Arcanum – Of Steamwork and Magic Ch. 21-3

I thrust my finger at him. “Listen here, old fellow, I don’t give a damn about your sulks, your mood, or your attitude. For the past two years, I have been shot at, stabbed, poisoned, hunted and hounded, and generally chased from the southernmost edge of Arcanum to the northern tips of the Glimmering Forests. I have been worshiped as a god, and hunted as a target of prophecy — my life has been utterly and completely thrown upside down by people who think that I am you.” I stepped closer. “And right now, I come to find that not only am I not the reincarnation of you, there IS no reincarnation of you because you are still alive!” I grabbed his robes, then jerked the elf closer to me. “So you will damn well answer every question I put to you, good sir, or I will get my satisfaction from your hide!”

Nasrudin sighed. “Fine.” He paused. “Will you put me down first, or shall I tell you of my deepest shames while being pinned to a wall?”

“Which would you prefer?” I growled.

Nasrudin sighed.

I set down on the bed in his small cottage. He brushed his hands along his thighs. “Where shall I begin?” He frowned. “Why exactly have you sought me out?”

I crossed my arms. “Arronax is returning. He wishes to once more conquer the whole of Arcanum.”

Nasrudin’s face crumpled. His eyes closed and he ducked his head forward, his palms pressing to his face. “No,” he whispered. “Has two thousand years not been enough to temper my child’s ambitions? Their arrogance?”

My companions gasped. Even I was taken aback. “I…your child?”

Nasrudin nodded, grimly, his hands sliding down from his face. “Yes. My greatest shame, my greatest failure, was not as a leader. Merely as a father.” He sighed. “It was I who whelped them, I who created the very system Arronax would use to threaten the world with impunity. It was I who did not see the gathering corruption, the growing temptation of the unlimited power that I, the glorious and perfect Nasrudin, had placed before a child convinced they were an adult by my own blithe assumptions of superiority.” He frowned, looking right at me. “Now do you see why I am here?”

I sighed, slowly. I could see the shame and regret on his face.

“Why don’t you tell me your story,” I said, my voice gentle.

***

NASRUDIN’S STORY

Nasrudin came to adulthood in a world awash in magick and monsters. The kingdoms of man, such as they could be called, huddled behind walls. Even their greatest city, Kree, was only able to survive the deprivations of the vast wilderness to the east and to the west by clinging to the banks of their mighty river, sending their trade ships to interact with the small towns that clustered for security against the bank. Nasrudin looked upon this world, feeling the vast thrum of magick beneath his feet, and knew that it was good…

But it could be better.

The first monster he struck down was firmly placed in his memory, despite the great sweep of time between then and now. It was a dragon that had shucked off the nominal control of other, less rapacious dragons, and it had been raiding and pillaging farms all along the edge of the Morhiban forest. Nasrudin had arrived at one of those villages in a crackling roar of purple energies, and spoken to the awed and fearful human elder — he had pointed the direction of the dragon and Nasrudin had cloaked himself in magicks to ready himself for the battle. He wreathed himself in whirling rocks and shrouded himself in crackling flames, then called down a stormcloud, which he rode above the forests many times faster than even the swiftest horse.

The dragon saw him coming. It winged into the air, breathing an acidic fog. Nasrudin had twirled his staff, then struck each stone that tumbled around him — imparting a magick shove to each stone, shooting them towards the dragon. One shot through the wing, tearing a ragged hole in the membrane, while the other two thudded into the dragon’s chest. It squalled and started to tumble from the heavens — but still it breathed that melting, burning fog. It singed against Nasrudin’s skin, and he beat it back with a cascading wave of metamagickal force.

The dragon crashed on its back and a triple of thunderbolts, smashing down out of the clear skies, finished it, reducing it to mere bones and smoking scales.

Nasrudin saw the delights of the villagers, freed of the dragon’s viciousness, and knew his path. The next three centuries passed in a blur — battling the Necromancer Kings of Kirkenguard. He gathered elven followers by then. Magicians of lesser power but equal idealism, each interested in bringing an end to the villainy surrounding them. It was then that he met Arachne — the black haired, dusky eyed elven woman who would claim his heart for a century and a year, before she retreated to commune with nature, leaving him with fond memories and a child: Arronax.

