Emmeline worked by candlelight in her small cell. She was exhausted after three weeks. Magus Revan gave her more work and studies than could ever be completed in any 24 hour period. More than she ever had done in her life. She was taxed beyond belief and feeling beaten down. “Only seven more days and then the evaluation,” she thought. Besides, the secrets of ritual magic, the language, the mathematics, the formulas, all were are first very foreign to her (Mara’s fey magic just ‘was’ – she didn’t need to study it save briefly), but Revan instructed her to convert the symbols in her mind to notes. Remember the songs, and the remember the spell. It was, Revan explained, similar to the spell-songs and the vocal magic of the bards. With that, Emmeline grasped it better. Though she couldn’t in this short time be able to learn the higher mysteries that Elemix was mastering, she could, maybe be able to at least conduct rituals.
“Girl,” Revan demanded, “come here.” Revan never addressed her by any honorific or her name. He demanded she call him ‘teacher’, and nothing else. It was one of its surprise questions. Revan did this daily. She went to the study and sat in the ‘chair of answering’ Revan had set for her.
“You have been writing your thoughts on immortality. Then answer, what is the nature of being?”, Revan asked.
Emmeline sat back rom her studies and stretched. “There are different answers depending on what you want to know. If you are posing a question about the nature of existing, then the answer is boring. Thought, sentience, blah, blah blah. Very little practical value there and more of interest to the monks of the great library than to the Guild, in my opinion.” She stifled a yawn, then shook off her exhaustion.
“But if you ask me the question with the implication of being alive, then we can have a much more lively and interesting conversation about the three Fs. Feeding. Everyone needs to survive, learn and grow. Fighting. Life is struggle. Everyone chooses what it is they will stand for and fight for. Fucking. People want to pass on their knowledge and who they are to a new generation to provide them a better chance of survival, a better life and to secure one’s own sense of immortality.”
“It is always nuance with you girl,” Revan replied.
“Being in the animistic sense – your three Fs – is part of it on a base level. Each ultimately is a reflection of the will. The actual bodily processes aside, as there are beings that do not require one or more of those ‘acts’, to truly be is a matter of will. You will your existence forward. You will yourself to get through one more day. You will yourself to continue beyond death, through faith, magic, memory, or other means. Those weak of will surrender their being to the will of another, the will of fate, the will of time, or the will of death. Some choose to surrender their being, which others find foolhardy, but yet can be seen in giving that will as the greatest of gifts. The practical value is that by understanding the nature of your will, refining it, and applying it, you can shape the world to your liking. In the end, if it is not your will that moves events, then it is someone else’s. True being is to maximize the effects of your will and minimize the undesirable effects of others.”
“Agree or disagree,” Revan asked.
Emmeline looked thoughtful for a long minute. “I think that it is true, but it reveals another thing I don’t understand. Priests that claim to do the will of their god. Do you think that a priest or priestess that claims to do the will of their god might be purposely lying to themselves and others? Because after all, nothing will happen unless the priest’s own will aligns with that of their god.”
Revan replied, “that seems true on the face of it, but yet what is the will of a god? Some may say that the priests have surrendered their will and that of the true believers voluntarily to the god, and they are of one mind – from a certain point of view.” Revan paused and then continued, “In my opinion – and take this as you will – the most preposterous notion that people have ever dreamed up is that the so-called gods actually want the saccharine adoration of their creatures, can be swayed by their prayers, and become petulant if they do not receive this flattery. Yet this absurd fantasy pays all the expenses of the oldest, largest, and least productive activity in all history and gives back just enough to keep its followers enthralled. These beings could easily be a manifestation of the will of their followers, who in subsuming their will to that which would be their master run headlong into their chains. Priests you see then are merely the catalyst of a flow of will, from the weak, to the strong, and then back again. They cannot help but be swayed by the will of their god as it is simultaneously the will of its followers. A gestalt of sorts I suppose, though I could be wrong on this.”
After absorbing Revan’s remarks, Emmeline supposed, “I guess that what priests do is ultimately a cooperative effort. But what about you, teacher? Do you do the will of the council and the college of necromancy, or your own will? Or like the wills of the gods and their priests, are they ultimately all the same?” She was nothing if not bold and while Revan and other members of the council and colleges could never be thought of as priests, there was a parallel here that she was quick to uncover.
