Lesson of the fire, p.1
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       Lesson of the Fire, p.1

           Eric Zawadzki
Lesson of the Fire

  By Eric Zawadzki and Matthew Schick

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  Eric Zawadzki and Matthew Schick:


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  Lesson of the Fire

  Copyright 2012 Eric Zawadzki and Matthew Schick.

  All rights reserved.

  Cover art © 2011 by Alan Gutierrez.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters and events are used fictitiously,

  and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events

  is entirely coincidental.


  The following is an account of the Takraf War, written as what Mar scholars describe as a narrative history in the tradition of the Gesyk Philosophy. This means it is both a history and a story about the people who played a role in that history. Like a “pure” history, it is based on eyewitness accounts of events. Numerous scholars labored over it to ensure every detail is as accurate as possible. The account describes all the major events of the Takraf War, as well as the causes and consequences of each.

  Its focus, however, is on the people who played important roles in that conflict — their motives and their relationships to each other. While it is easy to see nothing but a civil war between factions vying for control, those at the center of it were passionate people fighting ideological battles. In particular, the account explores why the war’s outcome mattered so much to each of them that they put their own lives at risk.

  Most of all, it is the story of Mardux Sven Takraf himself — a genius or madman, a hero or tyrant, depending on whom you ask — and of the humble storyteller whose tales of Takraf’s life shaped its outcome by teaching him the lesson of the fire.

  Chapter 1

  “First-degree wizards wear bright green cloaks. As a wizard rises from first-degree to seventh, the color of his cloak changes to reflect his rank — green, auburn, blue, amber, cyan, lavender and yellow. A wizard who reaches the highest rank, eighth-degree, wears red.”

  — Nightfire Tradition,

  The Magical Tradition of Marrishland

  Eda Stormgul walked the broken stone streets of Domus Palus, the capital and largest city in Marrishland. Swamp grass grew from cracks in the street, and to one side, a tree grew in the crumbled remains of a centuries old building’s foundation.

  Even in the midst of high civilization, the swamp encroaches, she mused.

  The wizard wore thigh-high leather boots over her thick brown pants. Her tan shirt clung to her body in the early summer heat, and the clean leather utility vest and thick cyan-colored wool cloak she wore only made her sweat more. Heavy leather gloves hung from her belt, and the hilt and gouger of a marsord peeked through a slot in her cloak just above the knee.

  The suffocating night air only added to the sense of being smothered as the crumbling stone buildings leaned in around her. Eight lesser wizards followed her in loose formation, the colors of their cloaks — six wore bright green and two auburn — barely visible in the light from a dozen constellations. None of the lesser wizards carried a marsord, the rare, two-bladed weapon that only the rich and powerful could afford to have crafted from what little metal was found in Marrishland. Eda knew she wore hers at the pleasure of her eighth-degree patron. She had no delusions about her status.

  The patrol walked the night-shrouded streets with no torches. Eda glanced up, feeling watched. Overhead, the constellation of Marrish stared down at her from the moonless sky.

  The stars, souls of our greatest heroes, Eda thought, remembering her father’s stories. He had believed they continued to guide the Mar in death as they had in life. Most of the wizards living in Domus Palus regarded it as superstitious nonsense only taken seriously by rural mundanes, and Eda had lived in the city long enough to question her beliefs.

  At home, we shunned slaves and wizards. Here, I am a wizard, with two slaves, and though my father might be watching me from above, he might also be feeding the swamp.

  The gaze of the stars felt accusing now. Her boot caught on a crooked cobblestone, and she stumbled. One of the green-cloaked wizards caught her before she fell. She thanked him and turned her attention from the stars to the path ahead.

  A flash of white light, like a lantern suddenly lit, filled the square. Shielding their eyes, the wizards hesitated.

