The Burnt World of Athas

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Appearances

by Nightfall

The impaler buzzed as it slid through the hot desert air with deadly precision. A second lunge, then a third followed it, as Seran practised his art.

Just nearing his 17th year, he was a very strong young man. His muscles rippled as he went through the moves that his aged teacher had taught him. He was a foundling who had been found by his teacher Leras bawling in the wreck of plundered caravan. Taking the then year old Seran with him, Leras had continued his wanderings through the desert, teaching the growing child the art of the warrior, though he used more lorebooks and memories than actions to guide Seran, not being a warrior himself. In truth Seran knew not what Leras was, he simply always seemed to have what they needed with him. Leras was certainly very learned, however, as he had taught the bright and ever inquisitive Seran much, including the Common, Elven and Gith tongue, as well as valuable skills such as water finding and more arcane skills such as the ability to sense psionics, the powers of the mind so frequently employed on their harsh world of Athas.

As for Seran's own interest in such subjects, he was fascinated by the unknown and had secretly decided that when Leras died he would give up his warrior ways and devote himself to the powers of the mind, in which he already possessed the abilities of teleportation and telekinesis. He did not think he would have long to wait.

In contrast to the appearance of Seran, a man in the prime of life with long, golden hair and sky blue eyes, Leras seemed death personified. He was a very old man, with long, flowing black robes, which contrasted markedly with the green cloaks favoured by Seran, and with long grey hair. His face was pale and almost skeletal in appearance, a perfect match for the pale whiteness of the rest of his skin and his iron skullcap, a prize that had attracted the attention of more than one band of robbers. His most striking feature, however, was his eyes, which were totally black, devoid of any other color. Seran might have thought him a mage, were it not for his teachings.

Leras taught Seran much of magic. A foul practice, involving the sacrificing of all to the demands of such power, fit only for the black of heart Leras said. It was they who had reduced Athas to its current pitiful state, where once it had been paradise, and they should be killed on sight, no matter what the cost. At times Leras's black hatred for the mages frightened him, from its sheer ferocity, but he shared the hatred of the old man for such defilers of the earth, and longed to go out, a shining champion, into the world to combat such people. Unfortunately Leras would have none of it. He was a very old man, at youngest in his early 70s, but he still had enough force of personality to keep Seran at his side.

It was with all these thoughts in mind that Seran finished his exercises, adding a final emphasis to his last strokes, then placing his Impalers down on the burning sand, pausing and quickly picking them back up and returning the oasis they were stopping at. He would have to be more careful, he could not simply leave his prized bone Impalers on the sands, there were thieves about.

Found on the road to Raam, but not particularly close to any other city state, the oasis was a sorry place, more of a dirthole than anything else. The area was frequented mainly small merchant caravans and other parties who claimed to be merchants but had their statements made mockery of by the ready weapons and lack of products to trade. Seran and Leras were always careful to keep up their guard around such sorts, never showing any weaknesses, for any such signs would have led to immediate attack from the desert raiders.

He found Leras sitting at the entrance to their drab brown tent, enjoying the shade of a tree while getting his much needed rest from their journeys. Even on a kank, the perils and trials of a desert crossing could be hard on one of his age. Looking up as Seran approached, a rare smile crossed his face, as he slowly moved to greet his adopted son. 'I have news for you Seran. It will have to wait until later,' he said, motioning to the others around the oasis,anyone of whom could be listening, 'but I believe we may have found a target in our great objective.' The thought filled Seran with joy. Seran had joined Leras in the old man's goal, the erasing of all mages from the surface of Athas, joyfully when at his 16th birthday the old one had asked him whether he would be willing to. He had found, however, that there was a definite dearth of mages available for the slaughter, as those not smart enough to lay low had long since been killed by the bloodthirsty population of Athas. He moved away from Leras and began to pack away their equipment, as always, loading up their Kanks, taking down their tents and removing the tent poles, but not really paying attention to what he was doing. An actual mage! He had killed his share of desert raiders who had foolishly selected their party as prey, and was no novice to the ways of the desert hunters, but the idea of battling an actual mage sent shivers of excitement down his back. He could hardly contain himself, and was reprimanded several times by Leras, for he was making mistakes in his packing due to his lack of attention. Finally they got under way, and under the hot desert sun Leras began to explain to his foster son what he had meant by his cryptic statement.

'I believe I have finally located the keep of a mage of much power. Her name, as told to me by the locals, is Derah, and she has lived in the area for over a century. She is said to be a mage of great power and though once a great champion of good, a fighter by the name of Erylon, came all the way from Urik because he had heard of this sorcerer and entered the ruins that she is said to live in, no word was ever heard from him again. We shall see if we can do better.' Eager to learn more, Seran questioned his aged mentor. 'Where is this keep to be found? And when can we get there?' Smiling at his pupils eagerness, Leras replied 'Patience Seran. It is located no more than a days hard march from the outskirts of Raam, and we will get there within the week, though I plan to make several detours to pick up some items of interest to me.'

