Cado's Magical Journey
Fear pulsed through the cold stone tower imbuing all inside with frantic life. Cado watched as his master dismissed the servants into the chill, windy night. The old wizard summoned Cado to the front of the hall where they hoisted a great wooden bar across the door. What hunted them, the young apprentice hadn't the first clue. He searched his master's eyes and found no panic there, but cold resolve, hastened by necessity.
Cado watched as the last of the servants disappeared into the village outside. He stepped aside from the window and nodded to his master. The old man drew his hands from his robes and, with great concentration, began to draw symbols in the air. It was always with a sense of awe that Cado watched his master work. The furniture in the room began to shake as the wizard's hands quickened their pace. The old man's face was pinched with effort, his hands moving with an inhuman blur.
The snarl fell from the wizard's face as he let his hands drop. Instantly, the room came alive, furniture flying about in a whirlwind of chaos. Tables slammed up against the windows, chairs and stools locking them in place. The entrance was now blocked by a giant heap of wood so high not even a night troll could break in. Cado looked back at his master. The wizard was not satisfied. What was it then that hunted them?
"Come," said the wizard, as he mounted the winding staircase of the high tower.
Sudemong had been Cado's master as long as he could remember. It was said that he was sold to the wizard for a loaf of bread. This could scarcely be believed since the old man was so stingy. In truth, Cado's family still lived in the village below the tower, serfs bound to land, in service to the wizard. Yet he had been a fair master despite his miserliness. It was Sudemong who had shared with Cado that which few mortals dared witness, a window to the Imaginary.
There were equations in nature which must be balanced. The gods didn't specify, however, how this balance should be maintained. A place existed out of space and time, a place where things could be added to or taken from, so long as the balance was preserved. A man could fly like a bird or topple a great fortress with a wave of his hand. Given the calculations were correct, anything was possible, for a price.
"Master," asked Cado, "who is it that we run from?"
The wizard stopped at the top of the stairs and turned his gray eyes on Cado.
"Run?" he said. "We cannot run from this man. He would find us wherever we go."
Sensing panic in the boy's heart, Sudemong took a step back down the stairs and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Fear not the unknown," he said, "for that is where we draw our power. The man that seeks us is not a man at all. He is a monk, a court eunuch, once in the service of old king Bram. The monk's name is Sasmar and his order was steeped in the dark arts. He is the last off his kind, having murdered all his brothers. Sasmar has made a vow to become the greatest of all wizards, even if it means stepping over the bodies of all who stand in his way."
Cado's cool was not enhanced by the story. A crash could be heard from down below, a violent thrashing of snapping timber. Sudemong grabbed the boy by the sleeve and pulled him through a door. The room was filled with tall, dusty bookcases packed with ancient books in every conceivable language, dead or alive. Great stone slabs rested against the walls, covered in hastily scrawled archaic symbols. Cado had seen the inside of the laboratory only briefly before, whilst bringing the wizard his nightly potion. Sudemong never looked as old and frail as he did now. How, thought Cado, could he stand a chance against the mad monk? There was a loud crashing sound from below.
"I can feel your heart beating, Sudemong," came a voice from the stairwell below, "as weak as it is."
The old wizard quickly ushered Cado behind a large bookshelf, holding a finger to his lips. Taking up his staff he strode into the center of the room to face his adversary. Shadows in the torchlight preceded the villain's advance up the stone steps. There he stood, his hands concealed in his black monk's robe, a wide grin on his narrow face revealing sharp, rat-like teeth.
"Sasmar," said the wizard, "you have disturbed my studies. Say what you will and be gone."
"Sudemong," said the monk, his grin dropping into a hideous snarl, "you know full well why I'm here. I've come for your book of secrets! Hand it over."
"Fool," said Sudemong, "you think I would commit my formulas to paper? All I know is kept in my mind and that of my apprentice."
Cado's heart sank. Why did he have to say that? The monk's nose twitched, his veins standing out on his forehead.
"Maybe I'll just take your magic staff," hissed Sasmar. "You won't need it where you're going."
"You may try," said Sudemong, "you pathetic twerp."
Calling upon the power of Death with all his hate, the monk ran at the wizard, his hand drawn back to strike. The old man drew glowing lines through the ether with his staff, the instrument focusing his power. As he reached the old man, Sasmar spit out a spell so horrible it would take a man days to die. His fist jabbed toward the wizard's chest and met an invisible wall of energy. Sasmar cried out as he was projected back across the floor. As he nursed his wounded hand, the wizard spoke.
"You have cursed your last, Sasmar," said Sudemong, "I shall cast thee out, to a place you can no longer do harm."
Watching from his hiding place, Cado marveled at the power of his master's spell. The air reverberated with energy as Sudemong's finger's cut through the fabric of reality and realigned its energies with a mere flick of the wrist. Through the grid of shining lines that crisscrossed the air, an opening began to appear, a doorway to a misty dimension unknown to mortal man. Sasmar scuttled across the floor, shielding his eyes from the brilliant light. The wizard held up his hands, holding the magic door above him.
"Sasmar," he intoned, "to the Imaginary, I condemn your spirit."
Sasmar looked to his side and snatched up a book, hurling it at the wizard's face. The book slapped the old man upside the head and he dropped his hands in an unfortunate reflex. Both wizard and magic gateway disappeared in puff of smoke. Cado was horrified as he watched the staff roll toward him. The monk launched to his feet and cackled maniacally. Soon he remembered himself and began searching for his prize, hoping it had not been lost in the billowing pink cloud.
Struggling to recall the formulas, Cado called upon the power to fold the material world. The staff, once on the bare floor, an arm's span away, was now in his hand. "I can hear your breath," came the monk's voice. Cado's mind was paralyzed by terror. "I could kill you now, or you may linger on for a while in pain. Let it be your choice." Cado swallowed his fear. This was it, thought the boy. All that the wizard had taught him coursed through his mind. "I have you," shouted Sasmar as he jumped from behind a bookcase. "I will stop your heart with a word!"
The evil monk sucked in a breath, holding his fist near his side. "Finger of Death!" he shouted, thrusting his hand forward. Time seemed to stop as Cado's mind raced through the calculations, manipulating the ether and sliding blocks of space and time. The deadly force bent and turned as Cado forced his will on reality. Something hit Sasmar like a shot of ice through his veins. Cado wore a fierce smile. The monk looked down to see his own finger pressing into this chest. He slammed into the stone floor, dead, the stupid look of disbelief still on his face.
That night Cado's mind was troubled, but a great weariness overtook him. Unable to focus his thoughts, he lifted up the last stone slab with his own hands and placed it over Sasmar's body. He looked out across the plowed fields and woods beyond where the last rays of sunlight were disappearing behind the trees. As he climbed the steps of the tower, he found it hard to think about the loss of his master. He collapsed onto his bed and sleep took him, and his dreams carried him to a faraway place.
Emerging from the shadows, Sasmar stepped out onto the grassy field. High pillars rose up from the park into the rainbow sky. A large crowd of people walked aimlessly past the fountains and benches. Their robed bodies shimmered in the light as they wandered, seemingly lost in their own thoughts. Sasmar was not one of them. His clothing dripped black liquid, and he knew what he was after. He saw Cado's shade sitting on a marble slab.
"Cado, my friend," exclaimed Sasmar, sliding in next to him.
Cado seemed to snap out of a daze and began staring at his hands. "Where am I?" he asked.
"You are in the land of dreams," said Sasmar, "where all souls go when their bodies sleep."
Looking about at his strange surroundings, Cado said, "Then you are my nightmare?"
Sasmar snarled, "I am in the Underworld, and you put me there!"
Cado laughed and felt his head becoming lighter. A burning grip seized his wrist and pulled him back to his seat.
"Not yet," said Sasmar. "You will hear me."
The monk stood and held a silver medallion before Cado's face. The three jade stones at the center seemed to shine with their own light. Cado watched the stones dance and twist the metal into a human face. He reached for the medallion and Sasmar snatched it away. The monk walked across the path and placed the talisman at the foot of the statue of a squatting kobold.
"When you wake, you will come to this place," said Sasmar. "You will take the talisman and call me forth."
Cado felt his body rise once more. Sasmar appeared panicked, pacing back and forth. Something large and menacing was approaching from the edge of Cado's vision. "Release me from my prison," shouted Sasmar, "and I will teach you the magic of life and death!"
Ignoring the monk, Cado closed his eyes as the world began to blur.
