This is the first chapter of the third part of the Wallmaker Series. I recommend you read the first part, Beyond the Indigo Veil, and the second part, Children of the Stars, before reading the following story.
I just want to take a moment and thank everyone for their wonderful reviews and comments. I have a beta reader now who has so graciously offered to help me edit and read through the first bits. This chapter is for you Skitz!
Thanks again for reading!
Lady Librarian .
Twilight Doom: Part III of the Wallmaker Saga
Chapter 1: Dusk
Markl stared at the ceiling of his room, the wind chimes overhead tinkled and spun in the gentle wind that filtered in from the May morning outside. The view from his window looked out into a sea of clouds. The great fluffy ones on the horizon moved lazily whereas wisps of mist and spray closest to the sill swept in and then fled swiftly as the castle sliced through the sky.
It had been two days since Sophie disappeared.
Downstairs the Aunts were holding council, trying to decide what to do with him and his younger brother. Mrs. Fairfax and Granny Witch were also part of their committee, although Lettie's strong voice often ruled over their soft twittering. Grandma Honey was not in attendance. Mrs. Hatter had not been very available to Sophie over the past six years; she was a kind but flighty woman who did not deal well with misfortune. Much like Howl, she tended to ignore anything unpleasant. The tentative mother daughter relationship that began after their reunion before the end of the Mardan War dissolved quickly in her absence. According to his blond aunt, mother Hatter was taking her daughter's disappearance very hard and was made all the more difficult by the woman's many bitter regrets.
The sandy haired apprentice focused on the voices below, and they became crystal clear as though the four women were sitting on the foot of his bed. Markl had the uncanny ability to hear everything that was said downstairs or anywhere in the castle for that matter. He had once tried to chock it up to the acoustics in his room, but it was more than that. He was coming into his magic, Howl had told him not long ago. His master also told him to experiencing strange visions and precognitive dreams in addition to the odd pimple. Lettie's voice drew him back to the conversation below, her brassy tone hard with anger.
"We can't very well leave them here with Howl! He's utterly useless at the moment. I can't believe he punched Barimus square in the nose... What a child!"
Markl recalled the events following the messenger's arrival and the delivery of the sapphire talisman. It had been hard to watch. Thankfully his youngest aunt quickly ushered Theresa and Akarshan out of the room before the eminent fight had broken out.
After the ring refused to answer his magic, Howl had collapsed onto the kitchen table into a motionless state of abject despair. Shocked and dismayed as well, Barimus had attempted to hide his worry and rouse his brother in the worst way possible: by lecturing him. The red wizard, no doubt motivated by the best of intentions, tried to distract Howl from Sophie's disappearance by making appeals to his duty as the last of the Wallmaker line. Unfortunately, he took the absolutely wrong approach to drawing the raven-haired wizard out of his misery induced stupor.
Barimus was an exceedingly charming man capable of the most gentile of conversations. He could smooth talk even royalty when he was in his best form. However, when the red wizard was caught off guard, he became gruff and so brusque that his actions bordered on cruelty. As such, instead of being gentle with his brother, in his most fragile of moments, Barimus attempted to revive Howl by alternately insulted his weakness and demanding that he stand up and help protect Ingary.
Howl's response had been to retreat both mentally and physically. The he attempted to flee the kitchen Barimus blocked the raven haired wizard's way, hounding him persistently. As a result Howl snapped and retaliated violently. In the shouting match that followed the two let loose everything they had been holding for the past six years, blinded by pain and rage. Markl did not care to remember some of the more vicious accusations his master and uncle flung at one another. But he remembered the gist of the argument quite vividly from where he watched from the couch.
Howl had flung the kitchen bench across the room as he slammed his fists onto the table. His blue eyes were on fire with fury and misery as he bellowed at his brother.
"I wanted nothing to do with any of this! But, no! You couldn't let us live our family live in peace. Your precious Wizard's Council has cost me both my daughter and my wife!"
