Master Imrit’s cottage stood at the edge of The Barrens, far from the bustling cities of Ky’sall. He demanded vast quantities of breathing room to train his apprentices, who would achieve the rank of master under his expert tutelage. At his advanced age, dozens of such apprentices had been trained within the walls of his small cottage, and each of them had gone on to successful careers. He was highly selective about the young mages he was willing to take on, and this year had been no exception. Two mages had been selected and had proved themselves worthy students. Alongside Taren, the young mage Imrit had raised himself, they were ready to embark on their final task as apprentices. If they returned, they would return as masters of their craft.
“We must make ready! We must make ready!” the old man repeated to himself as he buzzed through his house.
Trailing behind him as always was his young, blond-haired servant Vita. She saw to the master’s every need, and today was no exception. She smiled to herself to see him move so gracefully through the rooms, making sure he hadn’t forgotten to give his apprentices anything they would need for their journey. Shaking her head, she attempted to suppress a grin as he dawdled here and there. Everything the apprentices needed had been prepared days ago—she had seen to that herself. Still she followed as he continued his meticulous double and triple checking of the house.
Though Vita was not a student of magic, she had grown quite fond of Master Imrit. He was a kind man and could be rather amusing at times. His treatment of her had always been kind, despite her lack of status. A servant wasn’t usually treated so well in Ky’sall. Vita considered herself lucky to have Imrit as her employer. Despite being so far from the cities where she had grown up, she enjoyed her life and work here at the edge of the woods.
“There it is, there it is,” he mumbled. “I almost forgot.” Picking up a small phial from the cupboard, he stuffed it down into his pocket. “That’s for later,” he said, winking at the girl. “Now, where are my apprentices? This is their big day, after all.”
“They’re crafting the last of their potions,” she informed him. “Or they were, last I checked.” She had been following Imrit through the house for nearly an hour, so she hadn’t laid eyes on the apprentices in at least that long. Chances were, they were still upstairs.
“Well, hurry and bring them down!” Imrit scolded. “I can’t wait all day!” Though his tone was gruff, his face held back a smile. All his life he had dreamed of this day, and now it had arrived. The finest apprentices he had ever trained were setting out, and they would return with the object he desired most—one that could grant him eternal life.
Vita hurried up the stairs and quietly knocked on the door to the laboratory. It creaked slightly as she pushed it open and stepped inside no farther than the length of her foot. The laboratory was off-limits to her in all manners except conveying messages. The apprentices cleaned and dusted the area themselves, for fear Vita might disturb something she shouldn’t. Curiosity had never come into play. She had no interest in the lab or the potions inside. There was enough work to keep her busy without having this area to worry about as well.
“Master Imrit is ready to see you off,” she said, her thin voice barely reaching the ears of the students. She paused a moment before exiting, hoping for some sort of acknowledgement.
“We’re on our way down,” Taren said, stuffing one last bottle into his leather shoulder bag. How long would this journey take? His nerves were already getting the better of him. His mind was swirling with so many possibilities. Since leaving the cities, he had been nowhere but the Mage’s College and Imrit’s cottage. Heading out into the unknown was not part of the comfortable life he had hoped to lead. His plans were to master the art of herbalism and spend countless hours in a laboratory. Mixing potions and concocting new brews were his passions, unlike most students of the arcane. Still, there was much need for mages who were efficient potion crafters, and he had taken a liking to it.
The other two apprentices finished their work and headed down the stairs along with Taren. They were both more skilled than him when it came to elemental magic. Tissa had perfected the art of air magic, giving her the power to pull energy from the wind itself. Djo had studied so many years of fire magic that he thought he could solve every problem with flames. Once he nearly set the cottage ablaze, but Master Imrit had been quick to suppress the fire despite his slowing reflexes.
Unlike Tissa and Djo, Taren had spent a number of years under Master Imrit’s care. Usually an apprentice would spend only the last year of study directly under a single master’s instruction. Taren, however, had been unable to pay tuition and was forced to leave the Mage’s College. Master Imrit saw something special in the boy, and decided to take him under his wing and continue his education free of charge. He had proved a kind and patient father figure, something Taren had never truly known. When the time came for Imrit to choose his final group of apprentices, he had chosen Tissa and Djo after carefully scrutinizing every detail of their academic records. Taren nearly fell over when Imrit announced that he himself would be Imrit’s third and final apprentice. Never before had anyone been considered for an apprenticeship to a master wizard without being enrolled in the College. Taren expected to make a living as an herbalist despite his lack of a supreme title. Imrit, it seemed, had other ideas. Taren had joined Tissa and Djo in their final year of study, and was now ready to take on his final challenge.
As the trio reached the bottom of the stairs, Master Imrit’s eyes twinkled with delight. “Ah,” he said, “to be young again.” Chuckling to himself, he turned and headed outside the cottage, the three apprentices following behind.
The sun beamed high in the east, its rays filtering down through wisps of white cloud. It was still early, and the birds clamored from their perches amid the trees. The Barrens stood foreboding only a few hundred yards from the cottage, their presence ever daunting to any who passed by. Though the trees there grew taller than anywhere in Ky’sall, there was no vegetation on the ground. No flowers, no shrubs, no plants of any kind grew in the tainted soil of The Barrens. How the trees thrived there was a mystery, even to those of magical abilities. Rumors of curses and accidents by various wizards abounded to explain the mystery of The Barrens, but none of those stories had ever been confirmed. Master Imrit enjoyed the solitude that being near such a land brought. It was rare to find travelers in the area, and he was seldom bothered by peddlers, which left him free to pursue his magical studies in peace.
