The White Tower by Michael Wisehart
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Title: The White Tower - The Aldoran Chronicles - Book One
Author: Michael Wisehart
Chapter 1 - Nyalis
Nyalis heard the cry of the corax behind him, and the sound of their approach sent a shiver racing down his spine. They were still some distance back, but it wouldn’t take the winged trackers long to catch up. The thought of what would happen if they found him was as chilling as the patches of ankle-deep snow threatening to slow his pace.
Few had ever seen the corax’s dark wings. Those who had seen them, lived only long enough to regret it. Nyalis knew all too well what these creatures were capable of, having been hunted by them before. They were the eyes of the White Tower, a twisted amalgamation of night-raven and reptile. Their dark, guttural caws echoed off the mountain peaks behind him, clear as the baying of bloodhounds.
Nyalis shoved his fear aside and willed his legs to keep moving, each step agony as the frigid mountain air cut his face and burned his lungs. Moonlight lit the path ahead. He glanced over his shoulder, but the towering stand of ancient redwoods kept the creatures blocked from sight. Before he could turn around, his foot got snagged on a root, and he fell.
Quickly, he clutched the tightly wrapped bundle to his chest before landing on his side in a pile of snow against one of the massive trees. Pain shot through his shoulder as he pushed himself up into a sitting position and leaned against the rough bark.
Two little hands shot out of the wrapping and grabbed hold of his white beard, forcing him to grit his teeth against the pain of pulled whiskers.
“That’s quite the grip you have there, little one,” Nyalis whispered, untangling the babe’s tiny fingers. He tried to stand, but his legs gave way and he plopped back into the snow, deciding a short rest was in order. His entire body ached from the strain, a sharp reminder of his old age.
Lifting his head, he studied the star-filled sky through the coverlet of branches. Night already? Where had the time gone? Nyalis had been on the run for three days, and his pursuers were showing no signs of letting up. He knew they were close. He could feel them in the short hairs on the back of his neck. With the last of the sun’s rays having slipped over the horizon hours before, his best chance to catch a glimpse of the Tower’s winged hunters would be to spot their silhouettes against the dimly lit heavens.
If the stars began to wink, it was time to move.
Nyalis took a deep breath and looked back down at the squirming bundle in his lap. It had been more years than he would like to admit since he had cared for a child. He had forgotten how demanding they could be. “I’m sure you miss your mother,” he said, as if the drooling, wide-eyed face staring up at him could understand.
He wrapped the swaddling back around the child’s shivering body. Nyalis paused when he caught sight of the strange mark developing on the boy’s right shoulder. He traced the darkened area with his finger. “It would appear I was right about you after all, my little faeling.”
Nyalis patted down the babe’s unnatural shock of white hair and tucked his arms back within the warmth of the wrapping. He tried rubbing the soreness from his aching calves. When that didn’t work, he stood, shook the snow from his robes, and pushed on.
He had found the boy’s mother just in time to help her deliver, but even with hands as skilled as his, there was no stopping the outcome. Magic, like nature, demanded balance. The price for bringing something as powerful as this faeling child into the world had been her life.
Nyalis fought his way through the dense brush at the edge of the tree line. He was about to lose his temporary shelter from the corax’s hungry eyes.
With a sharp tug, he pulled his robe free of the prickle vines that had latched on and turned to stare out at the chasm before him. It was a breathtaking sight, there at the edge of one of the peaks within the Northern Heights, the tallest of Aldor’s mountain chains. The mountains were awash in moonlight and backlit with a million stars.
Careful not to slip on any of the loose rocks and plunge headfirst over the side, Nyalis skirted the large boulders lining the front of the pathway and started down the narrow snow-covered trail that meandered along the face of the cliff.
Even during the summer months, the crests of the Northern Heights were covered in snow, but here, at the beginning of the month of Èldwin, the chances of an unexpected storm blowing in from the north were all but certain. A simple change in pressure could cause an avalanche. Nyalis prayed that the weather held out long enough for him to get off the mountain.
The wind tugged at his robes like a ship’s sail, threatening to pull him over with every rising gust. Raising his free arm, he gathered the air in front of him and wove it into a barrier, deflecting the dangerous drafts sweeping across the side of the mountain. The continuous push of the wind against his shield kept him balanced as he descended. It was a basic magical weave, taught to first-year apprentices, but sometimes the simplest things worked best.
With one arm out for balance, he hugged the child close and edged his way forward. There was little leeway for maneuvering with a solid wall on one side and a sheer drop on the other. The trail wasn’t much wider than his feet.
Preoccupied with trying to work his way around a pile of fallen rocks, Nyalis stumbled and lost his balance. His heart leaped into his throat as he desperately grabbed a small niche in the rock and yanked himself back against the mountain’s face. His hands were trembling as he glanced over the side. The drop was so deep, he couldn’t see the bottom. He took a couple of moments to catch his breath, then pressed on.
Up ahead, the path widened and split. The soreness in his arms had lessened, but only because they had gone numb from the child’s weight and the cold. Nyalis wiggled his fingers, attempting to circulate the blood. When that didn’t work, he lifted his free hand to his mouth and blew, hoping to find some warmth.
He cocked his head and listened. He could still hear the corax’s cries faintly over the heavy wind. They were circling somewhere to the west, but their steady sweep of the mountainside was heading directly for him.
Using the fork as an opportunity to divert his pursuers, he sent a touch of magic into the right branch. Just enough to whet the appetite. “That should keep them busy for a while,” he mumbled as he tightened his grip on the child and headed into the opposite branch. He knew it would eventually wind its way out into the foothills below. Flicking his wrist, he conjured a ball of golden light to illuminate the way ahead.
