Friday, December 5, 2008

The Drowned Scroll

By D.A. Madigan

It is sometimes unwise to trust overmuch in the words of wizards, this is true. But only a fool disregards them entirely.
- Gavedor, Court Recorder, reign of King Jerrane of Aquilia

* * *

Somewhere it sits, loosely rolled, all but forgotten within a dry and dusty drawer in some nameless scholar’s cluttered study. He found it in an odd little shop, full of shadows and cobwebs, gloomy corners rustling with dingy relics of half forgotten yesteryears, casually thrown down on a table full of brick-a-brack, like everything else there priced at a coin or two. Liking the way the parchment felt between fingers and thumb as he unrolled it, and enjoying the neat pen strokes that delineated the details of some sunken, secretive valley holding an unknown, exotic city nestled at its narrow end, an intricate network of winding narrow streets and scrabbling alleyways, lavishly illustrated with wonderfully sketched miniature buildings, fountains, walls and gateways, and the beautifully drawn compass rose superimposed over a strangely serpentine, triple sailed ship, and the deft copperplate of the hand lettered labels – “Street of the Seafloor Grotto”, “Temple of Drowned Skulls”, “Sea Urchin’s Venom Fountain”, and “Looted Hulk Tavern”, among many others – he purchased it, took it home, showed it to a few friends, who nodded and agreed that it was indeed a beautifully drawn thing, and a lovely curio, and a fine work of art..

And, eventually, he tossed it absently into a desk drawer already three quarters full of other oddments and curios, and gave it not a further thought in the world.

And there it has rested, ever since…

Someday something he reads, or that someone else says to him, may remind him of the scroll’s existence, and he may go seeking it again, and after a few minutes or few hour’s rummaging, if he doesn’t give up first, or become distracted, he may unearth it from the depths of its drawer and unroll it once more, holding it up to the light of a flickering lamp or torch, and the scroll with its finely etched depiction of a distant, danger-filled, perhaps imaginary metropolis may once more feel the movement of air and avid eyes across its finely crafted vellum. But for now, it simply sits there, loosely rolled, within a dry and dusty drawer in a nameless scholar’s cluttered study…

* * *

The heat was like a gut-punch hitting every square inch of the human body all at once – not one impact and over, no, but something constant, unending, smothering a person like a wet blanket on a cook fire, sucking the very breath from the lungs, even in the deep gloom beneath the hellish poison green of the overhead foliage. The air was sodden as a steam room towel; the effort of moving it in and out of one’s chest was all but exhausting.

Had Markior’s mother’s mother not been a decadent southerner (a source of shame Markior’s family disliked speaking of) he would have died of the heat long ago. As it was, as long as he kept mainly to the shady areas, he survived, but he suffered.

“Ye’re a decoration, y’know,” the old lady sweeping out the street gutter gnashed at Markior through toothless gums, cackling with obscure delight at the pronouncement. “A gold button, a bit o’ fancy braid. ‘e don’t need no bodyguard; everyone in Yat-Latan is so a’feared o’ ‘is spells they’d never dare draw steel on ‘im.” She paused to draw breath; Markior earnestly, but unfortunately vainly, hoped she would choke on it. “Not ‘is spells so much,” she nattered on, after a second, “but that map o’ ‘is.”

Markior had heard this all before from many different sources, but it was displeasing to have the wrinkled old thrall who swept out the gutters on Seafloor Grotto Street – no doubt in exchange for a few coppers every ten-day from the shop owners there, and the right to sleep in one or another of their basement entryways after nightfall – state it so plainly.

“You never know,” Markior said, his young, well favored face flushing. “There could be a danger his spells won’t cope with. Pirates, or zuthang, or perhaps another wizard… something not afraid of this famous map of his.”

The old woman spat in the dust at Markior’s feet. “Fleh,” she retorted. “Pirates come here to sell, not steal; wizards have better things to do than haunt the Isthmus… well, all the wizards besides ‘imself, I mean… and as to the zuthang, well, if a race o’ magic resistant lizards that walks on they hind legs and carries odd curved blades and spits poison as far as a street thief can throws a knife really exists, they certainly don’t waste they time ‘ere at the bottom o’th’ world.” She fixed Markior with her one eye that seemed to have grown to three times normal size, perhaps to compensate for the ruined socket where her other had once sat. “And it’s not ‘s’if the likes of ye could deal with any o’em if they did appear in quest o’ y’r master’s head. Pretty northern sword or no pretty northern sword. Ye’d shit y’r trews and run off screamin’, if ye didn’t die instantly o’ a heart seizure.” She nodded wisely and spat again, this time with the edges of her gob sprattling Markior’s fur and leather boots.

