The Fallen Goddess: Book One

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Chapter 3

Chapter the Third

His mind was breaking. He was sure of it.

Cold iron dug into bloodied ankles and wrists as the man lay supine upon the table. The hard wood under him was unidentifiable; whether it was the darkness that prevented him from looking at the grain or the tainted smell of a wood that was overpowered by the blood it had absorbed, the man did not know. All he knew was pain.

Sores suppurated across the expanse of his once strong back, enervated by abuse and neglect. Lovers had once treated the lines of his shoulders with fingers that trembled with desire, but he knew that those lovers would turn away in disgust at the flaccid and wasted slope of his slack muscles were they to look upon him today. His mouth hung open, tongue lolling, parched and dry and cracking. Thirsty, his mind croaked. Thirsty, thirsty. He could no longer think clearly. How long had he been thirsty? As long as he had been here, he was sure. However, he could not be certain; he did not know time anymore. With pain, every moment lasts forever. String those moments together and you have an alchemist’s formula to make a man mad.

For days and nights that stretched back into the annals of misery, he had been confined to this small, dim, stone room. It was unfurnished beyond the rack that he lay upon and the table of instruments that lay across from him. When he was first tied to this room, he had looked upon those devices with horror; knives that would peel away and part his skin and expose the flesh underneath. Hooks that were meant to bind him. Pincers meant to hold him in perpetual agony. Oddly enough, a stack of tissues meant to wipe away the soil of his wounds. His stomach twisted in a momentary spasm of agony and he was unsure if he had soiled himself again. But now those instruments were companions, friends from days of old. They had tasted his blood and smiled. Broken, his mind whispered to him. Every part of you is broken. What sort of man wept at a cough? He was no man. He sniffled though the bloody stump of a ravaged nose and tasted blood in his throat.

He hacked, and the sudden stress on his lungs and ribs brought tears to his eyes. How many of his ribs were broken he did not know, but he could feel the jagged and ruined edges of bone protruding haphazardly from the sides of his torso. The man was almost thankful that he could not see; looking at this decrepit, destroyed version of his body might break the thin, febrile connection he had with sanity. With the exception of a small, dim sliver of light that stretched from the gap at the bottom of the door, the darkness was encompassing. He could no more see his chest than he could remember his name. My name, my name, he thought to himself.

The promise of water lashed him like a whip, punishing him with tantalizing hope. What was a glass of water? Anyone could have one. Even a child could demand one. It was the simplest of wants. He inhaled painfully, stretching the broken span of ribs and tortured muscles. The air felt dead and lifeless across his abused tongue, bereft of taste and flavor and warmth. All he sensed was his own impending blood, his own impending pain. The promise of tomorrow, he thought, and wept a little more. There were no tears, however; they had abandoned him long ago.

The man reached feebly for Sihr, as he had a thousand times since this nightmare had begun, but today it was almost hopeless. As he reached for a path to Fire, the man felt a new awareness, a greater awareness, illuminate his mind and fill him with an incandescent force that begged to be used. A trickle fed into his bruised and broken body.

Opening up a path to Sihr was always a clarifying experience for any Aeyn. Clarifying, yes, but dangerous as well. Too much of one element and it could damage you in ways you did not want to even think of. Badh’. He shivered at the thought, although the amount he held right now could barely ignite twigs.

Some days were worse than others, but at this point his captors did not even bother to shield him anymore. He could barely open his sunken eyes and look upon the dark that he had lived in since…since whenever he had failed. You failed, his mind whispered to him. It was his secret whisper. Every whisper was a secret, wasn’t it? No matter; he had heard as much many times in the days and weeks past. You know what it is to fail. You know it well. All his vaunted intellect and strength of purpose mattered not. The accolades he had garnered at the University, the roles he had assumed and sometimes created at Council of Nine, the guild of magic where he had been recruited even before he had graduated, had all been meaningless. It all fell away at the first kiss of a knife and the first bead of blood that had graced his unbelieving skin. And now, all there was in his life was this never-ending misery and the promise of tomorrow.

The drop of Sihr that he held on to faded away. His ingenious plan to free himself was taking too long. Managing even this small amount of Sihr was simply too much for him. The little that dripped from his wasted body and malnourished soul could scarcely do what he needed done. For the last few weeks, he had been channeling Air to slowly break the bones in his ankles and wrists in order to escape the shackles that held him. He had hoped to use a bit of Earth to continue to break his wrists and ankles, but no such luck today. His last session with his tormentor was too much. Air was less painful than Earth, but required more effort. Time was running short. He could feel the frayed ends of sanity slowly pulling apart and condensing into individual streams of madness. He had to escape, or he would lose his mind. What is my name? he demanded.

Alas that he could only use a trickle of Sihr. That was all that he was able to manage now. Even the dribble he was able to manage left him breathless and in tears. His grandiose plan to escape was the only secret he had left, and one that he guarded jealously. Everything that he was had been taken from him. His clothes were tatters, his personal effects were gone. His body had been reduced to a broken, inchoate thing. They had given him fear and pain, but these were gifts. All he really owned in this new world was his one secret; a plan for escape. If he were to lose it, he was sure he would lose himself. He would lose his only hope for freedom, and in escape, his hope to find redemption.

And revenge.

His life was the table and the manacles that held him in place. That, and beasts that held him. They were not human; it was this very feature that had drawn him to them. He had found old stories from legend and myth come to life and given breath. Even at the University, professors and colleagues had tried to dissuade him. A fool’s quest, they had called it. The Western World had been lost to memory and history for seventy generations. He recalled the words of his Historics professor, who had tried to dissuade him from this obsession with Western lore. It is all perspective, my child; in two generations, names change. The soft, delicate voice of the old man echoed in his ears. In four generations, dates are at the whim of the scribe. In ten, there is more fiction than truth. In twenty, fiction is all that remains. There is no truth in history. There is only perspective. That is why we call it historics. What is it you pursue? I will speak it to you, and my words will be as true as the ones that you seek.

