To the shadowy players, the fields and forests of Tarag are a convenient board on which to play an occasional game. More than once, though, it has become a stage where crucial battles have been waged.
"Yes, I did promise that you might have the black pieces this time," the First Player concedes. "But since I won last time, you must still take the first move."
"To cure all the ills of man or beast. Only one tiny bottle of this magical elixir and health and happiness shall be yours..."
Jerys watched eagerly, his mouth slightly open over protruding teeth. The peddler was doing a brisk business in Moggus Village. He bartered the little bottles for whatever the villagers had to offer. A few hoarded coppers were brought out of dusty hiding places, but mostly he accepted foodstuffs or handicrafts that could be sold in the markets of other, larger towns.
"How about you, lad?" The peddler's eyes fixed on Jerys. "A bit of elixir to make you grow strong and healthy?"
"I've ... I've no money." Jerys wiped his nose with a tattered sleeve. "Nothing to trade."
"Too bad, son." He turned away. "Ah, my lady. Surely you need not my poor elixir to enhance your beauty!"
The peasant woman simpered at his words. Jerys flushed and stumbled away from the peddler's wagon, not noticed by the other villagers. Not even the plump young dragon that pulled the cart could hold his attention. His thoughts were on the magical elixir. To be strong! A nose that didn't run, and eyes that no longer watered when the grass grew tall. The village wizard was too busy with important things to help Jerys the Widow's Son. If only he could ... If only he had...
His head full of confused wishes, Jerys wandered aimlessly until he found himself standing once more by the peddler's wagon. No one was looking. The peddler was talking to Eldred, the young village wizard. Brushing lank blond hair out of his eyes, Jerys moved closer to the wagon. With a furtive glance around he reached under the gaily painted canvas cover, groped around until his fingers closed on a lone bottle. Using the bulk of the wagon for cover he hurried away, not stopping until he was in the deep woods beyond the village fields.
"A good move." The first player nods and moves one of his own pieces into position. "Unorthodox, but well thought out."
"The Sorcerer's Guild asked me to deliver it," the peddler explained. "Said you had some trouble here a while back. That you could use it to strengthen your Powers until your own strength had returned."
"It is indeed welcome," Eldred agreed. Little more than a youth, his gaunt pallor gave him the look of one who had recently suffered a wasting illness. "Is that why you came this way? Moggus Village seldom has any visitors of consequence."
"It was not far out of my way. The Guild likes to know what is happening in all parts of Tarag. Your potion is here in the back of my wagon where none can ... Where none..."
"What's the matter?"
"Your potion. It's gone!" The peddler searched frantically. "But ... the protective spells!"
"Be silent." Eldred raised his staff and the peddler backed away, almost falling over his own feet in his haste. The point of the staff traced a glowing pattern in the air, a pattern that streamed out into a glowing mist all around the wagon. Through the mist a shadow moved. Only a faint outline, it approached, hesitated and moved away again.
"Whoever it was made for the woods," Eldred muttered, half to himself. "I cannot see clearly. Some countering force clouds the scene. We must follow. This did not happen entirely by chance."
The game is underway, the shadowy Players making move after move in quick succession. The Second Player senses a doubt in his opponent and moves his pieces out boldly.
In the shelter of an ancient tree, Jerys tugged at the cork of his stolen bottle. It resisted. He poked and pried at it with the point of his knife.
"Open, damn you!"
The cork popped out, releasing a spicy aroma. He sniffed at it cautiously once, but that was enough. The fragrance filled his lungs, rose to his head with a rush. He tipped the bottle up and drank. The liquid made a ball of warmth in the pit of his stomach, spreading throughout his body until he tingled from head to toe. All at once the sun seemed brighter, the grass greener. In the silence of the forest he heard a thousand voices. The squirrel racing through the branches, the bird building its nest, even the mouse in its tunnel. They called out to him, saying that life was good.
