Castellum

By Kevin Freeman Fiery ashes rained down from a bubbling mass of night black clouds against an azure sky. The storm had many oddities, but perhaps the most prominent of them was that it seemed to be focused solely upon the flat top of a lone, black peak that loomed high above the towering mountains below, and the foothills and plains directly underneath the host’s majestic gaze. Mount Castellum was more than a natural mountain, of course. According to rumor, the Archmage, Allal Trinstaff, greatest of the line of magi to have walked the lands of Astrum, had raised the massive pyramid-mountain from deep within the earth to stand as a beacon of peace in the midst of a cacophony of human nations who had previously known nothing more than war after bloody war since time beyond recall. Now, barely more than a half millennium since that sad night, the city of Castellum boiled over with human people who appeared to have lost their senses as they fled in every direction. The skies above the mountain burst with rage, casting down a deadly rain of brimstone, fire, and ashen rock, and all who still lived sought fast escape.

Those who left the city wearing the holy robes of the Magi walked calmly through the city gates - most with obvious reluctance - although dirty tears streaked through the filth caked on their stoic faces and soiled robes. But the mortals among them ran wildly from the fiery storm, carrying or dragging screaming children through shattered crystal streets as they frantically sought escape from the coming doom. Toward the boundaries of the city, where no one but a mage could grant passage to the human cities across the raging seas far below, milling crowds filled with forlorn faces seemed not to see those unfortunate dead lying scattered in the streets here and there, or the city block-sized craters, still smoking and blackened, where thriving marketplaces and beautiful mansions used to be. The people seemed not to see anything at all with their distant stares, and who could blame them? Who would want to see such proclamations of death and misery? At the east end of the Castellum, very near one of the only two exit points from the mountain top, most of the fiery storm raining down from above seemed to stop just shy of the crowd’s heads, where a hazily transparent dome swirled and bulged with every strike, but never quite failed completely. Those underneath it stared upward in horrified fascination as their

own sky tried to sear and crush them beneath the powerful torrent. In between staring upward, the crowds still managed to shuffle forward as quickly as the heat and great numbers would allow. The refuge they sought lay at the end of the torturous lines in the form of a long, sleek steel-and-glass tube that everyone called the Jin Ta. Passengers quickly filed in through its doors, and once all were properly seated, a solid metal wall suddenly sat where the doors once had been. There had been no movement; they simply were not there in one blink, but there in the next. Without a moment’s hesitation, the Jin Ta leapt forth, hurtling itself up and out over the sheer edge of the monstrous mountain, where it gathered furious speed as it shot downward, never moving an inch closer or farther away from the track beneath it as it traveled. The obsidian line the track stretched away as far as the eye could see, wrapping smoothly around and through the face of land and sea on a perfectly straight course, floating on water, first warm crystal blue, then the cold black deeps, then murky pink and orange shallows lapping at the clay shores. With practiced ease, the track split its way through large hills and smaller mountains rather than wasting the effort in a climb, and tunneled through the dark and wet caverns

beneath the largest mounts and fire spewing behemoths. On and on it went, bridging massive fertile valleys, treacherously hot sandy deserts, and barely cooler rocky red chasms, finally crossing the great deeps of the haunted seas until its path wrapped perfectly straight around the face of the human world to return to its very beginning, where it fairly rocketed up the western slopes of its sheer mountain home, ever losing speed and strength as it climbed, until it gently eased into its western bay for the barest of moments before making the return voyage. Thankfully, the Jin Ta wasn’t travelling so far today. Each load of passengers only flew as far as the nearest station, a mere 25 miles – taking less than a minute for its trouble – from the foot of the holy mountain, where its passengers quickly filed out of door openings that no one could say were there only a moment ago. The Jin Ta was perhaps this world’s greatest marvel, yet even it could only carry a limited number, leaving uncountable crowds in the fiery heights above with each passage before leaping forth in haste to make the small return trip under the careful guidance of its azure-robed pilots. Exhausted magi lay in clustered heaps on eastern station benches and chairs – some even laying flat on their backs in the grassy areas off to the sides of the endless lines. One particularly

