Emmerich inhaled shudderingly, feeling his breath rebound into his face when he exhaled. His confinement was blindingly dark, robbing him of all sense but sound. So he jolted when he heard the door jerk open somewhere behind him, the metal clanging when it rebounded off what sounded like stone. The footsteps that advanced on him where heavy and booted, and fear wound Emmerich’s stomach into painful knots as hands wound around his upper arms.
He was yanked upright, pulled to his feet with his wrists still crossed in front of him and bound in coarse rope that gnawed at his flesh even when he didn’t twist his hands. He staggered in their grip, struggling to match their brisk pace, and terrified that he couldn’t see what he was being marched into.
The sounds of their procession closed in on his ears, and he forced himself to listen, to work out anything about where he was. The walls sounded close, and he assumed they were made of harsh stone, like his cell had been. Even the floor felt coarse under his bare feet where he stumbled along, already bruised and skinned from when he had been manhandled into the cell.
How had he gotten here?
Emmerich remembered surfacing as he was being dragged through a corridor like this one, towards his cell. His hands had already been bound by then, and he’d been wearing a black hood that had obscured his vision as he’d been shoved to his knees in what he had come to recognise as a cell.
Terror had been paramount. “Please,” he had breathed to his captors, where they had circled him. One had kneeled before him; he had been able to feel their proximity, and her touches when she had yanked his head down to check for something on his neck.
“Magery?” she had demanded sharply, and Emmerich had been lost for words until her partner had seized a handful of Emmerich’s hair through the bag and wrenched him backwards to the floor of the cell, screaming.
“Answer her!” the man had bellowed, striking fear to the Erdeborn’s core.
“I don’t–” he gulped.
“What’s your magery?” the woman restated, the query a bark.
“I don’t have any!” Emmerich shouted back, and silence had wrung around the cell. Horror had laced through his veins: had he offended them? Were they angry? Were they doing to punish him for his outburst?
A hand alighted on the back of his head, and his pressed his forehead into the stone, terrified, but the woman merely patted his skull, presumably climbing to her feet. “Don’t take that hood off, okay, darling? We don’t want to hurt you anymore than you make us. Understand?”
Emmerich had nodded into the stone, listened as the couple had stepped over his prone form and into the corridor beyond the cell, the metal door shrieking behind them before settling with a final clang.
The last thing he remembered before that was the blizzard around him, the hurry of traffic around the three riding councilmembers, citizens desperate to find cover before the storm tore across the snowy landscape. They had almost been at the Klinge household, when… Emmerich must have fallen from his horse. He couldn’t summon any more memories from his terror-addled mind.
Where were Flugel and Behende? Did they have them too?
He couldn’t linger on the thought for long before the sounds of their footsteps echoing on the walls changed. Emmerich could only equate the sound with the echoes his boots had made on the timber floors and walls of Totersieg hall in his family’s home. But this sound was denser; it spoke of stone and centuries of age. Emmerich could only assume they’d entered a cavern of some kind.
The bag was yanked from the Erdeborn’s head in the same instant that the support under his arms disappeared. He crashed to his knees, bracing himself on the heels on his hands, grating them across the ground as his wrists canted in their binds.
“On your knees,” the familiar woman instructed, and Emmerich rose reluctantly to his height as a hand came to rest on his shoulder, clamping down on the limb and holding him in place.
“Cizsa, mask,” the man above Emmerich murmured, evidently to the woman beside him. There was a shuffling to Emmerich’s right as the woman adjusted her mask, and then the Totersieg became aware of a presence to his left.
“We’re live,” a deep baritone murmured in front of them, “in four, three, two…”
“Citizens of the Six Realms,” a familiar masculine voice murmured, and Emmerich recognised it immediately, the next words confirming his suspicions. “We are the Iron Faithful.”
The Erdeborn clenched his hands into fists before him to stifle their trembling, pressing his eyes shut under the hood. He was a captive of the Iron Faithful. He was a High Councilcaptive of the Iron Faithful, and they were broadcasting the image of him kneeling in their midst across all of the Realms.
For what purpose? To what end? He had no information for them; if they knew to find him at the Klinge household, then they already suspected the Stahldritten involvement. And they knew the High Council wasn’t considering their demands; they were being hunted, and they were lashing out.
