With a heavy sigh, Taren scanned the yellowed page before him. Its rough surface contained thousands of tiny cracks, the ink worn and flaking. Passage after passage described ancient pairings, spells and their masters merging, an unnatural symbiosis. Sometimes the spell dominated the master, sometimes the master was able to control the spell. Unexpected side effects were often the result, the spells running dry when the sorcerer’s stores were depleted. Yet nothing described a merger with an object of magical design. Despite its promise of wisdom, this volume would be of no help. It was nothing more than a waste of his time. Disappointed, he summoned his magic to close the book, an audible thump echoing through the cavernous library. A bearded wizard seated nearby gave him a cutting glance, his own studies interrupted by Taren’s lack of etiquette.
Taren ignored him. For two years now he had been searching, with nothing to show for it. He stared up at the magelight that offered much-needed illumination to the otherwise dreary surroundings. Dust swirled toward the light, the tiniest echoes of pages that continued to disintegrate through the ages. Perhaps they were the only remnants of the information he sought, lost long ago, never to be recovered. Closing his eyes, he breathed deeply the scent of aged parchment, feeding his soul. So much knowledge, yet none of it could unlock the mystery within him.
His mind drifted, remembering his beloved master Imrit. The man had taken him under his wing, nurtured his magical talents, and sent him on a life-changing journey. It was Imrit’s wish that Taren merge with the symbol—an ancient relic of immense power. It was supposed to be a gift for Imrit, one that would grant him immortality. The two should be studying together, but here Taren sat alone. By the time Taren had returned with the symbol, Imrit had fallen ill. The old master had insisted his apprentice claim the symbol for himself. Despite Taren’s protests, Imrit had refused the symbol’s power and allowed himself to die. Taren missed him dearly.
Opening his eyes, Taren looked down at the tome before him, his hand gently resting on its cover. Though worn, he could still make out a faint scaled pattern in the black leather—dragon hide, most likely. He’d lost count of how many visits he’d made to the Mage’s College, and still he hadn’t gone through every book that dwelt there. Most of them were far too new, written after the symbol had fallen out of memory. No one believed it was real. No one except Imrit. He had risked his apprentices’ lives to recover the magical artifact, and two had died in the process. Their deaths, and Imrit’s as well, were in vain until Taren could unlock the symbol’s true potential.
Taren had sensed the symbol’s power as he drew near to it, a journey that seemed so long ago. It had called to him in the darkness, urging him to find it. Lending him its power, it allowed him to teleport himself and his companion, a spell mastered only by wizards of ancient legends. No such spell existed now. None that Taren knew of, at least.
Since merging with the symbol, it had provided him with no new skills. Even the ability to teleport had been taken from him. So what good was this symbol? He had hoped to find out through research, but once again, he had failed. Imrit had searched all of these books before. He was thorough and methodical, but Taren hoped the old master had missed something. Apparently he hadn’t. Imrit’s library, which Taren inherited upon his master’s death, was far more extensive than the College’s when it came to rare texts. Taren had read them all three times yet failed to produce more information about the symbol. He needed Imrit.
The faint scraping of a wooden wheel caught Taren’s attention, and he turned to see a young woman with a cart staring down at his exposed arm. The symbol’s only gift to him: a blackened mark of swirling lines covered his right arm and hand. The markings were highly unusual, like nothing he’d ever found in any text. They drew a lot of attention to the young sorcerer, and, despite not knowing their meaning, he considered them a thing of beauty.
The woman looked away quickly as his eyes met hers. Taren could feel the heat of the symbol where it had burned itself into his hand. It remained inside him, silent. What was it waiting for? He’d already proved himself worthy. It was the only way he could have retrieved the symbol from its former owner. When he was ready to claim it, it had merged with him without hesitation. It had granted him an enormous magical reserve, far greater than a sorcerer his age could acquire naturally. But why hadn’t it granted him special abilities? Was that not the point of finding it?
It had robbed him of one ability—that of sleeping soundly through the night. Spurts of genius—or perhaps it was madness—took over when he would try to rest, forcing him to employ sleep draughts every night. Images of the symbol itself flashed in his mind, accompanied by fierce creatures and unrecognizable runic symbols. Some nights he felt that his essence had been separated from his body, floating unrestrained throughout his cottage. Luckily it had never strayed too far, always returning before dawn. He also doubted he’d been granted the immortality his master so desperately sought. He certainly didn’t feel immortal, and he wasn’t about to try killing himself to find out.
It seemed the only thing the symbol had done reliably was wreak havoc on his magical abilities. His skills with herbalism remained undiminished, but spell casting had become a bit of a gamble. Many spells went awry, the elemental magic transforming from earth to fire without explanation. All of his spells flew with greater force, which could easily result in a disaster when he never knew exactly what to expect. Somewhere there had to be more information. If he could learn to communicate with the symbol, to reach into its depths and summon the power correctly, he could bring honor to his departed master. Little else mattered.
Standing with some effort, Taren stretched his legs to restore the feeling. He had been sitting far too long. Gently lifting the aged tome, he cradled its hefty weight against his left arm. His feet scuffled against the floor as he headed for the shelves. Towering twenty feet high, each one stuffed full of various books, Taren felt dwarfed by his surroundings. They swallowed him up, his cloaked figure barely noticeable as he passed shelf after shelf. He saw no one but sensed the presence of more than one sorcerer lurking within the rows.
