“I still can’t believe that Master Aldemar has finally taken an interest in my work,” Mare said to the man who walked beside her. He was Carac, a mage of the Circle of the White Stone like her.
“As I said, he is impressed by your study of the tome,” Carac said. “That is why he wishes to see it himself.”
“By why now?” Mare said. “When I wrote to him months ago he dismissed me without a second word.”
Carac shrugged. “Perhaps your rigorous scholarship persuaded him to reconsider.”
“Did you hear that?” she said, glancing over her shoulder. “My rigorous scholarship.”
Behind her, Owein laughed.
“That just means you pestered him for so long that he’s finally invited us to Whitegrove to shut you up,” he said.
Mare laughed, and the sound filled his heart. Before them, the road wound lazily through the gentle Llanbrass countryside. It would be a good journey.
Owein thought back to the time he first met Mare. He had followed stories of a mad sorceress who lived in the high hills beyond Ebonglen. There he found her alone in an ancient tower carved from the living rock by a mage’s hand. He greeted her with a raised hand, showing the wizard’s mark that only the ordained could see.
Mare had been a wreck then, thin, threadbare and distant from long months of solitude. The tower had been the home of an archmage named Morith. She knew this from a tome that bore his name found hidden beneath the tower. Over a watery soup made from the potatoes that grew around the tower, they talked.
“These not like any spells I learned or even read about,” she said. She had studied in Sunmere, a small but well-respected school within the circle. “Beyond the nine forms, Morith discovered a tenth. That of fean, the sacred fire.”
“You mean the flame of creation?” Owein said. Mare nodded. “But that power is held by the Anuoin and their priests alone. It was not given to mages to know.” She knew as well as he the unbreakable tenet that forbade the study of magic to influence the spirit, mind, or body.
“This is beyond that,” she insisted. “It is the source of creation that gave birth to the Anuoin, perhaps all of Aeshia itself. Morith was using it to enlighten the mind and transcend the body. Think what wisdom, beauty, and harmony we could bring to the world with this knowledge!”
And so Owein joined Mare in her tower. He brought chickens and a goat from Ebonvale and planted a small garden. Later, a boy came to tend the animals, gather wood and water, and keep the tower clean.
For the next four months, they pored over arcane formulas and spells in Morith’s tome trying to understand what the archmage had discovered. Mare wrote to Aldemar, the master of the circle in Whitegrove, for help. His answer was curt and dismissive. She persisted but received no other response. Then, two days ago, Carac arrived to say that they had been summoned to Whitegrove.
On the second night they camped, a strange dream came to Owein. In it, a large, black snake came out of the woods and coiled about Mare as she slept. He cried out but was unable to wake her as he watched the serpent slowly crush the life from her body.
Owein woke with a start. The first rays of morning fell on their camp, and Mare was nowhere to be seen. Carac sat on a nearby log, the tome open in hands.
“How much of this were you able to learn?” he asked.
“Where’s Mare?” Owein cried.
“I grew tired of waiting and took care of her myself,” he said.
“What are you talking about?” Owein stammered. Panic seized him and his head swam. “What have you done? Tell me, or I will kill you!”
He lunged at the mage, but Carac raised a hand and held Owein where he stood with a word.
“What did that witch do to you, Azer?” he said. “Or was it this damned book?” He closed it and slid it back into Mare’s pack. “Best not take any chances. They’ll be time enough to work on this on the isle.”
“The isle?” Owein muttered. The spell that bound his body still allowed him to speak. “You are a sorcerer of the Withered Isle?”
Carac laughed. “We both are, brother! Are the wiles of this harlot so strong that you have forgotten us so soon?”
“No,” Owein said. “I am Owein, a mage of the Circle of the White Stone.”
“You are Azer!” Carac growled impatiently. “Sent to retrieve the book from this whimpering adept.” He nodded over his shoulder. Behind the mage, Owein could just make out the prone body of Mare lying in the undergrowth.
Suddenly, a spell from Morith’s tome rose up in his mind. As he began to recite it, he felt Carac’s binding spell slowly slip from his body.
“Azer, stop!” the mage yelled, but before he could speak another word, Owein flung the magic upon him with such force that Carac cried out. A rage rose up in Owein like a flame and he focused it on the dark spell binding the mage. It drove through flesh and spirit and into Carac’s heart, and only when the mage lay grey and still like a withered husk did Owein stop.
He rushed to Mare and found that she still lived. But when he held her in his arms, she looked at him with unbearable horror.
“Who… what are you?” she struggled weakly.
“I’m Owein!” he said, choking back tears. “Owein! Your Owein.” But it was too late. As the last breath left Mare’s body her eyes were still transfixed on him, wide and afraid.
How long he lay in the woods between the two bodies, Owein couldn’t say. Dreams flooded through him even as he lay awake. Memories of Mare twinned with more fleeting glimpses: an island ringed with dark towers, mages in black robes, a black ship slipping into a quiet inlet under a cloud-shrouded sky.
Then, one night he awoke beneath a clear sky. Senadriel shone full and silver, and alongside her, the black moon of Hayte, hidden from mortal eyes. In the glow of both lights, the seen and unseen, he saw two marks upon him: the wizard’s mark of the Circle of the White Stone on his right palm, and a black serpent twinned around the wrist of his left hand. The mark of the Sorcerors of the Withered Isle.