Abraham pulled his coat tightly around his chest and squinted into the darkness as the fierce wind bit savagely at his hands and face. With little moonlight breaking through the tree cover it was hard to tell if he was still on the path or not, everything just looked the same wherever he looked.
Cursing, he reached into a small velvet bag that hung from his belt and retrieved a tiny pinch of the thin orange Aestus powder – barely more than a few grains. Carefully he placed the grains onto the palm of his hand – it felt soft against his dry, withered skin – and bound a sliver of power about him. The powder sparked and flared on his palm, quickly disappearing in a tiny cloud of orange smoke, leaving behind the hot taste of electricty on his tongue, whilst above his head a small orb of glowing light popped into existence. The sphere shone brightly in the darkness, lighting the air around him for several metres with its intense white glow.
Abraham pushed on through the trees, following the naturally worn path through the woodland that led toward civilisation. The bitter wind continued to batter him and as he walked his fingers and toes began to numb and a weakness settled into his joints. The cold was aggravating his chest badly and several times he had to stop and steady himself on a tree whilst a fit of coughing sent him bent double in convulsions, wheezing and gasping for air. Luckily there wasn't far for him to go now though, he could just make out the distant glow of the city through the thinning trees, so warm and welcoming he felt drawn toward it like a moth to a flame.
What an old fool he had been thinking he could make this journey now. High Summer was only a few months away, he could have traveled then at his leisure and camped out in the open if the night was warm enough. But deep down he knew he probably did not have time to wait that long. The human body could only live so long before it simply can continue no longer. Sorcery could prolong the life of course, by decades, even centuries if you were lucky, but his body was beyond such things now. In the end it is just as fallable to the passing of time as everything else.
The hour was late when he reached the city gates and the watchmen regarded him curiously, asking him lots of questions - what business had brought him and where he had come from, but in the end they were fairly satisfied that a decrepid old man who could barely walk without the use of a cane was not likely to cause them any trouble. Oh how appearances can be deceiving, he thought to himself as he headed into the city.
It took a while, but eventually he managed to find an inn with a room available. The cost was a little more than he had hoped for though, so subtly he wove a simple illusion about a handful of copper coins so that the barman would perceive them as silver – it would not last long, but hopefully by then they would be mixed in with others and the man would be none the wiser – and hauled himself up the few stairs to his room, his joints and bones creaking in protest with each step. Sighing with relief as he eased himself down onto the bed, casting aside the rough scratchy sheets, Abraham slept and dreamt of darkness again.
When the morning came Abraham was awoken by the sound of bustling streets beneath his window and he peered down at the merchants and traveling salesmen setting up their stalls and displays all down the cobbled street. Though the sun was barely awake they were taking no chances of missing out on a single sale and were ready and raring to go as the first people emerged sleepily from their homes and began to ponder what they might need to buy that day.
Abraham waited for a couple of hours before heading out himself, taking his time to savour a hearty breakfast of bread and eggs downstairs. When he was full and his energy restored after a good night's sleep, he set out into the city, hoping his search would prove fruitful before too long.
He passed noiselessly through the throngs of shoppers, all chatting away happily to one another, picking up pieces of fruit and vegetables, testing them for ripeness, eyeing all sorts of little trinkets with longing. Pretty young women batted their eyelashes and smiled flirtaciously at their male companions, hoping they would be treated to a gift of jewellery or perfume, whilst the men shared agonised glances with one another, trying to do the quick maths in their head to work out if they could afford it and still have enough left over to eat that week. As for Abraham, there were two things he wanted in the city. The first he hoped would be fairly simple to obtain, the second would require a lot more effort and probably a fair deal of Sorcery and dare he say it – luck.
The city was vast, much larger than it appeared from the outside and the streets ran right around the inner edges of the city walls in huge concentric circles, intertwining with each other to form a complex web of cobbled roads and paths. As he peered into a market stall, he could not help but eavesdrop upon a couple of royal guards nearby who were talking in somewhat hushed tones. Very slowly, being careful not to draw any attention to himself, Abraham bound just a flicker of power to a couple of grains of Aestus, to enhance their voices for his ears only.
“They say the army is already crossing the Strocetian border,” one of the men whispered.