"I will bring your master back to you!"
Awaking to the light shining from the high tower window, Cado opened his eyes to his empty room, empty save for the wizard's staff. As he rose he heard a croaking behind him. In the window sat a crow, leering down at him. No, not at him, at the staff. With a quick twirl, Cado swept his bed sheet over the walking stick and turned to face the bird. As the crow cried out, Cado traced out a geometrical shape in the air. Two more black carrion birds arrived, and their leader dove into the room. His spell complete, Cado held his open palm toward the three crows. There was a sudden thunderclap, and they were gone.
It seemed all the forces of darkness now sought after his master's legacy, thought Cado as he made his way out of the tower and onto the dirt road to the village. He stopped at the grave of Sasmar and recalled the dream he had from the night before. It was clear now he had nowhere to go. If it was true that the monk could draw Sudemong out from the Imaginary, what better chance did he have?
"Son," said a familiar voice, "whose grave is that?"
The middle-aged peasant was brawny and sun-baked from years in the fields. Around him a crowd had gathered. Cado still resented his father's decision to give him up to the wizard. Now that he looked on the faces of the frightened villagers, he could scarcely believe he was once one of them. Still unable to look in his father's face, he spoke to the crowd.
"Sudemong is gone," said Cado, bravely holding forth the wizard's staff. The villagers cried out in fear and quickly fell back into silence.
"Is that your master," asked Cado's father, "buried under that pile of stones?"
Cado met the weathered farmer's eyes. Could it be that he had imagined himself lord of the tower? Suddenly he felt very small.
"It is the grave of the man who banished him," said Cado.
All the villagers were watching him now. Cado's father stepped toward the young man and held his arm.
"To kill a wizard is no small thing," he said. "The forces of nature have been disturbed, and reality must come full circle."
Cado's face snapped up in surprise.
"Yes," said the farmer, "I was apprentice to the wizard in my time. I could not endure the trails you are now doomed to face. You must balance the scales of nature. You know where to begin?"
"The shrine," whispered Cado.
"Shrine?" asked the farmer. "Then that is where you must go."
One foot in front of the other, thought Cado as he turned away from the village and into the wilderness. Having never been farther from the tower than the next town, Cado had only heard stories of the sacred shrine. Yet the shrine had been the place in his dreams. The young apprentice threw up his hands. How would he find it? He drove the staff into the ground in frustration. A flash of light burst from beneath him. Then another. Light pulsed in a winding stream from the tower, down through the meadow in which he stood, and beyond.
The veins and arteries of magic pulsed between all magical places. Or so Cado was taught. The tower was such a place. And so would be the shrine. Cado didn't take much time preparing for the journey, the shrine being just over the hills. A skin of wine, an extra set of walking shoes, and a few apples were all he thought to pack. Taking a deep breath, he set across the fields. Soon Sudemong would be returned and they could resume their studies. That is, if the evil ghost could be trusted.
As the last red rays of the setting sun fell upon the sleepy earth, Cado heard the creatures of the night begin to waken. He had been warned by the peasants never to walk the roads alone after dark, but he was a wizard now. As the night wind blew across the prairie, bringing with it the sound of dark laughter, he wondered if he had made a terrible mistake.
"Cado," said a voice in the dark.
The young man looked around into the blackness.
"That is Sudemong's brat alright," said another from the opposite direction. "Doesn't look like much without his daddy." Something the size of a dog hopped across the trail in front of him. All around he heard cackling and muttered insults. Swallowing his terror, Cado knew them for what they were. Bogeymen.
The people of the dark haunted all lonely places in the black of night. Sudemong spoke of a dimension of darkness haunted by countless legions of these creatures. Knowing no true form, they borrowed their shapes, woven from shadow. Light was poison to them, and they were evil. Possessing this knowledge, Cado stepped forward and called them out.
"You are quite fond of waggling your tongues," said Cado, "but have you the strength to back up your words?"
As the creatures stepped out into the moonlight, Cado had to resist taking a step backward. Some wore trunks and fangs on their faces, some were covered in feathers, but they were all painted black and the size of small children. As they closed in, Cado raised his staff. Waiting until the last moment, he struck it into the ground. Light pulsed from the ground, growing brighter and brighter. The light ran to the creatures, attracted by their magic. They soon fled.
The broken pillars of the ancient shrine appeared from behind the next hill. Cado rushed toward the ruin in the fading moonlight, the white stones glittering under the eerie glow. Unwilling to know what new surprises the night held, the young wizard desperately searched the crumbling stones for the statue. At last he found the stone kobold. He reached underneath and retrieved the medallion.
As Cado stared into the jade stones they seemed to twist once more. The scenery about him faded. He stood up, still staring at the spinning jewels. He looked away to find the shrine surrounded in a pink fog. Shadowy figures moved in and out of the clouds. He turned around to grab his staff and was shocked at what he saw. His own unconscious body lay next to the stone statue, clutching the medallion to its chest.
"Come," said the voice of Sasmar, "there isn't much time."
Cado looked at the medallion and saw Sasmar's ugly face in silver and jade.
"I am dreaming then?" asked Cado.
"You are in the Dreamworld, yes," said Sasmar, "but you aren't dreaming. You hold in your hands the Noculous, a magic artifact of great power. You see these people?"
As the little metal face indicated with its eyes Cado looked to see the aimless spirits wander around. Cado watched closer as one of the dreamers, a pretty girl, wandered past them, oblivious. A winged creature came to stand before her. Purple smoke came from its mouth and clouded the girl's face. The creature noticed Cado watching and its eyes pulsed red.
"I'd keep your eyes to yourself if I were you," said the face. "I am not the only spirit that seeks to influence the dreamers. I didn't say this would be easy. But if you want your master back, you will help me."
"I do not trust you," said Cado, "but I have no choice. What are we to do now?"
"The lands of dreams and of death are closely linked," said Sasmar. "You must use your magic and find the gateway to the Underworld."
"The Underworld?" scoffed Cado. "Only peasants believe in such things."
The face just looked at him.
"Where do we begin?" asked Cado at last.
"With sorrow," began Sasmar. Cado concentrated as Sasmar explained that the world here-after bordered the dream world at every point. Always there were survivors in search of their loved ones. Always the dead sought to control the living, to make them finish what they could not. As Cado's calculations began to resolve the gate, Sasmar gave him new instructions.
"It is not a fair shore, nor a bountiful forest," said the monk. "It is the Underworld we seek. It is the Land of the Evil Dead, birthplace of the goblins. Here I am condemned for my crimes, and from here I shall escape."
As the gate appeared, the first thing Cado experienced was the horrible stench. It certainly didn't feel as if he were dreaming. It was as if the fabric of the purple dream world had been slashed open revealing a bleak landscape surrounded by black mountains and burning fortresses. Cado stole one more glance at his sleeping body to verify that he was, in fact, dreaming, and stepped through.
Cado stepped out onto a slope of dark colored pebbles. He looked behind himself to see a tall castle carved straight out of the mountain. Below, a battle was being waged. Goblins, trolls and other monsters fought, their screams punctuated by thunder, louder than Cado had ever heard. "That is the castle where I am kept prisoner," said Sasmar. "We must hurry."
Unable to see beyond the walls, or even guess what was inside, Cado knew a gateway was impossible. Instead, he decided to part the walls. But the black rock was harder than he expected. The battle sounds seemed to be coming closer as he knelt before the wall, tracing symbols upon the stone. As he worked, Cado wondered what he would find inside the monk's tomb. He had been too tired until now to imagine how the villain had been punished.
"You are new here, aren't you?" said a voice from behind. "Are you a thief? Murderer?"
The goblin looked scarred and weather-beaten. He wore a short fuchsia moustache on his leathery green face. In his hand was a thick sword as long as his arm. Cado tried to get away but the goblin beat him down with the back of his hand. The pain was real. He began to question whether he was dreaming.
"You are a bad boy," said the goblin, dragging Cado by the hair. "Do you know where goblins go when they die? We perish in dust, saved from the joys you are to experience."
Blood dripped from Cado's face, plopping amongst the black pebbles before the castle gate. His captor pulled a lever and the gate began to swing open. This was ridiculous, thought Cado. Why have a gate at all if anyone could open it? Terror gripped Cado's mind as he heard the strangled screams from within. The castle was not meant to keep invaders out. It was meant to keep prisoners in. Cado clutched the medallion at his chest, the only hope of a way home.
"Leave me be," said Cado, rising to his feet. "I can carry my own weight."
