Chapter 19 – Power

The Sickle Wood

The Second Day of the Month of Frost

Stephan and Owain walked along the forest road for several hours in silence. Although he had many questions, Stephan wanted to sort his thought before he started pressing the Graywalker for more information. The meditative exercise was something he'd learned from Master Tamsen. A prudent wizard always structured his argument before starting a conversation. Doing so kept him from seeming ignorant, even if he was.

As the sun began to set, they came upon another lodestone. Owain started a campfire, and Stephan stared up at the rock. The runes carved into it flickered blue in the moonlight.

"What does it say?" Stephan asked.

Owain shrugged. "I don't read dragon runes."

"Sorry. I suppose I just assumed you could," Stephan confessed. "These lodestones seem important to me."

"If they seem so, they probably are," Owain replied. "But just because they are important does not mean they're necessary. If Necessity had marked that stone, I'd be able to read it. Whatever it is that your sensing is for you, not for the fate of the world."

Stephan nodded. He put down his staff and approached the stone, laying his hands on it. Something drew him closer, and he rested his head against the stone. He could feel the ather from the Dragon Line flowing through him. His own heartbeat changed to match its steady pulse.

"Is there anyone I could ask about these stones?" Stephan wondered. "Apart from Old Meg. I understand that she can read them, but... why are they here? How do they work?"

"Only a dragon would know the answer to that question," Owain admitted. "And there aren't many dragons left on this side of the Mist."

"This side of the Mist?" Stephan echoed.

"You don't think your ancestors built roads to nowhere do you?" Owain smiled slightly, gesturing to the white stones of the road that they had been traveling all day. "In ancient times, there was a land beyond our western sea. A great kingdom called Meffar. Meffar and Torres went to war, and the Makers themselves were forced to separate them. They brought the mist to serve as a wall. There are stories that claim the Makers will soon return. The mists will come down, and the world will be whole again."

An uneasy feeling welled up in the pit of Stephan's stomach. It seemed strange that the liarbirds called him "Emissary". From what he understood, the word meant something like "ambassador". At first, Stephan thought that he was a messenger between the Order of Light and the fae. But what if there was more to it than that?

"Are you all right?" Owain asked, glancing at him suspiciously.

"I think I'm going to sit here for a little while," Stephan replied. "It feels like I should."

"Heh. The wizard needs to channel some ather, eh? That doesn't bode well for us," Owain smiled slightly. "Do as you like. I'm going to channel some sleep myself."

Without another word, he unrolled his blanket and laid down.

Stephan drifted off to sleep. In his dreams, he heard music. He was still sitting at the foot of the lodestone, but the ground beneath his feet was burning blue like dragonfire. A thousand voices were singing arcane Words, far more than he had ever learned within the Cloisters. Every so often, Stephan recognized a Word from the song and it sparked in his mind. He stared at his hands and his arms. There were dragon runes flowing through his veins. He was not merely a man, a user of magic, he realized. Like the denizens of the Sickle Wood, he was born of magic himself.

When Stephan awoke, he was cold and damp. Owain was gone, and there was no sign of their campsite. Stephan slowly stood up, stretching his stiff limbs. His legs felt unsteady, and he quickly sat back down. The sun was beginning to rise in the distance, staining the horizon with a wash of pale colors. From his vantage point at the foot of the lodestone, he could see across the Sickle Wood. It seemed impossibly vast. It also looked very different during the day than it did at night. He wondered if he was still in the same place.

Stephan used the lodestone to heave himself to his feet. He put his hands on it and rested his head against the damp stone. When he could stand without holding onto anything, he cleared his throat. He wasn't much of a singer, and he'd never considered that a change in intonation might fine-tune a spell more effectively than incantations or gestures. The Order of Light was very particular about invoking the elements. What his training told him was that he needed a protective circle first, especially if he was planning on working with fire.

But why? Stephan had not forgotten what Master Tamsen had said about dragon's method of harnessing magic being dangerous. Staring at the lodestone, he realized that the founders of the Order of Light must have feared that their Apprentices would feel that ancient connection and surrender to it. That was why the temptation to invoke was so overwhelming.

