From around the structure, a
shadow appeared as though pulled out of the dark ground. It appeared formless at
first, then its eyes opened, glinting a crimson red, and from the blackness of
its arms, blade-like claws slid into view. Behind it, another began to form, and
another. A wide, otherworldly mouth cracked in the globe of its head, and two
rows of sharp teeth shown in a wicked smile.
“Ready yourself!” called Coren, whose agile mind flipped through possibilities.
Twen formed a fireball, her eyes ignited and shining. “Bring it on.”
Fox did not hesitate; already she was reaching out, twisting the car’all of the
beasts to lessen their aggressiveness, buying the group time as their car’alls
flared and Sordoc found a ruined stump to hide behind. The beasts seemed
disoriented at first, shaking their heads, then raced toward the group like
lightning, with ferocity and no shiver of mercy.
“Slow them!” called Silfer as he pulled away the swiftness of his element. Eldor
had already begun to increase the stillness in their limbs, and Rayne increase
the links of earth, but though they slowed, they still moved quickly toward
“Their wills are strong,” Eldor gasped.
Twen sent a fireball blazing at one of the creatures, and it shrieked painfully
before collapsing motionless to the ground. She fired up another and shot it
toward another approaching beast but, with less time to cast it, the fire ball
hardly wounded the creature. It turned and ran towards her, its claws extended
to rip into her soft flesh.
As it leapt toward her, Coren whispered a few melodic words to the Wave, and the
beast’s swipe missed by nailsbreadths. Silfer shot a ball of lightning at the
creature and it yowled before slumping to the ground.
Fox cast a confusion spell on one running toward her, and it stumbled,
disoriented. Its will then pressed off the effect, and it spotted Rayne and
leapt for her. The xeua mage caused the fire ounia in the air to connect,
creating a wall of immense heat, and as the creature leapt toward her, it passed
through it to come out a charred corpse on the other side.
The group paused for a moment, catching their breath as stillness descended once
“What creatures were those?” asked Fox.
Azhira shook her head. “They are no beasts of Caelereth.”
“Where are they going?” asked Twen. The group watched as the corpses of the
demons sunk into the earth, vanishing away, then looked to see new demons
forming out of the blackness, this time five.
“Here they come,” called Coren as five pairs of sickly crimson eyes opened, and
mouths widened with spear-like teeth.
The group braced themselves as the beasts started for them when all at once, a
painful sound stopped the demons in their tracks, and they winced. From behind
the group, Sordoc was plucking his lute and singing at the top of his lungs:
“Oh, like the noble pack-oxen
so strong and true and brave,
There came from Ximax mages seven
‘cross the land and wave.”
The group stared in amazement, looking back and forth between the ridiculous
minstrel singing off-key and the terrifying monsters who winced and shook their
heads as though doing so could shake away the hideous sound. Silfer glanced at
Twen, who looked back at him. He was forming a lightning bolt above his open
palm, smiling subtly. She smiled back, forming a fireball.
And Azhira said the words she never thought she would ever say: “Keep singing,
Sordoc!” Sordoc, for his part, seemed intent on singing regardless:
“They journeyed near and journeyed far
Over mountains in the snow
They traveled into icy lands
Whose climes they did not know
“To find the shadow, find the source
The makes young magi sleep,
So stealing them of vigor and
so making old men weep.”
A fireball took out one, and a lighting bolt took out another. Eldor removed the
stillness from the earth below one of the creatures, and the ground moved upward
as a spike, impaling one of the creatures. It died immediately, and Eldor could
not help but feel some sympathy and some satisfaction for the beast, having so
mercifully ended its misery.
“Oh, like the noble pack-oxen
so strong and true and brave,
There came from Ximax mages seven
‘cross the land and wave.”
As the refrain ended, the mages took down the last of the creatures, which
vanished into the earth. Sordoc was about to begin another verse when, as though
from out of the Dark Winds Portal itself, there came laughter—a deep laughter
that seemed to resonate in the bones of each of them, and filled them with a
“Ha ha ha... a clever trick, mortals. Clever indeed. Ha ha ha.”
Azhira stepped forward. “Who is this? Who’s there? Who are you?”
“You cannot speak my name, have no comprehension for what I am or what I am
capable of, but I know you. I know all of you, and I have been waiting.” From
the Portal emerged a formless black mass, imposing and heavy, with only the
shadow of a face.
“Are you the one who has brought sleep upon the young mages of Ximax?” asked
“But why?” called Twen, her voice half-enraged and half-pleading.
