by Casey Nash
The sorcerer unveils a new battle tactic to his King. A surprise attack interrupts them.
Night fell on the prodigious city castle. The sun, its rays still struggling to circumlocute the wisps of clouds that marred the sky like black claws, was at rest on the horizon, its light distorted by the atmosphere into a red-orange chroma. The shadows in the central castle lengthened and deepened, became miniature pools that defied all perception.
The Goblin King, his walk deliberate, measured, relaxed, strode through these shadows, and one of them strode with him, a black-clad form blending into the penumbral surroundings so as to render it virtually invisible. The two made their way through the labyrinth of winding passages, at ease in each other's company as they were in perhaps no one else's, and certainly more so than any other denizen of the castle would have been in the company of either dangerous man.
Nex, still in the lead, came to a halt, made an abrupt turn to the left, and walked into and then straight through a wall.
Ceravic paused to examine the ostensible wall for a moment, and then followed the course of his friend, remarking with raised eyebrows, "I suppose I'll need to update my schematics."
"I wouldn't bother, they'd only be accurate for about a day," the shadows answered him. A word of command was hissed in the dark--"Naiisca!"-- and then a green-tinged light sparked into existence, its source the tip of a staff that leaned against a wall of this new, previously hidden passage. Nex snatched up the staff, which was decorated with a tri-layered sphere of crystal at the top, the outermost being transparent, the secondary; translucent green, through which was just visible the center sphere, which was black. Though, at the moment, the whole thing was glowing green.
"If Your Majesty will follow me," he said, as gracious as he was sardonic.
The Goblin King followed course, asking, "If I will follow you... what?"
Nex rolled his eyes, turning to regard Ceravic. "Was that supposed to be a joke?"
"Well, the very fact that I have to ask makes it considerably less jocular. When I tell jokes, you see, I usually strive to make them funny. The end result you want is laughter, not blank stares and whispers of 'Was... was that a joke?'"
"What you want, maybe," Ceravic said dismissively, "I personally find looks of stupefaction all the more hilarious."
"I used to find stupefaction hilarious, before I realized it was the norm. Now it's just... depressing," the mage said bitterly, turning a corner and stopping before another blank wall.
"I used to find it depressing, until I decided to take advantage of it," his friend countered. "Exult in your obvious superiority; delight yourself by running mental rings around the rabble."
"I suppose," Nex sighed plaintively. "I wouldn't mind having a few more equals, though."
"A few more? You consider us equals, do you?" asked Ceravic in amusement.
"Magnanimous of me, I know," the sorcerer replied dryly. He placed his hand, green-tinged in the emerald glare, on the wall and murmured indecipherably.
"Magnanimous, you say," said Ceravic with laughter in his voice. "To which of us, I wonder?"
The wall shimmered, then vanished, revealing the sorcerer's laboratory. Nex looked back at the king, making no reply save the slight, mischievous smirk on his pale, green-cast face. He beckoned Ceravic forward with a wave of two fingers. The king, acquiescing, found himself in an enormous stone-walled and floored room, housing an obsidian-cut table, upon which were all manner of arcane paraphernalia, several chests that were taller than Nex himself, mirrors, and exorbitantly comfortable furniture. One wall was not a wall at all, but a window done with iron-wrought lattices. It was a large window, and would have afforded quite the view, had it actually been situated so as to be facing the outside. As it was, it merely revealed more of the castle's interior. A broad expanse of wall just beyond the window dominated the view. At Nex's gesture, the king advanced into the chamber first. Behind him, Nex entered and paused, placing his hands on either side of the doorway, and spoke a single, sharp word. Green flame raced down grooves that ran along the walls, basking the room in eerie, viridian tincture. Satisfied, he picked up his staff and walked over to the black table, so highly polished that it reflected the lines of green.
Ceravic was examining the window with raised eyebrows, hands folded behind his back. "Panoramic," he remarked.
"I beg your pardon?"
Ceravic turned to face his companion, "I was commenting on your view." Walking over to join him at the table, he deigned to explain to his clearly misinformed friend, "The window traditionally exposes the outside world."
