Sir Allian had almost forgotten how disconcerting travelling through the porting network could be. He was fortunate that he only had to traverse two ports, but as he stood in the second he had to keep his eyes closed. The Nexic magic condensed itself from the air and wrapped its tendrils around him, a band of the green light had settled over his eyes and was threatening to blind him as it glowed brighter. He felt his skin crawl as space expanded and twisted, unseen hands were molesting his organs, and he was sure some of his bones were trying to leave his body. He suspected the port he was using was not as well-enchanted as the first. The instant of transportation always happened suddenly. For a moment he felt as if he was being both crushed and blown apart, whilst being jolted upwards. The floor hit his feet with force, and he was disorientated. He staggered out of the archway. He opened his eyes, but the light level had changed and they were ill adjusted. His hands reached out and found a wooden barrel which he managed to use to steady himself. He gasped, gulping the cooler air. He took a few moments to readjust to his new surroundings before looking back at the port he had emerged from. The archway was oak, its shape and engraved symbols half obscured by the growth of fresh bark. As he watched the last few remnants of Nexic magic arced between the engravings. He appeared to be in another store room with a single entrance. He stepped through to the interior of a simple home, the furniture and walls made of oak, each appearing to be trying to transform back into living wood. Out of the small windows he could see and hear the sounds of people in the street. In the centre of the single large room was a table, upon which was sat a large young man. He was bare-chested, his back turned towards Justin. There was a jagged wound, from which a man in deep green robes was pulling pieces of glass. The robed man had long curly black hair that dropped down over his shoulders. Sir Allian recognised the man as Riddicus Farenfield, one of the respected healers in the city. He watched in silence as Riddicus finished removing the glass and began to conjure wisps of Aetheric magic from his fingers. The soft glowing green magic flowed like water from his fingers into the man’s shoulder, rippling across the flesh and collecting around the wound. The muscle and skin began to knit itself together until after a few moments no trace of the injury remained.
“There, good as new.” He said. The man got up and placed a small pile of bronze coins on the table with one hand whilst grabbing his clothing with the other.
“Thank you, Riddicus.” The man said as he threw the dirty blood-stained cloth over his head. The mage turned to look upon the knight. His face, hidden behind a thick beard black as coal, was a young face, with strong features. His eyes, in contrast, told a different tale of the man. Whilst they looked as young as the rest of him, something in the way they saw the world gave a hint of age.
“By all the stars in heaven!” Riddicus said, both surprised and delighted. “How long has it been?”
“Since I was last in Gania? Almost eight years.” Sir Allian replied.
“That long? The years all run together when you get to my age, I still remember you being born. I can remember your father being born.” He gestured to the vacant table. “Hop on up, I’d wager you haven’t seen a solitary healing hand since you left for that dreadful place.”
“Lord Wetherhall’s Apothecary is well versed in natural healing.”
“Gibbering medicine-men, the best Apothecary in all the realms of Asamor could not match the least gifted life mage. A man who lives with a sword in his hand needs a gifted healing once in a while.”
“Nothing would please me more than to have you mend my broken bones, but I am on urgent business. I must speak with Wise Christen.”
“Well, I know better than to delay a Knight of the Realm’s urgent business, Wise Christen will no doubt be up at the castle. You’d best take a horse from the stables at the end of the road, be sure to come back this way, I mean to see you fit and fighting before you leave.”
“I shall if time allows, but I fear it may not.”
Riddicus did not reply, instead gesturing towards the door. Sir Allian ventured onto the street and made straight for the stables. He gave the stable hand coin enough for the fastest horse and rode as fast as the beast would carry him. Hooves thundered beneath him, dragging the town into a blur around him. He rode up the wide gentle hill across which the city was sprawled, the six walls and towers of the castle sat at its top. He turned onto the Lord’s Way, the wide road that lead all the way up to the gatehouse and made full use of the extra room to pass wagons and litters. He passed two groups of city guards, their dark green cloaks billowed behind them as they turned to see who had ridden past in such haste.
