by K. Olsen
After a disturbing glimpse into the future, Vassa has agreed to help the Leyans back to their home kingdom as part of obtaining their help fighting the tainted magic of King Userkare.
Vassa took a step back from Seben, towards her Leyan guests. “I will not be gone long,” she promised. She hoped that the space would give her some measure of clarity to collect her thoughts with. Sarom’s oracles left conflict raging through her excuse for a soul. Sometimes it was difficult to think clearly around Seben: her fondness for the young woman made her prone to errors in judgment that were in Seben’s favor whether or not it was wise. Given the vision they had seen, Vassa needed to find her own understanding of what was coming if she was going to help Seben with anything.
If she could help. After all, the vision seemed to hint that her own darkness would call to the devouring shadow they faced. Perhaps Seben would be better served by the masked woman’s permanent absence. It was a thought Vassa didn’t care for and one that had nipped at the corners of her mind constantly over the last few hours. Even the presentation of the phylactery to the Ashen Tower as repayment for seeking the oracle had not distracted her from her thoughts, despite the display’s general ostentation.
“I know,” Seben said with a reassuring smile, aware of the tension in Vassa’s posture even if she didn’t know why it was there or what it meant. “I’ll be alright.”
“Will you?” Vassa countered. “You must take care in my absence, Seben. Your world is more dangerous than the one I will be traveling to.”
Seben’s smile widened a little and she closed the distance between them, pulling Vassa into another tight hug. “I’ll be fine,” she promised. “As long as you come back.”
Vassa reflected that someday, she almost might be used to such warm affection. Her hands touched Seben’s back with a feather-light care. “I will return,” Vassa said, almost surprised by the conviction in her own voice. That dangerous loyalty rearing its ugly head again, she supposed. Her lips curved into a slight smile behind her mask, something softer than her usual wry amusement. “You will have to release me, however.”
Seben sighed. “I suppose,” she said, letting go of the masked woman. Little hints of anxiety were visible in the apprentice fire-speaker’s expression, but they were under control. No matter how worried Seben was, she would keep to her word to survive. “Naji and I will be waiting for you.”
The djinni in the corner of the room bowed his head, his fiery form currently floating in a brazier. He was barely more than a torch’s flame, but that would be remedied instantaneously if an intruder arrived to do Seben harm. His presence was immensely reassuring to Vassa. After seeing the ferocious elemental in action, she had no doubt that he would easily immolate anything that might threaten his fire-speaker.
“We should go soon,” Adéla said, though she sounded reluctant to draw Vassa away from her current conversation. There was a sympathetic and slightly amused gleam in the blood mage’s eyes that the masked woman ignored.
Vassa nodded and approached her fellow traveling companions. “This will be easiest if we form a ring,” she said. Kamil and Zdislav joined them, hands gripping tightly. Vassa took a deep breath and drew the power from her rings in a flood, letting it flow like a whirlpool at the center of her chest.
“Where will we arrive?” Kamil asked curiously.
“The Ivory Palace might upset the guards,” Vassa said tersely, devoting her focus to the far-step. “The core of the Pharos’s library will be much less agitated by a display of magic.” As she spoke, she visualized the grand open room in her mind, slowly parting the threads of existence. A far-step wove between spaces, but it still accounted for the size of the things passing through it and she had no one to assist. This would not be painless. “Hold tight.”
Vassa pushed off from the threads that currently surrounded them like a diver off a board using the current of the whirlpool inside her for power, plunging her essence into the between and dragging Adéla and her spellguards along for the ride. The drain was immense, ripping through her stored magic and into her own vitality. Vassa carried them through gossamers with a master’s expertise.
A deafening crack of thunder announced their arrival, all four falling onto the cold stone of the floor. The masked woman was definitely the worst for wear, though Kamil, Zdislav, and Adéla all shivered from the terrible cold. Vassa was immune to it, a blessing of her innate gifts, but she felt damn near exhausted after that display.
Around them were the grand shelves of the largest library in the world, towering and pristine. Mages and apprentices alike scattered in all directions in response to the sudden swell of magic through the threads and its explosive release, spellguards immediately surging forward to deal with a possible threat.
