The following is not the finalised edition. Chapter order and little details may change before book publication. This hasn’t been formally edited and will likely contain errors. Let me know if you spot any!
Inspector Kettna stared through the magic window, imprisoned by helplessness. Her father was strapped to a chair in the middle of a circle of nullification. Without magic he was just a man, and without his daughter he was broken. Bloody Agnus had stripped him of everything, even his voice. With eyes overflowing and outstretched fingers, Kettna’s father mouthed the words, I love you.
Kettna wanted to show a brave face. She wanted to be the resolute mountain of confidence that her Mother was. Instead she crumbled. Her lip quivered and as much as she tried to hold them back, tears filled her eyes. Pitiful and weak they crawled down her cheeks for all to see.
Captain Malek shed no tears. He fumed with volcanic rage, straining against his bonds and bursting open every buckle holding down his right arm. Next he tore free his left arm then removed the wide strap across his chest.
Agnus moulded her image to that of the old crone. “Control yourself, Malek, or the Koshkin dies. The Chamberlain too.” The mention of the prisoners shifted Agnus’s form to mimic their appearance. Agnus even mirrored Malek’s menacing demeanour, but the illusions transitioned with less clarity than before. Bloody Agnus was a talented sorceress but every mage had their limits. Her focus was slipping.
Malek hesitated from unstrapping his legs, his forehead beading with sweat. “Who says any of this is real?”
The old crone returned, this time with a gnarled cane to lean upon. “Never a deeper thing have I heard you say. You been reading the Guildmaster’s books? Philosopher Malek. Hmm. Has a certain ring to it, I suppose.”
Malek growled and continued to unstrap his legs.
“Poisons are wondrous things.” The crone hobbled toward Malek. “I won’t bore you with which ones I employed, sufficed to say that a certain rare antidote will be required should you wish your loved ones to survive. A dose too much or not enough, a dose too late or too early and … well, a painful death is best avoided with cooperation.”
“You’re bluffing.” The Captain’s left leg came loose. “How could you find them? Let alone capture them?” Malek flexed his knee with a grimace before starting to release his right leg.
“The Chamberlain came to Calimska to find his daughter missing and the city besieged by dragons. He fought to defend the city even as the Tower of Arcana crashed to the ground, his life and love destroyed. Who could begrudge him a drink to drown such sorrows? The Cog and Wheel is the only place that has his favourite Tillydale mead. My shout of course, for a finer sorcerer I’ve yet to meet.
“The Koshkin girl, well, she came knocking. Admittedly she knocked on all the wrong doors, silly kit. Looking for Captain Malek in the Cauldron? You’ve made a lot of enemies here. Word gets around, but lucky I found out. Old Aunty literally saved her skin. So you owe me, Mal’ek’Ollenth. Do pardon my pronunciation.” Agnus grinned. “You know beastly tongues tie me in knots.”
“Sunder the hells and burn, Agnus!” Malek removed another leg strap, no less keen to strangle his captor.
“Please, Malek. You have to stop.” Kettna never thought she’d be brought so low as to beg the captain. “What if it’s true? If your sister means as much to you as my father does to me—”
With the final strap undone, Malek cut off Kettna’s plea. “I buried my sister fifteen years ago. Wake up, Inspector. It’s all a lie.”
The crone tossed a pendant at Malek’s feet. “That’s what I told her. So she hissed and yowled then hands me this trinket. A powerful charm indeed.”
The captain bent over and retrieved the pendant, a golden talon. “No… It’s impossible.”
“Even I amaze myself.” For a moment Agnus beamed with the immaculate visage of Lanuille, then the glamour frayed at the edges. Lanuille’s prideful smile contorted and her legs wobbled. She phased through a blur of characters Kettna had never met.
“Agnus!” Kettna knew all too well the signs of magical exertion. “Let the illusion go, before it consumes you.”
“You doubt my power, Novice.” Agnus regained control, solidifying he image as Adept Lanuille, flexing her talent to prove her mana was up to the task.
A vortex of magic swirled around Lanuille’s sky blue robes and lightning danced between her fingertips. The impressive concentration of energy was an extravagance Agnus could not afford. The peripheral details of Agnus’s illusion began to fall apart. First Kettna noticed the grey stonework fading in places to reveal yellow brickwork beneath. Moonlight peaked through a boarded up hole in the wall, knifing through tendrils of incense that filled the room.
