15 December 2012

ELVEHELM: Starmeadow XVIII - Contractor Reports

            “Er...Master Joraz?  Your pardon?”

            The monk blinked, coming out of his trance and back to the firmament of reality.  He was sitting comfortably in full lotus, hands folded on his knees, and – more out of habit than need – breathing deeply, enjoying the cleansing rush of the winter air.  The winter’s chill was no longer oppressive; now he found it refreshing.  Stimulating, even.

            When he opened his eyes and looked down, he recognized Cayless.  Unlike him, she was wearing a heavy cloak against the renewed blizzard that was blanketing the capital in white for the third time in a week.  Also unlike him, she was struggling to keep a look of shock and dismay off of her face.  He had to think for a long moment to realize what was causing it.  When the answer struck him, he said, “Ah,” and stepped down out of the air.  During his meditation, he had, it seemed, drifted up into the sky again, and had been floating at about the level of Domus Casia’s rooftrees. 

            He wasn’t certain why it happened without conscious volition, but he found it amusing rather than alarming.  Some sort of exaltation had suffused his mortal essence.  Out of idle curiosity, as he touched down he felt for the substance of the air, and stopped his descent just above the level of the snow drifts that dotted the garden.  He found that, by dint of concentration, he was able to walk above the snow without disturbing a flake of it.

            When he glanced at Cayless again, she looked even more aghast than before.  “What?” he asked, taken aback by her frown.

            “You said you weren’t a caster!” she exclaimed, clutching the cloak more tightly around her throat.

            “I’m not.”

            “Then how...” she shivered violently.  “How are you doing that?”

            Joraz shrugged.  “I seem to have been afflicted by a certain lightness of being.”

            “I don’t even know what that means!” the elf-woman objected.

            “Me neither,” he grinned.  “Were you looking for me?”

            She nodded.  “Can we talk inside?”

            “If you like.” 

            Moments later she was shaking the snow from her mantle.  Bending over, she flicked heavy clots of flakes from her braided hair.  When she was finished, she threw the monk an accusing glance.  “You’re dry.”

            Joraz nodded.

            “Why aren’t you wet?  Or covered in snow?”

            “It didn’t land on me,” he replied reasonably.

            “Why not?”

            “I didn’t want it to.”

            “Magic!” she snapped.

            “If you say so,” Joraz shrugged.

            Cayless opened her mouth, a retort burning on her lips.  Then she closed it again.

            “Problem?” he asked.

            “Flying with magic is unnatural,” she muttered.  “Even so, it’s pretty common around here.  But flying without magic – that’s…it’s just…”

            “Birds do it all the time,” Joraz said reasonably.

            “You’re not a bird!”

            “If you say so,” he repeated, grinning at her consternation.  “Look, if you like, I’ll take you flying some time.  I know some very unnatural places.  No magic, I promise.”

            “I’ll have to think about that,” the elf-woman replied in a tone that implied, You’ll see me dead first.

            Joraz kept smiling.  Neither said anything for a long moment.  Finally, Cayless’ eyes widened.  “Oh!”

            “There it is,” he nodded.

            “Visitor!” she yelped.  “You’ve a...somebody wants to see you!”

            “Just me?” Joraz frowned.

            “No, all of you,” the elf-woman admitted.  “But Colonel Mastigo and his apprentice aren’t back yet, and the master and mistress are abed, and Karrick has left the House for...er...he’s at the...”

            “Where else?” Joraz sighed.  “So it’s just me, then?”

            Cayless nodded.

            “Who’s here?”

            Domina Latentra.  The Queen’s number-one handmaiden.  The one that…who didn’t turn out to be a dragon, like your friend’s daughter.”

            It was all he could do not to laugh.  Ara was a dragon.  “Where is h…she?”

            “I put her in the mistress’ private dining room,” Cayless replied.  “There’re tea and cakes, too,” she added somewhat irrelevantly.