Markior took his anger in hand; there was nothing to be gained from arguing with this harping hag, and while he doubted anyone would miss her much if he ran her through, the Seafloor Grotto Street merchants would complain to his master and demand compensation, and then master would most likely take it out of his hide. He couldn’t take it out of Markior’s wages, because Markior had none. Food and lodging for the next three cycles were Markior’s due… that, and the ‘pretty northern sword’ Markior wore at his side, that had been the price of his hire to this southern dirt hole.

Two seasons and another cycle – then Markior’s bond debt would be paid, and he and his fine Aquilian steel sword could get on a serpent ship and sail north. A ten-day or so sleeping on deck and working the rigging or, if necessary, the oars, for his passage, and he would be in Lesser Ra Tanis. Caravans left Lesser Ra Tanis going northward every cursed day of the thrice accursed southern cycle. He would hire on as a guard and, eventually, one fine season not too far forward of that, he would be back in Aquilia, a seasoned warrior armed with a sword finer than any that most knights or lords could boast. Branelle might well be married by then, or at least, sworn to someone else, but that was for the gods to say. And even if it were so, well, she’d had younger sisters…

Markior was snapped forcibly out of his pleasant daydream by a small but weighty leather bag bouncing off his sleeveless fur vest, causing the two finger-length wide brass buttons set on either side of its chest thongs to jangle discordantly.

“Pick that up and come along,” Markior’s master, the mage Aphaltholios said flatly. “And at least try to look like you’re paying attention.”

Flushing again, Markior bent and snatched up the fist-sized wash leather bag. It would contain material components for whatever spells Aphaltholios had been commissioned to cast over the last ten days or so; today was Kemtos Noi, “Sacrifice Day”, the one day in out of each ten when metaphysical powers were strongest in the world. In Aquilia people would gather in family shrines and pass the day praying together for protection from roaming shades and malefic spirits; in the decadent south, though, folks made a single sacrifice at whichever temple they favored, or that they passed first when out and about their business… and here in the far southernmost pest hole that was the Isthmus, in its only city of Yat-Latan, they did no more than wear an extra protective amulet or two. Only Aphaltholios cared much for Kemtos Noi at all.

He did all his spell casting on this day, which made it a day Markior generally looked forward to. After the morning market run, they would return to Aphaltholios’ richly appointed manor – a three room dwelling built of expensive imported stone with a thatched roof that an Aquilian serf would have sneered at, but, well, there you were – and Aphaltholios would lock himself inside and Markior would have the whole day to idle away in the courtyard without. He could practice with his sword, or train in footwork, or, if a vendor happened to wander by, purchase a few honeyed dates, assuming the overweight wife of the merchant who lived down the street was willing to give him a few coppers, which she usually was…

“I realize this isn’t at all what you expected when you accepted my offer in Lesser Ra Tanis,” Aphaltholios said as he began to walk towards Dragonscale Circle. “It isn’t what I expected, either. But you chose to accompany me here, and you’ve chosen to remain in my service, and I expect you to at least make an effort to pay some attention to your surroundings.”

Markior knew better than to respond. Certainly, this wasn’t what he’d expected – in Lesser Ra Tanis, he’d been one of two dozen applicants for the position of Aphaltholios’ bodyguard, and had felt honored when Aphaltholios had chosen him. And he’d been more gratified than otherwise when he’d learned that the station was all for show; Aphaltholios had been wooing a highborn lady, and a highborn gentleman simply was not seen in society, or even in public, without an armed retainer. Markior had looked forward to an easy three cycles of being an ornament to his master’s social status, although he had found Lesser Ra Tanis terribly hot and humid compared with his native north.

But then things had gone spectacularly pear shaped – Markior was still dim on the actual details, all he really knew was, Aphaltholios had fallen out of favor with astonishing swiftness, and if the mage hadn’t been able to cast a fast teleport spell, the two of them would most likely have ended up burnt at a common stake by the howling mob that had condensed like dew outside Aphaltholios’ lovely mansion.

