Heavy clouds, dark skies and a powerful midwinter cold did little to slow activity in the capitol, with people passing left and right as far as the eye could see. Atolibus took a deep breath, taking a moment to savor the fresh air. He’d spent an increasing amount of time indoors of late and it did his soul good to feel the sun shining down upon him.
“I was beginning to wonder if I’d see you,” Kristina said to him as they started walking, meandering without any real sense of direction. She had never seen the capital city like this, under the afternoon sun. She realized that she hadn’t truly taken in its size the previous night, after their wild ride from Brenhel in the north.
“I was detained,” he said, eyes momentarily distant. He shook his head. “What does it matter? We’re here, the sun is shining, it’s a beautiful day and there is plenty to see. Is there anything in particular that sparks your interest? We have just about everything you can imagine to offer here in the city. There are gardens such as you have never laid eyes on, in the northwestern sector city. To our south and interspersed throughout everything are fountains, statues and monuments, all of them relics of the past thousand years.” He looked around, towards some of the taller buildings in town. “Aye, some of this has been here almost as long as I have.” She seemed to notice a pause from him then – it was only perhaps half a heartbeat, but it was there. His face lost all semblance of gaiety for a moment and something incredibly hard came up from underneath. She’d seen the way he reacted the previous night but this had a distinctly different feel to it. It passed so quickly that she couldn’t say whether or not her eyes were deceiving her. “Something amiss, milady?” She blinked – apparently she’d been staring straight at him.
“Oh, no, I thought I saw something was all,” she said, waving him off. “How about food?” Atolibus smiled.
“What’s your fancy?” he said. “Pick a style, anything, and I guarantee you we can find it here.” She did not have spend more than a few seconds thinking.
“I want hearty food – good roasted meat, and the best this city has to offer in the manner of drink,” she said. For his part he looked somewhat surprised by her answer, and she smiled furtively towards him. “Oh there’s no need to look at me like that, milord – I know exactly how I look but you don’t know how I eat, now do you?” He laughed, this time heartily.
“Very well then, you have me there, milady,” he said. “If it’s good, hearty food you want I can’t think of a better place than Beggar’s Rest. They’ve got the best game that I’ve tasted in all of the realms, though the crowd in the common room does tend to be of the rougher sort.”
“I grew up around soldiers,” she said. “I’ll be right at home.”
“As you will,” he said with a nod. “Well then, let’s be on our way – Beggar’s Rest is near Westgate, and it’s well over four miles from where we stand. There will be plenty to see between here and there – we should have a lovely afternoon.” She matched eyes with him once and then flicked her gaze up towards the sky.
“Aye,” she said, smiling.
Their trip through the city was pleasant and blissfully uneventful. Atolibus made it a point to stop every so often and point out this or that to Kristina. At a few particular points they simply stood, gazing at whatever monument lie before them or the azure skies above, content to observe and share a silent moment.
“So this city has stood for a thousand years?” she said as they watched the sky, sitting at a bench in one of the aforementioned parks that dotted the streets.
“In a manner of speaking,” he said. “While the capitol was here a thousand years ago, aye, all of the buildings and structures of the original have been lost to age or warfare. The oldest structure you’d find here right now would be the castle itself., though Beggar’s Rest and a few of the other taverns go back almost that far.”
“Speaking of which, I’m actually getting pretty hungry. Mind if we continue?” she said. He nodded, rising to his feet and offering her a hand. She accepted and very shortly both of them were walking towards the west, this time down the main road through the city, the shortest path towards the gates.
Passing crowds of townsfolk and soldiers alike, pleasant thoughts filled Atolibus’ mind for a change. For a few hours he was able to forget his worldly troubles, his fears and his unease. It was no small thing that Kristina was walking beside him during this moment, enjoying the chill midwinter afternoon and the winter sun shining down on them off from the south. Quite uneventfully he passed into the outer edges of town and, so accompanied, found himself standing before the door of the very tavern he’d mentioned earlier that day.
“Fancy that,” he said to himself quietly. Above them was a wooden sign hanging from a long silver-capped pole, with an engraving of a man sleeping soundly on a bed of what appeared to be straw. The details of the engraving, down to the tired smile on his face and the ragged edges of his jerkin, explained the name quickly enough.
“Clever,” Kristina said. Men and women alike, commoners all, were passing in and out of the wide archway leading into the crowded tavern, most of them staring at the Regent in awe. More than one bended the knee quietly, and all of them saluted with a fist to heart. It was a military gesture, and strange coming from commonfolk, but it meant the same thing nonetheless. Kristina noted with some dismay the look on Atolibus’ face – blank unease. This puzzled her more than anything else – that he should be so noted across so many lands that even commonfolk saluted him fist-to-heart, and yet so plainly uncomfortable with it that he veiled it thinly enough for her to see. He shook his head briskly and then stepped aside, out of the main flow of traffic. “You all right, there?”
“Momentarily,” he said. He leaned against the hard red-brick walls of the tavern, covering his eyes with his right hand – a hand still encased in a golden gauntlet. She blinked, and then the gauntlet was gone. The fact that he had just worked some manner of spell escaped her grasp for the moment, overridden by the simple, powerful fact that a piece of physical matter had just disappeared into thin air.
“Was that…” she said.
