Smoke flitted upwards in concentric circles from Jarren’s pipe. The elegant piece stuck out from his down curved lips, and lit up his craggy face with the glow of embers as he drew on it. He was in a quandary, and he was enjoying it. Unravelling the traps of his rivals was one of his favorite pastimes. This one was particularly fascinating; it included a usage of spells that Jarren had never encountered before. In a world where the working of magic was the most closely guarded secret, and mages were in a perpetual state of deadly rivalry, it was rare to learn new spells outside of experimentation – which could be very dangerous for even the most cautious of mages.
Jarren cast a spell of alertness that would warn him of any approaching threats, magic or mundane, and settled onto a tree stump to study the wards guarding the path before him. It was a channel through the canyons, the long-left remnant of coursing water. The spells looked to be anchored in the walls, but there was the faintest hint of magic buried deep within the earth beneath, as well.
The spell weaves were tricky to disentangle – expertly crafted with obfuscation in mind to prevent other mages from the learning the caster’s secrets, as Jarren was doing now. Most of the spells were familiar to him, but there were a few that required cautious study, accompanied by probing magic, in order to discern their purposes. The true beauty of the work lay in the synergistic effect. Not a one of the many spells woven into these wards was particularly powerful, but when activated all at once they would trigger enough seismic activity to make that gorge a death trap.
The wards would be triggered as soon as they sensed a mage, but their effect was set to be delayed, and in so doing the signature feel of magic that came with the casting of a spell would be dampened enough that only one looking for it would even know that anything had happened. A few minutes later the trap would close, with its prey trapped in a narrow ravine during an earthquake.
Jarren looked behind him as his own ward warned him of an approaching mage. Excellent timing. Now he would be able to see the spell-trap in effect. he had already been considering ways to safely trigger the trap when one of his many rivals decided to make himself useful. From the feel of the approaching arcane signature it was none other than Boisterous Boris; quite a powerful mage, and about as sophisticated as your average rock. The artistry of this trap would be wasted on him.
With a cruel smile of satisfaction Jarren laid a spell-mantle of invisibility upon himself, fading from sight, both mundane and arcane. The tree stump he sat upon vanished as well, leaving an image of rocky terrain where it had been. Boris strode into view, carrying a bejeweled staff, and wearing poorly fitting robes of the most expensive quality. He didn’t slow as he saw the narrow opening; he veered straight for it, ostentatious staff striking sparks along the ground where he tapped it unnecessarily as he walked. Thankfully he didn’t notice the smoke rings off to the side, seeming to arise from thin air.
Jarren watched the oblivious mage walk right into the trap, and onward down the doomed path. He wasn’t interested in Boris though – he had served his purpose – the magic was triggered. Jarren watched the activation of the spells with avid interest, making mental notes of all that was new to him, and of much that was old, but cast in a unique manner. The style of a mage’s work could reveal much about that mage’s strengths, and weaknesses.
A few minutes after dear Boris passed through the warded path entrance there was a loud rumbling, and the ground began to shake. Chunks of stone rained down upon the path. Dust from the rock-fall filled the air, and obscured the destruction from sight. When it cleared there was nothing left of the path; now it was but a line of densely packed boulders, and the tomb of one less enemy.
Jarren had learned much from the display, and he was feeling a positively glowing mood coming with the easy victories of the day. Pitting other mages against each other had always been a common practice of the more devious spell-casters. He couldn’t really claim responsibility for Boris though, that had been the result of dumb luck and sheer stupidity.
The same wouldn’t be true of Zaerune, the creator of the perilous ward that had transformed a convenient path through the canyons into a nightmare of collapsing walls, horrendous sounds, and all around terror before a doubtlessly quick death. The vaunted tower of Zaerune would have to be approached from another direction now. Just as well, clearly. Jarren rose from his stump, and swapped his mantle of invisibility for a more general purpose attire of spells; enhancements to his reflexes, shields against danger, the usual scouting and battle assortment of magic.
He had a decision to make, and it was made simple by his ignorance. Left, or right? He hadn’t been able to pierce through the spells of shrouding that hid this area from any mages attempts at scrying. With an indifferent shrug Jarren chose left. He walked along with the canyon walls brushing his right shoulder as he kept close to the shade provided there.
This was the fourth day in these coulees - combing through them, finding traps, encountering other mages with the same goal as him, and learning more about his target with each moment. What he had discovered had given him a confidence much greater than he’d had upon entering. It had become apparent that Zaerune had a weakness. There was just the slightest trace of it, buried within the tiniest filaments of his spells.
