Jurt had never played football. I do not believe he expected me to come up fast and rush him; and when it happened, I don’t think he anticipated my coming in as low as I did.
And as for clipping him just above the knees and knocking him back through the opening in the railing, I’m sure he was surprised. At least he looked surprised as he went over backward and plummeted, sparks still dancing at his fingertips.
I heard Jasra chuckle, even as he faded in mid-fall and vanished before the floor got to spread him around a bit. Then, from the corner of my eye, I saw her rise.
“I’ll deal with him now,” she said, and, “No problem. He’s clumsy,” even as he appeared at the head of the stair to her right. “You take care of Mask!”
Mask was on the opposite side of the black stone fountain, staring up at me through an orange and red geyser of flames. Below, in the basin, the fires rippled yellow and white. When he scooped up a handful and worked them together as a child might shape a snowball, they became an incandescent blue. Then he threw it at me.
I sent it past with a simple parry. This was not Art, it was basic energy work. But it served as a reminder, even as I saw Jasra perform the preliminary gestures to a dangerous spell purely as a feint, bringing her near enough to Jurt to trip him, pushing him backward down the stair.
Not Art. Whoever enjoyed the luxury of living near and utilizing a power source such as this would doubtless get very sloppy as time went on, only using the basic frames of spells as guides, running rivers of power through them. One untutored, or extremely lazy, might possibly even dispense with that much after a time and play directly with the raw forces, a kind of shamanism, as opposed to the Higher Magic’s purity — like that of a balanced equation — producing a maximum effect from a minimum of effort.
Jasra knew this. I could tell she’d received formal training somewhere along the line. That much was to the good anyway, I decided as I parried another ball of fire and moved to my left.
I began descending the stair — sideways — never taking my gaze off Mask. I was ready to defend or to strike in an instant.
The railing began to glow before me, then it burst into flame. I retreated a pace and continued my descent. Hardly worth wasting a spell to douse it. It was obviously meant for show rather than damage…
There was another possibility, I realized then, as I saw that Mask was simply watching me, was making no move to throw anything else in my direction.
It could also be a test. Mask might simply be attempting to discover whether I was limited to whatever spells I had brought with me — or whether I had learned to tap the power source here directly and would shortly be slugging things out with him as Jurt and Jasra were now obviously preparing to do. Good. Let him wonder. A finite number of spells against a near-limitless source of energy?
Jurt suddenly appeared upon a windowsill, high and to my left. He had time only for a brief frown before a curtain of fire was rung down upon him. Both he and the curtain were gone a moment later, and I heard Jasra’s laughter and his curse, followed by a crashing noise off to the other side of the chamber.
As I moved to descend another step, the stairway faded from view. Suspecting illusion, I continued the slow downward movement of my foot. I encountered nothing, though, and finally extended my stride to pass over the gap and on down to the next stair. It also vanished, however, as I shifted my weight. There came a chuckle from Mask as I turned my movement into a leap to avoid the area. Once I was committed to jumping, the stairs winked out one by one as I passed over them.
I was certain Mask’s thinking must be — that if I had a handle on the local power, reflex would cause me to betray that connection here. And if I didn’t it might still cause me to waste an escape spell.
But I judged the distance to the now-visible floor. If no more stairs vanished I might be able to catch a handhold on the next one, hang a moment, then drop. That would be perfectly safe. And if I missed, or if another stair vanished… I still felt I would land reasonably intact. Better to use an entirely different sort of spell on the way down.
I caught the rearward edge of the farthest stair, dangled and dropped, turning my body and speaking the words of a spell I call the Falling Wall.
The fountain shuddered. The fires sloshed and splashed, overflowing the basin on the side nearest Mask. And then Mask himself was thrown backward to the floor as my spell continued its course of descent.
Mask’s arms rose before him as his body seemed to sop up the swirling glow, his hands to expel it. There was a bright arc between his hands, then a shieldlike dome. He held it above him, warding off the final collapsive force of my spell. I was already moving quickly in his direction. Even as I did so, Jurt appeared before me, standing on the far lip of the fountain just above Mask, glaring at me. Before I could draw my blade, throw Frakir, or utter another spell, however, the fountain welled up, a great wave toppling Jurt from its side, sending him sprawling upon the floor, washing him past Mask and across the chamber toward the foot of the other stair, down which I now saw that Jasra was slowly descending.
