“A black scroll?” Kieran asked, bewildered by the peculiarity of the thought.
“That’s what I said.” Voss said, sneering.
“It’s even got a seal; a pretty fancy one at that.”
Crimson wax formed a glossy smooth circle at the center of the scroll. From the insignia-pressed symbol in the wax, a circular arrangement of characters ran around a fine open eye at the center.
“Let me see it!” Kieran reached for the parchment but grabbed a handful of air as Voss turned, pausing briefly before she walloped him with her unoccupied hand. Voss was nearly a head taller than Kieran and her slight advantage in years and strength was more than enough to deal with a young man of Kieran’s developing physique.
Unfazed, Kieran frenzied for the scroll. His frustration at the futility of his efforts becoming more apparent by the second as he fought against Voss’s unrelenting arm pressed firmly against his forehead.
“Shut up will you! I’m trying to make out the words on this seal!” Voss said, blowing some of the sweat-soaked brown hair from her eyes.
“Cerlynian? Hmm, no. Maybe Arkthik or Ancient Vandashi! No, no, the lines aren’t quite right...” She muttered as she focused on the waxy words.
With Voss almost entirely focused on the deciphering the seal’s symbols, Kieran edged his chin around her shoulder to steal a peek at the mysterious object.
“I know I’ve seen something like this before. It’s not in a language I think you’ve studied yet.” Voss said after a momentary pause.
By the Gods, there are more of them? Kieran and Voss had spent nearly the last decade studying maths and alchemies, medicine and history under the tyrannical tutelage of Magus Arwil Sung as his only two apprentices. Kieran could recite the famous poem “For Kor, For King, For Glory” in eight languages, five of which he was fluent in. He hardly had a knack for calligraphy, but was confident with a pen in at least four of those languages as well. He knew incantations in ancient tongues and could even identify the symbols and glyphs of twenty long-dead civilizations, each with its on nuances and style.
Even with what most would call a “gifted way with languages,” Kieran wasn’t half as good as Voss - at nearly everything. She drank up the knowledge like water, always reading about the magic they would one day learn and indulging on the academic life of a mage in training. Kieran’s saving grace was in alchemy where his cavalier attitude towards mixing dangerous and highly explosive chemicals together was actually encouraged, whereas Voss excelled at mostly everything he did not. It was a fact Voss rarely neglected to remind him of.
“We better take this to the magus; it’s probably from some secret counsel at the Consortium. Come on.” She said.
“What? We still have to get milk, bread, oils, parchment…er..we still have the whole day of errands left!” Kieran said, gesturing with an open arm to the busy market around them. “We get a few hours a week away from that Gods dammed tower and you already want to go back?”
“Kieran, this is clearly something important for the Magus and he needs to see it immediately.” She slid the letter into the inner pocket of him jacket and tossed the rest of the mail into the sack at her side and turned back towards the tower keep at the heart of the city. “Plus, I’m sure I’ve see this before, I have to find out!”
“Fine, you can climb the three-hundred steps up the tower to take it to him. I’m going to sup my sweet air of freedom while it lasts!” Kieran called as Voss was beginning to disappear into the crowd.
I’ll never understand why she relishes in it so much. Kieran shook his head, and produced a long list from his satchel. He scratched off “Fetch the Post” with his small charcoal pencil and sighe. Kieran imagined what his mother’s face would have looked like if someone were to tell her how fond he had grown of doing his chores about the town. Although it didn’t much matter what he was doing outside the tower - he would have cleaned the stables for free if it meant I didn’t have to learn another bloody glyph of transference.
As the sun began to set a few hours later, the various markets gathered their wares and began to close shop. Kieran waded his way through the retreating market dwellers towards Arwil’s tower, one of the tallest of the city’s towers. Its unmistakable entrance glowed in blue torch fire on either side – the mage equivalent of the Consortium banner. A flag or a sigil would have served just as well, but Kieran supposed that those old bastards had a knack for the theatrical. Now burdened with the likeness of a week’s worth of errands, tools, and necessities, he severely regretted his decision to remain down in the markets. The endless steps were a brutal challenge even when two people could bear the load; taking on the steps alone would be a physical feat fit for the bards. He opened the two doors and entered the base of the tower. He gazed up the steps until the spirals curved away from him, sighed, and began the long stride to the top.