It was several minutes before he arrived at his destination, the home of the volume he carried. An empty slot, free of dust, awaited the return of its treasure. Taren slid the book in place, his fingers lingering on its rough edge. He couldn’t help but wonder about the dragon whose skin had been used for the binding. Had it suffered? Or was it simply an ancient beast whose time had come? Daring to attempt a spell, he pulled at his magical stores and focused his mind to the binding. Where his fingers still connected with the leather, he felt heat. A vision of red and orange flames leapt into his mind, the smell of smoke assaulting his nostrils. Stifling a cough, he pulled his hand away from the book, instinctively wiping it against his cloak. On hurried feet he made his way out of the shelves and out the door to the courtyard.
A glance at the sky assured him that no dragon was near. It had only been the memory of a dragon, long dead and gone from this world. Shaking his head to clear his mind, he drank in the fresh air of spring. A sunny sky greeted him, a few passing clouds gleaming as they made their way to parts unknown. Springtime in the land of Ky’sall was often this way. The Red Council, Ky’sall’s ruling class of wizards, saw to modifying the weather. All rainstorms were delayed until nightfall to allow the citizens to enjoy fine weather during the day.
Making his way toward the stables, Taren gave a passing glance to the College’s lush grounds. Plenty of shady trees and a pristine blue pond, complete with multicolored waterfowl, provided a sense of peace and relaxation for overburdened students. Life at the Mage’s College was no easy affair. Every year at least one student was driven mad, locked away, and never heard from again. Taren did not regret his own expulsion from such a place. His parents’ lack of funds prohibited him from studying further. That’s where Imrit came in. He saw potential in Taren and took him in when no one else would. Everything Taren was, he owed to Imrit.
As soon as he entered the stables, he locked eyes with Wort. His pale blue eyes contrasted against his sleek black coat, a white blaze running the length of his nose. The horse pawed at the ground, eager to be set free. The other horses paid more attention to their dinner. Taren signaled to a nearby stable hand, who hurriedly affixed the saddle to Wort’s back. Tossing the man a coin, Taren approached his mount. He was large and sturdy, a perfect horse for an herbalist. Though not as fast as other breeds, Wort had them all beat on endurance. Together the pair had traveled many hours, seeking out the finest and most essential ingredients for Taren’s work. Patting the horse’s neck, Taren urged him forward.
Home was just over an hour’s ride away, though Ky’sall’s well-kept roads did not lead in that direction. Instead, a worn narrow path through a shaded wood, opening into a wide prairie, would lead the sorcerer safely home. Since Imrit’s death, Taren had taken control of his master’s cottage. Having no other heir, his possessions had been willed to his favorite apprentice, allowing Taren a fine start to his life as a master sorcerer. Most had to start in the employ of a noble, but Taren had gladly skipped that step.
As an herbalist, Taren had made quite a name for himself. With no experience running a business, he had eagerly employed his master’s former servant, Vita. She proved herself a shrewd and knowledgeable businesswoman, performing the mundane tasks of bookkeeping as well as traveling to nearby markets to deliver his goods. As luck would have it, Vita’s choice in a mate had also profited Taren. Nearly a year prior, she married Myron, a skilled farmer. With a little help from Taren’s books and a touch of the sorcerer’s magic, Myron grew the finest herbs and rarest ingredients in Ky’sall. Taren lacked only a few rare plants, and he indulged himself by taking long trips into the wild to collect them. It was his escape from the madness the symbol had brought into his life.
With the help of his assistants, Taren was free to dabble with new creations, potions unheard of among his fellow sorcerers. It was a lucrative position considering how few students had the patience or desire to become herbalists. Elemental magic was far more appealing to young mages, allowing them to indulge their fantasies rather than dig in the dirt.
Taren had not slacked in his education. He had mastered earth magic, a prerequisite for becoming a master herbalist. And the demand for herbalists was always great, as all sorcerers from Ky’sall depended upon potions to replenish their magical stores along with a variety of other uses. Herbalists were also responsible for preparing draughts for the sick. The price of potions flew sky high during outbreaks. Taren enjoyed the benefits of a high salary, but even without it, he loved his work.
Arriving within sight of his cottage, Taren brought Wort to a halt. Something was wrong. The stone cottage stood at the edge of The Barrens, a curious stretch of enchanted forest. No one ever crossed it—the danger was far too great. Only those of magical knowledge could survive there, and Taren had seldom entered there himself. Looking upon the impossibly tall trees, Taren felt himself shudder. Memories of death and fear came into his mind, a curious sensation of fire chasing the thoughts away.
Nudging Wort forward, the pair approached the cottage at a snail’s pace. Taren’s senses were on high alert. Wort felt his master’s apprehension but seemed entirely unbothered. The barn and fresh hay were near. That was all that mattered to the horse.
Pulling at the reins, Taren quickly hopped from his mount. A small figure moved beside the house. The marks on his arm tingled, a curious sensation traveling the length of the blackened lines left behind by the symbol. His heart pounded, his mind racing with possibilities. Was this someone come to challenge him for the symbol? What creature could possibly know of it? Taren had told no one, save for the few people he trusted completely. Whoever this intruder was, Taren was ready to face him. With a silent incantation, he summoned a ball of white fire in his palm. The magic hissed and crackled in his hand as he slowly approached the unknown visitor. The figure stooped low as Taren lifted his hand.
“There you are,” a female voice sounded. Dressed in a blue cotton gown, her blond hair pinned high on her head, Vita appeared in the doorway. “There’s a messenger here,” she announced, her eyes narrowing at the sight of the magic in Taren’s hand. “Is there a problem?”
Taren allowed the fire to sputter out. “Messenger?” he asked. Apparently he was overreacting. It wasn’t the first time the symbol had driven him to paranoia. Some days it felt like every wizard in Ky’sall was planning to take the symbol from him. With the fire extinguished, he wiped his hand on his robe.
