The mountains loomed, they filled the sky even from this height, dominating the landscape. The peaks of dark grey stone, sung a song of loneliness and desolation, their white tips glistened like the teeth of a beast biting at the sky.
We flew, kind of.
We fell in a controlled way. Flight just doesn’t work with earth based stuff. It’s unnatural. A rock will not fly. Birds might live on the earth, in trees, but they are creatures of the air. I don’t have wings, I smiled as that thought went through my mind, distracting me briefly from the empty space beneath my feet.
Nelar was nestled in a valley at the foot of the mountains. The valley curved between the naked bedrock, weaving through to form a pass. A safe road through the foreboding peaks.
From the air, Nelar was magnificent, its form carved from the same stone as the mountains. A fortress overshadowed the mouth of the valley, blocking the way. The small town surrounding this side of it was once far larger, the neglect and disuse clearly marked the less active part. The spill of crumbling buildings beyond the high wall showed this was once a thriving city, which I’d not heard of even a week ago.
The thriving was long gone. The broken and over grown roads wound through derelict districts like a dry riverbed in a desert. From this height the people looked like specks of dust, like ants crawling over an anthill. An air of malaise hung over this dying city, choking, suffocating. For miles around the earth looked ill, the trees, what few there were, withered and bent. The land had cracks and pockmarks, as if a battle had taken place. It could be the effects of the waves, but it didn’t feel right.
I looked over to Brendon, hovering beside me, his burning eyes locked on the faded remnants of lost glory. His face grey and stricken, as if just looking at this place had killed all hope.
“Do we go down, or do we camp elsewhere?” I found myself asking.
He gave no sign that he heard me. The roaring wind must have taken the words.
I ran my fingers over the enchanted disk, commanding it to change directions.
I fell, the wind cold and stinging on my face. My coat splayed out behind me, tugging me this way and that.
The earth fast approached, I could feel my speed decreasing, the wind less cold and bitter on my skin.
I landed ungracefully, my legs unsteady beneath me. The shock as I touched ground sent shivers through my bones.
I looked around, the area looked less pleasant down here. It hadn’t looked good from the air, but down here, the large wall crumbled, the cracks in the mortar visible from almost a mile away. The massive gate house held a solid gate almost a hundred feet high, near the same wide. It sat on the only road into the city from this side. Its gate hung loosely, no sign of men to greet us. The dark grey stone so prevalently in use here was chipped and broken everywhere.
I took a step forward, to find cobbles underneath the scraggly dead grass. I nearly fell as my heel twisted on one.
Behind me I heard a thud, I turned my head to find Brendon standing behind me, his strange eyes fixed on the gatehouse. I looked to the gatehouse, deep shadows obscured all but the most obvious details. The city beyond it was a mystery.
“Do we enter?”
“We must. You have your task and I have mine. Do your duty mage,” Brendon said, his tone resigned and more than a touch weary. Maybe flying didn’t agree with him.
I nodded, more to myself than anything. I laid my feet carefully, to avoid the twisted and turned cobbles underfoot. The gate loomed over us casting shade on our path, the chill air brushed over use from the gate. The scents of dust and decay came with it like the breath of death. I kept glancing around for anything, anyone, but there was nothing. The fields near the edge of the city, were empty, nothing grew bar weeds and rocks.
“How do these people feed themselves? This land is dust.”
“Where there is a will, there is a way. I’d imagine they trade over the pass.”
I could feel my brow furrow as I contemplated that. Trade wasn’t impossible, but what could they trade, and with whom? There was nothing here. Our neighbours on our border didn’t have much contact with the duchies as a whole.
We were soon stood in the shadows of the gatehouse, the shining sun seemed to be dimmed here, as if hidden behind a cloud but no cloud was there.
The path took us under the arch and around the hanging gate, its wood rotted and broken. The shadows didn’t ease up once past the gates. If anything they grew, casting the decrepit buildings in gloom. The broken windows looked on, hiding darker shadows within.
I could feel eyes upon me, a creeping sensation like insects crawling up and down my spine. The lifeless street and silent air reminiscent of a tomb. This city was dead and the few remaining inhabitants merely its feeble death throes.
Up ahead was a large, larger, building than the rest. It looked important and well maintained in comparison. Its grimy face looked down at me. The windows were intact although barred with black iron. The stone of the construction was a grainy, deep unrelieved grey. Our path took us down the narrow, overgrown streets, small alleys branched off between buildings. The haunted feeling grew as I peered into one, the darkness inside revealed nothing.
