- Andrew M. Trauger
Chapter 13: Alignment of Souls
Updated: Apr 10, 2022
Late that evening, a knock at Cora’s recovery room door startled her, and she drew the bedsheets to her neck, covering the splotchy wound. Her color had returned, but not her strength, and acolytes had bathed and dressed her in fresh clothing. Walking again was still a distant goal. The bubbly scar served as a tactile reminder of her mortality.
“Come in.” Her voice seemed to fall from her lips and crawl to the door.
Elric entered with Cuauhtérroc and Selorian. “How ya doin’?”
Cora smiled, her heart warmed by their company. Maybe not Selorian’s so much; his glare seemed harsher than she remembered. But her brain was foggy still, her memories a jumble of things disconnected and surreal as a fleeting dream. She wanted to remember, but the more she thought about it, the more it escaped her grasp.
“I’m better,” she croaked. “Tired. Achy. But better.”
Elric plopped in a chair beside the bed. “Yeah, the pontiff said it’ll take ya several days ‘fore ya can travel, but we gotta leave inna mornin’ or we’ll never make it.”
“Then you’ll have to go without me,” Cora said. “Somebody has to find Schumann.”
Selorian twitched, and Cora wasn’t sure she had seen it. He looked angry, and his lips quivered. “Are you okay?” she asked.
His eyes flashed, briefly, and he relaxed. “What does the word ‘okay’ mean? Such a mediocre term—quite banal—I wonder if one can ascribe any import to it. ‘O-K.’ No, I must conclude that whatever this hackneyed expression means, I am not that. I am far more. Possibly less.”
Cora sighed and shook her head. Laughter was too strenuous an exercise, but she did want to laugh at him. He looked like he’d been pulled through a clothes wringer. She eyed the longsword hanging on his hip. “I see you got your reward. I guess you’re free to go now.”
“Yes, it was critical that I secured your promised payment before your men transacted the sale of everything you own.”
“What?” The question stuck in her throat, and she coughed.
Cuauhtérroc nodded. “We sell all dees treasures to Calloway, but he geeve us all one thing. I have dees blue fire sword. I never see blue fire before.”
“An’ I got this ‘ere purple sack,” Elric said, pulling the velveteen bag from beneath his shirt. “I still cain’t reach the bottom of it.”
Cuauhtérroc held out a small silver ring, flattened on one side with a pair of crossed arrows embossed on the surface. “We take dees for you.”
“Calloway said it’d help protect ya,” Elric explained. “Hope ya like it.”
Cora’s heart warmed as she slipped it on a finger. The embossed arrows were worn down and the edges nicked, but she felt a tiny shock as she slipped it on. Despite its humble appearance, the ring swelled with magic. “It’s perfect.” What a thoughtful gift.
Then she frowned at it. “I don’t remember this.”
“Well,” Elric said, “after we done sold ever’thang to pay fer yer healin’, Calloway said you could have that outta his store. Free o’ charge.”
Cora looked up in sudden surprise. “Wait…you sold everything?”
“Purt near it.”
“Tell me…please tell me you didn’t—” Words failed her as the horrid thought filled her mind.
Cuauhtérroc shook his head. “No, we deed not sell dees singing sword.”
He put a hand on her shoulder, and Cora released a massive sigh of relief. But also of guilt. We lost everything on my account. “I’m so sorry…”
“It ain’t like ya got kilt on purpose,” Elric said with a chuckle. “Like my grandpa used to say, ‘Don’ sweat the petty stuff, an’ don’ pet the sweaty stuff.’ Am I right?”
For once, Selorian laughed, briefly and under his breath.
But the savage remained serious, his eyes filled with pain as he stared at Cora’s neck. “I am dees one who is sorry. I deed not protect you, and now you take dees poison and almost die. I weel not let dees happen to you again.”
Cora squeezed the savage’s hand in sympathy. “Cuauhtie…I did die. Very briefly, but the cassocks of Light found my soul and returned it to my body.”
Cuauhtérroc frowned and opened his mouth as if to argue. His eyes darted about, and he turned aside for a moment. He might be about to fly into another rage, but Cora was helpless to do anything about it. Selorian’s hand went to the sword at his side. He twitched, mouthing silent words.
She reached out and grasped Cuauhtérroc’s arm. In her weakened state, it was little more than touching him. “Cuauhtie? Please don’t get mad.”
