Fear abounds in a new domain
And hope arises once again.
And hope arises once again.
The silence seemed to stretch on to infinity after Ferrian had finally finished his story. He stood looking around the Council Room nervously, trying to decipher the looks on the faces of those assembled. The silence was broken at last by a disgusted snort from the far end of the table.
"And you believed all that?" Dogwyn said incredulously. The young Constable had his feet crossed on the table and his hands clasped behind his head. "A fine tale! Cursed? Ha!”
A murmur rippled around the room. Grisket leaned forward and clasped his hands on the table.
"I consider myself a pretty good judge of character," he said quietly. "And if this kid is a liar, then he’s the best I’ve ever seen."
The room had fallen silent once more. The Commander turned to the others. "What do the rest of you think?"
There was a moment’s hesitation, then Raemint spoke up. "I believe Ferrian is speaking the truth...” She hesitated again, looking troubled. “However, I feel the presence of strong magic in this room. From where it was acquired, I cannot say.”
Cairan, beside her, gave a nod of agreement.
Grisket looked over at Sirannor. "What do you think, Captain?" he asked.
The white-haired man had been sitting in silence with an unreadable expression on his hard face. For a moment he didn’t answer. He simply returned the Commander's gaze with eyes as impenetrable and grey as an iron fortress. "I think," he said slowly, "that if this boy were a sorcerer, we’d all be dead."
A heavy silence filled the room. No one spoke again for a long moment.
"Damn straight," Commander Trice said, breaking the uncomfortable pause. He glanced at Constable Dogwyn. "You honestly think a sorcerer would bother with excuses, Constable?"
"Or let himself get captured by Nightwalker," Aari pointed out.
Dogwyn did not reply. He merely folded his arms across his chest and refused to meet their gaze.
Cairan nodded at the younger man. "Your doubt is valid, Dogwyn. This boy is clearly in possession of magic - Raemint and I have sensed it – but whether it is innate or learned we cannot identify. However, magic is a powerful and unpredictable force of nature, and that is reason enough to be wary."
The Commander paused for a moment, rubbing his beard, thinking. "Ferrian apparently has no control over his magic. I've seen nothing to give me reason to disbelieve what he's told us: that it is indeed some kind of curse."
"This is all very interesting, Commander," Sirannor interjected from the other side of the table. "But I think the more important issue here is: what do you intend to do about it?"
The Commander leaned back in his chair. "Obviously something has to be done about this. And done soon. At the moment, this Winter thing appears to occur only when Ferrian remains in one place for a certain amount of time. But there’s no telling if or when these cold snaps could become permanent. And if that happens, it’s gonna start costing more than crops or livestock: it’s gonna cost lives."
He looked around the table, but no one had anything to say.
Except Sergeant Aari.
"This is bigger than anything the Freeroamers have dealt with before," the Angel spoke up. "This isn’t about someone’s cow going missing; this isn’t about catching the vandal who smashed up Middry’s Tavern; this isn’t finding out who beat up Dorin Smithy’s son. This is Magic. And the only person who has a hope of knowing how to deal with this is a sorcerer.”
He took a deep breath, glancing at Commander Trice, and continued: “Which is why we are going to find one."
The Freeroamers stared at him incredulously. Grisket, a fierce glare on his face, rose to his feet, taking a breath to speak but was beaten to it by Dogwyn.
"No offence, Aari," he said, "But you are out of your mind!"
“Aye!” Commander Trice replied angrily. “We discussed this--”
“No, Commander!” Aari cut him off, rising to his feet as well, “you refused to discuss it! You just said 'no' and that was the end of it! But I've been considering this the whole journey back here to Forthwhite, and,” he took a deep breath, “I know you'd rather trust a barrel full of vipers. But in this case, I honestly think we don't have any other choice!"
The two of them glared at each other across the table.
Wow, Ferrian thought. Aari's got some balls to outspeak his commander like that…
“You have something in mind, Aari?” Captain Sirannor said quietly from the other side of the table.
“Yes!” Aari replied, glancing at Sirannor, then back to Grisket.
The Commander's face retained its darkness, but he sat back in his chair reluctantly. “Let's hear it then,” he growled.
The winged man remained standing. He nodded and took another deep breath. “When the School of Magical Studies was destroyed all those years ago, many artefacts, objects, papers, books and other stuff was thrown across the city of Sunsee in the blast. Lots of gruesomely charred bodies, too, were recovered from the rubble, and, er, bits of bodies as well. And a bunch of pristine, silver swords. They were known as 'The Swords of the Gods' back then – every sorcerer had one - and were made of some kind of indestructible metal, so all of them were found undamaged, though the magic was completely extinguished.
