It all felt wrong.
“Aha,” Croaked Thomas, nodding slowly, “The big question. How like an academic to eschew the details and focus on the thesis.” He chuckled, “I know you, Caius, or I’d like to say I know of you. Professor Verigan had quite a mouthful to say on the subject…ah, but he loves to pontificate.” Kayled cleared his throat, politely, quietly and Thomas sighed. “To have such a short time for lecture, you’d think years of teaching would prepare me.” Leaning forward, Thomas thrust his chin up so he could Caius full in the eyes. Around his neck, a set of pipes on a chain clinked against a ring, worn and simple. “Fear, Caius, the spear that tickles our imagination. I wish I could say it was a matter of one mage, one time, but I would do a disservice to mislead you. Magic is…not a choice to entertain lightly. We who teach must carefully consider giving the gift. Even the act of communicating such power can be dangerous, so both parties must grasp their fate in both hands.” He reached the end of his strength and swung back, dejected. Still, he chuckled, but it was such a small and wheezing sound. “I cannot disclose the details of my mission here. I apologize, Caius, but I cannot. When the edict came down, the banishment of mages from Rynmere, I did consider leaving. Certainly, if I had, we would not be conversing I think…but my purpose is unfinished.” Thomas twisted his head up at the ceiling, as if he might pierce through the darkness and beyond. “I am here, Caius, because there needs to be a first. One of us was going to burn for what we are, one of us was going to be the example.”
“It needn’t have been you, Professor.” Kayled reminded quietly.
“Of course it does,” Thomas snapped irritably, rolling his head toward the shadows, “Rather me than a child! I…I have seen so much of what this world can offer. I have seen wonders as far as Quacia, spent some brief time as a farmer in the Eternal Empire. I am old in travels, it is my time.” Caius was quiet, Thomas took another careful breath. “Young man. In this world there are some men who would strive their lives to be the perfect tools. There is honor, then, in service, in shaping to the standards and will of another.”
“Great Honor.” Kayled interjected and Thomas smiled.
“Great honor, then. But never forget that the hands of men shape the tools. The minds of men dream them. You may sacrifice everything to fear if you must, but never forget that you are mortal. You do not have to be just another sword.”
“Some choose to see service as choice enough,” Kayled offered, “To dedicate ones loyalty to a higher ideal or cause is a noble act. Could we not consider teachers dedicated to Knowledge? To passing that knowledge on?”
“Ah, perhaps,” Thomas sighed, “But tomorrow the people of Rynmere are not going to see a mage. I give my word as I gave it to the Lord Inquisitor. I will not fight, I will not resist. You shall not see me cast a single spell. The public will be in attendance and if this hatred is to be proven false, proven untrue, they cannot see the dangerous monsters your King would have us be. I may have been a mage before I was a teacher, but I intend to die as proud faculty of the Rynmere University.”
“Perhaps there will be comfort then,” Kayled spoke, not giving Caius a chance to retort, “In that assurance. I pray your comrades respect your wishes then, and allow you to die with dignity for your cause.” He pushed off the wall and put a hand on Caius’ shoulder, “Come, My Lord, finer last words will not be spoken. Let us not begrudge him his dignity.” Caius whirled on Kayled, careful to keep the instinct of fury from twisting his features. He found Kayled staring him back, calmly. “You will need to prepare yourself, Caius, for what lies ahead. Our enemies are clever, powerful, and determined to keep their secrets. If you have no stomach to extract them, someone will do it for you, but we must make ourselves strong before the face of the Seven, if we are to serve.”
“I am sorry for you, Caius,” Thomas offered, his voice soft, quavering, “This is an ugly business and it will grow darker before it ends. I fear…for what you may have to become to survive it.”
“Come,” Kayled said, less asking, “We have much to prepare for the dawn.”
Thomas slumped in his restraints, letting his head dangle down.
“Well, Cassion?” He said to the darkness quietly, as the door closed him again in silence, “How’s this for an ending?”
