“The warriors are doing what they can!” Azius calls out, trying to be heard over the clang of metal against metal. “We must begin!”
“Are the protections down?” Ixor calls back. “If they are not down, this will not work!” She shifts position, trying to keep an eye on what is happening around them.
“As best as I can tell!” Broxim stands still, eyes closed. He holds one arm upright, the other to his side, parallel to the ground.
“How can you tell?” Astylar asks. He stands near to the group of eight mages, watching as the five warriors of Makek engage the six armed bodyguards. “And how does it not have any mages with it?” He looks around the small camp. Tucked within a very small clearing in the forest, it consists of three tents only. Upon their arrival, two of the tents had emptied, with Makek’s warriors engaging the six soldiers who’d emerged.
Astylar edges forward. He peers into the first tent. He finds it empty, save for a darkly glowing orb. His eyes widen as he looks upon it. He draws in a breath, the sword falling to point toward the ground. Yes, Astylar. Come back to me. Come. Come close. You did well. You brought them to me. Together, we will finish them and then I will be unstoppable, just as you wanted. Come, Astylar. Come. The young man steps closer to the orb, his eyes unblinking as he looks upon it.
“Yes. Of course. Yes….” He reaches out toward the orb. He jerks back as it suddenly shatters. “What? Who?” He whirls. “Hope?” He blinks several times. “What?”
“If you find another, don’t approach it, Astylar. The Void is controlling his soldiers through it. Come, let us check the other tent, together.” She reaches out a hand to him. “If you still wish to help us.”
“I don’t…” He blinks several times.
“Stay here, Astylar.” Hope leaves the confused young man behind. She approaches the other tent cautiously. She peeks into it. She hisses to herself, finding another orb within it. She sends fire at it as well, making it shatter into pieces. She turns, exiting the tent. She rejoins the other mages.
“I don’t think so, Menethi.” Hope shakes her head, trying to ignore the fall of Menethi’s face. “There were orbs within the tents. I believe the Void spoke to him through it. He had nearly touched it when I caused it to shatter.”
“I… see,” Menethi closes his eyes a brief moment. “Let us continue. Broxim?”
“I think we’ve gotten the protections. Let’s see what we have in the last tent.” As a group, the mages approach the last tent. They shove it open and step inside. They stop, eyes widening.
“Hello!” A young girl, no more than six winters, stands before them. Dark-skinned, with dark brown eyes and dark brown hair, she looks up at them, smiling brightly. “Have you come to save me?” She reaches out a hand to them. “I’ve been very scared.”
“I’m sure you have,” Broxim mutters in response.
“So you *are* here to save me! Oh, good!” She claps her hands gleefully, jumping up and down. “That is so wonderful!”
“Are you here alone?” Hope asks. She looks to the other mages, then enters, slowly circling around to the back of the tent.
“I am now. It just left. It was very angry with you.” She watches as the mages filter into the tent, one at a time. “Is my mommy okay?”
“And where is your mother?” Araedni asks. She crouches down, putting her gaze on level with the little girl.
“She’s at Stormreach. Can I go back there?” The little girl tips her head to the side. “Is everything okay at Stormreach? You all got very quiet.”
“We are fine. What’s your name?” Araedni asks, striving to keep the girl’s attention as the others move to encircle her.
“Ruthie.” She smiles widely. “I’m named after my grandmother. I miss her. But she died.”
“Did she, now.” Araedni asks. “How?”
“The evil men came and took her away.” She frowns, her lower lip trembling.
“Where did they take her?” Araedni slowly gets to her feet.
“I don’t know.” The little girl looks up. “Why is your hair blue?”
“Hair isn’t supposed to be blue.”
“It’s just never blue. How did you do that?”
“Magic.” Hope responds. “Ixor.” Ixor begins the ritual. The mages raise their arms, leaving them stretched to the sides. The air in the tent begins to crackle.
“What’s happening?” The little girl looks around. “I don’t understand. I want to go home!”
“We shall send you there,” Azius says. “Please stay there this time.”
“Why are you doing this!” The little girl stamps a foot. “You are supposed to save me!” She turns around in a slow circle, finding all of the mages have joined Ixor in reciting the ritual. Runes appear above each of their heads as Ixor calls out each of the major ones she requires. “NO! You will not!” The little girl stamps her foot again. “Astylar! Stop them!” She smiles widely, maliciously, noting the widened eyes on three of the mages. She waits, arms crossed over her chest in a rather smug fashion. “If you won’t save me, he will. He loves me.” She turns back to the opening of the tent, dark eyes slowly turning to a shifting purple in color. The air in the tent grows more electric and her hair is caught by a sudden whirlwind. “Astylar!” The young man suddenly shoves into the tent. “Stop them. Save me.” She presses her hands together, as if in prayer. “Please. Help me. They are trying to kill me.”
“What?” Astylar frowns, staring at the little girl within the circle. “Ruthie?” He blinks again. “Why do you look strange?”
“I do not!” She stamps a foot, though her form is less distinct than it was. “I look just the same as always.”
“No. You are…” Astylar steps backwards, inhaling sharply. He looks around wildly, his eyes widening. “What? Menethi?” He finds the older mage standing near to him. Menethi’s staff is now in the center of the circle, runes glowing brightly blue as the mages continue to chant the ritual. Astylar drags in several deep breaths, turning his dual-colored gaze back to Ruthie. “What’s happening?”
