"The fabric of the universe is woven together by the thread we call the Singularity. It is the embodiment of all -- the power of the Order, and the sum of all things organic and inorganic. When seen in its true form it is a current of pure energy constantly moving through the river of time, always flowing beyond its limits in a direct course toward the infinite," Brice finished his speech, then gazed out over the faces in the crowd seated before him.
All but one of them returned his look with blank faces. Only in the pair of wide brown orbs did he find understanding. But he had nothing new to show those eyes. They held all knowledge. It was Brice who should be learning from them, if only he could comprehend their lesson.
What can I teach her? A child, a child who will someday move through worlds. A Gatekeeper.
Most of the students present were young, children of comparable age to Emily and Tetloan, but far inferior to the pair in their ability to control the Singularity. The others were older, adults with skill so insignificant that they had been overlooked by the Order a long time ago. All told, Emily had more power in the tip of her baby toe than the lot of them had together. Tetloan was the second closest to Emily in strength, though for him, his power had manifested itself differently than anything Brice had ever seen. There were some skills in which the boy had no equal, mainly those involving brute force. Whereas in other matters, those requiring finesse and subtle adaptations of the energy, Tetloan seemed lacking in the slightest hint of power. After much direction, the boy was finally beginning to see the Singularity's signature, but most of the time he did not, and manipulated it blindly and by sheer will alone.
Overall, Emily's power was unmatched, far beyond anyone present, far beyond the mages of the Order standing at Brice's back, and even far beyond the Red Mage himself.
For several days now Brice had been conducting lessons within the garden of the Archenon, gathering together daily in a clearing adjacent to the Statue of the Unpure Soldier. For the most part, the courtyard was now vacant, the gardeners having rounded up most of the wildlife, as well as any edible plant life, to be immediately delivered to the kitchen, prepped for storage and added to the keep's list of supplies in anticipation of a lengthy siege.
Now, except for Brice's voice filling the air and the constant tinkle of the statue, the garden was eerily quiet.
"Galimoto thinks Brice would have better luck teaching a stone to dance then he would teaching Magic to these idiots," the imp said, perched on Brice's shoulder. If he didn't know better, Brice would swear there were wind chimes dangling next to his ear.
"The imp's right," someone said from behind Brice. He sensed the presence and knew the speaker, it was the Gray Mage Coba, a refugee of the Order and, next to Brice, he was the highest ranked mage in Shattered Rock.
Under normal circumstances, Brice would have refused to work with the man, for not only was he constantly trying to undermine his authority, but he was also, like Alec, a man who was hunted by the Order. Though unlike Alec, Coba was a true killer, a man who willingly used his power to destroy those who were defenseless against it.
We're in this together, all races, all manner of people, Brice thought, biting his tongue while Coba continued to speak.
"We're wasting time here, Brice. There's a reason why the Order never recruited these people, it's because they're ill-bred, poor blooded idiots."
Brice was aware that Coba had more than just contempt for those who were uninitiated in the Singularity. Originally he had been exiled from the Order for his beliefs, which included elevating mages to a godlike status while all others lived as their slaves.
'The slightest thing we teach them will be a great benefit to all,' Brice said, sending his thoughts to all of the mages present not just Coba.
"Perhaps a demonstration would help to explain things."
A sleeve of gold motioned toward Emily.
“Emily, would you please aid us."
"At least your brown nose matches your robe," Tetloan blurted, receiving chuckles from many of the other, younger, students.
By all appearances, it seemed like Emily ignored him, standing gracefully and walking to the front of the class, through his years of training and an overly acute eye for detail, Brice detected a hair thin thread of blue leave her body and work its way toward Tetloan's sandals where it rapidly tied his laces into knots. Even if he could see the Singularity, the boy would have been hard pressed to detect such a slight manipulation. Though he would certainly sense something was amiss once he tried to stand.
It didn't matter that Emily was as powerful as any White Mage in existence, Brice had still chosen for her to wear the brown robe of a novice, which she humbly did, somehow making the dull garment appear lordly. In fact, her beauty was even more pronounced when contrasted with the coarse, dull fabric of the robe. Smirking, she winked at Brice then turned to the students, suddenly appearing very serious. Inwardly Brice could sense she was bursting with glee not only because of the trick she played on Tetloan, but also from anticipation, fully expecting to awe the crowd and her instructors with her performance.
She glowed, her body radiating an aura of blue that burned Brice's eyes to behold.
"As you can see, every one of us is a part and sum of the Singularity. The blue glow of mage-fire, what we call Magic, it is the true face of reality. And had we the eyes of Gods it would be all we see -- a current of light sweeping through space and time. What we are, our very life-force is but a drop of water falling into that current."
'Now Emily, as I showed you.'
A blue globe of fire appeared before her, hovering inches above her hand.
"By giving us their blood, the Gods left us their power. The ability to interact with and even control the current's flow."
