Selmain, Avery and Thalius walked hurriedly along the path towards the shelter the men had erected in a small dell along the side of the mountain path. They had left Gallus behind while they went in search of something to hunt. Between them they had only found a couple of hares, which didn’t bode well for their grumbling stomachs. Even Selmain, who used his powers over the ether to hunt, had struggled. This little patch of mountainous land seemed devoid of animal life.
Avery and Thalius had given several reasons as to why this might be, but it was Selmain who guessed the true explanation. For now he was keeping it to himself, he didn’t want to prematurely excite his friends into expecting a battle where there might not be one to be found.
“Who was Gallus writing to when we left?” Thalius asked when silence had fallen upon the trio of hunters.
“Do we look like his personal secretaries friend?” Avery chuckled.
“Well you might not, but that stringy fellow over there does.”
“Oh yes?” Selmain countered calmly, a whisper of a smile pulling on to his long face. He had been wondering how long it would take for either of his companions to placate their boredom by reverting to their favoured pastime of bating him. “How so?”
“Well the pair of you have enjoyed rather more intimate discussions than either of us have since we left the palace. Take the other day for example, neither of you have told us why we came upon you lying in the grass locked in a mutual trance. And I might also add that he has been out of sorts ever since!” Thalius grumbled happily.
“Perhaps Gallus finds the pair of you too slow-witted to engage in meaningful conversation.”
“Slow-witted indeed,” Avery chuckled while Thalius snorted in amusement.
“However, I am afraid to tell you that if you are wondering whether our illustrious sovereign reveals all his innermost secrets to me then you are greatly mistaken. I have no idea who Gallus might be writing to.”
“You agree though that the look upon his face merits this a discussion worth having,” Avery quickly cut in, seeing a look of concern cross the mage’s face. Selmain grinned wryly and shook his head.
“Perhaps he had a bad bout of indigestion?”
“Are you telling me…” Thalius roared raucously. “That Gallus the Great was looking out of sorts while sitting down to write a pressing piece of correspondence because he had the runs?”
“We mustn’t rule these things out,” the tall man countered soberly, though his expression seemed as full of mirth as it ever did when he was thoroughly enjoying himself.
“Well I think he is writing to Eunus,” Avery announced earning another snort from Thalius in response.
“And why might that be?”
“Oh, just an inkling that is all.”
“No, I wager he writes Thais,” the largest of the three companions countered. “Telling her to get back to the palace sharpish or a hiding might be in order.”
“I would like to see the king try and hide that one,” Avery laughed. “Half of him would hate himself for doing so while the other half struggled with the logistics of trying to pin that girl down. In the end the two halves would almost certainly give up and then wage war on one another probably resulting in him hiding himself for his troubles.”
“I do wonder whether the pair of you ever listen when anyone speaks save yourselves,” Selmain mused aloud, his clear strong voice easily carving a path through Thalius’ drain-like laughter.
“Oh yes? Pray, what have we done to earn such a slanderous affront on our characters?” Avery asked merrily.
“Well had you listened to our friend at all over the past few weeks then you might have noticed that he has no means to write his brother or his daughter as he has no idea where either of them are.”
Avery glanced to his closest friend who merely shrugged his shoulders. There was little to say in response to so true a statement.
“Come now Selmain,” Thalius spoke up at last. “We speak in jest. Besides, we all know that were Gallus to send a letter to either Eunus or Thais then the former would not be able to read it and the latter would not be willing.”
“Drop your weapons!”
The three men stopped in their tracks and turned to one another in surprise, although Selmain’s surprise seemed several degrees less dramatic than that of his friends; he had been expecting something like this. The crisp angry shout came once more, “I said drop your weapons! Slowly! I have ten archers aiming straight at your city dwelling heads. So I’d listen if I were you.”
As though to prove the point, three arrows landed at the feet of the men, who looked up from the menacing missiles to catch one another’s eye. Avery and Thalius raised their eyebrows in Selmain’s direction, who merely nodded ever so slightly in response.
“That’s right, on the ground,” the voice cried out from the darkness beside the mountain path, as Avery and Thalius slowly leant over to deposit their swords and daggers upon the frosty gravel. “Take twenty paces back!”
Again the two men sought out Selmain’s reassuring gaze, but the mage had shut his eyes and seemed to be tilting his head back slightly. Thalius grumbled inwardly, This is not the time to meditate mage.
Silence filled the path and the darkness seemed to encroach upon the men as they stood defenceless in the wintry night, their skin crawling with the notion that an unknown number of archers were making them the target of an array of lethal arrows.
“We have done as you asked,” Avery called out into the abyss. “Show yourself.”
Laughter echoed all around, causing Thalius and Avery to adopt a ready stance, their keen eyes darting to and fro into the darkness. Selmain, for all pretences and purposes, seemed to have dozed off.