"The council has nothing to do with this Howl!" Barimus shouted back as he got right in his brother's face, "You're acting like an immature little apprentice like usual. You've known for a while what has been going on and you've chosen to ignore it. Be a man for once and stop blaming others for your problems."
"How like you Barimus, defending that gaggle of pompous fools! How long have you been their puppet? Do they pay well for your support? Or is all that power making that's you drunk and sloppy?"
"Why you ungrateful little ass," Barimus sputtered, going pale with rage as he chased his brother around the table pointing an accusatory finger at the retreating wizard.
"You! You shackled me with the Royal Wizard position, you selfish brat. And it has brought me nothing but suffering! Do you think I like being up at night till all hours settling the squabbling of petty wizards while Martha waits for me alone in the dark? Remember that I too have lost a child and very nearly my wife!" Barimus had thundered back, continuing blindly without a thought for what he was saying.
"Sophie is gone because of your own indecision and inaction, Howl," the red wizard spat back venomously, "The only person you have to blame for your loss is yourself!"
This rang all too true for Howl. He went white with shock as though his brother had just slapped him, eyes wide with anguish. The raven haired man collapsed onto the other kitchen bench and hid his face in his hands, his shoulder's shaking as he sobbed silently. Seeing his brother crumble into wretchedness seemed to bring Barimus back to his senses. He gaped like a fish in astonishment. The royal wizard seemed to sag under the weight of contrition and mortification as he realized what he had just said. The red wizard reached gently out to his brother.
"Howl," he spoke in a voice gruff with sorrow. But his apprentice brother answered by punching Barimus square in the nose. Howl fled upstairs as the red wizard reeled back against the wall holding his bloody nose.
Markl's memories were snatched away as he was drawn back to the conversation by the voice of his seldom spoken youngest aunt.
"Barimus deserved it," was Martha's stony reply.
"They both need a swift kick in the pants," Lettie fumed in agreement, "But honestly, I don't know how you put up with your husband, Martha! You nearly died! And where is your wizard? Off in the capital while you clean up after his family,"
"Barimus has many obligations, Lettie," the hedge witch's voice was dangerous, although her tone was even, "You should not begrudge him his duty to protect Ingary."
"Oh, drat. I didn't mean to upset you Martha," the caterer's voice was harsh with embarrassment, "I'm just out of sorts right now."
"This is a difficult time for all of us, dears," Mrs. Fairfax cut into the conversation in a gently admonishing tone, "Don't be so hard on the wizards. After all Barimus is under a lot of stress and Howl just lost his wife,"
"You don't know that!" Calcifer's impassioned voice cut through the conversation. The little fire daemon snapped and popped as he stalwartly rejected the old herbalist's previous statement, "There is no indication that Sophie is…"
"We know that, Cal," Lettie replied softly. Her normally strong voice quavered softly and there was a pause filled with some sniffling before she continued again, "But it's been two days. We need to start thinking of what's best for the children."
"Kingsbury is too dangerous," Martha spoke solemnly.
"Perhaps they should come and stay with me in the Folding Valley," Mrs. Fairfax offered gently.
"No. I will stay here with them for Howl's sake," Martha replied, her tone making it clear that no one would argue with her.
"That will work for now," Lettie replied decidedly, but continued with worry plain in her voice, "What news from the capital? Have you heard anything from Barimus, Martha?"
"The daemons keep coming," was her ominous response.
"Don't worry, they're contained," Calcifer crackled confidently, "The barrier Suliman placed over Kingsbury during the Mardan War works both ways. It keeps magic out, but it also keeps magic in. The daemons can't leave the capital as long as it stands."
"But the daemons keep coming," Martha replied almost despondently.
"Don't worry dear," Mrs. Fairfax murmured reassuringly, "The elders on the Council are helping Barimus bolster the shield while the younger ones hunt down and banish the daemons."
"Two wizards died yesterday," the young herbalist' voice was shaky; the fear for her husband's well being plain within it as words written on a page.
