The woman hummed a tune to herself as she went about her work. Busily sweeping the floor of the tiny kitchen she raised her voice in song, reciting fragments of an old Traladaran love song which she vaguely remembered. Preoccupied as she was by the task at hand, she failed to notice the dark figure which now loomed behind her, appearing as if from nowhere. In the twilight of the gloomy house the figure crept towards her until it lingered right behind her back, arms held out as if to engulf the preoccupied woman.
“Hello mum,” said the dark shape. The woman turned and stared in horror at her assailant. Karnus Perdissium returned her gaze with equal horror as he suddenly realised that the woman before him was not his mother. The woman shrieked and flailed at the wizard with her broom. “Rapist! Thief! Molester!” she screamed as Karnus retreated with his hands held up apologetically, protesting his innocence and beseeching her to stop her assault.
“Please, madam, there must have been some sort of mistake”
“Out! Guards! Guards! Murderer!”
Karnus retreated out of the room, grabbing his staff as he went and using it half-heartedly to deflect the blows of the broom. With much commotion he finally managed to make it to the front door, whereupon the wizard turned and dashed through the door, receiving a blow on the rump as he went.
Once outside Karnus stumbled down the steps and stood in the alleyway, as the woman standing in the doorway continued to cry for the guards. The woman’s neighbours were beginning to gather round, grumbling at the strange man that had caused the ruckus. Karnus had begun to recover from his initial shock, and, starting to become annoyed with their small minded ways, was mentally assessing which spell he should use to shut them up.
“Karnus?” came a voice from beside the wizard. He turned to find a smiling face amidst the crowd, a young woman of about his natural age who moved through the crowd towards him. “Karnus Perdissium?”
The wizard nodded cautiously as she approached and looked him up and down. She turned to the crowd and said “look, everyone – it’s Karnus Perdissium.”
Several of the gathered locals squinted at the wizard, and seemingly saw something they recognised behind the smart beard and the added years, for they shrugged their shoulders and turned away, satisfied that Karnus was no danger. Several of them came up and said hello; faces he hadn’t seen in what felt like years, nodding, smiling, then moving off. The woman who had recognised Karnus was explaining the situation to the owner of the house he had intruded upon, and she jumped lightly down the steps once the disgruntled woman had returned indoors.
“Forgive Maria,” the woman began, “she’s only just moved to these parts and didn’t recognise you. I barely recognised you!"
Karnus squinted at the woman, searching his mind for some recollection of how he knew her. Seeing that the wizard didn’t return her recognition the woman’s face fell, and she bashfully said, “you don’t remember me, do you? I’m Felicia…”
Karnus’ eyebrow’s shot up as he suddenly remembered the tough young girl that had been in the same gang as him growing up. Felicia Antonovic. He hadn’t seen her since he was apprenticed to Teldon all those years ago, and only vaguely recalled that she’d been sent away to Luln shortly after that.
“That’s right,” she confirmed when Karnus verbalised his observations, “I went to learn the family business. But I moved back to Specularum a few years ago, and even moved back into the same street.”
“Well,” said Karnus, “I’m glad you did, or I might have been lynched.”
“A mighty wizard, lynched by the locals? That would have been a good story for the pub!” Felicia smiled at the thought of it, and Karnus found himself smiling with her.
“Felicia,” asked the wizard, suddenly serious, and nodding towards the house, “what happened, where are my family?”
“Oh, they moved up to Bricktop about 6 months ago. It seemed they came into some money – some dwarves seemed to deliver bags of gold every over month. Lucky for some, eh?”
“Yes…” agreed Karnus, suddenly realising how much upward mobility the Smagheft gold payments could provide in Specularum, “very lucky…”
The wizard got directions to the new house from Felicia and bade her farewell. He could feel the woman’s eyes on his back as he strolled away from her.
Half an hour later, the wizard found himself standing outside a smart two storey house, with a newly painted front door and spotless windows. Cautiously he ascended the steps to the porch and rapped upon the door with his staff.
