‘There are dark places in all worlds, where shadows creep further than they should and unnameable things sleep. Perhaps it is all one shadow, leaching into our pockets of light, making even the boldest and bravest twitch in the depths of the night and promise themselves that they are safe in their beds. And just as all worlds have shadows, so too do they have cycles. What once was will always once be again, until the balances are eclipsed and all fades away.’
This, the Man in the Moon, Archmage of the Nine Sanctums, thought to himself, this was the only truth in any world. He shifted minutely in his otherwise motionless midnight vigil atop the glowing white tower of the Nine Sanctums of Magi, watching the world sleep below him. Most of the world. Eyes pale as the full moon hovering impossibly close to the tower saw beyond the city quiet at its feet, beyond the slowly shimmering waters of the great river Nithes that rushed past on its course to the sea. In the dark places of this world something terrible was stirring, another cycle to be repeated and hopefully put to rest for another Age.
The Man in the Moon could scarcely remember the last cycle, the centuries erased even the strongest of memories and most of his old knowledge had faded, just as his own name had faded from the world and from himself. But there was one who walked the earth who would not have so easily forgotten, one who had been waiting for this awakening for three hundred years. He would call upon the High Sand Mage in the morning and have him summon Dreamwalker Sanderson. There was much to be discussed and little time for talking.
Shadows shifted in a place removed and yet part of the whole. Around it small lights winked in and out of existence, twinkling like stars. Yet the shadows remained apart, resistant to these pockets of brightness. Within their depths a terrible pair of eyes – both the yellow of bloated and rotting flesh and the darkness of a moonless night – blinked open, breaking away from an otherwise eternal slumber. A slow smile pulled thin, cracking lips away from razor teeth.
A pale hand extended to cup around one of the delicate little lights, a mind at rest in the Dreaming while the mortal body slept. The easy sleep of one undisturbed by the dark thoughts and fears of waking life. Fingers curled into a fist around the little ball of radiance, crushing until no light peeked through.
In the waking world a Journeyman Magi was pulled from his sleep with a strangled cry, shivers wracking his thin frame even as the warm breeze of early summer sifted through his window. The young man scrambled to pull open his curtains and sighed in relief as the bright light of the full moon poured into his room. He couldn’t recall what dream had startled him from slumber, a small blessing. Perhaps sleep would return this night.
Jack Overland Frost groaned in misery as the first rays of morning sun crawled through the open window beside him. His head throbbed somewhere deep within, proof that he had fallen asleep last night without closing the curtains. Sleeping under direct moonlight was never a good idea, not for him. It always resulted in strange dreams and left him exhausted and grumpy come morning.
Shaking off the last vestiges of the dream - a dark man chasing him and several other murky figures through a field of giant seeded dandelions, each one screaming down at him with terrible yellow eyes before being jostled into a hurricane of white fuzz, roots snapping out, trying to grasp at his burning limbs - Jack heaved himself up and stumbled over to the cracked wash basin and rusty chamber pot of the cheap inn room he’d rented for the night.
A quick splash of cool water to his face cleared the last of his headache and he glanced up at himself in the dirty mirror. His hair was a mess of mottled brown and white and he had no doubt that he would be completely white-haired before he was twenty. Jack only had vague memories of his life before being taken to the tower of the Nine Sanctums for mage training. Perhaps his father or mother had been prematurely gray or maybe it was just a side effect of his broken magic.
Sighing and pushing aside old hurts, Jack straightened his worn clothes – a simple shirt and pants with a ratty hooded coat – and grabbed his staff before leaving the room. He would have to scrounge up some more money today if he wanted to eat and sleep in a bed come nightfall. At his touch, the staff flared, frost spreading across the floor and snow falling unbidden from the ceiling. Jack sighed in irritation. Today was starting out marvellously.
Dreamwalker Sanderson paused on the sweeping front steps of the white tower. It had been a long time since he had stood here last, so long he had hoped it would not hurt to stand again at its base. But it did hurt. The tower had not changed in the past three hundred years and Sandy could practically feel the ghosts and memories waiting around each corner.
His soft leather boots made almost no sound as he ascended the stone steps and passed into the brightly lit entrance hall. The tower was busy, as always, with clerks scurrying between offices, young apprentices dashing between classes, and stately mages wandering with their faces hidden behind tomes of obscure spellwork. Everyone in sight wore the sweeping white robes of the Magi, bright bands of colour denoting their places in the hierarchy. Solid white for the newly apprenticed who had yet to display any specific talent. Bands of either blue, green, yellow, or red for Lowling class mages of the first four Sanctums – Blue for the Winter Mages who specialized Bindings; Green for Spring Mages, the Enchanters; Yellow for Summer Mages who brewed potions and performed rituals; and Red for Autumn Mages, responsible for Curses and Breakings.
Interspersed in the crowd was the occasional Peer Mage come down from the upper levels of the tower. These individuals waded calmly through the throngs of people, the colours of their robes parting the sea before them. Water Mages with the blue band of the Winter Mage, but silver embroidery giving the appearance of shimmering waves and magic that enabled them to perform Changings. Air Mages with yellow bands and gold embroidered air currents to symbolize the breezes that brought them Fore-Seeings. Earth Mages with green bands, tiny jewel chips sown on to create simmering forests and mountains swept by with their newest Creatings. Even the odd Fire Mage dotted the crowd, their red banded robes covered in bronze flames flowing behind them as they muttered about new spells discovered during their Findings.
