Alsen did not sleep well that night. The story the mage told was thrilling. And that lady standing stupidly with those stars sticking out of her head, her just looking stupidly at everyone like nothing happened, nothing was wrong. Alsen never saw anything as strange as that.
He saw the wagon man pull out his dagger so jumped him, pinning the man's arms to his side. Not well enough; when the man wanted to attack the mage, he shook off the hold effortlessly.
Alsen decided he must learn more about grabbing people. He felt he knew the grabbing part but was not sure he got pinning right.
He wondered why did the mage want him to keep the Opal a while? Alsen could not imagine any reason the man might want him to carry it and decided finally it was like bearing a rider's gear.
He grinned when the innkeeper came and Chance left with her. About the Opal, he was convinced it was put in his pocket and thought the mage must have a very light touch to be so artful.
Alsen never felt a thing, and he always knew when some fool tried to mess with him. He fell asleep and hardly noticed when the mage came back.
* * *
Everyone at the inn behaved as normally as possible the next day. No one spoke of the two bodies outside on the icy ground. While they ate breakfast, the innkeeper went outside, dragged both to the edge of a ravine and then tossed them into it.
She was pleased to see that, from the inn yard, the Slice pass seemed to be opening. It was not very warm but the sky was sunny. A few from the carry-all group went up the trail and reported back. Someone walking or riding a horse could get through, a coach or carry-all not yet.
Chance was happy to be able to leave and ordered Alsen to fetch food for their packs from the kitchen. He paid the innkeeper and said he hoped to see her again. The Coach Master offered the lady's now vacant seat, if he would wait a day or so. Chance declined politely.
He waited impatiently for Alsen and, when the burdened boy arrived, set off toward the pass. Alsen hurried along behind him trying to keep up and carry two full packs. Chance did not have to ask if Alsen still bore the gem, he could sense it.
The trail was often almost blocked by fallen trees or small rock slides. Chance used his magic and kept the pace fast. By afternoon, they were through but Alsen was exhausted. Chance ignored him and set off into the open land beyond the pass. Alsen struggled with packs and followed.
They went a ways farther and saw another inn ahead, similar to the one they just left. He veered away from it and took instead a side trail which skirted woods.
Alsen was dumbfounded; why did the mage not head for the inn? But he did not, so Alsen lugged the packs as best he could.
At a high point, Chance abruptly stopped. He stood very still and cast Seeker spells. Satisfied no one was near, he told Alsen to set up a camp here. Chance walked over to a place where he could watch the inn and sat. Behind him, Alsen set down the packs and made a camp.
The inn looked everyday; he saw nothing unusual but kept casting Seeker spells in that direction. He left his spot only when Alsen came to say food was ready. Chance walked back thinking he was no more than a day ahead of pursuit. Sitting, he was lost in his thoughts and ate mechanically.
* * *
They woke early, chilled and achy from sleeping on only a mantle. Alsen managed something to eat and drink then they set off. Chance did not bother to conceal the camp; whoever followed him would know anyway.
Over the next day, Chance came to know Alsen better. The youth said he was eighteen but Chance thought him around fifteen. Alsen did not seem dimwitted but was definitely a person who thought about his words before speaking them.
The youth possessed the gift of silence as well. The mage and the former wagon boy often walked far without a word between them. This suited Chance who was used to solitude.
He was sure, because his intuition insisted, that if he tried to take the Opal, it would kill him. He resigned himself to Alsen having it for now. But, he would get it back at some point.
* * *
Alsen was enjoying not walking behind the carry-all and not having to care for horses. He liked horses well enough, a person must ride something, but they were messy. The mage needed little care and ate what was put before him. It was certainly better than handling horses and insults.
As they broke camp the next morning, Alsen asked: "Where are we going? I have never been this far east."
Chance was surprised to hear the boy speak without being invited to. He made an effort to be cordial answering: "We are going east through a town called Tupello and will stay there until my business is done."
Alsen was quiet, he heard of Tupello but knew nothing of it. He asked: "How large is Tupello? I have been in a very large town in The Maurice, Hu'sin. Is it big like Hu'sin?"