Which meant that he was here as leverage to force the High Council’s hand in persecuting his fellow members.
Or he was here to be executed as an example, a niggling thought in the back of his mind reminded him, to remind the Realms of the Iron Faithful’s resolve.
Emmerich swallowed hard, feeling suddenly dizzy and nauseous. Claustrophobia was beginning to spread across his mind like oil on a lake, waiting for an ember to set him alight, and with every passing second, his fear grew and consumed.
“We stated our demands to your officials,” the voice continued above him. “And they have lied both to us and to you, the citizens they are accountable to. The High Councilmembers responsible for Heike Stahldritten’s uprising still go unpunished – and now they are consorting with the dictator’s sister herself.”
They knew, Emmerich thought, and the pit in his stomach gnawed away at what was left of his calm resolve. The Iron Faithful knew exactly why they’d been meeting with Latya Stahldritten, knew exactly where to find him. How they knew was beyond him, but the fact that they did spoke leagues of their influence.
“So by the High Council’s hand, we are forced to take action,” the man stated, and the hood was ripped from Emmerich’s head, exposing him to sharp, potent light. He blinked and squinted against it, finally able to make out the man standing before them. He was bald and his skull was cracked with black poisoned veins, his stare focused on them but his eyes blank of consciousness. It took Emmerich a few seconds to understand that he was the projector, broadcasting their image to every citizen in the Six Realms with his magery.
The man speaking, the man beside Emmerich, was Stahlborn – he could tell by his silver gaze, and he looked to be in his fifties, his hair marked with hints of age. He was the only one in the projection besides Emmerich not wearing a mask. The man behind Emmerich, and the woman beside him, as well as they array of Iron Faithful supporters behind the speaker, were all masked. The Erdeborn focused his gaze on the woman who had addressed him earlier.
The woman who stood beside him had sections of her skin darkened to soot, with blackened, upstanding veins like the projecting mage, but she looked more focused than he did, more steady on her feet. Emmerich questioned what could cause such discolouration, but the thought was robbed from him with the speaker’s next words.
“We have taken captive one of the offending High Councilmembers who governed under Heike,” the man said, gesturing to him without shifting his gaze from the projecting mage before him. “Emmerich Totersieg; who rose to power by aiding the dictator, and who is the eldest son of the woman who led the Devonian army against the Realms.”
Emmerich’s eyes fluttered closed. Tal had been his mother, had abandoned him and his two brothers when he was fourteen, and had fled to the desert beyond the Six Realms’ borders where she had joined the Devonian army. She had risen quickly to power along with her illegitimate son and Emmerich’s half-brother, before he had murdered her in show of his loyalty to Heike. He had robbed Emmerich of the opportunity to get to know his long-lost mother, and it was one of the many sacrifices the Erdeborn had been forced to endure under Heike’s rule, to protect what remained of his family.
“We will say again; persecute your High Council for their crimes in aiding an illegitimate Empress and a dictator. Flugel Luftzweiten, Kuren Rotehre, Behende Flusswelle and Svetya Erdefunfte. If you fail to do so, we will execute Totersieg for his crimes, without trial.”
Emmerich’s breath lodged in his throat, his lungs succumbing to terror as his whole form seized.
“If you fail to meet our demands, we will take each member and publically deal out the justice that you refuse to.”
He was hyperventilating, the air coming too short and too brief to his lungs, and the hand massaging his shoulder was doing nothing to help him. Their faces flashed in his mind, his friends, his colleagues – executed for the actions they were forced to carry out. He would be dead long before he ever saw their executions.
Emmerich forced himself to breathe, to come to grips with the spinning room and to root himself in its stability. His magery – or whatever meagre stores of it that he possessed – was singing through his veins, heavy in his core. It grounded him, connected him to this earth and bound him there, solid on his knees at the mercy of these vigilantes. Emmerich inhaled and exhaled slowly.
The man was still talking, and the Totersieg forced himself to focus on the words. “As recompense for your attempts to subvert our justice, we are making new demands, to be carried out by the end of this week. We want every Stahldritten arrested by the High Council and executed.”
Emmerich’s gaze blew wide, and he turned to stare up at the man as if he had gone mad. He had essentially just asked the High Council to arrest their biggest ally in the fight against the Iron Faithful, and to effectively declare civil war with the Stahl Realm.
