This story is the product of the Foil & Phaser collaboration workshop. Because it is the combined efforts of several writers, the style and content vary from section to section. In order of appearance, the authors are: Lauren Jokl, James Hedrick , Sean Sandulak, AJ Muller, Richard Y, Nicole Poweleit, Jeremiah McCoy. Based upon an original idea by Lauren Jokl.
Faylor silently waited by the fireplace like a statue. In fact, he was less than a statue. Calling him a statue implied he at least was there for decorative purposes. Faylor knew that wasn’t the case. Faylor knew that he didn’t exist in the eyes of his owner until it was signaled that he was needed. Until then, he was waiting for that one tiny flick of the left hand that meant he was wanted, and was allowed to exist for those few moments only. Until then, he had to be still, and above all, noiseless.
“Non-magicians should be grateful to their masters”, he had been taught. “If it were not for the magicians, we would still be savages.” Faylor watched as his master, eyes still on the book he was reading, ran a finger up the side of an almost empty wineglass. The wine level rose with his fingertip. “If it were not for magical methods, we would starve after our crops failed or die of diseases from polluted water.” His master raised the glass of wine to his nose and inhaled deeply before beginning to drink. Faylor hoped that he would choke on it.
Faylor knew the room around him was beautiful. The walls were painted so that they were an artwork of themselves. Ornaments made of ceramic and glass sat on every surface, souvenirs from the East, North, South and West as proof of his master’s many travels. Volumes with exotic covers adorned the bookcases on the far wall. Faylor had glanced occasionally and wistfully at them, knowing he would never see past those colourful bindings. He knew better than to let his eye wander for too long. Servants caught not paying attention had a black mark put against their name, and this was considered in the yearly review.
The yearly review was only one moon away, and Faylor had no black marks. He intended to keep it that way. He had known servants to make mistakes, and to have black marks placed against their names. When the yearly review came, their monthly food rations were cut and their access to medicine was restricted. Magicians could and would let their servants die. It taught the others a lesson, and the government would allocate them a new one, usually within a month’s time.
His master, Kyrum Baydown, was not particularly cruel, but neither was he kind. Faylor had heard horror stories of masters who tortured their servants, gave them black marks on a whim and made them do more work than they were capable of. He also heard of masters who never gave out black marks, allowed their servants to take leftover food and talked to them as if they were people. Faylor thought the latter might be wishful rumours.
Faylor saw Baydown glance at the clock over the fireplace. Midnight was approaching. Without speaking, Baydown put down his book, yawned, and walked out of the room. After the door closed behind him, Faylor stretched his stiff muscles before putting out the fire and picking up the empty wineglass. Down in the kitchen, he gave the glass to one of the other staff and was signed out by the house overseer. Outside the manor, it was frosty and Faylor’s breath created small clouds as he trudged down the hill to his home, the cold pervading his thin uniform with ease.
Faylor, like all non-magicians, had been separated from his biological family at birth and had never known them. He lived with four other non-magicians, and they were the closest thing to a family he would ever have. They resided in what could only be described as a hut. Damp infiltrated the wooden walls and the place was cramped, but being here was better than being in the manor. There, the only thing you were allowed to do without express permission was breathe.
He unlocked the old door with a rusty key and pushed through into the communal space. There was a small fire going on the stove, tended by a person Faylor was very glad to see.
“Wyke!” Faylor smiled for the first time today at the silver-haired, elderly man. “You’re back!”
“Yes! I got here this morning, probably just after you left.” Wyke’s eyes wrinkled up as he grinned. He was stirring something in a pan on the stove. “Sit down. I made us both something to eat and it’s just about ready.”
Wyke was retired. At the age of fifty, servants were dismissed by their masters and they were free to do as they pleased. However, there was no such thing as pension plan for servants. Most turned to scavenging or begging. Wyke had looked after Faylor and the others when they had first moved in, and now they were returning the favour. Their rations were not generous to begin with, and sharing with Wyke made things harder, but they managed.
For the past month, however, Wyke had been away. He’d heard of an unofficial congregation of retirees in the East, and he’d been curious. With not much else to do, he’d decided to take a look.
“How did your travels go? We began to worry that you weren’t coming back.” Faylor asked.
“Shh. The others are sleeping. I have a lot to tell you.” Wyke poured the contents of the pan into two bowls. It smelled good. Faylor cautiously tasted the broth.
“This is really good!”
“They grew herbs and lots of other things at the Con. I was allowed to bring some things back with me.” Wyke saw Faylor’s eyes peer curiously over the edge of the bowl, which was raised to his lips.
“So it is real? And they grow food? It sounds really good. No wonder all the retirees are flocking there.”
“It’s better than you would ever believe.” Wyke regarded Faylor with a serious expression. “They don’t just grow food.”
“What else do they do?” Faylor put down his bowl.
Wyke paused for a moment before pulling square wooden box out of his rucksack and placing it on the table. On the front were two rectangular metal grilles. Wyke opened the top, revealing strange mechanisms and dials. He twisted the dials and Faylor jumped as the object began to emit strange crackling and buzzing noises. Faylor’s heart went cold.
