Note: The following excerpt is not a finished work and still requires several rounds of editing before completion.
Over his shoulder, the towering stand of ancient redwood kept the creatures blocked from sight. Few could say they had ever seen their dark wings. Those that had, lived only long enough to regret it.
Nyalis, on the other hand, knew all too well what these creatures were capable of. They were the eyes of the White Tower, their watchers, a twisted amalgamation of night raven and reptile. As clear as the baying of a pack of bloodhounds, their dark guttural caws echoed off the mountain peaks behind him.
Pushing his fear aside, Nyalis willed his legs to keep moving. But with each new step, he found the task increasingly difficult. The frigid mountain air cut his face like a knife and burned his lungs with every inhale.
His foot caught a root and sent him tumbling. He clutched the tightly-wrapped bundle to his chest and turned his shoulder before smacking against the side of one of the massive trees. The pain was intense, but Nyalis managed to push himself up against the rough bark and cradle the squirming package in his arms.
Two little hands shot out of the small opening at the top and grabbed hold of his long, white beard. Nyalis clenched his teeth. The sharp pain of yanked whiskers nearly caused him to holler.
“That’s quite the grip you have there, little one,” he whispered, trying to untangle the babe’s tiny fingers.
After struggling to regain his balance, Nyalis promptly decided a short rest was in order. The force of his breath burned his lungs, offering him yet another sharp reminder of the inevitable deterioration of old age.
He lifted his head and studied the star-filled sky through the coverlet of branches above. He had been on the run for three days with no idea how much longer he could stay ahead of those tracking him. He knew the corax were close, he could feel them in the short hairs on the back of his neck. With the last of the sun’s rays having slipped over the horizon hours ago, he knew his best chance of spotting the Tower’s winged hunters would be their silhouettes against the brightly lit heavens.
If the stars began to wink, it was time to move.
Nyalis took another deep breath and wished he hadn’t.
“Pheww!” Holding his nose with one hand, he pulled down the babe’s swaddling to discover it had been soiled . . . again.
It had been more years than he would like to admit since he had cared for a child. Nyalis had forgotten how demanding they could be. “I can’t continue to waste magic cleaning your backside, young man,” he said as if the drooling, wide-eyed face looking up at him was going to understand.
Nyalis huffed and rolled his eyes, but in the end he lowered his hand over the wrapping and spoke a few runic words. “Adama layestra.” The smell dissipated, along with the obvious stain. “That should hold for now.” He wrapped the swaddling back around the child’s shivering body.
“Hmm.” The thick brows shelving the top of his eyes lowered when he noticed the strange mark developing on the back of the boy’s right shoulder. He ran his finger across the darkened area. “It would appear I was right about you after all, my little faeling.”
Nyalis took a moment to pat down the babe’s rather distinguishable head of white hair. After tucking the child’s arms back within the warmth of his covering, he tried rubbing the soreness from his aching calves. When that didn’t work, he stood and shook the loose snow from his robes before pushing on.
He had found the boy’s mother not five days past and helped her deliver, but even with hands as skilled as his, there was no stopping the outcome. Magic, like nature, demanded balance. When bringing something as powerful as this faeling child into the world, there was a price to be met, and his mother had paid it with her life.
Nyalis fought his way through the dense brush. He was nearing the edge of the tree line, which meant he was about to lose his temporary reprieve from the corax’s prying eyes.
Keeping hidden from the winged trackers was one thing, but behind them were the sniffers. Nyalis could feel their presence drawing steadily closer. They were monstrous beings, twisted and shaped by magic to serve a single purpose: to hunt down wielders, or, in the ancient tongue, the ven’ae.
The sniffers were grotesque creatures whose nests could be found in the northern parts of the Caldera. Their elongated features and dagger-like teeth and claws had been designed to inflict the maximum amount of damage. But for all their vehemence, it was not the sniffers forcing Nyalis to push himself beyond what common sense would have considered sane, it was what followed: their masters, the ones holding their leash.
They were called the bulradoer, which in the ancient tongue meant The Departed.
They were a dark sect of magic wielders who received their instructions from the White Tower. Nyalis had to admit it was quite the ingenious strategy. While the White Tower feigned its abhorrence of magic and championed the cause of ridding Aldor of its users, it in turn secretly recruited and trained those same wielders, coercing them to pledge their allegiance back to the White Tower for its own consumption.
He had his former pupil, Valtor, to thank for that. Valtor had found a way to elevate himself to the position of Arch Chancellor within the White Tower. Nyalis wasn’t the least bit surprised. Valtor always had an insatiable hunger for magic, no matter its origin or purpose. He was a very determined wielder even in his younger years. And from the unwavering determination of those chasing Nyalis at the moment, he could only conclude that his apprentice’s appetite hadn’t diminished with age.
