Monday, December 21, 2015

Interlude: The Last Spell of Mirabilis

"Tell me a story about spells and magic, Dad... Da- Doctor Mirabilis..." Osler stammered. He shrank away from the kindly old man and felt an empty ache in his chest from the recent loss of his father.

"Please, it's just Mirabilis among friends," responded the cleric. Osler's face flushed with the heat of his faux pas. He wondered if the word 'friends' was intentionally emphasized.

Mirabilis tugged at the lapels of his white coat. "I know it's traditional among halflings to swap tales on the road, but this is my first time. Pardon me as I gather my thoughts."

The cleric tapped his chin and looked out the window of the caravan train over the craggy moonlit countryside. Osler inspected his other adventuring party members in silence. His friend, a gnome necromancer. A dwarf barbarian -- no, a dwarf barber, she had corrected him earlier. An elf druid. An orc ranger. They all snoozed or shifted quietly in their seats seeming disinterested in the conversation.

Mirabilis snapped his fingers. Osler half-expected the human's fingers to spark or the cabin's ensconced torches to flare with magic.

"I'll tell you the story about my last spell!"

Osler grinned and nodded at the suggestion. He leaned forward and curled his hands under his chin.


-------

"Now, in order to tell you a story of the ending we'll need to start at the beginning, with the Gods. Asclepius teaches that magic stems from all life, but it would be more accurate to say that his father Apollo is the source of magic, along with the rest of the Celestial Gods." Mirabilis slowly made a religious gesture of the Question Mark, tracing the side of his head down to his heart and touched his holy symbol, a curled piece of thick copper wire.

Osler glanced sidelong at his friend and as if on cue, Virchow's eyes snapped open.

"First, solar energy is the primary source for sustaining life, by far, but it doesn't account for all mana..." interrupted Virchow. The bespectacled gnome's eyes darted around the cabin as he talked. His eyes roving constantly yet he never made eye contact with anyone. His speech was imbued with the same frenetic intensity.

"Second, there's no definitive evidence that the gods ever existed, nor that they passed down sacred stories to our magically-'blessed' ancestors long ago." The gnome continued blithely on with sarcastic gestures despite the fact that he was talking to a cleric of Asclepius with the domains of Knowledge and Magic.

"True, on both counts," Mirabilis slowly conceded. "Your friend was seeking a campfire story so I speak in metaphors."

"We appreciate the clarity..." Osler jumped in before Virchow could respond and a tangential discussion ensued. "The beginning of magic?"

Mirabilis nodded. "Yes. Well. In order to appease us all, let us set a few definitions. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Before we can debate meaningfully on this adage, we would need to gain each others' viewpoints on the concept of sound. 

"Osler, as a halfling, would say that hearing is a personal experience where sound is the perception that requires a listener for there to be sound..."

Osler nodded in agreement.

Mirabilis continued. "Virchow, as a gnome, would define the sound itself as a wave of air element, rippling out from the point of impact from the fallen tree, like water in a still pond. The ripples are the sound, regardless of whether or not it hits any rocks, frogs or fish in the pond."

Osler could hear Virchow grinding his teeth. "Air is not a single element. It is a collection of bound-elements bumping into each other at great velocity. No parties need be present to hear sound in order for a tree to demonstrably make noise, because -- even though I would not be able to prove it through personal experience of the noise by any listeners -- empirically, the processes of propagating sound do not cease to exist in the absence of people and..."

Virchow cut off his tirade mid-sentence. He nodded with a sharp scowl. "Definitions, indeed."

"The definition of magic is even less clear than our squabbles on the definition of sound!" Mirabilis exclaimed with a gentle smile. "Let's do a round-robin of one-word definitions that come to our mind, before we continue. Since this is Osler's request for a story," he gestured to the halfling, "you'll start. Then I will go, then our friendly debater, and around and around."

Osler didn't take long. "Mystery!"
Mirabilis winked. "Knowledge."
Virchow followed with a grin as well. "Illusions."

"Childhood! Uh... no... I'll pick wonder!" Osler said.
"Miracles," Mirabilis responded.
"Energy." Virchow added.

"Secrets -- oh wait -- how about arcane secrets? Arcana!" Osler said.
"Life," Mirabilis said.
"Death." Virchow said.

"Fun!"
"Tricks."
"Deception."

"Power!"
"Corruption."
"Resources."

They all glanced out the caravan window in unison. Tree-stumps pocked and scarred the once-lush and forested countryside. The indiscriminate clearfelling mirrored their thoughts on the shrinking reserves of Iatropia's mana supply.

"Disappearing."
"Declining."
"Diminishing."

