The Darkest Hour by M.J.Ryder: Chapter 1

Phae stood wide-eyed and trembling as all around her young apprentices ran for their lives. She searched around desperately for means of escape, but the fire was everywhere. Searing flames leapt across bookshelves and between timber roof supports, stoked by burning texts that exploded like fire-crackers as their magically-imbued pages caught alight and combusted, adding their material to the raging heat of the inferno.

Across the room Master Logan was furiously attempting to organise some of the more experienced magic users into fire-fighting teams to try and quench the blaze. It was no good. One by one the exits to the Halls of Meditation were cut off, leaving only a single doorway into the streets of Asturia.

Logan called out to her.

“Phae, run! We need to get out of here now!”

Phae flinched as she watched the chaotic scene unfold about her, her hands still ablaze with the fierce fire magic that she had been so desperately trying to control. She couldn’t move. Her whole body was paralysed with fear.

Logan called out to her again. “Phae!”

She looked up, and saw him gesturing to the exit that was already starting to crumble as the age-old wooden building slowly burnt to the ground. She watched as above them one of the huge supporting roof beams started to crack. The remaining mages ran for the door, Logan with them. At the last moment he paused and turned back. He ran over to her and scooped her fragile body up in his arms. “Your father would kill me if I left you alone in here.”

Just then the cracked beam above them started to give way. The whole building shook as the remaining supports struggled to take the extra weight. Logan dashed for the door, but it was already too late. He stumbled as the beam fell, and Phae was sent crashing to the floor. As she fell she turned for sight of the brave water-mage, but by now the smoke was so thick she could barely see further than her own outstretched hand.

Somewhere amidst the smoke, a cry of pain reached her ears. The sound of Logan’s despairing cries snapped her out of her temporary paralysis. She struggled to her feet. “Master Logan?”

The voice of the water-mage was faint. “Phae…”

“Master Logan where are you?”

“Down here!”

Cautiously Phae felt her way through the smoke, following the coughs of her would-be rescuer towards their source. More through luck than judgement, she stumbled across the mage a few feet away, trapped under a pile of wood and debris that must have struck him as he fell. Both his legs were broken.

Phae knelt down beside him and tried to move him, but realised her hands were still ablaze with magic. She struggled for control, but amidst the noise and confusion of the fire, she was helpless. Tears streamed from her eyes.

She did her best to brush them away on her sleeve. “We need to get you out of here.”

“Can’t,” the mage coughed. “Too hot… legs broken. Tell your father I’m sorry…”

As the water-mage started to fade, Phae could feel her frustration continue to grow. The flames on her hands doubled in size as all around her the fire burned even more brightly, and the heat grew even more intense. She wanted it to stop.

She looked around anxiously for some means of moving the injured mage but couldn’t see anything of use amidst the smoke. She never meant to hurt anyone. She never meant to…

Phae fell to her knees as the flames finally closed in around them, sucking away the final few gasps of air left in the Halls. It was hopeless.

“I don’t want to die,” Phae wept. On the floor beside her, Logan lay perfectly still. If he hadn’t passed already, it wouldn’t be long now. “It’s all my fault…”

“It’s not your fault Phae – you’re not going to die.”


As the word left her lips, a funnel of air pierced the smoke above her, pushing the choking fumes away. There were strong magics building around her. The flames that had just moments before threatened to consume her suddenly started to retreat. As the smoke cleared further she could just make out the floating form of her father, arms outstretched, extending his magics across the ravaged Halls, slowly beating back the flames until they were finally reduced to nothing.

As the flames died, Phae dared a glance at the stricken water-mage by her side. Though his breathing was faint, he was alive; but only just. Breathing seemed a small mercy for poor Master Logan when every breath he took was torture. Phae knew he didn’t have long.

As the fire dissipated, small teams of mages bravely re-entered what was left of the Halls to quench the smouldering remains. As they did so, the still distant figure of her father descended from his position up in the rafters to land amidst the charred ruins of his once-proud Halls. Phae struggled to her feet and ran over to him. He held her tightly in his arms until eventually the flames that had covered her hands fizzled out and she was restored to her normal self. That the returning mages had seen the shameful mark of her crime was in no doubt. She buried her face deeply in her father’s cloak.

