Travels in the Wizardwaste
Travels in the Wizardwaste is an Official GemStone IV Document, and it is protected from editing.
Travels in the Wizardwaste
Day of the Huntress, 13 Jastatos, 5078
Hall of Mages, The Swale
Magister Caldea has just brought me the most excellent news. I have been selected to be among the surveyors for Sentinel Chandrennin’s great project: the Demonwall expansion. As a boy in Barret’s Gorge, oft did I look upon that vast black expanse of stone and hope that I might some day serve the Empire as a man upon its length.
That was not to be.
Had my talent not manifested, I might have been one of those men in black and Trauntor green. But it did, and I traded my sparring sword for the robe and wand. To serve on the Demonwall was a boyhood dream, but to be part of its expansion--ah, that is a privilege beyond the scope of my wildest imaginings.
Once the preparations are made, I will set off for the village of Ruster’s Bend. It is the very last village on the way. I asked Caldea if a portal could not be made. She says that teleportation magics work irregularly within miles of the phenomenon and not at all within the ‘Waste itself. I am not fond of horses.
That is scarcely a mark upon this grand adventure. This survey is but the first step in realizing the dreams of the Sentinel: one great wall stretching from Barret’s Gorge to the Great Western Sea. I see a future where the threats of demons--or worse, elves--are but a distant memory to the Imperial South. History may not recall my part in this endeavor, but this will be a tale my grandchildren tell.
As a Southerner, I could not be more proud.
It is near time for bed, but I can scarcely sleep. The boy I was would not know what to do with himself. The man I am plans to celebrate with a glass of Aldoran brandy.
Tilamaires, 17 Jastatos, 5078
I set out from the Swale this morning. The wind off of the marshes was strong, and it stinks of peat today. There was no fanfare, not for a newly minted magister and his fractious horse. All in all, an inglorious start to my journey.
The college has sent word ahead to Ruster’s Bend for a guide--word, of course, carried on the wings of Kestrel coin. I thank the Hall for its largess.
The Hall furnished me with a tidy bit of incidental coin, as well. Caldea suggested that I avail myself of the multitude of wayside inns along the way, but I have decided to make my bed in the wilds as I travel. I have the rest of my life to enjoy the creature comforts of the Hall.
I indulged in one last comfort before leaving. Quartermaster Huln procured a scroll of Manna for me from the archives. I do not trust my foraging abilities.
Caldea thinks I am being foolhardy. She was still scolding me about bandits at morning meal.
Woe betide any bandits thinking this magister an easy mark!
Day of the Huntress, 20 Jastatos, 5078
Manna bread is delightful. I have not used the spell before. My evening meal manifested as a slice of sundried tomato bread. Are these seeds fennel? They taste like fennel. It fills me with questions. Can food other than breads manifest, and if so, what are the limits?
I’ve made a note to find a way to investigate this spell’s capabilities upon my return.
Restday, 22 Jastatos, 5078
This is living. I woke this morning on a bed of green sweetgrass, softer and downier than any bedding I’ve known in the Hall.
Road-weary and saddle sore last night, I chanced upon a laughing brook just off the road. I bathed, drank my fill, and enjoyed more manna bread. (Oat cake, this time! Will wonders never cease?) I must have been tired, as I woke basked in late morning sunlight.
Manna bread is more filling than it should be. My horse enjoyed the last of my oat cake. It is the least I could do for her services. After all, she is doing all of the walking.
I estimate that I am but two days out of Ruster’s Bend.
Volnes, 23 Jastatos, 5078
I am seated on a flat rock by the roadside, enjoying another oat cake. It took me a few tries to cast the spell from my scroll. I knew brief panic when the spell failed to cast, but then I realized that I had smudged a few of the symbols with my sweaty hand.
Around midday, the woods around me began to thin, giving way to stunted scrub and flat plains. Thanks to the featureless terrain, I can see well into the distance. There are hills or mountains--I cannot tell which, from this distance--to the far south.
The plains are an unlovely expanse of brown, dotted only rarely with green. From the feel of the earth, it looks as if rain has been plentiful this autumn, but the plants have little benefited from it. Trees have already lost their leaves, and the grasses are dry and brittle. I would blame the season, but the days have not even a hint of the coming winter’s chill.
In fact, it is hotter than I would like. The sun has beaten down on me since I left the trees behind. My neck is sunburnt. I have taken to wearing my fancy hat at all times to keep it from getting worse.
Tilamaires, 24 Jastatos, 5078
Either I have misjudged the distance, or the map with which Huln provided me is inaccurate. The horse and I have been traveling at a steady clip, but another day has gone by, and we are just over halfway to Ruster’s Bend.
When we stopped to rest earlier, I let the horse loose to sup on grasses. She would not touch the stuff. I don’t blame her. They are drier still and crackle underfoot.
Ba’Lathon, the Land in Pain. That’s what the old men in Trauntor call the Wizardwaste when they mutter over their games of stones.
I think it ought to be called the Land Without Color. I wonder how to say that in Kannalan.
Leyan, 25 Jastatos, 5078
I have finally found my way to Ruster’s Bend. The way to town was more unusual than the place itself.
The horse would not touch her feed bag this morning. I thought little of it until I went to dump the feed back into her saddlebags. The distinct scent of rot caught my nose. Peculiarly, only the oats in the feed bag has moldered. All of the oats still in the saddlebags is still good and dry. I can scarcely leave that to coincidence.
Despairing over the poor quality of my map, we set off down the road. It was almost dusk when I spotted a small, whitewashed farmhouse about a mile north off the beaten path.
It would be charitable to call the property a farm. One pen out in front of the house housed a few slat-ribbed pigs that scattered, squealing, as I approached. The smell of the pen turned my stomach.
I rapped on the door a few times before a rawboned man came to the door. He had a wary look about him, and I saw that he was unlikely to let me enter. He softened a bit when I held out a silver piece.
“Just keep following the road. You ain’t far now,” he told me, when I asked him about reaching Ruster’s Bend. His accent was the sort you hear from old Chastonians, ones who have rarely been outside of their county’s borders.
“I think my map is wrong,” I said, making conversation. He kept glancing over his shoulder. Reading his posture, I noticed that he was trying to block my view further into the house. It looked clean enough, if a bit cramped, and all of the shutters were closed to keep out the day’s light.
