By Eugene L. Morgulis
Archmage Foster Bildenploy stroked his beard as he studied the image of the hulking prison ship on the bridge’s main crystal ball. It was a Guild-commissioned astral vessel, like his own Ivory Scepter, so there wasn’t any obvious cause for concern. But Foster was too shrewd and too cautious to ignore the uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“Wards up,” he said.
Chief security mage Glindon Shafley nodded and whispered an incantation into his thaumaturgic transceiver. “Level 12 ward in place, Archmage,” he said with his second mouth, as his first finished the spell.
“Ms. Plink,” said Foster, “any abnormal intuitions about that vessel?”
The fairy tapped her ear points with two tiny fingers and furrowed her brow in deep concentration.
“Uncertain, Archmage. The aura readings on board the Golem are normal. Crew and prisoners are all accounted for, but…” Bix Plink bit her lip and flew to the crystal ball, pressing her hands against its smooth milky surface.
“Strange,” she said under her breath. “My intuition readings keep shifting randomly. It’s like I’m getting some kind of stochastic feedback.”
Foster’s eyes went wide. “Bix! Get away from there!”
But it was too late. Bix’s delicate body twisted violently, and her glow shifted from yellow to red to purple. In an instant, she was sucked into the orb, her high-pitched scream fading with her.
“I need a probability stabilization field around the entire ship!” ordered Foster. “Anything you’ve got against chaos magic.”
Glindon looked at him incredulously. Chaos magic was dangerous and unpredictable, which is precisely why the Guild outlawed it ages ago. But Foster Bildenploy expected his crew to be ready for anything.
“Just do it, Glin!” he shouted.
Glindon swung back to his console and began whispering rapidly out of both mouths. Foster listened closely, offering corrections and variations. They just managed to sever the connection that had ensnared Bix when a dark cackle interrupted their enchantments.
“Not fast enough, Foster,” said a creaky voice. “Not fast enough.”
The mages on the bridge turned to the crystal ball, where the prison ship had been replaced by a horrible face. Two blue eyes blazed inside a storm cloud of black and white hair, from which a long, thin nose shot accusingly. It was a face Foster had not seen for over two decades.
“Kroven!” spat Foster, pounding his armrest. “But how?”
“How did I escape?” said the old warlock with a bemused pedantic air. “Tell me, Foster, do you know what even a small chaos bubble can do when introduced into the brain of a dim-witted prison guard? Especially one with horns on his head that act like thaumaturgical antennae? No? Well, he becomes highly suggestible and most accommodating to even a prisoner’s demands. Before his mind shatters, that is.” Kroven chuckled. “Wonderful stuff, chaos magic. It comes at a price, of course.”
Kroven raised his left hand to reveal that three of his fingers were missing. “But don’t worry, Foster, I’ve got something to help me with that.”
The mages gasped when they saw what Kroven held in his other hand.
Even with her glow dimmed and her wings crumpled, the fairy retained the delicate grace that immediately caught Foster’s attention when she first floated onto the Ivory Scepter as part of the Guild’s Fairy Inclusion pilot program. She was stronger than she looked, much stronger. But Kroven’s magic was stronger still.
“Bix! No!” cried Foster.
“Did I detect a hint of sentiment for this creature?” said Kroven, smacking his lips. “Tisk Tisk, Foster. I believe the Guild discourages romantic relations between an Archmage and his crew.” He rolled Bix’s tiny body in his palm. “I’m not even sure how you two would–”
“Let her go!” screamed Foster.
Kroven mulled the demand for several moments as he jerked Bix back and forth like a ragdoll. “No,” he said finally, and crunched down on her skull like a carrot.
Glindon screamed out of one mouth and said a prayer with the other. Aldorra Grunn, the Ivory Scepter’s chief healer, muffled a sob with her hands. After a moment, the bridge fell silent, but for the faint hum of its illumination orbs and the bubbling of various navigational potions.
On the crystal ball’s display, Kroven grinned wide and waggled the fingers that had reappeared on his left hand, good as new, demonstrating fairy blood’s restorative effect on post-chaos appendage displacement.
Foster forced himself to put Bix and their shattered plans for the future out of his mind. He regarded the newly whole warlock with a steely, calculating gaze. “What do you want, you monster?”
