The sunlight crept up the tall slender walls of the office of the Seat of Artellathwaine. Miteus sat in the seat itself and to one side Revered Preyt tended his papers, the scratch of his quill the only sound that dared pierce the tension.
Treston had been shown in minutes before and he stood now in the glare of the amber daylight that echoed from the crystal ring. At Miteus’ command he had been woken, washed and brought to his senses with a concoction the source of which mattered little. He had been dressed in the family colours, however his garments were of more common cloth than was due his station. Despite his almost grotesque size the outfit did well to rescue his dignity, what little there apparently was to save.
Miteus let the atmosphere ferment before he spoke.
“Do you remember the day of my ascension, Treston?”
“Of course, brother. Like it was yesterday, in fact.”
“I named you my appointed seat.”
“A great honour, brother, one I am grateful for…” Treston quietened at Miteus’ stare.
“Father didn’t approve. He said you were soft-minded, Victarion was the stronger choice. You need a stronger man in Nysilla than your own castle. That was what he said. I disagreed, Vic was good with the sword, I felt I needed him by my side more than signing letters. And I thought of you, how little he had always made you compared to Vic and I.”
“You always looked out for me, Mit.”
“Someone had to. You couldn’t fight worth a shit.” Miteus laughed. “But you were always the smart one, you spent more time in the library than you did sleeping. Family above all. That was something else he always said. You’re family, brother, and you deserved your chance outside our shadow. Father was furious when he found he couldn’t talk me out of it. I never once regretted that decision.”
Treston opened his mouth to speak, Miteus silenced him with a gesture. “Not until today.”
“Look at yourself, you damned fool!” Miteus cut him off. “You’re a Wetherhall for Gods’ sake! You’re of Banthos’ blood! You have failed my trust. For the first time I see what father said all those years ago, you’re weak. I should have listened.”
“You wish me and Vic had traded places?”
Miteus did not reply.
“I’m sorry, brother, truly I am. Life’s different here, it’s not like back in Artella.”
“I know that all too well.”
“I can change, I can make it up to you. I’ll stop. The drink, the games, the white.”
“White?‘!” Miteus screamed. “You’ve been taking white?”
“Just a bit?”
“The King rips apart my family and you’re snorting fool’s powders?”
“What? What do you mean our family?”
“How can you not know? Is there any measure by which you haven’t betrayed your duty?”
“I’ve never heard anything of it, have I Preyt?” He turned to the scribe.
“No mention of it has crossed my eyes, Sire.” Preyt replied over his scrawl.
“And you see everything, do you?” Miteus asked.
“Anything that is meant for the eyes of the appointed seat.”
“Then you expect me to believe the King summoned me and decided my fate in secret?”
“With respect, my Lord, secrets are the currency at court. It should hardly come as a surprise, although perhaps it may to one who has not lived within its walls.”
“Be that as it may, I have made a decision.” Mietus said as he turned back to his younger brother. “You are returning with me to Artella. It’s clear to me this city has done you no end of harm.”
“Brother, please! I can… I can talk to the King. Whatever he’s done, I can get him to change his mind!”
“I think not. You are returning to Artella, I shall decide what to do with you there.”
“My Lord,” Preyt interrupted. “Forgive me, but if Lord Treston is to leave the city, who shall you appoint in his place?”
“Find me a man in this city I can trust.” Miteus said under his breath.
“A Seat must be appointed, my Lord. It is the law of the King.”
“And what if I lack the confidence in anyone to serve?”
“Then, with all respect, Sir, you would be duty-bound to serve the post yourself.”
Miteus thought a moment. “So be it. Treston, you leave with my guard at first light. I will remain here at court. You are dismissed.”
“Get out of my sight, Treston!” Miteus barked. Treston almost leapt out of his skin before scurrying away. Miteus turned to the scribe.
“If I am trapped here then you have some letters to write.”
A quiet wind whispered to the leaves of the trees that stood in the gardens at the heart of castle Artella. The stars above succumbed to advancing cloud as the castle sat silently in the darkness. The tomb of the unknown mage rested in the darkness surrounded by trees that stood as guards. A bat burst into the air, disturbed from its rest. The worn stone and swaying leaves became illuminated in tones of unnatural green. The trunk of one of the larger trees flared with glyphs etched in green energy on its cracked bark. The energies of the concentric rings of symbols bled and flowed into a spiral, where they coalesced into a point at the centre. The wind changed, air rushed in as the glow shimmered. Ripples formed in the air above the trunk and twisted violently. A hole tore open in the world, a ring of Nexic energy bound the gateway as two figures stepped through.
Tallus cast his eye across the inner wall of the castle as the gateway collapsed behind him. Maereen was already half way up a nearby tree, strong arms lifting her with an almost feline grace. He leapt over the block of erroded stone and ducked behind it as two men approached.
