“Where the hell have you been?” screeched Xanthipi, ruler of the Dark City of Khazban and soon-to-be-ruler of the Wold. The evil Xanthipi, the only wizard of the 9th Level, though no one knew but her. Now, with the arrival of her skilled tyro, she could begin the last stages to mastering an unheard of 10th Level.
“I apologize for the late arrival, but…” replied Kahi through gritted teeth. This was not the greeting she had anticipated; after all, she was a wizard of the 7th Level. But she had come here to serve and to learn and become a wizard of the 8th Level, equal to Xanthipi. Just as powerful, but kinder. And when that day came, she would take Khazban for her own. She planned how to do it as she made the trek to the Dark City. This inexcusably insulting greeting confirmed in her mind the unsuitability of Xanthipi to rule.
“Well, whatever, Igor will show you to your rooms. Now, what’s this thing?” she asked pointing at Gherkin, who peeked through his wings at her. “Gherkin,” he said smiling.
“Of course,” she sniffed. “Go get some rest and cleaned up. Dinner is at 6, I expect you to be prompt.” She disappeared down a hallway.
Igor, a tall, emaciated woman took them up a hallway and down two flights of stairs, then down another hallway. Left, then right down another hallway to another staircase and a short walk down a narrow unadorned hallway. Igor stopped in front of a pair of elaborately carved double doors. She open them and led Kahi to a beautiful suite of dusty rooms. Igor crossed the room and pulled open the curtains with a cloud of dust. Sunlight filtered into the room through filthy windows.
“If madam would like, I can bring in her belongings.”
“Madam would not,” Kahi said as she dragged a finger across the dusty vanity, and pulled open a musty wardrobe.
“Perhaps madam would like water for a bath. The mistress has provided a beautiful tub for your use,” she said opening a curtain to a small alcove where sat a wooden tub next to a large fire place.
“Madam would not like. Now be gone.”
Igor bowed her head and quickly left the rooms closing the doors behind her. Alone, she wanted to examine her rooms, make a few adjustments and then sleep. It seemed only moments before Igor returned for her and Gherkin to take them to dinner. Kahi had rested briefly, but used spells to change her clothes and fix her long black hair. Gherkin of course required nothing for the moment but sleep and slept the sleep of the dead until Kahi called him.
Kahi left Gherkin to his rest and left for her dinner with Xanthipi. She tried to maintain her sense of direction, but the corridors were long and winding, and she lost track of the several staircases between her rooms and the dreary dining hall.
It was dark and damp. The tapestries that hung against the walls to keep out the cold and wet were threadbare and full of holes. What natural light there was came in from three long windows on either side of the room. High enough to let in some light in the afternoon, but not a bit of warmth.
“Ah, there you are at last, well rested I trust?” she continued without waiting for an answer. “Dinner is generally a simple affair. Though for your arrival I had planned a celebration feast. Unfortunately, you did not arrive timely and plans had to be altered. I hope you understand.”
Her new mistress spoke as servants brought in their meager meal. “Now as to your duties; they will be varied. Think of your most important duty is as my assistant, and at my beck and call. I keep rather irregular hours, but you’ll get used to that….”
Kahi sipped the thin tepid soup, and drank the sour wine she was served. The main course was some type of meat cooked beyond all recognition and taste, and the rest, well, it all disagreed with her more refined palate. She managed to smile politely using all her strength just to chew and swallow. On and on Xanthipi nattered. Kahi had had no idea she was such a chatty wizard. In fact, it seemed as if the woman never took a breath or really expected any one to answer her, as she rarely paused long enough for Kahi to say anything.
Kahi wondered if she’d made a bad decision. But the chance to study under the tutelage of a wizard of the 8th Level was unheard of. If only Xanthipi hadn’t fallen from grace 100 years ago, the entire Wizard’s Council would have benefited from her knowledge. As it was, only Kahi stood to gain, as long as she could put up with the wizard’s habits, in order to learn more of the arcane arts of magic and necromancy. She was determined to become an 8th Level herself before leaving her Mistress’s employ.
“Excuse me, your Grace,” Kahi interrupted at last.
Xanthipi looked at her through slitted eyes. “You have something to say?”
“I only want to again offer my sincerest apologies for the lateness of my arrival, as I mentioned, it was not of my own choice.
“Yes, yes, I know all that.”
