More from our Conclave campaign, which owes much to Ursula K Le Guin -- or so I'm told, not having read the Earthsea books. (I will, but our umpire Tim Harford advised us not to until the adventure ends.)
And incidentally, in case you're confused, the party do indeed seem at this point to have acquired two enemies named Felt and Feltass (or Felteth according to some of the PCs). Or maybe they're one and the same. They've both got to die anyway, so maybe it doesn't matter...
The fish-scale armour made Eli’s heart beat again, and even gave him the power to move. But he was a puppet whose strings I pulled, his own will burned down to a cinder.
‘He is fallen into the sere and yellow leaf, the autumn of his strength. It gives me an idea. I can alter his skin to something like the green of springtime, so that the sun will fill him with fresh vigour. But to do that we need a grove of trees so that I can draw the essence of their sap to replace his blood.’
‘He may not appreciate the metamorphosis,’ mused Hurstyk.
I pointed to the drool on Eli’s slack jaw. ‘He appreciates not even the air that my enclosing armour bellows to and from his lungs. Let us set sail for – ’
‘The nearest island is Tulli,’ ventured Aareth.
I glanced at the hourglass in whose fashioning I had called upon the very name of Time. Its sands flowed swifter, but it would not run out for a day yet. ‘Set a course.’
‘As we go,’ said Aareth, ‘why don’t I read this book, The Black Knot?’
So saying he thrust his hand between its pages, screamed, and wrenched his fingers back. A white gold ring fell to the deck.
‘Lady Pale gave that to me,’ he said, clutching his seared flesh, which Hurstyk treated with his healing magic. ‘I have been under her spell this while, but now am free.’
‘And are you now going to read the book?’
He looked daunted. ‘When I said that just now, I merely meant to cause you mischief in my lady’s service.’
‘Nonetheless, it may hold a clue.’
Reluctantly, it seemed, he turned the pages. Black script on black reminded me of the white on white of Pale’s banner. ‘In the labyrinth of Tartuva there dwell the Sightless Ones,’ read Aareth. ‘They are gods.’
‘All that betokens is the ignorance of the native islanders. I should know. Read on.’
‘A great wizard of the north, Diamansus by name, sought to bring light to the island. He came bearing a prismatic jewel, yet after a battle with the high priestess he was defeated and his jewel was lost in the depths.’
‘That jewel is what we need. Pale occludes true names by dazzling the eye of reality – white on white means that nothing can be perceived. Likewise the Black Knot is darkness layered upon darkness, and in that illimitable caliginosity no true names can be read. The balance between these two is lately disrupted, and if that continues then the world will be washed over with either the blinding light or the blinding dark. There will be no names then. It is the Void.’
‘How do you know these things?’ asked Wax.
‘By consummate and ineffable understanding. You know that I speak the truth.’
The ring still lay between us on the boards. I looked closer and read the true name of the metal. It was of the substance of gold but the essence of quicksilver. ‘There is a mine of that metal very near, perhaps on the island whither we now sail.’
The sages of Hythe chipped in with advice, but I cannot now separate it in my memory from the squawking of the gulls that flew above our sails. It was agreed that they would put their minds to a conundrum, namely how it was that Hurstyk and Wax retained the ability to remember names during our encounter with Feltass, when Pale’s radiance had robbed the rest of us of much of our power.
Moss demurred. ‘I am done with magic.’
‘All of you wizards of Hythe may as well be. You are misers of magic, rich only in the power you refuse to wield even in time of need. Knowledge locked away is not balance, as you like to pretend it to be, but mere indecision. In your cowardice and secrecy you have forfeited the right to dictate to those of us in this conclave who now go forth to face the foe no matter how dreadful her gifts.’
It was agreed that Moss and Mirrowaith would ponder the problem, yet I could see that Hurstyk would find the answer sooner than they.
‘Landfall!’ cried a sailor from the rigging.
Tulli was a small island with a paltry town of low, rude dwellings. Jude’s ship, the one that had nearly intercepted us outbound from Port Karmon, lay at anchor. I noticed a figure in armour swimming across the harbour towards us. I read his name easily but by some intuition felt that it would be impossible to use it in any conjuration.
‘This is strange…’
‘I could shoot him,’ said Ironside.
‘Let’s hear him out,’ suggested Hurstyk.
The fellow came aboard. His armour, which had been of metal, had transformed itself into leather. He announced himself Abdiel, an inquisitor – whatever they may be – and recognized Eli as a fellow member of his order. He leaned close to examine his comrade, who stood rigid in the rainbow armour I had given him but whose face remained slack and without the spark of sentience.
