THE CRUSADING WIZARD
(revised & expanded edition)
SNEAK PREVIEW #3
Christopher & Ed Stasheff
Refilling Jerusalem’s water supply went faster that Matt anticipated. Moshe summoned his students to help out, and sometimes Balkis was able to sneak around mewing the spell over dry water urns. Better yet, some of the Arab wizards somehow caught wind of the project, and showed up to learn Matt’s spell and help enchant water receptacles throughout the city. It was still a big job during the hottest part of the day, though, and everyone was thoroughly exhausted by the time it was over. At least they could enjoy a drink when they were done.
There was an informal meeting afterwards for all the wizards in Jerusalem. Thankfully, they met in the basement of the palace, where it was cooler. The temperature was only a few degrees lower, but to Matt it still felt wonderful after an afternoon in the hot Jerusalem sun. In all, only about a dozen wizards gathered together, mostly Arabs, although Matt was mildly surprised to see a few women among them. The Christians, as it turned out, had no combat wizards in Jerusalem, although there were a pair of priests present, both of whom had some magical talent and worked in the infirmary. One was clearly a Roman Catholic priest from the Christian Quarter, but Matt didn’t recognize the other cleric’s uniform of flowing black robes and a long pointed hood. Matt assumed he was some sort of Eastern Orthodox clergy from the Armenian Quarter.
Polite introductions were made as they shared a meager meal of water and stale bread. For some wizards, Matt could almost guess their magical specialties just by looking at them—several, who had bottles or lamps strapped tightly to their belts or who wore jewelry with large gemstones, most likely worked with djinn. Other wizards, such as a young woman wearing loose flowing robes and a hijab complete with face veil, were a complete mystery.
Matt did what he could to teach them about Arjasp’s style of Ahriman-oriented Zoroastrian magic. The dastoor who taught Matt had condensed a lifetime of magical study into two weeks, and Matt had to distill that down even farther into an hour-long discussion. It amounted to little more that an explanation of basic underlying principles, strengths and weaknesses, and a few specific counterspells.
“These verses you have recited—I notice they all pit light against darkness?” That was Hakim, an Arab wizard who, given his bright red, orange, and yellow robes and the pleased look on his face, Matt suspected specialized in fire magic.
“Yes, they do,” Matt acknowledged, even if that was a bit of an oversimplification. “Ahriman’s servants work by the concealment of darkness and the confusion of lies.”
“Obviously!” scoffed Nasiri, a dark-skinned wizard, possibly Berber, who appeared to be the wizards’ leader—until Matt usurped the position, that is, at least temporarily. “These infidels are creatures of darkness; they must be evil.”
“No, not necessarily!” Matt squeezed his eyes shut, shaking his head. “I’ve met plenty of evil sorcerers who use fire and have no problem going around in the daytime—and I’m sure many of you have, too!”
There was a general mummer of agreement, and Nasiri’s face darkened. “Why then, Lord Wizard,” he challenged, “do all men instinctively fear the dark, if not for its taint of evil?”
“Well, that probably goes back to the caves.” Matt saw the baffled expressions around the room and explained. “That time long ago when our ancestors lived in caves, because they didn't know how to make houses. People don't see well at night, but beasts like wolves and tigers do. They also hunt after sunset, so darkness was a time of danger until we got pretty thoroughly civilized. But that doesn't mean wolves were evil—just hungry.”
“He speaks truth,” agreed Fatima, an older woman wizard who, judging by the pet falcon on her shoulder and her robes dyed in a leopard spot pattern, almost certainly worked with animals. “Many harmless creatures—indeed, even some helpful ones—go about after dark and shun the daylight. Is an owl evil because it hunts at night? No, we humans only think of the dark as dangerous because we are animals of the daytime.”
Matt nodded, thankful for the support. Then again, Fatima had seemed to take an instant liking to him, quite possibly because she thought the cat on his shoulder identified him as a kindred spirit.
