I couldn’t sleep, Lyphia was laid next to me her deep breaths sounding loud in the darkness. I pulled myself out of bed and got dressed. I picked up my boots and carried them out the door with me. In the main room I put them on my feet and I left.
I hadn’t found Jase but I’d managed to get some dried meat and oddments to travel with.
I walked the streets of my home, the white light of the moon casting brilliant light onto the streets. I saw no one, it was very late. My eye caught on the road to the foundry district. My feet led the way.
At the site of my largest failure there was nothing to see. Smooth stone covered the marks of what had happened, I tried to avoid seeking the bodies of the dead that hadn’t been recovered. I didn’t need another thing to haunt me, the victim of my failure resting in a tomb I’d built for them, cold stone kept them from the warmth of the earth, I sunk to my knees and did something I hadn’t done since I was I child. I prayed to my ancestors.
“Fathers that walked before me, hear my call,” I whispered
“Mothers that birthed me, feel my woe,” I placed my hand on the hard stone.
“Children that play no more, come to me,” I lifted my face to the night sky.
My voice hushed as it was still echoed over the empty space. I could feel eyes on me. This feeling always happened, part of the reason I hated prayer.
“I have much to do, much that I have already done. I’ve done things. Things I’m not proud of in the course of my duty. Now I’m filled with doubts and fears.” The watched feeling intensified in tingles down my back. The previously unnoticed sounds of the night tapered of, the silence now echoed, a heavy sense as if the air was pushing down on me. The earth didn’t move but it warmed beneath me.
“I have to leave my apprentice, my child in the care of others while I do my duty. I don’t know what I will have to do but the thought of leaving here fills me with fear. I was told a mage is everyone servant and I’ve made my peace with that, but is there no room in that for what I want?” I asked the night.
“What do you want?” came a voice.
I stood and spun. Behind me was the priest, and his god Vesic, glints of light flickered around him.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“I asked first.” A toothy smile accompanied the words.
I don’t know, but its none of your concern”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that, you called me, you asked a question.”
“I most certainly didn’t call you.
He laughed. “You did. Do you have no clue as to your heritage? We gods are mothers and fathers, children of you. We are you ancestors in all the ways that matter. Did no one teach you?”
“Clearly not. You are the first god I’ve met, and even that I’m doubtful about.”
“We are those who go before and those that come after, we aren’t all there is but we are the most mortal. We are the ones that walk the beat of the world. Know your question before you ask it, not all are as kind as me.”
“Vesic, I’m sorry if I offended you before.”
“I’m pleased you are, it shows wisdom. That will serve you well where you are going. Get some rest, you will need it.”
Do you know anything about where I’m going?”
“I know many things.” The flickers of light around him died as he turned and walked off.
I stood in the moonlight watching him go, he passed through a deep shadow and was gone.
I wanted to follow him but I had a feeling that it might be a bad move.
I was left standing in a once thriving part of the town, now reduced to smooth stone. The clouds passed over the moon and the darkness closed in around me. Vesic left me alone but the dark didn’t touch me. I didn’t know if it was his words or something else but I felt lighter, clearer. My way forward was through duty. Service, even to a bastard, was what I had signed on for, there was no honour in breaking my word. I looked around me once more as the clouds scudded by the light shone down on the white stone. Smooth, unstained by the events that led to its creation, anything could be built upon this. It was awash with future possibilities. There was something in that, that I felt deeply, maybe the reasons don’t matter in the course of events. I wouldn’t let my anger and resentment at being sent away take from me the chance of a future.
I walked back to the academy, I had a journey to prepare for.
The dawn found me, as ready for my journey as I was going to be, I’d said my goodbyes to Sophia and Airis Lyphia had got a different but very satisfying farewell. All of them had gone back to their rooms, I didn’t want to prolong the moment and make it harder than it needed to be. I made my way down to through the halls and corridors. I was stopped by a very sleepy looking receptionist, a different one. How many did we have here? Surely by now I would have seen a few enough to recognise them, currently they were all this faceless blur of desk people.
She noticed me, and called out, “Sir, sir I’ve been expecting you. Master Jase asked me to hold you for a moment.”
“Why?” I asked as I walked over to the desk.
“I don’t know sir.” She yawned widely her face scrunched up and she did an odd little twitch on the end that made me smile.
