The Reality Saga Volume I - The Song of Steel

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Chapter Eight

Excited murmurs broke through the crowd as the doors of the throne room burst open. Gregor came pounding in, panting and clearly winded.

“Your Magus,” he cried, falling to his knees on the black marble floor before Elvina’s throne. She nodded and he rose.

“Leave us,” she said to the small group of pages and courtiers surrounding her. She waited for the room to clear, sinking into the crimson cushions of her black serpentine throne. “What have you learned?” She, along with anyone else with the Gift for magic, had felt what Atolibus had done when he did it, though she did not understand what had happened. Gregor’s face looked visibly paler than usual, which startled her – in the months that she’d known him even the vilest crime hadn’t warranted so much as a raised eyebrow.

“Nothing good,” he said, speaking slowly. “Thankfully I was far enough away from that... thing, to escape the effects.” He took a deep breath before continuing. “The entire Second Army is destroyed, your Magus.” Elvina bolted upright out of her seat, eyes ablaze with power.

“Explain,” she said with a growl. Gregor swallowed. He would have to be careful how he chose his next words – it was too soon for his plans to come unraveled. And he had a feeling that his Master would be less forgiving than Elvina could dream.

“I stayed in the distance, as you requested,” he said, “when you left the field. The situation had grown too dangerous for our leader to be present, as Council mandate dictates.” Elvina growled to herself at the last – the Council had stayed out of her affairs recently but that did not preclude them from interfering further down the line. Especially once news of what happened today spread. She listened as Gregor continued. “The Regent brought eight of his most powerful High Mages, including the head of that particular Council, Fantus Aurelius.”

“Such a small group of men to bring,” Elvina said, musing. “Even with men such as Fantus among them, did he really think that would suffice?”

“I truly don’t believe he anticipated the number and strength of the force that he came across,” Gregor said. “I believe they were intended to be a diversion, at any rate. Caught unawares in the middle of a fierce battle four of his best died in the melee, though not before wiping out a few thousand with them.” He shuddered at this thought – there had not been any such mages to the good of Lothanis back in the prime of his days, so many years ago. There had only been the True King, in his burnished white plate with his great golden sword in hand. The pain of that event still burned fresh in his mind, even after ten centuries. He didn’t think another ten centuries would dull it in the least. “Shortly after they passed, Atolibus...”

What words could describe the massive eruption of power that he had seen? For it could be compared to nothing less than the force of an exploding volcano, and even that felt pale and dim by comparison. What made the experience so visceral was the feeling he’d had when the man in gold had let loose his power. He’d had to fight the urge to release his own strength in one final glorious burst the entire time. And the crater... that crater would forever scar the land, no matter what stories were made up to cover the truth of the day’s events.

“Atolibus... what?” Elvina said, growing impatient. She had taken him to her bed a time or two, true, and it remained unspoken that she felt something for him, some kind of vital connection that she could not explain, but for the nonce she was still the Grand Magus and he was but a lowly foot soldier. Gregor swallowed yet again. Recollection was rolling through his mind, the sights and sounds of the event replaying constantly.

“In an unthinkable, catastrophic release of magical power Atolibus destroyed the entire Second Army in a single decisive stroke,” he said. Elvina winced – that was but one army out of dozens and the smallest to boot, but where it had lacked in numbers it made up for in skill. Those twenty five thousand men, for that was their true tally, had been among the best and the brightest of all of the Society in all of Syreal.

She knew there would be repercussions, even if she could not possibly have anticipated it. And she had a feeling there would be a visit from her Master very soon, if not that same night. How do I explain this? The Council, and her shadowy Master, would likely strip her of her rank and torture her to death, the slow way. Failure of this magnitude was not forgivable, even at the highest ranks. Her mind was racing with possibilities – what to do?

And then, in the midst of all of her thoughts and plans, the full import of what had just been said hit her – Atolibus had destroyed an entire Army, the best of her very best, in one massive blast. She slumped into her seat, the energy draining from her legs – how? That kind of magic should have died thousands of years ago, before the days of the Society itself. Unless... Impossible. Simply impossible.

“Continue,” she said to Gregor, the fire in her eyes dying.

“I approached the center of the crater he’d made with his magic,” he said, shaking slightly. The last time he’d seen such power had been a thousand years ago, before his first... departure, as Grand Magus Solara versus the True King. The man in white had disappeared relatively shortly after that, but he himself was standing and breathing once more. Nothing was ever certain in the world of Syreal, that much he knew. “The Regent was lying there in the center, alone and seemingly dead. He should have been dead – no one should be able to control that much magic. I attempted to take him in his unconscious state but he had help – General Winn was there, and before I could deal with her the man was incomprehensibly back on his fucking feet.” He left out Sarcodus’ presence – that was an old issue, and nothing she need concern herself with. Besides, when the Council did come – for they would, this would be impossible to hide – whatever she wasn’t aware of would work in her favor, for they could not torture something out of her that she did not know. He also left out the details of the man’s physical condition when he had seen him lying in the crater, before he made his presence known. It should have been impossible, what he saw.

