The Nolani Academy of the Arcane Arts
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Devona stepped out of the swirling circle of light into a small, roofless room and drew her sword. She didn’t know exactly where she was, only that it was somewhere in the ruins of Nolani. It didn’t matter. Anywhere was better than being trapped inside the Academy at Drascir with the Charr pounding down the rotting wooden door.
Prince Rurik had been the first through the portal. He stood hunched over something now on the other side of the room. The Flaming Scepter mages they had rescued crouched there as well. Just as they were leaving Drascir, the group had stumbled upon the fabled horn Stormcaller. Devona had of course heard of the legendary weapon, but until she had seen it with her own eyes, she had assumed—as most people did—that it was only a myth.
Erol, the first of the mages they had rescued from the Charr, had seemed fairly certain the horn was the answer to all of Ascalon’s problems. Devona wasn’t so sure, and she was in good company: the prince had registered his reservations as well. How could a horn hold the key to restoring a ruined kingdom to its former glory? Well, no matter what role the horn played in the kingdom’s future, it didn’t hurt to have another weapon in the war against the beasts from the north.
“So this is what Nolani looks like now,” said Cynn, materializing out of the swirling miasma. She kicked at the reddish dirt with the toe of her boot, uncovering part of the ornate marble flooring buried in rubble. “An improvement, if you ask me.”
Aidan chuckled, nocking an arrow to his bow and scanning the area. “Still hold prejudices, do we?”
“In the best of times, Nolani was a third-rate city,” replied the Elementalist, still pushing the dirt around. “Now it’s as good as any other place: just as ruined as the next city.”
“It was an academy,” corrected Prince Rurik. “The sister academy to the one we left in Drascir,” He had finished examining the horn and now approached the group.
“Don’t venture too far,” Devona warned Mhenlo. “We don’t yet know who inhabits this place.”
Mhenlo nodded as he bent down and picked up a broken piece of marble carved in the shape of a feathered wing. Lifting it from the ground, he tried to place it back on the statue of the goddess. It fit where it was supposed to, but it wouldn’t stay put.
Mhenlo held it in its place, admiring the temporarily whole goddess. Then, after a moment, he respectfully placed the wing on the ground at Dwayna’s feet.
“My friends, the Wall is not far. We can get to Rin within the hour.” Prince Rurik turned and headed out of the small room. “Come. We need to bring the horn to my father, the king.”
Devona and the others followed the prince out to a larger courtyard. It was much like the last academy. Though the outside walls seemed to be mostly intact, the roof was gone, and the windows smashed. A pair of defensive magical obelisks sat perched atop the front wall. Devona assumed they were erected during the Guild Wars. Academies were among the most popular targets for raiding guilds. Depriving a foreign nation of its most promising young heroes was a good way to avoid having to fight them when they were fully ready for battle.
The doors of the gate were still shut, but from this vantage point Devona could see the silhouette of the Great Northern Wall through the academy’s ruined façade. The arches on the upper level caught the morning light as they rose proudly into the sky as if to say, “We will never fall.”
“Home,” said the Warrior.
Aidan placed his hand on her shoulder. “We’ll be there soon.”
Prince Rurik continued down a set of smashed stairs to the base of the big wooden front gates. “Is there a switch up there?” he called back.
The mage Erol was the first to reply. “Yes, my lord. It’s up here, just on the rampart. I’ll get it.”
“Very good,” replied Rurik.
Devona, Cynn, Aidan, and Mhenlo headed down the ramp to the prince, and the rescued mages followed. Directly ahead of them, in the very place it landed after smashing through the academy roof, lay the remnants of a huge, jagged magical crystal. Devona had seen this sort of debris all over Ascalon. There were several crystals like this one still in the commons just south of the Wall. The sight of them always sent a chill down the Warrior’s spine. They reminded her of the Searing, of the carnage that battle brought and the people who had died in it.
She shook her head, trying to clear the images so she could focus on the task at hand.
It was still early morning, and in the shadow of the front gate it was quite dark. Cynn ran her hand along the metal frame of the gate. “Might as well have been made of parchment,” she said.
Erol leaned over the rampart edge just above where the group was standing. “I am ready, my prince.”
“As are we.” Rurik waved his hand.
Erol’s face disappeared from view, and the neglected mechanisms that operated the gate began to move. The decrepit metal and wood gave several loud creaks and complaints, but the gates swung wide.
