What will future minstrels sing of the days leading up to the final battle?
They will sing of the Souleaters with their stained-glass wings, who feasted upon the life-essence of mankind and brought down the First Age of Kings. And of the army of martyrs that gathered to fight them, led by the world's last surviving witches. By fire and faith they herded the great beasts into an arctic prison, where the incessant cold and long winter's darkness would rob them of strength, and hopefully of life. And the gods themselves struck the earth with great Spears, it was said, erecting a barrier born of their Wrath which would hold any surviving Souleaters prisoner until the end of time. For forty generations the Wrath held strong, so that the Second Age of Kings could thrive. But it was not truly a divine creation, merely a construct of witches, and when it finally faltered the Souleaters began their invasion.
They will sing of the Magisters, undying sorcerers who wielded a power that seemed without limit, and of how they were bound by their Law to the fates of mortal men. But no minstrel will sing of the secret that lay at the heart of that dark brotherhood, for no mortal man who learned the truth would be allowed to live. The Magisters fueled their sorcery with the life-essence of human consorts, offering up the death of innocents to assure their own immortality. Perhaps that practice was what corrupted their spirits, so that they became innately hostile to their own kind. . .or perhaps there was another cause. Colivar alone seemed to know the truth, but even his most ancient and determined rival Ramirus had not yet been able to pry that information out of him.
They will sing of Kamala, a red-headed child destined for poverty and abuse in the slums of Gansang, who defied the fates and became the first female to learn the art of true sorcery. But her accidental murder of Magister Raven broke the brotherhood's most sacred Law, and even her reclusive mentor Ethanus dared not give her shelter any longer. Forced to masquerade as a witch, she traveled the world in search of some knowledge or artifact that she might barter for her safety, so that she could bear the title of Magister openly and claim her proper place in the brotherhood of sorcerers.
They will sing of Danton Aurelius, who ruled the High Kingdom with an iron fist until the traitor Kostas brought him down. They will craft lamentations for the two young princes who died alongside their father, even as they celebrate the courage of Queen Gwynofar in avenging her husband's death. Alas, it was not to be the end of her trials. For when prophecy summoned her to Alkali to search for the Throne of Tears, an ancient artifact that would awaken the lyr bloodline to its full mystical potential, the gods demanded her unborn child in sacrifice, and later her beloved half-brother, Rhys.
They will sing of the Witch-Queen Siderea Aminestas, mistress of Magisters and consort to kings, whom the sorcerers abandoned when her usefulness ended. And of the Souleater who saved her life, at the cost of her human soul. Vengeance burned bright in her heart the day she fled Sankara on the back of her jewel-winged consort, seeking a land where she could plant the seeds of a new and terrible empire.
They will sing of Salvator, third son of Danton Aurelius, who set aside the vows of a Penitent monk to inherit his father's throne, rejecting the power and the protection of the Magisters in the name of his faith. Songs will be crafted to tell how he was tested by demons, doubt, and the Witch-Queen herself, even while the leaders of his Church argued over how he might best be manipulated to serve their political interests.
And last of all they will sing of the confrontation that was still to come, in which fate of the Second Age of Kings -- and all of mankind -- would be decided. And those who hear their songs will wonder whether a prince-turned-monk-turned-king could really save the world, when the god that he worshiped might have been the one who called for its destruction in the first place.
The battlefield was silent.
Bodies lay strewn across the blood-soaked ground, corpses of enemies intertwined like lovers. Thousands upon thousands of men who had once been the pride of their nationsstrong and loyal soldierswere now reduced to carrion. With death they had lost all dignity, all purpose. It no longer mattered who they had fought for, or how deeply they had believed in their causes. The ravens that were gathering over the battlefield cared nothing for such human niceties.
Silently, Colivar walked among the corpses. The battle had not brought him as much pleasure as it should have. The heady intoxication he had once experienced when he caused men to turn against their brothers, back when the sport was still new to him, was now dulled by familiarity. All these men had died at his call or at the call of some other Magister. Oh, they'd thought they were dying to serve their kingsgiving up their lives for a cause that was worthy of sacrificebut the sorcerers knew better. By now the leaders who had ordered this conflict were dead, along with all their counselors. Perhaps their heirs as well. It might not even have been Colivar's opponent who had killed them all. Human conflict on this scale drew Magisters like flies. What greater exercise of power was there, than to cast an entire nation into chaos? Few could resist such temptation.