Mirabilis broke in with a somber tone. "Magic used to be a ubiquitous and abundant resource in our world. It is the stuff that makes our dreams, spells and prayers change the fabric of Iatropia's reality." Osler grinned at this, since it was often the topic of his father's bedtime stories to him.

"Mana is the energy stored in the ambient environment and in all magic users," Mirabilis continued. "Mana is expended by spells. Once mana is used, it is gone. We don't know where it goes. I'll avoid the discussing dualism of the spiritual and the physical world. Gnomes made a large academic contribution to the study of magic in --."

Virchow broke in. "Yes, in 1200 B.F., the Order of Arcana developed a quantitative system that calculates the energy resources of mana. Although correlation is not the same as causation, it has shown to be consistent with the effects noted in the world and remains the gold standard of mana measurement."

Osler furrowed his brow and yawned. None of that made much sense to him. Anytime Virchow droned on about books and numbers, Osler daydreamed about knights and dragons. Seeing his glazed look, Mirabilis switched gears from a technical discussion back to storytelling. 

"A few millenia ago, at the peak of magical civilization, the wizards and clerics of the Old World assumed that magic was as permanent as the earth and air, as transmutable as fire and water. They thought we would never lose it. Such hubris! The elemental building blocks of creation were used to create trivial baubles, drawing too deep from a shallow mana pool. Physics spirits were bound and suppressed, waiting to be activated by special somatic, verbal, and material components.

Osler pursed his lips together and narrowed his eyes at Virchow. The gnome remained silent.

"Spells of the epic tenth level were the first to diminish. Initially they began to require more complex components, personal sacrifices, or intensive knowledge to execute. Only the most elite magic-users took note and it was regularly the subject of debate among the magistocracy. In general though, no one else cared that the glitterati could no longer cast Wish or Miracle on a daily basis. After all, who cared that the were they to complain about restrictions?

"This went on for millenia, as the Orders of Arcana and Divinity hemmed and hawed about the implications. They cycled through several editions of spells and prayers in attempts to find the right balance, but by the time epic spells disappeared, it was too late. Rumors had already spread all the way from the kings to the commoners and worst of all, among adventurers and monsters.

"Since mana is seeded by life and is harvested with death, people began to say 'well it's common sense -- bring magic back by increasing the amount of life and increasing the amount of death!'"

Osler scratched the back of his head. That didn't sound right.

"Right before the Great Fall, it was a Hack and Slash world." Mirabilis continued. "Adventurers hacked down a door and slashed through monsters with an attitude akin to 'kill first, ask questions later with the spell Speak with Dead.' For centuries, monsters and mages had to endure bloody melee by swords and sorcery! The self-serving disregard of tomb robbers and ivory tower pillagers did more to ensure our fate than anything else.

"Goblins and orcs adopted a new r/K selection strategy of short and brutish lives, replacing quality of life with sheer quantity. Rapid reproduction was achieved through clonal broods or...more traditional methods.

"Elves and halflings chose to cultivate the producers of mana -- the trees and seaweed for the Wood and Sea Elves, grains and gardens for the halflings. Vast preserves of haunted forest, where survival of the fittest would be the only rule, would be patrolled by militant rangers and druids.  Peace-loving halflings would quietly farm in their fields and harvest the fruits of their labor in orchards.

"Dwarves and gnomes sought efficiency, doing more with less. The practical dwarves honed their craft in mechanical and technical trades, while the philosophical gnomes worked in theoretical fields of research like physics and mathematics."

Mirabilis sighed.

"My fellow humans bore the largest burden of responsibility for the magical crisis but we shrugged off the yoke. Our ambition and greed blinded us. Our ignorance led us to think that a Magic Missile that kills a goblin would be a net-positive mana gain, or at least, net-neutral. We didn't bother to do the math or listen to the gnomes who crunched the numbers."

Virchow closed his eyes and droned, "The average 10 year old, 35 kilogram goblin is a very low quality source of mana. When the goblin dies, it only releases about 20 calories of mana. The ground soaks up 50% of this mana and magic-users nearby harvest the remaining percentage equally. In contrast, Magic Missiles striking with enough power to kill a goblin require 430 calories of mana. You'd need to kill a whole village of goblins and their broodlings with one Magic Missile in order to break even."

With didactic sweeps of his hands, Mirabilis added, "Magic users capture significantly less mana if they are in groups larger than three, due to resonance capacity losses. This is why typical glitterati are hermits and spend more time studying rather than slaughtering." 

