Pierson took one last look around the summoning chamber, taking in the nervous faces of the red-robed students seated on the floor at the edge of the etched circle. Attached to the walls at cardinal points were the various apparatus of Nora channeling, twice-forged metal of the highest quality in contorted, arcane shapes, humming quietly with magical power. Above him the chamber domed, the ceiling featureless granite, the room itself as much a tool as the metal devices. Outside, though Pierson couldn't see through the walls, he knew a bright summer sun shined down on a windless day.
His gaze met with that of his wife Marell, who sat facing him from the edge of the circle, her hands tying red locks back into a ponytail. They said nothing, but when she smiled, Pierson smiled back. The risks of the spell were clear - if she was the last thing his mortal eyes would see, he would count his life well-ended.
"Begin," he said, and closed his eyes. The students began to chant.
The chamber was sweltering. He could feel sweat beading away down the side of his face, its descent hampered by the three days' stubble that adorned his cheeks. The hum of the chants going on around him threatened to distract from his own concentration, but then Marell's lilting voice joined in, and everything became clear.
Dull heat began to surpass the murky-feeling air around him, edging hotter and hotter, as though he was surrounded by coal-burning braziers that were slowly closing in. This was anticipated as the most significant side effect of the spell's casting: the magical energies were focused on him alone, calculated and controlled by his students to (hopefully) produce the goal of the spell. Pierson did his best to forget the heat, refusing to let it break his focus, but it was quickly becoming unbearable. Sweat stung his eyes.
There was a sudden change, heralded not by his senses but instead a sudden disappearance of sense. His eyes saw blank whiteness before him. The chanting was replaced with an eerie silence. The heat was gone, but there was no cold to replace it. The smell of his own sweat had vanished, the dryness of his lips forgotten. The ever-present pain in his legs was completely absent.
He remained aware, however, though his senses told him nothing at first. Slowly, the endless white before him began to separate into soft colors - blue for the sky, blue-green for the sea that came into view before him, bright yellow-white for the sand he stood above. The soft crush of waves on the beach could be heard. The salt-scent on the cool wind, the tangible heat of the summer sun above. The world was evident again, but he was not in the same place he was before - the summoning chamber was a week's ride from the ocean.
Pierson looked to himself. He imagined his hands and saw them as glowing white masses before him. He thought of stepping forward and floated that way, and looking down at the ground again he saw no footprints. His canes were nowhere in sight. He looked back out onto the sea, his vision focusing on distant spires, and saw the capital sitting majestic on the Watcher's Mere.
The spell was a success - he was projecting his spirit to another place, seeing the world, walking amongst it without the handicap of his ruined legs. He felt himself smile.
Then unseen hands gripped his shoulders. Instantly, the glow about his vision dissipated, and went blurry, unfocused. He shut his eyes instinctively, bringing his hands up to massage his temples carefully, as distant voices sounded in his ears, whispering unintelligibly.
The voices became clearer, and the wizard blinked himself back into vision again, seeing first the color of the robes he wore, then the dull grey stone of the circle's foundation that he sat upon. A gentle hand touched his cheek, and looking up he saw Marell's face materialize before him, her red hair loose again and framing her soft features. Hope and fear were at war on her face, and he smiled at her to help hope.
"It worked," Pierson said, his voice hoarse from all the chanting, and a smiling Marell threw her arms about his shoulders, squeezing him tightly as he continued, "it worked perfectly!"
A cheer went up amongst the students, whom he saw gathered close around him, up from their positions around the circle. Many were still breathing heavily, some with towels draped around their necks, drenched in sweat.
"Professor," one of them said, kneeling next to Pierson, "what did you see?"
"I saw the capital from the north shore. Everything about the projection worked as intended - locomotion, sense expansion, self-presence, everything." He pulled gently on Marell's shoulders, and as she pulled away, Pierson looked back at the student. "Ulwin, quickly, parchment! I want to detail the experience before we make our second attempt."
"Professor Pierson," said another student, "were there any side effects?"
"I am terribly thirsty, I can say that much." With a laugh all around, Pierson found a flagon filled with chilled water pressed into his hand, and he drank greedily. He cut the draught short and handed it back, "here, help me up. We have to make the second attempt as soon as possible, to keep all the conditions identical."
"We've made a breakthrough success, Lon," Marell said, "why don't we break for today? Put off the second for tomorrow? That way we can better analyze -"
"No, no, I don't want to lose any time. The more we can learn about the details of the process directly, the closer we can get to perfecting it." He looked from his wife to the gathered students. "Everyone, you've done wonderfully. We'll continue on as soon as I've recorded the first projection and we've all had a short while to rest." The students all nodded their assent, and Pierson leaned forward as Marell shifted next to him. "My canes, please..."