In fact, he began to wonder if his mind was not simply playing tricks on him – dying and being reborn could do that to one, he was certain. Even now all of his memory had not yet returned. There were details from his past life... scents, tastes, small things here and there that he knew he should be able to recall that were strangely absent. He remembered a young red headed woman that he had once called ‘wife’, but he could not remember her name or her face, only that she had a pretty smile and that she’d laughed at his jokes, terrible though they were. He remembered that she’d been the driving force behind him joining the Order of the Vorathi, but he couldn’t remember why. Presently he put those thoughts out of his mind – they brought with them nothing but pain and regret, emotions he wished he’d been purged of long ago.

“Can we expect more of this in the days to come?” Elvina said. “Our plans would be ill served by bringing a man capable of slaughtering armies down on our heads.” She shuddered at the thought – whole armies being decimated in the blink of an eye. Her Master would ensure she died screaming, begging for death long before mercy was ever granted.

Her musing came to an abrupt end when the doors to the throne room came flying open with a crash. Immediately Elvina was out of her seat, scythe in hand at Gregor’s side. He had his own blade in front of him quicker than Elvina could blink, ready to draw blood. They were waiting for me before I set out this morning. There is no way they could know... yet. Quickly she berated herself for all kinds of a fool – leaping to her feet with weapon in hand was a sure sign of a guilty conscience in her mind, though it might not be taken as such by the men and women pouring into the room. There was always the threat of invasion to worry about, and readiness prevented death on many occasions. With a heavy sigh she sat back down, scythe across her lap, while Gregor knelt dutifully.

There were twelve of them, the High Council of the Society of Magus, men and women of all ages and all races hailing from every corner of the world. In the proper context she herself would take the position as number thirteen, the Grand Magus, first among equals when the Council was in session. Relax. She guarded her mind as best as she could from intrusion. One could never be too careful – plenty of Magus had met their ends through treachery and deceit in the ranks, even in the presence of the High Council. Especially in said presence, she reflected. Just relax. They are probably here because of what happened today – they had to have felt it, no matter where they were. And those that weren’t close enough would have been gathered and alerted by the others – it might tax their strength for days, but they alone have the Gift and the necessary strength for teleportation. So take a deep breath, get a close look at every one of them and keep your wits about you. You might just make it out of this alive after all. She hesitated to think about what her Master would have to say that night – he was sure to visit her in fire and wrath – but she thought she might have a way to deflect his ire.

“Grand Magus,” the man standing in front of the group as spokesman said, inclining his head. Elvina reined in her anger as she reminded herself that, in their presence, she was merely first among equals. The dark-skinned bright-eyed man from Mekarta – their skin tone and extravagant hair styles declared his origins immediately – looked to Gregor with a sneer of dismissal. “Leave us, Page.”

“He is a full member of the Society, or did you miss the pins on his shoulders?” she said, looking to Gregor. “Leave us, pigeon – we can continue our discussion later, in privacy.” Gregor nodded, heading for the open doors, pausing only momentarily to sweep a baleful glance across the Council as a whole. Such a thing should not have been permitted, but the force of his gaze prevented anyone from speaking. The doors slammed shut behind him, sealed as if of their own accord. The Mekartan spokesman eyed the doors for a moment and then returned his attention to Elvina. “What is said here is for Council ears only. Let’s discard formality – what the fuck happened out there today?”

“You know as much as I do, Balind,” she said. “I followed the Charter as directly as possible – in the face of an overwhelming threat, senior members of the Society are to take shelter immediately. Our leadership must not be risked for anything less than total victory.” She had skirted the edges of that one a few times ten years ago, and a few months past when she made her daring foray into Castle Lothanis itself. There had been precedent for her actions that day, but even she knew she was stretching that particular clause as thin as it would possibly go.

“But you did feel what happened, yes?” a female member of the Council interjected. Elvina nodded.

“As did anyone else within over a hundred miles, I am certain,” she said.

“What reports have you had from the field?” Balind said. He could sense something amiss but couldn’t put his fingers on it. He was fairly certain something of monumental importance had taken place, something that would send ripples throughout the whole of the society. The extent of the damage was not apparent to him as of yet – no one save Elvina and Gregor knew of the destruction of the Second Army and with a little careful footwork no one else would. She could not hide what Atolibus had done but she might be able to hide the soldiers’ losses. And if all else failed there were still a number of ‘gifts’ from her Master tucked up her sleeve for just such an occasion... if he didn’t withdraw them first. A little bit of luck, that’s all I need.

“No one was present for whatever it was that happened,” she said. “We know who it must have been, that much at least is clear.” Which was true, regardless. Atolibus Sandrin was the only man alive that could have drawn that much magic, and even he should have been obliterated in the ensuing conflagration. That he was not left her sweating even colder than before.