elderly mage propped himself up on an ancient black staff, shaky fingers extended before a brilliant white portal, leading to unknown destinations. After the passage of only a few, the portal would collapse, and the mage would sigh, quite obviously exhausted beyond his limits, but just as obviously refusing to give in to his fatigue. Reaching forth yet again, the portal blazed into existence in the same place, and this time nearly twenty scrambled through before it snapped shut again, halting its collapse for the barest moment to avoid severing the girl’s leg as she cleared the narrow opening, then vanishing in a crackle of pink and red electricity. The elder finally collapsed in a heap, staff clattering to the smooth stone walkway at the same moment that his head hit with a sickening watermelon thud. The crowds had already forgotten their would-be savior, leaving the mage’s frail body where it lay in a growing pool of blood as they scrabbled and clawed their way back toward the Jin Ta platform. In the center of the city, atop a large temple courtyard situated on the tallest structure in the city, Allal Trinstaff, the ancient and revered Kalamagus – elder mage, in the spirit tongue – sat quietly, almost reverently, in a deep state of trance as the horrible chaos took its course around him. Not even his own disciples could understand the death-like quiet

that had overtaken him, and few could even guess at his reasoning for staying behind. With the exception of the Council of Truth’s members, Trinstaff had ordered Castellum to be completely evacuated, down to the last living animals in the city. The Council, however, had been the first to flee, not even bothering to take their possessions or servants with them before they disappeared into the night. Cowards though they were, their undeniable skills might have been useful in the coming trial. With the knowledge that he could not spare a single thought on such trivial things as sadness or loss, Trinstaff only sat, watching his beloved children depart, and though there was not a hint of wetness in his ancient eyes, he wept bitterly in his own way as each new explosion destroyed another piece of his precious city, laid out far below him. This was not to have been Castellum’s fate in the world! This was not the utopian vision that had burned itself into his mind when he raised the first foundation stones from deep within the earth, twisting and shaping each piece into the very temple on which he now sat. A sudden gust of cold mountain air caused his snowy white robes to billow out like the wings of a bird taking flight. The chilly

torrent ruffled through his long, white beard and set his bushy eyebrows to fluttering. In his trance, he barely noticed any of it. It seemed that the hair on his head had undertaken its own flight over the course of his two-thousand-odd years; the whole of it had fled the exposed heights of his skull and settled into the many folds and creases of his chin and cheeks. The result was a bit comical when his long beard fluttered around in the wind to curl upward behind his completely bald head, resting for a moment in the semblance of a silly-looking toupee before falling back to its proper place. As he sat in the midst of the tempest that assaulted his fair city, the same fiery missiles and white-hot bolts of lightning exploded all around him, smashing statues and flagstones to bits and raining smoking-hot debris in every direction. When the missiles or fragments came near Trinstaff, though, they always seemed to miss him by a fraction of an inch, or occasionally passed through his body without notice. He knew that he must focus his energies far beyond what should have been possible if he hoped to harness the power required to restrain the largest Nusquam assault force ever assembled. The dark armies were to assault the human world directly this time, and if they succeeded in completing the Truth Council’s

foolhardy bore, every human world through the whole Astrum plane would soon resemble his own precious, dying city. For at least the tenth time, Allal considered asking his Jadestone elder disciples to stay with him to aide his efforts. Again, he rejected the thought, knowing that such a request would be a death sentence for all magi. His visions had been clear upon that point. May the Council of Truth rot for all eternity! He thought, losing his focus for an instant before regaining it again. Brisk footsteps echoed through the high-ceilinged marble corridors leading back into the temple, and with them came a tall figure swathed in midnight robes that swirled about calmly in the raging wind. As the figure’s dark shape emerged onto the great flagstones where the ancient now meditated, explosions and missiles simply vanished as they came near him. He slowed his steps, obviously lost in thought and muttering to himself, then shaking his head before straightening in determination and crossing the courtyard to stand just shy of the ancient. Allal did not spare the energy to even turn his head toward his most beloved student, sending his thoughts directly into his mind instead.

You will not stand here with me, Sendar, my son. This task is far beyond your ability. Perhaps it is even beyond my own, but I must stop this madness now or die in the attempt. Sendar’s dark robes suddenly whipped in the furious wind hard enough to make him take a step backward. The action seemed to accentuate his master’s projected thoughts by directing him toward the corridors from which he had come. Straining to stand upright in the torrent, his response was but a whisper, but he knew that his master could discern his thoughts as clearly as he had projected his own. “I will not let you die alone, Kalamagus. You are a fool to attempt this unaided. What do you hope to accomplish by dying? Humanity and your disciples will die if we do not stop the Nusquam here today. Why do you dishonor me by sending me away?” You must be dishonored for the sake of our brethren, Sendar! Without you to lead them, they will be scattered to the seven winds and hunted down by the humans who already blame them for this curse. I have seen it in the mists of Panton. They will be lost, and our sacred art will be lost with them, perhaps never to return. My place is here, entrapping the unholy creatures as I can. You must become the mortar that binds them to each other, lest these thousand years and more that we have worked become

nothing more than ashen memories in the wind. Your soul was saved long ago from the taint that once marred it. Many of their souls have not. I have not the energy for this, and will argue no more! Take my love with you, my son, and be gone from this place. The black robed mage looked surprised as he suddenly grew transparent, fading into the ether, but before he had gone completely, he left his own thoughts to speak themselves to his master. The world will be damned if you fail, Kalamagus! I will be damned. This I have seen even more clearly than your own visionsThe thought was gone, but the ancient knew that Sendar would spend every bit of his more than considerable energy to stand here with his master and fight to the death. Though Trinstaff himself was far more knowledgeable in the ways of magi, it was well within Sendar’s ability to find his way back before all was decided. Incongruously, a lonesome tear made its way down the stone face of the ancient mage. His own death meant nothing to him; his spirit would pass easily into the light-filled mists on the plains of Panton, which he likely knew better than the human worlds in Astrum. He could dwell in Panton for an eternity -

long after the shell of his body had withered to less than dust and ashes - leaving guiding thoughts and messages for the disciples who sought his wisdom there. As the Creator wills, all things will be. I have done what I am able to do. Still, he bowed his head in silent prayer once more, pleading for another way. Allal stared hard into the sunset, feeling the warmth of its light as it passed under the edge of the storm before plunging into the dark waters below. He knew that it would be his last. When the last glow of evening had descended beneath the grasslands on the horizon, a darkness even deeper than the night seemed to rise up from the earth beneath his fair city. The twisted skies above him suddenly ceased their belching of fire and lightning, and even the raging clouds, dark and swollen in their fury, suddenly froze in place like a vast painting, made by an artist who couldn’t possibly understand the laws of nature. Even the smoky clouds of dust and debris seemed to find sudden purchase in the air, ceasing all movement and simply hovering in place. An eerie sense of wrongness crept slowly over the city, and it seemed as though all things had suddenly stepped out of time and reality, leaving Trinstaff alone to be the specter with the

curse to walk its streets forever. It was a deeply lonely feeling, dwarfing the sense of abandonment one felt on Astrum’s most isolated desert moon, Lostris, roaming lifelessly through the blackness at the edges of the universe. Reaching out with his mind, Trinstaff checked to ensure that all of the inhabitants of Castellum had finally gone. He breathed a sigh of relief. There was still no sense of Sendar’s returned presence. Good. Perhaps the man had considered the doom that his return would inevitably bring about. It would be against his usually contradictory nature to so quickly become resigned to a fate that he hadn’t created for himself, but all things were possible if the Creator willed them to be. Like a beacon of filth directly below the eye of the now-frozen storm above, the unholy portal began to slowly pulse in Allal’s mind, and his wandering attention quickly snapped into focus on the Truth Council’s headquarters, where the foul thing had been crafted. Determinedly, he stretched his consciousness out through the heavens themselves, feeling there the winds of all creation, and suddenly, his soul billowed outward like a sail in a clean, strong wind that only he could sense. All of the skills and energies that more than two thousand years of mastery allowed him to wield were quickly laid out before his mind’s

eye, and he brought every ounce of it to bear on this single deathly purpose. As the bore grew nearer, Trinstaff rose up quickly from his meditative pose, and, with blinding light springing forth from his marbled green staff – the namesake of the Jadestone School of the magi – he began to chant in a strange, otherworldly voice that echoed through every street and building, piercing through all physical things to the gentle mists of Panton and back, gaining force and energy with each resonation. Blinding white sparks crackled through the air around his robes, swirling outward from his body and suddenly heating the air. With each progressive word of his chants, a barely visible field of soft blue light began to grow outward from the blinding maelstrom of sparks, passing through stone and air with equal ease as it grew. The field expanded steadily outward in a deafening silence, until, after a few seemingly endless minutes, it enclosed all of Castellum to the most outlying gardens and cottages. Even while it grew, there were few living souls in the world who could pass through it and live; when finished, it would begin to feed on its own boundless energy, quickly growing far stronger than anything even its maker could penetrate or reverse. If all could be accomplished, only an act of the

Creator or the master of darkness himself could undo the thing that he would do this night. Trinstaff increased the speed of his chant, both to begin hardening the binding he created, and because he could feel a sudden foulness straining at the threshold of the bore below him like an icy, rancid filth in the back of his mind. He only had to finish the binding before that tainted bubble burst to disgorge a horde of creatures never intended to see the light of this world. Reaching out with his mind, he grasped the essence of the vileness he felt there, and then he planted something like it in the skin of the binding as it grew. As the spell took living form, the demonic taint infecting it would act as a virus, stimulating an immune response from the field that would seek out and destroy all things like it in due course. While it wasn’t likely to destroy the bore, it would at least give it a hunger for demon blood. Although none but Trinstaff knew, this would not be his first physical encounter with the Nusquam. It was ages past since he had discovered a way to tear the fabric of his own world ever so slightly to bring such creatures in the flesh to Astrum. In his memory, he had been barely more than a beardless boy when he

made that discovery – only a few thousand years old, which wasn’t much in retrospect. At that time, he had widened his the tear without even realizing what he had done, and brought forth a living demon, which instantly assaulted him before he thought to push the thing back through and heal the damaged layers between realities. Despite his most concentrated efforts at Healing, Trinstaff still bore thick scars from the encounter, and he vividly recalled the months of agony that he had gone through before his potent abilities could even close the gaping holes and gashes in his own body after he and his only living pupils of the time had finished the demon off. Altogether, the eight of them had barely repulsed the lone Nusquam who had passed through the tear, and of them, only Trinstaff had survived the encounter. To add insult to injury, the demon seemed to have been toying with them, shrugging off many of their fiercest assaults as nothing. Now, there were uncountable hordes of living Nusquam straining at the gateway of the bore, and the feel of their filth inching closer caused his stomach to twist in real sickness. Normally, a Nusquam Jagal – a sort of demonic priest in their world - of greater ability could project it’s will into Astrum, taking possession of susceptible human victims in order to accomplish whatever vile purposes its twisted mind could conceive. In most

cases, a strongly possessed human would simply flee into the wilderness while more Jagal entered the victim, gaining some semblance of what it might be like to breathe real air and feel real light on their skin before their self-destructive urges began killing the human host. But a Jagal couldn’t physically enter Astrum without the assistance of a human Magi. A Jagal could be much more easily subjugated when projecting their spirits into Panton or into Astrum to possess a human host or roam bodiless until one could be found, though casting it out could still be fearsomely strong if not impossible for anyone but a magi, or the holiest of priests. When physically present, however, the smallest of Jagal imps could quickly kill an unprepared Mage, whether he wore the black robes, the azure, or the white, and a fully grown Jagal in the flesh could wreak havoc on any number of elder Magi despite hundreds of years of study and preparation. After losing his entire following on that horrible day so long ago, nearly a thousand years had passed before Trinstaff could bring himself to begin building what would become the Jadestone Temple. Sendar had been the first to swear to him then as a young orphan, and Trinstaff had never told him, or the ones who came after, that the first of his magi had been consumed by their master’s own ignorance.

Well. Time enough to settle that score. In a blinding flash, the roof of the Truth Council Headquarters imploded, revealing a night black pit in its depths. Before the flash had faded from his vision, a slavering mass of demons burst forth from the black depths like a heart-stopping river of hatred and death. Instinctively, the demons scrambled directly toward the temple courtyard where Allal Trinstaff now stood with his snowy robes billowing in the suddenly foul breeze. The Jadestone staff, glowing brightly in his right hand, was a beacon in the midst of the dark typhoon, casting its green-tinted light forth for all before it to see. Breathing a word into the staff, the light changed its hue to a slightly brighter green, and some of the smaller demons recoiled as though burned, ducking quickly into alleys and craters to avoid the sensation. The stronger of them, which was, unfortunately, the vast majority of the endless tide, continued toward him unabated, some even slowing their pace to an eerie walk as they glared at him challengingly. Looking down on the black horde, Trinstaff barked a hollow laugh. He knew that his death approached, and though his many thousands of years in Astrum had become wearisome, some part of him still wished to refuse death’s approach with a surprising

ferocity. His heart pounded in his ears, muscles tensing despite his determined efforts to remain calm. With a peal of ear-shattering thunder, white hot chains of lightning darted forth from the walls of the binding in a furious torrent – the immune response had begun! The front lines of the milling demons were thrown violently into the air, smoking and dismembered from the force of each blast. In an instant, the next line was a smoking ruin, and the next after it, but all too quickly the fallen Nusquam were replaced by even more; each new wave mercilessly trampling the bodies of the last in a bloodthirsty rush to consume the Mage before he could damn them back to the hell from whence they poured. Chanting furiously to feed life into the binding, Allal appeared impassive to the cold waves of chaos and death that emanated from the Nusquam, seeking purchase in his rapidly beating heart. Impassive or not, the assault chilled him to his soul. Allal didn’t know if the battle had continued in this way for a year or an hour, but with every rapid beat of his heart, it seemed that he lost another inch to their endless numbers. Vaguely, through the blinding strikes of hot lightning and deafening peals of thunder crashing through his bones from the binding, Trinstaff realized that the creatures had advanced

close enough for him to see the pure hatred in the disturbing black depths of their eyes, even as they were blown backward by the barrier’s onslaughts – even after they had stopped twitching on the field of rubble that was once his fair city. After a time that seemed near to eternity, when his muscles seemed to have turned to liquid and every limb trembled with the weakness that marked his own mortality, it seemed that the black tide would overtake and consume him before the binding could be finished. Try as he might, he could make it grow no faster, yet their tireless advance would surely reach him in time to cripple his greatest work. Every molecule of his existence trembled as he uttered each word with a master’s precision. Yet the binding was still far from completion. It was then that his next most dreadful fear was manifested before him in flesh and bone. Sendar the Nightwalker, face shrouded in a mind-twisting veil of shadow, suddenly stood at his right side. Even as Allal threw his terrible energies into the binding that killed these nearly immortal creatures with apparent ease, it became clear that his most favored disciple had acquired his own sorts of skills in the last two thousand years.

Earth suddenly sprang to life beneath the demon masses, splitting open and crumbling beneath their clawed feet into sheer, rippling chasms, sucking hundreds into their depths even while pulsing and grinding the hardened carapaces before the demons disappeared from view completely. Yet. before the reality of this carnage could sink in, an unnatural black fog shot up in dark tentacles from deep within each new rift in the earth to rip limbs and heads from demonic bodies and punch holes through Nusquam chests to pull raging demons into blackened depths before lurching forth again. Allal knew he should rejoice with the knowledge that Sendar’s aid might allow more time for the binding to set. Rather than rejoicing at the chance for complete victory, Trinstaff’s heart was instead torn open with grief in the foreknowledge that his leaderless students would soon be dead or dying throughout the human world. Neither he nor Sendar possessed the means to travel outside of the binding he had created only moments ago; instead, they would be trapped here eternally, even if they did manage to survive this endless onslaught. They would be imprisoned while their brethren – their children died all around them.

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