Curse of the Shieldfall: The Tower of Thaniel
The tower glistened in the first rays of the sun, still damp after the previous night's rain. It sat in the middle of a wide, open field, a few scattered boulders the only other things interrupting the sea of grass. A tired man, leaning on the crooked staff that was the symbol of his profession, kept an eye on the flock of sheep wandering through the field, but his attention kept wandering back to the tower. It was very old, that was obvious, the stone had a weathered look to it, and it was taller than any of the buildings in his simple farming community. It was odd, though, that there were no openings of any kind that he could see. He wasn't quite sure how one was meant to get into the tower. But that isn't what occupied the shepherd's thoughts. No, he was more focused on the fact that he'd been bringing his sheep to this field for twenty years now, had come just the previous day, in fact... and he'd never seen this tower before. Mikael, for that was his name, frowned as he stared at the stone structure and scratched his rear thoughtfully. He knew he wasn't exactly the smartest man in the Kingdoms of Rilodell, but it didn't take some kind of genius to figure out that this was the work of magic, and, like most farm-country inhabitants, Mikael didn't much care for magic. Not so much that he was planning on forming a pitchfork-and-torch-wielding mob, of course. Because if a man can move a tower overnight, he didn't much care to think of what he could do with an angry mob that came to knock on his door. Which, if he was perfectly honest, was why he didn't much care for magic. With a practiced ease, he reached over and caught a wayward sheep with his crook, gently guiding it back towards its brethren. Now, sheep Mikael understood. Sheep were simple. Sheep weren't known for transforming people into various things just to amuse themselves. He greatly preferred their company to that of wizards and warlocks and such. Although that train of thought reminded him of a time he'd spent a weekend in the nearby city of Wellworth, and a comely sheep-kin lass had actually tried to use her wiles on him. Normally, Mikael had no issue with ani-men, thought of them as normal people who just so happened to have fur and tails and such, but the idea of bedding a woman who looked so much like the bleating creatures he spent his days with had made his skin crawl. There was enough talk about the men of his profession already without that kind of thing going on, thank you very much.
The shepherd was drawn out of his reverie by the sound of pounding hooves. Turning to face the edge of the field, he was not terribly surprised to see someone on horseback approaching on the simple dirt path back to town. The rider wore a long travel cloak, making it difficult to make out any details, though he was fairly certain from the brief glimpses he got that it was a woman. She halted and dismounted a respectable distance away from Mikael, which he appreciated. Most people would have just barged right on past, scaring the living daylights out of the sheep. It was only when she turned directly towards him and began walking that he realized she was coming to see him. She flipped her hood back as she approached, and Mikael was slightly taken aback, given that she was one of the most beautiful women the simple herder had ever seen. Her skin was so smooth and fair that for a moment he thought she was an elf, but her long red hair was caught behind her right ear, so he could see that they weren't nearly pointed enough. Her hesitant approach was also rather contradicted by the fact that the head of a large spear was sticking up past her shoulder, no doubt strapped to her back. She really didn't strike Mikael as one of those wandering adventurers they tell stories about.
"Excuse me, sir?"
Well, that explained it, then. If the posh accent wasn't enough to clue the shepherd in to the fact that this woman, this girl really, was a noble from the city, then the fact that she called him 'sir' would have told him everything. Her skin was probably this smooth because she'd never done a day's work in her life. Still, no need to be rude to strangers, that's what his pappy always taught him.
"I - I heard about that tower while I was passing through town. Is it true? That it just appeared overnight I mean. That it was magic."
Mikael glanced back at the impressive stone edifice and nodded absently.
"Well, miss, I wasn't here to actually see it or nothin', I was prob'ly havin' roast mutton with the wife back in the village, but I can tell ye that I been comin' to this 'ere field since me pappy was teachin' me how to hold a crook, and that there tower ain't never been there 'til this mornin'. Only one thing that could be, ye know."
She gave him a pleasant smile and nodded, clearly encouraged by his inexpert opinion.
"Thank you, sir."
As she stepped past him and proceeded towards the mysterious building, Mikael cleared his throat. Normally he was not one to interfere in the business of nobles, but in this particular case...
"Ah, miss, I just told ye, there's magic afoot with this tower, and now ye'r going towards it? I dinnae know what ye'r intentions are, but you have no way of knowin' whether there's a friendly old sage in there or some kind of sorcerer with an eye on rulin' over the land! Ye can never assume anything with magic!"
The traveller stopped for a moment and turned to him, a thin smile on her lips, one that didn't show in her eyes.
"Thank you for your concern, sir, but I believe I can handle myself... and the need is great enough that I'd put myself in harm's way to know for sure."
She glanced at the tower before looking at the shepherd one last time.
"A warlock's demonic spells would be a better death than the fate that awaits me if I don't find a mage who can help me, so I have no choice either way."
Before he could ask the obvious question, the traveller turned away again and walked purposefully towards the tower, and it didn't seem right to follow her just to argue, so the shepherd found himself just standing there, watching her leave.
* * *
As she stopped, close to the tower, Ari balled her hands into fists and put them on her hips. It was an unconscious habit, which was good, as she'd picked it up from her uncle, and if she thought about him right now, she might get distracted. She was a young thing, barely into her twenties, but she was determined to get inside to see the spell-caster responsible for this. She had to get him on her side at all costs. She wasn't just doing this for herself, after all. She'd been told that the spear, an old family heirloom, was enchanted, though no one could remember exactly what kind of spell had been imbued into it, apart from a preservation spell that kept the materials from failing due to age. Whatever they were, she hoped they'd be enough if the magus wasn't in the mood for visitors. They couldn't be evil, she reasoned, as there wasn't anything guarding the tower, and it certainly couldn't be a hermit, or they wouldn't have placed the thing right on the outskirts of a town. But before she could worry about confronting whoever was inside the tower - if indeed there was anyone inside the tower - she had to find an entrance first, and her eyes weren't coming up with anything. As far as she could tell, the thing was an unbroken collection of stone slabs and bricks, with a conical parapet topping it. Walking right up to it, she squinted, looking closer. Just solid stone. This may be trickier than she thought. She briefly considered going back and asking the shepherd for ideas, but then discarded that idea. Her whole life she'd had people doing things for her, she needed to stand on her own two feet if she was going to get through this experience, and besides, he seemed very nice, but with the country superstitions against magic, he'd have even less of an idea than her. Sighing, she shook her head and placed her hands on the stone, feeling around for anything out of the ordinary. This was going to take a while. She'd known this venture of hers wasn't going to be easy, but she'd at least hoped it wouldn't be tedious. Rubbing her fingers along the wall, feeling for indentations, odd textures, seams, anything, she painstakingly made her way around the base of the tower, the process taking her about ten solid minutes, and didn't come up with anything. The thin seams between slabs were quite shallow, the stones were well-fitted, so she couldn't climb up any higher. Unable to think of anything to do, she just tried again, going in the opposite direction this time, and moving even more meticulously, bending down to reach her fingers all the way to the ground and stretching them up as far as she could reach. As the minutes ticked on, Ari began to wonder, her thoughts gradually darkening. Maybe the entryway to the tower had been moved underground when it had been - what was the word? Teleported. Maybe it had been moved to this exact spot on purpose because there was a hidden series of caves below it. She told herself if it began to get dark she would ask the locals if there were any cave entrances in the hills nearby. Or maybe there wasn't anyone inside, maybe it really was solid stone through and through. What if this object wasn't a tower at all, what if it was some kind of test, some faraway magician seeing how far he would be able to teleport an object this big... Ari shook her head. Such thoughts were not helpful. She tried desperately to think outside the box, clearing her throat to speak up.
"H-hello? Is there anyone in there? Can you hear me?"
She waited several seconds, forcing herself not to turn and look to see if the shepherd was staring at her.