            “Thank you.  Let’s go hear what she has to say.”

            “Me?” the tattooed woman squeaked.

            “Surely,” he shrugged.  “This is Amorda’s house.  She should have ears she trusts at any meeting within its walls.”

            Cayless didn’t look too happy at his invitation.  He was about to carry on down the hall when the elf-woman put a hand on his arm.  He turned back to her.  “Yes?”

            She appeared flushed.  “You...um...you might want to put something on.”  She cast a meaningful glance down.

            Joraz wrinkled his nose, puzzled.  Then he realized that he’d been meditating in his loincloth.  “Right,” he sighed, changing course for his bedchamber.




            “Where is Thanos?” Ara asked, looking at the monk strangely.  They hadn’t spoken at any great length, and she was clearly uncomfortable bringing her information, whatever it was, to him.

            “Traveling,” Joraz replied shortly.  “He took Valaista with him.  And Breygon is...ah, otherwise engaged.”  He spread his hands.  “I’m all that’s left.”

            “When do you expect him back?”

            “Breygon?”  The monk laughed.  “Not for a few hours at least.  I hope.”

            “I meant Thanos,” she replied flatly.

            “A couple of days.”  He leaned forward, lifted the tea-cozy, and filled her cup.  “Why?  Has something pressing come up?”

            “No,” she replied, sounding a little miffed.  “No.  But...”

            Joraz waited.

            Ara snorted heavily.  “He asked me to look into something for him.  I’d assumed it was urgent.  And now I’ve completed the task, and I find he’s hared off somewhere.”  She seemed agitated.

            Puzzled by her obvious discomfiture, the monk sat back in his chair and folded his arms.  “What was the task, if I might inquire?” he asked politely.

            “Research.”  She tapped a manicured nail impatiently on the tabletop. 

            Joraz cocked an eyebrow; that she was only denting the wood was a mark of restraint.  Her nail could probably have punched through the beechwood, he knew, if she’d been of a mind to try.  “On what subject?” he asked. 

            “The Labyrinth.  Caecusacrum Mirosata, in the elves’ tongue; the Hidden Temple of Miros,” she replied stiffly.  “The Servants of Miros have no hint of its secrets among their records, or so their high priestess, that Castrana woman, claims.  Perhaps she’s even telling you the truth.  But even if they are, they do not have access to the various libraries at the Palace.  In particular, Tîor’s Bookshelf.”

            “What’s that?” Joraz asked, suddenly interested.

            “The ancient magister’s own library,” Ara replied.  “It’s in his observatory at Arx Magnificus, the royal residence.  As one of the ancillulae, I can make use of it whenever I like.  Thanos asked me to do so, to see if I could find anything out about the Labyrinth before you lot attempt to penetrate it.”

            Joraz found that his fingers were trembling with anticipation.  “And did you?” he asked eagerly.  “Find anything out, I mean?”

            “Fragments,” the dragon replied, shaking her head in frustration.  “Bits and pieces.  Nothing concrete or consistent, even.  Just...scraps.”

            “Anything’s better than nothing,” the monk urged.  “Even scraps.  Are you sure you covered everything?”

            “What do you mean?”

            He shrugged.  “Well, there are a lot of books, I presume.  You couldn’t read them all in only a few day–”

            She cut him off.  “I didn’t have to read them all.  I mindswept them to find which, if any, spoke of the Labyrinth, or of the worship of Miros, or of her secrets.”  She snorted.  “Then I simply read the ones I found.”

            Joraz whistled in admiration.  “That’s a spell?”

            “A good one,” Ara smiled.  “One of Kalestayne’s old students devised it.  It’s called ‘Kalena’s Swiftsearch’.  Tricky, but worth the effort.”

            “And it helped you find...?”

            “As I said, bits and pieces,” Ara sighed.  “Geography, architecture, legends, magic.  And traps.”

            “Traps?” Joraz exclaimed.

