Ixiel the Wanderer. Ixiel the Lost. What songs do they sing of thee? What ballads are recalled in the eerie shriek of every owl, what rumbles in the lightning-split heavens? What do they call out to thee from tear streaked memories? What reveries echo in the hushed gloom?
Kerlan was waiting for him. At the end of a morning fog at a wend in the road, a hooded figure sat thoughtfully on a rock. Ixiel recognized his fellow traveller, browless and bald as he was, and called out to him.
"I am Ixiel, learned of Xiomendes," he said proudly.
"And what does that mean?" the Walker replied, "We're all someone trained of some dusty old man or woman. You won't impress any Walker addressing yourself like that. Not unless you're an archwizard. No, none of us is impressed unless you're sleeping in velvet sheets and cavorting with royalty."
The stranger looked at the crimson-cheeked, proud young man who drew himself up before him. "The name's Kerlan. I also once had my head shaved by some old fart." The man drew back his hood and smoothed a palm over his bald skull, grinning inscrutably. And so the traditional formalism of his magical education ended for Ixiel.
Kerlan was a man of middle age and bearing. Medium height, earthy complexion, and slightly childish features. It was not entirely clear he needed a razor to tend his hairlessness. Beneath his gaunt frame, however, was a man of wit and learning and a daring countenance that encouraged Ixiel to explore.
Where Xiomendes had been strict, Kerlan was relaxed. Where his former master was solemn, his new companion was flippant. Yet side-by-side the two were equal in their knowledge of the old ways. Kerlan may have explored a different path from Xiomendes, but he arrived at the same places.
Whether he and Kerlan had met by chance or design was unclear to Ixiel. Though he had meandered since his late master's death, Ixiel was not entirely unguided. Here and there a helpful whisper came, a feeling of great intuition, a sense of direction in an otherwise senseless world. Fated or coincidental, he and Kerlan strode the wilderness for some years. No other Walkers crossed their path.
Despite his relative youth, his companion had traveled wide across Valerius. He regaled Ixiel with tales of long lost cities and deep caverns in which the Sages of old hid their knowledge away for safe keeping. Like Ixiel, Kerlan was a prolific collector of old artifacts.
"See these?" he said, holding up a set of rune-inscribed beads. "Focus stones. Old magic. Casters used to wear them to augment their bonds to veil and void. Lost a lot of their charge, been well used. Take 'em. They'll come in handy." Over the campfire, Kerlan tossed the beads to his companion.
Ixiel marveled at the first gift he had ever received. Fatherless Isidore had been taken from everything he had known. The memories of that boy, his mother's face, the shape of her smile, the penetrating sadness of her weary eyes, were more residue than memory, details from disparate instances rearranged by his mind to give it substance. His surrogate Xiomendes had returned from the dust he had come from. Delia... had left, quiet as a ghost, barely even haunting his dreams. The necklace he held in his hands felt to him like an anchor, its old runes tying him to a long lineage and great purpose that was bigger than the loneliness of self.
He tried to thank Kerlan, but the man turned in to sleep without so much as a goodnight.
"These here are words of binding," he showed Ixiel months later, running his hands reverently along the stiff parchment. "Powerful magics. Used to echant items--weapons, armor, beads like your own--and also to make marks to bind people. They say that lovers used to mark themselves so they always knew where the other was, so they could die at just the same instant. Far away, but together. Or some such nonsense." Kerlan chuckled.
Ixiel dreamed of Delia that night, thoughts turning to her despite any distraction he might forcefully imagine. The dark was cold and wet. Wrapped in his dirty robes, he found himself wishing from the foundation of his being to return to those chaste moments of adolescence when he and she would huddle together for warmth in the night. How cruel he thought it then, to be so close yet far. But still Ixiel knew he preferred that binding torture to the rain-soaked freedom of the night.
You can have her. I can give her to you. The whisper came.
Ixiel’s eyes jolted awake. He put the thought out of his head. Delia was Isidore's dream. That boy was gone. Ixiel was a seeker – a keeper of lost things. Surely, he was that and that alone. Never could he be more… Could he?
* * *
Kerlan started every day the same: he found a decent-sized rock and just before sunrise sat on it until inspiration struck him. Together, he and Ixiel crisscrossed all of Valerius from rock to rock, going south one day, then east the next, before taking a northwest tack to catch a trail they did not seek. They never traveled the same direction. They never turned back.
"Ixiel, come," Kerlan shouted giddily in a dark dank cave. Ixiel appeared over his companion’s shoulder. "Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?" Clutched in Kerlan’s hand was an onyx crystal, so impenetrable a black that it seemed to suck the light from their meager lanterns and exist in a darkness deeper than shadow.
"What is it?"
"A battery. Ancient magics. As old as the Sages themselves. This one’s been lost to us for... hundreds of years? More, maybe.” Kerlan turned the crystal over in his hand. He never took his eyes off it. “Incredible."
Ixiel was perplexed. Battery was something done to another with fists, or to the door of a keep with a ram.
"Come," Kerlan beckoned. "I will explain."
At their campsite, Ixiel’s companion was anything but forthcoming, staring deep into the dancing firelight. Ixiel was deeply curious, but respected the need for silence. He busied himself with a stew made from a winter rabbit coaxed from its burrow by a gesture and his will. While much of "Isidore" had been discarded, it was difficult to resist eating well. Ixiel ate heartily, watching the other man tinker. After leaving his stew untouched for a near quarter of an hour, Kerlan finally spoke.
"You remember the rhyme they taught you?"
Ixiel nodded and began to recite. "In the beginning there was--"
Kerlan waved him off.
