Ruben Frederick took an appreciative glance at the staff in his hand. It was plain. Plain enough that no one took a second look. An olive-green wooden rod resembling more a quarterstaff than the exquisite arcane staffs commonly used by his kind. Ruben had never seen a staff looked more ordinary than his. But that was the brilliance of it: Ordinary, inconspicuous, and raised no questions.
His life had changed since he found the ancient artefact and learnt to wield its unique ability. Now, he was the Grand Magus, one of the twelve Magi of the Magus Council. It was only his first week at work, and it would be a while until his first wages, but he wanted to celebrate his new position with his wife and son, so he spent half his remaining coins at the market.
The new Magus stayed in the poor district of the town, in a wooden shed. But this too would change, Ruben thought, when he saved up enough for a stone house in the central district and leave this dreadful district for good. It was not a good environment for Rudy to grow up in, and too many drunkards could not keep their hands off Camille. This place lacked hopes and starved ambitions.
The door complained as Ruben pushed it open. No one home. He didn’t have to search, the full of his house was within view from the door. Odd, he thought, where would they have gone at this time? He had told them they would celebrate today.
A brown, foreign object on the table caught Ruben’s eyes. A parchment, written in an elegant, cursive handwriting:
To the Great and Dignified Grand Magus,
First! a most hearty congratulations on your new post!
As celebration, I have, pray forgive me, without your consent, prepared a surprise for Your Magus.
I trust, by now, Your Magus has found your belongings… not right where they ought be.
Come, come! to the Black Wells Church. Alone, I beg you.
But pray be chaperoned by that most wondrous weapon of yours.
I urge you to make great haste, for the sake of our friendship! for the well-being of your belongings.
May the blessings of the Ancients be upon you my especial Magus!
Ruben’s heart raced, and he found the room suddenly suffocating. He needed to get to them quick. He dropped the bag of breads and grapes and meat to the floor, grabbed his staff as instructed, and dashed out of the door. Whoever did this knew the secret of his staff, and he — or they — wanted it. And they took Camille and Rudy. But who? He had told no one about the staff. Not even to the person he loved.
Ruben was prepared to exchange any possessions for Camille and Rudy. But there was no guarantee they would hold their end of the bargain. He needed an assurance. He headed opposite of the woods where the church was, and made a hasty trip to the Magus Council. He passed some apprentices practicing first-year spells: fireball, illusion, telekinesis. One of his colleagues, who loved to demonstrate, was demonstrating a Grand Fireball. When the Grand Magus came out of the Council, his staff had taken on a different appearance. A green, wax-like material the shape of the staff formed at its head, elongating the staff.
Ruben followed the signposts in the woods, east for a monastery, west for Black Wells Church. He eventually reached the Black Wells Church — an abandoned building with broken windows and parts of its walls reclaimed by nature.
He saw no one on his way here, and none anywhere around the church. The Grand Magus skirted the perimeters to the back of the church and peeped through a window, making sure not to step on the twigs around his feet. A man with short grey hair sat with his back facing Ruben. He wore a sky blue mantle, and held a gnarled oak staff with a yellow orb at its head. Ruben could not see his face but a sorcerer’s staff is his identity. Azoe Lorac. The man he defeated in a duel to become the Grand Magus.
Ruben could not blame Azoe Lorac for desiring the ancient staff; after all, it did grant even a defective mage like him enough powers to defeat a Magus. A woman and child laid on the floor. An ethereal purple rope wove around their bodies, extended to Azoe, binding them in position. They were unconscious but otherwise appeared unharmed.
Ruben aimed his staff at the grey-haired sorcerer through the window. But he changed his mind, and lowered it. If Azoe sensed his spell, and he would, he could end Camille’s and Rudy’s lives in a finger snap. He ducked out of sight, and crept away. When he was sure the ex-Grand Magus could not sense his spell, he cast a spell.
Ruben entered through the front door.
‘Ah! The Grand Magus arrives,’ Azoe said, bowing his head.
Ruben looked at his wife and son on the floor.
‘Fret not, Your Magus! Fret not! I assure you they are quite fine. So healthy and full of vigour, I might say, that I was forced to put them to sleep,’ Azoe said, smiling at them.
