Shining The Light


Shining the Light is the main story featuring Nathaniel Drakkon. It is set in Weissland roughly nine years and five months before the White War. It details Nathaniel Drakkon beginning an investigation into strange circumstances in a small town.

Shining the Light

Chapter One - Search

Nathaniel Drakkon sat in one of the libraries in the Mystic Tower of Ataya. With a sigh he turned the page of the large book he was searching through. Looking up from the book, he noticed the candle on the table was getting low. He had been here for a long time, and was having little luck finding the answers he was searching for. Stroking his beard thoughtfully he read over the pages before him then continued on. Then he felt a presence. Looking towards the door, Nathaniel saw the Mage Lord enter and walk towards him. No wonder really, thought Nathaniel, I’m the only one here.

Stopping beside the table at which Nathaniel sat, the grey robed Mage Lord cleared his throat and said “Ah, Nathaniel. Would you walk with me? I want to talk with you.”

Nathaniel nodded and replied “Of course my lord.” Standing up from the chair, he extinguished the flame of the candle and walked out of the room, following the Mage Lord. They walked along a corridor, heading away from the library. Nathaniel decided to speed up the conversation so he could get back to his work “So what can I do for you my lord?”

The Mage Lord was an Elf, and as they walked together the differences in their stature and build was apparent despite the robes they wore and the hooded cloak which Nathaniel had wrapped around him. Nathaniel remembered this Mage Lord’s name. They had met before he was sure, and he was called Vanel Rathalie. Speaking quietly he said “It seems you’ve been looking into something of a mystery Nathaniel.”

Nathaniel Drakkon, his face shaded by the hood of his black cloak replied “Yes my lord. There is just something about mysteries and conspiracies which intrigues me. I feel I cannot rest until I solve them, or bring them into the light of truth.”

“You believe that truth is always light?” Vanel asked.

Nathaniel nodded once “Oh yes, undoubtedly. You see darkness is where these things hide.”

This of course prompted another question from Vanel “What things?

Nathaniel answered as he walked “Many things my lord, lies, secrets, mysteries, conspiracies, fears, hatreds, tragedies and torments. It is our duty to shine the light of truth upon them, so that they are seen for what they are. Surely we all seek truth in our own way?”

Vanel Rathalie seemed distracted “Hmm? Oh, yes, truth, of course. It is our duty as you say.” The words seemed hollow though, and it caught Nathaniel’s attention.

They continued walking, across the smooth stone floor of the tower, and found themselves nearer the outer edge of the tower where the corridors began to curve.

Using his index finger Vanel pushed a strand of his blond hair away from his face and said “Well be careful with your search, looking in dark places can often lead to a bad end.”

Nathaniel was irked by this statement. He knew what he was doing. As he began to think about it, Vanel Rathalie’s words seemed more and more arrogant and condescending. Still he answered politely to hide his annoyance “Of course lord Rathalie. Experience has taught me to always be careful.”

Vanel nodded and replied “Yes. Perhaps you should get some rest, you look tired. You’ll find more answers if you are alert enough to see them.”

Nathaniel smiled and said “Yes. I will take my leave of you and retire to my quarters. Goodnight my lord.”

Vanel said “Goodnight Nathaniel.” Then, just as Drakkon began to leave the Mage Lord raised a questioning hand and asked “You are housed in the city of Ataya, are you not?”

Nathaniel replied curtly “Yes.” Then he turned a corner and began to descend the many stairs of the tower.

It took him close to two hours to reach the building where he owned a room. Spending much of his time in Ataya it made sense to have somewhere to stay, even though he had an estate of his own up north in Crint. Opening the door Nathaniel stepped inside the smallish room, and lit a candle which hung on the wall to the right of the door. The room was filled by this light, and Nathaniel looked around seeing all was the way he had left it. When he first purchased the room he had an argument with the landlord about the maids cleaning his room, moving his possessions. While it might seem foolish or trivial to them, he was a mage. He had many things which would be dangerous to those unused to magic. Putting such thoughts aside, he sat down in a sturdy chair beside his desk to plan out his schedule for the next few days. After all, it seemed this mystery of his would take him away from Ataya if he were to find the answer to it. There was much to be done before he could sleep tonight.

Chapter Two - Four

Nathaniel woke with a start, and then slowly craned his neck towards the window, seeing the sun pouring through. It was still early. He had gotten some sleep, more than he had hoped, but less than he truly needed. As he got ready, he tidied the room, moving several books which lay strewn across the desk back to the bookcase where they belonged. The last one he picked up was one he had been reading casually before the mystery had been brought to his attention. It was entitled ‘The land of Ahm-Shere’. Nathaniel had looked at the book with great interest when he first found it, as he had often thought about travelling to other lands. He had never actually left Weissland. Ahm-Shere was a desert land to the far west of the known world, and from what little detail was actually given in the book, seemed full of adventure and interest. Putting the book on the shelf, Nathaniel noted how small it was compared to books about other lands he had read. It appeared to Nathaniel that perhaps the author had only visited Ahm-Shere briefly, and was only scratching the surface.

With his musette bag packed, he made the bed and then left the room, locking the door behind him. He slipped the key into a leather pouch attached to his belt as he walked along the corridor, down the broad wooden stairs and out into the streets of Ataya. He was heading for the nearby stables, to retrieve his horse and begin his journey. Walking along the cobbled streets he was deep in thought, and barely registered that someone was calling his name.

The man shouted again, moving as quickly as he could through the crowds of people walking to and fro “Nathaniel, hoi, Nath!”

Finally Nathaniel Drakkon did hear the voice, and he turned in the direction of the sound. He nodded and smiled as he saw who was calling him. He waited for the man to catch up to him. Then Nathaniel said “Marcus, I almost didn’t hear you, which isn’t usual for someone as loud spoken as you are normally.”

Marcus stood against a nearby wall catching his breath from what could only have been a run of ten metres, if that. Too much fine wine, food and womanising and no exercise no doubt, thought Nathaniel. Even with so many bad habits Marcus still looked to have a slim build, being slightly shorter than Nathaniel as well. Nathaniel imagined that Marcus and his brother Arthan would have gotten on swimmingly together as they had such similar traits. That was the first time he had thought about his deceased brother for a while, and he frowned visibly at the notion. Marcus finally responded with his usual cheeriness and his inability to be fazed by any insult “Well, the louder I am the more attention I receive. What’s wrong with a little joy might I ask you Nathaniel?”

Nathaniel rolled his eyes “Oh nothing. But there are limits on how much joy a man can take before the world decides its time for some sorrow. What I wonder is just how much of a debt you want to build up before your turn is over.”

Marcus laughed, and stopped leaning against the wall. He straightened his robes and bowed slightly at some women passing by “A fine morning is it not ladies?” The women rolled their eyes as well. Obviously Marcus was not having one of his better days. Turning back to Nathaniel Marcus said “Nathaniel, I’ve been your friend for how long? Fourteen years—”

“—Sixteen years.” Nathaniel corrected.

Marcus nodded “Sixteen years, and in all this time I’ve rarely seen you happy. You need to lighten up my friend.”

Nathaniel nodded with a sarcastic expression on his face “Yes, yes. Or perhaps other people need to darken their mood a bit. I find that life is so less of a disappointment if you don’t have high expectations of it.” Marcus Krandor was a simple mage like Nathaniel. In fact they had begun their training at the same time and quickly formed an alliance of sorts with another mage in training. The three became fast friends and still were to this day. Nathaniel asked “Have you seen Jessa recently?” Jessa Aeris was the third member of their trio and it was Nathaniel’s opinion that she was the most powerful of the group as well.

Marcus answered “Yes, I saw her yesterday at the tower. I’m surprised you have not seen her more often than me Nathaniel.”

Nathaniel motioned for Marcus to walk with him towards the stables as he replied “No. I’ve been rather busy lately and now I’m going away for a while. It will likely be a week or more before I return to Ataya. I just wondered where she was.”

Marcus laughed, sidestepping a patrol of soldiers and said “Nathaniel, I’m sure you’ll run into her eventually. It’s not like you two spend much time apart. You’re always getting into some life or death situation together. Then I come along and save you both. I am, after all, widely regarded as a very powerful mage. I’m sure I’ll be a mage lord in a year or two.”

Nathaniel rounded a corner, seeing the stables at the far end of this thoroughfare. He said in a mocking tone “You’re having delusions of grandeur again.”

Marcus said with a wide grin on his face “Well if you’re going to have delusions, you may as well go for the really satisfying ones.”

Both men laughed and continued on down the street. As they reached the stable, Nathaniel caught the attention of the stable master as he went about his business, and the man pointed to the third stable on the left. This was where Nathaniel’s horse had been stabled, so he headed over. Nathaniel began to say “Well Marcus. I suppose I’ll see you and Jessa when—”

Marcus cut in “—What? I’m going with you Nathaniel. You’ll get yourself killed without me.”

Nathaniel was about to tell his friend to leave, but taking a moment to think, he relented “Ok, you can come with me. I could use some help, but I’m just as likely to end up dead with you there as if you stay behind.”

Marcus ignored the playful jab, or simply was not paying attention “I’ll go get my horse, it’s around here somewhere. I swear, I lose more horses here than coin at the tavern.” He wandered off with that same cheerful expression which seemed almost permanently fixed on his face. As Marcus walked away to discuss the whereabouts of his horse with the stable-hands, he ruffled his short, curly brown hair and looked up at the sky, which by now was bright blue without a cloud to be seen.

Nathaniel turned back to preparing his horse, leading the sandy-coloured animal out of the stable and placing the saddle across its back. He was just finishing fastening it up when he heard the clip-clop of a horse walking slowly passed. But then it stopped, just behind him and he heard the voice “Not leaving without me are you Nathaniel?”

Turning around sharply Nathaniel Drakkon looked at the woman leading the horse by the reins. He said flustered “Jessa I… how did you know I was going anywhere?”

Jessa blinked slowly, a smile creeping across her face like the first rays of dawn’s light. She replied “For all Marcus’ more questionable traits he seems to have a preternatural sense for when his friends are going to get into trouble. He spoke to me last night at the tower of Ataya, after asking around about you. He found out you were leaving and told me about it. I’m coming with you as well.”

Nathaniel scowled slightly “I don’t think that is wise. You should stay here. I’ll be gone for two weeks most likely. I’d rather you were here.”

Jessa shook her head, and her long red hair flowed as she did so. “Nathaniel, regardless of what you say I’m going with you. Be a dear and just continue getting ready.”

Nathaniel Drakkon finished preparing his horse, and closing the stable door behind as he led the horse away, saying with distant look in his eye “I planned to undertake this journey alone. Now I find there are four of us going.”

Jessa looked at him questioningly “There are only three of us Nathaniel. What do you mean?”

Nathaniel answered with a wry smile “You, Marcus, me, and loyalty. Thank you for coming Jessa, I couldn’t ask for better friends.” With that he clambered onto his horse and they began to walk slowly towards where Marcus had finally found his horse.

Once they left the stables, they rode as quickly as they could through the steadily increasing busyness of the streets of the huge city of Ataya. Marcus had been born here, and so was used to its size, the hustle and bustle of its population, but Nathaniel had never gotten used to it, in all his time here. Nathaniel had been born in Crint, far to the north-east of Ataya. While Crint was a city itself, it was much smaller than Ataya. Eventually they left the city behind, and so for a couple of hours they rode hard up the north road, the others following in Nathaniel’s wake. Jessa brought her horse up fast to the side of Nathaniel and called across to him “So where are we going?”

Nathaniel turned to her, still riding quickly, his robes flowing as they rushed against the wind. He called back, raising his voice to be heard “We are travelling north to a small town some distance south of Adae. The town is called Aunel and something strange has been happening there.”

As they continued on their way Jessa asked “What has been happening?”

Nathaniel smiled, almost mischievously “All will be revealed in the fullness of time Jessa Aeris. All in the fullness of time.” It would take three days of travel to reach Aunel, so they would make as much haste in the first day as possible. That way Nathaniel was sure they would reach Aunel in the early morning of the third day, instead of the late afternoon.

That night they stopped off at an Inn along the north road which led from Ataya into other parts of Weissland. It was here, with the soft light of candles, and the warm feeling of good food and malt whisky, that Nathaniel would tell the others of this mystery he was investigating. As he sipped at the warming drink he said “I hear things, often just second-hand information, or rumour from wherever I find myself. But these things catch my attention, and I look into them. Some are quickly proven to be nothing but exaggerated stories, but others require more research to discover the truth of the matter. And that is what brings me to Aunel.”

Marcus flung back his drink, wiping his arm across his lips afterwards. He said “So what is happening there Nath?”

Nathaniel looked at Marcus, and then at Jessa, leaning in closer so nobody would overhear “People are disappearing there. At first it was assumed that it was some raider attack, but these are not attacks. No dead bodies have been found and no sign of combat, nobody has seen any attackers either. I’m going to find out what is happening there, and hopefully stop it. Even if lord Rathalie and others think it’s dangerous.”

Jessa took a sip of the tall glass of red wine she held and then asked “Lord Rathalie? The mage lord? You’ve spoken with him about this?”

Nathaniel shook his head “Not exactly. Mage lord Vanel Rathalie came to speak with me last night in the tower of Ataya while I was searching the records for any other strange occurrences around Aunel. I did not tell him what I was investigating, although he knew I was looking into some mystery and he warned me to be careful.”

Jessa looked at Nathaniel with a wide-eyed expression “Vanel Rathalie is one of the foremost experts in the use of elemental magic. I’ve been hoping to speak with him to get some extra training in the elemental form. I’ve heard it said that if he takes an interest in a mage they are often marked out for greater things. You should be honoured Nathaniel, for him to think of your welfare like that.”

Nathaniel narrowed his eyes slightly “I’m not so sure about that. I got a strange feeling when he was talking to me. Almost as if he was warning me away from this investigation for some other reason. As if he… never mind. We should get some rest, we’ve still got more than a days worth of travelling to get through before we reach Aunel.”

With that the three mages retired to their rooms upstairs in the Inn. Morning was still many hours away, and Nathaniel would need all his strength for what he would uncover, even if he did not truly know it yet.

Chapter Three - The Truth

Morning came after a fitful night of troubled sleep. Nathaniel woke early, looking from the window of the Inn’s room to see the light crawling across the ground outside. He dressed quickly and made sure he was ready to leave. He put on the black, hooded robe which he normally wore, along with a leather belt which contained a multitude of pouches and containers. He fastened the scabbard of his sword to the belt and then threw the hood up over his head, covering much of his face. Nathaniel headed down into the bar of the Inn, finding it empty apart from those who worked at the Inn. He took a seat in a corner, content to sit alone and think. In time Jessa walked into the room, striding over to him in that same confident manner which often turned heads when she entered a room and sat down. Nathaniel began to say “I—”

At just the same moment Jessa ventured “Ma—” They both stopped, and Jessa said “You first.”

Nathaniel shook his head slowly, still thinking deeply “No, go on.”

Jessa nodded for the courtesy and said “Marcus will be down in around an hour, or so he claims.” She carefully checked her hair with her left hand, making sure it was in place. Jessa’s hair was a fiery red and while yesterday it had been in a loose ponytail, the speed with which they had ridden had prompted her to tie it back more tightly. Still Jessa was a beautiful woman with a stylish elegance and had tied her hair in a double braid which sat neatly and impeccably on top of either side of her head.

Nathaniel scowled slightly and said “I knew it was a bad idea bringing him along. An hour lost could lead to more disappearances before we arrive at Aunel. Daylight is burning fast.”

Jessa smiled lightly “Perhaps, but if these disappearances are leaving so few clues then we might not prevent them even by our presence in Aunel. You’ve said it before Nathaniel, mysteries do not solve themselves, and true puzzles do not reveal their solutions on a cursory glance.”

