Macraigh thought as rapidly as he ever had in his life, and talked while doing it.
“I’m a scholar as much as a wizard,” he babbled, “and this whole thing started with my search for the source of arcane magic. Naturally that directed me to look into the histories of the Elder Gods, such few as still exist.” Well, he had to give them something. That meant convincing them, first, that he had something to give, and then… Omnu’s breath, he’d been so certain he could do what he needed and be gone before the two had stopped squabbling and even looked for him; their legendary brawl at Mathenon had taken the better part of a day. “I haven’t found it, obviously, or even any promising leads, but quite by chance I have uncovered some very good prospects for countering infernal magic.” Planning on the fly while talking to cover his chain of thought and stall for time was an acquired skill, but this wasn’t his first try, and as usual he found a good hook in his own babbling: Arachne, at least, had fought in the last Hellwar and might be sympathetic to this angle. “That actually started by accident when I had to fend off a few Black Wraiths, and had the opportunity to study their casting a lot more personally than I wanted. I had already gathered a good deal of historical notes on the lost magics of the Elders, and—”
Zanzayed’s snort was a blast of wind that nearly knocked him down, and smelled bafflingly of brimstone and peppermint. “Do we look like your biographers, little man? Get to the point.”
“The chronicle of your adventures is interesting only to you,” Arachne added flatly, planting her fists on her hips. “You said you can figure out how to use shadow magic. And presumably it has something to do with this?” She shifted, giving a curious look to the recently-unearthed structure looming out of the ground nearby.
Right. Well, he’d known too many mages to find it a surprise that the greatest of their kind currently living were purely self-interested creatures. “Ah, yes, of course. Well, to cut a long story short—”
“Already too late,” the dragon grumbled.
“…I have tracked down detailed descriptions of the methods used by some of the Elder Gods to keep Scyllith contained. It seems she wasn’t any more well liked in their day than now. Specifically, those of their magics, which seem to still exist in trace amounts, which could be used to shape, isolate, and safely handle what we now call the infernal. I have confirmation that Elilial’s servants use some of these techniques, to judge by the interest the Wraiths have taken in my research.”
Zanzayed heaved a mighty sigh. By Nemitoth’s quills, how many mint plants would that dragon have to chew to make it smell like that? “So when you said you could unlock the secrets of shadow magic, you meant you’ve probably found one very specific use for it.”
“Much more than probably,” Macraigh said quickly, clutching his bag of holding in front of himself, “and multiple uses!”
“All having to do with infernomancy, though.”
“Well, yes, but—”
“Do I look like a red dragon?” he asked disdainfully. “You’ve got nothing. And that brings us back to the matter of—”
“Shut your jaws for once in your existence, Zanzayed,” Arachne ordered. “You, first of all. Reach into that bag and I’ll see to it your hand doesn’t come back out.”
“Um, I was going to say,” Macraigh offered timidly, “I have books in here. Very rare ones, not to mention all my own research. If you’re going to squash me or something, please preserve my books.”
“Fair,” she said with the ghost of a smile. “More importantly, you are talking about seizing the one advantage that makes the Wraiths what they are.”
“Poppycock,” Zanzayed snorted. “The Wraiths have Elilial’s own protection, everyone knows that. Demons are suffused with the infernal, dragons are too inherently magical to succumb to the corruption, and Elilial’s servants have her blessing. No one else can touch it safely.”
“Anything everyone knows is automatically wrong,” she snapped, “even if it happens to be correct, which that isn’t. When was the last time you had a conversation with a red dragon?”
“When did you?” he countered. “They are some of the least pleasant company imaginable.”
“Well, I can assure you there is more to Wraith technique than the Dark Lady’s personal touch. They have secrets which they guard jealously. If there is a shred of truth to what our young friend here has claimed—” She barely paused for Zanzayed’s incredulous snort. “—he’s talking about using shadow magic to get around them.”
“Actually, shadow magic is what they use,” Macraigh said. “At least in part.”
“And you know this how?” the dragon demanded, positively dripping skepticism.
Macraigh drew in a breath. The Inquisitor would probably be here in minutes; now that these two were no longer tearing up the countryside, they were a veritable lighthouse that would draw the attention of anyone looking for anything out of place. And she was stubborn enough, brave enough, and more than reckless enough to make a beeline for a dragon and an archmage instead of avoiding them like any sensible person would. He needed to get himself barricaded inside the ancient shrine before she arrived; he was too close to his goal to risk having her intercept him now. It was time to take some risks.
