Tag: fantasy (page 1 of 23)

Honor & Blood, VIII: Victor

The Twins

Please note: All characters, locations and events are copyright George RR Martin and the events that take place during this tale can and will deviate from series canon.

The Story So Far: Victor Luxon
has completed his task of returning heirloom blades to the great Houses of Westeros. He and his household make for their restored castle at Moat Cailin, but not before visiting his father-in-law, Walder Frey, at the Twins…

“So…” The word was drawn out for a moment longer than most would consider polite. Victor Luxon tore another mouthful of meat from the haunch in his hand. He waited for the speaker to lean closer before he made eye contact.

Walder Frey’s mouth never stopped moving. The largest orifice in the old man’s weasel-like face was even more animated as he entreated his son-in-law. “So! You still have some of those old swords, do you?”

Victor shrugged. “My father has them. They’re locked up, under the Mage’s Tower.”

“The Mage’s Tower.” Walder turned his head to spit. The gelatinous projectile sailed down from their high table and landed in the soup of one of Walder’s sons. The young Frey gave his father a withering look. Walder merely chuckled. “Serve ya right for being so pretty, boy!” The old man turned to Victor. “Too much of his mother in that one. Too pretty.”

“So you said.” Victor took a drink of wine. “Why do you ask about the swords?”

“Freys don’t have ancestral blades. It’d be nice to have one.” He got that leer in his look again. “Just be a matter of putting a different hilt on it, I imagine. Who’d know the difference? A sword’s a sword, right?”

“To the peasants and the dim lower nobles,” Victor replied. “Show it to any of the Great Houses, and —”

“Oh, yes, have them call me a liar! I’m not used to that old sausage, not at all.” Walder Frey sniffed wetly. Victor tried to keep his frown to himself. He’d traded that bastard and his irritable smile for a completely different definition of the word ‘disgusting’. “Or, better yet, would I be ‘dishonoring’ the sword if I put some Frey colors on its hilt? That’s something you Luxons know all about, eh? Honor?”

“It’s in our words.” Victor set down his goblet. “Do you really want a Valyrian sword that badly?”

Walder blinked as if stunned. “Who wouldn’t? Pretty things, those. Look quite fashionable over my hearth.”

“A sword’s meant to be used. It’s a weapon, not a sculpture.”

“And how often does your lord father use his?”

Victor frowned. This conversation was quickly going in uncomfortable directions. “Often enough to make men without sense think twice before opening their fetid mouths.”

Walder’s expression darkened. “Boy, you’d best not take that tone with me.”

Victor met Walder’s gaze. “If we were squatting over the same shithole, father-in-law, you can be damned sure I’d tell you if your shit stank. I’d expect you’d do the same for me.”

For a moment, the mouth of Walder Frey made no sound. Then, like a hole in a sack bursting wide under the pressure of its contents, the Lord of the Crossing’s jaw hinged downward wide, and he laughed loudly.

“You just might be the most worthwhile in-law I ever had the good fortune to put in bed with one of my daughters!” He slapped Victor on the shoulder. Victor barely felt it. “I’ve seen lesser men, even my own blood, piss themselves when I round on ’em.”

“You do remember every insult hurled at you, or so they say. Most of that, I imagine, comes from so-called highborn manners.”

“Too right, you are.” Frey took a large drink of wine. “What is it that you want?”

Victor narrowed his eyes. “That’s a broad question.”

“Well, then, make your answer broad. Come on, speak up.”

“I want what you want.” Victor paused. “I want to make my house great.”

Frey leaned back, a long “ah” sound coming from his mouth. “And how, exactly, are you going to do that?”

“By engaging in actions my sons and daughters, and their sons and daughters after, will speak of in awe and reverence. By taking what is mine. By denying my house’s lands, titles, and holdings to those who’d take them from us.”

“You’re starting to sound like you see yourself as some kind of conqueror.”

“And why not?” Victor gestured broadly. “The North is vast. The Starks will not be able to control all of it forever. There will be opportunities that House Luxon will seize. I would dishonor myself, and all the Luxons past and future, if I settled for less than I’m owed.”