Stephan closed his eyes. He focused on the song, and tried to match the notes that were still ringing in his mind. It was difficult. His voice was untrained, and he stumbled over unfamiliar words. Strange patterns danced in his head. The music burned the words into his mind. It was painful, but he also felt a tremendous sense of liberation. He would have to hear the song many more times before he could understand its complexity, but he had captured something. He didn't know what he'd done, but the feeling of accomplishment made him giddy. Stephan laughed out loud.

A shadow drifted over him, and he slowly turned. Although he had seen the dragon once before, in the early morning light Arath looked more real than he had shrouded in mist and darkness. He was still coal black, but there was a texture to the fur on his legs and an iridescence in the feathers of his wings. He brushed Stephan with his long tail. The scent of sulfur and damp fur and feathers was overpowering.

The dragon arched his long, snakelike neck and studied Stephan with an expression that seemed like a smirk. His blue eyes burned like the runes on the lodestone. "I have not seen a wizard here in a very long time," Arath said. "They came often before the barrier was put in place. When their own history still meant something to them."

"Then it's all true?" Stephan asked.

Arath nodded. "Of course, the dragons only wrote what they remembered... which wasn't everything."

"Aren't you a dragon?" Stephan asked. He couldn't think of another word to describe the beast in front of him.

"No. But I needed a form you would understand, and this seemed best," Arath replied.

"What are you?" Stephan pressed.

"That is not a simple question. What are you?" Arath echoed.

Stephan considered. "Well, I'm not exactly a wizard, and I'm not exactly a Graywalker. Last night, I would have told you that I was a man... but now I'm not so sure. I suppose I'm a kind of monikos, like Lord Orien. A unique thing. I am Stephan."

"As I am Arath," the dragon nodded.

"Why are you here?" Stephan asked.

"Because you are," Arath said.

"Could you tell me more about these lodestones?" Stephan pressed.

"They're markers," Arath replied. "They give you directions."

"So much magic for that?" Stephan observed. "Why not put up a sign?"

Arath chuckled. "Not all directions lead to a place, wizard."

As the sun cleared the horizon, the dragon vanished.

Stephan sighed and picked up his traveling bag. There was no sign of Owain, or Cup either. A liarbird perched on his shoulder.

"Emissary," it said. "Found hat."

Stephan blinked in surprise as two more liarbirds deposited his hat on his head. He smiled slightly. Although the fiends were mischievous, they were also useful at times. Not knowing what else to do, Stephan continued down the forest road. The river came to run alongside it, and the road became wider. A white stone bridge crossed over the river. Like the lodestones, it was obviously a boundary marker of some kind. It looked as old as the road itself.

As he approached the bridge, Stephan heard a familiar, if unexpected sound. A horse-drawn cart was approaching. He dunked under the bridge and waited for the cart to pass. To his surprise, the cart was being driven by a man, and it was loaded with hay. But men didn't enter the Sickle Wood unless they were desperate, which left Stephan convinced that his eyes were deceiving him. He kept to the river, and after a few miles he reached the edge of the forest.

He stared out over wide green pastures dotted with sheep. The forest gave way to an apple orchard, and Stephan admired the fruit on the trees. He discreetly snatched an apple and slipped it into his traveling bag. Although it felt a bit like stealing, he reassured himself that whoever grew the apples had more than enough. They wouldn't miss one, and he might need it.

Stephan glanced at his reflection in the water of the river. The clothes Old Meg had given him were still bright enough that he could travel the road without arousing suspicion, even if his cloak and his bag were gray. He sighed and dropped his staff in the water. It was better if he didn't carry it openly, and he knew he could retrieve it anywhere there was water, even the smallest puddle.

Stephan made his way back to the road. A sign on a post drew his attention.

It read "Milis, twenty-four miles", and in smaller letters "Oak Post, five miles".

He was in Arborea.

Although Stephan knew that crossing from one end of the Sickle Wood to the other should have taken at least a week, he didn't waste time dwelling on his unusual circumstances. If he'd made it to Arborea in a mere two days, obviously there was a reason for him to be there.

