Brendon woke me, unsurprisingly, it had been a late night. We finished checking the rooms, they were empty, but we did find the employee quarters that Brendon had said would be there. Waking up in a bed was nice after the time on the road. I blinked groggily at him. “What is it?”
“It’s morning, and there appear to be some mages here, asking for you?”
“Already? Okay, give me a moment to wake up and I’ll be…. Where are they?”
“Downstairs, I left them in the entry hall.”
“Did you get any names?”
“Niven, Telsan, Lysan and a few others that didn’t talk, they looked like a unit. Telsan and Niven even have military uniforms.”
“I know the names. Give me a moment to myself, I will be right down.”
I got up walked to the basin in the corner, it was a different kind than we used back in Westhaven, Brendon said it was mechanical, whatever that meant, I had to turn it, it was stiff and flakes of rust crumbled off, discoloured, reddish-brown water poured from the tap, my power said it was safe to drink but it was off putting. I took a handful and rinsed my mouth, then scrubbed the remnants of sleep from my face.
Getting dressed didn’t take much longer. I only had to pull on my coat, sleeping in clothes isn’t very comfortable, but trolls don’t care if it’s bedtime or not. I picked up my sword from where I’d left it. I really needed to find a better way of carrying it, a sheath or something.
I walked down the stairs and saw the group of mages standing to attention facing away from me. Their uniforms looked none the worse for wear, I wondered how they got here, my own uniform was a bit travel worn. Just the sight of them standing strong made my heart rise, being able to pass this off to someone else would be a relief.
My boots must have made a sound on the smooth marble floor because as a group they turned, hands reaching for swords and wands.
Telsan made a small gesture upon seeing me and the squad relaxed. He stepped forwards and saluted, fist to heart, a small bow. “Sir, I place myself and my team at your command per orders by master mage Jase Aleres. We are to follow any and all instructions to facilitate the integration of Nelar into the duchies under the control of the wizard’s council.”
I couldn’t speak, seeing a squad salute me, the most junior mage in service, well apart from Solem, but I didn’t count him, had left me without words.
Telsan walked over to me, an intense but not aggressive look on his face. “Sir, could I have a word in private,” he said his voice pitched low so only I could hear.
Telsan turned to his team. “Scout the building, find somewhere to set up field command, you all know what we need. Brendon Vesic should be able to help you get orientated.”
I looked around, there was Brendon, stood to the side of the room, I’d not even noticed him entering. I walked back to the stair well, to wait.
“You have your orders, dismissed.” Telsan’s voice echoed through the building. I could hear a great many boots heading off in various directions. He came into the stairwell, he looked rather uncomfortable all of a sudden.
“You wished to speak to me?”
“Yes sir, may I speak freely?”
“Sir, you are young, you have no experience and I fear you will lead us to ruin.”
“Well that is very forthright of you. I can’t argue with your conclusion. You are right; I’m young, I don’t know what I’m doing here and I’ve never commanded before. I was under the impression you were coming to relieve me here, but that seems to not be the case.”
“Master Jase felt you would need support, so he found the best team he could. We have a good mix of skills, we work well as a team and we have handled situations similar to this before.”
“You have handled places where the magic is damaged the people are without hope or dead, the ruler of said place is insane, cut off from communication with the mages or the wizards, no hope of support?”
“Well, not all of them at once but we have handled them.”
“I understand you reservations. I don’t want to command. I’m not trained for it. I’m not suited for it, I work better alone, I’ve been alone for so long.”
“You aren’t alone anymore sir. Have faith. I do have a suggestion though.”
“Yes, any and all suggestions are welcome, I’m at a loss as to how to command.”
“If you place me as second, then I will handle the day to day. You will still have to deal with the rigours of commanding but most of the pressure should be off, giving you a chance to learn. I’m more than happy to teach you if it keeps my men alive.”
I found myself nodding along, visions of his men in pieces filled my sight.
“Sir… Sir is everything okay?”
“Yes I’m fine, sorry. It’s a lot to take in.”
“I understand sir, all we expect is you to try your best. The mission is important but so is loss of life. We are valuable assets, particularly with the war flaring up. I will help where I can but the burden is yours.”
“Thank you, what is your assessment of priorities?”
“I have just arrived but the first thing that needs doing is to turn this building into a real headquarters, we need to establish a presence in this city and arrange communications back home. To that end I do have something that Master Jase gave me, he said that you would know what to do with it.” He reached into a pouch on his belt, much like mine, it must be fairly standard. It was useful.
A flare of magic, flickered through the air as he pulled out a small round ball of what looked like glass.
