The Chaos Marches
Chapter 2, Dinlai and the Black Mage
We left our heroes dodging about the witchpaths "near" (in some sense) the Chaos Marches, "near" (ditto) the southern border of Faerie. They were, they knew, in something like the vicinity of some incoming raiders or invaders.
However, because vicinity is so loosely defined under these conditions, Mithriel did not encounter any more signs of invasion. Instead, we soon found ourselves on a stony ridge surrounded by mist, a standard sort of setting for these Chaos Marches. Mithriel took out her token of Hreme -- a small chess knight done as a sea horse in turquoise -- and resumed trying to home in on that world via witchpath. Mist was replaced by blur.
Just as Tom and Salimar suffered some strange vibes, Mithriel stopped suddenly. The blur cleared and we were on a small piece of rocky land, a little butte. Down some rough natural steps lay more rock. Once we were out of the mist and blur, it became clear we were on a mesa of some sort, about a mile wide. There was a glow ahead, off the edge of the mesa, and the stars above looked a bit fuzzy.
Robbie looked at the glow ahead in UV and IR. Infrared showed that the glow was hot, and revealed flames. Telescopy on the fuzzy "stars" showed that at least one was ring-shaped. A space station? he wondered.
Tom conjured a pair of binoculars. Soon, it was clear that the ring of light tipped an incredibly long and thin spire. And we are surrounded by a ring of fire...
Tom recalled to the group how some worlds, notably those of Hreme and Eastmarch, were said to be on a "World Tree." In Eastmarch, this was apparently literal, and the stars did not rise and set with the sun. Sun and moon orbited a flat world on the tip of a branch of that World Tree -- like this mesa, only bigger. A lot bigger.
Hreme's world-tree was apparently more metaphorical, since the astronomy there had been superficially conventional. It had been a system of seven continua, one of which contained the local branch of Faerie.
Meanwhile, we hike toward the rim of the mesa. We find the flames are not particularly bright or hot, nor do they come up flush with the rim. Mithriel makes some glamoured sunglasses and, looking down, over the Edge, we see through the flames and behold, far, far away, a flat world, with oceans, continents, and cloud patterns.
"What a remarkable cosmology," Robbie remarks, and suggests that there might be plenty of real estate here for the New Blood. Mithriel agrees and picks up a pebble for a token to guide any return trips. Kate leaves a shilling, as a reverse token. Meanwhile, Tom, Mithriel, and Salimar scan about the mesa with technical and psychic means, but find no signs of local life.
Back to the witchpaths. The hair-raising feeling does not repeat itself, but maybe it should, because Mithriel suddenly exclaims "Yipe!" and we come out of the blur on a very narrow cliffside trail, on the side of what looks like an infinite cliff. At least, it goes up and down as far as any of us can see in both directions. The cliff has a bit of slope, though not much, and far, far away, but still very big, we can see the nearest of several spike-like mountains. Robbie spots a little castle perched on an outcrop.
Tom suggests that we are in the Hremish world-tree system, getting closer to mundane Hreme. First there were the world-tree branches, now we have the slightly more mundane world-mountains.
We note motion in the clouds below. A boat emerges, sailing on air. Tom notes motion on the deck, but by the time Robbie looks for it, there is nothing there. Salimar feels around psychically on our vertiginous path and senses that we are not the first ones to walk it.
Mithriel leads us down the trail and onto the witchpaths again. We have a very short hop and come out in a very similar world, but standing on a small aerial island, about an acre in size. It is SO small, in fact, that our arrival causes it to tip. There's a similar castle on a nearby outcrop, much closer than the previous version, and another, closer, sky-boat. Robbie notes a figure on the prow, watching us with a spy-glass. He waves. They wave back.
Then they steer toward us. There's only the one figure, though. Soon, the boat docks at our little slice of heaven, causing it to rock some more, and we see that the sky-sailor is a fresh-faced youth in vaguely Arabic robes. Then Kate recognizes the figure as a young woman, in fact Dinlai Finlei Alatar, the woman we've come to find.
She smiles, hops onto the island (wobble), and approaches. "Tom-tom!" she greets Tom, "Good to see you! How's the metaphor holding up? How long has it been?"
Tom's eyes widen in alarm. He has never met Dinlai. Yet. But she seems to have already met him. Time-twist. Blast. "The answer," he says in reply to her question, "might be a negative number." Dinlai looks first puzzled, then alarmed in turn. Tom explains briefly, then he and Kate and Dafnord (who have met Dinlai before, and vice versa) drop off the telepathy net and move out of earshot, causing the tilt of the little island to flatten out somewhat.
If Dinlai recognizes any of the others, she keeps that to herself. Mithriel presents her with the letter we got from her, which doesn't seem to help her much in placing us chronologically. (Given how it was delivered, that's no surprise.) Once the ambiguity of the situation is clear to her, Kate, Dafnord, and Tom come back, and Dinlai asks if we've visited "Nighthaven" yet. No, and please stop tipping your hand. She only remarks that we're then from a lot earlier than she had supposed.
