Sample – Opening Chapters – Highmage Plight


By D.H. Aire

Flames crackled in the fireplace, which served as the room’s only source of light, Shadows were cast over furniture, desk, and the stacks of books piled high in every corner. The Highmage gazed into the fire and chanted a scrying spell. The flames gyrated higher with every word and an image formed.

He recognized the Northlands, saw Imperial troops routed, fleeing before a horde of goblins. The kingdom of Gwire, for long centuries the Empire’s ally, had to have fallen by treachery, allowing the Demonlord’s armies to wreak havoc. The Highmage sighed, seeing smoke rising from the ruins of the overrun city. Minions of the Demonlord could be seen flowing out of it, the blood of their victims drenching their weapons and mail.

Thunder pealed outside, which shook him clear of the vision, followed abruptly by the sound of pouring rain. He could hear the Demonlord’s laughter in that thunder. It had begun! The Age of Mankind upon the face of this world was drawing to a close.

Trembling, the Highmage, the Guardian of this world, knew that with the northern forces in disarray it would only be a matter of time before the Empire itself fell. Ancient prophecy held that should Gwire and its Royal House fall, the Demonlord’s victory was assured. So the Empire had pledged troops to forever defend the borderlands.

With a wave of his hand, the image in the fire solidified once more, showing the King of Gwire struck down, the heir fallen as he struggled to rally the city guard and his household troops.

But there had to be some remaining shred of hope. There had to be, the Highmage thought as he added a new note to his chant. The flames crackled and he heard the sound of hooves, then saw the unicorn run across the image in the fire. The unicorn abruptly halted, and paused to stare back at him. He nodded at the creature, knowing it was the last of its kind. The creature’s horn glowed with power, disrupting the enchanted flames, raising up another image altogether.

He saw a carriage come up the streets of this very city. It was under the escort of scores of mounted black liveried warriors. The sight puzzled him. He realized that he was looking at a people mentioned only in stories told by sailors, or referred to only in books. He stared at those Cathartans – who were legendary for their sword skill. They dwelled in lands far beyond the Empire’s borders, far to the southeast, beyond even the Barrier Mountains and south of the Great Waste.

What made their presence far more unusual was the fact that they were Cursed, so rarely, if ever, left their land.

Wondering what they were doing here, he saw them vanish as lightning flashed and the storm outside raged where they had stood. When next lightning flashed, the Cathartans and the carriage were suddenly there again, but slightly farther up the street – and there was no sign of the storm.

The Highmage focused on the carriage and saw a brightly cloaked man holding a sick boy cradled in his lap, staring he realized that the city around the Cathartan phantoms seemed subtly different. Then lightning flashed and they were gone once more.

The thunder echoed in his mind with the Demonlord’s maniacal laughter. The flare of lightning flashed again, the phantoms returned, yet the accompanying sound of thunder carried a more muted note of his nemesis’ triumph.

What did it mean? Why would the unicorn wish to show him this, he wondered, then remembered that there had once been a prophecy about Cathart – about ending their Curse. The group faded in and out of existence heading up through the seven tiered city that no longer resembled the mountain it had once been as he considered long and hard.

Thunder raged, shaking the capital city of the Empire. Aaprin, an elfblooded apprentice, who was an adolescent by human standards, struggled to see up the street as he accompanied his elvin master, who despite the storm remained dry utilizing a spell to repel the rain. Aaprin frowned as he saw a strange carriage under heavy escort coming up the street toward them, then blinked realizing they were in daylight. His master seemed unconcerned as they crossed in front of them.

Lightning flashed and Aaprin saw them no more. He said, “Master, where did they go?”

“What are you talking about, boy?”

Then lightning flared once more and Aaprin shouted in warning as black liveried riders suddenly bore down on them. He dragged his master aside, narrowly missing being run down.

A well-armed woman glared at him as she and her companions rode past, not even attempting to slow their pace. He gaped as the closed carriage rushed past.

“Aaprin, what’s come over you, lad!” his master cried shaking his arm. “Have you gone mad?”

“Huh? Master, whatever are Cathartans doing so far from their southern climes?”

“What are you talking about? No one has ever seen Cathartans in the Empire. Now explain why you pulled me along on such an insane dash!”

He stared uncertainly. “Master… we would have been run down by the horses, otherwise.”

With a groan, his master shouted, “Aaprin, go back to the Academy this instant! Forget our errand, I shall accomplish it alone! And think hard about your behavior before we next talk about this!”

The young elfblood swallowed and considered protesting, then thought better of it as the last of the foreign riders turned down the next street. There could be only one destination along that route. “My pardon, Master Stenh… I will go back this instant.”

Huffing, the elvin mage headed down the street and Aaprin started to run back the way they had come, then paused and went up the cross street, running after the phantoms toward the Healers Hall.

There was a knock at the door and a servant answered. “Lord Stenh! What brings you out on such a terrible night?”