“I don't understand,” the other replied, with an equally hushed tone. “What would the king want with Stroceta? They've never invaded us or supported an enemy of the kingdom. It seems strange to suddenly go to war with them.”
“The word going around is that their new king is a lot more ambitious than the last and that he's openly stated his opposition to Sorren and the king.”
“I've not heard that.”
“Well, it's just the word that's going around. Doesn't mean to say it's true.”
“Stroceta has a large supply of Aestus don't they?” the second man said after a short pause to think.
The first man nodded. “I've wondered the same thing. With supplies getting so scarce around here and prices soaring, an invasion of Stroceta would certainly relieve that market and bring a lot more gold into Sorren.”
Abraham moved on, wondering to himself how much of what the guards said was true. Certainly there was truth to the fact that Aestus was becoming very rare nowadays and a lot of merchants had stopped dealing in it altogether as it was simply too expensive to source. He knew very little about the land of Stroceta, but if they had untapped sources of Aestus then it made sense for the kingdom to want to get their hands on it.
A little while later he came to a colourful magician's stall where a thin, mousey looking man with crooked teeth grinned widely and gestured to a table full of necklaces and bracelets - amongst other things - which he assured all the prospective customers peering in were genuine items of power that would bring luck and prosperity to whomever owned them. To prove his authenticity, the man picked up a small amulet and gripped it tightly between his fingers, muttering quietly beneath his breath, and before his customers' eyes the amulet began to glow and shimmer brightly, bathing them all in a warm sensation of safety and security. Men and women clamoured for the charms after that that, handing over handfuls of silver as the salesman beamed and congratulated them on a wise purchase. Abraham was not so impressed however and as the last of the flurry of customers sidled away, bracelet wrapped proudly around their wrist, he approached the man.
“A fine array of charms you have,” he offered, his voice still a little hoarse from the night before – at least he hoped that was all it was.
“Thank you,” the man grinned eagerly, his eyes lighting up as he sensed another sale coming his way. “And what is Sir looking for today? A charm of protection perhaps? Or a little extra luck? Or, if I may be so bold, perhaps Sir seeks something to banish the lines of age from his skin and restore vitality and vigour to the body?”
Abraham raised an eyebrow at this, but said nothing yet, so the salesman continued.
“Oh yes I have charms even for that. Who wouldn't want to defy age for just a little longer? To have a bit more energy and a spring in their step once again?”
Who indeed? If only the man knew the purpose of his visit here, he wouldn't dare offer him such trinkets and cheap ploys. Still, despite himself he did find that suggestible side of his mind wondering – if only for a moment – if there could be any truth to the man's claims. Perhaps one of these charms really could stave off the advance of time for a few more years, giving him a little longer before the inevitable must happen. But no, he was being foolish. He knew far better than any man that these cheap magics offered nothing of any substance, he would not allow himself to be drawn into the man's game, regardless of how desperate he was for an alternative.
“No, thank you,” he replied slowly, taking stock of the man. “What is your name salesman?”
“Dryfus,” the man told him, glancing at a few other possible customers, beginning to wonder if he was wasting his time with this old codger.
“No Dryfus, I do not wish to buy any of these worthless pieces of junk you are passing off as powerful to these gullible people.”
“I don't know what you're talking about,” Dryfus retorted angrily, dismissing the suggestion with a laugh that sounded forced and nervous. “All these charms are totally genuine, you saw the demonstration for yourself.”
“What I saw,” Abraham began, speaking slowly and carefully, weaving just a hint of power to his words so that those who heard them would sense their weight and honesty. “Was a cheap parlour trick used to hoodwink unsuspecting people out of their hard earned money.”
“You are just-” Dryfus tried to reply, but Abraham cut him off, his voice raising in volume and intensity.
“These charms you sell are no more magical than a handful of dirt. I've met your kind many times, you peddlers of lies and imitation Sorcery. Such waste, such disregard of true power to reduce it down to this fradulent display.”
By now several of the man's customers had returned and were listening intently to what he was saying.
“Is this true?” shouted one of them.
“You're nothing but a common thief!” spat another, hurling their charm back at the merchant, who ducked out of the way just in time, desperately trying to calm them down and explain it was all just a misunderstanding.
Abraham moved on as the crowd around the stall began to grow and the sounds of shouting and the table collapsing rang through the morning air.
