Banner art by JackOfClubs (jack_spire on livejournal).
You can find the whole cover art here- JoC did a great job on it!
There's also a great mix/soundtrack that goes with this story- you can find that here.
(Prologue, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 6)
Phillip wandered through the treeline in a stupor, leaning heavily on his new quarterstaff as he pushed through the undergrowth. The briars and thorn bushes snagged and ripped the hem of his black robe, but he hardly noticed this, so preoccupied by a memory he could not erase. His master had given up the illusion magic he'd excelled at and abandoned it in favor of Necromancy, the magic an Illusionist normally could not use any more than a snake could use a boot. Phillip still shuddered at the thought. And what the once-Illusionist had done with it... he shuddered again from the memory of those skeletons created when his master had looted a cemetery. He'd tried to convince the wizard not to do this, but Phillip had been so frightened and horrified that he'd ended up hiding when those pleas were ignored, invoking more anger when his master had realized his assistant was not there. The only thing going for the young wizard at that point was that the old man had been too preoccupied with his newly created servants to give much attention to the person he was supposed to be training.
The old wizard had been getting progressively more and more disturbing and this had been the last straw; grabbing what he could carry, his apprentice had fled. In hindsight, he should have left as soon as his master had begun slipping down that slope towards horrifyingly crazy, but Phillip had been holding out so that he could become a master wizard in his own right, not that it had become possible in the end. By that point his master had only been casting magic Phillip either could not or would not do. Caught not quite at the status of full Illusionist, but no longer truly an apprentice either, the young man had grabbed the amulet he'd recovered for his master years before on the way out, not trusting it to the warped old man, and with the vague hope that it could aid him in some way, possibly to fill in for the training he still lacked. Who would take in a mostly-trained twenty-six year old apprentice, anyway? That was why he hadn't left Bluecoast sooner; he'd had no idea of where to go.
He glanced down at the ash staff in his hands. It was a gift sent from his father, a skilled woodworker who knew nothing of magic but was aware that most wizards carried staves. He also knew that his son's favorite hobby was astronomy, or something with stars, anyway. That had always been a bit over his head, but the man had apparently caught on enough to know that it would be a good theme for an almost-wizard's staff. Seeing the intricate stellar carvings in the wood had sent a wave of sudden homesickness over the young wizard. A longing for a time when he didn't have to wonder what horrible monster he'd have to see that day (and that wasn't even counting his master...) had hit him like a ton of bricks. Home may not give him the new master he sought or the end to his training, but it was at least a destination.
He'd left the coast behind and headed west in a long trek back to his homeland. Slowed by the fact that he constantly felt the need to look over his shoulder in case skeletons or something worse were at his heels, he had made it two-thirds of the way when this pensiveness left him lost. He thought he'd been following a trail through sparse woodland but he had lost track of it.
Walking slowly in a small circle to try to at least get a bearing of which way north lay, he heard a snap and was dropped into a large pit. As he tried to push himself to his feet, he heard a quieter snap; the cause of this was readily apparent by the terrible pain in his left ankle. Trying to keep from blacking out, he used the staff to support his weight so he could survey the hole which he was beginning to suspect was actually a trap. The evenness of the dirt walls validated this assumption and the arrow drawn and aimed down from above the pit proved it. Yes, this most certainly was not his year.
He raised one hand up in surrender, the other being far too busy holding him upright to join its brethren. He began to wonder if he could fire off any sort of spell without falling over when this was interrupted when the figure said, "It's you again?" He recognized that voice and now very much wished he had a way to get out of here.
Grimacing at the pain that shot up his leg, he shuffled backwards until his back hit the dirt wall. Of all the elf traps he could have fallen into, it was the one she was guarding. At least this particular elf wasn't likely to actually fire at him- or so he hoped. He stared up and wondered if he should duck. As is probably obvious, the language the archer had spoken was Halfling.
Meren patrolled the forest alone. Occasionally Kryro had to report to his own tribe and this was one of those times. Wanting to stay on guard, however, she'd managed to convince her father to allow her to do so on her own. She still wasn't sure how she'd accomplished this, but she had a hunch. The centaur had kept insisting that she had magic, which she denied at first because wood elves were not magical, but soon she had started to experiment, figuring that it was a sort of weapon and it would be foolish to not use everything at her disposal to protect the forest and elf camp. This she kept secret from all but her brother and had tried to not use it anywhere near where her kin could possibly see; as well as being unmagical, elves were rather... superstitious about it, and that was putting it nicely, but she had a feeling that some magic had been working through her as she'd argued with her father. Her fingers had felt tingly, a sure sign that she was pulling energy again, and his green eyes had taken on a glazed quality while she was speaking. She hadn't stuck around to see if she'd truly been the cause and had hurried out as soon as she'd gotten his approval just in case she had done some sort of spell and said magic wore off.