"So be it," said the goblin.
They passed horror after horror within the darkened walls. Fires burned here and there below the raised walkway where Cado stood. A sea of bodies churned beneath them in a great pool of black slime. The medallion began to glow hot. He looked in vain for the monk, until he saw a tar-covered shape waving to him. With the Noculous it should be easy to send the monk back, if only he had the chance.
The goblin cried out as Cado shoved him into the tar. Cado stood above the writhing pool calling upon all his faculties. He did not completely comprehend the relationship between sleep and death, but with the Noculous as an anchor he reached out to the drowning monk and as he clasped his hand they were cast out of the Underworld.
"Where am I?" cried Cado in the darkness.
"At the Moon Shrine," said Sasmar, "where you have always been."
Startled, Cado turned this way and that, but he was alone. He felt his nose and found his body intact. He blinked his eyes and saw the monk standing before him, then opened his eyes and he was gone. "It is the power of the Noculous," said Sasmar, "to see the truth through dreaming. You have released my spirit into the Dreamworld. Make me real and I shall restore Sudemong as well!"
His eyes closed, Cado said, "You said you could bring my master back. Where do we begin?"
"We must travel to Minos," said Sasmar, "to see the high priest of Armok."
"Which way is Minos?" asked Cado.
"South, but it is many..." stammered Sasmar.
"And this Noculous, it is the only way I can see you?" said Cado.
"Yes," said Sasmar.
Cado ripped the medallion from his chest.
Standing at the edge of the wood, Cado imagined he now knew what it was like to brave the edge of a towering precipice or stare across the endless and terrible sea. Even from the tower, the other side of forest could not be seen, hidden behind rolling green hills. Up close, it was different. Wind blew above the top of the tall trees, bringing the smell of rotting vegetation. Something crashed through the underbrush to Cado's right. He turned to see a peasant, frozen with shock. After a heartbeat the scruffy looking farmer snatched up the firewood he had dropped and ran back toward the village. Cado had heard the woods were haunted, but what did the peasants know of elves and faeries? He had to admit he knew less.
Birds and squirrels chattered above as Cado struggled with the magic staff. He hadn't made it ten paces into forest when the pulsing lights under the soil began to separate into all directions. Cado kicked at the ground in his anger and struck a root, bowling him over face first into the moss and mud. Standing up, Cado cursed, then stopped to listen. It was music. No. It was a stream, a place to wash off this dirt and grime. As he made his way toward the water the sound of the birds grew to a cacophony.
Thousands of little parrots splashed and bathed in a wide, slow-moving stream. Cado swung his staff in circles, driving the tiny birds away. He waded out into the water until he was waist deep, splashing his face and chest. It was a few moments before Cado realized the wood had gone completely silent. Silent, save for the sound of a flute somewhere off in the distance. It was music! Cado waded toward the opposite shore but was stopped by a voice.
"I wouldn't go that way," it said.
Cado turned to see a dwarf woman, bent at the stream next to a wide wagon, washing her laundry.
"And why not, dwarf?" said Cado. "The dwarves' knowledge of the forest being so great."
"The grove of the Forest Spirit lies that way," said the dwarf. "Already, its servants call to you."
"And why should I fear the ghost of the woods?" asked Cado in a mocking tone.
The dwarf rose slowly from her knees. She looked on Cado with a weary expression of pity and resentment. With one hand, she reached up and plucked the cap from her head. Out poured billowing layers of red maple leaves.
"Winter will be here soon," she said, "and my head a tangle of dry sticks."
Water splashed as Cado stumbled backward. Remembering himself, the young wizard used one of his master's formulas and waved the wizard's staff before his eyes. Ether made visible danced around his head. He focused on the dwarf and hundreds of invisible bindings, tying her to the trees. He waded toward her, the laughter growing from the far shore.
"What did this to you?"
"A wizard, are you?" asked the dwarf. "You don't look like much, but I will tell you, lest another fool share my fate.
"Long had the caravans of the elves traded with the people of the dwarf fortress," she began. "Our smiths traded gold crafts studded with jewels in exchange for magic cloth and eggs of every color under the rainbow. It was the wooden treasures that I craved most. They were not carved, but grown. No craft under the ground could match their beauty.
"I was only a girl when I stowed away on one of their pack-moose. The merry songs of the elves soon soothed my excitement and lay me into a deep sleep. I awoke, lost in the forest. Peering out from under my sack I saw the elves standing around a grove. A breeze whipped through the trees and out of the dark green shadows, a glowing silhouette appeared. It was a faerie, spirit wizard of the forest.
"'What have we here?' said the faerie.
"Scared beyond wits, I told it the truth. I wanted to learn to grow the wooden toys I had seen on the caravan. Letting out a wicked laugh, it said it would teach me, as long as I stayed in Faerieland for a hundred years. Needless to say, I grew impatient. Too ashamed to return to the fortress, I have chosen to live in the forest beyond hope or fear."
Cado was silent a long moment, then said, "May I see one of the toys you have made?"
The dwarf smiled and fished out a small object from her pouch. It was a tiny wooden donkey, with a green leaf for a tail. Cado smiled and went to pick it up but it kicked his finger hard and jumped down into the dwarf woman's shirt. Cado laughed. He was amused with his new friend.
"What is your name, dwarf?" asked Cado.
"Sholil," she said.
"Sholil," said Cado, "I am a wizard. My name is Cado and I am on a wizard's quest to rescue my master. He is the most powerful wizard the world has ever known and I'm sure he can reverse your malady. But first, I must remove these bonds."
"I told you not to go that way," Cado heard Sholil say as he splashed his way up the river. The glowing strands that tied the dwarf to the trees seemed to lead deeper into the forest. As he passed into the forest's inner sanctum, Cado saw that the trees grew taller, their branches mossy and gnarled. Cado strode proudly, staff at his shoulder, suddenly aware of the eyes upon him.
"You are not welcome here, wizard," said the elf. "You have the smell of the Underworld about you."
The elf appeared out of thin air. His garb was painted all manner of colors. A pair of wooden swords were stuck through his belt. As Cado looked into the creature's feral green eyes, he wondered if it were true. Did the elves really eat their fallen enemies? Cado's eyes followed the magic strands past the elf into the grove beyond.
"You are wasting my time, elf," said Cado. "Take me to your leader."
"I'm Aliwe. I have no..." said the elf.
The formulas came alive in Cado's mind. Time slowed almost to the point where it turned back on itself. He easily walked past the arrows that began flying in from all directions. Cado paused for a moment then kicked the elf's feet out from under him. Instantly, Aliwe splashed head first into a pool of mud. He shot up and looked around for the wizard, screaming his hate. The elves split up and searched in all directions, away from the grove.
Stepping out from behind a bush, Cado looked up at the ancient trees. He brushed his hand across the thick bark. This was no ordinary grove. It was the home of the forest spirit, and a gateway to Faerieland. Carefully, he inspected every knot and patch of hanging moss, and when he looked up, his surroundings had changed.
In place of a forest, Cado stood in a manicured orchard. He looked to the horizon and saw a small cottage. Cado had no idea what to say when he met the faerie. Sudemong rarely dealt with the forest folk, such was his distaste for elves. Yet, everything Cado had done so far had worked out, thanks in no small part to his own wit. He smiled with confidence as he strode up to the building. Without hesitation, he knocked upon the door.
"What's this?" said a voice from inside. "It's been awhile since I've had someone to eat."
The monster was a head taller than Cado, with pointed fangs, and a single eye in its forehead. Cado resisted the urge to step back. The faerie race was said to be one of subtlety and clever tricks. He thought it an easy thing to rescue Sholil from the forest folk, but now thought twice. Who thought the spirits of nature could be so monstrous?
"What is that in your pocket?" asked the monster. "Give it here."
The faerie lord reached out its hand and Cado felt the overwhelming urge to step forward. As he fought back, his heels dragged through the dirt, ever closer to his doom. Inside the building were all manner of horrors. Blood and gore spattered across the wall. Skeletal remains of his many human victims were scattered across the floor. A cannibal. This cannot be real, thought Cado, another trick of the Noculous.
Remembering himself, Cado slammed his staff into the ground. Blinding light flashed from the staff to every particle of the magic realm. The monster cried out in pain, clutching its eye. As the flash faded, Cado saw the magic strings that bound the dwarf, all tied to a ring in the giant's pointed ear. Mastering his fear, Cado tore the prize away from the giant faerie's ear.
