As she walked up the spiral staircase with the heavy grimoire in her hands, Ayla was lost in thought.
She remembered that she’d hardly used the little upstairs room in her log cabin. Although she’d tried to sleep a few times and occasionally even managed it, she’d gradually fallen out of the habit, in the same way that she hadn’t eaten since she arrived in her prison. In some ways this was a blessing, as she still hadn’t plucked up the courage to open the pantry door, but she’d focus on that later. She picked up the thread of her thoughts once again. How long was it since she’d been into the bedroom upstairs? A decade or half a century? It didn’t matter.
For her new mission, the important thing was height: although it wasn’t a great deal higher than the ground floor, there was a bit of a difference. The four big windows, one facing in the direction of each of the points of the compass, were the best place for observing her surroundings from the safety of the log cabin. Ayla felt like a fool for having assumed that her surroundings were fixed and immutable. Time didn’t pass by for her, but the Interstices were still a point of passage between Endarth and Mythaland. Now she realised how important this was, and how dangerous.
Reaching the top of the stairs, she sighed. The good thing was that she had a plan, and although she didn’t have too much faith in it, it was all she could do until the next call came. She studied the four windows. While she was reading the grimoire, she’d start with the least interesting ones and leave those that were more promising until the end. Nodding, she dragged an old rocking chair over to the window that faced west, where all that could be seen was a thick, unbroken blanket of forest that was eventually swallowed up by the dense fog. As she’d expected, there wasn’t much of interest to be seen, but even so, she spent a good while staring out attentively.
Once she’d decided that she’d had enough, she turned to the south. Here too the forest filled her field of vision, but Ayla knew that the sea was just a few kilometres away, although it wasn’t visible as the cabin wasn’t high enough. She looked out again, concentrating hard, committing every tiny detail to memory, until each tree, each motionless leaf, and each reflection were imprinted on her mind. Her mentor had always described her as ‘methodical’, with that edge that came into her voice when she felt that a virtue was somewhat excessive. She didn’t care whether or not she was overly methodical or systematic, she simply didn’t know how to do things in any other way, and now wasn’t the time to change.
Dragging the rocking chair along with her, she sat down at the east facing window. This view was one of the interesting ones, the trees were lower, and they made way for a broad meadow, eternally wreathed in mist. Holding her concentration, she once again studied every detail, every tiny scrap of information. When she was satisfied, she opened the grimoire and began to read. From time to time she looked up to check for any changes, but there were none. As time passed, she looked out of the window less frequently but still kept her ears open.
She concentrated on what little information existed about the Exiles, the powerful force of the eleven chosen ones, each unique, blessed by magic, sent from Mythaland to get things ready for the Great Revenge. She thought about this. The Khela were physical; brutal and powerful, but the aether didn’t flow through them, it repelled them with great force, disconnecting them from their own land and their own dimension. Why was it that this foul race, focused solely on war, had prospered? With everything against them, how was it that they hadn’t destroyed themselves? Ayla had no answers, but she did know that although they were her enemies and the source of all her woes, the situation of the Khela saddened her. They were the natural enemies of every other species. They were the damned, the outcasts; but even so, they weren’t altogether what they seemed to be. Ayla knew that they weren’t seeking that definitive war in Endarth simply for the pleasure of spilling blood, they were trying to escape from something else; a menacing fate, one that she knew nothing of.
She sighed as she turned over more pages of the much-thumbed grimoire. The motives were in there, but the puzzle was incomplete, and some of the pieces didn’t really fit. The Stygian Gates were key, but it wouldn’t be easy.
A faint, almost imperceptible sound made her jump. The book fell to the floor, and Ayla turned towards the last of the windows, the one that faced north, and flung it open wide. She’d saved it until the end, as it looked out onto the most desolate landscape. The trees opened out into a gully crossed by a stream, full of rocks and gravel, that was then swallowed up by the mist, like everything else. Her eyes searched frantically as she felt an icy terror in the pit of her stomach. Until she spotted it.
She winced. There were shadows on the move within the swathes of mist. Sporadic, but real.
Instinctively Ayla focused all her magic with fury, and prepared to confront this. Whatever it was that was out there, she would destroy it. She hadn’t spent an eternity in prison to feel threatened now. She drew in the mana from her surroundings, marshalling its strength. The energy wrapped itself around her, the grimoire flew off, as did the rocking chair which splintered as it hit the back wall. Lifting a hand, she pointed towards the shadows, ready to blast the gully out of existence.