“I definitely saw something.” One said.
Tallus heard a sword slide from its sheath. “Whoever’s there,” said a second voice, “come out slowly, no harm’ll come to you.”
One of the guards collapsed in a heap. The other turned to him.
“Lan? Don’t mess about, come on. Lan? Banthos’ hammer…”
The second guard fell to the grass in silence.
“Two down.” Maereen’s voice rang out in his mind. “Nobody else coming, looks like most of the gaurd are focused on the outer wall.”
Tallus leapt back over to the downed guards as he sent a reply through the pathic ring on his finger.
“Good. Let’s hope our luck holds.”
He looked down at the men at his feet. Worn leather armour and iron blades. Not much of a match against his dragon-steel but it offered little resemblance to what he wore.
“Don’t count on it.” Maereen sent back. “Door’s ahead, should be a clear run for you.”
Tallus lifted a ring of iron keys and stashed it in a pocket. He dashed into the darkness as quietly as his armour would allow. Somewhere in the shadows behind him he sensed Maereen drop down and run beneath the cover of silence.
“The walls will block the pathic link.” He sent to her. “Stick to the plan, no matter what.”
“See you inside.” She replied and he felt the link break. He no longer new where she was. The door formed from the darkness ahead of him, exactly where she said it would be. It was wooden, small and insignificant in every respect except that it was his way in. He fumbled with the three keys on his stolen ring. The second attempt released the lock with an ominous click. He slipped inside and closed the door behind him. He stood alone in the light of a single flickering torch. He closed his eyes and recalled what he could of the castle’s layout. Getting lost would be the greatest danger. He heard bootsteps approach. He opened his eyes and darted through an archway, left, right, left and left again, down three steps and to another wooden door. None of the keys would turn. He cursed under his breath and stowed them again. The bootsteps closed. He took another iron key from his pocket. He slid the toothless shaft into the lock. He heard the rapid clicks of barrels as the enchantment did its work. He turned the key and the lock opened. He shoved through the door and locked it again behind him. He placed the pocket locksmith back carefully. It seemed fortunate he was in the heart of the only realm that lacked magic. He would be surprised if there was a single lock in a hundred miles that had any kind of protective enchantment. He stepped into a corridor wide enough to admit only one and scarcely lit by fading torches in the occasional wall sconces. Serving corridors ran like hidden veins through every castle, criss-crossing in a narrow labyrinth. He hoped they would be lightly used at this time of night and even more lightly guarded. He moved down the corridor as his eyes adjusted to the low light.
Everything now fell to his memory. If he could recall the twists and turns precisely, these passages would take him to within spitting distance of his target. If not, he would likely never reach the children in time. He moved through doors, releasing those that were locked with the pocket locksmith. As he rounded a corner he stopped dead. Ahead he saw the flicker of torchlight, an approaching guard. He ducked back around the corner and pressed hismelf up against the wall. He listened, the sound of footsteps betrayed only a single guard. He held his breath as the guard approached. He passed, turned and shrieked as Tallus planted a solid blow to the side of his head. He staggered into the wall, the torch dropped to the floor. Tallus struck a second blow to the back of his neck and he went down. Tallus stamped out the torch and hurried ahead. More turns and doors brought him to a kitchen, large and dark save for the glow of the oven fires as they smouldered. The unmistakable smell of baking bread hung in the air. Iron chimneys directed the smoke upwards to the ceiling where ducts in the stone lead it to heat the floors of the bed chambers high above. He saw a narrow stairway leading upwards enshrined in the gloom. He ran towards it and began the climb. He could feel the heat from the walls around him as he ascended the tight spirals. At last he came to a door at the very top of the stairway. If his memory had served him true, this door would bring him out a few yard from the children’s bed-chambers. He took the locksmith from his pocket and held it in front of the lock. He strained his ears. He could hear nothing. The guards would outnumber him, if they were still present. He couldn’t know for sure, and there was no time to delay. He slowly inserted the locksmith and heard the barrels click into place. He turned the lock and twisted the handle. He pushed gently and the door swung open. He poked his head around the door. Six guards lay on the floor and against the walls. Their snores reassured him. He eased the door closed behind him and stepped carefully between their numbed limbs. That was when he heard it.
First one bell, ringing in the distance. Then another, closer, another closer still. Then more than he could count, and then the distant shouts.
He bolted to the large wooden double doors that lead to the bed-chambers and rapped his knuckles on them.
“It’s me.” He said as loud as he dared.
The door opened and Maereen dragged him inside.
“You’re late.” She whispered harshly.
“They’re early.” He replied. She showed him the children, two unconscious bundles of cloth. She handed him a vial of unidentifiable liquid.
“Keep hold of this.” She said. “We still aiming for the gatehouse?”
