Thempta floated in nothingness. She looked to her left and to her right. Yet, she saw nothing but blackness. She tried to move and to swim through the vacuum. But no matter what she did, she couldn’t move. Thempta looked down, and she couldn’t see her arms. Worse yet, she couldn’t feel them.
Is this what it is like to be dead? Thempta thought. I was hoping the afterlife was going to be different than this.
She didn’t know how long she floated in the nothingness, running the thoughts of the past few weeks through her head. Her grandmother and family would all be dead. Either by the Talabaers or by High-Prince Maliok due to her own failure. It was the price of the contract that her grandmother made with Maliok. She was to serve him and be under his command. In exchange, she would get protection from their enemies.
It wasn’t until later did they find out the bastard wasn’t good on his word. However, it was too late. He had some psychopathic Malicros Mages working for him, which meant they could never betray him.
In the distance, a single white dot appeared. She looked at the growing white light and pondered what it was. It brought her attention back to her, bodiless, floating self. It grew more extensive as it filled her field of vision.
The pure white pushed back the endless nothingness she floated in, a stark contrast to the darkness which filled her vision a moment before.
Was it a moment? How long has it been? A minute? A year? If I’m dead, does it matter?
The black nothingness was pushed back and turned into a single dot that disappeared into the distance.
“Are you done feeling sorry for yourself,” a voice boomed behind her.
Thempta turned around, and a giant man stood upside down in front of her. His head was at her height, and his feet stretched out into the distance. He was taller than she could tell.
A God, Thempta thought. What do I do? Prostrate? Bow? Stand straight?
She attempted to prostrate herself but found she couldn’t move.
“Calm down,” the God said. “I’m not here to hurt you.”
“I’m a God, but not the one you think I am,” the God said. “You can call me Mr. Magician. A future friend of yours does.”
“Mr. Magician. Oh, Lord God,” Thempta said. “Am I dead?”
“No,” Mr. Magician said. “But you’re close to it.”
“Then what is this place?” Thempta said.
“You’re full of questions.”
“Apologies. Oh, Lord—”
“Shut it and listen.”
Thempta found she had lost the ability to speak.
“The darkness you saw was the corruption from the Evil One,” Mr. Magician said, “I’ve stolen you from him, and you’re now my servant. I’ve also taken your corrupted Rune away from you.”
She tried to speak, but still nothing came out.
“Right.” Mr. Magician waved his hand.
“Your servant?” Thempta said.
“Yes,” Mr. Magician said. “You do have free choice, but if you aren’t my servant, then you are his. Honestly, the term stealing is stretching it. He discarded you like an old shirt.”
Thempta took a deep breath as she controlled her thoughts. Do I have a choice?
“No,” Mr. Magician said.
“What am I?” Thempta asked.
“You’re no longer a mage of Malicros,” Mr. Magician said.
“Am I a Talabaer?”
Thempta was silent. If I am not a Malicros or a Talabaer, then what am I?
“You are a new thing,” Mr. Magician said.
“You can read my mind?”
“I’m a God.”
“What do you command of me?” Thempta asked.
Am image appeared in front of her, it was of the bastard Talabaer, the Ghost. The one who had defeated her not a moment before. Thempta involuntarily hissed at the image. If she had arms, she would be trying to strangle him.
“Good thing this is the space of time between two heartbeats,” Mr. Magician said. “Cause you’re going to stay here until you change your mind. The reasoning is that he’s now your boss, not that he knows it. Yet.”
“Boss? Wait. Time between two heartbeats?”
“Don’t worry,” Mr. Magician said. “You’ll remember every moment of this but won’t be able to speak a word about it to anyone.”
Thempta looked down, away from the image, but the image moved with her. It was like it was glued to her eyesight.
“Question for you,” Mr. Magician asked. “How long is it going to take to change your mind?”
Palma, the ex Talabaer, sat in the shade of a hillside, tired and hurt. She had no idea how Felix, the imbecile, had so much power. Even after she had managed to blind him. A stream of black smoke drifted into the sky above her.
Like all Talabaers and Malicros Mages, she was bald. Her olive-colored scalp was sunburnt and red. Her tattered, once white, robes lay by her feet. She wore nothing but a loincloth. Her tattoos glowed slightly in the shade.
She held a semi-clean shirt, which would be sleeveless and loose-fitting. She should be able to fit her arms inside her blouse to activate her runes.
Palma the Iron-Maiden. Or will the records call me as Palma the Traitor, Palma thought. If there’s anyone able to write it down.
She had betrayed her master, High-Prince Muphaeso. A few years before, she had been approached by her new master, High-Prince Maliok. She was offered money, power, and freedom if she served him for a year. She still had six years of servitude with Muphaeso.
For years she had been one of Muphaeso’s most-trusted Lieutenants. She was second only to him in the terms of Rank and Power. However, for all the years that she put in, she was never allowed to know the High-Prince’s mind and was kept at arm’s length.
Then the fool Felix came in and changed everything. She was still furious. She had been demoted to number three. Felix was given exclusive training with the High-Prince, and she was denied the same privilege. She was mad she wasn’t allowed into the inner circle.
Palma had betrayed her High-Prince and had let the Malicros Mages into the underground tunnels. Felix was blinded, but the fool was still able to fight. She had no idea how, but she had to admit that it was amazing to watch. If she wasn’t on the receiving end.
Around her were a dozen Mages of Malicros, some soldiers of Maliok, and her fellow Talabaer traitors. Not all could use magic, but of those who could, none of them were as powerful as she was.
