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Walking with Gods

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"Dark of hair, and dark of heart", or so the smallfolk whispered at their hearths, Modron, the last and best of nine fell sisters, had known considerable power. Even now, it thrummed through her veins and gushed forth from her fingertips, making stone and air and fire throb in a heart-pounding rhythm, in step with her dark hymn. Her feet hovered three feet above the floor of the cavern that stood guard around her, lit only by the flaming sphere that encircled her, and devoid of all life but her own.

Her hymn issued forth from her lips, never stopping, its force and cadence immutable, and as her gaze swept over the smooth stone walls that hemmed in her fire, but her mind wandered.

It all started here, she thought in wonder, even as her chant continued. Fourteen hundred summers ago, a slender, dark-haired girl had sought shelter from a hellstorm in this very cavern, only to find that it was occupied by a legendary mage and his host.

The girl had stood bewildered, feet frozen in place, as she had gaped at a broad-shouldered man draped in velvet and gold, and limned with an unearthly glow. Even now, fourteen centuries later, she could feel echoes of his power clinging to the walls of her cave. His guard had been grand, clad in rainbow cloaks - pureblood lords, one and all - but even their lustre was nothing compared to the power that had flowed from the broad mage in velvet and gold. He was a legend given form - the longest-surviving Archmage in recorded, known history, and the Lord of the Nation of Lothien.

"Hello, little one," he had said, and his smile had been so kind, "If it's shelter you seek, you're welcome to share it with us."

And the words had stirred her from her stupor. She had whimpered and fallen to her knees. "Archmage," she had gasped at him, her voice echoing around the cavern despite the rumble and roar of the hellstorm outside, "I'm yours, Your Grace."

"Rise, child," he had said, "Or perhaps not merely a child. Be you a Ser or a Lady, or mayhaps something higher?"

"I am Modron of Monmouth," she had murmured, her gaze fixed upon the ground, in line with her mother's instructions on how a pureblood lady must conduct herself before an Archmagus.

"Ah," she had heard the Archmagus say, "One of the Marchioness' daughters, I presume? I believe I see the likeness now."

"The youngest of her nine daughters," she had said as she rose to her feet, though her gaze remained planted upon the ground.

"You may look upon me, Lady Modron," the Archmagus had told her, and she obeyed. Her gaze had sought out his own golden eyes, and she found them enchanting. His face had sharp features, but he had not been unpleasant to look upon. But his eyes... his golden eyes had glowed, with power and... more. There had been a hint of humour in his gaze, and a pinch of compassion, but there had also been a tiny drop of lust - a lust that she had later fanned into romance and ruin.

And outside the cavern, the gale continued to rage, and flakes of fire continued to rain down. A wave of fire splashed uselessly upon powerful wards that had been placed at the cavern's maw; she assumed they had been placed there by the Archmagus himself; for even in her lady mother's estate in Monmouth, while the wards were powerful and deflected fire, the waves of heat that accompanied the fire-flakes were unavoidable. But the ward at the cavern's maw, so casually placed, gave way to nothing at all - neither fire, nor even the heat from the hellstorm. And she had felt the hum of immense power that emanated from the spells weaved into the ward - far to powerful for even the most powerful pureblood.

She was drawn to the elaborate runes that had been sketched elegantly upon the flat rock near the exit, and she had studied them for a few moments, her fingers tracing over a particular set of runes.

"Ah," the Archmage had said, as he had strode towards her, "We have a curious lady here, indeed! What do you see, milady?"

"My lady mother once told us of how kaunan was so important a part of our wards, your Grace," she had said, pointing at the runes that the Archmagus had carved in stone, "Fire, to fight fire, to protect our dwellings from fire. The smallfolk and pureblood alike use kaunan, my lady mother had said, a simple rune for a simple hellstorm."

The Archmagus had chuckled.

"I do not see kaunan here," she had said, running her fingers across the glowing symbols. "I do see thurisaz though, and isaz. How can thunder and ice shield from fire?"

"Ice does defeat fire," the Archmagus had suggested.

"That's not how magic works," she had snapped immediately, though she had blushed as she realised just who she had snapped at, "... your Grace."

The Archmagus did not chuckle this time, though his had eyes glinted with humour.

"Ice and thunder," she had continued to ponder, "... something to do with... 'storm'? Maybe, with the essence of the hellstorm...?"

"I'm impressed," the Archmagus had said, "It's not often that one meets a witch - even a Marchioness' daughter - who realises what magic really is. One can always learn about the importance of intent and spirt in magic and philosophy, but only a few truly know it."

"I'm... not sure if I know, your Grace," she had said, "But I... I..."