The savage exhaled sharply and turned back to her, his frown melted into resolve. “I am not angry. I am understanding. I see why you want to make Ordeen Clay leeve again.” He paused and gazed deeply into her emerald eyes. “I do not want you to die.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Long after everyone but the drunken sots were in bed, Selorian scuttled along the empty streets of Westmeade. The Audric and the mustached one had retired to wherever they slept, but Selorian had no home. Cora was safely ensconced in the Solarium under guard, but he wandered the streets.
He knew why. He understood it perfectly. The sword bade him go. Curiosity compelled him to comply.
Thunder rumbled beyond the city walls, soft and distant, and a cool breeze heralded fresh rain. “Where is our destination?”
Above the city. So you can see more clearly.
Selorian walked as the sword directed, sometimes avoiding light and sometimes walking brazenly in full view. He could not find a pattern in the sword’s direction, and it did not always seem to provide it. Do I guide the sword or does it claim mastery? He stopped to test his theory, sitting on a bench at a street corner with an overhead lantern dancing in the shifting wind. Owning a sentient sword thrilled the savant with an endless excitement, but a nagging warning pulsed in the back of his mind: who owns whom?
Silence prevailed, and Selorian gave up in boredom. At the next corner, the sword nudged him, like a mental tap of the reins, and he turned into the upper-class district. The Solarium was near, as was the aldermen estates and the Lord’s Castle. Above the city, the sword had said. He gripped the pommel. “The castle?”
At the gates to the castle commons, lavender flashed in the savant’s eyes. Balls of purple fire flew from his hands into the guards, seizing their bodies and laying them down before they could shout or draw a weapon. In the quiet that followed, Selorian borrowed the keys, stepped over the bodies, and let himself in.
Smart. And cunning.
The sword guided and prodded while Selorian crept along under cover of darkness, working in tandem with the blade to determine the way. Castle guards were still on high alert since the assassin, so he lowered an aura of utter black to conceal him from their eyes.
Impressive. You are indeed powerful.
The sword’s guidance ended on a balcony of a watch tower overlooking the Estates. The watchman lay at his feet, his body seized and unresponsive. Like the guards at the gate, he would live, but the next few days would be miserable. Selorian was no killer; it was too messy and too difficult to explain, both to the courts and to himself. He only needed access and time, not a string of murders on his conscience.
From this height, he could see for miles across the northern plains, where lightning flashed in the distance, illuminating The Deepening to the farthest horizon. Wind tossed his black hair to one side as he toyed with small globes of eldritch energy, contemplating the repercussions of tossing them randomly into the castle courtyard below. He scanned the Estate grounds, a row of nine small manors of similar architecture with porticos facing manicured lawns and floral gardens. The sword hummed at his side, and Selorian gripped the pommel.
“Who?” Selorian demanded. “Why?”
You do not know?
“You keep saying this. But how can I possibly know?”
I thought you were smarter than that.
Selorian pulled the sword and glared indignantly at it. He was fully aware of the fact that he was alone on a castle wall having a conversation with a sword, feeling indignation toward a sharpened piece of bent metal. “I have seen many people. To which do you refer?”
Look around you. Your answer lies nearby.
The savant glanced around again but saw nothing to pique his interest. The city wall melded into the castle; interior walls separated the Estates from the rest of Westmeade. A patrol of guards slowly walked their midnight routes along parapets and in the courtyard. Various buildings, hallways, and rooms sprawled across the castle complex, but nothing stood out to him. “This is senseless. All is perfectly normal.”
You are not trying. Look deeper.
Selorian sighed and lowered his head. He reached within himself, pulling from resources normally left untouched. His eyes flashed a brilliant lavender, glowing, pulsing, burning with eldritch flame. Through the aura of utter darkness that surrounded him, he saw clearly—much clearer than his normal vision. Minute cracks in the stonework stood out in stark detail. Thousands of stars previously unseen sparkled in the northern sky in front of the rolling clouds. Lightning flashed over The Deepening with an intensity sufficient to blind, revealing patterns, textures, and vibrant hues in the stalks of wheat far beyond the city walls. Blades of grass in the courtyard below revealed a crisp, serrated edge; paving stones showed crystalline facets in each grain of mineral. Everything focused with the sharpness of a razor’s edge until the savant’s eyes seared with pain.
Yet, it was futile. “I see nothing,” he protested.
Deeper. There is much more you can do.
“You don’t know my limitations.”
Neither do you.
