It was still cold.
The boy couldnt for the life of him remember, and he thought about it a lot, when last hed been warm. The Old Man had brought him here, far into the Northern Mountains so long ago, he could remember no other place clearly, but there were flashes through his thoughts, of a sea not constantly frozen; of green growing things, not an endless landscape of snow and rock. Of trees, bananas, houses, whatever they might be, and the old man only grunted " Keep reading.." when he asked about them.
The young elf could in fact quote chapter and verse on the subject of trees, their types and uses, of where they might be found. Equally, for that matter on the subject of anything. He had absorbed the old mans knowledge like a sponge for seventeen years, wandering the North with only his Master for company. In all those years they had avoided contact with anyone, watching the few groups they had run across from a distance, behind cover. The young elf had watched, and listened to those they encountered, but he had never spoken a single word aloud to any other human, than the old man.
The times they had stopped their wanderings, he had been immersed in reading. These were the times the Master, as the old man was formally known, would take his leave for weeks at a time, and the young elf had been told that when one book was finished, there was always another to be found within one of their travelling bags, and there always was.
Not to say the youth was neglected, or even that he resented or feared the absences of his Master. Food was there, hot and ready when he was. There was only enough cleaning needed in their portable shelter to keep a sense of discipline active, and the fires never needed feeding. When he needed light, there was light, and when he wanted to feel the dark, it was there.
Foremost among the texts he felt compelled to read were those dealing with the Art, and prophesy, and others dealing with specialised areas of the occult. His time alone allowed him to experiment, with the freedom to make the inevitable mistakes, and the chance to find his own solutions.
Only once did he find himself somewhat over his head. He had attempted to control a Prince among the Demons, without all the proper preparations. His Master appeared through the door in time to change the Demons plans for lunch, and spent the next several months learning why Demonology was not part of the Art.
He also learned the right way to do it.
It was perhaps sometime during the seventh or eighth of the warmer seasons they had spent in the same place, that the boy began to notice his Master around more and more. This extra time with the old man was spent in conversation. Hours and hours his Master would spend, telling tales of the Old Times, and instructing the young elf in the finer notions of the Art.
He told him the story of Daffyd, and again and again recounted how it had been, before the madness, before chaos reigned.
The boy had turned slowly, as all do, into a young elf. His final growth stopped well short of the normal Elfs, and his figure a tad too lean. But what stopped the old man in his tracks each time he saw it, was his smile.
It sent chills down the old mans spine. Always had.
Sandoz Roache, as the Master had named him, had a face that was not unpleasant to see, although his nose was somewhat large in proportion with the rest of his face, and it came to a decided point. Not adding much to its beneficial effect on the overall was it being twisted slightly to one side, from a fall from a particularly high cliff during a fledgling attempt at levitation. It had been left that way as a reminder of sorts. His eyes were somewhat large, and perhaps too closely spaced; his teeth were perfect, but perhaps a tad too large for the face containing them all. But his mouth was the oddest component of this parody of a stereotypical Elfin face. It could, when the occasions demanded, stretch itself almost ear to ear.
When it twisted itself into a smile, it had an amazing effect on people, and animals too.
What most tended to slide over when performing their first glance inventory, were his eyes. While appearing as previously described, they were also an incredibly deep violet, with a depth of understanding far far beyond his obvious years. They might be characterised as appraising eyes, an attribute gained through such close association with his Master.
They were a true reflection of the youths soul; while he was not incapable of devious and sublimely disobedient acts, he would never use himself in aid of a cause that was wrong. Such was manifestly evident, if evidence were required, merely by looking into his eyes.
During the last couple of years of their stay in the North, the old man became especially industrious in his instruction of Roache. There were very few subjects he did not go into in great depth. From languages to Court etiquette, geography to geometry, architecture to pharmaceutics, but mostly in control of the Art, and Shamanism.
The youth took this knowledge like the waters of the rivers flowing into the ocean. There appeared to be nothing he could not grasp, and while indeed some topics took years to percolate through, others were mastered in mere hours. The rate at which Roache absorbed some aspects which were considered difficult for the disciple of a Mage sometimes astounded the old man.
But then, some which were fundamental, and considered by some to be simple, were hard-won, an apparent battle with some inner intransigence contained by the young elf.
Such was the case when Sandoz found it time to learn to travel the Ley, to inject himself into the ether and see the world in its true state. If the light from the lines of energy that girded and criss-crossed the land, this island as Sandoz later learned, was clear and golden, deep and aglow with power, then all was well fundamentally, regardless of the manifestations on the common plane. That had been the Mages instruction for years, but the young elf had never seen. A trip into the ether could be a dangerous venture these days; there were forces which had slipped their bonds when Daffyd blasted himself and a few others into the eternal void. Forces which had been tightly bound by reason, were gaining strength with the spread of chaos, and as a result, nothing today is as it was.
