CHAPTER 1: Two Wizards, a Dark Night, and a Murder

     The first moon cast a pale glow far up in the air shaft of Cris’s room. That put the time around midnight. Cris’s head throbbed. He’d awakened with headaches before — dim reminders of nightmares he’d felt thankful to forget in the light of a new morning. But those headaches had never dragged him awake like this. Not in the middle of the night.

     He lay still a moment, let the waking world settle around him. Across the room, the walls reflected a reddish light, the nightlamp there burning in its niche. The oil scent and gentle smoke wafted around the room before swirling up the shaft. Cris’s talusk stirred and aroused itself from the floor nearby. The animal looked over at him, sniffed silently at the air with its wide snout. Cris reached over and stroked his pet’s silver fur. “It’s okay, Pike.”

     Throwing off his bedcovers, Cris wondered that he felt so awake when he’d been asleep only a few hours. He was usually slow to rouse even after a full night’s sleep. Yet he would be unable to sleep again this night with the pain in his head, so he stood and stepped around Pike’s large bulk, whispering to the animal to stay and rest. He pulled on his trousers and thick tunic, wincing against the throbbing in his skull, and wrapped his fur cloak around his shoulders.

     Drawing back the heavy curtain that separated his room from the rest of his parents’ mountain home, Cris entered the still darkness of the hallway, then moved on to the main room, and through the door into the star-riddled night. When he turned to close the heavy wooden door behind him, he started in surprise. Pike waited immediately behind him, the talusk’s snout nearly touching his chest. The animal’s huge body filled the doorway.

     “Pike!” Cris chastised in a whisper. “You are lucky I don’t die from fright when you do that!” Cris stepped out of the way so the talusk could follow him out into the night. Pike lumbered past him silently. Cris shut the door. “You know you don’t have to come with me.”

     The talusk looked at Cris with pale, sleepy eyes and blinked slowly. Cris chuckled. “Go back to sleep, Pike.” The animal gazed at him for another moment before turning to walk toward the nearby trees. Pike’s favorite tree was close by, and in a few moments the talusk was climbing the thick trunk with powerful claws. Seeing the animal hoist its massive body so easily, Cris felt a moment of jealousy. Pike’s strength was impressive, and those retractable claws could be useful too, Cris thought with a snort. On the threshold of manhood himself, Cris had never reached the sinewy strength of his father, or even of boys a few years younger than he. He’d never liked his own lankiness, though he had to admit he was proud of his quickness.

     Cris turned toward the wide path that led into the forest. The air felt crisp and cold against his face, an icy night-breeze blowing down off the peaks. The path eventually curved around the shoulder of Ithic Mountain and into Ithra village, but Cris veered directly into the trees. He hiked through the woods in dim moonlight and forest shadow, over the foot of nearby Camber Mountain and into the deeper forest of the valley. Cris moved as though the ache in his head formed a knot that dragged him into the darkness. He struggled to think, to remember the path he took so that he could return home easily. He lost track of time and distance, walking without awareness, without purpose. He followed barely discernible trails through the trees with practiced ease.

     At last he came to the edge of a clearing, and stopped. Ahead, outlined against the forest on the far side, a large cabin of timber and stone rested under the cold starlight. First moon had already set, and Rake moon had not yet arisen to draw forth the dawn. Lamplight glowed red through the front window glass. Cris recognized the cabin and the place with sudden clarity, and took a step back.

     Sturrak’s cabin! Cris hadn’t been thinking at all about where he’d been going. He must have walked, mindless and oblivious, nearly half the night.

     As if prompted by the nascent return of his thoughts, the air out in the center of the clearing began to shimmer. Before Cris’s incredulous eyes, the shimmering grew and coalesced, became brighter, larger. Then a form gradually filled the light, until it took the shape of a man, dressed in white flowing garments. The man stood at least a head taller than Cris, taller than anyone he’d ever seen, and had long white hair knotted in a tail that hung to his waist. He stood with his back to Cris, facing the cabin. His form, a moment ago vague and indistinct, became sharp and real, but a magic light still shimmered from his robe and his hair, making him a bright point in the night darkness.

