As evening wore on into night, Mordra found herself surrounded by people yet strangely alone. She sat at a table with enough food to feed a small country for the remainder of her lifetime, but neither the tempting food nor the endless flow of wine could ease the ache of her troubled mind. She tried to smile as mages of every form and color came up to pay their respects for whirling away onto the expansive dance floor.
The ballroom was nearly as large as the council chamber, but designed to magnify light rather than nullify it. The walls were the same sparkling stone as once could see on the outside, the floors a highly polished silver-veined black granite. High above the ceiling was decorated with the fantastic beasts of myths and legends. On the other side of the dance was a raised dais, and movement there drew Mordra's eye.
A man with long white hair and an equally long beard stood on the dais, his arms raised to quiet the sea of people. Once the room was silent save for a swish of a shirt or the shuffling of someone's feet, he began to speak.
"Long ago it was written that a time of peril would come, when the world threatened to tear itself apart. Alas, but that time he's come. But all is not lost, for it is also written that in our darkest moment there will come forth one who shines so bright the darkness shall flee before her.
"Many winters ago, a young girl barely able to speak was brought to an Oracle. Newly Oathboard to a legendary Master, the girl was so overwhelmed with grief she had not spoken. Her life had been tragic, much of which we know nothing. But when brought before the Oracle, the child spoke for the first time since she had been drug away from her mother's deathbed. The girl looked up at the Oracle and said, "You have seen me before."
The Oracle was shocked for had indeed seen the girl in many visions, though little is known of these visions. She knew this girl was to be the salvation of the world. She also knew that the girl would be the most powerful mage since the Dark Wars, and that she would perform feats always believed impossible. And so the Oracle placed her hand on this girl's head and had her visions. A look of horror passed over her face, followed by shock, and then contentment. She bent and whispered in the child's ear, smiled, and collapsed dead on the floor. No one knows what she whispered, or what could cause an Oracle to react so to a vision. Never before or a since has any Oracle expressed any emotion during her visions, let alone such a range. But she saw great things in the child's future.
"Today that child has come to the Council, her Purpose chosen. We gather tonight to celebrate this moment, to give her one last moment of peace. Archmage Unproven Mordra Goldesh will soon stand amongst us our equal, or else never return to our midst. I suspect hers is a name that will pass throughout the ages."
Thunderous applause rang out as the man stepped off the dais and an orchestra began to play a somber tune. Mordra felt her stomach sink. It had been a long time since she thought of that day, knowing her future was of the Oracle-killing sort. And yet it had never troubled her too much, for that which one known throughout their life quickly loosed its potency. Couples began to take to the dance floor, whirling about in a rainbow of elaborate gowns and voluminous robes.
Mordra found herself on the floor as one partner after another twirled her across the floor. Ignoring her protests, they refused to let her slip away soon she forgot her objections and lost herself in the beat as she spun faster and faster. The Apprentice was whirled from one man to another, not keeping one partner for longer than a single song. But as the night grew later the burden she has to bear grew heavier and she began to fret. She could no longer lose herself in the music and abandon herself to the pure joy of the others. Yet every time she tried to slip away from the boisterous crowd, someone would grab her and drag her back onto the floor. Fear ate at her insides until she feared she would wretch with it, but there seemed to be no escape for her.
Hours drug by. The later the hour grew the more like a prisoner Mordra felt. Sometime near the witching hour, Mordra found herself dancing with a stranger, an intricate jig from a culture that had ceased to exist thousands of generations before. She was silent and melancholy, wishing only to escape to her bed yet knowing it was of little use. As she concentrated on the steps, she noticed the stranger was leading her to the hallway. He leaned close and whispered in her ear.
"Don't return to your room. It's the first place they'll look for you." With that he spun her away, down into the shadows of the corridor and was gone.
Mordra stood leaning against the wall, reveling in the shadows, as one would enjoy a hot bath. She feared that if she tried to stand on her own, her traitorous knees wouldn't support her and she would never escape that way. So she waited and gathered her courage before wandering away from the dancers. The music slowly faded as she wandered from room to room, her mind slightly fuzzed by too much wine. She paused in a large parlor and stood next to the fire, trying to get the warmth to penetrate insides that had suddenly turned to ice. She pulled an overstuffed chair closer and curled in it, resting her head on the back. Her eyelids grew heavy and began to droop, and then she slept, a sleep once more troubled by strange dreams.