Ruben raised the coveted ancient staff towards, but not at, Azoe Lorac.
‘I see you have brought the staff of the legendary Krzesh! Vanished from the world for so long, and look at it now. In your hands!’
Ruben continued holding out his staff, locking eyes with Azoe, insisting on making the trade as soon as possible. He would give up any possessions for Camille and Rudy.
‘Pray, do not be mistaken. I plead for the presence of that… device not so that I could take it for myself. Nay,’ he said, closing his eyes and shaking his head slowly. ‘I do not want that skulduggery.’
Ruben lowered his staff.
‘They say the whimsical Krzesh knew so many spells he never used the same one twice!’ said Azoe. ‘I do not understand the obsession with the man. That poor excuse of a mage. More a humbug than a mage, if you ask me. That woeful man!’ he raised his voice. ‘Couldn’t come up with a spell worth a rat’s hide, so he crafted an artifice to steal spells from real mages! Yet! he dared call himself a mage. A disciple of Arcane!’ Azoe took a deep breath, and spoke as if addressing a class of students. ‘A mage, a Magus,’ he spat the word at Ruben, ‘is someone who knows spells, who spends his life devoted to mastery! Yes, someone like the glorious Arsenal Magus! The Invoker! Have you met him? Hm? Isn’t he fascinating? That man is the quintessence of a mage. A disciple, no! a Teacher of the Arcane.’ The ex-Grand Magus shifted his gaze suddenly to Ruben, and continued, ‘So different from you. You, who have no spells you call your own. Ruben Frederick! Nothing but a talentless, squalid whelp!’
Ruben had his own notion of what makes a great mage, but he did not want to provoke the man, no, not when Camille and Rudy was a few feet behind him. He swallowed the insults silently, focusing instead on watching Azoe’s staff arm. A mage kills with only a wave of his staff. But Ruben, too, was a mage, and he gripped his own tightly, readied to raise it quickly.
The crazed mage opened his arms, as though preaching passionately to a group of devout followers now. ‘You took everything from me. My title! My authority! My life! And what did you do to deserve that?’ he spoke the last sentence through gritted teeth. ‘WHAT DID YOU DO TO DESERVE THAT!?’
Ruben did not reply.
‘NOTHING!’ Azoe bellowed, and the church repeated it. ‘That staff is an abomination! An instrument of heretics. I do not want that staff! I, the one true Grand Magus, have no need for that staff!’
Azoe raised and pointed his staff at Ruben. He was fast. Mana gathered inside the yellow orb on his staff, illuminating it from within. Ruben raised his left arm reflexively, but he was too slow. A huge burst of energy shot out at him before he did anything. A torrent of air whirled in the room, blowing away and splitting apart chairs. A small crater appeared on the wall behind where Ruben had stood, but the Grand Magus himself was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps what little was left of him could be found stuck in the crater, Azoe amused himself.
Azoe Lorac surveyed the room, wide-eyed and with a huge smile. The grey-haired mage shivered, and made a faint sound, like that of a whimper. The whimpers grew into chuckles, and the chuckles grew to a convulsion of rejoice. A victory for the Arcane!
The church celebrated with him.
‘Good day to you!’ came a voice from behind.
Azoe spun around. But the Grand Magus had already pointed his staff at him, and this time, the huge burst of energy surged from the plain, unimpressive staff. Another torrent of air whirled in the room. Ruben had stood in front of his family to shelter them from any stray debris. But Azoe was thrown backwards by the invisible force, and onto the ground, his body sliding across the aisle.
‘An.. An illusion?’ Azoe said. A crimson streak trailed from his mouth.
‘Even lesser magics can be a source of much utility,’ the Grand Magus said.
‘Oh Ruben Frederick,’ Azoe said. ‘What have you done.’ He burst into a fit of laughter and choked on his blood. But he continued laughing.
Wood splinters and yellow crystal fragments scattered across the ground. A mage without a conduit, even the level of a Magus, was only as dangerous as a common man. Ruben left him alone and made his way to Camille and Rudy. The purple bindings that wove around them was gone. He turned Camille over. Her unblinking hazel eyes stared past Ruben, and streaks of blood oozed from her mouth and nose.
‘Camille?’ he said. ‘Camille!’