“All of these artefacts were collected in a museum in the royal city of Crystaltina. The surviving books and bits of papers were sent to the Royal Archive.”
He paused for a moment, looking down at the table in thought. “A few years ago, I went to Crystaltina, wanting to get a look at the Archive. Scholars had been studying and translating the documents for the last century, trying to determine exactly what had caused the disaster. I had heard that they were making some progress and I was curious.
“Of course,” he shrugged, “the King refused to grant me permission--”
Dogwyn snorted. “No kidding, wing boy,” he interrupted.
Aari gave him an annoyed look, and continued. “Naturally, being an Angel, the guards took one look at me and threw me out of the doors. But,” he smiled. “I expected that.
“So I tracked down one of the scholars from the university and got him drunk, hoping to convince him to let me into the Archive.
“After awhile he started babbling all kinds of weird stuff, about 'claimed' and 'unclaimed' Swords, some graduation ceremony, sinister plots to destroy the School… eventually, he told me that he thought two sorcerers had survived the explosion. They had accounted for all the bodies and the Swords, except for those two. They seemed to have vanished.
“One was a guy by the name of… Lord Requar. He was the son of a very wealthy and distinguished family. His father was a General in the Darorian army and then Commander of the Middle Isle campaign. He had a younger brother, Arzath, but the scholars reckon it was the older brother who had orchestrated the plot to destroy the School.
“This matched up with a popular rumour going around Arkana before I left: that two brothers had obliterated the School during an intense feud. The scholar was convinced that at least one of them was still living. There had been eyewitness reports--” he glanced briefly at Grisket, “right here in the Outlands.
“The scholar then told me that one of his colleagues was fairly sure he knew where one or both of them might be hiding.”
The Freeroamers and Ferrian stared at him in anticipation.
“Ah...” Aari went on, “but then he… sort of… passed out on the floor… and,” he scratched his copper hair sheepishly, “I couldn't wake him up again...”
A collection of groans and sighs passed around the room as everyone seated slumped back in their chairs.
Dogwyn rolled his eyes. “Right,” he said sarcastically. Then he leaned forward and slapped his hand down on the table. “I've got a better idea!”
They all looked at him in surprise.
“How about we cart this kid off to the Perpetual Peaks and ditch him there? No people around. No towns. Endless miles of mountains. He can play with snowflakes all he likes, for the rest of his life. No one gets hurt. Problem solved!”
“Excuse me?!” Ferrian said angrily. “Play with snowfl--”
Aari cut him off, glaring. “You're a real scumbag, Dogwyn!”
The other man simply shrugged, leaning back and putting his legs up on the table. “It's the most sensible solution, as far as I can see.”
“No,” Commander Trice said quietly. He looked up. “No, Dogwyn.” He sighed, suddenly looking defeated, and shook his head. “I founded the Freeroamers for the very purpose of helping people who couldn't be helped. It is the founding principle of this place. We are not going to abandon Ferrian in the wilderness. We will help him if we can. We are obliged to.”
He looked slowly around the table, at each face in turn. “Is anyone willing to help?”
“I'm in all the way!” Aari said at once.
Dogwyn threw up his hands. “No way! Count me out of this madness!”
Cairan shook his dark head ruefully. “I am second in command. I must stay and keep things in order here.” He turned and looked at Raemint, but the female Centaur shook her head as well, also looking regretful.
“I am training new recruits,” she replied. “I cannot leave them at this time.”
That left Captain Sirannor, sitting at the far corner of the table. They all looked at him.
The old man was quiet for a long moment, scrutinising Ferrian. Ferrian felt intensely uncomfortable beneath his iron grey, penetrating gaze, and looked down at the scars on the table to escape it. Finally, the Captain spoke.
“I'll come,” he said simply.
Grisket nodded. “Settled then,” he declared. Then he stood, picked up his feathered hat and placed it firmly on his head. “We leave for Crystaltina tomorrow.”
* * *
The corridors and passageways of Arzath’s Keep were dark. Dark and cold and forbidding. Dust covered the floor in choking layers, and silky cobwebs stirred like pale, dancing wraiths in the whispering draughts. Silent stone statues of gargoyles stared here and there with cold, black eyes out of hidden recesses in the walls; and the occasional skinny rat or cockroach skittered across the floor, the faint rustle of their movement the only sound in the heavy gloom and silence.
