Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Chapter Four: The Sin of Curiosity(Part Three)



The diner had more the air of a bar in Belthor's opinion, having accompanied his father to a few back in South Shara. Most of the people inside he recognized from around the School, though many weren't initiates of his level. He waved as he saw Theron in a back booth, but he didn't think his roommate even noticed him.

If I had a gorgeous lady on each arm and another one across the booth from me, I wouldn't be paying attention to Theron, he admitted to himself. How does he do it?

"It is warm in here," Agnete said, as she took her seat. Belthor squeezed himself across the table from her, and was gratified when it was Sam who sat next to him instead of Tori.

"It's pleasant," Sam agreed. He loosened his scarf. "Compared to the blizzard out there."

"I quite like blizzards," Agnete said. She paused. "To watch, I mean. From the comfort of a warm fireside. Warmth is good."

"Hello Tori, Sam." The waitress, who appeared to be only a little older than Belthor, glanced to him and Agnete. "New fish?"

"Newest of the new," Tori confirmed. "This is Yvette, everyone."

"Hi," Belthor said, trying not to stammer and failing. He gave his name, and Yvette smiled, a big, glowing smile that radiated happiness at odds with her profession.

"Pleased to meet you," she said. "And the young lady?"

"Agnete." Belthor was positive she whispered the letters to herself very quickly afterward. "I am very new. I like gardening."

"And she likes blizzards," Sam said. "From a fireside."

"Well, you'll love it here," Yvette replied. "What'll it be?"

They ordered. Yvette spent a moment ribbing both Sam and Tori - evidently they got the same thing every time.

"I am fine," Agnete said, with a little smile.

"Come on, get something," Tori urged. "It's on us. You're new."

"What?" Belthor asked. "It's...no, it's not-" Sam shoved him, and he subsided, wondering when this became the plan.

"I do not eat much, and I already feasted," Agnete said. "I am fine." She paused. "Though I appreciate the kindness."

"Well, if you're sure," Sam said, tone dubious. Agnete nodded very certainly. "All right, then."

"You just let me know if you change your mind," Yvette said, still smiling. "I'd be happy to bring you anything."

"Thank you."

Then the waitress was gone. Belthor took a deep breath of the musty diner air.

"It is warm in here," he said after a moment, slipping out of his heavy cloak. He left it draped over the back of his chair.

"Very warm," Agnete agreed. She picked up a knife from the table and idly began rolling it over in her hands. Belthor admired the way her slim fingers wrapped around the metal hilt as it turned over and over...

"So, you said you're from the Highlands, yes?" he found himself asking. Agnete glanced up, her brown eyes gleaming in the lantern-light.

"Yes," she said. "A little village, very far north."

"You don't have a Clan accent," Sam said. Agnete appeared to freeze.

"It is very far north, my village," she said, hurriedly. "I am not lying, I promise-"

"No one said you were." Sam raised his hands. "I'm sorry."

"I am sorry. You should not be." Agnete closed her eyes. "I am very sorry. I am not used to taking questions. Yes, I am from across the Iron Sea, in a little village very far north. On the border of elven territory, as it happens. I am very accustomed to snow and ice."

"Have any trouble with elves and drow?" Tori asked. Agnete paused.

"Most of the ones my people know are traders," she said. "Very much at odds with the typical depiction of them we hear from outsiders. They are as frightened of humans are humans are of them."

"I find that hard to believe," Sam said, frowning. "Elves are warriors, aren't they? That's what I hear."

"Master Protec talks about elves a lot," Tori agreed. "They've shed a lot of blood. If it weren't for all their war parties pressing from the north, it's possible the Clans might overpower Nurem in the Iron Sea - but they can't fight on two fronts."

"I have only ever known elves who had peace in mind," Agnete said, frowning. "The north is their home. I have friends in their villages."

"Okay, you're the expert." Tori nodded reasonably. "What about drow?"

"I..." Agnete seemed to struggle for words, and Belthor reminded himself about the language barrier instead of pressing. "I met a drow, once. He was a very old chieftain."

"Is it true what they say about them?" Belthor leaned forward. "That they're Vod-warlocks and witches, and that?"

"Vod is practiced widely among the elven clans," Agnete agreed. "They see it as a way of life. Not dark sorcery."

