Chapter IV – The Human Soulstone

Zac awoke with a start, feeling a hand rest on his shoulder. He sat bolt upright with a yelp, his heart pounding, instantly awake – and he saw none other than the drunk cup bearer Roald standing next to his bed, looking alarmed.

“Whoa, I apologize,” Roald said as Zac stared at him with wide, wild eyes. “Didn’t you know you rested so uneasily, ya know?”

“What the hell are you doing in my room?” Zac blurted. “Or – or my house?

Roald didn’t even seem to hear, almost looking through him. “We need your help, my Lord,” he went on, halfway in a monotone. “The slaves have gotten loose again. I tried to tell your demon Ajira to keep a closer eye on them, but he doesn’t listen to anybody but you. Should I have all the slaves killed publicly as an example?”

He fell silent a moment as Zac’s jaw worked but nothing came out.

Fear crossed Roald’s glazed-over eyes. “I apologize, my Lord. Please, I’ll do anything. Do you want me to…”

“What the hell are you talking about!?”

“…call in your personal slave from this city to give you a massage? I’ll do that right away, my Lord. Just don’t kill me or feed me to the hellhounds. My family would really appreciate it…”

Hellhounds!?” Zac paused. “And you don’t have a family!”

“…Thank you, my Lord.”

With that, Roald bowed and shuffled out of the room. Nothing Zac said seemed to affect him at all. Zac sputtered, holding his head for a moment and trying to think – until he looked up, and in stepped Princess Amanda Artorius herself.

Zac had never really gotten to see the Princess up close except for once or twice when he saw her in the great hall, like when the royals met with the Inquisitors and Templars. Granted, they had met once during a banquet, but that was only in passing. Zac hadn’t really said two words to her, but she’d smiled at him, and he’d kept the thought of that for entirely too long.

Amy Artorius was a stunningly gorgeous woman. She had long, blonde hair, crystalline blue eyes, a lovely body, and a lithe physique… Essentially, every inch of her was beautiful. She even had a smile that could drive a man insane – which was probably why Zac still hadn’t forgotten it to this day.

Whatever the hell this day was.

“I hope I’m not interrupting…” she said before giving a bow. “You summoned me, my Lord?” she asked, looking at him with a blank stare. She was like a dead thing given animation – a beautiful dead thing, but completely dead, nonetheless, at least on the inside.

“Wh—no. No I didn’t,” Zac blurted, scrambling to his feet and then realizing he was still wearing nothing but a meager pair of pants – very meager.

“This is really not okay,” he murmured to himself under his breath.

Screams. They broke the relative stillness of the house, sending a violent chill up Zac’s spine. He started out of his skin and darted to a window, throwing it open against his better judgment…

But all he saw was a bright purple light. The screaming grew louder, until the voices filled his ears. They were all he could hear – voices crying out in pain, thousands of them, a chorus of agony… and, somehow, he knew these were the screams of victims put to experiments under the rule of the magi. When he began to realize this, some small part of him started to enjoy the sound…


 

He awoke drenched in a cold sweat, gasping for breath and thrashing violently about the second he regained consciousness, letting out a half-strangled sound in alarm, until it suddenly became a yell.

Throwing off the soaked covers, he sat upright, looking around. His room was only just touched by the first few rays of the coming dawn peeking in through his window. There were no screams, and there certainly were no slaves.

“Oh, gods,” he breathed, burying his face in his hands and trying to take a few deep breaths instead of fast, shallow ones. Swallowing, he wondered just what on earth had just happened.

I do not understand entirely, that dreadful voice in his head suddenly said – the voice he had wanted to forget about all night. But perhaps our… subconscious is intertwined as well. Your dreams are affected by my presence. I can only hope that it does not progress, and this is the worst that will come of it.

“I would never dream something like that!” Zac gasped, halfway choking on his words. “N-not – not any of it!”

Oh? None of it? Have you never desired power? Servants, slaves…

“No!”

…A beautiful woman?

No! No, no – not like that!” He swallowed. “You’re sick!

I suppose that could be a matter of opinion. I am sick, according to your Inquisition.

Ildrius’s tone was almost teasing, and he gave a chuckle that made Zac ball his hands into fists, twisting around some of his sheets like he was trying to choke his bedding to death. He set his jaw and halfway growled in his throat.

I apologize, Ildrius said with one more quiet laugh, though Zac got the distinct impression he didn’t mean it. You never asked for this, and neither did I. Just so you’re aware… I did not mistreat female slaves.

Zac just gave a short groan.

However, it was your subconscious that put that particular woman there. A… ‘crush,’ perhaps? Is that not what peasants call that sort of thing?

“Please shut up now,” Zac muttered through his teeth.

Aside from the nightmare, did you rest well?

“No. No, I didn’t ‘rest well’ – how am I supposed to ‘rest well?’ I spent half the night trying to pretend today never happened and you don’t exist and I’m not cursed – or possessed – or whatever the hell is going on, and…”

And a berserker did not break into your home and steal that tome?

Zac paused. “Yes, and that.”

Does that not concern you at all? Perhaps it’s time you shared with me precisely what that book is, and where you found it.