Dawn had barely touched the roofs of Andaris. The square thronged with bodies. Colors twisted, mottled, were lost in the pushing and shoving as people navigated for a better view. A small force of Iron Hand, black cloaks framing their burnished armor, dispersed through the crowd to keep the peace. Already people had been called down from attempting to scale the nearby buildings to earn a spot to watch and three guards had escorted a group of protesting students to the far side of the scaffolding to hold an animated discussion. Twenty three students, clad only in white, were loudly protested the burning, asking for peace, clemency, sanity, rationality, anything to stop this from occurring. Caius stood in the crowd, no more than a few rows from the pole. It towered over him, the grim reminder of their purpose. Around the base of the raised platform, around the burning trunk, piles of kindling and wood had been stacked to accommodate the flames. The men who toiled to prepare the pyre were quiet, keeping their faces low as they worked. Caius did not want to be here, reaching instinctively to assure himself that his weapon was at his side. A hand reached out to clasp his shoulder and Caius seized up, only subsiding when he heard the familiar voice of Elizabet behind him. “Peace, My Lord. I am at your side. No harm will come to you.” Her words were little balm to the frustration and fear that coursed through his blood, fast as rainwater off roofing tiles. Kayled was out there somewhere, escorting a beaten Thomas toward the teeming crowd. Caius had elected to wait at the pyre rather than accompany the professor. He’d read enough about the mentality of mobs to know that the walk from the dungeon would not be a merciful one. Glancing to his side, he once more marked that the two men in peasant brown cloaks beside him were still wearing their armored boots. None of this felt right, but at least he wasn’t left to fend for himself.
“We must be clever.” Kayled explained to Caius, indicating the hand drawn map on the table. It was less than a break after leaving Terrance’s company and Caius was starting to feel sleep creep in on the corner of his eyes. No matter how frightened, sickened, or angry he felt, it seemed like sleep would always win out in the end. That most potent poisoner. Kayled gestured down to the map again, a scale replica of the square where they were going to burn Thomas at dawn.
“If the mages can spy us,” Caius ventured, “Won’t they know it’s a trap?”
“They expect it,” Kayled confirmed, nodding, but the trick is to give them what they’re expecting.”
“The signs of one.” Kayled drew circled around the map. “The Order of the Mantis and Iron Hand will be stationed. It is expected for them to be at the burning and likely more will attend than traditionally necessary. The mages will assume I am requisitioning more forces, preparing for a rescue attempt.”
“Isn’t that what you’re doing?” Caius rubbed his eyes, most of tonight was exhausting. His emotions felt flayed, bare, raw.
“Yes, but that is not where we will be.” Kayled pointed down and drew a circle with his finger around the pyre scaffolding. “Dagget will station his men close, enough to draw the attention of the mages, no less than attacked them last evening.” He paused to step to the end of the table, refilling his goblet with dark, ruby wine from a nearly full decanter. Kayled inhaled the scent, swirled the liquid in the glass and carefully sipped it. Caius marked the nearly imperceptible frown dig at the corner of his mouth before he set it down. “Wine must be allowed a chance to breathe, without the perfect moment the entire experience is ruined.” His finger returned to the map and descended from the scaffolding and into where the crowd would be drawn. “Elizabet and our main body will be here, mixed with the commoners.”
Caius crossed his arms, none of this sounded correct. He wasn’t a tactician. Instead of an endless night with this snake of a man, he should be trying to sleep, getting ready for another long day at the printer tomorrow. This? This was surreal. “Will it not be difficult to respond quickly, thronged in by people?” It seemed too obvious not to point out and, besides, Kayled was the kind of man who liked to be prompted. Caius hated indulging it, but after the state of Thomas, he certainly didn’t want to invite any other indulgence of the sharp-faced inquisitor.
“Minimal armor, heavy cloaks, weapons hidden.” Kayled jutted his finger at five different spots around the scaffolding. “We will use the crowd to hide our number, close enough to step into the action when they make their move. The mages will have to deal with thrice the force they might have expected.”
“And the innocents?”
“The civilians know to shrink from danger,” he said, in a roundabout way of answer, “I will have another contingent of Iron Hand arrive when the pyre begins to evacuate the square without causing a panic. Unfortunately we cannot avoid it. Magic has a way of defying tactics and it is always indulgently bright.”
