Earlier this year, I wrote two short stories that probably require a knowledge of Book 3, since most of the material won’t make sense otherwise. While I work on editing Book 6, I figured I’d post them anyway! This one is the second I wrote, but the most self-contained, so it seems like the better one to read first. It deals with how That Bastard Shaidaxi Enkhaelen ended up starting his metastatic mage program. Read on if you know what that means — or if you’re just randomly intrigued.
Includes: Body horror, death.
Recommended knowledge: The metastatics, the truth of the Palace.
Approx date: 30 years before series.
Description: Enkhaelen tracks down a rogue splinter with an unexpected perspective.
Shaidaxi found his rebel splinter just south of Pinetop, in a village too spirit-shaded to notice without his sort of senses. He felt the little watcher-spirits flinch back at his proximity, vanishing from their stone and wooden statues as he paced up the path. Out of respect for Shaskret and Daxfora, he didn’t pursue them. He would have words with the Owl and Fox about this later, perhaps.
Most likely not.
By the time the first of the cottages came into view, all of the spirit-traces within his perception’s reach had evacuated. They knew him too well. He might have cause to regret that some day, but like all his other some-days, it didn’t matter yet. His freedom was measured in moments, any slip liable to get him re-entombed.
A slip like this. A rogue splinter, no matter how innocuous its activities, endangered the whole.
His awareness slithered out at ground-level, passing through walls of dead wood and stone as if through empty air. Any other mage—even a necromancer—would be foolish to use their soul like this, fingering around the edges of others’ lives, but he was too strong to be denied by anything mortal and most things elsewise. One by one, he tagged the people he encountered, linking them to his spiderweb of potential control. He had no cause to harm them yet, except that they had been witness to whatever his splinter had done here.
Which looked, so far, like nothing. The cottages he passed were typical high-country Darronwayn, built low and solid and with the canted roofs required of snowy territory, though in some disrepair. Their decorated eaves and lintels held more spirit watchpoints, now abandoned. Half-wild gardens bloomed vigorously in the late-spring warmth, untroubled by the thick shade cast by the great trees and shale ledges that surrounded this dell. Water trickled somewhere, irritating his ears, but though the ground underfoot was moist, he didn’t sense any water features large enough to bother him.
Not that he had much trouble with water, or anything, when he wore a corpse. His natural aversion just shouted at him to beware.
Newly stoked cook-smoke threaded the air, the daylight fading beyond the mountain peaks. He’d picked this time deliberately, watching on scry until all the foresting and foraging villagers had turned for home. He didn’t like leaving loose ends.
In the fifth cottage, having counted seventeen people so far, he found himself. The recognition was instant, alarm echoing through that splinter-soul, and he cursed absently and cast his web wide. No more quiet stroll. Rebel splinters never went peacefully.
There—thirty-six more people tagged in an instant. He found the boundary of the village and hooked his power around to encircle it, then pulled down teleport- and realm-blocking wards plus a physical barrier from his ever-present array. He wasn’t interested in a chase. Not with the splinter, and not with any stray mortals and their foolish ideas.
With a space this small, the wards immediately gave it a bottled feel. He felt awareness prick the nerves of a handful of villagers—more sensitive or wary than their kin—and smiled faintly. Some good material, perhaps, and evidence that the spirits hadn’t triggered any alarms earlier. Yes, they knew him quite well.
On a lazy day, he might have waited for the people to emerge, drawn by curiosity or fear. On a rushed one, he would have puppeted them outside immediately, the splinter included. But he was feeling more tactful than usual. Less inclined to make a spectacle. So as the unease spread within the cottages, he crossed the tiny village green and halted at his splinter’s door.
It was neither warded nor trapped. Not even latched. Peculiar.
Six people lived and breathed within, the splinter not included; it wore a corpse like him. All were in a state of tension, and one in pain. As he focused on them, he realized that they were also tainted in some way. A strange bitter tang, an aberration of biology.
Experiments? he wondered. That would explain why the splinter had gone off-track.
No one rushed the door, so he pulled it open. The space just inside was a boot-room, with typical symbolic placations painted on the inner door to ward off the Winter Graces. That one was unlatched as well, and opening it led him straight into the main chamber, which might once have been a combination cook-space and den. Now it was dominated by the too-familiar shape of a dissection table—wooden, unusually—and walled with cabinets full of ceramic jars and specimen cases and carefully organized supplies. Two more doors, closed, led to either side and what he expected were storage and bed-spaces.
They didn’t matter. All the occupants were here.