Nathaniel raised an eyebrow in amusement “So you’re quoting me now? Not one of my best, but it will suffice. There are a few things I could quote you on Jessa, but most involve language not befitting of nobility such as yourself, certainly not lady-like.”

Jessa narrowed her eyes mockingly at Nathaniel “Are you accusing me of using foul language Nathaniel? Because I do not.”

Nathaniel leant back in his chair, tapping his fingers off the wooden table as he responded “Oh, really? I seem to remember a rather foul piece of oratory on the subject of Orcs.”

Jessa placed her hand firmly on top of Nathaniel’s to stop him drumming his fingers on the table and get his full attention “I thought we agreed to never discuss that matter ever again.”

Nathaniel smiled wryly “Did we? Well, never mind then.”

Once all three mages were ready they mounted up and set out on the road again. It would be a full day of travelling this day, and there was no Inn where they would be stopping. Luckily they had brought bedrolls, blankets and other camping kit with them.

The day passed slowly, each hour bringing them closer to Aunel. Nathaniel spent much of the time deep in thought, remembering everything he had read in the library at the tower about the town of Aunel. Its history was short, but detailed thankfully. But still, despite a few small-scale raids on the town as well as a relatively minor skirmish between a force of Weissland soldiers and the raiders, very little had ever happened in the sleepy little town. It was referred to locally as the Great Battle of Aunel Field, a rather grandiose title given that less than one hundred men took part in it including both sides and casualties were minimal before the raiders threw down arms. Nathaniel knew that it was mostly a farming community which had grown up around the homes of several farmers and a mill. As far as Nathaniel could find in the archives, nothing of this nature had happened here before, although he did find a similar spate of disappearances far, far, to the north, in Ciruenalysai. They were never solved, but stopped after the twelfth disappearance. This was a little over sixty years ago. If the two events were linked, it meant Nathaniel only had a short time to discover the cause of this problem and stop it, as six individuals had already disappeared in Aunel, and no telling if more had disappeared since they had left Ataya.

They stopped off to eat some food and let the horses rest for a while, and as Nathaniel took the reins of his horse and led it off of the road into the countryside beyond, Marcus asked “Is it just me or does the road seem rather empty?”

Jessa replied casually “It’s probably just because you are used to the city, you feel odd when there are not hundreds of people about.”

Marcus nodded, saying “I suppose, but still the road seems empty.”

Nathaniel stopped, looking back onto the road, first to the north and then turning around to look to the south. He furrowed his brow questioningly, although the others could not see it due to the black hood. Finally he said “Marcus is right.”

To which Marcus said in equal measures of exclamation and question “I am?”

Nathaniel quickly tied the reins of his horse to a nearby tree and motioned for Marcus and Jessa to do the same. As he moved in amongst the scrub and trees, he placed a hand lightly on the hilt of his sword. It was just a simple arming sword, with nothing remarkable about its design or craftsmanship, but it felt reassuring to know he had it. He knew all too well that sometimes two and a half feet of steel was quicker than a spell. He left his staff fastened amongst the packs on his horse, as he had a feeling it would not be necessary yet. Looking back at the horse as it stood waiting, he could see the staff. It was long and thin, made of a sturdy, black, polished wood which made it seem like obsidian to all but touch. Near the top the staff tapered out into a wider head, which had been carved to look like two dragon wings entwined. If you looked at the staff from the right angle there was a gap between the wings, where you could see a piece of ivory carved like a sword embedded in the centre of the staff.

Jessa began to ask “What are we—”

Nathaniel raised a finger to his lips and said “Shush, just listen.”

They listened for a few moments, and Nathaniel’s concern was proven correct. They all heard the thundering hooves coming up the road from the south, although they could not see the riders yet. Jessa wondered “Cavalry perhaps? Or at least someone that is in a hurry. But why should we be hiding here from them Nathaniel?”

Nathaniel quickly said “Everyone else we’ve seen on the road since leaving the Inn has been taking their time, while we rode hard to reach our destination. This stretch of the road is most often used by merchants, traders, farmers and others in no real haste. Even the soldiers travelling south that we passed earlier were marching slowly. I just have the strange feeling that whoever is barrelling up the road is doing so to catch up with us. Be ready both of you, be wary, and perhaps the truth shall be revealed to us, even if it is just a glimpse of it.” Nathaniel’s hand never strayed from the hilt of his sword as the riders came closer and closer with each passing second. Soon they would be in sight. Soon things should become clearer, Nathaniel hoped.

Chapter Four - In All Things

The thundering hooves of the horses became louder, and as the horses came into view, the three mages saw the cloud of dust and spray of mud which was flung up by their passing. The riders were cloaked, hooded and with cloth covering their mouths and noses, leaving few clues as to their identity. Beneath the cloaks, Nathaniel spied the glint of chainmail. These were no farmers, of that he was sure. Concealed as he was, Nathaniel was sure the men would not see him or the others, but would soon notice the horses when they rounded the slight curve of the road. He held his breath, pulling his arming sword ever so slightly loose from the scabbard.

Just as he was steeling himself to jump out at the ten riders, the lead rider pulled on the reins and held up his hand sharply. All of the riders stopped and looked around, some asking in hushed tones why they had stopped. Nathaniel kept still, and listened, the riders only a few feet from the trees and bushes which covered his position. The lead rider turned to the others and said “We should have caught up to them by now, our horses were fresher than theirs, and they don’t know we are after them.”

One of the other riders asked “What do we do now Bram? Go on, or tell the boss we lost ‘em?”

The leader, Bram Nathaniel assumed, answered “You want to go tell him Will? Go back then, and we’ll be finding a hole to drop your corpse in once he’s finished with you.”

The one called Will replied moodily “Was just sayin’. No need to snap. So what do we do then?”

Some of the others mumbled similar questions, and Bram said with a harsh tone “We ride on, reach Aunel. Perhaps they’ve pressed on and not stopped yet. No need to go worrying the boss without any information. He wants to know what they’re up to, and stop ‘em if they get too nosey.” The group of riders were about to move on, when one of the horses Nathaniel and the others had brought began making noise. Almost at once the men knew that it was not one of their horses, as they were all quiet. Bram shouted “What? Damn them!” He began to draw a sword, and several others did the same.

Seeing the chance of hiding was past, Nathaniel drew his arming sword in a quick, fluid motion and broke cover. He charged at the nearest rider, and stabbed him in the side before the man could draw a weapon. Nathaniel would have likely died there, if he had been alone, but Marcus and Jessa were quick to attack as well. As Jessa stepped clear of the tree-line she produced a finely crafted throwing dagger from her close-fitting riding clothes, the vermillion cloak she wore flowing lightly in the breeze, and taking aim she threw it at a rider turning to attack Nathaniel. The blade struck the man in the neck. He reached up instinctively to the blade protruding from his throat, but as his open hand began to close on the wooden handle, his hand seized up and shook before he fell backwards from the saddle of his horse. It had simply taken him a few moments to truly realise that he was a dead man. Marcus on the other hand raised a sword in one hand and pointed at one of the men with his other, incanting a spell. The rider dropped his weapon, and seemed to convulse in pain, then suddenly he vomited up water, retching and spluttering. His horse, rather angered by being thrown up on, threw the rider to the ground and ran off into the fields away from the others. The man was still throwing up, trying to clear the water which Marcus had filled his lungs with. Nathaniel noticed this take place, and smiled slightly as he withdrew his sword from the now dead rider and parried the downward strike from the next rider to come close. He thought to himself about Marcus’ use of magic, musing that while Marcus was loath to kill someone without good cause, he had the sense to incapacitate foes in less lethal ways.

Nathaniel parried twice more against his mounted opponent, then using a move his father had taught him, sidestepped as the man brought his sword-arm down, overreaching, and Drakkon grabbed his extended arm, pulling him from the saddle and turning to plunge his sword into the man’s back in one motion. Nathaniel smacked the horse with his free hand making the creature run forward, getting in the way of the riders at the front of the group, who were trying to turn and engage him. Speaking quickly, Nathaniel cast a spell at two of the men at the back of the group, an illusion which convinced each of them that the other was one of the enemy mages. Each raised their swords, and brutally set about their foe. After a short duel, lacking in anything which could be considered skill with a blade, and focussing purely on killing, one of the riders slumped forward dead in the saddle, the illusion only disappearing upon death. The other rider pulled out his sword, confused by what had happened, only to have his sword-arm sliced at the bicep by Marcus, then run through before he could fight back.

Jessa drew out her weapon, a curved blade, a katana, with a single jewel mounted on the crossbar of the hilt, and a tapered piece of satin attached to the pommel which twisted and floated as she moved the weapon. It was elegant and flowing, much like Jessa Aeris herself. Parry, block and riposte followed, with another of the riders dying and falling from the saddle, one leg still caught there like a fly in a spider’s web.

One of the riders that had been beside the leader saw the others being slain and instead of trying to move through the pack of horses on the confines of the road, which despite the open fields was blocked in places by hedges and wooden fences, jumped down from the saddle and lunged at Jessa. He was a brute of a man, and made massive strokes with a sword as if it was a mace. Jessa found herself parrying and backing away, with no chance to strike back. Then, as she reached the edge of the road, she tripped and fell backwards. The man’s last stroke missed her head by mere inches. He raised the sword again, but before he could bring it down, Nathaniel was there. Speaking a simple three word phrase, Nathaniel used his magic to raise the man two feet in the air, turn him towards him and hold him there, helpless. Nathaniel saw Jessa scramble back to her feet out of the corner of his eye, and once she was safely out of the way, he turned back to the man with a baleful gaze. He took his arming sword, drew back and then plunged the weapon into the man’s gut, to the hilt, then turned the blade ninety degrees to the left, before withdrawing the weapon. Then he let the spell end. The wound was horrific, and blood and entrails poured forth like water from a vase. The man crumpled to the ground in the bloody mess of his own innards. Nathaniel looked at the quickly dying man and said coldly “I have no mercy for you.”

Then a shadow fell on Nathaniel, as Bram began to bring his sword across at neck height to decapitate the mage. Before Drakkon could react Jessa raised her arm outstretched, palm open and spoke words of power. Bram was hurled backwards with such force that he flew clear over the horses and landed with a sickening squelch, impaled on one of the wooden fence posts. The last rider fled back down the road as quickly as he could, and Marcus was about to bring him down, but Nathaniel raised his hand and waved him off. He looked at the body of Bram, sliding slightly further onto the post, and then turned to Jessa and said “I would have liked the leader alive Jessa, but I’d much rather keep my head attached to my shoulders. Thank you, I’m in your debt.”

Jessa looked at the pool of blood and guts around the dead body of the other rider and then looked into Nathaniel’s eyes. She replied “Nonsense Nathaniel, I merely repaid the favour.”

Nathaniel smiled and then took out a cloth to wipe the blood from his blade and put it away in its scabbard. The others did the same as they walked over to the man Marcus had incapacitated with his spell, keeping their distance as the man still brought up quantities of water every now and then. Nathaniel was the first to speak “We’ll wait until he’s finished, and then we’ll see what he has to say for himself. You showed good foresight there Marcus, I’m glad you came with me.”

Marcus nodded with a smile “Thanks Nath. You really upped your game there; I’ve never seen you so driven in a fight.”

Nathaniel looked at his friend and said “Well, my father always told me to strive to do everything in my power, to do the best in all things, especially love and honour. I think I finally realised what he meant when I saw Jessa fall.” Before the others could reply, he quickly said “Now let’s see what we can learn from this bastard.”

Chapter Five - Looking for Answers

While the man was still busy retching up the contents of his lungs, and no doubt his stomach at this point as well, the three mages spoke quietly. Nathaniel made it clear that he would do the talking, and it was Jessa and Marcus’ job to simply look intimidating. Interrogations were not necessarily a part of a mages role, but Nathaniel had found that many mysteries required at least some simple persuasion of witnesses if not full blown interrogation and torture of enemies. It was best to leave your conscience at the door and focus on revealing the truth. Harsh words often loosen sealed mouths, he thought. Marcus stirred him from his thoughts by saying “How do we even know that he will know anything of value?”

Nathaniel answered simply “We don’t, that’s why it’s an interrogation. As long as we use simple words we might learn something. And that is better than blindly groping our way in the dark for a way out of the maze.” He turned to look at the man and then back at the others “We’ll wait until he can speak a little more clearly. He is an enemy, do not forget that.”

They waited until the man recovered a little, although he would be rather weak for a while yet. Nathaniel and the others stood around him, encircling the man. He had dirty-blond hair and a look of panic in his eyes, like a frightened child, thought Nathaniel. The mage, clad in the black hooded robes, held no pity for this man. And so he began his interrogation “We are looking for answers. You would do well to provide them, lest you suffer our wrath. Tell us what we want to know, or things will go badly for you. And I do mean badly.

The man looked even more shocked now and mumbled “I don’t know anything.”

Nathaniel nodded and said “Why don’t you let us decide if you know anything or not. Who do you work for?” The man made no response, looking down at the ground where he sat. Nathaniel had little patience for non-compliance and did not bother to ask the question again without punishment. He slapped the man across the temple hard, quickly getting the man’s attention. Foolishly the man tried to tackle Nathaniel but was speedily kicked in the chest. Nathaniel spoke again, with a harsh tone “Who do you work for?”

The man replied “I worked for the guy you killed.” He pointed over to the body of the rider called Bram.

Nathaniel nodded, a look on his face which showed that his patience was wearing thin. He moved on though “Why were you coming here to attack us?”

The man said “Don’t know what you’re talking about. You attacked us.”

Nathaniel looked at Jessa and then at Marcus. They remained impassive, although there was still a twinkle in Marcus’ eye, and he struggled to keep a straight face. Nathaniel looked directly into the prisoner’s eyes and said in a low, chilling voice “If you don’t start telling me what I want to know, I’m going to make you pay. Talk, or I’ll nail your feet to that tree there” He nodded to no tree in particular, just the general direction “and then I’m going to grab you by the neck and stretch you all the way over to the other side of the road.”

The man was about to laugh out loud, but he saw the look on Nathaniel’s shadowed face and the laughter died in his throat. He stammered “You-you wouldn’t? You can’t, y-you’re a mage.”

Nathaniel smiled darkly, playing his part so well even his friends were unsure of his intentions. He replied matter-of-factly “Who said mages are all good. And even if they were, that doesn’t mean they are nice. One of three things will happen when I do this. Either you’ll tell me what I want to know, or I’ll stretch you so far that I’ll nail your head to a fence post. Or maybe the pressure will make your head pop off and land on a peasant twenty miles west of here.” The black-clad mage stood up and said “Maybe we should do this regardless just to see what happens.”

At this point the man was so scared by the apparent truth of Nathaniel’s threats that he was blubbering and saying “I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you. Just don’t hurt me.”

Nathaniel repeated “Why were you coming here to attack us?”

The man said “Our boss told us to ride up the north road looking for three mages going to Aunel. He wanted us to give you a beating, convince you to turn back.”

Nathaniel said calmly “Who is your boss?”

The man said, through tears “I don’t know I honestly don’t. We just get the orders and get paid for it. Only Bram knew the boss. Any time we dealt with him, it was through messengers. All I know is the boss is in Ataya. Don’t hurt me.”

Nathaniel thought for a moment about carrying out his threat, but laughed the notion off. The man clearly was telling the truth or at least all he knew of it. Nathaniel’s face softened slightly and he said “Fine, I’ll let you go this time. But if I ever see you again, ever, you are dead. Understood?”

The man nodded vigorously and scrabbled up to his feet before running off south. Marcus clapped a hand on Nathaniel’s shoulder and smiled saying “Boy Nathaniel, you really had me going for a minute there. I thought you’d lost it or something.”

Nathaniel nodded “I’m a better actor than I thought.”

Jessa parodied her friend’s line “land on a peasant twenty miles west of here.” The three mages cracked up laughing as they headed back to their horses to continue on their way.

