Tallus looked across at Maereen over the unconscious form of Krasten Wetherhall. She was visibly discomforted by the wound but able to go on he trusted. As long as they could get out of the castle the wound would be seen to before it killed her. As he listened to the approaching shouts his trust in their escape wavered.
There wasn’t time to waste. She had already hoisted the child bundle over her shoulder. He did the same to his and they moved quietly out of the bed-chamber. The corridor outside resounded with the calls and bootsteps of the guards. They were almost upon them now.
“Come on, boss.” Maereen sent through the pathic rings and moved in the opposite direction.
“No,” Tallus replied. “The quickest way to the roof is that way.” He gestured towards the approaching cacophony.
“We’ll have to find another way.”
“We can’t afford to get lost. This way!” He commanded. She relented and followed as they began to run. As they raced through the corridor Tallus could feel the walls around him, thick and unyielding. They could easily become trapped. His thoughts were snapped back to the present as a guard appeared from around a corner, sword drawn and almost on top of them. Maereen turned the child away from him and launched her free hand accompanied by a glint of steel. Despite her burden she had already moved within his defences and planted a shallow gash across his chest. She pushed him over and stepped across him as he succumbed to sleep.
“How much further?” She sent as she moved forwards.
“We should be able to get to the roof down the next corridor on the right.” Tallus sent back as he followed close behind. Maereen passed the opening to the corridor and dived forwards, half rolling, half skidding to the other wall. The bundle she carried came to a stop by her feet as something sliced through the air behind her and shattered on the wall. Tallus came to a halt as pieces of a crossbow bolt clattered across the floor. He ducked behind the corner and shot a glance across the entrance at Maereen. She slid a larger knife out and held it at an angle to the corridor.
“How many?” He sent as his ears tried to discern the movements echoing from the stone passageway that now lay between them.
“Too many.” She replied.
“Release the children.” A deep voice commanded. “Surrender and I give you my word as a knight of the realm that no harm will come to you.”
Tallus recognised the voice. He turned and edged his head around the corner, letting one eye come to rest on the man who had spoken. Sir Franses Hart held the same strong posture Tallus remembered from half a lifetime ago, clad in steel plate and a blue-and-silver cloak. He was much older than he remembered, the only hair left on his head a bushy white moustache. He held his steel longsword before him with two hands as he stood flanked by six castle guard, two stood either side and four crouched in front with crossbows.
“Throw down your weapons.” Hart said. “You can’t escape.”
“Any ideas?” Tallus asked Maereen through the rings.
“One.” She sent back. “The vial I gave you earlier. Drink it.”
“What is it?” He asked as he plucked the small vial of liquid from his pocket.
Tallus nodded and broke the wax seal with his thumb. As he pushed the stopper out of the glass vial and drank its contents Maereen plucked a small bundle of cloth from her belt. She grasped the pouch in one hand, pulled a string that had been threaded into it and tossed it towards the men. It slid across the floor and began to hiss as a dark smoke spilled into the air. Tallus listened to the men cry in surprise, then scramble for one of the doors. He looked across at his companion.
“The door behind them should lead to the roof.”
“It’s probably locked.”
He slipped the locksmith from his pocket and tossed it through the air. She caught it as the last sounds of struggle faded.
“Move quickly, the antidote won’t protect you for long.” She said as she lifted the child over her shoulder once more. Tallus hefted the other child awkwardly onto his shoulder and followed her, stepping carefully between the unconscious guards lying entombed in the torchlight. Sir Franses Hart lay with his back against the wall, his eyes still open. The sound of yet more guards rang in their ears. She was already through the door, Tallus followed and they ascended the tight spiral staircase. The bed chambers were near the top of the castle, but still lay below several floors of strong stone. A small wooden door at the end of the spiral stair led them out onto the Red Court.
The crisp night air wrapped around their skin as they stood for a moment atop the castle. The starless sky stretched above the city below them illuminated by the flicker of a thousand open flames. The harbour walls sat beyond them, a black false horizon that smothered the sound of the rolling waves beyond. They turned and ran around the great ring of stone that formed the castle’s roof. A handful of guard posted on the roof had already seen them and were dashing to intercept them. Tallus closed his fist tightly and felt the pathic ring on his finger.
“Where the hell are you?” He pushed the thought through the ring into the night. He feared the castle walls still blocked the link as they raced towards the gatehouse.
“Exactly where you told me to be.” The Mole’s voice rang out inside his mind.
