Three days later we were making our way under willows heavy laden with a coating of ice, and across the snow covered causeways through the marsh to Omar’s tower. None of the river men in the marsh port would take us the more direct route, as there was no river to traverse, only the frozen swamp.
“You are fools to go,” one of them, a grizzled riverman with ice in his beard told us. “Not even the wizard of the tower dares traverse it.”
His words rang true. We lost two horses to some surprisingly thin ice on a frozen bog.
And, almost in the shadow of the tower the south men were at their most mutinous, openly voicing their desires to turn back. But there, amongst the cold caress of the frozen willows, I could feel it, feel him, feel the nothingness, feel the void that Arcory had left to us all. Even as it filled me with a despair I hadn’t felt since the fall of Kindereon in the darkest days of the first war of the alliance, I was filled with a sharp clarity.
Omar Blackrock, my most successful apprentice, even perhaps the most well regarded of the fourteen I had guided, had been the thief. I wished the realization had not made the great sense it did.
I had to be sure, even as I cursed myself for not seeing what I should have suspected in Omar’s words, in his warnings.
I urged my horse across the ice, the branches snapping as I brushed through them towards the Keith, who had dismounted as his scouts checked the land between us and the tower for the safest route. The margrave glanced back towards me as I made my way though a stand of brittle reeds.
“Give me your stone,” I asked him, watched him glance over at me, breath white in consideration. He narrowed his eyes at me, breathed out his own white cloud.
“What is it?” He wanted to know unmoving. Perhaps the cold had dulled his senses. This was the first time since we’d left his own marshes I’d asked to see his stone. Then his eyes brightened and nodded to the north. “Is this the place? Is the wizard of that tower the thief?
“I don’t know as yet, something in the air perhaps,” I offered, held out my hand “I will return it to you in a moment.”
He returned to his tall golden brown steed and opened up his saddlebag, pulled out his stone. It was large as Arcory stones went, three times the size of his fist. I could see, even from the distance, the runes that Arcory had carved in it were faintly glowing. The Keith, however, didn’t appear to notice. He brought it to me and set it in my hands without further comment.
I took the cold stone, heavy in my hand, heavy in my heart. Felt its smoothness, its numbing essence.
“How much, of you is in this one, my old master,” I whispered to the dark grey stone. “And what were your intentions for this creation, truly?. What were you planning?”
As with all the other, this one held silent to its secrets. I thought of my master in his last days of the year following the end of the Riven War, the end of the conjunction.
He had become chaotic, unpredictable, perhaps even mad, as the war wound down and what he had brought to our world, what he had created, had to be fought as much as that which had invaded from the Underworld and Overworld. At times he seemed drunk with power, at others, frantic with dread, the need to preserve his power, his legacy. There were many who thought of him, even I, at the time had turned from the path and would attempt to pattern himself just like our enemies – we all thought. But there were times… times when he was his old self. He would plead for me to trust him… and just as quickly he would bellow for me to leave him alone.
He fooled us all, myself more than most. I looked again to the stone.
“Are you fooling us again? Are you fooling me?”
That was the reason we parted the way we did, the reason why I betrayed him in the end. I would no longer be manipulated, nor follow the terrible path I was sure he had committed himself to. My trust had by then cost many too, too much.