Copyright © 2012 Mark Betz
The trail wound steeply upward, dodging piles of rock and climbing over windswept hummocks where coarse grass spread a well-cropped carpet of greenish brown. The young man, though slightly built, moved steadily, his bearing and gait betraying a sense of purpose, and a casual heedlessness of the obstacles before him. He was dressed in a dirty brown tunic, belted at the waist. His feet were unshod, his calves were bare and gleamed with sweat, the muscles rippling with effort as he climbed. His dark hair was tied back with a torn strip of red cloth and hung damply against his neck. Over his right shoulder he wore a tattered cloth satchel on a thin cord. It was mid-day, and the sun was bright overhead. He had been climbing since well before it rose. If he turned and looked behind, which he almost never did, he could see the broad green valleys at the base of the mountain, below the thin clouds. The people down in those valleys thought this was the tallest mountain in the world, but he knew better. He had seen taller.
Not much further along the trail was a small plot of long grass growing in a sunny hollow between two large boulders. A stream trickled nearby, and the young man decided to sit down there and have his dinner. From his satchel he took half of a beef sausage, and a slab of stale brown bread. This left the bag a nearly empty remnant of its formerly plump and cheerful self, but that was of no concern. Once he would have worried the issue long into the night, and in the morning begun asking people along the way where a man could find a bit of work. That was no longer necessary. His long journey was nearly at its end, and what remained in the bag would suffice for what he had to do. He stood, walked over to the stream, and knelt on its bank to drink. The water was cold, like winter steel, born of the ice fields high above. He stood again, and faced the lowering sun in the west. For a moment he remained in that position, head bowed, lips making the forms of silent words in an unknown toungue. Then, apparently satisfied, he turned and started up the steep path again.
In the late afternoon the young man noticed that the trail was growing less steep, and before long he crested a low rise and found himself staring at a small pond nestled under a rocky overhang. On the far side of the water was a bit of land, hard up against the mountain, and in the middle of it grew a great Rowan tree. Not far from the tree stood a small cottage made of stone. A thin whisp of smoke trailed up from the cottage’s chimney and rose nearly straight into the air for a long way, until finally it found a breeze and was driven off and dissipated. The young man had come so far, and yet the first view of his goal was invigorating in a way he hadn’t expected. He gripped the satchel under his arm, as if reassured by what it still contained, and then started off again, following the trail around the pond to the right. In a very short while he could make out a stooped figure in the yard before the door. A few more steps revealed the figure to be an old man who was leaning on a long staff and picking vegetables from his kitchen garden with one bony, outstretched arm.
“Ho, Father,” the young man said, stopping a respectful distance away. “I come to find Etraeus, and was told that I would find him here.”
The old man did not turn, but straightened a little, still leaning heavily on his staff. “Etraeus?” he said. “Who? Who told you that you would find him here?”
The young man smiled. “The people who live by this mountain,” he said. “And people in lands beyond theirs who knew the name, and told me which way I must go. They were sometimes right, and sometimes wrong, but I have been patient, and when I have gone wrong I have retraced my steps and begun again. I have come very far. Are you the wizard Etraeus, whom I seek?”
The old man laughed, a hard, bitter laugh without warmth or cheer in it. “Come far, have you? Ha! Of course you have come far! They always come far, don’t they?”
“I…” the young man began, confused.
“What’s your name, boy?” the old man said, turning to face the younger one.
“I am Asanabi,” the young man said, “son of Murand of far Utar. I have…”
“Silence!” the old man’s eyes flashed and he held his staff out at arm’s length. “If I am Etraeus then you would do well not to annoy me.”
“Well, are you he?” Asanabi said.
“I must be, musn’t I? I live here in this little cottage, far from people, atop the tallest mountain in the…”
“It’s not the tallest,” Asanabi said.
“… world. Silence! You have observed that I possess a staff, and a long, white beard?”
“I see it clearly.”
“Then you have answered your own question,” the old man said.
“Then you are Etraeus?”
“Idiot!” the old man said, and then looked up at the sky. “Why are they almost always idiots?”
“Who were you speaking to?” Asanabi said. “And who are they?”
Etraeus, for Asanabi had decided that the disagreeable old man was indeed the famous wizard, ignored him. “You will be wanting to eat then? Eh? You can’t get back down the trail in the dark, so now I’ll have to invite you in won’t I?”
“If it please you…”
“Please me? Do you want to know what would please me, Asanabi, son of Murand, of far Utar?” Etraeus said, starting across the yard toward his door. “Quiet! That’s what would please me. Peace would please me. Do you think I built my house here because it was the most convenient spot?”
Asanabi shook his head. “I don’t know, I… people say you’ve always lived here.”