“I have been trapped within the confines of the Netherworld, waiting to expand.
The chaos of my realm is impossible to contain, and it took longer than you can
fathom, but with time I was able to wear down the threads closing off the worlds
enough to pass my influences through. When I finally made my way into this world
of yours, I was weak and feckless, worn by my labor and unable to take this
realm in a way deserving of my true skill.
“So I reached into the souls of young mages—mages who will powers were eager and
energetic, but weak. Slowly I drained from them that energy, drinking my fill
and leaving only enough to keep them alive as I grew my strength.”
“You monster,” whispered Fox, horrified.
“Ha ha ha. Monster, indeed. The young mages of your little Academy have such
pure, strong, limitless magical energy, especially,” and here the shadow of a
face seemed to look at Twen, “the young fire mages.”
Twen burned with anger, and Fox tried to calm her. The demonic shadow just
laughed. “And they have fed me. Now I finally have the power to rip through the
fabric separating your world and mine.”
Eldor’s heart froze a little as he spoke. “Why are you telling us this?”
The others seemed slightly confused as the earth mage’s question, but turned to
the shadow for the answer. The shadow laughed. “It seems the old man has
uncovered my plan, but too late, I’m afraid.”
“What do you mean?” asked Silfer.
“Look around you, mages. Look into the faces of your comrades. These, your
peers. You are the most powerful magi in all of Caelereth, the only ones with
the ability to hinder my inevitable invasion into your world. I knew you would
be trouble, so I set this as my staging ground, but this is not my conquest—not
these icy lands.”
Azhira voice failed her as she spoke. “You…”
“That’s right, mage-scholar. Ximax was always my focus. From there I can drink
upon the magical energies of your young mages, break through your silly shield
dome to the Ximax Orb, and then use its power expand outward, eventually
spreading my shadow to envelope all of Caelereth in darkness. With my
connections to the Netherworld, I can retreat from this desolate land and break
through the fabric I have worn down into Ximax.”
“You lead us all this way…” spoke Silfer, caught in the shock that was rippling
through all of them.
“Lead you to the north so that you would not get in my way. By the time you
journey all the way back to Ximax, it will be too late. I will have consumed
enough magical energy to break into the shield dome and destroy you all. Ha ha
ha. It has been pleasant educating you on your end and the end of your world,
but it is time to leave you.”
“No!” screamed Twen, enraged and desperate. Fox held her back, though the eyes
of the water mage reflected her overwhelming sorrow and anger.
“Ha ha ha. Do not worry, mages. I would not leave you without parting gifts…”
The voice and the image faded into the darkness. Out of the shadows arose three
large demons, scaled with yellowed eyes and claws.
Fox immediately cast disorientation, and the beasts paused as their wills fought
to overcome the effects. Twen, overwhelmed by frustration, threw her emotional
energy into a large fireball she sent rolling at one of them. It was engulfed in
flame immediately, perishing in the inferno. Silfer charged a lightning ball,
and sent it flying. It crackled and burned, destroying a second. Elder again
threw up the earth under the third, spearing it.
“What do we do?” spoke Fox.
“We need to get back. Azhira, how do we get out of here?” Silfer asked
“It’s no use. We could head south, but the Netherworld demon is right. We won’t
get to Ximax in time to save it.”
There was a still pause as Silfer thought of what to do, and he glanced at Rayne
to search the eyes of his friend for a solution, only to find her still, her
eyes closed, her lips whispering so softly that he could not hear. It was only
then he noticed that the links around him and the rest of the group were
His eyes grew wide. “Alyr--!” He reached out to stop her just as her eyes were
opening and the final words left her lips. “Alyr, don’t--!”
Before he could reach her, the scenery changed in a flash. The mists blinked
out, the cold of the north vanished, and around them appeared the enormous
spires of Ximax cloaked in the black shadow of the Netherworld demon. The skies
were black as soot, and scattered around the Academy were bodies of unconscious
or slain mages.
Azhira, Twen, Fox, Silfer, Eldor, Coren, and Sordoc all caught their breath, and
this slender moment between Osthemanger and Ximax seemed frozen. Raindrops
floated still for a moment in the warmer air of Santharia, where silence roared
above all noise. They had all been transported, across hundreds of
leagues—across mountain ranges, plains, oceans—from the deathly mists of
Osthemanger to the familiar Academy of Ximax. And that moment between one place
and the next was only a heartbeat, but seemed to last an eternity. Then the
moment slipped into motion, and each of them watched in horror as Rayne
Coren reached to catch her before she hit the ground. Silfer stared in horror as
her links unwound, as her will receded, as her car’all began to dissipate into
the larger Car’all of the Dream. So close had they been that he could feel the
links break, and it broke something in him, in all of them. Coren knelt with the
lifeless elf in his arms, his eyes closed, whispering a prayer. The wind mage
closed his eyes and clenched his fist, he turned to glare at the demonic shadow
that churned over the Ximax Towers, and his car’all flared. All about him rushed
the raging winds.
