Twist of the Heart
Note from the Author
Welcome to the first Valentine Special. Thank you so very much for downloading this. Your support means the world to me.
There are just a couple of things I’d like to say. While this novelette is an extension of the novel Path of the Gods, it can be read before or after without any worry of spoilers. If you’ve already read Path of the Gods, this should serve to provide a few added hints and details. If you’re approaching this without any knowledge of the original book, hopefully it will serve as a good premise for the beginning of the Theurgy Revolution.
I have attached the opening sections and first chapter of Path of the Gods, which you’ll find at the end of Twist of the Heart.
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Enjoy, and Happy Valentine’s Day!
Twist of the Heart
The War of Unity
Part I – The Calling
Chapter I – The Desire
There was tension in the air. It was thick, even in this thin and icy atmosphere.
The area around me was empty, desolate, aside from a single bare and intrinsically lifeless tree, save for the last leaf, which was feathered away with the next gust of frozen wind.
The tree, with its gnarled and mangy branches, stood steadfast to the wind.
Meanwhile I, with my paltry clothing and hood, stood braced.
The wind howled as the currents whipped my face, clutching the tears from my watering eyes and almost freezing them. Then, its voice lowered, its power settled and I sank myself back onto my heels.
An overcast and despondent sky lurked above me, any patches of blue quickly masked by a malevolent grey cloud.
The place I found myself appeared to mark the southerly edge of a ploughed and fallow field, left as bare as the tree by which I stood.
I looked from whence I had come to the murky distance and saw, billowing from the treetops of a distant woodland, a plume of smoke that was bullied and beaten by the howling wind.
On any given day, you would find me a scout, and the reason you would find me marching the wilds of Aramyth was for exactly that – to scout someone. My guild had been tasked to track and follow the whereabouts of one nameless individual, and the task, like all tasks, had been handed down, put through administration and delegated, to me of all people.
Of course, while it was easy to complain about the weather, it was hard to complain about the job. I enjoyed the mystery and the science of tracking, hunting, scouting, learning, exploring, visiting places only few had been and maybe even treading on previously untrodden ground.
Yes, I enjoyed my job, but it was still a job and I remembered my mission:
“Shadan-Ivy,” my overseer had said to me, though I had long since dropped the ‘Ivy’ because, despite being a woman, it didn’t fit my line of work; but my overseer was a man of staunch formality and never deigned himself to use diminutives. “It falls to you,” he had continued, “to trace, seek and kill one individual…”
I went over the description given, every pertaining detail they had supplied. I was happy to be on this next mission, because the last one had weighed heavily on me and I needed this one to take my mind off it.
The distant woodland, though I said ‘distant’, was not so far, and its aforementioned distance was but a product of the starkness. The field was hard beneath my feet as I trudged over the tilled surface, but there were still nubbins of uneven soil that crunched flat under my weight.
I looked up to see the nearing tree line and didn’t dally in the frosty atmosphere; I pushed on and quite rapidly a mist began coiling into existence. At least, it was a mist when I first noticed it, but the more I walked on, the thicker it became, until it was a fog. Of course, I hadn’t equated my progress to its development. Indeed, who would?
Nonetheless, I crept further to the tree line and, even though I was practically on top of it, it was completely obscured by the fog, which had recently been but a few translucent veins of mist.
Maybe I should have stopped, but I felt as though heading back was a bad idea so I continued, further and further until it was as good as darkness and my eyes were useless in the pitch.
I kept my eyes open because I was still seeing quick jolts of something – maybe something – yet I was blithely unaware that the wind seemed to have dropped and it wasn’t at all cold anymore.
In the blackness, I continued; yet it wasn’t much longer before, quite suddenly, the fog was gone and not even a trace of mist remained, not even wisps of translucence.
It was remarkably strange, though, that it wasn’t a forest or woody area where I found myself, but a courtyard, with a full moon and night sky above, as twinkly and beauteous as those of a fairy tale.
My first instinct was to look from where I had come, so I turned, sharply.
But all that lurked behind me was just the rest of the courtyard, solemn and desolate; complete, yet somewhat unfinished.
I couldn’t quite understand the wrongness of it, but it was as though the buildings that surrounded me in this large square courtyard weren’t real; real but not real, as though they were just paintings of real buildings. Push me for an answer and I’d say you’d just have to see it for yourself.
At my feet was layered a combination of sand and soil, amidst a collection of shale and pebbles. Up close it looked and felt real enough, but like the courtyard, the farther I peered, the less real and the more textureless it became.
It was around now that I overcame the initial surprise and turned my focus to what, if any, mystery lurked here. After all, even despite my own convictions and principles that founded my belief in the normal and the natural, I couldn’t refute that Aramyth had its fair share of wonders that glistened, but also lurked…
I warned myself: Tread carefully, Shadan.
And tread carefully I did, stepping upon the crusty earth towards an entrance I sighted in one of the walls of the unreal courtyard.
Yet, the nearer I approached the more real the surfaces became, and by the time I was within touching distance of the wall, it looked as real as anything I had ever seen before. Of course, I had to touch it to confirm its validity, and it felt just as real as I would have expected.
I pressed on, unwilling to waver any longer; I simply accepted that from afar things looked imaginary.
The entrance took me down several steps – I didn’t count – until I found myself in a corridor. To my left and right were stone walls, indistinguishable walls, the like of which I had seen many times before.
I followed along the only way I could until I met the end of this small tunnel a mere twenty or so feet from the base of the steps.
I turned right and stepped out into what I envisioned to be the main network of corridors, for to my left and right and ahead were three passages. Being who I am, I chose the centre passage. I’m not sure when I decided such things, and until now it had never seemed pertinent, but I made a conscious decision that if ever presented with three options, I’d always choose the middle.
I had to stop briefly, though, because as I looked both left and right, that strange painted and somewhat flat unrealism took an even more uncomforting form. The distant torches on the wall were but a depiction of flame, not moving or flickering, yet still giving off light; whilst the nearer ones, especially the ones right next to me, were very much torch-like in every way. It was like the ‘distance’ simply didn’t exist, and was rendered to reality upon my ‘closeness’.
Shaking my head as though refuting it as a dream, I continued.
I coursed down the path I had chosen, until I was encompassed by darkness, and in the darkness I pushed on, my footsteps being the only sense of how far I had travelled.
Soon, although I couldn’t say how soon, I saw light ahead of me. It was a pleasant sight to behold, having felt so dampened by the pitch. And what I saw simply as ‘light’ to begin with, I eventually discerned as another set of stairs leading up, although I couldn’t see where.
Pressing on, I placed my foot onto the first step of around ten, lifting myself up to see something more than just a corridor; a room.
At first glance, I would have said it was a library but, like the rest of this place, there was an ethereal feel; there was more mystery to uncover, to behold. While I couldn’t deny its library-like quality, ostensibly it was just a very big room with a dozen or so bookshelves, at no more than shoulder height.
At my feet was a crimson red – I’m inclined to say blood red – carpet with a gilded hem. It felt soft upon my feet and then I realised, unlike before, this room felt a lot more ‘complete’ and the distance didn’t seem painted or flat, but real and palpable. I could even see stars and mountains out of the windows that graced the gods, although I accepted the ease of making mountains and stars look real.
I crept forward, sensing myself not to be alone and I ran my finger along the spines of the tucked away books. Here, I discovered more mystery. The books, though real and hard to the touch, were but fake appearances of books and tomes.
They were also joined together, and though their appearance was quite evidently created to copy that of a book, I recognised not a single word on the spines. I would have considered that they were written in a language I was unfamiliar with, but I worked upon a different principle: it was all jargon.
A noise captured my attention, turning me hastily to a corner. I saw, over the string of bookshelves, a mist floating above a table with quill and ink and candle. The mist danced upon the table, for what purpose I could not discern, so I ignored it and left its mystery just the way I found it: unknown.
Leaving this row of bookshelves behind, I headed to what I thought was the centre of this library. Why the centre, I wondered. I suppose it just seemed the logical thing to do, because at the heart of a room was surely where you’d find its true purpose. I was more than happy to be wrong, but I had to do something.
I found myself walking down an aisle, a central stem, from which branched many rows of bookshelves until, for the first time here, I found that I was not alone.
Looking up from the table at which he was sat, he said, “Shadan,” as though he knew me, had known me, for a lot longer than a mere second…
“Shadan-Ivy,” I said to her.
Although I pronounced it wrong and she said, “It’s SHAY-dun, not Shad-dan. Just Shadan. I don’t use the ‘Ivy’.”
“Then forgive me,” I replied, looking at her face, which was tucked into a dark hood.
She had a plain face, well, plain so far as beauty went, light skin, blue eyes, an average if not slender nose but I couldn’t help but feel a smack of danger from looking at her. Plain though I instantly categorised her, she most definitely had a dimension beyond that.
“Fine,” she said simply. “So…?”
Her questioning inflection raised a single eyebrow of mine and I looked at her, curious.
“Are you going to tell me how you knew my name?”
“Well I didn’t, did I? I got it wrong.”
“You know what I mean; don’t evade the question.”
So I pushed this big, green, heavy tome that was on the table in front of me her way. It slid all the way across and she looked at it and then, yes, I saw her recognise what was written on the cover – her name.
She opened it, brashly, as though the book had offended her. I knew how she felt though, because she was not the only one to have a book with her name on it.
“I know,” I said, wanting to re-engage with her.
In surprise, she looked up at me and said, “How did you know it was me? Do you have one of these?”
I spun the book with my name on it towards her, which she quickly scanned and read, “Vison,” and also, somewhat annoyingly, said correctly, with a long ‘I’ like ‘eye’ as well as a ‘Z’ sound in the middle not an ‘S’ like so many people often do. It was annoying because I had got hers wrong. “Have you found any more of these?” she continued.
“I did find one other.”
“So how did you know my name was Shadan?”
“Because I didn’t take you for a ‘Slayne’.”
“Slayne? That’s the name of the other person?”
“I can only assume, what with there being a book matching your name and a book matching mine. After all, there are no other kinds of books here.”
“You’ve been here for some time then.”
“Long enough to go through every spine.”
She took a moment to consider, until saying, “I take it you haven’t encountered this Slayne individual.”
“No, although I assume he’s been here for longer than us, as there’s much more written down in his tome.”
“You say that like you’ve had a good look…”
My eyebrows furrowed, of course I’d had a look.
“Have you looked at mine?” she asked.
“I flicked it open, but there wasn’t anything in it.”
“Oh?” she voiced, and then opened her book – the book about which she was the subject – I saw the same look on her face that I had felt on mine when words began writing themselves.
Shutting it closed, just as I had done, she solicited no advice from me, and instead asked, “So what does his – Slayne’s – book say?”
“A variety of things,” I said, opening it and paraphrasing, “He’s the last of his kind, or so it says. Was the only survivor of a mass ambush of … dark ones.”
“Dark ones?” she repeated, voicing the question I had already posed myself before reading it aloud.
“So it says. It’s sketchy at best, but he seems to be one of the magi. A Blade Magi apparently, whatever that is. He’s looking for a place to retire himself.”
She was about to speak, but I quickly said, “Don’t ask; I don’t know. That’s all it says.”
“Retire himself, though…? So, are we to take it he’s fairly old then?”
“Your guess is as good as mine, but I can’t imagine what else it might mean, but then I can’t explain much else here. Speaking of which, do you have any idea where ‘here’ is?”
“None, I couldn’t even tell you how I got here, because it was so foggy.”
What she says rings a memory for me and I say, “ Yes, I remember that too, like a thick smoke and then…” I thought about it some more. “Then I was in a—”
“A courtyard?” she said, finishing my sentence off.
“Yes, and nothing seems real.”
We fell into a very real silence, in a very unreal place.
The weird and unexplained fog still hung over the table in the corner and the whole place left me feeling haunted. I found the company of Shadan welcoming, because I did not know how long I’d been here. But it mattered not. All that did matter was getting out.
Deciding that two heads were better than one, we agreed that three heads were better than two, and so our next step was locating Slayne.
I knew almost instantly that Vison was the man I had been tasked with finding, mainly because of the description I had been given, that of a man with dark, thick, long hair, a height similar to mine and grey eyes. And, also, these wilder parts of Aramyth were not so often trodden and so, to find a man here matching that description only confirmed my suspicion.
