"Hurry up with that, Boy! Must I wait all night? This potion needs to be ready by the morning and I will tolerate none of your delays. Do you hear me?"
"Yes, Master. I was only trying to do a good job..."
"None of your excuses, Boy!" The mage's dark eyes flashed as he paused in his pacing to glare at the darkened corner of the room, where there was a sound the mage recognised as a spoon stirring through liquid. "If that potion isn't ready in time... You know what happens when you displease me!"
"Y-yes, Master." The timid voice quavered in fear. Satisfaction flickered over the mage's stern features. There was a faint trace of a smile as he continued his pacing. From the darkened corner, the sound of stirring had sped up considerably.
When it stopped a few moments later, the mage whirled around. His piercing eyes glared into the darkness as though he could see through the shadows to the one standing there. "Is it ready?"
"Then bring it here, Boy! Quickly! Dawn is not far off!"
A large figure moved hesitantly out of the shadows. He was around six feet tall, but very thin and gangly, as though he were a teenager at the awkward age where he had yet to grow into his limbs. His hair fell limply down past his shoulders and was a shade of red so dark that it was nearly black, while his fearful eyes were an odd shade, green with flecks of violet. He wore a simple tunic of coarsely woven cloth, clean but old and ragged. It showed signs of attempts at patching the largest tears, but the stitches were uneven and made little difference. His dark blue wings were wrapped around his shoulders and held together with two linked talons like a clasp. It was an odd contrast to the tunic, since it looked like he was wearing a fine cloak over an old potato sack. His ears tapered off to delicate points that stuck up visibly above his hair and his skin was a murky greyish-blue. His feet were long, paw-like, and tipped with sharp claws that tapped against the floor as he walked.
He was not human.
He was carrying a small bowl with obvious care and kept darting frightened glances between it and the impatient mage as though he was uncertain which one he should be more afraid of. As he walked across the room, his steps kept faltering and he moved with the stiffness of one who is either recently healed from a severe injury or suffering intense pain but trying to ignore it. By the time he reached the mage, he was trembling.
"Careful, you fool! You'll drop it!"
The mage snatched the bowl out of the boy's hands and turned away to his workbench, ignoring the boy in his eagerness to get to work. Shaking badly, the boy returned to his dark corner. He waited there in silence until the mage turned around again, a small vial of pale amber potion clutched in his seemingly frail, bony hand.
As the mage walked towards the boy, his long midnight-blue robes swept across the floor. The soft swishing sound was very faint, but it seemed to catch the boy's attention. He whimpered softly.
"No... please... no... not again... please!"
The mage's eyes glittered strangely as he held out the vial. "Do as you're told, Boy! Drink! I am your Master! Obey me!"
Whimpering, the boy did as he was told. He closed his eyes and gulped down the liquid, gasping as it burned down his throat. Instantly, he felt the familiar pain clutch at him from deep within. He doubled over, his frightened whimpers becoming soft moans of pain. He could feel the potion's magic working.
He wasn't entirely sure what it did. His master had told him long ago that it was to prevent another mage from finding him. He had to take the potion every three moons, or else the evil mage would come and kill him. But the boy wondered sometimes, during the long days when he was neither asleep nor awake, whether the mage had told him the whole truth. Whenever he took the potion, it always seemed as though it was doing several things at once. He hated it. Aside from the pain it caused him, it always left him with a strange feeling of weakness, and an even stranger feeling of emptiness, as though something had been taken from within him.
The mage watched in smug triumph as the boy curled up into a ball on the floor. He stretched out his hand in front of him and watched it avidly as the paper-thin skin flushed with health and his flesh became as firm as that of a young man's. He allowed himself the momentary pleasure of viewing the revitalised skin before making a gesture in the air. His hand resumed its normal appearance as the mage's illusion fell into place.
"Excellent." Smiling slightly, the mage left the room. Now that chore was done, he had more pleasant matters to pursue.
The boy remained lying on the floor. The pain was beginning to fade and he closed his eyes, panting weakly. After a few moments, he tried to rise but fell back again, gasping at how weak he was. His memories of the past weren't clear, but it seemed as though it hadn't always been this way. Surely the potion hadn't always brought him continuous pain and weakness?
"Why can't I remember?" He slowly raised his hand, intending to wipe the tears from his eyes, but paused as he noticed his hand. It was shaking and his hide looked almost transparent! "What's... what's happening to me?" His frightened whisper went unheard.
"I say we attack in full force! He stole two of ours, so let's take them back from him!" Commander's steel-grey eyes blazed as he glared around at everyone in the room. "He won't be expecting a full-scale attack! We'll catch him unprepared!"
