After Treason- Sample

Chapter One: New Village Same Old Problems

The remains of a forgotten temple bask in the waking dawn; a stone titan among the overgrown weeds. A Black Panther dozes on the uneven stone steps, abandoning the futile effort of swatting an annoying fly that lands on a ruby birthmark on his forehead.

He sighs, watching a procession of ants climb the stone pillar beside him. Ten years of servitude and he is still resting in the outskirts of dirty villages. On the other hand, he revels in the silence, cherishing the peace and quiet before his Mage will, undoubtedly, ruin it.

The inside of the temple is stripped of valuables, containing a singular broken altar in the centre of the circular room; a reminder of the building’s ancient purpose. Although long abandoned magic still lingers across the etchings of stars underneath the layer of cobwebs.

Time corroded the delicate paintings making the bold geometric patterns encircling the ceiling unidentifiable. It’s a place forgotten and weighed down by remorse. A lone ebony candle is all that remains; a parting gift to those in search for the righteous path. The grey smoke twists higher into the dusty air as she kneels, like her brethren before her, among the broken debris to pray.

She places her staff before her, admiring the opal shimmering under a wooden curve. Clearing her throat, she resumes mumbling the ancient dialect (in another vain attempt) to speak to the gods. She squeezes her eyelids tight, hoping to force a vision, a sign, even a word of guidance. She lost count at how many abandoned temples she prayed in. The donations she offered to the brothers and sisters of scattered sanctuaries. Still her prayers go on answered.

Clear your mind, she recalls her teacher’s words. She fills her lungs to the brim, then exhales from her nose. With each cycle she pushes the world around her from her mind.

First the chatter in her head, then the physical space. The stone floor digging into her knees and the dust sticking to her nostrils all vanish. The present slips into nothingness. Empty shadows dance behind her eyes, the shades of grey slip into an incomprehensible vastness. It swallows her, hugging her in its embrace.

She gives in, floating among the waves of the darkness. Far away a voice calls out, reminding her to kick. The ocean swells around her and the sun beams through the murky water.

Two hands grip her waist, a loving smile greets her from the distorted surface. The laughing mouth stretches and twists as the waves pull it into a gapping wound. The ocean bubbles, searing the image and burning her skin.

A curdling scream reverberates inside her ears causing her body to shake. She tumbles, shaking and crying as the scream follows her into the center of the blackness. Something topples to the floor and bumps her leg. Her eyes wide, heart pounding, she finds the candle beside her knees. A sandy field mouse scurries from the altar; retreating in a crack in the wall.

Shaking the nightmare from her mind she replaces the candle; careful to avoid the hot wax. What she wanted was direction not fire and fear.

Oh, Mighty Zander, I kneel before you to ask for guidance. I was once blessed with patience, but I grow weary of waiting. Please, give any sign, any indication that I am more than just….

A cold chill slides up her spine, startling her to her feet. A familiar sensation as of late, considering her reputation. It isn’t the call to action she wants but it’s what she receives. Blowing out the candle she grabs her staff and races out of the temple.

“Prayer is over,” she skips two stairs at a time with the panther following closely behind. The tall weeds brush against her legs leaving golden pollen on her blue skirt. “You sense it too, right?” But he only stares at her, “of course you do.” His silence speaks louder than words, forcing her to blurt out the answer to his unspoken question. “I saw her, it was that nightmare again.”

“After all this time. Any idea on what it means?”

“It doesn’t mean anything, it changes nothing. Let’s just focus on our guest.”

“I did not anticipate other Mages in this area.”

“Think it’s a coincidence?”

“I pray for our sake it is.” He pauses at the edge of the path as his ears twitch at the sound of the nervous fluttering in the trees. “Limit the battlefield to this area, otherwise you risk damaging the village on the other side of the trees.”

“Show yourself!” she shouts at the forest, “I don’t have all day.”

A figure in a malachite-coloured cloak emerges from the shadows. She frowns recognizing the emblem of the Mage Academy emblazoned on his robes.