            “Oh, yes,” the dragon growled.  “Danger piled upon danger.  That place has been keeping would-be thieves out since the Darkness.

            “Most of it’s simply a matter of misdirection, I suspect,” she went on, assuming a scholarly air.  “The entrance to the catacomb, for example; it’s near the pyramid, not beneath it.  It can only be opened by a benediction from a priest of Miros.  There are ways around that sort of thing if you’re a clever thief; scrolls, for example, or spelltiles.”

            “We were invited,” Joraz mused.  “I imagine they’ll open it for us.”

            “Likely enough,” Ara agreed.  “And they’ll doubtless see you through the great doors, too, that lie within; and as none of you serve the darkness, you’ll probably not have to worry about the ‘divine breath’, either.”

            The monk’s eyebrows rose.  “And that is...”

            “I don’t know,” she shrugged.  “It lies just beyond the great doors, and keeps servants of the Uruqua out of the Labyrinth.”

            “Couldn’t that be tricked, too?” he asked.

            “Possibly.  Depends on how it’s triggered.  In any case, you’re none of you evil, so you shouldn’t need to worry about it.  At least, that’s what my research suggests.”

            He nodded, a little perturbed.  “What else?”

            She cocked an eyebrow.  “Are you planning on taking notes, or am I going to have to repeat this when Thanos returns?”

            Joraz grinned.  “You’re the scholar, not I.  Are you telling me you didn’t prepare a summary?”

            Ara snorted and slid a sheet across the table at him.  He picked it up and gave it a cursory glance.  “Oh, my,” he said after a long moment.


            “An angel?  Really?”

            “That’s what the book said,” Ara replied curtly.  “An angel, ‘just beyond the breath’.  Although the term...it translates directly as ‘shining herald of divinity’.”

            “And that means ‘angel’?” he exclaimed.

            “That’s one possible interpretation,” the dragon replied, clearly frustrated.  “The elves write scholarly works in poetry.  It’s maddening.  And divine beings are not my area of expertise.  Even this much I had to cobble together out of bits and pieces of other texts, and I don’t understand the half of it.”

            “You could always come with us, and find out in person,” he suggested only half-jokingly.  “We could use your help.”

            “And throw away my disguise?” the dragon snorted.  “Thank you, no.  Besides, Venastargenta charged me with safeguarding the Queen.  He’d be…annoyed, if I abandoned that duty to go crawling around a catacomb with you lot.”

            “ ‘Annoyed’ doesn’t sound too bad,” the monk observed.

            “The last time Venastargenta was ‘annoyed’ at someone,” Ara said flatly, “he levelled a mountain range.”

            Joraz blinked.  “Really?”

            She nodded.  Mons Sanguinus, in Ensher.  It was the lair of Hagastyllax Verileikkuri.  Hagastyllax the Bloodrender.  The puna who killed his son’s lifemate, Cymballinostyra, in true battle.  It was only a few years ago.”

            “Gods,” the monk breathed.  “And Venasta killed this…Hagastyllax, did you call him?”

“No, he just obliterated his lair.”  She snorted approvingly.  “Along with most of the surrounding countryside.  He left Haga to Svarda.  That’s his duty, as Styra’s mate; to slay her slayer, in True Battle.”

“That seems appropriate,” he nodded.  “Sorry, what does ‘poona’ mean, then?  Is it some sort of curse?”

Puna,” she repeated, enunciating carefully.  “It’s short for Punainen lohikäärme.  Red dragon.  Haga is probably the oldest and foulest red in Erutrei.”  She smiled grimly.  “But Svarda will settle him.  Sooner or later.”

            Joraz scratched his head.  “Well, if you can’t come with us, then I suppose we’ll have to find out about this ‘divine herald’ the hard way, won’t we?  What else?”

            “Prose,” Ara snorted.  “The archives are full of it, all in bits and pieces.  Meaningless fragments.  Here’s one: ‘Life’s legend reliving, and offspring attending / All bitter pain ending – in glory, depart’.”

