The old man certainly looked like a wizard.
Not that Yorrin had ever seen a wizard. When would an urchin on the streets of Nasarat ever cross paths with a wizard, after all? But somehow, Yorrin had a picture in his head of how a wizard ought to look. And this fellow fit it almost perfectly.
His skin was wrinkled, and pale from lack of sun. He had a sparse gray beard that hung from his chin in long wisps. He wore ridiculous flowing robes in red and gray and black, with strange runic symbols stitched into them. The robes looked like they may have once been rich and sumptuous, but had grown threadbare over the years. He was hunched, leaning heavily on an oaken cane, and on a table behind him Yorrin saw several illuminated tomes.
He’s got money, Yorrin thought. Or he used to.
The thought came to him because the old man looked like a target. Old habits died hard. But it was true: The books alone were probably worth as much as the horses Aleksandr had helped them procure. But the state of his clothes suggested he probably wasn’t flush with coin at the moment.
“Aleksandr,” Alaina said. “This is Bartholomew. Barth—”
The old man cleared his throat loudly, interrupting her. “Borthul,” he said. His voice was rasping and gravelly.
Alaina sighed. “My apologies. Aleksandr, this is Borthul—”
“The Great!” the old codger interjected.
She sighed again. “Borthul the Great. Borthul, this is Aleksandr Kerensky.”
Borthul the Great? Really? Yorrin wasn’t sure what to make of this old man.
Aleksandr held out a hand. “Borthul, is good to meet you.”
Borthul’s hand quavered as he took Aleksandr’s. “Yes, yes, I suppose it would be! Very good.”
Aleksandr blinked, clearly not sure how to react. Behind them, Dylan snickered.
“Borthul hopes to travel to southern Rusk—to Yerevan,” Alaina explained. “And, like me, he wishes to do so with some haste.”
“Yes, yes,” Borthul agreed, bobbing his head absently “Strange happenings around there, you know. Very intriguing.”
“I see,” Aleksandr said. “You wish to travel with us?”
“Yes!” Borthul announced, suddenly growing more animated. “A long journey, not safe to go alone. Not through the Underpass, surely.”
“Alaina says you’re a wizard,” Yorrin said, growing impatient with the doddering old man. “A powerful one. ‘Borthul the Great,’ yeah? So why would you need us in the first place?”
Borthul harrumphed, shot Yorrin an indignant look, and cleared his throat loudly. “I am a wizard, young sir. But just look at me!” Borthul held up one of his hands. Iit quivered unsteadily. Yorrin could see the stark veins and tendons, as the old man’s skin was stretched over his bones and sinews. “I am old. My talents are many, but I can still be slain easily enough.”
Yorrin crossed his arms. The old man smelled like a fraud. “What are your talents, then?”
Borthul frowned. “The impertinence! What is your name, young man?”
“Name’s Yorrin. Pleased to meet you, Bartholomew,” Yorrin said.
Borthul turned back to Aleksandr, perhaps to appeal for intervention. But Aleksandr was watching the exchange with curiosity. Alaina, too, just smiled.
Think I’m going to like her, Yorrin thought, glancing at the priestess.
“I have made it my life’s work to study the ancient remnants and lost script of the Thaumati. You’ve at least heard of the Thaumati, I trust?”
The name certainly sounded familiar. Yorrin frowned, staring at the old man. He used the aggressive, silent staring as an excuse to wrack his brain for the word. It had appeared in some old scripture, he was almost certain of that.
“The lost civilization,” Prudence said.
Ah! Yes, of course. Thank God for Prudence.
“Shut up, Prudence,” Yorrin snapped. “Of course I know what the Thaumati are.”
“Good, good,” Borthul said, nodding along as if he’d barely listened to either of them. “I study the ruins and artifacts they left behind. They were true sorcerers, thaumaturges of the highest order. My colleagues and I are children playing in the dirt, by comparison.”
“Sounds formidable,” Yorrin commented.
Borthul nodded. “Indeed they were!” he said, missing Yorrin’s gibe completely. “And there is still so much we do not understand about them.”
“I’m a bit confused,” Dylan said, stepping a little closer. “What does all this have to do with us, your, uh, Greatness?”
“Borthul will do,” the old man said magnanimously. “And as for that… Your little man here, Yorrin, was questioning my credentials.”
“You still haven’t explained,” Yorrin said. “Never met a wizard before, after all. So you study the old ruins. So what?”
“So what?” Borthul sputtered. “The Thaumati spoke the language of Creation itself! They shaped reality to their whims! By deciphering their script, men like me can reach for the heavens.”
