Chapter 3- The High Priestess
"A wizard can possess up to three elements in total, though few achieve this. Using multiple elements or a sub element is considered typical of high level Adept rank mages. Most mages stick to using one or two elements in order to become adept at those elements rather than branching out." The Tendencies of the Magician's ranks, Book I, Chapter XXI
A heavy footfall stomped through the puddle splashing droplets of fetid water across the muddy road. The man drew his foot out of the puddle with a look of disgust, with a heavy thud he dropped the heavy barrel he had balanced over his shoulder onto the muddy ground. As the barrel hit the ground the lid popped and some of the contents flopped out. Hurriedly the man stuffed it back in but not before a stream of blood trickled out. The man lifted the barrel back up and quickly stuffed the lid back on, but quick enough to stop himself from seeing the contents of the barrel: the visceral remains of something that no longer resembled any living creature, let alone a human being.
As the man rolled the barrel towards a deep pit dug into the damp soil, a feminine figure sat and watched him work; she was slowly and meditatively cleaning a long curved sword with a white cloth that was stained pink with blood.
As the barrel fell into the pit, clashing and bouncing against the many other barrels the man straightened up, stretching the aching muscles and his back. He glowered at the swordswoman who was lounging about, polishing her sword. "You could help you know" he reminded her tersely.
"I did help" she replied without looking at him "I put them down, now you can clean it up." With that she stood and slid her sword back into its sheath at her side, enjoying the soft sound of steel on smoothed wood. The wind was tugging at them as if it were making futile efforts to hold them back, but it would take a lot more than a breeze to prevent them.
"I wouldn't have to clean it all up if the mutt hadn't gone berserk" the man grumbled leaning back against the wall of the nearest cottage, trying to get away from the putrid reek of flesh in the pit "I can't stand this smell, I can almost taste it."
"I expect he loves the scent" speculated the swordswoman "besides he did it out of his duty of protecting master."
"There's a difference between protecting master's secret and slaughtering an entire village" retorted the man bitterly "this whole business has been tiresome. The massacre will attract attention, attention that we do not want."
"Oh that won't be a problem Charles" came another deep masculine voice. Another man walked out of the wreck of the Inn, a man with violent orange hair and an evil satisfied grin "I've got this situation figured out."
Charles gritted his teeth out of frustration "we're not supposed to say our real names Scott."
Scott shrugged his shoulders and sat himself down on a barrel that was thankfully empty "you really expect me to call you Taste? No one can take that seriously."
"What's your plan Touch?" The swordswoman asked impatiently "we ought to clear this up as fast as possible if we want to arrive by dawn tomorrow."
"It's simple" Touch explained "we just make it look like Technographers slaughtered the villagers. They won't be looking for a group of mages if they start a witch hunt for gearheads."
Taste was not impressed "Technographers? In Arcania? There are no Technographers this side of the Arcane Channel let alone ten miles from Crowfang Keep."
"Don't be so sure" the swordswoman interrupted "a colony of Technographers was recently allowed into Arcadia as a diplomatic envoy not five miles from here, right under the watchful eyes of our dear friend Hardy Crowfang."
Touch smiled again "you see what I mean; this couldn't have turned out better. A fight between Technographers and Mages is inevitable at the best of times, add a massacre in the Technographers' domains to the mix and you have a brawl breaking out in no time, in the chaos we can move in and fulfil our mission without ever being detected."
Taste considered this carefully, it seemed like a good plan and if he said yes then they might be able to get away from the smell of the corpses. "Very well" he decided "just get rid of these bodies and set it up to look like Technographers did it."
"Not a problem" promised Touch getting to his feet and rolling up his sleeves like a trickster about to perform an illusion. He clapped his hands together once and his hands burst into bright orange flame.
At that moment the wind died. It ceased it's howling as if cowed in the face of Touch's fire. As the sound of the howling wind left the swordswoman's ears, a frown crossed her face as she detected something new, a very faint panicky rasping sound like a dying animal or a...
Touch unleashed a burst of orange fire into the pit of barrels and the roaring flames blotted out all other sounds like a wave washing over pebbles.
"What's wrong Listen?" Taste asked as the swordswoman got to her feet, a suspicious look on her face.
"I thought I heard something breathing" she explained, her face fixed as she strained to hear over the sound of Touch's fire.
"You're delusional" replied Touch tersely as he continued to blast the barrels with fire, setting the barrels ablaze and roasting the grisly contents "when have you ever known scent to miss his prey when he goes berserk? It's probably a half dead dog or cat."
Listen was not convinced, drawing her long curved sword she sulked in the direction of the noise: the cottage that Taste was leaning against.
As she reached the house Taste rolled his eyes and spat "let's not waste time here Listen. You smell that?" How could she not smell it, the awfully tasty smell of human flesh being roasted. In part of mind that was not entirely human but instead a caveman made her mouth water at the smell of cooking meat. She shuddered and sheathed her sword.
"Whatever, I'll go make it appear that Technographers attacked this place" she decided, walking quickly away from the human bonfire.
On the other side of the wall, his hands' smothering his mouth to cover his breathing was a young boy, trembling with fright and drenched in blood. It wasn't his blood. The boy had no clue what the thing was that ravaged his village; he didn't know why his parents had been torn apart by something that appeared to be barely human, however even if he was petrified with fear, he was still alive. And he had heard everything.
Adept rank Igna Redhawk was sat outside the keep walls, leaning back against the black stone precipice, letting the unusual warm September sun warm her. By her side sat old man Zachary, an old mage who the masters refused entry into the castle, he was dressed in his only change of clothes: old mage robes that were so worn down they had almost turned white.
Igna was paying rapt attention to a card the old man had given her. Igna beheld an exquisitely painted picture of a woman dressed in exquisite garments of white and gold. She was sat sternly on a golden throne a sceptre in one hand and a jewel encrusted orb in the other, sitting under a banner with the numerals III. She seemed to exude a strong presence of power and authority.
"It's very impressive" Igna admitted "but what does it mean?"
Zachary plucked the card from Igna's hand and held it up to his face "these are my ancient arcane cards of divining" he informed her in a croaked voice "this one is the High Priestess, a symbol of love and otherworldliness."
Igna paused for a second, a look of doubt crossing her face "not authority or power?"
The old man gave a hacking laugh "no that would be number V the emperor: symbol of authority, tradition and the status quo."
"Sounds about right" Igna muttered darkly.
"Perhaps you'd allow me to divine your future young Redhawk?" Zachary offered with a benign smile.
"Thanks for the offer Zachary, but I'm not sure I believe in foretelling the future" Igna informed him gently, not wanting to offend him.
"Nonsense" Zachary shuffling his deck of cards with gusto that Igna wouldn't have guessed the old man possessed "my prophetic vision will part the clouds of mystery from your future." As he said this he fanned the shuffled cards out in front of him "pick three, one after the other."
