|"A sky more vast / Unfolds at last"|
—Anon, King's Home, 1277
The mages’ tower, called Chimera’s Landing, stood in King’s Home opposite the hill, where once upon a time a lowly redoubt squatted, and upon which the great Feldspar Castle now towered. From street level, where its broad, circular base defined the northernmost edge of the District of Secrets, it reached nearly 400’ into the sky, its highest windows level with the king’s court three quarters of a mile away.
For nearly two hundred years the tower served as the monolithic and unassailable center of what would come to be called King’s Home. It was the oldest building within the city’s walls. Raised from a great focal point of magical energy by the mysterious Eight Mages of the Chimera over 1300 years ago, it slowly grew into the sky as the redoubt to its south was fortified and expanded on the hill.
Originally, the tower was flat-topped and only half again taller than it was round. The mages then dwelling within it were monkish, bookish, and disinterested in politics, war, or the building of nations. They were, however, quite adept at self-preservation, and managed to rid the region of its bugbears, ogres, goblins, giant spiders and other aggressive, dangerous beasties. They also, as a matter of policy, taught people to read who had the inclination, and lent their powers to ensuring the wells were clean, the harvests safe from pestilence, and the weather…. Well, they couldn’t actually help with the weather, but the people thought they did. Therefore, people moved close by, and slowly there arose a fortified wall, a constabulary, and a permanent, safe place for a farmers market and trading post. Over time, a merchant class arose in the loose collection of villages, and the merchants pushed for unity and greater protection against raids by the Garithanat, the big-boned mountain people who dwelt in the south of the island, whose incursions into the region were then becoming more frequent, bolder, and bloodier. Indeed, with the aid of the mages, the safety of the redoubt, and the impenetrability of the mages’ tower, the mountain people were successfully kept at bay and ultimately a truce was established. Trade was far more attractive than pointless incursions that yielded little to prize. Eating, as ever, was better than dying, but better still was eating without the threat of dying for the chance.
Those who ventured to the mountains of the south as guests of the mountain people soon discovered an amazing thing. Garithanat masonry was beautiful and the product of great skill. It blended so well into the mountainous region that it was nearly invisible, yet once observed it was obvious and seemingly everywhere, shoring up natural ramparts and adding secret, perfectly level pathways through them, subtly reorienting rivers to create fishing ponds and mineral traps, concealing villages from sight that were otherwise in plain view, and so on.
Thus it was no surprise when the mages contracted the Garithanat masons to build a castle where the overblown redoubt now stood in disrepair. It was also guessed that the masons further raised the mages’ tower, though this was not the case.
As well as tasking him endlessly, Magister Ardent directed Shaw’s studies. Tradition dictated that the Magister must in all ways serve the student’s natural interests, even when those interests seemed certain to ultimately prove deadly to the student. Magisters of eld and magisters of the present spent a great deal of time scrying and divining the paths of their students so that they, the magisters of King’s Isle, might best serve them without unduly biasing their choices.
It was a difficult task. The students were inevitably aware of the tradition, of course, and therefore would spend an inordinate and unadvisable amount of time attempting to puzzle out their own occulted futures in the countless choices of the magisters, while the magisters endeavored to thwart such efforts without further risking unsettling the students’ magically “magnetized” timelines.
Shaw wondered: Am I studying the life of the sea because my work is to be upon it or under it, or…? Or is it just because I live on an island and it’s important and useful to know such things? He sighed heavily as he considered his recent lessons, so close now to the point at which he would be ushered from the tower for the last time as a mere student mage.
Shaw Craetwyrtha, along with his sister, Aleah, had been born to lives destined for greater things than their heritage strictly warranted. Fate was fickle, and sometimes that meant it behaved exceedingly kindly for some while overlooking others. Their mother had ever sought to instill that understanding, yet equally was she proud of their seizing the opportunities that had come to them.