Each mage stepped to stand beside him. The earth below Eldor creaked and rocked
with the fluctuations of his anger. Ringed in fire, Twen’s eyes burned with a
desire to fight. The rain coalesced in watery orbs that ran fluidly around Fox.
Azhira stood with rocks floating around her, denied their heaviness.
“You have stolen from us one of our own.” Silfer formed a lightning ball in his
open palm “Now you will know the fury of our rage.”
The ball of lightning sizzled and sparked menacingly, and as the wind mage
released it, it grew, striking the shadow dead on and sending tendrils of
electricity over it. Twen quickly followed, sending a fiery beam into the shadow
as Eldor flung boulders, suppressing their heaviness only until the moment of
impact. Even Fox, so rare to make an offensive move, sent a deluge at the mass.
The booming voice arose again. “Ha ha ha. You cannot stop me now, mages!”
“It’s not working!” called Fox.
“What else can we do?” said Twen.
“Send him back,” said Eldor. “We must send him back to the world he came from.
There is no other way.”
Silfer paused a moment. “Focus on his car’all and begin lessening the influence
of your element.”
“But we’ll be pulling against one another,” said Azhira.
“If we pull hard enough, we may be able to banish him back,” said Silfer.
The mages looked back the demonic shadow and focused their energies. They pulled
back the influence of their element, pulling away the links tying him to the
world. Those mages who had taken cover in the initial onslaught emerged to see
what was happening and, seeing the five brave magi standing against the force of
evil that had descended upon the Academy, joined in, pulling back the influences
of their element, as well.
The shadow hovered and flashed in and out. It seemed to be working, his image
fading, but he only laughed: “Ha ha ha. It is no use, pitiful mages.”
“What do we do?” asked Twen as she struggled to reduce the influence of fire.
“Without a soor link to the Netherworld, we can’t send him back.”
“Not even our Xeua mages can do that,” said Fox, still focusing on reducing the
influence of water. “They can’t connect without knowing what they’re connecting
Silfer shook his head. “Keep pulling! It’s the only way.”
A hundred mages strained against the pull of the dark force, and in the moment
that seemed darkest, there was a sudden gleam. Any looking on, any not intently
focused on the car’all of that demonic shadow would not have felt it, but for
those who were, it struck a chord of hope, for through the blackness, a single
soor link appeared between the car’all of the demonic shadow and the darkness of
the Netherworld. In the blink of an eye, the demonic shadow was swallowed back
into his realm.
The Academy was still and silent save for the rain, and from the east the
sunlight of a new day streamed across the mighty spires of Ximax. Silfer turned
to see Rayne, her eyes open and weary, exhausted by all that had transpired. The
others turned to look at her in disbelief, then met the glistening eyes of a
Nybelmarian, who had traded the most remote of possibilities.
Spring came to Ximax gently, slowly, as though she knew that the world had
suffered greatly in her absence, and would need to be treated delicately. Her
arrival, though, was greeted with an efflorescing joy, even a relief to many who
thought that she might never come again. But now peace had finally returned,
after so much darkness and fear.
The towers of the Academy shone with their old gleam and majesty, like nothing
had changed. Filled with its old vigor now that the health and consciousness of
its students had been restored, it seemed to delight in the bustle and talk both
in and out of its walls. The students returned to class, and while all carried
in their hearts the echo of the terror that had seized them many weeks back when
the shadow had descended upon their school, they spoke freely, and smiled
As a new morning enveloped the land in light, Silfer, Fox, and Twen stood at the
gates of the Guard Tower, embracing Azhira fondly. Only a week prior had they
been there seeing (or rather shoving) Sordoc on his way. And after a
grandiloquent speech, a brief lyric on his new lute, and a rather interesting
interpretive dance performance, he finally set on his way. Now it was Azhira's
"Must you go?" asked Fox gently as the wind pressed her hair and ruffled through
her cerulean-blue robes.
"I must. I need to visit my mother, and I have a number of places I need to
research up north." Azhira emerald eyes were alight as ever, but shone with that
glisten of sorrow that comes with leaving good friends.