The Arcadian sighed. “It was just an old book – it’s some old history book.”

He paused, his mind crashing into a brick wall.

“An old history book that’s mostly about…” his voice drifted. “About you,” he finally finished, blinking.

Your mind has abruptly turned into utter chaos. It’s impossible to parse. What are you thinking about?

But Zac’s mind was, as he said, somewhere else. “This can’t be a coincidence,” he said suddenly, all but leaping out of bed and pulling some clothes on.

Perhaps I can aid you in solving this mystery, if you would take the time to explain it.

“Look – I found a tome about Ildri—about you, and then I find… I find – you? That’s just too convenient to not be…” He shook his head, his mind racing and thoughts pouring out of his mouth before he’d even finished thinking them. “This was all some kind of setup. It was like a plan, and…”

Ildrius said nothing.

Abruptly, in an almost triumphant tone, Zac blurted, “Vide arcanum.”

He felt Ildrius go still inside him, if such a thing were possible with souls. It seemed as if his entire presence froze.

Where did you learn that phrase? he asked slowly.

The simple fact that he had managed to confuse, or concern, or daze, or even remotely surprise Ildrius made a tiny, absurd smile pull at a corner of Zac’s mouth. For a moment, he said nothing, enjoying the feeling. Just this once, Ildrius didn’t sound so overly superior.

Finally, he replied, “I broke your code… Your followers’ code. Vide arcanum – what does it mean? I mean, other than the obvious – I know what it means means, but…”

Ildrius had no patience for his spiraling, and he replied tersely, It is a phrase used to discover magi. Had you the Gift, it would result in a message appearing wherever you found it.

“In the book,” Zac finished. “Someone was using the book to communicate – and not just anybody, they were some of your people.” He furrowed his brow. “They were trying to find you,” he murmured, largely to himself.

No doubt they have sought after me all this time. And you found this book just before you discovered my resting place, is that it? Someone intended for this to happen?

“But not to me,” Zac said as he headed out the door. “At least, I don’t think they wanted it to happen to me… not unless…”

He shook his head. All of this was starting to sound like an insane conspiracy – he shouldn’t be thinking things like this.

And then Ildrius made it all worse: Not unless they knew you are capable of absorbing a soul.

Zac’s mind crashed to a halt – he felt like Ildrius had just dropped a heavy stone into his stomach. “What?”

What you did is truly exceptional, Zacynthos. You do not seem to even begin to grasp the depths of how extraordinary this is. Long have I – and my servants – searched for even one person capable of hosting other souls. Those who underwent the rituals… If they were lucky, they died painfully in the process. If they were not, they died slowly, their minds and souls ripped apart and overtaken by complete insanity.

Zac swallowed. No, the horror wasn’t a stone, but rather a living thing in his stomach, since something inside him began to writhe.

Yes. If ever you saw the fate of those I have seen attempt to do what you did without even intending to do so, perhaps you would realize just how… he seemed to muse over a word, before finally saying with a mixture of admiration and a hint of disgust, how special you are.

The Arcadian rubbed his temples. If he had any common sense, he’d just go see a priest, get an exorcism, and forget any of this happened. But after touching that holy symbol, he wasn’t sure… and weren’t exorcisms supposed to be kind of terrifying? Especially for the excised?

You have very strange thoughts, Ildrius commented a bit flatly.

“Yeah, well, I’m usually not sharing them,” Zac mumbled.

Where are you going now, then? Are your contemplations about whether or not someone receiving an exorcism ‘really pukes green slime’ merely something to distract me, or do you truly have no intention of doing something to explore your situation?

“Oh, I’m gonna explore it. I just,” he shrugged, “I mean, do they puke green slime? Do you know? Dark magic is kind of your thing…”

But when Ildrius seemed disinclined to respond, he changed the subject. “I’m going to find that berserker. Maybe he knows more about what’s happening to me and about that tome.”

Did I read your thoughts wrong earlier in that this local ruler, this King Rikard, often hires him to do… undesirable labor? The sort of thing a king would not want publicly known?

“Yeah,” Zac replied hesitantly. “At least—at least that’s what I’ve always heard…”

If those who ordered that berserker to take the tome know its true purpose and worth…

“I know, I know – but, hey, speaking of that…” he paused. “Uh… if – someone finds out… about me – us—you…”

His voice drifted off, but Ildrius easily put the rest together from his thoughts. At best, you will be locked up somewhere on Karak du Vide for the rest of your life. Most likely in a void iron cell, so that I have no chance of escape. You’ll never see the light of day, and the people you interact with will treat you like someone possessed by a demon…

Zac gulped, but Ildrius did not stop.

They will conduct experiments on you to try and remove my soul from your body, or at least try to communicate with me and interrogate me on the nature of our connection and how my soul came to be inside you, among other tidbits of information they find important. Torture will be involved.

He allowed a pause, but Zac’s brain was frozen.

At worst, however, he went on, they will simply kill you. That would, most likely, effectively untether our souls, leaving you to move on to whatever afterlife awaits you and my soul to be destroyed. There are tactical disadvantages to this from their point of view, to be sure. Rest assured, I believe they will try to take you in alive, if I am discovered. But if all else fails, I am sure they would not hesitate to do what they feel is necessary to prevent my continued existence.

