Chance wondered how would, how could Nessum, have set in place spells strong enough to defend his palace while he was away? There appeared to be more than a handful of decaying human bodies on the ground outside the gate, testifying to recent entry attempts.
Nessum was recorded as a Master of Earth and of Fire, two master-ships, one too many these days. Though he held a good opinion of himself, Chance did not presume to rank his own strength as in Nessum's league. He sat, drank cider and hoped for an idea.
The sun set as Chance sat watching Nessum's hold. He put off further speculation and spelled a small campfire. Looking over to the other two, he saw that Nalo and the guide were arguing. The Opal's essence was quiet.
That brought up that he was unable to think how he might retake the Opal, and he was not able to shake the certainty that trying to do so would be dangerous. Remaining in the West much longer was also dangerous.
Chance did not doubt that cult mages followed him. They surely blamed him for the deaths in Tupello and wanted revenge. He wondered how far behind him they were now and hoped they were still searching Tupello.
Regardless, he did not have much time, a few days perhaps, to come up with a way into the palace. Once in, he hoped to convince the Opal it would not be a sanctuary but a trap.
Though mages failed to penetrate its defenses so far did not mean no one ever could. He was sure he would find a solution; because, he always found a way to overcame problems before now.
Leaving the Opal with Slep was not even considered. It was less so much a matter of not trusting them, he did not, it was more exactly that he wanted it.
The Opal was the key to knowledge of how magic worked. Chance could not let that opportunity slip away. He consoled himself that things did not look good now, but circumstances always changed.
Chance poured another drink of the cider from the jug in his pack reflecting that it was good quality. He turned his attention to the palace.
The main entrance was shadowed in the fading light; he discarded any thoughts of going in the gate. That method of entering was plainly not possible, as the bones of dead men showed.
* * *
So instead, he thought of the man who built it all. Going down an imaginary list, Nessum was topmost a Master of Magic, even by the limited meaning of that at the Kehdy Schools. The man was supposedly a master in each of the main four magics: Earth, Air, Fire and Water.
Of those, Nessum was described most often as a master of Earth magic. The palace he constructed for himself would reflect that skill.
Nessum's use of Air and Fire magic was recorded, although the stories may have been embellished. Chance noted there was plenty of wind on this mountainside to practise air spells.
Last of the magic groups, there were few mentions in stories of Nessum using Water magic. Chance thought it a useful study and wondered a moment why Nessum seemed to have not.
He assayed himself frankly. He recalled Alsen's words after the fight with Sloder. He was a dangerous, powerful mage; he took pride in that.
Being honest, he admitted to himself that indeed, he did not need the Opal to achieve mastery. However, with the Reading Opal, there was so much more to 'mastery'.
At school, he studied each of the four Elements of Magic as well as ancient scrolls, and he secretly reread those scrolls through the Opal.
When Chance left the school just ahead of a warrant, he was already more powerful with spells than many other mages would ever be. The Opal was a way to grow even stronger.
Chance used his enhanced power all the time, often without being aware of doing so. He found this sheltered location, where he now sat, by his Earth magic that he felt as he walked along.
Also, it was not accidental that a small spring began close by where he sat. Chance cast Water magic when conditions were favorable.
The need to leave the West was on his mind constantly, with or without the Opal. But he refused to contemplate going on without the gem.
The port of Oosra was not far from this place, and Chance guessed the distant blur on the horizon he saw before the sun set was the city and sea beyond. He hoped he was that near.
* * *
Returning his thoughts to Nessum, he reviewed the options the man might have used when attacked. Those spells would be what still sealed it from looters, despoilers.
Earth magic would be the main part of a defense. Fire, Air and Water spells were more likely injected to complement sealing.
Chance paused. He was surely thinking too hard about this. Then the obvious occurred to him: Nessum would have a back way out.
He was certain of it; he himself would have one. It was logical and more than prudent. Even very powerful mages can have a streak of bad luck and need to run away.
That notion rooted: Nessum's palace would have a back door, an escape. Chance wondered if it might be only lightly sealed after so long. When Nalo called him to eat, Chance joined the other two.
