The Mole stood motionless beside the river. The quiet lapping water made the only sound, but he paid no attention to it. He was instead focused on his less natural senses, unfolding his magic in preparation. These were things no common-blood man could know, an existence beyond his own skin and bone that he had spent a lifetime honing to precision. His power reached down and outward, seeping into the earth beneath his feet, binding it to his consciousness. He could feel the dirt around him, the pebbles, the rocks, the strong foundation that lay beneath, hidden from the eye. Its strength was his, a power he had known for as long as he could remember, a power he could not imagine life without. His mind also quested for distant sources of that same power, the Veil, the magic of natural order.
He could fault the wizards for many things, but their education was not one of them. Every ounce of knowledge that had been entrusted to him during his youth as an apprentice remained with him to this day. There was little of that training that he held more dear than those skills which gave him an edge in combat. He knew his opponent existed, that he too wielded the Veil, that he used air magic and that he was closing. All this and he was yet to lay eyes on them. Of course, if they were a wizard they would likely know as much about him, and what he did know would never be enough to be sure of a victory. He could only sense the Shardal power with which he was attuned, which meant that other magi may lurk invisible to him, or even that his opponent carried more than just the Veil in his veins. Those uncertainties were ever present, making every confrontation with another mage carry the very real risk that it would be his last.
It wouldn’t be any fun if it were otherwise.
His enemy approached. It was almost certain that they were closing on him, intent on an engagement, but it always paid to make sure. He held his hand out over the ground and coaxed a deep patch of stone to rise. The soft earth rippled as a semi-liquid globule of grey stone oozed from it, rising into the air at his command and forming into a solid sphere slightly smaller than his own head. He raised it higher as he turned towards the direction from which he and the others had come. The other mage came into view, little more than a speck to his eyes, but clear as the sun in his mind, an intense point at the centre of a twisting, warping plume of magic that tugged on the air around them. As they raced towards him through the air he saw them more clearly, the light blue robes of an aeromantic wizard. He twitched his finger and the orb of stone cracked the air as it blasted towards them. He sensed a flare of Veilic magic as the rock struck its mark, shattering against the wizard’s wards. The clap of pulverising stone reached his ears a second later as he watched the distant figure tumble from the sky. He saw the bustling of trees and shrubs as the wind rushed towards his foe, slowing and cushioning his fall. He placed his dragon-steel mask over his face. This was but the first volley, the wizard was likely not even injured. That, of course, was not the Mole’s intent. The projectile was merely a message.
I am here. I am dangerous.
It was an unwritten law of magi in combat: In any conflict a mage should only meet another mage in battle. Whilst it was certainly true that the aeromancer could soar over him and continue on to intercept Tallus, the unspoken promise was that he would travel the other way and meet the aeromancer’s men. A competent mage could be a match for a hundred common-blood soldiers, a skilled mage would be a disaster. His gamble had been that the Aeromancer was under Grannel’s command.
He felt the slightest pulse of magic ripple from ahead of him. He reacted on instinct, pulling the rock up from beneath him. In the breadth of a second the earth surged and flowed around him, embracing him. He set the mound of rock solid with him inside as an unnatural torrent of wind ripped the ground as it tore towards him. He felt the air slam into the stone around him and whip around with a speed that would doubtless flay his unprotected flesh from his bones. The impossible wind raked its fingers over the surface of his terrestrial armour in a dull roar that filled his ears. He felt the rock around him as the air currents focused into narrow channels that ripped the stone into dust. Slowly but surely they worked their way towards him, an invisible blade wearing his defences down. Beyond he sensed their master, the orb of power glowing in his mind’s eye as the aeromancer surged towards him, held aloft by diffuse tendrils of magic that held the air as his own embraced the ground. Then the aeromancer’s dance began as the wizard leapt between bursts of air, spiralling around the Mole, flitting from one side to the other as his whirlwind continued to grind his mound of earth to dust. He remained calm and still at its heart, observing what went on around him. The assault on his defences was slow and he sensed the wizard’s magic diminishing by an almost imperceptible degree. That fact defined a boundary of the battle, they were both working with limited reserves.
All at once his ears screamed with pain, his mage’s senses perceived a cast from the wizard that was far more powerful than aeromantic magic had any right to be. He felt the rock fracture and shatter around him as pressure waves dissipated against his own personal wards. It took all of his focus to lock his will around the disintegrating stone and fuse it back together around himself.
That’s a neat trick.