He would not be deterred. There are strains of harmonies, he explained to the professor. Names, battles, magics, details… they range from story to story. Nuggets of truth buried in fields of apologues. I can piece it together. All I need is time. Short of boarding one of the few ships that launched itself to the West one every few years, all he had were stories and the lore from grimoires. This would have to be enough; little chance he would throw in his lot with those foolhardy sailors and merchants that sought fame or wealth across the Akryn Sea. Every few years there was that one mad merchant with too much gold and too little sense who would buy a ship and make for the other side of the world. Gold settled most questions in the minds of men, and for the ones that need more than a meal, there was always the promise of glory. Truths to find, history to discover, nations to conquer, and dark-haired maidens that wanted only to please her man in and out of bed. Every few years a foolish group went in search of this elusive destiny. None were to ever return. There was always the bottle that would wash up on shore with notes from panicked sailors scribbled in haste stuffed inside of them, but you could buy them three at a time from most markets across the South. A couple of places did not even bother aging the paper or treating the cork. Sometimes a shopkeeper would throw one in if you spend enough in his store. Some lucky young girl would have a new flower vase for her table every time that was the case.

“Zayne,” he croaked, his name escaping his bruised and split lips as a whispered hiss. It was said that there was power in names, but not so much in his. His name was truly worthless. Disheartened at that thought, he tried to move his tongue and find a hidden pocket of moisture, but even the blood that caked his broken teeth and swollen gums was dry and flaking. This was the price he paid for his vase. This is the price he paid for knowledge. Alas, had he but known before. I traded my blood for knowledge, he thought bitterly, and thought that knowledge treasure. It was, but less so than I had hoped. His arms pulled again at the cold iron around his wrists. They had held him there forever, and had never warmed. All he had was what he felt, and all he felt was pain.

The vase that he had come across was as unremarkable as the next, with one small, subtle difference; he had felt a resonance of Sihr within the sealed container. He had been a first year student at the University, and had a habit of haunting shops that boasted ancient artifacts and books of knowledge from centuries past. Who was to say what was impossible; so many of the artifacts and possessions held and studied at the University had come from the most unlikely of places. While his fellow students chased skirts or drank ale or tried to mingle with the nobility after their classes or during their rare moments of freedom, he devoured all he could read. Come with us, the voices of his erstwhile friends echoed. Come taste that first sweet taste of wine; leave your books and drink it warm from the lips of a taverner’s youngest girl. Even half broken, his body twitched at the thought. Uselessly. Who would want him now, with this broken body, with this broken mind?

He had thought those voices that tempted him with women and wine nothing more than fools. He had Aligned with Fire before he had spilled his first seed in the night. He had left for the University at an age where most boys were playing fastball in the streets or dreaming of an apprenticeship with a guild. He was an Adept, and had discovered his second affinity for Earth within months of enrolling in his first classes. He had travelled the expanse of the East, from North to South, in search of knowledge. He was at the top of all his classes, and by no twist of fate or gift of circumstance; he was the lastborn son of a failed merchant turned farmhand. He knew the price of failure. Or so he had thought.

Nothing had fascinated to him like that vase had. How it had remained secret in the heart of the University grounds was unfathomable. It hummed with a power borne of haste and fear; even without opening it he could sense the desperation of the one who cast the spell and consigned the bottle to the sea. It took him the better part of a month to open the bottle. The delay stemmed from an overabundance of caution; he was unfamiliar with the braiding of Air and Water that had been committed upon the bottle to ensure its seal, and within it he could feel the unfamiliar echo of large amounts of Pathos. Pathos was used by Aeyn to probe various Sihr weaves; it was avoided for anything more than that because there was no counterbalance for it. Excessive use of Pathos would lead to madness and worse. However, for exploring a pre-existing weave, only a trickle was needed. He was surprised to learn that the quantity associated with this bottle constituted at least as much as he had used in his entire twenty five years. The Aeyn that created the spell on that bottle must have seen his impending death to use so much Pathos. There was something else in that bottle as well, something he did not understand. A bit of magic that was not quite magic. Almost like hearing the sound of a fading echo, only fainter. He did not understand it, and that bothered him. He would not know what that was until much later, when he finally managed to open the bottle.

For months he had held on to the vase, studying it with Sihr, looking at it, and trying to understand what it was. There was something there, something he needed to understand, but only caution would allow him to see it through the end. He had to step carefully. Months were spent understanding the weaves on the bottle; looking for traps or sudden-death castings that would destroy the vase if opened improperly or incorrectly. He studied the resonance of the initial casting with Pathos, worrying that he might drive himself mad if he was not more careful with his use of this element. Little by little, slowly, painstakingly, he unwound the bindings of Air and Water that held the cork in place and assured it would remain water-tight. Odd that Air and Water could do that; the weave used was common but poorly understood. Around the bottle itself was a thin caulking of Earth; he supposed it had something to do with preventing the bottle from shattering against coral or some rocky beach. The Aeyn that had cast this was in a hurry but smart enough to do it right the first time around. Glass did not hold Sihr well, but the Aeyn had braided Earth in and out of the glass in a way that made it look like a patchwork quilt. Zayne had never seen its like before, but the braiding held surprisingly well against the glass. Amazing, but he was hesitant to pull it all apart. He did not know what the Pathos within was designed to do, and that echo of that alien power within was unnerving. He did not know what to make of it.

He could not ask his professors. They would think him mad. Or they would confiscate the vase; that he could not allow. The library was a thought that he chased down, but as a first year student, his access to the more advanced subjects and lore was limited. He was only allowed admission to the first floor of the University library; he had prowled the hundreds of shelves and thousands of books and tens of thousands of scrolls looking for a hint of what the Pathos casting might be, to no avail. The upper nine floors were forbidden to him, and he did not know how he could make his way there without arousing suspicion or getting in trouble.

In the end, he spent a few weeks creating a series of wards for himself and for the bottle. It was as close as an approximation as he could come up with to protect himself and what lay within the vase, given that he had little idea what the ramifications of popping the cork would be. He also had been a couple of bottles of wine to fortify his courage. Pleasantly drunk, with wards all around him and a couple of weaves ready to be released on a short trigger, he untied the braid on top of the cork and watched the Earth and Air weave disintegrate. The cork wobbled for a moment, and popped off, as though someone from within pushed it out with a finger. For a moment nothing happened, and then a heavy, dense fog escaped from the vase slowly at first, but accelerated as it grew bigger. Zayne looked on, watching raptly, wondering what would happen next.