It was then that she heard the rain. The sky suddenly darkened, as the call transported her far away. Ayla screamed. Now wasn’t the time, damn it. She tried to break free and get back to the combat that hadn’t yet begun, but in vain. The call instantly drained her of all the magic, and the Interventor saw herself standing in a great library, almost in darkness, as the storm raged against a huge glass window, and a fire fizzed and crackled by an empty table.
“Who are you?” asked a voice coming from the shadows.
Boots on the table. The penultimate act of rebellion by Riavan Blackwell, Guardian of the Tower of Agamon, prodigious magician, and the wizard to whom the supreme leaders of the Order of the Arcane, the Triad of Wizards, was utterly opposed.
Wrapped in his cape, he was fiddling with a letter in his right hand. He seemed calm, but nothing could be further from the truth. His mind was working fast, going over the short text contained in the missive that he’d memorised as soon as he read it.
Mr R. The wheat in your field is ready to be harvested. I look forward to discussing the price with you as soon as possible.
Nobody called him ‘Mr R’ except Arthur Whitewood, close friend of his Master and former Grand Master of the Order of the Arcane. He closed his eyes. Riavan remembered the old wizard, powerful and intelligent, but at the same severe and extremely demanding when it came to Riavan himself. His memory took him back to the old Triad, made up of the three Grand Masters, the most powerful of their time. Arthur Whitewood, a purgator; Eudora Corbin, a storm; and Eliah Argent, his Master, a plague.
He screwed the letter up into a ball, threw it on the fire, and watched as it burned.
The Grand Masters has chosen the Tower of Agamon countless times for their assemblies, so Riavan had always been present at them. An orphan, he’d been adopted by the Order and had shown great promise for the future, which was why from as far back as he could remember, he’d always been there, a circumstantial guest at the Wizard’s Committee that controlled the most powerful order in the whole of Endarth. There he’d learned the mechanics of management, the threats, and the ever-pragmatic solutions arrived at between the wizards. And, of course, it had also been the perfect opportunity for showing off his impressive progress in the magical arts.
Riavan remembered Arthur as stern and aloof in comparison with Eudora, always so warm and motherly, who used to affectionately ruffle his hair and reward him with hugs, even when he felt he was too grown for such things and got embarrassed.
He smiled wistfully. These meetings had become less and less frequent, and gradually everything had changed. Arthur had gotten sick, and Eudora had focused on her studies, although she’d still paid them the occasional visit and had even stayed over for a few days. On the other hand, his Master had thrown all his energy into the most dangerous grimoires of the Tower of Agamon, but at the same time he’d always carried on educating Riavan.
When the time came, they’d given up their positions as Grand Masters, and all three had chosen Riavan as one of the replacements for the next Triad. But the other ‘grand wizards’, even though they accepted that they couldn’t control more than two magical schools while Riavan controlled four, had side-lined him.
The decision had come as no surprise to Riavan. It was typical of these imperious men, after all, what could you expect from people who wore tunics woven from gold thread and who carried their staffs as if they were flaming spears? Not to mention that, apparently, in order to look like a wizard, it was necessary to have an aversion to any form of shaving. Riavan sighed. Good thing his Master hadn’t been like that. He clicked his tongue in disgust, removed his boots from the table, picked up the glass, took a sip of the excellent wine, stood up, and adjusted the elegant suit that he was wearing. There was no reason why class and style shouldn’t go hand in hand with strategy and power, his Master had always said, and Riavan heartily agreed. You could be a gentleman and dress like one even if you did possess huge magical powers. Looking like a bag of rags was entirely optional.
He pulled on his soft leather gloves, and walked over to the huge window of the Tower of Agamon library that was now being lashed by the rain.
Unease. That was the word. And it was something that Riavan had been feeling for some time. Long hours of study and practice had gradually changed his sleep cycle. Now he realised that he functioned better in the still of the night than during the day. Ever since the disappearance of his Master a couple of years back, he’d focused on a single objective: to accumulate as much power as possible, regardless of where that power came from, whether it was from a noble source or from the kind whose use was forbidden. To do so, he’d devoured as much information as he could, increasing his knowledge of magic by leaps and bounds. And now it turned out that he could be awaiting an assailant who might kill him, according to Arthur.