“The gauntlet?” he said. She nodded and Atolibus shrugged. “I wanted it out of the way so I made it disappear. This is why I never try and explain my own magic, why I generally teach the most powerful mages in the land, that they may teach others the conventional way.”
“Explain it to me,” she said simply. “I might understand better than you think.” He looked at her, surprised for a moment, and then realized that he shouldn’t be – she’d been surprising him for over a day now, what made this instance any different? For that matter the last few days had been nothing but surprises.
“It’s like trying to explain the wind, or time, or the universe – we know these things exist, even though we don’t always understand how or why,” he replied. “However, I know a little bit about what makes it different. Most people that use magic, to any degree, yourself included, are possessed of what we call ‘the Gift’. The basic elemental force that drives the universe, time, space, whatever. Some people are capable of directing more of that potent energy – you, my dear, may be capable of more than thousands of the men and women I’ve seen and fought with or against. But even so, there are limits. Pull too much and you can destroy yourself, and if you’re lucky, only the surrounding five miles. Lose your focus and healing energies can become dangerous whips of power, slashing through whatever is in their path. I’ve seen it happen enough times, I know how it works.”
“And yours is just different?” she said. He shrugged again.
“In the thousand years I have dwelt in Syreal that is perhaps the single thing that has remained constant,” he said, nodding. “More than that I can’t really say, at least not right now, not standing in the middle of traffic waiting to eat. Let’s get some food.”
They spent perhaps an hour in the tavern, eating hearty foods and sampling the various strengths of ales that were being served inside. A bubble of emptiness surrounded Atolibus by about ten feet – any time men or women would step near they would find some reason to be somewhere else. Somewhere they can stare anonymously. Indeed, there were more than a few stares coming from any particular direction, and she began to feel herself being weighed on the scales after a time. She shivered lightly.
“Is it always like this?” she said. He shrugged.
“Depends on where I am and what’s going on in the world,” he said. “Some nights I’ll be in the middle of a group telling stories, sharing drink and laughter with men of the farming community. Some nights I’ll be quietly sitting in the corner, simply observing. And then there are days like this, where I seem to be carrying some manner of plague.”
“Do you think it has anything to do with what happened yesterday?” she said. He had gone from light and whimsical to somber and dark in moments. Small wonder considering the atmosphere. Isn’t this place supposed to be lively? Atolibus smiled lightly to himself. Turning towards her he spoke.
“And that my dear is why I am sitting here with you and not someone else,” he said. The intent of the remark went straight over her head. “News does travel fast, in this land or any other for that matter. The one thing people can be counted on to do, regardless of what is going in their lives, is to talk amongst themselves.” Why do you think I always know at least some of what’s going on in any land at any given time? The transmitted thought caught her off guard.
You have spies, I assume?
One might call them that, though it isn’t quite the right word. Surely you have heard of the Network?
Now that you mention it, my father mentioned the word to me in passing. This took Atolibus by surprise.
In what capacity?
Just that if I were to ever have to trust my life to someone, a member of the Network would be the person. A furtive smile lit Atolibus’ face and eyes.
That is true. However a member of the Network, a true member, would never address themselves to you, or anyone else for that matter, as such. They do not even declare themselves outright to me. Everything that is said is said in code and any messages that are sent are protected by magic of the highest order – my own.
Best if I not know who any of them are, then?
You would be correct. What one does not know cannot be taken by any means, and the fewer who know a secret the less it is known, period. It’s a remarkably simple rule but you’d be surprised to see how many men and women break it.
“Easier said than done, right?” Kristina said. At this, he laughed, raising his drink.
“I’ll drink to that,” he said, summarily emptying the glass. As he set it down there was a suddenly a small timepiece in his empty left hand. His eyebrows went up as he flipped it open, reading the glowing gnomon set in the center that seemed to move of its own accord. “Nearly seven all ready.”
“How is that possible?” Kristina said.
“Pleasant afternoons always pass quickly,” he said. “Either way I need to be at the castle in short order – a meeting of the Council is scheduled in a few minutes and my presence is most assuredly necessary.” An idea seemed to strike him as his eyes lit up. “Perhaps you’d like to join me? You were present when the town was destroyed, and they’ll be wanting eyewitnesses.” She suspected an ulterior motive to his request but let it pass – functions of state were usually left to members of the family that ranked higher in the noble line.
“Why not?” she said. “Could be fun, right?” Atolibus laughed once again.
“Educational, at the very least,” he said. He looked around the tavern and then looked straight at her, extending his now-empty gauntleted hands. She cocked her head sideways in curiosity. “We’re going to travel in a slightly different manner than most. I don’t have the time to waltz back through town, as much as I would enjoy it, but we can be there immediately. Take my hands.” She acquiesced, and his eyes seemed to come afire with power. “Just hang on – this might be a little bright, and it should give the folks around here something to talk about for a while.”
He was laughing as bright orbs of white and blue light began surrounding them, blanking everything else out of view for a moment. The world felt like it was turning in on itself, but when the light cleared they were standing outside of a massive oaken doorway, surrounded by high stone walls. She reflected that if he hadn’t had a hold of her she would almost certainly have fainted.
“The magic of teleportation is a rare enough skill, and it usually requires a great deal more effort and focus,” he said. “Gateways are far simpler if you know the way of them. Come with me, my dear.”