But I chose not to act upon my suspicions, because whatever this place was it warranted my full and undivided attention. That, and it was also mentioned that the man I sought was fairly erudite, which also gave me pause, because his intelligence might help get us out of here.
There was tension in the air, though. It shuffled between him and me like a disease.
“Did it say anything in Slayne’s book that might help us find him?” I asked, breaking the silent tension.
For a split second after I spoke, he still seemed affected, mesmerised by the invisible strangeness sitting in the air. “Nothing,” he finally said, snapping free.
“So, do you have any idea how we might find him?”
“Unless you have a better idea, I’d say trial and error.”
“Trial and error. Good. Shall we split up?”
“No,” Vison rapidly said, rousing my suspicions.
“It would be quicker,” I reasoned.
He paused for a second and the tension felt thicker than it had been, but he finally said, “It may be quicker, but speed is not necessarily effective. We need to be methodical. This is a strange place and the last thing we need to do is to lose each other.”
What he said made sense and I adhered to his words. “Very well,” I said. “Lead on.”
I couldn’t be sure about Shadan. On the outside she seemed normal enough, but what I couldn’t quite understand was something else – sadness, maybe? I thought – that she kept secret under the veil of her skin.
This I considered while leading us out of what I defined to be a library, although it couldn’t really be called a library with all but three books, none of which were a grand work of literature.
“You came in this way?” I asked, as I led her the way I myself had come.
She nodded and said, “I did.”
Which was good, because it meant that there was only one entrance – well, one that had presented itself.
Starting from the steps we had both descended from the courtyard, we progressed down the torch-lit corridor, opening and checking every door we could, but all we found in every room was darkness there and nothing more.
Its plainness was almost confusing. The library was at the centre and was accessible from four different ways by all four different stretches of connecting corridors, all of which created a square perimeter around it. While the library was on the inside, with only the little access shafts leading to it, there were no other alcoves or tunnels on the inner walls of the corridors.
On the outside walls, however, were dotted numerous doors, and it was these we then opened and checked.
Once we had completed our way around, stopping back at the stairs, we assessed and counted a total of 121 doors, 2 of which were locked.
Of those 2 doors, the first was almost identical to every other – wooden with a black forged handle and black metal trim –, while the second was completely metal and virtually, what we considered, impenetrable.
Consequently, we veered towards the locked wooden door, hoping to uncover its secrets. But we had to find it first.
“I’m telling you, it was further along,” she said.
“If you insist,” I responded, giving in to the woman – one of the best lessons I had ever learned.
And I followed her, carefully trying each door on the way, because, childish though it might be, I wanted to be right. More importantly, I wanted her to be wrong.
She was right.
Almost perfectly too…
I admit that I was not on top form, at least not emotionally. I had an inkling that Vison knew about it too, but I simply couldn’t help it. It was that last task that had gone so awry at the end, which was at the forefront of my mind. It had been haunting me ever since, and every time I tried to not think about it, it only became more prevalent.
That said, even preoccupied, I was still virtually on point, and it was the second door I tried that was locked. And when I thought about it, I had a feeling the first door I tried wasn’t going to be the locked one. However, as I put my hand to the locked door and tried to open it, only to fail, I sent a little fake smile to Vison, proof that I was right.
“Very good,” Vison said, matter of fact, because at the end of the day, while there may have been some slight competition going on, our main objective was getting out of this place.
Vison brushed up next to me and we individually looked and assessed how we would open it.
Simultaneously we looked at each other and said, “Break it down,” because we weren’t given a huge number of options and there was no locksmith in sight.
“I propose we both kick as hard as we can on this side,” Vison suggested, tapping over the keyhole. “It’s where it’ll be weakest.”
“On three?” I suggested.
We both took a step back as I begin to count, and on ‘three’ we both drove a foot into the door.
It didn’t open, but we both felt it – what exactly, I couldn’t explain exactly. We both felt ‘something’ happen in response to our kick at the door, as though ‘something’ had been weakened.
“May I suggest…?” Vison tentatively worded.
I quickly nodded, eager for him to speak. And he quickly, but gently, put his nearest arm around the back of my neck and onto my shoulder. It wasn’t a hug because he was still next to me, both of us facing the door, but I understood what he was getting at, and I too put my nearest arm to him under his, round his back and hooked my hand upon his far shoulder.
“We’ll be able to—”
“I know,” I said cutting him off. “If I thought you wanted to hug me, you wouldn’t still be standing.”
On the second prolonged look of his double take at me, he raised an eyebrow, and also the side of his lips.
“Shall we?” I said, smirking.
She began to count again and on ‘three’ we both kicked, driving not only out feet but our whole bodies forward.
With a mighty crack, the door opened, taking an edge of stone out the other side, into which the locking bar had been placed.
Delighted that we had succeeded, we smiled at each other and then awkwardly uncoupled our arms, before noticing the man that was chained to the far wall in the intricately faceted room.
We were already silent when we saw him but, in that moment, silence took a greater precedence.
She stepped forward first, breaking into the atmosphere of the room, an atmosphere that felt very different from the rest of this place. The light was different, for one, not to mention that the walls were sculpturally decorated. It was like the sphere of the room had its own ecology.
I followed shortly behind her until she stopped to look at the chained man, at which point I nestled myself next to her to also overlook he who was so bound and still.
I could only assume this to be Slayne, but he didn’t look as I expected him to. He was younger – or at least looked younger – than both of us. And the way he was manacled, with his arms above his head, and the way his head was burrowed into his shoulder, it all spoke of a person who was not a magus, and certainly not a warrior who had lost his kind in battle.
As well as the metal lashing him to the wall, blue strands, originating from the wall, were spun and weaved around the links. As I looked closer, these blue tendrils were sunk into his exposed torso.
“Slayne,” I chanced, as Vison perched next to me.
There was a subtle stir from him and I couldn’t help but hold my breath to see what would happen next, to see life move in him.
Even though he was sat, wearing nothing but dark heavy trousers, I could see he was a big man and much taller than me. And despite the youth on his face, his body looked as defined as a man’s, perfect in every way, muscle proportion, definition, all except for four thick scars – claw marks I thought – all which spoke of an horrendous event.
“Slayne,” I said again, louder, hoping to fully wake him.
This time, I saw his eyes flick open. He unstuck his chin from his shoulder and his weary gaze found mine. There was no trace of emotion on his face.
“What do you want?” Slayne blankly asked.
“To get you out,” Vison said.
Slayne drably shifted to look at Vison.
“What makes you think I want to get out?”
Vison looked at me, and I at Vison.
“Do you?” I asked.
With lacklustre, he simply entrenched his chin back into his shoulder. It seemed all hope was lost from him, as though he had nothing else to live for.
“Do you blame yourself?” Vison asked, and I couldn’t be sure if it was a pointed question or with a sympathetic edge.
In the moment since I looked at Vison and back at Slayne, Slayne was already glowering at Vison.
“Rotting away in here is no—”
“You don’t know anything,” Slayne fired.
“You lost your kind.”
I could see Slayne wanted to respond; his mouth opened as he fought to find words, but he was hurting. Even the scars on his chest looked redder and fresher, as though they themselves were younger and newer.
“What I choose…” Slayne began, but there was no continuance. And then, as if on a completely different note, said, “You want to get out of here?”
To which Vison responded, “Absolutely.”
“…Give me your weapon then.”
“Why do you want—?”
“GIVE ME YOUR WEAPON!” Slayne thundered, but there was no echo. There was not enough energy in whatever place this was to support an echo.
I already had my suspicions raised when Slayne asked for Vison’s weapon the first time, because I noticed no weapon on him, but I wanted to get out and so I walked the several paces towards him, drawing my sword and putting it in his hand.
“Shadan, is that really wise?”
I turned to look at him and shrugged. However, I saw a strange look on Vison’s face – a look of confusion and, as I returned to see Slayne, I saw the blue strands begin to die and the manacles fall from his wrists.
In the next instant, quicker than I could counter, Slayne sprang from the floor to his feet, which was followed quickly by putting his weapon-free arm around my neck and pulling me in. In rapid succession, he threw my sword like a javelin towards Vison and then drew my concealed dagger, which he held at my throat.
The blade teased at my skin, as I held myself very still and watched in wonder as my sword, which had only just been thrown, was held in complete stasis micrometres from Vison’s head.
“Move and I’ll cut her throat and let that sword finish what I’m stopping it from doing,” Slayne said. “…You think you know me…? You possibly think you know me? NO ONE KNOWS ME!”
I saw down the length of the blade, from the glinting tip over the shimmering edge to the pommelled hilt. My instinct was to move, but I believed Slayne’s conviction – probably more than I had ever believed anyone’s conviction before. Hearing his words, seeing his face, the sword, remembering what I had read about his magi abilities, I felt very much afraid.
“You dare to come here and disturb me from what I have chosen?”
With all but my breath frozen, I ventured, “You don’t deserve this.”
“What gives you the right to say what I deserve?”
I couldn’t answer.
“You think you have some right, or some sense of purpose to dictate who deserves what? You?!” he spat. Slayne vocally dismissed the notion that anyone had that kind of right. “Especially you.”
I felt compelled to silence, even though he was throwing me questions.
“You might fool her,” Slayne said, the dagger even tighter to her neck, “you could probably fool most, but I know the weapon you conceal…”
I was confused at how he could know, and even though I was silent, my face spoke like a town crier.
“Confused?” Slayne asked. “I know the difference between one who’s armed and one who’s not, and I know when someone has killed. And you’ve killed. Did you feel that same sense of power to dictate their fates as you do mine? Do you feel the same equality, now that your mortality is so obvious?”
I remained motionless, as well as voiceless.
“Take out your weapon.”
I did, unclipping and drawing my dagger from the sheath tucked upside down at my back.
I did, letting it clang against the floor.
Slayne looked angrily at me, but I remained in constant eye contact with him. I considered that these might be my last moments alive so, despite my short-fallings, I wanted to live them well.
“I would move now, if I were you.” Slayne softly, plaintively, resignedly added, dropping the dagger from Shadan’s neck.
The moment it registered, I tilted away from the blade and but a fraction of time later the sword continued as if it hadn’t been stopped at all, charging into the broken wooden door behind, which was ajar in the doorway. It thudded in and I inwardly remarked on the skill it took to throw a weapon like that.
Slayne handed Shadan’s dagger back to her, as if without care of any revenge she might wish to take, but as she took it, his dullness sucked away any feeling.
When I discovered that Vison was not only armed, but also a killer, it rang alarm bells in my head. That was definitely not stated in the description – I’d have remembered – and the carrying of a weapon, or weapons, was most assuredly noteworthy. My trust of Vison went from cagey to virtually non-existent.
However, as the blade dropped from my neck and Slayne released me, as well as releasing my sword from hovering mid-air in front of Vison’s head, I was struck with curiosity, and me being me, I was not afraid to ask, “Why the change of heart?”
It wasn’t testing fate; if he wanted to kill me he’d have done it already.
I turned to him, to see what he was thinking, to try and read the language of his body. But his mind was unreadable and his body spoke only of resignation.
Slayne, the so surprisingly and incredibly young-looking Slayne, enticed my gaze and then he softly began to answer:
“Because,” he exhaled, “while this is what I deserve, how I choose to spend my eternity, it is not how you have chosen to spend your mortality.”
The scars on his chest seemed faded, almost gone, when I compared them to how they were before, red and angry, nearly blistering.
“Your scars…” I said, trying to glean something from the broken youth.
“I keep them to remind me,” Slayne snapped, breathed, and then considered. “What year is it?”
My first and immediate desire was to question his question, but instead, I simply answered, “1039.”
Slayne listened and gently repeated the year, but afterwards, while his eyes were searching for some missing information, he loudly followed it up by asking, “Are the tyrants deposed yet? King Vian, Queen Casadriel and King Morrowyn?”
“Terrowin was appointed as the new high king nearly two years ago.”
“High king?” Slayne asked, for it was a new title.
“Yes,” Vison said, and Slayne flicked his gaze to him. “To keep the balance of power, so that no one king or queen has total reign, the position of a high king or queen was created.”
Slayne nodded. It seemed just.
“How long have you been here?” I enquired.
“My kin were all slaughtered in 1037. I returned home to Alatacia, to the chaos it had become, and I left shortly after.”
