It was snowing outside. The white flakes fell lazily in the night breeze, dusting the rocky mountainside with an ivory blanket. Little crystals of ice, each as perfect as the next, flurried and spun and danced through the cold air. A tall spire rose from an outcrop of quiet buildings amongst the snowy crags, where one lonely yellow window glowed brightly through the blizzard. Framed by the light, a very old man stood at the windowsill with his arms crossed. He sighed with tiredness and fought back yet another yawn. He shivered and rubbed his arms as if it would help, but still he did not move away from the window. He found the cold weather outside calming after a long day of hard study. And it had been a hard day of study indeed.
Behind him, gathered around a desk and poring over a small square book, sat a group of four equally aged men. The room was cavernous and packed floor to ceiling with bursting bookshelves, each one filled with an impossible amount of paper and knowledge. Loose pages were everywhere and scrolls lay under dust and old maps, littering the floors and shelves like dried autumn leaves. One single candle, almost at the end of its wick, clung to life on the corner of the wooden desk, throwing distorted shadows against the walls.
‘I don’t even think it’s Siren,’ said the man at the window. He absently twisted a bit of his long white hair around a wrinkled finger and sipped at warm wine. The papery wattle of skin around his neck made his chin disappear.
‘Of course it is, Innel, just look at the scales of the front cover!’ replied one of the others. He waved his hand in a somewhat dismissive gesture. He coughed hoarsely, as if the cough had caught him by surprise, and dabbed a careful handkerchief to his lips. Spectacles made from slices of rare crystal balanced precariously on his nose and a long beard, streaked with grey, covered his chin and neck. The group of scholars mused for a few moments. ‘Where was it found again?’ asked another, peering at his colleagues from under wiry grey eyebrows.
The bespectacled man spoke up again. ‘No one knows exactly, some village in southern Nelska,’ he said, and there was a silence.
‘Fifteen years later and only now do we get to study this manuscript. Who knows the incalculable value of the magick held inside this book,’ said Innel, tugging his long blue robe about him. It was now too cold. He shivered as he pulled the stained glass windows shut with a bang. He turned and sighed, leaning back against the stone sill and looking to the man with the tiny glasses. ‘So the question remains, how do we get the confounded thing open? Have we had a reply from Krauslung yet, Gernn?’
‘No, no not as yet. They’re always late…’ he trailed off, distracted. He leant forward to take a closer look at the book lying on the desk. It was small for a start, no bigger than a man’s hand. Several black dragon scales adorned the cover, pressed flat and trimmed to fit its square shape. Probably from an infant wyrm, thought Gernn, as he let his fingers trace the ridges and dips of the cover. A thick gold lock, simple but firm, held the small book shut, with no keyhole or opening mechanism anywhere to be seen. The ancient pages poking out from the edges were torn and dirty. The man tried once again to split a few pages apart with a long yellow fingernail, but the book was locked fast, and not even the tip of a knife blade could squeeze between them. After a rather dramatic sigh that was probably much louder than necessary he entwined his fingers and leant back in his chair, and the ornate wood creaked as he did so.
‘Well nothing’s changed since this afternoon. The bloody thing’s still locked tighter than a vampyre’s coffin. And as none of us here possess the skill to unlock it, or even know what spell could force it open, I suggest we just wait for…’ But Gernn was interrupted by the sounds of heavy boots on stone.
A loud voice made them all turn. ‘Having trouble, wise men of Arfell?’ A tall hooded man suddenly emerged from the doorway, hands clasped behind his back and a warm smile on his face. The tall newcomer walked from the door to the desk in a few long strides and stomped the last bits of snow from his black leather boots. The scholars were a little startled but as he moved from the shadows and into the candlelight they quickly recognised a familiar face. The man threw back his hood. A chorus of respectful smiles followed.
Innel jumped up from the windowsill to greet the man with a warm handshake, the wattle of skin beneath his neck wobbling like a turkey’s. ‘Your Mage, what an unexpected honour! What, with the weather and all we didn’t expect you or Åddren to arrive for another two days,’ he said.
