Another dawn marched towards Artella from the horizon. The tide of darkness that was the night turned and fled before it, as it always did. Some became trapped, hidden behind hills, trees and buildings, where it slowly shrank and withered. Athaleon watched the silent battle from a window high in the castle. The morning, in its purest essence no different to any of the others, countless dawns each proceeding one after another, each a stroke of history’s brush. The unknowing canvas onto which the lives of men were drawn. The story of Asamor was woven from uncountable days, some which held a greater part than most. And yet even this, a single drop in time’s great ocean, still held a unique beauty. That’s what made the journey worthwhile, in his opinion.
Another moment transpired just behind him, unseen by his eye but still held in his mind. Like the morning before him, it was a thing that seemed so simple when viewed from afar, yet so profound up close. A final farewell between mother and son, one near the end of her life, the other at the start of his. She held him close, as any would, and whispered false promises to him while holding back her tears. He remained silent, knowing the lies for what they were, but taking comfort in them regardless. Neither wished the moment would end, but it would as all must. Their path lay freshly formed before them, and the time had come to set foot upon it. He turned to the last remnant of the Wetherhall family.
“It is time.”
Lady Jalice nodded her understanding. The knight, Sir Allian, came to her side as she stood. Wise Christen, shrouded in his monk’s robes, rested his hands on the boy’s shoulders and the three of them left the room, leaving the Lady and her protector behind. They moved swiftly and quietly through the castle, Christen casting his mind ahead of them as far as he could, banishing them from the notice of the few they encountered on their way to the courtyard. As they emerged through a small doorway into the courtyard itself he felt his power released, unbound from the thick impenetrable walls of rothstone that had surrounded him. He felt the links, a handful of unseen strands of magic that connected his mind to those things in the world he most valued, return to him. The braces of dragon-steel embedded in Simmion’s harness, the unassuming wooden caravan that held all his worldly possessions and more besides, his two anchors in the impossible expanse of history. As they reached the caravan Christen parted from them and strode towards the stable to retrieve the horse. Athaleon turned to Micharus and regarded the child. Even now, with no effort on his part, he could sense the Nexic magic bound up within him. The boy was young, manifestation normally occurred during the trials of adolescence. Whilst childhood manifestation was not unheard of, for a boy who had not yet seen his tenth year to possess such a reserve of power was nothing less than a sign pointing to the great wizard he would become. But for now he was nothing but a child, untrained and unfocused, at the very start of a path that was itself uncertain. In time he would come to understand that, but those days were as yet far off.
“Are you ready to go?” He asked the boy. All he got in reply was a simple nod. He turned and slid the bolt across the wooden door at the back of the caravan. He pulled it open to reveal an unremarkable and empty interior. He gestured to Micharus and the boy jumped up inside. He closed the door and slid the bolt. As he wandered around to the front he saw Christen and Simmion wander across from the stables.
“Look after him, won’t you?” Christen asked as the two of them hitched the horse up.
“As if he were my own, of course.” Athaleon replied. “And in return, promise me you will not remain.”
“Within the realm. Return to your duties in Gania.”
Christen visibly wrestled with the notion of asking further questions. He knew as well as Athaleon himself the oaths of secrecy by which all Nexic Wizards were bound when it came to knowledge of things yet to be. He felt the subtle pricks of the Psychic’s mind against the outer edges of his own as Christen fought between curiosity and duty. He was relieved when he felt Christen’s mind retreat from his own, and the wizard retreated physically back towards the castle. Athaleon wondered if his words would be heeded. Whilst the words of a Nexic carried weight, the flow of history was always strong and rarely turned by such small detours. He clambered onto the driver’s bench and settled himself. Grasping the reigns he gently motioned the old cart-horse towards the gate. His gaze fell upon the two guards stood either side of the open gate as he moved towards them, the once-heir to the realm hiding in the back of his caravan. He eased to a stop as one raised their hand towards him.