“Yes, a young man brought a message, but he wouldn’t leave it with me,” she explained. “He insisted on placing it in your hands. He’s hiding there behind the marigold.” She pointed a delicate finger toward the flowers.
Amused, Taren approached the young man and extended a hand. “It’s safe,” he said. “You can come out now.”
“I thought you’d set me alight,” the young man said, nearly out of breath. “My master sent this invitation.” He thrust a sealed bit of parchment toward the wizard. “He hopes you will accept and come to visit him at your earliest convenience.”
Taking the note with little interest, Taren shoved it inside a pocket. “Thank you, young man,” he said, offering the boy a coin.
“No payment, sir,” the boy replied, waving both hands in refusal. “My master wouldn’t hear of it.” Without another word, the boy ran off, skirting along the edge of The Barrens. To Taren’s relief, the boy did not pass the border, instead continuing on away from the danger.
“Are you all right?” Vita asked, tilting her head to the side.
Taking a quick glance down at his hand, Taren replied, “Never better.”
“There’s stew in the kitchen,” she told him. “I think the new cook you hired is worth keeping.” She flashed a smile, but it was wasted. Taren was a million miles away. “You sure you’re all right?” she asked again.
“Well, let me know if you need anything.” Making her way across the gardens, she paused more than once to look back at him.
Taren waited for her to disappear inside her own cabin before stepping inside the cottage. Retrieving the note from his pocket, he tossed it on his desk and took a seat. With a snap of his fingers, the flame of a small candle came to life, illuminating the area enough to allow him to read. His mind, however, would not budge from contemplating the events that had just passed.
Would he have killed that boy as he hid in the gardens? What had made him react in such a manner? Conjuring fire before calling out to the visitor was completely out of character for Taren. He had always been a gentle soul, one who respected all life. He wouldn’t harm a plant, let alone a person. He came to the conclusion that it was the symbol’s reaction, not his own. Staring down at the marks on his arm, he yearned for a method to control the power inside him. He could lose himself to its will, and the thought was terrifying.
A book of herb lore lay open on the desk before him, but he had no interest in reading. Instead, he stared into the candle’s flame, contemplating the different colors of orange and yellow as they flickered against the darkness. Carelessly, he raised his hand, placing his palm above the flame. Slowly he lowered his hand, allowing the fire to touch his skin. He felt no pain, not even the slightest bit of heat. Removing his hand from the flame, he inspected it. Only a small patch of black soot tarnished his skin. The flesh was neither burned nor reddened. Wiping the soot away, he wondered why he had desired to touch the flame. His next thought was how to explain why the candle did not burn him. He had no active spells about his person, and he’d ingested no potions.
Exhaustion. That must be it, he decided. This day had lasted far too long, and it was barely sunset now. Shuffling through the cottage, he climbed the staircase and entered his laboratory. Vials, flasks, and bottles containing various potions lined the shelves. Each held a specific purpose, all crafted by Taren’s own hands. His equipment was kept in immaculate condition, as always. Pipets and tubing had been scrubbed to a shine, the alembic and retorts showed no smudges or heat spots, and the mortar and pestle contained no hints of powder. Cleanliness was essential to maintain the purity of his potions. Taren took pride in cleaning every item in the room himself. Servants were barred from entry.
Scanning the shelves, he selected a blue tincture. Squeezing it in his hand, he followed the hallway to his bedroom. To his delight, a servant had already lit the fireplace, driving out the evening chill. The window was cracked open only an inch, as he preferred it, even on the coldest nights. There was something about the strange sounds of The Barrens that made him feel at home, despite the fact that few pleasant sounds ever came from the place. Most of them were unidentifiable. He could not guess what sort of creature made them. Tonight he heard only the sound of a single cricket, likely a resident of his own gardens. The Barrens were silent.
Plopping himself on the edge of the bed, he removed his boots and untied the lacings of his robe. Tossing it onto a nearby chair, he settled himself on the bed. Still clutching the vial in his hand, he wondered if sleep would come naturally. His disappointment at yet another wasted trip to the library would surely aid his rest. It would clear his mind and help him decide what to do next. Sighing, he realized it was the same conversation he had with himself every night. He had no idea what to do next. He’d already tried everything and was still no closer to unraveling the mysteries of the symbol.
Propping himself up on his elbow, he removed the stopper from the vial. Downing its contents in one gulp, he lay back on the bed, dropping the vial to the floor. Staring at the embroidered canopy over his head, he silently counted backward from one hundred. Before reaching ninety, he fell into a fitful asleep. Visions of fire invaded his dreams.
Shortly after dawn, Taren awoke from his deep slumber. The disturbing images from his dreams were forgotten, and a fresh new day lay ahead of him. Today he would not waste time on the symbol. He would spend the day at leisure, relaxing in the garden. Of course, there was always time to dabble in the laboratory. Work could be surprisingly relaxing.
Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Taren rose from his bed. The floor was cold beneath his bare feet—too cold. The fire had died out in the night, and the window stood open wider than he remembered it. A sudden throbbing began in his head, spreading to his eyes. Wiping his hand against his brow, he was surprised to find it wet. His hair was dripping, and a look down at his clothes revealed that he’d been sweating in the night. The room was not cold. Taren was far too hot.
Stumbling to the basin, he poured water into the bowl and splashed it against his face and neck. A glance in the mirror revealed the face of a monster. Taren jumped back, frightened by the image of black scales on his skin. Sharp horns ran the length of each cheek. He squeezed his eyes shut and reached for a towel, hurriedly wiping it against his face. Forcing himself to look again, he saw only himself in the mirror. Plain as usual, he realized. His brown eyes stared back at him, strands of shaggy brown hair clinging to his face. Leaning toward the mirror, he studied the glass, searching for the image he’d seen. Was it a waking dream? Some sort of illusion?
