James looked over to Thomas, who nodded in reply.
“Go on.” James said, skeptical, “We’re listening.”
Mentat turned his gaze to Thomas, still holding the talisman against him.
“Boy, what do you know of magic?” Mentat said.
“It is a discipline, suitable to any man with the mind for study and the will for practice.” Thomas said, “The Masters assess the boys early and select them as students, training them for a time equal to the warriors and scouts, then initiating them into their brotherhood.”
Mentat smiled. “That is exactly the answer that I expected.”
“Am I wrong?”
“Not in respect to what you learned. The magic that the Eight Masters practice is as you say, because I know first-hand that what you said is true. What you are wrong about is that not all students become students because they have the intellectual muscle for it.”
Donaldson glared at Mentat, half-incensed and half-imploring, to shut up- and Mentat, seeing it, smirked widely.
“James, mind Donaldson there, and see his reaction. That should guide you in deciding the veracity of what I speak.” Mentat said, briefing looking over at James, "Thomas, some of those selected as students are not selected because they have the qualities that the Masters desire, but because of another quality—one that cannot be taught, but instead is inherent in one’s being—that opens another form of magic to those that possess this quality.”
“What trait is this?”
Mentat stared at Thomas. Without speaking, Thomas and James heard his voice say “This trait, boy, is what they seek but never reveal to the people at large. The power of the awakened mind is what they seek, and they seek it because it cannot be taught!”
Donaldson’s face turned white, all color flushed from it. James took note of this, and Mentat—now present in James’s mind—did also.
“See now, James? Donaldson here knows. You see, he was there when the event that made me what I am now occurred. Donaldson, show the boys your marks.”
Unwilling, yet compelled, Donaldson rolled up the sleeve of his tunic and revealed the mark of the White Tower on his shoulder.
“Once, Donaldson was part of the Company of the White Tower. Years ago, before you two were so much as a thought in your fathers’ eyes, the Archmage and the Eight Masters did a great working of magic. Encouraged by David, the nine of them attempted a ritual from a long-lost grimoire, with the Archmage as both focus and recipient of the ritual’s magic. It worked, and the Archmage transcended mortal flesh.”
Both Thomas and James recoiled at the thought, but again Mentat reacted faster than they did.
“The Archmage—and, soon thereafter, the Eight Masters—transformed into entities that, as I heard David say, ‘…was the Word made Flesh.’ Their command of knowledge and language prepared them for transcending into a state of being wherein that body of lore is now literally their body. Once they acclimated to their new forms, the nine of them began making more such beings out of their most favored students.”
“I recall now that the Archmage still spoke well of you, when speaking of former students.” James said.
“Though puzzling, and often the source of strange happenings.” Thomas said, adding details, “The Archmage said that he still cannot deduce what induced you to turn against the People.”
Mentat smirked, but his mouth remained silent; instead, he spoke again mind-to-mind, saying “I was one of them, a favorite of the Archmage, a student from before the Azure Flames- but only just before. I went to him to seek help with my own burgeoning talents, unaware of what they were at the time, and I did as bidden in return for his tutelage.”
“Then what happened break?” Thomas said, “What caused you to leave?”
“I attained the mastery of knowledge and strength of will desired, despite all that went wrong, and proved my worth to the Masters. Other students valued my insights into the hearts and minds of others, as it came easy to me; this is why the Archmage kept me close, urging me to focus on my abilities as a Seer. When they deemed me ready, they invited me to a second—and greater—initiation rite; they intended to transform me as they did themselves.”
James, perceiving the connection, leapt to it: “It went wrong, did it?”
“Perceptive! Good, James. That is correct.” Mentat thought, “When the ritual reached its climax, the expected phenomenon did not occur; there should have been a cacophony of voices, gradually harmonizing into a single chorus, signifying that the transformation finished its process. Instead, what happened was that I discorporated entirely for a moment as a flood of thoughts and memories deluged the ritual chamber; gradually a pool of ectoplasm formed in the center of the ritual circle, and as it reshaped into my new form the massive mental flood receded. Once I returned to my senses, I found that I was not human anymore either- but not as they were.”
“You fled because they reacted badly?” Thomas said.
“The Masters of Necromancy and the Elements immediately attempted to kill me, casting terrible spells of death and destruction at me. I reflexively warding off the power of their spells, but it drained me greatly, and seeing the confusion erupt at the explosions about us I took flight and did not stop fleeing until I collapsed.”
Donaldson sank his head, unable to speak and now unable to stop Mentat from revealing the truth.
“Donaldson got the order to track me down. He and others from the Company of the Tower followed my path of escape, with some of the other students of the Masters aiding them. I knew that they would find me in time, so I decided to hide long enough to figure what powers I now had at my command. I retained all of my knowledge of magic, and I learned soon that I could still use it, but the ritual of transcendence interacted with my innate mental talents to create this new form. In this new form, my innate talents magnified in potency and variety.”
That last bit caught the attention of Thomas and James. At that moment, the bonds holding Mentat slipped and the talisman before him stopped glowing altogether.
“My time with the Archmage left me with an appreciation for foreknowledge, boys. I knew that you travelled this way, and I know why you journey so far. I am here not to stop you, but to aide you, because your elders did not tell you all that you need to know.”
To their credit, neither James nor Thomas lost their cool.
“That tangent aside, let me finish this tale.” Mentat said, without speaking, as he rose to his feat, “I foresaw their approach. I divided the party into smaller units using diversions and playing the stronger wills against one another. I harmed few, and slew none, knowing full well that only Donaldson knew the truth.”
Mentat turned his gaze to Donaldson.
“Donaldson I did harm, and I harmed him by humiliating him in single combat before the rest of his then-exhausted hunting party as a display of power and a declaration of autonomy. As a result of that, the Masters expelled him from the Tower and from the center of society, exiling him into the countryside as commander of this or that garrison under the guise of being a trouble-shooter.”
James and Thomas now looked at Donaldson, seeing through his mask of veteran confidence to behold the broken man beneath it.
“Now, soon after we are done here, I shall ensure that word of this encounter reaches the necessary ears; you two shall be safe, for now, as I suspect the Archmage’s designs for you are not meant to keep you ignorant forever, but Donaldson here shall not be seen again- he’s going to disappear to wherever those that displease the Masters go.”
James stood up, walked over to Donaldson, picked up the older man’s chin and dried the tears now running down his cheeks.
“I blame you not.” James said, “You did your duty. It is clear to me that Mentat could have killed you, but chose mercy instead of vengeance.”
“Are you certain that we’ve been told the truth, James?” Thomas said.
James nodded. “As Mentat said, Donaldson’s reactions revealed the truth, and this is the face of a deeply ashamed man horrified by the revelation of a terrible secret. What fault lies here is beyond our power to rectify, for now, Thomas.”
“James,” Mentat said, without saying, “Donaldson once was much like your man Cavil, albeit more charming, and sought the Masters’ favor in the pursuit of his own ambitions. If he is to be forgiven, let it be for his own sins and not those of others.”
“That’s who he was, Mentat, not who he is now. You’ve seen him up close for some time, have you not? Being exiled for so long, yet succeeding in his positions, means that he’s changed somehow.”
Mentat paused, taken aback, and then smiled widely.
“Now I see the Archmage’s intention.” Mentat said, without saying, “I was right to decide on aiding you. You’re the man he spent over a century waiting for, James.”