Strange Horizons

by Galen Bayne-Allison

Pushing his chair away from the great wooden desk at which he had spent countless hours over the course of the last few weeks, Velekai rose to his feet. Walking slowly across the room, his black silk robes rustling across the stones, he came to stand before the lone window gracing the library. Breathing deeply of the night air he gazed up at the dark sky and its attendant stars, his thoughts wandering back to the work he had just left.

He had spent the last two days reading and re-reading a chapbook written by a traveler from the Midlands, a man named Aubrey. Of humble birth, Aubrey had left his family shortly after his sixteenth birthday and traveled to a nearby town where he joined up with a mercenary company. Aubrey spent the next fourteen years of his life soldiering for various causes all about the Midlands, some good, some dubious. After his thirtieth birthday, Aubrey had retired from the soldier's life and taken to wandering the Midlands, visiting the different peoples and observing the many natural wonders found there. Most fascinating to Velekai, was an account of Aubrey's visit to a place called Metamor Keep. Velekai was familiar with the Keep's history and purpose as a defensive installment against the inhabitants of the Giantdowns, but what Aubrey had written surprised and intrigued him. According to the chapbook, a great battle had taken place at the keep several years before. During the battle, a mage named Nasoj and his lackeys had cast a series of spells transforming the defenders of the Keep into animals, babies, and terribly misproportioned men and women. The defenders had worked their own magics to try and mitigate the damage, and had succeeded in moderating the effects. Interesting enough, but the truly fascinating thing was that the spells had integrated with the Keep by some unknown mechanism and become permanent, now affecting anyone who remained in the locale for more than a week. Aubrey himself was careful to leave before more than a handful of days had passed, not wanting to be caught by the spells.

He himself had dabbled in transformative enchantments in the past, most often using them to travel unnoticed. Or more rarely, to experience a different walk of life, a perspective other than that given him as a mage of the black. Once, after great preparation, he had taken the shape of a small dragon with silvery scales and flown out over the mountains and into the Desert of Dreaming, but that had been long ago when he was younger and more reckless. He shuddered as the memories of that journey came unbidden to his mind, fresh as if he had just experienced them.

Velekai had decided that tonight he would see this Metamor Keep for himself. Gazing one last time at the stars, he pulled his head back inside and walked back over to his desk. Sitting down again, he quickly put away his papers and slipped the chapbook into one of the many pockets concealed in the folds of his robe. At the last, producing a small silver key attached to a fine chain dangling about his neck, Velekai locked his notes into the desk's large drawer and blew out the pair of candles that graced the desk with light. He stood there a moment, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness before beginning the walk back to his quarters.

The night air was brisk indeed, and Velekai found himself chilled as he reached the door to his quarters. Letting himself in, he shivered briefly and uttered a word of power, smiling to himself as the great fireplace at the back of the large room flared to life, the red-orange flames lapping against the worn bricks. Momentarily caught up in the play of the flames, he let his mind wander.

What sort of dreams would the Metamorians have? Would they reminisce about their change? Or would they be no different than the dreams of any man or woman, governed by the vagaries of thought and the events of the day?

He would find out soon enough.

Settling into his high-backed armchair beside the fire, Velekai leaned back and closed his eyes. Almost immediately he began to dream.

Velekai smiled as he found himself floating in a directionless black void. About him bobbed slightly luminescent orbs, each one the dream of a sleeper somewhere else in the world. Concentrating, Velekai reached out with his mind for the dream he sought, the dream of a Metamorian. The telltale residue of the magics of Nasoj should make them relatively easy to find.

A moments thought and he was drifting rapidly amongst the gently bobbing orbs, pulled toward his unseen destination by will alone for this was no physical place he stood in, rather a domain of the mind. In but a few short moments Velekai drifted to a stop before a particularly vivid orb, the outside of which swirled with chaotic colors, most of them dark. Purples, dark reds, black.

Hesitating a moment, for he knew what those colors forebode, Velekai laid his hand against the surface of the sphere and projected his will. The bubble shimmered slightly and then his hand slid in, the rest of his body quickly following.

