“The warriors have arrived. They are over the next hill, advancing for an approach from two sides,” Silme interrupts the council discussion. She shoves a hand through her hair, her eyes drooping.
“Silme, why did you not call one of us?” Xylar frowns. She gets to her feet, clucking softly. She takes the younger mage by the arm and leads her to the side. “Take ten minutes.”
“There isn’t time.”
“Take thirty, then.” Xylar gives Silme a look.
“I will speak with the warriors and tell them to delay an hour.”
“Xylar! You keep – ”
“Silme…” Azius clears his throat.
“Right.” Silme collapses to the blanket spread on the ground. She draws her cloak around her, her breathing slowing almost immediately.
“Thank you, Azius. If you excuse me, I will go send a message to the warriors to let them know to hold for an hour or two.” Xylar inclines her head to the rest. She moves away, pulling her small book from the sleeve of her robe.
“Where were we?” Azius blinks. He looks at the remaining mages, sitting in a circle, within a rune drawn into the dirt of the forest floor. Four of the five appears ready to follow Silme’s lead. Hope, however, shifts back and forth, her fingers tapping a tattoo on her left knee. “Hope?”
“Mmm?” Hope shakes her head, bringing her eyes to Azius.
“Is there something wrong?”
“Yes. No.” She winces, then gets to her feet to pace round the circle of mages, but within the rune in the dirt.
“Hope…” Menethi begins.
“I know. I can’t leave it like that.” She sighs. “There is something… wrong.”
“Wrong?” Menethi frowns, tipping his head to the side. “In what way? The ritual is incorrect?” He ignores the sudden outbreak of muttering from Broxim to Ixor. “Or is it the cyrstal?” He slides a look as the muttering intensifies. He waits until it subsides, then looks back at her.
“No. It isn’t that.” She exhales slowly. “It’s… here. This place. We aren’t safe here.”
“Well, no. I know that…”
“No, I mean, I think it knows we’re here. Despite all our precautions.”
“If it knows we are here, what is it waiting for?”
“I don’t know.” She frowns.
“Perhaps that is not what is wrong.”
“What do you mean?”
“Tell us what is bothering you. Maybe then we can figure out what’s bothering you.”
“Well…” Hope frowns, then nods. She resumes her place on the ground, exhaling slowly. She pauses, looking to the darkening twilight sky. Her body slowly uncoils as she looks at the waning moon in the sky. Her eyes close momentarily. Menethi shakes his head as Azius opens his mouth. Azius frowns, but closes his mouth. He crosses his arms over his chest. Araedni leans over and pokes him in the belly. He blinks, his eyes widening. He turns his head to look at her. She grins widely at him, folding her hands back into her lap. He looks away from her, his lips twitching. He coughs, then again, then snickers.
“After Azius said he had found the location of the Void, I started to feel unsettled, as if we were being watched. I tried to scope out if we actually WERE being watched, but I couldn’t detect any form of magic being used. The sensation hasn’t gone away.”
“Perhaps we are being watched the old-fashioned way,” Ixor suggests.
“By an actual person?” Hope blinks several times. “Not remotely by a mage or someone with magic?” She inhales for a long moment, looking at the group. “I don’t see how we would have missed someone amongst us.” She looks long at Ixor, then returns her gaze to Menethi.
“I suppose a new spell we weren’t prepared for is possible….” Ixor holds Hope’s gaze until it moves, then looks to Menethi. Menethi slowly gets to his feet. He moves to the center of the circle to pick up his staff, floating in the air.
“It would take quite a mage to write a spell we have not yet written… or could not detect,” Broxim mutters.
“It would at that, my friend.” Staff in hand, Menethi gestures for the five of them to stand. They do so, stretching out their bodies. Menethi murmurs to himself, the runes of his staff glowing brightly blue while he chants. The other mages join him, lending their strength to the spell. Menethi looks to Hope. She nods, turning her body. Menethi releases the spell to Hope, who releases it into the treeline.