He darted off through the trees, running lightly through sun and shadow. Pausing at a stream to drink, he saw his face in a quiet pool. No longer was he thin, pallid. No longer Jerys the Widow's Son. His skin was tanned and healthy, blond hair curling about pointed ears. Front teeth no longer protruded, but were white and even. He sprang to his feet with a shout of joy, laughing as a startled rabbit dashed for safety.
"Come back!" He commanded. The rabbit stopped short. Hopped back to crouch at his feet, sitting as though frozen.
It dashed for the safety of the bushes. Jerys watched it, laughing. Knowing he could call it to him whenever he wished, from wherever it was.
"I would eat!" It seemed the most natural thing in all Tarag to come upon a laden table in a little clearing. He ate until he could eat no more. With a wave of his hand the table was gone. More slowly now, he moved on through the quiet woods.
He stood on the brink of a hill. Looked down at Moggus Village far below. His ragged peasant garb had been replaced by fine clothes, tooled leather boots where ragged sandals had been.
"I am Lord Jerys and this is my castle!" Energy swirled and matter took new forms. Around him rose the walls of a castle; strong stone, and wood, and gleaming metal.
"I command servants and brave men-at-arms!" Other, more subtle forces stirred. In the woods around Moggus Village wolves came forth from their dens. Bear and deer and smaller animals turned their faces toward this new source of power. Silently they came in the bright sunlight, and as they passed through the castle gates a change fell upon them. Soldiers drew up in orderly ranks while workers and soft-eyed wenches went about their daily tasks.
"I rule over all of this land before me!" In the village at the bottom of the hill nothing seemed to change, but Bailiff Chorgo stopped making up his monthly list of tax revenues for his master, the Baron.
"Baron Womath? I know no Baron Womath." He rubbed out the unfamiliar name from the top of the page. With the satisfaction that comes from a job well done he carefully inked in the name of Lord Jerys. In other minds throughout the village a few small memories changed, but the Baron was far away and had little to do with their everyday lives.
Taken aback by this swift and deadly attack, the First Player rallies his forces, but his moves are hurried and unsure.
The peddler picked up the empty bottle from where it lay in the tall grass. Even the scent of its contents had long since gone. They cast about, but from there the trail was lost.
"What will the potion do?"
"I do not know. Cannot even make a close guess." Eldred leaned a bit wearily on his staff. "Normally, nothing unless the one who drank it had a fair measure of the Power. Even then all that it would do is to strengthen that Power somewhat, nothing more. I cannot believe that this will be the case here. Too much is at stake, of that I am sure. This is a matter of more than a few small Magics, a trifling mischief. For one who has had Guild training there are safeguards, protections that cannot be easily broken. For one without such guards there is great danger. An outside Power can reach out and tamper, perhaps even take over. This should not have happened."
"Ah, well. I shall leave the matter in your hands. These matters are too deep for me." The peddler stirred uneasily. "I must be on my way. I shall carry the tale of what has happened back to your masters in the Guild, but first I must pay my respects to Lord Jerys."
"Lord ... Jerys?" Eldred shook his head as though in a momentary daze. Warring memories clashed.
"The castle." The peddler pointed impatiently toward the top of a nearby hill. "I must stop by the castle of Lord Jerys."
"No! The news you bear is more urgent than you can guess. Make all haste to the nearest Guild hall. Tell them all you can of what has happened here. This task I set upon you in the name of the Great Guild!"
Puzzled but obedient, the peddler hurried back to his wagon. As soon as the man was gone Eldred sent questing tendrils of thought toward the castle. It stood solid under his probing, stone and timbers stained by age and weather. Dimly on the mountain's flank could be seen traces of quarry pits that had supplied the blocks of stone for its walls. The road that led up to its gate was rutted and worn with the passing of many wagons, countless feet. At first he could not reach beyond the castle walls. It was as though he gazed upon a painted scene that moved and lived but had no depth. The scene gained more life even as he watched. The gate swung open and people moved in and out. Bright pennons fluttered in the breeze, adding a touch of gaiety to the castle's grim towers.
