Stephan lurched from his bed, the screams still ringing in his ears. “I’m coming Ashona,” he shouted, trying to reassure her as he hurriedly donned his night robes. He stubbed his toe as the heavy wooden door separating their rooms swung inwards. He swore as he hobbled to her side. The pain was intense, but he ignored it. Her screams were far more important. It didn’t help that the room was in pitch darkness. It was late, probably past midnight and he had been in a deep sleep when his subconscious picked up the sounds of screaming and even now his brain was partly fog filled from his own dreams. There was an air of unreality about the night. It was as though the world held its breath.
He reached her side. She was screaming and thrashing in the tangled sheets. There were no coherent words, just the terrified cry of someone in the grip of a fearful nightmare.
“Hush,” he said, trying to calm her. He didn’t know what else to do. It would be forward to touch her but then her screams reached a crescendo and fearing for her he leant over, taking her in his arms. Instantly she came awake.
“No! Don’t let them take me,” she cried out, still in the grip of her nightmare. She sobbed and Stephan held her tight, swaying gently to and fro in an attempt to reassure her. “Hush. You are safe now. It’s a dream. It is over. You are safe.”
“Don’t let them take me,” she sobbed. Her tears soaked through his robes. He was shocked by the intensity of her appeal. Never had he heard such anguish. “Don’t let them take me,” she gasped, trying to draw breath. “They were ripping my soul from my body. The pain. Don’t let them harm me.”
“I’ll protect you,” Stephan swore, and he meant it too. Her sobs quietened although she gripped him fiercely. He had never been held by another person so tightly before. She was trembling and crying now.
“What have I done,” Stephan moaned, stroking her hair.
For a moment longer, except for her sobs, they were silent. “I should never have started this experiment. I should never have suggested this. This is the worse nightmare you have had, isn’t it?
She nodded her head. He released her, letting her settle back onto the bed. “What happened?” he asked.
Her voice, raw with emotion, cracked as she spoke. “I was in a cave. It was awful. They surrounded me. I couldn’t escape... ” Her words were rushed and he could hear the growing panic in her voice.
“Hush now,” Stephan said, holding her hand. He turned to a candle standing on a bed side table. He waved his hand, a finger drawing a rune in the air. A shape long learned by sorcerers to summon elementals. A flame elemental sprang into being at his summons and its flame spread to the candle before it disappeared in to the ether once more. Its task fulfilled.
“There. You can see now. You are safe,” he said.
She stared at the flame and he was shocked by the look in her eyes. Normally they were so wide and trusting, now they were screwed tight against an unseen fear. Her face was wet and he gently dried her tears with his sleeve. She wasn’t beautiful in an obvious way, but her eyes held him captive. He could look into them all day, he thought as he brushed the hair from her face.
“Now, tell me what happened. If you are up to it?”
She looked haunted still.
“I was in a cave. Demons were all around me. They were ripping my soul from my body. They were feeding on my pain. Never have I had such a dreadful nightmare, it was so real. I felt that I was truly there, amongst them.”
“You are safe now. It was a dream. Nothing more. But we are a step closer to finding the source of your dreams. This is the fifth night you have had them in this vicinity and this was by far the worst dream, so the source of the dreams, if that is possible, must be nearby.”
“Why?” she sobbed. “Why am I having such fearful nightmares?”
His heart went out to her. He stroked her hand, trying to comfort her. “Well, we have moved around the city and you have slept in several different locations, trying to find the source of your dreams. I believe this may be it.”
She smiled for the first time, wiping her tears away with the back of her hand, “And what will people think? The two of us, not even married, sleeping in so many rooms these last few weeks.”
He smiled reassuringly, “Who cares what anyone else thinks. You are all that matters and I want to see an end to these nightmares.”
“What is causing them though?” she wailed, clearly desperate to have them at an end.
“I don’t know,” he said lowering his gaze for a moment. Looking up at her again he said, “But I do know they are worse in this area of the city, and close to his laboratory.”
“Whose laboratory?” she asked, but he sensed that she already knew.
“Lothanal,” he whispered as though afraid to say the name out loud.
She looked at him, shock engraved deep within her eyes. “But demons are not real,” she whispered back. “I mean, it is one thing to dream about them, but another to believe that they truly exist.”
“Our history is steeped in demon tales. There must be some foundation in them and don’t forget that our ancestors clearly believed that they existed.”
“But that makes my dreams all the more terrifying,” she gasped.
He stroked her hair. “Yes. Have you noticed the candle?” he asked and her eyes flashed to the flame.
“Blue,” she choked.
“Flames burn blue in the presence of demons. For a while I have suspected Lothanal and have had lanterns distributed around this area for several nights, they have often burned blue. Tomorrow we have plans to bring into fruition. It might be dangerous and I will need your help. That is, if you are able?”
Her nod was barely perceptible. “Stephan,” she said clasping his hand more firmly.
“Yes,” he answered, fearful of the intensity of her look.
“Something really dreadful is going to happen.”
“You are still fearful of your dreams. It will be dawn soon and then you will see that no night terrors threaten.”
She shook her head. “Stephan, don’t leave me.”
“I will have to leave, silly,” he said. “We daren’t leave these rooms together. I know I said I didn’t care earlier, but there is your reputation to think of.”
Her grip intensified. “Stephan. Don’t leave me. Please.”
Her eyes and her voice implored him with an intensity that shook him. “Don’t worry. I am not going to leave you,” he said smiling.
“Marry me,” she blurted.
