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Monday, March 19, 2012

The Gathering Dark - Chapter 9

Testing time.

Chapter 9 - Interviews and Auditions

The thing to remember about the mages of the Dark era is that, despite the name, this was a time of discovery and enlightenment. The borders of magic were being pressed back by bold individuals who did not think in terms of traditional dogma or boundaries or balances or limitations. Spells were cast for the first time there by wizards who never thought of the full potentials of their actions. Or, by the same token, the full repercussions.

-Arkol, Argivian scholar

A portly man that is perhaps a butler comes to escort Jodah to where he needs to go. He wears a metal collar of some kind, as did the doorman, although of a different style which had two wolf heads where the collar clasped together, as opposed to simple round spheres. The butler takes him through a hallway so wide and tall that it could easily have fit the ship he sailed on, and asks him to sit on a velvet-covered chair and wait.

Jodah looks at the painting on the wall of a figure with wide-brimmed hat with a golden feather who holds a rapier in one hand.

The portrait's face was calm and self-assured. The figure had dark hair, with only a few streak of gray at the temples, and a thing mustache that framed a hard, unyielding mouth. He wore a jeweled cuff in the right ear, the left being hidden int he portrait and a huge ruby-stoned ring on his right index finger.

The most striking thing about the figure were its penetrating eyes. They disturbingly reminded him of Primata Delphine's eyes.

As he waits, three cocky figures dressed in bright clothes appear, wondering very loudly if this new person before them is a new student or a servant. They swarm around and question him, but are soon frightened away by the appearance of a simply dressed, muscular man with a receding hairline who they refer to as Friend Barl.

After Friend Druscilla, Friend Lucan, and the third mage very promptly follow Barl's suggestion that they have better things to do, Barl takes Jodah to a new room where they can have a proper interview. Barl pulls out a mechanical insect that quite skillfully uses a pen to transcribe every word they say, and the questions begin. Jodah tells him of Voska and the Church of Tal, the magic he can do, and the mirror that he lost. He tells him where he was from, how he got there by falling asleep in a cave , and of his great-grandfather Jarsyl. What he doesn't talk about are details of Sima and the City of Shadows nor does he speak of the Rag Man.

The final question that Barl asks is why Jodah has come to them.

Jodah stammered, aware that his words were being taken verbatim, then stopped and took a deep breath. Why was he here? Because some ragged figure led him here/ Because he was pursued by the church? Because Sima and Vosak and everyone else he knew were dead?

At last Jodah said, "Because I am tired. I am tired of being cold all the time. Tired of being hunted. Tired of being hungry. And I think magic can change that."


They finish up the interview and Barl begins to explain some of the basics of the Conclave. He tells him that the metal collars signify if one is a servant, and he explains to Jodah that now that he's here, if he decides he no longer wants to be a student or if he fails the challenge they're about to present to him then he will be fitted with a collar of his own and be forced into service.

Jodah follows Barl down a spiral staircase and stop before a some large oak doors.

Barl picked up a sheathed sword from a rack of similar weapons and handed it, hilt first, to Jodah. Jodah grasped the hit, and Barl pulled the sheath back, releasing the blade. It was a broad blade , made of some coppery metal, and had inscriptions along its length.

"You might need this," he said.

Jodah walks through the oak doors down a narrow passageway which leads to a narrow arena only fifteen feet wide and fifty feet across, with portcullises on either end and surrounded by twenty rows of stadium seats.

There are a few people sitting in the stands, but they don't seem particularly interested considering that one is asleep, one is drunk, and last is reading a book. Barl reappears and takes a seat at the midway point and asks Jodah if he's ready. Jodah responds by raising his sword and saluting due to a lack of anything to say, then his challenger appears.

The thing that walks through the gate isn't human. It is more insect than anything else, and covered in a bronze-color armor, armed with a great axe. There is now bowing or formal acknowledgement of any kind. The thing just marches straight toward him, ready to attack.

Jodah quite confidently taps into the memories of his homeland and casts a globe of light around the creatures head. The machine doesn't miss a step. It swings its axe at Jodah, and he manages to turn it aside. It continues to swing an identical swing, and Jodah continues to parry the blows, not knowing what else to do.

Barely noticed by Jodah, Lord Mairsil takes a seat next to Barl and asks for an update. Barl says things aren't looking too good. That it appears that the prospective student seems to be a one-trick hedge mage. Lord Mairsil takes a look at Jodah's file, and his eyebrows raise when he comes across the fact that Jodah is a descendant of Jarsyl, a name that the Chief Artificer hadn't recognized during the interview. Mairsil thinks that this prospective student might be quite useful in the library, but when Barl asks if he should stop the challenge, Mairsil tells him not to. That would be cheating.

As for the fight, Jodah continues to back up and parry each blow, and he wonders why his opponent doesn't seem to be tiring at all. Then the obvious dawns on him. It isn't an humanoid insect creature, covered in armor that he's fighting. There is no creature at all. This is a device . Much like those before the Devastation. One or Urza or Mishra's.

He knows what it is, now he just needs some time to execute a plan to defeat it.

You may need this, Barl had said when he gave him the sword.

