As They Seem by Steph T, Chapter 2 of 2

As They Seem

Starring Milo Pulsar and Shaula Bluestar

Previous Chapter

* * *

Two unusual things happened the next morning at breakfast.

The first was the Princess Luccah. Normally quite punctual and pleasant, that morning she arrived rather late, and was withdrawn and quiet. I caught her looking at Milo out of the corner of her eye more than once, and her expression was a confused mix of human emotion I couldn’t begin to untangle.

“Milo,” I murmured, low enough that only he could hear me. “Is everything all right?” I raised an eyebrow significantly.

He groaned, ran a hand through his hair. “Tell you later?”

“I suppose.” I shook my head tolerantly.

I was about to ask him something further, when we were interrupted by the second unusual thing. A wide-eyed servant entered the room bearing a velvet-wrapped parcel. He brought it directly to King Otis, offering it with arms that shook noticeably.

“What’s this, Evan?” Otis asked with a raised eyebrow.

“The… the wizard, your majesty,” Evan managed, stumbling over the words.

Otis took the parcel gravely, turned to Milo. “Pulsar, if you would,” he gestured.

Milo was already pulling his Etheral Mask on, the lenses glittering as he inspected the parcel’s magical aura. “No traps,” he reported after a moment’s scrutiny. “Some Runic Magic lingering, but I’d have to see it to…”

The King pulled the velvet off, revealing a round silver mirror perhaps eight inches across. “Ah,” he said knowingly.

“Ah,” echoed a second voice; and with a small flash of light, the spectral form of the Order of Nogg Wizard’s head appeared, floating above the sending-mirror. “How very convenient,” the wizard sneered, gazing about the room. “You’ve all assembled.”

Otis rose to his feet, face dark with rage. “Wizard,” he rumbled, “you have-”

“Enough of your posturing, petty Wizard-King,” the Nogg wizard cut him off. “You well know that you are not the power in the room. I speak to the Wizard Pulsar now.” He turned to gaze fiercely at Milo.

“I am listening,” Milo replied quietly.

A chill ran down my spine. My partner was not a quiet person; for him to drop the sarcasm and cutting remarks told me just how angry he really was.

“Your Order has no place in these preceedings,” the Nogg Wizard continued. “I demand that you withdraw from this planet immediately, and-”

“No.” Milo’s eyes were cold. “The Order of Paragon has every place in these proceedings, and triply so. First, for the insult offered our order four days past; twice, for the insult offered my partner that same day; and thrice, for a guardianship freely agreed to.” He nodded to King Otis. “You deal with me when you deal with Myyr.”

I saw the wizard blanch, and I do not think it was my imagination. “Very well, then, Pulsar,” he said after a stunned pause. “Let us do this in the proper manner.”

“A duel,” Luccah whispered, eyes wide.

“A duel,” the Wizard agreed.

“Do you challenge?” Milo said, still deadly calm and deadly serious.

“Indeed,” he sneered. “I, Mollan Rict, Wizard of the Order of Nogg, do challenge you the Wizard’s Duel.”

“And I, Milo Pulsar, Wizard and Champion of the Order of Paragon, do accept, and do name these terms: the Ten Delphic Forms, no summons, one hour allotted for preparation.” Milo’s voice was even and clear, and I flinched away from the steel in it.

“A traditionalist, are we? Accepted, no gadgets or outside interference.”

“We will meet immediately at…” Milo glanced over at the King, who was watching with no little respect.

“Plains north of the city,” King Otis supplied.

“…at the plains north of the Capital City of Myyr. Is this acceptable?”

“It is,” Rict replied, and with a sparking flash of light, his image disappeared.

Milo pushed himself up from the table. “Shaula, grab Andry, we need to-”

“No need,” Otis shook his head, “we’ll take my skimmer, it’s always standing ready. Evan!” He clapped his hand.