I wanted to tell him he’d been here long enough, but Slayne had already made and defended his position on the matter.
“I’m going to need your sword,” Slayne continued, as he brushed past her and Vison until reaching the sword impaled in the wood panel of the door.
He levered it up and down, wiggling it free, pushed his foot against the door and then pulled it out. “Be on your guard and follow me.”
As Vison picked up the dagger from the floor it rekindled my curiosity as well as my caution, and when he said, “After you,” I thought, Absolutely no way – I trust you about as far as I can throw you, but I said, “No, no, I insist, after you…”
I saw him hesitate, so I quickly added, “And don’t give me any of that ladies first nonsense; this isn’t the time for chivalry.”
Why, oh why, I don’t know, but the smirk that was stamped on his face seemed to pacify me. However, he did exit first, though it made no real difference, because we followed along after Slayne, next to each other.
She didn’t trust me. I knew my dagger would have stirred that sort of feeling. But I didn’t need her trust, although I’d be damned if I could explain why I cared so much. I put it down to the fact that I was feeling a little off-guard being enmeshed in the weirdness of here, wherever ‘here’ was.
Maybe a little too expectantly, Slayne led us to the big steel door that Shadan and I had already distinguished from our earlier excursion. He stood there looking deep at that door, while Shadan and I waited peacefully behind, yet there was still tension in the air.
When I looked at Shadan, I saw her thinking. I could tell there was a lot behind her eyes, because she had the look of someone who was indeed looking but not seeing, as though her eyes were only pretending to see because the mind behind was elsewhere.
I reminded myself that this was not the first time I had noticed this distraction, this disconnection, and since there was little else for me to do, other than wait, I chose to connect. “Have you heard they’re planning on throwing another celebration in honour of High King Terrowin?”
The moment I started speaking, she was broken from her reverie and was looking avidly at me, as though she had never been elsewhere.
“I’ve heard the word on the street,” she said. “I hear they’re turning it into an annual thing, a public holiday. I’ve even heard some people call it Feast Day.”
I hadn’t expected such a fulsome response and it plunged me into my own silent disconnection as I fought to find more to say, but little else sprang to mind or mouth. And I noticed she too had retreated to hush.
So I asked, “What are you thinking about? What brought you out here to the wilderness?” I think it was frustration that piled the questions on top of each other, frustration that I could find nothing to think of, so I spouted more than I needed in some vain attempt to eradicate the tension that still lingered so thick, so heavy.
Again, she snapped her focus at me, but her answer was not so quick to escape her lips. “…” as she opened her lips, her soft skin unsticking and softly clutching at my breathless anticipation.
Alas, she remained wordless, so I slit the throat of silence and said, “I know you’re here to kill me.”
Was I surprised?
Oddly, not as much as I thought I would be. Since his dagger had found its way into the light, my suspicions of him had not overlooked the possibility that he knew. It would certainly explain why he was armed. However, the question became ‘how?’
“That’s a firm conclusion,” I said, skirting around anything that might confirm and deny his statement.
“I also know that you haven’t,” he said, “yet…”
And I asked, “So, why am I waiting?” again deferring the focus back to him, still without any truth.
“Because you want to wait until we’re out of here.”
I nodded, looking to adopt his answer as the truth. “But why does someone want you dead?”
He pounced upon my answer, saying, “So you accept you’re here to kill me.”
To which I hastily added, “Don’t twist my words around. It was you who said I was here to kill you… I was merely asking.”
He surreptitiously lifted his chin, while his eyes regarded me, and I knew he was mildly irritated that the trap he’d thought I’d fallen for had failed to ensnare me. But it didn’t change anything. It didn’t change the fact that I was here to kill him, and it didn’t change the fact that he knew.
“So—” he was about to say, but was stopped by Slayne knocking on the big metal door.
We had both been leaned on the wall behind him, but his knuckles clapping out the tinny rhythm brought us both upright and eager to find out what would happen next. In a weird way, I was brought to understand the strange programming that we humans have inbuilt into us, that of the silence we uphold whenever there’s a knock at the door.
As Slayne retreated his fist, Vison and I looked at each other. He shrugged and we both looked back at him, looking at his hand, which he’d since opened.
Then, without a moment’s more thought, he drove his open palm forward, pumping it sharply into the metal door which, astonishingly, buckled under the might of the blow. With rapid recoil, Slayne withdrew his hand and punched it back into the weakened door, and the world shook around me as it broke from its hinges and blew back, quite literally, into oblivion – utter nothingness.
Slayne’s muscles relaxed while he kept his posture strong even afterwards, because he understood how to generate power; true power coming not from the initial burst of strength, but from maintaining it and continuing it from the start all the way to the finish.
For a split second, what lay beyond the door fascinated me in ways I still can’t comprehend, white lines upon a black canvas, marking out the details of a corridor but no actual texture. It was so incredibly surreal, but it confirmed all my suspicions.
However, moments later, as though we’d all witnessed something we shouldn’t have seen, it was covered up and made real. I say real, but all that had happened was the walls, ceiling and floor had all been given the plainest of grey surfaces I’d ever seen. But there was still no door. It didn’t even exist as a chunk of broken metal.
I could not decipher the deeper truth of this place, if there really was one. I had a feeling that if anyone knew it would be Slayne. Witnessing his power in destroying that metal door made me feel both afraid and awestruck, and it confirmed to me the fabled power of the magi.
And he hadn’t even looked back around to Shadan or me afterwards, as if for some sort of acknowledgment of what he’d done. I can even remember seeing his shoulders visibly sink a little, like he was broken at the sheer power he possessed.
Shadan was now as silent as she was before, silent and deep in thought.
I considered talking, asking her what she was thinking, but I realised that I was as silent as she was. I had nothing to say.
And so we walked, Slayne at the lead, Shadan and I a few steps behind, all three of us twisted together into a knot no one could undo.
I lost myself to the time, to the drab and empty corridor. It was utterly lifeless. Not even a hint of an echo gave token that anything was here, but eventually, we came to something of significance.
It wasn’t by any means grand, certainly not by any standards I’d previously attributed to things of grandeur, but, I suppose by the recent standard, I corrected my opinion and was more than happy to dub it as ‘grand’.
Several steps led up to a large door, much larger than any I’d so far seen here.
“You two,” Slayne said, turning to us, “stay armed, but don’t fight. You have no idea what you’re involved in and I have neither the patience nor the energy to worry about saving you if you decide to be heroic.”
He turned back and that would have been that, except Shadan had a question for him. To be perfectly honest, we both had questions for him, but it was she who found the confidence to ask.
“What is this place?”
Slayne turned back, disgruntled. He breathed in. And breathed out.
I thought he’d turn back, not give us an answer, but above his visible annoyance he said, “Have either of you ever heard of Alatacia?”
I’m sure I remember him saying that word before. I could have guessed that it was where the magi lived, but again, of the two of us, Shadan was the one to say, “Home of the magi?”
“Yes, and do you know anything about it?”
I looked blank, and Shadan shook her head.
“It’s not like the non-magic towns and cities. It’s real, and physical, but only because it’s powered by the many magi who live within it. If they all left, it would be destroyed. It’s a construct of their minds, and because their minds make it real, their bodies can adopt it as real too.”
We both understood it as much as our non-magical minds could, but it was me who asked, “But can it support the presence of normal people?”
“We’re all ‘normal’,” Slayne pointedly added, “but yes, with enough power.”
“So that’s what this place is? A construct … built of magic?”
“Yes. But it’s not anywhere near as big or as strong as Alatacia. You may have noticed how it doesn’t quite feel real, at least not from a distance?”
We both eagerly nodded.
“It requires energy and concentration to make this place exist, and it takes even more to make it seem real. Some of that realism is forfeited so it can exist. The more people that it can attract, the more powerful it will get.”
“Even though we’re—?” Shadan began.
“Even though you’re not magical, yes,” Slayne said, cutting her off. “Because just by being here, you’re adopting and accepting it. You’re believing it and, in doing so, you’re giving it strength. After all, belief is the most fundamental law of magic. It’s a tremendously powerful thing, this planar prison in which we find ourselves… It reminds me of home.”
We both saw a glint of passion as he threw those words away.
“And is that how you broke the door?” I asked.
“When you understand that it wasn’t a door, it’ll make it easier to understand. Where they don’t want us to go, they will put obstacles in the way. These are not real obstacles though, only deterrents.”
I understood, but what I didn’t understand was—
“Who are ‘they’?” Shadan questioned, beating me to it.
“…‘They’ are the architects of this place.”
“So, what are you?”
Slayne hushed her with a piercing gaze. “Remember what I said: stay armed and don’t fight. And stay together, too.”
On his word, Slayne led Vison and me up the stairs to the great door and pushed. It seemed easy to open, unlike the huge metal barrier that had originally blocked us from entering.
Beyond the doors was the most astonishing place I’d ever seen. Surrounding the whole room, which seemed palatial in size, adjoining floor to ceiling, were dozens of towering columns with what I made out to be a crystalline texture.
Beneath my feet was simply the most beautiful floor. It looked like a layer of glass – maybe crystal – on top of a layer of gold geometric shapes. Beyond its aesthetics, I saw no function to the detail.
At the other side of the room, in front of me, there was a second floor. I noted the sparseness, the emptiness like everything else, and wondered why there was so little when so much time had clearly been taken on the floor.
“Come out!” Slayne boomed.
And from out of the emptiness emerged a figure. From the walk, I assumed it was a male, but the face was covered by a hood, while the body by a long cloak, garments I’d expect to see worn in some sort of monastery.
“Let these two out,” Slayne said, “and I will return quietly.”
The figure pulled the hood back to reveal, yes, a man. His face seemed ageless, although that wasn’t quite right. He seemed young, but I could decipher wisdom therein, young and old – ageless.
I had no more time to consider when, suddenly, from nowhere, springing up from the ground, arose a battalion of shadow-like creatures, faceless demons, tangled in charred veins. They were vile things, things that breathed through mutated bodies, which writhed as the atmosphere was digested into their energy.
Returning to see Slayne in front of me, I was struck to notice that, upon his back, were more scars. Of course, until now, I hadn’t noticed, but as he was prepping himself those scars began to freshen, look angry and red, just as the ones he wore on his front had become before, when his emotions ran high.
I was sceptical about Slayne’s wishes, telling us not to fight, what with the addition of those blackened beasts. Who knew how much risk they would pose, but they seemed dormant for now, beyond their slow, minor squirms.
“Return now,” said the man beneath the cloak, “or—”
Slayne didn’t let him finish before exploding into action. I saw his back muscles tense, just as they had when he pummelled down the metal door, which I remember him saying wasn’t actually a door – I was still getting my head around it.
Faster than I’d ever seen it wielded, Slayne carved an arc through the air and drove my sword firmly through the neck of the nearest black creature. Billowing into a puff of smoke, it ceased to exist.
Upon the command of their maker, the others turned and attuned their attention to Slayne. Their laboured movements, their limped and broken bodies stirred in me the expectation of weakness, yet what I saw belied that of beings who seemingly struggled to breathe. They moved quick and attacked quicker and, in that initial moment, seeing them weave like that, I feared for Slayne – but I came to rapidly understand that the reason I feared for Slayne was because I feared for myself.
My fear was misplaced though, because as I watched him, as both Vison and I watched him, we saw him move in ways that surpassed either of us. In my ignorance, I attributed it all to his magic, but the truth was that, while he may have been imbued with that power, he was simply the consummate warrior.
The swarm of beasts came at him, wave after wave, slashing for him, clawing at his exposed skin. But he would not be stopped; he would not be thwarted.
I saw the cloaked man carving shapes in the air with his hands. Mischief swam in his eyes and I couldn’t help but take a step nearer to him, but I felt Vison’s hand stopping me. And if that wasn’t enough, I saw Slayne find a natural lull in the skirmish to snap me a look saying ‘NO!’
I could almost hear him growl at me to stay still, so I did, without question.
At that moment, the air began to fizz and crackle. I couldn’t hear where it was coming from, as it sounded like it was all around me, but I knew that it emanated from the cloaked man, whose hands were now circling a glowing shape amidst the air in front of him. The sound grew, thickening around me like the tension that still lingered. It grew until my ears felt blocked by so much sound that no more could enter.