“The Regent, I am sure,” Balind said. He looked to the Council members, silently conversing with each of them as one. It could only have been him, he thought to each of them collectively. A resounding affirmative was their reply. She is hiding something but I cannot read her thoughts. He shuddered internally – any attempt to read Elvina’s mind was met with a repulsion of the most powerful sort, a black shield that hid her from the outside world. We will leave this subject for the moment and question her otherwise. “Enough on this event – doubtless what happened will become clear as the days wear on.”

“Doubtless,” Elvina said, nodding.

“What of today’s assault on Castle Lothanis?” he said. Elvina smiled, her mood brightening somewhat.

“A success, more than we had ever hoped for,” she said. “The king is Fallen and a goodly number of the best of his Castle Guard and Magery are slain. The Armies of Lothanis are crippled more heavily than they’ve ever been in the last three centuries.”

“The intention was to destabilize the most powerful Realm in the world and tip it towards chaos,” he said, voice flat. “Are you certain that you accomplished your goals to this end?”

“Half of their best fighting power is destroyed,” she said, voice equally flat. “What more could we have done?” It had been taxing to get around the magical protection he’d laid down in the first place. That had consumed one of the ‘gifts’ from her Master then and there, and she doubted it was a gift that would be given again. The power of that spell still frightened her, the power and the subtlety. When she had passed it to Gaerlin to unleash upon the castle when they drew near she could feel... writhing darkness, somehow. A foreign presence, more powerful and more alien than anything she’d ever known.

“You do have a point there,” Balind said. “They will have to hold a concordance and raise a new king – there is no returning from the lingering death.” Balind rubbed his spotted chin in thought – perhaps this could work to their advantage. And yet something about her raised doubts in his heart. There was some quality of hers, some part of her essence that was like and yet apart from the Magus as a whole.

“That process should take some time,” another Council member interjected. “Perhaps now would be a good time to begin the invasion?” Balind immediately shook his head.

“And make of their king a martyr, a figure to rally around?” he said. “That would not end well, even should we win the day.” He sighed. “In the state they are in now they would fight tooth and nail to the bitter end, and our losses would be heavier than otherwise possible – even the best trained Magus can be overcome by the dying inferno of a young Mage in the prime of his power. It would come to that if we invaded now, and there would be nothing left for us to govern and few of us left to do the governing. No, I am afraid that right now we must not send troops towards the castle. That is not our goal at the moment. Destabilization, only that. The time must be ripe for the Capitol to fall, though that time will no doubt be very soon.” He looked to Elvina again. “It would appear that you have succeeded against all odds, yet again. You live up to your title as Grand Magus, and we are proud to serve.” The Council as a whole bowed.

Elvina smiled, though inwardly she froze – she had made a colossal blunder in sending the Second Army on towards the castle after she failed to take Schala. Her own training should have shown her the error in that judgment long before she acted, but she had reacted out of fear. Knowing they had been close she had retreated to their lines, instructed them to make for the Castle and raze it to the ground if possible, and then fled back to her stronghold. She should have known not to trust her luck or her Master’s forbearance to yet another assault on Castle Lothanis in the same day.

“Is there any other business you wish to discuss in session?” she said. And just how much more would you like to pry from me with your reedy little fingers, Balind Whisperwind? For that is your goal, as sure as the rising sun. Evidently not, however, for he shook his head. With a bow and a farewell he and the rest of the Council turned and made their exit, the doors closing once more behind them. When Elvina detected their exit from the castle she sighed deeply, sliding into her seat. She rose after a moment, intent on finding Gaerlin and getting any more information that he had, but she paused. A sudden draft had filled the room and the torches in their sconces wavered fitfully. The shadows in the room danced for a moment before coalescing before her into the form of a man. Instinctively she sank to her knees, submitting in the presence of her Master. She had not expected to see him so soon but she knew this would come, and so did not fear it as she would have moments ago – her confidence was waxing high.

“Elvina, my pretty,” he said to her, voice crawling like maggots on a day-old corpse. “It seems as though you were expecting me. Then I suppose I do not have to ask you the question you know I am here to ask.”

“I was not present for what happened today, Master,” she said. She wondered when the pain would come, when his displeasure would manifest physically. When it did not come she took notice – something in his manner, shadowy though it was, suggested distraction. He was displeased about something but it had nothing to do with her, and his visit was merely something to take his mind off of current events. She didn’t know how she knew this, but she knew it all the same.

“I expected as much – your Society Charter and my own proscription on your death guaranteed that,” he said. “I know that you lost a great deal of men today – but I am not here to deal with that. Indeed, that could not be avoided.” His voice took on a deep metallic grating. “And be glad for it – had they made it to the castle and upset my carefully laid plans you would die where you stand. So you can thank the Regent for saving your life. I understand it wouldn’t be the first time.” Elvina did not so much as blink at the remark though it stung deeply – he had saved her life a time or two before they became enemies so long ago. Once there was a time when they had been in love, and she wondered if it was because of that past that she bore so much enmity for him.