I’d always known humans to spend a lot of time paying attention to custom and form; but I will grant them, when circumstance demanded, they could truly move. The whole party was halfway across the room before the last sparks from the sending-mirror had hit the floor.

“Every minute counts when it comes to duels,” Milo explained to me hurriedly once we were all in the skimmer and en route. “If he were to arrive before me, he’d be well within his rights-”

“…to start laying his preparatory spells, even before you’d set the inner and outer blood-circles, which can upset the entire dynamic of the duel,” I finished. “You’ve told me.”

“I have?” Milo replied faintly. Behind him, King Otis smiled benevolently at us both, and Princess Luccah hid a scowl.

“Or maybe the Temporal Sorceror did?” I frowned. “No, wait, it was Thom when he was studying for his first practice Duel.”

“Your apprentice friend in the Archives?”

“Journeyman now, but yes.”

“Either way.” Milo smiled distractedly. “You’ve got it.”

We arrived at the site mere moments before Rict Gated in. I could not help but to shrink away from him for a moment; the King noticed, and put a gentle hand on my shoulder.

Milo was already unbuckling his belts and pulling off his Etheral Mask. “Here, hold these until I get back?” he asked, passing me the armload of gadgetry.

“Of course,” I murmured, but my partner was already gone, leaping off the side of the skimmer in an unnecessarily flashy- but unquestionably stylish- way. I settled the belts around my waist; I had to take them in few pegs before they’d stay up. Levitation wand on my right hip in its cross-draw sheath, laser whip on the left; it felt backwards for a funny moment until I remembered Milo was a lefty.

“It’s been years since I’ve witnessed a formal Wizard Duel,” the King confided in me. “And my Luccah has never seen one, is that right?” Luccah shook her head.

“I’ve seen a few, at the Tower of Deepsight,” I confessed, watching Milo cross the field towards Rict. “The Paragon Order is a proud one; bruised-pride duels, mostly. Never anything at this level.”

“Has Milo been in many duels?” Luccah asked curiously.

“Mm. A few.” I craned my head; they’d met at the center of the field, and were sizing each other up.

“The grounds are satisfactory,” Rict said dismissively. “The stake?”

“To unconsciousness, death, or the first to break the circle,” Milo replied. “And if you lose, you remove the curse on my partner,” he nodded at me, “and vow to never to interfere with Myyr again.”

“If I lose,” Rict smiled a thin smile, “I will do just that. And when I- pardon me, if I win…” his gaze wandered over to the skimmer, where the three of us waited and watched. “I take the star.”

King Otis rumbled in displeasure, and Luccah stifled a gasp. I merely frowned, puzzled at this unexpected request. “Interesting,” I murmured.

Milo just laughed, a short sharp bark. “Did you hear that, Shaula?” he called back over his shoulder. “This wizard wants me to wager you, how about that?”

“I don’t know that I’m yours to wager,” I called back, amused, “but very well!”

“Very well?” Luccah hissed in disbelief. “You’ll let him take you if Milo…”

“Dies? Because that’s the only way he’ll lose.” I smiled faintly. “Milo won’t lose.”

I wasn’t quite as confident as I seemed; but I’d be damned before I’d let the Nogg Wizard see that. Milo could certainly hold his own in a fight, but a Duel took a particular sort of strategy.

“Very well,” Milo turned back to Rict. “Your voluntary withdrawal from all actions on Myyr, including removing your curse from Shaula Bluestar, wagered against one Shaula Bluestar.” Even with his back to us, I could tell he was grinning broadly.

“Done,” Rict snapped, and pulled out a short dagger. He pricked his finger, then passed the dagger to Milo, who did the same.

“What are they doing?” Luccah asked her father.

“Their blood co-mingled on the battle grounds seals the Circle,” Otis explained. And on the ground, both wizards squeezed out a drop of their blood. I couldn’t see the drops fall, but we all knew the instant it was done; a blazing reddish-gold circle a hundred feet across snapped into being around them.

“The Circle,” Luccah whispered. “It… will it keep them in?”