     Cris crouched at the edge of the trees behind thick brush and watched in amazement, struggling to regain full control of his mind. His thoughts raced. How is it that he had come here in the middle of the night to witness this strange display? Who was this white-haired man — this wizard, no doubt — and why had he also come here to Sturrak’s home? The pain in Cris’s head grew again, clouding his vision, forcing him to squint at the spectral form. He fought for calm, knowing that his own fear and confusion might cause him to fumble and be discovered. He was certain of little at this moment, but he knew he did not want to be seen by this powerful apparition.

     Cris managed to slow his ragged breathing, and forced the night air to move through him soundlessly. The pain in his head throbbed like an open wound, keeping time with the rhythm of his heart.

     Then a sound came from the cabin, a clicking bolt, and the door opened slowly, leaking reddish lamplight. The door creaked on its hinges as the small silhouette of a boy appeared in the entryway. The tall form in white reached out a pale hand toward the child, but did not move from its place in the center of the clearing. The boy stepped from the doorway, toward the shining figure.

     Cris wanted to call out to the boy. He sensed inexplicable danger in the white-haired wizard, but he felt numb, paralyzed. The pounding in his head beat him down like the blows of a club, and he could not move or cry out against it. His fingers dug into the earth and clenched into fists as if they were not his own. He could barely breathe, watching Sturrak’s son.

     This can’t be real. Terror gripped Cris as if he were in the throes of a nightmare. This is not possible.

     The small boy wore a long bed gown, and walked in his bare feet, his arms at his sides, staring at the glowing form. The wizard waited patiently, his arm outstretched. The boy stopped within a couple of paces of the wizard, and raised his head to stare into the man’s face.

     The tall figure seemed to speak to the child, though Cris heard nothing but his own pounding heart. The wizard then crouched down, as if to hear the boy’s response, but the child did not speak.

     After a quiet moment, the wizard laid his hand on the boy’s head. Reaching out with his other hand, he rested his palm on the boy’s chest. Strangely, Sturrak’s son slowly dropped to his knees, then over onto his side, as if overcome by sleep. The wizard’s hands followed the boy to the ground, then withdrew. The child lay still.

     The white-haired man stared down at the small shape on the ground beside him, then rose until he towered over the boy. After a moment he turned in Cris’s direction. Through the pain burning in his skull, Cris saw that the man also had a long white beard, and pale, wrinkled skin. The glow radiating from his form subsided, but Cris could still see the light blue of the wizard’s eyes. Those eyes turned on Cris, and stared at him as he crouched motionless, frozen in agony, in the brush at the edge of the clearing. No! Cris struggled to move, to flee, as panic coursed through him. The ancient wizard wore a thin smirk on his face.

     Cris felt something touch his mind, something on the edge of his pain, and he tried to withdraw. But the touch followed him as if out of curiosity, sorting through his thoughts. It lingered a moment, unavoidable, like a talon gripping its prey. Then the touch was gone as rapidly as it had come. The wizard stared at Cris another moment. Just as suddenly, the form of the wizard was gone. No trace of shimmering or light marked his passage, only darkness.

     Cris almost tumbled to the ground, as if released from a spell. The pain clenched in his skull loosened its grasp. His gaze shot to the dark form of the boy lying on the ground, and he stood and stumbled toward it. Please, Lord Creator, don’t let this be. Please. Sturrak’s son lay motionless, in darkness softened only by starlight and the soft glow from the cabin door. Kneeling down beside the boy, shaking, Cris reached out to roll him over.

     A cold shock, colder than the night air, gripped Cris as the boy rolled toward him, then lay limp, unmoving. A dark, wet stain covered the boy’s chest and ran down his side to a small pool on the ground. The child’s blood glimmered in the short, matted grass. From the center of the boy’s chest protruded the oval hilt and two finger rings of a palm dagger. The child’s face, now turned toward the open cabin door, looked pale in the ruddy light.

     Cris pulled back, fighting a sickening numbness that threatened to engulf him. An old memory crashed against a barrier in his mind, calling out like a ghost from his worst nightmare. He felt the past and present together trying to tear him apart in the darkness. He closed his eyes and choked back the memory with an effort, shoring up the wall that contained it. A woman’s voice broke the stillness.

     “Tarin?”

     She stood in the doorway of the cabin, and repeated the boy’s name, louder. “Tarin!”

     Then a gasp, and she ran from the doorway, toward them. Cris did not watch her. He saw only the boy’s face, expressionless and lifeless in the darkness. Like the darkness of his memory. So much like the memory. He felt his will crumbling and couldn’t fight his past any longer. Not here. Not with so much to remind him. He had to escape. He had to leave this place.

