Standing before an open window, her fiery hair ruffled by the gentle breeze blowing through, the Matriarch of the Shimmering Tower stood in silence as she stared with a soft smile at her daughter. Sighing and resting upon the window’s sill, the enamoured elf watched young Naeve dance in the garden, her sharp leaps and gentle glides widening her mother’s smile.

“What am I to do with you, my darling?” she whispered as young Naeve pirouetted away. “What am I to do with you?”

“Well, I think you’re doing just fine…” came a soft voice from behind the Matriarch, startling her and sending her spinning about.

“…but that’s just me.”

Smiling as a sigh escaped her lips, the relieved mage stared at the silver-haired woman before her.

“One of these days, Amala,” she said after a spell, “you’re going to sneak up on me at the wrong bloody moment and get a bloody lightning bolt to the throat.”

“Eh,” Amala replied, waving the Matriarch’s words away. “You keep promising that, but never deliver.”

Biting back a snicker, the Matriarch returned her gaze to her daughter, and after a brief spell, Amala wandered up beside her.

“Tirinel’s dance.” Amala said after a spell, a smile upon her lips.

“Hm.” The Matriarch nodded.

“She’s getting better.”

“I know. And all from memory.”

With her smile widening, Amala turned the Matriarch. “I wonder who she takes after on that.”

“Oh, shut up, you,” the Matriarch replied as her cheeks reddened.

Snickering, Amala turned to the dancing girl once more.

“She slept in my bed last night,” the Matriarch said at last.

Frowning, Amala turned to the elf beside her. “What do you mean?”

The Matriarch shrugged and turned to Amala. “I mean she came into my room last night and asked to sleep in my bed.”

Amala’s frown deepened as a heavy silence fell upon the pair.

“She hasn’t done that since…” Amala began.

The Matriarch nodded. “I know.”

“Did she say why?”

The Matriarch shook her head. “She say anything to you?”

“No.” Amala shook her head. “I mean, granted, I didn’t see much of her yesterday, but from what little I saw of her she seemed to be brooding over something. I’d just assumed it was Arinelle’s tale.”

The Matriarch nodded. “Yeah, I think that’s it too. You think maybe we’re going to fast? Maybe it’s all getting too much for her?”

Amala stared at the elf before her in silence for a spell, her lips pursed and her brow furrowed.

“Let me speak to her, first,” Amala said at last. “If she truly is struggling to take it all in, then, yes, perhaps we are going too fast.”

“The Matriarch nodded. “Okay. Tell me what she says though, yeah?”

Amala nodded.

“I will,” she said, then headed for the door.

Sighing, Naeve straightened as she lowered her hands, her breathing laboured.

“Not bad, I think,” she said, nodding as she spoke. “Fewer mistakes this time.”

“I’ll say,” came a voice from behind Naeve, startling her and spinning her about. “I counted only four this time.”

“Gods,” Naeve gasped as she glared at a seated Amala. “Must you do that?”

Grinning, Amala shrugged. “Allow me my simple pleasures, Naeve.”

“Startling someone out of their skin isn’t a simple pleasure, Amala!”

“Oh, I don’t know…”

Growling, Naeve stomped over to the smiling silver-haired elf.

“What?” Amala said when Naeve stood before her.

Grunting in response, the little girl sat beside Amala upon the bench the silver-haired woman was perched, then stared off in silence into the distance.

“We didn’t get to speak much yesterday,” Amala said at last. “Did we?”

“No,” Naeve replied, shaking her head as she turned to Amala. “Mother said there was some mix-up with the delegates yesterday. She didn’t tell me much more than that.”

“Yes,” Amala sighed, “someone thought it was a good idea to leave both the highland baron delegates and the dark elf delegates in the same waiting room…”

Young Naeve’s eyes went wide at this.

“Mhm.” Amala nodded.

“How bad was it?”

“Not terribly bad, thankfully,” Amala replied. “Master Kettleworth alerted me to the error just in time.”

Naeve frowned at this. “Alerted you? Not Mother?”

Amala nodded. “The Lockmar delegates returned. They spent most of the day with your mother.”

“Ah…”

“Yes.” Amala nodded once more. “I had to be on hand to make sure those others didn’t start anything. At least till your mother was free.”

Smiling, Naeve shook her head. “Mother should just name you Magister and be done with it.”

Amala smiled. “That would not be a good idea.”

“Why not? You’re already filling the role, so…”

“You forget, Magisters have their pasts pored over.”

“Ah…yeah, of course. Your, uhm…”

Amala nodded.

“Sorry.” Little Naeve winced.

Amala shook her head. “Don’t be. I am grateful for the compliment, but I’m content being your mother’s aide.”

“And a bloody good one you are, too.”

Amala smiled. “Thank you again, Lady Naeve.”

Grinning in response, the little girl returned her gaze to the horizon.

“So,” Amala said after a spell. “How are you feeling?”

Little Naeve turned to her friend, a confused smile upon her lips.

“How am I feeling…?”

Amala nodded. “Last time we spoke, you were…you know…”

“Oh, gods,” Amala replied, rolling her eyes as she did so. “Must you remind me? I’m a cry-baby, yes, I know.”

Amala grinned at the little girl seated beside her, but it was fleeting.

“How are you feeling, though?”

Taking a deep breath, little Naeve let it out slowly and stared into the ether.

“I…don’t know,” she said at last, turning to Amala once more. “And that’s the honest truth.”

A soft smile parted Amala’s lips as she rubbed a gentle hand upon little Naeve’s cheek. Clasping hold of the elven woman’s hand, Naeve pulled it to her lap and stared at it a spell.

“You know,” she said at last, turning to Amala once more. “I can just about see Mother doing what Arinelle did if someone hurt me like they hurt her children.”

Amala grinned. “Oh yes, I can see her doing that and more.”

Chuckling, Naeve nodded. “Yeah.” Then, she frowned. “But what Nerza did, choosing someone else over her own daughter…”

“It wasn’t just someone else, Naeve,” Amala soothed. “It was her sister.”

“But still, Elsa was her daughter.”

“Nerza was dying, Naeve.”

“That is such a bollocks reason to abandon her daughter.”

“Naeve!”

“No, it is! She was Matriarch of the Shimmering Tower, Amala! The Shimmering bloody Tower! Even bloody dragons have come to pay us a visit! Are you really telling me she had an illness so rare nobody, absolutely nobody in the Tower could cure?”

Amala smiled. “Oh, people in the Tower knew precisely what it was, but she was beyond saving. Her only choices were a long and agonising death, or a quick, clean one.”

“No.” Naeve shook her head. “I don’t accept that. I won’t. She gave up. She gave up and used her dying as an excuse.”

Cocking her head to the side, Amala frowned. “That really bothers you, doesn’t it? Nerza leaving Elsa behind like that.”

Little Naeve fell silent and stared at her friend.

“Doesn’t it?”

Shaking her head, Naeve lowered her gaze.

Grasping hold of her young friend’s chin, Amala raised little Naeve’s gaze to hers.

“Why?” she asked.

Pouting, Naeve shrugged, then her eyes began to glisten.

“Do you think Mother would’ve done the same?” she mumbled. “Do you think she’d have abandoned me like that?”

“Oh, child,” Amala said before throwing her arms about little Naeve and hugging her close.

As she hugged the little child, Amala stared at the child with a sad frown upon her lips. But then, her smile returned, and parting from the little girl, Amala stared deep into little Naeve’s eyes as her smile slowly widened.

“Darling, do you trust me?” she said.

“What?”

“Do you trust me? Do you trust that I will always do everything in my power to keep you safe? Do you trust that I will always do whatever it takes to make you happy?”

“Of course I do!”

“Good.” Amala grinned. “The Dawnmeadows were to Nerza and Elsa what I am to you and your mother. Nerza’s choice was either to abandon Arinelle to the Brood Mother, or leave Elsa in the Dawnmeadows’ care. She did not abandon her daughter, Naeve. And your mother would never abandon you.”

A brief silence fell upon the pair as little Naeve stared into the ether. Then, sniffling, she turned to her friend once more.

“Didn’t think of it that way.”

Snickering, Amala hugged the little girl once more. Then, with a gasp, she parted from the little girl once more, staring into her eyes once again.

“Is that why you slept in your mother’s bed last night?”

“She told you?” Naeve cried.

“It is, isn’t it?”

“I can’t believe she told you that!”

“Well, now you know better.”

Little Naeve glared at her friend a spell, but a deep frown soon twisted her lips.

“If the Dawnmeadows were so perfect, why did Elsa go off the rails?”

Amala frowned. “How do you know what Elsa did?”

Naeve shrugged. “I read about her in the Library yesterday.”

“Oh?”

Naeve nodded. “No tutor, remember? Lots of spare time.”

“Ah.” Amala smiled, then sighed. “Yes, she was rather wild in the early years of her reign. The poor thing refused to see past her pain.”

“Oh?”

Amala nodded. “All she saw was her mother and aunt abandoning her. No matter what anyone said or did, that’s all she saw.”

“You almost make her sound selfish,” Naeve replied. “Was she?”

“No,” Amala shook her head, “not selfish, just…opinionated.”

“And hurt.”

Amala nodded as her smile widened. “And hurt.”

Smiling herself, Naeve snuggled up to her dear friend and rested her head upon Amala’s side, and as the elven woman wrapped a hand about the little girl, the pair sighed and stared into the ether. Then, little Naeve rose, her gaze upon Amala’s face as a smile danced upon her lips.

“What…?” Amala said as she cast a slow sideways glance at Naeve.

“You have a story about Elsa, don’t you? In your tome.”

Amala frowned. “Why would I have a story about Elsa?”

“To teach me not to be selfish.”

“She wasn’t–”

“Fine, opinionated. But you put her in there to teach me that, didn’t you?”

“My dear,” Amala replied in her most sombre voice, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“So you don’t have a story in there about Elsa?”

“Of course not!”

“You swear?”

“Yes!”

Naeve stared at her friend in silence for a spell.