“I get its early, you don’t need to remind me.”
Sorry sir,” she said with a sheepish smile, her hands rested on the desk fidgeting.
“Tristan, there you are. I was worried that we would miss you,” Jase’s voice came from the front door.
“Jase what is this about? You know I have to be gone before dawn hits, I’m cutting it close as it is,” I said as I turned to him.
He wasn’t alone.
“I would like you to meet Vesic and Brendon. They will be accompanying you on your trip.”
Stood next to him was the god’s vessel there was no sign of the god’s presence though unlike there had been last night.
“Why? Not that I’m questioning that having a God and his priest, is priest the right name?” I looked to Brendon at this.
Brendon nodded, his previous arrogance was missing, Vesic may well have given him a lesson.
“Not that I’m questioning that having them around will be useful, but I would like reasons.”
“Well he asked to come, and he has offered to train you. Companionship always makes a journey seem shorter.”
“Jase I spent all yesterday afternoon looking for you. I don’t have time for surprises now.”
“Tristan my boy, just do as I ask. Come back to us safe and still you. Please guard yourself out there, many a mage has gone into the wilderness and come back less than they went. Don’t let that be you. “ Jase said softly in my ear as hugged me.
I couldn’t hug him back well, my hand was full with my bag. The sword strapped to the side kept it rigid and awkward.
“I will be fine Jase, it can’t be that bad.”
He let go of me and stepped back, his blue eye intent, the glimmer of tears making them shine.
“Tristan this isn’t a light matter. Just…don’t listen to the whispers.”
“Umm okay, I won’t.”
“Off you go then, you had best be on your way, dawn is here.”
“Thanks, I know. I will be back. Keep the kids safe and look in on Lyphia for me. I know she is tough but I worry.”
“I will. Now go before someone reports that you are still in town.”
I went. Brendon fell into step beside me and we walked into the dawning light of day.
The streets were empty of all but the most dedicated workers. Most of the farmers lived on the farmsteads outside of town. The scents of baking bread and that cool morning smell, that despite all my years of training I still didn’t know what it was, filled the air.
We headed to the nearest gate to the south. It just so happened to be the direction we needed to go, but that wasn’t the reason we were going there. Orb could access the travel posts. He would be able to find out my departure time if Rysan asked. I didn’t think he would but I didn’t need to look like I was disobeying.
We hurried without a word spoken between us.
Outside the gate was the travel post. A small building made of the same stone as the rest of the town. Inside there should be someone.
I knocked on the wooden door, it opened slowly.
A woman was behind it, she was middle aged with short dark hair shot through with grey.
“I need to make a long journey and I need transport.”
She opened the door wider and allowed me in.
The interior wasn’t anything special, a simple stone room, a counter jutted out of the wall in the corner with an accounting book on it.
“I’m sorry you must have mumbled could you repeat yourself.”
“Nelar, for myself and my companion.”
“We don’t have an outpost there. It’s outside of duchies.”
“None the less, I need to get there.”
“Did you not hear me? There are no outposts there. This is the closest you can get through relay. I can’t help you.”
I took a deep breath, trying to contain my frustration. It was a limited success.
“Look I understand this may be difficult for you, but I’ve been assigned there and I need transport now,” I said in a strained voice, the urge to rip the building down and take what I wanted threatened to overwhelm me. I forced it down with clenched fists and teeth. It wasn’t me, it was other.
“Don’t take that tone with me Mage, I’ve heard about you. I know what you’re capable of, but I don’t fear you. So watch your mouth and open your ears. We don’t go there. No one goes there.”
“Just give me a horse or something.”
“We don’t use horses here, I have a few golem horses but you can’t take them to Nelar. They don’t work there.”
“I don’t need to take them all the way but it’s a bloody long way to go on foot.”
“Fly, for all I care. You can’t requisition anything here.
I opened my mouth to protest, but she spoke before I could.
“No. Please just leave. I have waiting customers.”
I looked around, the room was empty.
“No you don’t. Just give me something please.”
“Leave.” she walked over to her accounting book and ignored me.
“Come on its urgent. I need to get there quickly.”
She continued to ignore me.
I walked out.
Brendon just looked at me a faint smile on his face.
“Don’t ask. It looks like we are walking.
