The serf wiped a cold bead of sweat from his brow. With trembling hands, he rummaged through the leather satchel bound about his waist and pulled out a long, slender candle, taller than the others that had already been positioned, and gently placed it behind its smaller counterparts.
It was the last; his task was complete.
Releasing a relieved sigh, he moved back from the final cluster and admired his handiwork.
Seventy-one golden candles of varying heights sat on floating quartz ledges in all five corners of the star-shaped chamber. Each arrangement had been placed with the utmost care and finesse for if even the tiniest taper were to be misplaced, he, too, would share a similar ‘misplacement.’
He bit his lip. The arrangements were as perfect as could be asked —the Magisters would be pleased... he hoped.
The first candle he had placed wobbled from side to side. Narrowing his eyes, he took a tentative step towards the cluster when a small flame flickered into life, slowly danced up the wick, and burst into a blinding mass that transformed the dark chamber into a beacon brighter than the sun.
The serf shielded his eyes and stumbled back, then whipped around, his hands flying to his mouth as he rapidly glanced about the area. The blinding light had vanished as swiftly as it had appeared and soft, elegant flames now danced atop every candle. Other than himself the chamber was empty. No-one had heard his outburst or witnessed his moment of weakness. His fear. The one emotion that was better left concealed lest the Magisters sensed it and descended upon him like a flock of ravenous deathbirds.
A shuddering breath rattled through his throat as he swept another frightened glance about the chamber. The candlelight danced from wall to wall with a vitality the otherwise lifeless room did not possess, though the warm glow did little to alleviate the distinct solemnity that burdened the air or the chill that rose up from the floor, and neither did it brighten the shadow that crept across the dull white stone.
A hiss pierced the deathly silence and an icy tendril touched the back of his neck, but before he could wipe it away a man’s body materialised in the centre of the shadow.
“H-High Magister Victus…”
The corpse levitated a half-metre allowing room for a crystal slab to form beneath it, his bare skin shone with a bizarre sheen that eschewed the candlelight and instead cast its own glow, and waves of shocking white hair cascaded across his shoulders and down the altar, hanging limp in mid-air.
Unable to tear away from the body, he stumbled back and fumbled for the door handle. The whispers that had plagued the castle since the early hours were true: their High Magister had passed on to the lower planes.
“By the Three,” he breathed. “May the Gods have mercy on us.”
The door flung open and a Magister strode through, near sending the serf sprawling. The tall man was dressed in floor-length robes as black as the void and his face was hidden beneath the shapeless folds of a lowered hood, but the hefty obsidian sphere encased in silver rings that dangled against his chest designated the importance of the new arrival and he hurriedly bent down on one knee.
The Lord of the Council did not acknowledge him.
He could not dally any longer, nor did he wish to. Moistening his lips with a dried tongue, he bowed his head as reverently as could be managed and hurried from the room before his presence could offend. Mere servants did not survive as long as he had without significant care and he would not squander his life, not this day.
Lord Magister Caelin Arisse ignored the scurrying servant and the pitiful odour of fear that trailed behind him and calmly knelt before the crystal altar. The hour of Ascension was nigh and his blood hungered for the bounty that awaited, the bounty that he had anticipated since childhood when his dreams hinted at a most wondrous future. Years had passed as he sought to become worthy of claiming this honour, as he trained his body and soul to welcome the agony that would one day come, and now all had passed just as he had foreseen. Victus had bestowed authority unto him and after this final rite the most coveted of positions would be under his control: he would become High Magister of Fan’driel.
An Arisse hadn’t held the glory of such acclaim for centuries —his ancestors would be proud.
Lowering his head, he hid the small smile that threatened to spread and instead appeared every inch a solemn and dignified Lord of the Council, and waited.
Long, silent minutes passed before eight robed figures materialised from the jagged shadows cast by ever-growing flames. Wearing the black robes of the Order, their feet barely touched the floor as they swept into position around the body and formed their ritual circle. The obsidian spheres they each wore glimmered in time with the dancing candle-light, the glinting silver rings that encircled them released a cheer that contrasted the air of reverence and resentment that permeated the air, and Caelin quickly bit the inside of his cheek before another involuntary smile could form.
Many were offended that Victus had dared choose him —the youngest of the Council, who had only recently passed his trials no less— and believed their esteemed leader had either been a victim of coercive magic or had held a hidden madness.
The truth was far simpler; this had been fated.
Their disdainful thoughts radiated from them as clear as the flawless moons but such ill-concealed insubordination was irrelevant: the Council would submit or they would die. All in the Isles were replacable.