She watched as the doors seemed to open of their own accord, swinging silently back on well oiled hinges. When both came against the stone with a dull thud the heads of twenty odd men seated around a massive oak longtable turned in their direction, while a double line of soldiers trumpeted his arrival as he and Kristina walked to join the meeting. The Great Hall. A place she had heard much of but never seen for herself. Odd to have a meeting here, though, as opposed to Council Chambers. Not enough room, perhaps? Massive tapestries adorned the dark stone walls, while dozens of soldiers were arranged in two lines to either side of the main path towards the council table. The doors closed behind them as they stood before the convened council, and the king called for silence.
“Atolibus, my friend, good to see you,” Lothane said, waving. The man in gold returned the gesture and strode towards him, where an empty seat sat slightly off to the side and behind the king’s. “Lady Terwynn, you as well. Please, won’t you join us?” With a crooked finger the king had another chair brought forward and seated between Atolibus’ and his own. “We were just getting ready to start – I had thought you were visiting the city?” Atolibus smiled with one corner of his mouth.
“We were,” he said, leading Kristina towards their places. When they were seated the king began to speak.
“Honored Lords, Generals and friends, most of you all ready know why we are gathered here,” he said, his voice commanding immediate attention, something Kristina noted. The king looked a good deal like his brother, though his hair still had more brown than gray. His eyes were a softer brown as well, as opposed to the fiery blue that Jael possessed. A king in his late forties was one thing, but a king in his late forties without a wife or an heir was something altogether different and this king was all of the above, a fact which escaped no one in the realm with half a set of wits. The normal flock of nobles that surrounded any monarch appeared to have doubled during the more recent years of his tenure, as, without an heir, anyone of the proper lineage and qualification could be chosen as the new monarch if some ill were to befall him. “As you are all very well aware of we were attacked last night, here, inside the castle.” He paused for a moment, letting silence fill the void just long enough to let imaginations start to run rampant. “Mages and knights alike have died, and my brother the Lord General Lothanis is missing. A message was written on the wall of the throne room, some manner of ancient prophecy. Atolibus, would you be so kind?” Lothane looked to Atolibus briefly before the latter man spoke.
“The words written on the wall as they were meant to be read would look as thus,” Atolibus said, raising his right hand and waving his fingers about two feet before his face. Glowing letters began scrawling themselves seemingly of their own accord in midair before the assembled body. The tongue they were written in was clearly something foreign to them, though a few of them stared perplexed as if they grasped a word or two. “This is the language of the Vorathi, who were later known as the Magus. This script has not been seen in the halls of this castle in nearly a thousand years.” Atolibus stopped for a second, motioning with his hand again, and they changed, appearing to melt into completely different words, this time ones that were clearly understandable by all present. “This prophecy was written shortly before the Vorathi became what they are now known as. This is what it translates to in our tongue.”
Atolibus rose from his seat and the letters burst into flame, drawing another gasp from the assembled party. He began to speak the words of the prophecy in deep, booming tones. When he was finished he smiled to himself, taking his seat. No one made the smallest of sounds, waiting for him to declare that their salvation was at hand. After a few moments of silence one man finally dared speak.
“This does not appear to be in the form of a warning to me,” an elderly, graying man said, sitting midway between the king and the opposite end of the table. From Kristina’s perspective, a fierce light seemed to burn just behind his eyes. She couldn’t explain the sensation brushing against something deep within her spirit, but it felt familiar to her in a way that seemed both bizarre and yet perfectly natural at the same time. “Were those truly the words of the Magus it would appear to me to be open mockery. Do they think they can take us now when they have less than a tenth the strength they wielded during the Skirmishes, or the last War of the Shadow?” Atolibus smiled to himself again, folding his hands in front of him.
“Fantus, my friend, it is good to see that old zeal,” Atolibus said, smiling to the man that had spoken. Fantus nodded to him, eyes dancing with the light of the Gift, holding himself ready for any possible threat. “But lest we not forget the past so quickly, I remind you of the myriad of times that we have been surprised by their numbers and their strength – even I myself fall into that category.”
“High Mage Fantus, do you have any wisdom to share with the counsel?” the king said, looking to the blue eyed man for a moment. Fantus looked at Atolibus once and then shook his head.
“I think I said what needed to be said,” he said, gaze turning inward.
“Is there anything we can do here, in the castle and in the city, to better prepare ourselves for a possible assault?” a noble in blue silken raiment said, seated perhaps a third of the way down from the king on the right side opposite Fantus.
“An excellent question,” Atolibus said, “and one that I had hoped would come up early on.” Atolibus ran the fingers of his right hand through his hair, which was a signal to the man that had spoken that he had carried out his orders to the letter and that he was pleased. The blue-bedecked noble was, of course, one of the many members of the Network, and not the only such member seated at the table. Atolibus had counted at least seven, Fantus among them and the highest ranked member below himself.
“This kingdom knew peace for centuries up until the Skirmishes, twenty years ago. Since then we have continued to build up both our military ranks and the skills of our mages. I’ve seen to it that this time we will not be caught completely off guard. To that effect I will personally be doubling the strength of the guard and the presence of the mages in the area, as well as adding extra layers of magical warding. Without either disabling the ward or destroying the gate itself a member of the Magus will not be able to pass through undetected by guile or deceit. As it stands the moment Shadow passes under that arch bells will begin ringing throughout the castle that all may be alerted, and a cadre of guards with magical support will swarm down atop whoever or whatever is foolish enough to keep walking.”
