Thursday, 23 February 2017

Mamelon 2 - Chapter Twenty-Three


In Lunis, City of Moons, the Dark Mage, Ragund gazed into the seer bowl and rubbed his hand with glee to witness the rising panic of those trapped forever in their mountain tomb. “Yes, yes, yes,” he hissed, “Try as you might, call upon whom you will, you will not escape.” He spared but a few minutes longer to congratulate himself on the success of a spell older even than the sacred purple mountains themselves before turning his attention elsewhere. “Now, at last, is the hour for which I have strived. Now to show that meddling fool, Astor, that it is I, Ragund, who am the greatest mage of all time. Yes-ssss”, he hissed, “Grater even than he in whom you appear to have rashly placed your trust. Fools! Now, to Gar, and let those pathetic elven wretches defy me if they dare…”
            On Ti-gray, Isle of the Dead, five pairs of eyes looked on in horror as the seer bowl in Astor’s trembling hands revealed the plight of those trapped within the mountain.
“What is it, what has happened?” Galia looked to her mother for an explanation, but Etta could only shrug helplessly so she fixed Astor with an accusing glare that did nothing to still his growing disquiet.
“Xaruki,” a grim-faced Astor murmured.
“Xaruki…?” Etta was incredulous, “But Xaruki magic belongs to ancient times. Few know of it and none have possessed the knowledge to practice it in the sum of all our lifetimes.” The grey-green eyes fell upon each of them, one after the other, defying any to contradict her. Legend has it that they worshipped Xu, the fire god. Xu wanted absolute power but Ri was having none of it. There was a great battle. Xu lost and was exiled from the world, left to plot and scheme in vain in the Dark Unknown.”
“In vain indeed, until now perhaps… ” Astor commented drily, unable to finish his sentence, too terrible were the potential consequences to even begin to put into words.
“Father…?” It was no small signal of her inner turmoil that Galia addressed him so.
Astor, ashen faced, turned to Gabriel, “Xaruki magic cannot be undone by any power known to me…or you, I suspect.” All eyes fell on the latter, but if they were hoping for a flat denial, they were in for a frighteningly intense disappointment.
Gabriel sighed. “It is true that Xaruki magic is older even than the mountains. Precious little of how they came by or practised it is known. Some have devoted their lives in search of such knowledge although all have barely scratched the surface, if that, of one of the greater mysteries of all time. Compared to the Xaruki, druids are mere amateurs.” He glanced at Astor and permitted himself a wry grin. Astor, though, was too preoccupied with his own thoughts to even notice.
“Then how…?” Galia began before answering her own question, “Ragund…!” The name rang out in the grim silence like a solemn death knell.
“Yes, Ragund,” Gabriel agreed, “Somehow he has discovered how to create a Xaristra. It is said the Xaruki were able to move mountains. Moving even the most massive rock was child’s play. They would deposit their enemies in a cave or pit with enough food and water to sustain them while they contemplated their fate. Then they would employ magic to command an immovable stone to block the entrance, effectively burying them alive. The stone was known as a Xaristra Stone; it served to remind the tribe not only of its purpose but also the power of it elders. To look with any hint of concern or irreverence upon a Xaristra was seen as an act of betrayal. Some say any who touched one would be struck dead on the spot, their spirit left to wander infinity.”
“Kikiri,” murmured Etta.
“Kikiri,” Gabriel agreed, “Oh, Ragund, you have researched well, burrowing lifetimes, I dare say, for scraps of information, pouring over any clues that came to light, and no one suspecting that even you were capable of so evil a purpose.”
“Purpose…?” Etta echoed, and froze. 
“Xaruki sought to control everyone and everything by a magic darker even that which has its epicenter in the City of Moons,” Gabriel continued quietly, “Ragund seeks no less. Water flows again in Mamelon, bringing new life where there has only been parched earth killing its vegetation and all but dried up springs to nourish its people. Only Gar stands between Ragund and supremacy not only over all Mamelon but of the Motherworld also.”
“A fate too horrible even to contemplate,” murmured Galia.
“But contemplate it we must,” insisted Gabriel with force enough to startle Astor out of his trance-like contemplation of recent events along with no little self-reproach for so underestimating his old enemy.
“Even if all of us pool such powers as we have, they are no match for Xaruki magic.” Astor stated categorically.
No one spoke.
            “There may yet be a way,” said Gabriel after so long and deep a silence that it became a brief sanctuary of sorts. Here, he found a much welcome respite despite being under siege by thoughts growing darker, to almost pitch blackness, with an ever increasing sense of hopelessness. “There may be yet be a way,” he repeated, slowly and deliberately as if trying to convince himself as to the truth of it, however fragile that truth might prove.