Pushing his way through the last of the undergrowth at the edge of the small forest, Nyalis stared out at the open drop before him. The Northern Heights were one of the tallest of Aldor’s mountain chains. Their peaks stretched into the distance, completely hiding all traces of the horizon.
Careful not to slip on any of the loose rock and plunge headfirst over the side of the cliff, Nyalis skirted some of the larger boulders lining the front of the pathway and started down. The narrow snow-covered trail meandered its way back and forth as it descended in a serpentine fashion.
Even during the summer months of Toff, Kwàn, and Nor, the crests of the Northern Heights were covered in snow, but here at the beginning of Èldwin, the chances of an unexpected storm blowing in from the north increased. Nyalis prayed that the weather held out long enough for him to get off the mountain.
All around him, the summit was awash in soft moonlight and backlit with a million stars. The sight would have been breathtaking if Nyalis had any breath left to give.
With a slight groan, he turned away from the view and continued his descent. The path was familiar, having traversed its course not two weeks back, and the pale glow of the three-quarter moon gave him just enough light to see. Preoccupied with his thoughts about what stalked him, he stumbled over a small outcropping of rock and lost his balance.
Instinctively, he reached out with his free hand and grabbed hold of a small niche in the rock, pulling himself back against the mountain’s face. His hands were trembling as he glanced over the side where he had nearly fallen. It took a moment to calm his nerves. Deciding it would be wise to keep his mind focused on what was in front of him instead of what was behind, Nyalis pressed on.
With a solid wall on one side and a sheer drop on the other, there was little leeway for safe maneuvering. The trail he had chosen wasn’t much wider than his feet, and the rock was loose. With one arm out for balance, he hugged the child close and edged his way forward. His only consolation to falling at that point would have been a rather quick death once they reached the bottom.
The wind tugged at his robes like a ship’s mast, threatening to pull him over with every rising gust. With quick effort, Nyalis gathered the air in front of him and wove it into a hardened barrier, deflecting the dangerous drafts sweeping across the side of the mountain. The continuous push of the wind against his shield managed to stabilize his position as he descended. It was a basic weave taught to first year apprentices, but, he noted, sometimes it’s the simple things that work the best.
Nyalis balled his hands into fists and released, hoping to circulate the blood. When that didn’t work, he lifted his free hand to his mouth and tried blowing some warmth back into it. The thin air was proving rather difficult to keep in under the strain.
Up ahead, the path widened and ended in a two-way fork. He stopped long enough to readjust the tiny bundle in his arms. The soreness had lessened, but only because his arms had gone numb from holding the child’s weight.
Nyalis cocked his head to the side and listened. He could still hear the faint sound of the corax’s cries over the heavy wind. They were circling somewhere off to the west. Their steady, progressive sweep of the mountainside was heading directly for him.
Seeing this as a fortuitous opportunity to confuse his pursuers and slow their approach, Nyalis stretched out his hand and sent a fresh scent of magic flooding down the right fork in the path.
“That should keep the sniffers busy for a while.”
With a determined stride, Nyalis tightened his grip on the child and headed into the left crevice. He knew that sooner or later it would fissure its way out onto the lower foothills below. With a flick of his wrist, he conjured a ball of golden light to illuminate the way ahead.
Far above, like the parapets surrounding the great wizard’s stronghold of Aero’set, the rock towered over him, cutting off all sight of the night sky and hiding him from the watchful gaze of the corax.
He longed to once again be surrounded by the protection of Aero’set’s walls, to walk its many halls and feel its warm embrace. He yearned to spend days combing through the libraries sourcing out new information to aid him in his struggles.
Aero’set was a place of magic. It was a place where dreams were born, where young men and women came to study and train in order to earn the right to be named wizards. It was a place of wonder and excitement, but most of all, for Nyalis, it was home.
Unfortunately, those days had long since vanished into memory. Centuries had passed since Nyalis had last heard the steady patter of students’ feet in those long halls, of mages scrambling to get to their next classes, of wizards discussing the logical theory of magic, or apprentices exhilarated at having learned a new spell or incantation to test. Now, all was silent. The keep had been locked away out of time and reach for nearly a thousand years, awaiting the day it would once again be needed.
That day was not far off.
The child’s whimper brought Nyalis out of his momentary reverie and back to the hard reality of the situation. He took a moment to pull back the cloth blocking the babe’s view. That seemed to appease him, if briefly.
“Hungry again, I see. Wish I had something a bit tastier than costa root to offer you.” Pulling out a small belt knife, he snipped the stem of the moist root and allowed its somewhat bitter juices to run freely into the babe’s anxiously awaiting mouth. The child sucked on the end like he would his mother’s teat. His face puckered at the taste, but his hunger outweighed the lack of flavor.