Revan was silent for but a moment, then replied, “And the girl understands.” It was almost as if a smile crossed its face, though that was impossible to know. “As for myself, where my will is applied and where it is subsumed to another cause is for myself to know.” It began to walk away, adding, “As it is for you and your will. Think, study, and we shall speak again.”
Another day as Emmeline was sweeping the spiral stair, Revan came to the bottom of the stairs, looked up, and asked, “What do you want girl?”
Emmeline knew that when Revan asked a question, a simple answer was rarely the one he was looking for. She stopped sweeping and tried to think past the immediate desires.
“I want to get out there and do some good in this world. I have people to look after, and that means seeing to not just fief, but barony, duchy, and ultimately Thalassa herself. Priests of Tyaa stir trouble for us all, hags three cast their eyes balefully upon what I have, hobgoblins march, and my friends have some insane notion to bother an ancient dragon to demand it answer questions and I’m apparently the only one sensible enough to divert them toward more productive ends. There’s more, a lot more, but you ask what I want?”
Emmeline sat down on the steps and sighed. “I want to become strong enough to protect everyone I care about. Strong enough to do everything I must do.”
Revan asked, “Is that all? What do you want?”
“You want near term? Right now, being accepted by the wizard’s guild is all I want.”
“No,” it replied, “is that all? Is being accepted, protecting others, and doing what you must all you want? Is that all the reborn scion of a lost and forgotten fey lineage want? Is that all the grandchild of Emmeric whose songs are rarely sung really wants? The truth girl. The truth. In all your travels, in all you will do, and ultimately all you have done what is the one universal constant? What the one simple thing you want above all else?”
“You want me to say something in particular? There are many things I want. What do you see that I can’t right now?”
It began walking up the spiral stairs, “What I want is irrelevant here. Girl, at our core, there is truly one thing any one of us wants. It is not the same for all, and for most quite mundane. It is the focus of all our actions whether for good or for ill. Few ever understand, but I know mine. I am trying to help you find yours and give you the will to act on it, tempered by your beliefs. But, perhaps the girl is not ready to answer?” Passing her and looking Emmeline in the face it added, “When you know, tell me.” Revan continued up the stairs.
She stood. “I said I wanted to do some good in this world. If you want a clearer answer, then I’d say simply doing the right thing is what motivates me. Trying to do the right thing has driven everything I’ve ever done. That’s who I am.”
Revan looked back, “You want good for yourself and for everyone? That is the most difficult want.”
She nodded. “Yes, for everyone. Even enemies. Everyone deserves mercy. Everyone deserves a second chance.” Whether they took it or not of course was a matter out of her control. She encountered that when speaking with the Tyaanite dokkalfen woman. She understood that not everyone will make choices she agreed with or that even would be good for them.
“So then, what is good?” the archmagus asked. “What is good for the girl is not necessarily good for your enemies. Is it not true that most persons do not see themselves as evil? They truly believe they know what is best. So with that in mind how can all goods be satisfied?”
“Absolutely true. And I acknowledge I can only judge right and wrong from my personal perspective. To me, what is right benefits the greater number of people I care about. In other words, what is right benefits the people of Thalassa as a whole as well as her allies in the periphery. Enemies of Thalassa will not acknowledge that perspective. They’ll work toward what they feel is right or wrong. Yet, I believe compromise is possible in many, if not all cases.”
“The girl is starting to see. You wish to be a force of good. Now you know the legend of Sidonius. That he and a hundred families came here to rebuild a new Eteria and preserve the knowledge of the ancients. You should have been raised with the tales, yes?” asked Revan.
“Yes,” Emmeline replied. “My grandfather was well versed in the old stories.”
“One of my predecessors, Vexis, was of those hundred; though she came with no family. She turned her back on her old ways and gave up much to do so. But that is because she saw the greater good that Sidonius explained. She surrendered her will to another thing – an idea. And then drove that idea, now in alignment, with a force of will that helped build all you see here. She was not alone in this purpose, but her motivation like yours, was for the greater good of others. Yet in doing so she lost what had been good for herself. Pain, sacrifice, loneliness, all the cost of the greater good.” Revan paused, “If you believe such, are you willing to sacrifice good for yourself to help others, or does the good for yourself be what others should do for you?