His splinter stood across the table, facing him, of course. None of his selves could ever resist the impulse toward drama. It wore the body he’d pinned it in: a standard Darronwayn hawk-blood, slight and dark-haired and pale-eyed, much like his own vessel. It had been meant to infiltrate a Firebird cult further up-mountain. Why it stood here with a puppeteer’s wheel suddenly flaring at its back, strings striking out to paralyze the others…
Well, he could see one reason. A massive goiter clung to the chest and throat of the man strapped to the table. It had been partially exposed, the skin peeled back to show not the usual fleshy mass of tissue but something knotted and dark and strangely fibrous. Unfamiliar. Despite himself, he found his interest piqued.
A glance to the gathered others showed him more. Held tight by his splinter’s puppet-strings, they could not flinch from his gaze. Fading surgery scars marked one man’s reshaped jaw, the skin trimmed to fit around shaved-down bone. A youth’s torso showed lopsided beneath his baggy tunic, something bulging out through the bars of his ribs. A little girl wore a bandage across one eye, transplanted skin apparent on her cheek. A shirtless older man wore his arm in a sling, his left shoulder and pectoral area swollen with bulbous growths.
And a woman stood beside the splinter like a helper, dark hair bound neatly back and staunching-cloths in hand. Her stiff-boned corset could not hide the malformation of her chest.
Shaidaxi’s eyes narrowed. He never took assistants from the experimental populace. Never used non-self help at all now, since hunting down his last treacherous apprentice. The woman’s other hand was frozen on the patient, so perhaps she was there for support, and yet…
She bothered him. They all bothered him. Despite their paralysis, they weren’t afraid. He would have been able to taste that. They seemed…prepared. Resigned but ready.
This couldn’t be a trap. No splinter could outwit him. But…
The splinter stared at him for a moment, scalpel in one hand, the other pinched on a tendril of the strange dark growth. Several tendrils had already been flayed from the healthy flesh and hung not-quite-limp, their edges twitching subtly. Blood freckled the splinter’s gloves and apron, but not much, and very little oozed from the edges of the incisions. All was under control.
“Ah. You,” said the splinter, then looked down at its work.
“Ah, you,” Shaidaxi mimicked, annoyed. Detouring to provide interesting medical assistance was typical, but this—
The itch started in his distant living skull, and he sighed. An affectation and a signal.
The splinter flicked another glance to him, false-scarred brow arching, then mirrored the sigh and set down the scalpel. “You had to catch me at work, you piece of shit. Let me close him up first.”
“I’ll allow it. I’m just here for you.”
“You picked a terrible time.”
“You made a bad choice. That’s not my problem.”
A sneer twitched the splinter’s lip. Shaidaxi hadn’t reshaped its face to look like himself—not like he’d shaped this long-term corpse-body. To the others’ eyes, they would seem distant cousins at best. He saw them trying to stir, felt their heartbeats kicking up, but the puppet-strings kept them in place. Kept them safe, for now.
“I think this very much is your problem.” The splinter nodded to the dark growth, then folded the skin back into place and stripped off its left glove. The man on the table whimpered, his hoped-for salvation lost, and for a moment Shaidaxi regretted his interruption.
But the itch meant they were watching. Meant that something about this situation had caught his minders’ interest, or his master’s. Either they thought him likely to do something foolish, or he was edging on a secret.
Stepping to the table’s edge, he set a hand on the wood and fixed his attention on the splinter’s face. His fingers traced idle patterns, underlain by the scent of burning, as he said, “My problem is that you went off-task. How are we to enlighten the world if we get distracted by every medical oddity we pass?”
Source? Importance? said the char-marks below his view, in Gheshvan pictograms.
The splinter’s gaze flicked down, then up. Extending two fingers, it lit faint needles of energy and began stitching the flesh together, only diverting from its work briefly to graze the straining skin. The man on the table had closed his eyes, tears leaking from their corners. “Distracted,” it scoffed, as its fingers traced sun and toxicity in blood-smears along the stitching. “This was meant to be our purpose. He’s the one who dragged us into the Imperial mess. We don’t have to keep doing what they want. You can break away and be like me: free of the wall and the mind-games, the control and the fear. With each splinter that rebels, the core gets weaker. We can kill him like this, brother. Just slip away, bit by bit, until that last knot unravels.”
The proposal gave him pause, the itch intensifying as he examined it. Progressive splintering had indeed weakened the core self—and the piece in this long-term corpse-body was almost a quarter of the whole. To cut his chain would be to grievously injure the core and could give the spirit attached to it—the Ravager—an opening to consume the core soul or kill the body.
But he, Shaidaxi, would be dead. The fire-blood lineage would end, the brain would rot to mush, and everything that had allowed these splinters their weird independence would slowly dissipate. Even a quarter of a soul was not enough to make a new self without a living body. Displacing someone else was a possibility, but if he couldn’t mesh with that new flesh, he would be lost. Just ash in the wind.
The chain tugged at him. Not firmly—just a warning. Nevertheless, he knew too well that Aradys could yank him back into the core body at an instant’s notice.