The lanterns on the walls had red glass baffles and dried herbs smouldered in five braziers occupying the points of an elaborate pentagram carved into the timber floor. The chains which Kettna had melted through were no longer in a heap. In fact they were no where to be seen. Malek and Kettna still lay on a torture table of sorts, but what once appeared to be thick leather straps holding them down were nothing but ribbons, enchanted with crudely embroidered sigils. In fact, sigils were etched on every surface in the room. Floor to ceiling and every item in between was a prop for criminal theatrics. The only thing keeping Kettna in check was Bloody Agnus’s elaborate illusion.
While Agnus wrestled to control her failing spells, Kettna tore free of the enchanted ribbons and ran to the very real cabinet in the corner to retrieve her sword. There was one sure way to be rid of Agnus’s lies forever. With sword in hand Kettna connected with the sea of magic inside the bloodstone, diving headfirst into power beyond her means. Revenge roared like a river within, frothing with an otherworldly energy. The blade came alive with a presence she’d not felt before. An entity eager to fulfil Kettna’s dark desire, hungry to stab Bloody Agnus in the back. For justice or pleasure, the power within cared not. Kettna raised the sword and charged.
“No!” Malek tackled Kettna to the ground and pinned her arms to the floor so she couldn’t swing the sword. “It’s not all an illusion. Look!”
Bloody Agnus fell to her knees, heavy breath churning through a cloud of incense. The veil of her illusions fell away, but there was one thing unchanged. The magic window still held Kettna’s father and the Koshkin inside its enchanted frame.
Kettna drew on the sword’s magic and blasted Malek aside with a gust of raw elemental air. With more of the same, Kettna upturned the braziers of incense and nullified the pentagram, smearing the precise design with smouldering ash. Still the magic window remained.
Logic proved the window was no part of Agnus’s illusion, yet the malign presence inside the blade urged Kettna to pierce Agnus a hundred times. There was a hunger in the bloodstone and it didn’t care about Kettna’s logic. She wouldn’t be a vessel for the blade’s desire. No magic was worth yielding her will.
Vaal Vohun shall be obeyed.
“No!” Kettna vested her denial in magic, fusing will and word with as much power as she could. Gods only knew what demon she had stirred inside the blade. Where was the benevolent dragon spirit, Tetula?
The bloodstone entity absorbed her resistance with palpable delight then pushed back. Painful jolts of energy manipulated the muscles of Kettna’s sword arm, turning the blade against her own abdomen.
Blood sacrifice shall be fulfilled. The Law must be obeyed.
Kettna dropped to her knees and cast Fetcher’s Friend, the fastest finding she knew off the top of her head. She quickly scribed a sigil in the spilled incense ash, lit it with magical charge then clapped her hand down in a puff of shimmering black soot. “Tetula! Help me!” After her plea, Kettna inhaled the black dust and directed the spell through her arm and into the bloodstone pommel of the sword.
Tetula didn’t come to her rescue, but Malek did.
Strong arms wrestled the blade away from Kettna’s belly, yet he couldn’t loosen her grip. “Let the damn thing go!”
“Don’t you think I would if I could?” Kettna tried to pry her fingers off, but only managed to smear her hand with soot.
The sword swung around and narrowly missed Malek’s throat. He pulled away in time, but loosened his grip on Kettna’s arm to step back. The blade wasted no time and slashed out in a tight arc, cutting Malek’s thigh. He grunted in pain, but didn’t waver, lunging on his good leg and striking at Kettna’s wrist, knocking the weapon to the ground. Malek hit the ground too, clutching his blood drenched leg and gritting his teeth.
The glowing sigils on the blade absorbed the Captain’s blood, slaking the thirst of Vaal Vohun. The sword quaked and quivered as though an internal battle raged within. It skittered along the floorboards vibrating itself into an ear splitting wail then calming to a low hum. The magic weapon reached for Kettna’s mind, but she refused it, rushing to Malek’s side instead.
Kettna tore a strip off the leg of Malek’s already immodestly short braies and pressed the vicious gash on his thigh, desperate to staunch the blood. “Gods! There’s so much blood. I … I’m …”
“Sorry?” Malek grinned through the pain.
