Book 3 Short Story: Five Fuses

As I’m still working on Book 6 edits and don’t have a new culture composite prepared yet, it’s time to post my second Book 3 short story!  Again, this is a spoiler-thick tale which requires a lot of foreknowledge to understand, but I’d rather have it out here than languishing in my Story folder.  It’s another That Bastard Enkhaelen one, but I promise that the next short story (currently being written!) will not involve him.  And really, this might be the last Enkhaelen-focused short story that I write for a while, since it patches the few gaps in his timeline that I don’t plan to cover in other material.

Also, I promise I’m putting the read-more in here properly this time, and not a week later.  >_<

Includes: reference to abuse, reference to genocide, body dysphoria, death.

Recommended Knowledge: The Citadel at Valent, the truth of the Ravager, the truth of the Palace.

Approx date: 448, 435, 45, 12 and 5 years before series.

Description: Five first meetings that made Enkhaelen who he is, seen through the eyes of his interlocutors, with historical context.

Five Fuses

Gwydren Greymark had expected a teenager, not an ancient spirit of predators. So when he saw the shrieking six-winged entity come charging down the stairs, he braced himself with all the powers he possessed. Brancir’s silver flowed forth from the padding beneath his armor, creating a meshwork meant to deflect and dissipate magic; Athalarr’s aegis bristled over him as his body shifted toward the Lion. Raising his sigil-etched shield, he curled his off-hand around the haft of the not-yet manifested hammer, not wishing to fight the entity but fearing its necessity.

Behind his eyes, he felt the attention of both beast-spirit and Primordial come to bear, as surprised and alarmed as he was.

The entity slammed bodily into his shield, and—

—To his surprise, barely rocked him. Braced for some great impact, he shoved against his attacker automatically and heard the shriek turn to a yelp. Saw the flail of limbs and wings as the entity fell back against the stairs.

“What—“ he started, then blinked away his spirit-sight, confused.

There, sprawled at the base of the curving stairs, was a boy in ragged old clothes and a bloodstained apron—a twin to the garb of the necromancer by the door. More blood freckled his jaw and stippled his forearms above the clean line of absent gloves. Dark hair hung in his face, half-fallen from its clips but not enough to hide his snarl or the blue blaze of his eyes. Fine-boned and small, he couldn’t be more than—

“Die!” he screeched, lunging again.

Gwydren hit him with the shield in self-defense, shocked but unsurprised by the necromantic light that limned his hands. He’d expected the master to be the one to fight, not the student, but it made sense. Monsters begat monsters, whether by birth or by training. The local Temple had dispatched this rescue mission for a reason.

They hadn’t mentioned the entity, whatever it was. It couldn’t possibly be what it looked like.

The shield’s wards and his blessings ablated the boy’s spell on impact, but not so fast that Gwydren couldn’t feel it. A cold knife to the heart—a killing strike. It was confirmed, then. Both master and student were too dangerous to live, no matter what the villagers said.

But the entity…

“Ravager?” he gambled as the boy wobbled up again. Fresh blood trickled from his nose and split lip, strangely dark. He’d had no wards and cast none now, just snarled like a beast at bay, fiery gaze flicking from Gwydren to the fallen necromancer to the temple folk arrayed in between. Two priestesses in their browns; two Brancirans, male and female; and their leader, the Sword Sister who had run the old necromancer through.

He hadn’t worn any wards either.

“How dare you!” The boy’s voice was a rasp, hardly loud enough to travel past Gwydren. “Jealous witch-kin! He always said you’d kill him. I thought he was paranoid. I thought…”

The Breanan tried to step past Gwydren, sword leading. He thrust his empty arm in her way. Something was wrong. “Don’t you know me?” he tried. “We set the Seals together. I’m—“

“I don’t care. I don’t care!” The blood on his face suddenly flamed up like oil, and he sprang forward, fire blooming from his arms as well. A wall of heat hit Gwydren along with his body, those burning limbs locking around shield and shield-arm alike. He felt Brancir’s shock and Athalarr’s pain like his own, the flame racing up his fur and tabard even as it wafted off the blessed metal. Yet as the Sword Sister raised her blade, he heaved himself around—boy and all. Felt light feet leave the ground as he hefted his shield and punched into the core of the flame.

Gauntleted fist hit meat—once, twice. Still the boy clung, one hand clawing up Gwydren’s arm toward his face. His sight flickered again, Athalarr’s bewildered presence insistent on staring at the unmanifested entity. Razor teeth, white wings, glassy flowing locks—it had to be the Ravager. He recognized Kuthrallan Vanyaris in that mask-like visage.

Yet the Ravager remained locked inside. Trapped beneath the skin. It made no sense, not when he punched again and heard the boy choke, not when he shield-slammed him up against the wall, not when he pried that creeping hand away and almost took an enervation spike through the wrist. That thought-swift switch between fire and necromancy wasn’t the Ravager’s doing. It was the boy alone.

The boy, coughing blood now. Kicking and squirming, trapped between stone and shield. Crying, he thought, though the trails tracking down his cheeks were grey as ash.

