• Tomorrow Man – Part XV

    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.”

    “Brother…”

    “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.”

    “Brother…”

    “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.

    Fuck.

    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.

    Tonight?

    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.

    Part XIV | Contents | Part XVI


  • Colossus: From Concept to Cover

    It’s time to take a look at the cover of Colossus. I’ll admit that I don’t know a lot about cover design, or specifically what works and what doesn’t, and what little I do know I found out after I had formulated the idea for the cover in my mind.

    The first decision was the format. I wanted to go for a simple artwork-with-text-overlay approach. Although fairly straightforward in concept, it puts emphasis on the artwork as that’s what has to convey the content. A single-word title reveals little, and I’m hardly the sort who can plaster their name in giant letters and be assured of sales. After all, nobody’s heard of me. The artwork then is key, and fortunately I already had the form in mind.

    Colossus Cover: Concept
    Colossus Cover: Concept

    What we see here is the sketch I made to try and convey my idea. The key elements were the idea of darkness, a visual likeness of the character of Colossus, a contrast in size between Colossus and the depiction of Alice. The two lead characters are the core of the story, and I also wanted to show the idea of Colossus appearing protective of Alice, looking out over her. I was also hoping that someone could see the image and the thought would occur to them, a curiosity as to who these characters are, how they are connected.

    What we see here is also about the limit of my artistic ability. Fortunately for myself I had the opportunity to live with a good friend whom I consider to be a skilled artist during my time at University. He was kind enough to transform the crude drawing into something I could put on the front of my story. I’ve waited far too long already to give him the credit he deserves, so you can find Chris’ deviantART profile here and his website here. He’s also listed as illustrator for the Kindle version of Colossus.

    Colossus Cover: Artwork
    Colossus Cover: Artwork

    Here we see the (shrunk down) result of that transformation. The moment I first saw this image the characters, Colossus and Alice, took on a new life in my mind. Until this moment they had only been visualised in my head and, to his credit, what we have here is pretty close to the mark. It was exactly what I needed to put the final touches to Colossus to make it ready for self-publishing.

    All that was left at this point was to add the title and my own name. I elected for a simple white text for maximum contrast with the background and readability. The only point of indecision on my part was exactly how to put my own name on it. For some reason I was apprehensive about pinning my full name to it, perhaps in case it was actually a terrible read and I would be forever shamed. (Which could still happen, admittedly.) I created two variations, one with “Daniel Smedley” and the other with “D J Smedley”, the latter of which I opted for mainly because I preferred how it looked.

    Plus having initials is all mysterious.

    Or something like that.

    Colossus Cover: Final
    Colossus Cover: Final

    And here is the finished article, in all its glory. Nobody could see that and not buy the book.


  • Tomorrow Man – Part XIV

     A hot fire roared in the dark stone hearth of Granny Hark’s Hovel as the old witch slept in front of it. The afternoon sun streamed through the small circular windows and scattered off the stone floor. Across the single room Zoyelle stood amidst a nest of bottles and jars in wooden racks, Granny’s iron cauldron set in front of her. As she ran her finger around the rim she recalled the long summer years ago before her ascendency to the sisterhood. She had spent countless hours in Gallowsbane’s forge with the smith. At her direction he had carefully engraved the outer skin, and she had spent the nights weaving enchantments through them. When she had finally presented it to Gladdis her mentor had scolded her for creating it. It brought a smile to her face to see it hovering in place before her, its interior stained from years of use.

    She heard Yolder stomp across from the door, a barrel of water from the well outside in his thick stone arms. Serren followed the golem as he carefully tipped the water into the cauldron and placed the barrel next to her. She reached into her pocket and pulled out her purity stone. She ran her fingers over the rough etchings in the small pebble’s surface and dropped it into the cauldron. It dropped through the water and came to rest a few inches from the bottom. The ripples on the surface died amidst the slight tremble of the water. After a few seconds she held her hand over the cauldron and the stone leapt from the water into it. Her fingers gripped tightly around the thin dry skin of dirt and grime that now covered the stone. She dropped it into the barrel where, amidst the remaining water, the skin of dirt burst and dissolved. The stone again leapt into her hand, dry and clean, and she placed it back in her pocket. The golem lifted the barrel and took it back outside as she whispered her gratitude. Serren remained behind her as she opened one of Granny’s larger potions books.

    “You can read that?” The wizard asked as she ran her finger over the nonsensical scrawl.

    “There’s a trick to deciphering it.” She replied as she placed the book down on a shelf beside her. She gazed into the crystal clear water in the cauldron. A pure medium was the bedrock of any potion, the slightest impurity could render an entire batch useless or worse. She activated some of the cauldron’s enchantments. The outer skin of the dull iron glowed as the engravings began to emit light. A ring of burning orange encircled the base and illuminated the floor, whilst softer yellow markings wound around the belly of the cauldron. The skin of the water distorted into two counter-rotating vortices, slightly disturbed at the centre of the cauldron by the rising column of heat.

    “The art of potions is sadly not one the towers embrace.” Serren said. “Would you mind if I observed the process?”

    “Not at all.” She replied. “But I will need to concentrate, this potion is very difficult to create.”

    “What are you brewing?”

    “Witherfang.”

    “The vampire cure?”

    “You’ve heard of it?”

    “Only by reference. It’s supposed to be very rare. You can create it?”

    “The method is Granny’s, I merely perfected the technique.” She reached out her hand and a jar of tiny white flakes drifted from a shelf to her hand. “The ingredients are hard to locate, but she’s always had a talent for finding elusive things.”

    “Still, a single vial can fetch double its weight in silver. To be able to craft it is a rare skill.”

    “It has no use outside treating the victims of vampirism.” She remarked as a small orb of white flakes rose from the open jar. She closed the jar and returned it to the shelf as the suspended flakes flattened into a disc over the surface of the water. The flakes dropped into the cauldron and dissolved as they mixed. The clear water began to glow with a living iridescent green.

    “I have always found potioncraft fascinating.” Serren said as he peered into the swirling green.

    “The first step in any brew is to create an elixir. It’s an infusion of the raw shardal energies with the medium. The rest is merely a case of manipulating those energies to serve a specific purpose.”

    “Not unlike enchantment.”

    “I suppose it is similar, in its own way.” She replied as half a dozen containers rose from the shelves around her. They emptied portions of their contents into the air and returned to where they had sat. A crimson powder and a cluster of small blue crystal fragments merged into a single swirling cloud that hung in the air. Pieces of green and purple leaves dropped into a granite bowl where a small sphere rolled across them and crushed them together. Shimmering droplets of clear white liquid glinted like stars and a piece of pure silver drifted as it divided in half over and over again.

    “The heart of Witherfang is in two parts.” She said as she directed the numerous ingredients around her. “One is an affliction that disturbs the life energies. The other is a remedy that hardens the body’s resolve. The victim receives both whilst only the affliction is passed along the vampiric link.”

    “Thus poisoning the well from which the vampire drinks.” Serren replied. “There are similar spells held within the Order of the Aether, however it requires a mastery to maintain the balance.”

    “The balance is crucial here also. Too much of the affliction…”

    “…and the person dies.”

    “Too much of the remedy and the affliction is purged too quickly. Even in perfect balance the two elements need to be kept together yet separate, else they counteract each other.”

    “I can see why it is so difficult to create.”

    “Granny Hark developed a binding that holds the two together and ensures an equal balance. Without it the Witherfang can be useless as easily as it can be deadly.”

    The droplets and particles of silver spiralled down towards the cauldron. A few feet above the surface of the elixir they crossed, spatters of light dancing from where silver passed through liquid. Each stream plunged into the heart of a different vortex and below the water they spun and were drawn into the column of rising heat. As they mixed the glow of the Aether within the elixir grew faint until it was barely discernible against the refraction of natural light.

    “I added a draft of Dreamsikle to her method to encourage a painless sleep.” She said. “As the effects of the potion can be uncomfortable.”

    “So complex a magic to be distilled into a physical form. I only fear that it will not work.” The wizard replied. “Against a vampire it is surely an effective draft, but the Vampire’s Kiss is an enchantment, an act of will rather than the bite of a mindless beast. A mage powerful enough to cast it once, let alone a hundred times, would know an affliction if it passed down from a victim. The caster can break the kiss with a thought, almost always at the cost of the victim’s life.”

    “That’s why I am going to have to be creative.” She said as the pattern of mixing in the cauldron changed to that of a large central vortex with three smaller counter-rotating vortices moving slowly around it. “I intend to weaken the potion, lessen its effects.”

    The cloud of crimson and blue dropped into the cauldron and vanished into the mixing. The liquid changed to a deep purple for a few seconds before shifting back to green.

    “A weaker draft will be harder for the mage to detect. But the effects of the affliction should combine.”

    “So you intend to give the weaker draft to many of the victims?”

    “Yes. Enough to present whoever is doing this with a significant weakening. With luck they will not know from which of the children the curse flows.”

    “He could just break more kisses until he had severed enough.”

    “With so many, by doing so he would likely weaken himself even more than the affliction alone. It might not help us find him, but it would make him less of a threat when we eventually do.”

    “I’m starting to see what she was saying about you, Madame Zoyelle. You have a mind many wizards would envy.”

    “As much as I love your compliments, I need to concentrate.”

    Serren nodded and watched in silence as she drew more containers from around her. As she mixed and combined powders, crystals and liquids the day wore on and the only other sound was Yolder tending carefully to the garden outside.

    ***

    The One-Armed Knight tore another piece of fish bread with his teeth and cast his eye over the docks. The city of Artella may have been the match of any other for size, but that was all it seemed to have going for it. The aromas of shit and spoiled fish mixed in his nostrils. He wasn’t sure if the smell was worse than the taste of the malformed crust in his hand. Labourers’ food, he knew it well regardless of the taste. He sat alone on a wooden bench, one of many huddled around a rocky shack that doled out fish bread and steaming fish broth to the dock workers in the afternoon sun. He looked down across the flat stone bay and watched as a wide barge was loaded with blocks of rothstone. The proportions of the vessel alone marked it as one of the Mountain Kingdom’s, the mountain folk hastily overseeing the loading of its cargo simply made it obvious. Horses wheeled carts in pairs, each cart bore a single block. They moved slowly in a queue as blocks were loaded individually into the barge’s massive hold. A team of ten men operated one of the inelegant wooden cranes that littered the band between stone city and murky water. They bound a block and guided it carefully to the ship. Alongside a team of six mountain folk lifted an identical stone and walked it up a wide gang plank. The One-Armed Knight laughed.

    They’re short gits but by the Gods are they strong.

    He took another bite and turned his attention to the street around him. Behind him he heard two men talking in whispers, their voices drowned by the shouts of the workmen further away. An old woman hobbled towards him, wrapped head to toe in dark soiled rags and carrying a bundle.