So alone she roamed. Alone until she spotted a glint in a place that shouldn't have anything shiny. Sneaking forward in her soft leather boots, Meren crept behind some ferns and low greenery to get a closer look ahead. The glitter was coming from the sun reflecting off the silver-embossed tip of a wooden quarterstaff. The elf rolled her eyes. She was all for using bits of fallen trees as weaponry, but why wrap something so ostentatious around it?
When the figure turned, the reason became clearer- it was that blasted infuriating wizard again, wasn't it? Meren still wasn't sure what to make of him but knew she didn't want him roaming around her forest. Although was it more out of wanting him gone as she'd want any intruder to leave or was it not wanting a more trigger-happy scout to find this particular nuisance? The elf sighed. Trapping him would be best. Closing her eyes and trying to focus the green energy of the forest into doing her favorite spell, the energy decided that it had its own desire, as the elf had occasionally found to happen. Instead of the forest reaching out and rapidly growing into a dense thicket, it remained in place, but what didn't remain in place was the ground between her and the human. The black-clad man gave a startled gasp as the dirt under his feet vanished, then a yelp of pain as he apparently hit the bottom of the pit that had appeared under his feet. Well, that works, too, she thought with a shrug.
She put an arrow to her bowstring out of habit and crept forward to the edge of the pit. Now getting a good look at the man's rather pain-filled face, she saw that it was indeed who she'd thought it was. Unfortunately. Why couldn't she be rid of this human for good? I guess bats weren't enough to scare him away, she grumbled to herself.
"It's you again? You're trespassing on guarded lands." Why did she want to add "again"? The last time she'd had the pleasure of his acquaintance, he hadn't been in the forest. She could almost recall... she shook her head. No matter, that wasn't important.
"Would it help if I said I didn't realize where I was?" he asked hopefully, giving what she thought was far too innocent of a look.
Meren sighed again. He likely wasn't going to be a threat to the forest but why was he here? She lowered her bow and cursed at the complication that had presented itself. She was almost wishing she'd found an orc blundering through the underbrush instead.
Well, if he really had hurt his leg, as it appeared from his stance, he wasn't going to be able to move fast if she got him out of the hole. The trick would just be not to turn her back on him, which she vaguely recalled had been her mistake last time. And this time she had magic at her disposal, as well. She patted the pouch at her hip where she'd begun storing the bits of plants and miscellaneous trinkets that seemed to make her magic function better- usually, although that latest spell fumble could attest to this not always being the case- to reassure her that it was still in place. She gave a small smirk. Yes, she'd be alright even without her brother to back her up.
Leaning down over the pit, she crossed her arms over her chest. "I suppose I can let you out. But try anything and you'll find another pit beneath your feet." Not that she could likely duplicate a result like that, but he didn't have to know that. When the young man shook his head frantically, she asked, "Do you think you can climb?"
The human bit his lip, but nodded. "I'll have to try."
Meren took a few steps back and looked around for a tree to which she could knot the end of her rope. Luckily her misplaced spell had backfired in the middle of the woods instead of a desert, so she was able to find a good sized one. Pulling the grey rope out of her satchel, she knotted the one end around the tree trunk and dropped the other end down into the hole.
The wizard hobbled over and lobbed his staff up and out. It took all of his strength, but he was able to pull himself out. Once back on the surface, however, he sat down heavily, his face gone ashen, clearly hurt from that injured leg.
He's never going to get out of my forest that way, Meren thought, but pity was beginning to take the place of her irritation and she began to riffle through her bag to try to locate her healing supplies. Her mother had been the tribe's healer and had passed that knowledge on to the young elf; Meren had always assumed that the reason she was less inclined to automatic violence than the rest of her kin was because you don't really want to hurt something when you become used to patching things up instead.
Finding what she needed, she crouched down next to the human and began to tug at his boot. He immediately gave a shriek of pain and swatted her hands away. "What are you doing, elf-girl?" he demanded through clenched teeth.
The frown she gave made him shrink back; momentarily puzzled that he should find her threatening when she was clearly trying to help, she answered calmly, "You're hurt or have you not noticed? I was going to wrap that up for you until you can find a healer, but if you'd rather just sit here alone in an area known to be patrolled by wild cats, that's your choice." Okay, so that was a lie, but maybe he'd let her help if he thought trouble would approach soon.
His eyes wide, he began to look around desperately, as though Meren had brought an assortment of large pet cats with her. Holding back a chuckle, she grabbed his boot again. This time he remained still and allowed her to work, but it wasn't until she'd finished and given him some herbs to chew on to help with the pain- this time not lying about that, although she'd been tempted to hand him some simple tea leaves instead- that the color began to return to his face. Using the staff to get to his feet, the young man tested his ankle. He winced slightly, but this time didn't look about to faint, which Meren considered a job well done.
"You did well. Thank you," he told her, his voice sounding sincere.
Meren shrugged as she got to her feet and began putting the herbalism kit back into her bag. She didn't really know what to say to that because she probably shouldn't have helped him. Even her brother would have left him in the pit... or perhaps not. Kryro wasn't like the rest of her kin, either, and would probably have lifted him out of the hole, but only to leave him injured and to his own devices.
Part 6 can be found here.