"I remember it, gods how I remember it. I know it better than my own name. That's how hard it was beaten into me. No, you remember the part about the Sages’ battle with Tyrannus?"
"You ever wonder how the old ones were able to channel such powerful magics? The primordial demon is fueled by generations of hatred for man. It draws strength from our blood, our suffering, from our very souls. Today you can light a fire or snare a rabbit with your tricks, but you could not face such a foe."
Kerlan leveled a stare at his friend. He held up the crystal and continued.
"Not without a battery. In deep caves in the southwest there grows a crystal, reddish pink in color. The people of that land call it ‘heart crystal,’ a corruption of an old name. It is something closer to 'soul house' in our tongue. It is deeply magical, receptive to being imbued with even the most minor properties. Walkers who find it usually turn it into a light, or if they have talent with fire a sort of crystal flame they carry with them on cold nights.
"But with powerful magic, there are great uses. I know you have felt it, when you are drawing on your power. You are standing at the edge of a great reservoir. Taking your finger you draw a small rivulet in the sand, just enough for you to taste and call forth whatever you need. You fear that if you draw too great a stream your soul will drown in its power…" The fire’s orange light flickered in the mage’s eyes.
Indeed, that was how it felt to Ixiel to call forth magic. When he first did it, he did not know how. He scooped into a well just enough to recreate a symbol he admired. It was only under Xiomendes' tutelage that he understood just how dangerous it could be to conjure magics by whim.
"That power, that thread, it fuels Tyrannus as well. He drinks from the same trough. For a man to fight him, he'd be killed trying to draw a fraction of that power. But many men together, drawing forth at the same time, could access a power at least equal to that of the demon. So, the Sages took all the heart crystal they could find and they imbued it with a thirst for magic. Each Sage carried a piece with him on the field of battle. As he fell, his essence filled the crystal and trapped his soul, so that a surviving comrade could draw from not only his own power, but that of his former allies as well.”
Kerlan smiled ruefully.
"You ever wonder why the Sages just disappeared after the battle against Tyrannus? It's because hardly any survived. They kept harvesting from one another until one of the last – who knows who that was – drew enough strength to overwhelm the demon and obliterate everything near. You been to the Avendar Wastes in the East? That place is still blighted from the magics used that day.
"While it's true that magic allowed Tyrannus access to this world, it was also the only thing that could send it back. The wizards that saved Valerius should have taught the survivors that study and meditation and knowledge – not endless, pointless, barbaric duels – are the means of salvation. But only a few Sages remained; apprentices and those too weak for battle. They were hailed as heroes for a time, but never strong enough to ascend to true power. Even though we mended the veil of shadow between human and demon, we're consigned to wander like hermits and beggars, searching desperately for the old knowledge to make us fearsome again. Only a few are lucky enough to set up shop somewhere, and only then if they bow and scrape their way into a lord's court, paying flattery to the king and those of noble egos. The lauded chair of the Archwizard is but a joke. An empty ‘honor.’ This," he said, holding the crystal aloft, "is one of the few things I've ever seen that proves it wasn't always like this."
"So, there's a dead wizard inside?" Ixiel asked.
Kerlan looked at the crystal and pursed his lips.
"I'm not really sure, Ix. Could be any one, I guess. The only difference between a wizard and a commoner is that a wizard knows how to tap the reservoir. Some people can be taught the way, most cannot, but everyone can drink. It could be anyone in here, or maybe no one anymore. This could be all that's left of some used up someone."
* * *
For years the two scoured Valerius for more evidence of the crystal and how it was made. Though he was naturally wary of crowds, Kerlan led his companion through more and more towns, buying up the heart crystals that were sold as mundane love charms. Ixiel watched and absorbed, eager to glean what he could.
Kerlan grew obsessive. He read daily on the words of binding, trying to unlock just which combination might make a crystal receptive. At first he experimented with small game, plants that had deep roots and little feeling. Finding their essence insufficient, he quickly graduated to domestic breeds, catching cats and dogs and telling Ixiel in turns of the accidental nature of their death and then the righteousness of their sacrifice. Ixiel grew wary of his comrade, whose deep knowledge and offhand brilliance was increasingly tinged by the madness of his quest.
The madness ended ungracefully in a secluded barn. Kerlan stood over a small girl, holding a heart crystal and her father's hand axe. He was coaxing her with gentle words, promising immortality, when Ixiel found them.
Ixiel was not aware just when the decision was made. Barely had he recalled a hiss and tremor of surprised laughter. He wasn't even sure he had acted until he felt warm blood pooling around the knife hilt thrust into Kerlan’s back. Ixiel collapsed forward with his friend, whose last rasping soliloquy filled the room with unintelligible lyrics.
The knife that had culled so many rabbits had taken the life of a man. Ixiel crouched next to the corpse, dumbstruck with grief and disbelief.
His vision swam and his stomach churned. His mouth hanged agape. For too long the air was thick and empty of thought. Finally, he looked up at the girl, who trembled visibly, but had yet to move. "You should leave," Ixiel told her quietly. He did not watch her go as he began to collect the remains of Kerlan.
Ixiel lit the pyre for his companion on a rock at the bend of a road. With firm resolve, he gathered the belongings that the mad wanderer had accumulated and pitched them into the fire. He picked up the heart crystal, the one Kerlan had held in his hand when he died. It was black and pulsing with vibrant energy. Ixiel could feel a soul stirring within. In that moment he felt it too cruel to condemn his friend to a second death.
You can use these things. Better than him, a small voice promised from the dark.
Ixiel gathered up the remaining scrolls and artifacts. Where his friend had sought power he would seek peace...