Chance paused wondering what was making the boy feel he was permitted to be so forward. He mentally shrugged and answered: "I've been there a few times. Not as big as Hu'sin but big enough to be run by mages - of the Red cult as I remember. A Schools' Hier compound in a castle is there - but, the mage cult has the power - has a monastery in the city."
Alsen said nothing more; Chance preferred that. He did not feel like talking about his plans, which were to get to Oosra and leave the West.
* * *
And, he did not intend to discuss them with a servant. He calmed and reminded himself Alsen carried the Opal. The morning mist was just clearing, so they started to walk again.
They neared a junction close to midday where their trail joined a road that continued down a rolling highland. Chance began to feel an unease that came from a superstition that things happen in three's. There were two, separate assassins at the inn. Was there a third?
Chance's thoughts were interrupted by Alsen. The youth did not break his stride nor point as he said quietly: "Two hills ahead - right hand - birds rising from trees then settling back. Something entered the woods, disturbing them."
With only brief glances at the woods, he and Alsen walked a little farther. Then Chance gestured toward a stand of trees by the road, saying he would like to pause and have tea. They sat in the shade, and Alsen began making a small fire.
Chance spoke softly to Alsen: "Bring the Opal from your pocket and set it out between us."
Alsen pulled the Opal out and carefully set it down so that anyone watching could not see what he did. Chance watched the Opal closely and whispered a small spell of warning. Colors began to brighten in it and dark reds floated to the surface. Alsen soon got water boiling and then made tea.
They sat quietly while drinking and watched for signs. Both were observing where birds began to rise from trees. Whoever was hiding now moved towards them; so, he told Alsen to pack up the tea pot and makings.
As he stood up, a Battle mage burst from the trees. He was swinging a long, glowing sword as he dashed directly at Chance. With a gesture, Chance cast Deflect to block the sword and hurled Explode at the approaching mage.
He recognized his attacker: "Scum Mage Sloder of Tupello! Fool hireling - I hope you were paid well to come and try me."
Chance concentrated and brought forth a sharp blue spell that he flung toward the other. Sloder struggled to divert it and then returned a lance-shaped beam of intense light.
Sloder was a powerful mage with a bad reputation. He was not welcome in the mage cults because he worked as a freelance assassin for anyone who paid. Certainly, Chance would have avoided him if he could have.
He put everything he could summon into fighting Sloder and wished desperately that he could use the Opal. It lay indifferently inert on the ground.
The two mages clashed, locked and then broke apart in bursts of magic. Both were chanting spells against each other, and Chance seemed to be prevailing when he tripped. Sloder was at him the next instant.
Red light burst from the Opal, piercing Sloder in the chest. As he died, he only turned to look dully at the gem. Sloder grunted his final protest before slipping to the ground and became still.
Chance lay where he fell, magically and physically exhausted. Alsen was standing and staring open-mouthed. Chance flipped his hand up, and the youth's mouth snapped shut.
He closed his eyes a moment. His body was soaked with his sweat and trembling from the fight. Alsen came over and knelt beside him asking: "High Mage, are you hurt? Is anything broken?"
Chance opened his eyes and looked past the youth. The Opal was still on the ground, and he said: "I do not think so - thanks to our friend there. Put the Opal in your pocket then help me up."
Alsen pocketed the gem then helped Chance to his feet. They continued slowly toward Tupello leaving Sloder for crows. At day's end, Chance picked a place to sleep for the night.
As Alsen began a meal, he said: "You are strong and dangerous, High Mage. You had him - except for a misstep. That might happen to the best - enough said."
Chance did not respond. The Opal killed Sloder when the 'dangerous High Mage' became vulnerable. He knew very well that he would be the one dead but for the Opal. He suspected why and did not like the reason.
He figured the Opal did not act to save him; it was protecting magic-less Alsen. If Sloder killed him, Alsen would have been slain as well, and the assassin would have the Opal. He suddenly realized he was not thinking correctly.
He was assuming the power of the Opal would have fallen into Sloder's control, but the stone made the decision to prevent that. The Opal making its own decisions and acting on them, without the control of a mage, disturbed Chance. He was restless that night, imagining his fate if abandoned by the Opal.
