Dylan trudged through the forest with scouts and archers spread out around them somewhere amongst the bushes and the trees. He caught their passage every so often. Flashes of shadow, for the most part. An unnerving sight if he hadn’t known they were on the same side.
He walked at a slower pace, close on the heels of the sergeant who was in charge of granting him sanction to use his power should the need arise. The peep and screech of the little fantailed birds dogged their every step. No matter where they went, the russet-breasted creatures seemed to pop out of the very bark. The presence was a welcome one, a reminder of the tower gardens during summer.
They headed west, as far as he could determine through the treetops, towards the border where the Udynea Empire’s troops waited for the opportunity to strike. Except the enemy had been silent for weeks. An act that was, by and large, unprecedented. It made the soldiers jittery.
When he’d reached the front line, Dylan had caught scraps of conversation, enough to piece together that the last time the Udynea Empire halted their assault, they’d attacked several days after with a force strong enough to slaughter a good deal of the army.
That’s why they roamed the forest now, to discover what plan the bastards had cooked up and, hopefully, sabotage it before they were aware. He was this company’s reassurance should they stumble upon any enemy spellsters. And they would, the closer they got to the border, the surer everyone seemed that they’d unearth some sort of sordid nest of… them.
Spellster. His skin crawled at the way the soldiers back at camp spoke the word. It felt dirty. More slur than description. They didn’t seem to see anything wrong in how left their mouths. Or that he was one of them. But he was leashed. In their minds, a collar of purple metal made all the difference.
The sergeant stopped, indicating Dylan do the same with the silent lifting of a fist. The man pointed to their left. Something moved amongst the undergrowth. Too swift and surefooted to hear, but the shadows suggested something not normally found wandering the forest.
One of theirs or one of ours? He flexed his fingers, prepared to let loose with a blast of lightning should sanction be given. After weeks of being able to reach his power only at the behest of a hound, and briefly at that, he longed for a reason to use it beyond healing himself, to have the full power sing through his veins. Even if it meant killing.
A woman, elven and quite slight in her armour, emerged from the bushes. She dashed up to the sergeant’s side, saluted and fell into stride with the man.
Dylan sighed. Another bloody false alarm. After hearing the soldiers talk back in the main camp, he had expected to come across some sort of Udynean resistance by now. Were they even going in the right direction?
“Report,” the sergeant said. “Have you found any sign of these bastards?”
“All we have found are ruins, sir,” the woman replied, jerking a thumb in the direction she’d come from. There was something in her voice—the careful way she spoke each word, drawing out the vowels—that reminded him of the Launtil. Could she be another ex-Udynean slave converted to their cause? “Could be dwarven.”
Dylan’s head lifted at that. Ruins suggested something a little more substantial than the arboreal huts the ancient dwarves usually built. Whilst their treetop homes did little to the environment, it also left very few remains to study.
The sergeant cursed under his breath. “Just what we need in the middle of a battlefield.”
“Sir? Your orders?” She shuffled from one foot to the other, glancing over her shoulder every so often. “Aren’t we meant to mark ruins for the dwarves?”
The man sighed. “Suppose we better go take notes, measure things out, the usual twaddle. Don’t want a war with Dvärghem on top of fighting off these magical pissants.”
Dylan cleared his throat. “You are aware Dvärghem is a peaceful country, aren’t you?” He’d dealt only with hedgewitches, who carried daggers and the like to protect them from predators and those unaware of their status. On the whole, their country preferred words over weapons.
Sneering, the sergeant turned his head. “Well now, precious, aren’t you just full of information? Bring in the other scouts.” This order was directed at the woman. “And get me whoever can accurately map this ruin.”
The woman snapped a salute. “I believe Jasilla’s qualified in that field, sir.”
Sergeant grunted, waiting until the woman had gone before muttering, “Great, another bloody elf to deal with. Don’t know what the captain’s thinking sending them all on scouting missions. Why don’t the sodding pointy-eared bastards just shuffle off back home?”
Dylan idly scratched at where the bottom edge of his collar dug into his skin. He’d heard from the elven spellsters who’d been born beyond the tower on how their presence wasn’t always an accepted one. “And are you going to gift them with the ships and supplies to make it back? All of them?” History said the first elves arrived via a small fleet of five ships, but they’d been large vessels that carried thousands of men and women. There had to be hundreds of thousands of them now, if not several million.
