Fantasy Fiction posted March 2, 2021 Chapters:  ...2 3 -4- 5... 

This work has reached the exceptional level
Ragerius is finally ready to use the sophisticated device

A chapter in the book The Stoneseekers

Ragerius Uses the Scrying Pool

by duaneculbertson

The author has placed a warning on this post for violence.

            Ragerius softened. “Well, you’d better come in.”        
            Stanton’s face lit up; he hurried over to gaze into the portal.
            “You’ve come at the right time, Stanty. The danger is past, and now we have the fascinating power of this device at our service.”
            “How does it work?”

            “Since I awakened it; the device must obey my commands.”

            Stanton’s eyes widened, a broad smile settling upon his face.

Ragerius had planned to use the scrying pool to reveal the locations of the stones hidden throughout the Realm. Such information would provide an overwhelming advantage for the forces of Good. They would not need to decipher the cryptic, enigmatic Prophecy; they could simply follow the landmarks revealed by the visions. And since the stones would not have awakened to emit their signals, the enemy would be forced to decode the Prophecy if they wished to search for them ahead of time. Many would be disguised and not even resemble stones. For the moment, though, Ragerius wanted a broader view.

       “Show me the Contest Endgame!” he shouted. “Show me the fate of the Empire!” 

With dizzying speed, images swept past the pool’s surface. Visions inundated the wizard’s brain, the sights searing into his memory at a frightful pace. It felt like he was viewing the fate of all humanity, revealed in one stunning instant. A thousand images raced past in the first moment, and a thousand more would likely follow.

Ragerius sank to his knees, buckling under the psychic strain. His mouth gaped, gasping for air, and he clutched his chest, his nails digging into his skin beneath his cloak. The horrible visions depicted pain, heartache, and misery. Slaughtered armies, the broken bodies of once proud men, lay scattered across battlefields, hideous beasts feasting upon the freshly dead or dying. Elsewhere, an appalling number of warriors, some mere children in tattered rags, fell before unspeakable abominations, forming artificial lakes from their blood.

Festering fens of decay dotted the landscape, blossoming amongst poisoned cities reduced to rubble. Countless towns and villages burned. Likewise, farms with arable tracks of land were laid to waste. Anyone who dared to resist was immediately put to the sword by eldritch warriors clad in black, shiny armor, darker than the blackest soot. In the land of mountains and hills, fearsome demons enslaved children, forcing them to dig ores and haul minerals from crudely constructed mines, working them to death in the process.

Much to his horror, Ragerius realized he could not escape these visions; he clamped his eyes shut, but the visions kept coming. He watched as panic-stricken refugees fled from nightmarish monstrosities. In vain, they ran, only to be chased down, torn asunder, and devoured by their four-legged pursuers. In the Border Lands, he watched diseased citizens allowed to roam the wilderness, half-mad and deranged. While in other parts of the Empire, blasphemous things, demons perhaps, held down women, violating them in obscene ways for their amusement and gratification, else for some darker, nefarious purpose.

Ragerius swallowed hard as he recognized his Ivory Tower lying in ruins, the broken white stones scorched and blackened with soot. To his horror, he saw Glendor Forest, and tears sprang to his eyes as he watched it burn. Multiple millennia’s worth of growth would be gone in a matter of hours. Trees that had stood taller than clouds for thousands of years were now in the process of being reduced to nothing more than lurid matchsticks. Enormous flames hungrily lapped at the groves, engulfing them completely; none were spared. Frightened animals fled in terror, displaced from their burning homes, as smoke billowed into the sky, blocking out the sun, and plunging the world into a state of perpetual darkness.

Was there no end to these atrocities, these abominations, these ghastly visions?

Staggering, his brain fought for control,

            “Abscidio!” the mage cried.

The images ceased and the pool’s surface went blank. The residual anguish and mental strain had left Ragerius panting like a wounded animal; he thought he might be sick. He tried to make sense of what he had seen, but it was difficult to even think. Perhaps it was enough to have survived the ordeal. A sharp, piercing pain rose in his chest, prompting him to take long, deliberate breaths. He would probably never forget those images. Some had been seared into his brain forever. And some would likely serve as the fodder of nightmares for years to come. Most would haunt him for the rest of his life, and, judging by what he had seen, that might not be long.

        “Horrible!” he gasped. He regarded Stanton; the boy was nearly catatonic with fright, an unhealthy pallor invading his features.

        “Fetch some water!” Ragerius ordered. “Drink three cups and pour me a fourth! Add mint and a boiling stone to mine. Now, go!”

Mechanically, Stanty obeyed. Ragerius knew assigning the boy a familiar task would offer temporary refuge from the ordeal he had just suffered. He hoped there would be no permanent mental scarring and reproached himself for having been so foolish as to allow his son to witness the ill-fated experiment.

