Needle Ash – Chapter 7, “Knives of Darkness” part 2

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“What now?” Michael said as they walked back, raising his voice to carry over the sound of shouts and claps, spears on shields, and the sounding of war horns. They entered a vast stretch between the first formations, waving. General Butler stood waiting for them in his full armor, and his visor up. He wore a smile that wrinkled his old face further.

“We drink and be merry,” Edward said. “We’ll leave three companies on guard at all times, still, for their could still be betrayal or, more likely misbehavior in the ranks.”

“A little tolerance will go a long way toward engendering loyalty at home,” Johan said.

“I agree, but this is still an army.”

“I meant,” Michael said, now having to shout over the cheering. “What is next with Ferralla and Alanrae. When…”

“Details of the marriage will be worked out in due time. You will remain here when we leave, then I or Johan will return as witness for the ceremony. Unless you wish to wed her straight away.” Edward laughed. “And I would not blame you.”

“Luckily, I brought along most of my effects,” Michael said. “But I of course I would love to-”

Michael stopped on the ground, feeling an odd sensation in his feet.

“What’s wrong?” Johan said, stopping and turning back.

“Come along,” Edward shouted from some paces ahead, not breaking his stride. Butler had fallen in beside him, and they were talking to one another.

“You feel that in the ground? Do you hear that?” Michael said.

“I hear cheering and feel stomping,” Johan said.

“There’s a…. a whistling.”

“I hear that, too.”

“No! What I mean is-” Michael broke off as he felt a twig snap in his pocket. “Something’s wrong!” He drew his sword. “Father! There’s something wrong?”

“What?” Edward said, finally pausing. He turned around to face his son, and that is when Michael saw it: a misty smoke was rising from the earth around his father and the general, spreading out over the ground.

“Run father!” Michael said, charging up the hill toward the king. He paused in his stride as an arrow landed nearby. He searched around and saw that it had come from their own lines, some twenty yards to his right. A few more arrows were loosed, along with crossbow bolts, all aimed at him but flying wide of him. “You fools!” Michael shouted. “I’m not trying to kill the king!” Two arrows landed in front of him, and his momentum caused him to fall to avoid them.

He was too late, though. The mist was drawing up, obscuring the king. A curtain of smoke appeared, dashing out into the ranks on either side with supernatural speed. Michael saw rush from the lines, as if sprinting, two indistinct shapes roughly like men. Michael felt the twig in his pocket break two more times. He reached into his jacket and pulled out the bag of charcoal. He flung it as hard as he could toward the king and the general. It burst into a ball of fire and smoke, ash falling in a curtain by the two men.

The two man shapes were clear now, covered in burning soot which did not seem to phase them, but they were already too close to the king. They seized upon Edward, dragging him down to the ground. Black steel flashed in the mist. Butler drew his sword and went to kick one of the shadowy figures, but no sooner had he attacked then both shapes were on him, driving long knives into the gaps in his armor.  Michael burst up again, pumping his arms to sprint toward his father. Johan was near him as well, his sword drawn. The lines were holding on either side, uncertain as to what was happening and blinded by the smoke.

As they approached the king, the shapes leapt back. Michael saw two pairs of eyes, glowing with their own light, and long, drooping ears above black masks. Their shapes, as Michael watched them regard him, were indistinct around the edges, almost blurry. With a snap of magic, they unleashed a wave of fire and came running toward him. Michael held up his sword, but, as if suddenly aware of the steel, the figures dashed wide.

Michael felt suddenly torn for an agonizing moment. He saw his father and Butler lying motionless in front of him, blood oozing from wounds that were barely visible in the ashen smoke. He turned and saw the figures dashing away.

“Go!” Johan said. “I’ll see to father.”

Michael nodded and tore off after the two… were they elves? Michael had seen orcs and elves before, but these looked different, their ears and hair strange. He sprinted forward with reckless determination, but the mist that had sprung up during the attack seemed to be following the assassins, and they were outpacing him easily, becoming mere shadows in a smokey reek.

“Here, take my hand!”

