Chapter One: Introductions
The bluebird sang upon the stone windowsill, mere inches away from the jars of ancient substances. Looking at the nearby dried roots, it would quickly hop toward them and then abruptly back away. After each cycle, it would tweet its song as though it was trying to remain discreet.
A sweet-smelling spring breeze turned a page in the large nearby tome, and the small creature hunched low, considering a hasty flight. The man who sat at the desk began to whistle. His song seemed to soothe the bird – perhaps because it was identical to the earlier tune.
Gaston Camlann was known for such precise observations. He was a man of great renown, gifted in many arts, both ancient and modern. It was a wonder at all that he was able to excel at so many things. He was, after all, human. They didn’t live forever.
The wizard, who fancied himself more a scholar, was beginning to show his age. His once attractive features had been replaced with wrinkles and rosy cheeks. He wore a long, dark grey beard and moustache to hide most of his weathered face. Long, wavy locks had been stricken a little brighter by the sun, nearing the color of snow. He hid that indicator of his age underneath a wide green hat.
As he whistled a second verse to his winged companion, a series of knocks upon the door played the percussion in their song. Gaston was so engrossed in his studies that he was ill-suited to notice, even when the rapping on the door grew louder and more frequent.
More aware than the sage, the bluebird hopped off of its stone pedestal, diving into the northern wilderness. Gaston, shaken from his task by that sight, chortled to himself. How easily Homer has trained me, he thought, recalling how often the bird returned to him.
Another series of knocks on the door had his full attention then.
“Yes, come in,” he pleasantly permitted.
The sturdy slab of elm slid open, and a well-dressed man walked in, his polished boots tapping across the floor. To his left, a lazy feline laid peacefully, its tail floating to and fro as the visitor entered. After removing his leather glove, the man reached out, petting the cat on its side. Rolling over, the feline gleefully accepted the attention.
Gaston placed his quill down and turned to acknowledge his guest’s arrival. “Ah, Edric,” the sage said, standing quickly and slamming his legs into the desk. He winced but worked at ignoring the pain. “It’s been some time.”
Preoccupied with the animal, it almost seemed that Edric would not find the focus to reply. The black cat had wrapped its arms around the man’s wrist and was contentedly licking his knuckles. “That it has, my friends,” the visitor finally said, giving a quick, rough little scratch to the cat’s belly before retrieving his hand.
“And what brings you to my dusty old closet on this beautiful day? It’s not often that a White Knight of Gardone visits a meager hamlet like Forsynthia.”
“Forsynthia is anything but meager, and I believe it has evolved from a hamlet some time ago. Also, my time in a white cloak has long passed.”
A smile crossed Gaston’s face. “Just as always, you focus on the corrections while you ignore the questions.”
“Anything to gain a few extra moments to speak with an old friend,” Edric said. “One of Jonathan’s birds came through. Apparently, your pupil had just arrived at the toll road. I don’t think she’ll arrive too long after I did.”
“And depending on the driver, the poor girl will be arriving without a coin in her pocket. What a foolish idea those roads were.”
Edric paused, considering how to react. A moment later, he was shaking his head while smiling. “You know the countryside better than most, Gaston. Between the beasts and the brigands, all of Daltain is a dangerous place. But with paid patrols on watch… well, you know what Lord Kerrigan says. Good roads b –”
“Build a better country, yes,” the old sage finished. “And there’s quite a bit of wisdom there too. Far more than this wizened old wizard cares to admit often, anyway. And I’m sure those pampered, spoon-fed princes from Sungarden were happy to keep the hands out of their pockets.
“Ah, but I’m rambling again,” Gaston said. “Are you staying for some time? Can I offer you some tea?”
A weak frown could just barely be seen upon the retired knight’s face. “Alas, my friend, I haven’t come to Forsynthia just for reprieve. I’m moving a caravan of weapons up to the Basalt Flats. Lydick should be awaiting me in the armory if he’s been properly advised of my arrival.”
Gaston nodded. “Always too short, these visits. No matter. It will give me some time to stretch these old legs in preparation to meet the young lady.”
“And I’m sure there are a great many surprises you have prepared for this one,” Edric mused. “I’m staying in Forsynthia for the night. If my task is kind to me, perhaps we can meet for the tea later this evening.”
“I should like that very much.”
Following a polite bow, Edric turned and began out of the room. He stopped beside the black cat and gingerly scratched beneath its chin. “Farewell, Merlin,” the retired knight said. “Keep your master from falling too deeply into those tomes of his.”
Once Edric had gone from the room, Gaston turned to his pet, glee etched upon his face. “Worry not, my old furry friend. You’ll have a new companion to play with. There will be time for books later.”
Merlin let out a contented meow but remained on his side, even as his master stepped clear of the door and drew it mostly closed.
The young lady had stuck her head out of the carriage for most of the journey. As the massive gates of Forsynthia parted, she considered that she had never traveled farther south. Those thoughts quickly passed as the vehicle rolled into the town.