     He stood, looked at the boy one last time, and fled into the forest.

     The cry of anguish he heard moments later reached him through the trees. The grief and inchoate rage of the sound flooded the night. And in the scream Cris thought he heard his own mother as well, his mind tumbling back and forth between dream memory and reality.

     Cris ran from the sounds and kept running, trying to escape his guilt and fear, the rest of the night.

#

     In the early light of morning, Cris collapsed against a tree, exhausted. He could flee no more. His chest throbbed from gasping in the chill air. His hands and knees stung from falls he had taken during his flight through the forest in the darkness, tripping over tree roots or simply failing at times to keep his legs beneath him during his headlong run. He felt dried tears against his cheeks, and struggled to hold back more. Adding to his misery, he tasted the sting of bile in the back of his throat, as if he might throw up at any moment.

     The sun had just risen, casting long forest shadows into the open glade. The tree Cris leaned against stood like a lone sentinel at the center of the clearing, like a guard that barred his way.

     Surely Sturrak pursued him by now.

     What have I done? Cris coughed uncontrollably for a moment, his throat parched and irritated. Memories, both old and new, beat at his mind like a storm wind. I should not have run. The same sick feeling wrenched his stomach again, stronger now. He tried to swallow down the bitter taste in his mouth. His chest still heaved for air, and he yearned to simply collapse to the ground and dissolve into nothingness. If only the answer were so easy.

     To protect the scrapes on his palms, Cris made half-fists with his hands, then sank down against the tree, turning himself until he rested on the ground with his back to the thick bark, his legs splayed outward. He saw that the leather pads sewn onto the knees of his trousers had protected the skin beneath, but the patches themselves showed new scrapes and moss stains of their own.

     “You are a fool, Crislan,” he gasped to himself. “And a coward.” Memories of the night flashed anew in his mind. “Oh, Lord Creator.” He put his bloodied hands to his face and choked on a new sob.

     After a few moments he wiped at his eyes and tipped his head back, looking up into the branches above. I deserve whatever punishment the wizard gives me, he thought. After all, I’ve never truly received the punishment I deserved. Cris hadn’t admitted this to himself in a long time — so many truths locked away in the back of his mind, as if that could banish them forever. But now has come my reckoning, I see, Lord Creator. May it come swiftly.

     Cris could not stop his thoughts now, as if they continued to run when his feet no longer could. And as for this night, his inner voice chided, I had my part in it, and I failed. I let an innocent child die. And then I ran. Cris choked on another sob rising in his throat as the memories rose in his mind. Would that I had been stricken down instead! He pictured himself in the place of Sturrak’s little boy, lying in his own pool of blood in the matted grass. He held onto this image and its self-reproach as if doing so were a form of courage. The feeling of resignation helped to calm him. If he had no control over what was to come now, he might as well accept its inevitability. After last night, he felt he had little control over anything. He laughed at himself then, at his foolhardy attempt to outrun a wizard, at the thought he ran himself to collapse before even stopping to ask himself why.

     A bird in the limbs above started to sing its morning song. Cris noticed the bird, a springwing, hopping excitedly around its nest with its red beak agape. Its summer mate and offspring had surely already left it, yet nature gave the bird a song despite its recent loss and the futility of calling for another mate this late in the year. The branch where the nest clung was gnarly with twisted bark, like the rest of the tree. A tuskwood, Cris noticed for the first time, trying to turn his attention for a few moments away from his own ordeal. Tuskwoods were his own favorite type of climbing tree — tall, broad, and sturdy, with close branches and easy hand-holds sculpted into the bark. The wide leaves on this tree had already started to turn amber with the coming of fall.

     The springwing gave a warning shriek and took flight. Several other birds in the surrounding forest followed, creating a flurry of wings that distracted Cris for a moment. Then he felt the breeze that must have alarmed them, like a gust coming from out of the forest itself. Leaves stirred and air rustled through the trees in the direction Cris faced, the direction from which he had come only minutes earlier. After a moment, the forest grew eerily silent around him.

     The wizard is coming. Cris knew the forest — the sounds, the smells, the feel of it. He had grown up in the woods and mountains. He had never felt it like this before. He gazed all around. Nothing around him stirred. Time seemed to have stopped flowing through the wood, leaving the coming moments for Cris to deal with alone.