“But what of the King?” Fantus said. To this question a great deal of attention was suddenly paid, and not for the first time since the beginning of the meeting did many of them turn their thoughts to their heirless leader. Atolibus sighed, shaking his head.
“Were I to place him in the care of an entire legion of our finest soldiers and mages, it wouldn’t matter,” he said. Another smile played across his lips. “And at any rate, I haven’t managed to convince the old goat that he needs more protection.” The king laughed to himself at this remark. “But like I said, it matters not. I shall be his protection, now as ever, and that’s more than any other man can say, I think.” He turned his gaze towards the king. “That having been said I cannot be near you at all times – you know this. I will state openly what I know all of you are thinking about – you are childless, your Lordship, and at perhaps the worst time possible to be childless during the entire war-fraught history of your reign.” Steel was in Atolibus’ eyes as he continued. “I will not have this land without a king. It has been over nine hundred years since the last time Lothanis was without a leader.”
“Then let me turn your gathered attention to the next subject I had in mind,” the king said calmly. “Atolibus, you have borne the title of Regent and Supreme Lord Commander for over nine hundred and fifty years. The time may come, indeed sooner than I might hope, when that title of Regent may become King.” The convened group murmured at this, even Fantus, for no one had truly considered the death of an heirless king in this light. While it was true that Atolibus indeed wielded full authority alongside the king, he had never taken the reins directly in public view. The thought of their silver eyed Regent suddenly placed on the throne as the sole authority in the land was a chilling one, despite his obvious and many qualifications. Kristina could feel him tensing in his seat next to her, even though she wasn’t physically touching him in any way at the moment.
“Something told me that this would come up sooner or later,” Atolibus said to himself. “You know full well that I cannot manage the duties that I maintain and hold the sole leadership of the land at the same time. At any rate, not and stay aware of everything that goes on. Do you think that the knowledge that I bring to this table is gained by lounging about and parading on display for the common folk of the land?” Several men at the table hissed under their breath.
“Is that what you think I spend my time doing?” he said. “I’m sure you meant no harm in your words so I’ll let it pass but you and I both know that we are not speaking of idle times here. War, man, open war, the kind not seen since the War of the Shadow. There is a fell wind blowing these days, and it carries ill tidings and despair. I know war is coming. I even know from who. I just don’t know from where, or when. And if I should find myself without breath, who will carry this kingdom and her burdens on his shoulders? I would command it of you, if I could.”
“I would disobey such a command at any rate for it would prove to be a mistake,” Atolibus said, mastering himself and calming. “I’ve never shirked duty before. I’ve done things that would make the strongest of men blanch and I’ve seen things that would turn any stomach, but I’ve never set aside a necessary burden, no matter how heavy that burden may be. So I will say this – if it comes to the time when the kingship should suddenly leave your hands and it has to fall to me, let it be known and clear that it was againstmy wishes andmy better judgment.”
He slumped a bit in his seat, and if Kristina didn’t know better she would have said he looked more than a touch defeated. One ill turn deserves another, I suppose. Long years unrolled before him in his mind, back to the beginning, a time when nothing was certain and death knocked at every doorstep. Am I never to be free? Then he heard a thought coming from the woman sitting next to him, to his great surprise. She had made a concerted effort to get his attention, and all ready he noticed her transmission was more precise than it had been the previous day.
I don’t know if they can see it but you look rather put-upon, if you don’t mind my saying so. He smiled, though it was mirthless, one that didn’t touch his eyes. I would think that being practically handed the kingship would be a great honor, even if you truly do have other better things to do.
It is a great honor but it’s also fraught with peril.
Of the gravest sort. Let us both hope that the day never needs to come when I have to wear the crown of Lothanis once again. Suddenly his mind went blank and she realized he’d made some kind of mistake, a slip of the tongue as it were.
Do I want to know? He could see a stony look on her face and chuckled to himself.
“Then the matter is decided,” the king said. Atolibus nodded, though in truth he hadn’t heard what the king had just finished saying. A moment of thought spent searching his memory for the words that had passed around the table while he’d been in silent conversation with Kristina found him growling in his throat and wishing he could slap himself for being all kinds of a fool. He’d just agreed to the king’s mad proposal to instate him as King should Lothane fall, without thinking about it. That Kristina was able to distract him from a moment of such import was both intriguing and unnerving at the same time. Lothane slid a parchment towards Atolibus along with a quill and a pot of ink, and the man in gold hastily scrawled his signature at the bottom, irritated and a trifle disturbed.
“You sign your documents directly?” Kristina said to him, eyes perking up for a moment. “Even the king rarely signs for himself. Passing strange.” Atolibus waved her off.
“It isn’t out of a particular need for control,” he said, “or paranoia. It’s plain necessity – my signature cannot be written by another hand or duplicated. Anything needing my signature has to be signed by me personally.” Bit of an inconvenience after all these years, but still necessary... wait a moment... His train of thought was interrupted by alarm bells that began ringing throughout the entire castle.