A dark alley strewn with the refuse of countless masses, from bits of rotting food, to broken pottery, and worse. In one of the deeper shadows a tiger crouched, not a true tiger though, but some strange hybrid between man and beast. The crouched figure unfurled itself, rising to its feet and looking cautiously about, both towards where the alley stopped in a dead end, and back out to the street.

Seemingly satisfied, the tiger stepped out of the shadow and gazed up, taking stock of the houses framing his hiding place. Suddenly, the feline leapt and grabbed onto the edge of an overhanging roof. With a soft grunt, he, for the figure was definitely male, pulled himself up onto the roof and dropped into a crouch. Looking this way and that he began to make his way across the shingles, mincing carefully around the loose ones that periodically cropped up in his path.

Reaching the edge of the roof the tiger glanced up at an open window across the way and then down at the ground, judging the distance of the jump. With a concerted effort he propelled himself across the street below, and grabbed onto the sill of the open window. Leveraging himself up, he twisted sideways and squeezed through into the room beyond.

He quickly gazed about the room. A fireplace, a bookshelf, a bed, one occupant, human, male, seated at a desk lit by two candles. He stalked across the room to stand behind the man, who seemed to be occupied writing in a ledger of some sort.

Slipping a dagger quietly from a sheath he spoke for the first time, his voice low and menacing as he loomed behind the man. "Stop that. Now."

The man turned and began to open his mouth, only to be met by the glint of a dagger, which the tiger promptly buried to the hilt in the man's throat. A liquid gurgling escaped the man's lips as he toppled out of his chair, clawing at his throat. In a moment, the man passed out from shock, his life's blood spilling in a spreading pool on the wooden floor.

The tiger reached down and picked up the ledger. He quickly tore the page out that the man had been writing on and crouched low over the desk to examine it. It read 'Scratch, Born in...' It looked like the man had just begun another letter when the pen trailed off in an illegible squiggle. Growling, the tiger tore the paper to shreds and burned the pieces in the flame of one of the candles, one by one.

He looked down at the body, lying in its crimson shroud. The man's face had shifted, coming to resemble his own. The lips were parted, grinning, as if to say, "You can't kill me, I'm a part of you."

It was apparent that the tiger, though he stood in the light of the candles, cast no shadow.

With great effort Velekai pulled himself away from the Metamorian's dream. This Scratch had dreams the likes of which he did not wish to delve further into at the moment. A troubled psyche could at times produce dreamscapes so hostile that even an experienced dreamwalker would not dare to casually pry about in them. Velekai mused a moment, wondering what kind of past the tiger must have had to spawn such darkness of the mind. Then there was the lack of shadow, but before he could think on it too long, Velekai was drifting into slumber himself.

Blinking rapidly as his eyes tried to adjust to the sunlight streaming through the window in his quarters, Velekai roused himself from his slumber and stood up, the armchair creaking slightly under his weight. He turned towards the window and peered up into the sky, trying to divine the time. By the height of the sun it looked like it was nearly noon but he couldn't be sure, his eyes were still having trouble with the bright morning light. Grumbling to himself, he shirked off his now crumpled robe and tossed it into a low wooden box. Idly scratching at his chest he donned a clean robe snatched off one of the many shelves arranged about his room.

Metamor Keep. Fascinating. I shall have to see it for myself, he mused as he went about the task of squeezing juice from a pair of oranges and cooking up slices of thin, pungent sausage. Not an elaborate breakfast, but he had learned to live on little sustenance, a useful ability for one who traveled as much as he did. You can't always trust local cuisine, and it's better to be hungry than to be sick, but still unpleasant. Best to learn how to sustain oneself through other means.

Rising from the table after but a short time, Velekai wet his hands in a small marble basin then wiped them off on a long strip of linen. Moving towards the door he lifted a finely tooled leather belt from a hook and carefully strapped it about his waist, being sure that the end of the belt hung just right. Turning to the other side of the door, he bent down in front of the great chest located there. While tracing a pattern about its lock with his right hand he inserted and turned a key with his left. With a click the lock released, and he tilted back the lid. Reaching into the chest he withdrew a slender sword, a gently curved dagger, a scabbard, and a leather sheath. Smirking a bit at himself for having put on the belt first, he took it off and threaded the scabbard and sheath onto it before returning it to its place about his waist.