“No,” he answered, “but if either of them leaves it, they lose the match.”

“And it’s a rather embarrassing way to lose,” I agreed. We watched Milo and Rict trudge back to their sides of the circle.

“But what holds them to that?” Luccah persisted. “Surely not every wizard is as honorable as the Paragon Order?”

I shook my head. “They bound up a… hmm, a portion of their power in the blood,” I explained. “Breaking the agreement would weaken them unacceptably.”

“Right,” Otis nodded. “Now watch this next part.”

Milo and Rict had reached their chosen spots, on opposite sides of the larger circle. As we watched, each drew a smaller circle around themselves; this one only five feet across.

“I know this part,” Luccah said excitedly. “Some of the styles, you have to stay in the smaller circle while you’re using, others you can move around wherever.”

“Good,” Otis approved. “And how many of the ten Delphic classic Forms are fixed, and how many are mutable?”

Luccah frowned. “Um… six fixed, and the rest mutable?”

“Half right, it was a trick questions,” he winked.

“Oh, right, three mutable, and the one cardinal.” Luccah rolled her eyes. “But nobody uses Acanthus Form.”

“Wizard Arnhof used it often in his duels,” I disagreed, “and to great effect. And only partly in homage to Acanthus, the planet.”

Luccah looked at me blankly for a moment. “Arnhof, the first Wizard?”

I nodded. “My great-grandmother witnessed one of his duels,” I added offhandedly. “She passed down the stories.”

King Otis did a double-take. “That would have been nearly two thousand years ago,” he shook his head. “I didn’t realize… huh.”

I considered it. “Oh, that’s quite a lot in human years, isn’t it?” I shrugged. “Three generations, about.” I turned my attention back to the ring. Milo had his Tome out and was muttering incants; I watched his hands move, and watched the earth rippling around him, and nodded to myself.

“What forms does your partner favor, then?” the King asked offhandedly.

“Well, Minkar for one, of course,” I replied immediately.

“The Paragon style, of course,” Otis nodded knowledgeably.

“Right. And, hmm,” I searched my memory, “Alshain, for mobility.”

“Runic boosting, how interesting,” he mused. “He must be a very quick thinker.”

We chatted for most of the hour; although not the strongest Wizard, Otis was a learned scholar and an excellent conversationalist. Finally, the inner circles began to pulse with light; the preparatory hour was nearly complete. Our conversation trickled off into silence as we waited with bated breath to see what each would declare as his opening form.

Predictably, both waited until the last moment possible; but just as the circles began their last and brightest pulse, the flares went up, and a glowing runic sigil hung in the air over each of them.

“Alshain,” Otis noted approvingly, nodding at Milo, who was now streaking across the ground with runically enhanced speed, “and… Nexus?” He blinked in disbelief.

“Why is that strange?” Luccah asked, watching Milo weave his way across the battleground, his feet sending up clouds of dust and trailing sparks.

I slipped Milo’s Etheral Mask over my eyes; through it, I could see him planting sleeping-spells in the earth behind him. Probably snares or similar, I decided. “It’s strange because Nexus is a divination Form, and not often used in duels… hmm.” I could see some sort of aura rippling around Rict, but I couldn’t discern what sort of spell it was. After a moment, the auras started to hurt my unattuned eyes; I had to pull the Mask off.

Evidently Milo wasn’t too sure what it was, either; he changed direction suddenly and lobbed a ball of crackling lightning at the Nogg Wizard.

I’d been waiting for a move just like that, and still I was startled by the speed; but to my surprise, the Nogg Wizard summoned a reflective barrier in no time at all, sending the ball lightning rolling right back at my partner.

Milo scrambled to get out of the way, leaping high into the air; Luccah caught her breath, impressed. I smiled tolerantly; I’d seen it before, but it was still well executed. He landed with a cloud of dust; and with a rush of color sent up a new sigil.

“Changing Form so quickly?” Otis wondered. “And Phoenix- he’s not holding back!”