“Magus, Magus in the castle, to your feet men. Out swords and prepare for battle,” he said, throwing his chair aside and ripping Elysdeon from its scabbard. Fantus, Kristina and the King were up from their seats with weapons in hand a bare moment later. The soldiers stationed in the room were all ready armed, waiting for the first foe to present itself. As they were readying themselves, the doors to the chamber burst open in a spray of wood and soldiers garbed in black mail with the emblem of the Magus came rushing in, slaughtering soldiers and mages alike that were stationed near the door before the men could respond with weapons in hand. When they passed the doors, however, they stopped, lining themselves up much as the Lothanis soldiers had been lined up around the table moments before. Atolibus waved his free left hand in the air and sheathed his blade, signaling his men to hold – he wanted to see what manner of messenger would stand before them, as this was obviously another message, though of a different sort.
“What is the meaning of this?” the King said – twice in as many days had the fell society made its way into the very bowels of the castle, past guard and mage alike, and this time through Atolibus’ more potent magic. Teleportation. It would explain why I didn’t feel them until a bare moment before they burst into the room. But it shouldn’t be possible, unless... His train of thought was cut off as trumpets blared as heralds cried aloud the entrance of their leader.
“All hail her Royal Majesty, the Grand Magus Elvina Elise,” the loudest one called. Silence ensued – that was a name that was known to every person in the room, some more directly than others. Atolibus felt the hair on the back of his neck standing up – this was something he had not anticipated, Elvina herself in the castle. It can’t be. He could feel a frantic message coming from Kristina – she’s here, she’s here, Andreida is here! I can feel her! Abject horror rolled through her mind and across to his, of the deepest sort. Atolibus could feel every man in the room tense up, some in fear, some in horror, others in the depths of rage. The king looked like a coiled spring, sword in hand, ready to strike though it would surely be the death of him to do so lacking the magic necessary to do battle with such a foe. As Atolibus reflected on all of these things, as he passed silent messages back and forth between himself and Kristina, himself and the King, and the various members of the Network that were in the room, even as he was shielding their minds from intrusion, Elvina strode in. Kristina sent him one last thought before she fell completely silent - it’s her.
She was every inch her title, striding proudly, masterfully, guided by a dark grace like no other. Atolibus felt his heart leap at the sight of her even as hatred kindled into full blaze. Her dark hair fell all the way to the small of her back, though at the moment it was tied into a long, elaborate braid. The armor that she wore was enameled with the deepest black with golden gilding along the edges, at the tips of the fingers and along the wings sweeping back from the sides of her helm – this was not the simple service plate she wore on the field, this was her very finest. Glittering dark eyes looked out from that helm, holding men in thrall wherever they made contact. Her cloak looked to be kin with Atolibus’ own, velvety and solid black on both sides. The scythe on her back was the same weapon Kristina remembered seeing in her hands years ago. Her mind, along with her stomach, turned at the thought of who she had fought – Elvina Elise, the Grand Magus herself.
“Fancy what you’ve done with the place,” she said nonchalantly, looking leisurely around the room even as she strode forward. The King made to move into her path, whether to parlay with her or to do battle Atolibus did not know, but before he could do either Atolibus motioned him to be still, placing himself firmly at the end of her path and the line of her soldiers, twenty feet away. She looked him dead in the eye as she spoke again. “A girl could really get into a place like this. High walls, defensible towers and the most splendid tapestries. Really, where do you find all of these priceless works of art? I have a pretty fine eye for it, you know.” Atolibus growled deep in his throat.
“Give me one reason why I shouldn’t take your head right this moment and be done with it,” he said to her, the steel in his voice now bared, razor sharp and itching to draw blood. At this she smiled. Kristina could feel that strange familial pull again, which nearly made her empty the contents of her stomach onto the floor right then and there.
“Now now, I’m not here to fight... yet,” she said, stopping a mere foot before Atolibus. Her right hand slowly floated up to his face, and she caressed the side of his jaw gently with a fingernail before he caught her hand in a vice-like grip. Growling again, he released her, and she kept her hands to herself. “So touchy.” Her eyes took in Kristina and she smiled again, this time maliciously. “And I can see why. Of all the people to take up company with, you should choose her. Why, Kristina my dear, it’s been an age. We really should chat some time.”
“I hate you,” Kristina said. Tears stood in her eyes, glittering but unmoving. “You foul... thing." The venom in her voice only made Elvina laugh, chime-like and resonant, a sound which would have been pleasant if it wasn’t utterly full of malice.
“Whatever for?” Elvina said, chuckling lightly as if it were of no account. Atolibus caught her gaze again and this time her laughter died in her throat. “Very well then, I can see that none of you have any sense of humor. I’ll get to my point.” She raised her voice and this time it was not the seductive voice of the temptress, it was the hard voice of the overlord. “You have something of mine, a trinket, merely, but it’s something I hold very dear, and I want it back. Now.” Atolibus let loose a laugh of his own, deep and honest. A look of consternation crossed her face, followed by black rage.
“I know you wouldn’t come all this way for a ‘mere trinket’, as you put it,” he said, folding his arms across his chest. “I know what you want and, more importantly, I know how to open it, which is something I rather doubt you can do.” She glared at him darkly. “Now explain to me the purpose of this visit before I remove your head from your shoulders.” He drew his massive blade once again. “And I would do it quickly – Elysdeon is not as patient as I am.” He tapped the floor with his left foot, metal ringing loudly on stone while he rested his blade on his right shoulder.
