“Hurry, he’s awake!”
The voice sounded distant and muffled in Theop’s ears. He tried opening his eyes, but they wanted to stay closed; he wanted to rouse himself, but the call of sleep sang to him, sweetly and seductively. As things crept into focus, he clenched and open fists at his sides, trying to stimulate blood flow back to the extremities. He rested with his chest and stomach pressed against a feather-stuffed mattress. The bloodmages’ blasted concoction had rendered him completely unconscious, so much so that he could already see the sun far into the sky through the window of his secluded recovery chamber, high in the Palace of Light. Did they not say he would sleep only for a few hours? He drank their brew just after sunset the previous day. High breezes blew through the open archway to the balcony, shifting the curtains in a clumsy dance.
Several pairs of hands crept onto his back, fingers kneading into fresh muscles as they kept him pinned against the bed. With a deep breath, Theop made an effort at relaxing. He closed his eyes, felt the breezes as they blew threw the open window, felt the cool sheets pressed against his bare torso. Focus, focus. He prepared for this and knew it was time for uncharacteristically small steps. When he tried relaxing, though, sleep sang its sweet song yet again. With a hard blink, he reopened his eyes and tried to bring the world back. As he slowly exhaled, the room lost more of its cloudy haze.
People stood about him in the stark white room. Several were high-ranking bloodmages in full military attire—long robes sweeping the ground, covered in overlapping steel discs. They would not be completely invulnerable in battle, but it would be wasteful to adorn them in any less. They needed to bleed, but there were limits; having half a battlefield sheared away into glass was rarely beneficial. Yes, deathflares ended battles, but often with inflict heavy casualties to both sides if a dying bloodmage panicked and fired the final attack in the wrong direction. The long robes left arms bare to the elbows. Several of the eldest bloodmages had arms that seemed to bear more scar than flesh. Those would be the true warriors. Others only had scarred hands, some with crosshatched patterns that barely went above their wrists. Those would be fresh recruits, or maybe men who rarely saw battle.
Not every bloodmage was destined for battle, but such cases were rare, depending on political situations. Peace seemed ordinary in this day, but Theop knew things would soon make it necessary for palace-bound mages to turn warrior.
“Detar,” Theop said, surprised at the exhausted growl to his own voice.
The man who first saw him wake knelt before him. Detar was much older than Theop, trusted advisor to Theop’s father before Theop himself ascended the throne. Detar was not a bloodmage—could not use their magic at all—but he had studied their ways extensively over his long life. Detar wore ceremonial clothes to which he was accustomed: high collar, long tails to his coat, sleeves that terminated with hands covered in sleek black leather gloves. A sword hung at his hip, a single-edged blade nearly four feet long hidden in a black sheath coated in bronze scrollwork. Theop had never seen Detar use the blade in battle, but stories from former comrades spoke of Detar as a master swordsman. Detar’s head was completely bald, wrinkles climbing over his forehead as his scalp shone dully in the light. Concern flashed over steel blue irises as the advisor’s brow furrowed.
“Yes, Blood Emperor.” Detar’s eyes quickly shifted to the men who had their hands pressed into Theop’s back. The hands tensed briefly, but then relaxed as Detar once again turned his gaze away from them.
“How did I fare?”
Detar nodded. “The healers you chose were indeed the finest in their fields. They researched your additions exclusively, compared them to notes and possibilities from men before who had fellow soldiers’ limbs grafted onto their own bodies. They learned much, but, most importantly, were able to do as you asked. This will be a new era for humans, my lord.”
That was a relief. He closed his eyes, then brought them open again to keep from drifting to sleep. Theop was amazed that his pain was no more intense, but he believed that to be a side effect from the bloodmages’ draught. The hands pressed along his back were unpleasant but not necessarily uncomfortable.
“Excellent,” Theop said. “I look forward to leading humanity into its new era.” A grin split his face across the middle. “I think I may find much honor and joy in binding the nations as one. We’ll finally stand on our own, capable and without charity.”
Detar nodded a second time. “Yes, my lord.” Detar turned his eyes to the other side of the white room, and those men shuffled as well.
Theop felt his relaxation drain away. “Detar,” he said in a slow, even tone.
Detar turned back to his Blood Emperor and met Theop’s eyes. The advisor’s eyes shifted slightly, but he maintained his gaze.
“You’ve given me remarkable news, Detar,” Theop said. “You know I trust you more than any other. You’re my advisor, remember? Speak your mind.” Theop rolled his head from side to side and watched as people turned their heads away when he looked to them. “They may look like they expect knives between their ribs, Detar, but you of all people should know better.”
Detar exhaled. “Sire,” he started, then paused.
Theop’s patience floundered. “Out with it!” He flashed to anger briefly, but willed it away. It would be a detriment to lose composure before his most trusted men, especially with Detar in the room. Though he could issue orders to the man, Theop did view him as something of a second father, even more so after the death of his own.
Those trusted men shuffled without moving their feet, swaying in silence as no one dared speak. They were nervous. Even Detar looked to the white floor before lifting his head to lock eyes against Theop’s again. “They escaped,” he said, nearly in a whisper. Detar seemed surprised to have spoken so softly and immediately turned his head to the side, looking to the sun through the open archway.