“So the Starks owe you the North, eh?” Frey grinned his skull-like grin. “Come now, boy. Such things should not be shouted from the parapets. They need be whispered, between those of similar ambitions.”

Victor furrowed his brows. He was not used to whispering about such things. He found the very notion uncomfortable. Honorable men did not whisper. Still, he nodded.

“Good. You have some sense, at least.” Walder Frey beckoned him closer. “Come, let us whisper now about our liege-lords, and how we might best serve ourselves, rather than their fat arses…”

Get caught up by visiting the Westeros page.

Next: Jon

Mondays are for making art.

500 Words on World-Building

I’m very much looking forward to introducing more people to Dungeons & Dragons. The published materials for that purpose within the Starter Set are quite fine, but even moreso than the content within the books, I appreciate the flexibility of it. It’s been a while since I’ve put together a world into which others will be introducing characters with their own motivations, drives, fears, and goals. I want to flex those muscles again.

As much as I like the Forgotten Realms setting, what’s the harm in creating what might be considered a parallel world on the Prime Material Plane? Similar, but different in many ways. Same maps, different names. Similar factions, different motivations. A history all its own that resonates with the high points of established materials. If nothing else, it’s a great exercise in world-building.

Even when set in the modern era on Earth, authors tend to create their own worlds when they set out to tell a new story. Look at Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, Seanan McGuire’s October Day, Diane Duane’s Young Wizards, Lev Grossman’s the Magicians — the list goes on. I know that these are all fantasy examples, but considering this pontification is rooted my D&D ambitions, they’re what come to mind for me. I’m sure you can think of your own.

Speaking of D&D, there’s been quite a bit written about the Starter Set called Lost Mines of Phandelver. For my part, my desire is not just to integrate it into a slightly different world of my own creation, but also deepen and flesh out the characters within the adventure. Even within a D&D campaign, I’m not terribly fond of one-dimensional characters, be they cackling villains or glorified vending machines. These are, for the most part, people; people have thoughts and feelings, they have hopes and dreams, they make mistakes. To me, it’s important to convey those things and demonstrate that the protagonist (or in this case, the player character) are not alone in the world in terms of beings with agency and identity.

Not long ago, I began running an adventure for some friends at a neighbor’s house. Upon a cursory reading, I got a notion for how the local innkeep behaved and what his relationships were like. On the fly, as the players interacted with him, I created the character’s partner and began role-playing their interactions in front of the players. It was just a little flavor, a bit of color splashed into the black and white text of the pages in front of me. And it went over incredibly well.

I can’t overstate the importance of taking just a little time to flesh out parts of your world, whatever you’re creating it for and however you’re creating it. Tolkien and Martin might at times get carried away with descriptors, but would we care so much about their tales and their many characters without those passages, that depth? Their worlds persist because of the way they were built. Don’t you want the same for yours?

On Fridays I write 500 words.

Flash Fiction: Sorceress of Flame, Part 2

This week’s Flash Fiction challenge over at Terribleminds is to write the second part of a four-part story started by someone else. I picked “Sorceress of Flame” by Toni J, whose site you should definitely check out.

— Part 1, by Toni J —

The magic in dragonflame lingered long after any heat had died away. Lady Sera knelt down and pressed her hand to the ground. The charred earth sent a shockwave through her body. Broken wagons and barrels littered the ground beneath the black skeletons of trees. This place had been a popular trade route not a week ago. Now, it was a grave.

Olvar stood a few paces behind. He picked up a skull, and dusted off the ashes.

“Poor souls. Is this the work of the monster we seek?”

It couldn’t be. Her father was drawing a pact between dragons and men. It would be signed by month’s end. Why would a dragon risk destroying that peace? But, the forest had all the evidence of a dragon attack. She rubbed her arm as she stood up.

“I admit, it feels like the scars of dragonflame. When the villagers described what had been terrorizing them, I didn’t believe it.”

“Dragons are ruthless, uncontrollable beasts. It’s only natural they would stoop to this depravity.”

Lady Sera clenched her jaw at the insult. She’d known many dragons; even the most ruthless could never be called mere beasts.

