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Palpatim

Chant - Four years later

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"One of the first lessons any student of the Art must learn is how to separate illusion from reality," Chant said, as he stood at the center of a semi-circle of twenty students, mostly prospective initiates of the Corona Cor Igne, and therefore Tiefling, but with a few beings of other races. The Bright Kingdom maintained several Arcanae, but several wizards piled their trade as independent agents. and the Flamehearts had the benefit of notoriety, not to mention exclusivity. Tieflings were rare enough in the land that any of Chant's race who ventured abroad was likely to be assumed a member of the Flamehearts, whether or not that was in fact true. The fact that Chant was not only a Tiefling, but a recognized (and even celebrated, albeit in a very minor fashion) member of the Animus Igne, The Order of the Flaming Mind, meant that Chant was expected to spend some time in what the Seneschal called "outreach." The lesson had been going for nearly two hours, the students standing that entire time. Chant found it focused the mind of his students to have them stand with him during the lesson. Besides, it made cleaning up the space easier.

He considered the air in front of him for a moment, and the image of a dragon roaring in an icy cave filled a space perhaps a hand's width on each side. "Sometimes, this is a trivial matter, and even one untutored in the arcane can distinguish it." He gestured at the dragon, still roaring silently, while the tiny figures of an elf, two dwarves and a cloaked figure with red skin battled it. "This tableau is obviously illusory, an image of some other place and time," he smiled inwardly as the dragon reared its head and fell under the onslaught of the tiny warriors. The minuscule figure of a Dwarven ranger raised twin axes in triumph. "But not all illusions are so obvious, and their purposes vary according to the whim of the caster. Be seated." He gestured to the chairs that stood behind the students, dropping the illusion in front of him as he did so.

Twenty figures found their seats, but only nineteen actually sat in them. From Chant's left, he heard a yelp of surprise. With a stately turn, he faced the sound, and saw Wroth, her pale red skin flushing at her cheeks. She appeared to be sitting through a chair which, untroubled by the attempt to use it as support, remained motionless. Several of the other students laughed quietly, although not unkindly. Wroth was hardly the first student to be caught unawares by a demonstration. Chant faced the Tiefling squarely. "Why did you attempt to sit on that?" Wroth attempted to rise, but Chant forestalled her motion with an upraised hand. "Answer first. Stand later."

The young woman twitched her tail in agitation, clearly humiliated. "I thought the chair was real."

Chant stared at her, impassive. "Why would you think that?"

"It appeared real."

"Did it? It doesn't appear so now, though."

Wroth considered for a moment, and then amended sullenly, "It looked real."

Chant nodded, and dismissed the illusion with the same gesture that invited Wroth to stand. A chair that had heretofore rested along the wall scraped along the floor toward her, stopping a foot away. She hesitated, grasped the back of the chair, patted its seat, and took her place in the circle of sitting students.

"Looking is certainly the most common way of establishing our reality, but practitioners of the Art recognize it as one of the least trustworthy. You are all familiar with this lesson," he chided the room at large, but did not look away from Wroth. "Why would you trust your eyes to determine whether something was safe enough to place your body in its care?" She said nothing. "Then the first lesson for today is, your arcane senses are not simply a set of spectacles to pull over your weak sight. They are your primary sight. The divinations and explorations you learn by exercising the Art are your first, not last, recourse when confronted with any new thing." He turned to pick up a heavy glass orb, the size of a small melon, that rested on a small table next to him. He hefted it for a moment, raising it to his eyes, then turned and flung it at Wroth. She remained motionless as the orb passed through her, "landing" behind her without so much as a sound. Chant smiled faintly in approval. Wroth stared back at him defiantly, and Chant had to fight to keep his smile from growing wider. Young people were always so passionate.

"But this lesson has a corollary, as all lessons do." He removed his robes, laying them on the table, and stood in front of them clad in a simple shirt of lightly woven tan homespun, with brown drawstring pants. The shirt opened at the front, revealing a corner of his Flameheart tattoo, inscribed in slightly luminous golden ink over his heart, shining beneath one seam of the collar. In the center of the "V" formed by his collar, a small citrine charm bearing an intaglio of a courtier in ornate robes, hung on a copper chain around his neck. He exercised his will and felt a small pulse from the locket. On the charm, the carving moved, donning pieces of armor at an impossible speed, until it resembled a knight in full plate mail. The air around Chant shimmered slightly, as if his skin were a cobblestone street on a hot day, and he was suddenly clothed in robes of a deep emerald. Gold accents traced the hem, collar and cuffs, and a flaming heart outlined in tiny rubies lay above his heart, twin to the tattoo that lay in his skin. "What appears real, may not be." He picked up a dagger and held it delicately in front of him. "But what appears insubstantial," he drove the dagger toward his heart, hearing a collective gasp from the students around him which choked off as the dagger stopped with a "thunk" a scant inch in front of his chest, point centered in the ruby flame. "May be able to affect reality in unexpected ways."