“I do hope this mysterious adversary’s well-prepared, Arthur. Hope he knows that he’ll be facing the most powerful wizard that your damned Order has ever seen, and who won’t think twice about killing him,” said Riavan, raising his glass in a toast. “And I hope those swine you now call superiors are on their guard. When I make my move, they’ll be in fear for their lives. They’ll be afraid of me because they didn’t do anything much about my Master’s disappearance, and on top of everything they sent me three apprentices to keep me in check. ‘The Tower of Agamon needs a Guardian,’ that was their excuse. They won’t be able to get away from me.”
They were treacherous snakes, but they were cunning too. And in his position, Riavan had no contacts who could help him tell the difference between friends and enemies. He took a slug of wine. For some days now he’d felt ready to set off, but the letter made him hesitate. Should he wait for the unknown adversary, or leave the Tower of Agamon and go visit Arthur and Eudora? They were the only ones he could trust.
He turned to the window, and his gaze wandered over the gate at the exterior wall, as the rain beat down with a vengeance and lightening ripped through the night sky from time to time. His eyes strayed to the stone bridge known as the Wizard’s Crossing, and then the darkness that was the Mandora Swamp, full of menace as always. Spotting the light from a guard doing his usual rounds of the ramparts, he even felt a small stab of pity for the man, who must be soaked to the skin.
All of a sudden, he felt a magical force at his back. He turned, taking care to stay in the shadows, mustering mana. It was an enormously powerful presence, but didn’t feel threatening or dangerous in any way, although he couldn’t see the source.
“Who are you?” he asked.
The presence remained, but Riavan received no answer.
“I don’t have time to waste communicating via notes on bits of paper, or moving things around the room. If you have something to say to me, find a comprehensible way of letting me know about it. If not… well, as long as I don’t perceive you as a threat, I won’t drain your energy.”
He was bringing the glass to his lips, when he suddenly froze. The Tower of Agamon was shaking, and another flash of magical energy, raw and fierce, slammed into him like a hammer blow. He was holding the glass so tightly that it shattered in his gloved hand.
“My apologies, mysterious presence, but right now there’s another problem that requires all my attention. Stop moving stuff around and leave when you’re ready.”
Riavan tightened his gloves. There was no doubt about it, the reaper had arrived at his tower. Riavan smiled slightly, feeling sorry for him. Reaching the library staircase, he started to make his way up to the highest part of his stronghold in a leisurely fashion, his body glowing with a faint bluish light.
He was Riavan Blackwell. The Guardian of the Tower of Agamon. And he would need to explain this clearly to someone, in detail.
He passed the floor where the apprentices’ rooms were, and started walking up the last flight of stairs that led to his Master’s apartments, in the dome of the Tower. As he reached the imposing double doors made of rich wood, he felt an almost tangible energy emanating from the other side. He braced himself, clenching his fists. No-one had been into that room for years, and it still pained him.
Riavan once again tightened his gloves with a squeeze. Gritting his teeth, he pushed open the heavy doors, and stepped boldly into the room. It was spacious, a thick carpet covered the floor, and there were lighted candles in all the sconces. Six rounded columns in black obsidian reached to the ceiling, reflecting the flickering flames. The walls were lined with shelves packed with hundreds of books whose papery smell filled the air. At the other end of the room, just under a window that just now was wide open, stood a large desk of gleaming wood. And an armchair. This was where his Master had taught him the mystic secrets over the course of years.
His Master’s papers, which hadn’t been touched since the day he disappeared, had flown off the table and were now scattered all over the floor. But that was irrelevant in comparison with the figure leaning on the table. Small, wrapped in a spotless white tunic with a hood. Beneath the hood all that could be seen was a neat grey beard and a pair of eyes with a penetrating gaze.
“Good evening, sir,” said Riavan. “Had we known you’d be paying us a visit tonight, we’d have had something prepared for you. Such as an arrow in the stomach, for example. Which is standard procedure for dealing with intruders.”
“Riavan Blackwell,” replied the man, in a hoarse voice. “You’re younger than I expected. Your predecessor, Lord Eliah Argent, has told me so many stories of your prowess. ‘Best student I ever had,’ he used to say. And I think he was right. I can feel an immense magical energy within you.”
