The boy admired the yellow dormisroot peeking through the frozen soil. It was one of hundreds growing in a tiny patch of vivid color in an otherwise barren landscape. He crouched next to the blossom and inhaled. Crisp morning air and a faint aroma greeted his nose. He reached out to pick the wildflower.
“Leave it be,” said Vannis.
The older man towered over the boy, his blue cloak stirring in the gentle breeze. Marsino stood next to him, holding an unlit torch. The three had been waiting for a while, completely unchallenged.
The younger man smiled down at the boy and nodded.
The boy plucked the flower and stuffed it in his pocket.
Vannis shook his head and frowned. “Your time with the boy has instilled bad habits.”
Marsino flushed at the remark, his smile disappearing. He cleared his throat and asked, “Do you see anything?”
The boy stood and studied the row of houses across the frostbitten field, the weathered dwellings nothing more than dilapidated shacks strewn across a hillside. Shapes and shadows moved past the cast-glass windows.
“There’re people inside,” he said.
“We can all see that,” said Vannis, his tone biting. “Do you see what we’re looking for?”
The boy searched for the smallest hint or impression. He saw nothing but the dull grey of weathered planks and hewn stone.
Vannis grumbled underneath his breath.
“Perhaps if we drew closer,” said Marsino.
The older man shook his head. “These are hillfolk. They’ll put a spear in you before you get within twenty paces of their door.”
The boy shivered at the words. The southern hillfolk’s fierce reputation was known back in the Great City. They lived in the untamed edges of the kingdom, near the disputed territories. He glanced over his shoulder and inched closer to Marsino.
“Light the torch,” said Vannis.
Marsino struck his flint, showering the oil-soaked cord with sparks. The pitch erupted in flames and chased away the brisk morning air.
They didn’t need to wait long.
Several cabin doors opened, and a dozen men and women marched toward the group. They carried pikes and axes.
The boy’s hand fell to the dagger at his side. He turned to Marsino, but the man’s eyes were fixed on the villagers.
“Steady, boy,” said Vannis.
The crowd stopped at the edge of the field, their ragged clothing in stark contrast to the royal blue and white finery worn by Vannis and Marsino. Even the boy’s own clothes were better kept.
A slight tingle ran down his spine. He touched Marsino’s arm, attracting his attention, and nodded. The man acknowledged the signal and motioned for him to step back. There was a process to be followed.
An old woman stepped out from behind the crowd. “Do mageseekers burn villages now?” she asked.
“There’s nothing here, move on!” shouted a young man with wild hair, standing next to the woman. The others joined in, jeering and barking.
“Hush!” the woman snapped, elbowing the man in the ribs.
The man winced and bowed his head. The crowd fell silent.
The hillfolk were unlike anyone the boy had seen in the Great City. They didn’t shrink at the sight of mageseekers in their traditional blue cloaks and half-masks of hammered bronze. Instead, they stood tall and defiant. A few fiddled with their weapons, glaring at the boy. He averted his gaze.
Marsino stepped forward. “A bushel of dormisroot arrived in Wrenwall six days ago,” he said, gesturing to the flowers with his torch.
“People sell things. People buy things. Is it different in the city?” the old woman asked.
The hillfolk laughed.
The boy nervously joined in. Even Marsino offered up a weak smile. Vannis remained unmoved. He regarded the crowd, hand on his quarterstaff.
“Of course not,” said Marsino. “But the flower is rare this time of year.”
“We’re good farmers. Good hunters, too,” she said, the smile disappearing.
Vannis fixed his gaze on the old woman. “Aye, but the ground is frozen and there isn’t one among you who’s ever worked a plough.”
The old woman shrugged. “Things grow where they want. Who are we to say different.”
Vannis smirked. “Aye, plants grow,” he said, as he unclipped the Graymark from his cloak. He dropped down on his haunches and held the carved, stone disk over a dormisroot.
The petals wilted and shriveled.
“But they don’t die at the sight of petricite,” said Vannis, standing back up. “Unless you use magecraft to grow them.”
The smiles disappeared from the villagers’ faces.
“The use of magic is forbidden,” said Marsino. “We are all Demacian. Bound by birth to honor her laws—”
“You can’t eat honor up here,” said the old woman.
“Even if you could, your belly’d be empty,” sneered Vannis.
