Summer Update

Just wanted to take the time to let people know what’s generally going on, and also why the next installment of Tomorrow Man has yet to be posted.

Over the past year I’ve found less and less time for writing in my everyday life, and whilst I used to be able to churn out both a few pages of Tomorrow Man and work on other projects every month, I’ve recently had trouble even filling the quota for my monthly blog story. Sufficed to say the first draft of Colossus Part II is “nearly done” and has been so since about August last year.

So I have decided, since part 24 of Tomorrow Man is up and brings the year’s “section” of the story to a close that I’ll be taking a few months’ break from posting it so that I can focus on other projects. I fully intend to keep writing the story, though I need to work out the direction a bit as it seems to be meandering somewhat.

In the meantime I’ll be pushing to get Colossus: From the Shadows to a finished first draft so I can send it out to a few alpha readers for feedback.

I’ll also try to get Tomorrow Man compiled into an eBook format over the next few weeks.

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Tomorrow Man – Part XXIV

It was a kind of familiar place. The chilling dark, the hard unfeeling walls, the occasional rattle of chains. Dungeons didn’t really change from one end of the kingdom to another, and Justin had dealt with enough of the scum that found their way inside that the world of the imprisoned was not one that was alien to him. Still, he had never experienced it from the other side of the bars.

He had fought them. When he saw Lady Jalice being led to the same place he had struggled to free himself, to free her, however short-sighted such a goal was. They had beaten him bloody for the attempt, and after the two had been separated he had felt the fight leave him. He didn’t resist much when they peeled his armour from him and tossed it aside.

The dungeons beneath Castle Artella were worthy of notoriety throughout the kingdom, if word had ever spread that far. They were extensive and deep, carved out of the coastal rock so far from the daylight that it was another world. Whilst other dungeons could match for size, they employed various tricks of magic to better ensnare their residents. These confined halls relied instead on the simple yet indomitable fact of their construction. Rothstone from outer wall to central stair, they had been built countless centuries ago to hold magi, and they were nigh inescapable.

The master jailer, Knolt Forester, was a man seemingly bred for the role. Broad and imposing, despite his lack of stature, with a bald oily head and a face just far enough from handsome to inhabit both the worlds of the castle above and the dungeons below. His character was of a similar vein, civil when necessary, cruel when not. Justin had never been able to see eye to eye with a man like him. The smile on the man’s face when Justin was brought before him, stripped and in chains, decried as a traitor to the realm. The gleam in his eye, as if a child with a new toy. Those would remain with Justin for a long time.

Forester and his underlings had dropped him unceremoniously into a pit cell, one of doubtless hundreds that lined the lower levels of his domain. A circular hole in the ground, a few feet across, not enough to lie of even sit comfortably. A shallow channel of flowing water at his feet ran from a hole in one side of the cell to the other, at enough of a gradient to keep the flow quick. Above his head a heavy iron grate had been lowered over him, leaving enough room for another to stand atop his shoulders and perhaps a third. The walls, smooth and unscathed by the centuries, gave little purchase to climb out even if one could lift the grate.

He leant against the wall of the pit for a good while, though he couldn’t guess how long. He had never known confinement, but had seen how it affected others. With nothing but the dim reflected fire-light somewhere above there was no way to know the passing of the days, and he suspected what felt to him like an eternity was mere hours. Some time ago someone, stepping slowly over the grating, dropped a piece of stale fish-bread to him. He hadn’t felt hungry but ate it anyway.

He had thought to call out to the darkness, to see if any would hear him, to ask about Lady Jalice, but he couldn’t find his voice, either that or his will had forsaken him. His thoughts, erratic as they were, kept drifting back to her. He did not know what had befallen her. If she had been forced into a cell like his own, if she was being treated better… or worse.

His heart felt as if it would tear itself in two. He had failed her. In the moment of her greatest need he couldn’t do what he needed to protect her. But what had been necessary? To kill a Lord of the Realm? It was unthinkable, against every oath, every tenet of what it was to be a knight. Did he truly wish the moment had gone differently? That he had cast aside his very soul to drive that blade through Miteus’ heart?

The answer, his very thoughts tormented him, his only companion in the dark.

***

The Mole sat, the cloth beneath him wet with morning dew. They had kept moving fast as they could through the night, settling in a hidden alcove of trees to steal a few hours’ rest. He had elected to remain on guard, Tallus had looked ready to collapse. He had not expected an intrusion, hidden as they were, their pursuers forced to find another way across the river that would likely delay them by a day. His power had not yet fully returned to him, but he had regained enough to work with. He had spent the last two hours with his eyes closed, both sensing the ground around himself for intruders and focusing on one of the countless meditations his master had taught him all those years ago. Many had been little more than mental exercises he had found little use for and had since forgotten. A few had their uses, and he recalled these well enough, but this was one he had never truly understood in the first place. He could recall his master’s frustrations as he tried, unsuccessfully, to lead him through the mental exercise.

Focus on the Veil within you.

His master’s words echoed from some distant place in his mind.

“It is a light that fills your soul. Perceive it within your mind.” Wise Rellard’s words rolled across the darkened world like the gentle waves of a calm sea lapped the shore. It was just one of the countless mornings of meditation the two had shared. It had been hours since he had opened his eyes, slowly and steadily guiding his turbulent mind into a calmer state. His master could achieve in minutes the serenity it took lesser men a lifetime to obtain, and it had always envied him, much as he refused to admit it.

“Can you see it, Temarul?”

A soft yellow glow teased the inside of his eyelids, not real in a physical sense, it existed only in the form of what sight became within the mind. Veilic magic’s natural colour, the warm embrace of a rising sun.

“I can, Master.” He replied, careful not to let the words upset his mind’s eye.

“Good. See how it shines, gentle and steady?”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“What?”

“That is not the true nature of it. You are visualising.”

Temarul cursed inwardly. The mind was so ill-suited to true inner perception, instead spinning thoughts to fill the absence, creating lies to crowd out the silence of the Void. Maintaining the Void of the mind for more than a fleeting moment was beyond nearly all men, at least amongst those who lacked the power of the Psyche to quell the subconscious. Expectation quickly became false reality, painted over the fainter hues of truth. These mental hurdles exposed the lie, or just as often precipitated its creation.

The spark of frustration tore through the Void like a bolt of lightning, leaving a string of ripples in its wake. Thoughts took root and blossomed before he could hope to regain the track of his meditation, growing like a forest quickly beyond his control. It led to more frustration, which in turn bubbled through his consciousness until all that remained was the waking chaos. An entire morning’s meditation unravelled in moments.

He opened his eyes and let the world flood back into his mind. He glared at his master as he sat across from him, legs crossed and eyes closed as he drifted a few inches above the ground. The man had been all too easy to envy, he recalled. Strong in both body and mind, he had already earned the title of Terramaster by the time the Mole had become his eager and naïve apprentice. He could slip between ground-rending acts of magic and total serenity with such apparent ease. For so long all the Mole could do was be in awe of him, but that had been a lifetime ago.

“Calm yourself, Temarul.” Rellard remained motionless, his expression solid as stone. “You require more practise, more time.”

“I’ve wasted enough time on this already.”

“Veilosis is far from a waste of time, Temarul.” Rellard opened his eyes and regarded his student. “Understanding the true nature of the Veil is key to unlocking your full potential.”

That understanding had ultimately eluded him. Even after so many years he felt no nearer to the answer. That failure had finally caught up with him, it seemed. He could sense the echoes of his master’s mind bleeding through the link they had once shared. They came more frequently as the man searched for him, and now grew stronger with each passing hour. Wise Rellard was closing, it was a matter of time, and he didn’t have much of it. The Mole opened his eyes and got to his feet. He had no patience for futility.

***

The distant clattering of timber and iron, the calls and answers of men and women roused Micharus from his sleep. The once dark canvas above him now held the dim illumination of twilight. The crystal lantern that hung over the bed that had bathed the place with a bright yet soft light now reduced to a mere glow. He sat up in the bed. He was surrounded by all manner of things, wooden cabinets and chests, boxes and other wooden things of all shapes and sizes. Aside from a space large enough to permit entry from the larger central space beyond it was rather cluttered, with little thought given to where things ought to be. His attention was drawn to the chest placed squarely at the foot of its bed, as if it belonged to whoever slept there. He crawled down the length of the bed towards it. It was a beautiful thing, large enough to hide in with ease. Its surface was all dark musty wood and gleaming unblemished silvery metal. The lid was adorned with swirling interlocking spirals, drawing the eye to the clasp and locking mechanism that seemed at once simple and indecipherable. The front, back and sides were covered top to bottom in drawers, their little handles folded flat against the face. The drawers varied in size, some narrow and shallow, others wide and deep, and at the edges they overlapped, as though their contents ought occupy the same space. As he touched his finger to the metal frame he felt it. The same feeling that he always felt within himself, his fingers tingled with the crackling sensation that seemed to reside within the chest.

Now that he thought about it, he could feel that same power all around him. It made the hairs on his skin stand on end.

The dull ring of iron on iron rang out from the centre of the caravan’s interior. It caught his attention, much closer than the seemingly distant commotion outside. He leapt to his feet and clambered across furniture until his feet finally found the cool wooden floor. As he dashed into the central circular chamber he skidded to a halt.

At the heart of the caravan sat a raised stone circle, a solid floor upon which, at its centre, sat a roaring fire. Above the flames an iron frame supported a blackened pot, its contents being stirred by the metal man.

It made Micharus think of armour, the iron and steel plate worn by knights at tournaments. It shone more brightly than any he’d seen, but there was something else. Knights wore armour, no matter how fine there were always those gaps through which you could see the man beneath. This thing seemed to be armour, with nothing and nobody below its metal skin. It turned its head and stared at him with those hollows where its eyes should have been. Micharus couldn’t shift an unsettling feeling within himself. It was strange, unknown, but more than that it was out of place somehow.

It turned its head back and continued stirring with no regard for the world around it.

Micharus crept around the edge of the circular chamber until he came to a semi-circular aperture covered by a thick white sheet. It was tied at the floor, and from the other side the fresh cool air, light and sound of a new day bled into this otherwise otherworldly place.

He loosened one of the ties and slipped beneath the curtain, emerging at the front of the wooden caravan. The morning was cold, the sun still low in the sky and obscured by bands of cloud. Around him men and women were packing away their tents and scattering the ashes of their fires. Horses were being harnessed and led to the heads of their wagons. A little way from them the convoy was still forming on the road, armoured men rode up and down its length.

Two voices caught his ear, one that of his new master, the other unknown to him but bearing a soft deep tone.

“O’ course you’d be free to travel with us, even if you decline. The Banthos Blades offer protection enough whilst we ride through the Holy lands, and I’ve a couple of magi and my own guards. Be just that having a wizard with us will make any bandits think twice before trying anything.”

The man speaking was large, not in height or strength, but in the way a man who did not struggle to put food on his plate was large. His clothing existed somewhere between the simple fare of a peasant and the finery of the lords and ladies, the cloth of a man of means if not wealth. His face wore age and experience well, thick brown hair with only a hint of grey tied behind his head in a short pony tail and a bushy moustache. A pair of silver rings on one hand did more to betray his wealth than any other aspect of his appearance.

“I can’t afford a Wizard’s coin, mind you.” He continued. “Though I can promise you a welcome place by our fire and a bowl of hot broth each night, if you were willing.”

His master, the old man they called Athaleon, let a cloud of smoke disperse slowly from his lungs.

“I intend to make no secret of my presence, if that is all you desire. Though my concerns for the moment lie solely with my new ward and apprentice. If anything were to happen that should… endanger him… I would be compelled to act. This much will be true whether I would accept your coin or not.”

The man nodded his understanding. “Of course, wouldn’t feel right should such a thing come to pass and you weren’t fairly compensated for your trouble.”

“Then I believe we have an understanding.”

“Good. That him, then?” The man nodded towards Micharus. He ducked back behind the corner of the caravan. The man let out a hearty laugh. “Timid thing, isn’t he?”

Athaleon beckoned and he slowly emerged. “His name’s Emic, a guard’s boy from the city.”

“One of your kind then?”

“He is.”

The man knelt down before Micharus. “Got a couple lads of my own, not much older than you, son.” He ruffled Micharus’ hair as he turned back to his master.

“Not uncommon to see mageblood kids on this road. I’ve sheltered a few in my caravan over the years, families mainly, trying to get to a more enlightened part of the kingdom.”

“I hope they made it.”

“Most do. Course, can’t say anything about what becomes of them when they get where they’re going.”

“One can hope.”

“Aye. Anyway, best be about my business. We need to get rolling soon if we’re going to make Slent by nightfall.” He got to his feet and turned towards the main body of the convoy. “You need anything, feel free to ask. Good day, Wise one.”

He strode away, bellowing commands to his underlings. Athaleon turned towards Micharus and drew a long breath through his pipe.

“So, young Emic.” A thick glob of smoke drifting slowly from his lips.

“Is that my name now?”

“It can be. A man can wear so many names; a noble son, a guard’s boy, a name is like a cloak to hide yourself in the world.”

“How many names do you have?”

“I lost count long ago.”

“What’s your real name?”

Athaleon smiled. “Tell me, Emic, about your magic.”

Micharus scratched his head. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“You have heard about magic in stories, no?”

Countless. A story without magic was hardly worth telling, his mother had always said. His father had always cast a frown, but the world was filled with tales of conjurers and witches, wise wizards, fearsome warlocks and no shortage of cunning, daring heroes riding into battle with a magic sword in their hand. He nodded.

“And, perhaps, the magic in those stories is all incantation, ancient words spoken in the right order to bring forth some deep power from the world?”

That sounded right. Spells were always words from some unknown language, spoken or sung or chanted at the right time to bring fire or ice, to call the skies or turn the earth when the heroes needed it most.

“Real magic is not like those stories.” The old wizard continued. “True magic lies deep within each of us, it does not belong to the world, it is ours alone. It is a part of you, and to understand it, to wield it and shape it, you must understand yourself. A man cannot be taught to cast a spell any more than he can be taught to sing his own song.”

“So magic is like singing?”

“Yes, and no. You can teach a man to sing, show him tone and rhythm, tell him of melody and harmony. Similarly you can be taught to bend and shape magic, but the true essence is something only you can discover yourself. First you must understand the source within you, the part of yourself where your magic lives.”

He extended a wrinkled bony hand, which began to glow softly with bright green light. Micharus could feel the slight crackle of magic in the air.

“You have used magic before, so perhaps you already know. Think back to when you have used your power, do you remember how you felt, what you thought about to bring it forth?”

Micharus thought for a few moments. It didn’t make much sense, really. You didn’t really need to think or feel anything, the magic just happened on its own. He shook his head.

“Then that is the first thing you will learn.” He brought his hands out in front of him. “Watch closely.”

He clasped his hands together, his thumbs crossed across each other against the forefingers which met at a peak. The rest of the fingers interlocked, it appeared as if he were pointing to the sky.

“Some magic can be crafted with the hands, as a potter might craft his clay.”

His hands slowly unclasped and he brought them together again, like before except this time the little fingers formed a peak to match the forefingers, and the thumbs were tucked between the palms.

“Remember these closely, the sequence must be repeated exactly.” He formed the first sign again, held it for a few seconds, then released his hands and clapped them together.

“When you complete the chain, release your power, let it flow through your mind. You will know what to do when it happens.”

He stood. “Your first task is to practice those four signs until you can perform the magic. Until then, let us have some breakfast. We won’t want to be left behind, will we?”

***

Harold stood in the cold morning air, unable to believe his eyes. It was exactly as he remembered it, down to the finest detail. The past hours had swept him up like a great river carrying a helpless infant. By the time a servant had found him locked in his cupboard the castle was abuzz with the news. His captor dragged in chains down to the dungeons. The Lady Jalice, Lord Wetherhall’s own wife, thrown down there with him. He had spent his time in the heart of his old home. The Farseer had not deigned to show him the path out through the guards, and he found escape all but impossible without her guidance. It was almost as if she wanted him to stay.

Some futures cannot be prevented.

He had ignored the words, and now wondered if, in his haste to undo the things he had seen, he had stumbled into her lesson. When the deep metallic howl of the judgement bell rang out through the castle he had been inexorably drawn to the Red Court, where now he stood.

Lord Miteus, black cloak hanging from his shoulders.

Jak Long, tall as life and hooded with shadow.

Midnight’s Kiss, like steel stained by a starless night.

Lady Jalice, stripped of status and fine clothing, reduced to rags and kneeling to accept her fate.

This was no vision. It was real, happening around him now. And he felt just a powerless as he did when the Farseer had offered him a glimpse of this moment.

Lady Jalice looked at him.

