NaNoWriMo ’16, Part 4

Warning: the following work has not been edited, formatted, or otherwise perfected for your reading experience. There are gaping holes in the narrative, characters are inconsistent from scene to scene, and the plot needs major revision. HOWEVER! If you are not frightened by these blood-curdling warnings, then I invite you to experience the alpha version of this novel. Feel free to comment on anything that seems wrong; criticism is the only proven way to improve a story!

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5

It was late. Normally, Karis du Migel would be preparing for bed around this hour, but tonight he sat at the desk in his room, sorting through papers and making notes. His father had dumped a great deal of work on him, saying that since he had caused most of the mess, he could help organize it. Karis thought this was a bit unfair, seeing as he had merely been caught up in someone else’s plot, but there was no point in arguing with Duke Maes. Actually, he was a little bored, and reading about the various noble houses jumping this way and that was actually a fairly amusing pastime. Pity so many of them were calling for his head.

He glanced up at the young man sitting on a chair on the other side of the room. Sevon had been brooding there ever since he had finished reporting on the day’s events, nearly an hour ago, and Karis had been content to let him. However, the aura of gloom Briar was emitting was beginning to bug him, so he cleared his throat to draw his friend’s attention.

Briar did not react, even when Karis cleared his throat even louder. With a slightly twitching smile, he reached down and opened a drawer built into his desk. Rummaging inside for a moment, he pulled out an object. Looking back at Briar, he hefted the object in his hand a couple of times, then smoothly threw it at the young Mage.

With a comical squeak, the rubber duck bounced off Briar’s forehead, and he half-jumped to his feet. His eyes widened and darted around the room, before alighting on the yellow toy on the floor in front of him. He stared at it in confusion for a moment, before looking over at Karis. “… A duck?”

Karis smiled brightly. “It was that, or this paperweight.” He hefted a heavy-looking, polished stone statue in one hand, and Briar paled slightly. “If the duck hadn’t worked, it would have been next too,” he said, his smile not fading even a little bit; but Briar noticed that his eyelid was twitching slightly, showing that he was really angry.

Briar leapt to his feet. “I’m sorry, sir–!” But before he could say anything else, there was a pathetic squeak, and he nearly fell over as he trod upon the rubber duck. He staggered, and caught himself on the chair he had been sitting on.

Briar looked down upon his rubber nemesis, and sighed. Suddenly he seemed extremely tired as he picked up the duck and slowly walked over to Karis. He set the duck down on the desk and bowed to Karis without meeting his eyes. “I’m sorry. Please pardon my incompetence.”

Karis had stopped smiling, and now was looking at his servant and friend with concern. “Briar, I will agree you made a mistake today, regarding the matter with Mary Lionstar. But it is very unusual to see you this upset.”

“My apologies, sir.” Briar continued to stare at the duck on the desk, not meeting his master’s eyes.

Karis shook his head. “It’s nothing you have to apologize for. If anything, I think it’s a very good sign — this is the most emotional I’ve seen you in years, after all. I’m just wondering what triggered it.”

“I–” Briar stopped, unable to think of an answer. Karis studied his friend’s difficult expression for a few moments, then told him, “Go ahead and pull up a chair.”

Briar finally looked up into Karis’ calm eyes. “Sir, I–”

Now, if you please, Mr. Sevon.”

“… Yes sir.” Briar finally obeyed and fetched the chair he had been sitting in back to the desk, and sat across from Karis. The duke’s son had put his paperweight back into its drawer, and he gave the duck a few satisfying squeaks before tossing it in as well. Even in the depths of his depression, Briar couldn’t help but give his master an amazed look. “Sir, why do you even have that in there?”

Karis completely ignored his question, and began, “Now, let’s go over everything you learned today again, just briefly. First of all, we have confirmed from Investigator Parrow and Sir Arata that Maledicta was suffering from poison when she was found, but survived. You confirmed that our Shadow-using fellow student, Mr. dan Rettica, did indeed enter her room, but did nothing else.”

“I can’t guarantee that, sir,” cautioned Briar. “If he had released his spells after entering, I wouldn’t necessarily notice, and the area was cleaned of other forms of evidence.”

“So it was,” agreed Karis, “but I have some idea of how our dear Maldu was able to evade the security wards, and I don’t think it would be as easy to cleanly release as you might think.”

Briar blinked. “Really, sir?”

“Mm, well, probably. I discussed the matter with mother, and she made a couple suggestions.”

“… I see.” Briar’s tone was suddenly very controlled. Karis looked at him carefully, and sighed when he saw Briar had closed up again. He decided to let it go, and continued his analysis.

“Well, enough about Maldu. We’ll set aside the matter of Maledicta lying in an active pool of Earth and Metal magic, as I can think of numerous poisons, or poison defenses, that could result from the interactions of those two. We just don’t know enough to speculate, and I doubt the Foursquare people are going to be too helpful. I’ve gotten ahold of a couple medical reports, but they only tell me that someone of Maledicta’s description was in a coma, and I still don’t know where my dear uncle, the king, has stashed her.”

“You are certain the king has her, sir?” asked Briar.

“Completely certain. Aside from the four Great Mages he assigned to protect her, and two medical specialists who’s loyalty he absolutely trusts, the only other person who knows her actual location is apparently Roger Bladefang. I thought he would tell her bodyguards as well, but apparently he hadn’t which is … interesting …” Karis trailed off in thought, frowning.

Briar’s face grew gloomy at the mention of Maledicta’s bodyguards, but when Karis didn’t continue his thought, he asked, “What is it, sir?”

“Hm? Oh, nothing, Briar. I just had a thought strike me, that’s all. Anyway, the six people the king assigned to Maledicta have completely disappeared, and the efforts of … various parties … to tail Bladefang have amounted to nothing. So I suppose we can presume Maledicta is as safe as she can be, all things considered.”

“I suppose, sir,” said Briar, although his thoughts had obviously wandered off somewhere.

“So let us talk about the substantive information you found. Namely, the modification of the window’s ward, and the missing plant. You suspected Illusion magic.”

“Yes, sir,” replied Briar, focusing once more. “As you know, it is difficult for me to detect Illusion magic even with Nature’s Bent, but something was attempting to deceive my senses, and the headache seemed familiar.”

Karis nodded. “Good to see father’s efforts training you haven’t gone to waste. Illusion magic is, by definition, very adept at concealing and manipulating information. One might call it the absolute opposite of Esoterica, which only shows truths, even if the truth isn’t what you want to see.”

“Very perceptive, sir,” said Briar with a repressed shudder.

“Yes, that’s the key, isn’t it, Mr. Sevon: perception. What we perceive, what we fail to see, will be the answer to this mystery. And you perceived … a plant. A plant which you saw had been sitting in her room for a significant period of time, but which was noticed by no one. That alone screams Illusion magic.”

Briar opened his mouth to speak, coughed suddenly, and started again. “Miss Firewheel, at least, claimed to have not seen it, and the Investigator’s questioning seemed to reaffirm her story. It seems unlikely that Miss Foursquare wouldn’t have noticed something placed on her desk for such a long period of time, even if it was rendered invisible.”

