Chapter Thirty One: Of Captain Norp and the Last Journey

(Note:  This is not official version and may be removed in the near future.  This do not reflect what is read in the podcast version, nor any other version you may encounter.  I have preserved the rough form for posterity -- or something like that.  This novel has since been rewritten.)

They made camp the following afternoon after following the Nar River south and crossing a wooden bridge wide enough for two carriages to pass at the same time. Iliad guessed they had traveled a good sixty miles; James knew it would be several days before they reached Sem’pur. Along the riverbed they washed the filth from their clothes until the fabric no longer stunk. Triska took a moment to sprinkle the petals of little green flowers on their clothes, and before long all the stench of the sewage lines were lost.
The first night proved eventful. Nobody had asked James about his hand, and he had made no effort to discuss it. Even Triska, who normally seemed aware of injuries at all times, being a healer and all, was oblivious.
James sat in the dirt silently.

“You came for me,” Laura said, cool and collected, looking at James with her bright green eyes.
He nodded.
“That’s amazing.”
“I don’t think so. I had to do it. You’re my best friend.”
“I know, but, I mean, you came all this way just to save me. That’s truly amazing.”
He nodded again.
“And…you…how did you do that back there?”
“Do what?”
“Magic.”
Now he grinned. He showed her the Fearl and explained everything to her. He told her about his parents and the Council, and how he had come to the Farthland only to see it destroyed by Luthien. He explained how the Fearl worked and about Dulien. He went on and on, saying everything he could think of, hardly taking a breath. Then Laura jumped on him and hugged him. His mouth closed, his last few words muffled, and then he hugged her back.
When she pulled away a few tears fell from her face. She smiled warmly at him. He smiled back.
“Thank you.”
He nodded.
She looked at his hand. He tried to hide it, but she grabbed his wrist. “What happened?”
“It’s nothing.”
“What do you mean it’s nothing? It’s soaked in blood. You would have cried for hours back home.”
“We’re not at home.”
“You said Triska is a healer right?”
“Yes.”
Laura walked away and called for Triska. When Laura returned, Triska pushed her gently aside. James raised his hand to her instinctually. The plump woman grabbed hold of his wrist. He winced. She untied the fabric and exposed the huge gash in his hand. The blood had begun to congeal, but he could see the flesh beneath the skin.
“You should have told me sooner,” Triska said.
“It’s nothing, really,” he said.
“Nothing?” Triska gently ran her fingers over the wound. “Don’t pretend to be tough around your friend. This could have gotten infected. And now it’s going to hurt like hell to heal.”
James didn’t say anything to that. He couldn’t imagine the pain being anymore than he had already experience. Triska set to work on his wound. Spurts of magic made the skin tingle. He sensed pain, but he ignored it, even when it grew in intensity. All he managed was a wince. He watched the skin as it slowly closed. He felt bones rearrange. Then a few minutes later Triska let go of his hand. He examined it. A scar ran from the beginning of the knuckle of his middle finger all the way to an inch away from his wrist. In a few weeks time it would be indistinguishable from the others scars on his body. When he flexed his fingers they only worked slightly. He touched the hand with his right. The sensation hurt; he winced and let go. He flexed the fingers again. They worked, but it felt as if all of his fingers had been jammed against something. He shook his hand and looked up.
“Thanks,” he said.
Triska started to walk away, placed a hand on Laura’s shoulder and gave a warm smile. Then she left to join the others.
“So you can use magic?”
“Yeah. It’s…”
“Cool!”
He chuckled. “Yeah, it is.”
“So, do something with it. I don’t know, lift me up or something.”
“I don’t think I can right now.”
“Sure you can!”
He shook his head. “No, it’s not worth the risk. I’m not trained like Triska or Pea. They’ve been doing this for years and years. And with my hand mangled like this,” he held it up, “I’m at a disadvantage. I’m left handed.”
“Oh,” she said, disappointed. Then she changed the subject. “Where are we going?”
He explained the journey to Sem’pur and the Luu’tre and its captain. “We’ll be safe for a while,” he said after he had finished.
She nodded.
“Have you met everyone?”
She shook her head. “I met Triska. She’s very nice. I was afraid to ask the little guy what he was though, and the old man freaks me out.”
He laughed. “Well that sounds like Triska. She’s a nice woman. The little one is Pea, like the vegetable.”
“Why does he call himself Pea?”
“Pantifilus the Extraordinarily Abnormal. P-E-A.”
“Oh. Well that’s interesting.”
“Indeed. And the old guy is Darl. He’s known as the grumpy one around here.”
“He seems it.” She laughed.
“Iliad is the other fellow with the bow. I think it’s about time to eat actually.”
James led Laura to where the others sat. Together they all ate. Nobody said much of anything, not willing to discuss all that had happened until they were safely in the water. Then everyone went to their separate places and fell asleep.
The days went by quicker than James imagined. He was cautious every moment now. Iliad took watch on the second and third nights; Darl accepted the watch after that. James hoped that Luthien wouldn't come storming through the darkness of night and into their camp.
But as they pushed north, they saw no soldiers of Luthien, only civilians. Twice they saw a gryphon in the distance, but they paid it no head as it headed off east.
When they reached the Bay of Salm on the sixth day a thick cloud cover had taken over the day sky and small patters of rain now batted them. Fog flew in from the ocean, propelled by strong sea air and obstructing the only view of the great blue water.
It wasn’t until the seventh night that they reached Sem’pur. From a distance it didn’t look like much of anything at all. Small homes were scattered over the landscape overlooking the Sea of Loe. Off in the distance a new fog bank flowed over the sea. Any chance of seeing the Wunder Isles was dashed.
Among the houses were shacks and long buildings built like Native American long houses. They were stained and weathered, markings of long seaside winters. James could smell the sea air now, a strong salty scent that he had never smelled before. This was the first time he had ever seen the ocean outside of a computer or television screen. He marveled at the vastness of the blue water, how it seemed to go on forever even though he knew it didn’t. He had a strange sympathy for the people who once thought the world was flat. He could see how such bizarre thought could come about. People need an end to something. Part of being mortal. Everything has to have an end.
Beyond at the far edge of the city were the main docks to Sem’pur, skirting along the edge of the Bay of Salm where it met with the Straight of Loe. Several massive ships were harbored there, and a plethora of smaller ships were tied to smaller docks. The ships shifted, rising and falling with the sea.
As they entered the city of Sem’pur it became obvious that it was more of a slum than a city. While it could easily have been home to a hundred thousand men and women, it looked run down and without any defenses. There were no gates, no guards, and certainly nothing that looked like it could do the job. People roamed the streets wearing little more than tattered robes that hung loosely from their bodies. Dirt and grime riddled their faces making it impossible to tell whether they were male or female.
James made sure that Mirdur’eth stayed closed to the middle of the road, a slushy, mud filled dirt track that drove straight through the center of the city. He wondered how they were going to find Captain Norp in such a large slum, with all the people looking so alike in their dirtiness.
The main road was home to a flurry of houses, some of them shops, and none of them remotely kept in good condition. Doors hung from hinges, windows were boarded up, and roofs were patched with a variety of objects from the seats of chairs to bits and pieces of driftwood woven together and nailed down with so many nails that not even a hurricane could remove them. Where there were intact windows, big circles were cut out of the dust and grime where someone had attempted to wash the glass.
A few drunks wandered onto the street from a nearby pub, tripping and laughing as they tugged each other along into an alley, enormous mugs of ale in their hands. An inn—the Foreigner as it was called—was the only thing that looked remotely decent. It had a sign that looked freshly painted and while the doors were less than appealing in their random array of wood patches, the windows were clean and clear.
James felt strangely like he was in a western. At any moment he expected a sheriff to come rolling into town on a horse with a big black cowboy hat and a buttoned up black suit, silver star on his chest.
“This place is huge,” he said. “We’ll never find this captain.”
Darl grinned.
Pea rolled his little eyes and said, “Please Darl, enlighten us to the wonderful happenings within that mind of yours. Don’t keep us in suspense.”
“The one thing you have to learn about captains of ships like the Luu’tre,” Darl began, “is that they never stray far from the ship.”
“They don’t stray far because they’re usually drunk,” Pea said with a twinge of humor.
“Well, that’s probably true.”
Darl took the lead and took them north of the city towards the Bay of Salm. They crossed through roads that had turned into miniature lakes and random patches of tall grass where roads had once been. They weaved between houses and eventually came to an ill-traveled road that looked solid enough to hold the weight of the horses and steeds. There were pubs all up and down the road and above each bar was an inn, as if the pubs intended for their guests to stay. Wild laughter and rambling men cried out from several of the pubs, and others were completely silent but for the sound of lively piano music.
“Okay, so we’re looking for a drunken captain?” Laura said.
“We’re just looking for a captain. Ask for Captain Norp and don’t mention the Luu’tre,” Darl said.
“Okay,” James and Laura said in unison as everyone dismounted and tied the animals to a long post. Then they all split up.
James led Laura to one of the quieter bars. Pea and Iliad took one of the louder ones; Triska and Darl wandered into one that was right in the middle on the noise meter.
Inside they found that the lively music was actually being played by an old player-piano. The pub was relatively empty but for a few men at the bar drinking away their sorrows, a bartender cleaning a set of mugs, and a waitress who washed the tables with an old blackened rag that seemed to fall apart as she rubbed it against the wood.
The door closed behind them and they walked inside.
“We don’t serve kids here,” the bartender said. “Not since the last bunch.”
“I’m looking for Captain Norp,” James said.
“What for?”
“Personal business.”
“Never met him.”
James grimaced. The situation was remarkably close to a western, minus the guns.
A man at the bar leaned over to look at him, only it wasn’t a man, but a Littlekind with two slightly pointed ears and a long black uni-brow. Ale trickled from the little man’s mouth as he rocked back and forth.
“What business you have with the Cap…” the Littlekind said before hiccupping and finishing, “tain?”
“We’re here to barter for passage on his ship.”
“He don’t take kids on joy rides.” Another hiccup.
“We’re not looking for a joy ride. I’m here with several friends. We are in need of passage to the Wunder Isles.”
The bar went silent, except for the player-piano.
The Littlekind burst out in laughter. “Yeah, right. Hear him Gumbly? Wants to go to the Wunder Isles. Funny stuff that.”
Gumbly, if that was his real name, stood still.
The Littlekind closed his mouth and let his smile fade away before looking back at James. “You serious?”
James nodded. “Are you Captain Norp?”
“Might be. That depends on whose askin’.”
“I am.”
“Yeah, see that. Afraid can’t help you though. Like adventure just fine, but seen the Wunder Isles before. Not all that exciting.”
James turned to Laura. “Let’s get the others first.” He went to the bar. “Do you have paper and something to write with?”
Gumbly handed him a small scrap of browned paper, a quill, and a small ink bottle. He had never written with a quill before and it took him a few words to get used to it. He scribbled a quick letter:
To Tum Tum. Please take care of these horses and Blaersteeds. I trust you to make sure they are safe for whenever it is that I may return. Thank you.
He rolled up the paper and handed the quill and ink bottle to Gumbly. Then he turned back to Captain Norp and said, “We’ll be back. Please consider the offer.”
Captain Norp waved a disapproving hand.
James and Laura left the pub—a sign above the door said The Whisker Bin—and headed to find the others. James went to Mirdur’eth and looked the steed in the eye.
“Take this note with you. Find Tum Tum. Take the others with you okay?”
Mirdur’eth nodded with huge up and down motions.
“Good. Laura, start pulled off the packs. Stuff anything that looks important in them. Leave the food. We probably won’t need it.”
“Okay.”
James left her there to find the others. He found Darl and Triska in the same pub they had originally gone in, and Iliad and Pea were in a nearby pub and more than ready to leave despite the rambunctiousness of the men inside. Before long all six of them were together again. James explained the situation. Everyone slugged packs over shoulders and James untied all the horses.
“Remember, guide them all to Tum Tum.”
Mirdur’eth grunted and turned. A few pushes and head gestures and all five of the creatures were trotting along the road and out of the city.
James led the others to The Whisker Bin. Captain Norp met them at a table in the center. He wore a dark red vest that bordered on blackish-brown.
“So, this must be your pirate gang eh?” Captain Norp said.
“Not exactly,” James said. “We need passage to the Wunder Isles.”
“You done said that before. And not taking the offer.” Captain Norp pointed a tiny finger at Darl. “You’re familiar.”
“We’ve met before,” Darl said. “Long time ago in fact.”
“Darl of the Farthland?”
Darl nodded.
“Well what a lovely surprise. The former seaman. Wonderful.”
“You were a sailor?” James said.
Another nod.
“Still not taking the offer. Old time seaman or not.”
James threw up his hands and looked at the others. Iliad watched the window suspiciously. “We don’t have time for this,” Iliad said.
“Well you try convincing him then,” James said.
“No, I mean we don’t have time for this because we’ve got company.”
“Company?” Darl said.
James, Pea, and Darl all went to the two windows in front and looked out. Four figures rode down the street. Three looked oddly familiar, yet not at the same time. Shadows flittered behind them like a cloak and great blades covered in black flames were in their hands. But it was the last figure that made him collapse backwards. He saw the white, dead eye, the scarred face, and the ethereal glow of the one good eye. A black cloak only covered part of the man’s overbearing appearance.
It was Luthien.
“How?” James said for lack of anything else to say.
“I don’t know,” Darl said, “but we don’t have time to ask questions. How many people does it take to get a pathetic little ship to sea?”
“Pathetic little ship?” Captain Norp said. “Well that might be a first. The Luu’tre is no little ship. She’s a galleon. Sixty guns strong. No little ship that. Takes quite a few to keep her running smooth. No easy task.”
“What do you want as payment to take us to sea?” James said, his voice bitter.
“More than a trip to the Wunder Isles. Aim for adventure, intrigued by it.”
James stormed over to where Captain Norp sat and grabbed hold of the Littlekind’s vest and lifted. He dragged the kicking and screaming Littlekind to the window.
“Let go of me!”
“Have a look first,” he said, shoving Captain Norp face first against the window. “How about that for adventure?”
The Littlekind’s eyes went wide as he caught sight of Luthien and the three shadow soldiers. Then his eyes curved down and a thing smile graced his face.
“Luthien! Ha!”
James dropped Captain Norp to the ground.
“You’ve got yourself a ship! A mighty ship! Come! Time to leave!” Captain Norp shook James’ hand and scurried away to the bar, tossing a pair of coins at Gumbly. “Take care of yourself there Gumbly.”
Gumbly said nothing.
James started to follow. When he and his companions reached the back of the pub, where Captain Norp headed to a backroom exit, the front door swung open and one of the shadow soldiers stopped dead.
He looked at the others for a brief instant, and then looked at the soldier. The soldier breathed and turned to give away their location. James didn’t hesitate any longer. He pulled magic through his right hand and flung it all at the soldier. The wall exploded outward, leaving a gaping hole where the door used to be. The soldier crashed through the wall of a pub across the road and disappeared in the debris.
Gumbly protested wildly. Darl tossed the remaining bag of coins at the bartender and said, “For the damages good sir,” with a wink and a smile.
Then they were outside and running along the coast on a thin path. James could see the docks ahead, long and wooden, connecting land to ship. A few men and women walked the docks; Captain Norp started yelling.
“Raise anchor! Set sail!”
A group of men suddenly dropped whatever it was they were doing and ran. At the far end of the nearest dock sat a massive ship with bold white and red letters that said The Luu’tre. It had two large masts and a series of small sails. James could see all along the side many closed doors where nearly half of the sixty guns would show themselves.
As they reached the dock he sensed magic flowing. He glanced back and saw Luthien and the shadow soldiers riding hard against a brisk wind. Their black horses fumed, but they were too far now. His feet smacked on the wood dock and soon they were clambering up the ramp and into the Luu’tre. He looked up into the tall white sails as they opened with a thundering boom. The anchor was raised and the ship suddenly yanked forward as oars protruded from sides of the ship and pushed her away from the dock. Men and women ran from one side to another, pulling and securing rope.
Captain Norp clambered aboard as he released the mooring. Someone else pulled the ramp up just as Luthien and the two soldiers made it to the dock and forced their horses onto the wood.
“Mind helping for a moment you two,” Captain Norp said to both James and Pea. The two followed Captain Norp aft where an old, rusty anchor sat. “Need you to chuck this at the dock. Wait for signal.”
Then Captain Norp ran to the middle of the ship and looked over the edge. “Not yet. Almost!”
James glanced over the side and saw Luthien and the two soldiers riding fast up the dock.
“Now!”
Together James and Pea pulled on their magic and the anchor launched high into the air. Pea looked through a hole in the railing to guide the chunk of metal. Luthien’s horse reared back and cried out as the anchor struck the dock. It crashed through and splashed in the water, then a moment later the dock tilted and crashed in a mighty heap of wood planks and boards. Luthien and the shadow soldiers followed suit and fell. The horses swam away as fast as they could while the men struggled out of their cloaks to be able to swim.
“Ha!” Captain Norp said, pointing a finger. “Have always wanted to do that! To the Loe Strait!”
James sat down on the steps of the quarter deck and glanced at the wheel as it was tugged clockwise. He let out a sight of relief.
The Luu’tre pushed out into the middle of the bay and caught an even stronger wind that pulled her to the mouth of the Bay of Salm. James stood up and walked to the bow, avoiding the working men and women. Laura followed him.
He looked out into the water. The sun was setting, a bright red orb on the horizon. He could barely see the swift currents of the Strait of Loe ahead. Thin clouds swept past the crimson sun. He looked at Laura and smiled.
“What?” she said.
“We made it,” he said.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
He gave her a big hug and laughed.
“What was that for?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “Just glad to see you’re alive.”
She smiled. “I could say the same.”
He watched as the sun drifted lower into the horizon and grinned.

Chapter Thirty: Of Dark Interests

(Note:  This is not official version and may be removed in the near future.  This do not reflect what is read in the podcast version, nor any other version you may encounter.  I have preserved the rough form for posterity -- or something like that.  This novel has since been rewritten.)

James sat on one of the ridges along the edge of the octagon. None of the others bothered sitting. Darl took a position behind Bourlinch as if ready at any moment to beat the memories out. James watched the water as it flowed down the tunnel off somewhere unknown. He was getting used to the smell now.
It had easily been twenty minutes of them setting around as Bourlinch argued with himself over which tunnel was the correct one. At one point Darl suggested they just split up into each of them, but that idea was quickly shot down as Iliad explained how unlikely it would be that they would find a way out doing that. James wondered what would happen to them if they never found a way out of the tunnels. Even if they were forced to turn back he wasn’t sure he could trust Bourlinch’s memory. What if he forgets? We’ll be stuck here forever.