“You do?” Kahi was shocked. If she knew where I was, why didn’t she help me? She wondered angrily.
“Of course, little of what goes on in the Wold is unknown to me. Only one new thing has, well, two new things have come to my attention; your aide is one, and the other is your sister’s new tyro.”
“So Bru found someone?”
“It appears so.”
“But she will need years to train him.”
“Yes, but this one seems special. Bru retrieved him from the 7th World and I am unfamiliar with it. One of your duties shall be to discover more about this world and the people in it. What sort of wizards do they have? Does everyone have magic? If so, how much magic? I understand it is a world vastly different from others. Full of strange metal creatures which carry people upon streets wider than our widest river.”
“I will make it my duty to learn all I can.”
“See that you do. I want to know what her tyro knows and how fast he learns, and how the rest of the Wold is faring.”
“I note that the darkness is expanding, your magnificence,” Kahi said appreciatively. “I look forward to assisting you in the continued advances of your magic.”
“Yes, yes, perhaps you shall help me advance magic, but that will not be your primary duty. You are to attend to me and assist me in my spells and studies. I need documents translated from the ancient languages, and potions mixed, and concoctions blended. These are the things of a tyro to accomplish.”
“I have proven myself to be a wizard of the 7th Level. Do you doubt my abilities?” Kahi tried to keep the anger out of her voice.
“If I did not think you were a capable Wizard of the 7th Level, you would not be here. What I do not know is if you are a suitable tyro for a wizard of the 9th Level. However, since you are the only one available,” she left the rest unsaid.
“9th Level?” Kahi wondered aloud. No one had ever achieved that level, well, almost no one. The only one who came close was Arngrim the Awful who achieved the 8th Level and went mad trying to master the 9th Level. How could it be? How could she test her abilities? How had she retained her sanity? Or had she? Xanthipi rose slowly to her feet and gripped her stick with both hands. “Now you will attend me at my bath and read to me while I fall sleep. Gemma is a good girl, but her reading is quite terrible.”
With no choice, Kahi followed her mistress as if she was a tyro of the first 1st Level, and tried to smolder the anger inside her and put aside her immense pride.
In the days and weeks that followed, she fell into a routine. Kahi learned few new spells, but spent most of her time mixing potions, travelling to towns near and far gathering herbs and stones and other materials. The anger that had begun in the desert now smoldered, deep red and seething. She had given up everything to become tyro to the only wizard of the 8th Level. No, 9th Level. She wondered at that again. Granted, she was a doddering, self-centered and mean old lady, and it took all of Kahi’s willpower to restrain her tongue, but she was not cruel. At least she had not shown Kahi anything but cold impartiality. Some of the tasks she asked Kahi to do were merely ordered for the humiliation factor, a position Kahi found quite untenable, and her resentment grew daily. Each night she imagined what a pleasure it would be to take Xanthipi down.
Still Kahi was mostly content and relished her new position, which gave her considerable freedom for her own studies. She had Gherkin to send on many of the more onerous errands, like gathering the gloam from the Great Seeping Swamp, or blood from the mosquitoes of the River Wilde, a long slow moving scar upon the breast of the Dooms of Dressage to the north. Some trips he accompanied her, and he went alone on many others. He had proven himself a valuable tool.
The most interesting thing she did was learning about the world where Zeke came from. It was laid out in similar fashion to the Wold in that each area of land had a district made up of many towns and villages, and run by some sort of head or governor. And there were many lands separated by bodies of water, and each had forests and rivers and animals, though those in Zeke’s world were quite amazing. It was some time before she realized the large metal conveyances were guided by a person, not the other way around. The even larger ones that held numerous people, yet had but two doors, while the conveyances carrying only a single person had four doors.
She spent time in places with names like Philadelphia and Milwaukee, and small towns. She encountered large crowds her at every turn. Groups of individuals of all types came together to listen to speakers shouting angry words. And angry words were shouted back to the speakers. Many times these groups were accompanied by a group of sheriffs to maintain order, though to her it often appeared the sheriffs were the cause of commotion. The sheriffs wore helmets and had shields and clubs. They had no trouble running into a crowd and start swinging. Once the large brick buildings from a distance and thought it might be some kind of fortress or castle and approached. It was in the district known as Ohio and the place was called Kent State University. She wandered the University talking with students and teachers. She expected that part of her study to be quite boring, but actually many people were quite fascinating. She walked through a large of young people who had gathered to shout angry as well as peaceful words. She was going down the hill and encountered a group of sheriffs, carrying long weapons as they marched to the top of a hill. She heard small explosions and then there was much chaos and screaming. Kahi returned to the top of the hill to see a surreal vision. The large crowd had dispersed, though many seemed to now be returning, running and angry. Some of the young people lay on the ground in large pools of blood. The chaos of the scene was almost a joy to watch, but Kahi felt the long weapons were an unsavory way to kill. Though she had to admire their efficiency.
