Book II - Chapter 32

Chapter 32

 

[Barrier] is a well known spell.

Any mage worth their weight in salt will have some variation of this magic in their toolkit. Respected, multi-purposed, easily imitated but rarely mastered: [Barrier] is an essential part of a Mage's spell list no-matter what profession they follow. Be they Soldiers or Mercenaries for hire, Entrepreneurs, or Adventurers: the magic is one of the few which bridges the elements and affinities to almost any combination of talent and disposition.

As such, there are different kinds of [Barrier]

For those who take a more literal approach on things, there is a [Wall of Earth] or [Wall of Stone] for those of the Southern regions. Otherwise known as a physical construction, made by whatever surroundings happen to be fitting of the characteristic for stone or soil. Though it is rare for a human to have the talent or efficiency to mold into anything truly grandiose, the [Wall of Earth] is a respected method of shelter, but for many of the higher circles, it is looked down upon as... crude.

How unrefined must a Mage, a distinguished Mage- master of all the manipulated elements, be to simply lift dirt and stone in a roughshod effort of shelter? Given enough time, even a farmer might be able to accomplish the exact same by hand. Why bother with dirt, when a [Wall of Flame] is far more impressive? Many would argue that this obtains the status of both offense and defense by the very same measure, while offering similar results. Or perhaps, for the more eloquent: a [Shield of Water] or [Shield of Ice] could be utilized. Both are respected, and it is well-known that the element of water can crafted and worked far more quickly and efficiently than stone- unless perhaps a Mage happens to habitually travel among territories consisting of perfect clay or fine sand (of which there is still an ongoing matter of academic debate that will likely rage on bitterly for years to come.)

Regardless, if one was to sit down any number of mages in a tavern (true mages, mind you: real ones that hold experience and years of practice long since passed to the graying of beards, hair, scars and wild eyes) and then force them to reach a consensus, you would likely find them in agreement of the following:

They will agree that the purest example of [Barrier] is forever out of reach, locked within the powers of faith-bound magics. Some might even, begrudgingly, admit respect to whatever token-member of clergy happens to be present at this gathering, before turning back and arguing bitterly as to why, exactly, their capacity to mold and refine the rare element of belief will never find itself strong enough for even the most accomplished Archmage to make more than a passable work of it. To which, perhaps, the present member of the Church may point out the obvious flaw of study-driven mind-sets, now perhaps forever trapped upon the self-imposed cycle of rational thought and realism.

In that lies another academic debate, quite possibly pushing into the boundaries of known psychological and divine spheres very few have the background to tackle, but should one prompt a group of Mages with such a statement, at least one of their will begin the inevitable counter-argument.

 A position and stance steeped in pride: That even-though the [Barrier] of faith is the most beautiful, and perhaps the most malleable defensive spell that can be cast outside of full-circles or group efforts: it is not the strongest form of [Barrier.] For all of its positive attributes, a wall of faith is notably brittle, easily shattered and reliant on layers. Layers upon layers of radiance, woven together atop one another: through these it can gain strength by the quirks of its nature- but alone anyone would admit is hardly capable of resisting the onslaughts of powerful forces, and therefore not suited for the title of strongest.

 That title, of most powerful [Barrier] belongs only to the most unforgiving, unstable, difficult and tedious variation. A spell so confounding, it is claimed to only be summoned by a master. Only one who has practiced for years, diligently studying its nature of spirit and air will ever hope to bring it to fruition.

 The [Barrier] of Frozen Wind.

 

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[Snake Report]

 

[Eveth]

 

"Defend us." Those were the only words Eveth said, before the air began to freeze.

Slowly at first, building upon itself in coiling spirals of mist: the warm air of the shadowed alleyway bowed to the magics at her command as the rush of power filled her arm, past the wood it clutched, along the fibers and crystal at her staff's end. There, it surged forward to do her bidding.

Ruthless, by the very nature of its creation.