It was dramatic. The cloud thickened, hanging heavily in his rooms. Within the cloud, he could see light move rapidly from one end to the other, as though lightning were moving through it. However, there was no crackle, no report of thunder; there was only silence and the pregnant, voluminous cloud that swung to and fro in his room, the edges losing definition as they stumbled about and turned in on themselves as they moved through the room. The vase itself lay upon the floor on its side, its magic spent and its contents spilled without.

A loud voice erupted from within the mist. “Hear me!” Zayne heard, but all he really felt was the overwhelming fear and insistence that resounded in the voice. Thick and gravelly, it sounded more of a Northerner than it did a Southern Aeyn. That was odd. And rare, if it were the case. Northerners did not much about much with Sihr, and even those that did refused to have any truck with it that did not involve battle magics. “Hear me, mage!” he heard again, and he heard the foreign Aeyn struggle to calm himself. “You will see and hear this but once; do what you must but commit these words to memory. This message to you has cost me my life.” Zayne listened keenly, wondering what would come next, but still prepared to unleash any number of weaves in the event this was a trick or a feint.

“This message comes to you from across the Aryth Sea, far west of the Tower of Mitrhan’sul. Were in not the dead of night, I am sure that the lands of the West would be visible to our naked eyes. I have looked upon the beaches of the West using Sihr this after-eve; I have spoken to those that we once called the Tratis’ayer’ne, the Dark Reapers, the Traë.” As the voice continued to intone, the cloud shifted with the words. Zayne first looked up a large tower that stemmed from a sea of clouds, presumably the Tower of Mitrhan’sul. There did not seem to be any land to either side of the tower; it looked as though it was planted directly into the sea. The scene moved what Zayne presumed was west and shifted to what looked like to be a boat, just in view of a beach to its starboard port. This was Sihr beyond what Zayne had expected or even heard of; how an Aeyn could have conjured this cloud to emulate the words that were spoken was beyond Zayne’s ken. But at least the tremendous use of Pathos was now revealed; it must have been part of this incredible weave. Zayne tried to make it out but did not want to lose focus on the words.

“Be warned, mage, the Traë are not what we remember them to be.” Remember? All Zayne had ever heard of the Traë was myth and legend. They always appeared as tall, lithe super-beings, with indomitable strength and a magical resolve far beyond that of humans. The clouds shifted yet again, creating a form that Zayne supposed was what a Traë looked like. It was hard to tell what the scale was, but the bodies looked frightening enough. Huge arms, jointed in two places, ending at hands with five fingers and two thumbs apiece. Nothing like Zayne imagined what they would be from the stories. The ghost-Traë moved his arms, and Zayne noted how each joint moved independent of the other. It was at once both fascinating and repellent. The limbs below the waist were thick and powerful as well, although jointed as a man’s might be, at least as far as Zayne could see. No, he was mistaken; below the knee, the leg separated into two separate lower calves, and the feet of the Traë, two on each side, seemed to be flat and without real toes. He felt momentarily ill; this was a caricature of a man, designed to mock. It was frightening. “The Elder Gods yet live, and are masters to the Traë,” the Aeyn continued. “Their magery has naught to do with Sihr. I understand not as well as mayhap I could, but know this: their magic is not as ours is. The Elder Gods have different rules, and I know them not. But their magic is fell. Fell indeed. I have captured and echo within this vase; listen to it; feel it; know it. It may be your life the next time you come across it.” The image blurred, and Zayne could not make out a face. He had a glimpse of a large head and something that might have been ears extending from the temples.

“We came in three ships, all of which the Traë have now overrun. Even as I speak I hear their spears and feel their Elder Sorcery tear at the wards I have at this door. The crew is all dead and I am the last one that lives. I know not the reason for such violence; perhaps something in my manner or the language I used when we tried to communicate with them was offensive. The strike me as formal, and oddly so. It could be as simple as a breach in protocol that has led to this savagery.”

“My name is Misrah a’Trull. I am an Aeyn from the House of Air. What was lost for seventy generations I have found again. I have looked upon the lands and peoples of the Western Empire. I have treated with the Traë. I have spake their words and traded with them knowledge and broken with them promises. Now you must come and find where I have left off. Their lore is great, and their strength is terrible to behold. Even then, we must find common cause with the Traë and share with them what we know and learn from them what we do not. There are humans in the West as well; I think they are not well treated, but I cannot be sure. The Traë are an old and noble race; they worship and Elder God and nurtured humanity when we were young. We can learn much from them, regain lost lore from generations and wars past, if only we can speak to them. Thus I charge you, mage, to continue where I leave off.” The mist spun, unable to coalesce as the voice went on. He felt the echo of Elder Magic that Misrah mentioned. If only he could bottle this echo!

A scream came from the cloud. It was Misrah. The sound was horrifying, the echo of a nightmare that had passed but was still fresh in the mind. “Beware, mage! Beware!” The voice was incoherent, filled with fear. The cloud began to dissipate, even as sounds of violence and angry voices continued to stream from it. Zayne felt his skin crawl. “It is the Fallen Goddess that is sought!” Misrah exclaimed suddenly. “Beware! It is –.” There was a sharp scream followed by an unnerving silence.

Zayne swallowed. Hard. He looked at the bottle. A quick flow of Air and the cork was popped back in. There was still residual Spirit in there that he could study. Maybe even some of that Elder Magic whose echo Misrah had trapped. What am I getting myself into?

The words confounded him. So did the images. Everything that had happened tonight was horrifying. The Traë. Misrah. Those screams. The Fallen Goddess. He wondered what all that was about. And this Fallen Goddess? In all his years, he had never heard of anything called the Fallen Goddess. Well, he was a first year student; he could not claim all of the knowledge of centuries past. He would keep an eye out for it.

Zayne had never felt the need to have another person with him since he was old enough to piss on his own, but tonight he would not be able to sleep alone. He would go out and drink and bring a lass back with him.