“Gateways, Master,” she said. “We need them – the Passage simply isn’t enough, we can’t move men and materiel quickly enough to achieve our goals. I know I’ve asked before but I would be remiss if I didn’t come back to the point, especially now.”

“And I will say the same thing I have in the past,” he said. “No.” Had it been any other man she would have argued the point until she had her way but attempting to do so with him was all but asking for blood and pain.

“As you will,” she said quietly, bowing her head. “What would you have of me, Master?”

“I come bearing a message and a warning – Atolibus has found a fragment of the Soul Egg,” he said. At this Elvina’s breath caught in her throat – she had believed the Egg a legend her entire life. Stories of its origins and its power had been passed down for centuries but thus far no one had seen anything suggesting it was more than just a myth. What he said next surprised her even more. “Do not hinder him in his quest to find it and piece it together, for he surely must. You have done a spectacular job today in rendering his king Fallen, a man he trusted and loved dearly. But to truly drive him to piece it together you will have to give him more motivation. Someone else will have to fall under the effects of the lingering death. His pretty. Be certain that, should you face her in battle again, she falls. And hard. Force his hand. For then he will have no choice – she is the one fated for him, rebel against it though he might.” He laughed aloud, deep and resonant, a laugh she had heard from him once before. “He will understand in the days to come what fate awaits him should he piece the Egg together. An answer to the Great Question, at long last.” He paused for a moment. “There is something else you must know. The concordance has all ready taken place – Lothanis has a new king.” This intrigued Elvina – she had thought, no, known, that it would take time, the selection and the final decision.

“If I may be so bold as to ask...” she said.

“You may.”

“Who then, my Master?” With that he laughed once more, deeply.

“Why,” he said, “they have chosen the very last person that would ever wish it. Atolibus Sandrin now sits the throne proper.” Elvina’s breath caught in her throat once more.

True, as Regent he wielded more power than any king in the land, but king? That changed things. That changed a great many things. Atolibus knew more people within and without the land than anyone alive, knew them well and personally. He would have support like no king of Lothanis had had since the days of the True King. Men and women would rally behind him, fight for him, die for him. Such a thing had been possible with the Lothane as king, but with the Regent in his stead... that thought chilled her to the core. “I can see you’ve all ready envisioned the possibilities.” His tone of voice changed then, no longer crawling or false. He sounded almost concerned, she thought. “There is great danger in this for you and yours. Be sure to protect yourself doubly, triply so. For when they come – and you can rest assured, that day will come to pass – when they come it will be with fire and death in their eyes.”

He paused for a moment, though in what thought Elvina could not guess. “To that end I present to you another gift.” He extended his hand and something small, golden, and heavy appeared in it. “Take it. This is one of the Stones of Perdition. I lament that the other two were destroyed five hundred years ago but nothing can be done for that. This is the Stone of Defense. With this in your hands even Atolibus cannot touch you directly.” Elvina was taken aback – this was a far greater gift than anything he had ever given her, and one that seemed to have a little emotional sentiment attached to it. “Greater is this than your powers with the Shadow, great though they may be. Keep this on you always.” With a forlorn look her Master disappeared.

Elvina rose to her feet, seating herself on her throne once more. His orders seemed counter-intuitive at best – piece together the one thing that could possibly undo her most powerful weapon, and with it return the lives of thousands upon thousands of Lothanis’ best soldiers and Mages in one sweeping move? She knew there had to be something deeper, some subtle plan, something important, something central to everything. She also knew without having to be told that it she uttered a single word of it to anyone she would spend weeks dying in agony. She would carry out his orders – his displeasure might have been diverted on this day, but nothing said it would be in the future. His behavior was confusing, however. He had never before displayed any sentiment or emotion other than raging fury. What sort of man might lie underneath the cloak? What sort of man would hide himself in shadow and flame?

Atolibus sat alone in the throne room of Castle Lothanis, pondering the events of the day. The weight on his shoulders felt heavier than the crown on his head ever had. He had spent several hours in congress with Sarcodus before the latter man retired for the night. So much death. I am becoming once more that which I sought to escape. I do not know if there is a way out, this time. He shuddered at the thought – the last time he had tried to escape the inevitable disaster had struck, a catastrophe that he knew would one day return to haunt his nightmares. Is it fear after all this time? Fear at facing my destiny? Have you become so blind in your old age as to miss that, old man? Once again he shuddered. So much death...

