25 Aurorsmoon 459
For perhaps the twentieth time that morning, Elessar smoothed out the mysterious note from his pack and read over the letters. He wasn’t sure what to make of it, but Crystin had remained conspicuously absent since his return. Across the table, Derek McDraken seemed to mirror his actions as he perused a formal invitation recently delivered by a Lyceum courier, one of his musty tomes sitting open on the table between them. Joshua, balancing a platter of mutton, eggs and freshly-baked bread with a frosted pitcher of only slightly sandy water, approached the table with his henchman in tow. Elessar absently kicked out a chair for the cleric as he transferred their breakfast to the table.
Joshua cast a quizzical glance at their wizardly companion, and Elessar shrugged. “Something from the school,” he offered.
Derek glanced up, seeming to realize that their attention was on him, and carefully pressed the letter between the pages of his spellbook. Looking over the victuals, he crinkled his nose and carefully speared a bit of flesh with his belt knife. “At least it isn’t fish,” he muttered. Elessar quietly agreed. As mountain folk, not a one of them was accustomed to much seafood in their diet, yet it was obviously the most readily available meat to be found in the isolated port city. Come to think of it, he didn’t remember seeing many sheep in the camps… probably best not to give it too much thought. Joshua seemed unfazed, at least, already hard at work devouring his considerable share. Squinting a bit and smiling to himself, the priest stuck a massive finger into the water pitcher and muttered a quick prayer. The water seemed to swirl slightly as if stirred by an invisible spoon, and all the sand and other pollutants almost instantly disintegrated.
“I’m off to the temple,” he said between mouthfuls, glancing at the paladin. “Samis feels that I should spend a little time with each of the priests, show an interest in their… assimilation.”
Elessar nodded. It had been an incredible undertaking, the Hall of Commons. Constructed in record time with the aid of a magical lyre, lent to them by a dragon lurking in the nearby swamp, the humble temple was a fitting edifice for the bastion of hope that Seaquen had become. Nearly a dozen deities were represented in its hallowed halls, though a few of them lacked any sort of local clergy. The worship of Holy Thaeos, for example, boasted little more than a small shrine near the center of the temple’s main corridor, a nod to the force of will that made the place possible. Elessar glanced past his brother to the quiet presence lurking in his shadow. Samis’s sister had been the one to invent the idea, yet the young priest had declined to serve as a local clergyman for the Aquiline Cross, Laurabec’s devotion of choice. Joshua had asked him about it, and the youth had referred to the idea as a conflict of interests.
“I will accompany you,” Elessar proclaimed, stuffing Crystin’s enigmatic missive back into his vest and turning his attention toward his breakfast. “I’ll be visiting the camps anyway.” He had heard that the militia training at Xavious’s fort had increased three-fold since their journey north, and he was eager to appear before them and congratulate the old dwarf personally. The captains of the muster were more than just capable soldiers. They were good men, and they were friends. He would give them until after the midday meal, however. Word had doubtless spread to the camps of the party’s return, and it was only fair to grant them an opportunity to clean the barracks and put a shine to their armor. He rather hoped to cap the evening off with a brandy at the old fort, with Xavious’s hearth to chase away the lingering chill.
But first, he needed to locate a certain young sorceress.
Jasmine’s eyes narrowed. There was nothing. Not an incriminating scrap of paper, not a sign of anything amiss.
Katrina’s room was somewhat less than immaculate, a fitting reflection of the woman herself, but everything had a certain order to it. Jasmine knew that she was unlikely to find any damning evidence in the wizard’s belongings, as the woman had personally offered her the key to her room, well aware of her suspicions. But despite a cursory examination, it wasn’t Katrina’s possessions that held her interest. It was her maid, Jaylee.
The girl had been a curiosity since they’d found her. There had always been something about her that set Jasmine’s teeth on edge, but she’d largely settled on the woman’s distinct Ragesian accent as her primary cause for consternation. Still, she’d taken pity on the girl. In the wake of her mistress’s tragic death, Jaylee had seemed suddenly lost and alone in a strange land far from her home. Joshua had agreed to accept responsibility for her safety, and they’d carried her with them on their journey southward through the southern wilds of Dassen. It wasn’t until they’d encountered Katrina, however, that Jaylee had begun to behave suspiciously. And the wizardess, initially uninterested in the girl’s fate, had abruptly demonstrated a significant change of heart upon arriving in the city, and taken the her on as a personal maid.
But whilst ensconced at Gallo’s Fend, preparing for the coming battle, Jasmine had discovered that the guardsman who had died at their hands all those weeks ago on the party’s quest for Elessar’s holy steed had shown a remarkable talent for visual art. Jaylee wasn’t a maid at all. According to the neatly inscribed caption beneath a portrait very clearly depicting the lady’s maid, she was in fact the lady herself, Talia. Jasmine could only conclude that the woman had swapped clothing with her servant as the combat raged outside her door, and then plunged a dagger into the girl’s heart, making it seem a suicide to avoid capture.