"Nice doggy," Granny Witch murmured happily and the women lapsed into silence.
Markl turned his inner ear away from the voices below and his thoughts wandered to his master. Howl had not emerged from his room since he had broken his apprentice brother's nose. Barimus had not returned either, although Martha had told him this morning that his uncle was fine. He was relieved, but was not so sure about his master. He refused to eat the food that his aunts left at his door. He wouldn't even let Calcifer into his room; the little flame had retreated to the fireplace after waiting a whole day by his friend's door.
A small tap at his door broke his thoughts and the latch clicked as Shan squeezed into the room. The little boy crept over to his older brother's bed and climbed onto the foot. Akarshan was normally full of bouncing energy, but the gloom that filled the house made him subdued. Markl stared at the ceiling trying not to think about what the Aunts had said, definitively avoiding his brother's stare. Shan knew very little about what had happened and Markl planned to keep it that way.
"Is the shop closed today, Markl?" Shan spoke in a small voice more for the sake of talking itself.
"Yes, Shan," the young wizard replied evenly.
"What about the customers?"
"They'll come back later."
"Is papa sick?" Shan asked in a worried voice.
"Yes, Shan. We need to leave him alone right now."
"Okay," he murmured sadly, then gazed at him for a while before he spoke again, "What are the aunties talking about?"
"They're discussing who is going to look after us until Sophie comes come."
"Papa can't take care of us?"
"Not while he's sick, no."
"Then mama needs to come home so he'll get better."
"Sophie might not come back for a long time, Shan."
"When will she come home?"
"Soon, Shan; very soon," Markl spoke gruffly.
The young apprentice rolled over to avoid letting his little brother see the hot tears gathering in his eyes. The lie he had just spoken burned on his tongue, making him feel ashamed. He wondered at how often grown-ups had lie to children to keep them safe. All children invariably learned the truth: that life was hard and cruel and that their parents had lied to them. For most it was a rude awakening, but for others the breech of trust was so unexpected it was devastating. He brooded cynically at the futility of the act. And yet here he was, lying to keep his little brother safe from sorrow, giving him false hope for the moment.
Markl wondered bitterly if that made him an adult.
He lay there for a while, listening to the murmuring downstairs again, but the wind chimes overhead distracted him and the voices remained a distant buzzing. Unfortunately, Markl couldn't turn off his mind. His thoughts kept wandering back to the emptiness that reared up within in him, making it hard for him to breathe as he fell dizzily into the worst of his fears. Sophie was gone. His mother wasn't coming back.
He was loosing his family.
To distract himself from his desolation, Markl instead focused on his anger. The young wizard gritted his teeth against the surge of white hot hostility he felt for his master. Sometimes his master's inconsistencies drove Markl mad with frustration. The apprentice had seen his master fall into absolute despair over the color of his hair. But Howl had also single handedly turned back the heart of the Darkness and rebuilt the Dull Wall. He was an excellent teacher, mentoring his apprentice with endless patience and wisdom. Markl had endless respect for the man and loved him desperately. Howl was a wizard of incomparable power, but he was debilitated by his tempestuous emotions.
In fact Markl realized more and more that his master and his magic were ruled by his passions. The young wizard had not truly realized until recently how brittle Howl could be. He shrank from any distressing truth or action that might overturn the desperate status quo of pleasantness the man strove frantically to maintain. Sophie had played an enormous role in keeping their lives calm through her consistent nature, unconditional love, and level headed thinking. She was the magnet that brought balance to the violently swinging pendulum of their lives. Now that she was gone, Howl was lost once more in the turbulent waves of his melancholy.
As such, when they needed him most, Howl was absent.
Being angry didn't seem to help either; vacillating wildly between hating and loving his father left him feeling even emptier. So Markl lay there for some time, focusing on keeping his mind blank.
He must have fallen asleep at some point because a knock at the door downstairs jolted him awake.