Arcane dystrophy – the slow degeneration of that which gave one the ability to control magic. It was rarely fatal, but would leave a mage with only a fraction of his power by the time it ran its course. Zaerune had had power to spare, in the beginning, but there was no telling how weakened he had become. Not until Jarren faced him, and took his measure in battle. Thoughts of destroying another mage, and stealing precious secrets in the process, had him smiling as he walked through the lifeless chasm.
Tremors ran through the ground, throwing Jarren from his feet. With the aid of his spell mantle he turned the fall into a graceful roll, and came up crouched – magical senses extended to assess the danger. Immediately he was alerted to a cascade of boulders beginning a treacherous fall from the above. Only the swift casting of a potent shield saved him from a similar demise as that which had befallen Boris.
Jarren held the spell, straining, until the trembling of the earth had subsided, and the boulders perched atop his magic had settled. Only then did he release it, ever so slowly. The shield released, and surrounded by a few tons of rock, the mage readied himself for a far more powerful casting. This had been the result of another spell-trap. This whole place was laced with them, not even Jarren could be expected to find and dismantle them all. No, it was time to go on the offensive. He had learned enough about his target that anything else would be indulgence, at this point.
Out of the clear sky stabbed down a jagged flicker of red lightning – spearing into Jarren’s rock prison with explosive force. The bolt was followed by nine more in quick succession. When the flare of light cleared the wizard was revealed at the center of it, standing in a bed of arcing, dancing electricity that swam up his feet, and covered his body. He ran towards the canyon wall.
Lightning flared upwards when Jarren struck the cliff base, climbing in bounding arcs to land at the top - where it reformed into the electric-red mage. Jarren gazed across the plateaus, looking for the one that held his destination. In the endless view of rock formations only one stood out. It was perfectly round, with spell-sheared sides. In the center of it stood a tall, elegant tower of architectural impossibilities.
Jarren collapsed into a mass of violent static. With a surge of light, the flickering energy constricted into a bolt, and shot forward – landing with an earth-shattering blast, and re-launching with the same; leaving a trail craters across the plateaus and into the tower of Zaerune. The collision was heralded by a thunderous boom, lit by a shower of falling sparks. The red lightning coalesced from scattered power and smashed back into the dome of magic protecting the tower, causing it to shimmer into visibility again and again.
At the peak of the dome came a crack, and with it the unraveling of spells. When the shield collapsed it released a devastating shockwave of arcane energies. Jarren’s elemental transmutation spell was torn to shreds by the blast. His body took its original form, and unwillingly surfed the destructive wave into the ground, and off of the edge into vacuous air.
From the base of the tower strode a man in practical robes. He paused, surveying the damage. Zaerune, poised with the tension of irritation and amusement at war, couldn’t quite suppress a chuckle. It had been a long time since anyone had made it all the way to his tower. Only one before had brought the shield down, and triggered its underlying trap. It had ended the same for that intruder as this one.
The aging mage looked across the land; using his arcane sight to survey his domain, checking on various intruders, and spell-traps throughout. He started on the outreaches, working his way inward, nearly missing the signature of a living mage streaking towards him through the earthen floor beneath.
Jarren erupted from the stone beneath Zaerune in a molten form of fire. Reaching forth with lava-dripping arms he grabbed the other mage in a full-body hug, and threw them both backwards into the earth. They sank within the stone as it melted before their passage – leaving glowing, bubbling rock in their wake.
The lava spread, and was soon lapping at the foot of the tower. Slowly, at first, the structure began to lilt sideways as it sunk unevenly into the molten earth. The building was half-buried when the heat had dissipated enough for the ground harden. When the structural descent halted Jarren, clad in torn robes and covered in burns, stepped out from a shattered window. He blankly gazed out across the canyons until well after sunset. The ground continued to cool. When it was safe the exhausted mage took a handful of stumbling, halting steps. Swaying to a stop Jarren sank to the ground. He clawed his way forward a few more feet before the deep sleep of arcane exhaustion overtook him.
Light shimmered nearby, and out of it came a shrewd looking man – poorly dressed in expensive clothes, and holding a jewel encrusted staff. He was gazing upon the vulnerable form of Jarren with the smug satisfaction of victory.
Copyright 2016 Joshua Cox-Steib
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 by Joshua Cox-Steib