“Did you know,” she said, “that I could kill every one in this room before you could blink? I offer you a trade – in exchange for the box I’ll leave your kingdom alone when I begin my war. For let me assure you – it is coming, and soon. If you wish to escape unharmed and unconquered I’d advise you to consider my offer.” He mused over the situation in his mind. She has to know I won’t accept, she’s smarter than this. Confusion entered his thoughts, unbidden. Unless this has something to do with the aura I am reading from her. She is sincere with her offer, in her own way, I can feel it. It’s almost as if... He shook the thought off, as it made no sense whatsoever. This has to be a distraction play, she’s making another move somewhere else and no one has reported it to me yet... I find this disturbing. She knows I can kill her, I alone of all men here, so what is she playing at? All of these thoughts ran through his mind in a fraction of a second and he responded as if he’d never paused at all.
“Whatever possessed you to come here and ask this of me?” he said. “You had to know my answer before you ever walked in the door, and what I would do to you.” He chuckled to himself again and the tension in the room swelled. Every soldier in the room made ready with his weapons, while Fantus and the others of magical inclination prepared spells to unleash the moment Atolibus gave the signal. Which confused Fantus – he had expected said signal to come at the first sign of trouble and here he was speaking with her, somewhat calmly no less. Atolibus waited for some sign of anything from her direction, but she gave no outward indication of doing so. For all he could see she was as calm as a spring breeze.
“Very well then, have it your way,” she said, throwing both hands in the air. Atolibus had Elysdeon out and flashing towards her neck within a split second but she and her men disappeared before his eyes, even as torrents of raw Shadow ripped through his soldiers. With a great cry and a monumental clap of thunder he rammed Elysdeon into the stone below with both hands, sinking the blade two feet into the floor before stopping. Every armored soldier in the room died on their feet, torn apart by lances of power before any mage could react.
Without thinking, without pausing, Atolibus hit his knees, throwing his arms wide to his sides and howling aloud with bestial rage. On the arrow of thought his magic traveled, through the very last edge of the magic that Elvina had used to transport herself and her men into and out of the room. Every Magus that had set foot in the castle he hunted through that portal, held open by a wedge of his great power. Every last one of them died on their feet, burning in flames so hot that any man within fifteen feet found himself putting flames out in his own flesh. Elvina alone escaped his rage, for she was protected by some manner of shield that reflected his power away from her. He cut the flow and released the wedge, and the gateway closed at last.
Grasping his sword and breathing heavily he rested on his knees for a moment, furious beyond words and grieving for the loss of the fine young men and women that had just died painfully, needlessly, because of his arrogance. The King issued orders for the Council members to find people to carry out the dead and sat back down again, sighing heavily to himself. Fantus strode out of the room, making his way to the Magery to issue orders of his own. The rest of the Council members headed to the various areas of the castle that they normally belonged to, eager to learn the fate of their men and their homes. Kristina alone dared to come near him, kneeling beside him and wrapping her left arm about his shoulders, staff lying forgotten at her feet. She put her head on his shoulder, comforting him without words.
“She will rue this day,” he whispered quietly, voice slowly rising even as he got to his feet. Kristina rose with him. “I will make her fear the name of Atolibus Sandrin once more. She will rue this day.” He wrenched his sword from the ground and sheathed it once again, storming out of the broken doors and towards the castle doors proper. Kristina looked in his direction, looked at the king and sighed to herself. What had been a perfectly wonderful day had been marred by tragedy yet again. She stepped over to her seat and sat back down next to the King, never once thinking of where she was sitting or who she was sitting with.
“Always it is such, with the Magus,” he said. “They take what they want, or they smoke you out and burn you to the ground. Ever has it been, despite our long years of constant vigilance.” His eyes met Kristina’s, and he sighed again. “You know, my dear, you shouldn’t take his recent behavior to heart. It’s these damned meetings – they always put him in a foul mood. I’m not particularly fond of them either, for that matter. The words you heard coming from him, those were the product of years of stress and labor.” Lothane’s eyes drifted off into the distance. “What things he has seen in the last thousand years I can only imagine... nor do I wish to know. It isn’t meet for a man to live past his allotted span, no matter how much he may wish to.” He chuckled lightly to himself. “But that one... I don’t know if he is a ‘man’, in the traditional sense of the word.” At this she had to interrupt.
“What do you mean by that, if I can ask?” she said. The King chuckled again.
“You may ask me whatever you wish and whenever, so put custom out of your head – I hold to it almost as little as Atolibus does, and that’s saying something,” he said. “And I meant no disrespect, if that’s what you were wondering. His counsel has proved itself to me and my line over and over again, countless times, and my trust lies fully with him where it would not even with my own self.” A dark look passed over his face momentarily. “But there is a dark side to him, the Regent. And I sometimes wonder, just how deep does that darkness run? I know it is not the heart of the man, but I also know that even in the pursuit of the light can one commit truly dark acts, and though they be for the greater good, what kind of a stain does that leave on one’s soul? He has spoken to me of precious little of the vast majority of his life but some of the stories chill my soul even now.”
“That sounds rather grave,” Kristina said. “You say you trust him completely and yet you admit to me, someone you’ve only known a day, that he terrifies you... how exactly does that work?”
“Did I ever tell you of how I knew your father?” he said. Her eyes met his, and he smiled again. She’d had her mouth open to speak but it had closed immediately. “Oh yes, young Jonathyn was one of the most talented Mages I’ve ever seen, and under Atolibus’ guidance his power seemed to magnify tenfold, if not more. What a shining example of all that we have fought the long years for – Jonathyn Terwynn, one of the most talented mages and one of the greatest men to ever grace these halls.” The kings eyes glowed with inner fire as he spoke. “Alas for us all when he fell. Do you know the manner of his passing?” Kristina shook her head no, unable to speak. “I didn’t think you did – out of respect for Atolibus few of us speak of it. He was there when it happened, you know.”