The color had since drained from Zac’s face. “So…”

So if you tell an Inquisitor about what has happened to you, then yes, that would be a grave mistake. You cannot trust anyone, Zacynthos, least of all those who despise me most. The ones you, I believe, would previously consider your allies.

For a moment longer, Zac stood there, staring, almost afraid to move. Ildrius remained silent, and if Zac had given it enough thought, he would’ve been surprised that the Mage-Emperor allowed him even a few seconds to himself to contemplate anything. But, at least, he seemed kind enough to allow that… if anything he ever did could be called kindness.

“Some Inquisitors and Templars just arrived in the city the other day,” Zac finally said in a low, defeated voice.

Then, answered Ildrius, you had best make every effort to avoid them.

At length, Zac resumed walking, and he was now nearing the castle. With every step he took closer to his usual workplace, he could not help but think… what were things going to be like now? He couldn’t live his life like this. There was no way he could exist the way he always had, not with Ildrius’s constant presence… something had to be done.

And then, as he walked, that horrid voice assured him, Something will be done… But it may take time. Until then, you must learn to trust me.

Zac gulped again at the idea, his grip on the strap of his bag tightening. He did not bother trying to respond to that, mentally or otherwise. And yet he had thoughts he could not suppress… thoughts that, no doubt, were heard by that evil being lurking inside him.

 


 

 

Mercifully, for whatever reason, Ildrius remained silent as Zac made his way back to the castle. When he looked around the steadily awakening streets he had called home for a few years now, the clerk almost could have believed everything was normal. That, and Ildrius’s voice wasn’t whispering all through his very being.

But he felt different, somehow. Even without Ildrius speaking, he felt… heavier. Not physically, but mentally – or perhaps spiritually, or both. He was not even sure what the feeling was, but he didn’t feel right.

A fresh breeze brought the smell of the nearby sea to him, and he glanced up at all the seagulls whirling overhead, calling out for some scraps. Walking past the docks was refreshing, or so he had always thought, which was why he sometimes took this detour.

As he neared the castle, a familiar face hurried up to him from inside: Roald, looking disturbed, like usual. His bulging blue eyes were – surprisingly – rather clear instead of murky, reddened, and intoxicated, however, which gave Zac some pause. Roald almost never looked this serious unless he was, ironically, incredibly drunk.

“What’d you do last night, Zac?” Roald asked, staring him in the face. Zac kept walking, but he did slow down to meet Roald’s wide-eyed gaze.

“Did I do something?” Zac answered, making a face in surprise and instantly losing his cool. “What’d I do? Are people saying I did something?”

Calm down, before your heart bursts from your chest, Ildrius warned. Zac had barely even registered just how hard his heart was suddenly pounding.

But Roald slowly broke into a smile, and his eyes relaxed back to his usual half-asleep-looking state as he replied with a shrug, “Nothing, I was just trying to give you some crap for not coming to drinks last night.”

Zac took a deep breath and blinked a few times, realizing just how close he had come to completely freaking out. “Oh – oh, right, right,” he blurted, forcing a quick laugh that was more just a half-wheezed sigh of relief. “I, ah… must’ve forgotten.”

“No big deal, we were just going to make it up to you since you missed that other night. But Flora said we’ll just,” he shrugged, “do it again when you actually tell us you’re coming. That way we won’t all get hammered every night even though you aren’t showing up. At least, that’s what she suggested. I don’t really mind it. But I guess she has to watch all that drinking ‘cuz of her age.”

“Yyyeah, probably,” Zac replied. “Look, I’m gonna get to work. I’ll let you guys know when I’ve got time to hang out again. Sorry I haven’t been coming, work’s just gotten crazy, ya know? There’s this new huge order of books and everything…” He was already drifting in the direction of the stairs down to his work space while he talked. “But I promise I’ll get back to you guys and make it up to you. Drinks are on me for the next two times.”

“Can you pay for that?” Roald asked in mild surprise, or at least as much meager and vaguely uninterested surprise as he ever showed without a natural phenomenon happening in front of his face.

“Sure, I’m good for it. I’ll see you later!”

With that, Zac gave a brief wave before he turned and headed off toward the staircase down to his desk. Gods willing, he could make this an ordinary day at work… It’d just have to be an ordinary day at work with a voice in his head.

And an ordinary day at work where he would start looking for a berserker.

He was unfortunately reminded of the voice’s existence as Ildrius observed, It seems you mingle only with books and with fools.

Setting his jaw, Zac kept walking. He wasn’t about to respond to that one.


 

Ildrius remained suspiciously silent for the next several hours, only commenting occasionally, usually to point out something about a book Zac copied or to comment on history and knowledge in general. All things considered, however, even the Mage-Emperor was being remarkably considerate… at least, in a way.

Zac couldn’t help but worry some at the silence, wondering if Ildrius was plotting something. And, worse yet, he imagined that Ildrius knew he was worrying. Why didn’t this soul-absorbing thing work both ways? Why couldn’t he hear Ildrius’s thoughts the way Ildrius seemed to hear his? It was his body Ildrius was trapped in, after all…

Thankfully, Ildrius didn’t comment on that.

