Mount Ares, 7 B.U. (Before Unification)
Snow was already falling fast as the cloaked figure began his ascent up the east face of Mount Ares. The howling of the wind combined with the thick fur hood of the man’s anorak soon blocked out the sounds of the battle behind them, but a hasty glance over his shoulder reminded him of the slaughter happening not too far beneath. Flames blazed and smoke billowed from charred buildings, and the man watched as a copse of nearby pine trees caught fire, the bright oranges and yellows of the flames flickering against the sea of snow whipping across the landscape. Faint screams and distant clashes of metal compelled him to turn away from the haunting image and continue his climb, which took him over a ridge in the mountain’s foothills and down into the woods beyond.
Here he was more sheltered from the blizzard but the snow was similarly deep and was getting deeper by the minute. Each step was getting harder now, not helped by the small but weighty bundle the figure cradled in his arms. Every few steps he would gaze down at the bundle, as if reassuring himself his cargo was still there, before continuing to trudge on through the snow storm. He knew he could not afford to stop moving despite the hostile conditions – depending on the intelligence and efficiency of the soldiers currently assailing the town, he might not have long before riders would be sent out in pursuit. Whilst the snows would undoubtedly slow the horses as well, the man did not fancy his chances of outrunning his pursuers.
As it turned out, pursuit from riders was the least of the figure’s worries. Unbeknownst to him a pack of Dire wolves had caught the scent of the panicked traveller. The wolves were currently sheltering in caves dotted along the south face of Mount Ares about a hundred feet above the forest, having been driven up there by the approach of the army currently destroying the village. Food sources were scarce in the area at the best of times, but this winter had been particularly harsh and the soldiers had hunted most of the native wildlife, forcing the Dire wolves to desperation. The past few days had seen them preying on small animals such as the occasional ice fox but they were eager for a more satisfying hunt to slake their thirst for blood. A meagre human would not be enough to feed the whole pack, but would at least tide them over until the soldiers departed and they could descend to gorge on the corpses of men and horses left behind.
Largest of the beasts was a muscular, vicious looking wolf with a coat of rough fur matted with dried blood and dirt. It sniffed the air blowing in the entrance to the cave and growled hungrily. Turning its head back into the cave it barked at the other wolves assembled there, snapping its sinewy jaws harshly at the nearest. It raised its head sharply skywards and let out an eerie howl, which carried on the wind across the mountain and reached the frostbitten ears of the fur clad figure, who hastily increased his pace. Within an instant a score of Dire wolves burst forth from the caves, pale grey shadows flying down the snowy slopes towards the trees.
The figure cursed under his breath and turned away from the mountain, almost running now through the thick snows towards the nearby river. Ordinarily the water in the river would be flowing fast, bringing crisp clean water through the forest from its source high up in Mount Ares, but the bitter frost had claimed the river just a few days ago and now the water lay still in icy sheets. Almost tripping as he reached the river bank, the figure caught his balance and focused on the other side, about 15 metres away. He took a deep breath and then with one graceful jump cleared the river and reached the other side, landing in the deep snow and rolling slightly, cradling the bundle in his arms as he fell. The figure rose sharply and uttered a few short soft syllables that seemed to hang in the air for a second before fading into the surrounding snow. An almighty crack reverberated throughout the forest as the river ice split in two and in the blink of an eye melted into water. Snow fell from the branches of the pine trees as the ice continued to shatter up towards the mountain and suddenly water gushed down the river again, carving a path through the snow as it went. That should delay the wolves for a short while, thought the figure, but they are still much faster than me across the snow and I will need some time once I reach a safe place for the incantations. He turned away from the freshly thawed river and his eyes fixed on a hollow hidden halfway up the next ridge.
“Where’s the Orb?” barked the grizzled man to the meagre crowd knelt before him. “We have good information that it was hidden in this village and we will not cease until it is found!” In front of him was a group of five, three of which were young children and two of which were women, one wrinkled and worn and the other younger yet no less haggard, cradling the youngest child in her arms. “Don’t think you’ll get pity from me, you know full well what you are!” spat the man, dressed in thick leather armour and furs, wielding a notched and bloodied sword in his left hand. He paced up and down as his subordinates watched, their swords and bows pointed towards the five knelt in the middle of a circle of soldiers. Fire raged around them and embers crackled from a fallen strut to the left of them as the man turned once more to face his captives.