He strained for every last measure of energy, and as he tapped hidden reserves, tears flowed down his face. Faraway objects drew near, resolving with alarming clarity. A dog on the far end of town, over a mile away, lapped at a puddle. Selorian saw every drop, every ripple, every nodule on the animal’s tongue. A dragonfly rested atop a rush several miles into the countryside, its gossamer wings vibrating as it balanced on the swaying plant. Selorian distinguished each cell of the membranes. Leaves on trees within the Estates fluttered in the growing breeze, and he could see every single one. Walls of the aldermen’s houses evaporated, revealing to his penetrating gaze what lay within. Then he saw it.
Yes…tell me what you see.
His eyes burned as if literally on fire. He was over-channeling his power, but he could not stop himself. The sword forced him to extend, to reach beyond comfortable, beyond safe, beyond what he thought was possible. His legs quavered as energy coursed through him.
Yes, draw the power. What have your eyes revealed?
Selorian stared at a cellar door beside the back porch of Tussex House. His energized vision had pierced even through wood and plaster walls to reveal a basement with an old desk beneath the stairs. The sword seemed satisfied, but the reward was hardly worth the effort. He would rather have found a cache of riches.
With a great heave of exhaustion, Selorian ceased his enhanced vision, but normal eyesight was slow to return. Everything remained dark and blurred. “What? You drained me and burned my eyes for this? A root cellar?”
Do you not know who lives in that cellar?
“Enough of your cryptic riddles. Tell me plainly.”
He held out the sword, suddenly unsure who was controlling whom. “Who!” he demanded again. “I am not a murderer.”
I have shown you.
Out of pure vexation, Selorian hurled a ball of eldritch energy from his left hand onto the blade in his right. A shockwave of intense pain scorched his brain, burning the inside of his skull. He fell to his knees beneath the agony, his teeth clenched and grinding under the torture. When at last he had a moment’s reprieve, Selorian grasped the sword in both hands, his arms trembling with fear and anger. “To the Nine Hells with you!”
He lifted his arms to lob the sword over the balcony wall, but a jolt of raw eldritch energy ripped through the savant’s body. His arms froze and his brain seized, overloaded by the inward blast of power. Selorian collapsed onto the balcony floor.
When he awoke, the storm that had been forming over The Deepening was gone. The eastern sky now glimmered with the faintest hint of color. Rainwater soaked him through and left him lying in a puddle. Blood stained the front of his shirt; those had not been tears running down his cheeks.
He sat up, relieved to have his vision restored. The tower watchman moaned at his feet; he would soon recover from his eldritch slumber. Slowly and with great effort, Selorian pulled himself to his feet. He reached down and took the awful sword, then stopped, shocked at himself. It had not been his decision to retrieve the sword; the sword commanded—from a distance—and he simply obeyed.
Just like that, he obeyed the sword. Selorian shuddered under the realization. He had ceded everything. Control, autonomy, independent thought—all of it. All was controlled by a poorly made slice of metal. Fear swelled beneath his tattooed breast. “What…what are you?”
I am the Slayer. Kill him.
* * * * * * * * * *
Mason Rutland sat alone in his rented room, ashen and shaking, and clutching a black silk scarf. A bucket sat on the floor by his feet, already half-filled with the evening’s supper and additional bile. His breathing, shallow and ragged, was the only thing reminding him he still lived.
He frowned at the scarf. “How in the Nine Hells did she do it?”
Cora’s assassin had failed to kill her. And she never got the chance to carry out death sentences on the other Dragonslayers, thanks to Reichtoven’s quick thinking. Rutland recalled the frightful evening well. It had been surprising enough to see a person rematerialize out of a cloak of invisibility, but to see an assassin blindfolded? His curiosity sailed completely past piqued and straight to mesmerized.
Thus far, placing the scarf across his eyes had yielded only one result: the emptying of his stomach in a massive lurch of instability. That the scarf allowed the wearer to enter the Void was clear enough. Withstanding such a thing was the problem, and Rutland determined to figure it out. If the silver-haired assassin could survive it without blowing chunks all over the place, so could he.
He grabbed a bottle of cheap wine from the side table and turned back a long drink. Maybe it would settle his nerves. If nothing else, it would give him something to throw up besides raw stomach acid.
Somehow, the silken fabric was connected to tangible shadow, the stuff smart people called Tenebrae. And in recent days, Rutland had been connected to it as well. A woman had stepped into his shadow beneath Wilder Tower, bringing a Grotesque with her. After nearly killing the woman, the shadow creature attached to his face, disfiguring him for the rest of his life. As a tribute, he named his team the “Shadowmen.” And on their first mission, he had uncovered a second shadow-walker. It was a sign. It had to be a sign that he was destined for this.
