Thursday, 11 February 2010

Shining the Light part 3

The third and final part of Shining the Light. Enjoy.

Chapter ten - Head and Heart

Nathaniel looked at himself, and at Jessa, her beauty marred only slightly by the blood covering her. He said “We need to clean ourselves up. Until we know otherwise the others are not enemies. If they see us like this they’ll be terrified and rightly so.”

Marcus nodded “Agreed. Now, do you think these possessed lot are behind the kidnappings?”

Nathaniel said “That would be my guess, these spirits or whatever they are, possessing the staff for a length of time to kidnap people. The staff probably did not know they had done anything, like blacking out and waking up somewhere else. The only reason the butler did not revert is probably because the spirit was discovered. And as I said, I think I know where to start looking.” He motioned for them to follow. He pointed at the door he had seen earlier “Wet footprints around this door. But no rain for two days, where did it come from? Somewhere damp I’d say. I think there is a dungeon built under the mansion.”

Jessa seemed to have relaxed “Ok then. We clean up and search beyond this door. What about the staff? They might have been alerted and it took all three of us to bring down one possessed man.”

“And there are thirteen remaining servants. Not good if they are like him.” Nathaniel said.

Marcus added “It was only when you mentioned searching that he flipped out. Maybe if we just ask them to get out, away from whatever influence is here?”

Jessa frowned “I don’t know, so many things could change them. Trying to remove them might be the same. Perceived as a threat.”

Nathaniel said “All we can do is see what happens and stick together. Enough talk for now, we need action.” He began to speak the words to a spell so they could clean the blood from their clothes and skin. Jessa followed suit, but Marcus had avoided the blood. He just tidied himself up a bit, and then turned to cast similar spells on the weapons while Nathaniel and Jessa finished up.

As Nathaniel finished his spell he looked at his clothes, making sure all of the blood was clean. The robes looked as clean as normal. He turned and walked back over into the lobby. He picked up his sword and his staff. Marcus had recovered his weapons earlier and Jessa had already sheathed her katana. Marcus handed her the two throwing daggers, now cleaned, and she frowned noting that the dagger Nathaniel had used was now decidedly dulled and blunted. Throwing daggers were light and weighted for throwing; they could not stand up to such punishment. The three of them headed back to the door and were close to entering when Nathaniel saw the woman. She was clearly one of the staff, come to investigate the disturbance. She seemed to walk towards them in a daze, looking in shock at the body of the butler, barely even registering the mages’ presence. She was wearing a nightgown with a robe wrapped tightly around her. Nathaniel noticed that she did not have anything on her feet, padding softly along the carpet which ran along the centre of the corridor. Nathaniel stepped into her way, weapons lowered and said “Miss, we are mages of Weissland. I know this will come as quite a shock to you, but when we came to question the butler about recent disappearances in Aunel, some sort of spirit possessed him and attacked us. Unfortunately we were forced to kill him to defend ourselves. I apologise for this, but I need you to gather the rest of the servants quickly and get out of this mansion. There could be other spirits here and they need to be banished.”

The woman looked at him, confusion and non-comprehension in her blue eyes. As she continued walking towards them, Nathaniel looked at her eyes. As she neared them, the blue colour of her iris shimmered for a second, and then her eyes seemed to cloud, turning black and lifeless, soulless. From the pocket of her dress, the woman pulled a large kitchen knife, holding it downward and raising it as she continued walking forwards. Nathaniel sighed and said “Not another one. I don’t want to kill all of these innocent people, damn it! Damn it all!”

Jessa reached for her katana and said “Nathaniel, we have no choice now!”

Knowing his companion was right, Nathaniel Drakkon prepared to defeat this possessed woman. But she moved with startling speed, and before Nathaniel could do anything she was coming at him making short stabbing motions aimed at his chest. He had to simply drop his weapons to grab her arms and hold her at bay. He grabbed her wrists, trying to hold her arms up so that the others could deal with her. She was holding the weapon in her left hand, and Nathaniel facing her, was using his right hand to keep the weapon away. Still she began making sawing motions and Nathaniel shouted “Give me a bloody hand!” The others rushed to help. His choice of words had perhaps been poor, as the woman manoeuvred her weapon, the blade slicing into his forearm. The knife began to saw back and forth, cutting shallowly into his arm, but painfully enough. He shouted in pain “Arrgh. Hurry up; she’s sawing into my sodding arm!”

Marcus and Jessa also grappled with the woman, the three of them managing to push her away to the ground. As Marcus and Jessa spread out to take up defensive postures, Nathaniel held his arm close to his stomach as he bent over slightly, cradling it with his other arm. He began to speak under his breath, but he was not swearing. As he finished, the spell was cast and he held out his injured arm, pointing directly at the woman who was on her feet again. A jolt of lightning jumped from his hand and struck the woman, like a lash between his hand and her body. The electricity sparked through her body, continuing to shock her for quite some time. Then she fell to the ground, the spell ended. The body jerked and shuddered in spasm for a few moments then went still. Holding his arm down at his side, Nathaniel said “I think that was enough lightning to keep her unconscious for a while.”

Marcus inquired “You didn’t kill her? But what if she gets up and comes after us when our backs are turned in there?” He pointed to the door.

Nathaniel said “I don’t think this is a permanent possession, the spirit or spirits are only taking control of them for a period of time, or we wouldn’t have been able to talk with the butler for so long. I hope that when she wakes up, she’ll be ok.”

Jessa said “Look Nathaniel, I know you don’t want to kill them. I don’t either. But we still need to search the mansion and there are still potentially twelve more of these enemies in here with us. Not to mention that there is a very strong possibility that the people kidnapped are here as well somewhere.”

Nathaniel replied “I know Jessa, I know. But there has to be something we can do, some way we can save the servants. There don’t seem to be any more servants coming to see what is happening, let’s get in here and get moving.” He picked up his sword and staff again, deciding to sheath the sword. He took one last look at the second servant to make sure she was still there, and then pushed open the door.

They entered a square room which was made of stone. It was some sort of storeroom with a couple of barrels, several crates and other supplies. The room was certainly cold, but not overly damp. The sort of condensation which would make those wet footprints had not come from here. Nathaniel was about to turn away when he realised there was a draft. That was why the room was cold. The stone was solid, no gaps. But there was a definite draft of air coming from behind four crates packed two by two against the back wall. He moved forward and said “Help me move these.” Before Marcus could help, Nathaniel gripped the top left crate and it pulled aside as light as a feather. Nathaniel stepped back as all four crates rolled out and to one side like a door. They were fake, and on wheels and hinges. Behind there was a dark space, a doorway in the stone with stone steps which swept down dramatically at a steep angle. From here, without proper light, he could not see the end of the steps. Nathaniel said coolly “You know, I don’t think this is just an entrance to the wine cellar.”

Marcus replied “Is anyone suddenly reminded of a particular tunnel?”

Nathaniel and Jessa shared a quick glance before Jessa said “Shut up Marcus; let’s just get on with this. We have people to find.”

Nathaniel said a few words and a blue glowing orb of light formed at the tip of his staff, cradled between the dragon wings. Using the staff to guide them, he led the way down into whatever was at the bottom of the steps. There was a churning feeling in his gut, and his arm felt weak from the blood loss. He had cast a hasty healing spell, just enough to stop the bleeding. Nathaniel felt like he was walking directly into the belly of the beast.

Chapter eleven - Point of View

A lot of things come down to your point of view. Mage lord Jarroth Boralays had often thought about this. It was even one of the things he taught his students. Sometimes it was difficult to explain, sometimes not. As he walked along the corridor Boralays continued to think about it. Things were not always clear cut; there were very few black and white issues in life. Shades of grey made up most of the world. The colours you saw when you opened your eyes were just there to comfort you, to make things more palatable. That was why it was so difficult to prepare mages for service in Weissland. It was not just about teaching swordplay and exploring elemental lores. It was important, perhaps even more important, to make sure that mages had a firm grasp on the realities of what they were doing, on what was required of them, and what they might face. One of the things he spoke about with his students was to prepare them so that they would not make mistakes or at least limit mistakes, make them manageable, controllable, fixable. Everyone made mistakes, it was part of life. But mages had to be aware of everything they did, and the consequences of their actions. He would say to them ‘what would you do if you were walking along a street in Ataya, Crint, Ordail, wherever, and a man rushes past you, chased by another man? The second man is shouting thief! Thief! And there are no guards, no soldiers around. What would you do?’ Of course he would then listen to their replies. Boralays would sit and let a bit of discussion grow, give them the freedom of argument and counter argument. Jarroth would then cut in and give the piece of information he had neglected, what the mage in the example does not know, could not know. It was the classic example, the thief is poor, and steals only to feed his family. Boralays smiled as he walked, knowing that while the example provided a good lesson, it would be very rare to actually encounter in Weissland now. It was a lesson within a lesson, to show that you must always think about what you are doing, but that the world was never as straight forward as an example in a book and you must learn to create a balance between your instincts and your intellect. The country was rich, fertile and prosperous. Most of the poor people in Weissland could still afford to feed and clothe themselves, provide for their family. They worked hard for an honest living, and earned an honest wage. But nothing could be taken for granted, a mage needed to know how to gather knowledge, information, and using their own judgement, attempt to make the right decision.

As he turned a corner and entered a room, Boralays greeted the mage he met there “Hello Jhaelra, how are you?”

The elven woman turned her head sharply, a very acute movement, almost feral or animalistic. She said “Jarroth, I am fine. You?”

“I can’t complain.” Boralays replied.

Of course there were always exceptions to every rule. If the rule was that very few people in Weissland were poor enough to need to steal to survive, Jhaelra Fwenlyren broke the rule. She had grown up in harsh conditions, clawing her way to reach every goal and overcome every obstacle put in her way. The woman had a rough, toughened attitude which was quite out of the ordinary for the typical elf. She said “Are you busy Boralays?”

The man smiled and stroked his brown beard, streaks of grey running through it. He answered “No, I’m not busy at the moment, just taking a stroll really. What can I help you with?”

Jhaelra said through gritted teeth “I don’t need help. I want to discuss some of the students with you. You’ve been training them longer than I have.”

Wrong choice of words Boralays, you dunderhead, he thought. Sometimes he forgot what his fellow mage lord was like. So long associating elves with the likes of the Archmage Thaendil, Vanel Rathalie, Loter Arthious and others, it was easy to forget that this particular elf was different. Jhaelra Fwenlyren was born in Iardreuliel, a large town near the city of Adion, the capital of Anera. She was from a poor family and life was rather hard. That was an understatement, damn his politeness. Boralays spoke “I meant no offence Jhaelra. What do you want to discuss?”

The elven woman sighed “Two of my students have become enemies. They are constantly fighting and it is very disruptive.”

Boralays thought for a moment. He smiled “Let me guess. Both boys?”

“Yes.” The elf said.

“Both around the same age?”

“Yes” came the reply.

Boralays continued “And both are fairly evenly matched, and perhaps vying for the attention of a girl?”

Jhaelra asked “How did you know this?”

Boralays said “I feel rather ashamed to say this but men are very predictable. A bit of rivalry never hurt the learning process but if things get out of hand, embarrass them.”

The elf woman raised an eyebrow “Embarrass them?”

“Yes. Insult them; make them look foolish in front of their contemporaries. A solid knock to the ego will redirect their focus quicker than menial labour or other punishments.” Boralays imparted some of his experience from training mages. He had been doing it for seventeen years or so, and had picked up a trick or two.

Jhaelra simply nodded and began to leave. Boralays stayed there a moment, watching her depart. It was difficult to get a read on Jhaelra; she did not let anyone too close. It was obviously because of her upbringing, or perhaps lack of a proper upbringing. From what Boralays knew she did not know her father, he had been a soldier. Her mother had died when she was young, leaving Jhaelra alone. She grew up hiding in an abandoned mill, stealing what she needed to survive. Learned to fight, or at least fight back. Of course Boralays did not know the specifics; Jhaelra Fwenlyren was not big on talking about her past. Her talent for magic was discovered by a mage lord and she was brought to Ataya to be trained as a mage. This was a long time ago though, before even Boralays had begun his training as a mage. He moved on, taking a set of stairs down two floors as he made his way to a library. There were many libraries in the tower, some dedicated to specific magic lores, or to history and other subjects. This particular library dealt with healing magic. It never hurt to brush up.