“Her sacrifice is not in any of your grandfather’s stories,” Revan added.
Emmeline nodded. “If sacrifice is necessary, I would do the same.” She recalled she had sacrificed for Elemix’s sake. She didn’t like that he took advantage of her sacrifice for his own personal gain, but she was trying to make the best of it.
Revan replied, “You just might girl. I sense you regret some sacrifices you have made. Tell me of them girl. What you say here, stays here. I expect the same respect from you about myself and others. Is that agreed?”
“Agreed.” She took a moment to put her thoughts together. “It’s not regret I feel. I came to the Wizard’s Guild, not out of fear for myself, but when I realized Elemix might get in trouble for not telling the guild about me. I didn’t know how seriously the guild took such things. I didn’t want anything to happen to him because he was just trying to be respectful toward me.
“But after I did come to the guild with who I am, he took things that we discovered and secured as a group and brought them here. The scrolls. That is well enough; I’d have wanted it that way anyway. But I got distinct impression he tried to manipulate some gain for himself out of all this. Instead of working to help me in return, he worked to try to secure some favor for himself with you. I don’t like that he did that, and I don’t understand what he sought to gain.
“Please don’t mistake me. I am very appreciative of the chance you’ve given me, and I’m well aware my head was on a chopping block and it could have gone either way. It still can. In the end he might have even done exactly the right thing, and I acknowledge that, too. But he didn’t do it for the right reasons. I feel… a little disappointed in him is all.”
Revan nodded, “The fireling has ambition. Power and knowledge is his want, but in his mind he felt he was doing a favor for you – selflessly and in his viewpoint a mutually beneficial good. But like any of his temper, the fireling will not let a crisis go to waste. His will is always to measurably gain in any transaction either for himself or for those for whom he cares. Preferably both. The other side of this ambition is that a loss, any loss, even one done in sacrifice for a larger win in the future is against his nature. Some would have simply have turned you in immediately and paved the way for a reputation as a witch hunter or gained the favor of another mageling. Instead he saw your survival in the context of an immediate win. You living mattered, so he would not compromise you to the Guild until he could turn it into a win. The scrolls gave him the tool to do just that just as fate forced his hand. The scrolls are just things. They do not matter. It is people and their wills to help you or harm you, help the world or harm it, that matter.”
Emmeline remarked, “You have a much clearer understanding of him than I do. Since it turns out he is family, a closely related cousin, I need to try to understand him better. I expect to do a lot of work with him, as well as with my northerner friend.”
Revan answered, “ultimately what the fireling did or did not do does not matter either. The girl would have sought me out eventually in any event.”
Emmeline was surprised. She smiled a little uncertainly. “Why do you say that?” she asked cautiously.
Revan motions for Emmeline to follow. In its chambers, the wiry cloaked wizard pointed to the chair for Emmeline to sit in. Going to a pile of small boxes on a shelf, it picks one. Opening it, the mage removes a wrinkled lead card with some young woman’s face etched on it. The card has scratch marks in some strange writing and looks as if it was folded more than once before being carefully flattened. “Vexis,” it says while handing the card to Emmeline.
Emmeline blinked in surprise, then reached for her own lead card and brought it forth to compare.
While the size and the style of the etchings were not identical, the markings, the use of the lead card, the folding creases and general layout were very similar. The girl is curious. Do you know what these are?” Revan asked.
She shook her head. “No. But I would like to very much.”
“This you must learn for yourself; however, I will put you on the path,” replied Revan. “When you are done here girl, should you pass, live and be accepted, you should go before dawn to the crossing of Rue de Martine and Rue de Pris in the south-east of the Messena ward here in the city. There you will find a bread bakery. Knock on the rear entrance near the alleyway. An old woman called Hildegard works in the early morning at the ovens. Ask her politely if you can bake her some bread. Do exactly what she says. When done, and only then, show her your card in silence. Learn from what she has to say, but do no harm to her. Do this and you will understand.”