Theop brought his hand down from his side and held it over the edge of the bed, cupping Detar’s chin and forcing him to look into his eyes once again. Detar’s eyes seemed to quiver in their sockets; he desperately wanted to look anywhere else, but he feared the consequences of turning away again.
“Escaped?” Theop asked.
The hands pressed against his back tightened, the men most likely expecting a need to further restrain an enraged Blood Emperor.
Detar swallowed with an audible click. “Yes,” he said. “Shortly after sundown. The results were, well, devastating to say the least.”
Impossible! They should have been completely powerless! Theop’s hand trembled against his advisor’s chin. He forced himself to tear the hand away before he did fly into a rage and crush his most trusted advisor’s throat by accident. With the hand resting once against by his side on the feather-stuffed mattress, Theop looked deep into Detar’s eyes, focusing on the black centers. He felt his mouth working as he tried to find words, but nothing made sense. The ermen were supposed to have been restrained! Those three had been so resistant to yielding any information over the previous two weeks, no matter how often they were beaten, healed, and beaten again. Theop knew he would need them to collapse to his interrogations, or he would be walking blindly into humanity’s “new era.” Perhaps prison wardens and surgical bloodmages had been too lenient on the ermen, but Theop knew he could find a way to shatter their defenses. If they were in his possession once again, he would crack the secrets of Edaria.
“How?” Theop finally asked.
Detar only shrugged. “We don’t know. They used magic, even though that should have been impossible. We stripped the filaments away—most of them were in the wings as it was—but there must have been something else at hand. I don’t know how they broke free, but they did.”
“If they could still use magic, why would they allow themselves to be contained that long in the first place?” The three captives spent two weeks in cells at different locations in the Seranian capital. As far as Theop knew, they were unaware of each other’s presence. It would have been impossible to plan what seemed a coordinated escape from three different prisons.
“We don’t know that either, my lord,” Detar said. “Every other erman fled to Edaria yesterday afternoon, as they always do during the Soulless night. It seems odd they should be able to escape on one of the nights we believe them to be at their weakest.”
Theop nodded slowly. Anger at his own men would do nothing more than make him seem brash or foolish. This was beyond anyone’s understanding, his own included.
“The damage was extensive,” Detar continued. “In total, we lost nearly two hundred men. Even the girl left the northern side of the Wolf’s Palisade in shambles. Men are still there, clearing out charred corpses and trying to brace the building before it falls into the streets. It’s barely standing, but bloodmages are at the Palisade; they’re keeping it stabilized for now.”
“I take it you’ve already taken action while I slept?”
“Yes, my lord. I met with General Hibranth, and we sent several squadrons into the city to find the ermen. Gliders, bloodmages and their guardians, the usual courses. Guards on gate duty and those stationed at the depot are on high alert, but with instructions not to rouse suspicion from returning Edarians this morning. With Rythellas down again, business is back to usual, so we’re trying to keep the matter as confidential as possible.”
“The Trade District Portal?” Theop asked. “The Edarian embassy? Both are covered, yes?”
“Yes,” Detar said. “They should not be able to leave Garenesh without being apprehended and returned to their confinement.”
Theop remained unconvinced. With the reports of disastrous escapes from the night before, he was no longer certain exactly what ermen could do. He knew he needed them for information. He would never be able to control his newfound power on his own without their forcefully extracted secrets.
“We cannot afford to make a scene,” Theop said after a thoughtful deliberation. “If we catch them in the city, they might raise questions if they have time to resist. We also can’t afford to leave them until Rythellas is full again, or they will find a way to contact Edaria. If Edaria finds out too quickly, we may miss our chance at humanity’s new era completely. I saw we let our prisoners escape, but only offer them one route. If we let them think they’re escaping on their own, they’ll run quickly, and we’ll be able to see them. If we can get them out of the city, we can take them without Edaria’s eyes on us.”
Detar bobbed his head in agreement. Worry left his eyes. He must have seen that his Blood Emperor would gain control of the catastrophe. “Your orders, my lord?”
“Keep eyes on the gates, the embassy, and the Trade District Portal. No patrols, but keep guards nearby to keep watch. If the ermen see those guards, they should stay away from those locations.” The men behind Detar nodded, some taking paper and scribbling notes for orders to give to their men once they left the recovery chamber. Theop felt another grin crossing his face. “Relax security at the central train station. Spread word across Garenesh that travel by train from the city is to be free of charge for the next seven days. Tell them it is either the Throne’s wish that they enjoy themselves, or that it is understandable if any wish to leave as a caution in the face of attacks against the Seranian military. Make sure there’s a bloodmage and small protective unit on every outbound train, and have them immediately return to Garenesh to do it again once they’ve reached their destinations. Civilian clothing, of course.”
Detar chuffed a single laugh before standing and facing the rest of the men in the stark white room. “You’ve heard the will of your Blood Emperor!” he said. “Make it happen.”
The men snapped to attention, pounding their fists twice over their hearts in salute. “For the Blood!” they said in unison before bowing and leaving the room.
Theop felt pleased once again. He would contain the disaster at all costs. His precious three ermen would be returned to him within the week, and he would unlock secrets needed to ensure victory.
Hands scrambled across his back to keep him restrained. Theop would have everything, and humanity would have its new era. Six wings flapped lazily against each other in anticipation.
* * * * *
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