Imrit led the way, dressed in his finest indigo robe with gold embellishments. For the past year, he had dazzled his students with talk of a lost symbol that held incredible power. An ancient sorceress was said to have possessed it, and her tomb was the symbol’s last known location. The apprentices were tasked with retrieving it and assisting their master in unlocking its secrets. Rather than give them each a separate task to fulfill their duties as apprentices, Imrit decided it was best if all three of them worked together to find the symbol. His only regret was that he was too old to accompany them on the long and difficult journey.
“Come now, don’t fall behind,” Imrit said without turning around. He quickened his pace as he approached the tree line.
The apprentices followed behind, occasionally glancing at each other. Their eyes were wide, but their faces were expressionless as they attempted to suppress their anxiety. Stopping at the edge of the woods, Tissa brushed imaginary dirt away from her yellow robe. Fiddling with her light-brown hair, she awaited further instruction from her master. Her stomach felt as though a million winged creatures were trapped inside as she stared into the woods.
Djo stood tall, his chest high in an attempt to appear confident. His deep-red robe flapped slightly on the wind, adding to his kingly appearance. With his sandy-blond hair and stunning blue eyes, he already had the look of royalty. Inside, his heart was pounding, but he was determined not to show any fear. This was the final step in achieving his dream, and nothing would hold him back.
Taren’s eyes glanced at each of his companions and his master in turn. He made no effort to hide his apprehension. His chest moved visibly with each breath, and he constantly tugged at the clasp of his dark-green robe. He looked everywhere except into the forest. Though he knew he would soon be inside it, he had no desire to think about it. Whatever was to come would come, but for this moment, he was standing in a familiar land that was safe and comfortable.
“At least one of you has to succeed,” Imrit announced. “It will be easier if all of you can stay together, but that might not be possible. Whoever is strong enough to retrieve the symbol will have earned the rank of master. We will unlock the symbol’s power together, sharing in its glory.”
“One of us?” Taren asked, his voice quivering slightly. “What of the others?”
“They will likely be dead,” Imrit replied, hanging his head low. “Your chances are better if you work together, and it might not be possible to complete the mission alone. I cannot say.”
The three apprentices exchanged worried looks, none of them daring to say a word. They could almost read each other’s minds, and each was frightened by the prospect of taking on this journey alone. Most apprentices completed their final tasks solo, thus earning the rank of master on their own. Their situation was unique, though. Master Imrit had finally discovered the symbol’s location, and he would break any rule to see that it was found and placed in his care. The challenge should prove great enough for all three to qualify as masters.
“Head south through the woods until the wool looks strange, and then continue until it’s normal again,” Imrit declared. “One of you must succeed.”
Wool? Taren wondered. Has he lost his mind? None of the apprentices had any idea what he meant by those words.
“It’s imperative you don’t use magic until you are beyond the borders of The Barrens,” the elderly master added. “There is a creature living in these woods who detests its use, and it will find you should you choose to disobey. Avoid the path at all costs, and good luck to you.”
Djo was the first to step forward, disappearing inside the dense trees of The Barrens. He did not look back. Taking a deep breath, Tissa followed him into the woods. Reluctantly, Taren lifted his right foot and stepped forward. Looking over his shoulder, he saw the proud smile on his master’s face. It was only slightly comforting to know that Imrit believed in their abilities. Why else would he send them on such a journey? Shaking his head, Taren pushed his way between the trees, immersing himself within the strange woods.
Though the light had been bright outside the woods, inside it was dark, as if dusk had already arrived. There was no vegetation on the ground—only stray rocks and fallen limbs littered the forest floor. His two companions had stopped as well to take in their surroundings. It was obvious none of them felt comfortable, but going back would only disappoint their master.
A single north-south path ran through the forest. This path would lead them on their journey, but they had been warned not to set foot upon it. Magic was forbidden here, and the path contained traces of ancient magic from the elves who had built the road long ago. Now the path was little more than packed dirt, visible only because of the difference between its dark color and that of the yellow-brown forest floor. The ground appeared to consist of decomposing leaves that had fallen from the massive trees. The air was stale, and a claustrophobic feeling set in upon the three of them.
Taren looked back once more to say goodbye to his master, but the forest had swallowed him completely. There was no sign of Imrit or his cottage in the distance. A sense of panic came over him, but he pushed it aside, determined not to look foolish in front of the others. Still, he would be more at ease if he could at least spot the smoke rising from his master’s chimney. Straining to see past the dense line of trees, he could see nothing but more forest. He felt as if he’d walked into another world entirely.
The trio silently began walking, carefully watching their steps as they went. They kept slightly right of the path, making sure not to step on it but also not to stray too far. There were no visible landmarks, and they would easily lose their way if they lost sight of the road. None of them had skills as woodsmen, so tracking each other would be impossible if they became separated. For that reason, they remained close to one another despite having to constantly split up to maneuver around the trees.
Taren observed no visible signs of life within the woods. There was no birdsong, and there were no squirrels running up and down the massive trunks. He thought it remarkable that there were no limbs at his level, which was likely the reason no deer or other creatures could be seen. If there were any living creatures in this forest, they must exist high above the canopy. Taren paused momentarily to look upward, wondering how tall these trees must be. They rose for miles, it seemed, blotting out the sunlight above with their thick leaves.
“Don’t fall behind,” Djo called from ahead.
Taren hadn’t realized how long he had been staring at the trees. “I’m coming,” he called back, hurrying to catch up to his companions.
“We should camp here for the night,” Djo said. “Darkness is falling fast.”
They weren’t sure if it was truly night or if it was only the lack of light making its way through the trees, but they were all feeling tired and grateful to take a rest.
“How long were we walking?” Tissa asked. Everything had looked the same as they journeyed, and her aching feet were the only sign she had moved an inch that day.
“We’ve gone at least twelve miles,” Djo declared. He seemed certain of this even though his companions had their doubts.
“Should we build a fire?” Tissa asked.