Nasiri clenched his jaw and glared at Matt. “Are you saying that our ancestors’ fear of the night was the source of our notion that light is good and darkness evil?” His voice was soft and low, but had a dangerous undertone, as if he were setting up Matt to incriminate himself.
“Originally, yes,” Matt agreed. “But in its modern form, I think we can blame the idea on Zoroastrianism and its belief in a good god of light and an evil god of darkness. And ‘darkness,’ I think, was partly a metaphor for obfuscation, confusion, and lies. Likewise, I suspect ‘light’ is also a metaphor for clarity and truth. The sorcerers of Ahriman seek to spread lies and cloud the facts, by illusion and partial honesty. To dispel them we need only appeal to the light of truth to make itself shown.”
“The sorcery we have faced every night for weeks is no illusion!” Nasiri snapped, face hard with hostility.
Matt tried for professional rapport. “Well, what counterspells have you tried against these sorcerers?”
“Everything we can think of!” the wizard snapped, glowering.
“Then it certainly won’t hurt to try my counterspells, too. What have you got to lose?”
There was a moment of silence as all eyes turned to Nasiri for his answer, but he failed to come up with one. Instead he expanded the scope of the conversation. “I am an imam as well as a wizard, Lord Matthew,” Nasiri said, scowling, “and I do not fear the power of these barbaric verses over the clergy, but over the unlearned—the soldiers who have only read the Koran, not meditated upon its meanings.”
Now Nasiri’s hostile attitude made a bit more sense; by bringing theology into the magical discussion, Matt was crossing into an area where the imam was an authority and held very strong opinions. Matt tried a different tactic. “Afraid that the men on the walls might be misled or fooled by Satanic verses? Well, I can understand that—but the cure for a lie is the truth. Do you really think that lies can triumph on their own against the truth?”
“I think lies can be seductive,” the imam said, “and made to appear far more attractive than the truth.”
“Well, I have to agree with you there,” Matt conceded. “That’s why it’s so important to promote and explain the truth, and for our verses inspired by truth to be just as fascinating and appealing as anything the barbarian liars can craft—more so, if possible.”
“So you believe that the truth will win over any lie, then?” Nasiri asked, skeptical.
“Of course,” Matt said. “Don’t you?”
The imam hesitated. “I believe that the truth can be drowned by an abundance of lies.”
“Well, I believe that lies fade and die,” Matt said. “That's why Ahriman has to keep coming up with new ones. The problem for me is not the number of falsehoods, but that so few people seem to feel the need to talk about the truth.”
The imam’s look turned dangerous. “Why would you think that?”
“Because liars feel the need to justify themselves,” Matt said, “to make excuses and rationalizations when deep in their hearts, something is telling them they’re wrong. People who know the truth don’t have such misgivings, so they don’t have any need to talk about it.”
“Do you truly think these unholy sorcerers so easy for you to defeat, then?” Nasiri sneered.
“Individually, yes,” Matt said in as agreeable a tone as he could muster. “From what I’ve learned during my travels to the east, most of their ‘sorcerers’ are actually just tribal shaman from Central Asia, truly unlettered barbarians using old verses passed down orally. But those spells are both common and well-known, and to defeat them you only need memorize the counterspell from written books. It’s just that there’s so many shaman out there that it’s hard to counter all their minor spells at once.”
The wizards stared, startled by the thought.
“Now, I’m sure some Arabian and Persian sorcerers, real sorcerers, must have joined their ranks, since they seem to have djinn in their armies. But in the horde outside your walls, I imagine there are relatively few sorcerer-priests of Ahriman… and probably only low- or mid-level ones at that. It’s a very new cult, keep in mind, and Arjasp hasn’t had enough time to train that many clergy—and the ones he has prepared are spread out all over their empire. But those relatively few sorcerer-priests outside seem more powerful because they’re using a new type of magic you haven’t faced before, and don’t know how to counter yet. But according to the Mazdaean dastoor I met, who is familiar with that type of magic, their spells are actually pretty basic, really, and not hard to defeat at all, once you know how they’re constructed. After all, I watched the dastoor beat a sorcerer-priest within minutes.”
