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FLETCHER OPENED HIS EYES, but all he saw was darkness. He groaned and nudged Ignatius, whose claw was splayed across his chin. The demon complained with a sleepy mewl before tumbling onto the cold stone beneath them.
“Good morning. Or whatever time it is,” Fletcher mumbled, flaring a wyrdlight into existence. It hung in the air like a miniature sun, spinning gently.
The room was bathed in cold blue light, revealing the cramped, windowless cell that was paved with smooth flagstones. In the corner lay a latrine, a simple hole in the ground that was covered by a jagged piece of slate. Fletcher stared at the large iron door embedded in the wall opposite him.
As if on cue, there was a rattle as the small flap at the bottom of the door eased back and a mailed hand pushed through the gap. It groped around for the empty bucket that sat beside the door. The sound of gurgling followed and the bucket was replaced, sloshing with water. Fletcher watched the flap expectantly, then groaned as he heard the echo of footsteps walking away.
“No food again, buddy,” Fletcher said, rubbing a crestfallen Ignatius under his chin.
It wasn’t unusual; sometimes the jailer just didn’t bother bringing food. Fletcher’s stomach growled, but he ignored it and reached for the loose stone he kept beside his bed to scratch another notch in the wall. Though it was hard to tell the time with no natural light, he assumed that he received food and water once a day. He didn’t need to count the hundreds of notches on the wall to know how long he had been imprisoned—he knew them by heart now.
“One year.” Fletcher sighed, settling back into the straw. “Happy anniversary.”
He lay there contemplating the reason for his imprisonment. That one night when his childhood nemesis, Didric, had cornered him in a crypt and tried to murder him while telling Fletcher about his father’s plans to turn the entire village into a prison. That they would put Berdon, Fletcher’s adoptive father and village blacksmith, out of business.
And then came Ignatius, from out of nowhere, burning Didric as he advanced on Fletcher giving him time to escape. The little demon had risked his own life to save Fletcher’s, even in the first moments of their bond. In the aftermath, Fletcher had become a fugitive, for he knew Didric’s family would lie through their teeth to frame him for attempted murder. His only consolation was that if it hadn’t happened, he might never have made it to Vocans Academy.
Had it really been two whole years since Ignatius entered his life and he first stepped foot in that ancient castle? He could remember his last moments there so clearly. His best friend Othello had earned the respect of the generals and convinced his fellow dwarves not to rebel against the Hominum Empire. Elven Sylva had cemented the peace between their races and had proven herself and other elves worthy allies. Even Seraph, the first commoner to be elevated to nobility in over a thousand years, had impressed his fellow nobles during the tournament. Perhaps most satisfying of all, the Forsyth plot to create a new war with the elves and dwarves to profit their weapons business was foiled completely. It had all been so perfect.
Until Fletcher’s past came back to haunt him.
Ignatius gave Fletcher an owlish blink from his amber eyes, sensing his master’s despondency. He nudged Fletcher’s hand with the end of his snout. Fletcher gave him a halfhearted swipe, but the demon dodged out of the way and nipped the tip of his finger.
“All right, all right.” Fletcher grinned at the boisterous demon, the pain distracting him from his misery. “Let’s get back to training. I wonder what spell we should practice today?”
He reached under the pile of straw that was his bedding and removed the two books that had kept him sane over the past year. He didn’t know who had hidden them there for him, only that they had taken a great risk in doing so. Fletcher was eternally grateful to his mysterious benefactor; without the books he would have been driven mad with boredom. There were only so many games that he and Ignatius could play in the tight confines of the cell.
The first was the standard book of spellcraft, the same one they had all used in Arcturus’s lessons. It was slim, for it contained only a few hundred symbols and the proper techniques for etching them. Before, Fletcher had been vaguely familiar with them so he could pass his exams, preferring to focus on perfecting the four main battle spells. Now he was able to picture every single symbol from memory and could etch them in his sleep.
The second book was thick, so much so that whoever had hidden it had removed the leather cover to make it more easily concealable in the straw. It was James Baker’s journal, the book that had started Fletcher on his path to becoming a trained battlemage. Within its pages, Fletcher had found a dozen new spells, diligently copied by the late summoner from the walls of ancient orcish ruins. Moreover, Baker had studied dozens of orcish demons, detailing their relative power, abilities and statistics. Now Fletcher was an expert too. Perhaps most fascinating of all, Baker had compiled all of his knowledge of orcish culture, including their strategies and their weapons, in the journal. It was a veritable treasure trove of knowledge, which Fletcher had devoured in a few days, only to immediately begin again and hunt for details he might have missed.
These two volumes were all that distracted him from the deafening silence of the outside world. Every night, he dreamed of his friends, wondering where they might be. Did they battle on the front lines while he rotted in the bowels of the earth? Had they been killed by an orcish javelin or a Forsyth dagger?
Perhaps most torturous of all, he knew his adoptive father Berdon was close by, in the village above him. He remembered when the prison transport had brought him back to Pelt in the dead of night. He had peered through the cracks in the armored wagon, desperate to catch a glimpse of his childhood home. But before he could get a proper look, the jailers threw a sack over his head and dragged him away.
As Fletcher lapsed into miserable silence once more, Ignatius growled restlessly before snorting a tongue of flame that singed the straw beneath them.
“Wow, we are impatient today!” Fletcher exclaimed, powering up a tattooed finger with a blast of mana. “Okay, you asked for it. Let’s see how you like the telekinesis spell.”