‘He has spent his vigour,’ Abdiel said.
‘Ah, but I must tell you – ’
‘That our enemy is here. We know that too.’
‘Yes, but what you do not know – ’
‘ – is that they mine for white gold here. That is one of the two reasons we have come.’
We steered the Sea Lion around a headland, out of sight of the port, and Wax on his turtle guided us bare inches above scraping spines of undersea rock until we were harboured safe in a cove near a grove of palm trees that would serve my purpose.
‘What of the ring?’ said Aareth for, like all of us, he sensed Pale trying to scrutinize us through it. ‘Can she see us through it? I’ll put it between the pages of the book.’
‘You’re going to touch it again?’ said Idhelruin dubiously.
Aareth rubbed his jaw. ‘I’ll wear gloves. And handle it with a shovel.’
Abdiel picked up the ring, dropped it between the pages of the book, and closed the cover. ‘Like so, masters?’
‘It is well done,’ agreed Hurstyk. ‘But wait. Abdiel, I perceive you carry a taint. It pervades this whole isle.’ He looked at all of us. ‘The White Death is here.’
‘Fortunately you have mastered it before…’ said Wax, working up to a howl of adoration until he remembered that Hurstyk had forbidden him to do so.
Hurstyk frowned, and turned his magic on Abdiel, finally drawing forth and extirpating the infectious spirits.
Meanwhile, having commanded the seagulls to watch out for spies, I turned my ministrations on Eli. First tender shoots buttressed his skin, working deep through to the bones where sap would refresh his sluggish blood. Green and glossy was his skin. His eyes sparkled now, the dry film gone as new life flowered there. Lastly I enclosed him entirely in the armour, a hard shell in which the burgeoning vitality could come to full fruition.
‘A chrysalis,’ said Aareth.
‘Say rather a seed case, from which Eli’s new life will be born.’
There was a cloud on Abdiel’s brow. ‘I know not he would thank you for this transformation, master. Death is preferable to some fates, I’d say.’
‘Death is easy to deliver. I bring it swifter than most, being the god my islanders look to when a man is impaled on a narwhal’s tusk or slips through a hole in the ice. Working this green magic is not my accustomed way, but to thwart Obsidian we must confound our very natures. And so in this I work a miracle of new life.’
‘Still and all, Eli was proud of his healthy hue. To be leaf-complexioned…’
‘Enough. He will be the flower of your order. You should give thanks, or prayers even – not stand there and cavil like an actuary of Hythe.’
‘Remember the hourglass,’ said Hurstyk.
He was right. We had less than a day to do the other thing we had come for – to take some of the quicksilver ore in case we had need of it on Tartuva. My senses no longer bound by Time, whose name I’d spoken true, I perceived that the tide would be in our favour when it came time to depart. But we must be swift.
‘I’ll stay with the ship,’ volunteered Idhelruin. He was right; we could not leave it in the command of Moss and Mirrowaith.
A fallen palm frond lay by my foot, as big as a pikestaff blade and nearly as sharp. I took it, knowing there would be need for it later.
As Abdiel led us towards the mine, sand-spitting whirlwinds went swiftly ahead of us – spirits conjured by Wax to clear our way. We’d lost sight of them by the time we reached the mine workings.
A cage came up the shaft bearing half a dozen emaciated slaves. I freed the mind of one, a woman named Alma, and she immediately collapsed. It was only the force of magic, that had till now compelled her service, that sustained her from a weakness that was close to death.
‘If we flood the mine, innocents like her will die,’ said Hurstyk.
‘They have guards who work for them too,’ said Abdiel, unsheathing his sword. ‘I think they are not innocent.’
‘So we descend?’ said Ironside, looking down the black shaft.
‘I could summon Felt to us here.’
Aareth looked at me in shock. ‘Summon a living man? I have heard of spirits being summoned, never that.’
‘You have seen me summon insects and vermin.’ I might have mentioned whales, or indeed the wizard Birch who I had nearly called to me in Karmon. I reached out, divining a part of Felt’s name from our previous encounter with him, when I determined he was the last to read On Those Who Have No True Name.
In the depths of the mine, he felt my influence and laughed. ‘I summon you,’ he retorted, and it was my turn to laugh.
Aareth transformed himself into a fly and vanished into the mine shaft.
‘Well, we won’t do that,’ said Hurstyk. ‘Shall I wait here for you? I’m not a combatant.’