  This is what we have waited for, Eda thought, grasping the hilt of her marsord and drawing the finely sharpened hacker from its sheath. A form materialized in the light. A man crouched on the ground in the center of the light, his red cloak tight around him. He kept his head down as he recovered from teleportation sickness.

  Eda reached for a bottle on her belt, nodding to her wizards. She poured a few drops of the bitter brown liquid onto her tongue and blinked her eyes a few times as the torutsen took effect. The wizards followed suit.

  All around, a sea of colored motes appeared — green, blue, auburn, amber, cyan, lavender, yellow and red — drifting lazily across the square like dust caught in the sun. Near the wizards, it whirled as they gathered it with silent will. This was the myst, the source of magic, and though Eda knew it was always there, only torutsen allowed her to see it like this. She had heard some people say that, with enough training, one did not need torutsen anymore.

  The man rose to his feet before she was ready.

  Some of the greens shot small bursts of fire that quickly turned parts of his cloak black. The auburns hollered for a direct attack, but Eda shook her head.

  He recovered too quickly, she thought, raising her marsord.

  The first real flame erupted from the stone near the man and immediately went out. Other bursts exploded against an invisible shield thrown up absently even as the red wizard expanded the circle of white light surrounding him.

  Eda joined the attack, tearing at his defenses with counterspells.

  The explosions and steam drew six more auburns and two more greens to the square. They were seventeen against one as the new wizards created a cocoon to entrap the man. He disappeared from view in their cloud of smoke and flame.

  Eda stepped away from the cocoon, nodding to the auburn in charge of the reinforcements. They will take care of the rest. She ordered her patrol to fall back, but kept her eyes on the white cocoon surrounding the intruder.

  “He must have suffocated by now,” someone said.

  Eda nodded grimly. At least his blood is not on my head.

  “Where is that light coming from?” a green whispered.

  The white light had not faltered.

  “Get back!” she shouted to the auburns, raising her marsord.

  Too late. A circle of green flame exploded from the cocoon, engulfing the reinforcements in a wall of fire that stopped just short of Eda and her patrol.

  When her vision cleared, the man was already moving toward her with incredible speed.

  She cut at him with the hacker and he swept the blade aside with his arm. Leaning in, she reversed the marsord and lunged for his ribs with the gouger, but he caught the short blade with his left hand, lifting his right hand at the same time as he met her eyes.

  Eda’s eyes widened as she saw his clean-shaven face.

  The greens in the square picked at his back with sparks and skin rashes — weak attacks were all they could manage, right now.

  “Is it you?” she started, and he closed his fist.

  An unseen hand slammed her down to the uneven stones. The marsord was wrenched from her hand, clattering to the stony pavement.

  Stunned, she watched him calmly pick up the weapon and turn his back on her — one red-garbed wizard against sixteen greens and auburns, who howled as they charged with knives. He lowered the loosely held marsord and raised his lef
t hand as if such a gesture would halt them.

  She shouted at them to stop, but they didn’t hear her.

  The wall of flame they ran through was white-hot. Their screams turned from rage to agony as they writhed on the ground.

  She reached for the myst through the wall of cyan motes that their adversary had built around her. The motes of green and blue passed through the barrier in an insignificant trickle. The red wizard took two quick steps toward her and pressed her marsord against her throat.

  “Surrender!” he demanded, his face clearly familiar to Eda now that the fight had subsided. His head whipped up as someone groaned in the square.

  She swallowed. “Yes.”

  He glanced at her two auburns, who were healing the wounded. In a few more minutes, someone might be able to fight.

  “Tell the others to do the same.”

  “Obey him,” Eda called to them.

  The auburns nodded and continued their healing.

  He helped her to her feet and handed her back her marsord as though giving a bowl of soup to a guest. Then he helped the auburns heal the injured. She followed him. Two of the greens had died, their faces seared to the bone. Eda turned away.

  How hot is his fire, she thought, if it cut that deep? Mar magic was best at healing surface wounds, and fire seldom burned to a deadly depth.

