Kyrion lounged in the comfortably cushioned seat of a well-crafted chair, quietly sipping expensive wine paid for by the Royal Guild. His eyes were locked on the small fireplace, but his gaze was distant and his mind further away still. A lot of things had happened since his return to Malqish, and things were only just beginning to unfold.
The noise of the common room, though muted up here on the balcony, droned in the background. The infamous dancer had the night off, and so the crowd was much thinner than when Moreth and Ared had come to see them. He took another sip of wine, appraising it at length. He had spent so long as a farmhand in the Edge he had forgotten the taste of of good wine; the smell.
This, however, was not it.
A sigh of nostalgia slipped past his lips and his mind drifted once more into the distant past. He shifted his gaze to his ring, watching the glimmering dance of the flames reflecting off its polished surface. It had been his crowning achievement, his graduation from novice to mage. How he hated the disciplined work of the arcanist. Magic was supposed to be free, instinctive, intuitive; a rush of energy, a wild force tamed through sheer willpower, a… a gift of the soul.
He set aside his empty glass and looked over to Gethak, watching idly as the gnome fiddled with a small metal sphere full of interlocking gears, springs, and other parts Kyrion was less familiar with. The man was the least gnomish gnome Kyrion had ever met, but then Gethak’s whole House seemed rather eccentric.
They had known each other for the better part of a century, having met during Gethak’s time in the Maqish Mages’ Guild. Not too long before he had resumed his… Wandering? Walkabout? Kyrion did not quite know what to call the gnomish rite of passage, but either way Gethak had left for the Fallen Lands only a few years later.
Not that Gethak had ever been one to stay in one place, with frequent trips back to Daergodar and elsewhere. Often on official business for House Goldgear, famed for the same kind of ‘clockwork’ mechanisms Gethak was currently working on.
Across the back of Gethak’s chair was slung his knee-length coat, distinctive for the multitude of hoops and pockets it had. Always kept within easy reach, it was as much a repository for the mechanician’s tools and parts as it was protection against the elements. Kyrion could barely imagine the gnome without the sleeveless garment nearby, and the worn leather showed its age as much as its use.
As did the owner, Kyrion noted. His round nose was wrinkled and his hair was a shade of pale while intermixed with strands of gray, crowning a cap that had been bald as long as Kyrion had known him. Even his clothes seemed aged, his yellowed shirt faded and his orange-brown breeches heavily patched up. His shoes were really the only thing that was new about his whole outfit.
Yet despite his visibly advanced age the gnome somehow looked a decade younger today than he had at their last encounter, half a century ago.
Kyrion sat in silence, watching him work. Gethak’s amber eyes were fixated on the strange contraption, and with his head leaned forward they were all but hidden under his bushy grey eyebrows. He worked deftly and methodically, slowly adjusting springs and testing to find the right tension to move the gears properly.
“You said you were a Gemsmith?” Ky’s question drew his attention. He looked up, one eye looking huge behind several layers of monocles mounted on his headband. “Isn’t that a… rather high-ranking position?”
“Oh! Well…” The gnome blushed slightly, looking down at his device for a moment. “Yes, I suppose it is. They, that is to say we, I… The Gemsmiths are taught the secrets of creating these-” He reached into a pouch around his neck and fished out a small gemstone, glowing softly with an inner light. “-which we use to power our clockwork creations. I was granted an apprenticeship after a treatise I wrote comparing the elemental magic of Sollim’s sculptors and Riymheim’s snow-shapers to our own gemsmiths. It’s actually a fairly fascinating subject, though my studies were necessarily quite light. I am, as you know, not-”
“Enough!” Safira cut in, throwing him a hard look over her shoulder. “Please.”
“Yes, well,” Gethak floundered for a moment before turning back to Kyrion. “As you know, I’ve never been very skilled in the practical side of magic. My aptitude has always been more toward the theoretical. However, my work as an engineer eventually merited appointment to the Senate, though I am now emeritus – retired.”
Kyrion nodded quietly, sinking back into his own thoughts and barely registering the gnome raising his brows in query before returning to his project. Gethak was no mage, but he was a magic-user in his own way; his clockwork devices, by his own admission, all fueled by magic.
Kyrion’s gaze drifted over to Safira, that alluring woman who was sitting cross-legged near the fire. For the most part, her gaze followed the dance of the flames, but every now and then she would throw a look at Shadow. A look of mixed suspicion and disdain? Loathing? Kyrion was not sure what she had against the man, but ever since their first meeting she had been outright cold.
Kyrion had heard of her when he called in a favour from an acquaintance to aid his search for someone with magical skill. She had confided in this mutual ‘friend’ that she knew some of the mystical traditions of the Sultanate, though what knowledge that was remained a mystery.
Her status as an indentured servant had made it easy enough to arrange for her to come into the employ of the former owner of Kyrion’s ‘new’ tavern. Thus allowing him to reclaim certain valuable resources under the excuse of recruiting talent for dealing with the mystery of Wyrm’s Wood. Practically all of the money had gone into new clothes, buying up neighbouring houses ruined in the fire, and, of course, the remodeling.