The release of power that he had undergone hours before had left him strangely alive when he thought about it. What really did happen out there? He blasted himself for seven kinds of a fool – he should have known that eight mages, High Mages though they might have been, would not have been enough to turn the tide. He didn’t think twenty would have done any more – the eight he had lost were the most powerful the kingdom had to offer. The ramifications of that loss would not present themselves immediately, but he knew they would be there waiting for him. The kingdom had suffered a great loss today. So many strong young men and women, their king, and the best of his Magery.

He knew that men and women would rally and flock to his banners, when he raised them. Would it be enough? But who would be raising the banners? Him? Or the other? He had felt his presence in his spirit, awakened by the tremendous burst of energy that he had unleashed on the Magus. Fragments of memories of a time long past kept finding their way to the surface, unbidden and unwanted. Over the course of a lifetime that stretched farther than the lives of fifteen common men of the long lived variety he had seen and learned things that would be best forgotten. His silent reverie was not interrupted when the doors to the throne room came slowly open, though he did note the occurrence.

Kristina wound her way to the throne room, at a loss for what to do with herself. Atolibus had shut himself in there alone some hours ago and she had a feeling he would appreciate an ear to bend. She passed a hard-eyed blond woman on her way that stared daggers through her skull. She didn’t know who she was or what had caused her to stare in such a manner, but she shuddered for a moment before brushing it aside. When she finally came to the throne room she found no guards at the doors – they would have been a pointless gesture, given who sat the throne now. She pushed the newly placed doors open slowly. When she saw him, poised on the throne just so with the crown of Lothanis on his brow, her breath left her throat.

It was an iconic image that she saw burning brightly in her mind, one that any learned person in Syreal knew. There hung a portrait in the Great Hall, almost a thousand years old, of a man in plate of the purest white sitting on the throne of Lothanis. A shimmering crown of pure wreathed gold was atop his head, set with three jewels that rested dead center over the brow. He was sitting in a bit of a languorous slouch, chin resting on his right hand, eyes closed in the depths of thought. It was the first portrait of the True King that was commissioned in Year 1 of the Sovereign Reign of Lothanis. She felt the resonance of someone else possessed of the Gift next to her just before her thoughts were interrupted by speech.

“It’s you,” Schala whispered breathlessly. She’d slid slowly in just as Kristina had. At that moment his head came up and he eyed both of the women standing inside the front entrance of the throne room. For a moment he caught the older woman staring at his young lover with something between confusion and surprise, but the look was gone almost as soon as he’d seen it. “You’re him. I knew as soon as I saw you lying there.” Atolibus said nothing. “The True King. You’ve been hiding among us all of this time, and right in plain sight no less.” Schala shook her head incredulously while Kristina nodded. The younger woman stepped forward.

“I knew it,” she said, holding Atolibus’ gaze with her own. “You said when Lothane fell that he was the last of your line. I wondered then what that meant.” Atolibus looked up for a moment, eyes closed, a mask of pain on his face. The weight of ten centuries of toil was for once plainly visible. He sighed heavily and then looked at the two women that stood before him.

“Unfortunately for all of us, you speak the truth,” he said. “I am... or was... the True King. Lothane was the last direct descendant of my only son, Lothane Lothanis the First of his name.” Atolibus shook his head slowly, breathing deeply. “For a thousand years I have watched over my line and protected them from without and from within. Threats a mortal man could not dream of I have thwarted in the name of my blood and this land.” He shook his head again. “But I have paid for my deeds. Aye, I have paid for them thrice and thrice again.”

A hum of magic surrounded him for a moment, and then two comfortable lounging chairs appeared before him. Kristina’s eyes popped – she’d seen him make objects disappear before, but for his armor she had never seen him materialize matter out of thin air. “Sit, my friends, and listen to my tale, a tale which I have never shared with anyone before.” And then Atolibus spoke, and Kristina could feel the sands of time winding backwards, hearkening back to a day when order was nowhere to be found and death visited every doorstep.

The ground beneath him had been rendered unrecognizable by the war that had ravaged the land countless times throughout the last few years. Hovering serenely high in the sky, the man in white could only feel a bleak sense of horror when he came to realize how the soldiers of this land must feel, those still alive. From what his magic could tell him no more than five thousand of them survived, dogging at their enemy’s heels, constantly retreating and burning behind them, finally drawing near their capital city and the gates. All of their hard work and effort had been for nothing – constant resupply lines came to their enemies, bringing more troops, more provisions and more weapons.

All of this he knew without reason, though he did not even know his own name or where he hailed from. The only certainty he had was that this was a battle he was meant to fight, one he was born to lead. The numbing sense of power that was flooding through him, threatening to overwhelm him at every step, was finally calming down to a biddable level. A degree of control had been established. Sweeping his hard golden gaze across the city in the distance he knew what it was he must do. With a blink of his eyes he was hovering above the gates, facing westward where he knew the enemy would come. And come they did.