The following day they came near Tupello, which could be seen now ahead of them in the distance. Chance turned off and went to a place under trees where he settled himself. Alsen, puzzled, came over and sat beside him. Chance looked at Tupello with mage sight, cast Seeker spells and noted approaches to the city.
Alsen looked as well and saw smoke from many chimneys, thick city walls around quarters, and a Hier rising above the stately houses of the Enclosed quarter set round it. He asked: "You called the mage back there 'Sloder of Tupello'. Are there more like him in the city?"
Chance turned from looking at the town and faced Alsen, becoming used to his presumption: "I suppose there are more like Sloder, there seems no end to men like him. No matter - I prefer to look over a place before entering. However, it seems quiet so we will enter near sunset. When we do, keep yourself as invisible as you can."
At last light, they came down the road to the eastern gate and entered with the last crowds. No one noticed as they walked along the wall-way to the Open quarter below the Old Market.
There was no problem entering, and Chance selected an inn just inside the gate, paid for lodging and told Alsen to wait with their packs until he returned.
He left Alsen and was quickly lost to sight among the flow of people in the square and side roads. Alsen sat nervously on a porch and watched the crowds. He tried to be invisible.
* * *
Chance remembered Tupello well enough to find the Merchants quarter and then the house of Bion, a friend at school. It was up a hill just off a ring road and displayed a prosperous frontage.
After looking about, Chance stepped into the shadow of the doorway and pounded the knocker. There was the sound of voices and moments later a small, barred window in the door opened slightly showing his former roommate peering out.
Bion's voice was shrill coming through the window: "Chance? No! What do you want? Why are you here? You are trouble!"
Chance growled at Bion to open the door or he would open it for him. Bion sent him round back and admitted him through a side-street door into an atrium. He led Chance through it to a heated room on one side saying: "It is warmer in here and we can be private."
Bion looked at Chance, a little older he thought, but school was five years ago. They got into and out of trouble together then. But, Chance ran away and continued to get into trouble, while Bion chose the easy path.
Chance looked at Bion, and the only change he noted was the man appeared to have put on more weight. Unlike him, his former flatmate finished at school then returned to Tupello, married and entered business.
Bion poured wine for them both and indicated they sit at a table. Before doing that, he walked over to a window, peeked outside then closed the shutters and drew together curtains.
He came back to his unwelcome friend. With a serious look on his face, he sat at the table and held up a hand. Extending his forefinger, he wagged it saying: "I am sure you said the last time you were here you were going back to Kehdy Schools - would make a choice of a one-magic mastership and stick to it."
Bion emphasized his words: "Remember how it goes, Chance? One and only one mastery in one magic per person, the One Law. You never even pretended to submit to what all mages accept without question.
"No, not you - and now you have spurned the Ice of the Maurice, battle Red cult mages sent to fetch you and will bring ruin on my head."
Chance snorted at the likelihood of restricting himself. Then Bion spoke seriously and warned: "You break the law of magic that makes civilization possible. They will not allow you to do that. Small wonder you are about to be declared rogue, outlaw, heretic."
Bion appeared to have said all he wanted to say; Chance dismissed it as he always had before: "Yes, yes, Bion, but I have a real problem."
He tried to physically shrug off his tension and rambled: "I've been careful, very careful. I don't know how the Maur tracked me - to invite and then ambush me - assassins pursue me - and worst of all, I no longer have the Reading Opal."
"How so," asked Bion in open disbelief, "you have misplaced it? Easy enough to do when one is rushing about eluding almost everyone."
With no notice of Bion's sarcasm, Chance related his time at the inn: "The Opal killed my assailants and then jumped to a wagon boy. I left him, my stone in his pocket, in the Open quarter at an inn before coming here to you."
If it was known that Chance was in Bion's house, his career and perhaps his life would end. How could the man have endangered him and his family so! Worries of doom swamped his thoughts.
With a glance at the sideboard, Chance saw a wine jug and went to refill his cup. Turning back to Bion, he drank first then went on: "Sloder, that rat, almost killed me on the way here - I tripped - the Opal acted and killed him!
"But the point is the Opal is acting on its own. I do not know what to think about that."