I reached around for my sword, placing my hand on the hilt. Just holding the cool, smooth stone steadied me. I slowed my pace as the path grew less clogged with weeds, the hard cobbles underneath the dust were firm but no less treacherous. The obscuring dust covering the surface leaving them slick.
Brendon walked beside me, his steps heavy and slow. His every movement was reluctant and resigned. A hesitation then a push, as if he forced himself through each step. His face was blank, his burning eyes locked on something distant, something I couldn’t see.
Feelings of wrongness assailed me as we walked. My link shivered, in ways I’d only felt during the wave, but there was nothing to match it. I opened my othersense.
Pain and fear twisted through the streets, leaving streaks of dark stain. Ribbons of sickly light wove through everything, like pale maggots in a corpse. Marks of death littered the place, a black tarnish on all the stone. This place knew nothing good, and if it did it was long ago.
I lifted my eyes to our goal. Dismay filled me as I saw the centre of the corruption in this place. It hung over the blocky building like a cloud, tainting all it touched.
Forward then, looking around for any sign of people. There was debris everywhere, but nothing that looked recent.
The fortress loomed behind all that was close, inaccessible from here. We would have to go around, through the internal wall and out the other side. Better to just go to the building nearest that might have some hope of leading me to people.
I still didn’t know what I was going to do when I found them, my mission was to annex this city for the wizard’s council, to encourage trade, find hands for all the jobs that needed doing. I still had no inkling what those jobs were or why there was a lack of people to do them.
Walking through this ghost town filled me with dread, the magic here felt wrong, not like the foundry twisted, this was different. I couldn’t tell what made it different but it felt dangerous. A sense of something, an echo, there was something just not right here. The unnatural darkness, the lack of people. The death marks. The air of abandonment that pervaded everything.
“What happened here?” I whispered under my breath.
“Many things happened, not all of them in the distant past,” Brendon answered.
“You know? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Knowledge shouldn’t be a gift, it needs to be won. You know that. The beatings you received at the academy should have taught you that. Everything must be earned. Give power for free and this is what happens, you end up with mad fools that have no respect for what they call. You paid for your tutelage with blood and pain. Did it teach you to respect for your abilities?”
“I guess it did. They are mine, I paid for them. I worked for them. I might not be the best but its all on me.”
“There we go. Give a man something for free and he squanders and abuses it. Make him work hard for it and he will value it.”
“Like the nobles, they were given power by the mage-king, and they abused it and the people in their care,” I mused softly.
“That is one example. This place is another, it has paid the price for others. You can feel it, debts and oaths were broken here. The very birthplace of the oaths.”
Our softly spoken discussion had distracted me and our feet had taken us to the door of the building. Its door way was missing its door, a collection of rotted planks replaced it haphazardly arranged to block the way. I ducked my head under one and twisted my body to pull myself through.
The entry hall was once beautiful, remnants of it remained. The high arches and clean lines of the design bespoke of a great deal of care and effort, and it was reduced to this. A shabby relic of a bygone age. One of the staircases rose up the wall, its treads missing. The other looked intact.
My foot touched the bottom step, it creaked ominously, but held. I laid one hand on the ornate rail, which had seen better days it was scratched, the varnish peeling in places. And the other hand on the hilt of my sword. Each step up increased my sense that something was waiting.
The small balcony that I exited onto was in as bad a shape as everything else. Its ornamental rails looked as if they had been ripped off. The doors leading further into the building was intact, although scarred.
I pulled my sword from the straps I’d fashioned to hold it, I’d best get a scabbard for it soon, it wasn’t good to carry a bared blade everywhere even if it was stone.
I stepped over the remains of the rails that had been discarded on the floor and went through the door.
“Who comes baring weapons in my court?” A loud voice called from the gloom.
Torches along the walls sprung to life, casting uncertain illumination over the bare hall. Shadows slithered around the corners of the room Columns of the same grim rock supported the ceiling, made of the same. A large throne dominated the far end of the room, in it was sat a man, wrapped in shadows. I couldn’t see any features. Just a blot of shadow on the throne.
“Answer me. You stand before the king of Nelar, holding a weapon, who are you?” Madness danced in his voice, its erratic rhythm disorientating. The shadows swelled as his voice rose.
“I’m Mage Tristan Sodden, Representative of the Wizard’s Council. I have come to make an offer to this city.”
