Azius breaks the circle, murmuring to himself. The mages exit, fanning out. Menethi stands within the broken circle, counting the intruders to their camp. Seven. Strange, why not – ah. There. Three more. He nods to himself. Hope and Xylar circle backward, then turn to put their backs together as they check for other intruders. Araedni and Azius stalk forward, sneering at the figures crashing through the camp. Each is muttering softly. Broxim breaks left, Silme with him. Ixor moves to the right. Menethi inhales slowly. Planting his feet, he changes his grip on his staff. He turns it upside down. As he murmurs to himself, the runes glow brightly.
“Force wave, mages.” He counts to three, then slams the head of the staff into the ground. He waits. Araedni and Azius, still in his line of vision, stop moving, planting their feet purposefully. They waver slightly as the wave moves through them. The intruders however, stumble backward. Two fall completely to the ground, though make no sound.
“Let me out of this!” Astylar struggles against the tree.
“You are better left where you will not be in the way,” Araedni responds.
“Loose him, Araedni,” Menethi says. “Were it not for him, we would not know we were in danger.
“Are you certain?”
“No, but that is a bridge we will cross if necessary.” Menethi shifts slightly. “Force wave.” He slams the staff into the ground again. He watches as Araedni changes tactics. Whatever spell she had been casting is lost as she casts the release spell. The eight silent void soldiers still on their feet do not fall. The ones attempting to get up fall again.
“Release!” She gives the young man a long, dark look, then mutters as Azius shoves her out of the way of a sword coming toward her head. It barely misses him, creating quite the sound as it swings past his left arm.
“So it begins, so it may end,” Menethi murmurs to himself as the mages go to work. Eight mages and a young, lost man against ten of the silent, soulless husks of the Void. “Camarin, watch over us. We will need you before the night’s fall.”
Hope begins by releasing a large fireball at a pair of the creatures nearest to her and Xylar. They stumble backwards. One falls, on fire. The other continues moving forward, toward Hope. Azius stalks to one in the front. He slams his fist into the faceplate of the creature, releasing a spell as he does so. The creature’s helm buckles, sending it to the ground. It twitches slightly, but Azius shows no mercy, slamming his fist into the now unprotected neck of the creature. It stops moving. Xylar stretches out her left arm to the sky. Lightning sparks from the cloudless sky, slamming into her. She channels it into the creature moving toward Hope. It stops moving forward to stand still, body shaking as the lightning crackles around it.
Araedni moves toward the two creatures who are down. She sneers at them. She mutters to herself, then reaches down to claw at them with talons. The talons slice through the armor, then deep into the skin. She grunts, feeling the blow of a blade against her left arm. She ignores the pain, but slices through the wrist with her talons. The move severs the wrist from the creature, sending the blade to the ground. She slams her talons into the creatures neck, muttering until it stops moving. She moves on to the other one, until it, also, stops moving. Her gaze snaps sideways, seeing movement to her left. She eyes Astylar warily as he picks up the fallen sword. He ignores her, heading toward one of the creatures still advancing. She exhales slowly, following him.
“Lift.” Broxim releases the spell at one of the creatures near him. He watches as the creature is lifted high into the sky, to the height of the Stormreach tower. “Release.” He turns his attention to the next as the creature falls, ignoring the sound as it hits the ground. He grunts as it is closer than he expects and slices at him with an axe. Wrapping an arm around his middle, he shoves his hand forward. “Get back from me!” This creature flies backwards, slamming into Ixor. He winces, hurrying forward, but stops abruptly as the creature suddenly bursts into dark flames. Ixor gets to her feet, looking back to Broxim.
“A little warning next time?” She turns her attention to the next. It is advancing upon Silme. Ixor mutters to herself. She releases the spell at the same time Silme releases hers. The creature bursts into flames, then vanishes. It reappears across the clearing. It stutter-steps toward Menethi, then falls.
“There should be two… I see one being dealt with by Araedni and the boy… where is the..” Menethi grunts, feeling the bite of a blade into his back. “Ah.” He falls to his knees. “Distraction.”
“No!” A collective gasp from all eight remaining. Seven mages work to cast their spells, while Astylar pushes himself into motion. He slams his body into the creature, knocking it back from striking a second blow. He uses the sword in his hands to rain blows onto the creature. Over and over. The mages let their spells fizzle, watching him cut the creature into pieces as curses and words of anger and regret pour out of the young man in a stream of words and emotion. Xylar moves to Menethi, crouching beside him.
“Do not let this be a distraction, the rest of you. Are we truly finished?” Menethi’s breathing is shallow. He looks to Xylar. “I will live.”
