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Chapter 1: Idol Worship

"I just want to reassure you that it is very unlikely that Pythogoras is at this particular temple. The Serpent God has many scattered throughout the World, so the odds of him being at this one are very low." Boots explained.

"But not zero." Ballan pointed out. Boots rolled his eyes and waved his large paws.

"Nothing is zero - except zero, Ballan." Boots raised his paw, directing Ballan's attention to the temple structure they could just make out over the treetops. "The Order of the Python has been kidnapping people to sacrifice to Pythogoras for decades - ever since that old snake woke up and started demanding them. He calls himself a God, but I think he's just a big snake."

"You're just a big bear." Ballan pointed out while squatting over his knapsack. He was rummaging around looking for... Something. Anything, that might help with this suicide mission.

"Just so!" Boots agreed. "And I think it very unfair that this snake seeks to rise above his station. I haven't any designs on godhood, after all!"

"Funny you should say that since most archmages become archmages in pursuit of that exact goal."

"And I think we can both agree, I am not most archmages." Boots said, bowing slightly. Ballan rolled his eyes but conceded the point. "Now, I've gone over the basics of the invisibility spell, yes?"

Ballan nodded.

"And you will remember to simultaneously thread the silence spell into it?"

Ballan nodded again.

"Then you will be like a ghost, my friend. The monks of the cult abhor magic - any countermeasure they seek to defeat you with will surely be mundane. Traps, and the like. Of course, that's why I brought this little fellow..." Boots reached into his voluminous patchwork cloak - quilt? - and produced a tiny mechanical owl. He cleared his throat and rumbled. "Jax, awaken!"

The little owl's eyes opened, and it began to fly around Boots in circles. Boots pointed a claw at Ballan. "Change owner." The owl hooted once - a tinny sound - and then flew over to Ballan and began circling his head instead. "Jax here can disable any mundane artifice - briefly. Just make sure you keep an eye on him. If he flies ahead of you, it's because he's seen a trap."

"Won't a hooting mechanical bird give me away?" Ballan asked, reasonably. Boots nodded, and then put his hands together and began a short chant that Ballan recognized. It was the invisibility spell that Boots had taught him, though a little different, probably to account for the target not being himself. He opened his palms forward, revealing his enormous paw pads, and Jax was enveloped in shimmering light briefly before he became transparent.

"There. Now Jax will be just as silent and invisible as you, but you'll be able to see him!" Boots said proudly. "I'll show you more about permissions later - that is, including and excluding others from the effects of your spells." ...Interesting. As exciting as the prospect of learning something like that was, Ballan's immediate attention was dominated by the whole ‘infiltrating a snake temple' thing.

"So why does this temple have your idol, anyway?" Ballan asked.

Boots shook his head. "No, they do not have my idol - they have one of my arcanum crystals! Which was subsequently fashioned into an idol." He put his hands on his hips, pacing back and forth. "Now how they got a hold of one of my arcanum crystals is more of a mystery, but the scrying doesn't lie! Well, at least in this case it doesn't, what with their disdain for magic and all."

Ballan blinked. "Can you interfere with a scrying?" He asked.

"My dear boy, you can interfere with any kind of magic." Boots replied. "As long as you know it's happening, and the proper way to interfere." Ballan nodded.

"One last question." He said, standing up. There was nothing in that pouch that was going to help him infiltrate a temple. "Why aren't you doing this?"

Boots tilted his head to one side, perplexed. "Well, if I did it for you, how else are you going to learn?" Ballan thought he would have a retort for whatever Boots was going to say, but as it turned out, that actually made a lot of sense. Nothing quite like "hands-on" experience.

"Well, that's about it, then." Ballan said with a sigh. "I guess I'll see if I can outwit a bunch of cultists." Boots chortled and leaned over to begin scratching something into the earth with his claw.

"Oh, never try to outwit who you can outcast, my dear boy!" Boots began to scoot across the clearing, making room for whatever glyph he was inscribing into the dirt. "After all, your brain is your most powerful weapon - no need to use it on people who would be better off being forced to dance or laugh uncontrollably. A true test of arcana is the battle of wills between one mage and another!" Boots straightened from his inscription and raised a paw into the air triumphantly. "Such a rush to match wills with a worthy opponent!"

He lowered his hand, and the glyphs began to glow.

There was a startled shout from somewhere behind Ballan, and then a popping noise as a person appeared a few inches over the glyph, their arms and legs tied, and tumbled to the ground in a heap. Ballan yelped and leaped back as they appeared, but Boots just laughed.

"Oh, we'll have to develop your sense of awareness, Ballan, my boy! A wizard dislikes surprises, after all!" Boots circled to the other side of the prone figure, humming thoughtfully. "Credit where credit is due - you snake monks know how to keep quiet." Boots explained to his captive, who was presently gagged. "Although I do have some questions for you if you have some time?"

The figure had rolled over angrily while Boots spoke, and Ballan found himself impressed by the lack of fear in her eyes. Fanaticism, or bravery? Boots wiggled his smallest claw, and the gag vanished.

"Release me at once!" She demanded.

"Very well." Boots responded and tapped two of his claws together. The binds around her legs and arms vanished. The monk looked shocked at her newfound freedom, before leaping dextrously to her feet from prone. She certainly looked the part of a monk - barefooted and barehanded. Her clothes were simple and emphasized maneuverability, made mostly of light cloth. The entire outfit was dyed a pale green, and she wore a pair of black snakeskin bracers. Her black hair was presently pulled up in a tight knot near the back of her head, and her dark eyes darted between the both of them warily.