But not as a weapon, answered Jodah. With the next chop, Jodah flipped his arm upward as he parried the blow, letting it be carried by the axe. The crystalline blade of his metallic opponent brought the blade back up toward its own face. It stepped backward for a moment, released one hand from the axe, and brushed the spinning toward aside, sending it clattering against the far wall.

It had taken long enough for Jodah to regain both his wind and his concentration. As the creature raised the blade over its head to bring down one more blow, Jodah raised a hand, pulled the memories forward, and placed his palm against the beast's metallic chest. The plates of its chest felt warm as Jodah sent his power through the creature's limbs and joints.

(More on this later.)

Jodah's opponent freeze mid-swing and falls over.

While none of the audience members seem to care about Jodah's victory, clapping can be heard coming from Barl, who once again sits alone. Barl congratulates him on realizing he should remove the enchantment on his opponent. Jodah corrects him by saying that all he did was remove its access to the enchantment. One of those specific details that came about through lessons with Sima that Jodah had thought irrelevant and stupid. He tells Barl that he thought they might want to still use the machine again in the future.

Barl smiles, and tells Jodah that they should get him cleaned up and presentable.

* * *

The Pretender

No wonder Mairsil is "The Pretender." That was the challenge?

We're going to give you a sword which will be key to solving this puzzle, which will prove if should be in this organization of mages. Why this special rune covered sword specifically? Oh, no reason. But since your opponent is a robot, it swings exactly the same way each time, you can take advantage of the upswing at it lifts its axe and use it as a way to catapult the sword towards its own face to buy you time to cast a spell.

I'm sure Lord Ith, a man who is fond of building mazes, could have come up with a challenge and solution that is slightly more elegant than "throw this at its face." In fact, that's not a solution at all. Jodah could likely have accomplished his spell with or without the sword.

Down with the Usurper!


  1. I think you're over-thinking the challenge, as well as Voska & Jodah's escape from the Church. In both cases, they're not meant to represent cleverness so much as luck. Voska and Jodah were lucky their desperate gamble worked (well, half-worked). In this case, it's lucky that Jodah fought a creature that can be defeated by one of the two spells he actually knows.

    The Runesword, on the other hand, is just a magic sword. It's not like when Barl said "here, you might need this," he was giving Jodah the key to a fiendish puzzle. It was more like, "here, you can channel mana. If you get stuck and don't know a single spell that's relevant to the situation, this artifact will work with pretty much any color you can pump into it. Just try not to die."

    So when Jodah hurl's the thing in the Yotian Soldier's face as a distraction, I can practically see Barl saying, "well, that was... unorthodox."

    Shannon will mention his challenge in passing at some point. As an artificer with no real spells (or rather, only the spells he can build out of wood and strap to his back), he had a somewhat tougher time of it. The creatures thrown at them are not exactly random, but don't seem very carefully chosen either. Probably just whatever specimen they had chained up at the minute.

    1. That's quite possible, but it still doesn't seem likely to me.

      From the author's point of view, that forces the assumption that every reader knows what the runesword is and how it works, because none of that was conveyed in the book. You'll notice that even though readers of The Brother's War and/or players familiar with the Yotian Soldier card will catch on a bit earlier that what Jodah was facing was in fact an artifact creature, Grubb does explain what the creature is by the end of the chapter. There is no such explanation for the sword.

      If Grubb wrote the chapter in a way that he intentionally created two interpretations, one for those familiar with the card, and another for those unfamiliar with the card, that's quite inconsistent with how he's been treating most everything else in the book.

      (At least as far as I can tell from how far I've read into the book so far. Maybe my opinion will change after I finish the book and can see it as a whole.)

    2. True, knowing what the sword does exactly would give a slightly different interpretation. But it's enough to know that it's a magic sword of some kind, which is hinted at pretty well by the fact it's covered in runes and sitting in a wizards' conclave. And even if you don't know that, it's still a sword.

      All you really need to know is that they're sending him in (only slightly) better than unarmed. That makes sense given that he either triumphs and becomes a member, or holds his own just long enough to get bailed out at the last minute and becomes a servant. Dying and becoming a stain on the arena wouldn't really help anyone. The wizards certainly don't seem to get any entertainment out of it.

      I'm a little curious whether the Conclave would consider winning with only the sword to be a success (since he won by channeling mana), or a failure (since you may not bring any real spells or knowledge of your own to the group).

    3. Oh certainly the overall concept of the challenge still comes across well. The reason why I ended that little section with "Down with the Usurper!" Rather than say something like, "This was an absolutely pathetic attempt at squeezing in a card cameo that feels tacked on rather than really serving the plot," is because while I do feel that way... to some extent I also just want to give the benefit of the doubt to Grubb.

      It doesn't ruin the book, and it may very well be that there were challenges under Lord Ith's rule of the Conclave and that they've been somewhat corrupted in this new Order and *that's* the reason why it's so insignificant that even the audience doesn't really seem to care. The challenges have lost all meaning are just a check box that everyone has to go through before being accepted.

      The big Free Pass that this scene gets is that we know that the Conclave under Lord Mairsil's rule isn't ideal. There could be any number of explanations as to what was supposed to happen and any number of ways the results could be interpreted.