The tall mage kept his smile, while he removed his hooded green and gold robe and folded it neatly over an armchair with one fluid move. There was a long sword at his waist, in an ornate scabbard, and his expensive tunic was made of a fine emerald cloth trimmed with white and gold. ‘Don’t be ridiculous, the weather has never stopped me,’ he chuckled. ‘When we heard that you had uncovered a long lost book of secrets, I decided that no time should be wasted in coming to see it!’ The man crossed his muscular arms and looked at each of them with dark nut-brown hazel eyes. ‘Please, show me what you have found,’ he said, as Innel retreated slowly to a chair.
Gernn rose, obviously eager to impress, while the others remained silent and seated, fingers entwined in their long flowing beards. ‘It is most definitely Siren, sire, as we thought,’ at this point he threw his colleagues a quick sideways look. ‘But this book is not from the time of the war, it seems to be very different from the other texts we have recovered from the dragon-riders, perhaps older…’
‘Continue,’ said the mage.
Gernn took a quick breath before carrying on, and pointed to the gold on the black cover. ‘It does have some sort of magick lock on the cover, with no key to unlock it. We’ve come across this type of thing before but this is too powerful and too old for us. So as yet we have been unable to read it,’ Gernn shrugged and thoughtfully rubbed his beard once more, gazing wistfully at the little book. There was a moment of silence and the tall man let a satisfied smile creep over his wind-burnt face before turning to the others. ‘Perhaps I could help with that part,’ he said. His hazel eyes flicked around the circle. ‘If I can get it open, can you translate it?’
‘If it’s legible, then we can read it. We men of Arfell have come across all of the languages that have ever been heard in Emaneska. There isn’t a book we’ve seen that we couldn’t translate,’ answered a third man, with a slow and constant nodding of his head. He looked to be the oldest by many a mile, greyer than a winter’s day and waiting patiently at death’s doorstep. The others murmured their assent with a symphony of throat-clearing and more rubbing of chins and facial hair.
‘Good.’ The mage strode forward and flexed his hands. He briefly took a moment to think and then leant over the oak desk, humming and musing and making a sucking noise with his teeth. The scholars watched him think and looked between themselves with a mixture of intrigue and uncertainty.
The tall man muttered something, perhaps an incantation, as he reached towards the book with his fingers rigid and outspread. A tiny ripple of air pulsated from his hand like a wave of heat over a fire. A purple spark danced over the cover, and he whispered something, muttering again, but louder this time. ‘This book is strong,’ he mumbled from between pursed lips. He seemed to be straining to keep his fingers spread. The mage’s hand pulsed again and he took a firmer stance this time, spreading his feet and gripping the edge of the table. More sparks fizzed over the cover and then, quite abruptly, the thick lock made a little click, and smoothly rolled open.
The scholars all leant forward with open mouths and wide eyes, eager to see what the dark book held between its dusty yellow pages. The tall mage wiped a single drop of sweat from his brow and smiled, clenching his fist a few times to get rid of the numbness. ‘Read your book, gentlemen.’ He smiled like a wolf approaching a trapped rabbit.
The oldest scholar wiped something from his nose and moved to carefully lift the scaly cover. With agonising slowness he turned it and then he paused, smoothing out the first page with his hands. Peering through misty eyes at the thick writing, he nodded and scanned the script. ‘It’s elvish, dark elf, if I’m not mistaken. I… I haven’t seen a text like this for years,’ he said, somewhat shakily.
‘Elvish. That is an old language indeed,’ commented the tall mage. It may have been the flickering candlelight, but it seemed to Innel that the mage’s eyes widened ever so slightly at the news. ‘The oldest, your mage,’ he answered.
Beside them the old scholar shuddered as he read onwards. He coughed briefly and turned the next page. ‘It reads…’ he paused, tracing the script. ‘The Testament of Bringing. But that word could also mean, erm creating, or…’
Gernn adjusted his crystal spectacles and peered at the writing. ‘Summoning.’
The mage turned to him, looking down his nose at the scholar. ’Summoning?’
Gernn nodded eagerly, almost losing his glasses. ‘Yes, as I’m sure you know sire, the dark elves were powerful creatures, capable of controlling the darkest of all magicks.’
‘It’s a summoning manual?’ asked the man.
‘Yes your Mage. Their acolytes could summon huge beasts from the darkest places of the world at the cast of a single spell.’ Innel went to a bookshelf and brought back a rare slice of tapestry covered with crude pictures depicting battles with strange goblin-type animals and giant winged creatures with many horns wearing what looked to be golden crowns.
