Monday, December 12, 2011

Aether and Death: Chapters 2 and 3

Mid-term exams this week means no time to write a proper post till next weekend, which is the beginning of Christmas Break for me. (My Wizard101 time has been cut short, too.) But here are the next two chapters of Aether and Death to tide you over! :)


 The Jade Palace, Mooshu

     Mavis Rubyeyes kindly thanked the waiter taking up her plate as the main course of the Emperor’s luncheon came to an end. It had been quite a meal, as Mavis was now thoroughly stuffed, however she knew she would have to manage to save some room for what was bound to be a fantastic dessert.
     As she waited for the final course’s arrival, Mavis leaned back in her chair, closed her eyes, and listened to the array of happy chatter surrounding her. What a grand world Mooshu was! Its architecture, society, populace, and beauty had made it the favorite among the worlds the Grandmaster Pyromancer had visited in her and Duncan’s quest to defeat Malistaire, however, in light of that recent event, she had had little time to enjoy herself after leaving with the Dragonspyre key. Today turned out to be her chance to become reacquainted with this amazing world; she had received an invitation to a luncheon party hosted by Emperor Yoshihito himself. Upon arrival, the Emperor had officially thanked Mavis for the role she played in the rescue of Mooshu. She had then spent the remainder of that happy afternoon lunching like she had never before.
     The dessert arrived, a scrumptious-looking dish containing sugar cane as a main ingredient. Mavis was not familiar in the least with the dish or the other ingredients, but she greatly enjoyed what was possibly the most decadent dessert she had ever encountered. The highly content wizard was just launching into a conversation with the
Samoori next to her when a servant appeared by her seat.
     “A message for you from Marleybone,” he told her as she was handed an envelope with a seal displaying a bone.
     Curious, Mavis opened the envelope and placed it on the table. As she unfolded the parchment, she noticed its almost overly-fancy design, something characteristic of the only possible candidate to be sending her a missive from Marleybone. She could not help but smile when she found the handwriting to be just as classy:

Hello Mavis,

     How is the luncheon? The last I saw you, you were positively ecstatic over it. Did it meet your expectations? I understand the Emperor’s desserts are particularly delicious.
     Anyway, I was wondering if you may join me in Northguard this evening. I may have finally found the inspiration I was looking for. Thank you in advance.


     As tired as she was, Mavis was happy to join him. Duncan was a fantastic friend of hers; they had been partners from the moment the Undead had come into Unicorn Way. Neither of them could abstain from adventure for very long. And as she understood it, he was just as excited about his book as she had been her luncheon. What a day this was turning into! With her belly full and her mind in high spirits, Mavis stood up, said her good-byes to the other members at the event, and left the palace for the strange and wonderful village of Northguard.