The crowd stirred at the insult and pressed in closer, coming within several paces of the mageseekers.
Marsino cleared his throat and raised a hand. “The hillfolk have always honored the ways of Demacia. Keeping with law and tradition,” he said. “We only ask you do so again today. Will the afflicted step forward?”
No one moved or said a word.
After a moment, Marsino spoke again. “If honor does not compel you, then know we have a boy here that will root out the guilty.”
The crowd focused on the boy. Reproach welled in their eyes as harsh whispers flowed through their ranks.
“So the runt can invoke magic without censure, but not us?” asked the man who had shouted earlier.
The boy shrank at the accusation.
“He works in service to Demacia,” Marsino said, before turning to the boy. “It’s fine, go ahead.”
He nodded and rubbed a sweaty palm on the leg of his breeches before turning to face the hillfolk. Among the dirt-streaked faces stood a singular, radiating presence. A corona of light pulsated and shimmered around the mage.
Only the boy could see this light, and it had been so all his life. This was his gift. This was his affliction.
The rest of the villagers watched with scorn. It was the same everywhere. These people hated him for his gift. All of them—except for the old woman. Her soft eyes simply pleaded with him not to speak.
The boy hung his head and looked at the ground.
They all waited as the moment stretched in silence. He could feel Vannis taking measure, and judging him harshly.
“It’s alright,” said Marsino, placing an encouraging hand on his shoulder. “We keep the order. We uphold the law.”
The boy looked up, ready to point out the mage.
“Don’t say it, boy,” said the old woman, shaking her head. “I’ll accept it. Do you hear me?”
“Enough of this,” Vannis snapped, pushing past him, Graymark in hand.
The radiant light around the mage momentarily dimmed as the crowd closed in.
“Quiet, boy. You had your chance.”
But it wasn’t the woman who was afflicted.
The boy turned to Marsino. “It’s not her! It’s the other one!” he said, pointing to the wild-haired man standing next to the old woman.
Marsino took his eyes off the hillfolk, attempting to follow the boy’s gesture. But before he could fix on the threat, the man lunged at the mageseekers.
“Mamma!” he yelled as he reached for Vannis. His hands glimmered with an emerald sheen as thorny vines bloomed from his fingertips.
Vannis spun out of the way, swinging his staff in a wide arc, and cracked the mage across the temple with the hefty wooden pole.
The mage stumbled into Marsino, clutching him by the arm. Sharp thorns pierced his sleeve. Marsino recoiled in pain and shoved the stricken man to the ground, dropping the torch in the commotion.
Flames licked the man’s tunic and ignited the tatters.
The old woman screamed and rushed toward her son.
Arms grabbed and pulled her back, holding her as she struggled. The rest of the hillfolk pressed forward, but Vannis held his ground, staff ready.
“Did he touch you?!”
Marsino fumbled with his weapon, finally unhooking his scepter, his eyes glazed and unfocused.
“Are there any more?” Vannis yelled.
The boy didn’t answer. He remained frozen, gazing down at the dying mage writhing in the flames. Bitterness rose in his throat, but he choked back the foul taste, refusing to retch.
He finally snapped to attention. The fire was spreading through the field, creating a wall between them and the mob. He searched the murderous faces behind the growing flames, the heat overwhelming his senses.
“Then mount up!”
The boy mounted his pony. Marsino and Vannis quickly followed on their own steeds and the three raced away from the village. The boy turned to look back. The fire roared, and the field of flowers was already wilting.
Vannis had pushed them to ride well into the evening, putting as much distance between them and the hillfolk as possible. It would take three days to reach Castle Wrenwall. Vannis intended to mount a cohort of mageseekers and return. The law must be upheld, he said.
They bedded down shortly after dark, the rocky terrain too dangerous to navigate. The boy was relieved to have his own feet on the ground. Boys from Dregbourne rarely rode horses, unless they stole them from a livery stable, and he’d never been much of a thief.
He took the first watch, sitting at the base of a towering oak, back and bottom sore and stiff from hours of riding. He shifted his body, seeking a comfortable position. After a few minutes, he stood and leaned against the ancient giant. A solitary wolf howled somewhere up in the hills, and a chorus responded in kind. Or perhaps they were braget hounds—he still couldn’t tell them apart.