“I… come. Let us find Juniper. Perhaps we can catch this creature before any others get hurt.”

Olvar spoke a blessing over the skull and placed it back on the ground. They followed the trail of destruction north and west, toward the mountains. A dragon would be impossible to track once it reached the peaks. Lady Sera gripped her staff tight as they approached the shredded carcass of a goat.

“Something isn’t right.”

Olvar sniffed the air.

“Agreed. The meat’s soured, but still smoking.”

“Over here. Another berry bush, burnt to a crisp. The evidence is too evenly spread to be random.”

“A trap, then. Very good!”

He rushed forward, pulling his longsword from its sheath. Lady Sera reached out to stop him.

“Wait! Juniper hasn’t caught up yet. Olvar!”

It was too late. The paladin let out a battle cry as he disappeared into the darkening woods. Lady Sera wreathed her hands in fire as she rushed after him. The magical flame lit the forest around her. She followed the sound of Olvar crashing through the underbrush.

She heard a falcon’s shriek overhead; Juniper’s hunting bird meant the ranger would be near. Soon after, a bellowing wail pierced the air. Lady Sera’s heart sank. It was a dragon after all. Massive wingbeats sent gusts of wind through the trees. When she reached the open cliff, she saw Juniper firing two arrows into the dragon’s right wing. The creature flapped once, twice, zigzagging over the foothills.

Olvar heaved and wiped the sweat from his brow. Bronze blood tipped the paladin’s blade.

“We were close. Next time, the monster won’t be so lucky.”

Lady Sera shook the magic flames from her hands.

“He won’t get far with those injuries. We should rest a while.”

Olvar wiped the dragonblood from his blade and saved it in a vial.

“When you said you were hunting, Junie, I thought you meant boar.”

“Never fear. Hera and I caught four rabbits. Build the fire and you can have two of them.”

Olvar piled the wood and set out bedrolls. Lady Sera struck the flint and bent low to blow on the sparks. They only caused a little smoke. She checked to make sure nobody was watching, and spat into the tinder. The fire sprang up instantly. She sat back to find Juniper shaking her head.

“Don’t waste your mana on our fires. You’re going to run out of replenishment potions.”

Lady Sera laughed, perhaps a little too loudly.

“I’ve never been good with the flint. Magic’s expensive, but it’s easier!”

During their meal, they discussed the scene of the dragon attack, and the creature responsible. Lady Sera had a host of questions, very few she could ask aloud.

“Did you see the dragon, Junie?”

The ranger shifted in her seat.

“It was dark. Must have been a male, though. A real brute.”

Olvar grunted as he tore off a chunk of leg.

“What do looks matter? Tomorrow the beast will die, and we will collect a kingly reward!”

Lady Sera’s appetite waned as she considered the possible dragons in this land. None that she could name deserved death. An interloper, perhaps? Her father would want to know of it. If she could identify him or her, she could alert the dragon leaders. They would lose their bounty, but what was gold compared to peace?

Later that evening, she waited for her companions to sleep. Olvar’s snoring kept the mountain wolves at bay. Juniper’s breaths grew deeper and more peaceful. Once she was certain they wouldn’t follow her, Lady Sera snuck off in the direction of the wounded dragon.

Dragonblood made a pungent trail through the foothills. Each drop reeked like a smelting factory. Where it touched stone, the surface became metallic. Lady Sera’s nostrils flared as she took in the scent. Mixed in with the blood, there was something… else. She followed that new, strange aspect straight into a bramble patch.

She hardened her arm from the thorns while she reached inside. The source of the mystery smell was an arrow. By flamelight, she noticed thin layer of poison coated the barb. She wrapped the arrow in fabric and tied it to her belt.

A low roar rumbled up ahead. Lady Sera took off toward the sound of the dragon. She found the wounded creature a mile later. It thrashed in the underbrush, dragging one wing along the ground. She cautiously approached, staying outside the range of a lashing tail or snapping jaw.

“Great One, I am Lady Sera of the Flame. Please, speak with me.”