Entering the room Boralays looked around. Even in the late evening the tower of Ataya was often busy. From a quick glance he could see four others in the room. He walked over to a shelf, scratched his cheek and looked for the book he wanted to read. He pushed up the blue sleeve of his robe and selected the book, pulling it free. Boralays took the book and walked over to one of the tables. He sat opposite an elven mage lord, once more just as different to Jhaelra as to anyone else, and different again to Vanel. Where Rathalie could be outspoken and opinionated, Carsidhor Enntalo was quiet and reserved. The brown haired elf looked up as he sat down and said simply “Boralays.”

Boralays replied in similar fashion, not wanting to disturb the elf “Enntalo.” Mage lords shared the same rank, but their levels of power often varied wildly. Sometimes the rank was given not because of power but skill or knowledge or specialties. Often it was due to combinations of the above. Enntalo was one hundred and seventy-nine. Not particularly old for an elf, but still it made Boralays think. Jhaelra was one hundred and forty, and look at the difference there. Vanel Rathalie was only one hundred and twenty-six, a marked difference to Enntalo. Boralays wondered why though, was it like comparing a human of twenty-six to one of forty and another of seventy-nine? Or was it purely a personality thing and the age had no bearing on the matter? Boralays confessed he was quite sure he would never fully understand it.

As Jarroth Boralays read, he realised that Vanel and Carsidhor did have some things in common. Neither of them used swords or other weapons in battle. They only ever used their staffs. Vanel’s staff was metal, ornate, some might say ostentatious. On the other hand Enntalo’s staff was a sandy brown coloured wooden staff. There were carvings of ivy embossed on its surface and on the top of the staff there was a bronze leaf symbol. Carsidhor’s robes were equally naturalistic, as they were coloured in many hues of green. Boralays did not feel right about going into battle without a sword at his waist, but it was their decision, not his. Regardless, he would take cold steel into every fight until the end of his days, like he had done since becoming a mage. Much like several of his former students Boralays had never settled to simply staying in one place. When some of the mages he trained were ready he would travel with them to carry out missions until they were ready for solo missions or to be assigned to specific regions or duties depending on where they found their feet. It gave him the chance to stretch his legs and keep his magic sharp. Also he enjoyed investigating, although it seemed that his former student Nathaniel Drakkon had far surpassed him in that regard. Boralays had trained a lot of mages, but that class, that group had stood out as rather exceptional. It was only the second group he had begun training. At the time Boralays had only been a mage himself. It had been a couple of years later that he had been given the rank of mage lord. There were many important mages in that group, Nerris, one of the best historians in the tower. Jessa Aeris, an extremely powerful young woman, Boralays was sure she would become a mage lord in a few years. Tarmas was a solid battle mage, if a tad too cynical, and Marcus, not the most powerful but inventive and creative, when he focussed. And Nathaniel Drakkon, strong, quick-minded, a soldier, a mage, and an investigator rolled into one. It was clear even in the early days that Nathaniel and Jessa were two of his very best students.

Once Boralays had finished reading he got up to replace the book. Enntalo said quietly “Finished already?”

Boralays smiled “Yes, just reacquainting myself with the basics.”

The elf folded his hands together and remarked “That is interesting. Not many mage lords would freely admit to going over ‘the basics’. Fewer still actually do take the time to do so. My compliments.”

“Thank you mage lord Enntalo. I should be going now, it seems sleep calls me.” He stifled a yawn before saying “Perhaps we will have time to speak again and in more depth.”

Enntalo nodded “Of course. Another time then.”

Boralays put the book back and left the library, which by this time was empty apart from himself and Enntalo. He headed back to his room, planning to get some rest. As he reached the corridor where his room was, Boralays realised this was unlikely. Two mages stood near his room, deep in some discussion. As he got closer he recognised them as the mage lords Tabitha Sergares and Dwine Gilbarnd. As he walked up to them he interrupted saying “Not to be rude but could you take your debate somewhere else, I was planning on going to sleep.”

Dwine turned and said “Boralays, I didn’t see you there. Sorry, we were heading for one of the halls but we got sidetracked.” The light in the corridor caught Dwine Gilbarnd at odd angles, making his head seem both shiny and misshapen. Dwine was completely bald, and the light from the torches lining the walls was not flattering. Dwine had a short goatee which showed that his hair colour before going bald had been a dirty blond.

Boralays replied “No harm done, but I should be going.”

Sergares said “How is the training going Boralays?” Tabitha Sergares was a fairly powerful human mage lord, especially for one quite young. She was only forty-one, her birthday only being just over a month ago. Boralays thought it was rather appropriate that her birthday was near the end of winter, given the nickname people used behind her back. Dwine on the other hand was fifty-seven, a few years older than Boralays at fifty-four.

Jarroth answered “It is going ok. Why do you ask?”

Sergares said bluntly “I heard you had been lumbered with the dregs this time round. I wondered why they would give you the weaklings when you’re a proven instructor.”

Ice Queen, that was what people called Tabitha Sergares. Boralays could see it clearly in her manner, her attitude and personality. But it was more than that, she seemed to have taken the insult and built a fearsome reputation on it to spite others, taking it further for her own ends. Tabitha’s hair was blond, not like Dwine’s but pale, some would say platinum blond. Her eyes were deep blue, so her appearance seemed to add to her attitude. Now she wore white and pale blue robes, like her clothes were made of ice and snow. Her wooden staff was a pale wood as well, topped by a large crystal which was clear or perhaps white. It was difficult to tell depending on the light. Boralays said “The students I have just begun instructing are not amongst the powerful of the new mages, but that does not matter. As mage lord Rathalie said to me just last night, we can always find uses for mages, no matter their power. You should know that.” That ought to shut them up, Boralays thought. He did not dislike Sergares or Dwine, but both had their own attitudes which sometimes put other people’s backs up.

Dwine spoke “Well, Rathalie is right. I’m sure Sergares did not mean any disrespect to you or your charges. But you know that power is pretty damned important around here. We can’t exactly defend Weissland from the sort of threats we face if our new mages can’t hold their own in a magical duel.”

Boralays responded “Perhaps, but we get new mages every year, just because some of this group are not powerful does not mean the group from the previous year isn’t up to the standard and who knows what the next year will bring. I didn’t think you were a seer Dwine?”

Dwine shook his head “Fine, be like that. No skin off my nose. I don’t need to be a seer to state my opinion.” He put his hands on his hips, the robes he wore hanging loosely on him. Gilbarnd wore a large robe which was much like a heavy coat as well, with a lighter robe and pair of trousers underneath. The outer robe was a dark red, made of an almost velvet material. He had a sash of the same material in the same colour wrapped around his waist. The inner robe was an off-white colour. Dwine did not have his staff with him, but Boralays remembered what it looked like, a thin wooden staff, which had been painted white. There was some red detailing on it, a few runes up its length. At the top there was a sizable red gemstone. As Boralays remembered thinking about Vanel and Carsidhor’s refusal to wield a weapon other than their staff and magic, Boralays remarked on the odd choice of weaponry Dwine Gilbarnd wielded. When not using his staff, he used a flail. Rather difficult weapon to use, but Gilbarnd was quite skilled with it. Sergares stuck with a sword, like Boralays and the majority of mages.

The two other mage lords walked around and past him, heading off to leave him alone in the corridor. Boralays sighed deeply before entering his room to finally get some sleep. It had been a long day. Before he fell into a heavy slumber, he realised that things really did come down to your point of view.

Chapter twelve - Marble Table

Stone walls, stone steps, stone ceiling. They could not see yet but Nathaniel guessed that the floor would be stone as well. This place had been built for drowning out sound, limiting exits. It was a prison. The steps were slippery, slimy, wet. They had to use the walls to steady themselves. The steps seemed to go down a long way. As Nathaniel reached the bottom he discovered where the water was from. There was an audible splash and he mouthed the word “Damn.” As he stepped clear of the water he noticed several stones were uneven. Water from somewhere beneath the stone was gathered there, which would be trailed up and down the stairs by anyone moving about, even into the corridor upstairs. They were in a small ante-chamber. There were three doors, but they could only guess at where they led.

Marcus hopped over the puddle and said “Split up?”

Nathaniel shook his head “No, if we run into any more possessed servants it will take the three of us to deal with them. Plus when we find the people, we need to get them out of here quickly and safely. Splitting up puts them at risk.”

Jessa asked “Which door do we take then?”

Nathaniel looked at the doors and said “Well, if I was building this place to keep the likes of us out, I’d suspect the door straight ahead to be the obvious choice. So it should be one of the doors to either side. Of course anyone would come up with that reasoning, so because I’d expect us to not select the obvious door, I would put everything behind the obvious door with the reasoning that everyone would choose a side door. So we use the door directly ahead of us.”

Marcus tried to follow his friend’s reasoning and frowned “How do you know this stuff?”

Nathaniel replied sarcastically “I don’t. Its all just guesswork, but I’m very lucky so when it all pans out later, I claim I knew all along. It makes me look better.”

“Really?” Marcus said.

Nathaniel shook his head and said “Forget it. Let’s move.” They moved towards the door ahead of them, and Nathaniel tentatively reached for the handle, turning it and pushing it open. With the door now open Nathaniel could see a wide corridor. There seemed to be many doors on both sides of the corridor as well as a door at the far end. No sign of any enemies, although the dank corridor was hardly inviting. There were a couple of torches in brackets on the walls for light, so Nathaniel dispelled the light from his staff. He carefully drew his sword and passed the staff to Marcus. Since Nathaniel was leading from the front, he needed a free hand to open doors and the arming sword would be more useful if they ran into trouble.

As Nathaniel walked forward he regarded the area with a practised eye. He was looking for clues, anything which would help. Some of the doors were different. The one at the end of the corridor was heavy, reinforced with strips of metal. A few of the other doors were similar, but while they had the metal the wood was not as sturdy. A few of the doors were just plain wood. They were not built to keep people in. They were likely the less important rooms. Still, Nathaniel needed to investigate them all. Any could contain the people of Aunel. He went to the first door on the left. Nathaniel wondered for a second why he chose the left door over the right. It was a gut feeling, like instinct. Taking a deep breath he entered the room. If he had not taken a breath the room would have made him breathless, even so it was shocking. It drew his eyes in, he could not look away. There was a table, seven feet long and three feet wide, made of marble. This was not what caught his attention. It was the blood. The table was not slick with blood. Claret had not been liberally splashed about. It was blood washed away. Blood washed off, again and again and again. The blood had been there so many times and washed away again, that it could no longer be washed completely clean. The blood had stained too deeply into the surface. Leather straps hung loosely from the table to the ground. Looking around Nathaniel found the only other thing in the room was a tall cabinet. He walked over and stood in front of it. Flipping his sword downward he reached out with his free hand and two fingers from his sword hand, gripping the two small wooden handles of the cabinet. He opened the cabinet, almost expecting what he would find. Dozens of metal implements, sharp and jagged and serrated. Nathaniel did not recognise them all, beyond the recognition that they were used to inflict pain. People had been strapped to the table and cut on. Cut again and again, bled for some purpose.

Silently Nathaniel closed the cabinet and walked past Jessa and Marcus. He did not speak, there were no words now. They had to check the other rooms, but Nathaniel realised that things were going to be bad here. They began to search alternating between left and right. There was a tool room, full of hammers and shovels and other simple things. The mages found an empty room with scorch marks on the walls and floor, seemingly made from fire and lightning. Next they found a room for the preparation of potions. The room was familiar; there were rooms like this in the tower of Ataya, though not with any dark purpose in mind. A torture room was what they saw next. Not like the first room, this was much larger, with multiple torture aids including a rack and a water torture device, as well as a barrel of hot pokers. Several bore a branding mark which was like a splayed crow’s foot. Moving on they noted an attached room with viewing slots on the walls. Spectators to torture, it was a chilling thought. The next room was tiny by comparison. It contained a desk and two chairs. One had leather straps and other restraints. This was an interrogation room. This was for mental torture, not physical. The three mages closed the door and continued to the last room before the end of the corridor. Within they found four sturdy cots, like those the military used for tents and in temporary barracks. There were chests near each cot and a simple spell broke open the locks. Opening the wooden lid of one Nathaniel riffled through clothes, some gold and a few personal belongings. This was some sort of sleeping area for guards. It could leave only one possibility. Four guards, four men... for tending the grounds. Those had been the butler’s words; Nathaniel picked up on them now. And those guards were in the room at the end of this corridor, the heavy door.