“Murderers!” he croaked. “I hope you burn! I hope your goddess burns! I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you, let me go, I’ll kill you, I’ll kill—“

Hands reached past Gwydren, past the shield, into the guttering flames. He saw a glint of bronze in them, and embroidered sleeves: the elder priestess. Fearless of fire, as all Brigyddians were.

A clasp clicked, and the fire died entirely. The boy slumped, eyes rolling back in his head.

As the others moved in, Gwydren eased up on his shield-press. The bronze glint became a band around the boy’s neck, absorption wards already bright with captured power. Other spell-work crawled beneath those sigils, too occluded for him to pick out. Something about cold…?

And still the Ravager thrashed within the boy, awake even if he was not.

“Thank you, Templar. You have done enough. We’ll take it from here,” said the Sword Sister, setting a hand on his arm. “You should seek healing. You look scorched.”

Gwydren shook his head, watching. The two Brancirans, having eased the boy free of his pin, were bundling him now in what looked like a warded blanket, under the close scrutiny of the priestesses. He didn’t remember seeing that in the wagon.

Or the collar. Mage-bindings weren’t much used outside of central Altaera. Unlawful magic merited summary execution, not containment. Perhaps they’d meant to interrogate one of the two, but if so, the Sword Sister hadn’t shown it. She’d gutted the old man as soon as he’d opened the door.

A wise move when dealing with such deadly foes, but it made Gwydren’s nerves jangle.

She was watching him now, from the corner of her eye. Her sword was still in hand. It occurred to him, too late, that the Temple had tried to dissuade him from this outing. Had said it was a local matter, not something to concern a traveling Templar—not now that the former Mother Matriarch’s funeral was over. Just a minor issue that need not bother a priest of his rank.

Certainly they would not wish to delay his departure.

He opened his mouth to ask the deadly question. Why are we here?

But the answer came first: a weak cry from above. Up the spiral stairs, at the height of the necromancers’ tower. He remembered the blood-spatter, the clean lines where there would have been gloves, and immediately lurched into motion. Slippers followed him: a priestess.

In the room at the top, beneath an immense skylight, lay a woman half-dissected on a slab. The flesh and muscle of her belly had been peeled back, the ropes and knobs of her organs shifted. Things had been removed and placed in a basin, though what they were, Gwydren could not identify: just fleshy nodules now, inert and drained.

As was she, nearly. Some spell on her had broken with the necromancers’ concentration. When they reached her, she was drowning in her own blood. Gwydren helped the priestess remove the gory pins and stays, and pinched the flesh shut so that her healing hands could do their work. By the time it was done, both priestess and victim were exhausted senseless.

The wagon-ride back to the Temple passed quietly. Not a twitch from the ward-wrapped bundle, not a word from the Sword Sister driving. Gwydren knew that perhaps he could wring answers from the sleeping priestess’s husband, but he looked too wan to question, and the others watched him with strange eyes. Cold eyes.

Was he being paranoid?

He couldn’t find an excuse to stay. Not against the new Mother Matriarch’s excruciatingly polite but firm farewells, nor against all the letters and gifts the Temple residents piled on him to carry to his next stop. And by the time his circuit brought him back, the boy—Shaidaxi—wore acolyte’s whites and a brittle smile, the fire in his eyes just a cinder.

The Ravager just a ghost beneath his skin.

*****

Despite that, Gwydren would visit many times over the next year, and try many times to speak with both boy and Great Spirit, to no avail.

After his last visit, Shaidaxi—under reduced supervision due to good behavior—managed somehow to slip his collar and escape. For the next nine years, he would serve with various mercenary companies both in and out of the War of the Lion and Eagle, until his downfall and capture alongside the Company of the Black Banner.

*****

From his closest aperture—the star-sphere hanging above the slab—Aradys watched his target speculatively. It was far from the first time he had observed this one cleaning up Cailus Mirrimane’s mess. Though, granted, it was both their mess, as Archmagus Mirrimane made the slave-assistant do almost all of the cutting.

For the best. Shaidaxi was good at it, detached and clinical where Mirrimane could be an intolerable prude. Obsessive interest clashed badly with squeamish recoil; any nicked artery or gouged intestine or even a natural lesion made the Archmagus withdraw in disgust, not bothering to staunch whatever fluids might be flowing. Before the assistant’s enslavement, innumerable subjects had died on the slab simply because Mirrimane couldn’t be in the room anymore. Though the situation had improved, it was still wasteful—both of bodies and of Aradys’ patience.

Nor were the grafts taking. Aradys had hoped that stealing the Red Grimoire would give Mirrimane access to the best in transformative magics, but it seemed there was nothing to find.

It was time to move on.

Shaidaxi, he whispered into the chamber, his voice a shiver of starlight. The spirit beneath the skin rippled in response, but the man showed no reaction. Shorn-haired head bent, sleeves rolled up on his wiry bruised arms, he just kept scrubbing.

It puzzled Aradys. There was no more blood strewn about than usual, and less than most. This last subject had hardly thrashed at all, his attention focused on the slave-assistant deconstructing him rather than on the terror of the cuts. The body was still in place, draining neatly into the grooves that ran from slab to hidden reservoir, where the next batch of grafts were culturing. Each attempt fed into the next, the stellar-locust samples bonding incrementally better each time. In another few years, they might be working with true hybrid flesh instead of this rejection-courting amalgamation.

