Crossing into another realm was child’s play for Eliden Theorycrafter. He had been a Chronicler for the Academie Dimenssionae for most of his life, much like his young assistant, Pasho. Unlike her, he served this role for far longer, and one of the first spells in his extensive arsenal was what had come to be called “Portal.” An incantation that most wizened members of the academy learned in their apprenticeship.
Time was a strange concept for Chroniclers, who traversed the multiplicity and the temporal so often that such scientific theory no longer applied to them. Men and women like Eliden only counted their life by experiences. Eliden the Green had experienced much more than most of his colleagues. He had a snobbish disdain for the concept of Time.
The three travelers appeared in a plaza, standing upon the broken stone of a desolate city. High buildings surrounded them on all sides, with little more than avenue entrances to the four cardinal directions as means of escape. Theorycrafter frowned, a tremble running down his spine. His eldritch senses so tuned to the cosmic that this place unnerved him.
“This is wrong,” He muttered to himself before Pasho Pyr could even recover her wits from the transposition.
Grokthnar the Hobgoblin grunted behind them. His jowled, saggy face mirrored the elder mage’s expression. Intuitive was the third word most described Hobs by. The first being “slovenly” and the second “stupid.” Even so, that third word was most important. Grok felt the unease.
“Where are we?” Pasho inquired, gazing up with eyes of constant wonder at the great fountain before them.
It was a perfect circle of stones, speckled with beautiful flowers the likes of which she had never seen before. Ornate, intricate petals in full bloom spread out from wisping stalks amidst the spouted water that had once ruptured up from the center column of the fountain by design. The trouble was, the water was still. Not stagnant, frozen. Each burst of liquid came to a frothing head that reached for the blue sky and stuck there, impotent.
“Eliden?” Pasho asked, looking to her companion for answers without asking a question.
“It’s wrong,” Theorycrafter replied, taking a single step forward in the bright sunshine. He lifted a hand, waving across himself, then turned to thrust the open palm toward her. “Look.”
There, upon his hand, was an accumulation of dust as if he’d swiped it across a surface that had not been cleaned in years. Pasho’s button nose wrinkled under the frame of her spectacles.
“What does it mean?”
“Much as I loathe saying it…Time has ceased here.”
Pasho’s brown eyes blinked, her mind trying to grapple with the information presented.
“How can that be? Time is…”
“Inconsequential to us,” Eliden reiterated as he often did, but his tone was dark and his mood darker still. “Still, the flow of chronological time in this place has ceased. What you understand as linear time, the progression of deteriorating in contrast to decay; has stopped. Here, nothing lives nor dies. Nothing moves nor remains still. It simply -does nothing-.”
Pasho looked away from the man, observing the still fountain before her. Her eyes lifted, looking to the puffy white and gray clouds overhead that hung in exact position. She squinted at a small object, letting out a shriek that she stifled with hands clasped over her mouth.
Eliden faced the subject of her fright, finding a single avian creature’s skeletal remains rooted in the air. Even those hollow bones were decomposing to dust. Half its frame rotted away.
“...no, it’s not Time then. Something else entirely,” Eliden surmised, disturbed but not so much that he would lose all sense of composure.
Pasho was not so strong-willed. Panic gripped her heart and mind. It turned her breath shallow and rapid with the thrum of her heart’s frightened beating.
“W-we should go. Eliden, I want to go now. Summon the portal. Eliden, please!”
Grokthnar growled low behind them, mirroring the girl’s sentiment. “Bad place…”
“We will do no such thing. This land has experienced a profound failure of physics, by magic or nature. It is our duty to understand it,” Eliden stated , only recognizing the girl’s distress when he set his gaze upon her.
“Pasho…look at me.”
She did so, her eyes wide like saucers and seeming to bulge behind the glass lenses before them.
“I am moving,” he said, rocking back and forth. “I am in motion, I am speaking, I am fine. And so are you.”