Three days had past, and as they drew closer to Raam they were encountering increasing traffic, merchants in their caravans, templars in their warcraft and mercenaries in their cohorts. Seran was feeling quite pleased with himself, for on their second day of travel, after Leras had made his detours, they had stopped, according to Leras, so Leras could grant him his gifts. It was still a few months until his 17th birthday, so it was with great surprise that he accepted his adopted father's gifts. These were two: a black suit of studded leather armour, and a matched pair of steel impalers, far better than the bone ones he was so used to employing. When he asked his father the reason for this sudden generosity, Leras only replied, 'I thought it only my duty to outfit you properly as you enter your first battle against the evil that taints our world. The items I have granted you are enchanted; be careful with them, but fear not, for what better way to crush evil than by its own methods?'

Finally they came in site of a small village, in truth more of a cluster of dirty huts, hardly what Seran had expected. However, once inside the village they were able to see a small forest, a sight rare anywhere but the Forest Ridge and Gulg, with a tall, white tower rising out of it. The villagers where an average lot, with a few warriors and a cleric of water among them, and they hardly bothered giving them a glance, continuing straight through the village and to the edge of the forest. Here Leras stopped; he gave a sigh and sat down on a rock found just at the edge of the greenery. 'I will wait for you here Seran. Once I would have accompanied you into evil's heart and helped you destroy it, but I am too old and would only slow you down. Strike well and rid Athas of this menace to all that is good.'

With some qualms about the safety of his foster parent, but a feeling of righteousness cursing through his veins, Seran continued into the forest. Never in his life had Seran seen such a verdant place. There were many fruit trees and plants, and he was constantly surrounded by clouds of bees, butterflies going about their business. Once he thought he heard the cough of a leopard, far off, and he was sure that he saw a tigron stalking some wild birds once. He felt a small tinge of doubt; What was a sorcerer, a mage doing among such obvious life and vitality? But he crushed it angrily. Leras had shown him that a defiler needs lifeforce to use its evil powers. That is what all this life was here for; simply as a energy source.

The forest was not endless, however. Eventually it started thinning out, and he could see that he was approaching the tower. He was surprised to see what appeared to be a garden before the tower, with row upon row of fruit trees and well ordered beds of flowers. More energy, Seran thought grimly. The tower itself was evidently part of some ancient citadel, the rest of which lay in ruins hardly visible after all these years, but the tower might as well have been built yesterday. It was carved out of white marble, as he had thought, and decorated with carvings of Tigrons, Pterraxes and many other creatures he had no name for. The entranceway itself was visible from where he was, a great gate carved with a relief of the hunting of creatures from the forest ridge and made of bronze, a fact that caused him great surprise, for such metal was in very short supply on Athas. Entranced by the spectacle of the tower, he did not notice the approach of a gardener who had been working on the magnificent display outside the tower.

'Hello stranger,' said said a voice behind him. Seran whirled around, his impalers flashing as they slid into his hands. 'Who are you?' he snarled. 'I am Erylon.' said the man. Now that Seran could see him, he could see that Erylon had the build of a fighter, dark brown hair and brown eyes. He had a wiry build and dark, tanned skin, and the look he gave Seran was friendly enough. Nonetheless, he wore a longsword of steel around his belt and looked to be the kind who knew how to use it. 'Erylon? Is the witch dead then?' As an afterthought he added, 'I am Seran.' The fighter turned gardener frowned, and his hand moved to his hilt, as he said 'There is no witch here, Seran, only my wife, the lady Derah, and you would be foolish to speak so of her.' Seran gave Erylon a closer look. Obviously the witch must have charmed him, bent him with her foul sorceries, and now controlled his mind. Sad for such a great fighter to have fallen so. Fighting his doubts down, however, he sprung forward, shouting 'You have had your mind tampered with Erylon. I will end this torment in the name of your former greatness and rid the world of she who has done this to you.'

His first impaler missed its mark, but the second cut a jagged slash down Erylon's left and unfortunately for him, sword arm. 'So be it.' said the older fighter, as he slashed out with his long sword, nicking Seran on his torso. The fight was bloody and brief. Erylon's experience was of good use to him, and he had reach on Seran, but eventually the twin blades began to tell on Erylon, who had lost much strength from the wound on his sword arm already. Finally with a lighting thrust Seran drove his impaler deep into Erylon's breast. Erylon's eyes opened wide, and he choked up some blood, and then he fell to the ground, clearly dead. his right hand was out, beseechingly it seemed, towards the tower, as if he was asking for forgiveness for his failure.

Wiping his sword on Erylon's orange-brown cloak, he suddenly felt all his doubts rush back to him. He felt an uncontrollable urge to retch, much as he had after his first battle, and he barely made it over to the nearest flower bed before he did so. His vomit spilled over a bed of red and purple flowers, breaking the pristine beauty of the forest. This was the first human he had ever killed. He was used to dealing with Gith and desert predators, but had never stricken down a fellow man, or even come to serious blows with one. What right did he have to do this to a member of his race? For that matter, how did he know that this truly was the abode of a witch? He had no doubts about his foster father, or so he told himself, but even Leras might have been given incorrect information, or simply been overeager in his fanaticism to destroy the defilers of the earth.

