Sopra had been concerned about the smoke as soon as he had seen it, but the steep climb to the castle had curdled his worry to annoyance. He was breathing hard in the morning heat as he approached the open gates, the smell of the dwindling clouds finally reaching him. He stopped, wiped his thinning hair and puffed his cheeks. When he felt a little less flushed he continued through the gate, expecting at least for Ofer's guard to challenge him. Instead the way into the courtyard was unmanned, for reasons that quickly became clear. The soldiers who should have been guarding it were scattered about, sitting with hollow cheeked exhaustion wherever they had chosen to drop. He looked at a few as he strode past, their tunics open and blackened with soot, but they failed to offer any response. Around them were strewn the weapons of fire fighters; buckets, axes and shovels. Remains of a stable at one side of the yard were providng one of the few still dancing plumes, but they were left unchecked. That was partly, he supposed, because there was no visible flame and partly because pretty much everything else had already burned. The buildings, or what had been buildings, next to them were crumpled piles of black timber.
His annoyance began to mount. This boded poorly. He stopped at the base of the inner keep's motte, where a dozen or so men were lying somerbly on the slope. He got the oldest one's attention with a nudge of his foot.
"Is Lord Ofer still here?" He asked the tired soldier.
"His Lordship is having breakfast." The man replied without looking up.
"Breakfast?" Sopra replied, only slightly amazed.
"Yes. Breakfast. Bacon I'd say. It is a Monday isn't it? Yeah. So, bacon."
"Smoked bacon." Another man offered flatly. Nobody seemed willing to even give that a mercy laugh.
"He is in the keep then?" Sopra checked, not wishing to scale anymore hill than he already had if he could avoid it. The soldier grunted an affirmation, dashing his hopes. "What happened here?" Sopra asked.
At that the soldier lifted his head and squinted into the light. He eyed the heavy set stranger for a second and then slumped back.
Sopra looked at the smouldering ruins behind them.
"Fucking big chickens."
Nobody seemed inclined to disagree so Sopra left them to their rest, planting his staff ahead of him and pounding away up toward the keep.
He had to pause again once he had passed into the inner courtyard. Whatever state Ofer might be in he refused to meet him breathless and sweating. Servants were moving in and out of the small castle and he followed their flow, knowing it was like following a trail of ants to their nest. He passed through into a low, cool chamber where he found Ofer eating a plate of crispy bacon. Eating was only the technical word for the display though. Sopra doubted a pig could be murdered once it was in rashers but the occultist was certainly checking to see if it was possible. He carved morsels with short, violent slashes and stabbed them with a fork as if he wanted to nail them to the wooden plate. Sopra hoped he didn't mis-chew and bite his tongue, because the way his jaws were gnashing Ofer would probably take it clean off and Sopra would never know what had befallen in the night. Then again, if things were as bad as they appeared he might be wishing all sorts of painful calamities on the angry eater. He coughed and Ofer looked up sharply.
"Rabbi Nosfan . What an unpleasant surprise." He spat through a half chewed mouthful.
"Lord Ofer." Sopra returned, looking significantly at the servants buzzing about the room.
Ofer rolled his eyes but put his cutlery down and clapped his hands to get their attention.
"Leave us." He instructed and sat back, locking eyes with his visitor as the frightened peasants scurried out of the room, closing the door behind them. The two men looked at each other for a few seconds, simmering with resentment. Finally Ofer gestured to a chair,
"Won't you sit? I have plenty of breakfast if you would like to share."
"No, thank you. Lord Ofer, what has happened here?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean your Duke's castle, it looks like a week long seige has just lifted."
"I had some unexpected guests who were rather untidy."
Sopra shook his head, annoyance was flaring to anger as his fears became realities.
"Mergen was here wasn't he?"
"And yet, you do not seem surprised." Ofer looked as though he was equally unshocked. "Why is that do you suppose? Is it because you knew he was coming? Is that what all your platitudes and exotic gifts were about?"
Sopra looked about the room, his eyes coming to rest on the remains of a large shattered vivarium in one corner. "Ofer. Where the hell are the Davara?"
Ofer shot to his feet, incencesed.
"Silence! Fleeting mortal! You will address me as Lord Ofer."
Sopra raised an eyebrow, then noticed the blotchy redness on his host's cheeks where his moustaches should have been.