Distant thunderheads flickered in the night sky, their rumblings so removed they never reached his ears. Overhead, stars struggled to push through drifting billows of gray. A sheet of thick fog settled over the lowlands.
He threw another bundle of wood in the fire. It sent up a burst of embers that quickly died out.
Ghostly voices filled the stillness in his mind. They pleaded and denied a shimmering truth as memories of the burning mage danced in the campfire. He shuddered and turned away.
It had been a gruesome death. But every time those thoughts invaded his mind he pushed them away and replaced them with all the beauty he’d witnessed since joining Vannis and Marsino.
He’d been traveling with the mageseekers for months, seeing the world outside the crowded streets of Dregbourne for the first time. He’d explored the distant hills and mountains he’d once watched from the roof of his tenement. New mountains now stood before him, and he wanted to see more.
Magic had made it possible.
The affliction that once filled him with fear of discovery was now a gift. It allowed him to walk as a true Demacian. He even wore the blue. Perhaps someday he would also don a half-mask and a Graymark of his own, in spite of being a mage.
Faint rustling broke his thoughts.
He turned and found Marsino mumbling in his sleep. Next to him lay an empty blanket roll. The boy’s heart raced at the sight. He searched the treeline for the older mageseeker—
Vannis stood beneath a nearby oak, watching him.
“You hesitated today,” he said, as he stepped out of the shadow. “Made a bad showing. Was it fear or something else?”
The boy averted his gaze and remained silent, searching for an answer that would satisfy the mageseeker.
Vannis scowled, growing impatient. “Go on, say your piece.”
“I don’t understand… what’s the harm in growing dormisroot?”
Vannis grumbled and shook his head. “Every inch given is an inch lost,” he said. “It's true on the battlefield and true with mages.”
The boy nodded at the words. Vannis regarded him for a moment.
“Where’s your heart, boy?”
“With Demacia, sir.”
Marsino stirred once again. His mumbles rapidly turned into moans until the man was struggling against his blanket roll.
The boy walked over and tugged at the man’s shoulder. “Marsino, wake up,” he whispered.
The young mageseeker twisted at the boy’s touch. The moans grew louder until the man was wailing. He shook Marsino again, only more roughly this time.
“What’s wrong?” Vannis asked, looming over him.
“I don’t know. He’s not waking.”
Vannis pushed the boy aside and turned Marsino over. Sweat slicked his brow and temple, matting his dark hair. Marsino’s eyes were open and vacant and shined a cloudy white.
Vannis pulled back the heavy blanket and opened Marsino’s cloak. Dark tendrils of blight marred his arm. To the boy’s eyes, a radiant bloom pulsed beneath the corrupted skin.
They had been riding since before first light.
Vannis and the boy had managed to lift Marsino onto his horse and secured him to the saddle. The young mageseeker had remained in a fever dream as Vannis tied Marsino’s horse to his own and set off.
The boy’s pony struggled to keep the brisk pace Vannis had set—Castle Wrenwall was still over a day’s ride away.
He watched Marsino jostle with every stride. The wounded man threatened to fall over several times, but Vannis would slow down and resecure Marsino in his saddle. Every time the old mageseeker did so, he scowled at the boy before pushing on.
They reached Corvo Pass by mid-morning. Their mounts clambered up the narrow switchbacks carved into the mountainside. It would cut half a day from their travels, but the treacherous path was ill kept and the thick brush slowed them to a crawl.
The boy squeezed his legs and clutched the reins, nervously watching the precarious drop into the deep gorge below. His pony simply trudged along, instinctively keeping them from certain death.
They broke through the thicket into a flat clearing. He watched Vannis push on his stirrups, driving the horses into a canter—Marsino began inching to his right, leaning over much further than before.
The mageseeker reached out, but it was too late. Marsino fell over and slammed onto the ground.
The boy reined up and leapt off his mount, rushing to the downed man. Vannis did the same.
Blood streamed from Marsino’s forehead.
“We need to staunch the bleeding,” said Vannis.
The man unsheathed his dagger and, without asking, reached out and cut a long strip of cloth from the boy’s cloak.
“Water,” said Vannis.
The boy pulled his water skin and poured a stream over the deep gash as Vannis cleaned the wound.
Marsino shifted and muttered incoherently in his fevered state. The boy tried following the man’s ramblings but understood only a few words.
