Kald hung his head low. He had been travelling for days in the cold of Baranur in Vibril. He didn’t like the cold. He liked it even less when he discovered his trip was all for nothing.
“Is there nothing you can do? This means more to him than anything else. If he can just have a chance . . .”
“Kald, he failed.” Marek’s eyes were sympathetic. He knew how Kald felt. He had felt the same way when his son Jordan had failed. But Jordan had more than failed. Jordan was Drained. “There is nothing more I can do. He has great potential-”
“Then let him try!” Kald’s desperation worked loose of his morals. He placed both hands on the table and leaned forward. “You owe me . . .”
The Leaf lowered his gaze. He had hoped it wouldn’t come to this, but he should have known better. Kald always got his way. “Alright, but after this I can’t help you again. IF you decide to take the offer I’m about to make.”
“Anything, I’ll do it.” Kald sensed he was rushing into this, but it was too important. His son was too important.
“Hold on. Let me explain something first.” Marek was very nervous; even thinking about the Draining made him flinch. “Chances are, your son will fail again. If that happens, his potential power will be drained from him. He will never work magic again. Not even the most simple magic skills will work for him. In addition, he’ll be instructed by a higher mage, another Leaf most likely, and every thing he does will have to be perfect when he takes his Branch. Do you understand what that means?”
“I do; and so does he.” His voice trembled at the next thought. “Let him decide.” Kald rose from his seat, his tired bones creaking loudly. As he strode out the door he turned, “Thank you, Marek.”
Ne’on couldn’t believe it was happening. Sitting cross legged in the testing rooms, he contemplated the past two hours. He had arrived out of the cold Baranurian winter just in time to take the test. His father, eyes shining, was proud to have a son tested for apprenticeship. It was the first time he could ever remember his father being proud of him.
“Ne’on, of Gateway Keep,” the testing mage jarred him back to the present, “you have been accepted into the Nar-Enthruen, guild of apprentice mages. Congratulations, son of Kald.”
Ne’on was irritated by the way he was addressed. “Son of Kald,” he muttered to himself. His mind filtered back to one of the myriad times in his life he wished he wasn’t Kald’s son.
“Ne’on!” Kald’s voice bellowed through the manor. His son did not join in the hunt today, and he wanted to know why. “Ne’on! Come here, you worthless sack of goat’s meal!”
Ne’on stumbled into the main hall of his father’s home. Brushing back his long, snow-white hair and wiping the sweat off his brow with his sleeve, he stepped forward.
“I am here, father,” he gasped. Having run all the way from his study to the main hall in the short time Kald had been calling him was more exertion than he was accustomed to. Slightly light-headed with the effort, he wondered how he would withstand the daily oral barrage from his father.
“You weren’t at the hunt, today, boy. What were you doing? Studying?” Kald was seldom happy. He took no pleasure in being Keeper of Gateway – it was more politics than he considered necessary. The little pleasure he did get was from his weekly hunt; and today’s excursion proved fruitless. Coming down hard on his sons had become second nature. ‘Besides,’ he thought, ‘it’s for their own good.’
“Yes, father, I was studying.” Ne’on’s one pride was his familiarity with as many of the books in Gateway Keep as he could get his hands on. Cydrian had blessed him with more intelligence than his father, but an equally proportionate lack of strength. He had learned at an early age the power to be found in knowledge.
“Knowledge is nothing without the strength to back your ideas!” Kald saw no use for education beyond learning to read and write. ‘A sword can solve any problem’ was his motto. “Strength you’ve been doing very little to build. When I was sixteen, I had the strength of your whole body in my right arm!” As if to prove this, he thrust his massive arm out in a fist, muscles bulging. “You’ve barely the strength to wield a blade, and hardly the skill to use it! Marcus says you haven’t trained in days, let alone touch a quiver an-”
Ne’on had had enough. “Bloodshed and barbarism are not my ways!! If you wish to kill like an animal, then do so. I prefer intelligence over strength!” Ne’on looked at himself in awe. Never before had he spoken out so blatantly against his father. Kald, however, was not quite so intrigued.