“Always! Bah.” Etraeus reached the door, opened it and stood to one side. “In with you. If I’m stuck with you then at least you’ll have no cause to think me a reluctant host, damn you.”
“Certainly not,” Asanabi said, ducking through the low doorway. “No reason at all.”
Inside the cottage was sparsely furnished, with a place for a fire and kettle, and close by a small table and two chairs. Etraeus waved him to one of the chairs, and while Asanabi sat quietly he quickly chopped up some vegetables atop a well-worn log and dumped them into the kettle to boil. He then took two clay mugs from a shelf and a flagon from a shallow pit under the floorboards. He filled both mugs from the flagon before replacing the wood stopper, and then shoved one mug into Asanabi’s hands and settled into the opposite chair with the other. Raising it he took a long drink, and a trickle of red ran from his lip and diffused into his beard. Asanabi took a drink from his own mug. It was a thin, bitter wine, but better than nothing.
“So, Asanabi of Utar,” Etraeus said, leaning forward and staring at him across the fire. His eyes gleamed, and his expression was mocking. “What brings you here, eh? An ancient prophecy? The words of a long lost scroll?”
“No, let me guess! You’ve discovered you’re the orphaned heir of a long dead king and you want to win back your land? No, that can’t be. You said you were the son of Murand.”
“It’s none of those…” Asanabi began, but the wizard paid no heed.
“You found a ring, then? An amulet? Heard a voice in a well? Discovered latent magical powers and decided to save the world? Come, come, what is it? You’re on a quest. Don’t deny it. Well, you’ve wasted your time, my lad. Wasted it well and done. I don’t do quests.”
Asanabi found himself amused. “Why not?” he said.
“Because they’re ridiculous!” Etraeus said. “Once. Once! I said yes, and helped an improbable group of ordinary people accomplish a seemingly impossible task and redeem the world from an otherwise unavoidable doom. Once! And ever since then it’s been an endless stream of fools on hopeless missions. ‘You must help me, Etraeus!’ they say. ‘It was written when the world was young!’ they say. ‘The Gods have ordained it!’ Bah, the Gods are idiots like everyone else.”
“You’ve had a bad time of it, then,” Asanabi said.
“You have no idea. ” Etraeus rose and fetched a ladle from a peg on the wall. Returning to the kettle where it hung steaming on its tripod he scooped vegetables into two wooden bowls. He shoved one of these into Asanabi’s hands, nearly spilling it in the process, and then sat back down in the other chair with his own bowl in his lap, where he proceeded to load vegetables into his mouth with his fingers, the water and juices dribbling down his chin. Asanabi had a glimpse of a row of yellowed, broken teeth, and then he dipped his fingers into his own bowl and withdrew a sodden mass of lukewarm celery and cabbage. It was every bit as tasteless as it looked, but he managed two more mouthfuls out of politeness before he set the bowl on the table and folded his hands in his lap.
“I’m curious,” he said, as Etraeus continued to eat, “why you think I am on a quest? Perhaps I have just come to seek your wisdom on some finer point of astrology.”
“Astrology,” Etraeus repeated contemptuously. He tipped his bowl and drained the remaining liquid, then tossed it to the floor. “A long way to come for hokum and fairy tales. No, my lad, you are on a quest. Do you want me to tell you how I know this?”
“If you please.”
“There you go with my pleasure again. If you cared about my pleasure you’d still be down in the valley plowing some fat milkmaid while her husband was away in town. “
“Fat milkmaids are not a weakness of mine,” Asanabi said, “I assure you. In any case, you were saying…”
Etraeus rummaged in the pocket of his dirty gray robe and removed a small pouch of tobacco, and a clay pipe which he filled and lighted with a brand from the fire. “I’d offer you a smoke,” he said, “except that I’m not going to.” The wizard took several puffs and sent the smoke billowing in Asanabi’s direction. “As I was saying,” he continued after a brief fit of coughing. “As I was saying, I know you are on a quest for two reasons.”
“First, you have the look. Clear-eyed. Determined. Young. Ignorant. You’re convinced that some righteous power governs your destiny. So, add foolish to the rest. There is no righteous power, farm boy. The second, and most obvious, reason for my conclusion is that, whatever your quest may be, or more likely, whatever you’ve been swindled into believing it is, you’re utterly incapable of it. Look at you!”
Asanabi looked down at himself and then back up at the wizard. “I see no obvious disqualifying disabilities,” he said.
“Bah! Everything about you is a disqualifying disability, unless you’re on a quest to refill the beer barrels in a tavern.” Etraeus laughed, and this time there was real mirth in his high, thin cackle. “Don’t you see?” he said. “This is what they always do. They’re mocking you. If there’s a daemon to be slain, do you think they send a sign to a powerful warrior with a real chance? No! We’re here for their amusement, boy. If the forces of darkness run amok the Gods send their signs to the weakest chump they can locate. It’s far more entertaining.”