“It’s the ‘Waste,” he said. “Land’s all twisted up. Crumpled in place and stretched out in others. That’s what m’paw used to say.”
I started to thank him when I heard little footsteps coming up behind him, accompanied by a child’s voice.
“Who’re you talking to, paw?” the child’s voice asked.
“Got things to attend,” the farmer said, hurriedly. He began shutting the door in my face.
“Paw?” the child repeated.
“Go wait in your room, Jac,” said the farmer. There was a strained edge to his voice.
As I glanced past him, I saw a most curious sight. The boy was veiled and clad from head to toe in soft homespun. His posture seemed odd. He had his head cocked at an odd angle, and he was hunched over, so that his hands brushed the ground. As he scampered to obey his father, I realized that the posture was not a child’s act. He had a humping, labored way of walking. I had taken classes on disorders of the human body at the Hall.
Suddenly discomfited, I thanked the farmer. I began to reach for another silver piece for his time, but he shut the door in my face. It is not often that commonfolk are rude to me. Even when I am not wearing my robes, they recognize the ring.
But something stopped me from correcting the farmer’s poor manners. Instead, I found myself hurrying away from that farmhouse. I only glanced back once. When I did, I saw that the shutters of one room were open. I was too far away by then to be sure of what I saw, but I am certain there was movement.
When I shut my eyes, I see it still: a lumpy, moon-shaped face staring out of a darkened room. The face was the wrong color for a person’s, too pale and mottled grey-green in parts. Worse still were those eyes. I would put a hand upon any holy book of Koar and avow that its eyes were glowing like fireflies as they watched me retreat into the distance.
I untied the horse from the tree where I’d left her and was surprised to find my hands shaking. Heedless of the coming dark, we rode until we reached the town.
Niiman, 26 Jastatos, 5078
Daylight and a good night of sleep helped me cast off last night’s odd unsettlement. I think back upon what I saw. It’s likely that my mind was playing tricks on me. I do not doubt that the farmer’s child was malformed, but that is no reason to cast him as a monster. I am ashamed.
The township has a small shrine to Lumnis. This morning, I left an offering of silver, that she might watch over that family. I can scarcely imagine the difficulty of rearing an ill-formed child with all of the resources of the Hall at my back. In the wilderness, where superstition and ignorant fear are rampant, it seems a horrific burden.
Ruster’s Bend is smaller than expected. There are but several dozen buildings here, and the roads are all hard-packed dirt. Last night, I sought lodging at a ramshackle inn--the first and only one that I have come across here. It is called the Whip and Whistle.
I am surprised that there is an inn at all. The town, I am told, sees little traffic from the outside world. A few peddlers come through each season, but there are only a few reasons to come to Ruster’s Bend.
The Wizardwaste is one such reason. Over the centuries, rumors have grown up around ancient objects of power and vast riches that were lost in the fall of Toullaire. Treasure hunters have sparked an irregular economy centered upon those willing to risk their lives to guide outsiders into the fringes of the phenomenon. ‘Waste guides charge astronomical rates commensurate with the danger of their profession.
I have been careful to distinguish myself from such adventurers. That has still not endeared me to the inkeep, a jowly older woman named Jani. She talks little and smiles less. When I asked for lodging, her response was a garbled mumble, as if she spoke through a mouth with too many teeth. She agreed to carry word to my guide, and I could see the disdain for me in her squinty eyes.
The inn is not much to talk about. There are only four rooms, and I do not know what I would have done if all were occupied. As it is, all were empty. Downstairs is a small tavern, of sorts, though I have not seen more than one customer join Jani at the bar all day.
There are fewer townsfolk than I expected from even the scant number of buildings. Jani tells me that children are few and that outsiders rarely move here. Many of the buildings are empty.
As another day ends, I scan the huddled grey buildings on this sallow plain. I cannot understand why anyone would choose to live in this place.
Day of the Huntress, 27 Jastatos, 5078
My guide met me over mid-morning tea in the inn’s tavern.
Jani makes a bitter draught of black leaves. She calls the herb “wakeroot” and says that it is local. It is true to its name: the tea sharpened my thoughts and has me full of nervous energy.
“You the wizard?” I heard my guide’s voice before I saw him.
Ketzal, as he is called, is a short, whip-thin man who looks like he survives on a diet of regrets and hard liquor. There is no spare flesh on his bones. His nose is as red as a cut carbuncle, and his eyes are sharp and grey as flint shards.
“I am,” I said.
Without asking for an invitation, he sat down across from me. I asked Jani for an extra tea. When she brought it by, Ketzal lifted it to his nose, made a face, and set it back down. He tugged a flask free from his belt, topped off his tea cup with the brackish liquid inside, and offered it to me. I declined.
“Make it meself,” he said. “Don’t taste great, but it keeps the edge off.”
“What do you call it?”
He shrugged. “It don’t last long enough to name it.”
I noticed in the pale morning light that his forehead glistened faintly. At first I thought it sweat, but as we began to discuss terms, I realized that it looked more like a lizard’s scales. I thought better of saying something, but Ketzal noticed me looking.
“I’m a freak,” he said, matter-of-factly.
I put up my hands in a placating gesture. “My apologies,” I said. “I did not mean to stare.”
“Not offended,” he said. “We’re all freaks here. Most of us reared this close to the ‘Waste’re a bit wrong in one way or another. You’ve noticed, I’d wager.”
I opened my mouth to deny it. Other than my visit to the shrine of Lumnis, I’d had little inclination to explore the town. When I spent some thought on it, I realized I had seen more than a few townsfolk walking with limps or wearing heavy clothing despite the heat.
“It’s in the air; the earth; the water. The ‘Waste’s poison, but we’re too stupid or stubborn to leave,” Ketzal said.
“But we’re well beyond the boundaries of the ‘Waste.” I said that, but worried he might be right. My mind shot to the dying plant life; the crippled people. The farmer’s boy.
“The first mistake that outsiders like you make is thinking that the Wizardwaste knows how to stay put. It don’t. It ain’t a volcano that you can just move away from when it rumbles. It ain’t even a storm. Whatever those mages brought into this world, it ain’t satisfied to stay in one place. You know it’s still growing?”
