Separate Ways

Its happening over again, thought Eldrow.

Every time he closed his eyes, images came to him unbidden, memories of that dreadful battle. The Fire Dragon, towering over them, large enough to swallow them whole, its darkened eyes filled with rage and malice towards everything that lived. Its spines that seemed to glow red, the dull crimson flames it breathed, the death it brought with fangs and claws and spikes along every part of its body. It was war incarnate, bestial and insane. He remembered screaming the incantations to spells until his throat was raw, channeling enough magical energy to burn out the mind of a lesser mage in an instant but still only just enough to drive the Dragon back for the few seconds the other mages, the true Wizards, needed to take their positions and begin casting. He had only been a distraction, really; he and Zorax, his flashing blade a blur as he struck blow after blow against the scaly hide, covered in both its blood and his own, ignoring the overpowering heat that the Dragon's body generated. Jasper flew past – Eldrow had been too busy concentrating on his own task to watch too closely and he couldn't track Jasper's movements at all when he wanted to redirect his audience's attention, but he swore the Riddler had really flown through the air like a bird.

Then the Wizards began chanting in unison, their voices carrying over even the Dragon's ferocious roar and (possibly more impressive) Zorax's battle cry as his sword scraped against a claw that he parried before it removed his head. The air hummed with raw magical power, more a force of nature, an arcane storm, and Eldrow recognised the shift in atmosphere, as well as the crackling blue outline of the force field, that told him he was inside an area magically sealed off from the rest of the world. This was the way that a conclave of high level wizards prepared for a group ritual that might damage the balance of nature with the sheer amount of arcane energy being handled. A circle of wizards acting in a correctly performed group ritual was far more powerful than the sum of their parts, especially a circle of a magic number such as Six, the number of parallel worlds in existence. These wizards were already the strongest known magic-users in Ishmerian history. Eldrow had been in the room when they discussed their plan but nothing could prepare him for the actual event.

He remembered the bright flashes of light, a rainbow of fire. He remembered opening his eyes and seeing the Dragon gone, Jasper airlifting Zorax to safety, the Gems floating high above them, spinning faster and faster as they rose...

He heard a knock on the window and shook his head. A slightly bedraggled-looking young man with blonde hair and a bloodstained green tunic stood there, surrounded by dead Wyverns, casually cleaning his sword and waving at him.

"Is this the Wise Man of the Hills?" he yelled, as though Eldrow couldn't hear him right outside his door, crashing around and being randomly violent like a burglar.

"My guard Wyverns!" screamed Eldrow.

"Um, sorry if they were important. I saw monsters. You kill monsters on quests," he shrugged, "Anyway, I need to speak to a decent strategist..."

"Go away! I'm trying to be a hermit!" yelled Eldrow, reaching for something to throw at him, "Wait, what do you need a strategist for?"

"You mean, you didn't know? I was told you knew everything. Have you not come down off that mountain for the last five years? Its... um... kind of urgent..."

"I'm surprised you came," said Zorax, idly playing with the dagger between his fingertips. Nobody else in the tavern approached the shady corner; the flagons of ale were quickly refilled before the two men could notice they were gone.

"I have my ways and means," said Erven, "I may look like an old scribe, but I have my contacts in a lot of different circles."

"I don't doubt this. I was just surprised you had the guts to follow up on them. Don't you know who I am?"

"Zorax the Mighty. Unstoppable war machine. The Bloody-Handed General of Death. Its said you fought the Fire Dragon. Let me be blunt," said Erven, when the man' made no move to deny or confirm the wild rumours, "I'm here for two reasons: one, so that I get here before Eselred does, because I don't want to imagine what would happen if he got there first..."

"I don't do business with Eselred. His cheques bounce," he said, thudding the knife into the table and then wrenching it out again.

"Secondly, I need you to become personal advisor to my daughter..."

"She pretty?"