“A chump like me, you mean,” Asanabi said, “or perhaps even someone less likely. A priest? Or a… a girl?”
“You jest from ignorance,” Etraeus said. “When the daemon Karakek attacked Granasa fifteen years back, who do you think showed up at my door? Eh? Who?”
“I don’t know. Let’s see… a young woman?”
“The same!” Etraeus said. “In a dress! But she rode a horse quite well and had long blonde hair and was the descendant of some hoary old queen whose face is carved on a few pillars in a ruin somewhere, so obviously she was perfectly equipped to kill a daemon. She couldn’t even lift a sword, but she had a little glass phial she inherited and when she rubbed it and said a few words of gibberish it would glow. Glow! She was going to illuminate Karakek to death, I assume. I sent her away, protesting and weeping, and that little gnome of a woman who attended her as well.”
“Interesting,” Asanabi said, removing the satchel from his shoulder. “Well, you can’t help everyone.”
“Oh but I have to, don’t I?” Etraeus said. “Yes I do. Can’t let posterity down. Even while that little brat and her nurse stood at my door there were bards, and minstrels, and keepers of chronicles all geared up to relate the wondrous tale to the ages, of how the little Princess Cherrycheeks slew the terrible daemon Karakek and saved the world. And who is it who has to make these prophecies come true, eh?”
Asanabi had the satchel in his lap, had turned back the cloth flap that closed it, and was feeling about inside. “I guess that would be you,” he said, glancing up.
“Me indeed! While our perky heroine stood on a hill and waved her little phial at the sky, reciting some bit of horrible old epic verse, I’d be the one down in the mud, facing an ash-cursed daemon Lord with my little birch staff and the awesome power of my beard. The Gods hate me. It’s the only reasonable explanation.” Etraeus made a rude gesture to the ceiling of his cottage, and took another drink of his wine.
Asanabi’s hand closed on the thing he wanted, and he nodded sympathetically. “It must be a horrible burden for you,” he said. “But if it will put you in better spirits, you were right about me.”
“I am on a quest,” Asanabi said, withdrawing his hand from the satchel. Pinched between his thumb and forefinger was a cube of some darkly golden metal, perhaps the size of a peach in breadth, and covered all about its surface with graven symbols that were both strange and meaningless.
Etraeus leaned forward, his eyes narrowing. “What do you have there?”
Asanabi placed the cube on the table and lightly tapped the top surface with his forefinger. With a slight crack a line formed around the middle of the cube, and the top half lifted up so that it was separated from the lower by a finger’s breadth. Pale, greenish light flared out from the center of the space between the two halves, and painted the room the color of dried moss. He looked over at the Wizard, who sat frozen as if carved from a stone, his eyes wide and moist, eyeballs fixed on the cube.
“You’ve noticed that you are quite unable to move,” Asanabi said, “although you can hear me, and with enough effort you may even speak. Of course, any sort of magic is now well beyond your power.” He glanced at the cube, and then back at Etraeus. “Shall I tell you how I came to have this curious object? I know it is not a ring, nor an amulet, scroll, or holy blade, but I expect you find it somewhat interesting at this point?”
The muscles in Etraeus’ face writhed, and his skin turned red. “Uhgrgahh”, he said.
Asanabi raised his eyebrows. “I see I was wrong about the speaking bit,” he said. “A pity. I think I would have enjoyed that part. In any case, since you have nowhere else to go at this time you might as well hear my tale.” He raised his mug and took another drink of the horrible thin wine, and then began.
“It was some few years ago,” he said, “when I met a Lady while working on the estate of an Utarian noble. Very fair she was, with long hair that shined like gold. I would often see her a-riding about the estate with her maids, and she would nod at me when they passed, yet never did I see a smile on her face. One day, having noted me for a doughty worker and adventurous of nature, she came riding alone onto the meadow where I was cutting hay and alighted from her horse nearby. She told me privily her tale, and how she came to be in my country.”
Asanabi paused and took a drink. After the climb the effort of speaking made his thirst more urgent still, but he had promised to tell the tale. He took another drink, and resumed.
“She was from Granasa, she told me. Her Lord had brought her to Utar when she was a young maid, not long after her homeland was destroyed by the daemon…”
“Mrgmmph,” Etraeus said.
“… but you know the history of Granasa’s fall,” Asanabi said, “so I will move on. My Lady gave me the cube you see there on the table. She found it, so she told me, in a bazaar in the Far East when her Lord had taken her on a matter of business. She bade me find the wizard Etraeus and bring it to him, and said that if I would bring it, and do as she would instruct me, I should have my weight in gold and again in silver.”