I shook my head. “There have only been two surveys of the ‘Waste over the years: 4593 and 4651. The comparative measurements show no significant change to the size of the phenomenon. How did you come to this conclusion? Have you taken measurements?”
He looked at me like I was an apprentice asking too many questions in class. “Look, son, we know the ‘Waste. My grandfather’s grandfather, he had a farm on the other side of those hills to the south. Now that’s all Wastewild,” he said. “Some day, the Bend’ll be gone, too. I don’t think a wee town like this one will sate its hunger.”
His statements might have been the ramblings of a backwoods villager. Anecdotes are not evidence. But if there was merit to his claims, it could complicate the Demonwall’s expansion. I resolved to compare my measurements with the old surveys upon my return.
The conversation turned to our coming journey. Ketzal ordered himself a glass of the local moonshine, and I paid. When I ordered another tea, he pointed out that it was noon already and that was early enough to start drinking in earnest. At his urging, I took a shot of the clear liquor. I coughed, and it shot out my nose.
“You’re not like the treasure hunters,” he said.
“I am hunting for my own sort of treasure,” I told him. “How much were you informed about my mission?”
Ketzal smirked. His canines were very sharp and yellow, and the expression, combined with the scaling on his face, put me in mind of a serpent about to strike. “Old Chandrennin wants to build a wall to keep the demons out. Sounds like a fool’s errand to me.”
“Don’t demons fly?” he asked.
“My prime concern is determining the best route through the ‘Waste’s borders. The first surveyors were Chastonian warriors, not magisters. They didn’t have the benefit of magic when they were investigating the extent of the phenomenon.”
Ketzal nodded. “Might be why they lived to tell the tale. It’s hungry for magic, it is.”
“They demarcated three separate regions in the ‘Waste,” I began. “The outermost, and most habitable, is the Liminal Ring--”
Ketzal chortled, cutting me off. “You and your book facts. Let me tell you, magister, books won’t help you in the ‘Waste. I’ve seen it myself and lived to tell, so listen good. This ‘Liminal Ring’ of yours, we call that the Wastewilds. Most guides don’t go deeper’n that.”
“My understanding is that the Ring is inhabited.”
“Sure. Old tribes, they’ve lived in these parts since before the Kannalan Empire. Hard and tough as old roots, that folk. Call themselves the Quladdim. They outlived the Kannalans, and I’d wager they’ll outlive Turamzzyr, too. Takes more than the ‘Waste to displace ‘em.”
I nodded. “For my anthropology training, I spent time among the Tehir. They’re also descended from the pre-Kannalan tribes. It would be fascinating to see how their cultures diverged.”
“They eat outsiders,” he said, simply.
“Oh,” I said.
“There’s also goblins, orcs, the like. Bigger than you’d expect. The ‘Waste is changing them, too. We’ll keep out of their way. Past the Wastewilds, you’ve got the Breach. The tribes sometimes go there to hunt. The magic does awful things to the beasts out that way. One time, I saw a wildcat twice the size of a man up on the ridges near the old city’s ruins. Too far to catch us, but it sure tried. Swear to Koar, I heard it screaming my name as we ran. This awful, bullfrog voice, but it was my name, sure as day.”
“And beyond the Breach?” I asked, although I knew the answer.
“The Crater. No one goes there, not even the Quladdim. The Crater’s full of magics likely to tear you apart in a heartbeat. That’s all that’s left of the old school--the Arcanum.”
“We won’t need to go there,” I said.
“Wouldn’t take you if we did,” he said.
I glanced down at my ring meaningfully. I can handle a little rudeness from commoners, but openly avowing to disobey me was a behavior to which I was entirely unused. He followed my gaze.
“Begging your pardon, magister,” he said. “Don’t mean no disrespect, but that place’d do worse to me than you could imagine.”
I tried to reel in my stung pride. After all, this man would be my sole guide through a dangerous region. “I’d never ask that of you. Our survey is of the Liminal--the Wastewilds. And part of the Breach. You know, if this project is approved, you’ll be an imperial hero, of sorts.”
“A hero?” Ketzal chuckled, but I could see him thinking about it.
“Even with the disruptions to teleportation magic in this region, cutting through the Wastewilds will save us months of construction and considerable costs.”
Ketzal took another swig of whiskey and shook his head. “Eat the costs, if you want my opinion.”
I didn’t want his opinion, but I said nothing, steering the conversation toward logistics.
“I’ve reviewed every map done by the phenomenon’s first surveyors. By my estimates, our route through the exterior ring will take just over a week on foot.” Horses spook near the ‘Waste. Mine will remain in Jani’s care.
“Best to take enough rations for two weeks, then,” he said. “Time moves strangely there. You can walk a whole day and make a mile, or cover five in an hour.”
I thought better of bringing up my experience on the trail to Ruster’s Bend. Even our best maps of the area were very old and accomplished without the benefit of modern magic. That was a better explanation, or so I forced myself to believe.
We resolved to leave on the morrow at first light. As I write this, I find myself unable to sleep. I keep telling myself that it is the excitement of seeing this phenomenon up close. Why, then, does it feel like dread?
Feastday, 28 Jastatos, 5078
I woke too early to a sour stomach. Downstairs, Jani was already clattering about in the kitchens, no doubt concocting the day’s breakfast. I thought about requesting some hot food before taking my leave of the Whip and Whistle. It would be several days before we came back to the town. I had left it to Ketzal to procure the two weeks of rations that he had suggested.
When I came downstairs, Ketzal was already there. He had a half-finished bottle of brandy in front of him. It would have been enough to put me under the table and then some. I said as much.
“I always drink before an expedition,” he said. “Don’t you worry, I’m good for it.”
He rose from the table smoothly. His breath stank of the stale stuff, but I could not argue that he seemed as steady as I was on my best days. But he did not wait for my assessment as he began to move toward the door.
I began to protest, hunger pains stirring at the thought of a missed meal, but Ketzal pushed out onto the road and I followed. There were, to my surprise, a few people out in the pre-dawn light. They were hanging faded old banners featuring black cloth and a crude silver gate.
“I had forgotten that the festival was coming,” I said.
“Never much celebrated it myself,” Ketzal responded. “This life’s bad enough. Can’t imagine that it’d be any better with Gosaena breathing down my neck.”