“You daft thing,” he admonished. “You are terrified still. What sort of man would I be, taking advantage of you like this?”
“Please,” she implored, the flickering candlelight reflected from the moistness of her eyes.
He knew this was a very serious request. After a moment silence he said, “Well. Normally it’s the man who asks, but on this occasion perhaps we can make an exception.”
Her face lit up and her oh so beautiful eyes sparkled with life. “You will?”
He nodded and then struggled for breath as she threw herself at him in a tight embrace.
Lothanal’s heart lurched and he nearly stumbled. Pain lanced through his feet and a numbing cold assailed him. He gaped around at the landscape, his eyes barely believing the view. Desolation. The whole landscape was bleak. Everywhere he gazed was faintly glowing green rocks. No life, nor any signs of life. Green was the colour Lothanal associated with demons, so his destination must have been correct, but the shock of actually standing in their world was nearly too much for him.
For many months he had spied on the demons through his kara-
He was at the pinnacle of his career. He had dared what no other sorcerer had before. If he succeeded in this task he would have power unlimited. He would be a force to be reckoned with and then he would show his people, the Eldric, what true power meant. His plans were huge. He would conquer a world. He would be an emperor and people would fawn at his feet for favours.
He looked around at the desolation and doubt assailed him. Where were they? Where were the demons? He pushed a rock with his toe and agony lanced through his foot, searing its way to his heart. He stifled a scream. The very contact with the ground sent shock waves through his body and touching the rock was no exception. The pain subsided and he realised that the rock seemed weightless as though all the life had been sucked from it; it was a world of cinders and ash.
He looked up at the sky, nothing but darkness and stars. No clouds and even the stars seemed dimmed as though seen through a fog. He glanced down at his hand and was shocked to see that the kara-
In trepidation, he raised his hand to his face. To his joy something white and translucent was within his palm, almost filling it. It was his kara-
He had anticipated being afraid. Afraid! That was an understatement. He was terrified. Bravely, he took a tentative step forward and again pain lanced through his leg. His mind screamed in agony. Undeterred he took more steps. He was naked and freezing. Walking failed to bring any warmth. He looked down at the shadow of his kara-
He walked a few hundred yards and then something brighter up ahead caught his attention. He squinted, trying to see it better. Against the dark outline of a hill, strewn with boulders at its base, a glow emanated from a cluster of objects that he couldn’t quite fathom. As he came closer, the shape resolved into three creatures and his heart leapt to his mouth. More steps and the shapes coalesced into figures. They were static so he walked closer, his pace slowing as he considered flight for the first time. What would they do with him? They could take his soul and bind it to their world permanently. The next few steps were the hardest in his life. If they captured his soul he was doomed to an eternity of torture.
Two were demons, of that he was sure, but the third was a man, and that sent shock and fear coursing through his soul. He stopped advancing and held his breath. Had his people, the Eldric, travelled here before him? Two of the creatures were demons, there was no mistaking that, tall, gangly creatures, long limbed with vicious looking talons. One had a head akin to a wolf, but no flesh covered its gaping maw and rows of teeth seemed eager for his flesh. The other had arms like a spider’s legs, jointed in three places.
He had espied demons before, but there was a huge difference between seeing them from afar, in the comfort of his world, and standing before them. But what was a man doing here? He paused, doubt eating at his mind like a cancer. This could be the end of his plans before they had even started. No one knew as much about the demon world as he, of that he was certain. And yet someone else had dared to travel to this world. If he, too, were an Eldric...
The creatures did not move. They simply stood there eying him in challenge. That they did not attack was encouraging. He took that as an omen and strode a few more paces, ignoring the pain as much as he could. He saw then the man’s eyes; they were the only things about him that seemed alien. They were blood red and had an intensity that seemed to beckon him forward. He found that he had involuntarily taken a dozen more paces. He stopped himself, no more then ten or so steps from the unlikely trio. Close up, he realised that all their eyes were red and they watched him with an intensity that made him shiver. He felt that he was breakfast, lunch and dinner wrapped up in one package.
“Welcome,” the man offered, causing him to jump in shock. His mind was wandering and he tried to focus. “Welcome to our world.” His words seemed silk and honey. He was handsome in a way that was almost too painful to behold. He stood with his hands clasped behind his back in a manner that simply oozed confidence. It was as though Lothanal was an insect, or a worm beneath the boot of a superior being.
Lothanal glanced at the other two demons. He sensed their power, but could fathom nothing about the man. That frightened him. If he could sense their power he felt in control, but not knowing was unsettling. He surmised the man was the most powerful, being able to take the guise of a human, but he seemed a void. There was no sense of power coming from him at all.
“I am here to negotiate a pact with your people,” Lothanal stated simply. “I seek the power that you command, in return I offer you souls; I am your ally. Soon the barriers separating the worlds will thin and your people will be able to cross to my world. I can help them to achieve this. Join me and our combined strength will dominate the land.” He had rehearsed this speech a thousand times, but what came next was a complete and utter surprise.
A voice boomed, “We have seen enough.” Drachar spun on his heels; seeking the source of the voice, noticing that the demons seemed equally alarmed. The voice was all around them. A blinding flash followed by deep sonorous boom followed, throwing him backwards with a force that sucked the air from his lungs and knocked the senses from his very being.