            “Impossible!” Astor exclaimed, forgetting for a moment to whom he was speaking,  inclining his head apologetically under Gabriel’s steady gaze. But the latter appeared not to notice, his eyes and ears elsewhere.
“Perhaps,” Gabriel conceded in a strange, distant voice, “But we have to try. Xaruki magic may well be as old as the Purple Mountains themselves, but there is a magic that is older still.”
“Elves…!” Etta exclaimed if with significantly less excitement than coursed Galia’s veins.
“Yes, elves,” Gabriel agreed.
“Huh, elves…!” Astor scoffed, “Surely, you are not suggesting that elven magic is any match for Xaruki?”
Gabriel shook his head. “No, but…”
“But…?” Galia prompted, seizing upon a distant hope that Michael and Peter might yet be saved from a slow, painful death.
“Together, perhaps, elven and druid magic…”  Gabriel struggled to say, his speech slurred, voice more distant than ever, his whole body straining as if communicating with some inner self.”
Etta froze. He is not real. It is a dream-self we see before us. Dream-selves, as she knew only too well, had their limitations. The others must realize this, surely? At the same time, she knew they did not.
“Elves and druids, are you mad?”  Astor thundered, “Besides, you are forgetting that legend has it that a Xaristra can only be removed from within.”
“Legend also has it that it cannot be done,” Nadya pointed out upon rejoining the group. No one had noticed her approach. Moreover, there was something about the way she comported herself besides a discernible inflection in her voice that forbade any mention of Arissa.
“But…”  Galia prompted a second time.
“If druid magic and elven can work together…” Gabriel’s melodic voice grew fainter until it trailed away altogether, lost in thought.
He is communicating with his true self, Etta understood although why the others, especially Astor, could not see it was beyond her.
“Ygor is lost to us in case you have forgotten,” Astor snapped, “and good riddance,” he added with feeling, “True, druid powers course the bloodline, but it is not enough to sustain such a task, and well you know it. Even if the elves were to draw upon such ages-old knowledge, the use of it is way beyond the likes of young Pers or…” hesitating a faction before saying Irina’s name.
Both Galia and Nadya sensed a growing tension between the others. Galia glanced intuitively at her mother, remarking that the young-old face wore a strained expression, an infinite sadness she had never seen before.
“Ah, yes, Irina,” Etta echoed quietly, but loud enough for all to hear. “Tell us about Irina, Astor, my once husband and mentor. Tell us how you seduced La-Ri of Gar behind my back, and how Ka-Ri knows not to this day she is your daughter.”
No one spoke.
It was Galia who, carefully avoiding her father’s eye and addressing Gabriel directly, eventually put into words what was in all their minds, “So are you saying that Irina, being of elven and druid stock, can somehow shift the Xaristra?”
Gabriel shook his head. “Alone, no, but with help…possibly, I do not know. I am merely speculating...”
“But what help is there?” Etta asked despairingly, “We have seen how magic has no effect within the tomb. The Xaristra is but an extension of it, after all.”
“Speculation or no, we have to try!” Galia cried, “My children…” she gasped, and promptly burst into tears.
“My son…” Nadya looked pleadingly at Gabriel, “Please, save my son.”
For some time, Gabriel said nothing. At last he appeared to stir as if from a long sleep. “I will do what I can,” he said slowly, “but I must go somewhere quiet and be alone.”
“Then go to the woods from whence I have just come,” said Nadya, “None but the dead wander there, and they will not disturb you.”
Without a word, Gabriel proceeded to retrace the very steps Nadya had taken in order to retrieve her daughter’s body. The further he walked into the woods, the more he became aware of rustling noises; no gentle wind in the trees but the dead, almost certainly observing him as they had done Nadya, wondering, he did not doubt, why any living thing  should choose their company.
Why indeed, Gabriel wondered as he reached a pretty glade and sat on a dead tree trunk. He could, after all, have gone anywhere to be alone and attempt the impossible. Why here? Why did she point me here? He had a vague sense of purpose other than for which he had come, but whatever it might be eluded him and he put such thoughts aside, directing all his concentration to the task in hand, dispatching his Tol persona to aid those trapped by the Xaristra.
Nothing happened.
Try as he might he could not make contact with Tol, through which persona he had kept an oath made long, long, ago to watch over a dying Mamelon and find a way to save it from oblivion. He sighed. Distracted by that meddling she-wolf, Shireen, he had taken his eye off Ragund. “Oh, fool, fool, such a fool am I!” he continued to remonstrate with himself aloud. Had Ragund suspected, he wondered? Had he so underestimated the enemy that he had left himself vulnerable to Ragund’s growing understanding of Xaruki magic? “No, no,” he told the ragged trees, “I would have known. Besides, he would never have permitted me to come thus far…unless…” Could it be he has been toying with me? Fool, fool, you thought yourself inviolable. Instead, you are as ego-led as any Motherworlder!