Igna with a polite smile selected a card at random from the pack, turning it over she smiled and showed him the card she'd drawn The Empress.
"Maternity and femininity" Zachary repeated "would I be so bold as to ask if you're expecting?"
"I highly doubt it" Igna persisted well humouredly. She went to draw another card, plucking one from right at the back of the pack. Turning it over she found an ornately drawn image of a burning tower being smote by a tremendous bolt of lightning.
"Ah number sixteen: The Tower, symbol of chaos and destruction."
"Sounds like something I'd get up to" laughed Igna. Grasping her last card she pulled it out and uncovered a picture of an angel, a human bathed in holy light with wings made of divine fire.
"Number fourteen: the Seraph Temperance, creator of peace and the bringing together of opposites, a very noble card" Zachary muttered, nodding sagely to himself as if he was deep in thought.
Igna found the whole exercise pointless but she was willing to humour the old prophet, besides she was at least a little bit interested in what he would divine about her future.
The old man appeared to have come to a decision, he cleared his throat and announced boldly "you will soon get married to you one true love, only to have the marriage collapse but finally you will reunite with one another."
Igna pursed her lips and tried not to laugh "I will respectfully disagree with you" admitted Igna "I'm just not sure if the future is... you know... predetermined."
"The young lady makes an excellent point" came a new voice from the road.
A stranger had appeared, and he was strange he was a tall young man with messy blond hair worn in a short pony that fell to his nape, he spoke with a foreign accent and dressed in a strange white coat, his shirt was lilac, his trousers brown and strangely enough on his forehead he wore a pair of goggles. Igna stared at him, a perplexed look on her face. She recognised the accent as that of Sage, but she had never seen anyone so... on the edge of fashion- and she hung out with Eric of all people.
The stranger continued speaking "is the future concrete? Are our actions set by destiny? It's nice to see that engaging intellectual discussions occur in Crowfang Keep."
Igna and Zachary exchanged a look of bewilderment who was this guy?
"I was wondering if you could tell me how to get into your castle" the stranger asked, gesturing to the huge oaken door "I did not wish to intrude without making my presence known."
Igna clambered to her feet and gestured up to the battlements, "just yell at the lookout, assuming he's awake he'll signal to open the door to you."
"Thank you madam" the stranger replied and after clearing his throat yelled up to the battlements: "excusez! Could you open the gate?"
High up above the guard peeked over at him "who goes there friend or foe?"
"My name is Hugo and... well I hardly know you but I suppose we could be friends"
"Very funny" called back an irritated guard, it was not the first time he'd heard that joke. With that the guard picked up a red flag and waved it high it the air, sending off a signal to some other sentry.
Hugo turned back to Zachary and Igna "where were we?" he wondered.
Zachary cleared his throat "I was just about to impress Miss Redhawk with my ability to discern the past as well as the future."
Igna closed her eyes weakly "that won't be necessary, I'm sure Hugo has no interest in prophetic visions."
"I wouldn't be so sure Miss Redhawk" interrupted Hugo "I've been acquainted with a fair few prophets from Sage and I would be interested how the prophets here measure up."
Zachary seemed to take this as a go ahead and gleefully began to shuffle his deck of cards- Igna meanwhile only sighed.
As Zachary held out his fanned deck once and said "now pick three and reveal your past."
Igna wasted no time; she hurriedly plucked out one card after another: first a perplexed man hanging upside down from his ankle.
Zachary nodded sagely as if this was exactly what he was expecting "yes The Hanging Man, loss and giving in to fate, do carry on."
Igna was very nearly fed up with Zachary now, with a sensation somewhere between annoyance, and dread. She drew another card and saw an image of a old man wandering the world with a bare back and bearing a lantern and cane.
"Ah the Hermit, symbol of solitude, a lonely childhood perhaps?"
Igna merely grunted, this wasn't a game she wanted to play anymore. As Zachary held out the pack to her again she set her teeth frustratedly, she didn't want another card, and she didn't want Zachary poking at her past, even if he was merely scratching feebly at the surface. She drew the final card: a prince sat at a throne a sword in one hand and a set of scales in the other.
"Justice" noted Zachary "number XI, I hardly think I need tell you what he means."
However Igna hardly appeared to be listening, she was glaring heatedly at the card, her eyes appearing dark and full of fury. "Justice" she spat contemptuously under her breath "if that's what they call justice then I don't know..." then she suddenly seemed to realise that she wasn't alone and caught herself mid-sentence. She took a breath, the heat in her gaze dying down as she turned to Hugo and said in a controlled voice "well there you go, you've seen the magic of card tricks and deduction. Now perhaps you'd like to go inside the castle."
Hugo peered at Igna quizzically; he sensed that she's diverted the conversation away from the tarot cards as fast as she could for a reason, one that made her suddenly become a great deal more hostile. Probably not something that it's a good idea to pry into, he wisely decided.
"Wait!" Zachary protested "I haven't made my prediction yet!"
"Sorry Zachary" Igna responded tersely "you can pry at the infinite questions some other day." With that Igna grasped Hugo by the crook of the arm and pulled him gracelessly towards the castle. Igna thumped her fist heavily against the strong wooden door "they ought to have gotten the door open by now." A loud THUNK crashed from the other side of the door, and Igna heard the moan of metal on wood as the heavy locks in the door were lifted and the colossal doors began to swing slowly open.
Igna took half a step forward when she suddenly froze, the sound of steel being swiftly drawn reached her ears and Igna instinctively quick stepped back out the door. Standing poised in the doorway, a sword of dark steel raised aggressively was Eric, a look a grim fixation on his face.
Eric's eyes shot suspiciously from Igna to Hugo, his eyes narrowed as he keenly inspected Hugo his gaze shooting up and down his clothes as if looking for a weapon. "Igna step away from him" Eric ordered in a voice that was more growl than speech.
Igna took another half step away from the stranger, who had halfheartedly raised his hands in surrender, a look on his face that was somewhere between reluctant patience and tiredness. "What's going on?" Igna asked Eric hurriedly as Eric took several slow steps towards Hugo, his sword edge hovering at throat level.
However Eric seemed fixated on Hugo, his grip tightened around his sword handle. "Thought you could just march up to our gate uninvited" Eric demanded in the voice of an interrogator "the guard served in the war, he recognised your clothes and sent us a warning," for a split second his eyes shot to Igna's and spied the look of shock and confusion. "I'm sorry Igna" he murmured "this will all be illuminated later I promise."
Hugo's brow furrowed with annoyance "excuse me boy but I thought I was being taken prisoner." Eric's eyes flashed with intense purple light and for half a second Hugo blanched. "By the way..." Hugo continued as he got over his surprise of Eric's unusual ocular abilities "...I don't want you to be alarmed and cut my head off, but whilst you two were making doe eyes I called for backup. They'll be here any moment."
