by Lee Allison
The cool breeze rustled the grass on the hilltop overlooking the sandy beach. To the east the sun was starting its daily climb through the sky, rising over the hills; and to the west and south along the ridge, a sparse stand of hardwoods drank in the morning warmth. Some distance along the beach to the north a small, crude town belonging to the local peasants could barely been seen. Turka was from that village, and he planned on returning, just as soon as he found the lost calf that had brought him this far from his home and his breakfast.
But Turka's thoughts of home, breakfast, and even lost milk vanished from his head as a loud, angry buzzing sound erupted from the air at the top of the low bluff. Needing to satisfy his sense of self-preservation before indulging his curiosity, he dove far back into the hardwoods, ivy, and underbrush. After the sound had continued for several minutes, Turka judged it safe to poke a cautious eye around the trunk of the tree he had chosen for haven. And there at the top of the hill was, for lack of a better name, a "hole" in the air. This seemed to be the source of the buzzing.
Turka peered closely through the underbrush at this amazing sight. The hole was floating about three feet off of the top of the grasses, it was roughly four hands tall by two wide, and the color of a thickly smoked glass. Around all four edges of the hole there was a thin trace of searing blue lightning, dancing erratically and defining the hole's shape as it writhed in the air. But most amazing of all was that Turka could see THROUGH this hole. However, instead of seeing the sky over the hills to the east, as he should have been able to, he could see people, master magicians he was certain, moving about in a room on the other side. Each of them dressed in garb that covered them head to toe, and several even had large helmets over their heads and faces. They all attended to strange, magical devices. Lights blinked at them in response to the enchantments they wove. And even though he could see their mouths move, Turka couldn't hear a single sound from the other side of this strange hole.
One mage, heavily clothed and cautious, approached the hole and waved some form of magic wand around all of its edges. After looking closely at the wand, he nodded to the mages behind him and walked out of sight. Another mage silently took the last one's place, but this one carried a longer wand. The end of this wand was about the size of a small melon. He stood squarely in front of the hole, and after looking over his shoulder for confirmation from a senior mage, he pushed the tip of the wand through the hole! Turka was amazed to notice that the end of the wand that stuck through the hole could be clearly seen, while the rest of it on the other side was still obscured by the smoky color of the hole itself. And all the while not making a single noise at all.
After holding the long wand through the hole for several moments, the lesser mage withdrew it and disappeared from sight. Turka waited for what seemed an eternity, and had about decided to run back to his village to get more witnesses when activity on the other side resumed. But this activity chilled Turka to his bones. Four short wands moved into position at the four corners of the hole and gently poked through; it wasn't the wands that scared him so, it was how they moved. They didn't have the slightly jerky uneven movement that a man or creature would move with; these moved smoothly, and solemnly. Turka knew that other wizards weren't over there moving these wands; these must be held by demons! If these unseen demons were close enough to the hole to poke wands through, they were certainly close enough to see Turka if he ran for his life, if they couldn't already smell his sweaty fear.
He was in awe; magicians that could rend holes in the very air, and command demons to do their bidding. The poor peasant knew that his only hope lay in them having need of a pet, or maybe a jester. Hopefully they wouldn't torment him too terribly. Turka steeled his nerve to throw himself at their feet the moment they came through, and began to silently bid his first-wife and children good-bye.
As he contemplated all of this he noticed that the blue lightning had wrapped itself around the four demon-held wands. The angry buzzing that Turka had stopped noticing instantly grew louder, and even angrier; reasserting itself as the most important sound in the whole world. Slowly the wands began to push the edges of the hole outward, forcing the opening to grow. When the hole was about the height of a man, Turka began to see some sort of a gate that the magicians had carved just on the other side of their hole.
Of course they would want a ceremonial gate to pass through, he thought. It was easily the height of a very tall man and wide enough for two to walk through. Every inch of it seemed to be cut from the blackest of rock. The wizards had even embedded sparkling, colored jewels into it to commemorate their achievement, and carved in strange glyphs to announce the supremacy of the gate's owners.
As soon as the immense hole was larger than the gate that stood behind it, more unseen demons, undoubtedly related to those holding the wands, began to push the gate toward the hole. As the leading edge of the black gate touched the smoky surface, the blue lightning began to twist and gyrate twice as fast. It didn't seem to approve of letting this massive intruder through. But the demons continued to shove, and eventually forced the gate part way through into Turka's world.
Once it was through, he noticed that the portion of the gate on his side of the hole was covered in frost, and thin, magical smoke drifted downward from the black rock. Holes in the air, demons, and now smoke that flowed DOWNWARDS! If Turka weren't utterly convinced that it would mean his life, he would have left torn shrubbery and startled game along a trail all the way through his village and over the mountains beyond in that very instant.