     Duncan leaned against one of the many torches surrounding the arena in as the two bears in the center swung at each other with their wooden swords, practicing their fighting skills. They expertly struck out their weapons, trying hard to land one solid hit. Of course, both were so good that it would take a while for that to happen. The mock duel had been an exciting one so far, with many fantastic moves being displayed by both contestants. Duncan would have to remember some of them. He was somewhat skilled with a blade himself- fencing was a hobby of his- although he generally preferred the smaller swords of the Marleybonian gentleman to the giant, hulking weaponry that the warriors of Grizzleheim used.
     He turned his head to face the edge of the world, spying in the distance a large wooden ship, headed for the nearby dock. The bears on the wooden platform prepared the ropes for the oncoming vessel, and Duncan, coming forward, glanced over at the Spiral Door, wondering if Mavis had had to decline his invitation. His fears were uncalled for, however, for as the ship pulled up in front of the dock, the Door opened, a few wisps from the passageway spilling out, and Mavis appeared. Duncan smiled and waved her over. She returned the wave and proceeded towards the dock, where the bears had just finished mooring the ship. Turning back to the ship, he waved again, this time to the bear whom had appeared on deck, and stepped forward to greet him.
     Baldur Goldpaws smiled warmly. “Hello, my wonderful friends!” he bellowed kindly as Mavis approached, the hint of a happy chuckle present in his salutation. “It is a pleasure to see such fine young wizards as you! Tell me, what is it that brings you two to the once again prosperous world of Grizzleheim?”
     Duncan suppressed a chuckle at the Spiral merchant’s eccentricity. “Research,” he replied. “As you know, Baldur, I’ve been looking for some topic to cover in a book for the canines of Marleybone, and since I recently took an interest in the history of your world, I thought speculation on Grizzleheim’s isolation would provide a fascinating subject to focus on. Of course, it was you, Baldur, who found the key to escaping Grizzleheim by boat, and not only did it allow you reconstruct contact with other worlds, but it created an entirely new, more efficient method of trade in the Spiral. I, myself, am no merchant, and so I ask you now: how did you do it?”
     Baldur wiped his brow teasingly. “Whew!” he exclaimed at Duncan’s lengthy answer. “You, friend Daystone, have spent too much time in Marleybone!” Mavis laughed. So did Duncan. He nodded in agreement at the bear, who suddenly looked serious as he replied to Duncan’s inquiry.
     “To be honest, I’m not quite sure. I am a strong believer in the power of dreams to tell the future, and so my best response to your question is to say that the solution came to me during the night, when my body was relaxing, but my mind was obviously hard at work. I had been trying to figure out something for some time, so I suppose it only makes sense that such a dream would eventually occur. It had something to do with steering the ship, though I can’t quite remember what.”
     Duncan nodded again, somewhat surprised. He was a practical person, who believed that everything could be explained, even if that explanation entailed the use of magic. And in recent months, magic had explained almost everything. Dreams had never meant much to him- he rarely remembered them, and so the concept of a dream conveying a message was incredibly sketchy in his opinion. Nevertheless, he had seen too many fantastical happenings of late to doubt Baldur.
     As he was unsure how to continue, Mavis took over. “There must be something a little more concrete that you can tell us than that, Baldur, however I assure you that I do believe your account, and so does Duncan.” She glanced over at him, reading the dubious expression he was trying to hide like a book, allowing, he saw, the tiniest smile at his usual need for a tangible reason to all phenomena. “Tell me,” she continued, “is there anything particular or out of the ordinary that you may have done that day to bring about such a dream?”
     After a moment’s thought, Baldur turned to Mavis. “Actually, Miss Rubyeyes, there is. (Duncan smiled at the old-world tradition of calling women by their last name.) I had had to venture into the caves behind Ander’s Holt, to locate a material for a special cloak I was making. Aetherdust, it was, a very fine and coarse substance, the closest thing we have to sand here in this icy world. A bags full of the stuff, I remember, was surprisingly light, so I took plenty more than I needed, and it is a good thing I did. One week later, the Red Claw had pillaged the area. The aetherdust never made contact with my ship, however; I simply had an epiphany of how to steer it so as to deflect the invisible barrier surrounding our world at that time. I didn’t tell you at first because I did not imagine the two could be related. I treated it simply as coincidence.”
     Duncan beamed. This had been the explanation he was looking for. He didn’t think the aetherdust was the reason for Baldur’s ship breaking down the wall, let alone that of Grizzleheim’s isolation, but it was definitely a start. There was only one thing to do from there. They would have to go to the caves and find the aetherdust for themselves. He would also have to remember to thank Mavis later, for taking a handle on the situation when he was momentarily lost.
     Duncan thanked Baldur, who smiled and said he had been happy to help. Then, after taking delight at Mavis’ ready agreement to accompanying him in his spelunking, he turned to leave for the village of Ander’s Holt. The Grandmaster Thaumaturge glanced up at the sky. It was getting progressively darker, and Duncan knew that although tonight would be a long night, it would most certainly be an exciting one.