As he set the towel aside, he looked down at his arm. The black marks of the symbol swirled and shifted, changing before his eyes. This was the symbol’s work.
“You’re trying to scare me now?” he asked aloud. He could not fathom why the symbol would want to frighten him. It had chosen him, after all. “You’re supposed to work with me, not against me,” he told it. The marks ceased to move, returning to the pattern he’d known these past two years.
Splashing more water over his hot skin, he wondered what might have caused his fever. He had not felt ill, but his mind had been under too much strain. Perhaps his defenses had been low, and some malady had found its way to him. After a bath and a change of clothes, he would select a potion to strengthen his body.
Deciding that a cool dip in the stream would be best, he grabbed a change of clothes and a towel and headed outside. The morning sun glowed pink overhead, the birds heralding dawn’s arrival. The spring air was fine and brisk, perfect weather for Taren’s condition. A clear spring-fed creek skirted along the edge of his property, providing irrigation for his gardens and clean water for the house. Though a well had been dug near the cottage, he much preferred a bath among nature. The short walk was good for the soul.
A thick layer of fog had settled in the night, concealing the low-lying areas. The world seemed to disappear behind him as he walked, his feet making no sound on the soft grass beneath his feet. A flash of movement at the corner of his vision forced his attention toward The Barrens. He stared a moment, silent, waiting. Nothing was there. Taking a few steps toward the woods, he peered between the massive trees. Inside lay memories, some he hoped to forget forever, others he would hold until his dying breath. Somewhere beyond those woods he’d made a friend, the truest he’d ever had.
Some friendships should not be allowed to fade, and too much time had passed. Taren yearned to see his friend again, wondering what adventures might await the two of them. Shaking his head, he realized that adventures weren’t really for him. He was a creature of habit, and his business was booming. He couldn’t simply walk away and leave it behind. A vacation, he decided, might not be out of the question. Time would have to be made to visit his friend, even if it was only for a few days. Finding him might prove difficult, though. He’d have to send out inquiries, and he barely knew where to start. Zamna wasn’t an easy man to find.
Adjusting his course back to the creek, Taren moved with hurried steps. The water was inviting, the sound of it echoing in his ears. Inhaling deeply, he allowed the fresh moisture into his body. With a slow exhale, he cleared all thoughts from his mind. Draping his clean clothes over a branch, he disrobed and allowed the dirty garments to fall on the ground. Stepping down into the water, he dug his toes between the smooth rocks. All of his senses tingled. The cold water was the perfect treatment for his hot skin, instantly cooling and relieving his discomfort.
Lying back in the water, he looked up at the morning sky. Lines of pink streaked across a pale blue canvas, a thin layer of gray clouds moving softly with the breeze. The fever faded from him, carried away by the soft current of the stream. The lines on his arm no longer moved, instead remaining settled in their familiar pattern. It was possible the fever had nothing to do with the symbol, but he couldn’t say for sure. It was unpredictable, but it had never before made him ill.
Touching his fingers to his face, he tried to decide if any heat still remained. It felt fine, but he would still consume a potion when he returned to the cottage. His thoughts turned to his inventory as he decided which one he should use. Sitting up in the water with a start, he chided himself. Why didn’t I think of it before? Could a potion be the answer? Was it at all possible the symbol’s mysteries could be unlocked through herbalism? It was far-fetched, but he’d tried everything else he could think of.
Standing, he partially dried himself before dressing and rushed back to the cottage. Nearly colliding with Vita, he stopped short of the door.
“What’s the hurry?” she asked, her demeanor cheerful. In her hand she carried a basket filled with strawberries.
“I was just thinking of potions,” he said, stumbling over the words.
“As always,” she replied. “Have some breakfast.” Lifting the basket, she added, “The first strawberries of the season. They’re delicious.”
Taren took one out of politeness and placed it in his mouth. The sweet juices delighted his taste buds, reminding him of simpler times, the days before the symbol had come into his life. With a sigh, he decided the potions could wait. It wasn’t as if he’d know which one to try. Nothing he’d crafted could be used for such a purpose. If there were a potion to suit his needs, it would take further study to discover it, and then he would have to master its creation. That could take years.
“Breakfast sounds wonderful,” he finally said.
The pair stepped inside together, finding their way to the kitchen. Olak, a plump older gentlemen, had jumped at the opportunity to cook for an herbalist. Such a position allowed him to work with the freshest ingredients, and he’d practically begged Taren to hire him. With a broad smile on his face, he carried a tray loaded down with bowls and plates.
“Porridge, cheese, and scones,” he announced. With a wink at Vita, he relieved her of her basket. “Strawberry jam, coming right up!” He dashed away into the kitchen.
Vita took a seat at the table across form Taren. “What did the messenger want yesterday?” she asked, nibbling at a scone.
“He brought a letter,” Taren replied. Lifting a spoonful of porridge, he blew on it before giving it a taste. Smooth, creamy, and full of flavor. He did not regret his decision to hire Olak.
“What did the letter say?” Vita wondered.
“I haven’t read it,” Taren replied honestly. It hadn’t crossed his mind since receiving it. “Probably just an invitation from some noble hoping to earn himself a discount.” With each bite, he ate more hungrily, thanks to skipping dinner the night before.
Grinning as she watched her employer wolf down his food, Vita said, “I’m heading to the College today. I’m going to take quite a few potions. They’re overdue for a visit, so I’m sure I’ll sell out.”
