CHAPTER VII

A SANTHARIAN FANFICITION

 
Adventure of the Northern Shadows   
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Introduction. The cause of the Sleep is revealed, but will the adventurers be able to stop it?

 

he mists moved in currents, in billows, in strange shapes that made the air feel full of awareness, like a consciousness had taken up Osthemanger as an insubstantial vessel. The mages wandered through it uncertainly. They now found themselves following an ancient path, a road that past by watchtowers and broken stone.

All around was the phantom of the past, the intangible echo of dark elves chanting and calling, imploring the demons and spirits, invoking dark magics, inviting the chaotic forces of Coor to spiral through from the Netherworld and fill the world with nightmare. The ground was covered in dark splotches, which grew in size and number as the group approached the Dark Winds Portal and resembled dried blood. Here a collection of bones or a cracked alter of sacrifice, there a yellow skull hanging from a broken outcrop, the hollow eye sockets seeming to stare vindictively. But nothing moved, and nothing called—the air was silent and still and saturated with the turpitudes of ages past.

“There is it,” whispered Azhira, her voice tinged with fear and awe. In the distance, the mists seem to thin like the scalp of a dying man. The tower stood tall like some dark, demonic sentry, its black walls seeming to steal away all light. At the top, the tower branched into tapering protrusions, like horns. “The Dark Winds Portal.”

“The air is growing heavy,” said Silfer.

“… Something’s coming,” whispered Rayne.

“Something,” said Eldor, “is already here.”
 

From around the structure, a shadow appeared as though pulled out of the dark ground. It appeared formless at first, then its eyes opened, glinting a crimson red, and from the blackness of its arms, blade-like claws slid into view. Behind it, another began to form, and another. A wide, otherworldly mouth cracked in the globe of its head, and two rows of sharp teeth shown in a wicked smile.

“Ready yourself!” called Coren, whose agile mind flipped through possibilities.

Twen formed a fireball, her eyes ignited and shining. “Bring it on.”

Fox did not hesitate; already she was reaching out, twisting the car’all of the beasts to lessen their aggressiveness, buying the group time as their car’alls flared and Sordoc found a ruined stump to hide behind. The beasts seemed disoriented at first, shaking their heads, then raced toward the group like lightning, with ferocity and no shiver of mercy.

“Slow them!” called Silfer as he pulled away the swiftness of his element. Eldor had already begun to increase the stillness in their limbs, and Rayne increase the links of earth, but though they slowed, they still moved quickly toward them.

“Their wills are strong,” Eldor gasped.

Twen sent a fireball blazing at one of the creatures, and it shrieked painfully before collapsing motionless to the ground. She fired up another and shot it toward another approaching beast but, with less time to cast it, the fire ball hardly wounded the creature. It turned and ran towards her, its claws extended to rip into her soft flesh.

As it leapt toward her, Coren whispered a few melodic words to the Wave, and the beast’s swipe missed by nailsbreadths. Silfer shot a ball of lightning at the creature and it yowled before slumping to the ground.

Fox cast a confusion spell on one running toward her, and it stumbled, disoriented. Its will then pressed off the effect, and it spotted Rayne and leapt for her. The xeua mage caused the fire ounia in the air to connect, creating a wall of immense heat, and as the creature leapt toward her, it passed through it to come out a charred corpse on the other side.

The group paused for a moment, catching their breath as stillness descended once again.

“What creatures were those?” asked Fox.

Azhira shook her head. “They are no beasts of Caelereth.”

“Where are they going?” asked Twen. The group watched as the corpses of the demons sunk into the earth, vanishing away, then looked to see new demons forming out of the blackness, this time five.

“Here they come,” called Coren as five pairs of sickly crimson eyes opened, and mouths widened with spear-like teeth.

The group braced themselves as the beasts started for them when all at once, a painful sound stopped the demons in their tracks, and they winced. From behind the group, Sordoc was plucking his lute and singing at the top of his lungs:

“Oh, like the noble pack-oxen
so strong and true and brave,
There came from Ximax mages seven
‘cross the land and wave.”


The group stared in amazement, looking back and forth between the ridiculous minstrel singing off-key and the terrifying monsters who winced and shook their heads as though doing so could shake away the hideous sound. Silfer glanced at Twen, who looked back at him. He was forming a lightning bolt above his open palm, smiling subtly. She smiled back, forming a fireball.

And Azhira said the words she never thought she would ever say: “Keep singing, Sordoc!” Sordoc, for his part, seemed intent on singing regardless:

“They journeyed near and journeyed far
Over mountains in the snow
They traveled into icy lands
Whose climes they did not know

“To find the shadow, find the source
The makes young magi sleep,
So stealing them of vigor and
so making old men weep.”