"Lord Ofer then. Where the hell, Lord Ofer, are the Davara?"
"Your little pets have gone, with the thieves who robbed me. I am no fool though Nosfan, I see them for what they were now. I thought it strange you should give such a unique and precious gift, but put it down to your lust to learn the penultimate truth. Now I see them for what they were. Spies. You knew Mergen was coming and placed them here to tell you when." He pushed the table over between them and Sopra had to step back. "What did you think, that you could catch the bald old coot and force it from him instead? Tell me the truth now, or you shall not leave this room alive."
Instead of cowering, as he was clearly expected to, Sopra looked back at the shattered cage.
"Did you put them in that?"
Ofer faltered for a second. "Yes." Then feeling strangely defensive about the act he added. "They were eating the locals, I had to."
Sopra shook his head.
"No wonder they didn't tell me when Mergen was near, and it's not much of a surprise that they ran off either. I've only had to watch you eat for a few seconds but already I want to leave."
That was enough for Ofer, his nostrils flared and he stamped a foot.
Lines of burning red light leapt forward, streaking along patterns of metal laid into the floor. Sopra looked down and suddenly realised Ofer's tantrum had purely been to force him backwards, into the center of a complex symbol. The lines of a pentagram, circles of runes at each point, flared into life. Ofer threw out a hand and ruby lightning leapt up around the other man, seeking the ceiling above where an identical device had been wrought. Sopra span, looking for an escape, but as Ofer began to chuckle he slowed and faced his captor. He shook his head.
"I don't suppose you could have used this on Mergen?"
Ofer sat back down in his chair, crossing one leg over his knee and sighed.
"He surprised me. I'm a little ashamed to admit. You spend hundreds of years in someone's company then and you think you know them but..." He shrugged.
Around Sopra his bars has slowed to winding flows of crimson sparks. He touched them experimentally, flinching at the shock they gave him.
"I really wouldn't if I were you. It's built to hold something a little more dangerous than a kabbalist Rabbi. Now. I have a few questions, not least of all being, what was Mergen after?"
The chamber walls had the colour of a forge, despite the summer sun coming in at one end of the room. Sopra shook his head.
"You do not even know what he took, do you?"
"Well, as I'm asking you, I would say that is patently bloody obvious. Is this what you dish out as insight to those idiots in Carcasonne?"
The Rabbi leaned on his staff and fixed his stare on Ofer,
"I gave up leading men in false wisdom a long time ago. Indeed, I have returned to being a student of the divine rather then its preacher."
Ofer waved a hand dismissively.
"Yes, yes, you're very wise and mysterious. I don't really care what your new hobby is child, I simply want to know what Mergen took and why you were setting me up for it."
"You know what your failing is Ofer ?"
Ofer prodded gingerly at the raw patches on his cheeks.
"Well. I do have some issues with trust. By which I mean that nobody seems to trusts me." He considered it for a moment. "And, of course, some fail to understand my dedication to the pleasures of food and flesh."
Sopra hissed. "Your arrogance!"
"No." Ofer frowned. "No, that would only be a problem if I wasn't always right. Granted this isn't my best morning, but you're still the one trapped when you thought you were here to do the trapping."
Sopra straightened and thumped his staff on the stone floor. As Ofer watched his body became still, reflected streams of red light growing brighter on the surface of his face. Ofer waited a second, expecting some outpouring of fury or insult, but nothing hapopened. Absolutely nothing. Sopra did not breath, did not blink. Even the folds of his clothes did not shift in the slightest.
Ofer stood up, confused, and in moving slightly he realised that his view of Sopra did not. He stepped to one side and saw his captive was a flat sheet of glass. Sopra's image was frozen, like a right-sided reflection, in the surface.
"Well, I'll be buggered." Ofer managed, then he flicked his wrist and the scarlet cage vanished as suddenly as it had been summoned. He strolled over to the frozen depiction and looked around it, whistling in appreciation. He could see faint grey smoke coming from rough iron at the back.
"So." He said to himself, "We have a new companion on the eternal road do we?"
Ofer had once heard someone say that talking to yourself was the first sign of madness. He had dismissed the idea at once. He had been mad as a goat's eyeball long before he started talking to himself. He looked down at the metal tracks laid into the flagstones.
"Two pissing months it took getting these in and in two days I have two people escape from under my nose. I'm not bloody bothering next time."