“Change of plan, we’re on the roof.”
“My preparations were arranged around the drawbridge.”
“Just get us off this thing!” Tallus shouted back into the Mole’s mind.
A wave of guards spilled out of the gatehouse ahead of them and were now washing towards them in the night. The men chasing behind them formed a second front, two blades slicing towards them with no immediately obvious avenue of escape. They skidded to a halt as the stone of the castle shuddered beneath their feet. The two of them watched as a column of earth and stone erupted from the ground beyond the horse-shoe moat. It reached into the sky and coiled like a serpent with jaws of flowing earth and fluid stone. The sight of the elemental form had dampened the progress of their pursuers, and some were in retreat amidst cries of fear and astonishment. The serpent reached down towards Tallus and Maereen, its mouth bit into the edge of the castle roof, the stone and soil trying to find purchase on the hard rock of the castle. The tendril of ground flattened and hardened into a makeshift bridge, they wasted no time clambering onto it as the guards overcame their fear and resumed their chase. They leapt into a slide down the arched path and hit the ground beyond the castle with some speed. Behind them the bridge cracked and collapsed, wet dirt and pebbles rained into the still water of the moat.
“I’d get moving if I were you.” The Mole said as they got to their feet. The city’s mounted guard were already racing around the castle to meet them. They took off on foot once more and dashed down an alley. Tallus could hear the clatter of hooves ahead, they were being outmanoeuvred.
“Right at the end, follow the road and take the third left.” The Mole’s voice rang in their minds. He felt a low rumble reach his feet from the ground below. They turned a corner and saw the alley ahead open out onto a wide road shrouded in gloom. They surged towards it as the sound of horses drew closer, accompanied by the cries of their riders. They were closing on them fast down the road ahead. Tallus urged his legs onwards. They had to get ahead of the mounted guard, any moment wasted doubling back to avoid them was another moment the trap around them had to close ever tighter. They tore to the right as they emerged from the alley. He dared not look back, he could feel the hoof-beats in his gut. He heard the shouts of the guards.
“Run ’em down!”
Another blasted their horn to signal the others. Tallus locked his eyes forwards. Maereen had pulled ahead of him, as she passed the first alley on the left he noticed a band of cobbles across the road between them bulge upwards. He leapt across them and felt a burst of air at his back as the ground erupted behind him. Cobblestones, mortar and soil heaved up and apart as a wall of solid stone rose out of the ground. Horseshoes screeched against stone and both horse and men cried out from behind the wall as they slammed into it with a sickening thud.
“There are more up ahead.” The Mole informed him. “Keep running, you should get off the road before they reach you.”
Tallus ignored the moans of pain from behind him and pushed on forwards. Maereen had pulled further ahead and was already past the second alley. He glanced ahead of her, the road ran straight away from them to a gatehouse at the city wall. The gate was closed and locked, it had likely been so since sunset. He saw the light of half a dozen torches and the glint of steel. Men were gathering at the walls, securing them against escape. As long as they were trapped within the city the guards’ task would be a hunt rather than a chase, an assumption their entire plan rested on.
He ducked down the alley after Maereen. They darted around corner after corner until he finally saw the Mole standing in the gloom beside an open wooden door. The hunched figure motioned them into the house where they stood in the faint orange glow of the dying fire within the stove. The mage pushed the wooden door closed and placed his hands on the stone frame either side of it. From the frame, inches from his hands, two mounds of liquid stone bulged and solidified against the door. He released his grip and turned to face his associates as they stood panting in the centre of the room.
“Aside from waking the entire city, I assume everything went to plan?” The Mole asked, eyeing Maereen’s bleeding wound.
“About as well as can be expected.” Tallus replied. “I assume our escape route hasn’t been compromised?”
“Rest assured, boss, the tunnel awaits us. Stand still and hold your breath.”
