Ravens watched us from the skeletons of the trees as we marched through trackless forest. Their eyes betrayed an unnatural intelligence. We passed them by again and again. Each time, they flew ahead and waited, leading us on. We saw no wildlife besides the strange birds, and no people besides the four of us. The stillness was uncanny.
You’d be surprised how easy it is to spot the home of a wizard. If you can make anything appear out of the ether, you don’t have much use for people, gardens, or roads. Any house in the middle of nowhere, with no farm and no craft, is probably owned by someone with magic. Roul was no exception.
We stopped at the edge of the trees. The manor house was built from the local stone. Iron stained the granite like blood. Four towers, each four stories tall, surrounded the main building. Its oaken double doors were reinforced with steel bands. The nearest tower to my left had been reduced to rubble. This was it. It had all the markers: isolated, creepy, strange.
Seb rested his fists on his hips and stared past me.
“It looks like Erland did a number on the place, didn’t he?” I asked.
“I wonder what happened,” said Seb.
Alvaro pushed past me, rubbed his hands together, and laughed. “He’s not home.”
“How do you know?” Yidir had his scimitar in hand. He hadn’t sheathed it in hours.
“Trust me, if he was, we would have been greeted,” said Alvaro. “He hates uninvited guests.”
I heard leaves crunching from behind the building and drew my sword. Seb aimed his heavy crossbow. “Something’s coming,” I whispered.
We took cover behind the trees and waited. A doe walked around the edge of the building, holding a candlestick in its mouth like a dog. “The hell is that?” whispered Seb. I raised my hand to silence him. The deer met my gaze. Its big, brown eyes were knowing. It walked to the edge of the forest, bent low, and set the candlestick on a pile of kitchenware and knickknacks. It looked at me one more time and rested in the grass.
I crept towards the deer. The ground crunched under my feet. It turned its nose up, exposing its neck. Was it asking to die? I’d never seen anything like it. The deer was crying. Tears ran from its eyes as it whimpered.
“What’s wrong with it?” asked Alvaro.
Yidir stopped next to me. “This is no ordinary animal.”
“How so?” I asked.
“It wasn’t always a deer,” said Yidir. “Roul did something to it.”
“That’s sick. Why?” asked Seb.
“He’s known for his perversions. Alchemists can change one thing into another. I had heard rumors that he liked to change people into animals or decorations.” Yidir’s lip twitched. He looked away from the doe. “Seems this creature is more fortunate than the others it gathered.”
Alvaro was looking at the jeweled dagger with hungry eyes. “These are people?”
“I suspect as much,” said Yidir. “We won’t know until his spells are broken.”
“Well, if his curses are holding up, we know he’s not dead, right?” I turned towards the ruined tower. “Let’s have a look.”
If this was Erland’s handiwork, I was impressed. The larger stones of the first floor were cracked and burnt, scattered in a wide circle. The rest of the tower collapsed onto the foundation. “It looks like something exploded inside the tower. An accident?” I asked.
“No,” said Yidir. “His laboratory is on the top floor of the opposite tower, unless he moved it.” He adjusted his shesh and squinted against the cold as he walked around the rubble. “Ha. Look here.”
We followed him. A rotting hand with missing fingers was jutting out from under the stones. Animals had eaten most of the flesh, exposing the bone. Alvaro had the dead man’s ruby ring off in seconds.
“Careful there,” said Seb.
Alvaro held the ring towards the sun. “Amazing. I guess he is dead.”
Yidir folded his arms, scowling. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Do you think that bastard has a phylactery hidden somewhere?” I asked. Some magicians could hide their soul in an object, giving them a faux immortality. “Even if he has one, coming back from this might be hard.”
We were making ourselves at home. It was only a matter of time before some other wizard came poking around. Yidir was hoping for one. Me, not so much.
I was the only one of the four of us with any formal training in the mystic arts. Not that I have any talent for it, but I had worked as a scribe in the library at Nantes. They had taught me how to read spells, if not use them.
I lit the wall sconces and paced around the upper floor of the northern tower. Two little arched windows rattled against the evening wind. The draft was terrible. Fortunately, there was a coal furnace in the middle of the room. I got it going, then set to work looking for clues. What had Erland taken? Where had Roul hidden his phylactery?