For the next three years, Zayne continued his studies and followed the few clues that he had. The vase stayed with him, tucked away in a magical alcove in his room. He would look at it on some nights, peering into its dark glass, and remember the braid that he had unwoven. He remembered the images in the mist and the dire warnings conveyed by that disembodied voice. He traveled as much as he could to the North to dig up anything he could find on the Traë, on this Fallen Goddess, and even on Misrah. On Misrah he found next to nothing. He could not very well go to the Tower of Air and ask them if they had an Aeyn go missing in the last five years. There were a few surefire ways to get yourself into trouble at the University, and poking around a Tower was high on that list. Zayne did not want that kind of attention. Not when he carried something like this in his pocket. So he kept his head down and turned his obsession with the Traë into an eclectic idiosyncrasy; he became known as that Aeyn who liked to collect old wives’ tales and children’s stories about the Traë. Perhaps he was ridiculed, but no one ever did so to his face; he quickly established himself as a powerful intellectual and magical force at the University. But he knew they talked. And after some time, he wondered himself if he had gotten it wrong.

It was Council of Nine that had finally convinced him that he was not mad and that his obsession was not the overactive imagination of a child with a secret to tell. They had followed him for some time because of his dramatic potential, his dramatic growth as an Aeyn. There is always more to learn. He had outstripped all of his peers, graduating three years sooner than any man or woman before him. At a time where most Aeyn preferred the quiet solitude of their chambers and their books, his studies had taken him across the Eastern world, from North to South, searching for ancient lore, ancient historics, and ancient blood. Despite the cautious attentions of his professors and mentors, he had pushed his use of Sihr as much as he could, determined to hold more and more of counterbalanced elements. Many times he feared he had crossed a breaking point and would find himself reduced to ashes or turned to stone, only to find a new, hidden reserve of ability buried deep within in. Perhaps that was how the ability with Sihr grew; an act of desperation in a moment of panic created greater potential for use than the time-tested and careful, studied emission of a particular element in an effort to expand the amount that could be used safely. In any case, it had served him well.

“You are needed,” he was told by the shadow that stood in his rooms when he had opened the door that midsummer’s eve a year past when he had first met Council of Nine. He had been shocked out of his mind to find a shadow-cloaked mage waiting for him inside his rooms. However, the melodrama of the statement made to him was nearly surreal in its comedy.

“Really,” he had replied deprecatingly, astounded that anyone could have penetrated the series of traps he had scattered across the room. Some of them were quite nasty. Others had been set as silent alarms to warn him someone was in his room. He had heard not a one. “May I ask of you your name, sir, if you are indeed a man? I cannot penetrate the cloak of shadows you have so rudely cast.” He kept his face placid and bored, but frantically pooled his Sihr, as much as he could manage. He created a series of weaves to shatter the mage’s grip on his Sihr and make him blind and deaf to the world. Cloaking his weaves was a habit now, of course; nearly all Aeyn routinely cloaked their weaves so that an observing Aeyn could not see what was being done. However, this did not stop someone from detecting when Sihr was being pooled, or when specific elements were being used. Each element had its own resonance and its own intensity; if you were good, you could figure out what someone was trying to do by the type and amount of each element that was being used, and in what sequence. “Also, I see that you have made short work of some weaves that took me no few moments to weave. I am quite put out with you.” He looked to the right of the shadow, about where the man’s shoulder would have been. He opened his eyes as if in surprise. The shadow moved slightly, and he pounced with his wedge.

The weave of Pathos and Air and Fire designed to cut his opponent off from Sihr slammed into the shadow so powerfully that both of them were flung to their knees. That was by far the strongest use of Pathos he had ever attempted, but caution overrode any reluctance to use Pathos. The mage before him had not been caught in any of the traps he had set, suggesting that the mage was either extremely canny or powerful beyond belief. The echo of the weave he had just cast would be heard across the campus, he had no doubt. Possibly through the city and across the walls. Pathos echoed more than the other elements. A small mist covered him as he tried to correct for his use of Fire. He stumbled, trying to get to his feet. Black flecks floated in and out of his vision.

Incredibly, the bond between the mage and his Sihr did not fail, although the shadow flickered. He made out the shape of a small, slim woman with long, black hair that fell to her knees. He was astounded. “What in the hell….” he said, and released his next weave, wrapping the woman in tendrils of Air, gagging her with knots of Earth and plugging her ears as well. In that same moment, he felt her counterattack. Astonishingly, there was no magical residue to see, no echo of Sihr that could guide him to prepare a counterattack. He felt a wedge slide between him and his Sihr, and frantically he abandoned his weaves of Air and concentrated on holding onto his Sihr. He heard her gasp as he released his weaves of Air on her body; he must have made them tighter than he had intended. He yanked on at as much Pathos as he could manage safely; he could not see where her wedge was or how it was constructed. All he could hope to do was to hold so much Sihr that his opponent was unable to break the link. He felt Pathos filling him, and he scrambled for Fire as well so as to launch a counterstrike once he was able.

He felt his Sihr slipping away. She was shielding him! Snarling, he divided his weave of Fire and plaited one with Air, and drove a hammer of inhuman strength at her head. The other weave he used to strike blindly around him, trying to find the wedge she was wielding to shield him. It flailed blindly, but at this point desperation seemed like a sound strategy. A third weave erupted from him, a knife of Earth and Air and Pathos interlaced within, seeking a hole in the armor she had erected around herself. She would pay for a lapse in concentration. With her life.

There was no hole to be found, although his Sihr knife slid across the slim expanse of her body as a lover’s touch might, but with much more deadly consequences. His use of Pathos attuned him to an abstraction of her raw emotion; he felt her fear, her iron self-control, her astonishment at his strength and his versatility. He had to be cautious; he had read of mages manipulating their opponents, using emotions to build a false sense of confidence or fear or even desire. Still, it was hard not to be impressed with himself; he was managing three separate weaves and balancing all of them. He could only sense her wedge, and only because it was trying to cut him off from his Sihr. Who knew what else she was working on.

He found out, quite painfully. A powerful blast of Air and Earth, laced together like a whip, tore into his side, slicing him open like a hot blade through butter. The pain was sharp, drawing a cry of pain from him. Agony erupted across his side as the whip’s sharp bite came into focus. It was a shallow cut; he caught only the tail end of the Sihr whip, but it burned intensely. He could feel warm blood oozing from the cut. That was at least a third weave that she was managing. Nine Hells, she was strong. Stronger than he could have imagined. He grimaced, erecting a solid wall of Air all around him, manipulating a fourth weave with extreme difficulty. A temporary and unsophisticated casting, but it would prevent a brute-force attack like that from taking off his head. The mist around him solidified and ran as grains of sand down his side and to his feet. He shunted some of the counterbalanced Earth to the blood he was losing, letting it turn to dust. If he was not careful, he would soon start losing parts of his body to Earth ossification. Blood seeped into his clothes and ran down his side, but he was in danger of killing himself more so than his opponent harming him. There were too many moving pieces, too much Sihr to manage, with both offensive and defensive exchanges occurring. One mistake could annihilate him, or destroy his ability to wield Sihr. Or worse. He had to stay focused.