“Wyke… is this sorcery?” He was fearful. There were harsh penalties for non-magicians who meddled with magical objects.
“No. It’s a radio.”
Faylor stared at the dials and the gears, the rough grain of the wood. He had heard about such devices, fantastical machines with exotic names like radio, airplane, television. Faylor had heard them all and even passed along a few to new recruits to Baydown Manor. Stories about machines built by men of simple wood and metal that could, somehow, accomplish things that only the masters could do. Machines that could transmit sound and pictures through the air, metal cylinders that could fly, devices that could heat a room without smoke or flame, potions that could cure any ill, weapons that could turn an ordinary man into an army. All without magic.
They were great stories, inspiring stories, but they were fairy tales told to entertain children and whispered in hushed voices so the masters wouldn’t hear. They were myths, urban legends meant to distract servants from their drudgery. The radio hissed and popped. But the stories had to come from somewhere right?
Faylor could feel Wyke’s gaze on him as he reached for one of the dials. He tried to hold it steady, but his hand trembled as it approached the machine. There were grooves on the dials, cut into a slick, shiny material he had never seen before. Horrible images of vengeful masters branding him, torturing him, danced through his mind as his fingers brushed the dial. He had heard stories about what happened to servants who rose above themselves too.
Faylor twisted the dial. The noise coming from the box cracked and popped. He twisted it further and the sound softened to a low hum, like a giant bumblebee just out of sight. Faylor imagined he could almost hear human voices behind the buzz. How comforting that would be, he thought, to hear human voices coming from this alien mechanism. It would be something to hold on to, something to anchor himself to as the box spit and squawked and crackled.
Machines like this were urban legends, something someone heard about from their brother’s friend’s widow’s niece. Not solid objects sitting on his kitchen table. If men could make things like this, then maybe the masters weren’t the only way to prevent famine, pestilence, death.
The dial wouldn’t turn anymore. The buzz had settled into a low drone that set Faylor’s teeth on edge. Wyke reached over, flipped a small metal switch and the buzz faded and died. Faylor felt tears come to his eyes as the noise faded.
“At the Congregation, they called that ‘static’,” Wyke said. “It’s annoying as hell, but it means it’s working. If you turn that dial to the correct…oh hell, what did they call it?”
There had been a story when Faylor was a child about a young boy who found a radio in the woods. The boy convinced everyone that he was a wizard because he always knew what was happening in far away lands before anyone else did. The local magistrate, a wizard of course, came to test the boy he heard so much about.
The story then could end in one of two ways. If the teller preferred happy endings, the radio helped the boy convince the magistrate he had precognition, he was adopted into magician society and lived happily ever after. If the teller was a pessimist, the radio stopped transmitting right before the magistrate arrived and the boy was exposed as a fraud. The story usually became pretty gruesome after that. Faylor preferred the second ending. It was more realistic.
Faylor’s voice was a church whisper. “A ‘frequency.’ It’s called a frequency. If you turn the dial to the right position, you can hear sound from someone hundreds of miles away.”
Wyke threw back his head and laughed, “That’s right, my boy! I knew you were the one to bring this to. Always did like the old stories about fancy machines. With this, you can hear people talking thousands of miles away. But it does more than just that.”
Faylor continued to stare at the radio as Wyke went quiet. Wyke was a true raconteur. Half the reason Faylor and his housemates stretched their rations to keep the old man around was the way he would tell them stories. A good story could take your mind off the bitter cold after your firewood ration ran out. A good joke could make you forget that an untrained barber was sewing up the gash you received after one of the masters disciplined you for pouring the wrong vintage. Wyke always paused at the good parts to increase the suspense, but he never waited very long.
Wyke leaned in close to Faylor and his voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “That one there,” Wyke pointed to the ragged looking box on the table, “isn’t just a receiver. It’s a transmitter too.” Wyke grinned as he leaned back into his chair.
Which Faylor thought meant that he could talk to people hundreds of miles away. Which, while interesting, wasn’t very enlightening. You didn’t send a relic like this halfway across the territory just to listen to the idle gossip of a servant. This time Faylor couldn’t contain himself, which, he assumed, was exactly what Wyke had in mind. Wyke’s smile widened enough to show all six of his teeth as Faylor gave in.
“And?!” he cried.
“And it’s a weapon, boy. A weapon we can use against the masters. Turn that on near one of them and it disrupts their magic, makes them human.”
Faylor was not learned. Most vulgus were forbidden from even learning how to read but as a house servant Faylor had been taught his letters. He had to be able to identify which vintage to pour after all. But even without an extensive education, he could sense the structure of Wyke’s plan. Actually, Faylor thought, it probably hadn’t been Wyke’s plan. The old man was garrulous and warm, but he wasn’t a thinker. This came from someone at the Congregation; an unseen hand had set the device on its path to Faylor’s door, on the path to someone with access to the inner sanctum of one of the most powerful mages in the land. Wyke probably thought it was his idea though.
“You want me to smuggle it into the manor, don’t you?”
“You always were a sharp one, lad. Kyrum Baydown is one of the most powerful mages in this region, a confidant to half the government, and one of the few who lives alone. The Congregation wants to send a message and I told ‘em I knew just the man. All you need to do is get the radio within a few feet of him and flip that switch,” Wyke pointed to a red switch between the dials. “It’ll make him helpless.”