He turned Rudy over, and the same pattern of blood flowed from him too. ‘Rudy! Rudy, wake up!’ he said, shaking his son. ‘Camille! Camille!’
At the other end of the church, Azoe’s laughter turned hysterical.
‘What did you do to them, Azoe?’ Ruben shouted across the church. ‘What did you do!?’
Azoe Lorac responded with laughter.
Ruben put Camille down gently. He started towards Azoe and pounced on him. The Magus reverted to primitive savagery. He rolled his hands into a fist and rammed them into the grey-haired sorcerer’s face. Left, right, left. Right. Left! Left! Left!
He pulled Azoe by the collar of his mantle. ‘WHAT DID YOU DO!’
Azoe’s face was a mess of red. But oh, how invigorating the gratifying, sweet taste of revenge! No pain of the physical could compare to the stain of his reputation. He chuckled it off. ‘How did you like my new spell? They receive any spells I receive. And so! YOU murdered them!’ he said between laughter.
Ruben dropped Azoe. He had assumed it was a disabling spell.
‘Wise words from the Grand Magus, “Even lesser magics can be a source of much utility!”’ Azoe crackled.
But that sound of joy was cut short by Ruben as he grabbed a sharp stake on the ground and drove it into Azoe’s chest. Ruben looked Azoe straight in his pale blue eyes as he drained his life. He wanted to watch Azoe wither away. Azoe Lorac was gasping for breath, perhaps to say something, but the Grand Magus did not allow it. Clutching feebly at his Ruben’s hands, he tried to stop the stake from going deeper. But it was no use. His limbs were weak; his killer determined. The last sensation Azoe Lorac felt was that of a soothing warmth spreading over his chest.
Only when Azoe stopped moving for a good while did Ruben let go of the stake, and slid off the corpse. He sat on the ground, alone, amidst the blood and debris.
When he pulled out of his stupor, he half-ran-half-stumbled towards his wife and son on the other end, crying out for Camille and Rudy. He shook them, and he jerked them. He screamed their names, and he slapped them; he yelled and yanked at them. But all Camille and Rudy could do was to stare at him. He pulled them close and buried his face between them, and let out an unfamiliar sound.
Ruben remembered there was a monastery somewhere. There must have a healer! So he put his wife and son down, and whispered softly, ‘Wait for me, will you? Wait for me Rudy.’
They responded with a stare.
He grabbed his staff, ran out of the building, and retraced the path. He saw a familiar signpost, and turned into the other fork. When Ruben sprinted until he was too tired to, he walked, never stopping to rest. He did not know how long he took, but it was morning when he eventually reached the monastery.
A priest, clad in a long brown robe, and Ruben stepped off their steeds and hurried into the abandoned building. They stepped past the debris of wood and broken chairs, and made their way to the two bodies at the back. A woman, and a boy. Their opened eyes stared toward the ceiling, but not particularly at anything.
The priest thought he should say something; though he never sure what to say in situations such as this. ‘My Magus,’ the priest eventually said, his head slightly bowed, and a hand across his chest. ‘I offer you my deepest condo—’
Ruben waved his staff, and a golden light embraced the corpse of the woman and the boy.
When they did not react to the spell, the Magus cast it again.
A healing spell is a privilege for the living. Confounded, the priest raised an arm to stop him. Then, he pulled it back at the last second, and lowered his arm. An uncomfortable lump found its way to his throat, and he found it hard to remain in the presence of the family. The priest turned around, and left the Magus alone.
He sat outside the church on a grass patch near where the horses were tied. Once every while, a bright golden light would shine from within the church. Once another while, the Magus would murmur something. He heard some words like ‘forgive’, some cursing, and ‘all my fault.’ He was sure he could make out every word if he wanted to, but the priest had no such hobby.
When this continued for several hours, the young priest mustered his courage to stop him. At this rate, even a Magus would wear out from mana exhaustion.
‘Your Magus,’ the priest said. ‘Pray, stop. They are dead.’ But he was not sure if the Magus heard him.
Ruben did not turn around to look at him, and only cast the heal again. But he dropped his staff midway as his body fell limply onto the ground.