"Uhh... listen, you, I know you're in there, I... performed a scrying back in town!"
"So you'd better open up a door right this instant or I'll..."
She bit her lip, thinking quickly. Standing up straight, trying to look impressive, as her parents had taught her at a young age, she opened the bindings on her pack and drew the spear from her back, hoping it wasn't too obvious that she was unused to doing so.
"...or I'll tear this tower down and pull you from the rubble!"
Somewhere in the distance, a bird called out to its mate, and several of the sheep exchanged bleats, but nothing at all was heard from the tower.
"Ignoring me would be a fatal mistake! You don't want to make an enemy of me!"
Ari tried not to tremble in the ensuing silence, her cheeks burning as she heard the shepherd quietly cough in the distance. Her shoulders sagged as her false bravado began to seep away, replaced with the same feeling of dread and hopelessness that had dogged her since she was old enough to understand her fate. Gritting her teeth, she stepped forward and started banging on the wall with her fist. The stone was so thick that she couldn't even hear an impact.
"A-alright, you, I'm gonna give you to the count of ten! One... two..."
As the hopelessness spread throughout her, her voice grew quieter, and she began to sink down towards the ground, the spear tilting off at an angle, still weakly pounding her fist against the side of the building. By the time she reached 'seven', her voice was barely above a whisper, and then she simply fell silent altogether, until she quietly invoked the god who was associated with feelings of sadness and despair.
"Blue goddess... what's the use? There's probably not even anything inside."
Closing her eyes, feeling them beginning to tear up, she lowered her head, gently resting her forehead against the stone for a moment. It would probably be best if she just left now, continued with her original plan to try the Mages' Academy in Wellworth, see if any of the spellcasters of the Silver Tower could help her with her problem... and could keep their mouths shut.
Ari's eyes flew open, and she hurriedly rubbed them with the back of her hand to clear away the tears, standing up and backing away... from the still-solid base of the tower. She took a few steps to her left, as that's where the sound had come from, but no door had opened on that side of the tower either. She began to run around the base of the building pushing hard against it, in case what she'd heard had just been a door unlocking instead of opening. Catching sight of something out of the corner of her eye, she stopped in her tracks and stared. There had been a small boulder, impressive enough for this field but tiny compared to the tower, just to the left of where she'd been standing, and now that she'd moved around to this angle, she could see... an ornately designed wooden door with a polished brass handle, built right into the side of the flat stone, and hanging slightly ajar. She slowly, cautiously stepped forwards, towards the door she knew hadn't been there on her last rotation around the tower, and reached out to nudge the door open with the butt of her spear... and found, impossibly, a corridor behind it, leading to a larger room with a set of stairs visible at the end. Ari had to fight the urge to shout 'hello?' into its depths, remembering that whoever dwelled here might be even less friendly than the shepherd feared. She looked around, trying not to wonder if it was the last time she'd ever see the sky, and took a hesitant step inside. And then another. And then she was past the doorway, right inside what should be the heart of the boulder. Glancing over her shoulder at the serene field beyond the frame, she was genuinely surprised when the door didn't slam shut and bar itself behind her. Bringing her spear around in front of her, Ari slowly walked down the hallway, wondering where exactly she was. The boulder was obviously a clever bit of magic, but this was far too big to even be the tower! Unless, she thought to herself, the tower was the very tip of a full-sized castle that was buried in the ground. She knew the proper way to hold a spear, had trained with a few weaponmasters in her day, but the nagging doubts remained, as she had never actually fought anything with it. Nothing that wasn't filled with straw anyway. Approaching the room at the end of the hall, spearhead leading the way, Ari reluctantly looked up. From what she could see, it looked to be about as tall as the tower that had brought her here, but it looked like there were regularly spaced landings with doors on them, so it seemed likely this place was way bigger than the building in the field. For all she knew, it was bigger than the field, as well. She briefly wondered if this was the headquarters to a whole arcane circle of wizards... or a coven of witches. Back down on the bottom floor, though, there was another short hallway to a dead end, with a door on both of the side walls. Deciding to work her way up, Ari approached the door cautiously, trying not to imagine the myriad horrible things that could be waiting on the other side. As long as it wasn't undead, she decided, she could deal with it. The horrible things gave her such nightmares when she was a child, and the (perfectly reasonable) fear had never entirely faded. Placing her hand on the handle of the strangely plain-looking door, tightening her grip on the spear, and took a deep breath before she turned it, jamming her shoulder against the door to open it as quickly as possible, bursting into the room beyond and quickly raising her spear into the proper stance.
What Ari found on the other side of that door wasn't some horrible dungeon infested with terrible creatures, but... a rather comfortable, if not quite luxurious room, with shelves of books along one wall and a space for a roaring fire opposite it. Right in the centre of the room was a circular rug with several high-backed armchairs arranged around it. Sitting in the one facing the door was a human man, didn't look much older than Ari herself, wearing a loose, flowing robe made of expensive-looking silks, and holding a very old book in one hand and a steaming ceramic cup in the other. As she slammed the door aside, the man yelped and tossed his cup to the side, where it shattered on the stone floor, a dark, steaming puddle spreading out from the point of impact.
The man jumped to his feet, throwing the book onto the chair behind him, and pointed at the strange woman who'd just burst into the room. Ari felt a little bit embarrassed for flinching as his finger was directed at her, terrified for a second that she was about to be turned into a newt or set on fire.
"Who are you?! How did you get in here?! Why have you come?!"
Ari blushed. Suddenly she felt like the monster, bursting into someone's home. She didn't lower the spear, though. Just because he'd been surprised didn't mean he wasn't hostile.
"I - I'm Ariella. I... I was outside, screaming for someone to let me in and pounding on the wall, when the boulder opened up for me. Well, a door opened up, anyway."
He nodded absently, looking away, but didn't move.
"Oh, well, you must have hit the switchstone. Fancy that."
Returning his gaze to the stranger, he frowned, crossing his arms.
"Still doesn't explain why you're barging into my home like this."
She bit her lip and reluctantly raised the spear, resting the butt on the ground next to her.
"Ah, right. Well, it's like this... I need help. Magical help. It's a matter of great urgency, and I need to locate a spellcaster. I figured whoever put a tower - or whatever this place is - in the middle of a field overnight would be powerful enough to aid me."
"Oh, well I must say that breaking and entering is a fine beginning to such a vague deal, indeed."
He gave her an odd look.
"That's not a bad assumption, really, but the tower is unmarked, how did you know you weren't walking into a necromancer's den or a demonologist's summoning pit?"
She blushed, silently cursing herself for doing so, and avoided his gaze.
"I - well, I didn't. I just need help so dearly that I was willing to take the chance."
A moment of profoundly awkward silence followed, before Ari put on a bit of that false bravado from earlier.
"Look, if you aren't willing to help, then just point me to someone else here who might."
The strangely dressed man cocked his head to the side as if he didn't understand her words.
Lifting her spear, she gestured vaguely in the direction of the rest of the... facility.
"Yes, someone else. This place can't be all for just one person. Who else is here?"
Raising a single eyebrow and speaking slowly, he spread his arms to the empty room around him as he answered.
"The gang's all here. Can't you see them? We were just sitting down to tea when you so rudely interrupted."
She looked around, suddenly ill at ease, wondering whether he was delusional, or if there really were invisible people all around her. One spear wouldn't do much good in that case. Before she had too long to think about it, the man suddenly burst out laughing, letting his serious face drop.
"I'm sorry, it was just too good an opportunity to ignore."
He came striding forward, extending a hand.