Darl spoke in hushed whispers to himself. James could tell they were angry, bitter words, each phrase coming as a snap. Iliad tried going down one of the tunnels to see if there was an air current to follow, or some change of smell, but when he came back his face was as grim as before and going down the other tunnels proved just as useless. James felt helpless again. He sat alone and listened.
“What if you read his mind?” Pea suggested.
Triska shook her head. “The memories are buried deep. I don’t think I can pull them forward. I’d likely hurt us both by doing so.”
“Oh.”
“Something will jar his memory. I hope.”
James wasn’t convinced. Triska was lying again, a white lie, but still a lie nonetheless. He wasn’t quite sure how he could tell, but something about the way she spoke when she lied gave her away and he took far too much notice in it for his own good. Deep down he hoped he could just believe what she said.
The time went from twenty minutes to thirty, to forty five, and then an hour. Darl was pacing, grabbing and releasing his sword rhythmically. Iliad tried going down the tunnels once more and came back empty handed.
James started to think. He wondered what would happen to Laura if they couldn’t get to her tonight. He wondered what would happen to him if they were caught. Tonight, he knew, might be the only night they would have the opportunity to search for her. Luthien would know what he was up to and would be sending a message east. Then he thought about the power that Luthien seemed to possess. It occurred to him that somehow Luthien might get back to Teirlin’pur overnight using some power that nobody really knew about, or didn’t discuss. Do the people here know about it? Are they keeping it quiet? What about the other cities in Angtholand? Do they know anything?
The questions came out of him in a hurry and he knew that neither he nor his companions would have the answer to them.
When the second hour rolled by without a single bit of progress, Bourlinch let out a cough and a murmur of words that nobody understood. Darl said something and then Bourlinch knelt down and dipped his hand into the water. James started to protest, but before he could do anything the crooked man drank and made an echoing ‘ah’ sound. James pursed his lips in disgust and saw the same looks on the faces of his companions.
Then Bourlinch clapped his hands together, flinging bits of water in every direction and said, “I know now! I see it. I see path. Yes!”
Before anyone could speak Bourlinch tore off down the left hand path. James got to his feet in a hurry and followed. But Bourlinch was too far ahead. The others were behind him, but as he ran the sounds of Bourlinch hiccupping and making odd noises dwindled. Then all the sounds disappeared. He continued, sloshing and slashing. The water grew deeper and deeper. Soon he found himself in waste deep water. The tunnel had taken a dive in altitude at some point behind, bringing the water higher and higher. A giggle sounded as he pushed as fast as he could through the water. He glanced back. Darl gave him a look of triumph. James frowned.
He moved on, pushing with all his might to get himself through the water as fast as possible. The waterline rose again. A pair of small arms wrapped around his neck—Pea. He let the little man climb onto his back. Then the water rose to his chest. He cursed to himself, under his breath. Darl cursed out loud.
It felt like forever. He led the others along the tunnel with Pea attached to his back like a little animal, torch held up to provide light. He groaned as his feet slipped on something gross at the bottom of the tunnel and he didn’t ask himself what it could possibly be. Soon his shoes were being encased in the mud-like goop and he had to fight even harder just to keep moving. He knew he could swim a lot faster than he could walk, but he refused to get any more of his body in the water.
At least I don’t have to worry about my armpits smelling, he thought.
The water let up slightly some distance away from when it had reached his chest. He sighed out loud and smiled faintly. The others seemed pleased too, especially Darl who let out a curse that sounded more like a cheer.
Then the water rapidly dropped to his knees as the tunnel regained altitude. He knelt so Pea could get down and continued.
“That little piece of…” Darl started, only to be shushed by Triska.
James knew what Darl’s next words would be and he grimaced at the thought. Pea would say that’s uncivilized.
The tunnel took a rapid turn and ended in another open space, this time round and without any additional passages. Sitting on a round stone in the center was Bourlinch, grinning with yellowed teeth and wrinkly arms crossed.
“Slow Farthland and Other.”
“I should have your head!” Darl roared.
Bourlinch flinched instinctually.
“Be quiet Darl,” James said. The words didn’t surprise him. He had said much worse and he knew it. “Don’t do that again, Bourlinch.”
“Stench. Filth. I am not. I don’t like.”
“I understand, but you can’t just go running off like that.”
“Not if you want our trust,” Iliad said.
“Come then.” Bourlinch leapt from the stone and went to the far side of the round room. There a gate stood, much like the one they had originally come in—a series of crisscrossed bars held together by bolts.
“Where is this?” Iliad said.
“West side. Just below. By north tower. Wanted tower.”
“Are you sure?”
Bourlinch nodded.
Before anything else could be said, Pea approached and began to work magic. Iliad helped, jamming his knife, in the same fashion as Darl, into the opening gaps. The two worked slower this time, moving the bars at a snails pace. One by one the bars separated, breaking away from the bolts that were fused into the metal. Metal whined and whistled as the bolts flew off, but no huge bang sounded. It took ten minutes to make a hole big enough for them all to cross through. Then Iliad and Pea slipped through; James followed after the rest, the last one to leave the discomfort of the sewage.
The gate opened up into an area covered in trees and brush. A single path led from underground up into the trees and disappeared. Iliad slipped into the shadows seamlessly, as if he hadn’t ever been there before. James followed into the bush.
The trees didn’t make up a large forest, but more or less a small patch of green and brown that would stick out like a sore thumb in the daylight. The western curve of the wall lay ahead and there the clink of armored men sounded too, but in the safety of the trees they couldn’t be seen.
Iliad took them to the opposite end of the tree line and crouched. James looked out into a maze of buildings that the sixteen towers—only five visible—surrounded like stone sentries keeping watch. Only a couple guards could be seen where the towers were, and he could easily find the dark shadows behind the towers that Iliad wanted them to traverse.
Iliad signaled to James and the others. James followed swiftly, keeping low as they slipped out of the confines of the trees and ran along the shadows of the wall into a huge black void. Something grabbed him and he fell hard, chest first, into a maze of leaves and branches. He managed to muffle his surprise by burying his head into his arm. The others grew still; no sounds escaped their feet.
He felt blind, unable to see more than an inch in front of him. The shadows obstructed his vision entirely. What lay before him was a mystery. After a brief moment of waiting, Darl grabbed him by his shirt and lifted him out of the bush swiftly. He waited to be slapped, but no hit came, no berating, no whispers or anything.
James recuperated, balanced, and followed the sound of the others as they gently tromped through the darkness. He bumped into another bush; a vine grabbed his foot as if alive and he tugged away. The shadows waned slightly; he could see again.
Two guards carrying small torches appeared from the opposite sides of the two towers immediately ahead. They marched in full armor, helms pulled back so they could see clearly in the night and spears held limply to their sides. James watched as they marched; the rest of the group paused. The guards walked and then disappeared around the tower. Iliad forced them on again.
Once they were immediately behind the first tower Iliad stopped.
“We split here. Wait for the perfect moment. The next guard should be walking the perimeter soon. Be patient.”
Iliad whispered so low that James had to hold his breath to hear. He let loose the air in his lungs and took in another deep breath. Iliad was gone before he could say or do anything else. Triska took off after him, Bourlinch crouching naturally low and scurrying along behind. They passed into lighter areas and James glanced up to the parapet. The guards there were facing away. He let out a sigh of relief as Iliad, Triska, and Bourlinch slipped back into shadow, only a moment before another set of guards at both towers appeared and walked by like stiff robots.
Darl tapped him on the shoulder. He turned and looked into Darl’s face.
“We take the next guard,” Darl said, whispering. “Pea, shut his mouth first, as soon as he reaches the center of the tower. Don’t let him say a word, understood?”
“Understood,” Pea said.
“James, just stay back.”
James stood still in the dark and watched as Pea and Darl moved fluidly forward like little wisps of wind in the black of night. They took cover near a small rock, using the shadows to hide their bodies.
He waited patiently. His legs grew tired, tingling and pinging with the onset of sleep. But he didn’t dare stand up or stretch. Such movement would risk making noise or exposing him to the guards walking the wall or the guards walking the perimeter of the towers.
Then the first set of guards appeared. He tried to look over to the second tower, but he couldn’t see the other three. He focused instead on where Pea and Darl were crouched. The guard marched, marched, and then suddenly stopped and touched his throat. The guard looked around frantically, dropped his spear. Then Darl slipped out of the shadows. The guard opened his mouth as if to cry out. Darl crashed a weathered fist into the man’s face. The surprised guard went limp—head flopped to the side—and began to fall. Pea stopped the crash that otherwise would have been inevitable and Darl slung the unconscious guard over his shoulder and ran back into the shadows.
James glanced up at the parapet. None of the guards there had seen or heard anything, or seemed at all interested in what went on inside the walls of the city. He then looked over to the other tower and saw Iliad slugging the other guard into the shadows.
The wait for the next guard seemed like an endless eternity. Time moved at a snail’s pace. James wanted desperately to stand and walk. He hated the idea of crouching in the shadows doing nothing. He wondered why they had brought him along if he wasn’t going to be able to do anything. They could have easily left him at Bourlinch’s shop. But deep down he was grateful that they hadn’t left him behind. He despised the idea of sitting around doing absolutely nothing and being completely uninvolved. At least here, in the shadows of a city at night, he could see what was happening.
The second set of guards appeared and much of the same took place. It occurred to James that no guards who could use magic were placed around the towers. He thought that seemed odd. Why would Luthien keep magic users away from his towers? What exactly is he keeping in there? Is it a weapon of some kind? Something that Luthien doesn’t want in the hands of others?
James stopped thinking about it and focused on Laura. He didn’t have time to worry about what Luthien was up to. This moment was the culmination of weeks of planning and painful journeying. He only cared about Laura now, getting her away from Luthien and away from all the dangers of a falling Traea. He could see the darkness descending over all that had been bright in the world. There was so much hatred and destruction. Arlin City, Ti’nagal, Nor’sigal. All of them destroyed to appease a mad man.
Darl tied to two guards tightly and made sure that they would be out for a while. Then, the old man led around the right hand side of the tower, counterclockwise. James saw the others doing the same, appearing out of the shadows and gliding along the side of the other tower. Then he couldn’t see them anymore.
James crept along the edge. He watched as Darl peered around the corner for a moment. Then the old man turned back.
“Pea, can you silence two at a time?”
“I don’t think so. It’s possible, but risky.”
Darl nodded. “Okay, you stay here. I’ll go around the other side.”
Then Darl was gone, disappearing behind the tower. James waited in the slight shadow along the tower where the light of torches along the road didn’t quite reach. Pea peered around the corner like Darl had.
Then suddenly there was a series of cracks. He stood upright, fully, and watched as Pea disappeared around the corner. He wasn’t sure what to do so he remained still. Then a sharp whisper told him he should move; he did. Once around to the front of the tower he had a clear view of the street. The center of the inner city was a series of buildings, tall and short, mashed together into a giant market. The tops of the other fourteen towers were in clear view and he could make out their crenellated roofs and see the small slits for windows on each of the floors. He thanked God that the lower extremities were hidden by the buildings in the center.
Darl and Pea stood at the front of the tower. From across the way he could see Iliad and Triska lugging two unconscious soldiers inside. Soon James was helping. Darl closed the door with a clank behind them.
“We haven’t got long,” Darl said. “A few minutes at most. Five floors to search. So let’s get at it.”
Then Darl was gone out of the main room—a small circle where several chairs were laid out and a long rug covered in diamond designs of red and silver sat—and up a set of spiral stairs in the back. James and Pea followed.
The first floor opened onto a ledge before becoming stairs again. There was a thin wooden door studded with metal bolts. A metal ring, like a giant earring, served as the handle. Darl tried it; the door clicked and swung open.
James doubled over and started to cough, averting his eyes from the room. Men, or women, he couldn’t tell which, were suspended in wiry contraptions from the ceiling, hung out like mutilated bodies. Only their bodies were not mutilated, not really, but distorted by something else. They were ghostly pale, skin sagging, eyes closed and drooping. None of them looked alive. Strange burns showed through their weak skin, burns on the inside of their body, as if their organs had been lit on fire. They were dead, all four of them.
Darl closed the door with a bang and spat on the floor.
“Madness!”
“Those bodies were old,” Pea said reassuringly. “Maybe been there for months.”
Laura is alive. She has to be.
James lunged up the next flight of stairs, desperation gripping him. He took the steps three at a time. His legs strained, but he didn’t care. Pea and Darl were far behind by the time he reached the top. Here another ledge presented itself along with a larger door than the first. This door had no handle. James pushed it open before the others reached the top. He strode in and looked around. Here there were two others strapped and suspended above the floor. They were clearly men, both alive, but not well. He let his jaw drop and looked around the room. The two men were wide eyed. When he looked into their eyes he could see nothing. Their eyes were blank, unnaturally blank, as if the very colors that made up the eye had been sucked away, leaving behind a wide pupil.
He moved over to the arrow slit on the left side of the room and looked out to the other tower. He saw flickers of light and then Iliad looked out at him. The distance was not far enough to keep the look of utter disgust from being visible. James knew that the other tower had much the same issue as here.
Pea and Darl came into the room. Pea looked stunned, the little man’s face curved with the look of discomfort. Darl sneered bitterly, as if ready at any moment to snap.
“Help me with them,” James said, running over to the first of the men. He tugged on the chains and metallic ropes.
“Leave them,” Darl said.
James wanted to scream at that very moment. He cursed in his mind.
“Come, we have to go now. We haven’t time to save them all.”
“But it’s the right thing to do,” James said, not hiding his anger.
“Darl’s right James,” Pea said. “We can’t take them all with us. There’s no way.”
He let go of the chains and let his hand slump to his sides. His gaze fell to the floor, rose to the two suspended men, and then he walked out of the room and barreled up to the next floor. He tripped on the last step and fell, hands reaching wildly for something. The air left him and he coughed. Then he stood up and looked at the next door. Here another three were held; two looked as dead as in the first room. He didn’t wait for the others to catch up before taking the stairs again to the fourth floor.
The fourth floor proved to be much the same as the first three. He counted five more people here, two that looked like they could have been women at some point. He wanted to vomit now, disturbed by the idea that someone could do such things to another human being.
Then fear hit him and he found that he could no longer control his emotions. He let out a grunt and whirled up the last flight of stairs to the fifth floor. There the stairs stopped entirely, leaving a wide space where a larger ledge made its home. A door leading to another room sat there too and off to the side was a ladder that led to the roof where the glowing gems would be.
He tried to door, but it wouldn’t budge. He pushed it harder, no movement. Cries of anger escaped his lips and he began to bang and shove his body harder into the wooden frame. Each time he hit a tear slipped from his face.
Then a huge foot slipped into his vision and crashed into the door. The wood frame splintered and the door crashed to the ground inside, sliding a couple feet. James eyed Darl with a thankful glimmer in his eye and then slipped into the room. This room proved far different than the earlier four. Here there were several bookcases filled to the brim with old looking books. He didn’t give them more than a moment of his time. A lamp was lit in the corner of the room, casting dim orange light over the various chairs in the room.
Something didn’t quite feel right about the room. James couldn’t explain it, but a shiver traveled up his spine and he knew immediately that there was something abnormal taking place here. Pea and Darl were next to him and out of the corner of his eye he saw the little hairs of their arms rising. He eyed his arms and the hair rose there too.
“Something’s not…”
His words were suddenly forced away from him as something invisible struck him in the chest. He yelped and found himself launched into the air. He crashed into the far wall and crumbled to the ground. A sword crashed next to him and he knew that Darl had been disarmed. He looked up and saw crashes of light as Pea deflected pulses of energy from nowhere.
James stood up and marched forward. He looked around the room, trying desperately to see the origin of the magic, but nothing, not even his strange keen sense, gave that information away. More sparks and bolts of bluish light shot out mere inches from where Pea was launching wild shots of magic across the room, pushing aside spells as he went. Books shredded and fell to the floor and the wooden cases broke into smaller pieces and shot about the room as if something had caused them to explode. Then the lamp went out of its own accord. Complete darkness enveloped the room. James saw nothing, not even the night sky or the world outside of the tower. No more magic shot into the room. He could sense it, but it made no attempts to strike anyone. Then orange light filtered into the room, cascading down through everything.
Something invaded his mind. He fought against it. Sparks blew across the room as another furry of magic reached for Pea. The thing in his mind pushed against his barriers, searching for something.
He knew now what it was. It was Luthien, reaching into his mind from somewhere else. The room was a trap of sorts. He felt the wicked fingers of Luthien in his mind, tugging at some deep pool that he had no access to—he hadn’t the ability to read the future. Luthien pushed, pulled, tugged, banged, and prodded every inch of him. He opened his eyes and saw wicked, twisted shadows creep across the floor and form apparitions of living beings. The lamp flickered alive and tall flames pushed out of the glass chimney. He closed his eyes again and fought hard against Luthien.
Get out of my mind, he screamed within.
He opened his eyes again. The shadowy creatures collided, coalescing into one blob of black. Then the shadows formed into something physical, lifting up from the floor. Four legs formed, claws rippling into life as if they were being transported from some other location.
Then a head formed, and long, muscular shoulders. A tail slithered out from the black shape.
James focused on Luthien. He collapsed to the floor with the effort. The lamp flared brighter, pulsing with renewed energy. The shadowy figure became real as blood stained points came into focus in the thing’s mouth. Claws clacked on the floor impatiently.
“Nara’karesh,” he whispered.
Then the creature roared and the gaping maw of the lyphon spilled blood onto the floor. Pea let down his guard and a bolt of magic crashed into the Littlekind’s chest, launching him across the room. The wall stopped his fall.
Nara’karesh roared again, and then suddenly the creature was laughing darkly. James grew frantic. He looked down at Darl’s sword as another burst of magic crashed into a nearby bookshelf. He let Luthien in through one barrier of his mind and grabbed the sword.
“Darl!”
The old man looked just in time as James launched the sword hilt first into the air. Darl caught it and twirled around just as Nara’karesh lunged forward. Then James rolled back into his mind. Luthien pushed against the last walls; he fought hard, closing his eyes again to focus fully. Nothing he did seemed to stop Luthien. He tried to trap the invasion in the darkest recesses of his memories, but it failed and Luthien slithered like a snake deeper and deeper. Something struck his arm and he risked opening one eye to see. A shard of metal had hit him, undoubtedly launched across the room because of magic. He didn’t bleed, nor did he feel pain, but he looked at the shard before closing his eyes again.
There were no words that came to him in his mind. Luthien couldn’t speak to him, and neither could he speak to Luthien. He wanted to scream at Luthien, scream out all his anger and hatred towards that man. He wished he had the opportunity to show Luthien the horrors that had been committed. Maybe it would open the tyrant’s eyes to reality.
But he could do none of those things, and slowly it became obvious that he could not beat back Luthien. Whatever it was that was buried in his mind, whatever future that Luthien could glean, Luthien would have it in moments. His barriers were falling like trees in a massive wild fire, like buildings in a demolition. Whenever he put a new wall up, Luthien broke it down. His head throbbed; pings of sharp pain hit his mind. Pain surged through his arm. He looked down, tears bursting from his face from the pressure in his head. He had gripped the metal shard and now his hand bled. New pain shot through him as he realized this.
Then Luthien pulled back suddenly. The connection remained, but it was as if the presence had sensed something and been forced to retreat.
James looked at the shard again. Small trickles of blood dripped to the ground. Luthien surged into his mind again. He squeezed the shard and grunted with the new pain. Luthien fell back again.
Then a smile crossed his face. He looked up at the others, but they were too busy to notice his sudden glee. Darl dodged and blocked swipes from Nara’karesh and Pea slumped over a twisted, splintered chair, fending off further attacks.
James pulled the shard away from his hand and held it up. A deep gash lay there, bleeding small globs of blood. He put his hand down flat on the ground. Luthien pushed again. Then James yelled and plunged the shard deep into his left hand, pushing the blade straight through the back. He cried in pain and more tears came. The connection with Luthien exploded into a myriad of sensations. Pain and confusion twisted through his mind and then the connection suddenly ceased. All he could feel was his hand and the mild throb in his head.
With another yell he yanked the shard from his hand. Blood poured in rivers from the wound. He used the shard to cut the sleeve off his shirt and pulled the fabric away. He took a deep breath and tied it tight over the wound. He gasped for air afterwards and then stood up.
Pea looked on the verge of passing out, desperately fighting off the invisible energies. James gazed around the room. Then the lamp flickered again.
He didn’t hesitate. As Pea fought off the magic, he called upon his own magic and thrust his left hand forward. New agonizing pain attacked him. It was so strong that he couldn’t make a sound. The wall of magic crashed into the lamp. The lamp exploded backward, shattering into a thousand molten shards. The wall collapsed and shot out in a blaze of fire and debris. Smoke flew into the room and dissipated quickly. The darkness of night took over.
Pea fell to the floor. Their eyes met and James could see the stunned, yet grateful look on the Littlekind’s face.
It took more effort than he was prepared to use to move himself across the room. Darl danced with Nara’karesh, bounding nimbly one way and then another, failing to show an ounce of age. Yet Nara’karesh was strong and nimble too, swift and powerful unlike a human being. While Darl had a sword, Nara’karesh had two sets of claws.
Before long, Nara’karesh stripped the sword from Darl. The blade bounced off the floor, landed with a thud, and slid. James stopped the hilt with his foot.
“It’s over for you,” Nara’karesh said, spitting blood. “This is the end of you and your friends.”
Darl said nothing.
“The time has come for the land of the dead to rise. Not the time for Man. Man is over. Man is finished.”
Darl took a few cautious steps back.
James picked up the sword. He knew if he moved too fast Darl would be dead. If he moved forward at all and drew attention to himself, the lyphon would strike Darl down with a single claw. He weighed the blade in his hand. Then he lifted it and took a small portion of magic and fed it through his right hand. He couldn’t grip with his left and refused to try. Being left handed made him feel inadequate as he held the blade like a spear. He pulled a little more magic into the blade. The edges shimmered and then the blade sang as if it had been struck—a tuning pitch.
Then he took a step and threw the blade. Magic coursed through him, through his hand, and into the sword. The blade spun rapidly and shot through the air across the room. Nara’karesh looked over just in time to see the blade as it struck the beast through the upper torso. The force sent the lyphon crashing into the floor and then into the wall.
James stumbled over, feeling the affects of all the magic and pain passing through him. He and Darl looked down at the struggling lyphon. He took hold of the hilt and started to pull the blade out.
“Never threaten my friends,” he said. “Not unless you want to pay the consequences.”
Nara’karesh started to laugh, but could only cough blood. James pulled the blade out and in one long strike he drove the blade deep into the exposed neck. He felt the blade hit bone, pass through and hit the stone floor. The head rolled away, tongue drooling out and eyes wide with fright. Black blood poured from the open neck. He handed the blade to Darl.
“Get Pea,” he said. “Laura isn’t here.”
As he said those words a strange wind passed into the room, carrying with it a collection of leaves and twigs. Then light spilled from a single point in the center. It was white light and soon the light was spreading and pouring into every corner until no shadow existed whatsoever. The light flashed and there in the center of the room appeared Laura, strapped securely in the chains. Her eyes were open, but blank, and her mouth hung loose.
James ran to her.
“Laura! It’s me. Wake up!” He patted her on the face, but she didn’t stir. “Help me with the chains Darl.”
The old man marched over and together they began pulling and working on the chains and the locks that held them. James used what magic he could and split several of the locks in two. Then the last chain fell and he caught Laura in his arms. Her eyes closed suddenly.
Pea stumbled over, suddenly awake. James held Laura and begged her to wake. He could feel her breathing.
Then her eyes fluttered and opened. For a moment she looked up into the ceiling in the same way someone looks into nothing. She glanced around and then she looked at him. He could do nothing but grin wide and toothy. A tear fell from his face. Laura smiled.
“Can you walk?” he said.
She nodded. “Get me the hell out of here.”
James stood her up. He thought for a moment she might fall—she teetered to one side and then caught her balance—but soon all three of them were walking to the door.
Darl went to the closest of the windows and roared, “Iliad, move! We’ve got her!” When James and Pea looked at him reproachfully he said with a shrug, “there’s no use keeping quiet now. He’s already woken the whole neighborhood.”
“And the one next to it,” Pea said delightfully.
For a moment they shared a laugh, but it was short-lived. They ran down the stairs, James close to Laura just in case she fell. They flew down the five floors and were out of the tower in a flash.
“You came for me?” Laura said as they ran into the shadows.
“I had to,” he said. “Nobody else would.”
“That’s very reassuring,” Pea said sarcastically.
Iliad, Triska, and Bourlinch appeared through the shadows. A cry from the guards on the parapet immediately told James that they had been spotted and the gig was up. He didn’t hesitate from running to tell the others what had happened. Instead, he gestured for them all to follow.
“There’ll be time to talk later,” he said.
When they reached the entrance to the sewer system there were four guards waiting. Two had arrows drawn. Before Iliad could draw his own bow, the arrows were let loose. James thrust his magic forward and shoved the barrier into the arrows, which splintered and shot over he and his companions. Laura stood behind them all. James could see her utter surprise, as if she were in a dream.
Pea used a little magic, along with Triska, and before long the four guards were subdued and unconscious from a collection of magical blows and punches from Darl.
Then they slid into the darkness of the tunnel and Pea lit his torch, brighter than before. Laura coughed and complained about the smell, but nothing else was said. Bourlinch led them back, guiding them wildly through the tunnels. They soon came to where the tunnel had dropped low and the water had risen high. Laura lost her balanced and stumbled into the water. Her eyes were glassy. Iliad picked her up without hesitation. James knelt and let Pea climb onto his back. Iliad did his best to keep Laura up. Voices cried out from behind, the sounds of soldiers following in after them.
Then the same thing echoed ahead. Bourlinch paused;
“Tell me which way to go,” Darl said, taking the lead.
Bourlinch nodded.
Then they were moving again, Darl thrusting hard through the murky filth of the sewers. The voices behind grew stronger as more and more people entered. The voices ahead grew louder.
Soon they came to a long stretch of open corridor. Two armored men appeared on the opposite end, each carrying a torch and a small sword. Darl lifted his sword and ambled forward.
“Stop in the name of Luthien,” the first guard said.
Darl didn’t stop. The old man barreled into the two soldiers who were far too surprised by the action to raise their swords. They fell over together, the first guard unconscious from a blow to the head by Darl’s hilt. The other struggled desperately and swung his distinguished torch upward. It hit Darl in the arm, but the old man didn’t pause for an instant to consider it before he smashed the helpless soldiers in the face. The guard went limp and a small trickled of blood fell from his face.
Darl led on and the others walked over the two soldiers. James stumbled on an arm and then passed with Iliad in tow. Bourlinch spouted orders. They followed the same winding pattern they had when they had first come in to the tunnels. Then, as if it had all happened in an instant, they were at the entrance. The gate had been torn completely off and three new soldiers stood outside. They held their swords at the ready and Darl didn’t wait a moment before plowing through the tunnel at them.
The first soldier crashed to the ground with a gash to his sword arm. Iliad put Laura down and James helped her by putting her against his shoulder. Then Iliad drew his bow and launched two quick arrows into one of the other soldiers. Darl took care of the last.
“Pathetic,” Darl groaned.
“Quick,” Iliad said. “Get to the horses, don’t stop for anything. Mount up and go!
Iliad took Laura from James and ran. James followed. They ran straight down the thoroughfare, avoiding all side passages and alleys. There wasn’t any time for detours or to keep out of site. Alarms sounded from the inner city, giant horns blasting echoing notes across the landscape. Nobody stopped or ceased moving for a moment and no soldiers obstructed their path.
When they reach Bourlinch’s shop, Iliad took the moment to untie all the horses while James, Pea, and Darl ran into the building and started shoving everything into their place. The horses were ready and mounted in five minutes; a feat that James didn’t think was possible. He hoped that they had done it all correctly; else a pannier might slip and fall.
“Take Laura with you,” Iliad said to Darl. “You’re a far more accomplished horseman than I.”
Darl didn’t protest; there was no time for it. Bourlinch scuttled in his shop.
“Thank you,” James said to the crooked man. “Thank you for your help.”
“I will distract. Yes. Distract. You are welcome other.”
That was all that was said to Bourlinch, and Bourlinch did not speak again.
Once Laura was secure with Darl on the saddle of Arna’tu, James mounted Mirdur’eth and turned the steed away from the inner city.
“We ride hard, and don’t stop until I say so. The horses will make it. Trust me,” Iliad said, then kicked his horse and burst down the thoroughfare.
James didn’t have to say a thing as Mirdur’eth and the other Blaersteeds took off after Iliad, with Triska in tow.
The open air of the fields filled his lungs. Outside of Teirlin’pur dark shadows were cast. Thick clouds covered the moon. James glanced up and then back at Tierlin’pur, now lighted by torches. Nobody had seen them leave, but he knew that Luthien had seen this at some point.
They rode hard into the night, traversing the distance to the river in a matter of hours, and following it south.