Although the hood conceals his identity, the emerald stone staff he threatens her with reveals all the information she needs. Lowering his hood, she sees the smirk he wears which compliments the devious delight reflecting in his narrow eyes. He rolls his heavy shoulders and the cracking breaks the eerie silence.

“Steady,” the panther whispers.

She takes a deep breath as he taps his staff against the cedar beside him. The short plump tree with bushy needles isn’t the best type for the offensive. But he caught her attention, nonetheless.

His emerald glows, emitting a dull light, as it reacts to the plant. With both hands he yanks the staff; the cracking echoes as the trunk rips from its base. The panther moves aside as the squawking birds take flight.

She grips her staff, slowing her breathing, his aura fills the air but its erratic and makes her anxious. The tree careens towards her, but his calculation is off, it misses her and crashes into the tall grass. He chuckles preparing another projectile, this time he’s aim is spot on, but she rolls over the dust to avoid impact. Coughing in the plume of dust and pollen she climbs to her feet as the third whizzes past her.

“I heard of the ‘Great Mage Moira,’ but you’re a disappointment in person.” He drops his hood and runs his hand through his curly tawny hair.

“What do the stories from the Academy say this time?” She dusts off her pants, hiding the scowl crossing her face. Did he track her down just to insult her; don’t people have anything better to do?

“Apparently, you’re skilled. My friends are afraid of you, but I don’t see why.”

“And you?”

“I told them your bark is worse than your bite,” he grins.

He swoops the emerald across the ground rattling the dirt under her boots. Tremors groan beneath the surface, but she squeezes her staff and sets her jaw.

Rookie.

She aims the opal to the sky while extending her empty hand outward from her chest. Rocks vibrate over the landscape until they float overhead. Planting her feet, she shuts her eyes and searches her mind for a stone wall like her childhood prison. Magic fizzles at her fingertips, snaking its way through her limbs and ignites the opal’s ivory glow.

The wall manifests, at first, as a cloudy shape but as the weathered bricks materialize the wall stands larger than life in her subconscious. The rocks collide with the empty space with a thunderous chorus and crumble into pebbles littering the ground.

They jolt to life as she taps her staff against them; following the opal as if on invisible strings. His face darkens as she whips them at their old master, knocking him to the ground. In the chaos and dust, he searches for his staff. Emerging from the cloud he grabs it, but it’s caught.

“What’s your name?” she yanks it from his grasp.  

“That’s mine!”

“Just making sure you don’t do anything stupid. What’s your name kid?”

“Clayton Fields.”

“You have a lot to learn of our ways, Master Fields.”

“You don’t scare me Mistress Mage! Give me my staff and I’ll show you what I can do!”

“I know perfectly well what you’re capable of!” she shoves his staff in his pudgy hands. “Everything from page 189 to 455 of the Mage Exercise Manual. That’s what they teach beginners at the Academy, isn’t it? When you learn how to compete outside of the books, come find me and bring these little friends of yours. Then your instruction will begin.” Turning on her heels she abandons the teen on the road. The panther growls as he rejoins her side. His fur around his neck is ruffled and she his tail whacks the road as they enter the village. “Eclipse, don’t give me the third degree.”

“He knew where to find you. For someone who wants to vanish you are terrible at it.”

“Of all the people to pursue me, how can I predict the students from the Academy? Isn’t the mere mention of my name forbidden?”

“You are not infamous…a cautionary tale at best.”

Villagers of Wiltshire move about the sparse village, loading wagons and tackling chores. Simple stone homes line the dirt road bisecting the area. Animal pens spill over into the green space and greet her with curious sounds. Few people make eye-contact with her, while children duck behind a shed when they spot Eclipse. Isolated places on the outskirts distrust strangers like her.

But she has a job to do, and rather not waste anymore time. Rereading the name on a tattered piece of parchment she enters a tavern at the edge of town. She glances at the décor noting the various animal heads mounted on the walls depicting their last moments of fear.

A few patrons shuffle from upstairs and enter the quiet dining area. The space smells of stale beer and chimney smoke which sticks to the back of her throat. The innkeeper wobbles his way to her with his gut hanging over his pants. His greasy hair grows to the middle of his stubby neck. 