“Yes, but not with magic,” Djo replied. He scoured the immediate vicinity for fallen branches that were small enough to lift. There weren’t many, but there were enough to make a small fire that would help take away the chill of night.
Taren sat back against a large fallen log. Sifting through his pack, he made note of the potions he had brought with him. Not only had he brought some concoctions to restore and energize his magical stores, he had also brought a variety of medicines in case one of them became ill. With no way of knowing which plants would be available to him, he had decided to come prepared. Once he was content he hadn’t forgotten anything, he shut the bag and reclined against the log.
Tissa moved to sit next to him, pulling her knees close to her chest. “How long do you think it will be before we reach the end of The Barrens?” she asked.
“A few days at least,” Taren replied. Seeing her uneasy expression, he added, “I wish we were out of here now.”
Tissa nodded her agreement. She twisted at the small gold ring that she wore upon her left hand. It was a magical ring, a gift from her mother. Should she choose to use the small amount of magic it held, it would bring her comfort. Knowing that magic was forbidden here, she decided against using the ring. “It’s hot in here, isn’t it?” Beads of sweat had formed on her brow, and she was visibly uncomfortable.
“It does seem to be getting warmer,” Taren agreed. The light was fading fast, but there was no chill to accompany it. Instead, the air seemed to be getting denser.
Djo finished building the small fire and leaned back against the trunk of a tree. “We don’t need the heat, but it might keep any night creatures away.” Though it was unlikely there were any creatures in these woods, the fire was a sign of home. Looking upon it gave them hope and calmed their nerves.
Finally, the trio fell asleep in the long dark of the forest. When they woke, it was still mostly dark, and they were unsure how long they had actually slept.
“We might as well get moving,” Djo said as he kicked dirt over the smoldering remains of the fire.
Taren and Tissa retrieved their packs, and once again the apprentices resumed their march. The next few days went by slowly, with little conversation. Travel had proved uneventful until the fourth day. As he walked ahead of the others, Djo did not see the small branch that caught his foot. He fell hard, landing with his hands out to his sides. The fingers of his left hand brushed lightly against the path they were avoiding. Standing back on his feet, he brushed the dirt away from his robe. Taren and Tissa stared at him, wondering if he knew he had touched the path.
“I only brushed it,” he said, seeing the concerned looks on their faces. Both of them had fear in their eyes, and he felt uneasy as well. Inside, he tried to convince himself that nothing would come of his misstep. “Let’s get going.”
Taren and Tissa continued behind him until he stopped. Coming to his side, they stopped as well.
“Did you hear something?” Djo asked.
The other two shook their heads. They stood for a moment longer, listening before continuing on their way. After a few minutes, they stopped again. This time, an unmistakable growl sounded from behind them.
In unison, they turned and saw a manlike creature, who appeared to be made of stone. He had a wide set of wings similar to the wings of a bat. Crouched low to the ground, it was clear the creature was ready to strike.
“Run!” Djo shouted.
The trio dashed through the woods, hoping to outrun the creature whose heavy footsteps pursued them. It grunted through its stone nostrils as it ran, its hot breath moving closer and closer. With a swipe of its massive clawed hand, it grabbed Djo, who had been closest to the path as they ran.
Tissa slowed for a second, but Taren grabbed her arm, forcing her to continue her flight. Without looking back, they heard the cries of their companion. There was nothing they could do. To their horror, the creature was not satisfied by taking the one who had touched the path. It continued its pursuit of the remaining two apprentices, gaining ground on them as they tired.
Taren and Tissa struggled for breath as they were forced to keep running. The trees grew denser, forcing them to dodge around the massive trunks while avoiding tripping over spent limbs. Tissa stumbled only a moment, but the creature was there to catch her. As her scream pierced the air, a shiver went down Taren’s spine.
The creature continued to pursue Taren, its presence looming ever closer. Keep running, keep running, he told himself. If his body gave out now, he would be dead for sure. His only hope was to ignore the pain growing in the bones of his feet and the pounding of his heart in his ears. Faster and faster he pushed himself to run, but the creature continued to gain ground. Just when Taren thought he was sure to die, he burst through the tree line and into the sunlight. He had escaped The Barrens.
Stumbling out of the woods, Taren no longer felt the hot breath of the stone beast on his neck. Daring to cease his flight, he turned and peered between the trees. The beast was walking away, its back turned to the apprentice. He considered a moment whether he might survive reentering the woods to see if his companions were alive. A ghastly howl filled his ears as the monster stooped next to a motionless figure draped in yellow. It was Tissa, whose blood now dripped from the beast’s sharp claws. Taren turned away, unable to bear the sight before him. His stomach turned sour, and he hung his head for a long moment.
A voice startled him back to reality. “Did ye come oot o’ those woods?” a surprised man asked.
Taren looked up to see a farmer dressed in patched clothing. On a rope he led a yellow goat and a black-faced sheep with a red fleece. Strange wool. Staring at the sheep, he could hardly believe his eyes.
“Ye didna use magic in thare, did ye?” The farmer looked Taren up and down, making note of his mage’s robe and leather shoulder bag. The flap had come open on the bag, revealing rows of potions strapped neatly inside. The shocked expression still worn on the mage’s face revealed that he had seen the beast that lived inside the woods.
Taren looked at the man, his eyes wide. His mind still whirling from his encounter with the monster, he found no words available to him. Though he felt the urge to look behind him once more, he resisted. He could not bear the sight of his fellow apprentice being devoured by a beast. Instead, he sat heavily on the ground, still reeling from his harrowing ordeal.
The land stretched out before him in vibrant color. No recognizable grass sprung from the ground. Instead, patches of a spongelike substance in varying colors adorned the ground. There was a noticeable lack of trees to this land, yet a walled city stood less than a mile away, its wooden buildings rising high into the sky. Farmhouses dotted the landscape in the distance, and brightly colored livestock walked the fields. They were too far for him to determine exactly what species of animal they were, but their movements reminded him of cattle.