Hakim the fire-wizard furrowed his brow, puzzled. “Then what force is there in these infidel sorcerers that we should fear them?”
“Not much,” Matt answered. “Most of their impact comes from having so very many warriors, all of whom can ride swiftly, and their fearsome reputation for sheer, brutal violence and a total lack of mercy to any city that dares resist them. But their sorcerers aren’t really doing much at all.”
“Then the power of their Shaitan-inspired verses is just one of their illusions?” Nasiri asked.
“Just gossip,” Matt confirmed, “just rumors, and a rather nasty sort, too—not really lies, just gross exaggeration. Sometimes partial truth can be more effective than an outright falsehood.”
“So the tale of their strength has grown as it passed from one careless mouth to another,” the veiled woman wizard inferred.
Matt nodded. “Their spells are mediocre, really—nothing to trouble any of the faithful for more than a minute. They only have power if you believe they do.”
The discussion was brought to an abrupt end by the sound of muezzins calling Muslims to evening prayers—which meant the sun had set and night was approaching.
“We must go now, Wizard,” Nasiri informed Matt (who noticed the “Lord” omitted from his title). “After prayers, we must prepare for the night’s battle. When darkness falls, the infidels will attack.”
“They attack at night?” Matt stared, then gave himself a shake. “No, of course they attack at night, if they so much as pay lip service to Ahriman.”
The Christian priests ran off to prepare for the stream of injured and dying that would soon flood the infirmary.
“Myself, I will see you after the battle, if God is good,” the Rabbi said. “For now, my students and I must man the eruv line and watch the golems.” He uttered a quick blessing in Hebrew, they hurried off.
Matt could tell when evening prayers were over by the stream of Muslim soldiers that came pouring out of the mosques. As armor was donned, weapons seized, and men ran to their assigned walls, Tafas found Matt and Balkis. “Please, will you join our wizards in fighting off the horde, Lord Matthew?” Tafas asked.
“Absolutely,” Matt agreed. “Just tell me what to do.”
“Follow his orders.” Tafas turned and pulled the wizard Nasiri out of the crowd around them, who looked rather smug. “Forgive me, Lord Wizard, but the Imam knows this city and this battle better than you do.”
Matt’s heart sank, but he nodded. “Of course, Emir.”
Tafas turned back to Nasiri. “I will ask you share your rug with him, Imam; he is new to these battles, and I trust you above all to make sure he comes to no harm.”
Well, Matt didn’t think that was necessarily true, but he recognized flattery to preempt an argument when he heard it. Nasiri didn’t look happy about it either, but he nodded obediently. “Yes, Mahdi. He will be welcome on my carpet.”
“Carpet?” Matt echoed, puzzled. “I thought you said all the flying carpets were grounded.”
“During the day, yes,” Tafas agreed, “for the chances of being shot by enemy arrows is too great. That, and they cannot cross the walls of Jerusalem anyway—at least not without being torn apart by the horde’s djinn—so what point is there to fly in daylight? Ah, but at night, within Jerusalem? In a city this large, wizard, what better way to direct the battle than from the skies? We have several miles of wall to guard, Lord Matthew, and less than a dozen wizards to protect them all.” Tafas glanced at Matt, saw the look on his face, and chuckled. “Do not worry, Lord Wizard! Nasiri’s carpet crew knows the city well, and will take you where you are needed.”
