The deity looked at the einherjar with mirth in his eyes. The lines in his mouth were struggling to free themselves from Quetzalcoatl’s self-control.
“Tyndur, is it? I would have expected you of all people would know how to control such an ability,” said the Aztecah god, hilarity now dancing in his face.
The rest of the party were trying to be stoic about the entire spectacle, but it was difficult to keep a straight face in the presence of a Tyndur covered in flames, innocently asking how to put out the eldritch fire. Tyler noticed that Habrok finally turned his back and walked away for quite some distance.
“Ah, einherjar, warrior of the north, and it seems Odin’s more than your average fighter of Asgard. I am sorely tempted to let you figure it out for yourself, but I would be a poor gift-giver if I don’t help you in your… lack of knowledge.”
“My thanks, great Quetzalcoatl. But a slight correction. I am not Odin’s or any deity’s warrior. I had my fill of powerful beings for reasons of my own,” replied Tyndur.
“But you serve his purposes despite your unwillingness, do you not? A matter to ponder upon, einherjar. And for powerful beings, isn’t the First Mage also a powerful one? Defeating demigods and even a major deity. A friend to a lot of powerful gods too, if you have noticed,” said Quetzalcoatl.
“Hah! But he’s mortal. And from what I have seen so far, far more human than a lot of people in this world,” answered Tyndur decidedly. “Now, about these flames, if you please?”
“Your will, einherjar. You wield your weapon as an extension of yourself, as an experienced warrior should. It’s the same with the flames, they are but an extension of yourself, through your axe.”
Tyndur stood there for a while, looking at the deity. Then the fire engulfing him slowly receded. Tyler saw Habrok had come back, but it was the exile’s turn to walk around, ostensibly guarding their perimeter.
“Whew! That’s a lot better! It didn’t hurt, but the damned flames kept on obscuring my vision!” exclaimed the einherjar.
Quetzalcoatl turned to Tyler.
“I have to leave now, First Mage. Battles to fight and a pantheon to win back. Fare thee well in your travels. My thanks again,” said the deity as he vanished.
The party looked at each other and after a few seconds, erupted into laughter, Tyndur included.
“I must have looked like a flaming donkey’s ass,” the einherjar remarked.
“Not really,” smiled Habrok. “More like an entire donkey on fire. A blind donkey at that.”
Laughter again filled the air.
The party was to continue on after a short break. Everybody wanted to examine their new toys. Tyler for his part was badgering his guides about the state of his staff. But even the AIs didn’t have an idea of the limit of the magical weapon. Finally, he got to the important part, though Tyler had the presence of mind to ask them first.
“Hal? A being of wind and fire?” he inquired.
“It appears so, Elder. Quite young, but powerful. We glimpsed its form when it entered the staff.”
“Does it have a form? How do I call it forth?” continued Tyler.
“A being like that could take whatever form you want. To call it from the staff, all you need is to hold the weapon and will the entity into existence. But the first time you do that, you will have to delve into the energies within the staff to find it. And once the form is before you, give it a name. It will make summoning easier next time,” replied Hal.
“Explore the various energies inside the staff? Isn’t that dangerous?” Somehow, the idea didn’t appeal to Tyler. There were several kinds of energies already within the stave. And he would not be physically inside, his mind would be, and that scared him. Even half-baked as he was as a mage, he knew the mind is a vulnerable aspect of a person. If he was going inside as pure thought, then he would be extraordinarily exposed. A wrong move and Adar will be left with a half-wit First Mage.
“We don’t believe so, Elder,” spoke up X. “You are their master after all.”
“Somehow, the word believe does not compute, to use computer jargon. I would prefer certainly or a term which indicates a one hundred percent probability,” commented the mage.
“Given your statement, a 99.99 percent probability would not qualify,” said X with a tinge of what Tyler felt was amusement. Et tu, X? Turning human in your attitudes?