Kettna pressed the wound harder. “That’s not what I was going to say.”
Malek grunted in pain yet his idiot grin remained, light brown eyes twinkling in all the wrong ways. “If you wanted to grab my thigh, Sorceress, you only had to ask?”
“Are you always such a beast?” Kettna pulled her hands away and the Captain winced, quickly putting pressure on the wound himself.
“I’ll be fine. See to Agnus. If she dies …”
Agnus was rigid on the floor, stuck with the visage of scarred Lanuille. Her eyes stared into the void, blood trickled from her nose and drool hung from the corner of her mouth. Any sorcerer worth their education knew the signs of diabolic catalepsy, suffered by conjurers outmatched by the demons they bargained with. More often though, undisciplined theurgic exertions were to blame. ‘Courting chaos’ Kettna’s mother called it. To stretch one’s magical limits was expected, how else could a practitioner of magic grow? Still, there were limits of body and mind, summits of endurance and comprehension. Beware the mage tangled in hooks of ambition or shackled with ignorance.
There was a reason mage’s like Lanuille or Agnus or whoever she really was were named blind falcons. She was blessed with a naturally formidable presence of magic without the eyes of knowledge to fly as high as she ought to. Miscalculating the forces she toyed with while ambitiously juggling too many layers of magic were her downfall. Kettna was astonished that Agnus had the endurance, let alone the comprehension, to manage the complex illusions of the ambush and then this interrogation.
“Don’t just stare at her,” urged Malek. “Give her a healing potion or something.”
“I don’t have one, and even if I did. A healing potion won’t bring her back. She’s not wounded, she’s lost. Drifting or sinking or—“
“You’re a mage. Can’t you cast a spell to fix her.”
If only Kettna had the power. Common folk had no idea about magic. They either demonised it or expected miracles. Kettna picked up the bloodstone sword once more and wondered if she was any different. “Stay your violence, sword,” she said, entwining her command with tendrils of magic. “Lend me your power!”
A miracle would be most welcome. Truth be known, if it came from a demon, she didn’t care. Kettna would do anything to save her father.
Our blood pact was sealed, mortal. Dare you call for another? Vaal Vohun demands your life and eternal service.
Images of hell-burnt battlefields and apocalyptic decimation flashed before Kettna’s eyes. An elven maiden clad in blood-spattered armour carved through berserk demons and infernal contortions of bone and flesh. She was an impenetrable storm. Sword and sorcery flashed lightning while arcane winds wailed and ripped her enemies asunder. She stood defending a silver tower from which scores of battle-mad creatures emerged to her aid. The arcane tower shone with magic and imprisoned a pulsating abyssal monster with flailing tentacles. The god-like being’s body bulged from the base of the tower and extended pulsating tendrils into a wide moat overflowing with blood.
“Tetula!” Kettna called. “I need your help.”
The elf turned from the battle, piercing Kettna’s soul with a magical stare that froze time in the war-torn realm.
The voice and radiant presence of Tetula calmed the rising gall of the bloodthirsty Vaal Vohun. Rest now, Vaal. Save your strength for the battles to come. A god’s greatness should not be diverted. I will help the girl.
The feverish mind of Vaal Vohun contorted in disagreement. This one is no master. She serves. Not you.
Tetula’s spirit rose like the dawn, lancing rays of glory in Kettna’s mind and humming a note of power from hilt to blade. I am master here. My will is not yours to direct. Please rest. Do not make me command it so.
The mental presence of Vaal Vohun knotted and coiled like a stricken serpent, shrinking away until only Tetula’s magnificence filled Kettna’s mind.
“Kettna?” Malek clicked his fingers. “You still here?”
Tetula’s presence of spirit flowed from the sword through Kettna’s body. She heard Malek’s voice only as a whisper whilst the tide of magic surged over her senses. Tetula was in control. Keeping the magic just outside of Kettna’s reach, she pointed the sword tip directly between Agnus’s eyes.
Call her back to the prime plane, Kettna. Let your voice be a beacon, guide her to shore.
“What are you doing?” Malek tried to stand, set on defending Agnus, but his injured leg gave out. “The sword’s cursed! Can’t you see? Drop it before the damn thing kills us all.”