She wondered about them and tried many times to take one of the weapons, but was thwarted until she followed one of the soldiers to a quiet place and disarmed him. “I’ll bet he never saw that kind of magic,” she thought as she studied the machine. She was disappointed to find it was defective and did not produce a projectile no matter the number of times she pulled the switch. Yet, she thought it might prove interesting, so she kept it. After she had to handle several angry sheriffs with their weapons pointed at her, she kept the weapon hid. Her own magic did not operate as it did in The Wold, and the results were often unpredictable. She had not intended to turn the sheriffs into beetles.
There was magic in this world. Strange and powerful magic, but it didn’t come from the people. She saw magic in every habitation she passed through; small boxes which produced music of an unbelievable variety, a strange sort of lighting where the fire is encased in glass and can be turned on or off by touching the wall! And most amazing of all were the picture boxes in which tiny people enacted entertainments. Kahi was incredulous when she asked about them in the store and the man told her nearly every home in America had at least one TV. She sat and watched the plays for hours before being forced to leave the store.
When she finally arrived at the place called San Francisco, and was struck by an entirely new experience. It seemed louder and more colorful here than in most of the other cities she had visited. Yet, it was the same as the other cities. It was loud and dirty. The air had an odd taste and there were so many scents in the air her brain was utterly unable to filter them. She was tired of this strange place. Her magic did not always work and that put her in many uncomfortable situations, like the time she found herself in the middle of a trash dump as big as a desert. She had a hell of a time getting back to civilization that time. When she discovered nothing new in Zeke’s home, she quickly made for home, though getting back would still take her many months. It gave her time to prepare her notes for her report to Xanthipi.
“I’ll prove to her how valuable I am. This will be the most in-depth study of this 7th World, and will be placed in the Library at Abbington,” she thought, though any knowledge she felt might serve her in the future, she put in her private notes. Overall she thought the trip entertaining, but hardly enlightening. For all their impressive buildings, machinery, and magic, it was a noisy, dirty world and she hoped never to see it again.
Early the next morning the three village Elders arrived flanked by four women, two blind crones, who were led by two girls no more than ten years. Arfred ordered chairs brought out and the Elders were seated. Zeke pulled up chairs for Bruhana and himself and sat down facing the villagers.
“I’ll not mince words,” she said. “Your village is not safe. The wooden fence and even the great log gate will not keep these creatures at bay.”
“We had to do something,” whined Third Elder, a white haired man with a white scar from forehead to chin. “The people needed to feel safe.”
“How does a wooden fence protect you against an enemy that can fly?.”
“Right,” responded a large man with a toddler in each arm. “Those things have gotten stronger and bolder with each attack.”
“Whose fault is that?” sneered a man with slick, greasy hair. He stood and pointed at Bru. “If you wizards weren’t so busy quarrelling among yourselves, you might have noticed that we lost ours.”
“There are many towns and villages in the Wold, sir. And Gretzgig was known to have the protection of a wizard. We had no idea yours had gone missing.”
“He disappeared a year past,” said First Elder.
“I only discovered he was gone when I arrived last night,” Bru answered. “Why did no one send word to the Council?”
People looked at the Elders, while the Elders stared at their feet. First Elder spoke up, “We did send word,” he said. “But we didn’t have a runner, so we sent raven.”
Angry mutters floated about the room.
“Ravens are notoriously unreliable,” Bru said. Zeke looked at her, expecting to hear some defense. “As you probably know one of our Council wizards was killed…”
“I heard she was taken to Khazban. Willingly,” a voice interrupted. Zeke looked and saw it was the same greasy-haired man.
“Where are all your tyros?” asked another. This time it was the big man with the children. “We know they were all graduated to First Level. Can’t we have one of them in place of Barthal?”