“Drink,” he said, pouring drops of water over the man’s dry lips.
The young mageseeker stirred, his tongue lapping at the moisture. He opened his eyes. Ruddy blotches stained the cloudy white.
“Are we… there?” Marsino asked, chest wheezing with every word.
Vannis shot the boy a look. He knew not to say a thing. They were still far from reaching help.
“Almost, brother,” said Vannis.
“Why build… Wrenwall… so far up a mountain?”
“'It's supposed to be hard to reach,” Vannis said, with a brittle smile.
Marsino closed his eyes and chuckled slightly. It soon turned into a cough.
“Easy there, brother,” Vannis said, watching the man for a moment before turning to the boy. “The dormisroot—do you still have it?”
The boy dug into his pocket, drawing a straw horse, a polished river stone, and the yellow flower. He smiled at the sight, knowing the blossom would help Marsino.
Vannis snatched it from the boy’s hand. “At least you did something right, boy.”
His stomach tightened at the words. Vannis was right. He had faltered, and his friend had paid the price.
Marsino shook his head. “It’s not… his fault… I should’ve been… more careful.”
The older mageseeker remained silent as he picked several petals from the dormisroot.
“Chew on this. It’s not refined, but it will help with the pain.”
“What about… the magic?” Marsino asked.
“It quickened the growth and kept it hardy, but the plant is untainted,” Vannis said as he placed the petals in Marsino’s mouth. He leaned in close and whispered in the younger man’s ear, gently stroking his hair. Marsino smiled, seemingly lost in some memory.
The boy took a swig from his waterskin. A slight shiver ran down his spine. The fine hair on his arms stood on edge.
He turned and walked to the end of the clearing—a verdant canopy of pines covered the lowlands below.
“What is it?” Vannis asked.
“I don’t know…” He gazed down at the valley. Nothing appeared out of place, even the sensation had disappeared.
He stopped short. Plumes of dark smoke rose in the distance.
The boy stared at the charred and smoldering husks lying in the pasture. The smell of burnt animal flesh hung in the air. His stomach rumbled.
“What do you think did that?” he asked, tending to Marsino. The young mageseeker lay on a makeshift litter made from a blanket roll and lengths of rope.
“Don’t know,” said Vannis. “Stay there and keep watch.”
The older mageseeker inspected the dead cattle. They all bore fist-sized puncture wounds in their thick hides. Vannis prodded one of the scorched cavities with the tip of his stave, measuring its depth. A third of the shaft disappeared.
“Maybe we should go,” the boy said.
Vannis turned to him. “Do you feel anything?”
The boy studied the cattle. Traces of magic radiated underneath the seared flesh. Whatever had killed them was powerful enough to mutilate the immense creatures. A man couldn’t fare any better. Even one with a quarterstaff.
The boy turned his attention to the farmstead. It held a small log cabin, a weathered barn, and an outhouse at the far end. The property was tucked against the hills, surrounded by dense forest. They never would have seen it if not for the smoke.
The sound of footfalls approached.
Vannis spun around and raised his staff.
An old man rounded the corner of the barn. He stopped at the sight of the unannounced visitors. He wore trousers and a tunic fitted for a larger man, and he carried an old, beaten halberd, its edge gleaming and sharp.
“What are you doing on my farm?” The man asked, shifting the grip on his weapon and remaining well outside Vannis’ reach.
“My friend’s hurt,” said the boy. “Please, he needs help, sir.”
Vannis gave the boy a sidelong glance but said nothing.
The farmer looked down at Marsino. The young mageseeker stirred in his litter, lost to a fever dream.
“They have healers in Wrenwall,” the farmer said.
“It’s over a day’s ride. He’ll never make it,” said Vannis.
“A beast prowls these woods. You best ride out,” the old man said, gesturing to the dead cattle.
The boy glanced at the dense treeline. He sensed nothing at the moment, but he remembered the shiver he’d felt earlier. At that distance, it had to be a massive creature.
“What kind of beast? Is it a dragon?”
“Steady, boy.” Vannis said as he stepped toward the farmer. “You have a duty to quarter a Demacian soldier.”
The farmer stood his ground. “You wear the blue… but a mageseeker is not a soldier.”
“Aye, but I was once. Like you.”