“Who goes there?” The lead guard asked.
“Just an old man, a trader of linens. My business with her Ladyship is concluded, and I must leave with the rising of the sun if I am to make Reckerslee by dusk, for the market tomorrow.”
“Oddly-dressed for cloth-trader, ain’t you?”
“A traveller’s garb, keeps me warm on the road.”
The man grunted and motioned towards the caravan. “Going to need you to open up your cart.”
“Would that I had the time, good man.” He reached out and patted Simmion on the rump. “The old thing isn’t as fast as he once was, and it won’t do to be left on the road after dark.”
“Sorry, fella. All what’s coming and going needs be inspected, by order o’ the Lord Commander.”
“You’ll find nothing of interest to the Lord Commander, I assure you. Unless he has need of my wares, of course.”
“We’ll be seein’ about that.” The guard replied as he stepped around the side of the caravan, his partner moving down the other side at the same time. Athaleon turned and awakened his Nexic Sight. The world before his eyes became enriched as his magically-enhanced vision captured the energies of the Nexus normally invisible to them. The seemingly inconspicuous wooden frame of his caravan came to life with hidden currents of Nexic magic, bound and hidden within the timber itself. The enchantments, a lifetime of his own work, wove through the fabric of the cart and extended beyond in directions no mortal man could even conceive. By extending his power he could peer into the hidden parts and rearrange them, shifting the child safely beyond the reach of the guards. It was something he could do almost on instinct, in a matter of seconds. But he was distracted.
A faint glow fell across his vision, the unmistakable green of Nexic energy. At once he turned his eyes to the source. It drifted above the central tower of the castle, a writhing, contorting cloud of faint magic, twisting and oscillating in the characteristic way of something that was only partially present in reality. Over fractions of a second it intensified, whilst its movement steadied. He recognised it, of course, a preshadow, an echo of Nexic magic rippling into the present from a few moments ahead. From the shape and movement, a preshadow of teleportation, but the size and power of it was enormous. There was only one thing it could be, he realised, as the preshadow finally settled into its true form at the instant of transference. The intensity of the magic flared, momentarily blazing into true light, visible to all eyes. The great green dragon planted its weight with a dull thud and scrape of talons across unscathed rothstone. To common eyes, the graceful movement of interlocking green scales, the way the creature pivoted its weight effortlessly, the way it lifted itself into the air and landed again on the northern wing, the glare of those four intense eyes as it glanced over the courtyard was nothing short of magnificent. Yet its true majesty could only be glimpsed through the trained eye of a mage. Somewhere deep within its chest, a heart the size of a cauldron erupted magical energy with every beat, every surge of power easily the envy of even the greatest magi. It coursed through the dragon’s arteries, hidden beneath its armoured skin but visible to his Nexic Sight. Its power reached the skin itself, soaking through the scales and diffusing into the air around it.
“Dragon!” The guard screamed as he drew his short sword. The other did likewise and they ran towards the central tower. Athaleon looked up towards the creature, a fellow wanderer.
“Hello again, old friend.” He spoke to the air as he tugged on the reins. Simmion stirred into motion and pulled the cart through the gate and out into the city beyond. He heard the resonant thrust of wings like sails and felt the rush of air behind him as the dragon lifted itself into the air.
The rays of dawn glistened from the dew-kissed grass and danced across the leaves. The Mole wandered across the increasingly untamed land, keeping an eye on the path ahead and an ear on the path behind. A night of rest had restored his power to him, as it always did. He had risen before the first hint of sunlight, when the stars were yet to be hidden by the veil of the day. There were likely many hours of walking between himself and Tallus, and the sooner they found each other the better. He had woven basic wards about himself, nothing too complex or draining, but enough to turn aside the first blows of a sword or stop a handful of arrows short of their mark in the unlikely event someone got the jump on him. There was little a trained mage had to fear from common-blooded men, especially those who did not carry enchantments. Even those in the realm who possessed the gifts of the magi would be too terrified to reveal them, or else too ill-trained to pose a threat. Wizards were another matter, it was likely Otzia had already extended its unnatural reach in search of its recently-lost son, if not they certainly would soon. But they were above all an arrogant lot, their comfort in their own superior power was their most reliable deficiency. One of the few things he did not begrudge his fate for was a life lived in the world, rather than high above it.