            “That sounds vaguely familiar,” the monk mused.  “What does it mean?”

            “Something to do with instructions for navigating the Labyrinth, I’d imagine,” she replied.  “It was a skald who penned that particular scroll.  He seemed to think that piece important.  He refers to other scraps of the same poem all throughout his discourse on the Labyrinth.  Vigilant misers growing richer and wiser, that sort of thing.”  She frowned.  “It sounds familiar to me, too, now that you mention it.”

            Joraz, for lack of anything better to do, sniffed his tea.  He pushed it away.  “This is all a little...vague.  We were hoping for something more definite than disjointed verses.”

            “Like what?” Ara laughed mockingly.  “An architect’s plan?  A parcel of keys and passwords?”  She tapped the parchment emphatically.  “Trust me, this is all there is.  The Servants have been keeping secrets since before the Holy Mother walked the earth, and they’re so good at it that their own legitimate successors, like Castrana, can’t breach their vaults without your help.” 

She laughed darkly.  “Besides, I know this stuff is genuine.  One of the scrolls I found had fallen behind a cabinet; I only noticed it because the Swiftsearch spell made it shine like quickspark.  It was buried under a stack of census reports from King Allarýchian’s reign.”

            The monk raised his palms.  “Who?”

            “He died a thousand years ago,” Ara sighed.  “My point is, these documents hadn’t been disturbed in an age.  If there was anything more to be found at the palace, I’d’ve found it.”

            “I wonder if there’s anything more at the College,” Joraz mused aloud.

            “You’re welcome to look.  Or Thanos can.  If he’s not too busy preparing his testimony for the Queen’s inquiry.”

            “I haven’t heard of any inquiry!” Joraz exclaimed.

            “There’s sure to be one, as soon as she returns.  Or sooner, if your friend’s uncle manages to prod Landioryn into acting.”  She grimaced.  “Could happen.  Landioryn’s a good man, and a good commander; but around the palace he can’t decide which fork to use unless his mother tells him first.”

            “All right.”  Joraz squared his shoulders.  “So, I guess we’re on a schedule in that regard, too.  Thanos won’t be of much help in the Labyrinth if he’s cooling his heels in a courtroom. What else was there?”

            “Bits and pieces, as I said.  The whole place seems designed to keep out interlopers, but to let ‘true servants of Holy Miros’ pass unmolested.  No surprise, really; according to legend, much of their wealth is concealed below.  Treasure, books, and assorted bric-a-brac.”

            “Enchanted things?” he asked, mildly curious.

            “Of course,” she replied disdainfully.  “They’re an order of mage-priests.  They support themselves by enchanting items to order.  But I’m not talking about talking clocks, glowing swords and fire-wands.  The Labyrinth is reputedly home to artefacts of terrible power.  Things that had to be buried not to safeguard them from thieves, but to protect the world from their might.”  She shrugged.  “Makes sense, I suppose; no brigand or second-story man would dare the kind of death-traps the place is full of simply to purloin something he could nick from a drunken mage’s haversack.”

            “So, it’s heavily defended, then.”  He ground his teeth.  “Wonderful.”

            She nodded.  “As I said, there’re a great many traps, misleading devices, defensive spells.  And of course, guardians.”

            He perked up at that.  “What sorts of ‘guardians’?” 

            Ara shrugged.  “Apart from the ‘shining herald’, I’ve no idea.  The Servants are all casters, so probably constructs.  Maybe summoned elementals, or…other things.”  She shook her head.  “There’s certainly no shortage of power to sustain that sort of magic.”

            Joraz raised an inquiring eyebrow.

            “Right, right,” she muttered.  “I forgot to mention that.

“The Labyrinth’s home to the Putealis Mirifucus,” she explained, leaning forward and tapping the parchment.  “The Font of Wonders.  It’s said to lie below the pyramid; its waters flow from some source beyond Anuru, and they wash throughout the Labyrinth.”