He pressed his attack, splitting one of his weaves yet again. Five weaves; two defensive and three offensive. All counterbalanced without a taveez. Sweat bathed him as his concentration narrowed and he focused his Sihr. The fifth weave erupted as a melding of earth and water, submersing his opponent in a slushy, viscous atmosphere that slowed her ability to move, constricted her ability to breathe, and itched like the Keeper’s rash.

He felt her Sihr drumming against his wall. The drumming soon became a beating, and then a hammering. He did not know what she was doing, but it was violent. If one of those weaves touched him, they would have to scrape him off the floor and carry him to his grave in a bucket.

The slight mist that was floating around his opponent suddenly thickened and flowed towards him like some amorphous beast. That was odd; he wondered what she was up to. The inability to read the echo of her weaves was frustrating beyond belief. It was a handicap he was not used to; typically, he could see and feel the elements used and understand what an opponent was trying to do. At least, that is how it had been in the duels he had participated in. The mist hit his invisible wall and slid up and across it. Some of it spilled over the top of his wall, and some of it slipped around the edges. It occurred to him that she was trying to find out how far his wall extended; desperately, he dropped his Sihr knife and tried to raise the height of his wall, but she came at him from the sides. He felt tendrils of Air and Earth flow around him, binding him; frantically, he tried to cut her off from Sihr by dropping some of his weaves and creating two more wedges. He swung them wildly in every direction, but he could feel the noose tightening. Soon he was being crushed and could no longer inhale. Unable to breathe, his concentration started to waver as panic set in, and his weaves began to come apart. And thus it ends, he thought. Not into the dark, but in the middle of the afternoon. Against a slip of a girl for a reason I will never know. He felt Sihr slip away; not from a wedge, but more from loss of consciousness. Blackness was creeping around the edges of his vision. He felt a heavy weight drop upon him; no, he had fallen to the ground. Had he been able to inhale, he was sure he would have smelled the dust on the floor. He desperately tried to inhale, to no avail. The Air that bound him might as well have been cords made of steel. Finally, he felt her wedge find his link to Sihr, and then the magic was lost. The pool he had been drawing from emptied in moments. He struggled to keep his eyes open for seconds more, to somehow taste that one last moment of life, and failed. His body shook, prone upon the floor, and he prepared to greet the Keeper.

A slap to the face brought him out of his semi-conscious reverie and back to coherence. “You unmitigated ass,” he heard, and the bonds around him slipped and he drew a deep, ragged breath, nearly weeping with relief. Breathe had never tasted so sweet. He was still bound, but less tightly than before. “There was no cause for that rash you cast upon my skin. What kind of bastard are you?”

“Uuugnh,” he replied, wincing. Thankfully, it seemed that today was not his day to die.

“Who taught you how to duel? This University has gone to shit.” She shook her still-shadowed head. “Although you almost had me with the itch. There is no chance that any of the imbeciles here taught you that.”

“Ahhh, ahhh,” he replied, gasping, trying to organize his thoughts. The tears had finally cleared from his eyes and he was able to look towards his captor. She still appeared as a patchwork of shadows quilted together, difficult to focus on. His eyes kept sliding off of broken angles and slanted planes.

“Well, fuck it all. You are strong. There is no question of that. Aymon was right in nominating you. And you know how to think out of context; your use of Sihr was amazing. Did I count four flows? Astonishing for a mere student. I fear I will be the only one of us that will ever be able to claim to best you in a duel. And it was a near thing at that. Well, so much the better for me. It will be a claim I will remind you of for years to come.” Her voice dropped to a coy request. “So, do you wish to join us?”

He shook his head, his brain still addled from lack of air and the sudden and bizarre turn of events. “What in the nine hells are you talking about? Who the hell are you?” He slowly made his way to his hands and knees, flinching at the pain in his side. This was most certainly an unusual afternoon. “And it was five flows. Maybe six, you bitch. I lost count when you started to strangle me.”

“Perhaps I was mistaken in assessing your ability,” she replied acerbically. “Well, no matter, despite your foul tongue. Your skill with Fire and Water is ruthless beyond belief. I am with Council of Nine. You have heard of us, of course? I am inviting you to join us.”

“Council of Nine?”

“Oh for pity’s sake.”

He took another deep breath. Slowly, rationality was returning to him, but this was a bit more than just bizarre. “What are you talking about?” he asked, with as much composure as he was able to manage. Channeling Sihr was an impossibility; not only was he shielded, he could be hard pressed to light a candle, given his headache and his appalling level of confusion. His voice was still weak, and his thoughts still disparate. “You make less sense than a whore with money in her pocket. Is this how your guild usually says hello? It seems a bit odd.”

She let him know that this was not the best response. He felt the binding of Air tighten painfully, and for a moment he felt his mind plunge into the abyss once again. “Aaaagh! I’m sorry!”

“Better.” She loosened her grip, more so than before. He moved his arms experimentally and found them to be free. “You will never know me so well as to call me a whore,” she informed him. “Ever. Keep that in mind. Council of Nine, I was saying. That doesn’t ring a bell?”

“Alas, no.”

She muttered under her breath. “Consider this a favor then. You are honored with a visit by a member of Council of Nine. We stand for truth and knowledge and other platitudes you usually hear from self-serving mages who know what is good for you more so than you do. Are you sure you’ve never heard of us?”

“I cannot say that I have, lady of shadows.” He struggled to his feet and found a chair to seat himself in. The room was dim, and darker still for her presence. He wished he had a candle to light, but no such luck. And the thought of using Sihr to create light made him queasy. He felt around on the side where she had struck him with her Sihr whip; his hand found blood and torn cloth.