Eric's eyes widened with horror, his hand shot out like a snake, grasping Hugo round the throat in a violent choke hold. With a grunt Eric whirled Hugo round and threw him towards the doorway, sending him sprawling. "Igna watch the road, his friends will be here any second, I'll pin him down" Eric ordered as he placed his foot firmly between Hugo's shoulder blades, pressing him down on the cobbled road.
"Gettof!" Hugo shouted "you're not helping the situation by manhandling me!"
Eric paid him no heed, looking over his shoulder he shouted back through the door "Hibernia! Kleos! Get over here, one of the enemy's foot soldiers is here."
The sound of a hurried pair of feet pounding against stone reached Igna as two figures hurried out the gate, robes flapping and eyes wide and alert. Hibernia's eyes scanned her surroundings quickly picking out the threat, the other figure, an older man than Eric with grey in his hair and creases on his face. He more than any present had a look of distress and fury on his face, his eyes fixed on Hugo's prone form, his teeth clenched and his hand flying to the hilt of his sword.
"What's he doing here?" he demanded furiously "he should know to keep his distance."
"He's got friends with him" Eric warned, drawing Kleos' attention away from Hugo "be ready for a fight."
Kleos drew his sword with a swish, steel flashing and whooshing through the air, as if cutting through the air itself. "So I must draw their blood again. So be it."
Hugo coughed, intervening with Kleos' wish for blood "that won't be necessary; we only came to have a conversation. If you let me go then there's no need for-"
"Be silent!" barked Kleos "I refuse to speak with your putrid people."
Igna couldn't help but feel some doubt how she could fight a foe she hardly knew under the instruction of a crazed veteran of a battle long since ended. "Eric? Hibernia?" Igna ventured hesitantly "perhaps it would be wise to listen to Hugo, avoid a fight?" Igna's eyes rested tenderly and hopefully on Eric's, silently beseeching him to throw down his sword and release his captive.
However Kleos was adamant, he fixed Eric with a look of stony will "do not listen to her Djavulen, she knows not the fiends we face, the fiends we spent years fighting, the fiends who cut down our friends and innocence."
Fighting? Igna speculated does he mean the war with Sage? "You mean we're fighting-"
"Yes" cut in Kleos, his hands gripping at the handle of his sabre so hard the whole blade shook with manic frenzy "our greatest nemesis, the heretical bastards who corrupted the whole continent with their crazed doctrine: the Technographers."
With a sound of whistling air and the crack of steel on stone, a missile struck the road not two feet from Igna's feet, splintering the stone and piercing through the cobbles.
Wild instinct took over as Igna threw herself backwards, her boots scrabbling at the road as she struggled to keep her balance after her desperate leap to safety. A spear was protruding from the road still quivering from the tremendous impact.
Igna had never seen a Technographer even when she'd spent a month travelling through Sage, but she was already afraid. Afraid of a people who drove even the bravest people she knew manic with panic and fear, afraid of someone who could throw a spear with near perfect accuracy even though they were nowhere to be seen, and she was especially afraid of a being that could pierce through a whole foot of stone and soil, a feat that must surely require inhuman strength. What are these Technographers? Igna could only marvel, and more importantly, if they were beings of such skill and power, how had they ever been defeated?
An innocuous patch of wild bush a little over a hundred feet away rippled and fell away revealing the camouflage it had been the whole time. Two figures emerged from the bush, bearing weapons and marching towards them.
Eric's sword tip descended even lower, pressing lightly against the nape of Hugo's neck, threatening to spill his blood at any moment.
The two figures stopped their approach, resting their hands at their weapons by their sides, standing ready to spring into battle. They were one man and one woman, each of them was dressed in unusual battle armour: made of dark grey material made of many tightly woven threads packed together till it formed a solid skin of steely strength. The man was tall with bold features, short dark hair and an even darker expression. His companion stood high over him, easily exceeding six foot, and wearing far bulkier and heavier armour. Her blonde hair was cut short and her face was set in a stern gaze as she stared straight at Eric and his sword, still suspended over Hugo's vulnerable neck.
"Release my companion at once" she ordered, her voice was strong and was filled with harsh clarity and authority "neither of us want what will follow if you harm him."
"You're quite right" Eric replied calmly his gaze hovering tentatively over the two newcomers, judging them, assessing danger. "I don't want him dead. What I want is to know why he approached the gates at all, and why you two were skulking in the shadows armed to the teeth."
Igna was assessing the danger too, and she judged it to be very real and very present. There was something about these two that made them seem... unreal. Their dress, the tools they wore at their heavy belts, even their accents were all so alien: a blight on the way Igna experienced the world.
"I could've explained this" Hugo grumbled from under Eric's foot "I'm not armed, I pose no threat. I came with only peaceful intentions; they're here in case you didn't."
The male newcomer took another step forward, glowering at Eric, "let him go now" he demanded threateningly, he drew his sabre from its sheath, revealing the first few inches of the glistening steel.
Kleos responded in turn by taking a step forward too, his sword raised at chest level. "Don't take another step Technographer" he warned "I killed plenty of your kind in the war and I can do it again."
"That won't be necessary, I'm sure" interrupted Hibernia, quickly intervening before Kleos charged the Technographers "we can talk about this without spilling blood."
Walking to Hugo's side Igna knelt down to his level and asked "Hugo, why did you come here?"
Hugo looked up at her thankfully, "we came to warn you. I tried to tell you that before..." here he waved his hand at Eric and his sword "...this. A village was attacked near here, burnt to the ground, no survivors. We've caught wind of a group of renegades in the area who may be the perpetrators. Attacked the village and slaughtered the peasants, then tried to frame us Technographers."
"Oh tried to frame you?" jeered Kleos "a likely story, what did they hang the Sage banner? Write a friendly note?"
"Not quite" cut in Isabel "we found the Sage symbol carved into the back of a dead body in the village."
"How do we know you didn't truly attack the village?" demanded Kleos "you Technographers were always cunning and conniving, I wouldn't put it past you to invent lies and stories to cover your deeds."
Nathan exhaled sharply, breath whistling out impatiently through his lips "'Conniving' is it? Are you even listening to yourself? On t'a berce trop pres du mur?"
"Cut the devil speak, I may not understand you but I know what's up!" Kleos roared striding forwards, his sword drawn back to swing.
"ENOUGH!" The words came booming out like thunder. Both Eric and Isabel had stepped forwards reigning in their men like they were wild dogs.
"Kleos, if you cannot control yourself then you can go back inside the castle," Eric ordered, eyes fiercely aglow once again, his sword was no longer at Hugo's throat but leveled at Kleo's chest, the razor edge pressed against his velvet front.
"There's no need for a fight" Isabel insisted "I know you don't want bloodshed. You can take us in, question us, whatever. Until the truth comes out we won't fight back."
Eric looked her straight in the eye, pausing, thinking, his sword still resting against Kleos' chest.