“And then you use this,” Wyke reached into his rucksack and pulled out a beautiful, and highly illegal, dagger that he handed to Faylor. No more than about six inches long, Faylor could still see the ripples in the thin blade that marked it as true steel. A stylized lightning bolt slashed across a letter ‘C’ was emblazoned on the handle. It felt good in his hands. A true weapon and a calling card. The Congregation might be enlisting him as an assassin, but at least they weren’t being shy about it.
“This will show those bastards, Fay,” Wyke continued. “Show ’em that none of them are safe. And it’ll show the people. Show them that the masters aren’t immortal. They can be killed, just like us.”
It was murder. There was no denying it, but it might just be justifiable, Faylor thought. He certainly wasn’t going to lose any sleep over shoving that blade into Master Baydown’s chest.
“I’ll do it.”
Wyke smiled, but he couldn’t resist a little teasing, “But I thought you didn’t want any black marks on your annual review this year, boy?”
Faylor chuckled as he slammed the dagger into the tabletop where it stood quivering. “Fuck my annual review.”
His sleep that night was fitful, filled with dreams of murder and vengeance. In his mind, all the servants rose up against their master. Armed with the power of their machines, the mob dragged the magician from his bed and slaughtered him like a pig, slicing open his throat to let him bleed out on the floor. Faylor turned to Wyke to share the moment of victory with his friend, but the look he saw in the old man’s face was not joy but terror. Patches of his skin turned purple and then black as he fell to the floor screaming in agony.
What had they missed? Was it a ward placed as a fail-safe, or were there other wizards about? Faylor could only watch helplessly as his friends dissolved into bones and then dust before his eyes. He felt his own skin start to burn and itch, and then he saw the same dark blotches forming on his own arms…
He woke in a sweat despite the cold draft that swept through the hut when the fire burned low. The familiar sounds of his sleeping companions reassured him that what he had seen was only a dream. Teemor would already be in the kitchen baking bread and cutting vegetables, but Wyke and the boy Chald were fast asleep in their beds. Faylor calmed himself with several deep breaths before rolling over on his side to try to go back to sleep. The memory of the nightmare stuck with him, however, and he found he could not get comfortable on the straw-filled mattress. He reached underneath the cot to touch the radio and make sure it was safe and still hidden. Everything was as he had left it hours before.
Faylor was just beginning to relax when he heard the faint shuffling noise in the darkness. He immediately recognized it and lay perfectly still, pretending to sleep. Through half-closed eyes he scanned the room looking for the small figure he knew would be there. When it passed by the fireplace and into the faint moonlight coming through the hut’s tiny window, he saw the huddled figure with its misshapen, bald head. He cursed his bad luck.
It was a homunculus, a wizard’s familiar and spy. Some magicians used animals or elementals as servants, but Baydown had always had an affinity for earth magics, so his conjurations were beasts of clay, molded into parodies of men. Faylor had seen the magician’s creations before, summoned to impress and entertain the few guests that visited the manor. They were unsettling to look at in the full light of a sitting room; in the dead of night, they were terrifying.
Faylor knew the true danger of the homunculus was its connection to its master. The spell created a puppet that allowed a magician to watch and listen at a distance, or to fetch small items. It was as if Baydown himself were in the room, looking through their meager belongings. With only a moon left before yearly review, the impish creature was searching the hut for contraband. The magician would do this several times a year, just to keep the servants on their toes. That it would come tonight of all nights seemed to Faylor to be too much of a coincidence. He gripped the dagger in his hand and prepared himself to strike.
The monster made a circuit around the room, looking in every crack and crevice for things that did not belong. It would only be a few minutes until the radio was discovered. A few minutes after that, he would be dead. Faylor decided not to wait. With his free hand he reached under his cot and pulled out the rucksack with the box inside. In the darkness, his fingers fumbled for the correct dial. As the harsh static filled the hut, the warm coals in the fireplace erupted into full flame, filling the room with light. The homunculus looked straight at him and hissed, baring its crooked, pointy teeth.
His heart sank. The radio should have broken the spell that bound the magician to the creature. Instead it had betrayed him and exposed his intentions to his enemy. Faylor was utterly without choice now. He leapt out of bed, brandishing the dagger. With one stroke he plunged the blade into the foul creature’s eye. It wailed and thrashed about the room, knocking over the small table they used for meals. After a moment the homunculus froze solid. Cracks appeared along its surface and it crumbled into a pile of dust and rubble. Faylor walked over and picked up the knife.
“What have you done?” The thin voice belonged to Chald, the youngest of their group at only fifteen. “He’ll kill us all!”
Wyke looked down at the pile of dirt. “You’ll have to run. It’s your only hope now.”
“Run to where, old friend?” he said. “What place in all the lands is not ruled over by the magicians?”
“The Congregation,” answered Wyke. “It’s your only hope.”
“You mean the same people who gave you that worthless toy?” asked Faylor, pointing to the still hissing box which sat on his bed.