But what was the point, if Aradys could simply reach through and claim a foothold?

Mirrimane had resisted the idea, naturally. Had claimed that releasing Shaidaxi from any part of his bond—spiritual or magical—would risk the entire operation. After all, Shaidaxi was a self-taught battle-mage, having survived seven years of active arcane combat in a war where even the best-trained burnt themselves out in half that. Capturing and collaring him had likely saved his life, not just from Mirrimane’s garrison and the hundreds of thousands of Altaeran troops now massacring the remnants of the resistance, but from himself.

Thus why Aradys had made Mirrimane do it. To kill Shaidaxi would be to let slip the Ravager spirit that he had been hunting for centuries. Through generations of fanatic cultists, he had amassed a vast network of eyes and hands on both sides of the war. Those hands had pushed Archmagus and battle-mage into opposition for the sole reason of catching the Ravager and using it to open the Seals.

Mirrimane would not permit it. Mirrimane was afraid.

Mirrimane had outlived his usefulness.

Shaidaxi, Aradys murmured. I know you can hear me. Have we not spoken before?

“Everyone talks at me,” he heard the slave mutter.

I do not talk at you. I talk with you. I wish to help you.

“Right. Like the guards when they ‘help’ me into bed.”

All that grunting and struggling had never made sense to Aradys, nor Shaidaxi’s mood afterward. Like now. Perhaps the corpse on the slab had been one of the soldiers caught alongside him—though Aradys had thought they’d been used up years ago. It was blond, which should mean Altaeran, but there were various Altaeran turncoats who had allied with the Ruens, plus other ‘mongrels’, as Mirrimane put it.

Petty human differences. When Aradys remade the world, there would be no such divisions.

No, Shaidaxi. Not like that. I will place you well beyond such harm.

“Why would I possibly believe you? You’ve never been any piking help before. You’re Master’s creature, Master’s spy—don’t pretend otherwise.”

The assumption was so ludicrous it was laughable. As if Mirrimane would be anything more than a breath of ash beneath Aradys’ true gaze. But the Archmagus’ foolish caution was correct in one respect: Shaidaxi was dangerous. Not for his arcane talent, nor even for the spirit riding him, but for the spirit’s memory. If Aradys revealed himself before he had Shaidaxi fully hooked, the Ravager would recoil beyond his reach.

The man was a handle with which to turn the spirit.

Your Master has me in his grip, he whispered. As he has you. It is my punishment to watch, to record—to catalog failure after failure, death after death.

Not entirely a lie. It certainly felt like punishment. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d watched with anything more than boredom.

But he is not omnipotent. With the waning of the war, he has begun to slip. I watch him forget to refresh the tower’s wards, neglect to discipline his garrison, turn a blind eye to you…

From above, he could see only the edge of Shaidaxi’s smile. Hardly more than a twitch, but there. “I’ve been…presenting good behavior.”

Not screaming as much. Rarely throwing things, and not biting at all. A far cry from when he’d first been dragged in, bleeding flecks of flame from every wound and orifice. Even tamer than after the three months in the basement cell.

You have a talent for it. But I know that you very much want to be bad.

Shaidaxi’s knuckles flashed white on the grip of the scrub-brush. For a moment, he knelt entirely still, the only movement the subtle tension of muscle beneath skin. The only sound the faint hiss of air through teeth. Had the collar not suppressed both his blood-talent and his access to magic, Aradys knew he would see currents of power moving within—perhaps gathering at his hands in readiness to burn and destroy, or in his chest as he compacted the rage. Even without those powers, something in him still seemed to resonate with destructive force. Something beyond the Ravager or indifferent metaphysics; something integral to the core of him.

“I want freedom,” he allowed at last, tight as wire.

I can give that to you.

“How?”

It was easy. His was the power that held the collar in place. It will take some doing, he lied. But trust that I can.

Shaidaxi’s laugh was flat, hard. “If you say so. Why?”

Because I too wish to be free of this stifling place. I want the world spread out before me, full of possibility. Burning for change. I want to scour the land of these ragged old empires and build something new. Brighter, fiercer, cleaner. Pure. I think you would enjoy the process.

Another twitch of that smile. “You’re weird, spy. A pure world? Not even the world-of-glass was pure.”

Aradys suppressed a sneer. To compare his plans with the wraiths’ lost home-world… But knowledge of it meant that Shaidaxi was at least sometimes in communication with the Ravager. He’d wondered. Even bound as it was, he would have expected it to strain and struggle far more than he’d seen.

Our first step will be to erase all that Mirrimane has done.

At last, Shaidaxi turned his head. In the glow of the star-sphere, his pale eyes seemed to glitter with stars of their own. “But isn’t it your purpose? What he…summoned you for?”

As if Mirrimane had such power. As if he was anything more than the generational recipient of a sphere—a dedicated listener. Even the sphere was just an amplifier, strengthening and sharpening Aradys’ presence until mere humans could sense it. For an entity with finer perceptions, it would be unnecessary.

I am not bound to his purpose, he intoned. I will gladly see it burn.

