“Do you see it?” the apprentice asks hopefully as the master busily records his calculations in a large, well-worn ledger.
“I do,” the master replies without looking up from his work. “It is clear as can be, if you know what to look for. Go ahead, see for yourself.”
The apprentice moves towards the astronomy instruments eagerly, pressing his eye on the lens so he can see the view of the sky that his master has been studying. As promised, the celestial body is clearly visible through the lens – the Red Star of Khubyraa can be seen beginning to make an appearance in the skies above Mythoss.
“I can see it!” the apprentice exclaims, unable to contain his excitement. It has been decades since the Red Star was last observed, and the unpredictability of its appearance has made studying this mysterious celestial body difficult for the scholars of the Convocation of Bassylia.
“Within the year it should be visible to all of Mythoss with the naked eye, at least for a short while,” the master says as he closes his ledger. “Now is the time for seekers of fortune to prepare for important endeavors, should you believe the stories about the Star’s appearance and the good luck that it brings.”
“You don’t believe those stories, do you?” the apprentice asks. He has studied under the master for close to ten years, and he has never known him to be given to rumors or fanciful stories. His master is a member of the Library of Agbendor. He is one of the Order of the Learned who live within its vast halls, dedicating their lives to tireless study and an understanding of the workings of the world.
“All stories have some truth to them,” the master remarks.
“But the idea of the Red Star of Khubyraa being some kind of magical presence, or even the Great Mother herself watching her children from the sky? Those are the kind of silly stories told by travelers to pass the time on a journey, or parents to lull their children to sleep at night. There is no evidence that it is anything other than one of the many bodies existing in the skies beyond Mythoss.”
“I find it interesting that you are so quick to discount the idea of magic or divine presence here in Ophidionn where magic exists more surely than anywhere else in the Realm?”
“I do not doubt the presence of magic,” the apprentice replies. “But there is a marked difference between definable magical phenomenon and penny ante stories meant to amuse drunkards and children!”
“You forget yourself and your position,” the master scolds as his apprentice’s words begin to grow bolder and more heated.
“My apologies, master,” the apprentice says as he bows his head. “You are correct. I should have held my tongue. It will not happen again.”
“I have no problem with you speaking your mind,” the master answers as he rises from his seat and returns his ledger to a bookcase filled with similar volumes, each of them records of the Red Star of Khubyraa and the unusual events which have taken place during the times that it has appeared over the ages. Studying these events has become the master’s life’s work, and it is a dedication to that calling that he has now spent years trying to instill in his apprentice.
“My comments and my concerns are more about your closed mind than your loose tongue,” the master says to his young charge. “You are a learner. As such, your mind should be open to all possibilities, however ‘childish’ they may seem.”
“I have much to learn,” the apprentice remarks.
“Yes, you do,” the master agrees. “But being stuck here in the dusty halls of Agbendor is not always the best way to learn necessary lessons.”
The master reaches into a large trunk and pulls out a pair of well-worn traveling cloaks. He throws one to his apprentice, and the young man catches it as he looks ahead with a confused expression.
“Put that on and follow me,” the master commands, and before he can be questioned he adds, “and no questions until we’ve arrived!”
“Two glasses of Mercurian Red, if you would, my lady,” the master addresses the barmaid at the small tavern they now find themselves in.
“Where are we?” the apprentice asks. His master had led them to one of the library’s annexes, an area that the apprentice could not recall ever visiting despite his nearly decade of time as a student of the Convocation of Bassylia. Stopping at the end of a long corridor, the master took the apprentice through a small doorway – a doorway which amazingly led out of the grounds of the library and into the broom closet of this tavern. No one seemed to pay the two scholars any mind as they exited the closet and took their places at the table they sat at now.
“We are in Mercurios,” the master replies. “But we are in the far North of that island, in a town called Dorrin. It is close enough to Leandorr that it did not slip into ruin like the rest of Mercurios once the Coliseum fell, but it is still separate enough from the Kingdom of the Lion that it functions somewhat independently. It is a wonderful place to get away from the dramas of the Realm for a bit to clear one’s head.”
“Is that what we are doing here? Clearing our head?” the apprentice asks.