Tallus and Maereen did as they were bid. He felt the stone floor soften beneath his feet and watched the room rise around him as his weight pulled him down. It was far from the first time he had experienced what the Mole called seeping, but the sensation of passing through solid stone as if it were a thick, cold soup still unnerved him every time he did it. He felt his feet pass through the floor and meet insubstantial air beneath. The three of them had sunk up to their waists when he heard the sound of hoof-beats approaching along the cobble alley outside. As the cold stone oozed over his chest he saw torchlight glint through the small windows either side of the wooden door. The tip of the Mole’s head vanished beneath the floor as it approached Tallus’ chin. He had enough time to see the stone gloop closed over it and smooth out into the pattern it had possessed before the man had passed through it. Then he had to gulp down a breath of cold air and close his mouth and eyes as he, too, vanished into the darkness below. He dropped, his feet quickly planting themselves in damp earth. He opened his eyes and saw the tunnel, two arm-spans across and lined with compacted earth and illuminated by three handheld crystal lanterns propped up on the floor between the three of them. The Mole picked them up, handed one to Maereen, extinguished another and pocketed it, and kept the last one in his hand. He gestured down the tunnel, where it descended and curved out of their limited view. As they began walking Tallus glanced up at the ceiling through which they had just emerged and saw the stone floor of the building. They wandered for several long minutes in silence before the Mole spoke.
“We should be far enough below now. Best to put as much distance between us and this city as possible.”
“Agreed.” Maereen said, her voice heavy with fatigue.
“They’ll have the entire city searching for us by sun up.” Tallus added.
“Wetherhall’s men aren’t a concern.” The Mole replied. “They’ll search that city for days before they realise we’ve got past that wall of theirs.”
“I hope you’re right.”
“Ha! The one thing you can trust about Artellafolk is their fear of magic. The very idea of going under it wouldn’t occur to them in an Age. It’s the men outside the wall I’d worry about.”
“He’s got at least one Veilic mage, that much I could sense. If they catch up to us before my power has restored one mage may be enough to end our contract.”
“Our camp is hidden far enough outside the walls. We can rest there until the sun rises.”
“Tallus, if they have a psychic…”
“Then they’ll find us wherever we go.” Maereen interrupted. “We need rest, and once we have the horses we should be able to outpace Grannel’s men.”
“His men, aye.” The Mole replied. “But not necessarily his mage.”
“Will your power have returned to you by dawn?” Tallus asked.
“Enough will, aye.”
“Then we’ll have to rely on you to deal with any magi he sends. With luck they will remain within the realm’s law.”
“Like we have done?” The Mole sniggered.
“Let’s just keep going, the further we are from the city when they realise we’re gone, the better.” Tallus said, his voice rebounding from the tunnel ahead of and behind them as they wandered in the claustrophobic darkness.
The cold morning air rested heavily on the farmer’s cottage as it lay still and lifeless in the light of the rising sun. The only disturbance came when Yollen lumbered his way through the gate, followed closely by Zoyelle, Granny Hark and Wise Serren. They found the bodies of three dogs tied to a post near what remained of the front door. They had been dead only a few hours, but their bodies bore the desiccation of weeks of exposure.
“Disruption.” Serren explained as they examined the animals. “The use of life magic to extinguish life.”
Zoyelle observed in disgusted fascination. She had seen the worst diseases, the most grievous wounds, the very essence of death driven out and repaired with life magic. That the same power could induce the reverse seemed only logical, yet it was seldom seen. In the back of her mind she strengthened her protective aura. It would provide no protection from the magic that caused what she saw, but it reassured her nonetheless.
Inside was as she had seen it before. The father, a man once young and strong, lay not far from the entrance. The very essence of his being had been stripped away in the same manner of the dogs outside. The mother lay further from the door, her life too had been taken but she lacked the apparent affliction her husband had suffered. The children lay either side of her, the breath of life barely within them.
The golem stood guard outside, grunting with agitation. Zoyelle didn’t blame the creature, the entire place felt wrong. She shoved the thought from her mind and walked carefully to the young boy. She knelt down beside him and cradled his head in her hand. He was a small thing, thin and scrawny. Fed only as well as his family could afford, she supposed. He let out an almost silent moan as she held a vial of Witherfang to his lips. He barely had the strength to swallow the liquid. She remained with him and felt for his pulse. She could scarcely feel it, but it was there. The effect of the potion would be quick, if she had failed in the mixing they would know in a few moments.
“The mother was struck with a corrupting curse.” She heard Serren speak over her shoulder as he examined the woman. “Her inner organs gave out first, a slow and horrifying death. Oh my…”
He rolled the body gently over onto its back. “She was with child.”
Zoyelle moved to the younger child. The girl was even weaker than her older brother, it took several minutes to determine she was even alive. She considered a moment and beckoned the wizard over to her. He knelt beside her and moved his hand over the girl, a faint Aetheric glow surrounded it.
“She’s weaker than the boy.” Zoyelle said. “I’m not sure if she is strong enough to bear the Witherfang.”
“You are right.” He replied. “She is on the very edge of life. She’s one of the youngest I’ve seen, the Vampiric link is likely too much for her body to bear.”