The dragon wheeled on her. His golden eyes were clouded over. She held up her fire-wrapped hand to see him better. He staggered toward her; his slick, black scales reflected the orange light. Lady Sera’s eyes widened.

“Father?”

— Part 2 —

For a moment, the grove was covered in an aura of utter silence. Dragon and sorceress stared at one another. Lady Sera’s breath caught in her throat. Her father’s countenance was aggressive, almost feral; had he been so gravely wounded that he was blinded by his pain and his rage? Even at their most calm, dragons were dangerous creatures. Wounded and slighted, they were far more likely to strike rather than talk.

After a hearbeat that felt far too long for its own good, the golden eyes of the dragon cleared slightly. Vertical pupils blacker than obsidian narrowed within molten gold irises. Then, after a moment, she heard what was both a relief and a concern.

Daughter. You are the last presence I expected in this wood.

Lady Sera bit her lip at the sound of her father’s heart-song. In their natural forms, dragons did not have the proper structure in face and throat to make the sounds required for most mortal languages. Instead, when a dragon wished to converse with a mortal (and was uninterested in taking mortal form themselves), they focused their wills into a projection of their part in the song all dragons shared. It sounded like a chorus in Sera’s mind, low and harmonious, dangerous and soothing all at once, the words emerging from the song after a moment of clear, beautiful music.

The concern was that the voice of Vorathrax, her father, sounded somewhat strained. She approached, eyes on the dark ichor that stained his scales.

“Father, you’re wounded!”

Yes. The dragon turned his head to regard the gash in his shoulder. An envenomed arrowhead, slipping past my scales. An expert shot from a practiced archer. One of your companions?

Lady Sera winced. “Yes. Juniper, the ranger.”

Vorathrax chuffed, smoke billowing from his nostrils in brief, singular puffs. Better her than that oaf of a warrior you slum with.

“The wound is deep. You could die.”

I have endured far worse, and you know it.

Even as she heard his words, she watched him settle his four feet into the earth, then turn in a circle three times, reminding Lady Sera of a housecat. As he did, the song she could hear grew in pitch and depth, and she felt a sympathetic chord struck within her own being. Draconic magic was not like the arcana studied by mortals; dragonsong was a fundamental part of creation. As he rested, curling up on the ground, Sera approached. The dragon opened one of his eyes to study her, then closed it again. She slid into the center of the circle created by his body. Her father’s breath rumbled deep beneath the scales of his chest.

“Did you attack that caravan?”

No. Of course not. That was Skarathrax.

Sera nodded. Skarathrax was her half-brother, a young and impetuous dragon. “What set him off this time?”

Farouk and I were teaching him some of our history. He was struggling to pay attention. I chided him. He flew off in anger.

“What were you discussing?”

Some of our interactions with mortal-kind. Farouk and I were sharing stories regarding the songs that change form, for a time.

“Like how you met my mother.”

Just so. The music paused, and Vorathrax huffed again. It was perhaps not the best subject upon which to educate him at this point. He needs to shed soon. He is always cranky before a shed.

She nodded, resting her head on her father’s chest.

Serathrax. The feel of her own name, full and in the music of her father’s blood, made her shiver. You should come home.

“I can’t. The mortals have to be taught that you’re not all dangerous. And you’re far from savage animals.”

And you come into the wild hunting us as part of this education?

“It’s my hope that one day we’d find a dragon who would be willing to share their heart-song with someone other than myself.”

Your optimism has always heartened me. She felt a rumble in his chest; it was a sound of contentment and comfort. But you know, daughter, that those of us willing to mingle with mortalkind are few. And when we do, we prefer to do it in a form more familiar to lesser beings.

She nodded. “I know. But I still have hope.”

For a time, neither of them said anything. Then, her father’s heart-song, more melancholy and soft, drifted into her mind.

How is your mother?

Sera swallowed. “She’s ill. Nothing threatening, yet, but she’s rather miserable. I had to leave her to investigate the attacks.”

Vorathrax rumbled. I should come to her.

“You should stay with her.”

You know such an arrangement is impossible for me.

Anger flared within the sorceress. “You are one of the mightiest of all dragons. There is nothing that is impossible for you.”