Although it had once been merely a fort for Daltainian soldiers, it had grown to serve as one of the jewels of the country. Despite its rapid rise, it still preserved much of its rural origins.
When she had passed through the town’s gates, the young lady realized the entryway was merely for show. There were no walls beyond that point, though a border of trees provided a sense of Forsynthia’s boundaries.
She swept a strand of blond hair out of her eyes. Her focus shifted to the large keep at the center of the town. Other buildings surrounded that one, varying in their distances. Still, the place didn’t seem stripped of country. Trees provided shade and natural gaps between homes and stores. Gardens seemed to wind and intersect in beautiful arrangements.
The young lady couldn’t help but be enamored by the sights.
Before she realized it, the carriage had stopped just several hundred feet from the keep.
“We’ve arrived, miss,” the driver called out.
Blowing out a sigh, the young lady opened the door and stepped from the carriage. A small breeze swept the bottom layers of her blue dress aside for a moment before she felt steady on her feet again. Approaching the driver, she held out her hand. “Thank you for taking care of the toll for me. I had no idea you had to pay to use a road in this country.”
He reached out, accepting her offer. When he saw the shining pieces of silver in his palm, he began shaking his head. “No, miss. I can’t take this from a child.”
“It’s yours,” she said, sounding much more assertive and wise than her age imparted. “I get the feeling that over the next few months I won’t get many opportunities to use money.”
Slowly, he nodded, accepting her offer. “I do hope you find what you’re looking for. If the rumors are true, you’ll go far in life. Master Camlann could be no better teacher. If you’re ever in Viscosa again, I’ll make sure you’re looked after.”
“Thank you, Francois.”
Nodding once again, he clicked his tongue and snapped the reins. His pair of horses began forward.
The young lady turned around, looking at the long gardens that led to the keep. Sighing yet again, she proceeded forward.
Wildflowers filled the air with a lovely spring aroma. Forsynthia seemed brighter than most cities, as if the grass itself was somehow warmer. Paths twisted and turned, spiraling back within themselves in confusing notions. More than once, the young lady was forced to backtrack, finding herself lost at a dead end.
It could not be helped. Besides the gorgeous flowers, exquisite topiary animals had been placed in the gardens. She could not prevent herself from being drawn in by the distractions.
“They are beautiful, are they not?”
Her body had gone slightly rigid at the sound of the unexpected voice. She had to fight back against all of her instincts, knowing that violence would likely be unforgivable. “Captivating,” she said as she turned to address the sudden stranger.
“You must be Miss Kreegan,” the man said, bowing slightly, for his old bones might not have allowed him to bend much farther.
“Adelia,” she confirmed.
“Of course,” he replied. “Welcome to our quaint town. I am Gaston Camlann.”
She extended her hand. “You are well met, sir. And truly, this place is greater than I could have imagined.”
“I find that hard to believe, considering your stay in Viscosa.”
She grinned at the mention of the capital city of Raleigh. “It was a magnificent place, to be sure. I rarely saw any of the more impressive sights.”
“Ah yes. Due to your time spent among the… Would you care to walk with me back to the keep?”
With a slight nod, she fell into place beside the old sage. He knew the way better than her, yet he still seemed to weave a path in odd directions.
“My time was spent among the streets,” Adelia said. “I didn’t know anyone in the city when I arrived, so for the first few weeks, I hid in an alley, almost in the trash.”
“Curious,” he said. As she passed an inquisitive gaze his way, he continued. “You seem a bright young lady, not at all as naïve as most your age. You’re soft on the eyes as well. One would think you could have easily found an employer at an inn or a tavern that would have bartered a sleeping arrangement for you.”
“Perhaps,” she said. “But I didn’t want to throw myself into a situation out of any undue necessity. A few nights in the streets… well that’s just like camping.”
“Well put,” the sage offered with a smile. He stopped, urging the young lady to do the same. “I must ask you, Adelia. Why do you want to be a mage?”
She pondered the question for a few moments before grasping her shoulder, shrugging. “I don’t know,” she said. “The people who found me using magic seemed to think I was special.”
“Ah, and that you are, child. But magic is special too. There are a wide variety of them out there, and some will require much of your time. That is the difference between a trick,” he said, producing a bouquet of flowers from behind his back, “and the arcane arts themselves.”
As he finished his statement, the topiary animals behind him almost seemed to move. All at once, flowers bloomed upon the hedges. Adelia’s eyes brightened to behold them.
“I would choose not to waste either of our time, Adelia,” the old wizard asserted. “Is this something you truly wish to pursue?”
Without hesitation, the young lady nodded.
“Excellent,” he said, guiding his hand behind her back. They began toward the keep once more. “I had already invested quite a bit of time in studying up on you, you see. I’m truly sorry about your parents.”