Virchow wagged his finger at Mirabilis. "I'm only just getting started! The typical combat encounter includes also includes a cleric, druid or bard. These classes all use 'healing prayers' which are localized versions of time-reversal to morning save-states....and this, more than anything else, killed your gods." Virchow uncurled his finger and shrank back. Osler wondered if he realized he was crossing a line.

Mirabilis toyed with his now-defunct holy symbol of copper. "I admit, healing spells are the most costly for mana energy-expenditure. So much so, that we cannot even calculate how much they cost despite their relative ease in being drawn from the mana pool."

"It is perhaps on the order of magnitude of 10^36 calories. Or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 calories." Virchow exclaimed breathlessly, saying it both as a single number and by pronouncing all of the zeroes. Osler didn't even know how to say a number that big.

"That's more energy than our sun Apollo wields in an entire year," Mirabilis clarified. "Since every divine magic user could restore people to a time when they were healthy with a simple Cure Wounds spell, the mana was quickly drained from the Celestial Gods.

"When the Gods stopped responding to prayers, the crisis was taken more seriously. Diviners and physickers convened an emergency meeting. Anaxagoras, Leucippus, Empedocles, Democritus, and Hippocrates were among those who answered the call. Together, they created the reformed Order of Asclepius, which would be dedicated to passing this knowledge onward."

"Hippocrates made everyone swear a sacred oath to preserve life." The old man made a motion of the Question Mark.

"Later on, Chirurgeons and barbers would use blood-letting and leeches in the presence of suffering and death, to slowly harvest mana. Humoral medical techniques would become magic-free, building a new field of knowledge from the ground up using only observations and logically-derived suppositions."

Osler was transfixed. "So when will magic get back to normal?" Virchow scoffed and waved his hand around.

Mirabilis pursed his lips. "Never. The final ninth level spells revealed different threads of fate carried out to their end points," he said. "Barring world-extinction events and supernovae birthing new Celestial Gods, magic will never recover."

"Never? Never?! Bb-but how do we know that?" Osler sputtered.

"Retrospectively, we've determined that our world has experienced at least five mass extinction events in our distant history," Virchow interjected. "At the time of the Great Fall, desperate mages and religious zealots tried to invoke another apocalypse, but they were foiled by heroes. Even if their best case scenario came to pass, at most you could cast a third-level spell. Some regions of the Goblin King's Cursed lands are rumored to have enough mana for second level spells."

Mirabilis rubbed his brow. "Under standard conditions, only first-level spells and minor cantrips exist, but those who can cast them are rare. Only the spells that require less than 100 kilocalories of energy are possible. Typical circumstances warrant that >90% of the mana be drawn from the personal pool, typically at great expense."

"So, what first-level spell do you know?" Osler recovered enough to remember the original intent of the story.

"Even though I'm a cleric, I have no God responding to my prayers anymore. Only through feats of knowledge can I comprehend the wizard spell Color Spray. I can shoot light out of my hands to blind foes...about three times a day. I need to use four wizarding foci: a rod to store the galvanic charges, a staff to channel the mana, a wand to emit the necessary energy, and a crystal prism or orb to split light to do my will."

Osler recalled that Virchow was a wizard too. Osler worked up the courage to ask his friend a sensitive question. "Do you... do you know any..."

"No, I don't know any first-level spells,"Virchow admitted. "I only have the specialized knowledge that comes from pathological inspection post-mortem, and the skills of an advanced microscopist. We both have access to a few handy cantrips.

Mirabilis smiled. "We can teach them to you, if you are interested in learning a few arcane tricks. I sense you may have a knack for it."

Osler bobbed his head with vigor. "Oh wow! Yes, of course! That would be an honor!"

Squealing brakes and the lurch of the train came as only mere seconds of warning for a coming disaster.

Explosives detonated outside, shattering the cabin windows. Screams of terror echoed through the train.

Osler felt the world tipping over with a grinding of metal, splintering of wood and an acrid-sweet scent of chemical smoke. The cabins flipped and rolled, crumpling up against each other and tossing passengers around like rag dolls. Osler was able to quickly brace himself from flying around the cabin.

--------

Osler slowly eased himself to the downward-facing wall of the over-turned cabin. The rest of the dazed party gathered themselves up slowly. Twisted ankles and bitten tongues were the worst of it for the party. 

Other passengers in the train were less lucky. Ever-burning torches flickered weakly, illuminating the bloody carnage down the twisted hall of the train cabins. Outside, the blood-red light of dawn crept across the landscape.