Michael had not heard the approach of the galloping horse. On his right appeared Sharona, looking scared, her eyes watering and her face stained with tears. She reached an arm down and Michael grabbed it, nearly pulling her off the horse.

“It’s not going to work,” Michael said. “Slow down!”

She complied, and he was able to climb on top of the horse and slide down into the saddle behind Sharona. She lashed the reigns and Rabble-Rouser took off again, running into the mist.

“I’m sorry,” Sharona said. The mist was now swirling all around them, lit only by the dying light of the setting sun in a dull red.

“Just keep on,” Michael said. “How can you know where they are in this?”

“I can feel the magic,” Sharona said. “I’m sorry I was too late. I felt them coming.”

“Just keep on,” Michael said. “I fear they have slain my father.”

“They have. Even if he breathes, I fear there will be no healing that can save him.”

“Damn it!” Michael said.

They galloped on, until Rabble-Rouser was foaming and crying for a pause, into the mist that led ever onward. At last, Sharona slowed the beast. Before them rose trees: willows and hemlocks, alongside great oaks, massively tall, tightly grouped, with a single path splitting the foliage.

“They’re gone,” Sharona said.

Michael leapt out of the saddle. “They’ve gone into the wood here.”

“Michael!” Sharona said. “Wait, please!”

“There’s no time!” Michael said. He stopped, panting, as Sharona cut him off with her horse.

“Michael! Look at the trees.”

At last feeling out of breath, Michael looked carefully at the trees, which seemed lit strangely, as if from below, but there was no source to be seen. They, like the assassins, seemed blurry and indistinct, difficult to see clearly. Michael felt almost drunk gazing at them. Above, he could see nothing but mist.

“Where are we?” he said at last. “There’s not a forest for miles and miles.”

“I don’t know,” Sharona said. “But those were mages, and dark elves at that. We dare not follow them into that… whatever realm that is.”

“We have to,” Michael said. “They slew my father.” He took a deep breath and stepped forward, but even as he did so, the mist seemed to draw back into the wood, and the trees groaned like a great voice. A curtain of red mist obscured their leaves and branches. Michael stopped to watch. When he approached again, there was only mist over grasses and brush.

“What happened?”

“I… I only have ideas,” Sharona said.

“They’re gone. We’ll never catch them now,” Michael said, staring wide-eyed at where the wood had just been. “Why did you stop us?” he said in a heat of anger, turning back to Sharona.

“I… I said I would protect you, Michael. It’s my job to protect you. I’m sorry I couldn’t save your father. I was… I was just…” Tears sprang up on her face. “I was just too far away. But you are what matters. If you had followed them in there, you would not have returned.”

Michael nodded slowly, watching the empty space where the wood had been. “We need to assemble a search team, scour the area.”

“You will need the mage corps,” Sharona said.

Michael sighed. That would mean dealing with Towler, one way or the other.

 

Michael rode with what speed he could still muster from his destrier, but Calot was near exhaustion, as was Rabble-Rouser beside him. They slowed as they caught sight of Johan standing outside the command tent of Towler, along with a gaggle of armed soldiers. Torches lit the avenues of the camp brightly. Michael dismounted and run forward to see Towler in chains.

Towler stood defiantly, but swooned slightly, leaning left and right as the soldiers held him up. Marolo, who was a lieutenant in the mage corps, stood near at hand, whispering something incoherent to seal away the old man’s magic.

Johan looked upon him with hard eyes. “I can scarcely wonder why,” he said, turning to Michael. “But then, Butler and father are dead… who else would have brought such beings into our midsts?”

“So they are dead,” Michael said. Johan nodded grimly.

“Look to your brat of a brother,” Towler said in response, shaking his head as if trying to stay awake.

“The one engaged to a queen and disinherited from the crown? Even if I didn’t know assassination to be beyond his character, that is a stretch.” Johan scratched his chin.

“I had always assumed he was in league with Ferralla,” Michael said. “But this… who the hell got to you old man?”

“Nobody,” Towler drawled.

Michael felt Sharona wrap her hands around his left arm and squeeze. He caught her worried look.

