Curse the lot of them! What have I ever done to deserve this?
Three days hard trek up a snow packed mountain trail with naught but a two toothed yokel to guide him, and for what? Was he, Faustus Flusterbuss, not the most perfect apprentice any Mage could ask for? Had he not always seen to his duties and those of his beloved Master Arkas above all else? It had to be the fault of that blasted Ardle, and worse yet, that cherub-faced jumped-up apprentice, Jestinia. They would get their just desserts, he would make sure of it.
Faustus' grip tightened on the reins of his stubborn pack horse as the image of Jestinia's slender neck clouded his thoughts. A week since the announcement and still he couldn't figure out how they did it. Ardle first of the Mages, what perverted mockery. And Faustus himself, shamelessly underutilized in his new role, Ninth of Nine, that's just last. Embarrassment knotted his stomach. He’d sooner have stayed apprentice to the Second, then someday Second himself. That's how he dreamed it, that's how it was meant to be.
“There Master Mage, ain't she a beauty?” called Hardin over the relentless wind.
“Beauty? What am I even looking at?”
“There sir, Finkle’s Bridge just as I promised, ain't it something?” The old guide swooned deeper with each word, Faustus thought he might need to give the old blighter five minutes alone with this supposed bridge.
“Bridge? It's a crumbling arch between two mountains, more weed and moss than brick and mortar. For the love of the Ancestors, if you think that's beautiful, let's hope you never see the opera house at Caltarra, or the grand Imperial Library, you are likely to set your spirit free and crossover.”
“Yes sir, that's exactly what we need to do,” Hardin gestured towards the spanning arch.
“I’m not untethering my spirit, not after last time.”
“No sir, cross over, it's the fastest way to get to Somewhere.”
Faustus straightened in the saddle, shrugged his rime crusted furs a little higher, and surveyed the crossing. Beautiful came in low on the list of adjectives he would have used, hazardous, ancient, ramshackle, they fit a hell of a lot better.
“There's no other route?” he asked, although he knew the answer.
“Unless ye wish to backtrack and add a month's stomping through the vastness of Nowhere and dabble with all them snarling, toothful, beasties out on the Black Sands, then no. This be's the best path. Though, never fear, I promised the First I’d get you there in one piece, and I'll do just that or my name aint Hardin Worth L’effort.”
“Very well, lead the way, guide.”
Spurring the dappled mare onward, Faustus dropped in behind the chatterbox guide and resisted looking over the decaying precipice to the foaming rapids far, far, below.
“Ye know,” Hardin began in that high pitch yokel that preannounced a diatribe of utter nonsense. “They say Finkle Sun Eater built this from the bones o’ the Giant Berik so he could reach the other side and rescue his beloved.”
Faustus shook his head, "And Giants bones are usually stone are they?”
“Neh sure Master, ne’er had the pleasure of meeting one. You?”
“Guess we’re both lucky then Master Mage, hear they’re nasty buggers when they want to be.”
“Aren't we all?”
“Suppose you be right there.” Hardin pointed towards the descending sun as it disappeared behind the mountain tops, “There’s a cave not far on the other side, we’ll bed down there, get a good fire going. New moon’s rising tonight, last thing we want to be is away from a campfire tonight, Skitterbugs come crawling...or worse.”
Faustus realised days ago not to question these backwater notions, just nod and smile, otherwise you’ll get subjected to such wisdom as: Never piss facing the sun or you’ll invite fireflies into your dangler, or, always carry moldy cheese when wrestling a badger. The degree to which he had been drenched in such unintelligent sputum left his soul almost as soggy as his long johns, and they were as dry as a salmon's belly. He breathed deep the icy air, this was his lot now. Somewhere, Kingdom of Lord Herringbone, Knight of the Iron woods, the hick capital of the continent, and his new home.
If this was the thanks for being a good apprentice perhaps it was time to find out the reward for the alternative. A greasy smile slid onto his reddened wind burnt face. That's the problem with ambition, sometimes it leaves you only one road to travel. Damn the lot of them!