Another curse from her, and the cloak of shadows dropped. His initial impression had been correct; she was a small woman with very long and dark hair. She had it tied back, but nothing could prevent that cascade of darkness from cloaking her like the shadows that once did. Sharp, clear lines to her face gave her a haughty demeanor, and the severity of her expression did not soften this impression. “My apologies,” she said, a bit more gently, but not so much that he might mistake it for comfort. “I tend to walk in shadows. To you, I do not seek to be a stranger, but rather a colleague. I am Sarah. Third of the Nine.”

“Third of the Nine? Is that a title or are you attempting to belittle yourself?”

“Really?” she asked, irony dripping from her voice. At least that voice was more attractive than her use of Sihr. His side still throbbed with pain. “Damn this University. I am the third mage of the nine that sit on Council of Nine. We offer you the chance for a seat at our council.”

“Forgive me if I inquire how many more duels are involved,” he replied sourly. He rubbed his forehead with his fingers, trying to massage away the encroaching headache. Dust caked his skin, muddy in places where it had comingled with the mist that had surrounded him. It was an unfortunate consequence of having to counterbalance Air and Fire. “If this is your usual practice when it comes to recruiting members, I am astonished to find that are nine of you.”

“That’s your own fault, fool.” She walked up to him, releasing the remaining flows she had used to bind him, much to his relief. He felt the shield fall away but resisted the desire to fill himself. No that he could; he was in all sorts of pain, physical and otherwise. “There was no need for this violence, you idiot,” she told him as she plopped down on a couch. “It was of your own account. I came here to talk to you, not to kill you or test you. If you had been a little less suspicious and perhaps a bit more cautious, I could have spared you some discomfort.” She shrugged, eyebrows arching, and kicked her feet up to the table. For someone who had just survived a momentous duel with someone who might have killed her, she looked pretty relaxed. “We have watched you for a year and more. We know what you are capable of. And we know what you know not. What you need, we will provide. And what you lack, you will find with us.”

Much to his surprise and dismay, they had known about the vase. They had known about the casting on it, and the taint of Elder Magic trapped within. They had known of the Traë. They had even known of the Fallen Goddess, although that bit of knowledge he was forced to drag out of them. Later, he would find it almost comical that he had been concerned about their knowledge of the traps and the alarms that he had set on his room. They had even known of his few friends, the lovers he had taken, and the ones he had spurned or who had spurned him. He came to find out that they had watched his last years at the University with great interest, tracking his progress, his travels, and the knowledge he had garnered. A few traps were the least of his worries. It was unnerving.

Nevertheless, even their knowledge of him had its limits. He would end up sharing much of the lore he had accumulated with Council of Nine, but some of his discoveries he had kept to himself. He did not care to publicize his ability to detect a lie or publish a lie using a small thread of Pathos directed into one’s mind. He did not want to share that he knew how to move from place to place by streaming Earth and Pathos and Air just so, making a journey of a hundred leagues and more pass in moments. He did not want to share how to vaporize blood as it passed through a heart using Air and Fire. Such knowledge was dangerous, and he had not shared it with even those closest to him, much less the Council of Nine.

Not that there were many that were close to him. Zayne kept to himself for the most part, but memories of Bretts and Nacht came to him easily in the quiet moments he had between sessions with the knife. Nacht with his love of food and wine, and Bretts with his methodical assessment of everything around him. They had been friends – real friends – in the fierce and competitive world that was the University. Both had heralded from the upper crust of society. Nacht was the unlikely get of a courtier and a noblewoman who loved drink more than the gossip her condition would create. He was young and fearless but always careful with the words he chose; he valued manners and propriety more than anything else. Bretts had been a likely companion to him. Older, more reserved, but deeply analytical, he was a good complement to Nacht’s emotional decisions and subsequent travails. It had been strange to learn that Bretts was the virtuoso that he was with the violin. It had helped to loosen the reservations of many a fair maid in the years they spent together at the University.

The last year he had spent with his two friends were a bitter and painful memory now. At that time, they had been full of the promise of youth and the invincibility it rewarded to the young. His decision to tell them about the bottle and the council had happened so quickly, almost on a whim. The trio had shared more than a few bottles of high priced wine when they passed through the final tests at the University, thanks to Nacht’s exquisite tastes and deep pockets, and they celebrated their newly minted status as Aeyn, as well as his own exalted status as an Adept. They drank and talked and smoked tumbaco at one of the dozens of taverns on the University grounds, regaling each other with anecdotes involving alcohol, magic, and the occasional girl. Pleasantly buzzed and feeling closer to the two than he had in the years that they had spent together, he finally spoke to them of his find from three years ago.

“This is different, I swear it!” he pronounced loudly, draining the dregs that remained in his wineglass without remorse. “This is it. Density. Er, destiny.” The wine was going to his head.

“As different as Nacht’s twins from the week before?” Bretts asked with a laugh. “Come on, now, you can get ensorcelled vases by the dozen. I’ll make you one right now. Give me that bottle.” Bretts reached for the now empty bottle of wine, but Nacht slapped his hand away with a laugh and begged him off. He good naturedly poured another round for his friends.

“Our illustrious Adept is not that big a fool,” Nacht responded airily. “He is too savvy to be thrown by a second rate spell on a piece of glass. And they were twins, I’ll have you know. Just not identical.” He poured another glass of wine for himself. “Twins! There is no greater good in this world, I tell you.”

Bretts shrugged as he reached for his glass. “So it was a first rate spell. And the glass was hardened with Earth to make it hold Sihr more effectively. It could be done. And what are the odds, after all, that Zayne finds the one vase cast by the one Aeyn who took a trip West without so much as a farewell note to his House and was never heard from again?” Bretts shook his head, his shiny pate glistening with a slick sheen of sweat. He claimed the girls loved his smooth, shaven head, but more likely than not it had to do with that receding noble’s point that was still just slightly visible. “No, I cannot believe it to be true. Not without examining it myself.” He took a drink, wincing slightly at the aftertaste. “Egads, man, what happened to the wine? This tastes like piss on a hot day. Your piss, in fact.”

The two friends were giving him a headache. “Stop it, you fools,” he said, trying not to stumble as he stood up. “Bretts is right.”

“What? How would he know what piss tastes like?” Nacht looked genuinely puzzled.

“No, no. Not your piss. He wouldn’t know good piss if he was drinking from the tap.” A momentary smile twitched at his lips. What had he been talking about? He took a second to clear his head, carefully leaning against a chair that he was using to steady himself. The room was still spinning. “The vase! Yes. He’s right about the vase. He needs to examine it. Both of you do.”