Eldred closed his eyes, the better to focus his mind on the castle. He could sense the sparks of life that swarmed there. He tried to touch them, but could not. They were beyond his reach, no matter how he tried. It was as though they did not have human thoughts at all. He reached for one, stronger than the rest and shining with a hard clear light but when he did something came between. It was as though a dark curtain hung there, cutting him off from the castle. It swept down upon him like an angry tide, gaining strength with every moment. He braced himself to resist, and for a moment he succeeded. It grew stronger still, but he had reached the limit of his Power.
The First Player gasps in dismay as his pieces are swept aside. His opponent is stronger and more cunning than he had thought. The loss of even this minor game can mean the choosing of a new First Player. Also, he has grown fond of this particular game board.
Eldred was assailed by a wave of dizziness as the world changed around him. He stood in darkness on a barren plain. The stars above were few and dim, frozen in their places. Not the rich sky of Tarag where glowing stars wove their endless patterns. Where two moons revolved about each other in wild ellipses.
Yet ... yet this was Tarag. He stood on the same plain where Moggus Village had always been. The ragged knob before him was the hill that had held the castle of Lord Jerys. He raised his staff, but in this place its glow was feeble. By its dim light he saw only bare ground and tumbled boulders. A few scattered stones might once have formed cottage walls, but all else was ruin.
The wind was cold. Thin and dry, cutting through his robe. A few rotting twigs were caught in a cranny between the rocks. He gathered them into a tiny pile, spoke a fire spell. The twigs sputtered and smoked. He spoke the spell twice more before they caught. Carefully at first he reached out with his mind. Again, with greater strength. He could not scan far. Magic was weak in this place, his spells hindered somehow.
There was nothing but wasteland as far as he could reach. A few stunted bushes, some insects, but no other life. Nowhere could he find the glow of a sentient mind, nor any trace of Magical energies being used.
"At least my spells will harm none but me should they go awry." He laughed, or tried to. In the darkness the laugh caught in his throat and died. Pulling his robe more tightly around his bony shoulders he scratched a pentagram in the dirt. The lines kept fading, and he had to retrace them several times before they glowed with clear green light. He chanted a spell of summoning, spoke a Name of Power.
Nothing. Another Name, and another until at last he was answered. Within the fading diagram darkness swirled sluggishly, a foul mist that could barely be seen against the paler night.
"Who calls?" The voice was a dusty croak, and he had to lean forward to hear. "Who speaks the name of Vornil after all these empty eons? No call has come from Tarag since the Ending."
"I am the one called Eldred, apprentice sorcerer of the Great Guild of Tarag. I command your aid in battle against the enemy who has cast me away to this place. Yet this is surely Tarag, or I must doubt the evidence of my senses."
"This is Tarag, or rather it was. I know not why I bother to answer. The Guild is perished. The Sorcerer's Oath is long since broken and your pentacle has no power over me." The mist coiled thicker, thrusting at his feeble barrier. The faintly glowing lines brightened as Eldred fought to hold them. Brightened, flared and died. He was driven back by a foul odor as the mist wrapped around him, and for a moment wavered on the brink of defeat.
"Get you back, fiend!" Holding his staff by its center like a baton he spun it in a glowing circle. Winds shrieked around him, shredding the mist. He drove the foulness before him, herding it into the broken pentagram. "Back. I command you. Answer or perish."
"Your gateway is closed. I cannot return to my domain, oh Mighty One." Vornil's dusty voice was sullen. "What would you know of me?"
"First, is this truly Tarag? If indeed it is, then why is it so changed?"
"As I told you before, this is truly Tarag. Or it was, countless eons ago. It has not changed all that much. This is the true face of Tarag as it was in the Beginning, before you Sorcerers with your pretty Magics came to make it seem more fair. Those spells were wiped away along with all else of your works when Tarag fell."
"What destroyed Tarag?"
"A being or force neither from this, the Fourth Plane, nor from any other. It crept in from the darkness between the planes, seeking a victim it could convert to its own uses. Thus the delicate balance of forces that upheld Tarag was upset. Magic fled. Tarag died, never to be reborn."
"Then why ... then how did I come here?"