“How the mighty have fallen, the mages of old never walked anywhere.”
“I’m not an old mage, I’m barely a mage at all.”
“You will think of something. Vesic has faith in you.”
“How do you know? I don’t understand the bond between you.”
“Now isn’t the time and I’m not the best person to ask. I don’t owe you answers although I do owe you thanks.”
Brendon gestured with his hand.
We walked along the broken road. The early sun showing its face to our left, just peeping over the horizon. Light like honey slipped over the farm land, the glow from the fields as it hit the green growing plants was comforting, like many mornings when I’d been a child. I’d walked everywhere. Walking wasn’t going to kill me.
“Our little encounter. I’ve been god ridden for year but I thought it meant something else. The punishment that Vesic gave me was to learn. I have access to all his years but none of his power. The things he has seen are…. I don’t know how to describe them, but they are an experience I wouldn’t have had if not for you.
“I guess your welcome then. Do you have any ideas about how to speed up our journey?”
I have many ideas, but I don’t have magic the same way as you do. I can’t put it into practice. Maybe we don’t need to rush the journey.”
“We might not need to rush the journey but the thought of walking all the way to the mountains doesn’t delight me. I can’t even see them from here.”
“So magic up a way. It’s what you mages do.”
“Very helpful. Thank you.”
Brendon just nodded the faint smile unchanged.
I could smell the scent of the earth waking up, the light of the sun warming it. The traces of moisture in the air lingered, not quite burned away yet. I could even hear the rustle of grass in the gentle wind.
I could feel a tightness in my chest easing, just being out here in world. Not trapped in the town and the academy. My responsibilities were mainly behind me. The next ones ahead of me but here and now I was as free as I was going to get. The frantic beat of my heart, that I’d barely noticed within the walls of Westhaven, slowed. I felt a smile forming on my lips. I was free. Just for a little while, but you don’t realise how much things weigh on you until you are suddenly freed from the burden.
My bag in hand, weighed still but it was a different sort of weight. I could feel the fibres of the fabric strap scrape against my skin. I moved it so it slung over my shoulder, across my body. The sword made it hang just right along my back. Then I did something I haven’t done since I was a child.
I ran. Not in fear. Not to get somewhere. Not in a hurry. I ran just for the joy of it. My booted feet pounded on the hard stone cobbles. Each impact sharp but solid. I pushed myself to go faster. The wind pushed my hair back, made water form in my eyes. My lungs heaved each crystal clean breath in and out.
I soon passed the closest farms. Out into the fields that lined the road. I put my hand out, it brushed against the still green wheat. For a moment I forgot everything but the simple joy in just doing. There were no consequences to this. I soon reached the end of the stone road, where it turned into a hard dirt track almost a mile out from the town.
I slowed myself to look around for Brendon it wouldn’t do to leave him behind.
He was still just walking without a care in the world.
I took the time while waiting for him to regain my breath. I felt far better.
“You know I didn’t mean to leave you behind”
“Think nothing of it. There will be a lot of running during your training, I just wanted to give you a chance to adjust to your new situation before we began.”
“Master Jase mentioned it this morning.”
“He did, but he didn’t say what it was.”
“I will be training you in the sword and the ways of combat.”
I fell into step next to his as he finally walked by me. He didn’t look like anything special physically. But what would I know? Magic was my thing. The physical stuff wasn’t where my training lie.
“I can’t argue that I don’t need training, I really do but I’d hoped the need for it had passed.
That is idealism, just because you don’t want to fight doesn’t mean you won’t have to. Being prepared is better than not. Your life isn’t going to get easier. Being a mage makes you a target. For all sorts of things.”
“Care to elaborate on that?”
“Not right now I’ll let Vesic do it.”
“Okay then, let’s move on what’s it like having a god in your head?”
“I’ve never known any different. I have nothing to compare it to.”
“Isn’t it strange having another being in your head?”
“Not really, he has been with me my whole life. If was only when I blossomed that I knew I was different, before then I’d felt like an outsider. I learnt quickly. I could read and write while the other children were learning their letters. I became arrogant.”
“Have you always lived in Westhaven.”
“No, I moved here after the waves with my family, we came from haven but that got destroyed.”
