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Chapter 1: Rude Awakenings
The shade of the being who had once borne the name Grimm Afelnor drifted in a strange, formless void beyond the cares and pains of the mortal world. A living human might have found the grey oblivion tedious, enervating or even frightening, but the young mage's wandering spirit found only peace and contentment. His short life had been arduous and at times painful, but his troubled past now seemed little more than a half-forgotten dream.
His solemn oath of fealty to the Guild of Magic-users, Sorcerers and Thaumaturges now seemed so irrelevant, as he drifted in this ethereal state. Even his vow to redeem his tainted family name no longer seemed to have meaning.
Images of faces flickered through his sensorium: Magemaster Crohn, who had driven him to the brink of insanity, but who had made him a Questor in the process; the bullies, Shumal and Ruvin, who had played a willing part throughout those long months of torture; Questor Xylox, who had sworn to break him as soon as he returned to Arnor House.
The wandering spirit had no mouth or lungs with which to laugh, but he felt a warm glow of amusement, nonetheless. The body of Xylox, he knew, lay next to his own cooling corpse in the mountains of Shest.
At least I died a full Questor, he thought, and I took Xylox with me; he will never be able to carry out his threat.
His grandfather, Loras, known throughout the Guild as the reviled Oathbreaker, and his grandmother, Drima, would be distraught at his death, but they would surely find comfort in the fact that Grimm had died in the service of the Guild, as a Mage Questor of the FifthRank...
But they'll be sad, all the same.
Despite all the hardships he had known in his brief, seventeen-year span, Grimm's had not been an unending life of pain and deprivation, and he recognised that several--even many--people might regret his passing.
Poor old Doorkeeper might be regarded by many as a bumbling old fool, but Grimm recognised the cheerful, aged major-domo as the true heart of the House, always solicitous of his charges.
Doorkeeper will miss me...
Madar and Argand, the two boys who had remained Grimm's staunch friends throughout his tenure in the House Scholasticate, would glean little satisfaction from knowing their dead classmate had died a full mage.
I've hardly spared them a thought for over a year, and it's too late now...
The strong, friendly face of Questor Dalquist swam into view.
Dalquist helped me through my homesickness when I first came to Arnor. He was stern with me on our first Quest together, but he always was my friend, and he was so glad for me when I became Baron of Crar.
Grimm's spirit now knew the beginnings of despair: not only would these good friends and allies feel sorrow at his passing, but other, blameless souls had also followed him into the void. Crest, the elven thief and master of whip and knife; Tordun, the giant albino; Drexelica, the Grivense gamin he had ransomed from slavery; even the acerbic, high-handed Questor Xylox.
None of them deserves to die in this lonely, forbidding place. Neither do I; I was cut short in my attempt to expunge the stain from my family name. I don't want to die here; I want to live! I want to feel the sun on my face again. I want to drink ale, laugh, cry and sing! I want to grow old and fat, with children and grandchildren at my feet, listening to tales of glory. I want seven rings on my Mage Staff. I want so much, and I can't have it...
Death no longer seemed such a sweet release, as Grimm felt a hot, angry pain shooting through his being.
I want to live!
Grimm awoke to agonising pains in his hands, feet and eyes as the blood returned to his pale, frigid body. He groaned at the throbbing waves of anguish suffusing his body, and he half-regretted his earlier defiant demand for life.
Perhaps I was better off dead, after all.... Now, the struggle starts again.
After what seemed like an age, the pains subsided to a more bearable level, and his mind began to clear. The mage opened his eyes and winced at the blinding light that lanced into them. Grimm forced his watering eyes to remain open, although his vision was blurred and confusing.
"Come here, Redeemer," he muttered, his tongue feeling like wood, summoning his Mage Staff from wherever it might be lying.
