Lying curled beside the dying embers of his campfire, the young boy twitched and moaned as the horrors that had plagued his dreams returned. It was a piteous sight; the child, tanned of skin, hugging his knees as he quivered and twitched, soft pleas escaping his lips as he relived the horrors of a past life.
As the boy’s pleas drifted into the night, a head rose within the darkness surrounding the camp, the light of the embers shimmering off the gold-rimmed eyes that turned and locked onto the boy, and in the silence that followed a soft sigh like a gentle rumble filled the air as a creature on all fours stepped into the camp on feet as soft as snowfall.
Making its way towards the child, the beast held the young boy in a gaze filled with pain, its steps slow, as if determined to not wake the child, and reaching him, the beast sighed and nestled across from the boy, then crossed its paws before it and rested its head upon its paws, its snout at the boy as its gentle breaths ruffled the sleeping child’s hair, and as the silence grew, it lay still and watched the sleeping child, its ears raised and its face anxious.
Then, with a startle, the boy sprang upright, a shrill cry upon his lips as he frantically beat at his clothing, desperate to dowse the phantom flames upon him. In response, the beast raised its head and growled, not to scare the child, but to draw his attention, the low rumble of its growl drawing the child from his nightmare, and before long, the young boy stopped, his nightmare banished as he took in his surroundings, and as his eyes fell upon the beast, he sat back and sighed.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
The beast licked its lips in response.
“I just keep seeing their faces,” the boy continued, “I…I just…”
The beast held its peace and stared at the boy still till, shaking his head, the boy lay down once more, and silence returned. The great beast stared on as the boy slowly drifted back to sleep, and, with a huff, lowered its head onto its paws once more.
But soon the young boy’s whimpers began anew, drawing the beast’s gaze as the young boy’s tremors returned, and shaking its head, the beast rose and wandered over to the youth and, with the greatest of care, stepped around the boy and lay beside him, its body as close to the child as it could go before hugging the boy with his tail, and as it nestled beside the boy, the beast watched the boy from the corner of his eye till the whimpers began to fade, and as peace returned to the young boy’s sleep, the beast smiled at last and closed its eyes before drifting off to slumber.
Rising with the sun, the young elf yawned and stretched, then sighed and turned to the sun. He still felt sore all over, and his throat was parched, but he was lucky to be alive and he knew it. Rising on unsteady legs, the mage stretched forth his arm and inspected the place where a poisoned blade had cut him to the bone.
Not even a scar remained.
Smiling, he turned to the older elf still asleep across from him.
“I suppose I no longer have a reason to delay retaking healing lessons,” he said, then shook his head and turned to the pot at the centre of their camp, the fire beneath it long extinguished.
Shuffling over to it, the elf sighed and went on his knees, then whispered a single word of arcane, and as he reached for the earthen ladle within the pot, flames burst to life from the wood upon which the pot rested. Then, he proceeded to gently stir the pot.
“Oh, for goodness sake, Farran,” came a voice from behind the elf after a spell, drawing a smile to his lips, “must you drink that thing so early?”
“I’m merely following your advice,” the mage replied as he picked up a nearby cup.
“And what advice is that?”
“You said to keep my strength up,” the mage said, filling the cup in his hand with a pour of the black liquid in the pot.
As the mage behind him growled in response, Farran stifled a snicker and rose, his cup cradled in both hands as he made to return to his pallet.
“Hold, you’re not pouring me some?” the older mage gasped.
Farran moved to speak, then sighed and shook his head before going on his knees once more and turning to the pot.
“How do you fare, though?” the older mage continued as Farran reached for the second cup beside the pot.
“Arm still aches,” Farran replied as he reached for the ladle once more, “but the scar’s all gone, and I can stretch it without any sharp pain now.”
“Good!” the mage cried, then sighed. “Though, I do wish I knew what poison they’d used.”
At those words, Farran’s smile faded. “You’ll have plenty enough time to ask them when we catch them.”
The older mage scoffed as he sat up. “The only thing I shall be asking them is whether they want my lightning bolt up their arses or down their throats.”
Rising with a snicker, Farran turned with cups in hand and made his way towards his companion.
“And you,” the seated mage continued, taking the offered cup as Farran reached him. “Still think he’s worth saving after what he did to you?”
Farran shook his head as he headed for his pallet. “Tarun wasn’t the one wielding the blade, Drien.”
“No,” Drien replied, lifting his cup to his lips, “but he gave the order.”
“He gave the order that we were to be stopped.”
“By any means necessary.”
The young elf moved to speak but instead sighed and sat on his pallet.
“How about we just sit and enjoy our drinks, eh?” he said instead, then raised his cup to his lips.
“Hrm…” Drien muttered, but soon cradled his cup and began to sup of it.
A calm silence fell upon the camp as the men let their thoughts wander and their beverage warm their insides. But the silence was not to last.
“So,” Drien said at last, turning to his companion, “you’re fit to travel now?”
“Hm.” Farran nodded. “Well enough, I think.”
“Good,” Drien replied, sighing, “high time we broke camp.”
“Any idea where they went?”
The older mage nodded. “Some. Saw signs of a settlement due west of here on my scouts. Might be a town.”
“No idea, but it’s a good enough place to start. Perhaps someone there has heard of them, or, dare we to hope, knows where they’re hiding.”
“Hm,” Farran smiled, “wouldn’t that be a boon.”
“Wouldn’t it just.” Drien sighed, then rose.
“Finish your drink,” the mage continued, “I’ll clear camp. We move when you’re ready.”
The young mage nodded, then sat back in silence as he watched his companion break their camp up, his thoughts wandering once more.
Wandering down the crowded street with his hood raised and hands shoved deep in his pockets Farran let his eyes drift from face to face as his mind wandered. How long they’d roamed the town, he no longer knew, but he knew he needed rest, and soon. It was foolish to think wandering aimlessly through the town would offer new leads on their quarry, and now, such empty gestures had left him near his limits with nothing to show for it.