After a few moments and a spot of commotion, the door was flung open, revealing a small boy whose eyes scanned Karnus from the feet upwards, finally coming to lock gazes with the wizard and stare dumbstruck at him.
“Um,” said the wizard in the silence, “I’m looking for the Perdissium family home…?”
The child continued to stare, its mouth open in awe. Karnus suddenly felt terribly conspicuous standing there in his Glantrian styled clothing. Before he could repeat his inquiry another child appeared beside the first, this one a year or two older, who again scanned the wizard from his feet to his head, and ended up staring at his face.
“Look, are your parents home?” Karnus asked of the children.
The older boy turned into the house and shouted “Granny! There’s a strange man at the door!” The younger boy continued his slack jawed stare.
There was a commotion in a room just off from the hallway, and a woman appeared, more aged since Karnus had last seen her, but still beautiful and elegant in her own way. She looked first at her grandsons before glancing at the strange man to whom the eldest had referred and then bursting into smile and running towards the door. “Karny!” she cried as she brushed the gawping boy out of the way.
“Hello mother,” replied Karnus, returning her smile and catching her in a warm embrace that lasted for a few moments. Eventually Atrid Perdissium disengaged herself from her son and stood back to take a good long look at him. “Come, come,” she said, beckoning him inside and closing the door afterwards.
Karnus was shown into a small, humbly furnished sitting room, with a fire burning in the hearth. The children followed the adults into the room, the oldest running around in excitement while the youngest followed at a slow pace, his mouth still ajar. Karnus nodded to the younger boy and asked of his mother, “Is that Robert?”
“Of course, it’s been so long since you saw your nephews. Robert, come over here.” The boy, whose eyes never left the wizard’s face, moved to take his grandmother’s hand. Karnus leant close to his mother and mumbled, “is he simple?” and received a blow from the cloth she held in return.
“No. He’s just a little quiet. And frankly you do look a bit strange.” Before Karnus could reply both children were standing in front of him, and Atrid introduced them. “Robert, Tomas, this is your uncle Karnus. Tomas, you remember him don’t you?”
The boy squinted at his uncle and nodded slowly. “Are you really a wizard?” he asked. His brother stayed silent, but his eyes widened when Tomas spoke.
Karnus looked down at his nephews and smiled, “Yes Tomas, I am.”
“Cast a spell!” the boy could barely contain his excitement, but his grandmother favoured him with a sharp look. “What do we say?” she asked of the boy.
Tomas quickly spat out, “please!”
Karnus smiled and glanced at his mother, before closing his eyes and mumbling a few words of magic. The flames in the fire immediately turned azure and tiny little blue lights burst from the hearth, floating round the room and zipping around the awestruck brothers. Tomas immediately started chasing the dancing lights around the room, while Robert stared at the lights and moved closer to his grandmother.
After a few moments, Karnus let the phantasm fade and looked down at his nephews. “How was that?” he asked the overstimulated Tomas.
“Again, again!” cried the boisterous youngster, but Atrid laid a hand upon Karnus’ shoulder and said, “maybe later – I want to talk to your uncle for a while. Run along home and tell your mother that her brother is in town, then go up to the palace and find your grandfather. Off with you, now!”
Tomas gruffly took his brother’s hand and led him from the room, leaving the two adults alone. Atrid once again embraced her son, then led him to a nearby couch and sat down beside him. "How long are you in town for?" she asked enthusiastically.
"Just for the day," replied Karnus, knowing it wasn't the answer his mother wanted. Her face fell slightly at Karnus' response, but she smiled to cover her dissapointment.
"That's a shame, it's been so long. The last time I saw you you were setting off on a ship of Athenos, except of course that's not where you ended up."
Karnus supposed that his mission to Alphatia had become public knowledge now that the treaty was firmly in place. "It certainly was an adventure, that's for sure." The wizard's mind drifted back over the epic saga that had been his quest to the Eastern Empire. "Are the details widely known?"