* * *
Before Bion could answer, they were distracted by the sounds of people shouting in the street. Going to the shuttered window above the lane, they looked through the slates and saw Red cult mages running past toward the Open quarter.
Both felt strong magic from that direction. Bion said sourly: "I think your Opal's presence has become known to the Reds. See how they rush to greet and welcome it."
Chance started to leave but Bion stopped him: "Whatever is happening, let it. Wait here. When quiet, you can go see well enough without risk."
Heeding Bion's counsel meant leaving Alsen and the Reading Opal to the cult mages. If they discovered him as well, they would kill him first. He certainly was not willing to risk himself for the lad; the Opal seemed able to take care of itself.
He paced Bion's room, went to the shutters and looked out again. The flow reversed; Chance said: "Now, people are running from the market - magic fire - I can feel it."
Bion buried his head in his arms, moaning: "I should never have let you in. You will be my death if they find out you have been here!"
Chance lost patience; he mumbled an apology to Bion and left. He arrived at the quarter and went to the now empty market.
Only the bodies of dead mages lay about on the ground, burned and torn apart. He walked slowly along the edge and found Alsen at the inn, holding the Opal as if it were a snake.
Chance pulled Alsen out of sight into the inn's stable while at the same time casting a spell to douse fire spells scattered about the market. Soon, the square outside began to fill with mages.
He led Alsen deeper into the stables while he cast Fade to keep them from being seen. In the farthest shadow, Alsen cowered wide-eyed and trembling.
Crouched down against a wall in the stable, Alsen appeared to be in shock; he was staring back at the square. He tried to speak but failed.
He tried again and managed: "I waited - only watching the market. Then, I saw people in red robes, walking in a line and holding up a kind of dragon statue. The Opal began to heat up in my pocket - felt like it was burning."
Chance said nothing to that, and Alsen continued fearfully: "The Opal went crazy - it pulled me to the red robes, and red and blue light - like a fire - began to come from it."
The youth was shaking now and blurted: "It started to kill and burn. It was screaming Death the whole time! I could not think - I was made crazy!"
Alsen looked about him with desperation; he was very frightened. Chance spoke firmly: "Alsen, it is over; compose yourself. Where is the Opal? Do you still have it?"
The youth reached into his pocket and, with a squeak, bleated: "It's not there; It's gone!"
Alsen pushed himself to his feet; he stuttered saying: "High Mage, this is too deep for me. I agreed to carry your Opal. I don't have it and do not know where it is. Good bye and good luck. I hope I never see you again."
He turned and ran out the back door of the stable. Chance watched him go and was relieved; he preferred to travel alone. He dropped Alsen from his thoughts and wondered where the Opal was.
* * *
He remembered mages were gathering outside and left the stable the same way Alsen had. He went by an indirect route back to Bion's house. When he arrived, Bion let him in hastily and at once asked: "You have the Opal again?"
His thoughts elsewhere, Chance merely shook his head no. Bion led him back to the private rooms; he sat, openly curious what Chance would do. He tried to be cheerful: "So, it is gone. That solves some of your problems."
Chance did not know what to answer so did not bother. He went to a table and began to mark upon it with candle wax. Spells wove into deeper spells as Chance tried to find the Opal. "I shall not just walk away," said Chance; "It is mine."
Bion was becoming exasperated by all this. He watched Chance smearing magic designs on his table, but from across the room.
He remembered Chance could be oblivious to anything around him when doing magic. It was plain Chance could not find it and now only sat quietly at the table.
Bion brought him more wine. Chance looked up at his oldest friend: "It is still here in Tupello. It is not far from here - not far from where it left the boy. It is not exactly in the Open quarter - more it seems to be moving into the Slep quarter."
Candidly, Bion argued with him saying: "That is not at all possible; unless, no one has ever really understood it - as it is - including you. Let it go!"
Chance was not listening. With unyielding determination, he sank his magic deep into the earth under the house. He started to perspire, began to shake. The table creaked then warped as he cast.
Bion backed away quickly and raised a Shield spell; his magic was sensible enough to withdraw when exceptionally powerful magic was being used. Suddenly Chance stood up and, with a curse, grabbed the table and upended it. He nodded politely toward Bion and left.
Bion stayed still for a long moment then sighed. He knew Chance well and knew he could be emotional when stymied by something.