“Please, milord,” she croaked. “No more, I beg of you.” The King stopped immediately, bowing his head.
“I’m sorry, my dear – tonight has me all turned around inside,” he said. “I meant no ill, and I’m sorry if I upset you. I’ll hold this out to you – if you should ever wish to know something of your father, or hear a story of his life in the castle and in service to Lothanis, you have but to ask.” He rose from his seat and made as if to leave, pausing momentarily. As far as he could see he was getting exactly the kind of reaction he wanted out of her – Atolibus’ training had never been wasted on him for a moment. Piquing her curiosity in the man... and then putting her off balance, even upsetting her a little, would push her right into his arms, and in his book that was something his oldest friend could dearly use at the moment. “Atolibus is upset right now, more than I could guess.” He sighed again. “Senseless deaths always do, and he can usually feel it in the manner that most possessed of the Gift can. Those that he has trained he feels a hundred fold. So many young men and women at once, that kind of shock... I could go to him, but I think perhaps there is one better suited to such a thing.” He started to walk away. “I leave you with that and good night, my dear.”
“Yeah...” she said, speechless again. Weariness fell over her, a kind of weariness she hadn’t felt in many years. She sat for a few minutes, pondering her feelings, and then at once rose and strode off into the castle to find the man in gold.
Elvina’s situation was almost as grim as Atolibus’ mood, though for different reasons. Alone and surrounded by the black stone walls of her chambers, standing before a massive table with a relief map of the Ten Realms with all else forgotten, she pondered the plight of the unit she had gated into the castle earlier that night. She’d had reports of their demise firsthand and once again found herself thankful for proper planning – not a single one of them had been gated back within a hundred yards of each other, in case something along those lines happened. She herself had felt something, some kind of resonance or power, something she couldn’t explain, a great white Light that hungered to sear her mind into oblivion. Another power had protected her, Shadow so complete that she still found herself in awe. She knew it had not come from within – Shadow so great should not be possible, let alone come to her aid when she needed it most. She stared intently at the center of the map, where an ivory carving representing Castle Lothanis sat proudly, as if to mock her. Reflexively she reached out with her power and ground it into powder with Earth, clearing the dust with a flick of Air.
“Would that it were that easy,” she said without mirth. She flung herself down on a reclined crimson sofa that was within a few feet of the map table, running her fingers through her hair. Why didn’t he kill me? She knew as well as any that he could have done it, and had her return gateway gone off a blink later she would have stood almost a foot shorter for it. Amidst these thoughts she did not hear the knock at her door immediately. After a moment, however, the knock was repeated, and she caught wind of someone outside. She sat up, smoothing back her hair. “Come.” The door opened, and to her surprise and consternation it was not her aging lover Londar standing before her, arriving for a midnight interlude. No, filling her doorway with his utter masculinity and smug teal-eyed countenance was Gaerlin, the man she had recently assigned to supervise the network of spies she had in Castle Lothanis. She found herself on her feet without even thinking of it. “What are you doing here?” He smiled lightly and chuckled, sending tingles of anger down her spine.
“Wondering why it’s not Londar in my place, you mean?” he said. Her mouth dropped open at this, but before she could speak he entered the room, running right over what she had just been planning to retort with. “I’ll forgive your impertinence – I have more important things to discuss with you right now.” Her eyes lit aflame, but again he interrupted her. “I bear a message from our Master.” His voice, his face, everything about him seemed to change in an instant, and Elvina sank to her knees.
“I see you have not forgotten all courtesy,” her Master said, his voice a thousand needles in her ears, his face impossible to look upon without going completely mad. The Shadow rolling off of him in massive waves left her gasping for breath. “Therefore I will forgive your rudeness to my servant. It is not in him to disobey me, any more than it is in you.” He seemed to draw himself up, taller and more terrifying than before. “I am going to ask you a question and I had better find the answer to my liking, or I will find a new Grand Magus to lead the War of the Shadow. Why does Kristina Terwynn still live?” Elvina’s heart leaped in her chest. It was a question she herself could not answer – why had she let the girl live, when she could just as easily have killed her along with the soldiers in the room? Her proximity to Atolibus at the time meant nothing – she was certain that he hadn’t had any time to react when his men died all around him.
So what had motivated her to spare the young girl’s life? Fear? She thought back to ten years ago when they had fought, but most of that time was a red blur save the woman’s name and face. Indeed she’d surprised herself when she spoke her name aloud earlier that night, for she barely remembered any of her time spent in the city before she went completely mad and destroyed it. Nothing that the young woman had done or said would have induced fear in her heart, though she admitted the battle between the two of them had been fairly evenly matched. Fear of Atolibus, maybe. A reasonable answer, one that would probably be believed – and yet it wasn’t so. No, she had not spared Kristina’s life out of fear for anyone or anything, not even herself. Something else, something deep inside her, had prevented her from touching the woman. The very thought of committing violence against her made her want to retch. So she crafted a very hasty answer for her dark Master, one that would suit his purposes, for it was true in its own fashion.