Another blast was certainly imminent. His mind blazed through possibilities with the kind of clarity one only found when staring down death. Diving to the earth below would take too long. Hardening the rock around him would be too great a drain on his magic. The aeromancer gave off the slightest surge in Veilic energy. Undoubtedly the subtle cue he had previously missed.
He shattered his own defence into countless shards of sharp-edged rock and blasted them away. The expanding shell met the attacking magic head on, the fragments bursting to powder as they met. The wizard had bounded away from the source of his attack, and summoned a torrent of air that deflected the blades and drove them into the ground. For the briefest of moments the aeromancer’s pattern of evasion had been interrupted.
But it was enough.
The Mole reached out with his power towards a patch of ground. In the moment before the wizard’s feet graced it he forged his magic. The ground exploded as daggers of stone tore through it. The aeromancer had no time to react, the sheath of wind that encircled the wizard deflected some, most shattered and rebounded from his wards, and some plunged through, missing his flesh by a hair’s breadth.
He could see the aeromancer’s wards in his mind, the cloak of Veilic magic had been all but shredded. Already he could see the gaping holes and weakened patches sealing and growing stronger as the wizard consciously restored it. He had already begun to press the advantage, however. With one hand he drew a tendril of softened stone. Like a serpent from the ground it coiled to the tune of his energies as with the other he hardened its tip and shattered it, blasting yet more fragments at his opponent. One hand fed rock to the other as the sustained spray of shrapnel cut through air and earth. The wizard vanished in a cloud of dust as rock shattered against his wards, strengthened through sheer desperation. Another blast, a wall of seemingly solid air reached out and knocked the stone back. The aeromancer surged towards his right, launching from a standstill into inhuman speed. His feet danced across the ground as the air rushed in behind to carry him faster, faster. He was clear of the ground and turning into a tight circular path around the Mole before he could react. He rode a summoned wind round and round him, spiralling upwards too swiftly for the Mole’s normal senses to follow. The wind tore at the ground, carving a channel that encircled him, ripping up dust, dirt, earth and stone into a torrential wall of unrelenting force. The Mole stood still at the eye of his own personal storm as the whirlwind reached up to the sky. He softened the earth beneath him and let his feet sink in. Sure enough within moments he felt a suction, an updraught that plucked anything loose into the air. He had to admire the sheer power of it, utterly unlike anything the wizard had thrown out before. The upwards surge of air grew to even greater strength, if it weren’t for his mask he was sure the breath would have been pulled from his lungs. He felt the pull on his feet as the storm beckoned him into its maw and away from the pull of the ground.
Remove me from my element, will you?
He pulled himself down, deeper into the embrace of the ground. The wizard, hidden from his natural senses and by now moving beyond the ability of even his magical ones to track, doubtless noticed. The ferocity of the sky increased even further, until chunks of solid earth were being torn away. The torrent bored into the earth itself in an attempt to capture him. He could only imagine the destruction it was rending on the world outside its walls. He redoubled his efforts and pulled himself under, beyond the scream of ripping soil and fracturing stone. He had to dive deep into the bedrock before he felt secure. Conjuring such sheer power with air alone was magic worthy of a wizard. Even here he felt the whirlwind would eventually reach him.
If he can sustain it that long.
He let the rock around him solidify and calmed his breathing. He quelled his magic, leaving only his passive mage senses, conserving his energy. The wizard’s power was a blurred ring that span somewhere above him. The vortex of aeromantic magic twisted above him, and he sensed a different form ignite within its centre. The intense flare of pyromancy was unmistakable, and not unexpected. Of the four Mantic schools of magic, air and fire were the most closely linked, those who excelled at one could easily find a firm grasp of the other. Air gave life to fire, and fire gave heat and power to air, the combination could be unimaginably powerful. He could already feel the warmth passing through the earth as the column of flame sheathed in twisting air charred and boiled its way towards him. He cloaked himself in his protective wards and extended his terramantic magic beneath him, feeling the stone for suitable paths to sink deeper. The magic above him now dug through the ground with unprecedented efficiency. It was almost terrifying, but it was also a truly unsustainable attack even for a wizard. He could see the aeromancer’s reserves of magic being drained, rapidly approaching depletion. The wizard was committing everything to this one assault, and if it reached the Mole he doubted his wards would offer much resistance. If it failed, he would have the definitive upper hand. One way or the other, it would end in the next few minutes.
The column of fire gave out first, the most draining magic was the first to be stripped away as the wizard ran to the end of his reserves. What little he had remaining he would doubtless need to escape his own storm, and possibly to flee.