“I will do what I can to find your town a wizard, but for now we have more pressing business. Have you any archers in town?” Several hands went up. “Good,” she said as she looked around. “And fletchers?” a few more hands went up. “Flint knappers?” Blank stares. “Someone that can make stone arrow heads.”
“Oh, aye,” responded a dark haired man. “We’ve got a couple of those. And Torford makes metal heads as well.”
“Even better,” she said and turned to the Elders. “You have only two choices. Remain here behind your wall, where you have no safety from attack from the air. Yet, if you train archers and mount watch towers that are high enough to see over the nearby woods. Four towers with three men each. Each armed with a bow and quiver.”
“Can those things die?”
“Yes. They deadly powerful creatures under the control of Xanthipi, but they are still flesh and bone and can be killed. Aim for the eyes, tell your archers.”
“And our other choice?” asked the Second Elder.
“Flee.” Everyone spoke at once and Bru waited for the voices to die down.
“Flee?” She nodded mutely to the butcher.
“You want us to leave?” Again, a tip of her head.
When the room had grown quiet again, Bru said, “I understand your roots in this place go deep. As mine are deep and wide in my own Woolton Wood, and yet before I left I advised our mayor to abandon the village.” That announcement was greeted by shocked gasps. “Is there somewhere you can go?”
“What about Shtelhop?” a young woman asked meekly. Several villagers raised their middle fingers to ward off evil.
“Shtelhop?” repeated First Elder.
“That might work,” said Second Elder.
“Shtelhop?” A young mother gasped and clutched her baby tight, “That place is haunted.”
“Haunted or not, it’s safer than here.”
“How far is it?”
“About four miles west. In the Hollow Hills.”
Zeke watched as fingers flicked up from fists around the room. He had not gotten used to the gesture as it was employed here and it felt like everyone was flipping him off. If not for the palpable fear he would have been angry. “What’s wrong with the place?” he asked, certain he would not like the answer.
“It is evil.”
“That sounds about right,” he said. “What kind of evil?”
The big farmer, Balin, stood. “It was the scene of the last battle during the War of the Wizards. It was the final battle between the Dark Wizards and the Light. It lasted six years, with many hundreds of dead wizards and thousands of soldiers, as well as zorses, lumes, dogs, and cats and even bits. The place is haunted by all the dead things. Bad things happen to people who travel through those hills and the road which once went straight through now turns aside and goes around.”
“No one goes that way,” said Third Elder. “Not if they care for their lives.”
Several young men scoffed and the tallest of them said, “That battle was a thousand years ago. If there were ghosts, they’ve long since disappeared.”
One of the crones beside the elder spoke, “My opa told me of an incident that occurred when he was a boy. Two brothers and their friend decided to test their bravery, and invited my opa to join them in spending the night at Shtelhop, but his pa wouldn’t let him go. Well the other boys packed the things they thought they would need for the three days they expected to be gone. But they did not return on the third day.
After five days passed and the boys had not returned, their mothers begged the mayor to send men to look for the boys. Their trail was easy to follow and it was the afternoon of their second day in the hills when they found an old man seated against a rock. They hardly believed him when he told them he was Bot. He said his brother Mathen and their friend Jory were dead, but they couldn’t get more out of him than that. One of the men took Botty back to his mother, while the other three men continued along the trail. They found the spot where the boys had camped for the night. Their packs were open and their contents strewn about. By now it was getting quite dark but the men were unafraid, and so made their camp that night in the same place. They were attacked in the night by creatures unseen except for red eyes and black grins. They had long sharp claws, or short knives, for the men were cut many times, but none very deep. The creatures could not be cut by sword or knife, for they had no bodies. If you tried to grapple, you found only air and landed on your face. One man lay dead and hope seemed lost when the darkness was shattered by a light so bright, the men had to shield their eyes. When the light dimmed the men opened their eyes, relieved to see the wizened face of the wizard Gaspar.”
“Well, we’ve got two wizards with us now,” said the sneering young msn. “That should be enough to protect the whole town from a couple ghosts.”
“Enough!” cried the First Elder. “You know nothing of ghosts or fear boy.”
“Have the attacks on our village escaped your notice old man? I lost my da in the first attack four months ago, and two sisters in the last one.”