Kyrion glanced at the charm bracelet dangling around his wrist. Shadow had added a few new charms to it over the years, he noted, and lost some of the old ones. It felt good having it back; he always felt naked without it, unprepared and exposed. Kyrion slid his gaze along his arm, admiring the handiwork of his new bracers with their black leather and silver stitching. He still needed to imbue them with some protective magic, but that part he could take care of himself.
He missed his old haunts on the walkways and tors of Harma Ithil, a city whose locale was so unique it-
A sudden flash jolted Kyrion out of his reverie. Gethak’s face, blackened with soot, was locked in a peculiar expression of incredulity and chagrin. Shadow had barely looked up from his drink, looking more annoyed than surprised. Safira had thrown herself sideways to dodge a blast that never came and was laying on her side, staring wide-eyed at the mechanician.
She cut an eerily beautiful silhouette against the flames. The smooth bronze tint of her skin deepened in the contrasted light, while her hair took on shades of vermilion and crimson as the light and shadows cast from the fire danced through it. Despite her anger at being referred to as a dancer, she wore clothing dominated by loosely fitted veils. A style Kyrion had only ever seen among Ireha dancers, such as the one who had entranced him the last time he stayed at this inn.
Where that woman had been a whirlwind of veils, chestnut hair, and exposed skin, Safira was a softly glowing ember. The dancer had been wild and uncontrollable like the wind, while Safira’s motions showed every bit the command that Shadow had over his body, her every motion seductive like the rolling flames beyond her. The allure of a dancing fire in the dark of night, the promise of warmth and the threat of being burned. Kyrion would need to watch himself with her, and no doubt Shadow would be more than happy to smack him over the head as needed.
Kyrion smirked, thinking back to the nights of his youth in Harma Ithil, the City on the Chasm. Many a midnight hour had been spent sitting on the edge with Shadow, watching the river of molten rock slowly flowing at the distant bottom of the Abyss, bathing the rift with its glow.
He had been obsessed with magic back then, stealing into private libraries to look for new lore. That was how he first met the hedge mage who ended up teaching him what little he knew.
It was never about understanding the magic for him. It was the tales, the stories about forgotten archmages and mighty artifacts which enthralled him. He wanted the knowledge, the skills, but had no interest in spending the effort needed to get there.
Which showed, given how little he had picked up in the… seven decades since. He had improved the ring quite a bit over the years, though. The old crone would be proud, and no doubt as unwilling to show it as ever.
He chuckled to himself, turning to look at Shadow. It was back during his apprenticeship that they had met, when Kyrion had attempted to steal a sword from the man. And again when they had broken into the same tor, but for very different reasons.
Kyrion was idly spinning his ring around its finger as he tried to figure out how to explain things to Safira. There was the blunt method, quickly revealing the truth and hoping things worked out from there. He suspected she would be less than thrilled by that option, as she had shown him quite a lot of trust by joining his undertaking with the little information he had told her. This was a trust Kyrion was determined to keep, a foundation upon which he hoped to build as much as he could.
It was late at night, if not early morning, and their small group still sat together in the gloom. The small balcony bar was closed, though Shadow preferred sitting by it to sharing Gethak’s table, and the common room below had long since fallen quiet and was now illuminated only by the soft glow of the main fireplace; faint light from the balcony’s oil lamps notwithstanding.
Kyrion slid his gaze over to the remains of the fire up here. Did that ember not look like an eye? A tingling passed along his spine, a current of magic whispering in the air as an enchantment unraveled nearby. The sensation was gone, and try as he might he could not figure out which coal it was that had reminded him of an eye.
It seemed highly unlikely to be someone attempting to spy on them. Moreth had a different kind of magic and would hardly employ someone else to do it. And he could think of no one else who would have an interest in their activities.
Kyrion shrugged to himself, unable to think of any explanation more worrying than someone’s attempt at scrying ending up in the wrong fireplace.
Dismissing it from his mind he turned his attention back to the matter at hand, wondering how much would really change. She knew him as an adventurer and disgraced aristocrat looking to solve the mystery of strange disappearances in a distant farming village. All of this was still true, even if some of the details would be a little different from what she had inferred.
He looked at Safira, sitting by the embers with her eyes closed and lost in deep meditation. He hated moments like this, awkwardly trying to approach someone to confess something. After taking a deep breath to steel himself, he rose to his feet and slowly moved toward her. He could feel Shadow’s watchful gaze follow his every move.
Kyrion paused, standing over the woman and looking down at her. Was this really the right way? How should he explain things? Behind him he heard Shadow loudly clearing his throat as he hopped off his barstool. Safira opened her eyes, startled by Kyrion before her attention moved away just as he opened his mouth to speak. Following her gaze, he realized she was staring at Shadow.
The man had dunked his cloak in the water barrel set up for upstairs patrons to have easy access to drinking water at night, and was now scrubbing his face quite thoroughly. The pink of his skin came off into the cloth, the wrinkles peeling away as well. Hopping out of his shoes, he landed in a nimble crouch then straightened to stand significantly shorter than he had been. He yanked off his wig and wiped the last strands from his now hairless brow before bundling the cloak up with the wig and tossing it to Kyrion as if in statement.