The man drew in a heavy breath, glancing down at his boots as he hooked his hands behind his back. “Let me tell you a story, if I may. A tale about former Great Mage Konig Stahldritten, thirdborn to the ninth generation of Stahldrittens, and younger brother to Klemm Stahldritten. Upon Kernig’s unexpected but assuredly natural death, the eldest Stahldritten, Klemm, was favourite to take the throne to the Stahldritten estate and the Stahl Realm. He was mature, well-versed in political matters, and engaged to Elend Luftzweiten – a marriage assured to provide diplomatic avenues between the two Realms.
“Within two years of his father’s death, whilst preparations were being undertaken to coronate Klemm, he died whilst on a hunting trip with his younger brother Konig, after being impaled on a stag. This was despite being a skilled rider and experienced hunter. Shortly after his passing, Konig Stahldritten claimed the throne in his wake and became Great Mage of the Stahl Realm, going on to father eight children with Fieke Erdefunfte.”
The man’s tone was layered with rage, thinly concealed in civility. His nails bit into his hands, behind his back and away from immediate view.
“After the murder of his elder brother, Konig Stahldritten went on to commit numerous killings, including the execution of Ahnen Eisen and the extermination of the Iron Faithful, in an effect to destroy any source that could take his throne from him. Despite ruling in an era of relative peace, Konig Stahldritten was forbidden from engaging in war matters due to his warsword shattering under the weight of the Stahl Father’s judgement; he was responsible for so many deaths during his reign that even the Fathers saw to it to punish him. He won his throne through murder, and solidified his meagre empire through further killing; he was a traitor to the Stahl Realm and an illegitimate ruler. His brother Klemm was the rightful Great Mage of the Stahl Realm, and would have ruled but for Konig’s brutality.
“Konig Stahldritten was murdered by his wife; a fitting end to his pitiful and cruel rule. He was rightly wiped from the earth for his crimes, and so should his polluted seed. Konig Stahldritten’s children should never have come to be, and the only way to move forward is to destroy all his remaining offspring, lest their influence contaminate the Six Realms further.
“We, the Iron Faithful, call for the executions of Konnen Stahldritten, Bitva Stahldritten, illegitimate Great Mage Latya Stahldritten, Helm Stahldritten, and Krov Stahldritten, on the authority of the High Council. You have a responsibility to these Realms, to ensure they are governed fairly and justly; ensure this through the eradication of a brutal and ruthless bloodline. You have one week to demonstrate your commitment to our cause, or we will begin public executions. This will be our last attempt to solve this diplomatically and through legal means.”
At the man’s sign off, the projecting mage staggered, his knees giving out on him. Other members of the Iron Faithful who had been standing silently beyond the scope of the projector’s view now raced forward to offer their support.
The speaker, the leader of the Iron Faithful, turned to the man and woman behind Emmerich, addressing them as they lifted their masks from their faces. “Put him back in the cell, and check on the amplifier’s progress.”
The woman – Cisza, Emmerich recalled now – nodded as her male companion pulled Emmerich to his feet, leading him out of the expansive cavern. They returned down the corridor in silence, and with his vision unhindered now, Emmerich could see that there were various corridors branching off this one, disappearing beyond view – a maze of hallways that promised he would never find an escape.
The woman held open the metal grate that consisted of his cell’s door, and Emmerich didn’t need to guiding hand on his spine to convince him to obey their orders. He stepped compliantly into the cell, turning to face them as they bolted the door behind them with magery. Emmerich considered the irony as he lowered himself carefully down against the opposing wall with him bound hands.
They haven’t even bothered subduing him with magery-contained manacles; only rope was necessary to keep him, the lowlord without even the most basic magery, contained. He wanted the couple step into the cell next to his, visible through the grated wall that formed half of their cells, sunk into the back stone wall.
The figure in the cell next to Emmerich’s was curled around himself, dozing against the coarse, harsh stone. The Erdeborn wondered how uncomfortable it had to be, and how many nights the teenager had to have spent here to consider it a soothing place to sleep.
