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R. C. Butler
This book is a work of fiction, the characters, incidents and dialogues are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2012 by R. C. Butler
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Published by: Bulldog Press
The anticipation built inside him as he willed his body over the final hill of his trek home. When he left three years ago, parting ways with his four closest friends, this climb had been nothing. A lot had changed for Ayres in that time. Stopping to catch his breath, leaning his frail body against the battered old staff he carried, he questioned how so much had come to pass in so little time. It seemed an eternity since the five had parted ways, each leaving immediately after the burial of their dear friend.
Tonight he would once again meet up with those companions to see how each fared with their own journey. The thought of reliving his story for the group sent a cold wave of fear through him but he had known when he began the long quest home that it would be inevitable. You need only look at his frail, aged body, cloaked in flowing white robes and you would begin to question. The robes alone would be enough to cause alarm. No true mage would wrap himself in white. The order would not allow it. Couple that with his golden, aged skin and hunched, battered body and you would think he was as old as the monastery he approached.
Three years ago, he left this place a twenty-year-old headstrong youth. Tonight he would return as an aged shadow of that man. No, Ayres was certain none of the four would recognize their youngest friend.
Placing his staff in front of him to help bear his weight, he began the final leg of his trip. Reaching the crest of the hill and seeing the dim lights of Dantforth, his mind began to wander back to that lonely night they had all parted ways.
They had been so young and foolish back then but Lastani’s death had changed that for them all. He would never forget her sacrifice nor would he forget how she looked laid out before them at the memorial. Her elven skin unblemished, draped in silk and petals. She appeared so peaceful. A look not uncommon for elven maidens, but rare for those raised in the company of humans and dwarves. The service had been a beautiful three-day event in her honor, more a celebration than mourning. That was the elven way. While Lastani followed few of her people’s traditions, this she had always insisted upon. She would not have her friends tearing up over her. They were to celebrate her life and move on with their own. Throughout the event, the five had put on great falsehoods but each knew the pain they shared. When the final dance was complete and the elven Queen had pronounced the ceremony closed, the five stood, barely able to look each other in the eye, and went their separate ways. Only one promise remained between them. On this night, in this all too familiar monastery, they would gather again to share their tales.
“Not a night I’m looking forward to!” thought Duran as he stumbled across the pebbled road through the monastery gates.
Who could blame him? There was a lot of bad blood over Lastani’s death when he left and, for him at least, time had resolved none of it. He knew ‘pretty boy’ blamed him, had from the start, and he was not looking forward to yet another night of defending himself. He would rather face a ditch full of hill trolls than see that look in Raldi’s eyes.
Crossing the dark field seemed to take forever, but then, at four foot nine inches he did not have the longest stride. For most half-breeds this would be a point of contention but for Duran it was a matter of pride. Were you to ask, he would say he was dwarf. The half human and one quarter elven blood that ran through him was merely a statistical anomaly.
The musky smell of stale air washed over him as he pulled the monastery doors open and stepped inside. He stood in the darkness of the doorway waiting for his eyes to adjust.
“Bout time you got here mutt. Those little legs don’t move any faster?”
Duran smiled to himself, he would recognize that voice anywhere.
“They got me here just fine, but I’m amazed that barbarian sized head of yours was able to fit through those double doors.”
A deep hard laugh came from the mammoth sized man standing at the back of the room.
“Ah, it’s good to see you my friend, it’s been a while.”
The dwarf walked over, slapping the man in the small of the back as a show of affection. “Hmph, it’s good to see you too Bellaham, but if Raldi’s here then ‘a while’ hasn’t been long enough.”
Solace filled the large man’s eyes at the thought of his two friends still at each other’s throats.
“Well you need not worry. He’s not here and I got word this morning, he’s not coming.”
A mix of anger and relief crossed Duran’s face. “Didn’t even have it in him to face me, hey? Well he always did run from a fight. Must be that elven blood.”
Bellaham shook his head, “Do I need to remind you that you are one quarter elven yourself?”
“Ummph, I’m a dwarf and I won’t ever be anything else,” mumbled the little man.
“Well it’s refreshing to see that the two of you haven’t changed much,” came a whispered raspy voice from the doorway.
The two friends stared at the crouched, hooded figure, recognizing neither the raspy distant voice nor the broken old man it had come from. Both shook their heads in confusion, as much over the unbelievable gold trimmed white robes as the strange man wearing them.
Bellaham’s deep voice boomed across the monastery, “I believe you have the wrong party old man. This here is a private soiree.”
Duran rolled his eyes at his friend’s cocky act. “Just like old times,” he thought. Luckily, this old man was too feeble to cause any real problems.
Ayres’ breath came in gasps between spasms of coughing as he tried to stifle his laughter. “That tone didn’t work on me as a twelve-year-old, barbarian, should it really make me shiver and run now?”
The uncertainty was immediately evident on both men’s faces as they looked over the cloaked man. Ayres slowly slid his hood back to reveal his squinted eyes and golden complexion.
“Now don’t tell me three years has blurred your memory so much that you can’t recognize one of your closest friends.”
Realization passed over the stout dwarf’s eyes, looking up at the frail version of his old companion, “Ayres? What in god’s name have you done to yourself?”
“God didn’t have anything to do with that,” mumbled Bellaham.
“All in good time, my friends. The story is long so let’s wait for the rest of our companions.”
“Umph!” muttered Duran. “Haven’t you heard? Pretty boy is far too busy to meet with the likes of us.”
Bellaham smacked the dwarf lightly on the shoulder and interjected, “I just heard this morning that Raldi won’t make it. Something unavoidable has come up in his homeland. An official elven ambassador was waiting on my steps when I got to Dantforth today. Freaked me right out. An ambassador? Who knew he had those kinds of connections.”