"I'll eat you!" shouted the faerie, waving its hands blindly. "Come back! I'll have you for supper!"
Screams of hate followed Cado as he ran, clutching the bloody earring in his hand. Rows of identical trees stretched off as far as the eye could see. Again and again, he called on the power of the staff to guide him, but he could sense the predators he was drawing to himself. Yet there was the feeling again, the feeling that he had already won.
As he passed a tree, it spoke from a face of knotted wood.
"You do great harm bringing the Underworld with you into the forest," said the tree.
Cado jogged on by, wary of the angry yells coming closer.
"Suppose I were to keep you here? I'm sure Franz would like to have his earring back," said another tree.
It was the forest spirit. Cado looked around at the identical trees. He struck the ground with the magic staff. There was no way to tell which tree was the exit, even with the ring in his hand. Such was the power of the spirit. Cado stopped and looked into the bark-clad face.
"You have tricks, spirit," said Cado, "but I have wisdom."
"Wisdom brings only sorrow, young wizard," said the talking tree. "Come up into my branches. As much trouble as you have caused, Franz is more repulsive to me."
A gust of wind blew through the forest as Cado dropped from the branches of the ancient tree. Aliwe was waiting for him. The elf drew his wooden sword and held it a finger's span from Cado's chest. The young wizard reached into his shirt and withdrew the magic earring and the air vibrated with magic. Sounds popped all around as the enchanted bindings snapped.
"You have been to the other side of the rainbow?" asked Aliwe.
"Yes," said Cado.
"I cannot understand how you are worthy," said the elf, stuffing his blade back through his belt. "You must truly be a wizard to know such secrets."
Cado tossed the earring to Aliwe. The elf caught it and smiled wide. He spun around and ran off chirping. Other elves appeared from the shadows and ran after him. As Cado walked out of the forest he saw Sholil leaning against her wagon. The dwarf brushed the leafy hair from her face and smiled. She knew she was free.
Soon the adventurers were off. They rode down the forest trail on the wagon pulled by two tired mules. For hours the pair traded stories. Cado told fantastic tales spoken by heart from the books in his master's library. Sholil spoke of her family, and the good times in the fortress. As she went on Cado realized he had no idea how old the dwarf woman actually was. In time the sun set behind the trees.
Cado sat upon his tarp, contemplating his next move as the fire went dim. It seemed to him that he was more alive, more awake than ever before. He was a true wizard now, and at the beginning of a quest that would take him across the world. He turned on his side, watching the flickering shadows in the leaves.
"You are foolish to ignore my counsel," said Sasmar.
Cado sat up. The camp was just as he had left it, except that he was sitting next to his own sleeping self. The ghost of Sasmar did not look amused. He ground his rodent-like teeth and stared malevolently. Cado shook his head at yet another trick of fate. If he didn't reach the temple of Armok, Sasmar would haunt him forever.
"The traveler you've collected will only slow you down," said the ghost.
"I'll decide who my companions will be," said Cado. "It's bad enough you have to come along."
"They are coming for you," said Sasmar.
"Who is coming?" laughed Cado.
"People like me," said the ghost. "Wizards. I came for Sudemong, and now that he is gone they will come for you. One of them is very close to you now. Ostra, the dream-talker. It was from his temple I stole the Noculous. You must promise me to wear the medallion lest you die and all my hopes of returning are squashed."
"Spare me the wailing," said Cado as he settled back down into his sleeping body. "I'll wear your trinket."
The wizard sat in the center of a chalk circle, the symbol of the Noculous tattooed on his forehead. He was Ostra, and his powers in the North were unmatched now that Sudemong was banished and Sasmar dead. As the carriages passed on the street below, Ostra strained to hear the dreams of the fugitive apprentice.
The wizard opened his pale, opaque eyes, eyes that no longer saw anything but the dream world. Ostra reached out and began to draw circles in the dust on the floor. They were close. Ostra smiled. They were coming right toward him. But something troubled him. There was a presence with the apprentice, shielding him from Ostra's cloudy eyes.
Ostra stood up in the darkened room and donned his robe. He poked his head out the window and looked out over the dreaming city. Imagine it, power beyond reason. As he watched the dreamers dance, oblivious to each other, he knew he must have it. How could he trust it in the hands of another wizard, or those of Tremoda?
"You said nothing of going to Minos," said Sholil as the pair rode down the trail in the mule wagon.
"It is there that the high priest holds the secret to my master's release," said Cado. "I must reach it, and you with me."
"That road takes us close to my home," said Sholil.
"I would love to meet your friends," said Cado. "Maybe they could help us."
"Wait!" cried Sholil as something stepped out into the trail.
"You shall go no further!" cried the creature.
Cado looked over the heads of the mules to see a rhino boy, holding a shortened pole. The tiny animal person would not budge. Cado jumped from the wagon, leaving his staff behind. Sholil looked at him, questioning his judgment. Cado just waved and smiled. The pole caught Cado straight in the gut. "You are unwise to face your opponent unarmed," spit the rhino boy. The dwarf stood, but Cado waved her off. He would end this nonsense by himself or not at all.
The tiny walking rhino beckoned to Cado, his pole stuck out under his armpit. The wizard's arm shot out to the side and twisted reality, folding gravity until his staff fell into his hand. The rhino boy slapped his stomach, called out and charged. Cado knew that muscle was no match for wit. So his master had taught him, as his father did also.
Time slowed to a crawl as Cado's training took over. The rhino boy started with an overhand strike, which Cado lifted his staff to block easily. Pain crept slowly through his body. He looked down to see the rhino's foot slamming into his lower body. Enough playing. With all his power, Cado forced his fist through the future. With a flash, he struck the rhino down. Gasping, he returned to the real world. Sholil cried out and leapt from the wagon.
"You didn't have to kill him!" she shouted. "He was just a baby!"
The dwarf woman held the rhino's limp body in her arms. "There might still be time," she said. The animal boy moaned softly as the dwarf put her hand on his chest. Cado watched, in awe, as the magic spell took hold. The power flowed from the roots of the trees, up into the dwarf's body, and into her outstretched hand. He had never attempted anything as powerful. At last she let out a deep breath.
"What is your name, little one?" asked Sholil as the rhino boy opened his eyes.
"Alino," said the rhino boy. His mouth opened wide when he saw Cado. "You are the greatest fighter I have ever seen! So fast! So strong! Where is your temple?"
"I study the mechanisms of the universe," said Cado, with some truth. "I seek to rescue my master from an undeserved fate."
"Then I must go with you!" cried Alino.
"To Minos?" said Cado. "There is nothing for you there."
Sholil put her hand on Cado's arm. He looked to see Alino, his head turned away, a tear in his eye.
"The Rhino People are great warriors," said Alino. "So great, and big, that no one will challenge them. Not lions, not hyenas, no one. To prove his worth, a rhino must do so while he is small. I have come far, all the way from the vast grasslands where my master's temple stands. I came all this way to find a man who could best me in single combat. Now that I have found him, he casts me aside! Now that the quest is done, how can I go on with honor?"
Sholil shoved Cado forward.
"You may join our quest," said Cado with a snarling backward glance, "and prove your worth as a warrior."
Then he noticed the twig growing from Sholil's arm. He was sure it wasn't there before. She quickly covered it with her cloak. The faerie magic she possessed was strong indeed, but it seemed, like his own magic, the forces must be balanced, and there was a price.
For the rest of the day Alino marched in front of the wagon, twirling his staff as if he were leading a parade. Sholil said that Minos was an island in the southern sea. To reach it, they must travel along the mountains. She regretted very much that they must do this, because they must cross into the territory of the dwarf fortress, a place she dare not go. At last they made camp, and Cado fell into a much needed sleep.
"I told you to wear the necklace," said the ghost. "Obey me, or you will regret it."
"You are even more pleasant in death, Sasmar," said Cado.
"You are approaching the city of Rostfen," said the ghost. "Under no circumstances are you to go inside."
That morning the adventurers rode to town, the Noculous safe in Cado's pocket. The wooden walls of the town were foreboding, but once inside the mood was light and festive. Rows of tightly-packed buildings opened their stalls to the street. People stopped on the way to watch Alino as he twirled his staff. Cado climbed down from the wagon to seek directions south. Sholil went off in search of booze, having had nothing but elven wine in many years.
"South?" exclaimed the shopkeeper. "Don't you know there's a war on?"