And then it erupted into a bolt of fire that was sizzling towards Slayne.
I was worried he hadn’t seen it, but it was magical watching him, as he dispatched yet another shadow-creature into a billow of black dust, shortly before using my sword to strike the fireball like a club, belching it up into some distant fathom of the ceiling.
I heard the cloaked man let loose a growl before eradicating the remaining few blackened creatures.
And Slayne calmly desisted. He dropped his arms to his side, gently pulled his shoulder blades together, as if to simply ‘stretch off’.
“Let these—” Slayne began to say, but the cloaked man pumped several bolts of magic towards him.
All muscles firing together in perfect concinnity, Slayne lifted my sword, adjusted his stance and began his counteroffensive. He dodged the first missile and it singed and whined its way towards us.
While we’d been entirely detached from all fighting, we were both fully alert and were able to also dodge out of the way of the magical incendiary. We both turned to see it fizzle out as it smashed into the door behind us, leaving a residual crust of charcoal.
Turning back, Slayne deftly encouraged one bolt out of his way, pushed aside another with what I thought was his bare hands – but I’m sure there was more at work – and again used my sword to bash another up and away. And while he was doing this, he was also closing the gap between him and cloaked man, who rapidly began backing off in response to Slayne’s approach.
I saw him grasping at the air in front, like he had done before he brought forth that first bolt of flame. I saw him rushing, struggling, fidgeting, until he was more preoccupied with backing off than he was about destroying Slayne.
But Slayne was a big man, tall, his muscles ripped and angry, and he marched like a machine to the diminutive, by comparison, cloaked man. In a last ditch attempt he tried sinking into the room’s hidden shadows, into the same place – I assumed – from which he had conjured the black demons.
But Slayne, having none of it, grabbed him as he began fading out, pulling him firmly back to visibility before slotting the sharpened edge of my sword into his ribs, past his heart and out the back.
Blood leaked from his mouth and his eyes almost popped from his head. Slayne held the blade in place for a few seconds, why I couldn’t be entirely sure, but all of a sudden the cloaked man was dead.
Now I’d killed people like that before and I knew that death wasn’t a quick thing, at least not from that injury alone. With that in mind, although I felt slightly crazy thinking it, I wondered if there was some magical thing he’d done to make it a quick death. And once I saw the life completely vanish from his eyes, his body began to ghost from view, until all that was left was my sword, not even blood upon it.
And then, the room suddenly died as well, becoming just a featureless arena, just like the corridor that preceded it.
Slayne turned, looking in no mood to talk, but nonetheless I asked, “What happened to him?”
He spared me the facetious answer I was half-expecting from him in the form of ‘well, I killed him’, and instead said, “You remember I told you this place was built on belief?”
Both Vison and I nodded.
“If the mind is dead, the body can’t believe anything; and so it will revert to reality, including the blood, which is also under the dominion of the body.”
“And … this?” Vison said, looking around at the nothingness.
“One less ‘they’,” Slayne sardonically said, “one less person pumping power into this planar prison.”
He brushed between us and we parted for him, for the incredible being we accepted he was.
Shadan was looking sad again. Actually, she hadn’t not looked sad at any point since meeting her, not even in those glimpses of smiles had she shown anything else. Whatever was on her mind, it was a weight too great for her mind alone to handle and her body wore it like a cloying garment.
“You don’t strike me as an assassin,” I said to Shadan, as we followed Slayne down the interminably bland tunnel.
“And I never said I was one,” she replied.
“So spare me the nonsense and tell me what’s on your mind, because we both know the truth.”
“Tell me,” I said, hearing her go into defensive mode again and cutting her off.
“Why do you want to know?” she snapped. “What do you think it will solve? And why, even if there was something—”
“—is something,” I interjected.
“…is something,” she frustratingly said, “would I tell you?”
So I gently replied to her, “Because we might not get another chance.”
But she was heated. All that sadness was now anger, fiery, burning her core to molten rage. Even though I thought I’d made some progress in breaking down the walls between us, the tension, the unforgiving tension, still hung in the air, but I couldn’t press her anymore. She needed time to cool off.
It seemed she would get it too, because we found ourselves by another grand door and Slayne gave both of us the look that said he’d heard every single word and now he wanted us to be quiet, and to stay quiet.
Slayne put his hand to the door and pushed as much as he needed to for it to open. There was more caution exercised than before, and before I had time to consider why this was, it became patently obvious when another bolt of magic – I thought – hurled through the open door and caught Slayne square in the chest. The impact chucked him back, but the door was still open and there were more utterances being emitted.
In haste, I rushed for the door, while Shadan dropped to help the floored Slayne. Praying that whatever had struck Slayne wouldn’t strike me, I reached in, grabbed at the door and pulled it shut. Moments after, I heard collisions against the other side of the door akin to that of the flame bolt Shadan and I had dodged.
“How is he?” I asked her.
“I can’t say,” she responded, “but he’s not breathing…”
His chest was blackened from the missile, but no severe injury looked to have been caused.
“However,” I said, “he can’t be dead.”
“Wh—?” she began, but stopped herself and then said, “Ooh.”
“Exactly,” I reinforced. If the mind is dead, the body can’t believe anything; and so it will revert to reality…
At that point, Shadan began gently trying to shake Slayne awake, while I overlooked, feeling very unhelpful.
Any signs of life were hard to discern because of the rocking, but I could have sworn I saw – thought I saw – his eyes begin twitching. And then, yes, both of them flicked open and Shadan stopped. And once his eyes were open, he seemed to be rapidly able to accrue the rest of his strength, quickly enough that he went from being on his back to on his feet in mere moments.
Shadan, who had also taken to the floor, albeit out of choice, had now joined Slayne and me.
“The last one was a conjurer,” Slayne said. “A brute.”
“What’s this one?” Shadan asked. I admit, I didn’t know there were different kinds of magi, but I suppose it was logical that there were.
“An illusionist. Look, it’s all magic, and every magus can perform the exact same thaumaturgy as every other, but magic is not as simple as a collection of spells. With enough understanding and enough experience, the capability of magic is infinite. As a consequence, magi tend to choose one or two different foci.”
“What do you choose?” I asked.
“I, however, am not like the other magi. I believe in the perfect balance, being the perfect conduit.”
I liked hearing him say that. I believe Shadan did too. There was something pleasing and reassuring about it, about his aspiration for perfection, for greatness, and I couldn’t argue, he seemed as perfect physically as he did mentally – even though he was as close to a broken man as you could get.
“Now, you two, remember what I said, she is an illusionist. Don’t fall for her tricks; don’t believe anything you see. It will all be a lie.”
We both nodded and Slayne, black-chested and still armed with Shadan’s sword, walked towards the double door and kicked the left one open with a front kick that tore it from its hinges. Instantly, he pulsed something out from the tip of the sword, but the room – as far as Shadan and I could see – was empty.
But Slayne seemed to be looking deeper, as though his magic granted him a third eye. I saw him motionless, ever so delicately caressing every surface with his gaze, trying to uproot the source of this illusionist.
Slowly, darkness descended all around us – well, around me – and as it did I became edgy, worried. The door behind me was no longer visible and when I looked back to see Shadan and Slayne, I saw them swallowed by the darkness along with the rest of the light, until there was only the tiniest light enough for me to see myself, my hands as I held them in front of my face.
Quick, furtive looks from Vison captured my attention and I wondered what was going on. I saw him look at me and then look at the floor.
I tried to steal his attention back to find out what was going on for him, but it was like he couldn’t see me, and then I watched as he held his hands in front of his face.
He can’t see anything, I thought, and then I saw Slayne turn to me, briefly look at Vison and then back to me, before signalling silence with a finger to his lips.
Slayne was hauntingly silent when he returned to looking out over the truly stark area.
It was unbearable, waiting like this, feeling so powerless in the presence of at least one person I knew was so much stronger than me. I thought I began hearing things, a creak, a scrape, a rap, a soft drone that seemed to warm the atmosphere. Was it just an illusion though? an illusion for my ears…?
Peering back over to Vison I saw him still motionless, caught in whatever blindness, but it seemed to make very little difference me having the light, I was as blind as Vison – and maybe that was the aim of this illusionist.
I took solace, though, in being able to see Slayne, but quicker than a flash of lightning he was gone. So was Vison.
Beyond where Slayne had been I saw the emergence of a woman, wearing a cloak of a similar fashion to the magus Slayne had killed earlier. She glided over the ground like she was floating, and her eyes bore into my soul as she floated nearer to me.
Every fibre of my being told me to do something, told me I had to do something, but I had been reminding myself over and over of what Slayne had said, about not believing her lies. My job had inbuilt in me that primal nature to act, to act first, and I had been very successful so far, so to disregard all that in the face of magic – yes, magic! – was absurd.
Hold firm, Shadan. This is just an illusion.
That powerless feeling I had before took greater precedence over me and I felt little more than a pawn in a much bigger sequence of events that rotated around me.
She came ever nearer, but I became ever more resolved to standing still and not rising to the fear – even despite my racing heart. I didn’t know how, maybe it was because I knew innately that there was nowhere to run, but I turned my fear into the willpower I needed not to move. I told myself that this wasn’t real, but was it really that simple? Was it as simple as just refuting what my eyes categorically told me they were seeing?
Her ghostly visage, white eyes, deep black lips, blue veins that looked like cracks in her pallid and wan complexion, could only have been a few feet away from me when she faded and faded more, into an outline which rippled through me.
I felt chilled to my core and, being very careful not to stab myself with my own dagger, I crossed my hands about my midriff to try and pull the warmth back.
Slayne then returned, looking at me like I’d behaved very strangely. I wondered if he’d been there the entire time, watching me.
Still silent, still motionless, Slayne kept my sword at the ready.
However, I saw something stirring in front of me, the outline of that haunting woman again. She was appearing behind Slayne, facing Slayne, while he was still facing the other way.
“Behind you!” I shouted, though I was too late, and the figure was erupting weave after weave of magic into Slayne, sending him not only to the floor but out of sight too. I watched it all unfold, powerless, powerless, powerless to do anything about it.
However, this apparition I saw in front of me didn’t vanish like she had before. Instead, she glided over to where Slayne’s body had momentarily been. I hadn’t noticed, but the room had become progressively dark and now it was blooming into full luminescence again. With the new light, I noticed the ghostly woman rejoin a collection of figures, all of which, upon closer inspection, were the same person.
They’re all the same person, I inwardly remarked, as the light returned and I looked ahead to see a group of several ghostly women.
I turned to Shadan, my shoulders raised into a shrug.
“You two, you have a choice: return without any more argument, or die.”
We again looked at each other and, without a word, let alone any argument, we turned our backs to walk out.
It was a slow rotation to face the door, a resigned twist from both of us. To think that our forever would be spent inside this place was a daunting prospect, but dying now was accepting defeat, and I determined that while I had breath in my body I could achieve anything. And when I returned to look at Shadan, I remembered thinking about when we kicked the door down together to find Slayne.
And with all this time on our hands, I was sure I could finally get to the root of what was bothering her, because it was bothering me too.
Our bodies slouched, we were about to leave, when a piercing groan halted us and beckoned for us to turn around.
Slayne! I mentally shouted. I had never been more relieved to see anyone before. It hadn’t even registered that he was mid-way through lancing her with my sword. I was just so pleased that he was alive, because it brought with it the chance of freedom; it extinguished the doom of imprisonment.
Just like before, with the cloaked man, Slayne injected whatever hex he needed into her and her body vanished.
I didn’t know how many of these magi were left, but I deciphered that there couldn’t be many more left because, once she had perished, another massive slab of reality seemed to collapse from this place. Even as I looked at the walls, I thought I could see woodland, and my heart did a little dance at the prospect, but I tried to calm myself, because it wasn’t over yet.
And then the tension came flooding back, as if it hadn’t actually ever gone…
“What happened to you?” I asked Slayne while he traversed the barely existent room.
“I pretended and, by the look on both your faces, it must have been fairly convincing.”
“But why pretend?” Shadan asked.
“Because I had to work out which was the real her.”
“By being killed?”
“By pretending to be killed,” Slayne corrected. “And it worked. Now, if you’ve finished questioning my methods, we have one more to go.”
“Only one?” I said, with a trace of excitement that I really wish hadn’t spilled out.