Lothanal found himself lying face down on a very solid, but even floor; winded and in pain. His body felt bruised all over and his head rang like a bell struck by a bronze hammer. He shook his head and coughed. Dust filled his throat so he coughed again. He looked around, but his laboratory desks blocked his view. All around him, the floor was strewn with books and broken glass, from vessels flung from their shelves. His heart lurched. He was discovered. He tried to stand but the blast had robbed him of senses and he toppled back to the floor. It took him a moment to realise that the explosion had been real. The door to his laboratory had been blown off its hinges and dust hung thickly in the air, cloying at his throat.
The ringing in his ears was replaced by that of voices, he arose to his knees, coughing and retching as people flooded into his laboratory. How dare they! His mind raged. He stood, his hands about to trace a symbol in the air, a rune that would send flame to block the invaders path, but a sword point at his throat stilled his action and he froze as though a statue made of granite.
His eyes followed the sword’s blade to the fist-
Lothanal’s hand dropped to his side. His eyes flashed to the imp in the corner of the room and then to the milky white kara-
Two people came forward, stepping over broken debris, before halting to one side of the soldiers. The first was tall, his robes marking him as a sorcerer. He looked frail and insignificant standing next to the soldiers. A woman joined him, standing by his side. She gathered her robes around her, untangling the hem from the broken objects about her feet. Her eyes came up to meet Lothanal’s; soft and doe like, they seemed to demand an explanation for his sojourn to the demon world. Her look suggested that she didn’t understand and that infuriated Lothanal. Why should she understand him? He was superior to them and certainly did not need to explain himself.
“How quaint! Lord Stephan and his crony Lady Ashona,” he smirked, with cold humourless eyes. He so wanted to present an air of nonchalance, but inside he fairly fumed. Of all the people who might have discovered him Stephan was by far the worst and it galled him that he was the one to discover his foray into the demon world. Stephan stood facing him; his eyes accusing, his head tilted at a slight angle that his students knew so well. I am awaiting a response and I will stand here all day until I get it. Pompous man! Lothanal was shaking and he tried to still his hands, grasping them together in front of him, but that didn’t work; he found that he was wringing them together and so he let them drop by his side.
He glanced at the woman. Ashona. Her eyes flashed between him and the imp in the corner. He had seen that look before on the creatures that he had killed. Fear. She was afraid of the imp. Her fear fuelled his anger. She was nothing; a mere slip of a girl who couldn’t even challenge an angry ant. His head was spinning with thoughts; his mind buzzing with anxiety. Why they were together, he couldn’t fathom. They were chalk and cheese. How many others knew of his betrayal? For that is what they would consider it, a betrayal of their mundane and feeble existence.
“I should have known it would have been you two.” He followed her gaze to the imp. The soldiers kept glancing at it as well. It was the first time any of them had seen a creature such as this. Their noses wrinkled in distaste at the noxious odour in the air. Demons stank. That was a fact.
“Banish the demon,” Stephan demanded, his lips pulled back in a grimace.
“You do it, sorcerer,” Lothanal taunted and he saw the rage reflected in Stephan’s eyes.
The sword pricked his throat and Lothanal regretted his taunt. Its sharpness focussed his thoughts. He was reluctant to banish the imp. But it may have betrayed him. If it had, then it could not be trusted. He cast the imp a look, suggesting a reckoning was due and, with a wave of his hand, he dismissed it. Immediately he felt the others relax.
White light from beyond the shattered door flooded the room. He glared at the mess the explosion had caused. How he hated these two meddlesome magic users. He felt his anger mounting. His emotions must have shown, for Ashona took a step back as though afraid. He cast her a withering glance, one that he hoped would promise future retribution. She stared back, small, dark-
“You have betrayed your people,” Stephan announced, as though seeking to draw his anger away from Ashona. “Use of elementals is accepted. But demons! You go too far.”
Lothanal couldn’t help but retort, “How dare you lecture me! You have absolutely no idea of what you say. Elementals! Pah, they are for children. They are a puff of wind in the face of a hurricane; nothing, compared to the power of the demon world.”
Stephan’s face darkened and his eyes half closed. “You do not belong here. By your very actions you are an outcast. Even your shaol betrays you.”
Lothanal sneered, although he had no idea what Stephan was referring to. He had never heard of a shaol before, but he refused to admit his ignorance. Let them think what they want. They could not imprison him. This was not the end.
“Take him to the dungeons,” Stephan commanded. The guards went to either side of him their swords poised in readiness.
Lothanal glanced around for his kara-
Walking from the room, he cast Ashona a scowl for good measure, causing her to recoil in obvious fright. The armed procession took him to the dungeons and a fate that he was determined to control.
“Damn him,” Chanathan said. “What was he thinking?”
Ashona watched the other man pacing the room. She and Stephan were sitting in deep armchairs. She felt unclean as though stained by a great evil. She had never reckoned on ever seeing a demon and the recent experience made her shudder.
“Unfortunately, he’s obviously been watching the demon world for some time,” Stephan was saying.
“But why?” asked Chanathan. He stood by the window. It was dark outside and his reflection was trapped by the candlelight in the thick windowpane. The image looked too ghostly after the recent events and Ashona found that she couldn’t still the wild beating of her heart.
“Power,” Ashona piped up. The other two turned to look at her and she felt uncomfortable under their scrutiny. “I could feel the power in the room even before we entered. The demon was a powerful creature, far more so than an elemental.”
“I’m not sure that was a demon,” Stephan ventured. “It was an imp, or so I think. Imps are a lesser demon.”
“An imp?” Ashona asked, her voice a high octave, signifying her shock. “But the power it exuded! If that was merely an imp then what must a demon be like? Of one thing I am certain; it hated us. It wanted nothing more than to kill us and steal our souls. Did you not feel that too, Stephan?”