Chapter Twenty Nine: Of Journeys in the Dark

(Note:  This is not official version and may be removed in the near future.  This do not reflect what is read in the podcast version, nor any other version you may encounter.  I have preserved the rough form for posterity -- or something like that.  This novel has since been rewritten.)


“Marked?” Pea said, showing remarkable control of his voice.
James nodded.
“Assuming this is true, this is a horrendously negative turn of events. Marked…by Luthien. We have to presume that Luthien is reading his future too. Which means that Luthien must know this creature.”
“No,” James said. “I don’t think Luthien knew him, probably never even heard of him. Most likely anyway.”
“The laws of magic…”
“I know the laws.” In fact, he did know the laws, most of them at least. He had read them in the etiquette book. They were more general understandings that laws. Nobody had set down the rules of how magic worked. It had always been there. In a strange way, James thought of magic scientists casting out theories, digging up evidence, and doing experiments to prove some point. “Magic cannot be used on the unknown.”

“Which is precisely why Luthien must know this man.”
James didn’t argue because he couldn’t. He didn’t truly know enough about magic or Luthien, only what he had read, and he had learned already that books didn’t always have the answers.
Pea split away from him and sat down on the opposite end of the table. James gave Bourlinch food and water and dug up the etiquette book from his things. He flipped it open and began reading through the new entries.
A hundred pages slid by before James realized that night was falling thick outside. The room had been lit by candles and lamps at some point during his reading, and he assumed it was Pea’s doing. Concern came over him. Triska and the others weren’t back yet and the street outside was strangely silent. Bourlinch lay with his mouth gaping open, drool dribbling from his mouth; Pea slept against the back of a chair, head tucked low and little murmurs and snores escaping his lips.
James stood up. He wished for a moment that there was a window in Bourlinch’s shop, but for some reason no one had ever built one. It was like being in a giant box with only one exit, or like being in the belly of a ship in a locked room with only one porthole to look through. He imagined the road as the ocean, empty and blank, and calm.
He went to the door and opened it. Outside the night air was cool and a soft breeze blew, lifting the loose strands of his hair. He closed his eyes and took in a deep breath. The air smelled sweet and unpolluted. A faint scent of pine was there too. He took a few more steps outside. The horses shifted uneasily as if afraid or bothered at his appearance. The three Blaersteeds only looked at him.
He gravitated towards Mirdur’eth and gently stroked the steeds’ nose and mane. Mirdur’eth showed no fear, only the intelligence of a beast who could think underneath deep, brown eyes. James smiled faintly and laid his head against the steeds’ nose. He sniffed the fur. He would have cringed long ago in Woodton at the scent of a horse, hay, and horse droppings, but tonight he could only feel calm with it. For a moment he felt like he was out of body, being whisked away to some other world, somewhere happier and without the darkness he had experience. He imagined home without the Council. He imagined his life with Laura and his parents and how one day he and Laura would go to the same college and grow up together as best friends. A broad smiled graced his face now as he thought about this. He saw himself for a moment on a stage accepting a degree and being cheered for by family and friends.
Then he came back to reality, dropping from the fantasy world he had created in his mind. He leaned back and looked Mirdur’eth in the eyes again. The steed understood somehow. He knew far too well how smart the Blaersteeds were. His gazed drifted down the long thoroughfare. All the shops were closed up; faint, glimmering lights shined in a few. Many homes lines the streets farther down and the crisscrossing network of alleys created numerous dark places where anyone still wandering the streets that traveled there would be considered suspicious.
He put his hand on Mirdur’eth’s nose, rubbed gently. Then his mind suddenly became numb. His crippled left hand came up and touched his forehead, but for some reason he couldn’t recall moving it. Then everything went blank and his eyes closed. Dark encircled him and then a flash of light, a flicker of something, and he was in the strange room again, transparent wall and all. Luthien was there, eyeing him with malice.
The vision cleared suddenly and all he could see was the horrid, frightening look on Luthien’s face. He shivered and realized he had been tapped again. He wondered why. Why does he keep looking, he thought. He should know my future already. It can’t change if he already knows it. Why does he keep at it?
He couldn’t answer the question; he had no theories. A small dribble of sweat rolled down his forehead, to his cheek, and fell to the earth. Mirdur’eth grumbled and neighed gently. Then a strong hand gripped his shoulder and he found himself being yanked out of the dark, away from the street, and into Bourlinch’s home. The door slammed violently, knocking some things from the walls.
The arm tossed him to the ground and he looked up into the raging face of Darl.
“What the hell are you doing?” Darl said, raising his hand. “No, don’t speak. You know better than to be out. I don’t want to hear your excuses either!”
“Sorry,” James said distantly, lying. He wanted to say something else, but bit his tongue.
Pea woke with a start from the commotion and so did Bourlinch, both making a disturbingly wet gurgling noise as they broke away from slumber and nearly choked on drool.
“Pea,” Darl said in reprimand, “I have much higher expectations of you.”
“What happened?” Pea said, clearly disoriented.
“He was out.”
“Out where?”
“Outside you idiot. Wake up!”
“Darl calm down,” Triska said.
“I won’t calm down. Not now, and not ever. He’s jeopardizing this entire operation. He’s going to get us all caught and killed and I damn well will not calm down and take it. We’re risking our lives to save his pathetic friend.”
“Don’t!” James had had enough. He raised his hand and felt magic coursing through his veins. “Don’t you ever talk about her like that again!” He wanted so desperately to fling Darl into the wall, to show Darl how strong he had become, to put real fear into the old man. But he didn’t. Instead he lowered his arm and let the magic roll back. “Go home if you don’t want to help me anymore. I don’t care. I’m tired of being treated like this. I’m tired of seeing the way you all look at me. It’s like the first time when you all learned what I was. I can’t take it. I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t ask to have my best friend brought here or for Luthien to destroy your lives or mine. I want to save my friend. That’s all. And if you all share the same sentiments as Darl, then leave! I don’t care. Not anymore. I’ll die if I have to. I will. But I will save Laura.”
“You’re a fool,” Darl said, turning on his heel and storming to the other side of the room.
“Then go, Darl! Go off and do whatever it is you want. You didn’t have to come…” He let his voice trail off, realizing that he was yelling too loud and with too much emotion. His entire body shook with it.
Triska watched him with a worried expression; Pea and Iliad too.
“What? You all can go if you want. If all you can see now is the fear of the power I control. Power I didn’t ask for. Power I never would have asked for. If all you can see is how difficult this journey is or how I’ve ruined your lives. Then go. You all have looked down upon me since that day in the Fire Rim. Don’t pretend you haven’t. I’ve seen it!”
Darl stepped rapidly across the room. James didn’t see it until it was too late and the old mans’ hand crashed against his face. He winced and stumbled back.
“You should be grateful for what we’ve done for you! How dare you show such disrespect!”
James caught himself against Bourlinch’s chair, stopped it from toppling over, and stood upright. He rubbed his knuckle over his lip. He was bleeding. Bourlinch mumbled something.
Something came over James. He couldn’t explain it; he lost control. He took two huge steps forward, pulled magic upward, imagined and shot it at Darl. The force crossed the room in a matter of seconds in a slightly visible distortion and then blew out in a series of sparks as Triska and Pea slipped into the middle of it all. Before he could do anything, magic gripped him—Triska’s magic—and drug him into the air, his arms and legs stuck. He saw Darl suspended too. Iliad got out of the way in a hurry.
“That is enough!” Triska said with a bite that stung James. “From either of you. Is that understood?” She looked from James to Darl, neither made any motion. “We didn’t come all this way and go through all we’ve gone through just to bicker.”
“I’m not leaving you James,” Pea said, turning just slightly. “I made a promise to you that I would help you find your friend. We have a deal, remember? Darl made a promise too. He swore to Ammond he would keep you safe.”
“I made the same promise to Lord Falth,” Triska said.”
“And so did I,” Iliad said.
“We’re not leaving you. Not now. Not ever.” Pea curled his lip slightly, a near smile. “You’re stuck with us.”
“Fear won’t cloud that.” Triska sighed. “It will hurt friendship. I’m not afraid of your power, James, I’m afraid of what would happen if Luthien could capture you.”
“He has enough power as it is,” Pea said. “If he could control you there would be no way to defeat him, not by a long shot. He could destroy everything I have come to love about this world. And he would destroy everything else too. That’s what tyrants do. They mold things into their vision.”
The magic in the room let up and James found his toes touching the floor. Then the magic slipped away and he could stand on his own. Triska dropped her hand; Darl grumbled.
“I think you owe James and apology Darl,” Triska said. “A truthful one.”
Darl grumbled again.
James didn’t feel much like apologizing for anything. Anger welled up in him. This had all been coming for a while, he could feel it as if it had come at the right moment. As much as Triska and Pea were trying to defuse the situation, he wasn’t sure that Darl would ever let up. Both of them were angry beyond reasoning.
“I’m sorry Darl,” James said half through clenched teeth. “I didn’t mean to drag you into this. I didn’t come here expecting this. I didn’t expect,” he raised his left hand and exposed the scars to everyone, “that all this would happen either. How was I supposed to know the power I could control? There’s no magic on my world. Probably never really was. It’s not written in a book. Not any book I know of.”
James was surprised at himself. The words had come out of him before he could stop it. His face frowned in apology. Deep down he was sorry. He hated that he had tried to use magic on Darl. The betrayal of that loomed within him, deep and unending. He couldn’t let it go that he had truly intended to hurt Darl. It wasn’t like him. Maybe all this violence is getting to me, he thought. His mind wandered to the destruction of Arlin City, to the undead Masters, to Nara’karesh, and Ti’nagal. He thought of all that violence and all the dead out there, those who had died not necessarily because of him but because of a madman bent on hunting him down and destroying everything that was good in the world, only to create something twisted.
The look on Darl’s face proved to James exactly what he was feeling. Darl didn’t trust him. In some ways Darl never had, not really, and James had always seen it. Darl was a cautious old man, angry, bitter at the world and at life. But he could see the last glimmers of what had made Darl such a good ally dwindling away in the old man’s eyes. James kicked himself inside for what he had done.
Then Darl’s brow uncurled and softened, as much as such a thing was possible for the old man.
Darl said out of the blue, “I apologize as well.”
The old man turned and walked to the opposite end of the room and began rummaging through his things.
Triska, Pea, and Iliad all sighed with relief. James dropped into one of the chairs and put his face in his hands. He wanted to cry, but couldn’t, that emotion lost to him now. He had cried so much already and it seemed to him that he would never be able to again. Nothing seemed to dig into him like it had before. He had grown, even he could see that. So much of what he had once been—a geeky boy oblivious to what was going on in the world—had changed into this hard version of himself.
“Everything is well James,” Pea said.
“Darl doesn’t apologize often,” Triska said.
“I’m sorry. I am. I just wanted to save my friend.”
“Yes, yes.” Pea waved his little hand in dismissal. “I already told you once how admirable your actions were. You were brave to come here for your friend. Few people would ever have done that.”
Iliad stepped forward and crossed his arms. “We’re all brave, you see, for going on this journey in the first place. The odds are horribly against us, yet we prevail.”
“We have to succeed,” James said. “If I fail this whole journey will be for nothing.”
“Not for nothing. Everything has a reason. We’ll find your friend.” Pea walked over to him and laid a hand on his knee.
“Oh, yes, I think we’ll find your friend alright,” Iliad said. “This little tiff seems to have derailed the urgency of our return, and a lot of the tension.”
“What is it?” James’ face perked up.
“We’ve narrowed it down to two towers.”
It was late by the time everyone was brought to the table and Iliad began to explain everything. Darl was grumpy, per usual, but James was glad to see that the tension had somewhat been relieved between everyone. He had been so close to storming out of the building to find Laura on his own. As it was, Iliad sat at the head of the table with a crudely drawn map on a piece of wrinkly parchment in the center. A series of circles and squares along with little squiggly black lines made up the map, defining the features of roads, buildings, and the sixteen towers in the inner city. Iliad passed his hand over the map, using his finger to point out different things, and a small quill dipped in dark ink to make marks.
“There are two towers where she is likely in,” Iliad said. “First is this northern tower on the far end.” He drew a wide circle around another circle at the edge of the map.
“I saw some added activity there. Some trays were brought there at some point before night. I didn’t see what was in it, but the guards took it in and returned empty handed,” Darl said.
“Right. The other is this southern tower, which I believe holds at least three prisoners, or guests, or something else.” He circled another circle on the edge of the map. “This proves to be beneficial for us because both towers are right next to each other and easily navigable. We can split up there and search tonight.”
“Tonight?” James said. “Wait, how are we going to get into the inner city? Aren’t the gates closed?”
“There’s a series of sewer canals that go under the wall. We’ll navigate those to the far side of the city if possible. With three magic users, me, and Darl, I think we’ll be able to take care of the guards without stirring up unnecessary trouble.”
“Wait. Wait. We’re going to go into a bunch of canals without any idea where they open up to? That’s…”
“Crazy,” Pea said. “You know, this journey is becoming rather predictable. It’s either insane or crazy, or both. Sort of odd I think.”
“Well, yes, but moving on. We have several hours before the sun comes up to move through and find an exit that is suitable.”
Darl coughed. “Most major cities have multiple openings to the canal systems that run beneath them. They have to for easier access when maintenance is needed. So, theoretically there should be a central opening here,” he pointed in the center of the map with a quill and drew a small mark, “and four more here, here, here, and here.” He drew four more marks at the four different corners of the drawing. “Now, there may be more openings depending on how this city was built. It’s old, before Luthien’s time, but not nearly as old as Arlin City was. So, likely the tunnels will be fenced off, perhaps barred. We’ll have to take those off if we plan to keep moving through in a timely manner.”
“That’s where the magic comes in use,” Iliad said, grinning at Pea and Triska.
“James, I don’t want you using your magic for this,” Triska said. “Right now it’s too uncontrolled. You might wake up the whole neighborhood.”
“And the one next to it,” Pea said humorously.
“Let Pea and I handle it.”
James nodded.
“Okay,” Iliad continued, “now, once we get to the opposite side where these towers are we need to stick to the shadows. Split up here.” Iliad pointed and left a small dot. “I think Pea, Darl, and James should go to the southern tower. There were four guards, two on the perimeter and two guarding the door. Two with spears, two with swords. You should be able to pick the patrol off one by one in the shadows near the wall. Stay out of sight of the guards walking the parapet. It’ll be a little difficult getting the guards at the door, but you should be fine with Pea there. He’ll know a bit about keeping them quiet.”
Iliad quickly switched gears and turned to Triska. “You and I will take the north tower. There were three guards there. Two on perimeter, one at the door. The perimeter guards should be relatively tired by the time we get up there. That applies to all of them really. I expect we’ll be there a few hours before sunrise. That means most of the guards will be exhausted from the overnight watch.” Iliad turned back to the front of the table. “Any questions?”
“Yes, actually,” Pea said, “What happens if we cannot make it to the towers at the times you’re hoping for? What if we’re lost down in those sewers for hours like James is suggesting?”
“Then we turn back.”
“Oh,” Pea leaned back in his chair, “great, that sounds lovely. Waste five hours wondering around in the dark disgusting musk of feces and other undesirable items of discomfort and then turn back with our tails firmly tucked between our legs. Yes, nobody will notice the smell. Not at all.”
Iliad glared at Pea. James snickered at the sarcasm.
Then a muffled voice sounded from behind. James turned to face Bourlinch and grinned wide.
“I almost forgot,” James said. “I think he knows of a way into the inner city.” He indicated Bourlinch. “He spoke to me of such a place. Maybe he knows the way through the tunnels.”
“We can’t trust him,” Darl said.
“We might be able to,” Pea said. “He’s been marked.”
“So he says.” Darl slammed his hands on the table. “Can you prove his words are true? Can you?”
“No.” The little man’s eyes narrowed. “But Triska can. She can read his mind.”
James noticed his mouth was gaping open. He closed it. Disbelief welled in him. He recalled the last conversation that he and Pea had had on the subject, about how Pea wouldn’t ask Triska to go into Bourlinch’s mind again.
“And I thought you were the perfect semblance of manners.” Darl leaned back in his chair.
“Triska,” Pea said, pleading, “Consider it. Find out if he’s being true. Maybe he’s telling the truth, and has been all along.”
“He says he’s seen visions of Luthien,” James said. “Like mine. Maybe he’s being read by Luthien too.”
“And if he is, we cannot stay much longer anyway. We have to go. Because Luthien will know what we’re planning and he’ll be coming here.”
“This is…” Darl started.
“Hush,” Triska said, her voice sharp and controlled. She stared down at the table and said, “If I do this, none of you can ever ask me to do what I have done or to look into someone’s mind unless it is in life or death.”
“Agreed,” Pea said.
Darl grunted acceptance; James smiled lightly.
Then Triska stood and walked over the Bourlinch. James could see her reluctance to make eye contact with the Daemonkind. Even Bourlinch seemed to flinch and move back in the chair, even though there was no place for the man to go—the ropes were still tight over his body.
“Are you pain?” Bourlinch said, his voice stuttering.
Triska shook her head, looked away, and then back. Tears were in here eyes. “No,” she said. “No more pain. Not from me.”
Then Triska closed her eyes. The same familiar movements cascaded over her visage. She flinched and raised her hand to Bourlinch’s forehead. Bourlinch was stationary, unmoving at all like a mannequin. They stayed that way for several minutes, and then Triska leapt back and rammed her open hand over her mouth to stifle the scream that erupted from her vocal chords. Her eyes were wide. She toppled to the ground.
James stood quickly and tried to help her up. The others only looked at Bourlinch, fixated on the twisted looking man. Triska couldn’t stand. When she tried her body crumbled beneath her. Goosebumps covered the entirety of her skin, from head to toe. Shivers and shakes erupted through her at random and beads of sweat formed on her face.
James tried whatever he could to comfort her, to help her, but as he watched her fall apart beneath him he had the feeling that nothing he could do would help her.
“What did you see?” he said, calm and collected. He hoped that his voice would sooth her, even if only a little.
She didn’t speak for a minute. Her pupils grew and shrank rapidly. Then she finally looked up into his eyes. The features of her face, once charming and motherly, fell away to grim terror.
“He’s coming,” she said. “He’s coming for us all.”
Then her face drooped further, her eyes closed, and she fell into a heap in his arms. He could only turn to the others helplessly.
* * *
It was some hours before Triska woke again, still lying on the floor, still in James’ arms. His legs were asleep, but he made no motion to move. All he could do was think of the words she had said, the last words before she slipped into unconsciousness.
“Triska,” he said in a low tone.
She looked up at him, her eyes half-closed. “He knows everything.”
“What do you mean he knows everything?” Darl said.
She looked at the others and then back at James. “Bourlinch is being truthful. He’s marked. Luthien has been watching him. Reading his future. To get at you.” Her eyes bore into James.
“How can you tell?” he said.
“There are signatures left behind when someone invades a mind, no matter the method. I can feel him there. I can feel the hatred and insanity. He leaves that mark on you too, James. He’s met Bourlinch before. Someplace. I don’t know where.”
“When did he start reading this one’s future.” Darl stood up.
Triska eyed the old man. “The day before we arrived.”
A hint of fear bubbled in James’ stomach. “You can see that.”
She nodded.
“We have to go. Now. How long would it take to warn the people here?”
Iliad spoke next. “That depends. Worst case scenario, if he was in Nor’sigal when he started reading Bourlinch. Four or five days. Not many birds pass over the Fire Rim, only specially trained birds. It would be a risk though. No guarantee the message would ever get here.”
“They could know already then?”
Iliad nodded. “It’s possible. They won’t be expecting us to go into the inner city the way I’m suggesting.”
“There’s more,” Triska said, interjecting. “Bourlinch knows the way into the city through the sewer system. It’s buried in his memory though. He remembers knowing, but at the same time he doesn’t.”
“What do you mean?” James said.
Triska stood up on her own and rubbed her forehead. “Sometimes you have memories of things, but you can’t remember them specifically until something knocks it loose. He remembers the way, but he needs to see the tunnels to know.”
“Out of the question,” Darl jumped in.
“He’s trustworthy,” Triska said, though with little confidence.
James could hear the lie behind her words, except it wasn’t a full lie. Part of it was true. He could tell that she wasn’t convinced in his trust of Bourlinch, not entirely.
“Alright, we bring him with us then,” Iliad said, crossing his arms.
Darl slumped back into his chair and turned to Bourlinch. “Know this, if you betray us I will kill you.”
“Yes, well I’m sure threats will make him much more inclined to help us,” Pea said bitterly.
“Are you sure he’s trustworthy,” Darl said to Triska.
“Yes,” Triska said,
There it is again, James thought. She’s not sure. She’s lying to the others. But why?
Triska stood up and brushed herself off. James got up a moment later, Bourlinch firmly planted in his peripheral vision.
“Cut him loose then,” Iliad said.
Darl produced a small knife and walked to where Bourlinch sat tied to the chair. Bourlinch flinched nervously, gray tinged skin quivering, then Darl cut the rope and flung it onto the floor with a scowl and sat down once more in his chair.
James gestured for Bourlinch to come to the table. He gently patted the Daemonkind on the back, a gesture to move forward. Bourlinch walked to the table, hands folded by his chest and a skittish motion in his eyes.
James couldn’t help but feel satisfied. He had made the others release Bourlinch, even trust the twisted man. At least somewhat, except for Darl. He knew Darl trusted nobody, not really and not in any true fashion. Thoughts came to mind about what they would have to do now. Iliad started off by explaining the mission to Bourlinch; Bourlinch seemed interested, but it was hard to tell. The Daemonkind always had a strange glassy appearance in his eyes.
Then Bourlinch nodded in understanding.
“Then it’s a go,” Iliad said, slipping away to bring out his bow and arrow and a knife.
James quickly went to his things. He strapped his sword to his side, scabbard and all. Darl did the same. Pea and Triska stood by watching, having nothing of their own to prepare.
James pulled his sword from the sheath. He examined the blade. It looked clean, fresh, as if it had never been used before. And it had that strange sheen to it, an ethereal sparkle he couldn’t quite explain, yet had seen before. He watched the edge of the blade light up, then he flicked his index finger against the metal and listened to it sing. It was a perfect pitch. He recognized the C note, the tone so good that an orchestra could tune to it. Then he sheathed his sword and walked back to the table.
“Bourlinch will come with Triska and I,” Iliad said.
Darl grunted at this.
“Yes, we all know your discomfort, but could you please be silent about it,” Pea said.
“I don’t trust him.” Darl glared at James and then at Bourlinch. James looked blankly back. He didn’t want to start another argument.
“Of course not.”
“Alright, then let’s move. Stay in the shadows. Remember that.”
Then Iliad led them outside. James stayed in the middle of the group, trying his best to stay as much out of sight as possible. He didn’t want to be found, not by Luthien and certainly not by any of Luthien’s men.
They took the thoroughfare west towards the inner city, then Iliad slipped into the shadows of a long alley that took them south for several blocks. When they came out again they were in a thin road where the moonlight cascaded over one side and the other was a wall of dark. They took to the dark side and glided along. Bourlinch forced them to slow down as they went, unable to keep up with their quicker movements.
Iliad took them through another alley, across a wider road, and then stopped suddenly at the edge of a corner. Voices range out from the other side; Iliad peered around.
“Drunks.”
James nodded his understanding with the others.
They quickly backtracked down the road and slipped into another alley, only to come out into a road where two pubs were lit up like bright yellow stars in the middle of a blackened sky. Nobody stood outside; the street was utterly empty, devoid of any life. Voices spilled from the pubs, raucous laughter and incomprehensible banter. Iliad motioned for them to follow his lead and then took to walking down the street nonchalantly.
James did his best to make it seem like he was taking a stroll with family or friends. It was an odd feeling, but it didn’t last. As soon as they passed the pubs, where two windows exposed the joyous parade of men in drunken stupors, they were running again, fast and smoothly. The road ended in a T and some distance down they could hear the yells of the men that had caused them to divert in the first place. Then they were across into another alley and then into an open courtyard.
The courtyard was unkempt. Weeds and grass overran everything. A single fountain, dry as a bone, sat in the middle. It was a white stone monument of a child holding his little hands to the sky, a butterfly sitting on his palms. The rock had been badly beaten in areas—a foot was missing, and noticeable chunks of rock had been chipped away. The courtyard—fitted for a small group of people at most—led backwards into an open hallway covered from wall to wall with a ceiling of green vines. Trickles of white-blue moonlight filtered in through the cracks, casting lines and circles along the stone pathway. At the end was a wrought iron gate fitted with tall spikes at the top covered in the green vines. Iliad pushed it open slowly. The hinged creaked loud and the sound echoed down the open hallway. Then Iliad shoved it and it tore away from the vines, raining down leaves and dead plant matter. They passed through into another road, this one in particular covered in strange green trees that grew haphazardly along the edges, their branches and limbs winding over the road to wrap around each other to create a canopy of twisted wood.
Iliad took them down this road, pausing only for a second to make sure they were behind him. A few houses were dispersed between the trees. James looked as he moved. Behind, just barely visible, where small rays of moonlight struck stone, was the wall to the inner city. The houses were nestled against it and great emerald green vines with small pink flowers ran in and out of the cracks. Above, just barely audible, he could hear the sound of a guardsman clinking in full armor.
The tunnel of trees ended abruptly where the thoroughfare met up with the main gates to the inner city. They were closed and barred. Strips of metal and bolts supported the frame. No designs were on the wood.
Iliad slipped away from the wall, making sure to keep them all out of site. James followed into the maze of trees. No houses were here, but he could see some distance down along the side of the wall the homes they had passed. Along the wall, a few hundred feet from the gates, was a u-shaped structure near the ground. It dropped suddenly into a tunnel and a foul smell erupted from it. He knew immediately that this was the sewage line. A series of metal bars, crisscrossed and held together by a welded series of flat bolts, covered the entrance. A small pool of water sat in the front of the bars. He couldn’t see the color of the water, but he knew that it wasn’t clear. Far from it.
Pea and Darl slid into the tunnel next to the bars. James sensed magic as Pea began working on the bolts. Darl took out a knife and slowly forced it between the spaces where the bars met. Inch by inch the bars parted. Pea stifled a cough and then suddenly the bars lurched out with a bang. Darl caught himself against the side.
All stood still. James didn’t dare move or whisper. He looked at Triska and Iliad with a bit of fear in his eyes. Then Iliad sighed. No other sounds came, no call to arms, and certainly no warning of any sort. The gates to the inner city remained closed and no patrols were issued.
Pea and Darl were the first to step inside. Pea indicated his disgust to James; James wanted to make a face, but decided to smile instead. Then they were all in the tunnel. Pea lit one of his torches, but only slightly so it provided enough light to see by. Iliad brought Bourlinch to the front.
“Alright, lead away,” Iliad said.
Bourlinch nodded and started to walk, slowly at first, and then more swiftly.
James trudged through the murky water. The stench wasn’t nearly as bad as he had expected. A slight current took the water down a side passage some distance into the tunnel, and with it went much of the worst offenders of his senses. Somewhere else fresh water flowed in. He could hear the trickle as it poured from the ceiling in the dark.
They came to a wide octagon where three different tunnels led in opposite directions—north, south, and west. Bourlinch paused, rubbed his crooked nose, and sped off west. The rest followed.
By the faint light of Pea’s torch, James examined the walls of the tunnel. They were old, beaten and grimy. Stains where condensation had formed and slid down in a gooey mess covered the walls at eye level. At the ground level a few rats scurried away along lips of stone. He coughed as something new struck his nose. Then it passed. He prayed to be out of this mess soon.
Bourlinch led them into another octagon of tunnels and then they were moving south. At a t-section they moved east, and at another they went south again. James assumed that Iliad hadn’t known the extent of the maze of tunnels beneath the inner city. How could he, he thought. He could only guess that they had been under the city for twenty minutes by the time Bourlinch stopped dead in his tracks at a room where three paths diverged northwest, north, and northeast.
“What is it?” Pea said.
“I remember not,” Bourlinch said.
“What do you mean you don’t remember?” Darl said.
Bourlinch turned and looked at the others wide-eyed. “I remember not. Not here. Not this place. It’s been long. Long since I was here.”
“Well that’s perfect.”