As the sun rose behind him to the east, as dawn lit the sky and men in the camps began to awaken, they witnessed something unlike anything they’d ever beheld. These were sturdy men, not given to flights of fancy, men that had grown up around magic and knew it on sight. Blazing brighter than the light of the sun they beheld what some of the Gifted could make out as a man in burnished white plate from the neck down, holding a massive golden blade above his head, floating on currents of raw magic so powerful they threatened to consume everything around them. They could feel the familiar pounding of drums and dread, the approach of the soldiers of the Society drawing near at last, to finish them once and for all and enslave the last bastion of freedom in the world. The man in white seemed to stand athwart that, somehow.

In moments, swords in hand and lines formed, they could see the massive cloud of dust and magic that preceded the Magus’ approach, they who had once been known as the Vorathi. To their credit none trembled with fear though they knew their time was at last at hand.

Summoning all of his power at once, drawing it into himself and concentrating it, the man in white began shining brightly, overpoweringly. For once instead of reining in his power he let it have its way with him, running rampant through him body, mind and spirit. He let rage and anger and bloodlust twist his heart to darkness, darkness that would allow him to do what needed to be done. The killing that he would commit to on this day, the slaughter on a scale unheard of, would be justified only in that it was to the defense of freedom and the living. He knew the Magus intimately, having been held in one of their dungeons for a short while before slaying every living thing around him in a bloody storm of power. This was that same day, only magnified exponentially.

He let the power continue to build until at last, when the enemy had drawn their lines less than a mile away, he released it with an earth shattering howl, cleaving his sword down through the air towards their lines. A wave of pure energy exploded out of him, finally freed from its bounds at its master’s will. Flames twisted light in unearthly ways, flares of light and darkness that seemed to scream. Every living thing in front of him for a distance of two miles was slain instantly, torn to pieces in the most painful of ways, their very substance shredded beyond oblivion. Day became night, as the flames of his magic seemed to absorb the very light of the heavens themselves.

He rose into the sky, extending his sight beyond the horizon and ignoring the darkness beyond, alive with the new mastery of his darker side. He let the flames have their wont with the men and women of the enemy and watched as more died. With a haunting shriek of otherworldly power he streaked towards the lines of those still alive beyond the flames’ reach. Man and woman alike finally realized their peril, drawing swords and spells. It was all for naught. A wave of magic arced towards him and simply passed right by, unable to see something that was not of their world. What did manage to strike him he simply absorbed, growing more powerful and more angry each passing moment. Resistance was nonexistent – the Magus knew to perceive the extent of a threat, and the threat from him was eminent and pressing. Most fled for their lives.

After an hour of endless slaughter he could hear the sounds of pitched battle on all sides – the remaining men of the kingdom had struck forth in effort to join battle, to taste ultimate vengeance for those they had lost and for what could never be. None ever dared meet the gaze of the man in white, however – to be taken by his eyes was to descend into madness in a flash. After another hour passed he let his magic carry the sound of his voice all across the burning fields.

“Stand back, men of this kingdom. There is but one menace left and he is mine to deal with, and mine alone,” he said, thunder crashing with each booming syllable. He withdrew the power of his voice and strode forward, white cloak fluttering behind him in the torrent of magic washing through the area, killing the wounded enemy that lie on the ground, obliterating their corpses and leaving their dread badges and weapons on the ground as proof of the deed. Indeed only one man stood before him, a being wreathed in shadows the way a man wears a cloak and cowl. He couldn’t make out any details save the pure malice radiating from his figure.

“You thought wrong when you partook to stand before me at this time in your life, Atolibus Sandrin,” the cloaked one said to him, his voice crawling like maggots on a corpse. The name struck something inside of him, a flash in the darkness. “You are not yet ready. Come to me, then, and fight.” Atolibus – that was his name, he knew now, though he dared speak it to no one – strode forward to meet his enemy in combat. He raised his golden blade above his head and brought it down with great might… and his opponent seemed to blink in and out of space. The strike missed entirely but Atolibus was prepared and brought it up instead. His opponent darted to the side and swung with his own blade, metal clashing for the first time between the two. “We shall see each other in combat again before the end. I wanted you to have a taste of what you will unleash, so that when we meet in the future you shall know the meaning of your doom.” Atolibus howled with fury but his opponent disappeared before he could even blink. Perplexing. Yes, that’s the word for it. Perplexing. But I know my name now… and something of who I am.

He let the rage inside of him die as the skies finally returned to daylight. Turning on his heels, five thousand angry men stood breathing heavily, swords at ready. I destroyed an entire army… I wonder if something like that will wash clean with time?

“You have been delivered from death’s doorstep unto day. Rejoice, my brothers in arms. This kingdom is cleansed,” he cried aloud, once more allowing magic to spread his voice through the crowd. Five thousand swords rose into the air with a singular cry, one of wordless joy. The battle was finally over. The war that had raged for years, taken nearly every able bodied sword to an early grave and nearly ground freedom into the dust of eternity, had been ended by a single man in barely two hours’ time.