The farmer approached Taren, who still had not managed to utter a single word. Placing a hand on the young mage’s shoulder, he said, “Do ye need help, lad?” He knelt down for a closer look at the mage, who was trembling slightly. “Ye should get yerself to town,” he suggested, taking Taren’s arm.
Assisted by the farmer, Taren once again found his feet. He looked ahead at the town and nodded slowly. The farmer pointed toward the western side of the city.
“Town’s called Rixville, and thare’s a gate on the western-facin’ side. Ye should get yerself some rest.”
Soundlessly, Taren’s feet began to move. As if in a trance, he slowly made his way to the city. The farmer watched for a few minutes as Taren walked away. Finally, he was satisfied that the young man didn’t need any more help, so he led his animals away. Taren did not look back.
The city sat less than a mile from the edge of The Barrens. A wooden wall nearly eight feet in height surrounded the entire town, protecting it from dangers Taren was unaware of. Smoke rose from a dozen chimneys, and the sounds of voices calling out filled his ears as he approached. Taren turned his feet westward and approached the gate where four guards chatted lazily with one another. Three of them were sitting, while a fourth leaned lazily against the wall.
The standing guard looked Taren over only once, his bored expression unchanging. “Have business in town do ye?” he asked.
Taren nodded. “I’m looking for an inn,” he replied, not knowing where his voice came from. Everything seemed surreal since encountering the stone beast.
“Head down the main street and take the second left,” the guard said. “The Wigglin’ Wyrm is the third building on the right. It’ll do ye fine for a drink and a rest.”
Entering the town, the scent of roasting meat wafted to his nostrils. Taking in a deep breath, his stomach rumbled, begging to be filled with the sweet-smelling meal. How long had it been since he stopped to eat? He could not recall. Following his feet, he turned at the second street, which was far narrower than the main road. A man carrying planks came around from a corner, nearly bashing Taren’s head with a sliding board. Noticing the movement from the corner of his eye, the mage barely had time to duck. Luckily, he reacted in time, and the board narrowly missed him. Turning, he ruffled his brow at the man carrying the load.
The mustachioed man returned his gaze. “Watch where yer goin’ then!” he shouted before continuing on his way.
Taren shook his head and cupped his hands over his eyes. Rubbing his face briskly, he tried to shake himself from the daze that had come over him. A hot meal and something to drink would help, he decided. This day had already proved too eventful, and he needed time to gather himself before deciding whether to move on. Master Imrit would be sorely disappointed if he returned now, assuming it was possible to return. For all he knew, the beast was still waiting for him to reenter the woods. He would have to press on, but for now, he had earned a rest.
The Wigglin’ Wyrm stood only a few steps away, its wooden sign dancing on the breeze. It bore the image of a skinny golden dragon with a mug of frothy ale in its hand. The outside was in disrepair, with crooked shutters and a few shingles missing from the roof. Stepping inside, he was surprised to find it well kept. The common room was already bustling with activity, despite it still being early. Most of the men inside should have been working, but they had chosen revelry instead.
Taren found a seat at the bar as far as he could get from the other patrons. A heavy woman in a low-cut bodice approached him with a wide smile, the gap between her front teeth displaying itself as a thing of beauty.
“What’ll ye have, love?” she asked.
“Whatever you have cooking will be fine,” he replied. “And I’ll be needing a room as well.”
“Got some lovely stew,” she said with a wink. “It’s nice and hot. Ye can have yer choice o’ rooms. Might have to double up if it gets busy, mind ye.” She scurried off behind the bar, disappearing through a squeaky wooden door.
The thought of sharing a room didn’t appeal to Taren. This town was unknown to him, but he was aware of the general distrust of wizards in this area. Still, there was little choice unless he was prepared to scour the town for a different inn. It would be dark in a few hours, so he resigned himself to staying put regardless of who might be joining him in his room.
The large woman returned and placed a steaming bowl in front of him. Flashing another smile, she grabbed a mug from beneath the bar and filled it with a golden liquid. “Our house ale,” she stated proudly. “Best in the city.”
“I’m sure it is,” Taren replied. Taking a sip, he fought the urge to spit it out. The ale was thin with an overly strong taste of alcohol. Now he knew why so many people shrugged off work to visit the establishment. Bringing a spoonful of stew to his mouth, he blew on it to cool it before taking a taste. To his surprise, it was quite good. The meat tasted fresh, and the potatoes and carrots were cooked perfectly. The slice of bread that accompanied it was still warm from the oven. It was flavorful and reminded him of the bread Vita would occasionally bake. He missed his home already.
Finishing his meal, he asked the woman, “How much do I owe you?”
“Ten coppers fer the room and two fer the food,” she replied. “But ye won’t be ready fer bed yet. Thare’s a lute player comin’ in a bit.”
Taren wasn’t in much of a mood for a party. Though he was feeling better after his meal, he still planned to retire early and get a good night’s sleep before deciding what to do in the morning. Fishing in his bag, he produced the coppers and laid them on the counter. “I thought I might get to bed early,” he said.
The barmaid came around to his side of the bar and pressed herself against him. “Ye sure?” she asked with a grin. “Ye’ll have more fun here. Young men like ye need to have a little fun.” She nudged at him with her elbow, her eyes twinkling.
Nearly forgetting to breathe, he squeaked out, “Not tonight.” Quickly, he rose to his feet and pushed his stool back toward the bar before bolting up the stairs. The woman’s laughter filled the air as she watched him frantically escape to safety. Apparently she was just toying with him, but his lack of experience with women had left him panicked and red in the face.