"Nice to meet you, Ariella, I'm Thaniel. Wizard. This place is mine. And for the record, there's only one other permanent resident here, but he's out right now." Turning around, the man - Thaniel - pointed a finger at the broken cup on the floor and uttered a single syllable in what Ari assumed was some long-dead language. As he did, a bolt of teal-coloured energy jumped from his finger to the floor, spreading into the tea stain and the fragments of the cup, and they instantly pulled themselves from the floor, coming together to form a solid teacup, the liquid working its way backward out of the stone and filling the cup without any sign of taking detritus along for the ride as it jumped back into his waiting hand. Nonetheless, when he took a sip, he made a face, shaking his head sadly.
"Never the same afterwards. Ah well, more where that came from. Now then, if you're here to talk business, let's go upstairs."
As the strange man - the wizard, Ari reminded herself - lead the way, Ari found herself struck by how different he looked from what she'd been expecting; some ancient, withered man with a long, wise-looking white beard and about three hundred or so years on him. Thaniel, on the other hand, only looked about twenty-four or twenty-five. His hair was auburn, and worn in a short, coiffed style that was several years out of fashion, but at least looked good on him. He wore a simple goatee around his mouth, which looked accustomed to smiling that odd grin most of the time. It occurred to Ari that if all she'd heard about magic was true, it was possible he was three hundred, and using some kind of illusion or longevity spell to continue to appear young. He climbed all the way to the top of the stairs, tempting Ari to ask what was behind the doors they were ignoring, but decided it would be impolite, as he hadn't even gotten her story yet. When they finally reached the top, Thaniel unlocked the door with a flick of his wrist and a curious gesture, and, opening it, he gestured for her to pass him.
His grin looked genuine and his eyes looked calm, but Ari still hesitated. She still had no reason to trust this man other than the fact that he hadn't instantly attacked her, which wasn't much. Still, she decided, if he did wish her harm, he could do it any time he wished, and wouldn't need to walk her into a trap, so it was probably for the best to play along with him. As she stepped past him into the room beyond, her trepidation was quickly forgotten, and she found herself staring, fascinated, at the things before her.
"Welcome to my observatory, Miss Ariella."
Ari was completely oblivious to Thaniel gently closing the door behind them, her eyes searching the room; a large dome enclosed the room in its entirety, currently covered in a display of constellations and stars, each one clearly labelled for convenience. It didn't seem to be an accurate map of where the stars would lie at night; Ari didn't recognize all of the constellations, there were quite a lot of the things, more than seemed right. At the moment, some of them were even moving around, switching places with each other, however that was done. A very large, very complex-looking telescope sat near the centre of the room, pointing up towards the 'wall' of the dome. There was other equipment around the edges of the room, equipment Ari did not recognize, which hardly surprised her. But more interesting than that were the little motes of glowing energy floating randomly through the air. They didn't seem to be emanating from anywhere or disappearing after a while, they just seemed to be... waiting for something.
"Ah, here it is."
She turned to see the caster retrieving a stick from a drawer, a stick she had absolutely no doubt was a magic wand. Sure enough, he flicked it towards himself, and with a humming sound and a slight distortion, his robes were replaced with a loose silk shirt and a pair of comfortable-looking pants. Turning to face her, he gestured to her with the wand in a rather absent-minded fashion.
"Now then, what was it you wanted?"
He saw her flinch and chuckled softly.
"Oh, I'm sorry. But don't worry about this wand, all it does is clothing spells. Despite what you may have heard, a given magic wand can only really do one thing, so this one's harmless. If you're looking for 'an extension of the caster's will' or some other equally dramatic idea, that'd be a proper staff. Here."
He dropped the wand back into the desk.
"If it'll make you feel better, I'll put it away."
She grinned, feeling somewhat self-conscious.
"Thank you, sir. Ah... what was wrong with the other outfit?"
Glancing down at himself, he chuckled again.
"What, that? No, I only wear the robes for tea, when you're doing business, you really need pants. So, I take it you're here to hire me for some grand mystical feat, yes?"
He sat down behind a surprisingly ordinary-looking desk, and Ari found that there was suddenly a chair behind her, so she unstrapped her spear once again, laying it on the floor just next to her, and took a seat, silently being relieved when it didn't grow arms and restrain her or some unfortunate effect. She really had to stop reading stories about evil wizards.
"Well, sir, the simplest way to explain is to start with who I am. My name is -"
"Wait, you misunderstand. I'm trying to tell you that I'm not for hire. I've got quite a number of ongoing experiments around here that require my attention, breakthroughs to be made in several different fields. The alchemical tests, off the top of my head, won't work unless they're performed on an intersection of ley lines, which is why I put the tower here... and I can tell you've already stopped listening."
She gripped the armrests of her seat tightly, working up the courage to defy him so openly.
"Please... mighty Thaniel. My need is significant, my purpose just. I did not come so far just to have you refuse to help. You can name your price, mage. So you tell me what weight of gold you would ask, or what task you would have me perform, and I will see it done before I let you chase me away."
Swallowing hard, thinking of her family, she averted her eyes and tried not to let her fear into her voice, gripping the chair so tightly her knuckles turned white.
"If... if you would not be satisfied with anything except my body... then I would be willing to go to those lengths to complete this quest of mine."
There was a long, heavy moment of silence before he was just suddenly there, standing in front of her. She wasn't sure whether he'd magicked himself there or if she just hadn't noticed, given how much effort she was putting into not looking at him. He crouched down next to her, a softer look on his face, mirrored in his voice.
"I don't know who told you how wizards do business, Miss, but luckily for you, they seem to be misinformed. I'm not the sort of gentleman who peddles in flesh, on either side of the transaction. Your virtue is safe from me."
He stood up straight again, and she followed him with her eyes.
"You do seem rather determined to get my help, though, I can see that. Whatever you want, it must be terribly important. Alright, give me your pitch."
Nodding gratefully, she cleared her throat.
"It all began with my grandfather..."
The spellcaster held up his hand again. Ari was beginning to get tired of being interrupted.
"I'm sorry, not to be rude or anything, but could you please save the 'how' for later and go with the 'what' for now? Before anything else, I must know exactly what you want me to do. Put it to me in the simplest terms possible, I find that helps get things started."
She thought about it for a moment and then shrugged.
"Well... there's a curse... and I want it broken."
"I was afraid you were going to say something like that."
He almost looked embarrassed.
"Alas... I'd hoped it was something simple. Higher magic is a little beyond me at the moment."
Sheepish expression aside, she was going to need a bit more detail than that.
"What do you mean? I thought magic had no limits, that you mages could do anything."
He shrugged and grinned slightly at her.
"Second time you've done that. I'm a wizard, not a mage."
"...What's the difference?"
His grin widened as he puffed out his skinny chest proudly.
"I have no idea, but that's what it says on my diploma, and I like the distinction."
She was beginning to get put off by this, crossing her arms over her chest."
"Well then, wizard, tell me why you can't help me. Seems to me that moving an entire tower... or whatever this place is... would count as 'higher magic'."
Thaniel stood up, looking pensive.
"Well, it's like this..."
Seeming to gather his thoughts for a moment, he lifted a hand and gestured towards the domed ceiling. Suddenly, the stars and constellations vanished, everything vanished, except the floor and the furniture on it. Standing up and looking around in shock, Ari realized that she was seeing the view from the top of the tower... which had a conical roof, not a dome. But sure enough, there was a flock of sheep down in the field below, having moved across the grass to a more shaded area, the shepherd sitting under a tree, smoking a pipe as he watched his charges. Ari waved, but the man seemed oblivious. It occurred to her that the tower probably still looked exactly the same from the outside and he couldn't see her. Clearly reading her intentions from her actions, Thaniel's voice came quietly from behind her.
"I've just turned the dome invisible, nothing can get or see inside."
