Children of the Stars: Part II of the Wallmaker saga
Chapter 6: Fire and Ice
The cottage stairs were narrow. The ceiling overhead seemed to press down in the sinister gloom, and Markl was seized by irrational terror over the smallness of the passage. It pinched him like white hot irons making him feel light headed. But a greater fear kept him focused. His eyes fixed intently on the sickly green mists at his feet, which parted for him as he climbed higher. Light filtered dimly through the doorway on the landing and the young wizard pressed himself to the wall, cautiously skirted into the room.
He saw Martha first.
The herbalist was half collapsed on the ground in front of a small bed. His aunt's long hair was wild about her pale face and her breathing was labored. She was clinging to the foot railing as though her life depended on it, but her eyes were fixed on a ruby pendent that glinted on the bare wood floor just beyond her reach. Howl and Barimus stood at opposite corners of the room, but they were not looking at Martha. Their fierce eyes, which glinted with fey light, were searching the ceiling and they held their hands aloft as though they were trying to swat flies.
Markl was about to shout at them in anger for ignoring his youngest aunt's plight when he noticed the gloom that seemed to gather in the rafter. As he stared at the misplaced shadows, the squirrelly feeling in his chest alerted him that not all was what it seemed.
"Barimus…" Martha sobbed and the red wizard broke his watch, a wild look of despair in his eyes as he flicked his gaze at his suffering wife.
"Look out!" Howl barked as he made a swipe for something in the air.
Something moved in the ceiling above. Three ghoulish beings shed their gloom, the shadows flying away like bits of soot. Their bodies were gnarled and twisted like knotted roots, colored a corpse-like grey flesh with thick black taloned hands. Over their heads were what looked like burlap sacks with ripped holes for eyes. They had no mouths, but hooted viciously none the less. The puppet daemons reached into the air and hauled at invisible threads, which whistled and snicked about the room like the sound of a blade whipped from its sheath. Martha jerked upright into the air like a doll on a string and screamed as her arms were torn from the bedrail and twisted in different directions.
"There are three!" Barimus shouted as he caught a hold of something in the air at the same time Howl's hands found purchase on an invisible thread. A gossamer line whizzed by Markl's face, a shimmering cord in his othersight. Reaching out, the young wizard closed his hands around it and pulled with all his strength.
"Got it!" He cried exultantly.
Martha fell to the ground as the daemons once again retreated into the shadows; but the wizards had them by their magic.
"Pull!" Howl growled as he heaved downwards on the invisible line. Between the three of them, the daemons surfaced from the shadows, moaning like a rusted hinge.
"Burn!" Barimus commanded and red fire shot like an arrow along the thread in his grasp. A twin blue flame lanced out of Howl's hand and two of the daemons over head shrieked and crumbled into ash. But Markl stared up into the empty tears that were the last puppet daemon's eyes and felt only chill in his heart. He was not yet that strong a wizard to call fire so easily.
The thing threw itself from the ceiling and landed heavily on the bed, causing its legs to snap with a crunch. Still holding onto the thread, the ginger haired boy was yanked into the air with a yelp. He sailed forward over his aunt and dangled like a worm on a hook.
"Markl, let go!" Howl shouted.
But the young apprentice was paralyzed with fear as he gazed into the nothing beyond the slits in the gruesome creature's bag.
Time seemed to slow.
Markl could only watch with morbid fascination as the fabric of its hood split with a moist sound, revealing a hungry needled grin. His sandy hair stirred gently in its breath as it leaned forward over the foot of the bed; it smelled like sulfur and ash. Suddenly the thing shrieked as a pale hand thrust a red jewel against its skin, which hissed and charred with a plume of evil jade smoke. Aunt Martha pulled herself to her feet and thrust the red wizard's talisman after the beast as it tumbled backwards and up the wall above the bed.
