Authors: Jon Bender
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #War, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Sword & Sorcery
Death Mage’s Ascent
Copyright © 2015 By Jonathan Bender
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof
may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever
without the express written permission of the publisher
except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
The battlefield was torn and littered with bodies. Dead men in black cloaks lay next to dead men in green cloaks as though death had finally brought peace between them. Among the fallen, stood a man near six feet in height. Short black hair framing sharp features, his dark eyes surveyed the carnage. His muscular frame tensed with anger.
Jaxom wondered if they even knew why they had been fighting. The lords on each side had told the soldiers that their enemy was bent on their total destruction. This was true, in a sense, but not for the reasons they may have thought. Each side wanted to destroy the other only because they feared so much their own destruction. It all seemed so wasteful, and he felt a rush of shame at being unable to stop it. Meanwhile, the true enemy who had orchestrated this massacre calculated his next move, laughing at these dupes.
Walking towards the crumbling walls of the fort, which had once dominated this valley, Jaxom took in his surroundings. Fires still burned on the ground where mages had set it ablaze. The once mighty golems had been hacked and hammered into piles of rubble, far beyond what the magic animating them could hold together. The valley appeared to have been clawed by giants. Everywhere he looked, the earth was scarred with shallow trenches from the powerful cyclones which tore at the earth and tossed men and horses into the air. Their bodies lay broken and forgotten.
Jaxom kneeled next to a man with no obvious wounds. Upon closer inspection, he saw that a blade had been thrust under his arm and above his plate armor, piercing his heart. Jaxom had no use for the heart. Placing a hand on the man’s head, he gazed at his face. The dead man could not be more than eighteen, hardly a man at all. Short, wavy brown hair partly covered a face that had never felt the edge of a razor, and the plate armor he wore made it obvious that he came from wealth. Common soldiers wore only leather or chain mail.
Jaxom took a deep breath, filling his lungs with the acrid smell of blood and decay. Opening himself to the power of death, he pulled energy into his body from the space around him. Death’s energy was always there, a constant. Today the energy was so fresh and abundant that channeling it was like drawing breath.
He had once asked an earth mage what he felt when he drew on the power of stone, molding it to his will. The man had described it as a pure, steady strength, as if he could move mountains with his bare hands. That power was the earth itself. A fire mage would feel the power infusing his body in a different way. For Jaxom, however, channeling felt different. Death’s energy brought no raw power, only the clarity and calm of the grave. His thoughts became clear and sharp as the clutter of life fell away like a stone down a well. Once death completely filled him, the world snapped into focus.
Concentrating, Jaxom forced the essence of death to the core of his being. Molding it to his needs, he directed it to flow down to his hand resting on the boy’s forehead. Then the flood came, memories, images from the boy’s life. The boy learning to ride, shooting a bow at distant targets, training with sword and spear, and countless hours reading books in a large library. An older man with streaks of gray running though his light brown hair and a short, well-kept beard appeared often. No doubt the boy’s father, his serious eyes shown with pride. Jaxom guided the flow of memories to the moments before the boy’s death.
Amid the mass of men and horses, his powerful, brown mare shifted anxiously under him. The sun beat down, baking him inside his armor. He had never liked wearing it, and the heat only made his discomfort worse. Before him massed an army of thousands in black armor. Though he knew that their own numbers were greater, the sight sent a chill up his spine. Horns blew all along the line. Finding some small courage, he gave the order to advance. As the army marched slowly toward the waiting enemy, he shouted at the men to stay in formation. Part of him longed to run away, but another part ached to rush forward into the fray. He waited for the signal. Finally, the horn blew, tearing incomprehensible yells from his throat and the throats of those around him.
Urging his horse to a speed that would match the men on the ground, he drew his sword and gritted his teeth. The two lines collided in a thunderous crash of metal on metal as men screamed in pain and anger. Swinging his sword at any man in black who came close, he never stopped to see if he killed them. A flash of red streaked to his right, landing among his men as an explosion shook the ground and threw him from the saddle. On his back, he watched as more fire balls crossed above him headed in both directions. They were so beautiful against the brilliant background of blue sky. He could not recall what he was doing there or why mages would be throwing fireballs into the air. Before he had a chance to ponder the question further, powerful hands grabbed him under the arms, lifting him to his feet.