“You’ve got a story about someone else in there, haven’t you?”

“Ah, yes well…”

“I knew it!” The little girl grinned. “I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist!”

“But it’s a good story though!”

“Excuses!”

“It is! And it shows how one of the very few Magisters in Tower history to not have had mage training here came to join the Tower!”

“Wait, what?”

Amala nodded.

“That doesn’t make sense. If you don’t train here, how in the hells can you become Magister?”

Amala smiled. “The Matriarch chooses her Magister, my dear. There’s no stipulation as to where they received their mage training, or if they even are mages.”

“Oh!”

“Yes.”

“So what did he do that’s so bloody special, then?”

With a glimmer in her eye, Amala reached into her pocket.

“Oh, bloody hells,” Naeve growled.

“So you don’t want to read it?”

Little Naeve glared at her friend a spell.

“It’s not going to make me cry is it?” she said.

“Well, it is a little sad, but…I mean it’s no worse than Tirinel’s, so…”

The little girl stared at her friend a spell longer, pouting as she did so.

“Very well,” she sighed at last. “Let’s see this bloody story, then.”

Chuckling, Amala conjured the tome, and as Naeve took her customary position beside Amala, the silver-haired woman began flipping the tome’s pages.

“Netia…” llittle Naeve muttered once the pages stopped turning, then nestled closer to Amala, turned the page, and began to read.

*

*

*

Raising her gaze from the tome before her, the Matriarch stared at the Tower Library’s entrance as a deep frown twisted her lips. It was the angry voices that had first drawn her attention, breaking her concentration and stoking her ire greatly. But, as one voice in particular reached her ears, the Matriarch slowly rose.

“Tarron?” she said as her frown deepened.

“Mother?” whispered a voice from beside the Matriarch.

“Uh…” the Matriarch began as she turned to her daughter. “I thought…I thought I heard…”

Then, she heard the voice again, and without pause for thought, she darted for the door.

“Mother, where are you going?” the Matriarch heard her daughter call out.

But the Matriarch did not stop. Instead, she hurried out of the Library and raced towards the Tower’s Central Hall, towards the voices. As the Matriarch reached the Central Hall, however, she was not prepared for what her eyes befell, coming to a sudden halt as her eyes went wide.

“I said get back, damn you!” roared Tarron Firestar, the man whose voice the Matriarch had sworn she’d heard, a voice that had stopped her heart in but a moment.

Surrounding him were mages of the Shimmering Tower, their gazes fierce and their hands raised, arcane power flowing between their fingertips. But even at her distance, the Matriarch could see clearly that Tarron was not the target of the mages’ rancour, rather it was the dark-skinned pair standing behind Tarron; a little boy and a grown man, both human, both cowering behind her beloved.

“What is the meaning of this!” the Matriarch thundered as she marched into the Central Hall.

“Erika!” Tarron gasped. “Thank the gods!”

As the Matriarch stared at her beloved square, a gasp escaped her lips as she came to a halt.

“Tarron!” she cried. “What happened to you?”

“Oh,” Tarron said, a sheepish grin upon his lips as his hand went to the livid scar that ran from his temple to his collar. “It’s not as bad as it looks, my darling, truly.”

Just then, hurried footsteps reached the Matriarch’s ears, and as she turned, she watched as her daughter raced into the Hall, and in the silence that followed, both turned to Tarron.

“Father?” the young mage frowned. “What’re you doing here? And what in the hells happened to your face?”

The Patriarch grinned as she held his arms wide. “Come here, my little nectar.”

As her daughter raced forth to hug her beloved, the Matriarch Erika Earthchild carried her gaze over the pair cowering behind Tarron. There was terror in the little boy’s eyes, a great deal of it, and from the way he was clinging on to his companion, it was clear the man was his protector of some sort. But as the Matriarch stared at the man, she felt the hairs on the back of her neck slowly stand tall. There was an aura about him, an arcane power that seemed to corrupt the very air around him. It was an aura the Matriarch couldn’t quite place, but the more she stared him, the more she felt the need to call forth her enchantments and ready herself for battle

“Tarron,” she said at last, tearing her gaze from the man to stare at her husband. “Who are these humans?”

“Ah, yes.” Tarron grinned as he turned to the pair. “Darling, allow me to present to you Prince Feroz bin Nasir, and his steward, Aksim.”

The pair faced the Matriarch square and bowed.

“A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Matriarch,” the boy said, his voice fluid and soft, “though I must apologise for our meeting to be under such circumstances.”

Frowning, the Matriarch turned to her beloved.

“His family is dead, Erika,” Tarron added.

“What?”

Tarron nodded. “It was one of his uncles. The bastard slaughtered everyone in the palace not allied with him, all in a single night. Had it not been for Aksim, Feroz would’ve been killed too. The old dog was prepared, I’ll give him that much.”

“But…” the Matriarch replied, her gaze going from her beloved to Feroz and back, “we’ve heard no word of this.”

“Yes.” Tarron sighed. “Most of the people of Narthia don’t even know their Sultan is dead. The tale is the Sultan was wounded in a riding accident and is fighting for his life.”

The Matriarch nodded. “Yes, that’s what we’ve heard.”

Tarron nodded in response. “And now you know why.”

The Matriarch stared at the pair a spell, then turned her gaze to the mages arrayed before her beloved.

“And why are you all poised to slay a child?” she demanded.

Tarron sighed. “It’s not Feroz, my dear, it’s Aksim.”

“Hunh?” The Matriarch frowned as she turned to her beloved once more.

“He’s…” Tarron began, then sighed once more. “There’s no easy way to say this.”

“Then, say it plainly.”

“He’s a lich, my dear.”

“What?” the Matriarch Erika Earthchild said, her gaze upon the human as a cold hand gripped her insides.

“He’s a lich, Erika.”

“And you’d bring such a creature into the Tower?” the Matriarch barked.

“No,” Tarron replied. “I bring a friend.”

“A what?”

“He’s the reason the trade accord we had with Narthia, brief though it was, was even agreed in the first place. Hells, if not for him, the Sultan would’ve had me thrown out in my first night. I couldn’t leave them behind.”

The Matriarch glared at the lich a spell, seemingly unsure of what to do. Then, she turned to her daughter.

“Netia, go find your brother.”

Young Netia remained unmoving, her gaze having a coldness the Matriarch had never seen from her before.

“Netia!”

Young Netia turned to her mother.

“Go find your brother. Tell him your father has returned, and we’re in my office.”

“Yes, Mother,” Netia replied, then left.

Erika watched her daughter a spell, then turned to the pair.

“Forgive my outburst, friend Aksim,” she said, “it was uncalled for.”

The lich named Aksim bowed as a smile parted his lips. “There is nothing to forgive, Matriarch.”

Bowing herself, the Matriarch forced a smile.

“I must ask your indulgence for a moment longer, however,” she added, “while I confer with my husband in private.” Then, she noticed the dirtied bandage about Feroz’s wrist and turned to her Magister, who was at the fore of those arrayed before Tarron.

“Endar, attend to their needs, and see that Prince Feroz’s wounds are tended to.”

“Are you sure of this, Erika?” The Magister frowned.

“Tarron may be a great many things, but a poor judge of character he is not. Attend to their needs, Endar, both of them.”

The Magister turned from his Matriarch to the pair and back again, then lowered his hand. “Very well.”

“Good,” Erika said, then turned to her husband.

“Tarron, we must talk.”

“Of course,” the Patriarch said, and fell in step behind his wife as they headed for the portal stone.

Standing at the entrance of the Tower Infirmary, Erika Earthchild stared at the two humans within the room at the far end of the Infirmary, a tight frown upon her lips. Even at her distance, she could see the fell aura about the lich as he rested against the wall across from his prince, and it made her skin crawl. But even so, she couldn’t help but marvel at the completeness of his illusion. Everything about him seemed normal, from his stance to his face, even his clothes. There was nothing visible that would proclaim he was anything but human. Even his aura, she would’ve expected something far more pronounced. All told, it made gazing upon him a most unsettling experience. But regardless, her husband was right, to refuse them sanctuary would be a cruel thing indeed. And so, taking a deep breath, the Matriarch pulled herself tall and wandered towards them.

“How are they Arine?” she asked the Archmage mender attending to the boy as she entered the room they were in.

“Well,” the elderly elf said, smiling briefly at the little prince before turning to her Matriarch, “our young prince seems to have fared remarkably well given the journey he’s had.”

The Matriarch smiled. “That’s good to hear.”

“Yes.” the Archmage smiled, only for her smile to fade as she turned to the lich. “As for the li…as for Aksim, he has graciously refused my aid.”

“Oh?”

The steward smiled. “It was kind of her to offer, but I am a lich. Her healing skills will avail me naught.”

The Matriarch nodded. “As you wish.”

The steward bowed, then returned his gaze to his prince.

Biting back a frown, the Matriarch turned to the elderly elf. “Tarron will be down shortly. Would you mind attending to him in another room?”

“Oh dear.” The Archmage groaned. “He’s done himself some damage again, hasn’t he?”

The Matriarch winced. “Quite, yes. He’s sporting a new scar.”

“That man.” The Archmage sighed. “You know, I keep telling him, it’s all well and good blasting everything in sight to the hells and back, but if you can’t properly mend yourself after a battle, what good are you to anyone?”

The Matriarch grinned. “I know.”

“You think this time he’ll take me on my offer to teach him some proper healing spells?”

Slowly, the Matriarch shook her head as her wince returned.

“Yeah,” Arine sighed, “I suppose you’re right.”

“Well, I shall leave you to it,” she added, then left the room, closing the door behind her as she went.

As silence fell upon the room, Erika stared at the pair, but soon, she carried her gaze to the prince and held it there. Then, forcing a smile, she wandered over to the healing bed upon which the little boy sat, and sat beside him.

“Prince Feroz,” she began as she sat, “my husband has asked that I grant you both sanctuary, and, after listening to his words, I have decided to grant it.”