“I have it on good authority that the lines of Atolibus Sandrin and Kristina Terwynn were fated to cross and intertwine, and I believe after tonight there can be no doubt that this has happened,” she said, measuring her words slowly and carefully. One wrong step and she would die where she knelt, before she had a chance to so much as blink. At least if what that fool of a page Gaerlin brought to me is true. The day they’d met – his first day at court – he’d come to her proposing the very same. At the time she’d thought it ridiculous... until events began to play out in precisely the manner he’d outlined.
“All the more reason for you to destroy her before it could happen,” he said with a shout, a cry that rattled the furniture of her room with its force. Elvina felt flames scorching her mind, a promise of things to come if the rest of her story did not please him.
“Master... I...” she stammered, unable to speak through the pain.
“When I issue orders, I expect obedience, not failure,” he said, releasing her from the pain momentarily. “Continue. And be warned – your next words will be your last, save your dying screams, if I am not satisfied. Those dying screams will take days, weeks, for I know ways of drawing out death such as you could only dream of. Now speak."
“The girl... if she is tied to him...” she said, gasping for air, trying to catch her breath and her composure for a moment. “If she is tied to him, then will it not make our victory that much more savory, that much more crushing, when she is slain? Taken from his very arms, even?” She waited for some sign that he agreed, or more searing pain. After a moment of pause he began to laugh, a truly horrifying sound.
“A dangerous road,” he said, still laughing, “but one that leads to the greater victory. You’ve learned from our past, haven’t you, my little darling? For was this not the same manner in which you dispatched of his last wife, Serena? A hundred years past... but it is said that old methods tried and true are best, and in this I agree.” He laughed once more, this time deep and booming, not painful but true. Elvina took note of it, for it was a different sound from the voice he’d been using moments before. Any knowledge she could glean of her captor may someday lead to her freedom... or had she followed that road all ready? Her mind grew foggy on that subject. “Very well then, my child. Let them have their time together... it will make the taste of victory and revenge that much sweeter.”
He laughed once more and then his face and voice were gone, and Gaerlin was standing before her again, visibly shaken and drained, wavering on his feet. She found herself feeling pity for him suddenly, a pity she could not explain. Without words she rose, shaking herself, and helped him to her sofa, sitting with him in silence. His eyes had a pained look to them, as if he had been through this ordeal before and knew not when his suffering would ever end. She forgave him his indolence upon entering, knowing full well that, were their roles reversed, she would have done the same. He had allowed her as much time as permitted to gather herself before entering, and she took note of this as well. Compassion, though distant in her mind, was not lost to her entirely. After a few minutes of silence, Gaerlin spoke.
“He will come again, you know,” he said, eyes looking off into the distance as if lost. “We shall never be free of him.” She sighed, for she shared this opinion at the moment, though her Master was someone she rarely ever thought of save when he was issuing commands or delivering harsh reprimands. All ready she found herself losing track of her thoughts, wondering what she was doing and why a page was sitting beside her in her private chambers. Her lingering sense of compassion did not leave her entirely, however, even when the reason for his presence was finally gone from her mind. Almost, she could believe he was young, in pain and confused.
“All of us are pawns one way or another, even the mightiest,” she said, patting his shoulder without realizing it. He looked at her, holding her gaze for a moment. “All of us, even you and me.” Even Atolibus. Seeing him in the flesh that evening had awoken strange things within her breast, things she had thought long gone. Perhaps that was why that she did what she did next, leaning over and kissing Gaerlin fully on the lips out of the blue. Lust flared to life in her chest and he fell into her embrace just as willingly.
Kristina finally came upon Atolibus standing outside of the castle gates alone, silent and looking to the sky. She slowed her steps, giving him time to sense her presence before surprising him. He never once turned in her direction, even when she stood next to him and wrapped her arms around him from behind, laying her head against his back. She could feel him sigh heavily then for reasons she knew not. She let go and moved next to him on his right, looking to the sky with him.
“They’re so beautiful,” he said, half to himself. “The stars. There are so many of them, spinning and burning alone in the abyss of space uncountable miles away. And yet even they are given unto Death’s eternal sleep after an unthinkably long time.” She didn’t understand what he was saying – she knew nothing of the stars other than that they could be used to navigate without a compass and that one could arrange some of them in seemingly sensible patterns with their eyes. He turned and looked at her. “Have you ever wondered why that is so? The stars, I mean. What have they done, what service have they rendered, that allows them the boon of being able to die, to pass on to the next life, or the next reality, whatever is the case?”
“You could say their beauty guarantees it,” she replied softly, looking from his eyes to the stars above. “I don’t know anything about them other than that but I think even if they were only lights in the sky, set there for our amusement, then I would feel they have earned that.” She knew what he was getting at, now, and she didn’t like it. “But something deep inside tells me there is more to it than that, to them and to you. I imagine someone has to carry on when all others fail and perish, when time grinds their names and deeds into dust. There has to be someone to carry that torch, though they may not find the burden always to their liking.” Atolibus laughed at this, again without mirth.
“A few hundred years ago I asked someone that very same question. They said they didn’t understand why I shouldn’t have my wish if it were truly so,” he said. “Words of comfort, no doubt. But you stand here beside me telling me the truth as you see it – that there must be someone, someone, to keep walking the path, though that path be through fire and darkness.” His eyes danced with both passion and power, and without words they were embracing.
So ends Part I of the First Act of The Reality Saga