Chapter Twenty Eight: Of Stranger Friendships

(Note:  This is not official version and may be removed in the near future.  This do not reflect what is read in the podcast version, nor any other version you may encounter.  I have preserved the rough form for posterity -- or something like that.  This novel has since been rewritten.)

By the time dinner had come and gone James had a sense of accomplishing absolutely nothing. He hadn’t contributed to the plan to spy on the towers, nor had he been involved. He had simply sat around doing little of anything for an entire day. Even when Iliad, Triska, and Darl had returned from the inner city he remained, to put it simply, antisocial. Something inside him made him not want to be involved with the others. He knew it had to do with the way they looked at him. For some reason it felt much like how he had been looked at when those he had first come to know found out he had been marked by Luthien. He still didn’t know what that meant for sure, but he knew all too well that Luthien wanted to know about him. He wondered what it would be like to know the future.
Dinner turned out to be far more respectful than in previous nights. Bourlinch’s shop had a wood stove and a modest supply of wood and kindling. Before long the flames were crackling, pots were steaming, and a meal of rice, eggs, and salted meats were laid out on the wood table. James ate his fill.

Mirdur’eth rustled outside, perhaps sympathetically or out of irritation at being tied up for so long. The horses and Blaersteeds had been relieved of their panniers. James proceeded to unpack a blanket, found a spot on the far side of the room, and laid down. He didn’t sleep, or rather, he couldn’t. He watched the walls while the others muttered to themselves, then soon everyone had found a place on the floor and all the talking ceased.
Silence did not reign. Bourlinch, still tied up on the opposite side of the room, sobbed and whimpered. The sound traveled over the room as if it were a roar. James could hear Triska sniffling. He sensed the melancholy that had come over the room. He frowned at not being able to see some joy in what they had accomplished. They had crossed the Fire Rim, escaped Luthien, and run all the way to Teirlin’pur. Laura was so close he could almost see her as a real being before him. Her face was forged in his mind, a constant reminder of the one thing he had promised to do and that the entire town of Woodton told him he couldn’t.
The night was wearing thin by the time he fell asleep. REM took him for a ride, but it all seemed so short. He dreamt of Luthien again, in the same strange room with the same bizarre transparent ceiling. Then he woke with a start and it was morning, the rays of the new sun sending a soft glow into the room. He wasn’t sure how long he had slept, but he knew that Luthien had tried to read his future again.
James sat up and looked around. Bourlinch’s head slumped over to the side and a thin trail of drool wandered from the gag, to his lip, to his chin, and onto the front of his tunic. James might have found it comical if last night had never happened. He looked over at the others. Darl lay with his mouth hanging open and blankets half covering his pasty white upper body. Pea lay curled in a ball like a cat, occasionally fidgeting, and Triska faced away from him, but from the way her chest moved up and down in slow motions he knew she was asleep. Iliad, on the other hand, slept with his back propped up again a wall, bow and arrow in his hands, and his eyes half open, like something from a horror movie. James shivered.
He stood up and stretched. He sniffed his armpit and cringed. They smelled distinctly like rotting onions, having not been cleaned in a long while. Somehow he knew he was getting used to his own filth, though, or at least would get used to it soon enough.
James walked over to the wooden table in the center of the room. He ran his fingers delicately over the wood, feeling the cracks and bumps. His eyes wandered to the scars on his hands. He flexed his fingers; his left hand was still in the same condition.
I wish I were right handed, he thought.
Then he looked at Bourlinch. Bourlinch coughed and startled awake and in that brief instant their eyes met, as if Bourlinch had known who was staring at him before waking. Crust had formed under the Daemonkind’s eyes and long streaks where tears had flowed discolored the already grayish skin.
James walked over to where Bourlinch was tied; the Daemonkind flinched as if expecting to be struck at any moment. James simply leaned low enough to make eye contact. For a moment he was mesmerized by those eyes, curious even of who this creature was and where he had come from. He pondered what sort of life Bourlinch would have without magic.
“I’m…sorry,” James said, for lack of anything else to say. He spoke soft and calm, pulling up a chair and sitting down nearby. “I am. I don’t know what you must be feeling. I don’t know what it must be like to know you have had everything taken away from you. Not in the same way at least.”
Bourlinch looked at him with peaked interest, eyes wide and fixed.
“Have you eaten?”
Bourlinch shook his head.
James stood up, went over to the stove and produced a small chunk of bread from a loaf and filled a wood cup with water. He gestured at Bourlinch.
“If I remove that gag, you can’t make any noise. Okay?”
Bourlinch nodded.
James set the items down and gently lifted the gag and let it dangle around the Daemonkind’s neck. For a moment he thought Bourlinch would start screaming, but when the silence persisted he tipped the cup to Bourlinch’s lips and let the man drink. Bourlinch gulped the water like it was his last. James took the cup away and pushed and let Bourlinch chew on a chunk of bread.
“Where are you from?” James said, trying to strike some sort of conversation.
A long pause ensued before Bourlinch said with a mouth full of bread, “Peren.” He slumped back as if afraid that James might do something violent.
“Is that by the coast?”
A nod.
“You already know about me.”
Another nod.
“All of it?”
A shake of the head.
“Probably a good thing.”
“Luthien. Hunting.”
He nodded understanding.
“Marked.”
“By the Eye. As they say.”
“I hear. Rumors. Things.”
James perked up, his brow raising slightly with interest. “What sort of rumors?”
“Other. Not Farthland. Not Angtholand. Visions.”
“Visions of what?” he said anxiously.
“Men. Women. Luthien. Dark. End.”
“I don’t understand. What are you talking about? What men and women? Why do you keep saying ‘end’?”
“He is end. He is all. Bringer. Stealer.” Bourlinch quivered.
James paused, somewhat awestruck by the tension in Bourlinch’s voice. “You fear him,” he said.
Bourlinch said nothing, but James could see in the man’s eyes fear and something more—terror. He knows something that many others must don’t, he thought.
“You’ve seen something. Something bad.”
A nod.
“About Luthien.”
Another nod.
“And nobody will believe you because you’re a Spellweaver.”
Nothing.
He hesitated for a moment, taking a couple long breaths in apprehension before saying, “Tell me.”
“Visions. Torture. Pain. Capture. Others held. Others held in…stasis. Asleep, but not. Awake, but not. I saw. Visions of Luthien planning…something. Planning the end. Turning light for dark, dark for light. Sending armies to destroy. No saving. No living. He brings Zagra. Al’na ner’avón ul al’soral la’muért!”
He went still. His hands started to sweat. “Where did you learn that from?”
Bourlinch only looked at him with two quivering eyes.
“You read that from my mind. Who is Zagra?”
Bourlinch shook his head, but James wasn’t sure whether it meant that Bourlinch hadn’t read it from his mind, or that Bourlinch didn’t want to talk about Zagra.
James grimaced and leaned back in the chair. He ran his right hand through his hair and left his other hand on his knee. His brow curled in thought and his eyes watched the floor. Then he looked up at Bourlinch again.
“What is Luthien keeping in the towers?” He spoke sternly, straight and to the point. His voice didn’t falter.
“I…” Bourlinch coughed and started to mutter.
“Bourlinch, tell me. What is Luthien keeping in those towers?”
“O-others…” A couple tears fell.
“Others like me?”
Bourlinch nodded.
Something banged in the back of the room and before James could turn to see what it was a hand flew past him, followed by an arm, and a long body. In a matter of seconds the gag was over Bourlinch’s mouth again. Bourlinch whimpered; James looked up into Darl’s eyes.
“You’re a foolish boy,” Darl said. “Don’t ever trust the words of a Spellweaver. He weaves lies, deceit.”
James started to speak, but a stern look from Darl cut him off.
“What did he tell you?”
“I-I…”
“What did he tell you?!”
James relayed everything that Bourlinch had said. Darl’s face contorted into a scowl, which looked to James like nothing more than an even wrinklier Darl look, all the little lines in the old man’s face increasing and lengthening inward and to the sides.
Then Darl raised his hand as if ready to strike. James and Bourlinch flinched at the same time. Darl let his hand fall.
“What’s going on?” Pea said from behind, little footsteps sounding, and then Pea was next to James.
“Apparently our little hero has been conversing with the enemy.”
“Conversing how?”
“I was only asking questions!” James said, upset at being singled out.
“What sort of questions?”
He told Pea the same thing he had told Darl, only now with a hint of attitude in his voice. He tried his best to convey his irritation with the situation.
It worked. Pea eyed James with a glimmer of anger in his eye and James only stared back. James couldn’t accept that he done something wrong, and wouldn’t.
“You’re questioning reason, James.”
“Who’s to say that there isn’t some truth to what Bourlinch is saying? What if they are keeping people from my world in those towers? What if Luthien is torturing them or using them for something? It’s possible!”
“It’s also possible he’s lying to you,” Darl said, snapping the words angrily. “We can’t trust him. He invaded your mind. He tried to glean information from you, and succeeded. Or have you forgotten?”
“I haven’t forgotten. But you seem to be forgetting that he’s a Spellweaver. Nub wasn’t exactly normal either.” He had to force his tongue to mentioned Nub. Deep down he grimaced at the thought of her dead someplace, and he could see her empty, lifeless, dull face sitting amongst other faces, just as empty and lifeless.
“I think there’s one thing you are forgetting most of all, James.” Now Pea had come forward with a curled brow, lips pursed, eyes narrow—the face of an irritated Littlekind. “You’re not from this world. You might think you know everything, but obviously you do not. The enemy is sitting right outside your door, sitting right before you tied to that chair, around you, and everywhere. If we trust Bourlinch, we’re putting our fates in the hands of someone who may very well stab us where it counts. I’m not prepared to die for a risk. I’m not prepared to trust anyone but those I have come to trust.”
James held his tongue. There were so many things he wanted to say. His anger would have loved each and every word, but he didn’t let that emotion control his mind. He pushed it back and encircled it in happier thoughts.
“I think there is one thing all of you are forgetting,” he said, crossing his arms. “I was under the impression that people aren’t our enemies, only a ruthless dictator! Someone once told me that the people of Teirlin’pur are good people, only misguided. Maybe that person was lying to me.” Then he walked away, fuming. He went to the far side of the room with teeth clenched and put his hands on the wall, his eyes to his bag, the etiquette book, and the egg-like rock. Then his eyes wandered to his Fearl and for a moment he thought St. Brendan’s Cross glimmered as if Dulien were somewhere in his mind listening in on everything.
James watched Iliad, Triska, and Darl leave once more for the inner city. He watched as they gathered their things, worked out yet another plan, and made new excuses to go buy supplies they didn’t really need. Then they walked out of the building and shut the door. He glared at the door handle for a while before passing a glance at Pea. Pea hadn’t talked to him in hours, and James had no desire to open a conversation. Then he looked at Bourlinch, who watched him intently, begging with narrow eyes to be freed again.
“You know,” James said bitterly, “I’m a little tired of being left out of things.” He didn’t really mean it. It had only been one day and while he did dislike being stuck in Bourlinch’s shop, he could handle another day of it knowing that doing so would help save Laura. Still, he was bitter from the argument earlier, angry and upset that nobody seemed to take him seriously and that Pea and Darl had dismissed him without even second guessing.
James stood up, dragged the chair he had been sitting in with him, and walked over to Bourlinch. He sat down, reached over, and before Pea could utter a word he removed the gag.
“Don’t!” Pea said.
“Why not? He knows something and I’m going to find out what it is.”
Pea started to argue, but stopped for lack of words.
“Tell me more Bourlinch.”
The Daemonkind’s mouth hung open in surprise and awe. Foul breath hit James in the face and he secretly wished he had a piece of gum stowed away someplace.
Bourlinch immediately began to ramble, incoherently at first with words that weren’t really words, and then in such a way that the words didn’t seem connected at all. Then slowly things began to make sense, as if the flow of thoughts were winding down enough so that Bourlinch could actually speak them properly.
“What kind of vision did you have?”
“Death of others. Death from Luthien. From powers. But some live. Some live in towers. Others live.”
“Which towers?”
Bourlinch shook his head. “You cannot go. Not now. Not through gates. They see. They know. Take paths. Under. Below. You cannot go like everyone. Not at night.”
“James,” Pea said, appearing at James’ side and looking up. “He can’t be trusted.”
James stifled a glare. “And what if he’s telling the truth? I have to know if Laura is alive.”
“And what if he’s lying?”
Bourlinch looked from one to the other as they spoke.
“Have Triska check him then. She did for me remember?”
“You ask her when she gets back then. I’ve asked enough of her for this part of the journey. You can bring up what will obviously bring her discomfort.”
Then Pea walked away and slumped into a chair on the other side of the room.
James turned back to Bourlinch. “Tell me about this other way. Tell me who Luthien killed.”
Bourlinch spoke clearly, smoothly, or at least as smoothly as a Spellweaver could. James listened with great intent and he didn’t let his attention slide, not through Pea’s obvious displeasure with it all, nor through the sounds of bustling streets and neighbors sticking their noses into business that wasn’t theirs as they knocked on the big wood door and called out Bourlinch’s name.
“I,” Bourlinch began, “am marked. Marked by Luthien.”

Chapter Twenty Seven: Of the Inner City

(Note:  This is not official version and may be removed in the near future.  This do not reflect what is read in the podcast version, nor any other version you may encounter.  I have preserved the rough form for posterity -- or something like that.  This novel has since been rewritten.)


There was a knock at the front door to Bourlinch’s place of business. Everyone stayed still for a moment, then another knock came and Darl got up and opened the door a hair.
The conversation that started was loud enough for everyone to hear. James knew immediately that the person at the door was a soldier. He could hear the gentle rustle of chain mail and the light tapping of the wooden end of a spear on solid ground.
“What?” Darl said.
Great, James thought, just start off with rudeness.
“Sorry to bother you sir,” the soldier said with a voice that gave away his youth, “but old Early from two doors down reported some unusual activity here.”
“What kind of unusual activity?” Darl’s grumpiness increased.
“Magic being used. Old Early is sort of a sensitive man. Knows a lot of things most people don’t that are Blood-less.”
“I see. Well, this is a healer’s shop.”

