Authors: Michael Foster
Tags: #Magic, #legacy, #magician, #Fantasy, #samuel
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental.
THE ANCIENT ONES
Copyright © 2011 by Michael Foster
Except as permitted by the Copyright Act 1968, no part of this publication may in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or any other means be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or be broadcast or transmitted without the prior permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
First Published 2011 by Dragonfall Press
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Cover by Steven Schaffert
For Ben, Lisa and Jessie
With special thanks to:
The Red family
John Paul Newbury
Ormé Harris and
THE LEGACY TRILOGY
The Young Magician
She Who Has No Name
The Ancient Ones
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AS DUSK FELL, the gathering snowstorm rolled across the frozen hilltop fields. Unfurling its pallid blanket, the weather descended, slowly obscuring the world. The little town of Castlemount buckled down for the night, twinkling lights sprawled across the rise, boarded windows and bolted doors pitted against the weather.
Fields of snow encrusted the hill, withered trunks marking their edges; the green pastures of summer entombed beneath ice. Dense, dappled forests, snuggled beneath frosty coats of winter’s making, spread across the undulating hills and disappearing into the enfolding frost. A smooth, blanched scar broke the uneven grey-and-white of the trees: the river, frozen in its snaking path along the valleys.
Light spilled out from the inn at the centre of the town, crafting a golden glow upon the snow, and granting the place a cosy feel amidst the cold and inclement weather. The wind howled and beat against its walls—perhaps enraged for that very reason—but the walls were sound and the wind remained firmly outside. The gusts and gales carried the snow, piling it in the streets, making outside travel difficult; and that only served to intensify the fact that the warm haven of the inn was the sensible place to be.
The fire inside was large and the air warm. Nearly everyone from the town was indeed sheltering inside, merry and comfortable with their cups and tankards in their hands. The storm hammered and battered on the roof, calling in a terrible wail, while indoors was filled with cheers and laughter. Loose things thumped and crashed and thudded in the street, unheard as mugs of ale and goblets of wine clinked and clanked together inside; assorted bells sprinkled amongst the chatter.
It was rare to have so many townsfolk coming together. Despite the recent difficult times—or perhaps because of them—the gathering felt all the more heartened. The worries of the world had been left outside in the snow where they belonged.
‘Oh, ’allo Pietrick!’ said the owner across his bar, greeting the fellow opposite him who was squeezing through the crowd. The owner’s balding scalp glistened with sweat, for he was kept busy with the rush. ‘I didn’t notice you come in. How’re your travels then?’
Pietrick was a sturdy man, sensible and courageous, one of the few merchants left in the town who still dared venture south of the river.
‘That’s the last time for me, Omer,’ he replied forlornly. He was perhaps the only one in the room who bore his woes across the doorstep, an uneasiness carried in the folds between his brows. ‘I lost two boys this time. The roads have grown too dangerous and there’s nothing in the south still worth the risk.’
‘Oh?’ Omer responded. He was tempted to hold his questions, rather than ruin his merry mood, but news of the world was rare these days. ‘Go on.’ He did not pause from his work behind the counter, cleaning cups with a cloth as he listened through the din.
‘I gave the news to Missus Marriot this morning as soon as I returned to town. She was heartbroken. Those boys of hers had their minds set on adventure and were keen to do their bit for the town. Damn fool me for letting them try. We met soldiers from the Order and were forced to flee for our lives.’
Ludon, Pietrick’s teamster, pushed his thick-bearded face in to add his piece. ‘The accursed Order have spread from Cintar like a plague, far worse than the Darkening. They steal and kill indiscriminately—without reason, like animals. We were lucky to escape as we did. There are rumours of worse things that prowl about with them, or so they told us as we passed through the ruins of Reve.’
‘Most of the cities are little more than ghost towns,’ Pietrick added. ‘They say only a few Lords in the outer territories still maintain any order over their lands, but they are tiny patches of sanctuary amongst the chaos. The cities have been laid waste or abandoned: ruined carcasses of what they were. Bands of thieves wander the lands of Amandia and do as they please. It won’t be long until trouble reaches us. It’s only being up here in the highlands that has spared us until now, and that won’t last forever. I just hope Earl Edgely is well prepared to defend us.’
Ludon sipped and nodded his agreement, dipping his beard into his mug with each draught.
Omer paused from his work and leaned closer to the pair; they did the same, sensing his secrecy. The two merchants almost touched cheeks as he whispered to them. ‘What about the Truth Seekers?’ he said. ‘Any sign or word of them near here?’
Pietrick looked to his fellow with worry before replying. ‘We didn’t see any, thank goodness, but I’ve heard they do visit Earl Edgely from time to time, just to remind him they are watching. They say we have nothing to fear—as long as we’re not harbouring magicians. No one here would be damn fool enough for that!’
‘Well, there were more strangers in town while you were gone, lurking about. We told the Earl and he sent them packing, but I just don’t like the thought of such folk anywhere near here. It’s going to be harder and harder turning them away if things continue the way they are. They won’t turn back without a fight forever.’
‘I heard that Errol spoke to the Earl this afternoon,’ Ludon revealed. ‘He knows what we face and he’s doing all he can.’
Omer looked relieved and leant back from the pair. There was a clatter from the corner as someone slipped and knocked into a barmaid, sending her handfuls of crockery crashing to the floor.