“Well, two… But one more until we’re free, because no single magus could hold up the complexity of a place like this alone.”
“And you think we can do this?” I continued to ask.
Slayne towered above me and asked, “Have I given you any reason to doubt me so far?” And I took that as my cue to be quiet and let him carry on, which he did, by stepping past me.
There really was barely anything left of this place now. Not even the walls were fully opaque anymore, and it was like we were walking in the wings of a great stage, sneaking in the secret halls where the workings of the machine were kept hidden.
I noticed the courtyard where I had entered, now a mere shape depicted in some fragmental form in the distance, and my feet, if it weren’t for the darkened glass-like structure of this unreality, would have been walking on a forest bed.
And now, finally, I had to find out what she was keeping secret, so I said, “Don’t make me beg,” hoping the snippet of humour might eek out her sadness.
“You don’t give up, do you?
It was low of me, but I didn’t say anything, because while I kept my tongue on hold, and with her having spoken, it might encourage her to talk on.
She had an impatient look about her. No, I corrected myself; it was more a look of desperation.
“Why are you so interested?” she asked.
But still I kept my voice in my mouth and my words in mind.
“Very well,” she said, and quite suddenly she asserted an unsettling degree of strength. “I am an assassin, and I have been for as long as I can remember. From the moment I could hold a spoon I was trained to hold a weapon. From the moment I could talk I was trained to listen. You see, my parents were both members of the Scouts’ Guild.”
“Which we both know is a fancy name for Assassins.”
“I had very little choice in the outcome of what I would do, and at seven I was adopted into its ranks. I killed my first person at seven and nothing has really changed for me.”
She scowled at me, but I was forthright in my question and I didn’t back down. I knew there was more. And then her scowl softened and there returned the sadness again.
“Except until a couple of weeks ago. The assignment was no more risky than others I’d had in the past. The people who had commissioned it wanted it more as a statement than just a plain ‘kill’. I don’t understand the politics behind it. The details are trivial and pointless, the reasons, as always, merely selfish ones, a conflict of interests. I was tasked with the elimination of a baron, and the task came with a set of criteria. It needed to be execution. It needed to state that any dealings with him would not be tolerated. And it needed to leave behind no witnesses.”
I was engaged, and when I heard her mention those details I had a feeling I’d heard about this.
“I acquired information that he was holding a banquet for some very select people and that his family would be away while he discussed business. There would be several guests there and it was perfect, in every respect.
“I planned it meticulously, every step. They would all be sat in the banquet hall while I’d break in via the basement and sneak up through the servants’ quarters. On the night before I had already found my way in and planted the crossbows behind the suits of armour that were on display around the balcony that overlooked the dining table beneath.”
“I remember hearing about that,” I said. “Lord Leopold and guests all slaughtered.”
She was silent and I worried I’d silenced her for good.
“So, what went wrong?” I asked, trying to entice her to finish.
Finally she said, “The guests arrived as expected and I kept to the shadows, working my way up to the balcony and keeping an eye on everything. I made sure to wait until all victuals and beverages had been consumed and they were all tired and inebriated. In their delirious state they barely took any notice of the first of them dying from a bolt to the back. He leaned forward onto the table like a man who’d had too much.
“And while they were all laughing, I had already moved to the next preloaded crossbow, which I unloaded into the back of the next guest. When he died, suspicion was aroused, but by that point, in their feeble states, it was too late to do anything. I made sure to be quick and efficient. However, I didn’t want to conceal who my target was, so I left him for last.
“For the first time that evening I made my presence known, and I stood up from behind the banister, leaped over it and landed. I had already calculated the drop the day before and I needed the quick method, because letting him out of my sight was a risk I was not inclined to take. Of course, he tried to run anyway, but I threw my dagger into his back and he tumbled like a sack of potatoes. I was quick to finish him, because I take no pleasure in my job, and then I pulled him back into the banquet hall. The hardest bit of the night was lifting his fat body onto the table, ready for the constabulary and officials to find.”
She was about to stop; more to the point, I was about to speak, but there was more she wasn’t telling me, so I remained wordless.
“No, I didn’t feel bad in killing any of them. They might have wealth and power but they bleed the same as anyone, and their decisions, all of them, have been only for themselves at the expense of all others. No, I don’t feel sad about that. Neither did I feel justified. I did my job, a job that had been forced upon me as a young girl.
“I returned to the balcony above, made sure to leave the crossbows, because I wanted to leave the impression that more than one person had done it. Following a final check, I was about to leave when I saw movement in a distant corridor. At that moment, I knew I couldn’t just up and leave, not when I was told there was to be no witnesses left alive, so I crept to where I saw the movement. It was some distance from the banquet hall; it was a big house with lots of rooms.
She paused for a moment and I waited patiently.
“It turned out his family had not gone away. His daughter had fallen ill and, whether he had decided it or not, they had remained with him. But they were witnesses…”
“You … killed them?” I asked – had to ask.
“I—” she began.
But Slayne stopped her from answering, saying, “We’re here.”
I wasn’t displeased that Slayne had stopped me. It was difficult dredging it up, and telling it like that was harder than I had imagined; it was getting to me, even now.
I could tell Vison was irritated, but at that moment, being able to break away from it was relieving to say the least. Of course, Vison would want to know the rest, his tenacity seemed unswerving. I had no doubt he would get the truth out of me, and it didn’t matter if he knew.
“This may be the most dangerous of all the magi, so let’s hope he is at least partly distracted, keeping this planar dimension still intact.”
“Why are they even bothering now?” Vison asked, a pinch of irritation limning his words.
“Sustaining something like this, something that’s already been created, is much easier than having to build it from nothing. If they let this place fall now, they wouldn’t have enough power to build another one and, as they have no intention of losing, they’re not going to give it up just yet.”
“And what makes this magus so dangerous?”
“Because this one is an enchanter, and he will control your minds to his will. I would ask you to try and resist, but you won’t have a choice. Follow.”
So we followed, though there was nothing grand. Every surface was but a flat, undetailed shell that barely obfuscated what was on the other side.
Unlike Shadan and Vison, I felt this enchanter’s presence long before arriving, longer even than that; I’d felt his presence since resigning myself to this fate. He was waiting for us and, in his wait, he had lumbered as much concentration as he could onto his fellow magus, so he could focus on the problem at hand.
That problem: us.
He was in sight from the moment we entered, cloaked in his icy-white robes. There, I saw him ready his hands in front of him, smelting the bare magic into a weapon against us. I was ready for it though. Enchanter he may be, a master of mental manipulation, he was also as deadly with ballistic magic as any other brute force magus.
The missile came at me and I doused it with my own magic.
And then it came, what I was expecting, his voice in my head, maddening me with hysteria and creating sounds I knew didn’t exist but that sounded as real as any I’d heard before.
From my left resonated a sound; from my right I saw the twist of movement. Both these things caused me to turn, even though I knew it was a trick.
At this point, I feared for my non-magical friends – allies, for I didn’t know if we had attained the standard of friendship. And they were looking at me, but I suddenly saw them both, simultaneously, take a combative stance to me. In the same moment, they also both developed a glazed look.
I couldn’t blame them. His magic was strong and they were not prepared for it. And even if they had been prepared they wouldn’t be able to halt his command. A flicker came across me – the idea that I could just kill them both – but that seemed somewhat pointless, as not only had this thing been born from them, but they were also the reason I was fighting to escape, for their freedom. Not to mention, I’d still be manacled to that wall had it not been for them.
Shadan lunged at me first and I countered her attack with her sword, which seemed somewhat ironic.
This wasn’t going to work at all. I couldn’t kill either of them and they weren’t going to stop, so I needed to stem the control at the root. Blocking Shadan’s next attack with more vigour, I drove a kick into her side that knocked her away.
And while Shadan had started her offensive on me, Vison had circumvented.
With a moment to spare I spun round to the enchanter who was looking in deep focus. All I had to do was distract him with a single bit of magic to knock his concentration. And that was exactly what I began to do, pulling in the magical energy that floated all around me, focusing it through my weapon as a true blade magus would.
I was just about to release it when Vison dashed in and knocked the blade in my hand, destroying all the work I’d put into crafting it.
At that point, Vison went for a second strike, but this time towards my head and I had little choice but to duck underneath the swing.
Shadan had also circled round, to stand between the enchanter and me. And now I had a serious problem, because not only were they under his control, but I could also feel him clutching at the wires of my own brain, distracting me with noises and sights that weren’t real.
I felt the grip of paranoia bedding down inside, and then I saw both Vison and Shadan slowly approach.
With every second I let slide past was a second where I became less in control of my own faculties. I was already beginning to see hallucinations of dark ones creeping into my periphery and evil, clandestine whispers swimming in my ears.
I felt the enchanter pulling in more magic and here I was being cornered without a chance to retaliate – well, without a chance to retaliate that wouldn’t be fatal to my allies.
With little else afforded to me I considered; I couldn’t attack the enchanter directly, but maybe I could attack him from a different angle. Once I turned my mind to it, the idea fell into place like it had been waiting all this time for me to think about it.
Lifting Shadan’s sword up, I angled it down and then thundered it into the ground beneath my feet, into the glassy construct taking. It tore a little hole and, as I pulled it out, I saw it begin to heal over.
It had only been a little hole but it took a lot of power and concentration to fix. I already knew that a hefty amount of the focus had been placed on the other magus, so everything I did to create a little bit of chaos was a good thing.
And a little hole in the floor was the least of all my capacity to cause a bit of havoc.
Summoning the power from my core and charging it with every degree of anger and hate I felt, I blasted it up and down and behind me, rupturing the already weak foundations of this planar construct.
I didn’t speculate on the damage I was causing, but I know that shortly after I started, the imaginary visions and voices began to dwindle, and the spell of the enchanter had fallen by the wayside now that he was preoccupied with the maintenance of this place.
In the meantime, I sent another shockwave out and down and I saw the cracks spread as I quaked the floor with ripples of power.
Looking back to Shadan and Vison, I saw them still spellbound but they were no longer doing the bidding of the enchanter. They looked like zombies, their focus hovering on the abundance of nothing.
I piled another blow into the floor and for a second I felt the cool air of the outside world filter in before being plugged up but in that moment, when I knew the enchanter was completely distracted, I fired a small missile towards him which singed his cloak and then caught fire. But he was so preoccupied he didn’t notice it, and so I charged forward, wedging Vison and Shadan out of the way.
The sword moved with the swing of my arms, but before I reached him I levelled it out on the perfect horizon and kept it still, in line with his heart.
With flames licking at his face he grew to awareness too late and I saw a smack of fear wash over him just before the sword lanced him.
I didn’t need to flow any extra death into his body; the sword had punctured his heart and his death was very quick.
I removed the sword and before the enchanter’s corpse had fallen, he had vanished. Then the construct fell and we were all in the woodland, separated by merely a few feet, with the bodies of three dead magi at our feet.
I came to as the world speared into view, as though a broken mirror had crumbled and the reflection of what was unreal had been undone.
Vison to my right, Slayne behind me … and then, before I even had time to think, I felt something grab my wrist and begin to pull me backwards. I instinctively looked and saw it was a vine that was enwrapping me and, before I had a chance to do anything, I felt another grapple one foot and then the other.
I furiously tried cutting at it with the dagger, which was luckily in my free arm. However, the vine was too fresh and my dagger regretfully not as sharp as I’d have liked it to be – something I duly rebuked myself for. I still thought I’d have enough time to slice it before anything else happened, but I was out of luck and a final vine snapped around my free wrist.
In that instant, I was yanked back, pulled tight to a tree with my arms held above my head. I couldn’t see Vison anywhere, but I could just about see Slayne, who was to my left and looked deep in action.
A huge ruckus was coming from where he was. I had no idea what was going on, but I heard wood snapping, foliage ruffled and disturbed and other, unnatural sounds; sounds I could barely decipher, with words, fizzles, crackles and minor explosions. What I heard was the sound of two very powerful magi fighting with every ounce of energy they had left.
“Shadan,” I heard Vison say.
“Vison, where are you?” I asked.
“Behind you. Lashed to this tree.”
“Can you move?”
There was a little pause until he finally said, “Not even a little. You?”
Then there was silence between us again, and the tension returned.
“I would be sad too,” Vison said, “if I had killed a girl and her mother.”
“I know. I would be too.”