As if on cue he sensed the wizard slow and sweep clear of the storm as the aeromantic energies contracted around him. He could already hear the roar of the wind begin to die, the unnatural force starved of the magic that fed it. The aeromancer moved away at speed, the glow of his reserves almost too faint to detect. The Mole wrapped himself with his own terramancy and propelled himself through the warm earth in pursuit of his prey. Keeping pace with the wizard pushed his tunnelling magic to its limit, he could feel it draining him with each passing second, but as the dying storm fell further behind them his ears picked up the unmistakable sound of feet skipping on dirt. The aeromancer was running, pushing himself with a summoned tailwind so he moved faster than even a horse could manage. Tracking the dwindling magic was fast becoming impossible, but the sound was all he needed.
He sent tendrils of earth magic coursing ahead of him, two bolts carried by solid rock. They surged ahead of the wizard and arced upwards, transforming from simple energy into terramantic transformation. He heard the burst of earth as shafts of rock exploded from directly ahead of his target. He reached out once more with his power as the wizard lurched backwards, the gap between them closing fast. As the aeromancer struggled to regain his footing the Mole softened the ground beneath him, absorbing his feet like quicksand. He let the earth turn solid again as he slowed his tunnelling magic, drifting beneath his now immobilised opponent. He reached toward the surface with tendrils of softened rock, coiling them around the wizard’s torso and limbs, stretching his arms out to his sides as they solidified, lifting him clear of the ground, held like a man caught in the grasp of a tree.
The Mole emerged from the ground directly in front of him and removed his mask, smiling. The wizard let out a burst of air from his mouth, the last of his magic. The Mole raised his hand and stretched a collar around him, lifting his throat and pointing his face upwards.
“Please…” The aeromancer sputtered against the constricting prison that held him. “I yield.”
“Huh.” The Mole replied. “You think this is some wizard’s duel?”
The look of terror that washed through the man’s eyes was almost worth the entire battle in of itself as the Mole forced a spike of stone upward through his throat. He watched as he sputtered blood and struggled against his bonds. Within seconds he went still, his torn light blue robes gradually staining red as his pointed hat fluttered in the breeze.
He decided to leave the pathetic mage where he died, held up as a warning to the others. His own reserves were low, too much so to catch up to the others. He walked briskly back the way he had come, coming to the site of their battle after nearly half an hour.
The entire area had been torn to shreds, a great circular crater sat where the bank had once been, a wound in the earth slowly filling with river water. Vegetation had been stripped away for a half-mile around, and trees had been uprooted as far as the eye could see. If his horse had any sense it would have run, but he doubted it mattered either way. He would walk as far as he could in the light, find somewhere to sleep and let his power restore, then hopefully catch the others before they reached the Everliving forest.
Sir Allian stood amidst the chaos at the heart of Castle Artella, his mind still numbed by the news Lady Jalice had received only that morning. After all the worry over her eldest son, the thought that her other children had been stolen away in the night all but destroyed her. There had been no stopping the tide of servants that plucked her from their haven in the deepest corridors of the castle. Wise Christen had wrapped himself in illusions and followed her, promising to stay at her side as long as he was needed. Justin had himself been summoned to the southern hall, where dozens of men stood and argued across a table laid with maps of the realm and its neighbours. The Scrollmaster, Revered Olgarth, stood amidst papers and books, directing a chorus of scribes as they each scratched letters and orders. A constant buzz of soldiers and squires dashed in and out, circling around the group of nearly two dozen knights and commanders stood with him around the table. At the centre of the discussion, Sir Frances Hart, the master of defences, still visibly fatigued from the previous night. Sir Chranon Salt and Sir Jarl Hendry, the first rider and mounted archer of the Realm’s guard, young men who argued with vigour. They would have stormed out hours ago and rode out with their men had it not been for the calm authority of Sir Alastair Laywood, their commander. Lord Admiral Krasten Wetherhall resided at the very heart of matters, his finger never straying from the map in front of him, his other arm bound in bandages stained red.
“You would have us ride down the King’s own banners? Then what? Kill them? Capture them? You would bring war, and worse!” Hart bellowed.
“What they have done is already an act of war! They breached our walls, they attacked us.” Sir Hendry shot back. “Such an act is a violation of Artella’s sanctity, whether done under the King’s banners or not.”
“That much is true.” Sir Laywood interjected. “However we have no proof that Sir Grannel’s men were behind this.”