“How did you…” she began to say. Recalling who she was in the presence of, Adelia let the words trail off.
“I know much about you, child. Perhaps more than you do. How well aware are you of your ancestors?”
She shrugged again. “I never knew any of my grandparents. They had all passed away before I was born.”
“And your father told you nothing of them?” He hummed to himself but nodded. “Most likely for the best. You see, Balthaszar Kreegan, much like yourself, displayed some level of arcane acuity. And, much like you, his first spell was that of a… frigid nature.
“Anyone has the propensity to study magic,” he explained, “to learn the arcane arts – to bend and shape reality. There are very few who present such a gift without ever having turned a page on the subject matter. You are a curious case but so, too, was Balthaszar.
“You are here to study the elements of sorcery,” Gaston asserted. “You must know that I will be studying you just as intently.”
They had reached the entrance of the keep. A stone walkway led beneath a drawn portcullis and through a pair of grand opened doors.
“I wish I could promise to be interesting,” Adelia said. “I fear I may make a boring subject.”
Inside the courtyard, several people were busy with their daily routines. Gaston didn’t give her much time to dawdle. He guided her to a flight of stone steps toward the second level of the keep.
“You would be surprised, young lady. While a wizard’s studies are never truly over, we begin to sway from the arcane slightly in our old age. We begin to… specialize in a particular field of normal study. I know a fellow up north who studies dragons. He actually coined a name for himself – a dracosage.
“At one point in my travels,” he continued as he led her up a flight of wooden stairs, “I met a man who searched the world for various magical artifacts. I’ve even run across a gnomish alchemist that sampled hundreds of different water sources across Tellest.”
“And what about you?” Adelia asked. “What is your specialty?”
The pair stopped just in front of a slightly opened door. With a grin, the sage turned to his young pupil.
“I prefer to see what makes people tick. Every one of us is different, and some are much more peculiar than the rest. You may consider yourself dull, but I assure you, I will learn as much from you as you do from me.
“Now, this room will be yours for the duration of your time spent in Forsynthia. After long days of studying through tomes, attempting new spells, and collecting reagents, you’ll find this place very endearing.”
“Thank you, Master Camlann,” Adelia said. “You’ve been very hospitable.”
“Just Gaston will do,” the sage said, opening the way for the young lady.
She took a single step inside but froze when she saw the black beast upon her bed.
“What is it?” the sage asked. Upon receiving no response, he stepped into the room. A wide grin crawled upon his face. “I see you’ve met Merlin.”
“You know it?” she asked before shaking her head. “Of course you know it.”
“Now this is the kind of human element that interests me,” Gaston said. “Why such a fear of a small cat?”
Blowing out a large sigh, she steadied herself. “When I was a little girl, I had an… experience.”
“No matter,” the sage said. “It’s perfectly understandable to be a little apprehensive of them. They did, after all, descend from dragons.”
She stared at him quizzically. “I can’t tell if you’re having a laugh at my expense.”
“Absolutely not,” Gaston asserted. “Once, all of Tellest was overrun by dragons. They were the fourth race that the gods created – after men, dwarves and elves. In the beginning, all of them were friendly and worked in harmony with us. But we grew fearful.
“Legend has it,” the sage said, “that an elven wizard named Sarisla found the means to transmogrify creatures. One day, he approached the largest, meanest looking dragon and ensnared her with a lovely song. While she was captivated, he set his magic loose on her.
“Before she knew it, she had shrunk down to a fragment of her size. Scales had given way to fur. Horns shifted and stretched until they sufficed as whiskers. She was with a litter, but of course, all the young inside her had transformed too.”
“So Sarisla had created a brand new race,” Adelia mused.
“Consider it,” Gaston said. “Cats have dragons’ eyes. They can fall from up high as if they’re almost flying. There’s even, supposedly, a group of kaja in the south seas who apparently learned how to breathe fire once more.”
Merlin meowed, as if giving credit to the story.
“Of course, it would also explain some of the caution that felines prefer with us. Perhaps it’s a good idea that you give this terrifying beast a wide berth,” he said, winking indiscriminately somewhere between the cat and the young lady. “Come, Merlin. Let us give Miss Kreegan some solitude. I’m sure she must be quite exhausted after her long journey.”
The slender black cat did as instructed, hopping off of the bed. Before it left the room, however, it rubbed against Adelia’s leg. She quietly sighed as it continued into the hall.
“Rest easy, child,” the sage offered. “Tomorrow is an important day. It marks the beginnings of your studies. Today ends the quiet life of the country girl. Tomorrow… Tomorrow you become initiated in the arts. You’ll be one of the greatest witches this world has ever seen.
“In the meantime,” he said, “feel free to explore Forsynthia a bit. If you manage to get lost, the people are incredibly kind. If you need me directly, I’m the last door on the right.”
Adelia nodded. “Thank you, sir.”
With a smile, he shut the door behind him.
The young lady was left alone to ponder her decision.