The farmer’s eyes narrowed, and he angled the spearpoint of his halberd in Vannis’ direction.
“It’s that pole cleaver,” Vannis said. “A gut ripper of the old Thornwall Halberdiers, if memory serves. Far as I can see, neither it nor this old soldier have lost their edge.”
The farmer regarded his weapon with a faint smile. “That was long ago.”
“Brothers are for life,” said Vannis, softer this time. “Help us. And we’ll hunt your beast down after we’re done.”
The boy glanced down at Marsino. The mageseeker’s eyes remained shut as he drew shallow breaths.
The farmer regarded Vannis, considering the offer. “That won't be necessary,” he finally said. “Let’s bring your man inside.”
Vannis and the farmer carried Marsino inside the cabin. A small fire burned in the firepit and the modest room smelled of cedar and earth. The boy cleared a table standing in the middle of the room, tossing wooden bowls and hardtack biscuits onto a nearby sleeping pallet. The men eased Marsino down onto the wooden planks.
“Who else is here?” Vannis asked, using his dagger to cut off Marsino’s tunic.
“I live alone,” the old man said, examining the wound. The boy could see the blight had spread. Dark tendrils reached out toward Marsino’s neck and heart.
“We have to have cut it out,” said Vannis.
Marsino started to convulse, threatening to fall off the table.
“Hold ‘em down,” said Vannis. The boy pinned Marsino’s legs, using his weight to secure them in place. The man thrashed against the restraint. A heavy boot kicked free and cracked the boy in the mouth. He stumbled back, nursing his jaw.
“I said hold him!” Vannis yelled as he wiped down the blade of his dagger.
He reached for Marsino’s legs again, but the farmer stepped in.
“It’s alright, son,” the man said. “Try talking to him.”
He moved around the table. Marsino’s tremors had eased, but his chest rattled with each ragged breath.
“Hold his hand, let him know you’re there,” said the farmer. “It helps with injured animals. Men aren’t much different.”
The boy grasped Marsino’s hand. It felt warm to the touch and slick with sweat. “It’s going to be alright. We got help.”
Marsino seemed to focus on his voice, turning toward the sound, his cloudy white gaze now a deep red.
“Are we in Wrenwall?”
The boy looked at Vannis, and the magehunter nodded.
“Yes. The healers are working on you,” the boy said.
“The dormisroot… it bought me… some time,” Marsino said, squeezing his hand. “You did good… You did good…”
The boy clenched his teeth, fighting back the grief swelling in his throat. He held Marsino’s hand tighter, not wanting to let go.
“I’m sorry, Marsino. I should’ve—”
“Don’t… it wasn’t… your fault,” Marsino said, every word labored and pained. He strained to lift his head. Searching the room with eyes that could no longer see.
“Right here, brother.”
“Tell ‘em… tell ‘em it’s not on him.”
Vannis fixed his stare on the boy. “Aye, bad luck is all,” he finally said.
“See…” Marsino said, offering a wan smile. “You don’t need… to carry it.”
Vannis gripped Marsino’s shoulder and leaned in close to the man’s ear. “We need to cut it out, brother,” Vannis said.
Marsino nodded his head.
“He’ll need something to bite on,” said the farmer.
The boy unsheathed his dagger, the carved wooden handle perfectly suited for the task. He placed it in Marsino’s mouth.
“Good,” Vannis said, holding his own blade inches from the wounded arm.
The tendrils slithered beneath the skin. To the boy’s eyes, they radiated a soft, pulsating light the others couldn’t see.
“Stop,” he said.
Vannis looked up at the boy. “What is it?”
Marsino bit down on the dagger’s handle and released a stifled scream. He squeezed the boy’s hand and thrashed against the table until the movement underneath his skin subsided.
The blight stretched across Marsino’s neck.
“It’s too deep,” said Vannis. “I can’t cut it out.” The mageseeker stepped back, unsure of what to do next.
“What if you burn it out?” The boy asked.
“You can’t cauterize that close to the artery,” Vannis said. He turned to the old man. “Do you have any medicinals?”
“Nothing that would help that.”
Vannis gazed down at his injured partner, weighing something in his mind. “What about a healer?” he said, the words no louder than a whisper.
“They would have medicinals, but the closest one—”
“Not that kind of healer.”
The old man remained silent for a moment. “I don’t know anyone like that.”