Nathaniel gathered the guards’ gold. It was dirty money but he would put it to good use. They headed out to the corridor and Nathaniel faced the heavy door. He said quietly, so low he could not be heard on the other side “No more softly-softly.” Saying a few words of magic he touched the door with the flat of his palm. It was as if the door was struck by some great impact. It was ripped off its hinges, wood splintering in puffs of sawdust. The door was flung into the room and Nathaniel surged forward. Two men collected themselves from the ground to attack. As the dust cleared, Nathaniel realised who they were. Not men or at least not humans. Elves, dark elves. The guards were dark elves. One lunged, but the mage sidestepped and slashed for the gut. As the first guard fell, Jessa sliced the throat of the second. He spun, spraying blood up the wall like a child’s scrawl. Brief seconds. That was all it had taken. The sounds had been loud though. Shouts followed, footsteps raced closer. There was another door ahead of this guard room. It opened and two more dark elves ran in, stopping short. Nathaniel raised his sword and made a gesture with his free hand as if to say come on. The guards attacked, Nathaniel and Jessa parrying a couple of strikes before dispatching the guards in short order. They slumped to the ground and the mages dragged the bodies out of the way of the door. A quick glance told Nathaniel Drakkon what he wanted to know. Beyond lay the cells; this was where the kidnapped people were. A cough distracted him. Looking back he saw the first guard coughing and spluttering for breath. Nathaniel stood over the dying elf, a grim figure clad in black, hooded and dark. Nathaniel said “Tell me who is in those cells and I may ease your passing.”

The guard looked up, his eyes glassy and he said sleepily “the people we were ordered to take... and the ‘mistress’, little whore.”

Nathaniel asked “Who is your master?”

The guard laughed, coughing in pain “I won’t tell you that mage. Now help me.”

Nathaniel looked at the guard with contempt, a hard steely expression. He kicked the elf in the chest, hard. “Help yourself.” Nathaniel turned and left the guard to his slow, lingering death from blood loss. Moving through the door he wondered which cell contained the mistress. What had warranted her incarceration? Did she find out what was going on here? Was she the first to be strapped to that marble table?

Chapter thirteen - Broken

Jessa had found a key at the waist of one of the guards which had not originally been in the guard room. As she left and walked into the corridor of cells, she handed it to Nathaniel. The corridor was shaped like a T, with several cells. Nathaniel had checked there were fourteen in total. With eight kidnappings and the mysterious mistress, nine were occupied. But the doors had no bars or slots to see inside. With the guards finished Nathaniel sheathed his sword, taking his staff and leaning it against the wall on this side of the door to the guard room. The others did similar, realising that they would need both hands to help the prisoners. Nathaniel thought about what condition they could be in, he was unsure how he could ask them to walk from this place to Aunel. But teleportation was not something any of them were confident about on a large scale, especially below ground.

He moved to the first cell, trying to focus on dealing with one thing at a time. Putting the metal key in the lock he turned it with a clack. He opened the cell door slowly. Stepping inside he saw the huddled form of a woman, chained, and sobbing softly. Quietly Nathaniel said “Do not be afraid, we have come to set you free. You will be safe now.” The woman looked up and he caught a glimpse of her face. Her skin was bruised, cuts on her arms and legs which had healed, but left scars. She had been beaten and abused. But Nathaniel saw something else. He knelt down and gently pushed aside a mop of matted and bloodied hair and said with horror etched on his face “Raven?” There was a spark of recognition in her eyes.

Jessa asked “You know her Nathaniel?”

As the chained woman clutched him, laying her head against his chest Nathaniel looked over his shoulder and said “She’s from Crint, I’d recognise her anywhere. This is Raven Serasai, one of the Crint nobility. My brother Arthan used to court her. I think she is the mistress, although I don’t understand why.” As he said the word mistress, the woman began to cry openly.

Nathaniel looked at the chains, looking for a way to unlock them. They rattled and clinked in the holding rings attached to the wall of the cell. Marcus asked Jessa “Were there any other keys?”

She replied worriedly “No, none of them had anything else. I don’t understand it, how can we get her free without hurting her further?”

Nathaniel said “Let me see the key a minute.” He held out his hand and felt the weight of the metal key drop into his palm. He tried the key but it did not fit. It was then that he noticed the other end of the key. It was oddly shaped, but familiar. He tried it, hearing a click as the shackle at one of Raven’s wrists fell open. Nathaniel quickly unlocked the other one and helped her slowly and carefully to her feet.

Jessa said “Do we take everyone in one big group? It could be risky.”

Nathaniel nodded, putting an arm protectively around Raven to guide her out of the cell. He said “It is risky, but once we’re clear of the house we should be ok. We’ll need them to help each other anyway.”

Marcus agreed “Yes, in one group we can keep everyone moving, keep them together and protect them.”

Nathaniel said “Jessa, take the key and unlock the other cells. Marcus and I will guard the door so we’re ready to move. Let them know we are here to rescue them.”

Jessa took the key and rushed off, running around one of the corners to work back to their position. The time it took to open a cell, convince the prisoner of their intentions, free them, and bring them to the growing group, was long and nerve-wracking. After almost thirty minutes they were all there. The teenage boy Jimmy Brogan was a little shaken up but otherwise unharmed. Helena Farris the bookshop owner had some bruises but was likewise ok. Alarron Dreivas the elf was not so lucky. Upon his face he bore the brands from the pokers, the guards had used them to blind him. Nathaniel asked “Why did they do this to you Alarron?”

The elf looked in the mage’s direction and said “The guards claimed that their master did not want me to see him when he visited.”

Nathaniel asked “Did he visit you?”

The elf shook his head sadly, his long blond hair flicking back and forth. “No, the guards seemed to think it would be some time before he returned. That was what I overheard, but alas I do not know who was behind this.”

Nathaniel replied “But it is likely that your sight was taken because you would recognise him. Tell me, have you spent much time in Ataya?”

Alarron nodded once, with a regal bearing. They had tried to break him, but they had failed. He spoke quietly “Yes, I lived there for almost ten years before moving here... for a quieter life. Rather ironic don’t you think?”

Nathaniel responded “Fate has a cruel sense of humour my friend. But take heart all of you. I promise you we will find the one responsible, your wrongs will be avenged. Justice will be served!”

He looked at the others, hoping his words carried weight. Sarah Leranii avoided his eyes. The teenage girl had been the last to be tortured. She had been dragged screaming to the marble table, and then she truly began to scream as her captor cut into her flesh. She would not say anything; the poor girl was in shock. Bill Talday the drunk was sober now and looking much worse for wear after his ordeal. Unlike some of the others, Bill had fought back. That had made his beatings worse, one of his eyes was shut from the bruising and swelling and his left arm had been broken. Annabella Rivers had been cut, left under the drip of the water torture and then left on the floor of her cell. She was a broken shell of a person, the water torture was debilitating and demoralising. Toral Krae, the nine year old boy had held up remarkably. Six days of hell and Toral was defiant, although he was also anxious and twitchy, eyes large and darting at every sound. There was anger in his eyes, Nathaniel could see it. Of all the people kidnapped Byron Galvar was the worse bar Raven. All of the fingers on his right hand were broken, and at least two of his ribs were cracked. He walked with a limp, his body covered in cuts and bruises. Worse than this he had been burned in places. He was incoherent, but from his descriptions of flames leaping from the demon’s hands and forked lizard tongues of lightning Nathaniel was sure the one responsible for all of this was a magic-user of some kind. What was strange was that Nathaniel could not sense the taint of necromancy and neither could Jessa Aeris or Marcus Krandor. They all knew its foul stench, from places like Durender so many years ago and dozens of other encounters with the undead and their vile masters. But it had the hallmarks of a necromancers work. The possessed servants, torture and experiments and potions. It did not add up.

Nathaniel kept Raven Serasai close; she refused to let him go anyway. He called his staff to his hand and addressed the group “I know you have all been through terrible hardships, but I need you to help me for just a while longer. We are going to lead you out of here and back to Aunel. But I need you to stick together, help Alarron and some of the others to reach the exit. Jessa and Marcus will be at the back of the group to aid you. Take your time and stay calm. Let’s get moving.” He turned quietly and began to walk Raven away, carrying the exhausted Toral Krae in his other arm.

It was slow going, and Nathaniel wished he could have spared the people the view of the dungeon as they walked through it. He repeatedly looked back to check on their progress, making sure they were all moving. Despite his pain Bill Talday was helping the women as Jimmy guided the elven man Alarron. They were helping each other. The bonds of community were very evident here, even more so than in the town itself. Nathaniel was proud to see it, and was confident that Aunel would overcome this tragedy.

The group kept moving as they entered the ante-chamber and began to ascend the stairs slowly, Nathaniel struggling to keep hold of the now sleeping Toral and the almost catatonic Raven. They slowed to a crawl, one step at a time, one foot after the other. Nathaniel had always imagined rescues to be these quick things, a flurry of movement, a blur of moments. The truth was far less romantic and heroic. It was a trudging, tramping, stumbling escape. It was like a drunken walk home, with all of the risks of trouble, and none of the warm, numbing courage brought on by large quantities of ale. His senses were sharp, not dulled by drink. He could feel everything right there; he was not distanced or separated from feeling by spirits in his belly. This was pain and fear and worry and shockingly real.

As they reached the top of the stairs, Nathaniel walked Raven to one side and passed the sleeping boy to Marcus. He put a finger to his lips to signal everyone to be quiet. Nathaniel gently propped his staff against the wall and slowly let go of Raven, he prayed she would remain calm and quiet. Thankfully she did, it seemed she was beginning to realise what was going on. As quietly as he could, Nathaniel drew his arming sword and walked out of the store room into the lobby area. The unconscious body of the servant was still there, the decapitated form of the butler beside the upturned table. The mage looked around, but saw no other servants. Taking a couple of steps back he turned and motioned for the others to follow quickly. They did so, Jessa ushering them onward from the back. Nathaniel jogged lightly over to the door, opening it up fully and moving outside, his sword at the ready to ward off any foe. His heart was racing, his pulse quick. The rush of adrenaline was keeping him going.

As the group followed him outside Nathaniel turned to face them, lowering his sword to say “Ok, this is it. You lead everyone back to Aunel from here, back to your families and friends. They will look after you all.”

Jessa quickly said “What do you mean you? You cannot tell me you are staying here.”

Nathaniel lowered his head sadly “Jessa, take Marcus and get the others to safety. I have to remain here. Someone must discover who was behind this and the only chance of that is finding a clue inside that house. Also, I have to stay here to look after Raven; there is too much risk of her being a victim to reprisal from the townsfolk. More than that, I need to at least attempt to save the servants here; I do not believe they were all involved in this.”

Marcus scowled “This is madness Nathaniel! If we leave you alone here you’ll be killed, you know what it took to stop one of those servants when they became possessed.”

Nathaniel said coldly “Madness is to leave this place an unguarded threat to Weissland. It is too dangerous and I will not have it corrupt any more innocent people. Now, Jessa, Marcus, I need to speak with you in private.” He motioned off the path to the grass of the grounds. He walked slowly out of earshot of the huddled group of people. Marcus and Jessa followed. Nathaniel quietly said “Once you have made sure the people are safe, I want you both to pack up and gather some supplies. We cannot handle this alone, we need help. Ride as quick as you can to Ataya, bring help.”

Jessa nodded with a sigh, there was no use arguing with Nathaniel Drakkon. She spoke calmly “Ok, it will take us three days though. And another three days to come back. Why not use a spell sphere though?”

Nathaniel replied “Because I need time to find out who is behind this. Three days is not enough to properly search this place. There is a magic-user at work here. That is why I do not want to use a spell sphere unless I absolutely have to. We do not know who we can trust, because it could be one of our number, one of the mages of Weissland could be behind this. We could not sense the taint of necromancy here, and that worries me, because we should be able to. Those people were possessed, but there was only the sense of spirits. No spirit did this; it was someone of flesh and blood.”

Marcus nodded “Fine. We’ll use another Inn on the way back. That should give you six and a half days. Will that be enough?”

Nathaniel smiled “Yes Marcus that will be great. Now go, both of you get the others to safety.

He shook Marcus’ hand vigorously and then gently kissed Jessa on the cheek before walking back towards the house at a quick pace. Nathaniel knew that there was a strong possibility that he would not survive to see them again. There were no words to that effect; he did not have the time for those sorts of goodbyes. Not now at any rate. Taking Raven by the hand he silently led her back into the house, and closed the door behind him.

