The fifth session of our Earthsea-ish campaign The Conclave, and an astounding revelation awaits the seven (male) sorcerers. This was a short write-up because the session included quite a long fight -- exciting at the time, but the choreography of a battle is boring to read.
Midnight in the garden of Princess Sheytelandin. The White Watcher met me under a mulberry tree, as others have in folktales.
‘You have what is mine. Now give it to me.’
Moments before, anticipating our interview, I had armoured myself using the transmuted fish scales I brought from the ship. It was proof against the weight of miles of ocean, robust enough to hold back the crushing pressure in the deepest submarine trench. More than that, the silver skin refracted and reflected the moonlight, turning the white radiance into a rainbow sheen that not only blocked the sapping power of Pale’s gaze but turned it outwards against those around me.
I considered. The Watcher stood with its hand out. I gave it the gem from the Summoner’s staff. In its triumph, it failed to notice that I had already read its true name from within the gem’s secret heart. Our fingers brushed, a sense of cold, and I was glad of the forethought that had shielded me in armour born of lightless depths where no moon penetrates.
Farris came back through the gateway I’d conjured to the ship. Sheltered from the Watcher’s power by my armour, he pulled me back towards the gate.
‘Leave it with the gem,’ I warned him, seeing him considering trying to snatch it back. ‘It thinks it has recovered its name, but it’s known to me.’
A moment later we were on the deck of the Sea Lion, putting out from a cove a few miles around the coast. ‘Make for the island of Tartuva,’ Aareth called to his crew.
‘Four of these marines are in the service of Lord Pale,’ noticed Idhelruin.
‘Indeed.’ We had all noticed that – apart from Aareth, it seemed. I had thought it was deliberate, so that we could feed information to our foe.
‘Shall I uncloud their minds – ?’ I began.
‘Drown yourselves,’ Eli told them.
‘Not certain enough,’ said Farris a moment later, as they flopped in their leather armour amid the waves. He skewered them with arrows.
Interesting. It might have been easier to restore the marines’ senses and free them from Pale’s magical command, but fear had taken root among us and as always it provokes desperate and violent measures. And as mortals the four marines were marked for death in any case. We watched them sink in a froth of red as sharks found the carcasses.
On the clifftops we spied a pale figure against the dawn. It dropped to the sea and began to walk across the waves towards us, at no great pace but infinitely remorseless.
‘The Walker. I mean the Watcher,’ said Aareth. ‘Hoist those sails, lads.’
I fashioned an hourglass that would record the Watcher’s progress. When the sands run out we’ll know it is upon us. As the vessel picked up speed, the sands reversed their flow and the figure of the Watcher dwindled in the distance. I must work on this device. Given time I can make it do more, even forewarn us of the waxing and waning of Pale’s influence.
‘Aareth,’ I said. ‘Can you look into the Dry Lands and see if Obsidian’s spirit is yet there?’
‘But you told us that Obsidian had turned himself into Lord Pale.’
‘Indeed I did. But even I am not infallibly omniscient. It is a theory; now let us verify it.’
His gaze turned inward. Through clouded eyes he gazed on the sere landscape that has no bourn from which a traveller could return, where only oases of dust exist to slake the unquenchable thirst of the dead. With an effort he dragged himself back to us, shivering.
‘Obsidian was a woman,’ he said with a look of wild certainty. ‘Lady Pale it is who seeks our doom.’
Eli looked up from our copy of Attempts on the Lives of Wizards. ‘Yes, she was feared as the most powerful witch of her generation. She was refused admission to the College of Hythe – ’
‘Because she was not craven or useless enough!’ snorted Wax.
‘She resolved to kill all other wizards and make herself preeminent,’ I said. ‘That is why she summoned the Watcher. In the Dry Lands she will have come face to face with eternity and wrought her apotheosis. Hence her association with the full moon, whose mythic symbolism has always been interpreted as female.’
‘What can we do?’ mused Idhelruin.
‘One of us could enter the Dry Lands and walk the same path, but that dream-quest took her twenty years. And there is no guarantee that the true names of all things are to be found there. We must find a quicker way.’
Eli had flipped to almost the last page of the book – or it had seemed the penultimate page, but more were knitting themselves into the binding as we watched. ‘One other female wizard’s death is recorded here, just hours ago,’ he said solemnly. He turned to Idhelruin. ‘I’m sorry. It was the Princess.’
‘She hid her power all these years,’ said Idhelruin. ‘Not well enough, it now seems – or can any hope to hide from the White Watcher? My friends, I must now tell you what it is you risked your lives to recover. This bell was entrusted to me by the wizards of Hythe. It will reveal a single true name and then crack.’
We nodded, knowing well whose name we’d need when the time came.
‘I declare myself the dog of Hurstyk,’ announced Wax suddenly. ‘I make myself your cur, master. Throw me bones, that’s all I ask. You have saved my life twice and I am nothing beside you. I’ll bark if you permit it.’
‘Do as you will,’ said Hurstyk. ‘I have no commands to give you.’
‘Here’s another name,’ said Eli, still browsing through the book. ‘The wizard Ugo was killed by the Watcher a few days since. Remember him? He calmed an earthquake by saying soft words to the mountaintops. Now he is gone from life.’
‘Somebody must stop this madwoman,’ growled Aareth. ‘Half a century she’s spent scheming. She’s grown old in making herself so mighty, and to what end? To murder all other wizards and spread indiscriminate plague throughout the isles.’
A discriminating plague – there was an interesting notion, and one that a benevolent god could use to improve the world immeasurably. But we had other concerns.
‘Another ship coming up on us fast,’ called Farris.
It flew the pallid flag we’d seen before, white moon on white. A haze robbed the sun of strength, making its light more of a lunar hue. I saw in the faces of the others a confusion. They looked around, unable to find the names of even simple things.
The other ship overhauled us and came alongside. Only ten marines stood ready to board – or two, rather, after Farris’s arrows had done their swift work. Feltass crouched behind a mast, but even there a dagger flung by Aareth sought him out and hurt him.
Farris and Aareth jumped across to the other deck. Feltass commanded them. He knew our names. ‘Eli, throw yourself overboard.’ And so he did, but Wax still knew the name of his turtle and Eli landed on its shell.
Wax also knew the name of his coral spear, which now inflicted another wound on Feltass. For all that he had control of the most powerful of us, our foe could not see a way to press his advantage. The turtle moved with astonishing speed and in seconds Eli was on the rail behind Feltass. He lunged, missing, but recovered his balance and bore Feltass over the side, locked in a deathly embrace.
Feltass’s magic now broken, those he’d commanded were again themselves. The sun beat down with its accustomed fire as Pale’s clutch slowly withdrew like a spider into the dimmest corner of its web. Wax sent down his turtle and it returned with Eli, but he lay limp on the deck like a deboned fish, having burned deep into the wick of his soul to find the strength to slay our adversary.
My armour I made to flow about him. It will give him the means to move, but impulsion comes not from strength so much as force of will, and that coin he has spent at a dire rate of exchange to buy our ashen victory.