Mortal Judgement: Episode 4
by Ian Taylor
The village of Redwater was already deserted by the time the exhausted figures made their way through it. There were six of them. Five with the light blue robes of a student, and one with the darker blue robes of a student teacher in the third trennium.
Students in the third trennium were expected to select a second discipline and show enough mastery of their first to be able to teach it. Fortunately, Frieia had chosen to study astronomy as her second. Unfortunately, she had decided to hold off her studies until after the expedition. Now the permanent night sky taunted her with the promise of information she could not read.
The “expedition” felt like an easy idea. Take four or five students from her original School of Artistry and bring them out into the world in order to gain some experience. Something to draw, sculpt, or write about.
When the sky went dark, they all had a vision of Pallas urging them to return to The Academy of Mystic Arts. They were able to somehow manage this in near-total darkness. Fortunately, Skaal’s father had wanted a son, and taught her enough survival skill to be able to make fire and enough basic hunting to keep the group fed for two days.
Skaal held the single torch they carried. Its light played over the faces of the others. Medrin, Hesha, and Demetrios.
“It’s not far now,” Skaal assured them. “I see the fires at Mistgate.”
Frieia didn’t bother looking up. She knew they were close. Fort Jaraska, often called Mistgate, was along the same road. If they turned left they’d make it to Dragonclaw, but the giant market would probably be just as deserted as Redwater.
It wasn’t long before the exhausted group were in sight of the first guard tower.
“Halt!” said the guard saying ‘halt’. They halted.
“We are students,” called Frieia. “May we pass?”
“Stand still,” said the guard, who began his approach.
“We already halted,” yelled Skaal. “We can’t halt any more.”
“Forgive my class,” said Frieia. “We are tired and hungry, and we don’t know what’s going on.”
“Nobody knows,” said the guard, who now stood near them. “The sun’s been out for…days I guess. Hard to tell.”
The party was waved through. Frieia heard a sarcastic comment or two from her students. She might need to have a word with them about politeness, if they all survived… whatever this was.
The inside of Fort Jaraska was a flurry of activity, but it wasn’t quality work. These soldiers had never been tested before, and were struggling to prepare the fort for actual military activity. They weren’t exactly panicking, but a lot of their tasks felt like it was meaningless busy work. Carts were loaded, and unloaded a few minutes later. Wood was hastily gathered into a pile, then that pile was moved to different locations all around the courtyard for no discernable reason. A few soldiers in the corner practiced with weapons that they had obviously never held before, and with no instructor present they were likely falling into bad combat habits.
The party made their way through the chaos and headed towards the cluster of blue spires they now called home.
The Central Plaza was as packed as it could have possibly been. Every student, every teacher, every sophist was present. The Champion of Magic was going to speak. Pallas would know what to do.
And Pallas spoke. They spoke of the chaining of the gods. Thaeriel’s attempt at betrayal. The reactions of Neferu, and especially that of Valka. After the recap, Pallas had them fully captivated, all but eating out of the palm of their hand.
“Neferu raids the cities of the coast,” Pallas told them. “She may attack Parthon. I believe she wants to. But she will not come here.”
“What of Valka?” asked one of the sophists. Probably Bewendar.
“Valka will be here once she gathers her tribes into an army,” Pallas replied. “Four days at my estimation.”
“Then we must evacuate,” said the Grand Sophist.
“I beg your pardon?” said the Grand Sophist.
“No,” Pallas repeated, a little louder because Pallas wasn’t great at social cues and thought perhaps the Grand Sophist hadn’t heard them the first time. “We must fight.”
The gathered crowd finally transformed from a low-level murmuring cloud of meekness and timidity to a loud group with strong opinions about the situation and the kind of boisterous confidence that could be found in every tavern in Eucos. Some liked the idea of fighting. Most did not.
The Grand Sophist stood abruptly. “Fight? To protect what? Buildings?” We can clear out the library. Nothing will be lost!”
“We need to understand what is happening,” said Pallas. “All across Eucos, we are seeing examples of a broken world. Echoes of the living pop in and out of existence. The dead speak to us. The sun has been dark for days. Elyrian would not have left us without the means to fix things, and to fix things we need the Academy. The future of Eucos is here! Defending this place is worth any sacrifice, including our lives.”
“I disagree,” said the Grand Sophist.
