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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Gathering Dark - Chapter 17

Jodah vs. Sima.

Chapter 17 - A Game of Red and Blue

The concept of dueling is almost as old as magic itself. Some point to Urza and Mishra as the first magical duelists, and while this is tempting, ti should be noted that they fought with armies and artifacts, not with spells as we know them. Also, they were rarely faced each other, save at the very beginning and at the very end. The concept of duels, so firmly entrenched in the period of the Ice Age, got its start at least during the time of the Dark, as a means of solving disputes.

-Arkol, Argivian scholar

For three days Sima was locked up in her room. And despite it being larger and nicer than her room in the City of Shadows , with all her needs taken care of, she knew she was a prisoner. With all that time, she had nothing much else to do but dwell on current events. She was sure that she did well to keep her identity secret, but Barl was the meticulous manager type that missed next to nothing, so there was no telling what he figured out.

On that third day after the interview, Barl knocks on her door and tells her that she's been accepted by the Conclave... assuming she passes her challenge, of course. He hands her a package and tells her what's inside is part of tradition.

She dressed. Barl had given her a package of long, blue robes suitable for hiding all manner of weapons. She placed the mirror in a pocket directly over her breast. Thick-soled boots in the eastern style, heavier than she was used to, and a mask that looked vaguely animalistic, like a lion's face, painted with blue lacquer and set with black string around the edges in a rough mane. She shook her head at the stupidity and put the mask on, then went out to present herself to the artificer.

After she gets dressed, and she presents herself to Barl and he walks her over to a narrow stadium where audience members have gathered wearing outfits that are more garish and less practical than hers, many wearing masks of their own. Before she enters, Barl offers her a sword and tells her she might need it, but Sima refuses and nearly laughs at the thought of using a sword in a magic fight.

On the other side of the arena stands a mage in red robes with a dragon mask covering his head, and so Sima begins skimming through her mental catalog of spells for ones useful against a red mage. A man dressed as a peacock stands and declares that the challenge shall begin, and immediately both dragon and lion draw mana to themselves.


Jodah read the recording the day after the experiment, and what was said after he left the room was rather shocking. It recorded Mairsil's disgust at Jodah's failure, and talking about how he thought he had Jodah under his control, and about possibly offering up as sacrifice should it come to that when they finally cross over into the Dark Lands.

It continued in a similar vein through the rest of the third page. The last line was in black type, probably Barl's, and said: You have achieved much without surgery, My Lrod Mage.

What had been Mairsil's response to that? Jodah wondered. The scarab had run out of paper there. What had they discussed, unrecorded, afterward? Had they come to some conclusion about him? Had they decided to punish him for his failure? Challenge him to do better? Or to test his abilities and his loyalties. Mairsil wanted him to learn some new spells so he could compete in a duel.

(More on this later.)

...Even earlier...

Jodah wanted to know more about this duel they wanted him to fight, and Barl explained. There is a dispute that a mage wants to settle with Lord Mairsil, but because of his status as first among equals, it makes it difficult for anyone to want to challenge him directly, so the use of proxies is preferred.

The answer didn't please Jodah. It suspiciously felt like test, and he hated tests.

Later that day, Barl introduced him to his new tutor, Wode. He was and old man with rooms so far up one of the towers that Jodah felt he could see why he hardly ever saw him around. He was also to be Jodah's tutor to prepare him for the duel. And with the duel imminent, there's no time for theory, just spell cramming.

The first spells he learned as were white-based. One, a ward that would protect him from blue spells. The other a circle of protection that did the same. Naturally, Jodah asked was the difference was.

Wode held up a hand and ticked off the reasons with his fingers. "A ward moves with you, the circle don't. Circle you gotta keep pumping mana into, but protects more. Ward keeps you from being even hit by blue spells - slides right off you. And you can toss wards on others."

Barl came to the door when the session was over and asked Jodah what they talked about. Jodah tells him they talked about magic. Rather than answer Jodah's return question about why he asks, Barl instead lets him know that the duel was announced at dinner, and already wagers are being made as to who will win.

The next day, Wode had Jodah practice both the ward and circle of protection once more, and then taught him how to tweak them to protect him from other colors. And while red wasn't a color that Wode was especially well versed in, he was able to give Jodah enough advice to channel the elemental nature of red to destroy a blue spell.

At some point during the day, Jodah asks who could possibly have a disagreement with the Lord High Mage. Wode tells him that no one would ever disagree with him, but when Jodah tells him that he was told that was the whole reason there was going to be a duel in the first place Wode is quick to agree that must be so then.

At the end of the day, Barl meets with him again and asks Jodah what they talked about, and Jodah gives him the same response as before.

On the third day, Jodah asks Wode if he's a prisoner, and a surprised Wode tells him the answer is both yes and no. Yes, he is not allowed to leave, but at the same time he has no where else to go. For both reasons he stays.

Jodah continues with his questions and asks what it is that Lord Mairsil is up to, but Wode tells him that he never dwells on that and gives Jodah advice that it's best he does the same. Jodah presses further and tells Wode that he's heard that there is someone being kept prisoner below the castle.

"Where did you hear that?" asked the mage, his face suddenly alive and angry.

Jodah backed away. "I thought it was gossip...."