The enraged daemon jumped like a spider, avoiding the handfuls of blue and crimson flame the two wizards cast at it. Once again, it retreated into the gloom of the ceiling as Barimus swept his wife into his arms. Howl watched over the rafters, bits of fire dripped from his hands burning marks into the floor, but he never faltered in his vigilance.
"Are you alright, Markl?" Martha whispered hoarsely, her dark eyes full of worry for him. She managed to grab a handful of her nephew's shirt around Barimus' intense embrace. The red wizard let go of the herbalist long enough to haul his nephew to his feet. But Markl's knees were not with him in that moment and he almost fell again. Hot shame bloomed within him over his weakness and he managed a nod as he turned his eyes back towards the ceiling. He felt light-headed and wondered if his mind was playing tricks on him as the ground seemed to heave beneath his feet.
The daemon coalesced out of the shadows above, but was no longer interested in them. It seemed to be listening to something else beyond their ability to hear. It shuddered and ripped a hole through the wall, which showed the scorched sky of the burned place beyond the Wall. The otherwind tore through the room for a moment before it dove through, taking its portal with it.
"That was a powerful daemon!" Howl spoke in a low voice as his fire extinguished, although he still stared at the place it had disappeared, "It opened a portal to the scorched plains."
Barimus seemed shaken at its retreat, but the analytical side of his personality took over in spite of himself, "It lingered after its cousins fell so it obviously wasn't frighten of us. What would make it leave so quickly?"
"Markl," Howl spoke softly, dread creeping into his eyes as he looked at his apprentice, "Where is Akarshan?"
A shockwave like an earthquake rocked the house. The glass in the windows shattered under the thunderclap that boomed beneath their feet. The wooden floor splintered explosively and heaved upwards. The cottage moaned and shuddered as it split in two. Barimus and Martha were torn away from their nephew as half the floor gave way and crashed into the kitchen below. They scrambled backwards staring at him in shock over the deep chasm that had formed under the tiny cottage.
"Markl!" Martha shrieked and reached out to him, but the red wizard snatched her back as bricks poured like water from above.
The floor beneath Markl slanted downwards dangerously and he flailed his arms to keep his on his feet. With a woeful sigh, the ceiling overhead jolted an inch and teetered for a moment as it held is balance. As it collapsed Markl was yanked backwards into strong arms as dust and rubble tumbled down around them.
Theresa stared in horror as the cold woman moved slowly over the ice in the kitchen.
The light around them seemed to flee her presence. The red headed girl was trembling in terror and almost took a step backwards out of the circle. A shock of ice licked at her foot. She gave a shriek as she hurried away from the edge, inching around the great oak table to put it between her and the intruder. She was dressed in a long green dress that trailed behind her like cobwebs. In spite of the fact that the circle of power beneath them had flickered and gone out, she stopped at the edge. The woman gazed down with contempt and then raised her eyes, which were bright with malice that did not reach her impassive face.
"Girl, give me the child." The woman commanded as she held out her hands expectantly.
"No! You go away, Mrs. Danna! You're not allowed in here!" Shan shouted at her even though he clung to Theresa in fear.
The woman regarded him with disgust, as though she was loath to touch him in spite of her demands. The herbalist's apprentice was mad with panic but rooted in place by the elder woman's steel grey eyes. As she reached out for Shan, a lance of blue-purple flame flew over Theresa's shoulder. The spark struck the cold healer in the chest, roaring up to consume her in fire.
"Calcifer!" Shan cried exultantly.
Mrs. Dana stumbled backward and hit the wall, catching curtains, books, and bits of paper on fire. She bowed for a moment as though being crushed by a great weight, then straightened like a bolt.
As the woman burst into a crackling nimbus of black and purple flame, an array of shadowed beings lifted from the ground like thin ghosts made of black smoke. They gathered around her ankles in wavering overlapped shapes. Some clawed weakly at the floor in an attempt to flee, but the thin roots of their forms were pinned beneath her feet. They gazed about with empty eyes and plucked piteously at her clothes with tendril-like limbs. All of the shades shrank and cowered from the heat of the witch's flames and the cold of her ice. Every hair on Theresa's body stood on end as the dim creatures turned their mournful empty eyes at she and Shan, reaching towards them with gaping mouths.