     He trembled as he boosted himself to his feet. An unfamiliar sense of pride made him want to stand straight to face the wizard for the first time. The momentary bravery faded quickly, however, and he soon wrapped his arms around his body, gripped the edges of his cloak, and backed himself against the tree like a cornered sow.

     For a silent moment Cris waited, clenching his aching gut with his arms. He forced himself to exhale slowly in an effort to calm his shivering. His quieted breath formed a cloud of fog in the still air.

     He stopped exhaling abruptly.

     Sturrak came into view through the trees, moving rapidly in Cris’s direction. His head was down, as if he had no need to watch where he was going. Something, magic or illusion, roiled around the wizard like a storm, constantly reshaping Cris’s view of him, as if he were looking at the man through shards of warped glass.

     The wizard moved impossibly fast. Though he appeared to walk like any man, the earth seemed to fold beneath his feet, so that every footfall brought him a dozen strides closer.

     In only a moment the wizard had moved out of the trees and into the clearing. There he stopped, near the edge of the glade, still casting his gaze at the ground. His long black hair fell partially over his face. Power continued to reshape the air around him. Then the wizard’s hands clenched into fists, and he looked up. For a moment, Cris saw him clearly.

     Oh, Sturrak, I am so sorry. Compassion welled up in Cris at the wizard’s appearance. At the same time, Cris felt certain he was about to die.

     The wizard’s glare was deadly as a wolf’s, but the rest of his face looked like Deathbringer’s Ghost itself.

     This was not the first time Cris had seen Sturrak. The wizard had come before to Ithra village a few different times in Cris’s life, and so he’d had the privilege of seeing the near-legendary man. The wizard had always appeared the same to Cris, virtually ageless to his young eyes. He had always seemed friendly as well, if not somewhat somber. But Sturrak was different now. His face was creased with countless new lines, and much paler, but for the flushed red streaks under his eyes. Those eyes were sunken, dark, and bloodshot. Cris’s mouth dropped open. He felt more certain than ever that he would not survive this encounter. So this is what one night of horror can do even to a wizard.

     The illusion that enveloped Sturrak suddenly shifted. Power like a bright curtain closed around the wizard, iridescent and ominous. Patterns of color and light coruscated around his feet, then swirled upward around his robe as if caught in a whirlwind. The storm grew like a pillar in moments, nearly to the height of the surrounding trees, and the air shimmered as all the colors melded together. In a moment Cris could barely tell that a man stood within the maelstrom.

     Cris knew he should not be surprised by the wizard’s use of power, knowing what this man had just gone through, and the kind of enemy he might have expected to find here at the end of his hunt. Cris’s mind flashed back into the night, remembering that enemy. He realized now it was not by chance that he was forced to take that enemy’s place here in the storm of Sturrak’s wrath. Cris fell to his knees, only realizing he’d done so when the pain of his bruises shot up through his legs.

     The blur of the wizard’s arms reached up and outward from his shimmering curtain, then were swallowed up again in the illusion as it rapidly grew larger. Before Cris fully realized what was happening, the magic reached out and encompassed him, tingling painfully over his skin as he became entrapped. Soon, all he saw were the walls of the wizard’s magic, encircling him along with a large portion of the glade. The illusion wiped away the forest and the world outside but for the clear sky above. Even the tuskwood behind and above Cris was barely discernible, somehow encompassed within the wall. The meadow now felt like an arena, and Cris had become the spectacle. He was too terrified to move, for fear the wall at his back would consume him again and the painful tingling he’d felt a moment earlier would become deadly.

     Then Cris saw Sturrak across the engulfment. The wizard moved toward him.

     Sturrak walked now like a normal man, slowly, seeming to study Cris with his dark gaze as he came. Swirls of power like tendrils clung to Sturrak briefly as the wizard stepped away from the far wall and closer to Cris. One by one they seemed to reach the limit of their grasp and let go of the wizard, vanishing back into the blur of the wall. By the time Sturrak reached the middle of his encirclement, all traces of his magic had shed away, leaving only the man.