Fire flared like an orange star in the blackness, sending the shadows skittering away in pursuit of the rats and the cockroaches. A figure approached from down the narrow hallway, holding the flaming torch high like a beacon. Uneven footsteps echoed loudly off the jet black walls as the figure staggered from one side of the hall to the other, using the wall to prop itself up.
Arzath sighed, the sound like windblown leaves scraping the floor of a tomb. He paused at an alcove and rested a minute, getting his breath back. These bloody hallways! he thought in disgust. The damned thing could be anywhere! He looked around at the alcove. It was nothing more than a shallow recess in the wall, but nevertheless, it was cloaked from top to bottom in dark shadows. He moved the torch closer in irritation and the shadows fled from the fire.
There was nothing there except a blank wall. Arzath moved forward a few steps and ran his free hand along the smooth surface of the stone - searching, prodding, testing - but there was nothing there to suggest any secret passages or doorways. Finally he gave up, and thumped the wall hard with his clenched fist. Where the hell is it?! he wailed in silent despair. He was so angry he almost threw the torch away; then realised the folly of such an action and thought better of it. The last thing he wanted to do was get lost in the dark in his own castle.
So he contented himself with gritting his teeth instead, and set off once more along the gloomy passageway.
As he travelled along with slow, shaky steps, his mind wandered back to what had led him down into this murk in the first place. His memories were gradually returning; another piece here, another piece there, a little more each day. He felt confident that he was almost back to his old self again - almost. He still had trouble with names and faces, however. A quagmire of images and names floated around in his mind, but he couldn’t seem to put them together. The only people he really knew the identity of at the moment were himself and his brother Requar.
His hand tightened around the base of the torch so hard he thought it would snap. Requar. The merest thought of his brother made Arzath feel like screaming out in rage. He would have his revenge on that wretch one day; and when he did, he would make a picnic of it.
With an effort, he wrenched his thoughts away from his brother. He mustn’t let his hatred for Requar cloud his thinking. He must concentrate all his memory on locating that which he came here to find.
He had decided yesterday that he would go and check on his weapon. Unfortunately, he hadn’t realised that he’d hidden it so well. He knew there was a secret door somewhere in the castle that led to the room where his precious weapon was hidden, but the actual whereabouts of this door eluded him. It was one of the few memories that hadn’t returned to him yet. Arzath cursed softly under this breath. He needed to make the most of the opportunity that Requar had offered by leaving his castle, to advance his own plans, but at the moment, he wasn’t getting anywhere.
Another dark alcove appeared in the wall to his left, and he stumbled over to it. He was tiring quickly; he still hadn’t completely recovered from that fateful fall from the waterfall some two weeks ago now. His breathing was ragged and his legs felt like they would collapse from under him at any second. But his determination to find the only thing that could possibly destroy his brother kept Arzath going. He quickly searched the wall of the alcove as he had done on the previous one, and dozens more before it. His pale hand was shaking, and the torch cast leaping orange shadows over the deep black stone. Again, there was nothing to be found.
Arzath slumped his shoulders wearily. "Damn it to Hell!" he said aloud, and the echoes of his words seemed to absorb into the very walls, to leave only thick silence. He turned and rested his back against the wall of the alcove, and stared down dejectedly at the flickering torch in his hand. If only he had his memories back! If only he had his magic back!
Arzath sighed again, and brushed a stray strand of black hair out of his eyes with his trembling hand. Where the hell’s that Cimmeran when I need him? he thought angrily. He knows all the passageways in...
The thought froze in his mind. His body became so still that if not for his pale skin, he would have faded into the shadows completely. What had he just said? Cimmeran?
All the memories of his former servant came thundering back, then, all at once, leaving Arzath standing there in the dark alcove with his mouth open in shock.
"Dark Gods!" he exclaimed. "Cimmeran! That’s what that lumbering Grik was rambling on about! What did he say? Something about... Cimmeran being missing...?"
A wave of rage and disgust rose up in Arzath’s stomach. Why that blasted little...! How DARE he try to escape me again!
He didn’t know which emotion was more prominent at that point: shock or anger. Then suddenly both melted away as a dark well of horror oozed up to engulf them.
Cimmeran knew every passageway and corridor in this castle. Every room, every secret door, everything. Arzath stood stunned. And now he has escaped. Who knew who the little wretch might tell. Even... and he shuddered at the thought: even Requar.