It appeared Vannis wanted to push the matter, but he bit his tongue and searched the cabin instead.
The boy followed the mageseeker’s gaze. He found a stack of hides in one corner, a netted hammock in another, and a carver’s workbench crowded with dozens of wooden drakes against a wall. Nothing that would help.
“The cattle,” said Vannis.
The farmer blanched at the mention of the dead livestock. “What of them?”
“Did they ever suffer from tinea worm?”
“Yes. We burn it out with a pulvis of lunar caustic.”
“If we cut the source and use a thin band of the pulvis for the rest, it might work,” Vannis said. “Where is it?”
The farmer looked out the window. He seemed to hesitate, perhaps trying to remember where to search in all the clutter.
A deep guttural sound rose from Marsino’s throat. He violently convulsed and teetered toward the edge of the table, dagger clenched between his teeth.
Vannis held the wounded man down by the shoulders. “Where’s the pulvis?”
The farmer wrestled with Marsino’s flailing legs. “It’s in the barn, but—”
“I got it!” the boy said, as he turned and ran outside.
Crisp mountain air rushed past his face as he raced toward the barn, the heat building in his legs and lungs. The barn door was less than twenty paces away when a shiver ran down his spine.
He slid to a stop.
The surrounding forest stood dark and silent. He searched the dense thicket for the slightest hint of magic but found nothing in the brush. Steam and smoke still rose from the smoldering heaps in the pasture. The tingling sensation spread across his back—there was something nearby.
He needed to warn Vannis but knew better than to shout.
Should he go back?
Another agonizing scream erupted from within the cabin. Marsino needed him to be brave.
He took a deep, sobering breath and darted to the outbuilding. His trembling hands fumbled with the latch until he finally got the door open, then he slammed it shut behind him.
A jolt rushed down his spine.
He stumbled back and fell, crashing into a rack of ditching tools. Shovels and spades clattered on the floor.
It was inside the barn.
The boy reached for his dagger but found the sheath empty. He had given it to Marsino. A silvery brilliance radiated from one of the stalls.
He tried to stand, but his legs refused to act. The glow flourished as a shape exited the stall and rounded the corner. He’d never witnessed a light so blinding. It distorted the very air in waves of colors.
The shape approached.
A droning rose in his ears, like an army of nettle bees swarming inside his head. The boy scrambled back, one hand shielding his eyes as the other searched the ground for a weapon. He found nothing.
The world vanished behind a sheet of light and color.
A sound tried to break through the hum as the shape pushed through the radiant glow. His mind struggled to piece it together until a single utterance made everything clear…
With a word, the entire world resolved back into place.
It was a little girl.
She stared at him, eyes wide in fear. The corona around her flared brighter again. It pulled at the boy, compelling him to reach out and touch its radiance.
“W-Who are you?” she asked.
“I’m… I’m Sylas.” He rose to his feet, holding out his hand. “I won’t hurt you… if you don’t hurt me.”
The girl balled her hands and pressed them to her chest. “I would never hurt anyone…” she said, her gaze falling to her feet. “Not on purpose.”
The boy recalled the cattle in the pasture. He pushed the thought away and focused on the golden-haired child. She seemed tiny and lost, even here in her own home.
“I believe you,” he said. “It’s not always… easy.”
The light around her dimmed, and the pull on him diminished.
She looked up at the boy. “Have you seen my papa?”
“He’s inside the house. Helping my friend.”
She timidly reached out to grasp his hand. “Take me to him.”
He drew back. “You can’t go inside,” he said.
“Is something wrong with papa?”
“No. It’s… He’s helping a mageseeker.”
The little girl recoiled at the word, and the inside of the barn brightened once again. She understood the danger.
“Are you a mageseeker?” She asked, her voice quivering.
The question wrenched at something deep inside the boy.
“No,” he said. “I’m like you.”
The girl smiled. It was genuine and warmed his heart in a way that no praise from a mageseeker ever had.
Another scream came from the main house.
“It’s my friend. I need to go back,” he said. “Can you hide until we’re gone? Can you do that?”
The girl nodded.
“Good,” he said. “Do you know where the lunar caustic is?”
She pointed to a clay jar sitting on a narrow shelf.
The boy snatched the container and bolted from the barn. Another agonizing wail broke as he approached the cabin. He pushed harder for the last few steps and burst through the door.