“We’ll never make it.” He replied as she hefted one of the bundles onto her shoulder. “Go for the alternative.”
She nodded as he knelt down and placed his hand on the other bundle. He bolted upright when the doors burst open. They turned to see the scarred body of Krasten Wetherhall, naked save for his undergarments.
The old man moved with the energy of one half his age. He picked up a bedpan and hefted it with the precision of a blade. Tallus barely ducked in time as he brought it at his head. The iron pan broke against the stone wall scattering warm coals on the floor. Tallus’ sword leapt from its sheath and into his hand and he raised the blade in time to block the second strike. Dragon-steel bit into iron and he needed all his strength and that of the sword to push the makeshift weapon away. As he did so he twisted and the broken pan came away from the stem and clattered to the floor. Krasten pressed the attack, landing blow after blow against Tallus’ sword. Each clash of iron and dragon-steel shortened the iron stem, but Krasten adapted to each from blow to blow. His stance was firm yet fluid, his attack lacked grace but retained a lethal edge. Tallus noted a lack of knights’ training, but the man knew how to fight. He twisted under a swing aimed at his head and sliced his own blade into one of the few openings he had found. The tip caught the bottom of the shaft, millimetres from Krasten’s hand. It dug into the iron, he pulled back and twisted. The makeshift iron spike clattered to the floor as he turned and drove his left shoulder into Krasten’s chest. The old man staggered two steps back and regained his balance as Tallus completed his spin, his blade pointed directly at Krasten’s throat. The two men stood opposed as the world held its breath around them.
“Yield.” Tallus demanded. Krasten cracked a half-smile, his eyes locked with Tallus’ in a primal trance. He brought his scarred arm up and across the blade. Shining metal dug into soft flesh. The sword jerked aside, the tip opening a small flap of flesh on Krasten’s neck. Krasten surged forward, sending his uninjered arm into the attack. He drove his palm through the spray of crimson and struck Tallus’ face hard.
The sword clattered on the stone floor. Tallus collapsed backwards in a daze.
Krasten, one arm hanging and draped in blood, turned his advance on Maereen. She took a step back and flicked her wrist forwards. The air whistled as a dart buried itself in Krasten’s chest. He stopped nd pulled it out, his eye fixed on the iron tip.
“You bitch!” He spat as he let the dart fall from his hand and lunged forward. She dropped the bundle from her shoulder as he slammed into her heavily. She struggled under his weight as his good hand groped at the knife stashed in her belt. She smashed her shoulder into his sternum and he grunted. He dropped from her, she saw the glint of steel in his hand too late. She tried to pull away but the short blade of the knife buried itself in her thigh. Krasten Wetherhall finally dropped to the floor and lay still, a pool of red slowly growing under his arm.
Tallus got to his feet and lifted his bundle over his shoulder again. Maereen gasped for breath as she flicked open a vial and downed its contents. The sword leapt across the room into Tallus’ hand and he slid it back into its sheath as they directed their attention to the sound of hurried footsteps marching on them from the corridor outside.
The interior of the cottage lay shrouded in the reaching shadows cast from the crystal lanterns that hung over the cauldron. The dusty armchairs were eerily illuminated by the embers of the dying fire. Granny Hark hadn’t stirred from her slumber all day, and the Wizard had joined her by the fire hours ago. Zoyelle was cast in a warm green glow as she dicanted the luminescent potion from a glass jug into vials. She sealed each vial with wax and a combination of thermal magic and a sealing enchantment then placed it into a wicker basket. She lifted the last of the witherfang from the cauldron and dropped it into the jug, filling it half way. She prepared the last vials and dismissed the crystal lights with a wave of her hand. She moved silently through the darkness and disappeared through the door. She took a deep breath as the cold air hit her face, turning the sheen of sweat into a skin of ice. She heard Yollen snoring heavily at the end of the garden. She moved away from the house and felt herself pass beyond the wards that enclosed it. A presence passed over her, a distant mind with a metallic, prickly essence to it. She felt it brush against her mental defences, probing them gently. She turned her eye to the mountains in the near distance, to the four impossible towers. The thick strands were dressed with occasional points of light. The prolonged presence of powerful magic had almost certainly drawn their attention. Although she lacked psychic gifts herself, Granny Hark had taught her how to recognise psychic intrusion, even gentle scrying like she experienced now. It was little more than a passive observation, she readied herself to duck back behind the wards if it took a more sinister form. Turnip fluttered down from behind her and landed at her feet, a sackrat in his jaws. He tore at the large rodent as she knelt down to stroke his smooth scales. She felt the presence recede from her as the attention of Otzia drifted somewhere else. She hoped the Wizards were casting their gaze for the dark mage that was working in their lands, but she knew it was a problem they would have to solve themselves.