“Well apparently he’s been kissing some elven booty over the last three years,” jumped in the dwarf.
Even through his squinted lids, Duran could see the mage roll his eyes. A slight tinge of guilt bit into him as he dropped his line of sight to the floor. How could Ayres always make him feel so foolish with only a look?
“Hmm, then I guess we await Cryssteena. It’s unlike my sister to be late,” he said between coughs and gasps.
Duran and Bellaham looked nervously at one another, both surprised and unsure what to say. By the looks on their faces, Ayres was instantly concerned.
“What? What did I miss?”
Taking a deep breath Duran’s face went stoic as he looked at the broken figure of his old friend. “I assumed everyone knew.” Bellaham dipped his big head as the small man continued, “News even reached me at the northern end of the Thurnex Mountains. Cryss… well… it was two winters ago… Ayres, your sister’s dead.”
Incomprehension, confusion, anger and remorse, they all rushed over Ayres within an instant of hearing those words. His coughing hastened as he struggled to regain his composure.
“How? This can’t be, I’d have heard.”
Duran tried to ignore the emotions he felt when he first heard the story and get through it himself. “How much do you know about your sister’s plans?”
Ayres thought back, trying to drown out the emotional barrage he was experiencing. “Well, like me, she was always interested in the arts. I assumed she would continue her studies alone.”
The dwarf tried to ignore Ayres’ shattered breathing as he continued, “Like you, mere study wasn’t enough for Cryssteena. She aspired to be more than a student. When the five of us parted ways, she headed south for the Red Tower of Isath.”
Ayres was quite familiar with the red tower. It was home to the Council of Reds, magi that have learned the black arts but refuse to be controlled by them. Cryss’ interest in the tower, however, confused him. Seeing this in his friend’s odd new face, Duran quickly picked up the pace of the story.
“Cryss was determined to take the tests. She wanted desperately to wear the robes.”
The mage’s skepticism was immediately obvious. “Impossible! No woman can be sworn into the order.” Ayres coughing increased as he continued. “Since most women wore or supported the whites in the War of the Robes, women have been banned from taking the tests. The black council would never allow it.”
Both Bellaham and Duran knew the story of the War of the Robes. They grew up with tales of the magi’s internal battle passed off as bedtime stories. Almost everyone knew how the white robes had been driven from the order of magi. How the council of the blacks had taken over and instituted strict new policies. All magi must either live by the black arts or, at minimum, study and respect them. This was also when they chose to ban all women from the order. Women, they said, were far too compassionate and leaned towards the white arts. Since the war, no one had dared don the white robes.
Duran continued, “Cryss knew the history and that’s precisely why she headed for Isath. She was determined to appeal to the red council. She realized that they had no fundamental objection to women taking the tests and felt it was her best chance.”
The dwarf paused to let this all sink in but Ayres skeptical look remained. “The red council relented. They let Cryss take the tests.”
Bellaham let out a sigh in the background as the dwarf kept going. “She didn’t make it, Ayres. She died before she could finish the first half.”
Ayres skeptical look grew more intense. “Now I know it’s a fish tale, the first half of the tests are non-fatal. Cryssteena was far too experienced in the arts to fail on the first half. Even the barbarian,” Ayres nodded at Bellaham, “could get that far.”
Tears began to fill Duran’s eyes. Bellaham shook off the slight and addressed his friend, “We know Cryss had the skills to complete the tests, Ayres. She had the determination, the knowledge, and the ability. But,” he paused a moment unsure how to point out the obvious, “the black council found out. As you said, they would never allow it.”
The next few hours were a blur for Ayres. A burst of unforeseen emotion bombarded him. A crippling mixture of fear, rage and loss rushed over him like a dark cloud settling on his eyes and lungs. His vision blurred and he could barely recognize what was happening when his legs finally gave way. The next thing he knew a bright light was pushing through the cloud, dispersing it. His heart rate slowed and the emotional trifecta subsided, replaced by an unbelievable sense of peace.
Looking down at his friend’s frail form laid out on an old cot. Duran was relieved to see the odd transformation take place. It had been nearly nine hours since Ayres collapsed. The dwarf watched in awe as his struggled breathing became strong and rhythmic. The golden skin that looked so dry and painful the night before now seemed to radiate a calming glow. As he watched his friend, finally at peace, the dwarf could feel an unexplained sense of ease within himself. Looking up and over his shoulder, he could see the fear still apparent in Bellaham’s eyes.
“Oh, relax you big lug. He’s getting better. He’ll be back up and insulting us both in no time.”
He could see the pain on the big man’s face. Amongst the people of Dantforth, he had always been considered a gentle giant. Standing at least two feet above the average, his barbarian heritage was apparent but his demeanor failed to reflect it. He had long been considered the most sensitive of the companions and seeing his words take Ayres to the ground had nearly devastated him.
“I should have tried to break it to him easier. Look how weak he is, I should have known he couldn’t take the strain.”
“Bah! Hogwash,” retorted Duran. “You didn’t kill his sister, Bellah, and there’s no way you are responsible for that god forsaken form he is in.”
Bellaham looked down at Ayres’ frail form. “What do you think happened? He was so young, so strong when he left to take the tests.”
“Aye, he was.” Duran shook his head. “I know of only one force that could do that to a man. The powers of the magi are involved here.”
Ayres began to stir and the peace that had encompassed him seemed to disappear. His body aged before their eyes and his breathing became strained and tiresome again. He slowly opened his eyes, trying to assess the situation. He was no longer in the damp monastery, that much was obvious. Taking in the multicolored walls and horrible décor, he recognized the room from his youth. He was definitely in Bellaham’s hut, but how had he gotten there?
Attempting to smile up at his two friends he asked, “What the… How’d I get here? And why in three years have you not painted this bloody eyesore?”