A nod.

The arc of blurred black, the practised swing of a master of the craft of death.

There was no smoke this time. Only blood and the heart-shattering dull thud of her severed head as it rolled over the edge and fell to the city below.

Tomorrow Man – Part XXIII

Alexia awoke to the warmth of the afternoon sun as it danced across her face. She opened her eyes and saw raw daylight filtered through a thick web of branches and leaves. She tried to sit but whatever she lay on moved as she tried to rise. She tried again and sat unsteadily as the net of vines beneath her stretched and swung. She sat near the centre of what she could only describe as a giant nest. A squashed oval shell of intertwining branches that appeared at once both natural and created. Natural as each branch found its base in a nearby tree, but split and twisted so much that, in addition to the lack of leaves, they were certainly not a natural growth. The gaps in the wooden web were small but numerous, most she would struggle to fit a hand through, but she could see out of the nest enough to know it was suspended high above the forest floor. The height made her feel nauseous and pricked a deep instinctive fear within her, but the entire construction appeared solid enough, thickly supported as it was between three towering trees. Still, she didn’t want to move from where she sat.

She could hear birdsong from somewhere beyond the walls of her cage. A pair of insects flew into the nest and danced around each other, their iridescent wings slicing the light into flashes of colour. It felt peaceful, almost serene, compared to what she had experienced below. The memory flooded back to her, the panic, the running, the monster and the pain.

She couldn’t feel the pain.

She turned her attention to herself. Her skin that ought have been covered in scrapes and scratches was undamaged. The injury to her foot had similarly vanished. She was filthy, though. Her feet and hands were blackened with dirt, and she still wore her night dress, though it was speckled with blood and so tattered and torn she may as well have been naked. The least her kidnappers could do was let her bring some clothing befitting a lady. She ran her fingers across the stone bracelets she still wore, remembering the man who had forged them, the smell of him. She thought further back, to her home, her mother and father. She shuddered to think that, in only a few days, it had all been taken from her and seemed so far away.

Part of her wanted to weep. Another part of her cursed the thought.

You should be dead. And you want to sit and cry because you miss your parents?

That part of her felt stupid, even ashamed. She should be dead, she was small and weak and, for some reason, that fact had never bothered her before.

The sound of tearing wood shook her from her thoughts. She glanced across as powerful fingers gripped and tore a section of the woven wall away. It dropped towards the forest floor below as the imposing figure swung himself through the gap. She recognised the elf immediately as the one who had saved her. He stood for a moment, his burning amber eyes regarding her. She felt very aware of herself and what she must look like to him. Indeed, his gaze seemed focused on her body more than anything else. She was barely clothed, and that fact flourished in her mind and she instinctively tried to cover herself with her arms.

She couldn’t help looking at him though. Even with the encapsulating gaze of his almost glowing eyes she found herself glancing at his manhood on full display. She’d never seen a naked man before, let alone an elf. She supposed she wouldn’t expect to until her wedding night, she honestly hadn’t given it much thought.

He removed a woven vine net he had slung over his shoulder and tore it open. He reached inside and grabbed one of a dozen large purple fruit. He tossed one to her and she caught it without thinking. He held up another.

“Yagul!” He said as he pointed at the fruit.

She looked at him, then at the fruit, and back to him again. He shrugged his shoulders and made an overtly demonstrative movement, taking a large bite out of his fruit and chewing on it.

She put her fruit to her lips. It smelled strange, yet inviting. She bit into soft flesh, and as her teeth crushed down on it juice gushed and dribbled down her chin. It tasted sour at first, she pulled the fruit away and almost spat it out as her face knotted. The sourness faded after a few seconds and she swallowed. She looked across at the elf again and…

Was he laughing?

She struggled against her own laughter as it rose out of her.

I suppose I must look ridiculous.

A consuming hunger came over her, kindled by the first taste of food in what felt to her like days. Her self-consciousness dropped away as she tore chunks of flesh from the fruit. The elf sat across from her and said something, from a couple of the words she guessed it was Elvish.

“I’m sorry.” She replied with barely more than a whisper. “I don’t understand.”

A warm smile flashed across his face, before his brow dropped a fraction as he focused. He touched his pointed ear with on finger.

“No… elf?” He asked.

She puzzled for a moment over what he meant.

“No, I’m not an elf.” She guessed. “I’m human, from Artella.”

A blank expression.

“Asamor?”

Recognition.

“Asamor!” He replied. “Man Feld!”

What?

“You home…” He made a sweeping gesture with his hand. “Out forest.”

“Yes!” She said after a moment of deciphering. She made to point towards Artella, forgetting she had no idea which way it was.

“You far home. Yes?”

“Yes.” She agreed. How far was she from home? She couldn’t begin to guess.

“You… others. Me…” He pointed at his eyes.

She wasn’t sure what he was trying to say. He responded to her blank expression by shrugging his shoulders. He placed his hand on his chest.

“Oaikyn.”

He gestured to her and waited for a few seconds. He placed his hand back on his chest.

“Oaikyn.”

Oh, that’s his name.

When he gestured towards her again she placed her hand on her chest.

“Alexia.”

Oaikyn nodded and smiled. “Alexia.” He repeated slowly. He leapt to his feet and spun slowly, extending his hands as if to embrace the world. “This… home.”

She glanced around at the nest, the hole he had torn had gone, knitted back together by fresh growth.

“This is your home?”

He dipped his head forward and flicked it back with a slight twist to the side. His beaming smile suggested it meant yes. He reached into his net and tossed her another fruit. She bit into it eagerly as he sat once more, and she glanced up as the afternoon sun danced through the tree tops.

***

Ever faithful, the old horse placed each hoof on the next patch of road in turn and, slowly, pulled the caravan along behind. Athaleon sat behind it, drawing warm smoke from his long pipe. Ahead of them the street ran straight as an arrow to Artella’s north gate, a tunnel painstakingly carved through the once impassable block of rothstone to permit passage to the Godsroad beyond.

Micharus had clambered up to the driver’s bench from within the caravan and sat next to him. The boy’s eyes darted from building to building, finding new facets of discovery with every step of their gradually changing perspective.

It was to be expected, Athaleon supposed. The boy had grown up within these walls, the city a backdrop to his entire life. He would, of course, notice every difference. Passers by stopped to look at the man who was not a wizard, and the boy who accompanied him, but their gaze moved on after moments without a breath of interest.

They did not recognise the once heir to their city. Most of them hadn’t been born the day he vanished. It was such a simple trick that Athaleon always found himself amused by the fact common-blood men were so easily duped by it. It only served to remind him how great the distance was between men and magi, that he could manage the most flawless escape without leaving the city walls.

They had searched for him, there was no doubt. Men had scoured the city, day and night, for how long exactly he could only guess. Their desperation spread throughout the realm, news of it further through the entire kingdom. But history rolled on, as it inevitably did. Men returned with empty hands and empty hearts, a realm was wounded and healed, those who turned the city over grew old and died, and their children grew up with stories of Micharus Wetherhall, the heir to the realm, who simply vanished on a day they had never known.

And now they rolled through the great open gate, hidden beyond his family’s reach, beyond their very comprehension.

He wasn’t sure Micharus fully understood it. But the child stared up in wonder at the towering archway, the gargantuan iron doors, and the wide stone road that raced away from it, its edges coming together at the horizon pointing the way to Morjia, the city of the Gods.

Perhaps there is still hope. Athaleon thought to himself. The boy is still capable of a child’s wonder.

They travelled for hours beneath the summer sun, stopping only occasionally for water and rest. By the evening they had caught up to a merchant’s convoy, carts and wagons bound for Morjia and the cities beyond. They had pulled off the road and made a camp, gathered around the fire as Knights of Banthos patrolled the perimeter beneath the fading twilight sky.

Athaleon had pulled his caravan to a halt towards the edge of the camp and made his own fire with a couple of firestones. As a half-hog he had bartered from one of the merchants roasted over it he sat with his new apprentice and considered Micharus’ first lesson in magic. The boy was almost motionless as he stared vacantly into the dancing fire. He had not spoken a word since they had left the castle, and his expression even now was impossible to read. Not for the first time in his life Athaleon wished he had been gifted the powers of a psychic so that he may peer into the child’s mind, to better understand what he must be feeling.

“You’re like me, aren’t you?” Micharus asked. The interruption of the fire’s low crackle took him by surprise at first. He wondered for a moment if the child possessed psychic magic as well, but shook the thought off. Wise Christen would certainly have determined such a thing, and it didn’t fit anyway. Still, the chance at conversation was a morsel he didn’t want to reject.

“How did you know?” He replied.

“I can feel it. Like what I have, but coming from you.”

Athaleon silently raised an eyebrow. Every mage had the ability to perceive the shards with which they were naturally attuned, but the Mage Sense was, in almost every case, a skill that had to be learned.

“How long have you known?” He asked. “That you were not like the others?”

“I don’t know. A little while I guess.” He turned his face towards him. “How about you?”

“Oh, since I was a boy. A few years older than you are now, but it feels a lifetime ago.”

“What am I?”

Such a simple question, in concept. Yet within those three words Athaleon knew all too well the most fundamental struggle of a life burdened by power. Every mage asked themselves the same question at one point or another, yet to hear it from one so young…

“We are magi.” The answer, so simple yet so complex, a perfect mirror of the question.

“What does that mean?”

“That we are different. We know another world to those of common blood. We are gifted, burdened, we are what we are.”

“Are there others like us?”

“Oh yes. Thousands, right across the kingdom, right across the world.”

“Do they hurt people?”

Athaleon paused at the question. “Some, perhaps. No more or less than any man, I suppose.”

“My father always said that magic was evil.”

“Your father… is not entirely wrong. Has he told you of the Mage War?”

“Yes. He said it was a long time ago.”

“It was.” Athaleon shifted into a more comfortable position. “Hundreds of years ago, our kind used to rule over the common-blood.”

“Under the Mage King.”

“Yes, the Mage King was the ruler of the old kingdom, and the blood of the Nobility and magi were one and the same.”

“But the Mage King was cruel.” Micharus interjected with his own understanding of the story. “He hurt people, people who didn’t have magic.”

“And one day, as you know, those people rose up against him. Your father’s ancestor was one of them, your family fought to rid themselves of magi rule. Your family, this entire land, paid a heavy price for it. The worst blows of the war landed here, in Artellathwaine, and your ancestors, your father’s ancestors, suffered more than most at the hands of magi.”

“Like my uncle.”

Athaleon paused again as the subject strayed near that most dangerous of topics where magi were concerned. He was, perhaps, the only man who knew Micharus’ ultimate fate. The right word now, or the wrong one, could change that fate’s course in unseen directions.

“Your father fears magi, as many common-blood do. They always have, they always shall, and in the hearts of men fear inevitably grows into hatred.”

The boy did not answer, instead he turned back to the camp fire and looked once again into the flames. The burdens of magic were rarely easy to carry, and most had the fortune of coming into their power during their adolescence, much closer to emotional maturity. Those who manifested during childhood tended to have greater potential, but their minds were all the more likely to fracture. The Orders of Wizardry existed, in part, to find and shepherd them, and in this case they had most assuredly failed.

Athaleon sniffed the air, the smell of cooked meat awakening his hunger as if he were a child again. He reached into one of the many pockets hidden amongst his robes and brought out an iron fork with which he jabbed the half-hog and lifted it carefully towards them. He produced a steel knife in his other hand and carved cuts of meat for the two of them. Micharus ate with the ravenous abandon of a child who had not yet had the etiquette of nobility drilled into him. Athaleon ate his own meat carefully, trying to retain an air of quiet discretion in contrast. As they sat in the warm glow of the dying fire, the daylight a fading burned amber around them, the sound of music rose up from the centre of the camp. Voices rang out in song, carrying an alien joy through the darkening air.

Lessons could wait for the light of a new day, he decided as he watched the child yawn and stretch.

He stood and turned towards his caravan.

“Come, young Micharus. We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow, a good rest will not go amiss.”

The boy scrambled wearily to his feet and followed. Athaleon silently tapped into his power and let it blossom into his mind. He became aware of the intricately folded enchantments weaved about his wheeled home. A twist and flick of mental gymnastics ensued, pushing and pulling on the threads of magic as if turning a key in an inconceivable lock, though in such a manner so familiar to him that it barely required thought at all. By the time he reached out and grasped the handle the exercise was done.

“Now.” He spoke back to the boy. “I think it is time I showed you my true home.”

He pushed the door inwards and stepped through. The boy followed and stepped past him as he held the door. By the time he had swung it closed the child was frozen in place, his eyes wide with waking wonder.

This was true magic, the thought perhaps travelled through the boy’s mind. The man could only guess, of course. The cavernous space stretched out before them, much greater than could be squeezed within the caravan’s frame. A canvas roof hung above them, suspended between timber ribs that bore simple shining crystal lanterns that lit the wood and tile floor below. The entire space was circular, as though it were one of the great tents in which travelling performers demonstrated their art. In the centre a low-burning cluster of firestones glowed, whilst around a ring of simple wooden benches sat. Around these sat eight areas each separated by wooden walls, and all about the place, pushed towards the walls so as to keep the main space clear, rickety wooden shelves stacked with scrolls, books and all manner of trinkets. Dusty cabinets and solid chests sat tucked away, shielding their contents from prying eyes. His eye flitted instinctively to the automaton, an interlocking mass of dragon-steel plates engraved with lines and symbols giving the outward appearance of a large suit of armour. It stood in its eternal vigil at the edge of the large room, but already its head had turned towards them, dark empty eyes regarding the newcomer. It watched with cold indifference as the he led the young mage to a newly and, rather poorly, made bed in a small patch, relatively free of clutter, he would now call home. The boy’s eyes dropped closed quickly and Athaleon moved quietly across the room to the automaton.

The gift of an overly eager and grateful alchemist from the furthest of his travels, the machine, if such a name did the infernal thing justice, always kept him a little on edge.

“The boy is Micharus.” He spoke just above a whisper to the metal man as he gestured overtly towards the sleeping child. “He is my apprentice. He is welcome here.”

Even though he lacked any ability to read them, he swore he could feel the methodical clanking of its thoughts, or whatever it possessed that passed for thought. It was motionless for a few seconds before it nodded its head once. It didn’t speak, it never spoke, but it did listen and was, for the most part, obedient.

Athaleon shuffled over to one of the desks tucked away in a corner and read one of the hundreds of scrolls by lantern light. Then he, too, turned in, letting himself drift away as the automaton watched over them both.

***

Harold felt the fear grip his limbs like a terminal icy cold. He had moved beyond the reassuring certainty of the Sight and now faced not only a skilled and respected knight, but a wizard as well. Sir Allian already had his weapon drawn, the look of a seasoned warrior in his eye, a man detached from the raw emotion of killing. The wizard, adorned in his pointed hat and purple robes, was a stranger, he held no weapon but struck no less a bolt of fear into him. To the eye little more than an ageing man, yet somehow instinct demanded he fulfilled a greater and more commanding presence. The knight, blade already in hand, moved without hesitation to strike against him.

“Justin.” The wizard spoke softly and the knight held the blade steady, still pointed at Harold. “He means no harm.”

“Are you certain?” The knight asked, not once breaking his iron gaze.

“I would state your purpose rather swiftly, Harold Baywater.” The wizard addressed him directly. “Before you are run through.”

“I came… came to speak with the lady. I have… a message for her.” He managed to stammer in reply.

“A message?” Sir Allian repeated. “From whom?”

“With all respects, Sir,” Harold wavered. “It’s best if you don’t be askin’.”

A glare of contempt swept through the knight’s face. He glanced at the wizard. “What’s he hiding?”

“I believe he is a Seer, Justin.”

The sword dropped an inch. “So you speak for the Farseer?”

“In a manner of speaking, Sir.”

“Then speak.”

“Well, Sir, that is… I…” Harold struggled for the words.

“I believe he wishes to speak to her alone.” The wizard translated.

“I don’t leave her side, Wise one.”

“Matters of the Sight are seldom simple, Justin. The wrong word caught by the wrong ear can spell disaster. If the message is for the Lady, it is for her ears alone. We can wait outside, if she needs us I will know.”

It was spoken as both a reassurance and a threat, though the words themselves were in the same soft voice. The knight relented and gently woke his Lady, and the two of them shuffled out of the room.

“Who are you?” Lady Jalice Wetherhall asked through a thinning haze of sleep.

“H… Harold, m’Lady.” He fought to keep his voice steady. “Just… just a guard… at least… at least I was. I… I need to tell you something.”

“Yes, yes, I think I do recognise you. You left with my husband?”

“I did, y.. yes m’Lady. But… I don’t… don’t know how to… you have to leave.”