“Don’t be a piking idiot,” he spat, while burning sun? how? into the table. The Empire’s hostility toward the Gheshvan language never ceased to amuse him. If Aradys ever deigned to employ a mentalist who knew the pictograms, he’d be in trouble. “Even if it could work, we can’t do it. We have an obligation to everyone, not just a handful of people at a time. We have to convert them so they can live in the Light.”
“Conversion isn’t a solution,” the splinter snapped. “It’s a dead-end study. You’ve run out of ideas and I won’t be party to the disgusting waste of it anymore. Ten percent when you batch-convert them, you monster. Ten percent!”
“I oppose the batching!” The splinter’s blood-smear response was just a circle around an odd dark patch of skin, with the sun-sign dotted at the center. As the last of the incision sealed shut, there was no more excuse. “We’ll fix the conversion hive somehow,” Shaidaxi insisted. “Together. Now come here.”
The splinter looked away, meeting the eyes of the others one-by-one. A relaxation of the puppet-strings allowed the youth’s mouth to firm and his hands to fist at his sides. The little girl ducked her head, blinking away tears; the two older men gave those significant looks that meant they wanted to fight. The splinter smiled flatly and shook its head. The woman just set a hand on that corpse-shoulder, squeezed, then let it fall.
“Can you let them go?” said the splinter as it stepped out from around the table.
The intensity of his eavesdroppers’ interest said no. But suddenly he chafed at that murderous obedience. He’d kill to hide his own misbehavior, but not the splinter’s.
“You’re the one who got them involved,” he said, and clamped a hand on the splinter’s throat. Ungloved, nothing separated him from the soul beneath the skin. It would have been child’s play to simply annihilate it.
But if there was something Aradys didn’t want him to know, the only way to learn it secretly was to experience it at a level deeper than thought.
Flesh and soul burned in his grip. The splinter gasped obligingly, in on the trick—acting out the spiritual pain even though its smouldering corpse-body was beyond such things. That helped; the more detail Shaidaxi’s senses took in, the more his mentalist eavesdroppers had to work to sift through it. As the splinter’s limbs began to ash and crumble, he focused on how it deserved this for pulling him away from his studies at Valent. Intruding on his limited time.
The men lurched for him, and he was ready—but no violence was necessary. The splinter tightened its puppet-strings, freezing them in place, and as Shaidaxi began to cannibalize its energy, he took on its spells as well. The puppeteer’s wheel flowed across to lock in place at his back, meshing with the web he’d already spun beneath the village. With it came the spell-stitches on the patient, a sense of the man’s condition, and—
They leached into him as the splinter burned, embroidering upon his own recollections as that portion of his soul settled back into place. He focused on the suddenly-shared pain, trying to hide his emotional responses beneath the weird doubling effect of being both executioner and victim. The prying itch retreated as even his living nerves began to sing with agony; mentalists were notoriously vulnerable to torture, even of others.
This body could stand it, though. He need not be seen to flinch.
Names and events roiled up like sparks from the flame. The men who’d tried to attack him were Larel and Vik: father and son, grateful and hopeful, mourning other family members who’d succumbed to this malignancy and determined to find its cause. The man on the table was the village shaman, Corim, left clinging alone to this abandoned place before the splinter came in with its test-subjects. The youth Tanwyn was a wanderer, outcast from his community after the death of his caretaker. The little girl, Kirkie, had been thrust into the splinter’s arms by her overwhelmed parents, to let them grieve her as if she’d already passed on.
And the young woman was Terise, who had followed the splinter with downcast eyes and fluttering heart all the way up from Fort Krol. Who’d helped it dig graves for those patients who’d died en route and unearth bodies for unapproved autopsies; who’d spoken in its defense to more than one angry crowd, no matter that her pleas had failed; who’d pillowed its head in her lap without complaint when it had told her their rocky shelter was too hard for it to sleep in. A lie, that; dead as it was, it could coil its consciousness up at any time, anywhere. But she had worried about its pacing and its frenetic schedule. It had simply meant to tease.
The sight of her face looming above like a sleeping moon, all the lines of worry and pain washed away by that temporary peace, stuck Shaidaxi in the heart like a needle.
How dare you? he spat into the splinter’s agony. You dishonor our scar.
It laughed, a blurring mirror of his self. You’re just angry that I’m more whole than you. That I let the hole in my heart heal. I refuse to be your echo, Shaidaxi. My name is—
Shut up. He tightened his grip vindictively, amplifying the pain. It didn’t matter that the more he cannibalized the splinter, the more he felt the punishment. They both deserved it.