At her words, the little prince grinned, a wide grin that he threw at first her, then his steward.

“However,” Erika continued, “there are some stipulations.”

Forcing the grin from his lips, the young prince nodded as her returned his gaze to her. “Of course, Matriarch.”

“Firstly,” Erika replied, “though you may be heir to the throne of Narthia, within these walls, that title can earn you no favours.”

The young prince nodded. “I know. You expect me to work, to earn my keep. I understand, and I shall. Whatever the role.”

“But my prince,” Aksim soothed, “shall we not ask the Matriarch to entrust you with a role that tasks your mind instead of your body? After all, you are not used–”

“I shall work, Aksim,” the little boy stressed. “I will not take their hospitality for granted. I cannot.”

“Of course, my prince.” The lich bowed.

Through it all, Erika stared at the little boy, and, for the first time that day, she saw him for what he truly was. Not a prince, not a human who had a lich for a thrall, but a little boy far from his home, one whose whole family lay dead and was now forced to make a new life for himself in a world that was foreign, and quite possibly frightening, and as the Matriarch stared, her heart ached.

“Is…is there anything else, Matriarch?” the little boy asked after a spell.

Forcing a smile, the Matriarch nodded. “Yes. The only titles we use within these walls are the titles we earn as Shimmering Tower mages. That means you can no longer be called Prince Feroz, but merely Feroz.”

Sitting tall, the little boy drew breath and nodded. “I understand.”

“Good.” The Matriarch nodded, then moved to rise.

“If I may,” Aksim added.

“Yes?” Erika frowned as she turned to the lich.

“As well as his steward, I am the young prince’s tutor–”

“Feroz,” the little boy interjected. “Call me Feroz from now on, Aksim.”

“As you wish, my pr…as you wish.”

“If you are worried about continuing his tutoring,” the Matriarch said, “I’m sure we can come to some arrangement.”

“Thank you, Matriarch.” The lich bowed.

“Good.” Erika nodded, but as she turned to the little boy once more, a thought struck her.

“You may rest here,” she said. “I shall send my son down to see you. He shall be your guide, teach you our ways.” Then, she smiled. “He’s about your age, and loves nothing more than to make new friends.”

The little boy grinned at this, and bowed.

“Thank you, Matriarch,” he said. “For everything.”

Bowing herself, Erika rose, a smile upon her lips, but that soon faded the moment her gaze fell upon the lich, and fighting back a frown, the Matriarch turned and left them be.

*****

Sitting upon his throne, the new Sultan of Narthia smiled as he carried his gaze about his court, and though it was devoid of subjects, the mere thought of it being his was enough to warm the old man’s heart, and with a sigh, the Sultan settled into the throne as he raised his gaze to the heavens and savoured the moment.

Just then, the grand doors at the far end of the court swung open, and in walked the Sultan’s deadliest and most loyal vassal, but as the man neared, the Sultan sat tall, his smile slowly fading. At last, the man stood before the throne, and going on one knee, bowed to his Sultan.

“Have you found them?” the Sultan asked, his gaze boring into the man before him.

The kneeling man shook his head and lowered his head further.

“No, Sultan,” he replied. “I believe they’ve left the kingdom entirely.”

Taking a deep breath, the Sultan let it out slowly as his gaze darkened.

“You gave me your word, Abbas,” the Sultan growled.

“Forgive me, Sultan.”

“You gave me your word. Your Brotherhood of the Sun friends were more than a match for Aksim and his white friend. That was what you said. And yet, when the time came, they were swatted like flies.”

The kneeling assassin said nary a word.

“And now,” the Sultan continued, rising as he spoke, “you tell me they’ve evaded you once more, slipping out of my kingdom without you or any of your people noticing?”

“I take full responsibility, Sultan–” Abbas began.

“Yes,” the Sultan sneered, “you do.”

As a heavy silence fell upon the pair, Abbas clenched his fists, but remained where he was.

“That boy must die, Abbas,” the Sultan said at last, banishing the silence. “For as long as he lives, my reign will not be assured. He must die, and he must die quickly.”

“Of course, Sultan.”

“The people grow restless, Abbas. Rumours are spreading like wildfire. Can I count on you to see this through?”

The kneeling man nodded. “Yes, Sultan.”

“Good,” the Sultan said as he sat. “Now, go.”

“Of course, Sultan,” Abbas replied, then rose and hurried out.

As the ornate doors closed behind him, however, the assassin stood tall and sighed.

“That bad, was it?”

Shaking his head, Abbas turned to the mage behind him.

“Worse,” he replied. “The old bastard gave me the ‘Can I count on you’ speech.”

“Oh dear.”

“Yes,” Abbas sighed. “Any word at all from the others?”

The mage sighed. “Well, we know for definite they used a portal to flee Narthia, we found the location where it was opened.”

“Damn it!”

“It’s not all bad news, though.”

“Oh?”

“Yes.” The mage nodded. “From the residual energy, this portal was not of Aksim’s doing. It must’ve been the elf’s.”

Abbas frowned. “How does that help us?”

“Well, if he opened it, it stands to reason he took them to his homeland. If we can work out where that is, we’ll know where they are.”

Abbas stared at the man as if he’d sprung a second head.

“I already told Jafar as much yesterday!” he barked.

“What? How would you know of the portal?”

“Forget the damn portal! This elf stood by them, did he not? If he stood by them, do you not think it reasonable he’d help them find a place to hide? Like say, oh I don’t know, his homeland?”

“Oh.”

“Don’t you two speak anymore?”

“Of course we do! But I haven’t seen him since the slaughter, now, have I?”

Abbas moved to speak, but bit back his words at the last moment, and instead took a deep breath before letting it out slowly.

“So, what now?” he asked instead.

“Is there anything you can tell me about this elf? Anything at all.”

Abbas sighed. “No. The old Sultan was very secretive of the elf’s business, only met him in private and with Aksim nearby to shield from prying ears.”

“Gods damn it!” the mage spat. “Is there anything at all you can share? Anything at all. Think, man, anything. I’d be happy with even rumours at this point.”

“Well, uhm…” Abbas began, then stared into the ether, his brow furrowed deep.

“I recall one of the maids saying she overheard him offering to take Aksim to a glittering tower one day,” he said at last. “Does that help?”

Slowly, the mage stood tall. “Do you mean Shimmering Tower?”

Abbas shrugged. “Could be.”

At those words, all colour drained from the mage’s face.

“What? You know this tower?”

The mage nodded.

“And it’s that bad?”

“That bad?” the mage echoed. “Abbas, you would need twenty Jafars to face one of them.”

“Woah.”

“Yes.”

Swallowing hard, Abbas turned to the ornate doors behind them, his mind awhirl. Then, he turned back to his mage friend.

“Return to the Brotherhood, Qasim,” he said. “Get your very best together and ready to travel. We sail for this Shimmering Tower soon as I charter a ship and provisions.”

“Are you mad?” Qasim hissed. “We can’t go to war against the Shimmering Tower!”

“I do not intend to spill any of their blood, Qasim,” Abbas replied. “We go to kill Feroz, nothing more. Soon as that little bastard is dead, we set sail back to our land.”

“Then, what do you need our very best for?”

“Aksim!”

“Oh, right.”

“Yes. We just need to find a way to isolate those two from this tower, and we shall have done our duty.”

“Of course,” Qasim nodded. “It might work. It just might work.”

Abbas smiled. “Calm yourself friend. We’ve faced worse odds and lived to tell the tale.”

Qasim smiled. “That is true.”

“Go now,” Abbas replied. “I shall be in touch.”

“Yes.” Qasim nodded, then turned and left.

*****

Sitting upon a garden bench, Erika couldn’t help but smile as she watched her son race after the young prince, their laughter rising higher than the din of the others within the garden. It had taken little Finian no time at all to become firm friends with Feroz and allow the little boy some semblance of happiness, and Erika couldn’t be more proud.

Just then, footsteps reached her ears, and as she turned, her smile widened as she watched her Magister approach, the sullen look on his face telling her all she needed to know of her Magister’s intentions, and sitting tall, she watched him draw near.

“Erika, we must talk,” Magister Endar Dawnrider growled as he reached his Matriarch.

“Hm,” Erika replied, her smile now a grin. “Tired of sending others to speak to me, are you?”

Endar stood in silence as he bit his lip.

Shaking her head, Erika patted the empty space beside her upon the bench, and with a growl, her Magister sat.

“So,” Erika began, “before you begin, I shall first say what I told the others. No, I do not intend to send Aksim away. No, I do not believe he is a danger to the Tower. And no, I do not believe granting him and his prince sanctuary runs against all that the Tower holds dear.”

“But how can you be so flippant about this?” Endar hissed. “He’s a lich!”

“Yes,” Erika nodded as she spun to face him square, “I noticed.”

“Have you forgotten what they are?”

“Forgotten? Endar, you and I hunted these things in our youth! Hells, I still have phylactery shards from the ones we killed.”

“Yes,” Endar growled, “I never did understand why you collected those things.”

“Nevermind that! My point is, you and I, we can spot one of these things in a crowded room a mile away, and yet, the other day, Aksim was standing closer to me than you were that day, and I couldn’t tell he was a lich!”

“Oh, come now, Erika!” Endar replied. “Surely you sensed there was something not right about him. I did!”

“I did, yes,” Erika nodded. “I knew almost immediately. But I did not know that something was that he was a lich. And I wager the only reason you and the others knew was because Tarron told you.”

Endar fell silent at this.

“I’m right, aren’t I?”

“What’s your point, Erika?”

“To hide his appearance, and indeed his very nature, so well from such as you and I speaks of a command of the arcane I have never witnessed in a human–”

“He’s not a human anymore, he’s a lich.”

“And that is explanation enough?”

Once more, Endar fell silent.

“Endar, Tarron told me he’s seen this Aksim do things he didn’t think was possible, weave spells he couldn’t comprehend! I know how you feel, truly I do, I feel the same way too. His very presence, even now, makes my skin crawl.”