"I heard once that drow subsist on blood," Tori said, and Sam made a show of shuddering. "Especially the blood of maidens stolen in the night."

"That is impossible." Agnete's brow furrowed. "Why would the blood of a maiden be any more delectable to a drow warchief than that of any other? How do these people think the drow lived before humanity colonized the north? Where did the endless streams of maidens come from to feed the war parties?"

Belthor laughed along with Tori and Sam. Agnete seemed lost, but she cracked a thin smile, looking around at the others.

"I said something amusing," she muttered, possibly to herself. "I did not intend to amuse."

"What was the warchief that you met - what was he like?" Belthor pressed with a smile. "You said he was old-"

"He was very calm and collected about himself," Agnete said. "He was frighteningly logical. And he had no patience in his heart for raids and war against humans, so long as they showed him due respect as well."

"What, did he want them to offer up maidens to him?" Sam and Tori laughed at Belthor's quip, and he carried on. "Or was it firstborns instead?"

"The drow do drink blood, don't they?" Tori asked. "That's not a myth."

"...no," Agnete finally said, after a pause wherein she appeared to be mulling the question over. "They do drink blood. They do not have much need of other nourishment."

"Is that why they worship dragons?" Belthor asked. "Do dragons do that? I didn't think so, personally, but..."

Agnete's face fell. "No. Dragons do not drink blood. Dragons drink ale, everyone knows this."

"And lots of it," Sam continued. "Do the elves-"

"Can we discuss a different topic?" Agnete asked, very suddenly. Belthor blinked as he saw her glance him to Sam to Tori. "I'm sorry. It just...I..." she seemed to struggle, very visibly. "I am not...I do not...I wish to..."

"You don't want to talk about this?" Tori asked, tone gentle. Agnete nodded, almost frantically. "That's okay. Can you tell us why?"

"I...I do not have words." She muttered something in that other language. "I...they are from my home, and I have come far to...to..."

"To get away from all that?" Sam asked. Agnete seemed to go back and forth for a moment.

"...yes," she said. "Yes, something along those lines. I do not have words. I cannot explain. I am confused."

"That's all right." Belthor raised his hands. "What do you want to talk about?"

Agnete hesitated, waiting as Yvette returned with Belthor's food. He eyed the steaming plate with anticipation, only to frown as he saw Agnete still with nothing.

"Are you sure you don't-" he began.

"Yes, I am very sure," she said, waving a hand. "I do not eat much." She fidgeted. "I do not know what to speak of."

"Well, it occurs to me," Tori said, "that Belthor owes us a story."

Belthor, fork in mouth, paused. "Wha?" he asked, mumbling around his mouthful. He paused to chew and get himself in order while Tori and Sam snickered.

"Midnight," Sam said. "How'd you get her patronage?"

"What? Oh!" Belthor smiled sheepishly. "I'm bad at telling stories. It wasn't that impressive anyway."

"I am interested," Agnete said. "I have heard some of this Midnight character since I arrived. I wish to know how you are connected to her."

"Oh, um." Talking to Tori and Sam was one thing. But if Agnete was interested... "Well, see..." Belthor took a breath. "So, it kind of all started when a couple of other students in Master Kulkas' company decided to knock me out of the running for the staff. They grabbed me from my tent, two of them, and..." he hesitated, taking in Agnete's serious eyes. "Well, I could have taken them. I know a few moves. But I thought I'd bide my time...get them out of the camp, you know, so no one else would get hurt."

"Excellent tactics under pressure." Agnete's eyes glowed. "You are quick on your feet."

"Well, I try to be modest," Belthor said, deciding not to mention that Argo and Chartreuse had literally dragged him out of the camp. Tori and Sam traded knowing looks, but he did his best to ignore them. "So, we got out into the forest, and they...they see Midnight, but she's all injured. And they, being bullies, decided to have a go at her." He tried not to fidget as he continued. "They were going at her pretty bad. So I decided it was time to make my move. While she was on the ground, I grabbed a stick and went right at them..."

***

Tori and Sam had snickered the whole time he told his story. But Belthor had watched Agnete's eyes, serious and excited, as he related an only moderately blown-up tale of his own exploits at Midnight's side. She'd been so impressed.

