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?”
“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?”
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.
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.