As if deliberately emphasizing the point, a blue jay flew towards them, then swung around the side of where the walls had been, seemingly giving the room a wide berth. Then, Ari gasped, as the view from the room moved. Although she felt nothing, the field beneath them began to fall away to the side, being replaced by the small, harmless forest on the edge of the town. Slightly dazed, Ari noted a wide row of saplings along the outer edge, and thought it was good that the town's woodcutters were making sure to replace what they took.
"Did we... are you moving the tower now?"
Stepping up beside her and pointing, Thaniel shook his head. Ari felt even more confused when she realized what he was pointing at: the tower, still sitting in the middle of that field. Automatically looking down, she confirmed that yes, the floor was still there.
"No, that would count as higher magic. I just shifted our perspective a bit... though I'll admit that it's pretty cool looking."
As he spoke, the view from the dome began to rise up, lifting away from the ground, and even though she knew it wasn't real, Ari felt her stomach begin to flutter; most Humans had never been this far from the ground. Feeling a touch of vertigo, her legs suddenly felt weak, and Ari grabbed on to the wizard to keep from collapsing. To his credit, he didn't comment on it, just held her up until she regained her footing, nodding her thanks and stepping back a bit from the edge even as she blushed, embarrassed. The dome finally 'stopped', showing a nice view of the entire region. Then, Thaniel made another gesture, and the random motes that were floating through the air all rushed to the wall they were facing, merging together to form... what looked like a grid of glowing lines that neatly covered the entire countryside. Ari suddenly got the sensation that she was looking at a very large and vibrant map. Sure enough, the next time Thaniel raised his hand, he was pointing at the image before them with a stick she was certain he hadn't had a second ago. This particular one seemed to really just be a stick, as all he was doing was pointing, like a schoolteacher.
"These are the local ley lines, invisible 'veins' of natural magic that cover the entire world. Magical spells and reactions become stronger in areas where the ley lines are more plentiful, and the specific spots where two lines cross each other are the most powerful of all, there are certain rituals that can only work if they can draw upon a ley crossing."
He glanced sideways at her, grinning.
"The tricky bit is that they move around for some reason, so it's difficult to map them."
The wizard pointed to the side of the image, an old, dark forest several miles away from the town. None of the ley lines were quite straight, they all curved slightly from points A to B, but the lines around the forest weren't even smooth, they were squiggly and jagged like the scribbling of a bored child. It all emanated from a spot in the forest where about four different lines crossed at the same point.
"You see this? The ley lines near the forest are all being interfered with. Never seen anything like it before. Now, ley lines aren't normally straight, but even away from the forest I see little curls and squiggles here and there... such as the pig's tail corkscrew right on the intersection I put the tower on. It's interfering with magic in ways I can't entirely predict, having strange effects. Now, low level magic, like my dressing wand or the repair spell I used on the teacup, even the alchemical reaction I came here to acquire, it all seems to work fine, but the more powerful the spell, the stronger the interference. I'm afraid that if I tried something as complicated as breaking a curse, it might end up spreading it from its target to everyone in the kingdom, or making it a hundred times more powerful."
"Do you know what's causing it?"
He sent her a look of surprise; he clearly hadn't expected that question.
"Well... I've been looking into the disturbance, and trying to find a way to deal with it without leaving the tower - I almost never go outside anymore, you see - but so far I haven't had much luck."
"That isn't what I asked. Do you know why the ley lines are acting like this?"
"Well, hey, you're the wizard, can't you just, you know, whoosh us over there and take a look?"
He seemed genuinely reluctant as he gestured with both hands, the stick having disappeared again. The glowing lines dissolved into separate motes again, and flew back into the air above the room, where they resumed milling about randomly. Meanwhile, the map flew down towards the ominous forest, more slowly this time. Ari blushed again as she wondered if he was doing it on purpose to avoid making her dizzy. As the view settled down at ground level, making it look like the wizard and the traveller were standing on a slightly raised platform in the middle of the woods, at least until it started moving. Ari took a big step to her left to allow a tree to pass her; she was pretty sure that it would actually be as intangible to her as it seemed to be to the floor, but you could never be certain with magic. Thaniel 'steered' the map with minute flicks of his fingers, moving from place to place as they got closer and closer to the area where the center of the disturbance lay. He squinted just slightly, staring out into the forest, muttering to himself as he sought the problem.
"Lots of squirrels around here, druid nearby? ...No, nobody around, can't be someone absorbing the power... don't see any blackstone formations nearby... have to be a mountain to do this anyway... whoa, what was that?"
Ari frowned, searching the image before her.
"I didn't see anything."
"Something moving over... there!"
The view suddenly shot across a clearing and through some trees. Ari instinctively threw her hands up in front of her face as the wall of plant life hurtled towards her, but just as she'd thought, the images passed harmlessly through her. The wizard didn't notice her reaction, as he was busy phasing through a rather large set of shrubbery himself. When they finally stopped in the open air, it was obvious what Thaniel had seen. A very large, very dangerous-looking lizard was ambling across a clearing in the field. Its body was like that of a crocodile, but with longer legs and a shorter, more rounded head, like that of an iguana, as it was designed for life on land. Most distinctively, its tail was far, far longer than seemed necessary, narrowing to a whip-like point. Even knowing that the real creature must be miles away, Ari felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up, and resisted the urge to draw her spear.
"What - what is that?"
He shook his head, sighing.
"That, my dear -
Suddenly, the creature threw itself forward, launching its body towards a deer that Ari hadn't even noticed, standing petrified in the shade under a tree. As it landed, it dug its impressive front claws into the dirt beneath it, and used its momentum to swing its tail out hard. The deer bent down, clearly about to spring away, but it was not fast enough. The effect the tail had on the deer was... unfortunate. Ari's head spun the other way, clenching her eyes as she cried out, too late to prevent the gruesome image from burning itself into her memory.
The wizard placed a sympathetic hand on her shoulder.
"It's a number far fewer than seven that hold this creature in their domain. Most of the gods aren't that fond of such aggression, such rage."
She dared to look over again, and saw it hunched over the cleaved body, feeding. Mercifully, it was facing the other way, but as she watched, it lifted its head and looked over its shoulder, those wicked teeth now crimson with gore, and, for a moment, she felt like the thing was staring directly at her. Thaniel continued.
"That is a very dangerous creature called a lasher. You can see where they get their names. You do not want to be in the way of that tail when they get a-swinging."
"And... and the lasher is disrupting the ley lines somehow?"
"No, vicious or not, it's still just an animal, it's not even a magical creature like a unicorn or a chimera. There's no way it can have any effect on the ley field."
He lifted a hand to point, and Ari realized that several of his fingers were now wearing curious, sparsely-adorned rings.
"...But that just might do it."
Ari frowned for a moment, as he seemed to be pointing directly at the lasher. But then she realized; she'd been so focused on the claws, on the teeth, on the tail, that this entire time she hadn't seen the object jutting out of the creature's back, near its right shoulderblade. She squinted, unable to make it out clearly in the shade that the lasher had dragged the body into to feed. It almost looked like...
"The handle of a dagger. It's, ah... a nullblade. Yes."
The wizard sighed, a frustrated look coming across his face.
"Nullblades are powerful magical artifacts, rather useful in a fight. You see, there's a spell in the blade that cancels out magic, so it's a major boon if you're fighting, say, a warlock or a rogue wizard. Because that thing's stuck in the lasher, it's continuously using that anti-magic spell, but the lasher has no magic to be attacked, so its attack is harmless. But because that spell is constantly being discharged, and the lasher's territory is directly under a major ley line crosspoint, it's having a huge disruptive effect on the ley field for miles around."
Frowning, he shook his head.
"No, there's no way I'll be able to do anything about it from here, the nullblade will be impossible to reach with any kind of magic."