“I have a Wraith Codex,” he said.
Both of them blinked, which given the disparity in their sizes would have been comical under other circumstances. Dragon and elf looked at each other, then back at him.
“Bull,” Zanzayed enunciated crisply, “shit.”
“If I might be permitted to reach into my bag?” he asked, as submissively as he could manage. Arachne twisted her lips slightly, but then nodded. And why not—they both knew if he tried to pull out anything with which to fight them it would end swiftly and not in his favor. Her previous threats were mostly formalities.
He slipped one hand into the bag, instantly closing it around the item he wanted, and pulled out the book. Its rough leather cover was black, and marked with a spiky sigil which carried a sullen orange glow. Both of them stared at it in disbelief.
“I’m willing to, ah, donate this,” Macraigh said, despite the pang he felt at the prospect. He had paid dearly for that book. “I don’t actually need any secrets of infernomancy and I’ve taken plenty of notes on everything relevant to my research. I’m afraid you’d have to share, though. There’s only the one copy.”
“How did you get your hands on that?” the elf asked quietly. She was just staring at it, and Macraigh shifted infinitesimally toward her; the dragon was gazing down at him with a truly frightening expression of greed.
“It seems people acquire them with some regularity,” Macraigh explained, “but the Wraiths are very assiduous about eliminating them and everyone involved. They, ah, are under the impression they did so in this case, as well. But anyway, it does detail some of the methodologies by which shadow magic can be used to safely manipulate infernal magic. The problem is, all of these require some sort of initiation, like the divine or fae. A person can’t grasp the shadow schools without guidance from someone who already knows how, so there’s only so much a book can do to show the way.”
“And down in that thing,” she said, glancing again at the metal door, “is someone who can do this for you?”
“I have ascertained—that is, yes.” Macraigh slipped the book back into the Bag of Holding, on which their eyes remained fixed for a moment after it was gone. In theory, nobody but he should have been able to extract anything he had placed in the bag, but if anyone could crack that enchantment, it would be these two. If he had gambled wisely, they would prefer to take the risk he had more to offer them than just lift the bag from his corpse. “So, if you’d like to accompany me into—”
“Ah, ah, ah,” Zanzayed chided, lowering his head again and grinning that deeply horrifying grin. “Immortality is an active practice, you know, not a passive trait. Just because your species doesn’t suffer senescence does not mean you get to live forever. You accomplish that by not screwing around with things which are very likely to kill you.”
“And relics of the Elder Gods are very likely to kill you,” Arachne continued, folding her arms. She really wasn’t what Macraigh had expected from her reputation; she reminded him oddly of several teachers he’d had. “Even us. A conservative ninety percent of what the Elders did was insane and/or pointlessly sadistic, and that includes their leftovers. I am not going in there.”
“Nor I,” Zanzayed agreed, his grin stretching even wider.
“I…see,” Macraigh said, again thinking as fast as he could manage. The plan he had just hurriedly cobbled together hinged on coaxing these two to serve as a shield, ideally with them under his eye; could he afford to just leave them up here to detain the Inquisitor if—no, when—she caught up? He wasn’t sure about the outcome of letting that unfold outside his control. What if one or both of them sided with her? That didn’t seem likely, but…
“Also,” the dragon continued, “none of this explains why you felt the need to play your little prank on us.”
Well, if there was ever a time for some strategic honesty, this was it. “Well, you see, there was a convocation called at Mount Tira…”
“What, that plateau over the falls?” Zanzayed interrupted. “Nobody uses that for anything, the humans in the Tira Vales think it’s cursed.”
“If you ever paid attention to anything but girls and food,” Arachne said disdainfully, “you would be aware that there are bridges to it and temples built in the center now. The Pantheon cults have been using it for decades as a neutral site to meet and discuss…whatever it is religious people need to talk about.”
“Right,” Macraigh said, nodding, “and the last time, one of those subjects was forbidden magic. The Avenists named an Inquisitor to hunt the Black Wraiths, and she’s sort of got it into her head that I’m one of them or something, so…”
“Oh.” Zanzayed reared suddenly upright, causing Macraigh to shy reflexively away from him, and then emitted a boom of laughter. “So you prodded the two biggest menaces you could find into having a brawl right on top of your own target so your enemy wouldn’t dare chase you here! Arachne, the balls on this guy!”