By the time a century had passed and Arronax had matured to near adulthood, the elven wizards and magicians who had worked with Nasrudin for so long had formed into the Elven Council. And with their combined arts and skills, they had unlocked mastery of that most powerful magick: The art of sending any individual they chose into the Void. And just in time: The message came while Nasrudin was meditating in his chambers: A horrible monster was devouring entire halfling villages. He and the Council arrived mere moments later, stepping from their teleportation gate to see the vast, green, barely bipedal reptile, tossing a dozen halflings into its hideous maw.

Gorgoth.

He was but the first to be sent, screaming, into one of those swirling black portals. But he was not the last. Kraka-Tur, that hideous fusion of human and dragon. The Bane of Kree, standing proudly before his terrible army, the city of Kree burning behind him. He had boasted…but migthy Nasrudin had been the one who had been standing at the end of that day, with the armies of Kree vanishing in disarray — fleeing in every direction. The lesser races looked up to Nasrudin. They adored him.

Lesser races.

It was with the same condescending tone that he allowed Kerghan into the Elven Council. The mage was merely a human, but he had seemed competent. Nasrudin should have seen the errors in his thinking when Arronax came to him to tell him that Kerghan had delved into necromancy and black arts so horrible that even now, two thousand years later, Nasrudin could not think of it without shuddering in disgust. Kerghan had been banished by Arronax — and if Nasrudin had realized…if the blind fool had realized that seeing other races as lesser, he had unconsciously thought of himself as greater.

Being an enlightened despot was still a despot.

He had been stunned when a minor dispute between Arronax and the fledgling city-state of Vendigroth had spiraled out of control in a mere five months. He had known that Arronax had grown cross with the city, with their refusal to abandon the arts of technology that they had been seeking to learn. But he had not realized how deeply Arronax…had learned the lessons that Nasrudin had taught.

The other races were lesser.

The elven council was greater.

The elves were greater.

Arronax was greater.

In a single terrible day the whole of Vendigroth was reduced to smoldering, blackened glass. Nasrudin had walked, bare foot, through the rubble, the soles of his feet cut open and bleeding as the glass cracked under him. He felt the spirits of the millions of dead, whispering and hissing to him, shades of red light flickering intermittently. He had seen the few buildings left — tumbled piles of scrap and melted slag. He had seen the shadows cast on them — inverse shadows of humans caught in the fury of Arronax’s spell.

And he had known what he needed to do. But his heart balked.

Banish his own child?

And so, Nasrudin — the great fool — had made his last mistake. He had censured Arronax before the Council. The Council had demanded Arronax’s apology. They demanded that Arronax bend the knee and accept punishment. They demanded — and Arronax flew into a rage. Their rant had echoed through the halls, arguing or the basis of what dark hearted elves would follow for centuries to come. Elves should rule. Other races should bow. And if they did not — they should look to Vendigroth.

Look to Vendigroth.

By the time Nasrudin had pronounced the sentence, Arronax had already fled. Followers flocked to the banner of Nasrudin and to Arronax alike — two forces that called themselves good and evil. But that day, on the Plains of Brodgar, both words were robbed of all meaning. Was it good to immolate a phalanx of a thousand men in gleaming plate as they charged your left flank? Was it evil to chase down fleeing elves on horseback, to skewer them from behind with magick lances? Was it good to shield yourself from stones called down from the heavens, even as the shockwaves slew the men who stood by your banner? Was it evil to accept no quarter, no parlay, no surrender?

If it was so, then neither side had a monopoly on good nor evil that day. In the end, though, death was the true victor.

Nasrudin stepped through the mounds of corpses, the taste of ash thick in his throat. His three surviving fellows — friends for centuries — stood beside him, their staves still crackling and humming with magick energies.

“There!” one shouted — moments before a lightning bolt slammed through his chest. The hole exploded through his chest and sent him staggering to the ground, collapsing into a pile of ash, too fatigued and frazzled to even begin healing himself. He died as Nasrudin thrust out his palm — and sent a cascade of fireballs down onto Arronax. His own child. His own child. Arronax lifted their arm and created a great wall of earthen fortifications — driven by their own stubborn will. The fire smashed home and the two other survivors rushed to try and form what they could of the pentagram.

Nasrudin and Arronax traded magick blow after magick blow. Nasrudin was transformed into a rabbit — but then turned the air around Arronax into liquid mercury. Arronax shrouded themselves with force, but Nasrudin escaped his rabbit form. At last, though, the two others of the Elven Council reached their positions and Nasrudin had just enough energy to bring up the spell one last time. Void energies rippled from his staff and, with a scream, Arronax was dragged down…down…

Down.