Arzath shrank back against the wall of the alcove, all thoughts of his weapon now forgotten. Without his magic, he was completely unprotected. Oh, he had his Griks and Murons... but they would be worse than useless against Requar’s magic. If Cimmeran should go to Requar and lead him in here through some hidden tunnel... He would have no defence. Requar would destroy him once and for all.
Arzath’s throat was so dry he could barely swallow. He felt, at that moment, something that he genuinely hadn’t felt in a long, long time, something he believed he’d never have to experience again.
He felt fear.
Slowly Arzath straightened himself, trying to calm his roiling thoughts. Think! Think this through logically… He took a deep breath of musty, stale air, and almost choked on it. Requar definitely thinks I’m dead, of that much I am certain. Cimmeran must obviously think I’m dead, he assured himself, otherwise he would never have attempted to escape. And if he believes I am dead, he wouldn’t bother to go to Requar... would he?
Arzath pushed himself away from the wall and looked off warily into the blackness, as if expecting his brother to come striding down the corridor at any moment. He shook his head, trying to clear his mind of such ridiculous notions, trying to convince himself that he had nothing to worry about. After all, no one as yet knew about the loss of his magic, and he intended to keep it that way for as long as possible. But no argument he could come up with could disperse the fear that as long as Cimmeran was out there somewhere, he was a threat.
"In that case," Arzath said softly, his voice a ghost's whisper in the black, silent corridor. "That wretched servant must be found."
And with that he turned and hurried away down the corridor in the direction he had come from, like a black ghost disappearing into the night.
* * *
Requar stood motionless in the bushes, just another shadow in the still, summer night. He peered through the web of leafy branches in front of his face at two figures camped by a fire in a forest clearing. The bright, flickering dance of the flames was the only movement in the darkness. The silvery pinprick of stars could be glimpsed through gaps in the forest canopy, set like jewels in the velvety, deep blue cloak of the night sky. A cool breeze wafted through the trees, soft and gentle against the sorcerer’s face. Crickets chirruped loudly with monotonous rhythm in the undergrowth, and an owl called mournfully somewhere in the distance.
The two figures at the campfire were as still and silent as he. They were hunters: Requar had gathered that much from their camouflaged clothing and the fact that both of them carried stout wooden bows and quivers of arrows. One was a woman, sitting still as stone on the far side of the fire, staring down blankly upon her partner who lay on the ground beside her, even more still, if that were possible. The man was wounded, and badly by the looks of it. His right pant leg was torn to shreds and soaked in blood. The woman had done her best to bandage it, but it was clear the man needed help, and fast. Requar could not tell what other injuries, if any, he might have sustained.
They could not see him, even though he stood no more than a few yards away. He had used his magic to blend in with the leafy foliage. They had no idea that he was watching them.
Requar tried to fight the urge to pace as he observed the two hunters. He knew he should help the wounded man, but how would the hunters react? He was torn with indecision. If he didn’t intervene, the man might well die tonight, but he knew that ordinary people distrusted and hated sorcerers... and how would the woman react upon seeing one suddenly appear from the bushes, even if he did have good intentions?
A piece of wood from the fire snapped sharply, and the flames flared suddenly, sending up a shower of bright sparks, but the woman didn’t even stir. Requar frowned. He could feel the weight of the Sword of Healing pressing against his back, the sword that could save the life of that hunter.
He glanced at the unconscious hunter once more. Could he live with himself if he didn’t help the man? If he walked away now, could he live with the fact that he had left a man to die, when he had a power that could so easily have saved him?
Requar made up his mind.
Slowly, he let the spell of camouflage slip, gradually fading out of the concealing green and black shadows until he stood revealed. The woman did not look up. Quietly and carefully, Requar stepped out of the undergrowth into the small clearing, and the woman raised her head at last.
For a second she just stared at him, her brown eyes sad and her face lined with hopelessness and despair. Then the sadness was replaced with suspicion, and she rose jerkily to her feet, her hand reaching for a knife at her belt. "Who are you?" she demanded, stepping closer to her wounded partner and standing over him protectively.
Requar raised his hands, palms outward, to show he meant no harm. "I’m here to help," he said softly.
"We don’t need no help!" the woman snapped back. She gestured with her knife in the direction of the trees. "Now get out of here and leave us alone!"
Requar made no move to leave. He looked down at the wounded hunter. "I'm afraid I disagree," he replied calmly. "That man will die if you don’t get him to a healer."
