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Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Gathering Dark - Chapter 15



Paths converge.


Chapter 15 - A Dance of Many (Part II)

Were there moments, during the time of the Dark, when the course of events could have been reversed? Moments where one individual, saying "I will" or "I will not" could have altered the slow, inevitable slide into ignorance, cold, and oblivion? I like to think not, but maybe I am being charitable to those trapped within that time. The choices that the men and woman of that age made, like those of today, were based upon their own survival and their own well-being. Each had to account for their actions to their superiors and to themselves. Each had to choose the best course for themselves and those they valued. But whatever their choices were, the ice was waiting.

-Arkol, Argivian scholar

She had finally made it. Sima has approached from the coastline and now before her is what looks like a city turned sideways and stacked up along the mountainside yet was all just one building. The Citadel of the Conclave.

To Sima it was the Dark Castle, the most dangerous place on this world. Here was where the wild mages made their lair, the ones too dangerous, too arrogant, and too chaotic to ever be a part of the City of Shadows. Their power was great, great enough that the other members of the Shadow Council would not allow members to visit, much less communicate. It was a tainted place and known as such from the earliest surviving records. Drafna himself wrote of this place when it was Monastery of Gix, and he told of the treachery that broke the original Council of the Ivory Towers.

Sima shudders, and thinks about all the rumors of their barbaric practices and hopes that Jodah is still alive. The mage pulls out a mirror and as she aims it at the Citadel it glows with a blue tint and she moves ever closer.


...Nearby...

Four figures watch Sima head towards the Conclave. A tracker, a preacher, a miracle worker, and the primata.

(After all his promises... all the help that Delphine was able to get was a group of three other people?)

Betje declares aloud that she had been right and Sima is here as she foretold. And while the preacher is each to move in and take her, the primata cautions then to be a bit more circumspect until the very moment they must act.

Delphine turns to the tracker and asks him to confirm that the place before them is a castle full of wizards. He tells her that's true. Through a series of more questions, she is able to learn that while the nearby towns amongst the planes aren't very fond of wizards, but they also fear them. There is a branch of the Church of Tal amongst the villages that is quite influential, but it tends to stay away from the subject of wizards.

When Delphine says she would like to see about changing that, the tracker tells her that his job was only to take them to this place, and he's ready to go about his own business, after he receives his payment.

"Of course," said the Priamta Delphine. She walked up to the tracker. She towered over the smaller man, and he almost backed away from her presence. Gently she raised her hand and touched the man's temples. "Let me bless you, first, my child, before you receive your payment. Let us now hear the words of the Book of Tal."

The miracle worker did not move, but the preacher gave a wolfish grin and said, "Tal knows all."

"Tal knows all," said the primata.

"All that is known is known through Tal," said the preacher.

"Tal knows all," said the primata, joined by Sister Betje.

"That which is not known to Tal should be cleansed," said the preacher, his voice rising.

"Tal knows all," said the primata, joined by Sister Betje.

"Let the cleansing begin," said the preacher.

"Let the cleansing begin," said the primata.

The tracker screamed. It was a short, painful scream that bubbled as it rose from the lungs. He tried to struggle, to break away, but the primata held him int he place with her fingertips pressed against his temples, as if he were made of iron and held in place with magnets. He twitched, and smoke began to curl from his temples, then from his ears.

The tracker gave one last rasping gasp and perished. The priamta removed her fingers, and the corpse collapsed in the soft, marshy ground.

"The sinner is cleansed," said the primata.

"Amen," said the preacher.

"Amen," said the miracle worker.

(Oh man, how creepy and fantastic was that.)

Delphine declares that it's time to test the fear and faith of the townsfolk with such an intensity that even the blind miracle worker has to turn away from her horrible smile.


...Jodah's room...

Jodah crawls into to be and wonders what it was that he did wrong. The spell should have worked. But he failed, and Mairsil saw him fail. Had he raised Mairsil's expectations too high? Or had Mairsil himself traveled down a similar path and was just hoping that Jodah would find his way past it. Jodah thinks about the many failures that Shannan has had with sculpting his gears... and then thinks about the accident with the saw.

Jodah opens his eyes to stare at the ceiling, and that's when he senses a presence in the room.

Jodah sits up and ignites the lamp in his room and the Rag Man is revealed, this time wearing a sword at his side. And not just any sword, but the very same runesword that he was given during his challenge. Jodah isn't sure if the sword is a threat, warning, or a message meant to tell him that he can move about the Citadel with ease and take anything he wants.

As ever, the Rag Man does not speak, and instead just opens the door to Jodah's room and walks out. Jodah follows and wonders if it is just coincidence that no one else is about the the hallways or if this is just another of the Rag Man's powers.