    “Iron penny for the baby?” She asked with a hoarse voice. He shook his head and she limped on towards another group. She was the third beggar he had refused since he passed through the gate. It didn’t surprise him, steel armour and a dragon-steel blade were out of place, especially here. His left shoulder tingled at the thought. He looked over to his left as he placed the fish bread on the empty barrel in front of him.

    Where is she?

    Maereen had not returned the previous night. With time against them he had pressed on to the city alone. She would find him, he had confidence in that, but every moment until then brought increased concern. He got to his feet and pocketed the last of the fish bread. He moved away from the docks and past a man scraping waste off the cobblestones. He passed between two large stone buildings into an alley partially blocked by decaying wooden crates. He sensed movement behind him. He turned, his right hand reached for his sword but the dark shape was upon him. A powerful arm locked his hand behind him and another flashed to his throat where he felt the cold of steel. Beside him a bundle of rags rolled to a stop. A black hood moved close to his ear and he heard a hoarse whisper.

    “Three years ago we stood on Mount Sau. You picked a flower for me. What kind of flower?”

    The figure spoke in fluent Saudian. She was here after all.

    “We’ve never stood on Mount Sau together.” He replied in Asamorian.

    “Speak the Island tongue.” The woman replied, again in Saudian. “In case we’re overheard.” She dragged him behind a pile of crates before she dropped him roughly to the ground. As he got to his feet she lowered her hood to reveal Maereen’s angular face.

    “You were supposed to meet us back at the forest.” He said in Saudian.

    “Had to take care of a couple of things.” She replied.

    “Like what?”

    “A way in, for starters.” She said as she produced a sealed scroll tube from beneath her cloak.

    “A magic scroll?” He asked. “How is that going to get us through rothstone. Mole said it was impossible.”

    “It’s a gateway scroll.” She said as she hid it once more. “Should get us straight into the castle’s heart.”

    “You met up with the Mole yet?”

    “Once. He’s working the underground.”

    “We need to talk some place quiet, organise our plan.”

    “I’ll take you to him. He’s near the castle.”

    The knight took a step up the hill. Maereen held him back with a hand on his right shoulder. He turned back and she pointed him to a heap of rags. He reluctantly picked it up and saw it was a cloak.

    “You don’t think someone might recognise Sir Tallus Storoth?” She asked.

    He threw the cloak over his shoulders and fastened it. As they began walking he threw the hood over his head. As they wandered towards the castle they continued to speak in the unfamiliar language.

    “Tell me, what have you learned since you arrived?” Tallus asked.

    “The only way into and out of the castle is the front gate. The scroll will get us in, we will need to get out by ourselves.”

    “Infiltration is our best option. Acquire the guise of guards and work our way around the inside, we need to steal them away into the night. The fewer who come in pursuit the better.”

    “Recent developments have rendered that option ill-advised, Sir. The King’s bannermen are at most a day from the city.”

    “Who commands them?”

    “Sir Grannel of Stigen’s Point.”

    “Damn. That ass would follow us to the ends of the world for the sport of it.”

    “He’s almost certainly sent a messenger ahead. He will likely arrive by nightfall.”

    “At which point the castle and the city close their gates. Infiltration would take too long.”

    “There is worse news.”

    “I don’t think I want to hear this, do I?”

    “The scroll, it was given to me by the Wanderer.”

    “He’s here? In this city?”

    “He’s in the castle.”

    The Wanderer was little more than a legend to most, a master of magic who called no place his home. Mothers would tell tales of him to scare their children, of how he would appear and what would follow in his wake. His name was a curse, and not one used lightly. The stories mattered little to Tallus, the Wanderer had crossed his path once before. The skin around his missing arm grew cold at the thought.

    “Then this work is of his hand.”

    “What will happen? What shall we do?” She asked.

    “I don’t know. All I can tell you is that we will follow the King’s command.”

    She nodded. “Then we will use the gateway?”

    “Aye, we’ll strike when the darkness shrouds us. Go straight for the children and then for the gate. With luck we will be done before they know us. Do you have time to prepare your weapons?”

    “I have all the materials I need. I require only space to prepare them.”

    “Remember our orders.”

    “I know.”

    After a few minutes of silence they arrived at an unassuming block of stone huddled in the shadow of the castle that towered above. “He’s in here.” She said as she knocked loudly on the weathered wooden door. Tallus heard a rummaging inside and moments later the door opened inwards, the round and scarred face of the Mole peered through the gap.

    “You’re late.”

    “Just let us in!” Tallus snapped. The Mole pulled the door open and they moved inside. It was a house, a large room and a staircase leading up to the floor above. The furniture had been moved aside exposing bare stone in the centre of the room. As Tallus looked around the Mole closed the door behind them.

    “I hope you remembered the King’s instructions.” Tallus remarked.

    “Relax, boss, the place belongs to some old sea captain, no family. His ship went out yesterday, won’t be back until we’re long gone.”

    “Are your preparations complete?”

    “Everything is done, the tunnel leads from here and out beyond the walls.”

    “Good. Maereen and I will make our move at nightfall.”

    “Bring the children here, I will wait for your signal.” The Mole replied. “With no magi in their ranks I doubt they will be able to follow us, but I have planned for the possibility.”

    “Let’s hope we don’t need to resort to drastic measures. I will not have us break our oath to the King.”

    “You take your oath too seriously, Tallus.” The Mole said as he placed his mask over his face. “You of all people should know that death is unavoidable.”

    He sank into the stone floor.

    “Where are you going?” Maereen asked.

    “If you are making your move tonight then I have more work to do. You’re going to need my help once you get outside the castle. You’ll just have to do without until then.” He said as he vanished beneath the floor, the stone rippling back to solidity above him. The woman shrugged her shoulders and wandered to the stove. As she lifted pieces of firewood from a basket into the stove Tallus moved to the centre of the room and eased his sword from its sheath. The rays of daylight that found their way through the shuttered windows glinted from the faultless blade and danced in the contours of the raskor-horn hilt inlaid with silver. The last gift from his King, in honour of his service, the blade felt weightless in his hand. It had been forged and enchanted especially for him, the magic made it easier to wield but it was no replacement for his sword-arm. He moved his remaining limbs in a slow dance, each move planting the blade with grace and precision. As he sliced the air around him he silently hoped he would not need to use it.

    ***

    Krasten Wetherhall forced his eyes open as the voice of Revered Olgarth Tull flowed, an unchanging river of words. Books and stacks of scrolls littered the large circular table at which he, three scribes, the Master of Scrolls and the Harbour Master sat. It was the second day of these meetings, at which Olgarth listed what sounded to Krasten as the entire contents of the realm. The only thing that plagued his mind more was the incessant scratching of the scribes.

    “Martek Remel,” Olgarth spoke in an autonomous drone. “Landholder of some three hundred and twenty reaches of farming land, sub-divided into twenty-five holdings, totalling six hundred thirty nine workers. Also holder of two quarries, one rothstone and granite, the other rothstone alone. Two hundred and ninety four stone workers, sixty eight horse and cart workers. Please, my Lord, pay attention.”

    Krasten sat upright in his seat. “I’m sorry, Scrollmaster. Quiet hours are few on the water, we take our rest when we can. It’s a difficult habit to break.”

    “It is not beyond understanding, my Lord. Your heart beats to the rhythm of conflict, a little rapid for those of us who work with pen and ink. I can only imagine I would fare little better on the deck of your ship.”

    Krasten chuckled at the thought. “Perhaps. It’s hard to find interest in quarries and farms.”

    “That as it may be, Lord Miteus appointed you to serve in his stead. The duties of the realm fall to you, the matters of taxation are important. The realm owes it due to the crown, the men of the Realmsguard, city guard, repairs and ships must all be paid for. The burdens must be finely balanced and carried to the landholders so they can prepare their own accounts.”

    “I’ll never understand how my nephew withstands this.”

    “With about as much complaint. May I continue?”

    Krasen raised his hand in capitulation and sat back in his seat. Olgarth Tull turned his gaze back to the scroll before him and began to read again. As the words slowly bled together into the numbing droll he found his mind falling back into sleep. The sound of iron against oak as the door opened reached his ear and the world returned to his mind like a thunderclap. He was already on his feet when one of the squires approached from the door.

    “Forgive my intrusion, my Lord.”

    “What is it?” Krasten asked.

    “A rider at the gate, my Lord. A messenger under Sir Grannel.”

    “Grannel is a King’s man.” Olgarth remarked. “We are quite far from his domain.”

    “I will receive him in the throne room.” Krasten replied. “Have him sent through at once.”

    The large doors to the throne room opened and the castle guard filed in. They took up their places around the wooden throne as Krasten strode towards it. As he sat his mind summoned memories of his father sitting in this very seat so many years before. He remembered the ascension ceremony, the day his elder brother took the seat from their ageing father. The hall had been crowded, decorated with the family colours. It was empty now, except for those who had just entered.

    Two guards entered flanking the messenger. His hands were raised, empty and showing a single silver ring on his right middle finger. His arms raised his cloak to show his simple yet elegant clothing and no weapons. He was small and thin, he lacked the build of a fighter. As he reached the edge of the dias he knelt and placed his hands on the floor. The guard closed the doors.

    “You may stand.” Krasten announced.

    “Thank you, my Lord.” The messenger replied as he rose. “I am Telleth of house Rensmith, squire and message-bearer to Sir Mahis Grannel, Bannerman to King Piscius. I have been sent with the written command of the King.”

    Telleth took a scroll tube from his belt and presented it to Krasten as he stood. As he took it he cast his eye over it, sealed with the royal crest. “I think this is meant for my nephew.”

    “It is intended for the whomever commands the realm in Lord Miteus’ absence.”

    Krasten broke the wax seal and pulled the scroll from within the tube. As he unfurled it the signature of the King and the stamp of the crown caught his attention. The hall fermented in silence as his eyes scanned the scrawl. His eyes hardened as he looked back to the messenger.

    “This is a trick.” He said as he rolled the parchment in his tightening fists.

    “The King’s command is genuine, my master assures you. I have been sent to discuss terms.”

    “Terms?” Krasten said as he crushed the scroll in his hand. His other hand felt for the hilt of his sword. “There will be no terms!” He screamed. Telleth took a step back as he advanced.

    “You can tell your master this: If he wants my nephew’s children, he will have to crawl over the stones of this city and the bones of every man able to wield a sword!”

    “Sir Grannel rides with two hundred men and the King’s blessing at his back. He advises you to yield to the King’s commands.”

    Krasten’s hand ripped his sword from its sheath and struck the messenger across the jaw in a single motion. As Telleth fell back to the floor the steel blade sliced silently through the air and came to rest against his throat.

    “If your master seeks weakness he will not find it here.” Krasten said. “We do not yield. He will need a thousand times two hundred men to have a hope of taking these walls.”

