A makeshift brazier illuminated one side of the man’s face. Above the dark crevasse leading into the vale, the skull of a buck hung ominously, dead squirrels draping its antlers. The man shifted slightly, and the brazier revealed his face fully; the symbol for lightning stood out from his forehead, the carving less crude than some others Casimir encountered.
One of Casimir’s feet began to prickle with blood loss, and he shifted imperceptibly in the branches of his tree. He had tracked this group of mages in an attempt to figure out what kind of outlaws they were. Judging by the dead animals, the sacrificial kind.
The population of mages well outweighed the need for service in noble houses and royal courts alike, and thus, many men found themselves marginalized immediately upon graduation from a mage college. As well, the archmages never taught the darker sides of magic, even shying from necromancy, beyond the basics—and many mages, with a thirst for knowledge similar to Casimir, were enticed by the unknown as soon as they escaped the routine of traditional education. Casimir couldn’t deny his own fascination with cults like the men housing themselves in the vale a few meters away—although he knew he would have to be careful, even just to gather information.
The two smaller moons set in the west, their light refracting from the icy peaks of the Spine. Wind tussled the trees, but otherwise, silence coated the forest like a blanket. The man guarding the crevasse had been on duty every night for two weeks, and his fatigue began to show two nights ago. Casimir guessed dawn about three hours off, and the man would doze long before then.
By all rights, Casimir could drop from the tree and walk right up to the man; a mage thrall would never question him, even as a stranger. But building trust was essential—and so he waited.
In the silence, the deepened breathing of the man magnified threefold. Casimir emerged from his crouch, let the blood flow back into his legs, and swiftly and silently descended the tree. The man’s chin had fallen to his chest, and one of his arms hung limply beside the uncomfortable wooden chair he occupied on his watch.
Casimir raked his eyes over his immediate surroundings, taking particular note of the worn dirt path leading north from the vale. Eventually, the trail met the main road to Bucori, nearly three kilometers downhill. If he had to run, he could cover the distance easily, and would likely outstride anyone chasing him.
The crevasse guard snored. Casimir shoved his hands into his pockets and cleared his throat. When the man didn’t wake, Casimir whispered, “Faeidur.”
The man jerked awake as a shock jolted through him. He nearly fell off his chair when he noticed Casimir.
“What the fuck—”
“Hello,” Casimir said pleasantly. “I’m looking for your master.”
Struggling to his feet, the man cursed a few more times. Soon, though, his anger gave way to anxiety.
“Please don’t tell him I fell asleep, I beg you—”
“I won’t,” Casimir said. “If you do something for me.”
“That’s a dangerous promise,” he said pointedly. “What I ask is easy, though. When your master questions me, remind him that I didn’t kill you, or sneak in, cloaked. I walked right up, no stealth involved.”
The man eyed him warily. “The master doesn’t listen to me, much.”
“It won’t matter. He’ll see the gesture for what it is.”
With a terse nod, the man turned for the black void of the crevasse. Patches of snow devoid of light for months or even years crunched beneath Casimir’s feet. The man navigated the crevasse without so much as a torch, but Casimir grazed his hands over the rough, cold walls, cataloging the twists and turns. A sliver of light ahead soon turned to a gash, and they emerged into the vale, illuminated softly by the largest moon.
The mages chose this position because the sharp rock on all sides of the vale made it inaccessible by any means but the gap in the mountains. As well, the deep pit at the center allowed for them to practice their rituals in private; animal sacrifice had been illegal in the Ice Realm since the mages first showed a propensity for it.
Casimir followed the crevasse guard down to a little camp of hide tents circling an expanse of smooth stone. The metallic smell of blood coated the air, but no other evidence of the victim presented itself. Two women stood from their positions guarding the camp, one with her tattered clothes barely covering the important areas, but the man escorting Casimir waved them away impatiently. Casimir was grateful for the hood cloaking his face as the women leered at him.
“Master,” the man said, shaking a mage near the fire awake.
The mage grumbled, shoving the thrall away violently. The man nearly landed in the fire, and Casimir furrowed his brow at the defeated look on his face.
“What could possibly be so important?” the mage snapped. He caught sight of Casimir and shot to his feet, adjusting his robes self-consciously. “Ah. I see. We have a visitor.”
Casimir waited until the thrall had scurried off to find some ale before he said, “I came across your camp on my way north.”