“What?”

“You need to leave Artella. T… today.”

“Why ever would I…?”

“He’s going to kill you!” He blurted before he could stop himself. A stunned silence followed, which he filled with a hastily assembled explanation. “Lord Wetherhall is… is going to kill you.”

“My husband?” She looked away. “He would never do such a thing. How dare you even suggest it!”

“I’ve seen it, m’Lady. I can’t… can’t explain how but… I know it will happen, unless you leave.”

“Get out!” Her voice was heavy with agitation. He knew before he heard them throwing the door open. The wizard’s presence preceded his physical form, but in the moment it was the knight that occupied his attention. Powerful hands locked around him and dragged him away from the Lady.

“Please remove him.” She commanded as Sir Allian gripped Harold even harder and forced him from the room. He tried to walk out under his own power, but he was clearly not moving fast enough for the knight. As he was led down the corridor the man whispered into his ear.

“I don’t know what your game is, but if you even think about coming near Lady Jalice again I will take your damned head off your shoulders.”

“I’m sorry.” Harold pleaded. “I only meant to protect her.”

“She doesn’t need your protection.”

“You don’t understand. You can’t protect her. Not from what’s coming.”

Sir Allian threw him into the wall and slammed into him, pressing him against the stone with his considerable weight.

“And what is coming? You claim to know what is to be, then tell me how I die, or tell me how harm can befall her while I still draw breath.”

“I don’t know how you die. I haven’t seen it, I’ve only seen her death.”

“If what you say is true, name her killer. Tell me who it is, and I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen.”

“You don’t understand, you can’t protect her.”

“I exist to protect her. Give me his name.”

Harold gasped for air as his mind tried in vain to weigh up options. “His Lordship.”

“What?” Sir Allian lifted him. “You mean Lord Wetherhall?”

“Yes! His Lordship gives the order himself.”

“Impossible.”

“He returns tonight. If her Ladyship is still here…”

“You are certain?”

“I am, Sir. I’ve… I’ve seen it enough times to be sure.”

The knight did not speak. Instead he dropped Harold to the floor and dragged him further on, pulling him ungracefully down stairs and inelegantly through corridors. He thrust Harold through a doorway into a tight dark space before pulling a heavy wooden door shut, sealing both himself, the only light and the world at large from Harold.

Harold scrambled to his feet and fumbled in the dark at the door handle.

Locked.

***

Tallus felt the icy bite of his armour as it stole the heat from his skin and bled it into the winter morning. Every part of it felt heavy on him, his arms, chest and shoulders most of all. The sword in his right hand, the shield on his left arm. His silver cloak billowed as it was caught by the early mist as the wind shepherded it from the bay. Before him stood Rathgar’s Keep, a monolith of stone that had stood since before the Mage War, its crooked towers teetering on the edge of the cliff that time had mercilessly carved beneath it. Behind him stood his King, his armour and crown, lined with Scalesilver, gleaming despite the dreary morning weather. Beside him stood his mentor, his master, the man he would one day replace. Sir Osryn Kelrad had commanded the King’s guard for more than half a century, and even in his old age he towered over all around him. In his armour he was as much a mountain as he was a man, and he had the strength to match. Even with mere common blood, he had stood against and felled magi and even killed a Dark Wizard who had made the mistake of threatening his King. He wore a dark expression. He had advised against this action, but the King had insisted. Mercenaries from Sau had somehow secured the keep and the Realm’s guard had failed to oust them. Now the King had arrived, to show his people he protected them, and to coax the Wizardry into committing their wary hand.

Wise Rellard the Mountainforger, the Terramaster himself, was the one they had sent. A Wizengard no less, one didn’t need a mage’s blood to sense the power coursing within him. The way it reinforced his mind and body, and the two thousand figures of stone that stood around him ready for battle, given life and will by his power. The man had spent the morning conjuring them, a hundred at a time, willing their forms to rise from the very ground beneath his feet. Alongside them, the reformed remnants of the Realm’s guard and the King’s regiment made a force of near ten thousand.

The Saudans numbered a thousand at most, yet they had secured the Keep. Their reinforcements had been destroyed at sea, mercifully, but still he was wary. Men who fought for silver were not known for fighting honourably, and they had magi in their ranks.

The Stone Legion moved out as if they were merely parts of a single being. They moved swiftly, carried as they were on strong legs and powerful magic. At their heart Wise Rellard dashed across the ground. The plan was simple, the earthen warriors would storm the castle first, impervious to physical attack they would find and target the defences. Their mind and master would get to the outer wall and get to work on countering the ancient wards and creating a passage through which the bulk of the army could attack. The alarm was sounded within moments, and within minutes gouts of flame rained down on the advancing force. From what he could see they had two fire magi launching their blazing projectiles from two of the outer towers. A well-formed blast of fire could fell two dozen mortal men, but the figures of rock and soil tore through them without slowing. When they closed in on the walls, a hail of arrows and rocks fell towards them. The arrows either rebounded or pierced to no avail. The rocks were launched back at the defenders with incredible force.

He glimpsed a distant flash of green, a twinkling star barely visible amidst the old stone towers. In the same instant a pulse of the same green light burst in their midst. Even before the magic had faded a powerful fist erupted from within it, too fast for him. It struck him square in his chest and the next he knew he was tumbling, armour and all, through the air. He felt the clink throughout his armour as the hundred plates snapped together. The metal skin took the brunt of the impact as he slammed into the ground. He rolled to his feet, his armour no longer dragging at him with its weight but now moving with him, giving him strength. Their attacker bordered on inhuman in stature, a broad-shouldered giant with tough skin and thick muscles that bulged with unnatural vitality. The distance he had launched Tallus, armour and all, coupled with the simple fact the man could stand at all revealed his nature as a life mage powering his body with an aura of strength. Osryn had already moved to block the brute’s run at the King and engaged with a blow directed at the neck. The brute blocked the blade with one arm, spraying blood, as he brought his other hand to deliver a blow that nearly toppled the old knight where he stood.

Recollection dawned on Tallus, as if he awoke from the dream whilst still dreaming it. This battle he had relived a thousand times. He stalled in his run to his master’s, his king’s, aid.

“Do you always dream of war?”

The woman’s voice, as much as her appearance, could not be more out of place here. She dressed elegantly, and carried the grace of age without any of the weakness. One could tell from merely the way she carried herself that she had nobility in her blood, though her Psychic affinity denied her the title and prestige. Harrietta Sloane regarded their surroundings with the same distaste she often expressed at his memories.

“Only when I’m not fighting in one.” He replied as he watched events unfold before them, dispassionate and disconnected as, once again, the great Sir Osryn locked with his final foe. His sword through the brute’s heart, the brute’s hand around his neck. The warrior’s embrace. In mere moments the inhumanly strong fingers would overpower his armour, crushing metal, flesh and bone.

“You have managed to extract the children, I understand.”

“We have. The girl will be half-way to the Elven kingdom by now.”

“And the boy?”

“We still have him. We’re making our way to Tetsa to deliver him. Though if you could call off Grannel it would sure help.”

“I’m afraid that will be difficult. He carries the King’s banner, after all. Perhaps you should consider handing the boy over to him.”

“I never leave a job half done. Let alone trust the other half to an oaf like him.”

“Well, one cannot argue the former point. The crown owes you a great debt.”

“As long as I serve my King.”

“And the tidy sum helps as well, I suppose.”

“Why don’t you just get to the point.” He turned away as, Sir Osryn dead at his feet, his sword pulled from a rapidly-healing chest, and without Tallus playing his part, the brute ran at the King and his remaining guards. “You’re here for a reason, and I doubt it’s one I’m going to like.”

“There’s been a change of plan. Certain… developments.”

“Such as?”

“A contingent has been organised from within House Stonnegarth, they will meet you at the border of Tetsathwaine and take the boy from there.”

“I thought we were delivering to them in Tetsa itself?”

“That was before…”

“Before what?”

“You were seen, Tallus, and worse, identified. Word has reached Nysilla, and it will likely spread throughout the kingdom within days. House Wetherhall has placed a bounty on your head. A sizeable one. Every hero and adventurer will be after your head.”

“I’ve had people after me before.”

“Not like this. You may have been a renowned fighter in your prime, Tallus, but those days are long behind you. Still, you remain close to the King’s heart, so it is for his sake I have sought you out.”

“So have him absolve the bounty. He’s done it before.”

“That’s not an option, Tallus. This was an act against a noble house, the King cannot be seen to side with a rogue operative acting, supposedly, without his sanction.”

“Then I suppose I shall have to discuss it with him when I return.”

“You cannot return to Nysilla, Tallus. The order has gone out, if you come within sight of the city, of any city, the Realm’s Guard will hunt you down. You’ll be executed as a traitor to the realm if you are fortunate. The Court will demand no less.”

“And what will the King have to say about that?”

It was an empty threat and he knew it. The King’s power wasn’t absolute, and it balanced on the allegiance of the Court. Worse still was her silence, which said more than even a Psychic’s words could convey.

“He doesn’t know, does he.”

“We serve the King, Tallus.” She replied, even as that same King lay crushed by brutish hands behind her. “Our duty is to him and to the realm. We do what he can’t, what must be done to protect that realm. Part of that duty is to shield him from such things.”

“And the shield must sometimes be sacrificed for the good of the bearer.” Tallus stood straight. “I spoke similar words when I took my oath, and heard you say similar when you set me on this path. I understand duty. If mine is to die for the sake of the King then I do so gladly.”

“You’re a fool. No better than that gargantuan oaf whom you replaced.” She gestured at Osryn as he lay motionless in a pool of remembered blood. “Always so eager to die for the King. Do you even consider what such a death would be? To die a traitor? You would shame yourself, and worse, shame your King.”

The air stopped dead in his throat. Whether she had learned it from his years in her service or pulled it from his sleeping soul with arcane powers in that moment, she sure knew how to strike at him.

“So you need me gone. Out of the scene.”

“Exactly. As it stands, the accusations against you are little more than that. The people will not be likely to believe it, the King will outright refuse to. It will be a lot easier to defend your name in your absence than your person in the flesh.”

“So what do I do? Where do I go?”

“Why not spread your wings? Go beyond Asamor’s borders for the first time in your life? The wizards make such a fuss about travelling, maybe there’s something in it? I hear Sau is beautiful this time of year.”

Even in the privacy of a dream she felt the need to fold information beneath a farce of subtlety.

“I’d imagine it is.” He played along. “And how would you recommend getting to that enchanted island?”

***

Shadows ruled the chamber this night. Light, encamped as it was in the torches on the distant walls, fought in vain against the darkness. Justin supposed the ruling chamber was always like this at night, in truth, yet this night seemed all the darker. Lord Miteus’ party had returned a few hours ago, and whilst he had been occupied with the matters of war, the forces gathering within and around the city, Lady Jalice had spent her time between calmly preparing herself and fits of anxiety. She had decided in the end to meet him here, in the same room where they had first exchanged their vows. He wished he could calm her, that he knew what to say, or had the place to say it. Miteus was, beneath it all, a good man, and where love and hate clashed within love would surely win through.

Wouldn’t it?

The words of the self-proclaimed priest of the Farseer crawled inside his mind, leaving in their tiny footprints seeds of doubt. He had tried to push the thought away, but it had remained, and he hadn’t the courage to speak to the Seer again. It made no difference. No matter what happened, he was stood beside her.

The doors opened and Lord Miteus strode in. He looked weary from days of hard travel, and perhaps, Justin suspected, his own form of worry. Still, despite his apparent exhaustion, the distance between himself and his wife seemed to melt away as he made his way towards her.

“My love,” He said through their embrace. “I am so, so sorry for what I have done to us.”

He released her gently. “I promise you, with every beat of my heart, that I will return our children. The King assures me they will be safe.”

“I know, husband.” Justin wondered if the terror was truly as obvious to others’ ears. “I trust our King that they will be cared for, but…”

“They will be. The Stonnegarths are honourable men, Hadnar is of my blood. They will do no harm by our boy.”

“And what of our Alexia?” She almost sobbed. “Can the elves be trusted?”

“The King claims they can be. But if they harm a single hair on her head, by all the Gods I swear I’ll burn their forest to the ground!”

“Please, Miteus, there is already so much talk of war!” Justin could almost hear her heart on the verge of breaking.

“Let’s not speak of it.” He pulled her close and comforted her. “I’ve been away from you for too long, and the kingdom be damned if I am kept from you a moment longer. I refuse to hear another word of war until I have awoken with my wife asleep at my side.”

“Oh, Miteus! Why have they done this to us?”

“The fault is mine, but I will set it right. Take me to Micharus, my love, I would see my son.”

There could not have been time for more than a breath or two in the silence, but it was as if time had frozen still. Justin felt the air turn to ice in his lungs.

“My love…”

“What?” He asked. “What is it?”

“It’s… it’s Mich…”

“Mich? What about him?”

“He’s… gone…”

The comfort bled away from his eyes in that instant. Justin could see it, he hoped she couldn’t.

“What do you mean, gone?” He took a step away from her.

“The wizards have taken him, my love.”

The warmth that had vacated his eyes now fled his face, replaced by an incredulity possessed only by the nobility.

“The w…” The word died in his mouth as the first flicker of anger awoke in his gaze. “The King made no mention of this. If this is true then it is against his word and my oath as Lord of the Realm. If they have taken our child then he will side with us. Every Lord will side with us. We will force them to give him back.”

He turned away. “Sir Laywood!” He bellowed. “Get me Sir Laywood at once!”

“Wait, husband!” She cried. “You don’t understand!”

“Every Lord of the Realm was vowed never to cower before the Wizards, Jal. We are all bound by honour, duty and law to uphold that vow. Our outrage will be theirs…”

“He’s one of them!” She wailed. Miteus stopped and turned slowly. Justin saw the look in his eye, the precursor to expression that he had trained hard to spot. There was a moment in every man where the spark of anger caught aflame, a fire that got hotter the longer it burned. Already Justin’s hand was on his sword, sliding the blade slowly from its sheath as his legs tensed.

“I beg your pardon, my love?”

“Micharus… he’s one of them. He’s mageblood.”

The eyes are the key to the heart. It is in the eyes where a man betrays himself, that was what Justin had always been taught. It was true, there was a terrible anger that began in the heart, where it burned ever more fiercely until it charred its way through a man’s mind. In combat such rage made a man dangerous, and spotting it in the eyes gave you time to prepare for it. It was in Miteus’ eyes, at that moment, the battle between love and hatred had been fought.

And lost.

“That’s impossible. It is not true!” The furnace was burning now. Civility was a mask fast coming free.

“I’m sorry, my love!”

He moved back towards her, still clinging to apparent serenity. She was unaware. Justin’s mind was already flaring, forcing open the seldom-used reflexes and intuition.

“There has been no mageblood in my family for generations.” All softness was gone. Even the illusion of kindness had fled.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…”

“You.” The anger had taken his voice now. “I should have known. Your Gods-be-damned uncle, that bastard cousin. Did my father bond me to a tainted bloodline?”

“Please, don’t call my…” There was a hint of anger in her voice now, the barest whisper, but he heard it.

“And you. Are you one of them? Did you bewitch him? Did you twist my father’s mind? Did you bewitch me?” The last words spoken with bile.

“No, I didn’t…” Her flicker of anger collapsed beneath the weight of his. “I couldn’t… husband… I love you!”

He stepped right to her and held his face inches from hers. The anger almost filled him now. Somewhere in Justin’s mind he felt the impulse to intervene. He suppressed it.

“Is this what you call love? Wait until I am brought to my knees only to poison my one hope?”

In the silence Justin only heard her whisper. “I’m sorry.”

Justin’s hesitation was overpowered. He moved in the same instant as Miteus, covering the short distance in a mere moment. The Lord’s gauntlet smashed across her face and she fell.

Conscious thought had no role to play. Justin’s sword was bared and his limbs moved without command. Miteus reacted to his impending attack with surprising speed.

It was over in a moment. Justin swore he heard the scream of a child, but it hadn’t had time to register. Miteus had been distracted by it as well, a momentary fault in his counter that let Justin block his fist with the flat of the blade and land his own blow against Miteus’ face.

His mind raced to regain control as Miteus fell and Justin turned, stood over him, the blade raised over his head. The reality of the moment hit him like a splash of cold water, driving back reflex and letting him regain control.

“Do it!” Miteus croaked. “Kill me and complete your treachery!”

By the Gods. This was a Lord of the Realm.

A breath of hesitation. Something struck him in the back of the head, hard. He felt himself topple to the floor, and the guards were on him, locking him in place with their body weight. He fought to turn his head to the side as another guard helped Miteus to his feet.