It took over an hour of wandering around, of asking the right questions, of weaving the right spells to loosen peoples' tongues, but eventually he found the place he was looking for. The door was hidden down a flight of steps behind an old abandoned tavern, draped in shadows, he would never have found it if it had not been pointed out to him. Abraham grimaced slightly as a strong scent of lavender struck him, bringing tears to his eyes as he lowered his head and ducked through the doorway.
The room was poorly lit by a few candles strewn about the place, but there was not much to see in all honesty. Besides a couple of small tables of colourful rocks and useless charms, there was only the salesman standing smartly dressed behind his counter, watching him intently. The difference here of course was that these charms were only for show, to divert attention away from the real wares which were no doubt hidden away in the back of the shop somewhere, lest prying eyes happen to fall upon this place. Abraham could feel the power radiating through the room, the hot burning potential that was such a sweet signature of Aestus, of real Sorcery. Yes, this was the place.
The salesman smiled politely as Abraham approached and introduced himself as Marques. “What can I do for you today?” he asked. “Is it a charm you are looking for? Or a ward?”
Both men knew the real purpose for his visit and it had nothing to do with charms nor wards, but this was the game you often had to play in such company. It was more a formality than a ritual that served any real purpose, but it was sometimes important to keep your cards close to your chest. A credible salesman of the kind of power he sought would not come straight out and announce it, you would have to be a little more patient and subtle than that.
“No thank you,” replied Abraham. “Though I am sure they are all of the finest quality,” a smile lingered on his lips, “I find myself in need of something a little more...substantial.”
“Ah, perhaps a potion is what you desire? An elixer to rid you of your troubles?” Marques asked innocently, clearly enjoying the little dance. It was probably a rare occurance to have a proper customer these days, Abraham thought. With the Aestus supplies dwindling so it was getting harder and harder to make a profit from, given the cost of obtaining it in the first place.
“A potion would not suit my needs either I'm afraid,” Abraham replied cooly, letting the silence hang in the air for a moment.
Marques smiled and glanced around the room, ensuring they would not be overheard. The rarity and value of Aestus these days meant that one could not be too careful, as it was increasingly becoming a black market commodity, inviting all the darker aspects of society into the fray. “I take it, it is...Aestus you seek?”
Abraham nodded and placed his velvet bag on the counter. “Powder if you have it, but that is only of secondary concern today. What I seek...is a Divine Stone. I was told you are the man to speak to about such things.”
Marques remained emotionless and motioned toward the door. For a moment Abraham thought he was being told to leave, but then he noticed a small man waddling over to the door and locking it, before returning to his chair hidden in amongst the shadows by the far wall.
“You realise they do not come cheap?” Marques asked.
“Yes, the cost should not be an issue,” Abraham assured him.
Marques stepped through a curtain into the backroom and returned a moment later with a small black cloth, made of fine silk. He placed it gently down on the counter and unwrapped it, revealing a small, dazzlingly beautiful stone. It was pale green, almost translucent and it looked like crystal or diamond, but Abraham knew it for what it truly was – pure Aestus, condensed and solidified over thousands of years beneath the deep soil, crushed into existance by the immense pressures weighing down upon it. It gleamed brightly even in the dim candlelight and Abraham inhaled sharply as he felt the tug of its power pulling at his senses, then Marques covered it again.
“This is the only one I have had in years, you are lucky to have come to me when you did. I doubt with current circumstances that I will see another for a very long time indeed.”
Abraham nodded, still a little shaky from the rush of power that had washed over him. Marques seemed to be unaffected by the Stone, but that was to be expected, only a Sorcerer would have felt the power as he had. Slowly, he reached for his coin purse.
“The price is seven thousand,” Marques said matter-of-factly.
Abraham nearly dropped the purse in shock. He has expected to pay a premium, but that was far beyond what he was hoping for and more importantly it was more than he had. For a moment he considered casting a simple spell, it was one he had done on many occasions before. It would be a little too obvious to pull the same trick as he had on the barman back at the inn, now that Marques had seen the coin purse and no doubt assessed its size and weight. But he could cast a spell upon the man himself, a simple trick of the mind to make him believe he had counted more than he actually had, he could do it easily enough without drawing attention to himself – he always kept a few grains of Aestus powder in his pocket for such surreptitious castings. But he felt wary. There was something about the small man in the corner of the room that unsettled him and he had been around long enough now to know when to trust his gut feelings, so he would have to go about this another way.