The soldier was silent for a moment. “So it is.”
“So, magic would not be all that uncommon in a place like this now would it?”
“No sir, I suppose not. Mind if I come in?”
“I do. This is a rather private affair and I prefer not to share it with someone who hasn’t aged enough to grow a beard.”
“I see, sir. I do have the authority.”
“I realize this, but I think it rather rude to impose upon someone who has no desire to share personal information outside of these walls. Would you think it fair and wise for me to show up at your home and start gallivanting into your little private world? Perhaps you’d see it fit to allow me to watch you sleep at night?”
“Forgive me sir. I meant no offense. Just doing my job.”
“None taken, but do work on your manners. Good day.”
“Good day.”
Then Darl closed the door and latched it. The old man turned and headed back into the room, a slight grin underneath his beard.
“You learned that bit about manners from me,” Pea said.
“No doubt.”
“I hope you know that plagiarism is the third cousin of Evil.”
James gave Pea a confused look. “Then who is the second cousin?”
“Grumpiness.”
They all had a laugh at that, even Darl. Triska made effort to suppress her laughter, but couldn’t.
When the laughter subsided James became serious; his smile faded away and he waited for everyone to calm down or take a seat in the few chairs around the long wood table before speaking.
“Iliad,” he said, “are you sure she is in one of the towers?”
Iliad nodded.
“How can you be sure?”
“Of all the places that Luthien would or could keep her, the towers are the safest.”
“They’re well guarded,” Darl said. “More so than in Arlin City, and for good reason. The Adul’pur in Arlin City was powerful, but not nearly as powerful as the enchanted gems that protect Teirlin’pur. The Adul’pur could protect little more than the keep and the highest most regions of Arlin City, but with the number of gems that Luthien has fixed in place on each of the towers, it would be impossible to use magic of any sort against the inner city. The walls would be undamaged. Not even a scratch”
“It only makes sense he would put her in the most fortified and hardest to get into place in the entire country.”
“The question is how do we get in.” James let his gaze fall to the rusty wood table, eyeing the scratches and cracks.
“We have a few days at the most before someone really begins to suspect things are out of place. Healers don’t just shut up shop unless it’s a serious emergency.” Darl glanced over to where Bourlinch fidgeted with his binds, tears still streaming from his face. A gag had been put in his mouth so he couldn’t do much more than mumble and sob. “We close up the shop for now.”
“Put up a sign,” Triska said. “James looked bad enough when we came in to require deep healing. Such processes can take a few days, sometimes.”
James looked at his arms. Most of the wounds had healed, some were scabbed. He ached but didn’t feel the horrid pain he had been living with for what felt like ages now.
“I look like I could still use some healing,” he said. “It might work for a little while.”
“Okay,” Pea said, “now that that is solved, how are we going to figure out which tower this girl is held in? We can’t just waltz up and say, ‘gee officer, I’d sure love a tour’.”
“Surveillance. If the girl is in one of the towers, they’ll be bringing food no doubt, or attending to her somehow.”
“Unless she’s already dead,” Darl said.
“No! She’s not dead!” James screamed at Darl.
“It’s possible James, and you damn well know it.”
“She’s not! She can’t be dead. Don’t say that!”
He glared at Darl; Darl glared back. But James refused to lose this match. He fixated his eyes on Darl’s and never faltered, until ultimately Darl looked away.
“So, how do you propose we do this?” Pea said. “It’ll look suspicious if we just all sit around watching.”
“Oh, yes I know this. There are five of us. James, you have to stay behind. It’s too much of a risk to have you walking around.” Iliad took a moment to clear his throat. “Pea should probably stay behind as well. Unfortunately it looks like Littlekind are not all that common here. It may mean nothing, seeing how few Littlekind are found out this far east anyway, but it’s better not to risk suspicion. So, Triska and I will pose as a married couple. Darl, you’ll be Triska’s father.”
Darl grunted. “Yes, I must be very fit to play the old man.”
“Hush,” Triska said, the tears no longer flowing from her face, but her cheeks still glistening.
“There’s a market in the inner city. Well guarded, well policed. It’s a market for the wealthy, generally; at least according to the last few accounts of Teirlin’pur from before this all happened. We’ll go along with the story that we’re in for supplies, living in Nar’koreth.”
“Alright,” Triska said. “What if someone recognizes us?”
“Like who?” James butted in. “The only people who talked to us more than a few moments are miles away or tied up to a chair.” He glanced at Bourlinch. The Daemonkind eyed him with teary eyes and he briefly felt sorry for the crooked man.
She nodded. “Okay.”
“Great,” James said, somewhat saddened by the thought that he would not be a part of it. He desperately wanted to find Laura, to get her home and safe with her parents. If there was one thing he wanted to do more than anything else, it was that.
“You’ll need this,” Pea said, tossing a large faded-brown string-tied bag in Iliad’s general direction.
Iliad caught it effortlessly and said, “What’s this?”
“Bourlinch’s stores I assume.”
“Where did you find it?” James jumped in.
“On the floor.”
“On the floor?” He came close to laughing.
“Well, obviously. You shouldn’t repeat things so much. It indicates a lack of hearing and civility. Besides, only someone illogical and verifiably insane would leave a bag of coins lying on the floor.”
“Spellweavers are crazy.”
“Exactly.”
Iliad, Triska, and Darl set to preparing for Iliad’s scheme—sharing ideas, information, and the like. Nobody seemed too concerned with James, not in the way that he wanted. The fear of what he had accomplished still loomed in their eyes, and even more so in Pea’s and Darl’s. Iliad gave only a mild indication that he was concerned, but it was enough that James felt trapped by it all. He never would have thought he would possess such power, or would be able to tap into it. And he hated the way that the masks over their eyes failed to hide how they truly felt. They cared for him and that was what made their masks fall away so readily. It wasn’t just that they were scared of what had happened and what could happen, they were scared for what would happen to him. The thought that he couldn’t alleviate those fears made him even more self-conscious. He didn’t know what to do to reassure them. He would never fall prey to evil, not like Luthien or others. His mind was too strong for that. Nothing could turn him from what he knew was right, short of someone actually controlling his mind. That he hoped would never happen.
James didn’t say anything for the next hour, even when Pea tried to open a conversation with him. He just watched as the others prepared for a trip that he wouldn’t be able to take. Yet he understood why, and that understanding allowed him to at least see reason. He didn’t want to be captured by Luthien or by Luthien’s men. He didn’t want to face Luthien at all, in fact, and staying behind while the others did the dirty work meant he would stay safe for the time being.
When the others had left—leaving him, Pea, and the mumbling, crying Bourlinch behind—his mind shifted to concern and fear. He could only hope that they would be safe wherever they ended up. They were walking on a thin line that could waver at any moment. If one thing went wrong it all fell to pieces and there was no way for him to know about it.
He looked outside through the single porthole window above the door. Bending his fingers became a chore, and he sat there flexing in and out. His right hand worked better than the left, but when he touched his left and tried to massage the joints, sharp pains shot up his arm. He examined his left hand, looking at the scars and the scabs, at the joints and the bruises that were now forming. How was Bourlinch able to do what Triska couldn’t? Is it because he is a Spellweaver? Maybe he has skills that Triska never learned. Or is there some other reason for it? Another sharp pain ran up his arm. His left hand was in horrible shape, and he was left handed, always had been and always would be. He could bend the fingers slightly, but the right seemed to work nearly perfectly now.
I wonder if I can still use magic.
James took in a deep breath. He eyed one of the chairs piled up on the side of the room and raised his left hand. He concentrated, pulling up just enough energy to make the chair move, and then he imagined it and let the magic go.
He screamed before he knew what had hit him. The pain was so intense that he didn’t have time to do anything else. His mind sent signals that hadn’t come yet, as if somehow his mind knew beforehand that pain was coming. His skin seared and burned as if his hand was on fire and his bones felt like they were cracking in half, even though neither was really happening. He shut off the magic quickly. The chair fell to the floor, and he only noticed it by sound, completely unaware that he had moved it in the first place. He gripped his left hand with his right in an attempt to ease the pain. Blood pumped at alarming rates, as if his body were trying to fight something that it didn’t realize wasn’t there. His fingers twitched and trembled.
“What happened?” Pea said, alarmed.
“I-I…” he stammered. His whole body shook.
“You shouldn’t be using magic. You’re still weak.”
“S-sorry. I just had to know if I still could.”
“Well if you keep stressing yourself you’ll never be able to use it again.”
“Like Bourlinch.”
Pea only nodded. “Just calm down for a while. Let yourself heal.”
“What if I never heal Pea? What if I can never use magic again? What then?”
“It won’t change anything about who you are.” Pea curled his lip gently. “Now, if you don’t mind, I would like to put up a lovely, well thought sign about why exactly it is that Bourlinch’s shop will not be open for the next couple of days.”
Pea hopped off of a chair and ambled through the building, rummaging through anything and everything until he found a flat, blank board. Then he set to his plotting. James watched, a bit perplexed by what was going on. Pea used a little magic to carve a very well drawn message in clean cursive font and, before James had a chance to see it, the Littlekind lifted the board, went outside, and came back in empty handed, brushing his hands off in the process.
“There, that should be more than sufficient.”
James leaned back in his chair and tuned out his surroundings. He assumed Pea would give him some time to himself, so he sat there and watched the wall. Then he found himself tired and closed his eyes.
A loud bang on the door woke him. James started and began to topple in his chair and some how managed to catch himself with his foot before falling over. Another loud bang and the wooden door shook. Pea ran forward.
“It’s us,” Darl’s voice boomed at an even angrier tone than when he had left.
Pea unlocked the door and Iliad, Triska, and Darl plowed into the room. A pack was slung over Darl’s shoulder, sagging with the weight of unknown items. A soft, sweet smell wafted into the room. Pea shut the door behind them and locked it.
“Well that was fast,” James said.
“Fast?” Darl had to contain his voice; he was obviously flustered. “We’ve been gone for four hours. Nice touch with the whole ‘gone due to family infection’ thing.” He passed a mild grin in Pea’s direction.
James rubbed his neck. It was sore from resting in an awkward position. “I didn’t realize I’d slept that long.”
“No matter. We’ve got good news and bad news.”
“Naturally I would want the bad news first,” Pea said. “The good news softens the blow.”
Everyone took a seat around the long wooden table, dragging chairs from other parts of the building to do so.
“The bad news is it’s going to take another day or more to figure out which of the towers she’s mostly likely kept in. We watched for about two hours on the northern side, and then I took a twenty minute hike to the southern side just to double check. She could be almost anywhere really.”
“Okay,” Pea said, “that’s not all that bad. What’s the good news then?”
“The good news,” Darl grunted and cleared his through, “is that we think she’s in one of seven towers.”
Iliad started to speak but Darl broke him off.
“Iliad thinks it’s narrowed to four, but unfortunately there’s no way rely on that assertion.”
“Seven towers?” James said with melancholy in his voice. “There are eight towers on the northern side alone.”
“Well that’s not the half of it. Three of the towers are on the southern side.”
“I thought you said you were sure that she was in one of the northern towers,” Pea said inquiringly.
“I did,” Iliad said, irritated.
“I watched the southern side. Three towers showed the same sort of activity as the four we watched in the north. Frequent guard changes and waste disposal.”
“She’s likely in the northern towers though.”
“That may be, but it certainly doesn’t rule out the possibility.”
“Right.”
“I’m not sure you understand the meaning of good news,” Pea said sarcastically.
Darl ignored him. “Now, there’s more good news.”
Everyone, even Iliad and Triska, looked at Darl with confused looks.
Darl slung his pack onto the table with a thud and said, “We officially have enough dried fruit to last us for a month. Courtesy of our host, Mr. Bourlinch, who so graciously donated his earnings to the cause.”
“Darl…” Triska trailed off and shook her head.
Pea glared at Darl reproachfully.
Darl shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “Sorry.”

Chapter Twenty Six: Of the Golden City of Crystal

(Note:  This is not official version and may be removed in the near future.  This do not reflect what is read in the podcast version, nor any other version you may encounter.  I have preserved the rough form for posterity -- or something like that.  This novel has since been rewritten.)

It was day, the sun gleaming above, casting brilliant yellow rays over Teirlin’pur. The rays struck crystal, cascaded down in all directions like leaves in the wind. The city could have been called City of Amber as far as James was concerned. It glowed like an enormous gold nugget. Tall snow covered mountains, clear blue lakes and rivers, and verdant, moss green fields, where thick groves of equally green trees made their home, paled in comparison to the impending beauty of Teirlin’pur.
They rode, James now turned away from the city as Mirdur’eth pulled him along, and before long they were at the mouth of a wide thoroughfare. They took it west, avoiding the minor roads nearby. Men lumbered along the sides of the road, pulling along barrels or other heavy objects; women laid out clotheslines, attended to children, or simply hustled through side alleys to business unknown. There were all manner of strange creatures that James had never seen before, even in fairytales. Serpents, birds, bovine, and things unrecognizable comprised these creatures, yet each bore a similarity to Humankind, walking upright, talking, and otherwise acting as though they weren’t strange at all.

James saw few Littlekind—no Elves, Brownies, or Moss People—and of the dozen gryphons perched on either side of the thoroughfare he gave the utmost attention to neither. He had experience enough with Tagron to know better than to address these gryphons. Thoughts of Tagron floated through his mind. He thought of the last words the gryphon had spoken to him. Beware the eye. Look to the western sunrise. Instinctually he did, peering delicately westward as if those words held more meaning. He wondered how Tagron had known what would happen, but then he had already learned that gryphons seemed to just know things. How am I supposed to beware the eye? He can see my future whether I want him to or not.
They stopped short of a tall set of buildings covered in what could have been strange engravings or intentional bird feet-like grooves. They were similar to both and James made no assumption as to which was the truth. The windows were worn and cracked at the seams, but otherwise the buildings were holding together.
Triska appeared at his side, kneeling to speak softly to him. Her face was warm with a faint smile, but James could see the worry in her eyes.
“There is a healer’s shop here,” she said, gently touching his arm. He winced. “They may be able to help you, or direct us in the right direction. Stay here for a moment.”
Then she was gone. James felt utterly helpless being unable to move without the help of the others. He couldn’t see where Triska had gone, or what lay in front of Mirdur’eth. People walked by, some noticing him and others either ignoring him intentionally or unaware that he was there or not caring whatsoever. A sense of bewilderment came over him. He had expected too much of the people of Teirlin’pur. He expected savages as evil and maniacal as Luthien, yet here he could clearly see that the people of Teirlin’pur were actually not unlike the people of Arlin City, despite the difference in races. People here seemed so alike to the people of Arlin City in how they moved and acted. They walked and talked amongst themselves as if no war had ever been started, as if they were oblivious to the reality of it all.
Someone rustled around behind him. He turned to look back but couldn’t see anything. When he faced forward a twisted face sat inches from his nose. He stifled a yelp and tried to move away, only pushing himself deeper into the gurney, and into pain. The face was human and yet not. It bore a long nose, wrinkled and broken in a number of places as if the man that owned it had been in far too many fights and lost, and two gleaming eyes that seemed to glisten and change color randomly. The skin looked sandpapery, bumped and covered in all manner of ugly imperfections. And when the mouth of yellowed, broken teeth opened, a foul odor slipped into James’ nose and he had to fight just to keep from cringing.
“Burns. Cuts. Wounds. Ever magic. Ever magic,” the non-human said in a slightly masculine voice. “Danger. Pain. Oh, such pain. Yes.”
“This is Bourlinch,” Triska said. “He’s a Spellweaver healer.”
“I am Daemonkind. Oh yes, so wounded. So wounded.”
Bourlinch took hold of one of James’ arms, examining it at an unnaturally close angle. James flinched and yelped in pain at the touch.
“Like Nub,” he said behind clenched teeth.
Triska nodded.
Bourlinch leaned forward and sniffed James’ arm. He tried to get his arm away but couldn’t. The man gave him the chills.
“Farthland stench and…other. Not Angtholand.”
“I-I…”
“I told you Bourlinch, we’re from the north.”
Bourlinch sniffed the air. Mucus vibrated in the back of his nostrils. “Farthland stench. I smell it. And other. I smell other. No matter. Inside. Come.”
Then Bourlinch hopped away and hobbled out of view. Darl and Iliad helped James stand and guided him around Mirdur’eth and into one of the tall buildings. Pea scuttled to the side while Triska tied the horses and Blaersteeds up and closed the door.
Once inside Bourlinch forced James onto a long wooden table. He took in his surroundings. Rugs and all manner of woven materials hung from every wall, every support post on the ceiling, and on just about every surface in the place, none of which bore any designs that looked remotely interesting. There were small tables and broken chairs in one corner of the room. Above the door was a single round porthole, the only window in the whole place and the only spot where natural light came in.
The faint smell of burnt fabric struck James’ nose. Then he sensed magic, little streams of it shooting up from Bourlinch. He watched the crooked looking non-man. Bourlinch had his eyes closed, his arms up over James as if silently reciting a prayer. The burning smell grew stronger, and so did the magic. He could sense it moving so smoothly as if he had always been aware of it. He wondered where this sudden clarity came from, and why he had it. And he wondered how long it would last.
Then Bourlinch leaned close, his putrid breath falling over James, and said, “Ne’lan.”
Everything became blurs and blackness. He could fell all the magic pushing into him and over his wounds. Sensations like when Triska had entered his mind came and he tried to force whatever it was out. It was Bourlinch; he could tell in the magic, as if there were a distinct signature there that gave away Bourlinch’s intentions. Bourlinch wanted information. James hid it, trying to push out Bourlinch. Pain shot through his body even worse than before, so strong that he came frighteningly close to losing consciousness. But he held on, even as his vision saw nothing, his ears heard nothing, and only his mind and body could feel or sense anything at all. Wounds closed all around him, sealing up against their better nature, forced into healing at speeds unnatural. Powerful, precise magic, controlled and measured.
He managed to close off his mind, putting up a barrier of magic. Bourlinch would figure it out soon enough, the sensation of probing fingers within his mind giving the impression of an octopus trying to get into a jar with a fish inside. His wounds healed further, feeling coming in mind bogglingly painful waves on his hands. The wounds there healed too, sealing up like a zip lock bag. Then the barrier broke in his mind. He raced to defend himself, but it was too late and the invisible fingers were gathering information—words, images, and thoughts. Then, suddenly it was all over. His mind closed off, the magic dissipated, and all sensation returned anew. Pain still attacked him, but he could feel his body beyond it and when he opened his eyes he knew immediately that he was mostly healed. There were scars over many parts of his body, but most had disappeared. He flexed his fingers; they were stiff but moved. He bent his arms, moved his legs, and sat up. Everything seemed to work fine, good enough so he could function properly.
Then he looked up, ready to thank Bourlinch, despite what he had felt in his mind. Deep down he made the assumption that all Spellweavers were like this, always grabbing for information they didn’t really need. He wondered if Nub had done the same to him while he was unconscious. But upon seeing Bourlinch he instantly received a different impression. Bourlinch curled away angrily, his arms and hands raised limply by his face as if they were protecting him from something he hadn’t expected. His eyes were wide, bloodshot, and dilated, making his already crooked Daemonkind face wicked.
“No!” Bourlinch said, shifting around uncomfortably, looking from James to Pea, back to James, and back to the others one by one. He pointed a long wiry finger. “Not here. No. This is other. Other! Get back! Stay!” His voice trailed off into mumbles and incomprehensible words.
“He knows!” James cried out. “He searched my mind!”
Magic suddenly flowed, Pea pulling it all up in an instant. Bourlinch launched into the air, tried to scream but couldn’t as all the air left his lungs with the impact. Then the crooked man struck the wall and remained suspended halfway to the ceiling. Pea moved to a better position with his right hand raised, fingers slightly crooked and pushing small streams of magic to keep the spell going.
Bourlinch gasped for breath, finally found it and started to speak in even more incoherent sentences. “Left. Long wind. Right. Powers be gone. This is end. This is here. Anywhere. Anywho. Anywhen.”
“Someone shut him up,” Darl said, slipping over to the door to lock it. “He’ll rouse soldiers.”
Triska’s magic suddenly flowed as James got to his feet and moved next to Iliad.
“Zagra. Legends. Powers that be. North. One. Seventeen. Savior lost. This is end. Zagra. Down the blackness. Coming. Ending.”
Then Bourlinch suddenly went quiet, mouthing words that never came from his throat. For a moment Bourlinch seemed oblivious to it, then the sudden realization of silence kicked in and he fell still.
“We can’t keep him there forever,” Iliad said, slipping his bow back over his shoulder.
“Tie him up,” James said.
“That won’t do any good. He’ll still have control of magic.
Triska shook her head suddenly. Pea looked at her.
“You have to.”
“No,” Triska said. “I can’t.”
“We might be here for a while. I can’t keep him there forever. Neither can James. Disable him.”
“You know what you’re asking? Invasion of the mind to cripple.” Her face grew red and her eyes glistened as if she were going to cry.
“I’m asking you to keep us out of danger.”
James didn’t quite understand what was going on. He couldn’t remember if he had read anything in-depth about healers in the etiquette book. Can healers really cripple someone’s mind, he thought. The idea of it frightened him, not only because he didn’t want to end up crippled one day, but because of how it was affecting Triska. A single tear fell from her face and she bit back sobs. The idea of it all was breaking her down.
“He’ll kill us if you don’t do it,” Darl said, trying and failing to sound sympathetic.
Bourlinch struggled with his magical bonds, opening his mouth to speak, but getting nothing more than air to come out. He acted upon the conversation, becoming more erratic and frantic.
Triska sniffed back her tears, her sobs, and her fears and said, “Okay. I’ll try.” Then she raised her right hand.
Her magic flowed, the feeling of it vibrating in James’ mind. He could sense her mind moving out and her eyes became tightly closed slits. Bourlinch struggled and then his eyes closed too. He fidgeted, twitched, and a silent grunt escaped his lips. His face curled, folded, and contorted with what could have been concentration or pain, James couldn’t tell which. Triska, too, seemed in the same state, only occasional tears fell down her round cheeks to the floor.
Minutes went by and both Triska and Bourlinch were silent with horribly painful looking expressions upon their faces. It seemed as though neither could push away the other. James could only imagine what it must be like to enter someone else’s mind with the intention to shut down their ability to use magic.
Triska suddenly sagged and would have fallen to the floor if Iliad had not come to her side and grabbed her under the shoulders. She panted and tears streamed down her face.
“It’s done,” she said.
Pea let Bourlinch drop to the floor. Bourlinch crumbled into a heap, sobbing and holding his head.
“You did good,” Darl said.
“Oh yes, very well indeed,” she snapped. “You have any idea what it’s like? Wandering into someone’s mind, pushing down their barriers, trying to find the center of their magic, and then breaking that part of their mind in two?”
Nobody said anything.
“I didn’t think you would understand that. I can hear the screams and cries of pain as it happens. I feel it like it’s a living being struggling in my hands, like a newborn child being bent over itself.”
James stepped closer to her. He wanted to hug her, to make her feel better, but he was afraid, afraid that his presence might make her worse. The others were already fearful of him and his abilities. He took another step, then stepped back.
“I’m sorry,” he said, for lack of anything better to do.
She glared at him for a brief moment, and then let it fall from her face.
Near silence befell the room. Bourlinch continued to sob and Triska slowly fought away her sadness.
Then James said, “Should we tie him up?”
Iliad and Darl did the deed, lifting the sobbing Daemonkind from the floor and tying him tight to a chair.
Triska took a seat nearby and James sat next to her.
“So what happens now?” he said, putting his hands in his lap. His thoughts fell on Laura, lost somewhere within the main walls of the city, in one of the many towers.