“I do sort of grudgingly respect that,” she agreed with a wry little smile. “Nearly as much as I’m annoyed by it.”
“And it’s not so much that she wouldn’t dare follow me,” Macraigh added, “because I guarantee she would and did. I just figured you two could make it more or less impossible. So, if you’re not interested in helping me down in the Elder shrine, I’ll need to ask you to prevent her from entering after me.”
The dragon lowered his head again, this time to look down his long nose at Macraigh. “Careful, boy. Those balls can get too big for you to drag around.”
“I will share anything I learn with whoever stays up here to repel her,” he said quickly, “and you can have my Wraith Codex.”
“Hn,” Arachne grunted. “You do what you like, Zanza, but I consider that offer worth the affront to my pride, small as it was. It’s easy loot, too. Just teleport this Inquisitor into the sea…”
“Oh, please don’t do that,” Macraigh said earnestly. “I have gone well out of my way not to harm her or any of her allies the whole time she’s been after me.”
“Then you’re a sentimental nitwit,” she stated.
“Arachne, your astounding lack of people skills is one of the great mysteries of the world,” Zanzayed chuckled. “Just because you can easily eliminate someone who annoys you does not mean you ought.”
“That might be the stupidest thing anyone has ever said to me.”
“Actions have consequences, you little blonde clot! The poor boy has to clear his name at the end of this, after all. Don’t you see his gambit? He goes back to this convocation at Tira with all the secrets of the Black Wraiths and his proven track record of not harming any of the Pantheon’s servants, and they’ll pretty much have to embrace him as a hero.”
“Ah, I see,” she mused, turning an analytical stare on Macraigh. “But why do we need to care about that?”
“She’s just bluffing now,” Zanzayed informed him. “Arachne’s entire hobby is getting personal interviews with gods; even she doesn’t mishandle Pantheon clerics without a very good reason.”
“You said this Inquisitor is an Avenist?” the elf inquired. “Because I’ve already talked with Avei and quite frankly I relish the chance to tweak her nose.”
“Ignore her,” the dragon instructed. “So you knew the invocation to raise this entrance, that much is clear. How do you plan to get in there?”
“Ah.” Clearing his throat, Macraigh stepped over to the metal door. “That, as it happens, is the easy part.” So saying, he reached out and touched a finger to the center of the symbol emblazoned on its surface.
It really would be ironic, he reflected under their combined stare, if this was the point at which his research failed him. Leading him all this way to be blocked by something as pedestrian as a locked door. The thing looked like it was made of mithril; even if he could persuade these two to help, it was unlikely all of them combined could force their way in.
Then, after an excruciating pause, the metal panel shifted. A hiss of air emerged as it lowered fractionally, opening a crack at its top. There came a soft grinding sound, and then quite suddenly the entire thing slammed downward, opening the metal-lined shaft. A flight of stairs descended into shadow just beyond the entrance; as they all stared, magical lights flickered into being, illuminating the mithril corridor plunging down below the hillside.
“Very well, little mage,” said Zanzayed the Blue, shifting around and seating himself in a long arc that nearly encircled the entrance in a wall of cobalt-scaled flesh, “you have yourself a deal.”
“Fine, agreed,” Arachne huffed. “But keep in mind I fully expect whatever is in there to kill you in the most agonizing way possible. I’m not sticking around here one minute longer than my patience holds out; there is really no point. So be about your business quickly.”
“I thank you both from the bottom of my heart,” Macraigh said, bowing to each of them in turn. “And…you have my sincere apologies for tricking you. I didn’t think you’d be so reasonable about all this, or I’d just have approached you directly for—”
“Yes, yes,” Zanzayed interrupted lazily, shifting his head to gaze back in the direction of the road. “Presuming the contingent of armed people heading this way is your Inquisitor and friends, you’d better get a move on.”
And so he did.
He had journeyed into a number of ancient ruins in the course of his work. This one was by far the oldest, and easily the least ancient-looking. The whole thing wasn’t mithril, but it was mostly metal. Some segments of the walls gleamed like highly polished silver, while the floor was a matte black which he could only tell was metallic by touching it. Macraigh was no more of a metallurgist than being a general-focus mage required, and so couldn’t even recognize any of these alloys save the mithril of which the entrance stairwell was made. He had a feeling no one currently alive would have recognized all these materials, though.