"I've got friends in the Tax Department," Erven warned him, "One of them is called Skulryk. Nobody's sure if he's THE Skulryk but you ever know who you'll meet. I mean, I met Zorax the Mighty today!"

"Okay, so hands off," his face never changed, the same mask of steel.

"I am supposed to be the one leading the Tordin family into an uprising against the Crown. Frankly, I'm too old. If it comes to open warfare, my heart might just give out on me. If it drags on, I might not live long enough to see its end, full stop. My daughter is well loved by the people of Divas and she's old enough to start taking over my duties as head of the family. For the sake of stability, I want her to lead the campaign. The problem is, she has no aptitude for warfare whatsoever. Almost as scary behind a desk as her father, but about as scary on a battlefield as a duck."

"I could weaponise a duck," mused Zorax, as though he was seriously contemplating the idea, "How much are we talking?"

"I've got friends in the Tax Department..." repeated Erven.

"I'm listenin'" said Zorax.

"Although I am a clown, I'll bring your enemies down!"

Adryl just wished the annoying street performer would go away. It made it really difficult to sneak out of a city, even a city as big and overcrowded and impersonal as Londre, without being seen by the guards who were specifically looking out for him by order of the King, when there was a ridiculously dressed man with bells all over his costume yelling at him at the top of his voice. What was worse, a lot of the seemingly random things he was saying edged unnervingly close to the truth of his situation. If the performer didn't know his identity, he was taking a lot of lucky wild guesses. He had been pestering a few people for money as they passed him in the street, juggling brightly-coloured balls that seemed to appear from nowhere and performing acrobatic tricks that looked humanly impossible. If he hadn't been busy fleeing for his life, Adryl would have been impressed. However, the jester had made quite a deliberate beeline for the Prince the second he noticed him in the middle of the audience (which he was sure he had successfully blended in with) and never stopped following him, despite half an hour of chasing through narrow alleyways, crowded streets and even jumping off a rooftop.

He darted towards the marketplace, aiming to lose himself in the crowd. He narrowly avoided starting a fight when he was shoved straight into a market stall, knocking over a brightly coloured ceramic urn that the merchant was haggling over at the top of his voice with a red-faced customer, then tripped over and was almost kicked by a horse. His already torn clothes were now covered in horse manure and he had to scramble to avoid being trampled. At least he didn't particularly look like an absconding Crown Prince any more. He ran away from the marketplace, ignoring the angry protests of several people from the crowd, and prayed they wouldn't think him enough of a nuisance to call the guards on him.

"This city you can't hope to flee; I can find you, so can he!"

Adryl flinched; not only had the charlatan managed to keep up with him, he was standing in front of him again! How exactly had he overtaken him? He would have to run faster than humanly possible to circumnavigate the marketplace faster than Adryl could dash straight through it, yet here he was, not a speck of dust on his ridiculous green jester's costume, still wearing that slightly mocking grin of mirth under that gaudy bright yellow ballroom mask.

"Leave me alone, I haven't got any money!" hissed Adryl, exhaustion and shortness of breath making it hard for him to talk. Straight ahead of him, he saw Londre Bridge arch above the mighty River Wenrock. It was the closest landmark to the gates. At the busiest time of day, it was packed with carts and carriages in both directions, their owners arguing over right of way. If he didn't leave in the next hour or so, there would be too much traffic at the gates for him to get out at all. Avoiding another horse-related incident, he jumped onto the wooden platform next to the railings of the bridge and ran along it. He could see Londre Castle from this height, just on the horizon, slightly removed from the bustle of the town; he fancied he caught a flash of red, either the Dragon's flame or the fires of war starting already, or both.

"This conflict you cannot avoid, or this fair land will be destroyed!"

Adryl lurched back, almost falling off the bridge; he hadn't even seen the jester move from the spot he was last standing in, yet here he was, swinging upside down from the railing!