The mist that was Vornil stirred sullenly. Did not answer.
"Speak, Vornil. I, Eldred, command you!"
"There can be but one answer," the demon sighed. "Now let me be. I would return to the Second Plane, to my own concerns."
"The answer!" Fire dripped from the point of his staff and Vornil recoiled from its sting.
"All right! You met the intruding force in direct confrontation. That was when it first moved to take the Fourth Plane, to master Tarag. Not knowing its proper name, if indeed it had one, you could not stand before it. Neither could it master you. The contending forces were too great to be contained in a single plane. You were cast forth bodily, falling down the convoluted paths of time, though you perforce stayed in this same spot."
"How can I return to my own place? My own time?"
"I do not know, nor do I want to know. I am only a simple demon of the third order, and it is long since I have treated with men. Now, mend your diagram of Power. Open the door between the planes so that I may depart."
"Why should I?"
"I cannot help you." The dusty voice held a stronger note of fear. Of hatred. "Let me go, else I may yet do you harm."
"If I stay here it doesn't matter much whether I live or die," Eldred pointed out. "And if I die you will be left here on Tarag forever. All alone, with no way to return to the Second Plane."
"I say again, I cannot help you. Make your diagram, and let me go. Call another to help and assist. Though most of us have passed on to other interests and can no longer be reached from Tarag. It was only luck that you called on one who was there to answer."
"Perhaps it was but luck. Now, who is left for me to call? Quickly, for the dawn is near!"
"Call upon Thraxmire. He alone of the Greater Ones remains. Now let me go."
"Ah, now that is not a permitted move," the Second Player chides. "A Sorcerer of that rank may only move across the dimensions, not along them."
"Your pardon," the First Player apologizes, but the move has gained him time to study broader strategy.
Eldred retraced his diagram, the lines glowing brighter and stronger as he grew more used to his surroundings. The mist that was Vornil was sucked down and away. Eldred again spoke his spell of summoning.
"So Vornil told me true. It is indeed young Eldred." The pentagram seemed empty, but there was a troubling of the air that was difficult to look upon. The voice of Thraxmire was lightly mocking, as smooth as watered silk. "You are far from your proper place. Poor lost Sorcerer, with no way to get back home."
"No way at all? Not by myself, perhaps. You are going to take me there."
"I?" The soft laughter was cruelly mocking. "And why would I do a thing like that?"
"This is why!" Eldred lashed out with his staff. The pentagram broke, letting Thraxmire surge forth.
"You choose to die? You could hold off a poor thing like Vornil, but I shall feed. It has been long since I tasted Essence of Sorcerer."
"Feed if you dare," Eldred challenged. "I am the only Sorcerer in all of Tarag. The pentagram is shattered, and cannot be mended by you. You will roam this empty land until the very end of time."
Thraxmire fell back, baffled. "You dare to play with such as me? You are bold indeed. I think that I shall keep you alive, a toy for my pleasure. Soon you will yearn for death, but first you will open the gateway for my return."
"You can torture me," Eldred admitted with a wry twist of his lips. "But soon the sun rises. Its rays will not be any more pleasant for you than your attentions will be for me. Are you sure that you wish to stay in this place?"
"Very well, then. You have my word. But to do this I must carry you back with me to my own plane of existence."
Eldred hesitated. The Second Plane was easy enough to enter, but few indeed had ever returned from that fearsome place. With the Sorcerer's Pact broken there were no oaths strong enough to bind such as Thraxmire.
"Come now, are you afraid?"
"I am, yes, but it seems I have no choice. But if Tarag did indeed fall is it any use for me to try to change the past?"
"Time is not a book, printed and bound so that you find always the same words on the same page. The Author writes and moves on, but sometimes may be persuaded to come back, altering a word or a line here and there."
Gathering his courage about him like a tattered cloak, Eldred used the tip of his staff to mend the pentagram. From the inside this time. With no sense of motion he was in another place. A floor of jet curved smoothly upward on all sides, rising slowly until it was lost in the distance. A spot of intense black hung in the charcoal sky, shedding its chill radiance.