The drawbridge was down, to his fortune, bridging the dry moat surrounding the curtain wall. The portcullis was down, a grid of thick iron bars sealing the inside of the castle from him. He had already begun to slow his horse when he heard the call.
The voice was a voice made for the frenzy of battle. Sir Allian came to a halt just before the drawbridge and raised his eye to the top of the gatehouse. The voice’s owner was stood directly above the gate, with two archers either side of him, bows drawn and aimed at Sir Allian. The gatekeeper had a strong face, its edges softened by fat and bright red cheeks and nose, the chin hidden behind a thick black beard. The man had a broad gut, but Sir Allian knew better than to think such size served as a hindrance to Sir Rakken Morskin. The man had strength enough to bring his weight to bear against foes in combat, and was a fierce fighter when the moment required it.
“Who goes there?” He called down. “What is your business?”
“A friend, with business most urgent.”
Sir Allian’s hopes of being recognised by his fellow sworn knight of the realm were dashed upon the ice-cold stare he was receiving.
“I’ll be the judge of that. Speak your business, turn your horse or be feathered.” Sir Morskin bellowed down.
“Do you not know me, Sir?” Justin called back.
“I admit your face is familiar to me, but this gate does not open without my certainty. Speak your name, if you be friend.”
“I don’t think that shall be necessary.” Another voice called from below. Justin looked through the portcullis and saw walking towards it the handsome face of Harold Jaunt. “He is sworn to my father’s service, a knight of the realm!”
“It cannot be!” Sir Morskin shouted back as recognition dawned. “Lower your bows, you cretins!” He commanded his archers. “Raise the gate!”
The cry to raise was echoed from within the gatehouse, and the portcullis slowly began to rise. Justin walked his horse across the bridge and met Harold Jaunt at the metal gate. They faced each other as the metal rose from between them.
“You are at the wrong castle, Sir.” Harold said.
“Would that it were the truth, my Lord.” Justin replied. Harold was the heir to the realm, and whilst he was of an age with Justin he looked a deal older. Like his father his once rich black hair was in an advanced state of grey, but the rest of him was as youthful as Justin remembered him, carrying his dragonsteel mail, deep green clothing and cloak with ease.
“You’re supposed to be protecting my dear sister.” Harold said.
“I am here at her command, her need is urgent.”
“I am afraid my Lord father has rode for Court three days past, your urgent matter will have to make do with me I fear.” Harold replied. “I hope my dear sister is well?”
“She is last I left her. It is your uncle Christen whose council I seek.”
The portcullis rose above their heads and the two men embraced each other.
“Eight years is too long, old friend!” Harold said. Despite the years they had spent as friends and sparring partners, since Justin had squired for the young lord in their boyhood, the recent years felt longer by a century.
“Far too long, my Lord.” Justin replied.
“Fortune is with you, my uncle remains within the castle walls.”
“Where can I find him?”
“Where else, the old man is with his books.”
A stable hand took the horse as the two men descended the steps to the cellars of the castle. The portcullis closed as they disappeared through the door. The cellars of the castle had been built into the deep foundations, housing the forge, kitchens and some of the servant’s quarters. Below them, the dungeons extended to uncertain depths, but the castle’s library was where they headed. Justin did recall that the psychic wizard spent most of his time in the library, even choosing to sleep there.
“Sir Allian, you wish to speak with me?”
The voice spoke from within Justin’s own mind. He flinched, it had been a long time since someone had spoken to him telepathically. Even through the thick stone walls Wise Christen was peering into his mind.
“I do, the matter is most urgent.” Justin tried to communicate back. His telepathic communication was rusty at best, he wasn’t certain it had worked until the wizard’s voice spoke again.
“Lady Jalice is not in turmoil, I hope?”
Their silent conversation continued as Justin and Harold approached the ash wood door to the library.
“No immediate danger, the matter concerns Micharus.” Justin thought back.