Gone.

***

Nasrudin breathed slowly out, his voice hoarse. “I awoke after the battle on the shore. I barely managed to keep myself together long enough to travel across the sea and come to Thanatos, where I shrouded myself in a magickal regenerative cocoon. When I emerged, it had been one thousand years and my youth had been restored to me.” His jaw tightened. “I traveled the world, but…everything had changed. And those damn Panarii would have a collective apoplexy if they knew I was here. And so..” He sighed. “I stayed.”

I nodded slowly.

Nasrudin looked up through his eyebrows at me. “The Ring of Brodgar — the standing stones. Do you know of them?”

“They’re a reason for tourists to come to Roseborough,” I said, frowning. “You’re not saying that is the site where you-“

“It is,” Nasrudin said, grimly. “And there, the veil is weak. That is why those wards were built.” He shook his head. “That is where, I believe…I can banish you.”

I sprang to my feet. “Now, wait a moment!” Gillian exclaimed.

“No, I can see what his plan is,” Raven said, her eyes intent. Focused. “We must stop Arronax before he enters Arcanum — here, he can have unfathomable power. Imagine, the strength of the Age of Legends, facing the Tarantian guard.” She shook her head. “But in the Void, he will be cut off from the magick of Arcanum.”

I nodded.

“But you will need more than a stern jaw and a mustache to truly slay him,” Nasrudin said, frowning. “Vendigroth was destroyed by Arronax for more reason than merely slighting him. They were working on a machine to kill a mage like me or like him. The healing cocoon I mentioned?” He smirked. “It can be enacted at any time by a truly skilled mage. But the Vendigroth, I believe, were working on…some device or another…”

“Technology can interfere with magick and vice versa,” I said, rubbing my mustaches. “If you focused that function of the universe into a single area, at the right time, you could surely cause magick to fail in the right way to either stop the cocoon or, possibly, even reverse the healing effects!” I slammed my fist into my palm, grinning. “Even if there’s only a schematic in Vendigroth…”

“Wait…” Sally held up a finger, wobbling slightly. “I don’t –hic– mean to be a pissematic…” She closed her eyes. “But dinnet the old codger say, er, his son blew the whole of Vendi -hic– Growth flat?”

I frowned, looking at Nasrudin.

“There were hardened bunkers, sealed catacombs, built in the effort to keep them safe,” Nasrudin said, quietly. “The survivors…told me that some of the technological laboratories survived — but they did not know where the Device was stored, and none of the survivors were the scientists or military leaders…” He shook his head.

I pulled my map from my backpack, looking at it. “Well, it seems we shall kill two burns with one stone,” I said, quietly. “What shall you be doing while we get the Device, Nasrudin?”

“Oh,” Nasrudin said, shrugging. “I may go, get a hair cut, maybe bathe in the sun.” He frowned. “What do you think I will be doing, half-orc? I will be traveling to the Ring of Brodgar! I will be preparing the spell to banish you to the Void — I am…I am very old…” His head hung forward. “I believe I have but a single use of that damned spell left to me…and even that will take months to prepare.”

“So, the longer we take to get to you, the better?” I asked, smirking.

“Aye,” Nasrudin said, frowning. “I will send a message once I arrive, to tell you how much time before the wards fail. If we are lucky, you will be ready to go before it becomes…too late.”

I nodded. In the silence of the cabin, we could hear nothing but the slow, frothing bubbling of the stew. Surely, it had gone from being done to overdone by now. It felt as if the beginning of this journey should be undertaken with more fanfare. More excitement. More…celebration. But as it was, all that I could manage was reaching out and taking Nasrudin’s hand. I shook it and looked into his eyes. His voice was grim.

“While you may not be the Living One,” he said, quietly. “You are filling the role of the prophecy. At the end of the day, whether you are me or not, you are being me.” He smirked. “And so, you have very little choice in this. And for that, I pity you…I would not wish to face Arronax again…and not merely because I am…because I…” He trailed off. I nodded.

“I understand, Nasrudin,” I said.

“I hope you do,” he said, his voice grim.

And with that, he started out through the door — and once he was gone, I rubbed my palms along my face.

“Hey wait!” Gillian shouted after Nasrudin. “What about Saint Mannox!”

Nasrudin stopped, turning to face them. “Oh! That asshole!”

TO BE CONTINUED

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