"Ahh, that does make more sense. Oh well, you know me. Never could abide traditions. They stifle creativity." The sorcerer rolled the staff over the back of his hand, catching it so that his grip was at the very end, then extended his arm (and, consequently, the staff) over the table in two back-and-forth waves, knocking the cluttering objects off of it with apparent indifference to their remaining intact. The gleaming surface of obsidian shimmered, the unmarred expanse of black converted to white in a flash of perhaps superfluous light that caused both men to avert their eyes. When they were able to reapply their gazes to the table, it had undergone an atypical alteration. The smooth slab of stone was now like glass, and through the glass was visible a familiar scene.
Ceravic had spent a number of years around Nex, and was no longer as easily nonplussed by the mage's unconventional abilities, so he took the table's transformation in stride and leaned over it, reanalyzing the fiasco that he had already had the displeasure of perusing earlier that day. "And why are we looking at this catastrophe again? I assure you, I have not forgotten it. Trudging through the corpses was enough to imprint it in my memory for quite some time."
"'Catastrophe,'" Nex replied, like he was delivering a lesson, "'is a synonym for opportunity.'"
Ceravic rolled his eyes.
Nex heaved a book onto the table, from where was a mystery, because the book was absolutely enormous.
Ceravic glanced at the book. He considered asking where this behemoth had come from, but seeing the wry smile on Nex's wry face, decided to challenge his statement instead of his impossible actions. "The plebeian rabble might consider it wise to be able to rattle off a quotation, but to me, it's just unimaginative plagiarism."
"Plagiarism might not require an imagination, but it does require research. And speaking of research--" the sorcerer opened the book about halfway, (not without some exertion) "take a look at my latest findings. They were... inspiring." He placed two pallid fingers on one entry.
The king vouchsafed to read aloud, '"The great war wizard Sinder was unusual in many respects. The most prominent of his abnormalities was unchallengeably his extravagant death. He literally went out with a bang at the final battle in which he found himself enmeshed, when desperation drove him to try and cast every incendiary spell in his arcane arsenal at once, with the ultimate, history-making result of destroying himself and both armies in the magic's devastating backlash. A scorching explosion of unprecedented magnitude--'"
"Unprecedented until now," Nex cut in smugly, dismissing the rest of the passage. He spun the great book around so that the top was facing them, and pointed out brightly colored paper markers he had inserted into the book at various intervals. "I won't bore you with precise details, but I have spent the last half of the year tracking down every one of Simpleton's most potent pyrotechnics. They are fantastic. Did you know, he thought up a way to transcribe a spell's power into a sheet of stone, from which the spell could be unleashed later with a single recitation?"
The Lord of Oblivion was unimpressed. "Everyone knows about Sinder's spell-slabs. It's just that no one knows how he managed it." He yawned. "If you have one, get to your point."
"Yes, yes, of course. There's no need to be so rude." The sorcerer looked at the king, his eyebrows raised and brought together in an effort to look hurt, an effort, incidentally, that failed entirely. "After I had his spells, I cast each of them three times; once in a controlled environment, and once at one or another of the conflicts you have the remarkable proclivity for engendering."
"You've been sneaking off to battlefields? I've fought personally in every one of them--of which I was aware--" he clarified, glaring pointedly at the table, "and I've never seen you." The King was skeptical.
"I don't 'sneak off' to anywhere." Nex countered, in affronted and disdainful tones. He pointed his staff at the useless window. The rod's crystal flashed green, and the window coruscated likewise, the green glare fading away in a swirling fashion. When light remained only in peripheral vestiges, the center revealed another copy of the image that was rapidly becoming familiar to the point of being annoying; that of the corpse-ridden valley. But the table showed it from above, as from the vantage point of a bird circling overhead (likely a vulture, given the circumstances). One looking through the window, on the other hand, saw the devastation as though about to enter the valley. "I watch them from here," he rapped the bottom of the table with the staff, "and then cast one of the spells into this portal," now he jerked the staff towards the window, "which takes it to the slaughter. I have by now narrowed my personal spellbook down to fif--no, make that twelve, rather-- twelve explosive choices." He produced a slim, black-leather-bound journal, its cover embroidered with inscrutable symbols surrounding a dark red fireball.