“Ah, yes! Thank you!” the master says as the barmaid places two large cups of red wine on their table, the contents nearly spilling out of their containers. “Another reason I love this place is their generous pours.”
The master hands the barmaid a few coins and nods.
“Please leave us now,” he says with a tone of authority. “My friend and I have much to discuss and we do not wish to be disturbed.”
The barmaid nods and leaves the pair to their wine and their conversation.
“Make yourself comfortable,” the master replies as he takes a hearty sip from his cup. “I have a story to tell you, and it will take some time.”
“So is that why you brought me here then? To tell me a story and instruct me in a new lesson? Why did we need to leave the library for that? Why bring me here? And how does that portal work? Do the others at the Tower know of it?”
“I brought you here because this is where it all began, my boy,” the master replies. “This is where I decided to dedicate my life to the study of the Red Star of Khubyraa.”
The apprentice is silent, and the master begins his tale.
“I chose to study the Red Star, but you did not,” he says to his apprentice. “It was assigned to you as your focused field of study. The Order of the Learned did this because of my age and the relative obscurity of my field of expertise. You see, there are many magical disciplines and areas of focus that are quite popular with the students of Ophidionn. The study of an obscure celestial body which appears sporadically in the heavens, and which has not been seen in many decades, is not one of them. The Order believes that all knowledge must be passed on and that all fields of study should be continued. This is why you came to me nearly ten years ago. You were meant to pick up my work once I am no longer able to carry on.”
“Is this unusual?” the apprentice asks.
“Not really,” the master answers. “It happens with all the less popular fields of study and any that do not have new students volunteering to explore that field, but I fought against it when they notified me of their intention to make you my apprentice.”
“Why is that?”
“Rest assured it was nothing personal against you. I wanted someone who was as passionate about the Red Star as me to take up my work, not someone for whom it was simply an assignment.”
The master takes another long drink from his cup.
“I fought against the appointment, but I obviously lost that debate. So I decided to make the best of the situation and teach you what I knew, and I will say that you have been a very diligent student all these years.”
“Thank you, master,” the apprentice replies.
“But,” the master continues. “My fears have never abated. You are diligent in your studies, but you do not have the call of a true believer in the Red Star. You watch the heavens out of a scholarly curiosity, which I can appreciate, but I wish for more from whomever will inherit the legacy of my work. This is why I have brought you here today. I will tell you a tale that I have never told anyone before, and perhaps you may begin to see the Red Star as I do.”
The master leans back in his chair. The room bustles with activity, but no one seems to take much notice of the master and his apprentice, and the story continues uninterrupted by the happenings of the tavern.
“When I first came to Ophidionn, my area of study was meant to be Apparition. I fancied myself as following in the footsteps of the great witches and wizards who banished Poxxus and his army back in the day, helping to win the First Great War by striking such a decisive blow against the enemy.
“I was in my fifth year when myself and a group of other Apparition students began to hatch a scheme to create a portal out of the school. It just so happened that one of the students came from Mercurios where their family ran a small inn and tavern – this small inn and tavern, in fact. She knew the place intimately, having grown up under its roof, and so we used that knowledge to help us build a bridge from the Library of Agbendor to a closet in the back of the inn. I think we all expected the masters of the school to catch us and put a stop to it, but they never did. We were a pretty talented bunch, and the bridge worked just as we had planned. The trick was that you had to have come from Ophidonn to the inn for the doorway to allow you back through. I always thought that little added security, which prevented anyone from jumping into the Library who had not come from there in the first place, may have been why we did not arouse any suspicion or get caught. Or perhaps it was the good fortune of the Red Star showing us favor. Either way, the doorway worked and we were able to come visit this fine establishment as often as we saw fit.
“You may find this hard to believe, but I was not the best student in my time. Talented, yes, but lazy. I was certainly not as diligent as you. While my fellow apprentices began to focus on their studies more and more in the years after these events, I found myself neglecting my education by using the doorway more frequently and spending generous amounts of time here in Mercurios. I realize now that I was searching for something, but I did not know what. Eventually, what I was seeking found me, and I discovered my true calling.
“It was a quiet night here in the inn and I was enjoying a tall glass of Mercurian Red as I tried to make sense of my studies. Apparition had become a bore to me. I questioned my place in the Convocation and whether I actually had what it took to become a master some day.