“Freaks, the lot of you! Cavorting with foul magicks and sorcery; oppressing our people for generations! If you expect me to show you kindness you’re hopelessly naïve.” A vein swelled and pulsed on the man’s scarred forehead, threatening to burst from sheer fury alone. Still the five kneeling remained silent, except for the faint crying of the youngest child, clasped to his mother’s breast. “I will not ask again,” strained the man through gritted teeth, “We know you had the Orb here – where is it now? Tell me and I shall endeavour to make your deaths swift and painless. Refuse my offer and I shall kill that mewling brat of yours first and make the others watch.”
At this the old woman raised her head and stood, slowly and shakily, yet purposefully, to her feet. Snow fell around her and landed in her grey nest of hair as she fixed her piercing blue eyes on the man.
“What is your name, you who come to our village, burn our homes, massacre our people and threaten our children?” Her voice was soft and almost lost on the wind, but an inner fire fuelled her speech and her words seared into the minds of all those listening. The man lowered his sword and turned to face the woman, a distasteful smirk forming on his lips.
“I am General Alver Eorlund. Why? Do you know my name? None of your kind cared to know my name before, why should it matter now? When I was being made to forge your swords, mould your armour; shape your shields – when I was made to forge the very chains I was forced to wear every day of my life, do you think one miserable, filthy Olossa bothered to ask my name?” He spat at the ground with more fire and venom than the cinders that sparked from the burning timbers around him. “To you we were just a sea of nameless, faceless scum to be used as you saw fit. But then we learned your secret, oh yes! Your greatest strength and your greatest weakness, isn’t that right?! And once we find the Orb, and grasp it in our hands as you once did we shall possess the power - and you? You will be the nameless, faceless scum you thought us to be.”
There was a tense silence that hung in the air, louder than the crackling of the fires and the whistling of the wind, which lay undisturbed until the old woman’s voice sounded again.
“I am Maelaan of the Air Spire. We stood against the mistreatment of your kind. Save for the grace of Yrr’Dari, our peoples are not too dissimilar. My son Ambriel took a human bride, and she was more beloved by us than any one of the Olossa who follow the false king Fortis. People – nay, creatures – like Fortis and you, Alver Eorlund, will only aim to bring pain and suffering to our world. I cannot permit that. My granddaughter will not live in a world that cowers in the shadows of your prejudice and hatred.” Maelaan turned to look at the woman still kneeling on the muddy ground, the three children clinging to her sodden robes. She straightened up as far as her back would allow her, and fixed the general with another fierce glare. “The Orb was never here, not that it matters. You will never reach it.”
With one deep breath the fires feeding on the wooden houses leapt towards Maelaan, dancing across the sky and twirling around her. Several of the guards let loose their arrows but these were engulfed by the madly weaving flames and turned to ash and liquid iron that spattered onto the ground. General Eorlund roared and charged forwards with his sword raised but was met with a spurt of flame as Maelaan gestured towards the general, lifting him off his feet and slamming him against a scorched timber beam which crumbled around him.
An arrow thudded into Maelaan’s shoulder and she gritted her teeth, whirling to meet her assailant with fire. There was a brief horrifying scream cut short and the smell of burning flesh filled the air as a pool of liquid metal and ash splashed into the mud. The soldiers recoiled at the sight of the transformed old woman, twisting through the air as if possessed, as she wrapped a fire tornado around herself and the woman and children on the ground. A lash of fire whipped out from the ring to ensnare another soldier who promptly turned to ash as it engulfed him. Another arrow sunk itself deep into Maelaan’s chest and she span to redirect her fury but she was slowing and a third arrow found its mark in the small of her back. The fires began to die as a fourth arrow lodged into her thigh, and the soldiers warily moved in for the kill. The flames roared one last time and consumed two more soldiers before flickering into nothingness, steam rising from the ground as snow continued to fall.
