Finn groaned under the exhaustion and waves of pain, but he pushed through. This was the least he could do for Jennifer. She had given herself entirely to defend them and now she paid the price. Spellrot had advanced all over her hands and even her lower arms. Finn still didn’t understand much about it, or how it worked. But Oswald had shown Sam and him how to treat it, undo it. It took energy, both mana and stamina, and it hurt while you treated it. It hurt a damn lot. They had started together, treating Jennifer while Oswald went to talk with his Master. But soon had taken to treating her in turns, to get some respite from the strain and pain.
Master Thomas. Finn shivered if he thought back about the fight, how quickly it ended. How master Thomas had disposed of the others in a swift and efficient manner. Remarkable, but terrifying as well. Magic and skills seemingly came as natural to him, the way he danced around their attacks and slid his own in between. The Angels hadn’t stood a chance. And they had known it too, Finn had seen that in their eyes the moment master Thomas arrived.
“It’s working, look, it’s getting smaller,” Sam said, her voice was soft, broken. The events had clearly taken their toll on her.
“Yeah, I hope she isn’t in pain.” Finn’s voice sounded much the same.
“Hmmm,” Sam sat down next to Finn and extended her arms over Jennifer and then closed her eyes. Finn felt the energy coming from her hands and ebbing over Jennifer and he stopped his own flow, retracting his hands. He let out a long moan when the pain and exhaustion slowly faded.
“Thanks,” He said with a smile.
Sam answered with a nod and a small smile. Finn could see she was already feeling the pain. He felt sorry for her, but he couldn’t change anything about it either. He knew that they would last longer this way, and be able to heal Jennifer more. He sighed as he sat down and leaned back, looking towards Oswald and master Thomas. They were quite a bit off, talking as they sat between the corpses of the Angel Players. Finn wondered about what they talked about. It if was about Sam and him, what they were going to do with them. Would they really be what Jennifer had told him? Or would they be just a different kind of evil from the Angels? Finn sighed as he laid down. He was too tired to think about all the possible things that could go wrong. He just wanted to close his eyes for a moment.
“I see, they did well then,” Thomas said as he inspected one of the Angels.
“Yes master, they did. Much better than Jennifer or I had expected. The boy especially was proactive in his ways. A bit rash perhaps, but he has potential. The girl as well, at first I was reserved about her. But she seems to have a very keen sense for the arcane. Much the same as Jennifer.” Oswald paused on Jennifer’s name for a bit, looking back at the three, he was worried.
“She’ll be fine Oswald. It is just spellrot and exhaustion. Even if the young ones fuck it up, you or I can easily fix that later on.”
“And learning how to treat spellrot is an invaluable lesson for them.”
“I know, master.”
“Then stop sulking, Jennifer is strong. She won’t mind this at all.”
Master Thomas went through the pockets of the woman on the floor and pulled out a small medallion. He held it in front of his face and studied it.
“Hmm,” he twisted it around a bit. “As I thought.”
“What?” Oswald asked curiously.
“This is ensorceled. Quite well I might add. The enchantment is complex as well, strong yet flexible. Adaptable yet sturdy. It won’t be easily removed or broken.”
“What does it do then?” Oswald asked, getting a bit uneasy. He hated curses. It was always a hassle to fight spellcraft with workings when it came to curses.
“It buffs the wearer, in a way.”
“It buffs them? Makes them stronger?” Oswald asked.
“Yes and no, it negates a lot, like pain and exhaustion. You will still get hurt and get tired, you won’t feel it though.”
“Seems like this is a really juiced-up version of the old berserker blood rage enhancements. That doesn’t really make sense.”
“Why not?” Oswald came closer now, more at ease.
“Not many have access to the grammerie of those spells. And I know even less folk who are able to adapt and improve upon them. Old grammerie is never easy stuff you know.”
Oswald nodded. “I know master, I may have not chosen the Arcane path, but I know some things. Ancient Scripture is never easy either.”
“Yes, Grammerie and Scripture are indeed much alike,” Thomas said as he put the medallion in a small, metallic box and then put it away. “But this is really odd Oswald. The Angels wouldn’t have been able to get their hands on this kind of stuff.”
