Authors: David Wells
Tags: #Epic, #Fantasy, #General, #Fiction
“We won’t let that happen, Prince Phane.” The soldier actually looked a bit worried for Phane’s safety. “How can I serve you?”
Quality soldier or not, this young man’s loyalty was clear. Jataan made a mental note of it.
Phane nodded somberly as if making up his mind. He looked the soldier right in the eye and said, “I’m sending you to kill my would-be assassin.”
Confusion stole across the soldier’s face; he swallowed hard, held his head up bravely in spite of the fear that gripped him, and said, “I live to serve the Reishi.”
Jataan was almost impressed, but he was even more concerned. The man he’d sent to kill Darius Valentine was a well-trained assassin and he’d failed. This young man was a poor excuse for a soldier. Clearly he would not succeed, and there was still the matter of the beast in the circle eyeing the young man intently.
Phane stood. “I know that you do.” He looked almost touched by the show of loyalty.
When the young soldier stood and stepped aside from the chair, Phane stepped into him, planted his bloody left hand on the soldier’s chest, and shoved him backward into the circle of horrors. Jataan stiffened imperceptibly.
The young soldier fell into the waiting arms of the shadow beast trapped in the circle of blood. A look of shock and disbelief sprang to the young man’s face. Phane smiled warmly; Jataan’s blood ran cold as the insubstantial beast swirled into a dark and inky shadow that engulfed the soldier.
Jataan P’Tal could see the dying man try to scream but no sound came out of the black vortex that surrounded him. Then the darkness began to flow into the soldier while his body stood limp as if it were being held up by puppeteer strings. When the darkness had completely invaded the soldier, his body fell in a heap on the ground.
For a long moment he didn’t move. Then he slowly stood. What Jataan P’Tal saw behind those dark eyes was no longer human, no longer a thing of the world of life.
“I have given you a soul, now you will do my bidding. Do you agree?” Phane asked the possessed corpse before him. The husk of the soldier replied with a sound that was not human, could not be human. Jataan didn’t understand but Phane seem satisfied with the response. “Very good. You will hunt and kill young Alexander Valentine. You may have any soul that gets in your way.” The man that was no longer a man began to tremble with anticipation.
“Kludge!” Phane bellowed into the darkness around him; not a moment later the shadows coalesced into another creature of the netherworld. This one Jataan P’Tal recognized.
It was an imp.
His level of discomfort was rising with each new revelation about the character of his Prince. Jataan P’Tal was not a particularly good man but he wasn’t evil either. He was a man sworn to serve, trained from birth to be loyal to the Reishi line. He had never considered the true cost of that loyalty, until now.
An imp was a creature of the netherworld, a being of malice and evil. Jataan P’Tal had never actually seen one before but he had seen renderings in old magical texts. He knew they only manifested in the world of the living when summoned as a familiar by a very powerful, and very evil, wizard.
The little demon stood about a foot and a half tall with three clawed fingers on each hand. It had leathery batlike wings and a tail ending in a sharp black spike. Its hide was ashen grey leather that hung loosely on its humanoid form. Its head was bald and smooth and the skin of its face was pulled tight. Its nose was narrow and sharp but not as sharp as the row of dirty-looking, spike-like teeth behind its thin black lips. It wore only a loincloth with a small knife hanging from its belt.
As distasteful as this little monster was, the thing that bothered Jataan the most was its hateful yellow eyes. When it looked at him, he could see the calculating malevolence behind those close-set nightmare eyes. All in all, the little beast made his skin crawl.
“Ah … there you are, Kludge.” Phane smiled warmly at his familiar. “I have a task for you. Take this zombie demon through the netherworld and deliver it to Valentine Manor on the Isle of Ruatha. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Master.” Its voice was gravelly and dripped with fawning subservience. Kludge nodded and wrung its hands while its little wings beat feverishly to keep it hovering at eye level with Prince Phane.
Jataan P’Tal had seen plenty of magic in the course of his life but nothing like the power he’d witnessed this night. He was coming to understand the true nature of an arch mage’s power. Now he knew that the stories of old were not exaggerated myths and legends. They were true and literal. For the first time since he was a child, Jataan P’Tal felt a chill run up his spine.
Kludge flew to the zombie demon inhabiting the corpse of the unfortunate soldier and seized him. An inky darkness grew to engulf them both followed by a thump that expanded outward like a shockwave. When it passed through Jataan, he felt an unearthly chill course through him, then the inky darkness faded like smoke and both Kludge and the demon were gone.
“That ought to do it,” Phane said and started whistling to himself while he worked the cork loose from another bottle of wine.
Alexander’s mind kept skipping from one catastrophe to the next as he burst out of the room and past the guard at the door. He didn’t think about where he was going, he just went.
Darius was dead. His big brother. His best friend. His protector. His confidant. His captain. It just didn’t make sense. How could he be dead? They were shooting at wolves just this morning.
Phane was loose. Until an hour ago Phane was just a story about a long-dead and unspeakable evil, but the warning spell had changed all that. Now Alexander had a firm picture in his mind’s eye of the Reishi Prince and understood the dark nature of his character with a clarity that he frankly didn’t want. Alexander could only imagine the suffering Phane might cause. He was an arch mage from the time of the Reishi War. There was no one in all the Seven Isles as powerful as Prince Phane Reishi.
Alexander could still feel the dull ache of the brand on his neck. He was marked by a curse. He’d been chosen by another long-dead arch mage to lead the Seven Isles against Phane … and Prince Phane, the only living arch mage in the whole world, knew it.
Alexander couldn’t make his mind settle on any one of the three. The enormity of each was just too much to bear. He pushed it all away and focused on quieting his mind. He cleared it the way Lucky had taught him, this time not to explore or develop his limited understanding of magic but to keep his mind from considering the matters pressing in on him.