“There were a few other solitary travelers in the inn that night, but everyone kept to themselves and no conversations could be heard. My studies were going nowhere, and I found myself blankly staring at the pages of my book when I heard a voice say:
“May I join you, my good sir?”
“I looked up to see a man I had not noticed before then, and one whom I had never seen in the inn previously. He was dressed in fine, red robes and he wore a silver mask that completely covered his face. His appearance was unusual, but Dorrin is a port town, and as such it sees a fair amount of unusual and exotic visitors, so this stranger’s appearance did not cause me too much surprise. There was something intriguing about him, in fact, and I found myself inviting him to take a seat out of both politeness and curiosity.
“He sat down and introduced himself as “Emir”, which I realized later was a title rather than a name. I immediately questioned the mask that he wore.
“It is a custom of my people,” he answered, explaining that he was a traveler from the far shores of Eathyross, one of the cultures who spend a good portion of their lives on the seas and for whom trade and commerce are so important. His people wear their masks when meeting those outside of their own clan of merchants. It was meant as a way to hide emotions during negotiations, since the business of doing business was such a key part of their lives.
“We began to talk casually. He asked me about my studies, clearly seeing that I was a student, and I asked him what brought him to Mercurios. Keep in mind that this was many, many years ago, before the fall of the Coliseum, and he explained that the contests of the arena were why he was traveling at that time. He was passing through Dorrin on his way to the Coliseum. I was not one to follow the fights of the Mercurian arena, but even I knew that there was a big contest happening that had drawn spectators from all across the Realm to come visit and see the spectacle. That is where he was headed as part of some business venture he said he was working on. This is when he mentioned the Red Star of Khubyraa for the first time, telling me that he was fated to succeed in his endeavor because the Red Star would be in the sky.
“Like you, I had heard fairy tales of the Red Star of Khubyraa. The most popular one was that it was actually the Great Mother, Selyne, up in the heavens looking down upon the children whom she had left behind. Supposedly when the Star appeared, it was a time of good fortune, for the Great Mother was shining her light upon those who followed her still.
“Again, these were fairy tales that I had heard as a child and paid no mind to as an adult, but my companion that evening told me that there was truth to those stories. He explained that the Star was not the Great Mother, but rather another divine being who had visited Mythoss a number of times over the years. The stories of the good fortune being found by those who worshipped the light of the Red Star of Khubyraa were indeed true, he said to me. This was when he mentioned that he had recently formed a group made up of such worshippers. He called the group the Sons of the Red Star.”
The apprentice gasps at the mention of this name. The Sons of the Red Star were widely known across Mythoss as a band of mercenaries. Truth be told, calling the Sons “mercenaries” was a gentle way of describing the dealings of this shadowy group. Calling them criminals and assassins would be a more accurate description, for there were few deeds too nefarious for this band of cutthroats to be involved in. Even in the learned circles of the schools of Ophidionn, far away from the dark alleys and shadowy corners where the Sons plied their trade, the stories of these criminals and the importance of avoiding dealings with them were well known.
“The name is obviously familiar to you,” the master says. “But again, this was long ago, well before the Sons of the Red Star had gained the reputation they have today.”
“You said this man you met had formed the group,” the apprentice says. “Was it actually him? Was it the one the call ‘the Cryptbreaker’?”
“He didn’t use that name,” the master replies. “And it could well have been another member of that group, for they employ trickery and misdirection as a matter of course in their dealings. But I have always suspected that it could, indeed, have been the Cryptbreaker.”
The master shifts in his seat and takes another long drink from his cup.
“You have barely touched your wine,” he says to his apprentice. “Drink up. You will find no finer vintage anywhere close to Ophidionn.”
The apprentice does as he is told, and the master continues his tale.
“We spent hours talking that night about the Star. I felt myself growing excited in a way I had never experienced in the normal course of my studies. The Emir opened the bag he had by his side and removed pages of detailed notes on the Red Star’s appearances over the years, along with reports of incredible events that had taken place during those times. It was not definitive proof in the way we are used to seeing at the schools of Ophidionn, but it was also too much to simply discount as coincidence.