“But they are carrying it, so they must have found some way.”
“Yeah, and that is what worries me. Only some factions can do this kind of stuff, and that means they are either helping the Angels or are being forced to help them. Neither of which is a good thing for us or the Circle.”
“Fuck..” Oswald said softly as he realized what that exactly meant. “But… who is able then to make this kind of stuff?”
“Sleipnir would be able to if they all worked together. But that is a far shot. Nara’s coven could do this, but they ask a lot and I doubt they would work for free or be forced by the Angels. The Nordic brotherhood has the resources for this, but they are our allies and they hate the angels perhaps even more than us. That leaves us two other options. The Jungle Vipers and the Midnight Sun. Both equally less likely to, but they are the only ones I can think off;”
“Aren’t the Vipers only active in Southern America these days?”
“Yes, after their defeats in Freita and Donji Borki they haven’t got any European footholds left. But they still have some ties with Asia and Northern America, enough ties to deal with European factions in any case. So we can’t rule them out entirely.”
“So what will we do now?”
“Hmm,” Thomas walked around the corpses, casting a spell for each of them. Once hit, the corpses started to dissolve and drain into the soil. Leaving behind only ensorceled objects. Most of those Thomas destroyed as well. A select few he kept and added to the metallic box from before. “I think we need to visit our friends in the Nordic brotherhood. They are supposed to be the keepers over there, they should have a better view on who has had access to those old spells. They keep a tight lid on this most of the time. There has to be a trail of this.
“Hopefully, if they have access to ancient grammerie they are growing faster than we had expected. And they won’t stop with one spell either.”
“Exactly, soon enough they will gain access to another one, and there isn’t anything stopping them from gaining ancient scripture either.”
Oswald gasped. “They wouldn’t dare! The church will obliterate them.”
“If they can find them. If they are not in on it.”
“Master! You can’t say things like that about the church, they-”
“They are men like you and I Oswald, and they are imperfect and with flaws much the same. Find the right person for the right bribe or blackmail, and you can manipulate them. No matter their resolve, power or ethics.”
“I suppose,” Oswald said, clearly displeased with the insult to his church. “What about the kids?”
“What about them?” Thomas asked as he put away the box.
“What will you do with them?”
“Well,” Thomas said as he looked over at them. “They survived all of this, they even tried to help you two and fight back at the moment, so we know they have a spine and the gut for this kind of stuff. And they have been working on Jennifer’s spellrot without a pause.” Thomas smiled at Oswald. “I think it is time I take on two new apprentices, don’t you agree Oswald?”
Oswald smiled. “Yes, I was hoping you would say that.”
“You are too soft Oswald, you already grew attached to them.” Thomas laughed.
“No, well, perhaps a little. But maybe Jennifer and I will have a bit more time for our own projects now.”
“Oh no, no. I will still need you all the time Oswald. Busy days ahead.” Thomas grinned.
Oswald sighed. “Of course, I should stop hoping for that to ever happen.”
Thomas laughed. “Come, let’s go see the kids.”
Finn groaned as he took over from Sam, the pain came over him in waves, increasing with intensity each time until it felt like before. He could see the rot diminish, moving way from Jennifer’s skin, but the progress was slow and even though he could see the direct results from what he was doing, Finn was having a hard time keeping his resolve. He wanted to give up.
He was glad that he didn’t when master Thomas walked over with Oswald.
“You can stop for a moment lad,” Thomas said.
“Jennifer isn’t well yet, the rot isn’t gone and-” Finn was interrupted as Thomas put a hand on his shoulder.
“It is okay, she is resting. She doesn’t feel any discomfort from it yet. Take a break, I want to talk to the both of you anyway.” He said as he smiled at Sam as well.
“Okay…” Finn said, sitting back as he stopped healing. Was it even healing?
“So.” Thomas said.
Sam and Finn looked at him with big eyes.
“Not very talkative huh?” He said with a grin. “Well, Oswald has told me enough anyway. I think Jennifer has told you the most as well. Probably not a lot about the Circle, but I assume you know who I am?”
“Yes, you are Jennifer’s and Oswald’s master,” Finn said, then added after a pause. “And we don’t know what the Circle is.”