“My Lord, are you all right?” asked the man on his left. Shaking his head, he cleared the last of the confusion from his mind and found himself in a tight ring of red uniformed men standing with their backs to him. The men had formed a tiny island of calm inside a storm of steel and death. From the many bodies scattered on the ground around them, he could see that protecting him had cost his men dearly.
“Reform the line towards the enemy!” he commanded. As the soldier brought his left fist to the center of his chest in salute, the ground shook beneath their feet. Snapping his attention back to the battlefield, he saw a massive figure of stone striding towards them. Every step sent tremors through the ground. At over ten feet tall, the golem had arms as thick as a man and ending in two massive boulders. Its entire body was formed of grey stone melded together by a mage into a humanoid creature of immense strength. Two rubies glowed where the eyes should have been, and he could feel the mage staring at him through those gems.
“GOLEM!” he yelled, alerting his men to the threat. “Axes and Maces to the front!” Swords would be less affective against the creature.
The golem swung. Its first right-handed swing took the head off of a man and was quickly followed by the left in a downward strike that crushed another. He and his men hacked and slashed, chipping away at the stone. The puppet continued to fight, slapping men aside like toys, until someone hit an arm hard enough to break it off. Then its opposite leg collapsed, and it fell forward, bringing the head within range. There was his chance. While the head faced down, the mage couldn’t see his opponents. Raising his sword in a two-handed grip, he readied the blow that would destroy the stone creation when something stabbed him deeply under his arm. All the strength flew from his body, and he felt himself falling. His last thought was to wonder why it was taking so long to hit the ground.
Drawing his hand away from the young man’s forehead, Jaxom contemplated what he had seen. The fighting had been as vicious as he had imagined, but he had not expected the sheer volume of casting. Dozens of mages from many schools had wielded their powers against soldiers and each other. Looking up at the destroyed fort, he decided not to bother with further investigation. He could report to his friend, the King of Ale’adaria, that the men of Denra had lost this battle. The invading force would now advance towards the capital city. As the king of the neighboring kingdom, his friend needed to decide what side he should take in the war, if any. So far, Ale’adaria had been able to stay neutral only because other kings and queens feared its military prowess. If one land attacked Ale’adaria, the others would soon seek alliance against the aggressor to further their own interests. Of the fourteen kingdoms, five separate alliances had already formed, shifting like dunes in high winds.
Jaxom stood and stepped away from the boy who in death had given him more information than he ever could have in life. Searching the surrounding area, he found what he was looking for. The young man’s horse lay dead on its side twenty yards away, its remains in good condition for his purpose. The ribs on its right side had been crushed inward, forming a deep depression in the chest. Fixing the damage would be easy and would not leave a ghastly scar. Repairing deep gashes never went so well. Once again, Jaxom drew death into himself, molding it to suit his needs. Stretching out his hand, he cast it into the animal. Almost immediately, the ribs began to reset, popping into place with loud cracks until the chest was whole once again. The powerful legs twitched as his magic took hold of the carcass, and its eyes snapped open, emitting a white glow from the power reanimating it. Rolling onto its hooves, the horse stood and waited for commands. Jaxom willed the horse to walk towards him--a simple test to assure that it was under his control.
Once, when he was first learning to cast, Jaxom lost control of a dog. It turned on him, and he had been forced to destroy his creation. His leg still bore the scars. With a direct strike of energy, he had cast a column of black and white smoke into the dog, causing the animal to rapidly decay until it simply fell apart. The experience had also taught him that direct attacks were far more draining for him than for other mages.
Mounting the mare and settling himself into the saddle, he was thankful for the reprieve from walking. He had chosen to walk into Denra instead of riding, leaving his sword behind so as not to draw attention to himself. Now he was grateful the need for stealth had passed. His untiring mount would reduce the return trip to three days. Taking up the reigns by habit, he guided his horse away. The animated creature would obey his thoughts as if it was an extension of Jaxom’s arm.