“How in the hells did I let you talk me into this, Drien?” he muttered as he went. “Such a bloody stupid plan.”
But even as the words echoed in his mind, he knew in his heart, they’d had little choice. No Tower mage had walked these lands to his knowledge, and given how he’d yet to see a single elven face, very few elves have. And with little knowledge of the area, no guide to lead them and no coin to allow them entry into any of the taverns, what was there left?
“Still a bloody stupid idea,” the mage growled as he wandered on.
“Farran…” hissed a voice in his ear, bringing the elf to a halt.
“…I sense something. Someone maintaining an illusion spell passed by where I am not too long ago. I’m on the hunt, Be ready to aid me at a moment’s notice.”
It took all Farran had to keep his calm, and breathing deep, he clenched his fists and wandered on once more.
“I’ll be ready,” he muttered as he went.
This was the thirteenth time Drien had sensed something. The first time, he’d been filled with hope. Then that hope gave way to doubt, then apathy, and now, each occurrence fed the simmering rage within him. But he knew better than to lecture his companion, and so, on he walked as he waited for the same outcome as the other times.
“Nothing,” Drien’s voice growled after a spell.
“Unsurprising,” Farran mouthed before sighing and shaking his head.
“I’m nearing the limits of my strength,” he muttered instead. “Shall we stop?”
“There’s still much of the day left and I’d rather not waste it. Let’s try one or two more—”
“I’m close to falling on my knees, Drien,” Farran interjected. “I need rest.”
Farran could feel the older mage’s irritation, but he was too tired to care.
“Very well,” Drien muttered at last. “Find cover and teleport to the brushes we marked outside of town. We’ll find a spot to make camp, then return once you’re rested.”
“Alright,” Farran muttered, then turned about.
As he did so, however, the mage paused, his brow furrowed deep as his gaze fell upon a young boy in the distance. The boy seemed entranced by the street performers nearby, but the more Farran stared, the more the hairs on the back of his neck rose. Like him, the boy was no resident of the town, for though he was human, his skin was far more tanned than the denizens of the town, while his clothing seemed out of place. But there was something else that gave Farran pause, and as he stared, he couldn’t put a finger on it.
Then, it hit him, and as it did, the mage felt his stomach give way. Gritting his teeth, the elf breathed deep and conjured as calm a visage as he could, then stepped forth once more, his gait as nonchalant as he could make it, and as he passed the child, he began to count. Upon the tenth count, the mage wandered over to a nearby shop and stared at its window, and as the child wandered into view within the window’s reflection, Farran gritted his teeth against the cold wave that washed over him.
“Drien,” he muttered as he stepped forth once more, his pace as calm as before.
“What?” Drien muttered in his ear.
“I’m being shadowed.”
“I’m being shadowed, Drien.”
Farran nodded. “A boy. Ten summers, twelve at the most. Deeply tanned. His garb is unlike any I’ve seen so far.”
“And you’re sure he’s shadowing you?”
“Positive. Caught a glimpse of him on the side of the road when you mentioned sensing someone wielding ice magic, and when I began retracing my steps just now, caught a glimpse of him again. He’d been shadowing me.”
“Is he shadowing you still?”
Farran nodded. “Yes.”
“Hrm… Head toward the gate. I’ll make my way to you. I’ll slip in behind him and attempt an ambush.”
“Alright,” Farran muttered, then turned for the gate.
As he walked, Farran stared at his reflection wherever he caught it, staring long enough to see what lay behind him, and in every occasion, he would either glimpse the boy’s face or the edges of his clothing. But the whole episode made little sense to the elf. If their quarry intended to use children as his eyes and ears, why use one that stood out so much? And why did the boy need to shadow him for so long? Did he not have companions who would take the gauntlet from him?
On and on, the thoughts raced till at last, Drien’s frowning face came into view, and with a soft smile, Farran stared at the elf till their eyes met, then turned his gaze forward and carried on past Drien.
“Blast!” came Drien’s voice not too long after.
“What?” Farran frowned.
“He made me.”
“What? You’re sure?”
“He’s staring at me. See for yourself.”
Stopping, Farran turned, and as he watched the boy’s eyes dart from him to Drien and back, he slowly stood tall as his frown deepened. Then, the boy began to back away.
“Shall we follow?” he muttered.
“No. We follow a child that young, the peacekeepers will think we’re up to no good. Already had a few stare a little to intently at me as is.”
“So, what do we do?”
The older mage sighed as the boy turned at last and hurried away, glancing at them as he went.
“We hope he finds us again,” Drien’s voice echoed at last
“Or we find him,” Farran muttered.
“If our luck holds. Come, you need rest.”
At those words, Farran’s body remembered its old aches, and, wincing, he shook his head and fell in step behind his companion.
Slinking back into camp, the long shadows of the trees hiding his steps, the young boy frowned as he shuffled toward his pallet, his thoughts upon events of earlier. As he reached his pallet, a soft rustle pulled him from his thoughts and sent his hand reaching for the blade strapped to his back beneath his tunic, but as his gaze fell upon the pair of golden discs in the shadows, he sighed.
“It’s you,” the boy said, then sat.
As silence returned to the camp, the boy slowly began undoing his tunic as he sat cross-legged upon his pallet, his gaze in the ether once more, and through it all, the golden discs remained unmoving.
Then, at last, the shadows parted as a great wolf stepped forth, the remains of a dear dangling from its maw, and wandering towards the boy, the wolf gently laid the carcass before the youth.
The young boy smiled, his gaze moving from the meat to the wolf. “I’ve already eaten, thank you.”
The great wolf stared on in silence for a spell, then lowered itself to the earth before resting its head upon its paws crossed before it, its gaze soft but fixed upon the boy throughout.
The young boy stared at the wolf a spell, then sighed and shook his head.
“I found him, okay?” the boy said.