Before the academy, the scene was mostly what Devona expected. Dust and bits of debris covered the ground. Burnt trunks reached toward the sky like so many skeletal fingers, the haunting remnants of what was once a lush, tree-lined garden.
But as the gates swung fully open, Devona was granted another view.
“Charr warband,” shouted Mhenlo. “Close the gates!”
The plaza before the academy was crawling with Charr—furry upright beasts with huge fangs and even bigger claws. In the center of their camp, built out of tree limbs and straw, sat a towering, three-legged, flaming effigy—a tribute to their fiery gods.
When the gate opened, every one of the furry beasts stopped what they were doing and charged the now-exposed academy.
Cynn was closest to the gate. Closing her eyes and crossing her arms, she rose into the air, incanting the words to a spell.
The Charr were fast, and they reached the open gate in a flash. Devona broke into a run, sprinting to shield the Elementalist from the bestial onslaught. Bringing her sword up in a powerful arc, the Warrior caught the first Charr Axe Fiend in the breastplate, knocking it backward and leaving a huge gash in its chest.
Devona stepped in front of Cynn and into the gap left by the falling Charr, reversing her blade and slashing the other way. She struck steel, connecting with another Charr blade meant for her head. She cried out as she bashed the attack aside. Running the length of her sword up the Charr’s axe, she thrust the tip of her Rin Blade between the seams of the creature’s armor, puncturing fur and flesh and jabbing through to where—at least on a human— there should be a lung. The beast howled and squirmed as it struggled to free itself from Devona’s sword.
Another Axe Fiend charged into view, coming up behind Devona. The Warrior struggled to pull her blade free of her victim, but the creature convulsed and slumped toward the wound, closing its flesh down tight around the stuck weapon. The new attacker raised its axe, and Devona spun away, leaving only one hand on her Rin Blade.
Despite her quick move, the creature’s axe came down on her arm. Devona hissed and braced for the impact. Her skin flushed with the blue-white glow of divine magic, and the Charr’s weapon seemed to bounce off her flesh.
“Nice catch, Mhenlo,” said Devona through gritted teeth.
A pair of arrows whizzed past Devona’s ear, catching the Axe Fiend in the shoulder, knocking it back and pinning the furious creature to the wooden beam of the open gate.
Clear of immediate threats, Devona lifted her boot and placed it on the wounded Charr still attached to her blade.
“Get...off,” she shouted as she kicked with all of her might. Her Rin Blade came free with a sickening rip, and she whipped it to one side, clearing the steel of the Charr’s black blood.
At that moment, Cynn lifted her head and extended her arms, shouting the last word of her spell. The sky above lit up, and huge cones of sputtering flame rained down all around. Those Charr within a few steps of the gate were pummeled with magical balls of fire. Their fur caught quickly, and their flesh began to bubble. The beasts let out nerve-rattling squeals, and many fell dead where they stood.
Those who hadn’t been caught in the flaming rain stopped in their tracks, waiting for the conflagration to subside.
The gates began to close again, pushing the bodies of dead Charr out of the academy entrance as they did.
“Devona, get back!” shouted Mhenlo.
The Warrior retreated to within the relative safety of the closing gates just as Cynn’s spell subsided. When the flames stopped falling, the Charr rushed the door again.
Most of them were caught outside, left to pummel their weapons against the heavy wooden door. But one made the dash, squeezing through the gate just before it closed.
The beast eyed each of the Ascalons, grunted once, then turned toward a Flaming Scepter mage. With a bounding leap, it jumped on the weak, unarmored man.
The mage screamed as the Charr dug into his flesh.
“No!” Devona closed on the beast, slashing down on it from behind. Her blade hit the creature in the neck, severing the monster’s head from its shoulders with just a single blow, and it slumped to the ground.
Mhenlo rushed to push the creature’s carcass from on top of the mage’s body. The man was barely conscious. He had been badly mauled by the Charr. His face was slashed, and he coughed blood. Dropping to his knees beside the man, the Monk laid his hands on the mage’s wounds. With a quick word, a flood of blue-white energy crossed over from the Monk to the wounded man.
From outside, the sounds of Charr at the gate echoed into the desolate courtyard.
“Great,” said Cynn, “we went from being trapped inside one academy to being trapped inside another.”
“At least this one has thicker walls,” said Aidan.