    “Pl… please…” Telleth sputtered. “You wouldn’t kill me, I am a message-bearer, you would bring war!”

    Krasten took the blade away from the boy’s throat but kept it visible. “You’ve brought the war. Go, run back to your master and tell him that he will have my sword before he has my family.”

    Telleth opened his mouth to speak.

    “Go!” Krasten blasted. The messenger scrambled to his feet and ran towards the door. Krasten fixed the two guards who had flanked him with a commanding glare.

    “Follow him, let him pass the city walls then have them sealed!”

    The guards nodded and turned. Krasten pointed his sword toward other guards in succession.

    “Seal the castle gate, none pass without my word.”

    “Go to the docks, Commander Sellas sleeps aboard Sea Dragon. Wake him, tell him the city is under threat.”

    “Find Vigard and Alexia, double their guard.”

    The men shouted their consent and dashed from the hall as Krasten sheathed his sword. He could feel his heart beating in his chest, the notion of battle had awoken him.

    Part XIII | Contents | Part XV


  • First Impressions – John Vamvas & Olga Montes

    The duo behind the book Wherewolves are yet another of my first Twitter followers, so I decided to give it a read.

    Click me for book.
    Click me for book.

    I’m somewhat of a novice to the horror genre, and perhaps this wasn’t the best introduction.


    Wherewolves was apparently adapted from a screenplay. Perhaps the story works on-screen, but ultimately a book must stand on its own merit.

    Wherewolves struggles and ultimately fails to break free from the shackles of its screenplay origins. The characters are almost cookie-cutter stock slasher-movie stereotypes, with little fleshed out to expand upon that. They were established just about enough for me to be completely non-invested in what happens to them, even with around half of the book dedicated to setting them up. The plot, such as it is, may be better suited to the big screen. It just wasn’t enough to build a book around without significant character work which just felt absent. It was straightforward with no perceptible twists to it.

    Even the werewolves themselves weren’t much to write home about. There wasn’t much to separate them from a more natural animal attack, if anything at all.

    The present-tense narrative made it read like a screenplay and the onomatopoeic growls and screams just ripped me from the already unsteady flow of the narrative and came across as comical. Perhaps this is supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek take on the concept of werewolves. Having read nothing else in the genre perhaps I missed the joke, but I feel as though the more likely explanation is simply that it just reads like a screenplay. The dialogue came across as clunky in general, and didn’t seem to fit the characters in places.

    Overall I’d say it’s probably better to try and find the screen adaptation if it exists, it probably has a better chance of showing the intended story in a way the novel just hasn’t managed to capture.


    This finishes up a batch of introductory works that I added to my reading list a while ago. For the near future I will now be reading some books by more established authors, however I’m always interested to find new and interesting things. If you’re a fellow indie author, or know one who has written something, let me know. It seems I’m generally more into Science Fiction and Fantasy but I’ll give any genre a go.

    What’s this contact form doing here?

    (I have had to temporarily remove the form until I can add captcha. Damn robots.)


  • First Impressions – Jordan Locke

    Jordan Locke is another of my early followers on Twitter, and I decided to read their book The Only Boy.

    Click to go to Amazon page
    Click me for book.

    I should preface this review with the fact that I am probably not the target audience for this book. I suspected that going into reading it and nearly didn’t, I feared that fact would mar my review. It almost certainly has, but ultimately my review is my opinion, it isn’t and never could be an objective measure of a book’s quality. So, with spoiler tags at the ready, let’s get to it.


    I liked the concept of the story, the idea of a post-apocalyptic world where a disease has wiped out all the men leaving only women alive, and only a few survivors at that. The notion of re-introducing a male into that scenario also seemed interesting, however it seemed as though the relationship between Mary and Taylor, the two protagonists and alternative viewpoint characters, was the focus of the story. I don’t think I’m that interested in romances so the relationship didn’t really carry the story for me, which was a shame because the rest of the narrative seemed contrived to service it.

    [su_spoiler title=”Spoilers” icon=”plus-circle”]

    For instance there is the disease itself. Obviously there would be immense difficulty in having a young romance story with an extinction-level disease rampaging through the world. So it’s firmly established that the disease isn’t contagious, and it was apparently known that the disease wasn’t contagious from the outset. Yet the Matriarch and Section One have all these rules, specifically one about “no touching” and the stated reason is the disease.
    This isn’t the only thing about the disease that doesn’t make much sense. Humans and animals have contracted it, and as stated previously it’s pretty near extinction-level. Yet exactly what it is and how it spreads seems to be very arbitrary and in service to the plot.

    The timeline for the disease is also seemingly inconsistent. I was never sure whether the “cleansing” was two centuries prior to the events of the book or a matter of decades. The women of section one live off leftover canned food and seem to use vehicles as though petrol wouldn’t be a scarce and precious resource. They also have the same attitude towards munitions and a plane which they somehow maintain.

    They also have a genetics laboratory to solve the issue of reproduction. Any post-apocalyptic society that has a functioning genetics laboratory and hasn’t, in decades of survival, managed to plant seeds in the ground stretches my wilful suspension of disbelief just a little too far. Again, like the disease, it seems to exist merely to prop up the hypothetical scenario and serve the plot.

    The above issues are setting-related and are by no means insurmountable. It just feels like they weren’t thought through.

    The romance between the main characters wasn’t really believable. There was too much of a “star crossed lovers” feel to it in my opinion. Maybe I just didn’t click with it, but it definitely seemed to be a Young-Adult romance. It’s pretty much love at first sight. They meet and suddenly they can’t bear to be apart from each other. Then plot contrivances split them up and throw them through some near misses, and there’s one point where Taylor believes, falsely, that Mary is dead. They get pulled back together and a hasty and slightly confusing epilogue slaps a “and they lived happily ever after” type bow on top.

    [/su_spoiler]

    The first-person present tense took a little getting used to, and the constant switching between the two main characters worked at times and was simply disorientating at others. When it worked I felt it was a good choice, allowing the reader to see the same scene from two simultaneous and different perspectives. Yet I felt like some disembodied spirit on a chain being forever caught in a tug-of-war between the protagonists.

    Overall, as I said above, I liked the concepts underpinning the story. I think they’re good and original ideas. Perhaps the teen romance is just something that I personally don’t click with, and without it holding my attention I wasn’t distracted from the other issues.
    I would suggest that, if you are a fan of Young-Adult Dystopian Romance then you will probably find more value in reading this than I did.

    I give this a rating of okay because, previous comments aside, I didn’t have trouble getting to the end of it, nor do I feel I wasted my time spent reading it. The concept is good, I just feel the execution could have been better.


  • First Impressions – A E Marling

    In the first of what, I hope, will be many looks to fellow authors whom I discover for the first time, I take a look back at my recent read through of A E Marling’s Brood of Bones

    Brood of bones cover
    Click me for book.

    A E Marling was one of my first followers on Twitter (And still is, considering I only have 10 at the time of writing!) I decided to add one of his books to my reading list as a way of saying thank you. After all, word of mouth is the author’s best friend. So onto the review:


    The characters come across as fairly well-rounded and three-dimensional. Elder Enchantress Hiresha begins the story as a person returning to her home a stranger. She becomes quickly established as someone with failed ambition, prides and fears. She has command of magic, yet that command has its limitations and her affinity for it also causes her problems. The same is true of her gowns, worn as a statement of her achievements but ultimately impractical and even imprisoning. As the story is told in first-person I found myself coming to understand her in a way, and when things seemed as though they were crashing down around her I felt a compulsion to read on.

    The other primary character is the Lord of the Feast, an interesting and delightfully sinister fellow who is something of a wildcard. A master of deception, I was never sure whether he was a tragic victim of his magic as he claimed or if he was simply purchasing sympathy to use to his advantage. I hope he is a recurring character.

    The secondary characters, whilst present, were not so extensively fleshed out. This is to be expected I suppose but Deepmand and Janny, two characters who spend most of their time in the main character’s company, leave very little in my memory about them.

    The story was well put together and flowed naturally, starting out as a rather sinister mystery the twists and turns were both believable and fairly unexpected. The solution to the whodunnit is well foreshadowed; the clues were present but flew under my radar, when it was revealed it felt like the gradual solution of a puzzle rather than the simple presentation of an answer. The threat and fears of the protagonist feel real and lend weight to the final act of the story.

    The world felt substantial and well imagined, the various types and mechanics of the few forms of magic with which we are presented show a great power that has limitations and comes at a cost, and once a rule was established it was generally stuck to. I’m always a fan of so-called hard magic systems, where magic is more a tool to be used rather than an arbitrary force that acts at the whim of the author.

    All in all I was impressed with the writing style and quality and found the story to be captivating. I will definitely be looking to Marling’s other work in the near future.


    I hope to have the time to do more reviews and other spots where I look at other authors. We’ll see how it goes.


  • Tomorrow Man – Part XIII

    “Halt!”

    The caravan pushed up against the old horse as Simmion came to a stop atop the drawbridge. Ahead of him the iron gate closed off the entrance to the courtyard within the great drum of the castle. The man who was not a wizard tipped the ash from his long pipe and stowed it within his robes. He cast his eye across the gatehouse. Four archers poked arrows from above the gate, two guards approached from either side, one of whom had called out to him.

    “What is your business here, Wizard?” The guard asked as he pulled his sword a few inches out of its sheath.

    “What makes you think I am a Wizard?” The man replied.

    The guard paused. “You look like one.”

    “And all things are as they appear, are they?”

    “What?” The other guard asked.

    “A man who is not a wizard can appear as one, can he not?”

    “I suppose.” The first guard said.

    “And a Wizard certainly can appear as one who is not a Wizard.”

    “Right.”

    “What do you know of Wizards?”

    “I’ve heard enough.”

    “Do you think a Wizard would need to pass through these gates to enter this castle?”

    “Well…”

    “And do you think that, if a Wizard did choose to pass these gates, that you could stop him?”

    “I think…”

    “Would you even know he was a Wizard?”

    “No, I suppose not.”

    “Then I cannot be a Wizard, can I?”

    “What is your business here then?” The second guard asked.

    “I am a simple seller of wares. Cloths and linens, I came at the request of the Lady.”

    “Why would the Lady send for a common merchant?”

    “I couldn’t possibly say, perhaps you should ask her?”

    “Open the back.” The first guard said.

    “Excuse me?” The old man replied.

    “There’s no way you’re getting through that gate until we see what you’ve got in there.”

    “Excuse me, guardsmen.” Another voice called from the other side of the gate. The old man looked up to see a finely dressed man wearing a sword. “Is there a problem?”

    “Sir Allian!” The old man called out. “Why yes, could you please explain to these snowarks that I am here at the request of her Ladyship.”