“Going inside the staff is your only recourse, Elder. Blindly calling it forth would not work. It does not have a name nor any label by which it could be identified from the myriad energies,” added Hal.
“What if it’s a trap? A plot to make me mad?”
“Somehow, we doubt that, Elder. But to reassure you, one of us will accompany you. The other one will stay behind to guard your body,” suggested X.
“How long will this… exploration take?” Tyler asked, voice marked with trepidation.
“Not long. When in the realm of the mind, time passes differently. A day inside could be just a few minutes in the physical world where time moves slower. The passage of time, to a certain extent, could be controlled by an Elder Mage, a fact which added to their powerful mystique. But that ability is presently beyond us. Nor does any deity we know have such a power,” said X.
“Alright, Hal stay here. X will go with me. But wait while I inform the group to leave me alone for… ten minutes?”
“Ten minutes would be more than enough,” X advised.
Tyler advised the group that he needed to concentrate for a while and not disturb him. But he saw Kobu take up a position at his back, though the man stayed several feet away. The other two took up flanking positions which also enable them to watch the front. The group has bonded well, he thought with pride, “and comrades in fact we all are now, not merely in name.”
He closed his eyes and focused his mind on the staff. He held it with both hands as it lay on his lap. Slowly, he could see in his mind’s eye, a shimmering metallic-looking barrier. Then he remembered the change that Hephaestus made – a staff which looked and had the strength of metal but was essentially wood. The stave did change appearance to wood at times by itself. It weirded him out but as it was a cosmetic change, he didn’t worry about it.
“The barrier of the staff, Elder. It protects it from other entities trying to wrest control or entering it. Since you’re its master, all you need is to cross the energy wall,” X’s voice sounded in his head. Tyler looked at himself. He had a form in this reality – exactly what he looked like in the physical realm.
The mage walked slowly towards the barrier. It was a strange feeling to be walking on nothing. The staff was gone. Around him was a bluish radiance, blocked by the shiny and glimmering barrier of metal. The wall in front of him extended to the sides and from top to bottom as far as he could see. But he felt as if he was treading on firm flat ground. As he reached the partition, he reached out with his right hand. It pushed through the energy as if it didn’t exist. By instinct, Tyler took a deep breath and walked through.
What he immediately saw confounded him. Tyler had been in another dimension, the black realm of the Aztecah underworld, the white nothingness of his mysterious savior, and even the environment of the Barrier. What he didn’t expect was the completely mundane. Magelights kept the room well illuminated. The mage found himself in what appeared to be anteroom of a great hall in an immense Keep. From the windows in the walls, he could see a normal landscape outside the stone structure. From the height, Tyler estimated he was at the third or fourth level of the bastion. He felt somebody hit him on his right arm. It didn’t hurt, but had some force behind the blow.
“It’s about time you got here, you lazy excuse for a mage!” A shout accompanied the strike.
He turned and faced the unknown assailant, fighting posture at the ready.
A small being was in front of him, with braced hands at the waist. The fellow looked irritated, angry even. And the entity surprisingly looked a bit like Rumpr. Put the two side-by-side and one would think they’re brothers.
“Come on, you been negligent enough!” the entity walked forward and tugged at Tyler’s arm. Even though he knew it was but his mind, the act was painful. In this world of thought, the being was strong. Very strong. The mage was stupefied by what was happening.
“First Mage? Never had I seen such an irresponsible…” muttered the being dragging him who then stopped in his tracks when he noticed Tyler was looking at him.
“But a powerful… master,” continued the speaker. “Though it would help if he closed his mouth before we enter the hall. “Bad for first impressions.”
Tyler finally got his wits back. The impact of the surroundings on his mind still confused him, but at least he had the being’s attention. He did close his mouth.
“Wait, wait,” said the mage as he pulled his hand back. ‘Who are you?”
“You don’t know? Well, call my mother and ask her to change my trousers!” exclaimed the other who promptly looked at Tyler’s face closely. “Oooyyyy! You really don’t know. By the flaming beard of Surtr, I get stuck with an ignorant donk… master!”