The Rag Man leads him to a dead end passage with an alcove that he can't remember anyone ever using. When he touches a particular stone in the wall, and the wall swings open. The Rag Man draws the runesword and its runes glow a blue glow and he moves forward into the darkness.

Jodah creates a ball of light himself and continues to follow the Rag Man down the narrow passage and stairs that turns at odd angles and changes from stairs to hallway at random times, and Jodah thinks about the story that Shannan had told him about two white mages being punished for attempting to create a map of the Citadel.

Eventually the Rag Man leads him to a large chamber that shaped like a tower within the castle. The ceiling up above is much further than anything he can see, and he and the Rag Man stand upon the edge of a vast pit. A cage hangs in the center.

With the cage, a darkness moves, and soon weathered hands appear to grab hold of the bars, and the wide eyes of a madman appears.

A thin voice issued from the cage. "Tell me," it hissed, "which is better, madness or darkness?"

The voice is nothing more than a whisper, but he asks his Rag Man if he's finally brought him something. The Rag Man sheathes his sword and the light from the sword winks out. In the silence Jodah asks what all of this is. The man in the cages tells him that "this" is Barl's cage , although he is not Barl. When Jodah asks who he is, the man straightens and tries to exude some sort of nobility and declares that he is Ith.

Another long silence.

Jodah at last ventured, "And who are you, Friend Ith?"

"Friend?" shouted the figure trapped in the cage, "Friend? I am no friend of the wizards here! I am Ith, the founder, the teacher, the lord! I am the master, and no friend of Ith has raised his hand against the Pretender!"

Jodah took a step backward, toward the door. The Rag Man did nothing to stop him.

The figure in the cage quieted now. "I'm sorry," he said, almost sobbing, "I don't get many visitors, these days."

Jodah asks if he's the one who founded the Conclave, and Lord Ith goes on a rant about how he trusted his pupil and he was betrayed and how no one lifted a finger to stop him. All that Mairsil has was all formerly Lord Ith's. His power is being drained by the cage created by his henchman, and the Pretender uses that power to keep the others in line through threats, violence, or bribes. He yells to Jodah that the Usurper must be destroyed.

Jodah isn't sure what to think. He recently witnessed Lord Mairsil lose his temper and everyone did seem to be afraid of him, but the words coming out of the prisoner's mouth are a confused jumble from a man who is so clearly on the brink of madness.

"I trusted him, of course. One always trusts one's pupil. Taught him what he needed to know, brought him here, founded the Conclave. I had heard of the City of Shadows , but they were too restrictive, too old-fashioned in their thinking."

But Mairsil changed. Everything changes. Ith declares that change is the secret. The source of magic. That everything changes, and everything has magic in it... but he was a fool to think that they themselves were invulnerable to change. The boy he trusted changed, and then locked him away in the darkness.

Lord Ith asks Jodah to pick up a stone and toss it into the pit. Jodah does so and listens. Five seconds, ten seconds, then thirty seconds and he hears nothing.

"When I came here, I tossed something into the pit," cackled ith. "I still haven't heard it hit. And I. Have. Good. Ears." Again the laughter.

Then the laughter came up short, and Ith wheezed, "But there are things within the pit, you know. Yes, dark, comforting things that make all sorts of promises. I've been strong, but the Pretender leeches at my strength and I wonder..." he paused for a moment, then added in a quiet voice, "am I still mad? Are you truly there, boy? Or are you some trick of my min, or a taunt of the Pretender?" His voice rose, and his hands and face began to glow with their own radiance. "Answer me!"

Jodah tells him that he is, in fact, real, and tells Lord Ith not to be afraid. The word afraid only triggers Ith's anger, and in a fury he declares that it should be the Pretender that should be afraid. For when Jodah frees him of his cage he will walk through the halls of the conclave and the usurper and all his followers shall be destroyed.

Lord Ith grasps onto the bars of the cage with hands and face that glow an increasingly brighter reddish-blue. The bars of the cage begin to glow white in turn and Ith screams.

Jodah runs back the way he came and the Rag Man doesn't make a move to stop him.


...Still within the pit...

Lord Ith sobs and tries to remember what he had been screaming about. Then he remembers and a tear rolls down his cheek, and to the Rag Man he admits that things didn't go as well as he had hoped.


...In Mairsil's study...

Barl walks in and sees Lord Mairsil sitting in front of his stone calendar , fidgeting with his ruby ring with a scowl on his face. It's clear the experiment didn't go well.

Mairsil tells him that, no, the experiment didn't go well. In fact he completely failed. Failed! He is most definitely Jarsyl's descendent, and he took that journal and learned as much in a week as Mairsil learned in a year and he still failed!