I reached out a hand to take it, the sphere refracted the light oddly, as if it was bigger on the inside. I activated my other-senses and wished I hadn’t.
The room was bathed in bright shimmering light. Echoes of music started singing through the air. The ball was radiating glimmering magic, its concepts so deeply tangled I couldn’t pick a single one out. Sigils spun around the glass, their strange depth distorting the light, making other shapes out of light and shade. As I watched I started to piece together what it could be.
“This is an orb, isn’t it?”
“I’ve never seen one, but I believe it might be.”
“How did Jase get hold of this? I thought they were all custom made.”
“Master Jase didn’t feel necessary to tell me. I know he has contacts, Jase is well respected among us. That is rare.”
“That makes me feel better that he chose you then. I trust his judgement, but it’s nice to know that you do too.”
Telsan nodded. “If you will excuse me sir, I need to check on the men.”
“Of course.” My eyes were drawn back to the orb seed in my hand. The twisted magic didn’t seem to be touching it, if anything it was pushing back at it, keeping the corruption away.
I was left there with very little idea as to what to do with the orb if the magic affected it like I suspected then it would be dangerous to plant it. On the other hand if it worked like the Westhaven Orb, drawing magic from its commander then it should be safe, filtered through a person in full control of their own power would protect it from harm. Probably best to put it away and revisit, it was tempting, restoring communications home, being able to receive orders and advice. The enchantment designs that I would be able to get could change the game here. If there was something that could do what I did at the foundry site, rerouting the flows, on such a large scale without killing me, then that would make it so much easier.
I put the glass ball into my pouch and closed down my other senses as much as I could, I still had an awareness of the magical landscape but it wasn’t distracting. I took a deep breath to focus, this wild daydreaming wasn’t helping, I needed something solid to build on, not wishes.
I walked back into the entry hall to find the six man team scattered around. The room itself had changed. One of the men I didn’t know was working on the walls, shifting them to conform to the Westhaven headquarters, I’d never seen a different outpost of the mages, so that was all I could compare it to. Another man was shaping the desk, it was growing, roots were visible at the base of it, melding with the stone. Little flickers of enchantment rose through the air, pulling power in a hundred different directions.
Lysan noticed my entry, he walked over to me. “Sir, good to see you again, on your feet this time.”
“It’s good to see you too Lysan, how did you get assigned this duty?”
“I must have pissed someone offs, I hear you know how that is,” he said jokingly with a twinkle in his glowing eyes.
“Very funny, what’s the real story?”
“You know I’m not attached to a squad, I’m a trouble shooter. Master Jase wanted someone you’re familiar with, he couldn’t come himself, he is looking after your apprentices. So here I am. It’s not so bad. Hard work never killed anyone.”
“Trolls do though.”
“We can handle trolls. You have enough power here to handle most things.”
“Have you noticed the magic here?”
“How could we not? Most of us pulled heavily after the waves, we know how to deal with twisted magics.”
“So why has nothing been done? In all this time surely we could have done something to help this place.”
“It wasn’t a priority the years after the waves have been stretched, we don’t have the man power. There have been rebellions, in the very early years. There was just so much to do. You are the first to be raised to Mage in a relatively quiet time. There hasn’t been a mage raised since the waves. We just don’t have the resources to do everything. Not counting the fact that a great many mages are hardly suitable to do much of anything anymore.” A distant look filled his eyes. I knew that look, remembering things best left alone.
“I understand, it’s just hard to see this and not want to do something.”
“Wizards can’t come here. There are more sensitive to the magic. In some ways it helps them, in others it cripples them.”
“No wizards can come here?”
“Well some might be able to, but it wouldn’t be easy on them. And it would be dangerous for all around them, you have felt the pressure. Imagine that a thousand times more powerful, pushing on you, prompting you to act. Then imagine that it was a wizard breaking loose, we can do some pretty amazing stuff but wizards are in a league all their own.”
“So that’s why this place has been left to rot. Nice to know, I guess. Anyways there is a birthing pit nearby, I doubt it’s the only thing that needs rooting out.”
“Well sir we have our hands full making this place a fit headquarters. We are making progress, we should be done in the next few hours, not finished but it will serve. We still need to do a great many enchantments to protect this place from the disruptions in the magic. We don’t have all that many that will withstand it and still function, so we will just duplicate them. Hopefully they will work together. This birthing pit shouldn’t be able to churn out another one so soon, they take time to grow.”
“We don’t know how big it is, nor if it’s the only one. The way the magic is feeling, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are other nasties about.”