“I kept listening to the Emir’s words. He was convincing, there is no doubt about that. I tried to push back and use my scholarly reason to debate what he was saying, but he had an answer for every argument I presented, and truth be told, I was arguing simply because it felt like I was supposed to do so. In reality, I felt the truth of his words. I wanted to believe him!
“Before we knew it, dawn began to break. We had talked through the night and were the only two left in the tavern. The Emir rose from his seat and announced that he had to take his leave. I felt myself having trouble breathing, almost as if my air supply had been cut off as this man began to make his exit.
“Here,” the Emir said as he turned back to me and handed over his satchel of papers. “This is all the information I have collected over the years on the Red Star of Khubyraa. You are a scholar with access to resources I do not have. I can see in your eyes that the belief is beginning to grow. You are ready to follow in the light of the Red Star. Use this information to do so.”
“I had no response as I clutched the papers I had been given. I could breathe freely again, as if my life had been given back to me. Or better yet, a new life had been shown to me – one that I had never even realized I was yearning for.
“The star may seem unpredictable,” the Emir continued. “But I believe if properly studied, we can find patterns in its appearances. If we can understand it and when it will appear, we can bask in the good fortune granted to those who worship in its light.”
“The Emir left me then. I do not know how long I sat there without moving, but eventually I rose from my seat and made my way to the portal that would take me back to Ophidionn. I had the papers on the Red Star of Khubyraa with me, and I knew that my life had been forever changed because of that meeting.”
The master pauses in his tale. His mind is on the days of old, and memories which he has not spoken of to anyone before this night’s conversation.
“What happened next?” the apprentice asks.
“Upon my return to the school, I petitioned to change my studies from Apparition to a focus on the Red Star of Khubyraa. There was no such discipline currently, and the board of governors was skeptical of my proposal, but I spoke so eloquently and passionately at that meeting that I could not be denied. I could feel the Emir’s words on my tongue as I explained the importance of the Red Star and why we needed to study it. Ultimately, my master at the time granted me leave and the board approved my proposal. I could not be granted the title of “Master”, but I was allowed to pursue independent study absent of a master to guide me. I approached those studies with a vigor I had never before shown. I had a level of dedication equal to even the most fastidious students at the schools of Ophidionn. In time, I was actually recognized as a master myself, and eventually I acquired an apprentice of my own. That, of course, is you.”
“But what happened with the Emir? Did you see him again.”
The master smiles. He has finished his wine and he reaches out for the apprentice’s cup, realizing that his young charge has barely touched it. It is far too precious to go to waste, and he takes a sip before answering.
“I did,” he says. “It would be close to twelve years before my studies turned up evidence that the Red Star would be appearing again. I had not returned to the tavern in Dorrin since my meeting there with the Emir. I was so absorbed in my work, I had seemingly forgotten about the inn. Knowing that the Red Star was rising again, I suddenly felt the urge to visit this place, secretly hoping that the mysterious stranger who had set me upon this journey would be there waiting for me.”
The master nods.
“He was. I came through the closet doorway into a tavern that was equal parts familiar and unusual. The establishment had changed hands in the years since I had last visited. Mercurios had also fallen to ruin many years prior, so the place was darker and less welcoming than I remembered. Still, one thing that was familiar was the silver mask and red robes of the man sitting at a table in the middle of the inn. The Emir waved me over, a glass of Mercurian Red already waiting for me at the spot across from him.
“I expected to see you this night,” he said as I sat down. “You have seen the signs, have you not?”
“I have!” I exclaimed. In all the years of my study, I had spoken about my findings and theories with many fellow masters, but none of them believed as I did. They found my studies interesting purely from a scholarly perspective, but they did not believe the truth behind my words. Sitting across from the Emir, I knew I was in the presence of another who worshipped under the light of the Red Star.”
The master pauses and acknowledges the stunned expression on his student’s face.
“I realize I sound like a fanatic,” he admits. “I am not. I am a realist. I know what I feel, but more importantly I know what my studies over these many decades have confirmed. There is more to the Red Star than fairy tales and traveler’s stories. I have seen it for myself. I mentioned that I was eventually presented with the title of “Master”, something unheard of in the Order of the Learned for a student without a master of their own to speak for them. Yet I did it, and my petition to the governors just happened to coincide with the arrival of the Red Star of Khubyraa in the skies of Mythoss. Its fortune shone down on me, and I did what no other student of Ophidionn had done before or since.