“Only what I am owed, Foster! I want to be reinstated as Archmage Supreme. I want my own astral ship–Griffon class or higher. I want my contributions to the field of interstellar sorcery recognized by the Academy. I want …”
As Kroven listed various grievances and demands, Foster tucked his hands beneath his blue robes and began scribbling on his palm. As he did, words appeared in the Ivory Scepter’s barracks: SECURITY TEAM TO TRANSPORTAL ROOM. WANDS ON STUN.
Foster glanced at the display to make sure that Kroven was still droning on. “And most of all, so-called Archmage Bildenploy, I want you to suffer. I want to you know the pain of losing your position, your life’s work, your…”
A tiny vibration from his signet ring told Foster that the security team had jumped through the portal. They had orders to make their way through The Golem, unenchanting or, if necessary, subduing her enthralled crew, and then to take down Kroven by any means.
“Foster, are you listening?” Kroven sounded annoyed.
“Yes, yes. Fourteen centaur concubines. Was that male or female?”
“Some of each. And here I thought you were distracted thinking about your strike team. You needn’t bother.”
Foster blinked, then hurriedly pulled out his owl feather and tapped it on his earlobe.
“Bildenploy to away team,” he whispered, “What happened? Where are you?”
There was no response, so Foster tapped his ear again and tried channeling Krom. Then Phineas. Then Kevin. None answered.
“What have you done to them?” he growled into the orb.
“Nothing at all,” said Kroven. “I did, however, encase this vessel in an outcome-refracting prism, so that anyone trying to portal onto it would be deposited in a random spot in the galaxy. A rather advanced bit of chaos magic that cost me both feet, but your delicious fairy girlfriend fixed that too.”
“Where are my mages?” screamed Foster.
“Well that’s the beauty of chaos, dear boy. They could be anywhere. On some barren moon. Inside a neutron star. Look, there’s one behind you!”
Foster spun around, but saw nothing. When he turned back, Kroven was falling out of his chair laughing.
“You looked! I can’t believe you actually looked.” Tears streamed down Kroven’s hairy face. “Stars and moons, Foster, I don’t know whose wand you polished to get your own ship, but they must be regretting it now. Not as much as your former crewmages, of course, most of whom are probably suffocating in the vacuum of space. Does the knowledge that you’ve sent so many Red Robes to their deaths bother you? Or are you used to it by now?”
Foster swatted over the crystal ball, and Kroven’s devilish face disappeared. The warlock was only half-wrong. It was not that Foster was used to death, although, in his time as Archmage of the Ivory Scepter, he’d certainly seen his share. Rather, it was that Foster had, long ago, forgiven himself for the lives that would be lost under his command. Greatness had a price, though it was often paid by others. Any Archmage who failed to accept this was a fool.
Foster, Aldorra, and Glindon solemnly made their way to the situational tabernacle, where they gathered with the other officers to weigh their options at the Stone Alter of Strategy.
Engaging Kroven’s ship had been dismissed immediately. The Golem was practically a warship, and while the Ivory Scepter was no sitting goose, she had been designed for exploration beyond the limits of astral projection, not battle. Besides, as Foster was quick to remind them, there were still Guild personnel on board. To complicate the situation, Kroven was somehow jamming the Ivory Scepter’s sub-ether communications, thus blocking any distress calls. They were on their own.
“I know it’s not the most noble option,” ventured Ignatius Dee, the ship’s chief alchemist, “but we could make a run for it.”
“A possible option,” said Foster. “What do the tactical divinations tell us?”
All eyes fell upon Helga Moxley-Pox, as the wizened crone slammed a dusty tome upon the altar. After a scabrous lick of her thumb, she flipped through the pages, grunting when she had found the right charts. The others waited in silence as the witch fumbled in her robes, finally producing a bag from which she pulled several small lizards, slit open their bellies with a jagged fingernail, and spat in the wounds. She then smeared their entrails in two lines across the stone.
“The Golem’s too fast,” she whispered after studying the gore pattern. “She‘d overtake us before we reached the nearest Guild outpost.”
Foster cursed. The other mages sat in silence.
“We need to get Kroven off that ship,” he said finally, rubbing his temples. “And the only way to do that, is to offer him something he wants.”
“But you heard his list of demands,” said Aldorra. “They’re–”
“Insane!” interjected Glindon. Such an outburst would have gotten him reprimanded on any other ship, but Foster let it go. He valued his chief security mage’s loyalty as much his spellcasting.
“I was going to say impossible,” continued Aldorra. “But insane works too.”
Foster drummed his fingers on the alter. “Kroven was just toying with us,” he said after some thought. “What he really wants is me.”