“Can you please stop whistling,” Faustus snapped from under his huddle of blankets before the crackling fire.
“Sorry Master Mage, just something I do without even knowing it.” He wrung his hole ridden socks, splattering brownish water onto the cave floor, then flung them over a makeshift drying rack. “What’s that you be reading there anyways? A tale of knights and princesses is it?”
“Nothing so tedious, no, its M’dona’s autobiography, did you know she was a dancer to –”
Hardin leapt upright, hand out for silence, turning about and sniffing like the hound that got the direction of the hunt. His flickering shadow cast gargantuan against the craggy rock face, he ripped a hand axe from the pack by his feet, setting Faustus scrambling into action.
“Who goes there? I smell ye, ya dirty rotten–”
Twang, and a feathered shaft rattled off the wall behind Hardin. Followed by a crude looking spear, all black barbs and serrated tip, breaking the drying rack. Two misses? Bad aim? Warning? Luck? Faustus' book thunked to the ground, luck was no friend of his. His fingers moved lightning fast tracing runes, and none too soon, as a third spear shattered against his shield of compressed air.
Focus gem vibrating beneath his shirt, Faustus gave voice to an enchantment. The fire burst to bonfire proportions, drenching the improvised camp in blistering oranges and bloody reds. Then he saw them. Eyes glistening murder from the cave's maw. Three of them, three that he could see.
“I am Faustus of the Order of Nine! You know not who you trouble, leave now, or I will leave your bodies for carrion.” He waited for the scramble of feet, the retreat of the sensible when faced with a Mage of his magnitude.
To his dismay, laughter echoed and the hulks, draped in furs, mismatched armour, matted hair, and a stench that could curdle milk from fifty yards, strolled forward. One trained a longbow on Faustus, another swung a net as casual as though out for the morning catch. Maybe they were. The other must have had giants' blood in him, a shock of red hair almost scraping the stalactites, spears decorating his broad back, and narrowed deceit glinting from his unpatched eye.
“We know very well who you are, think you can walk through my mountains and not be noticed. You're a nice big pay day you are." More laughter, frantic and all together insulting.
Faustus shook his head, did these bandits really think they were any match for a Mage, never mind one of his caliber. One hand outstretched he forced more Essence into the blue shimmering shield, whilst the other twitched behind his back. Where most apprentices spent years mastering spells and potions he always pushed himself further, priding himself on using ancient sign magics.
"Last chance," Faustus warned, brow knotted.
"Ha, do you hear–" Spear's words were snatched by a torrent of air, his huge lumbering form careened backwards into Net. Faustus dropped his shield and a bow string thrummed. With little more than a twist of the hand Faustus redirected the projectile into the cave wall splintering against the rockface.
Spear stumbled up, roared, barreled forward, short sword pulled from his belt. Faustus grinned and stomped. A pillar of rock shot from the ground crushing Spear's man berries. Wheezing, eyes crossed, groin held, he accordioned to the dirt floor.
Bow notched another shaft, string pulled, Faustus clapped. A stalactite slammed into Bow's foot leaving him yelping and hopping like a blaspheming rabbit on hot coals.
Faustus growled at Net. It was enough. Moans, racing footsteps, and the crackling fire sung Faustus' victory.
"Sir?" came Hardin's whimpering voice. Faustus turned grinning, expecting lashings of new found adoration. Why would he not? There was little doubt this old bumpkin ever saw such a display of…yet for some reason he was shaking, arms out for balance, face ghost white.
Faustus released hold of the Essence strands, the fire calmed, the world dulled, and the mountain shook.
Dust rained from the cracking ceiling, stones crumbled, boulders rolled. He looked up, something crunched into his face, world spinning, mouth filling, ear buzzing, he collapsed.
Complete and utter blackness. Where in all the planes was he? What happened? The world tilted, wobbled, before staggering into focus. Dust choked the air, stones rolled with loose skree down the cavern walls, his face ached, warm, wet, and sticky. And for some reason it appeared a hunched goblin was waving a burning torch.