As Aphaltholios had explained, there must have been more than just a mob at work, as a powerful spell to block teleportation had been put in place all around his mansion as well. But one place any mage could always teleport to was the place of his birth, and so, Aphaltholios had returned here… and when Markior had been forced to quickly choose between accompanying his master or returning the sword he’d already invested nearly a season of his life in, well, he’d found himself here, as well.

He’d never in his life imagined there could be any place on the mortal plane hotter and more humid than Lesser Ra Tanis, and now, he didn’t have to.

“And there you are, daydreaming again,” Aphaltholios commented dryly as Markior tripped on a low curbstone and nearly went sprawling in the muck. “I should trade you to Zarthane for his draft mule, I really should. I’d get more use out of the draft mule, and you’d get to learn to do something useful.”

Markior paled at that. Zarthane was a boy lover, the sort of loathsome deviant that would be hounded out of any Aquilian village by a stone throwing mob, but whose perversions were tolerated or, often, even encouraged in the decadent south. And he’d seen how Zarthane looked at him, even though, at the age of sixteen, Markior was a man grown by any civilized standard. Zarthane made his living training prettyboys to serve in brothels, or as concubines to rich masters in Lesser Ra Tanis, and he enjoyed his work enormously. If Markior somehow wound up as Zarthane’s bond servant, Markior would have to kill the worthless wretch… which would inevitably end with Markior tied to a millstone and tossed from Executioner’s Rock into the deeps of the Gulf of Tanis… perhaps with a judicious slash or two across the back of his legs, to attract the kreelok.

“I’m sorry, Master,” Markior said, quite sincerely. “I’ll pay more attention, I swear it.”

Aphaltholios merely grunted. They had reached his house. “Stay out here, useless,” Aphaltholios said flatly. “Turn all visitors away until the morrow.”

“Aye, master,” Markior said, bobbing his head. He knew the Kemtos Noi routine very well.

* * *

Inside, Belrok the Black was stuffing a leather sack with gold and jewels. Belrok knew well that all wizards were rich; for some reason he neither knew nor much cared about, wizards preferred gold above all other metals (well, who didn’t?) and always kept a large supply of well cut gems about, too. Of course, few thieves were brave enough to beard a sorcerer in his own lair, and Belrok was no exception. But he’d carefully scrutinized his chosen target the last four days, and knew the mage’s routine well. Up with the dawn, a few hours chanting muffled by the stone walls of his keep, then off to the Looted Hulk to drink for the rest of the day while studying some volume of lore he’d have his tame Aquilian prettyboy tote along for him. Not much of a life for a wizard, but he seemed to have the local populace thoroughly cowed, judging from the ridiculous stories they all told of the mage’s prowess…

Belrok froze as he heard a key in the lock of the front door, which was at the foot of a flight of stone stairs he himself was barely five feet down an upstairs hall from. Today of all days the gods-damned magus chose to come back from the inn early…

Well, in Belrok’s native Votaria there was a saying about wizards – their sorcerous powers diminished in proportion to the size of the blade you sank through their black hearts. Belrok hadn’t intended to test that this day, but the gods sent men trials, and a warrior could only do his best with them. Belrok reached for the much used, well honed shortsword hanging at his belt…

Aphaltholios sniffed as he stepped into his front hall. Grand for the Raised City, certainly, but little enough compared to the manse he had owned in Ra-Tanis, and nothing compared to what he had aspired to… well, those embers were well burnt down. Still, give the fools a hundred years or so and they’d forget him, as they always had. He could alter his appearance slightly, change his name, and start in again. He'd yet rule all his hated brothers' lands...

He sniffed again. Was that… sweat? Votarian sweat? Like most mages, Aphaltholios spent an hour each morning meditating, attuning his own metabolism to its peak. His senses were not superhuman, merely the best any human’s could be. His brain, though, was nearly two thousand years old and perfectly organized; he could sort one scent out of ten thousand, and this one was definitely the distinctive odor of Votarian perspiration. Something about trace chemicals in the soil of that particularly volcanic valley; it got into the bones in childhood and never fully departed.