The town of Oak Post was nothing much to look at. There was a well in the center of the square, a few shops and a tavern. A street market filled with produce and trinkets confirmed Stephan's suspicions. Obviously, life was easier for the farmers and shepherds of Arborea. Plenty of water flowed out from the Sickle Wood, and the people did not seem to fear the forest as their neighbors to the north did. Stephan considered what Old Meg had told him about "bottling up" his own power. Trying to keep the fae confined clearly did more ill than good, but there was no way he could ever convince the king or the Archwizard that the denizens of the Sickle Wood would probably be less trouble if they could freely roam the lands of the north.

He went into the tavern. It was not busy so early in the day, but there were a few men drinking near the window, and a foppishly dressed bard was standing on a makeshift stage re-stringing his lute. His sharply pointed nose and ridiculous yellow mustache were unmistakable. Stephan watched the stranger, certain that he was the same bard who'd been playing in Vigil weeks ago.

Stephan winced at the bard began to play. He was not very good. He struck a number of sour notes, and his voice was off-key. He glanced at the man behind the bar. While Stephan did not have any money, he wondered if he could endear himself to the owner of the tavern and maybe get some food in exchange for a little work. An idea occurred to him, and he smiled at the thought.

"That bard is not very good, is he?" Stephan whispered to the bartender.

"Terrible," the bartender agreed. "But I can't get rid of him."

"If I could make him stop playing, would that be worth a meal?" Stephan asked.

"You don't have any money?" The bartender asked.

"Unfortunately, no," Stephan shook his head.

"All right, you have yourself a deal. Don't hurt him, though. He may be a nuisance, but I think he's soft in the head," the bartender replied.

"I won't," Stephan nodded. He focused on the bard's lute. The strings were attached by small brass keys that screwed into the neck of the instrument. After working on Old Meg's water clock, he'd perfected his ability to twist one piece of an object without disrupting the rest of it. With a carefully concealed gesture, he pulled out the first key. The string came off, and the bard stopped playing. He bent down to pick up the key, and Stephan unscrewed the second.

The bard's eyes met his, and Stephan realized that he'd been caught. Very quickly, he popped the last two strings loose. As the bard tried to gather up his keys, Stephan rolled one out the front door. The bard chased after it, and as soon as he was outside, Stephan shut the door and snapped the deadbolt closed.

"Well played, stranger. So you're a witch, eh?" The bartender observed.

Although being called a "witch" was an insult from a wizard's perspective, Stephan nodded. "I am," he said. It wasn't a lie. Anyone with the Gift was a witch, and there were plenty of witches who could do things like what he'd just done. More importantly, he'd seen firsthand that the Order of Light was not the great and noble institution it pretended to be. His former masters would have dismissed Old Meg as "a mere witch", and Stephan convinced that she probably knew more about magic than any of them ever would.

The bartender put a plate in front of him with a thick slice of bread and a piece of roast on it. The meat tasted better than anything he'd eaten in a long time, but Stephan had barely started cutting into it when he felt a sudden warmth behind him.

"Now that was a nasty trick!" a voice announced, and Stephan slowly turned. The bard was standing behind him with his hands on his hips. Stephan glanced in the direction of the front door. The deadbolt was still closed. A chill raced down his spine. He realized belatedly that he had seen the bard before. He'd been playing at the Red Fox in Vigil.

"But clever, yes. Very clever," the bard finished.

"Look, I made a bet to get a meal," Stephan replied. "Don't take it personally."

"You don't appreciate my music?" The bard demanded, his hands on his hips.

"You're off today," Stephan replied. "I seem to remember that you were better the last time I heard you play."

"Ah! Which reminds me! I have a new song, and you simply must hear it!" The bard smirked.

"Spare us, please," Stephan replied.

"I will not. I'll have my vengeance! You can't slight me and expect to walk away unscathed!" The bard cleared his throat. His fingers raced across the strings of his lute, and everyone in the tavern looked up. The bard was not a bad musician... he was an unparalleled one. A master. He'd been playing poorly on purpose.