“You prefer . . .” A low rumble, like an oncoming storm, was building inside Kald. “YOU prefer?! I don’t care what YOU prefer!! YOU are not Keeper, here. And you shall not be. Goren is heir apparent at Gateway. YOU are to be First Warder. That means leading the men in any and all battle situations, as well as fortifying the Keep in times of war. Why should the men listen to you when they don’t know they can trust you?! Why should they listen to you when they don’t even know you? If it weren’t for your ghost-like appearance, they wouldn’t even recognize you at all!” Kald had had a long, tiring, and fruitless day. Obviously, this ‘discussion’ with his youngest son was proving just as rewarding. He gave up, and left his son standing alone in the large hall.
‘Ghost-like,’ thought Ne’on. His albino-pale skin did leave that impression, he supposed. ‘The ghost of my mother, I’m told. If you had spent more time with her, and less time with this damn Keep, she might still be alive today. I wish she had died instead of you.’
“Ne’on, would-be mage of the Guild!” Again, the Leaf’s voice pulled him back from the past. “To be accepted into the Nar-Enthruen, you must succeed as apprentice to Qord, Leaf of the Guild. Is it your wish to do so?”
“It is so.”
“Do you know what it means to fail the Nar-Enthruen?” The Leaf’s voice was cold and foreboding. Ne’on knew he spoke about the Draining, the inevitable fate of all unfortunate apprentices.
“I do.” A hint of fear touched Ne’on’s voice.
“And do you still wish the knowledge?” A last chance to back out. Marek hoped the boy would take it. If Ne’on were to fail, Kald might become ‘unreasonable’, to say the least.
‘More than anything’, he thought. “I do!” All fear escaping in his final words, Ne’on stood firmly in his position, a great grin encompassing his face.
“Welcome to the Guild, apprentice. Let’s hope you survive the experience.” A grim frown on his face, the mage shook Ne’on’s hand and turned away.
As his family congratulated him, he noticed a troubled look on his father’s face. ‘Why are you not proud, Father? Would that you could share my joy with me.’ Ne’on began to feel sad for his father; but then, a voice spoke to him: “Do not trouble yourself with your father, Ne’on. He is jealous of the power you have which he can never attain! You should scorn him, for he begrudges you this moment.” And Ne’on felt only bitterness toward Kald.
“Ne’on,” Qord’s voice was soft with worry, “what do you think is the problem?”
Qord was, of course, referring to Ne’on’s past two months of study with the Leaf. Ne’on remembered these months well. Vibril, the month of his testing, had ended as well as its beginning. With the following Mertz, however, things had gotten much worse. He couldn’t seem to concentrate correctly; and more than once he had started a fire while mixing potions, a potentially deadly mistake in the grass huts of the camp. His latest difficulty, last night’s disaster involving a hog and a kitchen knife, turned out to be the worst yet. The hog was, supposedly, protected from the knife by Ne’on’s spell. Instead, as Ne’on threw the knife near the hog, the hog dove straight into the knife’s path, impaling itself in the head. Firil was not turning out to be a good month, starting with that catastrophe on the first. Qord thought it was a bad omen.
“I do not know, Leaf Qord.” The Guild mages of this section had a way of evaluating each other by tree parts. Ne’on was a Root, second lowest rank above apprentice. He had taken his “Grounding” – a test of the most simplistic skills – and passed easily. His Rooting, on the other hand, had not gone so well. He had burned more spell components for potions than any previous mage, and he might not pass his Bark at all! And failure there meant . . .
“Do you know what . . . Draining is, Ne’on?” Qord’s ancient visage trembled with the word. What was left of his hair shook in time with the chill running up his spine, and his eyes seemed almost to pop out.
“Yes, O Leaf…” Ne’on tiredly replied. Qord had mentioned it time and time again since he fumbled his first potion. His familiarity with the word had lessened his fear of it a great deal.
“No, young Root…” Qord’s voice was cold and hard. He would teach this boy what the Draining was like. “You have only heard what it is . . . you do not know what it is. Let me show you. Close your eyes . . .”