“No, no,” Chald insisted. “He’s not going anywhere. If he leaves, the master will take out his anger on the rest of us.”
Wyke ignored the boy. “Go north to the river. Follow the current until you reach a small lake nestled in a forest. The water will shield you from the master’s earth magics. Go east, always east, until you reach the valley nestled between two cliffs.”
“No, I won’t let you leave!” Chald rushed at Faylor, trying to wrestle him to the ground. He didn’t see the dagger as it slid into his belly. The boy staggered back, clutching at the wound and trying to staunch the flow of blood. As he fell to his knees, he looked up at Faylor with fear and bewilderment. His mouth moved, but no sound came out except for a gurgling whimper.
Faylor looked at the blood on his own hands and roared in rage, “How many innocents must die to satisfy the magicians’ lust for blood?”
“There is no time!” shouted Wyke. “I will do what I can for the boy, but you must flee.”
“Come with me. You can show me the way.”
Wyke shook his head. “I am too old. I would only slow you down.” He picked up the radio and turned it off. The hiss of static stopped, making the hut eerily quiet. He quickly stuffed it back in the bag. “But here, take this.”
“Keep it,” said Faylor. “It’s useless.”
“Maybe, maybe not. But we can’t let it fall into the magicians’ hands. Take it and go.”
He embraced the old man, but Wyke pushed him away. They could feel the small tremors in the ground now. They were steadily growing stronger as if something large was coming toward the hut. Faylor knew what it would be. Golem warriors were Baydown’s weapon of choice, constructed of stone and clay like the homunculus, but more robust and capable of inflicting serious damage to men and property alike. They would not be felled by a simple thrust of a dagger.
Faylor nodded at Wyke and threw the bag over his shoulder before rushing out the door. He was certain he would never see his friend again, but he never looked back. Gripping the dagger tightly in his hand, he ran off into the night to find the Congregation. They had a lot to answer for.
Fleeing through the woods in the middle of the night had its advantages, but there were too many hitches to make them count. The mindless golems would run as long as they were commanded. They do not need sight, their masters are their eyes and ears. Faylor did. A dense canopy shielded the forest floor from any moonlight. For protection Faylor held out his hands to assure he wouldn’t smash his face into a tree trunk camouflaged in the darkness. The result was him pinballing around in a staggered path, bouncing from one obstacle to another.
The clunking rhythm from his pursuers gradually grew louder with each jumbled step. Although all of his concentration was needed to navigate the maze of trees, Faylor’s mind betrayed him as he dwelled on Wyke. Little energy was wasted on the boy who would have ratted him out. The horrifying thoughts came in spurts. Different ways Wyke would most likely be tortured. All to find out where the weapon came from and where Faylor was headed. A weapon that didn’t even work, but that wouldn’t stop the magicians nor did it stop the images. The most recent was a slow fire, burning from Wyke’s feet to his head, with the sorcerers magic keeping him alive to feel the full extent of treason’s punishment.
Blinking the thought away, a circular outcrop of light came into Faylor’s view. The dim glow lit up the upcoming trees allowing him to run in a much smoother motion, swaying his arms for a faster sprint.
Catching himself on a tree at the edge of the outcrop exhaustion caught up to Faylor. The brief rest reminded his muscles how tired they were. Crippling cramps plagued his limbs. His body was meant for standing still, not hard labor. While the tortures continued to flood his mind, the present threat of the never tiring golems loomed. Faylor knew he couldn’t waste any more time. By now his former master would have sent out a telepathic alert to the surrounding districts and they would have sent out their own trackers on his scent.
Across the lit area shadow ran deep at the outer reach of the moonlight. The coolness of the trunk played to Faylor’s exhaustion teasing him with relaxation. At that brief moment, Faylor contemplated giving up, ending the anticipation of the chase. Death wouldn’t come fast but it was much easier than the alternative. Before the idea formed any ground Faylor dismissed it. The notion of his friend dying for nothing was to much. Each graphic image, the work of his master, became useful, reminding Faylor about his mission‘s purpose.
Suddenly the pounding feet of the golems morphed into a sloshing as they trampled through a nearby creek. Reaching into his bag he grabbed the radio. More for hope than anything else, he flicked the switch again, filling the area with a low hum. As he stood up his heart dropped. Standing opposite him was a magician. Its lime green hair looked more like puss in the darkness, while it’s pale skin mimicked the surface of the moon, splotched in dirt. Lost in the surrounding wood, the magician’s cloak stole all detail from the his body. Only his filthy feet on leather sandals were visible. What Faylor could see was perilous purple eyes, and a very long pointed nose that matched the rest of his appendages.
“Golems to your back, and me standing here. I must give you credit for how far you came with those odds.” The magician stated.
Faylor’s years as a statue kept his tongue still.
“You still know your place. Well your master will be glad to have you back, he already burnt through the others.” He laughed, gripping his chest in the pleasure of his joke. Raising a hand the magician began speaking a non-earth based incantation. Faylor recoiled in fear. After a moment nothing happened. Stretching out from his crouched position, Faylor looked down at his hand, which held the radio.