The king laughed. Pain and detachment from reality lingered in his laugh, it set my teeth on edge.
“A Mage has come to Nelar. Of course, the eyes should have told me. Your kind have no place here.”
“I’ve been ordered to serve as an envoy, to court you to join the council. The duchies stand united once more, would you not wish for your people to be part of that?”
“We have no desire to be part of your council. Where were the wizards all these years? My people have bled and died here. It’s ours, go back to your masters’ boy, it’s too late. We are dead. This is just the fading memory of a city. The final days of the birth place of the Mage King.” A deep despair filled his words, as if all hope was gone and my arrival was some form of cruel joke.
What is going on here, what have they sent me into?
“I’m sorry, I can’t change what has gone before but I will do all I can to help now.”
The king’s shadows dispersed granting me sight of a young man. His clothes were rugged leather, no courtly silks for this king. His face was lined, very lined for one so young. He couldn’t have been much older than me. He was tall but slim, almost wasted away. He turned his dark eyes on me. A weight settled over me as I stared back into these eyes. So deep, so old.
“You offer aid now? I see you are in earnest, but what is to be done? We stand in the twilight of the city. Its people are but a handful. We can’t survive here. I’ve sent all that can go over the mountains. Magic is a curse here. It does what it will, there is no controlling it.” This time it wasn’t the madness that set me on edge but the heavy desperate hope as if he actually sought aid. There was something very very wrong here. A king that is mad one moment and desperately sane the next. What had happened?
“I don’t know what I can do, but I was sent to help. That’s what I will do.”
“Ha. A mage’s duty. We heard tales of your kind, once you all came here. The mage king’s awakening, he was the first of you. Did you know? You used to come here, a pilgrimage of sorts. There is nothing you can do. Go look, see the city with your blazing eyes. Maybe you will realise the futility of coming here. Leave me.” The King, who I had no name for turned his eyes from me then, his gaze rested on nothing.
I left him to his thoughts. There was nothing for me to do in here.
Brendon waited for me outside the building, his burning eyes seeking something in the city as his sight roved the buildings.
“There is something different about this place. Something…. new.”
“I don’t know about that. Did you know this place had a king?
“I didn’t but I’m not surprised, kings rise to fill a need. Someone to look to for guidance and someone to blame when things go wrong.”
“Well, there is a king, I just spoke to him. He wants no part of the duchies. I’m at a loss of how to proceed here.”
“Do what you think is best. If the king wants no part, maybe the people do.”
“What people? Have you seen anyone since we landed?”
“A few. Slinking in the shadows. They will not approach. Fear stalks these streets. They have been taught caution.”
“We need somewhere to set up, if we are going to be working to persuade these people, then we must have a base.”
“How are you planning to persuade them? All the duchies offer is magic, which is poison here.”
“Is it poison? I can tell there is something wrong here, but poison seems harsh. The magic feels… twisted, corrupted.”
“There it is again, what is that?” I turned my head at the noise/feel. It wasn’t here I could tell but it travelled through the magic. My link thrummed in response. There was nothing to see, I resisted the urge to open my othersense, the earlier sights made me reluctance.
“Nothing for you Mage.” The weight in his voice made me turn my head to look at him.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You have a task already, don’t take on more than you can handle.”
“I didn’t take this on, but it already feels like more than I can handle.”
“Best to get started then.”
I looked over the buildings nearest us. Most were in various states of decay. A few looked intact, if scarred. I raised my arm to point at a small but once stately building.
“There. We should check it out. If it’s uninhabited, we can make it safe. Set up a headquarters. We need to work out some communication with Orb. He will be able to advise us.
“If that is what you think is the best idea.” Brendon replied non-committally. His gaze never left off examining the city.
“What are you looking for?” I asked.
“I don’t know, but I will know it when I see it.”
“That’s vague and unhelpful.”
“It was supposed to be. It’s none of your concern Tristan.”
“Vesic mentioned that I should get you a gift for your intervention, you haven’t been overly talkative, I didn’t want to intrude or bring it to mind, I didn’t know how you felt about what happened.”
“All is well Tristan. What happened has been meant to happen for longer than you have been alive. It is as it is meant to be. I require nothing from you.”
“Well that’s just wonderful. Getting told by a God that I have a debt kinda makes me want to fulfil it as soon as I can.”
“Let us move past this. That building you pointed out, you think it will serve us well?”
“I don’t know, let’s find out.”