“There is another passage—” Prince Rurik pointed to the east, in the same direction as the huge magical crystal in the middle of the academy “—that leads out and around to the Wall.”
“Then what are we waiting for?” said Cynn, starting off to the east. “Let’s get that little bugle of yours to the king and be done with this.”
Mhenlo looked up from his ministrations to the wounded mage. “Cynn, please. You aren’t helping.”
“I don’t think it is wise to take the mages outside of the academy unless we are sure the way is clear,” interjected Aidan. “They are weak from their long imprisonment and are ill-prepared to fight. Outside the gate we cannot guarantee their safety. At least here they are not in immediate danger.”
“Agreed,” said Prince Rurik. “What do you propose, Aidan?”
The Ranger leaned on his bow. “Let us four venture out and ambush the Charr from behind,” he said indicating Cynn, Devona, Mhenlo and himself with a wave of his hand. “Once we’ve cleared the beasts from the gate, then we can take the mages home.”
Prince Rurik’s face grew grim. “What you propose is very risky. It’s not something I would ask of you.” He looked down at the wounded mage then around at each of the other Ascalons with him. He nodded. “But if you think you can succeed, then I give you my blessing.”
“’Bout time,” said Cynn. “Come on, let’s go.”
Devona made eye contact with Aidan. She shook her head in disgust, but the Ranger just smiled and chuckled. The Elementalist’s antics always seemed to amuse him as much as they irritated Devona.
Mhenlo finished tending to the fallen Flaming Scepter mage then stood and joined the group as they marched up and out the back passage to the academy.
“We will man the defensive obelisks while you are away,” the prince shouted after them as he helped the downed mage get back to his feet. “We will watch for you. Once the way is clear, we will open the gates and join you in the trek back to the Wall.” He stood up straight and, in his best military style, Prince Rurik, the heir to the throne of Ascalon, saluted the Warrior, the Monk, the Elementalist, and the Ranger.
As the prince had said, a door in the eastern corner led out of the academy. Unlike the one at the front, this one was already open.
“Guess this place isn’t as safe as you thought,” quipped Cynn.
Devona led the way through the door and up a winding, rocky path out the back of the academy to the northeast.
Several hundred yards up the path, Aidan grabbed Devona by the shoulder and stopped her, placing a finger to his lips. “Shhh.” With a nod and a flick of his eyes, he indicated the hanging rocks overhead.
Devona craned her neck, listening. She could just make out a slight sound...a scraping, like someone dragging something.
She looked at Aidan. “Charr?” she whispered.
Aidan shook his head. “Devourers.” The Ranger dropped to his knee and laid a pile of arrows out on the ground. Pulling a small vial from a pouch at his belt, he poured a few drops of a viscous green liquid on their tips, then he nocked one to his bow and, returning the others to his quiver, headed up the path.
The others fell into step behind him. Cresting the rise, Devona could see the double stinger tail, hooked claws, and thick carapace of a Plague Devourer.
“Only one,” said Cynn. “Walk in the park.”
Aidan sighted down the shaft of his poisoned arrow and let it fly. It struck the creature, puncturing its chitinous hide with a crunching pop. Though it was on target, the arrow didn’t kill the beast, and it turned toward the group, its tails waving in the air.
Devona raised her sword over her head and charged in. As she came, the ground around the Plague Devourer began to shift and move. Small rocks tumbled away, and a pair of Carrion Devourers emerged from the baked earth.
“That’s more like it,” shouted Cynn.
That brought a smile to Devona’s lips, and she gripped her sword tighter, advancing on the newly arrived vermin and swinging her blade downward onto one creature’s head. The Carrion Devourer staggered backward under the blow.
The Plague Devourer’s tails stopped waving, and it pointed them at the Warrior, casting something on her just before it fell dead from Aidan’s poisoned arrow.
Devona’s knees grew weak, and her legs struggled to keep her upright. Her sword grew heavy in her hands, and as she swung at the creature again, her Rin Blade rebounded off the creature’s shell, hardly making a dent. The Plague Devourer’s hex had sapped her strength.
The Carrion Devourers closed on the Warrior, battering her from both sides. Devona’s armor took some of the impact, but the creatures’ mighty pinchers slashed her across the forearm and down one leg. Devona pushed herself to move more quickly, trying to parry the attacks of both creatures despite the hex that weakened her.