Now an unfamiliar creak – Aphaltholios knew every peg in every board, beam and joist within the stone shell of his ancient home; he had overseen the original carpentry there, 1900 years agone, and made a point of dwelling here for a few years at a time at least once in every generation since, to keep the locals appropriately in awe of him. There was someone at the top of his stairs… a Votarian, attempting to be still. Not a bad attempt; the intruder had some skill at stealth, and would most likely have avoided notice from anyone other than Aphaltholios.

Aphaltholios extended his perceptions into the upper hall, seeking an appropriate surrogate… there. A small trapper-spider had spun a web in the upper corner of the main hallway. That would be fine; the arachnoid form was well adapted to sudden changes in mass, unlike most endoskeletal mammals. Aphaltholios fixed his attention there and muttered a quick spell under his breath, of a sort few mages would ever have heard of, and perhaps only two others in existence could have successfully cast.

Above, Belrok heard a sudden thumping in the hallway behind him, and then, a horrendous clacking. He turned, and felt the blood run cold in his arteries. A spider the size of a timber wolf was scuttling down the stones of the inner wall at the end of the hallway, its glittering ring of eyes fixed malevolently on Belrok –

Another thief might have died of fright on the spot, or stood there frozen in terror with piss dribbling into his boots, or screamed and bolted down the stairs, and any of those reactions would have led almost instantly to death, as two human legs are little match in a sprint for 8 arachnid ones. But Belrok had robbed the halls of wizards before and had faced their hellish guardians on two other occasions. Once a vaporous air elemental, which would have undone him entirely if not for the protective amulet he’d had the forethought to bring with him. Another time, a giant scorpion… which had taught him that protective amulets were useless against more solid, if still unearthly, minions. No, against oversized vermin, only cold steel would suffice. Belrok drew his sword and shifted his weight to his left foot. He would get one good stroke as the spider scuttled towards him. He would aim for the eyes –

Too late, Belrok’s own senses, undulled by civilized influence, detected soft footfalls behind him. Borados curse him, he’d known the wizard was in the house and had let the spider distract him regardless. He deserved –

An explosion of pain at the back of his head, just behind his ear.


Belrok awoke. His head ached, and his arms felt heavy. He cracked an eye open and saw why… he was chained, wrists and ankles, with heavy iron fetters, running through a black iron ring set in a flagstone floor. Flickering torchlight fell on him, and the air was cool and musty. The wizard’s basement, then…

There was a grating sound of something heavy being set down nearby, and a grunt of relief. Belrok turned his head. The wizard’s Aquilian prettyboy had just put a large anvil down on the stone floor a few paces from where Belrok was chained. He had a deal of strength to carry that. Belrok might have managed it, but wouldn’t have wanted to try unless his life depended on it.

“Is he going to sacrifice me?” Belrok croaked, through a dry throat.

The Aquilian shrugged. “I suppose,” he said, his voice deeper than Belrok had expected. “I don’t know wizard stuff.” He looked petulant. “This is supposed to be the day I rest; he usually spends all day inside, casting spells.”

“Sorry,” Belrok rasped. “I don’t suppose you could…” He raised his arms a few inches – all the slack he had – and rattled the chains suggestively.

Markior shook his head. “You’re stupid enough to try and steal from a wizard, that’s on you,” he said.

“He’s more powerful than I expected,” Belrok admitted.

Markior laughed, a short, almost humorless bark. “Didn’t you ask around?” he said. “Don’t you know who he is?”

Belrok looked down. “Everybody says things about wizards,” he said. “Everybody is scared of them.”

“Except you,” Markior jeered. “You’re fearless. See where that got you.”

“He’s more powerful than I expected,” Belrok admitted again. “But even you have to admit most of what the people here say about him is nonsense. I mean, it must be. People don’t live two thousand years. And all this about how this whole isthmus was once undersea, and 1500 years ago a wizard cast a powerful spell to raise it from the ocean depths, and should that wizard ever die, the isthmus will sink once more…”

“Heh,” came a voice from behind Belrok. “Well, it’s not that simple.”

Aphaltholios came into view, walking slowly, drawing kid skin gloves on, wriggling his fingers to seat them more fully on his hands. “For one thing, it was nearer 2000 years ago, not 1500 years,” he said, his tone reminiscent. “I was my father’s fourth son. My three older brothers got all the choice lands… what you would call now Mandaria, Votaria, and Lesser Ra-Tanis. I got a small chain of islands… rocks, really, fit only for goats and gulls… stretching out into the southern sea.” He smiled coldly. “How they laughed at that. They called me The Island Prince, when they were feeling mellow. The King of the Seagulls, other times.”