    “Lady Wetherhall is expecting him, let him through.”

    “Sorry sir.” The first guard replied. “I ought not allow passage until I’ve consulted with the Lord, his orders sir.”

    “Well the Lord is breaking fast with the Lady, perhaps you wish to disturb them?” Sir Allian shot back. “Let him pass.”

    “Right you are sir.” The first guard said eventually. He cried up to the gatehouse. “Raise the gate!”

    “Raise the gate!” The response came from above. After a few moments the gate began to raise, slow under the power of sweat. The guards vanished into either side of the gatehouse as the knight ducked under the metal teeth at the bottom of the gate. He strode to the side of the caravan and looked up to the old man.

    “I must admit, Justin, it is good to see a familiar face in such unfamiliar parts.” The old man said.

    “Am I supposed to know you?” Justin said under his breath. The old man regarded him with a wrinkled brow. After a short pause with only the grating of metal against stone he replied.

    “I would imagine not.” He gestured to the knight, who climbed up to the drivers’ bench and sat next to him.

    “Are you the one Wise Christen sent for?” Justin asked.

    “I am.” The old man replied as the horse started to pull the caravan through the open gate.

    “He said you would arrive quickly, I had no idea you would be this prompt.”

    “I make it a point never to arrive before I am summoned, nor after I am needed.”

    “I don’t suppose you could tell me your name?”

    The old man laughed. “I have so many names.” He thought for a moment. “I would imagine you know me as Athaleon.”

    The horse pulled the caravan to one side of the courtyard as a stable boy came out to unharness the creature.

    “Tell me.” Athaleon continued as they walked around to the back of the caravan. “I was lead to believe that Lord Miteus had gone to the capital at the King’s request.”

    “You are correct in that belief, Wise Athaleon. His uncle, Commander of the Fleet, has sat the seat in his absence.”

    “And I will have to wait until she returns from breakfast, I suppose.”

    “In truth she has not broken fast with the Commander for nearly a week.” The knight said as he directed Athaleon towards a side entrance. “I am to take you straight to her.”

    Athaleon smiled as they began to walk. “If I may make a suggestion, Sir Allian, I may have attended the towers of Otzia but I never completed my studies as a wizard. Addressing me as Wise is unnecessary.”

    They passed through a small wooden door and into a cold stone corridor. As they moved towards the main body of the castle they passed only the occasional servant, from whom Athaleon could not help to notice they drew strange looks.

    “Wise Christen has been with the boy and the Lady since he arrived. They have taken refuge in the Temple of Banthos. He seems to believe the child is a mage.” Allian continued.

    “There can be no doubt of Micharus Wetherhall’s ability, given the circumstances a place of Sanctity is likely the safest. I see Christen’s mind has not lost its edge.”

    “He seems to trust you, Athaleon, yet in all the years I have known him your name has never come up.”

    “We have what you might call a long friendship.” Athaleon replied as they ducked into a staircase and began to descend. “However I am not surprised that he has not mentioned me. My name is not one that Wizards speak of lightly.”

    “The anamosity of Otzia is not easily earned if I recall. Surely you are not a Dark Mage?”

    “My relationship with Otzia is a long tale, not easily repeated. I keep out of their way, they don’t concern themselves with me.”

    “I learned a long time ago not to try and understand the dealings of wizards.”

    “A wise decision. They sit in their towers and talk without end or meaning. I never understood their methods.”

    Sir Allian stopped outside the temple doors and knocked loudly. From the other side of the wood and steel door he felt Christen’s mind skirt around the edges of his own. The door thudded and opened just wide enough to admit them. The knight and the man who was not a wizard slipped into the temple and the door closed behind them.

    Jalice dashed towards Justin distraught. She sobbed into his breastplate as Wise Christen stepped towards Athaleon.

    “You’re late.” The wizard said.

    “I am precisely on time.” Ahtaleon replied. “What is the commotion?”

    “It’s the boy.” Christen replied. “I placed a seal over his magic but he appears to have vanished. The door didn’t open, there could be a secret passage but I can’t find any trace of one.”

    Athaleon nodded and silently turned his focus to the Nexic energies that surrounded him. The normal ebb and flow of the Nexus seemed greatly diminished here. He found what he suspected he would find, the slightest ripple. An afterglow of magic that none other than a Nexic mage could detect. It was small, but so was the child.

    “It seems the young Micharus has slipped your seal, my friend.”

    Before Christen could answer Athaleon had turned towards the crying Jalice.

    “Do not fear, Lady Wetherhall.” He commanded. “Your son is quite safe.”

    She watched wide-eyed as tendrils of green magic surrounded the stranger and, within moments, he became engulfed in a blast of green and vanished.

    ***

    Lord Miteus’ feet struck hard against the gleaming stone floor as he strode through the Crystal Ring. The sun high above sent its light through the thousands of triangular glass panels that gave the great corridor that circled the Keep its name, assembled in a beautiful arched skin that split the sunlight and scattered its colours across the floor. As he paced through the glinting passage he cast his eye towards the centre of the Keep, where an arched silver doorway stood flanked by two palace guards. Towards the city outside he saw the Tower of Morjiathwaine, a great column of bare stone. The dragon-steel doors to the tower bore no seal, flanked by two hooded monks each embracing their silver Morjian medallion that hung over their chest. He pressed on until he saw the blue-and-silver banners of the Tower of Artellathwaine. The guards that stood either side of the dragon-steel door wore the colours of his realm, but he did not know them. They straightened as he approached and kept their eyes forward. He cast his eye over the gateway to his tower, a seamless circle of metal engraved with the crest of House Wetherhall. A single fissure appeared in the centre of the crest and the two halves of the door opened inwards to reveal a marble staircase leading up to the office of the Seat of Artellathwaine. To the right and left a spiral stair arced gracefully towards the upper and lower levels of the tower. The entrance was adorned with the banners of his house, a guise of his home. He ascended the stairs and found the carved wooden doors of the office closed and guarded.

    He looked to the two guards, strangers clad in his family’s colours. They looked at him unsure of their action.

    “Open the doors.” Miteus commanded. One of the guards moved to open his door, followed closely by the other.

    Within he found the desk of the Appointed Seat empty, a smaller desk to one side he found covered in scrolls with an old man haunched over them scratching away with a nib.

    Miteus cleared his throat. The old man looked up, his blue eyes enlarged by two glass lenses balanced on the bridge of his nose.

    “Lord Wetherhall.” The man spoke in barely a whisper. “How may I be of service?”

    “I would speak with my brother.”

    “I am afraid Lord Treston is presently indisposed. I can however make an appointment?”

    “An appointment?” Miteus spat. “Who are you?”

    “I am Lord Treston’s humble scribe, my Lord. I pen his letters, transcribe his missives and dictations, manage his…”

    “I know what a scribe does.” Miteus interrupted with a raised hand. “What happened to Revered Marcosh?”

    “Marcosh passed some years ago, my Lord. I am Revered Preyt, I was appointed in his stead.”

    “Appointed by whom?”

    “The Council of Reverence, my Lord.”

    Miteus grunted. “I will not wait for his convenience. Have him summoned.”

    “I am afraid that might be somewhat difficult, my Lord.”

    “How difficult can it be? Send a guard.”

    “Lord Treston is not within the Keep, my Lord.”

    “Then where is he?”

    “It would not be my place to say.”

    “Not your place?” Miteus replied with a rising anger. “You serve my Appointed Seat. You serve at my discretion, if you wish to continue doing so then tell me where he is.”

    ***

    Wood splintered and tore as Miteus slammed his foot into the door. The iron bolt ripped away and fell to the floor as the small wooden door swung away from the stone arch frame. He heard the screams of the women before he saw them. The smell of the place had been bad enough, but the stench that now filled his nostrils was an entirely new experience of filth. As he forced back the urge to gag he stepped into the small windowless room. Scented candles burned in the corner, their dim light barely masking their futility. The two women were young, arguably attractive and, perhaps once, beautiful. They lay naked on a stain-brown straw mattress, their limbs entwined with the man. Miteus gestured towards them.

    “Remove them.” He commanded. Two of his guards moved into the room and reluctantly picked the women up. They dragged them towards the door before the women put their feet to the floor and left willingly.

    Treston Wetherhall stirred and snored as he lay alone in the centre of the room. Miteus looked over his little brother and gritted his teeth. The man must have doubled in size since he last saw him, his hair had thinned and his teeth were yellow. A discolouration infested the skin around his manhood and some kind of fungus had consumed the toes of his left foot.

    Miteus called his name, but the bloated oaf merely snored and scratched at his groin. He looked over at a bucket of water resting near the door, and in one motion lifted it and threw its contents at his brother. The liquid struck the sleeping man square in the face and burst back in a cloud of droplets. Only then did Miteus notice the smell.

    Treston’s bloodshot eyes flew open and he lurched his body upwards.

    “That’s not water!” He screamed as he coughed and spat. “You Saudian shit! I’ll have your fucking balls off! Do you know who I am?”

    “I could ask the same question.” Miteus replied with a menacing calm.

    The brothers’ eyes met.

    “You look a lot like my brother Miteus.” Treston replied as he struggled unsteadily to his feet. “But he’s… never in the capital.” He stumbled and kicked over a bottle of blood-red wine that began to pool on the floor. Miteus surged forwards as Treston reached for a discarded robe. He planted a hand under the enlarged chin of his younger brother and threw him against the wall. He slid silver wind from its sheath and brought it to the naked man’s neck.

    “Please Gods!” Treston whimpered. “Whatever I owe you, look, I’ll pay. Just need to wait for next season, you know I’m good for it!” He cried. “You know I’m good for it!”

    “Eighteen years! Eighteen years and not one message from you! The King himself summons me here, tears apart my family and where do I find you?” Miteus growled. “Where do I find my brother?”

    “Oh, Miteus, it is you! Thank the Gods!” Treston whimpered. “Wh… what are you doing here?!”

    “Give me one reason not to cut open your treacherous throat…”

    “F… family, brother! Brother!”

    A flash of pain erupted in Miteus’ hand. He reflexively pulled the sword back and dropped it to the floor, where it rattled to a stop. He lessened his grip on Treston and turned towards the door, where a black-robed Wizard stood between two of the city guard.

    “Lord Wetherhall, I hope you are not planning to shed blood in the King’s city on such a fine day.” The wizard said. His brown eyes fixed their gaze on Miteus as he crossed his arms beneath cascading curls of blond hair and beard.

    “Who are you?” Miteus asked.

    “Forgive me, my Lord.” The wizard replied. “Captain Saigen of the Mage Guard. Protecting the King’s peace.” He gestured towards Silver Wind. “It’s a nice sword, Lord Wetherhall. Perhaps it is best to put it back before you damage it.”

    “Is that a threat?”

