The 1st Part: In Which A Small Boy Who Is Actually Quite Old Destroys His Own House, And Consequently Meets An Actual Small Boy
Alden Arden Alexander, Archmage 1st Class, was performing one of those tricky spells that was either going to fix the gold trim on his second-favorite cloak or, quite possibly, level his house.
“Oh, come on, it’s an antique, even for me. It’s priceless,” he told the Shadowcat he’d summoned to help. “It’s the only coat that goes with my raven-beak chains.”
The Shadowcat’s white pool eyes narrowed.
Alden grinned. “Just let me try it,” he insisted. “For old time’s sake?”
A moment later, a shockwave of energy powerful enough to disintegrate an army rippled out and blasted Alden through his ruptured roof. He landed with a swirl of bright smoke a few hundred yards away, the dark-copper skin of his face smudged with shadow dust and his black curls standing on end and smoking casually. A bit of unspent electricity crackled through his clothes and through the soil surrounding him.
“Heh,” said Alden, “I really thought that would work.” He blinked at his clothes; the dust vanished and the creases sorted themselves out fashionably again.
The Shadowcat sat down next to him and flicked its tail dryly. The skeleton willows arching over the path shook the splintered timber and nails out of their branches, equally irritated.
“No, it’s fine,” Alden answered mischievously. He held up the offending coat, and smiled. “After eight hundred years, you learn a thing or two, you know. I took some precautions.”
The house frowned at him as it woke up and started putting itself back together, its jagged sagging roofline silvering with the sparse sunlight coming in through the clouds. It was one of those steel-red mornings where the dead plains of the Borderlands looked slick with blood, but Alden knew it was a mirage, or at least, it was a memory. Memories couldn’t hurt a mage of his abilities, but he found them annoying so he’d enchanted his house a few hundred years ago to keep those kinds of things away from the area.
He picked up his staff, and polished the greenstone at its end with a wave of his hand. The staff hadn’t been his, originally; it was almost twice Alden’s height, but Alden liked it that way.
“Well,” he said, and then, “huh?” Because the Shadowcat had just informed him that there was someone coming.
He turned around and squinted out over the plain towards the Vagueness on that side of the horizon. His eyes flickered left, and then right, and landed on a small silhouette moving at a stumbling run through the saw-grasses. The silhouette was limping, and badly at that; a veil-like, vaporous gauze of darkness was clinging and dragging at the small form, anchoring its tendrils again and again in the soil as the silhouette ripped through them and struggled onwards.
“That’s funny,” murmured Alden. “Is it coming here?”
The Shadowcat flicked an ear. It was already fading back to return to the Other Side.
“Don’t think it knows it’s got a bug,” Alden observed as an afterthought. Then he shrugged, twirling his cape about his shoulders. “Well, I’ll go tell it.”
He walked down the stepping-stone path that snaked out indefinitely towards the Vagueness. The silhouette seemed to be following it, too, although it was hard to tell with the light the way it was. Alden’s feet tapped lightly over the stones, always sliding farther than seemed possible, at least for everybody else; he had never had the patience to go places without using a few spells to speed things up.
It was not long before he stopped, a few dozen feet from the shadowed little fugitive.
“Ah, a kid, not just a silhouette,” he said to no one in particular. “Well, that complicates things, doesn’t it?”
The boy, entirely preoccupied with his own terror, didn’t notice the mage until Alden spoke. By then, he was face to face with Alden, and after sliding to a stop, the boy crumpled to his knees, panting. Alden looked about the boy’s age; that is, maybe ten or twelve, although Alden flattered himself that he had always maintained a mysterious maturity to his young face (which to be clear, according to anyone who ever saw him, was not the case). That was where the similarities ended, anyway. The boy was badly wounded and his face was spattered with fairly fresh blood, and instead of a fashionable and antique cape, the boy had a cloud of dark vapors now wreathed about his shoulders.
“You’ve got something on you,” Alden noted helpfully. “You probably can’t see it. What are you, by the way?”
“Help me, please—“
“A Praetorius!” Alden exclaimed, admiringly, noticing the golden crown-mark on the boy’s brow. Then he seemed to realize something. “No wonder the Shadowcat noticed you. Wait a second, what’s a Praetorius doing so far from the Gatehouse?”
The boy raised his eyes; there were great silvery tears in them. He heaved himself forwards, and managed to climb somewhat to his feet, and sway there. “Mr. Mage, please,” he whimpered, “keep them away from me. Please save me! Keep them away from me, please, do something—!” His panicked eyes locked on Alden’s staff, and with a remarkable show of strength for his scrawny appearance, the little boy grabbed the staff from Alden’s hands and swung it desperately behind him, in the direction of the Vagueness, as though in search of some unseen foe that might spring out at him at any moment.
“What?” Said Alden, crooking an eyebrow at the boy. “First of all, that’s rude. Secondly, it’s a staff. What’re they teaching in your family these days? The magic’s not in the staff, it’s in me. Well, that’s not totally true either. But give it back, I like it.”
The boy seemed to be slowly emerging out of a nightmare, and at that point he stopped, staring across at the Mage’s face with his liquid black eyes wider than moons. The boy and Alden were the same height, which probably comforted the former. He swallowed. “H-help me…” he said again.
