Ixiel the Savant. Ixiel the Callow. What songs do they sing of thee? What hymns are carried in the shriek of every whippoorwill, what is cried out under the baleful moon? What do they intone of thee before mournful pyres? What glimpse is shared among the shadows?
"Once more," Xiomendes commanded, "No mistakes."
"In the beginning, there was the void," the boy began, "Then the sun came and the world of light was made. From the ocean, Valerius emerged, the land of earth and fire and wind. From the clay, man was sculpted, hardened in the kiln, and given breath. He was made to see and walk the world of light.” The boy hesitated, then continued, “His shadow was cast into the void and became demons."
"Good," the old man affirmed, nodding gravely.
"The worlds of light and dark were forever joined by magic. It is the thread that binds and the veil that keeps them apart. In the world of light, man was forged in the crucible of combat. The best sons of Valerius rose and fell in trial by arms and the land was soaked in blood. In the void, demons bided their time."
"And of the veil?" the old man inquired.
"In their arrogance man tore the veil. From the other side Tyrannus rose. Soaked in the blood of the fallen and seething with man's hatred he came to break their will and consume their spirit. The Kingdom of Valerius rallied its army. The fiercest warriors met Tyrannus with hearts full and steel bared. But in field and siege he smote them all."
"And what saved mankind when their brutish warriors were bested?"
The boy wanted to clear his throat. His mouth was dry. The ground he knelt on was stony and uneven. His back ached. Sweat rolled untrammeled down his shaven brow and burned his eyes. He continued.
"In the darkest hours the king and knights of Valerius turned to the Sages of the Order. Channeling the world's thread, they repelled the demon with great sorcery. Where steel failed, the Order found victory. Where knight was broken, they prevailed and the riven veil was sealed."
"What of the Sages, boy?" the old man warned, "Look smart now."
"In the years after the banishment, man forgot. Where once there was bravery, now there was intrigue. Where once there was fellowship, now there was war. The sages...” The boy’s focus faded. He could feel the old man's eyes bore into him. "The sages...”
He could hear the tapping of a foot.
“The sages... left. The Order was broken."
The stick came down with a blinding thud. Skin stinging and head ringing, Isidore looked up at the once kindly old man. His unveiled face, so often home to a smile, was barren and cragged with years. Sky blue eyes frosted over with the imminence of age.
"The sages gone, the order was broken!"
The boy struggled back to his knees. One prod from Xiomendes staff sent him back on his side.
"Repeat it, ward."
"The sages gone, the order was broken."
Tears mingled with sweat trickling down a bruised face.
"Who remains, Isidore?"
"The Cowled remain. In courts the Archwizard gives counsel and the Walkers trace forgotten paths. They keep the old ways. They watch the veil."
"And keep the thread mended," he barked, "Where is your head, boy? Get up. Again."
The boy scrambled to his knees and bowed his head. In unsteady voice he repeated the recitation. More blows landed and Isidore of Elea was cut above the eye. It mattered not. His mind was elsewhere, with another.
Delia was strong. Delia was clever. Delia was favored. Sable-haired and chocolate-eyed with tears like dew drops on a spring day, her voice like a warm breeze through river reeds. On the day they found her it was as if she emerged splendid from a golden tinged dream and that moment became a piece of forever that would be carried on and on until the sun burned out and all was darkness and nothing once more.
Isidore struggled. To be a pupil of the Walkers was to be dust swept from the pathways and kicked down every open road. Valerius is unkind. Far from his distant homeland, Isidore found the weather frightful, the days long beneath the burning sun. Shorn of all hair and soaked in the sweat of toil, he was told that a true wizard never sweats and rebuked for lack of control. The trees and fields that had once meant freedom were now thickets within which lurked the predatory and depraved. Knowledge was the quest. Only companionship was solace. Maxims were daily. Discipline was rigid.
“Where there is light a shadow is cast. What is a gift is also a curse.”
The rod struck the idle child.
“There is strength in conviction but strength is not a conviction.”
The night was cold and lonely.
“Ambition, pride, talent—these are excuses for corruption.”
Their path the one least trodden, the Walkers were reduced over centuries from an exalted order to an amorphous collective. Where there were four that took Isidore from his village, by the year's end eight walked. In the following summer, he and Xiomendes were but two. By winter their number had doubled again. In a field conversing with spirits they found Delia and were five. From that day forth, they were never less than three.
Over the trails the boy grew but never lost his smooth faced youth. Between shaves he appeared fair-haired with high-boned cheeks, gray eyes brooding like a cloudy day far from storm but free of sun. Isidore grew long, but remained quill thin and feather light, something of a bird among men, ethereal and soaring and hollow. Yet he was in his manfulnes all the same when he noticed Delia.
His studies suffered. The child of spare conditions who had wanted for nothing in the poverty of his life found himself suddenly consumed by desire. Where he had once been precocious he was forgetful and distracted. The welts of Xiomendes’ displeasure painted his skin a tapestry of bruises, like the hide of a mangy animal. Delia was not without eyes. Nor was she without sympathy.
She was, however, without interest.
Spurned in all love, Isidore grew rebellious. Where he was instructed to lift a stick, he chose to uproot a tree. When a stone were to be broken in two, he ground boulders to dust. Unaware of the motives of his pupil's renewed interest in the Fifth Art, Xiomendes was at once awed and concerned by the boundless power wielded by the inexperienced boy. In turns he offered praise and counseled control.
“Control,” Isidore mused, “Is indeed the best course of action.”
And so the willful boy began to appreciate what “will” truly meant. The moths that had once chased a figure crafted of fire now danced to the direction of his fingers. His companions were delighted at how easily dinner fell in their snares, though never sure of the cause of their good fortune. In nightly whispers he visited his darling and coaxed her attention. His intense stares of longing became intoxicating provocations.
But his victory, assured as the seasons, was hollow.
In the winter of his sixteenth year, Isidore's tutor took ill with fever and died by a campfire while being tended by his ward. In the last mournful moments before Xiomendes closed his eyes forevermore, Isidore recollected the kindly old man who had rescued him from obscurity and given him purpose. In exchanged glances and frowns the two said more than words could imagine. Thus it was that Xiomendes passed from this world.
In the morning, Delia was gone. Where the three had been inseparable there was left the matter of Isidore. He thought back to his home village, caught in the shadow of Monticolus, and found he could not recall its name. Nor could he remember the paths that would take him there again. Even so, would his mother recognize the hairless face? Was she even alive? Was he?
No. Isidore son of Elea passed from this world the day he left his own village. The man that remained was something else, though within him were pieces of what had come before. Isidore. Xiomendes. Elea. Ixiel of the Cowl was born. A lone figure abandoned the funeral pyre of his mentor to walk the forgotten paths of Valerius, to wander in search of what was lost.
Yet he walked not alone. A new teacher had found Ixiel, one that came in whispers on the night with promises of things greater than what he had been denied. It told of ancient pathways and of artifacts that were older than mankind itself. In the fire’s shadow on the edge darkness, young Ixiel smiled.