That was the first thing Eveth had been taught to become, on the path to Magehood. It had been beaten into her, again and again. To survive as a Mage, one must become cruel as the ice, and unforgiving as the flame, as strong as the stone: A Mage's spirit can have no weakness.

[BARRIER]

Eveth didn’t need to speak the word for the spell to cast properly. She hadn’t needed to speak the command for years, but in that instant she did, regardless. Half shout, half scream, her magics soared along the framework of a spell. There it rose, higher and higher as her knees buckled. There was no thought or consideration on how or what she needed to do. Those had been dealt with long ago, years ago, hammered into her bones by practice and repetition.

"Stop her!" A voice shouted, and her eyes saw the death that came in flight- arrows whistling almost too fast for her eyes to see. "Kill the Mage, quickly!"

With loud impacts, the arrows exploded as they connected with the magic. Ripple effects, almost holding the appearance of glass- being shattered and reformed.

"Defend us."

Again, Eveth demanded, forcing and bending the element to her will, and again the eruption of fog soared, rising like cold flames trapped between panes of thin glass.

Still, she knew it wasn't enough.

Her right hand joined with her left, knees biting into the stone as she shouted again- power surging to smash the incoming attacks.

[BARRIER]

Two layers became three: thick sheets of opaque glass, frozen and dense enough to chill to the bone on a single touch. Though fleeting, Eveth felt a sense of pride at the sight of it before the cold smashed against her skin and ripped into her lungs. Colder than ice in winter, beneath a howling wind, but it was proof.

Proof no one could steal from her: the wall of air stood, defiant to any and all.

Then, came the pain.

Creeping, dull, burning- worse by the second. Eveth was already on her knees, but now her arm felt aflame, agony creeping past her mental defenses. Inching onward to cross the point which her willpower could halt it.

The fingers of her left hand seized, fingers locking onto her staff as she gritted her teeth. Beneath her, the ground approached as her body sagged towards the staff, almost falling before Dren appeared beside her. Stripping away his gloves in a panic, he caught her by the shoulders.

Shouting something… no, screaming something?

She couldn't process yet, but the words didn't matter. Dren was too inexperienced to know what to do in this situation, panic was a natural state. The trick was overcoming it, to fall back on what was already known; to fall back on her training.

First, she needed to identify the threat: Who, and what? Where?

She looked down.

She'd been hit: an arrow. It came from behind her, she’d reacted. There were voices, so the threat was human, but who? Some group of opportunists looking to cut their throats and steal their coin? It seemed the most likely option, but in broad daylight?

Would they really be so bold-

She gasped as another wave of pain hit her.

Lights above: it hurt.

The burning feeling in her shoulder broke the pattern of thoughts further by each beating of her heart: like a hammer that smashed against her wound. Lords and mighty, did it hurt.

It hurt, it hurt, it hurt, it hurt, it HURT-

With a grimace, Eveth clenched her teeth, and focused.

“Dren, heal me.” She heard her voice growl. “Do it, quickly.”

There was no time for this now: focus or they would die. She heard the quiet shout in her skull, cold logic pressing back on the pain.

This was a problem to be solved, nothing more. Battle was little beyond a calculation. Concentrate on the spell, hold the [Barrier] up, and then think through to the next move.

She just had to focus.

Keep the spell going. That was what she needed to do, right now.

Eveth clenched her teeth as behind her, all along the alleyway the air began to shimmer and freeze. Denser, thicker, colder: a wall of swirling fog was rising upwards as her mana poured into it, seizing the space like chilled flames from the stone towards the clouds.

"CRASH"

Another arrow flew towards her, exploding as it hit the swirling cold, pieces scattering like snow and dust that rained harmlessly out the other side.

"CRASH, CRASH, CRASH!"

More followed to similar effect, as the spell solidified once more. It would hold- would have to hold. The first part of the problem had been solved, driving Eveth's mind to turn towards the second.

There was blood. A lot of blood.

Too much blood.