“There won’t be any gnomes this close, they start at the edge of disruptions like this. That’s something at least. Those little bleeders are a hassle to handle. Trolls are easy with the right tools, but yeah you’re right, if there is a pit there will be other things. Did you see anything in the sky when you came in?”
“No, we flew in, the sky was empty.”
“That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything, so we can’t stop worrying about Night-wings, corrupted Sylphs, Harpies. Most of the magical creatures went into hiding during the waves but we’ve seen a resurgence in the recent past. Lots of things we thought gone are coming back. Not all of them bad. I hear a unicorn was spotted in the forests near Greenlaw.”
“Doesn’t help all that much Lysan, it would be nice to be safe.”
“There isn’t such a thing. Safe is a myth. Best to be prepared. This close to the mountains, I wouldn’t be surprised if Rocs and earth elementals are about, they don’t normally bother people but twisted magic can do odd things to them. There are way too many creatures that could be around, we need to be alert.”
“Is there any way to fix the magic?”
“Lots of ways if you want to die in flames. We can do a bit here and there, drain the corruption and try to get the flows moving right again. It’s been like this for a long time, it’s not a quick fix.”
“I think I should go out and see if I can find some people to talk to.”
“I wouldn’t advise that just yet sir.” formality came back all of a sudden.
“Give me your reasoning then.”
“We aren’t secure here, for now I wouldn’t advise going anywhere alone. You don’t have the skills for this.”
“How do you know what skills I have or not?” Anger seemed to be sweeping over me. This man who barely knew me telling me what to do. I could smash him to pieces, open the earth beneath him.
“Lower the sword Tristan, this is the wrong fight,” Lysan said with a tightness to his voice that seemed out of place.
I’d not even noticed it coming up.
My breath came faster, blood racing through my veins. My arms wanted to swing my blade, to cut, anything.
“Tristan, listen to me.” Lysan’s voice had shifted to something softer, gentler, almost soothing. “This isn’t what you want, push the magic away. You don’t need it here. There is nothing to fight, all is well.”
I felt the strength draining out of me, making me waver on my feet.
Lysan’s words continued as if from a distance, too faint to make out. My vision flickered into the magical, soft shadows crawled through the room, coming for me.
I felt a hand on my shoulder just as I let go of the sword, the clatter it made as it landed, shook me.
I blinked, back into normal vision.
“That is why you don’t have the skills, you are too sensitive. Not much we can do about that except be there with you.”
My answer didn’t even make sense to me, the half formed words just nonsense in my ears.
Let’s take you back to your room give you a chance to recover, it’s not so different from backlash. The patterns can have nasty effects when you fight them off.
Patterns? I asked, the word didn’t seem to fit.
Yes patterns. Like paths worn in the earth or a rivers course, you can’t just change it. They take time and effort to wear themselves a new route. They are doing that in your head but you have your own routes, this one wasn’t subtle.
We were heading up the stairs before I knew it.
“So what now?” My head was ringing like a bell, echoes of something lingered longer than they should.
“Now you go someplace quiet and you pull yourself together. Remember the cleansing exercises from when you were recovering?”
“That’s what they are for?”
“Not just this but lots of magic/mind interactions. Go through a few of them. We will carry on downstairs and if we need you one of us will come to get you.”
“But the pit. It needs handling.”
“Not just yet, we don’t know enough. You spoke to the commander, I’m sure he knows what he is about. You get your task done, we will do ours.”
He left me at the door to my room.
The sound of a bell ringing in the distance drew me back from my exercises, the confusion of earlier gone, leaving me feeling calm and relaxed. I lengthened the final stretch, my muscles flowed smoothly over each other. My breath came slowly, deep and measured. I opened my eyes to find one of the mages standing in the doorway looking at me.
“Sir, I didn’t want to disturb you but the bell is ringing,” The older mage said, he fidgeted with his dark hair, nervous for some reason.
“I heard. Another troll?” The words came out unaffected, distant.
“The squad is assembled in the reception. We are waiting on your go ahead. Commander Telsan didn’t want to move out without your say so.”
“You are our commander, I guess. He doesn’t share his reasoning with us, we trust him.”
“Of course you do. Let’s go see the good commander then, shall we?”
The mage nodded and stepped back from the doorway.
I strode forwards, not slowly nor at any great speed. Everything seemed so distant. My normal passion and drive dampened. I shrugged at the notion, nothing to do about it right now.
The squad was assembled in the lobby as I’d been informed, their faces wary and alert. The commander, Telsan was walking between his men, eyeing them up, offering a solid hand on the shoulder or a grim nod to the men that may die this night.