Smiling at them, he said smugly: "We should look first for a back door; there must be one. Nessum would have it for emergencies if he faced defeat and capture."
Neither Nalo nor the guide said anything to that, which he shrugged off indifferently. Chance ate and then went back to his shelter. Full and self-satisfied, he soon fell asleep.
* * *
He was startled awake in the night by the wrestling bodies of the guide and Nalo falling upon him. Nalo was grappling with the guide who held a dagger hovering a hand's width above Chance's chest. Nalo opened his mouth widely.
Chance was directly under them and saw the neat, sure bite that chomped through the guide's neck. The sight of Nalo biting off the guide's head in one horrific crunch underscored how deadly Slep teeth could be.
Nalo pushed himself upright and spit out gore and the guide's head. He bent and grabbed body parts which he dragged to the edge of the ravine. Nalo slung them away into the dark.
He turned and slowly came back to sit by Chance, explaining: "He did not wish for you to find a back entrance - or any at all."
With a shrug, Nalo went on: "Perhaps he felt so strongly because it is holy to a Slep cult. They have a way in but keep it secret."
He laughed remarking he would ask the guide's ghost when he saw him. Chance was still trying to recover from the last few moments but queried: "Holy? Am I going to annoy anyone else by getting in? Other Slep?"
Nalo remained silent then spoke honestly: "I would not have bothered except for the Opal. It woke me and told me to prevent your death - this time."
Chance was not sure that comforted him. He decided he would not close his eyes for awhile and made tea. As he sat and drank, the image of the guide's head being bitten off stayed with him.
He concluded the Slep were a strange folk. That strangeness appeared to include Nessum's old palace. How a few Slep could get in but no one else puzzled Chance. He was briefly curious why it was holy but put that aside for later.
Nalo stood, wished him a pleasant rest and walked away. Alone again, Chance remained by his campfire and chastised himself: the guide came close to killing a cocky mage who did not place any alarms about him before sleeping.
He was unaware that Slep took to religious notions, which included common folk like the guide. More personally unsettling, the Opal could order Nalo to kill and he would.
* * *
Resolutely, he put his thoughts again to a back door. Chance felt sure there would be an escape tunnel as that would be simple Earth magic for someone like Nessum.
He brought round his backpack and removed a well-wrapped book from inside. He spread a cloth on the ground and set the book on it. It opened on its own to a busy section.
One page was illuminated with diagrams, another written-out formulas for spells. He consulted his book of magic in the small light of the campfire but found little that looked helpful.
Despite the excitement, he was tired. After a fruitless search for answers, he closed the book and lay down. Sleep did come, but he needed to meditate a while to relax enough to lay calmly.
The next morning, Chance examined the palace more closely. As the sun rose, he was able to see more detail. From where he sat, the compound itself was generally oval, walls rose smoothly to a height of a little more than three men and formed an unbroken ring in which there was only one gate and one postern.
It faced the sunrise and thus, by custom, was white. The southern-facing side, across the ravine from him, was only a relief-cut arch painted black.
Chance was sure without having to look that the western face sported a red symbol and the northern, a green. That was traditional and could be seen on any wall around even the smallest hut, town or manor. It was a common signifier of the four Great Directions of the earth.
Before he concentrated on the palace, he glanced down into the ravine. Both sides were as if sheared. Along the bottom, a stream cascaded from pool to pool before continuing to the plain beyond. There was no bridge of any kind that he could see.
Looking back up at the palace, he saw it as almost more art than Holdfast. It was set on a mound and seemed to rise out of the rocky ground with no line to mark one from the other.
Chance assumed Nessum used local stone and was able to make out pale rock used in walls. What he could see, a main hall and gallery inside the encircling wall, was of the same rock giving the palace a pale white appearance.
Everywhere he looked, the surface glowed with a patina; he guessed that was from the spells that sealed each part and linked it to others. Seemingly separate structures flowed into a whole which would conduct and hold magic very well.
The main hall drew his notice because of its windows, tall and narrow, set like arrow slots but glinting of having glass. Chance did not believe glass in windows would survive intact.
