Drago leant on the wall outside Gomez's hall, listening intently. Furious voices reverberated from within.
"I will send a raid! I won't risk losing our trade with the outer world, no matter what those flimsy bookworms think!"
Loud, stomping footsteps.
"And speaking of that… Kill them."
Another voice sounded, uncertain and doubtful – Raven's. "Are you sure this is the right thing to do?"
"I don't want people in the camp to believe I tolerate rebels – or even worse, conspirators."
Moments passed. The talking continued, but Drago's heart beat with such fervour that it drowned out every noise.
"Take five men. They shouldn't be too hard to handle."
A guard replied. "Will do, boss."
Enveloped in a cage of sweat and heat, Drago unstuck himself from the wall and broke into a dash. Everything flashed as he went. He dropped the letter he was clutching – the useless piece of parchment announcing Gomez of the mages' planned relocation to the New Camp.
Drago scrambled up the stairs to the pentagram. Corristo stared at him, wide eyed.
"Did you pass on the—"
"No—we must go, now…"
Drago took in ravenous gulps of air, soothing the inferno in his chest. His voice had drawn the other mages from beneath.
"Master, we must leave this instant… they'll kill us—"
"Master, there is no time! Gomez has ordered five men to come and slay us, we must flee!"
Footfalls on wood.
"Too late for that, I'm afraid."
Bartholo had stepped into the temple, flanked by four guards.
"What's the meaning of this?" Corristo said. He came closer and clutched the wooden railings.
"Drago's right," Bartholo said, "we're here to do you in. There's a lesson that must be taught in this."
A symphony of drawing blades.
The group split – two of the guards took the left-hand stairs, the other two, the right. Orange light burst onto the walls, emanating from the swirling orbs of fire held by the mages.
"What's this?" Bartholo inquired, raising his eyebrows and chuckling. "Fighting back?" The guards tittered.
Drago was the first. Nothing mattered, except emerging alive from Gomez's vile trick. The room flashed as he chucked a fireball at the nearest guard. The guard caught fire, started writhing, shrieking. His fellow guard sidestepped, avoiding the tumbling figure. The remaining three lunged forth, sword arms outstretched.
Magic roared. Light danced across the ceiling. More flames sailed forth, wrapping around the would-be assassins.
Bartholo gasped. "Alarm, alarm – the mages are reb—"
The Ore Baron sputtered - his head was encased in fire. Bellowing in exquisite torment, he streaked madly through the chamber, until, like the four smouldering guards, he buckled to the floor and gave his final breath. Corristo's face was a mix of shock and bewilderment.
"Quickly, quickly!" Drago said.
The five magicians hurried down the stairs, stepping over the bodies. Outside the sun shone fiercely, reflected on the freed blades of the coming guards.
Damarok screamed and flung a fistful of fire at a black-haired guard. It hit him in the chest, knocking him back a few steps.
A throng of attackers was slowly forming. They dodged the spells, leaping out of their way. Torrez cried out his pain: a bolt had reached him below the knee.
"Run back into the temple!" Corristo hollered. His disciples obeyed, scurrying back inside. Corristo stepped onto the entrance platform, spreading out his arms.
The guards stopped. One of them shouted, "Hoping to grow wings, old man?"
His colleagues sniggered, but their mirth was short-lived. The sky growled; clouds rumbled and gushed. Long spears of fire swooped in salvoes, hitting the guards square. They twisted in flaring agony, clawing at the flames, stumbling around like headless chicken.
Corristo emerged in the temple, panting. "I'm afraid I cannot help you any more." He fell against the wall and slid to the floor.
"What shall we do?" asked Rodriguez, his robe soaked with sweat.
"We must run while there's still time, while the rest of the guards are still unaware." But Drago was lying to himself. Master Corristo was in no state to move. An idea flashed inside Drago's mind – the part not numb with fear and dread.
"Torrez – give him a transformation spell, he'll be able to escape easily that way." Damarok peered outside. "Quick, they're coming!"
Torrez limped to his chest and drew from it a yellow scroll of parchment. "Master – read this. We'll meet at the hunter's cabin, it's beyond a valley to the left of the north gate!"
Corristo gulped and nodded. The four mages glanced at each other. A flash of bright blue light, and instead of Corristo, a dark yellow bloodfly, the size of Drago's forearm, hovered in the air.