Its tiny rain drops of deep red seemed to steam as the chill of the magic beside her spread further, freezing to the stone as the heat fled. Lethal?

She wasn't sure.

The black metal of an arrow tip shown, inches of wood behind it protruding. Iron and fiber doubling and crossing with the throbbing beats of pain as her body fell forward, leaning precariously against the wooden staff.

Her vision swayed again.

Focus... focus...

The spell would keep them safe, now. As long as she could stay conscious, it should hold. She just needed to stop the bleeding, Dren was still holding her upright, still yelling.

He hadn’t tried to heal her yet.

Why?

His attention... she needed to get his attention. Calm him down, focus him to something useful.

"Cut it off." She coughed the command as the pain swelled, her brow leaning in against her staff as she held back the urge to fling it and writhe about the ground. Focus... she had to stay focused. Hold the spell. "Dren." She forced herself to look towards the youth, catching his darting eyes just as the fear began to get its clutches in. "Dren, I need you cut off the head, and pull the arrow free."

Was that really her voice? A hoarse whisper, more a gurgling gasp than true speech.

That wasn't good.

"CRASH!"

The boy flinched as another shower of fragments and dust burst beside their heads as the [Barrier] intercepted another missile.

"Light have mercy. Eveth, I'm so sorry-"

"CRASH"

The wall behind her rippled, scattering before forming again, ten thousand fibers splitting into dust and splinters on another arrow's impact.

They weren't giving up yet, redoubling their efforts to breaking through. She had to focus, stronger, don't split attention- don't waste time on the details or the finery: Make it stronger. If it was the last thing she would do, she had to make it stronger.

The wall of fog rose taller, wider. Ten paces, fifteen- down as well as up, bridging the canal, across to the far wall of stone.

"CRASH, CRASH, CRASH."

Three arrows smashed beside her head, blasting her with more splinters, more fragments scattered to the air, but still, the wall held. From beyond it, the echoes of shouts reached her ears.

"It's that fucking mage! Oeth, we're not getting past!"

"Damn it all, the contract said she was just a bloody wash-out! You four, go around!" A command from behind the hollered orders. "We already hit her once- it won't last! Get ahead and block them off, the rest of you stay here: Break it down!"

A sword crashed against the wall of fog, terrible ringing pitched to the air. An axe followed it, shadowed figures towering behind the [Barrier]

There was no time.

Her vision swayed, before clumsy hands grabbed her face, and wide blue eyes stared at her.

"Eveth! Look at me!" Dren shouted, bare hands to either side of her head. Beside him, the newcomer crouched, eyes peering out from beneath their cloak. The blue serpent stared at her from within their hood, a strange shade of crystal. "The arrow- it's not good Eveth. Will your spell hold if I do this? Should we run?"

She remembered being like that once: panic... fear... he was in its grips, all tangled up in the net of terror: but she needed him to focus.

"Don't run." Eveth gritted her teeth, barely processing the terror in Dren's voice. "We can't run, too many... no time." She heaved, bloody spittle trailing down her chin. "Just break it... pull it free..."

Dren's hands let go of her, replaced by another's. That's right: Imra was it, had that been her name? Their newcomer was holding her steady.

Eveth's vision was swirling. Numbness... not just pain, her left arm was going limp. "Poison..." Eveth muttered, as her left arm slapped against her side, useless. "Bastards... they're using... poison..."

Her staff wavered, only her right hand now clinging to it as the [Barrier] swirling in wild motions. Unstable clouds spinning about beneath powerful currents. An axe’s edge shown through the dense chill, before rebounding with a muffled curse.

She had to hold.

"Do it." She gasped. "Now, Dren!"

"Alright Eveth, get ready." Dren murmured as his hands gripped the arrow shaft. "Three... Two... one-"

The world was pain.

Fire, brimstone, magma: Along her arm, down her spine, red in her eyes- her skull. Was that her screaming? In that moment, Eveth couldn't be certain.

"Oh lord of light, bless this traveler with the way of peace."