Igna eyed Eric's face closely, the look of intense concentration and caution. She could even see the tip of his tongue as he meditatively licked his lips.
"Very well" he decided, sheathing his sword and hoisting Hugo to his feet "Hibernia, Igna, escort our prisoners to the cells. I will summon the masters and host a meeting, we'll decided what will be done with you."
"And me, Master Djavulen?" Asked Kleos, his forehead creased, an expression of doubt and uncertainty plastered across his face.
Eric shot him a sidelong look of disgust as he swished past him, Hugo in tow. "Take a patrol on the battlements."
Hibernia took Nathan by the elbow and marched him towards the gate. He went willingly, sheathing his sword and offering it, scabbard and all, to Hibernia.
Igna in turn went to take Isabel by the elbow, on the way she snatched up the spear that had been thrown at her. She grasped the shaft and heaved at it but it was immovable, stuck as firm as a rock in the ground. She tugged on it hard with both hands. The cracks around the stony tiles began to chip and break and the spear began to inch it's way out of the ground.
"Allow me." Isabel interrupted, stepping forwards and taking hold of the spear in one hand. With the slightest grimace and not even the remotest sign of effort she heaved the spear from tile. She tossed the spear to Igna who caught it, but not easily. The spear was heavy, at least twice what she was expecting, as if it had some metal core.
"What are you made of?" Igna wondered aloud as she slung the spear over her shoulder and escorted Isabel by the elbow.
"Perhaps I eat my vegetables?" Isabel suggested in a subdued tone.
"Vegetables my foot" Igna muttered "what are you a techno-sorceress?"
Isabel shook her head "nothing so dramatic as that, I assure you" she promised as they passed through the open gate, "just your common or garden freak of nature."
Deep in the cellars of the keep enclosed by cold stone and iron bars the three Technographers waited for their judgement. A single sentinel had been left to watch over them cautiously, keenly looking and listening hard for any clues as to the intentions of the Technographers. It turned out that this task was nye on impossible as the Technographers had switched back to their native language of Sagenese in order to speak in privacy.
Nathan was tapping rapidly on his knees, releasing his nerves in a steady drum beat of slaps
Hugo was sat on the floor, rapidly scribbling on a piece of paper, one of the few things that the guards had allowed him to keep, their weapons, tools, and all non-essential clothing were confiscated, bundled away and hidden from sight.
"Calm yourself Nathan," Isabel asserted "your fidgeting is making me nervous."
Nathan stopped his tapping, ending the crescendo with one final slap on his knees. "What?" he demanded, his voice rising with his temper "we just rot here? Wait for the masters to deliver their divine will?"
Isabel gave a tired sigh and massaged her face "just take it easy, ok Nathan. We could be here a while and you need to keep yourself under control. The last thing we need is the guards thinking we're up to something, trying to escape."
Nathan nodded quickly "speaking of which we need to think up a way to escape. I'm not leaving my life in the hands of Mages who hate me and everything I stand for."
Isabel clicked her tongue and looked away "breaking out won't make us look innocent, Nathan."
"I'm just saying we should be prepared in case things go south" Nathan shot back, raising his hands defensively. Then he lent forward, rubbing his hands together and eyeing the bars of the cell eagerly. "What do you think about those bars? 4% carbon? the metal looks pretty dark so maybe it's 5%" then he turned back to Isabel "you could break those bars right? Use those muscles of yours to pry the bars apart. Come on Captain! I've seen you break a tree trunk over your knee. You think this is anywhere near the same?"
"It was only a birch" Isabel replied modestly, a weak smile appearing on her face. "But I wouldn't exactly put that in the same league as bending metal bars, or fighting my way out of a castle full of mages. No" she decided "I think I'd be far more comfortable waiting right here for the mages' masters to set us free."
Nathan shrugged wearily "have it your way Captain."
"Actually" spoke up Hugo, who had at last looked up from his scribbling "I've already secured us a way out of here." Furtively Hugo showed them what he was drawing, casting a brief and surreptitious glance at the two guards. Then he quickly folded up the paper and stowed it safely in his pocket, away from prying eyes. "See" Hugo pressed "there's no problem, we can get out any time."
Nathan raised an eyebrow and looked away again, muttering lightly "then I see there's no need to continue my hypothesis."
Hugo shot a sidelong look at Nathan "I love you too Nathaniel."
Eric's eyes bore a hole in the wall. He and all the masters were locked in deep silence, trapped in thought as they waited for master Hortus to arrive, counting the long moments away. Eric had gathered all the masters together to discuss the matter ahead of them: the three ticking time bombs that dwelt in their cells. Could they be spies or advanced troops for an invasion? perhaps even a renegade band of soldiers that wished to attack Crowfang Keep as revenge for the war.
A loud creak made the anxious masters start with shock, but it was only old Master Hortus waddling slowly into the room, his face creased with worry.
"My friends" he began mournfully "these are dark tidings. Technographers have never before approached the gate. I fear what this might mean."
Quincy grunted bitterly "Archmage Crowfang should never have allowed the Technographers to construct their settlement so near to us. A mere mile away, and only two years after the end of the war.
"Archmage Crowfang had no choice in the matter" master Onyx reminded him "both he and the Keep were specifically chosen to act as the overseer of the Technographers since the king knows we are the strongest of all of Arcania's warriors. It is our responsibility to crush the Technographers should they ever decide to expand their settlement."
"Is that really what they're doing?" Festus pondered, his elbow resting on the table and his fingers drumming. "From what I was aware they have not finished constructing their base of operations, I don't see why they would wish to expand so soon."
"Whatever they're doing it it can't be any good" asserted Eric "our prisoners admitted that a village several miles from here was butchered in the night. They refused responsibility for the crime, but who else could it have?" Eric leant forwards then, urgency seemingly radiating from him "listen, when I arrested them they cooperated far too easily. Clearly they want to be inside the castle for some reason." No one in the room had any love for the Technographers, they were universally despised amongst the masters. They had all lost someone precious in their war with the Technographers, and they had endured far too much conflict to truly make peace with them. They had all made a silent mantra to strike back at the Technographers in any way they could- as long as it didn't lead to bloodshed. Neither side could stand that, revenge had to be done right, it had to be justified.
"Very well" Vestal decided "send for the leader of the attackers, let us speak to him."
Hibernia disliked guard duty at the best of times, but it was twice as dull when she couldn't understand a word the prisoners were saying. The Technographers had remained in their ell without showing any desire to leave for twenty minutes now, idly chatting in their strange language. Hibernia was leant against the stone wall, waiting for the masters to make their decision. Hibernia was half tempted to go back to her book, she'd much rather catch up on the next chapter of Arcane Methodology then uselessly watch the three prisoners.