The two friends looked at each other. Bretts shrugged. “Are you sure?” Nacht asked him. “You never were the best drinker, and I’m not sure if you would say what you are saying if you were clear of mind.”

“Bah! I’m fine. All I had was two drinks.”

“Are you mad? At least sober up some. You can barely walk.”

He felt his feathers ruffle. “Look, I can walk just fine. It’s just a matter of caution and balance….” He took three steps, staggering towards Nacht and knocking over the chair he had just been holding on to. “See? Nine hells, I am fine.” He tripped and fell on top of Bretts, who had been reaching out to steady him. Both fell to the floor in a tangle of arms and curses. “What are you doing on the floor, sir?” he asked of Bretts.

“Gods! Have at it then, you crazed fool. We’ll the both of us carry you!” Nacht stood up and helped the two to their feet. “Grab your violin, Bretts. Let us away from this place! No fair maids for you tonight. We have magery to attend to. Magics to unseal, secrets to expose, promises to break. All of that sort of foolery. Keep this dupe on his feet and let us leave this place of ill repute! Barmaid! Our tally, if you please!”

Walking back to his apartments had done him some good. The crisp autumn air had invigorated him and cleared his fuzzy head. The thought of sharing the treasure he had protected for the last three years sent a thrill through him. Many times in the last three years he had thought to bring it to their attention, but their ridiculing comments at every mention of the West or the Traë had dissuaded him. They thought his interest in the subject a curious affection; given how few his friends were, he could not countenance the idea that this fixation might damage their friendship or how they looked at him. So he had kept the vase to himself until he was sure. Doubly sure. And that fateful and surreal and violent visit from Council of Nine had assured him that he was.

Bretts had been astounded. First at the maze of traps he had cloaked the vase in, and then after studying the echoes of the Sihr that had been cast upon it. Even after four years, the echo of Sihr was clearly visible. Pathos left a very distinctive signature, and the amount that had been used only intensified the effect.

“This is madness,” Nacht finally said. It was hours later, with sunlight touching the horizon. Both he and Bretts had examined the bottle with Pathos, and had asked him specific questions about the casting that he had seen when he had uncorked the vase. The night had passed with question after question, and dry throats were salved by another three or four bottles of wine, and no few trips to the privy. Zayne was exhausted and drunk but exhilarated as well. He spoke extensively on his impressions of the Pathos that had been used for the casting, and the odd echo of the Elder magic that had been saved by Misrah.

“You don’t say,” he responded sardonically. “You really are as smart as they say. Can’t understand how I never saw it until just now.”

“No, really, this is madness, Zayne.” Nacht absently scratched an eyebrow as he looked down and thought about what it is he wanted to say. He looked up at Zayne and spoke earnestly. “What are you doing about this? Because you cannot let this be as it is, if this is the truth of it. You have an obligation to this Aeyn you speak of. To the East. To humanity. You must find out what happened, Zayne. You must go out and find the Traë.” He laughed a distracted and bewildered laugh. “The Traë! Too bad my mum cannot hear me now.” He ran a hand over the short stubble of his hair. “And what of this Aeyn guild of yours, Council of Nine? What do they advise?”

“Caution. Patience. Research.” Zayne repeated as if by rote. Those words seemed to be a mantra of the Council of Nine. “But those that lead it are old men. An elder Aeyn to guide the younger for each aspect of Sihr.”

“Didn’t you say something about there being nine members?” Bretts asked.

“Well, there is no mage for Pathos in Council of Nine. It’s more of an honorarium than anything else. Someone decided that since there would never be a mage for Pathos, the elder and younger mage model would not be needed. Thus there are actually eight members, and the ninth is one that does not exist.” He shrugged.

“Sarah is the one that tied you up in knots, no? Well, whatever. These old men have more sense than you do then,” Bretts postulated. “As someone mentioned earlier, this is madness.”

“This really is myth and legend brought to life. I can scarcely believe it.” Nacht’s eyes shone with his friendship and his excitement. “But in this I am tied to you, Zayne. I must help you make this right. For Misrah, and for the East. Also, this is too great an adventure to pass up.”

We are tied to you,” Bretts added. “You’re not leaving to discover the Western world without me. I’m not to be left here chasing some magical wisp o’er the eve off a cliff while you discover glory and goddesses.” He cracked a smile. “In any case, you two will never get out of port without me. Bleeding fools. I’m the only sane one here.”

Zayne was silent for a moment, overcome. “I don’t know what to say,“ he said slowly. “I don’t even know what I can say. I have held this close to me for so long.”

“Where’s the wine?” Nacht exclaimed, looking around excitedly. It seemed that a decision had been made. “We need to toast! To friendship! To adventure! To our new friends, the Traë!”

His arrogance had killed them both. His arrogance and the betrayal they had faced when they had finally made the trip West. Nacht’s body he saw discorporate as wave after wave of Elder Sorcery tore through him, boiling the skin from his flesh and rending what lay beneath. The shield that Nacht had erected with Air and Pathos lasted longer than any of them could have hoped for, but when it shattered, Nacht was the one who bore the brunt of the violence. Sihr was no true counteragent to Elder magic, but Nacht’s ingenious skills and ruthless abuse of his own abilities kept them alive and wreaked havoc upon the attackers. As Nacht slaughtered the Traë that pursued them, echoes of broken promises from Elder Gods resonated through the ether. Zayne ran for his life and heard and felt the torrent of Fire and Earth that Nacht unleashed against their aggressors tear flesh from bone and boil Traë blood in its veins. It was impossible that a single man could wield so much Sihr; Nacht must have had a taveez to enhance his ability. So much Fire across such a huge area would reduce a man to ashes in moments; only a taveez could provide enough counterbalance to prevent such a backlash. How he wished he had one of those small, powerful stones with him right now; many Aeyn went so far as to have them implanted under their skin so as to keep them at hand at all times, but he had eschewed such devices. He had wanted his power to grow organically, and constant use of taveez could hinder that growth. Over time, their use could actually reduce an Aeyn’s inherent capabilities.

