Kenneth has strict expectations for how I spend my time, I feel I can bend the rules every once and a while. After all, the things I do outside his awareness are none of his concern. Right?
I just need to make sure I never get caught.
I tiptoe over to the door to Kenneth's studies, knock on the door nine times as I usually do, and count to sixty. When I hear no sudden movements coming from Kenneth's side of the door, I conclude my master is too absorbed in his study today to notice that I knocked on the door. And that means he will be too busy to keep track of my study time!
I smile with satisfaction. I tiptoe across the room again, this time toward the foyer. I do not bother packing anything, since Sarah has plenty of food, and unlike most of Kenneth's food, Sarah's food is actually edible. I open the door, breathe in the cool morning air of the mountain forest, and walk briskly over to Sarah's house, cautious of any remaining creepers and skeletons in the shadows.
I open the door to Sarah's house and look around. She is not in any of the rooms. This must mean Sarah went down into the mines early. Usually I go home when this happens, to avoid the risk of descending into the mine alone. However, this time, I feel I should go beyond that. I know her mining passages well enough, and have been itching to test my spells in combat.
As I walk down the stairs and through the basement toward Sarah's mines, I hear strange noises echo, and stop still. I look around me at the many chests and furnaces, crates piled high and racks full of tools, utilitarian as a miner's workshop generally is. Then, my eyes fixate on the sound behind the crates. It is like a scratching and hissing sound. I tiptoe into the maze of storage, ears alert, but then my eyes fall upon... questionable things. A table is piled full with strangely-shaped tools and blood-stained rags. To the right, barrels are stuffed with severed limbs.
Wait, severed limbs?!? Wouldn't those all have to be from bodies that have not despawned yet? Sarah must be some sort of dark mage.
Just as my mind starts to wrap around this realization, I hear the strange noises echo again, this time closer. I tiptoe toward the source, and find myself in front of rattling cages concealed with brown-stained cloth. I consider lifting up the cloth to see what creatures are inside them, but restrain my mind against it. The creatures could scratch, or bite, or worse. I also do not know how the creatures would react if I were to expose them to the light. Sarah might need them for an experiment, therefore I should leave them alone.
I walk toward the stairs which descend beneath the basement and into Sarah's tunnels, following the echo of Sarah's pickaxe. I am still amazed that Sarah could be a dark mage.
Down at the end of a final tunnel, Sarah stands facing away from me swinging her pick. I walk up behind her and watch her tear into the rock for a moment, until my curiosity becomes too much to bear.
"I noticed there is blood and body parts in your basement," I point out to her.
Sarah's digging sounds stop and she turns around to face me. She smiles.
"Yes, Iris, I do have blood and body parts in my basement," Sarah says, completely confident in herself, as if this is a common thing to do. "I extract the blood from the body parts and then store it, then I use it for writing spells and notes," she explains. "Flint works alright, but human blood just gives it that... extra special something."
My arms get a bit colder as I hear Sarah say that last phrase so casually, as if she is talking about a recipe for a cake. And yet, the fear I feel that Sarah is possibly evil, not the simple mage friend I thought she was before, makes me even more curious about her than ever.
"How could you take the limbs off of people while they were alive?" I ask.
Sarah bursts out laughing. "Oh no, Iris! I never had to hurt anyone on purpose! I just got some limbs from Bellsound. Or to be more accurate, Kenneth got them for me."
"But how did Kenneth acquire the limbs?" I ask.
Sarah shrugs. "He just asked for them. They come from freak accidents... mostly. You'd be surprised how many spells can amputate a limb if cast incorrectly."
"So the magic school was just willing to hand over two whole barrels of human limbs?" I question, at this point starting to wonder if Kenneth is involved in something just as dark. Perhaps his collection of weapons is more than just for show. "It sounds hard to believe."
"Well... you're right," Sarah admits. "I don't know for sure where they come from. But that's the price I pay for my work."
I nod in acknowledgement. Perhaps Sarah and Kenneth really are evil. Somehow this does not frighten me, or make me morally repulsed. They are nice people, after all, so can their magic truly be wrong? Perhaps every mage has a dark side. I am still an apprentice in magic, so there is still much I need to learn. Perhaps I have a dark side of my own... or perhaps society does not understand magic, and mistakes certain parts of it for evil.
Then I remember the strange creatures concealed in cloth-covered cages, which made such strange noises, and I restrained myself from disturbing.
"What about the creatures in the cages in your basement?" I ask. "What are those?"