She stood in the darkness, which then retreated to form two deep pools of black that she was unable to look away from. Slowly the view widened until she saw hair the shade of damp earth, with the front the color of well weathered bark, and skin that had seen its fair share of sunshine. As son as she realized it was a man, she placed her hand to her chest and removed her heart, slowly extending it to him. With an agonizing slowness, he reached out and took it from her, placing it next to his own. Then he reached out and touched her belly and she felt new life stir there, a life that she knew was the ultimate gift of undying love. The man pulled her close and pressed his lips to hers in a moment of purest rapture. She knew in that moment that she would give her life for this man if it would but spare him pain. But even in this joy was sadness. The shadow began to close in on them, and he held her tight to him for a moment longer.
"You must leave here," he whispered, burying his nose in her hair a moment. He gave her one last lingering kiss before pushing her away. As she ran, Mordra fell into darkness and she sat upright in her chair, suddenly wide-awake.
She bolted to her feet and looked around like a startled rabbit, but she was alone in the late night shadows. The sound of the festivities had died down, leaving the halls as still and quiet as a crypt. She had been in this palace hundreds of times during her apprenticeship, but this was the first time she'd been so still. Being honest with herself, she admitted it unnerved her. A new feeling of menace she had never experienced here was almost palpable. She remembered the days of her childhood when the safety of the Mage's Realm was a kin to that of a mother's kitchen to a normal child, but now it felt somehow threatening. She wondered if the feeling was a change in the place, or if she herself was projecting her own sense of alienation on the stones and mortar.
Trying to shake off the odd melancholy, Mordra began to stride briskly through the darkened corridors. Before she'd taken more than a dozen steps, an unseen hand grabbed her wrist, another covered her mouth. Her eyes widened and she moaned into the hand as she was pulled into an alcove and pressed, not overly roughly, into the wall. She could feel the cold stone through her elaborate gown, and the roughness of his palms. Then his eyes came into view and all other thoughts were chased away. The deep pools of darkness from her dream beneath earth brown hair were exactly as she had seen them in her dream. But now the emotion that filled them was urgent, perhaps even fearful.
"Do not fear. I mean you no harm."
He glanced around suspiciously, and then pulled her deeper into the shadows without releasing his grip on her mouth. Mordra thought about biting his hand and stomping on his toes to get away, but something in her said she could trust him. So she waited, calmly following his lead. His grip, now on her shoulder was slightly painful.
"Please believe me. I would not have frightened you if there had been any other way. There are those who would have me killed for even being here. You will not cry out?"
Mordra shook her head and he released her.
"There are those who would not want us speaking. All is not as it seems in the realm; I believe even now a foul plot is being carried out. You must leave here without a moment's pause. I fear the consequences of waiting for the morning might be deadly."
"I do not understand. How could I threaten anyone? I am but and Unproven Archmage seeking a noble woman who has been taken against her will."
"It would seem there is more evil at work here than it would appear"
"What shall I do?"
"Leave now, under cover of darkness. There isn't a moment to loose."
Mordra pondered a long moment before she nodded. "I'll go gather my things."
"It is not safe. Those who plot against you watch your room. That is why I told you not to return there before.
"Before?" And then Mordra realized he had been the stranger who had helped her slip unnoticed into the shadows hours before. Relief flooded her, for it had to be the explanation of her dream. It was just an ordinary dream, nothing special, where a weary and slightly drunken mind slipped a face she had just seen into an insignificant fantasy. That had to be it! Her mind instantly began questioning this conclusion, but she pushed the thoughts away.
"But I cannot just abandon everything? My clothes, my money, my mother's mirror… Is there any other way?"
"I'm afraid not. We…." He broke off and his head flew around, but Mordra heard nothing. She strained her ears after what seemed an eternity; she heard the soft murmur of voices. The stranger pulled her deeper in the shadows and pressed himself indecently close to her. "Forgive me," he whispered, and then his lips were upon her, firm and demanding. She responded with a vigor that surprised her. It would be so easy to lose herself in this stranger's arms, and the thought frightened her a little.
She was vaguely aware of the voicing coming closer the faint light. The voices paused at the mouth of the alcove, obviously startled by their presence.
"Who are you?" asked a female voice that was somehow familiar to Mordra.
Settillo jumped and spun around guiltily, but Mordra noticed he still completely hid her. She remained as still as she could knowing a glimpse of her distinctive red curtain of hair would give her away in an instant, as would the white gown she wore, with its ceremonial embroidery announcing her as the guest of honor. She silently prayed for the shadows to be her protector.
