Paul had woken to a pacing Culber, who gruffly asked if he minded them eating as they walked as he wanted to get them going as quick as possible. Feeling more rested than he could remember being in a very long time and eager to get moving, he had agreed.
After he had quickly saddled Bella, they had headed off, Shadow once more picking up the rear alternately lagging behind then catching up to them again.
The silence between them as they walk has been a common thing over the days they have traveled together, yet Paul notices a change in Culber’s quiet. There is a tension to his body, the lines on his face are deeper than Paul recalls seeing them and though he moves with his usual confidence his eyes constantly dart back and forth. So though Paul’s mind is filled with a myriad of questions spawned by the previous day’s events, he is hesitant to ask.
Suddenly Culber stumbles and though he catches himself before he falls it draws Paul’s attention. Not once in all the days they’ve travelled together has Culber been anything but graceful and sure on his feet, this sudden clumsiness worries Paul.
“Are you alright?” he asks as they continue. “I don’t think I’ve seen you stumble before.”
“It happens to everyone now and again,” Culber answers tersely.
“I was wondering, have you had trouble sleeping too? You look a bit, well, worn and now this.” There is an odd silence and something in Paul’s mind clicks. “Have you been getting any sleep at all?”
A long, pregnant pause passes before Culber answers, “No.”
“Were you truly that worried about the, um, Tirgan?”
“They are not our only problem. Or have you forgotten the specter that haunts you?”
“No, but what can you-” Paul stops, his thoughts stumbling over one another in their urgency to get to the forefront of his mind. “ Can you do something about that?” he amends the question he meant to ask.
There is more silence but now Culber stops, his back to Paul. The pause is so long that Paul begins to wonder if he’ll answer at all.
“Perhaps,” Culber finally say keeping his back turned. “The night before last. No, let me start before that. The night in the clearing, you didn’t wake me like I told you you did, I was already awake. I was- That doesn’t matter. What matter is that I... sensed something, a chill, a power, just before you woke from your dream. It carried the taint of the Eldritch War, so I decided to investigate it.” He turns around and Paul can see a strange, guarded expression on his face. “And so the night before last I stayed awake, I wanted a look at this thing, whatever it was. But the moment it sensed me, it fled. Last night, it didn’t come back. Whether it sensed me from a distance before I could sense it and retreated or if it never came at all, I don’t know.”
“You... guarded my sleep?” Paul asks, taken aback.
Culber shrugs at the question.
“Thank you,” Paul says.
“You needed rest if your body were to cope with the healing. And there was the possibility of the Tirgan arriving even if the entity left you alone. A guard was needed,” Culber says, sounding almost apologetic.
“Surely you could have set wards up for that? Alarms? Something,” Paul asks incredulously.
Culber shakes his head.
“That's not how my abilities work.”
“How do you magic work?”
“For one thing I don’t call it magic.”
“Very well, what do you call it?”
Culber gives him an odd look.
“You’re just a font of questions, aren’t you?”
“You said yesterday you’d answer any questions I had.”
“Hmmm. Tell me Stamets, if I were to ask you about the teachings and secrets of the Imperial College, how much would you tell me?”
“Depends, I guess. What do you want to know?”
An exchange of knowledge is fair, perhaps Culber is as curious about his magic as Paul is about his.
“What’s a spell matrix?” Culber asks.
The question takes Paul so completely aback that he stops and gawks at Culber.
“How can- That- Are you serious? How can you not know this?”
Culber tilts his head and simply looks at him.
“I told you last night. Your rules are not universal.”
“But, but- How do you keep control of your spell?”
A small smile creep on to Culber’s lips.
“Answer my questions and I’ll answer yours.”
Baffled Paul shakes his head, trying to recall how his own teachers explained it back in his youth, he himself have never been much of a teacher.
“Very well. A matrix is the pattern that determines the function of the spell. Simple matrixes such as one for creating light are taught even to apprentices, while the more complex patterns are left to fully trained wizards. You... well you form the matrix, using the major and minor Rules of Patterns, to construct a shape that will give you the result you desire. Then when you are certain that the pattern is solid you let magic flow into it, fueling the spell, creating the desired effect.”
Culber is frowning.
“That sounds very...” He pulls a face, words trailing off.
“How does it even work?”
“You haven’t ever experienced a wizard at work?”
Wouldn’t Culber have been able to understand what was happening by observation?
“Not at a time where I had a chance to stop and analyze it, no.”
Do they have no wizards here? Perhaps that’s the explanation. But surely whatever it is he does it cannot be that different? Maybe if there was a chance to compare.
“Perhaps if I demonstrated?” Paul offers.
Paul casts about for an idea.
“A simple light spell,” he suggests. “It’s so simple and rudimentary that anyone who completes their first year have mastered this.”
Culber waves a ‘do as you please’ gesture, at him.