Nyalis studied the stone walls ahead for anything recognizable. His pace was slowing. He had no idea how long he’d been traveling the claustrophobic footpath, but it felt like hours. He was beginning to wonder if he had taken a wrong turn when the flanking walls of granite finally began to widen.
Up ahead he could see the faint glow of an early morning sunrise, its colors washing across the open rock and signaling an end to the tunnel’s passage. He let the ball of light that had been his guide dissolve.
From inside the shadows of the cavern’s mouth, Nyalis took a moment to get his bearings. Closing his eyes, he reached out with his mind and scanned the unprotected region ahead.
There were no auras to be felt.
In front of him lay a gradual slope of scree and small shrubs stretching clear to the forest below. There was a considerable amount of open ground to cross before reaching the large copse of Elder Pine at the bottom, and the thought of leaving the natural cover of the mountain didn’t sit well with Nyalis’s already frayed nerves. But if he could make it to the river and his awaiting boat, they would have a chance.
Placing the child in the crook of his arm, he left the confines of the rock and made his way down. His eyes continued to scan the naked expanse around him, looking for any sign of pursuit. Halfway down the slope, the child grew agitated and tried pushing his arms outside the cloth folding. Nyalis didn’t dare stop to calm him. Instead, he hugged him all the tighter and pushed on.
Without warning, the babe released a high-pitched squeal.
“Shhh.” Nyalis tried covering the child’s mouth with the cloth. “You’ve got to keep quiet.”
His efforts proved less than useful as the child released yet another tear-filled squeal. “What’s wrong with you? You’re going to get us killed.” Just then, he felt the air behind him tingle.
Nyalis spun around. A wave of energy plunged down the side of the rise. As quick as he could, he wove a protective barrier. The air in front of him hardened into an invisible wall, not much larger than himself, warding the two against the brunt of the impact. The bulradoer’s attack didn’t have quite the intended effect, but it did manage to send the wizard tumbling backwards across the hard rock as the wave impacted his shield.
Nyalis cried out in pain as he tried to protect the child with his body. Finally coming to a stop, he scrambled back to his feet. He didn’t believe anything was broken, but he knew by the end of the day, he would be covered in bruises. There was a nasty gash on his forehead. He could feel the blood running down the side of his face, and he quickly wiped it with his sleeve.
At the top of the rise, three bulradoer scrambled from the shadows of the open fissure he had exited earlier. Each wielder was robed in a black shroud with their hoods raised. How did they find me so fast?
In front of the bulradoer shuffled two sniffers. They stood at least eight feet in height. Their flat, nose-less faces were held high as they whiffed at the scent of his magic.
Nyalis was by far a match for any one of the dark wielders, but three, with a pair of sniffers, and a full praad of the Tower’s trackers—well, that was a different matter altogether.
Above him, the shrieks of the corax pulled his attention away from the bulradoer as they circled his position.
Not caring to stand around and face off, Nyalis raised his hand and sent a wave of fire in the bulradoer’s direction. The flames infused the brush in front of them and the smoke blocked their visibility. Nyalis used the distraction to make a hurried escape for the tree line below. He hoped to reach the river and his awaiting boat before they caught up with him.
Glancing over his shoulder, he could see them charging through the dying blaze and down the hillside in pursuit.
Overhead, the winged creatures cried out once more. They had discontinued their role as the passive trackers and were pulling into a dive. Nyalis forced his legs to go faster.
The first of the Elder Pine were only steps away.
He raced through the underbrush. Hopping a small log, he didn’t bother to slow as leafless branches reached out and slashed deep gashes into his face and forearms. Worrying only about protecting the child, he bore the pain and kept moving. Behind him, he could hear the corax passing through the outer perimeter of the trees as they followed him in.
With his one free hand, he conjured random pockets of air and sent them careening behind him, hoping to slow the large black-winged creatures. His efforts did little more than drive them into a state of frenzy, their cries echoing their desire for blood.
Giving up the futile attempt, Nyalis turned to face them head on. He reached out and wove a net of magic that stripped the rough bark off a dozen trees and sent the volley tearing into the oncoming gale of winged flesh.
The corax shrieked in pain as the wooden projectiles tore through their ranks, decimating half of their praad. Those that had succumbed to the initial barrage were scattered across the forest’s floor, many missing their wings, heads, feet, and torsos. The trees and ground were painted red with the spray of their blood. The smell of death was strong enough to choke on.
Clearly not wanting to circle for another round, the remaining creatures punched through the overhanging limbs above and disappeared into the early morning sky.
Nyalis took a deep breath to steady himself. In the distance, the sniffers and the bulradoer were just breaking through the first of the trees.
Hugging the child close, he turned and ran.