Ari had found that difficult to follow, but felt she got the gist of it, and nodded sympathetically. Lifting a hand and making a spinning gesture, Thaniel dismissed the map view, and it rocketed back across the land, so fast that everything outside became a green and blue blur until it came to a stop right where it had started, on top of Thaniel's tower. Ari had closed her eyes the instant the trip began, and was quite relieved when she opened them and the world had come to a halt again.
Thaniel turned to Ari with a sad look on his face.
"I'm sorry, Miss Ariella. Right now I'm unable to perform any higher magic. I can't help you with your curse, and it looks like I'm stuck here for the time being.
"Isn't there anything you can do?"
He shrugged, giving her a rather thin smile.
"I was going to try to send a message to some acquaintances of mine in the magical community, see if they can help from a region where magic is undisturbed. Failing that, I might just have to wait until the ley lines move away, and the spell stops interfering with the field."
Feeling empty, like defeat had been snatched from the jaws of victory, Ari nodded.
"Thaniel... are you sure there's nothing that can be done? Anything that would give you your full power back?"
He snickered and turned to his desk, rifling through all the papers on top. She could practically hear him rolling his eyes.
"Oh, sure, somebody could pull the knife from the lasher's back, or kill it. Either way, the spell would stop discharging and the ley field would go back to normal. But nobody would be stupid enough to go looking for a lasher, especially when it would nullify any magical advantage they may have."
He clicked his tongue.
"You know, it figures. That particular nullblade had a second enchantment on the handle, supposed to protect the wielder in a fight. And the guy who left that there had to go and stab the thing. It pulled away from him and yanked the knife out of his hand, and presto, suddenly he's not protected anymore. Poor bastard. Should have just stuck with slashing."
He looked over his shoulder at Ari, as if just remembering she was there, putting on his professional face again.
"I'm afraid that's all I can tell you, Miss Ariella. You might as well take your leave. If you don't remember how to get to the door, I can have a mote light the way."
Glancing up at the orbs of light, which still seemed entirely oblivious to everything around them, Ari shook her head.
"N-no, that won't be necessary. I remember."
He turned to face her again, holding a scroll.
"Well, I need to study this communication spell, never used it before, so I'll bid you farewell, and hope that you can find someone to break this curse. Here."
Another, smaller scroll appeared in his free hand, and he passed it to her.
"This is how to find a druid named Olaf the Brown. Little bit odd, kind of focused on walnuts, but a good man, and a good spellcaster. He'd probably want to help you anyway, but if you mention me I'm certain he'll assist you."
Ari looked down at the scroll uncertainly. She'd been so close, and now, to have to leave like this without any concrete help... She looked back out at the image that surrounded the room and shivered, remembering the vicious look in the lasher's eyes when it looked in her direction. Looking away, she turned to the door to leave. As she started down the long staircase, Thaniel calling after her to wish her luck, she began to ponder her next actions. By the time she reached the ground and started down the hallway to the door, she'd made up her mind.
Ari stepped out of the door on the boulder, taking a moment to sigh in relief; she was once again outside under the warmth of the sun.
"Ah, there ye are, Miss! Did'ja find what you were looking for?"
Turning, she saw the shepherd waving from under a tree, idly scratching a lamb behind the ears. She grinned and returned his wave.
"No... and yes. I'm off to solve a problem. Thank you for your help, sir!"
He grinned crookedly and chuckled.
"No problem a'tall, Miss. Glad t' help!"
She approached her horse, who was munching on the grass, and started getting him ready for the road, running her fingers through his mane.
"Okay, Roland, this is it, the part where it really goes from walking around with a really heavy spear on my back to actually being an adventure. I was kinda hoping for something less... difficult than a giant murderous lizard, but I know I can do this! I have to."
With one last look up at the tower, wondering if Thaniel was watching her, Ari climbed atop her steed and urged him onwards, riding out of the field without looking back, already mentally plotting the way to her destiny.
Roland made excellent time on the back country paths, and it was the late afternoon when Ari found herself outside the dark, ominous forest, which seemed even more foreboding when she was here in person. Sliding to the ground, she rubbed her mount's neck, letting him calm down after the hard ride.
"You stay right here, Roland, I know you can take care of yourself."
She heard an odd noise from somewhere within the forest, and cursed herself for being startled.
"...I'm not so sure about me though. Wish me luck, buddy."
Drawing the spear from her back, trying to encourage herself by thinking about what this weapon had done, Ariella nervously approached the edge of the forest, halting just outside the tree cover to steel herself for her task, trying to think of it as just a regular forest that happened to have one bad thing inside it that needed killing, for the good of everything that lived there. As if the forest was responding, underlining its own unnerving nature, a large black bird flew down from behind Ari and alighted on a branch just ahead of her, where it let out a loud caw and stared at her. There was something mildly disturbing about the intensity in the creature's eyes, as if it was judging the traveller, and found her wanting. Shaking her head, Ari quietly cursed herself. She was letting everything get to her. Of course the woods were ominous and spooky, every forest was creepy, especially if you knew for a fact there was something dangerous inside. This stupid bird was just staring at her because she was right there. Picking up a rock and throwing it at the avian, Ari felt slightly reassured when it reacted just as any normal bird would; even though her aim was way off and she hit the trunk of the tree it was sitting on, the sudden movement urged the bird into movement, flying off into the woods with a squawk. Ari grinned and sent him off with a rude gesture. Then, gritting her teeth and tightening her grip on the spear, she began to make her way through the trees, heading towards the east side of the forest, where she'd seen the beast. The first few minutes were without any incident whatsoever, aside from seeing a small, fuzzy creature called a 'quondle' gathering balls of water to properly dampen its nest. Everyone Ari had ever met who was not a teacher of some kind thought that was a tremendously stupid name; due to their squirrel-sized bodies and odd innate ability to gather water into perfectly round orbs, they were more popularly called 'sipmunks'. Ari briefly wondered why its water magic wasn't being disrupted by the nullblade's effect on the ley field, but quickly decided that it must be 'lower magic', and thus unaffected by the spell. Although she hadn't seen anything bigger or more menacing than the sipmunk by the time she found a path leading deeper into the woods, where the overhead branches were closer together, making it darker, she was still tense at all times, sweat forming on her brow, fingers beginning to ache with how hard she was gripping the spear. She didn't know much about the lasher, wondered to herself how she'd ever thought it was a good idea to run right out here without even taking the time to learn about her 'prey'. The thing that most concerned her was the size of the beast's territory. If it was small, she was heading the right way, but she'd soon have to worry about running into the thing. But what if it was large? What if the entire forest was the lasher's hunting grounds? It might be on the exact opposite side of the woods from where she'd last seen it, and she didn't relish the idea of hunting for it all night long. Hell, it might be behind her right now, waiting to make its move. Suddenly overcome with paranoia, Ari spun on the spot, spear raised threateningly, but there were no monstrous lizards waiting to devour her. There was, however, a large black bird peeking out of a hollow in a tree. As she laid eyes upon it, it cawed accusingly at her, looking decidedly cross. But that had to be her imagination, of course, even if it was the same bird, which it probably wasn't, they weren't smart enough to hold grudges, right? She shook her head and turned around again, heading back down the path. She hadn't even found the thing yet and she was already a bundle of raw nerves. She just hoped her family armour might fare better than the deer if the monster did get the drop on her.