At those words, the wolf’s head shot up as its heckles rose.
“Yeah,” the boy nodded, “exactly.”
In response, the beast shot to its feet, a low rumble emanating from its throat as it turned its gaze to where the boy had come from.
“No,” the boy replied, “we can’t. I lost him.”
The wolf turned to the boy once more.
“Don’t look at me like that!” the boy snapped. “I already know I failed. I don’t need you reminding me as well, you know!”
An awkward silence fell upon the clearing as the boy lowered his head and crumpled in on himself, his gaze in the ether once more. The beast stared at the boy a spell, then snorted and wandered forth before gently nudging the child.
The young boy turned to the beast once more, and as their eyes met, he sighed.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled. “I’m just…”
At those words, the great wolf lowered his head and rested his forehead against the boy’s before closing his eyes, and as he did so, the young boy sighed and closed his, and before long, the young boy’s smile returned.
“Thank you,” he said at last, raising his head to stare at the wolf.
The wolf huffed in response, then turned and wandered towards its kill.
“So, uh…are you going to eat all of that?” the boy said as the wolf reached the carcass.
The beast stopped and held the boy in a pointed stare, and as the child grinned in response, the beast huffed once more, then bit down upon the carcass before rending it in two and dragging the larger part back before settling down to its meal.
Giggling, the boy pulled free a blade and wandered over to the remaining meat.
“He’s lost weight, you know,” the boy said as he dragged the meat towards the silent embers at the centre of camp, “his face is slimmer. But I’d still recognise him anywhere, even with that hood over his head. I think he recognised me too, though. I wasn’t sure at first, but when I saw his friend staring at me, I knew.”
At those words the wolf turned to the boy once more, his gaze piercing.
“Hey!” the boy cried. “I was careful! I was! He got lucky, that’s all!”
The wolf huffed at the child, then turned to its meat once more.
The young boy stared at the wolf a spell, then smiled and shook his head before returning his gaze to the meat before him. Then, his smile faded as he glanced at the dagger in his hand.
“Next time,” he growled, “he won’t be so lucky.”
Then, the boy fell on his knees and began cleaning the meat.
Frowning, Farran wandered through the town, his head bowed and his eyes searching.
Farran shook his head. “Nothing.”
“But I know what I saw, Drien,” Farran muttered. “That boy recognised me. He knew my face!”
“I believe you, but us wandering about aimlessly isn’t going to aid us in finding him.”
“I know.” Farran sighed.
“Is there anything at all you recall bout him? Anything?”
The glowering mage shrugged. “I already told you. Other than how different his appearance was to these other humans, I have nothing.”
“Shame.” The voice in Farran’s ear sighed. “Well, this is getting us nowhere, we’d best regroup and rethink our approach. Meet me at the gate. Take your time, we may as well make the most of things.”
“Right.” Farran nodded, then turned and headed back the way he came.
Before long, the town’s gate came into view, and with it, his companion’s face, and as he neared the older mage, Drien turned at last and smiled as their eyes met.
“Come,” the older mage said as Farran reached him, “let’s get out of this place.”
“No complaints from me,” Farran muttered, then fell in step beside his companion, and soon silence fell upon the pair as they made their way out of the town.
“Well,” Drien sighed at last, the town behind them, “I think it’s safe to assume they’re not there.”
“A little early to be saying that, don’t you think?” Farran frowned, turning to the elf. “This is only our second day.”
“Oh, come now, boy,” Drien replied, “you know how your brother operates. He leaves nothing to chance. If he truly were in that town, he’d have eyes and ears everywhere. If, by now, we’ve had no sight of his people, and none of them have come calling, they are not in that town.”
Farran moved to speak, but he knew the mage spoke true.
“So, where does that leave us?” he said instead.
“With nothing.” Drien sighed. Then, the mage smiled. “Come, let’s hurry back. I’m getting hungry.”
Forcing a smile to his lips, Farran nodded, and as silence returned, the pair wandered back towards their camp. But the silence was not to last, for before long, the young mage’s brow began to furrow as he watched his companion slip his hands into his pockets, his gaze forward, and as Farran moved to speak, he felt a warmth within his pocket, and as the warmth grew, the young mage felt his heart climb up his throat. Keeping his face as calm as he could, Farran turned his gaze forward and slipped his hands into his pockets.
“We’re being shadowed,” whispered Drien’s voice in his ears.
A sharp jolt ran the length of Farran’s spine as he fought the urge to stare behind him.
“You think it’s them?” he whispered beneath his breath.
“Positive. We take the warded path back, slow them down so we can get to camp before they strike. Be ready.”
Gritting his teeth, the mage fought for calm and made ready to call forth his protections at a moment’s notice. He had allowed himself to be taken to the edge of oblivion the last time, and he was not going allow a repeat of that.
Then, at last, the pair reached a fallen tree in their path, and breathing deep, Farran hopped over the tree and began counting down from twenty, a count for each step. As he reached zero, the elf breathed deep once more as his gaze fell upon the campsite before him, doing all he can to keep his eyes away from the soft turned earth that rimmed the camp.
Then, hurried footsteps reached his ears
“Hurry!” Drien hissed.
And as one, the pair hurried into the circle of soft turned earth, then spun about.
As they did so, they watched as masked men raced forth from the path before them to surround their little camp. Then, one of the men stepped forth.
“You know,” said the one at the fore, “I’m rather disappointed in you two. Hear the others speak, you’d think you two were mages of some renown, but judging from those pitiful wards you placed beneath that fallen tree, I struggle to see what all the fuss was about. Did you really think I wouldn’t see them?”
“I count fifteen,” Drien whispered. “You?”
“And dispelling it,” the man continued, “did you really have to make it so easy?”
Then, the man sighed. “Honestly, Tarun thinks far too highly of you two.”
“Where is Tarun?” Farran called out.
The man smiled. “Not here.”
