Wolfram laughed callously and spat his spell across the ice towards Gwydion's head. The old man barely ducked as the Detonation scythed through the air, and smashed into the snowdrift behind. Gwydion jumped aside as snow began to tumble onto the shore, his own spell already forming on his lips. He felt the slight loss of energy as his retaliatory Strike bounced towards Wolfram.
Wolfram stepped aside easily, and raised his hands to work a curse, but at once a shield had formed from a myriad of glittering snowflakes in Gwydion's arms. The curse was deflected off in a halo of crimson light.
Wolfram did not strike again. He simply laughed.
"You are cowardly as ever, Master."
"So - you have returned," said Gwydion, in a voice colder than the floor beneath his feet. "Not that you're homesick, I'm sure."
"This was never my home, old man," snapped Wolfram. "It was my prison for seven long years."
"Well, there must be a reason why you have returned. It will be of the nature of self-improvement, I have no doubt."
"You read minds too well, old man. I have a mind to lop your head off right now so your interfering consciousness cannot bother me any longer."
"But, if my information is correct, you no longer have the Sword of Belendar," said Gwydion coolly. "Beaten were you? By a fifteen-year-old boy?"
"He was sixteen, you wizened old crone, and he is a Paladin."
"But surely no match for you? Noble Skathainian knight, long practised and better experienced in the magical arts than even an Elder of Winterealm? Surely a beardless sapling like your disarmer wouldn't have stood a chance?"
"He was strong, very strong," said Wolfram quietly. "I doubt a stronger Paladin exists in the Four-Ridings at present, let alone in the other realms."
"So you have come to seek revenge? Believing that in the discovery of his gift the boy would come here?"
"I seek only to take back what I have rightly earned, and punish those who took it from me."
"Call it what you will."
"But how are you planning to behead me without the Sword? You were never stronger than me without it, it was the Sword that engineered your escape."
"I am far stronger than you might think," said Wolfram triumphantly. "Your foolishness in allowing my escape has allowed me to regain my hold over certain other artefacts of Belendar's forge. I was forced to use such connections to rebuild my dead body after a brutal and unexpected attack which I had not foreseen."
"You died?" said Gwydion, sounding surprised for the first time. "And you came back? Quite an achievement, considering the feat is supposed to be impossible. I assume, once you win the Sword, you intend to disprove other elemental laws of magic?"
"I do not seek the Sword. The Sword is not in Winterealm. It is still with the youngling, who has found powerful allies. If Vollomeer had not betrayed me I would have been able to finish them, but as it was -"
"Vollomeer? You were in league with Vollomeer? Surely even you could realise Vollomeer was a scrounger, always intent on bettering himself through more talented friends then reaping the reward?"
"You know of his allegiances?"
"To himself, naturally. Which is why I never entrusted the real Lance of Belendar to him."
Wolfram fell silent for a moment.
"So my thoughts were correct, then?"
"What are your thoughts?"
"You tell me, mind-reader."
Gwydion scratched his chin pensively. "It was obvious. Vollomeer has, over the years, travelled greatly. He grew up in Summerealm, where he wed and had children. He did not remain with his family, however - his loyalties never stayed in one place for long. Over the years he has managed to worm his way into a number of powerful societies, including the Order of Belendar, wherein he was known as Odium."
"He was a master of disguise, then?"
"He was discreet, yes. You should take a spell out of his book, Wolfram. He is certainly in a position of much more power than you are at the moment, despite being an inferior spellcaster. And that is who you seek vengeance against, is it not? For betraying you and attempting to steal one of the Seven, you intend to do the same? Or do you have a different plan?"
"I don't think I will tell you, Master, not yet." Wolfram lifted his hands again. "You have grown weak. The hair that rests like snow on your cheeks is testament to your silver tongue and your dwindling powers."
"Whereas you seek only the objects of magic instead of refining your Gift, and are left defenceless without them."
Wolfram shot another curse at Gwydion's shield, which held fast. Gwydion laughed as if he were a young man again, and shot a much stronger Strike towards Wolfram. It skimmed across the snow too quickly for Wolfram to avoid, and crashed into his knee. Wolfram stumbled and Gwydion pressed his advantage. The shield burst forth in a shimmering shape to form a great snow cat, which bounded across the shore towards Wolfram, icy fangs bared -
Wolfram melted it with one swipe of the hand - it fell to the floor in a pool of water. The fire swept across the bank like a satanic lasso, back towards Gwydion, who was forced to block with magic.
A heavy bell had begun to toll in the distance. The alarm had been raised. More Elders would be here in moments.
Wolfram rebuffed Gwydion's flanking Strikes and shot another Detonation into the snow behind his head. Gwydion was forced to move forwards to avoid the double attack, and Wolfram approached to work his curse while Gwydion was undefended -
- and suddenly, Elders were appearing from below. Those with the Philosopher's Gift were already stabbing into Wolfram's mind with theirs, attempting to gain control of his body and isolate his Gift. Wolfram set up a strong wall in front of their attacks - they glanced off like spears on ice. Coldfires and Slipstreams were skimming across the water - Wolfram's energy was failing as he was forced to block each attack head on, with no methods of defence ...
... and then he remembered his reserve. The entire extra person he could use to fuel his duel.
He drew on the Collar. Far away his unfortunate daughter felt her body weakening as her energy was used against the Elders. Wolfram's hands glowed with her power. He sent forth a Frisson, which caught the Elders off guard - it streaked across the ground as a knife of white light, knocking out knees and causing spells and minds to falter.
Wolfram was gone with a swish of his cloak.
Gwydion got heavily to his feet.
"Every inhabitant of Winterealm is to know of Wolfram's return," said Gwydion, with a touch of fatigue. "We need search parties out looking for him - Athal, you can organise that - and for Belendar's sake, make sure his Lance isn't stolen!"
As it has had an unfortunate habit of doing, the Raven was once again watching an important exchange. It had known Wolfram was not dead - all he had needed to do was wait for Wolfram to confront Gwydion himself and reveal the information - the Raven needed not to get involved at all.
And now the Raven knew the ArchElder's plan, he would be the first one to take possession of the true Lance. The quarterstaff he had so foolishly left in the care of the Whitecloaks now meant nothing to him.
It was time to fly.