And indeed he was not; Milo gestured, and an arc of searing light shot forth from his hands; then another, and another. “Laser whip spell,” I murmured. “Show-off.” Then I frowned; Milo was flinging the arcs faster than the eye could follow, but somehow, Rict was deflecting every one.

Milo halted his attacks; at this rate, he’d just wear himself out, and he knew it. He stared at Rict for a long moment; the wizard gazed right back.

“What are they doing?” Luccah asked plaintively.

I dared a peek back through the Etheral Mask. “Rict is laying some traps… and Milo’s trying to figure out how Rict keeps dodging him… oh!” I pulled the Mask off as Milo shot up another sigil; his third Form of the Duel. “Ah, Acanthus,” I murmured. “Why the cardinal?” While Milo was in Acanthus, he would be locked into that spot; it didn’t have to be within his inner circle, but he couldn’t move even a single step to the side.

“He’s not a thaumaturgist, is he?” Otis asked incredulously.

“No, of course not, the lost magic… so he’s going for a divination trick?” I wondered aloud.

The two Wizards stared at each other; we watched in silent puzzlement. Rict began to sway, gently at first, then more violently; then grabbed his head, letting out a yelp of pain and making a slashing dismissal motion with his hand.

“Divination loop!” Luccah cheered excitedly. “He was looking into the future a few seconds to see what Milo was going to do-”

“…oh, of course! So Milo did the same…”

“And the split realities overwhelmed him,” Luccah finished with a smile.

Even at the distance we were at, I could see expression of rage on his face as Rict stood back up straight. He gestured again, sending a sigil shooting into the sky; El’nath. “Theurgy?” Luccah asked with a frown. “But I thought summoning was prohibited?”

Milo was shifting Forms too; not Phoenix, since he’d just used it, but back into Alshain. “It is,” I murmured.

Rict’s robes were rippling madly; we all three of us gasped as he suddenly reared back, his form doubling, tripling size and bulging grotesquely. “Shape-shifting,” I breathed, eyes wide. “I’ve never seen… it’s technically possession, not summoning, so…” His form rippled once more, and settled into an enormous bull-like creature with a long, spiny lizard-tail. And with no further preamble, he lowered his head and charged.

I clenched the side of the skimmer hard; Milo was still scrambling to set the speed-runes back into his legs. He barely managed to dodge out of the way in time, and hadn’t even regained his footing when the bull-creature whirled and charged again, driving him back into a sudden wall of fire.

Luccah shrieked, then covered her mouth. “Rict was laying fire traps earlier!” she agonized.

Milo had managed to leap out of the way; and now he activated one of his sleeping spells. A sudden snare-vine snapped into place across the Rict-bull’s path, sending the behemoth tumbling. A creature that size, no matter how magically enhanced, would fall hard; and Rict did, skidding nearly to the edge of the ring. For a bare moment I thought he’d go over the line, and be disqualified; but disappointingly, he stopped a good body’s-length away. “Flare,” I muttered.

By the time Rict climbed to his feet again, Milo had completed his casting. A shimmering curtain of light sprang into place across the battle-circle. It was a spell I’d never seen before; it looked more like an aurora then any sort of offensive power. “What is that?” I asked, genuinely puzzled.

“It’s a mana-curtain,” Otis said, his voice thick with awe. “I’ve only read about… they enhance certain types of magic, and dampen others, depending on how they’re set up. He’s probably damped the fire and enhanced… something else…”

I smiled to myself. “And I’m sure that’s what Wizard Rict expects, too,” I whispered.

The bull bellowed, lashing its spiny tail; and, head lowered, it charged across the field again- directly over one of his own fire-traps. But instead of being dampened, the wall blazed up doubly high, catching Rict on fire with his own spell.

From there, the end was certain. I almost felt sorry for Rict, really. I could imagine what he was experiencing; stumbling out of a curtain of flame, quickly gabbling out a spell to douse it. But no sooner was that settled than a sudden gust of wind and sand was blowing in his face, blinding and stinging. I could practically taste his frustration as he cast out a gust of wind of his own to clear the air.