“Are you hurt, my Lord?”

“Hardly.” Miteus replied as he placed a boot next to Justin’s face.

“What should we do with him, my Lord?”

“The dungeon.” He walked away.

“Shall I take the Lady to the apothecary, my Lord?”

He stopped and turned back to her. “No. Take her to the dungeon as well.”

She cried in protest but silenced herself quickly. As men lifted him from the floor Justin heard Lord Miteus Wetherhall utter one last thing as he left the chamber.

“To the pit with you both.”

Tomorrow Man – Part XXII

Tallus saw the marking stone the moment he crested the nearby hill. Some part of him knew at once what it was, what it meant. He refused to believe it, but it had been erected close to where he had left her, and as he got closer he saw no sign of Maereen or her body. When he had finally reached it he dismounted and led the horses on foot. It was such a simple thing, a block of stone with the unmistakable interlocking ring pattern. He had asked her before what it meant, but she had never told him. Now she never could.

He felt numb. He felt stupid. He’d lost men before, why would this be any different?

Of course it was different. The others had died for their King, their Lords or their land. They’d died years ago, fully aware of the sacrifice they were making. They had met their ends with swords in hand, falling upon the blade of their enemies on a hundred blood-soaked battlefields. Not in the dark as they crept in unknown chambers, surprised and pierced by their own poisoned blades.

He stood in the silence. No words mattered, she was gone. Now all that mattered was what lay before him, the young boy still sat on the back of his horse. The child’s resistance in the wake of the loss of his sister was short-lived, it turned out. Now he seemed to simply accept it.

“You shouldn’t have come back.”

The Mole’s voice took him by surprise. He looked up towards the trees and, sure enough, the mage sat just beyond them. His legs crossed, his hands together and his eyes closed. Around him two dozen orbs of stone revolved, each no thicker than a thumb and shining with the yellow light of Veilic magic. It was a form of magic Tallus rarely saw from the earth mage, but his years of service in Nysilla had left him with a knowledge of magecraft that few common-blood men possessed. Mechamistry, they called it, from what he understood it was a method of storing magical power for later use. Often it was for situations where a lot of magic was needed in a short space of time, which in his personal experience usually meant battle.

“Half a day’s march in the wrong direction.” The Mole continued. “Net’s closing, Tallus. You might have slipped out, now we’re sure to get caught.”

“No point using the roads.” Tallus replied. “And if we’re not using the roads we’re going to need you.”

The Mole opened his eyes and raised his hand. The orbs of light swirled about him and came together. They collected in his open palm and faded back to simple grey and brown stone. He tipped them into a pouch as he stood and fastened it beneath his robes.

“The handover went well, I assume.”

“Would have gone better if you were there.” A dark look passed over Tallus’ face. “They took her, she’ll be deep in the forest by now. Beyond Wetherhall’s reach.”

“That’s half of our task done, at least.” The Mole took a step towards Tallus. “The easier half, I reckon.”

“We’ll head due east, cross into Auniathwaine. Once we’re out of Wetherhall’s realm it should be easier to make our way north.”

“It’s about our only choice. We can’t head back on ourselves.”

“Grannel’s men?”

“Managed to stay ahead of them, although I think they’ve been keeping their distance from me. Dropped a bridge to be on the safe side, bought me half a day while they tried to cross the river.”

“We can’t rely on their fear, if they know the boy is here they will try to take him.”

“Aye. Which is why we can’t head back. Also why your little rule has to stop.”

Tallus turned to him.

“They’re soldiers, Tallus. Only one language they speak, when they catch us we’re going to have to kill them.”

“No.”

“They’ll kill us. No sense dying for principle.”

“I gave my word, none would die in this endeavour.”

“Bit late for that.”

Tallus found his hand on the hilt of his sword, grip tightening. He saw the hint of a smile on the Mole’s face. It was far from the first time the mage had tried to provoke him, but it was the closest he had gotten to succeeding. A part of him burned to do it, to give in. He could draw his sword, close the short distance between them perhaps. The Mole wasn’t a healer, a single well-placed blow would do it for him as any mortal man. Of course he would lack the crucial advantage of surprise, it would be a race between his blade and the Mole’s ability to mould his magic. And that didn’t take into account any protective wards the Mole was almost certainly sheathed within. To attempt such a thing was foolish, even with his mind so clouded by grief and anger. Of course, that was the true goal, the few moments they had spent with their eyes locked as he fought back the urge. He had no choice but to back down, and he saw the truth of it in the mage’s eyes, along with the age-old message.

I’m better than you.

“You’re a cold bastard.” Tallus growled as he released the hilt of his blade.

“And you’re an old fool.” The Mole grinned back. “Almost had you there.”

“Get on the damn horse.”

“Good idea. King’s men will be here soon.” He said as he swung himself into the saddle of the horse that had been carrying Alexia Wetherhall. Tallus clambered back onto his own mount and the two men, the boy and three horses took off towards the east.

***

Harold hid in an alleyway off to one side of the main road leading to the castle. He stood in the embrace of shadows, his head hidden within his hood. He felt apprehensive but, at the same time, at peace. What was about to happen seemed little more than a dance he had rehearsed a thousand times. When one knew the steps, the movement of all involved, there was nothing truly to fear. The moment approached. He could feel it, somewhere inside himself. That alone should have paralysed him, what he was about to do. But it had already happened, in a way. So long as he let himself fall into that moment, everything would proceed as it should.

You just needed to have a little faith.

The moment arrived.

He stepped calmly into the light. He placed one foot in front of the other, walking with a steady determination. He crossed the road and stepped onto the drawbridge that led to the castle. He kept his eyes forward, his head unmoving as he paced across the old wood. He didn’t look around. He didn’t need to.

As he approached the gatehouse he peeled off to one side. He turned and placed his back against the cold rothstone wall. He counted inside his head as his ears picked out the sound of boot-steps from within the courtyard. A group of soldiers marching by, whilst high above him, unseen to his mortal eyes, a guard cast his eye over the now vacant drawbridge.

The moments advanced, one after the other. He stepped out from the wall and around. Calmly he strode through the open gate, past the turned back of another guard. He was silent, placing each foot as carefully as he could. He moved through the courtyard, in the glare of the late morning sun. He moved towards a small servant’s entry on the other side, but his path traced a gentle arc that he could not see but knew was there. One step to his left and a pair of eyes hidden amidst the windows above would spot him. One step to his right and he wouldn’t make it to the door in time.

As he approached he heard the door’s internal latch click. It swung towards him, a small man appearing out of it. Harold continued moving towards the door. As if men were no more than the figures in a shadow play, a woman’s voice called out from deeper within. Just as the door swung to reveal him, the man turned his head away. A handful of exchanged words and his body followed, he moved back inside and the door began to swing closed. Harold stepped boldly forward and slipped his fingers around the door a moment before it shut. He eased it open in a fluid motion and passed through it.

His feet whispered across the stone floor, through a small kitchen and past distracted eyes. He turned and ducked into a narrow passage that led off into darkness. He moved on even as his eyes adjusted to the gloom. The passage, one of countless servants’ runs that snaked their way through the mass of the castle, within and between walls where noble eyes did not see, would take him much deeper into the castle. He passed through a small beam of light cast from a long narrow shaft cut through the wall to the outside. He was momentarily dazzled but kept going anyway. His pace was everything, too fast and he would catch up to a bed-maid wandering somewhere ahead, too slow and he would be caught by a kitchen servant carrying bowls of soup.

The passage curved to the left and opened out where it crossed a larger corridor. He kept his eyes focused on the dark gap in the opposite wall where the passage continued on. As he approached he heard voices, one of which he recognised.

“… any man who goes into that forest is going to do nothing but leave a widow behind…”

Two men walked across the opening to his corridor, but their attention was directed ahead. He stepped out after they had past and scurried quietly across the corridor and into the next section of passageway. He continued on, through the twisting darkness, until he came to a tight knotted staircase. He climbed, passing floor after floor until he came to a larger corridor. The stairs continued upwards, to the very top of the castle, but to follow them would bring him out in full view of a group of scribes. He moved through the corridor and continued on, winding down passages and turning countless corners. It was far from the most direct route, but it was his path, and it would lead him exactly where he needed to go. He stepped between shadows, moving only when and where living eyes had turned away. The deeper into the castle he ventured, the more soldiers, guards and servants he had to slip past, but he followed his unseen thread and slid through the layers of protection as each opened before him. After what felt to him like hours he found himself facing the last obstruction.

Two guards stood either side of the door to Lady Jalice’s bedchamber. He watched them from the corner of his eye as he hid across the corridor from them within another slender passageway. These two would not move, there was no opening for him to slip through.

He had dreamt this too, of course. It felt less like a dream than a rehearsal, but even the knowledge of what he was to do didn’t calm him. He had never been a good fighter, and a part of him refused to believe that would ever change.

Distant words echoed from outside. The call of one of the watchers atop the castle.

“A raven! Messenger raven!”

The two guards’ heads turned toward a window at the end of the corridor. A momentary distraction. A slight crack in this last layer of defence. Barely a whisper of a hope, but somewhere within him he knew it was enough, and it compelled him to move.

He dashed from his hiding place. He covered half the distance before they had chance to react. He tilted his weight backwards, slowing himself slightly as the nearest guard clenched a fist in blind panic. Harold’s right hand curled into a ball. His mind flashed back through sporadic moments of his training as a castle guard. Technically he knew how to fight, but he’d never been any good at it. He had always been clumsy and slow, unable to read an opponent and react in time. It was why he’d been handed a bow and stuffed behind one of the only arrow slits likely never to see a fight.

This time he didn’t need to read eye and body movements.

The guard’s punch swung just short, slipping against his robes. Harold tilted forward, pitching his body weight back into the fight as he raised his fist. The momentum of the guard’s missed swing twisted his body around, pulling the side of his head into the path of Harold’s hand. Harold raised his left hand. Knuckles cracked against skull, the guard’s head tilted away from the blow, Harold’s left hand made contact and sent a forceful shove. The guard toppled into the wall, his head smacking the stone as Harold transferred his momentum and rebounded back, dropping to one knee as he drove his head towards the ground.

One down.

The next guard was upon already, a cold iron sword in hand. He was already powering the blade into a decisive stroke at Harold’s chest. If he hadn’t ducked to avoid it a full half-second in advance he would never have made it. As it was, the metal edge sliced through the tips of his loose hair and carried on into the wall. Brittle iron met unyielding rothstone and the blade cracked in two. Harold remained motionless for an instant. He yanked his head to the side, planted his hands below him on the floor and twisted his shoulders back. A fist tore through the air where his head had been. He pushed off from the floor. The guard’s fist slammed into the ground as his head sailed past Harold’s rising shoulder. The sound of snapping knuckles hadn’t reached Harold’s mind before he brought his leg under himself, driving the knee upwards and into the guard’s forehead. Pain blossomed in his leg as the guard flipped backwards and collapsed.

Harold stood. He didn’t have long. He turned and stepped to the door, eased it open and limped through.

This was as far as he knew. He had woken up when he got here, his dream ended. The Farseer had shown him only what he needed to see to get here. Now he was on his own as he stared down the wizard and the knight who stood before him, each standing and ready to protect the Lady that lay in the bed behind them.

***

Alexia scrambled across the forest floor. She tried to keep to the roots of the trees, thick and strong they formed natural bridges over the dense carpet of growth. Even so, they were uneven and rose and fell sometimes abruptly. She grasped with hands and pulled herself up, sat on her behind and slid down when she needed to. Finding the next root to leap to seemed difficult, and amidst branches and vines movement of any kind was painfully slow. She could not have travelled much distance at all, yet the forest seemed to have swallowed her. All sign of her captors had bled away behind her, and now she was alone, lost and brimming with fear. Every shadow was a monster, every caw, growl and chirp the chorus of hunters stalking her every step.

She remembered the stories, the things she had been told. Her father’s realm bordered the Everliving Forest, she doubted there was a single crone in the realm who didn’t have a dozen stories on their lips of foolish heroes who ventured into the forest and were never heard from again.

And here she was, in the middle of it, alone after having fled from her protectors.

Stupid girl.

Stupid, stupid girl.

She should go back. They would forgive her, keep her safe. If they were still alive. If she even knew the way. She kept running, nothing else mattered. She just had to keep running. She could feel the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end, a primal seed within her mind flourished and sent renewed energy to her tiring muscles. One by one each of the dozen fears crowding her mind fell away until only a single truth remained.

Something was following her.

She was only dimly aware of it, little more than a noisy shadow behind her. But flight was her only concern, every measure of focus she had was driven towards finding the next patch of safe footing to leap to.

A bolt of agony ripped through her as something sharp punched through the sole of her bare foot. The pain tore the instinctive focus from her mind and her balance failed her. She toppled forwards and to her left, a second and more potent wave of searing pain overcame her as whatever it was ripped free of her foot. She screamed, she fell towards the forest floor. She crashed into a large bush of dark green leaves, a nest of thorns clawed at her skin as she rolled out of it and slumped to the soft ground.

Her skin felt as if it was aflame, every part of it scratched, cut and punctured. Her foot was by far the worst, she dared not look at it as nausea washed over her. She heard the rumble of the approaching beast and looked up as it finally emerged into view.

First she saw claws, two pairs of thick jet-black talons long as daggers dug into the wood as the creature levered itself to peer down to her on six powerful limbs. It was a monstrous thing, easily thrice the size of a horse, a mass of muscle beneath a coat of fur and feathers culminating in an enormous bird-like head, complete with a serrated beak wide enough to devour her whole and two eyes each as large as her head. Thin bands of green encircled gaping black pits, the eyes swivelled slightly as they leered at her, enormous and hungry.

The monster let out a low purring growl as it lowered its body and tensed its legs. She lay there, helpless, as it decided how best to eat her.

Something dropped onto the beast’s back and it collapsed to the ground with a scream. Alexia watched as it writhed beneath the man, his hand gripped a long spear that had plunged through its chest and pinned it to the root below. In a single motion he broke the shaft off just above the creature’s skin and leapt from its back, turned through the air and landed between them with his back to her. He was tall, with the fair skin and pointed ears of an elf, his hair was long, flowing and black as the night. He was muscle from head to toe, and he was completely naked. He turned and glanced back at her with gleaming copper-orange eyes as the stick in his hand glowed green and regrew to its original length, complete with a sharp thorn tip.

The beast lifted itself off the shortened shaft of the spear and reared up on its hind four legs. It let out a screaming roar and lunged towards them. The elf launched himself at the beast with unbelievable speed, the surface of the root beneath his feet cracking as he did so. His spear gripped tightly in his hand, he soared defiantly through the air. In the last moment the creature twisted its neck back to avoid the spear and slashed out with its forelimb. The elf turned mid-air, narrowly missed the extended claws and thrust the spear into his attack. The two met in a sickening thump of limbs. The bloody spear-tip burst out of the creature’s back, its limbs flopped forwards as its body absorbed the impact. But it was by far the heavier, and attacked from above, its leap was barely slowed into a fall. The mass of warring muscle crashed and rolled to a halt in the thorny bush just before Alexia. She watched as the creature screamed, six sets of dagger-claws thrashing chaotically upwards at the man crouched atop its chest. The elf lunged forwards through the forest of black blades, grabbed a tuft of fur with one hand and drove the other fist into its neck with a sickening crunch of bone. The beast screamed anew as all bar one of its legs thrashed outwards. The remaining leg drove at him and raked its claws across his back, slicing the flesh deeply. It fell limp, though it still breathed heavily, and the elf stood, thick scarlet blood coating his back.

Alexia watched in amazement as, before her eyes, the deep slices began to glow with an almost natural green light. Any one of the wounds looked like it could have been made by a sword, and each ought have been mortal, yet as she watched the flesh regrew, wounds knitting themselves back together. Within moments the sheen of fresh blood was the only sign of injury.

He turned towards her and leapt off the creature as it stirred restlessly. She felt numb as powerful arms lifted her over his shoulder and powerful legs carried them both into the air. With his remaining hand and feet he grabbed trunk, branch and vine and climbed, leaving the forest floor below.

***

The Mole could feel the blood pounding in his veins as his horse strained beneath him, tearing at the road and urging them forwards. Ahead of him Tallus rode, his one arm straining to keep his balance. The boy had been tied into the saddle behind him, the other horse they had left behind when the chase had begun. Grannel had made his move sooner than even he had expected, two score of his fastest riders had descended upon them before they had chance to gain a lead. Their plans to stay away from the road had failed, avoiding Artellathwaine’s Realmsguard would be too slow. So now they ran towards the border, fuelled by the hope they could break through whatever roadblock the Wetherhalls had managed to assemble before they were rode down from behind.