Raising both hands the magician tried again in the same steadied tone, but when that failed he resulted in yelling the spell. When neither attempt worked Faylor began to understand. The images of Wyke dying were no longer as strong as before. His master’s detailed visualization were gone. He was only seeing the blurry images of the imagination.
“You are nothing more than a Rune.” The magician yelled trying uselessly to attack the ex-servant. Faylor noticed the magician’s insanity.
Magician’s use to carry weapons like staffs and wands, but once they established complete control they abandoned them. The over-relying on magic left modern magicians defenseless. Wasting no time Faylor fumbled for the knife in his pack.
“Or what?” Faylor demanded. For the first time in his life he felt superior to the magic wielding class. Holding the knife in his hand he remembered the feeling of it slipping into the boy. The relief he felt when he was no longer in danger soothed him once more. “You wouldn’t be the first I’ve killed.”
With the radio in one hand and the knife in the other, Faylor charged the magician. Trapped in the field of the technology the magician froze in shock. In seconds the knife was sheathed in the wizard’s chest and the two hit the ground. Hunched over the dying symbol of oppression watching him slowly slip away, Faylor felt free. He waited until he was sure the magician was dead before removing the blade. Twisting the lighting bolt blade from the magician’s chest opened up a small hole that quickly filled with dark blood.
Stories of the power contained in magician blood resurfaced to Faylor’s memory. If the radio worked, why should the stories be false. As bad as the smell was, Faylor forced down his queasiness and rubbed the blood on his face and hands. Magician’s blood was said to block some magic, most importantly a master’s ever watching eye.
The heavy feet of the running golems were almost on top of Faylor. The knife was a useful weapon against flesh, but a creation of earth would take much more to bring down. If he could reach the water, the golems would need to find a bridge or passage to cross. With one look over his shoulder, Faylor adjusted his pack and ran for the river just ahead. Reaching the bank Faylor plunged into water as the golems caught up. Splashing through the river with his hands above the water Faylor’s progress slowed. Standing like statues at the edge of the water, the golems watched as their target escaped into the woods.
Faylor made sure he stayed within earshot of the river, but deep enough so that he couldn’t be spotted from the other bank. The path to the lake was fairly smooth. Navigating the thick woods without a horde of golems behind him sped up his progress. It was nightfall when Faylor gazed upon the glass like water. The croaks of frogs and buzz of a multitude of bugs drowned out the hum of the radio. Kneeling down where the river ran into the lake, Faylor drank his fill. With the inside of his mouth cooled by the frosty water, he found himself a tree to rest against. Confident that his body would wake at danger, Faylor closed his eyes. Listening to the hum and buzz combination of technology and nature Faylor fell asleep.
Faylor’s hands did not wait for his mind to wake from sleep. His right hand had already grabbed the blade, and his left landed flat on the radio before he realized he was alone in the woods. Yesterdays chase was over, he was safe. He took in a deep breath and lifted himself up to start the day. He washed himself at the lake, dressed and continued Eastward to find the valley between two cliffs.
The sleep had restored strength to his body but his mind needed more time to escape the anxiousness in his bones from being hunted. The sounds and smells of the woods were peaceful to him and in a short time the nervousness faded and he allowed his mind to wander where it pleased. There were dark thoughts of the two lives he had taken. There were thoughts of where he was going. There was a fear in the back of his mind, he was away from his master. Mostly, his thoughts were on the magic box, the radio. The dials and buttons and levers were all mysteries to him and he hoped the congregation would have answers.
After a full day’s journey, he had still not seen the cliffs Wyke spoke of, but he had not expected to see them for another day from the way the route was described. He had bread rations and caught a small squirrel with a trap he learned to make as a small boy. After his dinner, he sat with his back to a tree and placed the box on his lap. He began to flick the switches back and forth and turn the dial, once again, trying to get a clear sound. There was a voice buried in the static he wanted to free. He moved the dial as slowly and deliberately as he could but a clear sound eluded him. He paused and looked up at the trees and the sky. Somehow he knew the sound was in the air and he only needed a way for the box to grab it.
He put the box down at his side and made his mind up to go to sleep, it would only be a day or two until he would have his answers. The crackling fire was strong and made light dance on the radio. It felt as if the box was silently and without movement mocking him.
He began to tinker with it again.
The case was easy to screw off and his fingers were exploring the insides of the device; the battery, the speaker, the modulator, the antenna. He watched to see what moved on the inside as he turned the dials and moved the switches on the outside. “It was a receiver and a transmitter.” He spoke into the device to see what would happen. As his fingers felt their way around he saw that a metal piece had dislodged from its base. It snapped back into place and now a long metal flagpole unfolded to rise out, about six inches, from the box to try and snatch the voice from the air. Faylor knew he had it working. He quickly put the cover and pieces he had taken apart back together.
This time the buttons and dials spoke to him. He felt like a small child learning his first words and speaking his first sentence. He moved the dial and then the voice was clear.
“If you can hear me, please speak to me, we are waiting for you” “If you can hear me, please speak to me, we are waiting for you” Over and over the voice said the same thing. He listened for a few minutes, afraid, who was he was hearing.
Faylor pressed on the button that moved the metal piece that connected to the microphone and spoke, “I can hear you.”