As Sanderson stepped into the hall the din enveloped him, his plain leather clothing, bleached a light tan-orange from decades spent in the sun didn’t offer him the courtesy of easy movement. To the eyes of those around him he was naught but a commoner come to beseech a blessing from those who served the Moon. Outside the tower there was no need to wear his robes of rank – he was nothing more than a travelling hermit, finding sleep in farmers barns or fields, sometimes a bed should a kind soul offer him one. And so he no longer possessed the beautiful white and gold robes of a Sand Mage, one blessed with the power to walk the Dreaming, shaping the world and the future with their Dream Sand and doing the bidding of the Moon. Sand Magic was the highest form of magic attainable and the mages capable of it were few and far between.
Sandy pushed his way through the crowds, wishing he had grown some in the past couple centuries and decidedly not wishing he still had a tall companion to force open a path. And yet the pressing crowd of robed figures brought back the memories anyway; brief flashes through his mind of himself, so young, darting through halls and laughing.
“Hurry up!” Sandy urged breathlessly, peeling around a corner, puffs of laughter escaping his lips. A darker, taller boy snickered softly at his back.
“Waiting on you,” came the teasing reply and Sandy rolled his eyes at the implied jab at his height.
There was annoyed yelling behind them, the voice of one Nicholas St. North, a senior apprentice Winter Mage who was about to sit his Earth Mage exams. Sandy tugged his own Summer Mage robes up higher so his legs could take longer strides. They probably shouldn’t have cursed Nick’s study notes to shriek loudly at anyone trying to read them this close to the exams, but Kozmotis always brought out the trickster in him and the opportunity was too good to pass up.
“In here!” Kozmotis yelled suddenly, grabbing Sandy by the back of his robes and hauling him into the main laundry shoot for the apprentice levels...
Sandy shook himself from the memory, the sweetness and innocence of younger days that seemed like they would never end making his stomach curl in painful knots. He continued his trek through the main levels into the apprentice floors and Lowling quarters. The halls had not changed overly much, still white and pristine, except where students had added personal touches outside their residences.
“Excuse me sir, but petitioners are not allowed up here,” a politely chilly voice informed him and Sanderson turned to find a Fire Mage (newly risen to the rank if the scarcity of embroidery on his robes was anything to judge by) striding toward him, the look on his face implying his opinion of the non-Gifted.
Sandy held up a hand in greeting smiling at the man and offered him the summon scroll he had received from the High Sand Mage in a town a few days journey to the east from Manenstad, the city hat housed the tower of the Magi. The Fire Mage seemed unimpressed by the offering.
“Please sir, return to the lower levels, I will not warn you again.”
Pressing his lips together in mild irritation, wishing he could take some of the stuffing out of this man’s ego, Sandy again presented the scroll, this time letting a soft swirl of golden sand ghost around the fingers wrapped around the paper. He rolled his eyes as the mage stuttered a little. He remembered now why he had not missed this place.
Jack looked balefully at his staff as he slipped down a shadowed alleyway, avoiding the crowd that was exclaiming in horror at the frosted and wilting flowers that had been collected for the upcoming festival. He wished for the thousandth time since he had been cast from the tower that he had never developed a Gift at all. Better to be unGifted than a broken mage who couldn’t even control his pathetic Lowling magic.
With summer so close a Winter mage should have been hanging his staff up for the season, waiting for the first chill breezes of Autumn to bring his powers swirling back. Spending the summer months organizing new projects for Bindings, collecting work contracts for when he could resume his business. Taking a well deserved break. But not Jack, who heard the whispers of the Moon even though he was not a Dreamwalker and the words of the wind, though even an Air Mage would think him delusional at such claims. Jack was a failed mage and a broken person and not even the Moon would tell him why.
He would leave this town and move to the next in a couple days, before anyone started looking for Winter Mages to blame for the ruined Flower Festival preparations. He’d been in one place too long anyway and could feel the impatient itch in his limbs that always surfaced when he let himself stay sedentary too long.
Stepping out of the alleyway and into another crowded street of the market town, Jack turned to slip a few coins out of an unsuspecting pocket when he stepped sideways into a wall. A furry wall.
“Watch it, ya dill,” an annoyed and heavily accented voice snapped.
“Sorry,” jack said sheepishly, making a face at the interrupted bit of robbery. At least whoever it was hadn’t caught him with his hand actually in someone’s purse. Jack turned to look at whomever he had bumped and paused.
“Uh,” Jack gaped at the creature before him, wondering vaguely if some poor Fae had accidentally wandered out of the Dreaming and was stuck in someone’s weird Dreamform.
“What never seen a Pooka before?” the giant, rabbit-like being snapped, adjusting the leather holster wrapped about its chest.
Jack shook his head dumbly, eyes roaming over leather armour, strange wooden weapons and the dark tattoo-like markings trailing down shoulders. The being snorted in irritation and shouldered Jack out of the way in order to continue down the street. Jack glared at the dwindling figure and rubbed at his arm where he’d been brushed aside. Whatever a Pooka was, he sure seemed to be a grumpy kind. Jack turned around to find another purse to filch, wincing and grumbling as a loud voice called back to him.
“An’ keep your hands to yourself!”