The early morning sun sparkled off the sweat pouring down Ne’on’s forehead, red from the effort. Symbols flashed through his mind, mimicked by interweaving patterns of flying fingers. The final incantation, and the command:
“Burn!” Ne’on concentrated on his target and a branch burst into flames. He smiled as he imagined skin of his brother’s limbs blistering and burning like the twig. He was pleased with himself.
Just then, a pale ghost of a human being “floated” through the wall next to him. It was Qord, astrally projecting himself to summon Ne’on. ‘It is time,’ Ne’on thought.
“It is time,” Qord said. Turning back toward his room, Qord “flew” immediately back to his body, walls and tables proving no obstacle for him. Ne’on took a quick drink of water from a glass on the table and poured the rest on the smoldering branch. Wiping his brow, he answered his master’s summons.
“Ne’on Winston, son of Kald, Lord Gateway,” called Qord in the ritual of the test. “You are charged with a claim to the title of Bark – do you deny this claim?” Qord was a little uneasy. Ne’on had shown much improvement and discipline since his return from Gateway, and he was proud of Ne’on. However, if he failed now, he would be Drained. If Ne’on believed he needed more time for study, he could always answer “Yes”.
“No,” Ne’on replied, tensing for the test.
“Mage,” smiled Qord, “prove your mettle.”
With that, the test began. Potions were concocted and illusions shimmered. Energy flew in all forms as every color of the spectrum flared. Spell upon spell was uttered; elixers were created and destroyed. For hours, the chambers of Qord, Leaf of the Nar-Enthruen, glowed, darkened, flared, and faded. And with the setting of the sun, the final spell was uttered. Ne’on collapsed in a pool of sweat.
“You made one mistake, my son,” noted Qord, shuffling through his robes. “Well, two, actually,” he continued, producing two vials. He quaffed one of the elixers and extended the second to Ne’on, “First of all, you have to work a little more on definition of the images in your illusions. Second, you didn’t save a strength potion for your recovery.” Qord smiled. “Lucky for you, I always carry a spare!”
Ne’on feebly reached for the flask, fumbled with the seal for a moment, and quickly inhaled it. Breathing in more of it than he swallowed, he choked as he felt the strength returning to his bones. “Thank you, Qord,” he finally managed to say. A bit anxiously, “Well? How’d I do?”
“If you had failed, Ne’on, you would already be stripped of your power. As it happens,” Qord’s grin grew broader, “I am proud to bestow upon you the title of Bark!
“In celebration of this indubitable honor, I propose a vacation, of sorts. A trip! As you know, the Melrin festival begins in nine days. Magnus is renowned for its holiday extravaganza, and is only four days ride from here. I haven’t spent Melrin in Magnus in over five years. What say we go? We can laugh, drink, celebrate . . . I’ve a few old friends I would like to see . . . and I’d be proud to have you with me.”
Qord was practically bubbling over. He was obviously very happy about Ne’on’s success, and Ne’on wondered if that potion Qord had just taken didn’t have more than just a strengthening herb. He supposed magicians would have knowledge of such substances. Quite pleased with his own success, his reply was obvious. “Why not? I could use some rest. And, speaking of rest . . .” Grunting to stand up, he bid his master goodnight. Potions that granted unusual strength usually demanded a high price in sleep for their benefits.
On the morning of the twenty-fifth of Naia, Qord and Ne’on departed for Magnus. With some final instructions to Jordan, the servant, they moved their horses onto the brightly lit path of the forest. In the early morning light, the dew glistened off the leaves of the underbrush, and the shadows of the trees mixed with the moss on the ground.
Around midday, they came across a terrible sight! Lying on the path in front of them was a man, half-conscious, and covered in blood. He was sprawled out on his back with his head against a tree. “Help me…” he gasped weakly, “help…me…”
Qord leapt from the saddle with a speed be-lying his age and rushed to the man’s side. “Ne’on, bring the potions, quickly!” Easing the man’s head down to the ground, he gently probed the man’s body for the wound, or wounds, robbing the man of his life.
Just as Ne’on arrived with the potions, the blood soaked man raised his arm and pointed behind them. “There…” There was the sound of people crashing through the brush and a dull thUNK! as an arrow struck the man in his chest! He twitched once, and stopped. Ne’on stood still, afraid to move.
“Turn around slowly, both of you. And step away from that man. Very good,” he added, as Ne’on and Qord obeyed. “What have they got, Red?”