At this words, the Magister turned to the human who was standing to the side of the playing boys, his gaze upon the boys.

“But we are, above all, a centre of arcane learning,” Erika continued, “and that lich knows things we do not. I know it sounds absurd, especially given how thoroughly we’ve researched his corner of the world, but from what Tarron has said, and from what I myself have witnessed, he’s in possession of arcane knowledge that we lack, and we would be remiss to throw him out without at least first learning what he knows.”

“So lock him in the Library till he’s shared what he knows, then throw him out!”

Erika smiled. “Tarron’s already tried to convinced him to train him, several times, and Aksim’s refused each time. We must wear him down, Endar, make him open up to us.”

Endar’s gaze darkened greatly at his. “You’re asking too much, Erika.”

“Am I?”

“We do not need his knowledge. We do not need him!”

Erika’s smile slowly faded as she shook her head. “That is the kind of response I’d expect from a Mage Adept, or even a Mage Savant. But from my Magister…?”

Shaking her head once more, the Matriarch rose and headed for the Tower. Endar watched her in silence for a spell, but with each step she took, he felt his blood boil all the more. Tearing his gaze at last from her, Endar stared forward, only to lock gazes with Aksim. At this, the Magister snarled and sprang to his feet, his anger straining on its leash as he headed inside.

Once inside, however, the Magister soon realised he had no real destination, and so, shoving his hands into his pockets, he let his feet take him where they may as his mind wandered. He’d known this would be Erika’s response, he’d known even before approaching her, but even with that knowledge, her refusal still stung.

“Damn you, woman,” Endar growled. “Can’t you see you’re tearing this place apart?”

Stopping at last, Endar took stock of where he was, then smiled as he saw the many rows of tomes in the distance, and with a sigh, the brooding elf turned to leave. As he did so, however, his gaze fell upon one who he would not have expected to see within the Tower Library at such an hour, and turning once more, headed towards the Matriarch’s daughter.

“Imaging finding you in here at this hour,” he whispered as he sat across from Netia, a smile upon his lips. “You and your friends have another argument?”

The young elf glared at the Magister, but held her peace.

“Or is it Finian this time?”

Glaring at the Magister once more, Netia kept her peace still and returned to the book open before her.

“Very well,” Endar said, rising, “ignore me, then.”

“Actually,” Netia whispered as the Magister moved to leave, “there is a favour I must ask of you.”

“Oh?” Endar asked as he sat.

“Could you…speak to Mother on my behalf? She listens to you, always has.”

Endar sighed. “Not lately, I fear.”

“What do you mean?”

“Nevermind,” Endar said, shaking his head. “What is it you’re after?”

Young Netia stared at the mage for a spell, then leant forward.

“How do you feel about Feroz?”

Endar shrugged. “A spoilt little brat who’s finally getting a taste of what the world is truly like.”

“Doesn’t it bother you that he’s here in the Tower? With us?”

Endar shrugged once more. “It’s not the first time we’ve offered humans sanctuary.”

“I know that!” Netia snapped.

“Then, get to the point,” Endar snarled in response.

Bringing her anger to heel, Netia gritted her teeth and spoke once more.

“Does it not bother you a human as lowly and filthy as he would be frolicking with your Matriarch’s son?”

Endar frowned. “He’s not lowly, he’s a prince.”

“I don’t care what he is,” Netia growled. “His stench offends my nose, his voice hurts my ears and he looks like he’s been baked in filth! He’s beneath us, Endar! He shouldn’t be here!”

“Well, I see nothing wrong with his being here…”

“Endar!”

“…but even if I did, your mother will not listen to me on this.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Because I think Aksim is the one who shouldn’t be here.”

“Well, yes, it goes without saying.”

“Only, your mother is entranced by his arcane skill.”

“What?”

Endar nodded and sighed. “I just spoke to her. She refused to even entertain the thought. Kept prattling on about how much we stand to learn from him. Pah! Even saying it offends me.”

“Then, perhaps we can help each other.”

“Meaning…?”

“Well, I’ve been thinking–”

“Is that wise?”

Stopping, Netia held the grinning Magister in a heartfelt glare.

“Forgive me,” Endar said at last, “I couldn’t resist. You were saying?”

Netia held her peace, her glare all the more intense.

“You’re going to hurt your eyes staring at me like that, Netia. What were you saying?”

“You can be such a pain in the arse sometimes, Endar.”

“I know,” the Magister said, grinning once more, “but you love me all the same.”

“Anyway,” the Matriarch’s daughter whispered after a spell, “I was saying, what if word reached this uncle of his that he’s been granted sanctuary here?”

Endar sat tall as his smile slowly faded. “What are you implying, child?”

Netia shrugged. “Nothing. Just…suppose this uncle found out the little brat was here and made a play for his life, and–”

“You mean to spill the blood of one who’s been given sanctuary here?” Endar interjected, his voice soft, yet the steel within unmistakable.

“No,” Netia replied sitting tall as she shook her head. “No, Endar, no, I’m not saying we kill the boy–”

“Then, what are you saying?

“I’m saying suppose they come to think they’re not safe here? Suppose they come to think this uncle’s reach is long enough to touch them within these walls? Do you not think they’ll leave of their own accord?”

“Netia, child,” Endar said, the coldness in his eyes making his gaze difficult for Netia to hold, “no human has ever breached the walls of the Shimmering Tower, nor will any human ever breach these walls. Do you understand me?”

“Hold, Endar–”

“Do you understand me, child?”

“I thought you said you wanted this Aksim gone.”

“I do, yes. But I will not sully my office in doing so.”

“Then, let’s have them fight outside the Tower.”

“Netia–”

“Well, what of it? They’ll not be in the Tower, so no breaching will occur! And as for the boy dying, didn’t you just say Mother thought his little lich pet is the greatest spell-caster of all time? Surely he can protect the boy, can’t he?”

The Magister sat in silence as he stared at his Matriarch’s eldest, the weight of his gaze bearing down upon the child. Then, he rose.

“That you are your mother’s daughter is the only reason I am not dragging you out of here by your ear,” he snarled as he rose.

“Hold, Endar, I didn’t–”

“I shall forget the madness you speak, but only this once. Do not speak of this again. Do you understand me?”

“But don’t you–”

“Do. You. Understand. Me?”

Taking a deep breath, Netia sighed. “Yes.”

“Good,” Endar seethed, then spun about and headed for the door.

*****

Meandering between the market stalls, young Netia sighed as she felt the weight upon her shoulders lift. It had taken every trick she knew to convince her mother to allow her journey to Merethia on her own, but she knew she had to. Seeing that little ball of filth playing with her brother day after day, week after week, it was all getting too much to bear. She had to get away, even for a little while, and the lightness of her steps was proof of it all.

Stopping, the young Mage Savant took a deep breath and let it out slowly as a warm smile parted her lips. Then, she reached into her pocket. Since she did say she was coming shopping, no sense in returning empty-handed.

“The question becomes, though,” she muttered, “what do I buy?”

Pursing her lips, the young Matriarch-in-waiting resumed her meandering between the stalls, her gaze drifting from one wondrous display to the next.

There was a strange peace in such simplicity. Nothing else mattered in that moment, save what trinket or gem to adorn herself with, and for a spell, that was the only thing in her thoughts. That was, till she saw the lone dark-skinned traveller walking far ahead of her, the sight of whom brought her to a halt. There was something about the man that brought the hairs on the back of her neck standing tall. Granted, it wasn’t unheard of to see dark-skinned human travellers wander through Merethia from time to time, but there was something…wrong about this particular traveller. However, it wasn’t till Netia stood still and watched him a spell that she realised what it was. Though the man stopped at a good few stalls, and indeed picked up a few items on display, he purchased no wares. In fact, he only seemed to stop at stalls that had people congregated about them.

Then, in an instant, Netia realised what she was witnessing, and that thought made her feel light-headed as she quivered all over. Dare she to hope? Could this man truly be what she was thinking him to be?

“Only one way to find out,” Netia muttered, then began following the man.

Ducking into the shadows, Abbas paused and scanned the crowd behind him. Perhaps it was nothing. Perhaps he’d imagined it.

“Please let it be my imagination,” he muttered as a cold hand gripped his heart.

Then, he saw her. She’d stopped, and was now searching the crowd. He hadn’t imagined it.

“Damn,” the assassin breathed, as he weighed his options.

He was in a foreign city, one he’d never been to before. To try to lose her in the crowd would be risky, he was too likely to become lost himself. And to kill her would be simply too reckless. He knew not where best, and even how best, to dispose of a body in a city such as this.

“Qasim,” he muttered at last. “He knows this city. Yes!”

Nodding, the assassin stepped out of the shadows and resumed his meandering, and in the corner of his eye, he watched as the woman’s gaze locked onto him and she fell in step behind him.

“You’d better be there, Qasim,” the seething human muttered as he made his way back to the tavern that was to be their meeting point.

Stepping in, Abbas paused and scanned the sea of faces, and as he locked gazed with Qasim, he hurried over.

“You’re back early,” Qasim said as he neared. “I felt sure you’d be at least another–”

“I’m being shadowed,” Abbas interjected as he sat across from Qasim. “Young woman, wearing robes I don’t recognise.”

“There are lots of young women in here wearing robes you wouldn’t recognise, Abbas.”

The assassin glared briefly at his companion, then turned to the door.

“Well?” Qasim said after a spell.

“There!” Abbas hissed as he turned to Qasim. “The one who just entered.”

“Oh?” Qasim frowned and turned.

As he stared at the door, however, all blood drained from his face as he turned to his companion.

“You know her?” Abbas asked.

“You bloody fool!” Qasim spat. “What did you do?”

“Do you know her, damn it!”

“No, I don’t bloody know her!”

“Then what’s–”

“She’s wearing the robes of the Shimmering Tower! The very people we’re meant to be avoiding!”

“What?”

“Yes,” Qasim seethed as he turned. Then, his eyes went wide once more as he turned back to his companion.

“She’s coming over.”