She was just dipping her hand into her satchel and pulling out the thick leather bound tome, when she heard footsteps approaching. Not wishing to appear like she was shirking her work Hibernia hurriedly stowed the book away and stood to attention. Hibernia heard the iron bolt drawn across the other side of the door, and the creaking of old metal as the door swung open.
Igna paced down the several stone steps into the cellar, taking her place by Hibernia's side as another guard on the other side of the door locked it from the other side. "Hey" muttered Igna to Hibernia, as she eyed the prisoners curiously. "They said anything yet?"
"They're talking alright" Hibernia confirmed, "but I've no idea what they're saying. You have any idea?" She asked Igna, giving her look of brief hope. "You traveled through the Sage empire to get to Arcania, you know the language, right?"
Igna grimaced and shrugged "It's been a while, I know a southern dialect so maybe I can figure out what they're saying." Igna fixed her gaze on the Technographers, who seemed to be looking at a piece of paper one of them had drawn on. She concentrated hard, struggling to pick up any words or phrases she could recognise. It was no good. "The only part I got was the phrase 't'amie'"
"And what does that mean?"
"Well it sounds like the words 'te amo' which means 'love you.'"
Hibernia shrugged, "sorry Igna I just don't feel the same way about you."
Before Igna could think of a witty comeback, she heard the bolt slide back on the lock again and the door opened. A mage appeared in the doorway, an innocuous portly bearded man who slouched his way down the first several steps of the cellar. Turning to the girls he informed them in a bored and annoyed voice, as if he was frustrated he was being made to ferry messages: "Master Vestal wants you to deliver the leader of the Technographers to the Master's meeting room." Pulling a jangling mass of keys from his pocket, he tossed them haphazardly at the pair, which Igna just managed to snatch out of the air.
"Aren't you going to escort her yourself?" said Hibernia.
The mage snorted "you think I'm going to escort a dangerous captive alone? you must be out of your mind." Then drew from his bag, a heavy steel chain and tossed it at their feet. "You'll want these too. Heavy stuff, can't have those Technographers running amok can we?"
Igna turned to Hibernia, shrugging her shoulders resignedly "you wanna take her or shall I?"
"I'll do it" replied Hibernia, peeling away from the wall and scooping up the chains "I wanna get out of this room anyway."
Listen kept her head low as she crouched low, keeping an attentive eye on the movements of the battlement guards. She had one placed one hand on the hilt of her sword, if only to reassure herself of it's presence. The sun was only just passed its zenith and begun it's descent. There is still some time before we move in Listen thought to herself, leaning back and retreating further into the darkness. A grim gnawing sound reached her ears from somewhere in the under brush and she screwed up her face in disgust, it could only mean that glutton Scent has got his claws into some animal. I don't want to know what kind of animal.
"Any sign of our inside man?" asked Touch impatiently, "how long is it going to take for Sight to send us the signal?"
"He could only sneak one man into the Keep. Once he's removed the masters he'll let us in and we'll deal with the rest."
Touch lashed out at the ground with his heel, angrily digging up a shallow trench in the dirt "but how much longer do we have to wait here?"
Listen gritted her teeth and tightened her grip around her hilt. "Be patient Touch, not much longer" she insisted, she turned her gaze and focused on the distant shadows of guards patrolling the battlements, vanishing momentarily and reappearing from behind a crenelation to continue their vigilant procession. Soon.
"So you are the leader of the Technographers who approached our gate" Hortus sniffed dismissively "that's no career for a lovely young lady like yourself."
"So I've been told" replied Isabel, her voice was still toneless, but there was an ever so slight tone of exhaustion or annoyance in her voice.
Master Quincy brought his fist down angrily down on the table, making the whole thing rattle. "Enough chit chat" he barked "why did you come here?"
Isabel jerked her head at Eric "he can tell you what my friend told him. We came to warn you all that a village near here had been burned to the ground and there is a band of wanted criminals in the area who we believe are responsible. What's more..."
Quincy sniffed at that "a likely story Captain. Do you believe I was born yesterday? I've seen this tactic a dozen times: tell the Keep that there is some object they desire or fear nearby, wait for them to send out troops then attack the Keep with your full force when their defenses are weakened" the corner of Quincy's mouth rose into a crooked grin. "It's textbook, and I know the book by heart."
Isabel's stare was direct and penetrative as she glared at Quincy "really?" she asked tiredly "are you so consumed by paranoia and fear that you would allow vagabonds to roam the countryside whilst you locked yourself in your fortress like a snail in its shell? A real leader would head out there alone so as to not risk the lives of their soldiers or those they were meant to protect."
There was a screech of wood on stone as Master Onyx leapt to his feet, sending his chair skittering away "do not question this man's honor or courage. He is my trusted friend and ally and I will hear nothing against him!" he and Quincy exchanged a long, meaningful look.
"Be that as it may" interrupted Festus "tell us about these criminals, why haven't we heard about them? Normally the crown would have sent a messenger to tell us about any dangerous criminals."
"We knew about the threat because we found the corpse of the courier who was meant to deliver the message. He was buried in a shallow grave, but we found him when our scouts found blood and signs of a struggle, after that our curiosity was piqued and we followed foot prints to the grave. The message inside revealed that spies had discovered the presence of rogue mages in the area and warned Crowfang to prepare itself since they would certainly attack whilst the Archmage was away. That was at dawn today, so putting two and two together my team and I headed straight here to warn you."
There was a moments silence as the masters digested this, exchanging looks of suspicion and doubt.
"What evidence can you supply for this?" Vestal boomingly demanded. "How can you prove this story? And this doesn't account for the slaughtered village. We'll send out a fast rider to inspect whether your story is true, as soon as he returns we will re-examine your story and see whether it holds up."
Isabel shrugged, ignoring Vestal's obnoxious tone of voice "so we just wait in your cellar till your rider returns? Very well, me and my team can stand that."
Festus rapped his knuckles heavily on the table on final time and got to his feet "very well" he began "who shall we send to inspect the village? Quincy, among your disciples who is your swiftest rider?"
Quincy grunted and shot a vile look at Eric "that would be Samuel Iridis, but since he's been indisposed by Djavulen's pet, we must find another."
Hortus seemed deep in thought, massaging his jaw as he stared into the middle distance. "How about scrying? I've heard that there is a retired mage in the area who claims to be able to use prophetic magic. If we could find him he could show us the wreckage of the town without us leaving the Keep."
Eric gave a weak grunt of amusement "'claims' is the word. Zachary is just a confused old man who wants to be allowed into the Keep. Igna has heard his prophecies and they are the rumblings of an old fool who is peering at the impenetrable fog of the future."
Hortus pursed his lips as he glanced at Eric "be that as it may, it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that magic may have the power to ascertain the course of days yet to come" Hortus' voice peeled off then, a single look from Eric had been enough to silence him.