They had travelled on for the rest of the day, but it had been uneventful. There had been no more riders, and traffic on the road had been light. As they got further north, the number of people on the road increased, as Aunel, and much more importantly the city of Adae. They had passed the fork in the road, taking the eastern route towards Adae, in the late afternoon. When night began to fall, they moved off the road into the wilderness to the eastern side of the road. They made camp, and Nathaniel could see the outline of Torcein Wood in the far distance.

This was not the safest place to rest, but it was likely safer than travelling on in the dark. Nathaniel spoke to the others as they set up the came “We’ll set a watch tonight. One of us keeps the fire going while the other two sleep. Two hours on, three hours off.” The camp was completed. They had gathered large amounts of firewood, so they would not need to stray from the camp if the fire went low. The three mages sat on sturdy logs and eat a simple meal. Then they began their watch. Nathaniel had elected to go on watch second, as this would mean he had only two hours of sleep before his watch began. Marcus went first, but his watch was uneventful. Thankfully, Marcus thought as he woke Nathaniel and lay down to sleep.

Nathaniel sat by the fire, watching for signs of movement, for stray sounds caught on the breeze. But the land was still and quiet, as if it was stifled by something which held sway over birds and animals and trees. An hour into his watch, he woke Jessa to begin her watch. As they sat, they talked quietly.

“Did you ever think your life would be like this?” Jessa Aeris asked.

Nathaniel frowned and replied “Well, no, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

Jessa questioned “So you like all this huddling round a fire, sleeping in ditches then?”

Nathaniel quipped “Beats being buried in them.” Then he raised his head and looked at his friend, seeing the light of the fire reflect on her pale skin and vibrant hair. He continued “Don’t you like being a mage Jessa?”

She answered “Of course. But I’d much rather be in a nice warm library reading, or practicing my magic. Or tucked up in my warm bed instead of sleeping on the ground.”

Nathaniel nodded and said without thinking “Well, I suppose if you’re used to luxury you would find this uncomfortable.” Even as he said the words he wished he could just die.

Jessa scowled and said “Luxury? Luxury? Just listen to Nathaniel Drakkon, man from the wilds. You lived in just as much luxury as I did growing up you hypocrite.”

Nathaniel tried to defend his words, but he knew it was a losing battle “I just meant—”

“You just meant that I’m a pampered little girl and you’re some sort of tough warrior just because you’re a man!” Jessa said angrily.

Nathaniel winced and said “But I—”

Jessa Aeris, noble daughter from Valoruin cut him off “Just for that you can do my shift on watch as well you bastard. Ooowh.” Her last words were simply an unintelligible noise of anger and annoyance. She moved off and found her own space to sleep, turning her back to the dumbstruck Nathaniel.

With a sigh he thought, sometimes you’re the eagle, sometimes you’re the mouse. Eagle got me again.

Chapter Six - Finding More Questions

The night trailed on, but it seemed that they were the only beings around. Nathaniel passed the watch to Marcus. They exchanged few words as Nathaniel shambled to his bedroll like some sort of undead thing. Sleep took him quickly and for a while he rested properly. Three hours later he was woken by a sharp kick in the back. As he was flung into wakefulness Nathaniel saw the form of Jessa standing over him, her arms folded. She said simply “You’re on watch.” Then she walked away to rest. She still had not forgiven his remarks, and Nathaniel knew it would be quite a while yet.

The rest of the watches followed a similar pattern, unremarkable time, drifting sleep and little sound. Eventually morning came. Light, dull at first then brightening, appeared and soaked the colour back into the previously dark grey world. The three mages packed up their gear after they ate and fed the horses. Marcus made a point of getting the others to speak “So, how far to Aunel now?”

Nathaniel answered “Five miles or so. Not far at all.”

Marcus nodded a slight grin on his face “Well I for one cannot wait to get there. I’m anticipating a nice tavern, with some nice ale and some nice farmer’s daughters.”

Almost in unison Nathaniel and Jessa said “You’re hopeless.”

Marcus smiled wryly “Not so out of sync than you two thought you were. And actually I’m rather full of hope.” He looked to getting his horse ready, feeling very pleased with himself.

Nathaniel looked at Jessa and said “I’m sorry.”

Jessa Aeris was a proud woman, but her stern expression broke into a smile which was like the sun coming out from behind clouds. She accepted her friend’s apology “It is ok Nathaniel, we should get going.”

“Agreed.” He said, mounting up and turning towards the road. Nathaniel knew that the mystery awaiting him in Aunel would be trying, but he was glad this at least was behind him. They set off on the road again, riding hard so they would reach the town before noon.

Aunel was a small town, which had been formed around the homes of several farming families and a mill. Since then the town had developed with an Inn and some other businesses and homes. It still had a small population of roughly four hundred people. The town was also secluded, as there were many heavily wooded areas, remnants and offshoots of the Torcein Wood most likely. The land was flat around the town, but towards the northern edge the terrain rose into wooded hills, obscuring what lay beyond the north border of Aunel.

There was only one main route into Aunel and that was little more than a gravel track. It was the south road, which travelled roughly south-west to rejoin the road from Ataya to Adae. The other routes out of Aunel were simple dirt paths or natural paths through the wooded areas. The area around Aunel was certainly not spectacular, just a mixture of farmland, wood and scrub.

The sky was grey and overcast, giving the land a dull appearance, as the three mages rode into town, their hooded cloaks wrapped around them. It must have given them an air of mystery as the people on the street stared at them as they passed. If you could say such a small town had streets, Nathaniel thought bitterly. He was always spellbound by mysteries and puzzles, but he had little time for people, especially simple-minded individuals. Nathaniel, Marcus and Jessa rode towards the large building which was the Inn. It was near the centre of town, close to the town hall and some of the more advanced businesses and stores.

When they reached the Inn, they dismounted and tied their horses to the posts outside the building then walked inside. The Inn was mostly empty, bar a few patrons sitting at tables and a barmaid cleaning glasses. Nathaniel walked over to the bar and said quietly to the woman “Hello. We are looking for three rooms and stabling for three horses.”

The barmaid eyed the newcomers suspiciously, in a laid-back way which was made of equal amounts of curiosity and disapproval. She spoke “Fine. How long for?”

Nathaniel smiled slightly, but he doubted a smile would overcome the natural hostility of such people. He replied “A week at most.”

The woman nodded. Her hair was dark brown and tied back, making her expression seem stern or severe. The barmaid said “Five gold coins per night, drinks are extra. I’ll have the stable boy see to your horses.” She put the glass and cloth down on the bar and walked through into another room, to fetch the stable boy no doubt.

Nathaniel turned to the others and said quietly, not wishing to be overheard “We’ll see our rooms and then see what information we can gather round about. Perhaps the town hall first?”

Jessa nodded “Sounds like the best plan. Why have we not seen any sign of a garrison here though?”

Nathaniel raised an eyebrow. The thought had not occurred to him as they entered the town, but Jessa was right. He answered “I don’t know. Probably the town is too small to warrant a full-time garrison. They probably rely on the occasional patrol from Adae.”

They heard the shuffling of feet on the wooden floors and looked around to see the barmaid return with a stable boy scurrying before her. The boy looked to be only about twelve, wide-eyed with a face heavily covered in freckles. He rushed past the three mages, his stare caught like a fish-hook as he saw Jessa. The boy went outside to tend to the horses and Nathaniel turned his attention back to the barmaid. He said “Can you show us to our rooms now please?”

The woman replied with a sigh and a look of annoyance. She said “I’m busy now. Top of the stairs, turn left. The first three rooms on your right. I’m sure you can find them yourselves.”

Nathaniel said sarcastically “I’m sure such directions are not beyond us.” He headed for the stairs, bored of the conversation. It’s like sword practice with an armless opponent, no sport in it, he thought.

They walked up the dark wooden stairs, which creaked lazily under their weight. Each mage chose one of the rooms and entered, leaving their belongings behind for the most part. They took with them their weapons, and staffs. Something was wrong in Aunel, and it would be foolish not to be prepared for combat.

As Nathaniel left the Inn, he waited for Marcus and Jessa. He looked around the town, seeing the odd looks he received from the townsfolk. Perhaps it was to be expected, as mages would rarely visit a small and unimportant town, and with the recent disappearances their arrival would be even more worrying no doubt. But Nathaniel had more important things to think about than the concern of this gaggle of farmers. Something was wrong in Aunel; he could sense it like an oppressiveness in the air, a tingle down his spine. He would solve it; he would break it and discern its purpose.

Marcus walked out of the door to the Inn and stepped up beside Nathaniel. He looked around and said “A bit chilly around here don’t you think?”

Nathaniel replied with a snort “The weather or our welcome?”

Marcus grinned broadly “Both I’d say. Do you think people will be forthcoming when we start asking questions or will we see the return of Nathaniel, Lord of Darkness?

Nathaniel chuckled but said in all seriousness “You shouldn’t joke about such things. We all harbour a dark side, and any mage is susceptible to falling to forbidden ways if they are not careful.”

Marcus nodded and responded calmly “You are right, but we are lucky the three of us. If one of us should falter, we always have the other two watching our back.”

Nathaniel nodded and clapped his friend on the shoulder “True enough Marcus. Sometimes I’m too pessimistic for my own good.”

Jessa finally left the Inn and nodded to them. Nathaniel nodded back and began to head towards the nearby town hall. Jessa waited for him to reach her and fell into step with him saying “Will the mayor grant us an audience do you think?”

Nathaniel Drakkon said grimly “I’ll make sure of it.”

He walked up to the town hall and stopped a short distance from the building. It was a building mostly of stone, with wooden beams criss-crossing its surface. There were four wide and shallow stone steps which led up to the double wooden doors. The doors themselves were painted a dark green and had large brass handles fashioned into the emblem of Weissland on either door. At the sides of the door, standing upon a stone landing were two men. Each carried a shield and a spear, but they were not soldiers of Weissland, merely two men from the town standing on guard. Clearly this was the only building in Aunel worth guarding. Nathaniel walked up the steps, Jessa and Marcus following a few paces behind. The guards watched him approach and as he reached them they nervously crossed their spears in front of the door. One of the men plucked up the courage to say “Wh-who goes there?”

Nathaniel’s hood obscured much of his face; all they could see clearly was his mouth, beard and jaw. He spoke clearly “I am Nathaniel Drakkon a mage of Weissland, as are my two associates.” Nathaniel indicated the others with a wave of the hand and continued “I want to see the mayor of Aunel.” When the men made no move he added “Now.”

The two men looked at each other and shuffled aside. Nathaniel waited as the men reached out and pulled the doors open for him. The three mages walked inside.

Inside they found a large room with many chairs and benches around its walls. The stone floor was clear but for a raised dais at the far end where three individuals sat. A few people sat around the room, clearly waiting to speak with the three people on the dais. Nathaniel could see a man speaking to those on the dais even now, but he had little time to waste waiting in a queue. Boldly the three mages walked into the room, straight towards the three people sitting at the wooden table which rested on the dais. Two were men, the third a woman. One of the men was sitting in the centre and was raised up on a taller seat than the man and woman who flanked him. This was obviously the mayor. The man to the mayor’s left stood slightly and said “Who do you think you are to interrupt these proceedings?”

Nathaniel raised his staff slightly then slammed the butt of the staff onto the stone ground, magical energy flaring off with the sound of a thunderclap. All eyes turned to the mage clad in close-fitting black robes which made him seem tall and thin. He spoke loudly and clearly “I am a mage of Weissland and by the authority that grants me I am interrupting these proceedings. Sit down before I put you down!”

The man sat, and the townsman who had been standing before them crept aside and headed for a seat as well. The mayor clearly did not take the hint and said “I don’t care if you’re a mage or the Archmage himself, there are protocols to follow, and there is an order which everyone must adhere to. You cannot just march in here and expect to be heard before the others.”

Nathaniel turned his head in the direction of the mayor, even though his face was shrouded by his hood. He said “You dare to place your meetings beyond the priority of the Archmage himself? I would not be so quick to act superior mayor. There have been a number of disappearances in this town and I learn of it only through rumour. Why have you not contacted Ataya?”

The mayor replied “It is not Ataya’s concern.”

Nathaniel laughed “Not Ataya’s concern? Since when did trouble of an unnatural kind in Weissland not concern the capital, or the concern of the mages for that matter? Has there been a coup and nobody told us perhaps? We are here to investigate, and you had better start co-operating or I will flay your fat hide for incompetence and failure to protect your own town!”

The mayor said through gritted teeth seeing he could not win this exchange “Very well, what do you want to know?”

Nathaniel narrowed his eyes at the mayor and said “Tell me everything about the disappearances, starting with the first victim.”

The woman sitting to the mayor’s right said with dismay “Victim? You think they are dead then mage?”

Nathaniel sighed “It is possible that they are not dead, but I will not allow false hopes to cloud the investigation. I must be objective in this. And my name is Nathaniel Drakkon, may I ask who you are milady?”

The woman seemed to blush slightly at the title Nathaniel used to address her. She answered “My name is Silvia Mayfield. I am the leader of the farmer’s union here in Aunel.”

Nathaniel nodded and said “My two companions are both mages as well, Jessa Aeris and Marcus Krandor.”

The mayor spoke “My name is Obadiah Brunton and the man to my left is Samuel Whitley, the mayor’s aide. Now that introductions are out of the way I’ll tell you all we know, which unfortunately is not much.”

“Please continue Mayor Brunton.” Nathaniel replied.

The mayor took a deep breath and began speaking “Eight days ago the first of our townsfolk disappeared. Byron Galvar is a farmer whose land lies to the west of the town. He simply vanished from one of his fields. His wife came to the town worried half to death the next morning because he had not returned to their homestead. That was when it was first brought to our attention but one missing man was not a high priority.”

Nathaniel nodded “Understandable. Sometimes people do just decide to up and leave without warning. Continue.”

The mayor was appeased by Nathaniel’s understanding manor, more content that the mage was simply passionate about the troubles of Weissland. Mayor Brunton cleared his throat and began again “Two days later a young lad by the name of Toral Krae was lost. His parents were quick to inform us, as he was on the back of their property at the northern edge of the town doing his chores. They say he was there one minute and gone the next—”

Jessa interrupted “—Did they see anything at all?”

The mayor shook his head “No, milady Aeris. His mother checked from a window that he was not shirking his work and he was there. Half an hour later when she checked again he was gone.”

Nathaniel shared a glance with Jessa and nodded. She said what both of them were thinking “A lot can happen in half an hour.”

The mayor nodded slowly and said “That is true, but there was no sign of the boy. No struggle, no sounds of an attack or kidnapping and the tools he had been using for his chores had been neatly put away in their correct place. During the same day a woman travelling south from Adae who was staying in the Inn disappeared. From what little the townsfolk noticed she was in the north-eastern fields. Many people go there for picnics and the like, so nobody took much notice of where she was going.”

Nathaniel thought about this and said “Do you know the woman’s name?”

The mayor’s aide answered “Travellers are not required to leave a name with the Innkeeper and unfortunately this woman did not.”

Nathaniel replied “A shame. That covers three of those lost, but from what I heard six people have disappeared.”

Silvia said sadly “I’m afraid seven people have disappeared now. Some time late last night the seventh person was taken.”

Nathaniel frowned “Damn. I should have been here sooner; perhaps I could have prevented the seventh person from disappearing.”

Obadiah said “It can’t be helped, and you are here now. The other four then, let me think. Five days ago we lost Bill Talday, but we only learned of his disappearance a day later. He’s a notorious drunk in this town so nobody paid much attention. Four days ago though, young Sarah Leranii vanished, from her bedroom no less. It was then that we realised something was truly wrong and Bill’s presence was missed at the Inn.”

Nathaniel raised an eyebrow and said “It seems that bad fortune has aided in the limited evidence of the disappearances then. What of the last two people then?”