Five thousand men knelt as one, heads bowed and fists to heart as they swore undying fealty to the stranger in white, the man they only knew in their hearts as their king. “Loyal men and women of this world, hear me again – return to the city. You are released to your own devices for as long as is necessary. See to your families. Grieve. Weep for what is lost. But remember, what has been won – freedom. Never again shall the Shadow draw nigh, never again shall you be lost to the eternal night. This land is yours, as are your lives. Go now with my blessings.” Heeding his words, and anxious to rejoin the families they’d left behind the walls of the city and the castle, they turned and marched homeward, chanting the whole while that their realm at last had a king, a true king.

“And thus I became the King of Lothanis,” Atolibus said. “I was not then known as the True King – that moniker would not be applied until later years, when my apparent lack of a name began to confuse historians.” Atolibus eyed them both with steel in his gaze. “This is not something that is ever to be spoken of. Not here, not anywhere. If word got out...” He shuddered at the thought.

“You speak as if the two of you are different entities,” Kristina said.

“We aren’t, necessarily,” Atolibus said. “And yet at the same time we are. It’s difficult to wrap your head around, I know.” His eyes went distant for a moment before returning to the women. “His is an aspect of my personality and power that I have suppressed for nearly a thousand years. He is raw power, unmerciful and unforgiving, as hard as the anvil of night.” He rose, his image slowly changing before them. “I will show you, though you may not like what you see.” The voice that issued forth from his lips was the voice Kristina was used to hearing, and yet in it there was bared steel where once was velvet. This was not the authority that Atolibus radiated by standing in a room, this was raw power, a lustful yearning to burn everything in its path, the glint of steel from the sharpest of swords blinding unwary eyes.

Standing before them in a suit of the whitest of plate was the True King in all of his harsh splendor. The face they saw was akin to Atolibus’ but harder, sharper, crueler. The face of the True King was hard lines, a square jaw set with a powerful chin and cold, glowing golden eyes. The crown upon his brow was a wreath of the purest gold, and the center of the three stones was whiter than the newest snowfall. The urge to kneel overtook both of them, and to their knees they went. The True King scrutinized both of them with the gaze that had sat in judgment of thousands during his reign, and in that moment Kristina and Schala knew real fear. This was not the iconic image of the weary king upon his throne – this was the King standing before them in all of his power, and his gaze smote them with its intensity.

“Do you understand now why I stepped aside and gave rule of the kingdom to my son?” he asked them in foreign tones. Both nodded, still kneeling. The King blinked... and then it was Atolibus standing before them once more, in his golden armor with the simpler crown of Lothanis atop his brow. He blinked tears out of his eyes, wavering on his feet. “Please rise, both of you.” Kristina finally dared to meet his gaze again and when she did, it was the man she loved. Seeing the pain in his eyes she flung herself at him, wrapping her arms around him tightly. He returned her embrace, breathing deeply. Schala rose and returned to her seat. She’d thought him beautiful when she saw him lying unconscious in the crater he’d made earlier that night, and now she knew that beauty unchecked was a terrible thing to behold.

Unseen in the shadows of the throne room Gregor watched Atolibus unfurl his tale. He had risked much by making one final trip to Castle Lothanis that day but he knew it would be worth it to learn what he’d learned. But when he saw the True King standing before him alive and radiant, revealed in all of his strength, he raged, making to draw steel and slay him where he stood. He could not, for as soon as he moved he was drawn backwards and out of the castle, back to his room in the Magus’ stronghold on the winds of his Master’s dark power.

“Ah, ah, ah,” the voice of his Master reproached him, the very words pain and fire. “We mustn’t touch. You were there to see, to see and understand. He has not fully revealed himself yet, not to the people and the land. Until such time you will merely observe.” Rage burned in Gregor’s soul at the sight of his ancient nemesis. Only the bidding of his Master prevented him from returning directly to the castle and engaging him in battle. “You are not powerful enough to challenge the True King now. He defeated you once, a thousand years ago in his relative infancy. To challenge him now would be your death.” His Master laughed, deeply and heavily. “But you too shall grow in strength. Under my tutelage you may one day rise to new heights. Kneel.” Gregor obeyed without hesitation. “I will bestow upon you a gift.” His Master appeared before him, shimmering in darkness. “Look upon me, gaze into my eyes and know me for who I am.”

When Gregor rose and did so, a smile played upon his face. He began laughing, deeply and truly. He was at last beholding the true face of his Master and with it everything finally made sense. As he knelt once more it was with a new found sense of purpose. “I give to you, Gregor Solara, the command of the Society of the Magus. Reveal yourself to Elvina and she will be forced to step aside. Though she is powerful my will is absolute, and she will obey.”

“What of the Council?” Gregor said.