Closing the lid of the chest and rising to his feet, he took a moment to regard his home. At one end of the large room was a fireplace framed by a great mantle of white marble before which stood his armchair. To his right stood a sturdy four-post bed and a small table to bear his wash basin. To the left was a long marble table and a pair of fine wooden chairs. At the far left corner was a small hearth for cooking, the ventilation of which tied into the chimney for the main fireplace. And in the far right corner was a tall bookcase, filled with the many books he had acquired in his travels and studies. Soon he would be leaving all this behind for the open road and a journey of several weeks. Turning, he walked swiftly and silently out into the courtyard and across the stones to pass through the great archway leading into the grand hall of the keep.

The keep was fairly small for a fortification. Perched on the side of a small mountain, its granite walls were easily defensible in the case of a battle, though what fools would assault the demesne of an order of mages were unknown to him. The grand hall was a towering section of the edifice, the ceiling easily two score feet above the ground. The floor was of perfectly joined and polished red marble slabs, and the room was occupied by nearly two dozen individuals sitting on white meditation mats strewn about the room. Walking up the aisle between his fellow mages, he approached the dais at the far end of the hall, where sat the white-robed Master Kelenon, head of the Order of the Three Roses.

Arriving before the dais he gathered his black robes about him and kneeled. Bowing his head he addressed Kelenon. "Master, I request leave to travel north and study the enchantments on Metamor Keep in the Midlands." Having issued his request, Velekai rose and retreated several paces before turning back to face the dais and kneeling once more.

The answer was swift in coming, as Kelenon rose to his feet. "Velekai of the Black, your request is denied. The Order has need of your presence here, of your skill at teaching, and your mastery of the dream realms."

The black robe's expression remained neutral, although inside he fretted at the bit of his halter. The halter whose lead was held by Kelenon, and through him, the Order. He had only two options, relent and forget about seeing Metamor Keep and its magic for himself, or challenge Kelenon for the white.

Velekai had of late bridled at the restrictions place upon him because of his skills. It seemed to him that his unusual talents and abilities should give him more leeway to do as he pleased, but it was not the case. Instead he found himself bound to the Order the majority of the times, either teaching or observing the Dreams of the initiates, something that gave him unique insights into their personalities and the kind of problems he might expect them to have. The only times he was allowed to leave came when a mission required his unique talents, not something that came up more than once or twice a year, and then his travel was very restricted by the responsibilities he carried. In the past, before he achieved the Red, he had been sent into the field on a regular basis, and often with fewer restrictions on his actions once the task assigned was completed. At least then he had been able to find enough time to explore the region within a week's travel. This was the final straw, he would have his freedom, one way or the other.

Rising to his feet, Velekai steeled himself for what was to come. Raising his gaze to fix Kelenon in the eyes, he stated his challenge. "I, Velekai of the Black challenge you, Kelenon of the White, for the right to be free of the bonds of the Order, that I might travel and learn as I see fit, without hindrance or expectation. In short, to be granted the same leave that you possess to do as your personal desires dictate."

Kelenon's face betrayed a moment of surprise before his training quickly suppressed the reaction. It was obvious that the master had not been expecting such an act, but he was quick to reply. "I have no choice but to accept your challenge, the choice of method is however, mine. I choose the Duel Arcane."

Unsurprising, thought Velekai, he is the wearer of the white, supposedly the most powerful mage of our order. Still, he had hoped that Kelenon might choose the Changing Duel, or the Contest of Blades, both of which he had fought in the past and won. The Duel Arcane he had studied, and prepared for, but had never participated in. It would be a most formidable test, despite his field experience with battle magics, but at least he had the Right of Venue, and might choose a place less hospitable to his opponent than to himself. In the Duel Arcane, only those elements present in the local environment could be used as weapons. His voice quavering slightly as he contemplated his prospects, he named the location at which the duel would take place. "The challenge will be met at the pinnacle of night, in the main courtyard."

The white-robed man nodded. "So be it."

Turning and walking across the great marble floor towards the courtyard, he heard the master speak again. "I hope you are sure of yourself, Velekai, the Duel Arcane often results in the death of the loser."