“You had better.” She frowns. “We will need herbs. And the blessing of Camarin.” She looks up, finding the other six spreading out to check the area. “Araedni is wounded, as is Broxim. I am not certain of the others. Not yet.” She looks to Astylar, the lack of sound catching her attention. She finds him staring down at the creature under him. Blood-splattered, he raises his eyes to the sky, the sword sliding from his hand. He slumps to his knees, his head falling forward. Xylar looks back to Menethi. “How did you know?” She murmurs.
“Suspected, more than anything. The feel of magic was still upon him, even if the Void had attempted to drain it all out of him. And why was he here alone? He would not be alone. If he was here to distract us, the attack came too late. No, it seemed more likely he was on the run.”
“You have more faith than I.”
“I am aware.” He chuckles softly, then grunts. “However, we need all the allies we can get. Especially if I leave this world too soon.” He grunts as she nudges him. “That was not kind of you.”
“Stop talking about your death already.”
“It is coming.”
“Mmm. They are returning.”
“It appears we are alone. For now.” Azius reports. The other five return with similar statements.
“How many of you are wounded?” Xylar asks. She looks at them all carefully. “Ixor, Hope, Silme, Azius?”
“No. Only tired,” Silme responds. The others nod in agreement.
“Good. If you would be so kind as to help me with Broxim, Araendi, and Menethi, we might just survive this debacle.” She looks past the group, to Astylar, who has not moved since she last looked.
“Hope? Would you check on our young soldier? He has… had an.. intense day.”
“Understatement, meet Xylar,” Hope mutters. She leaves the rest to their work. She circles around so she is approaching the young man from the front. She pauses to look at the creature in front of her, as little of it there is left to see. She steps to the side of it, crouching down. “Astylar.” She waits. When he does not even look up, she tries again. “Astylar, thank you.”
“Why. I didn’t do anything.” His voice is flat.
“You saved Menethi. We appreciate that.”
“They were here because of me.” His eyes open. He looks at her, his every emotion visible in that look: misery, anger, uncertainty, guilt.
“Probably. But you didn’t let them win. You didn’t let them kill us all.”
“It seemed wrong. All of it. Even if they hated me, they didn’t deserve what they got. I didn’t mean that.” His head falls back down. He turns his hands over, staring at the blood on them, at the scars running up and down his forearms beneath the blood. “I hated them. I wanted them to die because they hated me. And they did.”
“You didn’t cause that.”
“I was happy they were gone. How do I live with that.”
“By realizing that you weren’t happy they were dead, but that you were free of them. There is a difference, Astylar.” She reaches out, taking his bloodied hand.
“Is there?” He lifts his head again to look at her.
“Yes. There is a difference. Being happy to be free of a family that hates you and makes you hate yourself is completely different from being happy they are dead.”
“I didn’t want the whole town to die. Most of them were really nice to me. The innkeeper told me where to find the mages. That’s where I was going. That’s why I’m not dead.” He looks down at his hands again. “I didn’t want him to die. That’s not fair.”
“No. It’s not fair.” Hope looks up as Azius approaches with a length of cloth. He offers it to her. She takes it from him, then offers it to Astylar. He just stares at her, then looks down, unheeded tears sliding down his face. She reaches out with the cloth, wiping gently at the blood there. “You are valid just as you are. And we appreciate that you helped us. Even if you inadvertently brought them to us.” She changes position, settling on the ground, cross-legged. She squeezes his hand gently.
“He wants you all dead.”
“We know that.”
“I hope you kill him first.”
“We are trying.”
“I want to help.”
“We can take all the help we can get, so thank you.”
“I can’t do magic any more, but I still know how to use a bow, a sword.” He extricates his hands from hers and takes the cloth from her. He uses it to wipe at the blood on his face and arms.
“That will be useful.” She looks across to Xylar. The circle has been reclosed by Azius. Menethi, Araedni, and Broxim are within in, laying down, wounds dressed. Xylar is sitting beside them, her eyes closed, her lips moving.
“Why did the old one trust me.”
“He’s just like that.”
“He trusts everyone? Seems like a bad choice to me.”
“No, he just knows who is worth trusting.” Hope looks back to Astylar. “We learned a long time ago to trust his instincts.”
“Oh.” Astylar shrugs, then looks toward the creature he’d killed. “I guess I’m not a useless idiot after all.”
“No.” Hope exhales slowly. “Welcome to the council, Astylar. If you make it through this, Stormreach will welcome you home.”
“The mage tower.” She smiles as his eyes light up.