“I wasn’t asking,” Pallas shrugged. “Run, if you wish. I’m done with you.”
Pallas had been addressing only the Grand Sophist, out of respect, but now turned to address the crowd directly.
“If you would like to leave, then do so,” shouted Pallas. “I, for one, am not prepared to stop you. But if you stay and fight, you can show the Valkinir what a little knowledge can do!” Pallas smiled. “Ever been bullied? Now’s your chance to fight back!”
“With what?” The Grand Sophist was making her way…very slowly…towards Pallas. Despite her age, she still had a tremendous, booming voice. “Most of these students have no power! They’re artists and poets! They study mathematics and science, not magic! What can they do against swords and fire?”
Pallas closed the gap between them. The wizened old woman stared, but did not back down. Good. Pallas liked her. Pallas raised a single, delicate hand, which became wrapped in a purple glow, reflected in the eyes of the Grand Sophist.
“Everything is magic.”
Within seconds, the glow multiplied throughout the crowd, every single hand was bathed in a gentle fire of royal purple.
“I have granted each of you a portion of my power,” Pallas explained loudly to their audience. “In the next four days, I will show you how to use it alongside your crafting talent.They paused for a moment, then enthusiastically raised a radiant fist. “For the defense of the Academy!” they shouted.
“The defense of the Academy!” the crowd shouted back.
Pallas leaned in and whispered to the Grand Sophist. “You have the gift too, Alliakathabellenteth.”
The Grand Sophist smiled at her glowing hands, then looked up at Pallas. “I haven’t heard my own name in many, many years.”
“Hardly surprising,” said Pallas. “It’s a mouthful.”
A few hours later, Pallas observed the student groups practicing in the plaza, from the comfort of a large, intricately-paned window in the library.. Pallas had taught a dozen students the basics of magic control, and those students taught a dozen more, and soon they had all learned the first lesson. They were encouraged to practice together and help each other since most weren’t at all used to magic.
“The library. Of course I would find you here,” said a familiar voice. Demetrios walked straight into Pallas’ embrace and the two friends hugged each other tightly. They’d been apart for only five days, but it felt like five years.
“What do you think about all this?” asked Pallas.
“You need my input?”
“Another perspective always helps,” said Pallas. “And I value yours appropriately.”
Demetrios gave a half-grin. “I’m never sure if you’re insulting me.”
“You’ll know when I’m insulting you,” said Pallas. They paused, and added, “Or maybe you won’t.”
“See?” Pallas laughed, realizing that they hadn’t laughed much lately.
Demetrios let Pallas compose themself. “I think a lot of these people are going to die.”
Pallas looked at him. Then out the window again. “I know.”
“What are we protecting?”
Demetrios shook his head. “No. No you’re not doing that.”
“I’m the writer,” said Demetrios. “I get to be vague and mysterious, not you. You don’t have my training.” He shook his head again. Also we don’t have time for all that. Tell me what’s really going on.”
Pallas shrugged. “It might be a long story.”
“Tell it like a drunk Tartessian would,” Demetrios suggested.
“Ok,” said Pallas. “But I’m no actor.”
“Make it quick then. You’re losing your audience.”
Pallas sighed. “When the gods were chained, I heard a message. A single thought, caught in a moment of time. It was trying to tell me something.”
“Who was it from?”
“I don’t know,” said Pallas. “I saw a place. A giant crystal mountain. A dragon. Fire..”
It didn’t sound like any place Demitrios was familiar with. “Where is it?”
“I don’t know,” repeated Pallas.
“Have you ever admitted that twice in a row?” smirked Demetrios. “Such an occasion! We should issue a coin!”
Pallas scowled. “There’ll be coins on your eyes if you keep this up.”
“Your threats need work,” said Demetrios. “Hire a writer. My rates are quite reasonable.”
Pallas smiled at his quick wit, but let the momentum die before continuing.
“I inherited a good amount of Elyrian’s power and ability,” said Pallas. “And all I can concentrate on is what I don’t know. I feel like I should be doing something. The gods are chained, and the world is going mad. The events are too coincidental to be unrelated, and Elyrian had to know what would happen.” Pallas looked up at Demetrios, their features alone expressing more doubt than the playwright had ever seen in his friend.
“For the first time in your life, there’s nobody you can ask.”
Pallas gave a half-grin. “You know… that means there’s nobody around to tell me I did something wrong!”