‘Oh, for heaven’s sake!’ Omer exclaimed and he stepped out from behind his bar to have a look at the mess. A small circle appeared amongst the patrons as they retreated from the spill. ‘Rufus!’ he cried. ‘Get this cleaned up!’
From beside the bar, what resembled a pile of soiled rags gathered itself onto its feet, somehow transforming into a grimy old man. He had thick, short, white hair on his head, running close to his brows; it was unkempt and uneven, as if cut with a shaky hand and a blunt knife. Stubble covered his neck and face: pale mould on withered bark. He crooked his head towards the balding man to listen. His mouth hung open, lips gummy with dried saliva, eyes tightly shut.
‘Clean that mess,’ Omer repeated, but the old fool Rufus could never understand a word that was said to him. ‘I don’t know why I bother! Toby!’ he called towards the back. A small, stringy boy of no more than six years came running from the store room. ‘Get Rufus onto that mess,’ Omer commanded, shaking his finger at the floor. The boy looked out and spotted the breakage.
He, too, was simple-minded, looking between Omer and the mess several times before understanding what was asked of him. In response, he tapped Rufus on the shoulder and pointed to the spillage.
It sparked some recognition in the man, for old Rufus came to life and fumbled his hands beside him, picking up a bucket and some rags. He trundled over to the mess, with the boy leading him by the cloth of his pants. He sprawled himself on the floor and set to his task with vigour, plucking up the shards of the bowls and intermittently pressing his rags upon the spill to soak it up. His fingers danced upon the broken pieces, working by feel, occasionally leaping into his mouth or shaken rapidly if they erred and grasped a sharp edge.
Omer was nodding his head, satisfied that the interruption to his pleasant evening would soon be resolved, when the front door burst open and the wind howled in, ending such thoughts abruptly.
The banter vanished. Conversation fled. Everyone in the room strained to see past each other as the sleet and snow flurried in. When the door shut once more, standing in the entranceway, snow clinging to his boots and gathered around his feet, was a man in a black cloak. He kept his clothes wrapped tightly about himself and he looked sinisterly out from the darkness sheltered in his hood. In one arm he held a polished black box resembling a babe’s coffin, with symbols for each of the nine old gods etched upon its lid.
The crowd gasped and people scrambled to be away from him, pressing each other against the walls. Even Omer dared not raise his voice and he slunk into the background, hoping not to be seen.
Toby was standing in the open, staring at the stranger with glee, until some brave soul darted forward and pulled him away.
Only Rufus, the fool, remained in the middle of the room, soaking up the spilled drink with his rag and picking up the remaining pieces of crockery, muttering to himself all the while.
The cloaked intruder observed the old man incredulously, before turning his attention to the crowd. ‘I am Samuel—Saviour of Accursed Cintar, Champion of the Infernal Order and Last of the Damned Magician Lords.’
The crowd gasped with each title, edging further away from him, already crushed against each other as they were.
The magician drew the box from under his arm and held it forth, raising shrieks of fear from one and all. ‘Though beasts and demons may now haunt the lands, none are as fiendish as I. I turned all the north to ashes with one opening of my wicked box!’
The very mention of it made one woman scream and another fellow retch onto the floor at his feet.
‘Hold still, lest you befall my wrath!’ the newcomer bellowed to still the disorder, and he tucked the casket again beneath his arm. Slowly, he pointed around the room with the black-gloved finger of his right hand. People shook their heads desperately as his gaze passed over them, hoping to avert his wrath. They clutched onto each other as tightly as they could, shivering with fear, whimpering.
‘Wh—what do you want?’ some daring member of the crowd ventured to ask.
The magician flung his pointed finger towards the nervous fellow and the crowd inhaled sharply.
‘I am on my endless malevolent quest—of which I will not speak further—but I require coins to see me on my way. Give me your valuables; everything you have. Come now, lest I open the box, just a crack, to sort you out.’ He only had to glance at the container tucked under his wing and coins began to fly. ‘Not on the floor, dammit!’ he raged. ‘Gather it into a bag and pass it to me!’
‘Yes! Yes!’ they cried and one patron gladly passed his hefty purse around the room to be filled.
‘Lord Samuel,’ a brave soul spoke from out of view, summoning the magician’s attention.
The words were not hollered, yet carried above the ruckus, and the congregation fell quiet at their utterance. They turned their heads as one towards the speaker, to see what foolish individual might raise his voice against the magician, but the man remained hidden behind their numbers.
‘Tell me,’ the speaker’s voice continued. ‘What exactly is in that abominable box you wield? I am curious to know what terrors you keep within it.’
The hooded magician was enraged. He took a forward step in attempt to see who would so affront him. ‘Insolence! How dare you question me?’
The crowd parted to be away from the speaker, and there, seated at a table in the corner, was another stranger, unnoticed until then. He had an unremarkable face, with neat, short dark hair; no sign of beard or stubble upon his chin. He could not be beyond his thirtieth year, dressed in a grey travelling cloak as if he, too, had recently come in out of the snow and had not yet had time to warm to the room and remove it.
Strangely, no one had given him any regard before that moment, sitting in the corner like a shadow, but someone had obviously served him. He took another unhurried sip from his bowl of soup. Gently, he set down his spoon.
‘I have no problem daring anything from you,’ he stated boldly. ‘Everyone has heard much of the unspeakable evils you keep within your box, but I am intrigued to see which of these rumours are true, and I would hear the unspeakable spoken. Come; show us an inkling of your power, so I can return to my soup with my curiosity appeased.’