By Gianna Christopher & Matthew Nagel
He was dreaming again and he knew it. But he didn’t want to wake up. Here in his dreamscape he was in the company of the greatest mages; learning, laughing, and creating wonders. There in the waking world, he was no one. Simply Shayah Silverthorn, lowest of apprentices in the greatest Mage Tower in the country of Kallimdra.
Inevitably, Shayah had to wake up in the silence of his room within the tower. He stood up and got ready for another day of unpleasant gazes and holding himself back. Being a mage was something he had wanted for as long as he could remember, but he hadn’t expected it to take so long. Two years in the Mage Tower and all he could do was cast beginner’s spells, though not due to a lack of talent. He had mastered the basics within a month of entering his training, but his rapid advancement had called the attention of the Archmage himself, head of the tower. The Archmage had cautioned Shayah to take his time learning, insisting, “Natural talent is far outweighed by patience and practice.”
From then on, Shayah’s training had been reduced to a crawl. The thought of quitting had crossed his mind more than once, but he refused to disappoint his family or give up on his dreams.
As Shayah left his room, he found a letter on the floor just in front of his door. It was sealed closed with the Archmage’s sigil, a hand clutching a fireball, in black wax. The young elf picked it up and opened it, reading silently,
“My young prince Shayah, a matter has come to my attention that I believe you are uniquely suited for handling. I have received word that a person of elvish appearance has been camping in the woods just beyond the southern gate. He or she has not announced themselves or entered the city proper. Since this “elf” has made no aggressive actions, I believe its presence is of a benign nature. I’m giving you the task of greeting this individual to our fair town. Once you have completed this mission, please report to me directly.
Signed, Archmage Tellamand XIII.”
Shayah reread the note, unsure of how to feel about it. It seemed a task more suited for a diplomat with a couple of guards, but he was glad for the opportunity to prove that he was ready to take more advanced lessons in magic should this “elf” prove to be an enemy. With a sigh, he tucked the note into the pocket of his simple white acolyte’s robes and left the room. He took the winding main staircase down to the bottom of the tower, giving anyone he passed a quick nod and quiet greeting. He had few close friends within the tower, though even fewer were his enemies. A few old teachers and children of the nobles disliked Shayah simply for part of his heritage. His grandmother, Avrelle Darkcloud, was an infamous gypsy and proud champion of the god of Evil. If that wasn’t enough to make people dislike her, her penchant for mischief and refusal to adhere to societal expectations was. And despite both Shayah and his mother Shierah being very different from her, some could not be persuaded to look at them any differently than they did Avrelle.
After a quick stop to grab a longsword from the armory, Shayah finally stepped out of the tower, shielding his grey eyes as the bright sunlight filled his vision. He strode at a leisurely pace, enjoying the fresh air on such a beautiful spring day. Magewood itself was unremarkable and small, the Mage Tower its only distinguishing feature. It was made of white stones and wood, standing tall in the middle of the town surrounded by various small fields where different types of training grounds for the mages were set up. Beyond the circular grounds of the tower, buildings of wood rose up. To the north was the plaza with its shops, stands, and single inn selling various wares and services. To the east were two barracks and the warrior training grounds. The barracks were long and made of stone, used mainly to house soldiers who passed through. To the west were the houses of the peasantry and a few small farms. Shayah headed south, passing the humble temples of the twin goddesses Nox and Gaia. He silently said a prayer to the Lady of Night and Secrets, hoping Nox might hear and grant him a small bit of luck.
“Prince Shayah, good day to you!” an elven guard shouted down to him from the left rampart as he reached the gate at last. “Where are you going to, if I might ask? It’s not safe in these woods, especially for the crowned prince. You never know what you’ll find outside the city walls with this war going on around us.”
“The Archmage has commanded me to investigate a sighting not far from here. It seems an elf has made a camp nearby. Have you seen anything?” Shayah asked.
The guard hesitated and Shayah thought his eyes had gone wide for a moment. “I have. I reported that information to the Archmage, but I never told him the resident of that camp was friendly. I don’t like it, but I suppose I can’t contradict the Archmage’s orders. I’ll show you which direction to go, but you promise to be careful, okay? If you run into trouble, conjure up a fireball and shoot it into the sky. I’ll keep watch for it and come help you.”
“I will, thank you!” Shayah nodded, happy to know someone was looking out for him. The guard pointed southwest and bid Shayah goodbye. Then the prince was on his way into Shadowsong Woods.
Despite the cloudless sky and bright sun, Shadowsong was dark, its canopy of leaves and tree branches thick less than a mile into the forest. Shayah hadn’t ever ventured into the woods alone and couldn’t help but become entranced in his surroundings. Trees of all sorts sprung up tall and thick around him, leaves various shades of violet, green, and navy. Vines, some with thorns, crept up some of the trees and along the ground. Flowers of crimson, purple, azure, and gold grew all around. Shayah did not see much larger wildlife roaming about, but he could hear some smaller creatures scurrying about. There were few breaks in the canopy to let sunlight completely through to the forest floor, but some places where the trees had grown further apart allowed some light to filter through. Shayah hoped the campsite would be in a better lit area.
