James entered the tower on the heels of Mal Shieldglider, Tarry bring up behind.
They had marched through the Wild Wood for what has seemed like a week, but was probably three, and had made it to Ebony Watch – three quarters of the way up The Grandfather, within sight of The Eld. They had arranged passage, to embark that evening, but Ebony Watch had a few pressing concerns. Basilisks on the outskirts, a missing little girl, giants in the north, and the unknown fate of the previous garrison commander – shut away in the highest floor of the tower that gave the town its name.
The party had scattered into three smaller groups. No-one was willing to take on the basilisks again – Cannis having only just survived their first encounter with, perhaps, a little help from James. As the transformation to stone progressed along his body and up his neck, James – having no other way to help – attempted to Counter Magic the effect. Impossible to say whether that helped or not, but the petrification halted and faded, and Cannis survived.
James knew his duty. The fate of the military commander. Shieldglider had recognised the name, and James appealed to that – Shieldglider having means to break into a stone tower with his strange ability to sculpt solid stone as if it were clay. Tarry had been keen to harvest the organs of the basilisks – good money, there – but went with James and Mal rather than face them on his own. A welcome addition, the halfling being good with traps and locks.
Mantle of the Mage: As a bearer of this cloak, you are authorized to tap into the Archmage’s arcane power nodes, drawing on the magic that’s supposed to be used for fueling the wards that protect the Empire against existential threats. … Quirk: Crushing sense of duty and obligation to the Empire.
They ascended the tower. Mal commenced to dig out the stone around the heavy iron hinges of the stout trapdoor in the ceiling – his power strangely stronger than usual. James’ magical senses prickled – this place was one of the magical defensive “nodes” of the empire. Tarry seemed oddly animated and keen.
They braced for combat, specifically, for undead. But no. Above a strange tableau. The trapdoor had been weighed down with a pile of treasure – gold and gems. James thought to warn Tarry not to take any, as it was Empire payroll, but gave it up as a lost cause. There was more than Tarry could take, anyway. And the loot was not the main concern.
A dwarvish (mostly) skeleton sat in a fine chair – garishly decorated with gems, some falling off. Pearls, rubies. And in an empty space right in the centre of the tower was something visible only to magical senses: an invisible flame in the shape of a two-headed dragon, twin symbols of the Archmage and the Emperor. But the dragon slumbered, the flame banked and merely smoldering. But unquestionably still alive and alight.
James mentioned to the others that there might be papers in the drawers, and then turned his attention to the node. But what to do? Should he do anything at all? Yes he should. The giants in The Eld to the south were up to something, there had been odd magical attacks on the town. This place was part of the Empire, and its magical defences ought to be in operation. Cannis had mentioned the music – this node should be making such attacks impossible, or at least alerting the other nodes. But was it his place to do anything? Yes. He was the senior arcane officer available in Ebony Watch. The cloak, Edmund had explained, gave him authority to interact with the nodes as well as the power to do so.
Perhaps James was merely reaching for justification – perhaps the cloak compelled him and he was making excuses. Perhaps. There was going to be some explaining to do. Nevertheless, he had decided to act.
Had he been a sorcerer, he would have roused the flame by force of will, he would have symbolically blown on it or fanned it. But James was a wizard. There was a spell – Speak with Item that might serve. He had been studying the spell of course. It was beyond his ability, but perhaps here, at a node, with a cloak whose entire business was to deal with the nodes, it might be possible.
For reagents, he had a pile of treasure. No quicksilver for communication, but silver coins graven with the correct rune would do (more experienced wizards could draw the rune on stone, or scribe it in the air, or even imagine it clearly, but James needed the metal – something believable). Sapphires for the Archmage, gold for the empire. He paused – gold alone would not do. It needed a drop of human blood. But not as a sacrifice of life, rather as a signifier. So this was not necromancy.
(Unknown to James, the reason gold would not do is that it is the wrong metal altogether. Gold is for dragons and the gods; silver, lead and zinc for elves; iron for dwarves; copper for halflings. The true metal of humans is tin, but humans don’t like to admit it. Much history can be explained metaphorically by the human’s stubborn insistence that their metal is gold.)
James drew the circle, placed the signifiers around it in the direction of Horizon, Axis, other nodes that he knew of. But what if the ritual worked, and he could speak to the node, what would he say? By chance, he glanced to the south, and perhaps caught a glimpse of The Eld. He went back to the pile of treasure and found clear gems. Clear as ice. Signifiers for the giants. He placed them to the south.
And then the ritual. Speak With Item three-quarters memorised, without the magical power of preparation, but what James lacked, the cloak supplied. Perhaps it was a little impatient – none of this rigmarole was necessary, but it had chosen James and had to work with what it had. Deep down in a layer of James’ mind he was not fully aware of, the cloak posed him a question: “would you die for the empire”? And in that same layer, his training and its cameraderie, the histories he had studied – stories of valour and sacrifice, his commitment to make the best of his father’s decision to place him in the army, and perhaps even his childhood storybook lessons that the noble must protect the common people, together formed a wordless reply: “I am a soldier of The Empire.”
Contact! “Wake! Wake! Giants to the south, magical attacks on this position! Defend! Call for backup!”
All had been invisible to Tarry and Mal up to this point – James fussing about with gems and piles of coins, mumbling formulae. But the effect was spectacular. As James stumblingly chanted his formula, the barely-visible metal threads in his cloak flared into life, shifting into fleeting complex shapes sometimes oddly reminiscent of the wards of a key. At the center of the tower floor, a visible flame appeared and took the shape of a two-headed dragon. It roared and the sturdy wooden roof of the tower – a late addition – shattered into flinders, exposing once again this top floor to the sky. The silver and gold melted, alloyed, becoming electrum: the metal of magic, and began to trace out lines and circles in the floor, this tower’s place in the webwork of empire defences. The ancient node-runes in the stone, worn and barely visible, gilding with metal as the node repaired itself. And the gems around the periphery moved – the sapphire focii that James had given the node shifting exactly into line with the other nodes, and the clear gems moving precisely in line with the Eld. Except for one smaller one, which migrated into the broad inner circle of the design on the floor and assumed a position there.
Over towards the chair on which the late commander sat, something moved.