The ball of flame still floated before her, though now both her hands rested at her sides. Watching it swirl with energy, she grinned.
"Please," Brice said to the crowd. "Rise."
Tetloan toppled to the ground as the others stood.
"Study how Emily guides the flow, both in its shape, size and element. Then, once you believe you understand her work, try to duplicate it."
Several blue spheres ignited. Most were no larger than a pebble. Some weren't even balls at all, but misshapen blobs of blue. But there were others that were quite impressive in size, equal to Emily's own creation. Not to be outshone, Emily now worked several balls simultaneously.
"No one can live without changing the current, whether they are mages or not. Every drop of water creates a ripple. For some of us, the surface merely stirs, while others, such as those of the Magi bloodline, they generate disruptions that travel deep within the waters and are often capable of altering the streams course altogether. Because of our power, it is our duty to always use our abilities for good, to guide the current in a course that benefits all. The flow of the Singularity began with the gods, but its destination they left within our hands."
Brice was getting whipped up, carried away by the growing thunder of his own voice.
"It is within our power to change the destiny of the world!"
To Brice's surprise, the crowd was laughing. Laughing when they should have been floored to the earth with enlightenment. Coba was laughing too, along with the rest of the mages at Brice's back.
"Pew," Galimoto said, sniffing the air around Brice's shoulder. "What is that horrible smell?"
Pinching his nose, the imp turned, a look of sudden realization covering his features.
"Oh. Galimoto should have known."
Stifling her laughter in the cup of one hand while pointing with the other, Emily let her globes dissipate. Her concentration completely shattered.
Annoyed, Brice turned to see the source of everyone's amusement.
"It seems your hero has finally decided to join us," Coba said. "Do tell us, Master Brice, what lesson is this display meant to teach?"
Standing knee deep in water, Alec was casually relieving himself in the fountain. Off to the side stood Solo Ki, leaning on the Graelic with his lips twisted into what might be considered a smile.
"Some savior you've found us, Master Brice," one of the mages behind him replied. "And to think, the Order finds this man dangerous."
"By the gods, Alec. What are you doing?" Brice said, his voice full of rage.
Alec lurched to attention, searching the crowd with a pair of blood-shot eyes, pissing all the while.
"Em I late for the lessin?" he said, shaking off the last droplets.
"Cover yourself. Children are present," Brice could no longer contain his anger, threads of blue light spilled from his golden sleeves.
"Aw, come on, Brice, compared ta this guy . . .?" Alec replied pointing at the urinating statue . "My member's all but invisible."
For some bizarre reason, the sculptor had chosen to make the soldier extremely well endowed.
"Besides. I couldn't hold er anymore. Soon's I heard the wader running . . . well, ya know how it is. Ya could sooner seal the Rift dan stem that flow."
Brice's only response was to close his eyes and shake his head.
Dripping -- mostly from the water he was standing in -- Alec made his way toward the class.
"So, wad I miss?"
Brice could sense the crowd growing restless, full of energy after, what was for them, a welcome interruption to a boring lecture. Meanwhile, the words, 'I think we've learned enough today,' were waiting to drop from Coba's tongue.
There's so little time, Brice thought, knowing that the more he taught them, the more likely they were to survive. If they were going to learn anything today he had to quickly stifle the excitement and restore order among his students.
"I am glad you could finally join us, Alec." Speaking the words was almost as difficult as holding back his mage-fire, though it boiled his insides. "Now please, if you could just take a seat with the rest of the group we could continue."
"Okay," Alec said while shrugging his shoulders. He then stumbled his way through the students and collapsed at the back of the crowd.
Silent throughout the exchange, Solo Ki slowly navigated the outskirts of the class, heading toward where Alec was last seen toppling over.
Thanking Emily, Brice bid her to return to her seat. Still fuming over Alec's display, Brice attempted to rejoin his lecture from where he left off. Though now his heart wasn’t in it, so numbly, he recited quotes from Adros. The words leaving his lips to instantly become a lullaby. It wasn't long before Alec was fast asleep, his nasal cavity booming louder than a thunderstorm, and soon afterwards his students began yawning, one after another, as though the weariness was an infection. The loudest yawns of all came from his back.
He turned, a wave of energy ready to leap from his fingertips and strike the new intruder.
Armed and armored, Bri Lynn and Theodorous strode toward him
"Pardon the interruption, Master Brice, but Lord Rafe urgently requests your council," Bri Lynn said, her skull covered by a steel half-round helm while the rest of her face, on down to her neck, was protected by a thin layer of gleaming chain mail. A black cape was draped over her back, clasped together at her neck with a silver dagger shaped pin.
Brice sensed the mages rousing behind him and could hear whispers running through the crowd of students.
"What is it?" Brice questioned, seeing the worry in Bri Lynn's eyes and knowing that it could be nothing good.