Bellaham smiled, he had always taken pride in his hated décor. Being able to enjoy all the colors life had to offer still made him euphoric. Glad to see his friend complaining as usual, he reached down and helped him to sit up.
“When will you ever learn to enjoy the colors nature provides us?” chuckled the barbarian.
Leaning over to whisper to Ayres, the dwarf chimed in, “I’ve got nothing against the colors but do we have to enjoy them all at once?”
This brought a smile to the mage’s face. Snickering lightly under his breath, he pulled himself slowly to his feet and tried to stifle his cough. “Now what have the two of you done with my staff?”
Bellaham reached behind the door and pulled out the battered and cracked piece of wood. Looking at it, a six-foot long spiraling branch of worn-down diamond willow, he had to comment.
“This thing?” he held it out for Ayres. “It’s not much of a staff, o’ great and powerful mage.” With a laugh he kept going, “Maybe we should varnish it up for you? Perhaps nail a shiny crystal to the top. You know, to focus all that raw twig power.”
At the last comment, Duran could not contain himself and burst out in laughter. Ayres said nothing, nor did he reach out for his staff. Instead, he merely closed his eyes and began to concentrate, a few unrecognizable words whispered under his breath. As he did, the staff pulled from the barbarians hand with such force that a battalion of ogre could not have stopped it. It floated slowly across the room and settled at Ayres’ side.
“It may not be pretty,” he wheezed out, “but it serves me well.”
Both Duran and Bellaham had seen Ayres and Cryss perform parlor tricks as teens and would normally not be impressed. However, the power with which he snapped the staff from Bellah’s grip had the two men staring at one another in disbelief. Perhaps Ayres was not as weak as he seemed.
The three men made their way through the streets of Dantforth, heading for the local tavern and a cold drink. Not much had changed in the old forest town while they were gone. The streets remained quiet, the people friendly and keeping to themselves. If not for the uprising of a few new homes and Ol’ Percy’s barbershop being converted into a bakery they may never have known they had left.
The old Bandit Tavern also remained unchanged in the three years, or the twenty prior to that, the atmosphere still dark and dirty. If you were to ask the barkeep, Bani Sulvan, he kept it that way on purpose, to ‘add ambiance’. If you asked the townsfolk, Bani was too lazy to clean and too cheap to replace the candles. Aside from a few new waitresses and yet another of Bani’s stuffed boar heads above the open fire, it was like walking into the past.
Though Ayres’ odd stature and forbidden robes were a shock to the other patrons, the citizens of Dantforth kept it to themselves. Had it not been for a few sideways glances and overheard whispers, the companions would have felt right at home. To avoid any unnecessary attention and because they felt privacy would be preferred, they selected a lone table in a dark back corner of the tavern. The three sat in silence waiting for a waitress, no one wanting to start the conversation. They were all convinced this discussion was going to be interesting but awkward.
An elderly waitress, whom they did not recognize, came over to take their order. “Hey boys, my name is Allainee, what can I bring you?”
Ayres looked on, examining the lady, as the other two placed their orders for Bani’s famous stout and cured bacon. Her name seemed familiar but nothing about the woman herself told him why.
“And what about you, sweetie?” she interrupted his thoughts. “Should I make that three?”
“I’ll just have three whole limes, some soda water and a ginger root if it’s available.” Ayres whispered forcing the waitress to lean in to be sure she heard him.
Without so much as a blink at the odd order, Allainee turned on her heals and was off to the bar to collect it for them. Duran and Bellaham stared blankly across the table at Ayres.
“A small concoction to help with my cough,” he explained in an attempt to placate them.
The dwarf was the first to breach the subject that had been staring them in the face all day. “Ayres, what happened, what left you in this crippled state?”
Bellaham jumped in, “And the robes… how? Why?”
He knew it was coming but Ayres still had no idea how to explain his state and relay his story. Instead, he decided to stall. “Let us eat first and regain our strength. My tale is a long one and I will need the energy to tell it. While we wait, why not tell us of your journey, dwarf. Did you gain entrance to the dwarven kingdom beneath the Thurnex range?”
The subject change was obvious but Duran let it go. He had actually longed to tell his story and now raced into it with reckless abandon.
“Where to start? Three years ago, when we parted, I immediately headed northwest for the Thurnex Gates. I couldn’t wait to get there, to see my homeland, to be surrounded by my own people. The trip across the barbarian plains was long and tedious but my only other option was to cross Pantelli Wood and spend up to a week in elven territory,” he paused to look at his friends. Both were nodding, understanding why the dwarf would wish to avoid Pantelli Wood. Since Lastani’s passing, Duran’s name had been a source of contention within the elven families.
“Those plains of yours are one brutal terrain to travel, barbarian. I’m surprised the rest of your people haven’t abandoned them. Mark my words, one of these days these forest towns will be invaded by eight-foot tall, color loving armies of sun baked barbarians.”
Ayres smiled across at Bellaham. “Now there’s an image I’d like to see. Hundreds of tie-dye clad barbarians settling in on Dantforth.”
This brought smiles and laughter to the table just as Allainee returned with their order.
“We’re all out of ginger root at the moment but I thought this may do as a substitute,” she said setting their orders down.
Looking down as she walked away, Ayres saw that she had instead brought him a small bowl of sunspawn herb. He was both surprised and concerned at the sight. Sunspawn was not only extremely rare, but it was, in fact, the proper element for his potion. Ginger root was only used as a substitute recently for simplicity sake. Not only had this elderly lady recognized his rare concoction, she also knew the ancient ingredients. Stirring the lime juice and herbs into his soda water, he realized that Duran had continued his story.
