It took six men to do it, but Kish was eventually dragged in chains into a fairly barren chamber at the base of a large tower and heavily restrained. Her feet were chained to the floor and her arms strapped firmly into two posts which seemed to be specially made to serve that function. Her head was also strapped back so tightly that she could hardly blink. She struggled and spat but there was no escape.
Two soldiers dumped the boy’s body, blade still embedded in his chest, on a stone slab in the same room. They were quickly ushered out by Mercutian, who sat and ogled his new prize for a time with his empty-eyed young partner listing in the shadows.
“What do you want with me, you old troll?” demanded Kish as she continued to struggle in vain.
“I want to own you,” he said. “I want you to be my puppet, mindlessly leading your filthy people to oblivion.” He smiled as though this was the most reasonable and pleasant of suggestions.
“You’re crazy! I’d sooner die than submit to you!” she spat in his face.
“I know. That’s what makes it so exciting. You’re such a feisty one. It will be a pleasure to destroy your soul. It’s a pity that I have to rush it.”
“How do you even know me? I’ve only seen you once before this!” she demanded.
“Oh, you simple barbarian.” He patted her tenderly as one might a lost child. He stepped back and mumbled a couple of words. There was a subtle shift in lighting and stance and suddenly he appeared to be a completely different man — younger but more weathered, with dark braided hair instead of the silvery white; bent yet strong.
“Karle’s tutor?” Kish immediately recognized the filthy shaman who had acted as her little brother’s teacher and vizier after he ascended the throne. “It was you….”
“Of course it was me! Both your father and your older brother could have led an effective army against our prince. They had to be dealt with. The king was relatively easy to poison and Ulrat exceptionally easy to frame. I had hoped for his death as well, but his exile is adequate for my purposes.”
“And what are your purposes? Do you want the throne for yourself ?” Kish was drawing blood as she struggled against her restraints.
“Simple girl.” Mercutian was overflowing with condescension. “Now, before I tell you all this, I want you to know that I’m only doing it so you will know, deep down, what you are a part of, once I have taken your charming will away.” He paused and considered for a moment. “My purposes are many, and far more interesting than ruling a country.”
I have no interest in any thrones themselves. No. Leadership is far too time-consuming. The battle for the throne is mostly for the benefit of my daughter. You met her earlier. Quite a firecracker, isn’t she?” He chuckled with a twisted fatherly pride. “No, my love is for research and I’m running low on resources. As the Prince said, this country is sick and the taxes have stopped flowing as they should. Good research is expensive and I can’t hire the best thieves and explorers with the pittance that the current throne can afford. I need capital if I’m ever going to unlock the true mysteries of magic.”
“Is that was he is, then?” Kish gestured with her eyes at the corpse on the slab “Research?”
“Oh, very much so.” Mercutian grinned at the interest of an outsider in his work. “Tell you what. I’ll be right back and then I’ll tell you all about him.” He bounced up some stairs with more pep than would be expected of such an old man and Kish began to wonder about what the wizard really looked like.
He returned in moments with a glass jar containing a single black beetle, about the size of a thumb. It was fairly uninteresting except for a long needle like protrusion on its head. “This, my dear, is going to be your new companion.”
As he carefully cut away the high collar on the servant girl’s outfit that Kish had been forced into, he explained, “I discovered these little guys in the jungle on a small island in the southern seas. They’re amazing little creatures. There, on the island, I found a group of monkeys that were entirely placid. They spent their days gathering leaves and fruit, all in complete serenity. This in itself wasn’t interesting except that we have these monkeys on the mainland as well.”
He opened the jar and carefully placed the beetle on Kish’s chest. As it started to explore, he continued. “The mainland monkeys are violent, territorial and generally troublesome. I looked more into these island cousins and found that, buried in the fur on their necks, they each had one or more of these beetles with that magnificent proboscis stuck directly into the base of the monkey’s skull. It would seem that the beetle feeds off of the fluid in their brains, but more than that, it secretes a venom that makes its host euphoric and complascent.”
Kish started to realize what was going to happen as the beetle worked its way around to the back of her neck. “You’re sick!” she shouted through her teeth and struggled harder against her bindings.
Mercutian continued, unconcerned for his victim and engrossed in explaining his discoveries. “It works very well on humans as well. The effects are almost immediate but they get so much better with time. After only a few minutes, you’ll find yourself feeling happy and a little warm but confused; as time goes on, you will become very passive, and very prone to suggestion but otherwise adequately high-functioning.” He smiled widely at this. “After a week or two, you will become entirely dependent on the beetle. If it is removed or dies, you will do nearly anything to get one back. I’ve seen someone cry themselves to death in the absence of one. We use them in the royal servants pretty extensively and I even put a small dose of the venom in the King’s afternoon tea. I suspect even you can infer the results of ingesting it regularly.”