“No,” I admitted. “I saw them through the crack in the door, the mother leaning over her daughter, stroking her forehead, brushing the hair from her clammy face. I don’t know, it reminded me of when I was little girl. I just couldn’t do it. I turned away and left the house and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.”
The sound of battle rupturing the peaceful forest broke me for a moment.
“I’ve never pretended to enjoy doing what I do. I don’t think about it and I detach myself from the people I’m told to kill. I cope, because I never have to see the faces of those who are affected by my actions.”
“It’s a decision you made,” Vison said.
“And yes, I’m here to kill you.”
I took a breath in and as I exhaled I said:
“And I know you’re here to kill me too…”
“…Yes,” he added.
“It was why they sent me on this wild goose chase, to eradicate me for failing. So they created this false job, sent me into the barrens to be silently murdered, so that I could be folded away into the wilderness without any trace, rather than be executed in the streets of the city, to avoid any unwanted publicity. Organisations like the one I work for don’t like the light. I should’ve known sooner. I’d heard of others who had been sent away on missions as sketchy as this one, never to return, and when I failed I became just a broken part of a big machine that needed removing. Then when I saw you take out that dagger, I just knew. I had this feeling. They would have told me if you’d been armed.”
While I’d been dredging it up, the fighting had stopped, but the vines keeping Vison and me pinioned to the trees remained strong.
Slayne slowly crept into view, which lifted my hopes for a second, but what would happen when the vines were cut? Would we kill each other now?
I had expected him to use the sword, because in my magical ignorance there was no other way I would have been able to free us, but he simply put his hand on the tree and released the magic that was locking the vines in place.
I dropped a few inches to the floor and landed on a cushion of soggy, dead leaves, courtesy of the cold season. Dagger sharply in hand, I rose and turned to Slayne and Vison, who were both looking anywhere and everywhere.
Vison gazed at me and I returned his stare.
“Well, this is where I’ll be leaving you both now,” Slayne mentioned, as a subtle gust of wind whistled through the trees.
“Where will you go?” I asked.
“I will go home, back to Alatacia, and hope that one day I will not be the last blade magus.”
“Where have the scars on your chest gone?”
“If I am to try and move on, I must leave behind the past. I trust you will do the same,” he said to me, with the gaze of a wise man.
He embedded the sword in the ground and strolled off.
Once he was gone, the wind felt ever stronger and we stared at each other, while what we were meant to do raged in silence.
There was tension in the air. It was thick, even in this thin and icy atmosphere.
Vison, still looking at me, made the smallest move of his hand that held the dagger, and I tightened the grip on mine, flexing the required muscles I’d need. And then he straightened his back, lifted the back of his jacket and sheathed the dagger.
“You know they’ll be after us,” I said.
“Then we’d better not stop.”
There was tension in the air. It sizzled between us.
Oh, there was tension in the air but, for the first time, I was enjoying it. And I smiled, and he smiled, and we settled into that tension and disappeared into the wilderness, until maybe that tension could become something else.
An excerpt from
Copyright © James Val’Rose
The right of James Val’Rose to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with section 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publishers.
Any person who commits any unauthorized act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
ISBN 978 184963 527 1
First Published (2014)
Austin Macauley Publishers Ltd.
25 Canada Square
Printed and bound in Great Britain
Furious thunder rained down from the sky, as wave after wave of fire-tipped arrows ran veins of chaos through the weary defenders. Those quick enough to raise their shields in time may have been protected from the falling assault, but could not be spared the misery of watching their comrades fall from the endlessness, war’s irrevocable haze. Few were spared its persecution; as every second drudgingly elapsed into the next, it was made clearer that their paths to heroism were to be well-earned.
The battle had raged for two full days, and by the morning of the third, the defenders were haemorrhaging life. But the fear that lingered inside wasn’t that of fatigue; it was what they were pitted against – strange beasts shrouded in darkness, coming at them through the dimensions of a different time and space. It was as though the light twisted and shied away from a demon beneath.
And amidst this phantasm horde were legions of corporeal beings, whose pernicious manifestation, though not illusory, equally delivered the same unrest.
No one even knew how the war had started. It was as mysterious and unexplained as the monsters they were fighting.
This evil uprising, right on the cusp of the Barrens, outside the city of Gatelock, in the direction of the Burning Bluffs, was the first, last and final line of defence for all of Aramyth.
Warriors from every walk of life, of every skill, age and race, gathered in unity for the saviour of their land. An epic congregation of men and women, both magi and not, and green-skins, both short and tall, found themselves in a desperate race to put aside their differences and stand together.
The glimmering stars bowed out to a new wave of burning arrows, the sky turning to fire, bathing the disorientated faces beneath.
As the fiery deluge began, horror played its sadistic game once more. But one face was not afflicted by the same dread, and was instead detached, devoid of all fear and reason.
A young boy of twelve found himself crushed between two men, their shields raised, ready for the impending descent.
Fortunately, the man to his left took a moment and looked down to see the boy’s exhaustion, grabbing his shielded arm and driving it firmly into the air.
An indiscernible moment later, the arrows pounded down, so vigorously that the boy was thrust onto his back. The force of this, as well as the quick consecutive thuds on his shield, made his ears ring; and to add, the saturated, churned-up mud beneath began to soak through his smock and trousers – ice to the touch.
The ringing ceased only to be replaced with the clatter of fighting.
“Boy! Boy!” he heard someone say, but the faint was still passing. “Boy! Are you hurt?”
He gave his head a shake and looked to the man at his left. He mustered a ‘what?’ in response – his head still rang – but the man replied before much more could be said.
“We haven’t the time for introductions. Stay close to me, the charge is coming soon.”
“The charge?” he managed.
“We can’t go on for much longer like this. Most of us have been awake for over two days now, and with little respite. We need to make a final push now or there won’t be anyone left standing to fight. I’m amazed you’ve come this far.”
With the sun’s ascent above the Burning Bluffs, the dawn’s fog was beginning to blanket down, bringing with it a lingering silence.
Every gentle stir of movement flicked the mist up and off the ground, making it dance a little whirlwind.
The silence was abruptly broken by a strong voice coming from a deeper part of the lines.
“Stand ready!” it shouted. “Face the enemy! Ready to charge!”
The boy could now feel the tension between all who were caught up in the vile mist. His earlier saviour placed a hand on his shoulder and leant in. “Stay close to me, remember.”
“Yes,” the boy muttered.
The voice from afar shouted the final command and each and every soul caught within the mist’s clasps broke free and began the final charge towards the enemy…
Aramyth was a land of simple beauty, where the nightly sky above always glistened with a sea of stars, illuminating the snowy Peaks of Paladain below, upon which the Ocean Melos could be heard washing new hopes into the hearts of dreamers.
All seemed dormant.
In Olakwin, between the city of Cearan and the western port city of Nardil, was the Edolan Valley. Nestled in the shadows at the base of the vale, lay a small hamlet by the name of Melfall.
Although home to a scant handful of people, the Vale Inn was always full to the brim with travellers, merchants and adventurers, the road to Cearan bringing its harvest each day.
Though night was upon Melfall and quiet resounded for the most part, a light shone brightly through a window…
The newborn child lay nuzzled tightly in his mother’s arms, possessing only the knowledge that where he lay was his world, and that he was safe.
With his head tenderly supported in the crook of her arm, Driana glanced at the two others in the room, her friend Melissa, who had been her main support through the pregnancy, and the local wise woman, yet all she was aware of was this tiny, pure, new soul – her son.
The baby’s soft susurrus sequestered Driana’s attention – attention she was incapable of not lavishing. It drew her hard into the baby’s eyes, to a flicker of wisdom departed, and a clean slate left for the world around to leave its impression.
But there was so much he had no idea of – could not have any idea of; so much he had to learn. She knew as much as anyone that the world could be an unforgiving teacher, being a learned scholar of its unfairness herself. She prayed that he learn of the bad, but discover the good, be entwined with it, let it suffuse his soul with hope…
With the backs of her fingers, she stroked his cheek, desperate to supply him with every nonstop ounce of love that she could. His youthful curiosity swished around the room, but her touch stilled his focus, just as his murmurs stilled hers. Locked together in hush, his eyes strikingly ablaze, she placed the first kiss to his forehead – an invisible mark to the creator’s realm saying that he was hers, but a promise to him that it was always and forever…
She kissed his forehead, and then kissed the bridge of his nose. Her lips sat perfectly either side, almost like that place was designed for kissing.
The two ladies excused themselves from the room, and Driana moved herself to the corner chair, so that she and her son could share their first sunrise together.
Despite her tiredness, she walked with him through Melfall that morning. The day was as young as the child in her arms, which seemed as fitting a time as any to introduce him to the world: for both to meet.
The sun had yet to work its heat into the chilly atmosphere, but the new light in her heart – in her arms – kept her warm. It was a revitalising gift bestowed upon her, and she cherished it. He was a love seconded by nothing. Before him, it was the medallion she treasured and was seen to be wearing always. But now, everything had changed, and residents of the hamlet, and even weary travellers, congratulated her into motherhood.
Unfortunately though, an overwhelming sorrow marred the tapestry of her happiness, impishly unpicking the weaves of her delight.
Only a few weeks after the child’s conception, the father, Jerome Davian, had disappeared, vanished without a trace, or a word. She remembered the deep suffering – still felt it – and the hole that it had left in her riven heart, and the scar that remained to remind her.
Melissa had been with her then, supported her in her anguish. Yet, despite her encouragement to let him go – so that she could move on – she still stupidly prayed for his return, that no harm had befallen him. She clung to the idea that maybe it had been an urgent summons from the high king, for whom he was a soldier – or so he had told her.
The fact remained that, although she had never considered their relationship serious, she had only been lying to herself. She could not, and had never been able to, for any second that they were together, help loving him. And now that he was gone, she felt punished to love him more; it was like an all-consuming illness, infecting every bit that it touched. To her, their brief time together had seemed a flight with the angels – a carefree vastness of pleasure – and now, it was the slow, painful descent back to the unwelcoming ground, a fall from grace, to live life as a mortal, after having been enwrapped in the folds of heaven.
The time seemed to pass slowly, as she mulled over the endless questions rumbling through her mind, like a snowball rolling its inexorable course down a hill. Would she see him again? Did she want to see him again…?
Of course she did, but admitting it only pained her more.
It had been a long morning, a morning of triumph and promise, of wishful thinking and dreams. But in her mentally and physically weakened state, she made her retreat back home to her small house.
Cradling the baby, rocking him slowly to slumber, she was ineffably stung by a myriad of feelings. Her body could not contain the tempest and she released her tears, varying streams and undercurrents immersed with thrill and torment.
It was the start of a day she would never forget. All that was left was the child’s name. It was her finishing thought before the tears carried her to her own sleep.
The idea blossomed within the stillness without any sign of warning. She would call him after his father; his name would be Jerome.
Driana was a lady of forbidden beauty. It was as though she had stolen her looks from Heaven’s angels, seized her radiance from Heaven’s celestial sphere and purloined the colour in her eyes from the depths of Heaven’s ocean.
But she was no thief.
That said though, if stealing the breaths and hearts of men were a crime then she would be the finest of all thieves.
Gazing upon her red lips was like sailing on a carmine sea of roses, and her blue eyes, while they occasionally sang with green, hinted at something mystic. Her deep black hair and equally dark eyebrows gleamed with a solar essence.
She was blessed with seraph splendour and it mirrored the soul beneath. Yes, rarely was she without attention, but rarely was it anything else, anything more – something to look at, to adore and go crazy over, but ultimately, only ever left for the imaginarium.
There had only been one true love for her, and that was now over and she lived with that solemn acceptance.
The years ticked by, as Driana watched Jerome grow. As she sat down each evening she enjoyed watching his life, and the events that marked it: the first time he stood up, the first step he succeeded in making, his first word.
These were the moments that happiness was made of, that made everything so understandable, for as much as she loved Jerome, he could be a handful at times. But that phase soon passed as he grew to be a toddler, then a child and then a teenager.
Fourteen years had raced on, but it left no one with any doubt that Driana had done a remarkable job in raising him.
He was a helpful young soul, and never dithered at the chance to assist, or just be there should she ever ask.