“If we know that one of their number can control fire, as your man Dagget reported,” Caius interjected, “What is the point of a Pyre? Won’t that simply be theirs to control?”
Kayled grinned and it was the kind of smile that chilled Caius more than any Gawyne air could have. “Ah, yes, quite adept, My Lord.” He opened out an arm, gesturing to another room in the cramped barracks. “Shall I show you my answer?”
“Breathe, child, try to let time flow through you rather than catch and interrogate it.”
Edalene snorted. For a Shirvain such as herself, time always flowed through her. At her side, the glistening hide of her spirit companion shook as the creature plodded across the cobblestone. The crowd was loud, a dissonant din that reminded her a little of poor, mad Farafan, writing in its many voiced agony deep in stone. She hoped the song she had sung would be sufficient, that it would slumber deeper than the pain and nightmares could penetrate. It wasn’t that she believed, but she hoped. Around her shoulder, a worn leather band held a satchel full of at least ten smooth, colorful stones. She let a hand slip into the bag and caress them again, feeling the hum and faint buzz of the power they emanated.
From their position approaching the pyre, she could only make out the dark imposing top of the straight pole Thomas was to be burned on. It reached for the sky like a beacon, a vainly grasping pillar of shadow in the dawn light. The sight of it turned her stomach, remembering how it had looked just last night in the company of Ralaith. Nervously she glanced beside her to Vhalo, now wearing the shape of a young dark skinned woman she did not recognize. He, too, carried a satchel over one thin shoulder. It was still remarkable to her, watching the old man shift young and twist new supple flesh, spun from touch wrinkled calluses. The bone vambrace were still on her arms, and the strange necklace of grisly fetishes tucked between small, pert, breasts, but Vhalo moved seamlessly in this new form. Had she not seen him transform, she would have been fooled easily. It wasn’t that the mage had disguised himself as a woman, he simply was a woman, body and all.
Would he be the one to die, she wondered, would she need to let this kindly old man perish here in the market?
Vhalo bent at the corner of a building and placed one of the stones on the ground. He took care to rub dirt on the brilliant multi-hued color of the well, dulling its brilliance with filth. Edalene did the same, placing hers beside a wall. Even as she rubbed it with dust, she hesitated, looking up at the storehouse she had placed it against, wondering if there would be anyone inside.
Edalene marveled as she held one of the stones in her hand. Vhalo grinned, his old eyes bright and alive in the candlelight. Gently, he took it from her palm and held it to the light. Inside she could see the slow shapes of energy swirling and coalescing.
“They’re called wells,” Vhalo explained, “When we dream, our souls go a world of chaos and brilliance. Emea. Sometimes there are tears, fractures between our world and there.” Placing the stone on the table, he glanced over to Professor Nolan who was carefully scooping the last of some porridge into his mouth. “Ah…perhaps my colleague would better explain the technical details.”
“It is energy,” Nolan answered, scooting off the chair and walking over, “C-chaos, p-possibility, p-p-potential, forced to meet the rigid certainties of our world.” Placing his bowl on the table, he opened a hand for the well, Vhalo complying and stepping back to continue dividing them between the satchels. “For all our study, we are still not entirely sure why ether coalesces in such ways. Usually it is only in a Fracture where one c-c-can harvest them and mages c-can make easy use of this p-power in their c-c-c-casting.”
“Such as?” Edalene gripped her hand, the icy silence in her finger when she did so was jarring. Since Aeodan had lost his, she hadn’t been able to feel hers. The feeling did not return.
“Ah, Ensorcelling,” Nolan instructed, a smile working its way across his gaunt face, “An ent-t-tire other lesson, Edalene. M-m-most importantly, the wells Professor Vhalo and you shall share are sp-p-pecial.”
“What do they do?” The whole evening she had worried for the stuttering librarian. After his confrontation with Aegeo and the revelation of his curse, Nolan had been even more reticent than usual to offer any opinion or thoughts concerning their plans. He stayed as far as he could from where Aegeo leaned, scowling and Edalene couldn’t blame him. There was a kind of desperate menace in the air and this was the first time since they’d gotten to the safehouse that Nolan had smiled genuinely, back in his element as an instructor.
