by Casey Nash
Ceravic and Nex work together against the Lord of Deception. Nex meets Xandra.
Ceravic had made an unsettling discovery. As soon as he left the construct that had been holding him--which seemed to have been constructed entirely out of blue glass--he found that he could no longer speak. He wondered why that was as he sprinted toward his castle. Even in another body, his mind was still his own, and so was his indomitable will.
Teth's reasoning, given some thought, was not difficult to understand. He was counting on being found. And, in his typical fashion, he had pre-arranged matters so as to be entirely in his favor when they did stumble upon each other.
What Ceravic found most aggravating, however, was the fact that he had no idea what matters would be arranged in Teth's favor when that happened. It would be best, he decided, if he could make some arrangements of his own. Teth had, according to the perforce friend Ceravic had made upon his escape, begun the spell as the sun was halfway to its afternoon zenith. Ceravic had just been beginning a meeting at that time. He sprinted through the dull red, rocky terrain noticing with disdain how Teth's muscles burned, and ignoring their protest, also with disdain. He had disposed of the ridiculous metallic shroud that Teth had had draped over his shoulders and was now wrapped from neck to toe in blue, scaly leather.
It was most uncomfortable to wear while running.
He noticed that he was running almost due west, with the sun warm on his right cheek. The sun was, he also noticed, only four or five sun-widths away from the crenellated horizon. The afternoon drive out to meet Teth's territorial encroachment--which Ceravic now knew had just been a feint to draw him into this singular trap--had also been westward. Which meant that he had been dragged off to the east so that he wouldn't be able to accrue his own forces back as he returned to Oblivion. Teth thought of everything, it seemed. Also of consequence was the sun's very immediate proximity to the northern horizon. Ceravic recalled having made plans for sunset, and he had absolutely no intention of rescinding those plans.
He picked up speed, the ground flowing beneath him like water, and he caught sight of the red spire that crowned his castle. He was very nearly moving at his natural pace, though running in his own body did not cause him this level of discomfort. His own body rarely endured discomfort. He missed it in the extreme. When Ceravic's feelings moved into the extreme, they were usually fulfilled in the end, one way or another.
Some inconsequential number of burning strides later, he had reached his front gates. They were the only entrance, though he was now faced with the problem of exactly how to enter. His own orders made it very clear that the gates opened only to Ceravic, Lord of Oblivion, or someone with his seal.
Teth did not have such a seal.
Teth had a green fireball heading for him in shockingly rapid fashion.
Nex! he roared mentally, even as he twisted and rolled out of the way. Nex! he reiterated as the missile exploded next to him, and a very rough, hot, and entirely irresistible push sent him into another tumbling roll. Ceravic, Lord of Oblivion, commands your attention! He wondered if his mental voice was his own, or Teth's. He couldn't tell.
A sorcerer of Nex's caliber was attuned to more about a person than the physical. All those who practiced magic could enhance their perception to the point of being able to discern the gist of their thoughts, and Nex had developed his own Arcane Perception to the point of being virtually telepathic.
A small point of green light spun in circles as Nex digested the thoughts he was getting from Ceravic. From up on the ramparts of the city's front wall, he tilted his hooded head. "Does he now?" he called down. He vanished in a blaze of green. Ceravic glanced down at this body in which he did not belong, checking, out of habit, to see if he was injured. The body in question was promptly lit up by a flare of unexpectedly helpful green light.
Ceravic looked up somewhat haughtily to meet Nex's eyes, their color enhanced by the glow of the staff being pressed against Teth's heart. Nex, he bit out--so to speak--impatient and exasperated. Can we go?
Nex's green eyes shone as they burned into Ceravic's--Teth's. "That," he commented coolly, "is absolutely... fascinating... Sire."
You have no idea how pleased I am to hear you say so. Teth's armored arm swatted Shardish out of the way. The staff crackled shortly, green light flickering in anger.
"You have no idea just how fascinating this is," Nex murmured in awe and in glee.
I care very little, Ceravic added, as an item of interest.
"No, you don't understand..." Nex's stare, that so many found so disconcerting, intensified. His eyes really were glowing now. "I can see... your thoughts..." Nex was so absorbed that he was seemingly incapable of focusing on completing sentences.
