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“Pl-please initiate bodily contact wi-with the conduit.”
Macraigh shifted, glancing around the circular chamber. “Which is—ah.”
Behind him, the black obelisk had come to life. The pyramid shape which formed its peak, previously of pure transparent glass, had turned an opaque white and begun to glow gently. Though the sides of the obelisk themselves still appeared to be the same matte metal, vertical lines of glowing text had appeared on its faces, and their position made it seem for all the world as if they were set an inch or so within the structure and viewed through a transparent surface—which did not, otherwise, appear to be transparent. Ah, well, this was far from the first disorienting thing to which his exploration into the deeper secrets of magic had exposed him.
Slowly, Macraigh lifted a single hand and placed it against one side of the obelisk, where it did not obscure the writing. He could not discern what language the luminous violet characters were, if indeed they were language as he knew it. Under the circumstances, they were just as likely to be symbols of power.
“In-initiating biometric syn-syn-ssssnnnnnnNNNN— Initiating biometric synchronization,” the spirit informed him. “The acclimation procedure can begin momentarily, user Laran Macraigh. You will be physically incapacitated for the duration, and may not remain conscious; if consciousness persists, you will likely find the process disorienting. Individual experiences vary. Be aware that there is a risk of injury due to falling, as the fac-facility’s physical safeguards are offline due to po-po-power const-constraints.”
“I understand,” he said solemnly, and drew in a deep breath to still his nerves. “I…am sorry to ask this of you, Sub Ohess. I swear that I will honor this sacrifice.”
She chimed noncommittally. “Biometric synchronization is complete. The acclimation process can begin when you are ready.”
This moment was the culmination of everything he had been working for his entire adult life. It deserved reverence, ceremony even. She deserved more than a few hollow words; though the spirit seemed unbothered by what he asked of her and this was probably no more than her sworn duty as guardian of the shrine, he could not view the snuffing out of a thinking being as a small thing. But he had no time. And besides, given the not-insignificant possibility that he was about to be driven irrevocably insane, his unease could keep him dithering here basically forever. Sometimes, the scab simply had to be ripped off.
“Do it,” he ordered, “please.”
Macraigh was watching the obelisk he had been directed to touch for some further alteration, but it turned out that not all the magic of the Elder Gods was visibly flashy. While he was still waiting for the lights to change, an entire suite of new senses exploded into his consciousness and, luckily for him, he blacked out.
The shouting wasn’t really a surprise. If anyone alive were to walk up to a notorious sorceress and an actual dragon and begin shouting demands at them, it would be the Inquisitor. It was actually sort of impressive that they were letting her shout. And perhaps a little unfortunate. She so rarely encountered people who had no need to tolerate her antics; experiencing some repercussions for once would’ve done her a world of good, in Macraigh’s opinion.
He felt a strange detachment as he ascended the stairs out of the now-dark ancient shrine. Behind him he left only silence and dust; even the lights had vanished as the guardian spirit’s last act had, as she warned, consumed every remaining spark of magic in the place. Macraigh had awakened on the floor with a peculiar lack of worry, or emotional reaction of any kind. It felt, somehow, as if his head were floating a few feet above his body. The sensation was eerily aloof, yet serene.
“The will of the gods will not be thwarted by arrogant monsters!” the Inquisitor’s familiar voice was shrilling as he slowly ascended the stairs toward the sunlight above. “I have pursued this warlock from Calderaas to Varandia to Athan’Khar and now here, and you will not be the thing that—”
“You can’t actually believe that guy’s a warlock,” Arachne’s voice interrupted. “I could see that misunderstanding if you’d bumped into him once in a dungeon, but if you’ve chased him all around the continent, you have to know he’s a wizard. Or do you understand the difference? Have you seriously never met a warlock?”
“Maybe she hasn’t,” Zanzayed added, and his voice was different, lighter. Macraigh stopped on the stairs, his head just below the level of the top step, and shifted his gaze in the direction of the dragon. “Inquisitor, what even is that? How do you get that title? I’ve never heard of an Inquisition. Are you sure this is authorized by the Pantheon?”