Destruction on such a grand scale he would never have thought possible. And as he fought to recall and catalogue his observations, his heart filled with sorrow. The Empire, the great bastion of humanity, lay in ruins. How could he survive in such a world? Would he even want to? Perhaps it would be better to perish with the untold thousands. He wondered if what he had seen was really the fate of humanity. Was there still time to alter this projection?

Such a cognitive tidal wave! Never have my mental faculties been so taxed! There must be another way to harness the power of this device. I will find it! There is too much at stake!

Ragerius suspected it would be necessary to employ mental filters to prevent the scrying pool from overwhelming him again when he used it next. Since he had no means of designing such hypothetical filters, he decided he would try to adjust the scope and pace of the device. Perhaps he could bring it down from its divine settings to something more reasonable for a human to digest.

Consciousness, an uncharted frontier, was not unknown to Ragerius. A pioneer in the field, he had written several papers discussing the topic. He appreciated the fact that no scholar had yet to scratch its surface or plumb the mysteries it contained. The waters he fathomed were largely philosophical. One of the central tenets of his work postulated that the human mind used filters to block perceptions, allowing one to focus on the important issues at hand.

        “Think about it,” he would tell his students. “How much would you get done if you were constantly aware of your socks? The feel of your feet in your boots? We need mental filters. Otherwise, we would be constantly inundated with our own perceptions. According to my calculations, we process very little information, compared to the wealth of sensory data available.”

Stanton approached, handing his father a steaming, earthenware mug. Ragerius noticed the boy’s ruddy complexion had returned. He seemed alert and ready to continue. Hopefully, his adjustments would make the scrying pool safe for his son’s viewing. Ragerius decided this most recent debacle would serve as a teachable moment – don’t be afraid to try something again just because the first time didn’t work. A lesson in perseverance.

Ragerius took a few sips of the steaming beverage before returning to the device.

        “Tempus moderato,” he said with confidence.

A point of light sprang from the center of the device and grew until it filled the entire oculus, offering an eagle’s view of the Realm. Gradually, the image centered on a flat-topped pyramid in the middle of a desert. War on a vast scale raged all around. Several armies of men clashed with nameless horrors, fighting with vicious intensity. When the view narrowed, it centered upon a single mercenary burdened by heavy armor. She carried no sigils or markings upon her gear, unaffiliated with any party present. As she climbed the steep stone steps, a breeze tousled her long orange hair. Her peculiar gait and facial features suggested she was dwarven, albeit on the taller side.

        “That’s the Oracle!” Ragerius exclaimed. “I’ve been there!”

        "What does it mean?” asked Stanton.

        "I don’t know. I presume this battle has something to do with the end of the Contest. Perhaps the Endgame.”

The two privileged spectators could observe almost every detail. It was like omnipresence. So true, so real was the experience, they swore they could even feel the fierce heat of the desert sun reflected off the fine, white sand.

        “Let’s watch carefully, Stanty,” whispered Ragerius. “We don’t want to miss a thing. Perhaps we’ll learn why this woman is so important.”

The Great Sage felt foolish suddenly, unsure why he had whispered to his son. They were alone in the Ivory Tower, and it was unlikely those they watched could see or hear them.

A fierce battle raged. Demons appeared to rend the very heavens, pouring through a fissure to blacken the sky with their obscene number. Dark wings and even darker faces screamed their hatred, their red, soulless eyes promising no mercy. Bursts of flame blossomed everywhere amongst blood-red clouds, and the air shook with concussions. Angels riding giant bird-like creatures circled and jinked throughout the skies seeking prey or fleeing pursuit. Below, armies on the ground swarmed over hot sands. A standard bearing the sword and crossed gauntlets fell to the ground where it was trampled by clawed, webbed feet under an unforgiving sun, the standard-bearer suffering a far worse fate, adding his screams to the chorus, as his arms were torn from their sockets by some ghastly behemoth.

Black beasts bounded into tightly packed ranks of men, savaging all those who stood in their way. Like ragdolls, bodies sailed through the air in multiple directions with gravity-defying ease, the heavily armored knights careening off those not yet engaged, the latter falling back like dominos into those behind, forcing the living to struggle under the weight of the dying encased in their hot, heavy armor. Many screamed. Pinned under their slain brethren, they could do nothing but watch as the beasts stalked forward to crush their skulls in their powerful jaws, the presence of helmets a mere annoyance. 