Taren ducked into the first room at the top of the stairs. It was small with few furnishings: two small beds spaced about a foot apart, a wooden table with a single chair, and one tiny square window looking out over the city. A pitcher of water and a washing bowl sat upon the table, and Taren was glad to wash the dirt away from his face. After scrubbing at his skin, he ran his wet fingers through his shaggy brown hair. He stared at his reflection a moment in the bowl, staring into his own deep brown eyes and wishing he could wash away the sights he had seen earlier in the day.
With a sigh, he removed his leather boots and lay back on the bed near the window. Placing one arm behind his head, he stared up at the ceiling and waited for sleep to find him. After a few moments, he crossed his arms over his chest and closed his eyes. Still, sleep eluded him. He tossed a few times, finally ending up on his right side. Drifting off to sleep, he dreamed he was back in The Barrens, with the other apprentices at his side. This time, it was him who touched the path, standing upon it with both feet as his two companions watched in horror. The stone beast appeared before him, slashing at his face before he had time to react. He awoke with a start, sitting straight up on his bed.
Thunderous applause erupted from below as the celebration continued into the night. Looking out of the window, Taren could see that night had fallen, a million stars filling the sky. Rubbing at his temples, he hoped to shake off the disturbing image of his dream, but he was too shaken. Stumbling in the darkness for his boots, he slipped them onto his feet and headed back downstairs to join the crowd. The raucous noise coming from the common room would not have allowed him to return to sleep anyway.
It had to be near midnight, and the common room was packed with people. Not only had a lute player taken to the stage, but a drummer had set up as well. Together they played a variety of songs, happily taking requests from the boisterous crowd. Taren shuffled to a table in the corner, leaning his head heavily on his hand. A server approached him, but he waved the girl away. He wasn’t interested in any more of the house ale.
After sitting through a few songs, he felt even more awake than before. It was unlikely he would get any sleep this night. An uneasy feeling came over him as he realized that a figure at the opposite end of his table was staring at him. The man was dressed in dark-brown leather with a cowl covering the majority of his face. His eyes, however, were completely exposed, glowing in the dimly lit room. They were yellow like a cat’s, with wide slits for pupils. Clearly, this person was not human, but Taren had never heard of such a race. Such creatures must live far from the land of Ky’sall.
Taren found himself staring back at the man, who finally stood and marched toward the young wizard. Taren tried to look away, hoping the man would walk past him, but no such luck. The yellow-eyed man took a seat next to Taren, setting his mug down on the table.
“You seem out of sorts,” the man said in a raspy voice. He brushed back his cowl, allowing Taren a clear view of his face. His blue-green skin was scaly, obviously reptilian. His snakelike head featured rows of spikes on either side, his nose little more than two nostril slits above his mouth. “I’m not from around here either,” he added.
Taren stared a moment, not sure how to respond. Never in his life had he encountered another of this man’s race. “I’m from Dobra,” Taren admitted. Though he had been born in a farming village, he had spent a few years at the Mage’s College in Dobra before moving to its outskirts to live with Master Imrit. It was as good a hometown as any.
The reptile man nodded. “You’re a mage,” he said. “We don’t get many of those around here.” He sipped at his drink, waiting for Taren to continue the conversation.
Taren wasn’t sure what to say. What was this man’s interest in him? Was he just being friendly or was there some ulterior motive? “Yes, I’m a mage,” he finally said. “My name is Taren.”
The man smiled, turning up the corners of his wide, scaly mouth. “My name’s Zamna,” he said. “I’m an assassin.”
Taren was slightly taken aback by the man’s sudden announcement of his profession. “Why would someone hire you to kill me?” he asked out loud. Instantly, he regretted allowing the words to leave his mouth.
Zamna laughed a strange hissing laugh. “If I’d wanted to kill you, you would be dead. I don’t converse with my targets.”
Taren’s tense posture relaxed a bit. Clearly this man was an undesirable. Taren hadn’t noticed, but when Zamna moved closer to him, the table nearest to him cleared out, each person slowly vacating his seat, one after the other. “Then what do you want with me?”
“You look like someone who has a mission to accomplish. This town gets a handful of travelers each year, but none of them are wizards. Something has drawn you this way, and I thought you might be in need of a little assistance. I occasionally provide services as a bodyguard, and I know this land fairly well.”
Taren grew suspicious. “How do you know about my mission?”
“I don’t,” Zamna admitted. “A troubled young man who keeps to himself in a roomful of merrymaking must have a lot on his mind. Perhaps a task of some importance weighs heavily on you.”
Taren admired the reptile man’s ability to read him. The idea of completing his mission alone was indeed troubling. Imrit had intended for all three apprentices to work together to retrieve the symbol. Alone, Taren stood little chance. But how could he trust an assassin? This man probably intended to rob him and kill him once they were away from witnesses. “Why would you offer me your assistance?” Taren asked. He crossed his arms and tried his best to look intimidating.
“Money,” Zamna replied casually. “A wizard’s quest no doubt involves treasure,” he added. “I’d be happy to have a share of it. You are heading someplace dangerous and are in need of a little protection. I happen to be quite handy with these daggers.” He pulled a shining silver dagger from its sheath on his chest and a second from an unseen holster on his hip. Twirling them once, he laid them on the table and grinned at the young mage. “I have quite a reputation around here for fighting, but you’ll notice I have no scars upon my scales. What do you say?”
Taren’s mind flashed back to the stone beast. Could Zamna have defeated it? Swallowing hard, Taren came to a decision. He would tell this man where he was heading and judge by his reaction whether he was worth employing. After all, Imrit had not sworn any of them to secrecy. Only a mage could claim the symbol. “I am heading to the tomb of the ancient sorceress Ailwen.”
Zamna laughed again, this time tossing his head back. Noticing that Taren had not cracked a smile, he stopped and asked, “You’re serious?”
A single nod was Taren’s only reply.