He laid the dagger on the table and once again concentrated on the charm. The robes disappeared and Chant lifted the charm from his breast slightly. "Armor of the Cohors Praetoria," he said and looked around expectantly. To his surprise, an Eladrin whom Chant could not recall ever having spoken before answered. Chant fought to place the boy's name as he spoke in a soft, high voice like bells on a still morning, "Sir, Armor of the Cohors Praetoria is given to the personal protectors of the Emperor of Elphame. Because they must appear with the Emperor at courtly functions, they wear these lockets so they may don armor and protect their lord at an instant's notice, without imposing the presence of armed guards on proceedings of the court." Chant listened half-attentively as he fought for the young man's name. Brell? Trell? He gave it up as a bad job.

"Very good, young master." The Eladrin reddened slightly, although whether his color arose from pleasure at the praise, or shame at the instructor obviously forgetting his name, Chant could not be sure. Chant laid the locket again on his breast, and tapped it. "A gift from one of that worthy order, thanking me for service in the Devilswood some months ago. When the robes are summoned, the thinness of the cloth and delicate workmanship bely the enchantments woven through it. However, even though the enchantments are unseen, they need not pass undetected." He once again summoned the armor, and invited the students to examine him using their arcane senses.

He saw Wroth's brow furrow into a frown. He faced her expectantly. "There is more," she said, uncharacteristically hesitant. "At your shoulder, no it's moving across your back." Chant raised his eyebrows in surprise. "Deleásei, please show yourself." He heard another intake of breath as a few students gasped at the sudden appearance of the imp on his shoulder. "My familiar," Chant explained. "He prefers to remain hidden, and it is a testament to your own powers of perception that you were able to detect him at all, let alone identify his movements." Wroth said nothing. "Thank you Deleásei," the imp disappeared, but blew a small raspberry into his ear. Chant breathed slightly easier. The imp was typically brusque and rude, and Chant did not relish the thought of salving some student's bruised ego, so he suffered this extremely minor indignity silently.

"So, today's lesson." Chant said, dismissing his armor and donning his robes. "First," he raised a finger. "That which appears solid may be insubstantial, but may yet hide a real danger. Second," another finger, "what appears insubstantial or ordinary may hide great depths of power. Therefore, nothing may be trusted to appear," he stressed the word as he glanced at Wroth, who flushed again, "as it is, but only reveal its true nature on close inspection with all of your senses, chief among them, your perceptions of the arcane."

He dismissed the class and the handful of students who were not pledges to the Order departed. Chant surveyed the room, now occupied only by Tieflings. The Corona Cor Igne taught lessons to all comers, but that did not imply that every lesson was for all ears. "Your task, young aspirants to the Flamehearts, is to explore the arcane ramifications of this box." He walked to the corner and pulled out a box which had gone heretofore unnoticed simply because it was so ordinary--to all appearances a supply chest such as might be found in any arcanist's workshop. "I do not set this task to you individually, but as a group; you must learn to rely on each other as much as yourself. If you continue even a short way into a career with the Corona Cor Igne, you will find that having teammates upon whom you can rely completely is more valuable than all the treasure in Elveald." He left unspoken the fact that only rarely would those teammates come from within the ranks of the Flamehearts themselves. The Order preferred its agents to act independently.

"May we open the box?" Wroth, of course.

"You may explore whatever avenues seem advisable to you, but by our next meeting, I expect a thorough explanation of this box from all of you." They always opened the box.

The boxes were an instructional affectation, something Chant had done several times previously over the past year and a half of "outreach" duty. Once, he had secreted a powerful magic rod in the box, although the box itself was ordinary. Once, he had sealed the box with a powerful enchantment. The students had been so self-congratulatory upon opening the box that they utterly failed to notice the mildly explosive runes Chant had laid upon the book therein. That had earned him a sour rebuke from the Praepositum Militum Arcana (who was nominally in charge of those agents of the Corona who drew chiefly upon the Art for their power) and an altogether more ferocious scolding from the Healer tasked with mending the burns two of the students sustained. He expected no similar result from this test, however; Chant had trapped the box with the trigger for a binding circle, which would effectively prevent any Tiefling from passing through it, either to escape (if trapped inside) or to aid (if outside). The packet of noxious stink salve that he had applied to the inside lid and charmed to release when the box was opened was simply an unsubtle reminder of the gravity of these students' chosen profession.