“What?” Abbas repeated and turned himself, only to watch as the elven woman marched straight for them, a deep smirk upon her lips.

As she neared, Abbas forced a smile to his lips and nodded.

“Well, hello there,” he began, “is there some–”

“Is this seat taken?” the woman interjected as she sat beside Qasim.

Warming his smile, Abbas sat tall as he lowered his hands below the table’s surface. “Is there some issue here?”

With her smirk growing, the elven woman leant upon the table, her gaze upon Abbas.

“I know who you are,” she said, “and I know why you’re here.”

Abbas shared a glance with Qasim before turning to the woman. “There must be some mistake, we’re–”

“You’re here to kill Feroz,” the woman interjected.

The pair fell silent as they shared a glance once more.

“Oh, please,” the elven woman sighed when the silence lingered, “must we play this game?”

“I fear you are sorely mistaken,” Abbas replied. “We truly–”

“Oh shut up, human, please. I was watching you. You had no intention of making any purchase at all today. All you were after was gossip. That’s it. You have no idea where they are and how to get to them, do you?”

“For the last time, we–”

“Oh, gods, how stupid do you think I am? You bear the same stench as them, you have the same infernal way of speaking, you both wear garbs similar to what Aksim wore when he first showed up at our door…” Then, she turned to Qasim, “…and you, your dagger. The design on the hilt matches the one on a dagger I’ve seen in Aksim’s possession.”

“I thought I told you get rid of that thing!” Abbas hissed.

“Oh, shut up!” Qasim spat as he gripped the dagger’s pommel.

Sitting back with a wide grin upon her lips, the elven woman carried her gaze about the pair.

“Shall we speak plainly now?” she said at last.

Abbas stared at the woman a spell, but nodded at last.

“Very well,” he said.

“What’re you doing?” Qasim demanded.

“If she was here to harm us, she wouldn’t be bandying words with us, now would she?”

“She…oh, right.”

The elven woman’s smile grew.

“I see you’re the smart one here,” she said, eliciting a glare from Qasim and a smile from Abbas.

“You’re right,” Abbas added. “We are here for Prince Feroz. But we do know where he is.”

“Do you now?” the woman said as she leant upon the table once more.

“He’s a guest of the Shimmering Tower,” Qasim growled.

“Impressive!” the woman cried. “And do you have a plan as to how you can get to him without unleashing all hells upon yourselves?”

The pair fell silent at this.

“Pitiful.” The elven woman sighed.

“If you’re here to help us, get on with it,” Qasim snapped. “Else, get lost!”

“What my friend meant to say,” Abbas said before the woman could draw breath, “is do you have a way of getting us safely inside?”

“Ah, I see.” The woman smiled. “You’re thinking of sneaking in, killing him and sneaking out.”

Abbas nodded. “Something like that.”

“I never would’ve guess you’re both in such a hurry to die.”

“What did you say?” Qasim growled.

“You’d never make it out alive,” the woman replied.

“You don’t know what we’re capable of, my dear,” Abbas said with a smirk.

“I know precisely what humans are capable of,” the woman growled as her gaze darkened greatly. “And don’t ever call me dear again.”

Abbas’s smirk grew, but he held his peace. After a spell, the woman sat back once more and her smirk returned.

“But you’re lucky,” she said. “I’m in a giving mood today.”

“Is that so?” Qasim said.

“Mhm.” The woman nodded.

“And just what do you intend to give us?” Abbas asked.

“Feroz.”

The two men exchanged glances once more.

“What’s in it for you?”

The woman smiled. “His disappearance will solve a few issues of mine.”

“Is that so?”

“Mhm.” The woman nodded.

“Why should we trust you?” Qasim asked.

“Because you’re stupid, even for a human,” the woman replied, turning to smirk at him. “Without me, you have no hope of reaching that bastard.”

Slowly, Qasim sat tall as he held the woman in a fiery glare.

“I’ve had just about enough of your insolence,” he growled. “You will–”

“What do you offer?” Abbas interjected.

“Abbas!”

“I will lure the boy out,” the woman said. “Get him to a secluded spot. You will lay in wait and do what you must.”

“And Aksim?”

The woman shrugged. “He will follow, or he will not. I care not which.”

“Not good enough,” Abbas replied. “Bring only the prince and we have a deal.”

The woman smiled. “Are you telling me what to do?”

Abbas stared at the woman in silence.

“The deal is simple. I bring Feroz, you do what you must. Should Aksim come along, he is yours to handle. Do you accept?”

Abbas stared in silence at the woman a spell, but there could only be one answer.

“Yes.” He sighed at last.

“Good!” the woman replied, and sprang to her feet.

“How do we reach you?”

I will reach you,” the woman replied. “Here.”

“Very well.”

Smiling, the woman turned to Qasim, then reached out to caress his cheek.

“There, there, little human, don’t sulk. This is what happens when you deal with your betters.”

It took all Qasim had to not fling a lightning bolt at the woman’s heart, and it with his rage straining on its leash that the seething mage watched the woman depart.

“What in the hells possessed you to make a deal with that bitch!” he spat at Abbas.

Shrugging, Abbas sheathed the dagger that had been in his hand underneath the table.

“We do what we must, Qasim,” he said. “I for one can’t wait to be out of this city. You?”

Qasim glared at this companion for a spell longer, but soon sighed. “Same.”

“Good.” Abbas nodded, then rose. “Come, let’s go tell the others of our good fortune.”

Then he too headed for the door.

*****

Resting against the walls of the Tower’s stables, young prince Feroz sighed as he basked in the sun, his ever-faithful steward by his side.

“I am impressed, Feroz,” Aksim said, “you managed to do all of that without any assistance.”

Smiling, the young prince turned to his companion. “You sound more surprised than impressed.”

Smiling himself, Aksim shrugged. “Perhaps.”

Giggling, the young prince nestled into his seat, and as a deep and contented sigh escaped his lips, he closed his eyes and returned to his basking.

“Feroz,” Aksim called out to him after a spell, “we have a guest.”

“Oh?” Feroz frowned as he sat up right, but as he turned to face the direction his steward was facing, his frown deepened for a moment, for the face he saw unnerved him greatly.

Sitting tall, the little prince forced a smile upon his lips and watched their visitor near in silence.

“You honour me, Netia,” he said once the Matriarch-in-waiting was close, bowing as he spoke.

“Feroz.” Netia smiled as he bowed slightly to the little boy.

“Aksim,” she said as she turned to the lich.

Aksim bowed to her in response.

“To what do we owe this honour?” Feroz asked.

Taking a deep breath, the young mage sighed and stared at the little prince, a sad smile upon her lips. Then, she lowered herself to the grass, sitting cross-legged before the pair.

Young Feroz stared briefly at his steward before returning his gaze to the woman before him, his voice still throughout.

“Feroz, I…” Netia began, but her voice soon died away as she bit her lip.

Frowning, the little prince leant forward.

“Is something troubling you?” he asked. “Perhaps there’s something you need our assistance with?”

The young mage smiled and shook her head. “No, I…I came to…I came to make amends.”

The little prince frowned. “Make amends?”

“Yes,” Netia replied as she winced.

“For what?”

The young mage smiled. “Gracious as ever. I can see why Finian loves being around you so much.”

“Forgive me, Netia, I don’t–”

“Stop pretending, Feroz, please. Just stop.”

Feroz knew not what to say, and so sat in silence as the mage before him drew breath once more.

“Ever since your arrival,” Netia said, “I have done everything in my power to make you feel unwelcome. I’m sure Aksim would’ve told you of my attempts to sully your friendship with my brother…?”

Feroz held his peace as a sad smile parted his lips.

Netia nodded as she too smiled. “I though he would. Well, I was wrong. It was a cruel thing I did, and I have come here to make amends.”

“Why now?” Aksim asked.

Turning to the steward, Netia sighed. “I…I don’t know. I suppose I’m sick of the guilt. I’ve known from the beginning what I was doing was wrong, but I did it anyway. And now…I think I’m just sick of feeling so sullied.”

The young prince and his steward exchanged glances, then turned to the Matriarch-in-waiting, and as one, they smiled.

“You have nothing to feel sullied over,” the young prince said. “This is your home, and you saw us as trespassers. It’s only natural you would seek to remove us.”

Netia smiled once more. “You truly are a gracious young man.”

Little Feroz laughed. “Oh, I am nothing of the sort.”

“Well then, allow me do my part in welcoming you into our home.”

“Oh?”

Netia nodded. “You have not seen much of our woodlands, have you?”

The little prince shook his head.

“Well, there’s this one spot my friends and I used to sneak off to when I was younger. It’s a bit of a ways from here, but the journey there is quite simple. It’s called the Copse of Many Sighs, and rather than tell you why it’s called that, I instead invite you to make the journey there and see for yourself.”

The little prince’s eyes shone at Netia’s words, and with a grin, he leant forward.

“You will take us, then?” he asked.

Smiling still, Netia shook her head. “I can’t, sadly, I have lessons for much of the day.” Then, she reached behind her. “However, I have drawn a map for you. Consider it an adventure.”

With eyes wide, the little prince stared at the offered parchment, and as Aksim took the parchment and opened it before the young prince, the little boy gasped as he stared at the intricate map before him. Then, he turned to Netia once more.

“Thank you,” he said.

The Matriarch-in-waiting bowed. “My pleasure.” Then, she rose. “I do hope you enjoy it as much as I used to.”

“Oh, we shall!”

Netia laughed. “I’m glad.” Then, bowing once more, she turned and left. Only, as she left, neither prince nor steward could see the deep and twisted smirk upon her lips, or the dark glimmer in her eye.

“Hurry, Aksim!” little Feroz cried as he stopped to usher his steward on.

“I’m coming, Feroz, I’m coming!” Aksim said, a grin upon his lips as he shook his head at his little master. “This copse isn’t going to disappear any time soon, though.”

“I know that!” Feroz replied. “But would you hurry up all the same?”