Eric's face had darkened and his eyes were aglow once more with a grim violet light "need I remind you that in the last five centuries only one clan in all of Arcania and the Sage continent was able to uncover the secrets of magic that could control Space and Time. Not even that clan had the ability to predict even a second into the future. Time is a maze of unfathomable eddies and currents, its path cannot be tracked with a pack of playing cards, not even with all the magic behind them."
There was a long, cold silence. All the masters knew which clan Eric was referring to, they knew it was the only clan he could refer to with true pride, and most of all they knew why he spoke of them in the past tense.
"So who will ride?" Onyx asked, looking about the room with tired expectancy "we have talked too long; we should send someone off and be done with it."
Eric nodded sullenly "I will go myself; whoever we send may encounter Technographer guards or traps. It would be wise to send someone experienced at dealing with both these things, the better that both of us return safely and discover the truth behind the massacre."
"Both of us?" queried Vestal.
"Yes" Eric curtly replied "I will bring Redhawk with me."
There was a chorus of raucous laughter from the assembled masters, a sound filled with ridicule and pomposity.
"Really Djavulen" Onyx asked, in a voice that made him sound almost disappointed in the young master "you're bringing your apprentice on this mission? Can you not bear to be apart from each other for even a moment?"
"Oh!" announced Vestal excitedly, a wide grin plastered across his face "I believe there's a quote for this scenario, tell me Eric: 'Is your falcon sharp and passing empty? Does she come and know her keeper's call?'"
There was another burst of laughter from the masters, who were familiar with the words of The Bard; they could hear the vulgar jests lurking beneath the innocence in his words.
"Very witty" murmured Eric "my grandfather read those plays to me when I was a boy. I have my own quote that I remember, and it reminds me a great deal of you Vestal: 'as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down, the kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out the triumph of his pledge.' Need I explain that one to you? It's the story of drunkard king, and how his subjects are afraid to tell him when he makes foolish errors."
Vestal glowered at Eric, his eyes filled to the brim with stormy shadows, "you young men jest and make merry. Even after you've received so much responsibility, so much power, you still smile and giggle like an infant." Vestal's voice never rose above a subdued growl but all the masters could hear the anger and disappointment "one day perhaps you'll grow to behave like the master you were meant today. On that day, and that day only will I consider you a master of Crowfang Keep."
As Eric got to his feet he swept up his cloak and made his way to the door "the day I want your respect Vestal-" Eric replied, in a voice that almost sounded tired or bored of the older master "-will be the day you respect your own pupils." Then Eric slipped through the door and disappeared from sight.
The masters said nothing, hanging in another spell of silence where none were prepared to speak for fear of incurring Vestal's wrath. Even as they looked at him he seemed to be fuming anger. That was until Festus coughed and, jangling a small bell that hung from the wall, quietly offered: "perhaps I'll call for some wine?"
Vestal slammed his fist onto the table, making plates and goblets jolt and rattle "that arrogant novice!" he raved, shooting spittle through his bared teeth "he has such gall! Why did we ever make him a master?"
Onyx looked at the table scratching his scalp nervously "we wanted to make Lavande submissive to our commands; you suggested replacing him with a young prodigy. There was no one better qualified to take the role than Djavulen."
Quincy grunted with ill humor "and yet Djavulen has been even more of a thorn in our side than Orsino. You know what the problem the problem with Djavulen is?" Quincy began to explain with an irate passion, just as the steward entered with a platter bearing a flagon of red wine, "he's not like us. He wasn't raised in Brightdoe Keep- before it was Crowfang I mean- he was just some boy who came down from the north who got dragged into a war he knew nothing about, and then deposited here when it was all over."
The steward began to pour the crimson drink into the goblets, tactfully filling some to the brim and pouring a mere puddle into others, he'd been fulfilling his role as steward for many years and knew without needing to be told how much each master drank.
"I mean" continued Quincy as he took up his goblet and began to swirl it "he has no love for the institution he serves, does he?"
Festus took a sip from his goblet and bid the steward leave "Djavulen has always been loyal to Arcania and the magic arts. I see no reason to doubt his honor."
Quincy grunted as he took a swig of the wine "forget about his dedication to magic, he's a foreigner, Festus he doesn't care about Arcania, Crowfang Keep, or even Archmage Crowfang. He's an outsider, a foreigner; it was a mistake to ever promote him. I mean who ever heard of someone being promoted to Expert rank at the age of fourteen?"
Onyx nodded as he swallowed a mouthful of wine "whoever heard of a woman being made an Adept? I say, does this wine taste funny?"
Quincy placed his empty goblet down with a crack "that's exactly what I'm talking about! Djavulen thinks he's the exception to all the rules, he thinks he can bend the rules and have this Redhawk promoted."
Hortus raised a hand fretfully "that's hardly fair on young Eric, it was master Vestal who broke that rule first. We can hardly blame Eric for following suit the very next year."
"That was different" exclaimed Vestal as he drained his goblet "I'm as keen on staying true to the Ancient texts as any of you it was vital to my ambitions that Hibernia advance as quickly as possible. I did everything else you requested, I prevented her from taking the greatest spoils from the missions she went on, I allowed your apprentices to take on the more fulfilling challenges, you cannot fault me for Djavulen's actions."
"I say, that is a strange taste" Festus commented, taking another sip, "have you tried this Hortus? What vintage would you say this is?"
Hortus shook his head, smiling gently "no, not today thank you very much. You can have my glass."
Onyx gave a short burst of laughter "How could we be so rude? All this wine and we haven't given any to our guest!" scooping up Hortus' glass he swept over to Isabel's side, grinning widely "my fair lady would you care for a sip of wine?"
Isabel smiled weakly "I'm afraid that would be difficult with my hands chained behind my back. I don't suppose you have a straw do you?"
Quincy gave a burst of perplexed laughter "a straw? What do you think we are barn animals? Why would we have a straw?"
"I guess you don't have them in your country" Isabel reflected with a sniff. Then she sniffed again, and then she leant as forwards as she could with her hands tied behind her back, her nose mere inches above the red wine. "This wine" she murmured "there's something odd about it."
"I'll say" agreed Festus, who had pushed his glass away "I'll have to have a word with the steward about this, we're certainly not buying from the same wine merchant again."
"Not that" disagreed Isabel "the wine's fine, I think I smell something else in it?"
"Smell something in it?" marveled Hortus "you're certainly far more of a connoisseur than I. Are you alright Vestal?" the master suddenly asked as Vestal clutched painfully at his stomach
"I'm fine" insisted Vestal his teeth clenched in pain "just a... ouch... stomach ache... came on suddenly."
"I know what you mean" Quincy spoke up, his forehead also creased in pain and his hand laid across his stomach "that wine didn't sit right with me either."
Isabel's eyes went wide "what about you?" she asked Onyx "you drank the wine too. Are you feeling sick?"
Onyx's eyes were wide as a he felt at his stomach with his hand "I... I suppose I might be..." suddenly he doubled up in pain as insides seemed to catch fire "that... ouch... really hurts!"