The long steps to the top of the tower was enough deterrent for most visitors; wanted or not. However, Arwil decided to add some further impediments to the journey with a series of very heavy and magically-sealed door; three to be exact. Kieran, Voss, and Magus Arwil all possessed glyphs inscribed into their palms as well as the knowledge of where to place them to open the large doors. Each time they left the tower or returned to it, the glyph keys would have to be placed in the exact same spots along the masonry, unmarked and impervious to detection to one who was unfamiliar with the mechanics of the devices. After years of this practice, any one of the three could have unlocked every door while blindfolded, deaf and drunk. It was a tedious but necessary process for a consortium tower.
As Kieran climbed to the first door there was a faint whipping howl from somewhere further up the tower; a very unusual sound. The spiral steps were enclosed their entire length to the top, each segment of the spiral closed off by the glyph doors. The only sounds that graced this dank passage were the footfalls of climber’s boots clacking against the flat stone and the fluttering flames of the blue torches lining the passage.
After a moment’s hesitation at the oddity, it became clear what was making the eerie noise; Kieran was hearing wind. It was a soft whisper of the cool summer breeze outside. That meant that the doors had to be open. In all his years at the tower with Arwil and Voss not once had any one carelessly left one unlocked, nevertheless unclosed.
Something is wrong about this.
Kieran placed the burden of his brimming satchels full of food and supplies down onto the polished granite steps against the wall. Attempting to be silent, he reached behind his back and lifted the tuft of his linen shirt exposing a short, slender scabbard around his belt and drew his dagger. Arwil had scolded Kieran several times for the “crude implement” of a dagger, doubly so on the numerous occasions that Kieran was haphazardly caught with the weapon concealed in his boot or fastened to his wrist. “An apprentice of the consortium does not wield such crude instruments, it begs the question of what unscrupulous activities a young boy might be up to,” the Magus had lectured.
Kieran had heard the speech a dozen times, though he figured any thief or brute wouldn’t give two shits whether he were a bloody apprentice of the esteemed and powerful consortium or not. The tower was well known in the city of Kor and its occupants would stick out like a sore thumb in their bright clothing and laden packs of valuable alchemical supplies and jingling coin purses. Kieran would take his chances with Arwil’s lectures rather than suffer the embarrassment of returning bloodied and robbed from a trip down the wrong alley. Perhaps it’s time he taught me some of the magic he is so desperate to protect and I wouldn’t need a sneak thief’s crude implement.
With his troublesome dagger drawn, Kieran felt the icy confidence of steel in his hand and began to walk up the steps, gingerly placing his feet to avoid the telltale footfalls from echoing through the spiral. Kieran reached the first of the doors and found it open as he had suspected. The stones where the glyph key would have been placed were unscathed and by his best guess, the door was deliberately opened and left that way.
The apparent neglect of one of the towers most strict mandates did not do well to ease Kieran’s growing anxiety. He pressed on to find the second and third doors in the same state, unmarred and fully open. At the top Kieran peered around the corner to view the first exposed precipice at the top of the tower. The sound of the wind whistling through the corridor to the stairs had subsided, though now he could hear the faint sounds of rummaging through the door to Arwil’s chambers. As he stepped onto the precipice, dagger drawn, Kieran’s footing slipped in a small pool of dark liquid. He knelt and touched the puddle, bringing it to better light before a torch. Blood.
Dread sank into Kieran’s chest; his heart was pounding like a blacksmith’s hammer to an anvil. His gaze darted to a smaller puddle a few feet away and then to another slightly farther. A loud clang from somewhere inside Arwil’s study stole his attention and he recoiled.
Gods dammit where is Arwil? Where is Voss? Kieran crept into the tower chambers through the opened wooden door and into the hallway to Arwil’s study. There was no sign of the old man, and this type of behavior was very unlike a magus of the consortium. From here, Kieran could make out a large distorted shadow cast onto the wall of the study by one of the several lit fire globes Arwil kept near his desk. The figure’s shadow frantically rummaged through the magus’s drawers, books, and scrolls, scattering them across the floor into a disheveled mess.
Kieran edged against the wall, avoiding pieces of broken glass and furniture that had been strewn across the floor. The ancient tapestry that had adorned the hallway wall had been ripped and torn from its anchors and lay in a heap just before the door. As Kieran approached he noticed a glimmer of firelight from something reflective on the ground; a bright red jeweled ring that the magus had always worn on his right hand. Oh no…Kieran thought as he approached the still arm that protruded from the tapestry. He knelt shaking and lifted the cloth to reveal what was underneath. Kieran’s eyes met the Magus Arwil’s, the old man’s face locked in a terrified gaze. Arwil’s mouth was agape, as if screaming in pain; his eyes opened wide.