Nothing the men did seemed to help; the hides of the beasts were too thick to be pierced by spear alone. Once in a great while, amongst the legions on the battlefield, the concerted efforts of men timing their sword thrusts would bring down one of these creatures, and, on these occasions, a roar of triumph would rise above the din. But these events were few and far between. More common was the sight of men falling by the dozen, their blood spilling with appalling ease, the woeful outcome of an overwhelming force meeting feeble resistance.

On another part of the battlefield, an army of horrors clad in jet-black armor crested a hill. Blasphemous scarlet symbols blazed upon their pauldrons and shields. Most brandished heavy axes. They blew horns announcing their presence. Like grim harbingers of death, these stentorian blasts sapped the will of their prey. Knees of men buckled. Some whimpered or cried. The resolve of those daring to resist waned, and even the composure of the most famous of heroes evaporated like the sweat upon their faces. With despair, these men gaped in terror, as they watched the fiendish knights marching towards them, advancing as if backed by the inevitability of destiny, like the crashing of a giant wave. Appearing more spectral than physical, they bore their heavy armor like feathers, and seemed forged from solid metal with nothing inside, moving forward as if animated by malice alone. Their numbers could not easily be counted, their ranks stretching far back into the desert dunes, as far as the eye could see.

All around, the air thickened with the roar of battle. Explosions perforated the harsh din of metal striking metal, and the softer report of metal slicing flesh. None of the doomed men could escape the despairing cries of their dying comrades born aloft upon a forlorn wind, a terrible dirge for those still living.

The whole world seemed to have converged upon the Oracle. No order remained. All was chaos. The enemy broke through the imperial forces, dividing them. Before long, they had them outflanked as well. As the fight unraveled, a pall of despair settled over the remaining men, perhaps realizing they were trapped in an inescapable quagmire of hopeless oblivion. Many wheeled about in terror upon learning they were surrounded. Frantically looking for a place to flee, they froze, rooted in place like trees.

At this point, even the most stalwart officers fell to their knees, and few were able to resist the urge to panic. New recruits, green to the horrors of war, went mad with fright. Besieged on all sides with no places to hide, many dug holes in the ground and smothered themselves rather than face the mind-shattering terror.

A giant Timeglass hovered far above, indifferent to the massive conflict. The upper chamber appeared nearly empty, the scarlet grains slipping away into the lower chamber like a great waterfall of rust. Occasionally, a winged creature would fly too close to this chronometer and a brilliant flash of light would obliterate the transgressor.

A woman wearing a silver hauberk paused to catch her breath. She struggled to ascend the stairs leading to the platformed summit, her orange hair sprouting beneath a pot helm. Powerfully built, with large, muscular legs, she grimaced as blood pumped from an open wound, the weeping gash soaking her greaves and leaving a trail marking her progress up the steep ascent. With one arm she struggled for purchase; in the other, she held something of great value, for she clutched it tightly to her chest.

A winged beast landed on the platform above her. Mere feet away, it spewed fire over the precipice. The woman pulled a shield from her back, placing it over her head just in time to divert the fiery deluge flowing past. Twisting around, her eyes went wide as she looked at something just out of view. She screamed a name.

* * * * * * *
The unfolding drama was terrifying. Ragerius could not make out what the woman had said. “Who is she? And what does she have to do with the Prophecy?” he whispered. Stanton remained silent. And the two continued to gaze into the pool. The surface grew cloudy once again, and blood-red smoke swirled before another vision appeared.
* * * * * * *

This time the image was of a forest. Gradually, the device restricted its scope centering itself deep within a grove. Tall trees scrolled past as the view narrowed with a simultaneous jump in its magnification.
            “Look at the size of those trees, Stanty,” Ragerius whispered. “It must be Glendor Forest. Only the oldest trees in the Realm could grow that large. And who is that charming woman?”

Judging by her pointed ears, a young elf woman sat at a long table in a forest clearing. A feast had been laid out, and a celebration was about to take place. On wooden platters fruit and nuts were piled high. Cheeses sat upon others. Earthenware pitchers sat at the ready with water and wine, and one glass decanter held milk of some kind. Light and dark breads protruded from baskets. And although daylight, an elegant candelabra of earth-toned candles stood burning at the center of the table.

Robed men sat beside her, most of them elderly. Affectionate smiles and congratulatory greetings were exchanged. A deer strode from the forest and appeared at the elf’s side, nuzzling her arm for attention. She stroked its head while she spoke with one of the men. The squirrels and birds seemed to take notice as well, abandoning their foraging to perch in trees and watch.

Twelve men came to sit at the table. Many brought gifts for the woman. Most were handcrafted. Some were ornamental, such as a pendant, while others were functional, like an ocarina. She blew into the latter, said something, and everyone laughed.