Ne’on closed his eyes. For a moment, he saw only blackness; then …
He was in a large room, ornately decorated, with a large crystal on a pedestal. All around him, black-clad mages were chanting in a low, solemn voice. Up ahead, Qord lead him toward the crystal.
“This is the Crystal of Strength, failed mage!” Qord’s voice rang out strong and powerful in the hall. Ne’on was afraid. “Feel the Crystal, and know what it is to be Drained!!”
The light of the hall grew dim as the Crystal began to glow a deep, dark purple. As Ne’on reached his hands toward the Crystal, a force pulled them closer. Instinctively, he tried to break away, but he couldn’t! He was trapped! Slowly, his hands grew numb, and the Crystal began to pulse with the beat of his heart.
“No..” Ne’on’s voice was hoarse and stifled. The beating of his heart grew loud, and his arms were numb to his shoulders. Louder and louder, the Crystal and his heart pulsed faster and faster. He felt his head pounding – the numbness reached his chest, driving toward his heart. Desperately, he tried to pull away, each attempt useless. The noise beat louder, his pulse beat quicker – soon, it would have him!
“NO!!” he screamed, scrambling back against the wall. He was breathing very heavily and his heart was racing. The light of Qord’s room filled his eyes as he recognized his teacher sitting across the room from him, frowning.
“Your father was wrong, you were not ready for this. Damn Marek and his eternal debts! He should have known-” Qord caught himself in mid thought and hoped the boy was too frightened from the illusion to hear him.
“What’s that?” called Ne’on, half dazed from his experience, but still quick enough to understand. “What are you saying? My father got me in here? Not my ability?”
Ne’on stared in disbelief. For the first time he could recall, his father had thought of Ne’on, and not himself. Ne’on did not hate his father, then; but, again, a voice spoke to him: “Ne’on, do not be proud of your father. Have you forgotten how he covets your talent? How he would destroy you and take your power for his own? He does not send you here for your benefit, but for his! He would consign you to this hell, rather than let you live your life in peace! But, do not be dismayed! You can overcome this obstacle and revenge yourself upon him yet! Him, and your bastard brother Goren who would rob you of your rightful fate!” And, as before, Ne’on was bitter. He hated his father, and silently swore to pass the upcoming tests, to become a powerful wizard, in order to bring about his revenge.
“Your potential is great, Ne’on.” Qord attempted to be soothing. He saw the hatred in Ne’on’s face, the likes of which he hadn’t seen in some great time. He attempted to sooth this part of Ne’on, turn it to good. “Imagine people are mountains, and magic is the wind,” began Qord, his words all but bouncing off of Ne’on. He continued anyway, not knowing what else to do. “When the wind blows, it goes around the mountains. Now imagine a few mountains can let the wind pass through them, affecting it, and shaping it, as it goes through. Most of these mountains, we mages, can affect and shape magic only to a certain extent. You, however, can do more than most of us. You can shape and affect the magic to a greater extent – if only you would concentrate on what you are doing! Concentrate, Ne’on! You’ve got the ability! I’d hate to see it Drained…”
With that, Qord stood up, brushed himself off, and retired for the evening. Ne’on was left to think alone once more. After a few minutes of bitter recollection, he left for his own room. In the morning, he would pack his horse and ride to Gateway. He promised Qord he would return, and he never went back on his word.
The gentle Firil air fluttered over Ne’on, blowing his long, unkempt hair behind him. Sitting on his horse, Koros, he removed his cape so the guardsmen would recognize him. He nodded slightly as he entered, urged Koros into the main courtyard of the keep, and headed toward his father’s home.
In the dimming sunlight of the evening, he made out the sign to his second favorite dwelling, the River Snake’s Den, where he sometimes attempted to outlast the tavern keeper’s stock of ale. Sliding out of the saddle, he realized how much he wanted a flask, or two, before he met with his father. Besides, the class of people one met in the ‘Den had more . . . “character” than those found in the Riverside Parlor. A class of people he would be needing in the future.