"I… uh…" Settillo stammered then he gave a lopsided grin. "She said yes! Can you believe it? We'll be married before the fall harvest!"
Mordra forced a girlish giggle, trying to see whom he spoke to, but they each held mirrored lanterns that obscured their faces with their brightness.
"Disgusting," the female voice muttered.
"Really, they should keep the half breeds under stricter guidelines," the male voice grumbled. Mordra heard their footsteps fading away until the night was silent.
"Come. We haven't a moment to loose."
The stranger grabbed her hand and more or less drug her along behind him, forcing Mordra to half run in order to keep up. They took so many twists and turns in the narrow hallways used by the servants that Mordra had no idea where she was in relation to the ballroom. Twice more Mordra found herself against a wall in some hidden niche, his lips upon hers. Her mind reeled and she felt at a complete loss for the first time in her life. Archmages were supposed to be calm and confident no matter what, but Mordra wasn't sure how it would be possible, especially in a situation like this. And each time she found herself in his arms, she wanted to just lose herself in the moment.
After what seemed to be an eternity, they reached the stable. It was a cavernous building where the sweet smell of hay struggled with the rich stink of manure. There were three aisles of stalls, placed back to back or against a wall. Mordra's heart sank. It could take hours to locate Firemage in this maze! She simply could not abandon the stallion, the only friend she'd ever really had. Children don't tend to like playing with a girl who accidentally set things on fire when she got angry, especially when it tended to be their clothing. She was saved the internal struggle of abandoning her horse when the stranger led him from a stall and pressed the reins in her hand.
"Ride hard. Do not look back and do not stop for any reason. You are destined for greatness, Mordra. But for now you must be satisfied with trying to stay alive."
As Mordra placed her foot in the stirrups, a movement caught her eye. She turned towards it and felt something brush past her, followed by a chink of metal hitting wood. She stepped back and slapped Firemage's rump, causing him to spring into a canter.
It seemed a fog descended on the stable, and everything slowed down and sped up at the same time. Suddenly there were four people coming towards her, three men and a woman, armed with small throwing knives. One of the men threw a knife in her general direction, but she was frozen in shock unable to move or even truly think. Surely this couldn't be happening here in the Mage's Realm. She had always felt so safe here. Fortunately, the man had poor aim and the blade never found its mark, clanging loudly against a pitchfork hanging on the wall and tumbling into the straw littering the floor. Then the woman swung a blade at her which she just barely dodged. She grabbed the woman's wrist and they struggled for a moment before the knife fell from the woman's fingers and she pulled away, cradling her wrist and the already blistering hand print Mordra had unintentionally burned into her arm. Always with the burning! She thought, a bit annoyed with herself. She really had to get this under control.
She heard a grunt to her left and turned to see one of the men go down with a blade in his shoulder, only to get back up and charge at the man who had tried to save her. The woman with the burnt wrist struck the stranger who had tried to save her with the blacksmith's shoeing hammer and he collapsed like a scarecrow removed from its support beam. The three men, all battered and worse for the wear, began kicking him roughly, their faces hard and angry.
Mordra gathered her strength – and with it the threads of Power – and took control of the situation. Suddenly the room seemed to grow dark except for flames which surrounded her yet left her untouched. She loomed over the room, her eyes heated and a rage inside her she'd never felt before. "Enough!" she cried, not recognizing the stony voice tat came out of her. "Be gone!" Each of the four attackers was engulfed in a column of fire and then was gone. Mordra fell to her hands and knees, gasping for air and dripping sweat as if she'd just run a marathon. She had no idea what shed just done or even how, but she was grateful nonetheless. She was certain the man would have died if she hadn't stopped them.
She went to him on all fours and quickly checked to see if he was still breathing. It was a long moment before she realized he was still alive, but if his wounds weren't tended, he wouldn't be for long. She couldn't imagine what kind of harm that hammer had done to his skull. She knew she had to take him with her, for if she left him here he would be dead before the sun rose above the horizon. Lifting him seemed to almost be beyond her, but somehow she managed to grab him under the arms and drag him over to where Firemage stood, his eyes rolling and his breathing hard. Leaning the man against the horse's heaving side, she grabbed his leg and heaved with everything she had, laying him over her saddle. Then she tangled her hand into Firemage's mane and somehow managed to climb into his saddle. Leaning forward and praying he would lead her safely, she fought to weave the Power to open the gate. Fortunately the weaves on this side were very simple and they were able to slip through before she lost consciousness and slumped forward over the stranger lying across the front of her saddle.