The monk held her fists out in front of her and backed away from the both of them slowly.

But she did not run.

"Who... who are you?" She asked.

"I am Boots, Archmage, Augmentus, and connoisseur of piscine delicacies." He bowed deeply, before gesturing to Ballan. "And this is Ballan, my apprentice."

Ballan waved, though he glanced at Boots for any inkling of what the hell was going on here. The monk ignored him.

"Augmentus?" She asked, though it does not sound like a question. More like a confirmation. Her fists lowered slightly, suspiciously. "How old of an Augmentus are you?"

"It's rude to ask a bear his age." Boots admonished playfully, but the monk just frowned at him. Boots sighed heavily. "Oh, very well. I'll be 987 this fall, give or take a decade or so as a regular bear."

The monk lowered her fists in shock.

"...What's an Augmentus?" Ballan asked into the proceeding silence. Boots turned to him, placing a large paw on his chest.

"Oh, I thought you were familiar with the concept." He said apologetically. "Admittedly, it is an obscure one. As with Pythogoras, it can be easy to confuse an Augmentus with a god or demigod, as we are so few, and so mighty!" He raised his arms and flexed, smiling widely. They both failed to react, so he just cleared his throat. "An Augmentus is a creature which, having been born without sapience or sentience - or both - is granted those things. Most of the time, Augmenti were animals before being augmented. It is not well understood the exact process through which Augmenti are chosen, however. Some attribute the emergence of Augmenti to certain Gods. Others believe it is a facet of the Wilds - a trick of nature." Boots shrugged. "My own research into the topic yielded little fruit."

"So that's why you can talk." Ballan confirmed. "And cast spells."

"Well, being blessed with intelligence is different than applying it." Boots replied, a little ruffled. "I like to think of my arcane talent as my own, irrespective of the circumstances of my augmentation."

"You are an Ancient." The monk spoke suddenly. "And that means - you must be Isumatturukakluk."

Ballan furrowed his brow - what language was that? He was well-traveled, but he didn't recognize it at all. Boots seemed to recognize the word, however, and responded to the accusation with drooped ears and a forlorn look.

"Oh, dear. Are you of the Nuit tribe?" Boots asked gently. The monk's eyes widened. "I'm... terribly sorry for your loss."

The monk pursed her lips and looked away, hand still balled into fists at her side. Ballan felt the tension in the air rising with his own sense of discomfort.

"My dear, why don't you have a seat." Boots said, while a stool simultaneously appeared behind the monk. "And you can tell us why you were spying on us - and why you didn't immediately report back to the temple."

Now Ballan understood. Boots must have anticipated they would be spotted by a scout, and planned that glyph ahead of time - though Ballan had no idea when he had placed it. He must have become curious about the scout when she continued to watch them, instead of immediately trying to leave and alert the cultists. Ballan glanced at Boots.

Boots met his gaze with an insufferable look of smugness.

The monk sat on the summoned stool as Ballan rolled his eyes. The fierceness that before marked her personality had left her, as she placed both of her hands on her knees and stared downward. Silently, a filled teacup floated out from beneath Boots' robe and drifted over to her. She started when she noticed it, but then accepted it gingerly.

This was the first time Ballan noticed that the woman was actually shorter than he was. Her defiance had made her feel so large before.

"I am Kahya." She said, after taking a sip of her tea. "Last of the Nuit. As the honored Ancient implied, my tribe and village were destroyed twelve winters past."

"...The attack was sudden and without warning." Boots elaborated. "The devastation of the aftermath... I did not think there were any survivors." Kahya shook her head.

"Had I been in the village at the time, there would not have been." Kahya said. "But though my elders spoke of danger, I wanted only to play in the forest. I snuck out, and when I returned, my people were burning." Kahya paused for a moment, closing her eyes. "Any who attempted to flee were butchered... or pushed back into the flames." She opened her eyes, which betrayed no emotion. "I remember my friend's mother trying to flee. They impaled her. Held her towards the flames. Like a sausage." There was silence for a heartbeat, and then she finished her tea. "So I stayed in the woods. I honored the dead as best I could. And then I left."

Ballan's heart hurt to hear her speak of it, but he was suspicious of why this woman was so open with two complete strangers. He had a question.

"What did you call Boots?" Ballan asked, and she looked up at him flatly. No disdain just... nothing. A stare. He felt sweat begin to form on his temple. "I've uh... never heard him called that." He explained. ‘And I've heard him be called a lot of things...' He thought, but chose to keep to himself.

"Isumatturukakluk." Kahya repeated. "The Wise Bear, in your tongue. My people worship the ilitkusik - Augmenti. We..." She paused for a moment. "...I believe them to be the method through which The World speaks with us. Isumatturukakluk is no exception, and there are many stories of his wisdom benefitting the Nuit."

"You're too kind." Boots says gently. "As were your people. But how did you come to be here, of all places?"

Kahya shrugged. "I worship the Augmenti." She gestured back towards the temple. "And so, I worship Pythogoras. His followers took me in. They treated me as one of their own. Fed and clothed me. Trained me to defend the temple. Trained me to..." There was a brief silence, before she inhaled and began again. "I have sat in his wisdom, and witnessed his anger." She spoke in a confident, level voice, but Ballan saw her swiftly lower her teacup as her hands began to shake. "I owe Pythogoras my life and station, and I am-"

There was no indication she was going to stop speaking, just the silent end of a half-sworn oath. Whatever promise went unspoken echoed throughout the clearing, drenching them in silence, as Kahya refused to raise her eyes.