Stephen shook his head. He looked bewildered. “I am amazed at your perception, but I felt none of that. However, there was no doubt that the imp was evil. That much I could tell, at least.”
“Why does he want power though? That doesn’t make sense. Elementals give us enough for our modest requirements. To go seeking more from demons is … it’s just crazy! Does he not know the danger he puts us all in? If he summoned one beyond his control the entire city would be in dire peril,” noted Chanathan.
“That’s the problem,” said Stephan. He doesn’t think. I’ve warned him often enough, but he is drawn to that world like a lamb to its mother’s teat.”
“Then what should we do?” asked Chanathan. His hands were held forward as though imploring their help, his eyes bored into hers and Ashona was shocked by their intensity. Chanathan was normally so certain and resolute but now he exposed his uncertainty, opening himself up to their charity.
Ashona glanced at Stephan and he looked back at her and she could tell that he was taken aback by Chanathan’s lack of direction. Stephan’s jaw was set firmly as though he was holding back from replying. His eyes went back to Chanathan’s briefly before flashing back to Ashona’s. She had known him for many years, but this was the first time that she had ever seen him so clearly divided.
“He will be banished,” Stephan answered at last, spitting forth the words as though they defiled the very air. Ashona glanced at Stephan, her brow furrowed in response to his reply and then she understood his dilemma. He had wanted to suggest killing Lothanal. Her eyes widened and seeing her recognition of the truth Stephan’s gaze dropped to the carpet as though unable to meet hers.
Chanathan spun on his heels to face Stephan. His lips were drawn back in a snarl and his face was mottled. “By the Kalanth! Is that it? With the power he could control and all we can think to do is to banish him. And what then? Wait for him to return … at the head of a demon army?”
“There is another option,” Ashona hesitated. “A rune,” she continued. “One of such complexity it will take at least a day to cast. Four times four, using each of the elementals: air, fire, land and water.”
“To what aim?” Chanathan demanded. He was a tall, slender man. His receding hair was grey at the temple and, at the moment, a frown furrowed his brow. In his presence Ashona was uncertain of herself for he was a close advisor to the king. It felt wrong to be giving him advice.
“To turn any spell Lothanal uses in upon itself,” she replied softly.
Chanathan sucked in a breath in disbelief and wonder. “Can it be done?”
“Yes,” Ashona said. “I think so.” She turned to Stephan who was staring back at her with a look of surprise on his face.
His eyes widened. “Of course!” he exclaimed. “It’s brilliant.”
“You agree that it can be done?” Ashona asked hesitantly. She had been afraid to voice the option, not quite certain it could be achieved. She felt that it could be done, but hearing Stephan confirm it was encouraging.
“Yes, but you are correct. The spell is complex,” he answered.
“See to it. His trial will be in two days time and if he is guilty we will then perform the spell,” Chanathan said.
“Come on Ash,” said Stephan. “We’d better get some sleep if we are to attempt this.” Together they departed, leaving Chanathan pacing the room. He was deeply troubled. That an Eldric Lord had fallen so far from grace was a bad omen.
“Wake up, Salar!”
Salar groaned, pulling his blanket over his head. “Go away,” he mumbled. “It’s far too early.” He tried to turn over, but with a wrench, the blanket was pulled down. For a moment there ensued a tug-
“What on earth is going on, Forfar? This had better be important,” he warned.
Forfar stared back, a look of apprehension in his eyes. He, too, was an apprentice and both youths were in their fourth year of study. It was a relatively easy existence for the young men, with plenty of time reserved for study … or a lie in.
“It’s your master. He’s been arrested,” Forfar said, wasting no time and coming straight to the point.
That caught Salar’s attention. “What? How can that be? What is the charge?”
“Looking into the demon world.”
“Is that all?” the words were out before Salar realised what he had said. Forfar’s eyes narrowed and Salar knew that he had made a grave error. His lips jerked into an insincere smile. “I mean, we use elementals, how bad can it be just looking into their world?” As a matter of habit his hand went to his mouth to conceal his teeth, but then he realised the very act of hiding behind his hand made him look guilty. For a moment his hand hovered in mid air before he finally dropped it to the sheets.
Forfar shook his head, his eyes never leaving Salar’s. “Be very careful what you say. Simply being his apprentice could implicate you in his crimes. At the moment you don’t sound very innocent,” he warned. “Have you looked upon the demon world?” His face came closer as though seeking to draw the truth from him with a penetrating stare.
Salar shook his head, not able to trust his voice. “Why ... ” he croaked. Raising his voice, “Why would I want to do that?”
“Why indeed?” Forfar said, drawing back and frowning. “We Eldric have been in this land for two hundred years. We exiled ourselves from our own country for this very reason. Demons are evil and dealing with them can only lead to war. They demand souls,” he hissed. “There is no other bargaining tool. Would you damn someone to an eternity of agony in their world, and for what?”
An unpleasant cramp twisted Salar’s guts. Forfar could easily inform their masters of his inadvertent comment and then he too could face their ire. He imagined himself banished from the city and a shiver ran down his spine. “Of course not!” he snapped, dreading the moment when Forfar denounced him, but it did not come and he felt his muscles unknot as the other man continued.
“We are friends, you and I. Heed my advice. Distance yourself from Lothanal. Otherwise, you will share in his fate.”