For the most part he didn’t take after his mother’s looks. His hair was brown, which when coupled with the sunlight often gleamed blond. And even though it lacked in length, Jerome was still able to find a way of making it messy – a talent only a boy could possess, Driana often mused. His eyebrows were very prominent and, like his mother, he also had wonderful, rich blue eyes. His face was well defined and his skin was tanned from the amount of hours spent outside.
Jerome’s only knowledge of his father was through stories his mother had told, and they were few and far between. Although it had occurred to him that while his mother often wept at the stories, he could not find it in him to do the same.
Of course he was sad that he had not known him, but to him, his father was just a story: a something that had never been, and therefore nothing that he could never lose.
But the way she told those stories – a gifted storyteller – he was sure that he would have loved him.
Sometimes he would sit and think about it. Painless as it was to him, to Driana it was obviously quite the reverse, and that did make him sad.
To ease it though, he had a friend by the name of Peter, who always gave him time, mainly because they were the closest of friends, but also because of their shared situation.
Peter had light fair hair – equally as messy as Jerome’s – and green eyes. He lived under the care of a quiet couple, Melissa, Driana’s closest friend, and her husband Dreyton.
They had come into guardianship of him when he was just a baby. He had been abandoned outside their front door, with little more than a note nestled upon the cradle in which he lay. Nonetheless, they took him in and raised him as their own.
Jerome and Peter had known each other for as long as they could remember. They had both been told the stories of their lineage, and how both were missing vital parts from each. It was a sour bitterness that they had both experienced, but to two young boys, that sour taste made the joy of company, the heat of the sun and the fresh cool breeze that much sweeter.
In their early years, they accomplished much together. They had often taken walks into the woods of Banneth Fell, known to locals as The Fell, and within, found the most astonishing place to create their own haven of tranquillity.
That was how they pictured it anyway, but they were boys, with the call of the wild – the call for adventure – limning their hearts. Dreams of grandeur, tinted by the glamorous hue of treading the hero’s path, halted any chance of tranquillity.
More often than not, they could be found wielding sticks at each other, scrapping, scuffling, climbing trees and terrorising the wildlife.
And as the years saw them grow, so, too, did everything else. The trees they climbed got higher, the animals they chased got bigger, the fights they had became rougher and picking swords became more of a deadly science. But it was their freedom, and they had no incentive of exploring anything else. Moreover, they had never been exposed to anything beyond that life. Their parents, for similar reasons, blanketed them. And consequently, even at the ages of sixteen and fourteen, Peter and Jerome behaved like that of younger boys, but life was about to shatter down upon them faster than they would have liked…
…And it all stemmed from the simplest of things.
Their haven of tranquillity really was a remarkable place. Although, ostensibly just a clearing within The Fell, it had all the right ingredients to make it perfect. Just inside the treeline was a big, turfed heath, excellent for hiding behind, spying from, or lazing on… On the other side was a small lake that shrivelled into a stream, which eventually would run its course into the depths of The Fell and onwards to the sea. Over the years, they had both learnt the mastery of staying afloat and even to swim, but from incidents – where play had gone too far – they had also learnt the necessary veneration for it, as well.
Jerome had his back to a tree, while Peter perched, looking over the heath. Jerome had spied the rabbit, and the game was to catch it. They had never actually succeeded in doing that, so the game had become a whoever-gets-nearest-to-it-wins sort of game. And, from the rareness of seeing a rabbit, so ready for the taking, this game took precedence over all others.
The only real rule was no sabotage. If the other were to make a noise, throw something, or scare the prey away then the other would automatically win. But this rule was never broken, not anymore at least, since they were now both aching to catch one.
Jerome went first, as was his right being the one who spotted it – spotter’s honour. He slowly crept out, controlling the placement of his feet on the springy woodland floor.
It was close, maybe closer than one had ever been – maybe it just seemed that way, maybe it always did – and he took each step with deadly seriousness. He could virtually hear it nibbling, its snappy movements and completely ridiculous, stigmatic, fluffy-tail bobbling.
He felt close, but he reassessed and, at the current rate of his approach, the rabbit would die of old age before it would be in catching distance. He was about to take another step and then … gone.
He and Peter had learnt not to try and sprint after them, make a last-ditch dive to nab it. Not only because it was futile, but also because it would surely scare it away for good, and it was important that the other got a turn.
His head dropped and then he looked over to Peter, who was smug, ducked behind the heath, with only his eyes peeping over the top.
His turn now…
A defiant and churlish part of Jerome hoped that the rabbit was gone … but it wasn’t, and Peter crept out from behind the grassy cover.
Jerome watched as he sneaked up with determination, and he was quiet.
And he was close … really close.
He was actually going to do it.
And then, as if some sort of mystic, leporine spirit was watching over and protecting its kith, like a fluffy-floppy-eared guardian angel, a hopping messenger of truth, the rabbit got wind of it and scarpered.
Of course, it was inevitable. And besides, that wasn’t the game. It was whoever was closest, and to the frustrating truth, it was Peter.
“Fine,” Jerome accepted. “Anyway, it’s not like sneaking up on rabbits is a valuable life skill.”
“No one ever said it was, and besides, you were the one who spotted it!” Peter scoffed.
“Well I’ve had enough of this whole rabbit chasing nonsense. We’re never going to catch one, you know.”
Peter chuckled. “You’re probably right, but you know we’ll always keep trying.”
“Not me,” Jerome said. “No more. I’m done with all that.”
“All right… What do you want to do then?” Peter said, after a moment of consideration.
Jerome thought. It was a hard truth, but there was very little that he could do better than Peter, and the things he could do better unfortunately weren’t the games they played: more the tailoring he had picked up from his mother. A cross-stitch, a chain stitch, a darning stitch, Jerome could list them all and recognise them as well. Give them a competition about that and Jerome would win, hands down.
However, it wasn’t about stitching or hemming or darning or embroidering. It never was, and, in a way, Jerome was fine about that. But the time for thinking was over, and then the words simply spilled out. “Sword fight?”
Why, in the name of God and all His angels, did he say that?
And he knew Peter was better than him. Stupid, stupid, stupid! Of course, he couldn’t back down now.
Peter sounded a little snigger, as he picked up two similar-length pieces of wood. One he kept in his hand and the other he threw with disdain upon the floor in front of Jerome.
Tapping his lightly on the floor in a cordial manner, he said, “Your sword.”
To add to this jocular formality, a subtle grin marked his face, which he made absolutely sure Jerome could see.
Bending down to pick up that stick took what felt like an age, as he churned over the thought of Peter beating him. But he wouldn’t let it happen, he thought. He couldn’t. He mustn’t.
The weapon was in place and Peter, poised and composed, readied his stance to match.
There was a pause. All became still and quiet for a short period of time… Then the attacks started flying. Wood chip flew left, right and centre, as miscalculated hits from both landed on bare flesh, but the fight continued on and Jerome didn’t surrender either. On the contrary the more times Peter landed a successful attack, the more Jerome kept swinging his sword until he felt nothing but determination. However, what made this occasion unlike any of its predecessors was that Jerome’s attacks became more precise and accurate, despite his anger and frustration.
Peter was only just managing to defend himself, let alone trying to take the offensive. He could see that Jerome wasn’t going to stop. It was too late for that. Peter had to stop the fight the only way he knew how, dropping his sword and taking a few steps back.
For a few moments after the fight was over, Jerome was still flinging his piece of wood around. When he realised it was all over – he’d won! – he quickly composed himself and, as he did, looked over to Peter with confusion upon his face.
“What was that?” Peter muttered.
“What was what?”
“That style of fighting? It was deadly.”
“I didn’t know it was different to anything before. I was just … swinging a piece of wood around.”
“Well, if you say so. Anyway it’s getting late and I have to get home. And you should, too.”
Peter beckoned his friend to come and they started the long trip home.
Idly they chatted, as they walked, talking of things they had done, of things to come and many other topics, and it was during such a conversation that Peter mentioned to Jerome about training in Cearan.
Jerome dismissed the idea initially, but a seed had been planted in his mind. It was something he had thought of before, but no one had ever recommended it.
His mother had always wanted him to be a tailor, but that was never something that had interested him. Yet she still talked to him about it as though it were absolute, and no degree of argument was ever enough to persuade her otherwise.
He wanted to be something his father would be proud of, even though he had no idea of what that might be. He had great visions of himself running through a war-torn, blood-stained battlefield, slaying men to his left and right, blood flying in all directions, shouts of pain and death, as one man would fall after another, until finally reaching his nemesis.
In his thoughts, his final foe would be dressed in bulky, black armour; and there he would stand face to face with him before bringing him down. Cheers would be heard all over; shouting his name aloud, for Jerome would be the victor!
But these, among others, were only thoughts of a boy lost in his swaying imagination.
They couldn’t have been more than ten minutes from home, and they had already been travelling for a good while, when Jerome suddenly stopped and flushed a whiter shade of unwell.
Turning quickly to Peter, he said, “My bag! I left it behind. Peter, I have to go back and get it.”
“Jerome, it’s almost dark. You can’t.”
“I have to. It’s got my mother’s medallion in it. She’ll kill me.”
“What are you doing with her medallion?”
Completely caught up in the plume of worry, he ignored Peter and resaid, “I have to go back and get it.”
“She’ll never let you go out again if you get home much later than this.”
“And she’ll never let me out if she finds out I’ve taken her medallion, so either way it doesn’t matter … but I’d rather be alive.”
Peter, torn between helping his friend and being told off himself, thought for a second, and then said, “…Look, do you want me to go back with you?”
“No point the both of us being late. You head back, I’ll be fine.”
“Suit yourself, but you’d better run.”
Which Jerome did.
“What shall I say if your mother calls round and asks where you are?” Peter shouted back to his friend.
Peter shrugged his shoulders and continued the last leg of the journey on his own.
That night, Banneth Fell was not the only wood to have a lone figure rattling through. Far on the other side of Aramyth, in Dewdrop Wood, out-skirting the south of Toryn, was a young girl. She had been in those woods for just over a day now.
Slung over her shoulder was a bag, which contained food, water and a rumpled blanket. Her clothes were shabby, complete with tears and rips. Most, if all, of the colour that they had originally possessed had long since faded from age and lack of care. Moreover, any colour that may still have lingered on was coated in a layer of mud and grime, and undetectable either way.
Her hair was wild and frayed, held up and together by dead leaves and some very fine bits of kindling, all this adding to its frizzy and dishevelled look.
Her face was also not without additions. It was mostly just filth and grime, but hiding beneath that were a couple of cuts and grazes where she had tripped and fallen into the bracken.
She was in a very sorry state. But she had been on the run for more than just a day and wasn’t about to give up now.
She stopped moving, looked around and, seeing that the night was well in session, unhooked her shoulder bag and placed it on the ground next to her.
It had been a long day, she reflected, as she bit off a chunk of stale bread and took a swig of water.
It wasn’t quite the evening meal she was used to, but it was enough to keep her in health until she got to safety.
Finally, she removed her blanket from the bag and placed it next to her. Curling up inside it as well as she could, she took one last bite of bread and one final swig of water before putting them away and closing her eyes for the night.
Just shy of the treeline, in a clearing at the south of Dewdrop Wood, was a rundown, wooden shack. The world around it seemed huge in comparison, as if a small breeze might cause it to come tumbling down. It was a shack most would feel totally useless on a howling night like this, but some were finding use for it.
Dull candlelight poured out over the wooden table, at which two places had been taken. Both the men were sitting just outside the glow of the candle and were engaged in a low conversation.
From an adjoining room there came mutters and whimpers. Occasionally, the wind picked up outside and howled, pushing the odd draught through the cracks in the shabby framework, thus rippling the gentle constancy of the candle’s flame.
Tension arose between the two men until one finally slammed his fist down hard on the table, almost extinguishing the candle, but it bubbled back to stability.
“How much longer are we to wait?”
“…You need to calm yourself, Baylin.”
“Calm myself? Calm myself? How can you say that?” His response edged him downward into the glow, causing his dull, dead eyes to illuminate.
Baylin was a slight individual. His face was gaunt; though white and seemingly untouched by the sun, it wasn’t that … it seemed simply under-coloured and insipid, as if illness stayed with him, lived in him. His long brown hair was ruffled and matted with great clumps of grit engrained within.
“You’ll either calm yourself or I’ll calm you,” the other man threatened, as he leant in, resting a hand on his crossbow; it was only a subtle move away.