I avoided looking east, the ruins of the city were clearly visible even from this distance. Shadowed stone towers that looked as if a giant had taken bites out of them. I’d been once just before I’d entered the academy. It hadn’t been a fun experience. I occasionally had nightmares about it.
“Anyways we moved here, it’s a nice town but it’s just coming into its own as something other than a farming community. That is causing tensions. The fall of the nobles and the ineptitude of the wizard has caused others.”
“Ineptitude? You are going to need to explain that comment.”
“I pricked your pride did I? You will see the reasons for my opinion soon enough, I’m surprised that you don’t have reasons of your own already.”
“They might not be perfect but they are better than the nobles.”
“Better? I’m not going to argue better with you, but I’m going to give you something to think on. The wizards have taken over but how often are they seen? How often are they serving the people?”
“that’s what we are for, that’s why there are mages.
“no it isn’t. Mages are a step on the road to wizardry, they are not servants of anything beyond the magic’s will. The wizards have set themselves up as the saviours of the people and while I will agree that life is generally better for the common man. How much of that is the wizards doing?”
I opened my mouth to respond, then I closed it and concentrated on the path, thinking about what he had said.
The wizards didn’t do all that much, they set laws, they governed trade and they drove this nascent empire from the top. Each move calculated and thought through. But their power wasn’t in law, it was in magic and they didn’t use it.
We Mages were the hands of the Wizards, the magic behind their actions, we were the ones that bled for the laws they created. It was us that made the advancements that pushed the empire forwards.
Just being without the nobles and letting the people go their own way was an immense improvement, no conscription no tribute. People are industrious, they will work for their own benefit without guidance. Yes there might be missteps along the way, but the world turned and the beat of progress went on.
We had come far since the mage king.
Once we were tribal living in huts, farming had been an unknown. There wasn’t much point in cultivating fields to feed maybe fifty people, when a quarter of those could produce crops overnight if they expended a large amount of effort. Needing to be near water became negligible when you could summon rain in the desert. We hadn’t settled because we didn’t have a reason too. The mage-king saw more, a future in which we grew we built, and it was founded on blood like so many other things. The golem army woke terrors in all who heard the stories, it was part of the reason I chosen the form for Airis it would make people think twice before crossing him. But that age had ended with the nobles, people forced into towns and kept their to be used as a breeding ground for the next generation of soldiers in the never ending wars that they perpetuated. Our neighbours didn’t touch us because we weren’t worth the effort. We had magic and they didn’t. We didn’t touch them because we had other things to worry about, like the constant conflict between nobles. The mage-king has set his sights on owning the whole world, he died before he could cross the sea. The nobles built trade between nations using the name of the mage-king, which ended with the waves. In the last ten years nothing had been heard from over the sea. Not a ship had been seen. For all we knew the world ended at the sea now.
And now, here, I was being sent to expand the reason of the wizards. I didn’t know enough to know how much of this was Rysan and how much was the wizards command. But it was still a Mage being sent to do the work of the wizards.
“You have given me a great deal to think on. Thank you. But how are you going to train me, you don’t appear to have a sword.
“We will cover that later when night falls. We have a long way to go.”
He was right. The hard dirt path, led us through large stretches of fields. We didn’t hurry, it was still early. But I guessed at making maybe twenty, twenty five miles a day, by nightfall I would be ready to drop.
Twenty miles isn’t as far as people think. It’s a day’s easy travel. without magic, it had felt harder than it would otherwise have been.
Then setting sun found us out of the fields, and on the edge of a small copse of trees. Brendon had barely spoken for the rest of the day. I’d not had much else to say. I’d been enjoying the warm sun, the cool breeze and the open space. The freedom was so intoxicating, it almost overcame my weariness.
I used a small expression of my power to pull a mound of earth up into a low bench, then I sat on it, I pulled off my boots and rubbed my aching feet. I checked for blisters, thankfully there weren’t any.
Brendon came over to sit on the bench.
“I won’t be here for much longer, its Vesic’s time soon. Please stay respectful, but don’t worry too much he isn’t a stickler for worship. When I come back in the morning be prepared for a hard day. We will need to be running to get you fit enough for your training.”
“Why are you going away? How are you going away?”
“I’m a Vessel, one of a few. This is Vesic’s time. He loves the night.
“Um, this is soo weird, I don’t even know what to say to you.”