Trying to get up he grimaced, nothing moved. Something stabbed his chest. A blade? No, it couldn't be. A rock? Possible, but this was sharp, many faced…the gem. His head dropped back and he drew in a burning breath. Slabs of blue grey rock covered his body. The goblin danced closer.
“Master Mage, you're awake!”
“Hardin, what happened” - Is what he tried to say, but what came out sounded like the drowning of a lisping snake. Tongue swollen, he prodded the spaces where his teeth should have been.
“Don't speak sir, you're badly hurt. You brought the whole cave in on us, and, argh!” Hardin leapt forward swinging his torch in a great arch. Chittering and chattering clicked out a sickening concert. Turning his head as best he could, Faustus came eye to eye with a snapping set of mandibles. Before he could attempt to scream Hardin's boot crunched down, bursting shell, and spraying yellow glop.
“Skitterbugs sir, they live in the rocks!” Hardin jumped from fallen rock to crushed boulder kicking and swatting the six legged beasties away.
Faustus' fingers twitched, drawing symbols for levitation, but nothing happened. He tried again. More nothing. His arms were numb, fingers tingling like a tuning fork, his feet seemed impossibly distant. He screwed up his face, in truth he couldn't feel his feet, or hands.
"Shelp…sget…shelp," Faustus hissed.
"Shelp? oh, help," Hardin slammed the flame touched club into a gaggle of gnashing critters. "Can't sir, not now, can't leave, bugs'll eat yer face…and that's too pretty a face for bite marks!"
Faustus attempted a wriggle for all the good it did, it only pushed the gem deeper into his chest. Wincing, tears filled his eyes. All his magical life all he wanted was to be part of the prestigious Nine. Now the emblem that denoted his success was trying to bury into his heart. He almost laughed. There was a joke there somewhere, or perhaps it was ironic. Regardless, humour's hard to call upon when you can't feel anything below your neck and your mouth is riddled with half teeth and gushing blood.
Bubbles popped at the edge of his vision, head light he knew he couldn't stay awake much longer. The slabs shifted digging the gem painfully deep, then to his surprise, vibrated. Essence. Warm, flowing, and yet he did not have the fingers nor words to grasp it.
He shouldn't be here, it was all that blasted Jestinia's fault. Eyelids growing heavy he gave up.
As if racing through the forest during summer, lights began to flicker, and flicker, and grow brighter until…
Faustus shook his head, pain gone, cave gone, he stared down at transparent hands and gave them a wiggle. A dream surely, a trauma induced lucid dream, yes that's it. Yet through his fingers he recognised the room.
Vaulted and adorned with canvases of past Emperors and Empresses watching over an enormous tabled map of the known world. Two figures moved wooden figures, horses, and knights across its surface. A war was being planned.
One looked up, her eyes shining quizzical green before nudging the smaller, stouter man next to her.
"Ardle, we've a guest," there was no mistaking the sing-song voice of Jestinia.
"We wha–" Ardle raised his head, face shifting from befuddlement to anger. "Faustus! What in the Never Realm have you been told about untethering your spirit!"
"I thought he looked thinner," Jestinia noted, folding her arms.
"Are you spying again boy? Well, speak dammit."
Of course, the body may be broken, but not the spirit.
"Your Firstiness, I, emm, I," he paused, with every word he could feel something tugging at him. His body, the mortal coil, being stretched, ready to spring back at any moment. "Sir, trapped, cave in, Finkle's Bridge, need help."
"Is this a jest?" Ardle asked.
"Look at him," Jestinia began. "A blind man on a galloping horse could see he's terrified."
Ardle looked to the map, "I will send help, and notify the Academy they are closer, perhaps Arkas can get there before–"
Flicker. Flicker. Snap!
Lighter than air itself Faustus blew across the world, a blur of pure Essence, plunging through trees, shooting through streams and rivers, flying beside birds, and all the while, screaming at the top of his lungs.