“When I trigger the wards,” Drien whispered, “face the ones behind us. I’ll face the others. Aid me soon as yours are dealt with.”
“I take it you’re Farran, then?” the man added.
“Ah, well, Tarun has a message for you. He said…”
The man’s words were cut short by sight of the largest wolf Farran had ever seen leaping from the shadows straight at the men, its great maw encompassing the nearest masked man’s jaw and neck as it bit down and turned the man into a flail.
“What in the…” Farran gasped as the bitten man’s gurgled cries filled him with revulsion.
Then, as the beast dropped its prey, Farran watched as the others came to life, raising their hands to the beast as arcane energy danced between their fingers, and as the great wolf howled at the men, the young mage snarled and called forth a shield about the wolf just as it leapt forth once more, then spun about and unleashed his fury upon the few standing behind him.
The young boy watched in stunned silence as his beast friend visited bloody vengeance upon the masked men.
“Why are you attacking them?” he shrieked before turning to the one he’d seen in town the day previous. “It’s him we’re here for!”
As the words left his lips, the one that was the object of his rage turned to glance at him, and as their eyes met, the young boy’s blood began to boil anew, and with a cry, he lifted his blade high and charged forth, the broiling hate within him lending him strength.
But the pointed-eared man was not the only one to notice his presence, and as he ran, the young boy saw movement at the edge of his vision, and as he turned, he could only watch as a masked man raised a hand to him, his hands wreathed in flames.
Gritting his teeth, the boy dove for the earth and tensed for the blow to come, but as he did so, a wind vine flew towards him, wrapping about his waist and yanking him out of the path of the fireball aimed at his chest, and as the boy sailed through the air, he turned just in time to watch an ice lance impale his would-be killer, pinning him to the tree beside him.
As he felt the earth beneath him once more, the young boy scrambled to his knees and turned to his rescuer. It was the man he’d come to kill. Stunned, he watched as the man lobbed death and destruction at all who approached, the cries of the fallen filling the young boy’s ears till at last, the battle was ended.
Then, the man turned to the boy, his breathing heavy as he uttered words the boy did not understand.
The young boy stared in silence for a spell, staring at the man in confusion.
As the man turned to his companion, soft footsteps reached the boy’s ears, and turning, he watched his beloved companion approach.
“Kallik!” he cried and scrambled to his feet.
The great wolf stopped before the men, its jaws dripping with blood, and as the child darted forth, the wolf whined and raised its head before bringing it down gently onto the boy as he reached it to hug the boy close.
Once more, the foreign tongue reached the boy, and turning, he frowned and stared at the men with pointed ears, and as he turned to the older one, his frown deepened. There was a stone ring in the man’s hand, dark in colour.
Tearing his gaze from the ring, he stared at the man, who smiled and offered the ring. The boy turned to his companion, but the wolf stared at him as if waiting to see what he would do. Turning to the ring once more, the boy stared at it some more, then shrugged and took it before slipping it onto his thumb and turning to the man whose ring it was.
The man smiled in response and pulled free a similar ring, then slipped it onto is index finger and parted his lips.
“Let’s try this again—”
With a startled cry, the boy scrambled back from the man, his eyes wide.
“It’s alright,” the man said, though his lips were not in tune with the words reaching the boy’s ears. “It takes a little getting used to, but it’s perfectly harmless, I assure you.”
“How’re you doing that?” the boy cried. “Your lips are… How am I… What’re you—”
“It’s alright, child. Truly. The ring allows us understand each other. We still speak in our native tongues, and, believe it or not, that is still what our ears hear, but the ring helps our minds understand what our ears cannot.”
He boy turned to the ring.
“My name is Drien,” the man continued, drawing the boy’s gaze. “This is my companion, Farran…”
The younger man bowed, a smile upon his lips.
“…and who might you…”
A low growl silenced the man and drew the gazes of the three to the wolf. Its teeth were bared, and its eyes fixed upon the few survivors of the carnage.
“Of course,” The man named Drien sighed, then wandered forth.
As the man wandered past, the boy turned to the carnage and allowed his eyes to wander. Only two masked men stirred, and both were badly injured.
“I want to know where to find Tarun,” the older elf said, drawing the boy’s gaze. “Whichever of you tells me, you have my word, we will not kill. The other, well, our wolf friend here shall see to him.”
The two injured men stared at one another before turning to the one named Drien.
“Well?” the man barked.
“I…I don’t—” began one of the wounded men.
“Just shut up, alright. Shut your mouth.”
“I said shut up, gods damn you! Shut up and keep your…”
As he spoke, the great wolf sauntered forth. Reaching the masked man, it paused, stared deep into the man’s eyes, then lowered its snout, encased its maw about the man’s head, and bit down.
A shrill cry rang out from the remaining masked man, one that got all the shriller when the great beast tossed his companion’s head onto his chest.
“So,” the man named Drien continued, “will you talk, or would you rather be next?”
“Please don’t kill me! Please! Please don’t—”
“In the valley to the north! To the north!”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes! There’s a village there! We cleared out the villagers and made it our base!”
“Cleared,” the man named Drien said, his gaze darkening rapidly, “or butchered?”
The masked man fell silent at those words, his soft whimpering all that could be heard.
Breathing deep, the man named Drien stood tall, then nodded. “Very well. We shall take your word for it. But if you’re lying, I will find you, and I will burn you alive.”
“I’m not lying!” the man cried with a vehement shake of his head. “I’m not! I’m not!”
“Good!” the man named Drien replied, then turned to the others. “Come! Time we were away!”
“Wait!” the boy cried as the man made to leave. “Are you really going to leave him? He’ll go warn his friends!”
Sighing, the man turned and shrugged. “It can’t be helped. I gave my word.”
“I gave my word, young man! And a mage’s word is his bond! Now come along!”
“No buts! Now come…”
Then, the man sighed. “How silly of me, I almost forgot about the wards.”