Maelaan knelt awkwardly in the mud, weighed down by the arrows sticking out of her. General Eorlund dragged himself from under the remnants of the charred beam, propped himself up on his sword and staggered over to her. His breastplate was burnt through where she had struck him and his skin had melted beneath, revealing the outline of his ribs and singed cartilage, bare to the elements. The few remaining soldiers watched their general trudge towards the old woman, both seeming to be still alive through silent rage alone, until he came level with her once more. With one agonising lurch General Eorlund raised his sword and with his last, rasping, breath brought it swinging down towards Maelaan’s neck.
Ambriel felt his mother die as he tramped on through the deep snows of the forest. He staggered and propped himself against a nearby tree as the sensation gripped his heart and threatened to wrench it from his chest. He gathered his breath and forced himself onwards, the growls and whines of wolves trying to cross the river not far behind him.
Struggling through the biting winds and snow that was turning to hail, Ambriel reached the entrance of a small and inconspicuous hollow in the side of the foothills, nearly covered over by the thick snow. Brushing aside part of a snowdrift he wriggled inside and clambered deeper into the cave. He pulled down the fur wrap covering his face and allowed himself to breathe properly for the first time in what felt like hours but what could only have been minutes. Ambriel was not unhandsome, with blue eyes like his mother and the rich silver hair of his father. He had also inherited his father’s nose and his mother’s chin but these did not generally detract too much from his usual appearance of joy and kindness. Now however, Ambriel looked more weary and aged than he ever had. The banishment of his family, collapse of his Spire and execution of his father had been enough, but then had come the war, and with that the systemic eradication of his people, the loss of his wife Clarys, and now his mother… If there was one thing he could still protect, he must. He could not fail.
Shaking himself from his solemn memories, he cast a quick spell of concealment and protection around the cave entrance. That would have to do for now, he thought. It only needs to fool the wolves for a few minutes after all. Ambriel knelt to lay the thick bundle of furs and cloth down on the cave floor, mentally calculated something, adjusted the bundle’s position and then began to quietly chant under his breath. For a few tender moments there was quiet as the snow fell outside, somewhat muted by the cool stone of the cave. Ambriel’s breathing slowed as he chanted, wrapping the bundle in words that might have sounded to the untrained ear like a lullaby. Intricate charms of protection, concealment and many more were cast, symbols etched in light dancing through the air and falling on the bundle as gently as sunlight. With one more deep breath Ambriel finished his chanting and the cave was bathed in a gentle purple light which flared twice then faded.
Ambriel sighed, and the faintest glimmer of a smile crossed his lips. He leant forwards, gently brushed aside one of the layers of cloth wrapping and planted a soft kiss on the bundle’s precious contents. He adjusted his cloak and re-wrapped the bundle tenderly, then he sighed once more and rose to step out into the storm.
As he strode outside the initial spell he had cast to hide his workplace shattered, though it was close to decaying naturally anyway. That did not matter now, Ambriel thought. The main spell is complete, and no-one in a thousand years who comes to that cave with harm in their heart will ever find it. Blinking as he emerged into the blinding snow, he saw the pack of wolves had indeed caught up to him as he had feared. Twelve hungry sets of eyes glared at him and the sounds of growls behind him confirmed he was cornered. The biggest of the wolves, who Ambriel presumed to be the alpha of the pack, began to stalk towards him across the snow, its drooling jaws gnashing.
So this is it, Ambriel contemplated as the wolves prepared to pounce. I never was much good with offensive magic anyway – best not make a fool of myself now. I hope it’s at least a quick death, he thought, resting his hands by his sides. Ambriel breathed in deeply and closed his eyes. The wolf pounced and snapped its jaws together. Then, suddenly, it found itself dropping through empty air and into the snow again, wheeling round to locate the prey it had somehow missed. The hillside, however, was empty except for the pack of wolves, all of them hunting wildly for a man who had vanished without a trace. Ambriel was gone.
From the cave came a faint gurgle and the content murmur of a baby, and then there was silence save for the falling of snow.