Pausing in his eating, Taren nodded. “I’d better get to work then.” There was always a need, especially for potions that regenerated a wizard’s magical stores. They also brought in the highest profit. If he was going to find a book on herbalism that he hadn’t already read, he would have to look far and wide. That would take money.
It was also a dream. He doubted such a potion existed, but it was worth trying. He was exhausted from searching libraries, and it was time for a change. Though the search would likely prove fruitless, he would still take on the challenge. Who knows what other potions he might come across in his studies? At least this could prove useful in his profession, even if it didn’t help him understand the symbol.
The two continued their breakfast until Myron stepped in to say he’d finished loading the cart. Olak appeared as if by magic, a selection of foods prepared for the travelers. He handed them a basket and wished them a fine journey.
Taren bid them farewell before heading back toward the staircase. Untouched on his desk lay the message he received the previous night, the candle near it burned to a nub. His eye fell on the green wax seal, and he decided the potions could wait a moment. Opening the letter, he found exactly what he expected, an invitation to meet with a noble lord. They were all the same, hoping to make friends with a wizard and earn special prices and favors.
Inspecting the signature, Taren thought he recognized the handwriting. The name, however, was entirely foreign. It was a Lord Ivdir of Bristor, a city just under two days’ ride to the west. Taren was well-aware another herbalist lived not far from there. Certainly he was closer to this Ivdir, but the two men might have had a disagreement, prompting the lord to seek out a new supplier.
Curious, he stepped outside where Vita and Myron were still preparing to leave. “Have you heard of Lord Ivdir of Bristor?” he asked them.
Vita shook her head.
“I have,” Myron replied. “And what I’ve heard isn’t good.” With a shrug, he added, “Of course, that was years ago and only rumors. The man’s son might be running the estate now, for all I know.”
Nodding, Taren waved to them before returning inside. Just as he’d suspected. Lord Ivdir had angered the local herbalist and hoped to form a better relationship with Taren. That was one meeting he could do without. Heading up the stairs, he entered his laboratory and tossed the letter aside on a table. Grabbing a vial of blue liquid, he lifted it toward the light. After swirling the contents, he lowered it back to the table. In a careless swipe of his hand, he knocked the vial over, spilling its contents onto the discarded letter. As he watched in shock, the written lines began to change, swirling into a familiar pattern. Laying his right arm on the table, he compared the two markings. They were identical.
A wave of emotion swept over him—first fear, and then anger, followed by elation. What did this Ivdir know? There was no time to waste. Taren had to find out.
Scrawling a quick note for Vita, he informed her that he would be gone for several days. She was to conduct business as usual, and he would send word when he had more information regarding his return. If Ivdir had knowledge of the symbol, it could take some time to explain it. Taren wanted to give himself plenty of time.
Returning to the kitchen, he instructed Olak to prepare him a meal for the road.
“Right away, my lord,” the cook replied. He was gone only moments before returning with a bundle. “Safe travels.”
Taren nodded his thanks and rushed to his horse. The horse whinnied his readiness as Taren placed the saddle on his back. Grateful that Wort was always ready for adventure, Taren climbed aboard and set off along the road. Wide enough for three wagons across, the roads stretching between his cottage and Bristor were faultlessly well-maintained. No pot holes or ruts would slow his pace, and he urged Wort to make haste.
The pair soon looked upon an aged pine forest, the scent of it making its way into Taren’s lungs. He breathed heavily of it, hoping to carry it with him. It was certainly better than what lay ahead. Shortly before nightfall they reached the farms, the stink of manure scorching his nose. Taren did his best to ignore it.
Night came too quickly, and though Taren yearned to press on, he knew Wort needed a rest. Removing the horse’s saddle, he placed it beneath a wide tree. He allowed the horse to graze and avail himself of the water in a nearby pond. The gentle mooing of cattle reminded him he was still in the farmlands, and sleeping on someone else’s property. Taren didn’t worry. No one would dare scold a wizard.
Lying awake in the darkness, Taren counted the stars in the sky. The song of a whippoorwill echoed in his ears, sleep eluding him as usual. Regretting that he had not thought to bring a sleeping draught, he squeezed his eyes shut and took a deep breath. Bringing his right arm over his eyes, he blocked out the light of the moon. The warmth of the symbol’s markings soothed his troubled mind, and eventually he drifted off to sleep. The crowing of a rooster alerted him to the break of dawn.
Eager to get going, Taren repositioned the saddle and climbed aboard. Wort snorted twice before charging ahead, dust flying around his hooves. Farm after farm came into view, but the horse and rider ran on without looking back. Eventually the countryside opened into a wide prairie, one free of any human construction. It was breathtaking. If not for the hurry to meet with Ivdir, Taren would have stopped to collect leaves and seeds. Natural prairies were a treasure trove to an herbalist. His heart regretted leaving it all behind, but meeting with this mysterious lord could not wait.
It was afternoon before he spied a sprawling estate straight ahead of him. Taren’s heart lifted. It could belong only to a noble lord. Slowing his horse to a walk, he observed the mazelike gardens. Instantly he recognized many of the plants, most of which were used in potionmaking. Could Ivdir have an interest in learning the art himself? Unlikely, he decided. The more logical explanation was that these herbs were used for cooking. But some of them were clearly not kept for their flavor. Rue, for example, tasted horrible and was also toxic. It could be used in a salve to treat snake bites, but eating it was out of the question. Taren tried to shrug it off, but he was growing more and more suspicious of this nobleman. Only trained sorcerers were allowed to practice herbalism or other arcane matters, and this man clearly knew something of the symbol’s powers. He could be dangerous, a man of magic practicing unchecked by the Red Council. His senses on high alert, Taren pressed forward, trusting in his own magic to protect him.