“Aiyeeeeeeeeee!” A thud sounds from near the scream.
“Azius, if you would dispel the circle, please.”
“Of course, Menethi.” Azius walks the circle slowly, murmuring to himself as he erases the rune on the ground.
“Ixor, thank you.” Hope sighs.
“Hay, I’m not completely immune to signals.” She looks at Broxim as he snorts. “What? I’m not!”
“Tell that to the poor blacksmith you were speaking with the last time we went into Stormreach proper,” he replies, chuckling.
“Iain?” Ixor blinks several times. “What?”
“Nothing, Ixor.” Araedni takes Ixor by the arm. “Let’s see who – or what – we’ve caught.” The group tromps toward the source of the scream. Menethi mutters something beneath his breath, causing the runes in his staff to glow. He gestures the group back as they near the place where the sounds had originated. Low groans echo from the underbrush.
“Illuminate!” Ixor calls. Orbs of light spring into existence above the brush. Menethi crouches, using his staff to prod into the underbrush.
“Ah. Something human. Mostly, anyway.” Menethi mutters to himself, casting a binding spell on the creature within the brush. “Araedni and Azius, if you would drag … it… out, I would be grateful.” Menethi leans on the staff as Araedni and Azius step forward. They crouch, dragging the bound creature up, into the light. The light reveals a young man with fading ginger hair and freckles. Lanky and of average height, he glares at Araedni through dual-colored eyes: the left is hazel, the right is a grey in color. Faint streaks of purple can be seen running up the man’s neck.
“Do you have a name?” Menethi asks?
“Why do you care.” The young man sneers.
“A question we ask him regularly,” Araedni replies. “However, the question was asked. Do answer. Else we will name you and you will not like it.”
“Pfft.” He snorts.
“Azius?” Araedni asks.
“Hrmmm. He looks like a Skamelar to me.”
“What?” The young man struggles against the binding spell, growling and spewing insults.
“No? That isn’t your name?” Araedni leans a little closer, tipping her head to the side, her voice sweet as pie and soft as a summer breeze.
“Of course that isn’t my name, you-” He blinks, startled as Azius puts a hand on over his mouth.
“Now, now, Skamelar. You wouldn’t want to say anything you might regret.” Azius smiles at the young man, letting his hand drop. “Now, do you have a name? Or shall we continue with Skamelar?”
“Astylar.” He grunts.
“And why are you here?” Azius continues.
“Mmm. Because it’s a very strange place to just randomly be for an extended period of time.”
“I live in the village nearby.”
“I don’t think so,” Broxim says. “There is no village nearby.”
“Anymore.” Ixor adds. “There used to be one.” She steps forward, looking over the young man. “Were you once part of that town, Astylar?” She nods slowly as he looks away from her. “I suppose the question now is… did you join with the Void before or after your village was destroyed?”
“I don’t know what you are talking about.”
“Seems like before to me,” Hope comments. “Perhaps you helped wipe out your own family?”
“They deserved it.” He looks at the ground, his voice flat.
“Did they?” Hope asks. “Or is that what you’ve been told since?”
“Hope.” Broxim frowns.
“What? We’ve discussed my family before.”
“Ah. Nevermind. Apologies.” Broixm waves a hand.
“They didn’t believe.”
“In what, Astylar? You? Or the void?” Hope asks.
“They figured the Council…” He sneers at them. “And Makek would save them.” He snorts. “That wreck of a king couldn’t save a kitten from a tree.”
“Mmm. Perhaps I was incorrect. Perhaps it was after.” Hope watches the young man carefully, then nods. “I see. Well, young Astylar. I will agree that it is unfortunate that Makek could not save your village or the people in it. However, do you know what actually caused the destruction of your village?”
“Sure. Mor’Ladim’s army came through and killed everyone and everything. Then, they set fire to the buildings.”
“And why were you not among them?” Broxim asks, leaning forward.