He walked over to the window and saw Chance below in the lane. He seemed to hesitate, stepping one way, halting, then stepping another. Finally, he went off down the hill in the direction of the Open quarter. Bion relaxed only after he saw Chance turn the corner and disappear from his life.
"I wish you well, old friend," he muttered, "but, please do not come back."
* * *
Chance could not track the spoor of the Opal because it left none. However, he owned the stone for long enough that he could feel a sense of it; its spirit was how he thought of that.
His awareness of it now led him through the Open quarter and to the gate of the Slep compound. He was able to enter because he was a High Mage.
The lanes inside were not intended for people who wore boots nor for easy passing. Cobblestones were uneven, sewer trenching was careless; it slowed traffic, perhaps intentionally. Chance watched where he walked and let the night see what it wanted.
He came to a tall house just in a side alley off the main road. As he walked up to it, he was certain the Opal was inside.
Going to it, he started to knock but instead pushed at the door. It opened easily and he entered. He found himself in a seemingly empty house; there was no sign it was occupied.
But magic came from it, from above him. He followed the feel of that, up stairs and then down a hall to a door. As before, it opened as he pushed it, and he entered an empty, dark room.
In the quiet dimness, Chance could hear someone breathing. Slowly light increased and illuminated a large man.
With more light, he could see the man was a Slep, with green eyes, sharp teeth and odd magic. They looked at each other without moving.
Softly at first but slowly growing louder, a voice spoke aloud: "I was unsure you would come, Chance, but Nalo was not. We have waited for you, Nalo and I, and here you are. Have you come to claim me? Why don't you just try."
The room lightened still more; Chance could see the person called Nalo. The Slep were a race Chance did not know much about, except for fangs and green eyes.
Chance wondered if Nalo might bite him if the Opal told him to. Were Sleps poisonous? Chance did not know but remained well away from the man to avoid that possibility.
He was not surprised that the Opal spoke in a woman's voice as Misdan made it. It spoke more: "I wondered if you could find me, mage. If you could use the spells you learned from reading through my lovely skin.
"The Red cult believe you are responsible for the market deaths, which you are in a way. Seventeen of the red robes - very very dead. They saw me and assume you used me to kill, so they hunt for you. They will catch you and sacrifice you to their dragon idol - poor Chance."
He decided to just listen and watch. The room lightened further; he saw furniture materializing out of the gloom, then a fireplace. He moved to it when wood ignited and sat in a chair.
Nalo went to another chair by the fire and sat as well. Slep and Human continued to look at each other; neither said anything.
After a time of silence, Nalo held up a pouch hung around his neck and spoke: "It came to me when it sought safety. I offered to take it to a sanctuary. The Opal tells me you may come with us and so survive Tupello."
Nalo slowly lowered the object; he said the Opal rested in it. Then he stood, beckoned to Chance: "We leave at full dark - soon. I have food enough for you. Follow me."
Chance did not wish to be away from the Opal so stood and went with Nalo. As he followed the Slep down stairs to a stable, he tried to understand the Opal. It clearly displayed will and picked someone again, this time one with Slep magic.
The belief the Opal could act on its own was beginning to fix in Chance's mind. Why it chose someone like Alsen or Nalo to move about was not clear at all. And it wanted a sanctuary, from being owned by people like him?
He did not think the Opal invited him along out of sympathy so why let him come at all? Regardless of the gem's displays of will, Chance planned, fully expected, to have it again. He pondered if the Opal knew that.
An easy rationalization was the Opal wanted away from people like the cult mages. That sank from holes even he could poke through. He concluded that it was not simply breaking away from him, it was deciding its future for itself.
Regarding regaining possession, he was optimistic; about keeping, he was becoming skeptical. Nalo interrupted his thoughts saying it was time to go.
They left the house and went by side streets to a small night gate in the wall. After the few people there cleared, Nalo spoke quietly with the Slep watchman and paid him two silver coins.
* * *
After leaving Tupello, they went away quickly, crossing a bridge over the wide north fork of the Slep river and through market gardens beyond.