As he walked between hills and small islands of trees he looked once again at the pathic ring on his finger. He focused on it and sent another thought.
Tallus. Maereen. Speak to me.
He listened to the silence in his mind. It was unlikely to have worked, such simple enchantments would not travel far enough, especially after the years they had worn them. He sensed something, however, almost below his conscious awareness. It was an intrinsic knowledge that the rings imparted to their wearers, allowing them to find one another when they were close. That he could sense a presence without a reply, that was concerning. He dropped his hand to his side and came to a halt.
He closed his eyes and focused his mind inwards, one of the countless mental exercises he had been forced to repeat endlessly in his youth. Centring his awareness was almost second-nature to him now, his breathing drifted to the centre of his consciousness almost without thought. Around it everything else revolved in the darkness, sensations and thoughts both. The Sanctum of the Mind, his master had once called it. Everyone had at least some level of power over their mind, he had learned, even if they lacked the power of the Psyche. From this place he could direct his focus with greater ease, he aimed it at the feeling that lurked almost out of reach and beneath its glare it opened like a flower coming into bloom. He waited for several long minutes as it grew upwards into his conscious mind, until he could keep it in check in the back of his mind. He opened his eyes and began to walk again.
They had not strayed too far from their planned route after all. Tallus had chosen it, a balance of the most direct route, whilst straying far enough from the towns and villages to move quickly and unchecked. The roads would become more dangerous by the hour as the search for the stolen children grew out from Artella like a disease. Pursuit would likely follow them here, but it would arrive later than had they taken the better-travelled roads. At least, that was on what Tallus had placed their hopes.
He heard the caw of the buzzard before he saw her. She lay at the edge of a spurt of trees, her back against a trunk. The bird was pecking at her face, and with a barely conscious thought he sent a stone at his feet whistling through the air. The creature protested and took to the air, leaving Maereen alone. As he approached her he saw the full extent of its feeding, her face was torn at the mouth and eyes, the eyeballs plucked out already. She had been dead for hours at least. The ring lay still around her finger, no longer witness to her thoughts. If she had been left like this then she was likely dead or close enough when Tallus last knew. At least he would be spared the task of telling the man. He knelt over her and ran his hands carefully through her pockets. One by one he removed her belongings, two daggers; a pouch of unlabelled vials; a collection of darts; another knife; a purity stone; a pair of small fire stones; three smaller knives; two bundles of sleepsmoke powder along with a larger bag of the same; another dagger tucked up her sleeve; the pathic ring on her finger; an intricate dart-thrower strapped to her other wrist; another pouch with a few rations of food; a small coin purse. The last item he took from her was a small copper ring tied around her neck with string. He examined it with a cold scrutiny. It was a signet ring, engraved with a symbol of three interlocking circles. Worth little in of itself, but its place close to her heart suggested it had more of a sentimental value. He had never known of it, or cared to ask if he did. It was of no use to him in any case. He wrapped her stiff fingers around it and eased her arms across her chest.
Every man deserves decency in death. Each of us owes at least that.
His master’s words rang in the depths of his memory. Foolish words. Death was death. What happened after meant nothing. Still, the thought of leaving her out here for the vermin and insects did not sit right with him, not truly. The Last Duty often fell to Terramancers like himself, they were of course best fit for the task.