“… through those hellish plains and to the Thurnex Gates. Would you believe it, those ignorant guards hired to protect them refused my entry! Sat there claiming only pure blood dwarves have the right to enter the kingdom. One actually had the audacity to call me a half-breed. Can you believe that? Me! I’d never been so insulted. Had it not been for my well known restraint…”
At this, both his friends began to snicker but Duran ignored them and continued.
“… had it not been for that restraint I’d have pulled out my dagger and ran him through. Instead, I calmly,” more snickers came from across the table, “explained that they had been mistaken and asked that they put forth word to their supervisor to solve the oversight. It took nearly a month of camping just outside the gates going back and forth with various supervisors. I was beginning to think they picked only the most dimwitted to guard those gates when I got word that a message was coming down from King Relam himself. The King had heard of my great honor and courage…”
Bellaham let out a groan, rolling his eyes and shaking his head. Duran looked over at Ayres hopefully but could see the look of disbelief in his eyes as well.
“Fine,” he continued, “he had no clue who I was but was willing to send me on some bloody wild goose chase to prove my ‘worthiness’ to enter his sacred kingdom.”
The dwarf stopped there, drinking his stout and savoring his cured bacon. God, he had missed the Bandit. The pause became unbearable and Bellaham jumped in, “And?” he pleaded.
“And nothing,” replied Duran. “I’ve been searching for some bloody mysterious axe for the last two years. I’ve combed the mountains, researched the history and talked to every so called expert out there. I had just about given up when I headed back to meet up with you. At this rate, I’ll never see the beauty of my homeland. How I’ve dreamt of walking those luxurious stone tunnels, ahh I can imagine the beauty.”
“You’ll see it my friend, I can feel it in my heart,” said the sentimental giant, tears welling in his eyes.
“And speaking of beauty,” said Ayres, his breathing coming easier now, “did you finally get to see the four corners of our land my barbarian friend?”
“I most certainly did,” replied Bellaham, “and a beautiful land it is, so rich in life and color but you don’t get to hear about my adventure right now. It’s time you quit putting it off Ayres, what happened to you?”
Resolved that he could no longer stall, Ayres sipped his potion, dipped his head, and raised his eyes to address his friends. “It’s a long convoluted tale and, while I can’t and won’t discuss it all, I will tell you what I can while my body is strong again. It began with my arrival to take the tests in the black tower of Sriuan.”
“I entered my training already decided that I would take on the red robes upon completion,” continued Ayres. “Of course, the magi don’t actually give you that option. All students begin their studies cloaked in novice grey, only once you have completed your training and began the final half of the tests may you choose your robes. If you train and test in Isath as Cryss attempted,” grief crept into his voice as he thought of his sister, “you study only the bare necessities to aid your completion. Because of this, no black robe has ever emerged from the tests at the red tower.”
Ayres took a break to finish his potion. Both Duran and Bellaham sat attentive soaking in every word. It was rare to get such a detailed description of the magi inner workings. The order had been a very secretive group since the war.
“This all factored into my decision to study at the black tower. Not that I wished to wear the black robes, but if I was to apply myself to the tests I wanted the best training available,” continued the mage. “Though students are forbidden from choosing their robes, leanings begin to show as the studies progress. I found it interesting to see how discriminated against the red robes are within the order. They carry a certain power among the magi, but they are highly looked down upon by even the top members of the council of blacks. The bigotry was multiplied exponentially within the circle of students and masters. The students with red leanings were outcast by their peers.”
“Is that what happened?” questioned Bellaham. “All this…” gesturing at Ayres, “was because you were leaning to the red robes during your studies?”
“No my friend,” came the response. “The reds are outcast, perhaps ridiculed but they would never be harmed. Besides, I wanted only the best training so I kept my leanings to myself. I studied everything provided and I excelled. At the time of the tests, I rivaled many of my masters in their chosen art.”
Here he paused briefly, uncertain how to continue. “I am bound by certain vows,” he said, “not to reveal the details of the tests. I will say, however, that I excelled. By the time I was halfway through, I knew I would succeed and I knew the path I would follow. Unlike most magi, proudly displaying their chosen robes as they began the second half of the tests, I remained in novice grey throughout. I claimed I would wear no robes until I had earned them and been sworn a mage. This gained me a great deal of respect among the council but that would be short lived.”
He paused again, unsure how many of the gory details he wished to share. “I completed the tests with relative ease and was set to be sworn into the order. True to my word, I showed up to the ceremony wearing my novice greys. As you know, the order’s ceremony is a secretive one, so I will only pass on to you the details necessary for you to understand my situation. When the council of leaders swears in a mage, they are bound to the order of magi through an unbreakable magical bond. Thus, short of death, no mage may remove himself, nor may he be removed from the order. I sat patiently through my ceremony, and was sworn as a full member of the order of magi. At this point, the council asked me to don my new robes and join them in celebration. Knowing how well I had performed, both in my training and the tests, the council members were convinced I would take on the blacks. With the power I possessed, taking on the reds would have been considered a waste. As I peeled off my novice greys to reveal the robes I now wear, the council was both dumbstruck and furious. I explained that I would not settle for the mediocrity of the red robes, nor could I ever respect or live by the evil of the black arts.”
Duran and Bellaham sat enthralled, barely able to comprehend or believe the story being told. If not for the evidence of the man before them, they would have passed it off as myth.
“To say that the black council was furious would be an understatement,” Ayres continued, knowing that this next section of his story would be the hardest to tell. “They immediately dismissed the reds and sealed the hall. I had put them in a very difficult position. They had gone to great lengths to strip the world of the whites during the war. A student with white leanings would never have been sworn into the order and could thus be ‘removed’, as they call it. I, however, was now a sworn mage and that left them very little choice. They realized the only thing they could do was attempt to strip me of my powers.”
