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Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Gathering Dark - PROLOGUE

Enter: Lord Ith.


The temporal boundaries of the age known as the Dark are indeterminate. Trying to set down when it truly began and when it truly ended is akin to determining the exact moment that dusk begins and when the day finally and fully surrenders to night. Most scholars and theologians agree that the Dark began with the devastation of Argoth in 64 AR, and it extended several hundred years, until the continent of Terisia was at last firmly in the grip of its Ice Age.

None of those living during the time of this period would have identified themselves as living in a dark age, when civilization slipped from the golden days of the time of the Brothers. For them it was merely their everyday life, and if the days grew colder and the world more dangerous with the passing years, who could truly notice?

It was a time when the old nations collapsed, when goblins swelled their numbers in the hills, and when city-states quarreled and feuded under the onus of a tyrannical church. It was also the time when magic as we now know it came into full bloom; when the basic truths of modern spellcasting were first set down. During this ancient period the first true convocation of mages occurred, carrying on the spirit of Terisia City, combining their knowledge and encouraging their brethren in the exploration of this new art.

-Arkol, scholar of New Argive

(I couldn't help but take a peek to see if these pre-chapter journal entries would be a recurring thing... and yup, looks like they are. These will be quoted in full from here on out. And this commentary serves another purpose. I needed a clear separation between the pre-chapter journal entry and the opening line and paragraph of the chapter and the book. It is a supurb opening as these things go.)

In the depths of the catacombs beneath the Conclave Citadel, Lord Ith screamed in the darkness.

(So much conveyed with so few words. It's fantastic. Even had the name of Ith not been recognizable from the cards, adding in his title of "Lord" is enough to convey his importance to a brand new reader. We're told there is a citadel controlled by the Conclave, and organization that we know studies the ways of magic thanks to the pre-chapter journal entry. "Depths," "catacombs," and "beneath" each magnifies the effect of the others to convey a vast distance underground and gives a sense of isolation and dread, reinforced at the end of the sentence with the word "darkness"... and Lord Ith is screaming.)

(With this one opening sentence there is already a strong feeling of dread and sense of foreboding. It demands that the question "What is going on!?" be answered. What a wonderful opening line.)

It was a ragged scream of lung long since worn raw. He had been screaming for some time now, he realized, not knowing when one wail began and the last one had ended. Indeed, Ith did not know if his own voice was as loud as it seemed in his ears or if it was only the wheezing gasp of his breath against the silence that enwrapped him like a soft, muggy blanket.

Lord Ith, former ruler of the Citadel, former Lord High Mage, former supreme power of the Conclave, that collection of necromancers, thaumaturges, mages, and spell-dabblers, realized he was thinking about his screams, as opposed to just continuing to scream. He clung to the thought. Other thoughts accumulated around the edges of this first thought; fragile, flickering embers that could be nurtured, then banked into flaming moments, even hours of lucidity.

It was futile, he knew, for the cage that entrapped him was draining his life, pulling away his power and his grandeur and his knowledge, wearing him down until exhausted sleep finally claimed what was left and the dreams rose within him again.

And sleep wasn't an escape. In fact, his dreams brought upon even a worse torment, and when he wakes the screaming begins anew in this eternal cycle of screams.

Lord Ith's cage was finely crafted of watersilver, its bars as clear and opalescent as a frozen waterfall. The struts were as thin as gossamer and as touch as steel. Lord Ith knew their strength, for he had railed against the bars in the long nights of his incarceration. Far above him, in teh great banquet halls of the Citadel, the magicians and the enchantresses dined on watersilver plates and cut their meat with blades made of the metal, but for Lord Ith the watersilver's purpose was to hold him tight, like an insect mounted for display and dissection.

The cage itself was strung on watersilver chains over an abyss, a blackness so deep that not even Ith knew of its true limits. The abyss had always been here, before the Conclave had been founded, before the now-vanished monks of artifice had made it their home, before the time of the Brothers and their unholy war that had wrecked the world.

The bars begin to glow, and Lord Ith knows he has only but a little time to act. The cage can sense when he's reached a stage of lucidity and is ready to suck these new thoughts away. Before that can happen, Ith clears his mind and thinks about the castle above and the hills and swampland surrounding it. He thinks of the maze he had always dreamt of building that would keep out all but the most persistent of travelers from entering his domain.

That dream was dead now, as so many dreams had died.

He thought of all the lands that were taken from him and were know in the hands of the Usurper. And with the energy that is channeled from those memories, Ith used the tiny corner of his mind that the cage had not yet sucked away and the dreams had not yet breached, and he sent out a summoning. To do otherwise was hopeless. He had tried to break the bars many times before. This is his last option left to him.