I have power, this is true. But as one of the eldest wyrms, I also have responsibilities. Few of us yet live to believe in coexisting with the world, rather than conquering it. Without my guidance, hatchlings like your half-brother are doomed; perhaps not to death, but to lonely and completely destructive lives. I will not abandon them. Not even for you, my daughter.

Sera wanted to protest loudly, to argue, but a tingle at the edge of her senses pushed the discussion aside. Vorathrax felt it, as well, and his head raised even as he uncurled to stand. Lady Sera got to her feet, calling forth flame to her hand. By the flickering light of her arcane fire, she saw two familiar forms emerging from the underbrush, and her heart dropped into her stomach.

“Good work, Lady Sera!” Olvar crowed, the blade of his sword gleaming in firelight. “You found the beast!”

Juniper’s eyes narrowed, settling on the arrow tucked in Sera’s belt. “Something is not right about this.”

Lady Sera held up her flaming hand. A familiar itch tugged at her forehead, and down her spine. Not now, not now… “Olvar… wait.”

Instead, Olvar charged.

Movie Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The second part of a three-part story is often the trickiest. It can be hard to work the tale in such a way that it feels like its own complete story, yet works to connect the first part with the last. Even when a work is planned as a trilogy from the outset, the second part can suffer from a bit of ‘middle child syndrome’, and parts of it can feel artificially padded as plot points are set up for the final installment to knock over. J.R.R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson managed to avoid this with The Two Towers, which has its own contained story to tell. The question many asked is, can the same be done with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug?

Courtesy New Line Cinema

We pick up directly where An Unexpected Journey left off. Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin, and the other dwarves are on the run from orcs. Even as the hunters give chase, they are unwittingly driving the company closer to Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, the goal of the company’s quest. While they evade immediate capture, Gandalf must leave to join Radagast the Brown in investigating rumors of a great evil on the rise. Meanwhile, Bilbo and his friends have to navigate the shady paths of Mirkwood, deal with the king of the wood elves, and behold the area around the Lonely Mountain known as ‘the desolation of Smaug’, a land scarred by dragonfire and cowering in the shadow of Erebor.

As much as I thoroughly enjoyed An Unexpected Journey, I am willing to acknowledge that, while it doesn’t rush, its pace can be a touch inconsistent. A good portion of that film, especially the first two acts of it, are occupied primarily with flashbacks and backstory. I realize this is necessary, particularly in the first chapter of a trilogy, but it can make the story move in two directions: forward, then backwards, then forward again. It can be awkward, and I’m glad An Unexpected Journey didn’t feel that way even as it shifts gears. Thankfully, The Desolation of Smaug has only direction: Forward.

Courtesy New Line Cinema

From the opening of the film, with Thorin and company on the run from orcs, until the confrontation with Smaug in Erebor, the story is always heading into its next encounter. The nice thing is that, as much as it’s constantly in motion, it gives more than enough breathing room for its characters. We get more time with characters established in the first film, and new ones are introduced and given their own elbow room. That’s one of the advantages to Jackson incorporating so much from Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion and expanding this relatively simple story into three extra-long films. The world of Middle-Earth, and the beings that populate it, are given ample opportunity to come to vibrant, breathing life.

Even as the world expands and the story moves along, we manage to stay with and care about our core characters, for the most part. With Gandalf leaving the company to investigate Dol Guldur, and Bilbo already having overcome his impulse to just run home and curl up with a good book under about a thousand blankets, we focus more on Thorin Oakenshield. There are moments with other characters, to be certain. Thranduil gets more personality, Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel steals most of the scenes she’s in, and I really liked the character moments we get with Beorn, Bard, and even the Master of Laketown. More dwarven moments are always good, from Bombur doing more than just being the butt of jokes to Kili turning on the charm to Oin’s healing abilities. But really, this is Thorin’s movie, right up until we meet the dragon Smaug. Thorin definitely comes into his own, having kingly moments as well as showing the nuance and questionable decision-making that comes from obsession. All of this might sound like Bilbo is taking a backseat in his own movie, but he has plenty of great moments, and I was reminded more than once that not only is he the uncle of Frodo Baggins, he’s also related to Peregrin Took. I recall grinning at the screen, shanking my head, and saying “That’s a total Pippin moment.”