Riavan wasn’t about to let this man play games with him. The choice of the room certainly hadn’t been fortuitous. And neither was the naming of his master, aimed at prompting the question of whether or not he was still alive. Or where he might be. But Riavan was ready: he’d honed his technique by ignoring all the prohibitions. And the time had come for him to test himself. This man was the enemy. The reaper.
“But I’m forgetting my manners,” said the visitor. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Boethel, sorcerer of the Order of the Serpent. And it is on the instructions of our Grand Master that I present myself before you, Guardian of the Tower of Agamon, to humbly request a favour. Please forgive my methods, but there could be no witnesses to my visit, as I come on matters of the utmost secrecy.”
“Do I myself count as a witness, Lord Boethel? And your henchmen?”
“Oh, Lord Blackwell, please. These men are merely my personal guard, and they are completely loyal to the Order and its methods.”
Two warriors stepped out from behind the columns. Riavan observed them. They were in full armour, polished and gleaming, with closed helmets, gauntlets and armoured boots. Not an inch of skin in sight.
“Are you sure that these are indeed ‘men’, Lord Boethel?”
“What else could they be?” replied the man, with a shrug of the shoulders.
“I don’t know Lord Boethel, which is why I’m asking.” Riavan stretched his hands out towards them in a theatrical gesture. “In the first place, I’m seeing them up here at the top of a sixty-metre-high tower, and can only assume that they came in through the window. Secondly, they’re loaded down with heavy metal armour that can only inhibit natural movement, and so would logically make climbing extremely difficult. And, thirdly, they’re wet from the rain, but I can’t see a single speck of mud on their boots.”
“And what is your conclusion?”
“I’m not yet sure, because more questions come to mind. For example, ‘how’, ‘why’, and above all, ‘how long’?”
“How long?” there was the slightest of hesitations in Boethel’s voice. Riavan saw that this question had put him on his guard. But it was too late.
“Indeed, Lord Boethel. How long will it take me to finish you all off?”
Energy crackled around room. Long tongues of it flowed from Riavan, lashing the floor like whips, scorching the carpet, turning the books to ash, and ripping chunks of obsidian from the columns. But that was only the residual part of the spell. A broad swathe of energy flew from the wizard’s outstretched hands, intensely blue, striking the first guard’s feet and making him scream in a way that was anything but human. It shot towards the other one who was seized by convulsions, and the smell of burning flesh filled the air. Boethel screamed, his hands stretched out before him, while the defence field he’d generated just about managed to deflect the attack.
Riavan was going to finish him off using just a single spell, but one with the force of all his power and the immensity of his hatred behind it. He grunted with the effort, but the bolt of lightning intensified, changing from blue to blinding white. The screams of the guards ceased as the metal began to warp and melt. Boethel shrieked as his shield gradually fell apart and the flesh on his hands began to fall away, revealing smoking bones.
Riavan closed his fists and the spell ended. The room was silent. All that could be heard was the crackle of the books and carpet, the hiss of metal armour as it cooled, and faint moans coming from Boethel, bent over his horribly burned arms.
“I think that was five seconds, what do you reckon?” said Riavan, panting with the effort. The previous spells, ‘Quick Launch’, ‘Overload’ and ‘Basic Energy Protection’, that he’d cast before going into the room had fizzled out as well. His mana reserves were severely depleted.
“You’re insane! I’m an emissary!” screamed Boethel.
“No, Lord Boethel. You’re an intruder. Nobody enters my Tower without permission from me. I won’t allow anybody to desecrate my Master’s office,” Riavan reached out with an effort, opening his fist. Tiny filaments of fire began to trail over his fingers, swirling in the palm of his hand.
“The Guardian of the Tower is needed!” gasped Boethel, clearly in agony. “It’s part of the Grand Plan!”
“I’m nobody’s servant, you fool.”
“We never meant for you to be the Guardian!” cried Boethel. His whole body was writhing and twisting, and it was starting to give off an odd black vapour.
Riavan heard the warning, it was coming from right next to him, and the voice was a woman’s. And then there was a wet crack. The wizard looked down and saw the tip of a dagger sticking out of his chest. The blood was slowly beginning to flow, soaking his white shirt. The magic was slipping away from him.