The bars glow even brighter, and with all of Ith's energy spent on casting his spell, he blacks out. At least he thinks he does. He could have very well imagined it. He could have imagined he cast a spell too. There is no way to be sure. Not anymore.

Off in the distance Ith hears the sound of keys in a lock, and hard leather soles on the stone floor. Shadows cast by a lantern's light flicker away and Ith knows this is not the answer to his call.

It was the Pretender. The Usurper. Mairsil. The one who had thrown Ith into his cage of mystic metal and taken over his position as Magus Alumni, as first among equals, as the ruler of the Conclave. The Usurper was the only one who knew where Ith was. The only one who could come visit him, unsummoned.

Ith fights the call to slip back into the darkness and insanity, and when the struggle is over, the Usurper stands before him.

Mairsil the Pretender was dressed sumptuously, as if he had just left a feast , which he likely had. His cape was made of cloth of gold and trimmed at the neck and sleeves with ermine. The shift and pants beneath were made from velvet of a hue so deeply purple as to appear a part of the night sky. His face was masked, and Ith remembered with a start that masks had been in fashion when he had been first imprisoned. The Pretender's was made of gold, and it encircled his eyes and covered his nose making him look like a predatory bird. Spikes from above the eyepieces followed his high brow into a long dark hair that was swept back over his shoulders. Again, it made him seem like a bird of prey.

"It has been a while," said Mairsil his voice smooth and soothing.

Ith noticed that as Mairsil spoke he stroked an over-sized ruby on his right ring finger.

"Nearly a year since you were last well enough to chat. We had feared we lost you entirely."

Ith said nothing. In his mind he would play out such conversations - conversations where Ith reduced Mairsil to emotional rubble with nothing more than a few choice phrases - but when Mairsil came to visit the words and venom within the older man boiled up tot he surface so fast that he sounded like little more than a dog barking. So Ith now held his tongue.

The Pretender goes on to say that it wouldn't matter much if they had. Not one talks about him much anymore. It's been over a decade since his disappearance. People hardly remember him.

But Mairsil remembers.

And he knew that Ith would be in one of his more lucid states. The toys of his began to flicker with power. Like the wand that Mairsil pulls out of his robes, powered by one of the last surviving powerstones from the era of the Brothers' War. Even though Ith had been trying to maintain his composure, something in his face when the wand was produced prompted the Usurper to tell relish in telling him that it was Ith's own wand that's been used to uncover any dissent to his reign. Ith's own wand that has shown him the truth that Lord Ith is almost completely forgotten.

"But I remember. Oh, yes. I still remember enough to keep a close watch on you."

It is this taunt that finally gives Lord Ith a measure of satisfaction. Mairsil felt a flicker of power coming from his former master and he had to come running to ensure that the prison still held. He was still afraid.

But Ith kept those thoughts to himself and Mairsil continues to ramble on. He says outloud that he assumes that Ith still refuses to accept his offer, and tells him what a shame it is. Such a shame. He's losing his mind and his memories. There is no stopping it. But with a few simple words from Ith... if he could just tell him... some of his knowledge can live on.

"I have your citadel," said Mairsil, and suddenly the wand was out again from beneath his cloak, its gemstone tip now glowing like blood. "I have your weapons, your followers, your magics! What do you have that I cannot obtain? Your very existence is being sucked dry! I could spare you all this! Tell me what I need to know! Tell me Urza's secret!"

Lord Ith had been trying to remember what it was that Mairsil was even talking about. Concentration just took too much effort. But with this these it finally clicked. He knows what it is that Mairsil wants but cannot have, and gives off just a hint of a smile.

Maisil cursed and turned Ith's own wand against him in rage. An electrical current sprang forth and racked Ith's body until his blacked out. Through the pain he remembers that's how their conversations always end.

When he wakes, Ith first convinces himself that the meeting with Mairsil was real, and then notices that something else is nearby in his place. A twisted creature covered in rags . And it... he... waits waiting for Ith to speak.

This is who he had summoned, and if he is to accomplish anything he has to act fast. Already he can feel the darkness weighing down on him. Already he can feel his mind ready to give in once more. Then the screams will continue, as always.

"Help me," he rasped to the creature, his voice as leathery as the tattered boots the rag creature wore. The creature made no move, for he was as powerless against the cage as Ith.

The captive mage shook his head, trying to keep the darkness at bay through force of will. It would not be denied.