Strategy shook his head. His eyes met Commander's and his gaze held steady. "It's too much of a risk. We have no way of knowing what kind of preparations he's made. For all we know, he could have all kinds of spells and enchantments around him. Besides, how can we attack him when we don't even know where he is!"
A heavy silence filled the room. Commander froze for a moment before lowering his eyes.
Strategy sighed. "It had to be said," he muttered softly. A hand fell onto his shoulder and he looked up into his Chieftain's eyes.
"You're right. It had to be said. We've been skirting the issue all night." Raven looked around at the faces of his clan, and their guests. "No matter what plans we make, in the end it comes down to one thing. We're powerless to act until we find them."
There was a loud thump as Loran hit the table with his fist. "There has to be a way! They cannot just have... disappeared..." His voice trailed away and he trembled as he tried to control his grief.
His father sighed heavily. "No. I would not have thought it possible either." Oberon stared at the map spread out on the table before him, a thoughtful frown drawing his brows together.
Justice looked from one face to another. "I suppose... Do we know for certain that they are together?"
Shamrock hesitated before replying. "Not for certain, but it seems a reasonable assumption. We know Heart went out to find them. Now she's missing and they've gone as well."
"What if Heart's still trying to find them though? If they left before she arrived, she could still be... No?" Loran was shaking his head impatiently.
"No! I would know if that were the case!" He suddenly seemed to deflate as all his impatience and irritation drained away. "We used all the magic at our disposal. Nothing. There was no trace of her, the mage or the Gargoyle. We have tried everything we could think of. That is why we did not come here as soon as it happened. We have been searching for them. If we cannot find them though..." He shook his head, unwilling to continue voicing the thought that was in all of their minds. If the court of the High King of the Faer Folk couldn't find them, then how could a clan of Gargoyles hope to?
Shamrock was watching Justice intently. There was something about the expression on his face... "What is it? What have you thought of?" He kept his voice low, knowing his friend's dislike of being the centre of attention.
Justice flicked a glance at Shamrock, a slight smile on his otherwise calm face. "It might be nothing," he cautioned softly. "I was just thinking... If it is the same mage who stole the egg from you all those years ago, then he's very good at hiding from you. But he's had centuries to perfect his skills. If he tries to hide the female using the same techniques that he uses with the hatchling... It's not the same, and it might leave us with a chance to find her."
Justice now had Shamrock's complete attention. "What did you have in mind?"
Shamrock began to smile.
When she strode into the Great Hall, everyone fell silent. They watched as she approached the large mirror that had been set up at the far side of the room. Without so much as a glance at Justice, Raven or any of the Clan or guests, Nemesis began to sing. Her wordless song filled the Hall and many of the Gargoyles closed their eyes and allowed the magic within her voice to wash over them. Those standing closest to the mirror focused on the images forming within it.
From her Siren mother, Nemesis had inherited her voice, and the ability to channel her magic through her song. From her Sea Mage father, she had inherited power well beyond the minor magicks of her mother's people. But her greatest power came from something in her past that she never spoke of. She had the power to find females who had been wronged, and to bring retribution to those responsible. It was that power she was using now.
Within the mirror, an image began to form. At first it was hazy and indistinct but as Nemesis sang, it grew clearer until it was as though the mirror was not a mirror, but an open door looking into a room beyond. It was some sort of dungeon, complete with chains hanging from the walls, but the focus of the image was a small form huddled in one corner of the room.
She was small, barely five feet tall, with deep blue skin and wide violet eyes peeking out from beneath a tumble of blue-black waves that cascaded almost to her waist. Her eyes were filled with fear and pain and she trembled within the silver chains that bound her.
Loran snarled at the sight. "Where?" It was all he said. It was all he needed to say.
Nemesis did not look away from the mirror. When she spoke, her voice was as cool and calm as always. "I will take you there."
It began like any other night. The boy did his chores, cringing from the critical eye of his harsh master as he tried to ignore the pain flowing through him with every move he made. He made his master some tea and breathed a sigh of relief when his master didn't complain that it was cold and throw the teapot at him in a rage, as he often did. The boy was starting to think that it was going to be one of the better nights when loud, wild, howls of rage suddenly filled the air!
The mage leaped to his feet, his face turning pale as he listened. Furious, he rounded on the quivering boy. "You tricked me! You didn't drink it!" A crafty look flashed across his face. "You'll pay for this, Boy! The one with the staff has come! He'll kill you now! Unless..." The boy knew he was supposed to ask 'Unless what?', but he was too frightened to speak. The mage glared at him. "Unless I can trick him into lowering his guard long enough to kill him! He's too strong with that staff of his. You will distract him. Come with me!"