The structure is so simple that Paul doesn’t even have to think, he might even be able to do this one in his sleep. An instant later the air above his palm glows, though the radiance is hard to see in the bright light of the day.
What is noticeable is Culber’s small shudder.
“Is something wrong?” Paul asks as he carefully dismantles the matrix, allowing the spell to evaporate safely.
“No. It’s just-” Culber shakes his head. “Nothing.”
“Okay then, back to my question. How do your... that which you do not call magic, work?”
“Not like that.”
“Yes I had gathered that much. Come on, I answered your question and you did promise.”
“For one thing I do not force the world to comply with my every whim,” Culber growls.”
Now it is Paul’s turn to frown.
“What do you mean?”
“That.” Culber waves his hand vaguely in Paul’s direction. “The Light. It feels like making a plaything out of something too powerful to be played with. Like a child playing with a sword, never comprehending the danger. Or flint and steel, unaware that they may start an inferno.”
“That’s exaggerating,” Paul says with affront. “Our training is exacting and demanding precisely to prevent our magic to have unexpected consequences. We are drilled in forms and patterns until we get them right, before ever being allowed to try to make a real spell out of something.”
“So nothing ever goes wrong?” Culber says acerbically.
“Of course accidents happen. And you will find irresponsible practitioners, that is unfortunately the way of the world. Is your way so much safer or responsible then? How can it be, since you don’t have even the most basic precautions according to your own words?”
“I never really knew how wizardry worked until now,” Culber says slowly. “And you really do have no idea what you’re playing with, do you?”
“According to you, no. So maybe you would do me the kindness of explaining?”
There is a moment where Paul thinks that Culber may simply turn on his heel and walk away, but instead he steps forward and takes hold of Paul’s hand. He squats down, pulling Paul down with him and presses Paul’s hand flat against the ground, palm down, his own hand on top of it.
“What do you feel?” Culber asks him.
“Grass? Pebbles? The ground? You have to be a bit more specific.”
“When you do... magic, what does it feel like to you? What does the world around feel like to you?”
“I don’t know? Like the world?”
Culber lets out an exasperated noise.
“But doesn’t the... magic feel like something?”
“Like magic I guess. Power? I’m sorry, I really don’t know what you’re getting at.”
Culber lets go of him, sighing again.
“Then I’m not sure I can explain it to you. Our “magic” isn’t magic the way you understand it. It's the world itself, it is us and everything in it.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I didn’t think you would. But it’s the only way I can explain it. And we don’t force the world into a shape that we wishes. We bend with it, we can direct its flow but 0we do not try to break it.”
“But I felt such a power from you when you did that... thing in the clearing. And when you healed my arm. Beyond anything I've ever sensed.”
Culber gets to his feet.
“Then you know what I mean. You've felt it. Even if you do not understand what it is.”
“But that was magic!” Paul protests, leaping to his feet to follow Culber who have begun to walk away.
“No, that was the world.”
His words make no sense to Paul.
“And who are ‘we’?” he asks.
There is a heart beat’s pause before Culber answers, “The druids,” as he keeps walking.
At his answer Stamets is suddenly silent. Hugh takes pleasure in that, knowing it will not last. As it is, it last even shorter than he expected.
“Oh, very funny,” Stamets says drily. “Good joke. Really now, who are ‘we’?”
Hugh can feel a smile tuck at his lips, amusement warring with annoyance. He could have told a lie of course, but considering that his abilities had been revealed his idea of hiding in plain sight and observing was clearly not going to happen, so he might as well be truthful about it. Though he hadn’t expected Stamets to believe him, not right away, not only at his word. The conflict between what the man thought he knew about the world, about Sirine, and reality was too big for that. What happens once that conflict is reconciled, how Stamets will reconcile it, time alone can tell.
So all that Hugh says in return is, “I’m not joking.”
Stamets looks at him incredulously.
“You expect me to believe... that?”
“What you believe or do not believe doesn’t change what is true.”
“So what? Imperial history is completely wrong? They'd just... miss a group as powerful as yours? Or are you particularly strong for a druid?”
“We do not measure out abilities in strong or weak as you do. All abilities to listen, to perceive are valued, no matter how the express themselves or how keen they are. But if you’re asking me if I’m particularly skilled for a druid, then the answer is no. There are those far more skilled than I. As for missing us? Perhaps it is more of an oversight. A willful one.”
“Why would we wish to ‘overlook’ you?”
Hugh stops and turns to face him.
“You lost and lost badly to a bunch of... what was it, ‘charlatans’? Do you think that is something your precious College would want to remember? That the Empire wishes kept in its annals? That there’s a group out there that can stop you dead in your tracks. Or would it be more comfortable to forget it all? Forget us? Dismiss us as.... ‘charlatans.”