The Mole had dropped back behind Tallus, partly because his horse was the slower and partly because he was the focus of the archers that pursued them.

He cursed himself for the thousandth time, he should have expected Grannel to ignore the laws that forbade magic. Even with their Wizard gone, they seemed well-equipped to deal with him. And here he was, not only with his power significantly depleted but still under Tallus’ damned restrictions.

The archers’ Wardbreaker arrowheads were enchanted stone, thankfully. Sensing and deflecting them whilst riding so fast was almost at the limit of his skill, plus it cost him vital power. They had given up firing those after the first few landed wide of their mark, bursting their disruptive magic harmlessly into the ground. As he urged the beast beneath him on he kept his Veilic senses open and in the forefront of his mind. He had cloaked them both in a thin rider’s warding, though it was an additional drain he couldn’t afford to let the animal fall under his feet. He felt yet another twinge as a bronze arrowhead glanced sharply off his ward. What damage had been done to the sheath of magic that enshrouded them faded after a few seconds. It would take several such arrows striking the same point to break through, but that wasn’t what worried him. The cheap bronze wasn’t meant to hurt him, each flurry merely proved as practice.

His awareness was pricked by another enchantment slicing the air towards him. He could sense no earth, the arrowhead was likely dragonsteel. He strained his Veilic sense to try and track it, his only chance to drive his horse to one side at the last moment. Fractions of a moment passed, the distant pulse of energy drew closer in his mind and split.

Two? Damn!

He didn’t have time to think. His instinct dictated as he forced his horse to the left. He felt the two arrows as they tore through the rider’s ward. One plunged into the ground where he would have been, the other sliced to his left, barely missing his arm. The Wardbreaking enchantments burned through the rider’s ward like an invisible intangible fire. The riding ward was stretched thin to cover them both, they were little match for enchantments intended for much stronger personal wards, let alone two at once. The magic frayed around him, stopping and repairing the damage would require considerable focus, more than he could afford. His personal ward remained, but his mount was fast becoming vulnerable.

The road beneath him pitched upwards into a climb, the hill ahead was the last before the border. They were close. The horse he could tell was tiring, the height would diminish their range but the next volley of bronze heads was certain to bring it down under him. They’d be on him, likely before he could summon a defence with what power he had remaining. Enchanted arrows meant enchanted blades, and men who knew how to use them. There was nothing for it, something had to give.

He looked to the road ahead and scanned the ground. He was fortunate, the road was loose dirt and gravel. He reached out ahead of himself and sent forth thin strands of terramantic power, a hundred fragile hairs spun from his fingers like a web. Most of the strands faded and died in the air, many of the others struck dirt, of those that embedded themselves in the small stones only a few remained intact long enough for him to seize them and strengthen the link. As he thundered past he swept his hand back and sent two dozen fragments of broken stone slicing the air behind him. He tried to keep the angle low, aiming for the horses rather than the men, but the shouts of surprised men and screams of startled steeds told him he was wide of the mark. He heard the commotion drop back from him as he kicked his heels into the slowing beast and urged it across the crest of the hill.

The sight that greeted him had been as much as he could expect. The road ran straight down the other side of the hill to the small bridge across the river that formed this part of the border. Just beyond, the standing stones marked the true border as the road passed between them. The bridge was guarded, a handful of soldiers and a dozen or so farmers by the looks of it. They wielded spears, but it was obvious that the common men were not trained in their use. Tallus blasted towards them, using the building momentum of the downward slope to his full advantage. The man couldn’t ride fast and wield a sword, so he would have to breach their blockade, such as it was, by speed alone.

Unless the Mole could breach it first.

His eyes already scanned the road ahead of him once more, scouring for something he could use. One side of the road had once been a wall of loose stones that had all but fallen down. The foundation stones remained, but they were far too large. Many of the smaller rocks had been half buried in dirt and vegetation. He spotted one that seemed to be loose enough to work with. He reached out with his hand once more, projecting a single tendril of power into the stone, binding it to his will with a familiarity that bordered on instinct. As he stormed past it he focused his will, let his power flow and shaped it. His arm snapped back and he almost toppled from his horse, he held on with a death-like grip as the rock, wrenched free from its rest, soared into the air behind him. His arm felt as if it had almost been ripped off, but he pushed the pain from his mind and kept his focus on the task at hand. Tallus had pulled further ahead, even from the Mole’s vantage point he was a blur of motion as he drove his horse towards the spears and swords being raised towards them. The men ahead of him wore expressions that ranged from worry to terror. The old knight’s determination alone may have been enough to turn them aside.

The timing had to be perfect, as had the aim. He drew the stone ahead of him and gathered his power. He leant forward and braced himself, allowing his magic to build within him.

He released a pulse of terramancy, the rock blasted forwards and his arm cracked backwards again. The pain doubled as his body lurched backwards. He almost fell from the saddle with the force of it, and between his struggle for balance and the pain he could only trust in his initial aim. After a second or two he managed to turn his eye to the bridge ahead. The boulder flew true, clearing Tallus’ bounding head by a safe margin. It travelled swiftly, not as fast as he could manage but fast enough. The line at the bridge had broken. Men fled at the sight of a mage hurling rocks at them. Those that couldn’t clear the bridge in time dove. The blur of stone struck the wall part-way up the hump of the bridge and both shattered into a cloud of shrapnel. The dust settled, disturbed only by the thunder of Tallus’ horse passing through unopposed.

The Mole switched arms as his own mount careered down the hill towards the bridge. Supporting his weight with his injured arm was an exercise in agony that he could tolerate only because of years of experience. He cupped his free hand and renewed his will. He tapped his reserves of magic once more, he found the flow sluggish. As a mage reached the last of his power the difficulty of drawing upon it increased greatly. It took years of training before one could truly deplete one’s magic, and even then it was not trivially done.

He seized the dregs of his power and pulled with all the strength his will could muster. He forced it to the surface, as if squeezing a part of himself unnaturally dry. He felt uncomfortable as he did so, but he had little choice. He pushed and shaped the magic in his hand, where it coalesced into a glowing yellow orb. It should be enough. It had to be.

As he approached the bridge, his free arm shining with the last of his power, the men who were not cowering flat on the ground were edging further from the road. The beast beneath him powered from the dirt onto the stone and carried him up the bridge’s humped back. As he crossed the midway point he turned his hand and let the magic drop behind him. The orb fell and vanished into the stones that formed the bridge, and he released the bindings around the spell. He felt the thump of the unleashed magic through the air more than he could with his fading Veilic sense. The initial pulse of sound was quickly followed by a sickening groan and cracking. The arch of the bridge dropped and a wave of shattering stone radiated towards each end of the bridge. He kept ahead of the destruction just about, racing back to dry land as tonnes of broken stone plunged into the fast wide waters.

He allowed the beast to slow as a wave of pain washed through his mind and a hollow gaping sensation gripped his gut. Voiding sickness was unpleasant at the best of times, couple with fatigue and the need to keep riding it was nearly intolerable. He could scarcely sense the low rumble of ancient Veilic enchantment that emanated from the standing stones. Somewhere behind him, across the now impassable expanse of the river, the riders came to a disappointed halt.

Tomorrow Man – Part XXI

Another dawn marched towards Artella from the horizon. The tide of darkness that was the night turned and fled before it, as it always did. Some became trapped, hidden behind hills, trees and buildings, where it slowly shrank and withered. Athaleon watched the silent battle from a window high in the castle. The morning, in its purest essence no different to any of the others, countless dawns each proceeding one after another, each a stroke of history’s brush. The unknowing canvas onto which the lives of men were drawn. The story of Asamor was woven from uncountable days, some which held a greater part than most. And yet even this, a single drop in time’s great ocean, still held a unique beauty. That’s what made the journey worthwhile, in his opinion.

Another moment transpired just behind him, unseen by his eye but still held in his mind. Like the morning before him, it was a thing that seemed so simple when viewed from afar, yet so profound up close. A final farewell between mother and son, one near the end of her life, the other at the start of his. She held him close, as any would, and whispered false promises to him while holding back her tears. He remained silent, knowing the lies for what they were, but taking comfort in them regardless. Neither wished the moment would end, but it would as all must. Their path lay freshly formed before them, and the time had come to set foot upon it. He turned to the last remnant of the Wetherhall family.

“It is time.”

Lady Jalice nodded her understanding. The knight, Sir Allian, came to her side as she stood. Wise Christen, shrouded in his monk’s robes, rested his hands on the boy’s shoulders and the three of them left the room, leaving the Lady and her protector behind. They moved swiftly and quietly through the castle, Christen casting his mind ahead of them as far as he could, banishing them from the notice of the few they encountered on their way to the courtyard. As they emerged through a small doorway into the courtyard itself he felt his power released, unbound from the thick impenetrable walls of rothstone that had surrounded him. He felt the links, a handful of unseen strands of magic that connected his mind to those things in the world he most valued, return to him. The braces of dragon-steel embedded in Simmion’s harness, the unassuming wooden caravan that held all his worldly possessions and more besides, his two anchors in the impossible expanse of history. As they reached the caravan Christen parted from them and strode towards the stable to retrieve the horse. Athaleon turned to Micharus and regarded the child. Even now, with no effort on his part, he could sense the Nexic magic bound up within him. The boy was young, manifestation normally occurred during the trials of adolescence. Whilst childhood manifestation was not unheard of, for a boy who had not yet seen his tenth year to possess such a reserve of power was nothing less than a sign pointing to the great wizard he would become. But for now he was nothing but a child, untrained and unfocused, at the very start of a path that was itself uncertain. In time he would come to understand that, but those days were as yet far off.

“Are you ready to go?” He asked the boy. All he got in reply was a simple nod. He turned and slid the bolt across the wooden door at the back of the caravan. He pulled it open to reveal an unremarkable and empty interior. He gestured to Micharus and the boy jumped up inside. He closed the door and slid the bolt. As he wandered around to the front he saw Christen and Simmion wander across from the stables.

“Look after him, won’t you?” Christen asked as the two of them hitched the horse up.

“As if he were my own, of course.” Athaleon replied. “And in return, promise me you will not remain.”

“Here?”

“Within the realm. Return to your duties in Gania.”

Christen visibly wrestled with the notion of asking further questions. He knew as well as Athaleon himself the oaths of secrecy by which all Nexic Wizards were bound when it came to knowledge of things yet to be. He felt the subtle pricks of the Psychic’s mind against the outer edges of his own as Christen fought between curiosity and duty. He was relieved when he felt Christen’s mind retreat from his own, and the wizard retreated physically back towards the castle. Athaleon wondered if his words would be heeded. Whilst the words of a Nexic carried weight, the flow of history was always strong and rarely turned by such small detours. He clambered onto the driver’s bench and settled himself. Grasping the reigns he gently motioned the old cart-horse towards the gate. His gaze fell upon the two guards stood either side of the open gate as he moved towards them, the once-heir to the realm hiding in the back of his caravan. He eased to a stop as one raised their hand towards him.

“Who goes there?” The lead guard asked.

“Just an old man, a trader of linens. My business with her Ladyship is concluded, and I must leave with the rising of the sun if I am to make Reckerslee by dusk, for the market tomorrow.”

“Oddly-dressed for cloth-trader, ain’t you?”

“A traveller’s garb, keeps me warm on the road.”

The man grunted and motioned towards the caravan. “Going to need you to open up your cart.”

“Would that I had the time, good man.” He reached out and patted Simmion on the rump. “The old thing isn’t as fast as he once was, and it won’t do to be left on the road after dark.”

“Sorry, fella. All what’s coming and going needs be inspected, by order o’ the Lord Commander.”

“You’ll find nothing of interest to the Lord Commander, I assure you. Unless he has need of my wares, of course.”

“We’ll be seein’ about that.” The guard replied as he stepped around the side of the caravan, his partner moving down the other side at the same time. Athaleon turned and awakened his Nexic Sight. The world before his eyes became enriched as his magically-enhanced vision captured the energies of the Nexus normally invisible to them. The seemingly inconspicuous wooden frame of his caravan came to life with hidden currents of Nexic magic, bound and hidden within the timber itself. The enchantments, a lifetime of his own work, wove through the fabric of the cart and extended beyond in directions no mortal man could even conceive. By extending his power he could peer into the hidden parts and rearrange them, shifting the child safely beyond the reach of the guards. It was something he could do almost on instinct, in a matter of seconds. But he was distracted.

A faint glow fell across his vision, the unmistakable green of Nexic energy. At once he turned his eyes to the source. It drifted above the central tower of the castle, a writhing, contorting cloud of faint magic, twisting and oscillating in the characteristic way of something that was only partially present in reality. Over fractions of a second it intensified, whilst its movement steadied. He recognised it, of course, a preshadow, an echo of Nexic magic rippling into the present from a few moments ahead. From the shape and movement, a preshadow of teleportation, but the size and power of it was enormous. There was only one thing it could be, he realised, as the preshadow finally settled into its true form at the instant of transference. The intensity of the magic flared, momentarily blazing into true light, visible to all eyes. The great green dragon planted its weight with a dull thud and scrape of talons across unscathed rothstone. To common eyes, the graceful movement of interlocking green scales, the way the creature pivoted its weight effortlessly, the way it lifted itself into the air and landed again on the northern wing, the glare of those four intense eyes as it glanced over the courtyard was nothing short of magnificent. Yet its true majesty could only be glimpsed through the trained eye of a mage. Somewhere deep within its chest, a heart the size of a cauldron erupted magical energy with every beat, every surge of power easily the envy of even the greatest magi. It coursed through the dragon’s arteries, hidden beneath its armoured skin but visible to his Nexic Sight. Its power reached the skin itself, soaking through the scales and diffusing into the air around it.

“Dragon!” The guard screamed as he drew his short sword. The other did likewise and they ran towards the central tower. Athaleon looked up towards the creature, a fellow wanderer.

“Hello again, old friend.” He spoke to the air as he tugged on the reins. Simmion stirred into motion and pulled the cart through the gate and out into the city beyond. He heard the resonant thrust of wings like sails and felt the rush of air behind him as the dragon lifted itself into the air.

***

The rays of dawn glistened from the dew-kissed grass and danced across the leaves. The Mole wandered across the increasingly untamed land, keeping an eye on the path ahead and an ear on the path behind. A night of rest had restored his power to him, as it always did. He had risen before the first hint of sunlight, when the stars were yet to be hidden by the veil of the day. There were likely many hours of walking between himself and Tallus, and the sooner they found each other the better. He had woven basic wards about himself, nothing too complex or draining, but enough to turn aside the first blows of a sword or stop a handful of arrows short of their mark in the unlikely event someone got the jump on him. There was little a trained mage had to fear from common-blooded men, especially those who did not carry enchantments. Even those in the realm who possessed the gifts of the magi would be too terrified to reveal them, or else too ill-trained to pose a threat. Wizards were another matter, it was likely Otzia had already extended its unnatural reach in search of its recently-lost son, if not they certainly would soon. But they were above all an arrogant lot, their comfort in their own superior power was their most reliable deficiency. One of the few things he did not begrudge his fate for was a life lived in the world, rather than high above it.

As he walked between hills and small islands of trees he looked once again at the pathic ring on his finger. He focused on it and sent another thought.

Tallus. Maereen. Speak to me.

He listened to the silence in his mind. It was unlikely to have worked, such simple enchantments would not travel far enough, especially after the years they had worn them. He sensed something, however, almost below his conscious awareness. It was an intrinsic knowledge that the rings imparted to their wearers, allowing them to find one another when they were close. That he could sense a presence without a reply, that was concerning. He dropped his hand to his side and came to a halt.

He closed his eyes and focused his mind inwards, one of the countless mental exercises he had been forced to repeat endlessly in his youth. Centring his awareness was almost second-nature to him now, his breathing drifted to the centre of his consciousness almost without thought. Around it everything else revolved in the darkness, sensations and thoughts both. The Sanctum of the Mind, his master had once called it. Everyone had at least some level of power over their mind, he had learned, even if they lacked the power of the Psyche. From this place he could direct his focus with greater ease, he aimed it at the feeling that lurked almost out of reach and beneath its glare it opened like a flower coming into bloom. He waited for several long minutes as it grew upwards into his conscious mind, until he could keep it in check in the back of his mind. He opened his eyes and began to walk again.

They had not strayed too far from their planned route after all. Tallus had chosen it, a balance of the most direct route, whilst straying far enough from the towns and villages to move quickly and unchecked. The roads would become more dangerous by the hour as the search for the stolen children grew out from Artella like a disease. Pursuit would likely follow them here, but it would arrive later than had they taken the better-travelled roads. At least, that was on what Tallus had placed their hopes.