Festus and Hortus were on their feet, watching in horror as one by one their fellow masters collapsed to their knees, clutching at their stomachs and writhing in agony.
"W-what is happening?" stammered Hortus, his eyes wide and his hands trembling, "what's happening to them?"
Isabel shook her chains, heaving and tugging at the manacles around her wrists, her violent movements causing the chair she was tied to rattle and shake.
"Hey!" Festus shot at her, his face twisted in pain as it slowly built up inside of him "stop that, you're not going anywhere."
Isabel shot a look of panic and fury at him "don't you understand? You've been poisoned, you're under attack, they need treatment, let me go and I'll take them to the hospital."
"That won't be necessary" came a smooth, quiet voice from the doorway. The door snapped shut, and a figure stood in the center of the room. A tall man dressed in dark purple robes, a hood cast over over his head leaving his face lost in shadows. The hood was covered in ten yellow eye patterns, each one wide and pointing in a different direction, a fox like slit for pupils.
Isabel and the masters stared, bewildered at the stranger, Isabel shot a look at the two masters "one of yours?"
"I assure you they are no masters of mine" spoke up the Stranger "I am only subject to the will of Arcania and the orders of my true leader."
"The will of Arcania?" demanded Festus, who was trembling like a melting jelly, only holding himself up by leaning on a chair "who tells you that? your leader? how does he interpret that? does he read it in the clouds?"
There was a blur of motion, a purple smear across the room as the stranger dashed like a lightning bolt across the room. Before Festus could move an inch the stranger hooked the wooden leg of Festus' chair with his foot and swept it away.
Festus fell, slumping over without support and hitting the floor like a sack of flour. He lay there gasping, attempting to lift himself from the floor with one hand, grasping at his aching belly with the other.
The stranger stood over the fallen master, eyeing him like he was a snail under his boot. "They said Crowfang Keep was the most dangerous coven of them all, a coven of war veterans and warriors, and their masters were the strongest of all the mages in Arcania. I expected more than a collection of clumsy, drunken fools." The stranger reached into his cloak at his waist, revealing the hilt of a sabre, grasping it firmly. "I'll make this quick" he promised as he drew the blade from its sheath.
There was a crash and a sound of wood splintering on stone. Shooting a glance behind him the stranger saw Isabel on her feet, pinned against the wall, the chair she'd been tied to in pieces at her feet. She'd thrown herself against the wall hard enough to reduce the chair to splinters, and leave her unbound. Isabel bounded off the wall with speed that would have put an olympian to shame, and even as the stranger tried to leap back and draw his sword, Isabel was upon him. Even with her hands tied behind her back she did what little she could, shoulder barging into the stranger's chest, striking him hard enough to send him flying back, bounding off the master's table and coming to a rest in a heap of the stone floor.
The stranger's hooded face shot up in alarm; he could hardly believe his eyes. This woman had moved with inhuman speed to come to the rescue of a man who ought to be her greatest nemesis. Rubbing the mark on his chest where her shoulder had struck him like a cannonball, he clambered unsteadily to his feet. He fully drew his sabre and bounded atop the table, immediately leaping towards Isabel and swinging his blade down in a lethal arc.
Isabel hopped, swinging her bound arms out from behind her legs, bringing them rushing upwards to meet sword mid-swing. The sword clashed with the steel chain and, with Isabel pushing against the force of the blow, the sword was stopped cold. Isabel swung her wrist in a tight spin batting the sword out of the way and lashing out with both her arms, forcing the stranger to leap backwards out of the way.
"You're quick" the stranger admitted, regaining his balance and poise and lifting his sword assuredly "but with your hands chained together you have no control or grace. You cannot hope to save anyone like that."
Isabel stepped in between the Stranger and master Hortus, who was crouched down and cradling a now unconscious Festus in his lap, "stay behind me" she warned "you're the only master left and I'm gambling that you know some way to cure them." Then her face contorted, screwing into a look of pain and struggle, she was heaving with all her might at the manacles around her wrist, attempting to make the steel snap or bend till it broke apart.
"Please stop that" the Stranger spoke up, "trying to break your chains, it's just futile and pitiful. Metal is rather strong you know." CRACK went the chain. The Stranger went silent, surely he had imagined that. Then, with a howl of exertion, Isabel tore the chain in two, shattering it into metal pieces and sending them skittering across the room.
"Yes" she rasped, left out of breath from the superhuman effort she just demonstrated, "metal is built strong. But so was I."
The sounds of shrieks and wails raced through the Keep, hurrying around each corner from every direction. The sounds rained down from the upper floors and rose up from the lower floors, piercing through the iron clan cellar and reaching the ears of Igna and her prisoners.
Igna heaved at the door handle, twisting and tugging with all her strength, the wood bent and creaked with her strikes but it was far too tough to break down with physical blows alone.
"Hey!" yelled Hugo from inside the cell "your keep is under attack!"
"Thanks, I know!" Igna roared back at him, now kicking at the door as hard as she could, causing the whole thing to rattle on it's hinges "you know how I know? I can hear them screaming!"
"We can help you break the door down" insisted Hugo, pressed up against the walls of the cage and looking imploringly at Igna.
"You think I was born yesterday? I'm not going to let my enemy out of a cage!" Igna snapped back. "Fuck! why aren't the guards on the other side raising the deadlock?" Her question was answered, in the most unfortunate way. As her foot touched down after another kick she heard the sound of a small splash. Looking down she saw her shoe, touched down in the pool of blood trickling out from under the door. She stepped back hurriedly, making a trail of bloody footsteps in her wake. "Shit!" she cursed, staring down in horror at the marks she'd left on the floor.
"We're not your enemy" spoke up Nathan in a stern voice "you never fought in the war, you have no reason to hate us."
"That doesn't make me exempt from the consciences of letting you go. I'm walking on fine ice as it is." Igna replied bracing herself to barge the door again.
"If you don't release us then there will be no one left to care!" Nathan shot back, striking the bars and making them ring like a bell. "The criminals we were tracking have attacked, they're prepared to fight against mages but not Technographers, they're taking advantage of the chaos: catching people by surprise and slaying them before they can defend themselves. We are the only people fit to face them right now!"
Igna paused, and another scream tore through the door, a sound that rose up like a wolf's howl before fading away as if choked. She made her decision "screw it, I'll let you out. Only I don't have the keys to the cage" she admitted, striding up to the cage and pulling at the solidly locked door.
"Not a problem" replied Hugo, removing the piece of paper he'd been scribbling on earlier, he seemed to have folded it numerous times until it was shaped into a bulky knife-like shape with a sharp point "I've already figured out how to escape, we just weren't going to unless there was an emergency." Hugo inserted the tip of the paper blade into the lock, looking up at Nathan he warned "you may not want to touch the bars" and with that he twisted the paper, just as he did there was a flash of white blue light as electricity surged from the paper and struck the lock. There was a clunk as the surge of electricity created a magnetic field, grasping hold of the lock tumblers and causing them to turn into place. With a simple push caused the jail door to swing open.