“What copse?” little Finian asked as he entered the Central Hall with his mother by his side. “Where are you two off to?”

“Oh!” Feroz said, bowing to the pair. “Forgive me, I didn’t realise we weren’t alone.”

“Oh, that’s quite alright.” The Matriarch smiled. “Are you planning an outing?”

“Mh,” little Feroz nodded. “Your daughter graciously suggested we travel to the Copse of Many Sighs and indulge in its delights.”

“Oh!” Finian cried, his eyes bright as he turned to his mother. “May I go with them, Mother? Please?”

“No, Finian,” the Matriarch replied, shaking her head at her son. “You have much to do here.”

“But we won’t be long! Please, Mother! Please!”

“No.”

“Please!” the little boy whined, hopping where he stood. “We’ll be quick.”

“When it comes to play, your notion of quick is everyone else’s notion of eternity.”

“Please!”

“I shall be glad to help him with his tasks upon our return, Matriarch,” Feroz offered, coming to his friend’s aid, “and rest assured, Aksim will ensure we are back at a reasonable time.”

Pausing, Erika stared in silence at the lich, a wooden smile upon her lips.

“Or perhaps you’d be more comfortable having an Archmage follow us?” Aksim said.

“Mother…?” little Finian said after a spell.

“Uhm…” the Matriarch began, tearing her gaze from Aksim to turn to her son. Then, she smiled. “Very well.”

“Thank you!” the little elf cried as he darted to his friend’s side.

“Look after them, Aksim,” the Matriarch said, in a voice far colder than her smile.

The steward smiled and bowed. “Of course, Matriarch.”

“Good,” the Matriarch replied, and throwing her son a warm smile, she turned and left the boys be.

With a deep frown upon her lips, young Netia Earthchild wandered into the Tower Kitchens, her eyes scanning the faces within.

“Is all well, Netia?” asked one of the cooks.

“Have you seen my brother?” she asked, turning to the cook. “He was meant to meet me earlier and never showed. Now, I can’t seem to find him anywhere.”

“Oh, I saw him heading out some time ago,” called out another of the cooks.

“Oh?” Netia frowned.

“Yes.” The cook nodded. “He was off on an adventure, he said, with the two humans.”

“What?” Netia gasped as her eyes went wide.

“Precisely!” the cook added. “Far be it for me to tell the Matriarch how to run her home, but letting her son go gallivanting in the clutches of that thing? I…”

That was all of the cook’s rants young Netia heard, for, by then, she’d spun about and had hurried out of the kitchen, her face ashen and drawn.

Even though her eyes was upon the parchment in her hand, Erika couldn’t see the words upon it, for she was deep in thought. So deep, in fact, that she did not hear the knock on her door the first time, and was only dimly aware of it the second time. Upon the third knock, however, she turned to the door.

“Come,” she said as she lowered the parchment.

As the door opened, the Matriarch smiled. “Endar, what brings you here?”

“Nevermind that,” the frowning Magister replied as he closed the door behind him “Is all well?”

With her smile widening, the Matriarch leaned into her chair and sighed. “Yes, Endar, all is well.”

But the Magister was not convinced, and nearing his Matriarch, he stopped before her and stared deep into her eyes.

“You’re lying,” he said at last.

Shaking her head, Erika rose.

“Not now, Endar,” she said. “I have a lot on my mind.”

“So share,” Endar replied, resting upon the Matriarch’s table as he did so. “What good is a Magister if he can’t help his Matriarch?”

Stopping, the Matriarch turned and stared at her Magister, biting her lip as she did so.

“Erika, it’s me,” Endar said after a spell. “What ails you?”

Sighing, the Matriarch wandered over to her Magister and rested beside him upon the table.

“I…it’s Finian.”

“Oh?”

Erika nodded. “Feroz and Aksim are headed to the Copse of Many Sighs, and Finian asked if he could join them. He was most insistent, and, at first, I said no, but then when Feroz said Aksim could look after the two of them I felt…horrified!

“Good gods!” Endar cried.

“Precisely! But Aksim must’ve seen through my smile because the next thing he said was perhaps I should have an Archmage shadow them, and when he said that I felt utterly guilty for doubting him.”

“Hold, what?”

“Yes! So now I’m standing there staring at this man who I’ve told everyone was welcome to remain here, and I couldn’t bring myself to trust him with Finian! I felt like such a hypocrite! So then I gave Finian leave to could go with them and said I needn’t send anyone to shadow them.”

“You did what?” Endar thundered as he rose.

“I know! I know!” Erika cried. “It’s been eating at me all day. I’m supposed to trust this man, and now that I have, all I can think of is how I’ve doomed Finian!”

Endar stared at his Matriarch in silence for a spell, but though his anger was great, the pain he saw within Erika’s eyes soon cooled his head and warmed his heart.

“You know how I feel about that lich,” he said at last, “so I’m not going to pretend to be alright with this.”

“Thank you, Endar,” Erika growled, “that is precisely what I needed to hear.”

“Would you allow me finish?”

The Matriarch snarled, but held her peace.

“Anyway, regardless of how I feel, he did save that boy, and from Tarron’s accounts of what happened at their palace, it was no easy feat. And besides, hardly anyone goes to the Copse these days. Or rather, anyone of note. They’ll be fine, Erika, you’ll see.”

Smiling, Erika rose. “Thank you, Endar.”

The Magister grinned. “That’s what Magisters are for.”

Shaking her head, the Matriarch moved to return to her seat.

“Why the Copse anyway?” Endar asked. “And how did they know about it?”

“Oh, Netia told them,” Erika said as she sat. “Seems she’s finally beginning to warm to them.”

As those words left her lips, the Matriarch rose her gaze to her Magister, and the terror she saw in his eyes froze her heart.

“Endar, what is it?”

“Erika, are you sure it was Netia who told them of the Copse?”

The Matriarch nodded. “That’s what Feroz said.”

“And she told them to visit it today?”

“I’d assume so.”

“Oh, my dear gods.”

“What is it?”

Shaking his head, the Magister leant upon the desk. “Erika, we must leave. Now. We must go after them immediately.”

“What? Why?”

“No time to explain,” Endar replied as he hurried for the door “I’ll send word for every able-bodied Archmage in the Tower to meet us at the Copse immediately. We go fetch Tarron. We must leave now.”

“Endar!” Erika barked. “What is it?”

Stopping at the door, the Magister turned, his face greatly whitened.

“Finian’s in danger,” he said, “all three of them are. We must reach them before it’s too late.”

Erika stared wide-eyed at her Magister for a spell, but within moments, the Matriarch flew to her feet and dove for the door just as Endar swung it open, and as one, the pair raced for the portal stone.

“But you simply must tell me,” Feroz pleaded as the three wandered through the woodland.

“I truly am doing this for your own good, Feroz,” Finian replied. “You must believe me.”

“Finian, please,” Feroz whined, “or must I grovel?”

“We shall soon be there, Feroz,” Aksim added as he fought hard to suppress his smile. “Then, you too shall know why it’s called Copse of Many Sighs.”

“But you know I hate secrets.” Feroz pouted.

Grinning, Finian put an arm about his friend. “You’ll love it, believe me. Were I to tell you, it won’t be as…magical.”

“Magical…?”

“Yes! Magical!”

“Hrmph.”

Chuckling, little Finian gave his friend a playful shove and increased his pace.

“Come,” he said, “it’s just behind those tree.”

“Finally!” Feroz gasped as he too increased his pace.

“But if I find nothing magical about this place,” he continued once abreast Finian, “I insist that you–”

The little prince’s words were cut short by a startled yelp as a heavy hand fell upon his shoulder, and as the same cry escaped Finian’s lips, little Feroz turned to stare at his steward.

“Aksim?” he said.

Except the lich’s eyes was to the trees, his body hunched and his gaze fierce, and as Feroz stared at his steward, he felt the hairs on the back of his neck slowly stand tall.

“We must leave,” Aksim said, “now.”

“Wha…” Finian began, but as Feroz slipped a hand into his friend’s the young elf fell silent.

“Come,” Feroz said. “Quickly!”

But then, as the three turned to leave, an earthen spike burst to life between the young prince’s feet before racing upwards, seeking to impale the little boy. In that same instant, however, a wind dagger spun through the earth beneath young Feroz’s feet, slicing through the earthen spike just as it was about pierce the little prince’s sirwal.

“To me!” the lich barked, pulling the two boys close just as a bed of air burst into life beneath the three of them.

“Aksim, what’s happening?” young Finian cried.

But Aksim paid the little boy little mind, instead calling forth a sphere of protection about the three of them, and once satisfied of it’s strength, he turned his gaze to the trees about them.

“Show yourselves!” he barked.

“Aksim!” Feroz hissed.

“It’s an ambush,” Aksim murmured, words that chilled the young prince’s heart.

“How did they find us?” Feroz whispered.

“Show yourselves!” Aksim barked once more. “Or would your rather I burn this place to the ground?”

A brief silence fell upon the three, then, slowly, one by one, their attackers stepped forth, and as they lined up before the three, all but one bowed.

“Grandmaster,” said the man at the fore.

Raising his chin to the man, Aksim sneered. “Qasim.”

The mage smiled. “It does my heart good to know you still remember me.”

“The face of a traitor is one I never forget.”

“You wound me, Grandmaster.”

Raising his gaze, Aksim glared at the other mages in turn, then returned his gaze to the man at the fore.

“What is the Brotherhood of the Sun doing on these shores?” he growled.

“Forgive us, Grandmaster,” Qasim replied, “but we are here to fulfil our duty.”

“Duty?” Aksim roared as his eyes took upon them an emerald glow. “Do not speak to me of duty, worm! The Brotherhood was born to protect the Sultanate!”

“We were born to serve the Sultan, Grandmaster,” another of the mages spoke up. “That is all we have done.”

“Lies! The Sultan lies dead because of you! Because of all of you! And now you come to kill his son! You are worms, and nothing more!”

“Enough of this nonsense!” growled the one man who did not bow, the swords in his hands glimmering brightly. “Get on with it!”