“It lies far to the south, through forests, deserts, and swamps,” Zamna stated. “That is no mission to undertake alone.”
“You know the way?” Taren asked, not revealing that he had a map in his bag. He was certain he could find the way on his own, but surviving to that point might prove difficult. After all, he was an herbalist, not a battle mage. Had Tissa and Djo been free to perform magic, he was certain they would have taken down the stone beast. Unfortunately, casting magic in The Barrens could have summoned more beasts to overwhelm them. Now alone, he had no one to provide protection from whatever he might encounter along the way. Though he was far from defenseless, he was less than confident in his fighting abilities.
“I’ve never been that far south,” Zamna admitted. “But I do know the land south of here, and I’ve survived a desert before.”
“What payment are you demanding?” Taren asked.
“A portion of whatever’s in that tomb,” Zamna replied. “I doubt anyone has disturbed it, seeing as it’s cursed.” He shrugged as he said those last words, obviously unbothered by such a minor detail.
“We’ll leave at first light,” Taren declared, hoping he had made the right decision. With an ally, he would be more likely to survive the road ahead. At least now he stood a chance of success. If it became necessary to defend himself against his own companion, he hoped his magic would prove strong enough to best the reptilian man, or at least give him time to escape.
Zamna re-sheathed his daggers and lifted his mug. After taking a long swig, he reached forward to shake Taren’s hand. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I never kill anyone who owes me money.” Grinning, he added, “But I make no promises after I’m paid.”
The next morning, Taren awoke with regrets. Holding his head in his hands, he sat up on his bed, scolding himself. How could he have agreed to allow an assassin to accompany him on the most important journey of his life? Master Imrit had placed his trust in Taren, and now he had risked losing everything. This reptile man could probably kill him faster than he could cast a defensive spell.
Gathering his thoughts, he decided to tell Zamna there had been a change in plans. He would admit that he hadn’t been thinking clearly since his ordeal earlier, and he had made a mistake. Now that he’d had time to gather his thoughts, he knew this was a journey he would have to undertake alone. But how could he tell a killer that he’d changed his mind? This man was expecting payment in the form of treasure. Taren couldn’t possibly provide that. He made up his mind to sneak out quietly, avoiding the situation altogether. With luck, Zamna would not consider him worth tracking down.
Taren rose from the bed and quickly collected his few belongings. Opening the door quietly, he tiptoed into the hallway and down the stairs. If only there were a back door to the establishment, he wouldn’t have to pass through the common room. Zamna might be sitting there waiting to leave. To Taren’s relief, only a few men sat around eating breakfast. The reptilian man was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps he had changed his mind and decided against spending miserable days crossing a desert. There was a good chance someone had plundered the tomb in ages past, so there was no real reason for Zamna to come along. Except, of course, that he was familiar with the area and might not be bad to have around in a fight. Taren shook the thought away. No, he would travel alone and retrieve the symbol unassisted.
Stepping out into the sunlight, Taren breathed the fresh air deep into his lungs. He closed his eyes and turned his face to the sun, momentarily basking in its warm embrace. Out of nowhere, something crashed into his midsection. Opening his eyes, he stood face to face with Zamna, who was once again hooded. Taren’s mouth dropped open, but no sound came out.
“You’ll be needing that bedroll,” Zamna said, still holding it against the mage’s torso. “The sand will be uncomfortable if it gets between your scales,” he added, hissing with laughter.
Taking the pack, Taren slung it over his back. “Thanks,” he muttered. It would add weight to the bundle he was already carrying, but it would provide more padding than the thin blanket he had brought.
“We should get a few more supplies,” Zamna said. “You’ll need more water than me, and we don’t want to run low on food. We might need to pick up some medicine as well, just in case.”
“I can handle that myself,” Taren informed him. “I’m an herbalist.” Unlatching his shoulder bag, he held it open for Zamna to look inside.
The assassin nodded his approval. “Let’s get some food then.”
Stepping down from the inn stairs, Taren said, “Look, this really is something I should do alone. You don’t need to come along.” He couldn’t dare say what he was really thinking. He did not trust this person, and he’d been an idiot to invite him along.
Zamna narrowed his eyes. “You’ll never make it alone,” he said. “The only reason you got away from the stone beast was because the other two were slower than you.”
Taren stared at him in disbelief. Had he revealed more than he meant to last night? His memory was blurry, and he could not recollect when he had returned to bed. Perhaps he had partaken of too much house ale, despite promising himself he would have no more of it. The mage vaguely remembered the reptile man insisting they drink on their agreement. What had he told this man about the symbol? Revealing too much might put him in danger. This assassin could easily take it from him once he’d retrieved it. It was possible he was a mage as well and was hiding it.
“Ailwen’s tomb is rumored to be full of riches,” Zamna said, filling the silence. “Now that you’ve put the idea in my head, I’m going, and I’ll need a mage to open the door.”
“Why is that?” Taren wondered.
“Because it’s sealed with magic,” Zamna replied, shaking his head. “Do you know nothing of the place you’re going?”
“I know a little,” Taren replied, trying to hold his head high. In reality, little was known of the tomb. Master Imrit had studied more than anyone else on the subject, and he had little information to pass on. Once he had discovered its location, he had mapped out the route that his apprentices should take and left it at that. How to get inside and retrieve the symbol was up to the them. With the three of them together, surely they could figure it out. Imrit had grown old and impatient, and his apprentices were eager to please. They had convinced themselves they could do anything. Never once had they imagined not making it out of The Barrens.
The other apprentices were gone, fallen at the hands of a monster. Taking in a deep breath, Taren resolved to complete his quest, and return with the symbol or die trying. What harm could there be in allowing Zamna to join him? Two heads were better than one, weren’t they? Letting out the breath slowly, Taren said, “Let’s get what we need and be on our way.” His chances of success seemed good, as long as Zamna proved to be a man of his word. If he wasn’t, Taren would probably find out sooner rather than later. After all, if he intended only to rob him and kill him, he would probably do it as soon as they left town. Taren decided he would take the risk. Alone in the wilderness, he would likely die anyway.