“Hunh?” The boy frowned.
Shaking his head, the man marched towards his companion.
“You’ll see,” the man interjected, a simple smile upon his lips.
Then, reaching his companion, he turned and stared from the boy to his beast companion and back.
“Why don’t you hold Farran’s hand a spell, young man, and ask your wolf friend to come a little closer so I can place a hand on her.”
“Him,” the boy corrected. “Kallik’s a boy.”
“Ah.” The mage smiled. “Well, why don’t you ask him to come a little closer?”
The boy stared at the pointy-eared man in confusion.
“Today, young man, today!”
Shaking his head, the one named Farran offered his hand. The boy stared at it a spell, then took it before turning to the great wolf.
The wolf stared at the boy a spell, then wandered forth and sat before the one named Drien, then placed his head upon the man’s head.
“Hrm…” the man named Drien muttered as the young boy stifled a snicker.
“Hold still, please,” the man added, then uttered a single word in a tongue that remained foreign to the boy.
At that utterance, a wild rush of air blasted the boy as a circular wall of flames burst to life behind the men and flew outward before petering out to nothing, scorching all the earth it touched save for where the four stood, the grass beneath their feet as green as the circle of grass behind the pointy-eared men, and as the young boy stared with wide eyes at the men before him, the stench of charred flesh assaulted his nostrils, drawing his gaze to the scorched lumps about them, one of which was once the sole surviving masked man.
“Well!” the man named Drien cried and began marching forth. “Time we were off!”
Stunned, the young boy turned to the great beast. The wolf was staring with eyes just as wide at the scorched earth about them.
As one, the young boy and the great beast exchanged glances, and with a shake of their heads, turned and followed the pointy-eared men.
Resting in the shadows against a lone tree, Farran pulled at the grass beneath him as he stared at the sleeping boy, the child’s side rising and falling slowly as the campfire’s crackles echoed in the night. He seemed so at peace, so content.
“Tarun, what have you done?” the mage whispered at last, then shook his head and sighed.
Movement on the other side of camp drew the mage’s eyes to his companion, and as the older mage approached, the young mage sat tall and forced a smile.
“Thought I’d come keep you company a spell,” Drien said as he reached Farran.
The young mage’s smile warmed. “Kallik’s eyes unnerving you as well, are they?”
“Unnerve me?” the older mage gasped.
Grinning, Farran shrugged.
“I am Master of the Pens, my boy,” Drien added in his haughtiest tone. “It’ll take more than a pair of burnished eyes to unnerve me.”
Chuckling, Farran gave his companion a florid bow. “My apologies, Archmage, I shall watch my tone.”
“Hrm,” Drien growled, then moved to sit beside the seated mage.
“And don’t call me Archmage,” Drien added as he lowered himself. “No titles out here, remember?”
“Ah, of course,” Farran replied, his grin gone. “Apologies.”
“Oh, it’s quite alright.” Drien smiled, though his smile was fleeting. “How do you fare, though?”
Farran stared the man a spell as those words bored into him.
“How do I fare?” he muttered, then turned to the sleeping boy as a sigh escaped his lip.
Then, he returned his gaze to his companion. “All that you said earlier, did the boy truly say them?”
Breathing deep, Drien nodded. “Every word.”
At this, Farran shook his head. “Then, I know not how I fare.”
“Do you know why I didn’t argue when the Matriarch ordered me accompany you in hunting Tarun down?”
Drien smiled at his companion. “To hear his side of things.”
“No,” Farran shook his head, “to stay your hand when we meet him.”
Nodding, Farran turned to the sleeping boy. “I believed his lies Drien. In my heart, I believed he spoke the truth when he said his hand was being forced, and I was prepared to forsake my Matriarch’s orders to protect him.”
“Farran, he killed two Tower mages right in the Pens! Your friends!”
Smiling, Farran turned to his companion.
“And he ordered his men to kill us!” Drien continued. “Twice!”
“He’s my brother, Drien. Since childhood, he’s always lived in my shadow. Even his position in the Pens, you only granted it to ensure I’d accept mine, didn’t you?”
Drien moved to speak but instead fell silent.
“Precisely. There’s always been anger in him, a need to surpass me. And I revelled in it. I revelled in proving my skill was beyond him while playing the caring older brother. Right from childhood. Looking back, it was…gods, I don’t know, what it was… Then, this. I felt sure this whole madness could’ve been avoided had I truly cared as a big brother should instead of—”
“You blame yourself.”
Sighing, Farran nodded. “Yeah, I did.”
At those words, the older mage cast a slow sideways glance at the elf before him. “Did?”
Breathing deep, Farran let it out slowly and nodded once more, then turned to the sleeping youth once again.
“What he did to Adlartok’s village… That’s not resentment, that’s evil. You don’t purge an entire village simply because they refused to sell you their wolf cubs, even if they’re humans.”
The older mage shook his head and turned to the sleeping boy. “I can’t argue with that.”
The seated mage shook his head, his gaze unmoving. “Stealing our Pen’s offspring, I can accept his claim of being forced into it. Even spilling Tower blood, fair enough, they caught him and he panicked. But this? Laughing and jeering as you and your men slaughter all those people? I don’t think I ever truly knew my brother.”
“Don’t be too hard on yourself, Farran,” Drien soothed. “The Tarun you knew once existed, for sure of it, but coin can be quite the corruptor, and he would’ve made a great deal selling that many of our familiars’ offspring. And the wolf cubs, if Kallik is anything to go by, they would’ve been quite the specimen.”
Farran turned to the older mage. “And that justifies the slaughter?”
“No,” Drien shook his head, “nothing can ever justify that. I just mean don’t be too hard on yourself. The Tarun you once knew once existed but is not the Tarun of today.”
“Well, the Tarun of today is not my brother,” Farran growled turning to the boy once more, “and whatever happens, he will answer for what he’s done.”