She let out a yawn as her fatigue finally caught up with her. Potioncraft was always demanding on both mind and magic, Witherfang was especially demanding. She passed back within the wards and through the door, holding it open for the small white dragon to follow. As she approached the dying fire she felt Granny Hark’s mind reach into her own.
“Finished your brew?” Hark asked as she snored in her slumber. “Come get some rest, child. Regain your strength, join me in the dreamscape.“
“Have you scried the Dark Mage?” She asked back as she sat opposite her elder. Turnip leapt into her lap as Hark gently pulled her towards sleep. She did not fight her closing eyes as Hark strengthened and broadened the link between their minds.
She recalled the sensations of every scrying she and her elder had shared. She felt her soul being stretched and contorted as Hark drew it into her own mind. Within moments the dark void of the dreamscape was filled with a vision of a gloomy stone room. She tried to move her head and look around but found the vision outside her control.
“Remember, child, we observe. We do not interact.” Hark warned as Zoyelle’s mind connected with other senses. The sound of cracking logs, the smell of manure and woodsmoke. The feel of scratchy clothes, a cold stone floor. The vantage turned and she saw an young man sleeping by a simple fire pit, a woman carried an unborn child around a bronze stove. The feel of short limbs and a low view of the house led Zoyelle to assume they shared the mind of a child. She experienced the world as if wrapped in a blanket, the presence of Hark’s mind surrounding her own and shrouding them both from the child’s awareness.
“The Dark Mage is here?” Zoyelle asked.
“He will be, any minute now.” Hark replied.
“When is this?“
“A few hours ago.“
The mental conversation ceased when Zoyelle heard three dogs start barking through the child’s ears. The father was roused from his sleep, the mother gave him a look and moved towards the child. Another, a small girl barely able to walk stumbled into view. The father lifted a scythe that had been leant against the wall. He stopped short of the door as the single barking dog fell silent. Zoyelle acted on instinct and drew what little power she had to her. She formed the spell in her mind when Hark slammed around her like a vice, forcing the magic back down.
A bolt of Aetheric magic erupted through the wall and buried itself in the father’s chest. The man fell, the scythe clattered to the floor. The mother and children screamed. The wooden door exploded inwards, bronze hinges and latch tearing away. He moved from the darkness into the amber gloom like a shadow. The Dark Mage, shrouded in a simple black robe, his face hidden beneath a hood, the only skin showing two youthful hands. The hands of a killer. Living green energy coursed around the fingers of his right hand as he advanced on them. The magic coalesced into a bolt that struck the mother. Zoyelle felt the woman’s weight as she fell between her children. She caught the stench of defacation when the child she inhabited inhaled in shock. The mother gasped for air, she still lived but Zoyelle noted the darkening of her flesh. The attacker moved towards them, the girl stumbled over her feet as she ran towards him. He swept his arm down and scooped her up in one hand. Zoyelle felt the voice of the child she inhabited as if it were in her own throat. It was a boy’s voice that cried out. The Dark Mage spoke back in a harsh whisper that sliced the air.
“Stay quiet and your mother will live. Try to run and she dies.”
Zoyelle noted the accent, unmistakably Mestadan with a heavy hint of some other tongue she could not place. The voice sounded male, but a gifted life mage could disguise their voice. She had reasoned he would have little reason to do so, but it was still a possibility. She felt the icy grip of fear lock the boy’s body in place. The Dark Mage had placed the girl on the floor and had bent over her. He held his face close to hers and muttered under his breath, the glow of green emanating from his hands as he moved them over her tiny body. Zoyelle, partly due to Hark’s insistance, focused her concentration on the act of magic before the eyes through which she saw. She could only assume the act was a Vampire’s Kiss curse, having little direct experience of any life magic, let alone the darker arts.
The enacting of the curse took several long minutes, it was evidently not an easy magic. The boy hadn’t noticed that his mother had stopped breathing, his eyes transfixed on the scene before him. The Dark Mage rose and moved towards them.
“Can’t you stop him?” She asked Granny Hark.
“I cannot reach into his mind,” The old witch sent back. “His thoughts are too chaotic, I haven’t been able to decipher them.“
Strong arms laid the boy onto his back and the lower jaw of a young face, lined with short, sharp facial hair came into view. She heard the incantation clearly now, spoken in a language that did not translate in her mind. She recognised a handful of lexemes from basic vocal magic, but the length of the incantation was indicative of the curse’s complexity. Her concentration waned as she felt the effects take hold. A loss of sensation, a deep sickness rising from within and the ever-increasing sensation of weakness. Granny Hark’s presence around her grew and weakened the link between her and the body she inhabited. As the boy’s eyes drew closed the two of them pulled back from the scene and returned to the fire around which they slept. Hark wrapped her in feelings of comfort and security and, at last, released her mind. She committed her experiences to memory as best she could before she lost lucidity and surrendered to more conventional dreams.