The man sneered. “You’re awfully mouthy for a leashed spellster. Wish the lieutenant would’ve let me bring the cute black-haired one instead. She knows how to stay silent.” His lips twisted into a grin that left Dylan with a flesh-shuddering urge to bathe. “And doesn’t mind when her mouth’s full.”
Dylan frowned. He’d seen one black-haired woman amongst the other spellsters and she was a timid thing, the sort that made it hard to picture as being a source of destruction, as was so often the case when it came to the skilled ones. But surely, the sergeant wasn’t implying that—
“Ha! Look at the shock on your face. Yes, pretty boy, I mean when she’s sucking me off.” He thrust his groin out for emphasis. Dylan really could’ve done without it. “What’s she going to do? Sure as hell can’t turn her magic on me.”
“That’s a misuse of your ranking and abuse of those under your command.” Not to mention a dozen other illegal acts if he was forcing her to do the deed. “I could have you reported on those charges alone.” Although, if the lieutenant’s feelings on spellsters was common, they probably didn’t care what the man did to their weapon as long as he left her capable of doing her job.
“Already been done, sunshine. Why do you think you’re the one they sent?” Chuckling, the man clapped an arm around Dylan’s shoulders. “Aw, are we feeling a teensy bit left out? Longing to wrap your lips around a nice thick one?”
He drew back and sought for his magic. Just one bolt. That was all he needed to take this sick bastard down. The collar crackled. Little sparks bit into his neck. He clenched his teeth, focusing on how tantalisingly close his power dangled. He could almost feel it in his grasp. Maybe if he was able to push that little bit more…
Still, the collar held. It burned against his skin, but it held.
“Well, I don’t do other men.” The man released him, oblivious as to how close he’d come to being dead, and continued walking. “But don’t worry, that pretty face will attract the right sort of attention soon enough. You’ll be on your knees and servicing your own little group in no time.”
Dylan swallowed down the bile sliding up his tongue. He’d no interest in men, whether it was doing or being done by. His gaze slid to the sergeant’s dagger sitting temptingly in its sheath. His fingers twitched. Could he…? No. Even if, by some miracle, he relieved the sergeant of the weapon, he’d never be fast enough to stab the man, much less fatally.
“Hitch up your skirts, princess, we’re on the move.” With a grin that had Dylan wanting to deck him, the man took off in the direction the scout had indicated.
His thoughts slid to the razor still tucked nice and safe in his belt pouch. The edge was sharp enough to cut a man’s throat. Maybe in his sleep. He rather doubted the man would be missed. But not yet. He’d wait a few days first, let them think all this marching through the undergrowth had cowed him. He would not wind up looking like those hollow creatures he’d left back at the main camp.
They trudged through the forest in the direction the scout had pointed, pushing past bushes and ducking low branches. Dylan begrudgingly lifted the ends of his robe as the hems started to snag on the undergrowth. Bare twigs scratched at his boots, several snapping up to lash his bare knees.
Just as he was beginning to regret turning down the offer of trousers, they broke into a clearing.
Dylan halted at the tree line, his breath all but stolen at the sight. For the past ten years, he’d dedicated his life to translating the records others gave of places like this. Old hints of when the dwarves once roamed over vast tracks of land. He’d longed to see, however briefly, a dwarven ruin and to stumble upon this. True, it was naught but a few stone walls sitting in the dead centre of the clearing, however…
He took a few steps towards the ruin. No contesting the structure was old, but was it truly dwarven? The hedgewitches always said the ancient dwarves lived in the trees—they still did in Dvärghem—and didn’t build much out of stone unless natural caves were involved.
Each wall was built of great slabs as tall as the average man’s waist. Their lines were arrow-straight, distinguishable from each other only due to the thin suggestion of grime between the blocks. If the ruin had once had a roof, it was long gone, if he were to judge by the sunlight streaming through the archway. He knew of no human buildings that were so meticulously designed. So why was it here?
The rest of their troop appeared in ones and twos. They eyed the ruin, twitchy but curious. None seemed interested in venturing closer.
He glanced at the sergeant. The man appeared to pay him no mind, being heavily engrossed in debriefing the scouts. Dylan shuffled a few steps towards the ruin. Still, his activity went unnoticed. Perhaps he could get close enough to determine just who had built it.