He must have felt such a rush when he saw Milo stumble back. He didn’t even think before he lowered his head to charge again.

And he certainly had no idea what had happened when instead of connecting with Milo’s body, he met with nothing but air- and the ringing blast of a horn signalling the end of the duel.

He stumbled to a stop, sat back on his haunches. His form rippled and shifted, back to human. “How… did I lose?” he asked, dazed.

Milo smirked, and dropped his illusion. “You crossed the boundary,” he pointed out.

Rict stared at the brightly-glowing red line- a good ten feet behind him. “You utter hex,” he breathed. “A cheap illusion?”

I smiled widely. “Well done, Milo,” I murmured, clambering down off the skimmer and picking my way over the churned-up earth towards him.

Rict was still staring at the line in the earth by the time I reached the two wizards, still not quite believing what had happened. “Can’t believe this,” he kept muttering.

Milo nudged him with the toe of his boot. “Get up, Wizard,” he said scornfully. “We’ve still got questions for you.”

He looked up at us, and there was more than a touch of madness in his eyes. “And what makes you think I plan on answering?”

I tossed Milo his laser whip, and pulled my own from its thigh holster. “I believe it would be your own sense of self-preservation,” I suggested mildly.

His eyes widened. He looked at Milo; looked back at me. “Ask, then,” he spat, his pride no doubt stinging him fiercely.

“You couldn’t have been working alone,” Milo began. “Who were you working with, or rather, for?”

Rict lifted his chin haughtily. “Working for?”

Milo snorted. “Please. You’ve got ‘toady’ written all over you. So who is it? Who’s Boss Nogg?”

His eyes flickered over to me for a moment before he wrenched them back to Milo.

“Ah,” Milo said knowingly. “And what’s his name?”

A sweat broke out on the wizard’s forehead. “That’s not one I can answer,” he responded through gritted teeth.

My partner raised an eyebrow. “You’re not just being a smartass, are you?” he said wonderingly. “Boss put some kind of hex on you so you can’t talk, didn’t he? Hmm.”

“I’ve got one, then,” I cut in, and both Milo and Rict turned to look at me inquiringly. I gazed into Rict’s wide mad eyes, doubting for a moment whether I truly wanted to know the answer. Then, steeling up my courage, I asked. “Who is the Blackstar?”

All the color drained out of his face. “No,” he whispered, falling back on his hands and pulling himself away from me. “No, no, no no no, too soon, too soon. Shouldn’t have brought- no, no no no.”

Milo raised his laser whip, and I mirrored the move in perfect sync. “Answer the lady,” Milo suggested.

Rict looked at Milo, and swallowed hard. “You don’t understand,” he whispered, sounding sick to his stomach. “There is nothing, and I mean nothing, you could do that is worse than what will happen if I answer that.”

Milo and I exchanged a long look. I nodded; we lowered our whips. “I don’t know if I have any other questions,” I confessed in a low voice.

“I have plenty,” Milo replied in a matching tone, “but if our friend’s tongue is sealed on certain matters…” he shook his head.

“Worth a shot,” I shrugged. “How often do we get one of them to question?”

“True enough. Here’s another for you, then, Rict,” he turned to address the man. “What the hex does your Void-spawned Order want?”

“Language,” I murmured, not particularly meaning it.

“What do we want,” Rict repeated. His lips curved up into a sardonic smile. “Ah, that’s the big question, isn’t it?” He chewed his lip for a moment. “If I answer you this one- and answer it well, no imping around- then you’ll let me go, will you?”

We exchanged another look. I shrugged. “Your call.”

Milo considered it. “All right, then,” he agreed. “No imping around.”

“Everything,” he whispered, and his eyes were huge and mad again as he said it. “We want everything.”

I gazed searchingly at the wizard’s face. “Everything,” I repeated. “The Galaxy?”