As soon as he could see the horror of his master’s visage, Kieran gasped and stuttered backwards, abruptly stopped by the wall with tears now streaming down his quivering cheeks. He quickly brought his hand to his mouth to stifle the outburst, briefly forgetting the unknown figure and his shadow in the room ahead. The rummaging stopped.
The shadow remained still for a moment, and then began to shrink as its owner began slowly walking toward the door. Kieran had been noticed. He was sure to suffer the same fate as Arwil, petrified to his last breath. Panic consumed Kieran, his heart beating fire into his veins. Without much consideration for further concealment he fled as quickly as he could for the spiral steps where he would go back down to the markets. Voss where are you? If only she were here they could fight, she was so good at everything there had to be something up her sleeve! But she wasn’t here and Kieran didn’t have the time to try and find where she was hiding.
Kieran could make it to the watchmen near the tower, tell them what happened and they would save him. He’d been down the stairs a thousand times, he could do it faster than Voss or Arwil; he was going to make it. Tears streaming down his face, Kieran burst out of chambers doors and back onto the precipice, splintering the wood as he barreled through. He could see the glyph door open for his escape, but there was something behind him. He leapt towards the door, but stopped abruptly as something forcefully tugged at the back of his shirt.
Kieran clamored backwards, hitting the back of his head on the hard stone, disorienting him and freeing his dagger. In seconds, a hooded man stood over him a few inches away. The figure reached down with his black leather-bound hand and savagely gripped Kieran’s throat.
Kieran kicked and thrashed but the grip was impossibly strong, suffocating him with every effort. The figure hauled Kieran off the ground with his extended arm and held him aloft as he struggled for air. Kieran was fighting with every fiber of his being but the arm was like stone. Through his swollen, tear-filled eyes he could see the shape of the hooded man. He was frighteningly muscular and his heavily ink-inscribed arms were bare. He wore a very ornate black hood with crimson and gold trim that glistened in the blue torchlight. His cuirass was layered with tattered black and crimson cloth, adorned with similar golden trim. Under his hood however, there didn’t seem to be anything at all. Kieran immediately knew the hood wasn’t just concealing the man’s face, under there was pure darkness. There was no feature, nothing that resembled a face under that hood, just an abyss.
The hooded man pulled Kieran closer and there was little the nearly unconscious boy could do to resist. Kieran’s frantic fighting began to slow, the world becoming cloudy and distant. The man drew Kieran closer, a few inches from where a face should have been and leaned in.
“Please forgive me, I wasn’t a very good student…please,” Kieran thought as the he saw the man’s head approaching. He could feel the hot breath of this faceless creature as it began to whisper something into his ear. Kieran had never heard the words that were spoken but understood every one. With every syllable that lulled like the verse in a poem in his ear, he could feel the tethers that suspended him over a great blackness were being severed one by one. Weak and dizzy, there was no fight left. Kieran’s body went limb and he could feel an ethereal force tugging at the back of his mind. It’s almost…peaceful. Wet warmth filled him and his vision began to tunnel inward.
Just as he began to fade, Kieran’s left palm felt as though it had been plunged into molten silver, and he convulsed as the sensation slowly crept up his arm into his chest and then his whole body. The sensation was like a waking limb, like fire and ice as it enveloped his body.
Suddenly the creature recoiled, releasing Kieran to the ground as it started to wail and fanatically claw at its hood. It contorted and clutched at its head; its howling like a white hot rod plunged into thick ice.
As the sensation passed over him, Kieran wasn’t cloudy or dizzy or disoriented any longer. He shook his head and moved to step up off the ground. Under his hand, he felt the familiar hilt of his dagger and instinctively grabbed it. He felt the icy confidence of steel in his hand once more and finally stood up.
Kieran gritted his teeth, and took a step towards his attacker, followed by another, and then another. As the faceless man wailed in front of him Kieran gripped the dagger with both hands and thrust it forward with all the renewed strength he could muster, plunging it into the abyss that was this man’s face. The wailing stopped abruptly and the muscular body that so forcefully meant to kill Kieran moments earlier went limp, collapsing on the floor.