“What about him?” She looked at the vacant boy in the corner. “Ah, him. No. I have him held in my thrall. Oh, sorry. I cast a magic spell on him.” Again, condescension. “He’s a sorcerer, you know; I use him as my primary source.”
“And the Prince?” She glared more intensely, trying to end his life through sheer force of will.
“Vestin? No. He’s nearly a willing participant, much like your little brother. I was his tutor, you see, and I spent years feeding him ideas of glory and power. He wanted his kingdom to be strong and he was ashamed of his weak-willed father.” The old mage leaned back on his heels and looked off, as if lost in fond memories. “So I spent years poisoning the father and cultivating the son. Finally, I found a dragon to be his familiar.” He grinned and looked at Kish, hoping for some recognition of his genius. Finding only spite, he continued. “A dragon’s will is far too strong to be a suitable familiar, but the boy had ambition so he was easy to trick into bonding with it. With the dragon intertwined with his own soul, he became a bloodthirsty conqueror, covetous of the territories and wealth of other nations. Together, he and my daughter hatched a plan to take Haelund and crush Desidan in one fell swoop.” He paused for a moment to mime wiping a tear from his eye. “They make me so proud.”
Kish felt a brief but sharp pain in the back of her neck just as the madman finished his explanation, and her head began to swim.
“Now, you wanted to know about this young man, didn’t you?” he smiled.
“Uh huh,” mumbled Kish as waves of pain, nausea and euphoria danced with each other through her body.
“Well, even your primitive mind must know that there are certain creatures that are born as sources of magic, yes?” He posed the rhetorical question as he indelicately pried the reaper blade from the kid’s chest, spilling the accumulated blood from his lungs all over the floor. “Very rarely, a human source is born. From my understanding, it’s a completely random occurrence — a freak of nature where they carry within them a gateway to the heavens through which magic flows freely.”
He continued to poke the boy and filled and labelled a couple of vials of his blood as he spoke. “I came to realize though my research that if there were sources, there were also sinks — creatures which consumed magical energies and drained them from the world. I found examples of such effects, but they would always die before they were even born as they consumed not only magical energy from their environments, but when that supply became insufficient, they consumed the very life energy of their own bodies as well.”
“This boy was the rarest of rare creatures. A sink, as I have described, but conceived with a human twin that was a source.” He gestured dramatically to his apparently mindless assistant. “Paired in the womb, the one fed the other, keeping him alive on the energies which flowed in equal measure from his twin. I could live another thousand years and never find another pair like them.”
He went over to check on Kish’s status. He caressed her cheek and the sensation was both overwelmingly pleasasant and utterly repulsive. She started to wretch, and that too was sickeningly pleasurable.
Satisfied, the wizard continued his lecture. “Not only was the boy a power sink, which is quite an inconvenience for a mage by the way, but he was always ravenously hungry. He would eat almost anything he could swallow and he never filled up. More than that, though, if it was a living thing he ate, he would briefly gain some of the traits of that thing for a short time after consuming it. A puppy would give him a good sense of smell, an eagle good long distance vision, a person usually sharpened his mind briefly.”
“You fed him purple?” Kish groaned, only half coherent.
“Yes, dear, people. Only a few. It was necessary for my studies. I don’t expect you to understand. In any case, around the time that I had learned all I could from him, I came across an old sealing ritual. Apparently they used to to seal off sorcerers’ powers in Haelund. It was old, dangerous and complicated, but I found a way to modify it to work in reverse and plug the hole in our boy here.”
“Why strung?” The furious Battle Maiden choked and then vomited.
“You’re cleaning that up, sweetie.” Mercutian pulled out the old cape of Lord Cailo from Prag’s confiscated sack and handed it to the sorcerous twin. “Mend this!” he ordered before settling back into the boy’s story.
“I assume you meant to ask why he’s so strong, yes? Well, that’s my doing, too. Things all came together so nicely in one place. You and Princess Cariolta were… sorry, I mean Prince Prinin, were meeting at the temple of the God Emperor so I hired the Shadow Thieves to capture you two and steal the Emperor’s body while they were in the area. They failed to catch you two so I killed them all…” He paused a moment to consider his words. “That’s not fair, I was going to kill them anyway. Inconsequential. I fed the boy the body of the emperor just before I sealed his powers. It was mostly out of curiosity, I had no idea what would happen, but I hoped that he would retain some of the Emperor’s physical power and I could study it in a living subject.