     The wizard wore a heavy, tan-colored robe. Around his waist a belt of braided leather gathered the robe as if it were meant for an even larger man. A long, brown, heavily traveled cloak brushed the meadow grass behind the wizard. Smeared across the front of Sturrak’s robe were stains that looked like dried blood. Cris nearly succumbed again to his memories, knowing the likely source of that blood. Almost lost in the stain at the center of Sturrak’s chest, Cris saw the glint of a medallion that hung from a leather strand around the wizard’s neck. The gold was so smeared and tarnished by blood that Cris could not immediately recognize the medallion’s sunburst shape except from memory. For an instant, as the wizard drew nearer, Cris met his gaze. Sturrak looked at once exhausted, distraught, and fearsome, no less potent than when he had been wrapped in luminous energy.

     The wizard stopped several paces in front of Cris. Cris felt too scared to move. The walls of Sturrak’s power still coruscated around them, like a giant trap ready to seize its prey.

     Before either of them spoke, Cris felt the chill of a sudden breeze blowing through the glade, and heard rustling leaves above him. As much as Sturrak’s magic appeared to close off and imprison them from the rest of the world, the illusion had not affected nature’s ebb and flow here. The breeze passed through the glade unhindered. Cris heard another bird’s chitter just beyond in the forest. Sturrak’s tousled black hair fluttered a little in the breeze. His short, gray-streaked beard looked disheveled more from carelessness than from wind. The wizard’s eyes strayed as if he could see beyond his own spell.

     Taken by the ethereal nature of the illusion, and the wizard’s silence, Cris let his curiosity overtake his fear for a moment, and he turned and reached out to the magic wall behind him. As his fingers blurred into it, he first felt tingling, and then sharp needles of pain that jolted his hand and wrist. He jerked his arm back and looked at his fingers, expecting to see blood, but his hand was unharmed. Its skin felt numb when he rubbed it with his other hand.

     “I will not allow you to flee again.” Sturrak’s voice was deep and unmistakably clear, belying his traumatized appearance. The wizard grew quiet again, seeming lost in thought, or even confused by Cris’s presence. His gray eyes wandered over Cris, pausing momentarily on his cloak, still draped over one of Cris’s shoulders.

     “I w-won’t flee from you again,” Cris stuttered, barely able to control his voice. “I know that I cannot.” He wanted to say more, to apologize to Sturrak and explain what a fool and a coward he was. But he did not trust his voice to remain coherent long enough to get the words out.

     The wizard met Cris’s gaze, a look of barely contained rage in his eyes. He acknowledged Cris with a slight nod, his voice softer. “No, you cannot.”

     The next instant, a startling force gripped Cris, stunning him. He struggled against it, but he could not move.

     “Stand,” Sturrak commanded, taking another step closer. Cris felt the force on him tighten and lift him off his knees. The movement left him off balance, but he could not catch himself. He did not need to, though. In a moment he hung in midair just above the ground, his legs dangling beneath him. Then he dropped enough to feel all his weight on his feet. The grip did not let him go, however.

     Sturrak, his jaw clenched, raised his hand as if he were going to slap Cris hard across the face, though he was not close enough to do so. Cris felt certain that much worse than a slap was coming, though. He saw something in the wizard’s eyes that made him cringe. This is my last moment, he thought. For an instant, the wall and the wizard seemed to freeze into stillness in Cris’s mind. Now, finally, all the struggles of his life would come to an end. No more hiding away the past. No more guilt. No more grief. He had yearned for this so many times. Cris felt a wave of relief wash through him, and he closed his eyes.

     He waited, letting the wizard’s grip take all his weight and cradle him in this last moment.

     Nothing came. Cris jerked his eyes open when Sturrak’s hold on him shifted and he had to catch his weight again.

     Sturrak had a look of shock on his face, as if Cris’s behavior, or his own, surprised him. He lowered his hand. His expression twisted unreadably.

     “You know me, but I do not know you,” the wizard grated. His voice seemed restrained, as if to keep it, too, from lashing out. “I have seen you before. Who are you?” The magic that gripped Cris tightened almost imperceptibly, as if to remind him that answering truthfully would be wise.

     “C-Cris. Crislan.” He almost stopped there, but wanted to offer the wizard more. “Son of Emalyn and Gathin of Ithra.”

     “Crislan.” Sturrak’s glare pierced Cris. “How old are you, boy?” The wizard’s tone made Cris feel guilty for not being older.

     “Nineteen.”

     Sturrak’s gaze searched Cris again. “So young.” He shook his head. “I did not expect an enemy so young.”

