The royal palace was a marvel of engineering. It was built up the side of a mountain overlooking the great city Elysine, capital of Zethenia. It started at the base of the mountain, a great courtyard that spilled into the rest of the city. As you moved further up, you had guest quarters and entertaining rooms, then up to the official rooms of realm management and war planning. Keep going and you ran into the private royal chambers and the grand throne room. Some king long ago decided to go even higher and had a balcony built above it all. It jutted out over the palace and from its ledge you could view the entire city and beyond.
It’s so easy to lose yourself up here, he thought to himself. His hands gripped tight the stone railing in front of him. Not out of any fear of falling, of course. The winds were fierce coming down the mountain side, but he was hardly concerned with anything nature challenged him with. It was man that always presented such a complication to his plans.
No, he corrected himself. Not a man this time. A little girl.
Orignus forced himself to take a breath and release his grip ever so slightly. He stared out over the city. On the far side, shooting up into the sky nearly as high as he was now, stood the Index Spire. Spilling out all around it were the arms of the Gateways’ Index. Atop that spire was a balcony similar to the one he was standing upon. One story told how a hundred years ago King Verince III would play Rizzen-Defense with the Index’s Gatekeeper. Both were skilled magi and would manifest the board high in the sky and move their pieces over the city.
A slight sneer came unbidden to his lips. The current Gatekeeper was certainly in no condition to play games. And the being in control of the Index now had little patience for board games. Orignus’ sneer faded as his thoughts drifted to Veri’kayn, War-Titan of the Ith’nael troops who had helped secure his victory over the last two days. He knew there were risks bringing the blade demons here, but he was an experienced Rizzen-Defense player himself. He could handle Veri’kayn and his ilk.
No great risks leads to no great rewards and all that, he reminded himself. And truly the rewards had been great. The city of Elysine was fully under his control. The king was removed and all lords within its walls had already pledged their fealty to Orignus. At least, all the surviving lords. Examples were required. They always are.
Of course, a few of the lords in the surrounding countryside were still causing problems, but that was a minor issue. City nobles held all of the real political power and he currently held all of the city nobles. The plains and forest folk would come around soon enough. They had no support. The Index, Aviary, and Sanctum had all been neutralized. Where would they find help? The dwarves? Orignus almost laughed at the thought. The Deep King could care less who ruled the surface as long as the trade routes stayed open.
All in all, most people would consider it at rather successful campaign. The death toll had been kept to a minimum and a plan that had been years in the making had finally seen fruition. Everyone around him was acting as if now was the time for celebration. Orignus knew better.
The girl had escaped. Apricot, the upstart Acolyte. She had proven more resourceful that he had anticipated. To be honest, it was his own fault. He had not thought anything of her at all, other than as one more person to be collected and neutralized. She hadn’t been at the Enclave at the time of his take over, however. Not only had she managed to evade capture, but she had broken into the Gateways’ Index, stolen a scroll, and then escaped through a portal. Everyone was dismissing her actions as a scared girl on the run, but Orignus wasn’t so convinced.
Her and her young warrior friend managed to break into the Index. If immediate escaped had been their goal, there were a hundred worlds she could have chosen to jump to. No, she went after a very specific scroll that would unseal a very specific breach that lead to a very specific world. She had a plan and Orignus feared he knew what it was. Oh sure, it was nearly impossible to imagine she could succeed, but the old mage was not one to leave loose ends to such fallacies as hope and chance.
“Sir,” a voice called from behind him, pulling him from his thoughts. He sighed to himself. What good is having a secluded place of privacy if everyone just came up here to bother you anyway?
“Yes, Captain?” Orignus turned away from the ledge and faced the man before him.
Captain Augustine Meadowlane slammed his fist to his breastplate and inclined his head to Orignus. The young captain was the model of a perfect solider. After two days in the field putting down city rebels, moving through abandoned building and dusty roads, he still look immaculate. His dark armor was polished and reflected the moonlight almost like obsidian. No sign of stubble could be seen upon his chin. He had obviously shaved before coming. Orignus found such tiny details rather ridiculous, but in a loyal solider, the discipline it represented was invaluable. Augustine’s men were some of the best in the realm, not only skilled in combat, but calm and collected as well. They trusted their commander to lead them through any situation. Orignus was grateful for the younger man’s support, not that he would ever come out and say it.
“Your closest commanders have gathered for a meeting, sir. The hunters have returned,” Augustine reported, but the mage just waved him silent.
“And she has escaped. Yes, yes, I felt it from here,” Orignus reached out a hand. He could feel the tiny tendril of the Everstream extended out to the cliff wall. His staff leaned against that wall, the tendril wrapped around it. In his mind, he tugged on that cord. The staff leapt away from the wall and into his open palm. He grabbed it and rapped it once sharply against the stone floor.