The mayor continued “Three days ago the town was wary of the trouble and people travelled in groups for the most part. Nobody disappeared and we vainly hoped that the darkness had passed over our town. On the morn of the next day though, one of the few elves to live in the town, Alarron Dreivas disappeared to the north of the town. He had been very concerned about the disappearances and was searching for clues from what I have heard. And last night Helena Farris disappeared.”

Nathaniel asked “What can you tell me about her?”

Mayor Brunton answered “Very little. She moved here a few years ago and owned a small shop selling books. She kept to herself mostly although I do know that she moved here from Adae where she had some family.”

Nathaniel sighed “It is a shame that Alarron was taken, he could have been very helpful to our investigation. Perhaps that is why he was taken, if we are dealing with a sentient creature of some kind. Is there any other trouble in the town, anything which could point to the cause of the problem?”

Mayor Brunton said “No, I can’t think of anything—”

But before the mayor could continue the man who had been speaking before the mages had arrived shouted out “—You should speak to that damned money lender. This town has had nothing but trouble since he arrived!”

The mayor looked annoyed at the outburst and Whitley the aide slammed a wooden hammer on the table and said “Order, keep that to yourself Jacob.”

Nathaniel raised his hand and said “No, I want to hear this, go on Jacob.”

The man stood up and said “About a year ago this money lender turned up. Set up shop and now he’s got an iron grip on this town. Farmers don’t earn a lot of money, but they need a lot to start new fields, buy equipment and hire more farm hands, or set up a new herd of animals. So many of the farmers have taken out loans from the bastard and most can’t pay him back because his rates are so steep. And his thugs are getting bolder every damn day.”

Nathaniel nodded “This man sounds like he might be worth questioning. What is his name Jacob?”

Jacob replied “His name is…”

Chapter Seven - Messages and Meanings

Vanel Rathalie walked through the halls quickly, almost seeming to float along with his Elven grace and poise. Once again night had fallen over Ataya, two nights since he had spoken with the young mage Nathaniel Drakkon. Vanel was very busy in Ataya, and rarely had the chance to leave like the adventuring Nathaniel. In some ways he envied the man, and in others he was glad that he could remain in the tower of Ataya to continue his work. He was heading to his study when he heard a quiet voice call to him “Mage lord Rathalie.”

Turning Vanel looked at the face which was illuminated by the torches arrayed along the stone walls and said “Ah, mage lord Boralays. It’s good to see you my friend.”

The second mage lord, a human with short grey hair and a kindly smile said “And you Vanel. How is your wife?”

Vanel kept his face passive, showing little emotion “She is well, although it has been a while since I could visit her. Our work in the tower keeps me so busy. Perhaps I should request a leave of absence from the Archmage?”

Boralays nodded and said “I think that would be wise. You have worked hard Vanel; surely the Archmage would not keep you from your wife’s side? She resides in your estate somewhere to the north does she not?”

Vanel nodded, his thin Elven features calm although his eyes seemed watery at the subject. He spoke “Yes, and I would like to spend time with her, if we are ever to conceive a child.” Changing the subject he said “How goes your training of some of the new arrivals?” A few weeks previously several young people from across Weissland had arrived to begin their training as mages. As a mage lord Boralays and in fact any mage lord could be assigned to train them.

Boralays replied with a sigh “Slowly I’m afraid. Those under my tutelage only have limited magical aptitude so I am taking them through the lessons much slower than I would normally. Although I have heard that there are some very powerful young individuals being trained by some of the other trainers.” Boralays was human, in his fifties and he had focussed on being a mage over his personal life, but he understood others wished to have both. He did not ask anything further about Vanel and his wife. They had married a few years ago in a private ceremony. He knew that she was human and they had had trouble having a child and she had miscarried at least once. Boralays was worried for Vanel, whom he considered a friend. But he also respected that Vanel would only speak of such private things if he thought the time was right.

Vanel smiled slightly and said “It is good that they are not all powerful. We can always find uses for mages regardless of power or skill. There is always so much to be done.”

Boralays responded “Yes, that is true. In fact I really should be going Vanel, checking on the dorms to make sure nobody is doing anything they should not be. I’m sure you remember what it was like when you were training, always wanting to try things without supervision.”

Vanel nodded “I can remember the urge to test one’s limits, but it has been a very long time since I was just training.”

Boralays laughed slightly “Of course, sometimes I forget how long-lived your kind is. Well, I must be going. Goodbye for now mage lord Rathalie.” He bowed slightly and Vanel did the same in return. Then Jarroth Boralays turned into the passageway he had been heading for when he first saw his friend.

Vanel Rathalie continued on his way and arrived shortly at his study. He entered and closed the door behind him. Lighting several candles with a mere wave of his hand he sat down before a wide desk. Before he could do anything though he heard a loud knock at the door and he said “Enter” as he stood up again.

The door creaked open and a cloaked man entered. He did not wear robes of a mage, but the garb of a Weissland military scout. The man was clearly a messenger and he saluted saying “I have an urgent message for you mage lord Rathalie.”

Vanel sighed, folding his arms in front of him, his robes fluttering slightly at the motion. His outer robes were grey and un-adorned, but with his arms held up like this with the long sleeves trailing slightly, the messenger could see that his inner robes were made out of many differently coloured materials which reflected the light with every movement no matter how slight. Vanel prompted “What message do you bring me?”

The man replied “Two men wish to meet with you at the Crossroads Tavern as soon as you are able my lord. They say that they have important information which will be most useful to your project.”

Vanel thought about this for a moment and then replied “Return to them and tell them that I will meet them in three hours time. Go quickly and deliver your new message. Speak to no-one else in the tower.”

The man saluted again and said “Of course my lord.” He turned and walked out of the room quickly.

Vanel closed the door and called his staff to his hand. It was an ornate metal staff, faced with gold markings and topped with a large blue gemstone. Vanel had never bore any other weapon other than his staff and his formidable magic and he found swords uncouth, refusing to wield one even in battle. The rumour around the tower of Ataya was that Vanel was working on a secret project. He was one of the foremost masters in the use of elemental magic, surpassing virtually every other mage in Weissland. Many suspected that his project was some unique elemental spell of great power, and in many respects it was. But Vanel would not be drawn on the subject, even in the presence of the other mage lords. Vanel was one of the senior mage lords, although he had been prevented from joining the council because of his outspoken attitude in his youth. He had strong opinions, and while that perhaps might have been useful on the council and useful to the Archmage, Vanel was also considered arrogant, refusing to accept that others were right. Sixteen years he had been a mage lord, and the fact that he had never been given a seat on the council of Weissland was a bitter pill to swallow, made worse by the knowledge that he would never gain such a position regardless of how much he achieved.

He spoke the words of a spell and he seemed to disappear into mist, floating down quickly through the levels of the tower until he arrived at the ground just in front of the tower. He made his way quickly towards the city of Ataya and the Crossroads Tavern.

As Vanel Rathalie stood in front of the door to the Crossroads Tavern, seeing the half broken sign swing languidly in the cool breeze, he looked around the street. It was empty at this time of night, as one would expect, but one could never be careless in his position of power. He spoke a single word and opened the door by raising his free hand, not wishing to touch anything in a place such as this. He stepped into the gloomy tavern and he could see at once that the place was empty except for the slovenly barkeep and the two men sitting at the back of the room waiting. Vanel had conjured a cloak as he left the tower, and the dark green folds of it were wrapped around him, concealing his appearance. He strode confidently over to the two men and said “I am here. But I am greatly angered that you have contacted me. Where is your leader? He knows that only he should meet with me.”

One of the men said nervously “I’m so-sorry my lord, but our leader is dead. He was attacked and slain. We thought it best to inform you quickly.”

Vanel’s eyes flashed with anger, his face remaining still as stone. He spoke in hushed but annoyed tones “Dead? Tell me how this happened, you fools, speak!”

The second man said worriedly “We followed your instructions. We trailed them north but they ambushed us, killed all of the others. We didn’t stand a chance against them, how could we have beaten them even if they hadn’t gotten the drop on us?”

Vanel scowled slightly “Beat them? Where did you get the idea that you were to engage them in combat?”

The first man stammered as he tried to avoid the mage lord’s gaze “We-w-we got told by the b-boss. He said, he said that you wanted them scared off.”

Vanel hit the man across the jaw with the back of his hand and turned fiercely on the second man “You fools, you idiots. Imbeciles, every last one, I never told him that. I said that I wanted them tailed on their journey so I could keep an eye on them. I want them steered away from danger, not killed. I should have simply gone after the three of them myself.”

The first man whimpered in pain and said “I’m sorry my lord. We could ride after them again, perhaps pick up their trail and just watch them this time. We thought they were your enemies, truly we did.”

Vanel fumed with anger, but calmed himself to speak “No, it is too late. They are alone in this now, I cannot interject. I only hope they will turn aside before they are destroyed. For this failure you will only receive your portion of the fee and you will not be called upon to serve me again. Count yourselves lucky that I do not simply crush you for your incompetence.”

Vanel Rathalie turned on his heel and marched from the tavern back towards the tower of Ataya. He thought to himself, it is too late now. Nothing can be done to prevent this coming to pass, but I must be prepared for whatever happens. There is such a divergence between messages and meanings.

Chapter Eight - Lending a Hand

Nathaniel walked out of the town hall with his jaw set grimly, heading towards the building of this money lender. His name was Holferd Fisk. At least there was now something to investigate and Nathaniel hoped that it could lead to some substantial information on what was happening here.

Jessa and Marcus followed him, and Marcus was the first to speak “Should we not split up and question others in the town?”

Nathaniel stopped and turned around. He nodded “Yes that would be a good idea. Marcus, head to the market area and asked around. Jessa, try some of the shops. I’ll handle the money lender.”

Jessa seemed to bite her lip and hold back from speaking, but then said “I’m not sure I like this idea of splitting up, I’ve read too many books where people ended badly because someone decided splitting up would get the job done quicker. But if both of you are set on this, I’ll agree for now.” She turned and headed to the nearest shop.

Marcus grinned and said “Always has to say her piece, kind of reminds me of another mage I know.”

Nathaniel narrowed his eyes and smiled thinly, then said “Go find the market Marcus.” Marcus headed off with that never-ending, cheerful grin on his face and Nathaniel rolled his eyes as he turned around and walked towards the building owned by the money lender. Standing around in front of the building were four men, each one easily taller and stronger than Nathaniel. These would be the thugs I’ve heard about, he thought, intimidating… if you didn’t train while being battered by elementals or have never faced down an Orc raiding force. He stopped in front of the door to the building as the four thugs gathered around him trying to look as tough as they could. He said calmly “I want to speak to your boss, step aside.”

The men looked at each other and Nathaniel as if sizing him up. Reluctantly they stood aside and one of them said “He’s inside.”

Nathaniel walked passed them and entered the door. Inside he found a small stone room, dark and musty from the large stacks of parchment which were piled on bookcases and tables. At one such table in the centre of the room he saw a man leaning over a scroll, checking things off of a second scroll. The man looked up as Nathaniel entered. Nathaniel walked towards him and said “Are you Holferd Fisk?”

The man said cautiously “I am. Who are you?”

The mage spoke calmly “I am Nathaniel Drakkon, mage of Weissland. I am investigating the disappearances here and I want to ask you some questions.”

Fisk swallowed and replied “Very well, but I don’t really know anything about the disappearances.”

Nathaniel smiled slyly “Why don’t you just let me be the judge of that? I understand that you are a money lender. Have you ever lent money to any of the people who have disappeared?”

Holferd Fisk wiped his brow with a cloth and answered “I’m afraid that would be confidential between me and my clients.”

Nathaniel regarded the man with narrow eyes much like a predator would look at its prey before pouncing and said “I’m afraid that is simply unacceptable. Answer the question.”

The man frowned, sniffed and said “I don’t recognise your authority to look at private business dealings just because there have been disappearances in this town.”

Nathaniel slowly rested his staff against a bookcase and carefully, in a very practiced and deliberate fashion drew his sword. The money lender looked at the weapon and his jaw dropped, he could not utter a word to call for the thugs outside. Nathaniel looked along the length of the outstretched blade pointing at the money lender until he caught the man’s gaze. Then the mage said “This is my authority. Can’t you see it?”

Holferd Fisk was utterly stunned. His mouth made gnawing motions as he tried and failed to speak, his eyes bulged in fear. He finally managed to say “This is insane; you can’t threaten me just because I don’t want to answer your questions.”

Nathaniel took two steps forward and responded “Oh but I can, and this isn’t a threat. I am more than prepared to follow through, which makes this a promise really. Now, answer, or you will die before the first one of your bully-boys makes it through that door.”

The money lender shifted nervously in his chair and said “Some of them did take out loans from me, most folks round here are farmers and they need a lot of money to expand. Its just business, but that doesn’t mean I’ve got anything to do with any of their disappearances. Several of the people that are gone I’ve never dealt with before. One of them was a young lad, like some child would take out a loan.”

Nathaniel lowered the sword and the man relaxed a little. Then the mage quickly raised the sword again, just to play with him. The man arched his back and held his breath, before Nathaniel lowered the sword and smirked slightly. The black-clad mage spoke “The boy, Toral Krae, did his parents take out a loan?”

Fisk shook his head “No, his father works at the mill, although I am their accountant.”

Nathaniel truly despised this man. He was worse than any Orc or beast. He cheats and scams and convinces simple townsfolk that they actually need his ‘services’. At least an Orc is upfront about its intentions to kill, eat or defile you and everything you possess, he thought. Drakkon asked the next question which came to mind “So which people have disappeared which you do not have any business connection to, directly or indirectly?”

Fisk’s eyes moved rapidly from side to side as he tried to think, clearly showing that he was not being entirely truthful “The woman from Adae and that drunkard. Like I’d let him take out a loan, he’s got no collateral and he’d never pay it back.”

Nathaniel motioned with his thumb to the thugs who would be outside and said dryly “No blood from a stone?”

The money lender chuckled and nodded “That’s right. I’m running a busin—”

Before he finished the sentence Nathaniel had punched him in the face, just hard enough to bust his lip. A thin trace of blood seeped from the cut and the man whimpered in pain and fear. Nathaniel punched him again in the same spot just to make sure. He held up his fist, and it was clear that there was some of Fisk’s blood on the edges of his knuckles. The mage replied “Well, would you look at that, blood from a stone! I’ve got more questions, and I really don’t think you are being as honest with me as you could be. Now, the woman who was just travelling through the town, do you know anything about her?”

Holferd Fisk said simply “She was from Adae.”

Nathaniel raised the sword again and the man cringed away from it. The mage was growing impatient “You’re lying. Bad idea really so tell me what you know.”

The man sighed “I’ve dealt with her before, before I moved here. I used to run a similar business in Adae but I was driven off by competition, so moved here instead. The woman, Annabella Rivers, used to work for me as a clerk. And I used her to spy on my competitors in Adae.”

Nathaniel leant over the table, ignoring the smell of sweat and said “So you have actually had dealings with everyone who has disappeared. Even Bill Talday attempted to gain money from you, whether you gave it to him or not. This does not bode well for you Fisk.”

The money lender put his head in his hands and said “But I’ve done nothing wrong, not really.”

Nathaniel had been about to turn away and leave, but then he stopped suddenly and spun around again. He slammed the flat of his blade against the table and shouted “Not really? What do you mean by not really Fisk? Just what have you done? Speak!” Even as he finished speaking Nathaniel turned towards the door and pointed at it, saying quietly a few words of magic. The door became held shut with magical power, even though one of the thugs tried desperately to open it. Nathaniel turned back to the money lender again, fire in his eyes.

The man looked at Nathaniel with worried and frightened eyes; he spoke haltingly “I… I get paid to pass on information to a business associate. He pays me money and I give him information about everyone I deal with. He never told me how he planned to use it, I assumed he would make investments, buy from my clients, or simply buy them out cheap to increase his holdings. I don’t know if he’s involved in this though.”