As the servant took his cloak, he asked, “Is the Highmage about?”

“Yes, but he has asked to be left alone.”

“I must see him. The matter is urgent.”

The Highmage’s elvin daughter appeared at the top of the stairs, “Take Master Stenh to my father.” The mage looked up at her gratefully. “He has been in his study since his meeting with the Empress.”

He nodded in understanding, then said, “Thank you, Carwina.”

Stenh was led into the Highmage’s study. The aged silver-haired elf sat humming to himself and was hunched forward looking into the flames in his fireplace. The servant closed the door firmly behind him as Stenh waited patiently, knowing the Highmage was in the midst of a powerful spell. The mage sighed, doubtless the Highmage already knew the terrible truth.

The Highmage’s chant grew more intense and the flames before him rose higher as he leaned forward. He saw an image form from seemingly here in the Capital. The healers came forth and offered to assist with the Cathartans boy. The women refused as a darkly dressed man led them into the building. The image shifted as Master Healer Ofran himself took charge of the seriously ill child. He saw the old elf frown after examining the lad and could see his lips form the words, “I can ease his pain, but nothing more.”

The Cathartan lord’s shoulders slumped.

The Highmage frowned and gave up the chant. The flames flickered to normalcy.
“Alrex,” Stenh muttered behind him.

The Highmage sighed. “I had hoped to be left undisturbed on a night as terrible as this, my friend.”

“I am sorry, Alrex, but the news I bring is dire… The Academy scryers saw the Northland’s lost. Gwire has fallen,” Stenh told him with a shiver. “The Imperial Legion there has been cut off from all support.”

“I know.”

“The Empress will be forced to send additional troops – there will be war, the Final War.”

“There will be no reinforcements. The Demonlord’s minions work unseen. The Empress will not engage the remainder of the Legions until assured that the moment has indeed come. The true stakes of the final war hinge upon what happens next.”

“But the Empress must!”

The Highmage laughed forlornly. “I have spoken to her. She believes our combined magery still leaves us evenly matched enough that we have time.”

Stenh, Dean of the Mage Academy, shook his head, “But we both know we no longer command the power our people once did. Only your mastery of the Gate as Guardian offers us any hope.”

Alrex lowered his head. He knew the Gate’s limitations all too well, he muttered, “Leave me.”

 

“Father, I have given Stenh a room for the night. I’ll not have him hazard the storm once more.”

He shook his head, “Your healer training has made you too kind, Carwina.”

“And you need to sleep and leave off worrying about the fate of humanity.”

“You were listening.”

She shrugged, “Nothing else would have brought him across the city unescorted. So I listened outside the door.”

“You are a trying child, Carwina.”

“I am my father’s daughter… and you should leave off worrying about the Demonlord’s latest schemes. We can still defeat him.”

He looked at her. “Would that we could… Yet the Aqwaine Empire is not the power it once was.”

“Yet the power of the Gate you wield is no small thing.”

“So our Empress — and the Mage Guild believe – but the Gate is not like other mageries. It can only be used in certain ways.”

“Still Humanity even without magery nearly defeated Elfdom before Battle’s End.”

“Yes, but they exhausted their ‘tech-nol-ogy,’” Alrex said, pronouncing the word with great difficulty. “They were forced to flee the lands we together laid waste. Left primitive and hurt, they could offer us no further harm.”

“‘And from such the Empire was born,’” Carwina quoted.

Alrex frowned thoughtfully, “Elves and mankind united to create the Empire, setting aside our hatred. But the Elfking’s hate was too great – and so he rages against us and become Lord of Demons.”

Thunder shook the house. Carwina shivered, then left her father to his thoughts.

“There must be a way!” Highmage Alrex shouted, then cried a word of power and waved his hand at the stone wall behind him. The stone rippled with magelight, obeying him as the Guardian. Alrex rose from his chair and strode through it.

The place he found himself was the Etherworld, a place outside of normal space and time. This was the antechamber before the Gate, an arch, which glowed with raised elvish runes intricately carved by magefire aeons ago. Within the arch’s depths stars could be seen, but shrouded as if behind a thin veil.

He knelt before the Gate and said, “Our magery is now as nothing to what it once was. The Empire crumbles around us a little more each day. We are no match for what is coming.”

Once this world had been inhabited only by Elves. They had dim memories of Humanity, an infant race, far from civilized on their distant Earth. Yet after so long, Humanity came to this world and settled, seeing no sign of their illusive magical neighbors who lived peacefully in the Great Forest. How the war between Humanity and Elvinkind had begun no one knew. Only the devastation the wars left, leaving lands laid waste permanently marring the face of the world.

The Highmage considered the vision in the flames that had showed him a phantom present – it could be nothing else. It was a paradox; however, as the vision demonstrated seemingly with as futile an ending. Yet it seemed to promise more time, perhaps hope. “Thy world needs thy help, old friend.”

The Gate began to blaze as it awoke fully and considered its Guardian.

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