“It means nothing to be able to transport yourself anywhere,” I heard her say; “if you are a fool in all places.”
Jurt snarled and sprang to his feet. Then he looked upward, past Jasra…
“You, too, brother?” he said.
“I am here to preserve your life, if at all possible,” I heard Mandor reply. “I would suggest you return with me now — ”
Jurt cried out no recognizable words, just an animallike bleat. Then, “I do not need your patronage!” he screamed. “And you are the fool, to trust Merlin! You stand between him and a kingdom!”
A series of glowing circles drifted like glowing smoke rings from between Jasra’s hands, dropping as if to settle about his body. Jurt immediately vanished, though moments later I heard him shouting to Mandor from a different direction.
I continued to advance upon Mask, who had guarded successfully against my Falling Wall and was now beginning to rise. I spoke the words of the Icy Path, and his feet went out from beneath him. Yes, I was going to throw a finite number of spells against his power source. I call it confidence. Mask had power. I had a plan, and the means to execute it.
A flagstone tore itself loose from the floor, turned into a cloud of gravel amid a grating, crunching noise, then flew toward me like a charge of shot. I spoke the words of the Net and gestured.
All of the fragments were collected before they could reach me. Then I dumped them upon Mask, who was still struggling to rise.
“Do you realize that I still don’t know why we’re fighting?” I said. “This was your idea. I can still — ”
For the moment, Mask had given up on trying to rise. He had placed his left hand in a simmering puddle of light and had extended his right palm toward me. The puddle vanished, and a shower of fire emerged from the right hand and sped at me, like drops from a lawn sprinkler. I was ready for this, though. If the Fount could contain the fire, then it had to be insulated against it.
I threw myself flat on the other side of the dark structure, using its base as a shield.
“It is likely one of us is going to die,” I called out, “since we are not pulling our punches. Either way, I won’t have a chance to ask you later: What’s your bitch? What am I to you?”
The only reply was a chuckling sound from the other side of the Fount, as the floor began to move beneath me.
From somewhere off to my right, near the foot of the undamaged stair, I heard Jurt say, “A fool in all places? What about close quarters?” and I looked up in time to see him appear before Jasra and seize hold of her.
A moment later he screamed, as Jasra lowered her head and her lips touched his forearm. She pushed him away then, and he fell down the remaining steps, landing stiffly, not moving.
I crept to the right of the Fount, over the sharp edges of the broken flooring, which jiggled and sawed at me within the matrix of Mask’s power.
“Jurt is out of it,” I commented, “and you stand alone now, Mask, against the three of us. Call it quits, and I’ll see that you go on living.”
“Three of you,” came that flat, distorted voice. “You admit that you cannot beat me without help?”
“Beat?” I said. “Perhaps you consider it a game. I do not. I will not be bound by any rules you choose to recognize. Call it quits or I’ll kill you, with or without help, any way I can.”
A dark object suddenly appeared overhead; and I rolled back away from the Fount as it came to rest in the basin. It was Jurt. Unable to move normally because of the paralytic effect of Jasra’s bite, he had trumped away from the foot of the stair and into the Fount.
“You have your friends, Lord of Chaos, and I have mine,” Mask replied, as Jurt moaned softly and began to glow.
Suddenly Mask went spinning into the air, as I heard the flooring shatter. The Fount itself died down, grew weaker, as a flaming tower twisted ceilingward, rising from a new opening in the floor, bearing Mask with it on the crest of its golden plume.
“And enemies,” Jasra stated, moving nearer.
Mask spread his arms and legs and wheeled slowly through the middle air, suddenly in control of his trajectory. I got to my feet and backed away from the Fount. I’m seldom at my best at centers of geological catastrophes.
A rushing, rumbling sound now came from the doubled fountain, and a high-pitched, sourceless-seeming note accompanied it. A small wind sighed among the rafters. The tower of fire atop which Mask rode continued its slow spiraling, and the spray in the lowered fountain began a similar movement. Jurt stirred, moaned, raised his right arm.
“And enemies,” Mask acknowledged, beginning a series of gestures I recognized immediately because I’d spent a lot of time figuring them out.
