Darkness filled the castle as Christen wandered through its corridors. Night flooded in through the windows and arrow-slits and shadows pooled beneath the walls. Aside from the patrol of guards and the occasional scurrying servant the stone veins of the castle were devoid of life. Even so, Christen had not forsaken his disguise. He slid from shadow to shadow, cloaking himself with a basic shroud aura to mask himself from notice. He turned corners and slipped through doors with silent determination. He had learned the layout of the castle from Sir Allian’s mind hours before, and now he rose through the great stone beast. He turned a corner and saw torchlight flicker on the wall. His ears, tuned to the silence, heard two voices and the chink of mail. A pair of guards approached from around the corner. He tried to reach their minds but sensed nothing. He took a deep breath and rallied his thoughts. He ducked his head and stepped out of the shadows and around the corner.
“I don’t much see the point of putting the Dread-Captain on trial.” One guard said. “Way I see it, he’s guilty as they come.”
“But you have to do these things proper.” The other guard replied. “Got to respect the King’s law.”
“Put ‘im to the sword, I say. Put all the bastards to the sword.”
Christen strode towards them, his eyes fixed on the floor. He had found their minds, sharp and alert but otherwise defenceless. They parted slightly to let him pass.
“There won’t be no trials until the Lord gets back, anyway.” The second guard continued. “They can stew in the dungeons until then.”
Christen vanished through a small wooden door and ascended a narrow spiral stair. Eventually he emerged atop a central tower. He looked down at the Red Court below, then up at the stars and moon above. His mind felt free up here, he could feel the minds of common folk in the streets below. The heavens were vast and inviting to his thoughts, but he had to focus on his task. He placed his hands together and closed his eyes. In his mind he formed the aura of the Spirit Sense and cast it upon himself. When he opened his eyes he saw a crowd of translucent faintly glowing figures gathered on the Red Court. Most were spectres, little more than shadows of the living imprinted on the world. In the centre he could see brighter forms, two elves watching over the city and ocean beyond. As he watched and listened to the quiet groans of the spectres they turned and watched him in silence. It sent a chill down his spine, but they made no move towards him. He purged the myriad thoughts from his mind and drew on his magic. He needed absolute focus, the slightest mistake he knew could spill into the minds of the living or worse, the minds of the dead. He formed the nine seals that separated the realms of life and death and took from his memory a doorway of old stone carved in fractal patterns of holly. He bound the nine seals to it and poured all of his power into it. He saw more and more of the spectres turning as his mind flared. The elven ghosts had begun to drift towards him as he felt the summoning spell fade from his mind. He became wary of them, a weakened psychic could easily be prey. The walls of the castle could protect him if his power failed, but fending off two malicious ghosts would leave him with little to mask his return to the chapel. As they neared him he sensed their fear and anger, the trauma of their last moments looping through their minds. Above all he could feel their hunger.
A blast of psychic energy burst before him as the form of another ghost warped into being. The translucent glow of maroon robes, a pointed hat and a long straight white beard. The ghost of the wizard stared down at the two elven spirits, who turned and drifted back to the court below.
“Master!” Christen gasped with relief. The ghost turned and floated in the air before him.
“I still insist that the master-student relationship ceased to apply even before I had died, Christen.”
“Sorry, Wise Yjos.”
Yjos glanced at the city around them. “This is Artella, is it not?”
“Forgive me, but last I checked Spirit Speaking was a magical practice.”
Christen looked down at his feet.
“By Morji’s sacred blood, you utter fool!” The ghost chided him. “Do you take your oaths so lightly? If the council knew of this they could name you dark mage!”
“I am sorry, master. I would not have done so if the need were not urgent.”
“And such folly! To perform a summoning over such distance, and so close to a site of execution no less! I am not your personal spirit guardian, Christen! What could possibly be so urgent that you would take leave of your senses?”
“I need you to convey a request to the council.”
“So I am to be your messenger?” Yjos asked. “What’s wrong with your bird?”
“Ulysses is not fast enough. I need to resolve the matter urgently!”
“And what matter is this?”
“Micharus Whetherhall, Miteus’ first born son.”
“What of him?”
“He is a mage.”
“You are certain?”
“I have seen it in his own memories. He carries the power of the Nexus. The council must send a wizard suited to train him.”