He heard the caw of the buzzard before he saw her. She lay at the edge of a spurt of trees, her back against a trunk. The bird was pecking at her face, and with a barely conscious thought he sent a stone at his feet whistling through the air. The creature protested and took to the air, leaving Maereen alone. As he approached her he saw the full extent of its feeding, her face was torn at the mouth and eyes, the eyeballs plucked out already. She had been dead for hours at least. The ring lay still around her finger, no longer witness to her thoughts. If she had been left like this then she was likely dead or close enough when Tallus last knew. At least he would be spared the task of telling the man. He knelt over her and ran his hands carefully through her pockets. One by one he removed her belongings, two daggers; a pouch of unlabelled vials; a collection of darts; another knife; a purity stone; a pair of small fire stones; three smaller knives; two bundles of sleepsmoke powder along with a larger bag of the same; another dagger tucked up her sleeve; the pathic ring on her finger; an intricate dart-thrower strapped to her other wrist; another pouch with a few rations of food; a small coin purse. The last item he took from her was a small copper ring tied around her neck with string. He examined it with a cold scrutiny. It was a signet ring, engraved with a symbol of three interlocking circles. Worth little in of itself, but its place close to her heart suggested it had more of a sentimental value. He had never known of it, or cared to ask if he did. It was of no use to him in any case. He wrapped her stiff fingers around it and eased her arms across her chest.

Every man deserves decency in death. Each of us owes at least that.

His master’s words rang in the depths of his memory. Foolish words. Death was death. What happened after meant nothing. Still, the thought of leaving her out here for the vermin and insects did not sit right with him, not truly. The Last Duty often fell to Terramancers like himself, they were of course best fit for the task.

As he stepped away from her he summoned a slither of his power. He sent it questing into the ground beneath himself, a limb of consciousness making the earth his own. He walked away from her, away from the trees. He conjured a ripple beneath her, a motion of the surface dirt to carry her gently away from the wood’s embrace. He turned back towards her as she came to rest above unspoiled ground. He extended his hands and his power in front of himself. He softened the ground beneath her, allowed her to sink slowly, gracefully beneath its surface as if it were an ocean ready to welcome her. The dirt and grass lapped over her face and solidified again, concealing her. He guided her down further, through topsoil and into the harder, denser earth. He laid her down within a deep layer of hidden stone, twisting it and wrapping it around her, locking her away. He restored it to solidity and retracted his magic. It was done, he thought to himself. Well, almost.

He struck down through the earth with his power like a lash, burying the tip in the stone that now held her. He bound a slither of it to his will and dragged it up from the depths. As it rose through the soil, unseen but not unheard, like a rising gout of molten rock, he focused his attention on its shape. It breached the surface with a burst of earthen power, finally settling into the form he had designed for it. With a final flare of Terramancy he imprinted a mark upon its wide, flat face: Three interlocking circles. A simple headstone, but suitable enough to mark her resting. He pulled back his power and let it settle within himself.

“It’s good to see that at least some of my lessons did not go unheeded.”

The voice caught him off guard, both with its sudden appearance and the kindling of memories. He had been foolish. In the moments he had dedicated to her burial, he had not noticed an old, forgotten pathway in his mind reassert itself. He knew even before his frenzied turn had brought his eyes to rest on him. His old master stood observing him, in every detail unchanged from the man he remembered. Wise Rellard stood tall and broad-shouldered, his earth-brown robes hanging from his frame in sleek vertical lines, pinned to them a circular brooch engraved with a pattern of four wizard’s hats, their points toward the centre. The symbol was that of the Wizengard, the brotherhood of the strongest Wizards of the age. A beard black as coal framed his square-jawed face, beneath the brim of his pointed hat two old eyes blazed copper-orange.

“Half a lifetime with not so much as a word.” The Mole spoke under his breath. “And now you show your face. To what do I owe the honour, Master?”

“Please, Temarul, you are no longer my student.”

“No, we settled that didn’t we.”

“Those were your terms, not mine.”

“Aye, and I stand by them. Get to the point, then get out of my head.”

“I’ve come to offer counsel.”

“I have no need of it.”

“Don’t you? You may not have thought of me these past years, Temarul, but I have thought of you.”

“That’s not my name.”

“So I have heard. You tossed it aside when you discarded everything else, and now you call yourself Mole.”

“It is what I am.”

“And what are you? What have you become? You have always had great skill, Temarul, more than any of my other students.”

“I find that hard to believe.”

“It is the truth. You’ve never been far from the lips of those in the Order. That alone should be a testament to your talent.”

“And yet it was not enough. ‘twas never enough, in your eyes.”

“Look at yourself, man. A King’s dog, made to bark at his command.”

“Burn in the pit.”

“You never did understand, and you never will.”

“Is that why you’re here, then? To remind me of how I failed, how I wasn’t good enough?”

“It is not.”

“Then out with it!”

“I’ve come to ask you to meet with me.”

Meet with you?”

“There are matters that need to be discussed, addressed.”

“I was under the impression any such matters were long since dealt with.”

“You have no idea, do you? You have always acted without consideration, I see that will never change. The Order will not tolerate such flagrant use of magic indefinitely.”

“They seem to have so far.”

“Because I have stalled them. Every time they spoke of you, I spoke in your defence, argued for leniency on your behalf. Convinced them that, in spite of your flaws, you are a good man. But that has all been for nought. It’s beyond my power now to stay their hand.”

“I never asked you.”

“You never had to. But now… by all the Gods Temarul you killed one of them. There’s no talking them down this time, they must act.”

“Let them come.”

“You have no idea. You still have no idea what they are capable of. They’ll kill you, Temarul, or worse.”

“What concern is it of yours?”

“Please, Temarul. Meet me in Morjia, turn yourself in. Together we can plea for leniency, at least get them to spare your life.”

“I’d rather trust my life to my own hands.”

“You don’t understand. They’ll name you Dark Mage.”

“And Gods forbid that be allowed to stain your reputation.” The Mole remarked. “That you trained a Dark Mage.”

“My concern is only for your sake.”

“Don’t insult me.”

Wise Rellard’s expression turned darker, the Mole felt the presence in his mind intensify.

“I am offering you a chance to come peacefully, Temarul. Regardless of how you feel about me, this matter has become mine to resolve. Rest assured I will do so, whether I have to drag you before the council bound and in chains or, First forbid, kill you myself.”

The Mole couldn’t help but let out a laugh. “If you wish to come and claim me, then by all means come. I would relish the challenge.”

He calmed his mind and focused on another of his learned meditations. As he prepared to force his master’s doorway into his mind closed he felt the slightest resistance, but his master’s consciousness held back. Rellard was a powerful Psychic, but he had also trained the Mole in mental defence. Over such a distance, across such a tenuous link, he had even odds of resisting, and his master was doubtless bound by the Wizard’s innumerable laws. The intent was clear, he was only here to talk. He could be dismissed without a fight.

“Why, Temarul? Why must you force my hand?” Rellard asked, his anger diminishing as he relinquished dominance of the Mole’s mind. “A confrontation between us can only mean one thing.”

“I’m not the boy I was.” The Mole replied in defiance. “I’ve had a lifetime to free myself of your lies, your limitations.”

Rellard shook his head. “If that is what you truly believe, then you are lost, more so than I had feared.”

“I outgrew your pity a long time ago, old man.”

“So be it.” The wizard said as the illusion of his presence began to unweave. “I’ll leave you with your stubborn pride. We shall meet again, and until we do I urge you to reconsider.”

Rellard vanished from his perception completely, and the Mole slammed the link between them closed in his mind.

Dark Mage.

The words carried a foreboding for any mage in the Kingdom, and the Mole knew their full meaning as well as anyone. The name itself was an accusation, conviction and sentence laid down upon those who abused their magic. A Dark Mage was an enemy of the crown, the land, to be hunted and killed. The bounty on such a man was sizeable, it was said a Dark Mage was worth twice their weight in silver. As much as he would deny it outwardly, Otzia was an ever-present force in the lives of all magi in Asamor. The combined will of the Orders of Wizardry was a force no man could stand before, and nothing united their will like hatred of those they named Dark Mage. Once, so long ago, he had held them in the same awe as any man, but the promise of joining them had gone unfulfilled and turned sour in his heart. He held little for them but hatred now, hatred enough that he would defy them. He wouldn’t let them have his fear, he wouldn’t run and cower.

He would face them.

He would fight them.

He would die.

***

She barely noticed the daylight. The trees, great living towers that they were, drank all the sunlight long before it reached the ground. Their branches sprouted and interwove into an ever-changing ceiling so high above Alexia’s head that it might as well have been the sky. She saw glimpses of blue only occasionally, through momentary holes in the roof of this world. The light that reached her was stripped of its essence and carried a taint of shadow. It mixed with the blue-green glow of the underside of the tree canopy to create an eerie presence. It felt like another world entirely, one where the heavens and the earth were held apart by great living columns a hundred men across. Between them smaller, perhaps younger, trees; vines and creepers threaded and swayed in the gentle breeze, a dance of leaves and flowers in a thousand different colours. And the animals that called these growing behemoths their home. The many she saw, from tiny iridescent insects and small, agile birds, creatures of fur and scale of all sizes, the largest always glimpsed in the distance, their eyes turned away from them. They were outnumbered a thousand to one by those she heard but could not see, a turbulent chorus of life and death.

And through its heart they walked, five elves and herself, so small and frail. It should have terrified her, but she felt no fear at all.

She always remained at the centre of the group. Out in front of her two elves lead them, one a man, large and strong, broke branch, trunk and root and swept the debris aside with no more than a wave of his hand. She could hear the straining and snapping of wood, the scattering of creatures as he tore a passage for them with magic.

Behind him strode a she-elf, a woman with a youthful body but old eyes, doubtless their leader. She moved with a determined step, made somehow more present than her small stature would otherwise dictate.

Two more elves kept pace with Alexia. To her left another she-elf, seemingly younger than the leader, although Alexia could not tell how she felt she knew that. The woman was slender, wearing loose-fitting clothes, her curls of fiery red hair tied behind her head.

To her right an elven man prowled, his muscular chest, arms and legs uncovered. His hair was long and coal-black, but it was his eyes that most drew her attention. They were unlike those of the others, inhuman and keen like the eyes of a hawk. He kept his gaze fluid as he glanced around, peering into depths of the forest she couldn’t even fathom.

Behind her the last of the group, another male, his hands in constant motion as he conjured renewed growth in the damaged trees, knitting the forest back together after their passing.

They spoke to each other, but did so in their native tongue. Try as she might, she could not understand them, but each time the leader spoke she found meaning in her words. She couldn’t make sense of it at all. She knew that all elves were all magi, that was about all she knew about them from what little she had been taught. But magic itself was nothing more than an idea in her head until these last few days. The stone bracelets that still hung upon her wrists were a mere taste of it, and now she felt completely immersed.

The hawk-eyed elf sniffed at the air and stopped. At the same instant she felt an impulse to do the same and found her legs had already followed it. The rest of the group came to a halt just as abruptly, the sounds of carnage up ahead and creaking branches behind dying to reveal the serene ambience hiding beneath. The leader turned back towards the hawk-eyed elf.

“What is it, Jaral?” She asked in elvish.

He replied in the same tongue, but Alexia could not decipher his words.

“How far?” She asked. He answered. She thought for a moment, then she gave him a glance upwards. He nodded and stepped away from the group. Alexia watched in awe as his muscles visibly grew. His fingers became longer and sprouted thick hooked claws at the tips, and his feet underwent a greater transformation, toes shifting and growing to become more like the fingers of his hands. He launched himself in an impossible leap and rebounded between the thick trunks of the nearby trees with unparalleled agility, hands and feet driving their claws into the bark at every bound. Within moments he had scaled half the height of the forest and vanished into the endless growth above them.

“Form yourselves around the human.” The leader commanded. “We have come far too close as it is.”

The elf behind Alexia said something and the others laughed. The leader did not seem at all amused and quickly silenced them with a glare as they moved into a tighter circle around her.

“What’s happening?” She asked, though she was sure they didn’t understand her.

“Kendrae, up ahead.” The elf behind her said in elvish. “If we stray too close to their nests they will attack.”

“You’re thinking of running.” The leader spoke without turning to face her. Alexia hadn’t realised but it was true, over the past hours the thought of escaping into the dense growth had been forming in her mind.

“Don’t.” The leader warned.

A shrill roar pierced the forest ahead of them. A sudden fear flooded into Alexia and wrapped itself around her muscles, chilling her to the bone and holding her in place. She heard movement somewhere ahead, the flutter of a thousand feathered wings and the straining of branches. Something caught her eye above. It moved fast, so fast that by the time she had raised her head to see it had slammed into the trunk of a tree behind them. A crunch of bone and bark, and the body slumped forwards and fell towards them. It landed before her, and she felt something warm and wet splatter her face. He lay there, motionless. The hawk-eyed elf, the one they had called Jaral, his body broken and torn open from groin to chin. His eyes looked up at her as he sputtered and coughed for breath through ravaged lungs.

She heard them then, the roars, the beating of powerful wings as monsters stirred. She could sense them, somehow, a shadow of death reaching around the trees towards them, as she stood and watched a dying man.

“Stay close!” The leader commanded.

Alexia’s body tore itself from her stupor, some part of her acting without her full awareness, doing what it could to keep her alive.

She ran.

Tomorrow Man – Part XX

The last light of the day hugged the western horizon, a distant blanket of amber sat in contrast to the impossibly deep blue of the impending night. The first stars already shone, pricks of light in the veil of the sky, and the tiny red orb of Averol hung amongst them.

An omen of unrest.

The thought struck Tallus as both oddly prophetic and entirely banal. Unrest was hardly a rare occurrence, nor was the appearance of the wandering star in the night sky. He knelt beside his horse, his hand on his sword, his eyes drinking in the darkness around him. They were stood at the edge of a large and unkempt pasture, far from the dim fires of the sparse farmhouses. The Everliving forest stood just before them, transformed from a distant green carpet to a mighty wall of growth, tall and impassable as the mountains to the very north of the kingdom. A gentle, living blue-green glow reached out from its depths, almost inviting them into its clutches.

His attention was drawn to three points of intense orange light part-way up one of the thick trees. Eyes, regarding them. Some creature he did not recognise. The grip on his sword tightened. It let out a shrill call into the cavernous night, a cry that either rebounded or was answered from elsewhere within the forest, he couldn’t be sure. He broke his gaze with it for a moment to check that his cargo hadn’t moved. They remained sat by their sleeping horses, fighting off sleep themselves. He quickly turned back only to see the eyes surging towards them, borne on a pair of hooked wings silhouetted against the forest glow. He was on his feet, sword in his hand, his body readying itself for combat. The beast turned away and rose into the night, revealing unnerving claws at the end of its wings.

“Son of a bitch.” He said under his breath. He had faced down more men than he cared to recall, yet a single beast of the Everliving forest had him shaking like a boy on his first battlefield. The forest was supposed to be teeming with such monsters, and worse. No man who had wandered beyond sight of its edge had ever returned. He didn’t envy the girl her future as he wondered how the elves could live in such a place, where even the birds could make a meal of a man.

Where are they?

They had arrived as the sun touched the western horizon, and had waited as it set. The instructions had been simple enough: reach the edge of the forest and the elves would find them. He hoped they would hold up their end of the bargain, before something else found them first. The thought was dwelling in his mind to turn back and wait for morning when he felt the slightest prick at the very edge of his consciousness. His years of mental discipline had left him no more immune to psychic influence than any common man, but he could still sense intrusion.

The ground beneath him shuddered and he stumbled. As he regained his footing he glanced around hastily to understand what was going on. The falling darkness worked against him, but he could make out a large band of earth around them being churned and torn apart as great roots grew like tendrils reaching from the forest. Where they leapt up above ground he could see a dim green glow, Aetheric magic, as they plunged back down into the ground. He watched as, within moments, they curved around and joined behind them, forming a great circle that thickened and then grew quickly towards the sky. Saplings sprouted before his eyes, thickening and reaching upwards, pushing through perhaps decades of normal growth in seconds. It was as if the forest itself had reached out and enclosed them, creating a makeshift fortress of living wood, a makeshift prison forbidding their escape.

As his eye was drawn upwards he glimpsed motion, at least a dozen figures swung and leapt between the newly formed branches as they entwined. They moved with a graceful agility that was evidently gained from a life amongst the trees, and a superior strength not uncommon amongst life-magi. They circled around them and took up positions, neither hiding nor making their presence obviously known. They each took a bow from their backs and nocked what he hoped were arrows.