We set off to the south. Ketzal set a brisk pace. The terrain was easy, but my pack was heavy. I could see the shadow of a smirk on his face when I asked him, breathless, to slow down, but he did so. When I return to civilization, I will ask Apprentice Ranheles about his resistance training. Our young former squire is a phenomenal athlete.
For all of his brusque nature, I found Ketzal a pleasant enough traveling companion. He talked little, but when he did, it was about subjects pertinent to my survey. He pointed out, for example, a snaking vine, a spore-rose, with dull red sacs along its length. The spores could catch in the lungs when inhaled and cause all sorts of ill effect, he claimed, but when mashed into a paste, they made a powerful clotting agent. How strange, to live beyond the reach of empaths and their miraculous healing.
By nightfall, we stood before the high, black hills that marked the furthest boundaries of the Liminal Ring. Ketzal suggested that we rest here, rather than pushing on for a few more hours. He tells me that it is sometimes difficult to sleep in the ‘Waste and that it gives some people bad dreams.
Out of curiosity, I tried a simple Elemental Detection spell while he broke out portions of hard tack and pork jerky for our supper. There was a shrill pop and an acrid smell. He looked at me with such surprise that I did not attempt magic again.
Only now, as I lay in my sleeping bag, do I recall that I forgot to say my goodbyes to the horse. I am sure she won’t mind.
Restday, 29 Jastatos, 5078
Day Seventeen, Entry One
We climbed the hills this morning. I do not want to admit how long that took. Judging from how he climbs, Ketzal is not a serpent, but rather some sort of mountain goat.
“See how sharp the peaks are?” he asked, barely short of breath and with only a faint sheen of sweat on his brow. “They were raised up by the explosion. Earth cracked and spat when Toullaire fell.”
“Yes, they appear to be some sort of igneous rock,” I said, between panting attempts at breath.
“I don’t know ‘bout that,” he said, and then he was off again.
But at last we reached the top. When I glanced behind me, my face heated at how brief a trip the way back down looked to be. I looked ahead, then, and if I’d had any breath left, it would have been stolen by the sight.
The hilltop looked down over a rambling incline, jagged with black boulders. Grasses grew up, blood red, over the hillside. There was an angry cast to that color. Beyond, the sight was even stranger.
It was a clear day to the north, but down in the low bowl of the Wastewilds, a storm was brewing. Our vantage was just above the most of the low-hanging clouds. They swirled around in the basin, whipped as if by gale-force winds, but only the faintest breeze stirred my traveler’s cloak. I could see little of the plains below.
“There we are. The Wastewilds,” Ketzal said.
As if to punctuate his words, a bolt of blue-green lightning arced between two clouds. I braced for thunder, but what I heard instead was an off-key crystalline sound like a vase shattering. Ketzal laughed at the look on my face.
“Ain’t no normal storm,” he said. “Shall we head into the thick of it?”
I stopped to write this entry. Will check back this evening.
Restday, 29 Jastatos, 5078
Day Seventeen, Entry Two
Just like that, my first day in the Wizardwaste is over. I find that we have misnamed this strange and hauntingly beautiful place. There is flora and fauna aplenty within the Liminal Ring, though it is as odd as Ketzal claimed. Odder, at times.
We descended down into the basin on the other side of the hills. My hair stood on end as we passed through the cloud layer. It smelled strongly of burnt ozone, and I could see the occasional crackle of lightning as it jumped between the clouds. Shreds of thick mist tugged at my cloak as we walked, but the air was warm and dry.
I have little studied the anomalies colloquially called mana storms. They are more common in the far north. This weather pattern seems remarkably similar to what I have read. Could it be that the Wizardwaste is only that: a mana storm, if an especially large one? If so, I might recommend that we divert resources to a dispulsion effort. My initial assessment is that the land is arable. I am thrilled at the thought that it might some day be returned to Chastonia.
I was mulling this possibility when a strangled squeal struck me still. A boar, hairless and with too many tusks, darted out from behind a boulder as if startled by our presence. It sprinted away from our position, making little piggy noises as it went.
A moment later, I realized that we were not what had startled it. In a flash of wings, a hawk descended from the clouds with a cry. It landed upon the boar. Blood sprayed and rust-colored wings flapped in the flickering stormlight.
As the boar stilled with a last plaintive craw, the hawk hopped toward the head of its kill. I saw that it had a flapping pair of vestigial wings, stunted and featherless, on the back of its head. The hawk surveyed the corpse with twitching eyes for a long moment. Then, its beak unhinged like the jaw of a snake, and a thin proboscis extended out, piercing into the boar’s cranium. An awful crack of bone reached my ears.
I felt Ketzal’s hand on my shoulder like a dim memory. He tugged a couple of times, shaking me from my horrified voyeurism.
“Best not to watch,” he said. “Wasp-hawk. Little one like that ain’t a danger to humans.”
I swallowed, my throat suddenly dry. “Do they get bigger?”
“Mhm,” he said, pulling me away from the site of carnage. Cracking sounds chased us down into the valley.
The greenery here looked healthier than on the other side of the hills. Too healthy, in fact. In the near distance, I saw a crabapple tree hunched against the storm. The light made its fruit look like red rubies on a bed of jeweler’s velvet. But something about the fruits themselves warned me away. They were too large and lumpy, almost tumorous in shape. Several of the branches had broken under their weight, as if they were parasites growing on the tree instead of fruit.
We traveled a few more miles before setting up camp in an area framed by towering boulders. Ketzal told me that most of the tribes are well away from this region of the Wastewild, but it was best for us to stay out of sight while sleeping, just in case.
Volnes, 30 Jastatos, 5078
Day Eighteen, Entry One
I was too exhausted to write yesterday before we bedded down. As the sun rose this morning, I peeked out of the cave in which we had bedded down to find that the mana storm had broken. Despite its absence, the Wastewild is shrouded in a dense cover that is too dry to be mist. I worry at what I might be breathing in, but Ketzal says the stuff is harmless.
On our march, we came across a ruined farmhouse. There is little left standing beyond the foundations and chimney, and the fields have been so long overgrown that there is no distinguishing their boundaries from the wilds. It seems that the farm might have raised maize in days long ago, as wild corn grows plentiful here. I took a sample of one of the ears, only to find that it was crawling with little spiders. Ketzal claims the spiders lay their egg sacs among the kernels. Needless to say, I will not be carrying the sample home.