Jessa and Marcus roused the group, and as quickly as they could, returned to the town of Aunel. They were not troubled by anything as they moved through the dark woods, across the dry leaves and soft ground. Eventually they saw Aunel in the distance. The lights of the town were broken and fractured by the trees around them. Amongst much joy and sorrow the people were re-united with their families and friends. The mayor kept thanking Marcus and Jessa, shaking their hands repeatedly. He was very happy and a weight seemed lifted from his shoulders. Several times he asked why Nathaniel had not returned, wanting to thank him as well. He wanted to declare them all heroes in front of the townsfolk in some grand, little quaint ceremony. They simply said that Nathaniel was continuing the investigation at the mansion, to find the one behind all of it to bring them to justice. And that he should not be disturbed, at all, for any reason. A couple of hours later and both the mages were ready to ride off south again. They gave their goodbyes, cheered by the townsfolk as they left on their horses. They had left Nathaniel’s horse in the stables at the Inn, and taken some additional food and water from the Inn’s stores. As quick as they could, riding hard and fast, Jessa Aeris and Marcus Krandor raced off to Ataya. Nathaniel was counting on them to bring help.

Chapter fourteen - Drakkon

Slam. The heavy wooden door closed behind him. It made Raven jump and involuntarily Nathaniel put his arm around her shoulder to comfort her. He had to think. What do I have to do? He pondered. Find the servants, get them out. Search for information, a library or a study. Keep Raven safe, maybe get her to talk.

The servants should be first but they presented a risk. He could risk himself but not Raven. So a secure location was needed. They walked across the lobby towards the stairs. Nathaniel kept his sword handy, as the two Crint natives slowly walked up the huge carpeted staircase. Everything was covered by thick, rich, deep carpet, the stairs, the marble lower corridors, the wooden upper floors. They padded softly, making little noise. Nathaniel could ill afford too much noise. He did not want to risk running into any servants until Raven Serasai was safe and protected. As they reached the top of the stairs Nathaniel turned Raven to face him, looking into her green eyes. They were like emerald orbs of light, wide and frightened. He said quietly “I need your help Raven. We need to go to the study, where is the study?”

Raven seemed to look at him with some comprehension, just a spark of clarity. She mumbled something but he could not make it out. Raven pointed past him, to the left. Nathaniel smiled and led her along the left corridor following as she continued to point. They walked past three doors, turned a corner to the right and onwards, towards double doors directly in front of them. Nathaniel opened one of the doors to reveal a large study and ushered Raven inside. He moved inside and closed the door carefully to avoid much noise. Once done, Nathaniel stepped back and began to chant the words to a spell. It was a holding spell, a type of barrier to keep the door closed. He had used a similar spell on the door at the money lender’s building. But this was different, more powerful and weaved to allow him to pass through the door but nobody else. That would prevent Raven from wandering out, or anything else getting in. As the spell was cast, the outline of the doors glowed with a pale blue light.

Nathaniel looked around the room, the study. Everything was wood. The wooden floorboards were pine and there were wood panels on the walls. It was like being inside a wooden box. There was a desk and chair across the room, and a deep leather couch on the right hand side. Behind the desk against the back wall and on two sides half way down the room were bookcases. Above them was a hanging candelabrum, suspended by a light, thin, chain. Nathaniel raised his hand lightly and said a few words. The candles were lit by flame. It was strange, the warm orange glow from the candles and the cool blue glow from the door. Nathaniel laid his sword gently across the desk and said “You must be tired Raven. Do you want to rest here on the couch for a while?” There was no response. She was so deprived of sensory information, or so overwhelmed by it perhaps, that she could not understand that he was talking to her unless he made direct eye contact. The mage of secrets turned to the woman who he had known since childhood, it was as if he stood in front of a stranger. Nathaniel repeated what he had said.

Raven nodded with a weak smile. She made an affirmative noise but otherwise said nothing. She walked over to the couch and sat down. Nathaniel took off his belt and unfastened his robe. As Raven lay down he put it over her like a blanket. He always wore a plain shirt and pair of thin trousers under his robe anyway. After all, winter was only now coming to a close and even in summer it was often not too hot. It probably helped him to sweat off some weight anyway. He had to go and find the servants, but Nathaniel sat down on the chair for a few minutes. There were draws in the desk. Idly Nathaniel checked the two draws. The first contained several ink wells and quills. The second had a metal letter-opener, and a few other things but nothing important. Nathaniel watched as Raven tried to sleep. He quietly looked at some of the many books on the bookcases but none jumped out at him as being unordinary. It was a well rounded collection of books, with no particular theme which stood out. Many of the books were in the libraries in the tower of Ataya; there were even some which were in the extensive collection in the large library in the Drakkon estate.

Raven had finally fallen asleep. She must be exhausted, Nathaniel thought, and famished too. He would need to find some food in the kitchen. Now he needed to go and find the servants and see what could be done. Nathaniel replaced his belt and carefully picked up his sword. He walked over to the doors, opened one, stepped outside and closed it. With a sigh he began to walk back towards the lobby.

As he reached the landing at the top of the stairs Nathaniel saw several people in the lobby. There were three women and one young man. They were facing away from him, looking in shock and disgust at the body of the butler as well as wondering what to do about the still unconscious servant. She would be waking up soon. Nathaniel wondered why everything had to happen at the same time. He walked calmly but loudly down the stairs, emphasizing his steps. The servants turned and panicked. One woman screamed. Another said “Who are you? Wh-what are you doing?”

The young man snarled “Murdering bastard!”

Another woman shrieked “Oh gods, he’s going to kill us! He’ll kill us, run! Run!”

Nathaniel said “Oh give it a rest woman. I’m not going to kill you.”

The man ran at him foolishly. Nathaniel simply hit him with the back of his hand, knocking the young man aside. The mage rumbled “Don’t test my patience boy, it is not infinite! And you better watch who you call a murderer. Now if you will all calm down I will explain what is going on.”

They seemed to listen and one of the women replied nervously “Explain it to us then.”

Nathaniel took a deep breath and said “I am a mage of Weissland. My name is Nathaniel Drakkon. I came here with two colleagues investigating the disappearances in Aunel. While speaking with the butler something happened, he was possessed by some sort of spirit and he attacked us. Unfortunately we were forced to kill him to save our own lives.” Nathaniel waited to let this sink in. Continuing he said “The butler claimed to know nothing of events in Aunel. This was a lie. In a hidden dungeon beneath the mansion we found and rescued the people from Aunel. He said your mistress was visiting friends. This was also a lie. I found her in a cell; she is currently in my care. There is an evil presence in this house, I want you to gather the remaining staff and flee to safety. I will remain to combat it.”

One of the women said “What about the cook?” She pointed to the unconscious woman.

Nathaniel said “She also attacked us. I knocked her out and she should wake up soon. I think that these possessions are only temporary and require proximity to the house. If you get her a few miles from here, she should be fine. That’s only guesswork though. When she wakes up I’ll make sure she poses no threat to you.”

Even as Nathaniel finished speaking, the cook began to stir. She murmured “Ooooh. What happened?”

The mage rushed over to her, the others gingerly moving around the blood surrounding the butler to reach the cook. Nathaniel knelt down at her side, putting his sword on the floor to help her sit up. He said “I am a mage, I’m afraid I had to knock you out. You were possessed by a spirit, but it looks like you are better now.”

The cook looked up at him, holding one hand on the side of her head and squinting. She replied “The last thing I remember was coming out of my room to find out about some commotion.”

Nathaniel nodded “That was I and two other mages. We were attacked by the butler who was also possessed. It was shortly after I mentioned the disappearances in Aunel.”

Just as Nathaniel said this, the woman stiffened. Suddenly her hands were at his throat, choking him. He gasped in exasperation “Not again! Help me.”

The servants were shocked by the sudden change in the cook, the dead look in her eyes and that she was trying to kill a mage. The stable hand gripped her wrists and tried to get her to release Nathaniel, to pull her arms away. It was then that the housekeeper, formerly quiet, smashed the two maids aside and fixed the stable hand in a headlock. With a twist of unnatural strength, she snapped his neck and dropped his body. Nathaniel reached for his sword, his eyesight dimming as his fingers clawed for the weapon. Finally closing his hand around the hilt, he picked up the arming sword and smacked the flat of the blade into the cook’s face twice; the second hit rewarded him with freedom and air. As he began to gulp in breath after breath, he twisted his body and thrust with the sword, catching the housekeeper in the gut before pulling the weapon free and turning to stand. As he began to stand, he gripped the housekeeper by the hips, moving forward with his shoulder to pick her up and flip her over onto the ground, landing on the cook. With both possessed women on the ground trying to rise, Nathaniel turned sharply to face them. He hacked down with his sword once, cleaving into the back of the neck of the housekeeper. As she fell flat and a final spasm of life left her body, the mage plunged the sword downward into the throat of the cook, the blade piercing the carpet and being stopped by the marble floor beneath. Pulling the sword free, he checked the stable hand for a pulse, even though he knew it was useless. Another dead for no reason, Nathaniel hated this. He turned to the maids and shouted “Quickly, get up and get the others. Get them out of here, get them away from here! Now, before it is too late!”

The two young women, scrabbled to their feet and ran off together to find the other servants. Nathaniel staggered away from the tangle of corpses at his feet, still breathing raggedly. He lent against the wall as he moved further into the lobby and away from the dead stench. He slowed his breathing, trying to slow his heartbeat and relax. He needed to regain his composure and think clearly. A few minutes went by, and Nathaniel began to realise. The butler, the housekeeper and the cook, they were the senior members of the staff. None of the others had turned when they were within earshot of him mentioning the things which set off the senior staff. It was quite likely that the younger members of the household were free of the influence which held a shadowy grasping hand over the butler and others. He thought again about the guards. They were dark elves, definitely not high elves. And they had not been possessed either, but most certainly were guilty and judged thus. It was his hope that the maids were safe as long as they got away from this house, although the mage was saddened that the stable hand had paid for his innocence with his life.

He stepped away from the wall and walked over towards the stairs. He stopped there and waited, facing the door to the outside. Nathaniel was not sure how long he waited there, it felt like a long time but was probably no more than a few minutes. Eventually the servants came back, a gaggle of scared and frightened young woman. The two who had been in the lobby before came over to him. He said “You need to leave quickly, head for Aunel and you will find safety there. Tell the mayor that I have quite likely destroyed the remaining threats in this house. But first, I must be sure you are all free of this taint. I’m sorry, I truly am, but it must be checked.”

One of the women said “Will it hurt my lord?”

Nathaniel sighed “I hope not. I will simply use some of the words which seemed to trigger the possessions before and see if you show any signs of changing. It would only hurt if you are possessed I’d say. But I cannot send you to the town without checking, it would put the rest of you and the townsfolk at risk.”

The other maid nodded “Go ahead sir.”

Nathaniel took a breath and looked at his feet for a moment, thinking. Then he began to say words loudly so all of the maids could hear “Aunel, disappearances, mistress, master, dungeon, cells.” After each word he waited to see if any of them became possessed. Nothing happened though. Finally he asked “Do any of you actually know the name of your master?”

Most shrugged or shook their heads. One maid said “The senior staff would never tell us. We were only supposed to refer to the master and mistress. Something about them being very private people.”

Nathaniel nodded, it made sense that the ones not controlled or controllable by these possessions did not know the information which seemed to be at the root of the problem. He said “Very well, it seems like you are all clear of these spirits. Go now, make haste to Aunel and stay there. I cannot take you there myself, I must stay to investigate the study. If there are clues to the identity to the one who is behind all of this evil, that is where they will be found.”

The group of six maids opened the door to the estate and ran out, rushing with what speed they could muster to the gate and eventually to the town of Aunel. As they left Nathaniel took one last look outside at the dark night and the cold chill wind, rustling leaves across the path and onto the grass. He closed the door and headed off to find the kitchen. He needed to get food for Raven, and although he was hungry himself from his exertions, Nathaniel knew that he could stave off his hunger for many hours yet. He decided that the kitchen must be along the right corridor. It was where the cook came from, or at least where she got the knife. Walking around the growing pile of dead he continued on along the corridor, checking some of the doors. None of them were the kitchen. Nathaniel reached the end of the corridor, the last door. Opening the door wide revealed the kitchen. He stepped through the door and with a few words cast the room into brilliant light. Looking around it was quite easy to find what he needed. A large platter, a couple of plates, knives, forks, two goblets, and a tall jug. Next he went through into the pantry with the platter. He gathered some fruit, bread, dried meats and a selection of other food. He went back to the kitchen and put the platter down. Next he called on the elemental lore. Speaking words of power he filled the jug with crystal clear water. Grouping everything together he chanted more words, forming a disc beneath the items. As he finished the spell the disc rose up into the air and slowly hovered after him as the mage walked out of the room. He returned to the study, walking quietly into the room and seeing Raven was still fast asleep. He set everything down on a sideboard just beside the door. Nathaniel closed the door, rested his sword against the opposite wall and then slumped down into the chair.


