The Book of the Twelve:Part Four
IV-I. Mastermind, the Enigma
Not all of the Circle were known for their skills in magical combat. Mastermind, from the moment he first met Jahbal, proved his love of secrets and misdirection. He would use sleight of hand alongside his magical talents to entertain his friends, and barely a day went by when he did not have a new puzzle to pose the other Circle members. A master of hypnotism and suggestion, when the Great Empire was founded he used his talents to bring peace to other factions in the world that might otherwise have attacked the fledgling nation.
Even in times of peace, no one ever knew his name, or where he came from. Though he always remained suspicious of the mystics in the Temple of Roo.
The Blumaroo reached the crest of a sand dune and stumbled, falling half way down the far side of it before he managed to regain his footing and steady himself.
He had been travelling for days, deliberately avoiding the far easier trade routes through the desert, and exhaustion finally had taken him.
High above, lightning streaked in the clouds — blue. The Blumaroo supposed some Air Faeries were busy in their own battles. Still, the violent storms above served to block much of the sun, and stopped the desert from baking travellers.
The Blumaroo decided to wait a while and regain some energy. He drained the last of his water. He would need to return to the trade roads soon. He just hoped he had made it far enough north.
“There you are!” came a voice from the top of the dune.
A new figure came stumbling down. This one was a Cybunny. The Blumaroo deflated to see him. Of course it would be him to make the discovery. Who else?
“Erick,” the Blumaroo greeted him. “How did you find me?”
“You leave footprints in the sand, you know?” Erick replied. “You stopped trying to cover them maybe ten miles back. What are you doing? Your father is going mad.”
“Good,” the Blumaroo said bitterly. “A little madness might do him some good.”
Erick furrowed his brow.
“Then you’re serious?” he asked. “When you told me about leaving, I thought you were joking.”
“I am leaving,” the Blumaroo agreed. “If I stay, what fate is there for me? The priesthood. Replacing my father when the time comes. The next Archmagus. It is not a fate I wish for.”
“Archmagus is a title of great honour!” Erick protested.
“It is a prison!” the Blumaroo shot back. “All of this is a prison. Why else build the temple in a desert? No, I must leave. Please, as my friend, let me go.”
Erick bit his lip, but nodded.
“I will not stop you,” he said. “But the Archmagus, he will.”
“Which is why he can never know where I have gone,” the Blumaroo said. “You can not tell him, Erick. Swear to me you will report back that you saw nothing. Or better yet, found my body. If he thinks me dead, that will be the end of it.”
“You would do that to your own father?” Erick asked.
“He is not my father any more,” the Blumaroo said. “Please, Erick. Let me go.”
The Cybunny stared at him for a King while, before nodding.
“Thank you,” the Blumaroo said with genuine relief.
He set off again across the desert. Erick watched him go until he was out of sight.
It was another nameless tavern on the road between towns. An overnight stop and not much else. The Blumaroo kept to himself in a corner but as the night wore on more and more travellers arrived and the Blumaroo was forced to share the table with a family. Two young children.
“Hey mister!” the little Yurble said. “You know any magic? You look like you know magic!”
His mother, a Shoyru, batted him away.
“Leave the man alone! What have I told you about talking to strangers?”
She knew all too well the dangers these days, particularly around those who did know magic.
The Blumaroo took pity on the crestfallen Yurble’s look.
“It's quite alright, madam,” he said. As it happens, I do know a little magic.”
The Blumaroo reached forward and pulled a single golden coin from behind the Yurble’s ear. The child made a face.
“That's not magic!” he complained. “That's just a trick! Anyone can do that!”
The Blumaroo gave a polite smile, before leaning in closer.
“Perhaps,” he said. “But maybe it takes a true wizard to pluck a coin out of thin air, but convince everyone he did not.”
The boy frowned at the thought of it, but the lack of any flashy magic appeared to have reassured his mother.
The Blumaroo looked up as a sudden gust of wind from the tavern’a for heralded yet more travellers seeking shelter from the cold of the night. The chill that came with them, though, was more the air from outside. Three of them, dressed in dark cloaks, and with staves brimming with magical energy.
The conversation in the tavern died as the three newcomers made their way to the owner at the counter.