"Seek help," he said instead to the rag-cloaked man. "Bring me one with the key. Bring me one who carries the secret. Bring him to me, so he may set me free."

The figure nods and walks away. As for Ith, the darkness takes hold and the events and the cage bombards him with its power, attempting to steal every memory that has come before. The screams resume, and once it begins, it feels like he's been screaming forever.

* * *

Pre-Chapter Journal Entry

Much like The Brothers' War, this type of historical account of what we're about to read gives the book a grand sense of scope to it. These events and people are so important that they've been recorded in the history book.

Specifically, this journal entry lets us know these are dark times. Civilization is falling apart, and no one saw or felt it happen. People just looked back and finally one day they realized the world had fallen apart.

And once set, the feeling of foreboding permeates the whole chapter. Not just because of the circumstances of what's going on with Lord Ith. I already mentioned how beautifully crafted the opening paragraph is, and how it accomplishes that, but there are a lot of subtle things as well.

Such as the description of the Citadel. It's a gathering of mages and dabblers in magic from all around the world. But look closer at the description. Grubb doesn't start with saying it's a collection of mages.

...the Conclave, that collection of necromancers, thaumaturges, mages, and spell-dabblers...

Grubb leads off with "necromancers." Is the Conclave made up mostly of necromancers and that's why they get top billing? My guess is no. (As circumstantial evidence, their leaders, both Lord Ith and Mairsil don't appear to be necromancers. And through total assumption with the little I have to go on, I'd think an organization of mostly necromancers would want one as their leader.) The word was placed first to carry on the theme of how oppressive this time period.

Opening Lines

Even without the pre-chapter journal entry as a setup to the tone of the world, the opening line here just works so well. Not every book needs it, much like how not every movie needs to open up with an explosion, when it fits, I'm sure every author is happy to have an attention grabber.

Here are a couple openings for some other books. The first is from Stephen King's The Gunslinger. I don't remember how I reacted when I read this line, but I do remember reading about Stephen King being very proud of it. Perhaps in his book about his career and the art of writing titled... On Writing.

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

This second is from a science fiction book that everyone should read, Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game.

"I've watched through his eyes, I've listened through his ears, and I tell you he's the one."

Some people might think I'm insane by referencing such classics as these and comparing it to a "mere" Magic novel. But to me the opening line here is on par in its effectiveness to convey setting and/or tone with so little, while at the same time creating a need to know more and read on.

Info Dump... Or Not

Speaking of subtle. We learned a lot in this chapter, but the information was fed so gradually, and slipped in so naturally, that it never felt like we were getting an info dump or getting some forced exposition to keep us up to speed.

We learn that Lord Ith is the former leader of the Conclave, trapped beneath his own Citadel, and he's been usurped. We learn the of the cage, and the nature of his imprisonment, and how it alerts his enemy. We learn Mairsil's name, we learn his motives, and that he was Lord Ith's former pupil. We learn of a secret, that's related to Urza. And that there is one man who carries the key to this secret and is the last hope for Lord Ith to be freed. The rag man is sent to find him.

The details of what's going on, who the main parties involved are, and how they're related to each other are very deliberately spaced out throughout the chapter and revealed to us slowly as Lord Ith grasps on to whatever memories will take hold. It could easily have to crammed together in a couple paragraphs of dialogue or otherwise to an extreme or with a lack of finesse that it would feel like "Hey! You need to know this!" rather than building upon the description of the world of the novel to take us to that place.

Even the two hints of what life is like up above is used to nice effect. First the contrast between Ith's cage and how it is made of the same metal as the luxury item of dinner plates and utensils up above.  It's used for contrast in that paragraph to show how desperate Ith's situation is, but also used as a primer to accept that when we see Mairsil's description of how it looks like he just left a feast, it helps to complete a picture of the clueless members of the Conclave loudly conversing over a meal with the fancy dinnerware, with probably music in the background and people dancing in their decorative clothing and masks. Two simple references and so much is implied that it can be easily filled in.

(Or is that just me?)

With that said... that makes me wonder about Mairsil's ruby.

Ith noticed that as Mairsil spoke he stroked an over-sized ruby on his right ring finger.

What sort of magical artifiact is this that it would get its own one-sentence paragraph separated from the full description of Mairsil written only two paragraphs prior? It can't simply be there to reinforce that it is now he with the wealth and power can it? It has mean something more. There's something to it and it will be brought up again.

Book Recommended!

Based off this chapter, I think it's safe to say that it seems the praise I've heard of this trilogy is well deserved, and this is a trilogy you'll want to own. At the very least this book specifically seems to be made of quality stuff.

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