Rutland turned back the bottle again and set it aside. He stared at the scarf, dredging up the courage to try it once more. What would that make it—five times? He shook his head to shake his fears. No, that fogginess was the alcohol setting in. “Here goes…”
He drew in a long breath and held it, closed his eyes, and tied the scarf around his head. He waited. Maybe he would just pass out. But he had to breathe; he had to know. The answer was close, if he could just figure it out.
His lungs complained bitterly, and Rutland opened his eyes.
He was in the Void, a world where nothing was distinct—lines were blurred, sounds were muted, and color lacked meaning. The bucket waited at his feet, but for now the wine remained in his stomach. Is it workin’ this time? Maybe?
Standing made him wobbly, but still he held it together. Below him, the bed was a hazy mockery of the real, and the bucket—he couldn’t see the pail of rejected food. Rutland frowned and turned about. The room shifted, walls dissipated into mist, and his eyes fell upon what lay beyond. A man and woman sleeping…the inn’s pantry…the stables…
Rutland yanked off the scarf. A horse slept in its stall, and he stood in the hay pile beside it—several dozen yards from his room. He had never moved, never even taken a step. And he never vomited.
“By the Maker…I gotta be drunk to do this?”
* * * * * * * * * *
Cora O’Banion improved daily, but the process was agonizingly slow, and as the days slipped by—days they should have been traveling with haste to Cer Cannaid—she argued for her release. The past several times she had tried to walk she had nearly blacked out. Father Gaidus flatly refused to release her before he had deemed her fit, so on the 13th of Phoca, only two days prior to Lady Karlina’s wedding, Cora felt immense pressure to get well. It was now or never.
As the freeblades gathered in her room, Cora laid out her plans. “By my calculations—pfft, I’ve had nothing else to do but calculate—we can leave by the swiftest of horses at noon tomorrow, but that’s the latest we can afford to wait.”
Elric shook his head. “That dog don’t hunt. Ain’t no way a horse’ll run all the way to the city in two days.”
“I know that,” Cora replied. “So, we’ll have fresh mounts stationed every five miles along the road. In this way, we can ride at a steady canter from Westmeade to Cer Cannaid in twenty-four hours, arriving just before the wedding begins and hopefully in time to thwart whatever plot is in progress.”
Elric’s eyes bugged. “I wish Ordin was here to tell ya how stupid that is. I mighta been born to ride, but Cuauhtie’s still a sack o’ taters in the saddle. He ain’t gonna stay upright at a full run. Might go faster if the horse rode him.”
Glowering, Cora scanned the ceiling as she recalculated, reducing their overall speed, accounting for reseating the savage, adding in extra time for…. “Then we have to leave tonight…” She punched her pillow in frustration as the truth sunk in.
“Can you walk?” Cuauhtérroc asked.
Cora fell back onto her bed with a loud moan. “Just barely…cripe.”
Elric shrugged. “‘Sides that, how d’ya get fresh horses ever’ five miles ‘cross the whole country?”
“I don’t know,” Cora answered with a huff.
“Hey…ain’t ya gotta songsagey trick that’ll get us—”
“No,” Cora answered with punctuated irritation. “I don’t. And they’re spellsongs, not ‘songsagey tricks.’ I don’t even know if something like that exists.”
The room fell quiet for a time. Selorian closed his eyes and collapsed in a corner chair. Elric fiddled with one end of his long mustache. Cora worked several scenarios in her mind, but nothing short of magical assistance could make a five-day journey in a single day. Certainly nothing she knew how to do. She knew of magical flight, and she had heard of enhanced speed, but what they really needed was something instantaneous. She knew of that, too, and the thought frightened her. Perhaps going there won’t happen…what else can we do?
“I could send a message,” she offered at last. “Float it on the wind of song. I’d need a flute or other wind instrument while someone else speaks the words. But…it’s limited, only enough time for a couple of sentences. There’s no way to know if they got the message and no way for them to respond. I’m not sure what we’d say, but it’s an option. Do we know anybody in Cer Cannaid?”
“Dees duke is dere,” Cuauhtérroc suggested.
“Of course,” Cora replied. “But he doesn’t know us, and the message, quite frankly, is way too short for introductions.”
Selorian sniffed. “Do you possess any red powder? And an arcanist?”