The mage removed his hood. He had dark hair, though not black, like a man of the old blood—his line had diluted somewhere along the way, as evidenced by his unremarkable, dark blue eyes. His features, too, didn’t take after the sharpness of the Ice Realm; instead, he was wide and stout, like a Forest Realm man.
“My name is Hethin,” he said. “You are?”
“We put up the antlers to call to others of our kind. I assume you travel alone?”
“Quite. I only recently graduated the college.”
“Ah,” Hethin said knowingly. “You come to us in search of greater knowledge.”
“We don’t allow men to easily join our ranks,” Hethin said. “We would have to trust you.”
“Master…” the thrall said, returning with two bottles of ale that Hethin batted away impatiently. “He didn’t try to sneak in or kill me, guarding the entrance. He walked right up.”
Hethin passed the man a disgusted look before turning back to Casimir. “I suppose that says a little. Still, I’d like to check your intentions, if you stay. What are you interested in learning?”
Casimir swallowed. “All of it, I suppose.”
“Take off your hood, son.”
He obliged, keeping his face decidedly neutral. Mental manipulation, illusion, any of the darker pursuits of magic—they came naturally to him. In response to Hethin’s request to check his intentions, Casimir began to build a wall within his mind, behind which he could hide his true purpose from these mages; he wove the edges of the barrier in with real memories, almost like a lattice, so that between every fiber of the shield lay a kernel of truth. If it didn’t work, Casimir had already evaluated the three older, weaker mages watching from outside the firelight, and Hethin himself looked one solid punch away from collapse. His stout build had long succumbed to hunger.
Without an affinity for protecting his mind, Casimir would have never walked right into a mage stronghold and asked to join them. He didn’t even have a particular interest in the mages who sacrificed animals to strengthen their spells; human souls, at least, made sense, but animal souls weren’t worth the effort it took to hunt them down. Still, when he left Valtteri, he told him he would learn all of it—best to start with the weakest cults. Casimir watched the group’s movements for three days, until he decided they wouldn’t kill him right on the spot, and until he knew their talents would play into his own marvelously.
Archmage Sobik taught all the mages in the Ice Realm college to shield their minds, but only in a rudimentary way that might keep a weak man from infiltration. Casimir, finding the base knowledge lacking, spent night after night digging out every volume in the library on mind magic; as well, he practiced his shields until he could throw back even the strongest of assaults. The first time the archmage tried to infiltrate his consciousness, and Casimir threw him out without any perceptible effort—that was the first time the archmage realized Casimir could be dangerous. If he could keep Sobik out of his thoughts, it meant Sobik couldn’t control him.
Still, nuance and complexity dominated mind magic, and every mage’s infiltration differed. In preparation for Hethin, Casimir took the cautious route, allowing real memories to slip through a shield that could be described more accurately as a ruse. Hethin would slither into his mind, poke around looking for aggression or plots, and withdraw when he found only curiosity, a desire for acceptance, and a few choice bits of humiliation at the hands of others. If the mages had one overarching weakness, it was the connection they all shared—the mark of the outsider.
Hethin stepped forward to access Casimir’s mind, and Casimir held his gaze idly, as if bored. All of his most precious memories lay buried beneath the barrier he weaved, but Hethin pushed no further; he seemed satisfied with what he found, as Casimir knew he would be.
“Well, that all seems in order,” Hethin said. “Your mind is a bit odd, you know—some of them are like water, but yours is like air. It feels like nothing to sift through.”
Casimir shrugged. “I have nothing to hide.”
“It would appear so. Well, welcome to the Hidden Vale. You’re welcome to our women, as well, when you’re bored. Tomorrow, we’ll hunt for our next sacrifice, and we’ll show you how the blood strengthens our magic.”
“I’m much obliged, Hethin.”
He nodded, looking Casimir over like an interesting project. “You’re of the old blood, son—quite strongly. Who was your father?”
“I’ve no idea,” Casimir lied.
Hethin made a contemplative noise. “We don’t see many of your kind around here. The nobles are too far up their own asses to debase themselves with a mage, usually. But here or there we find a girl running from her family.” He grinned. “They’re always good for sport.”
Casimir smirked a little, and Hethin’s smile widened.
“You’ll fit in just fine. Here, take a bedroll. I’m sure it’s been a long night.”
“Indeed,” Casimir said. “And I’m never my sharpest at night.”
With one raised eyebrow, Hethin absorbed the lie, in exactly the manner Casimir hoped.