“They explode.” Nolan shrank away from the imposing shadow of Aegeo as he leaned in to snatch the well from Nolan’s hand. “Boom.” He juggled the well from palm to palm and Nolan visibly flinched each time. “You know it’s not that fragile,” the giant muttered, putting it back down on the table. “Activated with Ether, placed it by some gods damned walls and set it to explode, or throw it into someone. Little shit wells like this are hardly worth the effort. We used the good ones on those Audrae-licking Coven bastards.” Aegeo brushed past Nolan toward Ninacky, and little Tommy started to cry across the room. Edalene followed Aegeo with her eyes, burning on his broad shoulders. She hoped it was him. She almost dared pray it was him.
“W-well, yes,” Nolan had withdrawn again, taking up the well between two gentle fingers and handing it over to Vhalo, “Although they c-c-can be qu-qu-quiet d-d-d….harmful, we are using them t-to draw at-t-t-t-tention into many d-different p-places. Sp-pread them out.” Edalene nodded slowly, reaching out and taking Nolan’s hand in hers. It was cold and she pressed her other hand over the top of it. They shared a moment, it was quiet, and the terse smiles were all the comfort they could offer.
It felt strange to be taller.
Aeodan moved through the crowd slowly, bending with the bodies like a bulrush on the wind. He centered himself as best he could, trying to keep his eyes on the imposing pillar rising above him. The closer he got to the center, the more of it he saw. His body was some alien machine, a borrowed thing too tall and ungainly. Pain flared where he had imagined none before and the more he pushed himself, quietly making his way toward the edge of the throng, the more his skin protested.
The object Ninacky had given him was clenched, white-knuckled, in his right hand. He kept it low, using the other to direct himself through a sea of skin and fabric toward where Thomas was to be burned. He wondered if he might see him there, beaten, bloody, slumped against the knots that would hold him to his fate. Everything felt too real, too overwhelming. Although even as the wave overtook him, Aeodan was breathing and remembering to place himself where he was. This was not the Ruins of the Shay temple. He was not, again, to face the demon of a million whispering bodies. Aeodan would have almost preferred that foe to the one he faced now, his own countryman. Around him the dissident whispers and fearful mutterings set the young scholar’s teeth on edge. Jokes. Some of these damned creatures were even joking about what color flame a burning mage might ignite. Furious bile rose in his throat, but Aeodan swallowed it down, pushing on grimly.
As he pushed through a whispering clump of four townsfolk he stopped short, bumping chest to chest with Lawrence Aster.
It was impossible to miss the long, thin nose and thick spectacles of his study partner in the University. Well, study partner for Philosophy anyways, as Professor Dewmorn was infamous for her withering grading scale and difficult papers. How many nights had Aeodan shared with Lawrence, bandying philosophy from Oscillus masters, trying to discover some insightful angle they might impress the Ogre of Free Thought with the next day? His breath caught in his throat, heart slamming against his ribcage. Lawrence looked up at him, full in the eye. The blood, slithered away from Aeodan’s face, nesting in the miasma of his heart. All at once the stress crashed down on him again. A word, a single word from Lawrence and their plan was gone. He had not gotten close enough yet for Ninacky. Every muscle in Aeodan clenched as the two young men looked at each other, held in a perfect moment of terror, before Lawrence adjusted his glasses, murmured an apology, and pushed past him.
He hadn’t recognized Aeodan at all.
“I still feel it.” Aeodan was staring down at where gauze wrapped the empty space where his finger used to be. Strangely, he felt he could still feel it. He tried to wiggle but found that nothing responded to the thought. There was just an absence, a lack of pressure and weight that was surprisingly noticeable. Vhalo was laying out clothes across from him, quietly murmuring over the choices before settling on a palette of grays and browns.
“You may, yes, for a time,” Vhalo said, smoothing out the wrinkles on the tunic, “But your mind is just adjusting to the loss. Often our bodies are ready to move on before our head is.” He looked up, grinning, “I felt the same as you…ah…must have been thirty Arcs ago at least.” Straightening and cracking his back, the old man produced a small wooden box from within his professor cloak. Opening it, he removed a small grisly trophy and placed it gently next to a similar. Two fingers, wrapped in hair. One was merely a bone now, faded bloodstains on the tarnished digit and the other was still fresh. Aeodan imagined he might just slip it back on, like a glove, and be whole again.