Abdiel and Ironside got into the cage, which it seemed could move up and down the shaft by an ingenious contrivance of counterweights and pulleys. I called down a gull and plucked three feathers. ‘When you hold it thus you are weightless and will float down,’ I told Wax. ‘To ascend, flick it like a small fan thus.’
The third feather was for Hurstyk, but he was already using his own magic to descend. Wisely he had realized that a ‘non-combatant’ would not be safe remaining here alone.
Below we almost immediately came face to face with two armed guards. Scenting battle, Abdiel’s armour transformed itself back into plate steel. He was for butchering the guards, but I felt they would be of more use if I brought them into my own service. ‘Now you are free,’ I told them as they bowed. ‘You have a new master.’
‘Felt and Job are deep below,’ they told us.
‘And the whirlwind spirits?’
‘We did not see them. Our former master makes short work of conjured creatures.’
‘Where’s Aareth?’ wondered Wax.
‘Why didn’t you let me kill these guards?’ Abdiel interjected. ‘You said that men are insects.’
‘I said I had summoned insects, Abdiel, but that is a very good suggestion. Aareth, where e’er you are, come to me.’
I saw a glimpse of a fly trapped in a bottle with a spider, the bottle resting in the palm of a wizard who regarded the scene with a sneer. Felt.
‘He cannot come. Aareth, a fly you are no more. Now be a scorpion bigger than a man.’
From far off in the tunnels came a cry of dismay. Abdiel ran towards it, Ironside close behind him. Turning a corner, they faced a chitinous monster with scything claws and a sting that dripped smoking venom. Abdiel ducked, rolled and was past it, still running. Ironside backed towards us. The scorpion scuttled closer. It filled the tunnel. Its pincers scraped the rock walls. All I had specified was bigger than man-sized; it was Aareth’s own hubris that supplied the rest.
‘Sometimes I am not sure I am entirely infallible,’ I said.
‘That will not be easy to deal with,’ said Ironside, noticing how its sting swayed ready to strike.
‘Scorpion, be Aareth again.’ And our comrade stood there, a little puzzled by what had happened to him.
Ahead of us, Abdiel met with Job, the nameless man. Their swords clashed, and Job fought Abdiel back, but the inquisitor’s armour meant that even a swift and surgical blow was insufficient to draw blood. So closely matched, Abdiel’s enchanted plate against Job’s dazzling skill, they might have fought for an hour without either gaining the upper hand. But then Ironside strode forward and put an arrow through the back of Job’s mouth.
‘Do you know,’ said Hurstyk, ‘I’ve just thought of why Wax and I could remember names when the rest of you could not.’
‘It’s hardly the time – ’ I began. Then I saw the look of benumbed wits in his eyes. The others were the same, gazing about them in mild stupefaction as though our affairs here in the mine were of no more urgency than a stroll around a marketplace.
The hourglass! The sands were close to running out. Some sorcery here had folded time upon us – the very enchantment I had considered earlier and then discounted.
‘Aareth, Hurstyk, regain your senses.’ I dispelled the fog that blanketed their minds, then pulled white gold ore together to make a golem of quicksilver nuggets.
‘We must go back,’ said Hurstyk.
‘We can’t. The White Watcher is already here. We need to find another way out.’
The guards told us where the old mineshaft led out under the sea. They were not sure how to get there from these tunnels, but Abdiel – his mind now magically cleared – drew on a mariner’s knowledge of old timbers, pointing out where the beams were new and where they marked out abandoned sections of the mine.
We came to a dead end. Above, dully, rocks stirred by the tide could be heard scraping on the seabed. I drew forth the palm frond, commanding it to form itself into an iron-hard tube as Hurstyk read the patterns in the tunnel roof, pointing out the cracks through which my tube could insinuate itself, widening until there was a fissure through which we could ascend.
On the surface, I reshaped the palm frond into a raft, in doing so allowing the sea to flood down into the mine. Wax’s turtle rose from the water nearby and took the edge of our raft in its mouth, pulling us back to the Sea Lion, where Idhelruin had had Eli’s pericarp-shelled body brought.
We looked back to where the sea frothed and boiled. The torrent pouring into the mine workings might hold up the Watcher for a few minutes, and with luck would inconvenience Felt too.
‘I was going to tell you my idea,’ said Hurstyk. ‘I think that the White Death is tied to Lady Pale’s power. I deduced the name of the White Death, and I cured Wax of it. That could explain why Lady Pale’s radiance did not fully block our ability to remember names. Of course, it’s just a theory.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘It is a consummate and ineffable understanding.’