A mage's personal staff was far more than an inanimate lump of wood: no physical force could break it; it could be summoned from anywhere in the world with a thought or a word; it caused pain and injury to any who touched it without its master's permission. No Magemaster could teach how to fashion a complete Mage Staff, but success or failure was an indicator of how well he had taught his pupil. Every Adept had to attempt to produce a staff from a lifeless lump of wood without aid, and then he had to smash it three times against his Guild House's magically sharp and impervious Breaking Stone. The least crack or splinter condemned the Adept to further months or years of toil before he could try again.
Only when the supplicant's staff rebounded from the Stone unharmed was the Adept accepted as a true Guild Mage and granted the coveted blue-gold ring of acceptance into the ranks of the Brethren.
Grimm felt the comforting, familiar slap of his beloved Redeemer as it appeared in the palm of his outstretched right hand, and he felt a shock of relief.
At least I'm not helpless, he thought: a Mage Staff was a potent weapon, even in the hands of a disorientated mage. He tried to take firm hold on the staff, but his nerveless fingers seemed to betray him.
"Watch over me, Redeemer." The staff floated clear of his hand.
At last, his vision began to clear, and he began to make out details. He was lying on the floor of a strange, small hut made of some seamless, smooth, white material. He saw no seams or planks that might give a hint to the hut's construction, so this could not be some kind of unfamiliar lumber. Grimm reached out a cautious hand to touch the white wall, and he could not feel the distinctive chill of metal, either. He saw a device of metal, glass and crystal standing in the centre of the structure, emitting a warm, orange radiation that heated and illuminated the hut, although he saw neither flame nor smoke.
"This must be Technology," Grimm muttered, his rasping voice tinged with awe. The art of Technology was thought long-dead, but the mage could see no other explanation for these bizarre wonders.
"Technology it is," a deep voice said behind the mage.
Grimm tried to spin round, but he ended up falling in an untidy heap on the unnatural, white floor as dizziness robbed him of his sense of balance. Standing over him, he saw a man unlike any other he had seen.
Round, steel-rimmed spectacles covered pale, blue eyes set in a clean-shaven face. The man's clothes were green, with no seam or buttons Grimm could see, and he wore a strange helmet of another strange material, with odd protrusions and spikes emerging from it at various angles.
"I see you have your magic baton," the man said, regarding the floating Redeemer with nervous, furtive eyes. "I knew better than to try to pick it up: I've seen people badly hurt after trying to handle them."
Grimm growled, "Who are you? What do you want with us?"
"My name is Jim Foster. I don't mean any harm, I promise you. Please, put your staff down. I'm not ready to die yet"
Grimm saw Redeemer's brass-shod head hovering only inches from his rescuer's head, and he ordered it to withdraw a few feet.
"If I hadn't chanced upon your group while flying a recon mission," Foster said, still regarding Redeemer with wary eyes, "you would have all died. I put up this plastic prefab as a temporary shelter until you got over your altitude acclimatisation syndrome."
Grimm blinked at the unfamiliar words, but he gathered that the mysterious mountain malady was due to altitude alone, and nothing to do with coldness.
Grimm managed to stand, facing Foster, although his legs still felt unsteady. He saw Tordun and Xylox also showing signs of stirring, although the girl, Drexelica, still lay supine and motionless.
"Master Foster," he said, his voice harsh even after he cleared his throat. "I am Questor Grimm of Arnor House. How came you by all this Technology?"
"We of Haven don't fear Technology the way you mages do," Foster replied. "It's all we have that allows us to make a living here in the mountains. We have equipment dating back centuries, and we have our own machine shop for fabricating spare parts as required."
"Haven?" Grimm frowned. "What is that?"
"We're a small community eking out a difficult living in the mountains," the Technologist answered, with a hint of pride in his voice. "We're almost fully self-sufficient, but sometimes we send people dressed as natives into Griven for needed foods and medicines we can't produce for ourselves. When you're all recovered, I hope you'll do me the honour of visiting us at Haven. I'm sure our Administrator, Armitage, will be very interested to meet you."