Forfar’s penetrating stare shamed Salar, but he was not about to betray his master so easily. “What will happen to him?” he asked; softening his voice into what he hoped sounded like contrition.
“Today we will draw a rune that will turn any spell Lothanal might cast against himself. He will be utterly powerless, lest he destroy himself.”
Salar nodded. “I’ll dress and then join you.” His thoughts in turmoil he swept up a sock, but the shaking of his hands prevented him from putting it on. He dropped it, cursing softly and trying to still the beating of his heart as he gasped for a breath that seemed to take an age to come.
Lothanal sat on a bench with his back to the wall. His buttocks were numb with the hardness of the bench. That they had not even afforded him a cushion rankled. Thoughts tumbled through his mind, all mixed up and making no sense. Other men in his predicament would have been bowed down by the dark, dank nature of the cell, but instead Lothanal’s thoughts were angry.
He was also afraid. He felt different. Wrong. Empty. He felt as though his soul had been stripped from him. Had his soul returned to his body after the blast? With spells he could find out. He could also rectify the problem, but he would need his kara-
A flicker of movement distracted him. A guard peered in, his face smug. “Stop that damn noise!” the guard shouted.
“What noise?” Lothanal asked, genuinely not knowing what the guard referred to.
“That infernal humming.” The guard continued to stare at him, locking eyes with Lothanal as though daring him to speak. Lothanal wanted to pummel that face. How dare this man watch his confinement? He would show them. Then the guard was gone.
Lothanal cast his mind back to the recent events. He had learned a great deal about demons over the years. Much of it was self-
It was several years ago. He was in his laboratory. In front of him a fire elemental danced in frenzy. It was so small. A tiny flame that spun hither in thither within the chalk rune he had drawn on the tabletop.
An ancient text lay open on the table. He ran a finger along a line, his lips forming silent words. He traced a rune in the air, taking very great care that it was exact. He knew that he could summon an imp, using the elemental as a conduit.
There was no sound announcing the imp’s appearance. Fortunately for Lothanal it had been as shocked as he at its summons, its eyes screwed tightly shut at the glare in the room. It was summer and the sun shone brightly through the windows, causing small dust motes to shine brightly, dancing as though in time to the elemental.
Unhurriedly, Lothanal traced a spell of binding, but before he completed the spell the imp screamed and launched itself at him. Its eyes, unused to the brightness must have caused it to misjudge the distance and Lothanal had rocked back on his chair, bringing the book up between them. Talons raked through the leather binding and frantically Lothanal screamed the remainder of the spell of confinement. The imp was brought up short. Its small wings beat at the air as it stared with deathly malevolence at his impudence for summoning it.
Lothanal’s heart was in his mouth. The imp’s scream had been ear-
Lothanal had realised then just how ill prepared he had been. The text had warned that the summoning had to be perfect and that included confining the creature summoned.
For some while he had stared at the imp and it at him. He allowed it to sit, but it struggled constantly attempting to break free and he found that he had to balance its effort; expending more power the longer he confined it.
It was small and hairless, apart from a single mane of green hair running down its back. Its skin was like that of a newborn mouse. Its mouth was wide and filled with small, razor like teeth.
He was surprised after a while when the imp simply vanished and he realised that their time in his world was limited. Once gone the air felt cleaner and a shadow fell from his heart.
His thoughts returned to the present. He was still angry about losing his kara-
Had the imp betrayed him? He fumed. He dared not break out of his confinement if he didn’t trust it entirely. The risks were simply not worth it. He felt his temper growing in his breast. He realised that he was humming and a glance at the cell door showed the face of his jailer staring at him through angry eyes. Lothanal silenced himself and the guard disappeared from view.
This was intolerable. He had to know what was happening. Tracing a rune, he spoke softly, “Salar! Are you there?”
“Master, I can hear you,” came a faint reply.
“What’s happening? Will they banish me?”
“Certainly. But that is not the problem.”
“They are drawing a rune today that will prevent you casting spells. Supposedly, it will turn a spell in upon itself… ”
“What! Can such a thing be done?” asked Lothanal.
“Stephan says so. He is in charge. Stop talking, I’m being watched,” came Salar’s whispered reply.
Lothanal felt the blood drain from his face and his heart laboured, so great was the shock. Gently, he rocked back and forth, sitting on his hands. He had been so certain he would be banished, nothing more. He realised he must escape.
Rising, he went to his cell door, but the small square opening, to allow the guard to watch him, didn’t allow much of a view, so instead he was forced to listen. There were clear signs of people close by; muffled voices, footfalls followed by the scrape of a chair. He assumed there would be a sizeable guard posted in the event of an attempted escape.
He must think. He threw himself onto the bench and almost immediately a thought occurred. It was brilliant. Tracing a rune he spoke again into the night, “Salar. Salar… ”
With deft motion he drew the rune again, “Salar!”
“Speak swiftly, master,” whispered Salar.
“You must alter the rune in such a way as to be undetectable. Using a dead scanth, replace a dot anywhere in the rune with the insect.”
There was a moment’s pause. “A scanth?” came the stunned reply.
“Just do it!” hissed Lothanal. The link was severed. He felt it wink from existence.
Lothanal sat back. Salar had to complete the task. Otherwise his spell-
The scanth, small, black and shiny, from a few paces away, would easily be mistaken for part of a rune. Or was he kidding himself? All that night, doubt gnawed at Lothanal and sleep was a long time in coming. Stephan’s comments that his shaol had betrayed him kept going through his mind. He was determined to find out what a shaol was.
Damn them all! He would survive!