The voice stopped and neither of the two men separated by an unknown distance said a word. Faylor could hear the silence as clearly as he had heard static and as clearly as he had heard the message. There was surprise on the other end of this magical device. Finally the box vibrated with sound again, “Do you know where you are Faylor? Are you safe?”
The voice knew his name. He felt more comfort than alarm at this. The voice was coming from the congregation. “I am safe, I am one day past the lake”
“Continue East, we need you here. Put the radio away, it’s power is dying by now. I’ll see you soon, son.”
The sound cut out and Faylor turned the switch to close the device. The box stopped vibrating sound and it’s temperature immediately began to cool. He thought again about the innards of the device and remembered it was also said to be a weapon, something inside him smirked at this notion. He put the box back in it’s sack and made his bed for what would be his last night sleeping in the wood. He was less afraid of magic now.
The sun rose brightly the next morning and by mid afternoon he could see where the clearing began. In the distance there were valleys and cliffs. The valley he sought was lush and full of color from being so close to water, it was a lovely sight. He began to approach where the congregation was settled with some excitement.
The first people he saw, of the free men, were women. There were five women washing garments in the river. The suds from the soap were reaching up to their rolled up sleeves. They all straightened up and stood quietly as Faylor approached, they watched him walk closer. He realized it must have been an odd sight for the elderly women to behold. He was no magician, that was clear from his clothes and he was not of a retired age, that was clear from his face. They had cautious smiles and asked him if he was lost.
“I am looking for the leader, Wyke sent me.”
“You shouldn’t be here young man……, ask for John, you’re looking for John”
They went back to their washing. He walked deeper into the settlement. It was more disheveled than he had expected. The people were free but seemed to Faylor as if they were still servants. They were mulling about the congregation busy with menial labor, wood and metal work, fishing and farming. The badge of being a servant had been hard discard and they were not at all as he had hoped.
He felt tall and strong amongst the elderly crowd. The average age of the people appeared to be seventy years. Most had bent backs, limps and other marks common to the aged. He walked through the congregation and they instinctively cleared a path for him, moving out of his way.
All he asked for, was John. Each man and women he passed he asked for John and in turn they pointed him closer to his destination. He would ask the next person he encountered the same question and he was directed closer. Finally he arrived at the largest tent of the encampment. He stood outside and knocked on the wood door post of the canvas structure.. There was no answer, he walked inside.
The thin tent canvas let in enough light to see by, but not enough heat out and the enclosure was warm and stuffy. Two men and two women stood around a table slapped together from rough, untreated wood. The thing looked like it was held up with twigs and willpower. Scraps of parchment littered the working surface. As Faylor stepped out of the sun, all eyes turned towards him.
A man stooped with age hobbled a few steps towards him, “I’m John. You must be Faylor.” The man said, extending his hands in a sign of greeting.
Faylor nodded, but didn’t answer. His eyes slide past John towards the man standing behind him. Everyone he’d seen at the con so far had been old, retired. But this man had to be Faylor’s age or younger.Aside from his age, Faylor registered several other strange details about the man. His clothes were fine and meticulous. The seams were perfectly aligned and the stitchwork was masterful. Faylor thought he should ask the man who his taylor was. Next time he needed to take the master’s clothes to be mended he would have to take it there, then Faylor remembered he wouldn’t be returning to his normal duties anytime soon. The young man stood still at attention like a servant, but the tilt of his jaw and the steadiness of his gaze suggested confidence unbefitting a non-magic user.
“Ah, may I introduce Marcus, our associate from abroad.” John said as he followed Faylor’s gaze, “And the two fine young ladies are Givette and Carnith. They help me keep the place running.”
John smiled at the two women as he spoke. Givette returned the grin with a brief twitch of her lips while Carnith’s lined face dug into a more solid frown. An awkward silence filled the room as everyone waited for someone else to speak.
“Let me see if I can’t find someone to give you a bite to eat, dear.” Givette bustled past Faylor, stuck her head out the tent, and hailed someone nearby.
“Glad you managed to arrive safely, son.” Marcus grunted.
“Yes, we were all concerned about your mission going astray.” John added, “But three of the other assassinations went off without a hitch.”
“What other assassinations?”
“Oh!” John wheezed, his face splitting into a smile, “I suppose you thought you were the only mission we had planned…”
Marcus put his hand palm down in front of his chest in a silencing gesture and John trailed off. Givette returned and pressed a hunk of bread and little gobs of cheese and smoked meat into John’s numb hands.
“Listen, son, I know this must be a lot to take in, but we’re at war here. A war to liberate your people, and you are in a position to play an important role.” Marcus rumbled. Faylor noticed John and Givette relax into familiar poses of subservience as Marcus spoke. Carnith continued to stand straight, with steal in her spine, watching the younger man like a weary mother bear.
“Perhaps you would give us a moment, Marcus. It might be better if Faylor’s countrymen acquainted him with the situation. It is supposed to be our war after all.” Carnith spoke in a quiet voice hardly louder than a whisper.
“Of course, ma’am.” Marcus inclined his head slightly to Carnith before turning on his heel and marching out the door. Faylor watched him go. As the tent flap fluttered shut he caught a glimpse of an elderly couple walking hand in hand through the tent village. The woman had a basket of laundry under her arm, and the man had a fishing rod slung over his shoulder. It didn’t look like a war.