“Do not be too hard on yourself,” a familiar voice made him to turn his head.
“Arissa…!” he was unable to quite contain his shock.
“Yes, it is I, Arissa. No kikiri or tool of that she-wolf Shireen, but not Arissa as I once was either for she is dead.”
“Then how…?”
“You can ask that, you who are truly Mage of Mages?”
“You know who I am?”
“I do, of course, and I know it is not your true self I address just as you know it is not Arissa with whom you speak. My spirit is yet young, and thus visible to any with the eyes to see and ears to listen. Time enough yet before I join my companions at the edge of time and become as a rustling of leaves.”
“But how…?”
“How is it we can communicate with each other even here on Ti-gray where the dead and the living exist side by side though neither twain shall meet?  I am not sure. I can only believe the connection between us is so strong and Mamelon’s need so great that I am given the privilege of aiding you. Either that or my loathing for Shireen fills me with a life-force beyond all knowledge even though I have had my revenge on her, thanks to you. It was you, was it not, giving me strength where I had none, pouring life-force into a kikiri that was no more than a skeletal abomination?”
“I did what I could.”
“Oh, and you could have done more, much more, saved me even. But what is done is done. As it is, you saved me from a fate far worse than mere death, and I am come to repay the debt. Tol is thwarted by that old fox, Ragund, but even Xaruki magic is no match for the dead. I will be the vehicle by which you may access your Tol persona. Draw upon my spirit, and take from the forces that sustain it what you will while you still can.  You do not need me to tell you that time is not on your side.”
“I must work alone. What little I know of Xaruki magic suggests it does not respond well to more than one life force at a time.”
Arissa gave a little laugh. “Alone you are, old man, for the dead do not count as a life force in any lore. Now, do what must be done and do it now. Even as we speak, I fear we may be too late.
Gabriel gravely inclined his head. Her words rang frighteningly true, and who better than the dead to know how time takes no one’s side but its own?
He did not hesitate again.
Slowly but surely, Gabriel proceeded to assimilate Arissa’a spirit into his own life force. He could feel all opposition, whatever its nature, Xaruki or otherwise, being swept aside, enabling him, finally, to make contact with his elusive Tol persona, lend his voice to it and freely feed its instructions into the minds of Calum, Michal, Irina and Bethan, his own beloved daughter simultaneously. It will be enough, surely? Between them, they can summon magic beyond even their own understanding and knowledge. Even so, to fail would mean…
Failure, though, was something he dare not consider.
Denied all means of escape, the climbers within the mountain’s darkening heart did battle, each in their own way, with various demons of which easily the more powerful was terror.
In vain, Ricci searched his mind, but of Astor there was no sign.
By now, all were perched precariously on the same shelf of rock. “I’m going to take a look,” Fred suddenly announced, “Don’t attempt to follow me. I am smaller and faster than any of you. The mountain is my home. I know it as well as I know the eyes in my head, and it knows me. I will come to no harm and will be back before you know it.” Before anyone could argue or object, the little Foss set off again, scampering here, feeling his way there, until he was invisible to naked eyes peering anxiously from below, heart in mouths opening and shutting like doors on their hinges in a strong breeze. Only, there was no breeze and the air supply was draining fast.
Once at the top of the shaft, Fred gave a half-hearted push, with no expectation of shifting whatever it was sealing the exit. Desperation alone lent him the illusion of greater strength than he had as he kept pushing and heaving only to keep falling back exhausted and in tears. One more, no more, and then I might as well die in company than alone. Oh, fool of a Foss to think you could actually be of any help. More out of despair than hope, he gave the obstruction a weak, token tap and braced himself to rejoin the others with the bad news they were all expecting.
All at once, with no warning, as if my some magic, a tiny crack appeared through which trickled a trickle of reddish-brown mist that became a steady stream as the crack widened until large enough for a little Foss to clamber through.
Free! Taking deep breaths of murky mountain air, Fred would have danced a little jig had he not lost his footing, taken a tumble, and almost plunged headlong into space. He lay quite still while his eyes took in what they could of  his surroundings, lying precariously as he was on a narrow ledge, nothing above, below or in front of him but mist. Shakily, he rose and pressed against the mountain wall. He could hear voices. The others would, of course, have seen the light and taken fresh hope. Hope, what hope? I can barely see paw in front of face so what chance any of us, even Foss, of descending a mountain and living to tell the tale?
“Oh, dear me, not a pretty sight, I’ll say,” Ricci’s head appeared. There was, however no room for two on the ledge. Master, master, where are you? But from Astor there was no word.
Meanwhile, the clinging mist was already turning unbearably cold.