“I found it,” he said, holding the jar like a prize in hand.
Silence filled the room.
Vannis was staring at Marsino’s lifeless body. Only the farmer turned toward the door.
There was fear and resentment in the old man’s eyes. It was the same the boy had seen in all those desperate souls trying to hide their affliction.
The old man slowly reached for his halberd, his gaze sweeping from the boy to Vannis, who still hadn’t moved or said a word.
The boy shook his head, silently imploring the man to stop.
The farmer paused and looked toward the barn before looking back at the boy.
He offered the father a reassuring smile.
The old man regarded him for a moment and then rested his weapon against the wall.
Vannis finally snapped from his trance. “What took you so long?” the mageseeker asked.
“It’s not the boy’s fault. Your friend was too far gone.”
Vannis stepped back from the body and sat down on the sleeping pallet.
“The cur is the reason we’re here,” he sneered. “He’s one of them, you know. Pretending to be normal.”
“Your friend didn’t believe so,” said the farmer. “Honor that memory.”
Vannis looked away from Marsino’s body. He fixed his attention on the dozens of carver’s tools and wooden figures strewn about the floor beneath the hammock.
“He was a young fool who felt things far too deeply,” he finally said. Vannis fell into a deep silence after that, his thoughts seemingly elsewhere.
The farmer and the boy joined him in the uncomfortable stillness, unsure of what to do next.
“So it’ll be the two of us hunting the beast, then?” Vannis asked the old man.
“It’s not necessary,” said the farmer. “Tend to your friend. I have a wagon. It’s yours.”
“Doesn’t seem proper to leave you here… alone,” said Vannis. “I’d be abandoning a brother.”
The mageseeker’s voice carried a subtle sharpness that made the boy uneasy. Sorrow transformed into suspicion. The grieving mentor had become the interrogator once again.
“I’ll manage,” said the farmer. “Been doing so since my days wearing the blue.”
“Of course,” Vannis said, smiling.
The mageseeker leapt from the cot, rushed the farmer, and slammed him against the wall—his dagger tip poised inches from the man’s throat.
“Where is it?”
“What?” The farmer asked, his voice trembling and confused.
“I-It’s in the woods.”
“Does it bed down in your cabin at night?”
“Your hammock,” said Vannis, gesturing to the netted cord. “Spend enough time on campaign and it becomes your best friend.”
Vannis pressed the dagger to the man’s flesh. “So why the cot?”
“It… belonged to my daughter,” said the farmer, his gaze momentarily flicked to the boy. “She passed last winter.”
The boy looked at the sleeping pallet. It was built for a child.
But it wasn’t only the cot. There was a wooden bowl and spoon, and a practice sword too small for a grown man. If he could see through the lie, then…
“Let’s visit her grave,” said Vannis.
“We can’t,” said the farmer, averting his eyes in shame. “The beast took her.”
“Like it took your cattle?” Vannis sneered. “I wager if we search carefully we’ll find it on your farm.”
“There’s nothing here,” the boy said. “We should go.”
“What do you see on that table, boy?”
He stared at Marsino’s body. The bloodstained eyes wide and lifeless. The blighted tendrils had choked off his neck and webbed his face.
“What do you see!”
“Marsino… I see Marsino.” he said, the words choking his throat.
“A mageseeker, boy. One of my own,” Vannis said, anger and pain seeping from each word. “What is he to you?”
Marsino had been the only mageseeker that showed him kindness. He had accepted him as a true Demacian, despite his affliction.
“He was my friend.”
“Aye… and he was killed by a mage,” Vannis said. “This man hides one from us. A dangerous one.”
The boy remembered the intense glow of the little girl and the scorched flesh of the dead cattle.
“What do we do?” Vannis asked.
The boy wiped the corners of his eyes with his sleeve.
“We keep the order. We uphold the law.”
Vannis led the boy and the farmer outside, driving them with his staff. The three stood in the pasture, watching the barn and the outhouse. He jabbed the man in the ribs with the stave.
“Call your daughter.”
The farmer winced at the blow. “She’s not here,” he said. “She’s gone.”
The old man looked at the boy, silently pleading.
“I’ll search the barn,” the boy said.
“No. Let her come to us.” Vannis slammed the farmer’s head with the edge of his staff, driving the man to the ground.