The door opened before Harold had chance to knock. Wise Christen stood within, a short man with a balding head and a magnificent snow-white beard dropping down almost to his waist. He wore the maroon robes of the Order of the Psyche, one of the four Wizarding Orders. His wizards’ hat was absent from his head, and from amid his wrinkled features two piercing ice-blue eyes stared into Justin’s own. On his shoulder stood an Eagle Raven, a bird with an impressive set of silver and white feathers and bright yellow eyes. The Wizard’s gaze seemed to reach inside Justin, and it felt as if the wizard was looking at him with four eyes.
“Leave us, please, nephew.” The wizard asked. “I would speak with Sir Allian alone, the matter is of some delicacy I believe.”
“Of course, uncle.” Harold replied. “I have duties to tend to.”
Wise Christen showed Justin into the library, and closed the door behind him. It was much like Justin remembered, no inch of wall spared nor square foot of floor and table space free of volumes written in languages he could not read. The library appeared to have grown still further in recent years. A quill and parchment lay on one of the desks beside the wizard’s maroon pointed hat, a page a scrawled notes half-written.
“What is the matter with the boy?” Christen asked. Even when in the same room, the wizard preferred to communicate via thought. The raven fluttered over to a wooden perch and settled, continuing to eye Justin with interest.
“Nightmares? False memories? From what does he suffer that my niece would send for me?” Christen continued.
“It is nothing of that sort. Lady Jalice sent me because she requires the wisdom of one trained in the magical arts.” Justin said, filling the silence.
The wizard remained quiet, his eyes peering through Justin’s own. His mind began to flit through the strange occurrences he had witnessed regarding Micharus.
“You believe the boy is mageblood?” Christen finally said. Justin nodded.
“Then the boy is in great danger indeed.” The wizard continued.
“You believe his father…” Justin began to ask, but Christen cut him off before the question had finished leaving his lips.
“The Wetherhalls have long fostered a distrust for magic, this is true. What is not commonly known is that this darkness has passed from father to son down the line for generations, through both blood and word. Over the centuries distrust has become fear, and fear turned to hatred.”
Christen plucked his hat from the desk and placed it over his bald head.
“When my niece wed Lord Miteus I had a chance to walk amid his thoughts. I glimpsed in him a hatred that lies close to his heart, and no doubt it has only grown since. I would not wager that anything could stay his hand where magic is concerned, not even blood.”
“You believe he would kill the child?”
“I have little doubt, but he is not the only danger. If the boy is mageblood he will need guidance, a tutor, versed in magic.”
Christen took a clean piece of parchment and dipped one of his myriad quills in an ink well before sitting down to scrawl a message.
“Shall I return to Artella and see to bringing the boy to you?” Justin thought to ask, but the wizard’s answer was in the air before he had moved his lips.
“That shall not be necessary. If my suspicions are sound then we must act with utmost haste. No, we may not have time for the boy to be brought to me, I must go to him. Ulysses!”
Christen dropped the quill back into the ink well and rolled the parchment carefully as the eagle raven came to his call. Ulysses perched on the edge of the desk as Christen carefully rolled the parchment and pressed a simple seal of a wizard’s hat into dark green wax. He held it up before the bird.
“Take this to Lady Jalice.”
Ulysses seemed to understand. He leapt into the air, grasped the parchment with two powerful sets of talons and turned in the air, flying towards an open window near the ceiling.
“Fly straight and true!” The wizard called after him just as he vanished from view.
“But Wise Christen…” Justin began. “You cannot go to Artella, magic is outlawed there, you would be put to death!”
“Sir Allian, you have been too long away from my company.” Christen replied. “You have forgotten everything I taught you!”
“Your teachings have never left me, Wise one, I assure you.”
“Then what is the first thing I taught you, when you and Lord Harold were boys?”
Justin tried to remember, it had been so long ago, but as with everything the wizard had taught them, the words had been forged in stone and buried deep within them where it could never be lost. As he recalled the words, Wise Christen spoke them in his mind.
“Never underestimate a Wizard!”
“Be sure that you are well fed and rested tonight.” Christen spoke. “We shall leave at first light tomorrow.”
“Wise one, I must ask why we cannot set out tonight?”