“Very nice purses, Mackie!” The man they had stopped to help – the one with an arrow in his chest! – stood up and walked toward “Mackie”, presumably the leader of the rogues. “Must be on their way to Magnus for Melrin, by the look of them. Well, now, they just ensured us a very nice holiday!” The band of men, seven of them all told, laughed heartily as Red withdrew the arrow from a wooden board hidden under his leather jerkin. “Next time, Mackie, use a little less force on the bow, eh? The arrow tip nipped me a bit.”
Ne’on’s mind was racing. Qord’s life and his were worthless to the thieves, and they knew it. If anything ws to be done, it would have to be now; but, he didn’t know what to do! His stomach knotted and his limbs grew unsteady. His pulse beat loudly in his ears, and he began to panic.
“Hold, Ne’on.” Once again, the voice spoke to him. “These paltry ruffians cannot harm you. With a single thought, their crude weapons cannot touch you. And with a single motion, your enemies will flee before you.”
“Who are you?” Ne’on called out, no longer aware of his surroundings.
The voice was not the one who answered, though. “Just simple travellers on our way to Magnus!” Red’s answer brought out more jeers and laughter from the thieves. “Yeah! Collecting charity from the good people in these parts for our favourite cause: us! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!” The band was quite pleased with itself and the fun it was having, but Ne’on was oblivious to them all.
‘Who are you?’ he thought, this time.
“A part of you that wishes to survive. Now,” it continued, “protect yourself.”
Ne’on closed his eyes. Mystical symbols danced across his mind as the low hum of his voice summoned the magic within him.
“Hey! What’s he doin’?” Red called attention to Ne’on and the whole party sobered. “You idiots!” he cried. “He’s a freakin’ wizard! He’ll kill us all! Shoot him!” In less than two seconds, six arrows were nocked and loosed. Too late. Ne’on’s spell was finished and the arrows deflected off him.
“Now, make them run.”
More symbols appeared as he traced runes in the air. His incantation finished the spell. Suddenly, a wall of fire burst forth between the rogues and the mages! Smoke rose in the air, and twigs crackled as they burn.
“Gods! He’s gonna burn us ta death! Let’s get out a here!” The men dropped money, weapons, and packs in their desperate scramble to flee the burning woods. “There,” spoke the voice, and a lightening bolt struck out of the clear blue sky.
“And there.” More than one of the thieves would be cleaning their britches this day as the last bolt struck Mackie and he fell to the ground. It would be a long time before they returned to this area.
The wall of fire dispersed as quickly as it appeared. The electrically charred ground of the forest floor vanished, leaving the soil marred only by the panicked scamperings of frightened men. Mackie lay on the ground, unconscious.
“Well done,” praised Qord as he went to collect their belongings. “I almost believed you cast those spells for real! If it weren’t for this scoundrel’s breathing I might not have been able to tell the difference. You amaze me more and more, Ne’on. You’ll be a great mage, one day – you’re already a respectable illusionist!”
“Why is Mackie unconscious?”, he thought aloud. He was glad he didn’t finish the thought verbally for he had meant to kill the rogue.
“Well, you couldn’t expect him to stay conscious, could you? After all, the mind believes the body has been struck by lightening. It shuts itself down in order to keep the body from experiencing too much pain.
“Now, before he wakes up, let us be moving along.” Qord repacked the rest of their belongings. “Oh, yes. I almost forgot.” He removed a silver dagger from within his robes. “Here, I found it near Mackie.”
Ne’on took the knife, admiring it’s beauty. “It’s a fine blade. Very well crafted. Thank you, Qord.”
“Oh, no! Don’t thank me. After all, you were the one who chased off those ruffians. No, no; you deserve it.”
And with that, they set forth once again for Magnus.
The warm summer evening settled heavily on Ne’on’s shoulders as he watched Qord exit yet another of Magnus’ inns. By the look on his face, Ne’on knew the answer to his question before it was asked. “If we keep this up we’ll be spending Melrin in a stable!”
“Not very likely.” Qord was tired. Four and a half days of travel took their toll on the seventy year old Leaf. “All the merchants in town brought extra horses to carry their wares. There’s less room in the stables than in the inns.” He laid a reassuring hand on his horse, “But don’t worry, Gal, I know a place where all of us can stay.” His gaze returned to Ne’on, “A gentleman whom I aided a few years back. A mystical being from another dimension fell in lust with him, poor chap. She was an atrocious sight. Didn’t take rejection well, either, I’m afraid.”