Nathaniel woke with a start. How long had he slept? Several hours at least. The candles had burnt low. Why were there so few windows in this damnable mansion? With a flick of his wrist he extinguished the candles. Speaking quietly he created a subtle light in the room, as if they could see the pale morning light outside. After a while Raven woke up. Nathaniel walked over to her, knelt beside his friend and said “I’ve got some food for you here. You look better after some proper rest.”

Raven looked at him, putting a hand to his cheek, his brow, his chin. She said haltingly “Nnnn-Nathaniel... Drakkon.”

Nathaniel smiled and said “Yes. Yes, it’s me. Nathaniel. Raven, you recognise me.”

She nodded once “Of course... I do...” She seemed like she wanted to say more, but could not find the words.

Nathaniel stood up and motioned to the food “Here, get some food. There is water to drink as well. We can talk later. You need to regain your strength.”

As Raven stood and walked over to the food, Nathaniel returned to the other side of the desk. He made sure she was taking some food and water before he turned his attention to the many books here in the study. He needed something to give him the identity of his foe. Something, anything, but the books offered nothing to him. It was then that he thought about what he was doing. He needed to know who was behind this, but the books that individual owned would not tell him. What Nathaniel realised he needed was something personal, something which was written by his foe, a diary, journal, something... just something. As he scanned the bookshelves he began to notice further along, two shelves with many books on them. The books were thin, bound in leather dyed green. There was no writing on the spine. These were not written by any author, these were empty books to be written. These were journals. He sidestepped to stand in front of the bookcase. There were so many, where did he start? At one end, there was a space, with a couple of the green books sitting at an angle to prop up the others. He took the one from the end. Looking at the front, he still noticed no text on it. He placed it down on the desk and sat down.

At first he was almost nervous about opening the book. It was clear that a magic-user was behind this whole thing. With a deep breath, he opened the book. Empty page. He flipped it over and realised that it was the inside cover. The page opposite had writing in it. The style of writing was spidery; he had to concentrate to read it. It was a journal, of sorts, and to his growing horror Nathaniel Drakkon realised what kind of journal. These journals were recording what was going on here. They were a record of what the writer called experiments into the greatest of lores. These were experiments into necromancy. And Nathaniel sat with these accounts right before his eyes; it was as if he could feel the blood on his hands, and a bitter taste in his mouth, smoke in his eyes and a terrible buzzing in his ears, the buzzing clouds of a thousand, thousand flies. He shut the book and sat back, trying to regain his control, to fight the urge to vomit.

Nathaniel opened the book again. This time nothing. It was all in his head, his mind playing tricks on him. Bad sleep, no food, it was a recipe for distracting nonsense. But he had to read this; he had to read all of the journals with the hope of finding the vile source of these experiments. It was draining looking at these books. Nathaniel was disgusted by it. But it was necessary. Even now after a few hours of reading he had learned a lot. These experiments were testing limits. Whoever was behind this was learning about the body. Pressure points, joints, skin and bone and blood. They were discovering what it took to kill, how much a body could withstand. It was clear why the magic-user was doing this. They were studying the natural mechanics of necromancy but without ever using the magic and thus avoiding detection by taint. It was a sick scheme, and it made Nathaniel feel sick to his stomach because it was working.

He closed the second journal as he finished with it. He was doing his best to avoid the detail, scanning the pages looking for leads to an identity. So far nothing. He stood up and stretched, arching his back and spreading his arms wide. His joints were stiff. He walked over to the food and picked up the other plate; he took a chunk of bread and some fruit, as well as filling a goblet with water. He needed energy. He could not afford to become weak; he needed the strength and alertness which would find the answers for him. Nathaniel ate slowly, deep in thought. There were a lot of questions still unanswered. Chief amongst them, the mage thought, is how can I trust any mage from Ataya if it is so clear that one of them is a traitor?

With a sigh Nathaniel stood up and walked over to the couch were Raven sat. He sat down beside her and said “How are you feeling now?”

She took a few moments and replied “Better. Not as tired, I suppose. Everything is still such a blur, so confusing.”

The mage nodded. He could only imagine what she had been through, and hated the thought of asking her about it. But there was one question he needed to ask. He knew it could be the worst possible thing he could ask of his friend, but people were depending on him. Finally he plucked up the courage “Raven, I know you have been through so much, but there is something I need to ask you. Something which will seem upsetting and unkind, but I want you to know that I would never ask you this if the lives of so many did not depend on it.”

Raven frowned slightly, furrowing her brow and sat back into the deep couch. She said “If you need to ask me... then I suppose you better ask me. I won’t hold it against you.”

Nathaniel thought about the best way to say it, and decided simple and straight-forward is the way to go. He spoke clearly “Raven, who are you married to? Who owns this house, who is the master?”

Raven swallowed hard, a trickle of tears running down her cheek. She started to speak “I’m married to... Ahnaguhafla.” She paused, confusion and fear in her eyes and tried to say the name again “Palafragraln. I-I can’t. What’s wrong, why can’t I say fluganthbegrrr? Nathaniel, I can’t speak properly, what’s going on?” She was becoming more and more distressed; she wrapped her arms around him and cried.

Nathaniel realised what was happening. He could sense the magic when she had tried to speak. He said sadly “I know this. Your husband has put a powerful manipulation spell on you. It prevents you from speaking his name. And given the strength of the spell, I’d say it was causing you some discomfort to try. Please don’t try to say it anymore, it could cause you greater pain and I do not want that Raven. Unfortunately I do not have the power to dispel it alone. Once Marcus and Jessa return we will help you, ok?”

Raven stopped crying slightly, wiping the tears from her eyes with a hand. She said “Ok. Thank you Nathaniel, thank you. I honestly thought he loved me.”

Nathaniel replied “Don’t think about it Raven. Nobody who loved you could cause you so much pain and misery. But I’m going to make sure justice is served. I should get back to reading these blasted journals, perhaps I can find something, some sort of clue or evidence of who he is.” He left Raven to calm down as he went back to the chair and put the second journal back. He picked up the third most recent journal, sighing as he noticed just how many of these evil books there were. Nathaniel returned to his work, as despicable as it was.


Nathaniel rubbed his eyes and lent back in the chair. He needed a break. Normally Nathaniel enjoyed reading books, but not these books. He hated them, despised them, every instinct in his body told him to destroy them. But he had to find something. What he would not give to simply be reading about the land of Ahm-Shere, but he could not shirk his duty regardless of what he wished. It was two days gone now. A bit over two days since Marcus and Jessa had ridden off to Ataya. He could not be sure when they would arrive in the capital, but he guessed sometime late this night. They would begin the return journey almost straight away and with a stop at two Inns on the way back which meant they would arrive back three and a half days from tonight. He could not remember how many of the journals he had read, but enough that most of the people of Aunel held here since the master’s last visit had been detailed. Strangely enough there were still sixteen volumes left. Nathaniel shuddered to think of what they contained. But he was nothing if not methodical. He really needed a break. Raven, even in her fragile condition, was a source of strength and inspiration to him. She had sat with Nathaniel while he worked, accompanied him on subsequent trips to the kitchen and taken Nathaniel outside to the stables to check on the horses there. He would need the use of one to ride south and meet the others when they returned. Part of this was to keep his mind sane and the rest was to help Raven regain her confidence and independence. Nathaniel Drakkon knew that when help arrived he would need to take Raven Serasai to Aunel for some protection. He knew what he had to do before they left here.

Raven sat relaxing on the couch. She said to him “Taking a break?”

Nathaniel nodded “Yes, it gets to you after a while.”

Raven asked earnestly, even now her innocence was not truly gone “Is there anything I can do to help?”

Nathaniel smiled “All I need you to do is rest. That is all that should ever be asked of you Raven.”

She replied “You know me... known me for a long time. I’m not the shallow, pampered type of nobility Nathaniel. Just like you I work to upkeep the title bestowed upon me. Or... at least I used to.”

Nathaniel sighed “Life should not have turned out like this Raven. You should have been married to Arthan, made a respectable man out of him. Oh, and I never took up my title after my father passed on. Never felt the time was right. There’s something I need to do first... ghosts which need putting to rest.”

Raven spoke, sadness brimming in her voice “Arthan... I... I miss him. Of course, I’m sure you miss him as well Nathaniel. All those scrapes he got you both into, and you always got him out didn’t you? Did you know that I often wondered if you were actually the Drakkon for me?”

Nathaniel replied honestly, and perhaps too bluntly “It never occurred to me.” They passed a couple of minutes in silence. Finally Nathaniel said “Sorry, sorry. I should get back to work. Get some rest.”

Raven said “Yes, I could do with a nap.” She tucked her legs up on the couch and used the armrest as a pillow as she lay curled up on her side. She pulled a blanket over herself. She had taken it from her room. Once more Nathaniel wore the black hooded robe with the runic pattern on the hem.

Nathaniel laughed internally at his own foolishness. Raven had needed comfort from him but his honesty was not comforting. Sometimes a lie could be noble, sometimes it could help protect a friend, comfort them, and give them some measure of happiness. He was so concerned with truth and honour and duty that sometimes he forgot about compassion and understanding. The mage had to bring his focus back to the vile books; he would need to work late into the night if he was to finish these journals in time. Nathaniel wanted some information now so that he could pass it on to Ataya via spell sphere. His thinking was that he might be able to get the news to Marcus and Jessa without holding up their journey. That way they would not be returning blind. Nathaniel had worried about sending a spell sphere, since they did not know who to trust, who could be behind this. But there was one man Nathaniel knew he could trust without reservation. Mage lord Jarroth Boralays, the man who had trained Nathaniel, Jessa, Marcus and the rest of their class. He was the mage lord who had taken them on missions, helped shape them as mages, and taken them under his wing. Still, there was much to read before then. Hours of reading followed interspersed with meals and breaks. Nathaniel and Raven even took a walk through the grounds in the afternoon. It felt good to stretch his legs. He had had the foresight to magically move the dead bodies into the storeroom out of his friend’s view.

As evening set in, Nathaniel and Raven ate in the dining room for a change. Nathaniel wanted to limit Raven’s exposure to the study now that she did not need to be constantly at his side. He suggested “Perhaps you should go to your bedroom to sleep tonight. That couch can’t be all that comfortable.”

“Well, I could use the space to stretch out. But, I, I really don’t want to be alone.” Raven replied.

Nathaniel nodded, he could certainly understand that. “I could put a holding spell on the door like I did with the study. So only you and me could enter or leave. I just think you’ll sleep better.”

Raven thought about this between a mouthful of food. She said “Ok then. I trust you Nathaniel. This place just isn’t as safe and comforting as it was at first. And even less so when you’re not in sight.”

Nathaniel was glad Raven was willing to branch out. It proved she could overcome all of this. It also meant that if he found something and sent a spell sphere she would not be present for the conversation. Raven needed to put this behind her, or at least begin to. Nathaniel felt that staying away from what her husband was really up to would help her in the long run. Nathaniel had been very careful not to mention the word necromancy to her.

With their meal finished the mage led Raven upstairs to her bedroom. Once he was sure she was settled he spoke the magical words and cast the spell on the door. The blue glow illuminated his face as Nathaniel stood in the doorway and said goodnight. The door was closed gently and Nathaniel walked off to the study which was in truth only ten or so metres along the corridor from the bedroom. He returned to his work, with only eight journals left and perhaps three hours before Jessa and Marcus would reach the tower of Ataya. The eighth and seventh journals had been extolling the importance and necessary nature of these experiments. The bastard was actually trying to justify his actions, justify necromancy, although Nathaniel had to wonder who he was trying to justify them to, himself? The gods? Did he think that others would eventually read the journals? Perhaps that was part of this, not just to learn of necromancy indirectly but to attempt to subvert the mages, the Archmage even, and the outlawing of delving into necromancy. Corruption by degrees, it was something which Nathaniel worried about and he would make sure that this could not happen here. He would prevent these vile and revolting books from falling into the wrong hands. Nathaniel was certain that they would be potentially devastating to Weissland if they survived. The sixth volume was some sort of manifesto or agenda of what was to be accomplished with all of this and it began partway into the fifth book.