“I must consult my books and make my preparations, we shall leave at first light. Meet me in the courtyard.”
“But even if we should use the porting houses, it will still be several days’ ride to Artella. With a matter as urgent as you say, should we not leave immediately?”
“We shall leave on the morrow, Sir, and fear not for the sake of urgency. We shall not be travelling by horse.”
Harold wasn’t dreaming, that much he knew. Simple dreams were shadows of the world that evaporated in the morning light. Sight dreams, the few that he had experienced, seemed more real and left sounds and sights in his memory. This was like no dream he had known before. This place seemed to exist between the world of the waking and that of dreams, belonging to both and neither.
Time was mist; a thick grey fog that shrouded the future and obscured the past. It surrounded him. He stood alone, isolated from the world. He found himself dressed in a simple grey cloak, a hood drawn over his head. On his feet were brown boots, stained heavily by rain and caked with mud. He looked around himself, but saw only the dark grey haze, with no features by which to gauge direction. He was lost, hopelessly lost, and in every direction lay only uncertainty.
“Hello?” He cried out to the abyss. “Is there anyone out there?”
The fog swallowed his words. He strained his ears for any reply, but there was only total silence.
He heard a voice, his voice. It was an echo from his left, muffled and distant.
“There?” Came an echo from his right. Syllables and half-formed words echoed around him, he felt as if eternity was mocking him.
“There. There. There.” He heard the echoes behind him. He turned and saw a light in the distance, almost completely obscured. His eyes adjusted, and he saw a torch, no, a lantern. The light cast shadows through the fog, he saw the shape of a woman.
“Are you her?” He cried to the shadow. “Are you the Farseer?”
“Farseer.” Came an echo in reply. She turned and began to walk away, disappearing in the mist.
“No, don’t go!” He cried. He ran after her. The fog parted before him and drew closed behind, always keeping a distance from him. The light grew brighter as he gained on her, then turned from a constant lantern flame to the writhing of a torch. It began to move erratically, as if it were being carried by someone running towards him. He suddenly felt a hard tile floor beneath his feet, and the fog parted before him to reveal a darkened corridor with stone walls. There were no windows, and there was a smell of earth that suggested he was underground. The corridor had torches in the wall sconces that burst into flame as the carried torch approached. Rushing towards him were three men, one of whom was dragging a young boy in such haste that his legs could not keep pace. The torch-bearer seemed to be a servant, followed closely by a young man in fine yet tattered clothes. Behind him, a man clad in bronze mail and carrying a dull bronze halberd with one hand dragged the boy with the other.
“Who are you?” Harold asked, but his words were lost in the air between them. They did not answer, nor did they notice him at all. He stood in their path and tried to get their attention. They passed straight through him, sending an unearthly chill through to his bones. He wondered for a moment if this was what the dead felt like. He turned and saw them hurrying towards a wooden door. The servant pulled a set of bronze keys from his pocket and began to fumble with them.
“Hurry up man!” The guard cried after a few moments. “We do not have the time for this!”
Harold heard shouts from behind them, muffled by earth and stone, they were little more than distorted echoes, but they were getting louder, getting closer. The servant finally managed to jam the key in the lock, turning it and pushing the door open in a single jerking motion. They vanished into the chamber and slammed the door closed before Harold could follow. He heard the lock turn, whilst behind him the voices grew louder and more distinct. He heard a rumble of thunder from somewhere overhead. He approached the door and tried to turn the handle, but his hand passed straight through as if he were an illusion. No, he was not the illusion, the illusion was around him. He took another step and, sure enough, he found he could walk through the door. This must be what the dead experience, he thought.
Inside was a larger chamber lit by more torches in the walls. Beneath the high vaulted ceilings and engraved arches the room was almost completely empty, save for a circular platform in its centre.
“That door won’t hold them for long, my lord.” The guard said to the younger man, passing him the torch.
“Let’s hope it holds for long enough.” The young lord replied as he raised the torch above his head. Small jets of flame leapt from it and were drawn into the engravings around the ceiling. The markings began to glow, bathing the entire chamber in an eerie green light.