“They are trying to kill me! Stop them!” She points at them. “Break the circle! Shove one! Stop them!”
“No. I… I can’t. They said…” He frowns. “They said it was important they finish. They have to finish.”
“No! They can’t finish! It’ll kill me! You can’t let them kill me!” Ruthie puts her hands back together, fingers laced, beneath her chin. She opens her eyes wide. “You don’t want them to kill me, do you?”
“No… of course not. I’ll just….” He frowns. “Menethi? Azius?” He looks to the mages again. He frowns at the contorted faces he sees, the tense bodies. He sees blood running down Araedni’s arm. He sees blood from Broxim’s arm dripping to the ground. He can see a dark stain on Menethi’s robe. “No. You shouldn’t…” He stops speaking.
“Astylar! Help me!” Ruthie’s voice rises in octave. “They are hurting me. Help me!”
“But…” He whirls, hearing something behind him.
“No! LOOK AT ME!” Ruthie stamps her foot. She watches as one of Makek’s warriors staggers inside. Using her sword to prop herself upright, the woman looks at Astylar.
“Do you need help in here? What do you need.”
“What about the others? The soldiers.”
“Do not worry about that. Tell me of the Eight. What do they need.” The warrior reaches out, gripping Astylar’s arm just above the elbow. “What do they need?”
“I don’t think they need anything. They started the ritual. I was just going to… Ruthie said…”
“Ruthie?” The warrior frowns. “Who is Ruthie?”
“The little girl behind me.”
“There is no little girl…” The warrior’s grip tightens. “I see the mages. And … I don’t know.”
“What?” Astylar turns. Within the circle, he sees a vaguely human-shaped cloud of swirling shadow. “Oh. Oh god.” Astylar groans softly to himself. “Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid.”
“What’s stupid.” The warrior’s breathing is more shallow, her grip slackening. Her hands drops from Astylar’s arm.
“Me.” He turns back to the warrior. “Let me help you sit down.” He takes her by the arm and helps her sit on the floor, then lean against the tent wall. “Catch your breath.”
“Just a moment. I’ll be fine.”
“Right.” He notes the numerous slashes to her arms, as well as one to her side. “I’ll just… keep an eye out for the mages.”
“A good plan. Thank you.” The warrior’s eyes close. “Thanks.”
“Yeah…” He turns away from her, back to the mages.
“Fools! You think you can contain me! You cannot! I am endless! I am the Void!” A deep, sonorous voice echos from the swirling shadows within the circle. Astylar watches as Broxim pulls the soul crystal out from within his robe. He releases it four beats later. The crystal moves toward the center of the circle, over the mass of shadows. “You will perish in this attempt! I will be stronger than ever! I will punish everyone you love! I will prevail.”
“Camarin save us…” Astylar groans, clutching his head as he falls to his knees, hearing the voice echo within his mind, causing his body to vibrate from within. He shudders, but lowers his arms, watching the ritual unfold. He tries to ignore the grunts and small gasps starting to punctuate the words being spoken by the mages. “Finish it. Please. I don’t think…” He groans again.
“You foolish beings. I will not-” The voice is cut off. A brilliant flash of light erupts inside the tent, Astylar stifles a scream of pain at the brightness, lifting an arm to cover his eyes. He shudders, his eyes closed. He breathes deeply, trying to bring his thundering heart and shallow breathing under control. He hears two small thumps, then the brightness is gone. He drops his arm and opens his eyes.
“What?” He inhales sharply. Everything which had been before him is gone. No mages. No Ruthie. No swirling mass of shadows. Only Menethi’s staff remains, as well as the soul crystal. He gets to his feet and prowls the entirety of the tent. He finds nothing. Nothing at all. He moves to the center, picking up the soul crystal and the staff. He grunts, hearing faint whispers within his mind as he holds onto the soul crystal.
“Menethi? Archmagi?” Another warrior shoves into the tent. He comes to a dead stop, finding Astylar alone, holding Menethi’s staff and the soul crystal. When his eyes find the warrior leaned against the side of the tent, not breathing, he levels his blade toward Astylar.
“I think.. I think we won,” Astylar says. “This is all that’s left.”
“The soldiers stopped moving. I came to check on the mages.” The warrior frowns, but slowly lowers his blade.
“Do you have a cloth? A bag?”
“I don’t want to hold this in my hand. It’s… trying to talk to me.”
“Mmm. Perhaps the High Priest of Camarin can help us with that.” The warrior digs into a small pouch at his side. “Here. Take this cloth.” He offers the cloth to Astylar, then kneels next to the female warrior. He murmurs softly over her. He disengages one of the pouches she wears. “Here. Take this one. It should suffice.”
“Thanks.” Astylar wraps the crystal in the cloth, then drops it into the pouch. He attaches the pouch to his belt. “That’s… better. Not great, but better.” He looks toward the female warrior. “Do you need help carrying her?”
“No.” The other warrior sheathes his weapon, then lifts his dead comrade. “However, if you would carry her blade, that would be helpful.”
“What do we do now?” Astylar steps forward, picking up the blade.
“Now? We take Mischi home to her family.”
“What about after that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Me either.” Astylar stares at the staff in his hand. The etched runes are nothing more than markings in the wood now. “I guess… I guess we just… make a life.”