Then, Boots stepped forward, got on all fours, and padded over to her. Ballan realized that Boots' cloak and boots had vanished. And he was getting... bigger? The top of his shoulders must have been 3 meters from the ground even as he was down on all fours. Boots' eyes flashed a bright, blue color, and suddenly the world around them changed. Where moments ago there had been trees and sunlight, there was wind and ice. Without the light of the moon, there would have been darkness in all directions.

Kahya stared up in shock, while Ballan looked around in bafflement. Boots' had nearly tripled in size, and his eyes continued to glow as he looked down at Kahya. Then, he began speaking.

Ballan had no idea what he was saying. It sounded like the language Kahya had used earlier, which was proven true when Kahya responded to him in the same tongue. Boots replied softly, and Kahya shouted something, before Boots, sounding disappointed... admonished her? It did not dissuade her, as she just kept yelling. Then, for the first time, Ballan saw Boots turn deadly serious, even furious. He roared a roar that clearly had power behind it... but Ballan was not sure how he knew that.

Isumatturukakluk's voice echoed across the ice.

Kahya steadied herself, and after a long moment, nodded once.

The illusion melted away, returning them to the cool humidity of the early morning swamp. Boots was back to his old self, smilingly and seemingly not at all perturbed by, whatever that was. Kahya was across the small clearing, facing away from them.

"When you live as long as I have, people start to find meaning in you." Boots leaned down and whispered into Ballan's ear. "And when they start to find meaning in you, they provide you with the means to find it within yourself." Boots patted his furry chest. "If you look for it."

Ballan glanced sideways at Boots, expression dubious. "And that means...?" Ballan asked quietly. Boots rolled his eyes.

"I was helping her remember something she had chosen to forget." Boots said, as though it were obvious.

"...Of course." Ballan conceded.

Boots was making a very clear and obvious show of laughing silently at him.

"I thought if I stood by and did what I was told..." Kahya's strong voice cut through their antics. "...that the Augmentus would reveal to me the way forward." Her eyes fixated upon Boots for a moment. "In a way I was right." She smiled, just a little bit."But no, I have been complicit in the murder of innocents, and have much indolence to atone for." The smile was gone. "For myself, and for my ancestors." She took a deep breath. "I will help you into the temple."

Ballan raised his eyebrows and looked between her and Boots.

"That felt portentous." Ballan said, voice neutral. "Do you often turn hostile strangers into willing allies with nonsense, then? Is this going to be normal?"

"Honestly..." Boots pondered. "It may have more to do with you than it does with me." He said, smiling slyly. "After all, you are Destined, are you not, my dear girl?" He called over to Kahya. She cocked her head and then nodded once and... sure enough, she produced a medallion, the same size as his. Ballan felt a weight settle into the pit of his stomach.

He knew Destined tended to be drawn together, but... He had not thought it would happen so... soon. In truth, he had only met another Destined twice in his life, with Kahya marking the third. However, the World was full of stories of the Destined. The World's long history was shaped by the Destined, both great and terrible.

He always worried about which he would be - great or terrible?

"You are Destined, then?" Kahya said, speaking to Ballan directly for the first time. This caught him off-guard slightly, both because she was being so direct, and because his mind was entirely elsewhere.

"Uh. Yes." He cleared his throat, but then failed to find any new words. "...Yes."

Kahya stared at him dubiously.

"And... You were going to infiltrate the temple..." She looked between Ballan and Boots. "...Alone." Ballan realized she must have been listening to him and Boots for a while. This perturbed him - he had not even noticed she was there.

"Oh, it's more of a training exercise!" Boots interjected. "To get the ol' blood pumping, ha ha!" He punched the air with his fist to punctuate the sentence. "Just sneaking around, sightless and soundless around a bunch of people who can only see and hear!"

"What about Master Lu Gong?" Kahya asked flatly. "He may be blind and deaf - but he can catch a rice grain thrown at him from 20 yards away - with chopsticks." Boots, for once, seemed taken aback. Ballan was as well, for that matter. If that was true it was seriously impressive... and terrifying. "Or Thousand-Hands Ji, who has memorized the life aura of everyone in the temple? Or, I don't know, Pythogoras! Whose very gaze annihilates magic!"

Ballan shrank away from her, even though it seemed like most of her exasperation was directed at Boots... who had quite literally shrunk about four feet.

"I... Well, you see since they forgo magic I thought..." Boots began, but Kahya threw her hands up in the air and began swearing in her own language.

"Wizards!" She concluded and kicked a rock. It bounced indignantly out of sight.

She whirled on them. "Overconfidence will be your death-" She specifically made eye contact with Ballan, and he almost flinched. "BOTH of your deaths." She stalked off towards the edge of the clearing, where they could make out the temple through the trees. "Now come over here - no one else is on my patrol route and my shift doesn't end for three bells." Loudly, a gong rang out from the temple, and Kahya rolled her eyes. "Two bells. I will tell you what I know of the temple."

Boots, suitably abashed, did as he was told. Ballan did as well, though with less shame and more anxiety. The entire situation left him ill at ease, but... was that reasonable caution, or needless worrying?

He watched as Boots sat down next to Kahya as she asked him for something to write on.

It was strange, but the ease with which these two perfect strangers trusted each other, put Ballan at ease as well, and so he sat down next to them, to watch and listen.