Entering the main room, he signalled Mika and took his usual seat in the back of the room. After Mika delivered the ale, Luke “the acquirer” slid into the chair opposite him. Luke was one of those people Ne’on was hoping to meet here tonight; in fact, he was perfect for the job. He was looking a little less than wealthy at the moment; Ne’on decided to make the offer now.
“Must have been a slow winter,” began Ne’on. He found insulting Luke’s type of person was never profitable – intimidation was the key. Intimidation, and then an offer. “By the looks of it, you barely kept the meat on your bones. Didn’t make it to Magnus, eh?”
“And what of it?” Luke didn’t particularly like the way the past winter had gone. He was a respectable thief; it wasn’t his fault he got stuck in this rat hole for the season. If he had made it to Magnus, that would be different. Plenty of opportunities in Magnus, when you knew where to look for them, and he had connections.
“What if I told you I had a permanent offer for you here? No need to go all the way to Magnus for funds…” Ne’on’s voice shook a little – he tightened his grip on his mug and took a drink. He was hesitant. He knew an offer which sounded good and was eagerly offered would cost him a great deal. And yet, he wanted Luke, not a lesser mongrel. “An offer that paid well, and gave you status here at Gateway?”
Luke looked around for a moment. ‘Status’, he thought. ‘Status and money,’ he thought greedily. When Ne’on said “paid well”, he meant gold. “Whadda I haf ta do?”
“Find me ten good swordsmen. Not common ruffians; not back-stabbing mongrels. I want men who know the blade.” Ne’on didn’t want to imagine the kind of men Luke would find if he hadn’t added that last statement. Feigning curiosity, “Can you handle a sword?”
“I can make do – killed more’n my share o’ mugs.” This was true. Before he had learned to steal quietly, he had killed more men than he had stolen from. “Whaddaya want wi’ swordsmen? And how do I fit in th’ picture? I mean, how do I benefit from it?”
“These men must be loyal to their employer. They are to be my personal guard. Your part will be to lead them. I’ll give you ten golds for each man you bring me. Their pay will be five golds a month. Yours will be ten a month. All I want you to do is enforce my will and guard me. Agreed?” Ne’on offered his hand a bit too quickly, and Luke knew he could get more.
“I don’t know…ten golds isn’t very much for a personal body guard…” Luke was never one to settle for less, when he could get more. Ten gold coins a month would be comfortable living for him; but, if he could get more…
“Ten, and not a copper more. There are a dozen others here I could have do this job for me.” Ne’on was mildly annoyed, but he knew it was his own mistakes to which Luke was responding.
“Yeah, well; maybe you could, and maybe you couldn’.” Ne’on’s point was well taken; unfortunately, Luke’s downfall had always been his greed. “‘Course, them what’ll take ten don’t know ’bout your previous business wi’ me. Fifteen seems more ‘propriate ta me . . .”
“Fifteen!” Ne’on’s eyes flared. Without realizing it, his hand glowed a hot red, blackening a small portion of the table. Instantly, subconsciously, Ne’on summoned the magic within him, fully intending to melt the maggot where he sat.
And for a third time, the voice spoke to him: “No, Ne’on – hold your anger! Use him now. Kill him once his purpose is served!”
As suddenly as he started, he stopped. This time with eyes sparkling, “I suppose my life is worth three times the amount a city guard makes. Fifteen it is, then! It’s a deal.” Extending his no-longer glowing hand, they sealed the deal.
“Deal!” grabbed Luke, anxious for money and quite pleased with himself. “When do ya need these men?” he asked.
“Four months,” he said. “If I need more time, I’ll let you know.”
Tossing a pouch of silver on the table, “Here’s a downpayment. It should last you till then.” He got up and left. As he walked out the door, he heard Luke call Mika for a tankard of ale.
Entering Winston Manor – the house of his father – he tossed his cloak to Horrace, the butler. “Send a meal and some wine up to my room,” he barked. As an after thought, “And get a fire started; it’s going to be cold tonight.
Ignoring Horrace’s humble reply, he walked through the main hall, making his way to his father’s study. He knew his presence in Gateway had been reported. He would have to make a small show of affection toward his father, at least. Entering his father’s chambers, he saw Kald at his desk, drinking his nightly flask of wine. ‘A useful tool, that flask,’ he noted with sudden inspiration.
