Legacies - Part I
eath lurked behind that dark wall, colored violet from the midnight air clustered in the halls of Metamor Keep. Waspish white lines smoldered on the buckling mortar, the thin line of cement nearly chipping from the pressure behind it. Clutching the slender shaft of chalk in his diminutive hand, Wessex could only gaze, his face locked in a rictus of terror, at the circles of power and release inscribed upon that abjuring portal. The third and outermost circle, a dotted creation with lines spreading out in every direction like rays from the sun, was missing a few cleft marks around the rim. Though they were not there, he knew them to be ancient chevrons he'd seen only once before in his life. Those absent marks of death were all that had saved the Keep from being swallowed by the eldritch horrors brought forth from the tear left by that censer.
The child could remember that day well in the middle of Spring when he was first shown that dreadful device. Sketched and engraved across its gold surface had been images of demons sodomozing the damned in a myriad of ways, each one different as he scanned about its rim. The tapered edges were festooned with various gems, each one glowing with a sickly venomous light, rubies, sapphires, lapis lazuli, malachite, and others each radiating an unholy aura. He could remember those red encrusted candles standing atop the stanchions on the sides, black charred smoke rising from the diseased wicks; they had been the death knell of Dorson, the tocsin bringing that black man, that nightmarish figure robed in midnight brocade. Zagrosek.
Wessex had been ordered to use the censer to determine just what Loriod had done, or had used it for. Rupert had doused the item with nearly a full sack of the anti-magic powder that Whales had crafted, nullifying its insidious power and seductive fascinations. However, it had cleverly tricked him, filling his heart with frustration, and causing him to leave the room, with only his apprentice Dorson to stand watch over it. Somehow it had invaded the ferret's mind, and twisted everything he saw, until he had redrawn the circles of containment into those of release, and lighting one of the candles. One of them had proven to be enough, allowing Zagrosek to appear, and brutally murder Dorson
The Sondeckis had nearly extinguished all the braziers when Wessex had returned that fateful afternoon. He had only barely enough time to watch the man flee into the shadows, an inky blackness that appeared to span the limitless gulfs between worlds, and watch the censer disappear with him, breaching the barrier to the Underworld. The howls of anguish and torment had drifted up from that yawning aperture, until Wessex had poured all of the sand inside of it, watching it wink out of existence as it passed through. Then, returning outside, he drew closed that door, sealing it into this wall, and forever-after binding the spells and essence of the Keep shut.
None but him could ever break that enchantment, and he had no intention of doing so. In that brief glimpse into the bottomless well he had seen more horror than he could have ever wished upon the vilest of enemies. At first he had not really thought about what he was seeing, as he was too focussed on dumping the sand inside, but with each passing day, those images grew more vivid, until at times they blocked everything else out.
Black shapeless masses floated in the putrid murk sucking and slurping their way along with a ghastly bubbling noise. Creatures that resembled the upper torso of a man shambled along, dragging themselves along by appendages that only vaguely recalled arms. Bulbous protoplasm floated aimlessly, till one of its whip-like tentacles would stumble upon the half-formed souls of the damned, and then it latched upon them, hideous gaping jaws appeared from nowhere, chewing upon the immaterial fabric of the hapless spirit. The empty screams of each victim rang silently upon his flesh, reverberating through to his bones at each stygian shriek. It was all Wessex could do to prevent himself from jumping out of a window to permanently end the horror of those images.
The chevrons decorating the censer had been along its lower base, centered inside the circles of power that Dorson had redrawn. Nine of them spaced in groups of three, each larger than the last, and more intricately fashioned. The first was a simple line with two hash marks across it, no bigger than Wessex's palm. The last was a veritable maze of crisscrosses and cul-de-sacs encompassing several of the larger mortar stones, appearing like several shadows cast from each one. On the wall before him stood the first and last of the chevrons, drawn with an exactness that his feeble hands could hardly have managed in so short a time. Especially when the stones themselves were shifting underneath him from demons pressing against them, trying to escape.
Wessex finally dislodged the rictus from his face, and breathed out slowly. The stench of his own urine was fresh upon his clothes as it was every night that he walked to this wall. By now, it was a familiar companion, one that he welcomed with joyous exultation. For that unwholesome fragrance, no matter how much it offended his nose, was the surest sign that his nightmare had ended. Many times in the last few months he had found himself in the hallway, his pants unsoiled, only to discover that he had not escaped his dream, as Matthias and Zagrosek were standing behind him, their sepulchral cloaks open to engulf him in the pits of blackness contained therein. It was only when that slick wetness filled his trousers was he truly safe.
Or at least, that was how it had been before. While his only jeremiad had been his ruined undergarments, he had been content to confide in his most talented of apprentices, Jessica. Even then, he'd been reluctant to share what had previously only been his personal nightmare, punishment perhaps for allowing that evil chalice to corrupt his thoughts. The hawk had insisted he tell her, and as he had expected, the story had only confused her more. Still, she had demanded that he inform her of any changes in the dream.
It usually only came every few days, and in the recent weeks, it had dwindled in frequency. In fact, it had been only the other night that he had woken up to stare at the grey mortared wall after watching the rat and man merge into that obscene black shape that scalded him as if it were breathing from the heart of a volcano. Never before had it visited him on consecutive nights, and never before had it ended with him drawing ancient runes and wards upon this wall that he had intended to remain sealed for all time. Those lines shifted and rolled as something moved underneath them, some great claw or hand pressing against the surface of finest silk, but in frustration as they were unable to make even the slightest tear in the weave.
And then, just as suddenly, they disappeared. The unfinished diagram stood flat against the hallway, the pale white nimbus of each line nearly faience in color with the approach of the pale blue, twilight dawn. How long had he been sitting here? Wessex did not have an answer to that question, just as he could not fathom the meaning of his being here in this abandoned hallway. He rolled the bit of chalk about between his boyish fingers, blinking in perplexity at the roundel drawn in the center of the circles. The lines radiating outwards from the final circle were directional, and not simply symbolic. The chevrons on the outside circle represented what was to be brought through the portal in the center and drawn outwards, released from their prison.
With a sharp intake of breath, Wessex finally understood what the nightmare was doing. Tentatively, he reached outwards towards the intricate patterns with his short fingers, each one trembling at the dawning knowledge. As he drew closer, he felt a thin film before them, a pale green nimbus enclosing the pattern. It was like dipping his hand in a vat of mucus. Recoiling, he scooted back to the far wall, but the slime coated his skin, sinking into the pores, drawing it numb. Scanning the pattern, he could easily see why, the second circle was a protective ward, but not one that he had ever before used. It was blood magic, the sort necromancers used in their forbidden arts. Scanning the rest of the hallway, the boy mage could see no blood though.
Flexing the fingers on his numb hand, the sensation began to wear off. A moue passed over his face as he realized that the spell had not been completed, and so was only partially effective. Grunting in displeasure, he plunged his hand through the slimy sheen, and began to make small imperfections in the second sphere. The shield ablated rather quickly, and soon the slick muck was no more. Even the nimbus on the rest of the diagram began to fade. Wessex though was suddenly emboldened, he was not about to lose this concentration of power. His nightmare may have used him, Zagrosek and Matthias may have been controlling his dreams, but now he was awake, and he would see what awaited him beyond this wall.
With the chalk, he drew an oculus in the center circle, and then refilled the interior with an inwardly bounded hexagon. Each outward splaying line he slowly and passively erased, scrawling fields and other magical lexicons in their place. The chevrons though, he did not touch. He simply encircled them in warding lines, isolating them from the remaining pattern. By the time he was finished with his scrawling, the twilight was more pronounced, the sun having risen beyond the distant mountains, though it had yet to shine upon the walls of Metamor.
Though the morning was chilly, his clothes were drenched with both his sweat and urine. The stink would surely wake the animal morphs at the Keep if he did not clean himself up. But currently, his mind was on a different plane, and the power that had filled those lines was now his own. Channeling it through him, the wash of bliss at being in touch with such mystical power carrying him over the highest summits of snow-topped mountain peeks, he forced it all straight into the oculus.
The sudden shimmering in the wall did not go unnoticed, for every line drawn against the mortar crawled with life. The oculus blared into brilliant black intensity, boring through the wall to give him a visage of the hell beyond. At the edge of his vision, the chevrons churned and visibly attacked the wards holding them back. With each lash of stroke or stile, Wessex felt a stabbing pain across his chest, and when he brought his hand up to reach, could feel the stickiness of fresh blood staining his nightclothes.
But beyond the drawn window, through the lens of the oculus, he glimpsed something that made him break wide his lips in a scream of eldritch terror, and slash through his own spell with the stick of chalk, dissipating it immediately. The nightmare before him vanished, to be replaced by the wall and the diagram before him. The chevrons disintegrated before his eyes, the dust settling onto the floor and vanishing as if they never were. Only the color of imminent morning could be seen to grace the masonry with its warmth. A profound chill filled Wessex's bones, even as he patted his crimson tunic with his hands in disbelief, his voice no longer capable of fright.
Stumbling, the boy rose to his legs, weary feet barely able to hold him aloft. He rubbed his toes against the tiles, silk with his sweat, urine and blood, a miasmatic concoction that would not go unnoticed were any Keepers to pass this way. Gazing at the pattern still sketched into the wall before him, he realized that it would have to be erased quickly. He dare not use his shirt or trousers lest the blood reactive the dormant spells. His quavering lips mouthed a name, several names in fact, but he could not speak any of them. His tongue was so dry it nearly filled his throat.
Gasping for any breath he could have, the boy slipped down into a crouch, and sat upon the floor. He had no choice now, he must wait. The last time he had left this place with a spell even partially intact, it had cost a Keeper his life. Never again would he make that mistake.
Jessica stretched her wings happily as she settled on the crenellated landing, her talons skirting the stonework with an audible screech. Before the curses, she had been afraid to venture onto the topmost battlements of the Keep. The other children had teased her as they pranced about making fools of themselves while she quietly studied her books. Many of those same children had fallen, not from a tower, but under the sword of Nasoj's army seven years ago. Now she, as a red-banded hawk, was the one dancing and cavorting about these astounding heights, gazing down at the panoply of wonders below as if it belonged solely to her.
In a way it did. Her morning flights were always something that she did alone. Every tile on every roof of every home was hers to savor alone. Every leaf upon every tree was hers to spot. Every animal, be they Metamorian or not, was hers to fantasize diving at. The winds beneath her wings, flowing through her feathers, and filling her beak as she let loose her cry of freedom, all of it was hers.
Until she set her talons upon the hard stonework of the castle, that is. The moment of euphoria slowly faded, like a vision ebbing in the mist, or a dream barely upon the horizon at the moment of waking, ever distant, but ever gleaming. Preening herself one last time, she folded her wings across her back, and then descended the stairwell and into the Keep proper. Usually, Jessica was reluctant to leave the sky, but today was different. After her morning lessons with Wessex, she would head to Ambassador Yonson's apartments, and there meet with Weyden. He had asked for permission to stretch his wings, and it had been readily given. He was not a versatile flyer yet, but she enjoyed teaching him.
As was her new custom though, she proceeded from the tower directly to her master's chambers. Ever since he had confided in her his nightmares, Jessica had made it her duty to see him shortly after sunrise to ensure that he was well. Of course, since he had the dream the previous evening, she expected to find him still curled up in his coverlet, snuggling his blankets like any other child. However, when she saw that the diminutive door was open, and not just slightly ajar, but flung completely open, her heart skipped a beat, and her wings fluttered in agitation.
Ducking her head beneath the marble transom, Jessica clicked her talons across the smooth floor till she was peering her golden eyes into the bedroom. The sheets were a tangled mess kicked to the foot of the mattress, where they lay limply, half-spilled onto the floor. The ivory stanchion had been upended, and was laying across the master's lounge, the scarlet wax dripping onto the damask fabric, inevitably staining it. The mahogany desk was cracked open, but since she had never seen him open it, she was not sure if anything were missing.
"Wessex?" she called out in her avian tongue. The silence of an empty room greeted her in return, and she felt her down crawl. "Wessex, please come out, this is not funny." Still, the quarters remained abandoned and bereft of life. Though it was only the early days of September, she felt the cold of winter frost digging into her bones, filing the hollow spaces with its icy embrace.
Wessex ard'Kapler was a fastidious sort, and was not prone to leaving catastrophes behind him. Especially with his exquisite furniture, the last of his family's once considerable wealth. Only the grand painting of their villa and the bookcases remained untouched. His timepiece had tumbled from the mantle and was lying upon the ground, the glass shards decorating the hearth's interior. No longer having arms, she simply reached out with one talon, and gripped the clock between her long, scaled toes. It appeared to still function, an audible ticking could be heard from inside the wooden frame. Setting it back down, Jessica turned her attention to the other rooms in her master's chambers.
The training room where she and her fellow apprentices spent many of their days these past years, was large, and mostly unfurnished. A few chairs decorated the walls, as well as several barrels of his valuable sands and dusts, along with braziers and a few unlit flambeaux, but precious little else. The center of the room was completely empty aside from a large slate tile. It had been hand smoothed by Wessex himself over the years, and was the location of most of his spell work. The chalk lines could be drawn on any surface, but it was much easier to use a single slab to insure that no imperfections cropped up in the design. It had been many months since Wessex had last let her attempt a casting upon that floor. Her talons simply lacked the manual dexterity that her hands once had.
She did not even call out though, for it was clear that he was not there. Returning to the foyer, Jessica poked her long, sharp beak around the only other door in his apartments. It was his private den for entertaining visitors, and was thus handsomely decorated. Rosettes were sculpted into the arching stonework, bracing each of the inset pillars against the entablature. A thick chartreuse Kelewairian carpet lined the central floor, around which stood a circular table fashioned from mahogany upon which lay some ancient codex that she did not recognize. Three armchairs and two chaise lounges circled it, each made of from fabric imported from Kelewair. Several large iron stanchions stood behind each seat, the dark maroon candles unlit. Though she knew there was an ornate bookcase at the far end, the darkness was too thick for her to see very far. Wessex usually left the braziers in his foyer burning, as he had done today, but they did not cast much light into this room.
"Wessex? Are you in there?" Jessica called out, almost afraid to disturb the darkness for fear that something unpleasant might stir instead of her master. But there was nothing. The blackness was complete, and she neither heard nor saw anything move in that darkened room. Her voice caught in her breath, she backed out slowly, and pondered where he could be.
Peering once more into his bedchambers, to see the upturned stanchion, and the disreputable sheets, the answer came to her. Jessica's heart did not beat more smoothly now that she knew where her master must be. Instead it fluttered even more erratically, as she nearly jumped out the door, almost scraping her head against the transom above as she bolted down the hallway. It was all she could do to keep her wings folded against her back as she bobbed and wove through the corridors, towards the one place in the Keep, aside from the nefarious gates themselves, that could never change.
Wessex was there sitting against the wall, an awful stench surrounding him as he clutched a single shaft of white chalk in his palms, as if that alone could ward off all the denizens of the underworld. Her eyes riveted upon him, she brought herself to a stop, her talons clutching the tiles, scratching them. "Wessex! I was so worried about you. Are you all right?" Her voice screeched out into the air. Even after seven years, it still sometimes caught her by surprise how terrifying she could sound.
He gave her a moue, indicating his shirt, stained red in smears across his chest and abdomen, as if he had been sliced by a sword tip that had passed through his tunic intangibly. He then pointed to the far wall, the one which he had shown her to scrupulously avoid. Jessica nearly gasped as she saw the crossed off spell. Despite her limited understanding, from what she could discern it was a casting of immense power, though it appeared to have been reworked. Several places where wards had been constructed were conspicuously empty.
"Master, what is this?" she asked in disbelief, turning back to face the stricken boy.
Wessex opened his mouth, and moaned softly, pointing at his throat and shrugging.
"Can you speak?" He shook his head no. "What happened?" At that, her master looked slightly irritated, and she quickly realized her faux pas. "Is there anything you'd like me to do for you, master?"
He nodded then, and pointed at the diagram. He then waved his hand up and down, and then clenched his shirt in his fists. She blinked at him, her eyes fixed in a star only an avian could give. "Do you want me to erase the drawing?"
Wessex violently shook his head in the negative, gripping his shirt again with his fists. He then pointed down the hallway, and then back at himself.
"I'm sorry, I don't see what you want me to do," she admitted ruefully, wishing that her beak would allow her the pleasure of a grimace.
The boy nodded slowly, looking thoughtful. His eyes appeared to be drawn at the center of the diagram for a moment, and then a visible shudder passed over his frame and he turned back to her. Gripping his shirt in one hand, he held it up, and waved it back and forth, up and down, and then pointed at the diagram.
"Do you want me to retrieve something to clean this up?"
Finally he nodded, giving her a warm smile, though a brief one. He waved his hands back to her, and she quickly hurried down the hallway, eager to help her master. What had happened to him last night, and what could ever have possessed him to draw such a horrid spell? The only answer that came to her was too horrifying to even think about.
It did not take Jessica long to return, for which Wessex was grateful. Though his mouth was too thick for him to tell her so, he was proud to have her as his pupil. In that moment, when he saw her return with not only a damp towel over her shoulder, but a small slate board tucked beneath her wings as well, he knew that he had chosen well to entrust her with his confidence.
Struggling once again, his body weary from the exertion of only hours before, he climbed back to his feet, leaning against the far wall for support. Once he had his legs under him though, he felt much better, as if some heavily-laden yoke had been cast off and left behind. She used what manual dexterity she had left in the claws at the end of her wings to carefully lay the slate board upon the ground. The towel she simply let fall from her shoulder as she bent completely over on her legs. He smiled at her, the first time he had done so in quite some time.
"I brought your slate as well, if you cannot speak, at least you can still write." She gestured with one talon at the charcoal black board laying at his feet.
He nodded his thanks, reached down, and plucked it from the ground. It was heavy, especially for a child of his size. He had never been a large man, and as a boy, he was a homunculus. Still, after all the years of schooling he had given his students, he had gained strength in his arms enough to carry a chalk board with ease. Gripping the white, slender shaft in his hand, he began to trace out words. It was a slow process, but it was the only way he could talk until the soreness in his throat ebbed. "Thank you, you did well."
Wiping that clean with the sleeve of his shirt, he went on further to write, "I'll need fresh clothes waiting for me when I finish."
She blinked, her large golden orbs hard set. Her beak, if it could ever do that, appeared to turn down in a frown. "You expect me to leave you alone with that?" Her wingtip pointed to the diagram still sketched upon the wall.
He grimaced at that, knowing that she was right. Erasing the slate again with his damp shirt sleeve, he thought what to say instead. Before he could write anything else down though, Jessica had picked up the towel in one of her feet. "I could help you, just tell me what to erase, and I'll do it."
Shaking his head violently, Wessex reached out and snatched the towel from her talon, tearing it nearly in half across those sharp, black claws. He pointed at himself, and then at the diagram. Grabbing the slate he again, he quickly wrote, "Mine!" and then pushed that into her beak.
She nodded wearily, stepping out of the way. "Please be careful, master. I do not like the way that thing looks."
Neither did he, and yet he knew that it was his own hand that had created that thing, even if he had not been the one controlling it. What had been in the dream this evening? It was so distant, only snatches of it could be grasped, and then like dirty water, it spilled out through his fingers, leaving only the lees to coat his flesh. One image though in the miasma of ghoulish frights did prove clear though. Like every dream before, he had tried to cast a spell of containment upon them before they merged into that black shape he could not name. Only this time, the energy had not been drained, as they had not merged. Instead, the rat and man had stooped over him, trying to drag his arm away from his task.
Could he ever allow Matthias to touch him again? The feel of that rodent's fur against his skin had been like that of rusty needles scraping through open sores. Something inside him told him it was just a dream, and that there was no need to fear the rat. Yet, he knew it was the same voice that had told him it would be okay to leave Dorson alone with that blasphemous censer. Wessex did not consider that disembodied messenger to be a reliable source, and did his best to vanquish it from his mind. Matthias was not to be trusted, being in his dreams so much, it was clear that his involvement with Zagrosek was not just something in the far distant past. Perhaps he was even the one bringing on these dreams? The rat's powers were still mostly unknown, it could be possible.
It was too dangerous to venture near him though, but he must find his evidence some other way. Still, he would have to wait till after he had excised this stain upon the wall. Reaching up with his towel, he began to wipe away the outward drawing lines, starting from the bottom, and working his way around. He scrupulously avoided the two ovals that had contained the chevrons. They would wait till last. Even so, as he gingerly dabbed off each stroke, he would measure the emblem before him, watching for any sign of ambient magic still contained inside. Unlike in the tower, there was no curlicue to self-destruct, but he did not intend to take any chances.
Wessex had every right to be afraid, for the three circle pattern was one of the most potent of castings, known to sorcerers as the Symphony. It was known thus because it was drawn with all of creation in mind, in conjunction with every living thing. Drawn from the inside out, the first circle represented one's self, or the place one was sketching it. The second was the activation component, usually a symbol of the spell being harnessed. The third was the juxtaposition with everything else, determining whether the Symphony took force from them, or returned it. As was the case here, the outward drawn lines had been markers of where the spell would go, while the emblem of a roundel inside the first circle had been to indicate the means of such travel. But the chevrons, that Wessex did not understand. Though he could no longer see them upon the wall, he could still feel the lacerations they had given him in his flesh.
The outer lines all gone, Wessex turned his attention to the circles. He left his own scrawls on the outside intact, as they were containment spells, and they might still be necessary. He peered at the outer circle for a moment, noting where his slash crossed it, canceling it. If he broke that slash, the spells might reactivate, and he could not be sure what would happen then. Closing is eyes tight, he tried to view the wall with only his magic. It was dark, pale and barely visible. Magic still flowed through those lines, but barely, anemically.
But what caused him to start was not the wan light, but the pinpricks of black ooze that seethed behind them, and through the pores that had already been cracked in the wall. He remembered it all too well. When he had left Dorson alone in the room with that thing, it had been trickling that black ooze. In every one of his dreams, that demonic chalice was coalesced with it! And now, the Symphony was practically dripping that ichor.
Reaching down, Wessex drew his chalk across the slate. Jessica leaned over to see what he was scribing, and then her beak fell agape. He held it up for her to se clearly. "Stand back." She did so, running into the wall behind her and pressing herself into it, as if she could merge with the stones themselves. Gritting his teeth, the boy took up the towel again, and with one quick motion, holding back his breath, he broke the outer circle.
No detonation, no screech of pain or torment followed. The wall remained where it stood, unmoving. The Symphony was broken, and no traps had been set upon it. Exhaling slowly, his tongue still thick in his throat, Wessex began to task of slowly excising that circle from the wall. It did not take very long, though he was studious in not breaking the slash mark through the other two emblems. The hexagon he had drawn in place of the middle circle had gone completely blank under his magic sight now that its source of power was totally gone. It could not take nearly enough from Wessex, with the first circle slashed as it was.
Looking over his shoulder, he saw that the large hawk was still pressed against the far wall. He grinned a moment at that, for she knew better than to interfere in this sort of work. It only took him one moment more to erase the center circle, completely removing any power from the hexagon. The Symphony was almost entirely deconstructed now. The damp towel was just wet enough to remove the chalk, but not soaked to the point where it would have dripped through the whole emblem, and for that he was grateful to his student. At this point, even that could have been dangerous.
Finally, with a bit of relief, Wessex erased the hexagon, and the Symphony was no more. With a tenuous dab, he broke the first oval that had surrounded the smaller of the two chevrons. Nothing happened, not even a tightening in his gut. His sigh of relief was barely audible, as it had trouble escaping his throat. But the tension had left the hallway, and eve Jessica relaxed some. Within moments, every chalk line on the all was gone, and it looked like any other place in the Keep might. He couldn't even see the pores anymore. They were safe from the Underworld for now.
Picking up the tablet, he erased his former message, and then wrote another. Jessica cautiously stepped across the floor, her talons resounding about the hall. "It is done, take me back to my room." had been scrawled across its surface.
She nodded once, and her beak broke wide into an avian grin. "I will, master, and then we need to get you cleaned up, did I mention that you smell awful?"
He nodded, a dry chuckle yearning to escape his lips. But already, his mind had turned to other matters less pleasant.
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