“Jasra!” I cried. “Watch out for Sharu!”
Jasra took three quick steps to her left and smiled. Something very much like lightning then fell from the rafters, blackening the area she had just departed.
“He always starts with a lightning stroke,” she explained. “He’s very predictable.”
She spun once and vanished redly, with a sound like breaking glass.
I looked immediately to where the old man had stood, RINALDO carved upon his right leg. He was leaning against the wall now, one hand to his forehead, the other implementing a simple but powerful shielding spell.
I was about to scream for Mandor to take the old boy out, when Mask hit me with a Klaxon spell which temporarily deafened me while bursting blood vessels in my nose.
Dripping, I dove and rolled, interposing the now-rising Jurt between myself and the sorcerer in the air. Jurt actually appeared to be throwing off the effects of Jasra’s bite. So I drove my fist into his stomach as I rose and turned him into an even better position to serve as my shield. A mistake. I received a jolt from his body, not unlike a nasty electrical shock, and he even managed a brief laugh as I fell.
“He’s all yours,” I heard him gasp then.
From the corner of my eye, I saw where Jasra and Sharu Garrul stood, each of them seemingly holding one end of a great long piece of macrame work woven of cables. The lines were pulsing and changing colors, and I knew they represented forces rather than material objects, visible only by virtue of the Logrus Sight, under which I continued to operate. The pulse increased in tempo, and both sank slowly to their knees, arms still extended, faces glistening. A quick word, a gesture, and I could break that balance. Unfortunately, I had problems of my own just then. Mask was swooping toward me like some huge insect — expressionless, shimmering, deadly. A succession of brittle snapping sounds occurred within the front wall of the Keep, where a series of jagged cracks raced downward like black lightning. I was away of falling dust beyond the spiraling lights, of the growling and the whining sounds — faint now within my ringing ears — of the continuing vibration of the floor beneath my half-numbed legs. But that was all right. I raised my left hand as my right slid within my cloak.
A fiery blade appeared in Mask’s right hand. I did not stir, but waited a second longer before speaking the guide words to my Fantasia-for-Six-Acetylene-Torches spell as I snapped my forearm back to cover my eyes and rolled to the side.
The stroke missed me, passing through broken stone. Mask’s left arm fell across my chest, however, elbow connecting with my lower ribs. I did not stop to assess damages, though, as I heard the sword of fire crackle and come free of the stone. And so, turning, I struck with my own more mundane dagger of steel, driving its full length up into Mask’s left kidney.
There followed a scream as the sorcerer stiffened and slumped beside me. Almost immediately thereafter I was kicked with considerable force behind my right hip. I twisted away and another blow landed upon my right shoulder. I am sure it was aimed for my head. As I covered my neck and temples and rolled away, I heard Jurt’s voice, cursing.
Drawing my longer blade, I rose to my feet, and my gaze met Jurt’s. He was rising at the same time, and he held Mask cradled in his arms.
“Later,” he said to me, and he vanished, bearing the body away with him. The blue mask remained on the floor, near to a long smear of blood.
Jasra and Sharu were still facing each other from kneeling positions, panting, bodies completely drenched, their life forces twisting about each other like mating serpents.
Then, like a surfacing fish, Jurt appeared within the tower of forces beyond the Fount. Even as Mandor hurled two of his spheres — which seemed to grow in size as they fled down the chamber, to crash into the Fount and reduce to rubble — I saw what I believed I would never see again.
As the reverberation of the Fount’s collapse spread and the groaning and grinding within the walls was replaced by a snapping and swaying, and dust, gravel and timbers fell about me, I was moving forward, skirting the wreckage, sidestepping new geysers and rivulets of glowing forces, cloak raised to protect my face, black extended.
Jurt cursed me roundly as I came on. Then, “Pleased; brother? Pleased?” he said. “May death be the only peace between us.”
But I ignored the predictable sentiment, for I had to get a better look at what I thought I had seen moments before. I leaped over a piece of broken masonry and beheld the fallen sorcerer’s face within the flames, head cradled against his shoulder.
“Julia!” I cried.
But they vanished even as I moved forward, and I knew it was time for me to do the same.
Turning, I fled through the fire.