“So that is why you summoned me? To act as a messenger to shroud your betrayal of the very foundations of Wizardry?”
“I know the severity of this transgression, master, there is no need to lecture me.”
“Evidently you did not listen when I did lecture you!” The ghost screamed into his mind. “I taught you better than this, Christen!”
“The child is Jalice’s son!”
Yjos became calm and drifted closer. He spoke softly. “Your niece?”
“I see.” The ghost replied. “Very well, I will convey your request, but we are treading dangerous waters. I will return as soon as I am able to get an answer.”
Christen nodded his understanding and the ghost of Yjos vanished. The wizard clambered down a few steps until the stone of the tower blocked him from the view of the Red Court. Unbound by physical form, spirits could traverse great distances in mere moments. Yjos would already be at the Psychic Tower delivering his message, but how long he would have to wait for a response he could not know. He held the monk’s robes tight to himself and managed to drift off to sleep.
He sat at the heart of the thick stone walls of his dream fortress. It was the strongest defence he could manage without resorting to what little magic he had left. He watched a triple-arched stone door with apprehension as hours seemed to drift by. Then he heard what he had been waiting for. Three knocks from the other side of the door reverberated around the cavernous hall. He conjured two thick oak beams into being and they dropped into hooks that grew out of the stone. He sat and waited, expecting the door to be blasted from its frame. There was no further disturbance until the sound of a familiar voice jolted him awake.
He scrambled to his feet and reawakened his Spirit Sense. The first glow of morning was rising from the east. Yjos drifted in the twilight, a look of concern on his face.
“What is the news?” Christen asked.
The ghost shook his head. “They are not sending anyone.”
“It is worse, Christen. They started asking questions.”
“What did you tell them?” Christen said, rousing the magic he had regained as he slept.
“Nothing, but they are calling the council to meet.”
“Regarding the boy?”
“Regarding you. I have not revealed your name but they have suspicions.”
Christen cursed under his breath. Information was almost impossible to control when it came to the Psychics of Otzia, he should have been more careful.
“You should go.” He said to the spirit. “I’ve already involved you more than I should.”
“What’s done is done.” Yjos paused for a moment. “I will have to tell them what I know, Christen.”
“If I could resist them I would, you know that.”
“Do what you have to do, Yjos, and I shall do the same.”
“Gods be with you.”
Yjos vanished from sight. Christen dispelled his spirit sense and watched the shroud of night creep towards the western horizon. There would be no help from Otzia and worse the wizards were turning their eyes on him. There was no tolerance for the breaking of the Oaths of Wizardry. A wizard turned dark was a blight they would not withstand. They would investigate, they would delay, but once the council gained momentum it was unstoppable and it would soon be aimed at him. With Micharus’ safety far from assured it was the last thing he needed. As he pondered who could take the boy the answer presented itself before him. He saw a stranger in the gardens at the heart of the castle, the green robes and pointed hat were the unmistakable marks of a Nexic wizard. He froze, the thought of the council acting so soon paralysed him. He locked minds with the mage and found a familiar voice.
Is that you, Christen?
The stranger turned and waved up to him before he vanished in a green flash. As Christen descended into the castle he felt its walls surrounding his mind, protecting him. His task had been a success, the wizards would not aid him, but the man he needed was not a wizard.
Beneath a darkening grey sky Harold stood unseen. Behind him stood a field of men in brown and silver, formed into perfect rows beneath banners blazing a crest of a hammer resting upon a chipped block of stone. He stood with a row of cavalry at the head of the waiting army, beside him a monster of a man. As tall as the men on horseback, wider than an ox and bulging head to toe with muscle, he wore the full black beard and pointed hat of a wizard, clad in thick green fabric wrapped into a tunic. Amidst the tips of spear and sword Harold spied more wizards in robes of every colour. Ahead of him the grass rolled down to open fields then up again to a vast hill upon which sat a castle surrounded by another force of thousands who flew banners of crimson and silver, a crest he could not see. Time moved and stood still, two floods of men waiting behind unseen walls. The gates would open soon, he knew, a crimson tide would spill onto the fields. It was in their future, but a few hours of time seemed such a small thing. He could already smell the smoke and blood, the stench of a battle lost, a war ended. It sat there, in their path, but the wind drove them on without mercy, without hope of altering course.
It was all ancient history, to him at least.