Emmeline nodded, still looking at the cards. “Can you tell me why these were made and what they are for?”
“I could tell you, or you could learn from the experience of speaking to Hildegard. I find the latter is more effective. Think of them as receptacles of a wish…of sorts,” Revan added.
Emmeline ducked in quick curtsey. “Thank you, teacher. I will seek her at first opportunity.” She held out the lead card he’d shown her to return it to him. “Thank you also for your time. You must have a hundred more qualified applicants than I clamouring for your attention at all times.”
Revan carefully took the card and returned it to its box, “the fireling must have told you that I allow few if any to ever study with me one-on-one. This is true, but understand you are not an applicant. You are a supplicant. There is a difference. Though his gift, he politely asked for me to intervene and not let the Guild dispose of you as it would any warlock, dark priest, or sorcerer. You followed suit, and remained polite. Remember, you fate is only delayed, not lifted…yet.”
It left the room.
The next day Emmeline was practicing her first written ritual, detect magic, and it was not succeeding. Revan entered and asked, “Why do you wish to join the Guild?”
“To gain the strength I need to do what’s right for others and for myself,” she answered.
Revan replied, “How does the Guild give you strength?”
“By providing knowledge and wisdom,” she replied, “in return for like contribution and for furthering the goals of the Guild and Thalassa.”
Revan says, “The girl has done well. You will be asked if you truly believe this. You will be asked if you are only doing this to avoid banishment, prison, or death. You will be asked about the source of your powers. Are you ready to answer these questions in truth?”
“I am, teacher. All will see I answer truthfully now just as I did when this all began,” she said with confidence.
“Girl, I believe you,” Revan said. “Now, there is a rare tradition in the Periphery of a female wizard being called a witch, such as Magus Alix, the Witch of Derrien. Once it was considered an insult, but some women in the Guild years ago embraced it, knowing they are not the hedge witches who draw the power of the infernal, thereby reclaiming the word. No infernal witch or warlock would claim that title within earshot of the Guild. However, someone in the Guild could do so – the witch name. Warlock, Shaman or Sorcerer are taboo. Is such a title, if you pass, of interest to you?”
Emmeline considered that carefully. What impact might it have among people who know her? How might it shape relationships yet to be made? How might such a label shape her future. But in the end, it was a title and titles were to be used — or not — as needed. If she passed on it, then she would not have it should she need it. Finally, she decided. “It would be of interest to me.”
Revan subtly nodded and left…
…Three days until before the review
Revan approached and said, “The girl will pause her studies and attend.” They walked to the balcony overlooking the harbor and the buildings below. “What is the nature of evil?”
Emmeline thought she had a grasp of this. Something her grandfather had said once and it had stuck in her mind so deeply, it had shaped who she eventually had become. “To hold oneself above all others, ones ambitions above and at the expense of anyone else. Hubris is at the root of the greatest evils of the world.”
Her grandfather had said that pride can make one believe that one’s own path is the only path, and so falling to evil happens just one prideful step at a time. Many that do evil things never realize what they have done, and always justify the pain they cause others.
“The girl sees a path to evil, though it does not necessarily make it so,” Revan said. “Some say evil is a force, or a spirit, or the opposite of good. This is not so. Evil is the absence of the very thing you seek – good. Without good, evil is the natural result. Good is love without condition. Good is knowledge without harm. Evil is created from the annihilation of good just as cold is the result of a lack of heat. The essence of evil is to embrace the absence of good, through thought, act, or deed, driving the good from you and those whom you encounter. That is why most see themselves as good, despite their deeds and the wickedness of their goals. Pure evil cannot exist and even a demon may be moved to tears given the right circumstances.”
Revan added, “Most religions, even that of Aarith who hold knowledge so dear, do not agree with this philosophy. For the Aarithine, good is the result of the ethical seeking of knowledge, being moral and upright, treating others as you wish to be treated, being loyal and dutiful, et cetera. Evil hides in the shadow of Aarrith, Haté, Tyaa, and the myriad of chaotic demons and godlings who embrace that shadow where ignorance, avarice, and selfishness reside. You of course were taught this from an early age.”
