Eldquist stumbled a second before the wall of fire shot up in front of him. The conjuring was subtle enough most wouldn’t have felt it. His ability to sense such conjurings had saved his skin more than once. He turned to face his attacker, a counter-conjure ready at his finger tips. However, his inebriated state caused that conjuring to sputter and die in a flurry of sparkles and a high-pitched whistle so loud, his teeth ached. Iron manacles were slapped onto his wrists by a pair of gentlemen who appeared to be mountains made flesh and bone. Together, they raised the chains, now connecting his wrists, so his arms were stretched above his head, and he had to stand on his tip-toes.
The darkened alley brightened. Eldquist knew magic was responsible. The iron around his wrists kept him from sensing it. He hated that.
“Eldquist,” said a familiar voice. “You owe the Guild sixty crowns. I am here to collect.”
“Good luck,” he grumbled. Something punched him in the breadbasket. Hard. All the air left his body. He swung back and forth for a moment, held aloft by the flesh mountains on either side. When he settled again, the source of the magic was standing a few feet in front of him. Aside from the hooded cloak, he couldn’t make out any details, but he knew it had to be her.
“I don’t think you understand your predicament,” she said. With one hand, she drew back her hood. A blonde-haired woman of middle years stared at him through dark eyes. Except for a few wrinkles around the eyes, Khedsam hadn’t changed much since the last time he’d seen her. “If you don’t pay, I am fully authorized to revoke your membership. Without it, you will be unable to work as a Mage anywhere in the Three Kingdoms.” She touched the round patch on his robe, an identical one to her own. Both depicted the Guild Crest, a staff capturing lightning in the center, while the edge was a circle of fire and water intertwined to form a circle. “Don’t make me rip this off.”
Eldquist tried to laugh. It came out as a wheeze. “I don’t have it. Haven’t worked in ages. Not since Blister.” Everyone in the Guild knew about Blister and the mess he’d made of it.
Khedsam frowned. “How are you paying for your drinks?” When he didn’t answer, she threw another magical punch into his stomach. “Eldquist? Are you conjuring unsanctioned magic? Answer me.”
She turned up the heat. Literally. Eldquist felt his skin start to bubble and crack. Sweat beaded on his forehead and evaporated just as quickly. It was an old illusion-conjuring, used infrequently since the days when Questioners patrolled the Three Kingdoms in search of Vursh Worshipers. Soon he was screaming and begging for mercy.
“Answer the question,” she ordered him.
“Rat wards,” he wheezed. “I keep rats away from his storeroom, he gives me ale.”
“And fail to report the conjuring,” Khedsam said. “You are digging yourself a hole I won’t be able to get you out of. Leave us.”
The mountain men on either side of him moved away, yet Eldquist remained on his tip-toes, hands stretched out above him. Somehow, she was holding him aloft with magic despite the iron manacles around his wrists. How that worked, he didn’t know, and thinking about it made his head spin. Though that could have been the alcohol.
Khedam whispered, “This is for your own good. Remember that.”
Eldquist felt something wrap around his head, and fell into darkness.
# # #
Someone threw water on Eldquist, waking him from a dead sleep. He blinked through the bright light and felt an oppressive heat slam down on him. It took several minutes before he could sit up and look around. There was nothing to see but desert and blue sky. A quick thud followed by a whoosh drew his eyes left in time to see a fireball launched from a catapult arch up into the sky.
“Welcome to Hell,” said a rough voice.
Eldquist turned right and saw a grizzled mage in a tan robe with dark stripes standing over him. The man had short gray hair and a face that hadn’t seen a razor, or a cloudy sky, in a long time.
“Where am I?” Eldquist asked. A screeching shook the ground and he covered his ears.
“The front lines,” the mage said. “Or near enough to it.”
Jumping to his feet, Eldquist spun around, eyes taking in everything. He was in an open tent. Beyond were dozens more like it. Catapults were arranged among them and magi worked conjurings on the missiles, turning them into balls of flame, ice, and something green and glowing even Eldquist did not recognize. Those missiles flew up and over a great stone wall taller than any structure he’d ever seen before. In the sky above that wall, flew something Eldquist wished he could un-see.
“A dragon?” the mage said. “Aye. Little bugger, too. You should see the fully grown ones. Now, when they shout, you feel it in your bones.”
“I’ve got to get out of here,” Eldquist said.
The mage grinned. “Everyone says that when they first arrive. You’ll get used to it. Or something will eat you.”
Eldquist pointed at the wall. “That really is Hell. Right there. The Blasted Lands. Demons. I can’t be here. I have to go.” He looked around but all he saw were tents, magi, catapults and sand.
“Where do you think you will go?” the mage asked.
“Anywhere is better than here,” Eldquist answered.
“Then whyever did you enlist?”
Five steps towards the edge of the tent, Eldquist stopped walking. He turned and said, “I what now?”
The mage unrolled a scroll and held it up. “You enlisted. This is your mark?”
Squinting, Eldquist stared at the mark on the bottom of the page. All the heat drained away from his body. Words failed him.
“Perhaps I should’ve introduced myself,” the mage said. “Captain Leggit, second in command for the Imperial Magi, of which you are our newest member.” He turned the scroll around, looked at it, and said, “Ah, Eldquist, is it?”
Eldqust felt a panic rising in his throat. “She didn’t,” he whispered. “She couldn’t.”
“She?” asked the Captain.
“That harpy,” Eldquist said. “Evil, traitorous, backstabbing–”
“Who are you speaking of?”
“My sister,” Eldquist said. “She conscripted me.”