The witch's clothes scorched and blackened like charcoal even as the ground snapped and froze beneath her feet. She reached into her chest, which crumbled under her hand like ash, and drew out a flickering blue cinder. The woman seemed to gather herself up as ice seeped from the gaping hole in her breast. She tossed the ember onto the table, where he landed with a fizzled hiss. Raising her eyes, which burned like silver fire, she regarded the lick of red flame with unfettered contempt.
"Foolish daemon. You will find nothing there left to consume," her words echoed with a thousand brass voices, which clambered and vibrated in baleful choruses.
Calcifer trembled brighter for a moment as he pushed himself off of the table, leaving a burn mark beneath him. He regarded the woman with green terror as she stretched and twisted, loosing her shape as she became living fire with burning grey eyes that wept molten iron.
"I curse you and your family, Wallmaker's son!" The witch of fire and ice spat as she towered larger. Like a crackling vortex, she seeming to draw in all things, light, dark, living and not, as she prepared to unleash her fury.
"I will show you and this wretched world the true meaning of sorrow!" Her voice roared like a thunderclap, shattering the glass in the cottage windows.
"Fly!" Calcifer piped as he shot backwards towards the open front door, which still showed through to the castle from whence they had come.
Theresa realized she still had her hoe in hand, and had been brandishing it like a weapon. Tucking it beneath her, she clutched Shan to her chest as they sailed over the blighted ice floor, which reaching for them with tendrils of frozen mist. Just as she crossed back into the magic castle the shockwave a violent detonation behind them threw them against the stairs.
The door slammed shut before the blast could rush through.
A voice filtered through the aching haze that filled the young wizard's mind. A heavy weight pinned him down, sharp bits of rubble dug uncomfortably into his back. For a moment the complete black that enveloped him sent a shock of white cold panic through him. He began to thrash violently.
The young wizard froze as a groaning shudder shook the surroundings. Somewhere something collapsed with a crash, sending more plaster and grit down onto them. Overhead a tiny beam of light filtered through the filthy haze. In the dim light of the small space he realized the weight that pinned him in place was his master's body. Howl strained backwards with both magic and brute force against a wall that would have crushed them, his hands planted just above the young man's shoulders. The elder wizard's face was smeared with dust and his black haired plastered to his face, which was damp with exertion. He features twisted into an intense expression of pain and concentration as the wall moaned again and shuddered.
"Master?" Markl coughed as his senses returned to him.
"Thank the gods you're alright."
The raven-haired man let out the anxious breath he had been holding; it stirred the young boy's hair due to their closeness. The elder wizard's eyes were bright in the dark as he held his apprentice's gaze.
"Can you move your legs?"
"I think so?" Markl wiggled his limbs gently fearing the weight looming over them would come crashing down should he move to quickly.
"Good," Howl's voice was resolved as he flashed his eyes toward the glow that trickled from a small gap in the rubble, "See the light? I want you to wiggle out from under me and try to climb out."
"What about you?" Markl's voice was tight and high.
"If I move the wall will crush us."
It took a moment to understand what his master was saying and mortification filled him, "I'm not leaving you!"
"Blast it, Markl, I can't hold the wall much longer!" Howl snarled angrily. Almost in response to his words the wreckage overhead snapped and vibrated, bricks tumbling around them from above.
"I'm not leaving you, father!" The young man shouted back.
Markl could count on one hand how many times he had called Howl anything but master to his face. In spite of the fact that both his foster parents openly called him son, he still could not quite accept their love without hesitation. He had grown up an orphan; knowing nothing but loss, he always expected anything good to be fleeting. Even after living with Howl for years, he still half expected to be turned out into the streets. Like Howl, Markl loved his family desperately and secretly harbored enormous anxiety over loosing any of them. He remembered too keenly how it had felt when the Wallbreaker had taken Howl away. Even the memory still brought a chill to his heart.