"It is not up to me," Grimm said, picking his words with care. "I mean, I cannot speak for everybody."
Foster nodded. "I understand. Since you seem a lot more tolerant of Technology than most mages I've met, would you mind persuading your fellow magic-user not to destroy my equipment? It did, after all, save your lives, and it might save other people in the future."
Grimm managed a painful smile, feeling the flesh of his lips cracking and bleeding.
"I will do so gladly, Master Foster. I wonder, however, if you would mind answering a few questions for me?"
As he said this, he clamped his will down over the strangely-dressed man's, as he had done with the Grivense knife-seller in what seemed another age, but which must have been only the previous day.
Foster smiled. "Certainly, Questor Grimm. How may I help you?"
Grimm suppressed a gasp. His potent spell had not affected the man in the least. Engaging his Mage Sight, he saw what had thwarted his magic: the man's mind was shot through with metallic tendrils, identical to those he had seen in the assailant who accosted the group on its way to Griven. The man was under the control of another's will, a puppet of the dark art of Technology.
"Perhaps my questions can wait until later, Master Foster. I see my companions are beginning to bestir themselves. Perhaps it would be better if you were not here when they awake."
The man nodded. "I do have a few maintenance chores to do on my helicopter anyway, Questor Grimm. Take all the time you need."
Foster drew a strange mask over his face, donned a pair of gloves and exited the hut through a small door the mage had not noticed before. For a brief moment, Grimm saw snow whipped around by a vicious wind. Then the door closed behind the man, and Grimm could no longer make out where the door had been.
Xylox, still lying on the floor, turned his head towards Grimm. "Who was that man? Where are we?"
"Questor Xylox." Grimm kept his voice low. "I believe that this man, Foster, and his organisation, which he calls Haven, are in some way connected with General Quelgrum. His mind is not his own, just as we saw with the man at the outskirts of Griven. I recommend that we do nothing to arouse suspicion, but that we accept his offer to visit Haven. I think that we may be able to learn more concerning our quarry."
Xylox frowned. "This is a Technological artefact, is it not?" he demanded, and Grimm nodded.
"We should destroy it, and this man, Foster, with it," the older mage growled. "Technology is an abomination and a curse. We demean ourselves by even countenancing its existence."
Grimm laughed; a rough, hacking sound. "Questor Xylox: I say this with all respect, but look at me! My skin is peeling and bleeding, and I can hardly feel my feet or my fingers. My head is still spinning, and I couldn't use my powers to melt a snowball right now. You don't look in any better shape than I. If we destroy Foster and his machines, we will be right back where we started, on the mountains. I don't believe you will last any longer than the rest of us out there."
"You used three vulgar contractions in that little speech," the starchy Xylox replied. "I must insist on full Mage Speech at all times while we are here."
The senior mage staggered to his feet. Xylox weaved from side to side, but he did not fall. After muttering the single word, "Nemesis," the Questor's seven-ringed staff appeared in his hand. Despite his unsteady legs, Xylox still looked the very image of a true mage.
Insisting on formal speech at this time seemed ludicrous, but Grimm could not help but admire Xylox's powerful presence.
'Power and presence complete the mage,' ran the old Guild saying. In his weakened state, Xylox might lack the power, but he had lost none of his presence.
The man is infuriating, thought Grimm, but I have to admit that his self-control is impressive.
"My apologies, Questor Xylox," he said. "I still feel somewhat weak, and my thoughts are a little disordered."
The older mage grunted. "I accept your apology, Questor Grimm," he said, leaning against his staff, "and I admit to a certain lethargy within my bones. There is, perhaps, a grain of reason in what you say.
"Much though I detest Technology, and as I trust you do, we have a Quest to complete. If this man, Foster, can lead us to General Quelgrum, it might be foolish to destroy him at this time."
Grimm suppressed a smile, finding enough strength in his right hand to take hold of Redeemer.