A little shiver went through the man below. Fire-blood, battle-mage, predator-spirit host. Necromancer, fleshcrafter, pathologist, butcher’s boy. Already a war criminal in the eyes of the Altaerans, and destined for so much more. Aradys could see it, spread out like a shining web. This moment was a knot in the strands, from which so many possibilities spun forth.

“Yes,” said Shaidaxi, soft as smoke. “All of it will burn.”

*****

The massacre at Mirrimane’s tower, perpetrated some time later, aroused little comment due to the civil war within the greater Altaeran Empire. Only when its far-flung holdings finally collapsed and were abandoned could the Empire focus on the attacks at its heart—and the terrorist behind them, wielding now-banned battle-magic. He was not yet skilled at masking his arcane signature. Assassins, mages and mercenaries were sent in pursuit.

One of those mercenaries was Yesai Miun of Howling Spire, or Jessamyn.

For a time, love conquered rage, and Aradys found himself ejected from Shaidaxi’s circle. The Ravager host began listening to his spirit for the first time in decades—if irregularly. Marriage happened, and a child, if not in the standard biological fashion.

Aradys held grudges, recruited new catspaws, and tried for the Ravager again.

The manor. The silver sword. The black sword. The Seals. The Palace wall.

Time passed.

Eventually, Shaidaxi was released. For good behavior.

*****

The bodythief formerly known as Vedaceirra shivered on the threshold of the portal. No matter that the white-robed mage insisted it was safe, the thought of passing through that thin space of disjunction made him feel like he would fly apart.

It had already happened, in the depths of the Palace. The black bracer he now inhabited, clutching so desperately to this unfamiliar arm, did not seem strong enough to withstand such strain again.

And yet staying was, somehow, worse. The white fiber that made up every surface in this place should have comforted him, like the inside of a womb, but all he could think of was the struggle to breach that pale barrier—to live, to breathe, to escape—only to fail. Only to feel his body unraveling around him, hated though it had been, and with it the seed of life and hope that had lived within.

Lerien. Gone before he’d truly arrived.

This body was male. After wanting such a thing for so long, Vedaceirra couldn’t understand why it felt so wrong. But then everything did. Perhaps with time…

“Move along. He’s waiting,” snapped the mage, gesturing to the portal. Through it, a dark chamber stretched endlessly beneath pale rune-light.

He didn’t seem to be waiting—whoever he was. Vedaceirra had a dim recollection of a face leaning in too closely, smiling in response to his snarl. Of cold hands on the substance he had become, changing something with thread-fine energies that burned like hot wires. Pale eyes, black robe…

The rest was gone. So much of the world that had existed inside his head was absent now, dissolved away by the Palace.

Sucking in a steadying breath, Vedaceirra stepped through the shimmering frame.

And—

Collapsed on the other side, the stone floor crashing hard against his unstrung body. Cold bled through the thin fibrous gauze of his rebirth-robe, welling up from the stone and wafting across him on the faint stir of air. He tried to move—even a twitch—but though he was still seated in the body, marrow-spike embedded in its arm and soul pinned behind its eyes, no part of it would obey. He had been cut off.

Footsteps paced toward him from somewhere behind his head. The glow of the Palace portal disappeared in a blink, leaving the dark walls to press in like a tomb.

“Well, this is a problem,” came a dry voice from above. “I hope the scout-types don’t disconnect so easily.”

A rustle of robes. A glimpse of hands, one pulling the black glove off the other. Vedaceirra’s eyes wouldn’t move, wouldn’t even blink but by reflex, and so couldn’t follow as cold fingers explored first his nape and then the bracer-clad arm.

“Ah, good,” said the dry voice. “A flaw in the threads would have required another conversion dip to set, but this is just soul-work. I’ll have it fixed in a moment. Up you come.”

Strange energy lanced through Vedaceirra’s limbs. Against his will, the body rose smoothly to its feet, then swung itself onto a slab with an ease he had not yet managed to wring from it. That brief glimpse of the chamber—filled wall to wall with similar slabs, some occupied by shrouded forms, some empty—gave the bodythief a sickly feeling.

Then the control vanished, and the necromancer loomed large in his view, face a pale moon of disinterest. Lowered lids turned his irises to ice-chips, his mouth a clinical line, his flesh like porcelain. Only the scar that creased his brow showed him a man and not a statue.

“Standard soul detachment,” he reported as if to some audience, fingers probing up Vedaceirra’s arm from bracer to neck. “Locus in…hm. Not the specialized vessel, that’s fine. Everything seems to be meshed. Musculature has adapted properly, automatic functions are supported, and yet the manual control broke? That shouldn’t happen. Granted, if portals are the only cause, we can just have you avoid them, but that cuts down the utility of an assassin-type significantly. Must be in the brain. Let’s see…”

Assassin? he wanted to say. You made me to be your murderer?

The thought of killing didn’t trouble him. Not after what he’d been through. But to kill at someone else’s command…

Cold fingers gripped the base of his neck and spread across his face. In the darkness behind his shaded eyes, blue light danced across erratic lace, sending tiny spasms through individual muscle fibers. The taste of salt welled up in his throat, replaced in an instant by smoke, then evergreen.

“Strange,” the necromancer murmured. “The threads are still seated, but the soul has withdrawn just a touch. Like a flinch. Were you afraid? You’ll have to get over that. This is your body now, and if I’ve built you well, it won’t be the last one you wear. You cannot recoil. You must embrace what you are, and use it.”

I don’t want this, he thought furiously. Death would be better.

But that was a lie. In the Palace’s belly, even while falling apart, he had fought—because life meant opportunity. If Lerien could not redeem him, then he had to do it himself. Take revenge in any way possible.

“Reach out,” said the necromancer. “Reclaim your body. Or would you rather I pinned you into it? I wouldn’t. I don’t like to see things bound. But if you haven’t the fortitude to serve yourself, then I will make you serve me. I’ve crafted too few masterpieces to let one fail.”

Vedaceirra’s lip twitched in an unbidden snarl. Always, he had been a tool. Of his family, of his society, of the Empire itself. Not even the brides he had killed to protect had cared about him in the end. If those women could have cast him before the Throne as the sole sacrifice, they would have done it.

So this Imperial fleshcrafter wanted a masterpiece, did he?

The body was just a suit of flesh—something he could slip on and off. He knew that instinctively, and so in anger he reached out and gloved himself into it. Fingers twitched, then flexed. Toes curled. Teeth bared. The fear that had pressed him back from this new skin dissolved like ice in boiling water.

As the eyes became his in truth, he fixed them on the necromancer, and saw his sickle-curve smile.

“Well,” said the necromancer. “And what shall I call you?”

He opened his mouth, and halted. For a long time, he’d considered the question, but he’d never been allowed to choose. Something based on his female birth-name—Vedan? Daseir? Just plain Dee? But right now those felt like fragments: partial people, not a whole. In this state, he couldn’t stand that, and he didn’t trust this man with that weakness.

“Vedaceirra,” he croaked. “For now.”

The necromancer shrugged, then gestured across him grandly. “Keep this ferocious grip, Vedaceirra. No matter how much is torn away from you, they will never take your rage. Just don’t show it until necessary. Those who can see it rising are the most dangerous of enemies. Here.” He touched his forehead with two fingers, then pressed them lightly to Vedaceirra’s brows. “I bestow upon you the mask of good behavior.”

Nothing changed. No spell, no shiver of power. And yet it seemed, somehow, that a connection had been made. “You can see the rage,” Vedaceirra said, accusatory.

“Yes. But I am not your enemy.”

Questions touched him: Who are you? Why are you doing this? What do you want?

What he asked was, “Who is?”

A blue spark lit behind those ice-pallid eyes. For a moment, the air shivered behind the necromancer, and in the heat-haze currents of it, Vedaceirra glimpsed wings.

Then he stilled himself, and smiled, and said, “Everyone else.”

*****

Years passed quickly, flooded with projects. Skills honed from youth, twisted by force, and expanded by the mind’s desperate need for stimulus found their outlet at last, shaping new life with every touch. Competition pressed in: wraith-methods forcing him to learn and escalate, to steal and undermine, to amuse and entertain his master so as to have his way. The collar did not show, but it had not vanished. It had only changed form.

It did not escape his notice that he was remixing Mirrimane’s old grafting process.

He didn’t let it matter. The work was his now.

*****

Drakisa Snowfoot had timed this carefully. The Senivaten refused to wait for Midwinter—the only period in which she could be absolutely sure that the Archmagus would be out-of-office—so instead she’d observed him closely, both flesh-side and spiritual. She’d learned his classes, his office-marks, his Council schedule, his personal routine. Despite being a Scrying prodigy and soon a Magus, it hadn’t been easy. The man was dangerously erratic once class let out.

Yet oddly blind, sometimes. She hadn’t thought anyone could be so hyper-focused on a discipline like Energies without sensing someone spying, even if skillfully. She didn’t think so much of herself as to believe he’d never noticed.

So when the trap went off, dropping a teleport- and realm-block on the section of secret passageway she’d just infiltrated and sealing all the exits, she wasn’t surprised. Terrified, and cursing herself, and desperately reaching for another option—but not surprised.

What did surprise her was him walking through the stone wall right beside her, then turning his back as if he’d seen nothing.

She stared. He shouldn’t be here. She’d watched him leave for an Imperial Court function alongside several other Archmagi, and though he almost always returned early, she hadn’t expected him for at least two marks. Enough to let her explore this branch of the passageways and find the secret door into his office, or something else of use. The Senivaten desperately wished to know if he was the Shaidaxi Enkhaelen in their records—though how that could be, after so many centuries, she didn’t understand. He showed no sign of being a Ravager host, nor a fire-blood. Was in fact a rather chilly man, if sly and prone to cutting critiques.

Then again, his soul was so thoroughly wrapped in enchantments and armatures that she couldn’t actually see it. When she’d first reported that, the Senivaten had thrown a fit. All that work to slip a strong spiritist into the Silent Circle, and her sight gained them nothing.

She drew a breath to say she-knew-not-what. No excuse would save her. These secret passageways were keyed to open to soul-pressure, which meant spiritists or necromancers—and he could not possibly be a spiritist. Not and stand at the Emperor’s left hand.

So perhaps he was the man the Senivaten feared. In at least one respect.

Before she could form words, his hand flicked out. Black-gloved, it splayed wide in a clear signal to stop. Her lungs locked, and she bit her lip hard and stayed in her crouch, still touching the sigil she’d been trying to unravel.

His fingers curved through the air, leaving lines of light in their wake. A circle, a slash, the arch of a modifier…

Gheshvan pictographs.

Silence, he wrote, while with his other hand he reached out to tap on the wall. Drakisa felt the blocking wards shiver and cycle into repair mode—still active, but responding as if they’d found an internal flaw. Which was wrong, because she’d pressed at them in every way she could, and found no egress. No access to the spirit realm, or the Grey, or any beast-spirit shards she could reach, and certainly no portal-transit loophole.

Senivaten? he drew, attention fixed on the wards. If yes, tell them: back off. Send more agents and I will find them, kill them, kill you, kill Senivaten council. Do not doubt me.

She didn’t. From the way he interacted with the wards, it was clear that they were his solo work, every flare and fiber of them responding to his touch with alacrity. To produce that level of layered, triggered, and powerfully restrictive magic on one’s own required more than mastery—possibly more than arch-mastery. Only wraiths were known to have that much control.

His fingers flickered again. You may leave messages. I might read them. You will not make demands. I will not do favors. Do not expect a clear response. I am constrained.

Her heart jolted. The implications—

Impulsively she blinked her eyes into spirit-sight. She’d looked at him like this before, though only from afar—usually across a lecture hall or a courtyard. Always, the magic that layered his body had bled over into that view, smothering the details of his soul. Though she’d been able to spot his signature, there had been nothing discernible beneath it but a faint blue blur.

Here, there wasn’t even that.

The protections on his garments did bleed over, but not as much. She realized belatedly that he wasn’t in proper Circle robes, but a dark coat and traveling clothes—civilian-wear. Illegal. Their enchantments were much simpler than Circle garb, much more blunt, and in the gaps where there had once been dense layers of sigils, she saw—

Nothing. A vast nothing within his body and a single bright splinter in his head, marked with a signature that made no sense. It wasn’t at all what she’d seen of his magic and his essence everywhere else. Only a fragment of it matched his public signature, like twin keys on two different packed keyrings.

Attached to the splinter, a thread of soul bent away into the distance—to the Imperial Court, she guessed. Which meant that this was a puppet.

A sentinel? A hideaway? A disposable self? All of the above?

It explained why she saw no fire-blood. If this wasn’t his real body, then perhaps the one that had jaunted off to court wasn’t either. Wouldn’t the Ravager show, though? She didn’t know. She’d never been so close to someone who could split their own soul.

Follow, he signaled. But keep your distance.

Finally, an easy task.

She shadowed him down halls both wide and narrow, around tight bends and slow curves, past decades’-worth of masking runes. All of which he activated with a trace of fingers, sending them into repair cycles as he walked on. The Senivaten had long known something was strange about the Citadel at Valent’s construction, but had never been able to find a way behind the walls. Now, Drakisa couldn’t help but wonder how far the passages went. All the way to the Council chambers? Down into the earth?

What else had he written into Valent’s hidden places?

The thought chilled her, but still she followed, watching his back for any sign that he might turn. That he was being monitored was obvious—and just as obvious, he was shielding her from view. Which meant—

She didn’t know. She was a spy, not an analyst.

At last, his steps halted and he turned to a wall, face still angled away. Negligently, he swiped a sign on the stone; it looked Gheshvan, but backward and gone too fast for her to catch.

The wall irised open into a dark, curtained space, then closed immediately in his wake.

Left alone in the spell-light, she blinked. Was this his office, then? The wall showed no seam nor special sign, and when she touched it cautiously, the wards felt complete. Unmarred. Then again, artificing wasn’t one of her disciplines, and the Archmagus had just done several things she couldn’t explain.

She doubted she could find her way here again.

But then how did—

Oh, obviously, she thought, and switched again to spirit-sight. And there it was: a soul-mark pressed into the door, in the image of a burning tower.

Evidence enough for her. As for the Senivaten, if they weren’t satisfied, they could recall her and send a new agent. She’d been warned, so she would obey.

*****

Despite all efforts, progress stalled. Imperial conquest became Imperial creep, the trumpeted expansion falling short and sometimes backsliding. Borders pushed back and forth; war-games swept up great armies and small groups alike. Forces circled the boundaries of empire, seeking entry, while from within others strove to get out.

He waited. He’d long since learned to smile even behind the mask, knowing his master could see through it. Knowing that his actions were monitored every moment of every day, even if not understood. Between himself—himselves—and his enemies, there had come a kind of equilibrium. A balance of hostilities, if nothing else.

If things had stayed like that, he might have relaxed into his prison. Come to accept it, even after all those years of struggle.

But someone always pushed.

*****

Argus Rackmar, newly-ordained Exultant Champion of the White Flame, turned to face the Midwinter crowd. So many of them were his own people: priests and soldiers who had sacrificed the Dark parts of their flesh to be purified by the glory of the Light.

So many yet remained to be exalted.

He felt the stares of his rivals on his back as he raised his hands to speak. Jealous wretches, Caernahon and Enkhaelen. The old guard of his bright Emperor’s advisors, long since due to be discarded. Enkhaelen in particular, with that smart mouth. They’d not yet interacted much, but every encounter with the prissy little piker left Rackmar feeling stung.

He didn’t look forward to a deepening of their acquaintance, but inclusion on the dais meant tolerating the others already there. For the moment.

“Faithful friends,” he spoke, equally aware of the Throne looming at his back, and the sun-eyed Emperor Aradys IV seated there. “Layfolk and clergy, blessed and armored, purified and penitent alike. We gather here tonight to face another Darkness Day and drive it away with our will, our spirit, and greatest of all, our joy. The Dark cannot claim us, for we belong to the Light. The Dark cannot frighten us, for we are strong in the Light. The Dark can never conquer us, for even the smallest of Lights will strike like a blade into its heart.

“And yet, even the greatest of Lights must struggle to scour all shadows. It is our purpose—our obligation—to aid it in its quest. To make it possible for this imperfect world to be perfected and glorified in the eye of the Risen Phoenix. I will not speak business on such a pivotal eve, but know that as I take up the mantle of the White Flame’s leadership, I am motivated all the more to see our shining Empire flourish. To extend our embrace ever wider, and bring the benighted masses home to the heart of our god—the flame that burns away all corruption.

“Sing with me, now, the first paean to our glorious Light.”

As the song flowed freely from his lungs, he saw the uplift of the crowd, their wet eyes reflecting the blaze behind the Throne. He wished he could share it. His heart desired nothing more than to be marching into Darronwy right now, at the head of an army meant to root out his treacherous cousin the Lord Protector and put his heretical Firebirders to death. No matter that it was a high holy day. Were not high holy days for high holy actions?

Yet the benefits of wearing the Exultant Champion’s mantle far outweighed the constraint. It was not like his rank of Field Marshal had been revoked. The two existed side-by-side, the one outweighing the other on certain dates yet conferring upon him a permanent divine authority. In time, the Emperor would come to agree with him, and permit him to carry out his work.

Soon, he hoped. He felt his god’s approval like the summer sun. His mortal master needed to catch up.

Much later, throat hoarse and head throbbing, he let himself be replaced by the choir. So long as he could still lead the stroke-of-midnight vigil, he would be satisfied. That he could not perform the entire night of rituals without pause shamed him, but then he was still new to it. He had served as a soldier far more than a priest, even in the years that he’d been both.

Fasting was enforced during the Midwinter holy days, but that did not include water. Trickles ran from many a fanciful spout on the throne-room’s walls to fill ablution basins below. He knelt at one, splashed water over his face and sweat-knotted hair, then raised his cupped palms to drink.

“I wouldn’t,” Enkhaelen said from behind him. “You don’t know where it’s been.”

His nerves bristled, but this was neither the time nor place for conflict. So he just drank, then rose effortlessly, sending a wordless prayer of thanks as always for the armor that made him whole. Strong. Thus bulwarked, he turned to face the so-called Archmagus, plastering a polite smile on his face.

“In the Palace, I imagine,” he said coolly.

“Well, yes.” Enkhaelen had to crane his head back to meet his gaze, a fact that soothed his annoyance marginally. Also soothing: the little piker was wearing white for once, as mandated for Midwinter. Were he in charge of the Palace, Rackmar would mandate it for every day, and have the Archmagus ejected whenever he showed up in black. It baffled him that the Emperor allowed it.

Many such petty heresies abounded throughout the Empire. He would deal with them once the greater were scoured.

“But I doubt you’ve seen all that the Palace has to offer,” the Archmagus continued. “All the veins and vesicles that collect its fluids and distribute them throughout the structure. What sort of parasites might a great organism such as this one secretly host?”

Rackmar suppressed the urge to punch the smile off the mage’s mouth. He had to work with Enkhaelen, no matter how intolerable he was. They were all faithful servants of the Light—presumably. “Nothing that comes within our god’s grasp can fail to be purified,” he grated out.

“Ah, but even solar purification cannot kill everything.”

“Yes. It can.”

Enkhaelen widened his eyes as if surprised. By the crinkling at their edges, Rackmar knew he was amused. Playing. It did not lessen his contempt for the mage. “Well then, we are truly in good hands. No corruption can possibly take root within us while under his bright gaze.”

“That is a misconception,” Rackmar rejoined automatically. He’d had this argument many a time. “The Palace is a place of purity, but mortal creatures are not so easily cleansed. Flesh is Dark by nature; only with great effort and vigilance can the taint be removed from men and kept from recurring. For women, there is no chance; their bodies harbor a naturally regenerative Dark source that can never be fully scoured. But for anyone whose faith lapses, or who fails to perform the proper rituals and obeisances, the Dark remains a threat. A single moment’s doubt can be enough to plant its seed in even the brightest of souls.”

If anything, those creases of amusement deepened. “I see. And thus your constant petitions for escalation against the mountain peoples.”