“And who is this business associate?” Nathaniel asked coldly. He flexed his sword arm, adding just a last hint of menace to the question.

Fisk replied honestly “I don’t know who he is, we kept it anonymous.”

Nathaniel smirked “You mean he was smart enough to remain anonymous while he took everything he wanted from you. He knows who you are or he wouldn’t be able to deal with you.”

Holferd Fisk nodded sheepishly “I suppose you’re right. But like I said, I don’t know who he is, which is what you want.”

“What do you know?” Nathaniel replied.

The man thought for a moment, mopping his brow again to slow the torrent of sweat his fear was producing. He answered “They are from Ataya, or at least that is where they operate. I send a courier to a meeting point. Each courier returns with a new meeting point and any other instructions. A different courier each time as well, and from what they’ve told me it’s a courier they meet.”

Nathaniel prodded further “Anything else?”

Fisk shook his head solemnly. Nathaniel took a deep breath and said “Well then, there isn’t much left to say…”

Fisk interrupted “So you’ll let me g—”

“Shut up!” Nathaniel shouted. He continued “I don’t like you. I don’t like what you do, how you do it, and I don’t like what you represent. Its greed and its avarice and I don’t like it! I won’t stand for it! Not here, not in my homeland, not in my world! You are going to make yourself scarce or I will make you very dead. Leave these people alone, give back their money and get out. If you leave, I will overlook your part in this.”

The money lender tried to argue “You can’t just throw me out, I deserve a life.”

Nathaniel said incredulously “You deserve a life? You deserve to hang you little bastard. Start packing. I want you gone before I leave town or I’ll drag you off to Ataya to face judgement.” Nathaniel turned and headed for the door. He called his staff to his hand and lifted the spell on the door. Nathaniel walked outside as the thugs crowded him. He said grimly “Step aside or die.”

Marcus Krandor walked towards the group although they did not notice him. He drew his sword slightly, leaving it in the scabbard enough to avoid noise. He said loudly “I’d tend to listen to him, he’s never wrong.” The thugs turned and began to disperse.

Nathaniel taunted “Your boss is out of business. Be gone, lest my boot finds your backside.” The thugs gave harsh looks, but skulked away.

Nathaniel walked over to Marcus as his friend said “Thirsty work all this talking and fighting.”

“Aye, let’s get a drink.” Nathaniel added.

The tavern was warm, warmer than the cool air outside. The numerous candles and larger torches around the walls added to the warmth and there was a sizable fireplace at the far end of the common room, although in late spring the fire was not needed. There were a few patrons in the tavern, mostly near the bar. The three mages sat quietly at a table in the corner. Marcus and Jessa had gathered some information, but they were still no further forward. Perhaps we should speak with the families, Nathaniel thought. That presented two problems as far as he could see. One, they would have to speak with weeping relatives who could not answer a straight question and they would not be able to push like with a suspect. And two, some of those missing had no family or they lived elsewhere. Nathaniel could not leave unless the investigation led away. But it did not, it led here to Aunel, only Nathaniel had to discern where in Aunel.

They each had a tankard of mead, and it was not the best mead Nathaniel had tasted. But it was cheap and served its purpose. Pushed to the centre of the table were three plates which had contained a passable meal of steak and vegetables covered in rich, thick gravy. All three had devoured the meal in short order, as they were so hungry from their travel. Nathaniel said “The evidence is leading us somewhere, like a path. It is up to us to determine where the path leads and go there.”

Jessa nodded with a smile “Ok, and where is it leading Nathaniel?”

The man sighed and ran his hand over his mouth and chin, smoothing his beard as he did so. He replied “A lot of the information leads back to Ataya. But in a city of a hundred thousand people finding one person is impossible. The rest of what we know is centred on Aunel or at least its outskirts. Even that is a lot of ground to cover.”

Marcus had just begun to speak when everyone was silenced “What I don’t understa-”

They all heard the screams, followed by shouts outside in the street. Like a bolt from a crossbow, Nathaniel leapt up, knocking his chair flying. He ran to the door, Jessa and Marcus in fast pursuit and others were following behind them.

Nathaniel ran outside into the cool night air and drew his sword, looking around as his eyes tried to adjust to the sudden change in light. He saw many people spread around, all in a commotion and he shouted “What has happened?”

Mayor Brunton appeared looking none too calm and said “Another disappearance sir, we’ve lost another! The parents are here.” The portly man indicated a man and woman. The woman was wailing and crying into her husband’s chest and the man looked utterly distraught as well.

Nathaniel carefully motioned to Jessa to speak with them, a practiced signal which none but the sharpest eyed individual would notice. While Jessa went over to them, he pulled the mayor to a discreet distance. He said “This is the best chance we have, callous as that sounds. Sort people to begin searching around the town and outside the town as well.”

The mayor nodded and quickly started gathering people and telling them to fetch torches and fan out. As Nathaniel turned around Jessa stepped up and gripped his arm lightly but firmly. She said with her eyes wide “It’s a fifteen year old girl who is missing Nathaniel—”

Not taking Jessa’s expression to mind he said “Its bad, but who is less important than where—”

Jessa spoke over him in a hushed but urgent tone “She’s blind Nathaniel!”

Nathaniel gasped slightly as he said “Oh hell. What is going on in this town? We’ve got to find her or these people’s grief will turn to anger and the situation will spiral out of control.”

Mayor Brunton jogged over and handed a flaming torch to Nathaniel and held a second one himself. He grunted, out of breath “I’ll go with you.”

Nathaniel nodded “Fine. Let’s—” He was cut off by a faint scream. He looked around and said distractedly “Where did that…” He started to walk, as he heard a girl shouting and screaming. Nathaniel followed the sound caught on the air, picking up speed as each second passed. Realising that the sound was coming from the northeast Nathaniel said “Looks like we won’t need those search parties after all.” He held up the torch and his sword as he turned around and shouted “Everyone stay here and stay calm. Mayor, bring Miss Mayfield and two able men, not the father and follow us!” With that he turned and ran after the shouts which grew louder and clearer as he approached. He could hear the footfalls as Jessa, Marcus and those few others followed.

Marcus called out “Nathaniel, slow down.”

Nathaniel shouted “There’s no time, keep moving. And stay quiet.” He ran on, trying to focus on the girl’s voice. He could ill afford to fail to save this girl, he would not fail. He barely noticed the first tree, but gradually he saw a multitude of trees, growing closer, denser as he moved further into the woods. The shouts of the girl were much closer now, he could hear her clearly. He heard her shouting “Help, help, someone help!”

Nathaniel slowed slightly peering into the distance while using the torch to light the way. The others were catching up. He shouted out “Where are you? We are coming to help you!”

As he walked forward, looking around, the girl called back “Who, wh-who are you? I’m here, over here.”

Nathaniel saw the figure just at the edge of his vision; he ran towards her and stopped when he was sure it was the girl. He said in a powerful tone “My name is Nathaniel Drakkon; I’m here with mayor Brunton and others.” He walked forward, nearer to the girl who was standing still, probably petrified with fear and worry. Nathaniel said “Stay calm and tell us what happened? Are you hurt?”

The girl had shoulder-length blond hair, and she put both hands on the sides of her head as she said “They took him, they, they took him! Those monsters took Jimmy! He’s gone, oh Jimmy, they took him!”

The others gathered around as Silvia Mayfield went over and held the girl, comforting her. Nathaniel thought for a moment and said “What is your name girl?”

Between sobbing cries she answered “Lisa.”

Nathaniel passed his sword and torch to Marcus before placing a hand reassuringly on the poor girl’s shoulder. He spoke softly but firmly “Lisa, please tell me, what did you mean by monsters? And who is Jimmy?”

Lisa breathed fitfully, still crying slightly and said “Monsters, those evil men, they ju-just took him. They dragged him away!”

Nathaniel nodded and responded “I think I’m beginning to understand. Mayor, do you know a boy in Aunel called Jimmy?”

Mayor Brunton replied “Yes, yes there is a lad around Lisa’s age. Jimmy Brogan.”

Nathaniel looked back at the young girl and said “I’m going to get Jimmy back Lisa, you have my word. On my honour I’ll find him, I’ll find all of them.”

Lisa was too upset to speak anymore and Silvia held her close and kept saying “Shush, shush child, it will be alright.”

Nathaniel took the torch from Marcus and began to look at the ground. In the mud he could make out several tracks. Tracking was not something he was skilled in, but old Barnabas Graves had taught him enough. It looked like several people, at least three dragging a fourth, which was clearly struggling given the depth of the drag marks and occasional scuffled where tracks overlapped madly. But it was clear to Nathaniel that they led further northeast. He said over his shoulder “Silvia, take Lisa back to her family. You two men go with them, guard them with your lives.”

The four townsfolk began to walk away and Jessa said quietly “What is it Nathaniel?”

The bearded mage replied “Tracks going northeast. Mayor, what lies northeast of here, those fields?”

Brunton replied “No, the northeast fields are more to the east. You can’t see in the dark, but they are beyond those trees to the right.” He pointed a stubby finger at the trees. Obadiah continued “To the direct northeast followin’ those tracks there ain’t much. Lots more woodland, eventually the river, but about a mile off there’s a mansion owned by some noble.”

Nathaniel arched an eyebrow “A noble? Who?”

The mayor said “I don’t rightly know. It’s out of the town so out of my jurisdiction. They have servants, folk have seen them. But they keep to themselves; don’t come in to town for nought. Seen supplies come from Adae and come up here. Folks round Aunel stay clear, they don’t like nobility and the like, beggin’ your pardon milords and lady.”

Nathaniel waved the man off “No need for that mayor, nobility, mages, we’re just people and nobody is above or better than the law. But it seems apparent that this is our next destination. If these nobles are involved or worse behind this, we’ll sort it out. If not perhaps they’ll have seen or heard something, have some information. The only other possibilities are a camp out in this wilderness, or they are crossing the river somewhere, to get further into the Torcein Woods. They must be staying near to the town though, or they would not return so quickly. Go back to town mayor, we will go on.”

Brunton said “Wait. Shouldn’t you wait for daylight? You could walk right passed a camp in this dark.”

Nathaniel took his sword back from Marcus and sheathed it. Speaking words of magic he conjured his staff into his hand, teleporting it from the Inn. The others did the same. He said angrily, almost growling “These bastards didn’t wait for daylight, I’ll be damned if I’ll let this wait.”

The three mages headed off at a steady pace, leaving the mayor to find his own way back to town. The stars seemed covered by a veil and the moon was weak, the darkness clung like a heavy cloak of black and an oppressive feeling loomed. Nathaniel thought grimly, if I lay hands on those behind this they will be sorry. But I might find only the chance to lend a hand to those who are in trouble. If those missing are injured or worse, I will wreak unforgettable vengeance upon whoever is to blame.

Chapter Nine - A Noble's House Haunted

They moved at speed. They could not afford not to. They kept their weapons at the ready. They could not afford not to. Rushing through the woods, the flickering lights from the stars and the pale half-moon danced and darted between and around trees, leaves and branches. The wind caught the leaves, on the trees and those which littered the soft earthen ground. It made them rustle, like whispers just beyond your understanding of the words. It made the leaves jump, spin, twist and writhe, like some overly complex ritualistic dance. Creating additional light from magic held at the tip of their staffs, the three mages made their way towards the mansion of some unknown noble. Nathaniel, Jessa, and Marcus were not new mages. They had served for around fifteen years. Even discounting training and working alongside mage lords they had been acting as mages alone for ten years or more. All of their adventures, all of their experience, prepared them to face any peril, any foe. But still, it could not prepare them for the unknown. Their knowledge, intelligence, and experience could only teach them to be cautious, wary, keep their wits about them and let nothing escape their attention. There was always risk when going into the unknown, whether it was entering a mansion belonging to a reclusive and secretive noble or an un-mapped cave network full of unknown enemies. Much must be risked to solve the puzzle, to safeguard the people. Even their lives had to be risked when the lives of the citizens hung in the balance. For Nathaniel Drakkon the risk was more than worthwhile. One life, ten, a thousand, the numbers did not matter. All that mattered was that if he could lay down his life to save another then his life was worthy, his life had meaning. It was a part of him, it was in his blood. So many of his ancestors had fallen in battle serving Weissland and Nathaniel did not want to disappoint. But Nathaniel was hungry, possessed of an internal fire. Whenever his life came to an end, Nathaniel was sure he would make the enemies of Weissland rue the day they had ever crossed his path.

The terrain was relatively easy to navigate. The trees were not thick, growing in haphazard rows which led roughly in the direction they were going. The ground was soft, earthen, with a thin covering of dry leaves. This meant being quiet was a moot point. It took a while, but as they cleared a denser clump of trees, the mansion was brought into sharp, shocking view. The mansion was four or five stories tall, and very wide. There were a couple of smaller stone buildings off to the left. They were clearly stables and stores. Surrounding the mansion was a stone wall with a wrought-iron gate. They could see the whole building only because the ground just beyond the tree line sloped gently around three metres to the lower ground the mansion was built on. They stopped for a moment and Nathaniel Drakkon tried to get a sense of the layout. He could see no sign of the kidnappers or any guards. Pointing his sword forward he said “Come on!” With that he rushed down the slope and began running towards the mansion’s gate.

Marcus and Jessa ran after him, and as they went Jessa called out, the wind making her shout to be heard “Don’t you think we should have some sort of plan? Something beyond run up and break into the place waving weapons around would be quite good!”

Nathaniel slowed, and replied “We check the front grounds. Then we put the swords away, knock politely and ask questions. We don’t know if they are involved, they are only potential witnesses for the moment. Sound good enough Jessa?”

The redhead flashed that stunning smile of hers and responded “That’s fine Nathaniel. Just wanted to know you had a plan dear.”

Nathaniel rolled his eyes, although he was smart enough to do it facing away from Jessa Aeris. He kept moving and said “Let’s get this gate open.” As he stood in front of the gate, he looked through it at the mansion. In this light the stone seemed to take on a strange, pale green luminance. And at the corners, around the windows and other architectural features Nathaniel could see vines of ivy or some other creeping plant tracing and trailing where they could find purchase in the stone. The windows were dark, strips of wood criss-crossing the glass. They were like dozens of hooded eyes regarding the trio of mages with contempt and scorn. The atmosphere seemed just as harsh and unwelcoming. It was positively unnerving. Nathaniel said “Creepy.”

Marcus shivered visibly, as if something had just crawled down his spine. He spoke “I was just about to mention that. I don’t suppose those kidnappers turned around and went to the tavern? No, thought not.” Marcus was generally bold as brass, ready to get involved regardless of the risks. But he also needed to vocalise his worry. It was part of his process, voice concern, speak your fears, and then just get stuck in with facing them. Nathaniel found it quite a unique way of dealing with things, and he had never had need to doubt Marcus Krandor or his courage and fortitude.

Jessa said impatiently “It’s not getting any warmer out here.”

Nathaniel sheathed his sword and checked the gate. To his surprise, and perhaps the others too, he found the gate was unlocked, pushing open easily. The metal groaned and squeaked as it swung inwards. The three mages stepped inside quickly, feeling the change from soft ground to paved stone instantly. Moving his staff lower Nathaniel could see a stone path leading to the front door of the mansion “Let’s go knock. See who answers.”

As they walked the others put away their swords, keeping only their staffs at the ready. There was a harsh chill in the air. When they reached the end of the path, they waited before the door. It was suitably large and made of a light coloured wood. There were some carvings running down both sides of the surface, but they were not familiar to Nathaniel. He reached up and gripped the brass door knocker, pulling it back and knocking three times. Silently they waited. Nathaniel did not want to knock again; it might make getting answers more difficult if the owners were annoyed. Still they were turning up in the middle of the night, perhaps only a few hours before midnight. With no light coming from within, it was quite likely that they were waking the household. Two minutes past and there was no answer. Nathaniel glanced at Marcus, who had been making faces, but now intently avoided eye contact by looking at the moon. Nathaniel shuffled his feet and looked at Jessa, noting the twinkle and sparkle in her eyes as she smiled back. He cleared his throat, sighed and knocked again, more urgently this time.