“I am also not naive. I know that the Emir used me to further his own schemes. This is not surprising. He introduced himself as a member of the Sons of the Red Star the first time we met. That name meant nothing back then, but today we know the truth of that organization. Yes, they are killers and thieves, but that is the reputation they want the Realm to know. It is easy to allow Mythoss to think that the Sons are nothing more than killers-for-hire, as it hides the true power they wield from beyond the shadows. Information can be as dangerous as any blade, and that is why the Emir needed me. I was able to give him access to the Library’s resources. This arrangement helped him further his understanding of the Red Star in a way he could never have achieved without someone from inside the Convocation. He wanted me to supply him with information, and that is what I did.
“I knew early on that I was being used, and yet I gave him this information willingly. In all fairness, however, I asked for information in return. The Emir supplied me with his findings on the Red Star of Khubyraa to help further my own studies, as well as intelligence that his network had gathered on other happenings within the Realm. I was able to discreetly pass a few small, but important, pieces of information to the powers-that-be at the Tower of Bassylia. This information helped to protect some of the interests of our faction from those who would seek to weaken us.
“I have come back to this tavern a few other times over the years, with each one of those visits coinciding with the arrival of the Red Star. Every time I have returned, the Emir has been waiting for me and we have exchanged information. Each visit has been followed by the appearance of the Star and important happenings within the Realm. Happenings that we have both been able to be prepared for thanks to my studies and his intelligence.”
“So is that why we are here now? Because the Star is returning? Are we to meet the Emir?” the apprentice says as he looks about the room, hoping to see this man in his red robes and silver mask.
“The Star is still too far away,” the master dismisses with a wave of his hand. “Now is not the time for a meeting, but I took you here because this is the responsibility you are inheriting from me. The calculations in the books I keep are the smallest part of what I do. As followers of the Red Star of Khubyraa, this is our true calling. If we know what is coming and when our plans are most likely to find success, we can use that to help keep the Realm safe from our greatest enemies.”
“And scheming with known killers is the way to achieve this?”
“Tough times make for strange alliances,” the master replies. “After all, when else but in times of dire need would a serpent, an eagle, a lion, and a deer find themselves fighting side by side?”
The master drains the glass of wine in front of him.
“I asked the barmaid to leave us be,” he says to his apprentice. “That was good for the privacy of my story, but it is bad for when I now find myself without anything to drink. If you would please fetch me some more?”
The apprentice nods and leaves the table with the two empty cups. He is honestly happy to be away from his master so he can process all he has just heard.
“A well told tale, and it was even all mostly true,” a voice whispers from the shadows of a table behind where the master is seated.
“I told him as much as he could process,” the master says. “The truth of the matter is that he is not ready for this. He is not yet a believer, but I didn’t know how else to open his eyes and make him one, and time is growing short.”
“He may be a problem for you,” the voice says. “We may need to eliminate him.”
“I will handle him,” the master quickly replies. “He is a good boy and I will see no harm come to him. Besides, we need his help. I fear that dangerous times are ahead, and unless I pass on the responsibilities of our arrangement, you will lose access to the resources of the Library should I be called away to tend to matters of war. I am a scholar, but as a Master of the Tower I am also expected to be ready to fight should the need arise. I fear that call, and whether or not I would return from it.”
“The Star has returned,” the voice announces, changing the subject. “And I feel as if this visit from Khubyraa is different than before. There is more at stake here, is there not?”
“As I have said, things are happening in the Realm,” the master replies without turning to face the voice at his back. “Tell me. What have you heard?”
“The old powers are returning,” the voice answers. “I don’t need my network of informants to tell me that. The shadows are moving, and evil is making its way from the darkness and into the light.”
“I feel this as well,” the master replies. “But the light of the Red Star is ready to shine again, so those of us who know how to read the signs must prepare to take advantage of this situation.”
“I am always ready to take advantage of a situation,” the voice answers.
The master pauses.
“I am a believer. Make no mistake about that,” he finally says. “But I am also a member of the Convocation of Bassylia. If war is really coming, my loyalties will be with my faction and the Legions of Light. I need you to know that.”