“I don’t understand why you distrust Marcus so thoroughly. Surely by now you see the outland army has our best interests at heart.” John snapped at Carnith.
“No, I think they have our best interest at arm’s length.” Carnith responded, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend is a poor relationship to put your faith in long term. We might both want to oust the wizards from power, but I expect that is as far as our goals align.”
John rolled his eyes and threw his arms into the air, “Isn’t that enough?”
Faylor’s mind spun with added information as tidbits trickled through his stressed mind. Before the argument could flare up again he reiterated his question, “What other assassinations?”
All three heads wheeled back to him, “These fellows decided – based on Marcus’s advice – that simultaneous assassination attempts on five powerful wizards would be a good way to destabilize the country, annoyance our existence, and get the common folk to take the independence movement more seriously.”
“And three of the volunteers succeeded! We’ve struck a mighty blow against the oppressors!”
Carnith shook her head sadly, “And four of the volunteers died for their efforts.” Faylor wondered what happened to the surviving volunteer before realizing it must be him.
“It’s a war!” John shouted, flinging his arms back into the air, “And those young people died brave and wonderful deaths for the cause. In a generation they’ll be heros.”
“In a generation the outlanders will have invaded and we’ll have traded one master for another. They’ll be remembered as fools.” Carnith spat.
“Why don’t the outlanders invade now?” Faylor asked. He thought Carnith must be making a mountain out of a molehill. If the outlanders wanted to help depose the wizards and free the common people, why not let them?
“Their technology won’t work here. You turned the radio on near a magic-user, correct?” Carnith asked him.
Faylor nodded, “And his magic failed him completely. If the outlander’s have such wonders, they could surely destroy the wizards anytime they wished.” John beamed at his speech and nodded encouragingly.
“Did you hear anything other than static through the radio when a mage was near?”
After a moment of thought, Faylor admitted he hadn’t.
“That’s because magic interferes with technology, the same way technology interferes with magic. Ture, the magic-users don’t know how to fight without magic, but the outlanders don’t know how to fight without technology. They want the magic class decimated before they will act on a large scale.” Carnith paused to let her words sink in.
“The outlanders are using us.” She concluded.
Faylor woke to the sound of people working on something outside. The sounds were not the usual sounds he knew in a mage’s tower, but the sound of men working was unmistakable. He had gone to bed early after the conversation the night before. The combination of physical exhaustion, and revelation, was enough to drive all energy from him.
Now that the morning had come, he blearily remembered being brought to a guest room, set aside for travelers. He rolled out of bed and the two days of flight could be felt in his legs. When he stood, he was shakier than he would have expected. Still the mattress was not made of straw, the house was warm. It was a luxury compared to the cold stone and straw he was used to.
As he looked out a window, he looked across the settlement. The rich smell of freshly cut wood came to him, as well as other norest smells. The settlement was well situated in a forested valley. Anyone who did not know to look for it could not see it. Flying mages would see only thick trees. The path leading to the place was not well cut, and wound around, so it was unlikely to be spotted from afar. The buildings used the trees and cliffs as part of the structures. It was not truly invisible, but it was unobtrusive.
As Faylor looked about, he saw people working on small gardens with unfamiliar fruit. There were men and women working on bread at an outdoor oven, and the sound of a livestock could be heard, though he was unable see where they were.
“Good. You’re up.”
Faylor turned to find John standing in the doorway. His clothes were impeccable, his face clean and his clear blue eyes carried a sense of myrth. He grinned and walked over to the window to join Faylor.
“Have you recovered from your run?”
“Not quite. I feel like legs are stuffed with iron.”
“I bet.” John quietly watched what went on for a moment. It stretched to the point of being slightly awkward then he asked, “Are you ready for what comes next?”
“I don’t know what comes next.”
“Are you ready to join the fight proper?”
“Fight? I am a glorified man servant. I dont know a damn thing about fighting.”
“You killed a mage and lived to talk about it. None of our other agents can say as much.”
“Wait, you said three others succeeded.”
“They did, they just didn’t survive it.”
“That doesn’t sound much like a success to me.”
“Three powerful mages have been struck down in their homes. It cost three lives but there are a lot less of them than they are of us. That is a trade worth making.”
Faylor felt ill and sat in a chair near by. At this moment, he would normally be making sure inkwells were filled, and helping to arrange the ingredients in his master’s chamber. He would be oppressed to be sure, subject to the whim of one man, but it was a mundanity. A banal and boring life was still less likely to get him killed than fighting in a war against mages. It also meant he was likely to be killing anyone. He had killed before, and the sickening part was part of him enjoyed it. He wasn’t certain he wanted to feed that.
“I am not sure I can be involved in fighting, at least, not any more. I am not certain I am certain it is what I should be doing.”
John turned, and looked down at Faylor. His eyes did not hold much sympathy.
“You will. You have to. We need symbols right now and you are one. You fought mages and lived.”
“But I don’t want to fight.”