"It looks like youl stoly has been intellupted by a landom encounter," said Mirabilis. He spat out a mouthful of blood. And another mouthful. Mirabilis fumbled for his healing kit. He pulled out a set of dwarven alchemical sticks, engraved with runes:



He ripped open the package of silver nitrate sticks and braced himself. He stuck the clustered ends of the wooden sticks against the tip of his bleeding tongue. Blood sizzled into a blackened ooze from the chemical cautery. He winced involuntarily and shuddered as tears leaked out from his pained eyes.


Outside, dwarven battle cries mixed with goblin chattering. "A landom -- a random combat encounter," Mirabilis' face puckered with the exertion of enunciation.

Osler whooped. "Sweet! Time to earn our keep as caravan guards!" He pulled out a small hand-crossbow and loaded up a poisonous botulinum dart.

"Beware the correspondence bias..." Virchow added. Osler recalled this had something to do with stereotypes and jumping to conclusions, but he didn't take much time to consider it. His companions kicked open the sideward-roof door and charged out of the splintered cabin.

Osler climbed up and out the upward-cabin window, deftly scrambling to the top of the train. He glanced at Virchow who shook his head in disapproval and crossed his arms. The gnome stayed inside. 

Three of Osler's companions stumbled forward alongside the train-tracks, past the injured passengers. A small band of goblins were busy looting cargo from a burning wagon. Two dwarves moved in unison to put the fire out, steering clear of the looters. Meanwhile, Osler's adventuring party engaged the goblins in battle, half of the vile creatures falling in the onslaught of arrows, knives, and spears. The goblins dropped their crates and chattered, waving their hands. A few more were cut down before the others turned and ran back towards the dwarves' wagon.

Osler had a hard time making out the words, but it sounded like the goblins were shouting words like "Surrender! Explosion! Run!"

Dwarven runes glittered in the dawnlight:




Whatever that said, it couldn't be good.


--------


Virchow scowled and rubbed his neck. He loathed traveling. Just the thought of leaving the comfort of his library and laboratory gave him palpitations. Like all gnomes, he enjoyed small, enclosed spaces where he could control the amount of intimate details he experienced. Books were the best as a form of quiet solitude. Being outside or around crowds made him feel on edge. Boarding the train gave him a palpable sense of doom that nearly pulled him back to the quiet cloister of his crypts.

However, he reluctantly joined his friend Osler on this blasted Quest, following the insane and annoying know-it-all Mirabilis in saving the world.

"I knew this would happen," he muttered out loud to himself. "Addendum: not this exactly, but there they all go, charging off, whooping and hollering after some monsters." It wasn't too long ago that he was considered a monster too. He empathized more with the goblins than he did with the bloody adventurers he was traveling with.

Virchow scowled for a moment longer, and then he heard the moans and groans of the train passengers. This pushed him into planning mode.

There were fifteen train cars that he counted when they left the station at Soma. Five of the cars were passenger cars, three were private sleeping cabins, and the remainder were freight cars. At maximum capacity, the train could hold two-hundred passengers, but the train unloaded in the human town of Bankart three hours ago before traveling into the dwarven lands. He estimated that the train was closer to one-quarter to one-third capacity based on the current sample size within his visual field. He was not quite sure what healing capacity their cleric had left, but he knew he needed to be ready to assist when the medics returned from the combat encounter. That meant somewhere between a fifty to a hundred passengers were dead or dying.

The necromancer meditated briefly. Unfortunately, most of his magic was better at preserving dead bodies than it was at saving live ones. His most useful cantrip, Prestidigitation... he estimated he could cast it twenty to thirty times in a row! He could feel his mana pool filling up to 25% capacity, the highest it had been since Soma's cholera outbreak. Unfortunately, this probably meant that at least a dozen humanoids had died recently.

Presto had limitations. He couldn't snuff out the fire burning outside -- it was too big. He could only sustain three Presto effects at one time. He could make Wizard's Mark appear on an object for one hour, but it wouldn't make sense to only triage three people. He could create a hole in reality to create a small trinket, but it would dissolve six seconds after he stopped concentrating on its physical pattern.

Virchow needed to quickly triage the injured. He and Mirabilis developed a system of different colors that could be used as tags, telling the medics aboard who to work on first and who to ignore.

Red = Stop: Immediate help required.
Yellow = Slow down: Observe and reassess later.
Green = Good to go: the 'Walking wounded.'
White =  Sterile and untouched: Evasion! No injury or disease.
Black = Through Death's door: Nothing can save them now.

The gnome pulled out five white rolls of gauze from the open healing kit.

By tradition and humanoid desires, no one ever used the black tag on living creatures, but he still wanted to turn his white gauze into all five colors: red, yellow, greenwhite and black.

