“We have finished setting up camp, Menethi. You should come join us,” Xylar says softly. She crouches next to the older mage, resting a hand on his shoulder. The breeze rustles through her dark hair, sending a few stray strands fluttering around her face, the rest still contained in the braid she’d used earlier. She examines his face carefully in the brightening dawn light. “Have you told the others yet?”
“No. I appreciate that you have not told them yourself.” He sighs softly, tightly gripping the staff laying on the ground.
“It is not about me. It is about you. And I know you figured this business would make what you had to say a moot point. I can only hope it doesn’t take you before we finish. You are looking more tired by the day.”
“I will make it. Camarin help me, I will make it.” He grunts.
“I believe you. If anyone could make it through on sheer willpower, it would be you.” She pats his shoulder. “However, I believe it is time for a conclave. And decisions. We are all as rested as we are going to get.” She eyes him. “You did rest.”
“Do not look at me so. I did. I got a solid five hours.” He looks at her. “I am not telling you a falsehood. I did sleep.”
“Good. Then, we are all on the same field. Come.” She rises to her feet, then extends a hand to him. He takes it and uses it to help lever himself to his feet.
“I am perfectly capable of retrieving my own staff…” He mutters as she leans down, picking up his staff. She hands it to him, shrugging.
“I am aware. However, I am also capable of doing it, so I did.” She takes his arm, leading him back toward the camp, down the hill where he’d been sitting. “Silme has been in contact with Makek’s warriors again. They are ready to engage the Void’s army.”
“And our young friend?”
“Araedni and Azius report that he is as sulky and unforthcoming with information as he was last night.” She makes no comment as his body leans a trifle heavily on hers.
“Unfortunate. We need to figure out if we are utterly compromised.”
“I am of the opinion he ran when he realized what he was becoming.”
“It’s possible. It is obvious the transformation is not complete. He speaks for himself. He holds the line, but barely. I suspect there is a war for his soul deep within him. And that he’s angry enough with Makek that he might lose.”
“How can he be angry for something Makek could do nothing to prevent?”
“Because we, as humans, are complicated and messy individuals when it comes to our emotions and losing loved ones. Not only did his family die, but his entire village. While he was gone. On a mere errand. He carries that grief and anger… and guilt. Why did he survive but not anyone else?”
“Because he was lucky?”
“Xylar…” Menethi smiles. He pats her arm. “Things have been straightforward for you for years. You showed aptitude for being a mage. Your family sent you to Stormreach. You have not had anything… complicated. Save, perhaps, Hope.”
“That is not complicated.” Xylar snorts.
“No, not for you. For our young man? Everything is complicated. We don’t know anything about his relationship with his family, with his village. It’s possible that he left on this errand after an argument. It’s possible he was an outcast. So, when he says they deserved it, it might be that he feels that way. You know how Hope’s family treated her.”
“Like a goddamned dog.” She growls low in her throat, her body tensing.
“Mmmhmmm. If his family or village or both treated him in such a manner, he may have thought it was something they deserved. Or he told himself that to survive the emotions.”
“How do you know so much about how other people might feel? I know your own family did not treat you in such a manner.”
“I spent years observing those around me, Xylar. Listening to the apprentices as they came to the mage tower. Those sent by joyous families, such as yours. And those sent by relieved families, such as Azius. And those who found me on their own, despite their families or lack of families, such as Hope.”
“Just how old are you?” Xylar frowns. “You cannot be older than 70 winters.”
“Those Camarin blesses can live for many years longer than that.”
“That is not an answer.”
“No, it is not.” He pats her arm, then releases her. He uses his staff to walk into the main area of their new camp. “Azius, if you would draw the circle, Xylar tells me it is time for a conclave.”
“Of course.” Azius moves away from Araedni and the tree where she stands with the seated and bound Astylar. He begins murmuring to himself as he walks in a circle, using his foot to create the rune on the ground.
“Araedni, nothing?” Menethi approaches the blue-haired mage and the silent young man.
“Only that the Void will take care of us before nightfall.”
“I suppose we should move quickly, then.” Menethi looks at bound man. “Astylar, tell me. Did your family know what you wanted out of your life?”
“What?” His face contorting at the sudden question, he looks up. “What I wanted?”
“Did they know?”
“How do you know?”
“I asked if your family knew.”
“Why do you care?”
“I am merely curious.” Menethi leans on his staff, looking down at the young man.
“They knew.” He shrugs jerkily. “They didn’t care. I had to work the farm like everyone else.”
“You weren’t fishing at all, were you.”
“Of course I was.” He sneers.
“Mmmm. When did you hear of the destruction of Duskcrossing?”
“I just did.” He shrugs.
“And because they deserved it, you went to join the Void?”
“Yes.” He sneers again.
“When did you realize it was slowly draining you of your magic, then your life?”
“Three days ago. Wait. No. What?” He blinks, stiffening. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Mmmm.” Menethi nods. “Araedni, if you would bring our young friend something to eat.” He pats her on the shoulder as she stares at him. “Even prisoners must eat, you know.”
“Yes, but…” Seeing she will get no answers to the questions she wants to ask, she moves away.