His hopes were in vain.
After what felt like hours of walking, Shayah finally located the camp in an area covered in shadow. Only a few small rays managed to penetrate the dense roof of the woods. He was suddenly more appreciative of his ability to see in dimness than he’d ever been.
From his place a few yards away, Shayah could see a large tent set up before a pit where a campfire had recently been. A small plume of smoke rose from the blackened wood, though Shayah neither saw nor heard anyone in or near the camp. He did, however, see a few scimitars left carelessly on the ground. The sight made him frown as he cautiously approached the camp.
He had barely reached the fire pit when he heard a snap. A tree branch fell to the ground and Shayah spun on his heels to see what had broken it. Squinting, his silver gaze could just barely see a humanoid figure through shadow and leaf.
“I’m not here to harm you. Come down so we may talk, please,” Shayah made himself say despite a small urge to leave. Laughter from his right was the response and suddenly the elf found himself surrounded. There were four of them, three male and one female. They were elves, though not the same breed as Shayah and most of Kallimdra’s populace. Their skin was deep grey, eyes gold or auburn. Dark elves. Each wore leather armor, the female armed with two scimitars and one male an archer. The other two were weaponless.
“Look what we have here, boys. I’d say the Dark Goddess smiles upon us today. She brought us a prince,” the female sneered. “Mistress Akordia will be pleased.”
“How can you be sure he’s the prince? I thought prince Veylis was a paladin of Gaia, her champion no less. This boy is no warrior,” the archer replied, glaring at Shayah.
“The king has two sons and daughters. This one is Lyrin’s youngest whelp. Can’t you see the resemblance between them?”
“All I see is blond hair to make them alike. This one is tiny compared to the king.”
Their argument was cut short when Shayah drew his own sword, knowing he could not talk his way out of a confrontation. He hoped he remembered what he had been taught about swordplay as he lunged at the female dark elf. Shayah sent another prayer quickly to Nox that he’d make it out of this fray alive.
As if the goddess had heard him, an idea suddenly dawned upon Shayah. His attack had caught them all off guard, his swing with his longsword strong enough to knock the female off balance. Taking advantage of the moment, he released his sword with one hand, muttering a spell quickly as he focused on the archer. Before the dark elf could properly take aim, a ball of deep purple energy erupted from Shayah’s palm and collided with his face, knocking him clear off of his feet and several feet back. He was dead before he hit the ground, his face nothing more than a mess of blood and boney pulp.
Shayah had no time to process what he’d done, the female on the attack once again. He barely managed to dodge one of her blades and block the other, but she had him on the defensive and her two remaining comrades had armed themselves. One seemed hesitant, staying back and watching with a wary look on his face. The other circled in an attempt to flank Shayah.
The she-elf pressed the advantage and forced Shayah to give ground. Shayah was about to lose his grip and drop his blade, but his luck changed. As she stepped in to deliver a disabling blow, she exited the shadows of the forest and screeched in pain when sunlight washed over her face. She’d pushed them under a gap in the forest canopy. She attempted to cover her eyes with one arm, swinging blindly with the other. Shayah saw his opportunity and took it, lunging forward and impaling the girl through the chest. She let out a startled, haggard breath and collapsed. Shayah saw one of her remaining comrades drop his sword and run further into the forest.
The last dark elf, sword slung low and out to the side, crouched and stalked toward Shayah, making quick, feinting slashes. After a few moments of dodging, Shayah quickly cast a weak frost spell, tagging the elf on the right cheek. The spell, however, only served to annoy the dark elf. He lunged at Shayah, throwing the prince off-balance long enough to strike a minor cut to his left arm. Shayah grimaced, but managed to steady himself and block his opponent’s blows, doing his best to ignore the stinging of his wound. He was stuck on the defensive again, no longer in the sunlight and unable to maneuver towards any brighter section of the woods to use the dark elf’s light sensitivity against him. He had to think of something…
Suddenly a new presence entered the forest near the combatants. It was powerful, enough so that both Shayah and the dark elf froze in place’ swords locked together. Then the dark elf was grinning.
“Now you’re in for it, kid. Mistress Chadra is coming-”
Shayah didn’t wait around to hear anymore taunting. He shoved the other elf back, turned on his heels and bolted as fast as his feet would carry him. Whoever Mistress Chadra was, her magic was rivaled that of the Archmage himself. There was no way Shayah could win in a fight against her and he wasn’t fool enough to try. He only hoped she wouldn’t pursue him.
Behind him, he could hear the other dark elf giving chase. He could still sense Chadra’s presence, though it seemed she had stopped her approach. For a second, Shayah thought it was only a matter of outrunning the dark elf back to the town for him to be safe again. A surge of magical energy behind him dashed away his hopes. Chadra had cast a spell and he could feel it rapidly gaining on him. Thinking quickly, Shayah skidded to a halt and spun around, slashing with his sword in hope that his other pursuer was as close behind him as his ears had heard. Sure enough, his blade caught the dark elf’s side. He stumbled and fell forward with a cry, dropping his scimitar and clutching at his side. Shayah caught him before he hit the ground and held him upright before himself as the massive lightning bolt came crackling through the trees. It struck Shayah’s enemy directly in the back, causing him to take the brunt of the spell. Shayah had not anticipated the electricity traveling through the dark elf’s body into his own, however, and after a moment of searing pain, the prince collapsed in a heap on the forest floor. As his vision grew dark, he saw the shadowy form of a woman approaching. Her voice was the last thing he heard before he fell into unconsciousness.