"Jasper the Riddler is my name, the Crown we will reclaim!" the jester proclaimed in a theatrically loud voice, performing a backflip, grabbing the rail and flipping himself up onto the top of it before bowing to the steadily growing audience of annoyed merchants, caravan drivers and royal guards that now surrounded them. Adryl stared open-mouthed, unable to comprehend what was happening to him any more.

"Our time remaining goes to waste, with our escape we must make haste!" declared Jasper, before grabbing Adryl and pulling him backwards off the bridge.

"Hello, Beaky!" Jade waved to the Messenger Wyvern as she saw it descend from the sky. It gave a piercing cry as it recognised her, then alighted on top of the tree trunk she had placed outside the back door of the Temple after Beaky had tried to perch on the mailbox and crushed it under his weight, traumatising a passing nun. The beast belonged to her father; only he would be eccentric enough to try and train a Wyvern to perform any task other than killing everything in the direction it was pointed in and be able to cast an enchantment powerful enough to succeed. She still didn't understand why he called it Beaky. Wyverns didn't have beaks. It was actually a good idea, if you could pull it off; Wyverns were more intelligent than pigeons and unscrupulous individuals were less likely to try firing arrows at Wyverns, just in case the Wyvern actually minded.

"Have you a message for me?" she asked. It screeched in response and extended its leg for her to retrieve the scroll tied to it. As Beaky nibbled her hair affectionately, she read through her grandfather's message. It made her happy to finally hear from him. She hadn't received any communication from him for three months. After he got it into his head to live out the rest of his life as a hermit in a cave on Mount Belgam, she hardly ever heard from him at all. He never contacted her by any method apart from the Messenger Wyvern. He had cut himself off from the rest of humanity and he did not make exceptions for family members.

That was her grandfather through and through; impartial and unbiased to a fault. When he still interacted with the rest of the world, his wise counsel had been especially valued for its absolute neutrality. He did not pass judgments without knowing all the facts, could not be swayed by emotions or persuaded by anything he could hope to gain by siding with one party or another. It was a useful skill, except when he refused to act on either side at all, or to make any moves whatsoever, in case it disturbed the balance.

The move to isolate himself from the rest of the world had particularly annoyed Jade. His age was no excuse. He may not have been as powerful as the Gem Wizards but he was still capable of keeping himself alive for a good few decades yet. A lifetime of intensive training meant that his mind was unaffected by old age. In short, he could still be of use to the people of Ishmeria. He could quite easily be at her side in the Temple, healing the sick. He also claimed that his presence disturbed the peace, that his own usefulness in Ishmeria had disappeared with the Dragon and his quest to capture it. She suspected he still suffered from the guilt at being the only wizard not to have sacrificed themselves. Either that, or he had grown tired of humanity, that they hadn't ceased to fight after he fought the final battle that should have brought peace to the land. Eldrow didn't understand humans as well as she did. Peace would not come from righting individual wrongs or from living a life of personal balance. The world was tilted in the direction of war; to bring peace, you needed to deliberately bring more peace, to counsel peace wherever you went and guide people down the path of peace, even if you had to do so in the middle of a war.

Before she read the message, she knew that it wouldn't be something trivial. Eldrow had been away from people for long enough that he had forgotten how to make small talk and he certainly wouldn't waste his time when he could only talk every three months via an unsuitable courier animal. Her smile of fond remembrance (tinged with mild annoyance) turned into a deeper frown as she read on.

She understood, now, what he had been preparing himself for.

She penned a response and gave it to Beaky to take back with him when he returned to his roost on top of Eldrow's cave, then started on the second letter, which she stuffed inside her backpack before running out of the door. Using the small pouch of coins that had been given to her personally, despite her only asking for donations to the Temple, she bought the fastest-looking horse she could afford, then set off to Culver and the only person she trusted, Terian of Tate. She suspected he would already be involved somehow. If he was still loyal to Lankshire, he wouldn't be for much longer, not with what Eselred had done. Terian was not an evil man and he would not serve a tyrant. If he was obeying Eselred because of some old-fashioned concept of honour, she would just have to make him change his mind.