Fine. He could use the coloring ability of Presto to temporarily alter the properties of the items before him with either additive or subtractive color admixture. The only problem was that he could only sustain three Presto spell effects at a time... but he needed four additional colors.


He closed his eyes and firmly reviewed the problem. There were several solutions, so he picked the subtractive solution since it was the most intuitive. He enjoyed the mental exercise, so he'd attempt the two other solutions as a set of future experiments.

He shifted into action mode. He grabbed his canteen and poured out three glasses of water.

"Prestidigitation. 
"Prestidigitation.
"Prestidigitation."

He dipped one roll once, two of the rolls twice into their respective glasses and finished with the final roll into all three glasses. He hoped he didn't have to use the last roll on anyone. He took his five rolls and headed through the broken rubble. He tore up stripes of redyellowgreenwhite and black to tie the arms of train passengers.

--------


Mirabilis hobbled over to the blast site and took cover behind a large boulder. A dwarven trade vehicle was surrounded by a chemical yellow fog that billowed outward. A group of four goblins rushed through the smoke carrying a heavy crate. One of the diminutive creatures clutched its head, stumbled, and dropped its corner of the load. It barked a few words in a wobbly voice. It stumbled a few more steps and then toppled over to the ground. 

Nearby, a few dwarves lay on the ground as well, trying in vain to drag themselves through the noxious mustard-colored vapor. The two of the goblins pulled their crate to safety. Another tried to drag a dwarf away, but also collapsed to the ground unconscious.

"Doc, there's something odd about this," said Bethune. Mirabilis turned to look at the dwarf barber with a quizzical look on his face. "Look, the goblins are helping the dwarves. Why are they doing that?"


"In that case, we need to rescue everyone here. Medics and guards, to me!" Mirabilis yelled. The old man scrunched up his face and spat out some brown-black blood as if it were chewing tobacco.


Two caravan guards, an elf druid and an orc ranger, cut down one of the goblins before disengaged from melee. The solitary surviving goblin approached warily with its pale-grey hands raised in a gesture of surrender. 


At a distance, Mirabilis noted that the halfling rogue stood atop the overturned train, gesticulating frantically to the rear of the train. The gnome necromancer stalked the train corridor among the dead and dying. 

While the elf, orc and goblin convened with him and the dwarf, Mirabilis took account of their assets and liabilities. The wagon contained more of the blasting material that had derailed the train. They could take the passengers to safety. Or they could try to extinguish the blaze. The goblins and dwarves seemed unsuccessful at that so far, but they didn't have access to the magic items and cantrips that he possessed. He had limited manpower and the longer they were exposed to the alchemical yellow fumes, the more assets would succumb to its effects. And then probably blow up. Again.


"Bethune, you and I will save the dwarves and goblins." Mirabilis said. She was a strong and reliable dwarf who could help him with the chemical fog, assuming they also didn't get hit by the knock-out gas.


"Renelaennec and Ur-Skull, evacuate the passengers! That wagon could blow at any moment." Mirabilis commanded. The overzealous elf and orc had proven to be a liability. The goblins surrendered but the two warriors still took the opportunity to slaughter their racial enemy. He didn't trust their judgment or their morals. The elf and orc ran back to the train crash and began to assist the wounded.


"Goblin," Mirabilis hesitated. "You... you come with the dwarf and me. We need to know what is going on." The stubby creature risked death if it didn't stick close to him. Not that charging back towards explosives was any safer.


Mirabilis looked towards the alchemical fire. The blaze was even stronger now and the smoke drifted closer. He sniffed the air cautiously.


"Cloudkill?" asked the goblin. It sat atop one of the rescued crates. Mirabilis reached into the crate through a broken slat and pulled out a blasting stick. He paused and then briefly licked the sweat off one of the sticks. Initially, he tasted sawdust. Then, a sweet, burning taste rose in his mouth, mixing with the salty rust of his bleeding tongue.


"No, although I can see why you'd say that. Cloudkill also has greenish yellow vapors." Mirabilis said. "But it has more of a pungent suffocating odor of low-hanging fumes that kill within minutes, rather than incapacitate. In contrast, these light yellow-sweet fumes we see and smell are coming from another dwarven invention." 


He exchanged a meaningful glance with the dwarf. Bethune could read the runes, but she was only a barber/chirurgeon. Smelling and tasting the chemical confirmed his suspicions, but he could only hint at its properties obliquely in the presence of the goblin, lest it gain some dwarven alchemical secrets.