Lothanal stood before the assembled sorcerers. He was incensed that his hands were bound before him like a common criminal. Behind him stood several armed guards and he keenly felt their glares at his back.
Trying to ignore them, Lothanal glanced around the room, his anger swiftly being replaced by irritation. He longed to be on his own, away from the prying eyes of all these nosey busybodies. His gaze drifted to the farthest end of the room. There, in an alcove, sat Darwyl the king, wearing his crown and robes of state. By his side sat Prince Ellard, watching the proceedings with an air of disdain. The two were conversing, hunched over conspiratorially, their eyes occasionally seeking him out. A servant carrying a silver tray with goblets on arrived by their side and the two men took the proffered beverage.
Lothanal snorted. Darwyl had been king for nearly thirty years, presiding over a golden reign and his subjects loved him for this. The room they were in was testimony to that, decked out in all its splendour; silk curtains from the southern kingdoms, the very beakers the king drank from were probably Hullin made, and the clothes on their backs were made in Thrace. That Darwyl was so loved was surprising, Lothanal thought. He was a king who had achieved nothing ─ aside from being born at an opportune time! The time of his reign would have been golden with or without him.
Lothanal recognised Cralan, the king’s lifelong friend and advisor, sitting next to Ellard. They were both in their mid-
Lothanal turned his gaze away, feeling his face flush as his rage surfaced. He must not let them see his anger. His mind continued to buzz. It was so hard to concentrate. His ears throbbed with the noise, his eyes hurt from the brightness of the room and he longed for the solitude of his quarters. Looking around, his gaze fell on his nemesis; the rune. Black paint made it stand out in stark contrast to the marble floor. Its complexity was stunning. Lothanal cast a critical eye over it, seeking an error — however small. His heart laboured. He couldn’t recognise and decipher it all. However, the parts he did recognise looked annoyingly perfect.
Frantically, he sought Salar, his apprentice, from amongst the many faces. Folk stared down from both the balcony and the ground floor, craning their necks to get a glimpse of him. Their babble and lips didn’t seem synchronised and Lothanal felt giddy at the din. Had Salar placed a scanth into the design? If he had, then there was still a chance. At this distance it was impossible to tell if he had.
At that moment Stephan walked onto the floor. Silence descended. Hatred flooded through Lothanal as he watched the other man strut before the king. Stephan was always so perfect and smug. They had studied in the same class at college and Lothanal knew Stephan’s limitations. He had met brighter bugs. It was so annoying to be judged by such a man.
“Your Majesty,” Stephan began. He looked the part of a betrayer as his eyes turned to meet Lothanal’s. Stephan was an annoyingly good-
“Some while ago I had a warning that Lothanal might be contacting demons. Assuming the worst, we set a spell of seeing on his laboratory. Two nights ago we watched him contact the demon world.”
Voices cried out from the audience. Stephan and the others had to wait for order to be restored.
Darwyl looked thoughtful, “How did you know he was contacting demons?” he asked.
Lothanal leaned forward. He had assumed that the imp had betrayed him. Now he would find out for certain. For a moment, Stephan frowned and then paused, almost as though he was uncertain what to say. Then he strode forward, his eyes roving the crowd, like an actor about to deliver his lines. Skirting the rune, he walked towards the king. His footsteps echoed on the marble. Sunlight streamed through tall glass windows making Stephan’s shadow caress the rune as he went forward.
Finally, he stood before the king. “Majesty... ” Even at this distance Lothanal could hear him clearly. They must have used sorcery to enhance sound in the large auditorium, which explained the constant rustle of clothes as people fidgeted. Lothanal looked around the balcony, hating each person he saw. That they were watching his trial, simply for their amusement, galled him.
Stephan was talking again and Lothanal turned his attention back to the proceedings, all the while vowing to have revenge. “I have studied the people of this land and they have a belief about shaols,” Stephan explained.
Lothanal frowned. There it was again, another mention of a shaol. He was curious to know more.
“Go on,” the king encouraged.
“The people believe that a shaol is a guardian spirit that watches over us.”
A murmur went around the assembly, but when the king looked up, it subsided. “And how did this warn you about Lothanal and the demons?” the king asked, looking somewhat puzzled. Lothanal was equally mystified. This sounded like a child’s tale.
“A shaol manifests itself as a sixth sense. That is why some people are forewarned of danger. Lady Ashona,” Stephan continued, looking around for his colleague, “I believe, has an uncommonly strong link to her shaol.”
Again, muttering followed Stephan’s remarks. Lothanal looked for Ashona and found her seated to the right of the king, her eyes downcast, clearly not enjoying the attention of so many people. Lothanal’s thoughts were in turmoil. So, the imp had not betrayed him after all. That pleased him immensely. He wished that his hands were not bound for then he would show them. A smile touched his lips. He turned, but a scowl from one of the soldiers caused him to turn back. They were too close for comfort and the look he had received was that of a hawk eying a mouse. Perspiration dotted his brow and raising his bound hands he wiped it off with his sleeve. Stephan was still talking and Lothanal tuned into his oratory once more.
“I have been interested in the concept of a shaol for many years and for a while now I have been studying Lady Ashona’s. She seems to have a heightened sense of danger as well as a strong feeling for events that have already transpired, such as walking into a room you have never entered before and a feeling of great familiarity,” Stephan explained
“Many of us have that feeling,” the king said, smiling.
Stephan nodded. “I think it is a person’s shaol seeing events before we experience them and conveying a feeling of recognition to us when we do.”