“Oh I’ll remind you,” said Demetrios.
Pallas paused for a moment, unsure of how to say the next part. “I have to leave for Arkmon,” they announced.” Hopefully I’ll be back for the battle.”
“As we speak, Selena is at the Vercos border in Arkmon. She will try to cut the link to Vercos.”
Demetrios frowned. “And that would be…”
“Disastrous,” finished Pallas. “This may be bigger than all of us.”
Demetrios continued frowning. “You’re the smartest person I know. Despite your almost comically inconsistent sense of perspective.”
“I might not be back in time. People will die.”
Demetrios shrugged. “I’ll write their story.”
“I might die.”
“I’ll write your story.”
“You might die.”
Demetrios shook his head. “Unrealistic. The audience won’t buy it. This is why I’m the playwright and you’re not.”
Pallas laughed louder and longer than the line deserved.
Frieia had managed to sleep in her dorm for a short while but did not know how to measure how long she’d slept. However long it had been, it wasn’t long enough. She was now going through the motions of the first lesson for perhaps the hundredth time. It was exhausting, made doubly so by a lack of sleep, but she saw progress almost every time, which fortified her resolve.
The students were told to use what they knew. The things they were already good at. The defense of the Academy was only going to work if the magic could not be predicted. Followers of Auros weren’t used to innovation, and the military was no place for random tactics.
Frieia decided that her biggest strength was as a writer, but what did that even mean?
“How’s it coming along?” asked Hesha after a cursory knock-and-barge entrance. She was Frieia’s student, but also her dorm-mate.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” Frieia sighed. “I try to visualize something creative, like sword rain or bitey flowers, but all I seem to get is this purple flowing goo that doesn’t do much except knock scrolls onto the floor.”
“I had the same problem,” Hesha said. “I think it’s because you’re trying to shape the energy into something. Try something different. Skaal and Medrin were arguing about the methods, but Medrin was able to open a portal and fire came out of it.”
“…how much fire?”
“Not much,” said Hesha. “Enough to deprive him of his eyebrows.”
“That sounds dangerous.”
“That’s why we’re practicing,” said Hesha. “But take a look at this.”
She pulled a small blue rock from the pocket of her robe. It had some strange lines going around the edge, and was glowing with a cold pulsating energy.
“What is it?” Frieia asked
Hesha’s face was full of unbridled joy. “I don’t know! But it’s powerful. You can tell!”
Frieia could hear the rock buzzing. Clearly not a standard rock. “How did you get it?”
“Portal,” said Hesha. “Skaal told me she heard that magic portals are windows to events lost to the void. Like, you can find a volcanic eruption and pull it back through the portal if you want explosive lava.”
“Why would anybody want that?”
“Good way to end a fight,” said Hesha. “But the magic follows your mind, so don’t think about fire and you’ll be safe.”
“…from fire,” said Frieia. “I don’t know about this. You know how hard it is to not think about fire?”
Hesha frowned. As did Frieia. They were both thinking about fire right now.
“Think of a safe word,” said Hesha. “Like happy, or fun. Then open a portal to connect you to that ideal.”
“How do you open a portal?”
“Oh right,” said Hesha. “You have to think about opening a portal.”
Frieia nodded. Of course. Obvious really. So she thought of a word, and thought about opening a portal, and a portal opened right there.
“You did it!” said Hesha.
The portal was very small, maybe the diameter of a blacksmith’s arm. “What do I do?”
“Reach in,” said Hesha. “Feel around!”
Frieia did so before thinking too hard about what she was about to do. Her hand touched something cold and rubbery that stuck to her fingers. Frieia yelled and wrenched her arm out of the portal, and something followed it.
The object sailed across the room and bounced off a bookshelf before landing on Frieia’s unmade bed with an unwelcome squelch. Both students looked on in disgust as the object started to rise in the air. It resembled a six-armed blue octopus, but the bulbous head was dominated by a giant eye. An eye that was now looking from one woman to the other.
“What is that thing?!” yelled Hesha.
“How should I know?!”
The creature hovered along the ground at eye level, and was now between them and the door. Hesha took her blue rock and threw it as hard as she could at the creature, but a tentacle shot out and caught the stone rather expertly. Now there was a monster with a rock.