As we were moving away from farmhouse’s remains, I saw that a sigil had been smeared on the chimney stones. It seemed fresh. The crude circle had a jagged line down the center, like a bolt of lightning. Little eyes were drawn at points along the circle’s interior.
Ketzal’s lips pressed into a pale line when I pointed it out.
“Quladdim don’t usually get out this far,” he said. “Stay close.”
As if I have a choice!
Volnes, 30 Jastatos, 5078
Day Eighteen, Entry Two
Lines of unintelligible scribbling above the first entry, followed by the name, “Ketzal," written several times, in the magister’s hand and a less refined imitation thereof.
Over our midday stop, Ketzal asked me to teach him how to write his name. I promised to devote more time to it once we return to civilization. He made some progress, as you can see.
We’ve seen signs of Quladdim migration. A heavy trail was worn into the grasses crossing our own, and we found a firepit nearby. There are signs that between ten and twenty people bedded down nearby, per Ketzal. I see no reason not to trust his assessment. The firepit was cold, at least, but the feeling in the pit of my stomach is colder.
Tilamaires, 31 Jastatos, 5078
A year ago, I celebrated the Ebon Gate Festival at home in Barret’s Gorge. The whole city turns out in Lorminstra’s colors, black and gold. We wear masks that look like our dead loved ones, so that their spirits might recognize their old faces and spend their sole night of freedom with their old families.
Our family’s chef had his own take on the traditional red bean cakes that the commoners eat. He sprinkled them with sugar crystals infused with juice from rose hips. As children, we would stuff our faces full of them while trading tales about the night hag of the Narran Valley. Sometimes, we even spun stories about Ba’Lathon.
If you had told me last year that I would be celebrating this Ebon Gate in Ba’Lathon itself, I would have called you a fool and then some. This year, I have no mask with which to entice my dear grandmother from her rest. How would she even find me? I have no idea where I am.
Ketzal set our camp in a loamy gully fed by a clear stream. He warned me not to drink any without boiling it unless I wanted to be sick for a week. Only the water from our skins was trustworthy.
Resolute that I should mark the holiday in some way, I found a fallen twig near our camp and began scratching out the shape of a gate in the dirt. This drew Ketzal’s attention.
“Praying to the Lady Winter, magister?” he asked.
“I’d have her on good terms with me,” I said.
“I hear she likes jewels.”
I chuckled. “Most women do.”
“Me, I’d bribe some other god so I don’t meet her in the first place. Jaston, mayhaps, so I could see trouble coming.”
“Jastev,” I corrected him. “Jaston is the god of the wind.”
“Him, too, then,” he said. “Can’t have too many gods in your corner.”
I finished my drawing in the dirt and offered a quiet prayer. I resolved to make a significant tithe to the Winter Temple next year.
Ketzal took a nearby stone and began emulating me. His gate was crooked and hastily done. The humor had gone out of him, and I noticed that he kept looking up from his work to watch the darkness outside of our camp.
“Magister, what sort of magics do you do?” He sounded much more humble than ever before. I realized he had used my title twice in the space of a few minutes and not as a barb.
“That’s a difficult question to answer. I’m most skilled at scrying and elemental detection. During my time at the Swale, I originated and improved some spells intended for precise measurement of--”
“Can you call fires? Make the winds blow? Lightning?”
“Good,” he said. “I’m going to get some shut eye. Long march tomorrow. We’ll be moving fast.”
Niiman, 2 Eoantos, 5078
Day Twenty One
My offerings to Lorminstra proved to be little defense against this spiteful land. I woke to a feeling of intense pain just below my hip. I must have cried out, as Ketzal was there at my side in the space between breaths.
“Something bite you?” he asked, his voice sharp.
Without waiting for a response, he knelt over me. I pulled aside the fabric there and heard him suck in a breath. As I followed his gaze, I saw why. Over the night, the skin there had bubbled up into a hideous wen the size of a robin’s egg. He prodded the flesh, and I let out a gasp of pain.
“What is it?” I hissed through my teeth.
“Nothing serious. I’ve seen worse.” He pulled up his sleeve to reveal a large puckered patch of skin on his upper arm. “This place, it kills you slowly. Makes you sick from the inside out.”
“You spend a lot of time traveling the ‘Waste. The tribesmen live here.”
He shrugged. “One day, it’ll get me. Might get you, too. But not while I’m around.”
I watched as he stoked a fire and heated a trail knife in its depths. He started talking to me about the history of Ruster’s Bend, how it had sprung up as a watchpost before shifting politics and faltering budgets had pulled the troops away and left only the town behind.
Ketzal must have meant to distract me, but no bland history could pull my mind from the explosion of white-hot pain as he drove the heated knife’s tip into my flesh. I smelled burning flesh and rot. I could not watch.
When it was done, he slipped away into the underbrush. I lay there, almost insensate with pain, trying not to cry. He returned within minutes, clutching in his hands a few sacs from a spore-rose.
He fumbled around in his packs and came up with a crude mortar and pestle. The herbs had a sweet, almost cloying scent as he ground them. It reminded me of honey and sun-baked lavender.
“The vine,” he explained, “grows here in the Wastewilds and just beyond. Soon as the sacs burst, the whole plant up and dies. It lives only to spread.”
He dipped his trail knife into the mash. The pulped remains of the spores were faintly tinged with pink and had a jellied consistency. He placed a steadying hand on my shoulder.
“This is going to hurt.”
It did. He pulled off his belt flask and splashed some of the brackish liquor onto the cauterized wound. My whole leg lit up with fresh agony. I barely felt him as he used the flat of the blade to spread the concoction. And then the pain began to recede. Cool numbness raced to take its place.
“I may not be able to travel fast today,” I said, when I could finally speak again.
“No travel today,” said Ketzal. “You’d just rub it raw. It’d get infected, and I’d leave you.” He made a poultice of some leaves, coated them with the spore-rose mash, and sealed it to my leg.
I drew breath to protest, but I saw him smiling. “Thank you, Ketzal.”
“The Hall paid me good,” he said.