At this point, Zac had almost no idea what time it was. Minutes could feel like hours when he was copying, so for all he knew, night had since fallen.

Just when he figured he should probably go check what time it was, someone came down the stairs. In fact, it was more than one person. Zac paused, staring at the book he’d been busy illuminating. The footsteps were heavy, armored. Very armored – he heard the clinks and clanks of chain, of plate, the sound of leather…

“Zacynthos of Arcadia?” asked a voice behind him. Zac froze completely then, a blot of ink dripping off his quill and marring a line of text. He’d heard that voice not too long ago.

Slowly, Zac turned his head – and saw behind him two heavily armored figures: a Templar and an Inquisitor. He recognized them immediately, from the meeting he’d witnessed with King Rikard. The tallest figure was the Inquisitor who had yet to remove his helm, and the other was the man Rikard had addressed as Captain Randal.

Whoever he was, Captain Randal looked like the statue of an Olympian god given life. He was tall, incredibly broad-shouldered, and bound in large muscles that showed under his form-fitting armor, which was mostly red and gold and spangled in the stars of Astra. That said nothing of his face, which looked chiseled by some deity, with bright blue eyes so intense they seemed almost unreal set under dark brows and a head of short-cropped, golden blond hair.

Zac stared, trying not to look as horrified as he felt. Not only did these two look like they could take on a small army between the two of them, but here were the exact people Ildrius had just warned him to avoid…

And then it occurred to him he was afraid because he wanted to do what Mage-Emperor Ildrius told him to do, and he couldn’t help but decide he was doomed either way.

Then the Templar in front, the Achaean god one, smiled in a friendly way and said, “Greetings. I’m Knight-Captain Stevan Randal. This is Ebonguard Ben Blackburn,” he gestured back to the armored Inquisitor, who gave a casual wave that didn’t suit his ominous armored exterior. Stevan continued, “I was hoping we could ask you a few questions.”

As quickly as he could manage, Zac gathered his wits and replied, trying poorly to sound composed, “Ques—yeah. Yes. Sure. Uh – what kind of questions… exactly?” he asked, one hand fidgeting nervously with the neck of his tunic.

Be calm, Ildrius said in a slow slither that Zac felt deep in the pit of his stomach, and think your responses through very carefully. If you do not, your life could very well end tonight.

Stevan didn’t look distracted by Zac’s nervousness, but the Arcadian got the distinct impression it didn’t go unnoticed. “Questions regarding a tome you were supposed to copy a few days ago. Don’t worry, it won’t take long.”

Zac hesitated, but he got to his feet hastily when he realized that he was, in fact, hesitating – he didn’t want to look guilty. And the hastiness resulted in him standing up too quickly, hitting his head on the low ceiling, grunting with a wince, and then trying to look composed again afterward. Neither the Inquisitor nor the Templar reacted, though their eyes were upon him.

Inside him, he felt Ildrius sigh.

Stevan, however, maintained an amicable attitude as he gave a small smile and said, “This way.”

“Right – sure,” Zac blurted, trying to sound casual. He quickly realized he should just keep his mouth shut.

The armored figures led the way back up the stairs and into the castle proper. Zac tried not to glance around at his potential escape routes too obviously as they passed into the halls, up some stairs, and eventually to the guest rooms. They were as fancy as one would expect guestrooms in a royal castle to be – in other words, they were filled with things far more extravagant than anything Zac had ever even touched in his life, much less considered spending time around.

Unfortunately, the sizable guestroom into which Captain Randal led him was occupied by no less than four Inquisitors and four Templars, and Zac noticed some other figures lurking in the shadows off to one corner – he had no idea who they were, as there wasn’t enough light to tell… and he was far more preoccupied by those who stood before him.

Stevan and Ben brought Zac to a halt before a Templar woman clad in armor made of almost solid deepsilver, bearing only the smallest hints of gold and red. In fact, almost everything about her was silver: her long hair in a ponytail was silver-blonde, and her eyes looked as bright and sharp as a polished blade. She was not old, by any means, but her face held a bit more age and wear than did Stevan’s, though this had not dampened her undeniable charisma.

Something struck Zac then: other than that Inquisitor, Ben, Zac was the tallest person in the room, although Stevan almost matched his height. And yet, when he looked at this Templar woman, he couldn’t help but feel small. He had no trouble figuring out she was in charge.

“So you’re the clerk,” said the silvery Templar woman, giving Stevan a nod as he joined them, standing by their side.

“Yeah,” Zac replied promptly. He sounded nervous, so he cleared his throat and said more steadily, “Yes, that’s me.”

“I am Zoria Blackstar,” she said, and her keen, mercury eyes gave Zac a quick inspection. He knew immediately from her tone that this would be a brief and purposeful conversation, and that didn’t help his nerves. “It’s come to my attention that you were recently in possession of a certain book: an old tome, bound in black leather, full of historical writings and in particular recounting history of Mage-Emperor Ildrius. Is that true?”

Before Ildrius could make any sense of Zac’s jumbled thoughts or come up with any remark, Zac suddenly answered, “It’s true.”