He kept on walking until he reached his own quarters, where he promptly dropped into his armchair and began to worry.

The night was close and humid, a sure sign of a brewing storm. The courtyard of the keep was empty save for two men standing a dozen paces apart. As one they bent down and began to trace lines along the ground with their fingers, leaving a lingering blue glow. Soon a circle began to take shape, its outline woven of twining threads of energy and anchored to the stones of the keep, and through them, to the mountain itself. Soon enough the circle was complete and the two men paused to regard eachother critically. A minute passed as they stood there, and then they both stepped forward into the circle, their movements so perfectly timed that one might almost imagine that one was simply a copy of the other.

Velekai stood towards one side of the circle, and Kelenon to the other. Both of them held short staves of black wood graven with runes that glowed an emerald green in the darkness. The slight light given off by the staves reflected on their faces, revealing an expression of stony resolution on the face of Velekai, and one of calm assurance on that of Kelenon.

As one they spoke the words that would activate the circle drawn about them, the circle that would contain the energies they would draw upon in the coming minutes. "By Nuori, from whom the rite of the duel was handed down through time immemorial, let only the victor leave the circle. As it was in the beginning, so let it be in the end. May the spirits have mercy on our souls."

The storm that had been gathering chose the moment as its own, and as the circle flared to life, a great peal of thunder rolled down across the mountain and the rain began to fall.

Kelenon shouted against the crash of the thunder. "You always were a lover of simple things, Velekai. The patter of the rain on the cobblestones, the gurgle of a brook. You never learned to truly appreciate the complexities of society, you were always too enrapt in the natural wonders about you. Too bad you won't have another chance."

Raising up his arms, the master drew forth shards of stone from the cobblestones beneath his feet. The shards hovered briefly before him for a moment before he gestured violently towards Velekai with his staff.

Velekai stood his ground as the shards spun towards him, then at the last moment ground the butt of his staff into the stones beneath his feet. The shards veered from their course and shattered against the cobblestones from whence they came.

The two combatants regarded one another coldly for a moment before the white robed Kelenon launched another attack, thrusting out his free hand, fingers splayed. For a moment, what little illumination the storm above provided was blotted out. As the darkness receded in the face of the lightning-troubled sky, purple ribbons of energy streamed forth from the master's hand and settled about Velekai. Almost as quickly as they had appeared, the ribbons began to fade one by one as the black robe unraveled them strand by strand. Unfortunately for Velekai, the spell had already sapped a great deal of his strength by the time he finally banished it completely.

His words belying the concern he felt at his opponent's obviously superior command of battle magics, he spoke. "You will have to do better than that, Kelenon. My defenses have been hardened by years of work in the field, I wonder if yours have grown soft." With that, he struck the butt of his staff hard against the ground, the glow of the runes increasing in intensity for a moment. For a moment everything was quiet, then a loud whistling filled the air and from the staff flew myriad trailers of crackling lightning and rushing wind. Most struck the master's hastily constructed defenses and faded out, but a few did manage to penetrate, leaving smoking holes in white-robed mage's attire.

Kelenon staggered back a step, almost brushing against the dome projected from the circle as the winds battered him. Grimacing he reached inside himself to touch his center, to unlock the keys to his body and start his wounds to healing.

Velekai's confidant expression turned to a slow frown as he watched the wounds on the master's body slowly knit and close. Rejuvenation had never been his strongest point, and it seemed that the master was unusually skilled in its arts.

Kelenon crouched low to touch the ground, murmuring words Velekai could not make out. Suddenly a ripple passed through the courtyard, knocking the black robe from his feet.

Seizing his opportunity, Kelenon strode forward to stand just a step away from the black robe. Raising the enruned staff above his head in both hands he reached into the earth, searching for the power he knew was there, the node that he had constructed beneath the keep so long ago. Finding its telltale signature, he reached for the energy, but instead of strength surging through him, he felt weakened as the node sucked at his personal reserves. Tearing himself away, Kelenon snapped back to his senses to find Velekai standing in front of him, staff raised.

The black robe grinned, his opponent had made a fatal miscalculation. "Really Kelenon, I thought you knew better than to lower your shields and reach for outside power. You gave me just the opportunity I needed to ride along with you and ground you out."