A woman tucked the sides of her long flaxen hair behind her ears, and stirred a bowl while stealing a quick glance at her son. A giant book with drawings of dragons and knights propped on his laps, and his legs rocked back and forth lazily. She dug into the bowl with a spoon, making sure to include the mashed orangey bits, and blew at it gently before feeding her son.
Camille learnt when to feed Rudy carrots: when he does not see it coming. The spoon neared Rudy, who was immersed in another world, opened his mouth and started chewing.
At the corner of their wooden shed, Ruben suppressed a smile. As a father, he believed carrots were good, when you were growing up, but did not necessarily believe the same for adults, adults like him.
Rudy took another mouthful. Camille shot Ruben a warning look from the corner of her beautiful hazel eyes, suppressing a smile of her own, as if to say, ‘You’re next.’
Ruben jerked awake, and was stopped by the aches all over his body. He found himself in a room, the curtains drawn to block out the sunlight.
‘How do you feel?’ a voice said.
Ruben had not noticed the man in the corner. He had white hair, but mostly bald, and wore a long brown robe.
Ruben startled. ‘Where am I?’ he asked, surveying the room, and saw his staff by his bedside.
‘This is the Westminster Monastery,’ the old priest answered.
‘I need to go.’
‘Lady Frederick and Young Frederick have already been laid to rest, my Magus,’ said the old priest.
‘How long have I been out for?’
‘To-day is the third,’ the priest said. Then, to someone outside the door, ‘Johann, bring food for the Magus.’ A shadow flitted across the gap below the door.
‘Haven’t you got a resurrection spell?’ Ruben asked.
‘I’m afraid there are no spells, and no artefacts, that revive the dead.’
Ruben was not particularly disappointed; he knew that. ‘Who are you? Why did you save me?’ Ruben asked.
‘I did not save you. Johann did,’ the old man said. Then, raising his eyebrows, ‘My Magus, I am the abbot of this monastery. You.. do not remember me?’
Ruben shook his head.
The healer thought it a strange symptom. Mana exhaustion never caused memory loss, only fatigue.
‘Only briefly, but yes,’ said the abbot. ‘I cast a healing spell on you, as you demanded the other day when you came here the other day.’
Ruben took a long hard look at the old priest, but recalled nothing. ‘I remember the healing spell,’ said Ruben. He remembered other things too. ‘But, pardon me. I cannot seem to recall our encounter.’
A knock on a door. A young priest came in with a tray of food, and placed it on the table.
‘This is Johann. Do you remember him?’ inquired the abbot.
‘Eat up, my Magus,’ instructed the abbot. ‘You shall need to replenish your health.’ The abbot and the young priest bowed their head to the Grand Magus, and left the room.
Ruben stared at the bread and soup. He did not feel hunger, and barely ate anything for days.
The abbot was a healer, but even he could do nothing for the ailments of the heart. If this kept up, the Grand Magus would starve to death. The old priest paid him a visit in his room.
‘My Magus, I had claimed before there were no spells and artefacts that could grant a life. But I have heard of a hearsay. That perhaps there is but one way to grant life to the dead.’
Ruben sprang from his bed. ‘What is it? Do tell!’
‘Come to my quarters when that plate is empty,’ the abbot pointed to the food, and left.
It was only a short while later when a knock came on the abbot’s door. ‘Enter,’ he said.
Ruben brought along the plates. Empty plates. The abbot let out a short laugh. ‘Have a seat, Magus.’
‘You have heard of the Ancient Shards, yes?’
‘You refer to the fragments of the Mad Moon when it shattered a decade ago,’ confirmed Ruben.
‘Indeed I am. The Ancient Shards, the Radiants and the Dires, are powerful, mysterious crystals. The only known artefact crafted from these Shards is a sword called the Demon Edge. The bards say it forged on the anvil of a blacksmith from the Narrow Maze, a demon by the name of Abzidian. ’Tis also the only artefact crafted from both a Radiant and a Dire. But, even the Ancient Shards, powerful as they are, cannot grant the Gift of Life. However,’ the priest paused for a sip of water. ‘They say if one melds both Ancient Shards, a Radiant and a Dire, to form a Mad Bijou and returns it to the Sentinel of the Mad Moon, the Guardian who kept watch over the magenta moon for eons until the fateful day it shattered, she will grant you one of your heart’s desires. Even the Gift of Life. For of such eminence was the restoration of the Mad Moon to the Primordials, no wish is too lavish a gift.’
The abbot saw the life coming back to Ruben, as if he himself had granted the Gift of Life to the Magus. ‘Take heed. I spoke only what I heard. Nought but tales spun by bards, spout by drunkards. No one knows with certainty if the Sentinel exists.’
‘Still I must try.’
‘And try you will, my Magus! Try you will.’
‘Pray address me as Magus no more,’ Ruben said. ‘I have no intentions to return to the Council. Pray, call me Ruben. Ruben Frederick.’
‘Very well! my friend Ruben. I am certain you have your reasons, and I am in no position of enquiry.’
‘Whose name shall I give when asked of the kind man who gave me hope in my darkest days?’
‘The name’s Gabrielle. Gabrielle Watts.’
‘You have my eternal gratitude, Abbot Watts. I ought seek these Shards the soonest I am able, I shall depart when morrow comes. These elusive Shards could well take a lifetime to obtain. And I have not many lifetimes.’
‘’Tis a long, arduous quest you embark, my friend. And one can never be prepared enough.’ Gabrielle got up and walked to the wardrobe. He searched for a while before he held out a neatly folded set of garments to Ruben. It was mostly black, with a little green.
‘Take this with you. ’Tis my old combat robes, but I have nay use of it now. Imbued with runic inscriptions, it will protect you from many spells, negating their potencies. It had saved my life more times than I will ever know. I am certain it will serve you as well as it served me.’
‘A most exquisite ware! I cannot possibly take more than I already have, Abbot.’
‘You have an important quest, do you not, Ruben? Then do all that you possibly can to achieve it.’
‘Very well,’ Ruben said after some hesitation, then took the garments in his hands. ‘Then know that it will remain in good condition for as long as I am alive.’
‘Just one… singularity, if you will,’ the abbot said. ‘The Null Field, as it is called by its maker, works only when every piece of the robe is worn. And that includes the head mask.’ The old priest tossed about the pieces of garments for the mask, and held it up. It was entirely black, with two large green sockets for the eyes.
‘Wh-Whose fancy is this?’ Ruben said, eyeing the mask.
Abbot Watts let out a laugh. ‘An old friend. Peace be with him. An ingenious craftsman. Renowned for the quality of his wares, and for his lack of taste.’
Ruben smiled. The first one the abbot saw since he arrived.
Ruben Frederick rose before the sun rose. Decked in his new protective garments, and a most unimpressive staff in his hand, he returned to the Black Wells Church where the young priest had buried Camille and Rudy.
There Ruben sat, basking in the sun, between two lumps of soil, between his wife and his son, for a little while.
Oswin Boivin was wiping the tables when an odd-looking stranger came into the Tankards & Drunkards tavern. He wore a mask and a set of robes of mostly black and green, and a yellow scarf knitted with inscriptions of some kind. But it was the way he moved that the tavern keeper Oswin thought him queer. He was fidgety, his head bobbed around, as if perpetually curious of his surroundings.
Oswin watched him for a while before he took his orders.
‘A loaf of bread. And soup.’
‘Comin’ right up.’
‘Do you have carrots?’
‘Aye, we do.’
‘Wonderful! Add those in the soup.’
‘Aye,’ said the tavern keeper, and left for the kitchen.
Then a commotion broke out outside the tavern. Some men’s voices shouting, and a lass’ sharp scream.
The odd sorcerer grabbed his staff and went out. He saw some men standing over a girl on the ground, who perhaps fell when running away.
‘Hmm…’ the head-bobbing sorcerer said. ‘What seems to be the issue here?’
‘Whatever it is, it’s none of yer business, sapling!’ a burly man with a cutlass said, and returned to the lass. ‘Ye fink ye can run from us eh, little wench?’
A group of curious onlookers and busybodies surrounded the area, but none lifted a finger nor said a word.
The sorcerer seemed not to be fazed at the situation. He continued to bob his head from one side to another, as if he was bobbing it in rhythm to a music in the air only he can hear.