He did not know what had happened to Bretts as they fled the field of Elder sorcery, but it could not have been good. He himself had been beaten and shackled in the few moments after the shield fell and Nacht kissed the Reaper. The Traë had appeared instantly, clouded in shadows and fell magic, and had brought him to his knees in seconds after shielding him with Elder sorcery, a thing he did not think was even possible. There had been too many of the Traë against him, and the Elder sorcery he had encountered was too alien and too intense. He folded in a span of breaths and every breath since then had been a moment of pain. Such was the price for failure.

“Fail,” he croaked into the darkness. His voice tried to echo from one wall to another, but it was as feeble as he was. I failed. He could not imagine everything would unravel as fast as it did. He was weak. Weaker than he had thought. Weaker than his friends had deserved in a man they had put their trust and lives in. At one time, he had thought himself the very best.

Alas, he had no choice about giving up his knowledge when it came to the Traë: when a score or more of them had died screaming in agony, convulsing on the ground and unable to breathe, they had demanded answers from him… quite forcefully. All of his secrets were theirs for the taking. His ability to protect his hoard of knowledge, so carefully accumulated over the years, was nonexistent. He was surprised at how quickly he caved to their demands. And their knives. Maybe Nacht would have held out longer. Nacht was no coward; he would have held out longer than Zayne did. Nacht had known war and violence; he made the bodies of these Traë detonate, bereft of the energy that held them together. Zayne had watched in horror as Nacht wielded Sihr with merciless abandon, causing skin and flesh to melt and exposing the muscle beneath, which instantly began to suppurate and blacken with bile and infection. He retracted in horror as Nacht released waves of Earth and Fire with abandon, hacking the enemy to pieces without regard for the cries of fear and agony that emanated from the victims. He had watched the weaves, transfixed as the magic took its toll, and committed the casting to memory.

The next few days and weeks and months were a haze of blood and pain. They knew his power, and kept him shielded from it. Every waking moment for the first few weeks he was chained to the rack was a mad and desperate scramble to reach through the wall they had erected between him and his Sihr. It was always just out of reach, tantalizingly close, but somehow forever beyond him. Just a little higher, he would tell himself as sweat streamed from his temples and desperation tore at his mind and soul. Just a little higher and I will clear this wall. I will touch Sihr and I will show these animals what it means to rage, what it means to hate. His mouth watered in anticipation of the devastation he would visit upon this cage and these creatures that would call themselves Traë. His wrath would be unmatched in the deepest, darkest nightmares of these beasts. Their blood would paint the walls and passages of the cages they had created for him. Their skin would adorn his broken flesh as he healed. Their viscera would carpet the grounds that he walked upon. I will break this misbegotten race. I will teach them fear.

Fearfearfear, he wept silently. I have learned to fear. He licked his lips with a swollen and unfeeling tongue.

That moment never came. Instead, his rage gave way to fear. That fear transmuted itself to an agonizing certainty that his misery would last forever and that this pain would be a lover that he had never known or imagined before. The application of pain was consistent; once a day his jailor would come visit him, and once a day the interrogator would visit him as well. It was always the same with the jailor; he would walk in with his sundry tools of the trade and set up shop next to him. A tube would be stuck into his throat that would feed him the stinking entrails of whatever animal had the misfortune to be slaughtered the moment before being pulped and pumped into his gullet. Water that reeked of foulness and disease would soon follow. Once he could no longer hold water or food, the jailor would pack up his things and leave. On a rare occasion, if he reeked more than expected, he could expect to be doused with cold water. He would be left alone for a few moments, and in this time he would try to scramble what was left of his abilities with Sihr to break his own ankles and wrists, usually resulting in an agony matched only by what he could expect next from his interrogator. In this he was never disappointed; his captors cared less about the answers to the questions that they had asked him over and over again than they did to watch him weep and scream and bleed. His interrogator was unfailingly precise with his time and the effort applied. Odd that “interrogator” was the name that came to mind when he thought of the one that punished him. The questions had come only in the beginning, and had lasted for only a few days. Now it seemed as though they kept him here for no other purpose other than to torture him. He had nothing left to expose; he was sure his captors were aware of this.

Each day brought a new sort of pain that he could have never imagined before. Much of it was Elder-magic induced, although he no longer even bothered to try to sense it anymore. Pressure upon the eyes. The sensation of his flesh burning away. A thousand biting flies descending upon him and filling his skin with their poison. The sensation of drowning. Sometimes it was the knives and the tools that brought him his agony. Hammers upon his bones. Clamps that would hold and twist his skin. Hot needles under his fingernails or through his eyelids. He would shriek the names of the Council of Nine and where they lived and their wives and children and lovers with abandon as the blades kissed his flesh and coaxed from him his precious blood and screams of agony, and yet they never relented. He gave them the name of his mother, his father, every lover he had ever kissed. He gave them every secret he had ever found in his decade of travels across the East, from Sihr-enhanced battle magic to more subtle affects upon the humor and mind of a target. He described in rushed and sobbing detail how to accelerate a projectile during a siege, and how to create a momentary but nearly impregnable shield around one’s self. He made up the names of bastard children he had never had and crimes they had yet to commit. He promised to murder his first born child, his wife, every lover he would ever have, brothers and sisters his parents never knew of, if only they would lay down the knife that worked his flesh. All for nothing. They tore at him, his skin, his flesh, his sanity, and his reason. He paid for his failure over and over again, in blood, in tears, in shame.

All he had left was this last and final crime; escape. It was all he had left. The pain he visited upon himself fed him, his mind, his soul, even the bones that he crushed and round together. It reminded him that he was alive, that he could still do something, that he could have some sort of an effect upon his world, even if that effect was self-inflicted agony. As each bone snapped and crumbled in his wrists and ankles, his eyes would weep, but for every three tears of agony he wrought upon himself, there was that one tear of joy. Something could come of this. Maybe. Maybe he would escape. Maybe his captors would find him out and punish him for what he did. But whatever it was, it belonged to him. He was the antecedent; he was the causation. How he held on to his secret while betraying everyone and everything that had ever meant anything to him, he did not know. Nor did he care, as long as that small sliver of a secret remained in his heart and his mind.

The door cracked open with a deep groan. His heart lurched. It was coming time again. The tell-tale echo of Elder Magic echoed through the room, acrid and bitter to his senses. Soon he would be fed. And then the rest would follow.

Fuck you, his mind whispered to them, the betrayers, and was silent.

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