****

Kahya outlined all of the unseen pitfalls and temple secrets as best she could, making a rough diagram out of pencil and paper, supplied by Boots. Boots verified a few things with her, and all in all, Ballan had very little to do with the process. The planning was being done by better people, he knew, but when it came time to execute...

Ballan was not so sure about this.

Kahya departed their little camp, saying it would be suspicious if she did not return from patrol. The plan was to infiltrate at night, and she would be keeping an eye out for Ballan as he followed the map. Boots said he would be providing ‘reconnaissance', and Ballan was left to wonder what form that would take.

For now, there was only waiting until nightfall, and silence permeated their camp. Boots had his large snout buried in the book he kept beneath his cloak, and Ballan was loath to draw the attention of his capricious mentor. So he simply sat quietly with his thoughts.

It had been a little over a week since he had met Boots. He never did tell Boots about the strange dream, forgetting it for a few days before abruptly remembering. Everything had been moving so quickly. Boots was serious about teaching him, and already, the teaching had been rigorous. Magic came to that bear with an ease that Ballan was jealous of, but he shared his knowledge freely and without judgment. Boots started by reteaching Ballan the basics of evocation, something that Ballan had thought was a specialty of his until Boots had set him straight on proper ‘gesticulation'. As it turned out, somatically, Ballan might as well have been flailing around like a child. Now his spells were focused and direct, even if he had to scale back their raw force to make the change.

That was the thing about magic. There were so many rules, and so many of those rules were dependent on which rules had previously been followed, or broken. Wrestling with the fabric of creation was an impressive feat, but to do more than throw sparks or cause a light breeze, you had to deeply understand its mechanics. Boots had told him that ‘Understanding something takes the fear out of it. Without fear, you are limited only by your imagination!'

This was immediately before he moved his wrist the wrong way and sent the jagged spear of ice he was conjuring tumbling out of his hands. It melted before it hit the ground, in an astonishing display of accelerated entropy.

Boot had not said anything when that happened. In fact, he had been nothing but complimentary of Ballan's progress and encouraging besides. He had to wonder, though - why him? Could he really discover the secret of time magic? He could barely light a candle, let alone enlighten the world about a new field of study. Chronomancy was considered practically impossible, and while there was some theoretical evidence that it could work, most proof of ‘time magic' ended up being mislabelled displays of Restoration magic, as the practitioner inevitably failed to reverse their spell in an absolute manner - something that was said to be the true test of Chronomancy.

His head was going in circles. He took a deep breath and remembered something that always soothed his nerves. He reached into his trusty pack, and removed a smallish tome, its vellum edges curled up from frequent review of its contents. It was titled ‘Mastering Reality: The Basics' by Daerth Stonescriven. Ballan knew nothing about the author, but the book had come sarcastically recommended by another Venturer after a particularly stressful excursion into the Wilds. In whatever spirit his ‘colleague' had meant it, the book had been an incredible boon to him.

Reading it always took his mind off things. He flipped open to near the start, and began reading.

"There were four well-known and agreed upon magical laws (Haruspex, 3e230): First, all magic is sourced from a wellspring of energy known as the Astral Sea, with the energy itself being called mana. Mana is raw energy, and its most notable property is the ease with which it changes form. (Haruspex 3e230)

Second, mana is naturally drawn towards the material plane, and constantly exerts pressure on the barrier between the Astral Sea and the material world. This barrier is called the Astral Tension (Nodgiver, 1e2035), and will be discussed later in this book. Like water, mana always follows the path of least resistance. However, unlike water, mana is not beholden to gravity or other aspects of physical reality. It does, however, have a natural tendency to adhere to itself, and so mana always moves towards the largest concentration of itself. (Boksplat, 3e814)

It is theorized that the reason mana so easily flows into the material world is because there is a highly concentrated source of it within the center of the world, but this has not been proven. (Stonescriven, 3e854)

Third, all living creatures have a dense core of mana within them. As such, when mana breaches, it tends to gravitate towards the nearest living creature. The mana from the Astral Sea making contact with an individual's internal mana core allows them to tap into the extant mana from the Astral Sea. An individual's internal mana has a unique ‘charge' or ‘color' and, like a fingerprint, no two are exactly alike. (Hades,1e245) When mana ‘belongs' to someone, that mana is considered ‘charged'. Charged mana may also be referred to as aspected or ensouled. (Jargonax, 2e345)

Astral mana is, by default, not charged. As such, Astral mana, or other sources of uncharged mana (discussed later in this book), is occasionally referred to as uncharged, unaspected, or soulless. Besides hue and density, however, there are no other discernible differences between the two types of mana. When raw Astral mana comes into contact with an individual's internal mana, their charged mana diffuses into it, like ink into water.

As for the fourth and final law: Every act of magic must expend an equal magnitude of mana. It became expedient to define how much mana, exactly, is being expended on any one given spell. It has been widely agreed upon (Nodgiver, 1e2035)(Manson, 3e452)(Illumariel, 2e54) that a single ‘drop' of mana is the amount of mana it takes to boil one gram of water, if that mana was used to heat the water using a direct conduction spell. This makes a single drop of mana - comparably - the most energy-rich substance in existence. Even so, as a spell's complexity, power, radius, or any other measurable variable, increases, so too does the requisite amount of mana needed increase. In some cases, the increase in mana can be exponential (O2^n). (Volgrim, 3e638)

Some spells use veritable floods of mana during their casting, but maintaining control of such a flood requires skill, confidence, and - most importantly - willpower. Many of the most powerful spells ever cast were done with the combined skills of many archmages, working in tandem to control the flow of mana together. Through such collaboration..."