By the time he’d slowly crossed half the distance between the sergeant and the closest stone wall, Dylan had forsaken all attempts at subtly. Still, he’d have a quick check over his shoulder every few steps to ensure the sergeant was nearby, for even if the man wasn’t bothered if he wandered a little ways, staying within earshot would be prudent lest the call to attack came.
Finally, the wall loomed over him. Carvings adorned the slabs closer to the archway, worn by centuries of exposure to the elements. They did indeed look to be dwarven runes. By the gods. He laid a hand on one of the runes, his fingers settling into the double-pronged design. Never had he believed he would get a chance to see these ancient places for himself. Especially not such a rarity.
This had to be a temple. The markings could’ve once suggested worship of… something. There were scratches and etching over the runes. Newer. Possible defacing from young Demarn tribes or even rival dwarves. What lay beneath could’ve been a tree, or a valley, or even a depiction of a fork in a river that no longer flowed through these woods.
Dylan sighed and dropped his hand. The runes could’ve suggested far too many things. That the structure was most certainly a temple was all he could be sure about. Dwarves worshipped nature, paying equal homage to the land as they did to the animals they hunted. This particular temple could’ve been dedicated to anything.
What he needed was a compilation of finds in the area. Sadly, the only one he’d trust was back in the tower. One of Dvärghem’s hedgewitches would’ve been better, but if there was one within the camp grounds, then he’d heard no word of them.
Another scout emerged from the undergrowth, yet another elven woman. The sergeant spoke briefly with her and the elf strode up to the blocks. She halted beside Dylan to run a finger over the carvings, her lips slightly mumbling. So this was the scout who kept track of the dwarven finds? She was a tiny thing, even for an elf, barely making the middle of his chest. What did that other woman say her name was?
“Jasilla, isn’t it?” he said, ducking his torso so as not to loom over her. “If you want some help, I can—”
“N-no, thank you.” She stared up at him, her large eyes—as black as her short-cropped hair—widening further. “T-that’s quite unnecessary.” She put a few carefully-measured strides between them as she spoke, in the same accent as the other scout. Her hand lifted in silent warning for him to stay back. “I can manage without your assistance. This doesn’t require blowing anything up. Just, uh… go wait by your handler, if you would.”
He frowned at the woman. Handler? That was a Udynean term used for those who looked after the slaves. The sergeant was his warden.
“Of you go, now.”
She hadn’t really just spoken to him like he was some child, had she? “I think you’ve misunderstood my intentions.” He hadn’t mentioned magic, hadn’t managed to mention anything, when it came down to it. “See, I’ve done extensive research on ancient dwarven ruins. I’ve translated hundreds of texts into their language for the hedgewitches. I’m quite capable of aiding in the cataloguing of—”
“Just let me do my job so we can leave.” Her hand flapped as if she aimed to shoo a bird from its perch. “Quickly, if you please. That’s a good boy.”
Dylan jerked back. Never in his life had he been so flippantly dismissed. Not by his guardian or the teachers, not even by those who’d turned him down.
Uncertain what action she would take if he further pressed the issue, he aimlessly wandered along the wall, eventually finding himself crossing the clearing to stand at the sergeant’s side.
The man seemed uninterested in his return, opting to glare out at the grass and stumps littering the clearing. “I don’t like this,” he muttered to the scout who had first alerted them of the ruin. “There’s something about this clearing that just isn’t right. It’s too exposed.” He pointed near the ruin walls. “Just look at those stumps. This place has been cleared. And none too recently, judging by the growth. Have our scouts found this place before?”
The woman shook her head. “It’s all new territory, sir. I don’t think a Demarner’s set foot in these parts for decades without tripping over the Empire.”
“And there’s been no sign of the bastards?”
Her lips twisted with distaste. “Not even a wisp, sir.”
Grunting, the sergeant rubbed at his chin. He eyed the ruin as if expecting it to burst forth with demons at any second. “Alliance with Dvärghem be damned,” he growled. “Take a few of the sharper eyes and keep watch. I’m pulling the rest back to the rendezvous point. Meet us there when the elf’s done.”
The scout saluted and, towing an elven man in her wake, rushed towards the ruins. The woman’s hand came up. Her fingers flashed in a signal of some sort, but the other scouts were all nearby and Jasilla had her back to them, still examining the carvings.