Ceravic picked up the spellbook, began flipping through it. Had anyone else attempted similarly, the spell-locks Nex had placed on it would have turned the blood in their veins to flame, a transformation, he reflected despondently, he had never yet been able to witness. But he always made such an exception for Ceravic, whom he regarded with far too much respect to ever consider such a precaution. And, judging by the way Ceravic was looking at Nex's spells, he regarded Nex with a fair amount of respect too. The sorcerer was a capable judge of character, and it was obvious to him that he had impressed his King. And he hadn't even revealed his masterstroke yet. Casting spells took energy. When magic-users focused their energy, they called it mana. Nex had naturally abundant reserves of mana, and he strove constantly to better himself in manners as intense as possible. Inactivity chafed him. Complacency horrified him. The Flame Tempest Stream spell he had cast at this battle had been taxing in the extreme. All of the spells he had chosen were extremely potent, extremely demanding. But he had found a way around that, in a manner that he personally considered to be nothing less than genius. He looked down at Ceravic, examining the spellbook, and he triggered his Arcane Perception, and Ceravic's thoughts became his. He knew from experience that Ceravic was quite capable of getting lost in his own head, and so he prompted the king, very possibly saving him from spending the rest of his day staring unseeingly at the journal, by inquiring brightly, "Thoughts?"
Ceravic took a long moment to respond, slowly extricating his attentions out into the real world, and away from the delightful simulacrum of one that existed in his head. "Yes," he said slowly. Then, snapping back to reality, "Yes, of course I have some thoughts." He put down the spellbook. "Firstly, these particular spells, or at least those of them with which I am familiar, seem absurdly ambitious."
Nex smiled at the word choice. "As I said, I've already cast each of them."
The king frowned, suddenly remembering, "Yes. Three times each, you said. But you only listed two. Once for practice, once in practice, and once... for...?" Again the magic-user reached into his dark robes, smiling darkly, as was the only way he knew how to smile. In triumph, or in mockery. (Smiling in mocking triumph was especially gratifying, when such opportunities came up.) When those pale, long-fingered hands emerged from the cloak's black folds, they displayed, with reverence, a stack of twelve stone slabs and laid them out on the table. The rock was of a greenish tint, with strange, black words were cut into the each in a sharp, narrow, flowing hand. "And once," said the sorcerer, positively radiating smugness, "to transcribe them. Into spell-slab form."
Ceravic stared. "That's impossible," he said coldly, accusingly. He glanced sharply up at Nex, awaiting an admission that this was just some joke, some confirmation that it was, indeed, impossible. When he saw nothing but so much self-satisfaction that he was considering imposing a tax on it, he pressed his point, "The secret died with Sinder, with thousands of soldiers."
"So what? Before it died, it had to be born. And for it to be born, Sinder had to think it up. So if he could do that, why couldn't I?"
"Because sorcerers have been trying to duplicate his achievement ever since he died. With no success. And clever as you may be, you aren't smarter than the collective wisdom of generations of powerful spellcasters. You're not that special."
"How special I am or am not is debatable." Nex shrugged. He was enjoying himself immensely. "A debate I would certainly enjoy having, I might add," he added pointedly.
The king glared in incredulity. "Maybe later." he said sarcastically, glowering. He demanded brusquely, "How'd you do it?"
"I followed the only sensible course of action imaginable, of course. What do you think would be the simplest, most straightforward way of unlocking another's secrets?" Nex asked in what could almost have passed for an inviting tone, but was corrupted by the sardonic edge that underscored his every word into sounding mocking, downright patronizing.
Ceravic was rapidly becoming exasperated, but a reluctant smile tugged at his lips. He lowered his head, shaking it from side to side slowly. No one else would dare toy with him like this, but then, that's why he liked Nex. He did what everyone else was afraid to do. He was possessed of unshakable, interminable confidence, that came not from self-assurance, but rather from the inability to ever grasp the possibility, the concept of being wrong, of being anything less than absolutely perfect. All of this might have made him very unlikable, but for the results it produced. He had a seemingly endless repertoire of skills, and was adding to them all the time. He certainly believed he was perfect. Perhaps that was his secret, the king mused. Some sort of frame of mind that resulted in a cyclical ascension, an upward spiral of success; his confidence fueling his abilities, and his abilities fueling his confidence.
Seeing no choice but to indulge the sorcerer in his fun, he offered irritably, "In a normal situation, I would start by asking the person."
The green eyes gleamed. "Great minds think alike," Nex said with a smile.
"And fools seldom differ." Ceravic stared. "I wasn't serious."
"Oh. Well, it's the first thing that came to my mind. I mean, he seemed the reasonable person to ask."