The assembled mages began to chatter, but Foster silenced them with a raise of his hand. He then sighed and proceeded to recount how, years ago, Kroven had been his mentor at the Academy. He told them of Kroven’s secret laboratory beneath the witch-hazel grove where the old warlock tried to bring young Foster into his illicit study of chaos magic. Foster had been intrigued at first (that part he left out), but eventually reported Kroven to the Guild leadership, just as any young mage with half a brain would have. The scandal sent Kroven to prison, and put Foster on the path to the command he’d always dreamed of.
“Now,” said Foster, looking around the stunned faces of his crew, “I imagine Kroven is seeking his revenge. So I’m betting he’ll be eager to face me, mage to mage.”
“Archmage, that’s suicide,” said Aldorra.
Glindon nodded anxiously. “I have to agree,” he said. “Kroven could use his chaos magic to, well I don’t know, anything! Destabilize a whole planet maybe. Turn it inside out or into a ball of lava.”
“Potentially,” said Foster, rising from his seat. “Depending on how much of himself he’s willing to lose. But I don’t think he’ll do that, at least not right away. He’ll play with me for a while. Maybe he’ll get cocky and give me an opening. In the meantime, you all work on getting through to The Golem and rescuing her crew. But be careful. Understood?”
The mages nodded.
“Merlin preserve you, Archmage,” said Glindon with both mouths.
Planet KD-78 was as nondescript as any lifeless hunk of rock with no name. It had an atmosphere of sorts, owing to a small ocean on its other hemisphere. But, from where Foster was standing, all he could see was a cracked yellow wasteland.
He was wearing every ring, charm, and amulet his crew could spare. Glindon had spent an hour putting every ward he could think of on him, as Aldorra filled his pockets with healing potions and elixirs. Foster had refused Ignatius’s offer of some serious-looking incendiary crystals, guessing that they could be more liability than asset. Still, he felt a rush of fear when the portal opened, and Kroven stepped onto the dusty ground.
“I’ve waited years for this,” said Kroven.
“Then wait no longer,” said Foster and hurled a massive fireball with all his might. The spell screamed toward Kroven, scorching the earth beneath it. He batted it aside and stabbed two fingers at Foster in riposte.
Nothing happened, but for a tiny pop.
“Brilliant, my boy,” said Kroven. “You remembered my affinity for lightening attacks, so you chose a planet with a negative ion atmosphere. Very clever. But it won’t save you!”
Kroven threw up his hands, and the ground beneath Foster’s feet erupted. He slid down the fresh crag, and landed hard on the ground, rolling away moments before the structure crashed down on top of him. Foster barely had time to drink a resetting elixir and massage his ankle bones back into place before the rock behind which he took cover exploded.
“I taught you better than that!” called Kroven.
Foster snapped his fingers and a blinding light shot out. He heard Kroven groan and rolled out from cover, launching a salvo of energy spikes from his fingertips. They zipped through the air, converging on Kroven, but exploded like fireworks before they could damage him. Foster followed up with a pair of fireballs. Kroven deflected one and dodged the other, but he slipped on the ice Foster had blasted below his feet.
Foster was starting to feel confident and preparing another attack when he felt the ether change. What came to his lips was not a spell, but a prayer.
“Protect me,” he uttered as the wave of chaos swept over him.
Several ward layers flaked off like confetti, and the others were struggling to hold their structure. But hold they did.
When Foster looked up, he saw that the chaos wave had cost Kroven a hand. But it hadn’t slowed him down. Before Foster could counter, Kroven sent a focused beam of noxious randomness at him. Foster knew he couldn’t take another hit head on, so he threw himself to the side. Kroven’s blast only winged him, but it was enough.
Foster screamed in pain. His side bubbled with stochastic disruption, as the living cells shifted wildly from state to state, giving off puffs of chlorine, ammonia, and cinnamon. Foster fumbled through his pockets, discarding vial after vial until he found Aldorra’s anti-entropic salve, which managed to negate the roiling rash, leaving the flesh scarred but intact.
“How long do you think you can hold out, Foster?” shouted Kroven, who was now missing his entire left arm.
“Longer than you by the look of it.”
“You should have joined me. Or at least kept your mouth shut. Now I’ll tear you apart atom by atom.”
Kroven growled as he gathered up entropic forces around him, causing the air to crackle with improbability. Foster lobbed a few magical attacks, but they each fizzled in the swirl of chaos surrounding the warlock. With a deep bellow, Kroven raised his remaining fist to the sky and called down a torrent of disordered reality.