“We’d already taken everything away from you. Everything! All we needed to do was to eliminate you, so that someone more… amenable… could take your place. But things had to be done right. The Tower of Agamon cannot change… at least not yet. You’re a dead man! Understand?” Boethel’s voice was now a dark hiss, and he sounded somewhat unbalanced. Riavan tried hard to focus, watching as he changed, his body starting to mutate into something grotesque.
But it was all over in a flash. A gigantic ball of fire slammed into the mutant that had once been Boethel with such violence that it sent him flying backwards and out through the open window, engulfed in flame and shouting something in a strange language. For a second, he hung in the air, desperately trying to grab hold of the storm with his burned arms. Before plummeting to earth like a stone.
“We can always say that we were attacked. Both the Order and the servants will see that as more credible. Another disappearance would look too suspicious.” said a calm voice behind Riavan.
The wizard turned, but his strength had left him. He slumped to the floor. And saw Abel, his first disciple, and the eldest one. The one who had stabbed him in the back. And who held another naked dagger in his hand.
“We’ve been planning this for months, Master. And things have worked out even better than expected. Like a fool, you used up all your power fighting against them. It was truly magnificent. You destroyed each other. I no longer need to serve either you or him, and now it’s me who’s the real Guardian of the Tower. Clever, don’t you think? You simply can’t imagine how carefully I had to think about each and every move. And in the end, I beat the lot of you. Because now everything belongs to me.”
Riavan glared at his pupil but was unable to answer. He tasted the metallic tang of blood in his mouth, and knew that his life was slipping away. The letter Arthur had sent hadn’t been precise enough: the reaper wasn’t on his way to the Tower, he’d already been living in it for years. Riavan looked into the eyes of his apprentice. For the first time he noticed something hard, something that glittered with a malice that no longer needed to be hidden. He’d been so tied up in this own preparation that he’d become blind, and no doubt he’d lost Abel a long time ago.
“You’ll no doubt be asking yourself why? The plan was brilliant, and we’ve taken the greatest of care to…” Abel started to say, with a broad smile on his face.
“Are you still looking for my approval even now, Abel? You’re not one of those chosen for magic, and you never will be. All you are is a poisonous snake, incapable of taking on the challenges that I’ve always set for you. You’re an utter disappointment. The only way you were able to defeat me was stabbing me in the back, like all cowards. But you won’t get away scot free. I can promise you that.” Riavan summoned the last of his energy, swiftly raising his hand and pointing his index finger at his former pupil. A thread of fire shot out, hitting Abel on the forehead, and winding its way upwards, leaving a deep furrow of charred flesh in its wake. Abel let out a piercing scream, and Riavan smiled, blood trickling down from the corner of his mouth. A painful blow, not one that could kill, but enough to brand him for life.
Reeling from the attack and still screaming, Abel lunged with his dagger. Riavan’s severed hand fell to the floor.
“Your time is up! I’m in charge of the Tower now!” he yelled. “And a lot of things are going to change around here, that I can promise you. I’m going to smash every single thing that reminds me of you. Or of your Master. There will be nothing left of you, nothing at all.”
But Riavan wasn’t listening. He saw the figure of a woman with a hood, standing next to him. The nonthreatening presence in the library. He tried to speak, but couldn’t get the words out.
“Are you ignoring me?” spat Abel, quite beside himself. And he plunged the dagger into Riavan’s throat.
Ayla stood motionless as the call came to an end, and she was back in her cabin. She performed the movements necessary to capture the essence of the wizard, and a few seconds later a soul gem lit up, with a greenish blue light.
Several paths opened up before her. And she knew that she had to account for all of them. But she was feeling emotional and wasn’t thinking clearly. She’d witnessed the fall of an exile, the barrier between Endarth and the Interstices was getting weaker. And also, perhaps because of all this, the wizard had been able to see her for an instant just before he died.
She shook her head, and for once allowed herself to be carried away by her emotions: she knew how it felt to be betrayed. She’d seen her own Order fall, thanks to people like Abel, and it made her blood boil. Hands curled into fists; she remembered the wizard’s last words.
“Don’t worry Riavan Blackwell,” said Ayla as the energy gathered around her and she opened the door to investigate the northern part of her log cabin. “You’ll do that yourself.”