Not that he cared. No. It was just...for fun. She was nice enough. And Master Kulkas had basically told him to befriend her, so...

He reached the door to his dorm, staff in hand, happily smiling as he tried to forget Sam and Tori rolling their eyes. They'd rib him about it tomorrow, but tonight was his-

He paused as he entered. His eyes fixed on the two pairs of ladies' shoes by the door.

He heard a long, low moan from Theron's bedroom, and a lot of creaking.

Belthor shut himself in his room quickly, practically barring the door with his staff. He hurried to his desk, turned on his lamp, and pulled out his notebook and coursework. He set to work with vigor, trying to ignore the continued barrage of noise from across the dorm.

Another night where Belthor slept badly.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Chapter Four: The Sin of Curiosity(Part Two)



Belthor picked up his books. He stood, stretching, before he claimed his staff.

"Hey, Belthor." Tori caught his shoulder. "Sam and I are going to get some dinner out in town. Would you like to join us?"

"Uh." Belthor considered for a long moment. "I don't have a bag for my books-"

"We'll drop them off on the way, then," Sam said. "If that's your only objection."

"It is," Belthor promised. "This works for me." He paused. "Anyone else?"

"What do you mean?" Tori asked. Sam raised an eyebrow.

"I know what he means." The initiate nodded across the room. "I think you're late, Bel."

"Huh?" Belthor turned...and sighed as he saw Agnete's seat empty. The redhead, books in her arms, swept from the room with a very stiff expression, moving very purposefully and swiftly compared to what Belthor expected from her light build and near-silent footfalls.

"I'm going to ask anyway," he said, screwing up his courage. "If you don't-"

"Good luck." Tori waved with a little smile. "Get the girl, Bel."

"It's not like that! She just needs friends-"

"She's getting away," Sam pointed out, and Belthor choked down his retort and turned to jog after the girl who was absolutely not his crush.

"Hey! Agnete!"

She paused in the hallway as Belthor scurried up behind her. "What?"

He winced at the sharpness of her tone. "Sorry. Did I-"

"What do you want, Belthor-son-of-Morse?" she asked, and the entire construction came out sounding like a single word.

"I...Tori and Sam invited me to come get dinner with them in the village," Belthor said. "I wanted to know if you would like to come too."

Agnete frowned. "Why would I?"

Belthor blinked. "Um. Because...I thought...you don't seem to have friends."

"I do not." Agnete's eyes flashed with something, and Belthor thought it was incomprehension. "Are you suggesting you would like to be my friend?"

"Uh..." He swallowed. "Look, I'm not very good at talking to...girls...but-"

"Are you insinuating you find me attractive, physically and sexually, and thus threatening?"

"Good gods, no!" Belthor froze as she frowned. "I mean, it's not that...not that no...I, um..." On the inside he screamed again in existential despair. "It's not that I don't find you physically and..." he coughed. "It's...I wasn't thinking about that, I was just..."

"I do not understand you," Agnete said, her tone very frank. "I asked a question and you appear to have lost your mind. I am confused." She frowned. "B-E-L-T-H-O-R." That came out as a whisper.

"Agnete, are you frightening Belthor?"

"Master Kulkas!" Belthor tried to look attentive as he turned to face his mentor. Agnete jumped too, but she turned her head away and looked right at the floor instead of into his eyes.

"Belthor." The Master glanced between the two of them while his staff floated at his side, gently bouncing up and down on invisible currents of air. "Agnete? Look my way."

"I...I do not have words," she said, and she seemed to be grappling with the air as she turned her head in his direction and examined the floor between his boots. "I cannot...Master Kulkas, please-"

Kulkas spoke...but it was in a completely different language. Belthor blinked as Agnete's entire demeanor seemed to relax, and she replied in that same harshly-clipped tongue, still without looking up. For a moment, they went back and forth, and Belthor just stood wondering what he had gotten himself into.

"It sounds like a wonderful idea." That was Master Kulkas, smiling Belthor's way reassuringly. If he wasn't mistaken, the old man even winked in approval. "You don't know many people here, Agnete. Belthor's a good, kind lad. And Tori and Sam are good people too. That sounds like an excellent group for you to insert yourself into."