Yes. I know. Ceravic was, in spite of himself, becoming slightly unnerved. His patience, always so thin beneath his calm exterior, was breaking.
"And his..." Nex was beside himself with glee and wonder.
"I wonder why... ah, of course. They physical brain remains the same. Including the memory, apparently." The fervent gleam in the mage's eyes receded, though they still seemed to glow. "We'd better get a move on. You are about to be in no small amount of trouble." He broke eye contact, twisting his long-fingered hands around his staff, softly intoning a command. Ceravic recognized the words of the sharp, cutting language of magic and braced himself for the disquieting sensation of ceasing to exist for an infinitesimal fraction of time. When reality resumed its typical status, he looked around Nex's lab, bathed in flickering green light, swimming with black shadows.
Ceravic made to lean himself against the great stone table that dominated Nex's furniture. The sorcerer responded, oddly, by flicking the fingers of his left hand in his direction. In the next moment, Ceravic felt as if he had been shoved, none too gently, to the floor, and Nex was drawling, vaguely apologetic, "You probably shouldn't touch the table as long as your in that body. It is spell-trapped against unfamiliar touch, which, at the moment, includes you."
Nex looked confused. "Because you're in Teth's body... so..."
Why is your table spell-trapped?!
Nex still looked confused. "Why shouldn't it be?" The two stared at each other a bit, and then Ceravic thought and Nex said, "Anyway." He waved his staff. Ceravic thought it was merely a dismissive gesture, until the table's gleaming black surface blazed into light. Once again, the smooth expanse of stone was replaced with an image of a valley of charred rock. Ceravic's eyes narrowed. There he himself was, walking at an unhurried pace, the occasional breeze ruffling his robes in billows of scarlet and violet.
He glared at the image of Teth picking his way through the rough trail on the valley's eastern wall, making full use of Ceravic's nimble agility. Earlier, did you say you could see his thoughts, as well?
"Yes, I did." He made a pass over the table, and the image's center relocated itself, fixating on Teth. "I can only speculate, but I believe it must be because, physically, you have his brain right now. It would have been more accurate to say I could see his memories. Some of them, at least. I can't actually see what he's thinking right now." He paused. "I do, however, think I know what he's planning."
Ceravic waited, feeling a sluggish surge of irritation trickle through him. He really hated this body.
"It is taller," Nex offered as some inane consolation.
Ceravic glared through Teth's pale blue eyes, gesturing furiously at the image of Teth's progress into a forest.
Nex sighed and proceeded warily. "He's going to kill Vishesque."
Ceravic swept Teth's eyes around the room without seeing it as he pondered the ramifications of that action. He, Ceravic, was on good terms with the Elfsage. So was Teth, last he had heard. Why...?
"Our pointy-eared friend interfered with one of Teth's experiments before the interim. Teth, in a remarkably cold frame of mind, devised a plan for the Lord of Hope's death, the Lord of Oblivion's downfall, and the Lord of Deception's rise to the status of hero shortly thereafter."
Ceravic nodded, still musing. He couldn't talk. He had guessed that it was because Teth was depending on being found. The easily overpowered guard had been some small token of evidence, a ploy to suggest the opposite. Ceravic would have gone on to find Teth poised to kill one of Ceravic's allies in cold blood and instinctively tried to stop him. Vishesque would have seen it as an act of salvation on Teth's part, black heresy on Ceravic's. Would have. Ceravic had no intention of allowing that to happen.
"Are you going to simply let Vishesque die?" Ceravic shook his head. But he wasn't going to play into Teth's scheme either. He looked at the shadows that his own body was casting in the forest. They were very long.
"Plans for tonight?" Nex asked, sounding marginally more interested.
Ceravic shot him a warning glance--he normally viewed Nex's gift as a convenient timesaver, but this was a slightly more private area.
"As you wish, my lord," Nex adhered, not without sarcasm. "And it's more of a skill than a gift."
Ceravic's attention was more drawn to the issue of how to prevent the impending murder and subsequent wrongful vengeance than Nex's terminological preferences. He did not want Vishesque dead. Teth did. Therefore, Teth would have to be stopped. Teth however, could not be killed, because then Ceravic would be out one body.