“Hello, father.” As he crossed the room, Kald stood up to greet him.
“Ne’on, my son! What brings you to Gateway?” Slapping his son on the shoulder, “Did you miss your old father? Come, sit by the fire. You look much older since I last saw you.” Kald’s eyes shone brightly, and Ne’on thought for a moment that he might not kill him after all. Then he remembered the Draining, and quickly dispelled his forgiveness.
“I have recently discovered discipline in my life,” was his response. Sitting down in front of the fire, he poured wine for the two of them, the red light of the fire flickering off the silver goblets. “Discipline . . . and purpose.” He smiled.
“Purpose, eh?” his father teased him, “what’s her name? It’s about time you became interested in a woman!”
“It’s not that, father.” Seeing the disappointment in his father’s eyes, “but it is something I think you’ll like.” Ne’on paused for a moment, letting a wry smile curl the corners of his mouth. “I want to have a keep of my own, some day. One very much like this one.”
“Well, tell me all about it! Perhaps I can help you!” Kald smiled, finally having something in common with his son. Ne’on laughed at the irony of it all.
“Yes, father,” he said. “Perhaps you can . . .”
Ne’on strode toward his brother’s chambers. He knew exactly how he would rid himself of both his brother and his father, and he determined to make it as painful as possible. The hallway echoed as a metal ring struck Goren’s door.
When Goren opened the door, he could hardly believe his eyes. “What are you doing here?” he snapped, as he returned to his seat. Taking a sip from his flask, he calmed himself. “You are supposed to be with your magical friends, not haunting this house. What’s the matter, run out of stray cats to torture?” There was no love lost between the brothers. Goren had realized several years ago Ne’on’s heart was filled with hatred and bitterness. He was surprised nothing had come of it, yet.
“It is nice to see you, too, Goren,” mocked Ne’on. “I see your wit has improved with your age.” Ne’on had also come to a realization, several years ago. This was the fact Goren was everything their father loved, and everything Ne’on hated. Taller than the average man, Goren stood a full head over Ne’on. His shoulders were broader, and he rivalled even Kald in his skill with the bow. Goren also had the dark hair and eyes of their father. And, Goren was all that stood between himself and the keep.
“Enough with the niceties, Ne’on. You are here for a reason. What is it?” Goren also had all the intelligence and tact of their father, as well as his stubborn attitude and hot-headed reactions. Ne’on knew this could only help him.
“Why Goren!” Ne’on sarcastically feigned surprise. “What would ever possess you to think I was here for any other reason than to visit our poor, aging father?!” Ne’on took a seat next to his brother. “I wanted to sit and talk with him about my plans for the future. In fact, I just got back from telling him how I planned to have a keep of my own, some day.” Ne’on paused for a moment, “just like this one!”
“Wrong, Ne’on!” Goren flared with his realization. “You’ll have to kill both father and me! Even you couldn’t get away with that!”
There was a moment of silence. Ne’on’s visage became grim. “I don’t think you understand,” he spoke with a voice of ice. “I don’t want you to die. I want you to live! Live to see me Keeper of Gateway, while you wallow away the days in misery knowing you could have prevented it.” He drew a knife from within his robes. “Here, Goren,” he offered, “take my blade. Kill me, and save our father.”
Goren reached for the knife, stopped, started again, and stopped again. Finally, the battle ended. “No, Ne’on.” He turned away, not able to determine if he had made the right choice. “I couldn’t do that, and you know it.”
With Goren’s back to him, Ne’on took the flask from Goren’s table. “Yes, brother,” he sneered, hiding the flask in his robes, “I know it.”
“Then know this, Ne’on,” warned Goren, softly, “I shall stop you from taking Gateway if I have to burn it down around you.”
Ne’on chuckled as he walked out of the room. “We shall see, brother. We shall see!”
His laugh stayed in his brother’s mind for a long time. Ne’on was about to cross a line Goren had seen drawn a long time ago. He would stop Ne’on, when the time came.
Ne’on left early the next morning, riding toward the Nar-Enthruen.