“Good morning,” she smiles, “I hate to bother you so early, but I was hoping to purchase a small breakfast while I wait for a business partner—”

“Your kind aren’t welcomed here.” His eyes shift to the shoulder height staff in her hand. It’s her saving grace and a curse. It protects but also identifies her.

“We don’t want any trouble. I’ll pay.” She reaches into the purse at her waist, presenting tarnished coins, “tea at least, and we don’t have to stay in the dining room.” He grinds his teeth, but his beady eyes consider the money in her hands. They both know it’s too much for a meagre request. 

“I suppose you’ll want something for the cat?” he grunts.

“No,” she insists over Eclipse’s growls. “He’s fine the way he is.” He snatches the coins from her hand and points to the back door.

“Who is he calling a cat?” Eclipse growls as she sits at a worn table laid out at the side of the building. The morning sunshine eases her nerves but the smell from the stables ruins the pleasantries. “This place is a sty.”

“What do you expect? You know how they feel about Mages.” 

“It is almost as intolerable as Lollardum,” he mutters lounging on the stone step. Her tea arrives, she graciously sips it, but her peace is ruined when the worn tabletop reminds her of Clayton’s staff. “Is your tea cold again?”

“No, not today… I’m bored with rookies.”

“You were once like them,”

“Not likely. Besides, it’s always the same overused moves; no respect or imagination.”

“I miss the old fashion illusions and strategy which set each Mage apart. Now they simply prefer to smash everything.”

“Their strength is impressive, but they aren’t a challenge by any means.”

“What time are we meeting whatshisname?”

“Jared. Big Lou said Jared has a job for us. Hopefully, it pays well.” She sips her tea as Eclipse’s ears twitch indicating a sound behind her.

“You the Mage Lou sent?” A lanky tanned man with a straw hat steps into view.

“I’m the Mage who followed a lead on a job. I don’t work for anyone.” She motions for him to sit but he nervously folds and unfolds his hands.

“We need help. I heard Mages used to help people,” taking his farmer’s hat from his head, his light brown hair falls to his ears.

“Some of us still do,” she smiles, “now, what can I do for you?”

“The farmers on the village edge are cursed,” the man whispers shuffling to the empty chair.

“Hold on, I don’t do curses or enchantments.” She places her cup on the table, they’re better off with a temple priestess than her.

“Please help us, a bloodthirsty dragon curses this land. It’s giant and kills our chickens!”

“There are no dragons in this area,” Eclipse intervenes.

“But there is!”

“The only dragon sightings are in the south-west lands. This man is a lunatic,”

“I’m not crazy!”

“Did you ever see this dragon?” she interrupts and Jared shakes his head. Most dragons fled the land as people hunted them to near extinction. She hasn’t seen any map indicating any such creatures in the area. “Let’s say I believe you, tell me how this giant beast remains undetected? And why chickens? Especially since cattle are more substantial?”

“Don’t mock me Mistress Mage, there’re dragons here. And our families are at risk.” She can’t ignore the determination in his eyes, what ever is out there, he believes it.

“Moira do not dare…”

She watches a man throw slop into a hungry pigpen. The fat mud covered animals grunt and push against the other to get to the trough. She’s envious of their simple life; until she remembers it’s an eat or be eaten world. And currently she’s at the top of the food chain.

She leans against the shady tree as Eclipse paces across the flattened grass. He refuses to speak to her but, unlike other occasions, she won’t give in. He’ll pout and grumble, but in the end, he knows she can’t ignore her sacred oath to help those in need. She can’t dismiss the few who still believe in what Mages stand for.

“For the love of the Gods Moira! Let the idiot, Clayton, find the imaginary dragon!”

“Why are you against this?”

“There are no dragons here. I refuse to chase the drunken hallucinations of simple-minded people,” he sits and refuses to move.

“What if you’re wrong?”

“Me wrong? Unlikely.”

“Com’n Eclipse, there’s a fifty percent chance you’re wrong, and we need the money.”

“The margin is much smaller,” he growls, “and the money is a pittance. This is your bleeding heart, and you know it.”