A scream came from the direction of the wagon. Cado pushed his way through the crowd. There, in the middle of the market square, stood a bald man in a black robe. A dozen paces before him stood Sholil, a dagger floating in the air above her throat. Alino was there too, striking a marshal pose. He saw Cado and winked, grinning fiercely. The evil wizard held out his hand to the gathering of spectators.
"I seek the apprentice of Sudemong," said the wizard. "Show yourself, or the dwarf dies."
Screaming fury, Alino charged. The wizard watched him, amused. Just as the rhino passed Sholil the wizard lifted his hand and blew across his palm. The rhino boy's staff coiled and turned black. Suddenly Alino was wrestling with a cobra. Angered, Cado stepped out into the square. The wizard saw him and began to speak. Cado could hear nothing. The light began to grow dim. Without knowing why, Cado brought the Noculous to his chest.
"He is the dream wizard!" screamed Sasmar. "Kill him!"
Purple smoke rose from Ostra's nostrils, as it did from the dagger and snake. The wizard stepped toward Cado, careful not to tread on the struggling rhino. When he was close enough for Cado to see his clouded eyes, the young wizard drove his staff into the ground. The air was alive with magic. The evil creature smiled.
"Sasmar," he said, "you are the last person I expected to see." Then to Cado, "He will only break your heart in the end."
The wizard threw his head back cackling. Cado immediately went to work, spinning the air with magical vortices that blew the magic vapors away from his friends. The illusions destroyed, Alino was up in an instant. Physical force was futile. The crowd moved back with a gasp as Ostra turned and threw up a vision so terrifying, Alino quailed with fear. The evil wizard turned back to Cado.
"I can see into your nightmares," said Ostra. "You fear for your master, your family, your friends. Give me the book of secrets and die quickly. Return the Noculous, and I'll at least let your friends live."
Alino and Sholil began to walk toward Cado, their movements clumsy and slow. Staring through the Noculous, Cado could only guess what illusions must be driving them so. Sasmar looked at Cado and nodded. Cado stared at the villain, calculations running through his mind. "Your powers don't impress me, boy," said Ostra. "I defy you!"
Cado looked above the mocking grin, the white eyes, and the three familiar points tattooed on the wizard's forehead. He called now on powers unfamiliar. Drawn from hate, through the Noculous, arms of smoke grew from Cado's shoulders. The young wizard set his thoughts to speed, warping time and space, speeding his smoky tendrils past the enemy's defenses.
The citizens of Rostfen watched in morbid fascination as Ostra kicked and writhed, thrashing on the ground as the invisible tentacles strangled him. "Kill him!" shouted Sasmar's ghost. Cado held out his hands, shaking with concentration. "If you don't finish him now," snarled the monk, "you will never be safe for the rest of your life, you or your friends." Cado looked over at Sholil, holding Alino's shaking body in her arms. With one final squeeze, it was over.
"That was murder," said Cado.
"You have made the substance of dreams into a thing that kills," said Sasmar, in awe. "All wizards would be right to fear you."
The wagon ride was less jolly on the road south. Columns of soldiers lined the road as far as Sholil could see. She wondered what was happening at the fortress only a few leagues away. More worrying was the condition of her friend. Cado hadn't seen any of the horrors that that wizard had conjured, but he seemed worse for it. At least Alino got him to laugh.
"How many more of them are there?" shouted Cado, holding the talisman to his chest. "I will not have them hurt her again."
Sasmar look back to the camp a short distance away, then back to Cado, raising an eyebrow.
"Your woman will be in no danger," said the monk, "if you possess the power to keep her safe."
Cado's cheeks burned red with anger and confusion.
"Show me how to do it," said Cado. "Show me the death spell."
The dream bodies of Alino and Sholil danced around the campfire as Cado stood before the ghost. Sasmar had told him much about the nature of death and evil. At the apex of a death monk's training was the death spell, Finger of Death. It was the ability to kill with a word. Most monks still had to touch their target, but it was told that some merely had to indicate with a finger the man to die.
"Again," said Sasmar.
Cado stuck out his finger and called the magic words. The leaf he was pointing at instantly turned brown and dropped from the tree. Suddenly he felt sick. He looked down and saw that his finger was swollen and leaking fluid. He fell to his knees. Sasmar leaned over him. "You feel that? That is the hate flowing through your veins. If you call upon death too many times, you might be claimed yourself. You must rest now. I have never met a more enthusiastic student."
The next morning as they rolled south down the trail, the adventurers ran into a vast column of goblins marching across their path. They wore all manner of scavenged armor, and carried heavy polearms at their shoulders. For hours, they watched the grim procession.
Cado leapt from the wagon. His eyes were dark from lack of sleep. A goblin stepped out of line. It was a head shorter than Cado, but he could tell it was ten times meaner. It wore feathery scalps on its belt, trophies from some distant conflict. "Where are you headed, soldier?" asked Cado.
"To destroy the dwarf fortress," said the goblin, "as Tremoda wills, though it is suicide. We have emptied half the Underworld, but it will take twice that number to breach the dwarven walls."
"Why would the great Tremoda waste such a powerful army?" ask Cado.
"Not that I should tell a wizard, faerie girl, and beast boy," said the goblin, "but it is all Mad Ustrok's doing. The crazed general will march us all to our doom."
Walking back to the wagon, Cado shook his head, deep in thought.
"What did they say?" shouted Sholil. "Where are they taking this army?"
"To destroy the dwarf fortress," said Cado, absentmindedly.
"Destroy it?" shouted Sholil. "Then we must stop them!"
"To battle!" cried Alino.
The wizard held his ears and walked away, toward the wagon. "Where is Sasmar?" he asked.
A voice came from inside Cado's shirt. The Noculous spun and burned. Cado reached in and drew the jewel out from around his neck. In the center of the medallion was the evil monk's face. It stared angrily at Cado, but glanced at the line of soldiers at every spare moment.
"You are foolish to bring me close to them," whispered the ghost. "Goblin eyes can see cursed spirits, such is their nature. We must move on, and quickly."
The goblins ignored Cado and his friends as the wagon pulled up into the marching column. The goblins trudged along, scowls on their faces. Sholil looked to the front, eager to prove her worth to the fortress. Cado was lost in thought until he heard laughter from behind. Alino was standing on the back of the wagon, flinging his staff into the air.
As the wagon emerged from the trees the adventurers could see the dwarven mountains. The fortress was on fire, bombarded from three sides by an array of siege weapons. A thousand leagues of trench-works wound their way from the wood line to near the gates of the fortress itself. Ahead in the road, a goblin chief in an iron helm shouted orders, sending goblins this way and that.
"What is the meaning of this?" shouted the goblin chief.
Sholil's arm went stiff. Cado put his hand on the dwarf's shoulder and jumped over the side. He touched his chest and stepped forward, using his imagination to call forth that which was not. He held his hand before his mouth as he saw the dream wizard do. To the goblin chief, he appeared as a trusted friend, as much as their kind had any. Always Cado knew that the balance must be maintained. Every lie must have truth at its core, lest he become like Ostra.
"We must speak to Ustrok," said Cado, "to end this war."
"Wars don't end," said the confused-looking goblin. "Eventually we will all be burned up in dwarven traps."
"Still," said Cado, "we must make Ustrok see reason. Tell me more about Tremoda's right hand."
Sholil and Alino looked at each other in silence as they made their way toward the forward bunker. The goblin chief lead Cado through the twisting trails. Stakes jutted up from the tops of the trenches, damaged in places where dwarven commandos had cut their way in. The goblins they met looked weary and hopeless. They didn't even flinch when a dwarven catapult shot landed a dozen paces away.
"Why does Ustrok hate the dwarves so?" asked Cado.
The goblin chief tilted his helmet back and looked at Cado. "It is said his mother ran off with a dwarf carpenter when he was young."
Cado raised his eyebrows and whistled.
At last they reached the command post, a reinforced bunker of dirt and stone. Inside Ustrok awaited them. The goblin chief bumped his helmet on the low doorframe as the adventurers entered. The evil wizard looked up from his battle plans. His skin was pale and his black hair greasy. He was not much older than Cado. The two wizards looked at each other, questioning. Then Ustrok saw Sholil.
"You are Sudemong's apprentice," said Ustrok, looking back to Cado. "Tremoda has taken notice of your work."
Cado flexed his fingers, his arms at his sides.
"I wonder what the demon king ever saw in you," said Cado, "son of a dwarven stool-maker."