"Well, we all know that you were one of the three wizard envoys, and I've heard rumours that there were hardships along the way, but I'm sure you have lots to tell." Karnus opened his mouth to speak, but his mother continued before he could do so. "Save it for the dinner table, Karny - your father will be dying to hear the tale!" Atrid fixed her son with a hopeful look. "You are staying for dinner, aren't you?"
Karnus thought for a moment. He'd been tasked with attending the soiree at the Magician's Guild that evening, the Glantrian embassy having been left off the guest list but eager to have someone in attendance. Still, mused the wizard, he should have time to enjoy some home cooking before he had to go and hobnob with the Alphatians. "As long as it's early, yes," he said.
Atrid smiled, and looked at Karnus, a sad look settling over her face. “Oh, son," she said, "I can’t get over how haggard you look.” She clasped Karnus' hand in her own. "I never should have let you go off to be a wizard. I knew you'd just end up getting hurt."
Karnus glanced down at his hands, the hands of a forty year old. He had grown so used to his advanced aging that he almost forgot about the decade he had lost, but now, as his mother mentioned it his mind wandered back, with stark clarity, to the day of his Harrowing in the basement of the Great School. The wizard often pretended to himself that the change was merely cosmetic, but now, after everything he had endured over the last six months, he suddenly felt old. Alphatia, the devastation of the meteor, the hunt for the Naramissium, all that business with Rheddrian's pawns, never mind the background stresses of trying to single handedly saving the world... Anora... Karnus suddenly felt the weight of it all upon his shoulders, a physical pressure that bore down upon him, crushing his very spirit.
“I’m fine, mother,” said the chastened wizard with a sigh, self consciously withdrawing his hands from the woman’s grasp. "Great power comes at a great cost. I paid a price, one that I would willingly pay again." Atrid looked into her son’s eyes and saw them harden. An uncomfortable moment passed between the two, with both remembering a time in the past when they had argued bitterly about Karnus becoming an apprentice to Teldon.
Eager to break the tension, Karnus let his gaze wander around the room. “Nice place. You finally got a two storey house, then?”
"Oh yes," replied his mother cheerfully, "isn't it wonderful? A room for everyone, if they ever come back to stay, plenty of room. Your father says it's too big for just me to keep clean, so we'll have to hire some servants." The woman laughed. "Servants! Me!" she exclaimed in wonder.
Karnus smiled back, "you deserve a nice place, mother." He looked a little uncomfortable, though. "Tell, me, though, is there any of my gold left?"
Atrid fixed her son with a curious look. "Your gold? Son, this was all bought by Helena. We haven't touched your gold..."
Karnus' eyebrows shot up. "Oh, I just assumed, err, that is to say, I thought you'd, ummm..." he looked away, ashamed that he'd thought his parents had appropriated his money.
Atrid laughed at the thought. "Helena did take those gold deliveries off our hands though." Karnus raised an eyebrow. "Well, we had nowhere to store it," continued his mother, "and your sister said she could use it as capital."
"That's right, Karny," came a voice from behind the pair, "you're now a shareholder in Torida Exports." Karnus turned to find his twin sister standing at the door with her two sons, her smiling, youthful face in stark contrast to his own aged visage. Helena stepped forward and embraced her brother, stepping back to regard him with the exact same inquisitive look his mother had been giving him. "Don't you start," mumbled the wizard before his sister could comment on how he looked. She responded with a lopsided smile he recognised from the mirror and moved to sit with her mother and sibling.
"You look good, Helena," commented Karnus. His sister was dressed in fine clothing and carried herself with a confidence he had never seen in her before. "Really good."
"Thanks Karnus," she replied. "I'd like to say it's mutual, but you look terrible." Atrid coughed pointedly and gave Karnus a 'told you so' look. "What have you been up to?" asked his sister. Karnus avoided her gaze, once again haunted by his experiences. Helena said nothing more, but held her brother in her gaze. "Mother," she began, still looking at Karnus, "Robert was asking if you had any of Lady Budanter's jam left."