Velekai swung his staff downwards, as its arc intersected with Kelenon's staff there was a loud crack and the white robe was left holding two simple pieces of wood.

"Give up Kelenon, without the Tel'Marin, and with your reserves depleted, you cannot win, even though you are more skilled in the destructive arts than I."

The master would not yield however, and took that moment to launch an attack of a rather unorthodox nature. Kicking out with his foot, he struck the black robe in the knee, dropping him to the ground again, and causing him to lose his grip on his staff, which skittered to rest at the far side of the circle.

"You have broken the rule of our Order, Kelenon, that no member raise his hand to strike another, save by the device of the duels. The duel arcane is a duel of magic, not of physical blows. You have lost." Rising unsteadily to his feet, Velekai dove across the containment circle, which promptly winked out.

"Damn you Velekai, is this how you repay-" Kelenon began to shout, but was cut off by Velekai's icy retort.

"I am tired of the Order's needs, Kelenon. What about my needs, my desires? There is little in the way of learning left for me here, save the secrets kept by you, the master of the Order."

"No! I cannot allow you to leave with our secrets, regardless of your victory. If we cannot hold your reigns, you must die! Your power, so long nurtured by us is a threat we cannot tolerate outside of our hands!" Kelenon shouted, and lunged for Velekai, a dagger suddenly in his hand.

With one quick motion, Velekai thrust his left hand towards Kelenon, palm down. From the cobblestones shot a rough spike of stone, impaling the white-robed man where he stood. His reserves exhausted, he half crawled, half dragged himself to his chambers.

As he pulled himself into his bed, he idly wondered why the knowledge he held was so much more precious than that others had acquired, others who had been allowed to leave the Order on their own business as they pleased.

As Velekai woke, sunlight streaming across his bed, for a second it seemed as if time had turned back to the day before, but the hard wood of the Tel'marin he still clutched in his right hand belied it. Rolling out of bed and coming to rest unsteadily on his feet he glanced about the room. Everything was in order, except one thing. On his writing table was a neatly folded robe. A white robe.

Suddenly the events of the previous day snapped into focus. As the senior Black, the mantle now passed to him. He was the master now. Kelenon's overconfidence had let to defeat, quickly sealed with folly and death. Velekai had no doubt that even now the old master's body was being cremated, the better to be scattered to the winds and forgotten.

Reaching for the robe, Velekai hesitated a moment before grabbing it and slipping it on. It hadn't felt right, beating Kelenon in the Duel Arcane. Battle magic was never his strong suit, by all rights he should have lost, despite his choice of a venue with which he was familiar, having grown up in the storm swept mountains. Shaking free the thoughts brooding in his mind, Velekai slipped on a pair of sandals and walked out into the courtyard.

Shielding his eyes against the morning sun with one hand, Velekai turned to the left and ascended a short staircase before passing into one of the keep's four towers. Within lay the library, and Velekai had much studying to do if he wished to remain deserving of his new rank. Metamor would have to wait just awhile, until he could find a solution to the problem of his new duties.

Velekai let a long sigh escape from between his pursed lips. The fates just didn't seem to be cooperating with him of late. He had spent the entire morning sitting at a table discussing the future of the Order with some of the higher ranking members. Two of the purples, Athalim and Marasha, had posited the idea of a ruling council as opposed to a single master of the white. One of the older blacks had immediately jumped on the idea, going on about tradition, and respect. The purples hadn't taken it very well, and he had spent the better part of the afternoon trying to calm everyone down.

A ruling council appealed to him, as it would allow him to step down, something he had been wanting to do quite badly almost since he had taken up the white. The whole thing just didn't sit right with him. He had killed Kelenon, and not in a direct challenge of Ascension. The circumstances of that white robe's death didn't make it any better. By rights the former master should have been the winner of the duel, given his greater experience and practice. Yet, against all odds, he had won. He would be glad to put the whole thing behind him as soon as possible.

Which meant convincing the blacks to accept a change in the ranks of the Order, something that hadn't been done in over four hundred years. Tradition provided a great deal of inertia, it would take much persuasion and smoothing of ruffled feathers to put a council in place. Even then, fighting would surely erupt over who would sit on the council. And his own status was still in doubt. Would he leave the order or would he simply withdraw from a leadership position? If he stayed, would it undermine the power and ability of the council?