The goblin chief chuckled, but went silent when he saw the look on Ustrok's face.
"Weak-minded fool!" yelled Ustrok in a screeching voice. "You bring a dwarf into my headquarters?"
The wizard held out his arm, his hand in a claw. The helmet caught on fire. The goblin tried desperately to remove it, but the metal began to glow and he dropped to the ground, dead. The wizard looked back to the dwarf, hatred on his face. Alino stepped forward, and the wizard twitched his wrist, but stopped as he noticed Cado staring him down.
"You will never get out of here alive," said Ustrok, his eyes wide.
Desperate, Ustrok cast the most primitive of his infernal spells. A firebrand shot from his hand toward Cado's chest. Cado used his magic to slow the missile, throwing back one shoulder to let it pass. As he did so he brought one hand up to his hip, pointing his finger at the villain's midsection. With a word the death spell was complete. Ustrok fell back across his desk and rolled onto the floor.
The table caught fire, as soon did the body. Cado grabbed his friends and made for the exit. The alarm went up as the trio fled the bunker. A goblin jumped in front of them and Alino charged, spearing the foe in the leg. Cado wielded his staff, calling on all his power to strike down the goblins with deadly blows. Sholil snatched up a spear and held her own against a dozen goblins.
There were too many of them. Soon the whole army would be on them. We must escape, thought Cado, and quickly. He pointed his finger in a goblin's face and spoke the word. One by one the enemies fell. Alino looked around, knee deep in corpses. Cado took Sholil's arm and together they rushed out of the battlefield.
Darkness fell quickly in the woods. They could hear the clucks of the beak-dogs, not far off. A deeper shadow fell across Cado. He lost his way and staggered into the wilderness.
"Cado!" cried Alino.
As he wandered off he knew he had done wrong. The equation needed to be balanced. The night was darker than any he had ever known. As he stumbled along, he realized he wasn't alone. Bogeymen were there with him, silent for once. They just followed him, staring. At last, he collapsed against a tree. Looking down at his hand, he saw that his finger was black, a dark line tracing its way up his arm. Time passed.
"Death, Deception, Violence," said a voice, "a wizard after Tremoda's own heart."
"Who are you," asked Cado, seeming to waken from a deep sleep, "a goblin sent to take me to the Underworld?"
"You could be a king there if you wish," said the shadow.
"Where am I?" asked Cado.
"I expect you are on the shore facing the isle of Minos," said the shadow. "Your friends sacrificed much to save your life, especially the dwarf. But you are also in my realm, that of Mestafist, lord of the Land of Shadow. You are very close to the Underworld now, and to my master Tremoda. Remember him when you meet the priest of Armok, and you will be rewarded."
Cado gasped and opened his eyes. He lifted his head and found that he was on a sandy beach. Across the water was a shining city. Amidst the domes and spires was a gray pyramid, mighty, and ancient-looking. It could only be Minos, and the pyramid was the temple of Armok. He looked to his side and saw Alino, clearly happy that Cado was awake.
"What happened?" asked Cado, confused.
"It was great," shouted Alino, a hand's span from Cado's ear. "We were being chased by a hundred goblins, when we threw you onto the wagon. Sholil told me to cut the mules loose. We got on board and she just put her hand on the wood. The wheels came to life and we sped away faster than the fastest cheetah. Arrows and bolts fell all around, but we kept right on going. We didn't stop until we reached the beach."
"Where is Sholil?" asked Cado.
The smile dropped from Alino's lips. Cado stood and followed him back up away from the water. There he found Sholil, weeping. She was bound tightly in her cloak, a hat hiding her leafy hair. Cado put his hand on her head and she murmured in pain. Then the dwarf stood and threw down her garments. Her skin was as bark, and with her hair of autumn leaves, she could not help but be mistaken for a stunted tree.
"How?" asked Cado.
"You know full well the price that is paid for magic," said the dwarf. "You were hurt very badly."
Cado ran the back of his hand across Sholil's rough cheek. He saw that the black marks on his hand were gone.
"Sudemong will know what to do," said Cado. Mad with frustration he turned back to the water.
At the beach, Cado found the shade of Sasmar waiting.
"Your powers have grown," said the ghost. "I admit you are stronger now than I ever was, but you have no idea of the forces arrayed against you. It will take more than force alone to bend the will of Armok's priest."
As they looked across the sea at the gray temple, Alino watched in fascination as Sholil constructed a raft. She did not touch the driftwood as it floated toward her and bound itself together with sea vines. When it was done, Alino put his foot on the raft. It didn't sink or sway, as if it were an island itself. Cado stepped aboard and the rafted started off from the beach under its own power.
Minos was the greatest city in the world. All came there to make their name, their fortune, or just to marvel at what mortal man could accomplish. Elves, dwarves, and animal people packed the busy streets. Giant structures towered over the three story buildings lining the stone streets, not least of which was the temple, its ominous steps climbing up to a mysterious light.
The crowds pushed the adventurers forward, closer to the temple. Even before they entered the temple grounds, the smell of gore nearly knocked Alino back. Far above, at the top of the pyramid someone was shouting out curses. The throng of watchers let out a great moan as a body came tumbling down.
"This is the man who can restore Sudemong?" asked Cado.
"It is the magic portal at the top of the pyramid," said Sasmar. "That doorway has the power to make the Imaginary real, to make dreams come true. But only the priest of the blood god can summon its power."
Night in Minos was much like day. Torches and candles illuminated the streets and the crowds still rushed along. The temple sat in the middle of the city like a giant black triangle. Cado stepped into the doorway of a closed storefront and called his friends to him.
"We must break into the pyramid and seek out the priest," said Cado.
"And if he doesn't listen?" asked Alino.
"We must persuade him," said Cado, rapping his staff against the vine covered stones.
Sholil turned away.
"He is the only one who can help us," shouted Cado, "and he is insane. You saw him kill that man for no reason. We must use force."
She turned to face Cado, new branches growing out from her cloak.
"My new body can sense magic," said Sholil. "That priest is no man. He is the most powerful sorcerer I have ever seen."
"Then we must catch him while he's dreaming," said Cado.
A pair of winged stone sphinx guarded the door of the temple. Cado ordered the rhino boy to guard the top of the pyramid and await their arrival. As Cado stepped toward the entrance, Sholil held him back, sensing magic. Cado held the Noculous and watched the purple smoke work its way through the invisible traps. He took the dwarf's hand and they danced across the stone slabs and into the temple.
Instead of rooms filled with offerings and idols, the adventurers were met with twisted passages, rotting skeletons lining the walls. The deeper they went, the more macabre the surroundings. Skulls and bones stared out from every crevice. At last they reached the inner sanctum. A wide room, empty save for spider webs and a thin sarcophagus in the center of the floor.
Cado strode before the stone coffin, staff in hand. A foul wind blew by as the lid slid open. The priest rose to a sitting position. His skin was stretched and unhealthy looking. A sinister smile played across his thin lips, revealing a pair of fangs the length of a man's finger. "Vampire!" cried Cado.
The monster reached out with its hand and the walls began to churn. Cado and Sholil ducked as the room shook. All around, the corpses began to rise. Cado was disgusted by the horrid spectacle. Never before had he seen such an imbalance in nature. The creature looked Cado in the face. "Are you so eager to feed the blood god that you trespass so?"
"It is a vampire," shouted Sholil. "Kill it."
She put a hand on Cado's staff and the bottom sharpened to a point.
"We need him!" cried Cado.
The zombies were upon them. Cado struggled as they seized his limbs. One took Sholil by the neck, but she loosed her cloak as they pulled it away. She looked look like something from another world, a running tree, her red and yellow hair bouncing above her rough, brown skin. She held her arm back, her hand sharpening to a spear point.
"No!" cried the vampire.
Sholil slammed him back into his box, her arm jammed through his chest. The zombies kept coming. Cado struggled for a moment, then remembered himself. With the power of his logic, he reversed the force of gravity and dashed the zombies against the ceiling. It was no use. If they stayed here they would be overwhelmed.
"I don't understand," said Cado. "The priest is dead. Why do they continue?"
"That wasn't the priest," said Sholil.
"Alino," they said together.
The rhino boy smacked down zombie after zombie, their broken bodies tumbling back down the steps of the temple. Above, the magic portal hung in midair, bathing the melee in glowing light. Alino was ecstatic. Never before had he taken this much joy in the slaughter. Then he saw Cado and Sholil working their way up through the zombie horde. He waved to them. Cado pointed with his staff.