He shook his head, going over to a workbench, picking up various tools, holding them up to the torch light, putting them down again with muted clicks of metal on wood. “But I was the only one of our family born with the gift,” he said. “I went to the Mages’ Academy and spent years there studying. And then I returned to my rocks, and I cast a mighty spell.” He looked back over at Belrok and raised an eyebrow. “Well, several spells, really.”

Aphaltholios picked up a large copper knife with several odd runes inscribed in its triangular blade. “First I needed to scan the floor of the ocean beneath and around my island chain. I needed to know exactly what was there. Once I did, I drew a map, showing the ocean floor around my islands. I infused that map with my will… my life force, if you will… and wrought a mighty working, lifting the ocean floor several hundred feet, until it was above sea level. Which created the Isthmus, a new land rich in precious ores and extremely fertile soil, stretching several hundred miles out into the Bay.”

The sorcerer smiled nostalgically to himself as he began to move around Belrok, etching runes on the cellar flagstones. “My brothers were considerably less amused when I suddenly became Prince of the Isthmus. But there were three of them, and none wanted the other to have the Isthmus, either. They knew if they allied against me, then they would only have to go to war against each other once I was removed. And they couldn’t have me assassinated, because, of course, the map I had drawn was now a living thing.”

Belrok the Black frowned. “Aye,” he said, “so they all say in this city. That this map changes with each change to the Isthmus, and to the Raised City of Yat-Latan itself, to reflect those changes, like a looking glass made of vellum. And that if anything should happen to the wizard who created the map, then the spells keeping the Isthmus and Yat-Latan above the water would vanish, and it would all sink back into the deeps again.” He laughed contemptuously. “Ah, you’ve sold them a bill of goods and no mistake,” he said. “But you can’t fool me. You’re a powerful wizard, but you’re not two thousand years old, and this map? Hmph. Show it to me.”

Aphaltholios scowled. “The map was lost long ago,” he said. “A demon summoning got away from me… the pentacle holding the creature was fraying; I had to banish it from this dimension in a hurry, and a brief vortex came into being. The map, and all the other papers and tools that were not well secured, was sucked in… I have no idea where it wound up, in this world or some other. But I can feel it; it’s still out there somewhere. And should I die, then the forces that keep this land above the ocean waves will die with me, and the Isthmus will indeed once more return to the depths from which I raised it.”

“That’s a great pity,” Belrok the Black said, grinning evilly. “Or would be, if I believed a word of it.” He held up his chained hands. “You should have chained me so I couldn’t get at my belt, wizard.”

Aphaltholios squinted. What was the barbarian holding…? Something small, carved of wood, with a metal tip… no, there was a hole in the end of it, surrounded by metal, projecting out of the wood --

Belrok gripped the small device and squeezed, his knuckles going white. Aphaltholios saw a small flicker of flame bloom, heard a sound like a thick branch breaking, felt an invisible fist punch him in the center of his chest.

Lying flat on his back on the hard cobblestones, the wizard felt his two thousand year old heart laboring heavily in his chest. There was an acrid smell in his nostrils… odd, he thought, that’s salt peter, and the black dust Mandarians put in their firecrackers. Did he shoot a firecracker at me…?

Aphaltholios closed his eyes, attempted to sink into a healing trance. He was damaged, badly damaged, but if he could slow his respiration, calm his thundering pulse, he could locate the wound and rejuven –

The last of his heart’s blood rushed out through the gaping hole in his chest and began to spread sluggishly on the cellar cobbles, cooling as it flowed. Two thousands years of life, and still, when the Pale Rider beckoned to him, he found he did not wish to go. He yet had hopes unrealized, schemes half-finished, much yet to do…

Markior stared in horror as the wound on his master’s chest… his former master’s chest… stopped spouting blood. He heard a long, dragging gurgle rattle up out of Aphaltholios chest, a chest which then settled, and was still. Shocked, disbelieving, but beginning to feel the first ratlike gnawing of absolute terror in the depths of his stomach, he gasped, through numb lips: “You… you killed him!” He stared at the strange nurled knob of wood and metal in Belrok’s hands. A small wisp of acrid smelling smoke was curling up from the hole in the end. “What is that thing?”