Brendon smiled at me then. “I know my own family have trouble accepting too, It will be fine. I will see you in the morning.” His face went blank as the sun sunk beyond the horizon, the dying light colouring his features with red. Little flares of his own light appeared around him and a shimmer of heat wavered around him. His face shifted, much like I’d seen before.
It took a moment but he turned and looked at me, his eyes were pools of flickering flame. He blinked and the flames receded to deep inside, you could still see them if you looked hard enough but they looked like normal mage eyes for the most part.
Tristan, I see we made decent time. I recognise this area.” He raised his arm and pointed to the west. “There used to be a lovely inn there. Now there is nothing. The world changes. Time stands still for neither man nor god. How was the journey? Why didn’t we take transport? I can’t imagine you want to trudge all the way there.”
“Well transport apparently doesn’t work in Nelar and there isn’t a travel post there so the golems that we would be requisitioning wouldn’t come back. The woman I spoke to this morning was less than forthcoming about reasons, she all but kicked me out the door.”
“Yes, Nelar is special.”
“What’s special about it? No one will tell me and the records are really incomplete.”
“Nelar just is. It’s been the way it is for hundreds of years. Maybe even thousands. But it got worse during the waves. It never used to be a bad place, just different. Now its broken in a way no one understands.”
“Do you know what I’m supposed to do there?”
“If I had to guess you have been sent there to die. A single man, even a mage, can’t change that place. It would take the wizards to do it and they have reasons for avoiding it.”
I sat in silence, the word of a god that I was being sent on a suicide mission, brings it all home. Rysan that bastard had sent me to my death.
“Don’t worry about it now, we have a few hundred miles or so to cover before we reach Nelar, that is time enough to prepare you, if you show yourself capable of learning.”
“Time enough, I guess any time is better than none. “
“Very commendable attitude, I tell you that you will die and you are thankful for the time you still have. Very strange to hear from a mortal.”
I couldn’t answer that. I’d known I would die in my service long ago. Maybe not so soon but eventually. I wanted to be a wizard, to reach the peaks of my profession, but a life given in service to the people was worth something.
“Silence is also strange from a mortal. Don’t keep your thoughts to yourself, your Master Jase paid a heavy price for my services. You may as well take my experience. It costs you nothing and my well save your life.”
“How can I live then? If this task is going to kill me then I may as well give up now.”
“Don’t think like that. There will always be opposition to your goals. It’s how you handle it that defines you.”
“That has to be the least helpful advice ever.”
“Stand up.” Vesic stood and gestured, a tingle of magic travelled from his fingers to the centre of the clearing, a rush of light blossomed from the earth, as it faded a fire settled into place. It burned without fuel and didn’t touch the ground.
I stood, I left my bag at my feet.
Vesic stepped away a few paces then set his feet and squared his shoulders. The fire that he had created leapt up, little flickers of flame swirled around him as if in a wind.
“I am not your friend, I’m here out of obligation. My advice is just that, advice. Take it or leave it, but don’t insult me. Now your master Jase asked me to teach you to fight. If you won’t use your mind as I had hoped then maybe you will be more willing once you know what you have to face. Now hit me.”
“I’m not going to hit you.”
“How are you supposed to learn anything if you don’t try. Hit me.”
“I don’t want to hit you.”
“Stop being pathetic. Hit me.” Vesic roared. Fire rose around him, growing with his anger.
“No.” The word had barely left my mouth before I felt the rush of heat proceeding Vesic’s fist. I stepped back in shock, the blow missed by a fraction.
“Good. You are paying attention. Now hit me.”
I clenched my fist and swung at his smirking face.
He wasn’t there.
I started to fall as the expected contact failed to appear. A sudden push from my left assisted me to the ground.
“Knowledge is everything. Know your enemy. Know yourself. Know the land and the air and water and the fire. Know all you can. You can’t win if you are blind. You can’t fight if you don’t know where you stand.” I heard him say from my position on the earth. I’d being able to cushion my fall slightly but it had still taken the wind from me.
“Now get up, laying down will get you killed.”
I pulled myself to my feet. I stood hesitantly before him.
His hand moved to his side, flaring the cape of flickering embers that had formed around him.
I flinched away. The flare of light startling in the dim gloom of freshly fallen dusk.
Vesic looked over to the bag I had dropped.