"Little critters from me and Kenneth's dimensional excursions," says Sarah, piquing my interest. "Kenneth doesn't like taking care of pets, so I look after them between our experiments. Ironic, considering he's the one who can read minds. By the way, guess what I found!"
I shake my head.
Sarah stretches her palms wide. Red sparks multiply above her palms, until the glittering red swarm fades into a pile of precious cyan gems.
My eyes widen in surprise and excitement. "You found diamonds!"
Sarah brings her hands together and the diamonds disappear within them, with nothing left but a red glow emanating from between her fingers.
"Can I have some?" I ask.
"Sorry Iris, I can't give you any. I need them for spellbooks. Remember when you wanted to learn that stone-smoothing earth spell I used to build that hell portal for Kenneth's demonstration, and I told you how expensive they are?"
I nod. "I guess I will have to find a way to get my own diamonds."
"You could. Or you could find a job. But it's a bit early for that."
"Are you saying I am too young?"
"No," insists Sarah, "I'm saying you should focus on your studies."
"I do not need to study."
Sarah frowns and throws her pick upward a bit, re-adjusting her grip. "Well, I'm not your master, so I can't tell you what to do, but..."
"You could give me a pickaxe," I offer. "We could go down into the caves together."
I smile at the thought of this. I am sure that between Sarah's earth spells and my wind spells, the two of us would be unstoppable! We would find diamonds in no time. We could split the riches between the two of us. And throughout our amazing adventure, I could use my spells against the monsters that attack us. When I finally come home, my mana pool would be drained, as if I had practiced spells at home. Kenneth would be none the wiser!
"We could..." Sarah replies cryptically.
"Then it is settled, then. Stone or iron?"
Sarah grins widely. "For you, my friend, only iron."
She spreads her arms apart and multiple arcs of red lightning curve and spread from one set of fingers to the other. As the lightning dissipates with a crackle, iron bars and sticks appear floating in front of her, which coalesce and morph until the likeness of a pickaxe emerges from the mass.
I gaze in shock as Sarah nonchalantly plucks the newly-formed iron pick from the air and hands it to me.
"You can craft without a table," I state in amazement.
"Just one of the perks of being an earth mage."
I grasp the handle and feel the weight of it as Sarah pulls her hand away. The grip fits my hand surprisingly well, as if I had crafted it myself. I turn the pick, examining the head's gleaming, polished surface, and noting the curvature and sharpness of its tip. It is a beautiful, skillfully crafted pick.
"Thank you," I tell her.
"Are you ready?" asks Sarah.
I smile. "I am always ready."
"To the caves, then!"
Sarah walks past me and I follow behind her through a labyrinth of torch-lit stone hallways and downward steps, until the hallway walls give way to large and distant curved shale walls, whose true depth is masked by dark shadows. Torches stand on the ground upright at irregular distances from each other.
Sarah leads the way into one of these shadows, materializing torches from red sparks as she goes. I notice deposits of coal and iron in the walls, which Sarah does not even seem to notice.
"Should we mine that ore?" I ask.
"Nope," says Sarah. "I couldn't possibly carry it all."
"Even an earth mage like you?" I wonder. "Since you are able to store incredibly large amounts of material with a few red sparks just like a miner can, would you not be eager to mine all the ore you can so you can sell it?"
"When you're an earth mage and you've been mining as long as I have, you stop mining every ore you see. Sure, I could mine the ore and sell it, but that just takes up time I could be spending doing other things. Like writing spells and spending time in nature."
Suddenly, Sarah ducks and an arrow bounces off the wall. Sarah stares outward with a look of confusion. I turn toward the source of her gaze and see a skeleton with its bow drawn. My heart starts to pound.
"An arrow shot and not even a warning call? How rude!" Sarah exclaims. She presses her palm against the wall, and a big chunk of stone breaks out from the wall with no discernible force except an unknown magnetism from Sarah's hand. Sarah chucks the stone in the direction of the skeleton, and the stone hurdles toward the skeleton until it punches through it, and the bones of the skeleton fly apart in shattered pieces. The bow and arrow disintegrate before they even hit the ground. Then, she continues walking through the cave at the same pace as before, as if the attack never happened.
My heart is still pounding. I could have died! I take a spark of mana from my pool and draw it through my arm and into the bases of my fingers, ready to fight if another skeleton appears from behind a wall.