His stomach turned.
Vhalo retrieved a small pot of ink and opened it, dabbing with a long nail and crouching over the young scholar. “Be still now,” He instructed, “For this is delicate work.” Aeodan could smell cloves on him, earth, and something that reminded him distantly of the farms he had sometimes seen on occasional trips outside Andaris. Closing his eyes, he waited…and the master worked.
Time passed slowly for the Burnett twin, and he resisted the urge to reach up and scratch at the tickling lines Vhalo drew along his face and body. The design must have been impressive as Aeodan felt it all the way from his face two his feet, swirls and whorls. They took shape in his mind like dancing water striders on the back of a placid pond, endlessly swaying and twisting in a language that was beyond him.
The dream…Envoy had whispered something to him…or was it…was it Envoy? It was hard to hold onto the past in such a mercurial place as a dream. His mind was on the edge of remembering, tantalizing, and yet slipping from his grasp each time he tried to pin it down.
He couldn’t shake off the feeling that it had been important.
Aeodan opened his eyes and Vhalo had stepped away from him, placing the empty third ink pot next to the other two. The scholar lifted his arms gently, feeling the wet itch of the ink across him. “What…next?”
Vhalo retrieved both fetishes, holding them grasped together in one dusk-skinned hand. “Becoming is the magic of leaving identities behind. When you take a new shape, it is the new ‘you’. There is no returning till you’ve Become again. Do you understand?”
Aeodan nodded, tasting the copper-tang blood in his own mouth. He was sharp with worry, so much so that he had bit the inside of his own cheek. It sounded terrifying, just abandoning ones identity, ones body like that. Had there been another plan or choice, he would have gladly volunteered. This? This…however, was uncharted territory.
“I need to hear you say it, child.”
Vhalo nodded and reached out to gently take Aeodan’s hand. He thought of his sister, one room over, what she must be feeling. Both had been troubled with nightmares, it seemed, but they hadn’t had the opportunity to discuss it. He wished she was here now, at least to hold his hand. Vhalo closed his other palm over the hand he had grasped and closed his own eyes. “I cannot describe to you the sensation of Becoming,” he said at last, “I can only tell you to prepare for it. You must not draw your hand away, under any circumstances. If the magic stops midway through, I cannot guarantee your safety.” Aeodan committed the warning to memory, already feeling his nervous energy flicker in twitches. It was for Thomas, it was all for him.
Maybe not quite right.
Since Aeodan had been young, watching the other kids run and play through dappled cobbleston streets, he had wished to join them. His soul was too much for this city, for this mundane world, all he wanted to do was throw himself onto the danger of adventure and see what most would never dream. Much of that dreaming boy had followed Aeodan into early adulthood, Cassion help him, he couldn’t stand to live a life shut away in libraries or reading about the adventures of others. The ruins had changed him, changed both he and Edalene. If they left now, if they just set out for Viden, perhaps they could live an unassuming life pursuing their dusty studies. Maybe Edalene would like it and certainly she’d be safer…but it was all wrong. Neither of them could turn away from this destiny, now that it had hold of them. Aeodan, for the first time in his life, felt like a story was flowing through him. He felt like the character in the books he read or the people he pretended to be in those private moments of children games.
Who could turn away from this?
The magic crawled through him before he’d realized it had begun. Immediately all his muscles strained and clenched, as though strange shock was holding his body rigid. Horrified, he watched as a sunburnt dark roiled out from where his hand was clasped by Vhalo and crawled up his arm, guts twisted, knotted, and unknotted in a feeling Aeodan found too strange to even describe. Yes, this was agony, yes this was pain beyond what he thought he might experience. He was on his knees before he realized it, feeling his bones snap and grow back together, his face shifting and distorting, his hair falling long and dark across his brow and lower. It was sublime, this agony, and he couldn’t imagine how Vhalo did this to himself. Was this what magic was? Could this pain be the truth behind the mystery?