“Before we eat, I wish to examine your sword. Bring it to me.”
I stood looking at him sideways, there was no glimmer of a man underneath. This was the god, as if the transformation took time to settle firmly on him. His earlier friendliness now seems as ephemeral as a spark. This was cold hard face of an immortal being paying a debt.
I got my sword.
The cool stone of the hilt was smooth in my hand as I slid it from the straps I had fashioned that held it to my bag. I took a moment to reverse the blade, presenting the hilt to the distant god in front of me.
He took it with barely a flicker of expression. His flame bearing eyes looked intently at my sword, then with a tilt of his hand he had the tip pointed against my throat.
My heart jumped, and I held myself very very still.
“Why stone? More specifically: why the stone of the heart of your home.”
Heart of my home? I thought.
“You made this out of the stone core of your homeland. Why did you do that?”
“It’s what was closest.”
He eased the sword from my skin.
“You could have chosen metal. I see you are ignorant of fire, but you have all the concepts of earth to choose from. You could have chosen water. But you chose the white stone of your home.”
It’s what came to me. I don’t have an answer for you.
“do you honestly not know?” Vesic said. “don’t answer that”
I wasn’t planning on it. answering gods with swords that ask me questions never sprang to mind.
“Don’t be flippant with me, its only my oath to your master that keeps me here. You don’t know. Do they teach you nothing? Of course they don’t. Far better to keep you ignorant and in debt to them. I would applaud but this now affects me. I have to educate you as we travel. Sit and prepare our meal. I will instruct you. Pay attention.
I sat, after breathing a small and silent sigh of relief. I pulled my bag up and rummaged around. I hadn’t packed a huge amount of supplies, I had plenty of vegetable seeds, and the kit to hunt for some meat, if not the skills to do so, but magic can cover for much. I did find the wrapped sausages that I’d picked up from the academy kitchens.
Vesic was swinging my sword almost casually, slicing the air with a finesse I couldn’t hope to match. “The first weapon produced by a mage in a moment of need is special. They are all different, so just being special doesn’t tell anyone much about them. This is made from the heart of your home, what that means is down to you to discover, but I would think it means something to you. Some part of you chose this. Not metal which is generally better for a blade.” He ran his thumb very lightly across the edge then grinned at the sight of blood welling from cut. “Although it carries a decent edge. The balance is fine, a bit light, but you aren’t very big. You don’t need power. You need speed.” He swung the sword sharply through the air in a complicated spin that I couldn’t describe. He started out facing me and ended facing me but the intervening time was a blur of movement and burning embers. He suddenly reversed his grip and plunged the blade into the earth, it sunk to the hilt in the soft loam of the rich fertile land.
The scent of moist earth and burning stone filled my nostrils. I breathed deeply of the wonderful scent. The cool evening air brushed past talking with it the heat of the fire gods presence. I saw Vesic turn into the breeze, his gaze locked on something. His cloak of embers flowing behind him.
I looked where I thought he was gazing but I could see nothing in the gloom beyond the fire.
“Take up your sword, we have work to do.”
“What is it?”
“You need some training. I’m going to provide it, as I agreed. My servants have heard my call.”
“Don’t question me further. They are coming. No magic. Blade work only.”
I stepped towards him and bent to grasp the hilt of my sword.
I pulled the smooth white blade from the earth, it came without effort and no mark to show that it had been embedded in damp soil. Once I had retrieved it, I turned to look back to where Vesic was looking. I could feel something. A burning on the edge of my senses, nothing compared to Vesic but I was expecting him. This was something else, and there was more than one. Three that I could detect.
Across the untamed land came three figures from different directions, they were converging. When they arrived they would be together. I couldn’t make out details at this distance but their presence on my sense made me tighten my grip on my sword and open my reading up wide.
Night became as day. The normally invisible tangles of magic glowed in all the colour of the rainbow overlaying my normal sight. Threads of light wove this way and that each demanding my attention. The sense of water in the air and earth came strongly, almost beseeching me to call out to it. The land wished more rain, the plants always thirsted. But this was something else, something opposing in the purest sense. Fire, in the camp flames and the roaring inferno that was Vesic stood out like freshly landed stars. That was what made water call to me. In the distance were men shaped things. Golems of a type I had never thought possible, their black flesh dull and flaky. Like ashes and soot. Cracks riddled the surfaces revealing the fire with in.