Or, the conclusion must be they too were thickly coated with magic. The hall was three storeys high and formed a dome to enclose the top floor. The openings there were different, more round.
Chance guessed the portals were for casting spells. He imagined Nessum standing in the top room under the dome and looking out.
He would see behind him the rough land called the Tumbles and before him the sloping hills that ended in a distant, flat plain. That was the direction of Oosra, Chance's goal.
Oddly, there was no parapet on the walls. That suggested Nessum did not require mercenaries to defend him. The man certainly used such when he was rampaging everywhere and destroying civilizations, but not here.
Chance could just see into a small, front courtyard: paved in stone and between the gate and main building. Stairs from it led up to an imposing, double door. He supposed stairs going down went to a kitchen.
* * *
Nalo came over to him and said it was time to go. With the Slep in the lead, the two began to descend the ravine separating them from the palace. Chance energized his earth spells right away. He extended his awareness of the structure and pattern of the earth to a depth of about twice a person's height and cast that against the far side.
His guess was that the back door would be in the steep cliff below the palace. Chance cast another ground-penetrating Seeker spell. Using its result, he led Nalo across the stream at the ravine's bottom and toward a side waterfall that was indicated by his spell.
The closer he was to the site, the more sure he was it concealed a tunnel. It was directly under the palace walls. Chance pointed saying: "The back door is there."
Chance stepped to the edge of a pond beside the falls and added: "And there must be a spell of some kind that is guarding such an obvious entrance. Let me test for it..."
Nalo paused and was looking at the place Chance pointed to. He seemed to be having a testy conversation with himself; his face mouthed words. Finally, Nalo shrugged, reached inside his neck pouch and brought out the Opal.
Then the Slep stepped back and raised his arm forward. Nalo pointed the Opal at the base of the waterfall, and energy lanced out from the stone in waves of color.
The concentration of magic displayed was strong. The brightness of it caused both to squint their eyes, but Nalo still held out the Opal. Chance leaped back from the display shouting: "Fool stone, no!"
Then sensing a mass of responding magic building, he faced the pool and dove into it, swimming away from the waterfall. He called out: "Get away - now!"
Nalo hesitated only a moment before he too dived into the pool. A burst of energy exploded outwards from behind the waterfall and rapidly engulfed everything within its reach. It bloomed outwards in a pearly aura around intense flames. That swept across the place where Nalo was standing moments before.
Chance studied his first exposure to Nessum's magic, which he watched from the far side of the pond. His respect for Nessum increased, and he hardly noticed when Nalo surfaced not far from him in the pool.
Water from mountain streams is cold; however, it was very educational for him to see the Opal's best effort at overwhelming a magic force. It failed to defend or deflect; however, he conceded the magic just now was unknown to him.
He reflected that if the Opal succeeded, they would no longer need a resourceful mage like him. Chance smiled to himself: but Opal failed and could have gotten them all killed. He watched the bubble deflate and disappear quickly when it did not hit anything.
* * *
Climbing out of the pond, Chance was careful not to trigger the trap again. But, he was sure this was the back way he sought. Chance imagined Nessum running down a tunnel, perhaps in darkness, and jumping into a cold pond.
That did not sound quite right, not for a mage of Nessum's reputation. The man would not rely on dashing and splashing. He pictured himself as if he were the one running from enemies.
A headlong dash through the tunnel and into the pond, his enemies likely close behind. How much time would he have, after dunking himself in cold water. It might be dark as well. Attack was often unexpected and at odd hours.
Chance wondered if Nessum would be triggering any defenses from the pond or would he be just swimming away. Going down the stream, whether it was day or night, did not look much like escape. It appeared to be rapids and body-breaking rocks.
Or, could Nessum safely climb up the opposite side of the ravine, in plain sight of the enemy? Chance glanced that way and saw Nessum would only come to the base of more exposed cliffs. He discarded that idea.
While Chance churned possibilities, Nalo built a fire. Both disrobed and began to dry their clothes. Before this moment, Chance never saw a Slep naked and like more and more things about Sleps, it was disturbing.