Aeodan didn’t have time to hold it in his head, everything was white-hot, burning and snapping. It was, Aeodan realized with some shock, not dissimilar to the growing pain he had as a child…but all at once.
What seemed like breaks happened over the space of bits and when Vhalo released Aeodan, he gasped and panted on the ground. He didn’t realize he’d been screaming, not till the door was open and Edalene was frozen in its entrance. She looked upon him and for a moment, Aeodan did not see recognition in her eyes. But it was only a moment, she fell upon his new skin, his new body and held him close to her. He noted how much taller he was than her now, gangly almost, his skin a lighter dusk than Vhalo’s and worn with age.
“Mirror.” He found himself croaking, his voice shockingly alien, tumbling from his lips.
“Do not get lost in the temporary,” Vhalo told him, shaking his head once, “We have little time. This is only a dream to your soul, child, do not dwell on it.”
Only a dream.
Envoy had still not returned.
Edalane’s hands were on his face and he touched her hands. “Am…am I different?” he asked her, the itching desire to KNOW, to SEE wild in his mind, “Do you know me?”
“I could never mistake you.” Edalene breathed, and pressed the warmth of her face into his newly formed chest.
The crowd parted to the north. Grim faced Order guards, their strangely tinted black armor glistening in the new dawn, strode two by two in a single contingent. Four at the front, four at the back, and between them were two others. One had to nearly be dragged, his beaten and bruised face a canvas of blues, purples, greens, and browns. Thomas was barely recognizable as himself but did his best to march under direction. They had left him his glasses, catching the light as he lifted his head to the jeering and gasps of the crowd around him. One boy, perhaps only ten or so arcs of age, broke the line to hurl a small rock at the shackled mage. It glanced against the side of his head and shattered his right spectacle, leaving only jagged edges of glass in the wire frames. Immediately his mother was there to pull him back into the sea of flesh, her own face a mask of terror. Mostly, it was the curses that followed him, the fear. Thomas kept his head up through it all, tired eyes staring from the mass of damage that his face had become as he was led to his execution. Beside him came Kayled, clean-cut, cold and tall. The Venora tabard rolled off his beautiful (albeit night touched) armor and on his head sat a beautiful black hat, wide brimmed save for the sweeping curl on its left side. A long white Volarion feather danced to the tune of the breeze. He matched the pace of his prisoner, staring straight ahead at the platform.
Caius noted how the sticks and straw had been stacked around the edges of the platform, covering it from the earth to where it rose above it. The whole of the scaffolding would be taken then, burned up. Knitting ink-stained fingers against themselves again and again, he wondered if anyone thought it strange, why the whole scaffolding might be taken by the flames rather than just the pillar and the mage. It wasn’t as though this would be the last burning and the revelation tasted like acid in his throat. No…was acid. Caius resisted the urge to get sick, a little unsteady on his feet. He had been awake most of the night and had trouble courting Jesnine’s dreaming realm already. Thomas Theodore Terrance’s words ghosted back to him as the mage was marched up the walkway to the pillar.
None of this was right. None of it at all.
Aeodan had nearly reached the edge of the where the crowd gathered, sequestered away from the expected crackle of the flames. When he saw Thomas, struggling to hold his balance as he was marched to the pyre, something unlocked within him. Jagged rage, crushed glass between white-knuckled fingers, he felt like the splinters of fury were puncturing him all over. He stopped, shaking for a moment, his eyes locked on the well-dressed Inquisitor he had seen before at the University. Such finery, such decadence, as Thomas wore the colors etched in violence on his body. Unbidden, memories of their adventure, the time they shared together, everything swept over him like a dark cloud. This beaten and savaged man before him was an unfit state for the professor that had torn he and Edalane from mediocrity into fate.
Had he magic, then, Aeodan would have reached out and obliterated Inquisitor Kayled. He felt that now, the rage necessary to kill another, felt it overwhelmingly potent. His right hand creaked with the force he held Ninacky’s treasure but he was helpless to step forward and stop it all from happening. Without him, they would never have been able to get this close.