Rackmar nodded sharply. It didn’t matter if the mage was mocking him right now. If Enkhaelen had suffered from a dearth of information on the subject, he would amend that. Teach him something important. Every person he turned to his side was another torch held against the Dark. “It is not enough to pick out the obvious cultists and shoo the rest back to their homes. Their families, their social circles, their extended networks—all must be purified. As for the heretics, and the Firebirders in particular, they must die. Those who claim to follow the Light but refuse to embrace its true tenets, or who have not the fortitude to carry them out, are a liability to us all. A single moment and a single seed, Enkhaelen. All who balk, all who doubt, all who would let the Dark inside them, must be burned out.”

“That seems a great lot of burning.”

“Yes. This is why I advise so vehemently that we continue our internal cleansing. It is of course essential to expand our borders and enlighten the witless foreigners, but if we are tainted on the inside, we will only spread that taint.” He tried a conspiratorial smile, though the last thing he wanted to do was work closely with the little wretch. “As the Inquisitors’ Archmagus as well as the Evoker, you must understand how contagious certain thoughts can be. How insidious.”

Enkhaelen smiled mildly and shrugged. “I’m not actually a mentalist. I’m just their handler. Though perhaps that was a reason for my appointment: to ensure that the leader would be immune to any thought-contagion, even if the rest of the order succumbed.”

Despite himself, Rackmar felt his shoulders unkinking. This was exactly how such encounters should go. Face the doubters’ resistance and drill through it with truth until their enlightenment bloomed from within. “Indeed, that might be so. The Emperor is nothing if not thoughtful in his disposition of our assets. Too conservative, I fear—too inclined to preserve life at the expense of the soul—but I have hope that he can be swayed.”

“Mm, is that how you see him?”

“Certainly. His soft-handedness with the high cults is evidence, as is the loose rein he gives his son.” Whom Rackmar had glimpsed among the crowd, dressed in white formal uniform but with a stiff expression that spoke of his desire to be anywhere else. “Crown Prince Kelturin is not a worthy successor, nor will he ever be if he is not taken in hand and taught the truth of the Light. I have tried to reach him, but he will not hear me, and though I am his technical superior, I have not the authority to countermand the Emperor’s favoritism. It troubles me.”

“I can see how it might.”

“And you, Archmagus. You are wasted at the Citadel—as are all the Evokers-in-residence. Your true place is on the battlefield, serving the Light by annihilating the Dark. The Emperor tells me that you served in several campaigns in your youth.” Which campaigns, the Emperor had not said, nor had Rackmar been able to place Enkhaelen in any that suited his apparent age. Thirties, forties? He was certain that he would remember any Evoker with such a record as the Emperor implied, but Enkhaelen might have operated under another name then.

Or in another land. He sometimes had a strange turn of phrase that bespoke a foreign origin, no matter that he looked as high-mountain Darronwayn as they came. Rackmar wasn’t sure which would be worse: a secret foreigner or a secret Firebirder.

The mage’s smile thinned, though the amusement in his eyes remained. “Oh yes. I’m well-acquainted with all forms of battle-magic. Even the old banned styles. Call it a hobby.”

“Banned—by the original Silent Circle, yes?” At Enkhaelen’s nod, Rackmar grinned. “Such secular decisions should not matter to us. Any method of spreading the Light and destroying the Dark should be not only permitted, but embraced. I wonder, how well do you know this magic? Theoretical, practicable, teachable? I understand most records were destroyed.”

“Or lost in the crash of the Citadel at Darakus, yes.”

“Well? Are you proficient?”

“I have many proficiencies.”

“Yes, of course.” He held his grin, puzzled by the sudden stonewalling. “But in battle-magic. Surely you must have practiced it? I have never known a mage unwilling to dive into forbidden magics at the first chance. This is why they are the most dangerous of our weapons, of course, and why we must be so firm with them when they stray. Why we must watch them through the Inquisition. But sometimes that attraction to wickedness can bear pure fruit.”

“You remind me of another priest I knew. He was thick as shit too.”

Rackmar stared at Enkhaelen. Superficially, nothing had changed, but the amusement in his eyes suddenly seemed baleful, the curve of his mouth like a knife. “What…did you just say?”

“Hm?”

“I heard you—“

A figure as white as the Palace walls intruded upon them smoothly. Lord Chancellor Caernahon. “Exultant Champion, the Emperor would speak with you before you resume your duties. Fear not; I shall keep our Archmagus out of trouble for you.”

“Trouble?” Enkhaelen protested mildly. “I’ve been on my best behavior.”

The look that Caernahon—elder statesman, long-time court fixture and haelhene wraith—granted Rackmar was both commiserating and superior. The same expression one might show a child who had tried terribly hard and yet tripped at the last hurdle. The condescension stung almost as badly as Enkhaelen’s smiling snipe.

I will crush both of you, Rackmar vowed inside.

But all he said was, “Thank you,” then turned from the two of them to seek audience with his master. Their master. Why could they not be allies in the Light?

As he mounted the dais steps, he glanced back once, and immediately caught Enkhaelen’s eyes. He had not moved from where Rackmar had left him, his messy black hair making him stand out like a crow in a snow-field.

Despite the distance, Rackmar saw clearly that his smile was gone.

 

[Back to The Stories]

About H. Anthe Davis

Worldbuilder. Self-published writer.
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