Sunday, January 4, 2015

Excerpt from Hidden Power


            The large chamber glowed with a weakening light. It was vast, with high, crystalline walls as thick and clear as glaciers that stretched until one’s neck grew sore trying to follow them upward, ever upward, until you could barely see any longer. A domed ceiling arched high above, clear like a skylight and letting in a dim glow as evening fell on their third day in waiting.

            The room was silent and still, a funeral chamber without the funeral. The crystal walls echoed only their breathing, and even that was near silent, as if out of respect for the gathering.

            The remaining Council members, all seven of them, wore their funereal robes, a deep, rich maroon with gold threading that pooled on the floor at their feet and stretched well past their folded hands until one could no longer see their long, spidery fingers. Their hoods were raised in honor of the event, masking faces solemn and anxious. 

            The great and mighty Jaroch was dying. At 238 years old, he was one of the youngest members of the Council of Bright Orders. And yet, even to those outside the Council, it was clear his once and ever light was on the wane and would soon be extinguished forever.

            As a squire, or mage in training, young Kayne was only allowed into the death chamber in the company of his master, Kronos. He stood against the wall with the six other squires, all of them clad in their white robes, their hoods up, hands clasped in front of their waists in imitation of their powerful masters. 

            All the squires stood nervously against the glowing crystal walls, heads bowed in deference to the powerful mages that filled the circular room. Their hoods covered their young faces, curious eyes poking out every so often to take in the scene of majesty and wonder that now greeted them. They were all too young to have seen the passing of a mage before and each knew it could be decades before another one passed.

            Jaroch had fallen ill during a Council meeting only days earlier, sliding off his crystal throne and to his knees and closing his eyes without uttering a single word.
He hadn’t opened them, or spoken, since.

            Kayne yearned to hear Jaroch’s voice once more. Of all the mages, he had been the most powerful, the most mysterious, the most mystical and the most magical. His voice was dry and hoarse, like anyone who had lived nearly 300 years, but until the day he spoke no more, it had always been loud and clear and strong.

            At night Jaroch had often read to the squires from the Great Spell Book, his voice both powerful and soothing as he recounted tales of the Old Ones, the original mages, who knew little of their powers until forming the Council of Bright Orders and committing their tales to the Great Book, so that history could learn from their great and natural magic.

            Now, Kayne feared, he might never hear that great and mournful voice again. For, clearly, Jaroch’s time was at hand. Even Kayne, at 17, could feel the waning of Jaroch’s power as the walls of his death chamber glowed dimmer and dimmer with each faltering breath, the clear crystal growing cloudy and opaque with the passing of his spirit into the Great Beyondness.

             The ancient mage lay on a slab of pure crystal that, like the rest of the room, glowed weakly in time with his faltering heartbeat. It sat at the heart of the circular room and, like a heart, what happened on the slab affected the rest of the chamber.

            With each faltering heartbeat, with each dimming flash of light, the floor beneath Kayne’s feet pulsed, as did the walls, higher, higher, all the way to the ceiling. Each pulse of weakening light cast shadows along the faces that lined the room, making them darker still behind their raised and silken hoods.

            Jaroch was dressed all in white, to match his shimmering hair and pale, papery skin. His old cheeks were gaunt, his eyes closed and still, his nostrils barely flaring. His long, bony hands were clasped over his chest, each finger ornamented with a thick, golden ring bearing the planet Synurgus’ finest gems.

            No one spoke a word and, yet, the room was filled with tension Kayne could feel all across his shoulders and up the back of sore neck. He had only been a squire for a few short years, but he knew full well that when one mage passed onto the other realm, into the Great Beyondness, another of the same order was selected within the week to take his place.

             Small, but filled with valuable mineral resources, Synurgus was a vulnerable planet. And a magical, mystical one. It was dominated by two races of powerful mages. The Ythurnians, who had started the Council of Bright Orders eons ago, practiced what was known as light magic, a powerful force for good that helped protect Synurgus from those who would dare do it harm.

            Just as powerful were the Sinisterians, a mysterious race from over the great Crystal Mountains who practiced black magic but only under close supervision by the Council. Though black magic was generally frowned upon, it was valuable nonetheless in times of war or strife with other civilizations, and many times over the centuries had dark magic saved Synurgus from destruction.
            As a result, the Council of Bright Orders was always filled with four members from each tribe, if only to strike the delicate balance between good and evil on the rich little planet.
              As Jaroch was a light mage, he would need to be replaced – and quickly – with another light mage in order to keep the balance. Kayne shifted his eyes, hidden behind his own white hood, to the likely replacement: the great and mighty Iragos of Ythurnia.