In his heart, he hoped that Edalene was alright, praying that Cassion would guide her away from the waiting fangs of these magic hunting dogs. Her job was a dangerous one, drawing the attention of the mage hunters. Aeodan wished he was with her, guarding her, but he would have to place his trust in Vhalo. Steeling himself, Aeodan stepped forward again brushing past another face in the crowd he had seen before. Caius Gawyne, an intellectual with the name of nobility. Aeodan resisted the urge to scowl and continued on. He didn’t take Caius for the type to witness such a grim and grisly spectacle, shoulder to shoulder with terrified townsfolk, hateful bigots. He might have said something too, but his purpose was clearer and he brushed past the noble with littler more than a muttered apology before he pressed up towards the front.
Thomas was being lashed to the pillar now, the guards working quickly to secure the knots across his round stomach and shoulders, bindng his hands behind his back. The mage slumped agains the bindings, clearly exhausted, but he never let his head fall to his chest. Instead he looked out at the assembled, mute, expression unreadable beneath the bruises. Aeodan could almost feel his pain, and he quickened his pace.
“Good People of Andaris!”
Beyond the crowd, Edalene faltered. A hush had fallen among the gathered and a single powerful voice rang out from beyond the lake of heads. Vhalo was gone now, having taken another direction around the outside of the crowd to cover the most ground. Edalene was shaded by the storehouses arranged in a semi-circle around what would usually be the main bazaar. Placing another stone at the corner, she did as she had been instructed. Within her there was power, energy, she simply imagined it pouring out through her fingers and breathed upon the well. It glistened suddenly, brilliant-bright against the light of the rising sun and then faded. It was ready. She placed it down and reached for another…only four remained.
“My name is Lord Inquisitor Kayled Wine. I have come from the lands of Khrome at the request of our Majesty, King Cassander, to save you from a danger lurking in your midst.”
Two of the guards broke from the crowd and Edalene noted the faint pink glowing in one of their hands. She recognized the spear first, held confidently by the man called Dagget, the broken end of his former spear currently tied loosely on Edalene’s back. He held up whatever was in his hand and she could hear a faint ringing, like the smallest bell. Although she was quick to duck into shadow, she noted the jerk of his head the moment she did, before she lost sight of them both. Along the side of the building, her heart thundering, Edalene scurried toward the city proper, pausing before she had gone the length of the building.
Was she running away?
“Magic, a perversion of the Fates, a poison of the soul. You have heard the stories, seen the damage its foul presence can bring to our populace, to our people. You fear it, and you are right to do so.”
Her fingers glided over the remainder of the stones. Thomas must be at the pillar by now, he must be lashed, the fire…Aeodan would be nearly to the front, unprotected and alone. Beside her, Ralaith’s granted companion snarled and shook its glimmering shoulders. No. She turned on her foot and turned back toward the sound, toward the people, toward the danger. No she would not abandon them. She was no coward.
“I bring to you a master of its practice, masquerading as a Professor. For years he has poisoned the minds of our youth, our brightest, and conspired against the throne and our noble King. What is the name of this demon? This monster? Thomas Theodore Terrance.”
Caius felt his stomach withdraw into his body. He felt faint. Kayled was holding a torch now, lit by one of the guards and was pacing the space in front of Thomas. There was a presence here, a kind of powerful and palpable threat that churned from his voice and rippled in the crowds around Caius. He could feel the fear of the people, feel that fear building towards hate. He read it on a thousand expressions. His hand found his hilt before he was pushed roughly aside. Caius staggered, staring after the small man that had barreled by and was pushing towards the empty space between the crowd of spectators and the pyre. Furious red hair, a green doublet accented with gold filigree, the leather rawhide strings of his eyepatch crossed in a knot behind his head.
He moved with a desperate kind of energy, but methodical and quiet. Caius waited for only a moment before pushing forward as well. If the mages were about to make their move, he couldn’t afford to be left behind. As much as he wanted to melt through the faces, vanish back into his unassuming life, he felt drawn forward. This was the inexorable tied and if he fought it, surely it would churn him to dust.
“Yes. A Mage can look like anyone. A Mage could wear the face of a friend, a lover, a family member…but they are all dangers to our Kingdom, to our Liege. Look to your histories for the truth, the monster Fridgar who stalked our streets, killed our loyal, and was plucked by magic from the King’s very dungeon. Where is his justice? Where is the justice for these would be gods?”
