Prologue to the Story to be Named Later, VIII
Merrus stood in the vast Chamber of the Circle, occupying the place where Troius had faced his accusers three years ago. The seats that surrounded him were as empty as the shadowed void that existed beyond the reach of the chamber’s steady glow of magical lighting. The Elder Patrician rubbed his grainy eyes with a slightly trembling hand, shoulders slumping. The right arm of his embroidered tunic was stained by his morning’s tea. A simple spell could have removed it, but even such a small display of power felt utterly beyond him. His mind felt stretched, pulled apart by events beyond his control but ultimately his responsibility.
His thoughts drifted back, as they always did, to the beginning of the end. When Aristheus and the others arrived in his study, battered and bloody, he’d felt an icy hand gripping his heart in a way that he hadn’t felt since Troius’ words of doom settled on him. He listened to their story, of getting assaulted without provocation, of the deaths of Loccan and Heruld, the forced abandonment of a pair of their other fellows, the need to use their powers in self defense. Merrus wondered then as he did now why they had bothered lying; surely they should have realized that a mindskim would have been necessary in the situation. The old magician was able to see the events unfold, from the initial conflict through to the unleashing of arcane forces that allowed the foolish apprentices to make their escape, all through the eyes of the students themselves.
Absently dismissing the apprentices to the care of their masters, who would begin the chastening process, Merrus had pondered his options carefully, resolving finally against casting out the apprentices and turning them over to the Prince Elect for justice. His fear was that the students were far enough along in their thaumaturgical practices to pose a significant danger to the mundane world, and should they decide to resist and escape then there would undoubtedly be even more bloodshed. The impact that would have on the reputation of the Dreaming Tower was unacceptable. He had then sent three of the masters to retrieve those apprentices left behind, under strict orders to represent no danger to the locals and to negotiate peacefully for their safe return. A bird was sent with a humble request for an audience with the Prince Elect to discuss and come to a settlement on the matter.
His long nightmare began shortly afterwards.
Those he had sent to retrieve the students never even reached the inn. Of the three, only two returned, each of them bloody and singed. Kind old Ghaval, as gentle and peace-loving a man as Merrus had ever known, had been doused in oil and set ablaze by a sudden ambush from an alley. Kettle and Ossiver had struggled in vain to save the old man, but the sudden rush of two-score armed assailants had driven them away from the scene, leaving the still-living Ghaval to the mercy of the mob. As Merrus listened in dismay to their tale, a bird arrived with the Prince’s brusque response; there would be no audience until peace was restored, at which point the Prince would summon Merrus before him. It was a far cry from the normal diplomacy between city and Tower, which was essentially its own free nation within the kingdom. Everything was clearly deteriorating faster than Merrus had thought possible.
The situation only continued to get worse. The riot that erupted shortly after the attacks took on its own life under the oppressive heat. Night and day the city streets were swept by a screaming ravening horde. Whole sections of the city burned, with the Prince’s holdings especially among the hardest hit. People suspected of being allies of the Tower, the merchants that had provided supplies regularly, and anyone remotely suspicious were found hanging from posts or trampled into unrecognizable scatterings on the street. Two of the city cohorts rebelled and refused to leave their barracks outside the city while the third scattered in the city, a few arriving at the palace to defend the Prince with the majority joining in the looting and arson. Nobleman called for the Prince to set aside the crown and abandon the city. Instead he remained in the palace, holed up with his few remaining loyal guards and a company of mercenaries who’d accepted a Prince’s ransom to keep his walls safe.
The Dreaming Tower itself was under constant siege, a screaming mass pounding on the intricate crystal gates night and day. Merrus had no doubts that the enchantments that protected the gate would hold, but the din raised by the assault was a constant drain on the inhabitants. Even the moderates among the thirty or so masters present began to feel that enough was enough and a retributive strike was necessary to instill proper respect for the dignity and authority of the Tower. Dark and angry mutterings filled the halls and chambers as the assembled mages broke into factions arguing over the proper course of action. That pompous idiot Escalion had even suggested that Merrus step aside and allow him to “guide the ship safely into harbor” as Elder Patrician – on a temporary basis, of course, lasting only as long as the crisis.
The riot was as constant a presence as the relentless heat for four days. A pall of smoke hung over the city, the lack of a breeze from the sea allowing the choking fumes to blanket the entire basin. The stench of fire mingled with the stink of corpses, as the human toll enacted by the raging host continued to climb. Sailors confined to the harbor for weeks clashed intermittently with rioters and soldiers alike as they walled off the Docks district and claimed it for their own. The night air was filled with screams and gibberings, some brave souls darting out into the street on some errand and hoping to avoid the insane mobs that roamed the moonlit horror of the midnight cityscape.
The fresh breeze that greeted the dawn of the fifth day was a sending from the gods. The temperature dropped quickly as the breeze became a steady wind before ending as a near gale. The smoke-shrouded city was darkened further by the mass of purple stormclouds that swept in. Pelting rain and savage hail scrubbed both the milling mob and the detritus it left in its wake from the streets. The storm savaged the city for two moonrises, the vast dark emptiness displayed in frequent flashes of lightning.
When the storm disappeared north into the mountains, the city slowly and cautiously returned to life. The return of normal sea winds enabled the ships that rotted in harbor for near a month to finally cast off for better shores. The Prince emerged and called for the Council of Nobles of convene. Ruins that still smoldered were cleared by the work crews that began to operate as they had before. Men and women greeted each other with smiles that did little to hide the knowledge of their own mad behavior just days prior. Agitators remained, but they found little purchase among people who wished only to return to their hard but familiar lives.
Days later, Merrus had been able to see the Prince, Farstepping from the Tower to the special audience chamber the Prince maintained for those meetings. The Prince was flanked by two other nobles, a circumstance different from their prior meetings. The haggard appearance of the perpetually stylish and preening nobleman mirrored Merrus’ own. Their audience was brief and the Prince’s demeanor chill. In order to maintain his position, the Dreaming Tower would need to be emptied and leveled, the inhabitants cast out and dispersed. No longer were sorcerers and their ilk welcome in the city or Kingdom proper. The King himself, Uttrik the Unsighted, had issued a rare pronouncement to this effect, a meddling in affairs of the city unheard of in the centuries since it was enfolded in the Kingdom. The mages would be given two days to vacate the Tower. His speech complete, the Prince thrust the proclamation of the Council of Nobles into Merrus’ hands and spun on his heel, walking stiffly out of the room. One of the nobles, a young man richly attired, smirked openly at the powerful wizard before following languidly after the departed Prince. Merrus stepped backwards, reappearing in his own rooms. The Elder Patrician was not given the chance to utter a word.