A figure approached, slight of build and quick. As he moved closer, Taren recognized him as the same boy who had delivered the message to his cottage. Somehow he’d arrived before Taren had. The boy said nothing, instead extending his hand to take Wort’s reins. Taren slid out of the saddle and allowed the boy to lead the horse away. Wrinkling his brow, he surveyed the property for any sign of danger. He saw only one other person, a man in a straw hat tending the gardens. Nothing out of the ordinary was immediately noticeable.
The manor house was only steps away, so the sorcerer approached with caution. Crafted of stone, the manor itself was excessively large. There was room for several families, as well as a multitude of servants. However, there was neither a carriage house nor courtyard for social functions. Instead, sheep grazed lazily on the plentiful grass, and rows of crops flourished in the fields. It wasn’t typical of a nobleman to turn his own living space into a farm. Normally, he would own the surrounding properties where others farmed. Ivdir was an odd man indeed, and one who had no intention of entertaining large crowds of nobles.
Steadying his hand, Taren reached for the brass ring on the manor door and knocked twice. The door opened, but no servant greeted the wizard. A strong odor burned in his nostrils, similar to the smell of rain before it tumbles from the clouds, but much stronger. It was the unmistakable smell of air magic. There was no hiding the truth from Taren. A wizard lived inside.
“Hello?” Taren called as he stepped inside the manor. A quick glance around the room revealed no servants or the man he’d come to see. “I was invited,” he continued. “I’d like to see Lord Ivdir.”
He stood a moment, his arms dangling loosely at his sides. No answer came. Frustrated, he began to wonder if this man was playing a game with him. The room before him was dark, save for hints of candlelight burning at each corner. A massive fireplace remained unlit, and the numerous windows were draped in heavy curtains. Taking a few steps toward a wide staircase, he traced a finger along the back of a chair. A layer of dust had collected there, proving this room saw few visitors.
Taren paused and cleared his throat, still hoping for someone to take notice of his arrival. The manor was far too large for him to go searching. “Hello?” he tried again. “It’s Master Taren come to see Lord Ivdir.”
A spark of silver appeared before him, rising from the bottommost step. He watched with interest as it swirled, approaching him and pausing at eye level. A crooked grin appeared on his face as the magic inspected him, testing the validity of his claim. He was familiar with such spells.
“I am indeed Master Taren,” he told it. “Is Lord Ivdir at home?”
The spark shot up the steps, leaving behind a faint path of silver. Taren followed the light, cautiously taking each step. The wood creaked under his weight, but his footsteps were silenced by a thick blue carpet. He kept his hands away from the rail, tucking them into the pockets of his robe.
The staircase turned once to the left before spilling out onto the second floor. The beam of silver light shone down the end of the hallway. Along the walls hung paintings, some as tall as a man, others no larger than his hand. Some depicted strange runes, only a few of which he recognized. Others were paintings of plants with detailed cross sections. Ivdir was definitely a learned man.
Pausing before a series of six paintings, Taren observed the night sky from various angles. Unfamiliar patterns were charted in the stars, swirling mists and stars creating beauty like no other. One long painting showed the different phases of the moon, but the moon was more oblong than round, and it cast an eerie red glow. Where could the painter possibly have traveled to see such sights?
The next painting Taren encountered stopped him in his tracks. Life-size, yet not imposing, it hung near the end of the passage. A gentle face stared back at him, kind and intelligent, warm yet demanding. An elderly man, white-haired with soft blue eyes. It was Imrit, his beloved master. Instantly Taren’s apprehension melted. Whoever Ivdir was, he must have been a friend to Imrit. Why else depict him so true to life? It had obviously been painted with great care. Even the celestial symbols on his robe were perfect. Imrit must have sat for this sometime before inviting Taren into his home. Though not a youthful portrait, he appeared vibrant and full of life. It pained Taren’s heart to look upon it.
Turning away, he faced the opposite wall. Another life-size painting hung before him. Swallowing a gasp, he looked into his own dark eyes. His face was clean-shaven, a touch of the sun upon his nose and cheeks. The green robe depicted was the same as the one he wore this very moment. How did this man know him? And why would he commission such a painting?
The question burned on Taren’s tongue as he dashed down the hallway, anxious to follow the silver light. It came to a halt outside a set of carved wooden doors. They opened untouched, allowing Taren access to the vast library inside. It stretched on, seemingly for miles, the scent of parchment heavy in the air. Shuffling feet echoed in the distance, moving closer with each step.
“Master Taren? Is that you?” a voice called.
Taren remained silent, straining to see the man who had spoken.
“I wanted to summon you earlier, but I had to be sure first. There was much to do.”
A man appeared between two bookcases, a long candlestick lit with blue magefire held in his hand. He was about Taren’s height, slight of build, and appeared to be in his midforties. He wore an indigo robe adorned with golden suns, moons, and stars. Taren did not recognize the man, but his clothing was extremely familiar.
“It’s good to see you again,” the man said, a smile spreading across his face. “I’ve missed you terribly, but now we can continue our work.”
Setting his candle aside, the man approached Taren and grabbed him, hugging him to his chest. Taren recoiled, unsure what to make of the gesture.
“Are you Lord Ivdir?” he asked, taking a step back.
The man chuckled. “I suppose I am,” he replied.
Taren searched his memory, hoping to place the man’s face. There was something familiar about his eyes, but he couldn’t be sure. Somehow this man knew him, and also knew his former master. “How do you know me?” Taren asked directly.