While Colivar's blood still became heated at the thought of such a contest that perverse spark within him would probably never diehis human soul, a distant and wounded thing, remained cold. The kind of events that had once moved him to ecstasy no longer had that power. Did that mean that the ancient wounds were healing at last? Was it a sign that his humanity, rent to pieces by madness so many years ago, was slowly pulling itself back together? Or were the final fragments of his battered soul simply expiring from sheer exhaustion, starved to death by this cold, callous existence? If so, what would he become when they were finally gone? Uncomfortable questions, to be sure.
"This has to end." The voice came from behind him, shattering his reverie. "You know that."
The sudden awareness of another man so close to him triggered Colivar's most primitive territorial instincts. Whipping about, he called forth enough soulfire to defend himself from any manner of assaultor to launch an attack himselfand held it at the ready while he took stock of his visitor. That the man was a Magister himself was immediately apparent, from his bearing if not his dress. Hatred keened inside Colivar's brain, primitive impulses surging through his veins with undeniable force. Drive the invader away! Tear him to pieces if he will not flee! If Colivar had been a weaker Magister, he might have lost the connection to his human self entirely at that moment and launched himself at the intruder like an animal. The sensation of what it was like to tear open an enemy's neck with razor-sharp teeth was not so distant in his past that he had forgotten it. Even as he struggled to fight back the tide of bestial instinct, part of him longed to surrender to it. But finally, with effort, he recovered enough self-control to shape human words again. "Why are you here?" he demanded. His voice sounded strange in his ears, hoarse and halting. He did not talk much to anyone these days. "What do you want?"
"To speak with you," the stranger said calmly. If he felt the same territorial passions coursing through his veins he showed no sign of it. "Nothing more."
Magisters rarely socialized with one another. Once they were no longer students, but had fully established their independent identities, the territorial instinct in them became too strong to allow for it. Each sorcerer went his own way in life, and if the paths of two should happen to cross, thousands of morati might die as they competed for supremacy. Whole kingdoms had been swallowed up by such rivalries, knights and princes waging war for causes they believed to be their own, when in fact their hearts were manifesting the territorial rage of the sorcerers who controlled them. Not that it mattered what morati believed. Even if such men knew the truth, they could not have resisted.
But . . . a strange Magister was here now, in his domain, and Colivar had managed to resist the immediate impulse to destroy him. Perhaps the recent battle had drained his inner beast of strength, at least enough to make civilized discourse possible. It was an interesting concept. Perhaps worth exploring further.
He absorbed the power that he had conjured back into himself. No doubt the stranger knew how quickly he could summon it again if need be. "Speak," he said hoarsely.
The stranger was a tall man, solidly built, with fine wrinkles about his eyes and a hint of gray at his temples. Which might mean that he had undergone First Transition while in his 30s or 40s and ceased to age physically at that point. Or it might mean that he had been a gangly youth, or even an elderly cripple, who was now using his power to provide himself with more attractive flesh. There was no way to know. Using one's power to find out a Magister's true appearanceor true age, or true anythingwas considered a mortal offense.
"You heard my words." The man's voice was quiet but compelling, in the manner of one who knows he does not need volume to make his point. "This has to end." A sharp, sweeping gesture encompassed the battlefield, as well as Colivar and the whole world beyond him. All this.
"You mean . . . the war?"
"I mean what we bring to it. Our excesses. Our internecine violence. The price that the morati world pays for our boundless self-indulgence."
The corner of Colivar's mouth twitched. "So we should be more . . . considerate?"
"No. Simply more practical."
"For the sake of the morati?"
The stranger's eyes narrowed. "Once there were once great kingdoms scattered across the earth. What is there now? Chaos. Barbarism. Barely a memory of great things and no energy left to restore them. Is that the world we wish to live in?"
"We were not the ones who caused the First Kingdoms to fall," Colivar pointed out.
"No. But we keep them from being rebuilt." The stranger's eyes were and clear and bright, the pale blue color of arctic ice. It awakened shadows of memories in Colivar that he would rather forget. "Do you not wish to see the great towers rise up once more? To live in the kind of world that the First Kings once enjoyed? We, who feed upon death, will never create such things ourselves. We are too obsessed with destruction, too blinded by our instinctive hatred for one another. And in our madness we are dragging the morati down with us. Soon there will be nothing left in them that is capable of greatness. And that will be a loss for us all."
How arrogant this man was, Colivar thought, to lecture another Magister as if he were a schoolchild! In another time and place he might have been infuriated by such behavior. It might even have caused him forget his self-control and end this interview in bloodshed, as the beast inside cried out for him to do. But there were other emotions stirring inside him now, strange and disturbing emotions, that spoke to his more human side. And so he denied the beast sovereignty. For now.