“Did you search his tent yet?” Michael said.

Johan looked over. “Yes. We found a chest full of beetles that flew away. Some books. Some oddments we ought to look into, and a respectable amount of coin.”

“What about a box of paper?” Michael said. “It was under his secretaire.”

“I think he means this, sire,” a nearby knight said. He handed to Johan a mangled pile of paper.

Johan handed it to Michael, who visibly collapsed as he sighed. The box was ripped apart, its edges slightly singed as if it had tried to burn.

“We tore it open, but there was just nonsense inside,” the knight said.

“There was paper yet inside it?” Michael said. “Where is it?”

The knight handed him a small stack of paper.

“What is this?” Michael said, looking through the stack. “This doesn’t look like any language I’ve heard of.” Each page was filled with what looked like a random assortment of letters and punctuation. Even phonetically it was nonsense.

“The wizard’s box,” Sharona said, taking one of the papers. “It broke the letters by rewriting them into nonsense.”

“I figured it was some sort of code,” Michael said. “Thought maybe it could be cracked.”

“I don’t think so,” Sharona said. “This is the work of that box. This is magic.”

“Towler’s clever,” Michael said, looking again to the shifting mage. “Maybe these are in code, but I think Sharona is right. You can look at the format and see that nothing lines up right. We might have lost the only hard evidence we had on him.”

“You should have waited for me,” Sharona said. “But then, who would know what a paper box meant?”

“Did you catch the assassins?” Johan said.

Michael took a breath. “No. They disappeared into… an enchanted wood.”

“They’re dark elves,” Sharona said. “They fled back into their own realm, probably a memory of when this place was younger.”

“How the hell did they get here in the first place?” Michael said.

Morolo spoke up. “They could only be brought forward with magic. You can find such places, I have heard, if you know where the other realm is and you are good at detecting the ley lines of old creation magic.”

“How strong would a mage have to be to summon those assassins?” Johan said.

Morolo shook his head, holding an eye to Towler as if it was a leash and Tolwer a defiant dog. “It would have to have been a powerful mage, sire. Very strong and with a mind so expansive as to be able to conceive of two worlds existing simultaneously.”

“So only Towler could have done it?” Michael said.

“Or me,” Sharona said. Johan paused to looked at her, frowning.

“Who is this, again?”

Michael waved his hands in the air. “Never mind her. She’s my… bodyguard. A good battlemage.”

Sharona squinted at Michael. “I’m a terrible battle mage. I’m an excellent regular mage, though. I can turn your neck hair into-” Sharona caught the look on Johan’s face and stopped short. “It would have taken a senior mage with a great amount of power and knowledge of this area, gained either through experience or by smuggling books from queen Alanrae.

“Take him to the holding cell,” Johan said. “We may need to question him further.”

 

“That was really stupid,” Michael said as they walked their horses to the edge of the camp. “Telling my brother it could have been you.”

“I didn’t say that,” Sharona said. “I said only that I could have found the way to summon the men. I couldn’t have, though.”

“You could or you couldn’t?” Michael said.

“I could, but I couldn’t. Have. I don’t know the area well enough to find the thin spots and move between realms. You saw with that forest how diverse the two locations are.”

“Well, could you find them?” Michael said.

“Yes,” Sharona said. “If you are willing to wait and to allow me to work.”

“It’s not the kind of time I prefer patience, but if it requires it, I shall have it.”

“Good. We’ll get started tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” Michael said. “If you have a way of finding those men, we should be working on it tonight.”

“Your father is dead,” Sharona said quietly. “Finding them will not bring him or the general back.”

“But it will bring me peace. I owe revenge for two. Butler is Julia’s father, and she will want to see justice done to him.”

“I fear your peace is a long way off,” Sharona said, her voice soft. “But at the least, I will need sleep. It’s essential.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Michael said.

“Of course I’m right.”

Michael chuckled. “Let’s make sure Guissali hasn’t slept through this whole affair.”

This post is part of a project to write and publish a book in a month, as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). If you enjoy this story, consider buying my other fantasy novel The Water of Awakening.

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