“What you want is irrelevant here. What your people need is you to stand up, and help lead the way. Their need is stronger than your desire to be an aimless, lazy, little..!”
“That will be enough, John.” Carnith stood in the door with a bucket in one hand. “Perhaps you should go cool down by helping with the fermenting pool.”
John looked like he was going to say something else, anger in his eyes, but he stopped. He pulled himself together, and let the anger slip away. He sighed heavily and turned to leave. He grabbed the bucket from Carnith, and she patted his shoulder. It was a gentle rebuke, but it said much of where influence flowed. John turned back once more before leaving.
“Think about what I said.” With that, he turned and left.
Faylor watched him go. His own emotions were more numb than he expected. He maybe should have been angry or scared, but all he could feel was numb. Something inside him was just not awake.
“Sorry about John.” Carnith began as she sat on the bed. “He is a good man with hard path he has chosen. He doesn’t always remember the whys and whats of what he is fighting for.”
“He seemed pretty clear on the goal. Maybe he is right.”
“Maybe, but that isn’t always up to him.”
“Why not? He is the leader.”
“No, he is A leader, not the leader, but that is not my point.”
“What is your point?”
Carnith stared at Faylor for a long moment. She looked at him as she could see clear through him. She rose and beckoned for him to follow.
They walked through the house, which was like a manor house, but less refined than powerful mages home. The smell of cooking food came from the main hall. The stew was cooking over a fire that appeared be kept burning all the time. Carnith led Faylor out of the main hall and down to a large cellar downstairs. It took Faylor a moment to realize that he had not truly seen the settlement before. The small hidden buildings and gardens up above were nothing compared to the large underground structures. Halls went in every direction and well past the manor house’s foundation. Carnith led him through a few intersections till they turned into a mid sized room. In the room were work tables. Scattered on them were various bits of some sort of machinery. Faylor failed to understand most of them. There stood, off to the side, a mechanism with many threads and odd wheels of metal. It had decorative flares, and spots of rust could be scene all over it.
“What is that?”
“That is a mechanical loom. It is a lot more advanced than what the weaver women in the cities have.”
“Where did you get it? From across the sea?”
“Nope. I found it near here. It was buried in a ruin that was centuries old. I brought it here, and restored it?”
“Absolutely. I restored it, and figured out it’s workings. This is my shop.”
At Faylor’s incredulous look, Carnith simply shrugged, and walked over to the machine. She sat at it, and worked the foot pedal. There were odd movements of the wheels and a click noise, as the mechanism moved racks of thread back and forth.
“The mechanism is very old. I suspect it was a museum piece before the great fall. We were a mighty people once, with machines that were every bit as wondrous as any magic. The Fricans, across the sea, didn’t fall under sway of mages centuries ago, so they recovered from the fall faster, but even they have not gotten back to the point we once stood. “
“So.” Faylor found himself asking. He knew was a stupid thing to say, but he continued anyway. “That is nice for them, but we are not a great people now. What does this have to do with me?”
Carnith frowned. She stopped working the machine but grabbed at some of the cloth that had been made on it.
“The cloth a weaver makes is made up of many threads. No single thread is all that important, but enough of them out of place and the cloth is ruined. Fate is like that, I guess. It is made up of many threads, choices, and together those threads make a fate. How those choices fit together determine our fate.”
“I don’t understand what you are talking about.”
“Listen, Faylor, you are a thread out of place. You haven’t made any choices. You have pretty much done anything you were told. You are not yet part of your own fate, of our fate, because you have made no choices. You let life just happen. Jason wants you to do what you are told, which in it’s way, is no different than what the mages want.
“Yeah, I suppose you’re right.”
“Well, I want you to make a choice. I want you to be part of the fate we are building. I want you to choose. You could choose to do nothing, or you could choose to fight. Hells, child, you could choose to go back to your former master, but I want you to choose. It is important, because your choice helps to make our fate. Maybe our fate is to be great people again. Maybe our fate is to be conquered by the Fricans, but we are weaving it right now, and I want you to be a part of it. Does that make sense?”
Faylor thought about it for a moment. He realized she was right about one thing, at least. He hadn’t really made any choices. He ran, because he had to. He killed, because it was his only choice. He was born servant, and never chose to serve. His whole life was a series of times other people made his choices for him. He wasn’t sure he bought this notion about fate, but he was certain that for the first time in his life, someone wanted him to make a choice.
The moment of revelation was dizzying. He locked up in fear for a moment. That numbness in him broke, and for a moment he felt sheer unabashed terror. For a moment he saw all the things he had done, and all the consequences of different things before him. It made him want to sick up. He swayed for a moment, and grabbed the loom. It’s metal was cool to the touch. The frame was strong and intricate. He marvelled at it a moment. This was a thing which he reasoned he could understand, better than the radio anyway. It was motion, reaction, tension, and return. It was thing made for a purpose, but even still the choices in its design made him think. So much beauty went in to it. So much could come out of it.
“Are you okay?” Carnith asked with her hand on Faylor’s shoulder.
“Yeah.” he said as he pulled himself together. “I suppose I am.”
“I don’t suppose, I could simply choose to learn how make these.”
Carnith smiled, and nodded. Faylor learned much.