Duran interrupted, “Ok, not that I am advocating this but why not just kill you? Show the world that they won’t be humiliated and move on.”
Ayres had forgotten how little of the magi inner workings were known so he tried to explain it in the simplest way.
“The magic that binds us all to the order is a very powerful force. It was placed on all magi after the war to prevent the inevitable infighting that would occur. The council knew that with the whites gone a power struggle was sure to erupt within the order. This magical bond has many uses, not the least of which is preventing any sworn mage from intentionally taking the life of another.”
Wonder and awe overwhelmed his friends as Ayres began to tell the most painful part of his tale.
“The only option I left them was to attempt the power drain. A black spell so advanced that it requires the powers of all the council members combined. I had anticipated the spell and spent the majority of my spare time scouring old texts for a counter spell. None existed, so I turned my studies to the white spells of protection. They were not easy to find as no white magic texts remain in Sriuan, however I was able to locate a sampling of spells in historical documents and expand from there. In the secrecy of my spare time, I mastered these skills in preparation for what I personally considered the final stage of my tests. The power of the attack shocked me. It took all my will and concentration to control the protective barrier that my spells had created. It was taking a terrible toll on my body. I do not wish to discuss the details of this battle of wills but, in the end, I could feel myself being overwhelmed. The frustration for the council, however, must have been too much. Before I had completely lost my protective hold, one of the council members erupted in anger and lashed out with a death spell. The binding power deflected his attack erupting in a clash of magic that left the council unconscious and me the shattered figure you see before you.”
Bellaham nearly jumped to his feet with excitement, “My God! You defeated the entire black council?”
“I did no such thing,” Ayres responded. “I survived and only due to one mage’s impatience and the power of the binding black magic. I was arrogant to think I could defeat them, and this frail form is my penance.”
The companions sat in silence, finishing their second round of stout and bacon, absorbing the unbelievable tale they’d just heard. Finally, Duran spoke up. “There’s one thing I still don’t understand,” he said addressing Ayres. “If you’ve spent your last three years in Sriuan, how could you not have heard of Cryssteena’s passing?”
“Hmm, a good question indeed,” said the mage, “and one I intend to find the answer to.”
A faint light interrupted the darkness of the tavern as the door opened and three men strolled in towards the bar. A bolt of fear and apprehension struck Ayres when he glanced up out of curiosity. The three men were clad in black robes with the hoods pulled forward to shield their faces. Hanging from each man’s neck was a glowing red amulet adorned with a winged demon.
Ayres slipped into the shadows of their corner table. Duran and Bellaham glanced over, concerned. Knowing now what their friend had gone through at the hands of the black magi, they were immediately on their guard.
Duran leaned in to whisper to him, “Whatever happens we’re behind you. Black robes or not, we won’t let them take you.”
Ayres shook his head and lowered his eyes, “It’s not the robes that concern me, my friend. However, I do believe we should be making our way out of here. Bellah, could I borrow your coat?” he asked gesturing down at his shimmering white robes.
Bellaham slid his coat nonchalantly across the table and laid down a handful of gold pieces to cover their bill. The three rose from the table, Ayres discreetly slipping into the barbarians coat and hoping it was enough cover as to not draw attention. Crossing the tavern towards the door, Ayres could see one of the magi raise his head in curiosity. He knew immediately that his presence had been felt and cursed himself for not casting a counter perception spell. Trying to ignore the magi and remain as natural as possible, he continued forward, wedged neatly between his two friends.
Just as they reached the door, Ayres felt a hand on his shoulder holding him back. The mage spun ready to defend himself, only to find their waitress, Allainee, standing there with a large bag of herbs.
“I thought you may have a use for this,” she said handing him the bag. “The chef has no idea what to do with sunspawn.”
Turning with a nervous, “Thank you,” Ayres could see the three black magi sitting perfectly still, staring at their drinks as if suddenly turned to stone.
The three walked silently through the brisk air back to Bellaham’s hut, the white mage routinely checking behind them to ensure they weren’t being followed. Entering the hut, he quickly pulled the lilac and mauve pinstriped drapes, muttering an unrecognizable chant as he peeked through the corner of the window. A blinding flash erupted momentarily from the top of his staff and Ayres seemed to relax.
“Would you mind letting me know just what the hell is going on?” let out Bellaham, staring at the white mage. “Is the black council hunting you down? Should we be going into hiding? Oh my god, what do we…”
“Bellah!” interjected the dwarf. “Relax. We need to stay focused here.”
“That’s easy for you, mutt, it’s not your home about to be bombarded by an army of pissed off magi.”
Duran ignored him, even let him get away with the mutt comment for the time being. “So what is going on, Ayres? You seemed mighty nervous at the sight of those black robes. Is the council still after you?”
Ayres searched for a place to sit but realized his choices were a four-foot pillow or a flower painted rickety wooden chair. He decided standing was his safest option. “As I said before it was not the color of their robes that concerned me. I am certain the black council would love to get their hands on me again, but I doubt they have the forces to scour the forest this far east to that end.”
“So who were those men? Why’d we rush out?” asked the barbarian finally beginning to calm down.
“I don’t know who they were,” admitted the mage. “I am much more concerned with ‘what’ they were or should I say what they ‘wore’.”
Duran and Bellaham stared at him blankly.
“The fire red amulets that hung from their necks, my friends,” Ayres muttered as if slightly disturbed at having to explain this. “It is the ancient elven symbol of the Votary of Naberus.”
“Votary of what?” asked Duran.
With a sigh and a slight cough, Ayres began to explain yet another chapter in the magi history. “The Votary of Naberus were an ancient band of elves set on removing all magic from the land. As with most elves, they desperately feared that which they could not control. They declared a personal war on magi and set out destroying all that crossed their path. Their assault was brutal and it took the combined power of the three orders along with the elven royals and dwarven army to finally defeat them.”