Marell positioned herself under Pierson's arm and helped him rise to his bandaged feet. With a halted lurch, he placed his weight on the two blackwood canes and started moving forward, a slow pace in compared to the animated students rushing about the circle. Gingerly, Marell kept a hand close to his back as he hobbled towards the rough table standing away from the busy circle. As he sat himself on the short stool, Marell accepted an inkwell and pen from an attending student and set them next to where Pierson laid out his tome.
Artfully, the senior wizard dipped the pen and began to jot down the details of the projection spell. The purpose behind his research was to create a means for wizards to project themselves to other points in the world by casting their consciousness through the System of Nora. Pierson's patrons, the Elsari royal family, were chiefly interested in such an application for covert reconnaissance across enemy lines - if Pierson could deliver on what he proposed, the projection technique could potentially win the war for Elsarin. However, most of the wizard's assistants and associates knew that the technique was intended more to understand the nature of the System of Nora, and meant more for peaceful, exploratory applications than warfare. Pierson knew that this mattered little to the Elsari king and his retainers.
"Has there been any strain on the channeling rods?" He said without looking up, and immediately Marell shouted the question across the bustling circle chamber. As he continued to write, Marell put a hand to his shoulder and squeezed.
Pierson paused now, and looked up at her, green eyes looking distant, searching. "What is it?"
"Do you feel that? The Nora... it's changed somehow."
Pierson closed his eyes for a moment, but his senses, both mundane and magical, still felt unbalanced from the experiment. To himself, he wondered if that was enough reason to put off the second attempt, but then he opened his eyes to see Marell looking at him questioningly. "Nothing feels strange to me... is it a surge of some kind?"
"No, it's... it felt, for an instant, like the Nora was gone completely, like a tapped font."
"That can't be. This shrine is only a year old. The font couldn't have drained that quickly."
"I know that, Lon, but the feeling was there, and then just as suddenly the stream felt normal again. I've never felt it shift so erratically before..."
Pierson brought up a hand and squeezed Marell's in his own. "Have Ulwin double-check all our apparatus. If something is out of the ordinary, we'll stop for now, but if it all checks out I want to make one more attempt."
She nodded, albeit reluctantly, and with a look of worry she called to Ulwin and continued giving orders. She walked away to join the students in making preparations, and Pierson went back to scribing his record.
Time moved quickly as everyone gathered at their respective points on the circle and prepared for the second casting. Pierson sat again in the center, clearing his mind of all other thoughts and distractions. His eyes surveyed the preparing students around him individually, until they settled on Marell. Their eyes met, and Marell smiled at him caringly. Pierson smiled back, and closed his eyes once more.
"Begin," he said. The chant began, and he felt the prickles of heat once again. It was only heartbeats, however, before the heat became impossible to bear. The heat came from just in front of him, instead of building around him as it had before. The chants changed to shouts of surprises in an instant, and when the heat stopped suddenly, it was not a blinding white light that met his vision, but instead cold darkness.
When his senses came back, he saw neither the white-washed colors of the dive-vision nor the more tangible, dull colors of his true sight. What he saw was dim and blue, and felt warm. Memories came to him of spring days, running freely under a bright yellow sun, toes crushing grass and leaves as he dashed, wind blowing past his ears as he laughed, child-like. He recalled looking behind, seeing Marell running behind him, her hair in pigtails, like when they were children on her father's pastures.
Another sunny day, when her hair was loose and his hands were lost in it, her eyes lost in his. A starry night after that, less brightened by moonlight but no less distinct. Their wedding day. The birth of their son. The accident. The death of their son. The disfigurement of his legs...
Pierson pulled himself back from the memories, trying to understand what he witnessed. He could feel nothing through his skin - as though he wasn't in his skin. It wasn't the same sense of displacement he'd felt during the first projection... and then suddenly it all dissipated before him.
The color red dominated his sight now, staining all the memories a bloody flavor, turning them all violent, angry. He had no time to look at them through this new color when suddenly a new face dominated his mind's eye - burning red eyes set in a rotting face, a tattered white beard hanging below a mouth of bone-white teeth, dripping ichor and bile, and expanded around him, swallowing him whole like the first morsel of a grisly meal.
His eyes opened once again, and the world before him was a ruin. He was lying on his back, staring up through the roof that once stood over the summoning chamber. The masonry had been blasted away, with only pieces of stone still clinging to the charred wooden framework of the dome. The sky was a sick yellow, strewn with brown and black clouds. Wind howled through the hole above him.
