Talisha Eldridge, mercenary mage of the Concordance School. For over twenty years she earned her living through fighting in the Central Lands, watching humanity's best attempts to destroy itself after the extinction of its Elmothran overlords. Tired now, Talisha longed to put away her armor and spell shards and find the comfort of a home. A peaceful place, where war need not touch her. A place big enough to bring her dearest dream to life and found a mage school.
When the approaching winter ended the year's fighting, Talisha yielded to an impulse and rode north for the first time in her adult life. Curious about the Highland region since childhood, she had the chance to investigate it, and the money to hold her over the cold season. Besides, she'd heard rumors of trouble, hints of a conflict brewing. Conflict, in her world, meant the certainty of employment come spring.
Talisha never expected to find her heart's desire up in the frigid Highlands. Much less did she expect a dark mage, holding a terrifying and impossible power, to snatch it away from her again.
But who better than a lifelong mercenary to take on an ancient evil in a struggle where the fate of the world hangs in the balance? And perhaps more important, Talisha's chance for a home and family.
Who ever said retirement would be easy?
Talisha found the Captain up on the battlements again. This time she called for him to come down. She'd gotten plenty of exercise on this day, damned if she'd go trotting up there to see a man that had a problem with her authority.
"Yes, Fuguarrain?" Captain Ludec asked. His tone was polite, if rather distant, but his expression still had that hint of distaste. Damn the man's prejudice, anyway.READ MORE
"You and I need to question our captive mage," she said, "and discuss plans for bandit hunting. Those bastards are raiding in the town, and I'll not have it."
"We have a captive mage?"
"Taken in battle while you were away. Let's go."
The cell down on the third sub-level was about what she expected of a castle holding cell. Deep underground, dark, damp on the walls, and plenty of rats. Nasty. The front of it was open bars, though, letting in light and warmth from the fireplace set up for whichever unfortunate fucker had the watch.
Talisha looked over the watchman with a combination of curiosity and dismay. The poor fellow was ancient! What was he doing down in this pit, rather than enjoying a warm pensioner's apartment?
"Who are you?" she demanded. The old man looked at her, sharp blue eyes out of place in the age-spotted, wrinkled face. He sat in a wooden chair by the fire, leaning on a table, reading a book by the light of an oil lamp.
"I had a name, but I forgot it," he wheezed, then chuckled at her expression.
"That's Alfrecht, Fuguarrain," Ludec said, a note of respect in his voice she hadn't heard yet. "Now let him be. If you want to question this mage, we should get to it."
Talisha gave Alfrecht another disbelieving look. Surely he was old enough to have seen Them in person!
"Fuguarrain, are you?" the old man said. "May you be better than the last."
She let Ludec divert her to the mage, who sat on the hard, narrow cot pushed hard against the wall. The scorched and somewhat tattered robe still gleamed a bit in the firelight.
"Who are you?" Talisha demanded again, this time of the mage. It was a man, rumor had gotten that much right. And he had brown skin. A southlander!
Not that it came as a surprise. The southlands held no prejudice against mages, and the training was easy to pick up for anyone with the aptitude.
"If you think I'm going to tell you everything just because southlanders should stick together in these barbarian wilds, think again."
"Huh," Talisha said. "Nice accent. How long's it been since you left Brieland?"
The mage responded only with a sneer.
"We need to know where your base is," she said. "Talk, and I'll see you across the Vialy."
"You think I want to go back there? You're crazy."
Talisha stepped close to the bars of the cell, peering into the dimly lit space. Neither fire nor oil lamp could compete with the stygian hole. She made a gesture at Ludec, hoping he would understand it was his turn. The mage inside gave her a dismissive glance, turning his attention to the firelight flickering on the wall.
Ludec got the keys to the cell from the old man. "I suggest you speak, Brielander," he said, approaching the cell door. His decent, careworn face looked odd in the flickering firelight, settled into menacing lines.
"Or what, you'll hurt me?"
"No, not I." The Captain nodded at Talisha, who placed her hand ostentatiously on her belt with its crystal armament. "Her. I'll let her use her magic on you."
"If you want to threaten me, find something else," the mage said, sounding bored. "No proper little southern mage with props and incantations can scare me, not after seeing the glory that is my Master."
"What do you mean?" Talisha demanded. "What Master?"
Ludec opened the cell door and stepped inside. Quick as a flash, the mage made a fireball, and Talisha slapped up a spellwall before the ball could leave his hand. If nothing else, her reflexes were faster than his. But...
The man hadn't used a spell-shard, or a crystal.
"Where is your camp?" Ludec asked.
He hadn't used anything but his will.
Talisha flicked little sparks at the mage's feet, trying to irritate him into throwing another fireball. She did it the only way she knew, the only way any human mage knew. She focused her will on a specific, tuned crystal shard, with a mental command word to release the energy from the glowing red fragment tucked into her belt. Part of her wished she had her full arsenal, most of which sat safely in a chest upstairs. But she didn't really want to kill the man, just make him talk.
"Out with it, Brielander. What Master?"
The enemy mage backed away from the sparks. His robe smoldered in several places, sending up thin threads of smoke before going out.
"You'll find out soon enough," he sneered. "The Apex Mage will rule the world."
Talisha pushed her spellwall forward, flattening the man up against the wall. She stroked another crystal, this one much larger. "Want to live? Then you'd better tell us everything. Who are you, where is your camp, who is your Master?"
How the fuck did you throw fire like that?
The spell nested in the thick, smoky crystal wasn't a particularly nice one, but it got results when interrogating prisoners. It created a vise of air, slowly tightening around the entire body of the mage.
Unexpectedly, he laughed.
She would never forget the sight, and she suspected Ludec wouldn't, either. Flickering firelight. Smoky air. Mage, face twisted in pain, cackling like a madman.
Then his eyes flew open, and another intelligence looked out of them.
"Fool," he said, voice somehow echoing hollowly. "You will know pain and death before I am through with you."
"Master!" he screeched in his own voice, then burst into flames.COLLAPSE