She started to speak in that language again. Kulkas rapped her shoulder with his knuckles, though it didn't seem like a hit - more like a chide, since she still wouldn't look up at him to see a warning look. She let out a breath, as if in resignation. "But Master Kulkas, I...I have work to be about."

"There is no work more important than belonging, not for you," he said, and Belthor parsed that sentence over a bit in his head. Master Kulkas shook his head. "You are free to make your own decision, Snowdrop, but I seriously advise you do this."

She seemed to still when he called her snowdrop. Belthor frowned deeper. And then-

"Very well." She turned to him now. "I will come to eat dinner in the town with you and your friends, Belthor."

"Okay. Good." Belthor managed a smile. "Then, let's-"

"One moment. Belthor?" Master Kulkas waved Agnete on. "He'll catch up. I had a matter I wanted to discuss with him and this happens to be a good moment. Tori and Sam are just down there, see them?"

"I see them." Agnete nodded. "Belthor." She spelled it under her breath as she padded off down the hall toward where the pair were watching and seemed to be exchanging the results of a bet.

"I approve of you trying to include Agnete," Master Kulkas said, tone low. Belthor took a breath.

"Thank you, Master-"

"She is a very complicated, very frightened young lady," the Master continued, and the amusement was gone from his eyes. "I like you very much, Belthor, but you need to be very sure of yourself if you decide to befriend her. Her life has not been easy and is unlikely to start soon." He held up a hand as Belthor started to speak, and the initiate subsided. "If you want to stay by her side through thick and thin, no matter what you may discover about her, I have nothing but approval for what you are doing. But think things through very, very carefully. The last thing she needs is another fair-weather friend who will make her believe she belongs and then cast her aside when he discovers the truth about her."

"The...truth about her?" Belthor asked.

"That is hers to tell, not mine," Master Kulkas said. "I'm looking out for you both, Belthor: now you know she has something to hide that is dangerous. Now you know that she needs a friend who will never throw her aside. You could hurt her terribly, and she could do the same to you. With that knowledge, you chart your course. If you aren't prepared to weather the storm that will come to her, and all around her, I won't hold it against you for aborting your attempts to befriend Agnete. In some respects, it would only be wise."

Belthor took a breath. "Sir, I have no intention of abandoning my friends."

Master Kulkas smiled. He reached out and patted Belthor's shoulder. "You're doing very well, young man. I'm quite impressed." His staff floated to his free hand, and he took it. "Just one other thing, then."

"Yes?" Belthor asked.

"Don't mention a word of this conversation to anyone," the Master ordered. "Especially to Agnete. As you may have noticed, she has difficulty understanding peoples' motivations, and how they all interconnect."

"I have noticed that, sir," Belthor agreed. "Consider it a secret."

"Good lad. Off you go."

Belthor nodded and then hurried toward Agnete, Tori and Sam at the end of the hall.

"Tori," Agnete said as Belthor approached. "T-O-R-Y-"

"No, I," Tori corrected. Agnete paused and reddened.

"I'm sorry!" She reached up to fiddle with her hair. "I didn't mean to-"

"It's quite all right." Tori smiled. "Just...I."

"...T-O-I-R-Y?" Agnete asked, frowning.

"T-O-R-I," Tori said. "No Y."

"Oh!" Agnete winced. "I'm so sorry-"

"Agnete, I'm not offended at all," she said. "It's clear this isn't your native language, is it?"

She wordlessly shook her head, then jumped as she saw Belthor.

"Hi," the initiate said. "We need to drop off my books - we can drop yours off too, Agnete-"

"Thank you, but I would rather keep them." She took a breath. "I do not know the way to where we are going."

"We do," Sam said. "Sam, remember?"

"I remember," Agnete said. "Sam. S-A-M."

"Got it in one." Sam's smile was as reassuring as Tori's. "Come on. We might freeze to death out there, but there's hot food at the end of it."

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Chapter Four: The Sin of Curiosity(Part One)



The first few weeks of Belthor's magical education passed in a whirlwind. Every class he ate up: lessons on alchemy, history and theology all came thick and fast, and he absorbed every bit of information he could from every one.