We spent the remainder of that day and most of this one resting in our little ravine. Ketzal and I spoke little. He asked me to read to him from my journal, as he could not read it himself. I read him some old entries I had recorded during my training in the Hall as an apprentice. He seemed mystified by my life.
As he was changing my poultice, a frown darkened his face. “You should not be here.”
“I beg your pardon?” I asked, sitting up.
“You’re a soft man,” he said. “This land has broken harder folk than you. Torn ‘em up and spit them out in its own image. You should go home, magister.”
I rubbed at my ring. “I do what I do for the Empire.”
He drew a breath as if to speak. To my surprise, he said only, “Leg’s fine. We’ll march tomorrow.”
I examined his work. Of the boil, naught remained but a puckered pink scar about half a hand’s span in length. It was the first scar I’d ever gotten.
Perhaps he was right. Perhaps I am soft. But I have a mission to do, and this land will not interfere.
Day of the Huntress, 3 Eoantos, 5078
Day Twenty Two
Ketzal says there are Quladdim nearby. Stopping only a moment to rest and eat. Found bones around a recent fire pit. They look human and fresh.
Mana storm is incoming. Ketzal says it will cover our tracks.
Feastday, 4 Eoantos, 5078
Day Twenty Three, Entry One
We have reached the Breach. Walls of the blast crater stretch hundreds of feet into the air like outstretched claws. Their tips are lost in the swirling mana storm above.
Ketzal claims the storm will be unrelenting from here on. All of the other storms, the ones that swirl out over the Wastewilds, are birthed from this unending swirl of smoky cloud and ragged blue-green lightning. The air is hot and wet like a bog, but nothing grows past the wall.
Signs of Quladdim abound. The tribe here fought with a force of what look like goblins. Their bodies and those of the goblins are strewn haphazardly over the stone talons. It looks as if a giant was playing ungently with its toys. That helps. Thinking of them as living beings, now stilled, is too terrible to countenance.
63 miles from the hills to the Breach. The last surveyors estimated 52. The Wizardwaste is growing.
Feastday, 4 Eoantos, 5078
Day Twenty Three, Entry Two
The Quladdim came, and the worst has happened.
I hide in the belly of a cavern, one of hundreds that pock the desolated earth. The sounds of weeping rise in counterpoint to the wail of the storm winds outside. They do not come from the child. She is silent and has been this whole time. The cries are mine.
When I try to envision the sort of disaster that might create caves like these, it is difficult for my mind to encompass. As best I can tell, the destruction of Toullaire gave off heat so intense that it melted parts of the very earth. When it solidified, bubbles in the molten rock formed chasms, some of them hundreds of feet deep.
That is my assumption, but my mind is not at its best.
Scarcely a mile past the talons of the Breach, Ketzal and I came to a ravine that clove down into a plateau of molten stone. He thought to take the ravine to conceal us from prying eyes, although it was the longer path.
We were a mile down the ravine when Ketzal let out a gasp. My eyes shot to him, not comprehending. A pale arrow with bright red fletching had sprouted from the join of his arm and chest. He pulled at it with trembling fingers, and the shaft, a brittle length of bone, shattered.
“Run,” he gasped.
I ran. I made it thirty paces before a treacherous lip of stone caught my foot and pulled me down. It was too late, anyway. Figures in drab cloaks and robes fell around us like deadly rain. The hiss of steel against leather filled the air as they drew crooked scimitars. They swarmed around us, cutting me off from Ketzal.
There was no telling whether the figures beneath the heavy garb were male or female. To a one, they wore yellowed half-masks of bone painted in brown fluid with hideous parodies of faces. One of them hissed at me, and I could see that its teeth were filed to points.
Ketzal began to scream as they descended upon him. One of them darted toward me. I scrabbled back on my haunches to avoid its flashing blade.
The moment I recovered my faculties, I reached for my talent. Words bubbled up on my lips as I reached out to the elements, crafting a fireball. During my training, I had fumbled spells before. That was not what happened. I could feel the bones of this place, the earth and the air, holding the power just out of my reach.
Another blade flashed, and I felt a line of fire spread down my face. The figure, a woman, I realized, as she spoke, hissed something in the Kannalan tongue. It was a dialect I had not heard before, and I had been a poor student of language.
“Down. Futile to fight.” My addled mind supplied the translation too late.
Behind her, there was a flurry of activity. They had already secured Ketzal, or he was dead. In moments, I would be dead or captive, too.
“Magician,” I warned in my halting Kannalan, tapping my chest.
A few of the Quladdim fell back, hissing in commingled threat and fear. That would not hold them for long, and I did not know enough of their tongue to negotiate, if that was even an option. Instead of speaking to them again, I let loose with a string of magical shouts. Something stronger.
I felt the same resistance as the first time and continued my chanting. Confusion spread among the attackers. A brave one darted in, and I took a slash along my shoulder as I rolled out of the way, still calling to the skies.
With the force of water from a broken dam, power flowed into me in a bone-quaking surge. Dozens of pinpoints in the sky began to glow like embers. I let out a gasp of commingled relief and terror. It was a spell I had never cast before, one that every magister learns, but is taught never to use by intent or mistake.
The Quladdim screamed as the meteors fell. One of my teachers had called the spell a “devastating inferno." What I saw was only carnage.
Flaming rocks crashed into the ground, tearing apart the Quladdim advancing upon me. The woman who had spoken to me flew through the air, thrown forty feet by the fiery impact behind her. Another meteor crushed three to my left before they had a chance to scream.
Dazed, devastated by the destruction raining down around me, I pushed to my feet and fled, pushing past one of the shrieking tribesmen. Rocks crackled down around me as a stray meteor impacted the ravine wall.
Another fell right in my path. The explosion threw me off my feet, and sparks stung along the side of my face. A wave of dust and rocks crested over me. I heard a cracking sound as the near wall gave way. As I crabbed along the ground, I knew a moment of purest hopelessness as the plateau above began to cave in around me. I would die here, far from home, crushed between falling walls of rock, and it would be my own doing.
But I did not die. The last of the spell’s power tingled away from my limbs, and the meteors ceased to fall. Their mad percussion surrendered to the roar of the uncaring storm and the pained shrieks of the Quladdim behind me.