A fireball took out one, and a lighting bolt took out another. Eldor removed the stillness from the earth below one of the creatures, and the ground moved upward as a spike, impaling one of the creatures. It died immediately, and Eldor could not help but feel some sympathy and some satisfaction for the beast, having so mercifully ended its misery.

“Oh, like the noble pack-oxen
so strong and true and brave,
There came from Ximax mages seven
‘cross the land and wave.”


As the refrain ended, the mages took down the last of the creatures, which vanished into the earth. Sordoc was about to begin another verse when, as though from out of the Dark Winds Portal itself, there came laughter—a deep laughter that seemed to resonate in the bones of each of them, and filled them with a horripilating chill.

“Ha ha ha... a clever trick, mortals. Clever indeed. Ha ha ha.”

Azhira stepped forward. “Who is this? Who’s there? Who are you?”

“You cannot speak my name, have no comprehension for what I am or what I am capable of, but I know you. I know all of you, and I have been waiting.” From the Portal emerged a formless black mass, imposing and heavy, with only the shadow of a face.

“Are you the one who has brought sleep upon the young mages of Ximax?” asked Coren.

“Yes.”

“But why?” called Twen, her voice half-enraged and half-pleading.

“I have been trapped within the confines of the Netherworld, waiting to expand. The chaos of my realm is impossible to contain, and it took longer than you can fathom, but with time I was able to wear down the threads closing off the worlds enough to pass my influences through. When I finally made my way into this world of yours, I was weak and feckless, worn by my labor and unable to take this realm in a way deserving of my true skill.

“So I reached into the souls of young mages—mages who will powers were eager and energetic, but weak. Slowly I drained from them that energy, drinking my fill and leaving only enough to keep them alive as I grew my strength.”

“You monster,” whispered Fox, horrified.

“Ha ha ha. Monster, indeed. The young mages of your little Academy have such pure, strong, limitless magical energy, especially,” and here the shadow of a face seemed to look at Twen, “the young fire mages.”

Twen burned with anger, and Fox tried to calm her. The demonic shadow just laughed. “And they have fed me. Now I finally have the power to rip through the fabric separating your world and mine.”

Eldor’s heart froze a little as he spoke. “Why are you telling us this?”

The others seemed slightly confused as the earth mage’s question, but turned to the shadow for the answer. The shadow laughed. “It seems the old man has uncovered my plan, but too late, I’m afraid.”

“What do you mean?” asked Silfer.

“Look around you, mages. Look into the faces of your comrades. These, your peers. You are the most powerful magi in all of Caelereth, the only ones with the ability to hinder my inevitable invasion into your world. I knew you would be trouble, so I set this as my staging ground, but this is not my conquest—not these icy lands.”

Azhira voice failed her as she spoke. “You…”

“That’s right, mage-scholar. Ximax was always my focus. From there I can drink upon the magical energies of your young mages, break through your silly shield dome to the Ximax Orb, and then use its power expand outward, eventually spreading my shadow to envelope all of Caelereth in darkness. With my connections to the Netherworld, I can retreat from this desolate land and break through the fabric I have worn down into Ximax.”

“You lead us all this way…” spoke Silfer, caught in the shock that was rippling through all of them.

“Lead you to the north so that you would not get in my way. By the time you journey all the way back to Ximax, it will be too late. I will have consumed enough magical energy to break into the shield dome and destroy you all. Ha ha ha. It has been pleasant educating you on your end and the end of your world, but it is time to leave you.”

“No!” screamed Twen, enraged and desperate. Fox held her back, though the eyes of the water mage reflected her overwhelming sorrow and anger.

“Ha ha ha. Do not worry, mages. I would not leave you without parting gifts…” The voice and the image faded into the darkness. Out of the shadows arose three large demons, scaled with yellowed eyes and claws.

Fox immediately cast disorientation, and the beasts paused as their wills fought to overcome the effects. Twen, overwhelmed by frustration, threw her emotional energy into a large fireball she sent rolling at one of them. It was engulfed in flame immediately, perishing in the inferno. Silfer charged a lightning ball, and sent it flying. It crackled and burned, destroying a second. Elder again threw up the earth under the third, spearing it.

“What do we do?” spoke Fox.

“We need to get back. Azhira, how do we get out of here?” Silfer asked desperately.

“It’s no use. We could head south, but the Netherworld demon is right. We won’t get to Ximax in time to save it.”

There was a still pause as Silfer thought of what to do, and he glanced at Rayne to search the eyes of his friend for a solution, only to find her still, her eyes closed, her lips whispering so softly that he could not hear. It was only then he noticed that the links around him and the rest of the group were breaking.

His eyes grew wide. “Alyr--!” He reached out to stop her just as her eyes were opening and the final words left her lips. “Alyr, don’t--!”