As Sarah guides me up the steps and through the halls back to her house, I only feel disappointment. Not only did we not find diamonds, but I hardly had a chance to fight the monsters. Every chance she could, Sarah slain the monsters as they appeared, leaving me only missed shots and fading dust clouds.
At least my mana pool is drained.
Sarah waves goodbye to me from her door as I walk down her forest path. I know the route back to Kenneth's house by heart well enough that I no longer have to think about where I am going.
Finally, I see the familiar cabin nestled against the cliff wall. I approach it, open its door, and sit myself at the table where I have my spellbook prepared open as if I had been studying.
Then, I hear a door open. I feel a warm pressure on my shoulder.
I turn around and look up, and see Kenneth staring down at me from beneath his grey hood. There is no humor in his eyes. I fear the worst, that Kenneth has discovered my fraud and will punish me for my disobedience.
"I don't need to read your mind to know where you've been," says Kenneth. "Believe me, if I wanted to punish you, I would have done it a long time ago."
Chapter 64: A Glimpse of the Void
Kenneth is different from what he used to be. I no longer imagine him in his leather jacket and fur cap. When we talk, he does not make jokes or smile as much as he used to. His face is clean-shaven. He speaks with more conviction. He is, in short, more mature, an "adult," as he calls it. The word does not carry the same dread and disgust to me as it used to.
The shelves are neater and more are filled, with books provided from Arch-Mage Miner's personal collection. The basement, a hub for Kenneth's dimensional research, is finished, with the entrance inside of Kenneth's magically locked library. My bedroom is more furnished, and now I have a desk of my own, where I spend most of my study time.
In spite of all I have learned about Kenneth, he still remains mysterious and unknowable. I look up to him with respect. He is a formidable mage whose ability far exceeds my own, a wordsmith whose intellectual musings and spontaneous poetry intrigue me and enchant me, and an unstoppable force who I know better than to disagree with.
When Kenneth opens the door to my room as I am studying at my desk in the morning, I feel like a storm has rolled in, even though the door has opened gently.
I set down a wand, cork a potion, straighten a pen, and turn my head toward him. It is not normal for him to enter my room so early in the morning.
"Is there something wrong, Master?" I ask him.
"Yes... very wrong," says Kenneth. "The military's taken my master and enlisted him as a battle mage for the war."
"Has the war really gotten that bad?" I ask.
"As bad as I expected," Kenneth declares bitterly. "I knew the Planara were going to do everything they could to grind the military to a bloody pulp. I told Miner that myself, that there was no way the military was going to do without the magi from Bellsound, but he wouldn't listen!"
"I am so sorry."
"Don't be sorry," Kenneth snaps, "My master isn't going to die. But Notch knows when he'll be coming back. A decade, maybe. But it doesn't matter. I am taking matters into my own hands. I am not letting your training fall behind because my master refused to teach me the Spark."
"The Spark is reserved for Arch-Magi, is it not? Isn't it unnecessary for elemental mastery?"
"Void magic doesn't work like fire or air magic," says Kenneth. "Even the simplest void spell would tear you apart from the inside. The only way around it is become resistant to the void, and there are only two ways to do that. One is to accept the Spark from a void mage. The other... is to do what the very first void mage did."
"And what might that be?" I ask.
"You're about to find out," says Kenneth.
I suddenly find myself confronting the possibility of becoming a void mage, after all this time, and it comes as a shock. I smile with glee and excitement.
Kenneth and I are descending lower and lower down the narrow stone stairways of Sarah's mines. Kenneth's right hand carries a pickaxe, while his left hand carries a large brown bag whose contents are still unknown to me.
At the bottom of the last flight of stairs, there is a small room, slightly larger than my modestly sized bedroom. The neatly carved-out underground stone walls are the usual grey shale color, but the floor is much different. It is jagged and dark, with stone jutting out in some places and recessed in others. The flickering torchlight will sometimes cause areas of the stone to shine brightly like metal, but some parts seem to remain permanently dark. Perhaps there are deep narrow grooves within the rocks, but it is hard to tell in such dim light. I bend down and reach my palm toward the dark stone in order to understand its texture. The grooves are so deep that hardly any of the stone touches my hand, and yet the parts that do are incredibly cold. As I lift my hand, I notice a thin line of newly drawn blood streaked across my palm.
A material like this would make an excellent sword.
"Master, what is this rock called?"
"Bedrock, of course," says Kenneth, as he sets the bag down. "Haven't you heard of it?"
"Of course," I tell him.