Zoria gave a nod as if she’d already known, which made Zac feel slightly more comfortable with his response. “And you were copying this book. You took it home with you, did you not?”

Against a nagging voice in his mind that actually was not Ildrius, Zac nodded.

“Is it usual for you to take your work home?”

Zac’s mind hit a stone wall the size of the multi-layered fortifications around the Imperial capital.

I assume it is, in truth, Ildrius said. If Zac hadn’t known better, he would’ve guessed Ildrius actually sounded a little worried – and like he genuinely wanted to help… even if it was only to save his skin. Or, at least, his skin that was currently Zac’s.

“It—well, not really, I mean…” Zac started, but he paused and realized he was sputtering. He took a breath and tried to gather his wits as he finally managed to meet Zoria’s hard gaze and respond, “I like books, or I wouldn’t be here. I take my work home a lot, especially if I found it interesting…”

“And what was so interesting about this book?” Zoria cut in, knifelike.

Do not take these Templars lightly, Ildrius warned, deeply annoyed. One slip of the tongue and they know something is wrong. They can see through lies or any petty attempts to work around the truth. Continue with caution.

Zac swallowed.

Zoria’s eyes kept boring into him. After a breath, Zac answered slowly, “I found this weird cipher in the book. And there were these – these blank pages, and I solved this puzzle, but I couldn’t figure out the message. So… So I put the book away because I had to go copy inscriptions out of the catacombs – the ones below the temple of Zeus.”

Silence.

Zac swallowed again, harder this time. “And that’s it,” he finished in a small voice, sensing the incredible disappointment falling across the room. He braced himself for the response.

The Templars and Inquisitors seemed to communicate silently, exchanging looks with one another – and Zoria asked, “The cipher. What was it?”

“This weird phrase. ‘Vide arcanum.’ I know it’s just High Imperial, but it didn’t seem right, so I figured it was some kind of code…”

He let his voice drift. To say much more about it would only endanger himself further, and thankfully, Ildrius dropped no unnecessary reminder.

Stevan, Zoria, and Ben all exchanged significant looks again, this time in such a way that it prompted Zac to fall completely quiet.

“But you already know that,” he finished flatly.

“So the book is still in your home?” Zoria asked, ignoring that observation.

Zac hesitated. What on earth were they going to say about the berserker? What would they think? Surely it couldn’t hurt to…

You tread dangerous ground. If they delve too deep, they will find the truth, and then…

“Focus!” snapped the Templar woman, pulling Zac back into reality. The armored figures around him were looking at him like he was acting strangely somehow – but he wasn’t, at least that he could tell. Taking a deep breath, Zac tried harder than ever to push Ildrius into some dark little corner of his soul as he felt a fresh wave of what-the-hell-is-happening-to-me.

“Look, I had to go copy a bunch of stuff out of the catacombs below the temple of Zeus, like I said. I left the book behind. When I came back… someone was in my house. He grabbed me, made me show him where the book was, took it, and left.”

“And who was it? Or did you not see his face?”

Against all his better judgment, Zac found himself answering, “It was this berserker that lives in the city somewhere. People just call him Björn.”

“I’ll be damned,” the tall, armored Inquisitor suddenly muttered in a smooth voice. The remark drew a sharp glare from Zoria, but she quickly returned her gaze to the Arcadian in front of her. Zac had begun to fidget with his collar again.

“Very well, then,” said Zoria, though from her tone, Zac got the distinct feeling she didn’t trust him. She drew a breath to continue, but she didn’t have time to say a word before someone kicked in the door to their fancy room – almost literally.

Zac yelped involuntarily at the resounding crash as the door slammed into the stone wall behind it, and in stomped several armored figures, all of them city officials of Artorius… and none of them officials of the Empire abroad, like the assorted other occupants of the room.

Although Zac didn’t actually get to rub elbows with any local knights of Artorius, he knew about them, and he immediately recognized the man at the head of this group: Sir Herry Baines. He was short and rather thin, as knights went, and lacked too much of a commanding air, but that apparently did not stop him from doing his duty.

He wore a surprising amount of armor, to be dealing with Imperial officials. Zac swallowed and quickly darted toward a corner of the room, realizing the Artorians had come for a fight…

Only for Baines to reach out with an armored hand and grab his arm in a startlingly firm hold, trying to yank him back over. Zac felt sure he could have used his greater height to pull Baines off-balance and get away, but he was a knight, so he let himself be dragged instead.

At least you know your place, Ildrius remarked in something like a murmur. Zac’s face went red in frustration.

“How dare you!” shouted Sir Baines, not even acknowledging Zac with a glance, as he glared hard into the eyes of Zoria from beneath his great helm. “You strut into our city as if you own it…”

Zac noticed Ben and Stevan exchange glances, but neither one pointed out the obvious.

“…and then you all but kidnap one of our citizens for interrogation!”

Zoria was unmoved. “It was not an interrogation, and he came willingly.”

Baines rounded on Zac then, yanking him around to look him in the eye, even if he almost had to crane his neck to do so. “Is that true?” he demanded.

Zac’s mind raced, and somewhere in the middle of it, he heard Ildrius whisper, You do not want to make enemies here.