Before he could reach her, the scenery changed in a flash. The mists blinked out, the cold of the north vanished, and around them appeared the enormous spires of Ximax cloaked in the black shadow of the Netherworld demon. The skies were black as soot, and scattered around the Academy were bodies of unconscious or slain mages.

Azhira, Twen, Fox, Silfer, Eldor, Coren, and Sordoc all caught their breath, and this slender moment between Osthemanger and Ximax seemed frozen. Raindrops floated still for a moment in the warmer air of Santharia, where silence roared above all noise. They had all been transported, across hundreds of leagues—across mountain ranges, plains, oceans—from the deathly mists of Osthemanger to the familiar Academy of Ximax. And that moment between one place and the next was only a heartbeat, but seemed to last an eternity. Then the moment slipped into motion, and each of them watched in horror as Rayne collapsed.

Coren reached to catch her before she hit the ground. Silfer stared in horror as her links unwound, as her will receded, as her car’all began to dissipate into the larger Car’all of the Dream. So close had they been that he could feel the links break, and it broke something in him, in all of them. Coren knelt with the lifeless elf in his arms, his eyes closed, whispering a prayer. The wind mage closed his eyes and clenched his fist, he turned to glare at the demonic shadow that churned over the Ximax Towers, and his car’all flared. All about him rushed the raging winds.

Each mage stepped to stand beside him. The earth below Eldor creaked and rocked with the fluctuations of his anger. Ringed in fire, Twen’s eyes burned with a desire to fight. The rain coalesced in watery orbs that ran fluidly around Fox. Azhira stood with rocks floating around her, denied their heaviness.

“You have stolen from us one of our own.” Silfer formed a lightning ball in his open palm “Now you will know the fury of our rage.”

The ball of lightning sizzled and sparked menacingly, and as the wind mage released it, it grew, striking the shadow dead on and sending tendrils of electricity over it. Twen quickly followed, sending a fiery beam into the shadow as Eldor flung boulders, suppressing their heaviness only until the moment of impact. Even Fox, so rare to make an offensive move, sent a deluge at the mass.

The booming voice arose again. “Ha ha ha. You cannot stop me now, mages!”

“It’s not working!” called Fox.

“What else can we do?” said Twen.

“Send him back,” said Eldor. “We must send him back to the world he came from. There is no other way.”

Silfer paused a moment. “Focus on his car’all and begin lessening the influence of your element.”

“But we’ll be pulling against one another,” said Azhira.

“If we pull hard enough, we may be able to banish him back,” said Silfer.

The mages looked back the demonic shadow and focused their energies. They pulled back the influence of their element, pulling away the links tying him to the world. Those mages who had taken cover in the initial onslaught emerged to see what was happening and, seeing the five brave magi standing against the force of evil that had descended upon the Academy, joined in, pulling back the influences of their element, as well.

The shadow hovered and flashed in and out. It seemed to be working, his image fading, but he only laughed: “Ha ha ha. It is no use, pitiful mages.”

“What do we do?” asked Twen as she struggled to reduce the influence of fire. “Without a soor link to the Netherworld, we can’t send him back.”

“Not even our Xeua mages can do that,” said Fox, still focusing on reducing the influence of water. “They can’t connect without knowing what they’re connecting to.”

Silfer shook his head. “Keep pulling! It’s the only way.”

A hundred mages strained against the pull of the dark force, and in the moment that seemed darkest, there was a sudden gleam. Any looking on, any not intently focused on the car’all of that demonic shadow would not have felt it, but for those who were, it struck a chord of hope, for through the blackness, a single soor link appeared between the car’all of the demonic shadow and the darkness of the Netherworld. In the blink of an eye, the demonic shadow was swallowed back into his realm.

The Academy was still and silent save for the rain, and from the east the sunlight of a new day streamed across the mighty spires of Ximax. Silfer turned to see Rayne, her eyes open and weary, exhausted by all that had transpired. The others turned to look at her in disbelief, then met the glistening eyes of a Nybelmarian, who had traded the most remote of possibilities.
***

Spring came to Ximax gently, slowly, as though she knew that the world had suffered greatly in her absence, and would need to be treated delicately. Her arrival, though, was greeted with an efflorescing joy, even a relief to many who thought that she might never come again. But now peace had finally returned, after so much darkness and fear.

The towers of the Academy shone with their old gleam and majesty, like nothing had changed. Filled with its old vigor now that the health and consciousness of its students had been restored, it seemed to delight in the bustle and talk both in and out of its walls. The students returned to class, and while all carried in their hearts the echo of the terror that had seized them many weeks back when the shadow had descended upon their school, they spoke freely, and smiled openly.

As a new morning enveloped the land in light, Silfer, Fox, and Twen stood at the gates of the Guard Tower, embracing Azhira fondly. Only a week prior had they been there seeing (or rather shoving) Sordoc on his way. And after a grandiloquent speech, a brief lyric on his new lute, and a rather interesting interpretive dance performance, he finally set on his way. Now it was Azhira's time.