“Is that like the ‘Well of Stars’?” Joraz asked, confused.

“No!” Ara exclaimed.  “No, no!  It’s something entirely different!  The Well of Stars is the source of all magical might in Anuru; it produces pure, unadulterated power.  The Font of Wonders is a trickle by comparison; it’s just water from another world, that happens to bring that world’s magic with it.”  She grimaced.  “And because it leaps from world to world, the magic is a little…unpredictable.”

“That sounds risky,” the monk muttered.

“That’s an understatement.  But one of the ancient priest-archmages among the Servants supposedly learned how to concentrate and maximize the potency of the waters,” the dragon explained.  “It’s where their arcane power originates.  Why they’re so powerful here, in the capital.  Anyone can tap into it, apparently...if you’re willing to risk it.  If the Servants haven’t been able to get to it, then the Font hasn’t been monitored.  The flood could’ve gone wild again. 

“And besides,” she shrugged, “you can only access the power if you’re a true servant of Miros.”

            “What does that mean?”

            “Just what it says.  When Ceorlinus mentioned the Labyrinth in one of his plays, he said ‘only a True Servant of Miros may pass the Adamant Guardian; only a True Servant of Miros may approach the Hidden Temple; only a True Servant of Miros may raise the Golden Flammifer; only a True Servant of Miros may touch the Burning Flood’.”

            “ ‘Adamant Guardian’?” Joraz exclaimed.

            Ara nodded.  “I thought you’d fix on that one.  That’s why I said that you should expect constructs.”

            “I hope you don’t have to be a ‘true servant of Holy Miros’ just to survive the place,” the monk said darkly.  “Because none of us qualifies.”

            “I don’t know,” Ara replied.  “But I would imagine that an honest prayer to the Mistress of Magic and Dragons would not be out of line, especially in such a sacred place.”

            “Maybe we should get down on one knee, and ask her for the Eye,” Joraz muttered.

            “Maybe you should,” the dragon snorted primly.  “According to one historian, ‘the most perilous of gifts may only be sought at the feet of the dragon throne’.”

            “ ‘Dragon throne’?  That sounds like the Starhall!”

            Ara shook her head.  “That quote was very specific.  The writer was talking about the Hidden Temple in the Labyrinth.”

            “So there’s a throne in the temple?” Joraz mused.

            “There must be.  Unless it’s a metaphor for something.”

            Joraz snorted a laugh at that.  “That wouldn’t surprise me at all.”  He tried the tea again.  It held no attraction for him.  “You said,” he mused, “that an ancient archmage had learned how to harness the power of the otherworldly water.  From the ‘font of wonders’.”

            “Yes.” Ara, unlike Joraz, appeared to like the tea, draining her cup and holding it out for a refill.  “His name was Aboshat of Krimm.  He was both an archmage, and the archpriest of Miros for many years.  He completed the design of the Labyrinth, tying its disparate elements together.”

“You seem to know a lot about him,” Joraz noted blandly.

“He was powerful and influential, and a famous mage,” Ara replied.  “Plus, he taught at the College.  Such people have a hard time keeping a low profile.”  She shivered slightly.  “He was supposedly fascinated by the discoveries of Tîor and his son Xîardath.  About the Void.”

            “That’s not good,” Joraz muttered, recalling Fifth Child.

            “No.”  She grinned feebly.  “Although he did have a lighter side, it seems.  One skald wrote a song called ‘The Bishop’s Bath’.  It contains verses about Aboshat’s bathtub, and how it was hidden in the Labyrinth along with the other artefacts belonging to the Servants.  Because of its ‘terrible power’.”  She giggled.  “He seemed to be implying that Aboshat used it infrequently, and left a ring whenever he did.”

            Joraz pursed his lips.  “After what I’ve seen, I’m not going to balk at a magical bath,” he chuckled.  “Although I might check it for traps before I scrub up.”