“Both tragedies,” the First Elder said. He gestured at the frightened villagers. “We have all suffered tragedy these last months.”
“Then why the debate about a folk tale? We should leave now.”
“I’m willing to try my luck in the hills,” said a young man. “I’ve already lost a child and a wife to monsters. Ghosts can’t do any worse.”
At last, it was agreed to send scouts to the hills. There were caves under the hills as well, which may protect them from both the spirits and the monsters. Two groups of men were selected; one, led by Balin, would scout the area for animal tracks, and evidence of supernatural occurrences. The other led by Balin’s younger brother Nestor, would investigate the caves. Though it was already past noon, the men planned to leave immediately, riding the fastest zorses in the village.
Bru and Zeke worked quickly to prepare some potions for the scouts, pouring them into glass containers that could be thrown to the ground, thereby dispersing their contents. The enclosed magic would provide temporary safety and give them time to elude any pursuers. “Only use these in situations where traditional weapons will not suffice,” she told Balin and Nestor.
“Aye, missus,” said Balin, “though I never met nothing that couldn’t be killed with a sword. Magic is the last thing I’m like to try.”
The town saw the scouting parties off with hugs and well wishes, and the fervent hope they would see each other again. As soon as they had ridden from town, Bruhana turned to the Elders and told them she and Zeke had to be on their way. All eyes turned to her.
“We can stay no more than another day or two. We are already late in getting to the Council,” she lied. They weren’t, but they had already spent too much time in one place, and staying would not help the villagers. “The Council must come up with plan to act against Xanthipi and avoid all out war.”
“Will it come to that?” asked Second Elder.
“I’m afraid it might,” she answered, “unless the Council can come up with a plan to disarm Her.”
“Can’t you wait until the scouts return?”
“We can wait until tomorrow, but we have already been delayed and have many miles to go and we will likely encounter many other unavoidable delays to further slow our progress.”
She turned to the group. “We have already lost wizards to this fight; full wizards of the 5th and 6th Levels. A few years ago, before the Blackness came, the Council heard rumors of Xanthipi building a stronghold in the south, past the Vast Desert. Seven wizards were chosen to investigate. That was seven years ago. The Council waited, but after two years passed with no word, they commanded all apprentices be tested out as quickly as possible. The wizards took on new tyros. That was five years ago and another seven tyros have been tested and all been assigned new duties.”
There were many angry voices raised when they heard this and Bru turned again to the Elders. “I am sorry we did not know of Barthal’s disappearance or we would have been sure to send someone to you. My next stop is Satureen where many Magicks live. Perhaps I can entice one of them to join you.”
“They are not even Lesser Wizards, what protection can they offer?”
“I don’t know, each one has different skills, but all are skilled healers. Now, I have told you what you can do. I told you I would try to send help. What else would you have of me?”
“Stay and protect us,” said a girl no more than six.
Bru sat down next to her and put her arms around her. “I am so sorry my dear,” she whispered with tears in her eyes. “These are terrible times, and not everyone will see the end of them.”
The girl was crying now and Bru brushed the tears from her cheeks. She reached then into her pocket and gave the girl an enchanted bracelet. “This will help protect you,” she said as she slipped it onto her wrist, “but you must not take it off until I see you again. Will you do that?” The girl sniffled and nodded, then went back to her mother to show her the charm. The mother looked at the bracelet and then at Bru. “Can you make more of these charms?” she asked.
Zeke looked at Bruhana and she at him. “I do not have enough supplies to make enough for everyone in town, I’m sorry.”
Now the mother was weeping. “Will it truly protect Elize?”
“It will give her courage. You must do the rest.”
“I haven’t any courage,” she said and wiped the tears away angrily. “What can I do?”
“While we wait for the scouts to return, maybe we could lay some spells of protection,” Zeke suggested to Bru.
The young mother’s eyes pleaded, “Can you do that?”
Bru nodded and put a gentle hand on the woman’s shoulder, giving her a sense of calm. Bru agreed with some misgivings, she felt they should not delay further but they could not leave this town without any protection. She and Zeke went through town that day, to chose which houses and building to lay protection. But these spells were irregular and their potency faded. After She and Zeke were gone, there would be no one to reinforce the magic. They selected the brick buildings in town and The Fig and the would-be stable. The Elders ordered everyone to move into these until they began the exodus to Shtelhop. Bruhana urged them not to wait.