Suddenly a sudden strength poured into him, seeming almost to radiate from his black armour and steel impalers. His doubts were foolish he realised. He had never known his father to be wrong, and surely he was not wrong this time. And, he added grimly to himself, he well knew what such people did to the earth. He pressed onward, pushing aside the last few branches in his path, which oddly seemed almost like they were trying to hold him back, and strode briskly into the tower's entrance. Behind him vines emerged from the ground, quickly covering up the old warrior's body, and above his heart a single rose grew, red as the blood nurturing the new grown vines.

The first room he entered appeared to be a simple cloakroom, as shown by the various items of apparel scattered about it. It was in the simple white stone of the outside of the tower, with a single connection to the rest of the rooms in the tower, a spiral staircase leading up. After careful examination of the few items in the room, from which he gained nothing, he decided to proceed up the stairs, seeing no other recourse.

The second room was more in line with what he had expected. Spellbooks with dark blue covers and gold bindings mixed with various dangerous-looking or bubbling substances, though a closer look revealed that most were fairly commonplace natural substances, a rack containing a staff and a second longsword, which Seran presumed belonged to Erylon, and a perch for an eagle. The creature in question was crouched in a corner of the room giving him a wary look. Trying to free the creature, Seran advanced on it, intent on removing it from this sorcerous lab. He found to his dismay that this was no easy thing, for the eagle was quick and not interested in been rescued. When he finally thought he had it cornered it made a desperate leap and escaped out a small window in one side of the room, screaming its alarm as it went. He wondered why it had not escaped through that exit before, but finally shrugged his shoulders and decided that it would have to be more dark sorcery.

A few of his doubts came back, however, when he examined the bookshelves and found them to of simple wood, unadorned and rough in form, and saw that most of the books were not in fact books of magic but books detailing various natural features and creatures. His doubts vanished, however, with another surge of strength similar to the first one. He continued up the spiral staircase to the next floor.

On the third and last floor he emerged into what appeared to be some sort of scrying room. The walls were painted pastel blue and a large pool of water with several extremely rare forms of fish in it dominated the centre of the room. There were two side rooms, visible through great open archways that seemed to let cool air into the otherwise stale room. When he entered the left sideroom he found what appeared to be a dining room. A large portion of the wall had had some sort of spell cast on it that rendered it as transparent as glass, though his tests showed it retained its strength, and it offered a spectacular view of the area. The walls here were the same pastel blue as the main room and a table with two chairs facing the window were the only furniture in the room. The spell-window having erased any doubts about the woman said to be inhabiting here he proceeded to the last room, sure that he would catch her there and filled with strength and courage for this total confrontation with evil.

He found the last chamber to be a sleeping room. In a double bed with pastel green covers a middle aged woman was sleeping, with raven dark hair and an extremely fair complexion. His look around the room revealed nothing but several practice weapons, obviously Erylon's, and another staff of wood. He moved to the bed and stood poised, impaler in hand above the sleeping witch. Her face was lined with the sorrows of age, but most of the wrinkles were caused by smiles, not frowns. His blade hovered above her as he pondered what to do. This was a wonderful and completely unforeseen opportunity. Why was he not taking it? He thought about it, and various bits of evidence came up to haunt him. The eagle's presence, the forest, the staffs of wood and all other items in the area of the tower he would have thought consistent with a druid, not a mage. Erylon's dedication and sacrifice of his life for his mate could indicate enchantment, but it could also be a sign of love. In truth, when he thought about it, his only reasons for being sure of his course was the old man's teachings and his own fanaticism. Slowly, carefully, fighting himself all the way, he lowered his blades. This was not right. He could not, would not go through with this act. Suddenly he felt another surge of strength and fanaticism, this time clearly stemming from the armour. He just managed to turn his blade before impact, pinning part of the bedsheets to his bed. So this was why his doubts had been so easily tossed aside during his quest! The armour was enchanted all right, but not in the benevolent way that Leras had told him it was. Filled with guilt he ripped off the armour and tossed down his blades, then fled from the tower.

A much calmer Seran left the opposite side of the forest, carrying his old bone blades and wearing his plain hide armour. He had concluded that the woman of the tower must be half-elven, for he knew that other races had different ways of learning and often followed many paths at the same time and the combination of magic and spellbooks with nature and woodlands led him to suspect that the "witch" had in fact been a druid/mage. Leras had evidently given him the armour to make sure he finished the job if he faltered in his determination. Seran did not think him truly evil, simply misguided and driven to extreme composites of the attitudes toward mages that infected much of Athasian society. He still knew little of what real mages were like, but he was willing to learn. Leras had once spoken of a cult of evil known as the veiled alliance, found within the city-states of the sorcerer-kings. He would go to Raam and try to locate and learn from this organisation. Perhaps his destiny lay in the path of a mage. In any case, he was done with his foster father. He could see now the ignorance and hatred mixed with fanaticism that had driven Leras to his quest. But he would leave such feelings to Leras; he had a feeling that other things were in store for him.
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