Karis did not miss the slight emphasis to Aya Firewheel’s name, but didn’t bring it up. Instead he said, “I know you’ve attended a couple lectures with me where Illusion magic was discussed, but do you recall them, Briar?”

Briar hesitated. “Not … entirely, sir. It is not a branch of magic the Academy actually teaches, and I couldn’t possibly use it anyway, so I may have not retained important details. Why do you ask?”

Karis steepled his hands, and stared off into space. “Illusion magic is best described as insidious, Briar. It is an invasive art, in many ways, and it requires a special mind to use it to it’s best advantage. An exceptional Illusion Mage, for example, could be standing in this very room, right behind you, breathing in your ear, and you’d never know it.”

“That’s very creepy, sir,” said Briar extremely calmly.

Karis laughed. “Well, in your case, you’d probably notice anyway, because of your sensitivity. I wouldn’t notice, anyway. And unless Maledicta was, herself, an Illusion Mage, someone familiar with her could craft an illusion spell that she would quite literally be unable to detect.”

“I see,” said Briar with a frown. “Could Illusion magic have covered up the physical evidence, as well?”

“Mm, probably,” said Karis while tapping his chin, “but the Illusion Mage would have to be nearby — probably in the room itself.”

“Which you just pointed out was possible,” said Briar sharply.

“Oh, indeed, it’s possible. Not especially likely, but possible. It would take quite the accomplished Illusion user to maintain a cover for himself while at the same time interfering with the spells of others.”

Briar looked grimly at his master. “Is there another alternative, sir? I’ve never heard of a magic which can remove signs of habitation entirely.”

“Neither have I, Mr. Sevon, neither have I,” said Karis slowly, “but let us remember that the local magical traces were also wiped. If someone was attempting to conceal how the physical evidence was removed, there are indeed several ways to do so. So the possibility of a Unique branch incantation are not small.”

The two sat in silence for a bit, while they considered the possibilities. Finally Karis sighed and shook his head. “As usual, we don’t have enough information, Mr. Sevon.”

“I apologize, sir.”

“Oh, I’m not blaming you,” said Karis, waving his hand in denial. “Everything we know so far is due to your efforts. It’s just hard to see a possibility to pursue, that’s all. I guess the best we can hope for is that Investigator Parrow will find another use for you, and put you to work; he would almost certainly trade information for assistance, as he did before. That was well done, by the way,” he added, seeming to cheer up a bit. “It’s sounds like the good Investigator has resigned himself to your presence, at least provisionally.”

“Ah … Thank you, sir,” said Briar, slightly surprised. Unlike Karis, though, his visage darkened slightly. Karis, seeing his face fall, sighed a bit.

“Well. You win some, you lose some,” he said philosophically. “Are you ready to talk to me about it, now?”

Briar remained silent.

“It was completely unnecessary to push the issue at that time, right? But instead, you tried to leverage the king’s authority on a foreign agent, and it ended up backfiring terribly. And now you’ve basically burned your bridges with the Foursquare Cartel, or at least its agents here in the Capital.”

Briar remained silent.

“Personally, I don’t think it’s that big of a problem.”

Briar looked up at that, eyes widening. “But sir! Won’t this hurt the investigation? What if Bladefang had important information–”

Karis interrupted him with wave. “I didn’t have too much expectation of learning much from good Captain Roger Bladefang, Briar. His disposition toward us “benighted psychopaths” here in the Kingdom is well known. May I say, it isn’t prejudice in his case either; I’ve had a look at his official dossier, and he has good damn reasons for hating nobles.”

Briar wrinkled his forehead. “His Information Bureau dossier? How in Goldenbeard’s name did you get ahold of that?”

Karis cracked a grin. “Borrowed it from Mordis. And before you ask, I don’t know why he had it either.”

Briar narrowed his eyes. “And when was this, exactly?”

“Oh, around the time Miss Foursquare was making her first bid for your hand, Mr. Sevon,” Karis responded airily.

Briar’s eyes flashed, and he pounded his fist on Karis’ desk, shocking Karis. “Damn it, Karis, stop saying that!”

The two young men stared at each other for a time, and Briar’s flushed face slowly began to pale. He slumped back in his chair, looking down from Karis’ face to his clenched fist, which he forced himself to relax. “… Sorry, sir.”

Karis looked calmly across at his friend, and said softly, “As I thought. This isn’t really about Lionstar, is it. And it isn’t about Bladefang, or the investigation.”

Briar slowly shook his head, and didn’t say anything.

“This is about the girl, Aya Firewheel, isn’t it.”

Silence. Karis gazed at Briar, trying to read his expression. It was a difficult job at the best of times, but long practice led Karis to believe that his friend was feeling quite sad, and possibly even guilty. “… Am I right?” he asked, eventually, knowing that he was.

For a long time, Briar didn’t answer, and Karis was content to wait. Finally he said, in a voice that was barely above a whisper, “… she was crying.”

Karis slowly nodded, mostly to himself, and asked coaxingly, “And you felt bad about it?” Briar remained silent, but nodded slightly. “Why is that, do you think?”

Briar was again silent for long moments, before he said, “I think … she reminded me … of myself, a little.”

Karis tilted his head, slightly, and said, “Honestly, from what you told me, she doesn’t seem like you at all. It sounded like she had strong emotional responses to just about everything, for one thing. A bit of an airhead, frankly.”

Briar nodded, then shook his head, looking frustrated. “I know. It doesn’t make any sense, it’s just … she seemed …”

“… Lonely?” asked Karis, gently. Briar blinked, and looked up at Karis.

“Do I seem lonely to you, sir?” he asked, not quite believing his friend.

Karis arched an eyebrow back at him. “At the moment, Briar? Very much so. And to be frank, I have mixed emotions about it.”

“Why is that?” asked Briar, frowning.

“On one hand, Briar, I don’t like seeing you unhappy. It’s not a pleasant feeling for me, either. On the other hand,” he shrugged, “this is the most emotional I’ve seen you in the past eight years. Ever since the experiment. It’s just me hoping, but … you might be starting to heal, finally.”

Briar’s expression twisted at the mention of the word “experiment,” and he half-glared at Karis. “That doesn’t have anything to do with her.”

“No, Briar, it has to do with you. As you well know. I’m honestly glad you feel a connection to Miss Firewheel, and I’m sorry things turned out this way between the two of you. But I have hopes, my friend, that you will someday be able to connect with other people again. That would make me very happy, you know.”

Briar shrugged. “As long as I can be next to you, sir, I don’t need to worry about getting along with other people.”

“You know, it doesn’t make me happy to hear another guy say that, no matter how cute he is,” said Karis wryly. When Briar’s expression didn’t change, he sighed and shook his head. “Well, I’m not going to push you, Mr. Sevon, at least on this matter. Things will be as they will be. Where I will push you, however, is out the door, so skedaddle.”

Briar blinked. “Skedaddle, sir?”

“You have an appointment to make, I believe,” returned Karis. “If you leave now, you should reach your rendezvous with your guide just in time. It’s gotten quite late, you know.”

“Oh! Yes, you’re right,” said Briar, suddenly embarrassed. He had gotten too worked up talking about Aya, and had completely lost track of the time. Oddly, he felt better, now that he had told Karis how he felt, and he wondered if that hadn’t been Karis’ intention all along.

“Well, off with you, then,” said Karis cheerfully, as if the heavy atmosphere from before had never happened. “The Horse’s Head Tavern, wasn’t it? I heard they have decent drinks, if you happen to get there early.”

Briar stopped for a moment, and gave Karis a flat look. “Now how did you know where I was going? According to your father the duke, the arrangements are supposed to be a complete secret.”

Karis shook his head and grinned. “Why do you keep asking questions like that, Briar, my friend? I’ve told you a thousand times — I just pay attention, that’s all.”

“Nobody has that much attention,” denied Briar firmly, eyeing his erstwhile master suspiciously. Karis didn’t respond with anything other than a happy chuckle, and Briar finally decided to drop the matter — again — and headed for the door.

He had his hand on the latch, when he heard Karis call him from behind. He turned to look back, to see Karis looking at him with a difficult expression on his face. “Briar … Are you still not able to forgive mother?”

The silence stretched out between the two of them. Finally Briar said, in a quiet but firm voice, “Good night, sir.”

Karis watched him go, and after the door had shut behind him, sighed bitterly. “… Damn.”

As Briar walked down the hallway toward the entrance to the estate, a soft voice called him from the side. He looked around, and then bowed to the young girl approaching him. “Miss Aris. Shouldn’t you be in bed?”

Aris looked at Briar solemnly, and said, “I was worried about you.”

Briar straightened up slightly, and told the young lady, “There is no need to worry, Miss. I’m just fine. There are just some things I need to take care of tonight.” Suddenly recalling the note he had received from her yesterday evening, he said “I can assure you that I am not pushing myself.”

“Really?” returned Aris. “You look really bad, though.” Suddenly realizing what she had said was extremely rude, she blushed and started waving her hands. “No, I– I didn’t mean it that way, I just– um, I was only–” She broke off, frustrated.

To his own surprise, Briar found that he felt some sympathy for the young girl. He knelt down a little, to bring his eyes down to her level, and he gave her a small smile. “I understand, Miss. I’m not upset. But you should get to bed, Miss Aris, it is quite late.”

Aris blushed even deeper, and took a deep breath. She turned around suddenly, and grabbed something from the shadows where she had been lurking. Whirling back to Briar, she thrust out two leather sheaths to the older man. “Please … please take these.”

With a small frown, Briar took one of the sheaths, and pulled out the object within. It was a short, but heavy, metal stick, and one that Briar recognized. With a flick of his wrist, the stick suddenly extended to a length of about 30 inches. The object was a battle baton, a weapon Sir Arata had trained him to use. But this baton was much more expensive than the practice weapons Briar had used in the past; he could not recognize the metal used to make it, although it had a dark, smooth luster that almost seemed familiar.

“What is this?” he asked Aris curiously.

“These are from father’s private armory. I asked him if I could give you a weapon to use, and he agreed to let you have these two. For now,” she added quickly. “He said he wants them back in good condition.”

“I see. I don’t recognize the metal, though.”

“Really?” said Aris, avoiding his eyes. “Don’t worry about it, it’s not important.”

Briar eyed her suspiciously. “Miss Aris?”

She continued to avoid his eyes, her gaze darting around the area.

Keeping one eye on Aris, he raised a bit of magic from his aura and tried to use it to investigate the baton in his hand. To his surprise, the magic power immediately dispersed and disappeared. Narrowing his eyes, he tried again, to the same effect. Whatever it was, it was not a standard magical metal, meant to channel raw magic to enhance its own power. This was almost the opposite, as the magic seemed to vanish upon contact with the weapon. Almost like it was being absorbed … Suddenly, Briar’s eyes widened. “Is this … Darksilver?”

Aris dropped her eyes to her feet and nodded. Briar stared at her, and then at the weapon in his hand, in disbelief. The secret of forging Darksilver had been lost during the Great Disaster, centuries ago. The weapon in his hand could only be an artifact from the era of the Mage Tyrants, and it was literally as valuable as a small city. His eyes flew to the other sheath, still in her hand. “That one too?”

“Yes,” replied Aris quietly. She suddenly looked up at Briar, worry in her eyes. “You should strap them behind your back, they won’t be too noticeable there. It’s probably not a good idea to wear them openly …”

“Miss Aris, did your father really allow you to take these out?” Briar said, with a slight scolding tone in his voice. Aris nodded quickly.

“Yes, he absolutely said it was fine, because–” Aris cut herself off, then started again. “It’s alright, Briar, so please take them.”

Briar shook his head, and placing the weapon back in its sheath, he tried to return it to Aris. “I cannot accept this, Miss Aris. It is far too valuable for a servant like me–”

Aris glared at Briar and shoved both sheaths into his hands, cutting him off. “You must, Briar. You’re going to need them,” she said firmly, her fierce gaze surprising Briar with its insistent pressure. He slowly closed his fingers around the anti-magic artifact weapons, and Aris sighed and smiled at him in relief. “Thank you, Briar.”

He looked back at her with a troubled expression. “Why … do you think I’m going to need these, Miss Aris? I admit that I might be in some danger tonight, but I don’t plan to fight at all.”

“There are people who don’t care about your plans, Briar,” she said softly. “A lot of people are afraid that you will interfere with their plans, or join a side that isn’t theirs. Father has protected you so far, but … you’re starting to work on your own, outside, and our House is too busy protecting itself to spend a lot protecting you. These Darksilver weapons are all I can give you, that might help keep you safe.”

“… Miss Aris. I truly appreciate your concern,” said Briar gently. “But I cannot possibly repay the duke and the House if they become damaged or lost.”

“You won’t lose them,” Aris said with confidence. “They were designed to be hard to lose.”

“How do you know that?” asked Briar, who was slightly taken aback by her confidence.

Aris opened and closed her mouth a couple times, and then thought for a moment. Finally she said, “I just … pay attention?”

Briar blinked a couple times, then surprised himself by bursting out laughing. “You are as bad as your elder brother, you know,” he scolded fondly. Shaking his head, he strapped the sheathes to his back, underneath his jacket, and made sure he could draw both of them out easily. “Thank you, Miss Aris,” he said formally. “I’ll be sure to return them in one piece. Now if you will excuse me, I have to hurry to an appointment.”

Aris nodded, a big smile on her face. “Yes! Please take care, Mr. Sevon.” Briar nodded with a smile, and turned and walked away. As she watched him go, she said to herself, under her breath, “Thank goodness. It worked, like he said it would.

“Thank you, elder brother Karis.”


At the Horse’s Head Tavern, in a particularly rough part of the 2nd Residential District, a number of rough-looking individuals were sitting around the tables, nursing their drinks. A few were regulars, a few were meeting other people, and a few were just there to play a few semi-legal games of chance. Whenever someone came through the door, more than a few would glance up, looking for opportunity or trouble. And so, quite a few noted the young man who had just entered off the street.

They couldn’t see his face, as he wore a dark hooded cloak pulled low over his head, but the part they could see, mostly the chin, was young and unblemished. His clothes were too expensive, and even the cloak, while rough, was a cut above the standards for this part of the Capital. Immediately, certain dark-natured rogues among the clientele began to plot a little shakedown for the little rich boy; a good lesson, to remind their so-called betters to stick to their own part of the city.

The more perceptive among them, however, noted his confident bearing and obvious lack of fear, and started to suspect that this wasn’t some random merchant’s son who wandered in to go slumming. Unfortunately, none of the men here tonight had strong magic auras themselves, and so they were unable to judge the youth’s magical strength. But the more experienced among them could tell that he wasn’t weak, just by instinct.

The young man strode confidently to the bar, where the owner Old Pakal stood polishing the counter with a dirty rag. Old Pakal gave the young man a glance, but didn’t ask him to remove his hood. It was that kind of bar. “What are you looking for, junior?” he asked, in a bored tone of voice.

The young man responded in a pleasant yet cold tenor voice, “I’m looking for Jakertak. I heard he was here.”

“Are you,” said Old Pakal, disinterestedly. “And why would that be, I wonder.”

“He owes someone money,” said the young man, even more coldly than before. Immediately the resident footpads began reevaluating their chances. If this boy was a debt collector, he was obviously stronger than he looked.

Old Pakal snorted. “He owes everyone money. So what?”

“So, tell me where he is.” The young man pulled something out of his pocket, and slapped it down on the counter in front of Old Pakal, who snapped it up apparently without looking at it. “For your trouble.”

Old Pakal said, “Upstairs. Third room on the right. If he’s got anything left by the time you’re done with him, tell him to pay his tab.”

The young man nodded and headed for the stairs leading to the upper level of the building. Behind him, two men gave each other a glance and stood up. They headed to the counter to pay Old Pakal for their drinks, and then followed the young man up the stairs. No one in the bar paid any attention to them; if they wanted to play with fire, that was their own business.

Upstairs, the young man walked down a grungy hallway, ignoring the ambience, and stopped outside the third room on the right. Testing the handle, he found the door was locked, and raised an unseen eyebrow. He muttered a short incantation, and a wisp of water began to dance above his finger. He pointed that finger at the lock, and the water immediately invaded it. With a muted click the lock was released, and the hooded young man entered the room.

A man was sleeping on a low cot on the far side of the room, underneath a barred window. He was slovenly and unshaven, and the stench of alcohol could be smelt from across the room. The hooded figure shook his head and shut the door behind him. Stepping forward, he said, “Mr. Jakertak.”

The sleeping drunk didn’t even stir. Narrowing his eyes, the hooded young man spoke a few words of incantation, and a cruel wind suddenly swirled closely around him. He whispered Jakertak’s name, but his whisper was delivered to the man as though he had just shouted in his ear through a bullhorn. With a strangled cry, the drunk leapt up from his bed and nearly tumbled to the floor. “Who the hell are you!? Tyrant’s piss, what are you doing in my room!?”

The young man watched the former sleeper try to scrabble under his bed for a weapon, and spoke in an ice-cold voice, “A debt incurred must be a debt repaid.”

Jakertak froze. Slowly the panic drained out of him, leaving a sort of resigned tension behind. “Shit. Goldy’s balls, but I’m tired of this shit.”

He sat on the edge of his bed, scratching the back of his neck. “So you’re here to see the Gatebreakers, huh? Wonder why they want a kid … Nah, I know, none of my business,” he said, without waiting for a response from the young man. “So, where are your facilitators?”

The hooded figure tilted his head slightly. “The directions I was given indicated that you would guide me to where the First Blade was waiting. It did not say anything about facilitators.”

“The First Blade himself, huh? Poor bastard,” Jakertak mused, shaking his head. “And I’m ‘guiding’ you, is it? What a nice way to put it,” he sneered. “Seriously, I can’t open the damn door on my own, so if they didn’t give you any facilitators–”

“We are here,” said a cold voice from behind the hooded figure. The young man whirled around and put his hand behind his back; he had been neglectful, and hadn’t been looking out for other people. Standing inside the room were the two men who had been sitting downstairs, and neither Jakertak nor the hooded young man had seen them enter.

“Shit. Goddamn, I hate you bastards,” breathed Jakertak, staring at the two men with loathing. “Two more years. Two more years of this shit, and I swear to Goldy and God himself, I’m going to head into the Southern Reaches and just keep going.”

“None of our business. Prepare yourself,” said the nondescript man on the left. The one on the right said to the young man, “Once the door is open, move directly through, and do not hesitate. You will be guided on the other side.”

The hooded young man narrowed his unseen eyes. “Space magic?” he muttered to himself.

Surprisingly he got an answer. “Yes. And no. If you are brave, you can ask the First Blade himself.”

“Right, right, enough chattering, I want to get this over with. Goddamn it.” Jakertak hauled himself to his feet. Oddly, he didn’t seem drunk anymore, and he moved with a certain grace. The young man noted that, underneath his grimy appearance, he was actually quite strong. There was something strange about his magical aura, as well …

Jakertak took a position in the center of the room. The two nondescript men took a position on either side of him, and raised their hands towards him. They began chanting in unison, in a strange, atonal language that the hooded man had never encountered before. He felt his skin crawl just listening to it.

Jakertak grunted, as though he had just been punched in the stomach. He shut his eyes, wincing in pain, and when he opened them again, they were pure black; dark holes that seemed to swallow everything. He studied the empty space in front of him, as though he were looking for something. Then, he suddenly clenched his fist and punched midair, causing the space in front of his fist to warp. He convulsively opened his hand, and then clamped down, as if grasping a handle. With a visible effort, he began rotating his wrist.

Once his wrist had twisted about ninety degrees, the space in front of him seemed to distort even more, and suddenly a line was drawn in the air. It quickly widened, causing the hooded man to feel like the room itself was vibrating. And yet, it was eerily silent; in fact, he couldn’t even hear himself breathe anymore.

Suddenly one of the nondescript men spoke, and the sheer banality of his voice only added to the horror of the moment. “Now. Enter the door, and do not hesitate.”

Without a word, the hooded young man strode through the doorway, as though he were simply walking into his own home. Immediately he disappeared into the darkness, which promptly closed behind him. Jakertak quickly rotated his wrist opposite of how he had before, and released whatever invisible lever he had grasped. He collapsed to his knees, panting heavily, sweat beading on his forehead. The two facilitators lowered their hands and nodded to each other. One of them walked over to Jakertak and pulled out a coin purse. Jakertak reached out an exhausted hand and took the money. “Thanks.”

The nondescript man shrugged, and said, “A debt is a debt, and a deal is a deal. Oh, and Old Pakal said to pay your bar tab.”

Jakertak sneered. “That damn cheapskate. If he weren’t my uncle I’d break his arms.”

The first thing Briar Sevon noticed was the smell of blood.

He had fallen to his knees after passing through the door Jakertak and the two “facilitators” had opened, overcome by nausea. It had taken him long minutes to control his urge to throw up, a task not aided by the cloying, metallic smell in the air. But eventually, the horrible feeling in his stomach faded, and he slowly got to his feet, staring around him.

He was standing in a large, dark gallery, silent and cold. Despite the lack of obvious light sources, Briar could see his surroundings quite clearly. The walls were carved with strange, unknown patterns, from ceiling to floor; the ceiling itself was covered in paintings of ominous figures doing unknowable acts to indescribable targets. The decor made Briar shudder involuntarily; this place was not made by human hands.

A tapping sound broke the silence, and Briar turned his head to find the source. When he saw the figure approaching him, his eyes widened, and his hands whipped out the Darksilver batons from behind his back.

The figure wore blood-red robes, decorated with elaborate gold embroidery. But the elegant robes belied the being wearing them; although the figure had its hands tucked into its sleeves, the robes did not fall far enough to cover its feet, and what was revealed were the bones of a skeleton, tapping on the black and white tiles covering the floor. And where the head should have been, was the skull of a beast with large spiraling horns. Deep within its empty sockets, a sickly green light shone forth.

Briar braced himself to face its attack, but the skeletal figure stopped a few meters away from him, and spoke. “YoU aRe hErE aT lAsT, mR SeVoN.” Its voice was cracked and broken, a thing felt more than heard. “ThE FiRsT BlAdE iS eXpEcTiNg yOu. CoMe tHiS wAy.” It turned and began walking away, back the way it had came. Warily, Briar followed, not sheathing his weapons.

The skeletal figure led Briar through a large archway, and onto a wide platform. Here it paused for a moment, and turned to look back at Briar. The young man’s attention had been stolen away from his ominous guide by the sight in front of him, and he took a few steps forward as if compelled.

What Briar saw was a city, a city so huge that even from his vantage point high above it, he could not see to it’s edges. The entirety of the Capital could have been placed inside this great city, and it would have barely shown up at all. But where the Capital was a hodgepodge of differing styles and designs, whoever had built this city had done so with a single, unified style, although the style seemed quite alien to Briar. Nary a straight line or edge to be seen, everything was smooth, curved, and twisted; even the many towers spiraled madly into the sky. The sky above was a uniform gray, with no sun to be seen, and yet the entire city was lit by an eldritch glow, which almost seemed to come from the buildings themselves.

Briar realized that he, and his skeletal guide, stood at the top of one of those towers, on a platform with no railing. He broke out into a cold sweat, realizing how far he would fall if he made one misstep. “What is … this … place …” he whispered, totally and completely cowed.

The skeletal figure did not reply, but repeated, “CoMe tHiS wAy.” Briar shuddered, and forced himself to follow. The skeletal figure was still frightening, but it seemed positively mundane compared to the sight of the city beneath him. The figure led him down an inclined ramp to another doorway, smaller than the archway above, and Briar heaved a sigh of relief as the view of the alien city was blocked.

They had entered a small room, although fifteen minutes before Briar might have classified it as a large room; his sense of scale had taken a few blows since he stepped through Jakertak’s doorway. His guide reached out a skeletal hand to a depression by the doorway, and Briar couldn’t help but notice that the hand had seven fingers instead of five. He shuddered as the door slid shut, diming the eldritch light from outside.

A pattern of light appeared on the closed door, forming characters that Briar didn’t recognize. The skeletal figure tapped a few symbols quickly, and the pattern of light shuddered and changed form. The bony fingers reached out and tapped the depression by the door once more, causing it to open again. To Briar’s surprise, what was revealed was not the ramp on the side of the tower, but a street, down in the city itself. He had felt no movement, and yet they had crossed a great distance in a mere instant, and he had not sensed the use of magic at all.

In fact, he realized, except for his own aura, he felt no magic here at all. Even his guide, which was obviously some sort of undead, didn’t feel magical. Using an internal incantation, he heightened his sensitivity, and sent his senses outward, but to no avail. This world felt … dead.

It looked dead, too; besides himself and his guide, he saw no movements on the streets. Not one building looked occupied, and no people ever appeared in the scarce windows; whatever had lived here, whether it had been humans or otherwise, nothing lived here now.

The streets were curved, just like the buildings, and so as Briar followed his guide he realized something different was eventually appearing in front of them. The entire city had heretofore been made of a smooth, pale blue-gray stone, but the building ahead of them was made of black stone, rough with harsh edges everywhere. Unlike the buildings around it, which appeared to have been sculpted and smoothed on a potter’s wheel, this dark palace seems to have been thrust up from beneath the earth. As they grew closer, Briar began to feel something different in the air, a kind of low vibration, and he realized the light around the palace was being distorted slightly, as though a huge barrier surrounded it. As the minutes past, and they approached closer and closer to the arch that served as a gate for the edifice, Briar began to hear a susurrus in the air, as though a huge being was breathing gently.

Finally the two reached the arch, and the skeletal guide halted. Briar could sense the magic in the air, now; it was all tied up in the barrier covering the black palace. It gave him hope that, past this archway, there might be humans like himself. He clung to this hope, and tried to ignore everything around him. Amazingly, it caused him even worse feelings than Esoterica.

“Well now, what have we here,” whispered a voice. It echoed around Briar, but he couldn’t locate the speaker. “Another recruit for our beloved little community, perhaps? Introduce me, A’eron.”

“ThIs iS BrIaR SeVoN, a gUeSt fOr tHe FiRsT BlAdE,” answered the skeletal guide in it’s broken voice.

“My, my, a guest, how rare. Welcome to the Darkness Retreat, dear guest, a small enclave set within this Inverse Cyan,” the voice whispered. Briar stopped trying to find the speaker, and simply nodded. “Well, there is no need for you to stand out there in the street. Come in, dear guest.”

“… There appears to be a barrier,” said Briar warily. For all its relative familiarity, he still didn’t want to test whether it was safe with his own body.

“Oh, I assure you, it poses you no danger. A’eron might be in a bit of danger, though,” hissed the voice in an amused fashion. Briar looked over at the skeletal guide, which nodded its skull.

“FrOm hErE oN, yOu mUsT pRoCeEd oN yOuR oWn; mY wOrK iS dOnE. If yOu rEtUrN tO InVeRsE CyAn iN tHe fUtUrE, pErHaPs wE wIlL mEeT aGaIn.” The skeletal figure bowed, turned away from Briar, and began to walk. After only three steps, its figure seemed to fade and scatter, and the sound of its skeletal feet stopped abruptly. Briar couldn’t repress a shudder, unable to imagine what his guide might have actually been; once it disappeared, it was like it had never existed at all.

“Now, now,” said the unseen voice, apparently understanding Briar’s uneasiness, “A’eron is not a bad sort. He keeps his promises, even after all these years. The last of his kind, you know.”

“Really,” said Briar weakly, feeling exhausted. None of this was what he expected, when he left to find the Gatebreaker Guild.

“Ah, poor lost soul. Come inside this Darkness Retreat, and rest yourself. I shall guarantee your safety.”

When Briar still seemed inclined to hesitate, the disembodied voice added, “While nothing inside this false city, living or dead, will offer you harm, Inverse Cyan itself is dangerous to the souls of mortal humans, even one as strong as yours. Come inside, Briar Sevon, and be relieved of that burden.”

Briar pursed his lips. “Who … are you, exactly? Why can’t I see you.”

“Oh, but you do, dear guest. I am right in front of you,” whispered the voice with a hissing laugh. “I am the Darkness Retreat, and the Darkness Retreat is me. It is I, who protected the wayward children from the monsters on both sides of the Great Divide,” the voice proclaimed in a prideful whisper, “and my work has not changed in the many centuries. Now come in, dear guest; unless I miss my guess, you are at your very limit now.”

Briar swallowed, and nodded. He still wasn’t sure if he trusted the voice, but it was right; he wouldn’t be able to stand the pressure of the empty city much longer. Gathering the last shreds of his courage, he stepped into the archway.

Within the barrier of the Darkness Retreat, things were different. The light was mellower, and more yellow than blue, almost like sunlight. Instead of blue stone pavement, the floor was rough, black dirt, and Briar had to resist the urge to crouch and feel it in his hands. Most of all, the absolute sense of pressure was gone, and he no longer felt like he was going to be crushed beneath the weight of the alien city. He took a deep breath; even the air felt fresher inside the Retreat.

“There now, isn’t that better,” said the whispering voice. It seemed closer now, and clearer, although it was still quiet. “I’ve already informed the First Blade that you have arrived, but there is no rush. Come inside, and sit for a while.”

Briar nodded almost unconsciously, then looked at the massive, jagged black edifice in front of him. His gaze travelled from one side to the other, then back. Eventually he said, “So, how do I get inside?”

“Hm? Oh! Yes, a door, a door … Where did I put that, now … I’m sorry, dear guest, this will just be a moment.”

Briar waited, and a few minutes ticked slowly by. He crouched down, then sat on the dirt ground. It was surprisingly comfortable, with a sort of springiness to it. Briar was trying to decide if he dared risk trying to meditate, and fix his disturbed aura a little, when the voice of the Darkness Retreat suddenly returned.

“My deepest apologies, dear guest. There is usually no reason for those I shelter to enter Inverse Cyan proper, and so I hid the doorways a bit subtly. I’ve got it now, so, please.” There was a grinding sound, and the solid rock face nearest to Briar cracked and crumbled to dust, leaving a brightly lit opening in the black palace’s wall. “Enter and be welcome, Briar Sevon.”

Briar stood back up, brushing off his pants, and walked cautiously through the opening into a beautiful grand hall. It was formed of the same black rock as the outside of the Retreat, but it had been smoothed, and decorated with painted carvings of forests, lakes, mountains and rivers. A large chandelier lit the hall, one fitted with magical glowing crystals that would not be out of place in the mansion of a noble. The floor of the wide room was covered in beautifully woven carpets, with soothing geometric designs. It was a stark contrast from the horror that was the alien cityscape outside, and Briar felt relief at being in a place where humans could actually live.

Around the edges of the hall, a number of comfortable-looking chairs and benches had been arranged, and Briar took the opportunity to sit down on the nearest bench. He leaned back with his eyes closed, and let the sense of normality calm the jagged spikes in his aura. As he rested his eyes, the voice of the Darkness Retreat spoke to him once more. “Tell me, do you like the carvings? Our dear tenants bring in the furnishings, but I provide the spaces themselves, and a certain amount of decoration.”

Briar opened his eyes. “They’re very nice,” he admitted to the proud-sounding voice. “But where have you seen nature before? Was this city not always here?”

“Well, I don’t intend to explain the entire history of Inverse Cyan at the moment — wouldn’t want to step on our dear First Blade’s toes, after all. But I am a relatively recent arrival in this city. Before, I have been several places which you might consider ‘natural,’ but I admit, you might find them of a rather strange nature at that.” This seemed to be a joke, because the voice chuckled a bit. Briar didn’t really understand, but he smiled a little anyway. For some reason, the voice’s enthusiasm was catching. “Anyways, as for the scenes I have presented in this hall, I have based them on image crystals that were brought to me by our dear Gatebreakers. It’s a bit of a hobby, really, recreating scenes that our people have visited. I find it fun.”

“It’s very impressive,” agreed Briar, humoring the disembodied voice slightly. The carvings were quite good, though. “Are there other … humans, living here then?”

“Oh, of course. All the true Gatebreakers live here, most of the time. Honestly, there aren’t as many of them as I’d like; not everyone has the strength of mind to live inside Inverse Cyan, even if I’m protecting everyone from the worst of it.”

“Do you …” started Briar, before hesitating.

“Go ahead, ask your question,” encouraged the voice in a friendly tone.

“Well, isn’t it difficult for you? To … well, to be here? If you really are this building, isn’t it hard to be here among such …” Briar trailed off, unable to come up with a word for his feelings about the alien city outside.

“Oh, I really am the Darkness Retreat, although calling me a ‘building’ rather misses the point, I should say.” The voice seemed amused rather than offended, to Briar’s slightly confused relief. It continued, “And to answer your question, there are significant differences between the way you and I think. Not what we think about, but the manner in which are thoughts work. Simply put, what is damaging to you, doesn’t make an impression on me at all.”

“Oh,” said Briar, not sure he understood.

“You are feeling better now, are you not?”

“Much better, thank you,” said Briar politely. He felt a great deal more like his usual self, enough to observe proper respect. “I apologize for taking up your time. I’m sure you must be busy.”

“Not at all!” said the voice of the Darkness Retreat cheerfully. “But I believe you should head upstairs. Rille has been waiting for you in the upper hallway. She would have come down to fetch you, but I insisted that they give you time to recover. I don’t know why the First Blade insisted that you take the long route,” the voice said in a slight scolding tone, “but since he did, he can certainly wait for you to recover from the experience.”

Briar arched his eyebrow, and said, “I thought the First Blade was the highest authority in the Gatebreaker Guild. It seems that you are a higher authority than him?”

“Are you teasing me, dear guest? Of course, the First Blade is in charge of our little company, and I am more than willing to accede to him when it comes to our other members. But you, Briar Sevon, are a guest, and the comfort of guests is my responsibility. We get so few,” said the voice, slightly sadly. “But that’s only to be expected.”

“I see. I apologize.”

“Nothing to apologize for. But off with you now, dear Briar. Were I to keep you any longer, it would certainly annoy our good leader.”

Briar stood up, and bowed in the direction of the center of the hall, for lack of a better direction. “Thank you for your hospitality.”

“It is nothing,” the voice whispered warmly. Briar nodded, and headed up the wide staircase at the back of the hall.

The doors at the top of the stairs opened by themselves at Briar’s approach. Through them, he met a figure in a black cloak similar to the one he wore, but who additionally wore a black mask. Apparently this was Rille, although it was impossible to confirm whether she was a female or not, as she didn’t speak two words to Briar, but simply gestured for him to follow her and started walking down the warmly decorated hallway.

“Don’t mind her, she’s just shy,” whispered the voice of the Dark Retreat. Briar did not respond.

They encountered no other people during the walk through the palace, just an ever-changing array of paintings, tapestries, and wall carvings of all sorts. On a few occasions, Briar thought he had seen movement out of the corner of his eye, but a glance revealed nothing there. Once, he thought he heard the voices of children laughing and playing, but it was a distant sound, and Rille sped up her pace so that they quickly left the voices behind. Briar filed this away, but didn’t try to ask.

Finally, the corridors ended in front of a pair of large, grand doors. Rille reached out a gloved hand, and rapped her knuckles on the door. There was a series of clanking noises from the doors, as if a series of bolts were being drawn back. With a slight booming sound, they split down the middle, and opened far enough for Rille and Briar to pass.

Inside, Briar blinked. For a second, he thought he had actually exited the Dark Retreat entirely. He suddenly was looking out upon a city, and for a moment he feared that he was looking upon the alien Inverse Sian once more — but when he saw the elaborate and mismatched buildings, he realized with relief that it was the streets of the Capital that surrounded him now.

But, why had he returned to the Capital? What had been the point of the journey he had just taken, if the First Blade was waiting for him here? Then, a sudden ripple passed through the view in front of him, and he realized that this was just an image — an illusion of the Capital, cast around this space.

The room itself took the form of a wide balcony, from which the capital could be looked down upon. Briar glanced behind him, and realized that the balcony appeared to be attached to the exterior of the Royal Castle, a balcony that did not exist in reality. At the edge of the balcony opposite the door, a desk was set upon a dais. There was an empty chair behind the desk, and standing behind it, facing out into the Capital, stood a man with black hair that was turning grey.

Rille walked forward, and Briar followed behind. He had almost forgotten why he had come here, so far away from what he knew and understood about the world, and he forced himself to remember. He was here to ask whether the Gatebreaker Guild, the guild of assassins, had had anything to do with Maledicta’s poisoning. Only now, seeing what he had seen, he could only feel that it was completely unlikely for anyone who lived in this bizarre space to care about the politics of Reclamation Kingdom and the Southern Reaches. Compared to Inverse Cyan, they both seemed so small …

For the first time, Rille spoke up. “My lord. I have brought Briar Sevon, as you requested.” Her voice was a low contralto, smooth and confident.

“Thank you, Agent Rille. Please remain; I will leave Mr. Sevon in your capable hands when it is time for him to leave.” The man spoke in a light baritone with a slight accent that Briar couldn’t place. He turned around, and gave Briar an appraising look, which Briar couldn’t help but return.

The First Blade looked surprisingly ordinary. He was neither tall nor short, with neutral brown eyes and greying black hair. His clothes were neither too rich nor too poor, but gave the impression of an average man. His gaze was surprisingly gentle, in complete contrast to his position as the leader of a band of killers. If Briar had met him on the street, he would never have given him a second glance; and perhaps that was the point.

“So, Briar. What did you think of Inverse Cyan?” The man’s first words surprised Briar, though he realized that they probably shouldn’t have. The First Blade obviously had a reason for making Briar walk through that terrible city; but before Briar could come up with an answer to his question, the man interrupted his thoughts. “Oh, but first, introductions. This is our first formal meeting, after all.”

Briar blinked. “Have we met before … sir?” He wasn’t sure how to treat the man in front of him. Intellectually, he knew the man was a powerful and influential person; but the man’s affable approach and manner made it difficult to be overly polite to him. Briar had a sudden thought: perhaps this was why Maledicta had always had such a hard time treating Karis with the proper respect; he just wasn’t triggering her social senses.

“Well, not exactly,” said the man with a wry smile. “But all in due time. Allow me to introduce myself. I am the current First Blade, leader of this little outpost known as the Gatebreaker Guild. My name … is no longer applicable, so feel free to call me the Kaiken. It’s nice and short, you see.”

“…I understand. Lord Kaiken, I’m sure you already know, but my name is Briar Sevon. I am a servant of House Fernifar, and I have been tasked with investigating the attempted murder of Maledicta Foursquare, whom–”

“Yes, yes,” interrupted the Kaiken, “I’m aware of the situation. Well, Mr. Sevon, the short answer is ‘no’, but to explain why is a bit complicated, so let’s come back to that. And so, let me repeat my first question to you.” He gazed at Briar with gentle, serious eyes. “What did you think of Inverse Cyan?”

Briar involuntarily thought back, to the strange, inhuman buildings; the cold, heartless, sourceless light; the feeling of pressure, of unkind eyes desiring his death. “I think it’s one of the two worst experiences I’ve ever had. Sir … what is this place?” he asked desperately, unable to hold the question back any longer.

The Kaiken nodded slowly. “Yes … Most people will describe the journey as the worst thing they ever experienced; but in your case, there definitely is another contender, isn’t there …” He sighed, and sat down at his desk. With a gesture, another chair appeared across from him. “Please sit down, Mr. Sevon, and I will explain why you are here.” With another absent looking gesture, he created another chair next to Rille, who had been waiting patiently nearby. “You too, Rille, this will take a while.”

“There is no need, my lord, I am content to stand–”

“Sit,” said the Kaiken firmly. She sat.

“Good. Now, let’s discuss the history of this Inverse Cyan, shall we?”

Briar tried to interrupt. “Honestly, sir, I’m only here about the investigation–”

“No, Mr. Sevon, that is not why you are here,” denied the Kaiken. “You are here, because I am recruiting you for the Gatebreaker Guild.”

Briar tried to lunge to his feet. “I have no interest in–!”

Sit, Mr. Sevon.” Briar felt the strength leave his legs, and he fell back into the chair involuntarily. “I have no intention of recruiting you as an assassin, Mr. Sevon. There is a deeper purpose to the Guild, as I’m sure you are already aware. Now, listen to my story, and it will become clear what I would require of you.”

Briar pressed his lips together. His legs had no strength in them, and when he tried to wield magic, he could not move it as he wished. Somehow, this kind and gentle looking man had completely suppressed him in an instant, and he wasn’t even sure how. It seemed that he would have to listen to the Kaiken whether he wanted to or not.

He somehow got the impression that Rille had looked at him sympathetically, but that was probably just his imagination.

“What do you know of the Mage Tyrants, Briar?” asked the Kaiken.

Briar narrowed his eyes, and honestly replied, “I know that they ruled the world in the time before the Reclamation. Apparently they were extraordinarily powerful mages, and they kept the rest of humanity as slaves, until the Great Disaster occurred, and most of them died. Then the First King, Goldenbeard, gathered a group of the strongest mages he could find, and led them against the remaining four Mage Tyrants, and killed them. After that, he led the rest of humanity in the Reclamation–”

“Yes, yes, raising a kingdom that would last a thousand years, banishing dissenters to the four directions, and so forth. Let’s ignore the questionable achievements of Goldenbeard, for the moment, and go back. Let me clarify something for you, Briar: back in those days, the Mage Tyrants were not ‘extraordinarily powerful mages’ as you termed them. They were the only Mages.” The Kaiken looked quite serious as he spoke.

Briar thought about this for a bit. “So, there were no weaker Mages, like there are today.”

“No, that’s not it,” said the Kaiken, shaking his head. “There were plenty of individuals with potential as great as yours, and many with strength greater than, for instance, ‘Twice-Dead’ Arata. But they were not Mages, Briar; they were known as Servants. Ordinary, magicless humans, who had been modified by the Mage Tyrants to wield what they considered minor magics, as a convenience.

“The way you described the Mage Tyrants — the way you were taught to think of them, is wrong, Briar. They were not simply humans with greater auras than your Kingdom’s current Mages; they were an entirely different order of being. To this day, we have not unlocked so much as a tenth of their power, possibly not even a twentieth. They were … gods in human form.

“And yet, they died.

“When Goldenbeard established his Kingdom from whatever remnants he could scrape together, the people still had a great fear in their hearts for their former rulers, and were originally too timid to do what was necessary to survive those times. Goldenbeard decided, therefore, to take the strongest of his followers and name them Mages, and made them roam around doing ‘good deeds’,” the Kaiken sneered slightly at those words, “in order to replace the very image of Mages from tyrannical overlords, into benevolent ones. It was successful enough that within two generations, the true nature of the Mage Tyrants’ power had been completely forgotten.

“Well, forgotten to the general populace, anyway.”

Briar was completely confused at this sudden history lesson, but he could see what the Kaiken wanted him to ask. “So, how did First King Goldenbeard manage to kill them?”

“What makes you think they did?” asked the Kaiken wryly. He smiled at Briar’s blank expression. “No matter who he had gathered, or how great and heroic they were, they would never have posed a threat to the Mage Tyrants, even if they had been reduced to four individuals. Yes, even one Tyrant would be enough to thoroughly suppress humanity, even if they had all came at once to kill. They were ultimately, fundamentally, not something humans could kill.

Briar nodded. “So they must have killed each other, then.”

The Kaiken nodded, but said, “Surprisingly, not very often. I won’t say that they were completely unified, but apparently they seldom fought each other to the death, and often large numbers of them could and would work together to accomplish things that would be impossible alone.”

Briar frowned. “You said they had the power of gods. How could anything be impossible for them?”

“Nothing in your world, was impossible for them,” said the Kaiken quietly. “But haven’t you noticed yet, Briar? There are other worlds than yours. Didn’t you just walk through one of them, to reach this place?”

Briar felt cold. “So, Inverse Cyan is … another world? That the Mage Tyrants created?”

“Oh, it’s a great deal worse than that,” said the Kaiken, darkly. “They stole it.”

Briar’s eyebrows shot upwards. “They … stole it? From where? And why?”

The Kaiken sighed. “That … is a very complicated question. I’ll do my best to answer it for you. Take a look at this paper.” He held up a sheet of white paper. Drawn on it, in exquisite detail, was a picture of a beautiful city. “As you can see, there is a city on this side. And the other side …” He flipped the page over and gave it Briar.

Briar looked at the page in his hand. “… It’s blank,” he said after a moment.

“Oh? Really?” said the Kaiken in a mock surprised tone. He raised his hand, and generated a small magical light above it. “Hold it up to the light, and look again.”

Suddenly understanding, Briar held the paper up so that the light could shine through it. As expected, he could see the picture of the city through the suddenly translucent sheet.

The Kaiken spoke quietly. “One day, a long, long time ago, someone among the Mage Tyrants made the discovery that reality was made up of a front side and a back side, just like that page. And on the back side of reality, the rules were very different. Rules governing distance, and time, and things of that nature, did not behave the same as they did in the normal world. And,” he continued, retrieving the picture from Briar, “just as things from the front side can be projected to the back side, so can things from the back side,” he suddenly punched his fingers through the picture, leaving gaping holes in the city, “affect what we know as reality.

“And so, the Mage Tyrants, who knew no fear, began to explore this strange new world. They learned things they were never meant to know. There were other beings, in that strange reversed reality, beings that were just as strong, or stronger, than they. And so they began to fight those beings, struggling to steal their secrets and powers.

“And then, they encountered Cyan. A gigantic world of a city, possessed by beings of unimaginable power and glory. Even the Mage Tyrants realized that they would stand no chance against those mighty beings. But still, they lusted after the power of Cyan, and were consumed with the desire to take it for themselves.

“And then, one of them, or several of them, had a positively brilliant idea; instead of fighting those beings in their own territory, why not sever the reverse side of Cyan’s reality, and drain the power from that.”

Briar shuddered. “That sounds … bad.”

“Oh, yes,” said the Kaiken quietly, “it was very bad. They managed it, in their madness; they cut away Inverse Cyan, somehow, and stole it away, only to impose it on the back side of our own world. But they got nothing from it, no power at all. Once severed from its original place, it lost the shadow of power it had previously held, and became the dead world you walked through to reach the Dark Retreat. Furthermore, the original Cyan, cut off from its shadow, quickly collapsed and became unlivable, even for the powers that lived there originally. But that wasn’t the worst of it.

“You see, Cyan didn’t stand alone. Unbeknownst to the Mage Tyrants, Cyan was part of a society, a collection of worlds, allied together against foes even more powerful than they. And when the Tyrants destroyed Cyan with their greedy treachery, all the worlds allied with them rose up to seek their vengeance. They tracked the stolen Inverse Cyan across the back side of reality, and found the world of the Mage Tyrants. Our world. And then, they invaded.

“That was the beginning of the Great Disaster.

“The Mage Tyrants fought back, of course. This was their home territory, where they were strongest. When their enemies encroached, they pushed them back; where the outsiders sent monsters to ravage the world, the Tyrants enhanced their Servants — our ancestors — to be their armies, to die for the sake of the world.

“And not only in our world; many Servants were sent into the back side, to fight in alien worlds, against beings impossible to even describe, let alone kill. And yet, that was the final nail in the coffin of the Mage Tyrants, and the salvation of humanity.

“You see, not every one of those alien beings was wholly antagonistic. Somehow, isolated humans began communicating with the various powers, attempting to save themselves, or at least their families back in the real world. And a few of them found receptive ears, and together they began to negotiate on humanity’s behalf.

“Years past, agreements were made, bargains were struck, contracts were made. In the end, all of the blame for the Cyan incident was placed firmly on the Mage Tyrants, who were different enough from humanity, despite being technically the same species, that they could be treated separately from humanity as a whole. And so, with the help of colluding humans, the remaining Tyrants were quickly hunted down by powerful outsiders who had previously been unable to access the world proper.

“With the fall of the last Mage Tyrant, the allied forces withdrew, satisfied with their victory. Under the terms set forth in negotiations, this world was isolated: forcibly disconnected from the full extent of reality by a series of metaphysical gates. And, under the Authority who governs the gates, whose name we do not speak, they shall remain closed and broken. Unless,” finished the Kaiken, in a sudden booming voice, “they detect the presence of a new Mage Tyrant. If a human, in our world, ever reaches that level of power again … the gates will open. And anything could come through …”

“Do you understand now, Briar?” asked the Kaiken, gazing searchingly into Briar stunned eyes. “That is why we are the Gatebreaker Guild; we ensure that the gates between worlds stay firmly shut.”

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5


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