“For a start,” he agreed. “And I’m not saying it isn’t an important first step. But the universe is wide, Bluestar, and we are…” he searched for the words.

“Utterly bug-hexed insane?” Milo suggested.

“Ambitious,” he corrected. “We are ambitious.”

“You can’t possibly think that you could control the Galaxy,” I shook my head, wondering. I wouldn’t even think of anything past that; it was too large.

He smiled a thin smile. “But we’re so close already,” he said, his voice almost loving. “And to think-” he stopped, bit his lip. “No. I’ve answered you.”

I nodded, slowly. “You have,” I allowed, and Milo nodded as well. “And the curse?”

“Will be removed. I’ll need my lab, or I’d do it here.” He grimaced.

Milo nodded reluctantly, trusting the binding of the Duel circle. “Go, then.”

Rict drew something from his pocket; a Gate Key, I assumed. For a moment he looked as though he would say something more; some cutting final remark. But then, chillingly, he just smiled, wide and earnest; and with a flash and crack he was gone.

I looked at Milo, frowning; he returned the gaze. “That,” I said slowly, “was very strange.”

“It was,” Milo agreed. He shook his head. “Void, I’m tired.”

“I imagine,” I nodded. “The duel- it was brilliantly fought, by the by.” I nodded towards the skimmer, where Otis and Luccah awaited us, and we began to pick our way back towards it.

He smiled, nodded faintly. “He let the bull drive him- I saw that, knew it was the only way I’d slip an illusion by him. And I had to get him that way- had to question him.”

“Mm. I wondered why you were holding back.” I gave him a sidelong smile.

He laughed under his breath. We walked in companionable silence for a while. Then: “Shaula?”

“Yes, Milo?”

“There’s something I have to tell you.”

“…yes, Milo?”

“You look ridiculous wearing my kit.”

I looked down at the heavy mess of thick belts, scabbards, and holsters, all crowded onto my smaller frame. I sighed. “…yes, Milo. Yes, I do.”

* * *

We spent the rest of that day on Myyr tying up loose ends. When night finally fell, I found myself on the balcony of our suite, unconsciously reaching out to the stars- force of habit, I suppose.

But now they reached back. The curse was broken.

“Shaula, are you ready to go?” Milo called from inside. “Collected the payment from Otis- you should see this stack of loot.”

“That’s nice,” I said, not particularly caring. “The curse is gone.”

Milo whooped in delight, punching the air and dancing in place. “Then we really are ready to go,” he added a good few minutes of foolishness later.

“Indeed. Unless you’ve decided to stay and position yourself to become Queen Luccah’s Court Wizard?”

Milo froze in place. “Um.”

I raised an eyebrow. “I figured it out.”

“About that.” Chagrin.

“I think the line is something like… you realize there’s no way I’m ever letting you live this down?”

He doubled over, groaning in mock-pain. “Most merciless partner,” he gasped melodramatically. “Call it even?”

“Coronal ejection, no! Yours is much funnier than mine!”

“Ooh, she is a cruel starprincess, this partner of mine!” Milo howled. “I couldn’t… Shaula, you know I don’t have time for… with the Order, and the work we…”

“Who are you trying to convince?” I teased him pointedly.

We laughed ourselves sick on that balcony, we did. Then we packed up the reward and went home.

Looking back on our time on Myyr, I suppose I’d say the biggest insight it gave us had to do with that old adage: things are never quite what they appear to be. A King can be more than a King, when he is also the land; a starbeing can take a curse meant for a princess. An immovable line in the ground can be moved. Impossible things may well be possible; the Order of Nogg may be on track to controlling the Galaxy itself.

I didn’t even want to think about the… the other issue.

Blackstar.

The day was won, the Princess was saved… both of them, Milo was keen to point out. Technicalities! And as for the rest? I suppose we’re still working on that one.

Never as they seem.

(c) 2011 Stephanie Tyll

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