"A Journeyman went from the Order of Light,
Traveled miles of roads both day and night,
With a charm for the fae to guide his way

And to pay the price he would have to pay,"

"Into the Sickle Wood he went,

Bargains he made and treasures he spent,

And out of the Sickle Wood he came,

But he could never go home again,"

"A Journeyman came to the Order of Light,

Traveled miles of roads both day and night,

With water from the fae to guide his way

And to pay the price he would have to pay."

"By the Archwizard he was called

Treasures he gave and his story he told,

But the Archwizard, who was wiser than he,

Saw what the Journeyman soon would be,"

The Archwizard seized his staff to fight,

But the Journeyman instead took flight,

He crossed the bridge to the City of Light,

and struck the stone with all his might,"

As the bard finished that verse, Stephan saw that there were three armed men in the corner, dressed in the colors of the king of Torres. He hadn't noticed them before, and he felt certain they had been sent to find him. The bard grinned. Effortlessly slipping back into his fumbling character, he played a series of sour notes.

"And the bridge came crashing down-o!

Down-o, down-o!

And the bridge came crashing down-o!"

The soldiers glanced at the bard, and then at Stephan. Stephan leapt to his feet and ran for the door. He pulled on it, but it refused to open, and he realized that he'd been the one to lock it. A blade touched the back of his neck and he slowly turned around to face the soldiers, holding up his hands in a gesture of surrender.

"Stephan Lucian, you are under arrest," the first soldier declared.

A number of people in the bar rose from their seats.

"This is Arborea," the bartender said. "You three have no authority here!"

"Of course we do. We've been sent by the king of Torres with permission from the Baron of Milis to recapture a fugitive," the first soldier argued. He reached into his bag for a cream-colored document marked with two wax seals, but before he could open it, a man hit him on the head with a full mug. He collapsed to the floor, rubbing his head and swearing.

His companions both drew their swords. Stephan glanced at the puddle of beer on the floor next to the soldier, who was still on his knees. Beer was close enough to water that it felt like he could use it. He called for his staff, and it leapt into his grasp. The soldiers glanced at one another and began backing towards the door.

The ground rumbled beneath his feet, and for a moment Stephan feared that he'd called upon more power than he needed. Then he realized that it wasn't his own magic, nor the Maker's magic that he sensed. Something was coming. A mug slid off the bar and shattered on the floor. The glass in one of the windows cracked. Dirt and plaster fell from the ceiling.

The soldiers took advantage of Stephan's hesitation and ran outside. Although Stephan suspected that they would still arrest him if they could, or at least tell the Order of Light his location, the men obviously didn't want to fight a Graywalker and a dozen farmers inside the close quarters of the tavern, particularly not when the whole building was shaking. Everyone else followed them out on the street.

The ground still rumbled. Something was coming down the road, from the direction of the Sickle Wood. Although it was early afternoon, the creature was surrounded by darkness. The sky was gray overhead and the clouds churned unnaturally. Whatever the beast was, it had clearly been summoned by magic. It looked like an enormous boar, taller than a house and rotting from the inside. Fine silver threads held its decomposing limbs together. The putrid stench was overpowering.

"What is that thing?" the soldier whispered fearfully.

Stephan swallowed hard. Everyone was looking at him, and he was terrified himself. He'd seen some strange things in the Sickle Wood, but nothing like the thing lumbering towards him.

There was something about it which reminded him of the Moire. It was not one of the fae creatures that the Order of Light callously called "fiends". It was a genuine monster, a creature of evil. Hundreds of swords and spears were stuck in its thick hide.

Lying in its shadow was a young woman, trying desperately to shield her child from the beast.

Stephan closed his eyes. He clenched his staff. All of his training told him to create a ward first, a protective shell between himself and the monster. But the last ward he'd cast with the Maker's power flowing through his veins had obliterated everything around it. He did not want to hurt anyone or destroy the village. What he needed was something he could aim at the approaching fiend without hitting anything else.

A Word burned in his mind. He'd always known it as the way to call fire, the invocation to light a candle. But after spending the night in the shadow of the lodestone, it was filled with more meaning. It tasted strange as Stephan spoke it, almost burning his tongue.

He struck his staff on the ground twice and leveled it at the fiend.

Akhai.