The threads of natural magic twisted away from them mostly although a few of the darker streams flowed around them, ribbons of darkness tainting each other.
“You made lava golems?” I missed off the words ‘you idiot!’ It wasn’t respectful or clever to call a god who made these things something like that, even if it was true
“I called me servants back into the world, they have slept since before you were born. Hunt them Mage prove yourself worthy of my tutelage.”
I looked at the mad god he was grinning with such a savage animistic glee, that running into lava golems was starting to sound like a good idea.
I wasn’t sure if he would allow me to be harmed, but it would be hard for him to keep his word if I died here and now. I didn’t even know if a god could break his word, the oath of a mage places a compulsion to obey it, its not irresistible but its strong. It also punishes us if we break it. A god, a being made of magic, it made sense that it would bind tighter.
All this went through my mind as I ran over the earth, closing the distance between myself and the closest golem. I held my sword out, crossed over my body. If I fell, it would hurt, probably maim me, but I had other concerns like the lava golem that had noticed me.
It shifted its direction, it no longer ran to its master it ran to me. Wisps of light glimmered between us, my sword shone in my sensitive vision.
My breath came hard but I ignored it. I locked my arm and flexed my wrist, my sword wavered then lined up.
I stopped moving in a few loping stepped to absorb my momentum, then twisted to the side. I could feel the heat radiating from the golem, its hard shell covering the liquid stone within. My sword slid through the hard crust bisecting the construct. Its face turned to me as its top half slid over my blade. An expression of open mouthed horror warped its features further.
I stepped back, looking at the bubbling pool of cooling magma. I’d never seen it before outside of class, it shifted from a bright orangey red at its most liquid to a less brilliant orange, like fresh forged iron, solidifying and greying. Flecks of ash formed on the surface. The ripples of heat shimmer filled the air, like waves of an intangible sea.
My sword remained unharmed, although a tiny tint of orange and black threaded through it. As I watched it bloomed then faded as if sinking into the stone.
The next golem was fast. It closed the distance rapidly. Its stretched humanoid form devouring the distance between us.
I took a few steps to the side, away from the cooling stone. Then I planted my feet and steadied my sword.
The lava golem slowed, its burning eyes narrowed. It left marks of soot and burning grass in its wake.
I pulled back my sword arm, reading a lunge.
A clawed hand lashed out.
I raised the blade into the path of the blow. I felt the contact ring out, the sword vibrating like a bell.
The golem hissed, a fire on dry grass sound that sent shivers up my spine.
The other one was coming closer, I saw it out of the corner of my eye. My othersense flaring with information to tell me that I didn’t have time to process.
I shifted my wrist, my sword flicked around to cut into the leg of the golem closest.
It moved out of the way. Its mouth twisted in a caricature of a smile.
I reached for my power to wipe the smirk off its face.
“Hold!” Vesic called from behind us
I didn’t turn, but both the golems stepped back. They looked over my shoulder.
“Turn and face me mage. They will not harm you now”
Both golems knelt in front of me, not for me clearly, but I knew I could turn.
So I did.
Vesic was striding towards me, his cloak of embers flapping in the wind as if it was a real cloak.
My othersense flooded me with information.
His cloak wasn’t real, it was a projection of his essence. Strands of which coiled through him and out, touching all around him. Threads tangled between him and his servants, to me and one that wove between Vesic myself and wound about before heading of towards Westhaven. None of this helped me deal with the angry god that was getting closer.
“I told you no magic. Did you think I was jesting?”
“No, I heard you and I tried, but-”
“No you fool, they are my creatures. They follow my orders. They wouldn’t harm you more than necessary. You disobeyed my command. I can’t teach you if I don’t know what you can do. And I can’t teach someone that won’t do as they are told. Release me from my oath if you have no desire to learn.”
“I do want to learn, but I’ve barely even held a sword before and you set three, yes three, fucking lava golems on me,” I turned to point at the kneeling constructs. “How am I supposed to learn to face that if that’s what I’m starting at?”
“You were supposed to learn that you are always going to be over matched. You are powerful in magic, that is not a good thing. You have neglected the physical side. You don’t even have much subtlety in your thoughts and actions. You are arrogant and fierce and as proud as a kicked cat. None of these things serve you well. You have unmatched sensitivity that I felt you use, but you never took advantage of it.”