He was on his feet and down the stairs in a blink, giving Aunt Martha a start. The young herbalist was sitting on the couch in front of Calcifer. Shan was asleep in her arms, sucking his thumb as he stirred in his sleep. In her rocking chair Granny Witch sat humming to herself as she knitted a sock with such single-mindedness that she obviously had not heard the door.
His youngest aunt had remained with them ever since the Howl and Barimus had their fight. Her decision to keep the boys near Howl had gained her enormous respect from Calcifer. The herbalist and the fire daemon reached a quiet understanding in the past two days. He neither fled up flue in her presence nor insulted the hedge witch behind her back. In reciprocation she no longer threatened his life with a water bucket.
"Kingsbury door," Calcifer snapped with a nervous grimace. Markl strode past his Aunt with a glance that made it clear he would answer the door. He stepped over Heen, who stood on the landing with his hackles up, his droopy ears perked up at the portal.
"Cal, is it human?" The young wizard asked as he stood ready by the latch.
"Flesh and blood as far as I can tell," the spark crackled.
He threw opened the door and stared into Theresa's large green eyes. The herbalist apprentice was accompanied by one of Barimus' honor guard, the blond witch who had brought ill tidings on her last visit. In one of her hands she clutched the haft of her enchanted garden hoe; in the other she held a large bag. The streets outside were completely empty and silent; not even birds were chirping. However, in the distance the young apprentice could see a long line of people walking in frightened groups along the main boulevards, ushered along by hundreds of red clad witches and wizard.
"Hi, Markl. I guess I've come to stay with you now," Theresa smiled weakly and danced in place nervously, as was her way.
"Are you Markl, apprentice of the great Wizard Howl, last Son of the Wallmakers?" The blond witch asked with brisk authority and the young man blushed nervously as he nodded silently. She was staring at him very intently and he notice the witch had one blue eye and one brown. He also noticed she was very pretty, if it weren't for the shortness of her platinum hair. Theresa frowned as she noticed him noticing the witch and her irritated expression made him uncomfortable. The witch bowed briskly and then thrust out her hand to shake his.
"I am Cyanine, chief messenger of the honor guards of the red wizard Barimus, Lord Councilor and Royal Wizard of Ingary. I am charged with delivering this girl to you as well as the following message."
"My name is Theresa!" The herbalist apprentice snapped nastily and shoved past Markl into the castle. The blond witch watched her go without emotion, her posture speaking of nothing but the strict business of her errand. She bowed again with graceful reverence as Martha appeared at her nephew's elbow a curious light in her eyes, she still held a sleeping Shan. The messenger cast a questioning eye at the child in Martha's arms, but kept her own council on the meaning of that look.
"Greetings, Lady Martha; I bring news from the red wizard Barimus," Cyanine repeated as she motioned to the distant procession of people, "King Ferdinand has ordered the evacuation of the Capital. Your apprentice is no longer safe at the palace. I regret to inform you that the daemons invaders grow in number and boldness. They are strong in the night, although they flee the daylight. The shield holds and they cannot leave the city; but the witches and wizards of the council grow weary. A plea for help has been sent to Marda and Tyrn, who have agreed to send reinforcements."
Martha loomed like a living statue in the doorway, "How many?" She asked evenly.
Cyanine seemed confused for a moment, although her face hardened as she puzzled out the herbalist's question. The messenger's eyes colored with sadness, although her voice was emotionless.
"Four more this morning; mist daemons caught them off guard just before dawn in the early gloom."
Martha nodded and turned to go back up the stairs. Markl watched her go, baffled by the exchange. He was about to close the door and go after his aunt to question her when Cyanine caught a hold of his sleeve.
"Wait!" She half whispered.
The witch's business attitude cracked and for a moment only a young woman stood before him, remorse was plain on her pretty face. Her hesitancy made her look much younger in that moment and Markl found himself wondering how old she was. Not much more than he, was his realization. She was probably no more than seventeen or eighteen, barely out of her own apprenticeship.
"I'm sorry for your loss," she murmured quickly, then saluted and retreated towards the evacuation procession.