    “I could not threaten a Lord of the Realm, I assure you. However I am not one to falter in my duties, so let us not force animosity between us if we can avoid it. I am sure Lord Treston will be quite able to explain himself if given adequate opportunity.”

    Miteus lifted his sword from the floor. He felt the gaze of the wizard as he slid it back into its sheath.

    “Would you grant the honour of walking with me, Lord Wetherhall?” Captain Saigen asked.

    Miteus inhaled deeply and released the tight grip of his fist. He turned to one of his guards.

    “Bring my brother to the tower, and make him presentable.”

    “Yes my Lord.” The guard replied as he moved towards Treston’s quivering form. Miteus stepped through the door and proceeded towards the street outside, the wizard falling in step behind him.

    “Word of your wisdom was not exaggerated, my Lord.” Saigen began.

    “Spare me your empty flattery.” Miteus snapped back. “I have nothing to say to you or your kind.”

    The wizard missed a step but continued on with a slight smile. “Forgive me, my Lord. I forget how difficult it must be for you in this place, where magic runs so thick.”

    “I require your pity as much as your flattery.”

    “There are those who wonder why your family fears magic so.”

    “And you are one of them?”

    “On the contrary, my Lord, I am of the Mage Guard. This city is shielded by the enchantments of the greatest wizards in the New Kingdom’s history, yet I have had to stand against more of my own kind than I care to count. Magic brings wonders, but it also brings terrors. There isn’t a wizard in the land who would deny it.”

    “I do not need a man in a pointy hat to tell me magic is dangerous. The ruins beneath Artella tell me that every day.”

    “Magic is a power. Men do not fear power, Lord Wetherhall, they fear those who would abuse power.”

    “Magic is an unnatural temptation that nearly destroyed this kingdom before it was even born. To use it is to abuse it.”

    “It is also the force by which the old kingdom was overthrown. It can be used for both good and ill. As I said, men do not fear power.”

    “Men fear evil.”

    “I’m sure those elves were afraid.”

    Miteus stopped and turned to the wizard. “If you have a point, I suggest you get to it quickly. My patience is wearing thin.”

    “Very well, my Lord. My point is this: The King does not want an alliance with the elves. He needs it.”

    “Forgive me if I don’t give your opinion any weight.”

    “You should consider my opinion, my Lord. The Blessing is not what it once was, it has grown weaker and the shadows to the west are no less dark. The old enemies watch us, some think war could dawn in our lifetime. We need all the friends we can get, the good of the Kingdom may well depend upon it.”

    “Do you sway many people with those children’s stories?”

    “A great man once said that ignorance is your enemy’s greatest weapon.”

    “I’ve heard enough.” Miteus said as he strode away. Captain Saigen stood motionless and watched as the Lord and his entourage disappeared around the gentle curve of the street. Finally he uttered.

    “Damn.”

    Part XII | Contents | Part XIV


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  • Tomorrow Man – Part XII

     The city of Nysilla sat in the embrace of the river Lifa as it wormed its way towards the distant ocean. Surrounded by the river on three sides, the city rose from atop a steep hill to watch over the surrounding lands. The towering walls of white stone concealed the heart of the city except for the towers of Oscarion’s Keep where the King and his court ruled over the land. The walls themselves were a testament to the power of the New Kingdom. Heavily enchanted they resisted dirt and decay as well as attack. Of course, in the city’s thousand-year history no attacking army had ever laid eyes on those walls. The Kings’ City shone in the morning sun as Lord Miteus and his men approached along the Gods’ Road. The sunlight scattered from the white walls and was cast into the gentle valley of the river below. The six bridges of bright stone and shining silver crossed the river in a single span and formed spokes that allowed passage into the city through mighty silver gates. The entire scene before his eyes could scarcely hide the magic that underpinned its structure, but the city had its own serene beauty which he could not deny.

    Six white-cloaked riders of the City Guard met them at the edge of the bridge that linked the Gods’ Road with the City’s south-western gate. Behind them a single rider with a silver cloak of the King’s Guard powered across the bridge upon a mighty stallion. The seven riders bowed their heads as Miteus approached. The King’s man raised his head and fixed Miteus with warm brown eyes. He was of an age with him, although the fine dragon-steel plate made him look younger.

    “My Lord of the Realm of Artellathwaine.” He announced. “In the name of the King you are welcomed to Nysilla. Your tower is prepared and awaits your arrival. We shall see you safely to the Keep.”

    Miteus nodded his acceptance and moved onto the bridge. As his party rode the white riders formed an escort around them. The land about them fell away to the river as the bridge bore their weight, as they crossed the river it flowed two hundred feet below them. Miteus rode alongside the silver cloak.

    “What is your name, Captain?” He asked.

    “Captain Hethkar of the First Guard, my Lord.”

    “The King’s closest swords.” Miteus remarked. “Somehow I feel that you have not been sent so far from his side to escort me to Court?”

    “The King was informed of your arrival as soon as the watch spied you. He commanded an audience with you as soon as you arrived.”

    “So you are to take me to him?”

    “Aye, my Lord. The other riders will see your men to your tower. I am to bring you to the King’s solar.”

    “Very well, Captain.” Miteus replied as the great silver and steel gates opened before them. As they passed through the gates and into the city Miteus watched the road ahead as it carved through the rows of pale stone buildings. The city was as unlike Artella as he could imagine. The buildings looked as if they were grown rather than built, the paved roads were smooth and cut paths as though they were the first stones laid down. The city crowded within the walls yet the air felt spacious, Miteus couldn’t guess at the numbers who lived here, yet unlike his own city there was no stench. Every inch was unnaturally clean. He could almost smell the magic on the air.

    “How long since you were last at Court, my Lord? If I may ask?” Hethkar said.

    “Many more years than I care to count.” Miteus replied.

    “The Realm Lords do not often sit at Court, it is rare for so many to be gathered.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “Many of the Lords have arrived at Court. The Keep has never been so full, nor the city so busy. At least not in my memory.”

    “Do you know why the Lords are gathered?”

    “I do not. The business of the King and his Lords is not for my ears. Although there are rumours a tourney is to be held to celebrate the Prince’s six-and-tenth birthing day.”

    “There is a Prince now?”

    “Yes, my Lord, the King’s first true-born son and heir. It was quite the celebration when he was named.”

    The road began to rise as Oscarion’s Keep loomed over them, a nest of white spires at the heart of the city. They passed a blue-robed wizard hunched over a half-assembled wooden barrel, yellow magical energies coursing from his hands and flowing over the woodwork. Miteus turned his head away.

    “I have been away too long, it seems. A new prince, a gathering of the Lords, what else has not reached my ears?”

    “I could not say, my Lord.”

    They crossed a set of bands carved into the road. They curved away from them to form a ring engraved around the Keep, a ring of shapes and indecipherable markings that spoke to Miteus of yet more magic. They passed through the gatehouse of the Keep and Miteus and the Silver cloak peeled away from the rest. They dismounted and their horses were taken into the cavernous stables. Hethkar showed him to a small door of dragon-steel that bore the crown-and-sword seal of Oscarion’s line. The silver-cloaked guard placed the palm of his hand to the centre of the seal and muttered something Miteus could not quite hear. The door let out a flurry of clicks and the sound of sliding metal before it opened inwards with a low groan. They passed through and began rising up a spiral staircase as the door sealed itself behind them. The staircase was neither narrow nor spacious, lit not by daylight but the glow of crystal lanterns that hung on chains from the stairs above. They climbed and climbed, rising through the Keep. They passed numerous doors, all forged dragon-steel and emblazoned with the Kings’ seal. Ahead of them Miteus heard another door open. It lay open as it came into view above them. The guard stepped through and gestured for Miteus to follow. It opened out into one of the gargantuan corridors that formed the veins of the Keep, in many ways it was more grand and imposing within than without. The floor was glistening marble, the walls a towering row of white pillars with colourful mosaics between them. The vaults of the ceiling, high above them, bore between their ribs murals of acts of Gods and men. They turned and Miteus faced the entrance to the King’s solar. As tall as the cavernous hall behind them, the entrance was composed of two parts. The lower, four rectangular silver slabs each bearing the likeness of Oscarion, first king of the new age, and the seal of his line. The legendary warrior’s metal likeness towered above them both, larger than the great statue in the Great Temple of Banthos. Above them a great wheel of silver and dragon-steel, concentric discs of engraved metal that traced the passage of the age. The outermost rings tracked the movements of sun, moon and stars. Within them the discs bore the names of the days and seasons. The innermost revealed to those learned enough to read them the exact moment of the age. The centre of the wheel was reset at the moment of coronation. The workings were beyond Miteus’ comprehension, but it performed its task well. The two components combined left an impression of size and might. There was a dull thud, rebounding into thunder from the walls. The two great slabs of silver nearest the walls drifted towards them, the two in the centre drifted away. Then, as a great door, the two central slabs slid aside behind the outer two. Sunlight bled from between them as the tall drum of the King’s Solar revealed itself. Tall windows surrounded a simple wooden throne with silver inlaid in its patterning. The marble of the floor was split with red stone in a circular pattern that radiated from an engraved circular pattern of runes beneath the throne, within which sat King Piscius, Lord of all the realms and ruler of Asamor.

    He was older than Miteus, a man in his seventies yet aside from the lines of his face and the grey of his hair he appeared a much younger man. He was dressed simply in the grey-and-white that had been the colours of the Kings’ line since the first days. Atop his head rested the simple silver crown, over his left breast sat a silver pin, the crown-and-sword of his ancestors. Miteus dropped to his knee and bowed his head.

    “My King.” He said.

    “Arise, Realm Lord of Artellathwaine and Protector of the Southern Lands, Miteus Wetherhall.” The King replied. He gestured to his guardsman. “Leave us.”

    Captain Hethkar bowed and retreated from the Solar, the giant doors slid closed with a mechanical thunder. Miteus rose to his feet.

    “You summoned me, my King?”

    “It has been near a score of years since you were last in these halls. Need I sound the bells of doom to bring you here?”

    “I am humbled with regret, your grace. I am left with little time to travel after the duties of the realm.”

    “Your father worked himself into the grave as well, if I recall. Tell me of Artellathwaine, what of my subjects?”

    “They work the fields and fish the seas, as ever your grace. They work hard and pay homage in what small ways they can.”

    “I have no doubt of that.” The King smiled. “And your family, your lady wife and children?”

    “They are in good health and spirit, my Lady wife is ever more than I deserve. Our children grow stronger and wiser with every day.”

    “Good, good. You’re daughter, is she yet betrothed?”

    “Alexia is near an age to marry, it is true, I have not yet found a suitor for her. I was hoping for a fruitful search during my time at court.”

    “And your younger son, Vigard?”

    “He is very much like Micharus, filled with the wonder and energy of youth. Forgive me, your grace, but I fear you did not summon me to speak of home and family.”