Macraigh was staring up at him. He could not see through the intervening layers of metal and earth, but he perceived that the dragon had reduced himself to his humanoid form—a half-elven one, in his case. In fact, he lacked the vocabulary to describe the way he was receiving this information, but it was as clear as anything his eyes or ears told him. More so, given that he was standing in a metal-lined stairwell at the moment.
“My mandate comes from Avei,” the Inquisitor snapped. “Move aside, or be moved.”
“I like her,” Zanzayed stated, turning to Arachne. Macraigh was still standing out of sight below them, taking in the experience of being able to tell such little details of positioning without having eyes on them. “I really like her! This is the most entertaining mortal I’ve met since…well, you.”
“Yes, she’s your type, all right,” the sorceress sneered. “Stupid, and breathing.”
Divine magic ignited in a corona around the Inquisitor, seizing Macraigh’s attention. He could physically see the glow from the doorway at the top of the stairs, but sensed it more directly in a way to which he was not accustomed.
Something about it was…wrong. If only he had more basis for comparison. He had never before observed a divine aura in this fashion, and could not yet tell exactly what was off, but there was a peculiarity in the way she projected the magic.
“You doubt me now?” the Inquisitor demanded. “The Convocation at Tira endorsed my mission in the sight of every god of the Pantheon. I am empowered by Avei to seek justice against— You!”
Macraigh had resumed climbing and emerged from the stairwell while she blustered. Now he studied her quizzically while she pointed an accusing finger at him. Though he had avoided close contact with the Inquisitor as much as possible, he of course knew her well by sight. Her pale skin and coppery hair weren’t common even among the Stallmen of the eastern mountains, and less common still among the Tira people from which he and she both came. Macraigh had always suspected, rather uncharitably, that she abused her divine magic to heal the sunburns to which redheads were unfortunately prone, and took some satisfaction in seeing now that he had been right. Well, not seeing, but he could discern the residue…
Now that he peered closer, he found the cause of that odd discrepancy. There was something between her and the divine, a peculiar dark membrane which allowed the power of the gods to flow through her as normal, but kept her insulated from it in a way. In fact, that thin web of shivering shadows resonated so specifically with the new powers of which he had just become conscious that Macraigh suddenly understood exactly why her access to the divine was so different.
Well, that explained a lot.
“I guess we can begin the chorus of ‘I told you so’ now,” Arachne said with an exasperated sigh. “Who would like to go first? Inquisitor, I think you have seniority.”
“Pardon?” Macraigh asked, then stopped, blinking his eyes in surprise. His voice, for some reason, sounded a lot like the shrine spirit’s; resonant, hollow, as though he were speaking from the other end of a very long tunnel.
“Look at yourself, man,” Zanzayed ordered.
“At myself? What’s…oh.” Macraigh, as instructed, looked down at his body, and then at both of his arms. Once he focused upon it directly, everything made sense in accordance with the new awareness he’d gained, but as a consequence of that awareness none of this had seemed out of order until he beheld it with his more mundane senses. Now, he found himself limned by an oscillating web of purple, a peculiar visual effect which could have been called a glow, if shadows glowed. In fact, it looked to the eye very much like the energy between the Inquisitor and her divine power did to his augmented senses.
Not a coincidence, that.
“What have you done to yourself, Laran?” she demanded, staring at him with a very convincing expression of horror. For just a moment, looking back at her, Macraigh experienced a further expansion of his awareness, becoming conscious of the emotions of those around him, betraying her tight self-control and the surprising depth of layers to the facade she was projecting.
That also called his attention to those behind the Inquisitor, a squad of troops from the League of Avei and two Silver Huntresses, including the one he had encountered earlier.
More than that, the extended awareness was accompanied by a visible fading of his own body, as he became slightly transparent behind his new corona of shadows. Macraigh concentrated—on what, he could not have articulated exactly, but he concentrated on it—and the sudden emotional senses vanished as his body snapped back into opaque focus.
“All right,” he acknowledged, “this wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.”
“I’ll bet,” Zanzayed stated.
“And this is why I tell people not to mess around with Elder God rubbish,” Arachne added with a sigh. “Exactly how much of a mess did you leave down there, boy?”