Maybe not all Slep were so, but Nalo was hairy and powerfully built. His eyes were unnatural to look at: bright green with small pupils. The two upper and two lower teeth, that stuck out from thick lips, resembled fangs.
Nalo seemed to think him peculiar and repulsive from the expression of distaste he wore. Chance wrapped himself in a blanket from his pack and handed another to Nalo.
They sat together silently with neither one speaking of what just happened. Nalo set the pouch with the Opal aside on to the ground between them, and Chance ignored it.
They needed to wait for their clothes to dry, so Chance returned to his thoughts. He concluded that in Nessum's place, he would have let his enemies find the tunnel.
They would assume their quarry went through and out. A search for him up, down and across the ravine would not find him, because Nessum would not be in the tunnel nor near its exit.
He reasoned that Nessum would never enter the pond. Instead, he guessed the fugitive would have a second tunnel, one that paralleled the first. He could re-enter the fortress and, once back inside, use passages built into the walls.
He did not know if the palace contained passageways in its walls and was making an assumption based on no information. However, that did not slow him.
Because he would have them and was sure a mage of Nessum's ability could do a lot of killing from secret passageways. He supposed all castles had them; even Kiping's main hall did, so Nessum's must too.
Chance began to cast his Earth magic looking for another tunnel. He cast spells that crawled about the bank and soon found what he was looking for.
A second tunnel came out at what appeared to be rock. He outlined its entrance with a defining spell and saw that it was immediately next to the one that almost killed them.
Nessum could leave one and step almost directly into the other. It would appear to be rock before and afterward. Chance decided he would be cautious and check for a spell.
He drew the magic book from his pack and found a spell for 'Inside Rock - Merging'. He recalled it once he saw the spell again. After refreshing his memory, he stood and walked round the pond to where he was certain the second tunnel was.
As he spoke a Merge spell, Chance reached his hand into the rock on one side and felt a lever. He pulled it, and the rock vanished. He stood to the side waiting to see if it triggered any magic.
He concentrated for a few moments on detecting power and found none. Satisfied, he returned to where Nalo sat watching him. Their clothes were mostly dry, so he re-packed their blankets and both dressed. Chance went over and stepped into this second tunnel followed by Nalo, who again wore the Opal in its pouch around his neck.
The tunnel was narrow but high enough so that the tall Slep did not have to stoop. Chance set magic lights along their way so they could see. Nalo seemed unsure but drew out the Opal and held it in front of him. He let Chance lead and stayed several paces behind.
After a distance, they began to climb stairs cut into the floor of the tunnel. At the top, they came to a junction. The tunnel walls became stone brick instead of smoothed rock. A narrow passageway led onwards.
Now they came on small holes in the wall that let in light. Chance paused and looked through one then quickly drew back. "What? What is it?" asked Nalo in a normal voice.
Chance hushed him. Nalo frowned and stepped up to look through the hole. He drew back and then asked bluntly: "I see only a room, an empty room - what do you see?"
That was not what Chance expected Nalo to say, and he answered as bluntly: "I too saw only a room; however, someone walked past my view as I looked - a Slep like you."
Nalo became solemn as the Opal in his pouch began to give off a dark red light. Chance did not wait for an answer and began to walk farther along the passage. After a short while, Nalo followed.
There were several holes that Chance sometimes stopped to look through before continuing. He was surprised to see absolutely bare rooms every time he looked.
Soon they came to the base of another stairway. Guessing this was a way to the domed room on top of the building, Chance climbed up it quickly and after two flights stood before a wooden door at the end.
It broke apart and crumbled as he pushed it open and stepped out into a round, sunny room that was the structure he saw that morning from his camp. Round windows opened to the wind and weather; any shutters were long rotted to debris.
He questioned why this part decayed while the rest of the compound was preserved. Perhaps Nessum needed a clear field to cast through and so this room was bare of magic.
Chance strolled along inside the room's wall and looked out each window. He soon concluded that Nessum fought from this room.
He was confident he could and easily, thus Nessum certainly could. Nalo interrupted his musings by stating: "Come. We must go back. The Opal grows impatient - I must take it to the sanctuary I promised."