He certainly had no intention of remaining in this one.
Incapacitated, then. He certainly couldn't hope to outfight himself, no one could--except, perhaps, Simble--and he couldn't talk anyone out of anything in his current, vocally challenged state--
"My vocal chords are perfectly serviceable. And I've never met Vishesque." The sorcerer's statements were helpful and wistful, respectively.
Ceravic considered sending Nex to deal with it. What would you do?
"Hmm... I could simply explain the truth of the matter to our esteemed elven comrade. Then of course, Teth--you--would have to be stopped--no mean feat, that."
We'll play it by ear. Let's just get to Vishesque first.
"We'll what?" Nex looked as appalled as he sounded contemptuous. "You want to leave this up to happenstance? It will take all of a few minutes to come up with a plan--"
Ceravic slammed one mailed fist into an open palm; the hard, leathery smack cut off Nex's outrage. He had been going to pound the table, but apparently, he couldn't in this body. We are perfectly capable of improvising. And I don't know how effective a plan would be; Teth will certainly have considered your involvement and have arranged to be prepared for it.
Nex snorted expansively. "His 'preparation' for me was muting you. He assumed I would kill you--him--on sight, if we even happened upon each other. He is severely underestimating of my myriad talents." Nex smiled irrepressibly. "But, to be fair, no one could take them all into account."
Then what's the problem?
Nex scowled, and then held out his staff wordlessly for Ceravic, who took hold of it. "I'll need you to do the visualizing; I've never been to the elf's little treehouse," he muttered sullenly. He commenced with his arcane murmuring, and the world closed in on Ceravic again.
Sight and feeling returned to him in a spinning, dizzying fashion. His first impression was green. Not my favorite color.
"I beg your pardon," Nex said in mock dudgeon.
The Elfsage Vishesque's preference, as per the preferences of most elves, was the forest. He was very, very talented when it came to the growing of plants; they grew as he wished them to grow. This skill was in large part responsible for his alliance with Ceravic; the two really had nothing else in common other than geography. The Hope Forest, in which the elves made their happy home, was at the eastern foot of the expansive Oblivion Mountains. Ceravic abhorred the thought of trees climbing the beautiful, sun-baked red rocks of his mountainous dominion. He was very straightforward about the fact that Vishesque's arboricultural aptitude was the only use Ceravic saw in him. In exchange for keeping the leafy canopies comfortably confined, Ceravic bore the Elfsage no ill will, and aided him in endeavors of the military nature. He had absolutely no confidence in the combative capabilities of the graceful, artistic individuals who made up what Vishesque-- in what was, Ceravic disbelievingly understood, not a joke--called the elven army.
As far as he was concerned, letting them go off to battle on their own was tantamount to murder. Via negligence.
"You know..." Nex looked around with distaste. "This really is a lot of green." Ceravic laughed. On the inside. Nex followed up with slightly more worthwhile considerations. "How far away are we? And how far along do you think Teth will be?"
Ceravic considered. The body-snatching trickster was on foot. But it was Ceravic's foot, which made a world of difference. Ceravic and Nex had arrived by more expedient means, but Teth had a head start; Ceravic was uncertain about how much of one. Although, Ceravic believed that Teth would wait to act until Ceravic had arrived. In answer the sorcerer's first question, though, he pushed aside a screen of branches. The sight before them could not technically be called a building, as no building had taken place to create it. Trees had been encouraged by the Lord of Hope's particular brand of persuasion to grow side by side in walls, their branches forming four triangles that jutted upwards, intertwining into a pyramidal roof. All the rich greens and crisp browns gave the place a very ingenuous, fresh feel. Ceravic hated coming here. It was just so... wholesome. There was no edge. No sense of excitement, or even of... happening. Nothing but the calm complacency of the trees that took no notice of the passing of time, and the elves, who lived in a similar fashion. He swept Teth's eyes, which were not as sharp as his own, around his surroundings, taking note of the six elven scouts in the trees around them, who were, in turn, taking note of him and Nex. They did not seem overly alarmed; they did not seem much of anything. One met Ceravic's unfamiliar ice-blue eyes, acknowledging, and then turned back to regard the work of a bird building a nest in another tree. Some part of Ceravic's busy mind was somewhat miffed that someone found a bird to be more interesting than he was. Another elf, with fluid, relaxed grace, put his lips to a small wooden carving; a light, innocent chirp sounded.