There were fewer street lamps on this side of Magnus, but the light from the shops, houses, and taverns kept the street well lit. Up ahead, Ne’on noticed, was an inn with the standard of two unicorns in battle. The sign read: “The Fighting Unicorns”, and Qord assured Ne’on they would be able to stay here.
Before they could reach the inn, there was a loud crash, the sound of breaking glass, and a heavy thud! as the door swung open. Silhouetted against the bright light from within was a large man swinging another through the air, releasing him at the hight of the swing. The smaller man flew through the air, landing in a wagon on the other side of the street. The larger man’s voice bellowed over the noise from within, “Next time you touch one of my girls like that, it’ll be more than a bottle I break over your head! Now, get out of here before I lose my temper – and you lose your neck!”
“I hope you don’t treat all your customers like that, Sir Hawk,” Qord spurred up to the light of the inn, removing his cowl as he spoke. “I do not think I could survive such a toss, at my age.”
“I treat ‘em the way they deserve, old ma- Well! By my sword and shield!” Sir Hawk’s visage turned from one of annoyance to one of great joy. “Qord, you old son of a she-wolf, how are you? And what are you doing in such a common part of the city?”
Qord dismounted and grasped his friend’s arm firmly. “I’m here for Melrin, of course! And, other than lack of a place to stay, I’m fine. Very well, in fact.”
Sir Hawk smiled. He had guessed the reason Qord had ventured so far from the nicer districts of Magnus. Thankfully, he could accommodate him. “Say no more, my friend! I have just the room for you and your companion. Come in! I’ll have the boy take care of your steeds.”
A servant came at Sir Hawk’s behest and took their mounts to the stables. Sir Hawk ordered a meal for his guests and cleared a table in the well-crowded tavern. The room was loud with song and revelry, and Sir Hawk almost had to yell to be heard above the din. “So tell me, Lord Winston: why is it you do not spend Melrin in the Royal District? I thought it was a matter of etiquette to stay with your family while you are visiting Magnus.”
“A matter of honor, sir,” Ne’on replied. “My father and my uncle were never on good terms. Rather than inconvenience my uncle, and embarrass my father, I declined to stay there.” It wasn’t unknown among the nobles of Magnus that Lord Keeper Winston of Gateway Keep and his brother, Lord Winston, a minor land holder, associated with each other as little as possible. Ne’on sipped his wine.
Hawk looked confused. “No, not your uncle. I meant your brother, Lord Goren.”
Ne’on choked on his wine, spitting a little, and drooling some onto his napkin. “My apologies, sir! But Goren is here? In Magnus?!” Ne’on instantly became nervous and defensive. What’s he doing here? Does he know I’m here? Does he know WHY I’m here? What does he want? He almost betrayed his emotions to the others; but, once again, the voice, like rolling thunder, spoke to him: “Do not fear, Ne’on. Your brother could not possibly be aware of your presence here. You need not worry.”
Then Hawk spoke. “No need to apologize, my lord. Had I known how you would react, I would not have asked. It is I who should apologize. Let us have some more wine.” Sir Hawk called one of his serving girls and ordered more wine.
“I thank you, Sir Hawk, but I must be getting to bed.” Ne’on stood up. “I have never been in Magnus during Melrin before, although my father often told me of it, and I wish to make an early start tomorrow morn.” Ne’on made his leave of the mage and the innkeeper, and found a servant to lead him to his room.
‘I’ll have to go to the Fifth Quarter,’ thought Ne’on, sipping his mead. It was the second day of Melrin and most of the populace was at the festival, leaving the Fighting Unicorns all but bare of customers. Ne’on had not been having a good time in Magnus. He had spent all of the previous day trying to enjoy the festival, but he was troubled with the knowledge of his brother’s presence in Magnus. It was an added worry which he didn’t need. Last night, however, Ne’on had found his solution: whoever he found to replace Luke as his Captain would have a test – find his brother and make him leave town. Finding him wouldn’t be the hard part, but making him leave town would be; Goren isn’t one to take threats idly, and he is fairly proficient with a sword.
Just then, Ne’on noticed an argument growing louder in the room. It was coming from behind one of the curtained booths to Ne’on’s right. The curtain drew apart, and a large hulk of a man walked through. A smaller man, with a black cloak about his shoulders, remained seated.
