“If this infernal heat doesn’t kill me,” Balthazar growled, “I’m sure the desert would love to fill my lungs with sand.”
“Why would the Equalizer be out here?”
“Think about it.” Balthazar tried not to snap at his apprentice. Gaspar was a good kid, and smart for his age, but he had an annoying tendency of not thinking things through. “If you wanted to hide something from the world, how smart is it to build a great structure out where everybody can see it?”
“But way out here? Wouldn’t you lose track of where you left it?”
“Not if you’re a Gods-damned Sage. Now enough with the belly-aching and give me the Astrolabe of Epsilon before I choke on the damn dune that’s come to play with us.”
Gaspar fumbled in his packs and produced the device. Balthazar squinted against the swirling sand, and tugged the dials into their appropriate positions. It was much like the other astrolabes in the world, but the one created by Epsilon, a sage so ancient even his name was lost, charted not the paths of the Sun and stars, but the lines of power that lay beneath the surface of the earth, invisible to the naked eye. He kept his eyes on it as he walked, stopping suddenly, turning, then moving on.
“The storm is getting worse!” Gaspar had to shout to be heard above the wind. “If we don’t find it soon…!”
“Please keep stating the obvious,” Balthazar replied, “because that certainly isn’t getting old.”
The Astrolabe of Epsilon rattled in his hands. No one was entirely sure how it knew, but it did. Balthazar pointed at the featureless sand at his feet.
“Here! We dig!”
Gaspar pulled the shovels out, and handed one to his master. It was hard to get started with the wind, but working together they managed to carve out a small hole in the dune. Gaspar’s shovel struck something about a foot under the surface, and when he tried to lift his shovel, it caught hold and there was a mechanical sound.
“Idiot boy! Back away before…!”
With a whirring, clunking sound, the trapdoor under the pair gave way, and they fell through the sand into the chamber beneath. The trapdoor shut almost immediately, and while the drop was short, it left both men half-buried in a small pile of sand.
“Augh! I told you Esvartus set up his laboratory this way! You should have been more careful!”
“I’m sorry, Master, but…”
Balthazar got to his feet and dusted off his robes. “‘But’ nothing. You need to pay more attention, Gaspar, and keep your mind more ordered. I know you’re young, yet, and visions of moaning women yeilding to your manly charms dance behind your eyes, but focus on where you are and what you’re doing, or you’re going to get yourself killed. Or worse, me!”
“Of course, Master. It won’t happen again.”
“By all the Gods’ knickers, it won’t. Now, let’s have some light.”
He extended his hand and spoke the right words. Elemental flame came to life in the air between his palm and fingers. He opened his hand more to give it more room to breathe. It illuminated the antechamber, showing pictograms and carvings on every surface, even the bottom of the trapdoor that had just admitted them into its bowels.
“Now. To find the Equalizer. Epsilon’s Astrolabe won’t work underground, so we need to go by Esvartus’ notes. What did you piece together?”
Gaspar pulled several half-ruined bits of parchment out of his pocket. “Only that to approach the Equalizer is to court the most dangerous of minds.”
“Pshaw. Esvartus wasn’t so dangerous that he wouldn’t let a pretty girl turn his head, either. You’d have liked him, Gaspar.”
“Why is that?”
“He died fucking.”
Balthazar picked his way through the corridor leading away from the antechamber, stepping over the skeletons laying over the various traps they’d triggered. Only a couple got past the first few feet of blades and spikes. The rest of the traps were cleverly concealed, at least from lesser minds. Balthazar made it a point to not tell Gaspar where they were. If the child was going to make it as a sage of his own, he’d have to deal with things far deadlier than static, ancient traps.
Once he reached the only other chamber in Esvartus’ hideaway, he turned to see Gaspar stepping gingerly over the last acid pit. Balthazar tried not to smile.
“There may be hope for you yet, shitbrain.”
“My hope is that you’ll stop calling me that.” Gaspar nodded towards the center of the room. “Is that it?”
Balthazar approached the dias, his unlit hand reaching towards the pedistal. “Yes. I believe it is.”
Balthazar stopped, whipping around towards Gaspar. “What is it now?”
“On the off chance that intruders were able to pass all of these traps, do you think he would leave everything else unprotected?”
Balthazar blinked. “Come on, Gaspar, he wasn’t that paranoid.”
“Wouldn’t you be?” Gaspar stepped up to stand beside his master, produced a long thin wand of yew, and touched the pedistal. A sigil appeared in the stone.
“A summoning glyph. Probably some form of bound devil.”
Balthazar watched agape as Gaspar twirled his wand in an anticlockwise motion, intoning the dispersal spell Balthazar had taught him the week before. The sigil disappeared with a soft sigh.
“Hmm. Perhaps a succubus. A good way to appear to offer an explorer a reward before destroying them.” Gaspar turned to Balthazar. “What?”
“Gaspar, I take back most of the bad things I’ve said about you.”
Balthazar did smile, now, as he removed the top of the pedistal and reached inside. The Equalizer was just past the stone lip. He pulled it out, and showed it to his apprentice.
“This is what the princes all fear?”
“What could men of power possibly fear from a book?”
Balthazar’s smile broadened.
“That proves, shitbrain, that you still have much to learn.”