Adéla sat up and held up a ringed hand, the most immediate identifier of her status. “That is not necessary,” the mágissa said in her most commanding voice. It brought an immediate halt to the approach and everyone relaxed. Excited chattering spread through the apprentices all around, wide eyes studying not only Vassa, but her companions. “Alright, alright, that’s enough.”
Vassa got to her feet, her usual grace somewhat dampened by fatigue.
“Are you alright?” Zdislav asked, steadying her once he was on his feet as well.
“Never better,” the masked woman said with a definite note of sarcasm. She sucked in a deep breath, ribs aching like she’d run a marathon. It would take her more time than she wanted to recover enough to return, even with Adéla infusing power back into her rings. She held her hands out to the blood mage, not eager to be so drained for any longer than necessary. “Adéla, might I remind you of your promise?”
Adéla turned to oblige, but her eyes widened in a combination of fear and horror. “Vassa!”
The blow hit the masked woman in the side of her head with enough force to drop her, a strike she would not recover from as swiftly as usual. Vassa caught herself with her hands and turned to look, trying to snap herself back to full focus. The sight of her assailant was enough to send cold fury flooding through her body.
“Sethon,” she said through gritted teeth as she pushed herself up. “You should not have come.”
Sethon’s lips curved into a smirk. “I have so missed our talks, Vassa.” His glossy, dark hair fell almost down into his eyes, slightly longer than she remembered, but the cold, glittering emerald eyes hadn’t changed. His features were sharp and angular, a mark of his elven blood as much as the knife-like points to his ears. He wore armor that was a blend of leather and smoked steel, its glossy finish tainted to prevent a shine. “Do you truly feel in a position to make threats?”
Vassa’s lip curled behind her mask. “You are no longer in the Summer Court, Sethon. Whatever happens between you and I, you will have to contend with the mages here.” She knew that the odds of that continuing to be a problem for him were not in her favor. She drew her shortsword without a thought, firelight glimmering on the edge of the blade.
“So it seems,” Sethon said, stalking forward towards her. His smirk broadened. “Fortunately for us, I came bearing a gift for them.” His hand dropped to the scroll case on his belt.
Vassa knew that was not good. “Adéla, ward!” she shouted. Sethon was just out of her distance, she wouldn’t be able to stop him from releasing whatever horror he had brought with him.
The blood mage reacted on reflex, barking a short incantation as she brought her hands up, weaving gestures together. A ring of twisting wards surrounded Sethon and Vassa, isolating them from everyone else. The magical barriers burned with significant power, so both Kamil and Zdislav put hands on their mage’s shoulders. Several other mages and spellguards stepped up to help the containment.
Sethon let his hand fall away from the scroll case. “Why Vassa, if you wanted me alone, you only needed to ask,” he said, eyes hooded. “I so enjoyed our last private encounter.”
Never in her life had Vassa been more grateful that Seben was nowhere near her. “I am not your plaything any more than I am Lysaerys’s,” she said as she advanced towards him with a dancer’s grace. She knew the fatigue had taken the edge of her reflexes and depleted her reserves. On a better day, Sethon would be far more easily thwarted. This would be a test of her resolve and abilities beyond that she wanted to endure.
But if she far-stepped away, he would only pursue, and she would be so much the weaker for their confrontation. This was the best chance she was going to get.
“Is that so?” Sethon touched her essence without needing physical contact, caressing the remnants of Lysaerys’s vestali, the dark magic bound around her heart. “This says otherwise.”
“Never without my consent!” Vassa spat, blade flashing in the light as it snapped straight at his face.
Sethon contorted his body into a sidestep, slamming a fist into Vassa’s ribs as he turned. The blow came with enough force to disrupt her balance, but she caught herself before he could take advantage of it, blade stinging now at his sword-hand. He recoiled again. “Hardly how I recall your interactions with our beloved, Vassa,” he said with that same, self-satisfied smile.
Sickness welled in the pit of Vassa’s stomach, but she pushed the memories out of her mind. He was doing this to get under her skin, to try and break her. “Your beloved,” she said coolly, taking a split second to collect herself. “Though, if you are here, Lysaerys must be tired of your inferiority. How long did it take before you were exiled from bed?”
Anger burned hot in his expression at that and he lunged, but now his opponent was ready for him. Vassa moved at an angle, stepping past him as she caught his blade in a parry. With his armor, unarmed blows would have a lesser effect, but she pivoted behind him, striking him in the back of the head with her elbow as hard as she could manage. When he stumbled, she drove her blade down into his heel.