...Not that anyone had seen collaboration like that in decades.

Ballan sighed. He was studious, sure, but when it came to practically applying what he knew... It just slipped through his fingers. How was he supposed to invent Chronomancy? Even the strange paracausal reassurance that he would succeed, as demonstrated by his future self being able to contact Boots in the first place, did little to ease his anxiety on the matter. Time was weird. Maybe that version of him was from a different spatial reality entirely. Or maybe he created a paradox and now he would never discover time magic because he knew he was supposed to, and that knowledge prevented him from being able to!

Wait. How old had the future version of himself been? Ballan's head shot up from his book.

"Boots!" He nearly shouted, but remembered at the last moment they were technically hiding. Boots did not react strongly to his name being called, only huffing once to indicate he was paying attention, eyes glued firmly to his own book. "How old was I?" Ballan asked, apprehensive. Oh god, had he been an old man? Is it his life's work?

Boots blinked, shook his head a little, and finally looked up at Ballan. Then, his eyebrows shot up, and a look of understanding spread across his face.

"You mean the other you?" Boots asked to confirm, and Ballan nodded once. "I thought so. I said to myself ‘What a strange question to ask, without any context.' Ha! Not so strange, indeed!" He chuckled to himself. Ballan waited for Boots to continue, but the bear's eyes were wandering back to his book.

"And!?" Ballan all but hissed. Boots jumped a little.

"Oh! Right." He cleared his throat. "I have no idea."

"What?" Ballan asked in disbelief.

"Oh, yes." Boots nodded. "You were covered head to toe with this bluish cloak. It seemed you had gone to extraordinary lengths to hide your appearance from me - mundanely and magically." Ballan noted that this future version of himself could apparently create magical disguises, and was about to ask Boots another question when a rogue thought occurred to him.

His future self had known exactly where to send Boots to find his past self. This did not surprise Ballan - he was not sure he would ever forget the day he met Boots. He had told Boots that he was his apprentice from the future, and that together, he and Boots had invented Chronomancy.

Which he used to go back in time, and... do exactly what he did. Why? Closing a loop? Well, sure. That made sense - he would need to inevitably do what his future self had done. Assuming time worked recursively. That established a plausible motive, and he would be discouraged from further time travel to avoid further looping. Or at least, discouraged from time travel that would result in additional looping.

"Did he... say anything else?" Ballan asked, finally. Boots looked up from his book, which he had silently returned to while Ballan mused to himself.

"Yes." He replied. "You had much to say. We conversed for several hours."

...Hours?

Ballan leapt to his feet.

"Why am I just learning this now?" Ballan demanded, running his hands frustratedly through his hair. "You made it sound like I just popped out of thin air, shouted at you, then vanished!"

"Did I?" Boots scratched his belly with one claw, ruminating. "I do not believe anything I said implied you and I did not have an extended conversation, though I will admit that I never implied we had one, either." He shrugged. "You were rather focused on verifying my identity."

Ballan took a deep breath.

"Fine." he exhaled. "Look, I want to know everything he... everything I said." Boots nodded amenably.

"Of course you do." He agreed. "But!" Boots punctuated that statement by snapping his book closed and causing it to vanish in a little cloud of fluffy pink smoke. He stood up, stretched, and then folded his shaggy paws together. "I have been forbidden by you from revealing anything to you until the time is right."

Ballan simultaneously felt intense rage and the incredibly mollifying feeling that, technically, this was all his own fault. He rubbed his forehead wearily. He felt so full of doubt, and frustration. This person - Ballan Agrandian himself - who could not even confidently say he would be able to complete a causally foreordained obligation, is going to infiltrate a temple full of snake cultists and steal their special statue.

Which was also a crystal.

"And the time is right!" Boots declared triumphantly, immediately snapping Ballan out of his quickly spiraling thoughts. Ballan just stared at Boots, waiting for the inexhaustible bear to carry on. Noticing this, Boots walked up to Ballan, and then fell backwards on his rump so that they were more eye level than they had been before. Ballan still had to look up.

"He told me," Boots began, "that the afternoon before you go into the temple, right before Jax returned, I should say this to you: ‘You will not be alone in this, Ballan. You are not alone in this even now. Whether you are hunted, trapped, in the dark, or facing down deadly foes - you have allies. Let them help you, and help them in turn.'"

Ballan was stunned. He could not imagine saying something like that. To anyone. But of all people, especially not to himself. He never had anything kind to say about himself.

...And why not?

What did it cost him to be kind to himself? He turned away from Boots, clearing his throat as he did so, and crouched over his pack for a moment. Somewhere, there was a version of himself... that could be kind to himself.

Ballan wanted to make sure he became that version of himself.

He reached into his pack and removed his notebook. It saw much use, as the second of two books he carried at almost all times. The first well-read, and this one, well-used. He flipped it open to the back - where the only blank pages were.

There, he wrote down what Boots had told him. What he had told himself.

Ballan wiped his eyes.

"By what Gods may be..." He mumbled, then raised his voice. "There's going to be more of me telling myself sappy shit, isn't there?"

Boots just laughed and laughed.

****

Ballan peered into the darkness of the temple from above, frowning.

Kahya had pointed out a section of the temple that was partially crumbled - there were holes in the roof. The rooms below were either unused or filled with half-forgotten storage, and on the far side of the temple from the dormitories, so the area was sparsely patrolled. Kahya had told him she had noticed this security lapse a long time ago, but had convinced herself she was being paranoid.