“So what does this have to do with Lothanal? He is an Eldric Lord. Bringing him to trial should not be done lightly.”
“This is a sham, not a trial,” Lothanal shouted, pointing at the rune with both bound hands. “You have found me guilty before this trial even started. Otherwise, this rune would not have been cast.” Lothanal felt himself shake, so great was his rage.
“Silence!” the king warned. His eyes locked on Lothanal’s and to his shame he could not meet the monarch’s intense gaze. “Continue, Lord Stephan.”
“Lady Ashona told me she was having nightmares — nightmares involving demons. I would not normally be concerned. After all, nightmares are common. ‘But, why demons?’ I asked myself.”
Stephan turned to address the onlookers, raising his voice as he spoke. “She persuaded me that the nightmares were too vivid to ignore. So, I conducted an experiment. I asked her to sleep in various rooms about the citadel, staying with friends for a night or two. Her dreams were always worse in the northwest quarter, where Lothanal’s laboratory is situated. At first, I was at a loss as to precisely how to pinpoint the cause of Ashona’s nightmares. Then, I positioned servants with lamps about key points in the northwest quarter.”
“Why lamps?” the king asked. Lothanal had also wanted to ask that question. A frown furrowed his brow. Sweat coalesced and ran into his eyes, stinging them. He blinked rapidly, once more using his sleeve to mop his brow. He shivered, the room was cold and yet he sweated as though it were a solarium.
“According to folklore, flames burn blue in a demon’s presence,” explained Stephan.
The king nodded, “And cream sours,” he added.
“That is also legend,” Stephan agreed, nodding his assent.
“But, why are there no tales about demons now?” continued the king. “Why is it folklore?” he asked.
“I have studied long hours in our library. It took me a while, but eventually I found what I sought. In the past, demons used to plague this land. This we know by the many garlands and protective runes decorating windows and doorways. People are afraid of demons and for good reason.
“Demon attacks happened in the past and none have occurred in recent memory, but the evidence is there,” he said, theatrically raising his hand as though to include the assembled throng, “in the fear of the people.” There were mutters of concurrence at this and like an orator in a play Stephan waited for it to die down.
Lothanal snorted, recognising the other man’s rhetoric for exactly what it was, blather. Stephan was correct of course, but his speech so far imported nothing new about demons. He was hardly an expert.
Stephan came to a halt, holding up a finger and looking up at the people in the balcony, “In one tome, I read a hypothesis. The demon world is separated from ours by a void. At regular intervals, the worlds come close together. Then, the void is sufficiently thin for them to cross. It is at these times demon attacks occur.”
Again the crowd muttered, but this time there was fear in their voices.
“Is that why Lothanal is keen to contact them?” the king said above the din, a frown knotting his brow.
“I believe it is, Majesty. I believe the void is thinning. Soon, demons will once more come to harvest souls.”
People shouted out in shock. This time it took a while for calm to be restored and Lothanal revelled in the apparent fear. A smile touched his lips as he looked around, taking in the blanched faces and wide eyes. They knew absolutely nothing. If they truly knew what could happen they would be running for their homes this very moment, to hide cowering beneath their beds. A laugh escaped his lips and Darwyl looked at him, shocked. At that moment the sun must have passed behind a cloud for the room became dim and the candles fluttered in an unseen breeze as though trembling at the previous declaration.
“That is terrible news,” the king said standing up and raising his hand for silence.
“It is, Your Majesty. But attacks will be both rare and random. Only the strongest demon can cross. However, with help, many more could cross over. And this is my gravest concern.”
“Help? What do you mean?” Darwyl asked, his brow furrowed with concern.
“A sorcerer could summon them, Your Majesty.” Again voices were raised in concern and this time many eyes bored into Lothanal. His earlier humour evaporated under so much scrutiny.
“So, how did Lady Ashona know that Lothanal was contacting demons? What was affecting her dreams?” the king asked, looking puzzled.
“There we have the heart of the problem,” Stephan said. “I think Lothanal’s shaol was so horrified by what it was witnessing that it contacted another person’s shaol, seeking help. Ashona, having an uncommonly strong link with her shaol, sensed this.”
Stephan turned to face Lothanal. “In effect, I believe Lothanal’s own shaol betrayed him, terrified by what he was doing. The torches I had distributed around his building helped to confirm the location of the discussions with the demons, since only those near Lothanal’s laboratory turned blue.”
Voices were raised once more in disbelief. One man shouted, “Death,” at Lothanal, but the cry was not taken up, much to Lothanal’s relief. Once more he mopped his brow, wishing that the proceedings were finished. He needed to make the people see how preposterous this was before too many called for his death.
“This is a fairy tale,” he shouted above the din, sensing that he could turn this to his advantage. “Shaols do not exist. This is pure and utter fiction.”
The king looked at him and for the first time and Lothanal felt fear grip his soul.
“Whether shaols exist or not is immaterial, although from what I have heard I find the matter intriguing. However, far greater matters are at hand. Stephan,” the king said, facing the other man, “once you were certain which room seemed to trigger Lady Ashona’s nightmares, what did you do next?” the king asked.
“Ashona and I managed to gain entry to his laboratory, early one morning. We cast both a spell of seeing and a glyph of concealment. Then, all we had to do was to wait. And it seems our timing was crucial.”
“Why was that?” the king asked. He sat down, and arranged his robes around his knees. A servant came over to top up his goblet.