Cora stared at him. He had been quiet most of the day, a pleasant change. And now he brought up the one thing she didn’t want to think about.
“Translocation,” she said with a nod. “It’s an idea, but that kind of magic is very expensive, and dreadfully dangerous. I don’t know anyone who can do it. Well…there’s a spellslinger on the Council, but we all know where he is.”
“Where?” Elric said without thinking. “Oh…right. Cer Cannaid.”
Cora sighed. “Calloway’s the only one I know that would give us a good answer. He might have a magic device that could help us out. I shudder to think what the cost will be, though.”
Elric shrugged. “It don’ matter ‘cause we aint’ got nuttin.”
Cora closed her eyes and fought back fresh waves of guilt. With a muted grunt, she sat up. “Well, it doesn’t cost anything to ask him. Would you mind too much talking with him this afternoon, before it’s too late?”
* * * * * * * * * *
Artus Calloway ushered Elric and Cuauhtérroc into his office that afternoon and shut the door behind them. The move reminded Elric of the many uncomfortable moments he had spent in the headmaster’s office of his primary school. He half-expected Calloway to remove a large wooden plank from the wall above the doorway, the one filled with holes to make it swing faster.
“You boys are in an impossible situation,” Calloway said after Elric laid it out for him. “You should have left town days ago. Now, I admire you for staying with Cora, but you really should have left her here. The Council gave you a job to do, and you’re running out of time. In fact, you’ve backed yourselves into a corner with thorns on one side and gnashing teeth on the other. Literally no one else knows about Schumann’s plans, so the only ones to thwart them are—well—you. And here you sit, two hundred fifty miles away from where you’re supposed to be with less than two days to get there. Your only option is travel by magical means, but you have no way to pay for it. All in all, I’d say you’ve got yourselves tied up in a fine knot. Does that about sum it up?”
Elric nodded. “I reckon…so, is there even a way to do it?”
“Certainly,” Calloway said. “With high magic, there’s always a way. The question is whether you wish to risk the danger. We already know you can’t afford it.”
“Danger?” Cuauhtérroc asked.
“Of course. The more powerful the magic, the more dangerous it is, just like a raging savage. Strong winds can move a ship at great speed, but powerful winds can tear sails. Violent winds shred them and make kindling of masts. In the same way, unraveling the physical laws of Creation carries a price, and those who don’t respect that frequently never live long enough to warn anyone else.”
Elric’s shoulders sagged. “Well, there goes that option.”
“Oh no, it’s perfectly safe,” Calloway countered, “so long as it’s done correctly. But again, the greatest danger lies in the most powerful magic—translocation. For instantaneous travel, which is really what you boys need at this point, you risk ending up in the middle of The Deepening, in a distant land, on a wholly different world, or even discombobulated.”
“What?” Elric said.
Calloway winked. “Scattered across the Void in little bits.”
“Oh…” Elric sat quietly for a moment, imagining little “Elric bits” floating throughout a dark sky. He forced that from his mind with visions of distant lands where strange creatures lived, beings with multiple eyes and limbs and all of them offering him tribute as the prophesied hero who would save them from—
He perked up. “Did ya say it was instant?”
“That’s what we gotta do. We wait ‘til the last possible minute when Cora’s as good as she can be, an’ ‘en—blip—we’ll be there. What’s it cost?”
Calloway’s eyes narrowed.
“Well?” Elric prodded.
“You are fully aware of the risk?”
“Cuauhtérroc an’ I would gladly risk our lives to save the duke’s daughter. Right, Cuauhtie?”
The savage shrugged.
“That means yes where he’s from,” Elric said. “How much?”
“About six thousand gold stallions.”
Elric nearly choked.
* * * * * * * * * *
Selorian had never before seen the Estate grounds, let alone walked among the aldermen’s houses. Up close, he realized just how similar each manor was, with only minor architectural differences between them. He wandered around in the midnight hours trying to determine which he had seen in his vision. Structurally, each was identical. They all had two floors, gables, slate roofs, second-story balconies, front porches, and back cellars. But one of them was the important one.
You are not trying.
“Shut up!” the savant hissed. But the Slayer was right. He knew there was much more in him, more that could be done. Fear gave him pause—fear of what he would see. Fear of the unmitigated pain. It had burned terribly the last time. Bleeding from his eyes was not something he wanted to do again.