            “Use hot water if you do,” Ara advised.  “Cold is bad, it seems.  Part of another poem I found states that ‘Without the hidden temples gates / The dry bones clack and skitter / The heartless cold cannot be tricked / but he can be bought for glitter’.”

            “And that means...?”

            “Again, no idea.  Just a piece of doggerel connected to the Labyrinth.  There’s another one, too: ‘If thou would’st the future know / Then dare the caverns deep below / There, to descry thy heart’s desire / Seek out the ancient sage of fire’.”

            “At least it rhymes,” Joraz complained.  “Is there any point in asking what the ‘sage of fire’ is?”

            The dragon shook her head. “Nothing else I found even mentioned it.”

            “Maybe he sits on that throne you mentioned.”

            “I don’t think so,” she replied pensively.  “I found another quote – one that says that ‘only the Divine Servant of Holy Miros may sit the Throne of the Hidden Temple’.”

            The monk’s eyes widened.  “At least that confirms that there’s a throne at the temple!  So, maybe this ‘sage of fire’ is a divine being, who serves Miros!”

            “Maybe,” Ara sighed.  “Or maybe it’s the ‘shining herald’.  Or maybe the two phrases have nothing to do with each other.  Or maybe they have nothing to do with the Labyrinth at all, and were just scribbled up by some harp-tinkler trying to amuse an audience.”

            “I wonder,” Joraz pondered aloud, ignoring her, “if this fire sage…if he’s the one who guards the Eye?”

            “There is more there than just the Eye of Hîarhala,” the dragon said gravely.  “Its power is immense, true; according to legend, it breaks all protective charms.  Its bearer can see magic.  And, according to one writer, destroy it.”

            “It sounds like a terrible weapon,” the monk murmured.  “No wonder the Servants locked it away.”

            “It’s still only one weapon of many.  Many things, as I said, were secured below.”  She perked up suddenly.  “That reminds me.  As you can imagine, it was hard enough digging up a word here and there about the Labyrinth.  But there was this, too.”  She tugged a small, torn page out of her scrip and smoothed it onto the table’s surface.

            Joraz examined it closely.  It looked like a drawing, badly faded.  “What is it?”

            “An inked stamping made from a woodcut,” the dragon replied.  “It’s a common way of making penny copies of popular paintings.  I found it among a list of works of art belonging to the Servants.  Art that was supposedly hidden in the Labyrinth for safekeeping.

            “That’s not the point, though.  It’s who it is that’s important.”  She tapped the picture.  “Look closely.”

            “It looks like trees,” he muttered.  “And a woman playing a...is that a harp?” 

            “Yes.  A ‘great harp’, according to the elves.”

            The monk shrugged.  “Who is she?”

            “I can only make out the title – Cantora Magnifica – but if my guess is right,” Ara gloated, “then it’s Amalux Semiferia.  The half-elven skald who took the elf-realm by storm in the centuries following the Darkness.  Nearly two thousand years ago.”

            “That sounds familiar, too,” he frowned.

            “It should,” Ara snorted.  “As ‘Amalux Cantor’, she penned half the songs the common folk sing.”  She looked up at him, frowning.  “You still don’t understand, do you?”


            “She was famous for more than just her songs.”  The dragon tapped the picture again.  “If this is really Amalux Cantor, then that is –”

            “Morning!” Breygon said cheerily, padding into the dining hall and struggling to force his head through the neck of his blouse.  “There any tea?”  Then he noticed Ara, and bowed perfunctorily.  “Brother.  Welcome, again, to Domus Casia.”

            Ara nodded.

            Joraz checked the tea-pot.  “Empty.”

            The half-elf nodded.  “Tua!” he shouted.  He turned back to his friend and their guest, who was eyeing him speculatively.  “What’d I miss?”

            Joraz barked a laugh.  He kicked a chair towards his colleague.  “You’d better sit down.”