‘I remember,’ muttered the mage as he turned the tapestry to face him. The others looked up questioningly. ‘I said I remember seeing something like this before, in other books and old paintings at the citadel.’
‘Of course sire,’ Innel nodded, wondering if he had seen any such paintings in Krauslung. There was something like an itch in his mind.
‘Where are the keys?’ The mage asked quickly, tapping the page with a finger. Keys could be found in every spell book and any book without them was useless. They were the start of any incantation, the unlocking words to begin a spell.
The oldest scholar turned a few pages carefully, where more runes were scribbled. He pointed to a few random symbols hiding at the corners of one page. ‘For the spell? Erm, there, and the other, there. These are the main words, me and hear. Saying them in the other order, of course, would open the spell. I don’t dare to read aloud any further; it seems we have uncovered a very special book indeed. It must be over a thousand years old…’ his voice cracked and his words trailed off into silence. The scholar’s hand was shaking more than usual.
‘This needs careful translation, look, it seems to reference something called thy darkness swallowed, or… mouths of darkness, yes that’s it, over and over again on these pages.’ Gernn waved his hands as he gingerly flipped through the ancient book. His eyes were wide.
‘And you are sure this book is not another fake?’ The man asked, looking hungrily at the men. The wolf and the grey-haired rabbits. His arms were crossed still, but his voice was now low and dangerous, dark brown eyes roaming the pages and pictures spread over the desk.
Innel nodded. That itch was bothering him now, something he had missed, something he couldn’t begin to put his finger on. ‘It’s real, sire, an elven summoning manual, if you asked me.’
‘It’s dangerous, whatever it is,’ said Gernn.
The man smiled, flashing teeth. ‘How interesting this all is.’ He drummed his fingers on the desk absently. ‘Well, it seems you have been most useful to me this evening. I am sure Åddren will be as pleased as I am to hear about this.’
The oldest scholar rose shakily from his chair and bowed his head. ‘Thank you sire. We will continue to study this manual with diligence, there is much more knowledge to be gained from it, and without you, my lord, we would probably still have a locked book.’ He smiled, and the other scholars managed a polite laugh. The air had become stale and thick.
The tall mage laughed heartily, startling them slightly as the noise rang out in the small room. ‘Haha, and without you, old fools, I would have nothing!’ The smile was instantly gone, replaced by thin lips and a narrowed gaze. With a sudden burst of immense speed the mage drew his sword in a silver blur and furiously slammed the blade into Innel’s chest. He fell with a terrified gurgling scream. The mage swung right and brutally cut the throat of the old scholar with a single swing. Dark blood painted the books and pages scattered around the room. Sparks of electricity danced around the mage’s fingers and a huge bolt of lightning flew into the others, burning them to a crisp in a matter of seconds. An acrid smoke filled the room.
His business concluded, the mage calmly sheathed his sword and took the black book from the desk. Wiping the blood from its cover, he turned on his heel, picked up his robes from the chair, and left without another sound.
Hundreds of miles away, in the west, dawn was breaking over an empty countryside. The cold morning light shone through the skeletal trees and scattered across winter snow drifts and dead leaves. The still wilderness was undulating, with rolling hills and patches of woods springing up between boulders, frozen streams, and endless snow. Apart from the drip of melting ice and the rattle of wind in the finger-like branches, not a sound could be heard.
A broken castle rose from a tall mound, crowned by concentric rings of ruined walls and dilapidated stone ramparts. A round tower squatted in disrepair at the centre of the castle still sporting an empty flagpole. The massive stones of the walls were covered in brown moss and hanging icicles, the crenellations adorned with cuts and gashes made by the war engines of old.
Soon the pale morning was disturbed by the faint noise of a heavy-breathing newcomer. A hooded figure came from the south trudging through the deep snow towards the castle, his long brown cloak billowed behind him in the icy breeze. Hot breath escaped in smoky plumes from his mouth and the sound of his labouring was loud against the dripping silence. The man stopped and pulled his clothing around him. He took a minute to catch his breath. In the half light of the early morning his grey-green eyes could pick out a low arched door set deep into the thick outer wall.