He shook his head. “This must end.” He said in a whisper. “I must return to Otzia and petition the Orders.”
“The Wizards will sit in their towers and talk.” Granny Hark said in a flat tone. They turned to her as she stood in the centre of the room, her eyes firmly closed in meditation. “It is what they do whilst beneath their very feet men destroy families.”
“They sent me.” Serren replied. “I shall return and deliver my report to them. They will act, rest assured.”
“You came at my request.” Hark said. “If you return you may as well not have come at all. We will continue with my Younger’s plan, we will strip his power from him and then we shall put a stop to him.”
“The Orders of Wizardry exist to protect the kingdom from magic. They are bound by duty to aid us, but they will not unless I tell them of the severity of this dark magic.”
“We’ll have no need of them if you aid us. If you leave then I will have no choice but to request the aid of the Sisterhood.”
“You wouldn’t!” Serren gasped. “In the heart of Otziathwaine?”
“If I must.”
“We should get moving.” Zoyelle interrupted. “If he senses the Witherfang he may suspect his latest victims.”
“It’s not unreasonable to assume.” Serren said after a pause. “It would be easy for him to sever the link.”
“We’ll take them to Grafterswell, there are others gathered in the temple there.” Hark said.
“The more children we give the Witherfang to the more reluctant he will be to sever his link to them.” Zoyelle replied.
“Then we must act with haste. We will visit the towns where most are gathered, with luck we will deliver your draught to all of them.”
“What of the parents?” Serren asked.
“Their spirits linger here.” Hark turned to him and opened her eyes. “They are fearful for their children, I have tried to give the assurance. They remember little of his appearance, however. We must burn the bodies, it will help bring them peace.”
“I’ll set a fire.” Zoyelle said.
“I shall have Yollen carry the children.” Hark said as she moved towards the door.
“We should do it outside.” Serren said to Zoyelle. “The children will want a home to return to, I think.”
Zoyelle nodded as the golem ducked under the door and moved towards them. They each scooped a child up and laid them carefully in its thick rocky arms. As it stepped carefully back outside she watched as Serren lifted the heavily pregnant woman in his arms as if she were no heavier than the child. As he walked to the door she reached out with her own magic and carefully levitated the father’s body into the air. She moved it through the door into the yard outside and followed close behind. She emerged as the wizard laid the woman down on the ground a short distance away. He directed Zoyella to place the man alongside her. As she laid him down Serren plucked an acorn from his pocket and dropped it between the two corpses. He took a step back and raised his hands, wisps of Aetheric magic wound around his fingers. Zoyelle watched as, before her eyes, the acorn sprouted. The ground cracked as roots grew and dug into it. The sapling reached upwards and thickened before it split into two branches, each curving in the air and growing towards the bodies. They split and split again, each new filament of life coiling and wrapping around them like serpents. The webs of green thickened into branches of brown bark, a pair of forested cocoons that rose into the air as the trunk bore their weight and itself grew, taller and thicker. Within mere moments what seemed like years of growth had transpired, the direction and purpose of which had been controlled by Serren. The two bodies were now hidden, held inside a nest of branches suspended at waist height. Beneath them, thinner branches curled and spiralled in a dense bush of kindling. A funeral pyre made with the very essence of life. The wizard placed his hands together and bowed his head. Zoyelle did the same as he spoke.
“We dedicate these dead to the spirits. May they be guided to their rest.”
He nodded to Zoyelle and she cupped her hand. She formed the spell for magefire in her mind and felt the heat in her hand as the Veilic magic coalesced. She flicked her hand forwards and a burst of intense flame leapt from her fingers. As she fed her power to the flames she felt their heat, their presence, as if the fire was an extension of herself. She shaped the fire and sent it through the air in a narrow, intense snaking column of heat. She guided it as it plunged into the dense mass of twigs and encircled the pyre. As the heat and fire took hold of the fresh growth she extinguished the trail of flame that still linked it to her hand. She maintained the spell in her mind, however, and fed more of her power to it. After a few minutes the fire had taken hold and she left it to fuel itself. Wise Serren stood beside her and they watched as the pyre became consumed by the flames.
“We should go.” Hark announced from behind them. “There’s much to do.”
She stood within a circle of faint Nexic magic, Yollen carried the children beside her. The young witch and the wizard stepped into the circle and the group vanished in a flash of green light, leaving only the crackling of burning wood to fill the silence.