Pasho blinked owlishly only once.
Eliden the Green approached her then, holding his hands out. “Come. Come.”
In a flash, the girl in her aesilk-infused brown robe slammed into him. A broken cry slipped from her lips.
Eliden folded his arms around the girl, rocking her as he rocked himself. “There we are. See? Whatever inertial disruption cursed this land has no effect on us. Be not afraid,” he told her, rewarded by the steadying inhales of air that came from Pasho next.
Something heavy brushed against him, large and soft like weak rubber. Eliden lifted his head and peered over Pasho’s mop of mousey brown hair. He found Grokthnar’s pudgy face mere inches away. The Hob mewled its discomfort too.
“Yes, yes. You too, Grokko,” Eliden said with a smile, unwinding the nearest limb from the girl to hold it open to the Hob. “Sway with us, you’ll see.”
Grok pressed its rough cheek against Eliden’s arm like a bear seeking tactile assurance. Instead of swaying, the bent-down Hob wobbled his massive rear about behind him.
“Good lad, Good lad,” Theorycrafter praised. “We’re all alright.”
Soon, Pasho disconnected herself from the earthy-scented wizard and his long green sleeves. She took tentative steps away like a foal learning to walk. With each pause in her steps, she kept swaying to remind herself that she was not frozen like everything else here.
And then, Grokthnar sneezed.
A stream of snot slapped on the stones. The Hob had politely thrown its head aside before the tickling of his nose overwhelmed him. The thick expulsion syruped the walkway behind Eliden, but the green wizard was unaware.
Pasho spun about, looking to her mentor, who gazed upon the perimeter of rainbow flowers. “What?”
Eliden walked toward the rim, bending down close to the silky-looking blooms. He drew in a deep breath, then blew the air out towards one.
It swayed, petals ruffling.
“HAH! Look at that!” Eliden cried next as Pasho rushed to his side.
“That it did! Which explains the thriving vegetation, untouched by the entropic halt. I must then theorize that this effect is magical and not natural. And if it’s magical…?” He trailed off, looking to Pasho to finish his thought. A teachable moment.
“...it…has a source! And if it has a source, we can deactivate it!!” She cried out, jumping up beside the man.
“Top marks, as always,” Eliden encouraged. “The trouble will be in the finding. It could be a hanging enchantment, an artifact, or sustained spellcasting. Each of which comes with its own significant perils.”
“But we can fix it, can’t we?” Pasho pleaded, knowing that Eliden’s stance of observation would start an argument.
“Yes. We can.”
Those three words slapped her. She’d never fathomed his agreement.
“Really. If you would be so kind, please examine the buildings around us with Grok. Lean into your aetheric senses, Pasho. Feel the resonant energy or in this case, the empty lack. Hopefully, you’ll be able to notice a magical presence when it nears your radius.”
“What are you going to do?” Pasho said, balking at the prospect of going alone. Grok didn’t count. The Hob couldn’t fit inside these buildings with her, which meant she would be going alone for the most part.
“In the event that the magic curse’s source is not near, I shall attempt divination," Eliden stated, turning to the Hob.
“Grok. Down, please. I must collect the required equipment.”
Grokthnar nodded, flabby cheeks bobbing. It crouched down and then lowered its rump to the stone to sit so the mage could rummage through the endless pockets and packs upon its back.
“With luck, we can return this place to its natural order…” Eliden mumbled. He unstrapped clasps and spelunked within the various receptacles like a small monkey picking insects out of a gorilla’s back fur. Only these were relics and alchemical components, not ticks and lice.
Pasho stood idle, breathing slow and steady to keep herself calm. The solemn silence of the city center was unnerving. The sound of her inhaling through her nose and then blowing that breath out filled the space around her with noise. Eliden’s foraging added to the comfort of activity that we humans are accustomed to.