Courtesy New Line Cinema

I understand that there are quite a few die-hard Tolkien fans who aren’t satisfied with these films. And I can understand why. With its additions, expansions, and digressions, these film adaptations of The Hobbit are deviating from the text far more than Jackson’s work on The Lord of the Rings ever did. From the perspective of fans that have read and digested and lived with The Hobbit for decades, the simplicity and pace and whimsy of this story are being watered down, if not entirely lost. Since so much time is being spent with characters who aren’t the hobbit of the title, the deviations seem even more aberrant, again from their point of view. I can appreciate that perspective, and if that sort of thing is a deal-breaker for you, you’re justified in not seeing it. However, from my point of view, the inclusion of more of Tolkien’s lore and the growth of Middle-Earth around the core of this simple story and these vibrant characters is a good use of the material and leads to a satisfying continuation of a truly epic tale of fantasy. I may be overly optimistic, but I honestly believe this is building to a fully coherent and connected story that begins at Bag End with Bilbo Baggins getting a visit from a wizard, and ends at the Black Gate of Mordor. Or maybe a few scenes and a couple gratuitous fades to black after that.

Stuff I Liked: There’s a lot here for Tolkien nerds. The scene with Beorn is fantastically done. I’m glad they expanded on more of the dwarves. The execution of Bilbo in the forest of Mirkwood was very cool, from climbing the tree to the signs of his growing connection to the One Ring.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: Some of the digressions may not have been entirely necessary. A couple of the scenes’ CGI could have been sharpened up a bit – maybe they’d look better in 3D or 48 FPS?
Stuff I Loved: Thorin really seizes hold of both his destiny and our imaginations. Bard is a colorful character that makes decisions that always feel consistent from his perspective. There’s more wizardly daring-do, the fight along the river was a treat, and Martin Freeman continues to demonstrate what an inspired choice he was for Bilbo Baggins.
Stuff I REALLY Loved: Smaug.

Bottom Line: In the end, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug feels a lot more like the continuation of the overall narrative of The Hobbit rather than trying to stand entirely on its own. However, with its pace and new elements and complications, it feels a lot less like padded filler and more like a broadening and deepening of the world Bilbo is exploring. Absolutely die-hard long-standing fans of Tolkien may be turned off by its additions and digressions. However, it continues to demonstrates Peter Jackson’s directorial skill, the cast is in great form, the action’s never dull, and it delivers perhaps the best dragon on screen to date. For my money, it’s definitely worth seeing, and perhaps more than once.

Flash Fiction: The Wandering Sage

Dunes of the Namib Desert, taken by Simon Collins

The random fantasy character concept generator at the crux of this week’s Terribleminds Flash Fiction challenge gave me, among others, “a foul-mouthed sage is searching for a legendary weapon.”


“If this infernal heat doesn’t kill me,” Balthazar growled, “I’m sure the desert would love to fill my lungs with sand.”

“Why would the Equalizer be out here?”

“Think about it.” Balthazar tried not to snap at his apprentice. Gaspar was a good kid, and smart for his age, but he had an annoying tendency of not thinking things through. “If you wanted to hide something from the world, how smart is it to build a great structure out where everybody can see it?”

“But way out here? Wouldn’t you lose track of where you left it?”

“Not if you’re a Gods-damned Sage. Now enough with the belly-aching and give me the Astrolabe of Epsilon before I choke on the damn dune that’s come to play with us.”

Gaspar fumbled in his packs and produced the device. Balthazar squinted against the swirling sand, and tugged the dials into their appropriate positions. It was much like the other astrolabes in the world, but the one created by Epsilon, a sage so ancient even his name was lost, charted not the paths of the Sun and stars, but the lines of power that lay beneath the surface of the earth, invisible to the naked eye. He kept his eyes on it as he walked, stopping suddenly, turning, then moving on.

“The storm is getting worse!” Gaspar had to shout to be heard above the wind. “If we don’t find it soon…!”