He allowed a thin stream of mana through his fingertip, the spiral symbol glowing violet until a strip of air shimmered above it. Ignatius began to back away, but Fletcher whipped his hand at the mischievous demon, curling the ribbon of energy around his belly and flinging him upward. The demon splayed his claws and dug them into the ceiling, showering Fletcher with a trickle of dust. Before Fletcher had time to react, Ignatius hurled himself down, twisting in midair like a cat with his claws and tailspike pointed at Fletcher’s face. It was only through a desperate roll that Fletcher avoided it, then spun on his heels to find the room cast in darkness. Ignatius had lashed out at the wyrdlight during his attack, snuffing it out like a candle.
“So, that’s how you want to play it,” Fletcher said, powering up his index finger, the one without a tattoo. This time, he etched in the air, using one of the rarer symbols he had learned from Baker’s journal. He twisted his finger so it was pointed directly at his face.
The cat’s-eye symbol looked almost exactly like its namesake, a thin oval within a circle. Through trial and error, Fletcher had learned the spell had no effect until its light was shined into his retinas.
The glowing symbol gave away his position, as did the flash of yellow that soon followed, but Fletcher rolled to the side so Ignatius would lose him in the darkness. He could feel his eyes slowly changing, his pupils elongating into feline slits. It was not long before Fletcher’s vision brightened and he could make out Ignatius’s figure, crawling toward his previous position like a lion stalking a gazelle. Though Ignatius had far better night vision than Fletcher, in the pitch black of the cell even the demon was struggling to navigate.
“Gotcha!” Fletcher yelled, diving across the room and bundling the demon into his arms. They tumbled back into the straw, and Fletcher laughed uproariously at the demon’s barks of protest.
The door burst open and the room filled with light, blinding Fletcher’s sensitive eyes. He scrambled to hide the books beneath the straw, but a boot kicked out, slamming into the side of his head and throwing him against the wall.
“Not so fast,” a voice rasped.
There was the telltale click of a flintlock being pulled back, and Fletcher felt the cold metal of the weapon’s barrel pushed against his forehead. As the effects of the spell faded, he could make out a hazy, hooded figure crouched beside him, holding an elegant pistol.
“One twitch from you, and I blast you into oblivion,” said the voice. It was hoarse, like a man dying of thirst.
“Okay,” Fletcher said, slowly raising his hands.
“Ah, ah,” the figure tutted, pressing the muzzle harder against his temple. “Are you deaf? I’ve heard what you can do with those tattooed fingers. Keep your hands by your side.”
Fletcher hesitated, aware that this would probably be his best chance of escape. The gunman gave Fletcher a husky sigh of exasperation.
“Rubens, give him a little taste of your sting.”
Fletcher caught a flutter from the depths of the man’s hood, then a bright red Mite buzzed out and alighted on his neck. He felt a sharp pain, then a cold sensation spreading through his body.
“Now I know you won’t be playing any tricks,” the figure croaked, standing up so he was silhouetted against the torchlight from the open doorway. “Speaking of which, where is that Salamander of yours?”
Fletcher tried to twist his head, but it seemed locked in place. At the mention of the word “Salamander,” Ignatius stirred from beneath him, and Fletcher knew that the demon was preparing to attack. He quelled Ignatius’s intentions with a stern pulse through their mental link. Even if they managed to overpower the man, Fletcher wouldn’t be able to crawl out the cell door, let alone pull off an escape.
“Ah, he’s in the straw there. Well, keep him quiet if you want to keep your brains inside your skull. It would be such a shame to kill you after all the preparations we have made.”
“Pr-pr-preparations?” Fletcher managed to stutter, his tongue clumsy and numb from the Mite’s venom.
“For your trial,” the figure replied, holding out a hand for Rubens to perch on. “We delayed it as long as we could, but it seems your friends have been very persistent in their petitions to the king. A shame.”
The figure stowed the Mite within the confines of his hood once more, as if he could not bear to be apart from him. The skin of his hand was smooth, almost feminine, with carefully manicured fingernails. The man’s boots were made from hand-stitched calfskin, with fashionable, figure-hugging trousers above them. Even the hooded jacket was made from black leather of the finest quality. Fletcher could tell the stranger was a wealthy young man, most likely the firstborn son of a noble.
“I will allow you one more question, then I must take you to the courtroom. Take your time, so the paralysis can wear off. I don’t want to have to carry you there.”
Fletcher’s mind flashed to his friends, to Berdon and the state of the war. But he had no way of knowing if the stranger would have the answers he sought. Did they know each other? He pictured the other summoners that he had met at Vocans, but none of them had a hoarse voice. Could it be Tarquin, playing a cruel trick on him? One thing was for sure: His opponent would keep the upper hand as long as he remained anonymous.
“Who. Are. You?” Fletcher asked, forcing each word out through numbed lips.
The fact that he could speak at all meant that Rubens had only pricked him with a low dose of venom. He still had a fighting chance.
“Haven’t you worked it out yet?” the stranger rasped. “That is disappointing. I thought you would have guessed by now. Still, I do look quite different from when we last spoke, so you are hardly to blame.”
The figure crouched again, leaning forward until Fletcher’s vision was filled with the dark confines of his hood. Slowly, the man pulled it back, revealing his face.
“Recognize me now, Fletcher?” Didric hissed.
Copyright © 2016 by Taran Matharu, Ltd.