“As you wish,” the miserable man growled before noise deafened the straining ears of the victims out on the path. From all around shouting half dressed barbarian men poured onto the path bearing double-ended axes and short swords. Wild matted manes surrounded their fierce faces, which were painted red and white and upon their hairy tattooed chests each man wore the tusks of wild boar.
“Helvetet!” Thalius roared in fury. He hadn’t encountered their kind in many a long year. The men of the north rarely strayed so far west, but times were changing and territories evolving. There were virgin mountains to terrorise and the Helvetet of the north were always on the hunt for fresh meat.
“Thalius,” Avery warned and he moved closer to his friend. “Keep calm.”
“I know,” the spy replied shortly. “Just, keep calm. Look at the mage.”
Thalius glanced at Selmain to see the mage still stood with his eyes closed. Having fought beside one another before, the large warrior knew what this meant. He nodded to Avery to show he was ready.
“Selmain,” Avery whispered. The Helvetet were closing in around them. It would seem that shooting them with arrows was not an honourable way to kill the unarmed men. They wanted to pleasure of hand-to-hand combat. “Whenever you are ready.”
The mage did not respond leaving Thalius and Avery to move closer to him and stand back to back with the mage between them. The filthy men of the north were very close now.
“Mage! Now would be a good time…” Thalius began hoarsely, before he jumped in surprise. In front of him a Helvetet warrior fell to his knees with a gurgled cry. Thalius’ sword had emerged straight through his chest and found its way into the tall warrior’s hand, seemingly on its own accord.
Sparing no time Thalius gripped the blood soaked handle and lumbered over the dead man, bringing his sword up to meet the long spear of another Helvetet. The Denarien warrior hacked firmly at the spear, forcing the man holding it to fall back. The Helvetet stumbled forward once more only to find the tall Denarien warrior’s sword sliding out from under his ribcage. Thalius kicked the Northman down to the ground before wheeling around to find another inches from his back.
He roared angrily, the hilt of his sword ready to crack the man’s head open, but there was no need. Blood was trickling out of the Helvetet’s mouth where Thalius was amazed to see the glistening point of a knife. The Northman slowly crumbled to the ground leaving the blood stained knife that had killed him hanging in mid air. Thalius glanced to the mage, who still stood stock still, his eyes closed.
“Selmain,” the burly warrior chuckled, as he spun around to find another Northman wielding a heavy axe bearing down on him. “I owe you one mage.”
Avery darted through the chaos, dropping to his hands and knees as a large metal mace raised to the ground at his side, lifted by the invisible hand of the ether. The spy knew exactly what was about to happen and grimaced at the Northmen charging towards him, their weapons raised.
He covered his head with his arms as the first of the men exploded in a gruesome bloody mess. The others seemed slow-witted at first and quite astonished by what had happened to their unfortunate comrade. Then they saw it. They cried out in terror at first and then they tried to run, but it was too late, the mace was upon them, whirling through the air so quickly it appeared as a deadly blur in darkness. Avery glanced up to see a row of men severed in two below the stationary mace, which had come to a stop in mid air once more.
The spy glanced around to see Selmain stood unmoving in the centre of a circle of destruction. The mace had managed to kill and maim most of the marauding Helvetet in one foul swoop, yet the mage had not moved a muscle. It was at times like these that Avery feared Selmain.
“Avery!” the jeering cry of Thalius came and quickly the spy spun round to see his good friend battling two of the Northmen with ease. “Pick up a sword and do something! There’s a good man.”
Laughing away his momentary unease at Selmain’s tactics, Avery ran towards Thalius, stooping to collect his sword from the ground. A tall powerful Northman rounded on the wiry Denarien spy and roared. With heavy lumbering steps the barbarian galloped across the path, bearing down upon Avery with a deathly expression. Avery held his ground and stared coldly into the Helvetet’s eyes. His fingers twitched around the handle of his sword as the barbarian approached, but still he stayed rooted to the spot.
At the last moment, when an axe whirred past Avery’s head, the spy dropped to the ground and rolled away from the lumbering Northman. Within seconds he was on his feet and with a lightning speed the attacking Helvetet had not expected, Avery planted his sword squarely between the shoulder blades of the gargantuan barbarian. The gurgling Northman dropped to his knees revealing a scene that jarred Avery’s heart.
“Thalius! Archer! Behind you!”
There was an agonised scream, a truly blood curdling scream and then there was silence as everyone stared in terror at the body kneeling in the middle of the path.
“Douvel! Douvelmanne!” The cries went up in a mighty bellow of terrified rage, before all of a sudden the Helvetet disappeared into the darkness. The sound of them running from the one they had named the Demon Man eventually dissipated leaving Selmain staring in wonder at the corpse of the archer upon the ground. A pool of mottled lumpy blood was growing around it.
For a heart-stopping moment all Selmain could fathom was the dead man; his eyes saw nothing but the splayed limbs, his ears heard nothing but the rustling of the wind over the mane of matted hair. Even the cold seemed to disappear into the frozen moment where only the dead man and what he had done seemed to matter.