As he stepped away from her he summoned a slither of his power. He sent it questing into the ground beneath himself, a limb of consciousness making the earth his own. He walked away from her, away from the trees. He conjured a ripple beneath her, a motion of the surface dirt to carry her gently away from the wood’s embrace. He turned back towards her as she came to rest above unspoiled ground. He extended his hands and his power in front of himself. He softened the ground beneath her, allowed her to sink slowly, gracefully beneath its surface as if it were an ocean ready to welcome her. The dirt and grass lapped over her face and solidified again, concealing her. He guided her down further, through topsoil and into the harder, denser earth. He laid her down within a deep layer of hidden stone, twisting it and wrapping it around her, locking her away. He restored it to solidity and retracted his magic. It was done, he thought to himself. Well, almost.
He struck down through the earth with his power like a lash, burying the tip in the stone that now held her. He bound a slither of it to his will and dragged it up from the depths. As it rose through the soil, unseen but not unheard, like a rising gout of molten rock, he focused his attention on its shape. It breached the surface with a burst of earthen power, finally settling into the form he had designed for it. With a final flare of Terramancy he imprinted a mark upon its wide, flat face: Three interlocking circles. A simple headstone, but suitable enough to mark her resting. He pulled back his power and let it settle within himself.
“It’s good to see that at least some of my lessons did not go unheeded.”
The voice caught him off guard, both with its sudden appearance and the kindling of memories. He had been foolish. In the moments he had dedicated to her burial, he had not noticed an old, forgotten pathway in his mind reassert itself. He knew even before his frenzied turn had brought his eyes to rest on him. His old master stood observing him, in every detail unchanged from the man he remembered. Wise Rellard stood tall and broad-shouldered, his earth-brown robes hanging from his frame in sleek vertical lines, pinned to them a circular brooch engraved with a pattern of four wizard’s hats, their points toward the centre. The symbol was that of the Wizengard, the brotherhood of the strongest Wizards of the age. A beard black as coal framed his square-jawed face, beneath the brim of his pointed hat two old eyes blazed copper-orange.
“Half a lifetime with not so much as a word.” The Mole spoke under his breath. “And now you show your face. To what do I owe the honour, Master?”
“Please, Temarul, you are no longer my student.”
“No, we settled that didn’t we.”
“Those were your terms, not mine.”
“Aye, and I stand by them. Get to the point, then get out of my head.”
“I’ve come to offer counsel.”
“I have no need of it.”
“Don’t you? You may not have thought of me these past years, Temarul, but I have thought of you.”
“That’s not my name.”
“So I have heard. You tossed it aside when you discarded everything else, and now you call yourself Mole.”
“It is what I am.”
“And what are you? What have you become? You have always had great skill, Temarul, more than any of my other students.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
“It is the truth. You’ve never been far from the lips of those in the Order. That alone should be a testament to your talent.”
“And yet it was not enough. ‘twas never enough, in your eyes.”
“Look at yourself, man. A King’s dog, made to bark at his command.”
“Burn in the pit.”
“You never did understand, and you never will.”
“Is that why you’re here, then? To remind me of how I failed, how I wasn’t good enough?”
“It is not.”
“Then out with it!”
“I’ve come to ask you to meet with me.”
“Meet with you?”
“There are matters that need to be discussed, addressed.”
“I was under the impression any such matters were long since dealt with.”
“You have no idea, do you? You have always acted without consideration, I see that will never change. The Order will not tolerate such flagrant use of magic indefinitely.”
“They seem to have so far.”
“Because I have stalled them. Every time they spoke of you, I spoke in your defence, argued for leniency on your behalf. Convinced them that, in spite of your flaws, you are a good man. But that has all been for nought. It’s beyond my power now to stay their hand.”
“I never asked you.”
“You never had to. But now… by all the Gods Temarul you killed one of them. There’s no talking them down this time, they must act.”
“Let them come.”
“You have no idea. You still have no idea what they are capable of. They’ll kill you, Temarul, or worse.”
“What concern is it of yours?”
“Please, Temarul. Meet me in Morjia, turn yourself in. Together we can plea for leniency, at least get them to spare your life.”