"How did you do that?" Igna asked, staring at the piece of paper which was now smoldering gently "that was magic, surely?"
"Nope" Hugo replied bluntly, as he and Nathan hopped lightly out of the cell and marched over to the chest where their gear was stashed "I used the pent up electrostatic in the paper to create a magnetic field to turn the lock. Nothing magical about it."
Igna's face was a picture of confusion and doubt, did he make some of those words up? She stood still, passively observing as they reached into the chest and pulled out the strange armour she'd seen Nathan and Isabel wearing at the gate. Nathan was pulling on his whole set: a breastplate, heavy looking metal plated boots, and what appeared to be armour for his limbs and joints. The armour seemed to be dotted with many exposed tubes and pipe, the function of which Igna couldn't hope to ascertain. Hugo on the other hand had a very minimalist affair. It seemed that Hugo's allies had packed lightly, bringing only another pair of metallic boots, and a belt covered in large packages. "Traveling light I see" Igna informed him "you're going to fend off attackers like that? With boots and a belt?"
Hugo gave her a self satisfied look "these boots are very special" he assured her "and the belt holds a great many surprises." As if demonstrating he rolled up the sleeves of his white coat, revealing an insulated wire running down his sleeves, producing a pair of thick gloves with a blue diode at the centre of the palm from one of the belt pockets. "This'll take care of the the door" he promised, striding up to the door and rubbing his palms together. As he rubbed his palms together a high pitched whine began to emanate from the gloves, building and building as white-blue sparks leapt from palm to palm in a cascade of energetic bolts. As Hugo heaved his arms back as if about to shove against the door with all his might the diodes in the center of the palms glowed with striking at the lock with both hands, sparks bursting out as his hands met with the metal. The light in his palms flashed brighter than ever was their power burst out like a clap of thunder. The metal locks in the door were slammed with such magnetic force they sprung backwards ferociously enough to tear through the wood that kept it stuck in place, sending wood chips the door flying with enough force to make it swing had into the brick wall and rattle on it's hinges.
"After you my lovely" Hugo offered, a playful look playing about his lips and his hand indicating the open door.
Igna glowered at him and was about to retort, when Nathan bumped her on her the arm and passed in front of her as he headed for the door.
"Actually he's referring to me" Nathan explained, shooting an apologetic look at her from outside the cell, before tearing off into the keep at top speed.
Hugo followed after Nathan at full pelt, shouting over his shoulder just before he vanished from sight "grab Isabel's stuff won't you?"
Igna gritted her teeth as she dutifully grasped Isabel's spear and shield, together they weighed what felt like at least four tons. "Son of a-" Isabel huffed as she jogged after the fleeing Technographers "you better not stop running, you too!" she yelled after them, "or else you'll get a very close view of this spear!"
Breathlessly, Liam hurried through the corridors, his feet carrying him as fast as he could away from the enemy. At least he thought he was running away, it was hard to tell when no matter which corner he turned there was always sign of battle. With each step he was bounding over the splintered remnants of busted walls, or swerving to avoid blood splatter. Occasionally in his flight his eye would stumble across the felled body of a mage. Whenever that happened he would squeeze his eyes shut tight and run on blindly, cursing himself as a craven as he fled.
His heels dug in instinctively as he heard a low murmuring right round the corner. Liam pinned himself against the wall, covering his heavy breathing with a hand over his mouth. Terror was aflutter in his chest as stood there, trying as hard as he could to remain silent, taking imperceptible step after imperceptible step, Liam reached the corner and hesitantly peeked round, expectancy to see an attacker bearing down on him. But it was nothing like that, it was a sight far more dreadful.
Four figures were cramped into the hallway, one figure was prone on the ground, his limbs askew and his robes caked in blood, his face was turned to the side and matted with blood so Liam couldn't see his face. However Liam clearly recognised the others, Samuel Iridis was bent low over the fallen mage, gripping his blood soaked robes in balled fists.
Samuel was whimpering quietly over the body, tears streaking down his face, "Dom" he croaked in a low and choked voice "stop it please" he begged "don't go Dom!"
Standing helplessly behind Samuel were two of his friends, they seemed lost, standing stock still over the body of their fallen comrade. Liam too felt stuck, there it was right in front of him, the phenomenon that he could feel snapping at his heels throughout this calamity: death. It had claimed Dom's short life for it's own, had it had it's fill? or was it's lust for blood only heightened by this light snack.
Liam slipped out from round the corner, stepping over long smear of blood he could only assume was the remains of Dom being dragged, bleeding down the corridor. Liam took several cautious steps towards the mourners, listening out for sounds of approaching danger.
"Hey Sam" Liam ventured gently, "you alright?" there was no response, Samuel merely pressed his forehead into Dom's still chest. As Liam drew closer he could see the horrendous burns that surrounded the slash wound, as if some one had bathed Dom's chest in flame then hacked at it with a sabre. The result was the rusty brown mess of scorched flesh punctuated by the long crevasse that had been slashed out of his torso.
Liam felt bile rise in his throat at the sight and he doubled up, covering his mouth and willing away the sensation of disgust and abysmal horror. "Guys" he stammered from behind his hands "it's not safe here, we need to hide somewhere."
Samuel's two companions were the only two to even appear to hear him, they cast their distant and despairing eyes towards him, they said nothing, for they had simply run out of words to express the unfairness and visceral nature of mortality.
Another screech rang out from just down the corridor, the danger was drawing closer even now. Liam's hands clenched "please!" he implored them "we must run or else we'll die!"
Only then did Samuel raise his head to face Liam, his eyes and cheeks were stained red with weeping, his face a mess of grief and tears. His forehead was painted crimson with Dom's blood, it trickled down his face like tears from a third eye, seeming to cut his face in two as if he had also been mutilated in the battle. "We're already gone" he bleated in a voice that was rubbed raw by grief "we've been slaughtered like... like lambs for their stew."
It was then that their foe appeared. A hulking mass of muscle and fur loomed into the hallway, its back arched and it's nose pressed against the ground as it sniffed them out. The Beast, for such a thing of feral might cannot be called anything than a beast, was the size of a horse drawn cart. It's limbs and skin did not seem to have all come from the same parent, for it was a patchwork of monsters placed into one creature: legs built like a tiger's but coated in a crocodile's rigid skin, the mane of a lion but the quills of a porcupine, but it's face was the worst aberration of them all, from the creature's maker seemed to have fashioned it as some horrific child of man and wolf. The face had all the length and sharp angles of a wolf, but it's face was pink and bald, it's eyes holding a spark of savage sentience and invention. It was a predator pure and simple, and it was raising its face to look straight at them.
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