A piece of the fallen roof lay on top of him. He felt no pain, which alarmed him - pain was a constant reminder of his shattered legs, to not feel it could mean... but his arms were mostly free. He found points to grip his hands under the debris, and pushed up. Surprisingly, the masonry was not hard to remove - he levered it off to one side, flipping it off of his legs, and then heard it crash against the floor of the summoning circle, sending a shock through him. He sat up, looking first at the sheer size of what he'd moved: six men couldn't lift that piece of stone, and he'd shrugged it off like a heavy quilt.
His sight drifted from the discarded slab and took in the summoning chamber - the rest of the fallen roof was scattered in large pieces around the room, crushing a wealth of color - the deep red of the students' meditation robes, the brighter flesh tones of severed arms and legs, the muddy black of dried blood mixed with dust. He looked forward, expecting to see Marell, but all he saw was a ragged gash in the wall covered in debris blackened with soot and ash. A fallen wall lay on the floor between him and where Marell should have been - was she lying behind that debris? Was she underneath it? He needed to see...
Slowly but purposefully, Pierson rose to his feet. His first thought upon standing was to reach Marell, but when he took his first step forward, and his second, the realization struck him like a blow: he was not using his canes! He had stood on his own! He looked down at his bandaged legs in disbelief, but did not stop walking forward.
His hands gripped the debris that stood between him and Marell, and he looked at his hands for the first time - the color had drained from them completely. The finger-bones of his right hand were exposed, the skin and muscle burned away from them completely, leaving charred but solid bone. His left looked similar, if perhaps slightly less destroyed, and yet he felt no pain where it should have been agony.
Pierson leaned over the slab and saw Marell's clothing, laid out on the ground, surrounded with black ash, but Marell herself was not there. The glint of metal caught his eye - walking around the slab and kneeling down, he saw the simple silver wedding band on the ground and picked it up. It bore no marking, but Pierson knew the ring well. His gaze drifted to the identical band that adorned his left ring finger - bloodstains and blackened flesh covered it in places, but the silver shined through.
Thoughts raced through his mind though his body remained stock-still. Where had she gone? Why would she leave the ring? Had she been taken? On the ground were other items of hers: a thin brass anklet set with seashells and a small pearl, the iolite pendant he had proposed to her with... all her jewelry was there on the floor, where she was sitting... when the apparatus exploded. But why did it...
A crash sounded behind him, and sluggishly he straightened and turned around. Ulwin and another student rose up from under more debris, just as he had. Ulwin stood at an odd angle, a shoulder stooped as though his back was contorted. Pierson thought he saw part of Ulwin's collarbone sticking out of a tear in his robe. The other student was missing his left arm, but searched the ground briefly and found it, picking it up at the wrist and lumbering forward with it. All around, the sound of shuffling continued, and Pierson watched as many of his students rose up from the cold earth, from underneath the tons of rock that had fallen on them, none of them looking alive despite the motion.
They all should be dead. Pierson himself knew that he should not be walking, that his hands should not be functional with so much skin and muscle burned away. If the equipment had exploded and the roof caved in, as was evident, it would be a miracle that any of them survived... and yet everyone was accounted for except Marell. Everyone was walking, standing around Pierson, waiting, looking like walking corpses, barely held together by what skin and muscle remained intact. It was impossible. It was terrifying. And yet they all remained silent. He himself said nothing.
Pierson's senses were numbed, when he knew he should feel pain. Heart-wrenching, unbearable pain. A panicked shock came over him as he remembered when he had last walked on his own, pulling his son's unresponsive body from the fire, desperate then to get him to safety and awaken him. The shock that his son would never open his eyes again. Joined with the shock that his wife was taken from him by something unseen.
An urge to walk came to him, away from the circle, to another place which appeared in his mind. Around him, all the students turned to face the same direction he now drew himself to, and together they all shuffled in halting steps, as their ruined bodies would allow.
Pierson willed himself to stop, to shout, to scream, to flail about in search of Marell, to do anything other than stalk forward in silence. But his body did nothing that he wished for. The wizard was now nothing more than a marionette on invisible strings. He wanted to weep, but his eyes refused to shed any tears.
"What curse has been laid upon us?" he wondered in agony, but when he opened his mouth, all he heard was a low, mournful moan. His students around him moaned in a discordant chorus around him, crying wordlessly into the wind.
Into the storm of dust and rot, the wretched wizard and his students hobbled on their way, answering the call of a new master.