It was easy to love Sophie and call her mother; simply being around the silver haired witch put him at ease. It was not that Markl did not love Howl, quite to the contrary. He loved his foster father so fiercely that it complicated things. Markl wanted more than anything to make his master proud and in his desperation he was afraid: afraid to fail him, to disappoint him, and most of all to loose him. As a result, the apprentice held himself at a distance, refusing to call Howl father and accept the permanence of their kinship out of fear that it would one day cease to be true.
Markl's words seemed to have an effect on the raven-haired sorcerer. Howl blinked in surprise. The anger in his eyes melted to a softer expression, in spite of the furious scowl on his face. The young wizard suddenly reached past his father's shoulders and pushed against the wall with all his might.
"What are you doing?" Howl snapped in surprise.
"I'm helping you! Now push!" Markl growled back and heaved against the wall with all his might. Under their combined efforts the remains of the wall shifted, after a moment where they both saw spots from their exertion, it yielded.
"Howl?" A familiar voice called from somewhere overhead.
"Barimus, we're here!" The raven-haired man shouted.
"You three, help me!" The red wizard called to someone else overhead and the weight of the wall lifted from them, exposing a red sky marred by soot and fire.
Howl collapsed to one knee as the debris crashed away from them. Markl slung his arm over his shoulder, helping his master to his feet. There was a smear of red against his temple but other than that they were fine. The young wizard cast his eyes around the smoldering shell that had once been his aunt's shop. It looked as if a bomb had been dropped on the house. Barimus dropped from a pile of bricks above them and nearly knocked them over as he crushed them in his arms.
"We're fine, brother!" Howl choked as the red wizard peered at them anxiously. His uncle had a long gash on his cheek and a good deal of plaster in his corn silk hair. The odd juxtaposition gave him the look of a clown that had just been in a roadside accident.
"I'll let my wife be the judge of that! Martha?"
Markl caught sight of his youngest Aunt, who was being helped through the rubble by a witch and two wizards, all in matching red uniforms. The Ingarian coat of arms was embroidered onto the chest of their garments. His aunt inspected him critically with the eyes of an experienced triage healer. She seemed satisfied that he would live and then rounded on his master, gently turning Howl's head to scrutinize his scalp wound. The raven haired wizard suddenly seized a handful of his brother's begrimed shirt, a look of horror passing over his white face.
"The children?" He all but demanded.
"Howl, they're fine!" Barimus pointed into the distance, where the magic portal remained standing, if not badly scorched, "Theresa and Shan managed to get through the front door to the castle before the blast went off. Two of my honor guards are with them as we speak."
Howl wilted against Markl and probably would have fallen if his apprentice had not hefted him back up. Four more wizards in red uniforms clambered through the ruins and saluted Barimus.
"Lord Councilor, the fires have been contained."
"Good. Not now Martha," The red wizard batted at the herbalist's hands and turned away from his wife, who was attempting to blot at the blood oozing from the gouge on his cheek, "What about the daemons?"
"Sir, they have not been banished as of yet. A curfew has been called for non-magical citizens. All able-bodied witches and wizards have been summoned to help with the hunt."
"Inform the King at once and call together the Council."
"What is going on Barimus?" Howl demanded, having come back to his senses. The red wizard turned his eyes back to his apprentice brother, his voice grim as he spoke.
"A series of magic explosions were set off throughout the capital, which momentarily created a rift into the otherworld. Somehow a few daemons from beyond the wall got through."
"That's impossible," Markl exclaimed, "there's no way they could have crossed the Wall on their own,"
"Nothing is impossible Markl," Howl's voice became dangerous as he continued, "The magic here smells unsettlingly familiar, Barimus."