Foster had managed to cast a few additional wards, but they only held for a moment. The stronger ones Glindon had set were collapsing quickly as well. Foster yanked an emerald ring from his finger with his teeth and swallowed it with a prodigious gulp. The added burst of power sent his heart racing, and he did his best to shore up the remaining barriers.
All around him, corporeality was boiling. Atoms split and bonded at random, creating a billowing lightshow as windows to other places, times, and dimensions opened for fractions of moments and then disappeared into the boundless chasm of possibility.
Foster’s strength was failing. He drank a fortifying potion and poured another over his head, but Kroven’s power was still too much. The wards were collapsing. The chaos was encroaching. And with a flash of light, it was over.
When Foster opened his eyes he saw that he was suspended above a mass of undifferentiated matter. But more importantly, that he was whole. Some of the chaos energy had made it through his shields, but thankfully, it had been absorbed by a very rare and powerful thermodynamic amulet produced from the recesses of Helga Moxley-Pox’s bottomless robe. The concentrated uncertainty had turned the amulet’s jewel into a burnt turnip.
Wearily, Foster floated to a patch of solid-looking ground, careful to avoid hanging bits of plasma. The sky, once green, was now lilac, and the air smelled of copper. He was lucky to be alive.
Kroven had not faired as well. Indeed, he was now no more than a head and torso, hovering uneasily in the air. Even his nose was gone. And yet, when Foster approached him, he saw that Kroven’s eyes were as calm as two glacial lakes.
“It appears you are out of protective trinkets,” said Kroven.
Foster laughed. “It appears you are out of limbs.”
“You continue to underestimate me, Foster. I’ll be whole in a moment. But you’ll still be defenseless.”
Kroven craned his neck and tongued something from a hidden pocket in the flap on his right shoulder. Foster squinted and saw that it was a tiny leg. It disappeared into Kroven’s mouth, which twisted unpleasantly as he swallowed what remained of Bix Plink and started to laugh.
Foster was exhausted. He sat on the ground and removed his boots.
“Giving up already?” called Kroven. “Not going to even attempt a last stand? I don’t blame you. As soon as I…I…” Kroven clammed up when he realized that he wasn’t regenerating.
“Do you know what I hate most about chaos magic,” said Foster, rubbing the empty space where his pinky toe should have been. “It itches like hell.”
Kroven’s eyes darted in panic. “You…you changed it. You transformed the fairy’s leg before I swallowed it. With chaos magic!”
“Sure,” said Foster. “I’ve been using chaos magic for years. Ever since you showed me. I had to be discreet, of course, but it got easier once Bix started providing me with doses of her fairy blood for regeneration. You would have liked her, Kroven. Ambitious. Loyal. Experimental. You weren’t supposed to eat her, you buffoon. Now I’ll have to find another one. Oh well. Plenty more fairies at the Academy since the Guild granted them equal rights.”
“You planned this?” stammered Kroven.
Foster smiled and shrugged. “Do you know how long it takes to rise through the ranks of the Guild? I mean, there’s no one on the leadership council under 250! So I got to thinking, if tattling on you helped me make Archmage, imagine what I’ll get by defeating you single-handed. They might even make me Archmage Supreme!”
“But I found you,” said Kroven, bobbing in bewilderment as he struggled to stay aloft. “I bested your ship.”
“Yes, and it took you long enough. I even had to get that horn-faced dolt a guard position aboard The Golem. His name was Grozzjack, by the way. Most incompetent mage I ever commanded, not that I said so in my recommendation letter. I figured he’d give you an opening, and you took the bait as expected. Of course then I had to make sure I’d have you all to myself, which is why I sabotaged the Ivory Scepter’s communications. Now, no one will doubt that I had no choice but to bravely face you alone.”
Kroven fumed, but said nothing. Foster could sense scraps of magical energies collecting around his diminished frame for a last desperate attack.
“Can I just ask you one thing?” called Foster. “And then I promise I’ll give you a free shot.”
Kroven grimaced. “Ask.”
“Out of all the random possibilities in the universe, what did the Bix’s leg turn into in your mouth? It didn’t look terribly tasty.”
Kroven narrowed his eyes and snorted. “Licorice.”
“Oh,” said Foster, disappointed.
“I hate licorice.”
“Oh!” said Foster happily and launched a magic missile that severed Kroven’s head from his torso.