“Who are you talking to?” the apprentice asks as he returns to the table with two cups once again filled with red wine.
The master looks behind him, but the shadows are empty. There is no one there.
“Old ghosts,” the master says as he turns back to his apprentice. “None of your mind. Anyway, thank you for fetching the wine. I say we enjoy these cups and then return to the Library. What do you think?”
“I remember a story that my mother used to tell us as kids,” the apprentice says as he takes a seat once again. “It was about dragons. I remember her describing them as these absolutely massive creatures. The stories were unbelievable. Clearly they were tales made up to amuse small children like us at bedtime. Stories to fill our heads full of magic, or to scare us into behaving if we began to act up.”
The apprentice pauses and takes a long, deep drink from his glass, draining almost half of it before continuing.
“I grew up looking for dragons everywhere. I was convinced that there was one sleeping in a big cave not too far from our family’s property. I used to steal coins from my parents and throw them in the cave, hoping that the beast would come forward to claim them for its horde. Of course, no dragon was in that cave, and as I grew older I left those fairy tales behind. Then I came to the Tower of Ophidionn.
“I grew up in a small, fairly remote area in the West of Eathyross. The most exotic neighbors we had were a family of gnomes who sold mushrooms and blackberry jam at the local marketplace. Coming to the school was eye-opening, to say the least.
“The first day I was here, I came around a corner and bumped hard into a wall. At least I thought it was a wall since it didn’t move when I crashed into it. Imagine my surprise when I looked up and the “wall” was actually a dragon.”
The master smiles.
“Aracagorr?” he asks.
“Yes,” the apprentice nods. “Here I was staring up into the eyes of an actual dragon. Admittedly, not the exact same kind of dragon my mother used to tell us about, but it was a dragon all the same. In that moment, I realized that this Realm is far bigger, and far stranger, than I had ever realized.”
The apprentice takes another deep drink from his glass and the master does the same.
“What did you say to me earlier today, back at the Library? ‘All stories have some truth to them’? I had forgotten that. Tonight has been a reminder.”
“Does this mean you believe me?” the master asks hopefully.
“It means I am willing to open myself up to the possibility that the Red Star of Khubyraa is more than I thought it was.”
The master nods.
“That is good,” he says. “Very good. You may be ready after all.”
The pair of scholars finish their wine.
“Let me return these to the barmaid,” the apprentice says. “Then we can head back. I am anxious to look at some of your notes with a new set of eyes now that I have had this little lesson.”
The master nods his approval and begins to think on what his next steps should be, and wondering how the unfolding events that he spoke with his shadowy visitor about will impact the Realm as he knows it. He pays his apprentice little attention as he walks away from the their table.
The apprentice makes his way back to the back of the tavern. It has grown late in the evening and there are only a handful of patrons left in the place. He places the empty cups upon the bar, but the barmaid is nowhere to be seen, nor is the bartender. Shadows gather in this dark corner of the room, and the apprentice looks about to ensure he is not being observed.
“He has an actual affinity towards you,” a voice whispers from the shadows. “It is nice to see the old man attached to something beyond his studies. Unexpected, to be honest, but useful.”
“He finally seems to trust me,” the apprentice replies. “It has taken ten years, but at long last I am being brought into his confidence. The secrets he has kept from me will be revealed to us soon, I can feel it.”
“Yes. Our plan to put you inside the school in order to observe his studies and learn the secrets he has artfully kept out of the information he passes to the Sons of the Red Star is paying off. Another sign of the Red Star’s good fortune shining upon us. You have done well, and your commitment will be recognized, I assure you.”
“Thank you, Skapular,” the apprentice replies.
“No names,” the voice from the shadows scolds. “Not even here.”
The apprentice nods.
“Be cautious,” the voice continues. “I told your master the truth when I said that the shadows of the Realm are moving. The arrival of the Red Star signals a time of opportunity, but most opportunities come during eras of great change and upheaval. We must be ready for anything. Under the light of the Red Star, the Sons shall rise.”
“Under the light of the Red Star, the Sons shall rise,” the apprentice repeats.
The shadows do not reply, and the young scholar returns to his master and his mission.
Published on 10.30.23