Fletcher opened his eyes, but all he saw was darkness. He groaned and nudged Ignatius, whose claw was splayed across his chin. The demon complained with a sleepy mewl, before tumbling on to the cold stone beneath them.
‘Good morning. Or whatever time it is,’ Fletcher mumbled, flaring a wyrdlight into existence. It hung in the air like a miniature sun, spinning gently.
The room was bathed in cold, blue light, revealing the cramped, windowless cell that was paved with smooth flagstones. In the corner lay a latrine, a simple hole in the ground that was covered by a jagged piece of slate. Fletcher stared at the large iron door embedded in the wall opposite him.
As if on cue, there was a rattle as the small flap at the bottom of the door eased back and a mailed hand pushed through the gap. It groped around for the empty bucket that sat beside the door. The sound of gurgling followed and the bucket was replaced, sloshing with water. Fletcher watched the flap expectantly, then groaned as he heard the echo of footsteps walking away.
‘No food again, buddy,’ Fletcher said, rubbing a crestfallen Ignatius under his chin.
It wasn’t unusual; sometimes the gaoler just didn’t bother bringing food. Fletcher’s stomach growled, but he ignored it and reached for the loose stone he kept beside his bed to scratch another notch in the wall. Though it was hard to tell the time with no natural light, he assumed that he received food and water – or sometimes, like today, just water – once a day. He didn’t need to count the hundreds of notches on the wall to know how long he had been imprisoned – he knew them by heart now.
‘One year,’ Fletcher sighed, settling back into the straw. ‘Happy anniversary.’
He lay there contemplating the reason for his imprisonment. It had all started that one night, when his childhood nemesis, Didric, had cornered him in a crypt and tried to murder him, gloating about his father’s plans to turn the entire village of Pelt into a prison.
And then came Ignatius, from out of nowhere, burning Didric as he advanced, giving Fletcher time to escape. The little demon had risked his own life to save Fletcher’s, even in the first moments of their bond. In the aftermath, Fletcher had become a fugitive, for he knew Didric’s family would lie through their teeth to frame him for attempted murder. His only consolation was that if it hadn’t happened, he might never have made it to Vocans Academy.
Had it really been two whole years since Ignatius entered his life, and he first set foot in that ancient castle? He could remember his last moments there so clearly. His best friend Othello had earned the respect of the generals and convinced his fellow dwarves not to rebel against the Hominum Empire. Sylva had cemented the peace between their races and had proven herself and the other elves worthy allies. Even Seraph, the first commoner to be elevated to nobility in over a thousand years, had impressed his fellow nobles during the Tournament. Perhaps most satisfying of all, the Forsyth plot to create a new war with the elves and dwarves, in order to profit their weapons business, had been foiled completely. It had all been so perfect.
Until Fletcher’s past came back to haunt him.
Ignatius gave Fletcher an owlish blink from his amber eyes, sensing his master’s despondency. He nudged Fletcher’s hand with the end of his snout. Fletcher gave him a halfhearted swipe, but the demon dodged out of the way and nipped the tip of his finger.
‘All right, all right.’ Fletcher grinned at the boisterous demon, the pain distracting him from his misery. ‘Let’s get back to training. I wonder what spell we should practise today?’
He reached under the pile of straw that was his bedding and removed the two books that had kept him sane over the past year. He didn’t know who had hidden them there for him, only that they had taken a great risk in doing so. Fletcher was eternally grateful to his mysterious benefactor; without the books he would have been driven mad with boredom. There were only so many games that he and Ignatius could play in the tight confines of the cell.
The first was the standard book of spellcraft, the same one they had all used in Arcturus’s lessons. It was slim, for it contained only a few hundred symbols and the proper techniques for etching them. Before, Fletcher had only been vaguely familiar with them, so he could pass his exams – preferring to focus on perfecting the four main battle-spells. Now, he was able to picture every single symbol from memory, and could etch them in his sleep.
The second book was thick, so much so that whoever had hidden it had removed the leather cover to make it more easily concealable in the straw. It was James Baker’s journal, the book that had started Fletcher on his path to becoming a trained battlemage. Within its pages, Fletcher had found a dozen new spells, diligently copied by the late summoner from the walls of ancient orcish ruins. Moreover, Baker had studied scores of orcish demons, detailing their relative power, abilities and statistics. Now Fletcher was an expert too. Perhaps most fascinating of all, Baker had compiled all of his knowledge of orcish culture, including their strategies and their weapons, in the journal. It was a veritable treasure trove of knowledge, which Fletcher had devoured in a few days, only to immediately begin again and hunt for details he might have missed.
These two volumes were all that distracted him from the deafening silence of the outside world. Every night, he dreamed of his friends, wondering where they might be. Did they battle on the front lines while he rotted in the bowels of the earth? Had they been killed by an orcish javelin or a Forsyth dagger?
But the most torturous thought of all was knowing that his adoptive father Berdon was close by, in the village above him. He remembered when the prison transport had brought him back to Pelt in the dead of night. He had peered through the cracks in the armoured wagon, desperate to catch a glimpse of his childhood home. But before he could get a proper look, the gaolers threw a sack over his head and dragged him away.
As Fletcher lapsed into miserable silence once more, Ignatius growled restlessly before snorting a tongue of flame that singed the straw beneath them.
‘Wow, we are impatient today!’ Fletcher exclaimed, powering up a tattooed finger with a blast of mana. ‘OK, you asked for it. Let’s see how you like the telekinesis spell.’
He allowed a thin stream of mana through his fingertip, the spiral symbol glowing violet until a strip of air shimmered above it. Ignatius began to back away, but Fletcher whipped his hand at the mischievous demon, curling the ribbon of energy around his belly and flinging him upwards. The demon splayed his claws and dug them into the ceiling, showering Fletcher with a trickle of dust. Before Fletcher had time to react, Ignatius hurled himself down, twisting in midair like a cat with his claws and tailspike pointed at Fletcher’s face. It was only through a desperate roll that Fletcher avoided it, then spun on his heels to find the room cast in darkness. Ignatius had slashed the wyrdlight during his attack, snuffing it out like a candle.