‘Carn Breagh,’ muttered the stranger, lowering a plain red scarf from his face. Clearing his throat he checked the woods to the left and right with a wary glance, and then trudged on through the deep snow. Beneath his cloak the man wore light steel plate armour over his shoulders, chest, and thighs, which clanked together softly as he moved. A black and brown tunic lay underneath with a thick leather belt holding onto his supplies and an old sword encased in a dark red scabbard. Something gold and scarlet and metal peeked out from beneath the sleeves of his thick cloak. The man’s sturdy black boots wearily plunged into the pure white snow, making creaking noises with every step.
The stranger reached the old wall and the small stone archway and spread his hands over the thick oak door, feeling the splintered wood and the thick spikes that held the gate together. The man gave it a light push but nothing budged. It was locked tight from the inside. He shoved a shoulder against it in a futile attempt to move the ancient wood. But still nothing. He looked at the door quizzically. The planks were weathered from hundreds of years of wind and snow, yet for some reason they had not rotted away like the other wooden features of the ancient castle.
The hooded man stretched his back and neck and rolled up the sleeves of his cloak. Adorning his wrists and lower forearms were thick vambraces made of interwoven red and gold metal scales that glittered faintly in the dawn light. They clinked as he held them together. He closed his eyes briefly and then placed his palms on the door. All of a sudden a pulse rippled across the wood and there was a dull clang from the other side. The man gave it a little push and the door swung open with a creak.
He allowed himself a faint smile and pulled his cloak around him as he peered into the gloom. The man wrinkled his nose. It smelled like a thousand years of damp and there was the faint sound of dripping on stonework coming from somewhere in the darkness. Mould hid between the cracks in the walls. Without a sound the man ducked under the thick stone archway and stood in the dim corridor, listening. He made a fist. White light shivered around his fingers and suddenly the corridor was bathed in a pale moon-like glow.
Surrounded by his light the stranger began to investigate the old castle, poking around in holes and long-lost underground chambers. Cavernous halls and old rooms spread out like a warren left and right as the explorer went deeper and deeper into the castle. Everything was rotting and damp. Old curtains decayed where they had been thrown, chests and furniture had been smashed against walls and lay in dark heaps and broken postures. In old abandoned barracks benches and tables were pushed up against splintered doors. Rusty swords hid under the rubble.
For hours he searched the dank castle and found nothing except darkness and ruin. In a tiny room deep underground, the cloaked man carefully took a seat on one of the less broken chairs and rested his feet for a moment. He was beginning to get a little tired from keeping up his light spell, but he was sure there had to be something inside the old castle. Absently he picked up a small piece of rubble and toyed with it for a few moments before tossing it across the room in boredom. To his surprise the stone sailed straight through a frayed tapestry and disappeared, landing with a clang somewhere far behind it. The man clenched his fist again and a fresh wave of light penetrated the gloom. Eagerly he tore the tapestry from its rusted hangings and threw it on the dusty floor. Hidden behind it was a staircase that spiralled down into the dark shadows. Curiosity sparked in his mind he jogged down the steps, his footsteps echoing against the narrow walls.
All of a sudden the stairs came to a halt and a long hallway snaked around a corner. Sconces holding long torches poked out from recesses in the walls. The man moved to the nearest one and felt the oil-soaked wick between his finger and thumb. It was dry enough so the man clicked his fingers over the torch. Sparks flew from his fingers and sent flame curling up the wall.
Dousing his light spell he continued down the corridor lighting each torch as he went, and it was not long before he came across a huge door set deep into the stonework, held by thick hinges and a massive bolt that seemed to be fused to the metal bracing it. Eyes closed, the man ran his hand over the wood, searching for the right spell to use, but when he threw a wave of magick at it the door didn’t even move an inch. Irritated, he tried again and the air hummed as he hit the wood with another spell. Nothing happened. He rubbed his stubbled chin and thought for a moment, adjusting the red scarf around his neck. All of a sudden a deep boom rang out somewhere below his feet and made the torches shiver in their sconces. The man slowly, and gently, drew his sword from its scabbard as a few specks of dust fell from the ceiling. He squinted at the torches as something caught his eye. The flames were shifting and leaning far out from the wall as if blown by a stiff breeze. He listened and watched, ready for anything. Nothing came, and all was silent again in the castle.