Turning from the Aksim to the man and back, the mage named Qasim bowed and took a step back.

“You defeated us last time, Grandmaster,” he said as the ground began to shake. “And you may well slay us today, but one way or the other, the boy dies here.”

As he spoke, earthen golems burst forth from the woodlands, one for each mage assembled, and as they encircled the three, Feroz felt his blood run cold.

“So many,” he whispered.

“Children, listen very carefully,” the lich muttered.

“Can you defeat them all?” Finian whispered.

“Listen close. On my mark, I shall fling you from their circle. The moment your touch the grass, you are to run. You hear me? Run and keep running.”

“I cannot leave you here!” Feroz gasped.

“Do not worry about me. I intend to slay them all, but I cannot do that and protect you as well. On my mark. Do you understand?”

Feroz turned to Finian and swallowed hard, then, as one, both boys nodded.

“Good.”

“Advance!” the mage named Qasim barked, and as one, the golems charged forth.

“Now!” Aksim barked, and with a wave of his hand, he flung the two boys in a wide arc high in the air and out of reach of the golems, sending them careening back the way they came.

“Get him!” Qasim cried.

In response, four of the mages at the rear turned to race after the prince, but as they did so, bone spikes sprang forth from the grassy earth before the men, impaling them where they stood. And then, with a roar, the enraged lich flung himself at his former apprentices, fell magic pulsing between his fingers.

“Hurry!” little Feroz shrieked as he raced through the woodlands.

“But we can’t just leave him there!” Finian threw back. “They’ll kill him!”

“They won’t! It’s me they’re after! He’s buying us time!”

“But–”

“Trust me!”

Falling silent, the young elf raced after his friend, even as his heart ached and his body quivered with shame, and in that silence, the two hurried back the way they’d come, each praying what they were doing was right, each praying to see their friend Aksim again.

Just then, hurried footsteps reached the pair.

“Oh, gods,” Feroz gasped.

“Get behind me!” Finian barked as darted before his friend before raising his hand forth and conjuring an earthen shield.

“Where did you–”

“Stay behind me,” Finian interjected, his gaze on the path before them, “whatever happens!”

Falling silent, the little prince huddled behind his friend and waited with bated breath. They hadn’t long to wait.

“Netia?” the pair said in unison once the face of Netia Earthchild came into view.

“What’re you doing here?” Finian added.

“I came looking for you, of course!”

The little elf smiled as he let go of his earthen shield. “Gods, am I glad you did!” Then, he turned and pointed the way they’d raced. “You must help Aksim! There are people there trying to kill him! Hurry!”

Staring first at the path, then at Feroz, a brief snarl twisted Netia’s lips, but it was soon replaced by a smile. And though it was brief enough for Finian to not have noticed, young Feroz did.

“Come, Finian,” Netia said, offering a hand to her brother. “We’ll go get aid. Come!”

“But–” Finian began.

“Why are you here, Netia?” Feroz interjected. “You said you had lessons all day.”

The Matriarch-in-waiting frowned. “I came looking for my brother.”

“But you said you had lessons.”

“I do not like your tone, Feroz,” Netia growled as she took a step forward. “I already answered your–”

“How did the Brotherhood find us?” Feroz asked, his gaze narrowing. “Or, more to the fact, how did they know we’d be here on this day of days?”

Netia fell silent at this, her gaze darkening greatly.

“Feroz, what are you saying?” Finian asked, his voice soft.

“Finian,” Netia growled, “step away from that filth, now.”

Little Finian’s gaze went from his sister to Feroz and back.

“No,” he said at last, shaking his head as he did so.

“Finian! Step away, now!”

“No.” Finian growled, standing tall and calling forth his earthen shield once more.

“Damn it, Finian, I don’t have time for this!” Netia barked, calling forth a wind vine and smashing it against the young boy’s earthen shield, the shield shattering in an instant before wrapping about his wrist and pulling him to the earth and away from his friend

Then, with a deep snarl upon her lips, the enraged Matriarch-in-waiting marched forth, ice shards glittering as they floated between her fingertips.

“Feroz, run!” little Finian shrieked.

But little Feroz was petrified, his eyes wide as he stared at the approaching mage.

“Just die and be done with it,” Netia snarled as she stretched a hand forth and flung an ice dagger at the little boy’s heart.

“Netia, no!” little Finian cried and dove for his friend, his body shielding the little prince from the dagger.

“No!” Netia shrieked, and with her eyes wide, she could only watch as her brother crumpled to the earth, her dagger lodged deep in his back.

“No…” the mage repeated, her voice quivering.

“No!” she yelled, and raising both hands, she flung lightning bolt after lightning bolt at the little boy.

As the first bolt flew by little Feroz’s ear, the sizzle of the lightning ringing loud within it, the little boy sprung to life, and, spinning on his heels, he raced forth, darting from side to side as Aksim had taught him. And as he darted and weaved, the little boy’s mind was filled with one thought and one thought only. Vengeance. He had to live. He had to get to Aksim. He had to return with his faithful steward and avenge his fallen friend. He had to, he…

Then, a most peculiar thing happened. It was an odd feeling. It started in his chest, a numbness that spread through him, turning his arms, and indeed his legs into lead. It was unlike anything the little boy had ever felt, but the more he tried to make sense of it, the more his mind clouded.

“Aksim,” he breathed at last, and, pushing through the fog, the little boy forced his legs forward, his breath laboured with each step as his nostrils filled with the smell of burnt flesh.

Then, the young prince toppled over, and was still.

Stepping free of Endar’s portal, Erika fought to make sense of her Magister’s words as she sought to gain her bearings That her daughter would do such a thing offended her as a matriarch, but broke her heart as a mother.

“Which way?” she heard Endar behind her say.

“This way,” Tarron replied.

But then, as she turned to follow her husband. She felt an energy in the air. Magic, freshly cast, and nearby. Only there was something else about this magic, something familiar.

“Hold,” she muttered, her brow furrowed deep.

“What is it?” Tarron asked.

“I don’t know,” Erika muttered, and, calling forth her enchantments, followed the trail of energy as it led them away from the Copse.

“Erika!” Endar yelled. “We don’t have time for this!”

“She knows that better than anyone!” Tarron snapped. “Come on!”

As one, the three hurried forth, the men a step behind Erika, their enchantments cast and their senses pricked and alert. But soon, the trio came to a dead stop as shuffled footsteps reached their ears.

Exchanging glances, the three stared ahead and readied themselves for battle as the shuffles got louder

“Show yourself!” Tarron barked after a spell.

As if in response, a face came into view, haggard and drawn, and as the three stared at it, their eyes went wide as their lips fell agape.

“Finian!” the three breathed in unison as the little elf stumbled forth.

“Feroz,” he whimpered as he shuffled on. “Help…Feroz. Netia…kill…him.” Then, he fell forward.

It was Endar who reached him first, the Magister catching him just before his face met the grassy earth, but as he did so, he winced as his eyes fell upon the ice dagger lodged deep within the boy.

“By the gods,” Tarron gasp.

“Finian, no!” Erika cried as she lunged for her son.

“No, no! Don’t touch him!” Endar yelled. “The dagger’s close to his heart, if it hasn’t pierced it already! It’s a bloody miracle he still breathes.”

Clenching her fists, Erika stepped back from her son, and as the two parents stared at their son, they watched as their Magister called forth a wind spire and carefully encased the little elf within it.

“Go,” Endar said as he and Finian began to fade. “Find Feroz. Before it’s too late.”

Then, they were gone.

“Come, Erika,” Tarron said, slipping a hand into his beloved’s. “Let’s end this.”

Slowly, Erika turned to her beloved.

“Yes,” she snarled. “Let’s.”

As one, the two mages cast haste spells upon themselves and broke into a dead sprint, their eyes forward and their gazes fierce. Neither had wished to believe their Magister’s tale, but after hearing their son’s words, they knew they could no longer deny it. Their daughter had crossed a line, and now she had to be stopped. One way or another.

Soon, however, as they raced, sharp cries reached their ears, terrified and shrill, and as the pair heard them, they willed themselves to race ever faster. They knew whose it was, and knew there was only one reason why they’d heard it. Then, just as they turned a corner, the pair came to a screeching halt, for before them hung their daughter, her eyes wide as an unseen force held her rigid, while standing before her was the lich Aksim, and as they stared, they watched as the force pulled their daughter’s arms and legs wide, and carried on pulling.

“No!” Erika roared and charged towards the pair.

“Stay out of this!” Aksim thundered. “She killed Feroz, and she must pay!”

“Leave my daughter alone!” the Matriarch barked, calling forth a wind vine about her daughter, forcing her daughters limbs together as she wound the vine about the terrified elf over and over again.

“I said stay out of this!” Aksim barked, slamming an unseen fist into the Matriarch’s face and sending her flying backwards.

On instinct, as Erika’s feet touched the earth, the enraged mage called forth a second wind vine, one as thick as the trees about her, and slammed it against the lich with such force as to send him flying high and far before disappearing behind the trees of the woodlands, and before long, young Netia’s gasp filled the air as she crumpled to the earth, the lich’s spell broken.

Loosing her wind vine, the Matriarch rose. It was only then she noticed the shock on her husband’s face.

“What?” she demanded.

“That could’ve been handled a lot better, you know!”

“He was going to rip her limbs off!”

“And you think I…” Tarron began, but a glimmer in the sky caught his eye, and as he turned to it, his eyes grew wide.

“Get down!” he barked, flinging a wind vine to his daughter and pulling her close before calling forth an earthen dome about his family and channelling as much of the arcane into it as he could.

“What are–” Erika began, but her words were cut short by a ear-splitting explosion, one that blasted them all off their feet and caused the very ground beneath them to tremble and crack as the trees about them crashed against their earthen shelter.

But the dome held, and as the three rose to their feet Tarron turned to his wife.

“Let me handle this,” he said. “Please.”

Erika held her peace, but her eyes told him all he needed to know.