A flash of green heralded the appearance of a young wizard in light grey robes. The giant spoke as he approached, the deep voice punctuating the silence.
“Good news, I hope.”
“I have spoken to Lord Maston.” The grey wizard replied. “He has seen reason, he agrees his cause is lost. He has agreed to the King’s terms.”
“Good. I did not wish to fight another battle.”
“None of us do.”
“I hope you’ve got a plan, Wizard.” A decorated cavalryman interrupted. “Twenty thousand men rode out here expecting a fight. Sometimes that kind of intent can’t be halted.”
“Maston has agreed to bring down his banner, when his men see that they will stand down.” The grey wizard replied.
“You have a lot of faith in the enemy, Morrowhin.”
“Look, captain!” Another cavalryman announced as he pointed out a figure wandering across the top of the castle towards the standard flying in the gentle wind.
“It is Maston. This ugliness will be dealt with shortly.” Morrowhin said.
The words were empty, Harold knew that Fate was not so kind. Battle and death loomed towards them, hidden in the mists of time but so very close now. The first rocks of disaster would appear abruptly, any moment now.
On queue, as if driven by an unseen mechanism, the clouds above rose to reveal great symbols etched in fire across the sky.
“By the spirits!” The giant wizard gasped. “Those signs, he can’t be…”
Morrowhin was already rising into the sky. He screamed upwards.
“No! Gorren! Stop!”
Harold sensed the futility, like a child screaming at a hurricane. History could not be so easily swayed.
A column of white light struck down from heaven itself, the men screamed in shock as the castle disappeared beneath it. Harold could see the stones baking and splitting, windows shattering, people ceasing to be in a fire too hot for their flesh to even burn. Within moments the sound reached them, a crack of unnatural thunder. The light vanished and left a molten carcass of stone. As the thunder subsided Harold could hear the flying wizard crying.
“No, no no no!”
“There goes your surrender.” The captain remarked as he gestured towards the army fleeing the castle. The line behind Harold formed up as realisation dawned, they weren’t fleeing. They were charging.
“Ready yourselves!” The giant wizard screamed as bright green magic flowed over his skin. His muscles grew as he dug his feet into the soil.
Harold felt the earth rumble beneath his feet. Swathes of land between the two armies gave way and sank into chasms, leaving only a narrow bridge onto which the enemy charged. Others turned and began to run around the sinking holes as those taken by surprise ran and rode helplessly into them. The pyromancers descended from above, each suspended in a halo of flame, orange and yellow like the aura of Morjiqui. One, surrounded by white fire, directed their attack. They circled above and sent streaks of flame to the earth where they burst amidst the enemy into gouts of flesh-searing fire. Still they came, charging towards Harold with an anger he could taste. The giant wizard stepped forward and slammed a fist between the eyes of a charging horse. The creature came to an abrupt halt with a snap of bones and ripping of flesh. The rider tumbled through the air and landed in a nest of spears. The beast fell to the side and the giant lifted its corpse with both hands. He threw the horse, armour and all, into the charging foe. Limbs broke, men and horse screamed and blades met. The carnage broke like a wave of steel and blood. Amidst it all Harold stood, the watcher from afar.
Harold woke screaming, a cold sheen of sweat across his face. Around him mountain folk slept in their short hammocks, their snores impenetrable to his cries and the rolling waves against the wooden hull. Beneath him cargo slumbered under heavy nets.
“Trouble sleeping, friend?” The old man he knew only as Magarth asked.
“I’m sorry, did I wake you?” Harold asked.
“I don’t need much sleep. The dreams again?”
“They all seem so real.” Harold said as he untangled himself from the sheet he had slept under.
“Aye, they always do.” Magarth replied as he dropped his feet to the floor. “Best not to dwell on what is seen by sleeping eyes. Come to the deck with me, the salt air should clear your head.”
Harold followed reluctantly as Magarth clambered up wooden steps and pushed the cargo hatch aside. The cold air hit Harold’s sinuses like an anvil. He felt his mind clear, the thoughts of wars lost in history falling away. The stars shone their unchanging light upon the water, the deck basked in the bright moonlight. Two mountain folk sat at either end of the ship, their eyes peering through the night as human eyes never could. The sea rolled gently, rocking the ship like a cradle. The two men wandered to the prow and sat against the side of the ship as waves broke against her massive wooden hull. The short man sat on the very prow of the ship asked something in the grating mountain tongue which Harold could not decipher. He looked to Magarth.