“Oh. I’m afraid the shrine is completely inert, now,” he mused, still gazing around abstractly and absorbing data in intriguing new ways. “The acclimation process used up the last of its power. The shrine guardian warned me there might not be enough energy left to do it properly, but she made it sound like it would drive me insane, at worst. This is a surprise.”
“Oh, just insane?” Zanzayed said, rolling his eyes. It was the most fascinating thing; the dragon’s eyes were smoothly featureless, luminous spheres of cobalt, and the gesture did not alter his expression, but Macraigh could tell he had rolled them. “No wonder you sprung for it, then. Who wouldn’t?”
Macraigh turned his attention fully on Zanzayed, and as if the act of focusing had slipped a lens over his eyes he could suddenly see more. The dragon, even in this body, was a vast being of pure magic, a titanic vortex of arcane power shot through with veins of gold, green, and even trace amounts of orange—all the forces on the known Circle of Interaction. Even, he saw with great interest, the tiniest darker currents of shadow magic. Nothing the dragon was using deliberately, he decided upon peering closer. But it accrued in interesting ways when the four main schools were used in conjunction…
He shifted his attention to Arachne and was almost knocked over. She was something else entirely. Macraigh felt his awareness expanding against his own will, as if it desperately needed to re-position itself in order to make sense of what he now saw. She was a wound in the world, or more accurately, a patch over it—a piece of a quilt which did not match the rest of the stitching. He saw spider webs straining to hold together a bleeding rent in reality. He saw an hourglass stretching away into infinity, its uncountable chambers whirling with a blaze of magic whose nature defied even his new senses to define.
And for an instant, Macraigh understood, consciously and in complete detail, what every one of those things meant. What she was, exactly. He also felt his own identity becoming so frayed at the edges that he seemed on the very cusp of dissolving entirely into the fabric of the universe itself, and through a sheer effort of will closed down his own consciousness. The broadened awareness and understanding retreated as his mind limited itself back to a form which didn’t have the necessary capacity, and he was left with only the awareness that Arachne was one of the more interesting beings in the cosmos, even if he no longer knew exactly why.
He also felt that he had been stretched by that momentary glimpse. Seized from all directions and pulled so hard that part of him was still…thin. Thin, and fading.
Macraigh glanced down at his own hands again. Yes, fading.
“Look at yourself,” the Inquisitor breathed. “Did you crave power so much you were willing to endure this?”
He looked up at her again, and smiled. “One of my teachers liked to say that it was better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, Inquisitor.”
She shook her head, and drew her sword. “In the name of Avei—”
Macraigh reached out with his will. It didn’t feel like using arcane magic; it was pure instinct. The shadows wreathing him shimmered, touched the darkness lurking inside her own aura, and her divine light winked out. Her expression was very satisfying.
“Nnnnope,” Zanzayed said flatly. “That does it, I’m out.”
“Coward,” Arachne said without rancor.
“You do what you like,” he retorted. “In my opinion, this has officially crossed the line into ‘just as hazardous as messing around with Elder God shrines’ territory. I came here to deal with this guy for his temerity in daring to manipulate us, and now that’s done. He won’t last an hour. In the meantime, he is using unknown magics to prod at the Pantheon’s power directly, and I’m not interested in being within a mile of that. Goodbye.”
The Inquisitor’s divine aura flared alight again; Macraigh had disrupted it, not blocked it. Her expression at finding it still viable was almost comically relieved, though she immediately turned to Zanzayed even as the dragon strode away through the tallgrass. “Wait! What do you mean, he won’t last an hour?”
“What’s the first rule of magic?” Zanzayed replied, pausing and looking over his shoulder at her. “The most basic principle, even more fundamental than the four schools of the Circle?”
“Subjective physics,” Arachne said softly, studying Macraigh. “Magic is taking a piece of reality and making the rules answerable to a singular consciousness, not the hard constants of the universe. Zanza’s right, I’ve seen the likes of this before. A being that absorbs too much magic stops being…a being.”
“Anything too subjective may as well not exist,” Zanzayed agreed, turning again and continuing on. “At some point, there have to be rules. The alternative is pure chaos.”
“What, he’s turning into some kind of…ascended entity?” the Inquisitor exclaimed, pointing her sword at Macraigh in alarm. Both the Silver Huntresses flanking her nocked arrows and did likewise.