So Zac spluttered weakly, “Um—well – sort of!”

Impatient, Baines released him and turned to resume locking gazes with Zoria. Zac hastily took several lengthy steps back from the argument as he watched Ben and Stevan step up on either side of Zoria, as the assorted other figures in the room rose to their feet, as well.

“Ohhhno…” Zac breathed. The various warriors stood head to head in the center of the room, and tension hung in the air thick enough to slice with a blade.

“You realize we are Imperial officials,” Zoria said calmly, though her voice carried a sharp edge. “You and your king have no right to halt our investigation. We’re working for the good of your city, not against it.”

“We do not need meddlers from the Heartland!” snapped Baines, and behind him, a larger knight cracked his knuckles. “You attempt to find something that does not exist! You’re falling straight into the trap these barbarians are laying for this city – they plan an attack, and to distract us from their spies, they’re leading us on a ridiculous chase after a bunch of Hidden who—”

“Then tell me,” Zoria cut in, not even raising her voice, “how do you explain this situation with the elves? Or has your king even told you that the elves to the north killed several Men not long ago, Men looking for something in their territory, and they blamed it on your city, despite your king denying involvement?”

Baines seemed aware of this information, as he simply drew himself up and answered, “It’s no concern. Fools tramping into elven territory and getting themselves killed is…”

Stevan spoke next, and the authority in his voice silenced everyone as efficiently as Zoria’s. “They said the elves took something from them long ago, something they’d do anything to get back…”

Blood drained from Zac’s face like someone had pulled out a stopper.

“…and there were rumors that a holdout of Ildrius’s followers came to this island to escape Durand and his men, before the Inquisition was even formed. It only makes sense to pursue this lead and make absolutely sure there are no cultists hiding in the city now that they’re realizing there might actually be something here they want.”

“And waste Artorian time and resources in doing so – resources that would be put to better use eliminating any spies in our midst,” retorted Baines. “Not to mention sending the entire city into a frenzy over the idea of cultists conjuring dark magic in the middle of the night. There’ll be unrest, which is exactly what the barbarians want to use to their advantage!”

And then Zoria said only, “Give us the tome.”

Baines froze, staring at her. That seemed to throw him off for a moment, but he quickly regained his composure and asked with an attempt at outrage, “What?”

“The tome,” snapped Zoria, her patience wearing thin. “You have it. You took it from the clerk. We need it. Give it to us.”

“We did no such…!”

“Your pet berserker took it,” Ben Blackburn clarified flatly.

Silence fell over everyone so abruptly that Zac held his breath without realizing it. Baines’s eyes were wide beneath his helm, apparently in real outrage this time. Ben crossed his arms and somehow managed to look like the calmest person in the room. Zac tried to inch toward the door, but a glare from one of the other Artorian knights stopped him in his tracks.

This should be amusing, Ildrius commented. Zac could not possibly have disagreed more.

“By the Imperial authority I hold,” Zoria declared, “I hereby conscript Zacynthos of Arcadia and assign him temporary duties as a clerk of the Knights Templar, for so long as I see fit.”

Zac’s eyes went wide.

Not amusing,” he whimpered between his teeth to his soul-passenger, balling his hands into fists to keep them from shaking. “Definitely not remotely amusing…!”

Hm, was all Ildrius had to offer. Zac felt a heat wave of sheer frustration come over him, or maybe it was just heat radiating from all the collective, bottled-up anger contained in the room.

Baines was certainly seething beneath his helm. He straightened himself as tall as he could manage, though Ben and Stevan still towered on either side of Zoria, a pair of colossi daring him to make a move.

In the silence that hung for everyone else, Ildrius said calmly, After all I have survived and you have survived, even after stumbling across that ritual that almost certainly should have killed you, we shouldn’t die at the hands of these assorted simpletons. I will help you escape this. There are many loopholes in Imperial law… But, first, you must escape this room.

No one paid him any attention anymore. Zac glanced toward the door, but there were some militiamen in the way – apparently, Baines had brought quite a little force with him. Zac couldn’t imagine why, unless he actually did plan to butt heads with these Imperial officials so badly they were actually going to throw each other around the room.

And then it happened.

Zac had been too busy watching the door to actually see the first punch thrown, but he heard the sound of a metal gauntlet connecting with a metal helm. If the sound of steel ringing against steel was that loud to him a few feet away, he couldn’t imagine how loud it was for Baines.

When Zac wheeled around to look, he saw Baines staggering back with his hands on his helm, looking disoriented, and Ben straightening his large form to instantly resume looking casual again.

No one moved – until everyone did.

The Inquisitors and Templars stood their ground as the Artorian knights and militiamen ran forward as if on a battlefield – a relatively cramped noble’s room of a battlefield. Baines drew his sword and swung it for Ben’s midsection, only to have Ben knock it clean out of his hand with one cool smack from his heavily armored arm, the blade doing nothing against his panoply of void iron. Zac winced as the sword clanged to the floor.

Chaos ensued in less than a second. Zac, wide-eyed and with his arms over his head, dove behind the nearest large piece of furniture, which happened to be a couch. All around him, he heard the deafening sound of metal against metal as some drew swords, while others simply slammed their armored limbs against the bodies of their adversaries. He had no idea what was going on, but it was certainly loud.