Pulling myself laboriously to my feet, I turned behind me to see if the tribesmen had followed. What I found instead was a slope of fallen stone. Scattered across it was the broken wreck of a primitive cart. My stinging eyes picked out the form of a crumpled cage atop it, the door hanging askew.
There was a small child picking her way down the stone slope. She was disheveled and dirty, and a cut above her eye leaked blood. Without thinking, I dashed toward her. She took two more steps and stumbled, and I was there to catch her.
“You’re safe,” I whispered, putting my hands out in a placating gesture. She had the look of the Quladdim. If she cried out, she might draw their attention.
I need not have worried. She was entirely quiet as I took her by the hand. Her tiny fingers were cool in mine as we hurried down the ravine.
The tribesmen did not follow. We found our way down to this cave, and here we have remained while the storm rages overhead. Once time ground down the immediate panic, a deeper anxiety set in: we were in the midst of the Breach without a guide or the packs that he carried.
In the morning, I shall go above ground and see if I can find our way back to the talons. At least out in the Wastewilds, we might find forage and, eventually, a way home.
Restday, 5 Eoantos, 5078
Day Twenty Four
We are hopelessly lost.
I do not know when we woke. Morning, noon, and night: they all looked the same in the come-and-go stormlight. Neither do I know if the child slept. She huddled in the same position she had occupied when I succumbed to darkness the night before, and she watched me.
An offering of jerky and hard cheese did little to soften her silence. I asked her what her name was. There was no response. Then I asked her why the Quladdim had held her hostage. Nothing of that either. I tried asking in Common and in Kannalan. Neither sparked recognition.
I crept above ground and surveyed the landscape. It was not familiar, even to my scattered memories from the prior night. We had been in such haste to flee our pursuers that we had gone to ground in the first place possible.
Slim hopes dwindling, I turned to go back down and found the girl standing there. She pointed in a direction.
“Home,” she said. She had the faintest of Southern accents.
“You know the way?” I knelt before her.
She nodded. “Home,” she said again.
Tilamaires, 7 Eoantos, 5078
Day Twenty Six
We have been traveling along the blackened stone landscape for more than two days, I think. It is difficult to tell time. The girl sleeps when I sleep. When I wake in the morning, she sets off on her course. I do not know how she reckons her path, but she seems sure of it.
The travel is slow going, as the rock underfoot is slick and it has begun to rain.
Day Twenty Eight (?)
I have lost track of time. We have slept at least twice since my last entry. Is that from exhaustion or because of the natural rhythms of the days?
The rock has given way to fine black dust on a mostly featureless plain. Here and there, broken remnants of buildings poke up from the strange ground. It must have been a town. We did not pass by it on the way in. I asked the child if she was certain we were headed in the right direction.
She nodded yes.
Day Unknown, Entry One
The strangeness has intensified. I lay down to sleep, weary, but found that I could not. More, my legs were not weary in the least, though we had been going for what felt like hours. I asked the girl if she needed to rest. She did not respond, and so we continue.
Day Unknown, Entry Two
I saw an intact edifice haloed by the stormglow. My heart leapt in my chest, thinking that it might be a hold of the damned Quladdim. The architecture, though, brought to mind old Kannalan design of the sort that I had seen in books.
Candlelight sparked in the windows, and I saw figures silhouetted against the glass.
A low eddy of crackling clouds swept over the ground, and the building was gone as if it never had been at all.
I suspect I am going mad.
Day Unknown, Entry Three
I sat to rest from my exertions, more from habit than need. I have not slept in days and do not feel a bit tired. Neither do I hunger, though it must be days since I last ate. I simply lost track of the need. I forced myself to down a bit of trailbread. It crumbled like dust in my mouth.
When I rose, the girl was gone.
I found her not far away, standing atop a high bluff with glass-smooth walls. No, not a bluff. A crater.
I looked down into the place to which she had brought me, and I wept and laughed. She had never intended to bring me to my home, but hers.
The child, whatever she was, looked up at me with eyes that glowed like fireflies. Her smile had too many teeth. I howled with rage. I pushed. She flew. She fell.
Down below was a near-perfect sphere hollowed out of the earth. Here, mages of the Arcanum had toyed with unspeakable magics, and they had brought doom to this world. I saw that now, clearly.
At the center of the emptiness was a spill of riotous color: every color, any color, and some besides that I had never seen. My insides tossed like a frothing sea just to look at it. Dark against the light was the child’s form, distending and stretching and darkening into something vast and terrible and unknowable.
I turned from the pit and began to walk away. It watched me go.
Day Unknown, Entry Four
No point to writing. No one will find this. The land stretches for eternity. I have been walking for months. Or minutes. Came across a body in rags, missing a hand. Dead a long time.
Day Unknown, Entry Five
Hunger struck me. The jerky I had has turned. I ate it anyway. Could not keep it down.
Day Unknown, Entry Six
Found the smooth black heath. I have to get home. Hungry. Tired. Need to sleep again.
Day Unknown, Entry Seven
I found the talons yesterday. Or maybe the day before. I almost missed them. There was a mana storm brewing out of the Breach, and it had obscured the sight.
Thinking they might be another illusion like the Kannalan building, I almost set off in another direction. I am glad I did not.
Whatever the effects of the Breach, I have moved past them now and my body feels every missed night of rest, every skipped meal. I stuffed my mouth full of some pulpy green fruit I found, and then threw it up and was hungrier than before.
I fell asleep and woke to find that the storm had passed. I will head west.
Day Unknown, Entry Eight
The hunger has become all-consuming. It is there when I wake and when I sleep. It has sharpened my mind, and I am thankful for it.
Without the hunger, I would not have found the footsteps leading inexorably westward. A flask lay discarded in the grasses near the trail. It is Ketzal’s. I cannot muster the strength to hope. I have to get home.
Day Unknown, Entry Nine
Twice I have chanced sleep. The second time, I woke to a mana storm so vast that it blocked out the sun. Perhaps it is night.
Rest has been a brief thing, abbreviated by fear that Ketzal might outpace me. He is fitter than I and knows the land better. If I lose his trail, I will die here. I know to travel east by the guide of the sun, but the storms are frequent, and I am insensate from hunger.
I have tried fruits, roots, and even grass plucked from the roadside. I can keep nothing down.
