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Lucien Soulban

Renegade Wizards

CHAPTER 1

The Broken Dove

The wizard Pecas was troubled. His forehead wrinkled fretfully, as he ambled between the rows of books on creaking knees with the help of a stout oak cane. His bony fingers danced lightly over the volumes, and he brought his face and flickering candle dangerously close to the stacks of brittle pages.

The room was rank with the tang of aged parchments and ancient stone that captured all the tortured smells of decades past. It was a fine library, to be sure, one of the most impressive private collections of any wizard, but it was going to waste in the dungeon of the small keep, at least as far as some were concerned. The other White Robes coveted the rare works within the library, but they politely waited … waited for Pecas to bequeath the collection to them then respectfully drop dead.

But the elderly Pecas seemed more obstinate about clinging to life with each passing month. Some of the younger wizards joked that should a drop of water ever touch his deeply wrinkled skin, why, he might swell up to twice his size like a raisin returning to the glory of a grape. Then, of course, others said he was always a raisin, one nurtured on a cold and soured soil.

Pecas, however, heard none of it, cared for none of it.

“Master Pecas,” the messenger said, peering around from his spot at the bottom of the stone stairs. “Perhaps I can help you find-”

“Eh? No,” Pecas snapped. “Stay where you are. No urchin, no matter his master, touches my books except me and Virgil … where is that blasted boy?”

The messenger, a lean man with sea-blue eyes, sighed. There was no boy to be seen. He himself had pounded on the door for nearly an hour before Pecas finally answered. The old wizard was annoyed at having been disturbed so late in the evening, and more so that the boy was nowhere to be found. Another hour had passed with most of that time spent trying to explain the matter to Pecas.

“Please, Master Pecas,” the messenger said, and tempted fate by stepping off the last step into the library itself. “His most Eminent Lord, the Duke of Elmwood, awaits your wisdom on this matter. Impatiently, I might add. If I can just help-”

“No … this isn’t possible,” Pecas said. He was ignoring the messenger. His twiglike finger probed the empty space between two books on the oak shelf, where another book was supposed to be. “It’s supposed to be right here. I saw it not three days ago!”

His attention wandered to another shelf, where Pecas poked at another gap, then another, like a tongue wandering in between broken teeth and finding only raw nerves for its efforts. With each discovery, he grew more irate and more panicked. Books were missing, books that had no business being elsewhere, books inked with the very blood of magic. In the hands of a skilled practitioner, the knowledge within the books was lethal. In the hands of a novice, even worse. The wrong word spoken from their pages, the wrong sheet of parchment torn, could ruin the magic contained within the books, or unleash wild arcs of fire and lightning that would kill anyone around them. Worse yet, Pecas’s reputation would be ruined. All those years spent fostering an iron name to watch it turn to rust in an instant.

The messenger advanced another step into the library, but Pecas said nothing. He was still staring at the empty spot. “Perhaps your student borrowed them?”

Pecas turned on his heel, the strictures of his age momentarily forgotten as he straightened an inch and brushed past the startled messenger. “Go! Get out!” he snarled. He mounted the stairs, bellowing, “Virgil! Damn you, boy! Where are my books?” But no one answered him.

Above the shuddering canopy of giant elms and oaks, the storm thundered and raged. Water dropped from the cups of leaves and the bellies of branches-a thousand trickling waterfalls that steadily drummed the green floor. The shield of leaves that blotted out the cloud-choked sky made the stormy night that fell over the Lemish Forest darker still.

There were no homes that close to the border of the southern Darkwoods, where the trees were heavy and thick with age and the roots had torn free of the earth. Even through the din of the storm, though, the boy swore he could hear the soft lilt of alien voices, a song that wafted around wide tree trunks like long fingers and searched for an ear to hear them. He was still at least a few hours’ travel from the strange and eerie Darkwoods. How was he supposed to get close enough to reach the port town of Caermish?

The boy shivered beneath the skirt of the brown-bark elm. Its drooping branches curled all the way to the ground and provided him with a wall of leaves. He was dry and warm, but it was the dark that rattled him. He gripped his travel pack even harder. It was heavier than he anticipated, and after the flush of success had run its course, he was beginning to doubt his actions under the burden of its weight. The boy was barely old enough to turn the soft stubble on his face into a true beard, and his robes were muck-splattered and torn. He would have loved to turn around and gone back to the comforts of his old life; what few comforts had been provided were opulent in comparison to his current circumstances.

It was too late to turn back, far too late. He’d come too far to be felled by his own hesitations. He’d taken an oath and stolen for the cause. His only hope of escape was to reach the ship docked at Caermish, the one that would not wait for him.

Sleep finally began to overtake the boy when something snapped in the darkness: a piece of wood cracking in half. Fear pumped into the boy’s chest, staggering his heart and forcing him fully awake. Someone-or something-was out there. The boy bolted to his feet, ears pricked and thoughts screaming at him to run. He willed himself to stay put, however, and pulled out his dagger. He reached out and gently pushed away a branch to see better, but for all the good it did him in the night- and storm-stricken forest, he might as well have kept his eyes shut. There was only darkness and his imagination, but that was enough to hint at moving shadows and the whisper of steps.

The boy’s mind reeled at the possibilities, his thoughts suddenly filled with the monsters of his youth and the stories of the woods he was in. He imagined undead prowling the forest, their coal eyes searching the undergrowth for a dinner of flesh and a drink of blood. He could imagine their withered fingers wrapping around branches, suddenly pulling them aside to uncover their next meal: him.

Let it be hobgoblins, he prayed.

Or better yet, let it be the Kagonesti elves that inhabited the Darkwoods, though the boy had heard that they would never be so clumsy as to be heard in the forest. Perhaps it was merely an animal, but almost immediately, the boy heard a voice, a whisper.

Whoever was out there was sneaking up on him. The hairs on the back of his neck told him so. The flutters in his stomach added their warning as well. There was more than one someone out there, and they knew where he was hiding.

The boy panicked and broke through the curtain of leaves and branches. He shouted an arcane word and felt eldritch magics spark along the surface of his scalp, raising the black hairs on his head. It thrilled him to utter those words that unlocked those strange and hidden doorways in his mind. He ran, one hand cradling the heavy pack, the other holding the dagger aloft. The magic coursed through the pommel of the dagger, and a sphere of light burst from the tip of his blade. Shadows scattered as the white light blossomed and lit his surroundings.

The two men screamed at the sudden light and dropped the net suspended between them. They clutched their eyes and cursed. The boy, however, ran as fast as he could, the beacon torch of his dagger lighting his way. Trees appeared from the shadows, and the boy dodged some and careened off others. Already, he was lost, but that didn’t matter right then. He would run straight back to the town of Elmwood if it meant losing his pursuers.

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