The huge gate slowly warmed itself in the sun, and the melting frost began to trickle down its glittering black sides when the blue lightning silently collapsed. It suddenly tightened itself around the black gate and snapped the wands holding it at bay. The four stubs of the once-powerful magical instruments fell into the grasses, their blunt shiny ends reflecting the stems around them.
As the lightning faded into the black rock of the gate, the smoke obscuring the hole cleared away and Turka could hear sounds coming from the other side of the gate. The sounds were confusing at first, but after just a moment he could match some of the noises with the happy, smiling faces making them. The wizards were proud of their talents, and were congratulating themselves.
Turka spent the next few hours in terror. He cowered in the brambles and watched as more demons arrived: This time he could see their jointed, metallic arms, reaching around from the inside of the gate and lowering countless large, strange-looking crates to the ground on either side of the structure.
After this strange ritual was through, and by the time Turka's stomach had long since started to warn him that it was well past the early-day meal, he saw a group of eight strangely dressed wizards start to take places around the gate. With a single amazing moment of clarity, Turka realized what he was seeing. He had often witnessed the daring merchant sailors at the town's docks preparing for one of their long voyages. He had watched as they had loaded their boats and made ready to sail. These bizarre wizards had the same sense of adventure about them. They had the same look in their eyes and the same set of their mouths.
They were preparing to come through! Coward though he was, Turka immediately saw a way out of this whole sordid mess for himself.
Just as down at the docks, these wizards seemed to have a pecking order, which would govern who came through when. Turka saw one whose face said he was a Lord, as plainly as if it had been embossed on his cap, step up and make ready to be the first through. But as he was preparing to step into the strange gate, a siren that would have awoken a man under a Winter-night sleep-curse sounded and all of the wizards instantly became alert to some unseen danger.
They conversed among themselves for several moments until the leader worked a device slung from his tunic and then looked up. Looked up, and right at Turka! Given all that the poor peasant had seen, already he was more amazed that he had gone unseen as long as he had. The Leader barked out some orders and the wizards behind him rearranged the column. Leader and the three right behind him pulled small magical boxes from their pockets and held them as only a weapon could be held.
"Turka, old man," he thought to himself. "You have a first-wife and seven noisy but wonderful children back in the village who may never see poor old dad again. Think and act as if your very life depends on the next few minutes, because it does." Better to let an armed man make his own moves, he thought. He would let the mages come through the gate and remain where he was. Let them come to him and then he would play his best, his only move.
Leader barked a few more orders at the mages behind him and stepped through quickly. As soon as he came through he sidestepped behind one of the crates the demons had placed earlier in the morning and crouched behind it, arms extended over the top and looking down the length of his strange, black weapon right at Turka. The wizard was so focused on the peasant, as if the poor man could ever hope to harm such a personage as himself, that the wizard never saw what happened to the gate.
But Turka saw it. He saw the dim flash of blue light wash across the opening and then he saw the other world, the world of mages, disappear. He saw the bright blue sky behind the gate show through clearly for the first time that morning.
Somehow Turka knew something had gone wrong. The wizards behind Leader had certainly seemed to be about ready to come through, so surely they would have. The Leader then said something to the empty morning air, expecting some sort of response from behind him, where the gate and the other wizards had stood. Even from his place of concealment Turka could see the beads of sweat starting to form on the larger man's brow.
Leader slowly stood up, lowering his weapon to his side. He turned to the broken gate and slowly walked around it. Turka rose, too, and carefully approached. The peasant saw a carrion bird fly away with what appeared to be a small piece of someone's toe! He looked at the base of the gate and saw the four cleanly severed wands that had made the gate and wondered what might happen to a man who had part of his body on one side of the gate and the rest of him on the other when the gate spell collapsed. He sent a quick prayer downward for the owner of the rest of that toe.
Remembering his place in this strangest of all mornings, Turka dropped face down on the grass and spread his arms out before him and started to recite his prepared speech. He put his entire soul into it, because he knew that any misstep could be deadly. Mayhaps those weren't demons he was watching earlier, but the spirits of poor little people who had displeased these very same magicians.
"Master, my name is Turka, and if it would please your almighty self, I might be of use to you as a guide." The peasant cut off his speech abruptly. "Not that a magician of your power would need a, umm, guide..." His words trailed off into nothingness.
Which was broken by a thump as the Leader fell to the ground in a faint, bouncing his head off of a nearby crate on the way down.
Turka remained lying there for almost five spans before he dared to look up from the dirt and grass. Nothing. All was quiet on the hilltop. He slowly stood and approached the mage's unconscious form. Carefully, he nudged the man's body with his foot, holding his breath, and preparing to bolt at the first sign of a ruse.
Turka looked around at the mysterious boxes and the unconscious wizard and quietly cursed his luck and that lost and long-forgotten calf. He wasn't sure how he was going to explain this day to the village Matriarch, but he was certain about one thing -- his whole world was about to change.
Story © copyright 1998 by Lee Allison <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Artwork "The Magician" © copyright 1998-99 by Duncan Long <email@example.com>
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