Magic. Harold had never seen magic before, not until the witch’s cottage on the road, and even then it had been nothing like this. Above the centre of the raised platform he saw a distortion bending the light, as if the space itself were acting like a lens. The distortion grew in both size and intensity, a bright green magical energy writhing and spinning around it. Within a few moments it had fully formed, a circular hole in the world, bordered by the green magic. It was large enough to walk through with ease, its lip hovering a few inches above the floor. Harold looked through it and saw another place.
“Fanlow,” The young lord commanded. “Take my brother and go, quickly!”
The servant obeyed and tried to take the boy’s hand, but the child ducked and dashed to the lord, clasping his arms around the man’s legs.
“No,” The boy cried into his elder brother’s robes. “I don’t want to go!”
The lord knelt and held the boy close.
“Azro.” He said in as kind a voice as he could manage. “You have to go, it isn’t safe here any more.”
“I don’t want to!” The boy cried, tears streaming down his cheeks. “Not without you, not without mother and father!”
“You have to be brave now. A big brave boy, you hear me?”
The child tried and failed to keep back a sob.
“Mother and father are on their way.” The lord said. “You go through the portal with Fanlow, I’ll be right behind you, I promise.”
Fanlow held out his hand and the boy took it. The servant picked the child up and stepped through the portal. Once they had vanished, the guard spoke.
“You’re not going, are you?”
“Someone has to seal the gateway at this end, else they’ll follow us.” The lord replied. They turned towards the door. Harold could hear voices from the far end of the corridor outside, and hurried footsteps.
“You have to go, Hanry.” The lord said. “Take my brother south, use the forest to cover you, head east, get him to Zarkos, he will be safe there. Promise me.”
“I am your personal guard, my lord.” Hanry replied. “My place is at your side.”
“My brother has greater need of you.”
The door handle jerked and Harold heard someone grunt on the other side as they tried to barge the door open. Thankfully the wood held.
“I swore an oath to your father to protect you.” Hanry pleaded. “Don’t make me break that oath in your hour of greatest need.”
A heavy thunk rang from the door.
“Just swallow your honour and go, damn you!” The lord screamed. “I command it!”
A heavy bronze axehead burst between the thick planks of the door.
“I cannot obey, my lord.” Hanry replied.
“By all the gods… then I’m sorry.” The lord replied. He stepped forwards, and before Harold knew what was happening he thrust his open palm towards the guard. An invisible force lifted him from his feet and threw him backwards through the portal. In the same moment the axe was pulled from the door. Harold expected another swing, but instead he heard a voice from the other side of the door.
The voice was deep and commanding, and the young lord seemed to recognise it. He turned and raised his hand to the ceiling and clenched his fingers. Harold saw a maze of cracks criss-cross one of the engraved arches. The lord pulled his fist downwards and the stone of the arch shattered and fell away. The glowing symbols and lines remained floating in the air for a moment before they twisted out of shape and faded. One side of the portal partially collapsed and lurched backwards. The green light that had been bathing the room was suddenly washed out by brilliant white. Harold turned, as did the lord, and both looked in horror and amazement at the white light burning through the door. Tendrils of flame crept through the hole left by the axe, turning the wood either side to cinders. It was like fire, but far too intense to be anything short of magic. The bronze door handle had already melted, and was oozing down the side of the wood, setting it alight as it went. The lord pulled another arch down to crush into powder on the floor. The other side of the portal shrank and lurched backwards, reducing it to less than half its original size. Harold could almost feel the fire burning him, even though he was not truly there. A split second later what remained of the door blasted inwards, spreading burning embers and white-hot ashes through the room. The debris passed through Harold without injury, and the lord seemed to deflect the worst of it with his magic.
Through the door walked a much older man, with bright green eyes, a long dark grey beard and dressed in maroon robes. He held a staff of beech wood, engraved with similar markings to the chamber, but glowing white hot. He could have been a wizard, had he been wearing the hat. He was flanked by armed men on both sides as they filed into the room, brandishing bronze short swords.