Their quest laid upon them, the students departed, box in tow. Chant watched the retreating students and made a mental note to be on his guard for the next few weeks. If history was any indication, he would be faced with several attempts at good-natured revenge in the form of illusory books, quills, and papers, not to mention all manner of potentially explosive or aromatic items.

Chant gathered his materials from the table and walked to the door, but rather than pass through, he closed it and turned to face the empty room. He looked at the corner closest to the large windows, and bowed deeply. "I hope you were not bored by the class, honored guest." Knowing someone was there, and identifying that person, were two entirely different things. Chant had noticed the presence enter the room some twenty minutes before class let out, but since it remained quietly in the corner, he had seen saw no reason to interrupt his lesson.

"You," said a familiar voice from the empty corner, "are becoming quite devious as you age."

Chant allowed himself a rare, full grin as Master Fell appeared in the corner, looking slightly older and far more careworn than when Chant had seen him last, perhaps a year ago. Chant dropped his materials on the table and approached the older Tiefling clasping his hand warmly. "I learned certain lessons well from my teachers," Chant said with a hint of slyness. Fell chuckled and gestured to the chairs. Chant led the way back to the circle of chairs and waited for Master Fell to take one before seating himself.

"You are well?" asked Chant. Master Fell declined to answer, instead asking a question of his own.

"I trust your recent journey to Eskaton was successful?"

Chant knew better than to question the man's sources of information. While he was one of highest ranking members of the Corona Cor Igne, his reputation as a voracious consumer of information was widely known. It appeared that he had not lost his touch. If Fell wanted Chant to know the source, he would reveal it. If not, he wouldn't, and Chant would be left to wonder, guess, or puzzle it out on his own. "Quite, Master," Chant said. "The Drywkirdara were most grateful for our assistance, although we ranged rather further afield than Eskaton."

"Yes, the Forest of Tirsifa is fraught with peril than now more than ever. The locals have take to calling it the "Devilswood," did you know?" Chant nodded. "But with peril may come great reward, or so it is said." Fell's eyes crinkled and Chant nodded again.

"It is said rightly, Master Fell."

"Tell me of its finding, then." He raised a hand, acknowledging Chant's hesitation and forestalling any apologetic refusals. "Do not betray any confidences of the Order in which I spent so many years, but tell me at least the general circumstances."

Roughly two years prior, Fell had announced he was leaving the Corona Cor Igne, a move which generated no small amount of consternation amongst the rank and file membership of the Flamehearts. Chant had not been overly close with the man, but his departure had left many with questions about the circumstances. He was ousted in a power play, some said. He left after he was denied admittance to the Iustum Inferno, the Order's highest rank, others opined. Whatever his motivation, the forms were maintained, and the goodbyes were appropriately tearful and, to all appearances, sincere. Nonetheless, as he was not an active member of the Flamehearts, he was not to know of the details of any missions undertaken on their behalf. Or at least, not to be told by a member of Chant's rank.

But at that, Chant realized the older Tiefling likely knew as much as Chant would be able to relate in any case. He reached into a belt pouch and withdrew his orb, passing it to Master Fell. The spinel orb was a translucent, pale red, polished to a glossy finish. A delicate desert rose lay at its heart, its "petals" extending in an eight-pointed star. "The Heart of Corellon," murmured Master Fell, examining it from all angles. "A remarkable conduit for arcane power, and a work of great beauty besides," he said, handing it back to Chant. He replaced it in his pouch as Fell looked at him expectantly.

"As you say," Chant said. He collected his thoughts for a moment. "I came across an unexpected shrine to Father Corellon in…on my last journey," he amended. "The shrine was abandoned, but had been thoroughly defiled at some time in the past by disciples of the Spider Queen."

"The recent past?" asked Master Fell.

"It would seem so," Chant agreed. "Many of the defilements relied on the blood of victims whose corpses had been left to rot, and they were no more than two years old, I would estimate."

Fell nodded, "And you believe followers of Lolth did this thing?"

"I do," Chant said. "The altar had been sundered, and her symbol was rendered in blood upon its broken pieces. The idol of Corellon had been toppled from its plinth, replaced by a roughly-cast spider of some dark gem." Fell nodded again, and Chant continued. "The idol itself was as you may have heard, a marble statue perhaps half as high as a man, with nearly its entire chest taken up with the Heart." He touched the pouch. "I studied the statue for some time before attempting anything, but noticed the marble was unmarked. For the Spiders to have left such a thing unmolested is inconceivable--"

"A safe assumption," Master Fell said dryly.

"--so I can only surmise that the magic of the thing itself protected it from their violence."