Cisza crouched down in front of him, brushing a lock of hair out of his eyes with near-motherly care. The boy stirred, blinking blue eyes against the grey backdrop of stone. His face contorted when he recognised them, shrinking back into the stone. His left wrist canted in its manacle bind, the chain that was sunk into the centre of the cell snapping taunt, drawing his short.
“Please,” he whispered, and Emmerich had to strain to hear the words. “Please don’t make me have any more.”
“It’s okay, little one,” Cisza promised soothingly, stroking a curled finger down his cheek as she surveyed him. He shrunk under the touch. “We’re not going to make you drink any more; we just want to see how you’re doing.”
Hope touched his eyes, hindered by wariness. The woman extended her hand, palm up, for him to take, but the teenager was reluctant to comply. Cisza’s lips twisted slightly.
“If you don’t help me out, darling, I’m going to have to get Verraten.”
The teenager’s features contorted into a fearful grimace, and he laid his palm against hers, watching with dreadful eyes as her fingers wrapped around his manacled hand. She inhaled deeply, her eyes fluttering closed, her eyes moving beneath her eyelids like she was searching for something.
Finally, she released him, allowing him to withdraw the limb. The chain caught again. Cisza rose to her full height next to her partner with a beaming, kind smile. “You’re doing well, darling. You’re almost ready for the ritual.”
The boy’s face broke from fear into futility then, tears bubbling in his eyes. He inhaled sharply, casting his gaze down. “You’re going to make me drink more of that black liquid, aren’t you?”
Cisza looked repentant. “Yes, darling.”
“Why?” the teenager mewled, meeting their gazes. “Why do you need me? What do you want me for?”
“You’ll see soon,” Cisza promised comfortingly, stepping through the grated door her partner held open for her. “Just get some rest; we’ll be back tomorrow.”
Emmerich watched them leave down the hallway, his gaze returning to the boy, who had pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes, teeth bared in fear and trepidation. As Emmerich stared, his gaze turned to the manacle binding his wrist, his fingers wrapping around the unrelenting metal, searching for a seam, a latch, anything. He resorted to yanking at the chains with increasing vocalisation, screaming his helplessness throughout the corridor.
Emmerich practically launched himself across his cell to the wall that divided them. “Hey, hey! Hey!”
The boy froze, glancing up as if he had only just noticed his presence. This close, Emmerich could see faint blackened veins pressing against the skin of his throat, hidden beneath his collar. “Who are you?” he asked, his gaze alighting on Emmerich’s bound hands.
“My name is Emmerich Totersieg,” he told the teenager, offering him a gentle smile. “I’m a High Councilmember.”
The boy’s gaze struck light like a match, glowing with recognition. “Do you know Behende? Behende Flusswelle?”
“Yes,” Emmerich responded, a touch of confusion entering his voice. Tears sprung to the teenager’s blue eyes, and the Erdeborn desperately searched for something to distract him. “What’s your name?”
“Lache,” the boy responded, and comprehension struck Emmerich.
“You’re Behende’s brother!” he exclaimed, and the teenager nodded. “Do you know where we are?”
A shake of his head. “No.”
“Do you know why we’re here?”
“They want me for some ritual,” Lache replied quietly, and Emmerich could see the fear in the lines of his face. “I can amplify magery, so they want me to…amplify something. They made me drink this liquid – they called it Æthera’s Gift. I– I don’t know what it’s for, but they want me to drink more.”
“What does it do?”
“I don’t know, but that lady’s been monitoring my ‘progress’,” Lache explained, shuffling closer to Emmerich. “It makes me nauseous, but they told me that if I throw it up, they’ll make me drink more. I…I don’t know what it does, but it’s been doing this…”
He pulled up his sleeves, exposing veins tinged in a shade of black, weaving up the course of the teenager’s arms. Lache’s gaze was fearful where it met Emmerich’s.
“What’s it doing to me?” he asked.
Emmerich swallowed. “I don’t know, Lache. But I won’t let them hurt you; I promise. I’m going to protect you, for Behende. Alright?”
The boy nodded, the first hints of hope tugging at his lips. Emmerich wondered what he’d had to endure for a promise as meagre as his to inspire hope in the teenager. Lache approached the grate that divided them, as far as his manacle would allow.
“Can I sit by you?” he asked tentatively, and Emmerich smiled.