Chapter Twenty Five: Of Waking Memories

(Note:  This is not official version and may be removed in the near future.  This do not reflect what is read in the podcast version, nor any other version you may encounter.  I have preserved the rough form for posterity -- or something like that.  This novel has since been rewritten.)

James awoke into a world of light so bright that he had to squint just to be able to see anything at all. All around him was a vast nothingness that led nowhere. There were no walls, no ground, and no sky. He wondered for a moment if he were in heaven and if he had died. The pain that he had been expecting wasn’t there and when he brought his hands to his face he could clearly see that no gashes or scars were there. It was as if he were completely untouched, further adding to his fear that he had in fact died and gone to heaven.
Then someone appeared as a faded shade of gray. The figure walked leisurely, only fully becoming visible when the two of them were mere feet apart. The face of the man before him smiled warmly beneath a sandy blonde beard that hung at his neckline. Two faded green eyes looked down, further adding to the warmth of the smile. Then a hand extended. James took it and stood.

No sensations came to him. No lightheadedness; no pain or weakness. When he looked into the eyes of the man before him, though, sensation came in short waves, exposing warmth and cold, chills and shivers. The man only grinned wider and then spoke softly.
“This is a rather bizarre occasion.”
James recognized the voice immediately. “Dulien?”
Dulien nodded. “You’re not dead by the way. And I can still hear your thoughts, though they are more muffled when they are thoughts within thoughts.”
“Thoughts within thoughts?”
“Seeing how you are not dead, but you aren’t exactly dreaming either, you are capable of thinking even though your mind is thinking this right now.”
“That doesn’t make much sense.”
Dulien shook his head. “No, it doesn’t. But not a whole lot about you makes sense.” There was a long pause. Then Dulien continued, “When you return to the real world you’ll be in quite a lot of pain I imagine.”
“What happened?”
“You lost control.”
“But, how did I lose control. Where did all of that energy come from?”
“It came from you. Sometimes,” Dulien came forward and knelt down to look at him eye to eye, “magic comes at such speeds and in such quantities that the user cannot comprehend it. It simply tears its way through, just as it happened to you. I suspect that it came from your world. As you said, it is a world without magic, yet magic exists everywhere. With magic forgotten in your world it is no small wonder that it would try to use you as a vessel to escape its confines. Magic is alive in some ways.”
“Alive?”
“It doesn’t think if that is what you are implying. But it certainly has desires that it must fulfill. Being cooped up is no way for magic to live.”
“So, it just tore itself out of me.” James shifted his position.
“Yes, unfortunately. This is, to say the least, new and disturbing for me. You should be dead. Magic like that would kill most anyone. I’ve faced powerful magic before…this is something entirely new. Your soul should have been destroyed.”
He nodded, remembering how Dulien and defied Luthien so long ago, too long ago.
“I’m well known for that, yes, but unfortunately I think people have forgotten that it was I who invented the Fearl. Some more ambitious fellow capitalized on the idea.”
It came as a shock to James, and at the same time there was a sense of wonder and fascination. He couldn’t help being slightly overjoyed at knowing that the Fearl he owned was the same one with the imprint of its original inventor. Something about that made him feel lucky, though ‘special’ likely would have been the term used by everyone else.
Dulien put a firm hand on his shoulder. “I don’t understand how the magic of your world works, nor do I understand how this magic can simply cross worlds so easily, as if there were no barrier. Magic can’t really do that.”
“But it is doing that.”
“Yes. Listen, many have tried and many have wasted away their lives trying to find ways to access other magic. The only ones that ever succeeded were those that managed to connect our worlds, but even then they were limited to what the magic of this world was capable of. They could never touch the magic of Earth. You are the only one that I have known to do such a thing. And…”
“Let me guess,” he interrupted with a hint of sarcasm, “that makes me special.”
Dulien curled his lip in a soft smile. “Exactly.”
The light suddenly faded. There was something strange about it all, like it was all a magnificently elaborate and very lucid dream. As the light dissipated, he had the sensation of falling nowhere, and then sleep.
James woke up into a world of agonizing pain. He couldn’t pinpoint it to any one place because every single part of his body ached, even where he thought it shouldn’t. He couldn’t open his eyes. Instead, he grunted and groaned and protested to whoever would hear him. Flashes of light flickered in his eyelids, mostly white, but some like little red pixels from an old video game. New bursts of pain ran through him as someone touched his legs. He cried out, but he couldn’t move his mouth much at all, so the sound came as a muffle even to his ears.
Then a pair of fingers pried his left eye open and more pain stabbed him. His vision was blurred and he desperately tried to focus in on the face above him, but before his eyes could adjust to the sudden light the fingers let go and his eyes closed with a sting.
“He’ll live,” said a voice, muffled beyond recognition. “Barely. He’s lucky.”
Whoever the person above him spoke to didn’t respond and he lay there motionless. Other sounds tugged at his ears, hooves clunking over hard ground and something dragging in the earth—dampened as if he were wearing ear muffs. Then he realized he was being drug behind a horse. The contraption that he lay in rocked occasionally, sending sharp pains up his backside. He tried his best to ignore them.
He lay there for what felt like days, awake only slightly. It all seemed so dreamlike, ethereal, as if he were drugged up on something. He knew it was only the pain and the exhaustion that had come over him after using so much magic, but the sensation of being out of body was so strong. Thinking proved harmful, as his mind throbbed when he did so. So he stayed motionless, thoughtless, and used every last bit of energy he had to block out the pain.
Then everything stopped. He jumped at the sudden change and couldn’t remember if he had slept, or if he had been awake. Every sensation seemed to run together, making it impossible to tell whether he was awake or not. He heard new voices now, strange voices. One he could tell, even through the muffled sounds, wasn’t human. It had too much of a lisp to it, serpent-like. The other sounded like a large man, though the voice sounded even deeper than it should have been.
“What business do you have here?” the deep-voiced man said, a hint of annoyance there.
“Just passing through to Teirlin’pur sir,” someone else said. James thought for a moment that it was Pea.
“And what business do you have there?”
“Looking to buy supplies and find some medical assistance for this young boy here.”
Something rustled around nearby, kicking dirt to the side.
“I see. What happened to him?”
There was a short pause. “Magical accident of sorts.” Another pause meant that the deep-voiced man wanted more of an explanation. “We were attacked some days ago just at the western most tip of the Spyder Range. He tried to use magic, as stupid as that might be, and ended up rather cut to pieces by our attackers.”
“Hmm, I sssee,” the serpent-like man said. “And, sss, where do you hail from?”
Another short pause. Then a different voice answered. “Nir’alor, north in the Leaning Prairie.”
“Yesss, I have heard of this place. It isss near the Ssspeth’aral River, yesss?”
Silence.
“What were you doing so far west?” the deep-voiced man said.
“We were on our way back from the Sempur in the Bay of Salm.”
“And what business did you have there?”
“Trading.”
“Best smoked fish I think this side of the Fire Rim,” said a muffled, yet clearly female voice.
Another long silence ensued, where nobody said anything and nobody moved, aside from the horses, which shifting uncomfortably from time to time.
“You may passs.”
A series of thank you’s followed and then silence again. The silence remained for a long time. He bobbed around, aching. He knew that tears were falling from his face because a hand graced the side of his cheek to wipe them away. A voice tried to sooth him—Triska, he assumed—but nothing seemed to make the pain end.
His ears suddenly perked up. Sound traveled smoother now into his ear drums. He could hear greater detail—the clear sound of hooves echoing in the distance, of feet walking, of people murmuring. He sniffed the air; it smelled damp, like wet earth. It dawned on him that they were underground. He could hardly believe it. They were so far from the tunnel under the Spyder Range last he was awake. How did we get here so fast, he thought. How long have I been out? It couldn’t have been more than a few days. It couldn’t have. There’s no way. I’d be dead if I was out that long. No food. No water.
Jerks of pain traveled up his arms. Sensations flooded back to him beyond the pain. He realized now that his hands were numb. He had no sensation there at all, as if they were stricken with frost bite or gone entirely. And, for some reason, he didn’t care. Of all the feeling coursing through his body, the numbness was the best feeling of them all. Secretly he hoped that his whole body would go numb.
A pair of fingers opened his eyes again and he realized he could see. Darl looked down straight into his eyes. He could see the scraggly white beard, the stern, frozen face of grumpiness, and he got the urge to smile. When his lips quivered it stung like lemon juice in a paper cut. Then Darl let go of his lids. He expected his eye to close automatically, but it stayed open. He blinked once, twice, three times and then opened his other eye. Pain hit him, but it was less than it had been the last time someone had pried his eyes open. It suddenly felt as though all of his pain were lessoning, though he knew that it would never be completely gone so long as he were injured. He looked up, to one side and then the other, never moving his head. They were in a tunnel, but it was more of a cavern than anything else. The ceiling was high, stalactites of every size and shape covered every inch. His eyes wandered forward. He could see a faint light where the entrance was. Every so often a torch would come into view, blazing flame driven by a hint of magic that he could sense with sudden clarity. His mind filled with the impression of magic all around—Pea and Triska the strongest sources. He sensed his own magic, buried deep inside and quivering.
The walls of the tunnel were a murky brown color on the verge of gray. There were no markings or anything other than the torches that hinted that the cavern was frequented by travelers. When James looked back he saw little sign of activity. Any markings that had been there before he and his companions had arrived were absent, likely watered down by the moist environment of the cavern.
James felt stronger now. The pain had dulled down so that it only ached like a bad bruise. He turned his head and wanted to grunt, but couldn’t. He moved his lips. They cracked like glass or splintered wood, forcing him to cringe.
Then he managed, despite the irritation and pain to say, “Where are we?”
Triska responded by laying her hand on his shoulder. He winced and she withdrew. “You’ve been in and out of consciousness for close to three weeks.”
“Wh-wh…” he stammered.
“We’re on our way to Teirlin’pur. I did everything I could for you, but I’m afraid I’m not that good of a healer. A city like Teirlin’pur will have many skilled healers who might be able to help.”
“I…lost control.”
“Yes.”
He looked at her briefly. She reached down and then pulled back, acknowledging him with a nod instead of a touch.
“You barely survived,” she said. “Not even just barely. It’s more of a miracle that you’re alive and can feel anything at all. You tore every nerve ending, every muscle, and almost every inch of skin. How you stayed together is beyond me. Any other boy would have died or fainted after the first minutes of that outburst.”
He tried to smile, but let the motion end with a simple curve of his lip.
“I don’t know how you did that.”
“It...was…magic.”
“I know that. James,” she leaned closer so she could whisper, stumbling a little in order to keep up with the horse, “You didn’t just use magic beyond anything imaginable. You controlled creatures that are dark, creatures that are evil. You lifted them up from the depths of Loe and used them for good. That’s not possible. It can’t be possible. That fire serpent shouldn’t have listened to you. I can see the good in you. I can feel it. I saw it in your mind. It’s beyond me. It’s…strange. Why didn’t it turn on you? Why didn’t it turn on all of us? Beasts of Loe can smell judgment. They can smell good and evil, like a sixth sense.”
Triska paused and James tried to think. It didn’t hurt his head anymore to put thoughts in his mind. He thought of the serpent and the hands that had come out of the earth. He couldn’t explain how he had created them to begin with, let alone how he had controlled them. They were dark, he could remember it clearly. Beast of Loe. I don’t know how I could have summoned them. It’s all supposed to be impossible.
“Not only that,” Triska continued briskly, “but you’ve done things that shouldn’t be able to be done. Your Fearl should be limited. It should grant you access to certain magic, physical magic like you have been using. Yet your sword is enchanted by your touch, something exceedingly rare to see combined with physical magic even among true magic users. You’re crossing boundaries that, well, they can’t be crossed James. They can’t. They never have been and never should have been. But you’re doing it.”
“I don’t…”
“I know you don’t understand.” She gave him a warm smile, but he could see through it into the concern and fear that was there. “Be careful. I don’t know what this means to control the things you have controlled. Loe is a dangerous and unstable place. To command its creatures is frightening, no, terrifying.”
“Tr-triska, I’m n-not like L-luthien.”
“I know you’re not. I know you won’t become like Luthien, no matter how much influence this connection to all of this power might have on you.” Then she smiled the warm smile that James had found so wonderful about Triska. He tried to smile back, but his lips only cracked and he could do nothing but faintly lift his chin.
James didn’t really understand everything. Magic was already a new thing to him, and now he was learning that not only did he have control of certain magic, but he could use dark magic in ways that were impossible—for good. Somehow he thought of it as a test, perhaps sent down by God, or simply a trial he must face. He thought of Star Wars and Luke Skywalker and how Luke had nearly fallen to the dark side. This was different, he knew that, but he still felt like it was a test of sorts.
None of the others talked to him. He could blink without any pain now and everything else on his body had turned into a dull ache. Triska worked a few spells on his wounds and he could feel some of them healing, but there were still others that felt like open sores, though when he tried to move too much all the pain came back to him, so he stayed motionless. He wondered if maybe he had hurt more than his flesh and perhaps had bruised all his bones. And he wondered how he had survived for so long—three weeks—having not been awake at all the entire time. Can Triska feed me without me being conscious? Or was I conscious and I just don’t remember?
James fell asleep.
When he woke he found that they had stopped in a small alcove where a large fire was lit, guided by magic. The others were fast asleep, he still in the makeshift gurney, and Mirdur’eth close by watching him intently. He tried to smile, and miraculously managed to do so without his lips cracking. Next to his hand was a water pouch. He took it and lifted it to his lips. His throat screamed in protest as he swallowed and then the water was too much and he pulled it away choking.
He set the pouch down and fell asleep again.
Morning had come and gone by the time James awoke. He opened his eyes wide and grinned at the renewed energy pouring through him. He knew it wasn’t enough energy to walk, but he certainly felt a million times better than he had the day before. His wounds were healing, most of them anyway, and he could finally move his body. He leaned forward. It hurt, but only slightly and not enough to cull the desire to move. He was covered in a gray blanket; or rather he was wrapped like a caterpillar in a cocoon. Raising his arms, he looked at the cuts. There were scabs where minor scratches had healed, and scars where more serious ones had closed up. Then there were several large gashes, partially healed, that ran from his wrist and up to his shoulders, only a couple still bad enough to bleed. His hands were the worst of all. They were mangled, or looked that way at least. He couldn’t tell where the gashes started and stopped, nor where there was clean skin. His hands were tainted red where blood had already stained and new blood ran. He didn’t dare flex his fingers.
The day sluggishly rolled by. Another alcove presented itself and they made camp there again. Even laying in the makeshift gurney couldn’t keep him from growing exhausted. He ate, though what it was he couldn’t tell because the sensation of taste had not returned to him, and then he feel asleep in a hurry.
James woke once again to find that they had long since left camp. He wasn’t sure how long he had been sleeping. He took frequent naps because all of his strength still had not come back. He ate in the gurney, and when he had to use the bathroom the others helped him stand so they didn’t have to use a bowl. As grateful as he was that the others had done so much for him while he was unconscious, he hoped to be able to use the bathroom without help.
Darl, most of all, seemed nothing but angry and annoyed at having to have anything to do with James in his time of need. But that was to be expected.
By late afternoon the tunnel opened up significantly, widening out into a massive opening. He could see sunlight—golden, glorious sunlight. And he could see grass and trees. The last thing he remembered was the darkness of the Fire Rim, the endless flames, smoke, and evil that was there. Opening his eyes into the tunnel had presented yet another dark place. But now he could see light and sun. He never thought he would be so happy to see the landscape in Angtholand, considering the reason for his journey, but he was and he couldn’t help it. A big smile filled his face.
Leaving the tunnel proved far simpler than entering it. Two guards paced in front of the exit—one was obviously human and burly, while the other looked nothing remotely close to a man, except that it walked upright. It had a snout covered in fur and scales, and a slightly hunched over appearance. Its eyes were slits like a snake and fur covered most every part of its exposed body.
They passed the two guards without a single word from either of them, though the serpent-like creature made a single hissing noise.
When they had moved some distance away from the tunnel the others mounted their horses and Mirdur’eth turned delicately to the side to let James see where they were headed.
Off in the distance was a city, its tall golden walls gleaming with crystal spires. Homes and great buildings were situated around the walls, all simply golden and shining in appearance. Sunlight glimmered off the rooftops and inside the walls were more homes and buildings. Trees were interspersed between homes so that the gold hue had a brilliant emerald trace. Shining above it all were sixteen great towers, each equally high and each with a shimmering jewel above the roof. The jewels were all of different colors—red, blue, green, purple, and more. Crystal spires ran the length of each tower giving the impression of impregnability. James thought it was the most magnificent city he had ever seen. It was enormous in all respects and entirely fantastic, almost like something out of a fairy tale.
“Welcome to Teirlin’pur,” Iliad said softly.

Chapter Twenty Four: Of Night and Dark Dealings

(Note:  This is not official version and may be removed in the near future.  This do not reflect what is read in the podcast version, nor any other version you may encounter.  I have preserved the rough form for posterity -- or something like that.  This novel has since been rewritten.)

James heard the sounds before he looked. They were close and he imagined that he could actually feel the breath of wicked monsters along the nape of his neck. Powerful howls forced him to close off his ear canals. He’d heard them in the distance moments before, but now they were immediately behind. There were screeches unlike the Nu’thri, like children screaming at that unnaturally high pitch, inhuman. Then there was the sound of the Nu’thri, screeching in protest somewhere farther behind.
Then he looked, chancing that brief moment when the trek ahead seemed without obstacles. His heart leapt into his throat, his stomach too, and he gulped frantically to push them down. The beats of his heart became wild with fear and terror. His skin crawled with goose bumps and every hair on his body, except the ones on his head that were far too heavy to move, stood up at attention, while his pupils became narrow like lifeless circles embedded in his skull.