Ceravic found the tranquility irritating. He knew from his experience with their emissary, Draven, that once they were forced to leave their forest, they became considerably edgier. But here, they were the picture of indifferent serenity, utterly unmoved, perfectly calm. He was not exactly sure why that irritated him. Perhaps it was just because he was accustomed to his presence having some sort of impact on people.
His reverie of distaste was interrupted by a blast of red tearing through the front wall of the bucolic establishment before them in an angry explosion of wood chips and thick smoke.
"Ceravic, you twisted--!" another slash of fire cut off the outrage of tall elf in silvery green and shimmering brown. He flew in a twisting twirl of a leap through the wall's new entrance. Pursuing in a leisurely, unhurried pace that the elves might have envied was, for all intents and purposes, Ceravic, Lord of Oblivion. Red flames flickered along the length of steel in his right hand. Ceravic thought that they lacked some of their usual enthusiasm. They looked a little sad, really. A cold smile was frozen on the face that Ceravic missed ardently, though he did think that the icy smile looked a little off.
Nex, with admirable nonchalance, pointed a glowing green crystal at the man who was raising Slayvyr for another blast. The glistening of green caught his aquatic eyes, which tightened in surprise and then relaxed in dismissal. Teth brought the blade down in a diagonal swing that blocked an unseen attack in a clash of green and red. The blade rebounded from the swing in three more blurring lines of angry flame. Teth looked pleasantly surprised at just how masterful his own swordsmanship was, and proceeded with his assault on Vishesque. By this time the elven scouts had flitted down to surround Ceravic--Teth--even as another six dropped down to surround their leader. A downpour of elves followed; every tree seemed to have been housing some number of very recently placid elves.
Nex, thoroughly surprised by the speed and efficiency of Teth's counterattack, was shocked into motionlessness as he was inundated by the gashes of red that glanced off the wards he kept in place around him at all times. One, two, three, and he was abruptly and completely defenseless. He recovered immediately and began muttering incantations for their replacements. As he chanted, he stared, wide-eyed, as Teth's--Ceravic's--sword tore its way through staves of wood and swords of thin metal, shattering them with absurd ease. Five of the six elves surrounding him were dispatched in as many seconds (five, not six). Teth was advancing all the while on Vishesque, who had a small army gathering around him. Roughly one dozen arrows were loosed on the advancing dealer of death, who smiled serenely. There was a flat, circular blaze of red light, and roughly one dozen puffs of smoke, each accompanied by a quick sizzling sound. The elves readying more arrows stopped to stare, amazement vying for dismay.
Vishesque stared too, eyeing Ceravic with rage and confusion. "Why?" he demanded listlessly. His voice was either lisping or concise; Ceravic had never been able to decide.
A laugh rang out among the trees, sharp and soft. "The betrayal of the trusting is the most heinous of acts." Teth laughed in Ceravic's voice again. "And the punishment of such heretics should be just as heinous." He looked around at Ceravic and Nex, delighting in the selectively comprehensible dual portent of his words.
Ceravic loosed the most pathetic snarl he had ever had the misfortune to loose--Teth's brittle voice was simply not suitable for proper snarling. He would have leapt for the trickster then and there, but a number of key points held him back. First of all, there was nothing he could do to overpower his own body. Secondly, even if there had been, he wouldn't do anything to damage his own body. And thirdly, the first two points aside, anything he did would make Teth look like a hero and himself a bloodletting traitor. He quivered with his own furious helplessness, shooting a glare at Nex. Do something!
"The ideas you come up with," Nex returned automatically in mock wonder. He finished transcribing a third circle around himself with his staff. Then he gave it a twirl of questionable necessity and aimed it at Teth. A bolt of green canted toward Teth, who swung Slayvyr in another deflecting strike. But the emerald light shot straight past him without ever touching the sword or its wielder. It continued harmlessly until it met Nex, who was suddenly and inexplicably behind Teth, twisting his staff in a maneuver that caught and redirected the magic straight into Teth's back. Teth yelped in shock and Ceravic's body convulsed and collapsed in rapid succession. Ceravic winced, out of a not entirely vicarious sense of discomfort.