The study was small but packed with oddities. Various pickled body parts, most of which I couldn’t identify, lined the shelves. Clay jars, bottles of chemicals, fossils, candles, and books were littered everywhere. I sat down at the desk and rifled through the drawers. Found his half-finished spell books and journals. What was this old bastard up to?
It took me three days, but I found my answer.
The morning sun filtered through the lab. Seb and the others joined me. They looked well-rested. I walked over to the window and looked at the crying doe. It was still there, curled up with its inanimate friends. I shook my head. Strange.
“Find an antidote for them?” asked Seb.
I shook my head again. “Let me finish my tea, and I’ll show you what I found.”
“Riders,” said Yidir. From the fourth floor, I could see deep into the forest. Three people on horseback were approaching. Yidir hung out the window, laughed, and yelled to them. “Hello there!”
Three young voices shouted back. Emile and the kids were here. Better, they had our horses. I rushed down the steps after Yidir and met them outside. Emile dismounted and hugged me, then Seb, while Yidir met his children.
She smiled warmly. Something seemed different about her. “So, a thing happened,” said Emile.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Nothing. Erland found us in Laon. We handled him.” She was beaming.
“You handled him?” asked Seb.
Emile told us the story: Erland’s alchemy, the faeries helping her fight, and the fate of the sword. She told us that Erland had been hurt badly and escaped. I was glad they didn’t chase him.
My hands were shaking. I don’t know if I was feeling relief of anger. I wanted to ride back to Laon and find him. “I am so sorry I wasn’t there to protect you. I thought we would find him first.”
“It’s okay,” she said. “You taught me enough to get by. So, what’s happening here?”
Everyone followed me back up the tower. It was good Emile was here. I needed her help.
“You want me to cast one of Master Roul’s spells?” Emile raised an eyebrow, incredulously.
“It’ll be easy. I’m not a sorcerer, but I know a little about the arcane arts,” I said. “I’ll cast the spell, draw the circle, and mix the ingredients. All that you need to do is stand inside the circle and visualize it filling with light.”
Emile nodded. “I can do that.”
Yidir and Sebastian traded uneasy glances. I didn’t blame them. We were literally messing with forces we didn’t understand.
I grabbed Roul’s spellbook. The leather-bound tome stank of rotten flesh. “Don’t worry, boys. I know what I’m doing.”
The kids had the fireplace roaring. I was thankful for the warmth. It took a couple of hours, but I managed to copy the magic circle from one of Roul’s spells onto the floor of the main hall with chalk. A few of the more complex runes had to be written in blood. I didn’t do this every day, so I used my own. I cut two of the fingers on my right hand drew the symbols. An eerie feeling crept over me. I looked at Yidir. His arms were folded, frowning.
“This is a bad idea. What if something comes back through?” said Yidir.
“I don’t think it works that way. It’s a good spell. Nothing will come back through,” I said. Though if I believed it, I don’t know I would have put so much work into Emile’s magic circle.
I checked my work against the book. It was perfect. I had a knack for this sort of thing. It was a shame that I couldn’t make better use of the talent.
Emile stood next to me. “Are you sure?” she asked, nervously.
“I am. It’ll work,” I said.
Seb was carving a chess piece from a block of wood. “That’s not bad. You should take up art.”
Emile took a deep breath and stepped into the circle. The fire shrank and turned bright blue, casting strange shadows through the hall.
“Impressive,” said Yidir.
“Just wait,” I said.
She faced away from us, looking towards the fire with raised hands. Her simple white tunic and pale skin caught its light. An aura of azure energy radiated from her body. Watching her gave me a chill. Emile was making it look easy. Slow breath. No tension. She reminded me of someone I used to know. Maybe I’d introduce them if we still went to Nantes.
Nantes. My heart sank. I had it in mind to take her to my teachers. It was her vision, but I wanted it for her. If Erland was out of the picture, there was no reason to keep running. She could go back to her father’s forge and pound iron, like he wanted her too. A month ago, it was all she knew.
Now look at her.
She brought her hands together in a prayer position. A portal of light opened before her. Howling, frigid wind poured through.
“That’s my cue.” I snatched the chess piece Seb had been working on. It was his best work – a knight on horseback, finely detailed. “For luck.”
He shook my hand at the wrist. Yidir did the same.
“Good work,” I said to Emile as I walked past her. She didn’t seem to hear me.