The architecture also incorporated glass tubes like pillars around the walls, half-filled with some dark purple material which he could only tell was liquid (or had been at some point) because one of them had cracked and spilled a quantity of the sludge down its side; Macraigh stayed far away from that goop. That was the only sign of visible damage to the place. None of the metal had rusted, the air was on the stale side but breathable, and while there was dust over everything it did not seem like enough to have accumulated after all the thousands of years he knew this place had been buried.
Clearly some manner of enchantment had been at work to preserve the shrine. Just as clearly, it had failed with age.
A discovery like this deserved to be examined carefully and in the greatest detail, but Macraigh had to be mindful of his purpose and the uncertain time limit under which he labored. He was safe for interruption only as long as the patience of his two newfound benefactors held out—one of whom was notoriously irascible and the other an infamous pleasure-seeker, and both of whom had reason to be annoyed with him. Much as the need pained him, he simply could not afford to dawdle.
Nor, unfortunately, could he make much sense of the shrine. The Elder Gods weren’t much for iconography, and so he presumed the objects which lined the walls at waist height served a purpose, but he could not discern it. They were a series of flat black panels extending outward in metal frames, which did not respond to being touched. Probably magical in nature, and clearly out of power.
Well, something in here had to still be actively charmed. The lights had appeared when he entered, after all.
Macraigh examined the obelisk in the center of the floor; it was of the black metal, topped with a pyramid that looked to be a solid piece of glass, and was totally inert. With mounting worry that all of this would end up being for naught, he turned to the final interesting feature in the place, a larger fixture positioned against the wall of the circular chamber directly opposite the entrance. It was a bulky protrusion rather like a tombstone in shape, taller than he, made of mithril, and with another of those dark panels set into it at chest height.
This one also did not respond to being touched. He started to channel a tiny spark of arcane magic into it, then thought better of it. That might end up being his only recourse, but it was also an excellent way to trigger traps, curses, or cause every remaining enchantment in the place to spectacularly collapse.
So far, he had managed to see all of these effects only from a safe distance, and that only by dumb luck.
“Well, now what?” he asked aloud in frustration.
At his voice, the panel in the large protrusion turned white and began to glow. Macraigh bent forward to stare, and after a moment, several lines of text appeared upon it. Unfortunately, they were in the dead language of the Elder Gods, of which he had encountered only bits and pieces. None of what he now saw meant anything to him.
As he stared, the panel flickered in intensity, and the image wavered as if seen through rippling water, then stabilized. A sharp crackle sounded, causing him to hop backward, followed by a buzz. And then, finally, a voice. Unfortunately, it only spoke a few seconds of gibberish.
“Hello?” Macraigh said uncertainly. “My name is Laran Macraigh, of the Collegium of Salyrene. Whom have I the pleasure of addressing?”
An odd little chiming sounded, and some more inscrutable text appeared upon the magic panel.
“Dialect id-identified: Gaelic, sixteenth century. Transcension interlink n-n-n-not found,” it said. The voice was feminine, flat, businesslike, and resonated strangely as if it came from a great distance. Or as if more than one woman were speaking simultaneously. It was hard to tell; he had never heard a similar effect. Also, she appeared to have a stutter. “Av-avatar Zero Nine cannot be reached. Facil-cil-cility power at two percent. Please res-restore the traaaaaaaaa—” She broke off with an ungodly screech, then resumed in a steadier tone. “Please restore the transcension interlink to charge the facility’s power banks and enable the Avatar user interface.”
“Who are you?” he asked more directly, frowning in confusion. The words were familiar, mostly, but he still could not make sense of what she was saying.
“The facility’s sub-OS is active, user Laran Macraigh. Please restore the transcension interlink.”
“I’m…sorry, uh, Sub Ohess, but I don’t know what that means, much less how to do it.”
More chiming, then a pause. “If the transcension inter-in-interlink caNNNNNN.” Again, she broke off with a shriek that clearly did not come from any human throat, then resumed. “If the transcension interlink cannot be restored, most facility functions will be unavailable. Please state your query, user Laran Macraigh.”