“Phineus, stop!” The staff-bearer called out.
“Uncle?” Phineus replied. “You’re helping them?!”
“We wish you and your brother no harm, nephew.” His uncle replied. “But you must yield to us! Both of you!”
“Never! You would hand the throne to some common blood filth!”
“There are things you don’t understand, nephew. The world has to change, but there is still a place for magic, a place for you.”
“My father will fight you, he’ll destroy you, traitor!”
“Your father’s war is all but lost, yield to me, help me find your brother, and I promise no harm will come to you.”
“Liar! I’ll fight you!”
“You’ll lose.” The uncle began, but Phineus had already sent a section of wall at him. The old man’s hand snapped up and the hunk of stone stopped mid-air, before crumbling and falling to the ground. The younger mage was outmatched. He turned and raised his hands. The older mage snapped his fingers, and two streaks of white light ripped across the room so fast they cracked the air. The light was gone as quickly as it had appeared, and Phineus collapsed to his knees in agony. His sleeves were smouldering, and his skin was burned and blistered. A warm green glow began to emanate from the wounds, and they began to heal.
“Please, nephew, don’t make me kill you too.” The older mage pleaded.
“Just you watch.” Phineus cried, almost laughing. “My father will destroy you all, just like he destroyed that heathen city!”
He raised his arms again, but before he had reached out to the ceiling his arms were engulfed in a skin of white fire. The scream was soul-wrenching, Harold couldn’t watch. After a few seconds the light subsided, and a dim green glow replaced it. The burns were healing, but the magic of life faded before the skin had fully healed.
“Please, I beg you, nephew, yield!” The older mage cried, tears forming in his eyes.
Phineus raised his burned arms once more, and the flames engulfed him. He screamed, but his shining limbs reach up and the ceiling became threaded with cracks. A few pieces fell to the floor before the burning man stopped screaming and fell flat on his front, the fire vanishing to leave a charred corpse. The older mage fell to his knees and cried in anguish as around them the green symbols shimmered and danced. Some flickered out, others broke into pieces, some joined together. In the centre of the room the portal collapsed into a point of green light before it burst outwards again, forming a misshapen rift. Harold saw a different place through the tear in space, somewhere dark and unfamiliar. The uncle reached for a jewel suspended around his neck on a chain. It was a brass frame surrounding a glass orb, in the centre of which was a small pyramid of sapphire. He seemed to look at the object for an eternity before closing his eyes and burying it beneath his robes once more.
“Do we go through?” One of the other men asked. The old mage opened his eyes and looked through the rift.
“It’s destabilised.” He answered. “It could lead anywhere now.”
“What do we do?” The man asked. “The King commanded we capture them all.”
“He is just a child. I’ll find him, somehow. I’ll bring him…” The mage paused. He turned and looked up in horror.
“Wetherhall, you fool!” He gasped. He turned to the others. “Quickly!” He pointed at the rift. “We must go through.”
“But you said it could go anywhere!” Another man protested.
“Anywhere is safer than here, you have to trust me.” The mages voice took on an almost surreal authority, and the other men obeyed. They began to jump through the rift, one by one. With every traveller, parts of the rift expanded, but more still collapsed, shrinking the rift. Within moments only the mage remained, alongside the charred corpse.
“Gods forgive me.” He whispered to himself before diving through the rift. There was a crack of thunder, but it sounded as if it had originated directly above the chamber. It was as much a tactile force as a sound, and as it hit the ceiling shed its engraved surface into powder. Entire sections of the roof collapsed, Harold had to dive to the side to avoid being crushed. The rift collapsed entirely, zipping closed and vanishing entirely. The thunder did not subside, instead it became impossibly louder. The wall and ceiling suddenly became dust blasting into the room, forced inwards by impossibly bright light with a hint of violet. Anything that could burn was little more than smoke within a moment, then the rock itself seemed to explode into flames, then the flames became light, and the light became fog, and the fog fell in. It drowned the vision and wiped it away, leaving Harold once again alone in the abyss.