We hem and haw and wonder what to do now. We consider having her give us a lift to the right time, but that's probably just going to pull the time-twist tighter. Finally, Tom suggests we just part company. "Well, you're the expert," Dinlai acknowledges. At the thought of being an expert -- as contrasted to an experienced victim -- Tom's eyes widen again, which causes Dinlai to retreat hastily to her boat and wave bye-bye.
Now, in all that conversation, we never actually used the words "time travel" -- just things like "sequence" and "out of order." Father Paddy is understandably confused and asks for explanation. Tom says he's in danger of learning things he shouldn't know yet, so Fr. Paddy sensibly suggests Tom use this amnesia skill he's mentioned. Tom considers this, gives it a try, and ...
Eventually, it becomes clear to the others that voluntary amnesia can be just as much of a bookkeeping problem as a time-twist. Tom seems to have dropped his pointers. Robbie leads him gently by the elbows back onto the witchpaths. "Was that my fault?" Fr. Paddy anxiously asks Dafnord. "Maybe." "Oh!" says Fr. Paddy, in dawning realization, "Was this one of those time travel things you've mentioned?"
(Tom must remember to explain things more clearly to Fr. Paddy in the future, once he remembers how to remember at all.)
We next emerge on another rocky mountain path. There's real mist about, and a sort of "whoosh" noise intermittently, accompanied by fiery glows.
Eventually, the mist clears off a bit and we are looking down a mountain side, toward a spirey black castle in a rocky valley. There are sheets of sparkling glow in the air, which Robbie easily recognizes as the corona discharge of a force field under stress. Admittedly, he has never seen a force field being stressed by the fire from two dragons before.
We seem to have walked in on a battle arcane. The black castle is besieged by the two dragons and by a mob at the gates. Or maybe it's more an army than a mob. Robbie sends his eye that way to investigate, and -- thump.
Yep, a force field, all right. His eye ran right into it, and cracked the lens. While it comes limping home to Robbie's head, Salimar uses the binoculars. She singles out a humanoid male in battle gear. He seems to feel her gaze on him, because he looks right back and bares fangs at her, then turns and addresses another, who may be wearing a leather cloak or may have bat wings, now folded. This second figure meets her gaze, too.
The dragons flame the wards again, and we can see that they extend up the mountainside. In fact, we are just inside them. Which is just as well, especially since the dragons can also cast lightning from their talons. We witness a demonstration.
The binoculars also show a black-robed figure, standing motionless on the battlements of the black castle, holding aloft a transparent staff. From this and the castle, some members of the party are able to identify the Black Mage, our best contact and ally in Hreme. Who is besieged.
Salimar's psychic survey of the area shows lots of power foci, including ones in the mage and under the castle. None of this is very surprising.
We start the climb down, then hear rocks tumbling above us. These were loosed by two figures in slate-gray ninja suits, leaping down at us. Salimar casts an ectoplastic shield while everyone else gets their weapons ready.
The ninjas are bruised and confused by the collision with Salimar's shield, but they still land on their feet and attack us. One grapples with Salimar and gives her his best ninja -- she melts out of his grasp, but not before he manages to hurt her, an experience she is unused to.
Then Mithriel points uphill and yells, "More!" In fact, there are two dozen, who seem to have broken through the wards, since more of them are visible at the crest, still struggling to penetrate. Some of them have fangs, and all of them have a non-human cast of feature.
Equipped with various guns and bows, we head down the cliff, under arrow-fire from above. Salimar, last seen being thrown off the mountain by a grey ninja, takes a miniature version of the dragon shape and glides off into the air. She makes herself transparent and starts giving air reconnaissance by telepathy.
We stun them, we throw them off cliffs, we shoot them with plain ol' bullets. Unfortunately, there are a lot of them, and several of them have enough prescience to anticipate our shots. And they have bows. Sometimes, they hit us.
Tom, now roused from his amnesiac muddle, casts a glamour of invisibility on himself and levitates. He picks off several enemy archers, but one of the prescients gets him. He retreats to the ground and casts invisibility for Kate as she flies up to take her turn with her sonic stunner.
Eventually, most of the party are far enough down the mountain to be level with the castle walls. Salimar has been using her telepathic brain-jab on the enemy, who haven't enjoyed it. Kate begins to take damage from the prescient archers, so Tom re-enters the fray, this time with a clairvoyant cloak cast on top of the invisibility.
But it doesn't help, because the last archer hits him again. Kate intercepts him in the air and stuns the archer.
Mithriel, meanwhile, is crouched invisible below, wishing loudly on the telepathy net that she could fly. "Then pretend you can!" Tom returns, testily, in the midst of his controlled descent. "That's what Second Order Glamour is, isn't it? It works for shape-changes and witchwalking, doesn't it?" Thump.
Gingerly, Mithriel steps out onto non-existent stairs that nonetheless bear her weight. From this vantage, she, and the others, eventually finish off all the enemy who got through the leak in the wards. We collect ourselves on the mountainside, on a level with the castle walls.
"Who goes there?" booms a voice. It comes from a knightly figure on the walls, looking about eight feet tall and apparently made from solid rock.
Anyone bring any of those calling cards from Victorian London?
©1984, 1994, 2005 Earl Wajenberg. All Rights Reserved.