How incredibly simpleminded, Ildrius commented calmly. See how the mundane squabble like petty commoners? During my rule, the magi never argued over such stupidity…

Every word he spoke made it harder for Zac to focus. His mind seemed to keep drifting – it was impossible to realize what was happening around him… and it was happening so fast… He fought to focus, but he could do nothing as Ildrius went on.

And if any mundane Men, such as these knights, attempted to scrap like children, a mage would put them in their place with but a wave of his hand. To witness the sheer power of the Arcane would most likely…

“I’m sure that was really something to see but will you please shut up?” Zac begged in a single blurt, finally pulling himself into reality as Ildrius fell silent. He then dared to peek out from under his arms as he realized things had suddenly gone quiet.

Slowly, he sat up and looked around. Had this been a battlefield, he felt sure he would’ve been watching dust settle. As it was, all he saw were many heavily armored men and women standing around, some bearing new scrapes and scratches on their armor, but otherwise they seemed utterly unaffected.

Pathetic, commented Ildrius with a chuckle. Nothing but grown men – and, for some reason, women appointed knighthood – beating upon each other with no effect. Such are the shortcomings of the mundane: when armored, and when denied proper weaponry, it is virtually impossible for one to actually hurt another.

Zac did his very best to block Ildrius out as he got to his feet, watching Zoria shove her way through the stillness of the room and stop before Baines, whose armor had a few more scratches than many others. Overall, from what he saw in terms of the shininess of their panoplies, Zac figured the Imperial officials – the Templars and the Inquisitors – had won.

“Are you finished?” she asked flatly.

Baines straightened himself – and his helm – and crossed his arms. “Your man threw the first punch,” he answered in a low, annoyed voice.

Ben raised a hand. “Actually, he’s my boss,” he pointed toward Inquisitor Marcus Capulet, the mustached man of partial Southron descent whom Zac also recognized from King Rikard’s meeting with the lot of them not long ago.

“Yes, and what you did was incredibly childish!” Marcus snapped, his voice briefly rising to a pitch unusually high for him. “I’ll report you to General Metus for this!”

“Sorry, dad,” Ben said nonchalantly, which turned Marcus’s face solid red. “He reached for his sword.”

“I reached for my sword,” Baines seethed, “because you are exerting authority in my city that you simply do not have!”

“I suggest,” Zoria cut in, “that you take this up with your superiors. Whether you choose to include this ridiculous tavern brawl in your report is your concern.”

Baines visibly winced at that, and Zac thought he heard Ben chuckle low in his throat, but it was hard to tell while he wore his helm.

“Very well,” Baines finally said, waving his men toward the door with a violent sweep of his arm. “You’ll be hearing from me again, woman. And as for you,” he finally looked at Zac again, as if he remembered his excuse for all of this in the first place, “you may come with me.”

Zoria spoke instantly: “No, he may not.”

Zac stood his ground. Both of them were looking at him again. Even after all the battering on each other’s armor, they were right back to where they started.

It seems they are giving someone of your simple birth surprising influence over your fate, for the time being. I suggest you accompany this Artorian, lest you remain in the claws of the Templars and the Inquisitors for far longer than is safe for either of us.

Something inside him snapped. Before Zac even knew what he was doing, he spoke again.

“I’ll stay with them,” he said so suddenly it surprised even him – and his voice, too, apparently, as it came out a bit shaky. Baines stared for half a second before his shoulders slumped slightly, and Zac noticed that Zoria delivered him an approving half-second glance.

Baines didn’t say a word. He whirled and stormed toward the door as his men quickly left, slamming it shut behind him. Zac winced this time. A voice in his mind, this one not Ildrius either, told him he would definitely regret making enemies of an Artorian official.

The Templars and Inquisitors, however, seemed to be quite relieved – and many of them suddenly started losing their professional air after the knights left.

“Crazy assholes,” Ben said with a laugh. “Are those knights? What kind of a fu—”

“They’re like the Illikonians,” Marcus cut in thoughtfully, seeming distinctly annoyed with Ben’s foul mouth. “They believe in independence from the Empire proper, even when it’s only offering them aid.”

“True, but the Illikonians didn’t start fights in the royal keep during that mage cult incident,” Stevan added pointedly. “Even the most difficult of the local officials there were more reasonable.”

“Are you calling Tom Drake reasonable?” Ben asked, a grin apparent in his tone.

“It sounds like you admire his difficulty,” added another Templar, this one also a woman, who wore a huge animal fur around her shoulders.

Ben just gave an innocent shrug. “Hey, you didn’t meet him…”

Stevan snorted. “Good thing,” he muttered under his breath, and Ben laughed.

Zac just stood there listening, until Zoria silenced the entire room simply by raising a hand. She then turned straight to Zac, who felt, now more than ever, that the Artorians’ attempt to “rescue” him – if that was what just happened – had accomplished absolutely nothing.

And it was largely his own fault.

Excellent, Ildrius whispered. Now you may mingle with those who would gladly experiment upon, and eventually kill, you.