“Yeah, alright, but I want my staff back.” Alden raised his arm and with the sound of a stone disappearing underwater, the stick jumped from the boy’s hand and landed in Alden’s. Alden looked at it approvingly before returning his attention to the boy. He gestured in the general direction of the black vapor cloud. “Now, tell me what that Curse is, and why you want help.”
The boy glanced anxiously behind him. “I—“
“Oh, and just a moment—I’ll get that blood off. It’s all over your face.”
Alden made a gesture towards the boy. Nothing happened. Looking a bit puzzled, he used the other hand. The second time, all the dirt and debris drifted away from the boy’s body, and most of the wounds closed, but the spatters of blood still remained. Now somewhat chagrined, Alden placed both hands on his staff and directed its crystal towards the boy, who backed up in alarm—not quickly enough, however. Before he had the chance to get out of the way, the crystal had illumined like a light-bulb, crackled argumentatively, and released an invisible spell so powerful it sent the boy sprawling backwards onto the rocky path.
The blood splatter still adhered to his face.
“Damn,” said Alden, scratching his chin. “That’s a nasty curse, or I’m having a bad day.” He thought about his house. “Actually there’s every chance I’m just having a bad day. Who could’ve let a curse like that in anyway? You Gatekeepers are supposed to keep that stuff out, aren’t you?”
The boy made an animal sound of pain, but struggled up from the ground again, looking like a mess of red shadows and wounds under the steel sky. The black gauze about his shoulders dragged at him with sticky strings.
Alden registered something; he narrowed his eyes. “Hey wait—by the way, kid, who’s blood is that?”
“Please help me…” the boy whispered, his voice ragged now, and on the verge of despair. “If they catch me…they’ll kill me…like they killed…everyone…” the boy’s tears redoubled; he buried his face in his hands, and sobbed, and sobbed. “Why…everyone…everyone, everyone…!”
Alden blinked, and then when it still didn’t make any sense to him, he blinked again, hoping that might help him understand. All he ended up achieving was to accidentally create a small whirlwind, but things like that tended to happen when Alden was thinking hard.
“Okay, I’m not following,” he announced after a moment. “They killed someone?”
“Kid, can you explain better, maybe? From the beginning? I’ve heard that can help.”
“Please…if they catch me…”
Alden heaved a sigh. “Okay. Look, why don’t you come with me for now. I’ve got every spell in the book—and about twenty-seven spells that are not in the book, actually, but not that you care—on my house, so whatever you’re scared of, it isn’t likely to follow us there.”
The boy shook his head, repeatedly. “You don’t understand, Mr. Mage,” he whimpered, “it’s not like…the other ones…nobody…could stop it, and they’re coming—!”
“Look, I can’t do anything about that Curse right now without hurting you. But. I mean, that is a really, really, super nasty curse, and I’m still a bit scared to know how you got it, but even the most powerful Curses couldn’t come near the house as more than a Shadow. So.” Alden crooked his mouth. “Worth a try, eh? And then maybe you can tell me what happened.”
“A—a Shadow? Mr. Mage?” The boy murmured, hopefully.
“Yeah! They’re cool—they have these white empty eyes. I have some friends that visit me as Shadows. But hopefully it won’t come to that.” Alden spun around with a swoosh and flutter of his cloak, and marched back towards his house along the endless trail through the gloaming at the lip of the world. The pitter-patter of unsteady feet indicated that the boy was following him.
The house appeared to have finished regrowing, and the skeleton-willows couldn’t stay angry for very long, so they had gone silent too. Alden felt the fog of his magic thickening and tightening in the fabric of the air as he neared his house, woven like an impenetrable tapestry of one-way doors. He was proud of it. There weren’t many curses in existence, and outside of existence, that could get through hundreds of years of an Archmage’s spells.
He halted beneath the skeleton-willows in front of his house, and spun around to say something smug and triumphant about the power of his magic, when he startled, and his unformed sentence died and fell from his lips.
The boy was just behind him on the path, gazing with blank wondering eyes at Alden’s crooked storied house. He still didn’t seem to notice the dark void-like gauze clinging to him, if anything more distinctly than before.
Alden scratched his nose. “Heh. That’s not good. That was the Shadow.”
It had changed somewhat, but that wasn’t much of a comfort, because it was doing the thing that only the Shadows of really powerful curses can do. It had started to stretch and draw apart as if consumed by internal conflict, soundlessly condensing into forms. Four forms, to be exact. And though made of the same stuff, the forms were slowly but surely refining their shapes into figures.
“Mr. Mage?” The boy said, looking frightened and confused.
“You—there hasn’t been a curse with a Shadow like that since the Seven at the Beginning, when your family built the Gatehouse.”
“I’m—I don’t know,” the boy mumbled, lowering his eyes again. The tears were threatening to redouble. “I’m so sorry, so sorry—! I didn’t mean to…I…please don’t make me go back, they’ll kill me—!”
“So that’s what was after you, kid? The curse that goes with that Shadow…got out of the Gate?” Alden sighed. “Man, I’m really having a bad day.”
And that was how it started.