A torrent of blue fire poured from his fingertips, coiling around his staff and then condensing into a single point of white-hot power. The fiend convulsed. It burned like it had been dipped in pitch and then exploded. Stephan grimaced, wiping gore from his face with his sleeve. The ground beneath his feet sizzled as he slowly stepped forward to make sure the creature was really dead.

He kicked the ashy corpse. It did not move. A strange feeling overcame him. It was like what he'd felt in the shadow of the lodestone, but even more overwhelming. Although there was nothing funny about the situation, he started to laugh. He found that he couldn't stop himself.

The villagers stared at him in horror.

"What are you looking at?" Stephan demanded.

He stomped back into the tavern. Without waiting for the bartender to return, Stephan grabbed a bottle and drank from it. The liquor made his throat burn, and he coughed several times. His eyes watered, and he felt uneasy. He was still laughing, but there were also tears in the corners of his eyes.

What had just happened? He couldn't make sense of it, but it seemed wonderful and horrible at the same time.

The bard came to sit next to him.

"Go away," Stephan ordered.

"I will not," he replied. "You're going to listen to me."

"Why should I listen to you?" Stephan protested.

"Because, whelp!" The bard slapped the back of Stephan's head. "If you don't, I'll eat you!"

"You'll..." Stephan froze. Sitting on the stool next to him was a creature no larger than a cat. It looked like a gold lizard, except for the orange striped fur on its legs and the diminutive pair of blue feathered wings on its back.

"What are you?" Stephan eyed the creature suspiciously.

"I'm a dragon. More or less," the creature replied with a smirk. It still sounded like the bard, and it did have his peculiar curled mustache.

"I thought dragons were bigger," Stephan admitted. At very least, Arath had been.

"Dragons can be any shape or size. Case in point," the dragon replied, poking Stephan with one claw. "Now will you listen to me, or should I make myself larger and more intimidating?"

Stephan sighed. "I'll listen. I'm sorry. I... I don't know what came over me." He laughed again. It made him feel like he was choking.

"You don't have much experience invoking raw ather, do you?" The dragon observed.

"Not really," Stephan admitted. "Until recently, I didn't believe it could be done."

"Well, the first thing that you need to know about invocation is that it's addictive. It calls out to a part of you that needs fed. And that part of you has been starving. But if you're going to invoke as you should, you must first learn control. Singing! Breathing exercises!"

"Is that how dragons control magic?" Stephan asked.

"Of course not, we don't "control" anything. We don't have to," the dragon smirked. "We're very durable. It's you humans that are squishy."

"Are you here to help me?" Stephan asked.

"Perish the thought! I'd much rather see you blow yourself up," the dragon replied.

"And if I don't blow myself up?" Stephan demanded.

"Well, then you'll be acceptable," he smirked.

Stephan smiled slightly. He remembered how Arath had appraised his efforts when he'd first entered the Sickle Wood. "You are a dragon."

"I told you so," the dragon smirked.

"So who are you really?" Stephan asked.

"You don't believe I'm Elsinore Lovelace, bard and novelist extraordinaire?" The dragon demanded.

"You might be. But if you're a dragon, you must have some kind of real power," Stephan replied. "Besides, Lovelace is an idiotic name!"

"It's an excellent name!" The dragon protested. "Lots of character! But for what it's worth, you're right. I do have some kind of power, although the word "real" does not mean what you think it does."

"Because everything is mutable. Like the Mist."

"Yes!" The dragon exclaimed. "Oh, very good! Very good indeed! An answer like that deserves a cookie, although I don't have one to give you. Perhaps as a reward for your exceptional cleverness, I might reveal to you my true name. Invoke it at your own peril, obviously."

The dragon seized Stephan's hat from his head and immediately disappeared.

"Damnit!" Stephan swore. "I need that hat! Weylan's wicked little..."

He stopped short as he realized what he'd just said.

Weylan, the God of Mischief. Or, if the old stories could be believed, the God of dragons and magic.

With shaking hands, Stephan poured himself a drink.

"Are you all right, wizard?" The bartender asked. He peered around the edge of the door, as if he would use it as a shield.

"Weylan stole my hat," Stephan replied.

"I'll be outside," the bartender said, closing the door.