Zac felt a chill run up his spine, but he swallowed and glanced awkwardly around at the assorted comrades who clearly knew each other at least reasonably well. They would have, no doubt, continued to hold their casual conversations, were it not for Zoria’s interference, as unprofessional as that may have been.

“Alright, Arcadian,” said Zoria, her voice far sterner this time. “Now it’s time for you to tell me everything. First, allow me to clarify, since you clearly do not know: the book you found is connected to a cult called the Hidden. Do you know who they are?”

“Some crazy, scary guys who use dark magic and think Ildrius is going to return someday,” Zac answered almost instantly. “Yeah.”

‘Crazy, scary guys,’ Ildrius echoed thoughtfully, and Zac could feel him seething. Instantly, he knew he had said the wrong thing. You, who have me inside you, condemn them to be insane for believing in my return? You, who host a piece of my soul, still doubt my power?

Zac tried and failed to shut him out – and Ildrius kept speaking.

The very fact that my cult still exists is proof enough on its own that my power shall live forever. Not only I, but my influence in this world. As someone who has experienced firsthand the cunning and power of my followers, I would have hoped you would show them more respect, Zacynthos of Arcadia.

“…So the book ended up here because they were using it to send messages ages ago. We only recently discovered this, and the Hidden seem to be only a few steps ahead of us, at least for the time being. They aren’t as organized or connected as they once were.

“As for why the Artorians want to keep us away from the tome and any further clues, I suppose they believe they’re merely protecting their precious city from ‘distractions’ when it comes to the barbarians, as if denying Hidden activity will keep them safe from it,” Zoria said as if she had just finished explaining something lengthy, but Zac had hardly heard a word.

He came back into focus and looked at her, blinking a few times.

Zoria watched him for a long moment before she said in utter annoyance, “You have an exceptionally short attention span for anything that is not text, Arcadian.”

Zac’s face grew warm and his jaw worked in useless silence he mentally fished for a response, but he couldn’t fathom even the lamest excuse – ‘I had to listen to the long-dead evil emperor in my head’ – so he simply pressed his lips together and narrowed his eyes at the floor instead.

“Now,” Zoria added, “I need to know something else from you. You said you went under the temple of Zeus…”

Zac’s heart skipped a beat as Zoria paused pointedly and looked him square in the eye.

“What did you find there?”

His throat jerked as he swallowed hard, and Ildrius said quickly, with an uncharacteristic hint of desperation in his tone, Do not tell them, Zacynthos. Remember what I said before. Though you may want to believe it, no one in this room is your ally.

“N… Nothing,” Zac finally managed to reply, though his voice was uneven. Zoria narrowed her eyes at him, but he cleared his throat and managed a shrug, saying hoarsely, “I was supposed to copy old inscriptions. That’s what I did.”

The room fell silent for a moment or two as everyone waited for Zoria to speak first – but, to their surprise, it was Zac who broke the stillness instead.

“Can I… go? I mean – I’d really like to go home,” he added innocently. “Y’know, get some rest…”

Perhaps a bit gently, Zoria nodded. “Very well,” she replied. “Return home, Arcadian. When we need you, we will find you. Thank you for your assistance and your cooperation.”


 

He walked home as if his body acted of its own accord, his mind not involved in the least. Zac stared straight ahead as he went, completely lost in thought. By the time he reached home, he was starting to realize his exhaustion, but upon entering, all he did was grab a chair and sit in it, staring hard at the floor and not moving.

How long he sat there, he had no idea, but no matter how brief or how drawn out the moment was, it was not long enough before Ildrius spoke again.

You cannot trust them, Ildrius said. Tell them that you do, but take what they say with a grain of salt. I’m certain you’re intelligent enough to notice the fact that they hardly have your best interests in mind. You were a fool to stay by their sides… If they discover the truth, they will do little but experiment upon you and use you.

Zac answered quietly, “I don’t even know how they could use me. Bait for the Hidden? Or do they want your knowledge? What do you even know that’s so mysterious? It’s not like I’ve suddenly got some kind of special powers or insight or something…”

A long pause made Zac’s insides twist in unease before the Mage-Emperor finally answered, Is that what you think?

He stared hard at the floor, feeling like a block of ice had formed in his stomach and was somehow pumping to his veins. In a low voice, he asked slowly, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Perhaps we shall find out soon enough.

“So,” Zac said suddenly, “if the Artorians didn’t intend for me to get that tome, and they sent that berserker to come take it back – then who sent me into the catacombs? Or was it just… pure coincidence?” He frowned. “That’s really hard to believe…”

Hm, Ildrius mused, yes, it is. Perhaps there is someone in the castle who pulls strings from afar. Perhaps they are even one of the Hidden.

Zac grunted.

Ildrius chuckled, and yet again the sound sent a shudder up Zac’s spine from somewhere deep in his body. Indeed… For now, you should get some rest.

But Zac knit his fingers together in front of him, resting his elbows on his knees and staring at the floor some more. “Are you going to give me nightmares if I do?” he muttered, mostly to himself.

I am afraid that your unrest, Ildrius said as Zac got to his feet and trudged toward his bedroom, is your own curse, Zacynthos.