Dren's voice was soft, a melody of noise that wrapped her up in mana. She could see it, swirling along the imperfect boundaries of the ritual. A beautiful mastery of logic hidden beneath the layers of faith, each word binding its currents, holding the magic in place as the mana slipped through her veins. Each beat of her heart pushed it further, forced it through deeper into her chest, her lungs, her bones.

"Banish this bringer of sorrow, calm this tempest of death"

It was working. The poison's effects were lessening: Her left arm, still limp, was joined in the agony: fingers stabbed all at once by the points of ten-thousand angry needles as the pain returned.

"Defeat the shadows that haunt the minds of your people, and guide us through the storm-"

The magic ceased with a sudden lapse. Dren's voice was gone, his casting left as if a painter had thrown their canvas aside, or a chorus had left the stage mid-song.

 In her arm and shoulder, pain still burned: her hand still refused to move- and though her mind floated however barely as it rode the final upward drafts of faith magic, Eveth could feel herself falling. A returning sensation of relapse that quickened with every further beat of her chest.

"Is it done, Dren?" Her voice again, but so far away. It was as if she were listening to echoes from down a long and winding hall, both in sound, and image.

She realized suddenly that Dren's face was gone, absent in her returning vision as it spun about. Almost drunkenly, her eyes fell to the distant view blurred figures seeming to dance in the hues of shadows and color. The familiar outfit of poorly fitting cloth, thin shoulders aglow with a rising swell of wind. A pale hand held its mace once more, light seemingly drawn to its surface as it swirled to life with the fierce intensity of an entirely different kind of spell.

Was he... fighting? Dren was fighting?

"Is it done?" She coughed, with a spray of red. Had the ground always been so close? "Is it done, Dren-"

"We are not Dren, foolish human."

Ruthless hands grabbed her as a cold touch of scales tightened about her neck.

[HEAL]

A tidal wave of force smashed Eveth's mind, pain wiped away with a resounding impact of lucidity that rushed onward. Stronger, and stronger: more power than Eveth could have ever imagined breaking down and rebuilding as it moved ever forward.

Unstoppable.

Her eyes closed in an agony of a different sort as the voice alongside it shouted for all the heavens, and all the hells.

That wall you made is breaking, Eveth. Get up.

Her eyes opened, face still cradled in the hands of a stranger. They stared at her, both features of human, and beast, as her left hand clenched to the beacon glow of her staff. Flickering, sputtering like a candles flame- but still alive. Slowly their hands pulled her, lifting her upward with ease until her legs stood on their own as the sounds of the world around her came in a whirlwind.

Rise up, Eveth.

The crashes of weapons, the shouts of men. Dren's voice sang aloud as his mace held before him- and a second wall resisted to their front. Angry faces and blades of steel cracking the defense, slowly but surely making their way in.

"And though death has come to face us, we shall not yield. We shall not give, nor turn from the approaching thunder..."

His chant carried on as the attack settled, grim-faced men staring from behind the translucent glow of white. With each further blow, it wavered, but still he fought. How much time had passed?

 She felt disoriented: had it been seconds, minutes? Her wound... was sealed? Experimentally, Eveth flexed her left hand with a deep breath. It moved, perfectly responding to her efforts. "How?"

"Your wall. He says it breaks." The slurred words came from over her head, delivered with certainty. Imra stared at her, frowning.

"What?" Eveth asked again, blinking away the shock. The sounds of battle crept in, as the blood settled in her ears. Growing louder and louder by the second. "What did you say?"

"Your wall, it is breaking." They said again, with a sigh of disappointment. "Yet, you still sit here. You do nothing." Crouching back down until they filled her entire vision, the eyes stared curiously. Tan skin and pupils that seemed to swallow up all but the faintest ring of green: inhuman and beautiful in the most frightening ways. With complete lack of concern, their hands took Eveth's face as they drew her closer to their stare. "Are you so weak?" The question seemed one of idle curiosity, slurring tone unconcerned as their hands forced Eveth's face to turn, twisting it until the scene that had been hidden behind them was revealed once more. "Watch them, cursed-blood."