Unlike Baylin, this man had a much healthier complexion. He had short dark hair and no beard. A scar ran down from the centre of his forehead and just peeked over his left eye that had obviously been damaged from whatever had caused it. He had a strong jaw line and nose and gave off a scent of danger and uncertainty. Both men wore black heavy leather clothes with no truly outstanding features.
Baylin looked up with ferocity. He clenched his teeth and grumbled, but the anger soon subsided, as he conceded against his obvious leader.
No words crossed the lips of either. No words needed to, as both returned back to their positions.
“So what do we do now then?” Baylin asked, obviously concerned, but obviously trying to be as calm as an ill-looking, crossbow-threatened man can.
“What about our friend? What…”
“Shh,” the man whispered, as he lowered his head.
Baylin knew not to ask questions and so he kept his mouth shut.
Even though the wind outside was still raging, a silence swept over the room. Something wasn’t right – maybe the out of place snapping of a twig or an unexpected, over-enthusiastic rustling of leaves – but both men had their hands on their respective weapons, just in case.
Baylin had only to move his hands slowly towards his belt to which two loaded scabbards had been fastened, while the other man simply took a firmer grip of his crossbow.
Almost ready for the inevitable, the door suddenly burst open and Baylin quickly heaved the table over towards the door, allowing some small cover against any ballistics that may have entered.
The second the candle smashed against the floor it died and all that was left was the weak ambient light provided by the moon.
They stayed quiet behind the table for a few moments until Baylin was given the nod. He slowly sneaked his head out from behind the table to catch a glimpse of the open door. It was clear and Baylin returned to report this.
With a quick nod to each other they both pounced out from their hiding place, taking a foothold either side of the entrance.
They could do no more in preparation, as they had no information on what or how many they were up against, so they both remained still.
Moments later an arrow shot through the open door and stuck in the table with a thud! Their enemies were just trying to force them out, but neither flinched – neither one stirred.
Minutes passed, as they both stood motionless. They could do nothing but listen to the howling outside.
Abruptly, Baylin heard the collision of a heavy object, maybe a person – probably a person – on the other side of the wall. Then the other man also heard the same thing on his side.
And slowly, those figures began sliding across towards the door. It was difficult to listen to, over the howl of the wind, but both men had their ears firmly pressed against the walls, the grinding and scraping of material over wood very detectable, very obvious.
The figures outside had both stopped in very much the same lateral places. Baylin looked over to his boss who had unsheathed his heavy bastard sword and had taken note of where he last heard the position of the person outside.
Lowering his crossbow to the ground, he took up a line facing the wall. Slowly he raised his sword high above his head and, with extreme force, thrust it straight through the eye of a panel of wood.
A massive yelp, followed by the sound of a collapsing body, came from outside giving him the allotted time to pick up his crossbow and take aim at the door.
A bellow then came crying out from Baylin’s side, as a character charged into view, sword in hand, about to advance through the open doorway.
With a click, the crossbow was fired; and a thud, the arrow was shot straight into him, the momentum stopping him dead in his tracks.
He grabbed franticly at his chest, trying to pull the arrow out, but the strength was not there to muster. Instead, he crumpled to the floor. He wasn’t dead just yet though, and Baylin dragged the mortally wounded man inside. He moaned in pain, as his dying almost-carcass was carelessly tugged back.
“How many more are there?” Baylin questioned.
Amidst the moaning and gargling, very little was discernible. However, the man was trying to say something. His head turned from Baylin to the other man who was by his sword.
“You!” He took a deep breath and then coughed. “I know you.”
“A lot of people know me.”
“You are … Garrick.”
“Yes.” He revelled in the fame – the infamy, as it surely was. “What of it?” Garrick continued, as he wiggled, loosened and removed his sword from the wall.
“More will,” – he coughed, gurgled, spluttered, a bulge of clotted blood spewing from his mouth – “come and find you.”
“I’m sure they will. And if they are as competent as you were then I doubt I will have very much to worry about.”
His words were cold and emotionless, as he walked over to the murdered man.
“More people will … find you.”
“I’m sure they will. Why, I even hope they do.”
“I … I’m not afraid of you. Y-you—” He coughed.
Garrick knelt down, got in close and personal to the man, enough to feel his rancid breath condensing on his neck.
“You know, for a man about to die, you’re taking it all very well. I am impressed,” he softly spoke, as he wiped the blood off his sword onto his man’s clothes.
“I’m … I’m—”
“Yes?” Garrick said, taking to his feet. He looked at his sword, as if to say, why did I just clean this?
Garrick placed his foot firmly on the arrow shaft protruding from the man’s body and began to wobble. The moans the dying man tried so hard to hold back turned to wails, as he squirmed uselessly on the floor, coughing up fountains of blood beneath the foot of his torturer; his pain something he related to Hell’s fury.
Tears began to glisten and bulge within the corner of his eyes, until gently rolling down his cheeks and then teetering, and finally dropping off the edge of his face.
‘Pathetic’ was the final word the dying man heard above his own yelps, as Garrick plunged his freshly cleaned sword down and through the man’s ribcage, straight into his heart.
The door to the adjoining room creaked open.
“What was that all about?”
“Nothing unexpected, I suppose. Anyway, what have you discovered, Mythos?” Garrick asked, as he glanced beyond to the next room to where a woman was sitting tied to a chair.
Mythos and Baylin both shared similar physical attributes in accordance to their build, but Mythos was slightly taller and looked generally weaker.
He, too, wore black, but it was not as heavy as the other two’s attire. It hung freer over his body.
“Not as much as I would have liked. She has been very stubborn. However, I did manage to discover somethi—” He stopped, because a figure silhouetted in the doorway caught his attention, and he yelled, “Look out!”
Garrick dived to the side as Mythos tuned his attention…
Jerome had never been this late out, he realised, as he stood on the Melfall-Banneth Fell treeline, watching the raucous crowds pouring in and out of the Vale Inn, few of which would have been locals; most being travellers taking shelter for the evening before continuing on their journey either to Cearan or onto Nardil, through the Path of Mante, the only safe passage between Nardil and Melfall and onwards.
Exhausted, hot and sweaty – but with the bag – Jerome strode onto the firm well-trodden road running through Melfall and wasted no time in dusting himself down before scampering over to his front door, which he knocked.
Sudden, busied clattering struck up and, shortly after, the door was flung open to a very unrelenting Driana, glowering down over him.
Jerome’s head drooped, as he shuffled his way in.
Driana took a quick peep either side of the door to see if anyone else was present. Satisfied there was not, she shut it carefully after. Jerome had already tried sneaking upstairs to avoid his mother’s wrath, but his attempt was halted by the sound of his name bellowing towards him.
“And what time do you call this?” Driana exclaimed.
“I’m sorry, mother.”
“Sorry! You’re sorry? People are strolling out of the tavern with who-knows-what on their minds and you’re sorry? Lucky is what I would call you. You have no idea what kind of people there are around at this time of night.”
Jerome could do or say nothing, but even though, he beseeched a ‘sorry’, which she seemed to dismiss. No words were going to relinquish her anger. All he could do was to turn away and shuffle upstairs to bed, but not before quickly returning the medallion to her bedroom dresser, hoping she would be none the wiser.
Later that night, tucked up in the throws of his cover, he heard footsteps approaching his room. Sleep had been out of the question, and the ruffled sheets were surely testament to it, but he didn’t want to face her right now. He felt too ashamed of himself, so he closed his eyes and tried to relax his breath, feigning sleep.
The door slowly opened and Driana entered. Traversing his room like a mother not wanting to wake her child – nothing was quieter – she perched herself at the foot of the bed before slowly sitting, sinking the mattress a touch.
He listened to her breath rocking the midnight air; he heard her sighs full of upset and he almost opened his eyes.
He wanted to, to ease her, to tell that he was sorry, that it was he who had been wrong, that he loved her, but he kept his eyes buttoned.
She stood up, and tiptoed back to the door, which she opened, taking as many extra seconds as she needed to make sure it opened quietly – the quietest of all kinds.
“Good night, Jerome,” she whispered to him.
He couldn’t help himself and, to her, he whispered back, “Good night.”
She didn’t come back though, but her smile graced the air and Jerome felt it as a warm, soothing flow in the midnight air. The argument they had had earlier had been put to sleep, to a place where Jerome also settled.
I am standing on the battlefield. My father is next to me. I’ve never seen him before, and even though he looks at me, and I look back, I can’t put a face to the head, yet I know that it’s him. It feels good that we are standing together, father and son.
He draws his sword and it spurs me on to do the same. The sword feels light and easily wieldable. We run together down the battlefield…
The high tree branches of Dewdrop Wood rippled pleasantly to the invisible breeze, making occasional openings for the sun to beam down onto her weary face.
She blinked awake in a slow wistful mood, wishing the night were not over. But it seemed a pleasant day and so she rolled out of her blanket and got to her feet.
After a satisfying stretch and a big yawn up to the gods, she dug out her water flask and tore off a small chunk of bread.
An unforgiving wisp of wind gusted through the trees and hit her square in the face. Her eyes closed a fraction and she exhaled with the shock.
She had always liked the elements’ unpredictability. There was never a correct time or place for it to show off. It just did as it pleased. Free as the wind, she wondered. Well there was the proof, she accepted, as she chomped the last mouthful and guzzled another swig.
The weather gave another display of its might. The wind might be free, but she certainly wasn’t, and with that reminder she rolled up her blanket, placed it in her bag along with the beaker of water and slung it over her shoulder.
She had only been walking a few hours and she was already outside of Dewdrop Wood. It was a good sign; Toryn, she hoped, would only be another half a day away.
The sun had reached its meridian when she sighted a brook, a good place for a break, the last break, she thought, as she glimpsed at the crumbs of bread rolling around lonely in her bag and giving her water flask a shake.
Toryn couldn’t be that far away, she thought. May even get there before sun down.
She stopped herself from taking that thought any further. This was not the time to hope or be hopeful.
A few clouds had begun to cross over the sun’s path, as she watched the huge shadow cover the bright grassland and leave it looking dreary and unwelcoming. The wind had also picked up and, before long, outside the warmth of the sun she was very cold. Fortunately, the clouds blew over and the wind stopped, allowing the chill she felt to quickly depart. Her final leg of the journey had begun.
The sun had just sunk its head behind the horizon, as she saw the high walls of Toryn sticking out in the distance.
Over the past hour the weather had got progressively worse and when she reached Toryn, the heavens had fully opened and a thunderstorm raged.
A huge, stone wall surrounded the whole city. There were many entrances that she knew of, but the one at which she arrived was just on the edge of a small wooded area – a small woodland twinned with Dewdrop.
Two braziers either side of the gate shone brightly and one guard stood on duty wearing full plated armour.
She approached carefully although, because of the rushing rain, the guard didn’t notice her until the last minute.
“Halt! Who goes there?” he bellowed, as he lowered his halberd to a menacing, head-height level.
His brash response startled her, but she begged, “Please, let me in.”
The guard had been caught entirely unawares. In truth, he wasn’t expecting anyone to be arriving in such conditions. He quickly recognised her to be a young girl and, although he knew it shouldn’t make a difference, he was a kind man and wasn’t going to let protocol keep her out here.
“All right, miss,” he said, opening the gates and shuffling her into safety. “I’m putting my neck out for you, so don’t you be getting yourself into trouble now.”
She rushed in, thanking him profusely – and promising him that she would be no trouble – and the door closed behind her.
She may have been inside the walls of the city, but the weather wasn’t any easier to bear, as she stumbled and fumbled her way through the muddy slums.
Shops that would normally be open and flourishing were shut and not a trace of a life was to be found anywhere. Even the rats and mice, she thought, would be tucked away in their hidey-holes.
Hours seemed to pass as she searched high and low for a place to rest.
All sense of time and direction was lost as she fought hard against the weather, until eventually she found herself peering over a hedge, surrounding what seemed like a regal edifice and courtyard; and what lifted the weight off her shoulders was a light, glimmering and spilling out onto the stone paving outside.
Not another moment did she wait, as she threw herself over the hedge and scrambled across the courtyard to the heavy ornamental door, which she knocked with the remaining drops of energy she still possessed. The handle began to rattle, and as it did she sank down softy to the ground and let her eyes close.