There was a commotion from the top of a hill out of sight. A soldier, who wore Maliok’s garb and armor, slid down the path.
“Mistress Palma. Is this all who are left?” the woman asked.
“What does it look like?” Palma asked.
Palma didn’t let her answer the question. “Will you listen to me now?”
The woman opened her mouth to reply but was pushed aside by a bald Malicros. He stood shorter than the soldier, but he looked to be no older than fifteen. The kid was as tall as Palma and the muscles on his arms rippled. The boy was of the second rank.
“Why the hell should I listen to a Talabaer whore like you?” the kid yelled.
Before the boy could react, Palma activated her water rune.
“Fysalida-nerou,” Palma said, casting a spell.
A bucket’s worth of water flew at him and the fifteen-year-old was engulfed in the water bubble, which covered him from head to toe. Palma saw him thrash and kick in the water as he attempted to free himself.
“I’m now in charge,” Palma yelled. “You lot will listen to me. Do you agree?”
The soldier and mages nodded.
“Good,” Palma said before she looked at the boy in the bubble of water. “Puddles, will you listen to me, or shall I let you drown?”
The boy nodded.
“Are you sure?” Palma asked, “Because I can kill you by more violent means.”
The boy nodded with his hands clasped together in a prayer motion.
Palma deactivated the rune. The water poured from the boy to the ground and ran down the dry desert. Puddles, the boy, gasped for breath.
“Congratulations,” Palma said. “You get to live for another day.”
“Palma,” a familiar voice said from the side of the hill.
Palma turned and glanced at the person who spoke. Arlon stood by a large rock, in a dirty, ripped Talabaer robe.
Arlon had been the first recruit of Palma’s and the first to express interest in jumping ship. He was the one Talabaer who was trained to inscribe tattoos. As such, he knew the powers of each Talabaer.
“Do you have any word about what’s happening in the village?” Palma asked.
“The spies report they’re rebuilding the village,” Arlon replied.
“And the Fort?”
“It’s a crater,” Arlon said. “Whatever Felix did won’t be repaired anytime soon. If at all.”
Palma turned to the female Maliok soldier.
“You,” Palma said. “What’s your name?”
“Veroni,” she replied.
“Did you get a good look at the Fort?”
“No, Mistress,” Veroni said. “We’re too far away, and a hill blocks the view.”
“Just that cloud of black smoke,” Palma said. “Great.”
Palma looked at the soldiers and Mages who stood with her. The group looked beat up. The fight had been a close thing. Yet, they had lost, and they knew it. All of them had lost brothers and friends in the battle.
“Listen,” Palma said. “I know we’re hurting. It was supposed to be an easy fight, but it didn’t turn out that way. If you want to get revenge and kill those who killed your friends— our friends, to hold your heads high. Especially when we see High-Prince Maliok next, then you need to follow me. Cause I have a plan. Who’s with me?”
The soldiers nodded with agreement, even Puddles.
Primus Laelius Capito leaned against the mast of the quinquereme Imperial Legacy. The five rows of oars churned the water and pushed it rapidly through the water. The highly trained sailors of the Imperial Navy knew their job and knew it well.
He looked across the bay at the glittering city of Daedius, Ta’arqa capital city. The white limestone walls glowed in the sunlight, especially in the setting sun. It acted as a beacon to all ships passing by. They weren’t sailing to the city today but were sailing away from it.
Laelius wore his light tunic and pants which were especially well suited for time out of combat and at the sea. It was the uniform of an off-duty legionnaire. The shoulders of his tunic were marked with an eagle, a sign of his high rank. It separated him from the rank and file of his men.
The trip from Aurre had been long and stressful. The salt air had wreaked havoc on the state of his bronze armor. Within a week, it had turned a shade of green in places. Laelius had spent all his available free time to pick the corrosion from the nooks and crannies applying oil to protect the armor. He had to be the example for the rest of his men.
Below decks were two hundred legionnaires under his command, First Century. Double the strength of the standard hundred men unit of his cohort.
“Primus,” Ambassador Maximus Kaesear said, stepping on deck behind Laelius.
The ambassador was a larger man with broad shoulders built up from a lifetime leading his legions. However, a gut revealed he had spent the last half-decade avoiding anything physical. He wore a similar tunic and pants as Laelius did but wore a purple sash across his shoulder to signify his birth rank as a member of the royal family.
Kaesear carried two glasses of beer. As the ambassador approached, he handed Laelius a cup, slamming it into his chest.
“Drink,” Kaesear said. “You need to smile more. It’ll help.”
“Sir, may I ask a question?” Laelius asked.
“Of course. I’m always open to questions,” Kaesear replied.
“With the High-King—”
“He’s not the High-King,” Kaesear said. “Not yet, at least. He needs to hold onto the crown.”
“With him rejecting our offer,” Laelius said, “is it wise to go to his brother?”
“The question is not whether it is wise to go to his brother,” Kaesear said, “but is it wise not to. We need support and trade from the Ta’arqians. We need to keep their exotic goods flowing to Aurre. The coming civil war will be exactly what we need to do just that.”
Laelius realized he asked a question a mile higher than his rank allowed. He was glad he asked it in private over a cup of beer.
“Yes, sir,” Laelius said. “Forget that I said anything.”
Kaesear waved away Laelius’s comment, “There’s nothing to apologize about. You’re my right hand. You, dear boy, are going places. You have to stick with me.”
“Yes, sir,” Laelius said, a bead of sweat dripped from his forehead.
“Join me for an early supper,” Kaesear said, “and we can go over the plan. I have much to tell you.”