There were a lot of unanswered questions, and none of them likely to be resolved any time in the immediate future. He would simply have to bide his time.

Velekai mumbled to himself and turned in his bed as he felt the tuggings of his body drawing him to wakefulness. His eyes opening finally, he cursed as he lost his tenuous hold on the dream realm. He had been visiting the dreams of the tiger, Scratch, and had been engrossed in a scene between the rogue and a raccoon, when his body's demands finally caught up with him.

Running a hand through the short beard that now graced his chin, Velekai thought back over the months that had passed since Kelenon's death. Most of his time he spent in studying of the various magics known to the Order, but he also spent a great deal of time playing politics with the membership. He had displaced the organization that Harek of Akala had set into place so long ago, forming a council of three that would watch over the Order. Each of the three would wear the white, and each would have equal say in the future path of the Order. Those who retired honorably from the council would retain the right to wear the white if they so chose.

Now, the time was finally right to go north to Metamor, and to visit those other places that had intrigued him in his studies.

Velekai hoped that his newly honed skills would be enough to carry him north without much incident. He, unlike the rest of his Order, loathed using that magic at which he was most adept, the magic of the mind. Ever since he was an Initiate, he had been taught that the minds of others were sacred, not to be tampered with unless absolutely necessary. Yet everyday he was made to study its workings, and in time came to master his own. With that mastery came the understanding that he would but have to reach out with his will to wreak havoc on those around them, warping their perceptions of reality, and if they were weak enough, gleaning their secrets and ways. It was a terrible temptation, and one he strived to avoid at all costs.

The mastery of the mind he had pursued at the Order made him unusually apt at picking up other techniques of magic, which was fortunate given his predilection for avoiding the use of his personal powers. The Order was for the most part an eclectic group of mages who worked and studied together under the aegis of the Three Oaths and a centuries old system of rank and training, a system of training that was very effective and much sought. Velekai's skills in the magics of the mind had come at great difficulty, as he had but a score of texts to rely on in his studies, most of them left by former members of the Order.

The Order was scorned by some of the other guilds and organizations of the far south because it styled itself after the mage guilds of the Southlands, a long dead master having come from those remote regions. He had instituted a system of rank patterned after that he was accustomed to, as well as a more rigorous schedule of physical training and philosophical study. His changes paid off for the Order in the long run, producing a body of initiates less centered in traditional learning, and more aware of the environment in which they worked their magics.

Where an initiate of another order would strike out quickly with the magic of his specialty, a mage of the Three Roses would wait and observe. The mage would learn the weaknesses and strengths of those factors governing the situation, and then go about learning how best to deal with them. When the mage of the Three Roses finally struck, it would be decisive, achieving his goals by the quickest, least obvious means possible. Meanwhile, the other initiate would be blithely making his way through the situation along the most straightforward path available, unsuspecting that another had already beaten him to his goal.

Rolling out of his bed and coming up on his feet, Velekai pulled on a fresh robe and began putting together his things for the coming journey, an undertaking that would last most of the morning.

The sun beat down upon his back as he made his way down the steep mountain path. Only minutes ago he had bid the assembled members of his Order farewell, that he might travel north and study the enchantments of Metamor Keep in person. He hoped that the Order would be safe in his absence, safe in the hands of the but recently formed council, but in the far south, things rarely remained constant and he would look to his occasional visits to the dreams of his comrades with trepidation.

A long journey lay ahead of him as he traveled north across the Flatlands to skirt along the edge of the Aelfwood and Sylvan Mountains, before making his way further north and west to Ellcaran and then on to Metamor itself. It was fortunate that his time in the Order had prepared him for solitude and the company of his own mind, for he could ill afford notice on his sojourn and as a result intended to avoid civilization as he traveled.

Leaning on his walking staff he turned and looked back over his shoulder at the stronghold of the Order one last time before turning away at last and meandering his way down the steep slopes, a tooled leather satchel, from which dangled a capped metal tube about the length of a short staff, jouncing about under one arm as he navigated the rough trail.