“We’ve got an announcement to make,” the leader, a Kougra, said. “As of tonight this area is used out control. If you want to sleep safely tonight, we’ll be taking an extra gold coin of each of you. And you, the owner of this sorry little place, you will be paying us five gold coins of rent. Any objections?”
His friends allowed arcs of elemental energy to course down their staves, to make the point. It was pretty clear there were plenty of objections, but no one spoke up.
Except one. An Eyrie that had been drinking on the other side of the tavern stood up abruptly and pulled back his cloak. He, too, had a staff, and he primed it with green magical energy.
“My name is Jahbal, defender of the peace,” the Eyrie announced. “I have taken an oath that none such as you will plague this land while I live.”
The Kougra gave a sinister smile.
“We can see to that,” he sneered.
Magic crackled on the air, and most of the travellers ducked under their tables. They all knew that in most cases, when two wizards clashed it was the common folk who came off worse. Many of them would have been surprised if the tavern itself wasn’t destroyed in the fallout.
Suddenly, the Kougra found a hand on his shoulder. The Blumaroo gave a reassuring squeeze and looked the wizard directly in the eye with a friendly face.
“There’s no need for this,” the Blumaroo said in an infectiously calm voice. “None of us want to hurt each other.”
There was an odd tone to his voice that hadn’t been there before. An undercurrent that seemed to speak more than the Blumaroo alone was capable of.
“We... Don’t want to hurt anyone,” the Kougra agreed, a note of confusion in his voice.
His two friends seemed to be having a change of heart as well. They all lowered their weapons, the magic they had been preparing forgotten about.
“I have heard there is a town with rich pickings back on the road, the way you came,” the Blumaroo added. “If you set out now, you might make it by morning.”
“There’s a town with rich pickings, lads,” the Kougra agreed. If we set out now, we could get there by morning.”
In a half daze, the three of them left. The conversation in the tavern returned to normal.
“I’ve never seen magic like that,” Jahbal said, coming over to the Blumaroo. “Where did you learn it?”
The Blumaroo dared not say his father.
“A long way away.”
“You should have let me finish them off,” Jahbal added.
“Why bother?” the Blumaroo said. “They were clearly running from something. And now, they are heading back towards it. They will get whatever justice they deserve.”
“A smart fellow, as well as a skilled one!” Jahbal declared. “You must be some kind of mastermind! Tell me, what do they call you?”
The Blumaroo could never use his real name. Never again, doing so might alert the priests in the temple of his survival.
“Mastermind will do just fine,” he said.
“Ha!” Jahbal laughed. “You like your secrets too then, eh? No matter, well met, Mastermind. I am Jahbal. I am a traveller of sorts. Seeking to right wrongs across this land. Dispensing justice in a world that has too often become lawless. I am seeking a better world for all of us. This may seem forward, but would you like to join me in my quest?”
Mastermind smiled. How could he refuse?
IV-II. Mastermind, the Schemer
It was Mastermind who ultimately engineered the fall of the Circle and the Empire along with it. He was the first to fall to Xantan’s corruption, although no one realised until it was too late. He influenced Jahbal, slowly turning him into his faithful puppet. Mastermind understood all too well the threats the Empire would face if they pursued their new direction, and when Jahbal moved to silence the insurrection of Kal Panning, Mastermind suggested another attack on the Temple of Roo at the same time, to stop Kal Panning gaining any reinforcements.
Mastermind led the assault on the Temple of Roo, and personally cursed the Archmagus, shattering the order and sealing their fates. In the aftermath, he used Jahbal has a convenient scapegoat for his increased influence on the Circle, and then decided to lurk in the shadows until he was sure the rest of the Circle had destroyed each other.
Mastermind, too, fell to the blade of King Altador some thousand years later, ending his schemes forever.
Mastermind walked among the ashes of the enemy camps. Ifuli Jomm’s scorching magic had destroyed the Temple of Roo’a defences so utterly, it was as if they had never been there to begin with.
“She is gone,” Zhadoom said as he floated down to the ground beside him. “I lost track of her as she headed towards the mountains.”
After unleashing her magic, Ifuli had fled the battlefield.
Mastermind put a reassuring hand on the Elephante’s shoulder. Let his subtle magic alter his mind, as he had been doing to all the council members for months now. He needed his troops focused, not worrying about their friends.