    The King gripped the arm of his throne with one hand and brought the other to his chin. He eyed Miteus with eyes as green as all those who sat the throne before him, weathered by the years of rule. A king’s eyes.

    “Indeed not.” Piscius said as he shifted in his seat. “You may approach.”

    Miteus sensed movement behind him. He turned to see a tall and slender stranger who he swore had not been there a moment earlier. An elf dressed in elegant flowing robes and decorated with ornaments of living wood over his shoulders. A band of living oak sat atop his perfectly straight brown hair. He drifted forwards with his hands clasped together before him. His face was a paradox of ancient youth, and behind his silver eyes Miteus sensed a serene fury. From deep within his mind Miteus felt tendrils of fear creep.

    “Your grace.” He said as he turned back to the King. “I do not understand.”

    “May I introduce Lord Yorrei of the Oakenheart line, of the Forest Kingdoms.” Piscius replied.

    “What business has he here?” Miteus asked.

    “Perhaps,” the elven lord replied in a voice cold as steel. “If his grace permits, I can enlighten you.”

    The King nodded once.

    “By your command,” Yorrei continued, “two of my kin were beheaded within your realm.”

    “By my command and by the laws of the realm. The King’s law.” Miteus replied.

    “A law your king denies.” Yorrei responded with a rising anger. “One of the two was my grandson.”

    “Your grandson violated the laws, any act of mine was one of justice.”

    “My grandson saved a child!” Yorrei screamed. “A human child! And for that you took his head!”

    “I do not expect you to understand, elf.” Miteus snarled. “But when your kind walk in my realm they are bound by our laws.”

    Yorrei remained silent and composed himself. Miteus felt the anger within the elf recede.

    “You have broken my family, Lord Wetherhall. That much I expect you to understand.”

    “Enough!” The King commanded. “An injury has been dealt, amends will be made as agreed. Miteus, in payment for the slain kin of Lord Yorrei your daughter is to be betrothed to his son Meyiath. She will go with Lord Yorrei to the Forest Kingdom.”

    “As a hostage?” Miteus asked.

    “As an honoured guest.” Yorrei replied.

    “When she comes of age they will be married.” The King continued. “She will bear children, and a bond of oath and blood will help mend the wound and stem future bloodshed.”

    “That much is agreed.” Yorrei interjected.

    “Further, as a sign of your commitment to the King’s peace, your youngest son will be taken to Tetsathwaine, there to be the ward of Lord Stonnegarth. This shall meet the requirements of justice.”

    “It will be adequate.” Yorrei replied.

    “Then we shall consider the issue settled. If you would excuse us, Lord Yorrei, I must discuss this further with Lord Wetherhall in private.”

    “Of course, your grace.” The elven lord replied. He drifted towards the great doors which slid open to admit his passage. As the silver slabs slammed closed Miteus turned back to his king.

    “Please, your grace, tell me this is some sordid jest?”

    “It is not.”

    “Those elves broke your law!”

    “They broke your law, Lord Wetherhall.”

    “The law of the realm and the King’s law are one and the same.”

    “That is true in spirit, not in fact.”

    “What manner of distinction is that?”

    “The manner of distinction in which you have betrayed my trust!” Piscius yelled. “When you invoke my name you invoke my authority. That is your power as a Lord of the Realm and your responsibility! When you called my law to your execution it was not you who beheaded two elves, it was I!”

    “The law against magic in Artellathwaine is as it has been since the dawn of the Kingdom. In a thousand years it has never been contested by the throne, why is it so now?”

    “It is so since you killed an elven noble in my name!”

    “So am I to suffer the destruction of my family to appease some foreign lord? Your grace we owe them nothing! Not one shred of pride nor one drop of blood!”

    “You presume to speak on matters you do not understand. The kingdoms of man and elf have kept themselves apart, you speak truth in that, but it shall not be any longer.”

    “What does that mean?”

    “There is to be an alliance.”

    “With the elves?”

    The King nodded.

    “Why have I not heard of this?” Miteus asked.

    “The matter has been before my Court for some time.”

    “So my family are to be traded for the sake of this alliance?”

    “It is unfortunate, I will not deny that. I would have preferred another solution but Lord Yorrei would accept nothing less.”

    “Is that what the loyalty of my ancestors, my own loyalty, is worth? The word of some foreigner?”

    “You will hold your tongue, Lord Wetherhall. I will not have you accuse me of a fallacious betrayal. Your actions have damaged my Kingdom, your amends will be paid. That is the end of it.”

    “Your grace, I cannot hand my children away to be held hostage!”

    “Nor do I expect you to. I am a father as well, I know what it is I ask of you. Your refusal will not be counted against your allegiance. My commands have already taken wing, the children will be gone before you return. No doubt your lady wife and first-born son will need comfort, you have my leave to return to your home as soon as whatever affairs you have at Court are concluded.”

    “Please, your grace, I beg of you, don’t do this. Don’t destroy my family. Whatever price must be paid for this wrong I have done, let me be the one to pay it.”

    “The decision is made.”

    “For the sake of all the gods, my King, have mercy. Don’t let my children suffer for my transgression.”

    “You speak of mercy? What if the price was your head?” Piscius asked. He placed a gentle hand on Miteus’ shoulder. “This is mercy, Miteus.”

    Miteus’ mind grew numb as he left the King’s Solar. Within him a fury burned against a drowning ocean of despair. Thoughts of his family, his allegiance, his very beliefs clashed in his mind. His feet carried him to the only place he could think to go.

    Before the iron altar of Banthos, hidden deep within the Keep, he collapsed to his knees and screamed. He closed his eyes as they filled with tears and prayed.

    ***

    The noonday sun scattered through the canopy of trees and fell gently on the forest floor. A gust of wind stirred the branches above and growth below. Birds and insects flitted about and animals crawled. The elf leant against the trunk of a mighty elm and regarded the scene around him with piercing blue eyes. To those eyes the serenity of the forest was a battlefield. A war fought slowly and beneath the notice of so many. Here the Everliving Forest and the world of men were locked in eternal collision. The men slashed and cut and burned, the forest grew to fill the holes they left. The result was a shadow of the thick blanket of life that the forest became only a day’s walk to the south. To the north the trees thinned and became stumps which gave way to fields filled with crops. In the distance, sat on the edge of the land, the thick grey walls of Artella.

    It was so barren, enough to make him sick. He heard the commotion of the one-armed knight’s return long before he saw him.

    The old man strode with confidence towards the elf. Clad in light leathers, a short-sword sheathed at his side, he dragged behind him the fresh carcass of a deer. He dropped the beast at the elf’s feet and ran a blood-stained hand through his short silver-grey beard.

    “Must you drag that before me?” The elf asked in his own forest tongue.

    “You want to eat tonight?” The knight replied in his crude human language as he slipped a knife from his leathers and began to cut into the skin.

    “I will not be eating that.”

    “Suit yourself. You’ll want to find something though, we’re likely to be here for a while.”

    “I don’t see why. We have your King’s blessing, we need not attack from the shadows.”

    “You don’t know much about men then, do you? The King’s banner-men march for the castle as we speak, but their demands aren’t going to be met. They won’t give up the children so easily.”

    “And so your King has given the task to you. Why not these wizards of yours?”

    “The King trusts me, and I know how to get a job done.”

    “An old cripple, a woman and this Mole of yours against an entire castle?”

    “We’ve faced longer odds.”

    “And come out unscathed?”

    The one-armed knight fixed the elf with a steel glare. “We’ll get you this girl. Count on that.”

    The low sound of rumbling earth disturbed their discourse. A small patch of exposed ground near where they stood began to move as if it were liquid. Mud and stone parted and another man rose slowly from the ground. He was shorter than the others, with dirty brown hair and leathers, his face obscured by a dragon-steel face mask that glinted in the sunlight. His feet emerged above the ground that once again became solid. The Mole clawed at his mask, the talons that held it to his head released and a short, fat and scarred face revealed itself.

    “Were you spotted?” The old knight asked.

    “I’m not a complete fool, Tallus, whatever else you think of me.” The Mole replied.

    “What have you learned?”

    “It is much as you suspected. There are no wardings I could detect, the outer walls of the city are rothstone, tall and thick, but they don’t go deep. Getting in and out of the city will not be a problem.”

    “And the castle?”

    “Rothstone, to the core as far as I can tell. I searched but found no weaknesses.”

    “Then it is stronger than I anticipated.”

    “Indeed. We cannot breach it from below, and even if we get inside my power will be limited.”

    “What of the rest of the city?”

    “Besides the castle and outer walls the city is built of softer stone. Once we are beyond the castle flight should be easy, their forces are considerable but there are no magi amongst them.”

    “Then the castle is the one flaw in our plan. We’ll need to fall back on more conventional means to infiltrate it.”

    “Well Maereen is well versed in that. Where is she?”

    “All I know is she said she would return by sundown.” The old knight wiped his blade on a patch of deerskin and sheathed it. “The castle shall be our task, you should remain without and see to our escape from the city itself.”

    “That sounds advisable.”

    “The King’s banners should arrive at the city by the end of tomorrow or the morning of the following day, at least as far as my last word from the King tells. When they arrive the castle will become more vigilant, we will need to be in position before that happens.”

    “What is your command?” The Mole asked.

    “Return to the city, make whatever preparations are necessary on the outside. If you need to rest tonight then do so, we shall leave at first light tomorrow.”

    “Rest is not necessary.” The Mole replied. “I have enough left in me to make a start tonight.”

    The Mole turned and stepped back onto the barren patch of soil. He clamped the mask back over his face and began to sink beneath the earth once more.

    “We meet again in the city.” The Mole said as his voice was masked by the rumbling earth.

    ***

    The temple at Gallowsbane was a small thing, dwarfed by the temples even in the nearby towns. It was also silent, a dim light shone from within. Zoyelle approached carefully, wary of treading within a holy place. The door was unlocked but heavy as she pushed it open. She came face to face with the imposing form of Yolder. The stone golem towered over her and glowered with glowing eyes. His expression shifted when he recognised her and let her pass through into the body of the temple. The pews were stuffed end-to-end with the bodies of children. They appeared dead, slumped back as if they had passed away whilst still in worship. The only light, provided by the glow of a crystal lantern, cast their tiny forms in a cloak of shadows that set the hairs on her neck on end. She rushed to the nearest, a young girl. Cold to the touch, but she could feel a pulse and breath within her, although it was near impossible to detect. She checked another, an older boy, and found him in an identical condition.

    She worked her way forwards and found the same to be true of many more. As she got to the alter it became clear that the same affliction had struck them all down, and she looked back across the congregation. There were dozens, perhaps over a hundred. She turned and saw Granny Hark sat in the corner to one side, her eyes closed and legs crossed. Zoyelle recognised the posture immediately, one of Granny’s meditations. She sensed movement behind her, she turned on a toe, a spark of magic fire sputtering to life in her hand. In the gloom she saw two raised hands, dark robes and a pointed hat.