Magister Ardent had not been at all surprised to see Shaw turn up at the tower door one spring morning. Those children who felt the unmistakeable calling of the tower would show up when the time was right, often unsure why they had come. Occasionally, for a variety of reasons noble or ignoble, some adult would insist on a child’s going, but in such cases the mages were adamant that there would be no admission if the child was not then called by the tower. What the magister was surprised by in Shaw’s case was the great potential in the boy’s possible timelines. It was unusual, an omen in itself of changes coming to the world, though what those changes might be were… too soon to divine, or too carefully hidden by the fates.
Aleah Craetwyrtha watched her brother enter the tower that day, her hand in her mother’s. She was but five years old, then, precocious and inquisitive, and in no way interested in the tower. Her mother looked into her bright green eyes—the very soul of springtime—and said, “You’re young, yet.”
“Not so young,” Aleah responded, and her mother laughed.
In fact, Aleah did have a calling. She had not articulated it to herself, then, but it was there in her dreams, and as the springtime of her ninth year blossomed, she began to feel the pull of it, as inexorable as gravity, leading her to beg her mother for more trips out into the fields and woods about King’s Home.
Such trips only had the effect of making Aleah more restless. Her brother, then 14, had learned enough during his visits home to know that this restlessness was not simply his spritely sister’s age showing. Back at the tower, he asked Magister Observant about it. The magister, who specialized in the myths and mythography of King’s Isle and its people, gave it consideration, and after a week returned his answer. “She will know soon enough,” he said. “Had you asked me four years ago, I’d have had a more enlightening—or, eh, at least interesting, response. But that’s the way it is. Off with you, now.” He made a shooing gesture, and that was that. Later that day, he would drop in on Magister Doom to share some observations with her.
But of course he was right.
She lay in bed, wide awake, and watched the Runner Moon passing by. It was very bright, she thought, for the Still Moon was absent that night. She rose and pulled a chair up beneath the high window of her room, which she stood upon to get a better view of the night and the runner. From her vantage point, she could see that it must be very late, for all about her there was darkness now, and no-one walked the streets.
The little moon slowly turned as it traveled west to east across the bejeweled sky. She sighed as she watched it, frustrated with her insomnia, and put out with the nagging feeling she always had now, like a bezoar stone in her belly. She was just about to get down from the chair and go back once more to toss and turn in her bed when, there, not 20 yards away, she spied a cat unlike any she’d ever seen before. Its bright green eyes glowed from its blue-black face, and one moment it seemed to have stripes and the next to be black as jet and unmarked. Strangest still was the fact that it was gazing up at her with no pretense at all. It was as if it knew she’d be there just then.
She dressed hurriedly and made her way as quietly as possible to the door of her house. Her mother was fast asleep in the adjacent room, but she still took her time opening the door just enough to slip out between it and the jamb without getting hooked on the large metal latch. She softly closed the heavy door behind her and moved cautiously down the walk, past the small garden—redolent of leafy things, and heady with the scents of tomatoes, green-gold river squash, and spearmint—and moved out into the street where she’d seen the strange cat. It was gone, and for a moment she despaired, but then it was there again, further down the narrow street now, beckoning her with its tail! She rubbed her eyes. It gazed at her. She gazed back. It turned and began to walk, and she followed it.
She followed the cat at a walking pace for the better part of an hour. Occasionally pausing when it did, and somehow therefore not being seeing by members of the night patrol, nor any drunkards heading to or from a tavern, nor any other person defying good sense by being up so late. Eventually, the cat led her to one of the city gates. Stranger and strangest of all, the guards had picked just that moment to be away, and as she walked out into the open past the gate, she marveled at just how peculiar a dream might be, for certainly this one felt very real. And it had to be a dream, after all, because in real life cats do not turn into tall people with long pointed ears and glowing green eyes. “Don’t be frightened, Aleah,” the cat person said, his voice like heavy, rich cream.
“I’m not,” Aleah said.
“Good,” he said. “Come then and take my hand. We need to get somewhere a little too far away for walking. You’ll be back before you know it.”
Aleah swallowed, took a deep breath, and walked to him, taking his outstretched hand. It was warm and black as midnight. He smiled. He had teeth like a cat.
To be continued.
Tharia: Roads to Adventure by James Pomeroy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.