“Take comfort, my young friend. The fact that you are headstrong has most likely saved you.” Menethi moves away from Astylar, heading toward the circle Azius is nearly finished creating. “Are you ready for us, Azius?”
“Yes. If you would all enter, I will close it.” Azius waits as five of the remaining mages file past him and settle on the ground, cross-legged. Araedni returns to Astylar. She murmurs softly as she crouches near the young man.
“I’ve amended the binding spell so you can use your hands to eat.” She hands him a bowl of stew and a hunk of bread. “Don’t be an idiot.” She gets back to her feet. She enters the circle, joining the others.
“One moment, Azius.” Menethi crouches. “You have a choice in this moment, young Astylar. Which wolf will you feed?”
“What?” He stares, his face contorting with his confusion.
“I was once told a story that every being has two wolves within. One which leads to a path where one works toward the greater good. And one which leads to a path of destruction. Which will you feed?” Menethi gets to his feet, leaving the man staring after him. Menethi enters the circle. He heads to the center of it, waiting as Azius closes the circle. Azius intones the last of the spell. A faint luminescence appears for a brief moment. Azius moves to sit on the ground with the rest. Menethi closes his eyes, creating a spell of his own. An opaque hemi-sphere appears around the circle. “Ixor.”
“Illuminate!” Four orbs of light appear near the center. Menethi finishes his spell, then leaves his staff in the center of the circle. He takes the remaining space.
“Why?” Hope asks.
“We cannot be sure how deep under the Void’s influence the boy is,” Ixor responds. “Better to give him nothing to see or hear.”
“But now we can’t see him.” Azius frowns. “I don’t like that.”
“You doubt Araedni’s binding spell?” Broxim asks, smirking.
“Then, it will be fine, will it not?”
“I suppose so.”
“Let us focus, my friends,” Menethi says. “Decisions must be made. Silme?”
“The warriors of Mekek are ready when we are ready.”
“I can only hope we can act quickly enough to save as many of them as possible,” Menethi replies. He looks to Ixor.
“The ritual is complete. Broxim has finally stopped fussing at me.” She pokes him in the side. He grunts.
“The crystal is also prepared. We only get one shot, so we are going to need all the help we can get. We should have brought one more with us. To watch our backs.”
“That is what the warriors are for,” Silme says.
“It won’t be alone. While the warriors may engage the majority of the army, there will still be the personal guard,” Broxim responds.
“The apprentices were not ready,” Hope says.
“Without them, we may not stand a chance.” Broxim sighs. “We may have no other choice but to summon them here.”
“Silme, prepare the spell, please.” Menethi lifts a hand. “We will explore other options, but, Broxim is correct. It may be necessary. I would rather the spell be prepared and then become unnecessary than not prepare and try to do it on the fly.”
“As you say.” She sighs softly, but pulls a notebook from within her robe sleeve, then a pen. She opens the book, then starts to write. She leans over Hope to whisper Ixor a question. Hope pokes her in the side.
“Let me swap with you.”
“Oh. Yeah. Okay.” They switch places. Ixor and Silme put their heads together over the spell.
“Do we have other options?” Menethi asks.
“The only one I can think is to ask for a small contingent of Mekak’s warriors to come help us,” Azius responds.
“We will ask them if they have the warriors to spare. I’m not sure they do.” Menethi sighs. “Now, about our prisoner. What shall we do with him?”
“Araedni…” Menethi lifts his brows at her.
“What. He is on the wrong side here. He was spying on us.”
“Mmmm. But for whom? The void or merely himself?”
“What is it you see in this young man, Menethi?” Hope asks. “I saw you speaking with him. Does he have latent magic abilities?”
“I believe he did, yes. However, whether he still has them… I don’t know. You know the Void tends to draw in those with magic abilities and drain that first. To get stronger.”
“We will need to move soon,” Broxim comments. “What happens to the boy after we finish may not matter.”
“It does matter, to him.”
“Menethi.” Broxim sighs, lifting a hand to his face. He draws his lower lip between his teeth for a moment. “Why this boy? Why this fight?”
“Because. He’s lost. And we need all the allies we can get.”
“If we succeed, the world will be free.”
“Of the driving force yes. There will still be years of clean-up. The armies, the pockets of followers.”
“Without the driving force…”
“Broxim, not every follower of the Void is completely under his control. They don’t all need to be,” Hope says. “Some are willing. Because they are willing, they retain their minds, their selves. Only those who are taken unwillingly become the.. husks.. we have seen.”
“Hope is correct. Is is the willing Mekek is going to need allies to both find and eradicate.”
“We’re going to need a reagent or two to make this spell work, Menethi,” Silme says.
“What is it you need? Do we have it with us? Or will we need to find it in the forest?”
“Is… is someone.. Yelling?” Araedni frowns. “Yes. Someone is definitely yelling.” Menethi gets to his feet. He moves to his staff, taking it in his hand. He murmurs to himself, the runes pulsing faintly. The opaque barrier falls. The source of the yelling is Astylar, who is hurling curses at creatures moving into the camp, swords raised. As they watch, the young man hurls his bowl at one of the black armored, black helmed creatures. It dings harmlessly against the metal, falling to the ground.
“We have company. Azius, break the circle. The rest of you know what to do.”