The creatures that followed were far removed from being human, yet at the same time they bore disturbingly human characteristics. The three beasts in the lead of the pack were wolves, but not ordinary wolves. They were larger than any man James had ever seen with obvious muscles flexing and rippling down their flanks. They ran on all fours, but hobbled on their two front legs as if they could run on both two and four legs. Long snouts, enshrouded with thick, oily, silver fur met with jaws filled with sharp yellow teeth, monstrous in every way. Spittle dribbled from their lips and their eyes were unnaturally blue as if they were dead. The fur ran all the way down their flanks to stretched, bushy tails; claws dug deep into the earth with each movement and their snarls filtered through the air of other sounds. James knew immediately that these were werewolves.
The landscape rushed by as he rode, the soft ashen earth bursting alive at each hoof beat. Iliad led him one way, and then another, winding around small fires that thrust new ash and black smoke into the air, flames lost in the dark and only noticeable by the sounds and the continuing motion of new burned material. The air became suddenly warmer as Iliad led on. When James took in his surroundings again he saw massive fires burning everywhere—a hot spot. The flames were visible and rose up into the sky like hungry fingers. The sounds were deafening, so much so that he could hardly hear the sound of his own steed plowing along.
Howls came again from the rear. He peered once more, saw the beasts, and turned back. Fear engulfed him. They were going to catch up, there was no doubt in his mind. The steeds were fast, but not fast enough.
Mirdur’eth turned sharp right, following Iliad, and then sharp left, and back again. They wound around a huge flame, the heat causing a sudden tinge of pain on James’ face. He leaned away and then they were away from it.
Then all stopped. On both sides of them were flames and molten ash festering in tiny pools. Ahead the flat ground abruptly gave way to a tall cliff face too steep and high for anyone to climb. The cliff was obsidian all the way up, dark and shimmering with the light from the fires. James turned Mirdur’eth, catching Iliad’s eye and seeing the panic in the man’s face. He saw Pea and Darl too—sweat trickling down to their chins—and Triska with her soft, motherly complexion turned into a dirty and stern parody of her former self.
He knew instantly that they were trapped, even as he turned and beckoned Mirdur’eth to gallop in the opposite direction. The werewolves were there first, waltzing out of the shadows and black plumes with wicked grins upon their faces, if such a thing were possible. Heads low, mouths frothing with anticipation, they ambled forward and covered the only escape route, spreading out across the small expanse of open space. Their eyes gleamed with the flickers of orange flame, turning their unnaturally blue eyes into sinister moons reddened by the path of the sun. Each were entirely the same, no distinguishing marks whatsoever. Yet it was the one in the middle that seemed to lead as it took a few steps and let out a mighty howl, leaning its head back as it did so. A moment later and the other two followed suit.
“Dismount,” Darl said.
“Why?” Iliad clung to the reigns as if they were his only hope of survival.
“Werewolves have no regard for other living things. They’ll kill the horses and Blaersteeds without thinking twice. A meal is a meal to them.”
Iliad seemed to concede, moving his gaze from Darl to James, and then to the three werewolves, now pacing back and forth as if contemplating the best action to take next.
“At least we have magic on our side,” James said with a fake grin, then hopped off of Mirdur’eth.
“Not really,” Pea said, dismounting. “Werewolves are resistant.”
“And cunning.” Darl drew James’ sword for him, handing the hilt over. “A scratch can be healed, but if any of you are bitten after this is over I will not hesitate to kill you.”
Pea grimaced. “I thought you would say something of that nature. The feeling is all too mutual my grumpy friend.”
James lifted his blade, feeling the weight. It felt no different in his hands than it had days ago, yet doubt in his abilities appeared in his mind and stuck. The corrupted Masters were easy, he thought. They had no physical weapons, just hands and teeth. This is different. Too different.
I’m not ready.
Magic flowed like a river next to him; Pea and Triska were pulling it up from the woodworks. Then he too tugged at the magic within him, and his Fearl. For a brief moment he forgot, having not used it in days, then it all came back to him and he found himself channeling huge portions to his hands. Iliad appeared beside him, bow drawn.
“Wait for them,” Darl said, sword at the ready, his body shifted at such an angle to allow for maximum motion. “Let them make the first mistake.”
“Remember. They’re resistant. Try to use the environment to your advantage.”
“It’s all dust,” James said.
“Still, it might be good for something.”
James hung on to his magic, feeling it winding through his fingers and wobbling back and forth between his hands. His blade shimmered and sung as if it were being rubbed on its edge by a violin bow. He watched the blade and the strange shimmer. It didn’t glow, but it seemed to have a light of its own that flickered as if sunlight were hitting it. The part that confused him the most was the sound. Even as he moved his hands the singing persisted. Then, he found the connection. His magic was leaving his hands in small amounts, rolling up the edge of the blade and back down again. He didn’t bother stopping the flow. Whatever the reason for it, the blade seemed tuned in to him like a radio to a perfect frequency. The blade looked newer because of the connection as if it were freshly cleaned and sharpened. The others noticed it too, Pea most of all, but neither of them looked at him for more than a brief moment.
Then from the shadows, appearing as black shades, came two strange figures covered in billowing black robes. The cloth flittered in the wind, exposing its mild transparency and giving the air of something neither living nor dead, nor something attached to the physical world. They had no faces and no true limbs, only blanks spaces where those things would be; their motions were fluid and serpentine, gliding through the air, back and forth as if they were swimming. Behind them appeared the Nu’thri with Iliad’s arrow still embedded in its shoulder. Its gleaming face slithered low to the ground and its tongue flicked from tooth to tooth hungrily.
“Those are specters,” Iliad said. “Protect your hearts.”
James thought to say something and then stopped dead as the three werewolves bounded towards them. Their motions were swift, but arduous, as if all their muscle and strength prevented them from moving like a true wolf. Jaws were extended, opened wide to expose pink tongues flecked with blackened skin. The lead werewolf roared and leapt into the air. It launched up with surprising speed and height and came down with claws ready to grab.
Then all three were in the air as the two specters and the Nu’thri came behind cautiously. James sensed magic, but unlike his own and strangely similar to the presence he had felt outside of the barrier. It seemed cautious and made no attempt to invade his mind. Rather it seemed to hover beyond the werewolves, controlled by the shadowy figures there.
“James!”
James started and came out of his reverie. He didn’t know who had spoken to him, but when he looked up he saw the lead werewolf coming down at him. He instinctually pushed his magic out, imagining it becoming a wall. A transparent curve shot forward and collided with the werewolf, and exploded in a whiff of smoke just as quickly as it had made contact, leaving the werewolf at nearly the same speed as it had been before. He lunged sideways as it came down. One of its claws nipped his side, but he ignored it and tried to roll onto his feet.
“Resistant,” Pea screamed, releasing a torrent of dust particles in the face of one of the other werewolves. It yelped and clawed at its face and only barely managed to dive out of the way as Darl came down on it. The third werewolf cried as an arrow bore into its shoulder, but it didn’t stop.
James faced the lead werewolf. Someone cried out nearby but he didn’t take his eye off of the creature before him. It watched him, breathing heavy breathes and growling at the same time. Then it roared and ran at him, leaping onto its back legs and raising its front limbs like human arms. He raised his sword and prepared for the strike. His mind raced with doubts and fear. Sweat trickled down his face and back, arms and legs. He shivered.
It reared back and swung its arm at him. He cringed for a moment, unsure what to do. Dust suddenly wrenched itself up from the ground and poured into a makeshift wall, solidifying around the werewolf’s arm. It let out a furious howl.
“Fight you stupid boy,” Darl said, bellowing as loud as possible over the howling and roars.
James gulped back his fear. The werewolf pounded on the dust wall. He pulled his sword back and swung with all his might at the giant clawed hand, covered in fur, muscle, and pulsing veins. His sword struck, embedding the blade deep into the bone. A massive scream came from the other side of the wall and then a series of bangs as the werewolf pounded on the dust and tried to yank its arm away. Before he could do anything the wall crumbled like a sand castle and the werewolf tugged him forward and wrenched the blade from its wrist. Dark red blood poured from the wound and dribbled down the edge of his blade. It looked at him indignantly; its cold blue eyes narrowed.
Triska slipped into view, temporarily drawing the werewolf’s attention. She looked haggard as if she had spent the last few moments running around. Her face was a grimace.
Then James sensed her magic. Warmth came over him and washed away the doubts, pushing them into the back of his mind. His shivers dissipated, as did the terror, yet the fear lingered there. Then more magic came and the werewolf roared in protest as its wound opened farther. It clawed at its hand and wrist, further damaging the flesh. Blood came out in rivulets now, streaming down its fur and arm uncontrollably.
James could see the rage in the werewolf’s eyes. It stepped forward and scratched the ground, uplifting dust in his face. He stumbled back as Triska continued her magic; the werewolf backhanded him in the chest. He coughed and flew sideways, landing with a soft thud and sliding several feet. When he opened his eyes he couldn’t see; his vision was blurred and gray. A human yelp sounded close by, a sound he knew came from Triska. Then deep, watery breaths whispered by his ear. His eyes watered. He wiped and opened them. Everything was a blur. He could see figures moving about, things flying through the air, and the unmistakable large shapes of the werewolves. Then he turned towards the breaths. There the two specters moved counterclockwise in the air, surrounding him as the Nu’thri moved closer.
He stumbled back on his hands, pushing himself away, but no matter what he did the two specters stayed close. He saw their faces now, only they weren’t truly faces, but emaciated transparent impressions of faces that looked as though they once existed, yet now were expressionless and featureless—blank slates. Then one reached out to him with hands that had suddenly appeared connected to arms that shifted in and out of vision. He instinctually lurched away and swung his sword haphazardly. The blade glided straight through, causing the arm to simply dissolve and re-grow. It reached farther and farther, aiming for his heart.
James panicked. His mind raced with the desire to run. Fear was there, but no terror, no chaotic thoughts. Something Triska had done to him made him forget how much danger he truly was in. He couldn’t see past the initial fear that he needed to get away. Beyond that his thoughts were blocked.
It suddenly occurred to him that he had let his magic slip away. It no longer graced his hands or flowed through him. His initial terror and the dust in his eyes had forced him to lose concentration. He channeled the energy quickly. The hand came down as he struggled to find the energy again. His heart skipped, or at least he thought it did as terrible pain and then numbness attacked his chest. He tried to cry out, but nothing came from his lips. He felt as though something were gripping his heart, holding it still.
Something materialized in the shadowy cloth of the specter. James looked up as the black tatters of cloth pushed away and a massive ghostly head appeared. Long teeth protruded from its face. They were too long for the specter’s mouth, jutting out half of their length in every direction. It had no eyes, only blank spaces where they should have been. It opened its mouth and hot breath hit him in the face. The stench of death—rotting flesh, blood, decay, and all manner of things rotten—wafted over him and left moisture on his face. Another invisible hand gripped his heart; the second specter was doing the same from behind. Then the specter in front leaned over and James came to the realization that the teeth in its face were undeniable real.
The Fearl glowed bright now, something it had not done in a long time. Magic slipped into his grasp, all of its own accord. He grabbed it and tugged. Strange voices, speaking in snake-like sounds, shouted in his mind. There were too many to count, all speaking in unison.
Lifeless, they said. The heart. Ours. Become one of us. Give in.
James managed a faint yelp as he harnessed the magic. He tried to push the voices out, but couldn’t. His heart skipped again; the hands pulled tighter and his heart rushed faster.
You will not die. Live forever. Become one of us. Live forever as lifeless.
“No!” He managed to scream it as loud as he could as his breathing began to falter. Then the magic ripped through his hands. He couldn’t be sure what he was doing, but pain issued from every inch of his fingers as the magic tore its way out of him. Images flashed in his mind—his images—but he couldn’t make sense of them. Fire, serpents, and walls of black.
Then the earth around him shook. The specters sniffed the air as if they could smell whatever it was that was coming. Before they could move great hands formed out of the dust, rising into the air and gripping the two specters. They screeched an earsplitting sound. The dust hands tightened and relief came to James’ heart as the specters let him go. He saw the apprehension in the Nu’thri’s movements as it leaned back slightly.
James couldn’t control the magic. His hands bled, long gashes lacing every tip, digit, and palm. The two dusty hands leaned forward and then abruptly slammed into the earth. The specters cried as they were crushed into the ground. With each motion his true hands hurt more and more and the gashes reached to his wrists and then his arms. A tremendous scream shot out from beneath the dusty hands, which had covered the two specters, and then the specters were silent—dead as something dead could be. His magic hands rose back up and then popped out of existence, sending ash and dust into the air.
Magic still flowed from his hands despite his best efforts to stop it. He tried to stand; his hands screamed with agonizing pain. The pain slid up his forearms as the gashes tore more and more. Somehow he managed to get to his feet, shakily. Then pain shot through his toes and the ball of his foot and he stumbled over and down to a knee. He looked around in an attempt to get his bearings. One of the werewolves had fallen, a long gaping cut through its throat, and another roared angrily as ash and obsidian shards formed shackles for its wrists and legs. The lead werewolf struggled with six arrows embedded in its chest.
James saw Triska lying in a heap nearby. For a moment he thought she was dead. Then she breathed and shuddered and he let out a sigh of relief. His magic slowed, but it still came out in waves, causing shivers to issue up his arms. The dust and ash around his feet shifted with the pulses.
A strange cloudiness came over him; his mind became disturbingly numb as if he were in shock after being hit in the head. Sound dissipated to murmurs of nothingness. A new pulsing appeared, throbbing in his head as if his mind were trying to pump blood too fast. The veins on his forehead flinched and he found himself leaning over until he started to topple. Hands reached instinctually, but with his mind so numb he couldn’t feel the pain anymore. Then he sensed it lingering in the back of his mind—the ancient magic. It moved through his mind like smoke through a screen, through all the tiny holes of his defenses. The numbness increased and he went from blind to blurry to clear, and to blind again. Fighting proved useless. It shoved aside all his mental blocks, thrust itself into his mind, stealing images of things he had never seen before like a computer virus. Someone appeared beside him, but he couldn’t look at them. He felt the pressure of his clothes being tugged, but he couldn’t seem to move his head. His eyes stared blankly forward and spit fell from his mouth.
He heard voices again, like the specters only deeper and more sinister.
Zagra calls. Zagra calls.
He wanted to speak, but all he could manage was a faint groan.
The one who rides in the shadow of the dead. Become one of us. Join the shadows. Join the dead.
In the corner of his eye he saw the Nu’thri standing fully upright on its emaciated legs, its bones all visible beneath the ethereal blue glow of its skin. Its mouth was open, gaping like an azure tomb. Its eyes were blank. James saw the images again—fire, serpents, and walls of black. He flinched, his eyes stared forward and sudden surges of magic poured through his hands. Something told him that his wounds were getting worse, but he couldn’t feel any of it. One of the massive fires burned crystal clear in his vision.
Then, something stirred in the flames. He tried to gulp, but couldn’t. Fear trickled through him even as the ancient presence pushed through his mind, trying to bat down the last of his blocks to reach the energies that controlled his ability to live. The flames shook and then surged out in a mighty cylinder, becoming an enormous serpent with long fangs. The serpent surged towards James. Fear surfaced in his mind, but not his. Sound came back to him and he could hear the serpent roar. It turned violently sideways and then slithered swiftly towards the Nu’thri, which leaned farther back.
James sensed more magic flowing. The serpent and Nu’thri collided, magic striking the flames and turning into clouds of smoke. The serpent continued, pushing and reaching for the Nu’thri. Magic became sparks and sparks became stretched streams of molten ash. Then the jaws of the serpent closed around the Nu’thri. Light flashed; the serpent screeched. A new flash shined and then the serpent exploded in a wave of fire and ash leaving behind nothing, not the Nu’thri, not anything.
The fire settled or disappeared and the connection ceased entirely from James’ mind. He slumped over and landed with a thud in the soft ash and dust. All feeling returned and pain surged up every inch of his body except his chest. There were gashes in nearly every place and blood trickled from all them. Weakness slowly came as the magic ceased moving through his fingertips. There were voices and then Pea, Darl, and Iliad appeared in his vision. They looked down on him, but not with faces of concern for his wellbeing. They were faces of fear, fear of him, of what had just happened. They too were bleeding. Small cuts were on their faces, arms, and midsections. They each looked haggard, spent, exhausted.
As his vision began to become blurry, James heard Triska limping forward. She appeared in his vision, pushing the others angrily away. He smiled faintly. Then everything went completely dark and he dropped away from the world.

Chapter Twenty Three: Of Shadowy Lands

(Note:  This is not official version and may be removed in the near future.  This do not reflect what is read in the podcast version, nor any other version you may encounter.  I have preserved the rough form for posterity -- or something like that.  This novel has since been rewritten.)

When James woke he knew immediately that he was not truly awake, but in a dream. He was in a large room, surrounded on all sides by a circular wall of stone bricks. There was no door and the ceiling flickered in and out of transparency, exposing a night sky peppered with blazing red stars. He wasn’t alone in the room, for Luthien sat on a stool on the opposite end, legs propped up on a shiny oak table. A long, wicked grin was across his face and his milky white left eye stared off into nowhere while his right eye remained fixed on James.
James shivered, took a step back and found himself against the wall. He had no way of knowing if the dream was simply just a dream, or something more. He wondered, in that brief moment, if he could possibly have some sort of connection with Luthien, allowing this dream to occur.

Luthien stood. He was gargantuan, or so James thought for a moment as the black iron clad man’s shadow crossed the room. Tiny wind, like little hands, flew into the room, blew around, and left. Luthien was fully upright. Black gauntlets covered his arms, a pitch dark cape drifted behind him, pushed along by the new gusts of wind, and his shoulders were broad and dressed in sheets of metal. The armor range as it shifted. It seemed light on Luthien, despite its heavy appearance.
Then Luthien stepped forward, his metallic boots making a loud, echoing clang on the stone floor. His armor rustled as he walked, creating a clattering sound across the room like a dull wind chime, eerie and altogether vagarious. Luthien held his hand out and James recoiled against the wall again. Voices came at James now, from all directions. Some of them were vaguely familiar, like the voices that seemed to have attacked him when he tried to slip away into paralysis at the wrong time. They whispered sharply at him and amongst themselves. Luthien came closer and at each step he pushed back against the wall. Fear took over every motion. He saw the dark hand of Luthien coming, the twisted milky eye staring into him and away from him at the same time. It was a horrid thing to look into. The pupil seemed to float in the white bubble that was the eye and ripples seemed to pass over the surface.
Then something struck James. It wasn’t Luthien, but whatever it was he became suddenly aware of the nothingness above becoming light. Another strike…
James bolted awake. He looked up into the early morning light, however dim in the shadow. The stern face of Darl looked down at him. He refocused his vision, looking Darl clean in the face.
“What did you dream?” Darl said angrily.
“Wha…” was the only thing he could manage to get out. He was still in limbo between the sleeping and waking worlds. His speech slurred.
Darl repeated with more strength and a jerk. “What did you dream?”
“Luthien,” he said, “again.”
“It’s your connection to the Eye. He’s searching your future.”
“Searching my future?”
“Yes. That’s where the nightmares are coming from.” Then Darl stood up.
Pea appeared a moment later, holding a pouch of water up reassuringly. James took it, drank, and handed it back. “They’re not nearly as bad as they could be. Luthien is, well, rather well trained. The use of his Eye could do a lot more harm to your mind.”
James blinked as Pea tapped him gently on the forehead.
“In any case, try to block him out. Remember, it’s a dream.”
He nodded a slow, agreeing nod. “How accurate can he be with the predictions?”
Pea sighed. “They say that he is never wrong. But what they say may not be reality.”
“They being people?”
A nod.
“Luthien wouldn’t want to let anyone know if he had weaknesses.”
“Right, so logically he wouldn’t let on that his ability to predict the future is flawed in any way. I don’t think he can see everything. That’s far too much power for any one man to take without going absolutely crazy. Then again, Luthien isn’t exactly sane.”
“No, he’s not.” He took in a deep breath and brush away the last bits of sleep. “Where did he get this power?”
“If I knew that I think this war would have been avoided.”
James thought about that. It made sense. If someone else could get the ability to see the future too it could very well negate anything that Luthien was doing; the two powers would cancel each other out. But nobody else had that ability, as far as he knew and as far as anyone else knew in Traea. Luthien would continue controlling lands that once belonged to others—the kingdoms assimilated into Angtholand and forgotten and those still standing and being taken—so long as he could predict and adapt to what the future told.
“He can see the future for anyone?” James cocked his head sheepishly.
“Well, that’s entirely based on the minds of a collective mass of peoples of various ethnic and racial backgrounds. Needless to say, such information is just as fallible as the theory that pixies aren’t intelligent enough to be considered people.”
“But that’s…”
“Absurd. I know. I’ve met enough pixies in my travels to know that they can think just like the rest of us. They just put off an air of inferiority to trap unsuspecting idiots into their traps.”
“And you’ve never been caught?”
“Well, sort of, actually, not exactly…”
He giggled and put his hand over his mouth. He had meant to say something entirely different than ‘absurd’, but whatever it was he was going to say was lost to him now as he tried to control his laughter at Pea’s discomfort.
“Oh, of course, laugh while you still can my friend. Pixies are no picnic!”
“I don’t doubt it.” He grinned wide.
Pea returned the grin. “I’ve been stunned a few more times than I would like. It’s not exactly conducive to increasing ones pride.”
Together they shared a short laugh before Pea turned away to pack his things. Iliad was not in the dip, but a moment later appeared over the edge along with Triska. Dark colored dirt covered small patches on their arms, legs, and faces. They hustled down the embankment and rested near their packs for a moment.
“They’re still coming,” Iliad said, breathing heavily. “We’ll have to move through here and try our best to keep out of site. I need to be able to see the Scorched Path to make sure we get through quickly. The less time we spend in there the better.” He indicated the Fire Rim with a move of his head.
“Alright,” Darl said from behind James, fumbling loudly with his things, “then we move now.”
James stood up and wiped the sweat from his brow. Night sweats. His neck and shoulders were moist too. He ignored it all and quickly packed his things. Mirdur’eth turned to look at him and he gently patted the beast on the neck. Then something caught his attention. There in one of the panniers was the black egg-like thing that Triska had told him to hang onto. He glided a finger over it and it seemed to sparkle. A smile crossed is face and then he hopped up onto Mirdur’eth’s back and followed Iliad out of the dip. The others were behind him now. Mirdur’eth bobbed his big black head.
“See, patience pays off,” James said.
Mirdur’eth made a series of long grunting noises.
James wasn’t exactly sure what they meant, but he responded by saying, “You’re closer to the front of the pack now. Maybe Iliad will let you lead later.” Then he playfully patted Mirdur’eth on the neck.
Iliad guided them out of the dip and straight towards the Fire Rim. As they neared the vastness of what lay before them a chill went down James’ spine. They edged closer to the barrier, and then they crossed through. He had expected to feel the barrier, but there was nothing. It was almost as if the barrier wasn’t there at all.
The world that lay before him looked more frightening now that it had before. Ash fell from the sky like snow. The rumbles of distant fires sounded deep in his ears; cracks and booms like explosions rebounded off the earth and into his feet. To his left he could see a single massive fire burning nothing. The earth was barren here, covered only in ash and rock. There was nothing to burn, yet the fires burned with no signs of ever stopping. He stared into a fire nearby. The flames didn’t move from their place; he could see them burning and flicking upwards, but the base of the flames never moved, as if fixed in a single spot to burn forever. Strange howls came from beyond, through smoke and all.
“Remember,” Iliad said, yelling loud and clear, “stick together and under no circumstances do we separate.”
Then they were moving along, going up one way, and down another, and passing between fires and cliffs made of black obsidian. He wondered how Iliad was going to keep them close to the Scorched Path. He could see no path nearby. Maybe he remembers the landscape. That assertion seemed doubly absurd to him as everything looked drearily the same. There were no massive hills or memorable landmarks.
His concerns were answered some time later. Morning had pretty much come and gone, as they had been traveling for hours, and it was then that Iliad halted the group and dismounted. Iliad indicated for them all to remain there and then he was gone beyond a massive flame that spewed smoke and fresh ash everywhere. James didn’t much like waiting. In fact, the idea of sitting in Hell-brought-to-life made him more apt to continue moving. At the pace they were going he knew he wouldn’t see true light anytime soon. Then Iliad returned, his face far more ash-covered than it had been before. James gathered that Iliad had gone looking for the Scorched Path to make sure they were still on course. His face was barren, though, a look that suggested concern. The supply train was still growing, that much was certain.
They continued through the ash. The horses and Blaersteeds left behind hoof marks. Ash would fill them eventually. By late afternoon Iliad stopped them at the base of a curved cliff that provided some protection from the falling ash. They made camp there, though no fire was put up and nobody spoke much more than small talk. No one slept unarmed, even Pea, who carried with him a knife that could very well have been the size of a sword to a Littlekind. James slept and woke feeling as though he were in a horrible dream world, a nightmare. Reality came to him and before he knew it Iliad was leading again.
No living creatures showed themselves on the second day, much like the first, but loud howls, cries, and screeches came out of the shadows frequently. They were animal in nature, some like birds and others like dogs.
The days slid by. One, two, three, and four. Night seemed to run together with morning, and morning with afternoon. It was impossible to tell when exactly the sun was rising and falling as the Fire Rim was in a perpetual state of darkness. They passed dozens more fires of all sizes—enormous and blazing, small like campfires, or like oversized bonfires. Iliad stopped them each night, or what seemed to be the closest thing to night, and each morning they were up and moving. Occasionally Iliad would halt the group and then disappear, only to return several moments later with the same grim look upon his face.
As the days passed the sounds of the things living in the Fire Rim grew stronger. At night James heard panting, like a large canine or a massive cat. Then something would howl in the distance, something else would whoop and cry in response, and the panting would be gone. The noises were strange, but what frightened him the most was that they seemed to be following he and his companions. Three nights elapsed and each night he heard the same panting at the same deep level, slightly feline and wholly menacing.
On the fourth night, while the others slept, James found that he could not bring himself to lie down. He propped himself up against a rock of round, melted ash and watched the night, dark but for a nearby fire that flickered and crackled. He listened, beyond the fire, beyond the usual strange sounds off in the distance. He imagined crickets for a moment, and then they too were gone, having never been there in the first place. Then, in all the silence he had created, he heard it. At first he thought it was his own breathing and his heart beating, but sluggishly it came into focus. He didn’t turn, at first out of fear, and then out of an instinct that came up from the woodworks of his body. His gaze wandered to the others, all sleeping and all utterly unaware of the sound behind him. It breathed in long, surreptitious breaths, a slight saliva filled burble beneath it all. Footsteps came, crunching delicately in the ash like boots to snow.
James’ heart raced, his breathing became erratic, susceptive. The thing was too close for comfort, unnervingly close. It dawned on him how familiar the breathing was. He was reminded of Nara’karesh, the Lyphon, and the way that creature had breathed, spoke, and even walked. This creature was uncomfortably familiar to him.
The thing came closer and James ideated that it stood right behind him, breathing damply down his neck. His mind played tricks with his senses; he mentally shook his head, trying to clear the thoughts, the fear. He silently fumbled for the hilt of his sword, found it, and brought it forward to his chest secretly. His eyes moved from where they had stared for so long—deep into the black of the night—and to his companions. None of them were awake, not even Iliad. He wondered who was supposed to be on watch, if anyone. He couldn’t recall if there had been a watch and that seemed ridiculous to him.
Then the thing came truly within his comfort zone and he could not longer sit still. He pushed himself up, out of his blankets, and all in one motion drew his sword, the metal shrieking as it came out of the scabbard. He used his momentum to whirl around lifted his sword, ready to defend himself.
To say that his jaw dropped when he saw what had been following them would be an understatement, provided that the human jaw were capable of falling to the ground. The creature could easily have been seven feet tall if it stood, but instead it hunched low to the ground, draped in long, billowy robes that were shredded as if a giant cat had played with them. Its legs weren’t visible and the way it bobbed so low to the ground suggested that it made little use of its legs to begin with. White hands that glowed with an ethereal, ghostly hue, protruded from its robes, dangling in the air with long, lifeless digits, nails cracked and pointed in multiple shards like bits of glass. Its face was a glowing pool of blue fire where two wide open eyes protruded like giant marbles, flicking side to side. It had no nose, only an open cavity where two holes exposed a milky skull. Where ears were supposed to be there were two bulbous masses that looked like infected skin, and the mouth was disturbingly large and filled with long, jagged teeth and a tongue that wandered within as if it had a mind of its own. All this bathed in the spiritualistic blue glow that emanated from every inch of its exposed body.
Then it screamed, crying a loud, earsplitting sound, leaning forward menacingly and opening its mouth unnaturally more. Its eyes focused on James; he stepped back. The scream alerted the others and in a matter of seconds Iliad was on his feet, bow drawn.
“Nu’thri,” Iliad said, half under his breath. Then Iliad pulled back the arrow held firmly in his hand so that the bow creaked with the strain. He let it go and the arrow whizzed through the air. The arrow thudded into the Nu’thri, striking it where its shoulder would be. The force of the arrow sent the creature careening back; it screeched, echoing its cries across the landscape.
James lurched back and then nearly toppled over as new sounds came out in the distance. Strong roars, screeches, and cries came, followed by answering calls in the same manner. They were drawn out, as if the creatures that made them were being called into action, organizing somewhere beyond. The Nu’thri screeched again. James flinched. It skirted away along the ground, winding back and forth like a worm.
“That would be our queue,” Iliad said, slinging his bow over his shoulder and turning concernedly to the others, “to move now.”
There was no hesitation. James shoved his things haphazardly into the panniers on Mirdur’eth’s side, pushing so hard that the sacks shifted abnormally on the left. He sheathed his sword and thrust it in its place, giving his steed a fearful look. Mirdur’eth remained silent, giving James an animals’ best representation of a comforting look. Then James mounted.
Iliad gave each of them a brief moment, and then, rapping his feet along his horse’s sides, he took off through the ash and smoke. Mirdur’eth made quick pursuit and James could only hold on and try to move with the steed’s motions. Hooves thumped in the ash behind, followed by eerie howls and malicious snarls.
He closed his eyes for a brief moment and mouthed a silent prayer.