“Sounds like you’re treading into Torath’s domain,” Yorrin said. “Careful.”
Borthul frowned. “You are a short-sighted and simple little man,” he said.
“Agree to disagree,” Yorrin said. “Let’s forget it, though. I was curious what you could do, but I suppose if you can pay, and you can keep up, then it doesn’t really matter.”
Borthul’s frown deepened. “I can pay…” he said. “And I don’t think you’ve got the proper education to understand what I can do, young fellow.”
Aleksandr sighed. “Borthul…”
“The Great!” Borthul interrupted, spinning around to stare at Aleksandr..
Aleksandr crossed his arms over his chest. “Borthul.”
The old man frowned, but he didn’t interject again. In fact, he straightened his back a little, and looked straight on into Aleksandr’s eyes.
“We will take you, for an appropriate price.”
Borthul nodded, a curt, quick motion. “Yes. Alright, alright. I’ll pay you ten gold solidi to get me to Yerevan as quickly as possible. Take it or leave it.”
More to him than I expected, Yorrin thought. He’s strange, for sure. But that shift in body language… playing up being the doddering old man, then? He still sounds older than dirt, though...
In the end, gold was gold. Cassaline coinage spent as well as any. And, strange old man he may be, Borthul was offering double what Alaina was.
Aleksandr reached out a hand. “We will take it,” he said.
Even Borthul’s hand was a bit less quavery when he reached out to clasp Aleksandr’s.
From the very back of the room, a deep voice heaved a loud sigh.
“Finally!” Bear said. “We go now? Old man is very boring!”
Dylan offered to help Borthul pack his horse, and the old man happily accepted. He was still piling tomes and knick-knacks into Dylan’s arms as the others slipped out the front of the building.
It was full dark outside, the partial moon high and white in the sky. A lantern hung outside the building, casting their immediate surroundings in an orange glow. Scattered around them some other buildings had done the same, dotting the area with small pockets of light timidly fighting back the vast dark of the night.
Bear still seemed impatient, dragging his foot in simple patterns through the snow and grumbling to himself in some kind of Ruskan. The rest of them conversed in quiet tones.
“You said you believed him?” Prudence asked Alaina. She wasn’t hiding the skepticism in her voice.
The priestess nodded. “I do. I know what you’re thinking: he’s a strange, difficult old man.”
Yorrin exhaled a breath of laughter. It came out in a visible puff of steam. “Just a little,” he said.
Alaina smiled. “I am not blind to that. But he is of the Order of Gnomon.”
“Gnomon?” Aleksandr said. “I am not familiar with this.”
“Named for a god in the old Cassaline pantheon,” Alaina said. “The caretaker of dangerous knowledge and seeker of ultimate truth. An apt name. They study Thaumati ruins and other strangeness in the world.”
“I’m willing to allow that he’s probably studied some strange and mystical things in his years,” Yorrin said. “But... ‘The Great?’ Really? Great big pompous windbag, maybe.”
Alaina chuckled. “He’s been a fixture in Nahash for years. Mostly putting on shows for the masses.”
“This makes you believe him?” Aleksandr said.
“No,” Alaina said, shaking her head. “I believe him because I saw him read from one of those tomes of his, and felt some of those forces he spoke of. He read an incantation from his book, and put a crowd of people into a comatose sleep for several minutes.”
Nobody replied right away, chewing over this claim. Aleksandr was the first to break the silence.
“Back home, is said that the Tsar’s Vizier can do such things,” he said. “Break the will of men, curse them, destroy their spirit. With dark sorcery.”
“I can promise you this much: The Thaumati Words of Power are very real,” Alaina said. “And very dangerous. And I believe Borthul has at least some understanding of them.”
Yorrin shrugged. “Alright, fair enough. You think he’s a threat to us, then?”
The priestess shook her head. “No. He is eccentric, and arrogant, but he has always been a friend to the church. More likely, he will simply follow along. If he has cause to use his sorcery, I trust it will be to aid us.”
“That’s not so bad. Assuming you’re right,” Prudence said.
“Alaina...” Aleksandr said. From his tone, he was concerned about something. “Before, you seemed nervous about Borthul. He is difficult man, perhaps, but I wonder. This is what you feared? Or is it something else?”
She didn’t respond at first. Yorrin saw her chew her bottom lip contemplatively. Finally, she spoke. “It wasn’t that, no. Not his attitude. He’s a bit of a blowhard, but as I said, I truly believe he is what he claims to be.”
“Then what was it?” Yorrin asked.
Alaina swallowed. “It’s that I believe he is what he claims to be. He—”
The sound of hoofbeats interrupted them. Dylan came around the corner of the building, on foot, guiding Borthul’s steed.