When we stopped he stumbled, as best an ethereal being can. The room was rich with mahogany paneling, unlit brass oil lamps, an overburdened desk, and thick velvet curtains barely holding back the dawn.
"Who goes there!"
That voice. Faustus floated around, and if he could have he would have leapt with joy.
"Faustus?" asked Arkas, still wearing his sleeping attire.
"Master–" the coil wound once more.
"You were warned about this Faustus, you know how dangerous this is. You could lose complete contact with your body. Never know touch again, or worse, let something demonic in. Begone, before you are seen." Arkas waved his hand as if shooing away a pestering cat.
"No time, cave in, Finkle's Bridge, need help, please he—"
Flicker. Flicker. Flicker. Crack!
Prying open well stuck eyes Faustus blinked in disbelief. Chest burning, head throbbing, he was still trapped. Hardin however, was panting like a warrior fresh from the arena, stripped to his stained under baggins, streaked and smeared in Skitterbug he patrolled around Faustus, small fires dwindling or smoldering out.
"Sshardin'?" Faustus slobbered.
"Master yer back, yer awake."
"Sow..ah, hours sir, but we did it Master Mage, look!" The old guide pointed towards the rumble packed entrance, and more heart lifting the suns shafts piercing the void. "Skitterbugs won't come during daylight, I'll get help Master, I just need…" He spun about, scanning the minute fires. "I seem to have burnt all my clothes, kept us safe, but it will make the trip down the mountain a bit nipple hardening. Fear not sir, I promised the First, and I don't intend to break it."
Faustus couldn't quite believe it, the lengths this man was willing to go to keep him alive. The cave shuddered, dust fell, rocks cracked. No, no, not again.
Light, gloriously warm flooded the cavern. Faustus squinted, Hardin held a hand before his face as boulders floated then drifted clear, landing soft as a clouds.
"Faustus? Can you hear me?" The shout, the voice, how? Faustus' heart hammered.
"Over here!" roared Hardin.
Faustus cried out as the confining slabs were effortlessly removed from his crumpled form, yet still he could not move. He stared at the towering angelically haloed silhouette, trying to lift a hand to feel if he was real.
"Easy my boy, easy now." Arkas knelt, and Hardin yelped scrambling backwards as Arkas' face came out of the shadow. It was covered in slowly shrinking feathers, his nose an ever decreasing beak. Chanting, he held a hand over Faustus' chest. Gasping, Faustus' fingers tracked the dirt. They moved, they moved!
"Master, " Faustus huffed, teeth snapping back into place. "You came…you transmogrified?"
"I had to, it was the only way I could get here on time."
"Almost as dangerous as untethering one's spirit." Arkas grinned, no anger, just joy and relief. "You, help me get him outside, but put this on first." Arkas threw the shivering guide his navy cloak.
"Certainly sir, oh my, how fancy."
The fresh air was a divine breath on Faustus' aching body. Slowly, they hobbled down the mountain path as the sun glistened across the endless forest below. Squinting he could just make out the towers of King Herringbone's keep. His home. Relief filled him.
Thundering hoofs broke his revelry and he took pause as fifty or more calvary rode towards them, the king's banners fluttering.
The lead rider called out, "Are you Faustus?"
"I am," he crooked.
The rider called back, "He's alive!" To Faustus' astonishment the brigade burst in cheer. He was baffled, why were these strangers celebrating.
The rider dismounted and shook the three men's hands, "I am King Herringbone, I am so relieved you are safe. We received word from Ardle in the night and set off at once."
"My liege, I, I..don't know what to say."
"Say nothing, you are our mage, we look after our own."
Faustus gazed at the applauding knights, his smiling former mentor, the grinning Hardin, and the beauty of nature spread out before him.
What had Faustus ever done to deserve such friends, such loyalty? He was in no way perfect. But he would see to his duties and those of his new King above all else?
Perhaps after all, ambition or not, life takes you down the right road after all. Thank them, thank the lot of them!