He felt a mixed sense of relief and unease at returning to Ale’adaria. He considered the kingdom and its capital city of Ale’adar home, though many there would be happy to never see him return. His friendship with the king and a few others kept those people from voicing their opinions too loudly most of the time, but Jaxom had come to accept their prejudice long ago. Still, it felt good to turn toward home.
From his vantage point on a hill overlooking his home city of Ale’adar, Jaxom could see the light from the many torches and lamps that lit the streets below. He had ridden through the second day straight into the night, stopping only to relieve himself. The reanimated mare never needed to rest or drink. At the center of the sprawling city, the palace with its high walls and towers watched over the city in quiet guardianship. Only a few people would notice his arrival at this hour, which meant he need bear fewer stares and whispers.
He approached the eastern gate of the outer walls just two hours after dark. On a whim, he had decided to ride the undead steed into the city. Let the whisperers be damned. The king would give him a talking to about not unnerving the good citizens. If he truly wanted to unnerve them, he would reanimate a man and ride him down the cobblestone streets. Laughing quietly to himself, Jaxom envisioned himself on the back of a bloodied soldier. What a commotion that would cause among those good citizens.
As he approached the iron barred gateway to the city, a voice hailed him from the other side. “Hold where you are stranger and declare yourself.”
Jaxom recognized the voice. It belonged to Cribble, a captain of the guard who had no problem showing his dislike for a death mage. Cribble liked to make comments in passing, just loud enough to reach Jaxom’s ears, that he smelled an offensive odor, as if something had recently died. Jaxom ignored such comments though he could easily kill the man, maim him, or do any number of unpleasant things that would not soon be forgotten. What stayed his hand was that Cribble was also loyal to the king.
“Magus Jaxom, advisor to the king.” “Forgive me, Master Jaxom. I did not recognize you.” Cribble said with a smirk, supplanting the title of magus with one given to an inn keeper or shop owner. “If you give me a moment, I will raise the gate.” Cribble leisurely entered the gate room.
Several minutes later, the gate slowly began to rise before stopping just at head level, forcing Jaxom to duck as he rode under. Cribble emerged from the gate room wearing a self-satisfied smile that faded as he got a closer look at Jaxom’s mare. With a thought, Jaxom turned the horse’s head so that it stared directly at Cribble. The captain jumped back, instinctively placing a hand on the hilt of his sword.
“Thank you for allowing me entry, captain.” Cribbles eyes shifted up to meet Jaxom’s. “I will be sure to inform the king that his loyal servant performed his duties admirably.” The captain took another step back, giving a quick nod.
Jaxom slowly turned the horse and moved into the city. Jaxom’s ear caught a mumbled “Dirty grave robber…” as he began to ride away. Cribble had risked a direct insult. Jaxom could respond by punishing the man or having him punished by the king. Matters of station were not as strictly enforced in Ale’adaria as in other kingdoms, but direct insults still crossed a line. As usual, he pretended not to hear it, satisfied to leave the man with an unsettled mind.
He enjoyed the hour-long ride to the castle. At night, he could experience the city freely without looks of fear and loathing following him wherever he went. The few people out at night were tavern patrons who kept mostly to their drinks. The guards at the castle’s stables allowed him in without a word. As Jaxom dismounted in the courtyard, a sleepy eyed boy stepped out to greet him. He took the reins from Jaxom’s hand and dropped them again when he looked into the animal’s eyes.
“She will not harm you,” Jaxom said. “Just find a quiet corner and brush her down. She will require nothing beyond that.” “Yes, magus.” The boy shook slightly as he took up the reins again. Jaxom gave the horse a mental command to follow the boy’s lead.
Stopping by the kitchens, Jaxon enjoyed a plate of sliced ham and freshly baked bread before proceeding to his rooms for fresh clothing. His two small adjoining rooms were in a part of the castle that received little foot traffic. The outer room held few furnishings. A small writing table and chair in the corner received light from the window throughout most of the day. On the right, a plain cushioned great chair squatted next to a tall bookshelf stuffed with volumes on the various subjects he had taken an interest in over the years. Many detailed the histories of the kingdoms while others focused on the animals that resided in them. Jaxom found it helpful to know about an animal’s capabilities when the need arose to reanimate one.