Together they walked down the narrow street leading into the main thoroughfare. Market stalls lined each side of the wide road, and numerous vendors called out in loud voices in hopes of attracting customers. Taren’s eye fell on a baker’s stall, where sticky sweet rolls displayed themselves with pride, begging him to indulge. Resisting the urge, he pressed on. This was not the time to satiate his sweet tooth. Provisions needed to be kept light for the long journey ahead. Walking all day with a heavy pastry in his stomach would only lead to problems.
Though Taren had brought some rations from Imrit’s cottage, he had no idea how long the journey would take. It couldn’t hurt to purchase more while he had the chance. The pair stopped at a stall where nuts and dried fruit were stocked in abundance. A thin man with a gaunt face smiled at them from behind the counter.
“What’ll ye have?” he asked.
“Do you have any dried meat?” Taren asked, hoping the local cuisine was not too different from what he was used to.
“Aye,” the man replied. “We got beef strips and crickers.”
Taren paused a moment, wondering if he should ask what crickers were. “Two pounds of beef for me,” he said, before looking over at Zamna.
“A pound of crickers,” Zamna said. “We also need three pounds of dry fruit and four pounds of nuts. You can mix a variety together.”
With a nod, the man began filling thick paper pouches with the requested provisions.
“Do you think that will be enough?” Taren asked.
“There will be more along the way,” Zamna promised. “I know what’s edible out there.”
Taren nodded, glad to have his companion’s knowledge of the area. The young apprentice had a good knowledge of plants, so he doubted he would accidentally ingest anything poisonous, but he wasn’t sure what he would find in this strange land. Of course, what was poisonous to him might not be to someone of Zamna’s race. Taren had no idea.
The merchant handed over the bags to Zamna, who shoved them inside his pack. With his hand out, the man stared at Taren. Rummaging in his sack, Taren pulled out a few copper coins.
“Is this enough?” he asked.
The man nodded. “Good day to ye.”
“What are crickers?” Taren asked as the pair headed back to the road.
“Dried crickets,” Zamna replied. “Good source of protein.”
Taren felt himself start to gag, but he swallowed hard to fight it. Zamna could keep the entire bag of crickers for himself.
As they approached the city gate, they stepped aside to allow a few farmers to enter with their carts. The bright-blue fur of the mules hauling the wares into town caught Taren’s eye. They were much more impressive than the brownish-red mules he was used to seeing. They trotted along the road, bringing a splash of color to an otherwise drab city.
“We’re leaving just in time,” Zamna commented. “It’s market day.”
Taren wouldn’t mind taking a look at the colorful wares in the cart, but he knew there was no time to waste. The sooner he could get going, the sooner he could find the symbol and return to his master. With a final look, he said goodbye to the city of Rixville. He hoped to be passing this way again soon, when it was time to return home.
Stepping outside the gate, a system of well-worn roads spread out before them. Those running east-west had seen the most travel, as evidenced by the deep ruts cut into them. The road leading south was less worn, but it was clearly visible. The landscape was dotted with houses and farms of varying size, but there was little to be seen close to the road. The land was mostly flat and covered in the spongy, bright-colored grass Taren had noticed before.
Choosing the south-leading path, they marched side by side in silence while Taren took in the sights of the area. Zamna kept his eyes forward, carefully watching the way ahead. He moved in a businesslike manner, his head occasionally glancing to the side. After a few miles, Taren could bear the silence no longer.
“How long do you think it will take to reach the tomb?” he asked.
“Hard to say,” Zamna replied. “A few weeks at least, assuming the land is traversable and we don’t have to go out of our way.” He kept his gaze forward as he spoke.
“Are you originally from Rixville?” Taren asked, in an effort to prolong the conversation.
“No,” he snorted, shaking his head. Clearly he thought the question was daft.
“Then where are you from?” Taren wondered aloud. Zamna was the first he had seen of a reptilian race, and he’d never read about them in his studies.
Dropping his head, Zamna sighed. He disliked being interrogated, and he had no intention of sharing much with this young wizard. However, in order to satiate his curiosity, Zamna was willing to answer this one question. “I come from a land far across the sea. It is known as La’kerta.”
Taren raised his eyebrows, hoping to find out more about the reptilian homeland. “So you’re La’kertan then,” he said.
“Yes, Ky’sallan,” Zamna snapped, clearly agitated.
Taren decided not to press his companion any further. Perhaps as they traveled he would open up more and allow Taren to know him better. For now, the mage pictured a land crawling with reptiles, some of them on two legs, others on four. Did they crawl out of the sea in some pre-larval stage like a salamander? Looking at his companion’s scales, he decided he couldn’t be any type of amphibian. His skin was too dry. Still, he wondered if he might have hatched from an egg. Keeping his mouth tightly shut, he held back the question for a later time.
The road stretched on as they continued their march away from the city. The walls grew farther away until nothing could be seen of Rixville. Farms came and went, and Taren finally got a better look at the animals he had seen from a distance. They were indeed cattle, as he had suspected earlier, and they came in a wide assortment of colors. Some of them were solid, but the majority were dappled with a multitude of hues. One in particular stood out to him, as it had a bright-green head and brown and white splotches on its back. It reminded him of the ducks that used to inhabit the small pond outside his dormitory window. This land was a far cry from the Mage’s College grounds.
One farm spread wide enough that it nearly touched the road. Taren instantly recognized some of the herbs growing in neat rows just behind a wooden fence. Straying from the road, the mage dared to approach the fence.
“I wouldn’t do that,” Zamna warned. “Those go for a lot of money, and the farmer won’t take kindly to a thief, even a magical one.”