“Until then, I believe Lothanal had primarily been summoning an imp. The image we saw was an early negotiation with the demons. They were waiting for him and I believe he was seeking a pact. To make matters worse, it was clear that this was not the first time that he had spoken with them.”
Darwyl’s gaze fell on Lothanal. Again, anger flooded through Lothanal and he struggled with his bonds, wishing only to break free now and wipe the smug look off their faces. He had made a grave error. He could destroy them all, if only the negotiations had gone on apace.
“Is this true?” the king demanded.
Lothanal could contain his anger no longer. He knew he was doomed and there was no point in denial. He stilled his struggling and his eyes went to those of the king. “Yes, of course it’s true! Were you not listening? I was spied upon by your cronies after all,” he shouted.
A murmur echoed around the room. Darwyl raised a hand for silence and gradually the room quieted.
“Why? You are an Eldric Lord. You want for nothing. What do you seek in the demon world?” asked the astonished king.
Lothanal remained silent. His anger had burned itself out and now he was afraid, but he refused to give them the satisfaction of seeing his fear.
The king sat back as though considering his options. “Will anyone speak on Lothanal’s behalf?” He looked around the assembly, but no one spoke. Finally Chanathan stood and the king’s gaze went to him.
“I asked several people to represent Lothanal, but unfortunately I could persuade no one. I have known him longest so I should speak on his behalf. Unfortunately what I have learned will not aid his defence.
“His mother died at childbirth and his father of grief a year later. His uncle raised him but upon learning about this trial he refused to speak for his nephew. He was adamant on this matter and would not say why, but it was clear that there was great animosity between them. The only thing he would say was a demon lived in Lothanal’s heart. What that inferred, I can only speculate.
“I first met Lothanal at the University. I was his tutor. Never before have I encountered such arrogance. He was unwilling to listen to me from the start and his opinion was all that mattered. He avoided everyone in his class and all those I spoke with denied any friendship with him.
“He is a loner who actively shuns the presence of others. Some of his colleagues complained bitterly how he interfered with their learning even to the point of sabotaging their spells, changing a rune here and there to look like another. Some changes were dangerous and could have led to harm had they not been spotted in time. Lothanal never completed his studies and was expelled in the fifth year. I caught him experimenting on animals and that was the final straw. What he learned was barely enough for an adequate sorcerer, but it is what he self taught himself that I fear the most.”
Lothanal had built himself up into a rage once more. His hands shook and he could feel the flush of blood to his cheeks. “How dare you! Barely adequate! I know more than any sorcerer here and you have the gall to call me barely adequate. I learned nothing from you because that is what you know. Nothing!” Lothanal fell silent. He could feel hundreds of eyes upon him. He found that he was gripping the rail about him so hard that his muscles shook. He released his grasp and tried to still the shaking of his limbs.
Darwyl had risen with a look of utter contempt upon his face. “You will be banished from Eldric lands. Your name, Lothanal, is taken from you. Drachar I name you — unhomed. However, we cannot let you wander freely, given the power that you control. Given the seriousness of your intended crime, a spell will be cast to prevent your use of sorcery. Lord Stephan, please proceed.”
Sixteen sorcerers took their places at points about the rune. Lothanal recognised few amongst them other than Stephan and Ashona. Salar was not there but as he was only an apprentice, that wasn’t surprising. His gaze flickered from face to face but they looked back impassively. It was as though they wore masks. No trace of emotion showed. Lothanal’s lips curled up in a smile. His people had found their backbone.
Stephan nodded and together the sorcerers traced runes. A fire elemental was the first to appear, a tiny flame that danced in a frenzy upon the floor, spinning as it found itself confined in the complex pattern of a rune. Small spouts of water and air came next; their small voices wailed as they found themselves confined. Earth elementals came last and people leaned forward to get a better view. It was not often that elementals were summoned so this was a rare treat. Scents of fresh buds in bloom, spring rain and loamy soil filled the air and the people marvelled at what they saw.
Lothanal felt his heart race. He did not know what to expect but he kept himself still. The tiny elementals danced in frenzy around their allotted spaces. The air seemed to crackle with the spell’s power. Throughout the casting the elementals’ voices rose and fell. Then, abruptly, they stopped and at once the elementals winked out of existence, leaving an expectant hush.
“Is that it?” Lothanal sneered. He laughed. He felt no different. Had they failed?
Stephan traced a rune and cast it at Lothanal who fell to his knees, a cry escaping his lips. He felt abruptly empty, like a flagon without its wine. Hollow like a tree damaged by a storm.
“Yes, that appears to be it,” Stephan declared with a gritted grin.
Lothanal climbed with difficulty to his feet, hating Stephan’s smug look. “Then remember me. This is not the last time we will meet.
“I take your new name, Drachar,” Lothanal said, addressing the king with all the menace he could muster, “but not in the spirit in which you give it to me. I take it without shame. I name myself Drachar. It is a name that you will learn to dread, Darwyl, king of a banished people. I curse you. I curse your son. I curse the Eldric people, their children, and their grandchildren. This is not the last you will hear of me!”
Lothanal grimaced as the guards grabbed his arms, pulling him from the room. He stumbled, twisting his ankle as he turned. Around him, the people’s voices were filled with alarm at his pronouncement. He allowed himself a smile. He had unsettled the gentle folk. If Salar had accomplished his task, soon Lothanal would do more than unsettle them.
Shadows filled the Hall of Judgement as Lothanal was dragged from the room, but no shadow could ever be darker than the soul of Drachar, and no light could possibly hope to penetrate his twisted mind.