He did not notice it at first, but as he read the fifth book and began the fourth it became clear. Nathaniel was startled as he re-read a paragraph. This detailed the experiments performed on an individual, like many others, but it was the location which stood out. This was not Aunel, it was Cirulienalysai. He realised this was a vital piece of the puzzle. The disappearances in Cirulienalysai sixty years ago were not just similar, they were exactly the same. Twelve disappearances perpetrated by the same individual behind this. With the time frame, the dark elf guards and the blinding of Alarron, it seemed to fit quite clearly that whoever was the one doing this was an elf. It was all beginning to fall into place. Time raced on and Nathaniel continued to read as much as he could stomach. Finally he reached the first and final journal. A few pages in and he stopped dead in his tracks. He was reading the account of the very first victim. The writer proclaimed, almost proudly, that this was his own father. That his mother shared this terrible fate as well was shocking to the mage. This elf had started with his parents, repeatedly mentioning the dishonour that they had not married. It was only when Nathaniel discovered the name of the father that it all fell horribly into place.

Slamming the book closed Nathaniel quickly cast a spell sphere. He just hoped it would reach mage lord Boralays in time. Even as the small orb darted through corridor, lobby and door, before hurtling south to Ataya, Nathaniel sat down to wait anxiously.

Chapter fifteen - Boralays

Mage lord Boralays stood in front of his chair at the table. He cleared his throat and said “Thank you all for coming to this meeting. We have a few things to discuss but I’ll try not to keep you long.” He looked around the table at the assembled mage lords. Starting on his immediate left and going around to the right sat Tabitha Sergares, looking calmer and more composed than two nights previous, Carsidhor Enntalo, reserved and reflective as always, Dwine Gilbarnd, a superb flute player as well as a mage lord, and Jhaelra Fwenlyren, who sat back from the table slightly. That brought Boralays to the final mage lord at the table. Jarroth continued “I would like to begin by welcoming Mistrandar Alicant to this meeting. You might not all be acquainted with him as he has only recently become a mage lord. Introductions will have to wait though, as we have a fair bit to get through.” Boralays sat down in his chair, each one was a high-backed chair of wood. The backs were so tall that none of their heads were above the height of the backrest. It gave the room a very tall and thin appearance. The mage lord said “First on the agenda, there is a shipment of magical supplies in Ordail which need to be transported to Ataya. This is to be done discreetly though, as while the bulk of the shipment is unimportant, it conceals one very powerful and important item which should not fall into the wrong hands. Suggestions anyone?”

Sergares spoke first “Do we actually know what this important item is?”

Boralays replied “It is a book. More than that I have not been told at this time.”

Tabitha Sergares was a practical woman “Well, if this needs to be brought to Ataya discreetly I would rule out teleportation, specialists such as the Seekers, or a large number of guards. Far too much attention would be brought to the shipment that way.”

Enntalo nodded “Quite so. But to leave it poorly guarded could be equally as dangerous. I would recommend a small guard of soldiers led by a junior mage, someone with only a few years of experience, nobody well known.”

Mistrandar made his first contribution to the meeting “Might I suggest that when the shipment gets closer to Ataya, a more capable mage be sent to the shipment supposedly on a completely different mission. That way the shipment could remain hopefully unnoticed and the final leg of the journey to the tower, which would be high profile simply because of the size of Ataya and that everyone knows of the tower, would have greater protection.”

Several of the others nodded in approval. Boralays said “Good thinking Alicant. The shipment will not be ready to leave Ordail for almost a month, and it will take roughly a month to travel south. If memory serves there is supposed to be a meeting of several mages somewhere north of Ledek to discuss current dispositions and possible re-assignments. We could send a mage north to meet the shipment in Ledek under the guise of taking part in this gathering.”

Dwine spoke now “Who will we send to Ledek, and who will take the shipment from Ordail south?”

Boralays was just speaking as a spell sphere urgently floated through the window and into the room, remaining at a discreet distance from Boralays. He said “Well, I think there are a couple of candidates in Ord-- Oh. It looks like this spell sphere is for me. Excuse me for a moment, I’ll be back shortly.” He stood up and bowed slightly to the others as he opened the door and stepped outside, shutting the door for a bit of privacy.

The spell sphere hovered in front of Boralays. Nathaniel Drakkon spoke through the magical orb “Mage lord Boralays this is extremely urgent. I need you to gather whoever you can and meet with Jessa and Marcus when they arrive. I’ve found out who--”

Boralays said “Arrive? They’ve already left. What is this about?”

Nathaniel struggled to grasp what Boralays was saying. He replied “Mage lord Boralays, how can they already have left? They were to bring help. Why did they not bring you?”

Mage lord Boralays. He finally noticed it. He had worked with Nathaniel and Jessa and the others for years. They informally called him Boralays at his own instigation and he used their first names. Nathaniel had a habit of slipping back into using the title when he was being serious, deadly serious. He said “They didn’t need me. Vanel Rathalie met them and took some bodyguards he had hired. I don’t know why he didn’t just commandeer some soldiers though.”

Nathaniel shouted “No! Look, you’ve got to gather as many mage lords as you can and go after them now.”

Boralays was confused “Why? What’s going on?”

Nathaniel tried to make his explanation clear “I’ve discovered who is behind the kidnappings in Aunel. They were subjects to vile experiments designed to learn about necromancy while avoiding taint. The one behind this wrote journals about it all. His identity is revealed with the name of his first victim, his own father. The first victim’s name was Rathalie. Vanel Rathalie is behind all of this.”

Boralays put a hand to his head “Oh gods. I’ll get some others.”

Nathaniel said “How long ago did they leave?”

Boralays responded “Two, maybe three hours. We need to warn Jessa and Marcus.”

Nathaniel was adamant “No, Rathalie will kill them. They are safe for now.”

“How?” Boralays asked.

“Rathalie needs to eliminate anyone who knows about this. He is coming to Aunel to kill me, Jessa, Marcus, his wife and any other threat. You need to follow him Boralays, and arrive just after he does and catch him in the act.”

Boralays nodded “Ok, I’ll try to round up a group. It could be an hour before we leave though.”

Nathaniel said “Jessa and Marcus are stopping at two Inns to take more time on the way back. Rathalie isn’t the roughing it type. He won’t push them to move on and camp out. You on the other hand can push on enough to close the gap and still arrive just after him. I’ll try to hold him up.”

Boralays sighed “He’s a powerful mage lord.”

Nathaniel said “But I can get inside his head. I know what he’s doing and why. His arrogance will do the rest, and we don’t have much choice. Plus, I fight dirty.”

Boralays nodded as the spell sphere disappeared. He went back into the room. This was going to be difficult but he decided to jump right in “I’ve just gained some shocking information. There have been some kidnappings and torture in Aunel, a small town near Adae. The one behind it has been proven as mage lord Vanel Rathalie.”

The others were clearly shocked. Enntalo said “Why would he do something like this?”

Boralays replied “I don’t know, but he is going to kill to keep this secret. We must move now. I’ll explain on the way.”

Tabitha Sergares stood up and said “Then we better get going, grab some gear and head for the stables.”

Dwine was slightly more cautious “How reliable is this information?”

Mistrandar said “Yes, how can we trust this? Vanel Rathalie is a widely respected mage lord.”

Boralays replied “The one who gave me this information is the most reliable, trustworthy and loyal man I know. Everything he does is for Weissland.”

Alicant nodded “Very well, that is good enough for me. What do we do? Go to the Archmage?”

Boralays said “No. We need to go after Vanel covertly. If he learns what is happening he will kill two mages who are with him and do not know that he is bringing them into a trap. Mistrandar, I want you to stay behind. If we fail to find or stop Rathalie, the Archmage will need to know what is going on. We will contact you in three and a half days with an update and you can inform the Archmage then. The rest of you gather some supplies and head for the stables.” The five mage lords left the room quickly while the sixth waited to gather his thoughts in stunned silence.

Chapter sixteen - A noble house humbled

The day finally came. Nathaniel knew that Jessa and Marcus would be arriving back at Aunel in a few hours. He was going to be ready though, he would meet them just south of the town, away from the citizens. The sun was out today, it was bright already, but there was still a cold wind and the sun offered little warmth. There was still much to do. As Nathaniel stood in the room he had been using to sleep in he pulled the brown leather belt around his waist and fastened it securely. His sword was already in the scabbard and he would take his staff as well. There could be no holding back in this, Rathalie was just an enemy now, and while Nathaniel was only a mage he would do everything in his power to stop Weissland’s enemies, regardless of whether he had a chance or not. Nathaniel still had an advantage, Rathalie did not know that Drakkon knew, which might give him a small opening to hit first and hit hard. Hopefully enough to keep the elf off balance so that Jessa and Marcus could get away and meet up with the mage lords.

Nathaniel went out into the corridor and headed to Raven’s room. Knocking, he stepped inside and found her staring out of the window. As he approached she said “There were some times, when it was quite nice to be here. Not anymore though, I wish this place did not exist.”

Nathaniel replied “That was my thinking.”

“What do you mean?” The noblewoman asked.

Nathaniel shook his head “No time for that, we’ve got to get moving quickly. Go down to the stables, prepare one horse and set the others loose. I’ve got a few things to finish up here.”

Raven nodded and left the room to do as he had asked. Nathaniel took one last look out of the window at the view at the back of the mansion, the trees stretching off into the distance until the canopy became so thick you could not see between the trees anymore, it was just a sea of green. The leaves were freshly grown, spring was beginning. He turned and left. There was much to do. First he went to the study and opened the door. He quickly began to carry piles of books out of the study, dumping them in a neat pile at the top of the stairs. It took a while, but eventually there were only really the journals left in the study. Nathaniel took them and neatly stacked them in the lobby with the first journal at the top. He calmly walked over to the storeroom door and opened it, revealing the now decaying bodies of the deceased servants. Casting a spell he lifted them up and levitated them down into the dungeon, following the macabre procession himself. As he laid the bodies down he quickly opened all of the doors, revealing each room once more as well as the guard room which contained its own quartet of corpses. Nathaniel returned to the lobby and picked up the first journal, quickly flicking through it until he was beyond the writings about Vanel’s father. He carefully tore these pages out of the book and dropped it to the ground. He did the same with two sections of the fifth book and one from the sixth. He neatly folded them and put them in the bag he had prepared. This was the evidence, this was the proof that Vanel Rathalie was a monster deserving of only death. A few at a time Nathaniel began to toss the journals down the stairs to form a pile there. With that done he prepared to leave. He spoke clearly, the words of the spell formed on his lips, and as he said the last word a jet of fire spurted from his outstretched hand and down the stairs directly into the books. The fire continued for almost a minute, spreading to the corpses nearby. Nathaniel walked away and stood in the lobby. He repeated the spell, creating a bonfire of the books at the top of the stairs. He cast several smaller fireballs into some of the rooms on the ground floor before walking out of the door to the grounds. He closed it behind him.

Nathaniel walked over to Raven and the horse, mounting up and then helping Raven up as well. He spurred the horse on to the open gates and raced through them, into the lightly wooded area beyond and heading for the town of Aunel. As they neared the town hall, Nathaniel pulled on the reins, forcing the horse to stop. Without waiting he jumped down from the horse and helped Raven down from the saddle. He walked through the town hall doors with her and spoke with the mayor. The mage was quick to explain that she needed to be hidden here until he or Jessa and Marcus returned. He made it clear that this was important, but did not tell mayor Brunton about Rathalie. The black-clad mage turned sharply, left the hall and got back on the horse, galloping hard to the south. As Nathaniel Drakkon rode on he quickly raised his magical defences, as much as he could muster. He also placed two enchantments on his sword, one to strengthen the blade and the other to make the weapon lighter in his hand. He thundered away from the town and as he went along the road he veered off and let the horse canter into a thick copse of trees. He stopped at the edge, a perfect place to watch the large area of scrub which sat on either side of the road ahead.