He drew a breath, and straightened his shoulders. “I seek initiation into the ways of shadow magic.”
This time, he thought the chime sounded annoyed. “Avatar Zero Nine cannot be reached. The sub-OS is not designed for intuitive sapient interaction. Please state your directives clearly and concisely.”
Macraigh blinked twice. He had had enough bizarre experiences over the course of his mission that talking with some kind of ancient servitor spirit wasn’t hugely out of his depth, but being told by such an entity that it was too stupid for normal conversation was an entirely new kind of experience.
“Um…how to put this? I am researching the schools…that is, the kinds of magic that were personally created by the Elder Gods Druroth, Araneid, Rauzon, and Caraistha. Specifically, the applications of these magics that were used to counter and contain the personal magic of Scyllith. Ancient writings have led me to this spot as the likeliest source of this knowledge. Can you help me?”
“Th-this facility is designed for spec-spec-specialized tranNNNNNNN. Specialized transcension acclimation and training. This documentation is available to all users on request. Please insert a data crystal.”
Though the protruding structure in which the spirit apparently resided seemed to be all one seamless piece, an indentation suddenly appeared alongside the glowing panel.
“A data crystal?” Macraigh asked helplessly. “I don’t have anything like that. Are there any books available?”
“Printing,” she said tersely.
“Printing?” he repeated in fascination. “You mean you can actually print one, right now?”
For answer, another slot appeared, this one below the screen at of the same size. Within was a stack of papers some eight inches tall.
Hands trembling with reverence, Macraigh reached inside, finding that the stack was actually four books, bound in some thin material cut the same dimensions exactly as the pages—which were a crisp white paper unlike any he had seen before. They were printed, he found, flipping through the first, in easily legible Tanglic.
“Thank you very much, Sub Ohess,” Macraigh said fervently while loading the books into his Bag of Holding for later study. She chimed wordlessly in acknowledgment. “And…what about initiation? Ah, I think that is what you meant by acclimation, perhaps? You see, I already know some of the lore of shadow magic, but the ability to access it must be conferred directly, and you simply can’t get that from text alone…”
“Correct. Warning: these transcension fields are operating at minimal power. Ascended members of the Infinite Order responsible for them cannot be reached. Ac-acclimation is not advised at this time.”
He wasn’t about to tell this helpful spirit that her gods were dead. “I understand the risks, Sub Ohess. But if you are able to help me, I must embrace them.”
“There is insufficient facility power to guarantee com-completion of the acclimation process, user Laran Macraigh. The spec-specif-ified transcen-scen-sceiounnnNNN— The specified transcension fields are not operable at sufficient power to guarantee the completion of the acclimation process. An attempt will exhaust this facility’s power reserves entirely; a second will not be possible. Have you completed the pre-acclimation course of preparation?”
Macraigh blinked. “The what?”
“Unprepared sapients are at risk of serious complications. Common side effects of improperly administered acclimation are temporary psychosis and permanent, progressive dem-dem-dementia.”
He inhaled slowly. The Inquisitor was closing in, Arachne and Zanzayed were going to run out of patience soon… And if that happened, them leaving him to his own devices was the best case scenario. They might very well decided to add to his problems; he had certainly antagonized them enough. And to cap it all off, it turned out the shrine had only enough magic left to perform a single initiation.
This was his life’s work, everything had been leading up to this moment. Risks be damned, walking away now was just not an option.
“Are you prohibited from helping me, then?” he asked quietly.
“You have been not-notified of the potential hazards. Proceed at your own risk, user.”
“What…will happen to you, if we try?”
“This sub-OS will be inactive until power is restored.”
Macraigh closed his eyes. What was this spirit? Could she be considered a living being? If he understood, he was effectively asking her to sacrifice her life for this. She seemed oddly unperturbed at the prospect… Perhaps because she thought she could be restored when more power was delivered from the Elder Gods, and did not realize that could never happen.
It all came down to that question. One chance, one possibility only, demanding the destruction of this shrine, the death of its guardian, and the possible loss of his own sanity. And for all that, there was no guarantee it would even work. How could he possibly accept such a bargain?
And…how could he not?
“Forgive me,” Macraigh whispered, then opened his eyes. “I swear I will remember your sacrifice, Sub Ohess. Please forgive me, but I must do this. I ask that you proceed.”