“Of course,” interrupted Duran. “I read about this in my research. The white Queen, herself, presented King Thelm with that bloody Axe of Trueisan for the dwarves help in the matter.”
“Umm, excuse me for asking the obvious,” said the barbarian, “but why would three black magi be wearing a symbol that stands for the abolishment of magic?”
“That is the question, isn’t it my friends?” replied Ayres. “What I can tell you is that no good can come of it, of this I am sure.”
He let the statement hang in the air for a moment, as a warning, before continuing. “Now if you will excuse me, I need to rest. We will be safe here this evening, I have seen to that, but I am afraid that come morning I will have to cut our reunion short. There seem to be many unanswered questions revolving around the order. If I am to find the answers I must head south to Isath.”
With that, the three friends headed for separate rooms and some rest, if it would come. Lying in his cot, Ayres could not shake the feeling he was missing something. With a sudden force, he shot upright. “Of course,” he thought, “The Axe of Trueisan, handed down to King Thelm by the white Queen – Allainee Solantar!”
She could feel his presence as she started to cash out for the evening. She knew he was close and nearly laughed to herself. Turning nonchalantly with the nightly deposit in her hand she muttered a quick chant and a burst of light erupted in the shadowed corner of the tavern where he lurked.
“You would think that after tonight’s events you’d have learned to cover yourself with a counter perception spell,” she quipped as Ayres walked slowly from the recessed shadow.
“Perhaps,” he replied, “but then I could not test my theory, could I?”
Allainee smiled and nodded but said nothing.
“Why don’t you explain to me who you are, how you know the white arts and why you’re going out of your way to help me,” he asked waiting patiently for her to respond.
“That seems a lot to answer,” came her reply. “Have a seat and allow me to finish closing. This is likely to be a discussion that will take a while.”
Allainee closed the door and proceeded to lock up. While she did, Ayres made his way across the tavern to the one table with chairs turned down. He took a seat almost cringing to himself over what he saw. On the table were three whole limes and a glass of soda water. She had obviously expected him. Cursing his predictability, he pulled some sunspawn from beneath his robes and began to mix a drink. By the time he had finished, Allainee had settled into the seat across from him.
“Nice touch,” he commented
“Well, we can’t have that nasty cough interrupting us, can we?” she replied. “Now, which question would you like me to start with?”
“How about, who are you?” asked Ayres.
“An easy one indeed,” she said, “my name is Allainee Solantar.”
The mage became immediately defensive, “Impossible, the white Queen would be thrice your age by now!”
Allainee remained calm and smiled. “Yes, I suppose she would, oh but she’d be spry as ever, that woman.” Pausing at his confusion, she continued, “I was named for my grandmother. I suppose that answers your second question as well, she schooled me in the white arts from the time I was an infant. Having been forced into seclusion she had little else to do.”
Ayres sat dumbfounded. “You’re telling me the white Queen survived the war yet she did nothing to prevent the rise of the black council? How am I to believe that?”
“And what would you have had her do?” she replied, a slight anger apparent beneath the surface. “The whites had been severely crippled in numbers during the fight against the Votary. There was little they could do to defend themselves when the War of the Robes began. The other races refused to help, claiming it was a civil war among the magic users. When the reds refused to step in, choosing to remain neutral, they all but sealed the fate of the whites. White magi were being slaughtered by the hundreds when the Queen went into exile.” Tears were forming in Allainee’s eyes as she defended her grandmother. “You may think her a coward, but the Queen refused to stay and watch the white arts die. In her exile, she passed her knowledge to the children of our small town, determined to see the white robes worn again one day. Seeing you, would have brought a tear to her eye.”
Ayres began to speak but Allainee cut him off. “To answer your final question, any man willing to risk certain death to walk in the whites deserves my help.”
She leaned back watching the mage as he took it in.
“I thank you for your help and for your kind words, but I’m afraid I am not the brave man you think I am. I risk many things by wearing my robes but death is not one of them.”
Allainee’s confusion was evident so the mage continued, “My dear, I am a sworn member of the order.”
“But… how?” she exclaimed and for the second time that evening Ayres told his story.
Allainee’s jaw hung open unable to find the words. “You are far braver than you admit, young mage,” she finally said.
Ayres shook off the compliment, “I was arrogant and I got lucky.”
“Perhaps,” she interrupted, “but you did my family proud. The Queen would be elated to hear that the white robes have risen again.”
Ayres actually started to laugh. “I believe you overstate it, my dear. One lone mage hardly signifies the rise of the whites. Even the council doesn’t see me as a vital threat. If they did I would never be roaming free.
Allainee nodded in understanding. “Maybe, but those three magi tonight certainly had an interest in you.”
This definitely got Ayres attention, “How’s that?”
“As soon as they walked in they were asking me if I’d seen a charlatan in white robes. They seemed very interested in finding you, and from the look of them, I don’t think they wanted to chat. Did you notice the amulet they were wearing?”
“The Votary,” he replied. “But why would magi be wearing it?”
“I can’t tell you why,” said Allainee glancing around the empty bar nervously, “but I can tell you they’re not a group to be messed with. Every time a group of them rolls into town they’re looking for someone or something and they’ll go to any lengths to find it. The townsfolk may keep to themselves but they have learned not to hide something from the men in that symbol. If I were you I’d be putting some miles between myself and Dantforth come morning.”
“Oh, I intend to,” said the mage, “but what of you? If these men are as powerful as you believe, it’s a matter of time until they discover your heritage and realize who helped me this evening.”
Allainee shook her head, “I have been taught well and I can protect myself. I am safe within the borders of this town.”
“Hogwash!” came a gruff and unexpected retort from beneath a table across the tavern.