"I know Dorea Elvenforn will miss you," said Silfer, his stature calm, tall, and
peaceful. "All your help to her in the infirmary with the students was greatly
appreciated--by all of us."
"I'm glad," said Azhira.
"We're sorry Eldor and Coren could not be here to send you off," said Twen. The
gentle waves of her hair seemed to shine as the new sunlight touched it. There
was an ebullience in her that had returned at the waking of her fire mage
students, and it had stayed with her. "Eldor has been so busy lately helping
teach classes, as many of the earth mages and the archmage himself have been
"Do you suppose he'll stay?" asked Azhira.
The mages looked at one another with the hint of a smile all around. Twen spoke.
"I believe he will. As miserable as he purports to be, he does enjoy it here."
"Haha. I'm glad. And I'm sure Coren is very busy."
"Yes, his classes have been packed," Silfer answered. "Everyone has now taken a
renewed interested in Krean magic and how it works. After bringing one back from
the dead... well..."
Azhira nodded. "I'm sure." There was a brief pause. "And Rayne?"
Silfer's eyes darkened a little. "I have not heard from her, not since she left,
soon after the Xeua mages had finished restoring the fabric between this world
and the netherworld. She mentioned possibly returning home, to Bolder Forest,
but with her, there's no telling."
"Ever since that night, she..." Twen began, but could not seem to know how to
"Once you have seen Death, once she has touched you, I don't believe you are
ever quite the same," said Fox, her features softening with sorrow.
"How do you suppose... how do you suppose she did what she did?" asked Azhira,
cautious but curious.
The wind mage sighed. "It was only through death that she could make soor the
links between herself and the netherworld, only in death that she could know the
other side well enough to banish that shadow back to the darkness from whence he
came," explained Silfer. "I believe she somehow knew all along that she would,
for some purpose, have to face death. I do not believe she expected to come back
from it. Maybe, in some ways, she never will."
"I wish the best for her, for all of you. I'm certain we will see one another
again," Azhira said, with a smile. She again embraced her friends, and before
the sun was too high in the sky, had left, traveling the road through Ximax and
out of town.
The summer light faded over Ximax
Academy, the bright hues of day sinking into the shade of night. The twilight
was like a bird that spread its wings across the cloudless sky, bits of light
showing through her dark blue plumage in the form of glittering stars, and her
luminous eye was the disk of the moon, round and full of dreaming. The residents
of Ximax Academy laid themselves down and slept, and the world rested quietly.
But Silfer was still awake. The peace of evening, the inspiration from a single
candle burning in his study at the top of the Tower of Wind, and the waxing
darkwinds pushing injera's children across the heavens kept him wakeful.
Many nights he worked, but on this night, a heaviness seemed to take him. He
felt like he was waiting, but did not know for what. He stood at his window, his
robes about his slender, elven form. His gray eyes looked out to the east, and
he sighed wistfully.
All at once he heard a flutter, and at his windowsill, he saw what at first
looked like a small bird. He looked closer, and saw that it was a bird, but one
made of paper. He gasped a little and reached out to the little paper bird,
which unfolded into his hand, revealing a letter of neatly written script, the
delicate handwriting doubtless that of Rayne.
My Dearest Silfer,
Months have passed since I left the Academy, and though my heart misses the
magic towers and youthful laughter, it misses more the company of you and my
friends. I hope you are well, and that the spring rains have washed the darkness
from all hearts that felt the shadow, and the summer has brought the light.
Though I'm sure you have wondered over me, I hope you have not worried. You have
always had such faith in me, and have been a friend in true and unspoken ways.
All these recent turns of fate have changed me, but know that no matter what
steps I take or where they lead me, I will always be your friend and love you.
I did as I told you, and took the road home, but stayed there only briefly.
Unable to still myself, I have traveled to the east, through Thaelon and the
Silvermarshes, across the Troll Mountains and the Heath of Salazar. My spirit
has been restless, as though shaken by longing for something I cannot see. At
every turn and every change of scene I am touched and awed by the magnificence
of this Dream--but something in me leads me on, toward the furthest ends of the
world, to the edges of the Dream and farther still to where I may find peace.
I know not where the journey will end, or if it ever will, but I know I will one
day return. I cannot be long parted from you or the home I love best. Part of me
is always here, in a land that I have seen through all its seasons and
circumstances. My body goes, but my heart never leaves. I am always here, always
May Ava bless you, my friend.