As the brute and his gang walked towards the girl on floor, the masked sorcerer pointed his staff at them. A green bolt flashed out from his staff and hit one of the brutes, which then jumped from him, to the next, and it continued until every last one of them was struck. They dropped their weapons abruptly, as if they scalded their hands. Several yells of ‘Ow!’ were heard.
Then he pointed his staff at the biggest of them and, as if with an invisible hand around his neck, lifted him into the air. The mage waved his staff, and the huge man was thrown among his own lot, crashing into them. The group of men stumbled backwards and landed on the ground.
The mage in their group, eager to prove he was the strongest among the group, launched a spell towards the mysterious sorcerer. An ice bolt flew towards Ruben and hit him in the chest. But the masked mage seemed to be protected by some kind of barrier, and only felt a chill rushing up his spine and shivered.
‘Let me show you how to use that,’ the sorcerer said. He pointed his staff at the thug mage, and a green wax seeped out at the top of his staff. He made a motion and returned an icy bolt towards the mage. It hit him in the chest, and spread to parts of his body, encased in ice. He tried to run, but he was locked in place by the frost around his ankles.
His friends abandoned him and ran away. Whatever they had to do with the lass, they had no more. And the crowd, too, dispersed. The head-bobbing sorcerer headed back into the tavern.
‘Thank you, Sir! How should I address you?’
The sorcerer, however, perhaps lost in his own little world, seemed not to hear the girl, and walked back into the tavern.
‘On the house,’ Oswin said, laying down the food on the table. ‘Dat’s a fine thing ye did back there. Blasted ruffians! Always makin’ trouble fer us ordinary folks.’
‘Why, that is kind of you!’ The masked stranger said, resting his staff on the table.
The mage found many slices of carrots in his bowl and proceeded to pick out the orange slices from his bowl and left them on the table. The tavern keeper looked at the stranger and the carrots on the table. ‘Ye dun eat carrots?’
‘Never did, never will!’
‘Bah! Why ever did ye ask to put them in ye soup then?’
‘I did not!’ the stranger exclaimed.
‘Course ye did!’
‘Must be a mistake. Terribly sorry. I seem out of mind lately, always forgetting things. But you hear it from the man himself now. Never liked carrots, and never will!’ the masked sorcerer announced.
‘Bah, no matter! Dat’s some incredible stuff ye did back there,’ Oswin said. ‘Say, what’s yer name?’
‘Ah! Call me…’ the mage said, and looked up in the air for a while. ‘Most strange. I… can’t seem to recall my name.’
‘Golly! Ye can’t remember ye name? Ye own name!’ the tavern keeper asked, looking for clues on the masked face, and not quite finding it.
‘I jest you not,’ said the sorcerer. ‘I remember some of it.’
‘Well,’ Oswin said. ‘Say it!’
‘Let’s see,’ the mage said. ‘It starts with an are, then a you. And a bee, then…’
‘R-u-b? Rub? What kinda name is dat?’
‘Well, this is where it gets foggy. I know there is something after that… but what, I do not know. I also remember an aye, a see, and a kay, in that order.’
‘Rub Eek?’ Oswin tried to pronounce.
‘Rub Eek…’ the mage considered.
‘Bah! Tell ye what,’ the burly man threw his arms in the air. ‘Why dun we get ye a new name, aye? Makes e’rything simpler.’
‘What do you have in mind?’
‘These are clues to ye real name and could be real important aye? We’ll use what you have ‘ere!’ the tavern keeper said and he gave it a thought. ‘R-u-b-i-c-k. Roo-beak!’
‘Rubick,’ echoed the mage.
‘Aye! How’s that eh? Ye like dat? We could call ye dat.’
‘Well, Rubick I am!’
‘So Rubick,’ Oswin said. ‘Where ye headin’ to?’
‘Where there are Ancient Shards, that’s where I will be.’
‘Golly! The Ancient Shards? Ye out of ye mind, mage?” the keeper said, almost shouting. ‘What are ye gonna do with those things?’
Rubick looked up again, and seemed to ponder, his expression behind the mask a puzzle to the tavern keeper.
‘Indeed. What did I needed Ancient Shards for?’ Rubick said, more to himself than to the keeper. ‘I… do not remember. But I do know I need the Ancient Shards for… something.’