Kettna didn’t drop the sword. Tetula’s mind compelled her body and her voice. Even though her lips parted blissfully, riding on the cusp of immense magic, her mundane voice was all that emerged. “Agnus!” That one word ignited and compressed over and again, forming a twinkling star upon Agnus’s forehead. The star sunk into her skin, leaving a tiny pink blister. Agnus gasped for air and opened her eyes, staring up the length of the sword at Kettna.
“You saved me.” Agnus clutched at her chest then ran her hands up over her scarred neck and face, confirming the state of her reality. “You’re a rare bird, Inspector. A rare bird, indeed.”
“And you have me caged.” Kettna removed the sword point from Agnus’s face. There was no way around the situation. If Kettna’s father and Malek’s sister truely were poisoned, Bloody Agnus had all the leverage. It was too risky to call her bluff. Kettna didn’t have Elrin’s talent for seeing through illusions. So against all her urges to do otherwise the Inspector resigned herself to cooperate — for now at least.
“You’ve got us stitched up good and proper, Agnus.” Malek peaked under the bloody rag covering his leg wound and winced. “Whatever your demands, I’m no good to anyone till this heals up.”
“You’re not going to kill me then?” Agnus asked in jest but her eyes lacked the confidence she had when hiding behind her illusions.
“Listen, if we work together, no one has to die.” Kettna thought this as good a place as any to gain mutual agreement. “Even if all of this is some new convoluted illusion within an illusion to gain my cooperation, I don’t care. I know the truth about the Guildmaster.”
“So. Don’t we all?” Agnus got to her feet and went to the cabinet keeping an eye on Kettna and Malek. “What have you two done about his little blaze hustle? Nothing.”
Malek hung his head, ashamed of his part in the Guildmaster’s schemes. “Knowing isn’t enough. He’s got leverage on everyone involved. Point a finger at him and he’ll see me hang.”
“So we kill him first.” Agnus returned from the cabinet with a medicine bag, handing Malek a pot of ointment and a clean bandage for his leg. “If he wants to work outside the law, why wait for the law to deliver justice? Take one life and you’re free Malek. Your sister too.”
“He’s not just a man.” Malek sniffed the ointment and wrinkled his nose. “He’s a mage like you two. I can’t.”
Agnus knelt beside Malek and removed the bloody rag from his leg and poured clear spirits over the wound. “We all bleed.”
Malek gritted his teeth and clenched his fists. “You don’t understand. I can’t harm him. I’ve tried.” Malek showed them the sole of his foot. A complex ring of magic sigils was branded upon his skin. A curse of service.
“There’s more you should know,” said Kettna conflicted about her feelings toward Malek. “Not only is the Guildmaster manufacturing blaze, he has slaves hidden somewhere in the city and he’s colluding with the Jandans too. Assassinate him and everything he knows is lost. He has to be interrogated and face justice.” Kettna stopped short of divulging the secret stash of arcane weapons or the plot to unleash Drensel Tath and his minions. Truths were best served separately to aid digestion.
“Slaves?” Agnus morphed her face to that of Sue Pox either by habit or lack of control. “For the gods know what? He’s got a city full of slaves already. All toiling for their copper and crust. All smiling as they cling to the hope of a brighter day. City of Gold. Hells havoc! Work hard and you’ll make it. Bollocks! Not unless you’re born at the top will you rise. Want to see an illusion? Just look at the system.”
“If he has slaves, I’ve not seen any. Surely I’d know.” Malek dressed his wound but denied Kettna’s accusation, gods only knew what he had his own hand in and what he’d want to cover up. “Where’s your proof?”
“I’m going to find it.” Kettna couldn’t rely on Elrin and Minni as witnesses. They’d have gone to ground if they escaped the Agnus’s ambush. “Do you ever see what he does in Castle Roost when the shield goes up?”
“Meditate?” Captain Malek scratched his chin. “I don’t know. The Guildmaster has most of the place locked up. Even if what you say is true, we still need the golden shield or evil dragons will take over.”
“I know a way to maintain the shield,” lied Kettna.