But the Slayer compelled him. Selorian closed his eyes and slowed his breathing. When he opened them again, they burned with brilliant violet hues. He gritted his teeth, pushed past the fiery pain, and removed his shirt. His head throbbed, and bloody tears trickled down his cheeks, dripping onto his tattooed chest. This time he knew how deep he could go, and he wasted no time delving into the depths of his soul. Impenetrable darkness enveloped him, creating an unearthly void in the estate grounds. Surely someone would notice that, but there was nothing to be done about it. Rather than hinder him, the darkness enhanced his vision further, and within seconds Selorian scanned the row of manors.
There it was—the cellar door of great import. Selorian studied its surroundings, making out the back-porch steps with a chip of paint missing on the second step. A wooden tool shed stood nearby beneath a pair of oaks. The third house from the castle.
His eyes burned as violet furnaces in his head, but still he gazed. With enhanced clarity, he penetrated the exterior walls of the house. The house was dark inside and vacated. A portrait hung above the fireplace, the picture of a middle-aged man and his wife. Were it not for the intensity of pain, Selorian would have smiled.
The flow of eldritch energy that ripped through him suddenly stopped, and the savant’s entire body sagged like a soggy towel. He dropped to his knees in the dewy grass, spent of energy and waiting for his normal vision to return. When it did, he was not surprised to see smears of crimson down the front of his chest.
After a brief rest, Selorian made haste to the third house. The Slayer called to him, urging him forward to the cellar. He found the wooden tool shed beneath the trees and the chipped paint on the steps. The cellar door lay at his feet. As expected, it was locked.
Are we knee-deep in blood yet?
Selorian gave a quick glance to either side and then blasted the latch with a small but focused mote of eldritch energy. It broke free of the door jamb in a shower of sparks and splinters of wood. Selorian threw the doors open and descended into the cellar.
As the basement came into view, his body bolted upright, clutching the handrail as his back stiffened and his eyes burned a brilliant purple. Pain like a knife in his skull pierced his brain, but things obscured stood out with exceptional clarity—dust on the walls; mouse droppings behind an old bucket; cobwebs long forgotten by their makers filled with the husks of old meals and empty egg sacs. The very fibers of the wooden steps appeared distinct and razor sharp. He hesitated, fearful his vision would reveal far more than he wanted to know. Of their own accord, his legs twitched and turned beneath him, pushing him further into the cellar.
Selorian thought to run back into the night, screaming obscenities. He might have stripped naked, too, just to garner as much attention as possible. He could attack the guards, and maybe they would lock him away for a long, long time. Then he would be free. But his thoughts mattered not; they were discarded as stale bread. The Slayer had seized control. It drove him into the basement until he was standing before a well-worn desk tucked away beneath a staircase leading up into the house.
With his enhanced vision, he saw through the desk to the contents of its drawers. His head snapped back, the sword forcing him to face the ceiling—the floor of the house above. Through his eyes, the sword delved into the living quarters of the house, scanning the contents of shelves, cabinets, and closets of every room.
“You don’t need to control me,” Selorian growled through clenched teeth.
Oh, but I do.
“You desire the elderly man’s death? What has he done?”
What does it matter?
“Contrariwise, I am no murderer. I will not participate in—”
His hand reached for the sword in its sheath. In a remote corner of his mind, as if distantly self-aware in a dream, Selorian slowly realized that his hand had wrapped around the hilt of the Slayer and was retrieving it.
“What…are…you…doing?” He resisted, he argued, he even begged, but under the Slayer’s power the tip of the blade continued its slow emergence from the scabbard. With great anguish of soul, the sword forced Selorian to turn the blade inward and press the tip against his stomach. He had only to fall forward…or plunge it in.
If you are worthless to me, I will have you impale yourself right now.
Suicide was one thing; compulsory suicide was murder. And Selorian would not tolerate it. He would certainly not murder himself. With all the reserve energy he possessed that the Slayer had not claimed for its own, he reached deep to produce one clarion shout: “Stop!”
“You have clarified my dilemma: kill the old man or kill myself.”
It is that simple.
Selorian closed his eyes and relaxed. “Fine.”
The suicidal compulsions vanished, replaced with tranquility. Harmony infused his very fiber; he was one with the sword, but not that only. He was also now entirely in sync with himself. His thoughts made sense, priorities realigned in noncontradictory ways, and feelings vanished—both those that plagued him and those he enjoyed. He was emptied of his former self, and the Slayer filled his vessel.