He turned away and began to descend the way they just came, and Chance followed. When they reached the ground floor, Nalo stopped and began to feel about the wall. At a panel, he concentrated, summoned a spell that smelled strangely to Chance and then stepped through into the room on the other side.
Chance was following closely and almost bumped into Nalo who suddenly halted. Looking over the Slep's shoulder, he saw the man he spotted earlier was standing not far from them. He was dressed in a worn robe that was mostly white and holding a candle in his hand. Chance glanced at Nalo who did not appear surprised.
To appearances, this other Slep was a priest of some kind who looked at them without expression. He then turned away and walked down a staircase into a lower part of the building.
Chance was slow to follow, but Nalo went down after the priest. The pouch with the Opal seemed to be pulling him along as it strained forward from his neck.
Lagging even more behind, letting the others move on, Chance did not like that the way was becoming darker. The priest led them into an arched passageway poorly lighted by small holes in the ceiling that let in shafts of sunlight.
Chance thought this underground place must extend out from under the palace walls. Ahead, he could see a glow which grew stronger as they approached. He slowed his steps more and began to summon magic.
Where the passage ended, the space beyond appeared to contain one object. Chance could make out a large statue of a man with the features of a Slep and dressed in flowing robes.
It was on a pedestal and glowed with light. At first look, he thought the glow was magical but then saw a large sun hole above the idol.
The priest was ahead of them and stood at the base of the statue. He was chanting, and Chance was able to understand enough to learn that it represented what the priest was calling the Perfect One. Nalo interrupted and held out the Opal; the priest began to protest hotly.
Chance's uneasiness was growing by the moment. Magic was oozing out from the pedestal under the idol, and the Opal was beginning to glow.
He abruptly realized there was too much magic. Quickly opening his sensing spells widely, he was surprised to discover magic coming from behind them. Then he felt a surge of power that he knew to be killing spells. Dragon Fire was slithering down the passage toward them.
At the same time, the stone suddenly shrieked. It cried out shrilly: "Mages! Am I brought to a trap? Slep treachery Nalo?"
It lurched round to confront the source, dragging Nalo with it to face the temple's entrance. The Opal screamed curses and whirled back in the direction of the staircase. Nalo was yanked with it; his neck twisted and snapped from the force.
As the Opal fired off spells, it slung Nalo's limp body round the narrow passage. Dragon Fire kept increasing. Chance ducked and dodged Nalo's lifeless body, still connected somehow by the pouch straps to the Opal.
The wildly erratic magic from the Reading Opal clashed against Dragon Fire, and both exploded in bright sparks. The battle became devouring Dragon Fire against spears of Color.
Chance was given no time to think; he ran toward the idol away from the magic chaos behind him. The priest was on his knees at the base of the idol, imploring it to protect him. Chance leaped on to the priest's back and then sprang upwards scrambling up the large statue.
The light hole above the idol looked wide enough to wedge himself into. As he pulled himself up the idol, he noticed its eyes and mouth. An emerald lay in each of the eye sockets; an amber gem sat in the open mouth.
He pocketed them instinctively and jumped upwards into the light hole, knocking the idol forward off its pedestal. The statue toppled on to the priest whose body cushioned it and prevented it smashing on the floor.
The pedestal was uncovered now. Magic erupted from it, shooting Chance up the hole's chimney and out. He was flung through the air and landed in bushes away from the opening.
Looking back at the sun hole, it seemed to Chance to glow blindingly with the magic being unleashed underground. The Red cult's Dragon Fire shot upwards in a fiery plumb above the hole.
The Opal's magic emerged too, in flashes of color that tinted the grounds around the sun hole and spit sizzling spell fragments into the air. Chance watched amazed but only for a moment.
He stood and ran round a corner of the palace wall on the side nearest him. He waited briefly to see if anyone noticed. As he tried to calm himself, he saw a weathered trail leading downwards.
Chance went to it cautiously, while glancing back at the magic battle, and then headed down it toward a plain in the distance as fast as he could run. He could outrun a galloping horse and now tried to do even better.
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