The Slep led, avoiding roads and instead heading along hedge rows toward woods. They did not slow their pace until well into the trees. Nalo stopped from time to time to listen for any sound of pursuit. Chance listened too, using magic spells, but neither heard anything.
Once they were at the edge of the true Forest, Nalo abruptly halted, unrolled his sleeping mat and went to sleep. Chance guessed this must be where they were spending the night, so he made a shelter against a tree. He began to spread a few alarm wards around their camp.
Then, it occurred to him that the stone was certainly awake and Nalo's ears twitched this way and that while he slept. If someone approached, they would know before his wards did. Chance decided that his spells were not needed.
They followed a similar routine for three days, always staying in woods along the Forest edge and heading towards the coast. To his question of where this sanctuary was, Nalo replied he knew only that it was farther, and they were going to a Slep village for a guide. Chance was pleased they were at least going in the direction he wanted.
When they finally arrived at a scattering of huts on the fourth day, Nalo left him and went aside to talk with several Slep. Chance was curious about the village and wandered round it. He concluded Sleps were tidy but not a pretty people.
A guide was agreed upon after sessions of argument which Chance could not understand. They did not speak Common when he was near, and switched to their own dialect, speaking softly and rapidly.
What Chance did understand was a strong reluctance among the Slep of the village to take Nalo and him to the sanctuary. He caught words like 'stupid', 'sacrilege' and 'wrong'. This did not portend well, thought Chance.
A sullen guide met them that afternoon and indicated they were to follow him. As they all walked away from the village, the guide spoke: "We are going along this stream into the mountains. We will go to where it comes out of a narrow gorge. There is a trail into a crack in the mountains - it comes out above the Tumbles."
The guide spoke without expression, almost coldly. He waited a moment then looked bluntly at Chance: "We go along the Tumbles to the Palace of Nessum. You, mage, must open it for us."
Chance was barely listening until the last sentence. Puzzled, he asked: "I must open it? Why does it need a mage to open it?"
The guide answered him with a sneer as if Chance was ignorant and lectured: "The great mage Nessum sealed it when he left. He warded against his enemies, and his spells still protect it."
Chance knew of Nessum as any mage did. the man was a legend: he was invariably referred to as Nessum, Eater of Civilizations.
Ancient myth chronicled that Nessum led an army of Berserkers that circled the world destroying kingdoms and cities. He was defeated in a last battle at the Spire in Kehdy, and he and his armies vanished in that final confrontation. Historians describe him as a man of impressive strength and personality. They also speculated on his crimes.
Such was the doctrine stated as fact by the Schools, which was founded after Nessum's end. Chance did not recall ever having read of a palace. Regardless of fact, he admitted misgivings that any magic of his could untangle a spell woven by Nessum, no matter how long ago, if indeed they were still active.
Chance did not see how a man dead five hundred years could have spells that continued to guard his home. He asked Nalo bluntly: "And how, exactly, does this place become a sanctuary for a magical stone? Assuming I can get us in."
The Slep shrugged and said: "Its walls are sealed against mages. Bones of many lay at the palace gate - those who sought to enter so they could loot or look for Nessum's library. Once inside, the Opal is safe."
Chance began to think he missed something important. "How is it that you expect me to be successful gaining entrance - where you say all others have died?"
Nalo's only answer was an open-mouth smile; it was not friendly. Chance was gradually becoming more familiar with Slep expressions; however, there were too many teeth for his comfort.
* * *
As promised, the guide led them into steep, rough mountains and across high summits on to a tumbled land of hills that bordered the coast of the Miene sea. Late in the day, the guide said it was a short way farther.
Then there it was, across a ravine. It faced a distant plain and was back lighted by the setting sun: Nessum's palace. Chance could not help but admire everything about it.
When they were closer, he picked a pleasant, sheltered spot with a good view of buildings, walls, large gate and side postern.
He spread his cape and sat down on it. Nalo stopped and turned to look at him. He asked: "What are you doing? Why have you stopped? The palace is over there..."
Chance pulled a flask of cider out of his pack and enjoyed a long drink before saying: "I am drinking cider. You and your friend go off a way from me, downwind. Call me when it is time to eat."
Chance now looked thoughtfully at the hold he was to break into. There was no movement inside or sign of anyone.
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