“You still owe me fifty gold coins,” stated the smaller man as he rose from his seat, “and I’ll get it from you whether you give it . .
. or I take it.”
The larger man stopped. He smiled an amused smile and turned around. “Well, I don’t think you’ll be takin’ too much from me, Bart.” The large man had an almost equally large sword sheathed across his back. He drew it. “So I think I’ll give it to you.” A faint smile could be seen on Bart’s face as the lummox swung his sword through the air. Like lightning, Bart drew his own sword with his left hand, to parry the attack, while a dagger flew out of his right, solidly lodging itself in the man’s chest. The giant fell loudly to the floor.
Bart sheathed his sword and walked over to the corpse. Wiping his dagger on the dead man’s clothes, he sheathed it and removed a purse from within the man’s pockets. He tossed a gold coin to the man at the bar. “It was self-defense. You don’t remember me.”
Bart looked around once, stared at Ne’on for a moment, and left. Ne’on hastily finished his drink and rose to make his exit. ‘Apparently’, he smiled, ‘I won’t need to go to the Fifth Quarter after all!’
The sound of Goren’s footsteps echoed off the walls and buildings of the street around him. The light of the street lamps were blurry and bright, so he raised his hand to block it out. Unfortunately, this was the hand which held his wine bottle, and its meeting with his head caused him to stumble about the sidewalk, narrowly side stepping the sludge-filled drainage gutters between the street and the walkway. He was drunk. He was not happy. And what he saw next made him think he was dead.
In the street ahead of him was a man. The man wore a long black cloak about his shoulders, disguising much of his body, but his face was unhidden. His face was long and thin and well cleaned, his eyes were a piercing blue-grey, and his hair . . . His hair was what most struck Goren for it was long, as if it hadn’t been cut in years. It was dirty blond in color, and thin, and it fell lightly about the man’s shoulders. In the man’s left hand was a long, sharp sword, and he was pointing it at Goren. Then the man spoke, and his voice was deep and deadly.
“Certain people don’t want you in Magnus, Lord Winston.” His thin lips barely parted when he spoke, and a slight smile broke out on his face. “I’ve been instructed to tell you to leave. By tomorrow noon, on the third of Melrin, you should be out of Magnus. This is your warning.” With deadly grace, the man jumped forward and lunged at Goren. Goren was too drunk to react, and his only thought was ‘I’m dead’ as the sword drove toward his skull. However, the blade only just cut him above the eyes, causing a lot of bleeding but doing no serious harm. Goren could not see with all the blood pouring down his face, and he tensed as he anticipated the killing blow.
It never came. “This is to remember me by,” the man said, and Goren heard soft footsteps striding away. Blackness settled on his skull.
Darkness faded in and out as Goren dreamed. He dreamed of his brother, Ne’on, and the man who attacked him. Ne’on gave the man a purse of coins and a letter, and told the man to go to Gateway. The man left, darkness faded in and out, and Goren awoke, the dream fading in his memory.
“He’ll be alright, Lord Winston.” The robed healer was hovering over Goren and speaking to someone elsewhere in the room. “More than likely, it was the wine which made him unconscious, not the wound – that was just bleeding a lot – it is nothing serious.” Goren saw the healer’s head and shoulders pull out of his tunnel-visioned line of sight. “The bleeding has stopped and the tissue has begun to heal. I can heal it completely, if you wish.”
“No, no; let it scar.” The second voice was deeper and older than the healer’s. And familiar. “It will teach him not to walk unguarded and inebriated through the streets of Magnus. Besides, it shouldn’t take more than a week to heal, and there are others who more desperately require your services.” Now Goren recognized the other voice: it belonged to Lord Cameron Winston, his uncle.
“In that case,” spoke the healer, as Goren’s vision expanded, “I shall take my leave.” The healer bowed, “Good morning, my Lords,” and left.
After a short while, Goren spoke. “Whe- AHEM! Where am I?” His voice was gravely from little sleep and much alcohol, and his mouth was filled with paste. When he cleared his throat he became aware of a pressure in his skull, and when he moved his head the room seemed to have to catch up with him before he could focus. “Ugh! And what have . . . I done to myself?”