The wind picked up again and started whipping up the various tapestries still attached to the walls of the tower. Kieran stood, breathing heavily and fell to his knees, unable to control his sobbing. He looked up from his hands at the hooded corpse and slowly approached to examine it. Again a large gust made him cover his eyes. The wind became stronger and stronger until Kieran was about to lose his footing and grabbed what remained of the chamber door and held on as papers, scrolls, and books twirled around him and into the sky.
As he clutched onto the door, the body before him began to slowly flurry away like ash in the chaotic wind. With each passing second the body dissolved into the air as a fine dust that scattered into the sky. And just as quickly as it had begun, the unnatural wind stopped and there was nothing left of the body. Kieran stared at where it had fallen, perplexed by the lack of blood or residue of any kind. His head was pounding and he was starting to notice what a thrashing he had just received. His hands were quivering still and he brought them to his eyes only to remember the blood on his fingers. Oh no, Voss!
He leapt up and ran back to the stone door to the spiral stairs, looking for the trail of blood. First there were several, and then several bloody footprints smeared on the stone that ran the perimeter of the precipice. The railing over the edge was dotted with bloody handprints that corresponded with the labored stride. Finally, at the opposite end of the precipice, he could see a person leaning against the inner wall beneath the stone stairs to Kieran and Voss’s quarters on the second level. It was unmistakably Voss.
Kieran sprinted to her side but when he reached her, she lay still and pale against the stones, the wind in her hair. “Oh gods please I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Kieran sobbed as he clutched at her lifeless body. If only I hadn’t stayed in the market this wouldn’t have happened, we could have done something about that… that thing. A few moments later he sat up and wiped his face to look over her body.
With one hand she clutched at a deep wound at her side with most of her clothing soaked through in blood. She had torn her sleeve to try and stop the bleeding, but it was too great a torrent for such makeshift work. Kieran opened her satchel and pulled out the black scroll she had taken with such urgency back up the tower. It had been opened and examined; the waxy seal had been delicately lifted as to not tear it. To Kieran, not a symbol on the thing made any sense. He couldn’t decipher a single letter, nevertheless a language of origin. He folded it and put it in his pocket.
To Voss’s right there was a small circle with several symbols around a central glyph, scrawled in blood onto the stone floor. Kieran had not yet even studied most of the magics and could not make out what she had made with her own blood. He then recognized the central glyph in the inscription and quickly turned his hand to look at his left palm. Surely enough, Voss had drawn his unique glyph in her own blood with her last few moments alive. With that realization it became clear what he was looking at; it was a life ward.
She hadn’t bled out sitting here against the stones; instead she had used every ounce of life she had left to make a ward with her own life for Kieran. Voss knew he stood no chance against whatever demon or creature had come to the tower and so she made sure he wouldn’t die if he were to come back home to face the thing.
Kieran stared at Voss’s lifeless eyes and recalled how hard on him she’d been, hard and mean at times. But in those times he remembered that she was always looking out for him or trying to show him the maths and history and languages he couldn’t learn on his own. She always knew what to do he thought.
As Kieran sat contemplating the sacrifice Voss had made, he heard the well-known trumpeting call of the city watch summons. They must have heard the noise. With the watch coming, what was he going to tell them? A mysterious hooded sonofabitch killed my master and my best friend before turning into dust after I somehow survived the ordeal? No, Kieran wasn’t even sure he believed it. Without the body, there was no evidence for what had transpired. The watch had always been superstitious around the Magus and his apprentices, they wouldn’t understand and they wouldn’t hesitate to mark Kieran a mad criminal once they put the pieces together. Kieran was running out of time.
A cell in a dank dungeon didn’t sound like much of an option, so there was but one thing he could do. I’ve got to run. With that, he picked his dagger off the ground and stood up, sheathing it behind his back. The storage room with most of the clothing and supplies was usually well stocked and Kieran would need a fresh set of cloths and some packs. He didn’t know where he would go but he couldn’t stay here, that was for certain. The black scroll was perhaps his only lead and he’d need someone to help him understand what had happened.
The spiral steps were as they always were, flickering in blue torchlight and echoing Kieran’s quickened footfalls as he hurried down the tower. There was something else this time though, something that was just beneath the surface of Kieran’s perception. It was a whisper in words he didn’t know but somehow understood as it danced in verse at the back of his mind. He could feel the tethers that suspended him one again over that great blackness, but those words that could cut them were now his to speak. Kieran could almost place what he was thinking about; it was a sentence perhaps, something he had heard in a different life or maybe in a dream. It seemed important and he was sure he’d remember it, it was on the tip of his tongue.