A wave of recognition comes to me. I have heard about this material so many times from rumors in Maplefall, even back to when I was very young, and the books I have studied since. It is said that no tool known to humankind is capable of destroying it. Not even the void can affect it. It is possible that if it were not for bedrock, our world simply would not exist.
But I never imagined bedrock would look so... ominous.
"This looks like a good spot," announces Kenneth, as he crouches down and hacks his pickaxe against a lone patch of shale surrounded by the shadowed silver bedrock. I hear the shale rock shatter and hiss as it falls away, leaving a dim blue light in its place.
"There it is. The void," says Kenneth.
I walk toward the hole, crouch beside Kenneth, and stare into the blue expanse peeking through the window of dark grey rock.
"If you look closely, you can see streaks of grey flow back and forth, like ripples on the water," says Kenneth. "It's amazing to think that something so calm could be the source of so much chaos. Countless disjointed memories flow throughout the void, the remains of countless souls discarded, after they have become irreparably corrupted with evil with so many lives passed. As Sarah puts it, the void is like a great field, upon which old souls are reaped and left to fallow.
"And yet... despite all the disjointed memories I've discovered in the void all these years, not once has there been a memory of malice among them. It's almost as if the void knows what parts of souls to destroy... as if the void has a mind of its own. An eternal being without form... sifting through countless lives. Poetic, isn't it?"
I nod, starting to feel uneasy. Somehow, knowing that a soul could remain in the void forever, not completely destroyed, with memories still intact, is even more disturbing than the prospect of losing my memories when I die.
I look at the beautiful streaks of silver, undulating against the distant blue light, and I fear having that substance inside of me.
But do I have a choice? I already pledged to become Kenneth's apprentice long ago. I knew the risks involved. Surely my fear is a small price to pay to unlock the secrets of the mind.
Kenneth reaches into the mysterious brown bag and pulls out a book and a potion.
"This is a diluted mana potion, just enough to cast the spell," Kenneth tells me, "and this is the spellbook you will read from, once the only mana you have left is from the potion. I will open it up to the Spell of Acceptance, the same spell that is used in the ritual before the Spark."
Kenneth sets the potion and book down, and reaches back into the brown bag one more time. He pulls out a rope. "And this is the rope you will hang from, as I drop you down into the void."
I peer forward into the blue expanse of the void, knowing that is where I will be, and my heart immediately starts to pound.
"You know what to do," Kenneth states. "Empty your mana pool."
I nod, shove my fear aside, and point my arm down toward the opening in the void. I let out an arc of lightning with all my strength. The sudden expanse of the lightning surprises me, and I wonder for a moment how powerful I have become. Yet, just as abruptly as it began, the strands of light fizzle out, and I feel dread for the next step.
"Now, the potion," Kenneth states, as I reach out my hand toward him.
I grasp the small, tapered glass, and look at the tiny pool of liquid at the bottom. It is as clear as water, with only a faint tint of orange in certain angles of the light.
I lift up the glass to my lips and tilt the small pool of liquid into my mouth. Even after I drink it, my mana pool still feels as empty as before. I set down the emptied flask on a patch of shale.
Only one more step before I hang myself into the void. Can I really go through with this?
"Now, read this," Kenneth says, handing me the open book.
I hold the weight of the spellbook in my hands, and scan my eyes across the first line of the Spell of Acceptance. My mind distracts me with fear, and it takes several attempts as I try to remind myself that I have to do this, that it is the only way I can learn void magic. My eyes finally catch on the lines. I feel like the words are dragging me along, as if the speech is flooding out of my mouth uncontrolled. As I piece together the phrases formed by my voice, I realize I am accepting the void itself as my master. As my mouth finally closes, I feel an emptiness inside of me that is profound.
This is wrong. I should not have forced myself to cast this spell.
Then, I look toward Kenneth. I see him holding the rope with both hands.
"It's now time for the final step," says Kenneth. "I will tie you to this rope, and when I say so, I want you to jump into the void. When you have been in the void for one minute, I will pull you up. Understood?"
I consider telling Kenneth, here and now, that I do not want to go through with this anymore. But as I sift through my mind for some explanation I could give for why I would disobey my master, I find none. I owe Kenneth everything for the magic I have learned. Why should I betray him now? Why should I turn away from learning void magic, when so many times before, Kenneth has shown me how beautiful and complicated it can be?
"Understood," I tell Kenneth, shoving aside my fear, if only for a moment.