The sandy haired apprentice closed the door and stood at the bottom of the stairs trying to decide what emotion to feel at that moment. The gaping hole within him had opened up once more, and he stumbled up the steps without really thinking about them.
Martha was once again on the couch in front of the fireplace, her normally stoic face melancholy as she rocked Shan in her arms. With her long braid and family resemblance, she reminded Markl so much of Sophie in that moment that his knees went weak. Theresa was sitting next to her mistress and the sandy haired boy realized she was scowling at him angrily. Markl flushed with surprise and offense. Calcifer was grinning at him over a log and the young apprentice disliked the knowing gleam in the fire daemon's eyes. Granny Witch had taken notice of the red haired apprentice and was smiling absently.
"Oh, what a pretty young girl… You have leaves in your hair, dear," she mumbled as resumed the clicking of her needles. Theresa neither heard the compliment nor the hint; she crossed her arms and turned up her nose at him as he drew near.
What's her problem? He fumed silently. Turning on his heel, he went stomping off up the stairs again to his room, but continued on.
A normal person would have experienced the most unsettling sense of disquiet as they walked down the hall at the top of the stairs. Although it looked quite short, as one continued down the way it seemed to stretch into an endless corridor lined with many identical doors. Each of the doors was labeled with a framed sign printed in swirly lettering with titles like library, or stairway to the roof, or stairway to the workshop. But Markl was anything but normal. He traversed the magic corridor with ease, throwing open the door to the castle's roof and venting his anger by stomping as loudly as he could to the top. As he reached the top and threw open the door, the chilly wind erupted around him, snatching at his hair and clothes.
Ignoring the chill as the bright sun poured down on him, the young wizard ran across the observation deck that crowned the flying castle. He swung up onto the spire ladder and half-climbed half-flew its very top. He did not look down at the emerald green world traversed by ribbons of shimmering blue water. He did not look up into the bright cerulean sky and trimmed with gossamer white clouds. By the time he plopped down onto the cold metal floor of the crow's-nest his heart was overflowing. The violence of his emotions poured out of him in the form of tears.
Sitting on the top of the world, Markl cried his eyes out.
After a while he realized that he was not the only on in the castle who was crying. The murmuring voices of the people downstairs intruded into his inner ear against his will. Someone was sobbing softly, almost too quiet for him to hear.
"What did you say to her, Calcifer!" Theresa's voice was hot red in his mind with anger.
"Don't be cheeky with me, little girl! I don't know what's gotten into her! I just asked what the messenger had said," the fire daemon popped and snapped in yellows and oranges.
"I am not little," Theresa snapped back, "And my name is Theresa!"
"Why is Auntie crying!" Shan wailed in uncertainly.
"I'm sorry. It's not Calcifer's fault, Theresa. It's alright, Shan. I've just had a difficult couple of days," Martha spoke strongly again, getting herself back under control. But Markl could see the melancholy blues and purples in her mind as she spoke.
"Is it because Mrs. Danna blew up your house? Or did something happen to mommy?" Shan asked petulantly, his voice blossoming into a purple red flower within Markl's mind as the little boy picked up on his aunt's anguish.
"Everything's fine, Shan," Martha repeated insistently as she lied smoothly, "You're right, I'm sad because I lost my house."
"It's okay, auntie. I'll help you build a new one," Shan replied happily.
"Hey, kid! Where are you going?" Calcifer crackled brightly in Markl's mind and the apprentice saw Theresa in his othersight as she climbing up the stairs to the second story.
"My name is Theresa!" She shouted back at him, her voice spreading through his mind like a leafy green fern. He watched with disembodied eyes as the feisty young woman stuck out her tongue at the fire daemon for good measure.
Cal fumed up large and orange as he sputtered indignantly, "Why you little! Hey! Don't go poking around where you're not supposed to!"
The red haired girl ignored him and continued on her way. Markl had an inkling of where she was going. He had some time to reflect on the cryptic question she had asked Barimus' messenger and the young wizard also had an idea about what was upsetting Martha.