“It’s alright Phae, it’s over now. The fire’s out and everyone is safe.”

Phae looked up into her father’s eyes. “Everyone?”

Her father shot a concerned look over to the far end of the hall where four mages struggled with a laden stretcher. Even from this distance he could tell the experienced Master Logan had only a slim chance of survival at best. He looked down at his frightened daughter whose eyes still streamed with tears. Beneath his arms he could feel her fragile form trembling. He wiped her tears away as best he could. “Everyone,” he said firmly.

She struggled to free herself from his grasp. “You’re lying!” she cried. Several mages turned their heads towards them.

“Phae I’m not lying to you.”

“Yes you are!” she replied. “Can’t you see that his life-force is spent? He’ll be dead within the hour and it’s all my fault!” Wiping her tears on the back of her sleeve, Phae ran from the Halls. Her father called out and was about to run after her when all of a sudden he stopped in his tracks. The weight of two dozen pairs of eyes fixed on him, waiting for his instruction. They had seen everything. They knew what had caused the destruction of the Halls. They knew who was responsible. He surveyed the scene before him. The Halls of Meditation were lost. The walls were nearly all burnt to the ground, and only the husk of the building’s skeleton remained, its charred, blackened frame a sharp reminder of the vastly dangerous, uncontrollable power his daughter wielded.

Callum sighed to himself as he considered his options. There was nothing else for it – the Halls of Meditation would have to come down.

*     *     *     *     *

The night was dark; far darker than it had been for many months now. Even the great pole star Illustus in the north shone dimly, and the old world’s moons were but two faded smudges in an overcast canvas of grey. As the night drew on, a cold easterly breeze swept across the island, bringing with it a rolling bank of dense fog that settled on the city streets and enveloped the Magical Isle in a cold, damp, impenetrable mist.

Even from his position high atop the tallest tower of the Wizards’ Citadel, Callum could only faintly make out the shapes of a few towers and rooftops tall enough to pierce the fog. Not even the street-lanterns of the wizards could penetrate the mist; their bright lights reduced to nothing more than faint, eerie glows as the greatest city in the realm of men was reduced to nothing more than a panorama of dull grey.

Callum pulled his cloak tightly around him as the cold easterly wind bit into his skin, bringing with it another rolling bank of fog to shroud the streets in mist. It was a cold night already, but he knew they were not over the worst of it yet. Strange that such weather should hit them in the middle of the summer months, but a welcome relief from the cloying intensity of the hottest summer days anyone could remember for at least half a century.

He looked to the east in search of even the faintest rays of light that might signal the approaching dawn, but found the horizon as chocked with thick cloud and mist as were the city streets below him. At best guess, he didn’t have too much longer to wait. He had already spent most of the night pacing atop the tower, waiting for the coming day. A few more hours wouldn’t hurt. At least it would give him time to think.

It was at times like these that he missed Kiera most. She had been gone nearly six months now, and if the absence of her mother was having a significant effect on their daughter Phae, the absence of his wife was really starting to take its toll. Even after all their years of marriage, he loved her just as much now as he did the day he had first set eyes on her in a small tavern in the town of Osten.

He thought fondly of the time he and his best friend Aaron had first encountered the young swordswoman. She had saved them from a local gang of thugs that day, and from that moment on their fate together had been sealed. Their path had taken them to the forbidden lands in the south, and then further south still as they found themselves embroiled in the midst of a dark conspiracy to bring the realm of men to its knees. Kiera’s own personal journey had culminated in her taking the path of the Lintari, and so joining a small band of mysterious warrior-folk bound to the earth and gifted with its powers that they might act as defenders of the old world and keepers of the peace.