"And how, pray tell, did you ask him? Necromancers? Mediums?" The Goblin King scoffed. "They've been tried. Even those powerful enough to get a hold of him couldn't get it out of him. In every treatise on the subject I've ever read, his spirit was so angered at being disturbed that he reduced them to ashes on the spot."
"Yes, he did the very thing to the poor chap I enlisted to summon him." Nex frowned in annoyance, remembering his distaste at the spirit's crude disposition. "His spirit was very temperamental. Had abysmal manners."
Ceravic's interest was piquing, overcoming his exasperation at Nex's irreverence. "You actually asked him, then?"
"Asked him?" The mage dismissed the idea with contempt. "Fat lot of good that had been doing! I bargained with him."
The king's eyes flitted this way and that, perhaps seeking the answer to his upcoming question somewhere in the room. "What could a spirit possibly want?"
"He had no remains," the Lord of Oblivion, considerate as always, thought to point out. "Unless you count leaving a crater where a hilltop had been. Don't tell me you collected dirt from it and told him you had his ashes.
The sorcerer's eyes were wide. "That would have been dishonest!" he gasped, appalled. He shook his head and said introspectively, "I surmised, to him, the crater was his remains. His legacy. People see it and remember the incredible power he had wielded. It's something of a tourist attraction, you know, among the arcane, at least. Have you ever been to the site? No? A sense of awe, of anger, pervades the very air." A cunning smile snuck its way onto Nex's face, rudely shoving his awe aside. "But then I thought if someone--say, a powerful sorcerer-- were to suggest the possibility of removing the crater with a large-scale Transportation spell, Sinder would probably do all in his power to defeat such a suggestion."
"I figured correctly."
Ceravic raised his eyebrows, impressed. "Well, then." He shook his head again, in disbelief. In admiration. "Perhaps you are smarter than collective generations. Or at least more creative."
"We can only speculate," Nex remarked wryly. And he may very well have launched into just such a speculation, had he been afforded the opportunity. As it was, however, he seemed suddenly distracted. Ceravic had picked up the thin sheets of stone and was sliding them through his fingers, inspecting them with unabashed interest. His gaze may have lingered on one or two a bit longer than on the others. He glanced up at Nex as though to make some comment, but then noticed the sorcerer's abstracted demeanor. He was staring intently into the window that still depicted the gruesome aftermath of the battle.
The King looked too, and scowled. He didn't see the attraction, personally. "You know, I really think I've seen enough of this valley for today. Could you..." he cast his mind around for a suitable phrase. "Shut the blinds, so to speak?"
Nex, for his part, remained fixated. He murmured uncertainly, almost inaudibly, "I thought I saw... something move..."
Ceravic heard the murmur, if not the actual words, but figured if they were important they would have been spoken more loudly. He continued, "And clear the table, too, while you're at it," sweeping his arm over the bird's-eye-view of the same scene. As he did so, his attention was caught by the far end, the farthest end from him. "Nex," he called, uncharacteristically urgent, as he hurried down the length of the table. The sorcerer's head turned, his eyes flicking to the same spot as the king's. With a twitch of two of his supple fingers, the image swirled and reversed itself, the far end becoming the nearest to him. Ceravic swore exasperatedly and about-faced, coming back to stand where he had just been.
"I thought I saw something move," Nex repeated, this time audibly.
"So did I," the Lord of Oblivion's voice was composed, but carried a palpable undercurrent of outrage. "Come on." He waved the slabs at Nex, and then set them on the table. "This might be the first sanctioned enactment of a new military maneuver."
The King paused in the act of reaching for the doorknob. He turned his head back to the sorcerer, eyebrows raised. "What?"
Nex pulled his hood back up over his head and swept up the spell-slabs in one hand, his staff in the other. "Operation Conflagration," he repeated matter-of-factly. "That's what I want it to be called," he clarified, just as matter-of-factly, as he strode over to join Ceravic at the door.
Ceravic stared up into the shadowed eyes. "Operation Conflagration." The hooded head nodded.
"Rolls off the tongue, doesn't it?" Thin lips twitched in an ephemeral smile.
"So be it," the King said with a shrug. He turned and walked out of the lab, a rapid twitch of his finger beckoning Nex to follow.
The sorcerer followed suit, the lights from the window, table, and flames winking out as he crossed the threshold. In the moments immediately following their extinguishings, ghostly aftermaths of their last images remained; hulking, barbarous figures trickling into the valley in the easily recognizable formation of an army.