When finished, the green-frocked man circled around the large Hob, offering a firm pat to Grok’s arm as he passed. Pasho watched him walk toward the fountain’s decrepit stones. Stones not unlike the stone the surrounding buildings were made of.
When he set down his supplies and settled onto his rear to begin, the girl finally began to move. She found more comfort in motion. Pasho walked across the cobblestones to a building to their right, starting her investigation. Behind her, Grokthnar grunted and hoisted himself up to follow. The heavy thump of his bare feet encouraged her.
Drawing closer, she found that structure to be a shop. Its old door locked. It took little pressure to snap the wood when she pushed. The rectangular door broke at the lock as if it were nothing more than sawdust. It creaked, threatening to come free of its hinges as she pushed it open. She chose not to risk breaking it further and slid into the opening to get inside.
The darkness was foreboding, a menacing unknown. Yet, the girl continued on her mission. There was a palpable stench inside the room. Large bay windows afforded some natural light in what appeared to be a bakery. Woven baskets were filled with rotten breads, yet no insects were present to feast. Everything was molded by time and decayed. Even the colorful cloth set underneath the baskets was fraying, shrinking away to nothing.
Grok’s massive head appeared in the great window outside, peering in. He smiled at Pasho when he spied her, and the girl felt more comfort in that. She smiled back, strained as it was. Something about the Hob bent peeking at her like a child sneaking about lifted Pasho’s spirits. She pointed upward with a finger. Indicating her course after she noticed a doorway at the back of the bakery to reach the second floor.
Ascending alone brought new unease, yet she persisted up the stairs. Each step creaked under her. A trembling hand grasped the railing for support, just in case. Now, sound frightened her, where minutes before, it was a comfort.
The stairs emptied into a hallway of doorless frames into smaller rooms. Pasho proceeded along its old wooden floor to the first and peered around its frame inside. She shrieked, clapping her hands over her mouth once more. Across the small, furnished bedroom of a wood dresser, end table, and bed lay a body within. It was curled up under a decayed blanket and shaped like a small child. She dared not draw closer. Fear held her.
A sad groan erupted behind her. Pasho shrieked again, whirling about to look through the opposite entranceway. She found Grok's sorrowed, jowled face looking in through the second-floor window. The Hob was forlorn. She could see the droop of his eyelid as he saw much the same as her. In that bedroom, two forms lay huddled together under a much similar blanket on the rotting bed there.
Pasho stepped closer, hovering in that door frame. Her eyes began to burn with salty tears. She stared at the larger bundle upon that bed, imagining truth.
“They died sleeping,” she told herself, more reassured herself. Eliden would need to know for certain. Pasho summoned what dwindling courage she had and approached that bed. She hesitated at its side, drawing a breath to steady herself. Gingerly, the girl reached out and pulled back the bedspread.
She regretted it and turned away. Her stomach lurched, and she thought she might vomit. There under the folds, were two corpses, laid in a cuddle. There was little left of them, more skeleton than a body. Bits of undeteriorated flesh and dried viscera filled the voids between their bones.
Grokthnar mewled outside the window. The Hob laid its wide mitts upon the outer stone and leaned in to press his eye to the glass that gave him access. Pasho agreed with him, draping the cloth back over the dead respectfully. Her exploration of this home yielded no insights, only sadness. A once happy home, by the looks of it, now stolen of the lives that made it joyful.
She escaped the bakery of death then, rushing to push between the broken door and its frame. Pasho heaved air in the sunshine, unaware of her held breath until she made it out. Grokthnar trundled to her side, lowering himself to a crouch that made him shorter. Still, he loomed over the girl.
“Why dead?” Grok rumbled.
“I don’t know,” Pasho replied, though her voice croaked between the rise of bile she felt inside. Her gaze steadied as she looked for Eliden ahead.
Eliden Theorycrafter was deep in divination by then. His physical form settled in a lotus position before the small altar he had formed. A clay bowl of fresh water sat before him, a gilded cross on a stand behind it. Two tallow candles burned on either side. In front of the clay bowl burned a patch of some herb and a salted fish from their stock of travel food.
