Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

Master of the Cauldron: Prologue

       Last updated: Thursday, March 25, 2004 01:39 EST



    Water dripped somewhere within the cavern. It echoed among the stalactites into the sound of a distant stream, but the basalt on which Countess Balila of Sandrakkan stood with her companions was dry. Their two lanterns did little to illuminate the high dome, but the flames raised occasional iridescence from the pearly flow rock deposited there before the volcanic upheaval of a thousand years before.

    The wizard Dipsas squatted before the eight-pointed figure she'd traced on the basalt in powdered sulphur. She tapped one angle with her athame as she called in a cracked voice, "Phrougi panton!"

    To Balila, only a few feet away, the Words of Power were lost in the murmur of the cavern breathing and the earth's unfelt trembles. She hugged herself and trembled also, though the air in the chamber was warmer than that of the palace from which she and her companions had descended not long after sunset.

    Balila had taken good care of her appearance. In the cave's dim light she could even now pass for the pink-cheeked, strawberry blond of fifteen who'd married Earl Wildulf of Sandrakkan twenty years before. She was fearful and uncomfortable in this place, but she remained here because of the same determination that had preserved her looks through exercise and control of her appetite for sweets. Balila wasn't ambitious for herself, but there was nothing she wouldn't do to make her husband King of the Isles.

    "Picale zamadon!" Dipsas intoned, tapping her athame, a knife of black horn cut out of a scale from the back of a huge reptile. Dipsas herself didn't understand some of the symbols carved into the blade. The athame had been found in the sarcophagus of a wizard of millennia past. As she dipped and raised the point in time to her Words of Power, quivers of vivid red and blue shone through its opacity.

    "Alithe zamadon!" said Dipsas, her voice rising. Her wrinkled face had the settled blankness of burgeoning fear. Her pronunciation of similar syllables had changed during the course of the incantation. The ancient words, the language of the demiurges who could adjust the powers on which the cosmos turned, were twisting themselves on her tongue.

    The Countess' pet and bodyguard was a flightless, hook-billed bird from the island of Shengy far to the southeast. It wore a silver collar with a staple to attach a chain, but she'd left it free to pace; its claws clicked on the basalt. The angry bird's head, as large as a horse's, darted from side to side like a grackle's. Occasionally it kicked viciously at something hinted in the shadows, but the blows never found a target.

    Balila was of middling height for a woman. The bird was taller even when it stood relaxed; now the great bronze feathers of its crest were raised, glittering higher than the helmet of any human guardsman.

    "Alithe atithe hupristi!" Dipsas said. She held an open scroll, but her left hand trembled too badly for her to read the vermilion writing. Nonetheless the words curled off her tongue; partly from memory, partly from the weight of their own power. "Thestis!"

    The last of Balila's companions was a three-year-old boy. His hair spilled down his back like molten gold, and his only clothing was the harness which attached gilt wings to his shoulders.

    The boy alone was unaffected by the psychic atmosphere. He ran prattling from the lamplight to the shadowed darkness, then back to clutch the Countess' skirts and urge her to play with him. He had no more intelligence than a puppy, but like a puppy also his disposition was sunny and laughing.

    Dipsas' athame touched an angle of the figure again. A spark of red wizardlight snapped from the blade, igniting the sulphur. Tiny blue flames crawled in both directions from the point of contact. They provided almost no illumination, but smoke spread in a choking cloud just above the stone floor.

    "Darza!" the wizard said.

    "Darza," the deeps rumbled. "Badawa balaha!"

    The bird screamed in fury, spreading its stub wings as its tongue shrilled between the black shearing edges of its beak. The child bleated in wide-eyed surprise.

    The Countess stopped hugging herself; her face was set. She had a notebook of waxed boards in her left hand, a bronze stylus in her right. She was as literate as most women of her class. Though not enough of a scholar to write in the cursive Old Script, modern minuscules were sufficient to jot down the earth's responses phonetically.

    Balila held her notebook so that light from the oil lamp in a niche beside her fell across the waxed surface as she began to write. When she'd filled one page, she flipped it out of the way on its leather hinges and went on the next.

    Dipsas coughed as she chanted, but her cracked voice and the thunderous antiphony from below continued for so long as the sulphur burned. Only when the blue flicker dimmed and finally died did the responses end.

    The wizard slumped forward, her sleeve smearing the molten residue of the sulphur. If it burned her, she was too exhausted by the effort of her spell to react.

    Balila tried to close her notebook. The thin maplewood boards clicked against one another; then the whole assemblage dropped to the floor. She bent to pick the notebook up, aware for the first time of the child bawling at her feet. She knelt, hugged him to silence, then put the notebook in the sleeve of her robe before walking over to the wizard.

    "Dipsas?" she said. She shook the other woman's shoulder. Balila wasn't strong enough to carry the wizard back to the surface, and the child would probably need help as well. "Dipsas, get up. I have the responses. You can copy them off for the next time we come."

    The wizard lifted herself with difficulty. For a moment her face was that of an ugly, frightened old woman; then she consciously reformed her features into a mask of cunning and power. "Yes, yes," she said, her voice gaining strength as she spoke. "I'll be ready in a moment."

    The bird screamed. Sensing departure, it stalked toward the fissure by which they'd entered this dome, calling its challenge ahead.

    Balila suddenly began to tremble, but she caught herself at once. Wildulf the First, King of the Isles....

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image