“Larghtaht,” the wizard said, he teeth clamped onto his lower lip. A dark red drop of blood formed and splished onto his beard, not far from the earlier wine stain.
“Oh I agree I am not very large,” Asanabi said, “though I have been eating as much as possible, but still it sounds like enough gold and silver to make me a wealthy man, and to buy me a portion of land where I may establish my household. I am content with the prospect.” He stood, and took up his satchel to place it back over his shoulder. Lifting the mug he drained the last few drops of the wine and tossed the vessel into a corner, where it shattered.
“There is one final thing that my Lady asked of me, and then I will be on my way.” Asanabi glanced around the cottage. “And I don’t say I will be sorry to go, Etraeus. It’s not much of a place you have here. I expected something more… quietly luxurious and perhaps even somewhat mysterious. This place could be a shepherd’s hovel. In fact I am certain it is a shepherd’s hovel from the lingering smell of burnt sheep dung.”
Etraeus’ head moved just a fraction of an inch. The veins on his forehead stood out like the roots of a tree, and his face was turning from red to purple. “Blithrechh,” he spit.
“My Lady,” Asanabi said, “instructed me to speak some words to you, but alas I have forgotten them along the way. No matter. The general thrust will be enough. I was to say that after you turned her away from your door her loyal nurse, Magtha, as I believe she was called, died on the way back down the mountain. Two weeks later Karakek attacked Lagrasd City with an army of daemons at his back, and ten thousands of people were slaughtered. Because you would not come your power could not be used to focus the Phial of Antrine. Because the Phial could not be focused Karakek could not be banished back beyond the dark river. Ironic, isn’t it, the consequences of our smallest decisions? She added something about having hated you for so long that she had forgotten how not to hate, and mind you, that part’s true. In closing, may your soul crumble in the pits of Hel and Karakek feast on your entrails anew each day, etc., etc. Signed, Grawaine. That is her name, you know.”
Asanabi walked over to Etraeus’ chair. Reaching behind he drew a long knife from a sheath in the middle of his back. He took a hold of the wizard’s beard and with a smooth sawing motion cut it from his face an inch or so below the chin. With a few deft turns of his hands he had twisted it into a rope and knotted it in on itself. Placing the knotted beard into his satchel he smiled apologetically down at the wizard. “For my Lady,” he said, and then took up the long staff from where it rested by Etraeus’ chair. “For me. Should fetch a nice price when the word of your demise goes forth. Or perhaps I will hang it over my mantel. Now I must be off, Etraeus. I thank you for your hospitality, such as it was. I would wish you well, were there any point.”
Asanabi turned to leave, but paused by the little table. Reaching down he tapped the top of the cube again, and the upper half began to revolve. Slowly at first, and then faster it spun, green light flitting from symbol to symbol on its surface, and on the walls and surfaces within the cottage. “Farewell, wizard,” he said, and then went to the rough-hewn door and shoved it open. Outside the sun had gone and the twilight had almost gone with it. And yet he had little fear of the trail in the dark. The truly steep part of the mountain was still above, and in any case, there was little choice but to go, and soon. His satchel hung lightly now, with naught inside save the wizard’s whiskers, but he left it under his arm, and taking a hold of the staff began the trek back around the pond. He reached the far side with little trouble, tripping only once or twice on roots and rocks. There he stopped and turned back, leaning on the staff, and watched the little cottage. Even from this distance he could see the pulsing green light inside, and now and then a beam escaped from the crack of a window and stabbed into the last dim light of the day. He would not have to wait long.
In fact, no sooner had the thought formed in his mind than there was a single, much brighter flash of green light from the center of the cottage, followed by a globe of pulsing, shimmering emerald flame that expanded outward. Simultaneously there was a muffled thud that Asanabi felt more than heard, and then it was over. In the space of a few heartbeats the globe of green fire collapsed in on itself until it was nothing more than a fading pinprick, and then it winked out and all was silence again. Where the cottage and the Rowan had stood was a large, perfectly round patch of fresh earth. For a long moment Asanabi just stared across the water at the empty space. He hadn’t known precisely what to expect, but he had known it wouldn’t be pleasant for the wizard. He felt no guilt over that. But to know that there was such a power in the world, as could erase the foremost magician of his time, his house, and a tree the size of a country church, that was something to think about. That was something for a man to, perhaps, aspire toward. When he returned to Utar he would find the Lady Grawaine and learn from what place she had obtained the cube. She would tell him. Of that he had no doubt. Asanabi smiled, and turned down the hill again, planting the staff before him one step at a time.