Three Lord Magisters, their faces concealed by hooded shadows, raised their arms into the air and weaved their hands in intricate spirals. A deep hum rose up from their throats, amplified within the stark silence, and the yellow flames in each corner of the chamber flared tall and rapidly gained a blue hue as they intuited their purpose.
It was time.
Caelin climbed to his feet and stood over Victus’ body, and an eerie calm replaced his concealed humour as he closed his eyes and chanted alongside his fellows. The depth of his voice added an intensity to the already-powerful hymn, the thickening air fluctuated as the humid waves rose and fell in time with the disturbing harmonics, and the chamber oscillated as the chant reached its crescendo.
None were bothered by or had even noticed the shifting floors that swayed as the ocean beneath them.
In long serpentine tendrils the blue flames took leave of their tapers and approached Caelin. They were as ribbons that wrapped about his flesh through the protection of his robes and swiftly shrouded him in their blessed blaze. Their touch imparted a sightless burn that incinerated every inch of his body and scorched through to his innermost being, and though he sensed the yearning of the Magisters who surrounded him, they who inwardly demanded he fail this purification, he did not flinch.
Calmly withdrawing an obsidian knife from beneath a fold in his robe, nothing betrayed the agony that writhed within his fleshly shell. The silver handle glittered as he moved it from his right hand to his left, its thin black blade gleaming with the same crystalline essence that coated Victus’ body. He ran a finger along its keen edge as tenderly as another man might stroke a lover, the motion allowing small droplets of blood to slide down his flesh, and in response to the crimson offering an energy rose from Victus and thrummed in thick, palpable waves that called to the flames and drew them towards him, eventually shrouding both men in the crackling blaze.
The minutes seemed as hours as he stood encased by the flames, refusing to yield as each flicker shot through him and threatened to turn his bones to ash. His rhythmic voice was as unwavering as his will as through the ordeal he continued to chant as effortlessly as before, and then a chill swept over and soothed the imperceptible burn that covered his skin.
The blue flames had completed their task and he had been found worthy —he was ready to ascend.
Victus’ body levitated above the altar, buoyed by both the blue fire and the remnants of his magical energies, and Caelin’s dark eyes shone bright with a golden hue as his own energies radiated outward and sought those of his predecessor.
Moving of their own volition, his hands webbed and weaved in perfect cadence to the hymn, tightened their grip on the knife, and descended upon Victus’ stomach. With swift, confident strikes, a rapid array of runic symbols were carved into the dead, unyielding flesh, and one last determined swipe expelled a torrent of magic that whorled in cyclonic gusts strong enough to throw back the hood from Caelin’s head and reveal the hunger written across his face. His heart beat faster as insurmountable joy expanded deep within his chest, as the energy and euphoria joined as one and lifted him upwards to loom over the corpse, and then the hymn stopped, shattering the golden candles into a thousand shards as silence descended.
Caelin’s hands thrust themselves and the blade down in one mighty stab into Victus’ heart and sliced into his own wrists, allowing the onslaught of energy to find passage through his veins. The glorious pain writhed within, twisting and contorting as it swarmed through his blood, and he released a powerful howl as the last remnants of energy crossed the threshold.
As though the object had sensed its purpose, the obsidian blade morphed into a blazing rod of fire and pressed itself against the wounds, cauterising and healing the flesh instantly. The crystal altar vanished and Victus’ body fell with a stone-shuddering thud, the blue flames slithered across the floor and hugged the walls, shifting back to their soft, yellow hues, and apart from the glittering fragments of the shattered candles the chamber was once more as cold and silent as a tomb.
The golden hue held within Caelin’s eyes disappeared along with the magic and he observed his surroundings with a newfound clarity. The depths of the shadows faded and contrasted sharply against the silhouettes of his associates, their serious, contemptuous airs further darkened the gloom yet brightened their distinctive auras, and without warning the humour he had suppressed for so long burst free.
His laughter bounced from each pentagonal wall and filled the chamber with its chaotic melody and the grim faces of the other Magisters only furthered his mirth. The disdainful bastards could no longer match him. His blood was fuelled by the energies of all High Magisters past; he was a power to behold, a power without equal —a power akin to the Gods!
The Council watched on in uncertain silence as he spluttered and laughed, and the minutes were as slow as the rising sun before he at last regained control and allowed the throes of madness to fade into the void. Tranquillity took over as the crazed mirth vanished and he slowly, serenely gazed upon every Magister who stood alongside him, each one returning his stare with careful, watchful eyes.