“Something went wrong in the process and the resultant explosion sent him flying across the continent. My top floor is still a disaster.” He looked at the corpse of the boy in disappointment. “I would have liked to study him alive.”
“Waizeee still hungreee?” Kish’s eyes were having trouble pointing in the same direction but she still had some of her faculties, though the feeling of her clothes on her skin was becoming uncomfortably pleasant.
“Hungry? Did you say he was still hungry?” The wizard was suddenly alert.
“Eight a hole hoarse” The words formed dancing colours on her tongue.
“Really? And he was okay? Did he change at all?”
“Run lots. He runs on water and jumps like birds and sings like bad monkeys—his eyes are like rainbows.” Her words were slurring and the meaning was becoming garbled.
“The implications of this are very exciting. I’m quite upset now that we had to kill him. Oh well, onto other things.” He looked over at the rainbow cloak of the late Cailo which had been mended by the vacant sorcerer and was shimmering with new life. He swept it off of his assistant’s knee and threw it around himself dramatically. “What do you think? Does it suit me?” He posed dramatically for Kish. “I have to thank you for it, it was an unexpected prize.”
The boy’s plan had worked rather better than he had hoped. He couldn’t be sure entirely how much was luck and how much was planning, but those weren’t the sort of things that troubled him.
He drew in a deep breath and his vision cleared. He observed his surroundings. It reminded him a lot of the dungeon from long ago. It was cold and hard and full of unpleasant smells. There was even a man in a glowing cape being mean to Kish. That sort of thing was not allowed. He rose from the slab and pushed the glowing man aside on his way to Kish. He splintered her restraints with ease and Kish stumbled free.
Through her delirious haze, her hatred for the wizard remained. She had been watching a leather charm that dangled from his neck as he spoke. He had replaced the necklace that he had torn away in the woods with another, identical one. All of her thoughts had been fixed on it and as the venom had infected her mind, it had become an object of fetishistic infatuation.
As the boy tore apart he restraints, she staggered toward the object of her malicious desire. She As she collapsed to the deliciously cool floor, she stretched out her arm and entwined her fingers in the exquisitely soft leather strap. A cascade of murderous intent washed over her and she giggled with euphoric delight as she tore the leather thong from the mad mage’s neck.
Mercutian was bombarded with a full spectrum of feelings as the scene unfolded before him. He started as the victorious master of his domain. Then, when he saw the boy alive again, he was elated that his experiment had been so successful and his research could continue. That all washed away though, as the resurrected boy tore apard the barbarian princess’s restraints with ease. He began to cast a spell to restrain the boy, but he felt a tug and saw his escape charm in the hand of the girl on the floor before him.
It was a brilliant device, he had thought. It would safely bring him from any open space back to his tower roof at great speed. Unfortunately, as the energies gathered around him, he realized that it was something he should have been more cautious about removing when he went indoors. All of this happened in less than a breath before the wizard was crushed by his own spell into a paste on the ceiling.
The boy turned to defend Kish, who was writhing in ecstasy as she was showered from above by the bloody remains of Mercutian, but the young sorcerer boy just smiled. His vacant eyes filled with life and he looked around freely for the first time in over a decade. He could move under his own will and he laughed at the mess on the ceiling. He gathered energy in his palm and blasted the remains of his oppressor into ash before falling over laughing.
“Oh, my brother,” he said, awkwardly finding his voice after years of silence. “I never thought it would be you to rescue me.” He hopped up and hugged the confused boy.
The boy wasn’t quite understand what was going on and he wished that he’d been alive a little sooner because he was pretty sure that there was something he’d missed. But he was pretty confident that this was good.
The young sorcerer strode over and plucked the beetle from Kish’s neck with care before crushing it between his fingers. “You’ll be alright in a day or two,” he said, helping her to her feet. She tried to thank him, but instead nuzzled into him, savouring the warmth of his body, then vomiting.
The young sorcerer rescued the mageweave cloak. “It looks like this is going to have to be washed before anyone can use it again,” he said as he peeled the undamaged shimmering cape from the charred remains on the ceiling.
The boy, having decided that everything was in order and that the other magic man didn’t need to be dead, decided to take charge and continue his rescue mission. “Where is Cari and where is Prag?” he demanded.