Cameron Winston laughed loudly at his nephew’s state, and in so doing caused even greater suffering to Goren. This effected even greater laughter from Lord Winston, and Goren decided he hated his uncle. “I apologize, young Goren,” Lord Winston began, “but if you saw yourself, you would laugh, too.” Lord Winston calmed himself and waited for Goren to reply.
“Oh . . . I don’t know,” spoke Goren, softly, “I might find pity on myself . . . and kill me . . .” At any other time, Lord Winston might have found this humorous; now, however, he was serious.
“It seems someone already tried that for you, my nephew.” Goren looked up and saw only concern in his uncle’s eyes.
“No . . . this was just a warning . . . Whoever did this could have killed me . . . Gods! I was sure he would! . . . but he just did this, and told me to leave Magnus.” Lord Winston’s confusion now added to Goren’s. “And you still haven’t told me where I am.”
“Oh! My sincerest apologies, young lord. I had forgotten you and your brother have never stayed in my home.” Lord Winston extended his hand. “If you feel well enough, allow me to give you a tour of House Winston.” Goren took his uncle’s hand and allowed himself to be helped to his feet.
In the next hour and a half, Goren was given the grand tour of House Winston. From the master bedroom to the wine cellar, Lord Winston instructed Goren on the history of the house and their family. Goren was pleased with being able to hear the history, for his father never discussed it. It was a large house, bigger than Winston Manor in Gateway Keep, yet it was one of the smallest in the Royal District of Magnus. Goren’s ancestor’s, it was explained to him, were not rich. However, during the Great Houses War in 97 BY, the Winston family sided with House Tallihran, King Haralan’s ancestors, and became Lords as a result of their fealty.
Lord Winston seemed eager to answer any questions Goren asked about the family history; however, when he asked about Cameron’s feelings toward his father, Lord Winston replied, “I leave that to your father to explain, if he will. It is between he and I, mostly, and I would not want that to interfere in future generations of the Winston family.”
Finally, Goren asked his uncle what he thought of Goren’s encounter the night before. “Well, Goren,” began Winston, “you have assured me it is not some young lady’s father trying to frighten off suitors, so it can only mean one thing.”
“And what is that?”
“Someone in Magnus believes you pose a threat to him or her. Now, you have two rational courses of action. First, you can stay in Magnus; I’ll give you five of the House guards to protect you for the rest of your stay. Second, you can leave Magnus, in which case I should still give you those guards to protect your journey.” They were in the Main Hall, again, and Goren looked at two of the guards protecting the outside entrance.
“No, that won’t be necessary. I-” Goren stopped. His vision wavered, and he felt weak for a moment. He grasped his uncle’s shoulder to steady himself, and then it was past. “No doubt I’ve still to recover from last night’s activities. But, as I was saying, I do not think the guards will be necessary.” Goren raised his hand to stop the protests he saw building in his uncle. “Do not worry, my Lord, I have no intention of staying in Magnus. While I’d love to meet that man while I am sober, I have no doubts about his having friends. I shall leave within the hour.”
“Well thought, Goren.” Lord Winston was surprised. He had heard of Goren’s usually-rash behavior from Marcus, and his reaction toward this matter was unexpected. “I thought you would have wanted to form a search party and hunt the man down. It seems I was mistaken.”
“Not really.” Goren looked down for a moment, then raised his head. “My first thought, when I awoke, was to grab my sword and find this man. But I was in no shape to go anywhere – and I don’t believe you would have let me – so I had the opportunity to think, for a while. It seems some problems cannot be solved with a sword.”
Lord Winston smiled, and Goren felt proud of that smile. It was meant for him. Already, he began to feel closer to his uncle than he did to his father. “I see you’ve heard my brother’s favorite motto,” said Winston.
“Heard!” Goren exclaimed, “I lived it for 23 years!”
The sun had just fallen. The lamps of Magnus were being lit by men and women on carts, travelling the streets with fire and oil. It was night time. A man huddled on one side of an alleyway, his form barely visible in the darkness. Another man stood a foot away from him, speaking softly.
“And how will he know who I am?” spoke the second.
“Give him this letter,” replied the first, producing a letter and a small sack of coins from within his robes. “And here is a retainer – I’ll be there in a few more months.”
“Thank you, my Lord. Everything will be ready when you arrive.”
Fire licked the edge of the stone platform, and molten lava boiled for miles about it. Phos laughed. All was proceeding well. Control was almost effortless, and his puppet was unaware of his danger.