             Like all the mages, Iragos was tall and lean, sporting flowing, silvery hair that cascaded across his broad shoulders and over his maroon funereal robe. He was a sight taller than the other Ythurnians, and not quite as old. Despite the stern expressions worn by all the mages on this of all days, Iragos often looked up at his old friend and mentor, Jaroch, and offered a smile of recognition, or perhaps fond recollection before bowing his head again out of respect.

           By contrast, Kayne’s master, Kronos of Sinisteria, looked almost gleeful at the thought of Jaroch’s passing. He could barely hide the smirk behind his own maroon cloak, and shifted nervously as if he wanted all of this to be over as soon as possible. He was tall and menacing, nearly a head above his fellow Sinisterians, and with his permanent scowl and severe features easily put the “dark” in dark arts.

          Though his hair was long and silver like the other powerful mages, he sported a dark, black goatee beneath his long, severe nose and around his thin, gray lips. His eyes were a rich dark green and lively, and his head was barely bent above his broad, muscular shoulders.

          Kayne rarely spoke to his master, at least not unless spoken to first. Instead he merely nodded and did Kronos’ bidding, as often and as quickly as he could. Today his job was merely ornamental.

          “Just stand there and don’t embarrass me,” Kronos had hissed moments before they had entered the chamber and, as always, Kayne did as he was told. He hadn’t moved for hours, or so it seemed, and his legs had gone beyond sore to numb.

           The sky above grew dark and still the walls around them glowed as the old mage refused to give up his physical form. Several paces in front of Kayne, Kronos shifted from one foot to the other. Across the room, Iragos noticed and shot Kayne’s master a withering look. Unrepentant, Kronos rustled his robe and cleared his throat, as if to punish his peer for daring to act his superior.

           Kayne sighed beneath his hood, glad to be hidden from the others as his face colored in the shadows. Then, just as he was trying to blend into the walls themselves, something in the room…changed. There was a shift in its energy, like a fizzle, or flicker.

          He felt it before he saw it, creeping from his feet through his legs, crinkling his stomach and thrumming in his chest. Kayne wasn’t overtly magical. He had little of the powers the other squires showed off daily at meal times, levitating their forks over the table or sending them sailing into the wall, just to show off.

        But Kayne’s teachers noted his ability to sense things moments before they happened. It wasn’t a valuable power, as powers go, but it was enough to get him shuffled to Sinister School and, later, Ythulia itself. Or, as the squires called it when no one else was listening, Mage City.

        Here, he was a guppy in a very large pond and yet, every once in awhile, the stirrings appeared, as they did now. He stepped forward, instinctively, only to be yanked back by the squire beside him lest he break protocol completely.

           Kayne nodded, gratefully, but lifted his head just the same. There, on the slab, Jaroch spasmed, hands falling off his chest, rings clattering onto the floor as they slipped from his bony, lifeless fingers. Only then did the other mages rush to his aide; all but Kronos, who stood solemnly, watching, waiting, his cheeks drawn up by a wicked half-smile.

          Kayne knew Kronos wanted to replace Jaroch on the Council, but both knew the Council would never willingly have more members of one race of mages than the other. After all, the balance between light and dark was all that kept their little planet alive, and none of the Council members would risk jeopardizing that.

          None of the other Council members, that is.

          And so, as Iragos rushed to the old mage’s side, as he sank to his knees in grief and the walls flickered once, twice, before going dark, Kronos seethed, fists clenching at his sides as his hood fell from around his face. Now his salt and pepper hair flew around his head, unbidden, writhing like a nest of snakes.

         When at last the walls were as black as the night sky above, when only moonlight shone down on Jaroch’s cold, silent body, Kronos turned to Kayne with a face grim as granite, his dark eyes the only illumination in the silent room.

         “Now,” he hissed and, preceding him, Kayne led his master from the great chamber. Once outside the Hall of Grief, Kronos darted forward with a mystical speed, leaving Kayne in his wake.

         “Master?” Kayne called out after him, racing to catch up.

        “Leave me,” Kronos said, swiftly advancing down the hall and leaving Kayne far behind. “Your duties are done for the night,” Kronos called over his shoulder, disappearing around the corner in a glimmer of gold thread and fluttering hair.

         Kayne nodded and, instinctively, returned to the Hall of Grief. It was not quite proper for a squire to join other mages when not in the company of his master, but on this night, Kayne hoped grief would trump protocol and allow him to pay Jaroch his last respects. More than anything, Kayne wished to pay tribute to the fallen mage, to honor the man who had made him proud to live in Mage City.

         As he slipped back into the room, quickly pulling his hood back onto his head, Kayne locked eyes with Iragos. A flash of disdain and then, a blink, and the light mage smiled and nodded, allowing him to join at the center of the room as the others – mages and squires alike – gathered shoulder to shoulder, arm in arm, to bid farewell to the Council’s fallen leader.

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