The mage dragged the boy to the door and out into the corridor. The boy could now make out words amid the howls. His terror eased as he listened. The voices were saying things like 'Where is he?', 'We have to find him!' and 'He's here somewhere!' but they were also saying 'She's in the dungeon!', 'Come out you cowardly mage!' and, most telling of all, 'Mage! We've come to take back the two you stole from us!'. Remembering the look of cunning on his master's face, the boy knew that he'd been lied to. He began to struggle. "No! Let me go!"
His face twisted in rage, the mage pulled the boy's arm sharply around. The boy moaned in pain and the mage sneered at him. "You will do as I say, Boy. I've put too much effort into this for it to fail now. If I die here tonight, you will too!"
His eyes blazed and the boy trembled. As he looked into his master's eyes though, something shifted deep within him. He suddenly saw his master as though through a veil of mist. His master looked like a strong, healthy young human of about twenty or so, but there was a second, older and frailer, version of him that overlaid his healthy form like a sort of misty echo. The boy didn't understand what he was seeing, but he instinctively knew that the healthy, solid-looking version was his master's true form. "Who... who are you?" The mage reared back, surprised and perhaps a little afraid.
"What? You can see..." Before he had time to gather his thoughts at this unexpected development, footsteps pounded up the stairs nearby. The mage swung around, pulling the boy around until he was positioned like a shield between the mage and the stairs. "Stay back or the boy dies!"
The door of the dungeons burst open and a tall Gargoyle with tan skin and long reddish-brown hair charged into the room. His mist grey eyes scanned the room so frantically that he almost missed seeing her. Caught by surprise, she froze. When he started backing out of the room again though, she began to struggle against her chains. She would have called, but the mage had cast a spell of silence upon her that she was unable to reverse. Her chains clanked against the wall though and he was by her side in a heartbeat. As he fumbled with her chains, his eyes ran over her as though he could not look at her enough.
He muttered a curse at the chains, strengthened with magic so she could not break them. His eyes flashed with impatience and he moved his hand over them in a sharp movement completely at odds with his usual graceful motions. The chains fell from around her and she threw herself into his arms. He held her tightly; rocking her slightly as he soothed her with whispered promises that everything was all right. She pulled back and tried to speak. He frowned and made another quick movement, releasing her from the spell. Sobbing his name, she burrowed back into the safety of his arms. "Loran! Loran! He is here! I can feel him! Oh, Loran... He is here!"
Loran held his beloved mate close. "I know, Heart... I know..." He shifted slightly, gathering her to him as he stood, then swinging her easily into his arms. His eyes locked with hers. "Let us go and find him."
Shamrock stood at the top of the stairs. Outwardly, he was calm and still. Inwardly, he could feel his magic writhing as it sensed the fear and pain of the hatchling standing but a few feet away from him. He felt oddly detached, as though the truth of the situation had yet to sink into his mind. The hatchling... his hatchling... was standing right in front of him. He had always worried that, when this time came, he would lose control of his anger. Instead, his mind was clear and his path certain. In his heart, he knew what he had to do.
"Release him. It is over." His voice was soft and calm, but there was a thread of steel within it.
The mage's eyes glittered with cunning. "Oh, no. I don't think so." He smiled, a slight twist of his mouth that was somehow both mocking and cruel, and his grip on the boy tightened. "If you kill me, the boy will die. I'll admit that you've surprised me. I never expected you to find us. But surely you don't really believe that I'm completely unprepared for something like this? No. I've taken certain... precautions, shall we say. Rest assured, any attempt on my life will result in the boy's death."
He began to move back along the corridor, pulling the boy with him. "The boy and I are going now. If there is any attempt to stop me, I will kill him. Either way, I am leaving. Whether he comes with me alive, or stays here dead, is entirely up to you."
Shamrock took one slow, measured step forward and then stopped. He did not speak. His eyes were fixed on the mage's as he moved his staff around in front of him. It was a simple length of wood and the mage seemed to relax at the sight of it.
"So it seems the stories I've heard about you are false after all. 'Beware the staff he bears, for the light of its orb has defeated stronger than you.' Yet your staff has no orb. Interesting. I wonder what other lies those stories hold." The mage smirked and moved back some more.
The boy's eyes had been locked on the stranger since he had emerged from the staircase. He was barely aware of the mage pulling him back. The world around him had gone strange. The air was filled with an odd mist that seemed to gather around objects, taking on their shape and moving as they moved, but never touching them. He could hear the mage's words, but they sounded strange to his ears, as though they were being echoed by mist rather than sound.
His eyes were drawn to the staff in the stranger's hands and, in a distant corner of his mind, he wondered what his master meant. Couldn't his master see the glowing orb of light at the end of the long silver staff? He could see it so clearly. The staff was beautiful. It had a slender shaft of silver, etched with runes and with a gracefully swirling silver vine trailing in spirals along all six feet of it, topped with a glowing ball of light about four inches across.