The eldest man stood and raised a glass. The others followed his lead. Cheers sounded throughout the forest, and even a few animals lent their calls and songs. A slight blush passed over the woman’s face. Beaming with pride, she stood with the men and said a few words. When she sat, the feast began.
* * * * * * *

This happy, hopeful image was lost, and the Scrying Pool once again went dark. Ragerius stared in amazement, wondering what image would appear next. As before, he could not hear what people had said. Whatever it was appeared welcoming and friendly, as opposed to threatening and hostile.  The two scenes revealed by the pool could not have been more different.
Stanton appeared happy as he regarded his father, knowing only too well how hard the old man had worked for this moment.  Awakening the device had taken nearly a fortnight of careful preparation, and it had been just weeks since its recovery by Jordan Cartwright.. He turned back to watch the pool, intrigued by the swirling smoke, wondering how the billowing skeins were confined to the flat surface.

        “It grows cold,” whispered Ragerius. The old man looked as if he had just made an unpleasant discovery. The Great Sage noticed his breath misting before his eyes. What could it mean? Energy was being sucked from the room. But why? And how? With rising fear, he motioned his son to back away.

Stanton said nothing as he retreated to the periphery, but the fear he felt was mirrored on the old man’s face. In all the time he had known him, the boy had never seen this expression. No doubt, in the apotheosis of his father, Stanton considered fear an impossible, inaccessible emotion for the wise and powerful wizard. Now it was clear he had been wrong, and the normally unflappable Ragerius appeared much shaken. The sight terrified the boy.

With sudden violence, the device sprang to life, crackling with electricity. A cacophony split the air, the ear-grating groans like the shearing of metal. Ragerius stammered as he watched the device rise from the floor and pivot to face him. He saw his own astonished features reflected in the arcing copper trim. Then, it began to rotate clockwise, gaining speed by the second. The terrible noises were replaced by a dull roar like the rush of a great waterfall.  

        “This is not supposed to happen!” screamed Ragerius, baffled by the forces animating the evil object.

A blast of wind burst forth, knocking him off his feet. This new circumstance was of monumental importance, because it meant the portal was no longer just a viewing screen – it had become a gateway to another world, another dimension. Before it was not possible for one world to interact with the other. Now the rules had changed.

The inexplicable, unnatural cold continued to penetrate the room. The old man’s bones felt leaden, his veins ice. He managed to stand despite feeling as if some unseen force was sucking the life from him. His arthritic joints throbbed, cruelly forced to adapt to this new environment. Just a few feet away, the surface of the Ivory Tower blazed in the summer heat, providing an ironic contrast to the interior of the knowledge den, which suffered conditions tantamount to an artic chill.

An ominous darkness smothered the room, blocking out peripheral sources of light; all the while a mysterious glow pulsed from the portal. A shimmering image began to form, like millions of scintillating crystals coalescing into one aggregate form. It reminded Ragerius of wind stirring the surface of a sunlit pond. Unexpectedly, an eerie silence fell, more terrifying than the unpleasant sounds before. The Great Sage balled out commands, but he could not even hear his own voice. It was as if the air refused to propagate vibrations.

Ice crystals formed on the floor, but such was the intensity of the moment, Ragerius did not even notice his frostbitten feet. Nor did he acknowledge icicles forming on his beard, growing denser by the minute. Then the whispers came.

Disturbing in their bizarre articulations, the voices seemed to presage the arrival of a great power. His skin tingled and his stomach felt as if it were trying to digest a stone. Ranging in octaves and cadence, some of the noises sounded like insects. Others reminded him of rocks falling from a mountain pass to form scree. He deemed the eldritch phonetics lingually impossible for a human voice, further thrilling him with terror. As the sibilant sounds reached his ear, not a word could he relate, though the message was clear: a malevolent force or malignant agent approached.

Aware of his rising fear, Ragerius focused on a single thought, a mantra to offer comfort in the growing darkness – Reason conquers Madness.  He repeated the phrase over and over. It was all he could do. Yet despite this precaution, the chains holding his reason buckled under the strain, threatening to release him over the dark abyss. The concatenation of facts, proven truths, and tested beliefs, which had sustained him so well throughout his life were breaking, the rusty links yielding to the indisputable power before him, mocking his reality and proving that the impossible was possible.

An invasive paralysis penetrated the little left of his rational brain. A plan was out of the question now; he had not the strength to formulate one. With a frenetic heart thrashing against his chest, he watched a shadowy figure approach. Its features were indistinct, but it would soon be upon him. He felt as if he were being stalked by some hideous beast, a doom-bringer hailing from some unfathomed depths of darkness. Ragerius suppressed a shriek, as something resembling a face loomed before him. Glowing eyes burned with intelligent fury, and a wicked smile crossed its lupine features. It was a creature from another world, another dimension.

And it had found him!

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