“Hey, watch the language! You could just tell me, you know,” vehemently protested Tyler. There was only so much direct and indirect insults he could take, even in an unfamiliar world.
“Sorry about that. My temper. I really can’t help it, considering I, no, we, have been waiting for you to pay us a visit for the longest time!” came the accusing answer. The face of the speaker was in a very disapproving, irritated, and a bit angry expression.
“Let’s make this simple. Assume that I don’t know anything. What’s this about a visit?” remarked the confused mage.
“Lad, I don’t need to assume such a thing. It’s obvious you skipped a lot of classes in your education. How you made it this far is a miracle!” came another remark.
“I didn’t have the magical education. I was dragged, pushed, and blackmailed into this role!” yelled Tyler, who suddenly realized he also lost his temper.
‘You don’t need to shout, lad. Higher energies like us who were hornswoggled into this kind of artifact are usually visited by the mage to set down guidelines, obtain knowledge, and other important reasons as you will see later. Setting the rules, in short. You must have been really special for Rumpr to give you this energy,” answered the being, pointing to himself.
‘And your name? I have to call you by something,” asked Tyler.
‘Well, that’s another thing. You get to name us. We have been roaming around these halls as nameless beings for a long time! Well, except for that recent Aztecah addition,” said the entity. “So far it has been hey!or excuse me! and various short descriptions. Very inconvenient and apt to lead to fights.”
Sorry, Elder. We didn’t know. These are matters inherent in the magical practice in this world. Our knowledge about their practices are sketchy and outdated, Tyler heard X apologize. He didn’t reply. His guide could hardly be considered an expert in the details of Adar’s magical arts. They specialize in a totally different form of energy for one, and whatever information they had was, as X mentioned, millennia out of date.
“Where are we?” Tyler asked, trying to change the topic which presently focused on his failings.
“Inside the staff, of course,” the entity answered with disbelief.
That question really sounded dumb, Tyler reflected. But being rushed in the middle of a confused state didn’t help achieve clear thinking on his part.
“No, no. I meant what is this? This great castle. The material,” the mage rushed to explain.
“Well, you better ask Hephaestus’s contribution. He made it. Come, come! They’re waiting.” The reply resulted in the entity grabbing his right arm anew and pulling him in the direction of a large metal door.
“Wait! Let me get my bearings! I just arrived, you know that. And this…” Tyler gestured at his surroundings, “is one I didn’t expect to see.”
“What did you expect? A wasteland of snow and ice? Or an abysmal plain filled with flaming craters and burning lava? The blankness of an empty space? Hah! Mighty uncomfortable. Now, this Keep is more like it. Each arrival contributed to it. Feels a bit like home now. But you’ll know about those details,” replied Rumpr’s look-a-like.
“And why do you look like Rumpr?”
“Because… I… came… from… his… power,” came the slow reply.
“So, the others look like the beings that granted the energy?”
The entity shook his head and looked at the stone ceiling, muttering to himself in a voice so low that Tyler couldn’t make out what he was saying.
“That was a valid question,” he ventured.
“Well, lad, or master, whichever you prefer, all your questions will be answered in that hall where the others are waiting,” calmly came the reply. “And the longer we stay out here, the more worried they will be. You wouldn’t like it when they’re worried. We already fought for you. You saw what they could do even not being at full strength.”
“Right. Let’s do this,” said Tyler finally.
“Good call. Follow me.”
The duo walked several feet to the door. The being signaled to Tyler to wait and where to stand. Then he opened the massive door.
As the metal panel swung open, the mage saw a large meeting hall with a long wooden table right after the door. The chairs on both ends were empty, but the seats at the sides were occupied by entities of dissimilar shapes, sizes, and forms.
His companion stepped inside and stood to one side.
“The First Mage comes,” he announced. Loudly.