But Sandoz had never known any other state than that which was the now. And since the episode of the Prince of Demons and his anticipation of elfin hors douvers he had become increasingly aware of the fragility of life, his own in particular. Stepping into the ether and facing what could be mortal danger without his body even being there, somehow shook Roache near his core. It scared the daylights out of him, and hed be the first, the very first in fact, to proclaim this.
The first few times, well, the first twelve times to be precise, the Master had to mentally drag his disciple kicking and screaming, figuratively speaking, into the ether. It took several visits before Roache would open his eyes, once there.
But gradually, over a time, the wonder and the beauty of the plane enchanted him, and he found what he was meant to see, and understood the necessity of returning again and again, regularly.
Still, the initial process wherewith he loosed his self from his body was one with which he never grew comfortable.
Time passed, as it seems to do, and the Master infused more and more knowledge into his pupil, for such had the infant he stole from the City Guard more than twenty years ago, become. There came a need for them to leave what had over the years become their tower of ice, and begin their movement Southward.
Roache knew the geography of the land, but as the weeks past, and they left the cold snowland he had been raised in, there were things he wound inexplicably strange. Perhaps it was that green was something less than he had imagined from his readings, or the sky was not the perfect blue the Master had described in his hours of conversation. It might have been though, that they met absolutely no-one at all during their entire southward ride.
It certainly had to do with the changed perceived in the ether. The farther south they travelled, the odder the colours became in the other plane. The old man insisted this ethereal stock-taking become an evening ritual. Both of them sat before a fire, prepared but unlit. They would endure the physical wrench of the self deserting the flesh (a process Roache described as having an impacted molar removed without anaesthetic..), light their fire on the earthly plane, and sit, as it were, above the Ley. There the Mage would point out the changes he saw, describing the way it should have been in great detail. Roache committed the old mans memories to his own verbatim, and gradually he himself grew to where he could see the way it should be, and what might be done to put it right.
He understood the what of it is to be done, but had no idea of the how. Not clue one, and for once the old man proved to be unwilling to be of any help whatsoever.
"You will know what is the right, when its time to be right.." was about the best Roache could get in the way of direction there.
But the elf was filled with the optimism of youth; too full of the I am immortal phase to be put off too severely by something as inconsequential as how. The old man had drilled into him to such a depth that the best defence was preparation, that the young elf found himself working probability lines for the next few moments of their journey. At times, it gave him headaches. But it always gave him a sense of security, and as there came more and more to be seen for the first time, he learned to keep his vigilance active on another level, allowing him to enjoy, and in some cases such as when a pheasant exploded from a bush not a yard from where they walked, marvel at the realisation of that which hithertofore had only existed in words on a page, and a young elfs imagination.
Roache knew himself to be educated far beyond his years. He was also fully aware his practical experience was immensely limited, but this only spurred him on to see everything, to put life to the words he knew so well. He progressed at an amazing rate, watched closely by his Master.
Some months of wandering brought them to the edge of a hilly, wooded part of the island. For the first time since leaving what had always been home, Roache could feel himself relaxing. It was a sensation almost imperceptible, yet sensitively tangible. The old man led them into a small wood, deep enough into it that Roache could sense the small clearing they came into, was the centre of the copse.
"This is an old place boy," wheezed the old man as he eased his pack to the ground. "Well stop here for the night."
Roache immediately laid down his packs, and without a word went off to the edge of the clearing looking for deadfall for their campfire.
"No, wait!" called the Mage. "Well be needing a fire this night my boy. Tonight well walk a slightly different Path, and youll want the dark about you."
Something new mused Roache, as he turned and walked back to his pack. He could not imagine a topic left uncovered in their years together, and to go further in some of the things they worked together would not be wise for some years yet, until the youth became an Elf, albeit Swamp Elf. The concept of something brand new was in itself, a novelty. He wondered if this was the lesson, to expect something new, when all was thought to be known.
Roache really enjoyed convoluted thought processes.
The old man sat on his pack, and lit a bowl of pipeweed.
"Its actually something weve been doing for years, but I think perhaps its time you realised it."
"Right then..". The Elf dropped low into an extreme defensive posture as he felt what seemed to be a wind so chill, so bitter, that it stung his soul, and did an amazingly fast 360. Where his Master had been just seconds ago, there was now nothing at all. No Master, no pack, no pipeweed. Roache knew with a wrenching that was almost enough to drive him to his knees, that this was no disappearing trick, no glamour, no spell.
Tears welled, as he realised his Master was gone. He did, then, drop to his knees.
"What an utter shambles of a performance you stupid boy!"
Roache blinked rapidly in what now might be called utter confusion. He had felt the gone-ness of his Master. And he wasnt that stupid.
"Im still here boy. As much in fact, as I have for the past 9 years or so, more or less.."
The voice was utterly disembodied. It was coming directly into the elfs minds ear, and it threw him off so much that when he tried to get to his feet, he fell awkwardly backwards again, happily ending up with his back against his pack, and not too uncomfortable at all actually.
"Where have you gone old man..?" The question was not without its quality of pathos.