"Oh, what a lively day today," granny witch murmured as Markl strove to close his inner ear to their thoughts.
He heard the door to the observation deck open and shut with a rusty squeal. Shortly after there was a tap on the metal trap door at the bottom of the crow's-nest; Markl hastily dried his eyes on his shirt and snuffled loudly.
"Can I come up Markl?" Theresa called and then came up anyway after he didn't answer.
The herbalist's apprentice sat across the small circular room gazing at him with guilty eyes as she swirled her curly red haired around one of her fingers. Markl ignored her, made self conscious by his salty face and red-rimmed eyes.
"I'm sorry, okay?" She finally spoke awkwardly, her voice echoed loudly and she turned as ref faced as her hair.
"I wish everyone would stop apologizing to me!" Markl growled in frustration and scrubbed his face with his hands. There was a long pause and Theresa fidgeted uncomfortably as her companion sat across from her like a gloomy rain cloud.
"I lost my mom too, you know," Theresa replied almost challengingly.
"Sophie isn't my mother," Markl snapped crossly, hoping that denial might make him feel better since he had already tried anger and sadness.
Searing shame flared within him as he felt awful for having tried to deny the fact that Sophie was his mother. His guilt plunged him dizzily back into the empty chasm within him and he came full circle back to despair once more. After another long silence, Theresa spoke again.
"Master Barimus sent me to stay with you and Shan. He says the capital isn't safe anymore. A daemon almost got into the palace last night, but the witches and wizards fought it off," Her voice was almost a whisper as she continued.
"I was the first one to see it from the window in Master Barimus' office! It looked like one of the things that were pinned under that woman's feet but ten times as large. It ate everything! Trees, buildings, statues… people…"
Markl couldn't help but look up at her after hearing the horror in her voice. She was pale but her face was fearless. The young apprentice felt badly for being such a grump and he smiled softly.
"You're very brave, Theresa. When I saw a daemon I couldn't move at all."
"Oh no, I'm not brave at all. I ran and hid in the closet after telling the Master," she cried honestly shaking her fists for emphasis.
People were dying in the capital. Theresa's story had confirmed his sneaky suspicion about what Martha and Cyanine had been talking about over his head. Four wizards had been eaten by a daemon that morning, right on the steps of the palace. Markl clenched his fists as his brain boiled. He felt like a coward hiding here in a flying castle far away from the problems of the world. Plus he was tired of being coddled and treated like a baby. He wasn't that much younger than Barimus' messenger and he was sure that the apprentices at the Royal Academy were helping in the fight somehow. He ached to do something, to help somehow, or at least do anything but hide.
If Sophie was here she would know what to do. She would be able to get Howl to rise out of his oblivion and together they would work to fix the problem.
But Sophie wasn't here.
The silver haired witch wasn't in this world anymore, that much was certain. The sandy haired apprentice had not been able to sleep at all that night. He had overhead Calcifer talking with Martha late that first night after his master's ring had refused to answer to his magic. As far as they knew Sophie was gone, but there was no certainty, no closure. That made things all that much worse.
"The ring is dark." Martha spoke in a mere whisper. Markl had to concentrate with all his might to understand what she was saying.
"That means she is no longer in this world. What that means I don't know." Cal crackled softly.
Theresa spoke again, but this time softly, drawing Markl out of his thoughts once more.
"Shan doesn't know about Sophie, does he?"
"No, he doesn't. Let's keep it that way, okay?"
"Is that a good idea?"
"I don't know," Markl replied sullenly.
"How is Master Howl?" She asked with genuine concern.
"I don't want to talk about him!" The young wizard spat sullenly, and then flashed a contrite smile at Theresa by way of apology.
"I'm glad you're here, Theresa," he spoke and his heart fluttered as she blushed pink and scooted close enough to reach out and take his hand.
"Me, too," the young girl replied as she looked up into the sky above, "At least here I feel safe."
But just how safe was here really?