The green wizard’s shape was incorporeal, hazy like seen through the distortion of heat in a desert. He flickered as if in a state of quantum fluctuation with his eyes closed. His palms pressed together penitently before him. Only his lips moved, murmuring the incantation that allowed him to seek guidance. Pasho found divination to be strange for a timeless agency, given Eliden’s disdain for the concept of Time. She assumed the elder would find religious Faith absurd too.
She was wrong.
Eliden’s pressed palms opened, and he closed the fingers of his right hand, thumb still extended. That digit performed a small motion at his forehead, drawn down then across its own line. He repeated the gesture at his lips, then finally at his chest. Each left a mote of abnormal light in its wake. Three small stars soon faded away. His form coalesced, becoming solid again.
Eliden the Green leaned back wearily then, his spellcasting ended. Pasho rushed for him, fearing he might faint. Grokthnar thundered behind her. The two found him hail and hearty when they reached him, breathing deep as if recovering from heavy exertion.
“Are you alright?” Pasho asked, her smooth, heart-shaped face creased with worry.
Eliden nodded, silent until he had recovered his air.
Grokthnar picked at one of his pouches, tugging a waterskin free by its corked top. The Hob dangled that tiny skin between his finger and thumb within Eliden’s reach.
“Thank you, Grok,” the wizard croaked, his throat dry. He took the skin in hand, unstoppered it, and drank his fill while Pasho fretted.
“Ahh. That’s better. No doubt, you found death in every room you visited…” Eliden began anew, invigorated.
“How did you know?”
“Divination is a harsh ritual, though it yields vast insights. My mind scattered on the four winds, reaching in all directions as far as it could without shattering completely. I was there, with you, when you found the boy and his parents above the bakery…”
Pasho’s eyes widened behind her spectacles. She had not sensed her mentor. She had to admit, though, that she was so focused on her fear that she hadn’t been openly sensing anything at the time.
“Did you find the source of this curse?”
“No,” Eliden admitted, disappointment in his tone. “Only this one town has been affected thus far. The surrounding villages are alive and well. Albeit terrified. They avoid this region completely. They have no understanding of the danger.”
“The curse spreads. Given freedom, it will eventually encompass this world entirely.”
Pasho gasped. Her heart failed to beat regularly.
“...and we too will fall prey to it as well. All the more reason to locate the source quickly.” Eliden warned next, loathe to frighten his companion further.
Grokthnar moaned. He didn’t want to be halted.
“Without knowing its origin, I can only try a Fidei Puritas to counteract it. If the curse is strong and rooted deep, I may not succeed,” Eliden explained further.
“We should leave,” Pasho said softly, fear overtaking her. She watched the green wizard shake his head.
“And doom this world? Not yet. Not while there is hope. A Fidei Puritas would normally be performed by congregation, yet I fear there’s no time to cajole the villages surrounding us to come together. I must try alone.”
“If a spell that powerful requires many, how do you expect to gather the required energy on your own??” Pasho cried out, clasping her hands together in front of her so she wouldn’t strangle the man for being ridiculous.
“Crystal Power,” Eliden answered her passively. “Do you remember when we witnessed Thainsfall? The city where he fell was so advanced that its people had learned to store vast energies in compact crystalline structures to power their automated servants. We collected three of their crystals for study. I feel this may be a far more worthy use for them.”
“Untested power? That’s your plan?! You don’t know what will happen when you tap them, Eliden!” Pasho’s voice raised higher, the fear of the curse compounded by the fear of Eliden’s untimely demise. “Garrick Thain used those crystals to augment himself beyond human capacity! If that boy had not plunged him into the magma he created, the fool would have exploded and destroyed the city, if not the entire continent! And YOU! You want to do the same thing.”
“What choice do we have? Enervation creeps inside us already.”