Its first order was to turn the house inside out. With a genuine joy, Selorian pulled every drawer from the rickety desk, spilling the contents. He tossed the empty drawers randomly across the basement, then he turned the desk on its side.
The sword at his side compelled him up the stairs into the house. It pushed him to read documents, rifle through personal belongings, and spill the contents of cabinets and closets across the room. He ran the edge of the Slayer through the oil painting above the fireplace, severing the aged alderman’s head from its neck. The sword’s laugh rang hollow in Selorian’s head, and Selorian’s laugh echoed through the living room.
An hour later, the savant re-emerged through the broken cellar doors, his memory now filled with knowledge he had no business knowing. Letters from the Duke of Alikon addressed to Leydon Bray, a scrawled note from Marley saying Blanchard was alive, a flowing script signed by Cer Cannaid—all these he gathered and knifed to the oil painting above the fireplace. He left Tussex House completely ransacked, pillaged, and ruined. But he possessed what the Slayer had come for: intimate knowledge of a duplicitous Vincent Schumann.
As he strode back through the open castle gates, a double contingency of guards lying where earlier he had felled them, the sword no longer badgered him, pressing him into a service he little desired. Now, their goals were merged. They were one.
Kill Schumann. Kill him!
A sneer curled across Selorian’s lips. “Kill him.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Early the next morning, Cuauhtérroc and Elric found Selorian waiting for them at the Solarium of Light. He sat quietly on the front steps tumbling ripples of purple energy over his hands and across the blade that lay in his lap. He looked up as they approached, and Cuauhtérroc knew he was a changed man. The savant’s gaze held a depth of knowledge not previously seen. Something about him was…dangerous, and Cuauhtérroc regarded him through wary eyes.
“So…uh…whatcha durin’?” Elric asked.
Selorian gave him a half-smile.
“Well, uh…we got a plan for gettin’ to Cer Cannaid in time fer the weddin’…”
“We must kill him,” Selorian said. He lightly touched the Slayer, and the light around him dimmed.
Elric paused. The bounce in his step flattened. “I don’ know if we really needa kill anybody, not jis yet, but if summin dies while we’re defendin’ Lady Karlina—well, too bad fer him.”
The savant’s smile turned devious. Cuauhtérroc’s reached for his macana. But Selorian jumped up to his feet and sheathed his sword. The shadow vanished, and his countenance returned to its familiar state. “So,” he said, “berätta planen.”
Elric squinted at him.
“Divulge this concocted strategy of yours,” the savant translated. “Tell me the plan.”
“C’mon, we’re gonna tell Cora, too.”
Elric led the way to the healing rooms, but Cuauhtérroc followed, watching the savant with distrust. He readied the macana. One false step, one suspicious motion, and Selorian would know the wrath of an angry Audric.
Cora’s recuperation had improved steadily such that she could finally walk without assistance or pain. Now, she sat at a small table with a napkin tucked into her blouse. The aroma of fried ham and eggs filled her room, and Cuauhtérroc’s stomach rumbled.
Cora had just tipped back a mug of steaming kaffe when Elric divulged the plan. She choked on half a swallow and spewed the rest across the table.
“Translocate!” she cried. “Cripe! Are you mad?”
The response wiping Elric’s face of all emotion.
Cuauhtérroc explained. “Dees weel take us to Cer Cannaid today. We go in two hours.”
“What?” Cora exclaimed, “No! Are you serious? Translocation is dangerous; you could end up merged with the ground, or a tree, or even another person. How’d you like to end up with your head sticking out of a rock?”
“Better ‘an stickin’ up yer arse…” Elric quipped.
Selorian laughed. Briefly.
Cora glared at the three of them. “No. It’s not an option.”
Elric pulled a folded sheet of parchment from a small pocket in his trousers. “Well, it’s kinda a done deal. It was gonna cost us six thousand stallions, but Calloway cut us a break…”
“Six thousand st—Elric!” Cora pulled the napkin from her blouse and tossed it vigorously onto her plate. “We don’t have that! We don’t have anything.”
“I know,” Elric replied with a disarming grin. “We kinda owe Calloway now.”
Cora leaned back in her chair and groaned.
“It ees dees only way,” Cuauhtérroc said. “You are seeck dees meeny days, and now we cannot go dere on dees horses. We must do dees job for dees Council. We must not fail again. So, we go now.”
Cora stared at her feet, her arms folded defiantly across her chest.
“In dees two hours, dees man weel come here to take us all to Cer Cannaid. You and Selorian need to get ready.”