     Throughout the village of Ander’s Holt, large fires lit up the already beautiful Grizzleheim night as the villagers, celebrating their return home after the long and dreadful siege by the Red Claw, cooked what were unusually hearty meals, singing and laughing as they did so. Duncan and Mavis were both tempted to stop and join the festivities, but, knowing there was work to be done, instead proceeded without hesitation to the three caves at the edge of the village.
     It became much darker as they got farther from the center of Ander’s Holt. The wide-open mouths of the caves greeted the two wizards like malevolent spirits of the earth. Spider webs were stretched across all three entrances, leaving little room for anybody to pass through. Duncan shivered. He had encountered spiders numerous times before, but such occurrences had been in areas of ample light, not a pitch black cave.
     He turned to Mavis, nodding in the direction of the webs. She nodded back to him, and tapped her staff lightly on the ground. The top was suddenly consumed by fire, and Mavis carefully stepped in front of each cave, tipping her staff towards the entrances. The spider webs instantly disintegrated; the large flames lapped momentarily at the Pyromancer. But Mavis remained calm; this was nothing she hadn’t done before.
     As the fire in front of the rightmost cave died away, Mavis looked back at Duncan, who smiled in amusement at how calm both of them were. He straightened his helmet by pulling on one of the horns, adjusted the knapsack around his shoulder, and studied the caves. The middle one appeared to be the largest. He started towards it.
     “Right.” Duncan gestured for Mavis to follow. “Let’s see where this takes us.” He tapped his own staff, causing a blue globe to appear, emanating light. Mavis’ fire staff provided her with a lantern as well. Not long after entering the cave, this strange orange-blue glow was their only light source.
     Naturally, Duncan had been in caves before, and this cave wasn’t much different than others he had visited. It was cold, damp, and, of course, very dark. The sound of water dripping was the pair’s only companion, and Duncan could feel them getting consistently deeper underground. Despite numerous similarities, however, Duncan’s instinct told him that this cave was unique, that it held secrets the likes of which very few souls had ever been privy to. Such an instinct sent a chill of excitement down the Ice Wizard’s spine. Perhaps he and Mavis would be the next two to whom those secrets were revealed.
     As they continued their trek, however, Duncan became less and less sure of this. They had been exploring for what, at the very least, must have been a good hour and a half, and so far nothing had turned up. The cave seemed to go on forever; Duncan had no idea how far they had gone.
     Mavis was also concerned. “You do realize,” she said, trying to urge Duncan to go back up, “that however far we travel, we will have to go the same distance on our way out. I find it hard to believe, at this point, that there is anything down here. It is late enough already. Let’s leave now, so we can have enough energy to explore one of the other caves tomorrow.”
     Duncan turned his head to regard her. The tone of his reply indicated that he knew Mavis was right. Nevertheless, he did not want to give up just yet.
     “We may yet hit upon something. It would be unwise to go back now. Five more minutes, then…”
     “Look out!” Mavis shouted, but it was too late. Duncan let out a startled cry as he became tangled in an impassable mess of spider web. He tripped and fell forward, the globe on his staff going out. Duncan reprimanded himself inwardly for not looking ahead; after all, he had known from the start there were spiders about.
     He sat up. The cave was suddenly filled with a disturbing pattering sound. Duncan quickly re-lighted his staff, in time enough to see a large horde of giant spiders, colored an ice blue after their school of focus, racing towards the two wizards. Mavis was slowly backing up. Duncan, getting to his feet, joined her.
     “Run!” he cried out. “Go!”
     In the next instant, Duncan and Mavis spun around and broke into a desperate run for safety, which Duncan knew would be a while in coming. He was relatively useless against ice spiders, and there were too many for Mavis to take alone. Their only option, as far-fetched as it was, was to try and escape.
     Duncan, however, was frantically trying to come up with an alternative. The spiders were quickly and easily gaining on him and he knew it would only be so long before they were run down. Suddenly, Mavis screamed and crashed to the floor. Duncan spun around, skidding to a stop as he did so. He noticed where she had tripped on a root. Before he could even think to bend down and help her up, though, the first few spiders in the group had reached her. For a split second, Duncan thought the worst, but the next thing he knew, Mavis had thrown the arachnids back with a great blast of fire from her staff.
     Impressed, Duncan offered Mavis his hand and pulled her up. They were about to begin their sprint again, when Duncan noticed something out of the corner of his right eye.
     “Come on!” he shouted, keeping his hold on her hand as he pulled her towards an alcove, somehow missed before. They huddled up against the wall. Thankfully, the spiders in the front of the group didn’t notice them, most likely due to the confusion Mavis had caused. The majority of the creatures rushed past, but a few clever ones spun around suddenly and lunged at the wizards.
     Once again, Mavis raised her staff. She uttered an incantation, causing a small but threatening fire snake to appear- out of nowhere, it seemed- and strike back at the spiders. Duncan looked on as the spiders, leaping towards them, were flung back in midair, emanating a tiny scream.
     But the snake wasn’t enough. No sooner did the spiders hit the floor than, somehow, they were back on their legs and lunging again. Mavis couldn’t keep up with the constant barrage of creatures. Duncan tried to assist her with his own serpents, but to no avail. They backed up against the wall again, the small group of spiders effectively beginning to overwhelm them.
     “What do we do?” The fear present in Mavis’ voice was all too evident. Worse still, Duncan could not even begin to envision an escape strategy now.
     Suddenly he heard a noise, like that of the ground breaking. And sure enough, it was. In the next moment, Duncan found himself falling through a hole which had suddenly opened up beneath them, Mavis and the spiders tumbling down the cavern with him.