At Dylan’s side, another scout’s eyes widened. “Sir?” The man nodded at the trio just as Jasilla turned to face the two scouts joining her. He pulled forth his bow and nocked an arrow. “We need to leave, now.”
The sergeant gave the man a curt nod. “Scatter, men!” he roared. “Spell—” An arrow found the man’s throat. The sergeant fell, gurgling and clutching at his neck. Blood gushed out the wound, staining the grass and soil.
Fire exploded across the clearing.
Heat engulfed him. Dylan threw up a hand, trying to form a shield. His collar sparked and held. Around him, screams. He tried to determine their sources, to see if there was anyone who could give him the order that would release the collar’s hold on him. Who had been next in command? There had to be someone.
More cries came. None sounded like the one he needed to use his magic. He tried anyway. I’m allowed. Surely, he could grant himself sanction if there was no one else. He could protect them, himself. Everyone. He staggered back as another blast hit, blinding feeling for the collar.
Someone slammed into him, bearing them to the ground. More arrows sprouted around them like deadly weeds. He turned his head, ready to thank the woman.
Dead eyes stared back. Blood trickled out her mouth.
Bile slid up his throat. He tried to swallow it, coughing everything back up as he failed. Liquid, thick and acidic, poured out his mouth. The bitter scent clogged his nose and coated his tongue. Smoke choked the air. Flames and heat assaulted him from all around. Screams filled his ears.
Dylan dared to lift his head, his stomach already quaking at what it might see. He still lived for now, thanks to the scout. That wouldn’t be for much longer if he couldn’t find a place to lay low long enough to figure out a way of fighting back.
Ahead of him stood the ruins. Devoid of the three scouts that had vacated so hastily. The stones were untouched by the attacks. Even in the midst of battle, Udynea didn’t dare antagonise the dwarves by violating their relics.
He clambered to his feet and ran for the archway. Fire and arrows followed in his wake. They caught on his robe, tearing and singeing the hem. Metal dug into his shins, flames burnt his skin. He didn’t dare slow to deal with them.
Dylan flung himself through the archway. He scrambled along the pebbled yard within to flatten his back against the inner wall. Only then did he bat away the licks of flame clinging to his skirts and haul out the arrow remains.
What was he meant to do? Defend. Attack. But how? He was leashed and with no one to give him sanction. His fingers brushed the collar. There had to be a way, cowering behind a wall whilst everyone died around him was not an option.
He grabbed the collar and forced his fingers beneath the links. The metal hummed. Dylan sank to his knees, peering through the archway whilst still fumbling to find where the two ends joined. Come on.
An inhuman shriek drew his gaze. Moving fire. A figure engulfed in flames. They staggered across the clearing, flailing and screeching.
Panic sealed his throat. Shaking, he crushed the metal in his grasp. Come on! He tried to push out, to douse the flames before they consumed the figure. The collar sparked. The links moulded beneath his fingers like hot, searing clay. His throat burned. Tears blurred the world. The all-too-close scent of charring flesh filled his nose. Liquid pooled in his mouth. He clenched his teeth, pushing down whatever was left in his stomach. Come. On!
The figure fell, no longer batting at the flames.
Dylan watched, breathless and still, not even daring to blink lest he missed some sign of movement.
No… He was too late. No! He couldn’t be. He was meant to be stopping this. It was his duty to protect these people. But how could he with this stupid piece of metal stopping him? He might as well be lighting the fires himself for all the use he was.
The screams of the dying wadded his ears, echoes of the inhuman shriek.
He pawed at the collar, desperately fighting to dispel the barrier between him and his magic. The metal grew hotter. He had to win free. They’d all die without him to fight back, to save them. There had to be a way. There just had to.
Power touched him. Slowly. A pinhole in a dam. He pushed harder.
Great white arcs flew off the metal. Each jolt was another serrated needle digging into his flesh. Pain wracked his body. It emptied his stomach and crushed his lungs. He had to get the damn thing off before it killed him. The metal in his hands was twig-thin now. And molten.
A shield. Screaming breathlessly, he gave the collar one final wrench and pushed with everything he had left. Just a little more and—
Sudden light, blinding and blue, filled his vision. Then there was only darkness.