“No.” Zanzayed had gained enough distance to emerge into his larger form without crushing any of them, and did so. His angular head swiveled around on his long neck to stare down at the Inquisitor. “He is dissipating. Something which ascends is moving purposefully in a single direction; this is more like dropping ink into a pond. Congratulations, Inquisitor, your work here is done. Coming, Arachne?”
“Wait,” Macraigh said, turning to the elf and holding up one hand. “Please, just a moment.”
Zanzayed snorted and hurled himself aloft with a pump of his wings that nearly knocked them all down. All of them except Macraigh; the mighty gust of air the dragon kicked up swirled right through him without making contact.
“This is just intriguing enough I’m willing to hear you out, briefly,” Arachne said skeptically, smoothing her hair back into place.
They were right, Macraigh realized. It was growing harder and harder to keep his consciousness constrained to a single point, and with the constant expansion of his senses came the awareness that he wasn’t going to endure much longer. Highly magical beings like fairies, dragons, and elves were made that way; the accidental process he’d undergone in the shrine had not adjusted his consciousness enough to encompass the magic coursing through it.
Macraigh himself didn’t feel any particular way about this; that disembodied serenity still lifted him above these concerns. Already, he was too far beyond a singular perspective to feel any emotional upset at facing the end of his own discrete existence.
Thinking faster and more deeply than he’d been able to before, he had already found a way to hold on, but it wouldn’t be as a conscious entity, and wouldn’t last forever. But it would, if the sorceress was willing to cooperate, at least accomplish his mission. Seeking a way to secure her aid, he found that in studying her closely, he could peer through space, through time, across the faint shadows of connections, to see what divine entities she had touched, and would, and in what order. The present moment was one spot on a wheel that constantly turned.
“You haven’t obtained an interview with Salyrene yet,” he said.
Her eyes narrowed to green slits. “There’s not much point in asking how you know that, is there?”
“Don’t speak to him,” the Inquisitor instructed tersely. “All of you, fall back. Sisters, remain close enough to see him, but whatever is about to happen—”
“Would you hush for once?” Macraigh snapped in the first open irritation he’d shown her in their entire relationship. “I’ll deal with you in a moment.”
“How dare you—”
“I can offer you something to tempt her,” he said to Arachne. “It is not a guarantee, but it will be important enough to draw her favor. If it doesn’t prompt her to grant your request, it will at least be a large step in that direction.”
Her expression did not alter, but he was aware of millions of minute electrical signals in her brain that revealed her interest. He was also aware that this wasn’t going to get her what she wanted; Salyrene would be the last of the gods to whom she spoke, and that would not be for well over a thousand years yet. And even then, none of the Pantheon had the answer she sought. Obviously, he did not share these insights with her. It was for good reason that mortals could not perceive such things, he was beginning to realize.
“I’m still listening,” Arachne said in a neutral tone.
Macraigh held up his Bag of Holding—not with his hands, it floated outward on a tendril of his shadowy aura—and it opened.
“My books,” he said, and they began to rise from its mouth, beginning with the Wraith Codex.
“Where did you get that?!” the Inquisitor screeched. Macraigh and Arachne both ignored her.
“I have made you the bag’s new owner,” he said to the sorceress, having blithely re-worked this enchantment in a process that ought to have taken hours. Oblivion was tugging at the edges of his awareness, each use of magic drawing him closer to the inevitable. “Most of what’s in it is trash to someone like you, but you may find the books valuable. This one I already promised you. And these four are the most important.” The Codex returned to the bag, and out rose the four volumes printed by the shrine guardian. “These contain the secrets of the four schools of shadow magic that I was able to uncover. They contain everything known by the Elder Gods. Very little of it is still usable, as weak as those powers are now, but with this knowledge will come the ability to constrain the power of the infernal. If you bring this to the Collegium and convince them to study it, it will mean an end to the Black Wraiths and their demon allies. Or at least, force them deeper into hiding and prevent another event like the Hellwars. With time and study, the Collegium may even be able to safely wield infernal magic in the Pantheon’s service.”
“Blasphemy,” the Inquisitor spat, practically foaming. “Kill him!”