"Goblin," Mirabilis continued. "The explosive you were trying to steal or sabotage has some side effects, as you've noticed, based on the reactions of your gang. The chemical can be inhaled or delivered sublingually, intravenously, or transdermally ---" He peeled the cap of the explosive stick back and rubbed the paste against the goblin's chest. It recoiled in surprise but it was too late.


"First comes the headache. Then, facial flushing follows. If it gets in your eyes, there might be some irritation or pain." Mirabilis resisted the urge to rub more on the stubby creature. "Some experience nausea and vomiting. However, the most noticeable effect is severe orthostatic hypotension with an overdose. You will experience dizziness with standing that progresses swiftly to a syncopal sensation that makes you pass out. With an overdose, you may experience shock, or even complete cardiovascular collapse."


The goblin breathed heavily and made a noise halfway between a snarl and a whisper. "Allies," it said, its face flushing an unnatural red against its normal pale grey complexion. "Rebel, warning, trap. Dwarf ally..." its eyes rolled back and fell backward against the boulder.


"Again," Bethune said. "That was odd. But we've got a bigger problem." A breeze blew across blast site, clearing some of the fog. They could clearly see a large pool of yellow liquid pooling underneath the wagon.


"Bloody flux from an Arzt!" Mirabilis cussed. "The explosive has been collecting for a while now, shifting out of its stable form into reactive gas... and apparently volatile liquid as well! It is extremely heat and pressure sensitive in its purified form. Even slapping it with a tiny wooden paddle may blast half this valley to the Smith." 


Mirabilis reached around on his tool belt and hefted twin rods that would aid his casting of Ray of Frost and Chill Touch. "Grab that tarp over there and a canteen. We need to act swiftly!"



--------


Osler stood on the train and surveyed the wreckage. Through the cabin windows below, he could see his friend and a few other medics stabilizing the sick and dying. Across the hills to the west, sickly yellow smoke plumed outward. Two of the adventuring party hustled passengers away from the blast site.

The injured group wearing bands of yellow, green, and white gauze on their sleeves slowly limped toward the caboose. Osler's eyes followed them to the east. He squinted against the glare of the rising sun where he could make out the silhouette of another train. Unlike the rounded steel steam engines built by the humans of the New World, the new arrival was hard and angular, its block-like structure glinting of chrome and ceramic.


Some of the thankful passengers waved and ran towards the incoming train.


The hairs on Osler's feet stood on end. The new train was awfully quick for first responder rescuers. The arrival also didn't puff with white or black smoke like human or dwarven engines.


Osler was missing a critical piece of the puzzle. He pondered Virchow's words. Beware the correspondence bias...  It was easy to mistake the small band of goblins for the enemy. He decided to ask the Sacred Questions: 'Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How?'

Who set the charges that derailed the train?
What is really going on here?
Where is the enemy?
When are they going to strike? Did they strike already?
Why was this all set up?
How does this all fit into a broader scheme?
Did the goblins blow up the train tracks? It did seem like the goblins were trying to save the passengers on the train and the dwarves seemed to be helping them. Goblins and dwarves never work together, so perhaps there another threat. If so, then who would be aboard this well-timed train? Why bring a train to a wreck if not for rescue?

"Get back! Get away!" he shouted to the passengers, gesticulating wildly. "Bandits! Murderers! The train is full of bandits coming to steal the cargo!" He ran atop a few more passenger cars, yelling the same warning over and over. A few of the exhausted townspeople glared at him with displeasure but they split off into the hillside.


He vaulted into one of the leading fright car which had not toppled over in the train crash. It was open on top and full of grey rocky ore. The rocks didn't look like precious ore like gold, silver, or copper. The silver-grey stones were speckled with various brilliantly neon green crystals, assorted in shape from square-cubed, rounded, to sharply flaky.


Osler scratched his head. For the bandits to go through all this effort, he expected the open car to be full of something exceptionally valuable. As an expert in redistribution of wealth, he had a quick read on the relative value of common goods. The silver-grey ore and its crystals must be important, but he couldn't guess why they would go through all this trouble to disable this rail-line, kill train passengers, and nab only seven cars of ore.


A warm circle pressed against his back. The halfling unstrapped a small magic buckler and inspected it. The metal glowed a pale blue hue. He lowered it to the green crystals and the shield heated up and glowed more intensely the closer it got to the freight car. "If you get a cookie from a goblin," he murmured to himself. His father had given the buckler to him after they traveled into goblin country a long time ago, along with a riddle:

"The Goblin King of the fey-dark offers you three cookies. They emit magical radiation that can kill you. One cookie radiates pure alpha (α) magic, another has pure beta (β) magic, and the final one has gamma (γ) magic. 
The King tells you: 'You must hold one cookie in your hand, put one cookie in your pocket, and eat one cookie.' 
What do you do?"
Osler never figured out the riddle, despite his father's best attempts in teaching him the answer. So his dad gave up. Instead, he gifted him with a small metallic shield forged by the goblins. If the buckler ever glowed, he needed to run away. The luminescent small shield shined brightly now, signaling that he was standing on top of a fell type of goblin magic.