“I only have five thousand, is there any way you could see to lowering the price? I would gladly pay the rest in Sorcery if there is anything you require that cannot be achieved through...conventional means.”
Marques sighed and thumbed the edge of the silk as he considered the proposal. After a very long pause he spoke. “You seem like an honest man. You did not attempt to deceive me with Sorcery or trickery, and I suppose I am not likely to sell this Stone to anyone else, nobody really has the money to spend on these things any more... Alright, five thousand it is. I'll even top up your powder as well, free of charge and perhaps you will come again the next time you are in need?”
Abraham nodded his appreciation and handed over the gold. “Thank you, you are very kind.”
Placing the stone very carefully into a pouch around his waist, Abraham stepped back out into the city. Now there was just one more thing to find, he told himself. Then he could go home.
He roamed the city for the rest of the day, stopping once to rest and eat – a dry pastry with a spicy sauce that burnt the roof of his mouth. The search for true power amongst all the pretenders was a challenging one, there were so many parlour magicians and simple illusionists that the scent of their imitation coated the air – decadent, wasteful. Raw Sorcery was an exotic, cold aroma, like ice rushing through the senses. But in a city this size, picking it out of the crowd was tough. There may not even be anyone here with the power, but with such a large population he felt fairly confident there must be at least one person with the potential, even if they did not realise it.
For hours he scoured the streets, casting invisible veils of his own power across the crowds, looking for even a hint of that unique signature that he was sure must be hiding somewhere, but no answer came. Eventually he succumbed to exhaustion as the sun began to descend and the chill of the night threatened to return. Still some distance from the inn, he slumped down in a nearby chair and found himself amongst a small crowd, facing a makeshift stage in the street. Evidently there was some kind of performance due to start and though he did not much care for music or theatre, he was too tired to get up again just yet.
As darkness arrived, more spectators found their way into the crowd and the buzz of expectation and excitement grew in volume. Finally, just as the moon disappeared behind a wall of clouds overhead, a man stepped out onto the stage, dressed head to toe in splendid white robes laced with gold trim and jewels, bowing to the audience with a smug little grin sandwiched between his chubby cheeks. He introduced himself as 'The Great Mazarri' and then the show began.
Mazarri removed a large pouch from his pocket, similar to the one Abraham himself carried and scooped out a handful of black powder. He closed his eyes and threw the powder into the air, sparking and flashing like a swarm of fireflies as it soared into the night. Above their heads huge displays of colourful lights lit up the street, dancing across the sky like an eclectic firework display. Then the lights began to take on shapes – men, animals, beasts the like of which no-one had ever seen. And there in the sky in shining auroral brilliance, the stories played out. Men slayed horrific beasts of pure light and sound; animals evolved from one form to another, dancing and swirling in the air as they did so; women took lovers and weeped as their sweethearts fell in battle; and a hundred more stories, some grand and imposing, others intricate and eerily moving played out with a bright intensity that lit up the faces of those watching with awe from below.
Impressive though the spectacle was, Abraham felt the anger and the frustration beginning to boil within him as he watched the entertainer take handful after handful of the precious powder and toss it into the air, emptying the pouch in less than thirty minutes before opening another. Such waste. These magicians knew nothing of real Sorcery, of control. His hands began to tense into fists in his lap and he felt the enticing whisper of the Divine Stone radiating around his body.
Before he knew what was happening he was on his feet, bellowing into the night, his words drowned out by the sound and noise of the display above him. Yet still the words tumbled out, poured out in his released fury. A few people turned to see what the fuss was all about, but most ignored him. Then the power surged, bursting through him like a bolt of lightning, scorching the sky, melting the very air and engulfing everything in flames. He convulsed in pain as the wild power shattered the illusions overheard, sending whirlpools of dark, screaming energy across the street.
When it was over, the silence in the street was deafening, cut only by the sound of his heavy breathing and the quiet sobbing of a young woman somewhere in the darkness. Abraham turned and ran, as fast as his aching legs and cane could carry him.