It was a pretty hollow way to be proven right, Ballan thought.

He dropped down silently into the room below, not even the sound of wind or his weight upon the stone could be heard. The silence spell was working. Ballan peered around, then reached into his pocket and pulled out a slip of parchment. The map was rushed and inaccurate, but the written instructions made it more clear. He was about halfway across the temple from the idol, but he was inside.

Ballan looked towards the empty stone doorway and realized the only reason he could see was because of the moonlight. Further in, it did not seem as though the monks kept this portion of the temple lit. He scowled - his will was already holding tightly to the combined silence and invisibility spell. To add another spell risked mana poisoning, or worse...

He took a deep breath.

He could not grope blindly in the dark, and he could not light a torch. There was no other choice. He would simply have to make it work.

Ballan closed his eyes and touched the forefinger and thumb of his right hand to his eyelids. This spell always came easy to him, but even so, with the added weight on his already overburdened concentration, it would be a challenge to maintain it. He mumbled the incantation, feeling the mana flow through his fingers and into his eyes.

"Light unto darkness." He murmured.

When he opened his eyes, his brow was knit but his vision was clear. Monochromatic, but clear. A useful cantrip for reading at night in crowded places. He could even cast it without the incantation, but he felt the need to center himself.

The spell held.

Ballan pushed forward.

He had taken maybe a half-dozen steps when Jax hooted quietly, and flew in front of him. The little mechanical owl landed on the ground some ten feet away and began pecking at it. Shortly, the stone ground shifted and then fell in entirely as Jax leapt back into the air, and returned to Ballan. Ballan approached the pit cautiously - sure enough, spikes at the bottom.

A small spell to nearly double his jumping distance got him over the pit, and deeper into the temple.

Kahya had not been kidding - this side of the temple was deserted. The only residents he spied were rodents staring at him from hideaways in the cracked walls, and a host of scrupulous vermin that scuttled away from him as fast as their many legs could carry them. Insects did not bother Ballan much, so he ignored them.

Jax disabled a few more traps, and Ballan knew he had passed into the temple proper when he encountered his first lit room. Lit for a purpose, it would seem, as the room additionally had occupants. Ballan peered inside, then immediately lurched back and checked the map.

"Men's Bathhouse"

Right.

Fortunately, everyone in the bathhouse was either engaged in bathing or otherwise relaxing and so he passed through without anything more than a sheen of sweat and damp soles. He remembered Kahya mentioning that the baths were built in this part of the temple to take advantage of natural hot springs. The idea almost seemed pleasant, if the springs weren't full of cultists willing to feed him to a snake. Maybe next time.

From the bath, he had already memorized where to go. It was a straight shot to the stairs that led down to the majority of the temple complex, and more importantly, where the idol was being held. Apparently, it sat in a place of prominence amongst one of their largest altars, but few people were actively worshiping at this time of night. The cold, dark green stone betrayed not a hint of his passing as he peered down the staircase.

Someone was coming up.

Ballan stepped to one side to allow them passage, and held his breath. They wouldn't hear him breathing anyway, but the response was automatic. The person coming up the stairs appeared to be an old man, bald on top, but with the rest of his hair long, and braided. He sported intricate tattoos along his back and shoulders that imitated snake scales, and two serpents entwined down his arms, their head disappearing into the palms of his hand. Lastly...

He was wearing a blindfold.

Ballan screamed in alarm - in his head.

Kahya had warned him of the only two people who could penetrate his illusions - a man named ‘Thousand-Hands Ji', who was not going to be an issue as he usually started drinking early and went to bed shortly after dinner, and Master Lu Gong, a blind and deaf monk with the uncanny ability to see and hear anyway.

By Kahya's description, this was master Lu Gong. Unless there were two blindfolded, tattooed old men. Ballan panicked as the monk continued up the stairs.

But he only panicked for a moment.

His mind sprang into action. How did this man perceive the world? Blind and deaf, but he can still catch a grain of rice? Grains of rice are inanimate - he's not sensing mana, personal or ambient. The grain was thrown through the air - so he's not sensing tremors in the ground like a mole or worm. It had to be some sort of blessing, given to him by Pythogoras. Unless... Kahya would have never been properly trained in spellcraft, given the cultist's hatred for it.

Their supposed hatred for it.

Ballan steadied himself and focused on the flow of mana around him. Unless someone was trying to hide it, even an amateur wizard could tell when someone else was utilizing mana. And if that someone lived in a place where they never had to hide it, because no one around them would notice...

They would never bother hiding it anyway.

Sure enough, Ballan felt the telltale signs of a spell emanating from the old monk. The tendrils of mana swirling around him, giving sight to the sightless, and sound to the soundless. Hypocrisy aside, Ballan leapt on the opportunity this presented him. The spell was powerful, and Master Lu Gong was formidable, for certain...

But he was no Wizard.

Ballan could counteract Lu Gong's spell, but not while he was maintaining the infiltration spell Boots had taught him. He saw Jax flapping worriedly out of the corner of his eye, grit his teeth, and made a decision.

He dropped the invisibility spell. There was no one else in the hallway.

Then, he created a small ward that gently pushed away ambient mana. Jax landed on his shoulder to be encompassed by the spell. It was a cantrip almost anyone could learn, if they wanted some help meditating. Ballan had picked it up to help him sleep outside of the Wards.

He sincerely hoped Master Lu Gong had never encountered something so simple.

A few moments later, Master Lu Gong reached the top of the stairway. He took one step, paused for a moment, sniffed once, and then carried on. Ballan did not drop the ward until he saw the man turn towards the Bathhouse.

With a sigh of relief, he released the cantrip. Then, making sure he was still out of sight, began recanting the spell Boots had taught him. He would have never thought about shaping his mana in this way - so that two complementary effects slot into each other like puzzle pieces, creating a completely new spell. Now that he knew about it, he had a few ideas of his own - but improvisation was for when he wasn't playing at being a thief. He made his way down the stairs.

The map Kahya had made grew less detailed at this point. On the north side of the map, there was a poorly drawn, long hallway with a circle at the end that said "DO NOT GO HERE". She had told him that beyond the hallway was the Inner Sanctum, and only the masters or the sacrifices were allowed inside.

Best to avoid it entirely.

Fortunately, the idol he was after was not near the lair, so when he reached the bottom of the stairs, he cut off to the right and was led into a large amphitheater. This was the center of the temple, with the majority of the structure being made to house this massive room. Looking up, Ballan could just make out the ceiling, which had a hole in the center to show the night sky. With no one inside the room, the entire space felt... peaceful.

In the center of the room, below the open sky, was a large altar. The majority of the altar was taken up by a stone slab with the graven image of a python carved into it, but even now, incense and offerings covered the altar, renewed daily. Surrounding the entire thing, a massive, realistic stone serpent coiled. It was so realistic Ballan stopped to make sure it wasn't real before approaching.

He could feel the hum of the Arcanum Crystal before he saw it.

It had been fashioned into the centerpiece of a small, golden disk, which was being held in the coils of a serpent. The serpent gazed forward, unblinking, and Ballan had the feeling that it was giving him a dubious look as he picked it up. Not very heavy, now all that was left was to...

The sound of rushed footsteps caught Ballan's attention, and he whirled around. Someone was running directly at him. He flinched, and then realized he recognized the person. It was Kahya - and she was alone. She had said she would try to meet up with him if possible, but... The look on her face forewarned him of something awry.

She skidded to a stop about five feet from the altar, looking around.

"Wizard." She hissed, and Ballan remembered she could not see him.

"I'm here." Ballan spoke, and her eyes immediately snapped toward the direction of his voice.

"You are found out, the alarm has been raised." She explained tersely, and the bottom fell out of his stomach.

"What alarm!?" Ballan demanded. The temple was silent. Kahya just shook her head.

"You were seen." She explained, dark eyes darting around. "By the snakes."

Ballan slapped his hand to his forehead. He had checked the hallway for people when he had dropped the spell to fool Lu Gong.

He hadn't been looking for snakes.

"The snakes alerted the Masters, and they have begun to gather. They will be here..." The sound of many began echoing through the amphitheater. "...Soon." Kahya said, and turned to face the new arrivals.

For a blessing, there were not many. Just four. Ballan recognized none of them, but they were dressed similarly to Kahya, with black wristbands as well. One of the monks spoke.

"Kahya." He said, voice neutral. He was a large orcish man with a shaved head, and the beginnings of a tattoo similar to Lu Gong peeking out from beneath his tunic. "We worried when you left so swiftly. We told Master Deephammer you must be worried about the altar." His eyes betrayed no worry, and his voice hinted at no concern.

"He bade us come after you." Another woman explained, putting her hands behind her back. Were it not for the snake cultist outfit, she may have passed as any other Avonian farmgirl - sun-tanned, with dark brown hair, tied into a tight bun. "To ensure nothing... untoward happened."

The other two - a halfling man, and a dwarven woman, simply stayed silent, but they all had grave looks on their faces. Ballan glanced at Kahya. Her expression was stricken but determined. She raised her chin.

"I have spoken to each of you" She said quietly, though the sound still filled the room. "And I have made my choice."

The silence was grave. Distantly, the sound of many people approaching could be heard.

The orc narrowed his eyes.

"The children of Pythogoras whispered that there may be a traitor among us."

"Kursk..." The dwarven woman began, but he silenced her with a gesture.

"You turn your back on Pythogoras!" Kursk accused, pointing a finger at Kahya. "You turn your back on your family!" He gestured to the others, who could not seem to look at Kahya. Ballan winced at the accusation. "You turn your back on me!?" His voice cracked, and angry tears spilled over. He took a deep breath, and widened his stance, bringing his hands up. His dark eyes stared directly at Kahya. "Whatever future you look toward - I will ensure you never see it!"

And with that, he attacked. Ballan almost missed it. One moment, the imposing orc had been standing there, and the next, he was looming over Kahya, fist raised. Kahya leapt backwards out of the way, and Kursk punched the ground with a loud crack. Ballan backed away, wincing. The orc must have broken his hand against the stone. It did not slow him down, however, and his assault against Kahya continued with the same ferocity.

Ballan glanced at the ground where Kahya had been standing moments before.

There was a large crack in the stone. Ballan's mouth opened slightly.

"We heard her speaking to the intruder as we approached." The Avonian woman said, voice clipped. "Find them."

"If it is a wizard, we'll need to wait for Master Lu Gong anyway." The dwarven woman pointed out, her voice desperate. She was looking between the battle between Kahya and Kursk, and her coldblooded compatriot frantically. "Please, Lucy-

"Enough, Denora." Lucy interrupted, stoic. "This is as much our fault as it is Kahya's. She showed us her doubts, and we did nothing." Denora and the halfling shared an aggrieved look. "Punishment is certain - let us work together to lessen that punishment."

The halfling man, who had been listening quietly the whole time, simply sighed, and nodded. This came as a striking contrast to Kursk's increasingly distant, angry shouts. Ballan had lost sight of them around the altar, pressed against it as he was.

"Come now, Denora." He said, taking the dwarf's hand. "Let's make sure they're not headed for the Vault."

"The children said the intruder was headed in the opposite direction." Denora told him anxiously.

"He's right." Lucy replied. "Malcom, you and Denora go check the vault. I'll back-up Kursk and pick up any sign of the intruder."

Ballan realized, then, that they were giving her an out. Denora seemed to realize it too.

"I... Alright." She agreed, gave one last forlorn look towards the pair of fighting monks, and then she and Malcom set off the way they came at a jog. Lucy watched them go, mouth pressed into a firm line, and sighed. Then, without even looking at Kursk and Kahya, she approached the altar.

While this had been going on, Ballan had been attempting to form a plan - unfortunately, the only way out of this part of the temple was through the hole in the roof, or back the way he came. There was another exit leading out of this room, but Kahya had not drawn past this point. He did not know where it led.

He had been frantically double-checking the map when the woman - Lucy, he had overheard - began walking towards him. He shifted out of her way silently as she looked over the altar.

"Hm. I guess he did come back for it." She placed her hand where the idol had been. "As foretold..."

Ballan blinked, all his thoughts of escape suddenly grinding to a halt.

What did that mean?

At the same time, dozens of cutlists began swarming into the room. Ballan suppressed the urge to swear, but Lucy, for some reason did not. She closed her eyes, muttered something, and...

Ballan sensed mana. She was channeling mana.

The monks of the Serpent's Cult abhorred magic.

As he realized that, the small disk in the statue he had stolen began to glow. He only had time to glance down at it in surprise, before there was a small flash of light, the feeling of static electricity, and a sudden, horrifying realization that the mana he had been using to maintain the spell...

Was gone.

Ballan looked up, wild-eyed, at Lucy.

She seemed just as startled.

"Who are you!?" She hissed, as though she was... expecting someone else?

Ballan just started running.

Shouts of recognition sounded as the cultists spotted him, and he sprinted across the amphitheater, a single doorway his destination. He had shoved the map in his pocket when the spell ended, and now it was just a matter of running for his life.

"He's stolen treasure from the altar!" He heard Lucy shout. "And initiate Kahya has aided him!"

Ballan's head whirled around as he saw a small group of monks break off, and move towards where Kursk and Kahya were... No, only Kahya was standing, breathing heavily. She had laid the orc low as Ballan had contemplated escape and now stared down her new opponents with silent determination. Her eyes flicked over, and he briefly met her gaze.

He lost sight of her behind the stone wall as he ran into the hallway.

"Coward." Some part of himself whispered. Maybe he was. He felt terrible about leaving Kahya behind. It caused his stomach to churn. What could he do? Nothing.

But, there was one thing that Ballan had always excelled at, both magically and practically, and he'd be damned - literally - if he didn't use the only talent he had:

Running away.

He spotted several of the monks readying darts as they entered the hall, so with a gesture and a shout he conjured a wall of wind. Not strong enough to stop passage, but strong enough to veer small missiles off course. It followed directly behind him as he ran. A volley of darts struck it and went sailing off in several directions. Good.

Now, for his next trick.

He leapt into the air, shouting again, and clapped his hands together, conjuring a slick puddle of grease below his feet. His momentum took him over the affected area, and he was rewarded with the sounds of tumbling cultists moments later. Glancing back, however, many of the monks had leapt over the slick to continue the chase.

Somehow, Ballan thought wizard apprenticeship wouldn't be quite so perilous.

He was starting to run out of stamina, but he pushed through the pain. Most wizards did not engage in cardio, and so most wizards would have been run over by a horde of monks. Luckily, Ballan had plenty of practice running, though he had his limits - and the idol was not making things easier, heavy as it was.

The sound of another volley of darts bouncing off of his wind wall startled him, and he put what little energy he still had into running. He was almost to the end of the hall. The large, stone double doors that adorned the entrance to whatever room he was sprinting towards were ajar and seemed as though they had been that way for a while.

He burst into the cavernous chamber, immediately ducking to the right to break the line of sight of his pursuers. Then, with a breathless incantation - this one longer than the other - he created an illusory copy of himself. Well, an illusory copy of his cloak, but they hopefully wouldn't be able to tell from behind, and sent it in the opposite direction.

They would figure it out eventually, but it might buy him a few seconds. His footsteps rang, loud and ominous, throughout the room. With his ‘see in the dark' spell gone, it was hard to make anything out, as the only light was filtering in from the torches in the hallway.

...Wait. He remembered something about an enormous, dark room at the end of a long hallway.

The sound of scales sliding across stone suddenly filled the cavern. It was followed by a hissing sound that seemed to reflect off of every surface and come from every direction at once. Something gigantic loomed on the other side of the chamber, just out of sight of the distant hallway torches.

And then the doors slammed shut, and ice filled Ballan's veins.

The cultists had not been chasing him - they had been herding him.

Two enormous, yellow eyes glowed within the darkness of the room, staring directly at him. Ballan stood transfixed in place. The cold, unfeeling contempt and hunger he could feel radiating from those bright, yellow, predatory eyes was paralyzing. He was unsure if his heart was beating.

Ballan had just come face-to-face with Pythogoras, the Serpent God.