Fear and surprise rushed over the two magi as they turned instinctively and cast spells of protection into the darkness.
Duran felt odd, unsure what had just happened. One moment he was crouched beneath a table listening to this outrageous tale, the next he was paralyzed by a blinding light. His mind filled with the beautiful images of the stone walls of Thurnex. What was happening? How could this be? Then just as suddenly, reality snapped back and he found himself staring into the eyes of two very angry magi.
“Ummmmm, hi,” he smiled up at them.
“Blasted dwarf,” cursed Ayres, “You’re lucky we didn’t turn you into sawdust!”
“I could be wrong, but I highly doubt that dwarf to sawdust is in the white mage arsenal,” came the stout man’s retort.
“Dwarf?” asked Allainee, obviously confused by the man’s appearance.
“Don’t go there,” warned Ayres but he was too late. Duran had heard the questioning tone and was already defending himself.
“Yes a dwarf, ma’am. Do you not recognize one of my noble race when you see us?” Duran continued, “You would think the granddaughter of the great white Queen would be a bit more educated in the races of the world.”
“Of course,” said Allainee rolling her eyes so that only Ayres could see. “I apologize, my eyesight is not what it once was and I’m afraid the darkness of this place is not helping it.” Seeing the stout man’s expression switch to one of acceptance, she went on, “Now do tell, just how and why did you come to be hiding beneath that table?”
Embarrassment quickly replaced any animosity Duran may have felt. He shuffled slightly on his feet, looking at his shoes with great interest. “Well… umm… yeah… I guess, I guess, well I couldn’t just let Ayres wander off alone,” he stammered. “Not after what happened tonight. He has a tendency to attract trouble you know. In his youth, if he was out on the town alone, you never knew what kind of mess he was causing.”
Duran paused feeling vindicated, “So when I saw him creeping out of Bellah’s hut tonight, I knew I had to tag along and help… umm… keep the peace as it was.”
Allainee put a hand on Ayres arm to stop the barrage of insults he was obviously about to spew. “And how did you come to find yourself hiding beneath the table?” she inquired.
“Well, see, when I got to the front doors, having seen the mage here go through, they were locked up tight. Luckily, unlike my friend, I have not chosen to forget my youthful indiscretions.”
Allainee stood confused, holding out her hands as if to say, ‘what are you talking about?’
In answer to her unspoken question, Ayres interjected, “He picked the bloody back lock and snuck upstairs.” Seeing a glint of pride on Duran’s face, he threw in, “A trick that used to get him and Lastani into a slew of trouble if I’m not mistaken.”
“Hey, if Bani didn’t want us in for an afterhours drink he should have replaced that old lock. I’ve never seen such an easy pick in my life. Besides,” continued Duran, “we always left gold on the bar to cover our tabs. We’re nothing if not honorable.”
“Yeah? Just what else did you two leave on the bar, dwarf? From what I heard it got rather wild in here.” Ayres winked at his friend.
Duran put on a stoic face, “Nasty rumors indeed, Lastani was a saint; we were here for nothing but the stout.”
The white mage burst into uncontrollable laughter, Lastani had been called many things in her youth but saint was a new one.
“If you two are done,” jumped in Allainee annoyed, “I’d like to hear just why you were hiding under a table.”
“Oh that,” said Duran. “Well when I got to the top of the stairs, the two of you were starting what seemed to be a rather intense conversation. I thought it best not to interrupt. The table seemed as good a spot as any to stay out of the way.”
Ayres looked at Allainee, “He was eavesdropping,” he explained. “The dwarf’s curiosity has always been much greater than his stature.”
“Either way,” broke in Duran, “I believe I have proven one point. I was able to get in here, undetected by either of you great and powerful magi. If I can do it so can someone else. Pardon me ma’am but you are not as safe as you think.”
“The dwarf has a point,” said Ayres. “Whatever magic you believe is protecting you here, he just waltzed through it. I intend to leave first thing tomorrow; you’re welcome to join me.”
“And what would you have us do?” shot back Allainee. “Would you have us hide in exile as my grandmother did? Cower to the will of the black magi? Where would we hide? With both the council and the Votary of Naberus out there tracking us where would we be safe?”
“I do not intend to hide,” replied the mage, “Come morning I leave for Isath.”
“Isath?” questioned Allainee. “How could you trust the red council, surely they will turn you over to the blacks to protect themselves.”
A great sadness rose in the white mage’s eyes. “They have gone against the black council before. I can only hope they will again.”
“Surely there is another way,” jumped in Duran, unsure why anyone would want to travel to the red tower, a journey that is notoriously ridden with ogre.
“There is,” replied Ayres, “but the answers we seek revolve around the magi and will surely be found within the order. My choices are Sriuan or Isath. Which path do you suggest my friend?”
“The red tower it must be,” said Allainee, “and as long as my presence is not a burden, I think I would like to accompany you.”
“Well don’t think for a moment that I’m going to let you two go running off by yourselves,” chimed in Duran. “Two white wizards,” he saw a cringe in Ayres eyes, “sorry, ‘magi’ are not much of a force. You’ll need my sword if you expect to get to Isath. Besides, who else is going to bail you out when this all blows up?” Walking over and placing an arm around Allainee, he went on. “So, did gramma tell you any interesting bedtime stories? Perhaps one about a great dwarven axe?”
Pacing through his study, his velvet black robes floating across the floor beneath him, Soltarair pondered his current situation. As leader of the black council, he had seen many things pass, both good and bad for the magi, but the emergence of this white mage was his greatest concern to date. Many of the magi considered this a minor embarrassment for the council and possibly for him. Ayres had been his star pupil and personal apprentice after all. However, Soltarair had seen it as a much more dangerous situation. The council had gone to great lengths to rid the world of the whites, all that was now in jeopardy.