“Search your heart, Taren,” the man said, his tone soft. “I know you well. After all, I’m the man who took you in, nurtured your magical abilities, and sent you on the journey of a lifetime.”
Taren stared at the man’s face, his eyes surveying every feature. Ivdir began to change, the middle-aged visage dropping away, replaced by a most familiar face. Nearly falling over, Taren reached out to the man before him, who gladly took his hands. “Master Imrit?” he whispered.
The old man’s bright eyes sparkled. “It is me,” he said. “Back from the grave.”
Dumbfounded, Taren placed a hand on his master’s cheek. He wanted to tell him how much he had missed him, to let him know that he thought of him as a father. But the words stuck in his throat.
“I suppose I have some explaining to do,” Imrit said. “Come, have a seat.” He motioned to a pair of chairs near a long wooden table.
Without hesitation, Taren obeyed his former master. Following him to the table, he took a seat next to the old man. An oversize volume written in vibrantly colored runes lay open before them, its edges embellished with gold.
Imrit closed the book and focused his attention on his former apprentice. “Many years before taking you in, I had already obtained a symbol of my own,” he explained.
Taren cocked his head to the side, puzzled. “Then why did you need me to obtain another?”
“Having already bonded with one symbol, I couldn’t possibly hope to bond with another,” Imrit replied. “My wish was that one of my apprentices would successfully retrieve the other and bond with it. That way we could unlock its mysteries together.” He reached for Taren’s arm. “May I?”
Pushing back the sleeve of his robe, Taren allowed the old man to look upon the markings on his arm.
“Splendid,” Imrit commented.
“I notice you have no marks,” Taren said, looking over the man’s exposed arms.
“My symbol works differently from yours,” he replied.
Taren wasn’t convinced. As far as he knew, this could all be a ruse. Some enchantment could be altering this man’s appearance. He might not be Imrit at all. Pulling his arm away, he repositioned his sleeve.
“This is all hard for you to believe,” Imrit said. “I understand.” Clearing his throat, he asked, “Do you remember me telling you about the symbol’s gift of immortality?”
Taren nodded. It was Imrit’s obsession, and he would not have forgotten it. He had begged the dying old man to take the symbol. When he refused, Taren’s heart was broken. He was forced to suffer the loss of his mentor.
“I knew the symbol would maintain my life, but I didn’t know how it would go about it,” Imrit explained. “I did die, at least I think I did,” he said, tapping a finger against his lower lip. “I have flashes of memory from the Realm of the Dead. My soul wandered aimlessly, formless and alone. My next memory is back here, in the world of the living. I was still formless, but my mind was once again intact.”
“And you chose this new existence as a noble lord?” Taren asked.
“Indeed,” Imrit replied. “Nobility would allow me the funds to continue my work. The problem was obtaining a body.”
The realization hit Taren hard. “You killed someone.”
“You make it sound like a murder,” Imrit replied. “It was nothing like that. I spent months selecting the right person.”
“Ivdir,” Taren said, wondering how his master could take a life and then usurp a man’s body.
“Yes, Ivdir,” Imrit replied. “But you have to let me explain my choice. Ivdir was a vile man. He kidnapped young women from the countryside, torturing them and locking them in his dungeons. I will spare you the details of his atrocities, but I witnessed them firsthand. Those images will never leave me.” He looked down at the ground a moment before continuing. “In my altered state, I saw his true mind. Ivdir took great pleasure in his crimes. My only regret is not stopping him sooner. I could have saved a few lives, but I wasn’t successful at my first attempt to infiltrate his body. He killed three victims before I figured out the correct way.”
“So you made yourself judge, jury, and executioner,” Taren replied, wondering if he would have done the same given the choice.
“I did,” Imrit replied. “And I do not regret it. Ivdir got what he had coming. I took over his body, altering his persona. With the help of a few de-aging spells, I presented myself as his son, the new lord of the manor. My neighbors no longer fear me, and I’ve opened the land to tenant farmers. You probably saw some of those farms on your way in. The people are prospering under my care.”
“I don’t doubt that,” Taren said.
“I swear to you it’s true, Taren,” Imrit said. “Use the symbol’s power. Search my mind with your magic. You’ll see every word I’ve spoken is true. I am your mentor, your dearest friend.”
Pulling insight from his magical stores, Taren reached out to the man before him. A tingling ran through his right arm, the symbol’s power attempting to take hold. Memories of Imrit flooded his mind, moments shared between the two passing before his eyes. It had to be Imrit. Taren shook his head to clear the visions away. The symbol had played tricks on him before. How could he be certain?
Seeing his hesitation, Imrit said, “I know the symbol has altered your perception and wreaked havoc on your magical abilities. The same things have happened to me. But together, we can overcome it. I can show you how.”
Taren desperately wanted to believe him. Drawn by an unseen force, Taren reached his right hand to Imrit’s left. The two locked together, the marks on Taren’s arm swirling and shifting. Flecks of gold formed between them, sparkling and dancing in the candlelight. A golden glow enveloped Imrit’s hand, the symbol becoming visible. The pair sat entranced as the two symbols showed themselves, each acknowledging the power of the other. As their hands separated, the image faded into nothing.
“It is you,” Taren said, tears welling in his eyes.
Imrit reached out and held his former apprentice tightly. “I’ve missed you,” he said.
The wound left behind by Imrit’s death began to heal, replaced by the pure love of a child for his father. A gentle soul had returned from the beyond, thanks to the power of the symbol. Though he had fought with its powers these past two years, Taren now felt nothing but gratitude. The symbol had given him a gift beyond measure.