She wasn’t fast enough. A pincher raked across Devona’s shoulder, puncturing her armor and dropping her to her knees. Something hit her hard in the chest, knocking her to the ground.
Devona opened her eyes. A devourer sat perched atop her, its beady eyes peering down. The creature’s mass flattened her lungs, and breathing was almost impossible.
Great, she thought, squashed by a bug. Not the most heroic way to go.
Devona’s vision clouded, and her ears rang as consciousness began to slip away. The sound of Cynn’s voice came to her distantly; the Elementalist spoke the words of an incantation Devona recognized, and a surge of adrenaline brought her fully back to consciousness. The ground around her lit up with flames. Spreading out in a wave, the magical fire washed over the downed Warrior, roasting the two devourers inside their shells, turning them into crispy little curled up balls.
Devona shoved the dead devourer off of her then slumped back against the ground. She looked up at the Elementalist. “Well done.”
Cynn shrugged. “Naturally.”
Devona could feel her strength returning as the Monk lifted the Plague Devourer’s hex.
“When you are ready,” said Aidan, watching the path, “we should move on. We’re not far from the front of the academy.”
Devona took a few deep breaths as she regained all that she had lost, then got to her feet and again headed down the path.
The group traveled for some time, until Devona heard what she thought was the sound of a crackling fire.
“Must be their effigy,” she said.
Aidan nodded his agreement.
The ground was torn and shifted here. Near the edge of the path the earth fell away, dropping down below where Devona could easily see. Moving closer to the edge, the Warrior climbed up on a large boulder and peered over. The other three followed suit.
In the valley below them stood the plaza and the flaming effigy they had seen in the middle of the Charr camp. The beasts were attacking the academy, shooting arrows over the wall and smashing their weapons against the wooden gate.
Devona could just make out the Flaming Scepter mages up on the wall, powering the defensive obelisks. Jags of lightning shot down from the wall, catching the nearest Charr and turning it into a burnt, smoldering pile. From the looks of things, others too had fallen prey to the magical defenses. Their dead bodies lay on the ground at the base of the wall, fur standing straight up.
As they watched, a large, mean-looking Charr barked something in their guttural language. A group of six Charr lifted the trunk of a fallen tree from the ground and proceeded to charge the gate with it.
“That must be their leader,” said Aidan, pointing to the order-barking Charr.
“Then that’s the one we should take out first,” said Cynn, standing up from her hiding place.
“Cynn, wait,” said Mhenlo.
But it was too late.
The Elementalist shouted and threw her hands out before her. A fireball launched from the tips of her fingers, arcing out and smashing into the big Charr.
The Charr leader looked up at the ridge, then pointed. A volley of flaming arrows followed.
“Now you’ve done it,” said Aidan. Standing up, he launched two arrows into the midst of the group, then dropped back into a crouch.
The Charr’s volley went soaring over. Devona could hear the flames flicker as they passed by her head.
A large crash sounded from below, and everyone lifted their heads to see. The Charr were using the tree trunk as a battering ram.
“That gate won’t last long,” said Aidan.
Devona stood up and backed away from the edge. “Then we’d best get down there.”
As one, the four heroes dashed down the path into the middle of the Charr camp.
“Attack the Axe Fiend!” shouted Devona, and she charged in, ahead of the others.
“That which is taken shall be returned. That which hath been broken shall be mended. That which hath displeased me shall be struck down at the hands of mine army.” Mhenlo’s words grew softer as the Warrior ran, but the effects of his magic were far reaching, and she could feel her body tingle with divine power.
The first of Cynn’s fire spells impacted the creature’s chest a step before Devona slashed the beast across its arm.
The Charr let out a howl then raked its axe across the Warrior’s face, cutting a deep wound into her flesh. But as quickly as the wound was made, her skin knitted itself together again.
“Gotta love the Monk,” she grunted, raising her sword up over her head and bringing it down with the force of her entire body. Her Rin Blade cut deep, and the creature spouted blood.
A pair of fiery arrows smashed into the Axe Fiend’s face, and he went down.
“Who’s next?” shouted Devona, her adrenaline pumping.
Arrows rained down on her as a pair of Charr Stalkers perched on a small hill ahead answered her inquiry. One glanced off the chainmail protecting her belly. Another clanged off her armored shin.
In three huge steps the Warrior closed on the two Charr Stalkers. Spinning as she neared them, Devona gained momentum, then slashed at the closest. Her sword cut through the Charr’s bow and dug into the beast’s gullet. The creature’s insides spilled out, and it dropped to the ground, writhing and howling in pain.