Passing through the outer room, Jaxom entered his even smaller bedroom. A bed large enough to hold two people and an old armoire with his meager selection of clothing and personal items completed his furnishings. Opening the double doors of the armoire, he found his sword right where he had left it, tucked safely in the back. The leather-wrapped hilt was long enough for a two-handed hold and ended in a skull shaped pommel. The blade itself, a gleaming thirty-six inches of double-edged steel, spanned four inches at its widest point. Drawing it partly out of the plain leather scabbard, he admired its craftsmanship as he ran a hand down its length. Because death mages lacked the direct offensive castings of other schools, Jaxom had learned the use of mundane weapons. His daily training with the castle’s Guard had earned him the open derision of the other mages. They thought him foolish for learning how to fight with steel when casting was much more formidable, but his training had saved his life on more than one occasion.
This sword was no ordinary weapon. Earth and fire mages had spent a day and a night forging it. Using their magic to heat and fold the steel thousands of times, they had created a near indestructible blade with a fine edge. What truly made this blade special, though, was Jaxom’s own addition of an enchantment. Most mages could not enchant at all, much less successfully. A mage had to channel raw energy and use it in ways not in line with their school of magic. No one knew why only some mages were capable of magic that differed from what they could cast. Many believed that the power hinted at a deeper, hidden ability to control all forms of magic, but Jaxom had never heard of anyone doing so. Such a mage would rival the gods in power.
Whatever the reason for his ability to enchant, he was glad to be one of the few who could. The sword’s enchantment had been his most intricate and time consuming work, taking him almost a full ten-day. Now, his sword could absorb and redirect magical energy. As far as he knew, there was no other like it. Tucking the sword back into its hiding spot, Jaxom picked out a white tunic, simple black pants, and underclothes before closing the armoire again.
In the bathing rooms, he peeled off his travel-grimed clothes while the stone tub filled with steaming water. Sliding slowly into the water, Jaxom leaned back and let the warmth soak into him, easing away tension he had not known was there. After dunking his head under, he went about the task of scrubbing away the dirt and grime. He slipped back under to rinse away the soap and emerged to find a man staring down at him. With only a few years more than Jaxom’s twenty-five, Corin Baldrin still managed to wear a look of fatherly dissatisfaction on his bearded face. With clear blue eyes, sharp nose, and strong jaw, Corin stood a few inches taller than Jaxom and wore his blond hair long enough to brush his thick shoulders. He wore a dark blue robe over a red shirt and light brown pants belted with a silver falcon’s head buckle.
“Your majesty,” Jaxom stammered. He wondered briefly if he should stand before deciding against it would be better to stay where he was. The cloudy water would preserve some of his dignity.
“Don’t ‘your majesty’ me. You were supposed to report to me the moment you arrived back.”
“I thought you would be in bed, your majesty,” Jaxom retuned, wincing a little at the edge in his voice.
“You’re not supposed to think. Only do what you are told.” The king stared into Jaxom’s dark eyes. A moment of awkward silence settled over the small room as Jaxom struggled to think of what he had done to cause such anger in his friend. Then the firm line of the king’s lips broke into a smile, and he began to laugh loudly from his stomach.
“I swear by the goddess,” he said between laughs. “You should have seen the look on your face.”
“Yes, your majesty, a good joke,” he said lamely.
“How many times have I told you, Jaxom. Call me Corin when it is just us. We’re friends after all.”
“Fine… Corin, would you get out so I can dress, or would you prefer I give my report in the bare?” Jaxom instantly regretted his words. The jovial man might decide to make him do so to further his little joke.
Thankfully, he didn’t take the bait. “Meet me in my quarters, but make it quick,” he said. As he reached the door, the king turned around. “People have been whispering tales of a man on a demon horse terrorizing the city,” he said with a mischievous smile before shutting the door behind him. Sighing, Jaxom relaxed back into the water, berating himself for riding in on that horse. He would never hear the end of it now.