“Now if you’re willing to help me,” Imrit began, “there is still much to do. I haven’t spent this time in idleness. Far from it. I have solutions for both of us.”
“Of course I’ll help,” Taren replied.
“You’ve had trouble using the symbol, no doubt,” Imrit said.
“I’ve hardly been able to use it since the bonding,” he admitted. “It has its own mind, choosing its own path regardless of my intentions.”
Nodding, Imrit asked, “Has it augmented your magical stores?”
“Yes,” Taren replied.
Wagging a finger, Imrit laughed. “But the symbol is a fickle thing. That’s why we have to tame it. No longer will the symbols rule over us. We shall unlock their true potential and bend them to our will.”
“I remember someone else who tried to rule over the symbol,” Taren cautioned. “It didn’t end well for her.” He spoke, of course, of his symbol’s former owner—the one whom it had abandoned to come to him.
“No it didn’t end well for her at all,” Imrit agreed. “That isn’t my intention anyway. My ideas are quite different.”
“I was thinking of a potion,” Taren offered. “One that might somehow affect the symbol.”
Imrit scratched at his chin. “I’m sure if anyone could find such a thing, it would be you. But that’s not my line of thinking either. We will work in conjunction with the symbol, never attempting to alter what it was meant to be. It is a bonding, one more intimate than what you’ve already experienced. The symbol has not yet been restored to full power. I know a way to change that. Trust me, and say you’ll take this journey with me.”
“There’s nothing that would please me more, Master,” Taren said.
“We’re equals, Taren. You may call me Imrit.”
Smiling, Taren said, “Of course.” That would take some getting used to. “Now tell me about this journey. Where will we be going?”
With a grin, Imrit opened the colorful volume before him. Flipping to the appropriate page, he pointed to an illustration of an island. Colorful sea monsters appeared in the ocean surrounding it, the image of a dragon flying high above. “Here,” he said.
Taren peered down at the image. “Where, exactly, is that?”
“Ayumai,” Imrit replied.
“And what is there that will be helpful?” Taren asked, wishing he could pry the information from the old man’s mind. His gleaming eyes revealed he was dying to explain it.
“The symbols were forged in fire, direct from a dragon’s own fiery breath,” Imrit stated. “Eons ago, there was an alliance between an ancient race of elves and a family of dragons. That’s how the symbols came to be. The dragons were no craftsmen, and the elves didn’t possess the type of magic the dragons held. But together, they could create something of unimaginable power.”
“So we’re going to find these elves?” Taren wondered.
“Not exactly,” Imrit replied. “As far as I can tell, they’ve all gone.”
“Dead or moved on to someplace else,” Imrit said with a shrug. “I don’t think we need them. All we need is the dragon.”
“The dragon whose breath forged our symbols?” That didn’t sound feasible to Taren. “I thought the dragons were all gone.”
“Most of them are,” Imrit replied. “But they remain in the most remote reaches of Nōl’Deron, guarding their hoards, and biding their time. I have information that one resides on Ayumai.”
“So you’re planning to ask this dragon for some sort of favor?” Taren didn’t quite understand.
“Yes,” Imrit replied. “I’m going to ask her for a look at her hoard. See, I have reason to believe a very valuable tome lies within her cave. I’ve tracked it for years, ever since I obtained my symbol. I’ve exhausted all other possibilities, and it’s the only logical choice remaining. The tome must be there.”
“What’s in this tome?” Taren asked.
“It describes exactly how the symbols were forged, the materials used, and the enchantments placed upon them.”
“And you think we can repeat the process to unlock its power?” Taren allowed himself to hope.
“I think we will find enough information in those pages to unlock the symbols’ secrets.” The old man sounded sure of himself. “It’s the chance of a lifetime, Taren. I know this will work.”
“What if the dragon refuses to give it to us?”
“Then we’ll have to find a way to make her,” Imrit replied impatiently.
“I won’t kill a dragon,” Taren stated. He had never killed anything, and he wasn’t about to begin by killing one of the most majestic creatures ever to come into the world. Not to mention they were incredibly rare.
“What if unlocking the symbol requires her death?” Imrit asked. His eyes spoke volumes. He was willing to do whatever it took to fulfill a lifelong obsession.
Without hesitation, Taren replied, “I still won’t do it.”
Imrit waved his hand dismissively. “I don’t even know how to go about killing a dragon. Death and destruction aren’t the tools of my trade. Such things are best left to dark wizards in their towers.” He paused a moment to think. “Perhaps we could enchant her, convince her to give us the tome through some spell.”
“Or we can try asking her nicely,” Taren suggested.
“Dragons have little interest in puny humans like ourselves,” Imrit replied. “There is a group of elves on that island who worships the dragon. Maybe she’ll listen to them if we can convince them to speak on our behalf.”
“It’s worth a try,” Taren replied. A thought occurred, and he asked, “Or would it be better to have someone of dragonkind ask her?”
“You know where we can find a second dragon?” Imrit’s eyebrows shot up.
“Not exactly,” he replied. “I mean another reptile.”
“You’re going to train a lizard to talk?” Imrit asked.
Taren laughed. “No, a bipedal reptile. My friend, Zamna, is a La’kertan. He helped me find the symbol, and he saved my life.”
The old man’s eyes danced with delight. “You might be onto something there, my boy. But you must be able to trust him with your life. This is no small favor you’re asking of him. Facing this dragon could be extremely dangerous.”
Taren replied, “I trust him completely, as I trust you.”
“Splendid,” Imrit replied. “Is this La’kertan a sorcerer? Having another wizard around could complicate matters. It creates competition that we can’t afford.”
“He’s no wizard,” Taren replied. “He’s a murderer.”