"Stop it. This is for real here now, and youll need remember what Im telling you for quite some time. Unless of course you screw up and end up getting yourself killed.." This last was in vocce sotto, but was enough to pull the young elf together quite remarkably.
Roache shook his head, and completed what he about to say when this all began.
"Right then, shall I set up camp, or is that something else I dont need to do anymore?"
"Dont be bloody daft boy. You can set up camp as it pleases you, but myself Id not prefer to sleep in the open. Were I you, of course."
Silently Roache went about the business of making a camp for himself, a ritual he had performed every night since they had left their tower, and their caravan, far behind in the North. This time though, he only had his own gear to set out.
About the time it was getting chilly enough for some regret to seep in for the lack of a campfire Roache, for the first time, realised that he was expected to continue with the nightly ritual into the ether, and the thought of going there alone was on the verge of giving him St. Vitus Dance. He sat beside a circle of blackened stones ion the middle of the dell nonetheless, and was about to push himself into the out when the old mans voice burst into his thoughts.
"All right.. Nows the time I suppose" the voice grumbled. "Youve got to take the next step, so Id better show you.."
"All right then " came the plaintive cry from the elf. "But where are you? Im not happy with this when youre here dammit, let alone where youre somewhere else inside my bloody head!"
"Now look Sandoz," said the old mans voice, "Youre too old now for this snivelling nonsense. Do what you know must be done, and come to me here!"
"Right." snivelled Roache.
And without too much difficulty, the young elf sent himself beyond his body, to the place he knew his master was waiting. The Old Man smiled.
"There." There was a sense of resignation in this. "Always knew you would come to this point. Now the work begins."
The young elf settled himself, or his mind, or whatever it was he sat on when he was in this State, as his Master began.
I must begin my telling you that much of that which youve learned, is unknown to most. There simply arent enough of us to go around these days. I have raised you way the buggery out here, so I could let the Art become a part of your life, something natural. And for you, and myself, and a few others here and there, it is natural, a part of ourselves as much as our livers."
This analogy even gave the Old Man pause, and in the moments silence Roache framed a question in his mind, but before he could open his mouth, his Master continued.
"But now, I am sending you off on your own."
At this the young elf wavered, almost slipping back into his body. The shock he felt, he was interested to note, caused small ripples of bright red to expand in circles into the ether.
The Master continued, as though oblivious to his young charges state. " You must be always aware, always, that most everyone you meet will fear the Art, and those who use it are always distrusted. And thats not if the local Lord hasnt declared witches fair game. Crowds with scythes and pitchforks, burning manuscripts.." The old man tailed off into what seemed unpleasant memories with his last words petering out into a distant mutter.
The elf looked at his Master in utter disbelief.
" Sending me? Where in buggery are you off to then?"
" Dont curse. Its unbecoming of someone your age. Its time mboy. Time to get on with the Game, thats all. And if you used the wits the gods gave you, youd realise that I will never leave you I never have!"
The old man looked the elf directly in the eye, something the elf found exceedingly disconcerting. " Recall, when I went off ten years ago, and was gone for over a year. Well, truth be told mboy, my body never did come back that Spring eight and a half years ago. Just what youve wanted to see, what youve thought you needed to see. Yet never have I truly been away either."
Once again the elf felt the slip of the ether, and again noticed the waves of colours coming from himself, a confusing cacophony of colours. This was just a tad too much here!
"What happened all those years ago then? What took you away? What brought you back?"
This time it was the Old man who wavered, and an explosion of riotous hues radiated from his form.
"It seems like such a long while ago, but in the great scheme of things, it was only a moment. I took you North from the ruins of Daffyds Shire, to keep you from the members of the City Guard. Those buggers are bound to find and kill you. I think an oath to that effect is still part of their initiation ceremonies.
You are a Swamp Elf, at least on your mothers side, and to the Guard, it has become a sacred mission to wipe out your race. Tell you boy, some of these buggers are utterly unbelievable! So, it might be wise to avoid them. Dont go near the City of the Bridge, at least not for the time being. There will come a time when you will have to go there, but not for a while. I think."
The elf made as though to ask a question, and the Old Man raised his hand, forestalling him.
"While you may not have any clear idea as to what it is you must do, or who youll be doing it with, be assured that these things, most of them anyway, are already written. You cant screw up too much unless you really try."
Here the Old Man paused, but uncharacteristically, the elf remained silent, waiting. The Master shook himself, and continued in a softer voice.
"What is not foretold, is how this will all come out in the end. We know that having got this far alive, you will be given the tools, the companions, and the direction to complete the cycle. But whether or not you really do it, is beyond us. A blot. Bugger anyway."
"Nine years ago I was captured by the guard, and am, as far as I know, still locked in a cell somewhere under the City of the Bridge. Under the buggering river itself if seepage was any indication. Now before you go ripping off there, its been so long since Ive been in that old shell, I sincerely doubt it would fit me anymore."
"Now, I exist because you exist. I am a part of you. Something like symbiosis, without the nasty parasitic overtones."