“Come out! We have your father!”
There was no response. No movement. And then the man wailed.
The boy turned to find the farmer tottering on one knee, clutching his temple. Blood pooled underneath the man’s fingers, slicking his hand with blood. Vannis stood over him, ready to strike again.
“What are you doing?”
“What needs to be done,” said Vannis, his face contorted by anger and grief.
A jolt raced down the boy’s spine. And once again, all the fine hair on his arms and neck stood on edge.
The barn door creaked open.
“That’s right, come on,” Vannis said.
Darkness framed the doorway. Tiny footfalls approached. The little girl crossed the threshold and stepped outside. Her panicked eyes fixed on her injured father.
“Papa…” she said, tears cascading down her face.
“It’s alright,” the bleeding farmer stammered. Papa’s just talking to these men.”
They all watched as the child inched toward them, the men were unaware of what only the boy could see.
She glowed like the midday sun.
The power inside her pulsated and shifted colors. It shimmered with a radiance that appeared to bend light itself. She was a living rainbow.
This was his affliction. This was his gift.
He alone could see the fundamental beauty and nature of magic. It lived in this frightened child as it lived in every single mage in Demacia, and perhaps all across the world. How could he betray that? The boy had seen all he needed to see.
“Are you sure? Look again!”
He turned to the mageseeker. To Demacia, Vannis was a venerated bulwark, guarding against the threat of magic. But to the boy, he was a simple man clinging to tradition.
“You were wrong. We should go.”
Vannis regarded him for a moment, searching for deception. The mageseeker shook his head and scowled.
“We’ll see if she passes the trials,” he said, removing the Graymark from his cloak.
The farmer’s eyes went wide at the sight of the petricite emblem.
“Run, child! Run!” the old man shouted as he leapt to his feet and lunged at Vannis.
The mageseeker moved fast, thrusting his staff into the farmer's midsection. The man staggered back from the blow, creating some distance between the two. Vannis darted forward and drove the stave down onto the man's head. His crown shattered in a bloom of crimson.
The little girl screamed. Her hands crackled with sparks of lightning—this time, for all to see.
Vannis held out his Graymark, capturing the flickering arcs in the stone and suppressing the magic. But the petricite rapidly darkened and cracked, overwhelmed by the little girl's power. Vannis dropped the ruined disk and spun around, swinging his wooden stave at the child’s head.
The boy rushed toward the girl, throwing himself between the heavy quarterstaff and the flaring streams of light. The hairs on his arms singed and his fingers blistered as he touched the little mage.
A twisting arc of lightning pierced his hand, and a blazing current rushed through his flesh, contorting his entire body. The boy's heart clenched and all the air inside him rushed out. He gasped for breath but drew only emptiness.
The edges of his vision blurred and the colors drained as deathly magic flooded him. Vannis appeared motionless, staff in mid-swing, like ancient statuary depicting a hero of old. The little girl was also frozen, her tears dull crystals as the radiant glow around her dimmed and faded…
And then his lungs filled with air.
His heart raced, pumping a numbing calmness throughout his body. The blaze inside him remained, but no longer threatened to consume him. Instead, it flowed calmly throughout, and for the briefest moments it felt malleable to his thoughts. Then it suddenly sparked and flared hotter until he could no longer contain it inside.
Light erupted from his hands, and the world disappeared.
Sylas opened his eyes. Three smoldering husks lay strewn on the scorched ground. One of them held a warped and splintered staff in hand. The other two had fallen near each other, their arms splayed and reaching, but forever apart. His eyes welled at the sight of his failure, and regret gripped his heart. He rolled over onto his back and shuddered.
Countless stars stretched across a cloudless firmament. He watched them arc across the darkness and disappear behind a black canopy of trees.
The night sky turned a purple hue before he finally staggered to his feet.
His legs trembled as he limped away from the carnage. He stopped after a short distance, but didn’t look back.
There was no need. Those images would remain with him for the rest of his life. He pushed them from his thoughts and gazed at the spine of mountaintops spanning the horizon.
He had no intention of riding to Wrenwall, or any of their strongholds. No amount of pleading would save him from their punishment. In time, they would seek him out, not stopping until he was brought to justice. After all, the law must be upheld.
But he knew their ways, and Demacia was vast.