Taren halted in his tracks. He had no wish to antagonize anyone, but he regretted the scarcity of ingredients in this land. “Why are there no wild plants in this region?”
“Nothing grows wild anymore,” Zamna replied. “It’s been that way for centuries. Every tree, every plant, every bit of food comes from those farms. Eventually we’ll reach the woods, and you’ll see all the plants you could desire.” His tone sounded almost bored.
Stepping back onto the road, Taren resumed his march. “I’ve brought quite a variety of potions, but it couldn’t hurt to harvest more ingredients while I travel,” he stated. “You never know what we might need.”
“So that’s what’s weighing you down,” Zamna remarked, pointing at Taren’s shoulder bag. “You brought more than you needed. The first rule of the road is to travel light.”
“There are a few more sewn into pockets in my robe,” Taren said with a smile. Undoing a small toggle, he opened a flap on the hip of his robe to reveal five small vials.
“Let me guess,” Zamna said. “Those are the most important.”
Taren shrugged. “Depends on the situation. Some of those will replenish my magical stores should I become depleted.”
Wrinkling his brow, Zamna asked, “Don’t you regenerate that naturally?”
“No,” Taren replied. “Elves do, but we humans have to rely on potions. We also have a harder time learning magic. For a time, I wished I had been born an elf.” He laughed softly, remember his childhood fantasy of being a tall, blond-haired elf.
“How do they taste?” Zamna asked.
“The potions? They’re not too bad. I craft my own, and I usually add a drop of honey or fruit juice to contrast the bitterness.”
“I don’t know how much of that we’ll be finding,” Zamna remarked.
They continued until sunset, when Zamna finally suggested they take a rest. Taren was grateful for the opportunity to sit, and his stomach had been rumbling for hours.
“Is there anywhere to find cover?” Taren asked.
“Cover from what?” Zamna sounded puzzled.
“Rain, animals, anything,” Taren replied. “It seems strange to sleep out in the open.”
“Used to feather beds are you?” the La’kertan hissed. “You’ll be all right. It doesn’t rain here, and there are no wild animals this close to the farms.”
Taren almost accepted this explanation, but he could not. “If it doesn’t rain, how do the farms stay fertile?”
“Magic,” Zamna replied. “I’d think a mage could recognize it.”
Taren felt embarrassed. He had no ability to sense whether another person practiced magic. Again, he wondered what it must be like to be an elf and have that ability. Could Zamna sense the magic? “Are you capable of magic?” he asked.
“Capable?” Zamna echoed. “Perhaps. I’ve never tried.” With those words, he unrolled his bed and sat down cross-legged.
“Should we build a fire?” Taren wondered. He had no idea if it would be cold at night. Another thing he had not prepared for. If he used magic to warm himself, he would become depleted too fast. If only he had mastered the element of fire.
“Not necessary,” Zamna said. “The temperature stays constant.”
Relieved, Taren unrolled his bed as well and sat across from his companion. Zamna reached inside his pack to retrieve the provisions they had bought earlier that day. Offering them to Taren, the mage gladly took the strips of beef and some fruit. Zamna was content to keep the crickers to himself, and he lazily popped them into his mouth as he reclined on his arm.
“Tell me,” Zamna began. “How did you come to be a magical human?”
The sudden interest in his life took Taren by surprise. Zamna’s tone was sincere, almost friendly. Taren may have been too hasty in fearing him, as it seemed the reptilian man had no interest in killing him.
“I was the third son of nine children born to a yeoman, or so I was told. My family was poor, and I stood to inherit nothing. Luckily, I exhibited a spark of talent for magic when I was just learning to walk. I was taken into basic mage training.”
“Who took you?” Zamna inquired.
“The Red Council makes it a point to visit all children in Ky’sall to determine whether they have magical inclinations. If so, they are taken for training. Many are sent home after a year or two. I was lucky.”
“How so?” Zamna asked as he popped another cricker in his mouth.
“I had enough magical aptitude to be allowed to continue my training. Unfortunately, my parents were expected to pay for my tuition, as often happens. They couldn’t afford it. My sisters needed dowries, and I was a burden.”
Zamna leaned up on his arm to look at the apprentice. “But you obviously found a way to continue your training.” Lifting a hand, he gestured to Taren’s robe and bag full of potions.
“My master, Imrit, took a liking to me. He saw potential and encouraged me to work hard. The Red Council would have sent me to work as a house servant if Imrit hadn’t taken me into his own home and allowed me to study alongside his older apprentices.”
Zamna lay back to stare up at the stars. “How nice,” he said, sounding only half interested. “What then?”
“I studied day and night,” he replied. “I took a liking to herbalism, and I put all my energy into it.”
Zamna scoffed. “Why not learn to cast lightning or something impressive? I can’t imagine anything more boring than cooking potions all day.”
Taren did his best not to become offended. How could this man possibly know the intricacies of potion crafting? It was possibly the most sought-after profession among mages. Few had the skills necessary to concoct mixtures that worked correctly. “I do have basic knowledge of the elements,” Taren explained. “I can cast many different types of spells, but I can master only one craft. I have chosen herbalism.” He felt pride as he spoke. Truly, crafting magical elixirs was his passion. Mastering an element had its appeals, but a human could hope to master only one arcane subject in a lifetime. It was far too taxing to focus on several at once. Taren was content with his lot.
Zamna shrugged. “Suit yourself, I suppose.” Rolling onto his side, he turned away from the mage and closed his eyes.
Taren sat up a while longer before finally lying back on his bed. The stars were dim overhead, despite the obvious lack of clouds. The night sky had a purple hue to it, with splashes of pale pink mixed in. He wondered how this land had become so colorful, but the snoring of his companion let him know there was no use asking. Deep down, he already knew the answer: magic.
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