“He asks if the water upsets your stomach.” The old man interpreted.
Harold thought better of trying to explain so simply nodded. The mountain man replied and Magarth translated.
“He says that the sea often disturbs the innards of those who don’t belong on her back. He also says not to worry, we should be in Artella by sunset.”
“It’s not the sea that terrifies me at night.” Harold confessed.
“What is it that you see in those dreams of yours that strikes such dread into your heart?”
“It’s hard to explain.” Harold replied. “I’m not sure how to…”
“We have all night.” Magarth assured him.
“I don’t think they are dreams. Not in the sense of normal dreams.”
“I think they’re visions. That sounds like madness.” He laughed.
“The world is full of madness, the trick I find is focussing on the madness we can understand.”
“I see things, things that happened long ago, things that won’t happen until long after I am gone.”
“Sounds like prophetic visions.”
“Yeah. Have you heard of the Farseer?”
“Miniia? I am acquainted with her teachings.”
“They say she gives the gift of sight to people.”
“And you think you have this gift.”
“I thought I did. So I went to the temple in Morjia, but the man there said I was a Greatseer. But he said I had to go west across the sea, and I didn’t. I’m going back to Artella instead.”
“I don’t know. I guess I felt like I had to.”
Magarth grunted. “Destiny’s a powerful force, it has to be said. Best you go where you need to be, is all I’ll say.”
“Right.” Harold said as the two of them gazed up at the heavens, the eternal stars seemed to him for a moment the anchors of a chaotic world.
The amber glow of the rising sun brought upon its back the promise of a new day to Artella. The first rays of dawn shattered against the towering walls of the city whilst within the people rose to the scattered twilight. The monstrous form of the castle lay obscured by the mariners’ hostel as the stable boy swept the same patch of courtyard for the fifteenth time, his eye never wavering from the canvas caravan parked near the row of stables on the far side. The figure sat smoking a long pipe on the driver’s bench was a wizard for sure.
The man who was not a wizard drew a lungful of drygrass smoke and let it settle before gently breathing it back out into the world. Simmion rested a little way from the caravan, tied to a post and feasting on hay. The man cast his eye upwards towards the brightening sky. The last of the stars were vanishing, the promise of a fine day was tempered in his mind by the knowledge that, not far from here, a storm was building and moving in.
“I hear this place is rather dangerous for the likes of you, old chap.”
The voice intruded on his peace. He turned his eyes back towards earth to see a man wearing a strange coat and trousers in matching materials. His face was familiar to him, well-groomed and clean shaven except for a thin moustache.
“What do you want?” The robed man asked.
“Just checking in. Making sure things are proceeding as planned.” The stranger replied as he placed a brown leather box on the ground next to him.
“The boy?” The robed man asked.
“What concern is it of yours?”
“Everything that is my client’s concern is my concern. You know who he is, I trust.”
“I have my suspicions.”
“You will take him in as apprentice, whatever it is you call them, and train him. Make sure he learns everything you can teach him, the rest is already taken care of.”
“And what of myself? When am I to be free of you?”
“You always ask that.”
“And the answer is always the same.”
“You got yourself into a mess, old chap. My client saw fit to grant you a way out of it. You should be grateful, my client rarely affords such generosity to your kind.”
“So you always tell me. What of my other task?”
“I thought that would be simple enough for one of your immeasurable talent.”
“I know the road from here. What has been asked of me, it goes against everything I was taught, I don’t know if I can condemn an entire realm like that.”
“Let the flow of history take its own course. It is the concern only of my client. I would suggest you think first of your own circumstance.”
“Is that a threat?”
“Only an observation. What generosity that has been afforded can be just as easily rescinded. I’m trying to look out for you, old chap, that’s all.”
“Then leave me be. I’ll do what needs to be done.”
“That’s all we ask.”
The robed man looked up and watched a bird soar across the city walls and head off inland.
“Treading dangerous waters, aren’t we?” The stranger asked. “Sometimes I forget that you people never learn.”
The robed man made to reply but the stranger had vanished. He shrugged his shoulders and tipped the smouldering ash from his pipe. Crushing it underfoot he wandered to his horse and untied it.
“Come, Simmion.” He said. “We must get to the castle.”