Dren was in the center of her vision, faith magics bursting with fits of sparks. His weapon swung, raised like a torch to come down for a shower of shattered glass as a spell was crushed, and instantly replaced anew. Barrier after barrier, summoned against impossible odds- unable to weave more than a single layer before being forced to start again.

"Do you see? The boy fights, even though he knows he will not win." From between the grip of the hands on her face, Eveth turned her eyes to watch as the woman lowered their hood, blue scales of the Basilisk spinning about their neck with a long hiss. Slowly they bent down to retrieve their spear. "I do not like your kind, but even I see this is waste." Their free hand gestured dismissively to their other flank, prompting Eveth's eyes to follow the direction. "Just like your own stolen gifts."

"CRASH"

Eveth gasped as a shower of wood exploded into the air, a cloud of snow falling short of the ground before returning to its natural state. Beside them, the [Barrier] she'd created was almost gone.

Now, only a mere shade of its former self, the reaches of the trapped and spinning clouds seemed nothing more than mist. Behind it she could see them clearly: the grinning faces of men, swords and axes grinding against the fading resistance. Another arrow smashed against the barrier, fragments blasting through to land on the ground about their feet: They were getting through.

Ten men, and well-equipped. Just ten on that side alone, while four others smashed their blades against Dren's wall of Faith to their other flank. He was layering magic, but it was forcing him back. One step, then two, then three.

“No!” Struggling to stand, Eveth felt her legs shake- refusing to budge as she clung to her staff. She knew, she had to get up!

"Break it down! Break it down!" A wild cry rose from beyond the weakened wall of air, howls of preemptive victory raising to the air. "They're done for! Just keep at it!"

 

"No, stop-" Eveth tried to focus, but another arrow smashed against her barrier in a shower of splinters directly beside her. Then another, and then another.

First poison, now this.

Those bastards! They knew! Knew exactly how to deal with a Mage. Relentlessly attacking, keeping her from maintaining focus. Already, her [Barrier] was too unsteady, slipping towards collapse. Whatever residual control she still had on the spell was slipping away.

"CLANG"

An awful pitch resonated as a sword struck against the cold mist, rebounding with violence, but not before a deep groove was cut: a portion of the air that would not fill back in. From beyond the gap, a deep laugh bellowed. "We've got' you now, Farstrider."

Farstrider?

Eveth stared back, struggling to her feet with great effort as she tried to rally her willpower. It would fail any second now. She couldn't recast it, but she could do something, anything. It would fail, but she could try to counter with a fire spell. She had at least enough mana left for two of those, and then-

A body stepped between Eveth and the approaching figures, hooded cloak dropped to the ground to reveal the slender frame of muscle beneath. Casually, a spear began to spin, whooshing through the air in a lazy arc as it gathered speed.

"You are blessed, human." Faster and faster, Imra spun her weapon, until it moved so quickly the spear seemed to blur. "The Great One thinks you are important. He believes you are not so weak. That you will fight." The butt of their spear smashed against the stone of the ground beneath it, fragments of rock exploding beneath the force as their hair swayed, black strands catching in the wind as they began to laugh. "Still, it is your decision."

Imra threw her head back without the slightest hint of fear, laughter growing louder beneath the percussion of weapons.

Eveth stared in awe, in horror.

Was she mad?

The barrier was crumbling. Pieces slipping towards the ground below to shatter into mist, cracks running through the panes with horrible cracks and groans. The faces of the men waiting beyond the barrier were visible, toothy grins no longer quite so pleased as they readied their weapons as the spear leveled in their direction.

"Whatever choice: know this." They turned to her with a cruel smile, as the Basilisk on their shoulder let out a long hiss: mouth opening to reveal a ghostly trail of green flame as the dust about their feet began to swirl. "You will not die here."

Then, the [Barrier] collapsed.