Bored, the stranger turned and sheathed his sword with a loud metallic ringing noise. He climbed the stairs, turning left, then right, then left again, up more stairs, retracing his steps. Abruptly he was out in the snow once more and the bright morning sun was stinging his eyes. He slammed the small door behind him and stepped out into the icy glare.
‘Hmm,’ mused the cloaked figure. He bent to pick up a handful of snow and rubbed it between his fingers to wipe off the dust from the castle. As he moved to pick up another handful a shadow passed over him without a sound, a flitting shape momentarily darkening the snow. The man sighed and stood up straight, throwing off his cloak and drawing his sword with a flourish. Spinning his blade in his right hand he surveyed the peaceful countryside calmly. Steel glinted in the sunlight.
‘It’s not even noon yet and a man has to deal with dragons,’ muttered the stranger to himself as he let his eyes rove over the horizon.
A huge screeching roar came from the skies above him and the man darted sideways with a running leap, narrowly missing a massive shape that plummeted into the snow behind him with a huge crash and a shower of snow. The man got to his feet and disdainfully brushed the white powder from his armour. He looked up. Out of the white haze there was a snarl and a creature reared its ugly blue head, shaking its horns with a rattling shiver and spreading stunted turquoise wings. A ridge of sharp brown spikes ran from its head to the tip of its serpentine tail. The monster’s claws dragged at the snow, razor sharp and curved like a cat’s, and its eyes were like black pools of jet. The wyrm let out a deafening hornlike scream and took one step forward, hissing at the man in the snow and rattling its aquamarine scales.
It had been a while since the man had seen such a large wild dragon, and even though it was a juvenile, no more than a wild wyrm, it still towered above him. The creature stank of old meat and a musky reptilian scent. The stranger began to circle the creature, holding his sword out straight towards it.
‘Leave now, or this will end badly for you,’ said the man in a measured tone, still treading sideways through the deep snow. The dragon snarled, obviously lacking the capacity to understand him, and stamped its enormous feet menacingly like an impatient bull. It roared an ear-splitting roar and foul spit flew into the man’s face.
The stranger grimaced and wiped the grotesque phlegm from his cheek and forehead, careful to keep his eyes on the snarling dragon. ‘I will take that as a no then, shall I?’ he replied, and before the words had left his mouth the beast charged with frightening speed. But the man was more than ready. Swiftly dropping to one knee he dug his blade into the snow with a rasping thud. A solid wall of magick tore through the snow like a rippling earthquake and knocked the terrifying reptile back with a low and somewhat disappointed whine. The man jumped up and swung his sword at the surprised beast. The blade cut a long path across its scaly back and blue blood splashed the snow.
Very suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere, the beast’s whip-like tail lashed out and struck the stranger hard in the chest. He flew into a nearby snowdrift with a crunch of armour. A star or two swam before his eyes. The man winced and sat up, but before he had time to take a breath the hungry dragon ran at him again. It snarled and spat and it scratched and it dug, furiously lashing out at the snow and at the man with its razor-like claws. He wildly waved his sword in front of him in an effort to keep the claws at bay, but a stray talon scraped across his armour and found his soft pale skin underneath. With a pained expression he rolled sideways through the snow and somehow managed to escape the long claws. Red blood stained the dirty snow beneath him.
Getting swiftly to his feet, the man smacked his two vambraces together and a blast of flame shook the cold air. The fireball hit the wyrm in the chest and sent the creature reeling backwards. It roared with pain and frantically shook its rattling spikes, in an effort to fend off the stranger, but it was already too late for the hungry beast. The stranger sprinted forward, dodging another tail swipe. A light pulsed down his forearm and his blue-stained sword burst into flame. As he ran he hurled the glowing weapon with both hands and like a bolt of fiery lightning it buried itself hilt-deep in the dragon’s ribcage with a thud and a flash of scorching fire. The beast uttered a last mournful whistle and toppled over against a nearby tree with a crash and a bang and a shower of pine needles.
Breathing a little on the heavy side and wiping snow from his face, the man slowed himself to a calm walk and strode forward to wrench his blade from the ribs of the smoking reptile. He put a hand to his side and winced, feeling the wet blood seeping from the long cut. Retrieving his cold cloak, he sighed and slowly began to follow his footprints back in the direction he had come from.
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