It was a while before they arrived but sure enough Nathaniel saw Jessa and Marcus trotting along with Vanel Rathalie. There were several guards walking on foot at either flank. Nathaniel counted ten guards. This would be difficult. He had to get Marcus and Jessa clear of the group. It was the only way. He took a deep breath and waited for them to get closer. The timing would be everything. He watched them walking towards him and as luck would have it both Jessa and Marcus were riding close together to one side of the traitorous elf. They were talking. He had no idea what about but they were looking forward. They would see him before Rathalie and his guards could act. Nathaniel could only hope this worked. He spurred the horse as hard as he could and bolted clear of the trees straight for the others. He rushed at them and as he went he said the words to a spell. He pointed at Rathalie who only stared in surprise. A blue lance of magic streaked towards him and hit the elf in the chest. He was flung from the saddle. Nathaniel had caused some damage but it would only be seconds before the mage lord raised his defences and struck back. Nathaniel wasted no time, slowing to launch a shard of ice the size of a leg at one guard, it punched through the man’s chest and he fell back. Nathaniel shouted “Jessa, Rathalie’s the traitor! Get out of here, ride south, dragon!” This last word caught her attention, a code they both used which meant Boralays was on the way.

Jessa simply nodded, drew her katana and turned her horse tightly. She sped away, slicing the throat of a guard as she went. He spun to the ground and hit at the same time as Marcus kicked a guard in the head and raced after his friend. Now Nathaniel had to keep Rathalie busy. He chanted the words to an illusion, casting an image of himself on a guard while seeming to disappear himself. In truth he was only concealed from the guards’ eyes. He moved his horse forward and while two guards attacked the one who now looked like Nathaniel he drew his sword and dealt with the one Marcus had kicked.

Nathaniel parried two strikes and swung in with one of his own but the guard was able to deflect it with his shield. The guards wore a matching uniform of a tunic over their chainmail. The tunic was split into three segments, the central section was dark blue and the other two sections were light blue. In the central segment there was a white circle with a grey wolf’s head within it. Nathaniel could only assume they were a mercenary company. Before either Nathaniel or the guard could continued the fight Vanel Rathalie made his move. The elven mage pointed his staff and spoke two words. That was all he needed to cast the spell. A dozen projectiles shaped like arrows, formed of fire, shot at Nathaniel. Three pierced the back of the guard, four hit Nathaniel’s horse which keeled over to one side. Two bounced off Nathaniel’s defences and the rest missed. As the horse fell the human mage jumped clear and rolled to his feet. This could be trouble, he thought. How can I possibly hold up a mage lord for more than a minute?

Vanel Rathalie eyed Nathaniel darkly “So, you figured it all out, my experiments, the disappearances. Clever boy, now die!” The elf just looked at Nathaniel and said a few words. Lightning shot from his icy blue eyes towards the mage, and Nathaniel had to leap aside to avoid it. The lightning churned up the ground where Nathaniel had stood moments before, twin lines of dust and gravel thrown up into the air coupled with scorch marks and an acrid smoke.

As Nathaniel pushed himself to his feet and looked back at his foe he noticed two of the other guards were dead. One was the man that had been covered by Nathaniel’s image by illusion. That guard had managed to kill one of his fellows when they turned on him. That left five guards. Nathaniel needed to stall “Did you tell these men what you are Rathalie? Did he tell you he is a traitor to Weissland? A monster who tortured innocent people! Even his own wife!” The five guards hesitated and that gave the bearded mage an opening. Quickly he spoke words of power to cast a strong spell. The five guards were lifted into the air by Nathaniel’s magic. Then, there was a cracking sound and all five of their necks snapped. Nathaniel finished by throwing the bodies at Rathalie. The elf dodged to one side and raised a hand, knocking the flying bodies out of his way. There was no way Nathaniel could have kept the guards alive, even if they had turned on Rathalie. The mage lord would have disposed of them in seconds. This way Nathaniel could hopefully begin to provoke the elf into making a fatal mistake, namely using the necromantic magic he had been preparing for since sixty years past. Rathalie had avoided justice by avoiding taint, if that changed then he would be brought to justice even if Nathaniel was not there to see it. He continued “You’re a traitor Rathalie. There is no way to justify your actions, they are despicable. What would your parents say about you now? What did they say when you cut into them? Where is your nobility now?”

The elven mage lord became enraged “You have no right to speak to me about such things! You and your petty heritage, do you think it means anything to me? For all your history it is but a footnote compared to my destiny!”

Nathaniel scoffed, ignoring the slight on his family in the hopes of wasting more time “Destiny? You’ve got to be joking elf. You could not even bring yourself to actually use necromancy; you just studied it in a round about way. You’re too much of a coward to use your knowledge.” It was foolish and would likely lead to a bad end, but Nathaniel needed to provoke the mage lord into using necromancy.

Vanel pointed his staff at Nathaniel and cast another lightning spell. Nathaniel could not move in time and the bolt hit him square on. It launched him backwards to the ground. Vanel said “I don’t think I’ll kill you just yet. It would be of more use to me to have a more lively experiment. Perhaps I will make you the first of my undead thralls, but probably not.”

Nathaniel began to sit up, his defences had held but just barely. He could not simply trade spells with Rathalie, Nathaniel needed to utilise his other skills. The sword and the fist would be of more use, as he knew that the elf was without a sword and would not know how to handle a brawler. More than this he had to continue working on the elf’s nerves. He stood up and said “Is that the best you can do? Where is your great power then Rathalie, where is your necromancy? I bet you can’t even raise a few dead bodies you weakling!” Without warning Nathaniel ran forward, his sword in hand. As he ran he called out the words to a spell, using his free hand to launch five small orbs of blue light at the elf.

Rathalie tensed, but the orbs all passed him far to the left. He smiled, and then began to laugh “You missed. Who is the weak one now?”

Nathaniel smiled even as he continued running forward “Perhaps you should check behind you to see if I missed or not.” Rathalie was about to reply, after all he would not turn away because of such a simple ruse. But then he thought about it for a second, Drakkon would not miss, unless he had done so on purpose. Vanel spun quickly, his robes fluttering as he did so. The orbs had travelled out and then began to curve and return, heading straight for him. By the time he cast a spell to stop them two of the orbs had hit him. He staggered slightly under the impact, but his defences had only been weakened. He turned back just in time to raise his staff to fend of a blow from Nathaniel’s sword. Nathaniel made two high strikes, followed by a wide slash at waist height. The elven mage struggled to deflect the sword with his staff, but it was protected by magic and each contact made a bright flash and sparks of energy flew off in all directions. Nathaniel made a low feign before slashing at Vanel. The elf moved back, the sword ripping the material of his robes. As Nathaniel raised his weapon for a high strike Vanel used his speed to hit Nathaniel in the gut with his staff. As Nathaniel doubled up in pain, the staff cracked off his back and he was slammed to his hands and knees. Holding the staff like some sort of spear, Vanel Rathalie thrust downwards with it, directly into the centre of Nathaniel’s shoulder blades. It did not pierce the flesh, but the spell cast on the staff gave off magical energy. This energy was driven directly into Nathaniel, through his defences and into his body. He roared in pain, but could do nothing.

Vanel Rathalie moved away from him and said “Let’s see what I can really do.” He was not facing Nathaniel; the elf was looking around at the dead bodies of the guards. He began to speak words of magic, foul words. As he spoke his staff glowed a sickly pale green before a beam of green light flashed out of the tip of the staff to hit each of the ten guard’s bodies in turn. A few moments went by as Nathaniel pushed himself up in time to see the first of the bodies spasm. They twitched and slowly, the guards scrabbled to their feet shambolically. They had been raised with necromantic magic as zombies.

Nathaniel got to his feet and got his sword into position as the zombies began to stumble towards him, arms outstretched and grasping, directed by their master. Nathaniel thought, finally he took the bait. Now that Rathalie had used necromancy, Nathaniel just needed to hold out until the others arrived and discovered Rathalie’s taint. Therein lay the problem, as while he could probably defeat the zombies, Rathalie was barely weakened. Instead the former mage lord was now unleashed, free to use his necromancy to its full potential. Nathaniel hacked the first zombie in the leg and as it fell he plunged his sword into the head to finish the thing off. The zombies were slowly beginning to surround him though, and Nathaniel slashed out to remove a forearm from one of the approaching undead. He backed up slightly, keeping his wits about him. Vanel stood off to one side and as Nathaniel kept the zombies at bay he lifted his hand into the air. The necromancer chanted a few dark words, and suddenly his hand burst into green flame. With a flick of the wrist he launched the fire at Nathaniel. The younger mage was quick to move aside and the fire instead hit one of the zombies obliterating it. With his defences gone, such an attack would have killed Nathaniel himself. As he ducked under the lazy swing of another zombie guard, he rose up behind it and took its head clean from its body. He thought, three down seven to go. Where are the others? Nathaniel knew that Rathalie was only flexing his muscles as it were. He was learning quickly exactly what he could do with necromancy. Nathaniel twisted and sliced the neck of a zombie, taking a second slash to properly destroy it. As he turned to keep as many zombies in view as possible he spoke several words to cast a spell. In his free hand a dark spear formed. He used it to stab a zombie in the gut to keep it away and used the spear as leverage to push the zombie sideways into another one. The second zombie staggered away, giving him some room. Nathaniel hacked the head from the impaled zombie before withdrawing the spear. This gave him some space and Nathaniel threw the black magic spear over arm at Rathalie. The necromancer deflected it with a glowing shield of light. As the spear rebounded and disappeared the shield shimmered like a prism, displaying a multitude of colour. Nathaniel ignored the failed attack to hack down another zombie, leaving only four of them standing. This was not about speed or power, it was about survival. He needed to waste time and keep Rathalie occupied. So far he had been successful. Nathaniel said “You don’t have many undead left. Once I’ve finished them you can’t bring them back again.” Even as he spoke Nathaniel swung out in a bloody arc, taking fingers from one zombie and carving a horrendous wound in the chest of another.

Vanel replied “I won’t need these undead again, not to deal with you. Take your time. I’d hate for you to get too tired before the game truly begins.” The blond elf paced back and forth, watching and waiting.

Nathaniel roared “Tired! I’ve barely gotten started here.” He kicked a zombie away and made two quick slashes diagonally at the one armed zombie before thrusting his sword into its heart. The zombie dropped away even as one of the last zombie guards grabbed hold of him. Instantly Nathaniel slammed a fist into the zombie’s head, pushing it back to hack the head off. He spun away and moved clear of the final two zombies. A spurt of flame from his outstretched palm dealt with the foul creatures though. Nathaniel turned to face Vanel Rathalie. He goaded “I know you’re too weak to accept, but why not finish this like a man in close combat. Unless you’re spineless. That’s probably why you cut on innocent women and children.”

The elf’s face reddened. He growled “I am beyond such petty insults. I did what I had to do to achieve my objectives. Even with my failure of a wife. She could not even give me an heir.”

Nathaniel shouted back “You’re scum! You used her. Maybe you just were not up to the task. What’s the matter Rathalie? Don’t quite measure up in that respect?”

Vanel smiled slightly “Did I touch a nerve there?”

Nathaniel tried to contain his anger “You’ve been working on my last nerve since you opened your cursed mouth!”

The elven necromancer replied “Let’s see how much you use your mouth after I hit you with this.” Without warning he launched a torrent of necromantic magic at Nathaniel.

The mage was hit even as he tried to jump to one side. The energy hit his left side, arm and leg. As he dropped to the ground Nathaniel rolled and writhed in agony. Vanel began walking towards him chanting the words to another spell. Nathaniel was trying to pull himself together. He looked up in time to see the elf engulfed in a purple haze. As this subsided Vanel breathed heavily, his muscles bulging, his strength had been increased by a combination of augmentative magic and necromancy. It was running in his veins and a green fog emanated from his eyes. Still, despite the pain Nathaniel stood and renewed his attack, sword in hand. Each time he swung and swiped and thrust the necromancer was able to move mere inches out of harm’s way. Nathaniel managed to get a lucky hit in, cutting Vanel’s upper right arm. It was not a deep wound but it was a start. Before he could capitalise on this the traitor struck out with his staff. The enhanced weapon smashed across Nathaniel’s temple before Rathalie hammered his sword arm and knee. Nathaniel tried to bring his sword down for another attack but Rathalie was waiting. With one hand he gripped Nathaniel’s wrist piercing the flesh with unnatural nails. As he winced in pain the staff connected with his ribs twice. The sword was tossed out of his grip and the world swam and lurched sickeningly as once more the staff cracked into his skull. He heard the staff thrown aside in triumph but Nathaniel said “Is that the best you’ve got?”