First were the names and domains of the gods. Fair enough. Belthor knew a lot about that already, from his religious upbringing and his studies with Master Kulkas on the road. Closest to Belthor's heart were Nerien, Lady of Healing, and her brother Ezraval the Lord of Love. He already had a tattoo of Nerien's rune, and what he saw of Ezraval's magic allured him to no end.

Glamours, for instance. Belthor watched in rapt fascination while those with Runes of Love demonstrated their ability to take on guises of other forms, shifting before his eyes. Tori proudly showed off the strange triangular symbol on her staff, and Belthor could only stare in awe as she changed her hair color from red to white to brown to blue at will, or darkened and lightened her skin tone with a muted whisper.

"I invoke the God of Love," she would say, before her fingernails became solid gold and her eyes the most vibrant green. Belthor couldn't take his eyes off her...a fact that he suspected Sam would eventually ridicule him over. Of course, at the moment, Sam was just as occupied as Belthor himself.

Glamours were far from Love's only power, though, and Belthor took notes like a man possessed when Master Protec showed off abilities of compulsion and persuasion...and of clarity, as he called it, where he soothed ills of the heart with a whisper and a touch.

"Ezraval and Nerien are very similar," Protec explained. "As siblings, they think alike, and their powers can overlap very easily. One who draws on the power of one can easily find himself drawing on the power of the other. If you have a Rune of one, I suggest working for that of their sibling as quickly as possible to economize."

That was when Belthor was called up, and he showed off his tattoo of Nerien's rune. Tori and Sam clapped, Hastel nodded appreciatively, and Agnete seemed to watch with rapt attention while he showed how he could heal minor injuries.

"A volunteer?" Master Protec asked.

The first person to step forward was, to Belthor's relief, only Sam, who showed off a bruise on his leg from "bumping my leg on Tori's stupid table at four in the morning while she snored like a dragon on gold."

Over Tori's shouted objection, Belthor approached Sam and held out his hand. He breathed deeply for a moment, then put his hand on the bruise. "Nerien," he said, somehow not stammering despite all eyes being on him. "I invoke the Goddess of Healing."

White light flashed from his palm, and Sam's bruise disappeared before his eyes. Belthor grinned sheepishly as polite applause greeted that result.

"Thanks." Sam rolled his pants leg back down. "I may need to come to you again about things like that."

"Don't hesitate," Belthor said, while Tori shouted and crossed her arms, earning a laugh from the class. She was smiling the whole time, though.

"Nerien's abilities can be used for injuries large or small," Master Protec said. "Have you ever healed large injuries, Belthor?"

"Oh, I healed gunshot wounds and stab wounds," he said, before he could stop himself. Murmurs went around the classroom, and he winced. "It was part of how I earned Lady Marona's patronage."

"Someday, you must tell us that story," Master Protec replied, a twinkle in his eye. Belthor nodded, and the Master turned back to the crowd. "So who else has a Rune they want to talk about?"

There were lessons in minor spellcraft, and also in using the power of their staffs to best effect.

"The staff is a very powerful thing," said Master Vignette, who was primarily their staff instructor. She flourished hers, a white-wood thing with about two dozen Runes carved all over it. "It taps into natural magic in the air around us all, and senses its wielder's desire. For that reason, it is a multipurpose tool: a weapon against your enemies, a hammer to build...or just a stick to lean on when you're tired." She smiled. "We will mix training with using your staff's power for utility purposes with sparring in preparation for the day - and it will come, sooner or later - where being a wizard forces you to fight for your life." She looked around. "Find partners." She hesitated a moment later, before Belthor had even had a chance to move. "I should have known. I should have known."

Muted laughter ran through the open courtyard, protected from snowfall by a faint blue bubble overhead. Belthor turned, and he chuckled as he saw Tori and Sam with their hands on each others' shoulders.

"You're with me." Hastel put his hand on Belthor's shoulder in the same way. "That good with you?"

"Absolutely," Belthor said. He smiled.

"Nerien tattoo, huh?" Hastel asked. "Theron's got one of those. And an Ezraval."

"You?" Belthor asked. Hastel shook his head.

"I don't have tattoos," he admitted. "But!" He held up his staff. Belthor examined a faintly beehive-like shape he'd seen before.

"Horas," the young man muttered. "The God of Death."