“Clever boy. Shame that wasn’t enough to save you.”
The aching in his entire body pulled Shayah from his unrestful sleep, though for a moment he questioned if he was truly awake. He thought for sure that Chadra was going to kill him, but he doubted death would mean waking up in pain on a hard, cool stone floor. Slowly, as his senses adjusted to the darkness, Shayah sat up and glanced around. Silver eyes took in the small, empty room. Three of the walls were comprised of seemingly black stone, the fourth a wall of iron bars. Beyond the bars was a narrow hallway and another cell.
Shayah shivered, the coolness of the dungeon seeping into his very bones. Glancing down at himself, his eyes went wide. It seemed Chadra had stripped him of his mage robes and hadn’t seen fit to give him anything else to wear but his smallclothes.
“Well at least I’m alive…” he sighed to himself. “Thank Nox.”
“Nox has nothing to do with it.”
Shayah jumped when a female voice, hard and annoyed, broke the quiet. Shayah carefully got to his feet and approached the bars, trying to look into the other cells and hallway of the dungeon. Whoever this woman was, she was standing somewhere he couldn’t see from his room.
“Why do you say that? Do you know why I’m here?” Shayah asked, hoping the woman could help him. Why did she sound irritated already?
“No, I don’t. I’m assuming my mother has something planned for you, which isn’t a good thing,” came the reply. A white light suddenly appeared in front of Shayah, revealing a young dark elf with skin the color of the sky just before a thunderstorm and ivory hair that fell in large ringlets to the small of her back, the tips fading into an unusual bright blue. The illumination came from her raised left hand, though she held nothing in it and Shayah had not heard her utter any incantation for a spell. Her nails were black and pointed claws. She glared at him with crimson eyes, her pupils vertical lines like a reptile’s. And suddenly Shayah knew exactly who this girl was and why she’d been able to hide in the shadows so masterfully as to remain unseen right in front of his face.
“Renore! Renore Zar’ynrae!” He smiled warmly at her, not bothering to hide the excitement from his voice. “I remember you. You saved me when I was a child.”
“Shut up! Fool, I didn’t rescue your ass all those years ago for you to go and get yourself captured now. What the hell were you thinking, wandering into Shadowsong alone? My kind has been raiding your people’s towns from that forest since before you were born,” she chastised. “Did you witnessing at least one of those raids for yourself teach you nothing?”
Shayah frowned before sighing deeply and looking down at the stone floor. “I was ordered to investigate a campsite by the Archmage. He thought it would be safe enough for me to handle. I’ve been an apprentice in the Mage Tower for a couple years now-”
“The Archmage is still a damned fool and he obviously cares nothing for the prince of the kingdom he swears allegiance to,” she growled, cutting Shayah off mid-sentence. “Part of the reason you’re still alive is because my aunt sensed the same great magical potential within you that I did. Why aren’t you a full mage by now?”
Shayah once again averted his gaze to the ground. “I was told that I should be patient and practice slowly, despite whatever natural abilities I might have. I’ve only been taught the beginner’s spells…”
Shayah could feel Renore staring at him and suddenly he felt more exposed than he already was without his robes. He wondered if she was powerful enough now to read his mind and the thought had him blushing. He wished he had even a blanket to cover himself with. If Renore could read his mind, she’d know just how he felt about her and why he’d wanted to become a mage in the first place.
“Let me guess. The Archmage is the one that told you that nonsense?” Renore asked, taking her eyes off of Shayah for a moment to peer into the cell next to his. Without waiting for an answer, she stepped into the empty room, returning a moment later with a blanket in hand. She handed it to Shayah between the bars. “That’ll have to do for now, until I or one of my siblings can get you proper clothes.”
“Thank you.” Shayah accepted the blanket and wrapped it around himself gratefully. Part of him worried she really could read his mind now. He smiled a bit. “I’m happy I got to see you again, even if the circumstances aren’t the best.”
Renore raised an eyebrow, but sighed and shrugged. “I might not be able to save you this time, prince. Mother has taken every precaution, magically and with armed guards, to make sure you’re not taken from this dungeon without her knowledge. Nobody enters and no prisoners leave. Those that do not get permission to be down here are severely punished.”
Shayah frowned a bit. “You’re not in danger being down here with me, are you? Your mother won’t hurt her own daughter for something so trivial as a conversation… will she?”
Renore snorted. “You know nothing of my mother, Shayah Silverthorn. Worry about yourself. When I find a way to free you, I will. Try not to die before then.” She turned to leave, the light from her hand going out when she lowered it. She was gone into the shadows before Shayah could ask her to stay just a little longer with him.