The stranger was right about the future of civilization, of course. No Magister knew that better than Colivar. He alone understood the full measure of what mankind had lost. He yearned for that ancient world in a way none of the others could possibly comprehend. He also understood enough of the Magisters' true nature to know that mankind would never reach those heights of greatness again. The Souleaters had simply destroyed too much. And now the Magisters were here. Mankind might recover from the first plague, but the second was far more dangerous.
"We are predators," he said harshly. "Not caretakers."
"And what good will that distinction do us when the world is swallowed up by chaos? For that is where its headed right now, you know that. It may bleed but slowly from the wounds we have dealt it thus far, but it bleeds nonetheless. We must stanch the wound while healing is still possible. Else our very world will slip through our fingers, and not all the sorcery in existence will be able to restore it."
"You care about the morati," Colivar challenged. Not because he believed the stranger really did, but to stir up his inner beast and put him off his guard. Accusing any Magister of human compassion was a powerful insult. He was curious to see how this one would respond.
But the stranger did not flinch. "And you were once willing to die for them, Colivar. Or so the legends suggest. Is that true? Did the welfare of the common man once mean that much to you?"
Memories -- true memories! -- came welling up from the darkness where he had buried them long ago. They had been rent to pieces by the madness and suffocated by years of neglect, but even in their damaged and disjointed state they still had the power to shake him to the depths of his soul.
He looked away from the stranger, not wanting to meet his eyes, and gazed out over the battlefield. Ravens had come down to earth and begun to pick at the flesh of the fallen. Some of the solders were not quite dead yet, but they were too wounded to fight the birds off. Colivar was closer kin to those ravens, he knew, than to the morati. He accepted that. The beast that was within him would have it no other way. Once, long ago, he had tried to deny it, to pretend that he was still human. But the beast was a part of his soul now, wedded to him by his own willing submission, and was not so easily banished.
If you understood the true source of our power, he thought, you would not question me thus.
"There may once have been a morati named Colivar, who cared about this world." He kept his voice carefully neutral, so that this stranger would not guess at the maelstrom of emotion that his words had inspired. "Perhaps he would even have been willing to offer up his life for it. But that man is dead now." He turned back to the intruder. "We are what we are. Not all the sorcery in the world can change that."
"No," the visitor agreed. It was maddeningly to Colivar how calm he was. Was this man's inner beast weaker than his own, or was it just better disciplined? He had always wondered what the others of his kind experienced. Were their internal battles less fierce than his, because they were farther removed from the source? Or did they just hide them better? "Sorcery cannot change it."
"Something more powerful than sorcery. Something that the morati, ironically enough, understand the value of . . . though we have forgotten it." He let Colivar consider that for a moment, then said, very quietly, "Law."
Colivar drew in a sharp breath. "You mean . . . what? Rules of engagement?"
"No. Those are for wartime. This must be something more basic. More primal. Something to help us curb our darker instincts when they arise, so that open warfare will no longer be necessary. Or at least . . ." A dry smile flickered across his lips. "Not quite so often."
"We are not morati," he said harshly.
"No . . . but that does not mean we cannot learn from their accomplishments. Rule of law is what separates the morati from the beasts. Perhaps it can do the same for us."
But a Magister's beast is part of his soul, Colivar thought darkly. Divide the two, and you destroy both halves. This stranger did not understand that, of course. None of the other Magisters did. And he was not about to explain it to them. "How do you propose to enforce these laws?" he demanded. Trying to focus upon the strangers words, rather than the memories they conjured. "What manner of authority do you think that Magisters will accept?
"Common accord would be required."
For a moment Colivar was speechless. Finally he managed, "An agreement by . . . all of us?"
The stranger bowed his head.
Even the morati could not manage such unanimity.
We are greater than the morati, are we not?
Colivar shook his head in amazement. "There are some who would call you mad for even suggesting such a thing."
"Whereas I prefer to think of myself as practical."
We are incapable even of talking face-to-face with our own kind without bestial instincts taking control of us. What kind of law do you envision for us? How do you propose to punish transgressors?
But those words died on his lips, unvoiced. Because the suggestion, mad as it was, struck a chord deep within him. A human chord. And for a momentjust a momentthe beast within him was quiet, and he could think with unexpected clarity.
"This was your idea?" he managed at last.
The stranger shook his head. "Not mine alone. But few are capable of spreading the word as effectively as I, so I volunteered. The task requires . . ." A faint smile quirked his lips. ". . . unusual self-control."