The matter had been complicated somewhat, however, by another discovery since Jasmine’s return to Seaquen. Keeping one half-elven ear focused on the corridor outside, Jasmine fished the collected reports from her local network of eyes and ears out of her belt pouch. In the past few weeks, a mysterious woman from amongst the refugees had managed to move to the center of her operation, organizing the flow of information in an extremely efficient and calculated manner. Jasmine had no complaints regarding the intelligence that had been produced. Nothing seemed to be missing, and the woman appeared to have no personal agenda that would conflict with her chosen duties. But the enigmatic “Lady J” possessed a remarkable quality of penmanship, a hand that looked very familiar to Jasmine.
She extracted another parcel from her magical satchel, this one containing the private correspondence retrieved from Lady Talia’s belongings, and compared the writing again. It was the same. Not only was the seemingly innocent lady’s maid actually a murderous Ragesian noblewoman, but she was also Jasmine’s personal spymaster and most valuable asset.
Katrina had known, had encountered the girl on some previous engagement, and had apparently elected to blackmail her into service, though she was unaware of Jaylee’s extracurricular activities. Jasmine had tipped her hand, however, while trying to determine whether Katrina was a hapless victim of the girl’s machinations or a Ragesian sympathizer working against the Lyceum from within. Her loyalties remained unclear, but Jasmine had no intention of allowing the fiery-haired wizardess to compromise Jasmine’s operation. Not if Jaylee’s story was convincing enough, in any case.
Not Jaylee, Jasmine reminded herself. Talia.
There was movement in the hallway, and the documents quickly disappeared into their original containers as a key was inserted into the lock. Jasmine settled herself against the window sill, effecting a sense of outward calm despite the outrage that roiled within. She’d hoped that this trip back to their current base of operations would provide a bit of clarity. Her earlier interview with Katrina had proven unsettling, and she suspected that this one wouldn’t work out any better.
Even so, a decision had to be made.
There was definite hum to the chamber, as scores of students gazing down from above strove to keep their excitement to a minimum. Derek glanced about, basking in the moment. Mere months ago, at Gabal’s School of Wizardry in Gate Pass, Derek had been one of them. An onlooker, excited for the opportunity to watch master magician’s at work.
The invitation had been from Pristina Whitehair, a master conjurer and a respected instructor at the Lyceum. She lingered now near the far side of a broad circle inscribed in the chamber floor, where the demonstration would soon take place. Ostensibly, he was here to help demonstrate the divergent approach to spellcasting taken by one who has been tested time and again on the field of battle. Derek understood very well how significant a difference it was, having done his entire apprenticeship nestled safely behind university walls. Magic learned in a classroom was tried and true, studied practices that had been thoroughly documented and proven reliable. But out in the violent world with a war raging all around you, an entire civilization poised to fell you at the slightest indication of sorcerous intent, you had to learn to be adaptable to the needs of the situation.
And you were inevitably exposed to magics that never visited your school.
He was a slight bit more concerned that the coming demonstration would be staged as a spellduel. His one attempt at spelldueling, at the faire in Bresk, had been an embarrassment. He’d lasted less than seven seconds before being put summarily to sleep. He held out little hope that tales of his public humiliation had failed to reach the Lyceum, given his sudden celebrity status amongst the wizards of Dassen. Today was his chance to mitigate some portion of the damage that was done in Bresk.
He glanced at the instructor, and their eyes briefly met. She smiled, a pleasant in not entirely reassuring expression. Pristina’s talent in the dueling circle was the talk of the academy, a talk he wished he’d heard something of prior to accepting her invitation. Nevertheless, they were likely fairly well matched, which was actually part of the point of the exercise, as the pretty magus was easily a decade or more his senior. The path to power was often swifter on the open road, assuming you survived its rather unpredictable challenges. Derek himself had never imagined that the magic he now commanded would so quickly come into his grasp. Pristina’s voice rang across the chamber as she outlined those very same points to the assembly.
Derek inhaled deeply, holding his breath for just a moment. He could already feel the fire building, the magic coiled inside of him stirring in readiness for the coming conflict. The enchantment laid upon the dueling circle would make their spells considerably less lethal, allowing them to use flashier ensorcellments. Derek had already spent several minutes mentally preparing himself for the task ahead, organizing his magic in his head, deciding how he would lead off and how he might respond to any surprises. He was calm, and he was ready.
As he was introduced to the class, Derek McDraken stepped forward and raised his voice to be heard in every corner of the room.