Begin

“Azius.”

“Not now, Silme. I’m looking.”

“Yes, now.”

“Silme. Surely it can wait.”

“No. The warriors feel it’s best to move now.”

“What.” Azius’s eyes fly open. He looks up at the mage standing over him, her auburn-tinged hair drawn back from a pale face. Her hands are tucked into the dark green sleeves of her robe. “We aren’t ready.”

“They said there is no choice. It’s now or we wait much longer.”

“And we don’t have that kind of time.” Azius exhales slowly. “Where are we?” He looks past her. “They shouldn’t be up yet.” He watches Broxim and Araedni moving through the camp, helping Xylar and Hope pack what would be necessary. “What about Ixor and Menethi?” He frowns. “There’s Menethi. I see him, with the young man, still in the circle.”

“Ixor is fetching some reagents for the summon spell she helped me write, should we need it. She shall be back shortly.” She offers a hand to the seated Azius. He takes it, levering himself to his feet.

“Thank you.” He sighs. “Near as I can tell, it hasn’t moved. Were the warriors able to spare us anyone?”

“A few. I can only hope it will be enough.”

“When will they arrive?”

“Shortly. As soon as they do, we need to move. Even if you don’t think we’re ready.”

“More time. I could use more time to pin down a better location.”

“Couldn’t we all use more time? As it is, we’re bringing a young man to this death.” She sighs softly, looking across to where Astalyr is in conversation with Menethi. “There is no scenario where he doesn’t die, Azius. If we bring him with us…”

“He is determined to help us, Silme. He feels he owes it to the few townsfolk who died, at the very least. I also suspect that he’s not entirely sure how much longer he will be in control of his own mind and he’d rather end his life fighting than as one of the husks.”

“I can’t argue with him about that. It just still makes me sad. He has so much time ahead of him. And yet…”

“The entire war has shortened the lifespan of many, Silme. Us, included.”

“Yeah, but… we…”

“You can’t say you expected to die this soon. You can say you’ve accepted it must happen. But you can’t say you expected it might happen.”

“Actually, yes. I can say that when I accepted the title of archmage, I expected I was going to die long before I should. We’ve been researching how to end this for so long, the research has been passed down. Didn’t you expect you were going to die?” She tips her head, looking up at him.

“Maybe.” He sighs, looking from her face, toward where the other four mages have joined Menethi and Astalyr. Maybe I did. I don’t know. I just know that I knew I needed this to end.” He gestures. “After you.” They join the others, settling on the ground.

“How long, Silme?” Broxim asks.

“Soon. Are we ready?”

“As soon as Ixor returns from her reagent hunting, we should be,” he replies. He looks to Astalyr. “You don’t need to go with us.”

“Yes, I do.” The young man crosses his arms over his chest.

“You understand, that if you go with us, you will most likely die.”

“Broxim.” Hope leans over and punches his arm.

“What. He should realize what is going to happen. This is not a time to sugarcoat things.”

“No, it is not,” Menethi agrees. He looks to Astylar. “Do you realize this? That accompanying us, helping us, will most likely mean you will die with us.”

“How do you know you are going to die? I’ve seen you fight.” The young man frowns.

“The spell we must cast to contain the Void is…” Menethi pauses. He leans to one side, his eyes closing for a brief moment.

“Powerful.” Xylar picks up the thread of the conversation. “It will require a great deal of us. In fact, by our calculations, it will require everything we have. And the resulting backlash will dissipate our physical forms.”

“And you are all…” Astylar looks around the circle of mages. “You knew you weren’t going back to the mage tower when you came out here.”

“Correct.” Araedni nods. “We knew. We left our apprentices behind to carry on the work. We will leave you directions to find them in Stormreach, should you survive….” She pauses, a grim look in her dark brown eyes.

“It’s going to be mass chaos,” Azius finishes. “Once we reach the Void, the warriors will do what they can to engage any bodyguards he might have. We will need to deal with any shielding he might have… protections…. And then…” Azius shakes his head. “Ixor and Broxim have written the ritual. There will be nothing left of us. It is what must be done.” He looks away from the confusion, fear, and sadness on the young man’s face. “We have spent a century on this ritual. Us and our predecessors. This is the only way.”

“The only way.” Astalyr’s voice catches.

“The only way.” Menethi pats the young man’s arm. “We are but few. The world is many. We do what we must to save them.”

“But.. You can do so much for the world…”

“There will be no world if we do not do this.” Broxim comments. He sighs softly at the look on the young man’s face. He gets to his feet, walking away from the group, holding his left arm close to him as he paces back and forth.

“I guess I get it.” Astalyr says. “I don’t like it.”

“I cannot say I am overly fond of it myself,” Xylar responds. “However, it is what it is.”

“I’m still going.” His mouth flattens out, his expression turning mulish.

“As you say, then. You will need to listen to instructions. We cannot have you breaking the ritual,” Hope says. She looks to Silme as the other mage smacks her arm. “He’s old enough to make his own decisions. And he’s made it.”

“Don’t break the ritual.” Astalyr nods. “I can do that. I can make sure no one stops what you are doing.”

“No matter what.” Broxim says, his back to the group.

“What?” Astylar looks up.

“Once we begin the ritual, we must finish it. No matter what happens, we must finish it. It will be painful. We will most likely make note of it in some way. However.” He turns to look at the young man. “If you make this pledge, if you do this…. We are going to be relying on you to keep your word, to the best of your ability. No matter what happens, nothing interrupts the ritual. Not you, not Makek’s warriors, not one of us. Is this something you can swear to do? As long as you have breath within you?”

“Broxim!” Silme inhales sharply, staring at him. “You can’t…”

“He offered. And it occurred to me as he did so that it would be necessary. The warriors will not understand. And we don’t really have the time to explain it to them when they arrive.” He shifts his attention. “Ixor. You return. What was it you said would be the result if the ritual were interrupted?” He asks.

“We would all still die. However, the soul crystal would shatter and the Void would absorb all of our energy. Making it 8 times as powerful as it is now,” she responds. “Why?”

“I needed to impress upon our young friend the importance of the task he was volunteering to do.”

“Is he coming, then?” She looks to the young man. “You don’t need to be a hero. Run, lad. Go find a new life somewhere.”

“No.” Astalyr frowns. “I’m doing this. I’m going to help you.” He idly rubs at the pale streaks on his neck. “Besides, I don’t know how much of a life I am going to have.” He shrugs. “Best to do something worthwhile with what I have left.”

“Mmmm.” Ixor looks him over. “It is your choice. I trust you have been well informed what this choice means.”

“Yes.”

“As you wish it.” She turns her attention to the mages. “I have gathered the necessary items for the summoning spell. I pray we do not need it.”

“The warriors approach,” Hope murmurs. She points to where she finds five of them cresting the hill. “It is time.”

“Gather what we need,” Menethi says. “Let us begin the end.”

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