Shadow’s skin lingered somewhere between purple and midnight. His angled features, almost sinister in their sharpness, were complemented by a pair of slender ears nearly triple the length they had seemed before, tapering up into points just behind his head. In mere moments Shadow had gone from an old human to a middle-aged whisperling simply by shedding a disguise, one made without even a trace of magic.
Kyrion was always impressed by that skill, and it was a potent reminder of Shadow’s vocation.
“Ahem, yes, well…” Kyrion stammered, turning to look at Safira once again. “So, as I was about to say… There are some things we need to tell you, to make sure you know who are you are working with. Likewise, there are some answers we will need from you.”
Safira didn’t like the man, but seeing his transformation had given her a whole new kind of respect for him. After recovering from her surprise, she had sat down at Kyrion’s table and begun trying to unravel what this was all about.
“What is he?” Shadow had sat back down by the bar, his perpetual look of boredom mixed with annoyed disdain directed toward her and Kyrion as they conversed. The dusk-coloured skin drew her attention to his creepy eyes, milky white orbs lacking both pupils and irises.
“A whisperling. They are… a people native to the region around Harma Ithil, where both he and I are from. I am not entirely sure where they are originally from, however. They seem to have arrived sometime after the Cataclysm.”
“The destruction of Monlaria. Big magic catastrophe caused by angry mages fighting other angry mages.” Kyrion waved dismissively. “Now, while that was perhaps a touch more dramatic than necessary-” He shot an angry glare over at Shadow, who responded with a callous shrug.
“Girl needs to adapt, not be mollycoddled. We’re far enough over the cliff without amateurs.”
“I would have prefered something with a touch more tact, but done is done,” Kyrion continued as he straightened his back and looked Safira straight in the eyes. There was something about his eyes, gentle and confident without judgment. Safira opened her mouth, about to say it was okay, when Kyrion cut her off. “Unlike Shadow, however, I rely on somewhat more esoteric methods for my disguises.”
He slowly pulled a dirty ring of polished stone off one of his fingers and held it out for her to look at. “I put quite a bit of effort into making this when I was younger, though all it does is mask my lineage while hiding the magic doing so.”
The magic Safira had seen as a slave in the Sultana’s palace, itself a marvel of magical craftsmanship, had been both quite extravagant and masterfully performed. By contrast, Shadow’s change was unimpressive, yet had thrown her by its sheer suddenness.
Kyrion’s change, happening while she focused on the ring, was not only far more subtle, but also much less unexpected. Especially since she had already seen him in two roles, and knew him to be a mage from his attempts at prying into her own knowledge of magic. The five symbols, those of the arcane essences, stitched with silver thread into his black bracers only confirmed it.
His clothing remained the same pragmatic, if rather garish, outfit. A long black leather vest hid most of a gaudy shirt of purple velvet, whose large upturned collar framed his neck. The vest was studded with metal rivets while his black bracers had two pairs of metals bars flanking the symbols, lending him an armored look.
Kyrion’s face, on the other hand, was distinctly different, yet still very much Kyrion. His golden blond hair seemed longer, but unchanged in colour, framing a face which seemed less weathered, almost younger still than the man who had been seated there a moment ago. He had the shallow cheeks, narrow jaw, and long face that she knew marked him as Laerinn. She had seen plenty of his kind coming before the Court as diplomats or scholars in search of forgotten lore.
He rose, leaving her accidentally looking at the sturdy belt securely holding up his dark green pants, simple and discreet compared to the rest of his outfit. Hastily shifting her gaze upward, she found herself staring into the most extraordinary eyes she had ever seen. Their new almond shape fit quite well into his Laerinn features, but it was their colour which captivated her. Where before they had been a soft greenish grey, they were now an iridescent the like she had only ever seen in mother-of-pearl.
“Well, now,” Kyrion said, adjusting his clothing to better fit his new physique. A physical change, not merely illusory magic. “I owe you a few explanations before anything else. You know the tavern where we had our last little get together?”
Safira gave a slow nod, still trying to figure out those impossible eyes.
“Decades ago there used to be a very different building there, where I lived. That building was the Adventurers’ Guild.” He gestured with his hands, revealing a large number of silver charms pinned to the insides of his bracers.
“Which we’re now rebuilding.” Shadow’s remark was as disinterested as his expression.
“Before then, I grew up in Harma Ithil, which is where I met our cheerful friend over there. Now, I know you feel uncomfortable discussing the details of your magical knowledge, and I have no intention to pry. However,” he held out his hand to help her stand. “I would appreciate if you could tell me one thing. How much do you know about the Ancients?”
Safira looked at him incredulously, not entirely sure what he meant at first. Once it clicked that he meant the Exalted, she could not help but smile. “I am a caller of the djinn. Or, rather-”
Shadow’s groan cut her off, his head slumping forward to almost hit the bar. “Of course you would find a summoner. You have the luck of the Elinjer, you know that?”
Kyrion was merely grinning broadly at the man.
“As I was saying, I know the traditions of those who spoke with the djinn. As there are no djinn left, however, I am unsure how helpful that will be.”