Fern himself picked up the book and began using mage powers as if he’d known them his whole life. With his short sword he drew runes in the dirt. He then spoke incantations from the book that brought a great pillar up to crush his fellow guard on the ceiling of the cave we were in.
The steady drip of melt water somewhere deep in the caves marked 2 days Bishop had been hiding. During Wormwood’s transformation he scurried off into the shadows of the cedar root work table but in the eerie silence that had encapsulated the cave gave Vurah the perfect environment to hunt him down. She’d caught sight of him in the shadows of the hollow trunk and set about with her sharp beak and talons trying to flay him for an afternoon snack. Bishop routed to a crack in the cave wall just in time to outrun his winged pursuer. He could hear that stupid raven qworking and clicking about, trying to throw it’s voice to fool him into coming out. He figured if he poked his head out he’d get a glimpse of those black murderous eyes before Death carried him to the Evermore in it’s skeletal arms.
At first he’d been repulsed by the lizard’s compulsion to eat bugs, but after being like this for a few weeks he was beginning to acquire the taste. Especially for the millipedes. In the cool darkness he thought of his siblings. Did they assume he ran off, finally fed up with the hard stares and murmured gossip about them from the village loggers and hunters, or had they assumed he was lost and set about to mount a rescue? Even if they found him, what good would it be? No one was skilled in transmutation as Wormwood was. And at his rate of decomposition he had a handful of spells left in him before the toll of wizardry brought Death to bear.
It was hard not to feel hopeless. How could he have been so stupid as to trust the old man in the first place? All Bishop wanted was to prove that maybe the New God Cults weren’t all bad, that the magic the villagers rallied so hard against might actually be used to help. Bishop had sought out the wizard of Burnbrush, convinced the lore around him had been tainted by the same tongues that spouted rumour about his family. Wormwood had welcomed him with a promise of mentorship, stating the first lesson started immediately. He then told Bishop water was an active catalyst of transmutation, and since he was soaked from the downpour Wormwood wouldn’t have to waste purified water on him.
After his transformation Bishop reflected on the villagers’ adage that ambition was neighbour to knowledge, and too much knowledge was an evil thing. He still didn’t believe that, but was starting to believe he would die in this cave with bones picked clean by the raven’s claw, if he didn’t do something soon.
Bishop thought of Everitt and Bronwyn, and vowed to make it out of the cave with the book. He would return to Caulderwilde as a herald of the New Gods. He would show them how beneficial the magic of the New Gods could be by making life easier for his family first.
With agonizing slowness Bishop moved through the darkness of a fissure crack in the rock. Bugs and mice skittered out of his way until he came to a new opening. He couldn’t see Vurah but he was sure she was there, watching for any sign of movement. She was probably perched on the work table, greedily hopping from root to root waiting for him.
Bishop came to a spot where some loose shale had collected at the base of a hollow split. He grasped a rectangular piece in one of his long clawed hands and sent it skittering out into the openness of the cave. To Bishop the stone moved just like a mouse but he heard no satisfying brush of feathers in pursuit. He sensed motion above him. He looked up and saw the bats had moved further into the cave to avoid last night’s snow. He picked up another stone. His first throw arched uselessly into the depths of the cave catching nothing but air. Bishop gathered a piece of shale that was barely within his grasp and threw all of his exertion behind the throw praying to whoever would heed his thoughts to guide the stone true.
It sailed through the air gaining height before colliding with the sleeping stalactite-like body of a cave bat. The grey body tumbled into its neighbours causing a chain reaction of screeching panic as the cave exploded with the fury of wings and disoriented bats running into each other.
Bishop didn’t wait any longer, he used the screeching mass as a screen and hoped his grey body would blend with the shadows enough. He could feel tiny claws scraping across his back but the bats were so disoriented none of them thought much of the reptile among them. Somewhere in the chaos he could hear Vurah’s confused baritone underscoring the soprano squeal. Bishop made for the work table and leapt at it, digging his claws into the soft wood.
He scrambled up the bark into a dark corner of a hollowed out shelf. His body dragged across a long flat object as he nestled into the shadows. He couldn’t help running a reptilian hand over it in the dark. If he could shiver with anticipation Bishop would have, even still he could imagine his small lizard heart palpitating rapidly. Thoughts of the half mad Wormwood clouded his intention but were chased away by his desperation. Resigned to whatever fate was his, Bishop Ironcraft opened the Book of Knowledge in the darkness and with the gift of his reptilian parietal eye, began reading.