The woman didn’t take her eyes off him. "Oh yeah?" she spat angrily, her voice rising slightly. "How would you know?"
Requar locked his blue eyes with her brown ones. "Because I am one."
The woman continued to stare at him. She looked uncertain. There was a long moment of tense silence, then the woman said cautiously: "You’re a healer?"
Requar nodded, the firelight highlighting the strands of snowy hair that fell alongside his face with streaks of orange and red. He took a step closer towards the man. "Indeed, and I…"
"Stay back!" the woman cried.
Requar made no move to advance further.
"You don't look like no healer to me!" the woman said accusingly, the knife held two-handed before her. "What would a healer be doing out here in the forest at this time of night?"
Requar hesitated, which only made the hunter more suspicious.
"I don't believe you," she snapped. She brought the knife up a little higher, and flicked her dark hair out of her eyes. "We don't need no healer. Leave us the hell alone!"
Requar held her gaze for a moment. "My lady, please.…"
"I said leave us!" The woman swiped at him with her knife. Requar backed away a couple of paces.
They stood glaring at each other for a moment across the firelit clearing. The woman began to advance on him threateningly.
"Now go!" she demanded.
Requar sighed. Looks as though I’m going to have to do this the hard way...
He stood his ground and watched as the woman approached. "My lady, if you would just let me.…"
The woman attacked. She lunged at him with deadly speed, bringing the knife up to slice his throat. Requar threw up his magical shield immediately, and the knife clattered off harmlessly in a shower of blue sparks. The woman sprang back as if she’d been bitten, and almost stumbled into the fire. Her face had gone pale with shock.
“Sorcerer!" she shrieked, the high pitched cry tearing through the night’s stillness like the screech of metal on metal. She backed away hastily in fear, and stood hunched over near her companion, still brandishing the now useless knife.
Requar advanced across the clearing, his shield still shimmering around him with translucent blue light. When he reached the fallen hunter, he stopped, reached back, and withdrew the Sword of Healing with a steely hiss. Its long blade swam with the reflections of both the blue light of his shield, and the warm, red light of the now diminishing campfire.
"No!" the woman screamed in anguish and terror, misinterpreting Requar’s action, and swung her knife at him again. Once more, it deflected harmlessly off the shield. But now she seemed to have gained courage out of desperation, and attacked him again, and again, hurling her useless weapon at him viciously and shrieking curses like a banshee.
He ignored her, kneeling down beside the injured man. The hunter was unconscious, but alive, though his breathing was shallow and ragged. He didn’t appear to have sustained any other major injuries apart from the one on his leg.
Requar inspected the leg grimly. It was indeed a serious wound. A long, deep gash was torn down the inside of his lower leg, all the way from the kneecap to his ankle. There was blood everywhere. The bandages that the woman had strapped in place were sadly inadequate, and didn’t seem to have done a great deal to stop the flow of blood.
Requar removed the bloodsoaked rags quickly to expose the open wound. The gash was a ragged cut and appeared to be made by some sort of animal. He gripped the Sword of Healing with both hands and brought it around, positioning it so that its tip rested against the wound at the top of the cut. He was vaguely aware that the hunter woman had stopped trying to attack him, and could hear her sobbing somewhere in the background.
Closing his eyes, he summoned his power and directed it into his arms, into his hands, and finally into the Sword. A silvery shiver ran through his hands as the magic of the Sword flared up in response to his own, then both magics mingled and coursed down the blade into the wound.
He opened his eyes to see a blue-white flare slide down the length of the Sword, then the light steadied into a continuous blue glow. Slowly, he moved the Sword down the length of the man’s leg, following the cut. He heard an astonished gasp from behind him as the woman saw the wound close itself with the passage of the Sword.
When he reached the end of the cut, Requar removed the Sword of Healing and sat back on his haunches. The wound was now completely healed. Not a scar or mark remained to show where it had been.
He turned his blue eyes upward to look at the woman standing next to him. Her face was streaked with tears, but she was no longer crying. Instead, she was staring dumbfounded at the leg Requar had just healed.
The man stirred then, and his eyes blinked open. The woman cried out in relief and dropped to her knees beside him, embracing her partner fiercely.
Requar permitted himself a small smile and resheathed the Sword of Healing. He stood up and stepped over to the woman, who was clinging to the man as though afraid he was an apparition who might disappear if she let go. Leaning down to her ear, he whispered: "Not all sorcerers are evil, you know."
With a gasp, she turned around quickly, but by then he was already gone.