    “You must be Zoyelle.” The wizard spoke softly. The voice carried an age that the youthful face did not match. “She said you would be coming.”

    “She has a habit of doing that.” Zoyelle remarked as she let the flame in her hand fade and die. “And you are?”

    “Serren, of the Order of the Aether.” The wizard dropped his hands and bowed.

    “You behind this?” She asked as she gestured towards the congregation.

    “Gods no, I came here at Gladdis’ request.”

    Zoyelle looked over at the old woman still motionless in the corner. “How long has she been like that?”

    “All night, she’s trying to find answers. Said you would be able to help.”

    “It’s not good for her to project for extended periods of time, it drains her.”

    “She never had a good sense of self-preservation.”

    “May I?” Zoyelle asked as she indicated one of the children.

    “Of course.”

    She moved over to the child and began a closer examination, speaking as she ran her fingers across pale skin.

    “The fact it is beyond Granny’s medicines rules a lot out. Are only children afflicted?”

    “There have been deaths, but only of adults. The children become like this.”

    “How many? Is this the only place?”

    “I have been to four other villages so affected, three have seen worse.”

    “I don’t think it is a natural affliction.” She said as she lifted an eyelid and peered into a milky white orb. “To hold so many this close to death, it must be magic. Many magical ailments are within her power to heal, and many more must be within yours. They do not respond to healing at all?”

    “Any life returned quickly fades.”

    “I would almost say it is Vampirism.”

    “Except…?”

    “Vampire activity this far from the border and this early in the year, it is extremely unlikely.”

    “But possible.”

    “There are too many, each could sustain an individual, there would be an army. This place would be crawling with monster-hunters.”

    “And?”

    “The head, neck, arms and legs appear free of bite marks.”

    “She said you were sharp. And without the Aether, too.”

    “I still don’t know what could cause these symptoms without a mark on the skin.”

    “Fortunately my experience lends an answer. Have you heard of a Vampire’s Kiss?”

    The name struck her as she recalled what little she had read about it so many years ago. She knew no more than the affect of it, which matched what lay around her. She also know the only known cause. The hairs on her neck stood anew.

    “Dark magic.” She whispered.

    The wizard nodded. “A powerful and forbidden curse, inflicted with a skill I have not seen outside of Otzia.”

    “Can it be undone?”

    “If the exact casting is known, with time, it can be reversed. Otherwise it is impossible without killing the afflicted.”

    “So the deaths?”

    “The work of a Dark Mage. They strike families, the adults are slain, the children are bound beneath the Kiss.”

    “How long has this been happening? What is being done?”

    Zoyelle felt the presence of a powerful mind impose itself on her own. Her mental defences snapped into place but relaxed slightly as she recognised her Elder’s return.

    For months now.” Granny Hark’s voice slid into their minds. “Heroes have come and died.

    The old woman’s eyes opened and her face broke into a warm smile.

    “Agnis, it has been too long my child.” She said as she worked her way to her feet aided by a gnarled tree branch walking stick.

    “Elder, I have…”

    “I know why you have come, child. There are much graver deeds that concern me.”

    “How fared your wandering?” The wizard asked.

    “I went to the place they found young Odric. I saw him, the fiend, through the boy’s eyes.”

    “Then you know his name?”

    “I could sense his mind, but it was closed to me. Shrouded in some way.”

    “He is psychic as well?” The wizard asked, aghast.

    “I do not believe so. He did not reach with his mind. I tried to follow him but he eluded me. I fear I am little closer to finding the hole he hides in.”

    “Elder, I must speak with you.” Zoyelle interrupted. “I fear I am…”

    “You need to worry less, Agnis. There is little love for the Wetherhalls, and besides, the Sisterhood does not act brashly. You will have chance to explain to them.”

    “And the Wizards?”

    Hark laughed and cast an eye at the man stood a few feet away from her. “They wouldn’t dare.”

    Part XI | Contents | Part XIII


  • Tomorrow Man – Part XI

    Darkness filled the castle as Christen wandered through its corridors. Night flooded in through the windows and arrow-slits and shadows pooled beneath the walls. Aside from the patrol of guards and the occasional scurrying servant the stone veins of the castle were devoid of life. Even so, Christen had not forsaken his disguise. He slid from shadow to shadow, cloaking himself with a basic shroud aura to mask himself from notice. He turned corners and slipped through doors with silent determination. He had learned the layout of the castle from Sir Allian’s mind hours before, and now he rose through the great stone beast. He turned a corner and saw torchlight flicker on the wall. His ears, tuned to the silence, heard two voices and the chink of mail. A pair of guards approached from around the corner. He tried to reach their minds but sensed nothing. He took a deep breath and rallied his thoughts. He ducked his head and stepped out of the shadows and around the corner.

    “I don’t much see the point of putting the Dread-Captain on trial.” One guard said. “Way I see it, he’s guilty as they come.”

    “But you have to do these things proper.” The other guard replied. “Got to respect the King’s law.”

    “Put ‘im to the sword, I say. Put all the bastards to the sword.”

    Christen strode towards them, his eyes fixed on the floor. He had found their minds, sharp and alert but otherwise defenceless. They parted slightly to let him pass.

    “There won’t be no trials until the Lord gets back, anyway.” The second guard continued. “They can stew in the dungeons until then.”

    Christen vanished through a small wooden door and ascended a narrow spiral stair. Eventually he emerged atop a central tower. He looked down at the Red Court below, then up at the stars and moon above. His mind felt free up here, he could feel the minds of common folk in the streets below. The heavens were vast and inviting to his thoughts, but he had to focus on his task. He placed his hands together and closed his eyes. In his mind he formed the aura of the Spirit Sense and cast it upon himself. When he opened his eyes he saw a crowd of translucent faintly glowing figures gathered on the Red Court. Most were spectres, little more than shadows of the living imprinted on the world. In the centre he could see brighter forms, two elves watching over the city and ocean beyond. As he watched and listened to the quiet groans of the spectres they turned and watched him in silence. It sent a chill down his spine, but they made no move towards him. He purged the myriad thoughts from his mind and drew on his magic. He needed absolute focus, the slightest mistake he knew could spill into the minds of the living or worse, the minds of the dead. He formed the nine seals that separated the realms of life and death and took from his memory a doorway of old stone carved in fractal patterns of holly. He bound the nine seals to it and poured all of his power into it. He saw more and more of the spectres turning as his mind flared. The elven ghosts had begun to drift towards him as he felt the summoning spell fade from his mind. He became wary of them, a weakened psychic could easily be prey. The walls of the castle could protect him if his power failed, but fending off two malicious ghosts would leave him with little to mask his return to the chapel. As they neared him he sensed their fear and anger, the trauma of their last moments looping through their minds. Above all he could feel their hunger.

    A blast of psychic energy burst before him as the form of another ghost warped into being. The translucent glow of maroon robes, a pointed hat and a long straight white beard. The ghost of the wizard stared down at the two elven spirits, who turned and drifted back to the court below.

    “Master!” Christen gasped with relief. The ghost turned and floated in the air before him.

    “I still insist that the master-student relationship ceased to apply even before I had died, Christen.”

    “Sorry, Wise Yjos.”

    Yjos glanced at the city around them. “This is Artella, is it not?”

    Christen nodded.

    “Forgive me, but last I checked Spirit Speaking was a magical practice.”

    Christen looked down at his feet.

    “By Morji’s sacred blood, you utter fool!” The ghost chided him. “Do you take your oaths so lightly? If the council knew of this they could name you dark mage!”

    “I am sorry, master. I would not have done so if the need were not urgent.”

    “And such folly! To perform a summoning over such distance, and so close to a site of execution no less! I am not your personal spirit guardian, Christen! What could possibly be so urgent that you would take leave of your senses?”

    “I need you to convey a request to the council.”

    “So I am to be your messenger?” Yjos asked. “What’s wrong with your bird?”

    “Ulysses is not fast enough. I need to resolve the matter urgently!”

    “And what matter is this?”

    “Micharus Whetherhall, Miteus’ first born son.”

    “What of him?”

    “He is a mage.”

    “You are certain?”

    “I have seen it in his own memories. He carries the power of the Nexus. The council must send a wizard suited to train him.”

    “So that is why you summoned me? To act as a messenger to shroud your betrayal of the very foundations of Wizardry?”

    “I know the severity of this transgression, master, there is no need to lecture me.”

    “Evidently you did not listen when I did lecture you!” The ghost screamed into his mind. “I taught you better than this, Christen!”

    “The child is Jalice’s son!”

    Yjos became calm and drifted closer. He spoke softly. “Your niece?”

    Christen nodded.

    “I see.” The ghost replied. “Very well, I will convey your request, but we are treading dangerous waters. I will return as soon as I am able to get an answer.”

    Christen nodded his understanding and the ghost of Yjos vanished. The wizard clambered down a few steps until the stone of the tower blocked him from the view of the Red Court. Unbound by physical form, spirits could traverse great distances in mere moments. Yjos would already be at the Psychic Tower delivering his message, but how long he would have to wait for a response he could not know. He held the monk’s robes tight to himself and managed to drift off to sleep.

    He sat at the heart of the thick stone walls of his dream fortress. It was the strongest defence he could manage without resorting to what little magic he had left. He watched a triple-arched stone door with apprehension as hours seemed to drift by. Then he heard what he had been waiting for. Three knocks from the other side of the door reverberated around the cavernous hall. He conjured two thick oak beams into being and they dropped into hooks that grew out of the stone. He sat and waited, expecting the door to be blasted from its frame. There was no further disturbance until the sound of a familiar voice jolted him awake.

    He scrambled to his feet and reawakened his Spirit Sense. The first glow of morning was rising from the east. Yjos drifted in the twilight, a look of concern on his face.

    “What is the news?” Christen asked.

    The ghost shook his head. “They are not sending anyone.”

    “What?”

    “It is worse, Christen. They started asking questions.”

    “What did you tell them?” Christen said, rousing the magic he had regained as he slept.

    “Nothing, but they are calling the council to meet.”

    “Regarding the boy?”

    “Regarding you. I have not revealed your name but they have suspicions.”

    Christen cursed under his breath. Information was almost impossible to control when it came to the Psychics of Otzia, he should have been more careful.

    “You should go.” He said to the spirit. “I’ve already involved you more than I should.”

    “What’s done is done.” Yjos paused for a moment. “I will have to tell them what I know, Christen.”

    “I know.”

    “If I could resist them I would, you know that.”

    “Do what you have to do, Yjos, and I shall do the same.”

    “Gods be with you.”