     Cris swallowed, shivering, his throat parched. So Sturrak considered him an enemy. Of course, how else would the wizard view him? But hearing the words was like a blow, nonetheless. Cris looked down, tears springing to his eyes. “I’m sorry.” His guilt and sorrow overwhelmed him. He looked up, let the wizard see his tears. “I’m sorry, Vanen. But I didn’t do it.” Cris heard himself say it, as if the words willed themselves out of his mouth. “I didn’t do it.” His voice was almost a whisper, but he had neither the strength nor the courage to speak louder.

     The wizard’s bruised-looking eyes narrowed. None of the sharpness of his gaze disappeared. “I see that.” Sturrak’s voice was brusque. He looked down, turned, and walked a few paces farther away from Cris. The invisible fist gripping Cris loosened and dissolved. Cris teetered, but caught himself before he fell. The walls of illusion surrounding them remained as potent-looking as ever.

     The wizard turned part way back toward Cris, still gazing down at the ground as if in thought. “If you didn’t, then show me who did.”

     A spear of pain lanced across Cris’s forehead. He grabbed his temples and bent down in shock. His consciousness swirled and shifted, his memories startled into flight. He barely kept his balance, stunned by the pain, as Sturrak entered his mind.

     Cris’s thoughts reeled under Sturrak’s power. The voices of his memories roared in his ears like crashing waves. Yet he found himself struggling against the wizard’s control. When scenes of the previous night began to coalesce and rise into view, a new and unexpected panic took shape in Cris’s mind, mingling his guilt and fear. That panic made him push back against the wizard’s encroaching, painful grasp. But he could not free himself.

     After a moment of fighting against Sturrak’s overwhelming power, Cris realized that the more he fought, the greater his pain and confusion became. He forced himself to focus through the tumbling images in his mind. I cannot escape this. Let it happen.

     For an instant then, Cris saw Sturrak standing before him. The wizard’s eyes were closed. Sturrak seemed much more frail in this moment. The wizard needed to know what he knew, Cris realized. He was desperate to know, and understandably so. This was a man who, a few moments before, had seemed barely able to hold himself back from striking Cris down out of anger and grief. This same man, however, had served the island faithfully and in peace since long before Cris had been born. Sturrak considered Cris an enemy, yes, but Cris knew the wizard was not his enemy. Cris found clarity in this sudden understanding, and his panic eased.

     He finally felt able to let go. He quieted the turbulent thoughts that fought Sturrak’s grasp, and gave part of his mind over to the wizard, letting the man have all the memories he wanted — save one: The memory that Cris kept locked away even from himself. The pain began to ease. Cris’s body relaxed, and he felt able, almost, to help the wizard draw out the thoughts he searched for.

     Cris’s vision abruptly cleared, and he saw Sturrak still standing before him. But now the wizard stared at him, wide-eyed. The mind probe began again, but this time more gently. Cris was able to keep himself from fighting against the wizard’s control.

     Together, they remembered the night just passed.

#

     The autumn colors of the surrounding forest seemed harsh under the bright morning sun. It took Cris a moment to realize that Sturrak’s wall of illusion was gone. Cris stood under the familiar tuskwood, squinting into the clearing as if he had just stepped out of the darkness of the memory. He shivered again, still hearing echoes of that horrific scream. The scream of Sturrak’s wife.

     The wizard knelt in the sunlight just beyond the shade of the tree, facing away from Cris. For a moment he remained still, as if the memory had not finished for him yet.

     Then with a quick motion Sturrak rose to his feet, turned toward Cris. His eyes stared coldly, but his face was wet with tears. He lashed out, “Why did you run?

     Cris knew why. He had been running from the same memory for years. But to speak of it now would be like turning to face a monster that he knew would consume him. The only way to stay alive was to keep running.

     “I-I don’t know,” he stuttered, averting his eyes from the pain and fierce intensity of Sturrak’s glare. Cris realized that he feared the monster more than he feared the wizard. “I’m sorry.”

     Sturrak paused, and Cris could feel the wizard’s sharp gaze. Sturrak must sense that he held something back.

     Instead of asking more questions, though, Sturrak spun away from Cris as if enraged. The wizard’s arm came up. A blinding bolt of energy shot from his hand and exploded into a tree at the edge of the clearing. The trunk burst into splinters with a loud concussion, and the spread of limbs and leaves above it ignited in a huge ball of flames. Flocks of birds shrieked and burst into the sky. Cris shrank back against the tuskwood behind him from the force of the blast. But Sturrak had not finished. The wizard’s other arm swung out in the other direction, and another tree exploded and burst into flames like the first.