Alino turned to see an enormous man. He wore the red sash of the high priest of Armok. His white shirt was stained brown with the blood of a hundred sacrifices. A gold chain hung over his hairy chest. Alino struck at him with his staff, but the priest snatched it out of his hands and tossed it away. He put his hand over the rhino boy's head and the warrior began to grow weary, his mind slowing.
Cado and Sholil reached the crest. The priest observed them, saying, "Make one false move, wizards, and this one dies."
"I could shoot him down with a thought," said Cado.
"Remember the quest," said Sasmar, frantically. "He is the only one who can access the portal."
"Yes," said a voice from the darkness beyond the glow of the portal, "by all means shoot. Don't put your faith in this traitor."
"Mestafist!" said Sasmar, looking this way and that. "Don't listen to him, Cado. He is Tremoda's slave."
"We are all slaves to Armok," said the priest.
Alino ducked from under the priest's palm and jammed his horn into the man's leg. As the priest faltered, Cado used his mind to twist the gold chain around the priest's neck. Tighter and tighter he twisted, until the priest threw up a magic sign. It pierced the doorway to ultimate reality, to a place where the most desperate dreams, and dreaded nightmares, could come true.
The magic disk of light flickered. All the zombies collapsed into dust. A shape dropped down on top of the pyramid. It stood and brushed the dust from its robe. It was Sudemong. Cado grinned and stepped forward, loosening the magic grip on the priest's neck. Something caught him by the arm. He turned to find it was Sasmar, made real. Cado made ready to kill him once more, but the evil monk pointed back toward the old wizard.
Two more figures dropped from the glowing doorway. They were both fresh from the Underworld, the telltale black slime dripping from their clothing. By the bald head and white eyes, Cado could tell the one on the left was Ostra. His very presence meant that reality couldn't be trusted. The other escapee from hell could only be Ustrok, his torture having driven him to deeper depths of insanity.
Cado threw his staff back to his old master, who spun, deflecting the jets of flame Ustrok poured onto him. He looked behind him, but Sasmar had vanished. Sholil was bound in her cloak wandering away from him. He had no time. He had to stop the priest of Armok before he could cause more mischief. Flexing his fingers, he walked toward the magic gateway.
Sholil watched in horror as bodies fell from the burning towers of the dwarf fortress. It was just an illusion she told herself, just the power of the dream wizard attacking her senses. She looked him in the face as she sank to one knee. The evil wizard burst into laughter.
"You think by killing one wizard," said Ostra, "Tremoda would lift his siege? Your friends are already dead."
Sholil touched the vines that grew all over the stones that covered the temple. She saw that her hand was flesh, not tree bark. Hate filled her heart. How dare the villain taunt me so?, she thought. Without warning the vines ripped from the stone and seized Ostra where he stood. Seconds later, he was dead.
His index fingers itching, Cado stepped closer to the portal. The priest stood underneath it, his enormous arm reaching up and taking the power. Alino stood a little ways away, ready to strike when the chance presented itself. Shadows began to draw around Cado.
"There can be only one power in this world," said Mestafist, "and that is Tremoda. Kill the priest, and claim Armok's temple in the name of darkness."
"You cannot escape me twice," said a booming voice.
Where the priest once stood was now the one-eyed cannibal giant from the magic orchard. Earth, air, fire and water blasted in all directions from where Sudemong and the evil general fought. The very rocks of the temple floated into the air and were flung away as gravity was tortured and broken. It was the most terrible scene Cado had ever imagined.
The priest is using Armok's power to frighten me, thought Cado. A scattering of deadly pointed rocks shot past Cado's nose. He knows what I most fear, thought the young wizard. A ball of fire tore across the night's sky, lighting the city for leagues around. He thinks he can control me, defeat me. The creature's fang's watered with anticipation. He shall not live another minute, said Cado to himself.
The giant monster was coming for Cado now, hunger glowing it its single eye. Cado began to jog toward the giant, willing his feet to find purchase on the shifting ground. The giant licked its sharpened teeth with a forked tongue. "Franz," said Cado.
"That is the name of this shape," said the priest, "the one that pleases you so. Now you die."
Cado closed his eyes and exhaled a purple cloud into his hand. He brought it to his lips and blew as hard as he could. A dart struck the creature in the face. As it brought its clawed hands up, Cado began to warp the space around the monster's leg. The young wizard pulled his fist back and the creature's ankle snapped. The monster fell forward and Cado ran to meet it. As the two collided the giant doubled over, its lips in a perfect 'O'. Cado had jammed his finger into the monster's liver.
The portal's light winked and went out. The first rays of sunlight shone on the dead priest's body. Sudemong shouted for joy and clasped Cado's hand, as an equal would do. The battle was over. Ustrok was dead again. Alino leapt into the air, executing a perfect spinning kick.
Then they saw Sholil. Her face was radiant with joy, her skin soft and glowing, and her hair? Her hair was long, thick and red, still a match for the autumn season, but perfect for a dwarf. Sudemong chuckled as Cado ran to her. They embraced and kissed upon the ancient pyramid. Alino looked away bashfully and kicked a stone.
"It's true," said Sholil. "Dreams, made real!"
"It can't end this way," cried Sasmar. "You had the power of creation in your hands. It could have been mine."
Sudemong walked stiffly forward, Sasmar behind him, the monk's finger a hair from Sudemong's neck.
"It would be a pity to come all this way," said Sasmar, "just to fail at the final moment. You, dwarf! Revive the priest."
Sholil held up her hands. "There is no way I will touch that wicked man. No more than I would save your dark soul as it was saved before."
"Then the only way to open the portal," said the evil monk, "is through blood sacrifice."
Pulling a dagger from his belt, Sasmar made to stab Sudemong in the back. He did not see the three spells coming at him from all directions. A vine grabbed his leg and pulled him back from Sudemong. Simultaneously, a spell knocked the dagger out of one hand, cracking the bones in the wrist, while another flew up from the old wizard and broke three of the fingers of his other hand. Snarling, Sasmar staggered back toward the edge of the platform.
"Slay him," said Mestafist in Cado's ear. "Perform the sacrifice and the power is yours."
Sasmar growled like a cornered beast.
Cado looked down at Alino. The beast boy was grinning, awaiting the signal to strike.
"We must not kill him," said Sudemong. "There will always be evil sorcerers. It is best we let him live for at least we know how he thinks."
"But what of the human race?" asked Cado. "What of the harm he will cause?"
"Your father has taught you well," said Sudemong, "but Sasmar's fate is already written."
Calling on all the powers of the Imaginary, the old wizard drew lines in the air with his staff, aligning and realigning until a glowing crystal surrounded Sasmar. With an explosion of light, it was gone. In its place was a black bird. It cocked its head to the side, let out a hoarse cry and with a flap of its bent wings, launched into the sky to trouble the land no more.
When they reached the dwarf fortress, Cado bid farewell to Sudemong and Alino. The rhino boy was near heartbreak, but he knew he had proven his worth as a great warrior. Sudemong wished the couple well as Cado and Sholil entered her home at last.
That night, in the tower of the dwarf fortress, Cado hung the Noculous upon the wall of his new laboratory. He blew out the candle and went to close the door. In the dark, he could still hear the ghosts of his enemies. One voice drowned out the rest.
"You cannot turn your back on the Prince of the Underworld," cried Mestafist.
Cado laughed, turned the medallion to face the stone wall and joined his friends for a night of merry drinking.
Magic in Dwarf Fortress, like other elements in the game, should be tied in closely to how the overall world is put together. In the case of magic in particular, this includes the larger universe metaphysics and other planes of existence. These can include places where the dead go after they pass on, having being judged or some other process, as well as parallel universes or places that answer questions such as "what happens when we dream?". All of these places and their interconnections should be randomly created with each world generation. Once they are created, the sorts of magic that exist in the world can be generated. Example planes from the story include the Imaginary (from which telekinetic, time-slowing, and transformation powers could be drawn), Faerieland (which had its own sort of critters and associated magic, reachable through the grove), the Shadow world (adjoining the regular world at night), the Underworld (a place where some dead go, with native creatures like goblins) and the land of dreams (where the dreaming souls are, but it is also parallel to the Underworld, and possibly also the fair shore and bountiful forest that Sasmar mentioned). None of these worlds are intended to be permanent examples in every setup, but this sort of thing should be common.