Osler turned and ran away from the freight cars in fear. In his imagination, he felt as if the rocky ore was crackling with invisible and deadly radiation. Behind him, the goblin train engine arrived uncontested. He slid off the side of a train car and glanced over the edge behind cover with wide eyes and quivering lips.


Goblin bandits clad in lead and ceramic armor jumped out of their train in a large and loosely coordinated swarm. Repeating crossbow bolts twanged and even his valiant adventuring party members scrambled for cover. The bolts were aimed well enough to keep them away. None of the swarming goblins hunted or pursued their prey into the hills. They simply coupled their engine to the caboose and freight cars, while others to decoupled the links and pins to the passenger trains. The goblin train reversed directions, hauling its cargo back towards the east. 
The whole exchange was coldly efficient and took only a minute.

Osler closed his eyes silently and knocked his head several times against the cold iron of the train car. The humans had found a mine of irradiated magic ore and they were shipping it to the dwarves. The goblin bandits came to claim their magic cookies and shut down the supply chain in one fell swoop.


--------


Virchow jogged out towards Mirabilis. The cleric was pre-occupied with the dwarven alchemical hazard. Neither he nor the dwarf surgeon would be able to assist with the first aid of seventeen red-tagged and mortally injured passengers yet.

Virchow felt the rising sensation of panic and need to flee back into the train. He panted and wiped sweat from his burning eyes. A paralyzing sense of doom stole his breath away like an invisible imp squeezing his esophageal and cardiac muscles. He felt like stripping off all of his sweat-soaked clothes.

However, he knew if he didn't aid his companions, the train cars would probably be caught in another explosion. He could explain it to himself rationally, but it didn't quell his warring emotions. Two dwarven carts sat near the crash site. One was blown to smithereens. The other was intact emitted a thick choking fog. Two dwarves in leather coats lay unconscious on the ground in the aura of the cloying smoke. Seven goblins were dead by slashing or piercing weapons. One goblin drooped face-up over a crate of explosives, its head dangling off the edge. Five crates of explosives had been pulled at distance away from the smoking dwarven vehicle, at a radius of thirty to sixty feet away.

Virchow cupped his hands around his spectacles creating the equivalent of horse blinders. He ran with tunnel vision and focused on his two companions. Holding his hands up prevented over-stimulation from the outside world. Otherwise, the sheer volume of details shoveled into his brain would arrest him in his tracks.

Bethune was scratched and bruised, but otherwise she was uninjured. Mirabilis grimaced, revealing lips and teeth stained with blood. The old man normally strode with confidence and now was much more diminished limping forward using his wizard staff as a crutch for his twisted ankle. The dwarf tossed a large and stiff tarpaulin over the smoking wagon. It hissed and thawed in contact with the chemicals. The flames from the wagon were fully extinguished but it still exuded a hot aura of asphyxiation and dripped like a water-clock ticking away with an explosive liquid. 

Bethune ran back towards Virchow to keep her distance, but Mirabilis continued to hobble towards the wagon.

"Chill Touch..." Mirabilis whispered and touched the tarp. A sudden hissing sound accompanied a vented cloud directly at him. He staggered with a jerky motion to the side to avoid it but he stumbled on a rock. He twisted to avoid stepping into the growing puddle of nitroglycerin and fell sharply on the side of his injured leg with a sickening crack. He rolled onto his back and his chest heaved erratically.

"Ray of Frost!" Virchow shouted from a distance. A spray of icy mist shot out of a nozzle on a thick red rod. He aimed it at the base of the wagon. Hot ash swirled in the yellow air with a plume of white steam. The knockout fog receded.

"Ray of Frost! Ray of Frost! Ray of Frost! Ray of Frost! Ray of Frost!"
Virchow spammed the spell several times more, depleting the charges from his fire extinguisher. He held up his hands to signal that he was out of this spell for the day. He still had a few other cantrips including Chill Touch, but he did not dare go any closer, judging by the number of unconscious goblins, dwarves, and now a dazed cleric near the thick fog. His outstretched hands could feel the heat radiating out from the wagon, akin to a large bonfire.

The wagon creaked and groaned. Something shifted inside and thumped with a hiss and a crackle. Mirabilis winced, but there was no explosion.