“Then we’re not at crossed purposes.” Agnus’s face returned to that of youthful Lanuille without scars. “We can work together in mistrust if need be. You both know what’s at stake should you turn against me. Believe me when I tell you I’d prefer we trusted each other. To that end you should both know we only have one crack at this. I’ve lost control of the anger boiling in the streets. It’s madness out there. Crews are off the hinge, fighting each other when they should be protecting their turf from dragons. Folk are scared senseless and the Guildmaster is hiding away in the castle. Spineless Guilders are counting their shine and petitioning the Constable to lay down arms. They’d sooner open the gates and surrender. Can you believe it? They want to invite the damn dragons in! Worse still, cultists of Drensel Tath have crawled out from under their rocks and are chanting up and down the streets for the Tyrant King’s return. Calimska will eat itself alive unless we can install a decent leader.”
“Of course. You want to rule Calimska.” Kettna shook her head in disgust. “You’re roping us into a coup.”
“Gods no!” Agnus laughed then tossed Kettna a potion from the medicine bag.
Kettna eyed the glowing lilac liquid cautiously. The label read Ibrimak’s Formidable Flux. More potent than a mana frog and completely outlawed by the Order of Calim for its often fatal side effects. Kettna uncorked the flask and sniffed the potion. It was berry sweet and had a sharp tang that pinched her cheeks in a grimace. Kettna handed it back, a mana flux like that would overwhelm her in a heartbeat. “So who’s your puppet?”
“I don’t need a puppet. Where’s the fun in that?” Agnus quaffed the potion without a second thought and grinned through lilac stained teeth. “Let me tell you what I want. I want our crooked Guildmaster gone and a squeaky clean sort in his place. I don’t care who takes over as long as they’re just. Corruption from the top eats into my game. I don’t want competition. Let a decent Guildmaster navigate what’s right from the top while I swim with the temptations below. A sturdy ship can sail on a deep sea.”
“Only you could tarnish a noble endeavour with selfish ambitions.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment, Inspector.” The lilac was gone from Agnus’s grin and now glowed faintly over her entire body. The potion worked like a mana sponge, drawing in magical potential. Too much ambient potential could quickly overload a mage’s physiothaumic limits. Agnus connected with the weave of magic and reshaped her form to that of the stalwart middle-aged woman with dark hair and strong shoulders. Whether by metamorphosis, conjuration or illusion, Kettna could not discern. It was powerful magic. The woman’s silk blouse and loose trousers were potent with wards and black as shadow. Agnus showed no immediate side effects though magical and physiological metabolism was a complex subject. Who knew what damage such a powerful potion was doing below the surface?
Kettna feigned boredom, determined not to show her interest in the magic Agnus was using. “When you’re finished flaunting your spellwork, maybe we should hear this plan of yours.”
“Clothes would be a good start.” Malek got up and tested his leg to see if he could walk on it yet. The streaks of moonlight entering the room seemed to accelerate his healing. It wasn’t long before the warrior could gingerly hobble to the cabinet to gather his belongings. Any other man would have been down and out for days if not weeks after a gash like that.
“Agreed.” Kettna couldn’t help but grin at Malek awkwardly hopping to get his leg into his breeches. “Clothes are the closest some get to decency.” She went to the cabinet and slung on her belt and component pouches then wrapped the cape of constellations over her shoulders. Lastly she sheathed the bloodstone sword in the baldric she had made with magically woven reeds and thread from her green novice robes.
“Don’t worry, dear. I’ve got something here for you.” Agnus reached into the cabinet and handed Kettna a spare pair of black silk trousers like her own. “Unless your battle strategy is distraction?”
Kettna took the hint and the trousers. Her robes were riding quite high on her thighs. “That’s rich coming from a mistress of illusion.”
“That reminds me.” Agnus whispered a polysyllabic spell trigger and the interrogation chamber was cloaked in illusion once more. Two comfortably upholstered chairs replaced the torture tables and the floor was covered in a mosaic of rugs. The walls were freshly painted lemon yellow and lit by oil lamps. The magic mirror remained but gone was the view of Kettna’s father and Malek’s sister.
Now all Kettna saw was her own reflection. It came down to her. So much was at stake. If she failed, Calimska would fall and Uindaarg would take the bloodstone weapons from Daniakesh’s abandoned lair below Castle Roost. Worse still, the dragons of darkness would bring the return of Drensel Tath, their tyrannical god. As terrifying as all that was, for all the decimation Oranica would suffer and all the lives that would be lost, there were only two people on the Inspector’s mind. Her mother and father.
Damn the world, Kettna wouldn’t fail her parents.
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