Karnus smiled at the thought of the hampers Lana still sent the Perdissiums for the lodgings they'd provided to her after the Flying Ferret was destroyed. For a second he marvelled at the generosity of his friend, how easily she made friends and held them close... Atrid rose and gestured to her grandsons. "I think we have some of the blueberry left. Your grandfather hid a jar and he thinks I don't know about it. Come along boys," she led Robert and Tomas out of the room, "let's go find it!"
When the proud grandmother and her beloved grandsons had gone, Helena moved to sit next to Karnus. "What is it?" she asked sternly.
"I don't know what you're talking about," replied the wizard, avoiding her gaze. "So, about this gold..."
"Don't change the subject, Karny. You're hurting." Karnus snapped his gaze up, ashamed and apalled that someone could read the parts of himself he'd sealed off so deeply not even he thought about them. He looked into his sister's eyes, identical to his own, and knew that she was possibly the one person in the world who would always be able to tell when he was hurting. With a sigh, Karnus hung his head, his gaze once again lingering on his withered hands.
"You're right," he said softly, "I am hurting. I've seen, and done... terrible things in the last year. I've had to make choices, choices which have appalled me, and I've had to make... sacrifices, too. They haunt me. Sometimes I look in the mirror and... I don't recognise the man staring back at me. He's older, and his eyes are colder than I remember." Helena regarded her brother, but said nothing. "Sometimes I wonder if the path I'm following is the right one."
"Then why go on?" his sister asked. "Why not turn back?"
The question startled Karnus. "I... I can't. There's too much at stake. If Glantri falls, the world will follow." He looked his sister in the eye. "That much I know for sure."
Helena held her brother's gaze. "Karnus," she said, "I can't pretend to know what sort of wonders, or horrors, your life exposes you to. But I do know this: you are a good man. I trust you to make the right choices." Karnus smiled and shifted his gaze.
Before either of them could say another word, the door opened and Karnus' father Verenis entered the room, followed by Kelsin, resplendent in his guard uniform. The wizard stood and greeted both men, embracing each in turn, the serious conversation with his sister already forgotten. Hearing the others arrive, Atrid and her grandsons reentered the room and the house came alive with the sounds of a family laughing and talking together. In a quiet moment Karnus looked around himself and smiled, glad to be home, even if only for a few short hours.
The sun was just touching the top of the buildings as Karnus meandered his way along hauntingly familiar streets, on his way to the Magician's Guild. His belly ached from the feast his mother had laid on, and his soul felt replenished from the shared meal. Karnus had given his family a much edited recounting of his adventures, eliciting horrified gasps from his mother and shrieks from his nephews in the scariest parts. But Karnus had felt most at ease when he was sitting quietly, watching and listening as his family spoke to one another of their mundane concerns, dwarfed by his own problems, but important nonetheless. All of it reminded the wizard what it was he fought for. All of it made him twice as glad that the treaty with Alphatia protected his family so that he was free to fight.
Two topics of conversation still ran around the wizard's mind. It turned out Helena had used the Smagheft gold as initial investment in some deal or other with a Minrothad merchant, which had made enormous profit. Karnus had agreed to withdraw some of the money, desperate as he was for cash, but left a goodly amount with his sister and her husband for them to reinvest. He was taken with her business acumen, and she made a compelling case regarding the renewed trade opportunities following the war in Darokin, so Karnus was happy to continue investing in her business.
The other matter had concerned the 'Curse of the Perdissiums'. Karnus had been dying to ask his father about the matter ever since he'd first read about the curse, and perhaps unwisely he had chosen to raise the matter during the main course. His father didn't seem to know anything about it, much to Karnus' frustration, but the evident relief of the other Perdissiums around the table. He couldn't blame them, but the wizard would have liked to have verified this supposed curse somehow. Karnus sighed as he thought about it; there was always the library in Kerendas. That should be a good place to start...
Karnus' musings had brought him to the humble set of gates which marked the entrance to the Magician's Guild. As he looked at the busy courtyard beyond, bustling with servants and guests, memories flooded back of an earlier, easier life, not too long ago. With a sigh, and a glance at his prematurely aged hand gripping the Staff of Hutaaka, Karnus stepped into the guild, his mind fixed firmly on the future.
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