  “What is your name?” he asked her after all the wizards had been healed. “And why did you attack me?”

  She cleared her throat and met his green eyes. Maybe it is not him. No, it is him. How could he forget me?

  “Eda Stormgul,” she said. “Our master has ordered us to kill all eighth-degree wizards entering Domus Palus until the Chair is secured by his allies.”

  Rage flashed across his face, but it wasn’t directed at her. He glanced at the dead greens. “Who sends greens and auburns to fight reds?”

  Eda had been asking herself that question all day. “We have received many strange orders lately. Rumor has it one of Nightfire’s apprentices intends to try for the Chair — the one man the Dux of Flasten fears.”

  The red smiled at the flattery. “He does not fear me, yet, but he will.”

  She had to ask. “You are Weard Sven Takraf, yes?”

  He nodded. “Inform your peers and master that the one they hoped would not come to Domus Palus has arrived. There is no further need to attack arriving wizards.”

  She raised her right hand to the level of her cheek. “By the Oathbinder and with the heroes as my witnesses, we will do just that.”

  Sven weighed her with a glance.

  She met those hard green eyes. “I, too, studied at Nightfire’s Academy.”

  He lowered his gaze. “I remember you from Rustiford,” he said softly.

  “Horsa and Katla are also in Domus Palus.”

  He glanced up, eyes wide, although Eda couldn’t tell which name had surprised him. He recovered quickly, seeming to digest this news. “You always liked to be on the winning side, Eda. If you would stand with the victor, stand with me after I take the Chair.”

  “If you seize the Chair, I will follow you into the Fens of Reur. Remember me when you are finished.”

  “I will.”

  Chapter 2

  “The first day of summer in Marrishland marks the start of Duxfest, and it is the only time when the Mardux’s power can be challenged. Any eighth-degree wizard not on the Council may win the Chair by defeating the current Mardux in a magical duel. If a wizard wins the Chair and holds it against all challengers for one full day, he becomes the new Mardux.”

  — Nightfire Tradition,

  The Magical Traditions of Marrishland

  Weard Sven Takraf, eighth-degree wizard and graduate of Nightfire’s Academy, had a marsord because of his power, but he had not brought it to Domus Palus. He knew he could defeat anyone who would be Mardux without it, and the challenge of retaining that position would not trouble him. He had no intention of allowing it to.

  Three days of challenges and still no Mardux, Sven thought. Nightfire would have returned to the Academy if someone had been able to hold the Chair, which means the magocrats are divided. The gods could not have crafted a clearer omen.

  He smiled grimly. And how long has anyone thought of Nightfire as anything but his name, when it is truly just the title of Marrishland’s arbiter of the Law.

  Sven wore knee-high boots turned down at the tops all the way to his calves. His loose pants were dark green, tucked in and bunched up above the boots. A leather strap served as a belt, and thick, studded leather gloves hung from it. His brown shirt had a collar — also turned down — and long sleeves with drawstrings at the end to tighten them. His leather utility vest showed years of wear. All his clothes had travel stains, but old ones.

  Close-cropped brown hair and dark, almost mud-colored, skin surrounded his green eyes, hawkish nose and sharp mouth. Green eyes — Marrish’s eyes, as the mundanes called them — were rare among Mar, but Sven knew of three others besides his parents who had them.

  So much coincidence cannot be coincidence.

  Domus Palus was the seat of the Mardux, the not-quite king of Marrishland and ruling magocrat. The city on the coast was the center of Mar civilization, and home to thousands of wizards, six times their number in mundanes and the largest slave population in the country.

  And like our civilization, it stagnates around us, Sven thought as he passed a square reclaimed by the swamp. There was even a suckmud willow in it.

  The slaves — mostly convicts whose crime had been reneging on an oral agreement — lived outside the ancient city. The mundanes, Mar who had not studied magic, lived throughout the city. Sven only cared about one group right now, the wizards, and they were at the citadel.