Barl tries to calm down his master, and tells him that he needs patience. He tries to remind Mairsil that he's been working on this for years and that there is still time yet, but Mairsil will have none of it. They were so close, and the walls between the dimensions are at their thinnest. This is the time to complete the spell and enter the Dark Lands.

If he can only make it there, they residents of that other world will grant him the power to walk the planes, like they did with Urza and Mishra.

Barl asks him how he can be so sure that that will be the result, and Mairsil says that like respects like, and if for some reason they are offended by his intrusion... well... then he'll just give them the boy as a sacrifice because it would have been he that actually cast the spell.

Mairisl is practically desperate to achieve his goal, and Barl tries to give him perspective by trying to remind him of all of his other accomplishments.

Whatever achievements the artificer was going to list were lost in the slam of Mairsil's palm against the desk. "But for every step there is a greater step beyond, my friend. A boy dreams of being a man. A man dreams of being a mage. A mage dreams of being a planeswalker."

Lord Mairisl is done with talking about this and knows that Barl didn't come here just to try to cheer him up, and Barl agrees. There's an important matter at hand. A new supplicant has appeared at the gates. A woman. A blue with an accent from the southeast.

Not only that, but in her interview she talked about a plague in Ghed, persecution by the Church, a sinking ship, and arriving here through sheer luck. Quite a similar tale as the one that Jodah had spoken of when he arrived. And while the name she gave didn't match that of the one that Jodah mentioned, her ability to lie is horrendous and there was clearly much she was trying to cover up.

So... there's a spy from the City of Shadows within the Conclave.

A smile touches Lord Mairsil's lips, and he poses a theoretical question to his second in command. What if he wanted to send in a young mage to the City of Shadows as a spy, followed by sending in a more experienced mage later on to pass on the knowledge he learned or extract the younger mage if necessary. What would Barl do if he found out about such a situation.

Barl tells him that it would be best to kill the elder mage immediately, but Lord Mairsil once again thinks he's being much too hasty. Another mage would likely be sent to recover the boy. No... what's best is to get the boy to kill the other mage himself. That way he will be disowned by the City of Shadows and have nowhere else to go but to remain with them, with his potential theirs to do as they will.

In the corner of the room, a small recording scarab rested at the bottom of the third page of three parchment sheets. It had stopped moving several minutes before, and now it lay there its eyes blinking, waiting for someone to give it a fresh sheet to write upon.

* * *


BAM!

Is it a bad thing that I found this chapter so exciting? I know Grubb has been going for a slow burn when it comes to the story, but maybe he could have sped up the pace a bit more. This chapter was fantastic!


Sima

Not much here besides the fact that Sima has arrived. Of course we did learn that the Conclave Citadel wasn't built up just any monastery, but the Monastery of Gix! Awesome.

But would it possibly have been better to reveal that information a little bit sooner? For new readers, his and Drafna's name have no meaning so it doesn't matter where you put that information. All they'll get is that some important person in the past thought associated the of worshipers of Gix with the betrayal of the Council of the Ivory Towers who were mentioned in one of Arkol's entries I believe. But for those familiar with the story, the link to Phyrexia would have been established a tad sooner.

Not a big deal, just something that crossed my mind. Pacing is one of the aspects of the story that I'm always thinking about.


Delphine

This was so wonderfully creepy. Loved it. And just to note, the scene was likely inspired by the card Cleansing , "inspired" once again meaning that title of the card helped lead to what appeared in the story despite the actual mechanics of the card not being accurately depicted. But if a scene this great comes about from just a card title, inspire away!

(As long as it's a card of little importance and a sufficient amount of cards are accurately depicted of course.)


Jodah and Ith

This was fantastic as well. What happens when a near mad lord who has barely been controlling his anger and rage for over a dozen years finally meets the person that his is only hope for escape? His rage breaks loose and scares away the innocent who has next to no idea what's going on of course!

Side Note: The back cover of the book contains a picture of the Rag Man holding onto the runesword. This just makes me realize that I should probably put up scans of the back covers of all the books at some point.

An Speaking of...: Let's talk about that runesword. I didn't realize the back cover was depicting the runesword until reading this chapter. Does that mean it'll have a much larger role that I previously thought during Jodah's challenge? Does this reappearance help to justify its awkward first appearance that could have been handled much better? That's just something I'll have to wait and see.


Mairsil

Oh man Sima has such a terrible plan. What she told Barl was actually mostly truth? She was smart enough to lie about her name and not mention the City of Shadows, but wasn't smart enough to make up a backstory?

Things are going to go back so quickly. But it also feels very natural for the story to present Mairsil with a new challenge so we don't just watch him linger and pout about how close he was to getting to Phyrexia.

I can't wait to see what happens next!


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