Day Unknown, Entry Ten
I caught up with Ketzal within sight of the hills that demarcated the Wastewilds from the lands outside. He was easy to see in the pre-dawn light. He looked ragged, and his steps were slowed by a pronounced limp. All over, his clothes were stained brown with dried blood.
When I called out to him, his entire body stiffened. His face was grim when he turned toward me. He held something tightly in his right hand.
As I drew closer, I saw that it was his trail knife. There were more notches along its length, and dark crust marred the flat of the blade. He held it out in front of himself as I approached.
“It’s me,” I said. “How did you escape the Quladdim?”
“Not another step,” said Ketzal. I had expected him to be relieved, or happy. His expression was neither. White showed around his eyes. He was clutching the knife so hard that his knuckles looked like they might poke through his skin.
“Ketzal, all I want to do is get out of this place. I just want to leave and go home. You don’t know all of the things I’ve seen. I swear to you, I don’t mean you any harm. On my honor. On the Hall itself, man.” My voice grew more and more shrill, until it broke on the last words like a ship over a treacherous shoal.
He spat on the ground and made a gesture of protection. “You are not the magister.”
A chill went up my spine. The travails of the breach had driven Ketzal mad. That was the only reasonable explanation for his behavior.
“I promise you that I am. We can discuss this back in Ruster’s Bend.” I kept my voice soft and raised my hands to show him that I was unarmed.
He took an unwitting step backward. I could practically smell the fear washing off of him. He brandished the trail knife and took another step away from me.
“You ain’t him,” he said.
“Don’t be absurd.”
“Talk like him. Look like him if you want. But you ain’t him.” Not taking his eyes off of me, he undid the strap on one of his packs one-handed. Frantically, he rummaged through before drawing something out and tossing it to the ground at my feet.
I stooped to pick up the object, but froze as soon as I realized what it was. There, in the dust before me, was a man’s severed hand. It had upon it a magister’s ring. I looked, disbelieving, at my hand and the one at my feet. That one was hardened and dry, cut off days ago at the least. But the rings were the same.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
Ketzal kept moving backward, halting step after halting step. “Found the body not far from where the Quladdim attacked. I cut it off you. Off of him. Thought I’d bring to the Bend and send it back to the Hall as proof that he was dead. Least I could do after he saved me.”
“I saved you. I cast that spell. Ketzal, you’re scaring me.” I thumped my own chest, desperation winning out at last. “Please, we need to go.”
“Look at yourself,” he said, visibly steeling himself. “Not a scratch on you. How do you explain that?”
“You’re not thinking rationally,” I said. Raising my eyes to the heavens, I peeled aside the stained, stinking cloth covering my leg. Ketzal went totally silent.
I followed his gaze. There, where he had lanced the boil, was naught but smooth skin, unblemished as the day I was born.
I shook my head in amazement. “There has to be an explanation. The Wizardwaste is home to all sorts of strange energies. It healed my wounds.” After all of the things I had seen, a healed scar was scarcely miraculous. A barely trained empath could manage it.
“You ain’t leaving this place,” Ketzal said, undeterred. “Nothing from the ‘Waste can long live out there. Wasp-hawks, other beasts, they come over the hills all the time, but they sicken and die and rot. Go back to where you came and leave me be.”
He was so busy talking to me that he didn’t notice the loose stone under his feet. With a cry, he fell backward. I lunged to catch him, driven by instinct. Instead of gratitude, he met me with a shrill shriek and slammed the trail knife into my side. I let out a grunt of pain. When I slammed my mouth shut, I felt flesh between my teeth.
Somehow, I had buried my face into Ketzal’s neck. He let out a cry that soared up the octaves, and a hot flood filled my mouth. The tang of iron and salt. If my stomach had not been so empty, I would have wretched up its contents.
As he fumbled for his wounded neck, I felt his other hand go slack around the trail knife and I wrenched it away. Just as I got it free, he wrenched against me, striving for it with trembling fingers. I acted on instinct. The knife plunged into his gut. It met more resistance than I had expected.
In all of those childhood dreams of being a soldier, I had never stabbed anyone before. Ketzal slumped against me, and when I backed away, he slipped to the ground, face first. Blood bubbled up on his lips as he drew ragged breaths, unable to speak.
I sat down next to him, my legs gone to jelly. For a moment, the only sounds were the roar of the mana storm and the wheezing of a dying man.
“You fool,” I said through tears. “I’m me. I am. All I wanted was to go home.”
His eyes went wide as he died.
I am not proud of what happened next. The hunger came upon me in one hot rush. I can’t write more about it. Doing so turns my stomach.
Day Unknown, Entry Eleven
It took me hours to make it over the hills. I kept falling down as I climbed. He stabbed me good. Sleeping on the open plain. Thought about going to town but how could I explain what I did?
I dream about the girl, and the shadow in the Crater.
Sick to my stomach.
Day Unknown, Entry Twelve
Out of the valley.
Realized I should have gotten my horse from town
no way to walk all the way.
Have not seen a soul
Day Unknown, Entry Thirteen
ketzal was wrong.
I am me
stopped by the spring where I slept before. I do not look good in the water.
Lost a tooth.
Day Unknown, Entry Fourteen
If i am not me, then who am i?
if I was made there, why would i leave?
I think about the spore-rose. How it lives just to spread itself.
sleep now. write more when i wake.
Leyan, 13 Lumnea, 5084
This journal, belonging to Magister Roediker Veswind, was found earlier this year by a troop of imperial engineers dispatched to work on Emperor Hannelas’s expansion of the Demonwall near the ruins of a town called Ruster’s Bend. It was discovered alongside a damaged knife and a magister’s ring believed to be Roediker’s. No signs of human remains accompanied the find.
All items were forwarded to the Swale College by imperial post. Involved parties have sworn and attested that no modifications were made to the journal. Nonetheless, the latest entries appear to be written in a subtly different hand than their earlier counterparts.
Further surveys of the Liminal Ring of the Wizardwaste revealed that magical phenomena were not so severe as to prevent the building of the Demonwall expansion. Work began four years ago. The most recent survey estimates the Liminal Ring’s diameter at 65 miles. No surveyors were sent into the Breach.
By imperial decree, the journal and its contents have been sealed by order of Emperor Hannelas, so as not to raise undue concern among the populace.