“It’s Imperial,” Belrok grunted. “From the Empire of Man, across the Finger Sea… they call it a pistoloon. One shot only, but it hits like a thunderclap.” He grinned, showing yellow, jagged stumps of teeth. “I never rob a wizard without it, these days.”

“But he… but…” Markior looked around the room frantically. “Gods, the entire Isthmus is going to sink beneath the sea –“

“Don’t be a fool,” Belrok said gruffly. “That’s a tall tale to end all tall tales. Find the keys to these chains and I’ll split the wizard’s swag with y –“

The flagstones trembled beneath both of their boots. There was an ominous rumbling, and dust sifted down from the ceiling. The heavy beams supporting the house across the cellar visibly shifted, then sagged. The earth began to shake beneath their boots…

* * *

“Dutch? DUTCH!!”

The imperative voice coming up the stairs brought Edgar Howard “Dutch” Phillips out of his creative fog. He looked up from his typewriter, momentarily confused. Belrok the Black had just fatally shot Aphaltholios the mage with the small pistoloon he had hidden beneath his belt buckle, and the Aquilian kid was nerving himself up to search the wizard’s body for a key. And there had been some other detail nagging at him –

“DUTCH!” his wife screamed again. “There’s WATER coming down the STAIRS, what are you DOING, is the tub overflowing, it’s a MESS --!”

Water? Dutch looked around in bewilderment. Yes, that was the sound of running water but nobody was in the bathtub and –

His eyes widened. Water was pouring in sheets and rivers down the left side of his other desk, the antique rolltop writing desk he never used for typing, running across the floor of his study in a wide, swiftly flowing sheet. Erasers, pencils, pens, pages of various letters and manuscripts were bobbing along merrily in the bizarre floodtide. He noticed for the first time that water was pooling around his feet; his slippers were soaking through and his socks were wet… Where in the name of everything holy could it be coming from –

The desk drawer. The top drawer on the left. Water was just pouring out of it, through the keyhole and the cracks on either side and along the top of it. It was as if someone had bored a hole in the back of the desk, hooked up a hose, and was currently pumping hundreds of gallons of water into the drawer, and it was all flowing out onto his floor and out of his study and down the stairs –

Dutch rushed across his study, fumbling in his pockets. He pulled out his keychain, ticked through the keys on it quickly, found and fitted a small shiny key into the keyhole, forcing it in against the steady flow of water gushing through it. He turned the key and yanked the drawer open. It was heavy, full of water. The keyring jangled as it hung from the hole in the sodden wooden drawer.

Various papers and scraps immediately floated out the top of the drawer as a fresh volume spilled onto the floor. Dutch squinted, then turned on a gooseneck lamp clamped to the top of the writing desk and pulled it over to shine down into the water overflowing the drawer.

There, pinned to the bottom by water pressure – what was that? A map?

Right, right… it was the map he’d bought at that second hand bookstore the previous summer and tossed in the drawer. Hmmm… come to think of it, the streets and inn names depicted on that map must have lodged in his subconscious, as he now realized he’d been using them as he typed the story he was working on. What the hell –

Afterwards, Dutch could never adequately explain the impulse that seized him. Without conscious thought, he reached in, grabbed the map – water seemed to be flowing out of it at a pretty good, constant clip, he had to use nearly his full strength to force his hand to the bottom against the strong current flowing upward off the scroll’s surface. The whole thing was physically impossible, but Dutch didn’t think about it, simply held the map up in his left hand, grabbed up a four inch letter opener with his right, and with a savage grunt, thrust it through the vellum of the map itself, impaling it like one of his 17th century musketeer heroes might impale an evil cardinal’s minion.

The map seemed to shudder and flap in his hand, almost like a living thing going through its death throes – and then it went limp, no more than a scrap of vellum with a hole punched in it, hanging from his clenched fingers.

Dutch prodded it with his other finger. It wasn’t even wet.

“Dutch, what in the world?”

Dutch turned, and saw his wife, looking rather irate, standing in his doorway. The water on the floor was still gurgling between her feet, running down the stairs.

Dutch brandished the map and grinned. “Not in this world, Martha,” he said, enigmatically. “Not in this world, at all…”

No comments: