Tildi the Elder poked the fire, rolling a burning log back to rest against the rear of the great stone fireplace. She bent to place three more logs on the red-hot coals she’d exposed. Placing a hand at her back as she straightened up, she swore under her breath.
“You’re getting too old for this, Tildi,” she said.
“Talking to yourself again, I see,” a voice commented from across the tower’s upper room.
“You got my invitation, Ragnar,” Tildi said without looking up. “Come, I have some mulled wine for you.”
Ragnar of the Northern Wastes stepped down the stone stairs leading up to the conjuring dais and walked over to warm his hands by the freshly stoked fire. He wore the furs and leather of the northern tribes with a large golden torque around his neck, signifying his position as a warden of the north.
Tildi poured a goblet of wine and channeled a bar of flame from one finger into the wine, eliciting a burst of fragrant steam. She handed the goblet to her guest and gestured to the four padded leather chairs arranged in front of the fireplace.
“Come sit while we wait for the others.”
“Only four chairs,” Ragnar noted. “Who did we lose?”
“Robert the Red,” Tildi replied as she eased herself back into one of the comfortable chairs. “Emperor Kang located his tower three days ago. Robert contacted me while the soldiers were battering at the door to his inner sanctum. I urged him to come and seek refuge here, but he was always one for the dramatic. He said he must defend what was his.”
Tildi shook her head and pulled out her pipe, leaning forward to light a thin piece of reed in the fireplace with which to light it.
“I kept the spell window open until the last minute, hoping he’d change his stubborn mind. The end was not pretty. The Emperor sent his lap dog, Baron Norak, to take the tower, and he was the one who finished Robert with the thrust of his cursed, black sword.”
A booming gong sounding in the air and a puff of blue smoke on the dais announced the next two arrivals, porting in at the same time. Tildi smiled as Bronwynn the White and Theran the Bold shot each other annoyed glances before stepping down into the room. Both liked to make an entrance, and each was no doubt put out the other had ruined theirs.
Bronwynn wore her characteristic white robes with silver and green embroidery. They were long and flowing, like her long blonde hair. A simple circlet of silver rested on her brow, pressing her hair down and revealing her pointed elven ears.
Theran wore a jacket of what must be the latest cut from the imperial capital to the east. His perfectly tailored trousers and white silk shirt completed the ensemble. His fingers each had a ring on them. The largest of the rings had a diamond whose diameter was as broad as his thumbnail. Theran’s hair and beard were trimmed and styled with perfumed oils, leaving a sheen to them that reflected the firelight. Tildi wondered if the oiled beard or hair stained the man’s expensive clothing.
“I like the blue smoke, Theran,” Ragnar said. “Did you use arrowroot this time?”
“Ragweed mixed with birch bark actually,” Theran said.
“How did it look?”
“Oh, very impressive,” Ragnar said.
“What about my gong? Surely you heard that as I arrived?” Bronwynn asked.
“I think I heard a little something,” Tildi said, winking at Ragnar when Bronwynn huffed indignantly and took her seat.
Tildi handed both of the new arrivals goblets of mulled wine. “Come sit, Theran. There is something I’d like to discuss.”
“You aren’t going to bore us with that ridiculous prophecy of the opponent again, are you?” Theran said after taking a sip of the warmed, spiced wine and sitting down in the final chair. “This is quite good, by the way. Your own vineyards?”
“Yes, thank you,” Tildi said. She picked up her pipe and puffed a few times before blowing a pair of smoke rings into the air in front of her.
“The prophecy is not ridiculous, Theran,” Tildi continued. “Since it may be our only hope for a way out from under the Emperor’s edict against unsanctioned magic, I would think you would be more accepting of it. Considering what happened to Robert, it might be the only hope we have left.”
“I heard about that,” Bronwynn said. “He always said he’d go down with his tower.” She raised her goblet. “To Robert. Arrogant and stubborn to the last.”
The four wizards raised their goblets to their fallen comrade, and each sipped as the tower room fell silent for a time. Ragnar broke the silence with a sudden barked laugh. “Look at us, sitting here all maudlin over Robert’s loss. This is exactly the kind of thing that pompous bastard would want us to do.” He downed his wine and stood to pour himself some more.
Tildi waved a finger towards the buffet, and the pitcher of spiced wine floated over to the northern tribesman. Ragnar nodded his thanks as he took the pitcher from the air and poured himself some more wine. He shot a jet of flame from his eyes into the goblet, causing a flash of steam to rise from the freshly mulled wine.
“Show off,” Tildi said. The others chuckled at the comment.
Each of the room’s occupants represented the final free wizards in the land of Fantasma. All the others had either been forced to join Emperor Kang’s forces under his edicts of magic or fallen before his armies. Tildi knew these were the most powerful of the world’s mages. She also knew they could never stand-alone against the power of the Emperor. Even together, they might not be enough, which was why she’d called them here to her hidden tower. This was their last chance to defeat the scourge against free magic that swept the land.
“Theran’s right, Tildi,” Bronwynn said. “If you’ve brought us all here again to try and convince us to join you in your search for the mythical opponent, you’re wasting your time. Our efforts are best spent building our own defenses and preparing for the time when Kang turns his attention to us.”
“If you do that, Bronwynn, we’ll all surely lose,” Tildi said. “Even if we were to band together and join our defenses, I fear it would not be enough to win the day. Kang has grown too strong.”
“And you think some mystical savior from another world will come and save our bacon from the fire?” Ragnar asked. He laughed aloud. “If you believe that, I’ve got some prime beachfront property to sell you near the North Pole.”
“I don’t need much from you to complete my plans to locate the opponent,” Tildi said. “I’ve finally found the way to bring the opponent here.”
“From another world,” Theran snorted. “Really?”
“Yes, really,” Tildi said. “You see, I finally discovered why the prophecy called Kang’s adversary ʻthe opponent.’ Don’t you all wonder why the seers used that term all those years ago?”
When none of the others answered, Tildi continued.
“It’s because there’s a place where they train professional opponents to take on the likes of Kang all the time. Many millions of people play games in this world where they learn to conquer overlords much more powerful than Kang is.”
“So, you’re just going to invite one of them to come here and defeat Kang like it was some sort of game?” Bronwynn asked. “Tildi, what’s to keep this new champion from staying here and becoming a worse version of the Emperor we have?”
“First of all, Bronwynn, I don’t see how anyone could be worse than Kang from our perspective. Second, I won’t select just any of these would-be champions. I have set my eye on one in particular, and I’ve devised the perfect method to bring him here so he might advance on his quest to free us from Kang.”
“Well, if that’s the case,” Theran said, “you don’t need our help at all, do you?”
“That’s not exactly true, Theran,” Tildi said.
“Here it comes,” Ragnar said. “She’s about to pile on the guilt and tell us how we owe it to her for all she’s done for us.”
“Not guilt, Ragnar. She’s got the markers,” Theran said.
“Tildi,” Bronwynn said. “You can’t possibly be calling in those markers we all gave you when we were apprentices. They were given to you in jest when we were young. You’d have had to retrieve them from that well where we cast them after we pressed our bloody thumbprints into the gold coins.”
Tildi didn’t say anything. She reached into her pocket and pulled out three thick golden coins. Each had a red-brown oval stain on the surface, over the embossed image of a long-forgotten king.
“The magic is still binding, even after all this time,” Tildi noted. “I had hoped to convince you without using them. Your reaction to my plan leaves me no choice. I will invoke the marker to force you to help me if I must.”
“Well, you’ve got us truly bent over the fish barrel,” Ragnar said. “I can’t say I’m happy, Tildi. I thought we were friends.”
“I hope we still are, Ragnar. You can voluntarily join me in this. If you do, I hand over the marker to you, so no one will ever use it against you.” Tildi looked around the circle of wizards. “The same goes for each of you. Join me in this, and you may each take your markers home with you.”
“It’s not like we have a choice, Tildi,” Bronwynn said. “You’re forcing us to do magic at your demand. Doesn’t that make you as bad as Kang?”
“You know I’m nothing like that monster, Bronwynn,” Tildi said. “I’m doing this to save the few of us who remain from that merry band of apprentices who started out together all those years ago. There were twelve of us once. Four sided with Kang in the beginning of his conquest and have become his pet mages. Four have fallen to his hunters. The four of us are all that is left to save this world from a thousand years of torment and oppression.”
“What is it you want of us, Tildi?” Theran asked. “It must be a significant boon for you to be prepared to invoke the markers; otherwise, you’d merely ask.”
“I cannot open the gate between our world and the world of the opponent alone. I have seeded the minds of the many game creators there, and prepared the way for my plans, but to complete the plan, I must physically travel there, and that takes an amount of power I do not possess.”
“If that’s all you need, why didn’t you just say so,” Ragnar said. “We can meld our powers, and you’ll be on your way. Teach us the spell, and we can send you to this mystical world of the opponent.”
“It’s not that simple, Ragnar,” Tildi said.
“Oh,” Bronwynn said.
“What?” Ragnar asked. “What am I missing?”
“She doesn’t need us to meld our powers to send her there,” Bronwynn said. “She needs our powers, given over to her control, to take herself there.”
All three of her companions shouted at her at once, their voices raised in anger at her proposed plan. Tildi waited for them to calm and become silent. She knew they would eventually. She held the markers after all.
“It’s a loan until I return from my journey, that is all,” Tildi said. “You all know I will return your powers to you as soon as I get back to Fantasma.”
“If you return to Fantasma, you mean,” Theran said. “What happens to us if you die an accidental death in this other world?”
“The same thing that will happen if I remain and we do nothing. We will all die. Kang has sworn it and sent his hunters out looking for us. Eventually, he will find us all, and then there will be no one to save this land from Kang’s plans of total conquest.”
“But we’ll be defenseless,” Ragnar said. “If Kang’s hunters find us while you’re gone, we’ll have no way to stop them from killing us or, worse, taking us back to Kang’s courts for public execution.”
“I’m sure each of you can disappear for the time I am gone,” Tildi said.
“How long will that be?” Bronwynn asked.
“I’m not sure,” Tildi replied. “Time works differently there. It appears to pass much more slowly than it does here in Fantasma.”
“How long, Tildi?” Theran asked. “Give us a straight answer.”
“Several months, maybe as much as a year,” Tildi said. “It is hard to gauge from this side of the lens.”
“You want us to go powerless for up to a year so you can go off and find some random hero from a world we’ve never heard of?” Bronwynn said. “And if we refuse to gift you with our powers, you’ll invoke the markers to force us.”
Tildi held up the hand holding the gold coins.
“Bah, give me my coin,” Ragnar said. “I can hide in the northland for a year. Kang’s hunters will not find me there.” His thick fingers stretched the torque open, removing the golden talisman from his neck and handing it to Tildi. “I freely gift you this talisman, a token of my power for you to use as you see fit.”
Tildi took it and bowed to the warden of the north in honor of his sacrifice. She turned and looked at the other two.
“Oh, very well,” Bronwynn said. She removed the silver circlet from her head and handed it to Tildi. “I freely gift you this talisman, a token of my power for you to use as you see fit.”
Tildi bowed to the elf princess even as Theran shouted at all of them.
“I can’t believe the two of you just did that. Can’t you see what idiocy this is?”
“Give her your ring, Theran,” Ragnar said. “It’s better if it’s given willingly.”
“Do it, Theran,” Bronwynn said. “The sooner we comply, the sooner she returns with her champion, and we get our powers back.”
Theran looked back and forth from Bronwynn to Ragnar. Both nodded at him in reassurance. He reached down and pulled the large diamond ring from his right hand and handed it to Tildi.
“I freely gift you this talisman, a token of my power for you to use as you see fit,” Theran muttered. He dropped the ring into Tildi’s outstretched hand. “You’d better hurry back, Tildi. If I die before you return, I’ll haunt this old tower of yours, and you’ll never get another peaceful night’s sleep.”
“I’ll remember that,” Tildi said with a smile as she bowed over the offering from her friend.
She held out the three coins in her hand.
“Take them. I’ve cast a spell on each to teleport you to wherever you’d like to begin your hiding. It will also allow me to notify you when I return and bring you to me, so I may return your powers and talismans to you.”
The three powerless wizards reached out and took their respective markers from Tildi’s outstretched palm.
“When do you leave?” Bronwynn asked.
“I plan to leave immediately. There is no time like the present, and I have no desire to hold your powers any longer than I have to.”
Tildi crossed the room and climbed the steps to the conjuring dais. She walked to the center of the rune circle and turned to face her friends.
“I will move as quickly as I can, my friends. Thank you for trusting me with your gifts. I will not let you down.”
A thick gray mist rose from the stones of the dais and swirled around Tildi, shrouding her form until the others could barely make her out through the mist.
“What is the name of this champion you’ve chosen to come and save our world? I would know whom I sacrifice all in the name of,” Ragnar called out as Tildi started to fade into the misty portal.
“His name is Hal, Hal Dix.”