At first light Abraham packed up the few belongings he had lain around his room and headed out into the morning. Though before doing so he took a pinch of Aestus and bound a spell around himself to obscure his appearance, so that anyone who looked in his direction would see nothing of interest and feel no reason to continue looking. It was a fairly simple spell, but he had to be careful with it, especially after what had happened the previous night – one mistake and it could have the reverse effect and draw everyone's attention to him straight away. He just needed to get out of the city as fast as he could now, before someone discovered him.
He walked briskly through the streets, wrapping his scarf tightly around his neck and face to shield him a little from the cold. He had never lost control of his power like that before, not in all the years he had practiced Sorcery. Part of him wanted to blame the Stone and its sheer energy that must have overwhelmed him in a moment of weakness, but he should never have been that weak as to lose control entirely. His body – and by extension his mind – was deteriorating even faster than he had thought. At least the result had been confined to a small area. With all that latent power he was carrying on his belt, the loss of control could have been absolutely catastrophic.
He had hoped to spent a little more time searching; he was sure that the power must be there somewhere, hidden away in some dark recess of the city, if only he could find it. Without it, his options were very limited, but it was something he had known he may have to face. Perhaps he was ready? Time can only be held at bay for so long...
“Hey mister, you dropped something!” a young voice called out from behind him.
Abraham turned and found a young woman – surely no more than sixteen years – handing him a familiar looking velvet pouch. Instinctively he reached for his belt and found that his own was indeed missing. “Thank you very much,” he replied. Strange, the girl should not be able to see him, he should have blended inconsequentially into the thin crowd, overlooked by anyone who happened to glance his way. But there she was, smiling straight at him, eyes expectant, hoping for some kind of reward for her honesty. Could it be? Did she possess the power he saught? Barely daring to hope he took a dab of powder onto his fingertip and bound a Knowing. The cold, sweet scent of Sorcery clung to her body like a perfume, so fresh and raw with potential. His heart skipped a beat as he pondered the implications. A girl...could it still work? Was it even possible?
“What is your name child?”
“Lea,” she bobbed politely.
Abraham drew a long breath and steadied himself. Just as it had appeared fate would transpire to set about his undoing, a ray of hope had burst through the darkness, bringing with it glimpses of a wide, unknown, tantilising future. Lea...
It was not difficult to convince her to accompany him on his return journey. A simple spell to enhance her curiosity and her daring, mixed with her genuine youthful desire for adventure and her mind was an incredibly malleable vessel.
The trek was arduous and again he cursed himself for waiting so long to make it. He had felt the first warnings in Low Summer of last year, but he had put it off again and again until now it was almost too late. As they walked Lea chatted endlessly about her life and asked many questions about him and where they were going, but Abraham was careful to remain vague for now.
In the third and final day of their journey, the winding path took them high into the side of a tall mountain that the locals had cheerfully dubbed 'Death Mountain'. Lea gasped when she realised where they were heading and wanted to turn back.
“We can't go over the mountain, we'll die!” she insisted, but Abraham shushed her and when she persisted, he bound a small spell to ease her nerves.
The path through the mountain was incredibly steep in places and Abraham gulped desperately for air as they walked, wheezing painfully and having to steady himself as waves of dizziness washed over him.
Soon though they reached the other side and Lea stared out over the wasteland ahead of them – huge craters in the cracked earth looked like portals to some dark abyss; volcanic vents shot scalding bursts of steam into the air; lakes and rivers of boiling water, where vicious sucking tentacles pierced the surface, groping around for any signs of life. No-one ever crossed the wasteland, the stories of those who had tried were engrained in the mind of every child in Sorren and no-one had any wish to meet such horrible, gruesome ends.
“We can't cross,” she whispered, shaking visibily.
“Do not be afraid,” Abraham reassured her. “Nothing here can hurt you.”
Lea glanced worriedly around, clearly very unhappy about the situation, but nonetheless she followed. The farther they walked, the land around her seemed to shimmer and fade, like a dream chased away by a waking mind. The huge craters and lakes disappeared and barren, dusty land was replaced by a vast field of short grass, swaying gently in the breeze as they marched slowly toward a tall wooden hut that squatted silently on the horizon.
“It was an illusion...” she said, awed by the extent of the power.
Abraham offered no reply, but instead allowed her to admire the quality of his work.
As the days and weeks passed, Abraham grew ever weaker until it was a struggle to even rise from his bed for more than an hour. This could have weaked his resolve as well, but instead it only served to spur him on and every ounce of strength he could muster he devoted to Lea – teaching her everything she would need to control the power that lay hidden within her and how to master it.