* * * * * * * * * *
At precisely the appointed time, a young arcanist arrived at the Solarium and entered the basement rooms under escort. When he stepped into Cora’s room, she peppered him with questions.
“How old are you?”
“Nice to meet you, too,” the arcanist said, taken aback by Cora’s query. “My name is Darius Ferguson.” He paused. “I’m twenty-eight.”
“How long have you studied spellcraft?”
Darius glanced from one face to another. “Look, if I’ve come at a bad time, we can always reschedule.”
“Answer the question,” Cora said sternly.
“How many translocations have you done?”
Here Darius hesitated. He drew in a breath and answered, “One.”
“Nine Hells!” Cora exclaimed, tossing up her arms. “I knew it! We’re going to entrust our very lives to a rank amateur.”
The arcanist raised an eyebrow and folded his arms. “With all due respect, young lady, I am no amateur. I have performed the ritual once because once was all that was required. I have never failed at this, and you will not find another man of my skills within a two day’s ride in any direction, I’ll wager. I was told you are going to Cer Cannaid, which happens to be where I lived for fifteen years, so I know the city quite well. There’s something like a perfect chance I’ll set us down exactly where I intend. Your fears are unjustified and your demeanor is offensive. Now, do you want me to exercise the service for which I was hired, or should I just pocket the funds and go home?” He made a motion toward the door.
Cora held up a hand, but inside she was a boiling cauldron. “Stay. I’m sorry…I’m just extraordinarily nervous about this, that’s all. I happen to have died a week ago, and I’m not ready to flirt with death again.”
An hour passed, during which time Cora drank three mugs of stout ale and offered an endless litany of prayers. Neither provided her with the calm she sought.
“This is hopeless,” she grumbled. “Any more and I’ll become a drunk Agnostic. Cripe…I’ll become Selorian.”
The savant perked up from his calm repose in a corner chair. A wry grin spread briefly across his thin face.
Darius poured a light dusting of powdered cinnabar in a wide ring on the floor. “Everybody stay inside the ring, holding hands,” he said. “Do not let go, whatever happens. Remain quiet; remain calm. No casting during the travel, and please don’t vomit; I need to concentrate.”
The savant stood and grinned, but not with his eyes. As whispered words played at his lips, the air grew chill.
The group of five formed a circle, and Darius began the incantations written on a scroll lying flat on the small table beside Cora’s bed.
The bed shifted slightly to the right, sliding off-kilter as the stone wall angled down and the table melted into the floor. Floor rose to meet ceiling as the walls swirled around them, funneling into a morass of ectoplasmic goo that drained through a slot somewhere in space. All was black and void, then gray, emerging as a jumbled kaleidoscope of colors, shifting, spinning, filtering one from another. Green mostly fell out the bottom while blue rose to the top like oil on water. Between the two there were browns, fleshy colors, and a swath of vibrant scarlet chased by a swirling vortex of amethyst. Faces resolved amid the chaos, panicked faces with jaws open wide in silent screams. Or perhaps laughter.
As the translocation finished, Cora’s heart raced, her head felt like it would explode, and her lungs starved for air. When at last she could breathe, she inhaled sharply and screamed. Across the circle of shocked faces, a sinister, mocking laughter streamed from Selorian’s throat.
“Something is not right with you,” Cora said.
“What?” Selorian said, raising one multi-pierced eyebrow. “I’m perfectly fine. That was the most invigorating journey I have ever experienced. Let’s do it again.”
“Or not,” Elric said, staggering. “That was like…I ain’t sure what that was like. I’m whopperjawed!”
Cuauhtérroc stumbled his first step and doubled over with hands on knees. He shook his head. “I do not like dees.”
Cora looked around her, trying to gain her bearings. They stood atop a hillock a hundred feet off the main highway. From their vantage, she could see for miles, as there were few trees in this part of the land. A half-mile to the east, a large city rose out of the rocky hill country, coming to a sudden stop at a sheer cliff overlooking a massive body of water. Granite walls surrounded the city, and an imposing castle stood against the cliff, daring the precipice to give way beneath it. Along the shore, the masts of a multitude of sailing ships dotted the horizon, their hulls hidden below the bluffs.
“Is that…?” Cora began weakly. She had drunk too much ale, and the blurring of their forms in transit churned her stomach fiercely.
“Cer Cannaid,” Darius finished, and with another pinch of red powder and an archaic string of words, the arcanist vanished from their midst in a shimmering cylinder of crimson.