The older mage placed a soft hand upon his companion’s shoulder, then smiled as their gazes met.
“Get some rest, then,” he said. “We make our way down the valley tomorrow. I’ll take first watch.”
Farran stared at the standing mage a spell, but soon sighed and nodded. “Very well.”
“Good,” Drien nodded.
“Oh, and, uh…” he continued as Farran rose.
“Hrm?” Farran frowned, turning to the mage.
“Here,” Drien said, offering Farran the obsidian ring that once rested on his index finger. “Look after the boy tomorrow. Alright?”
Farran stared at the ring a spell, then nodded. “Very well.”
“Good.” Drien nodded.
In the silence that followed, Drien watched the dejected mage make his way towards his pallet. But soon, his gaze drifted towards the two glowing circles in the shadows, and as he stared at the circles, he smiled.
“What a specimen indeed,” he said, then moved to take his place for first watch.
Sitting at his dining table, the young elf stared with full concentration at the map upon the table, his hands moving almost of their own accord as they carved the roast before him, but a hesitant knock drew the elf’s gaze to the door, a deep frown upon his lips.
The knock came again.
Sighing, the elf sat back into his chair, placing his cutlery onto the plate as he did so.
“Enter,” he called out.
In response the door swung open.
“This had better be good, Jones,” the elf growled at the portly human that wandered in.
“Uh…” the human began before clearing his throat. “I, uh… I’m afraid we have a…problem, Tarun.”
Slowly, the elf sat tall. “Problem?”
“Yeah.” Jones nodded. “It’s the mages.”
“The…uh…the ones sent by your old home.”
Silence fell upon the room as Tarun stared at the man before him with a blank stare, but as the meaning of the man’s words became clear, a deep chill filled the air as the elf’s gaze drove every ounce of warmth from the Jones’s body.
“Are you telling me they survived the ambush?” he said at last, his voice soft.
“Not all of them.”
“How many, then?”
Tarun frowned. “Just two?”
“Yeah.” Jones nodded.
The elf’s frown deepened, but soon, his eyes grew wide as he raised his chin to the man before him.
“Did my brother survive?” he said.
“Uh…” Jones began before clearing his throat and lowering his gaze. “Yeah.”
“Gods damn it, Jones!” Tarun thundered. “What did you think I mean when I said stop him by any means necessary? Do I truly have the spell it out for you?”
“I’m sorry, sir!” Jones replied. “I just… He got a good dose of the venom, though, I cut him myself! But I…I don’t know how he survived it!”
“Is the old man the other survivor?”
“Yeah.” Jones nodded.
“Well, there you go, then!” Tarun thundered, his gaze one of utter exasperation. “Why in the hells do you think I told you to isolate the old fool before attacking the others? He used to run the damned Infirmary for gods’ sake! Gods, you’re making me regret leaving you in charge of the blasted ambush!”
“I’m sorry, sir!” Jones cried, bowing deep. “But there were a lot of variables, and—”
“Shut up!” Tarun spat. “Just shut up before I hang you by your entrails.”
The bowing human fell silent as rivulets of sweat ran down his face.
Sighing, Tarun sat back into his chair once more. “So, where are they now?”
The bowing human gritted his teeth. “In the valley, sir.”
Jones lowered his head even further. “They’re in the valley, sir.”
“Are you truly telling me you waited till they were right upon us before bringing this news to me?” Tarun said, his voice quivering.
“I was trying to handle it, sir.”
“And just how were you trying to do that, pray tell?”
“I sent Declan after—”
“Declan,” Tarun interjected.
“Yes, sir,” Jones nodded.
“On his own.”
“No, sir,” Jones replied, shaking his head. “He had his crew with him.”
“Just his crew?”
Tarun stared hard at the human before him.
“You sent Declan and his crew after two Shimmering Tower mages,” he said at last.
Tarun slowly shook his head at the man. “What in the world possessed me to name you my second?”
Tarun’s words cut the human deep and it showed.
“Very well,” Tarun sighed, “gather everyone. This time, we—”
“There’s more, sir.”
“Of course, there is,” Tarun growled.
“I sent a crew after Delan when he failed to report in. They found him and his crew—”
“Yeah, dead. But Declan was missing his head.”
Tarun shrugged at this. “They took his head, so what?”
Jones raised his gaze to his master. “His head was bitten off, sir. By something with big teeth.”
The silence returned, this time weighing heavy on the men as Tarun stared hard at his man.
“The wolf boy…” he said at last.
“Yes, sir.” Jones nodded, “It has to be.”
“Then, I take it he and my brother are…”
Jones nodded at those words.
“Hrm,” Tarun muttered, his gaze in the ether.
“Where are they now?” he soon asked, turning to his man once more.
“They’re nearing the old ruins. They should reach it some time after dusk, given their pace.”
“And how many people do we have at base?”
“We have two crews on deliveries. Everyone else is here.”
“Hrm,” Tarun muttered. “Could do with more, but…”
Then, he turned to his man once more. “We’ve sold all the amarok cubs already, haven’t we?”
Jones shook his head. “There’s still the sickly one. No offers yet.”
“Perfect.” Tarun smiled before springing to his feet. “Tell everyone to head to the ruins, then get that cub and meet me there.”
“Yes, sir!” Jones cried and spun about.
Shaking his head as his man hurried from the room, Tarun turned to the ether once more. “Seems I’ll have to kill you myself after all, Brother. Pity.”
Then, breathing deep, he turned and headed for the door.
Wandering on in silence, Farran cast a soft sideways glance at the boy beside him. It was clear being in his presence unnerved the boy, yet thus far, he’d failed to find a way to put the child at ease. The reason for the unease was clear enough, he reminded the child of his brother. But still, there must be some way to get through to the boy, some way to—
“Down!” Drien hissed, drawing Farran from his thoughts.
Diving for the undergrowth, Farran scanned his surroundings as he pulled the boy down to the earth with him.