Aeodan was only two rows from the front now, his heart a thrumming maelstrom. He watched as Kayled dipped the flame perilously toward the kindling, dragged it up, gestured. The Inquisitor was alive with energy, a power that Aeodan could feel pulsing behind his skin and bone. Yes, this man was dangerous. He spoke and the crowd listened. He would burn this man to death, this innocent man, and they would cheer him for it.
All of them complicit.
Rage twisted inside him and his steps were more sure, more steady. His soul was dreaming of a different body, perhaps, but inside he was still Aeodan. He knew right from wrong and he would not abandon Thomas to the savage and the fearful. He had almost broke the edge of the crowd when a hand caught his shoulder, jerking him hard to the right. Aeodan barely kept his balance as he was spun around to face a short man with blazing crimson hair. A thick outlandish moustache framed his thick lips and one green eye stared up at him with an intensity that turned a shard of warning in Aeodan’s stomach. He was dressed flamboyantly, a green tunic with gold lining, maroon trousers tucked into tall, black leather boots. What drew Aeodan’s eye most, however, was both the thick leather belt around his waist, festooned with the handles of curiously shaped knives, blades that glistened with twisting colors, and the black eyepatch over his left eye, barely concealing the starburst of scar tissue around it.
Aeodan opened his mouth, would have spoken, was prepared to offer any sort of lie, but the small man spoke first. His voice was stilted, his accent thick and foreign.
“Not a word, lad,” He growled, and there was a throwing knife in his hand before Aeodan could blink. He hadn’t seen him draw it, only saw the kaleidoscope length, “Poor puppet, what curse have they wrought on you?” Aeodan felt his throat lock, his eyes widen. Somehow…somehow he had been found. His mind grappled, staring at the blade that menaced him. Behind the stranger, Caius pushed through the next rank of people and paused, stock still, staring at the altercation.
“DuKette!” Caius hissed, the crowd already starting to part around the scuffle, “What are you-“
“Aeodan Burnett.” DuKette said firmly, “Twisted by Becoming. Merciless monsters.”
Caius looked on in horror, noting there was indeed some familiarity to Aeodan in this curious middle-aged man’s dusky appearance. His cheek bones, yes, they were correct, but the rest of the face was all wrong. His hair was too light, too long, and easily this stranger was almost 30 Arcs or more, hard years lining his tired face with-
The eyes were right.
“Today we take back our safety. Today we reclaim what is ours. We will burn a swathe through this infection that haunts us and show these creatures that their defiance to the Seven will not go unchallenged, that their abominable will cannot be worked upon our lives. Today, we even the score and fight back.”
Kayled dropped the torch onto the kindling which roared into sudden hungry flames. He danced over them and held up his hands, presenting the fire that now began to rage across the scaffolding. Cheers, deafening cheers poured from the people in a great sudden calamity. The motion sent ripples through the assembled.
Aeodan had been afraid. Once.
Once he had let himself be paralyzed with fear. He had made his heart a prison and in terror kept his desires from the ear of his beloved. But Thomas had changed that. When Aeodan swore with Edalene and Thomas on the Waystone, he forged something that was stronger than all the terror he’d ever faced before. Their road was not over, their journey was not over, and by the sacrifice of truth at the Waystone, he would not allow his friend to fall here.
Rage tore him free of his terror and he roared, lost in the wild madness of the throng.
Note: Aight folks, we are in some freestyle now. I would ask you not kill any named NPC’s but feel free to mess them up so long as you take note of their skills in how they’ve been portrayed. By the end of post, Aeodan should be before the pyre, Edalene should be engaging with the guards (and a number of explosions should ripple around the crowd) and Caius…you do Caius stuff…whatever he would do in this circumstance. We are officially starting combat. I will reward initiative in taking injuries, but expect me to deal realistically with your skill vs those presented. DuKette is a high discipline, high martial skill warrior…but he is a kinda small guy. However this goes down, I am cool for allowing. Take some creative initiative with the scenery around you and wax poetic. This is your time before the next action post to up the stakes so make sure you enjoy yourselves!