They spilled out of the temple. Running as faster than they had ever run, they prayed to Innos that they'd make it out alive. Swords slipped from their scabbards, the air resonating with their sounds, the shouts of guards, the swish of bolts in midair.
The world was a bobbing blur to Drago, his feet trampling the earth with frenzy. A bolt came so close to his chest that the area froze.
He was out of the camp. His eyes swiveled left in search of the valley. More running. The sight of a makeshift hut emerged. Dago collapsed, his knees red-hot with pain, his chest a pulsing blob of flesh. He reveled in the ticklish feel of grass on his face, and noticed meatbug crawling on his left boot.
For a few moments, everything was quiet. Gasping and treading substituted it afterwards.
Damarok coughed and buckled. Torrez and Rodriguez were close by, and they too were airless, exhausted. Innos might have descended upon at that time, giving them blissful minutes of respite. After they had taken their fill of breathing, the four of them stood up.
Fitful buzzing reached their ears. Over a broken wooden fence fluttered a bloodfly. Its right wing was torn to shreds. It flapped once, twice, and thudded on the grass. With a surge of magical force, the insect became Corristo.
"That was close… too close," said Torrez, wincing. A darker red clashed against his robe's leg.
A door slammed. The mages whirled in its direction, and they beheld Cavalorn the hunter.
All five had readied their spells.
"What's the deal, put away that magic!"
Rodriguez said, "There's no need, he couldn't have known." The chase had muddied the mages' minds.
"Gomez wanted to kill us."
Cavalorn gaped. "Kill-?"
Damarok looked over the fence. "No time, they're coming, we must hide!"
Confused, Cavalorn gulped and said, "Go in the cave, I'll figure out what to tell them."
So they did. Torrez inched closed the door as a guard's rasping shout rang out. The chamber was fully dim, so Corristo called a ball of white light.
It seemed a storage room. There was a broken weapon stand, a chest, a quiver full of arrows…They kept silence between themselves. Whimpering quietly, Torrez yanked out the bolt from his leg and worked a healing spell. After a span of what seemed like hours, Cavalorn came inside.
"I mustered up a lie – don't know if they believed it, though, and the last thing I need now is guards on my back – but they went back to the castle." He wiped his forehead, which was shimmering with sweat.
"May Innos bless you for your act of courage!" Corristo spoke with conviction.
"We are tired… would it bother you if we stayed here a little longer? We'll be gone by nightfall," said Torrez.
Cavalorn mumbled something and retreated.
They sat down on the dusty floor.
"Not in the darkest hour would I have imagined Gomez taking such a vicious step." Corristo sighed.
Damarok laid a hand upon the old mage's shoulder.
"It does not matter, master – rest. We must reach the New Camp and warn them about the raid."
It did not cross any of their minds that Gomez would resort to murder. A sliver of knowledge did exist in the back of their brains that Gomez was, after all, a power-hungry cut-throat, but they had counted themselves exempt from Gomez's rages. Hours passed in silence. The shock of the day's happenings began to dwindle down. It was clear to all that Innos himself had delivered them from peril on that dark day, with minimal wounds. Evening unfolded upon the world, painting it a soft purple.
Corristo's chin rested on his chest. Damarok tapped him on the shoulder and he roused.
"It is time to go."
With many bones creaking, the High Mage stood, and the rest followed. The way to the New Camp was long, and they oft had to stop to catch their breaths, especially Corristo. He was a silent man, but his silence that day was not his usual. His eyes were almost closed, and he walked unsteadily. The rest of them were also tired, and the shock, though diminished, still scorched inside.
A few stars had begun blotting the sky when they reached the gate. The guarding rogues refused their entry at first, but after a while they relinquished. Soon, sprawling before them was a gigantic cave, a hole in the rock in which men had built dwellings. They even noticed the building on the lake, from which light and loud noises emitted.
A disdainful thought came to Drago's mind: That must be a tavern.
Men were scuttling about, lighting torches. By the blaze of their gleam they spotted a man in blue robes, staring down upon a round grillwork.
Not little was Cronos's surprise when he saw his old friends. Damarok told him of Gomez's plans.
"That vile assassin!" he spouted, leading them toward the upper portion of the cave. "Thank Adanos you made it alive. It is good that you have chosen to come here. Saturas has already sent a young man to try and persuade you to come."
Drago hmph-ed. That was a highly dubious coincidence.
The water mages' residence was in the upper portion of the cave, where they had built huts.