“Kill them,” he said flatly. “Slay them to a man if they bar your way. Now go, Grand Magus Solara, go and sow Chaos in the name of your Master.” His Master laughed as he disappeared and Gregor rose. The general shape of his face changed ever so slightly, a slight softening of the cheekbones followed by a straightening of the nose. His countenance gave the impression of a vulture stalking a wounded animal, or perhaps a hawk sighting prey.

“So good to be back,” he said, stretching his arms and legs as he stood. His armor slid around him and changed form to that of the Grand Magus, elaborate black plate with golden scroll work. The pins on his collar expanded to reflect his rank. He was once more, as he was so long ago, the Grand Magus, one of the oldest members of the Society of the Magus. An original Vorathi, prior to the coming darkness.

Usurping Elvina’s position was not something he’d intended to do – he hadn’t had a real desire to return to what he was, at least not that he had been aware of at the time – but when he wore the armor and rank of Grand Magus once more he realized that this was what he had always truly felt, who he was in his heart of hearts. He felt something akin to love for the woman and thus would not have her harmed in the transition to his power, but he would do as he was bidden and take his place among the heights of the Society once more. He strode out of his room with a renewed will to power.

Elvina sat in the throne room, sweating. The High Council had returned of a sudden and were meeting in silence, deciding her fate. They knew. Somehow, the bastards knew what had happened and what she had done, despite all of the precautions she’d taken. Spies. They must have someone watching me. How else? She sat pinned into her throne by magic, awaiting her fate. She wondered if the end would come swiftly or if they would draw her death out slowly and painfully. She had her Master’s gifts, along with the Stone of Perdition, but as uncertain as she had been regarding him lately she was saving those for the last desperate moment. A moment later the Council appeared to have finished their deliberations, as she found she could hear sound once more.

“The Council has decided,” Balind Whisperwind, acting as spokesman once more, said to her, “that you are to be held in account for the loss of the Second Army. We have determined that you also let a high ranking Lord General of the Lothanis Army slip through your fingers. Though we cannot hold you accountable for that, it is noted in the annals of the Society that you seem to have lost your touch.” He smiled thinly. “You will be stripped of your title as Grand Magus and imprisoned for a term no less than five years, no longer than the remainder of your natural life. At such time as you can show your trustworthiness once more we may decide to allow you to be freed from your bonds, though when you at last leave this castle you will not be permitted within a hundred miles of any Magus strongholds, nor will we allow you the continued use of the Gift of Magic.”

At the last Elvina shot to her feet, eyes blazing with fury. These fools! These blind, imbecilic fools! Did they really think she would simply let them waltz in here and imprison her, just like that? They were powerful men and women, the lot of them. But not a one of them was more powerful than her. True – she would more than likely perish in the effort, but she was certain no one else would be walking away alive either. Before she could react, however, the doors to the throne room came bursting open and Gaerlin stepped through. She found this odd – he was dressed differently, and the rank denoted on his collar was that of Grand Magus. She could sense from his demeanor, however, that he was not there for her blood. Help, after all, was help, and in the current situation she would take it wherever she could get it.

“All of you will stand aside or you will be a foot shorter for it,” he said, blade drawn and in hand. Balind stepped forward, intending to speak with him and inquire as to the meaning of his accoutrement. Before he could open his mouth Gregor’s sword swept through the air, severing his head from his body. He eyed the rest of the crowd. “Anyone else?” Their response was much more eloquent though in fewer words – the lot of them disappeared, wielding the magic of teleportation in a frenzy to be as far away from the Magus stronghold as possible. Gregor smiled. “I thought as much.”

“Gaerlin,” Elvina said, stunned.

“It’s Gregor, actually,” he said. She chose not to respond – if he spoke correctly, and she knew he did just looking at him, then he was far more powerful than she had guessed. He slid his blade into his scabbard and stepped forward. “I have been named Grand Magus by our Master.” Elvina nodded dumbly, standing aside. The throne would be his, for the time being. Gregor Solara had been... was... one of the most powerful men that ever lived, but she would find his weakness eventually. She couldn’t help but pondering her feelings, however – they were betraying her. The attraction she had felt for him before was slowly shifting into something completely different, something she feared was love. “I want you to know that I did not ask for this.”

“But you will not deny that it gives you pleasure, no?” she said. He nodded once. “Very well. I can accept that.” She smirked, laughing once. “It would seem there is more to you than meets the eye, Gaerlin... Gregor Solara.” She laughed again. “Yes, I know your name, and who and what you are. Every Magus even in their first day of training knows that.”

“This doesn’t have to be the end of us, you know,” he said to her, drawing closer. “I am relatively new to this time and I need the advice and knowledge of someone who knows this world and its people. I could think of no one better than you, my dear.” She smiled, twining her fingers in his hair.

“Are you sure you don’t want me around for other reasons?” she asked, smiling darkly. Her free left hand traced its way down the front of his chest plate slowly, lasciviously. He drew her in close and kissed her passionately, the flicker in his heart bursting into full flame.

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