The Tally Master, Chapter 14 (scene 67)

As the sun was setting on their ninth day out from Belzetarn, the lead scout reported that Olluvarde lay within reach, if Gael cared to order the torches lit. The moon would not rise until half the night was gone, and starshine would provide light too scant for safe travel.

Gael and his escort of twelve had taken advantage of the long days, getting underway with the early dawn and continuing on through the bright evenings, stopping to make camp only with the late sundown.

Their pace had been easy, but trolls and horses both showed signs of weariness. It would be sensible to rest now at the usual time. They’d reach their destination before mid-morning on the morrow.

“Have you a preference?” Gael asked the decanen in charge of his accompanying guard.

The troll—a grizzled veteran—sniffed the air, scrutinized the sky through the tree branches, and spat. “Rain on the way,” he grunted. “You aim to set at the ruins some days, don’t you?”

Gael nodded.

“I’d ruther be under tent hide when the storm blows than either breaking camp or making camp in it.”

And so they lit torches.

Belzetarn’s chandlery fashioned magnificent flambeaus, each one featuring six wax or tallow rods as long as a troll’s arm and an inch thick, with a strand of braided thistlesilk at its heart as a wick. The rods were arrayed around the upper end of a wooden stave, tied securely at the base, middle, and upper ends, and welded together with yet more hot wax or tallow. When lit, they cast a brilliant globe of illumination.

The pack animals in Gael’s cortege carried an oversupply of the superior wax kind, as he would need many in Olluvarde’s underground precincts; and it would not be proper to employ magelight so profligately and publicly.

But surely he could spare a few to get them all under cover before the rain. The harness straps that buckled their fleece sheepskins around the barrels of the horses each bore clever bronze brackets in which two torch handles could be seated, one on each side.

One pair of flambeaus on every third mount proved adequate for lighting their way.

Gael rode tenth in the column, and his view of the flaring spheres of flame, pacing the contours of the darkening land ahead, evoked a strange wonder in his breast, as though he processed toward the ruin of a goddess’ tomb, from which they would draw forth her figure undefiled and raise her to new light and life.

The soft sound of the horses’ hooves, the squeak of their leather harness, the occasional snapping spark from a torch, and the low murmur of the trolls’ voices coalesced into an otherworldly music in Gael’s hearing. The movement of his horse under him, shifting balance and sliding muscles beneath the cushioning fleece, served as a rhythm to the mingled sounds. Each element stroking his senses—the glimmer of torch flames on the branches above, the fresh scent of the cooling air, the music of ordinary noises—seemed fraught with significance. He entered an exaltation utterly unfamiliar to him, riding unmindful of the passage of time.

When they wound their way up a broad hill and passed under a colossal marble arch adorned with statues of toga-draped warriors, he was surprised to realize they’d arrived at Olluvarde.

The troll guards unloaded the pack horses on a terrace beyond the arch and erected the tents. A few others gathered firewood from the surrounding woods. Another two dug latrines in an adjacent courtyard missing all its flagstones. The bustle yanked Gael from his fugue.

He halted a pair of torchbearers before they extinguished the last two flambeaus. “Come with me,” he instructed them.

Keir had described the location of the passage with the murals precisely. Gael led the way through a broken portico, tumbled columns, and ragged courtyards to where a curving stairway descended into a sunken square chamber. The treads were guarded by a heavy marble balustrade and curled around to debouch at the very center of the marble floor, just where a crack extending from one corner marred the stone.

A ponderous arch in the wall opposite the stairway had fallen, blocking any passage. Another to the left gave onto packed rubble. But the arch on the right wall lay open. Gael paced through it, his two torchbearers in his wake. He turned left, following the broad passage that seemed straight for an interval, then gradually curved to the right.

The first mural came into view. Gael’s breath caught. The artistry was beautiful, beautiful.

The magus depicted at his work seemed so lifelike that he might—at any moment—step out of his bas relief rendition to explain his methods to Gael in conversation. The vignettes surrounding the mural featured equally delicate detail, a mix of energetic diagrams and scenes of island living. Gael noted a spinner whose wheel was propelled by a small stone similar to that the magus crafted. In another, a laundress hung her washing on a line strung before a diminutive windmill, its sails also turned by a stone to waft a breeze across the wet linens. A healer clutched a stone in a third vignette, although her patient seemed uninjured and hale.

Gael pried himself away—he was not here to admire the ancient masons’ skill. He passed swiftly along the sequel murals: the tsunami threatening, the magnificent airship garnished with lodestones, the storm in the sky, the airship’s safe arrival, the ruined mooring tower, and—finally—the panel that Gael sought, the forging of the cursed gong.

One of the surrounding vignettes depicted the energetic structure of the lodestone, presumably before it was incorporated into the central boss of the gong. The lattice formed tightly packed octohedrons, with each edge of the eight-sided volumes marked by a heavy line of energea.

Gael frowned. Was this meteoric iron? Legend held that ancient Navellys had once been a much larger land mass, shattered and drowned by a falling star.

The next several vignettes showed a smith magus heating the great bronze disk that would become the gong with his energea, molding its shape, then floating a globe of molten iron into a central void in the glowing bronze.

Next the smith held the gong and its iron boss stable—suspended in midair; the bronze soft, but not molten; the iron fully liquid. Gael almost forgot to breathe, awed by the tremendous skill exhibited by the ancient man.

Two magi eased the lodestone into the molten boss, sustaining the configuration of the stone’s lattice of energea even while its metal dissolved.

The smith allowed the boss to cool a touch, transforming from liquid to a pliant solid that kept its shape, but could be molded. The two magi plucked the edges of the energea octohedrons from opposite sides, their vibration generating curling arcs, which they laced through the encircling bronze, forming rays that fanned outward.

The magi returned to the lattice of the central node to pluck the corner intersections of the energea octohedrons, drawing out yet another set of arcs that curled from boss to gong edge.

The main panel, large and impressive, depicted the instant when the energea array was complete, a sun emanating two separate sets of intertwining arabesques. More vignettes showed the smith’s further cooling of the metals while the magi supported the energea array.

So. This was how the cursed gong that now lay in his storeroom in Belzetarn had been created. It had required not merely two magi, but three, that third a smith as well.

Gael would not be creating a magical artifact. He would be ruining one. But could he do so alone? Or would he need a partner? He suspected he would need a partner. And there was only one candidate possessing suitable skills. A most unwelcome candidate, indeed.

*     *     *

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