"There appears to be a problem with our scouts," Theodorous said, his thick white scar twitching on his face. He was covered from head to toe in a rusty and heavily dented suit of full plate and chain upon which various weapons had been strapped -- far more than any one man could possibly wield. Besides the standard long sword and bow strapped to his back, he had two daggers, one at his left wrist, and one at his ankle. Also, he had a weapon at each hip; a small throwing axe at his right side, and a short sword at his left. Considering those weapons were the ones that were visibly apparent, Brice figured they were but a small portion of the man's true arsenal. It was a wonder to Brice how the man managed to walk under the weight, and to do so without impaling himself.
"What sort of problem, Death Guard?"
Brice would have asked the question himself, but the gray mage Coba beat him to it.
Many of the children, as well as all of the mages, crowded around the pair of Death Guards and listened intently to their conversation.
"Have they sighted the horde?" someone from the crowd asked.
"More than likely, yes," Theodorous said. "Though what worries Rafe most is that they haven't reported back. In over three hours we have heard nothing from beyond the wall."
"It is the Lord Rafe's opinion that an attack is imminent," Bri Lynn broke in.
It's too soon.
Brice's thoughts were of his students, fearing that they would die because of what he had failed to teach them.
There was laughter at his side.
"You'd better waken your hero, Brice," Coba said. "It seems he has a battle to win."
He shut his eyes against the water and held his breath . . .
Silence . . .
"Aaaaaa," he sucked in the air as he arose, his hair and beard dripping wet, spilling water all around him. "That's enough, I feel much better n . . ." his voice suddenly ended in a geyser of vomit.
"We need him sober, Brice. We need him sober now!" Rafe said, his deep voice booming from his child-like body. Meanwhile Alec was still bent over the fountain, gagging on his puke. "By the gods what was I thinking?"
Rafe could hardly bare to turn his emerald eyes upon him.
"Get him to the wall, that's all that matters. If the people see him there, they may actually stay for the fight. Just see that he gets there, one way or another. Humph," he said, a childish smirk on his face. "Who would have thought, Theodorous was right. This man is nothing more than a drunk. Let's just hope that he really doesn't end up killing us all."
Rafe departed, motioning for Brice to follow. The Red Mage frowned at Alec before joining the Lord of Shattered Rock and his entourage of guards. One of his golden sleeves was soaked from dunking Alec's head while the rest of his robe was splattered with stains of puke.
"I'm fine, really."
Alec slowly stood upright, wiping chunks off of his beard.
"Maybe I should bring him to the Archenon, shelter him in the Great Tree with the rest of the children."
He hadn't realized Nathalia was there, but at the sound of her soft, eloquent voice, the blood began pumping through his veins and suddenly, miraculously he did in fact seem fine.
"Don't think you can adopt me like one of your whelps," Alec said, raising his head to the others.
Nathalia had brought her whelps along. The boy stood with his arms crossed, gritting his teeth with rage. The other one, the girl, she stared at him as usual. Her wide brown eyes a mix of compassion, sadness, and something that Alec might have mistook for love.
Staring right back at the girl he said, "You may be old enough, but I'll be dead if you think you're going to be my mother."
Those wide eyes didn't even blink.
But he was certain Tetloan was going to explode. And, while watching, waiting for the boy to erupt, he had completely forgotten and disregarded the imp . . .
"Ouch! Come here you little fiend!" Alec said, swatting at the air with one hand while covering the claw marks on his cheek with the other.
The imp retreated into the air.
"Next time the smelly man falls asleep he can be sure Galimoto's claw will be pressed to his throat!"
"It's okay Galimoto, Tetloan . . ." her hand rested on his shoulder and the boy instantly relaxed. "I’ve grown far too accustomed to this. Alec refuses help. He would place himself in harm's way just to spite my kindness. Time and again I've been there to save him from himself, but, like his shadow here," she said, referring to Solo Ki who was half sleeping beneath the shade of a strange wide leaved tree. "He seems intent on destroying himself. Nothing else matters does it Alec? Certainly not friendship. Definitely not love."
I am the destroyer . . .
"To the dead with you two," she said, her eyes of white and gray washing over Solo Ki and Alec. "I'm staying with the children. At least they're worth saving."
He may have been incapable of feeling love, but the shame cascaded in. As always Alec was ready for it and knew that it was something that must be endured.
Then the mage came. No more smiles graced his face, only a deep scowl. The Magic veneer that was his face appeared angry, violent, and perhaps even deadly.
"Don't fail me, Destroyer," Brice said flatly.
His robe was alive. Pure energy!
There would be no more bright smiles, nor white teeth. Alec had found the man's limit, and had shat upon it. All traces of kindness were gone from his eyes, and along with it, the belief, the hope. In its place was something darker. A look beyond the threat of warning. The eyes watched him anew, vigilant now, waiting for Alec to fail, waiting for him to live up to the name -- Destroyer.
The shame was nearly overwhelming.
He finally understands, Alec thought. At least I'll be far from Nathalia now.
He found a shred of comfort in that thought.
I just hope I can save you too Smiley.