As he looked into the light, he suddenly felt strength and warmth rushing into him. There was something else too. The emptiness that the mage's potion caused was beginning to fill. As the moments passed, the fogginess in his mind began to clear. For the first time in countless years, he understood who and what he was. His heart leaped with hope as his eyes raised to meet those of the stranger. He recognised him now.
"I know you. You're the one I keep dreaming about." His voice rang strong and clear through the corridor and the mage gasped at the sound of it. He started backing away more quickly, but when he tried to pull the boy with him, the boy resisted the pull easily. The mage's eyes filled with fear and he kept tugging, refusing to believe what was happening.
Shamrock smiled and nodded. "As I've been dreaming about you. It's time to go home."
The boy smiled back. "I'm ready."
He noticed the stranger's glance at the mage still pulling on him. "He can't hurt me, you know. He's been giving me a potion... I think he's been stealing my strength with it. Don't let him fool you. His looks are only an illusion. Whatever his potion does though, it's bound me to him, and him to me. He's right. If he dies, I think I will too. But it works both ways. If I die, so does he. He won't kill me because it would mean his own death."
The mage made a strangled sound, but Shamrock ignored him. His attention was focused on the young Gargoyle standing calmly before him. Already, the power of the Staff of the Rookery was working its powerful magic. The boy was becoming stronger and healthier before his eyes. He knew the truth behind the lad's words. He could sense that the staff was overcoming very powerful magic in order to strengthen a lifespark that had been little more than a flicker only moments earlier. His power allowed him to see the bond the lad spoke of, and he was easily able to pierce the veil of illusion the mage was hiding behind, but he could also see something else.
The lad was glowing with power of his own.
"What do you see, lad?"
"It's like mist, but it doesn't creep like mist. It's like a misty echo of everything I can see, only the mist doesn't always take on the same form. You're carrying a silver staff with an orb of light at the end. I can see it as clearly as I see you. But the mist shows an ordinary staff of wood."
At the boy's words, the mage gasped in shock and sudden panic as all his hopes and dreams dissolved into dust. In that moment, everything changed. He had heard the legend of that particular staff. No longer concerned about escaping with the boy, now his only concern lay in escaping at all! He released the boy and whirled, shouting the incantation as he moved.
The moment the mage turned, Shamrock raised his staff. His green eyes blazed silver as the air crackled with power drawn not only from within the staff, but from within Shamrock as well. As the mage cried out his spell, a silver beam of light burst from the tip of Shamrock's staff. It encircled the mage in a silver cage of light and magic. The mage gasped as he found himself trapped. With a low cry of rage, he raised his hands and began working his own magic. The cage began to tremble.
The boy could see the beam of light, and suddenly he noticed faint tendrils of mist around it. The more he looked, the clearer they grew until there was a very faint misty echo of the beam stretching from the stranger's staff to the mage. But the second beam was so weak... Instinctively, the boy knew it had to be strengthened. As that thought leaped into his mind, the misty beam wavered and seemed to become a little stronger. Encouraged, the boy focused all his will into the beam.
There was a sudden burst of light as a second beam joined the first. Together, the two beams were far stronger than the mage. He gave a startled cry and fell unconscious to the ground, overwhelmed by the combined magic of Shamrock, the Staff of the Rookery and the boy.
The boy blinked as the mist faded from his sight. He turned to see the mage and then turned back to the stranger, confusion and fear warring with joy. Something deep within him was telling him that the mage could not hurt him any longer. But he was very unsure about what had happened. When he looked into the stranger's face though, his fear and doubt fled like the shadows of night flee before the light of day. The stranger smiled at him. He smiled back.
"I am Shamrock, Master of the Watchtower Rookery. Come. The rest of your clan is eager to meet you. We have been searching for you for a very long time."
The boy smiled. "I'm..." He paused, suddenly unsure. He didn't know his name, or if he even had one. The mage had always called him 'Boy', but somehow that didn't seem like a real name.
He thought of the power that lay within him, the power that he now remembered. He'd learned of his gift long ago, but, over time, the potion had fogged his mind as well as drained his strength, and he had forgotten it. The memories were beginning to return though. He remembered learning of it and knowing instinctively that the mage should never know of it. He remembered snatching precious hours for practicing his gift, while his master was away. His gift caused him to see a misty echo of anything that was other than it appeared to be. He saw the illusion in the mist while the truth took on solid form. He could also call the mist and shape it as he wished, as he had shaped it into a second beam of power. He called it the Echo Mist... the term seemed to resonate in his mind. He looked back up at Shamrock and smiled again.
"I am Echo."
On to the final chapter