“I am sworn to help Innocents, even if it means spending an afternoon searching for an imaginary dragon. What kind of Mage am I if I reject the one soul in this crummy town who believes we are decent people?” 

“Is everything about your reputation?”

“Does the world revolve around you?”

“Fine!” he shouts, “we will find the damn dragon!”

“Now if you only agreed with me sooner, we could’ve found it already.” 

He interviews local farmers while she leans against a wooden corral wondering what people thought when he begins to speak. For ten years she’s listened to his stories and commands; to her, he’s as natural as any cat. To outsiders he’s a dangerous curiosity wrapped in licorice fur.

She kicks a pebble into a puddle and watches her distorted reflection ripple. He regards her as a child, although she celebrated her eighteenth birthday two months ago. A black paw steps into the puddle, squashing her reflection and dribbling mud on her boots.

“There,” his paw points to the path behind the stables, “the last sighting was yesterday afternoon.”

“Alrighty,” she stretches her back, “off dragon-slaying we go,”

“Your sense of humour is twisted.” He leads her past the pigpen to a path surrounded by knotted trees resembling a ghoulish nightmare. Evil creatures who breathe plague over the land lives in forests more pleasant than what’s before her. Her palms sweat as she stares at the dark mossy path. “Are you scared already?” he nudges her, and she glares at him as she takes her first hesitant step. They follow the meandering path but as the sun rises higher in the sky, there’s no evidence of any dragon.

“Where are we?” he asks, “are we lost?”

“We’re not lost until I say we’re lost,” she sits on a fat rock and pulls a map from her cloak pocket before spreading it across her lap. 

“I congratulate you on this complete waste of a day,” he mutters, flopping next to her feet.

“Gods! Who did I offend to earn this attitude from you?” Before he argues, the bush to her right shakes and startles Eclipse to his feet. As she stands the bushes to her left shake violently.

“You take the left,” he growls sniffing the air. 

“As you wish,” she clutches the staff, moving it into a defensive position. A low growl rattles the leaves. Eclipse’s paw breaks a discarded branch; the chilling snap silences the bushes. She hears heavy panting, but Eclipse is silent and as usual, is practically indistinguishable in the shadows. He arches his back and lowers his head; his glistening claws expand and contract in the soft decaying earth.

“I smell orchids,” he whispers.

I don’t see any flowers. The bush beside her shudders pushing out a waist-high black creature from its hiding place. It roars a pitiful roar jumping from side to side baring its pointed teeth, but trips over itself and falls over. She’s seen depictions of them on scrolls; flying monsters setting entire farms on fire. Sharp flesh devouring teeth. Claws long enough to shred miles of trees. But the creature before her…

“You wanted to slay a dragon. I suggest you get on with it, oh mighty protector of backwards drunken farmers.” 

“But this?”

“Be thankful it is not an adult.” The dragon snaps its short snout at the air between them. The patches of sun shimmer on his ebony leathery coat. Tiny claws grow on the end of each of its four feet, but only nubby spikes protrude from his head and tail. His bat-like wings are too small to carry his chubby form.

“Are you going to give me some advice or are you just going to criticize me?”

“You already know the answer.”

“I got it; I’m on my own.”

Twelve years ago Remo Kipling led a rebellion against king Avalon, causing the bloodiest treason in Alexanderia’s history. Moira, exiled from the Mage Academy, and Eclipse, a panther entrusted as her guardian, stumble upon a terrible secret. Kipling lives. Worse yet, he has a deadly plan. Caught between her duty to protect the Innocent and her distrust of the Order she serves; she is forced to face her nightmares, self doubt and the corruption of the Alexanderia’s Royal Court in order to protect her friends from Kipling’s furry. Zack Dawson, Captain of the Alexanderian Knights, is not only the youngest knight in the army but the deadliest. His regimented life of right versus wrong is all he knows. But when Moira drags him into her plans his world shifts, from black and white to a dangerous grey. Can he uphold his honor and virtue or will the magic in his sword turn him into the monster he fears he is? Will both of them survive the monster haunting their nightmares or will they succumb to the darkness.