His instinct to kick over the glass Nosfan was strong, but his desire to take retribution for being made a fool was stronger. It may have been an impressive debut as far as works of magic went, but Ofer had the benefit of centuries of experience. The former Rabbi either did not realise or did not care that Ofer could use the artefact to track his escape. The lines of red light began to sparkle in the air again, but this time Ofer directed them in a woven embrace of the impassive figure.
"What are you after? Eh, Sopra?" He addressed the motionless image. "What did you want Mergen to get? If you think I'm goingt o sit around here while the pair of you have all the fun, you are sadly mistaken."
The shape of the spell clicked into place and with a gasp of delight Ofer saw exactly where the other magician had gone to. The power drained away from the magic symbols and Ofer stalked to the chamber door, throwing it open.
"Summon the..." He began, stopping as he noticed the wide eyed serving girl who had been pressing her ear to the door. "What the hell are you doing?"
The grubby wench worked her mouth like a fish, terror choking off any excuse. On another day Ofer might have invited her inside to discuss the importance of privacy, and the difficulty in listening if someone has eaten your ears. Luckily for her ears, his anger at Nosfan far exceeded any the girl's snooping might have raised. Instead he peered imperiously down at her.
"Nevermind. Stop gawping and fetch the Captain, instruct him to ready a dozen of the most able men and report to me at once. We are going hunting for the dogs that dared attack a castle of the Duke of Savoy."
He kicked her, just to keep up appearances, and she fled away out of the upper courtyard. Ofer watched her go, a wolfish grin spreading across his burned face.
The Rhine was invitingly blue under the clear sky. If the early sun promised merciless heat then the wide waters pledged cool salvation. Hasper was not fooled by its siren call as he watched it thoughtfully. The current was too strong, the water too deep. If you were to seek refuge from the summer at this bend then you had best be prepared to fight for every second. It was a fight you would eventually lose and only then would you realise the bank was too steep to climb out from.
The lush green valley rose up quickly on both sides, well nourished trees thriving from the gifts both above and below. The track he stood on was flanked by verdant bushes crowding to the drop's edge and providing as little escape as the treacherous river. Hasper whispered to his sister, her back to the glorious scene.
“Who do you think would win a swimming race? A dog? Or a horse?”
There was a pause before his sister hissed.
“Well you know, dogs. Renowned swimmers aren't they? But a horse has got the bulk.” He explained.
“Shut up you idiot.” Came the harsh reply.
Hasper turned to face back down the track towards where the rest of their group where gathered.
“So you don't know then? Sounds like it could be a bit of race if you could get it together. Might get some good odds on that in a small town. I've got a horse.” He patted his sweating mount's neck. It looked currently incapable of beating a puppy at paddling. Hasper raised his voice a touch once more. “Where could we get a dog do you think? Did you see any in that last village?”
Elnin looked at him, jaw rigid. She held up one hand and pointed at the three Davara, swaying and staring, if shattered shards of crystal could be said to stare, at a cross legged Mergen. She was inexplicably angry at the question, Hasper could tell. It was the emotional synchronicity that occasionally blossomed between twins. It allowed him such insights into her feelings. She grabbed his ear and forced him to look where she was pointing.
"We are sitting in a dead end, but a few miles from Ofer's stronghold whilst Mergen conjurs powers which could tear the world to shreds, chaperoned by a trio of demons that would send mother reaching for a knife, and you want to know what?"
"Which would win a swimming race, a dog or..."
"I was being rhetorical." She growled.
Hasper pulled free of her grip and sighed,
"Just trying to think of something other than the many ways in which our current condition could lead to our demise, sister mine."
Elnin looked at him with narrowed eyes.
"No you weren't."
"Ah, but I might have been. As it is, I never think on those sorts of topics otherwise I fear that you would be left with nothing to do." He smiled broadly.
"Idiot." Elnin shook her head.
"Worrywort." He returned happily. "What the hell are those things anyway?"
"Some sort of hunger demons I think. From what Vitus described they're fast, strong and inclined to take things apart."
"What, walls, carts and such like?"
"No, like fingers and toes."
"Oh." Hasper regarded the black ichor that was dribbling from the three creatures' mouths. "Well, you can see why they wouldn't wear anything I suppose. That stuff probably stains like bitch."
"Come on, let's go and keep a closer eye on them while Mergen brings up this realmpath."