He found himself standing on the turret of the watchtower. Alexander had always liked high places and often came here to think. This time he’d made his way here without even knowing where he was going. He stood resting his hands flat on the low stone wall of the turret.
He stared up at the stars and let the cold air wash over him as he took slow deep breaths. Winter was half over. It would be time to start early planting in a few months. Alexander wondered if his world would ever be the same again.
“I knew I should have come here first,” Abigail said softly as she silently glided up beside him. His sister was his best friend. She was a couple of years younger than him but she had enough self-assurance to hold her own with anyone. Abigail was also strikingly beautiful, a fact that worried Alexander when he saw how the ranch hands looked at her. She was tall, only a few inches shorter than him, had long silvery blond hair and pale blue eyes that seemed to see right through people. She wore a cloak to ward against the cold and looked sidelong at his shivering. “Come inside, you’ve got to be freezing.”
He didn’t move.
“Fine, I’ll just go get you a cloak then.” Abigail punctuated her statement with a look that said “I’ll show you,” then turned and strode off without so much as a rustle.
Alexander stood there for a while just breathing and staring at the stars. When he felt a hand on his shoulder, he assumed it was Abigail. No one else was likely to sneak up on him and he hadn’t heard anything.
“I guess I am a little cold,” Alexander said as he turned to face his sister. What he saw was something else altogether.
It was the silhouette of a man traced against the night in a faint silvery light. He could see right through him. Alexander was so startled that he stumbled back against the turret wall, lost his balance, and started to topple over. The silhouette lunged forward and the silver lines that defined him became brighter. He grabbed Alexander by the shirt and pulled him back from the brink of a four-story fall, then abruptly disappeared. Alexander felt the air around him go colder still. He could suddenly see his breath as he sat on the floor with his back to the turret wall trying to make sense of the experience.
Abigail came up the stairs a few moments later. Seeing Alexander sitting on the ground, she quickly looked for a threat. When she didn’t see one, she walked to Alexander and offered him her empty hand. She held a heavy, fur-lined, leather cloak in the other.
He took her hand and stood. He wasn’t sure what to make of the ghostlike man. He didn’t want to add more stress to the family, so he decided to keep the encounter to himself for the moment. He took the cloak from his sister and threw it over his shoulders.
“Mom and Dad are taking us to Glen Morillian in the morning. You need to pack your things,” Abigail said in a small voice.
Alexander was suddenly struck by the pain and fear in her voice. He put his arm around her. They stood silently for a moment, taking comfort in each other.
They heard Lucky huffing and puffing as he came up the stairs behind them. “Ah … there you are … I’ve been looking everywhere for you.” Lucky stopped to catch his breath when he reached the top of the stairs. Lucky was slightly rotund, not terribly overweight but certainly not fit and trim. He loved his food far too much and he spent his days in his workshop whenever possible.
He looked at the two of them as if carefully searching for the right words. With a resolute nod, he found his voice. “Alexander, your life will be more difficult now. You have an obligation that cannot be ignored.”
He looked to Alexander’s sister. “Abigail, you must stand by your brother, now more than ever.”
He stopped as a tear slipped from his eye. “I miss him, too,” he said, hugging them both. He stepped back. “Both of you go pack and then get some sleep. You’ll need it. We’ll be off at dawn.” He turned and made his way down the stairs.
Alexander decided to ignore everything until after he’d gotten some sleep. Maybe it would all be less insane in the morning. He followed his sister down the tower stairs and said goodnight as they each went to their rooms.
He fell into his bed and managed to get his boots off before rolling over and falling asleep still fully dressed. His dreams were fitful. Everything that had happened collided into an improbable collage of events, distorted and filled with dread. At one point he woke with a start at the clear and vivid image of an arrow driving through his brother’s chest.
He sat up gasping. The lamp had burned out and the room was dark. Alexander sat on the edge of his bed, breathing deeply in an effort to slow his racing heart. He’d just calmed himself when the silvery outline of a man abruptly materialized not three steps in front of him.
He sat bolt upright, staring at the apparition. It wavered slightly and the temperature of the room suddenly fell by ten degrees as the ghost came into clear and sharp focus.
Alexander was nearly paralyzed with fear. Surely Phane couldn’t have sent another assassin so quickly. Panicked thoughts flooded through his mind. Of course, Phane would know where he was; Phane was an arch mage and Alexander was the one marked to kill him.
Then the apparition spoke. “I am the ghost of Nicolai Atherton. I will not harm you, Alexander.” He faded almost totally out of sight, then game back just as suddenly. The temperature in the room fell noticeably again.
“You are in great danger.” His image sputtered and crackled, flaring brightly before dimming to the point of invisibility.
Alexander stood. “What danger?” He could see his breath. He felt his heart racing. Goose bumps erupted all over his body and a chill raced up his spine. The temperature fell yet again. Ice began to crystallize on the mirror. Alexander’s fingers hurt from the sudden cold.
This time there wasn’t even a ghost, just a disembodied voice yelling from far away. “Find the Thinblade,” he said and then he was gone.
Alexander slapped his hands together and rubbed them back and forth. The cold was soaking into him so he threw his top blanket over his shoulders before pulling on his boots.
He pushed open the shutters to the cool night air, which felt almost balmy next to the freezing air in his chambers. It was still the dead of night. There was no hint of light on the horizon.
Alexander could see from the light in Lucky’s workshop that the old alchemist was up and about, no doubt packing his laboratory away for safekeeping. Lucky was never happier than when his was conducting some experiment or other, except maybe when he was cooking a meal for someone. He loved to tinker and always said: “Trial and error is the path to discovery.”