     Both trees fell, burning, into the clearing.

     Sturrak spun back to Cris, his brown cloak billowing, his expression wild. “Do not lie to me!”

     Cris couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t respond. He couldn’t even blink the tears out of his eyes.

     Sturrak looked down at the ground, his chest heaving. His fists closed, as if trying to grasp for control. Several moments passed. The burning trees crackled in the silence. Finally the wizard spoke again. “I’m sorry.” He glanced at Cris. “You should not have become involved in this.” His voice sounded softer, more human now. Then the wizard spun and strode away, as if leaving. “Tirah threina shometh ilaesa!” he cried at the sky.

     Cris bowed his head. He did not understand the wizard’s words, but he heard the pain in them. He could not begin to comprehend the wizard’s grief. His parents, perhaps, might have. But that kind of pain Cris did not allow himself — his own means of survival.

     Sturrak ignored Cris for several moments, pacing near the edge of the glade. The flames burning in the remains of the two trees died away as the wizard walked past them.

     Finally, Cris broke the heavy silence. “I don’t understand why I came to be there, Vanen.” He swallowed the lump of regret in his throat. “I only know that I failed in my part.” Cris knew deep down that he must have been under the sway of the ancient wizard’s magic, but a wholly different intuition made him feel that he had been brought there to save the child’s life. Personal failure made sense to Cris. “I-I felt that it was all wrong, but I could do nothing. I’m a coward.” The image of Sturrak’s son lying in the darkness flashed again in Cris’s mind, unbeckoned, heart-rending. “For that, I deserve any dire punishment.”

     Sturrak turned toward him. Cris added, “Would that I could –” the words stuck in his throat “– would that I could have taken your son’s place. I gladly would have.”

     Sturrak walked back toward Cris, hunched as if a great weight grew ever larger on his shoulders. “No.” The wizard reached beneath the edge of his cloak, and a tall wooden staff, taller than the wizard himself, appeared in his hand. He leaned on it as he moved. “You are no coward. You served your part as you were meant to.” The wizard seemed calmer now, more in control, but wearier than ever.

     Cris shook his head, looked down at the ground. “How can that be?” he murmured, not expecting a response. A small child — again — was dead, and he had been there and done nothing. How could he have served any purpose in that?

     “Not knowingly,” Sturrak said. The wizard stopped, still part way across the clearing, as if he could walk no farther. He stared skyward again and asked, as if to himself, “Why didn’t I feel you?” Then to Cris, “This is not your fault, Crislan.”

     The wizard’s words confused Cris. Why didn’t he feel who? Me? He said, “I . . . I wish I had acted, done something. I wanted to. I tried.” But not hard enough, he chided himself.

     “I know you did,” Sturrak said. “But instead you did exactly what he wanted. You were under his power before you left your home. He likely intended it that way.” The wizard went on as if thinking to himself. “He may have waited half the night just for his witness to arrive.”

     The wizard then peered at Cris, moved toward him again. “Do not fight me.” Cris felt Sturrak breach his mind again, with the piercing, shocking accuracy of a lance. The wizard was through and beyond the point that Cris could have tried to struggle before he knew what had happened. Cris’s vision blurred to nothingness, void of his own control. He followed Sturrak deeper and deeper into his mind, in search of something. Cris hoped the wizard did not find it, whatever it was.

     “Forgive me,” the wizard said, and his mind was gone from Cris’s as if it had never been there. “I feared he might have linked with you. Praise the Lord Creator I found no such link.”

     Cris shuddered at the thought of having any kind of connection with the murderous white-haired wizard. “Who is he?” In a way, Cris felt beyond his place asking Sturrak for information about the person who had just killed his son. But that same person had evidently used Cris like a puppet the night before, so he felt entitled to know what he could.

     “In time your questions will be answered.” Sturrak muted Cris with a glance. The wizard seemed to cloak himself once more in his grief, as if he needed it as a shield against what was to come. “Now we must go.”

     Before Cris could respond, he felt the touch of the wizard’s mind again. Sturrak moved more gently in his thoughts this time. But the next moment, the world fell away, leaving only an empty, cold blackness.

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  1. Chapter 1 is here | Joseph M Kurtenbach

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