“They rode up and camped outside the city, demanded the children, and were gone before dawn the night they were taken. Any man would call that proof enough.” Sir Salt said.
“What would you propose we do, Sir?” Hendry asked Hart. “Each moment we delay they get closer to our borders.”
“We’re doing all that can be done. The Realm’s guard will block every pass north and east, they will be trapped within the realm’s borders and they will be found.” Laywood said.
“What makes you think they will use those passes? They have an earth-mage in their ranks, you saw what he did to the city.” Salt replied.
“It matters not, if they are not with Sir Grannel’s men they are likely beyond our borders.” Hart said as he turned to Krasten. “I know who I saw, my Lord. Sir Tallus Theroden is a face that few do not know, permit me to place a price on him, once word has spread of his dishonour there will be nowhere in the kingdom he can hide.”
“What use is offering a bag of silver to scoundrels no better than him?” Hendry interrupted. “If we do not capture them before they reach Tetsa we will never retrieve the children.”
“If we march troops beyond our own borders we will invite war against ourselves. Such an act cannot be done lightly.” Laywood warned. “Even marching into Auniathwaine would risk retribution from our allies in Tetsathwaine.”
“What allies?” Salt said. “They are complicit in this.”
“They only respect the King’s command.” Hart said. “We cannot jeopardise generations of friendship. It is unthinkable.”
“With all respect, Sir, we are beyond thinkable.”
“Enough!” Krasten bellowed as he slammed his uninjured fist on the table, causing everyone to jump. “My nephew, your Lord, entrusted us with the safety of his children. We have all failed him! I will not be cowed by a meagre risk of war. The Realm’s guard must ride out and find them, however we should be prepared should they fail.”
“They will not fail you, my Lord.” Laywood reassured him. “But what do you mean?”
“Call the banners. Every knight, every soldier, every man able to hold a blade must be made ready. I will get his children back, if I have to march an army to Tetsa’s gates. You have your orders, see to it they are carried out.”
With the last word he dismissed them. Hendry and Salt left along with other knights under their command, Hart and Laywood remained. Justin stood silent, considering the possibility of war with the other realms when he felt a hand on his shoulder.
“Sir Allian.” Krasten spoke softly. “I have need of your counsel.”
He followed the Lord Admiral through to a small room just off of the hall. He closed the door behind so that nobody overheard.
“I regret that in these last days I have not had chance to speak with you, but my nephew believes you to be worthy of his trust, as does his lady.”
“I am her sworn protector, my Lord, all that I do is for that cause.”
“And your oath of protection, it extends to her children?”
“Good, then I am satisfied of your loyalty. I didn’t speak of this in front of the others, although I have no doubt that rumours are abound.”
“Rumours of what, my Lord?”
“Micharus has not been seen since the attack. I have had my most trusted men search the castle in secret since I was made aware, but they have not found him.”
Justin could understand the need for secrecy. The kidnap of noble children was a serious transgression of Noble sanctity, the taking of an heir was an altogether different matter. Retaliation would not be an option, it would be all but mandated. His pulse quickened at the thought, the young Lordling was missing, and if it were linked to the abduction then it was war. Of course, even if he could be found, his nature forbid his status as heir to the realm. By law the true heir was now being carried by a former knight of the King’s own guard.
“The Realm’s guard will find them, I’m sure of it.” Krasten continued. “But the safety of the heir is of greatest importance. If he isn’t found soon then I’ve no choice but to lay the blame at Grannel’s feet. I’m entrusting you with this task, you know the boy better than my men. Find him, keep him and his mother safe.”
Krasten nodded. “There is another matter.” He said as he took a step closer. “My nephew’s advisers; I know their loyalty is beyond reproach, but I can’t trust them.”
“Trust them, my Lord?”
“You must understand, I’ve walked a different path to my brother and his children. The Builder made me with a sword in my hand, not a quill, I’ve never had the head for this kind of thing. There’s only a handful of men I truly count on in this life, and they’re fighters, not rulers.”
“I do not believe there is any question of your leadership, my Lord.”
“Thank you, Sir Allian, but that was not what I wanted to ask. I wish to know if my nephew would act differently in my stead.”
The prospect of driving the realm into a bloody and futile conflict would weigh heavily on any mind. Justin was truly glad in that moment to be free of such a burden, he found little difficulty understanding the Lord Admiral’s doubts.
“Lord Miteus is a fair and just man, my Lord, but I have no doubt he would do anything, everything, to protect his children.”
“Then, in that at least, he and I are in a single mind.”