“I’d rather trust my life to my own hands.”
“You don’t understand. They’ll name you Dark Mage.”
“And Gods forbid that be allowed to stain your reputation.” The Mole remarked. “That you trained a Dark Mage.”
“My concern is only for your sake.”
“Don’t insult me.”
Wise Rellard’s expression turned darker, the Mole felt the presence in his mind intensify.
“I am offering you a chance to come peacefully, Temarul. Regardless of how you feel about me, this matter has become mine to resolve. Rest assured I will do so, whether I have to drag you before the council bound and in chains or, First forbid, kill you myself.”
The Mole couldn’t help but let out a laugh. “If you wish to come and claim me, then by all means come. I would relish the challenge.”
He calmed his mind and focused on another of his learned meditations. As he prepared to force his master’s doorway into his mind closed he felt the slightest resistance, but his master’s consciousness held back. Rellard was a powerful Psychic, but he had also trained the Mole in mental defence. Over such a distance, across such a tenuous link, he had even odds of resisting, and his master was doubtless bound by the Wizard’s innumerable laws. The intent was clear, he was only here to talk. He could be dismissed without a fight.
“Why, Temarul? Why must you force my hand?” Rellard asked, his anger diminishing as he relinquished dominance of the Mole’s mind. “A confrontation between us can only mean one thing.”
“I’m not the boy I was.” The Mole replied in defiance. “I’ve had a lifetime to free myself of your lies, your limitations.”
Rellard shook his head. “If that is what you truly believe, then you are lost, more so than I had feared.”
“I outgrew your pity a long time ago, old man.”
“So be it.” The wizard said as the illusion of his presence began to unweave. “I’ll leave you with your stubborn pride. We shall meet again, and until we do I urge you to reconsider.”
Rellard vanished from his perception completely, and the Mole slammed the link between them closed in his mind.
The words carried a foreboding for any mage in the Kingdom, and the Mole knew their full meaning as well as anyone. The name itself was an accusation, conviction and sentence laid down upon those who abused their magic. A Dark Mage was an enemy of the crown, the land, to be hunted and killed. The bounty on such a man was sizeable, it was said a Dark Mage was worth twice their weight in silver. As much as he would deny it outwardly, Otzia was an ever-present force in the lives of all magi in Asamor. The combined will of the Orders of Wizardry was a force no man could stand before, and nothing united their will like hatred of those they named Dark Mage. Once, so long ago, he had held them in the same awe as any man, but the promise of joining them had gone unfulfilled and turned sour in his heart. He held little for them but hatred now, hatred enough that he would defy them. He wouldn’t let them have his fear, he wouldn’t run and cower.
He would face them.
He would fight them.
He would die.
She barely noticed the daylight. The trees, great living towers that they were, drank all the sunlight long before it reached the ground. Their branches sprouted and interwove into an ever-changing ceiling so high above Alexia’s head that it might as well have been the sky. She saw glimpses of blue only occasionally, through momentary holes in the roof of this world. The light that reached her was stripped of its essence and carried a taint of shadow. It mixed with the blue-green glow of the underside of the tree canopy to create an eerie presence. It felt like another world entirely, one where the heavens and the earth were held apart by great living columns a hundred men across. Between them smaller, perhaps younger, trees; vines and creepers threaded and swayed in the gentle breeze, a dance of leaves and flowers in a thousand different colours. And the animals that called these growing behemoths their home. The many she saw, from tiny iridescent insects and small, agile birds, creatures of fur and scale of all sizes, the largest always glimpsed in the distance, their eyes turned away from them. They were outnumbered a thousand to one by those she heard but could not see, a turbulent chorus of life and death.
And through its heart they walked, five elves and herself, so small and frail. It should have terrified her, but she felt no fear at all.
She always remained at the centre of the group. Out in front of her two elves lead them, one a man, large and strong, broke branch, trunk and root and swept the debris aside with no more than a wave of his hand. She could hear the straining and snapping of wood, the scattering of creatures as he tore a passage for them with magic.