    Yjos vanished from sight. Christen dispelled his spirit sense and watched the shroud of night creep towards the western horizon. There would be no help from Otzia and worse the wizards were turning their eyes on him. There was no tolerance for the breaking of the Oaths of Wizardry. A wizard turned dark was a blight they would not withstand. They would investigate, they would delay, but once the council gained momentum it was unstoppable and it would soon be aimed at him. With Micharus’ safety far from assured it was the last thing he needed. As he pondered who could take the boy the answer presented itself before him. He saw a stranger in the gardens at the heart of the castle, the green robes and pointed hat were the unmistakable marks of a Nexic wizard. He froze, the thought of the council acting so soon paralysed him. He locked minds with the mage and found a familiar voice.

    Is that you, Christen?

    The stranger turned and waved up to him before he vanished in a green flash. As Christen descended into the castle he felt its walls surrounding his mind, protecting him. His task had been a success, the wizards would not aid him, but the man he needed was not a wizard.

     

    ***

     

    Beneath a darkening grey sky Harold stood unseen. Behind him stood a field of men in brown and silver, formed into perfect rows beneath banners blazing a crest of a hammer resting upon a chipped block of stone. He stood with a row of cavalry at the head of the waiting army, beside him a monster of a man. As tall as the men on horseback, wider than an ox and bulging head to toe with muscle, he wore the full black beard and pointed hat of a wizard, clad in thick green fabric wrapped into a tunic. Amidst the tips of spear and sword Harold spied more wizards in robes of every colour. Ahead of him the grass rolled down to open fields then up again to a vast hill upon which sat a castle surrounded by another force of thousands who flew banners of crimson and silver, a crest he could not see. Time moved and stood still, two floods of men waiting behind unseen walls. The gates would open soon, he knew, a crimson tide would spill onto the fields. It was in their future, but a few hours of time seemed such a small thing. He could already smell the smoke and blood, the stench of a battle lost, a war ended. It sat there, in their path, but the wind drove them on without mercy, without hope of altering course.

    It was all ancient history, to him at least.

    A flash of green heralded the appearance of a young wizard in light grey robes. The giant spoke as he approached, the deep voice punctuating the silence.

    “Good news, I hope.”

    “I have spoken to Lord Maston.” The grey wizard replied. “He has seen reason, he agrees his cause is lost. He has agreed to the King’s terms.”

    “Surrender?”

    “Complete.”

    “Good. I did not wish to fight another battle.”

    “None of us do.”

    “I hope you’ve got a plan, Wizard.” A decorated cavalryman interrupted. “Twenty thousand men rode out here expecting a fight. Sometimes that kind of intent can’t be halted.”

    “Maston has agreed to bring down his banner, when his men see that they will stand down.” The grey wizard replied.

    “You have a lot of faith in the enemy, Morrowhin.”

    “Look, captain!” Another cavalryman announced as he pointed out a figure wandering across the top of the castle towards the standard flying in the gentle wind.

    “It is Maston. This ugliness will be dealt with shortly.” Morrowhin said.

    The words were empty, Harold knew that Fate was not so kind. Battle and death loomed towards them, hidden in the mists of time but so very close now. The first rocks of disaster would appear abruptly, any moment now.

    On queue, as if driven by an unseen mechanism, the clouds above rose to reveal great symbols etched in fire across the sky.

    “By the spirits!” The giant wizard gasped. “Those signs, he can’t be…”

    Morrowhin was already rising into the sky. He screamed upwards.

    “No! Gorren! Stop!”

    Harold sensed the futility, like a child screaming at a hurricane. History could not be so easily swayed.

    A column of white light struck down from heaven itself, the men screamed in shock as the castle disappeared beneath it. Harold could see the stones baking and splitting, windows shattering, people ceasing to be in a fire too hot for their flesh to even burn. Within moments the sound reached them, a crack of unnatural thunder. The light vanished and left a molten carcass of stone. As the thunder subsided Harold could hear the flying wizard crying.

    “No, no no no!”

    “There goes your surrender.” The captain remarked as he gestured towards the army fleeing the castle. The line behind Harold formed up as realisation dawned, they weren’t fleeing. They were charging.

    “Ready yourselves!” The giant wizard screamed as bright green magic flowed over his skin. His muscles grew as he dug his feet into the soil.

    Harold felt the earth rumble beneath his feet. Swathes of land between the two armies gave way and sank into chasms, leaving only a narrow bridge onto which the enemy charged. Others turned and began to run around the sinking holes as those taken by surprise ran and rode helplessly into them. The pyromancers descended from above, each suspended in a halo of flame, orange and yellow like the aura of Morjiqui. One, surrounded by white fire, directed their attack. They circled above and sent streaks of flame to the earth where they burst amidst the enemy into gouts of flesh-searing fire. Still they came, charging towards Harold with an anger he could taste. The giant wizard stepped forward and slammed a fist between the eyes of a charging horse. The creature came to an abrupt halt with a snap of bones and ripping of flesh. The rider tumbled through the air and landed in a nest of spears. The beast fell to the side and the giant lifted its corpse with both hands. He threw the horse, armour and all, into the charging foe. Limbs broke, men and horse screamed and blades met. The carnage broke like a wave of steel and blood. Amidst it all Harold stood, the watcher from afar.

     

    Harold woke screaming, a cold sheen of sweat across his face. Around him mountain folk slept in their short hammocks, their snores impenetrable to his cries and the rolling waves against the wooden hull. Beneath him cargo slumbered under heavy nets.

    “Trouble sleeping, friend?” The old man he knew only as Magarth asked.

    “I’m sorry, did I wake you?” Harold asked.

    “I don’t need much sleep. The dreams again?”

    “They all seem so real.” Harold said as he untangled himself from the sheet he had slept under.

    “Aye, they always do.” Magarth replied as he dropped his feet to the floor. “Best not to dwell on what is seen by sleeping eyes. Come to the deck with me, the salt air should clear your head.”

    Harold followed reluctantly as Magarth clambered up wooden steps and pushed the cargo hatch aside. The cold air hit Harold’s sinuses like an anvil. He felt his mind clear, the thoughts of wars lost in history falling away. The stars shone their unchanging light upon the water, the deck basked in the bright moonlight. Two mountain folk sat at either end of the ship, their eyes peering through the night as human eyes never could. The sea rolled gently, rocking the ship like a cradle. The two men wandered to the prow and sat against the side of the ship as waves broke against her massive wooden hull. The short man sat on the very prow of the ship asked something in the grating mountain tongue which Harold could not decipher. He looked to Magarth.

    “He asks if the water upsets your stomach.” The old man interpreted.

    Harold thought better of trying to explain so simply nodded. The mountain man replied and Magarth translated.

    “He says that the sea often disturbs the innards of those who don’t belong on her back. He also says not to worry, we should be in Artella by sunset.”

    “It’s not the sea that terrifies me at night.” Harold confessed.

    “What is it that you see in those dreams of yours that strikes such dread into your heart?”

    “It’s hard to explain.” Harold replied. “I’m not sure how to…”

    “We have all night.” Magarth assured him.

    “I don’t think they are dreams. Not in the sense of normal dreams.”

    “Go on.”

    “I think they’re visions. That sounds like madness.” He laughed.

    “The world is full of madness, the trick I find is focussing on the madness we can understand.”

    “I see things, things that happened long ago, things that won’t happen until long after I am gone.”

    “Sounds like prophetic visions.”

    “Yeah. Have you heard of the Farseer?”

    “Miniia? I am acquainted with her teachings.”

    “They say she gives the gift of sight to people.”

    “And you think you have this gift.”

    “I thought I did. So I went to the temple in Morjia, but the man there said I was a Greatseer. But he said I had to go west across the sea, and I didn’t. I’m going back to Artella instead.”

    “Why?”

    “I don’t know. I guess I felt like I had to.”

    Magarth grunted. “Destiny’s a powerful force, it has to be said. Best you go where you need to be, is all I’ll say.”

    “Right.” Harold said as the two of them gazed up at the heavens, the eternal stars seemed to him for a moment the anchors of a chaotic world.

     

    ***

     

    The amber glow of the rising sun brought upon its back the promise of a new day to Artella. The first rays of dawn shattered against the towering walls of the city whilst within the people rose to the scattered twilight. The monstrous form of the castle lay obscured by the mariners’ hostel as the stable boy swept the same patch of courtyard for the fifteenth time, his eye never wavering from the canvas caravan parked near the row of stables on the far side. The figure sat smoking a long pipe on the driver’s bench was a wizard for sure.

    The man who was not a wizard drew a lungful of drygrass smoke and let it settle before gently breathing it back out into the world. Simmion rested a little way from the caravan, tied to a post and feasting on hay. The man cast his eye upwards towards the brightening sky. The last of the stars were vanishing, the promise of a fine day was tempered in his mind by the knowledge that, not far from here, a storm was building and moving in.

    “I hear this place is rather dangerous for the likes of you, old chap.”

    The voice intruded on his peace. He turned his eyes back towards earth to see a man wearing a strange coat and trousers in matching materials. His face was familiar to him, well-groomed and clean shaven except for a thin moustache.

    “What do you want?” The robed man asked.

    “Just checking in. Making sure things are proceeding as planned.” The stranger replied as he placed a brown leather box on the ground next to him.

    “The boy?” The robed man asked.

    “Indeed.”

    “What concern is it of yours?”

    “Everything that is my client’s concern is my concern. You know who he is, I trust.”

    “I have my suspicions.”

    “You will take him in as apprentice, whatever it is you call them, and train him. Make sure he learns everything you can teach him, the rest is already taken care of.”

    “And what of myself? When am I to be free of you?”

    “You always ask that.”

    “And the answer is always the same.”

    “You got yourself into a mess, old chap. My client saw fit to grant you a way out of it. You should be grateful, my client rarely affords such generosity to your kind.”

    “So you always tell me. What of my other task?”

    “I thought that would be simple enough for one of your immeasurable talent.”

    “I know the road from here. What has been asked of me, it goes against everything I was taught, I don’t know if I can condemn an entire realm like that.”

    “Let the flow of history take its own course. It is the concern only of my client. I would suggest you think first of your own circumstance.”

    “Is that a threat?”

    “Only an observation. What generosity that has been afforded can be just as easily rescinded. I’m trying to look out for you, old chap, that’s all.”

    “Then leave me be. I’ll do what needs to be done.”

    “That’s all we ask.”

    The robed man looked up and watched a bird soar across the city walls and head off inland.

    “Treading dangerous waters, aren’t we?” The stranger asked. “Sometimes I forget that you people never learn.”

    The robed man made to reply but the stranger had vanished. He shrugged his shoulders and tipped the smouldering ash from his pipe. Crushing it underfoot he wandered to his horse and untied it.

    “Come, Simmion.” He said. “We must get to the castle.”

    Part X | Contents | Part XII