Pasho’s hands flashed about, arms waving wildly. “You can’t! What good does it do if we stop the curse only for you to blow everything up after?!”
“There is that, yes,” Eliden conceded with a shrug. “It’s not the most sound plan. I see little option otherwise.”
Grokthnar roared then. A resounding “No!” that shook the very foundations as its resonance echoed. Both mages were startled, ceasing their argument. They looked up at the Hob, who ran away from them like a grief-stricken babe.
“NO SPLODE! NO!” Grok bellowed angrily, crashing bare feet through the pretty flowers and stuck water spouts of the gorgeous fountain.
With a primal scream, the Hob lashed out as Hobs often do when riled. His mighty fist decked the first thing in reach, the fountain’s spire. Grok’s wild haymaker ripped through the water, parting it without much resistance, for it was water after all. He struck the obelisk behind the still curtain, and the force knocked the askew. It cracked and bent, then leaned further on unstable mooring and fell opposite their position.
A glow arose from the shattered base. Eliden’s eyes brightened, sensing magick. Pasho felt it too. Even Grok felt it with his natural instincts. His fury stolen and replaced with natural curiosity instead. The Hob looked down, his pockmarked face screwed up to the side. He made an inquisitive sound, something like an owl’s hoot only rumbled from the breast of a giantkin that didn’t know what he was doing.
Eliden lept to his feet, grasping Pasho by the lapel fold of her robe. “Quickly!” He cried out, yanking the shocked woman with him as he darted over his divination altar and splashed into the fountain’s pool.
Pasho yelped, a sudden offense at being grabbed and pulled at. She stumbled over the perimeter stone and almost fell face-first into the water if Eliden had not still had hold of her. Instead, she flopped down and hung above the still surface he crashed through. The girl blinked up at him with his fistful of her aesilk augmented robe. “ELIDEN!!”
Eliden’s footfalls had parted the water, leaving it oddly void in the space where his boot fell. How does one describe walking through mud that doesn’t congeal and surge back into the space it was forced from? The pool spread away from his boot’s impact and stayed there, like Eliden’s foot was Moses and it was the red sea.
Pasho’s legs did the same thing, and the girl swatted at her mentor’s hands anxiously.
“Let go!” She cried until he did, only recognizing that she should’ve righted herself first. She splashed into the pool, and the water spread again. Pasho lay in a Pasho-shaped hole in the pool now. She huffed irritably as Eliden left her there.
“What this?” Grok asked, pointing a calloused, knobby finger down at a golden ring with a pale purple stone set in its fore. The ring was lodged in what had been the pipe of the fountain’s spire.
Pasho worked herself around so she could stand, trying not to disturb the already disturbing waters around her. She wasn’t sure why. It just seemed right not to touch the fragile, stuck surfaces and panes of water around her.
“What? What is it?”
When she came to Eliden’s side, beholding the glowing ring, Pasho frowned at it. Eliden chuckled first, the sound rising from a disbelieving elation to ridiculous laughter at Pasho’s side.
Pasho scowled. “Stop being insane and tell me!”
“A ring of slow fall. It’s…a bloody ring of slow fall…” Eliden chortled. “A blasted, simple, enchanted ring of God forsaken SLOW FALL!”
The green wizard slapped himself in the face, jumping over the broken pedestal stub. “That’s absurd! A ring of slow fall wouldn’t have the range nor capacity to affect an entire city without…a…”
He fell silent.
Pasho tensed. “Eliden? Without what?” She asked tentatively, taking her time to slog through the abnormal water to circle the broken spire’s base and see what he was distracted by now.
Eliden stared at the knocked-down column, tucking his hands into his frock pockets. Pasho knew that meant he felt no danger anymore, which didn’t mean they weren’t IN danger. It only meant that Theorycrafter no longer felt threatened.
“Look,” he said.