“Heh,” Thomas chuckled. “Cheeky, he is indeed curious Oswald. Yes, I am their master, my name is Thomas. It is a pleasure to meet you, for now, you can call me Thomas. I know a lot has happened in a short time for you two, how long has it been since you awoke?”
“About a month and a half or so,” Finn said.
“A month for me,” Sam added.
“Ah, well, you two did great. If that helps. I know it has been rough, but this is what the world is to Players. Rough and tough and it won’t hesitate to eat you if you let it. I want to say it will get easier from here on out but it won’t. It will be different, easier in some ways perhaps. But there will always be other ways the world will make things hard for you. Even I still have a hard time in this world. But that is just the path Players walk.”
They both listened in silence, Thomas could see that their spirit somewhat broke by the prospect of that. They mumbled a soft ‘pleasure to meet you to’ back though.
“Now, I want to offer you an apprenticeship with me, both of you. You are free to accept or to refuse, of course, I won’t force you to do anything. But I must tell you that the Angels will keep looking for you and that they will be out for vengeance now that they lost five of their ranks.”
“Six,” corrected Oswald.
“Six of their ranks. They’ll come after Oswald and Jennifer, and me. But also after you. And this time it won’t be to enslave you, but far worse things.”
“But… that’s not fair!” Finn exclaimed.
“No, it isn’t. But I can’t change it and neither can you. So focus on what you can do. You have two options here, you join me as my apprentices, learn under my guidance and protection. Or you continue on yourself. Some of the strongest players in the world started out on their own, so there is something to say about the benefits of that route. I myself started out as a lone wolf. But that was a while ago and the world has gotten smaller since then. It will be harder and more dangerous for you two to pull that off. So please, think about this carefully.”
“I- we-” Finn hesitated, trying to think of what to say, or how to say what he wanted to say. “It is just…. Mira, the woman that was with the Angels… We trusted her, too soon,” Finn looked at Sam as he said that. “And we are a bit… hesitant to rush into trusting others now.”
“Even when they just saved your life?”
“Well,” Finn felt bad, but he forced himself to look Thomas in the eyes. “Yes.”
“Good, never trust anybody just because they saved you. There is plenty of reason to save somebody aside from altruism.”
“Yes…” Finn said in a soft, sad tone.
“But we ain’t like that kid. And I think you know that. There has simply been too many chances for my pupils to do something if that had been our goal. And you saw what I could do already. If I wanted something from you, I could just demand it right here and now. I don’t because that is not me. But again, think about this carefully. This chance, I will give it only once.”
“Master won’t tell you this, but he is highly selective in taking in apprentices. In a way, this is quite an honour. But like you, I did not know about this when he offered it to me. I accepted it though, and I have yet to regret it after all this time.”
“Yet you never stop nagging to me about all the work I make you do,” Thomas said with a playful grin. “You should know that as well, aside from my guidance and protection, you will have to do what I tell you to do. From menial chores to wild hunts like these two just went on to find you two. This is not negotiable, you can quit anytime you want of course, but I can promise you that what I ask of you is for the greater good and to better the world in most cases, to better my own good in some cases.” Thomas grinned again, savouring the enigma he created. He loved to see the young ones get curious and eager to know more, yet refusing to give them anything but morsels of information. That was how he lured them in. It also helped to serve as a filter, he had no need for apprentices that lacked a healthy curiosity. He needed not only extra hands and eyes but ones that were very perceptive and eager to see and feel.
“Yes, we will think about it.”
“Yes, for now, you should come with us though. I want to make sure you are safe.”
“Come with you? Where?”
“To where we live, I promise you that once you have decided, and should you decide to not stay with me, I will bring you back here, or anywhere else. Okay?”
“Uhm…,” Finn looked hesitantly from Thomas to Sam. “Yes?”
“Yes,” Sam said as she took Finn’s hand, squeezing it gently.
“Yes, when do we leave?”
“Now? But we are exhausted, and Jennifer is still out? How are we going to carry her? How far do we need to walk even?”
“Who said anything about walking?” Thomas grinned.
“What?” Finn and Sam asked at the same time.
“We aren’t walking, I’ll create a gate.”