Focusing on her breathing, trying to remain calm, Ari continued deeper into the forest, certain that she'd come face-to-face with the beast at every corner. But she didn't find it, just smaller creatures like the sipmunk or common squirrels, as well as a number of those unnerving birds. If she didn't know better, she would swear they were all keeping tabs on her. Finally, she stopped, having discovered a small cave in the side of a hill in a clearing. Judging by the bones scattered around in the dirt by the entrance, this must be the lasher's home, or nest, or maybe just a place to have lunch. Swallowing, Ari silently prayed that she could avoid becoming dessert. She squinted, trying to see deeper into the cave without actually walking up to it, but it was pitch black inside. She'd brought a simple light charm with her, a pendant that gave off enough light to take a walk at night, but she didn't feel it would be enough to keep her safe in that cave. It would probably be best to hide nearby, perhaps up a tree, and wait for it to come out, or come back, whichever applied. All she needed to do was get that knife out of its back, but she understood that realistically, if she got close enough to do that, she'd have to kill the thing in order to survive. She began looking around for a branch thick enough to support her weight, briefly frowning at yet another of those stupid birds, staring at her like she was the most interesting thing in the woods...
...and then she heard the growl.
It was somewhere to her left, in a rather thick row of shrubbery, a deep, rolling noise that chilled Ari's blood and sent a shudder down her spine. In the absolute silence that had suddenly fallen over the forest, that voyeuristic blackbird let out an unusually loud caw and took wing, but Ari barely even noticed, aside from suddenly wishing she could fly to safety as well. She'd thought her grip on the spear before was tight, but now she clenched the weapon with such might that it hurt her fingers.
She was afraid to move, uncertain if it would come after her if she did, or if it was even aware of her presence. Maybe the best thing to do was to slowly walk away and try to get the hell out of this forest, find her way back to Roland, and try her luck with Olaf the Brown. She'd never found herself so paralyzed by indecision before. The decision was made for her, however, when the enormous lizard she'd come so far to meet leapt out of the shrubs at her, snarling, eyes a-flame. Shrieking, Ari threw herself to the side, not enjoying the heavy thud the lasher made when it landed one little bit. She noted, now that it was facing away from her, that the nullblade was in place just behind its shoulder. At the very least, this was the right monster. Not the least bit discouraged, the monster quickly turned to face her again, teeth exposed, looking hungry. Gritting her own teeth, forcing herself to move, Ari scrambled to her feet and raised her spear, screaming at the thing angrily, though it didn't seem intimidated. When it lunged at her, but stopped short, the traveller's eyes widened, recognizing the manoeuvre. Instinctively, she held her spear straight up, holding the shaft in the way of the monster's tail, getting it in position just as the lasher lived up to its name, its tail cracking like a whip as it cleaved through the air and slammed into the thin wooden shaft of Ari's weapon. The inexperienced adventurer screamed again as she felt the tremendous impact of the lasher's tail, wondered if she was already mortally wounded as the force of the blow pushed her down, landing unceremoniously on her rear. When she frantically looked down at herself, she discovered something curious. She was completely untouched... and so was the spear. There wasn't so much as a dent in the polished shaft of her weapon. Before she could reflect on this, the lasher, which looked even angrier somehow, suddenly lunged at her again, claws extended, maw wide open, and there was no time to shift her grip on the spear to point it at the beast. There wasn't even time to scream. But someone else clearly decided to make the time, because a voice rang out in the clearing as the creature hurtled towards its prey.
At the very last instant, a bright light appeared directly in front of Ari, and the lasher slammed into it as solidly as if it had been a brick wall. Unfortunately, the wall of light shattered to pieces that evaporated into nothingness with the strength of the impact. Ari stared dully at the lizard, which was now shaking its head as if it were dazed.
"Get up! What are you waiting for, get up!"
Ari felt a hand on her shoulder and was shaken out of her own daze, getting to her feet as fast as she could, turning to the side to see a very panicked Thaniel standing next to her, glancing behind him just in time to see a strange ripple in the air smooth itself out.
"Thaniel? What -"
"No time! Move!"
He yanked on her with more strength than she'd given him credit for, pulling her off her feet for a moment - just as the lasher's claws swiped through the air where her calves had been.
"Ooooh, great green, it's really mad now!"
The green god was an entity of life, commonly invoked in situations where people were worried about their own. The two of them, feeling no more secure with a numerical advantage than alone, backed away quickly, trying to figure out the lasher's next move.
"I warped over when I heard you'd come here, but I only had the one charge ready, and the nullblade is draining my stores of energy, we're gonna need to stop that lizard before we can leave!"
Ari shot a sideways glance at the wizard, keeping her spear pointing directly at the lasher.
"What do you mean, 'heard'?"
"I - gods above!"
The spellcaster flinched away as the lasher once again did that odd half-lunge that indicated it was about to put its tail to good use. Ari instinctively stepped forward, elbowing him to the side, planting the butt of her spear into the ground before them. The lasher's tail slammed into the shaft of the spear just inches away from her fingers, and once again, the incredible force the reptile brought to bear should have splintered the weapon without effort, the way it had annihilated that deer. Instead, just as before, the spear resisted the attack, the lasher's tail bouncing off without so much as cracking the shaft. This time, it was the lasher that backed away, glaring at them with rage in its eyes, clearly not happy that its attack was so unsuccessful. The odd angle of the creature's tail suggested that it might even have injured itself striking at the spear. Ari shouted at her companion without taking her eyes off the monster.
"Come on, wizard! Blow it up or something!"
"I can't! I don't have the right spells prepared! I've got a lightning spell, but - wait!"
As the lasher crouched down again, an oddly feline indicator that it was about to leap again, Thaniel pointed his hands at the lizard and uttered a quick incantation. Just as it pushed off the ground, the soil gave way. All the grass around it suddenly disappeared, and the dirt beneath it was suddenly a much lighter hue, not to mention significantly less solid. The lasher's feet sank into the muck, and it looked as surprised as Ari did. She shot the wizard a glance, not expecting the excited smile on his face.
"...What did you do?"
He turned to her, clearly energized by the adrenaline the fight had brought out.
"Quicksand! It's not very deep, but we can get out of here while it's still -"
She turned back to the creature, narrowing her gaze.
"No. We need to finish this, or we'll be right back where we started."
"What? No, wait!"
Ignoring him, Ari strode forward, raising her spear. The lasher still looked defiant, daring her to make a move. As it turned out, this wasn't just the pride of a dying predator. As she approached the beast, spear raised high, it twisted its hips in a manner Ari wouldn't even have thought physically possible, and managed to swing its tail at her with almost as much force as when it had the momentum of the jump to help. The way she'd been holding the weapon, it was all Ari could do to get the spear into position fast enough to block the strike. As it was, the sheer force of the blow alone staggered her backwards, bumping hard into Thaniel, who had been approaching quickly from behind, causing him to lose his balance and topple over backwards. There was an unpleasant thud, and the wizard cried out in pain.
They were both outside the reach of the lasher's tail now, so Ari was able to take her eyes off the monster long enough to see to her companion.
"Thaniel! Are you okay?"
The man had hit his head on an unpleasantly large rock, and was now bleeding from a head injury. However, he was still lucid, even if he seemed a bit confused.
"Seven gods, I didn't know they could do that... I'm okay. More or less..."
Somewhat relieved, Ari reached out and helped him up, getting a grateful grin in return, but as soon as he looked beyond her, his face fell.
She gave him an odd look. He certainly didn't talk like a wizard. Turning to see what had him like that, she found the lizard thrashing back and forth, the ground beneath it - suddenly much darker again - beginning to break. Thaniel spoke up when she remained silent.
"I lost my concentration when I bashed my head, the quicksand spell failed. It's just topsoil again, no way it will hold the lasher."
The monster continued its frenzied movements back and forth, getting closer and closer to freeing itself. The wizard put a hand on her shoulder, fear in his eyes.
"Ariella, we should run before that thing gets free."
"But - "
Before she could explain the importance of her mission, it became a moot point. The lasher's gyrations managed to work the dagger out of its shoulder, popping up and falling to the ground, dripping with the lizard's blood. Just after that, the lasher finally broke up the ground and pulled its legs free, bringing its right front foot directly down on the knife, easily breaking the blade from the handle.