He took his hand away from his blade as a second group dashed out across the ground to surround them. As they closed he saw long flowing hair, the exact shades of which were lost to the darkness, fair skin and pointed ears. They wore a light armour of bark as much grown as made, and long blades of sharp horn, thorn and bone. As they took up their positions around him he felt the imposing presence of psychic magic, hiding from his awareness. He could recognise Illupathy when subjected so heavily to it. Someone was toying with his senses, creating illusions in his mind. He would certainly be unable to tell what around him was real, but knowing he couldn’t trust what he saw lessened his disadvantage. In the back of his mind he was already weighing up his chances. Some or even all of the warriors around him were likely illusory, and his dragon-steel blade would slice through their weapons without much effort. But he was likely outnumbered, and even a single genuine archer above would spell doom. And that wasn’t counting the extent of the hold the psychic had on him.

It’s impossible. Don’t fight. Give in.

He had to hold in a laugh. The attempted suggestion bordered on pathetic, imparted with force over subtlety. Shifting his thoughts to divert the invading notion with relative ease.

“Let’s dispense with the theatrics, if it’s all the same to you.” He called out.

“You have the girl.” A female voice called back in the Elvish tongue. Whether it was the enchantment in his own mind or the psychic’s influence that bound meaning to the words he couldn’t say.

“I do.” He replied.

“Relinquish her as agreed.” The disembodied voice commanded. The elves around them took a step closer, the grip on their weapons tightening.

“I have a condition.” He called back. “A request.”

“Your conditions are irrelevant. Our agreement is with your king, you will not amend it.”

“Please, one of our group was wounded. She’s near death, only half a day’s ride from here. You’re the only healers with any chance of saving her…”

“Your companions are not our concern.” The voice replied, devoid of sympathy. “Nor is it our intent to practice magic within Artellathwaine.”

“I only need one of you. I’ll personally guarantee their safety.”

“Your word holds nothing. We take what is ours. Stand aside.”

The elves stepped closer and raised their blades. This was pointless, they were never going to help him. The best he could hope for was to get out of this alive. He reached for his blade but they were already upon him. A blade gouged through his leg and agony ripped through him. He collapsed to his knees and gasped at the cold air. He felt the warm blood run down his leg. He saw one elf lift the girl over his shoulder. She offered no resistance, nor was the boy alarmed. Their young minds were less of a match it seemed. The others surrounded him, weapons ready, preventing him from intervening. The elf that carried her launched into a run, powered by unnatural strength he covered the distance to the forest in a matter of seconds. Before Tallus had realised exactly what was happening the two of them had vanished into the trees. At once three of the remaining elves turned away from him. Two launched into their own incredible run, the third, a woman, vanished in a flash of green light. The rest collapsed into dark smoke and quickly faded from existence. A moment later the pain in his leg subsided and the wound too dissipated. He was almost impressed, he could have sworn it was real. The arboreal wall around them crumbled to a similar smoke. As he felt the psychic’s influence recede from his mind he wondered what, if anything, had been real.

The girl was gone, that much at least had happened, and the boy was only now rousing from whatever spell he had been put under. He began to panic, gasping and screaming as the ordeal of watching his sister be carried away caught up to him. He ran towards the forest as fast as his legs could bear him, but he didn’t get far before he collapsed from exhaustion and his screams reduced to tears and muted cries. Tallus walked up behind him and grabbed him by the scruff of the neck. As he lifted the small child and carried him he spoke sternly.

“Keep your tears to yourself, kid. We’ve got a long way to go yet.”

***

Witches could always find a home in darkness. That was what Zoyelle had always been told at least. She preferred the daylight hours, but with the days spent conjuring and lending magic to the smallfolk, she understood why the business of witching always ended up banished to the darkness. She clutched her knees to her chest as she sat by the crackle of the fire, set in a circle of stones in the heart of an otherwise deserted thicket of trees on an unassuming hillside. Granny Hark sat opposite her, aged features and creased skin given greater depth by the dance of shadows on her face. Around them the darkness lingered, its tendrils held at bay by the light of the fire. Somewhere in the shadows Yollen lurked, awaiting his master’s call. She also heard the sounds of restless wildlife, as awake as if it were day.

She looked up and caught Turnip clambering in the branches, his claws digging into the bark. His head twisted this way and that as he watched creatures, bats most likely, zipping about in the firelight.

She had been to this place on few occasions. One of the many meeting places dotted throughout the kingdom, it marked a position roughly equidistant from Granny Hark’s hovel on Gallow’s Reach and the homes of two other Elders. The last time they had all met in her presence was to decide her membership in the Sisterhood. Now, it seemed, they would do so again.

The small white dragon spat a gout of Aetheric magic through the air, striking a creature mid-flight. The small black shape fell, and Turnip leapt, beat his wings once, and caught it in his jaws. He landed awkwardly, digging his claws into another tree, and settled on a branch to eat his pirze.

A rustling caught her attention as from the shadows another witch slowly emerged. An old crone, almost bent double in her thick black cloak, her head hidden under a floppy hat, she shuffled towards them, a gnarled branch of a walking stick bearing most of her weight. As she hobbled, a creature dashed through the undergrowth ahead of her. Zoyelle spotted the flash of a bushy ginger tail as the cat bounded around the rim of the firelight and came to a stop at her feet. Two glowing eyes regarded her as she reached out and tickled him between his ears.

“Absolutely no good at all.” The witch muttered under breath as she moved to sit on a stone next to Hark. “Dragging us out here in the middle of the night!”

“Stop your moaning, you old bat.” Hark replied.

“Exactly! I’m old, need my rest, I do! Seb, get back over here!”

She screamed at the cat, who turned and bolted back towards her.

“Useless. Should never have bothered with him. Cats make such poor familiars, too easily distracted!”

“Evening, Elder Ganswick.” Zoyelle called over the fire. The witch raised a stone-grey eye to look at her.

“Oh hello, Agnis dear! How nice to see you after all these years!” She cooed. “You found a fella yet?”

Zoyelle shook her head.

“Oh dear, me dear. You should make a start on that! You’re not going to be a pretty young thing forever, you know. Before you know it you’ll be old and dusty!”

“Cybil, please!” Hark called out, as much with her mind as her mouth.

“Oh don’t you start, you prune! Just ‘cos you never had time for it don’t mean she’s the same.”

“Shouldn’t have time for it. Too damn busy, why else d’we meet out here at this ungodly hour? Makes me wonder where you found the time to have a family.”

“Only makes sense, gotta have someone to carry on the work when you’re dead an’ gone.”

“Speak for yourself.” A third voice called out from the nearby shade. Zoyelle hadn’t heard the other witch approach. Elder Cudders stalked towards them with an agility and grace that betrayed experience. Her appearance always struck Zoyelle, ever blessed with the youthful beauty and radiance possible only of a life-mage. Since their last meeting so long ago Zoyelle could swear that the woman who now sat across from her looked younger than she herself. It was especially disconcerting when she considered the fact that, despite her appearance, Elder Cudders had seen more years than all three of them combined.

“How are you fine ladies this night?” Cudders asked.

“Falling to bits.” Ganswick replied. Hark just let out a grunt.

“Well, the three of us are gathered.” Cudders continued.”Shall we begin proceedings? Wouldn’t want to keep you from your beds, after all.”

“Fall down a well, you immortal bint.” Hark snapped.

“Be more than obliged to provide the well.” Ganswick joked.

“Three elders are gathered.” Cudders ignored them. “As the fire burns, so we gather as Sisters. As those that came before, and those who come after. In the King’s name…”

“Oh, get on with it!” Ganswick bellowed.

“The words are important, Cybil!” Cudders scolded.

“We’ve all said ‘em a hundred times an’ heard ‘em a thousand times.”

Cudders sighed and adjusted her position.

“I, Elder Cudders, speak for the Sisterhood.”

“I, Elder Hark, speak for the Sisterhood.”

“I, Elder Ganswick, speak for the Sisterhood.”

“Let us begin. Elder Hark, as she who called us together, you have the first word.”

The three elders sat in the light of the fire, forming the single governing unit in the Sisterhood of Magic. There was no greater authority in Witchcraft, no matter what the transgression or issue, even if it involved a Noble Lord or the King himself, it could be settled here, between these three women.

“The subject at hand is that of a transgression between Sister Agnis and Lord Miteus Whetherhall, Noble Lord of Artellathwaine.”

“Never liked ‘em Whetherhalls.” Ganswick interrupted. “Met ‘is father once. Tried to have me burned at stake!”

“Is tall tales, is all that.” Hark snapped back. “I’ve known you my whole life, you’ve never stepped further south than Eckle’s Creek!”

“You callin’ me a liar?”

“I’m callin’ you a daft rag.”

“Ladies, please.” Cudders said. “If Sister Agnis would like to speak her side of this.”

Ganswick fought down a giggle and tried her best to appear adequately serious. Zoyelle took a long breath and recalled the encounter, as best as she could remember it. Five elderly eyes watched her as she spoke, transfixed by her words. She could feel their judgement, though they hid it well. Her recounting was met with silence from two of the three. Elder Ganswick punctuated the tale with gasps, chirps of outrage and the occasional whoop.

After she had finished, for several long minutes only the crackle of the fire could be heard.

“This is the truth as you know it, Sister?” Cudders asked.

“I sense no falsehood in her.” Hark replied.

“Course you don’t.” Ganswick added.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Hark snapped.

“Well she’s your witchling, might be you won’t see what you don’t want to.”

“Watch your words, Doryla, or I’ll tie ‘em in knots!”

“I’ll bury your bony arse before you got ‘alf a chance, an’ you know it!”

“Ladies, please!” Cudders barked. “Sister Agnis, do you swear it?”

“I do. That’s how it happened.”

“That Lord’s out o’ his place, you ask me.” Ganswick stated as she stroked her cat.

“Nobody did.” Hark replied. “But I be in agreement, it’s a clear transgression on his part.”

“No doubt he tore down that lovely cottage of yours. Ought to do same t’ him, and again. Twice in turn an’ all that.”

“Twice in turn is all well and good, Elder Ganswick, but these matters concern a Lord of the Realm.” Cudders cut her off. “We must be more measured, lest the King and Court turn against us.”

“Aye, and you can bet the Wizards would jump at a chance to put us in our place.” Hark added.

“Your challenge was valid and ignored. That much is clear and indisputable.” The ancient young witch continued. “His accusation should have been brought before the Sisterhood. His actions were no less than an attack on us.”

“Should teach ‘im what happens when you hassle a witch.” Ganswick growled. “No other way, there is.”

“However, the House of Wetherhall has in these last few days been dealt a blow by decree of the Crown, in direct response to a transgression against our kind.”

“You mean the damned Elves.” Hark interrupted.

“All mageblood are kin in some respects, Sister.”

“Only some.” Ganswick muttered.

“Nevertheless,” Cudders continued. “To seek recompense through any channel, official or otherwise.” She shot a glare at Ganswick. “Would be ill-timed. It could tip wounded pride into bitter anger.”

“Agreed.” Hark nodded.

“Therefore I believe it best if we appear the voice of reason in this. Sister Agnis, I am correct in believing you still practice a great deal of potioncraft?”

“I do, Elder Cudders.” Zoyelle replied. “It is my main craft, along with some enchantment and a little spellcraft.”

“And you gift or trade such potions to the smallfolk who come to your home?”

“I do.”

“And at least some of those must come from across the border, from Artellathwaine itself?”

“Most, in fact.”

Hark grunted and nodded, understanding Cudder’s point. “Can you say for certain that none took potions or enchantments across the border?”

“I can’t.” Zoyelle admitted.

“Aye.” Hark nodded again.

“Potions and enchantments are considered magic under law.” Cudders adjusted herself as she fixed Zoyelle with an empathetic look. “Knowingly supplying such to a realm where magic is outlawed could constitute a breach of the King’s Law.”

“No just law would punish such a thing!” Ganswick protested.

“Still, Lord Wetherhall may have an argument against you, Sister Agnis. His actions are, regardless, inexcusable, but the matter I fear cannot be laid to rest.”

“You can’t mean that, Sister.” Hark turned towards Cudders. “She’s been chased out of her home, surely that’s punishment enough!”

“I propose we reach out. Send a message to Lord Wetherhall, that his accusation has been heard and the Sisterhood do offer to settle this matter. An invitation, so that accuser and accused may stand before the Elders and arbitrate the challenge to his ruling.”

“He’d never listen. Not in a hundred ages.” Hark snorted.

“He’d probably insist the challenge be settled by Court.” Ganswick added.

“He can’t. The arbitrators of challenge must be chosen by the issuer.” Cudders said.

“Well, until such time as he accepted our offer,” Hark mused, “His judgement would be challenged, and as for his actions, those could be justified by the outcome of challenge. It wouldn’t be settled, but it would be out of the Sisterhood’s hands for the time being.”

“It would be out of our hands indefinitely. Would never go for it.” Ganswick said.

“So we are agreed?” Cudders asked. Hark nodded.

“Still think we should tear down his castle.” Ganswick muttered. The others shot her a glare and she relented. “Oh all right, fine.”

“Good. Any other matters needing our attention?”

“Dunno, Cudders. You have anything?” Ganswick asked with no hint of subtlety.

“I don’t know what you mean.” Cudders looked away.

“Sister Iggy!” Ganswick cooed. She turned to Hark. “You heard the latest about Iggy?”

“Don’t tell me: she turned her latest chap into a frog.” Hark replied dispassionately.

“Who told you?! Bet ‘twas Sister Jessa, wasn’t it? Such a natterer, that one. Used to dread goin’ to sleep, worried she might pop into yer dream and never leave.”

“Nobody told me nothin’, you bag o’ gas. Iggy’s always turning him and her into frogs.”

“People like her give Witchcraft a bad name.”

“Don’t know where she gets it.”

The two crones turned to Cudders.

“Don’t look at me.” She said without turning her head. “I never taught her animism. She picked that up from somewhere else. Took me near a week to unweave that spell of hers.”

“Hope the lad’s alright.” Hark sighed.

“Mostly. Still tries to catch flies with his tongue every now and then.”

“I really thought he’d be the one, you know.” Ganswick mused. “Figured she’d settle down, have kids. Not turn him into a frog.”

“You’re a daft rag, you are.” Hark chided. “Something wrong in the head, that Iggy. Best make the poor lad forget the whole thing.”

“Well that was always your problem!”

“What?”

“Makin’ ‘em forget! You’d make ‘em forget the break-up, the relationship, you…”

“Best that way. No time for it. Nothing but trouble.”

“You ne’er gave it a chance, t’is your trouble.”

“Shut it! Anyway, I say we bring Sister Iggy before the gathering. Decide what’s to be done wi’ her.”

“Can’t argue wi’ that.”

“The matter is in hand.” Cudders glared at Ganswick. “I’ll deal with her. I’m her Elder, after all.”

“Too soft on ‘er, you are.” Hark said. “You bring her ‘ere, I’ll bend ‘er straight, no worry ‘bout that.”

Ganswick cackled.

“Well, if you two are in agreement I suppose it’s probably for the best. Anything else or shall we bring an end to these proceedings?”

“There is one.” Zoyelle spoke timidly, looking at Hark for any sign of affirmation or protest. “A Dark Mage plagues our lands.”

“Aye.” Hark continued. “A life-mage with an unfriendly habit of vampirism.”

“A Sister?” Cudders asked.

“Nay, almost certain ‘tis a man.”

“Ha!” Ganswick spat. “Let the Wizards deal with ‘im, then. They want to rule over all mageblood, let ‘em clean up the mess.”

“Pointy-hatted arses never get anythin’ done.” Hark said. “An’ whilst they sit and twiddle their thumbs he prays on the young’uns.”

“’s not right, that.” Ganswick said. “How can we help?”

“It’s in hand, I think. Agnis and myself are seeing to ‘im. She brewed up a batch o’ Witherfang which should poison the well o’ his power, an’ once I get my fingers into his mind I’ll make sure he don’t harm another soul.”

“Never been one who could vex you for long, eh?” Ganswick nudged Hark.

“Vampirism is a sinister thing.” Cudders added. “Especially when it is twisted to serve some mage’s purpose. Witherfang is the best course to take, find the beast and unbind him from his victims.”

“I intend to do just that.” Hark replied. Zoyelle remained silent, if her Elder wished to share the truth, that even after countless nights prying into the man’s mind she had made no progress, then she would say so now.

“You need ‘ny help just let us know, love.” Ganswick said. “Be more than happy to bury the sod, let him live the rest of his days with rock in ‘is throat.”

Hark grunted at the thought. “Well, the morning light grows near, if there is nothing other to speak of then I bid you ladies farewell. Come along, Agnis.”