Of course they had met many other companions on their travels, and none more important than the water-mage Lena, whose keen intelligence and bravery had saved Callum’s life more times than he could count. While she had always been a powerful, if unrefined magic-user, she had grown in stature while travelling with Callum and his company, and had grown to a power far in advance of any water-mage he had ever met. She quite literally shared a “bond” with the ocean, that was at once both fiercely impressive yet at the same time, terrifying for anyone who knew as he did, the great power a mage of her ilk could draw from the sea.

Fortunately, of all the mages alive in the realm of men, while there were few more powerful than Lena, there were certainly none he trusted more, and she had grown, along with Aaron and Kiera, to be one of his closest and dearest friends. Of course while he himself had fallen helplessly in love with Kiera as their adventures took their course, this wasn’t to say that he was the only one to fall in love. While they had travelled, Lena had grown ever closer to his friend Aaron, and now, some years later, the two lived in a small house on the edge of the city.

Callum supressed a laugh as he imagined what Aaron would think of him now, standing alone atop the tallest tower in the Citadel, looking out over the mist-shrouded city, waiting for the new dawn. If he wasn’t complaining about the weather, or his insatiable hunger, Aaron frequently spent much of his time trying his very best to rile Kiera, or find some excuse to pick on Callum. Now he thought about it, Callum was certain if his friend knew what he was doing at this moment, he’d probably tell him to stop moping and get some sleep. Yes, that was Aaron alright – blunt, sarcastic, but in his own strange way, incredibly caring and thoughtful.

Callum paused for a moment and considered going to find his friend for a chat and an early morning cup of tea. Though Aaron would no-doubt complain bitterly at having his sleep disturbed, Callum knew on the inside he wouldn’t mean it. Aaron would more than willingly give his life for him, and he’d likewise do the same for his friend. They’d been through too much together already not to know what the other would think.

Callum sighed as his thoughts worked their natural way back to the main reason he couldn’t sleep; the reason he stood atop the ‘Isle’s highest tower in the middle of the night. Phae was at once his deepest, most profound love, yet also the source of his greatest problems. She had only just recently celebrated her fifteenth birthday, and yet from the moment she had come forth into the world, she had been trouble.

The problem came of course, from her parentage. Born of a union never before witnessed in the realm of men, Phae had blood inside her with the potential to make her one of the most powerful beings the old world had ever known. Both he and Kiera had studied hard before finally agreeing to have children, and though he’d always wanted some of his own, the prospect of melding mage with Lintari had at first been one he was not keen to consider. “The danger is just too great,” he had said – the Lintari didn’t have children for a reason, and for Kiera to have a child with the most powerful magic-user in the realm was asking for trouble.

He just hadn’t known how much trouble. Callum sighed fondly, as he considered his daughter in all her flawed brilliance.  For all the difficulties she had caused since her birth – all the fires, the earthquakes, and even the odd summoned creature from beyond, he wouldn’t change her for the world. From the moment she had been born a bond had been formed between them far stronger than he could have ever imagined. It wasn’t just a bond of parenthood – it was a bond of magic.

Kiera didn’t quite understand when he had tried to explain it to her, but there was something between them – something they shared – that made them far closer than mere father and daughter. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but it was there nonetheless, always in the background; an awareness of the other closer still than even his bond with his wife. What was it old Kulgrim had said, “Magic works in strange ways,” yes that was it, and certainly no stranger than it had worked to help bring about Phae – a child of unparalleled magical potential, but a child nonetheless. She was growing up fast, and while even her formative years had proved troublesome, her journey into adolescence had taken her problems to a whole new level, and every day Callum could see she seemed to be in less control. The fire in the Halls of Meditation would be only the beginning.

He had to do something, but he didn’t know what.

Phae was a danger: both to herself and to the people around her. Were she not his daughter, Callum knew all too well that the citizens of Asturia would be far less “forgiving” of her episodes. Only last week she had unleashed a mini-tornado in the library…

Callum sighed again as he considered his options. Though the day would remain cold well into the morning, the first rays of dawn were at long last starting to break their way through the mist on the horizon.

It was time to make a decision. It was time to see Aaron.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.