It would be difficult for them to adjust to his leadership but they would learn. They had no choice. He was an Arisse! The blood of the original royal family flowed though his veins and though the era of Kings and Queens was but distant history, the fortunate truth would not be ignored by the people. His lineage was a boon that would please the masses and if his Council did not submit, they would suffer for their heresies in more ways than the obvious. The demons his family had long worshipped would see to that.
A small smile crept over his face and he flicked his wrist, a barely perceptible movement that allowed the burning rod to return to its original bladed form, and grasping the handle in both hands, he plunged the knife deep into Victus’ gut and exited the chamber without a backward glance.
Lord Magister Lena lifted her hood and glared at Caelin’s departure. It should not have been him.
She wasn’t envious of the position nor had she wanted it, unlike many of their ambitious, conniving peers, but there were others far more suited for sovereignty. Despite the boy’s well-regarded lineage he was barely five years past the cusp of adolescence and his family’s blatant disregard and disrespect for the Gods made him an inappropriate choice for this most blessed role —even a Council position should have been beyond his reach!
Victus had been a fool. A mad, blinded fool.
“Conceal your thoughts, my love,” Lord Magister Nicolai’s warning warmed her ear as his thin hand fell onto her shoulder, snapping her thoughts in twain.
Despite his advice, his disapproval was as palpable as her own… perhaps even more-so. As the decades-long Magister General of the Obsidian Armies and a man well-respected by near the entirety of the Sundered Isles, he would have made a finer choice for the Ascension.
The Council took their leave, each robed silhouette emanating a heavy solemnity that further burdened the air, and as she grudgingly took her place at the end of the line she cast a disdainful eye over Victus’ discarded corpse just as the flames disappeared and buried the chamber in darkness. The tiny creatures that lived in the shadows would feast, lest an unsavoury mage dared return the dead to the living, and by morning not even a single strand of Victus’ white hair would remain.
A bright streak jagged across the sky and greeted their emergence from the depths, followed by a sharp crack of thunder. The two moons were thin crescents that shone down through the Aethya —the Gods’ domain— and infused each facet of the jagged quartz that circled and contained their castle home with the same bizarre colours that lit up the sky. Heavy vibrations thrummed through the air as black and burgundy bands churned across the heavens and transformed the Aethya into a twisted abyss, and Lena grimaced as another bolt of lightning struck the eastern tower. The crystal shattered into a mass of shards akin to the golden candles during the Ascension, but then they levitated, pressed up against the structure’s wound, and repaired themselves with the patience and skill of a master craftsman.
The lightning storm was a perpetual atmospheric delight that never ceased regardless of season or weather, but the black and burgundy colours that wove within the normally-vibrant Aethya was unlike anything else she had ever seen. Perhaps the Three also disapproved of the blasphemy that had befallen them with the ascent of this demon worshipping man-child; perhaps, at this moment, they were preparing to release their displeasure upon the usurper and turn sovereignty over to one of the righteous.
Nicolai peered over his shoulder and sent her a heated glare, his fiery eyes as embers embedded within his gaunt, dark face, and she quickly straightened her posture and erected a mental shield. If these careless thoughts continued she would soon find herself an eternal feast for the demons that would guide their path and with an Arisse’s hand directing their future it was now doubtful the Three would even notice.
The day of the Gods was over and they who were once Their will were now the unblessed. With this Ascension the end of the Sundered Isles was but a certainty.
A gong rang out in three reverberating booms that shook the Isles and commanded all residents to approach the great hall to witness as the new High Magister claimed his ceremonial throne and laid bare his plans for the future, and this time Lena hid her sneer. Instead she retained a quiet, emotionless dignity befitting a Council member and silently followed her colleagues into the castle.
This is Chapter One of The Aethya's End, Book One of the Forgotten Prophecy series. A book and series that is still a work-in-progress but one that I hope to finally get out there this year. (I say that every year; may this year be the one!)
It's been an active work-in-progress for over a decade and has been in mind, constantly evolving and changing shape, for double that.
To the non-native English speakers who may have tried to read this, I am sorry about my archaic voice and use of uncommon words. 😂
Next chapter coming as time allows. 😊 I am slowly getting them up to a printable/publishable standard. Well, to my standards anyway -- I am very much aware that my writing is not for today's mainstream. 😂 I love it though and will get this labour of love out of my system.
I really need to stop being a perfectionist and just get this out there instead of re-writing it twenty million times. Eurgh.