The king’s chambers were located at the center of the castle. Jaxom passed six guard posts and two patrols on his way there. Before the large ironbound double doors of the king’s chambers stood yet another pair of armored men wearing the king’s blue livery with the golden falcon embroidered on their chests. These men were the king’s personal guard. Their only job was to protect their sovereign at all costs. These one hundred men had been specifically chosen for their martial abilities and their loyalty. Seeing him approach, one knocked on the door. From within, a voice shouted roughly, “Come.”
Inside, Corin sat at a table, pouring over papers, most likely reports from scouts moving throughout the kingdoms. Standing, he poured wine into a pair of glasses and handed one to Jaxom, gesturing for him to take a seat on one of the couches. The king remained standing and began to pace back and forth, which Jaxom suspected was a habit he maintained because it seemed to make those sitting more uncomfortable.
“Well, get on with it! What did you see?”
“Denra lost,” Jaxom said.
“That’s it? They lost?”
“More precisely, they were destroyed.” Jaxom heard the anger rising in his voice. “The fort was razed, and none were left alive.”
“Then the Kelran’s don’t intend to occupy Denra. That makes sense. They have enough to deal with in their own lands. This new bandit lord has been causing them trouble,” the King said.
“Yes, apparently he’s not your average bandit. He has organized enough to attack some of the minor nobles on the borders of Kelran. The reports say that he started off as just another thief, but rumors claim that he has designs on the throne.”
“Then why would the king of Kelran send his army to destroy Denra?”
“King Dillion has always been rash. Perhaps he considers this bandit a nuisance that he can ignore for the moment while he weakens Denra.”
“Could this bandit have been responsible for the duke’s murder?” Jaxom asked. King Dillion’s uncle Henrick had been murdered in his bed four weeks ago, and evidence had been found that Denra was involved. The murder was just one more in a series of noble killings that had set the world on the path to war.
“I doubt it. This bandit would gain nothing from killing Henrick. The duke had no real political power; he was only responsible for trade in and out of Denra. If anything, the duke’s death will hurt the bandit, disrupting trade and making it more difficult to fund his coup through robbery.” Letting out a long sigh, the King took a seat opposite Jaxom, draining his glass in a swallow. “Do these idiots who call themselves rulers not see that they are being played for fools? Can they not see that there is a pattern to all this? Someone wants us weakened.”
“We must focus on what we can do about it,” Jaxom replied in a steady voice. He did not envy his friend the decisions he was going to have to make. Ale’adaria could not remain neutral much longer unless they were to watch the world tear itself apart. “Have you found out anything about who is committing the murders?”
“Not much. There are a few reports of black-clad assassins who seemed to be able to meld into the darkness itself,” Corin said.
“Do you suspect casting?” Jaxom worried that this vie for power could be coming from mages. Hundreds of years ago, mages had ruled as kings and queens. Most of the histories had been destroyed in the Mage Wars, but those that remained described a time of great suffering. No mage had ever sought power of that sort again.
“It would seem that some form of casting was involved, but I have never heard of any mage being able to disappear into shadows. Have you?” the king asked. Jaxom shook his head.
Letting out a great sigh, the king stood again. “I guess that’s it for the night. Jaxom--” a knock at the door interrupted him. “Come,” Corin shouted.
General Nelix Blackburn was a short boulder of a man whose head came in just under Jaxom’s chin. What the general lacked in height he more than made up for in girth. His arms were the size of most men’s thighs, and his shoulders could be used as anvils. The grizzled war veteran bore streaks of white in his once black hair, and a long scar ran from under the collar of his blue tunic up the right side of his neck, stopping at the blocky features of his face. His grey eyes scanned the room, pausing momentarily on Jaxom to whom he gave a slight nod. For Nelix, it was the equivalent of a pat on the back.
“What is it, Nelix?” Corin asked.
Bowing at the waist, the general handed him a letter with a broken falcon seal. As the king read, his expression changed from apprehension to anger.