“Selmain!” Avery’s hands upon his shoulders brought Selmain from his trance and with wild eyes the mage turned to stare at his friend. “What have you done?”
“He was…” A long finger was pointed towards the dead barbarian upon the floor; while beside him Thalius was staring in shock at the corpse, only inches from his feet. “The arrow…”
“Come, we must flee this place,” Avery insisted, taking hold of Selmain by his riding cloak and dragging him up the path. As they passed the stunned Thalius Avery gently kicked the large man and nodded for him to follow. They stooped to pick up their remaining weapons before they walked briskly from the scene in a stunned silence until the stench of the battle had been left behind.
Thalius came to a stop and stared at the mage with a look that might have been called fearful were it not adorning the face of a warrior such as Thalius. Selmain, sensing the eyes boring into him stopped too and with him Avery came to a halt. Everyone stared.
After a few moments Selmain walked away from the other two down the path towards their camp. His feet trudged on and his eyes stared ahead despondently. Avery cast Thalius a desperate look before he ran after the mage.
“Selmain,” the spy urged. “Please stop.”
But Selmain did not stop. Tirelessly he trudged on, unresponsive to Avery’s attempts to get him to slow down. Eventually the shorter man grabbed the mage’s shoulders and shook him roughly.
“Damn it Selmain! We have to talk about what just happened!”
Finally the mage responded and he snapped wide hazel eyes onto Avery’s concerned face. Frantically he fell away from the spy and backed into a bare tree trunk.
“Get away!” Selmain cried out manically. “Get away from me!”
Avery stepped back in worry as the tree started bending towards him threateningly. A fierce wind blew around him making him lose his footing and with a crunch he fell to the ground.
“Selmain!” Thalius’ powerful voice boomed and instantly the wind dropped. The tall warrior managed to drag a wincing Avery to his feet before he turned on the mage. There were tears streaming down Selmain’s face.
“You broke the code Selmain,” Thalius spoke plainly.
The code; yes, Selmain had broken the sacred code. In the Book of Aius it was proclaimed that the body was sacred. To use ether in the body was to be damned. The will of Aius has no place in the flesh of men. This is what every sensitive had been taught to believe and yet, Selmain had broken the code.
The image of the barbarian’s chest bubbling, bleeding, bursting was seared into the minds of all who had witnessed the expulsion of his lungs. Selmain had done the unthinkable; he had reached within the Helvetet’s very body and stolen from him his lungs. There were names for people who perpetrated such heinous crimes. During the gory battles for independence from the southern tyrant the Emperor Thayos, there had been hideous tales spread through the Denarien ranks of southern mages, who were feared above all others for their breaking of the sacred code during battle. The Heart Stealer, the Blood Thief, the Brain Burner, such were their hideous names. Every government and every army in the Agea publicly deplored such immoral activity, but there were those who still practiced the dark art. There were still those who reached into a man’s very body and pulled out his innards using a force the poor unsuspecting victim had no power to defend himself against.
Selmain dropped to the floor at the base of the tree and wrapped his arms around his knees. He seemed a broken man. Thalius helped Avery limp over and they both sat down at the mage’s side.
“Selmain,” Avery offered quietly. “We need not tell Gallus.”
The mage’s eyes lifted to look at Avery through disbelief and anger. Thalius too seemed surprised.
“Of course we must tell him,” the tall burly warrior uttered softly.
“Why?” Avery countered. “He did not intend to break the code. He saved your life Thalius. You would not have survived were it not for Selmain’s quick actions. He was acting upon instincts. It was not a concerted effort to break the code.”
Thalius sighed heavily, before eventually he nodded.
“All sensitives lose control when they panic do they not?” he finally spoke, his eyes seeking out Selmain once more.
“Yes, they do,” Avery agreed. “Basic Response, that is what they call it right? Selmain?”
The mage trembled slightly, before he nodded.
“Yes…basic Response.” The words seemed quieter than a whisper.
“Well then,” Avery insisted and he reached out to clap his hand around Selmain’s skinny shoulders. “We will put it down to that. Selmain there is no need to destroy everything you have worked so hard to build for a Basic Response on a barbarian murderer who was about to shoot your friend in the back.”
Selmain shook while he exhaled, before finally he nodded. The ramifications of his actions would haunt him from this day on and though he did not truly understand how this was going to shape the rest of his life, for now he needed to be practical. His friends were offering him a chance he would need to be a fool to turn down.
“I must tell Gallus,” the mage whispered through his despair. There lay anger in his broken face. “But when all this is through and we return to Titua. You cannot stop me when we return.”
Thalius and Avery exchanged a glance and nodded. They needed to get Selmain into a somewhat normal state before they returned to the camp. Privately they vowed to never let the mage tell their friend the king of what transpired, but for now that did not matter. For now they needed to get Selmain functioning again to pretend he had not just broken the most important law in the Agea.