Finishing his denunciation Hugh begins to walk again, not looking back to see if Stamets follows. Moments later he catches glance of him out the corner of his eye, looking thoughtful as he keeps stride with Hugh.
It is Stamets who breaks their silence.
“That... makes a surprising amount of sense on consideration.”
The fact that Stamets so easily accepts the idea certainly surprises Hugh.
“You accept the idea?”
Stamets sends him a slight smile.
“I won’t bore you with the intricacies of Imperial politics, suffice to say that the College’s reputation took a beating by the loss of the war. So did the Emperor’s. The fact that it could happen again would sit well with neither.”
Hugh almost corrects that to ‘invasion’, but decides to let it slide this time in the interest of hearing what more Stamets has to say.
“They would not have wanted it spread around that they lost due to a stronger enemy and not... weather condition.”
“That’s the usual explanation given for why the war was unsuccessful. Bouts of unlucky storms striking and freezing temperatures that hampered and injured the troops.”
If someone was to explain what happened without mentioning the druids that wasn’t a bad way to go, Hugh had to grant them that. The druids had turned the weather and climate, along with the topography in the mountains, against the invading armies.
They continue for a while in silence.
“Another question if I may?” Stamets says. “The men who attacked us yesterday? What was it you called them, Tirgan? Who are they?”
“A leap in topic indeed,” Hugh comments.
“I was hoping to steer the conversation in a less, contentious direction? I’ve been told that is the diplomatic thing to do when encountering topic of conflict, to find a less disagreeable one. At least I hope that’s a less disagreeable topic. I have no idea who they are and I confess I’m curious. I would like to know who was trying to kill me for one thing.”
“You may find that is considered diplomatic in the Empire and what is here are two very different things,” Hugh says. Stamets has shown no inclination towards being diplomatic so far and this odd turn puzzles him. “But to answer your question, you could consider them another relic of the Eldritch War and the era that preceded it. They live in old purged ruins, in the mountains to the north and east of Sirine, clinging to what they see as the ‘glories of the past’. They worship Imran and his Council; they wish to bring back their rule. Or at least the times as they were back then. We pay them little mind but leave them in their ruins, but sometimes they come out of the mountains to raid. Then we remind them why they shouldn’t do that.”
“And that’s been going on for what, all these three thousand years? Why not simply destroy them?”
For a moment all Hugh can do is stare at him.
“Because that’s not who we are! We will protect ourselves when we must, but we do not invade and destroy,” he says when he regains his ability to speak.
“But if they keep attacking you?”
Hugh shakes his head, not sure how to make Stamets understand or if it’s even possible.
“There’s a certain irony in it, don’t you think?” Stamets muses after another while of silence.
“That these people whom you say worship the Eldritch War tried to kill us, me? I wonder if I had told them about my nightly visitations if it’d have made a difference? Surely, they could not have known? Could they?”
Hugh shakes his head.
“I don’t see how. For all that they worship the ancient wizards they have little in the way of... magical abilities or knowledge. A small mercy. They would be a true menace if they had. But it’s a mystery what drew them so far into Sirine. Another reason we should make it to Galeah as quickly as we can, people need to be warned that there are raiders on the loose. It should take us two, three days to get there.”
“And then what happens?”
“What do you mean?”
“The two of us? I have a suspicion that you won’t just let me walk away.”
There is a cautious note in Stamets’ voice.
“It would be unwise of us to part company.”
“Yes. Whatever haunts you-” Hugh stops and he can see Stamets study him closely as he considers what to say next. “What haunts you seem... afraid of me as I told you before. If we part company, you’d be vulnerable again.”
“You can’t guard my sleep every night. You will need sleep too.”
“I know a few skills to keep myself going without sleep.”
“For how long will that keep you going?”
“Not much longer.”
“And then what?”
“I should be able to manage until we reach Galeah. The town has defenses of its own, defenses I’d be surprised if the entity can breach. Or would wish to be near since it seems so intent on avoiding me.”
He can reveal this much to Stamets without getting into details about the protections that the druids in the past laid down to protect the inhabitant of Sirine.
“I could remain in Galeah then? And you could continue to... where it was you were going when we met?
“Remain there indefinitely? In what capacity? Stamets, the moment you left the town the protection would cease?”
“So I'd be a prisoner?”
“Only by your own making.”
“So what do you suggest we do?”
“We make our way to Galeah and then we discuss further? That was always my plan.”
“Did your plan include telling me who and what you are?”
“I wasn't sure. For one thing I wasn't sure you would believe me. I’m not sure you even believe me now. And even if you would… there were other concerns.”
“The entity that stalks you is a threat to Sirine that is true, but both the Empire and the Imperial College have known to be hostile to us too. Can you blame we for wanting to protect my people from all possible threats?”
“And you think I might be one?”
“I don't know, Stamets. Are you?”
With those words Hugh turns on his heel and continues to walk.