“What is it?” Farran whispered.
“Structures,” Drien replied. “Buildings of some sort to the north of us.”
Frowning, Farran stared at that which lay before them, his brow furrowed deep.
“What is it?” the boy whispered, tugging at Farran’s arm.
“Buildings,” Farran replied, “to the north of us.”
“Oh?” The boy frowned before turning and staring before him.
“Yeah.” Farran nodded before turning to the older mage. “They look abandoned, though.”
“That doesn’t make them any less ideal a spot for an ambush.”
Farran moved to speak but fell silent as he could not rebut his companion’s words, and turning his gaze forward, he stared on as his mind raced.
Then, a soft whine reached the mage, pulling his gaze to the great wolf crouching behind them, and as he stared at the beast, he frowned, for the beast had his ears pointed forward, his head cocked to the side and his gaze in the ether.
“What’s wrong with him?” Farran said, glancing at the boy.
“I…don’t know.” The boy frowned in response.
Then, the wolf slowly rose.
“Kallik!” the boy hissed. “Get—!”
The young boy’s words were cut short by the beast’s sudden pounce as it leapt over the prone child before bounding forth with all speed.
“Kallik!” the boy cried, scrambling to his feet. “What’re you doing? Kallik!”
“No!” Farran cried, reaching for the boy. “Adlartok, hold!”
But the boy would not be reasoned with, and pulling free of the mage’s grip, he raced on after his friend.
“Blast!” Drien spat before scrambling to his feet. “Well, come on!”
As one, the pair raced forth, their steps greatly hastened, and as Farran reached the boy, he whispered words of arcane.
“Wha…” the boy gasped as he stumbled, the increase in his pace catching him unawares.
“Hurry!” Farran cried, catching the boy to steady him before pushing him forward.
Then, the three raced on, but even with the aid of the arcane, they could not gain on the beast, and it took all they had to keep pace.
“Where in the hells is he going?” Drien soon gasped.
“He’s headed for the buildings!” Farran said.
“I can bloody see that! But why?”
“I don’t bloody know, do I!” Farran threw back. “But dear gods, he’s fast!”
“I’ve not seen him like this since the day our village was attacked,” the boy panted.
Then, at last, the wolf began to slow, and so too did the others, and as the loud beatings in their ears began to fade, they heard at last the low whines in the distance.
“What in the…” Drien began as the trio reached the wolf.
“I don’t believe it,” the boy gasped, his eyes wide as he stared at the prone figure in the distance. “It’s a pup! Kallik! I think we found one of your pups!”
Then, with a cry, the boy raced forth. As he did so, however, the earth beneath the friends’ feet glowed with an ochre glow for the briefest instant, and as the mages turned their gazes to it, the ground erupted as the blast runes etched into the soil beneath their feet triggered as one, hurling the entire party high into the air.
“Now!” barked a voice from one of the buildings. “Fire everything!”
Dazed, the mage that was Farran scrambled towards the prone child. It had been pure instinct that had driven him to erect a shield about himself and the child at the very moment before the blast, and it was pure instinct that drove him on, forcing him to recast his shield as he reached the boy.
Without pause for thought, the mage dragged the prone boy to him and scrambled to his feet as bolts flew at him in every direction, their tips glistening in the dying light, and weaving as best he could, he hurried over to a nearby abandoned building before leaping through shuttered windows, the rotten wood of the shutters giving way as he crashed into it, the boy in his arms.
Landing hard, he scrambled toward the wall behind him, dragging the child along. Resting the boy against the wall, the mage sat and fought for breath. It was then he noticed the bolt stuck in the sole of the boy’s boot, and as he stared at it, a deep chill gripped him. For his shield to have weakened enough to allow that lone bolt through, far too many more had struck them square. Then, the boot’s sole began to blacken.
“Blast!” the mage spat as he reached for the boot and yanked it off the child.
“Farran!” came a cry from without. “Brother!”
“Tarun,” Farran growled.
“You know, I was expecting it to be Drien who’d survive, but seems you’re the sharper mage! Well done!”
Farran inched toward the window, then winced as he watched men step into view, crossbows raised as they advanced on the house. But his brother was nowhere to be seen.
“Where’s Drien?” Farran yelled.
“Dead. Filled him and that amarok with enough venom to slay a flock of rocs.”
“Oh, don’t be bitter, Brother!” the voice cried out in response. “I didn’t ask you to come after me! And I gave you ample opportunity to turn back! But no, you had to be the just and righteous boot-licker you’ve always been!”
“You’ll pay for what you’ve done here today, Tarun!” Farran barked. “You’ll pay for every life you’ve taken! As the gods bear me witness, I will not rest till—”
“Oh, spare me the sanctimonious drivel!” Tarun threw back. “Every life I have taken, I have taken because they stood between me and what I am owed!”
“Yes! Owed! I worked hard in that blasted Pens, but that old bastard only sang your praises! He invited me to the Pens first, but it was you he was fawning over! It’s been like that all my life, and I’m sick of it. I will not be invisible anymore, you hear me? I will not be taken advantage of anymore!”
“Taken advantage of… How in the hells did Adlartok’s tribe take advantage of you!”
“They laughed at me, Brother! I made them a simple offer, a way to give them more than enough coin to mean they’d no longer live in squalor, and they looked down their noses at me! They thought themselves better! Well, they were wrong, Brother! You are all wrong! And now, you’re going to die, just like that useless old fool!”
“Before you call someone dead, boy, best make sure first,” boomed the voice of the mage that was Drien.
The mage’s words seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere at once, and as Farran heard them, he sighed as a wide smile parted his lips.
“I knew you’d have survived,” he breathed, then stared out the window once more.
The men had stopped and were scanning their surroundings.
“Should’ve known an old dog like you wouldn’t succumb so easily my little presents,” Tarun’s voice called out.
“A worm like you could never hope to end me, boy.”