There was flurry of movement--graceful, as flurries go--around Vishesque as fifteen of the elves that had joined his entourage darted to form a half-circle in front of Nex. There was a similar jumble of motion as another group moved to do the same from behind, encircling the black-robed spellcaster with about thirty taut-as-bowstring elves.
"Hold!" Vishesque commanded, but Ceravic was not sure whom he was addressing, his elves or Nex or himself, Ceravic. So he simply froze. Nex did the same. The elves readied their various but all ridiculously fragile weapons. Vishesque moved, not quite to the forefront, but close enough to draw attention. He turned to Ceravic. "Teth." He bowed from the neck. "My heartfelt and abiding thanks to you for bringing us your aid. Though you have already earned it, my gratitude would only deepen if you could offer me some explanation for Ceravic's behavior."
"Speaking of whom--please don't do that," Nex said to the elves who drew on their bowstrings when he spoke. He opened his mouth again, and Vishesque held up a fair hand, palm facing Nex. Ceravic took it as a sign for silence, and so, apparently, did Nex, for he widened his green eyes in a parody of--or perhaps a sincere effort at--being politely attentive.
The Lord of Hope surveyed the black-robed figure standing in his forest, surrounded by his forces. "You must be Nex."
"The honor is all yours," Nex responded in what Ceravic suspected was a knee-jerk reaction.
There were murmurs of disbelief from the elves, a sound that bordered on music. Disapproving music. Vishesque pursued his thin lips, uncertain of how to react to his ill-mannered savior. Nex eyed him expectantly, his own lips twitching as though he fought a smile. Because he did.
"I suppose so," Vishesque said reluctantly, "given the circumstances." Nex's smile broadened on one side, jagged and mocking. "Ceravic has mentioned you, of course." He frowned at the inert figure lying facedown in the dirt. "When we were on friendlier terms." He narrowed his eyes at Nex. "I don't suppose you could offer me any insight as to what your master was thinking. I take it your own thoughts followed a different course."
Some part of Ceravic's mind had been keeping track of just how long the shadows were getting. His own unfamiliar silhouette was being cast across Teth's stolen body. This needed to be concluded quickly, he reminded Nex with a furious glower.
"I bear a message from Ceravic, Lord of Oblivion." Vishesque's eyes widened. So did Nex's grin. "This is fun."
"If it's 'I'm going to kill you,' then you're a little late," Vishesque returned dryly.
Nex! Ceravic snarled mentally, striding toward the sorcerer. Enough! Let's get out of here! I'll straighten this out later. He grabbed Ceravic's--Teth's--wrist and dragged his own body to the center of the elves. He did not break stride for them, and they parted at his approach when it became obvious he had no intention of doing so.
"Teth? Is there something you want to add?" Vishesque asked, exasperation taking over.
Ceravic smiled a hard smile. Nex? he snapped. The sorcerer obligingly extended his staff with a twirl. Ceravic wrapped one of his own slack hands around the black wood, and then added Teth's scaled grip.
"Ceravic bids you a cheery Sasimire!" Nex remarked in parting. Ceravic recognized the elven word for farewell as his senses of vision and feeling mixed together.
Can you reverse this? He demanded of Nex within one or two instants of finding himself within, once again, the green-tinged shadows of the mage's lab.
"Of course I can," Nex scoffed.
Do so. Immediately. Ceravic hurled his own body onto the long expanse of black stone that dominated Nex's room.
"I would, but I haven't the faintest idea how."
Ceravic shot a withering glare that met Nex's shade-shrouded eyes with an almost physical impact.
"I have no doubt that I will be able to eventually," Nex shot back, either trying to soothe Ceravic or defend himself. "Nearly endless though my skills are--"
Wake him up! Now! Get the answer from him. I have... Ceravic stopped, stymied. I have...
"A problem," Nex finished wryly.
Ceravic glowered; at Nex, at Teth, at the room in general. Then he sighed soundlessly. Nex. Do you think you could...?
"Of course," Nex said politely. Almost. "I'll explain things to her. I will be appropriately discreet, naturally." In a whirl and a flutter of black fabric, he swept from the room.