"Must you go?" asked Fox gently as the wind pressed her hair and ruffled through her cerulean-blue robes.

"I must. I need to visit my mother, and I have a number of places I need to research up north." Azhira emerald eyes were alight as ever, but shone with that glisten of sorrow that comes with leaving good friends.

"I know Dorea Elvenforn will miss you," said Silfer, his stature calm, tall, and peaceful. "All your help to her in the infirmary with the students was greatly appreciated--by all of us."

"I'm glad," said Azhira.

"We're sorry Eldor and Coren could not be here to send you off," said Twen. The gentle waves of her hair seemed to shine as the new sunlight touched it. There was an ebullience in her that had returned at the waking of her fire mage students, and it had stayed with her. "Eldor has been so busy lately helping teach classes, as many of the earth mages and the archmage himself have been recovering."

"Do you suppose he'll stay?" asked Azhira.

The mages looked at one another with the hint of a smile all around. Twen spoke. "I believe he will. As miserable as he purports to be, he does enjoy it here."

"Haha. I'm glad. And I'm sure Coren is very busy."

"Yes, his classes have been packed," Silfer answered. "Everyone has now taken a renewed interested in Krean magic and how it works. After bringing one back from the dead... well..."

Azhira nodded. "I'm sure." There was a brief pause. "And Rayne?"

Silfer's eyes darkened a little. "I have not heard from her, not since she left, soon after the Xeua mages had finished restoring the fabric between this world and the netherworld. She mentioned possibly returning home, to Bolder Forest, but with her, there's no telling."

"Ever since that night, she..." Twen began, but could not seem to know how to finish.

"Once you have seen Death, once she has touched you, I don't believe you are ever quite the same," said Fox, her features softening with sorrow.

"How do you suppose... how do you suppose she did what she did?" asked Azhira, cautious but curious.

The wind mage sighed. "It was only through death that she could make soor the links between herself and the netherworld, only in death that she could know the other side well enough to banish that shadow back to the darkness from whence he came," explained Silfer. "I believe she somehow knew all along that she would, for some purpose, have to face death. I do not believe she expected to come back from it. Maybe, in some ways, she never will."

"I wish the best for her, for all of you. I'm certain we will see one another again," Azhira said, with a smile. She again embraced her friends, and before the sun was too high in the sky, had left, traveling the road through Ximax and out of town.

The summer light faded over Ximax Academy, the bright hues of day sinking into the shade of night. The twilight was like a bird that spread its wings across the cloudless sky, bits of light showing through her dark blue plumage in the form of glittering stars, and her luminous eye was the disk of the moon, round and full of dreaming. The residents of Ximax Academy laid themselves down and slept, and the world rested quietly. But Silfer was still awake. The peace of evening, the inspiration from a single candle burning in his study at the top of the Tower of Wind, and the waxing darkwinds pushing injera's children across the heavens kept him wakeful.

Many nights he worked, but on this night, a heaviness seemed to take him. He felt like he was waiting, but did not know for what. He stood at his window, his robes about his slender, elven form. His gray eyes looked out to the east, and he sighed wistfully.

All at once he heard a flutter, and at his windowsill, he saw what at first looked like a small bird. He looked closer, and saw that it was a bird, but one made of paper. He gasped a little and reached out to the little paper bird, which unfolded into his hand, revealing a letter of neatly written script, the delicate handwriting doubtless that of Rayne.


My Dearest Silfer,

Months have passed since I left the Academy, and though my heart misses the magic towers and youthful laughter, it misses more the company of you and my friends. I hope you are well, and that the spring rains have washed the darkness from all hearts that felt the shadow, and the summer has brought the light.

Though I'm sure you have wondered over me, I hope you have not worried. You have always had such faith in me, and have been a friend in true and unspoken ways. All these recent turns of fate have changed me, but know that no matter what steps I take or where they lead me, I will always be your friend and love you.

I did as I told you, and took the road home, but stayed there only briefly. Unable to still myself, I have traveled to the east, through Thaelon and the Silvermarshes, across the Troll Mountains and the Heath of Salazar. My spirit has been restless, as though shaken by longing for something I cannot see. At every turn and every change of scene I am touched and awed by the magnificence of this Dream--but something in me leads me on, toward the furthest ends of the world, to the edges of the Dream and farther still to where I may find peace.

I know not where the journey will end, or if it ever will, but I know I will one day return. I cannot be long parted from you or the home I love best. Part of me is always here, in a land that I have seen through all its seasons and circumstances. My body goes, but my heart never leaves. I am always here, always with you.

May Ava bless you, my friend.

Yours always,
Alyr

 


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