“Took advantage of it how? Its blinding. Its overwhelming. It helps for little things the rest of the time, it give me a headache.”
“So? Excuses help no one, you want to live? To get back to your master? To whomever else you have left behind? Then you need to focus on learning everything you can.
I stood in front of him, my heart was pounding my senses still on overload.
A thrum went through the magic, so very slight that I wouldn’t normally have noticed it, but my attention was drawn to my senses.
Another one. Each thread pulsed ever so faintly.
“What is that?”
“Nevermind that. It’s not part of my oath.”
“But you said I needed to learn. I want to learn this.”
“Not this. Never this. It’s not for you know. That way lies something you aren’t ready for.”
“Fine, for now. I will let this go, but how am I supposed to learn if you won’t teach me?
“I will teach you, go back to the fire. Set up camp while I dismiss my servants and revive the one you dispatched.”
I walked back toward the fire, my own fire gone. I felt cold. My sword hung limply in my hand, dragging along the ground. A thin line of broken earth followed in my wake. I couldn’t bring myself to care.
The night had settled firmly on the land, the changes in the nature of the magic would have filled me with excitement at another time but now in the midst of training my enthusiasm waned. It always did. I love learning, I just hate being taught.
I sat heavily on the raised mound of earth I’d made before, rested the sword against it and closed my eyes.
The double vision of the solid and the magical worlds vanished taking a large chunk of the overwhelming information with it. My head eased and the tightness that id barely noticed loosened.
The tangle of Vesic and his creations remained where they were off to the side of my central focus. I concentrated, pulling threads of power free from their flows, I raised my hand slowly, smoothing the earth of our camp. The movement released a cloud of moisture laden scents: rich soil, dry leaves and the warmth of early night. Rustle of leaves as they moved to my will filled the air. Under the fire I made a hollow to contain it. Small stones from deep below the surface rose up to my call, to circle the flames. A slight ridge formed twenty paces from me, a boundary I could lay a warding on.
The blaze that was Vesic shifted, coming closed. The burning in my mind that accompanied him intensified, demanding subservience. It was easy to block out now that I knew what it was, an intrinsic part of being a god. But what confused me was the simplicity of his threads, each was strong and clear, bright and hot. But underneath it there was an absence that felt wrong. He was less complex than a man, stronger, clearer, less conflicted maybe. But it was worrying.
I heard his steps and his grunt as he reached camp.
“You used the time well.” he said.
I opened my eyes to look in to his eyes. Flickers of flame reflected from his gaze but his earlier anger was gone. Weariness was in his every line.
A tired god, strange.
I nodded to him, keeping my mouth shut.
He stepped around the fire pit. His steps left marks in the magic and the earth.
I pushed back my reading, I couldn’t keep up with it anymore. I felt momentarily without all sense. A blankness that was frightening after all the light and colour.
“What have you learnt?”
I remained sat on the mound, thinking.
“I have learnt that this was a testing exercise, you wished to see how I handled myself in a combat situation. To build a lesson plan, maybe.”
“Very good. So you aren’t entirely ignorant. Yes. I wished to see what you could already do. I needed to see how you handled being without your power. Magic ruins the balance of things, you can’t determine skills with a glance, but combat can strip it all down. Show you the true core of a man. Out there you reminded me of someone I knew once.”
“What happened to him?”
“He died. He was mortal. He was my friend.”
An air of sadness around him stopped me from asking any more. Even his cloak dimmed, the tiny sparks lessening in number. He sat on the edge of the mound.
“I’m sorry for your loss.
“It was long ago. But I thank you. Now that I have an idea of your skills I know what I need to teach you and how. We should rest. You and Brendon have a long day tomorrow.” The fire cast deep shifting shadows on his face, he looked ancient and tired. Mortal. He looked towards me a strange expression on his face, as if he wanted to say something else.
I picked up my bag and pulled out the blanket I’d packed. I laid it on the earth.
As I lay there looking up at the stars, I thought about what I had learnt already. Not much in solid terms but being open to information for combat was new.
Thank you for coming with me.”
“I pay my debts. Sleep,” Vesic said as he stared into the flames.
I drifted off counting the stars.