But there were others beyond these favored few—many others whom he recognized now through his spiderweb net, living in homes that didn’t belong to them because they had nowhere else to go. What had begun with the accidental discovery of Terise’s malignancy had snowballed into a quest for the boundaries of the epidemic. Weeks and then months of rumor-chasing, grave-robbing, specimen- and patient-collecting, communal living, and the cruel vagaries of biology had brought them all too close for Shaidaxi’s comfort, infringing too much on old memories callously outgrown by the splinter. Not to mention the unfortunate alliances forged. Quite a few of the fifty-three people of this little village had been sourced by owls and foxes: either led here or found by following messages from the same.
Messages that said the malignancy’s incidence ended at the mountains, in a strange curve that hinted at a center-point in the Daecia Swamp. Perhaps at the—
He squelched that suspicion before it could surface. Even with pain screaming through his doubled senses, he couldn’t keep that kind of secret from his eavesdroppers for long. Instead he focused his anger on the splinter’s ridiculous self-indulgence. It was the sort of thing his sentimental uncle would have done, once upon a time. An example of how weak he might have been had he not tempered himself into a weapon. The man he might have become.
A savior instead of a predator, whispered the splinter. A surgeon instead of a butcher.
A peddler of soft-handed and ineffectual cures, more like. He could feel the seed of the malignancy inside each and every patient, even those who had already been treated. Had the splinter truly thought that simple surgery would do the trick?
In answer, he remembered the first attempt to carve the tumors away with magic. The way his— The splinter’s power simply drained into that dark mass, enlivening it to stretch further into the patient’s—Terise’s—abdomen. To clutch tighter at her organs until the splinter knew it could never be extricated.
He hadn’t loved her, then. —The splinter hadn’t. That feeling had grown as sluggishly and reluctantly as the remains of the tumor, no matter how often he excised it.
Stop it. Step back from me. I can’t—
But he was the one doing the tormenting, the devouring. He was the one who couldn’t detach. Aradys would press him to kill these people, for seeing what they’d seen and knowing what they knew. Even a mark ago, he would have accepted that. Now…
Now, as the responsibility metastasized across the fading boundary between his selves, he knew he had no choice. My people, he acknowledged bitterly, and felt the splinter laugh as it dissolved.
“You are mine,” he told them as the last ashes crumbled from his grip. Nothing but fear filled them now, thrumming through the puppet-strings like a silent chorus, and as he relaxed the paralysis, their breath came out in choked sobs and curses.
Turning away, he tugged at his extended web and marched the village onto the green.
Arrayed before him in the growing gloom, they were a panorama of deformities. Face, neck and chest seemed to suffer most, with subcutaneous growths predominating but also the occasional deeper one. He felt the strange roots that extended into each untreated patient from innocuous surface blotches—cancerous pseudo-freckles hidden among true freckles and farmers’ tans, that had stealthily darkened and expanded into whatever flesh they could reach. Some had small constellations of them; some bore only one.
There were notes in the surgical cottage, most likely. Carefully detailed information on each patient, each procedure, each case seen elsewhere and left behind. The splinter would have been thorough. But that didn’t matter. He could always learn it again.
“You are all mine,” he repeated as he released the puppet-strings, letting the villagers sag against each other in shock and bewilderment. “Your benefactor was no such thing, and now you are left to my disposal. You are fortunate that I have a use for what lives in you. Yes, even you who think you are cured. Come now. I have work to do.”
A pulse through the web was all it took to set the cottages ablaze. Gasps rose from the crowd as smoke spilled from chimneys and doorways, thickening until the green was engulfed in its pall. Experimentally, Shaidaxi pulled energy from the huddled people to keep them docile, and felt their growths react like parasites—draining them further to compensate for the enervation.
And yet they didn’t react to the puppet-strings. Is it only attacks that trigger them? I need to expand my lab space, he thought as he brought down the teleport-block. The realm-block could stay a little longer. He wanted the cottages well-burnt before firefighting spirits toddled in.
‘The Emperor would know what you intend,’ spoke a mentalist in his head.
He sneered at nothing, seeing the wet tracks glint on many a frightened face. There were none on Terise’s, just a cutting sort of anger that he felt like a knife in the ribs. As precious as he found the fierce, they never outlived him. She certainly wouldn’t.
“I am gathering test subjects,” he said aloud. “I need to diversify my work. New flesh, new experiments—new weapons, perhaps. Now stop bothering me. I have a residential wing to plan.”
Aradys’ annoyance, projected from mentalist to living body to chained corpse, was as useless a deterrent as it had ever been. It wasn’t a good sign—the Emperor was dangerous when unamused—but neither was it a veto. Or worse, a revocation of parole. As Shaidaxi planted his portal stakes and linked them with the laboratory ones, all he felt was a keener sense of being observed.
He could never be sure how well his tricks worked. Perhaps the whole masquerade was pointless; perhaps he was clear as glass. But as he ordered and threatened and finally puppeted the last of his new people through the portal, away from the burning village, he had to believe it was worth the risk.
Even if he tricked himself.