“My ma asked me to go fish-” He stops, shaking his head. “It doesn’t matter. They deserved the deaths they got.”
“Mmmhmmm.” Broxim nods. He looks to Hope. She nods to him in return. He looks back at the young man. “While you were out fishing, the Void unleashed a spell of destruction so large, the entire village was lost. In fact, it was over in mere moments. Even if the king’s warriors has been nearby to help, they would have been able to do nothing at all. Save die along with your family.”
“Why would I care?” He snorts. “Let me go.” He growls.
“Why are you here?” Menethi asks suddenly. “If you are a soldier of the void, you would not be here on your own.”
“You needed watching. I was available.”
“How did you know we were here? And if we needed watching, that still doesn’t explain why you are alone. You may be a fearsome warrior of the Void…” Menethi pauses as Azius and Araedni suddenly burst into coughing fits. He lifts his brows at them. Araedni waves a hand as she bends over, trying to get a full breath. Menethi looks to the other mages. All appear about to have similar fits. Their eyes are turned to the skies, their lips twitching. “However, I have never heard of one sent on a scouting mission alone. For days….” Menethi finishes, his gaze returning to Astylar.
“There is no need to mock me.” He struggles against the bounds again. Araedni straightens, taking the boy by the nape of the neck. She shakes him slightly, causing him to droop. He growls at her, then snaps at her, as if he were to bite her. She baps his nose lightly with three fingers.
“No. Bad warrior of the void. Bad!” She baps him in the nose again. “Naughty.” She watches the expressions passing over his face: incredulity, anger, confusion.
“Araedni… please…” Azius wheezes, still bent over, trying to catch his breath.
“What?” She asks.
“I’m trying to breathe here…”
“So, young man. How is it you are alone?”
“Who says I am?” He retorts, sulkily.
“Hope?” Menethi asks.
“Mmmm.” Hope closes her eyes, murmuring to herself. The other five wait. Azius finally gains control of himself during this wait, breathing deeply. He straightens, exhaling and inhaling slowly. He gives Araedni a look. She smiles innocently in return. He snorts at her look.
“You will never find us all,” Astylar comments. “We are better than you.”
“Possibly, though unlikely.” Broxim comments. He looks to Hope as her hands drop.
“The sensation has passed. However, as we have stood here, anyone who was not in this immediate vicinity may have escaped.”
“You directed the spell, Hope. Did it seem as if it were coming from multiple places?”
“No, Menethi. But. It’s possible this one was the distraction and the other was better cloaked.”
“We will have to be on the move, then. We will need to fetch Xylar and wake Silme.” Menethi sighs. “Bring him.”
“He may be a way to track us as we move,” Broxim murmurs.
“It’s possible, yes. For now, we risk it. We will move, then decide what course of action to take.”
“You will never win this war.” The young man smirks. “It is far too late for you.”
“So you say. I wonder if you truly believe that.”
“Who’s this? And why are we in the trees?” Xylar joins them.
“Ah. Well. There is a story. If you would wake Silme for us, we will tell you both at the same time,” Menethi answers.
“She has not had enough downtime.” Xylar frowns.
“It is necessary,” Azius says. He looks to Araedni. She shakes the young man by the nape of the neck again. “Sadly.”
“I see.” Xylar crosses her arms over her chest. “No, I really don’t.”
“You will,” Menethi says. “Please. Silme.”
“As you say.” Xylar sighs. She heads back to the main camp.
“Broxim, Ixor. If you would help Xylar break camp, I will work on where we should go. Araedni and Azius will keep watch over the young man.”
“Of course.” Ixor nods. The two depart, following Xylar.
“We’ll take this one to the ridge.” Azius points. “When you are ready, let us know.” Araedni and Azius lift the young man. They carry him between them, leaving Menethi alone.
“Camarin, save us. We are doing our best to save everyone else. Save us while we do that.” Menethi sighs, his eyes lifting to the stars.