I walk up to Kenneth, and let him tie the loops of ropes around my arms and my waist. I watch as Kenneth picks up the rest of his pile of rope and unwinds it, as he steps further away from me.
"Are you ready?" asks Kenneth.
"Ready," I respond.
"Jump now," says Kenneth.
I step forward and peer into the void one last time, the rope clinging gently to me. But, try as I might to take one more step, to prepare myself to jump into the void, I find myself paralyzed with fear. No matter how hard I remind myself how important this is for my training, every bone in my body screams out at me, telling me that this is wrong. My heart pounds and my fists and jaws tighten with indecision, and a tingle in my back compels me to step back, with the fear that even that is not enough to prevent me from slipping into the void.
Then I blurt out, "I cannot go down there!"
"You accepted me as your master," insists Kenneth. "You knew the risks involved."
"I know," I tell him. I stare at the hole into the void, but no new willpower comes. I stand hopelessly.
Kenneth's footsteps echo closer, and Kenneth's grey-hooded face appears on my right. "Then tell me, Iris, why do you disobey me?"
"I fear I will die," I admit to him.
"What do you mean you fear you will die?" asks Kenneth, anger creeping into his voice. "Don't you trust me? Do you not realize I would never let that happen to you?"
"It would not be the first time you have put me in a life-threatening situation," I reply.
A wave of anger flashes across Kenneth's face, and he slaps me, with a force that stings my cheek and pulls on my neck.
"You ungrateful, little girl!" Kenneth shouts, filling me with dread. "How can you still not trust me, after all this time? Does our master-apprentice relationship mean nothing to you? Tell me Iris, what must an apprentice always do for their master?"
"Obey them," I tell him, with regret.
"That's right," says Kenneth, "and tell me, Iris, what is it that you just did?"
I say nothing, afraid to anger my master more by saying the wrong thing.
"Iris, I order you to answer my question!"
"I disobeyed you," I tell him.
"That's right," says Kenneth, to my relief. "And I don't feel like having you disobey me again, so I will not order you to jump into the void again today. But before we go, I want you to know what it feels like to have void fire inside of you, so you can understand the tiny amount of pain you refused to endure."
Kenneth places his hand upon my shoulder. I flinch at his touch, but I resist the urge to shrug it off, knowing it will only compound my disobedience.
A foreign energy surges into my shoulder, and I feel a burning pain so intense which I have never felt before. I hear myself cry out in agony, as I fall onto my hands and knees. My body shakes. The world seems to tilt and fill with dark spots. Even as the surge of energy has finally settled, my body still feels aflame with fever, and all my muscles weak and aching.
Tears stream from my eyes. I look up at Kenneth, as he looks down at me from beneath his grey hood. His gaze pierces into me with unwavering intensity, as if I should feel guilty to ever look away from him without his command. And his mouth is curled into a subtle smile, as if my disobedience is some humor to be entertained by, an ironic self-sabotage of my supposed path to greatness.
Chapter 65: The Price of Obedience
I open my eyes. I find myself in a large, empty hall that looks like it was made almost entirely out of solid stone. Streams of light shine into the room from tall indentations in the stone walls. Within these windows I cannot see the trees or whatever else lies beyond them, only a blindingly bright light. I feel that familiar, hollow breath and partial weightlessness that I immediately recognize as signs that I am dreaming.
As I turn my head, a stone throne appears in the empty space with steps leading up to it. Then, I turn my head again, and the empty space before me is replaced with a long, barren, stone table. I blink my eyes and suddenly there are chairs, ornately carved wood stained dark, this figment of a dream becoming more real with each passing moment.
Soon, there is a quilt-like cloth, and wooden cups, and plates of food upon the table. The sourceless white light becomes black iron window frames, the surrounding stone walls turn to dark logs, the floor to wood and a fine rug. I turn my head toward the throne and realize it is not a throne, but an altar, with candles lit in its corners and bowls of ash and colored powders placed upon it. At the top of the altar stands a stone statue of a human-like creature with the head of a chicken.
Finally, voices echo through the hall. Walking, dark shadows appear like ghosts, then solidify into a crowd of people competing for seats at the table. I sigh at this, preferring the solitude from before, and motion with my hand to will the somnic beings to vanish. But nothing happens. I wince in anger. How could my dream betray me like this? I try again, harder, but the reality refuses to budge. Am I really dreaming at all?
Suddenly, a pair of piercing, inquisitive eyes bores into my awareness and fills my mind with dread.