What if all the others join together in this project, Colivar thought suddenly, and I alone cannot? He was suddenly acutely aware of the chasm that separated him from all the others of his kind. If this stranger knew the truth about him, would he have come here with the same offer? Would he even want Colivar to be part of this project?
"It will take a very long time," he challenged.
"Perhaps. But time is the one thing we have in abundance, is it not?"
"And the ultimate goal is . . . what? To bring us all together in one great assembly, so that we can collaborate on a set of rules?" He laughed harshly. "We would tear each other to pieces before the first word was set on paper."
Ah." A smile flickered across the stranger's face; it was a cold and humorless expression. "But you see, that is the difference between you and me. I believe that Magisters can rise above their bloodier instincts, if they are convinced of the need to do so. Maybe someday, if we are determined enough, it may even be possible for a number of us to come together like civilized men and discuss matters of common interest without our darker instincts interfering. That would be a thing to marvel at, wouldn't it?"
"You really believe that establishing a set of rules can all make this possible?"
The stranger said solemnly, "It is not the law itself that will have power, Colivar. It is what we must become in order to establish it."
Ravens cawed in the distance. Somewhere amidst the bodies, unseen, a dying man groaned. Colivar shut his eyes and focused upon the sounds, trying to sort out the storm of emotions in his soul. He felt as if he were at a crossroads, peering into the darkness, trying to make out any hint of the terrain up ahead, to choose his way. But both paths were shrouded in fog, their features indiscernible. One must step forward in blind faith or not go forward at all.
All the assumptions he had made about his powerabout his very soul!were being challenged by this man. But what if his assumptions had been wrong? What if the other sorcerers, born in a simpler time, had a clearer understanding of what their true potential was? What if they could really change things?
And what if he, unique among Magisters, could not share in that change? It was a chilling thought that made the more sensitive parts of his anatomy want to draw up into his body out of pure dread.
But if they could succeed in this mad plan . . . just imagine the potential of it! Not only for their society in general if the ranks of Magisters could be called that but for his own inner struggle as well.
I could be human again, he thought with wonder. It was a dream he'd been forced to abandon long ago. Now he was being challenged to take it up again. The concept was almost too much to process.
A raven cawed in the distance. He shook his head, trying to clear it.
"What is it you want of me?" he said at last.
Though the stranger had been impassive thus far, it was clear from the way his expression eased now that he had been far from certain about where the conversation was heading. Or who would come out of it alive, should it devolve into a less civilized discourse. "Simply your agreement that the task is worth attempting. That when the time comes to enter the next stage, you will consider playing an active role. How much will be possible, of course, no man can predict. But we mean to do our best, and your support would mean much to us."
Colivar raised an eyebrow. "Do not attempt to flatter me," he said darkly. "That is a morati trick."
The stranger shrugged. "Your word has much weight among our kind. That is not flattery, simply the truth."
"Because I am more deadly than most?"
"Because you have more knowledge than most." The sapphire eyes glittered. "Even though you hold that knowledge close to your breast."
Colivar drew in a deep breath. What lay within his breast was the soul of a beast, coiled, waiting. Did other Magisters perceive themselves in the same way, as if every moment they were caught in a tug-of-war between their human halves and some dark, animalistic master? Or did they believe that all their violent, territorial urges were simply human emotions gone bad? There was no way to ask; Magisters did not discuss such things with one another.
He had always perceived their ignorance as a weakness. But perhaps it might open doors for them, where his own knowledge of the past had closed them.
"Very well." Colivar nodded stiffly. "When the time comes that all the Magisters have agreed to this coursewhen they come together to determine what manner of law they will establishthen I will come to that place, also." A faint smile flickered across his lips. "And I will try my best not to kill them all."
The stranger bowed respectfully. "That is all we can ask."
And he turned away to leave. It was, in its own way, as powerful a statement of intent as a Magister could possibly offer. He had no way to know that Colivar would not strike him down from behind as soon as his back was turned. Yet he willingly took that chance. Was it optimism that motivated him, or foolishness? Or both?
"Wait," Colivar said.
The stranger turned back to him.
"You know my name, but you have not given me yours." He raised an eyebrow. "Is that the way you wish to begin this cooperative effort?"
The cold blue eyes regarded him. There was power in a name, even one that was used in public circles. And there was much more power in receiving a name directly from its owner. Few Magisters would make such a gesture.
Prove how much you care about this project, Colivar thought. Prove how far you are willing to go to bring it to fruition.
"Ramirus," the stranger said. "I am called Ramirus."
Ravens cawed in the distance as he once more turned to leave. This time Colivar did not stop him.