The two students tried to get behind each other in the corner of the room. There was no escape. Hesha and Frieia closed their eyes in sheer terror as they waited for the end, but the end did not come.
Hesha almost jumped when she felt a tap on her arm. She opened her eyes to see her rock, wrapped in a single tentacle, being pushed into the crook of her arm. She instinctively took the rock, and the creature retreated enough to let them both out of the corner.
“What word were you thinking?” whispered Hasha.
“Friend,” said Frieia. “I think…it’s friendly.”
Hesha laughed like she hadn’t just been scared out of her mind, and Frieia joined in. This would not be the weirdest thing to happen today, but it would be the one story Frieia told the most about her days at the Academy.
Pallas felt tired, but not sleepy. They weren’t sure of the extent of Elyrian’s granted power. Perhaps they didn’t need sleep anymore? It would certainly help with studying. Instead, they were content with hearing reports of all the strange things that were happening around the school. Most of the students and faculty opted to stay and explore their newfound powers, and the result was a long list of bizarre happenings that Pallas couldn’t be expected to predict.
Pallas smiled. All their lives they studied at the feet of order, and now their only hope to save the Academy lay in chaos. Perhaps it would be enough.
But there was a word on the wind. And another. A voice in the darkness. It was louder now. It was time.
Pallas stood up and gestured to the air. A thick blue portal opened, showing a lush forest within. The Champion of Magic sighed and stepped through.
Pallas’ eyes had to adjust to the darkness, but this was clearly a forest. Students had a particular smell of old parchment and candlesmoke, and that was no longer prevalent, replaced by the scent of damp leaves both living and dead
Selena stood in front of them.
“You can’t stop me!” she yelled.
“I have to,” replied Pallas, noting the arrow pointed at their head. “If you cut that limb, you will tear Eucos away from the Nine Realms!”
Selena mumbled something that they couldn’t hear. Pallas was ready for the arrow that followed. You don’t study magic without having excellent reflexes. Too many spells involved fire.
Blue energy crackled from Pallas’ hands, and a shield rose up at the speed of thought, deflecting the first arrow, and the second arrow that Selena fired at Pallas’ torso. Selena was running in a wide arc around Pallas, faster than any human, and firing endless arrows from a seemingly bottomless quiver.
Pallas quickly calculated that they would likely be the first one to make a mistake, and thus needed to change tactics. With a flicker of blue, Pallas vanished.
Selena rolled forward into a crouch. Pallas could barely make her out in the darkness, especially since they were hovering several feet in the air. As quietly as they were able, Pallas readied their trap spell. With no desire to actually hurt Selena, Pallas opted for a pocket of slow time. They would only have a split second after crafting the spell before the light would give them away.
Selena had not moved. Pallas extended their left palm towards the Champion of Nature and spoke an arcane phrase in a dead language. Blue light shot forth from Pallas’ extended palm and hit the ground where Selena crouched, immediately forming a bubble of azure energy.
However, Pallas had so quickly forgotten that nothing quite smells like a student.. Selena, her nose informing her of Pallas’ presence the entire time, leaped from the impact zone and rolled onto her back. The ensuing arrow was already on its way towards the Champion of Magic, and impaled the outstretched palm.
Pallas cried out and withdrew their hand. Without anyone controlling it, the bubble of slow time rapidly expanded, covering the whole farm before dissipating. Pallas teleported to the ground and surrounded themself in a powerful cocoon-like shield. A couple of arrows ricocheted off, but this one was impenetrable. It also took most of Pallas’ energy to maintain.
A quick reversal of time on the wounded hand took care of their injury, but Pallas was rapidly running out of power. Selena had stopped firing arrows, and instead was kneeling with both palms on the ground. Green light was flowing from Selena’s body and penetrating the dirt. She was trying to sever the branch.
Pallas felt something they hadn’t experienced for a long time. Panic. They needed help. The help of an equal.
The Champion of Magic reached out with their mind. Lysander was the obvious choice, but too far away, and Pallas didn’t have the energy. Neferu was also too far. Orfeo couldn’t be found. There was only one other choice. Pallas opened a portal to Redwater, and summoned their only hope.
Valka landed hard on the tilled farm soil, but was uninjured. She was, however, furious.
“This probably won’t work,” said Pallas. “But I need you to remain calm. So I can explain.”
To be continued in Mortal Judgement Episode 5: Of Song and Story.