Behind him strode a she-elf, a woman with a youthful body but old eyes, doubtless their leader. She moved with a determined step, made somehow more present than her small stature would otherwise dictate.
Two more elves kept pace with Alexia. To her left another she-elf, seemingly younger than the leader, although Alexia could not tell how she felt she knew that. The woman was slender, wearing loose-fitting clothes, her curls of fiery red hair tied behind her head.
To her right an elven man prowled, his muscular chest, arms and legs uncovered. His hair was long and coal-black, but it was his eyes that most drew her attention. They were unlike those of the others, inhuman and keen like the eyes of a hawk. He kept his gaze fluid as he glanced around, peering into depths of the forest she couldn’t even fathom.
Behind her the last of the group, another male, his hands in constant motion as he conjured renewed growth in the damaged trees, knitting the forest back together after their passing.
They spoke to each other, but did so in their native tongue. Try as she might, she could not understand them, but each time the leader spoke she found meaning in her words. She couldn’t make sense of it at all. She knew that all elves were all magi, that was about all she knew about them from what little she had been taught. But magic itself was nothing more than an idea in her head until these last few days. The stone bracelets that still hung upon her wrists were a mere taste of it, and now she felt completely immersed.
The hawk-eyed elf sniffed at the air and stopped. At the same instant she felt an impulse to do the same and found her legs had already followed it. The rest of the group came to a halt just as abruptly, the sounds of carnage up ahead and creaking branches behind dying to reveal the serene ambience hiding beneath. The leader turned back towards the hawk-eyed elf.
“What is it, Jaral?” She asked in elvish.
He replied in the same tongue, but Alexia could not decipher his words.
“How far?” She asked. He answered. She thought for a moment, then she gave him a glance upwards. He nodded and stepped away from the group. Alexia watched in awe as his muscles visibly grew. His fingers became longer and sprouted thick hooked claws at the tips, and his feet underwent a greater transformation, toes shifting and growing to become more like the fingers of his hands. He launched himself in an impossible leap and rebounded between the thick trunks of the nearby trees with unparalleled agility, hands and feet driving their claws into the bark at every bound. Within moments he had scaled half the height of the forest and vanished into the endless growth above them.
“Form yourselves around the human.” The leader commanded. “We have come far too close as it is.”
The elf behind Alexia said something and the others laughed. The leader did not seem at all amused and quickly silenced them with a glare as they moved into a tighter circle around her.
“What’s happening?” She asked, though she was sure they didn’t understand her.
“Kendrae, up ahead.” The elf behind her said in elvish. “If we stray too close to their nests they will attack.”
“You’re thinking of running.” The leader spoke without turning to face her. Alexia hadn’t realised but it was true, over the past hours the thought of escaping into the dense growth had been forming in her mind.
“Don’t.” The leader warned.
A shrill roar pierced the forest ahead of them. A sudden fear flooded into Alexia and wrapped itself around her muscles, chilling her to the bone and holding her in place. She heard movement somewhere ahead, the flutter of a thousand feathered wings and the straining of branches. Something caught her eye above. It moved fast, so fast that by the time she had raised her head to see it had slammed into the trunk of a tree behind them. A crunch of bone and bark, and the body slumped forwards and fell towards them. It landed before her, and she felt something warm and wet splatter her face. He lay there, motionless. The hawk-eyed elf, the one they had called Jaral, his body broken and torn open from groin to chin. His eyes looked up at her as he sputtered and coughed for breath through ravaged lungs.
She heard them then, the roars, the beating of powerful wings as monsters stirred. She could sense them, somehow, a shadow of death reaching around the trees towards them, as she stood and watched a dying man.
“Stay close!” The leader commanded.
Alexia’s body tore itself from her stupor, some part of her acting without her full awareness, doing what it could to keep her alive.