“Please keep stating the obvious,” Balthazar replied, “because that certainly isn’t getting old.”

The Astrolabe of Epsilon rattled in his hands. No one was entirely sure how it knew, but it did. Balthazar pointed at the featureless sand at his feet.

“Here! We dig!”

Gaspar pulled the shovels out, and handed one to his master. It was hard to get started with the wind, but working together they managed to carve out a small hole in the dune. Gaspar’s shovel struck something about a foot under the surface, and when he tried to lift his shovel, it caught hold and there was a mechanical sound.

“Idiot boy! Back away before…!”

With a whirring, clunking sound, the trapdoor under the pair gave way, and they fell through the sand into the chamber beneath. The trapdoor shut almost immediately, and while the drop was short, it left both men half-buried in a small pile of sand.

“Augh! I told you Esvartus set up his laboratory this way! You should have been more careful!”

“I’m sorry, Master, but…”

Balthazar got to his feet and dusted off his robes. “‘But’ nothing. You need to pay more attention, Gaspar, and keep your mind more ordered. I know you’re young, yet, and visions of moaning women yeilding to your manly charms dance behind your eyes, but focus on where you are and what you’re doing, or you’re going to get yourself killed. Or worse, me!”

“Of course, Master. It won’t happen again.”

“By all the Gods’ knickers, it won’t. Now, let’s have some light.”

He extended his hand and spoke the right words. Elemental flame came to life in the air between his palm and fingers. He opened his hand more to give it more room to breathe. It illuminated the antechamber, showing pictograms and carvings on every surface, even the bottom of the trapdoor that had just admitted them into its bowels.

“Now. To find the Equalizer. Epsilon’s Astrolabe won’t work underground, so we need to go by Esvartus’ notes. What did you piece together?”

Gaspar pulled several half-ruined bits of parchment out of his pocket. “Only that to approach the Equalizer is to court the most dangerous of minds.”

“Pshaw. Esvartus wasn’t so dangerous that he wouldn’t let a pretty girl turn his head, either. You’d have liked him, Gaspar.”

“Why is that?”

“He died fucking.”

Balthazar picked his way through the corridor leading away from the antechamber, stepping over the skeletons laying over the various traps they’d triggered. Only a couple got past the first few feet of blades and spikes. The rest of the traps were cleverly concealed, at least from lesser minds. Balthazar made it a point to not tell Gaspar where they were. If the child was going to make it as a sage of his own, he’d have to deal with things far deadlier than static, ancient traps.

Once he reached the only other chamber in Esvartus’ hideaway, he turned to see Gaspar stepping gingerly over the last acid pit. Balthazar tried not to smile.

“There may be hope for you yet, shitbrain.”

“My hope is that you’ll stop calling me that.” Gaspar nodded towards the center of the room. “Is that it?”

Balthazar approached the dias, his unlit hand reaching towards the pedistal. “Yes. I believe it is.”

“Master, wait.”

Balthazar stopped, whipping around towards Gaspar. “What is it now?”

“On the off chance that intruders were able to pass all of these traps, do you think he would leave everything else unprotected?”

Balthazar blinked. “Come on, Gaspar, he wasn’t that paranoid.”

“Wouldn’t you be?” Gaspar stepped up to stand beside his master, produced a long thin wand of yew, and touched the pedistal. A sigil appeared in the stone.

“A summoning glyph. Probably some form of bound devil.”

Balthazar watched agape as Gaspar twirled his wand in an anticlockwise motion, intoning the dispersal spell Balthazar had taught him the week before. The sigil disappeared with a soft sigh.

“Hmm. Perhaps a succubus. A good way to appear to offer an explorer a reward before destroying them.” Gaspar turned to Balthazar. “What?”

“Gaspar, I take back most of the bad things I’ve said about you.”

“… Most?”

Balthazar did smile, now, as he removed the top of the pedistal and reached inside. The Equalizer was just past the stone lip. He pulled it out, and showed it to his apprentice.

“This is what the princes all fear?”

“Indeed.”

“What could men of power possibly fear from a book?”

Balthazar’s smile broadened.

“That proves, shitbrain, that you still have much to learn.”

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