Saturas stood inside the opening of the tunnel to the ore mound. As befitting any magician, a pentagram was laid on the floor.
"Ah. So my young protégé has reached you?" he asked, smiling.
Corristo shook his head. "We came here under other circumstances."
"Gomez planned to kill us."
Saturas's appalled expression said more than words could.
"We opposed his plan – Saturas, you must warn your mercenaries, the guards are planning an assault on the Free Mine! The Old Mine's collapsed!"
Shock after shock pelted the High Water Mage. He immediately summoned Lee to the chamber and told him of the incoming attack.
"That's a very daring decision to take. But I can't imagine them strolling through the front gate. Which means they've found another way. I'll send a dozen men to reinforce the guard at the Hollow."
And he left. Drago couldn't tell whether Lee disliked fire mages or was simply astounded by the news, but one thing was certain: he didn't look particularly glad to find them all huddled inside the room.
In all the commotion the fire mages failed to notice five objects standing upright in the corner: great, blue-shimmering crystals that thrummed with magic energy.
Saturas frowned in confusion. "Those? Ah."
The water mage strolled over and clasped one. Lifting it, the magic within swirled even more strongly.
"Yes. The five focus stones."
Saturas chuckled at the look of surprise on his colleagues' faces.
"The same young man I sent to fetch you brought one of these, some time ago. And if he found one, he was certainly capable of finding the rest."
Drago flinched slightly at the "fetch you" part, but was all the same enthralled by the magic objects.
"He didn't fetch them without a purpose. But as to that, we shall speak tomorrow. You must rest now."
Nefarius led them down to a couple of free huts that had recently been vacated. He apologized for the bad conditions, but that was that was available, he said. He also gave them food: two loaves of dried bread, some cheese and several apples.
Life wouldn't be as easy here as in the Old Camp, Drago thought to himself, before he fell asleep.
Morning greeted them with a cold gust of wind fluttering inside the stone shacks. They rose and went to Saturas post haste. Disdain and hatred were manifest on the faces of rogues and mercenaries. A man clad in furs and a great blue scarf nocked an arrow in his bow, but was immediately calmed down by a mercenary.
"For the honour of magic!" intoned Saturas as the fire mages stepped inside. He put the book he was reading on a table and turned to face them. They repeated the greeting.
"Once again, I apologise for the state of things, I wish I could offer you something better."
Corristo shook his head and smiled. "There is no problem."
Saturas returned the smile. "Let us discuss a matter of great importance."
He led them to a dimly-lit hut. Its walls were lined with bookshelves, which were themselves lined with numerous tomes. They sat down.
"As I said yesterday, the foci were brought to me for a purpose. You most probably know that Y'Berion has died. The young man told me that before he died, Y'Berion entrusted us with forming an escape plan, as he had had a revelation about the true nature of the god they were worshipping moments prior to his demise."
The fire mages were indifferent to this.
"The Sect Camp had in their possession a focus, and the almanac they'd purchased from you. Cor Angar ordered this young man to bring both to me. I knew that one focus could not do anything, so I sent him to find the others. He returned with the other four the following days."
Saturas fidgeted in his stool and gripped the edges of the table.
"We, the water mages, cannot use the foci alone."
"Use them?" asked Torrez. "Use them for what?"
Saturas sat silent for a moment. "To destroy the barrier."
He was greeted by many "hmpf!"s and "ha!"s. Rodriguez said, "That's a good joke."
Saturas's face darkened.
"It is not a joke."
"Why would we renounce our lives inside the Barrier? It is safer than the outer world. We are protected here."
"Protected?" Saturas laughed darkly. "Your protection has ended. Gomez has tried to have you killed. He has sent a raid to take over the Free Mine – a plan which has failed, but only just – and he will, no doubt, press on with the attacks."
Someone gulped in the dark.
"None of us are safe any longer. There is something dark brewing in the heart of men here."
Saturas looked Corristo straight in the face: it was a dire gaze, pleading, insistent.
"Heed me, all of you. The only true safety lies in freedom. We must shed this self-made jail and leave this place. Darkness is lurking about, I feel it."
Saturas rose in a swirl of robes. "I shall not press this matter further until you have made a decision. Feel free to resume your studies."
He turned and departed.
Silence grew thick.
Rodriguez summoned a ball of light. Corristo sat hunched, his eyes pointing down, his mouth pursed.