That sense of danger looming filled the air, like the calm before the blackest storm sweeps in. A full blown tempest is too much for mages, only a wizard could touch it. That atmosphere pervaded the room. The sense that death was waiting for each man, was enough to chill the blood of anyone, hardened soldiers are no exception to fear.
“Commander Sodden, good of you to join us,” Telsan said as he caught my eye.
“I had things to do, you know how it is. Now what’s the situation? I heard the bell.”
“The bell is a warning system the populace have come up with, Niven and Felas there managed to speak to someone earlier. There is always someone in the towers, normally more than one, watching the walls. There is a tower in each quadrant, at the cardinal points. They light a fire, the central tower rings the bell. I’ve had the men scrying but nothing is coming through. The magic is too distorted to let a clear picture through. So we have very little to go on.”
“Then why all the grim looks?”
“Can’t you feel it… sir? The charge in the air, there is something coming, something big.”
“I’ve been doing my exercises, so that I don’t feel much of anything. Could it have anything to do with us arriving?”
““It could, we have been throwing power around all day. It might have been sensed or disturbed something. I just don’t know.””
“Where is my sword?”
Lysan stepped over to me. His greying hair bore marks from his hands running through it. He nodded at his commander and winked at me. “I put it behind the desk, just in case. I had a feeling it was going to be a busy night.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“You weren’t in the right frame of mind for it. The last thing you needed was to work yourself up.”
“Thanks, I guess, I would prefer if you didn’t hide things from me. I might need to know.”
“You know now. We mages aren’t the most biddable Tristan. We do what we want. This kind of squad is rare, we’ve been burnt before. The last time we functioned like they do, well you know when that was.”
I nodded as he led me to the desk. The nobles’ kill teams. The dark days of the blood wars. High bloods fighting with mages doing the dirty work, a wonderful time in our national history. My sword was leaning against the desk just like he said it would be.
It had a sheath now, I looked to Lysan, a question on the tip of my tongue as I picked it up. I ran my hand of the intricate leather, each ridge and bump revealed to my touch.
“Yeah, its bad luck to carry a blade without a sheath. It’s the best I could do on short notice.”
The blade was too long to comfortably wear on my hip, but Lysan had thought of that. A collection of straps and buckles formed a harness to strap it over my shoulder, my coat might get in the way at the moment, but it would do for now. I could always alter my coat later after whatever was coming.
“Thank you Lysan.” I strapped on my sword checking it was loose in the scabbard and easy to draw, nothing caught.
“Least I could do after triggering you earlier. Didn’t expect you to be quite so sensitive.”
I smiled at that. “Not to worry, best I knew before battle, I feel fine now though.”
“You look better. I’ve always hated the price we pay.”
“It’s fair I guess. Everything has a price, it could be worse.”
“That it could. You ready?”
“I would be better prepared if I knew what we were facing.”
“Wouldn’t we all? The magic is whipped up into a frenzy, it’s almost boiling with energy. I’ve never known it so bad anywhere.”
“Everyone tells me Nelar is special, anything to do with that?”
“Could be, who knows. Information is a bit thin on the ground about this place. It’s almost as if… no never mind.” A look of confusion crossed his face before he dismissed it.
“Get your battle face on. At my reckoning we don’t have long before we will be going out the doors.”
“Anyone seen Brendon?”
“The god vessel? He was up on the roof, ready to pull down his Lord’s fire. The man gives me the creeps.”
“Sharing your head with an immortal, not for me.” Lysan shook his head as if to emphasise
“I don’t think he has all that much choice, he is just making the best of a difficult situation. He’s been a good ally to me.”
We walked over to the waiting men. The quiet was oppressive, all that could be heard was the tolling of the bell. The men were silent. Their grim gazes locked on their leader, a few looked at me before dismissing the thought that I was their commander. I didn’t have the years to command these men. I hadn’t earned their trust. At most I was a hindrance to these veterans of the blood wars.
A sense of isolation filled me. I was apart from them. I’d always been apart, except with Sophia and Lyphia. Jase had sent these men to bring me home. ‘Do your duty mage,’ Sophia’s angry words rang differently now. My duty might be here right now, but my true master was a little girl and a headstrong woman, both waiting for me. I owed it to them to get home. Maybe these men had families they needed to get home to as well.
I looked with fresh eyes at the mages – they had come for me. I wouldn’t let them down. I wouldn’t let anyone down. Not this time.
Telsan raised his arm, fist clenched.
The doors opened.
All around me, the men drew their weapons – swords and wands, mainly, though one had a massive axe.
I drew my own sword, the smooth stone singing like a clarion. The hilt was cool in my hand.
Into the night we marched.