“Well, Captain, let us go hear the Slayer’s excuse,” and he headed for the stairs. The wind was particularly violent as they descended the stairs and his greying hair whipped about his face. It was a treacherous downward climb, with the stairs turning back on themselves every dozen feet or so as the wind threatened to sweep you over the railing. The captain behind him kept leaning into the wind to help with his balance and Orignus allowed himself a small smile. Unknown to Augustine, the mage had cast out a bit of the Everstream around him like a wedge. He crafted it almost like a fine mesh net. It allowed some of the air through, so while his robes and hair billowed about him, the worst was diverted and he was never in any danger of slipping.
It was truly a wonder to Orignus how anyone lived without a connection to the Everstream. It was as natural and integrated into his life as sight. Most things other found wondrous were simply second natural to Orignus. His water was always warm during bath and he had little use for towels as he was quite dry afterwards. The Everstream was always flowing around him offering its power and he felt it as a comforting presence even when he was not using it. The idea of being this stunted creature without the ability to craft was a concept that he found completely alien, despite being surrounded by that reality in others every day.
Every time he pondered upon the subject he pitied the untalented just a bit more. As he reached the end of the stairs he stepped onto the walkway and turned to Augustine.
“Careful, Captain. The last few steps can be quite devilish,” he couldn’t quite keep the smugness from his voice and Augustine lips curled down into a frown that lasted perhaps half a second. He then nodded.
“Of course, sir. Your warning is most welcome,” he stepped onto the walkway alongside of Orignus. It was a few short steps to a door that led to a private sitting room.
The room’s outer walls were glass so anyone within could be amazed at the view over the city. The royals used it to speak in confidence with visiting delegates. The room attempted to simultaneously impress and intimidate. It didn’t neither to Orignus, but he could appreciate its intention. There was a guard in black armor standing at attention and he saluted as the two passed. Augustine gave a quick salute in return while Orignus simply nodded.
There was a conference room not too far from them and it was where they were to meet. Three others were already waiting for them. Orignus nodded to them as he entered, but other than that ignored them. He stepped over to a side table that servants had stocked with drinks and simple foods. Leaning his staff against the wall, he poured himself a glass of wine, intentionally keeping his back to everyone else. The others just stood there and glanced at each other while they waited.
Long after he was done filling his glass he waited. It was almost two full minutes before he spun and singled out the hunter. “Well, Slayer? I trust you have a report.”
Slayer Harradus was a large man, completely covered in furs and hides of the beasts he had killed. He wore his hair shaggy and long, the same as his beard. Under a pair of dark bushy eyebrows, his beady eyes narrowed with frustration at Orignus. He carried a short spear slung over one shoulder and at his waist rode his nefarious blade, Scorchwield. Instead of a scabbard, the dark blade simply hung from the belt by a leather cord. It made freeing it much more time consuming, but whispers claimed the blade would not allow itself to be sheathed.
Orignus could feel the dark energy of the blade from here. Its presence was a pool of foul energy that tainted the Everstream around it. The mage was no novice around such artifacts and knew swimming in those waters for long periods of time slowly wore at the soul. It explained the Slayer’s temper and his violent outbursts. Harradus couldn’t see the Everstream as it moved around and through him, but it was sickly and caustic. One day it would kill the man.
But not today. Orignus had further use of him.
“I chased that idiot girl!” he cried, his voice rising on par with his temper. “Through woods and up that cliff, just as ye said. She threw back our arrows and brought up a wall, magic risin’ to the sky! She jumped the cliff and was gone!”
He pointed a finger at Orignus. “You told us to chase far too late to catch her!”
Orignus ignored the comment and walked to the end of the table. He pulled out his chair slowly and sat, leaning back as far as it would allow. Once he was comfortable, he nodded to Harradus.
“I had to know where she was going before I could tell you where she was going. Obviously,” he replied. “You assured me your hounds and your hunters could catch her long before she arrived upon that hilltop. She is not but a little girl.”
“She’s a bloody mage!” the Slayer bellowed at Orignus.
Now it was Orignus’ turn to narrow his eyes. “Hardly.”
He gestured to the table and the seats around it, indicating to the others in the room that they should sit. The other three sat, but Harradus simply snorted and looked away. His shoulders heaved as his breaths came deep and ragged. The sword was urging on his blood lust, Orignus sensed. The old mage flicked his wrist and sent a ripple through the Everstream. The chair nearest the chief hunter slid across the stone until it slammed into the wall.
“The little girl is just that. A little girl not two years into her studies. She evaded your attempt at capture. I need no excuses, nor will I tolerate them. The facts are simply facts. Now tuck your bruised pride back into your pocket. Your skills are still valuable. And by the stream, sit down.”
His tone at the end had lightened, sounding almost dismissive of Harradus’ failure. As if it meant nothing. Of course, that wasn’t true at all. Orignus was furious. However, he was also practical. Overly berating the Slayer would do nothing but encourage conflict. The Slayer would lose and the mage would be out a valuable commander. Everyone around the table glanced up at Harradus, waiting on his next move. In the end, just like always, he brought his chair back to the table and thrust himself into it. There he sat with his arms crossed, sending furious glances to everyone else at the table.
Orignus gave him a patient smile. The hunter lived another day. Now to try and rectify the situation. If he moved quickly he could probably still keep the young lady at bay and solidify his position as the new ruler of Zethenia.