“The first and most important lesson,” he told her on her second day, once he decided she was ready to begin simple casting. “Is discipline. You will see many magicians, entertainers and illusionists in life and none of them understand truly how to control the Aestus. They throw bundles of energy around for the simplest tasks, wasting much of it in the process. A true Sorcerer knows the price of every spell they must cast.”
In the first week Abraham taught her how to use the powder, how to measure the required amount for any given spell so that none was ever wasted. He watched proudly as she summoned lights and objects into existence, marvelling at her youthful enthusiam and wonder. He felt a pang of sadness and guilt as she grew stronger, against all his better judgement he was growing to like her, to enjoy her company. But that was merely unfortunate for him, he could not back out now, there was very little time left and only the gods above knew how many days this ancient body would hold out.
The lessons progressed with an increased pace and intensity and Abraham found himself growing frustrated and angry when she failed to master something quickly enough, shouting at her and then feeling even worse within himself for having done so. But time was slipping away with every moment and she was not yet ready to control the amount of power required, it would destroy her. So on they went. Abraham drilled her with the mental and physical techniques to resist such huge amounts of power and slowly she began to understand it, controlling each surge of energy and moulding it, shaping it into something she could release into the world, lest it burrow too deeply and consume her. The powder she was using was one thing, but when the moment came to unleash the power within the Stone she must be ready, or it would destroy them both.
“How old are you Abe?” she asked him one evening as he lay back wearily in his chair, listening to the gentle sound of the wind outside.
“Too old,” he whispered.
Finally the day came and Lea was ready. He had taught her everything she needed and though he would have liked a little longer to be sure she has totally mastered every element of his teachings, this would simply have to do.
Lea helped him out of the hut into the still afternoon air, resting his weight against her shoulder as she sat him down on the dry ground. Even though it had only been a few weeks since she they had met, his withered, aged form looked so distant from the man she had known, and his pain brought a tear to her eyes.
“Thank you,” he panted softly, clutching his chest and groaning. “There is one last thing you must do....and then you will be a true Sorcerer. You will carry on my legacy...when this old body is long since in the ground.” He struggled for breath as a haze settled upon his vision.
Lea squeezed his shoulder. “Don't say that,” she said softly.
Abraham coughed violently, his lungs burning up inside him, splattering his hand with blood and dry, foamy spittle. Slowly, he unwrapped the Stone and beckoned her to kneel before him, placing it gently in her open palm and resting his own hand upon them both.
“Are you ready?” he asked with barely more than a whisper.
Lea nodded and closed her eyes, preparing herself for the onslaught of power as she had been taught.
Abraham unfurled a soft tendril of power and wrapped it around the Stone, feeling the radiating energy pulse through it into his body like a heartbeat. Then it constricted tightly and the Stone cracked. Power surged through him like a tidal wave, drowning him again and again in its fury and rage. Abraham's defences weakened and threatened to collapse, crumbling all around him as the endless barrage of energy tore at every fibre of his being. He forced his eyes open a crack to look at Lea and she stared back at him, her eyes wide with horror and pain and betrayal as the colourful waves of energy undulated and crashed all around her. She cried out, screaming, piercing his soul with her despair. A shadow of doubt enveloped his mind, but before he could think, the power took him, burning through his veins like molten death as his body convulsed and writhed. Consciousness exploded in a sea of colours and then everything went dark, as the distant sounds of screaming lulled him to sleep.
Abraham's eyes opened and a sharp breath escaped his lungs. Night had descended around them and he sat up, shakily getting to his feet, stretching his limbs, testing them out. The withered old man lay cold at his feet, the only signs of life remaining the slow, shallow breathing and the tiny movements of his chest as each breath deserted him. Abraham curled his hands into tight fists and sent a burst of energy toward the man, wrapping an icy tendril around his heart, choking it until he was still. He had known the man's name once, but that was so long ago that the memories had lost all meaning. It would be a long time until the memory of his voice left him though, forever screaming inside his head with every waking moment. But now there was a new voice to keep him company.
With a long, sweet breath he caressed the soft curves of his new body and purred with a gentle pleasure. Time would have to wait, he thought to himself, at least for a little while longer.
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