“The power she unleashed may need taming,” he said. “We will look for her once the battle is done, Zhadoom, but we must finish this now before the enemy can regroup, or it will have been for nothing.”
A Kay was approaching. Lamora, the last of their number from the Circle who can come to the desert.
“The priests have retreated into the temple depths,” she said. “The caves down there are a warren, but that cannot withstand us forever. If we send in our troops to comb the cave system cavern by cavern, we will have them cornered.”
“No,” Mastermind said, with sudden forcefulness. “You have done your part, now I must do mine. I will go alone into the temple. I will deal with the priests. Once the Archmagus falls, it will be over for them.”
“One person against all of their forces is not a good idea, Mastermind,” Lamora said.
“I said no,” Mastermind said sharply, using his powers to wash over their senses and override any notion of dissent.
They nodded, blindly, and it was decided. Mastermind would go in alone.
The caves had not changed in the long years since he had been away. As the son of the Archmagus, Mastermind had been entrusted with many secrets even some of the priests did not know. He knew the secret passageways, and he used them to bypass most of the choke points in the caverns where he knew the priests would be waiting, lurking in the dark.
Instead, Mastermind made for the inner sanctum, where he knew the Archmagus would be waiting.
He did not expect to find the Cybunny blocking his path.
“Erick,” Mastermind said flatly.
The Cybunny wore a pained expression.
“Is it is you,” he said. “You are this Mastermind they speak of. Mastermind of ruin, that is what you are. You left, you got out! Why come back here, to destroy us, no less? Was that the plan all along? To wipe us out once you got enough friends in the outside world? After all I did for you.”
If Xantan’s curse had not corrupted him so utterly, Mastermind might have felt some pang of guilt at seeing his old friend. But as it was, he felt nothing.
“This is not personal,” he said. “Kal Panning is falling as we speak. You know the Archmagus would have sent aid as soon as he heard. We couldn’t allow that. The Great Empire cannot be challenged.”
“Do you hear yourself speak?” Erick asked. “Cannot be challenged? The words of a dictator. The words of those unfit to rule.”
Mastermind curled his lips.
“Get out of my way, Erick. I am here for the Archmagus, not you.”
“But you will have to go through me to reach him,” Erick said sadly, raising his wand.
Mastermind sighed, lunging forward and grabbing the Cybunny by the head. He worked his magic and went deep, stripping out every last shred of sanity from his former friend. When he was done, he dropped the Cybunny to the floor. Erick rambled incoherently.
“A better fate that everyone else in this temple will be granted, I promise you that,” Mastermind said, as he continued on his way.
Miles deep below the surface of the desert, he came to his father’s inner sanctum. The elderly Blumaroo was waiting there, dressed in his blue robes of office.
His eyes went wide for a moment when he saw who it was. Then, with dawning realisation, he began to cry.
“Erick told me you were dead!”
“I asked him to,” Mastermind said. “I knew you would look for me otherwise.”
“Of course I would!” the Archmagus shouted. “You are my son!”
“Your son is gone,” Mastermind replied. “I am Mastermind, councillor of the Circle of Twelve, rulers of the Great Empire. I am here to pass down judgement upon you. The Empire will not be challenged.”
“Why?” the Archmagus asked. “Kal Panning, of course. A two pronged attack. Only you would think of something like that. Truly, you are worthy to become the next Archmagus.”
“There will never be another Archmagus,” Mastermind said cruelly. “Kal Panning will be reduced to rubble, but this place? It will stand as a living warning. You, and the priests who serve you, I will curse you and make mindless things of you all. Trapped here for an eternity. A lesson that all will be able to see. What happens when someone tries to defy the Empire’s will.”
The Archmagus stood as tall as his old back would allow him.
“We are cornered down here,” he said. “Your power is enough that you could have done that from the surface. Why did you come here?”
“To get the only thing that could stop me,” Mastermind said.
With that he unleashed a blast of magic that knocked his father to the ground. While the old Blumaroo struggled on the floor, Mastermind approached and grabbed a chain from around his father’s neck. On it was a medallion with a strange metallic sheen.