Finally the door opened to reveal an older man standing there with a candle in hand. He was wearing smart, tidy, formal, but common clothing. He was clearly a servant, yet he had an air of uptight snobbery about him. He seemed to look at them through eyes permanently narrowed in disdain and pomposity. He had white hair, which had receded from much of his head, covering only the sides and back. He had well-groomed mutton-chops which went into a tidy moustache. It seemed to make it look like he was puffing out his cheeks and his mouth flexed and pouted several times before he spoke “I am the butler of his mansion. We will not have ruffians on the grounds or visitors at such an hour.”

Nathaniel was certainly not going to be spoken to in such a manner and said “I want to speak with your masters and I want to speak to them now. We are mages of Weissland and we are on a matter of utmost importance. Those who are loyal to Weissland would do well to not hinder us.” The butler could puff up his cheeks or his chest as much as he wanted, for all Nathaniel cared he could burst. There was no way they would be talked down to or ignored. He would not stand for it.

The butler backed down “Well, if it is so important, you had better come inside.” He stepped aside and motioned towards the lobby. As the three mages entered, the butler closed the door behind them with a creak. He continued talking “But if you want to speak to those I serve you cannot.”

Nathaniel said sharply “Why not? Do you think you can ignore our authority?”

The man said “No. I am merely stating a fact. You cannot speak with them because they are not here.”

Nathaniel felt slightly foolish for snapping but he was tired, irritable and getting nowhere fast in this investigation. He asked “Where are they then?”

The butler walked to a nearby table and used his candle to light an ornate lamp. The lobby became much brighter and they could see it led off to two corridors in either direction, with two alcoves where ornamentation sat flanking those corridors. Behind them the door was in an alcove of its own, a very short section of hallway before the lobby opened up. At the other side was a large, wide sweeping staircase. As Nathaniel looked around waiting for an answer, he noticed a doorway at this end of the corridor to the right when entering the main door. There were wet footprints on the carpet leading from the door. He almost thought nothing of it, but then it dawned on him; it had not rained in this part of the country for about two days. The butler answered, pulling the mages’ attention “The master has important business in Ataya and spends much of his time there. The mistress lives here but is currently away visiting friends in Ledek.”

Nathaniel was beginning to get a sinking feeling about this. Every time he gained new information half of it pointed to Ataya. How many people in Ataya were involved or connected with these disappearances? No, he thought, kidnappings, not disappearances. That was clear now. He needed to find out why these people were taken, and where. He continued with his questions “When will the master and mistress return?”

As the butler answered he looked down to his left. It was a small motion, just for a brief second, but Drakkon was good enough to detect it. The butler said “The master is always very busy, he only returns here when time allows and that is rarely. The mistress is scheduled to return in a week’s time.” He was lying, Nathaniel just did not know about what.

The mage of secrets pursued it “So your master is in Ataya?”


Nathaniel said “And the mistress returns in a week’s time from Raquil?”

The butler shook his head “No, from Ledek.”

Nathaniel was trying to trip him up “Really? But you said Raquil earlier.”

The man stumbled over his words “Ah, no, no, I am sure I said Ledek.”

Nathaniel shook his head. He looked to the others. Marcus shook his head. Jessa said “You definitely said Raquil.”

The butler was confused. To have several people tell you are wrong, especially when you are tired and caught off guard, you begin to doubt yourself. Even more so if your resolve is weak. He said “Oh of course. She is in Raquil. The mistress takes so many trips; it’s sometimes hard to keep up.”

Nathaniel said “Yes. We have the same problem, always off here and there.” Rule two when it comes to questioning a potential accomplice or perpetrator, ingratiate yourself with them. If you can get them to believe you are on the same page, they will become malleable, more receptive to revealing information. Even better if you can make them think you do not have a clue what they are up to. Arrogance is a brilliant tool when properly used. Everyone wants to feel superior to others and a good interrogator knows how to act inferior to gain an advantage. Nathaniel asked “Are there any other servants in the mansion? You seem to be rather alone.”

Without batting an eyelid the butler replied “The master only maintains a small staff, the mansion is not as large as many noble’s estates. There is a cook, two kitchen maids, four maids working under the housekeeper, a stable hand and four men to… ah, tend to the grounds.”

Nathaniel smiled and nodded along. He said “Well, I suppose we should get to the point. We are investigating several disappearances in Aunel. Have you or any of the other staff seen anyone suspicious lately? Or heard anything which could be of help to us?”

The butler was clearly being evasive “I had not heard about any disappearances.”

Jessa joined in “But have you seen anything out of the ordinary? Perhaps which now seems odd or out of place now that you have heard?”

The butler replied “Not that I can think of Lady. We do not have much contact with the people of Aunel. For the most part only supplies and their couriers come to the mansion and they are not from Aunel but from Adae.”

Nathaniel asked “What is your master’s name? What is his business in Ataya?”

The butler stiffened, his feathers ruffled “I am not at liberty to give that information without permission from my master.”

Marcus said “Isn’t that rather impolite given that we are investigating a serious crime? Your master could have information we require.”

The butler said sternly “I cannot reveal that information. My master’s privacy should be respected.”

Nathaniel spoke, a cold edge to his voice “I want to speak with the other servants, now.”

The butler held up his hands in protest “You cannot! I want you to vacate the mansion you have outstayed your welcome.”

Nathaniel was about to push past the butler when they heard a noise. It seemed to come from further into the mansion and perhaps below. There was a repeated clanging sound of metal striking metal. Just as suddenly as it started it was silenced. The mage asked with a glare “What was that?”

The butler said “Nothing. It is just an old noisy house.”

Marcus responded “That was no bloody noisy house. What do you take us for?”

Nathaniel quickly said “I’m going to search this mansion. Something isn’t right here.” Almost at once things changed. They could feel it like a crawling sensation in their skin. The butler produced a concealed club and swung violently at Nathaniel. The mage was not expected the attack and only his quick reflexes saved him. He ducked as the butler continued his sudden onslaught. His eyes were blank and his motions stilted. It was as if he was possessed. The quickly realised he was.

As he swung round again Nathaniel ducked under the blow, and Jessa was forced to dodge back as well. Marcus was out of reach. The butler swiped back-handed and caught Nathaniel in the chest. The hit knocked the mage back, sending him crashing and rolling over the nearby table. The lamp fell to the floor, the glass breaking, the flame extinguished. The strength of the hit was beyond what a mortal man could dish out in such tight quarters. Nathaniel knew that was unnatural strength. Jessa smacked the man with her staff, rocking him, but he regained balance and continued to attack. It had virtually no effect. Marcus weighed in; thrusting his staff to the gut, but it seemed to rebound like it had struck stone. The butler clubbed him in the shoulder as Jessa cracked her staff off the side of his head. Blood flowed from a wound there but the butler simply turned to attack her.

Leaping up Nathaniel drew his sword and thrust without hesitation. The blade went clean through the abdomen, but to little effect. He pulled out the sword and received a club to the gut for his trouble. There was little choice left. Jessa drew her katana and taking aim, brought the weapon down in an arc. It severed the club arm with a spray of arterial blood. Still the butler refused to stop. Turning to Jessa, she was knocked aside even as the jetting blood hit her, covering one side of her clothing. Both Nathaniel and Marcus slashed at the butler but he hammered Marcus away and advanced on Nathaniel. With shocking power he knocked the arming sword away and with his one arm grabbed the mage by the throat and lifted him two feet clear of the ground. No easy feat given Nathaniel’s tall height. Blood still pumped from the lost arm as the butler choked Nathaniel. Jessa drew one of her throwing daggers, standing behind him, stabbing it several times into his kidneys. Nathaniel used what strength he could muster to reach past his foe, grasping at Jessa and pulling another of her daggers into his hand. He punched it into the heart of the butler, then into the arm. Dropping free, Nathaniel barged the butler to the ground. Jessa was knocked down as well. As the arm reached for her throat, Nathaniel wrestled with it. Jessa stabbed at the arm. Nathaniel turned his blade downwards and with a shout of desperation and anger proceeded to stab the butler dozens of times in the chest. Nathaniel roared as blood splashed up at him “Aaarrrh.” Pulling the gore covered weapon free he sat back, stunned by what he had had to do to stop the possessed butler. Suddenly the man sat up again, seemingly unstoppable. Before Nathaniel could react there was a flash of metal. He looked up to see Jessa standing with her katana as the butler’s head bounced away and the body fell back. Both them looked like they had been through a bloodbath. The three mages staggered away from the body, which was finally dead and still.

Nathaniel supported Jessa, neither of them able to speak. Marcus managed to say “He was possessed. It must have been a spirit.”

Nathaniel nodded slackly “Haunted… got to be. We need… we need to check the mansion, in case there are more. Get the staff away hopefully.”

Jessa shook her head, holding him steady “No, can’t you sense it? It wasn’t a spirit; it was something already in him. There is corruption here, a taint of some kind, but I can’t feel the taint of necromancy for some reason. The servants are probably tainted as well.”

Nathaniel brushed her cheek with his clean hand “We can’t be certain. Jessa, we can’t just assume. We need to conduct a proper search. And I know where to start.”

Chapter Ten - Head and Heart

Nathaniel looked at himself, at Jessa, her beauty marred only slightly by the blood covering her. He said “We need to clean ourselves up. Until we know otherwise the others are not enemies. If they see us like this they’ll be terrified and rightly so.”

Marcus nodded “Agreed. Now, do you think these possessed lot are behind the kidnappings?”

Nathaniel said “That would be my guess, these spirits or whatever they are, possessing the staff for a length of time to kidnap people. The staff probably did not know they had done anything, like blacking out and waking up somewhere else. The only reason the butler did not revert is probably because the spirit was discovered. And as I said, I think I know where to start looking.” He motioned for them to follow. He pointed at the door he had seen earlier “Wet footprints around this door. But no rain for two days, where did it come from? Somewhere damp I’d say. I think there is a dungeon built under the mansion.”

Jessa seemed to have relaxed “Ok then. We clean up and search beyond this door. What about the staff? They might have been alerted and it took all three of us to bring down one possessed man.”

“And there are thirteen remaining servants. Not good if they are like him.” Nathaniel said.

Marcus added “It was only when you mentioned searching that he flipped out. Maybe if we just ask them to get out, away from whatever influence is here?”

Jessa frowned “I don’t know, so many things could change them. Trying to remove them might be the same. Perceived as a threat.”

Nathaniel said “All we can do is see what happens and stick together. Enough talk for now, we need action.” He began to speak the words to a spell so they could clean the blood from their clothes and skin. Jessa followed suit, but Marcus had avoided the blood. He just tidied himself up a bit, and then turned to cast similar spells on the weapons while Nathaniel and Jessa finished up.

As Nathaniel finished his spell he looked at his clothes, making sure all of the blood was clean. The robes looked as clean as normal. He turned and walked back over into the lobby. He picked up his sword and his staff. Marcus had recovered his weapons earlier and Jessa had already sheathed her katana. Marcus handed her the two throwing daggers, now cleaned, and she frowned noting that the dagger Nathaniel had used was now decidedly dulled and blunted. Throwing daggers were light and weighted for throwing; they could not stand up to such punishment. The three of them headed back to the door and were close to entering when Nathaniel saw the woman. She was clearly one of the staff, come to investigate the disturbance. She seemed to walk towards them in a daze, looking in shock at the body of the butler, barely even registering the mages’ presence. She was wearing a nightgown with a robe wrapped tightly around her. Nathaniel noticed that she did not have anything on her feet, padding softly along the carpet which ran along the centre of the corridor. Nathaniel stepped into her way, weapons lowered and said “Miss, we are mages of Weissland. I know this will come as quite a shock to you, but when we came to question the butler about recent disappearances in Aunel, some sort of spirit possessed him and attacked us. Unfortunately we were forced to kill him to defend ourselves. I apologise for this, but I need you to gather the rest of the servants quickly and get out of this mansion. There could be other spirits here and they need to be banished.”

The woman looked at him, confusion and non-comprehension in her blue eyes. As she continued walking towards them, Nathaniel looked at her eyes. As she neared them, the blue colour of her iris shimmered for a second, and then her eyes seemed to cloud, turning black and lifeless, soulless. From the pocket of her dress, the woman pulled a large kitchen knife, holding it downward and raising it as she continued walking forwards. Nathaniel sighed and said “Not another one. I don’t want to kill all of these innocent people, damn it! Damn it all!”

Jessa reached for her katana and said “Nathaniel, we have no choice now!”

Knowing his companion was right, Nathaniel Drakkon prepared to defeat this possessed woman. But she moved with startling speed, and before Nathaniel could do anything she was coming at him making short stabbing motions aimed at his chest. He had to simply drop his weapons to grab her arms and hold her at bay. He grabbed her wrists, trying to hold her arms up so that the others could deal with her. She was holding the weapon in her left hand, and Nathaniel facing her, was using his right hand to keep the weapon away. Still she began making sawing motions and Nathaniel shouted “Give me a bloody hand!” The others rushed to help. His choice of words had perhaps been poor, as the woman manoeuvred her weapon, the blade slicing into his forearm. The knife began to saw back and forth, cutting shallowly into his arm, but painfully enough. He shouted in pain “Arrgh. Hurry up; she’s sawing into my sodding arm!”

Marcus and Jessa also grappled with the woman, the three of them managing to push her away to the ground. As Marcus and Jessa spread out to take up defensive postures, Nathaniel held his arm close to his stomach as he bent over slightly, cradling it with his other arm. He began to speak under his breath, but he was not swearing. As he finished, the spell was cast and he held out his injured arm, pointing directly at the woman who was on her feet again. A jolt of lightning jumped from his hand and struck the woman, like a lash between his hand and her body. The electricity sparked through her body, continuing to shock her for quite some time. Then she fell to the ground, the spell ended. The body jerked and shuddered in spasm for a few moments then went still. Holding his arm down at his side, Nathaniel said “I think that was enough lightning to keep her unconscious for a while.”

Marcus inquired “You didn’t kill her? But what if she gets up and comes after us when our backs are turned in there?” He pointed to the door.

Nathaniel said “I don’t think this is a permanent possession, the spirit or spirits are only taking control of them for a period of time, or we wouldn’t have been able to talk with the butler for so long. I hope that when she wakes up, she’ll be ok.”

Jessa said “Look Nathaniel, I know you don’t want to kill them. I don’t either. But we still need to search the mansion and there are still potentially twelve more of these enemies in here with us. Not to mention that there is a very strong possibility that the people kidnapped are here as well somewhere.”

Nathaniel replied “I know Jessa, I know. But there has to be something we can do, some way we can save the servants. There don’t seem to be any more servants coming to see what is happening, let’s get in here and get moving.” He picked up his sword and staff again, deciding to sheath the sword. He took one last look at the second servant to make sure she was still there, and then pushed open the door.

They entered a square room which was made of stone. It was some sort of storeroom with a couple of barrels, several crates and other supplies. The room was certainly cold, but not overly damp. The sort of condensation which would make those wet footprints had not come from here. Nathaniel was about to turn away when he realised there was a draft. That was why the room was cold. The stone was solid, no gaps. But there was a definite draft of air coming from behind four crates packed two by two against the back wall. He moved forward and said “Help me move these.” Before Marcus could help, Nathaniel gripped the top left crate and it pulled aside as light as a feather. Nathaniel stepped back as all four crates rolled out and to one side like a door. They were fake, and on wheels and hinges. Behind there was a dark space, a doorway in the stone with stone steps which swept down dramatically at a steep angle. From here, without proper light, he could not see the end of the steps. Nathaniel said coolly “You know, I don’t think this is just an entrance to the wine cellar.”