Both Huntresses frowned at her. “But…what if he’s right?” the one Macraigh had met earlier objected.
“I am called by Avei to end this heresy before it can spread,” she snapped, “and this must stop now. If you will not—”
“Shut up, you petulant child,” Arachne exclaimed, flicking a hand at her. A wall of blue light sprang up between the Inquisitor and the two of them, and she turned her attention back to Macraigh, ignoring the woman’s furious pounding on it with her sword. “I can see the academic value of this, but as I recall the entire reason for your predicament was the necessity of personal initiation into these schools of magic. How do you expect me to give them that?”
“You won’t,” he said. “I will. Just give them the books and I’ll do the rest.”
“Don’t do it!” the Inquisitor screamed.
“Hmm.” Arachne frowned at him. “I see. You can bind what’s left of yourself to the books?”
“If you’ll keep them in the Bag of Holding until it’s time to hand them over,” he agreed, nodding. “Its dimensional enchantments will help. I can confine myself to a state that will endure just long enough to grant the initiation—correctly, this time, so the recipient won’t end up like me. Do warn whoever agrees to take them, though. It’s not something that should be sprung on someone unawares.”
“Trust me,” she said dryly, “I know well the hazards of sneaking up on wizards. Very well, boy, you have a deal. I’m almost glad you decided to drag me into your insane quest. Though I wish you’d approached this with enough forethought to have avoided the way it will inevitably end for you. One hates to see the loss of a promising wizard.”
He shrugged, smiling ruefully. “Well, we can’t all be archmages. I did my best. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to deal with her.”
“Hadn’t you better just leave her alone?” Arachne asked, turning a disdainful look on the furious Inquisitor. “I assure you, she’s no threat to me or anything in my possession.”
“Well, yes, but I feel an obligation. We are sort of bound together, in a way, and right now I’m the only person who knows she is a Black Wraith.”
That pronouncement brought sudden and total silence, the Inquisitor freezing with her sword upraised to hammer at the shield again.
Macraigh knew this was going to be his last significant act of magic, and that he must make it count. The good thing was that at this point, it was easy; he was already so diffuse a being that working magic came more naturally to him than pumping his own lungs. Once again, he reached out and connected his shadows to hers, to the arts by which she called on her goddess’s power while concealing her true affiliation—that to her other goddess. She had wrapped those shadows around herself by means of ancient demonic rituals, whereas he could manipulate them as intuitively as thought.
He simply gave them a little tweak, and brought Avei’s unique energy into direct contact with Elilial’s. From his expanded perspective, he knew that both goddesses would instantly and directly sense the presence of the other, and exactly what it signified. From a basic grasp of theology he knew which would immediately abandon her agent and flee from that fight, and which would do something aggressive.
Macraigh’s broadened senses told him every detail of what happened as Avei poured her power into the two Silver Huntresses, calling upon the rituals they had performed to gain their divine gifts and align themselves with their goddess. He saw, faster than thought, faster than they themselves were consciously aware of acting, the goddess-given instincts which compelled them to act with a physical speed that would have put elves to shame.
He was the only spectator to all this nuance. To the eyes of everyone else present, both Huntresses simply shot the Inquisitor in the head. At that range, their arrows pierced her skull fully, almost emerging from the other side. She slumped against Arachne’s arcane shield, and then to the ground.
While everyone was staring in shock at this, Macraigh expended his last focus, feeling consciousness bleeding away. With everything he had left, he fused into the enchantment he had just laid upon the four books of shadow. They slipped back into his Bag of Holding, and as his dark aura dissipated, the body beneath it being no longer there, the bag floated soundlessly to the ground.
Arachne watched the flurry of drama unfolding between the Silver Huntresses and the soldiers of the League over their Inquisitor’s corpse without lowering the shield that separated her from it. Instead of weighing in, she turned and began a steady conjuration of matter, systematically filling the inert Elder God shrine with rock and dirt and then piling more atop its recently-unearthed entrance.
Only when that was done did she finally turn and pick up the bag containing the secrets of shadow magic and the last vestiges of the man who had brought them to light.
“Better to light a candle,” she mused, smiling sadly. “I like that.”