Narrowing her eyes at the beast, Ari decided that the wizard was completely unhelpful in a fight; if she didn't make a concerted effort to kill that thing dead soon, it would get the best of both of them. Lifting the spear over her head again, she took aim and threw the weapon like a javelin. The enormous projectile sailed through the air and struck true, piercing her foe in the side. Thaniel laughed out loud, clearly impressed.
"Nine hells, that was a nice throw!"
However, it seemed Ari's throw had had far less effect than either of them had hoped, the lasher seemed pained, but by no means defeated. If anything, it seemed even angrier than before. And here was Ari without the one thing that was protecting her from the lasher's tail. Even worse, now they had no weapons to attack with, except for their hands. Considering the situation, Thaniel remained remarkably calm. Ari tried not to panic, but it was awfully tempting.
"Well, looks like we're done for."
"I suggest you get down."
"Will that make it quicker or something?"
"Nope, but you're less likely to get caught in the blast."
Ari had forgotten to take into account the fact that the hands of a wizard were something more, a weapon more powerful than any other. Thaniel raised both of his over his head, where they began to glow with a bright light that crackled and smelled like a thunderstorm. At this point, she belatedly realized what he'd meant, and hit the dirt, alarmed. Just in time, too, as the wizard swung both of his hands down, palms open and facing the lasher, which was beginning to approach with murder in its eyes. Just before it was able to jump, a bolt of lightning blasted down out of the sunny sky and burst into the handle of Ari's spear. Ari looked away, blinded by the light, but from what she could hear (which wasn't much, admittedly, as the sound of the strike - instant thunder - had caused a severe ringing in her ears), it wasn't very pleasant for the lasher. Not even time for a death howl... but plenty for the smell of burnt meat.
When she dared to look again, she instantly confirmed that the now-smoking lasher was dead. Once again, though, her spear, still jutting out of the creature's side, was completely unharmed. Thaniel sighed in relief and reached up to rub his head.
"Well, I'm glad that's done and over with."
Ari's heart was still beating a mile a minute, but she was suddenly overcome with a rush of excitement over simply being alive. It was a nice sensation, and Ari found herself wondering if this was why adventurers, the kind they wrote stories about, would choose a life of wandering and danger. Turning to face her companion, she smiled.
"...Wizard Thaniel, I would not have been able to survive the lasher alone; you have saved my life, and I give you my deepest thanks."
She extended her hand in gratitude, and the spellcaster grinned as he took her hand in his and shook.
"Call me Thaniel, and hey, let's be fair, I wouldn't have survived alone either, this is both of our victory."
When they released each other's hands, they were in significantly higher spirits than they were when Thaniel had arrived. It was a damned lucky thing, too, she thought to herself. She wouldn't have lasted five more minutes against that thing. Of course she'd heard stories about the things wizards were capable of, but to actually see these things in person... The shield he made out of light, soil transformed into a completely different state, bringing down a full-sized lightning bolt on his enemy - and all while his power was being drained by the nullblade, at that. Truly, magic was just as incredibly powerful as she'd heard. As she walked up to the body to retrieve her spear, breathing through her mouth to avoid the stench of the dead predator, she found something bothering her, something other than the smell. Pulling the weapon out, finding it warm to the touch, but not uncomfortably so, Ari glanced down and saw the handle to the nullblade, which was partially singed from its proximity to the lasher. Now that she was able to think again, the panic of the fight completely gone, Ari frowned, thinking about the different things that had happened that day, and how they didn't add up. Looking up at the wizard, she found him looking intently at a glowing ball he'd produced from one of his many pockets, wiggling his fingers in front of it intermittently. She kept turning the idea over in her mind as she asked him something she was curious about.
"Tell me, Thaniel, why didn't you just bring down the lightning at the very beginning? Bit risky waiting, wasn't it? You might have lost too much power to be able to do it at all."
He answered absently, clearly more interested in whatever he was seeing in his orb.
"I needed a good target, but the lasher is really low to the ground, and it moves around too much. You slowed it down a little with the spear, which stuck straight up and made for a nice lightning rod."
"But the shaft is made of wood, that shouldn't have worked!"
"Ah, but enchanted items are great for channelling any kind of energy across them, no matter what materials they're made of. Electricity included."
She frowned, mildly confused.
"I never even told you it was enchanted!"
Thaniel actually chuckled at this.
"Wizard, remember? You develop an eye for these things. I could tell your spear was enchanted the instant I laid eyes upon it. I admit it took me a little longer to work out exactly what that enchantment was."
She tried to hide the excitement from her voice.
"You know what the spell is? I - my family hasn't used this spear in generations, I don't actually know what it is, other than the maintenance spell that keeps it in good condition. Please, I've been wondering for so long now."
"Well... actually, it isn't a maintenance spell. There's only one enchantment on that weapon, and it's defensive. It renders the spear impervious to any kind of damage, whether by being attacked by an enemy - say, a lasher's tail, or by age or neglect. Quite a handy thing, that."
By this point she felt she needed to ask for the truth, but she could at least be polite about him sharing his knowledge with her... assuming he wasn't just making it up on the spot.
"Thank you, wizard. It's always good to be well-informed."
He looked over and smiled for a second, before something occurred to him.
"Oh, that reminds me... you might want to get a lightning resistance spell cast on that weapon, too. Or maybe buy some insulated gloves. I'm just saying."
"Well, as long as I have your expertise…"
He turned back to his orb, but made an affirmative noise to show that he was still listening.
"…Does teleporting here from your tower count as 'lower magic'?"
He started a bit at that, clearly not expecting that kind of question.
"What about transforming dirt into quicksand?"
Put on the spot, the wizard looked extremely uncomfortable.
"Because I couldn't help but notice you did those things before the lasher worked the nullblade free. And I admit I'm no expert, but I know at least that an enchantment as powerful as you say that one is would make it much more durable, but that knife broke in half under the lizard's weight."
For a moment, the wizard stood there, biting his lip, looking worried.
Ari slung her spear onto her back, glad to not be carrying the thing in her hands anymore, and once again put her fists on her hips, frowning at him. Finally, he broke down, looking crushed.
"I'm so sorry! I - I lied. I made up the whole thing about the ley lines and the nullblade - well, the ley field is real, and nullblades actually exist, but that's just a dagger, probably left there by some poor bastard the lasher killed, and I had the motes in my tower display the field distorted on purpose."
She glared at him, not sure how to feel.
"But why? I almost died here, thinking I was doing you a favour, and it was all for nothing!"
He held up his hands, shaking them. It took Ari a second to realize that he was making a 'no' gesture instead of casting a spell.
"No, you don't understand! I made all that stuff up to discourage you from trying to hire me to break your curse! I saw the lasher and invented that story about the knife in its back because I needed an out that couldn't be fixed!"
"You told me 'Hey, I can't help you because of this problem that can't be solved with magic!' I kind of thought you were testing me!"
Thaniel looked distraught.
"Blue's tears… It only occurred to me after you left that you might actually try and fix the problem I'd made up."
Stepping closer to the wizard, making him back away, Ari addressed him coldly, keeping her anger in check.
"Why, Thaniel, why would you do this? Why go to all this trouble? Why wouldn't you just say 'no'?"
Overcome with frustration, the wizard had finally had enough of being interrogated.
"Oh, and you would have let me? I tried to say no, I told you 'I'm not for hire', told you I was busy with my own work, but you insisted, didn't you? You would have offered me anything in the universe. I thought if I made up an excuse that I had no control over, you would just leave me alone!"
She stepped up close to him, jabbing a finger into his chest. He didn't flinch.
"Dammit, this was important! You have no idea how desperate I am to find someone who can help me!"
He scoffed, shaking his head.
"Oh, after watching you charge off to face that thing, I think I have a pretty good idea."