Nathaniel could do nothing as Vanel Rathalie grabbed him by the throat and started to lift him up. The strengthening spell and the necromantic energy coursing through the elf’s veins gave him strength far beyond anyone of his height or weight. As Nathaniel was lifted clear of the ground and held up above his opponent, Vanel laughed “You fool. You cannot defeat me, you cannot stop me.”

Nathaniel grunted and struggled for breath. He managed to look down at Vanel Rathalie and said “One way or another a lot of you villains seem to pick me up by the throat. This gives me a great chance to knee you in the face.” Before Vanel could react, Nathaniel brought his knee up with as much force as he could muster. His knee connected with the elf’s face. Both of them fell to the ground, Nathaniel landing heavily on top of his foe. He got to his feet first and kicked Vanel in the gut for good measure saying “That was for insulting me.” He turned and took a step away, before turning back and angrily kicking the mage lord again “That was just because I felt like it.” The black-clad mage walked away looking around for his sword. He could not keep this up much longer. Lightning arced from Vanel’s hand. It smashed into Nathaniel and electricity surged through his body. He stood there, shaking, unable to do anything. Nathaniel had to say something, do something to keep the necromancer busy. Only one word came to mind “Coward!”

The lightning stopped and Nathaniel fell forward to the ground, coughing and trying to regain control of his limbs. He managed to pull himself up to his knees, but no further. Vanel Rathalie moved forward and around the kneeling mage. He had his staff in his hand and smiled wickedly. He said “Not so impressive now are you? I’ve won.”

Nathaniel spat “You’re a traitor and a necromancer. All that awaits you is death at the hands of someone loyal to Weissland. It doesn’t matter if it’s me or not, your fate is sealed. Necromancy is despicable, a perversion of life, you cannot justify it. You tried in your petty little journals, but you failed. You are a failure!”

“Necromancy is both vulgar and sublime. Necromancy is everything, it is power, and only fools would deny that power.” Vanel declared loudly as he gloated over Nathaniel. He continued to circle the mage.

As Nathaniel knelt, slumped on the ground he shouted, starting quiet and getting louder “If that makes someone a fool. I must be the clown prince because I deny all necromancy!”

Rathalie whipped round with his staff, hitting Nathaniel across the side of the face, knocking him over. The elf growled “In the dirt cur, that is where your kind belongs!”

Nathaniel coughed and pushed himself up to his knees again, refusing to just stay down. He was bleeding from multiple cuts and contusions were forming. He managed to say “This dirt washes off though. You have stained your very soul with your betrayal of Weissland and everything we stand for!”

The elven necromancer replied wearily “I grow tired of this. I grow tired of your constant defiance. Time for you to die and end another pitiful chapter in the history of Weissland’s human nobility.” He placed the blue gemstone on the top of his staff directly against Nathaniel’s neck. This was an execution. Still Nathaniel refused to be bowed, looking directly at Vanel Rathalie with hatred burning in his eyes. They both heard the noise; the sound of hoof beats was very close. Nathaniel wondered why he had not heard it sooner, but realised he was focussed too much on what was happening to have heard.

Before Rathalie could react the horses rode up behind and a booming voice shouted “Stay your hand Rathalie or we will surely destroy you! We can all smell the stink of necromancy on you.”

The necromancer turned and inclined his head. He left Nathaniel to simply sit there as he said “Mage lord Boralays, and you’ve brought an audience. You will witness quite a show; my power is beyond yours now, as it always was before. You pathetic little human!” He raised his staff and free hand towards Jarroth Boralays, focussing on him and not the others. He spoke a few words and green necromantic lightning leapt from his hand and staff, striking out harshly at Boralays.

But Boralays and the others had been prepared, their defences were in place and while the lightning managed to weaken his protection and hurt him slightly Boralays raised his own staff in response. The others followed suit, each beginning to speak words to their own spells. Even Jessa and Marcus were ready to strike. Even as the power began to build Nathaniel dragged himself to his feet and ran before jumping aside and rolling away. He then turned around and said a few quick words himself. Vanel could do little as Tabitha Sergares formed a massive ball of fire the size of a boulder. Jhaelra Fwenlyren pulled dirt and stone from the ground nearby, raising it up with magic and compacted the pieces together into several large projectiles. Carsidhor Enntalo used his magic quickly, dozens of green vines bursting from the earth around Vanel Rathalie to hold him in place and constrict him. Dwine Gilbarnd and Jarroth Boralays both glowed with coloured energy as they prepared to unleash bolts of pure magic. Jessa and Marcus hammered Rathalie’s formidable defences with blasts which normally would have knocked someone down, but he was held up by the vines, forced to take each impact standing. This gradually began to weaken his protection. Sergares sent the massive fireball hurtling at him, setting his clothes and hair on fire, burning him badly. The earth projectiles smashed into him and the necromancer screamed and howled in pain. Boralays and Gilbarnd continued to hit the elf with bolt after bolt of magic, everything they could muster. Finally as Nathaniel finished his spell, a huge lance of blue energy formed in the air in front of the ragged mage. Rathalie was turned inexorably to face Nathaniel even as the deluge of magical attacks against him slowed then stopped. The vines retreated under ground, the flames burnt out and Nathaniel shouted a final word. The sharp lance of blue energy which seemed surrounded in smoke shot through the air at great speed, creating a sound like a thunderclap. It punched into Rathalie’s chest and sent the elf flying backwards with a shocked expression on his face. He landed with a wet thud several metres away, the magical lance impaled through him and a steadily growing pool of blood forming beneath him, soaking into the tattered remains of his grey and multicoloured robes.

Nathaniel fell down to one side, exhausted from his ordeal. He could barely feel hands reaching out to him and healing magic cast over him like a wave.


It must have been an hour or more before Nathaniel had recovered enough to stand and speak. Boralays finally asked “What exactly was going on here Nathaniel? Why would Rathalie do this?”

Nathaniel sighed “I do not think anyone alive can truly answer that. Rathalie was experimenting on the people of Aunel. He kidnapped men, women and children and used magic on them, cut them and tortured them. He was learning the limits of the mortal body, what it took to kill someone. What it took to injure, how the body healed as well. He used that along with study into necromantic texts to learn how to raise the dead, how to destroy the living and manipulate existence without actually using necromancy. Thus he avoided taint, until now.”

Dwine said “That’s what I don’t understand. If he spent so long avoiding the use of necromancy, why use it now?”

Nathaniel replied “It’s simple really. I made him show his hand, I revealed his secrets to myself, and to you. He could no longer hide and had nothing left to lose. He came here to eliminate me, Jessa, Marcus, Rathalie’s wife and anyone else here in Aunel who knew about this. Then he would have simply vanished. He would have gone into hiding until his forces were ready to strike and with the power he was wielding, a great many lives could have been lost if he had escaped.”

Sergares, who knew Nathaniel from other missions said “But Nathaniel, how did you find out it was Vanel Rathalie?”

Nathaniel looked at her cold features and responded “He had written a great many journals in his mansion to the north-east of the town. I searched through them for clues but it was not until I reached the oldest ones that I put the pieces in place. They described similar experiments in Cirulienalysai sixty years ago. I already knew about a similar spate of disappearances in Cirulienalysai at this exact time. From this it was obviously an elf; no human has that kind of lifespan. The very first victim was his father, Varnol Rathalie, and the second victim was Shivare Elarond, his mother.”

Marcus interrupted “His parents? He did this to his own parents as well as his wife? Sick bastard!”

Nathaniel said angrily “Yes, which is why he needed to be stopped. I think that was the crux of the matter. Vanel Rathalie harboured a deep-seeded hatred of his parents for not marrying and having him born out of wedlock. When Raven Serasai, his wife, was unable to give him a child he turned on her as well. That is why there was a gap of almost sixty years between these disappearances and the ones in Cirulienalysai.”

Enntalo asked “You spoke of journals, where are they? We should investigate them for information.”

Nathaniel eyed him harshly and said “Why would you need to do that? They are the journals of a necromancer, not exactly good bed-time reading.”

Enntalo replied “Granted but they could provide a valuable insight into why Vanel fell. More than that, those journals should be prevented from falling into the wrong hands. They should be locked away in the tower of Ataya.”

Nathaniel turned away and said “They already are in the right hands, out of the reach of everyone.”

At roughly the same time Boralays was saying “Where are the journals then?”

Even as the other mage lords were about to respond to what Nathaniel had said he answered Boralays question. He pointed north-east to a pall of heavy smoke rising into the air “The journals were in the mansion. I made sure there would be nothing left of the building or the dungeon below. They were a blight on this land, and the people of Aunel would never be able to move on with that building casting its dark shadow over their lives.”

Jhaelra shouted “But now there is no evidence, there is no way to prove Vanel Rathalie was behind this beyond our testimonies of his taint.”

Nathaniel slowly walked over to the dead body of his horse. He took a small sack from the saddle and walked back to the assembled group. He tossed the sack at the feet of Jhaelra and pronounced “You want proof, that’s your bloody proof. A handful of pages from the first journal as well as the fifth and sixth journals, which I kept for you. It is more than enough evidence for you or even the Archmage, and more than that it will not give any of you any insight into necromancy. We don’t learn necromancy for a reason, mage lords should know that best of all.”

Jhaelra replied brusquely “I don’t want to learn about necromancy. I resent the implication that we would mage. I only want what information will be required to satisfy the council and the Archmage. This is a gravely serious matter, I don’t think you understand how serious.”

Nathaniel looked at her with cold eyes and said darkly “Somehow I can’t seem to care about what you think.” He pushed past the mage lords and took a horse, climbing up into the saddle. He said "None of you came here to investigate this. Most of you spend all your time tucked up nice and safe inside the tower of Ataya. If you will not look into the shadows to see what threat is waiting there for us, I will force you to." At a gallop he began to ride north towards Aunel, despite the injuries which still plagued him. Jessa and Marcus followed silently as the mage lords continued their discussion with a mixture of anger and confusion. Together the three mages went to say their goodbyes to the people and find Raven Serasai.

Epilogue - Vulgar and Sublime

Several weeks had passed since Nathaniel had returned to Ataya and he was healing remarkably well despite the serious injuries he had sustained. Marcus and Jessa had visited him when time had allowed. Soon he would be fit to resume his duties. Raven Seresai had no family left in Crint, and had given over her wealth to Vanel, so Nathaniel had taken her to his estate to be a guest for as long as she wished. She would never truly be the same as before her experiences, such was to be expected, but perhaps in time she would rebuild her life. He had made sure that the money from the guards, the money held by the money lender who had fled before Nathaniel returned, as well as a substantial amount of Nathaniel’s own money, had been given to the people of Aunel. Most of them had lost money to the money lender and the balance had to be reset.

Nathaniel was sitting at his desk in his room. He finished writing and leant back to read over the letter. With it suitably done he folded the paper and placed it within the envelope. Nathaniel sealed it with wax and stamped it with the Drakkon family crest, before placing the letter aside. He would get Jessa to send messengers out with each letter when she arrived later in the day. The only information he had used from the vile journals of Vanel Rathalie was the names of those who had been victims to his vile experiments. He had written to the families to explain what had happened, to pass on his condolences and make it clear that he would make sure such a tragedy was never forgotten. While they had managed to save many of the people from Aunel, not all were as lucky as most had been injured or experimented upon. Standing up, Nathaniel Drakkon walked over to the window to look out over the city of Ataya, or at least what little he could see from it. The sun was shining. He would contact Nerris at the tower. Nathaniel knew that these events must be recorded, but he was not the man for this task.

Nerris was another mage, one who specialised in research and recording. He would capture every exacting detail, everything right. Nerris was not overly imaginative, for him it was about the preciseness, the correctness of history. Nathaniel thought that if Nerris had shown no signs of magical gift he would have been a writer. Not of fiction, but of history and myth and legend. Only those things which were past, for such things were real to him and required as much of a telling as any made-up story of disproportioned heroics and opposing opinions with no shades of grey. Nathaniel knew that the facts were what was needed here, cold, hard, incorruptible facts. Facts are neither vulgar nor sublime, thought Nathaniel Drakkon as he watched the day pass from his window.

He had been approached by a few individuals regarding the events in Aunel. When he was able he would meet with them again. What they had wanted to discuss with him was intriguing, and quite likely worth pursuing. But for now, he needed rest and contemplation. After all, in a month’s time he would be on a mission, he had been informed that he was to escort a shipment of supplies from Ledek, important supplies. But that was not the information which would be circulated.

No comments: