The Beginning Chapters

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-99. MID OF A DAY

…meh…

 

~ Age of Ashes, year 298 ~

~ Caratana, Arm of Katharyaga ~

 

Izzalea didn’t want to die. As a matter of fact, she couldn’t really afford to die right now. This was just seriously bad timing.

“You know,” said the man standing before her. “You truly are a sick, sick person.”

Wasn’t that lovely, coming from a psycho?

Izza had stopped to struggle against her bonds when the ropes began to burn her skin. With her hands tied behind her back, her torso fastened to the chair rest, and her legs bound together, she found it quite impossible to do anything. Of course, at first her instincts had her fight it, but then logic took the reins: she was in a true damsel in distress kind of pickle, and if nobody came to save her, that would be it. Unless her captor wimped out before the last blow. Fat chance, though; he hadn’t thought twice about cutting her finger off.

It was quite disappointing how she didn’t really feel furious about any of it. She had always viewed herself as that fiery, unstoppable force to be reckoned with, and yet, in the time when her spirit should truly shine, she turned into a sad pile of defeat.

“What is it that fascinates a woman in a sadistic killer, hm? Tell me, Izzy.” Her tormentor strolled around her like a pathetic rat that suddenly found itself in power. He must’ve felt so strong, so in control, unmovable, untouchable. Were she free and able to fight back, he would reverse to his quivering ways, afraid to squeak louder lest someone might notice him and take offense. “Izzalea? I asked you a question,” he said.

Gods, there was less than a month left before the Glass Senight, and next one would come in five years. Or a damned decade, if energies chose to get fickle. They had worked on the Unliving for so long, and now all of it could be ruined because of this cretin. To dream of seeing your work actually change the lives of people, and then die right before it was finished, was beyond frustrating.

And then this babbling of his: “Is it the mystery of the Magai Killer that you crave so? Or the fact that he slaughtered a powerful family, disappeared, proved that he stood above the power and the law? What is it, Izzalea? What did you have him whisper to your ear,” he asked, leaning in, burying his nose in her hair, “when you fucked him in your fantasies?”

But maybe the rest of their group would find a way to make the Unliving happen anyway. Izzalea was important, but now that most of the research had been done, she wasn’t irreplaceable. And since Khel was incapable of dropping anything midway, it wasn’t all doomed yet. Puny little death of one friend would not stop that man, please.

Izzalea smiled to herself. It still amused her how resistant Khel had been to the idea of the Unliving at first. So busy, so disinterested, so immersed in another field. Not to mention him having to work with other people? Outrageous. It had taken the knowledge of just one secret to have him hopping right onboard. Of course, it wouldn’t even cross the mind of the great Mr. Lorne that he had been manipulated, but that’s how men were. Easy. Just one of the reasons Izza loved them so.

Poor bastard though. As far as she knew, only two people had ever known about Khel’s shit, and one of them was about to bite the dirt. The other, well, was probably long after the chomp. So now Khel would be left alone with his dilemmas with no one to talk to at all. Maybe he’d finally slip, and all hell would break loose? But what good would the wonderful drama do if Izza wouldn’t be here to see it?

Fuck this, she wasn’t ready to die.

“Even now?” The soon-to-be-killer aimed a strong slap at her cheek. “Even now you won’t pay me attention? Even now you have to be such a self-absorbed bitch?”

On the opposite wall hung three gray photos of her son. She focused her attention on the young man’s eyes. She had parted with Lichem in anger, he couldn’t understand what she was doing to Teli, why she had no choice.

Teli.

Gods. Izzalea’s heart skipped a bit. Blood loss and shock made her mind wander over various things, but suddenly she was right back to her wits. Teli. They were supposed to meet tomorrow morning. What would Teli do now? The whole sacrifice could be for naught. No, that could not happen. Fuck Unliving, fuck Khel, they would be fine, but Teli wouldn’t, and without her help, neither would the freed rebels. With nowhere to hide, they’d get hunted and slaughtered like hogs. If Izza died now… That was it. The shelter would not be created. Against all reason she began to struggle again.

“Help!” she cried out.

“Oh, now you start to care.”

“Fuck you! Help me! Someone! Anyone!”

Nobody could hear her from here. The man laughed and reached for the bloodied knife. “Now, I’m sure you’re familiar with the modus operandi of your dearest. The other finger has to go as well.”

Izza’s eyes widened, and despite wishing to remain strong, she looked at the man in terror. Not again, she couldn’t go through that excruciating pain again. When he had threatened her at first, she had thought he was joking. Now she knew he wasn’t.

The man walked around her and she felt the chill of the blade touch her middle finger. Holding in a whimper, she closed her eyes. There was this technique Amon taught her once when she refused to take pain numbing meds – it allowed her to pull her focus away from the part of the body experiencing pain. Izzalea roused some of her energy and began to channel the flow into her neck, then nose, ears, eyes, anything on the head. It was a strange sensation, both cold and hot at the same time, unpleasant, but not painful. Her face seemed to pulsate, and it was hard to concentrate on anything else. Aware of what was happening outside of her trance, she focused on summoning more and more energy, until the rest of her body started to seem less relevant, distant, and the pain shooting through her hand was dimmed by the other sensations closer to her brain. It became bearable.

Everything stopped when she felt the blade move to her neck.

Of course she knew the Magai Killer’s M.O. She was obsessed with him, after all.

Three cuts left.

“You had this coming, you conceited whore. I’d tell you to learn some respect, but hey, guess what? Too late.”

And everything went black.

 

:o:O:o:

 

Bang, bang, bang.

Someone was going to die.

I groaned, turned around in bed and knocked the lampshade off to light the room. When I opened my eyes, the world was black and tingly. The pillow was at it again, getting my hair all staticky and sticking over my face. The covers hadn’t even gotten warm yet, but I wasn’t stupid enough to believe that they would get the chance. Whoever came to my door in the middle of the night wouldn’t just turn around and go away. Right? Or maybe…

“Amondire? Come on, man! It’s one of the Deadly Six, have mercy!” Wrong. The visitor shouted and kept knocking desperately. “My mom said you could help me.” Pause. “And you owe her one, so come on!”

The sweet, if evil, pillow tried to hold me back with the help of blankets, but with all of my willpower I dragged myself out of bed. Deadly Six, huh?

“Don’t you wanna know which one it is?”

I snorted at the visitor’s efforts to tempt me. Not bad, really. Got me a little bit curious. This didn’t sound like either the Song of Depths or Sneeze & Sleaze. The victim could shout entire sentences just fine.

Squinting at the light of the topaz lamps I uncovered in the living room, I walked over to the front door. Didn’t bother to change out of my pajama pants – this was not the hour for etiquette – but having tripped over a t-shirt, I took it as a sign, and put it on. Fine, a little decency I could do.

“Are you seriously that evil?” the guest continued.

The Deadly Six curses didn’t get their name for killing people.

They got it for making people want to kill themselves.

“Why did you come here of all places?” I unlocked the door to let the poor guy in. Unless he got the AR. Then no way in hell – he was staying out. “There are dozens of decursers in the city, and I bet not all of them are asleep. I was.” A fact that should not go unnoticed.

The young man on the other side was Joame, a son of my old academy classmate. “You and mom go way back, no?” he said. “I didn’t really want to go and bother some stranger, you know! That’d be rude.” He yawned.

I yawned back at him. “You think?”

This was really a text-book example of how the academy friendships worked. You met a ton of people, you graduated, you never spoke to them again. But they knew where you lived, and they could send their kids with itchy butts to you for help in the middle of the night.

Then again, the curse didn’t seem to be the Persistitch either. The PI was without doubt one of the worst of the Deadly Six. If you ever thought a mosquito bite could be frustrating, imagine being one. That was the closest analogy I could think of, and having fallen victim to a Persistitch prank in the academy once, I could say that being skinned alive seemed like a lovely alternative. Even though its name came from ‘persistent’ and ‘itch’, the sneaky presence of ‘stitch’ in it was very much on-point. A point well-proven by my attempt to scratch myself with a steak knife.

Joame gave me a pitiful look. “I’m getting dizzy.” Yawn. “And my jaw is going to fall off.” Yawn.

Ah, the Face Ripper it was.

Cursing people was outlawed in every civilized country, and punished with anything from a fine, through incarceration, to death – like any other crime. The Deadly Six were the exception to the rule though, because they somehow managed to become a part of our culture instead. In their defense, they caused no permanent harm to the victim.

Unless the victim killed themselves, that is.

In all honesty though, it was difficult to take these curses seriously. Whoever found a way to make them so easy to learn and cast was, in my book, the true genius of evil. Sure you could kill a guy or ten with your evil scheme… or, you could make thousands suffer while their own loved ones laughed at their misery.

“Come in.” I ushered Joame into my living room and reciprocated another yawn. Anyone saying that there had yet to be born a warlock capable of creating a contagious curse had apparently never met anyone afflicted with the Face Ripper.

“So I uh.” Yawn. “Heard that the Unliving is almost done, yeah?”

“I am not engaging in small talk right now. Sit down, let me lift it, and get out,” I said.

“So grumpy! Come on.” Yawn. “I’m bored.”

The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, and so, like his mother, Joame couldn’t bear to sit a few moments in silence with only his mind to entertain him. Tough luck. I gestured at the boy to get down on the couch and then sat opposite him on the glass coffee table. A cup rolled off and fell face-down on the carpet. Here’s to hoping it was empty. I observed it for a moment, but when no wet circle appeared around the edges, I nodded in gratitude and looked back, with a yawn, at my yawning patient. I put my fingers to Joame’s neck, felt for his tonsils, and pushed a little bit of energy in to get to know his channels.

“FR isn’t so bad,” he said. “Cheer up! I could’ve come here with the AR, you know?”

“You would not be sitting on my couch with the AR.”

“Yes I would. I have the best puppy eyes ever seen. You wouldn’t refuse a sad puppy, stinky or not, would you? Only someone without a soul could do that.” Joame laughed in between yawns.

AR officially stood for the Avid Reek, but everyone knew where the letters truly came from.

“I’m really curious about the Unliving, you know.” Joame was relentless in his chatter attempts. “What if the thing comes alive and attacks everyone, huh? How will you stop a monster without a soul?” He grinned broadly and tried to yawn again, but my energies were already working around the necessary muscles, and it came out as an awkward choke instead.

“Ah, yes, how would we ever handle the wimpy, unarmed body of a malnourished farmer?” I stood up and walked around the couch. I pushed Joame’s head down and pressed my thumb to the base of his neck.

“That hurts!”

I ignored him and kept on channeling the energy. “Mind requires soul to produce a thought or a feeling. A soulless body might only act on the most basic instincts. Like an insect,” I said. “You may sleep in peace, there will not be a rabid bloodthirsty abomination unleashed into the world.”

“No chance at all?”

“Nope.”

“Life just can’t ever get awesome, can it? No zombies, no monsters, no nothing. Just the boring.” Joame pouted. “I think I will take the bio course after I’m done with the basics.”

“To create a monster?”

“Obviously, duh. Someone has to. Hey, I don’t feel like yawning anymore.”

“Aha.” I let go of his neck, and walked over to the counter to pour myself some goodnight wine. I had to go over to Khel’s in the morning, and if I wasted any more time being awake, tomorrow was going to be hell.

“Thanks a ton. Gods, what a relief!” Joame laughed and rubbed his jaw. “How much do I owe you?”

“Sixty two.” I pointed to the table.

Joame rummaged for his wallet and dropped the payment into the fruit bowl. “This Ripper was kind of a payback from the class buddy I got under the other one few days ago.” He started tying his scarf back, wide grin plastered to his face. “It was totally worth it though. Should’ve seen his face when I jumped out and yelled ‘Anal Rumble Time!’ AR, get it? It’s so gonna be a thing, haha.”

“Surely.” I opened the door for him.

There were times when I kind of missed my student days in Cassavei’a. Then something like this happened, and all fondness was gone with the wind. I closed the door behind Joame, and downed my wine in one swallow.

Gods forbid he ever got the skills to create an actual monster.

 

~*~

Dawn.

One of the biggest lies I had ever heard in my life was told to me years ago by my very own mother. You’ll get used to it, she said with her energetic, charming voice as she dragged me – a boy back then – out of bed, and into the bright light of day. Bright was not a positive. Bright burnt my eyes while they craved the cozy embrace of darkness. Now, almost six decades later, each morning was still a pain.

Well, at least it was actually morning this time. Somewhat. And someone was at the door again.

But the vacancy in the All Caratana’s Council’s High Lodge would have to be filled soon, and with the Unliving on the horizon, I was a solid candidate. No more queues in stores. No more people expecting me to handle the irrelevant. No more Deadly Six “emergencies”.

“You know you were supposed to be at my place an hour ago?” Khel asked from the other side of the front door while I ran around trying to get myself together. “I’ve tried calling you four times.”

“Good.” I grabbed a hair band to tie my hair in a quick bun, all the while munching on a toothbrush and getting into my shoes. Being in a hurry (and making it work) was a real art.

This morning was the proof of no good deed going unpunished. As a sign of good will I had agreed to the meeting way before noon, and yet Khel still found it proper to whine and complain about a measly hour of delay.

“Now Izza is waiting for us at the Crunchy Sisters,” he said.

“Waiting my ass.” I opened the door to face a very discontented Khel, fixing something about his damson cloak. Fucking morning birds, all of them. “She is racing to eat all the blueberry muffins before the competition arrives,” I said.

Khel shook his head and left it without a comment. He took my healer’s insignia off the hook and dragged me down the stairway shutting the door behind us. “Move it, gods.” He shoved the sivami into my hands and motioned at me to follow.

And most importantly – no more doing Khel’s work for him, because he’s oh-so-busy with the official High Lodge business. That would be the day the smugness died.

With a sigh, I threw the chain over my head and let the wide red ribbon fall down my right shoulder; at the back it reached almost to my knee, in front it stopped mid-thigh, and I was sure one of these days it’d tangle between my legs and be the death of a tooth or two. Theoretically, going out without my sivami wasn’t illegal in Ruena, but it was surely frowned upon. A healer should be easy to spot and always ready to help. Even during the dreadful mornings.

The city of Ruena never agreed to share my opinion of the early hours, and filled with noise when the sky filled with sun. For me that normally meant getting up and shutting the window with an angry growl, but thanks to my friends’ insanity, today I became a part of the growl-worthy commotion as we trudged through the alleys. The lamps were already out, and the sidewalks were filling with colorful stands belonging to a variety of merchants who – despite the numerous attempts of the authorities – never stopped flooding the streets. A paper boy shouted some slogans, morning coal vendors pushed their loud carts down the street, and here and there hired screamers stood by the doors to shops and restaurants tempting passers-by with luscious promises that made me think of the cheap hookers in Vhana. Apparently it worked, because people took interest in the freshly opened exotic ‘Right Fraction Tea-House’, or disappeared behind the door to ‘Granny’s Breakfast Haven’.

Yes, the town was a bloody marvel, a diamond of Caratana, and one of the most colorful cities of the civilized world. It was also fucking cold. And loud. And early.

Thank gods my apartment was in the central district and close to that gods forsaken bakery. One thing worse than being awake in the morning, was being awake in the morning and moving. In about ten minutes worth of this torture, we reached the place only to find the sidewalk in the front completely destroyed, the door closed, and a group of men running around with buckets of stones.

“What the fuck,” Khel stated, and I gave him a reverse smile of agreement.

“That’s what I said.” Dwhyn, disgruntled, got up from a bench nearby and trotted over to us. “Apparently these white stones from the pavement brims are getting replaced all over the city. Them scumbags from the Council been doing some research on the subject, and concluded that they were too round.”

“Too round?” I wasn’t sure if I was hearing right.

“Yes.” Dwhyn nodded, crossed his arms, and put on an exaggerated frown. “The round shape caused them to be more magroscopic than sidewalk stones should be according to the new regulations introduced last month. And so they will be replaced with those that are of the tolerable level of roundness. You know, so they don’t suck in all the magic and then bam! Begin to release it when we least expect it.”

“Yeah. Cannot have those silent assassin stones just lying around, can we?” I rolled my eyes.

It was not even worth a real comment. The directive prepared by the All Caratana Council’s department of the Environmental Corruption Management was turning the city – and the entire Caratana continent in quick succession – upside down. Just few years ago someone who said that the round stones were too magroscopic, or that the air around three in the morning was dangerous to breathe (but only if you breathed a deep breath) would get laughed at. Then, somehow, the ‘paranoid freaks’ morphed into the ‘aware ones’, and their point of view sneaked into the regulations. Luckily, breathing at three still wasn’t forbidden. For now.

“How did we get here?” Khel shook his head in disbelief. “I swear, I remember this city being sane.”

“Magic.” I snickered at my wit. Neither of the other two appreciated it though – clearly they weren’t smart enough to get the joke. “Hey, where is Izza?”

“Home, most likely. I would be if I had to wait for an hour,” Khel replied, still disgruntled, absentmindedly playing with his amulet.

“Nay, she didn’t come yet,” Dwhyn said. “I’ve been sitting around here for a while, hoping for… gods know what really. I’m just seriously hungry.”

“Why did you not go somewhere else to eat?” I asked.

Dwhyn’s eyebrows knit together as if the suggestion was something abstract.

“She’s late for a lot of things, but never breakfast.” Khel looked at me with pity and handed me the amulet. I had to have been watching it like a vulture.

Once I closed it between my palms, a sigh of pleasure escaped me as the warmth spread to my freezing fingers. Yes, all right, I did not have a high tolerance to cold. Or tolerance to cold, period. But I came from the warm regions of the mainland’s Eastern Fraction, so I had a damned right not to. Chill-hate was in my blood with my tan skin a testament to that.

“By the way, there’s some commotion going on in the center,” Dwhyn said. “I don’t know, I heard the town criers on my way.”

“And you didn’t stop to listen?” Khel asked.

Dwhyn shrugged. “I was hungry.”

Khel spread his arms in his help-me-gods gesture.

“Come,” I said, before he decided to strangle our colleague. “Wonder what happened.”

We got through the alley, and reached the center square just in time to see the crier plop down on the ground and begin to chug some beverage. She was done.

“Ah, damn it,” Dwhyn said. “Back to the bakery stakeout it is. It’s gotta open soon.”

I grabbed him by the sleeve while Khel walked over to the girl. “What’s the news?”

“I been shouting for hour. I’m breaking now, go away and wait.”

It took one flick of Khel’s hand, and one glance at his High Lodge ring for a change in the girl’s attitude. She jumped up and bowed deep before him.

I narrowed my eyes. Soon.

“Yes, sir, pardon me sir!” she said. “There been a murder tonight, sir Iomeeze will be giving an official announcement in fifteen minutes.”

I looked at my watch, winced and twisted the hand-wheel. The antique heirloom piece of crap stopped working again, but it was easier to reset it than to take it to the watchmaker. “What time is it?”

“Who died?” Khel asked the girl.

“Nobody know yet, sir.”

Huh.

“A mage,” I said, and both Khel and Dwhyn nodded in agreement.

A mage meant ‘one of us’. There would be no mystery woven around a death of a common citizen or even a noble, but a murder of a member of the All Caratana Council was News with a capital N. Even though the Council with all of its departments was huge, it still consisted only of the qualified registered mages who managed all aspects of Caratanian life, and every last one of us, I was sure, felt pretty damn important. Acknowledging the importance of other members of the ACC fueled that feeling nicely.

Khel ruffled his hair and grunted in annoyance when his fingers got stuck in a tangle. The wind decided to play hairdresser, pushing the brown curls onto his eyes as he was fruitlessly trying to put them in order. “I want to see Izzalea,” he said. “Right about now.”

None of us dared to voice our concerns, but all were thinking the same thing – Izzalea would not have been late without a good reason, and being dead was generally an excellent one.

“Don’t be stupid,” Dwhyn said, “She’s probably just trying to get out of the clutches of another sweetheart who doesn’t get what a one-night stand means.” He laughed, but ended with an awkward cough.

“There are plenty of pricks in ACC who have enemies. Maybe one of them just got what was coming to him.” Khel skillfully avoided my glare. “Fifteen minutes, let’s go while we can still squeeze in.”

 

~*~

“The people swarm like locusts.” Dwhyn frowned at the crowd rushing around the plaza, looking for a good place to stand. A smell of fresh fried fish (with a hint of those not-so-fresh) filled the air, empowering the claustrophobic feeling of tightness.

Dwhyn, unbeknownst to himself, became a part of the locust rush, shoving elbows with other citizens, trying to see the center of the commotion. His height didn’t help his efforts at all – Dwhyn was muscular (for a mage, that is, different criteria), but over a head shorter than me. He kidded on occasion that he was on the verge of wearing high heels to remedy that, but Danneia and Esteris both refused to lend him their shoes for a trial. He jumped up, frustrated, and boosted himself up on some stranger’s shoulders. The grabbed man didn’t even seem to notice, focused on the ongoing events. Heaven for thieves. The temptation to test the theory out was great – in the name of science, of course – but on the other hand, it didn’t seem quite worth the several nights in jail it might earn me.

Maybe next time, when I was already in the HACC and comfortably above the law, hah.

“Out of the way, mongrel.” Someone pushed Dwhyn aside.

Dwhyn’s body tensed up, and before he even turned around, I could practically hear the blood rush to his face.

“Excuse me?” Dwhyn asked with a deceptive calm as he faced the other man.

“I said–”

“Oh, I heard what you said.” Dwhyn narrowed his eyes. “Very clearly. Now let me tell you something, scum, I am not a mongrel, and I demand an apology, right here and now.”

The offender rose his eyebrows and snorted. “And you expect me to believe that, beardy?”

“Excuse me,” someone from the crowd interrupted. “Can you calm the fuck down? Someone died tonight, show some respect.”

“Oh, shut up,” Dwhyn barked back. “You’re here just for the juicy news, like the rest of us vultures. You.” He pointed towards the man who just threw the worst of insults at him. “This mug right here”—Dwhyn drew a circle around his own face—“this is a pure blood old race with a solid dose of luck, and all of you baby-faced scum, can enjoy the view.” He brushed his bearded chin in a manner all too reminiscent of a rude gesture.

The old race liked to say that the scarcity of our facial and bodily hair – as everything else that our ancestors’ extreme exposure to magic had changed in our biology – was a result of evolution, improvement, and moving towards the ideal. But in reality it left many a man quite sour and dreaming to grow anything more than a meager goatee. I suspected those fantasies were what gave birth to all of those fictional long-bearded old wizards. Dwhyn, with his less than one-tenth cerro blood, which was too little to be considered a mongrel and enough to show in his looks was indeed pretty damn lucky.

“Name’s Dwhyn Parussi, by the way.” Dwhyn smiled a smug smile. “You know, the one from the, uh, about the most important ongoing research of the Council? Think they’d let a mongrel in on it?”

The man blinked, then shook his head. “No, sir, my mistake. Excuse me, I have to go.” Voice barely audible, he pushed through the crowd and away from us. The symbol at the back of his belt told me that he belonged to some obscure branch of the ACC, and after this incident, if Dwhyn didn’t feel forgiving, he would be stuck there for a long while.

Dwhyn shook his head and snorted once more. “Next he’d be telling me I had samedal scumblood in me too,” he said. “The audacity. And to think our ancestors died for the evolution that led to the creation of such idiots.”

“Does not surprise me,” I said. “The evolution happened pretty much because our ancestors were idiots.”

“Keep the blasphemies down.” Dwhyn laughed. “If some professor heard you, we’d be having another murder on the table today.”

Murder might’ve been an overstatement, but a broken nose was a strong possibility. The origins of the old race were the only example of evolution in humans known to the people of Surrea, and so our history had become nigh legendary. I could still recite whole passages from the book that every kid in every Caratanian school had to pretty much learn by heart at one point or another.

 While some people worshipped the gods, the old race preferred to worship themselves.

Suddenly the crowd got louder and, torn out of my musings, I looked towards the center. The plaza around the podium was built in a concave circle, allowing people standing further away from the middle to still see the speaker.

Ghemmun Iomeeze, the current self-proclaimed leader of the High Lodge of the ACC, was escorted onto the stand. In his hand he was clutching a crumpled piece of paper. He pushed his glasses up his nose and looked over the crowd, waiting for people to calm down. His short, dark-blond hair was neatly gelled back, but he looked tired. Next, onto the podium jumped Ghemmun’s little sidekick, Chattair. The boy climbed onto the guillotine (long out of order) and glared at the crowd.

Once Dwhyn stopped talking, the awful feeling that I’d had before was back. Something was amiss. A deep breath, one more, and as I almost managed to calm my nerves and anxiety, the words sounded that made my world stop.

“Izzalea Maa-Erdas was murdered last night.”

There should have been an uproar, but instead, a dead silence fell on the market place. Calm before the storm, and this particular storm began with but a breath, a whisper ever-so-slight, in which one word could be heard. A name. Magai. The buzz started again, broken only by a powerful shout that shut down the ominous murmur.

“Who killed her?”

“We don’t know yet. It happened this night.” Ghemmun scowled. He knew well what was coming; it wasn’t hard to foresee. People died in Ruena all the time, but the death of a powerful mage, one in the spotlight no less, would surely remind everyone of the last time it had happened. “The killer didn’t stick around to tell us, and there were no witnesses.” Ghemmun tried to kill the dispute before it began.

Exercise in futility.

“Oh yeah?” the shouter replied. “I will tell you who did it! The Magai Killer, that’s who!”

Magai, Magai, Magai. Waves of whispers rose in the crowd, then fell silent as the gossip-ritual was over.

“He did it before!” another voice chimed in loudly. “He killed an important, powerful family like they were nothing! Flies on his boot! Earless rats! Starved squirrels! Wounde–” A loud thump could be heard and the voice died down.

“Not a trace was left then, not a clue,” someone else said. “Who else would do such a thing and live to see the next day? Do you have any clues now?”

Ghemmun didn’t answer.

Another angry shout: “Do you?”

“There are always clues.”

There were no clues. I knew it, Ghemmun knew it, and sure as hell the crowd knew it too.

“How was she killed?” a thin, female voice could be heard near us, but it was too gentle to reach Ghemmun’s ears.

Dwhyn took it onto himself to fix that. “How was she killed?” He didn’t shout, he boomed. “Was her throat sliced?”

“There is nothing more that we can tell as of now,” Ghemmun said.

He had two options: tell the truth or lie. Had Izzalea met a different demise than the Magais had a few years back, there would be no harm in telling. If he lied and said that she was killed in a different manner, sooner or later his lie would be uncovered and his word rendered worthless.

To every intelligent person his evasion gave a precise answer to the question – Izzalea had been killed by the Magai Killer. Still, at least a few village idiots would be fooled and simply feel they were being disregarded. And those fellows were much better kept angry than scared.

 

~*~

It took a while for the guards to make people understand that the summit was over – the news was shared, the warnings were given, it was time to go home and lock the doors.

Khel was sitting on the threshold of a house, trying to kill any tardy citizens with a glare. He wanted to get his hands on Ghemmun, and he wanted it now, but until the crowd dispersed, Ghemmun wouldn’t talk. I was also starting to lose my patience; the people were persistent, trying to get to the leader and ask him more questions or scream their opinions, while Ghemmun just sat on the podium with a face of stone and waited until they were dealt with by the guards. On one hand, he didn’t wish to speak from a building balcony and hide afterwards – he said that it put needless distance between him and the people – but on the other, he had no qualms about ignoring everyone up close.

When the pissed-off guards grabbed the last two people and forcefully escorted them away, Khel stood up. “Gods, finally. Ghemmun!” he shouted.

Ghemmun acknowledged his presence with a nod, and Chattair left his side and rushed towards us.

“Sir Lorne.” Chattair bowed to Khel, then lightly nodded his head towards Dwhyn and me. No HACC, no respect. Chattair was a power-hungry piece of vermin, which was the exact reason Ghemmun liked him so much. “You may come to the HACC chambers and you will be told all the details.”

“Good,” Khel said and earned another deep bow from the thirteen year old.

I glowered.

As far as I knew, Ghemmun had bought Chattair from the House of N – a group of herbalists, poison makers, and medicine manufacturers – lawfully released him from slavery, then given him a job. He wanted an errand boy, and he didn’t want just any boy. He wanted one who was intelligent, ambitious, independent, and loyal. This one was perfect. Being a samedal, he could never get education, despite mental predispositions. In fact, he would be lucky if he was allowed to clean somebody’s house, as most people would not even let him in. So Ghemmun played it perfectly. For the chance to be treated like a human being, and to work under a member of HACC no less, Chattair would offer his new employer an undying loyalty. A smart samedal would never be tricked into thinking that someone would keep any promise given to him, which made Chattair pretty much incorruptible. With the number of enemies Ghemmun had, such a thing was priceless.

 

~*~

We found Ghemmun in one of the smaller chambers in the Council’s headquarters. He sat behind a desk, hands folded under his face, staring at a piece of paper. His eyebrows were knitted together and his breath erratic.

“Are you sure it was her?” Khel asked before we even passed the threshold.

I wanted to ask a dozen questions myself, but Ghemmun would ignore me as always, so I decided to let Khel do the talking. In a way, I had expected to hear Izzalea’s name in today’s announcement after she hadn’t shown up in the morning. The news didn’t surprise me as it should, yet it didn’t feel real at all.

Izzalea was dead.

As a healer I had dealt with death before. I had seen people die before my eyes, it hurt, but I didn’t know any of them. They were not an integral part of my life, my daily routine, a part of what made my reality. Izzalea was.

“Do you think me an imbecile?” Ghemmun said. “I wouldn’t dare say something like that if I wasn’t.” He kicked a chair standing on the other side of the desk.

Khel grabbed it and sat down. “We want to see the body. Where did she die?”

“At her house. Nobody has moved it yet, we’re waiting for the Judge to speak.”

“The Judge doesn’t give a fuck. What happened? Are the rumors of the Magai Killer true?”

Ghemmun nodded solemnly. “He’s back.”

“But why now? Why Izza?”

“How should I know? We know nothing about him. Ever since he slaughtered the Magais, we haven’t had a single clue,” Ghemmun said. “I’ve had detectives try to find something, anything, but it seems to have been a perfect crime.” He paused. “Are you okay, Khel? I know you were close to her.”

Khel shook his head. “I’ll be fine. But this is it. We will find him this time,” he said, and looked at me.

I just nodded in response.

“Amondire.” Ghemmun turned his head in my direction. “Why don’t you sit down? You’re shaking.”

I looked at my hands. He was right. While my mind was trying to wrap itself around the news, my body was reacting already. I plopped down on a small couch under the window, and leaned my head on the headrest. “I cannot believe it,” I said, more to myself than anyone else. “I woke up this morning thinking about fighting with her over the gods damned muffins.”

Izzalea was not an easy woman to like. Her antics irritated me to no end. She was loud, bossy, extremely over-confident, and she was constantly patronizing me. Many times I wished she’d just leave the group and go play with her boy toys. I was sick of her.

I thought I was sick of her.

None of that mattered now. I despised change, and when it hit me, I was at a loss. Because honestly, what could I think? Was I sad? Yes, I was, but it was this kind of a distant sorrow mixed with pure disbelief. Was I scared? Absolutely, there was fear. Not of the Magai Killer, no. The fact that I would never again hear Izza speak, laugh, piss me off, scared me way more.

Khel got up and walked over to me, scrutinizing me from above. “Why don’t you take a moment here and calm down,” he said. “I’ll go find Reeshart and give him the news.”

“I am sure Dwhyn is there already.”

Khel looked around. “I didn’t notice he didn’t come with us.”

“I did not either, until now. Gods. I have, ugh…” I shook my head and sighed.

Khel sat on the other end of the sofa and leaned on his arms. “We will find out what happened and why. And the Unliving…”

“Khel!” I turned towards him.

“Senight is getting close, we have to think about it.”

“Khel, she is dead. Izzalea is gone. You have been working with her for forty years! Feel some grief.” I looked at him with incredulity. Khel had no empathy sometimes.

“I will grieve for her, Amon, but I don’t have the luxury of ignoring the reality around me.” He gritted his teeth. “I’m the leader of this project, and it’s my responsibility to carry it through.”

“You can stop being a leader for five fucking minutes and be a friend to her.”

“Stop, just, stop, Amon. Grieve, cry, take a time out, do whatever you want. Just stop talking.”

I sighed and turned away from him. I bit my lower lip and started to absentmindedly skim the backs of the books on the shelf.

Suddenly Khel pressed his hand over my thigh. “Stop this. It’s driving me insane.”

“Fucking everything drives you insane.” I pushed his hand away, but controlled my leg to keep it from moving up and down in a tic.

I definitely needed time to calm down. To process. We both did, though maybe each in a different way.

 

~*~

Ghemmun left somewhere mid-way through our small argument, Khel sometime afterwards, and I was left in the chamber alone. Solitude actually helped me calm down, and soon I reached to the shelf and started browsing through random books. I couldn’t stay idle for long.

The door opened and Chattair entered.

“Sir Ghemmun asked me to check up on you.” He looked around the room. “So I’m checking up on you, yeah.”

The books were scattered all around, and if someone asked me, I wouldn’t be able to tell what was in a single one of them. I read verses, I read paragraphs, but nothing stuck. For hours, Izzalea had been the only thing on my mind, but I was starting to compose myself, my shock and sorrow being replaced with anger and the feeling of injustice.

“I am fine.” I put away a book treating of the veil that made communication with the isle of Aharra so difficult. That I could actually recall what I just read was a good sign. That I chose such a boring book to focus on, less so.

“Good,” Chattair said. “Can I clean up?”

“Go ahead.”

Every time I met this boy, my eyes wandered to his unevenly cut earlobes. There were a few things that made samedals distinguishable at a glance. First, the long, sharp fangs. Then, the claws; when trimmed they could look almost like regular nails, though unpleasantly disfigured, but they were much tougher and grew very fast. Finally, the longer, pointed ears, usually covered with a thin layer of soft hair at the back.

Biologically, samedals were human. More human than the old race, actually. Mentally, they were just as intelligent.

Most of the time it didn’t matter.

Chattair bent over and picked up the discarded books. He was pretty short for a thirteen year old, most likely a result of previous malnutrition, but now he was looking just fine.

I got up, picked some of the books up, and placed them on a higher shelf.

“When have you done it?” I asked.

Chattair stopped midway to look at me. “Done what?”

“Cut your ears.”

He wrinkled his nose and shook his head.

“Tell me,” I said softly.

“When sir Ghemmun took me in.” Chattair looked down and closed one of the discarded books with his foot. “I didn’t want him to be ashamed of me.”

“You will not go further, will you?”

“I tried, but I couldn’t. It hurt too much.” He winced and sucked his top lip in. “I didn’t even have the guts to ask someone to do it for me yet.”

In the process called the correcting, the distinguishing features of samedals were removed. Earlobes were cut off and fangs filed down. The second part was extremely painful and many of those subjected to the filing would have to bear the pain in their teeth for the rest of their lives, trying to cover the holes with whatever they could find to even be able to eat. Still, they considered it worth it for a chance of going unnoticed. Of course our dentists had ways to close the open bones, and some of the corporeal surgeons could even recreate the earlobe’s top to make it resemble the one of a normal human (hence making the corrected ear hard to recognize even under scrutiny), but few samedals could ever afford such services. Most of them attempted the correction themselves, much like Chattair had done.

In some places on the mainland, the correcting was a rite of passage, performed on a child when the permanent set of canines was fully developed. On the ten, eleven, twelve year olds. I felt queasy at the thought. Drugs numbing pain (that were not life-threatening poisons or addictive, destructive substances) were very expensive, and mages skilled in pain control, who would volunteer to help the samedals, could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. And they could still only assist them through the actual correcting, not the suffering that followed.

I wanted to tell Chattair not to do it, or that it didn’t matter, but I shut my mouth before I spoke. I was a pure blood old race, I had no right to spew such nonsense at this kid.

On Caratana, samedals were valued for one thing: Being ‘almost human’ made them excellent subjects for human experimentation and testing. They were the cheapest slaves, and even the mages who normally objected to the use of humans could be more amicable when it came to that race. In many regards, samedals were perceived as equivalent to rats: You don’t go ahead and torture one for the fun of it, but you can use it, if that’s what your research calls for. Its life is yours to command, and a cage is a fine place to keep it. Enslaved samedals were usually corrected by their owners. Magical research required a certain level of proximity, and often also a clarity of mind on the subject’s part. Filed or removed fangs wouldn’t bite as hard. Short claws wouldn’t draw blood – some keepers chose to just pull them out to avoid having to trim them every day.

I looked at my arm where two horizontal scars went through the middle of it. I still remembered the pain of ripping flesh as a set of such fangs tore through half of my forearm, and my thigh still bore marks of a claw scratch from that unfortunate encounter. It was a lesson learned for me.

“You’re a doctor.” Chattair’s eyes suddenly flared up. “Could you do it for me?”

I could feel this question coming and instantly shook my head no. “Only if Ghemmun tells me it is vital.”

Chattair nodded. He might not have regarded me as being as high an authority as members of the HACC, but he still knew better than to argue. His hand seemed to subconsciously find its way to his mouth and push at the fangs. “Your friend is waiting in the dining room, if you want to find him.” He turned away and picked up the last few books.

“Thank you, I will go. Take care, Chattair.”

“Mhm.”

 

~*~

Human soul was immortal and indestructible. It was a fact nobody could deny, even with the common misconception amongst the uneducated that curses could affect a soul in some way. Nothing could have been further from the truth – they only clung to the soul like dirt, and while they could wreck the body and mind, they would never damage the soul itself. Decursers like me were healers who specialized in cleaning a soul’s energy.

As we walked through the door leading to Izzalea’s house, I stopped at the threshold and took a deep breath. Before the mages discovered and confirmed the existence of souls, people lived in uncertainty of the afterlife. Now, despite our knowledge, death was no less terrifying. Nobody knew for sure what happened to the soul after death, though theories were plenty. From paradise to hell, from limbo to a bliss. It wasn’t life, we knew as much. It was an existence, some state of consciousness, probably, somewhere in a place where no living creature could be.

Death was not the end of everything, but it was an end nonetheless. For some of those whose souls had been bound together by the weavers, the afterlife was less terrifying, for they knew that they would never be alone. Izzalea, much like me, didn’t believe in weaving. To be tied to another person for eternity was a vision that scared her more than going away alone.

She lay on the ground, the round golden carpet surrounding her silhouette like a halo. Locks of long, red hair spread around her head, some of it stuck together with blood. It dried on her neck, and then darkened the collar of her blue dress. Flooding from the cuts on her throat and middle fingers, it streamed onto the carpet, sneaking morbid corridors betwixt shiny threads.

“Even in death, she’s damn beautiful,” said one of the five other men present in the room. They were walking around, taking notes, looking for clues, though their faces told me that none of them expected to find anything substantial.

Khel walked over to Izzalea’s body and stopped. His face was impassive, and I could just as well have been trying to read a stone. Once the investigation crew was done, the body would be taken to the morgue and frozen until the funeral, while the house would get locked until Izza’s son arrived in Ruena.

“How are you doing?” I asked, walking over to Khel. We hadn’t said a word to each other since we left the Council’s building.

He didn’t move or blink, standing like a statue over the body of our friend. Khel had known Izzalea for decades, and if it had been the same for me, I was sure I wouldn’t have been able to set a foot inside here right now. Having never seen anyone close to me dead, I couldn’t imagine what Khel was feeling. I wouldn’t rush him to respond.

It took a long moment before he spoke: “What happened here, Amon? What have those imbeciles missed this time?”

Izzalea’s head was turned to the side, but dried blood covered both sides of her neck evenly and edged all three of the cuts. There were bruises on her arms and by the left collarbone; she had to have struggled with her assailant. Both of her fingers were cut off under the middle phalange.

“She tried to defend herself.” I pointed to the marks on her body. “All the wounds were done before her heart stopped beating. The fingers, too.” I closed my eyes and bit at the skin between my thumb and index finger. I didn’t want to imagine Izza’s death, but my mind quickly built a detailed image of how it could’ve gone down.

 One of the investigators kneeled down by the body with the energy signature recognition tool, and began to move it alongside Izzalea’s skin. Three small stones set on the top of the device flashed rhythmically. It was more efficient in narrowing down the possible suspects than other techniques we had, but if the killer’s exact signature wasn’t in the data library, it would still just make the giant haystack a little bit smaller.

“Everything points to the Magai Killer, doesn’t it?” Khel asked.

“Looks like it,” I said, “but there is no such thing as a perfect crime.” I left him by the body, and walked over to a big table standing under the window. Multiple books were scattered on top of it. “Aharra, History of Human Experimentation, The Subjects, a few about the corruption.”

“She was into subjects,” Khel said. “I mean, the topic of subject. Corruption, the isle. It led her to come up with the first drafts for the Unliving.”

“The first drafts were done years ago. She was just reading these.”

Khel came over to the table, then leaned down and grabbed the thick tassel on a box standing underneath, and pulled it out. “The artifacts are all in here,” he said, as he lifted the lid. “One thing’s for sure – he didn’t mean to rob her.”

Writers of fiction loved to give artifacts elaborate meanings and functions in their tales, but in life they were a vanity of the rich. Madly expensive, insanely difficult to create – not to mention time consuming – more often than not they were completely useless trinkets. Mages didn’t like to admit it, but most of the artifacts’ ‘incredible’ features were random effects, some shaping of energy that someone stumbled upon that just happened to successfully stick to the particular matter in a given way. Even creating another Peneternal, a simple pen that would not run out of ink – a masterpiece compared to the useless junk most other artifacts were – was still a complete hit or miss endeavor. But somehow, the usability was not a major concern for the buyers.

“There are far better targets for robbery than an ACC mage. Of course she was not robbed,” I said. “The Magais weren’t robbed either.”

“It’s all worth a fucking fortune,” Khel said. “I had no idea she collected so much of this junk.”

“Come on. She shoved each and every one of these in our faces at one point or another.”

A roll of paper that would look like it was never rolled up before, but other than that behaved like any other piece of paper. A salt shaker that gathered humidity from the air so effectively that no salt could ever get out, rice or no rice. A bag of tea that twirled endlessly when put in hot water (though its taste was long gone). For these three alone, I could buy myself a bigger apartment.

The box lid fell down with a loud clash under Khel’s foot and I turned back to the books. “Maybe the artifact vendor would know what was going on with her lately,” I said.

“Maybe.” He took the book I was holding out of my hands. He closed it, then lifted the flap of the dust jacket. “It’s from Ghemmun.” He frowned.

A beep sounded behind us and the man kneeling over Izza stood up with a groan. “No energy signatures whatsoever. Whoever did this, they made bloody well sure that they left no identifiable trace.”

Great.

“Waste of fucking time,” Khel said. “Why did Ghemmun give her an antique book?” He shook the book in question. “This is hand written. That’s no casual gift.”

“Affair?” I suggested the obvious.

“And we didn’t know about it?”

“Something got her killed and we have no clue, so we obviously did not know everything. Affair makes sense.”

“With the HACC’s leader. He wasn’t even her type.”

I shrugged. “Power was.”

Khel pursed his lips and flipped through the pages. “This is the uncensored version of the old race’s origins. Izza always said that the Cassavei’a castrated a great story. He made a fair effort to get her this.”

I reached out to take the book back. “And he had to have known her enough to know she would appreciate it.”

“Mhm. We should talk to him.”

I looked up at Khel. “Do you think he could be the Magai Killer?”

“I don’t think he couldn’t.” Khel walked over to the man with the signature detector. Not asking for permission, he took the device from him and knelt beside Izzalea, then slowly started to check all of her channels once more. He wasn’t one to trust anyone else’s expertise.

I looked at the book in my hands. It always amused me how the historians and teachers worked to turn mistakes and ignorance into a story of greatness. Their version followed a few big tribes of cerroes that migrated to inhabit the isle of Wreath, far on the northern waters of the Sea of Fires. Historians called Wreath the cradle of all human controlled magic, and told a dramatic story of generations of people fighting to tame the energies and bend them to the human will. In the end the tribes succeeded, though many people paid for it with their lives. And so a new breed of humans came to existence that was the creation of magic rather than of the gods, humans with bodies that could last centuries, and blood that channeled the energies flawlessly.

The truth, however, was closer to a tragic story of hundreds of people from various areas of the world who, lured by gossips and legends, arrived and settled on the Wreath – a huge isle surrounded by magical storms and air that buzzed with mysterious energy, promising miracles to come. Yes, these people had tried to control the magic, and at some point they began to use it – that part was true.

Thinking that magic was an answer to everything, they started countless research projects and experiments. Forgotten were magic-less science and medicine. And so they began to channel the energy, push it into their bodies, fill their veins with magic, and surround their minds with it. Some did it to heal, some to protect, some in an effort to improve their bodies in general, making them stronger and healthier.

Yet despite all of their efforts at keeping healthy and strong, a mysterious disease appeared on the Wreath and began taking a terrible toll. The first instinct of some was to run, as the disease seemed to be not only contagious, but also present in the very air. It was when they realized that children just born into the world had also been afflicted, that the Wreathians decided to find a cure, lest their entire tribe should perish. There was no easy escape.

The tribe almost perished indeed, as people started dying younger and younger, but then one generation was born different – they could control and understand the energies in ways their parents could not imagine. That generation first realized the existence of corruption. They began to isolate the pregnant mothers and forbade, under the threat of death, any magical treatments on them. None of that generation saw their thirties, but when their children were born healthier, their words became law for decades to come. People stopped dying before their time.

When the Wreath threatened to shatter, its entire population set sail and began a journey to find a new land to live on. They arrived at the mainland, where they met other humans, and realized that they were no longer like them. The Wreathians lived longer, they were closer to magic. They were better. No longer wishing to be called the cerroes, they picked a name as grand as it was senseless in the face of their history – the old race.

I put the book away in Khel’s case; he’d like to confront Ghemmun about it for sure. I looked back to the scene, and for a while my eyes followed the rhythmically flickering lights of the signature detector in silence. The investigators had left the house; I could hear their chatter coming from outside, too quiet to recognize the words.

It was just the two of us left inside. Should I come over to Khel and make him talk? Did Khel need that? I didn’t know. Watching my friend’s hunched silhouette as he moved the useless device over Izzalea, I felt angry.

“We will find this fucker,” I said.

“I know,” Khel replied quietly, raising his eyes to my face. They were cold. He stood up and placed the device on a chair. “And I will make him regret it.”

 

:o:O:o:

 

Orilija sat under the wall, hugging a dirty pillow and watching Kyrema clean his gun and lock the silencer on.

“It’s simple,” he said, in that deep voice; so soothing, almost mesmerizing. “Fate doesn’t like to be fought, the future doesn’t like to be changed. One year, that’s all we’ve got before the Sinhail claims his first victim. Once lady Asantra arrives on the continent, I will have to make sure I can focus on keeping her safe. The more we do now, the better.”

Orilija nodded, then turned away to look out through the greenhouse’s window. In several minutes the owner would walk in and face the gun.

A merciful death, for the woman’s future was so much worse than a simple bullet to the head.

“If I want to challenge fate,” Kyrema said, sat on a box, and leaned on his spread legs, gun facing the ground, “I cannot gamble. I cannot allow myself to wait and see. Twenty-six souls, Orilija, are what my gift allows us to save. Do your part. I know it’s hard, but when you need a room for error, you cannot leave one for hope.”

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