“The Kelladrian Medallion,” Mastermind said with satisfaction. “A holy relic passed down from Archmagus to Archmagus. A Kayannin artefact of terrific power, to work — or unwork — powerful magic. You would have been able to undo my curse. And the one that will be placed on Kal Panning. No longer.”
He ripped the medallion from the chain and let his father fall to the floor. The only barrier to Mastermind’s power had now been removed. He laughed to himself as he unleashed the magic, stripping away all the free will of the priests and binding them all to his power. They would roam the caves of this temple until the end of time, mindlessly attacking anyone who dared to enter.
Mastermind finally emerged up into the desert air, leaving the cloying madness of the temple’a depths behind him.
“It is done,” he said simply.
“We’ve had a message from Kal Panning,” Zhadoom said.
“Then it is finished,” Mastermind said gladly. “With Kal Panning gone as well, no one will dare stand against us again.”
“Kal Panning has fallen, but...”
Mastermind frowned. He reached out with his mind, searching for his old friend.
“No!” He gasped. “Jahbal, what have they done?”
“The message claimed that Jahbal was attempting to usurp power from the rest of the Circle,” Zhadoom added. “As Xantan before him. For our own safety, he has been given the same fate. They have sealed him in the old fortress at Two Rings Valley. The message also says that Oberon has betrayed us. He fled Neopia City while we are all fighting. He’s taken many of our artefacts of power with him. It seems the Circle has been sundered.”
Mastermind cursed his own stupidity. The distance was the thing. Without him around to keep their corrupted minds in league with one another, the Circle had turned to chaos and ruin. Jahbal had been their figurehead, and through him Mastermind had worked to keep the others in line, but now — now there would be no going back.
It was as Erick had said. The pretence of a democratic Empire was at an end. Freed from his control,m the other Circle members would flail against each other until none remained. Meanwhile, the Empire would crumble to ash around them.
The situation crystallised quickly and clearly in Mastermind’s vision. He knew what he must do. If the Great Empire’s council had failed, then a single guiding force would be needed instead. But in order to do that, the existing Empire would need to be purged.
All of them.
“They have marked themselves traitors,” Mastermind said. “All of them. They are just as corrupt as Jahbal and Xantan before him. No, they intend to lure us back to Neopia City with talk of Oberon. It is a trap, they have probably dealt with him themselves. They are seizing power. We must make our own plans. The three of us, gather what power we can, and then retake the Empire from those who would steal it.”
He let the magic wash over Zhadoom and Lamora. They could scarcely deny him.
Jahbal stood on the balcony of Two Rings Fortress, overlooking the dead valley below. His new prison, for all eternity.
He had tried to breach the magical barrier that kept him here, but to no avail. He would remain here, forever more. Alone and powerless.
Or so he thought.
At once he was aware of a presence in the room behind him. He turned to find Mastermind waiting for him.
“My friend!” Jahbal sighed with relief. “They overpowered me!”
“I know, they have made an attempt to take the Empire,” Mastermind said. “Traitors, all. And they will pay for it in time. It was a noble goal, that of Xantan, but it was a fantasy. The council could never have worked. We must begin again, and this time, one hand alone should steer the course of the ship. A hand of fair justice. Like you.”
Jahbal smiled at that.
Of course, what Mastermind didn't say was that he would be pulling the strings from the shadows, as ever. Jahbal would be an important fall guy, should the situation turn sour again.
“Then what will we do?” Jahbal asked.
“They think this prison is complete,” Mastermind said. “They are wrong. They are fighting each other now. Over time, they will whittle each other down until few remain. Then, from our safety here, we will send monsters out into the world and wipe it clean of the memory of the Great Empire. When Neopia is reduced to nought but ashes, and the bindings around this valley finally fail, you will ride forth and liberate the people from their misery. And they will welcome you in joy, as they should, as their one rightful and true Emperor.”
Music to Jahbal’s ears.
“What shall we do first?” Jahbal asked.
Mastermind absently played with the Kelladrian Medallion in his hands.
“First, I think I shall send this to the Research Facility south of Neopia City,” the Blumaroo answered. “I recall from the reports one of the scientists there wanted means to transform the lizards. This should grant him what he seeks. And the army he will create will serve us nicely.”
To be continued…