"After a time, I righted the statue, made a prayer, and an offering, and performed my obeisance. The Heart glowed, lit from within along the edges of the desert rose symbol you saw in the center of the orb, brighter and brighter, until the Star of Corellon filled all of my vision. When it cleared, the the altar had been cleansed of Lolth's symbol, although it remained cracked, and I sensed the Heart of Corellon call to me. I retrieved it from the statue, and it came as easily as if it were set upon a cushion, rather than embedded and nearly surrounded by solid marble."

"A fine gift to a worthy man," Fell said, and Chant bowed his head in thanks. "You used the orb shortly thereafter, did you not?"

The conversation was about to take a turn into territory where he would be forced to reveal details he'd just as soon leave unsaid. Missions for the Corona were not exactly a secret, but as a rule, members of the Order did not discuss its activities with those who were not directly involved. "Yes, Ma- my Lord Fell," Chant said in sudden discomfiture.

Fell acknowledged the change in honorific by explaining, "The Drywkirdara maintain a small shrine within my keep. Small, but notable for the quality of visitors it attracts, from even relatively well-placed members of the priesthood."

After he departed the Corona Cor Igne, Fell (no longer "Master") had established himself in a holdfast on the northeastern edge of the county. The keep was small, housing a little over 100 beings, but his position as the ruler placed Fell at approximately the same level as a baron in the peerages of Elphame and Elveald. Chant had visited once on his way to Pellemar, a year after Fell had left, and found the place well-maintained and staffed with a surprisingly robust contingent of warriors, apprentice wizards, fortifications and magical defenses. That he also hosted dignitaries of the Drywkirdara surprised Chant not at all, and explained his knowledge. Chant's own mission had been arranged at the bequest of the Drywkirdara, who had approached the Flamehearts a year ago with this very task.

Fell continued, "One such visitor mentioned that a Tiefling named Chant had led an expedition into the Forest of Tirsifa to exorcise a devil that had recently taken up unwelcome residence there. They mentioned that you acquitted yourself admirably, and made special mention of the orb you wielded to such great effect." He shifted in his seat and said, "I believe this will not be the last time you will use the orb in the Devilswood, Chant."

Chant locked his bronze-red eyes directly onto Fell's emerald ones, waiting. Fell continued, "The ostensible purpose for my presence in the capital is unremarkable affairs of managing the Holdfast, but I tell you frankly that the actual reason for my visit is you." Chant blinked in surprise. "I have believed for some time that the situation in the Devilswood is becoming worse, and your recent adventure there confirms this. However, my entreaties to the parties in authority have gone unanswered in any meaningful way." Was that a hint of bitterness around the edges of the man's tone? "Too much history, I fear.

"Therefore, I have asked my friends in the Drywkirdara to request the services of the Corona Cor Igne--and specifically, you--again. The Bright Kingdom needs a presence in the Forest of Tirsifa," said Fell, "if for nothing else than to provide advance warning of the storm when it arrives."

"Not 'if' it arrives?"

Fell shook his head. "I fear not. You know as well as I that prophecy is an ambiguous undertaking at best, but the skilled can read certain portents in the movements of the world. Even without those, however, it is plain for all to see that something evil stirs in the heart of the Devilswood."

Chant considered this, and said slowly, "I am honored by your obvious faith in me, Master Fell, but I am sorry that I do not see what I would accomplish there."

Fell nodded patiently. "There is a cottage on the outskirts of the Forest, some two days journey southwest of my holdfast. It is a rustic place, to be sure, but secluded, and situated along a clean stream at the top of a hill. A stream running into the Forest, I hasten to add. A sufficiently skilled member of the Order would be well placed to keep an eye on the activities in the area and report back to the Corona if he observes anything noteworthy. And if such a member were from time to time to pay a visit to an old friend only a couple of days distant, such a thing would hardly be worth mentioning."

Chant allowed himself another full grin, the black flecks in his eyes dancing. "Such a duty would be lonely," he agreed, "and regular visits to friends," he paused at the word and continued again, "would be most welcome."

Fell matched his grin, then sobered. "Again, I cannot ask this of you officially, but I implore you Chant: Come to the Forest, observe what is happening there. You are the best person I can think of for this duty." He stood, and Chant rose with him. He began to bow to the older Tiefling, but Fell stopped him, clasping his hands instead. He released Chant's hand, and pulled his hood over his head. "No need to be quite so dramatic on my way out, I think," he said with a twinkle in his eye.

Chant watched Master Fell retreat through the door. When he re-gathered his materials and stepped through the door himself, the wide corridor was empty.

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Comments

  1. Umiushi's Avatar
    Thanks for putting all that effort into this. It helped me visualize Chant and some of the other NPCs in new ways.