The horse reminded Yorrin of Borthul himself. Old, graying, with worn riding kit that looked like it might have once been very expensive. The horse was laden with saddlebags, and they looked full.
“Well then!” Borthul announced. “Shall we get on with it?”
Alaina did not finish her thought. They all greeted Borthul politely, mounted their own steeds, and hit the road.
They put Nahash to their backs as quickly as they’d entered it.
A shame, that. Yorrin thought. To be so close to the Serpent’s City, and not really go properly. That pillar really is as big as the stories say, though. I bet the Ammud Kahal looks every bit as amazing, too.
It was alright. The road to Yerevan was a long one, but they’d return one day, he was sure. Next time, with luck, they’d be flush with coin and time to enjoy it.
It got darker as they made their way out of the Outer Circle of Nahash, and left the lanterns behind. Still, a thin cover of clouds swirled in front of the moon, shedding a diffuse pale light over the land. Not enough light to traverse uneven ground, but they were safe enough on the wide, flat Cassaline road.
Alaina suggested that they make their way back to the roadside inn they’d met her at. She even offered to pay for lodgings for the whole group. Aleksandr protested, but the priestess insisted. Yorrin was definitely going to like traveling with this woman, he could feel it.
They rode at a leisurely pace. After a while, they heard a faint snoring sound. Yorrin glanced over and saw Borthul slumped forward on his horse, clearly asleep. But the horse was unconcerned, and it followed the rest of them without difficulty or complaint.
Yorrin rode forward, sidling up to Aleksandr and Alaina. He nodded back at Borthul.
“You see that?” he said.
Aleksandr frowned. “Not safe. We should wake him.”
“Seems like his horse is used to it,” Yorrin said. “Might be fine.”
“Is not how this works, Yorrin. He could—”
“Aleksandr,” Alaina interrupted, her voice hushed to a whisper.
“What I was saying before…”
Aleksandr furrowed his brow. “About Borthul?”
“You’re worried because you believe him, somehow,” Yorrin said.
“Yes,” she agreed. “I am. The Thaumati… they were powerful beyond imagining. But that power came with terrible costs. To their bodies, to their minds, and to their souls. Ultimately, they paid a cost so great that it caused the end of their civilization.”
“Torath sent a cataclysm to wipe them out,” Yorrin said. He’d read the scriptures, and remembered the stories, now that Prudence had reminded him of what that lost civilization had been called.
“So the scripture says, yes,” Alaina said. “That may be a parable, or it may be true.”
I hear that right? Yorrin thought, stunned. Did this priestess just doubt her own holy books?
“It all happened so far back that nobody can say for sure,” Alaina said. “What we can say is that today, those that dabble with the Thaumati Words inevitably pay the same price they original men paid. The magic consumes them, destroys them. And, I have heard, it is not always confined only to them.”
Aleksandr considered this, expression pensive and thoughtful. Finally, he spoke: “You are saying that Borthul may be a danger to us. Not because of any, ah, badness on his part.”
“Ill intent,” Yorrin offered.
“Da, thank you Yorrin. Not because of any ill intent on his part. Simply because he studies these words.”
“It’s something you should be aware of, only,” Alaina said. “I believe he means well. But the things he studies were so dangerous that they destroyed a civilization far greater than ours, once.”
Yorrin looked over his shoulder, eyeing Borthul nervously. The old man was still hunched over, swaying in the saddle. He smacked his lips in his sleep.
“Thank you for the warning, Alaina,” Aleksandr said.
“I have to ask,” Yorrin said. “If you’re concerned about him… why invite him? Why bring us to him in the first place? Just to sweeten the pot?”
Alaina sighed. “No,” she said. “It’s considerably more complex than that.”
“Oh?” Aleksandr asked. “If we are to be protecting you, we should know. Da?”
“I suppose so,” she said. “For now, suffice it to say: the man I am going to replace. Father Iosif.”
“He was murdered, da?”
“Yes. Cruelly, viciously so. And the letter we received said that whoever killed him desecrated his corpse.”
Yorrin made an absent gesture, twisting his hands to simulate God encircling the world in his loving coils. A ward against evil. Alaina continued speaking.
“They carved strange symbols into his flesh,” she explained. “The correspondence I received included a drawing of the symbols.”
“These symbols,” Aleksandr said. “You recognized them?”
Alaina paused. “I did not. No.”
Oh shit,Yorrin thought. That’s not good.
Alaina’s next words were, sadly, not surprising in the least.
“Borthul recognized them,” she said. “Thaumati script, he said. For a certainty.”