The red wizard's face was forbidding as he spoke, "One of the guards that questioned Akarshan and Theresa said that moments before the explosion they encountered a witch in the house. Shan says that her name is Mrs. Danna."
"Why does that name sound familiar?" Howl's faced twisted for a moment as he strained to remember.
"Let's not talk here, it's not safe," Barimus dismissed the troop of red-uniformed witches and wizards. As the magic guards left, the red wizard turned and folded his arms around his wife. Martha squirmed one of her arms out of the embrace to dab at his cheek once more.
"I want to see my son, Barimus." The raven-haired wizard pronounced as he disentangled himself from his apprentice, leaving no indication that he would be swayed. Markl felt a stab of sorrow mixed with resentment at having been cast off so quickly, but kept his feeling to himself.
"Fine, we'll go to your castle. Besides, I'd like to get Calcifer's version of all this. Apparently he was with the children just before the blast."
"Will the portal still work?" Markl sounded dubious as he gazed at the cinder covered door. It poked out of the rubble, leaning precariously as though it would fall to ashes at any moment.
"The magic is intact," Howl moved over to it briskly and brushed its surface with his hand, a fey look in his eyes. After a moment he knocked loudly.
The door opened inward, showing through to the castle stairs. Two large wizards in red uniforms loomed menacingly then stood at attention as they looked past to Barimus.
"Papa! Markl!" Shan called from within.
The little boy could be seen on the top of the stairs beyond the wizards, struggling to extricate himself from Theresa's arms. The herbalist's apprentice was pale faced with worry and almost melted with relief as she caught sight of all of them.
"You may go," Barimus saluted the guards and waved them out of the doorway, "Tell the Council I am at the Wizard Howl's castle. Send updates immediately by a magic messenger only. Destroy this door as soon as we are through."
As the family entered the castle, Shan broke free of Theresa's arms and flew down the stairs. Howl scooped him up and tucked the little boy's head under his chin as he went and collapsed on the couch. As soon as the door closed, Martha took a hold of the front of her husband's shirt and dragged him up the stairs past their nephew.
"Martha, what the devil-" Barimus squawked in surprise.
But the herbalist cut him off as she pushed him to a seat on one of the kitchen benches. She gave him such a flintily stare as he tried to speak that his words dried up. The red wizard sat there gaping. The green witch whisked over to the skin and filled a basin with warm water, snatching up a clean cloth on her return trip. Barimus had tried to stand again, but Martha shoved him back down. Kicking up one leg and then the other, she straddled her husband so he could not escape and began to clean his wound. The red wizard became truly crimson as he flushed furiously, submitting meekly to his wife's ministrations. Martha softened as she worked, and sweetened her strong medicine by planting a kiss on her husband's forehead.
Markl was distracted by his aunt and uncle and only just realized that Theresa was standing next to him. He gave a start as she took a hold of his sleeve. As he looked down at her he noticed she was crying. Dropping her hoe, the young herbalist seized the young wizard around the middle into a fierce hug, sobbing into his shirt. Markl was quite at a loss for what to do; blushing furiously as he threw up his arms in alarm.
"Umm… There, there. It's okay," he murmured softly, reaching down hesitantly to pat the red-headed girl's shoulder. Apparently it wasn't helping because Theresa began to cry harder.
"No, it's not okay!" She cried in a quavering voice around gasps for air. In the moments that followed she recounted in minute detail what had happened in the kitchen of Martha's herbalist shop. The room was silent save for the gentle sobbing of the red-haired little girl.
Markl felt awful. As a wizard's apprentice he had forgotten how terrifying magic could be. Furthermore, his life had already taken him through a series of magical ordeals he had begun to accept as normal. Theresa was not a witch, nor had she ever experienced the true perils that magic could bring. He reached down and hugged her close to him and that seemed to help. A secret place beneath his heart seemed to flicker and glow as he brought her over to the couch. Theresa tucked her knees under her chin and sniffled, wiping her eyes on her sleeve. Howl's voice broke the silence.