There was a moment of awkward silence as the two of them stood there, stewing, neither willing to back down. Finally, hearing a noise from the side, quickly looking to see a sipmunk scampering towards some bushes, Ari was reminded exactly where they were. When she spoke, her voice was significantly less harsh.
"...You also told me you don't go outside much. Was that a lie too, or did you make an exception for me?"
Thaniel started, as if that had only just occurred to him, looking around as if he had been previously unaware of the forest.
"I... uhh... oh dear... I was so afraid that you would d-die and it would be my fault, that as soon as I heard you were in danger, I just warped over h-here without preparing or anything, without really thinking about it..."
Ari raised an eyebrow, but remained on the defensive.
"Are you okay, wizard?"
He opened his mouth as if to say something, then his eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed, passed out.
Despite her previous anger, she rushed to the wizard's side. Had the head injury been more severe than they'd thought? He was breathing fine, he was just unconscious. Placing her hand on his shoulder, she gently called to him, resisting the urge to shake him. To her relief, he woke up again a second later, looking around confusedly. She smiled, but before she could even say anything, a bird called in the distance, and his eyes widened before he quickly climbed to his feet - and started running.
Ari took off after him as he ran through the forest as fast as he could, weaving between the trees, occasionally making a wide gesture and clearing a path in the plant life ahead of him. All the while, Ari chased after him, calling his name, even if she wasn't quite sure why. Before long, they emerged from the side of the forest, likely the opposite side from where Ari had entered, miles from where she'd left Roland. As soon as he was in the open, Thaniel held up his hands, which began to glow with a peculiar yellow light. Idly wondering if his spells were colour-coded, Ari had almost caught up with him when he forced them down, aiming at the ground ahead, and a great, silent flash of light erupted from the ground, momentarily blinding Ari and causing her to stop. When she could see again, she realized that the tower from the sheep-filled field was now right next to the edge of the forest. An odd smell of orchids hung in the air, but Thaniel ignored it, turning to the door of the tower, which this time was exactly where you'd expect it to be. He yanked it open and stepped inside, hesitating a moment before turning around and beckoning to her to follow him. Uncertain why she was doing so, Ari stepped through the doorway, barely surprised when he closed the door behind her - and then pulled it right off the wall, somehow folding it in half and leaning it against the side of the corridor. Finally allowing himself to relax, the wizard sank down into a comfy chair that was suddenly in the room with them.
"Yellow's chariot, that feels better."
She gave him an odd look, suddenly aware that she was once again stuck in here with him.
"What in the hells was that all about?"
He looked downright sheepish as he looked back over at her.
"I'm, uhh... agoraphobic. I hate being outside, makes me panic... That's why I needed to get you to leave, I knew there was no way I'd be able to do everything to break a curse from here... I almost never leave the tower, I either create everything I need or order remotely from a magical supplier. They still deliver, you know."
Ari nodded absently. She'd had a cousin with a similar problem, stayed in her chambers almost all the time.
"I'm sorry... I didn't know. But you still left the tower when I was in trouble?"
He shrugged, avoiding her gaze.
"I could tell you were a good person. Couldn't have lived with myself if anything had happened to you because of me."
After a moment, Ari stepped forward and knelt down next to him, hand on his shoulder.
"I forgive you for lying about the lasher, Thaniel. I understand. If your solitude means so much to you, I'll leave you in peace. Ah, just as soon as you put the door back, anyway."
He shook his head and looked back at her.
"No, it's alright. I can see now how dedicated you really are to getting magical help. Whatever this curse is, your cause must be terribly important indeed. And I do kind of owe you after almost getting you killed, don't you think? I'll help you."
Delighted, she threw her arms around him, laughing happily.
"Oh, thank you, Thaniel! That's fantastic news! This means so much to me, and to my family."
She leaned back and was amused to see the blush on his face. He clearly hadn't been expecting that hug.
"Can I just ask you one question, though? You kept saying you waited until you 'heard' I was in trouble. What do you mean?"
He stood up straight, offering a hand to help her to her feet too, and then whistled, sticking his arm out to his side. A large, familiar black bird flew down from the top floor of the tower, flapping into the corridor and neatly settling down on the wizard's forearm.
Surprised, Ari pointed.
"That bird! The one who was stalking me through the forest! It was your pet?"
If Ari was surprised before, she was absolutely flabbergasted now as the bird put on a very human frown and spoke up, enunciating very clearly for someone with a beak.
"Pet? Pet?! I'm no one's trophy peacock or obedient hunting falcon! I'll have you know there's magic in my blood! Pet she says. Nine hells..."
Stifling a smile, if poorly, Thaniel gave the bird a stern look.
"Now, now, Crow, there's no need to be rude to a client."
Again, the look of shock in the bird's eyes was remarkably human.
"Client?! This is the first I'm hearing about it -"
"I know, I know, it just happened. Just keep it in mind."
The bird looked back at Ari, and said, more quietly and somewhat reluctantly,
"Sorry Miss. I just..."
He glanced at the man who was supporting his weight.
"...I prefer the term 'familiar'. It's what it says on my diploma."
The traveller nodded.
"That explains a few things... I've heard stories of wizards who make pacts with animals that gain great power from the arrangement, animals that can think like a man."
Thaniel sighed happily, and both the bird and the woman looked at him curiously.
"Well, that's a relief. I was kind of worried that all this time I was just imagining him talking to me."
The bird looked over at Ari and shook his head slowly.
"You see what I have to put up with?"
Thaniel laughed and then continued.
"By the way, Ariella, this is Mister Crow. He's the only other permanent resident of this tower. Crow, this is Ariella. We're going to break a curse for her."
Ari tried not to giggle.
"You can both call me Ari, but, uhh... 'Mister Crow'? Isn't that a bit basic?"
The familiar sighed exaggeratedly.
"You'd think that, but then I'm a raven. The summoner gets to choose a name for their familiar, and he thinks he's hilarious. I do have a real name, you know!"
"That's true, but it doesn't bring me as much delight as Mister Crow. Anyway, Crow returned to the tower right after you left, and I sent him to keep an eye on you. He sent me a signal when there was no chance you'd avoid the lasher, and I got there as quickly as I could."
Gesturing down the hall towards the stairs, Thaniel lead the way once again, the chair having mysteriously vanished.
"Let's head up to the observatory, it's more comfortable up there and we can talk about the problem. Besides, I won't be able to move the tower again for a short while."
As he climbed the stairs, he lifted his arm sharply, and Crow took the cue to take wing and fly ahead to the office without them, easily putting distance between him and the bipeds. Ari, though, was still considering that last bit.
"Wait, move the tower?"
"Yes, of course, you want to get started on breaking this curse right away, don't you? I suspect we'll need to do a bit of travelling to get to the bottom of it."
"Well, yeah, but what about Roland?"
He looked over his shoulder at her, confused.
"My horse! I left him by the edge of that forest, we can't just leave him there! The sun's going down, so I'll have to wait until morning, and then I can go through the forest and lead him around. I hope he's alright. At least it'll be safer without that lasher around, eh?"
The wizard grinned at her.
"I have a better idea."
Continuing to climb the stairs, Thaniel snapped his fingers.
"Now he's in the basement."
Ari found herself grinning. Spending time with a wizard might prove to be entertaining. She was reminded of the direness of her situation when he continued.
"So tell me, who exactly is cursed? Not picking up anything overt on you, so is it a parent maybe, a sibling? Perhaps a lover? I'm not here to judge, you can tell me if-"
She had to cut him off before he finished that thought, grabbing his arm and stopping him just before the top of the stairs.
"Er, I'm afraid you're not thinking big enough."
She took a deep breath.
"My name is Ariella Taligre Shieldfall... and I need you to save my entire family."