Pasho inspected the column. She saw symbols carved into its faces that were once obscured by the curtain of stopped water before.
“...is that a sustaining spell?” She asked breathlessly.
“It is,” Eliden concurred. “No doubt not meant to activate or power any magickal artifacts. Probably meant as a gesture of prolonged good fortune for the city. This…blasted ring must’ve traveled the piping and gotten lodged at the base of the spire. Once there, the spell activated it and…froze everything that moved in place.”
“No…,” Pasho gasped for the third time. “So it’s not a curse, just…circumstance?”
“The multiplicity is full of circumstance, Pasho.”
“Yeah, but really? How can you possibly imagine an enchanted ring getting caught in this fountain, this exact fountain with this exact spell carved into it?”
Eliden shrugged. “How does one predict a flowerpot knocked off a windowsill? How does one predict cancerous growth? There is probability, and there is chaos. This…is chaos at work. Nothing more.”
Grok grumbled. “Ring bad?”
“Yes, Grokko. Ring bad. The ring has caused this disturbance, though your tantrum has solved it for us. With the spire broken, the sustaining enchantment is ended. Time, for lack of a better word, should assert its dominance over force motion rather quickly, I sus-”
Water splooshed in around their feet, soaking the leathers and filling the spaces within their shoes. Grok’s bare feet were wetted, and he looked down with a grin.
The Hob laughed. “Feet wet! Feels good…”
Pasho’s left eye twitched, her shoes now full of water like Eliden’s. She didn’t like it nearly as much as Grok.
The purple stoned ring was propelled by the sudden rush of freed water up from the pipe. It danced through the bubbling liquid that carried it down into the pool. A skeletal bird dropped out of the sky beyond the rim, shattering on the cobblestones. A breeze blew through the town center, rustling what was left of the rainbow flowers after Grokthnar’s charge through them. Motion returned to the broken fountain.
“Well, all in a day’s work then,” Eliden concluded, turning around to slosh back toward his divination altar.
“SERIOUSLY?! MY FEET ARE SOAKED!” Pasho yowled behind him, throwing her head back angrily.
Grokthnar continued to giggle, happily wiggling his toes in the cool, flowing water.
“They will dry, Pasho,” Eliden replied behind her, moving further and further from slapping range.
“UGGGGGH!” The girl unleashed, spinning around to stalk after the man through the fountain’s pool. “All these people are dead, Eliden. What about them?”
Eliden stopped at the rim, his back to Pasho, which gave her abrupt pause. She didn’t see the flicker of sorrow in the green wizard’s eyes when he considered her question. All she saw was his broad, green frocked back and the breeze rustling through his hair.
She did hear him speak, though.
“What about them?”
The question hit Pasho in the gut. There was nothing to be done about the dead. Chaos had murdered them with chance. Long dead before she, Eliden, and Grokthnar ever stepped foot in the blighted city. All anger fled Pasho, replaced with an impotent sadness. The grief of one capable of so many great things, but not bringing back the dead.
Eliden lifted a hand, wiping a stray tear that formed in his right eye away.
“Come along, my friends,” Eliden Theorycrafter said next. “Let us gather our things and be on our way.” His voice was firm, uplifting even as he reached into the interior of his open robe. Eliden withdrew a small, leather-bound tome from its dedicated pocket. He opened it to the first page, looking over its contents.
“We’re expected on Gerez’tuul, Harkavy Dynasty. Oh, this should be fun. It’s an advanced civilization period for that orb. Should be lots of amazing things to observe there. New Technologies, New Sciences. Always fascinating, advanced cultures. So many curious things to eat…”
Grokthnar threw his long arms up with cheer. “YAY!”
Pasho giggled, shaking her head. She couldn’t resist the guilt. Yet, there was comfort in Eliden being Eliden, and she chose to embrace that feeling instead. The purple stoned ring bobbed in the newly flowing pool, bumping against her boot.
Pasho Pyr bent down and picked it up.