Tafas led them to broad courtyard in the Muslim Quarter, and Matt witnessed a bizarre scene he could only describe as a cross between the deck of an aircraft carrier and the Arabian Nights. Well over a dozen huge rugs covered the flagstones, all much larger by far than the one Matt purchased in India. As he drew nearer in the fading light, it became clear these carpets were designed and woven for this specific magical purpose. The edges were embroidered with flowing Arabian script in golden thread. Even though graven images were forbidden in Islam, the curving geometric designs woven into the carpets still somehow evoked a sense of wind, sky, and clouds. Pilots sat at one end, with the rug pulled up and curled over their feet almost like a toboggan. In their hands, Matt recognized rudimentary steering controls—a cord attached to both corners of the carpet, much like the reigns of a horse. Overall, it was a very elegant and practical design. Matt was suddenly glad so few people had seem him arrive in his own flying carpet—it was downright primitive compared to these fine specimens.
Nasiri’s rug was one of the largest. In addition to its pilot and the two wizards, it held a shieldsman and a few archers—and, looking around at the other carpets, that seemed a pretty standard crew. No one among Matt’s crew was foolish enough to stand, but although Matt sat down with Balkis in his lap, the archers and shieldsman remained kneeling, presumably for better mobility. The imam strode to the center of the rug, sank to his knees and leaned over, hands and forehead to the ground, and chanted something that was as much prayer as it was spell. Then he sat back up, eyes closed, still and silent.
“Uh… what’s he doing?” Matt asked one of the archers. “Isn’t he supposed to be giving the orders?”
“He is listening for the other wizards,” the archer answered.
“Really?” Matt looked around the noisy, crowded courtyard. “How can he hear them?”
“With his mind,” the archer replied. “I know not how, only that it is the way of wizards.”
“You mean he has a spell to hear other people’s thoughts?”
And a spell to put my words in their heads, Nasiri’s voice said inside Matt’s mind.
Matt almost jumped off the rug in surprise. He suddenly understood exactly why the imam was the head wizard around here.
It is my duty is to stay in contact with Tafas and coordinate all the wizards, Nasiri continued, to send them to whichever wall needs them most. Now be quiet, Lord Matthew; listening to a dozen minds at once is difficult, and I must concentrate.
Matt was in no position to argue, so he whispered to Balkis (who missed the mental conversation) what was going on while Nasiri sat with his eyes closed, hands in his lap, and brought his telepathic switchboard online. Finally, the imam nodded once and said to the pilot, “I have them all now. We can go.”
The pilot barked out an order, and with that all the rugs rose up off the ground. Matt felt positively giddy as the carpets glided about in a swirl of activity, each heading their own way, and soared up over the stone buildings. Of all the ways he’d fought battles in this strange universe, this would be by far the most unusual… and, quite possibly, the most exciting.
Their carpet rose through the air, the experienced pilot doing a much smoother job of it than Matt had, and within a minute they were drifting in the cool night breeze above Jerusalem, watching as the deepening dusk chased the last glow of daylight from the sky. Below them, dozens upon dozens of lamps and torches lit up the city like an ocean of stars. The battlements atop the wall, though, were lost in darkness, with only an occasional torch to relieve the gloom.
“You learned that light on the wall only blinded you to what your enemy was doing, eh?” Matt asked.
The archer looked up in surprise. “Even so, effendi. Have you fought at night before?”
“Not against an army,” Matt said, “but hand-to-hand was bad enough.”
Everyone on the carpet, including Nasiri, turned to stare at him, startled, and Matt realized they had heard about his battle with the evil giant Ballspear. The Lord Wizard quickly looked away, mouth thinning, but the others eyed Matt warily—the fact that he hadn’t boasted about it outright made him even more formidable.
Matt didn’t tell them that he knew about eyes adapting to darkness from junior high school science, or that the giant would have crushed him if a stronger titan, Colmain, hadn’t come to his rescue.
On the other hand, it had been his magic that waked Colmain... both giants, in fact...
“So,” Matt asked, hoping to move the conversation along, “what now?”
“Now,” the archer replied, nocking an arrow, “we wait for the infidels to attack.”
And just then, right on cue, drums began to throb outside the walls—not the rattle of snare drums, but the deep grumbling of tympani.
Then the boulders started crashing down.
TO BE CONTINUED…