I turn toward those eyes slowly, reluctantly, and find Kenneth looking at me as he sits at the table. His hands are relaxed onto one another, the plate before him empty and the utensils untouched.
Kenneth's eyes take focus and he smiles.
"The progression of your lucid dreaming abilities has always impressed me," he says, "for a human. But against my void magic, I'm afraid you're no match. I am in control of this dream. This place I've conjured up is taken from a book I read, called, 'Cultures and Customs of Western Minecraftia.' I'll have to find it for you at some point. It's well worth the read. But enough small talk. I think you know exactly why I am here."
In spite of the noise of the crowd converging upon the table, Kenneth's voice is completely clear, and no one seems to pay attention to us.
"I shouldn't have to tell you about the sacredness of the relationship between a master mage and his apprentice. The memory of your doubts of my ability to protect you still hurts me, and it has taken me time to think of a satisfactory way to punish you."
Another punishment? How could the terrible pain of the void not be enough? Even in this dream, I can still feel the pain from the wounds left over from when the caustic voidfire burrowed into my skin, wounds which Kenneth refused to treat.
Kenneth says nothing, even though I know he can read my thoughts. He motions next to him, in the usual manner when he's about to give me one of his lectures, and another empty chair enters my awareness, in front of a clean set of plates and dining utensils. Should I feel excited to uncover more of my master's knowledge? Or afraid of the knowledge I will gain of my own punishment? Not knowing how to refuse, I walk around the table and sit myself beside Kenneth. To my other side, a burly swordfighter seems engaged in some joyful and loud conversation with their peers, yet their presence feels distant.
"I believe I've told you about the basic theory behind qualia at this point. The spellcraft behind those void spells is incredibly elegant, but very difficult to comprehend. I am one of the few to have ever mastered them. But mastery is not the end. I'm sure you've read about the three stages of spellcasting proficiency: perception, comprehension, and mastery. But there's more to the story. In fact, the first stage isn't actually perception; that's a sneaky lie perpetuated by the World Organization of Crafting. The true first stage is faith. But more importantly, there's a fourth stage, a stage beyond casting a spell with a mere thought, called generalization."
What does spell theory have to do with my punishment?
Kenneth grins widely. The intensity of his grin makes me feel slightly sick. But at the same time, there is an enticing passion about it which makes me remember the reason I am here.
Kenneth begins to speak again. "I wish I could explain to you what generalization is, but I'm afraid its textual definition doesn't do it justice. Not all Arch-Magi even know of its existence, and allegedly only High Magi have ever achieved it. But I know better and recognize the artificial skill gap for the psychological crutch it actually is. I have not just mastered the quale spells, but have generalized them. This dream you see before you is proof of that. But the void is capable of so much more. There is another class of spells, even more powerful than the quale spells, which have yet to be written. If I were to generalize them, I would be capable of no less than the ability to control minds. There's just one problem... I can only cast quale spells a few times until my mana pool is completely drained..."
Kenneth smiles dangerously. "So, that punishment you've rightfully been worrying about this whole time? The goal is two-fold. First, to unlock more secrets into the nature of the void. And second, to put you back in your place. Inside the confines of this dream, I am no longer bound by the limitations of my own mana pool. I can cast quale spells to my heart's content. Combine that with my ability to control dreams, and I think you will find the terrible things you encounter and the suffering you feel to be... compellingly real."
A weight drops in my stomach as I realize the sincerity of my master's threat. There is nothing worse than to face a mage who reaps joy when using their magic against you. The pride and joy of his craft, the careful precision with which he performs his research, the full extent of Kenneth's magical efforts, all the characteristics of greatness which I have striven to grow within myself, will all be directed against me. Kenneth will crush my resolve and squeeze me dry with the same thoroughness as one of my own imbuement experiments.
Kenneth snaps his fingers and the world shakes beneath me with such intensity that I fall hard on the floor. Then, the quake abruptly stops, and the sky turns to a smoky twilight, the horizon glowing dimly red. Suddenly, my life as a mage's apprentice is just a distant memory. I try to lift myself up, but my ribcage cries out in pain, and my muscles go limp under the weight of my heavy armor and overwhelming tiredness. I shudder with pain as my lungs expel a blood-flavored cough, and I come to realize the heavy truth that I am a fallen soldier at the edge of death, a discarded body, a failure. I stare hopelessly at the red horizon, from which I can barely hear the faint rumbles of war, and my mind swims with fear and hatred and regret.