Marcus replied “Is anyone suddenly reminded of a particular tunnel?”

Nathaniel and Jessa shared a quick glance before Jessa said “Shut up Marcus; let’s just get on with this. We have people to find.”

Nathaniel said a few words and a blue glowing orb of light formed at the tip of his staff, cradled between the dragon wings. Using the staff to guide them, he led the way down into whatever was at the bottom of the steps. There was a churning feeling in his gut, and his arm felt weak from the blood loss. He had cast a hasty healing spell, just enough to stop the bleeding. Nathaniel felt like he was walking directly into the belly of the beast.

Chapter Eleven - Point of View

A lot of things come down to your point of view. Mage lord Jarroth Boralays had often thought about this. It was even one of the things he taught his students. Sometimes it was difficult to explain, sometimes not. As he walked along the corridor Boralays continued to think about it. Things were not always clear cut; there were very few black and white issues in life. Shades of grey made up most of the world. The colours you saw when you opened your eyes were just there to comfort you, to make things more palatable. That was why it was so difficult to prepare mages for service in Weissland. It was not just about teaching swordplay and exploring elemental lores. It was important, perhaps even more important, to make sure that mages had a firm grasp on the realities of what they were doing, on what was required of them, and what they might face. One of the things he spoke about with his students was to prepare them so that they would not make mistakes or at least limit mistakes, make them manageable, controllable, fixable. Everyone made mistakes, it was part of life. But mages had to be aware of everything they did, and the consequences of their actions. He would say to them ‘what would you do if you were walking along a street in Ataya, Crint, Ordail, wherever, and a man rushes past you, chased by another man? The second man is shouting thief! Thief! And there are no guards, no soldiers around. What would you do?’ Of course he would then listen to their replies. Boralays would sit and let a bit of discussion grow, give them the freedom of argument and counter argument. Jarroth would then cut in and give the piece of information he had neglected, what the mage in the example does not know, could not know. It was the classic example, the thief is poor, and steals only to feed his family. Boralays smiled as he walked, knowing that while the example provided a good lesson, it would be very rare to actually encounter in Weissland now. It was a lesson within a lesson, to show that you must always think about what you are doing, but that the world was never as straight forward as an example in a book and you must learn to create a balance between your instincts and your intellect. The country was rich, fertile and prosperous. Most of the poor people in Weissland could still afford to feed and clothe themselves, provide for their family. They worked hard for an honest living, and earned an honest wage. But nothing could be taken for granted, a mage needed to know how to gather knowledge, information, and using their own judgement, attempt to make the right decision.

As he turned a corner and entered a room, Boralays greeted the mage he met there “Hello Jhaelra, how are you?”

The elven woman turned her head sharply, a very acute movement, almost feral or animalistic. She said “Jarroth, I am fine. You?”

“I can’t complain.” Boralays replied.

Of course there were always exceptions to every rule. If the rule was that very few people in Weissland were poor enough to need to steal to survive, Jhaelra Fwenlyren broke the rule. She had grown up in harsh conditions, clawing her way to reach every goal and overcome every obstacle put in her way. The woman had a rough, toughened attitude which was quite out of the ordinary for the typical elf. She said “Are you busy Boralays?”

The man smiled and stroked his brown beard, streaks of grey running through it. He answered “No, I’m not busy at the moment, just taking a stroll really. What can I help you with?”

Jhaelra said through gritted teeth “I don’t need help. I want to discuss some of the students with you. You’ve been training them longer than I have.”

Wrong choice of words Boralays, you dunderhead, he thought. Sometimes he forgot what his fellow mage lord was like. So long associating elves with the likes of the Archmage Thaendil, Vanel Rathalie, Loter Arthious and others, it was easy to forget that this particular elf was different. Jhaelra Fwenlyren was born in Iardreuliel, a large town near the city of Adion, the capital of Anera. She was from a poor family and life was rather hard. That was an understatement, damn his politeness. Boralays spoke “I meant no offence Jhaelra. What do you want to discuss?”

The elven woman sighed “Two of my students have become enemies. They are constantly fighting and it is very disruptive.”

Boralays thought for a moment. He smiled “Let me guess. Both boys?”

“Yes.” The elf said.

“Both around the same age?”

“Yes” came the reply.

Boralays continued “And both are fairly evenly matched, and perhaps vying for the attention of a girl?”

Jhaelra asked “How did you know this?”

Boralays said “I feel rather ashamed to say this but men are very predictable. A bit of rivalry never hurt the learning process but if things get out of hand, embarrass them.”

The elf woman raised an eyebrow “Embarrass them?”

“Yes. Insult them; make them look foolish in front of their contemporaries. A solid knock to the ego will redirect their focus quicker than menial labour or other punishments.” Boralays imparted some of his experience from training mages. He had been doing it for seventeen years or so, and had picked up a trick or two.

Jhaelra simply nodded and began to leave. Boralays stayed there a moment, watching her depart. It was difficult to get a read on Jhaelra; she did not let anyone too close. It was obviously because of her upbringing, or perhaps lack of a proper upbringing. From what Boralays knew she did not know her father, he had been a soldier. Her mother had died when she was young, leaving Jhaelra alone. She grew up hiding in an abandoned mill, stealing what she needed to survive. Learned to fight, or at least fight back. Of course Boralays did not know the specifics; Jhaelra Fwenlyren was not big on talking about her past. Her talent for magic was discovered by a mage lord and she was brought to Ataya to be trained as a mage. This was a long time ago though, before even Boralays had begun his training as a mage. He moved on, taking a set of stairs down two floors as he made his way to a library. There were many libraries in the tower, some dedicated to specific magic lores, or to history and other subjects. This particular library dealt with healing magic. It never hurt to brush up.

Entering the room Boralays looked around. Even in the late evening the tower of Ataya was often busy. From a quick glance he could see four others in the room. He walked over to a shelf, scratched his cheek and looked for the book he wanted to read. He pushed up the blue sleeve of his robe and selected the book, pulling it free. Boralays took the book and walked over to one of the tables. He sat opposite an elven mage lord, once more just as different to Jhaelra as to anyone else, and different again to Vanel. Where Rathalie could be outspoken and opinionated, Carsidhor Enntalo was quiet and reserved. The brown haired elf looked up as he sat down and said simply “Boralays.”

Boralays replied in similar fashion, not wanting to disturb the elf “Enntalo.” Mage lords shared the same rank, but their levels of power often varied wildly. Sometimes the rank was given not because of power but skill or knowledge or specialties. Often it was due to combinations of the above. Enntalo was one hundred and seventy-nine. Not particularly old for an elf, but still it made Boralays think. Jhaelra was one hundred and forty, and look at the difference there. Vanel Rathalie was only one hundred and twenty-six, a marked difference to Enntalo. Boralays wondered why though, was it like comparing a human of twenty-six to one of forty and another of seventy-nine? Or was it purely a personality thing and the age had no bearing on the matter? Boralays confessed he was quite sure he would never fully understand it.

As Jarroth Boralays read, he realised that Vanel and Carsidhor did have some things in common. Neither of them used swords or other weapons in battle. They only ever used their staffs. Vanel’s staff was metal, ornate, some might say ostentatious. On the other hand Enntalo’s staff was a sandy brown coloured wooden staff. There were carvings of ivy embossed on its surface and on the top of the staff there was a bronze leaf symbol. Carsidhor’s robes were equally naturalistic, as they were coloured in many hues of green. Boralays did not feel right about going into battle without a sword at his waist, but it was their decision, not his. Regardless, he would take cold steel into every fight until the end of his days, like he had done since becoming a mage. Much like several of his former students Boralays had never settled to simply staying in one place. When some of the mages he trained were ready he would travel with them to carry out missions until they were ready for solo missions or to be assigned to specific regions or duties depending on where they found their feet. It gave him the chance to stretch his legs and keep his magic sharp. Also he enjoyed investigating, although it seemed that his former student Nathaniel Drakkon had far surpassed him in that regard. Boralays had trained a lot of mages, but that class, that group had stood out as rather exceptional. It was only the second group he had begun training. At the time Boralays had only been a mage himself. It had been a couple of years later that he had been given the rank of mage lord. There were many important mages in that group, Nerris, one of the best historians in the tower. Jessa Aeris, an extremely powerful young woman, Boralays was sure she would become a mage lord in a few years. Tarmas was a solid battle mage, if a tad too cynical, and Marcus, not the most powerful but inventive and creative, when he focussed. And Nathaniel Drakkon, strong, quick-minded, a soldier, a mage, and an investigator rolled into one. It was clear even in the early days that Nathaniel and Jessa were two of his very best students.

Once Boralays had finished reading he got up to replace the book. Enntalo said quietly “Finished already?”

Boralays smiled “Yes, just reacquainting myself with the basics.”

The elf folded his hands together and remarked “That is interesting. Not many mage lords would freely admit to going over ‘the basics’. Fewer still actually do take the time to do so. My compliments.”

“Thank you mage lord Enntalo. I should be going now, it seems sleep calls me.” He stifled a yawn before saying “Perhaps we will have time to speak again and in more depth.”

Enntalo nodded “Of course. Another time then.”

Boralays put the book back and left the library, which by this time was empty apart from himself and Enntalo. He headed back to his room, planning to get some rest. As he reached the corridor where his room was, Boralays realised this was unlikely. Two mages stood near his room, deep in some discussion. As he got closer he recognised them as the mage lords Tabitha Sergares and Dwine Gilbarnd. As he walked up to them he interrupted saying “Not to be rude but could you take your debate somewhere else, I was planning on going to sleep.”

Dwine turned and said “Boralays, I didn’t see you there. Sorry, we were heading for one of the halls but we got sidetracked.” The light in the corridor caught Dwine Gilbarnd at odd angles, making his head seem both shiny and misshapen. Dwine was completely bald, and the light from the torches lining the walls was not flattering. Dwine had a short goatee which showed that his hair colour before going bald had been a dirty blond.

Boralays replied “No harm done, but I should be going.”

Sergares said “How is the training going Boralays?” Tabitha Sergares was a fairly powerful human mage lord, especially for one quite young. She was only forty-one, her birthday only being just over a month ago. Boralays thought it was rather appropriate that her birthday was near the end of winter, given the nickname people used behind her back. Dwine on the other hand was fifty-seven, a few years older than Boralays at fifty-four.

Jarroth answered “It is going ok. Why do you ask?”

Sergares said bluntly “I heard you had been lumbered with the dregs this time round. I wondered why they would give you the weaklings when you’re a proven instructor.”

Ice Queen, that was what people called Tabitha Sergares. Boralays could see it clearly in her manner, her attitude and personality. But it was more than that, she seemed to have taken the insult and built a fearsome reputation on it to spite others, taking it further for her own ends. Tabitha’s hair was blond, not like Dwine’s but pale, some would say platinum blond. Her eyes were deep blue, so her appearance seemed to add to her attitude. Now she wore white and pale blue robes, like her clothes were made of ice and snow. Her wooden staff was a pale wood as well, topped by a large crystal which was clear or perhaps white. It was difficult to tell depending on the light. Boralays said “The students I have just begun instructing are not amongst the powerful of the new mages, but that does not matter. As mage lord Rathalie said to me just last night, we can always find uses for mages, no matter their power. You should know that.” That ought to shut them up, Boralays thought. He did not dislike Sergares or Dwine, but both had their own attitudes which sometimes put other people’s backs up.

Dwine spoke “Well, Rathalie is right. I’m sure Sergares did not mean any disrespect to you or your charges. But you know that power is pretty damned important around here. We can’t exactly defend Weissland from the sort of threats we face if our new mages can’t hold their own in a magical duel.”

Boralays responded “Perhaps, but we get new mages every year, just because some of this group are not powerful does not mean the group from the previous year isn’t up to the standard and who knows what the next year will bring. I didn’t think you were a seer Dwine?”

Dwine shook his head “Fine, be like that. No skin off my nose. I don’t need to be a seer to state my opinion.” He put his hands on his hips, the robes he wore hanging loosely on him. Gilbarnd wore a large robe which was much like a heavy coat as well, with a lighter robe and pair of trousers underneath. The outer robe was a dark red, made of an almost velvet material. He had a sash of the same material in the same colour wrapped around his waist. The inner robe was an off-white colour. Dwine did not have his staff with him, but Boralays remembered what it looked like, a thin wooden staff, which had been painted white. There was some red detailing on it, a few runes up its length. At the top there was a sizable red gemstone. As Boralays remembered thinking about Vanel and Carsidhor’s refusal to wield a weapon other than their staff and magic, Boralays remarked on the odd choice of weaponry Dwine Gilbarnd wielded. When not using his staff, he used a flail. Rather difficult weapon to use, but Gilbarnd was quite skilled with it. Sergares stuck with a sword, like Boralays and the majority of mages.

The two other mage lords walked around and past him, heading off to leave him alone in the corridor. Boralays sighed deeply before entering his room to finally get some sleep. It had been a long day. Before he fell into a heavy slumber, he realised that things really did come down to your point of view.

Chapter Twelve - Marble Table

Stone walls, stone steps, stone ceiling. They could not see yet but Nathaniel guessed that the floor would be stone as well. This place had been built for drowning out sound, limiting exits. It was a prison. The steps were slippery, slimy, wet. They had to use the walls to steady themselves. The steps seemed to go down a long way. As Nathaniel reached the bottom he discovered where the water was from. There was an audible splash and he mouthed the word “Damn.” As he stepped clear of the water he noticed several stones were uneven. Water from somewhere beneath the stone was gathered there, which would be trailed up and down the stairs by anyone moving about, even into the corridor upstairs. They were in a small ante-chamber. There were three doors, but they could only guess at where they led.

Marcus hopped over the puddle and said “Split up?”

Nathaniel shook his head “No, if we run into any more possessed servants it will take the three of us to deal with them. Plus when we find the people, we need to get them out of here quickly and safely. Splitting up puts them at risk.”

Jessa asked “Which door do we take then?”

Nathaniel looked at the doors and said “Well, if I was building this place to keep the likes of us out, I’d suspect the door straight ahead to be the obvious choice. So it should be one of the doors to either side. Of course anyone would come up with that reasoning, so because I’d expect us to not select the obvious door, I would put everything behind the obvious door with the reasoning that everyone would choose a side door. So we use the door directly ahead of us.”

Marcus tried to follow his friend’s reasoning and frowned “How do you know this stuff?”

Nathaniel replied sarcastically “I don’t. Its all just guesswork, but I’m very lucky so when it all pans out later, I claim I knew all along. It makes me look better.”

“Really?” Marcus said.

Nathaniel shook his head and said “Forget it. Let’s move.” They moved towards the door ahead of them, and Nathaniel tentatively reached for the handle, turning it and pushing it open. With the door now open Nathaniel could see a wide corridor. There seemed to be many doors on both sides of the corridor as well as a door at the far end. No sign of any enemies, although the dank corridor was hardly inviting. There were a couple of torches in brackets on the walls for light, so Nathaniel dispelled the light from his staff. He carefully drew his sword and passed the staff to Marcus. Since Nathaniel was leading from the front, he needed a free hand to open doors and the arming sword would be more useful if they ran into trouble.