     Mavis frantically scrambled for a handhold as she tumbled off the rock surface she had hit, with nothing but a violent underground river swirling below her. But it was no use; the side of the rock was wet and smooth. For a split second, Mavis believed she was done for, but in the next moment, she felt Duncan’s hand, comforting and warm, wrap around hers, stopping her fall as soon as it had begun. She smiled up at him, having no idea how her friend had managed to catch her so quickly, but grateful all the same.
     She offered him her other hand, and he lifted her back onto the rock. The spiders struggled to stay afloat in the raging waters, but of course it was in vain. Mavis and Duncan watched as the eight-legged creatures disappeared silently beneath the waves.
     Mavis turned around and surveyed the area. To the left, a little ways away, was a waterfall. To the right, the river became even more violent as the water was concentrated into a small tunnel. Ahead, a wooden bridge, leading to a small hole in the cave wall where there was- of all things- a teleport stone. And on this little rock island, which had effectively saved the pair from a similar fate to that of the spiders, were mounds and mounds of black sand.
     For a moment, Mavis was dumbfounded, but then it immediately hit her.
     “Aetherdust!” shouted Duncan and Mavis at the same time. They glanced at each other, chuckling at their simultaneous conclusions.
     Duncan rushed towards one of the mounds, scooping up a great handful of the stuff. He passed some to Mavis. It felt surprisingly light and airy, and as the grains fell from Duncan’s hand to Mavis’, she could have sworn it was sparkling in the air. She tossed it up, confirming her assumption. Duncan watched in amazement.
     “How did you know it would do that?” he asked her.
     She smiled cleverly, replying in a slightly mocking tone, which was nonetheless friendly. “Observation.” She knew Duncan would understand what she was referring to- the process of logic and science of which he was sometimes infatuated with.
     Duncan returned the smile, indicating that he knew what she meant. He then turned his attention back to the aetherdust in his hand, scrutinizing it further.
     I wonder why it’s black,” he mused, producing a small vial from his knapsack. He filled it with the strange material, before placing a cork in the top and slipping it back into the pouch.
     “I can’t wait to test this,” he said excitedly.
     Mavis glanced around the area one more time, taking in the fantastic scene before gesturing towards the bridge, on the other side of the rock.
     “Shall we?” she asked.
     Duncan nodded. “Indeed.” The pair proceeded towards the teleport stone, thankful for its presence.
     “And you thought we wouldn’t find anything down here,” Duncan said teasingly. The two wizards’ laughter rang happily throughout the cavern as they began their return home.