Chapter Twenty Two: Of Reason Lost, War Rising

(Note:  This is not official version and may be removed in the near future.  This do not reflect what is read in the podcast version, nor any other version you may encounter.  I have preserved the rough form for posterity -- or something like that.  This novel has since been rewritten.)


They rode for hours before coming to the bridge crossing over the Nor’kal River. The deep blue of clean water rushed by at surprising speeds, allowing little place for rocks or anything else to settle. Only a few enormous rocks that acted as supports for the bridge made homes in the speedy waters.

The wooden planks were purposefully woven in such a fashion to provide strong support for anything and everything that might want to cross. The bridge could support wagons, if needed, and James gathered from the markings in the wood that it was a well used path at one time. They crossed easily, the wood only creaking a few times in protest as the horse and Blaersteed hooves crossed, clanking and clinking along. Soon they were beyond the bridge riding through patches of forest, bushes, and tall grasses. A road quickly presented itself. It showed signs of lack of use—branches and bushes hanging over the sides and a lack of fresh tracks from people, animals, or vehicles—and it was here that James saw the distant Fire Rim.

It was a wall of smoke and ash, gray as the thick fog of the coast in the morning, gray as the night underneath thick rain clouds. There were great plumes of fire and black smoke that dotted the landscape there, ancient fires that had burned for centuries and would continue to burn for as long as the magical barrier held the flames at bay. He wondered just how it was possible that the fire could rage on for so long. Eventually the fires would lose their fuel as everything burned to bits. But, somehow the fires continued on as if fed by magic or something worse.
It suddenly occurred to him that he knew next to nothing about the Fire Rim, only the nature of its existence. It was a dangerous place, but he had no idea what dangers they would face. Will there be terrible monsters there, he thought. As much as he hoped otherwise, he knew that something dark and mysterious had to live there. It was a frightening place that would make a wonderful home for the frightening beasts he had already seen in his travels.
And, underneath all these thoughts and concerns were further thoughts, deep and untouchable. He feared for Laura. It would take them close to a month to get to Teirlin’pur. The distance was too great for even the Blaersteeds to ride continuously. They would have to stop and rest as soon as they reached the edge of the Fire Rim. He was weary of the journey ahead. With so much ground to cover and with Luthien nipping at their heels it seemed inconceivable. He wondered if more assassins would be sent their way, or if they would encounter them on the trail. They had been lucky at the Summering Rocks. Too lucky. He dreaded facing more assassins who could wield the Shadow Horses. Iliad had caught them completely off guard, and even James had surprised them with the fist of water, but James knew that they wouldn’t have that luck again. Word would have traveled, somehow. Luthien would know that he wasn’t a simple boy anymore, that he could use magic with force.
Luthien would know that he couldn’t be taken without a fight.
They crossed the bushy terrain easily; the horses and Blaersteeds made no sound along the way. North were the beginning formations of the Nor Marshlands—dark terrain, pools, swamps, and a faint smell of decay. The wind traveled southward strong enough to bring the scent with it. James didn’t pinch his nose or cringe; the smell didn’t bother him enough, but he got an idea of the type of terrain there. There was a swamp in Woodton. The town called it Burly’s Bog, but he had always known it as the Collective of Useless Waste because people used it like a dump. The water had come there due to some sort of irrigation disaster, something to do with an accidental divergence of the Stillwater River that let some of the water flow elsewhere. The excess water flowed into a slight dip in the earth where it created Burly’s Bog, much to the chagrin of one Alfred Burly who, at the tender age of eighty, demanded that the city pay for the damages to his backyard. The city asked him to move at their expense and he strictly refused, deciding rather to remain in his ramshackle home to torment anybody who happened to come by to have a look at the new ecosystem. Ironically enough that same ecosystem was made into a germ factory in a matter of days. No frogs made homes there and the mosquitoes were too afraid, or smart—James guessed the former.
The journey dragged on. Occasional conversations broke out. Discussions of random things like who would cook on the first night or who would tie the horses when they stopped. There was a general silence about anything of vast importance in the group. James could feel it and it made him glad. He didn’t feel like addressing anything that might prove difficult. He had enough on his mind as it was. They were leaving familiarity and entering a land full of people that had no apparent distaste for what Luthien was doing; they were traveling through a dead zone and they were doing it all under the radar of Luthien and his men.
After a time, as the light faded beyond the horizon and the landscape became thickly dark, Iliad halted the group and dismounted. He set quickly to putting up a fire and the rest dismounted and began to unpack for the night. James was the last to return to the ground. He hesitated at the reigns, eyeing the deeply black silhouette of the Fire Rim. Wariness came over him, a feeling of disappointment too as he doubted himself. He wondered if he had it in him to go through that place. Then the thoughts slid away as the sound of flames crackled and he was on the earth again, unpacking all he needed to get a nights rest.
He didn’t eat much, only one Fidget Fowl egg. A huge pile of them had been given to the group for the first couple days of the journey. Pea had prepared them as he had at Arnur and everyone ate graciously. Then James quietly tucked away under a gray blanket—bristly and mildly itchy—and listened to the sounds of the night and the conversation that he was not a part of.
“What do you think we’ll find when we get there?” It was Pea’s voice attempting to be quiet.
Iliad spoke next, even more hushed. “Creatures of the night. Daemonkind, Shiftkind, and the like. My Uncle didn’t tell you while I was away?”
There was a brief silence. James couldn’t see, but he knew that silence suggested someone was nodding a clear ‘no’.
“That’s unfortunate. He should have said something. It’s not like him.”
“He was busy,” Darl said.
“True.” Iliad let out a sigh. “It’s a danger zone. You know about the fire, the bad terrain. But I don’t think most realize what lives there. You see, logically, it makes no sense that anything can survive there. But werewolves, wraiths, specters, and Nu’thri live there.”
“Nu’thri?” Triska’s voice faltered in the middle of the word, but she managed to get it out.
“They aren’t nearly as dangerous as people think, but formidable enough. Very rare to see.”
“How rare?” Pea coughed.
“If we see one it’ll be a miracle. I’ve never actually seen one, but the last time I went through I heard their cries. I think they generally avoid what they don’t understand; otherwise they could have killed me and my horse. It’s not all that wise to travel through the Fire Rim without military escort.”
“It’s not all that wise to travel through the Fire Rim at all,” Darl said with a mumble.
There was a clatter of items, wood and something metallic banging against each other, and then Iliad said, “Is he strong enough for this journey?”
Their voices became more hushed and James had to struggle to hear. He shifted in his covers.
“He’s seen worse things than most men do in their lives,” Darl said, softly, sympathetically. “If he breaks now it would be a surprise.”
“I don’t think he realizes how strong he really is,” Pea said.
And then their voices trailed away, stifled by the crackling fire. James didn’t listen anymore, or try to for that matter. He looked out into the night, along the grass and bushes and into the skyline dotted with pinpoints of light. The stars were different here too, he noticed. No Big Dipper or Bootes. Then he closed his eyes.
When James awoke the sun had barely begun to come up over the horizon. It was still rather dark, though he could see. He wasn’t the first up, as he had not been at any point in time on his journey. Everyone else seemed to have a biological clock that worked like an old man’s, clicking on the alarm at god-awful hours of the day. His biological clock was still set to ‘vacation’ and he couldn’t shut it off. If the others let him he would sleep until noon.
He was up in a matter of minutes, packed and ready to continue the journey. Mirdur’eth and the other animals had found a comfortable home in the grass nearby, each lying down with their heads up and ears flicking back and forth, alert. James was so preoccupied with getting ready to move that he hardly noticed Iliad walk up and set a plate of roasted tomatoes and what looked like burnt bacon next to him. When he looked down his mouth immediately began to salivate. He wolfed down the tomatoes and examined the bacon like sticks. They smelled like meat and when he tested the corner of one it had the distinct flavor of meat, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on what exactly it was and decided it didn’t matter and ate them without much more thought.
Darl doused the fire, kicking dirt and rocks over it. The flames puttered out and smoke floated upwards. Triska passed a warm smile in James’ direction; he smiled back. Then he mounted Mirdur’eth, who had stood and walked up to the dead fire. His things were packed and he was ready to move on.
The others mounted and then Iliad was leading again, and again Mirdur’eth protested.
James leaned over and placed his forehead on Mirdur’eth’s neck. “Stop,” he said as if talking to a child.
Mirdur’eth grunted, bobbed his head.
“Iliad knows the way,” he patted the steed on the neck. “Just let him lead.”
Another grunt and then silence.
James watched the terrain change as they came closer and closer to the shadow of the Fire Rim. They moved at a quick trot, making sure to cover as much ground as possible in one day. He knew how important it was to Iliad to avoid spending more time than necessary in the Fire Rim at night. Werewolves, he thought. They only come out at night. He shivered, but not because the idea of dealing with werewolves was altogether frightening, though it was, but because he found it hard to believe that werewolves existed at all. They were sheer creatures of nighttime fantasy back on Earth. He wondered what other creatures that he had come to know in mythology existed in Traea. Do vampires exist here? Walking gods, demigods, nymphs, chthonic creatures? He wondered if the Great Fathers had ever come to Earth in living form. Were they like the Greek gods?
They were closing in on the Fire Rim, yet it still seemed so far away. He could see the flames now of the larger fires, fires that burned deep red, flames licking the sky like burning devils. Dark smoke flew up into the sky in other areas. The low rumble of the fires could be heard, only barely. The sound filtered through the earth like a miniature quake. It was a sound of a fire that had raged unhindered, a low, deep, guttural shake as if at any moment the earth would split in two.
James continued on, following Iliad and the others. None of the horses or Blaersteeds faltered. He gathered that the Blaersteeds were too smart to be afraid, and assumed that the horses were well trained for combat. The sky turned into a haze as waves of heat purged the air. It looked like a giant wall of flames and smoke, impenetrable, dark, and unforgiving. He likened the great plumes to living entities, living beings that wound up into the sky in a mockery of the life cycle—living and dying and being reborn over and over again.
Then something flashed, small and barely noticeable. But he had seen it. He averted his gaze from the smoke wall ahead and looked down, along a mild slope to the very base where the magical barrier made invisible contact with the earth. The thing flashed again and in the distance there he saw something moving out from the shadows, a large thing as it was able to attract his attention and he could see it clearly. It was a wagon, guarded on all sides by a dozen men, soldiers clad in dark steel armor. The wagon came forward and behind it another appeared, and another.
“Supply train,” Darl said bitterly. “Luthien’s mad to take his supplies through there.”
Several more wagons appeared, increasing the line ten fold.
“They are well defended,” Iliad added.
Darl grumbled in response.
Before long the line of wagons and soldiers stretched for nearly a mile. Iliad guided them down the slope in the opposite direction, hoping to keep the group hidden in the shadows. James kept a close eye on the ever increasing line of wagons. None of the soldiers moved from the line or did anything that seemed suspicious. They hadn’t seen him and his companions.
After a few moments of hustling through the shadows Iliad paused beyond a flattened rock outcrop. The top of the rock looked as if it had been hewn off by a giant blade, an unnaturally flat surface. They were still a good distance from the edge of the Fire Rim, some miles away at the base of the downward slope. Night was falling, the light cascading across the landscape crookedly, pouring long streams of orange-red light over everything. A tinge of purple hung at the base of the horizon.
They dismounted and James took a seat at the edge of the rock formation, watching as the wagon train, still growing in number, drove up the slope beyond, the first few disappearing over the top. There were more soldiers than he cared to count. The mass of them molded into a continuous line alongside the wagons. It was like a long slithering mass of silver, a metallic serpent winding its way through the fields and trees.
“This puts strain on our plans.” Iliad slid away from the edge of the formation. “I don’t know another way through other than the Scorched Path and that supply train must go on for miles.”
“We’ll have to find another way then,” James said.
Iliad laughed mockingly. “Oh, that would be a treat. The Scorched Path is only safe because it’s the only path that takes you straight where you need to go. Out, you see. Maybe we’d find our way through without using it.” He threw his arms up. “But maybe not.”
“It has to be done.” Triska was slumped down on the ground. She wiped sweat from her brow. “No use arguing over it. We can’t go back.”
“Easy for you to say.” Iliad mumbled, letting the words trail off until they were silent. He watched the massive wall of smoke intently, a contemplating look that indicated just how concerned he truly was.
James turned away from the line of wagons and looked deep into the Fire Rim. There were clean spots there; spots where they could walk if need be where the smoke and flames wouldn’t cloud them. He hadn’t noticed such spots before. The wall of smoke had made everything there seem like a haze of dark colors, as if there was nothing else there. He eyed Iliad, trying to show with his eyes how important it was that they continue, even though their original plan had been foiled. Iliad noticed this and sighed.
“So be it,” Iliad said. “Be fast and stay low.”
Then together they grabbed the reigns of their respective beasts and followed Iliad down the slope in a southeast direction. James crouched as low as he could, but Pea had the advantage over them all. They moved swiftly across the grass, Iliad especially so. He moved with the motions of a fox, swift, sly and all together mysterious. His legs drove him forward without causing strain on his crouched upper body. His movements were barely audible, so silent that had James not been trampling the earth with Iliad directly in his sights he would not have known that the man was there at all. They were the movements of someone trained to stay hidden and completely silent. Almost too silent, James thought. Even for a scout.
They came to another rock formation, this one much smaller than the last and only capable of hiding a few of them and none of the horses. Iliad lingered for a brief moment, taking notice of the ever increasing supply line now some distance farther away. Then they were moving again. Iliad no longer crouched; neither did James. Once they were halfway down the slope to the wall of smoke of the Fire Rim, Iliad turned and mounted his horse. He motioned for the others to do the same. They did and before all of them were on their beasts Iliad tore away. Mirdur’eth and the other Blaersteeds quickly made pursuit, leaving Triska to groan as her horse grunted before bolting off as well.
The slope abruptly ended along the side of the Fire Rim, flattening out into a straight plain. There was a large dip some distance south and it was there that Iliad was riding. James chanced a glance back. The wagons were mere dots now and he couldn’t see any abnormal motion. Then he turned to the Fire Rim. The flames were bright here, insanely bright. He thought for a moment that he felt the heat, but quickly discerned that it was simply a figment of his imagination. But the flames looked unnaturally hot, almost as if he were looking directly into the sun through an ultraviolet Imaging Telescope. He turned away. Something crept up into his senses. Magic or something even worse. It wasn’t just the barrier, though when he looked within himself he could feel the magic flowing from there, but it was an almost other-worldly presence of magic. He saw the irony of that, him being from another world and then finding something that felt like it too was from another world.
Being so close to the Fire Rim sent waves of those strange sensations through him. Some sent chills down his spine, while others seemed to feed off of him as if the sensations themselves were living entities. It was a darkness he had not felt before because it had no physical form. It lived within the Fire Rim, but unchained. An old magic unlike any he had read about. There was plenty of ancient magic left in Traea, laid out like statistics in the etiquette book. But the ancient magic nudging through the barrier of the Fire Rim, pushing and prodding him inside and out, and feeling around his senses eerily, was nothing that any book could quite describe. It was as if it were so old that it preceded the creation of the world. The imagery came to him through invisible hands, only they weren’t invisible in his mind. He could see them reaching out like ghostly white tendrils, branch-like and fingering at him, into him, around him. Then it was gone, a single flash of nothingness in his mind and no trace of it was there. He could still feel the magic floating out in the Fire Rim, but it no longer reached for him, pulled on him or seemed at all interested in him as it had just moments before. He was relieved, glad even that he could no longer feel it within him.
James looked to the others. Pea and Triska seemed paler than usual, from his vantage point. He wondered if the strange presence had affected them too, and what exactly it wanted. His mind felt perfectly in order, just as it had been before the strange magic had touched him. Then Pea and Triska shivered and, like the travel of a yawn across persons, James did too. It went down his whole body and was gone.
“I don’t like this place one bit,” Pea said.
“I don’t think anyone likes this place,” James said. “You felt it too?”
Pea nodded; so did Triska.
“Old magic,” Triska said. “Something old and new at the same time. I don’t think it has been here before. It’s alive somehow.”
“What did it want?” He shifted on Mirdur’eth’s back, feeling another chill coming on.
“What do all sneaky, deceptive things want?” Pea shook his head like someone trying to shoo away an insect.
There was a long pause, silent but for the sound of the horses riding down the slope and finally into the dip in the earth where everyone came to a full stop and the rumble nearby. Then it was Darl who spoke.
“Information. Always information. And it got it too, whatever it is.”
“Whatever it is,” Pea began with a cautious breath, “it is not meant to be here. It’s something corrupt.”
Darl sighed deep, with a hint of irritation. “What isn’t corrupt these days?”
Everyone was silent after that, even the horses and Blaersteeds. Iliad disappeared over the top of the dip, returning every so often to let everyone know that all was safe and well, and that the line of wagons was continuing to grow. James had a growing concern that they would encounter the wagons within the Fire Rim. The soldiers would be more apt to pay attention there, taking into account all the dangers during the day, and the worse dangers at night. He and his companions would have to go well out of the way to avoid them if the supply line turned out to be as large as he was thinking.
They made a camp there in the dip. No fire was lit, though the night grew cold and one would have been welcomed. The risk of the smoke being seen, smelt, or some such was too great, or so Iliad had said. They needed to make it through the Fire Rim with as little trouble as possible.
Night fell fast, accelerated by the massive shadow of the billowing smoke beyond the barrier. James couldn’t see the moon at all, no matter how hard he looked. Complete darkness came over everything until even his night vision was useless. He lay there, staring off into the nothingness, aware of only the sounds of his companions as they ruffled through their things or slowed their breathing as they prepared to sleep. For a moment he thought to stay up all night. He was restless. The darkness was too unnatural for him. It was like being trapped and having no control at all.
Slowly, despite his restlessness, he laid back and let his eyelids fall. Mirdur’eth panted nearby and then his mind drifted away and he was asleep.