"Gossip... huh," said Wode. "You can tell Mairsil's running boy Barl that he won't get me that easily. Others have fallen for that trick and then found themselves suddenly without spells, ro wearning a servantr's torque, or mysteriously gone int he night."

"I don't..." started Jodah.

"Don't give me your 'don'ts,' " said Wode. "I see that he comes to fetch you each evening. Tell Friend Barl I know nothing about anything, and particularly nothing about anything that I shouldn't know about. And if you ain't working for Barl-" he paused here, and his eyes softened again- "then you'd best stop asking such questions. Am I clear?"

When Barl comes to pick him up, Barl asks again what they talked about, and Jodah gives him the same response as always.

In his room, Jodah reflects on what he's learned. Wode's outburst is enough to convince him that Wode is afraid of Barl and of Lord Mairsil. Afraid because he knows about Lord Ith and yet does nothing about it. There's too much he doesn't know, but he knows that the Lord High Mage is willing to sacrifice him, and so he decides that after the duel, it's time for him to leave.

Jodah puts on the costume that he's given and Barl escorts him to the arena. But first, before the fight begins, Barl gives him one last bit of info. The mage he's about to face has killed others in combat before. Lesser mages like himself.


Jodah immediately draws upon the red mana at his disposal and flings flaming daggers across the arena, but the blue mage in the lion mask waves his hands and they evaporate, eliciting boos from the crowd. Jodah takes two steps forward and the ground rolls like a wave, making Jodah feel sick in a way that he hadn't felt since his last night in Ghed. Jodah falls to his knees but is able to concentrate hard enough to counter what he's doing and the blue mage staggers back.

Jodah casts a circle of protection just in time, but finds his second set of flaming daggers reflected back at him, with one managing to nick his arm resulting in even more boos from the crowd which make Jodah even more determined than ever to win.

The blue mage sends spell after spell against his defenses, and Jodah fears he's going to run out of mana to keep them up much longer. One one last effort he throws a third set of flaming daggers right after igniting a blinding ball of light right in the mage's face...

And as soon as both sets of spells are completed a sudden flash of recognition for the way mage had just stomped her foot in frustration just moments before let him know that it isn't a random mage that he's fighting. He's fighting Sima.

Daggers slam into her and she falls to the ground, her robes quickly becoming wet with blood. Jodah rushes forward blocking out all sounds from the crowd, not listening to what Lord Mairsil is shouting at him. He has to reach her. He has to save her.

Jodah rips off Sima's mask and gathers white mana to him and creates a replica similar to Mother Dobbs' alabaster potions , but this one made of pure mana, and he pushes it into her body.

Sima's body shudders for a moment, and then her eyes open.

Jodah looks towards Barl and Lord Mairsil to find Barl ordering others to down into the arena to intercept them while Lord Mairsil himself points a wand of some sort at them.

Then the castle is rocked hard enough to knock people off their feet. There's a moment of confusion on everyone's faces, before they realize they're being attacked. Some mages are ready to fight while for others panic sets in.

Jodah hunched over Sima. Her eyes were open now, and her breathing, though ragged, was strong.

She spat blood and said muddily, "It's about time you got here, Jodah of Giva Province. I'm here to rescue you."

* * *


I have to admit, I was shocked. For a second there I thought that Sima was actually dead and was a bit sad a the thought.


Quite an interesting fellow to introduce so late in the game. A man who is to be Jodah's teacher despite the place being a place of equals. I gotta say though, for as paranoid as Lord Mairsil and Barl are for leaving Jodah with the old man, they're system of asking Jodah what they talked about to make sure Jodah and Wode discuss anything inappropriate was a rather poor system. They have recording scarabs! Just put on in the room and record away! Istead, Jodah gets another huge clue that things aren't right within the Conclave and he knows it's time for him to leave.


Speaking of... I have to say I was a bit confused at first. Let's recall the last paragraph of Chapter 15:

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.

While we did learn when Jodah was first introduced to the writing scarabs that once they're off the sheet they need to be manually placed at the top of a new sheet of paper to continue writing, otherwise he may waste more than a few minutes reading some text while nothing is being written... it was written early enough in the book and this last sentence was written in a way that resulted in me thinking that the writing scarab had some sort of storage in it and was ready to spit out the entire conversation to paper as soon as someone gave it fresh paper. Like a printer that gives you a message telling you to reload the paper tray, and then as soon as you hit "OK" it goes on to complete printing whatever document that was interrupted.

With that in mind, when I read that paragraph was anticipating for Jodah to get a huge wake up call when he read the entire conversation between Lord Mairsil and Barl. I was expecting them to set up the duel, with him in the know that it was Sima he was facing, and then for him to work together with Sima to eventually free Lord Ith.

That wrong assumption made it all the more shocking when Sima "died" because in mind the story was never supposed to go down that path.

Instead I didn't realize my mistake until after I finished the chapter, did the re-read as I wrote up this post, and flipped back through the book to realize my mistake.

Poor reading comprehension on my part? Possibly.

Unfortunate phrasing of that last paragraph to emphasize that something might happen if the scarab was ready to be given a new sheet of paper? Probably.

Could the book have benefited with having one quick instance of Jodah working in the library and forgetting to switch out a new sheet of paper and having to re-read a passage as a result to keep that quirk about an unfamiliar magical device a bit more fresh in readers' minds? Certainly.

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