Hark eased herself to her feet. Zoyelle got up and quelled the flames in the pit with her magic. As darkness settled in she heard the two other Elders move off through the trees. The stone golem stepped towards Hark and herself as the old woman conjured arcs of green energy between her fingers. She felt herself pulled into the old woman’s magic as ripples of distortion churned through her. Her feet lifted from the ground for an instant as a flash of green light consumed the forest around them.

They stood in the garden outside Hark’s cottage, atop Gallow’s Reach. The same darkness surrounded them, and a chill wind howled through the distant ruin of Gallowfell castle, although Zoyelle couldn’t be sure it was truly the wind that howled. The leaves that crowned the Wizard’s makeshift home beyond the gate, a small group of trees grown and weaved together into a small circular enclosure. Hark had already shuffled through her door and disappeared inside. She wandered after her, into the warmth of the still-burning fire.

Tomorrow Man – Part XIX

Castle Artella stood in the very heart of the city, a great drum that straddled the cliff face between land and sea. From the fields to the east, the castle looked relatively unremarkable, a drum of dull grey stone surrounded by a horseshoe moat. From the harbour, the castle was a monolithic column of rock planted deep into the ground, its shadow stretching all the way to the harbour walls and gradually retreating through the morning. The shadow hugged the base of the castle now, shrouding only a few buildings around a courtyard built close to its base. The Worshipper’s Court had once been the site of the Temple of Banthos in the old city, the walls long since torn down and forgotten. The floor of the temple, a once-intricate pattern of tile and stone, now half worn away by centuries of rain, wind and the feet of the devout. In the centre of the square stood a lump of ancient stone, what remained of Banthos’ divine form, lost beneath unnatural deformation and erosion. It was one of a handful of ruins dotted throughout Artella, the last relics of the old city. The temple itself had never been rebuilt, yet it had retained some shred of its heritage in that it had since become a place of open worship for any and all Gods of the Pantheon.

Harold stood before the statue of Banthos. He squinted, trying to see the contours of the God that once stood there. It did sort of look like a man, although the proportions were wrong somehow, as if the arms were too long. He could remember his parents bringing him to the court a hundred times, the Blessing Day celebrations forming the clearest and happiest of those memories. At the same time he could recall a single day, buried deep in the wastes of history beyond the reach of scroll and tome. It had only been the previous night for him, another nightmare wrenching him from his sleep. His nostrils filled with the memory of acrid, choking smoke of things that ought not burn. His ears rang with the forgotten sounds, the roar of a sky set ablaze, the creak and crack of stones baked to dust, the screams. His skin bristled with the thought of impossible heat, the air itself becoming fire.

It had been here, where he stood and didn’t stand, on the day the city burned and the temple fell. It was nothing, an echo of a memory drowned out by the choirs of history so long before. And yet it was here, solid beneath his feet. The city remembered, if not the raw horror then the dry facts, recorded in words unfit to bear the burden. Perhaps that was his duty, the purpose of the Farseer’s chosen, to carry the knowledge, to bear witness.

His mind was dragged back to the present by the call of the Novices of Flying Tzion. Three stood at the corner of the square, young men wrapped in black robes. They sang one of the Verses of Tzion, a long chorus in a language as old as the stones beneath his feet, perhaps older. A small crowd of onlookers had gathered, although they had been drawn not by the song but by the Scrollbearer. Harold had been unable to resist his own curiosity, stealing a glance at the man who had stood unflinching since the sun had risen. Clad in black robes that billowed in the wind, his face shrouded by mask and hood, and on his back a cylindrical scroll case sealed with wax and engraved with Tzionic runes. Around him stood six guardians, similarly attired but wielding long wooden staffs, each solid as stone in their role as protector. The Scrollbearer was a rare sight for common folk, but served as both an attraction and example of Flying Tzion’s influence on Earth. For the first time in his life Harold felt a kind of kinship, they were each the mortal component of something much greater. They moved through life as any man, with no more control over their path than a boulder rolling down a mountain side. They only knew how little power they truly had, trapped as much as those poor souls who cowered in this very place so long ago, praying for protection that was never bestowed.

“It’s definitely big enough.” Magarth said as he stepped up behind Harold, a crust of fish bread in his hand. “Very intimidating.”

“The castle?”

“Aye. No doubt who’s in charge around here.”

“I suppose it is, never really noticed.”

“I’ve seen bigger and stronger, but considering it was built with hand alone it’s impressive nonetheless.” The old man said as he bit off another mouthful. “But I think we’ve done enough sightseeing. Don’t you have a message to deliver?”

“Not yet.”

“I thought you’d raced back here, said time was short, so why wait?”

“I don’t really think I can explain it. It’s just not time yet.”

“This another dream you had?”

“No, more a feeling. As if this is one of those stage plays they put on for the kids, you know. If someone does their bit too early it ruins the story.”

“This is real life, son. Not a play.”

“I know. It still feels the same though, somehow.”

***

Tallus rode silently at the head of the small group, each of his senses stretched as far as he could manage. Progress had been slower than he had hoped as they avoided the tracks, instead riding over the gentle rolling hills towards the distant green wall of the Everliving forest. Somewhere behind them King’s men and Artella’s forces both were doubtless closing. To the east, hidden somewhere beyond the invading outcrop of growth, Forest’s End was probably raising a force of its own. They were heading deeper into a trap, and without his mage he felt hopelessly exposed. The girl at least was still held by her terrified stupor, cooperative enough to avoid being a problem whilst setting a helpful example to the boy. It was just as well, he was unsure if he could control them, let alone fend off any attackers.

Maereen rode at the back, worrying him most of all. Despite her denials, her condition had been growing steadily worse as time wore on. She knew he wasn’t a fool, recognising injuries amongst fellow fighters was something a man learned quickly or not at all. Her blood was going bad, he’d seen such enough times before, and now she could scarcely stay in her saddle. He hated himself for forcing her to go on but there was little else to do. They were trapped in the only realm devoid of healers, and they couldn’t spare the time to let her rest. She would either fight through it and live, or fall and die, and the journey was almost certain to kill her.

His ears picked up the slump of flesh hitting soft ground. He had waited long enough, expecting to hear it at any moment. She had got so far it had surprised even him.

He pulled his beast to a stop and dropped to his feet. He rushed back to her and knelt, lifting her head onto his lap. With his single hand he groped for his water skin and put it to her lips. As she drifted in and out of consciousness he looked to her thigh. He could tell by sight and smell that the wound had turned to rot.

“Sorry b… boss.” She sputtered. “Just so… tired.”

“Don’t you go giving up on me.” He said with all the confidence he could muster. “It’s just a bit further, the elves’ll heal you.”

“My fault… should have… seen it… my own damn knife…”

“Come on!” He barked, hoping in vain that he could command her to live. “A few more miles!”

“Don’t think I’ve… got it in me, boss.” She whispered as her eyes blinked closed. He waited agonising seconds before they opened again.

“Fine, we rest here. You get your strength back, and we set out at first light tomorrow.”

“No boss… I’ll just slow you down, we both know it.”

“Bullshit. I am not leaving you here to die! We’ve got through worse scrapes than this before, so stop this fucking attitude right fucking now!” He almost screamed the last words.

“Stop this… attitude… you’ve lost people before…”

“None of them were you!”

He thought he saw her smile at that. “Feeling is for fools… and dead men…” She coughed in an atrocious imitation of his own voice.

“Didn’t I ever tell you not to believe everything that comes out of my Gods’ damned mouth? You’re coming with us, even if I have to carry you my damned self!”

“How’re you… gonna… do that?” She said as her eyes closed again.

“This hand killed a dragon, I’m sure it can manage you.”

“You’re… wasting time. You need to… fulfil… duty…”

He felt tears on his cheeks as his mind raced, searching for a way but finding none. As the sun fell in the western sky it cast her face in a pale light. The reality crowded around him, his missing arm ached as he felt utterly powerless. He gripped the water skin in his hand tighter.

“Okay.” He relented. “You rest here.”

He half-carried, half-dragged her to one of the trees in a nearby dense burst of vegetation that seemed to punctuate the landscape. As he rested her back against it he whispered into her ear.

“We’ll go on ahead, but I’m coming back for you. If I have to drag one of those pointy-eared bastards back by his fucking hair to get you well again, be damned sure I’ll do it.”

She coughed heavily.

“Stay alive.” He spoke softly. “That’s an order. If you’ve gone before I get back, I’ll challenge the bell-ringer himself if I have to.”

He stood and walked towards his horse. He didn’t turn back, he couldn’t. He refused to look at her one last time. As he mounted and moved away his two wards followed him.

“Will she be okay?” Alexia Wetherhall asked.

“Yes.” He lied. “She’ll be fine.”

***

The ruling chamber of Castle Artella sat under the thick blanket of night. The torches in the wall sconces positioned around the cavernous hall were swallowed by the shadow, the guards stood either side of each still and silent. Lady Jalice Wetherhall sat in her seat beside the empty wooden throne, her face held hostage to worry. Beside her Sir Allian stood guard, clad in his shining armour, his sword sheathed but not far from his hand. Beyond the thick stone walls the sounds of upheaval filtered in, Lord Miteus had returned.

Micharus hid in the corner beneath a cloak of shadows as he watched his mother. He felt a shiver wash across him, the castle had felt so cold since he had appeared here, yet he was sure it was only a few days since he had left. It seemed a different place to him, not his home. Not any more. Something had changed, that was all he knew, as if the whole world around him was sick.

The great wooden doors opened with a thunderous clunk. His mother stood, her face hollow as his father entered the hall. Two guards preceded him and three followed, alongside two servants carried bronze lanterns to light his way. Micharus watched as their eyes met, his mother’s vacant and bloodshot, his father’s warm as they always were when he returned from a long journey. She managed three cautious steps to the edge of the dias, accompanied by Sir Allian, whilst his father almost ran to her and embraced her.

“My love,” He almost sobbed into her hair. “I am so, so sorry for what I have done to us.”

She was silent as he pulled back slightly so that he could look into her eyes.

“I promise you, with every beat of my heart, that I will return our children. The King assures me they will be safe.”

“I know, husband.” She spoke with a shaking voice. “I trust our King that they will be cared for, but…”

“They will be. The Stonnegarth’s are honourable men, Hadnar is of my blood. They will do no harm by our boy.”

“And what of our Alexia? Can the elves be trusted?”

“The King claims they can be. But if they harm a single hair on her head, by all the Gods I swear I’ll burn their forest to the ground!”

“Please, Miteus, there is already so much talk of war!” She cried, tears appearing on her cheeks.

“Let’s not speak of it.” He whispered as he embraced her once more. “I’ve been away from you for too long, and the kingdom be damned if I am kept from you a moment longer. I refuse to hear another word of war until I have awoken with my wife asleep at my side.”

“Oh, Miteus!” She wailed into his cloak. “Why have they done this to us?”

“The fault is mine, but I will set it right. Take me to Micharus, my love, I would see my son.”

There was a long pause. Micharus’ ears pricked up at the mention of his name. He strained his head closer, never daring to leave the safety of the shadows. Even with the commotion in the corridor outside there was a chasm of silence in the hall, as if the sound itself dare not enter. It hung there, in the air, delicate as a snowflake, until his mother’s words shattered it.

“My love…”

“What?” He asked tenderly. “What is it?”

“It’s…” She was visibly shaking now. “It’s Mich…”

“Mich? What about him?”

“He’s… gone…”

“What do you mean, gone?!” He half-asked, half-demanded as he stepped away from her.

“The wizards have taken him, my love.”

“The w…” He could scarcely finish the word before the anger visibly rose in him. He placed a hand on her shoulder. “The King made no mention of this. If this is true then it is against his word and my oath as Lord of the Realm. If they have taken our child then he will side with us. Every Lord will side with us. We will force them to give him back.”

He turned and began walking away. “Sir Laywood!” He called. “Get me Sir Laywood at once!”

“Wait, husband!” She called out after him. “You don’t understand!”

“Every Lord of the Realm was vowed never to cower before the Wizards, Jal. We are all bound by honour, duty and law to uphold that vow. Our outrage will be theirs…”

“He’s one of them!” She screamed in a desperate attempt to stop him. Micharus remained rooted to the spot as he watched his father stop in his tracks and slowly turn towards her. He heard the quiet song of steel as somewhere, someone slowly drew a sword.

“I beg your pardon, my love?”

“Micharus… he’s one of them. He’s mageblood.”

Mageblood.

The word hung in the air, thick like poisonous smoke. He watched his father stand there, motionless, as it sank into his skin.

“That’s impossible.” He spoke in a harsh whisper laden with a quiet rage. “It is not true!”

“I’m sorry, my love!” She cried.

He paced back towards her. “There has been no mageblood in my family for generations.”

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…”

“You. I should have known. Your Gods-be-damned uncle, that bastard cousin. Did my father bond me to a tainted bloodline?”

“Please, don’t call my…”

“And you. Are you one of them? Did you bewitch him? Did you twist my father’s mind? Did you bewitch me?”

“No, I didn’t… I couldn’t… husband… I love you!”

He stepped onto the dias and brought his face inches from hers.

“Is this what you call love? Wait until I am brought to my knees only to poison my one hope?”

His mother could scarcely whisper. “I’m sorry.”

The air cracked like the first thunder of a terrible storm. Micharus had barely seen his father’s hand move, but he saw his mother fall, blood splattering from her nose.

He forgot the shadows. In that moment, he could only think of her. The mixture of emotion, terror and righteous anger, compelled his body to act. In a flash he felt his gift, the power still unknown to him, rising to the surface. His voice already screamed out into the air, all concern for his concealment cast aside.

“Mother!”

He dashed out into the aisle leading towards the dias where his father had just walked. He heard the song of steel, saw his mother’s protector, the gallant Sir Allian, drawing his blade and moving to protect her. He heard the echo of his own voice reach him from the side walls. He hard the first syllable, and then the word seemed to hang, captured in the air, its tone and magnitude falling and fading. The word had ground to a halt before it had reached the second syllable. He tripped, clattered to the floor only feet from the dias and looked up.

His mother lay motionless on the floor at his father’s feet, thick drops of blood held still in the air beneath her nose. His father stood, head and body half-turned towards the corner from where he had run. His right hand, still clenched into a fist and smeared with her fresh blood, was being knocked aside by the flat of Sir Allian’s blade, the knight’s other hand midway through reaching a closed fist to his father’s face. They were locked together, like statues, positioned in a way no statue could stand. Micharus watched the scene before him, frozen, and all around him the unending silence. The only sound he could hear was his own beating heart.

He stood slowly, looking around, the guards locked in expressions of surprise, gestures of the first impulse of duty. And sat on one of the wooden benches, watching the display, the green-robed wizard, his head resting on a hand hidden behind a long wiry grey beard.

Their eyes met with a glimpse of understanding.

“It always amazes me: How much can change in a moment.” The old man said, his voice carrying awkwardly in the frozen world to the his ears.

“I know you.” Micharus replied.

“Do you now? Well, that is interesting. I could swear we’ve only just met.”

He pulled a small, narrow glowing green hourglass from his pocket. One which Micharus recognised. He grabbed his own and looked at it anew, and intense twisting green light now flowing between the top and bottom bulb. The wizard smiled knowingly and tucked the hourglass back into his robes.

“I think, perhaps, you should sit down.” The old man suggested as he patted the wooden bench beside him. Micharus did so and the two of them gazed at the still artwork of life held before them.

“You’re here to take me away.” He said at last.

“I am.” The wizard replied.

“I need to go, don’t I.”

“You do.”

“What’s going to happen? To my mother?”

“A terrible thing. Micharus, this is the moment your family is destroyed.”

“I know. I want to change it. Can I change it?”

“There are some things we cannot change. No matter how much we want to.”

“Then what do I do?”

“The only thing one can do when they cannot stay. Run. We’re very good at running, people like you and I.”

“Where do I run to?”

“Well, that’s the secret about running.” The wizard leaned close, Micharus felt the warm scratch of his beard against his ear. “You never stop.”

“Does my father truly hate me?”

“No, he couldn’t hate you, my boy. You’re his son. He hates what you are, not whom. Such a hatred is a deep thing, it is as much a part of him as your magic is a part of you. It is the cruel will of Fate, but this is a gulf between you two that will never be crossed.”

The wizard sat back and breathed deeply. “But you already knew that, didn’t you?”

Micharus nodded.

“It is the way with our kind. We know things before we should, before we are truly ready. In time, you will come to terms with it, but for now there is only one thing to be done.”

“I’m ready to go with you.”

“Then I am ready to take you with me. But, I think, it is time we said goodbye to your mother.”

Micharus felt a hand on his shoulder, and in a violent swirl of green light the silent world around them was ripped away.