The rock loomed above him, cutting off all sight of the night sky and hiding him from the watchful gaze of the corax. In a way, it reminded him of the wizard’s stronghold of Aero’set. Nyalis longed to be back within the protection of the fortress’s great walls. He yearned to walk its many halls, to spend his days combing through the libraries, seeking out new information to aid him in his struggles. It had been far too long since his last visit.
Aero’set was a place of magic. It was a place where dreams were born, where young men and women had come to train in order to earn the right to be named wizards. It was a place of wonder and excitement, but most of all, for Nyalis, it was home.
Unfortunately, those days had long since vanished into memory. Now all was silent. Nyalis had been there all those centuries ago when the keep had been locked away out of time and reach, awaiting the day it would once again be needed.
That day was not far off.
The child whimpered, pulling him from his reverie. He readjusted the cloth, blocking the babe’s view, which seemed to appease him, if briefly. “Hungry again, I see,” he said, pulling a small plant from one of the inner pockets of his robe. “Wish I had something a bit tastier than costa root to offer you.” He bit off the stem and allowed its bitter juices to run into the babe’s mouth. The child’s face puckered, but his hunger clearly outweighed the unpleasant taste, and he sucked on the end, making gurgling noises as he did.
The two continued on as Nyalis studied the stone ahead for anything he recognized. He was beginning to wonder if he had taken a wrong turn when the walls finally began to widen.
An early morning sunrise lit the way ahead, its colors washing across the open rock, revealing an end to the passage. He let his ball of light disappear as he crept his way to the opening.
Nyalis waited within the shadows, wary of what might lie ahead. He closed his eyes and reached out with his mind, scanning the open area in front of him.
He couldn’t feel the presence of an aura, dark or otherwise.
Ahead lay a gradual slope of scree and small shrubs stretching clear to the forest below. There was a considerable amount of open ground to cross before reaching the large copse of elder pine at the bottom, and the thought of leaving the cover of the mountain didn’t sit well with Nyalis’s already frayed nerves. But if he could make it to the river and the waiting boat, they would have a chance.
Holding the child close, he left the confines of the rock and made his way down, still scanning the naked expanse around him for any sign of pursuit. Halfway down the slope, the child grew restless and thrashed inside the swaddling. Nyalis didn’t dare stop to calm him. Instead, he hugged him tighter and pushed on.
The child squealed.
Nyalis nearly tripped trying to cover the child’s mouth with the cloth. “You’ve got to keep quiet.”
The child wailed, his eyes filling with tears.
“What’s wrong with you? You’re going to get us—”
The air behind them began to tingle.
Nyalis spun and wove a shield as a wave of energy raced down the slope toward them. He sensed it more than saw it as the surge flew across the ground, kicking up piles of dirt and dust in its wake. The air in front of Nyalis hardened, absorbing the brunt of the impact, but it still sent him tumbling backward.
He shielded the child with his body as they rolled across the sharp rock. The pain was enough to steal his breath. Quickly, he scrambled to his feet, testing his arms and legs for injury. Nothing felt broken. Blood ran down the side of his face, and he wiped it away, discovering a nasty gash on his forehead.
At the top of the slope, three black-robed bulradoer stepped out of the shadows of the open fissure, their hoods raised. The corax had led them right to him.
In the ancient tongue, bulradoer meant the departed. They were a sect of dark-magic wielders employed by the White Tower. It was ingenious, really. While the White Tower feigned abhorrence of magic and its wielders, it secretly recruited and trained those same wielders for its own use.
The child continued to cry in his arms, but there was nothing Nyalis could do about it now.
How did they find me so fast? he wondered. Then he saw them. Two sniffers, shuffling just behind the bulradoer, seemingly reluctant to leave the darker shadows of the mountainside. They must have somehow managed to catch the scent of his magic from the left fork.
Sniffers were hideous beings, twisted by magic to serve a single purpose: to hunt down the ven’ae, those who had the ability to wield magic. Both sniffers stood at least eight feet, their flat noseless faces held high as they caught the scent of his magic.
Nyalis was a match for any of the bulradoer, but facing all three, with a pair of sniffers and a full praad of corax—well, that was a different matter altogether.
The Tower’s trackers shrieked as they circled his position, letting him know they were still there. As if he needed reminding.
Nyalis raised his free hand and sent a wave of fire flying up the hillside toward the bulradoer. The flames ignited the brush in front of them, burying the dark wielders in smoke.
Using the distraction, he tightened his grip on the child and made a dash for the tree line below. He needed to reach the river and his boat before they caught up with him. Glancing over his shoulder, he could see he hadn’t stopped them long, as they broke through the dying blaze in pursuit.
The corax shrieked and dove.
Nyalis ran as fast as he could, the tree line only steps away. He raced through the underbrush, leafless branches slashing at his face and forearms. Behind, he could hear the corax following him into the trees.
With his free hand, he conjured fists of air and sent them careening into his pursuers, hoping to slow them down. His efforts only drove them into a further state of frenzy as they voiced their thirst for blood.
He clearly wasn’t going to outrun them, so he turned to face them. Quickly, he wove a net of magic that stripped the bark off a dozen trees and sent it tearing into the oncoming gale.
The reptilian birds shrieked as the projectiles tore through their ranks, striking half of the praad. Those worst hit tumbled to the forest’s floor, many missing wings, heads, and feet. Mutilated bodies convulsed as the trees and ground were painted red with their blood, the stench of death strong enough to choke on.
The remaining corax fled.
Nyalis took a deep breath to steady himself. The constant use of magic was beginning to take its toll. In the distance, the sniffers and the bulradoer were just breaking through the first of the trees.
Hugging the child close, he turned and ran.
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