Everitt tried to focus on his meal but his eyes couldn’t help wandering from the steaming slab of werebear to the other occupants of the great table he was seated at. The high priest from Tryonas in his radiant yellow and white robes was one thing, but Wallace Sheepshead sat right beside him. Donned in grey and black wolf’s furs, Wallace’s reputation as a great hunter preceded him. Known for the mercy he showed following a kill, Wallace was at home sharing in conversation with the High Priest and Friar Momeht seated to his left. Everitt could tell his father was trying to remain sullen as an act of defiance to the King’s excessive event, but he too was having trouble keeping himself composed in the presence of Tryonas’ High Priest.
Everitt looked back down at his plate and shifted under his rabbit’s fur cloak trying to get comfortable on the regal high backed chair. He’d hoped to strike up a conversation of the hunt with an out of towner, but every bunch and bare spot in his cloak kept him quiet in Wallace’s presence.
It was the eve of the tournament and all contestants were invited with their entourages to partake in a great feast, a tradition that marked many of the King’s events. At either end of the table the royal couple entertained guests. Of course the queen was rarely seen in public, so one of her many public figures sat in for her, looking no less royal in imported silk.
Everitt had trained with Bronwyn for the last two days, retrieving arrows and knives from bales of straw and shaking snow from the shoulders of stuffed dummies. He’d hoped the downfall of snow they trained in would give Bronny an edge, not that she needed much sharpening. He glanced beside him to see his sister eating as if it was her last meal. Her eyes alternated between the Sitting Queen and the single door that led out of the stone hall.
“If you don’t slow down you’re apt to choke, sister.” Everitt muttered leaning to his left only enough to keep the majority of his right arm hidden.
“If that comes to pass may we hope chivalry isn’t so dead and gone that my dear brother wouldn’t assist, or perhaps you’d rather one of these potential competitors help.” She gave him a lukewarm smile to show that even she, too, was in good spirits.
“If that came to pass perhaps we’d ingratiate ourselves to the softer side of their competitive nature, could give you an edge.”
“Give me the edge of my butter knife to finish them off.”
Everitt coughed into his fist to cover a bark of laughter and Bronwyn’s eyes swam with good humour until Wallace spoke up.
“Such table manners young lady, you disrespect the kill.” He leaned to speak with the High Priest. “Tell me Your Brilliance, is there a patron deity against such crass habits or must reflux be this lady’s only punishment?”
Anger flared at the slight and Everitt tightened his grasp on the bone inlay of his fork before Momeht caught his eye, shaking his head slightly. Everitt tried to relax and remember the rules for kingdom conduct. Across from him the high priest dabbed his mouth delicately with a cloth napkin before addressing Wallace.
“Of course you know Wallace, Oreyon’s rays shine on all manner of creature. For Oreyon created the Gods, who in turn created Earth and human.” He turned his grey eyes on Bronwyn, “you will be happy to note dear child that should you perish during this meal Oreyon’s emissary would ferry you himself the the Evermore where such trivial matters as pain and famine are forgotten.”
In the melodic way that priests of Oreyon spoke, the high priest seemed to turn the dig from the great hunter into a reassurance of life everlasting, a turn of phrase that brought the bright tinkle of laughter from guests within earshot. It was a move that both allowed the hunter’s brashness while fortifying the belief of those around him, Everitt couldn’t help but feel admiration seep through his agitation.”
“And what of the New Gods, Priest Hector, do they have a place in the Evermore as well?” The question draped silence over their end of the table and was asked by a woman. She was of middle age and had no familiarity to Everitt. He puzzled over the strategy of exposing herself to the attention of her competition when she could have kept eating in anonymity.
She caught the siblings looking down the table at her and tipped a wink towards them. Everitt figured she was showing the solidarity of shared sisterhood being one of the only other women seated at the table. She also could have been trying to get in her competitor’s heads. It was all like some bizarre chess game to Everitt.
Her question seemed to bristle the high priest, but outraged Wallace. Everitt snickered into the last forkful of werebear. Wallace was quick to temper, that was good to know.
“He is a High Priest of Oreyon and will be addressed as such!” Wallace spat “With the honourable title of Your Brilliance.”
Everitt watched to see if the high priest would be as indignant, but noted his training in the priesthood once more erred on the side of diplomacy and rapport.
“Dear Woman, the so-called New Gods hunger for knowledge everlasting made them unfit for anything more than bondage in the centre of the planet. Bondage, as I’m sure you were taught, for the abominations that their knowledge spawned against Oreyon and the TRUE Gods. The Holy Library of Tryonas has an excellent copy of the Oreyon Gospel outlining the creation story, I give you an open invitation to partake in it at your earliest convenience.”