She left the vista over the river and walked slowly to where Vitus and Laima were observing. Hasper patted his tired mount's flank.
"As if there aren't enough poeple that want to eat you. Now it looks like there are some that want to eat me." He stroked it's nose affectionatly. "What's wrong with being vegetarian, I ask you?"
The horse gave him no answer but a toss of its head and he let it be to join his sister.
Mergen was sat bolt upright, the deck of Nexi laid about him in a circle. His legs were crossed in a way that made Vitus think he should practice more stretches in the morning and the Alu was held reverently in his cupped hands. His face was smooth, calm. His breathing deep. The center of his circle was as calm as the people around it were tense. Vitus stole a glance at the child sized predators that had followed them from the castle walls but the Davara were intent only on Mergen. He checked the sky, trying to guess the hour and Elnin appeared at his elbow.
"We're not more than an hour off of mid day." She whispered. "How long do we have to stay here?"
Vitus shrugged and leant closer. "He didn't know for sure. Not less than three hours, not more than a day. But, stupidly, it may be to our advantage to have our guests here. I have already watched him work powerful magic with them as a catalyst."
Elnin nodded. "I don't like them and I don't like it here. We have no options."
"Only someone wanting to be caught would take this road." Laima said quietly from Vitus's other side. "They'll check all the main ways and crossings long before they check here."
"Normally I would agree." Elnin replied. "However, Ofer knows us. He's used the 'only an idiot' gambit himself plenty of times."
Laima walked around the Roman, pushing him away and tugging on Elnin's tunic to make her bend down.
"Don't worry about Ofer. Worry about the those things. You didn't see what they did to one of the guards. The speed of the little blighters is ferocious, only you and Hapless over there might be quick enough to offer up some kind of defence if they get going."
"Don't callm him that Lai." Elnin reproached her as her brother joined them. The dwarf maid shrugged.
"Hold your gossip girls." Hasper announced. "Looks like something's starting."
Around Mergen the air had started to shimmer, as if the bare earth around him were a fire. The cards began to tremble and lift from the ground. Everyone except Elnin was them closely, she instead was observing the chittering excitement of the Davara. The were becoming more animated, slapping each others’ bare arms as the cards turned to stand on end. As if a twisting breeze had formed around the wizard the cards began to rotate about his head. Mergen began to mumble unrecognisable words and the cards span faster. It was hard to pick out the individual patterns. His voice rose in volume and they span faster. They began to blur. A shriek went up from the Davara when the Alu snapped into the air then slapped back to the ground. The earth inside Mergen’s twirling circle began to darken, as if night had fallen on the patch of ground only. The darkness spread and deepened until he was sitting crosslegged on a black pool.
"Look." Vitus shouted pointlessly. Even Elnin was now transfixed on the patch of night in which shapes were beggining to form. Tree boughs began to sway beneath Mergen. Slender, white, leafless boughs that matched the scene from the Alu card. Vitus stared at the spaces in the reflected branches that would have formed the eyes in the picture. He was in no doubt that they were staring back at him.
Only Mergen failed to flinch when two of the Davara leapt forward. Elnin was reaching to notch an arrow when they fell through the floor instead of hitting the mage and tumbled down the throat of the trees. The remaining Davar scrambled back to the treeline, hissing.
"Now." Mergen sang out, his voice muffled by the sound of wind rustling the odd tree which faced up under him.
Vitus looked at the others for a second and then shrugged. He jumped forward and braced to land on the ground. Instead his legs found air and he sank like stone into the scene below. His stomach lurched as he began falling forward instead of down, the odd gravity of the trees pulling him into the dark mouth of night beneath their canopy. He looked back and found hasper and Elnin, equally surprised, floating along next to him. The scene became a blur, the branches of the Alu tree whipping at his face as they accelerated. He caught a glimpse of one of the Davara. It's obsidian teeth sunk into the bough of a tree, it's tiny body tensed as it fought the sucking gale.
It was gtone in a flash as another branch smacked into Vitus's face. The world began to grow darker and he feared perhaps the sense had been knocked out of him again. Flexing his flainling hands he realised that it was just darkness. As his friends began to disappear from view he steadied his movements. There was nothing to fear in this, he tried to convice himself. The purpose of this magic was not to harm him. He nodded to himself. Nothing to worry about. That was when he smashed face first into the ground at the speed of racing horse.