“Again, I could be wrong,” Revan said. “yet if the girl creates good, then either point of view is served.”
Emmeline nodded. ” Perspective matters and people are often painted in broad strokes. A demon my cry but that does no absolve it of the horrors it knowingly inflicts. A murderer may have been an innocent child once, but it does not erase the pain he inflicts upon victims and all their families. Evil isn’t an absolute, but it can still be seen for what it is when compared to acts of compassion.
“This is why I must put faith in the Guild’s decision, and why I do not worry for my safety. I have been truthful and forthcoming. I have acted in compassion and have done what is right. If the council does not see that, then the council will have failed. If they condemn me to death, they will have both failed and committed an act so lacking in compassion that to me, it would be an evil act.
“The council isn’t evil, nor blind. It will not fail to judge me fairly. Therefore, it will not condemn me. I have bet my life on it.”
Revan nodded, saying, “let us see if your gamble pays off.”
Two days from the review…
Revan entered the room where Emmeline was studying. “The girl is offered a gift. She may ask a question.”
She studied Revan’s mask for a moment. “Your mask generates a certain mystique, even fear among the younger apprentices. It allows a sense of continuity in the college of necromancy, but it also distances you from others and disguises your natural humanity.” She almost stepped closer out of compassion. “But teacher, surely you were close to someone onece. Do you miss it?”
It was as bold a question as ever may was of Revan, but it was also exactly the sort of thing Emmeline would ask.
For a moment there was silence. Then Revan replied, “The mask exists for all the reasons the girl said and more. It also gives the wearer the opportunity to live a life should they choose, to have a companion if they wish, without the fear and stigma of being known as one who studies death and is unfortunately associated with certain stereotypes. For myself, I assure you, I miss nothing.”
Emmeline smiled. “I’m glad. Thank you for answering my question, teacher.”
Revan left then with a nod. That afternoon, as the sun was setting it returned, “In all this time you have not violated the sanctity of these halls by calling out to your patron. The fey must know what is happening. Go to the balcony garden off the western stair. Call her. Discuss.”
Emmeline wondered if Revan or other would be watching, but of course she should assume so. Still, she’d longed to speak with Mara again for the entire month. Deciding Revan was being fair to her she replied, “Thank you, teacher.”
She left for balcony garden and once there, she closed her eyes. She opened her heart and mind to quest for her patron. “Mara? Can we please talk a while?”
“We are here,” said Mara. “This place feels cold and hollow. Why are you here?” The little girl sat next to Emmeline.
“Are these the same people as the questioning one, the flame sorcerer who wished to meet me once he discovered the nature of your gifts? Humans, they only seek to control what they cannot understand.”
“Well, Elomix is a wizard, and they are not the same people. Rather they are more important people.”
Emmeline sighed a little. “It saddens me to say it, but yes, humans often try to control things they should not, but even more often, they simply try to destroy what they don’t understand.
“I’ve missed you, Mara. Every day, seeing you through the little window, that’s what kept my spirits up.”
“And we, you, little Mabrilith. Do what you must to establish their trust. In time they will forget you and by extension us and move on to the crisis of another day. Play the game, and play it well. Learn and use them as you will it. We do miss you, and we may need you to perform a task for us. We must tell you that the alfar warden is afraid his people are gone. He is torn between staying here and protecting our Tree and seeking after them. With the winter coming he has heard nothing so far. If it comes to winter, and still there is silence, you must seek the alfar tribe out at first spring, or stay here and let him leave to do so. He tells me also that hunters visited the village seeking your cursed friend.”
Emmeline nodded as Mara spoke. “I understand and I agree on all your points. Also I thank you for telling me of the hunters.”
After a moment’s thought, she asked, “Is there a way Silver Leaf’s people will recognize me as a friend?”
“You would need to speak to him. They have been in the mountains for half a millennium and trust comes hard. But a new home to end the wandering may appeal to some.”
That made sense to Emmeline as well. “Thank you for seeing me, Mara. I will find our Warden as soon as I am able. One way or another, we will get word to these people.”
Emmeline engaged in some small talk, including a request she would like to find a fey spirit familiar when she was able to leave. Mara told her she would find and send one once the ritual was complete.