The woman addressed the priest but her eyes stayed locked on Wallace.
“You make a tempting offer, Your Brilliance, but my interest lies only in stoking thought provoking ideas.”
“I’d say your interest lies more in blasphemy.” Wallace muttered, though if the woman heard she made no sign of it.
Wallace stared the woman down a moment longer before a wicked idea dawned on him and he called down the table.
“Eh, Tyson Mak, surely you can put all this hogspit about New Gods to rest, was it not you who led the crusade that found that damnable book?”
Everitt craned his neck to see the King’s Captain of Guards drop his fork onto the hunk of back strap he was working through. All eyes turned to Tyson.
“The book, er, yes.” Mak’s eyes shifted to his right where King Rygeer looked on, his eyebrows skyward.
It took him a beat to recover from being put on the spot. As he started talking Tyson seemed to retreat within himself. His voice echoing through the cavernous Dining Hall and into the dark hallways to mix with the aroma of cooked bear and spiced beer.
“I remember nothing leading up to the final moments, as if everything has been washed from my mind in an attempt to salvage my sanity. Though why I’m forced to relive these events every night, I only have the darkness of early morning to query.
Andreas Claymore was the first man to lay his hands on it. Thinking it another falsehood or simply another stone in the subterranean chamber. That book. I’ve heard it whispers to some, that certain people pick up on it’s harmony and are devoted to it in an instant. I’m certain that’s why Jasper Fern ran poor Andreas through up to his hilt in order to get his hands on the book.
Andreas fell dead with Fern’s hilt sticking out of his chest. Fern himself picked up the book and began using mage powers as if he’d known them his whole life. With his short sword he drew runes in the dirt. He then spoke incantations from the book that brought a great pillar up to crush his fellow guard on the ceiling of the cave we were in. The pillar spilled minerals from the dirt at his feet. I watched as he took his time to inspect them before picking up a clump, inscribing more runes and incanting another verse from the book before hurling it at the men scrambling into attack formation. The rock detonated when it hit Gilfoyle Herman, sending poor Gil to the Evermore and blinding the rest. When I looked back Fern had aged ten years at least. Grey streaked his hair and wrinkles creased the corners of his crazed eyes. I implored him to stop, to think of the blasphemy of his actions. He told me it was Jasper Fern who’d vowed to the Old Gods, and that I was in the presence of the mage wizard Wormwood. He said Wormwood promised nothing except an expertise in the teachings of the New Gods. He said they would spread across the land through him and those who still followed the Old Gods would suffer as they should.
The stench of sulphur became too much to bear and I retreated through the slain bodies of my fellow guardsmen gathering those who could still walk. I mourn those men to this day but I mourn Fern the most. He treads not on Earth nor in Evermore, but some line of damnation in between.”
Beside him Rygeer cleared his throat which shook Mak from his reverie. He looked into the eyes of those around the table, suddenly aware of the amount of youth at the feast.
“What of Wormwood?” someone called from down the table
“He practises in the heart of Pneumwood, haven’t you heard the tales of Burnbrush.” Another answered.
“I heard he’s long dead. He struck a deal to free the New Gods and they slayed him on the spot.”
“Is that why there’s a curfew?”
“The curfew’s because of the cults!”
“Enough!” Rygeer bellowed from the head of the table. “Jasper Fern was a decent and upstanding man and I won’t have his image bandied through the slop. He was a member of the King guard and that alone is how I choose to remember him. As for this infernal Wizard his time will come to an end. My certainty is paramount ” In the wake of his invocation King Rygeer attempted to lighten the sombre cloak draped over the dinner guests.
“Let us not worry ourselves with lore and ghost stories. The fact remains that you have all been gathered here to take part in a tournament that is sure to be skill testing and greatly rewarding. And-” he added with a grin “anyone caught using magic will be entirely disqualified.”
Laugher brushed through the guests and murmurs circulated at the mention of the reward. Everitt looked at his sister but Bronwyn seemed to be withdrawn into herself. Mak’s story gave him a deep feeling of melancholy he was sure she felt too. Everitt tried to perk up as the king went on.
“Now let us continue this feast in good spirits, for it is true that you will need your strength and cunning to last to the final heat, but rest assured that even those who are eliminated are welcome as guests of Greytusk for the duration of all events!”
The guests relaxed at the thought of an extended stay among royalty. Once again the symphony of forks scraping plates could be heard as conversations resumed. Everitt felt the mood lift around him. He forked a large piece of sticky cake to his plate and tried to forget Mak’s tale in a sugar rush, but couldn’t escape the pinch of melancholy on the back of his neck.