He stopped pacing as his newest apprentice Helios, an eager boy with a gift for inflicting pain, sauntered into the room.
“Sadly no news of the white. Our scouts believe he may have headed south east deep into the forest towns.”
“Hmm, refuge among the trees, a notoriously hard place to search,” Soltarair said, disappointed but not surprised. “Have them patrol the forest borders both south and west. They are to report anything suspicious.”
He paused as his apprentice wrote down his orders verbatim. Helios was nothing if not efficient.
“And what of Stranik? Has the council decided on a punishment?” questioned the novice.
“If only death were an option,” came the response. “It was that fool’s impatience that cost us our opportunity and allowed the white charlatan to escape our grasp.”
“Forgive me, but if the request was given to the correct party, like a novice, death could be an option.”
Soltarair respected his willingness but knew the council would object to the precedent it would set. The binding magic had been created to stop magi from having this ability, to keep the peace amongst the order. They could not blatantly circumvent it without causing serious concerns.
“I appreciate the comments, however, the council would never agree. Keep him spell ridden and within the dungeons, the council is set to meet shortly and I am sure we will have a decision tonight. Is that all?”
Helios paused not wanting to broach the next subject. “Well… no my lord, there have been more rumors of this break away black sect, the Votary of Naberus. More magi have started wearing the symbol and the students do not know what to make of it. It would be wise to address it.”
Fury rose within Soltarair and he cast a magical attack. An unknown force crushed into Helios sending him across the room crashing into a shelf of books. As he pulled himself up from the shattered wood and pile of magic texts, he could see the anger resonating in the black leader.
“This sect is but an annoyance, do you understand? They are black magi of the order and they are loyal to the council,” ranted the mage. “That is all the students need to know. I suggest you make it clear to them.”
Helios left, intent on doing just that.
Soltarair turned to see a black clad figure entering his study from an adjoining room. A fire red amulet hung from the mage’s neck. “An impressive act, let’s hope he relays the message with the same passion.”
“Oh, he will,” replied Soltarair. “That boy will make a fine member one day. The joy he takes in the black arts is refreshing.”
“Perhaps. He certainly has the right composure, but will he be willing to turn his back on the council?” Soltarair was cut off before he attempted to answer the rhetorical question. “We’ll find out soon enough. We’re but three artifacts from success. Three pieces away from completing the device. Once we have them, all this, all of it, will be ours.”
“But what of the white mage?” asked the black council leader. “Does his mere existence not threaten our success? Surely we cannot proceed until he has been dealt with.”
“Relax, leave the mage to me. It turns out your scouts are not as naive as we thought. I have received word from the three men I sent into Dantforth. As expected, he returned to the forest town two nights ago.
“Why wasn’t I informed?” The excitement in Soltarair’s voice was unmistakable. “Where are you holding him? We must come up with a plan to deal with him.”
His companion raised a hand to stop him. “They were unable to take him.”
Soltarair’s jaw dropped as he listened.
“They had just sensed his presence in the local tavern when they were hit with a stunning spell of some kind. It was likely white magic and they had no time or idea how to defend against it. When they came to, about ten minutes later, he was gone.”
“This can’t be,” muttered the black mage. “Did they not search for him, how far could he have possibly gone in ten minutes?”
The look this drew could have melted stone. “Of course they searched, you fool. Unlike the black council, I employ magi worthy of their position. They scoured the area but found nothing. He had obviously cast a concealment spell to mask his escape.”
A look of unparalleled fear grew in Soltarair’s eyes.
“As I said,” came a calming tone, “relax and let me take care of it. We now know he is travelling with two companions, a barbarian and a half-breed dwarf. My men will find them and when they do the white robe will no longer be a factor. When the time is right, he will kneel before us like the rest of them.”
“Sounds like fun.” Those were his words when Duran finished running through their late night rendezvous and explained the plan to head south for Isath. This was possibly the most naive statement Bellaham had ever made. Oh, the excitement was there at first, like leaving on a historical crusade. Sneaking through the forests, racing against time, unsure what adventures lay before them. However, after five days of hiking through the trees, covered in dirt and mud, afraid to travel the beaten path, the novelty had worn off. Now he simply longed for a soft bed and a warm meal. Lying on the rock hard soil, hungry, tired and filthy, he decided ‘fun’ was overrated.
“You awake?” he heard Duran whisper from his left.
“I haven’t managed to sleep in a week, why start now?” he said in a voice rarely heard from the consistently cheery man.
“I guess that barbarian blood just can’t handle all this excitement,” said Duran rolling onto his back and staring up through the trees.
“Excitement? We’ve seen nothing but trees and dirt for five days. We’ve been eating raw rations because Ayres is afraid a fire will be seen and I am covered in scratches from head to toe due to hacking our way through this bloody forest. Meanwhile there is a clearly beaten path maybe five hundred yards away that the two great ‘wizards’ refuse to use.”
“Have you ever had the chance to meet an ogre?” asked Duran.
“No, and I know, the path is riddled with them. Ayres has made that abundantly clear. I’d just rather face an ogre head on than keep taking a beating from those unrelenting trees.”
“Don’t be so sure. Ogre are a vile race, Bellah. I had the pleasure of coming across a small group of them in the lower regions of the Thurnex Mountains. I was able to keep my distance and go undetected but what I saw disgusted me. They had raided a small camping village of green trolls. Their brutality was unmistakable. They were filthy creatures, covered in dirt and wrapped in whatever rags they could pillage from their prey. They seemed more to grunt than talk to each other but it must have been an efficient method of communication. The attack on the unsuspecting trolls was swift, organized and relentless. Not one survived and when I arrived, the ogre were roasting their bodies and eating the flesh.”