  The “palace” of Domus Palus.

  In the center of the city, eight tall steps led up to a wide walkway crossing between the citadel and the temple of Marrish. On that walkway, many of the most powerful magocrats in Mar history had fought for the position of ruler of Marrishland. Most contenders died simply because killing a powerful wizard was far easier than subduing one.

  Sven heard the sounds of battle before he saw anything.

  The massive citadel came into view, its stone and iron bulk in marginally better condition than the buildings around it. Crowds of wizards appeared, a milling mass of city officials on a holiday. Most wore green and auburn, but he could make out patches of blue, amber and cyan. This late in the night, slaves kept torches lit, filling the air with oily smoke.

  What a waste of energy, Sven thought, shaking his head sadly.

  He picked out and counted the lavender and yellow wizards, those one or two ranks below eighth-degree. As he reached a hundred, he stopped. Then he sought the bright cloaks of eighth-degree wizards and found them on the walkway. Two fought in the center, marsords flailing as fire burst between them. Sven judged the battle nearly over.

  There were fifteen besides the two fighting — a group of five on the citadel side, two standing near them but separate, and eight standing in front of the temple, perched like a bunch of greedy, terrified scavengers waiting for the damnen to finish its meal.

  Sven pressed forward, the color of his cloak making the crowd bend around him like water around a bubble of marsh gas. As he reached the foot of the steps, one of the red-cloaked men on the walkway drove his marsord through the other.

  The victor — hands bloody, face blackened by burns — cut off his opponent’s head and kicked it to the feet of the eight scavengers, a dark scowl on his face. Sven searched the victor’s eyes and found the tiredness there. The foremost of the eight, the Dux of Flasten, Volund Feiglin, glared murderously at the victor and nudged the young man by his side.

  Ketil Wenigar, Volund’s son. Sven wondered who the challenger had been.

  “Would anyone else like to die before sunrise?” the victorious wizard called hoarsely.

  Volund scowled at Ketil before speaking. “There will be a challenge tomorrow, you can be sure.

  Nightfire stepped forward, part of the pair behind the victor. “Does any other wish to challenge Einar Schwert tonight?”

  Einar wiped his marsord on the corpse of his opponent and sheathed it. None of the reds at the edge of the square stirred.

  “Weard Schwert will return at noon. If no challenger defeats him by this time tomorrow, he will be Mardux.”

  The bloodied wizard turned on his heel and marched to the citadel. The stiffness of his dirty red cloak betrayed a limp he had not yet healed. The group of five parted to let him pass, following only after Nightfire and his companion caught up to Einar. Sven crept up the stairs as Volund, cursing loudly at his son, stormed after them into the citadel. Ketil followed meekly.

  Ignoring the six bickering reds and their seventh-degree companion, Sven joined the yellow-garbed priests of Marrish as they began disposing of the body.

  Ketil hesitated because Einar just killed his brother, Sven noted as they moved the head. Volund cannot take the Chair while he is on the Council, but he would have a son there. And what brings a borderland weard like Einar Schwert into this? Sven glanced at the six reds.

  A tall one with burning grey eyes was watching him as though all the Mar’s troubles could be laid at Sven’s feet. He turned to shout something hotly into the discussion.

  They seem to want the Chair as well, but they let Volund’s son fight first. Why?

  As Sven eyed them, he gauged their strength. Surely any eighth-degree could defeat a tired eighth-degree. He shook his head. Gobbels will eat their own if it is the least dangerous source of food.

  The crowd began to disperse. The eighth-degrees who still disputed Einar’s claim to the Chair and their attendants did not stir from their place by the temple.

  Sven thanked the priests as they blessed him in Marrish’s name and gently moved him away from the corpse. He walked over to the vultures as the crowd and priests began to disperse. They did not notice him immediately.

  “ … Must have gotten a message out of Domus before Duxfest,” the angry, gaunt man was saying.

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