“Oh? Then show yourself. Let’s put those word to the test.”
At last, Farran’s gaze fell upon his brother, Tarun slowly turning about with hands at his side as lightning danced between his fingertips.
“Much as I would love to, boy,” Drien’s voice continued, “there is one who’s earned the right to face you first, and I will not stand in his way.”
At those words, a deep guttural growl filled the air as golden eyes glimmered in the shadows behind Tarun, and before Farran could even breathe, a loud bark rang out as the great beast lunged forth, the light glimmering off the many bolts lodged in his back, and though Tarun scored three clean strikes with his spells, they did little to stop the beast slamming him onto the ground before closing his mighty jaw about him.
At first, elf’s shields held as his men turned and emptied their bolts into the beast, but it was as if the great wolf had forgotten what it meant to feel pain, snapping and snarling as he bit and clawed at the pinned elf, Tarun’s cries ringing high and loud as he hurled spell after spell at the beast, but in the end, the pinned mage’s shield failed, and with a triumphant howl, the great beast bit down upon the mage and rent him asunder, his men too stunned to even speak.
“Kallik?” came a soft voice from beside Farran, drawing his gaze to the boy, and as the boy gasped and made to leap out the window, the kneeling mage sprang to his feet and grasped the boy.
“No!” he cried, pulling the boy from the window. “No! That’s not Kallik, there’s something not right with this! Hold, let Drien finish!”
“We came for Tarun,” Drien’s voice echoed once more. “Unless you wish to join him, drop your weapons and leave. Now.”
The men exchanged glances, but there could only be one response, and before long, they were gone. Then, at last, Farran let go of the child, and in that instant, the boy leapt out of the window and hurried towards the great wolf, Farran close behind.
“I wouldn’t get too close if I were you,” said Drien as he stepped into view, a sickly wolf following behind the mage with his gaze upon the great wolf and a low whine emanating from him.
“What,” the boy began, stopping and staring at the mage before turning to Farran. “What did he say?”
In response, Farran pulled free the ring upon his finger and tossed it to Drien, who sighed and slipped it on.
“He’s dead, boy,” Drien said, his voice soft. “It’s only my magic keeping him on his feet, and all that is doing is fuelling his hate.”
The great beast turned to the men, but there was no light in his eyes.
“Wha? No… No!?” the boy cried. “What do you mean, he’s dead? He can’t be dead!”
Breathing deep, the older mage sighed. “The blast knocked the wind out of me, and I would most certainly be dead had he not flung himself upon the cub and I. He shielded us from the bolts and it cost him his life.”
“No…” the boy gasped, tears stinging his eyes.
The mage sighed and nodded. “I could feel his rage as he died. Vengeance was all that had kept him going. So, I did the only thing I could, I gave him the strength to have his revenge.”
“What did you do to him?” the boy said, his voice quivering as he glanced at the great beast before staring at the mage.
Sighing once more, Drien turned to the wolf. “He’s undead now, boy.”
“No.” The boy shook his head.
“I cannot undo what I’ve done. I wish I could, but…”
“He won’t wander far from these ruins, at least. He’ll no doubt hunt Tarun’s men, but if they have any ounce of sense in them, they’ll leave this valley altogether. For our part, we’d best spread word to all around to give this place a wide berth. The magic driving him will begin to wane once his rage fades. Till then, there’s no telling what he’ll do to any who wander these ruins.”
“You mean to leave him like this?” Farran asked. “Should we not end his suffering?”
Shaking his head, Drien sighed. “We can’t risk another ambush, Farran. With the pup and child in tow, it would be folly. But with him here, we can be certain we won’t be shadowed.”
“I don’t like it any more than you do, but it’ll be naive to think those men will not want revenge.”
“But we can teleport, Drien!”
Shaking his head once more, the older mage turned to his friend. “The pup is sickly. Too sickly for such strong magic. Forgive me, Farran, but we need him in this form.”
Then, Drien turned to the boy.
“Here,” he said, gently ushering the cub forward. “Your Kallik gave his life for this one. Will you not look after him?”
The boy stared at the cub a spell, then turned to glare at the mage, his tears running free.
Drien smiled at the child. “You hate me, I don’t blame you. But what would you rather, Kallik as he is now, or every single one of us lying dead in this valley? Him included.”
The young boy glared at the mage a spell longer, then sniffed and turned to the cub. “I have nowhere to take him. It’s been just Kallik and I for so long, I…”
“Then, come with us,” Drien replied. “Join our tribe. We know little of these beasts. Teach us, boy, and let us watch him grow together.”
The boy stared at the pup for a spell longer, then turned to Drien and shrugged. “I’ve not much choice, do I?”
A sad smile parted the mage’s lips as he stared at the child in silence.
Breathing deep, the boy stood tall and turned to the beast.
“Farewell, Kallik,” he said. “I won’t forget you.”
The great wolf stared with nary a sound, then turned and sauntered off.
“Come,” Drien said, stepping forth, “let’s go home.”
The boy breathed deep, his gaze upon the receding wolf, then turned to the pup and smiled.
“Come,” he sniffed. “Let’s go.”
Farran watched the great wolf a spell longer as the guilt within bore into him.
“Come, Farran,” Drien soothed. “Let’s go home.”
Tearing his gaze from the wolf Farran turned to his friend.
“Very well,” he sighed at last, “let’s go home.”
Breathing deep, the elderly mage patted his companion’s shoulder, then stepped forth
“I never realised you were a necromancer, Drien,” Farran said as Drien wandered on.
The mage stopped and turned to Farran, his eyes as steel. “Am I?”
Farran stared at the mage in silence a spell, then smiled. “No, you’re not.”
“No,” Drien replied, his gaze softening as he turned once more, “I’m not.”
Farran turned and cast one last long gaze at the undead beast in the distance.
“Farewell,” he whispered, then breathed deep and turned before lumbering forth, his heart heavy as his thoughts turned towards home.