In terms of the game itself, planes are not only intended to be explanations for some of the magical effects, but also places that you can go in either mode. You can already visit a simplified Underworld, but in order to be satisfying, multiple worlds will need to be generated and stored. Due to the size of the main world, the other worlds will not be as rich as the main world in terms of sites and so on, but they should make up for it in other ways. In any case, even fully parallel worlds can be handled if they have fewer Z levels than the standard world (e.g. if they are just used over the contours of the land and a few Z levels below and above). Having extra worlds freely available will also allow for visiting gods in their homes and it would allow player wizards to make their own pocket dimensions, for example. Not every world will be related, but there should be a healthy number of relationships, so that for any two planes, there could be no connection, communication-only connections, or travel connections, as well as things like the "veins and arteries" of magic in the story, etc. Interplanar travel might only be possible at certain times or at certain places. Travel might be physical, or you might travel with your soul only (much like the current ghosts), and you might form a temporary body upon arrival (as with the bogeymen in the story). This could leave you with an uninhabited body elsewhere, which could become inhabited or otherwise troubled while you are away, perhaps.
A principle idea is that you should be able to experience your own afterlife. After receiving a final strike during a desperate battle, you might find yourself in an endless meadow or you might find yourself dumped in a boiling pit after receiving a righteous verbal chastisement -- in both cases you might have contact with not just otherworldly beings but long-dead historical figures that are in your situation (as well as those recently killed in the same battle). What happens then would depend on your situation -- you might be able to reincarnate, you might be rewarded in some way, or you could retire and come back with another adventurer in an attempt to rescue yourself. Entire fortresses of dwarves could also be reunited in the afterlife after some horrible disaster, and you could swing by to chat with them. Your adventurer might also become a ghost or other undead spirit, remaining on the main world with unfinished business.
The otherworldly places won't just be inhabited by the dead in most cases. In the story, goblins, trolls and other critters live in the Underworld, bogeymen live in the shadow world, the faeries live in Faerieland, and that winged creature might live in the land of dreams (or it could be visiting from the Underworld or someplace else). For the purposes of the game, the most important thing about these residents in general will be how they relate to the main world and its inhabitants. In the story, the goblins have come forth in part from the Underworld, possibly with the help of Tremoda (at whose orders the Underworld was half-"emptied"). They have the ability to recognize the damned spirits from their home (Sasmar is afraid of this), and it seems to be either their business or pleasure to torture the evil dead. The faeries are willing to make deals with visitors (albeit with a wicked laugh!). The connection between the elves of the story and Faerieland isn't described in detail, but both the elves and the faeries are able to detect either the presence of Sasmar or the fact that Cado had visited the Underworld, which is a further interplanar connection.
Speaking of extraplanar beings, there's the matter of Armok, who in the story presumably makes the portal of creation available after a blood sacrifice. Magical powers associated to gods or other supernatural beings are much like other magic, but the methods and effects can take on the character of the being, and the granting/use of powers by others should generally occur only with the constant approval of the being in question. This might add extra requirements for the abilities themselves, or it might impose general conduct restrictions on the ability user, for instance a repeated ritual that must be performed or the taking of certain vows which must be kept. In some cases, a deity might teach a power which is not taken away even after bad conduct, and in others, the power might not be used at all, but simply asked for, with the deity sometimes obliging. It would be best if the being being asked to grant such a gift could evaluate whether each individual use of the power aligned with its sphere of influence or interests, but that becomes a difficult question in many cases.
There are various examples of magical powers in the story. For the most part, these were seen to have been learned rather than innate abilities. The wizard Sudemong had researched the secrets of the universe in ancient books and interpreted and perhaps expanded this knowledge through his work on the chalk boards and laboratory. Sasmar learned his powers from his order of monks, the largest magical organization which is referenced, and Cado learned those powers as well, and this was only possible after he understood the nature of death and evil. The dwarf Shodil learned her powers directly from a supernatural being, and she gained additional powers due to the nature of her altered body. A person with powers might not understand how they work at all, in fact, just how to make them happen (if that). Powers might be versatile enough to be used for several purposes -- at that point it is up to the game to provide reasonable access to the possibilities. There weren't examples in the story of world-wide effects, or effects that affect a large area, but these are fair to explore as well. As in the story, named "spells" (e.g. Finger of Death) are probably the exception rather than the rule, although there'd be nothing wrong with having a world on occasion that had only a few named, definite abilities, or no learnable magic at all. The world can also generate more general magical skills, which might be shared between different types of magic and methods of producing effects.
Methods, costs, limitations and side effects also need to be considered when world generation comes up with the powers that are going to be available. Story examples of this sort of thing are drawing symbols in the air, expending significant concentration, blowing dream-smoke, touching a material to be altered, the billowing pink cloud when Sudemong was banished, the corruption of Cado's hand by hate, the transformation of Shodil into a tree, etc. Some powers might be so powerful that they can only be used a few times in someone's lifetime before the side effects would render a further use of the power impossible. There were times in the story that were stressful enough that Cado struggled to remember exactly how to use his powers -- that might be harsh, but it could come up. The redirection of the touch attack back on Sasmar in the beginning would be an example of a reaction moment from the combat dev stuff coming up during a casting -- there will be a moment between the declaration of an attack and the completion of the attack which can be exploited. There was also an instance where Cado attacked the medium of the illusions (the smoke) to dispel the magic -- if effects are tied to something in the environment, this sort of thing would be automatic, and every additional mechanic like this allows for more creativity on the part of the player. The book hitting Sudemong in the head during his portal creation is more of a traditional casting disruption. In general, miscast or wrongly measured or otherwise mistaken or perturbed conditions could lead to a variety of inconveniences and disasters as well as some good luck. Having something like ingredients or specific gestures or words would also allow conscious modification and experimentation with spells, though this would likely be dangerous.
If somebody unfamiliar with a power is present when the power is being used, for instance a warrior adventurer confronting a cult leader or faerie, then that person will experience any visible/audible/etc. methods being used, and might even gain a reaction moment to do what he or she will, but the game won't spill the beans as to the nature of the effect until it happens, and you might not even know what happened afterward if there's no obvious symptoms. You might turn around a corner and see red smoke there, and having had some experience, know that a particular variety of cultist had just used a power, without knowing anything else. Withholding information should make a Dwarf Fortress player's first experience with magic properly awe-inspiring.
Side effects can be tied to the overall metaphysics/cosmology. The swollen leaky fluid finger and the plants growing from limbs and the glazed-over eyes all generally go with the category/atmosphere of the powers themselves. There was also the idea of a balance being maintained, a rule in the story's world, which is tricky to put into practice in general in a computer game, but using things like corrupting side effects and other proportional costs is straightforward enough, and something like the balanced resurrection/dream-granting effect of the priest's desperate spell is also possible. Cado surmises that Ostra's corruption could be avoided by using the illusion power with elements of truth. Ostra either didn't know because he lacked a broader perspective, or he didn't care (or perhaps even invited the change). There's no reason to assume that somebody with a power truly understands how it works, and deeper insights and interconnections between magic systems, at first unknown to the mortal world, are important for player research, etc.
There were a few wizardly associations used in the story. A master-apprentice relationship, including a failed apprentice, as well as an order of wizards (the monks), a few independent wizards, and a wizard working under a darker and more powerful being. Magical power was rare and diverse enough in the story's world that there tended to be some conflict over the acquisition of knowledge and power. There's no reason that a given world needs to have magical power be rare, but it will likely be the norm. This can be enforced in many ways, one of them being the simple difficulty of learning the skills. A world where magic is commonplace is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does raise issues during the game as to the structure of society and whether the history it generates and the further actions of people during play really make sense, since it will likely not see all the options. If the common magic is more limited (for instance, a world where there are many many practitioners of magical martial arts), then it isn't as much of a problem. If the magic makes all of the trappings of non-magical civilized life obsolete, the game would struggle to handle it right without a lot of work.
The story also had some magical objects. There is a magic staff which can produces light near magic and focus magical power. Then there is the Noculous, which is tied to the dream world and allows travel back and forth of various things (souls, dreamy material). Cado was able to pick up a magical skill by viewing Ostra using the skill and also by using the Noculous -- this sort of spontaneous learning (with or without a helper object) might be possible for certain magic and not others -- the game would need to guide you through it a bit. Finally, there are magical toys, which are either animated or alive. Temporary object-wise, there is a nightly potion mentioned, and alchemy has a long tradition in fantasy settings, although it wasn't explored in the story.