Then, I hear the snap of fingers echo, and my mind is yanked from that reality. I am now sitting in the dining hall with Kenneth sitting beside me, my body still sore.
"That was just a warm-up," Kenneth says, "a taste of the war and the horrors of the governments which run it."
I flinch as Kenneth waves his hand in the air, and the dining hall is replaced with a vast ocean under a clear sky. The ocean's surface is so calm that its distant edges look like glass. I am floating weightlessly above it, with a sense of freedom so pure I wish it could never end. But then the sky darkens, stormy black clouds thicken, and iron chain upon iron chain grabs onto my shoulders and slowly drags me down into the water. I look up and see the faint twilight of the water's glassy edge rise away from me. I hold my breath as hard as I can, but I hear my heart beating like a ticking clock, every sound marking one second closer to my death.
Just as I give in to the urge to breathe and water stings my lungs, the entire world is crushed and shoved aside.
I am back home in Maplefall, every detail exactly as I remember it. But then, I open the door to my house and my mother throws a book at my head. She yells at me, telling me to leave and never come back. She hates me for my magic.
The dragon of my dreams is dead, a dragon I grew to see as a friend after so many years. And a coward destroyed the passage to the cavern of dragons out of spite, cursing me to never ride on the back of a dragon ever again.
Dreams of death. Dreams of terrible crimes. Dreams of everything I love taken away from me. Just when I think there is no other way to enhance my suffering, another nightmare begins.
Then, I find myself breathing air. Not the air from a dream, but refreshing, real air. I am standing firmly on my own two feet, at the edge of Kenneth's living room, looking out toward the front door.
I feel an aura of dread brush against my back.
I turn around, and see Kenneth sitting in a chair, his grey hood pulled down to reveal his hair. His hand rests upon a side table with an open book roughly the thickness of a fiction novel. The fingers of this hand are outstretched, as if he just cast a spell and is poised to cast another.
"Have you learned your lesson, Iris?" Kenneth asks.
"To not disobey you?"
Kenneth nods. He reaches for the edge of the book, pulls it closed, and picks up the book by the binding. He turns the book over in his hand, inspecting each of its six sides briefly, before bringing the book down from his face and focusing his inquisitive eyes on me.
"I don't believe you."
"Please, master, no more dreams! Have mercy!" I cry out in desperation.
"Then prove to me you've learned your lesson," Kenneth says. "This world you see before you is a dream. It is the last dream you will have tonight. I have constructed it in such a way that it is indistinguishable from reality, to test your obedience. As your master, I order you to brew a poison potion from scratch and drink it. Follow my order, and the poison will not hurt you. Disobey, and you will feel the same sickness and pain as if you drank the poison in real life."
I glance around the living room of Kenneth's house, and struggle to reconcile it as anything else than reality. Every detail, every item on the mantel above the fireplace, every orientation of the furniture, every book on the back shelf, is in the right place. Why should I deny my own senses and risk my own death? Does it even matter? Dream or reality, Kenneth will find a way to punish me. I have no choice but to obey.
Is that what Kenneth wanted?
I feel ants walk up my spine and reluctantly turn my body toward the kitchen. I collect the ingredients and equipment for the poison potion, start the furnace, and kindle the coals. I heat the water, then stir the incomplete potion while adding ingredients at critical times. I rake the coals back and forth furiously to try and regulate the temperature. As far as unsanctioned crafting goes, potionmaking is as frustrating as I remember. The fact that I am crafting deadly poison for my own consumption only makes it worse.
After stirring the liquid frantically while pouring in the final catalyst from its pouch, the liquid in the potion bottle changes from a murky grey to a translucent dark green. I gesture toward the potion with a beckoning finger and it rises out of the furnace and rests itself upon the counter. A thin stream of steam flows steadily out through the bottle's thin neck. I still remember vividly the alchemical charts which describe this poison. Even the smell of it makes me feel sick.
I feel a presence behind me, and I turn around and see Kenneth.
"You know the price of disobedience." Kenneth states.
I turn around, and reach toward the potion on the counter. I feel the most horrible feeling, merely from the idea that I am grasping this potion in my hands.
Is this the price of obedience, then? Watching my own actions unfold with dread? I cannot accept it.
I purposefully let go of the potion and watch it fall to the floor. The glass shatters, and the potion's liquid burns my legs. I feel that horrible sensation of hopelessness begin to fade. But then I feel a burning feeling in my cheeks and in my neck, a sign of the poison Kenneth said I would be forced to endure. The sickness feels worse with each passing moment. Why could I not just do as Kenneth said? I force my eyes open against the pain, and look toward Kenneth in desperation, begging for mercy, but I see my master stepping away from me.
My eyes then glue shut as my throat overflows with caustic acid. I cannot breathe in enough air to even choke. My entire body becomes weak, my chest overflowing with pain. I grasp my chest. I feel my consciousness fading. The kitchen takes on the semblance of a dream, and then the light around me collapses into blackness.
I gasp and feel two fingers pinching my eyelids open. I am laying down. I see Kenneth's eyes glowing silver from beneath his grey hood. The light in Kenneth's eyes quickly fades. There is a tenseness to his face that is unusual for him.
"The void has affected your body more than I anticipated," Kenneth tells me. "You are in no state to get out of bed. You must rest."
I can still feel the voidfire burns all over me. But this bed feels like a prison.
I push Kenneth away. Kenneth grabs my hand. I pull my arm out of his grasp and get out of bed. I run out my bedroom door, out of the front door. It is cold and dark, but I do not care. I will do whatever it takes to get as far away from this place as possible.
"Your mana pool is empty. The monsters will kill you!" Kenneth states.
I keep running, knowing my survival lies within Kenneth's door, and my hopes and dreams as well. My master is right. He is always right. Just once, I wish my master was wrong.
The light of the cabin is gone. I trip over a fallen branch and graze my hands and knees on wet rocks and dirt. I get up and keep running, my rapid breaths warming my lips briefly as the cold air seeps into the skin of my face.
I dash to the left in panic at the sight of a spider with glowing red eyes clinging to a tree trunk. A zombie reaches for me and I barely feel its hand brush my shirt. I keep running, hearing more footsteps and not daring to look back. But then an arrow pierces my thigh and I fall in pain.
"Sarah!" I scream.
Zombies, skeletons, and a spider close in around me. I look up at them in terror. The zombies smack their lips, gnash their teeth, and gurgle with bloodthirsty eagerness.
But then a skeleton steps in front of the closest zombie and pushes it back. The zombie makes some fluid-clogged breaths in protest, but seems to accept the skeleton's implicit order. The other zombies quiet down and stare at me with a bit less eagerness.
What does the skeleton want? Is she Sarah? Or perhaps a monster showing a rare act of mercy?
The skeleton in front conjures a small, glowing red dagger in its bony hand, as if to answer my question. This skeleton is not here to save me. I have never seen a dagger like that before, but somehow I know exactly what it is for: to infect me.
I scream as loud as I can, and push as hard on my legs as I can despite the pain, but a pair of bony hands push me down by my shoulders from behind, and pin me in place. The skeleton in front of me pulls my left arm away from my side and slices the glowing red dagger across my wrist. I wince in pain. A red glow shines briefly along the path that the dagger left. I dread for when the necrotic poison will flood through my body, but the moment does not come. It seems the magic does not act so quickly.
The skeleton drops my wrist and motions in a wide arc. I feel piercing pain in my arrowless leg as a spider latches onto it with its fangs. I fall onto my side and am dragged on the ground, through a thorny bush, and find my body tumbling against a stone wall, into a cave too dark to see in the dead of night.
I hear the spider crawl away. I lay still and in pain.
As you can see above, Chapter 62 has been released! This is a shorter chapter, but there are more to come! I have been holding back chapters as I have considered what direction I want to take this story.
It seems to be splitting off in two directions, and I've decided I'm okay with that. No "we're getting this story perspective because something something Fristad" this time around. I threw single perspective continuity out the window when I wrote Part 7.
It took me a while to get the pacing and tone I wanted for this part, but it really seems to be coming together. Let the games begin!
Chapter 63: A Hint of Evil, has been released! What do you do when you encounter something which is... simply evil? Do you run away from it? Report it to a higher authority? Pretend you've never seen it? In this chapter, that choice will have to be made.
So, I'm not sure I mentioned this before, but I use git for keeping track of changes to the story. And the most recent commit message I made before posting this chapter contains, among a few other more spoilery things, "fix small demon math error." Anyway, I just thought that was funny and wanted to share.
As you can see by the timestamp, it has been a really, really long time since I posted a chapter. I guess my statement that I was done writing a huge backlog to get a feel for the plot was a bit premature.
Nevertheless, Chapter 65: The Price of Obedience has just been released! The stakes are raised higher and motivations are revealed! [redacted because accidental spoilers] I hope you enjoy it!