"Cursed, huh?" Hastel asked. "That's what took me so long to get to school. Went studying the Beyond and its king."

"Master Vignette?"

Belthor paused as he heard Agnete's voice. He turned to see her standing on the edge of the courtyard, looking almost...frightened.

"What is it, young lady?" Master Vignette asked. Agnete shuffled her feet.

"I...I don't have a staff." The words came out almost as a mumble.

"You...oh, right." Master Vignette's face went curiously blank for a second. "Well, that's no bother, then. Just because you don't have one, doesn't mean you can't understand them. Step over here, girl." She waved. Hesitantly, Agnete approached.

"How'd she get here?" Hastel whispered, frowning. "Who is she? You've got to have a staff to train."

"That's what Master Kulkas told me," Belthor agreed. "But he brought her here without one."

"Now," Master Vignette said. "We'll start by levitating objects."

"And me?" Agnete asked, as Belthor nodded. Master Vignette seemed to consider.

"Well, you can observe," she said. "For when everything gets sorted out and you get your own staff."

"...okay." Agnete's cheeks were red again.

"When what gets sorted out?" Hastel asked Belthor in a hushed voice. Belthor shrugged.

"Now," Master Vignette said, while Agnete stood to the side watching. The wizard raised her staff and pointed it at a loose stone. "Visualize it rising. Make sure you're pointing right at it, and slowly lift your staff, focusing on the rising sensation in you..."

***

By the end of the day, Belthor was tired. He had enough in his head for two brains, he thought, and his notebook was full of scribbles. He sat in his final class, nodding compliantly as Master Protec lectured on various magical creatures.

"Now," he said, after finishing a long in-depth discussion on the differences between merfolk and sirens, "who can tell me about dragons?"

Hastel raised his hand, and Protec called him up.

"Should have guessed," the Master said, and Hastel made an amused noise. He took his position in the center of the room with a little smile.

"Dragons are the oldest creatures in the north," he said. "They're big, they're ugly, they breathe fire." Several people laughed, but Hastel shook his head. "My family have been the local nobility in this area for a long time. There aren't many dragons here today." He paused for a moment, almost expectantly. Finally, he laughed and waved. "You're welcome."

More laughs. Hastel winked. "I heard about them a lot growing up. The dragons you usually hear about are the big, angry ones that burn down towns, or the old sappy ones that give advice and wishes. But there's a third category to all that: the half-dragons." He waited for a moment, nodding along with some hushed whispers. "Maybe you've heard about them?"

"What are they?" Tori asked. Hastel almost bowed in her direction.

"Half-dragons are rare," he said. "They're dragons that can actually shift forms, no invocation to the God of Love required - and it's more than mere illusion, at that. They can use this power to change from their dragon form to that of their non-draconic parent...no one knows how they first came to be, but most half-dragons are the children of other half-dragons. One that's in human form acts human, talks human, eats and drinks like a human...but isn't human." He preened for a moment. "My family are the most successful hunters of half-dragons on this side of the Iron Sea. One of them mid-shapeshift is actually on our family crest, being hunted...go on, look for it next time you're out in town."

"Why do they change forms?" Sam asked. Hastel raised a finger.

"They do it to hide, mostly," he said. "From hunters like me. Sometimes they do it to try and infiltrate human society, though: dragons are evil creatures on the whole, even if there are some who are pretty reasonable if given a lot of kowtowing. Being on the inside gives them an advantage. There are even stories of them seducing people who pose a threat to their agenda and disposing of them quietly."

Agnete frowned and started to scribble with a scowl, head down. Master Protec nodded as Hastel explained the differences between the two major kinds of local dragons, then waved him back to his seat.

"Now, we have very little time left, but I wanted to make one more point," he said. "About dragons. Who here knows about elves?" He seemed to wince at how few hands went up. "Well, details will come as we study, but there are elves, and then there are drow. Drow are stronger, faster, tougher than any other elves, native to the far north on the Highland side of the Iron Sea. They live in tribes and mountaintop Holds, and they worship dragons. It's a cult kind of thing. Normal elves do it too, but the drow take it to a whole different level." Protec considered. "We'll talk more about that tomorrow. It's late. You're all dismissed."