She closed her eyes, curled her fingers to make a fist and awakened her magic - phantom tendrils of power snaked out, feeling hesitantly around the Archmagus' ward, and probing at its edges. It had been harder back then, in her youth, to wield her magic; magic had been a tool rather than a limb, but she had always possessed an uncommon instinct for sensing magic, and instinct told her that something was amiss within the ward. And that something actually enhanced the ward, rather than betray it.

She had tried to know what it was, but she could not. Not yet.

She had sighed and her magic withdrew into herself. "I don't understand," she had said at last, "It's a ward that uses an idea... an idea of storm... but through the explicit lack of fire... it... it..."

She had shook her head. "Your Grace," she had conceded, "I'm sorry. I don't think I know after all."

She had looked into the Archmagus' eyes then, and they had ensorcelled her with their fiery gaze, though he too had looked intrigued by her. The feeling had made her swell with pride. She had straightened at that, and she had felt smug as his eyes rove downwards, sweeping across her slender frame.

She had not lingered in that cavern long, but by the time the hellstorm had subsided, and she exited alongside the host that had camped in the cave, she had demonstrated sufficient power and knowledge to warrant an apprenticeship with the legendary Archmagus himself. Granted, she was one among a hundred and one acolytes, but at least she had secured a position that made her lady mother proud.

And a hundred years later, the apprentice had surpassed her master, and she knew... she truly knew magic and its secrets, as they were known to the generations of Archmagi who had come before. Her mortality was the first to go, and it was followed by an awakening that surpassed all joys she had known before.

And now, the sphere of fire strengthened about her, and every stone, rock and mote of dust in the cavern turned molten as she remembered her master's - the Archmagus Merlin's - fall from grace, which in turn heralded her rise. She now stood glorious and radiant in the very bowels of Camelot - a city she had founded - as Archmagus Morgaine le Faye, the Dread Queen of Lothien.

But little did the smallfolk and purebloods know - becoming an Archmagus was never truly the end of ambition. It was the beginning of a very slippery ladder that grew ever longer and treacherous. An Archmagus had to contend not just with the petty politics of the realm - that pit embittered Dukes and Marquis and warlocks against each other - but with the larger, ever-shifting balance of power amongst the Archmagi of the mortal realm.

The War of the Archmagi was eternal; the smallfolk simply called it "The War" - so engrained was it in their lives for thousands of generations. The Six Nations of the Known World had always been locked in war, and the smallfolk and purebloods were merely delightful pawns in the hands of the Archmagi that prevailed over each Nation. A few hundred years ago, the Nation of Tybgych had skirmished with the purebloods in her Southern Highlands, only for her to repel the long-haired barbarians and lead sorties across the Ying Hai. Fifty years ago, she had tried to civilise the Black Forests across the Sea of Lothien, only to be held off by the reigning, if mysterious, Archmagus of Ruz - Baba Yaga.

The balance of power was not so much an evenly balanced set of scales as shifting, heaving waves of power and magic that strove against each other. And such an enticing, masterful, addictive game it was - a cycle that kept churning, birthing, sustaining and destroying Archmages and entire civilisations in its wake.

Modron could never really claim that she strove to break the cycle, but the cycle made her thrive in a manner that her erstwhile master had never approved of. She strove to upset the cycle, because upsetting the cycle was just so much fun.

And so, she had chanced upon yet another idea - ancient in conception, though startling when truly known: the mortal realm was never really free of the other realms. Granted, the other realms were always unknowable - it was an Arithmantic theorem that was none had yet managed to disprove - but influences could be exerted by other realms upon the mortal coil, and perhaps even vice versa. The hellstorms, the starfalls, the woodland plagues - these were exertions of other realms that spilled over into theirs.

But few truly knew them. Perhaps only the Archmagi, and only a select few of the Archmagi at that. And while these select few Archmagi could harness the influences of the other realms - she had known Baba Yaga to create hellstorms, and the mysterious Black Mage of Yndu had once set loose a starfall on the Ying Hai - even they did not know as Modron knew. They did not connect the dots, nor see that influences need not always manifest themselves in forms as blatant as mere weather.

Modron ululated, her voice rising in pitch so high as to be inhuman, towards the end of her fell song and the sphere of fire grew, with tongues of flame licking away at ancient rock. Her tendrils of power grew and strengthened, seizing and grasping away at an otherworldly influence only she knew of. 

And then she felt it. Her golden eyes glowed brighter than the flame that encircled her.

Dark of hair and dark of heart, Modron, the last of nine fell sisters and former apprentice of the legendary Archmagus Merlin had known considerable power. But today, as Archmagus Morgaine Le Faye, she had a taste of godhood.