“It is sorcery,” Oswald said as he started to gather things and pack for departure. “Opens a sort of …. Door if you will, from this place to somewhere else.”
“You can do that?”
“With magic, yes. Scripture too, only it works differently.”
“It works less good he means.” Thomas butted in. Oswald glared.
“Fine, it works less good, but sorcery has its limits too. The further away it is, the harder it will be and the more energy it will cost.”
“Only a reasonable limit,” Thomas said as he helped to gather things.
“And you need to be able to perfectly visualize the place you want to go to or have exact numbers of its location.”
“Isn’t it rather easy to get latitude and longitude these days for any place?” Finn asked.
“Yes, but that is not what you need. Latitude and longitude are coordinates to use on a map unto which the world has been projected,” Oswald said. “You can’t use that for this kind of stuff. Making a gate is like cutting a hole in the fabric of time and space, only really gently. But that still means that on the other end of that gate you have the whole plane of time and space, so you need to pinpoint your location in that as well.”
“Meaning?” Finn asked confused.
“Meaning you need the coordinates for your desired place in four dimensions. Three physical ones, and time. Even if you are in the place, it is not easy to get those measures. It would take master Thomas several days to get the measurements for this place.”
“Two at most,” Thomas said proudly.
“And then they will be only usable until the next General Shift.”
“Well, that is complicated to explain. But every now and then, it happens, and it makes all measurements useless. Every place will have new ones. We can roughly predict when they’ll happen, but it is still a big nuisance. So visualization is often the prefered method.”
“But what?” Oswald asked.
“I don’t know, it sounded like there would come a but,” Finn said.
“But there is one,” Thomas said, putting a pack down. “Visualization is very inaccurate. It depends on the mind cultivation of the one using it, and their imaginative abilities. Luckily for all of you, I am very good at both. So we’ll arrive more or less exactly where I want us to go.”
“Wait, if we are going to your home. Why don’t you have the measures? Surely you would have the ones of the place you live?”
“Indeed I would if there had not been a sudden General Shift.”
“What? When?” Finn asked.
“Just before the battle with them,” Thomas said, nodding at the dissolved remains of the corpses.
“But I didn’t feel anything?”
“That is normal, you never really do,” Oswald said. “It doesn’t really concern us or affect us. It just messes with the measurements. And Gate magic happens to use those.”
“So… just a hassle?” Finn said.
“Exactly!” Thomas said cheerily. “You catch on quickly kid.”
Finn stood up and started to help Oswald and Thomas, gathering the things. Sam sat next to Jennifer, healing her again. It took the lot of them only a few minutes before they were ready to go. All their stuff gathered in a pile.
“So… now, what happens?” Finn asked.
“This,” Thomas said with a smirk and then closed his eyes.
He outstretched his hands and fog started to swirl around them, faster and faster. The colours changing rapidly, erratic and random. Bright hues interchanging with softer ones. Small crackles of violently bright colours flashing in the fog, like lightning in clouds.
And then it all ended.
Finn was confused and unsatisfied at first, but then he saw the gate.
A meter or two away from Thomas was a large, rectangular frame. It floated in the air, about twenty centimetres above the ground. The length of it running vertically, like a doorway. It was filled in with an opaque purplish pink colour. Thomas walked over it and tapped it. The tap sent wrinkles across the colour, that now seemed to be some sort of liquid, rippling like a pond would after you threw a stone in. The ripples kept going though and did not die out, instead of increasing in intensity until the whole coloured door became translucent. On the other side was a grassy hill it seemed.
Finn gasped, Sam yelped. It was amazing.
“Come, let’s go now. It takes quite the effort to keep this thing going, so let’s not waste any time hmm?” Thomas said with a smile. He cast another spell and all the stuff started to float and move through the portal. Thomas walked over to Jennifer and picked her up, talking her with him through the portal.
“Come, children, don’t make the master wait,” Oswald said, giving a gentle squeeze and pull on their shoulders.
And so, Sam and Finn stepped in through the gate and found themselves suddenly on an unknown hill, god knows where. Looking at what looked like a small castle. A gentle summer breeze blowing in their faces. Oswald emerged after them and no moment later the Gate collapsed. Gone.