"He is right," the old mage croaked. "I don't believe Gomez will give up the chase until we are all dead. And we cannot hide forever in a finite cage."
Drago pondered. Naturally, he prized his life above the small comforts they had been enjoying in the Barrier, but outside of it lay only more dangers. And what was the point of continually fleeing if one could never stop and rest?
He set his whole attention in a book he'd taken from the shelf.
"True Power" – a tome he'd read many times, and one that lost its meaning every time he read it.
"It is power that distinguishes a magus from his fellow men. Equipped with the ability to influence the divine power, he is a being independent of the laws of nature which apply to mortal man."
Independent of the laws of nature. But he was not. He was a mortal as any other. One second of distraction and he would die like anyone else. He could be chased and hunted like any lowly wolf.
He was lost in a mire of decisions, stumbling and faltering. They needed him to fulfill the ritual. He could deny, and thus the ritual would never take place. But he doubted he could live with the guilt of having sent his friends to their death, if he ended up alive.
Hours trudged on.
Saturas barely heard their footsteps over the soft cracking of the torches.
"We have decided," said Corristo, startling the water mage. "And we shall help you."
The battle at the Hollow was raging when Lee got there with his men. Fierce, they cast themselves into the fray, fighting with abandon. A great number of mercenaries, rogues and scrapers had been slain, but the scale of the battle was tipped over by Lee's arrival.
The moon flung its soft, silvery light upon their belligerent frames, glinting on their slashing blades. Whistling arrows cut the air.
The Camp itself shook with combat.
A group of about 10 guards had managed to sneak into the camp, their target obvious: the fire magicians that had escaped them. Detection by the mercenaries did little to deter them: they forged on with wild resolve. Only the combined force of arrows, swords and magic decimated them.
All the while, the fire magicians slept in their huts in the lower tier of the cave. They were roused by the noise of fighting, but did not step in. Sleep did befall them that night.
The Free Mine had run its course. All the mercenaries and diggers were relieved from their positions, and they swarmed back to the Camp for the great ritual. Some of them pocketed several last nuggets of ore, considering that they might have use for them in the outer world.
The ore mound had been split into five distinct smaller mounds, and relocated to the hill atop the cave. There they were placed into five huge stone bowls. The bowls were set on the tips of the pentagram that had been drawn by the magicians.
In the middle of each bowl the mercenaries fixed an upright cylinder, on which the focus stones were laid.
Night was nearing, bringing with it a symphony of crickets. Scrapers, rogues and mercenaries alike flocked together at the base of the cave, excited at the prospect of tasting freedom once more. It was, perhaps, the first time the tavern was empty since it had been built.
Saturas stood on the hill, gazing up at the flickering barrier of energy. Something was flickering inside him as well, not unlike the snake-like strings of magic that slithered across the dome. He could not help but remember their failure in creating the barrier. Had the barrier been constructed correctly, they would never have had to undo it, and loose upon the world thieves, murderers and cutthroats.
He also remembered Xardas.
Torn from his reverie, the water mage turned. Corristo was strolling up to him.
"We need someone to be the main conductor, seeing as…" Corristo trailed off.
"I shall do it. And do not worry, we will succeed, with or without him."
A blurry moon towered in the sky, unobstructed and ghostly.
The mages took their positions. Two mages, one fire, the other water, stationed around each bowl. Saturas stood in the middle of the pentagram, and it was he who opened the ritual.
He uttered the initiatory words and held his arms parallel to the ground. As one, the ten other magicians flung their arms and heads skyward, repeating the words.
With a thunder-like rumble, thin strands of resplendent magic burst from the mages' hands and sailed in the air, coiling around the foci.
The earth groaned. The mages proceeded.
As one, they began chanting aeon-old incantations in rhythm with the stretching of arms.
The foci glowed like torches in the night, pulsing with blue energy. Ore crackled and heated, emanating waves of warmth.
An earth-splintering tremor suffused the ground.
Five colossal beams of energy shot from the bowls. Taken aback, the mages faltered.
Night turned to day as the pillars of light dashed against the barrier, spreading blinding illumination. The howling of the fiercest wind paled next to the sound of collision.
They clutched their ears and squeezed their eyes shut…
The sound and light perished. The magicians crumpled. A final flash and the foci burst into million shards.
Above, the barrier still towered. Below, green eyes slid open.
Neath stone and dust, the Sleeper awakened.