“Thank you,” he said, then turned his gaze to their shelter and, taking a deep breath, unleashed what remained of the arcane energy within the dome outwards, the sudden release blasting away the trees that had fallen upon and about the dome and sending splinters flying in every direction.

Then, as the dust settled, the three stared at Aksim as he stood before them. But this was not the Aksim they’d known previous, no, this was Aksim in his true form. Gone were his illusions, gone was his pretence at being human. This was Aksim the lich. And though his visage was truly a terrifying sight to behold, it was not this that gave the mages pause. For Erika, it was the scale of the devastation the lich had wrought with that single explosion, for in every direction the Matriarch’s gaze wandered, all she saw was cracked earth and uprooted trees. For Tarron, however, the reason for his pause was the two bone dragons hovering in the air above them.

“Damn it all,” Tarron muttered and stepped forth.

“I shall give you just this one chance,” Aksim said, his rasping voice echoing about the mages. “Surrender the girl, or die by her side.”

Taking a deep breath, Tarron undid his enchantments and held his arms wide, his palms toward the lich.

“What are you–” the lich began.

“I know how you feel, old friend,” Tarron interjected.

“You know nothing of how I feel!”

“She almost killed Finian, Aksim.”

“What?” Aksim said as he turned to the cowering Mage Savant.

Tarron nodded. “It was by a miracle that he survived.”

“And you would protect her?”

“No.” Tarron shook his head. “No, I do not. But killing her is not the answer. If you kill her, you make an enemy of the Tower.”

“I don’t care!” the lich bellowed. “Blood must be paid with blood!”

“Then what? Where will you go, Aksim? How will you live? You once told me how your life was when you first became a lich, how you were vilified everywhere you went. Do you think Feroz would want that life for you?”

“Tarron, step aside.”

“We will punish her, Aksim. She will answer for what she did, but so must we.”

“What?”

Tarron nodded. “You’re here because I promised you sanctuary. We both promised you sanctuary, Erika and I, yet Feroz is dead. His death is as much our fault as it is Netia’s. Aksim, please, allow us make amends.”

“I don’t want amends!” Aksim spat. “I want her head!”

“See past your rage, old friend. Please. I swore to help you in any way I could, and I do want to, I truly do.”

“How can you help me?” Aksim replied, his voice heavy. “My prince was all I had! I failed his father, and now I have failed him! How in the hells can you help me undo that?”

Taking a deep breath, Tarron let it out slowly and began walking forth, his hand outstretched.

“You didn’t fail your prince, Aksim, we did. And I am begging you, please, allow us make amends. Allow us offer you a place to heal, a place to mend what’s broken in your heart.”

“Your Tower hates me,” the lich growled.

“No we don’t.”

“Don’t lie to me, Tarron. I see their sneers and their snide stares. Even you wife can’t bear my presence.”

“You’re right,” Erika replied as she nodded, biting back her tears as she rose. “I couldn’t. But, you know, my son once told me he felt safer around you than he did around Endar, and I scolded him for it. He saw you for what you truly are and I scolded him for it. As I stand here before you, words cannot describe my shame. My husband is right, I must make amends. Allow us make amends, Aksim. Let us punish my daughter our way.”

Just then, footsteps reached the ears of the gathered.

“Damn it,” Tarron growled, and hurried forth to stand behind his wife.

“Stay your hands!” he barked at the approaching Archmages. “Any who unleashes even so much as a fart shall answer for it!”

Then, as he spun, his face grew long as he saw the rage creeping into the lich’s eyes once more.

“They came to fight by your side, Aksim,” he said, “not against you. Upon my honour.”

“Then why do they look so afraid of me?”

“I think it’s more to do with the hulking great bone dragons in the sky, than you, old friend.”

“Hrm,” Aksim growled as he turned to his summons, then turned to the cowering Mage Savant.

“What will you do with her?”

Turning as one, Tarron and Erika stared at their daughter as their gazes grew cold, and as Erika breathed deep, Tarron wandered to her side.

“Netia Earthchild, rise,” the Matriarch intoned as she slipped a hand into her husband’s and squeezed hard.

“Mother, I can explain,” Netia said as she obeyed. “I–”

“Netia, you are an Earthchild no longer.”

“What?”

“By you actions, you are stripped of all rights to that name and all it provides.”

“Mother!”

“By your actions, you are…stripped of all calls to the Shimmering Tower. Henceforth, you will no longer be welcome amongst us.”

“Father, say something!”

“No coin shall be yours save that which you make from this day forth, and no shelter or belonging shall be…shall be yours save that which you toil for from this day forth. Go now, child, and live your life in exile.”

“Banishment?” Aksim growled. “That’s all?”

“The Tower is all she’s known, Aksim,” Tarron said, his gaze upon his daughter heavy. “It’s all she’s ever had.”

“Mother, no!” Netia cried as she took a step forward. “You can’t do this! I’m your daughter, I–”

“You brought his on yourself, Netia,” Tarron said and turned to the lich behind him.

“Where is Feroz?” he said. “Allow us give him a proper burial.”

The lich stared hard at Tarron a spell, but soon his gaze softened.

“I suppose banishment will do,” he said at last, then turned to Netia. “It’s what Feroz would’ve asked for, at least.”

Taking a deep breath, the lich Aksim let it out slowly, and as he did so, the bone dragons groaned and began to fade as Aksim’s form began to twist and morph, and before long, the Aksim of old stood before the mages beneath clear skies.

“Come,” he said, stepping forth. “He’s this way.”

In the silence that followed, all the gathered mages turned and followed the lich. All save one former Mage Savant, who had fallen to her knees and was weeping silently as the only world she’d ever known faded away before her eyes.

*

*

*

“Woah,” little Naeve gasped as she sprang up to sitting, her gaze flying from the tome to the silver-haired woman seated beside her, one with a smile dancing on her lips.

“A lich,” Naeve said.

Biting her lips, Amala ran a hand through little Naeve’s hair.

“You’re telling me we once had a lich for a Magister?”

Amala nodded.

“Seriously.”

Again, Amala nodded.

“Oh. My. Gods!”

Chuckling, Amala reached into her pocket once more, and the tome faded from view.

“You know, at first, I felt sure it was Feroz that would be Magister,” Naeve said. “When I reached the part about Aksim training him, I was sure that’s how he’d be good enough to be Magister.”

“I know.”

The little girl chuckled in response, but soon, her laughter faded as a sad frown parted her lips.

“Too bad Feroz died.”

“Yes.” Amala sighed. “That part was rather painful.”

“At least Finian lived,” Naeve replied. “Must’ve been nice having him in charge, eh?”

“Actually, he was never Patriarch.”

“What?”

“Hm.” Amala nodded. “Erika and Tarron had three other children later in life, two boys and a girl. Netia’s banishment hurt Erika in ways none realised, and she yearned for a daughter to replace the one she lost.”

“Oh,” Naeve muttered. Then, her frown deepened. “He really was powerful wasn’t he?”

“Yes.”

“Tarron and Erika didn’t stand a chance did they?”

Amala shook her head. “I don’t think so, no. In fact, I’d go so far as to say only about three, perhaps four mages in our history would be powerful enough to stand against him, even defeat him. Tirinel, you know, the others you probably don’t as yet.”

Naeve grinned at this. “To think, a human wielding that much power!”

Amala laughed. “Yes, he is one part of our history a great many of our historians have glossed over, over the centuries.”

Then, the little girl stared into the ether. “So, how in the hells did the Brotherhood think they could beat him?”

Amala smiled. “My dear, that man embodied a philosophy I personally admire. Always keep everyone guessing as to the full extent of your power. You never know when friend will be come foe.”

“That sounds…really sad.”

A sad smile parted Amala’s lips as she raised a hand to little Naeve’s hair. “I pray you never see it any other way, my darling.”

Naeve moved to speak, but no words came forth, and instead she turned and stared into the ether as Amala gently ran her fingers through the little girl’s hair.

“So, what happened to Netia?” she asked at last.

Amala shook her head and shrugged. “I don’t know, not really. Her Tower records end with her banishment.”

“So no record anywhere of her?”

“Well,” Amala replied, “there are records in the Tower, regarding the Brotherhood of the Sun, about a pale-faced woman who joined their ranks, but she didn’t stay with them long.” Then, she sighed. “It’s a shame, though. She was rather highly regarded at the time, and definitely her mother’s favourite.”

“What she did was really bad, wasn’t it?”

“Yes.” Amala nodded. “Really, really bad.”

“Hrm,” little Naeve said as she pursed her lips, then turned to the ether once more.

“Naeve?” Amala said after a brief silence.

In response, the little girl hopped off the bench and made her way indoors.

“And where are you off to, young lady?” Amala asked.

Little Naeve turned. “I’m going to apologise to Mistress Fellspire.”

Amala frowned as she stared at the little girl. “Oh?”

Naeve nodded. “What I did, turning her into a chameleon and all that, I mean, it was an accident, yeah, but it sort of wasn’t. But anyway, it was a mean thing to do, and I have been rather mean to her when all she was doing was what Mother asked her to do, kind of like how all Feroz was doing was what Erika and Tarron said he should do. So, yeah, I really should apologise.”

At this, a slow smile parted the elven woman’s lips, words lost to her.

“Oh, and, just so we’re clear,” Naeve added. “I was going to apologise anyway. You little story here just reminded me I haven’t done it yet. Alright?”

Amala grinned at the little girl. “Of course.”

“I’m serious!”

“Mhm.”

“Don’t go thinking your pretty little stories are changing me or anything, you hear me? It’s just a coincidence you showed me that story today. Alright? A coincidence, nothing more!”

“Of course.”

“Good!”

“Mhm, of course.”

“Good.”

Nodding once more, Amala bit her lip as she stared at the glaring child before her, and with no more words to say, little Naeve spun about and headed indoors. Amala watched her in silence for a spell, and once the little girl fell from view, the silver-haired woman turned to the Matriarch staring through the window still, smiled and nodded, then she too headed inside.