Previous chapters are here. Happy Halloween!
Their walk through Clachan, led by the sage’s old dog loping along, showed a country nothing like all the descriptions Steven had ever copied about it. Every book on foreign policy or nearby cultures spoke of Clachan’s beautiful vibrancy and fruitfulness. Now, in person, it was the opposite. Trees were no more than blackened skeletons. Damp, ashy vegetation covered the hills. A few birds flew about, but their flight paths wavered like they could fall out of the sky at any minute.
But none of that prepared him for the moment they crested a hill and looked down on the Clachan castle. An army clothed in Poldar’s colors milled around, forming a wide ring about the dingy stone walls and creaking towers. Inside their human ring was another army in the colors of Clachan. But none of them moved. Hundreds of armored soldiers stood petrified like tin toys lined up for battle. Those in the front had their weapons drawn and pointed at the same, empty spot. Some were even frozen mid-step, looking like the smallest breeze could push them over.
What could cause this?
Movement caught his eyes: A solitary figure moving amongst the Clachan army, half way between the ring of Poldarian soldiers and the castle. Will hissed under his breath, “It’s him.”
Trevor led the way now, calmly approaching the milling soldiers. “It has been many years,” he called to the sorcerer, holding his hands out when the men from Poldar pointed their weapons at their group.
The sorcerer crossed his arms over his flabby waist. “Indeed it has, old friend. Forgive me, but I expected the years to be kinder to you.”
Trevor chuckled like it was a kind joke. “Your wit has not changed much. I must say, it is unusual for one of your talents to employ an army. Come, let my friends and me pass.”
The sorcerer gave a calculating smirk that made Steven shiver. “By all means,” he held his arms out. “Come.”
The army parted to make a path for them. Will stood as tall as he could under Annette’s weight and Steven noticed the scathing look his friend gave to the soldiers. He glanced nervously at the men as they passed, wishing for a weapon, or at least for the knife he used to trim his writing quill.
They were two yards into the circle when something started to change. At first, Steven thought he was suddenly very tired, then that the air was thickening. Trevor the sage gasped, “No, you didn’t—” and then he couldn’t move. One leg held all his weight, one arm reached out in front of him where he was going to push away the air, but he could not move them. He could only breathe and swivel his eyes to see that his friends were also frozen.
The sorcerer approached them then, walking in a slow circle around Trevor. “Yes, old friend, approach me to ruin me if you can. But see, I’ve bound all life in this area, all life within a quarter-mile radius of the castle. You’re just in time, actually. I’m about to carry out what I began planning all those years ago, when I was just a young man coming to you after my father’s murder. You see over there, by the castle door? Yes, that’s the king and queen of Clachan and all of their germy children. In just a moment, I’ll execute them as they deserve and avenge my father.
“But first,” he turned and considered Will, fingers stroking his beardless chin, “first I must deal with this maggot. Do you know, they thought they could get away with corrupting my family’s name? They soiled it by giving it to a worthless worm, a squalling baby stolen from a hovel on the outskirts of society. They’ve paid the price, I assure you, the ‘monarchs’ of Poldar. They served their purpose, granting me an army to escort me here and take care of these stupid Clachan filth once I’ve done with my revenge. And you, Bill, will pay the price, too.” His chubby, white hand darted out and shoved a poultice into Will’s mouth.
The prince’s eyes grew red and started watering, but he could not move to spit the poison out. Steven thought he heard a quiet gasp, but that was impossible. Only involuntary breathing was possible under this spell.
Oh, what he would do if he could only move! The sorcerer’s name was on the tip of his tongue. One word, one word, and he could end this. One word, and he could save his friend’s life. Yet even that small movement was out of his power.
“Your suffering will be slow,” the sorcerer continued. “Our good sage taught me the secrets of herbs well.”
It could have been his imagination, but he thought Annette’s hand on Will’s shoulder shook slightly.
“But your demise is inevitable. Now, watch as I carry out justice on my enemies!”
Something happened then that halted the sorcerer’s movement back toward the castle: A girl’s voice spoke. “Wait!”
The sorcerer turned in slow motion. Steven’s eyes swiveled from the man to the girl in Will’s arms. Annette.
“Did you say something?” the sorcerer asked incredulously.
She spoke slowly, like it took great effort to speak. “I said, ‘Wait.’”
“But—how did you survive? I killed you,” he said, almost as a question. “I killed you, right?”
“You tried,” she struggled. “But you didn’t succeed. And you won’t succeed now. I name you—”
Horror flashed over the sorcerer’s face. He leapt forward, as if in one bound he could cross half a field and cover her mouth before the word slid out. But he was too late.
“James Kangraff of Poldar,” Annette finished.
Several things happened at once. Still mid-leap, the sorcerer shriveled and wrinkled before his eyes. By the time he hit the ground, he was no more than a pile of shrunken bones in empty robes.
Control returned to his limbs faster than he expected. His brain caught up slower than his body, and by the time he could move himself, he was smashing his face onto the newly re-greened grass in front of him.
Another thud sounded next to him, followed by Annette’s strangled grunt. He pushed himself up and turned his head to see Will collapsed and Annette half-under him, half-hovering over his head, trying to help. “Will!” she cried, just as he started convulsing.
Next and probably final chapter on Monday!