"The wagon floor ... break any moment," rasped Mirabilis. His teeth were stained crimson and his right leg was bent at an unnatural angle. "Can't get away in time... need to cast last spell." He coughed up some red spittle.

Virchow frowned. It was an odd call-back to their earlier bedtime story with Osler. Last Spell... "Color Spray?" He shook his head. No, that would not help at all. He couldn't think of any spells that would extinguish a bonfire. It was almost like Mirabilis was telling him that -- 

Mirabilis gripped his channeling staff with two hands. His shoulders heaved silently.

"Presliti...Plestidilita... " His face went tight and he spat out the dangling piece of his tongue. The wagon shifted and shuddered, crumpling internally. "Prestidili..."

Virchow's eyes widened in horror. Presto was versatile, but still very simple with strict limitations. It could snuff out a fire, but only up to the size of a small campfire, no larger. Cantrips were designed to manipulate a maximum of 500 kilocalories. No currently known spells were built to handle something a million times larger! Virchow guessed that Mirabilis intended to channel the equivalent of several gigacalories of mana into the wagon-sized cindering bonfire made of dwarven alchemical fire. Even with a proper channeling device and a massive mana pool, a terrible sacrifice would have to be made.

Mirabilis locked gazes with Virchow.

"Prestidigitation." The wizard staff whumped once and shuddered. Mana began to concentrate into a gleaming point between Mirabilis' hands. 

A strong gust of wind forced the stunned Virchow to stumble forward. He saw dust and fog draining radially inward from in all directions with the wagon as the center point. Then his ears popped and he felt the air rush out of his lungsThe clinging yellow fog hit an invisible barrier and began to coalesce around the wagon and harden.

Mirabilis' staff quivered and cracks began to form under the strain, glowing with jagged blue Cherenkov energy. The cleric hissed. Beads of sweat and blood dripped down his face. The walls of wagon folded inward under the blast of air. It  shuddered and collapsed onto the pool of nitroglycerin.

A silent flash of light expanded outward and Virchow braced himself for impact. 

--------

Osler saw the choking yellow fog suddenly recede from the hills as if it were drawn inward by a giant set of bellows. It coiled like a snake that was turning inward for a nap.

Mirabilis lay on his side, two hands clutching broken sections of a staff humming with radiant, brilliant-blue energy. Ripples of fire element danced and snarled from the exploding wagon, held at bay by the powerful wizard-cleric. Splintered sections of the wagon ballooned outward from the glowing fireball, striking an invisible barrier. 

The slow-moving explosion popped like a delicate soap bubble, Mirabilis sweeping his hands aside, banishing the fire demons away.

The cleric collapsed to the ground. Only now, Osler noticed the old man's terrible injuries. Mirabilis' white coat had burned away on his arms and chest but that wasn't the worst of it. The boundary between flesh and clothes was indistinguishable -- his arms and chest wall were covered with blackened crispy bubbles. His cupric holy symbol melted onto his skin. His hands had burned all the way down to the bone. Pieces of glowing green metallic rod were bonded to his grip. A cooked smell of fat and barbecue hung in the air.

Mirabilis gasped, his chest spasming for air. Virchow ran forward with a red roll of gauze Blood-colored dye leaked out between his fingers from his tight grip.

"Ouch!" Osler yelped. "No, hold hold hold!" He shouted in desperation. "Get back!" He brandished his tiny goblin shield which glowed brighter and brighter and brighter with a brilliant blue with every step he took towards the gnome and dying human.

"The blue glow means that goblins are near, oh wait --" Osler corrected himself. "I mean -- it means that there's deadly magic in the area! We can't get too close or we are going to get cooked too!"

The cleric's once white and pristine coat flapped in the breeze like a flag of tattered black.

Virchow gnashed his teeth. "I dare not cast any stabilizing spells from such a distance to even give the dying man a bit of comfort." He shook his head sadly. "Bit by bit, we trade magic for life. We've lost one cleric. And two magical items."

Osler made a gesture of the Question Mark, his right hand following a trail of tears from the side of his face down onto his chest.

"But... but we've saved the lives of hundreds of people!" Osler choked back a sob. He felt that he was just getting to know the kindly old man.

"Forty-eight people," Virchow corrected in a flat voice. "And seventeen are still in critical condition, requiring our immediate care."

Osler felt a dam break open inside of him and he dropped to his knees with tears falling like rivers. "We must.... we need to..."

"We will. We will do what we must," whispered Virchow. He placed a hand gently on his friend's shoulder because he saw others make that gesture of comfort in the past. "We will try to set things right, in honor of the Last Spell of Mirabilis."