"Calcifer, why are you hiding?"
The fire daemon was a tiny ember hidden among the logs in the fireplace. He colored a sickly green-blue as he dwindled larger and peeked out at them with solemn wide eyes.
"This lady is bad news, Howl. She had at least thirteen daemons enslaved within her. She rules them and their magic, not the other way around. I've never seen anything like it."
This plunged the room into silence once more. Martha stood, having decided that her husband would live. She came to the couch and scooted Markl aside, placing a consoling hand on Theresa's shoulder. Shan emerged from under Howl's chin, his face covered in plaster and grim transferred from his father's shirt.
"Drie told me her name is Mrs. Danna. She cursed us, papa!" He whispered gravely.
"Who is Drie, Shan?" Howl asked with a frown.
"The little girl with the silver hair I met in the village. Oops! I'm not supposed to talk about that," the little boy clamped his hands over his mouth and shoved his head back under the wizard's chin. Howl seemed seriously disturbed by what his youngest son had just said. He cast a look at Markl, who avoided his gaze.
"Danna," Barimus mused from the kitchen bench, "Now I remember where I've heard that name before. He was one of the lesser magicians who was lost to the Dark during the time of the Wallbreaker."
"His wife?" Martha murmured softly as she stared at Calcifer.
Howl shot to his feet, half dropping Shan, who gave a squeak as he slid to the floor. The little boy whined petulantly but climbed up into Martha's lap as she settled on the couch next to Theresa. Markl felt a cold knot grow in his stomach as he realized he had completely forgotten about his mother in the chaos.
The raven haired wizard called as he stepped over his son. He pounded up the stairs and he could be heard calling his wife's name over and again. His calls went unanswered. The master of the castle came pounding downstairs and nearly knocked his apprentice brother off the bench as he loomed over him.
"Barimus, did Sophie come to see you?" Howl demanded fiercely.
"Yes. But she left only moments before Theresa came with news of Martha. It would have taken Sophie some time to get out of the castle. It's possible she might be detained by the wizard's guard for her own safety. Don't worry, Howl, I'm sure she's…"
The red wizard's words were cut off by a loud knock at the front door.
"Kingsbury door!" Calcifer called.
"See? That's probably her right now," Barimus stood, but Howl scowled him back to a seat.
The raven-haired wizard went to the front door and threw it open. The hopefully look on his face melted to an angry glower as a witch in a red uniform saluted him.
"I bring news for the Lord Councilor," she entered quickly as Howl fell away from the portal and let her pass as he shut the door. The cold knot in Markl's chest grew heavier and heavier with each step the messenger took.
"Sir! King Ferdinand is safe and well guarded. All non-magic citizens have been ushered home. However, sir, I bring ill news," the witch announced, "Councilor Raia has been murdered. The body was discovered shortly after the attacks began. Her apprentice is missing."
"That poor old woman; who would want to harm an old senile witch?" Barimus' face was ashen with surprise.
"Sir! There is more. This was just found in the Council Hall as the palace was searched," The messenger reached into her pocket and held out a necklace out to Barimus.
The blue stone showed like a crystal tear in the light.
It was the sapphire talisman that Howl gave Sophie on their wedding day. The silver haired witch always wore around her neck. The raven haired wizard uttered a hoarse cry and flew forward from the landing, snatching the pendant from her hand. He stared at it for a long moment, all colored draining from his face. He held up the hand on which he wore the magic ring with the red stone, the twin of the ring his wife wore.
"Sophie!" He snarled and the light in the room dimmed for a moment as the castle creaked and moaned. Nothing happened, the jewel was dark. "SOPHIE!" Howl's voice thundered as the otherwind erupted around him.
But the ring on his finger remained lifeless.
To be continued in Twilight Doom: Part III of the Wallmaker Saga
Are you all still interested in this story? Or am I beating it to death? Comments would be really appreciated, good and bad?
As always, thank you for reading :)