The second Charr Stalker nocked an arrow to its bow and let it fly. At this close range, the head of the arrow punched through Devona’s armor, cutting into the front of her leg and exiting out the back. Devona shrieked in pain and frustration, limping on the freshly wounded limb. Turning her blade around, she shoved the tip into the creature’s face, lodging it in its mouth. Holding the hilt with both hands, she drove the sharpened point straight up into the Charr’s skull and out the back of his head.
Yanking her weapon back, she let the Charr’s lifeless corpse fall to the ground beside his companion.
“The gate!” Mhenlo shouted. “They’ve breached the gate!”
Devona looked up. The academy gate was smashed in, and the Charr warband leader was climbing over it.
“To the prince!” she shouted, and took off toward the gate with the others close behind.
Running with all of her might, Devona drove herself into a frenzy. Her Rin Blade danced left and right. Where a Charr stepped in front of her, it fell. They came at her from all sides, and she took wound after wound, but each time, Mhenlo was there to patch her up.
Arrows flew and fire rained down. The group of four took on three times their number in Charr. They fought like cornered lynxes, the hope of their nation hanging in the balance.
As Devona neared the gate she could hear the roar of a Charr mixed with the shouts of the prince.
“You are a pox on Ascalon,” yelled Rurik. “And I am the cure.”
Flashes of light issued over the walls. Spells went off every few seconds, lighting up the ruined plaza with an eerie magical glow.
Cutting down the last Charr in her way, Devona leaped through the smashed gate and hurried up into the courtyard.
On the academy wall, Prince Rurik stood bravely in front of Erol and the other mages. His flaming sword held the Charr leader at bay, but as a group the prince and the Flaming Scepter mages were retreating and running out of room fast.
The fight to the gate had taken a lot out of Devona, but she pressed on, climbing up the ruined steps in pursuit of the Charr warband leader. Right behind her, Devona could hear the others climbing through the gate.
Four on one, she thought. I like those odds.
An arrow hit the big Charr in the back of the leg, causing the warband leader to turn around.
“You lookin’ for me, fuzzy?” shouted Devona, coming up behind the creature.
Aidan’s well-placed shot had hobbled the beast. It tried to follow the prince and the mages as they dashed along the wall, but its movement was slowed, and Devona moved in closer. The Charr growled at her as she stalked around it, staying just outside its reach.
“Hey,” shouted Cynn, “catch.”
A huge ball of fire slammed into the Charr’s side. The resulting splash of magic consumed the creature, and Devona shielded her eyes from the blinding flash.
The creature came stumbling out of the blast, its furry hide ablaze. That ought to do it, she thought. But instead of burning to a crisp, the warband leader seemed to draw strength from the flames. It looked like some sort of demon, flaming and cackling as it came on. It raised its huge axe in the air, bringing it down on the Warrior with both hands.
Devona set her feet and stood her ground. As the flaming Charr advanced, the Warrior raised her blade and lunged forward, shouting “For Ascalon!”
Their blades passed in midair. The creature’s axe cleaved into her armor. The Warrior’s sword caught the growling beast just below the neck. The tip slipped past its crude metal chest plate and into soft flesh.
Devona lost her grip on her Rin Blade as she staggered back, her shoulder wounded heavily from the beast’s pounding.
The Charr warband leader dropped its axe, clawing at its throat. It let out a strangled cry—a hoarse gurgling like the last breath of a drowning dog. Another arrow struck the beast, and it lost its balance. Falling to one side, it caught itself on the edge of the academy wall.
The creature struggled for a moment longer as the flames slowly went out. Then, its chest heaved once, and its body went slack. The Charr’s huge head flopped backward, causing it to topple over, twisting as it fell over the edge of the academy into the ruined plaza below.
Cynn was the first to reach Devona’s side.
“You all right?”
Devona smiled. “Yeah, nothing a little of Mhenlo’s divinity can’t fix.”
The two women walked down the battered stairs to the courtyard where the prince and the mages stood talking to the Ranger and the Monk.
“The way is clear, my lord,” said Aidan, bowing before the prince.
Rurik grabbed the Ranger by the shoulder and lifted him to his feet. “Come, my friends,” he said, strapping the legendary horn Stormcaller to his back. “We are almost home.”
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