I grabbed a bear pelt cloak hung by the fire and pulled it tight. Without looking back, I stepped through the portal. Other than the cold, there was no accompanying sensation. It was just a different kind of doorway.
I was standing on the edge of a cliff, looking out over a field that bristled with impossibly tall spikes of rainbowed stone. The wind howled in my ears. Gold and silver shimmered across the valley floor. I looked up. Feral the Green was here. I had read as much in Roul’s journal, but didn’t believe it. The dragon slept, curled around one of the spires. His snakelike body was thick with interlocking ribbons of steel and scale.
“Hey there,” I shouted. Feral’s eyes opened. Big golden orbs, slit like a cat’s. “I’ve come to trade.”
There was a flash of golden light. Feral vanished, then reappeared in the air above me. I jumped back, startled. He extended his humanlike arms and spoke with a voice that was hollow like the rushing of water through a cave. “Worship.”
I knelt. This was no time to explain my aversion to religion.
“Where is Roul?” he asked.
“Dead, or soon to be.”
“No!” I looked back at the portal. It was still open. “Someone buried him under a tower. I’d like to finish the job.”
The dragon was silent for a moment. I was sure he was weighing his options. I’d have loved to know what Roul had over on him.
“Let me take his phylactery. When he’s dead, won’t you be free?” I asked.
The dragon laughed. A low, terrible rumble like a mountain crashing into the water. “It’s not in me to give you anything but swift death.”
“A trade.” I held up the wooden figure. “Beautiful, isn’t it? Help me, and men will always covet this statue because of what you traded to get it.”
Bright light consumed me. I squeezed my eyes and covered my head, expecting the worst. When I opened them, I was kneeling on a pile of gold coins. Feral was still above me. His wings beat with a slow, steady rhythm that magically kept him aloft.
A marble pillar stuck out of the pile. I scrambled towards it, slipping on loose coins and sending them rolling down the hill. The dragon’s eyes were on me. I needed to be careful. If he thought I took any of his gold, I’d be dead.
I grabbed the pillar and stood. The phylactery was sitting on top. What an asshole. Most wizards put their souls in something with a little class – a bone scepter, a marble statue, a mirror. Roul’s phylactery was a fist-sized cube of platinum. I looked back at the dragon. He must know that I had no idea how to destroy it.
“Take it,” he said.
I grabbed the cube and left the statue in its place. There was another flash of light. I was back on the cliff. Feral was on his spire, coiling around it like a rope. He whispered like crashing waves. “I have been trapped here for ages. Destroy the cube and free me. If Roul doesn’t die, this place will be my hell. Do not fail me.”
I nodded to him, soberly. No idea why he put faith in me. Desperation, I guess. I felt like my honor was on the executioner’s block.
“I won’t fail you.” I stepped back through the portal.
Emile dropped to her knees the second I was through, sweat pouring down her face. The fire grew bright and orange as the portal vanished. Seb and the others ran to me. I kept my eyes on Emile. She looked up and smiled. “You okay?” I asked.
“I am.” She was beaming. “Better than okay. I’m a freaking sorcerer!”
“So, what happened?” asked Yidir.
I held up the cube. Everyone crowded around and stared. “What is it?” asked Alvaro.
“Wow,” said Yidir. “No wonder no one could kill this guy.”
“Don’t worry. I know where to take it,” I said.
I walked alongside the oxcart with Emile while Seb drove the animals. Tadla rode next to him. Nantes wasn’t that far. We’d be there in a few days. If anyone would know how to destroy the phylactery, the mages at my old college would. Better, they had every reason to. Everyone hated Roul.
Yidir and his son stayed back at Roul’s keep, making sure no one disturbed his sleep. I wouldn’t be surprised if they buried him in another ton of rock. The only thing he asked was that we hurry, and that we take Tadla with us. He didn’t want his daughter around if other wizards came.
Seemed I was collecting daughters. What a life.
Maybe there was another way to destroy the cube. Maybe I could have just melted it down, or turned it to glass with something in his lab. I didn’t know. Didn’t want to think about it. For some reason, I really wanted Emile to see Nantes, and this was as good a reason as any.
Thanks for reading the complete first arc of Winoc the Traveler! I’ll start on the second part this spring. For now, back to National Novel Writing Month.