As Nathaniel walked forward he regarded the area with a practised eye. He was looking for clues, anything which would help. Some of the doors were different. The one at the end of the corridor was heavy, reinforced with strips of metal. A few of the other doors were similar, but while they had the metal the wood was not as sturdy. A few of the doors were just plain wood. They were not built to keep people in. They were likely the less important rooms. Still, Nathaniel needed to investigate them all. Any could contain the people of Aunel. He went to the first door on the left. Nathaniel wondered for a second why he chose the left door over the right. It was a gut feeling, like instinct. Taking a deep breath he entered the room. If he had not taken a breath the room would have made him breathless, even so it was shocking. It drew his eyes in, he could not look away. There was a table, seven feet long and three feet wide, made of marble. This was not what caught his attention. It was the blood. The table was not slick with blood. Claret had not been liberally splashed about. It was blood washed away. Blood washed off, again and again and again. The blood had been there so many times and washed away again, that it could no longer be washed completely clean. The blood had stained too deeply into the surface. Leather straps hung loosely from the table to the ground. Looking around Nathaniel found the only other thing in the room was a tall cabinet. He walked over and stood in front of it. Flipping his sword downward he reached out with his free hand and two fingers from his sword hand, gripping the two small wooden handles of the cabinet. He opened the cabinet, almost expecting what he would find. Dozens of metal implements, sharp and jagged and serrated. Nathaniel did not recognise them all, beyond the recognition that they were used to inflict pain. People had been strapped to the table and cut on. Cut again and again, bled for some purpose.

Silently Nathaniel closed the cabinet and walked past Jessa and Marcus. He did not speak, there were no words now. They had to check the other rooms, but Nathaniel realised that things were going to be bad here. They began to search alternating between left and right. There was a tool room, full of hammers and shovels and other simple things. The mages found an empty room with scorch marks on the walls and floor, seemingly made from fire and lightning. Next they found a room for the preparation of potions. The room was familiar; there were rooms like this in the tower of Ataya, though not with any dark purpose in mind. A torture room was what they saw next. Not like the first room, this was much larger, with multiple torture aids including a rack and a water torture device, as well as a barrel of hot pokers. Several bore a branding mark which was like a splayed crow’s foot. Moving on they noted an attached room with viewing slots on the walls. Spectators to torture, it was a chilling thought. The next room was tiny by comparison. It contained a desk and two chairs. One had leather straps and other restraints. This was an interrogation room. This was for mental torture, not physical. The three mages closed the door and continued to the last room before the end of the corridor. Within they found four sturdy cots, like those the military used for tents and in temporary barracks. There were chests near each cot and a simple spell broke open the locks. Opening the wooden lid of one Nathaniel riffled through clothes, some gold and a few personal belongings. This was some sort of sleeping area for guards. It could leave only one possibility. Four guards, four men… for tending the grounds. Those had been the butler’s words; Nathaniel picked up on them now. And those guards were in the room at the end of this corridor, the heavy door.

Nathaniel gathered the guards’ gold. It was dirty money but he would put it to good use. They headed out to the corridor and Nathaniel faced the heavy door. He said quietly, so low he could not be heard on the other side “No more softly-softly.” Saying a few words of magic he touched the door with the flat of his palm. It was as if the door was struck by some great impact. It was ripped off its hinges, wood splintering in puffs of sawdust. The door was flung into the room and Nathaniel surged forward. Two men collected themselves from the ground to attack. As the dust cleared, Nathaniel realised who they were. Not men or at least not humans. Elves, dark elves. The guards were dark elves. One lunged, but the mage sidestepped and slashed for the gut. As the first guard fell, Jessa sliced the throat of the second. He spun, spraying blood up the wall like a child’s scrawl. Brief seconds. That was all it had taken. The sounds had been loud though. Shouts followed, footsteps raced closer. There was another door ahead of this guard room. It opened and two more dark elves ran in, stopping short. Nathaniel raised his sword and made a gesture with his free hand as if to say come on. The guards attacked, Nathaniel and Jessa parrying a couple of strikes before dispatching the guards in short order. They slumped to the ground and the mages dragged the bodies out of the way of the door. A quick glance told Nathaniel Drakkon what he wanted to know. Beyond lay the cells; this was where the kidnapped people were. A cough distracted him. Looking back he saw the first guard coughing and spluttering for breath. Nathaniel stood over the dying elf, a grim figure clad in black, hooded and dark. Nathaniel said “Tell me who is in those cells and I may ease your passing.”

The guard looked up, his eyes glassy and he said sleepily “the people we were ordered to take… and the ‘mistress’, little whore.”

Nathaniel asked “Who is your master?”

The guard laughed, coughing in pain “I won’t tell you that mage. Now help me.”

Nathaniel looked at the guard with contempt, a hard steely expression. He kicked the elf in the chest, hard. “Help yourself.” Nathaniel turned and left the guard to his slow, lingering death from blood loss. Moving through the door he wondered which cell contained the mistress. What had warranted her incarceration? Did she find out what was going on here? Was she the first to be strapped to that marble table?

Chapter Thirteen - Broken

Jessa had found a key at the waist of one of the guards which had not originally been in the guard room. As she left and walked into the corridor of cells, she handed it to Nathaniel. The corridor was shaped like a T, with several cells. Nathaniel had checked there were fourteen in total. With eight kidnappings and the mysterious mistress, nine were occupied. But the doors had no bars or slots to see inside. With the guards finished Nathaniel sheathed his sword, taking his staff and leaning it against the wall on this side of the door to the guard room. The others did similar, realising that they would need both hands to help the prisoners. Nathaniel thought about what condition they could be in, he was unsure how he could ask them to walk from this place to Aunel. But teleportation was not something any of them were confident about on a large scale, especially below ground.

He moved to the first cell, trying to focus on dealing with one thing at a time. Putting the metal key in the lock he turned it with a clack. He opened the cell door slowly. Stepping inside he saw the huddled form of a woman, chained, and sobbing softly. Quietly Nathaniel said “Do not be afraid, we have come to set you free. You will be safe now.” The woman looked up and he caught a glimpse of her face. Her skin was bruised, cuts on her arms and legs which had healed, but left scars. She had been beaten and abused. But Nathaniel saw something else. He knelt down and gently pushed aside a mop of matted and bloodied hair and said with horror etched on his face “Raven?” There was a spark of recognition in her eyes.

Jessa asked “You know her Nathaniel?”

As the chained woman clutched him, laying her head against his chest Nathaniel looked over his shoulder and said “She’s from Crint, I’d recognise her anywhere. This is Raven Serasai, one of the Crint nobility. My brother Arthan used to court her. I think she is the mistress, although I don’t understand why.” As he said the word mistress, the woman began to cry openly.

Nathaniel looked at the chains, looking for a way to unlock them. They rattled and clinked in the holding rings attached to the wall of the cell. Marcus asked Jessa “Were there any other keys?”

She replied worriedly “No, none of them had anything else. I don’t understand it, how can we get her free without hurting her further?”

Nathaniel said “Let me see the key a minute.” He held out his hand and felt the weight of the metal key drop into his palm. He tried the key but it did not fit. It was then that he noticed the other end of the key. It was oddly shaped, but familiar. He tried it, hearing a click as the shackle at one of Raven’s wrists fell open. Nathaniel quickly unlocked the other one and helped her slowly and carefully to her feet.

Jessa said “Do we take everyone in one big group? It could be risky.”

Nathaniel nodded, putting an arm protectively around Raven to guide her out of the cell. He said “It is risky, but once we’re clear of the house we should be ok. We’ll need them to help each other anyway.”

Marcus agreed “Yes, in one group we can keep everyone moving, keep them together and protect them.”

Nathaniel said “Jessa, take the key and unlock the other cells. Marcus and I will guard the door so we’re ready to move. Let them know we are here to rescue them.”

Jessa took the key and rushed off, running around one of the corners to work back to their position. The time it took to open a cell, convince the prisoner of their intentions, free them, and bring them to the growing group, was long and nerve-wracking. After almost thirty minutes they were all there. The teenage boy Jimmy Brogan was a little shaken up but otherwise unharmed. Helena Farris the bookshop owner had some bruises but was likewise ok. Alarron Dreivas the elf was not so lucky. Upon his face he bore the brands from the pokers, the guards had used them to blind him. Nathaniel asked “Why did they do this to you Alarron?”

The elf looked in the mage’s direction and said “The guards claimed that their master did not want me to see him when he visited.”

Nathaniel asked “Did he visit you?”

The elf shook his head sadly, his long blond hair flicking back and forth. “No, the guards seemed to think it would be some time before he returned. That was what I overheard, but alas I do not know who was behind this.”

Nathaniel replied “But it is likely that your sight was taken because you would recognise him. Tell me, have you spent much time in Ataya?”

Alarron nodded once, with a regal bearing. They had tried to break him, but they had failed. He spoke quietly “Yes, I lived there for almost ten years before moving here… for a quieter life. Rather ironic don’t you think?”

Nathaniel responded “Fate has a cruel sense of humour my friend. But take heart all of you. I promise you we will find the one responsible, your wrongs will be avenged. Justice will be served!”

He looked at the others, hoping his words carried weight. Sarah Leranii avoided his eyes. The teenage girl had been the last to be tortured. She had been dragged screaming to the marble table, and then she truly began to scream as her captive cut into her flesh. She would not say anything; the poor girl was in shock. Bill Talday the drunk was sober now and looking much worse for wear after his ordeal. Unlike some of the others, Bill had fought back. That had made his beatings worse, one of his eyes was shut from the bruising and swelling and his left arm had been broken. Annabella Rivers had been cut, left under the drip of the water torture and then left on the floor of her cell. She was a broken shell of a person, the water torture was debilitating and demoralising. Toral Krae, the nine year old boy had held up remarkably. Six days of hell and Toral was defiant, although he was also anxious and twitchy, eyes large and darting at every sound. There was anger in his eyes, Nathaniel could see it. Of all the people kidnapped Byron Galvar was the worse bar Raven. All of the fingers on his right hand were broken, and at least two of his ribs were cracked. He walked with a limp, his body covered in cuts and bruises. Worse than this he had been burned in places. He was incoherent, but from his descriptions of flames leaping from the demon’s hands and forked lizard tongues of lightning Nathaniel was sure the one responsible for all of this was a magic-user of some kind. What was strange was that Nathaniel could not sense the taint of necromancy and neither could Jessa Aeris or Marcus Krandor. They all knew its foul stench, from places like Durender so many years ago and dozens of other encounters with the undead and their vile masters. But it had the hallmarks of a necromancers work. The possessed servants, torture and experiments and potions. It did not add up.

Nathaniel kept Raven Serasai close; she refused to let him go anyway. He called his staff to his hand and addressed the group “I know you have all been through terrible hardships, but I need you to help me for just a while longer. We are going to lead you out of here and back to Aunel. But I need you to stick together, help Alarron and some of the others to reach the exit. Jessa and Marcus will be at the back of the group to aid you. Take your time and stay calm. Let’s get moving.” He turned quietly and began to walk Raven away, carrying the exhausted Toral Krae in his other arm.

It was slow going, and Nathaniel wished he could have spared the people the view of the dungeon as they walked through it. He repeatedly looked back to check on their progress, making sure they were all moving. Despite his pain Bill Talday was helping the women as Jimmy guided the elven man Alarron. They were helping each other. The bonds of community were very evident here, even more so than in the town itself. Nathaniel was proud to see it, and was confident that Aunel would overcome this tragedy.

The group kept moving as they entered the ante-chamber and began to ascend the stairs slowly, Nathaniel struggling to keep hold of the now sleeping Toral and the almost catatonic Raven. They slowed to a crawl, one step at a time, one foot after the other. Nathaniel had always imagined rescues to be these quick things, a flurry of movement, a blur of moments. The truth was far less romantic and heroic. It was a trudging, tramping, stumbling escape. It was like a drunken walk home, with all of the risks of trouble, and none of the warm, numbing courage brought on by large quantities of ale. His senses were sharp, not dulled by drink. He could feel everything right there; he was not distanced or separated from feeling by spirits in his belly. This was pain and fear and worry and shockingly real.

As they reached the top of the stairs, Nathaniel walked Raven to one side and passed the sleeping boy to Marcus. He put a finger to his lips to signal everyone to be quiet. Nathaniel gently propped his staff against the wall and slowly let go of Raven, he prayed she would remain calm and quiet. Thankfully she did, it seemed she was beginning to realise what was going on. As quietly as he could, Nathaniel drew his arming sword and walked out of the store room into the lobby area. The unconscious body of the servant was still there, the decapitated form of the butler beside the upturned table. The mage looked around, but saw no other servants. Taking a couple of steps back he turned and motioned for the others to follow quickly. They did so, Jessa ushering them onward from the back. Nathaniel jogged lightly over to the door, opening it up fully and moving outside, his sword at the ready to ward off any foe. His heart was racing, his pulse quick. The rush of adrenaline was keeping him going.

As the group followed him outside Nathaniel turned to face them, lowering his sword to say “Ok, this is it. You lead everyone back to Aunel from here, back to your families and friends. They will look after you all.”

Jessa quickly said “What do you mean you? You cannot tell me you are staying here.”

Nathaniel lowered his head sadly “Jessa, take Marcus and get the others to safety. I have to remain here. Someone must discover who was behind this and the only chance of that is finding a clue inside that house. Also, I have to stay here to look after Raven; there is too much risk of her being a victim to reprisal from the townsfolk. More than that, I need to at least attempt to save the servants here; I do not believe they were all involved in this.”

Marcus scowled “This is madness Nathaniel! If we leave you alone here you’ll be killed, you know what it took to stop one of those servants when they became possessed.”

Nathaniel said coldly “Madness is to leave this place an unguarded threat to Weissland. It is too dangerous and I will not have it corrupt any more innocent people. Now, Jessa, Marcus, I need to speak with you in private.” He motioned off the path to the grass of the grounds. He walked slowly out of earshot of the huddled group of people. Marcus and Jessa followed. Nathaniel quietly said “Once you have made sure the people are safe, I want you both to pack up and gather some supplies. We cannot handle this alone, we need help. Ride as quick as you can to Ataya, bring help.”

Jessa nodded with a sigh, there was no use arguing with Nathaniel Drakkon. She spoke calmly “Ok, it will take us three days though. And another three days to come back. Why not use a spell sphere though?”

Nathaniel replied “Because I need time to find out who is behind this. Three days is not enough to properly search this place. There is a magic-user at work here. That is why I do not want to use a spell sphere unless I absolutely have to. We do not know who we can trust, because it could be one of our number, one of the mages of Weissland could be behind this. We could not sense the taint of necromancy here, and that worries me, because we should be able to. Those people were possessed, but there was only the sense of spirits. No spirit did this; it was someone of flesh and blood.”

Marcus nodded “Fine. We’ll use another Inn on the way back. That should give you six and a half days. Will that be enough?”

Nathaniel smiled “Yes Marcus that will be great. Now go, both of you get the others to safety.

He shook Marcus’ hand vigorously and then gently kissed Jessa on the cheek before walking back towards the house at a quick pace. Nathaniel knew that there was a strong possibility that he would not survive to see them again. There were no words to that effect; he did not have the time for those sorts of goodbyes. Not now at any rate. Taking Raven by the hand he silently led her back into the house, and closed the door behind him.

Jessa and Marcus roused the group, and as quickly as they could, returned to the town of Aunel. They were not troubled by anything as they moved through the dark woods, across the dry leaves and soft ground. Eventually they saw Aunel in the distance. The lights of the town were broken and fractured by the trees around them. Amongst much joy and sorrow the people were re-united with their families and friends. The mayor kept thanking Marcus and Jessa, shaking their hands repeatedly. He was very happy and a weight seemed lifted from his shoulders. Several times he asked why Nathaniel had not returned, wanting to thank him as well. He wanted to declare them all heroes in front of the townsfolk in some grand, little quaint ceremony. They simply said that Nathaniel was continuing the investigation at the mansion, to find the one behind all of it to bring them to justice. And that he should not be disturbed, at all, for any reason. A couple of hours later and both the mages were ready to ride off south again. They gave their goodbyes, cheered by the townsfolk as they left on their horses. They had left Nathaniel’s horse in the stables at the Inn, and taken some additional food and water from the Inn’s stores. As quick as they could, riding hard and fast, Jessa Aeris and Marcus Krandor raced off to Ataya. Nathaniel was counting on them to bring help.

Shining the Light is continued in part 2 Read part 2 here

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