Sethon yowled in pain and spun, blade slashing at Vassa. She moved, but not quickly enough. A blooming line of crimson formed across her chest just below her collarbones, his shortsword sharp enough to slice even silk without meeting resistance.
“Is that your best? No wonder you were relegated to errand boy,” Vassa taunted. Pain hadn’t affected her the way it struck Sethon in a very long time. She had learned to find pleasure in it long ago, a consolation that showed its true value now.
“Have you forgotten what I worked upon you?” he said with a sneer. “I made you nothing.”
Vassa’s lips twisted into a rictus grin behind her mask. “Your little torture session? Oh, sweet little Sethon, if you think that broke me, you are mistaken.”
“I tire of your voice, Vassa,” Sethon snarled as he stepped forward.
Vassa knew she would have to choose her moment carefully now. He was angry and inclined to become imprecise, but not by much. Already her body burned with exertion just from the far-step to Zaeylael. Her power trickled into her open hand as she blocked his blade. His knee drove into her thigh, hitting a nerve that almost dropped her.
Sethon battered her with blows, using magic to fuel the savagery of his strikes. He forced Vassa further and further back, placing her completely on the defensive. She kept him from a truly debilitating strike, but her blood dripped to the ground from a dozen fresh cuts. Without armor, it was much harder to guard her body from him.
Not that Sethon was unscathed either. Even tired, Vassa was extremely dangerous. Her blade danced and wove like a viper, striking with speed at even the smallest of openings to leave agonizing wounds. They slowed Sethon, chipping away at his advantage. The blow to his heel definitely slowed his footwork, bringing them almost on par in terms of movement. Both of them were never still for a moment despite exertion and pain, each trying to press whatever advantage they could find.
He found his opening first. Sethon snarled and shoved her with all of his might backwards, a sickening grin splitting his face.
Vassa hit the ward, agony exploding through her body as the twisted threads of existence tried to rip her apart. Her hands spasmed in pain as her back arched on contact, the clatter of her blade striking the ground ringing in her ears along with his jackal laughter.
“Lysaerys said nothing of returning you whole,” Sethon sneered, grabbing her by her shirt and pulling her forward. His eyes focused intently on her even as he gathered his strength for a greater far-step. He intended to take her with him.
Vassa grabbed the hand that held her and poured her essence into his body, igniting the threads of his existence with an agony he had always coveted. She would never return to Lysaerys while she had any power to resist. Sethon screamed and tried to recoil away, but the masked woman was a master of twisting the knife, whether with an actual blade or the dark magic she had long ago mastered. She followed his movement, still driving her fingers into his hand and her essence into his, allowing his attempts to retreat to pull her out of the ward just before it could rip her to pieces.
Sethon was no fool, even when tortured. Vassa was no longer in a condition to dodge. He drove his blade between her ribs, piercing one lung. She caught his hand before he could angle it at all to strike something that would kill her more certainly, then snapped his wrist with a thought and a pulse of magic. There was something incredibly satisfying when he hit his knees, fumbling for the scroll case.
Vassa put her heel on his good hand before he could open it, grinding the bones into the stone floor, carefully removing the saress that transfixed her chest now that his power could not resist, even though she knew doing so would leave her to bleed. Sethon’s blade had a peculiar quality to it, a hunger for blood that could strengthen its master. Leaving it there would only aid him.
Her wounds were grave. There was a good chance she would die here and she knew it. Worse yet, she didn’t have the strength to kill him without killing herself with drain. Once upon a time, she would have done so gladly to slay Sethon and send his spirit to its own special hell, but Seben needed her protection.
Vassa had promised to return. She never wanted to be in a position where she would have to betray Seben’s trust. She staggered back away from him, though she only made it a few steps before collapsing to her knees. She ripped her power out of Sethon’s body, leaving him sobbing on the ground.
Sethon rolled on the ground to face her, hate twisting his expression into a grotesque mask at odds with elven beauty. “This is not over,” he snarled, but Vassa felt him reach between the threads instead of attempting another attack.
He vanished into thin air, no doubt pulling himself back to Lysaerys’s side to lick his wounds. Vassa took some solace in the idea of the unthinkable tortures that awaited him as punishment for failure.
All around her, the wards dropped and people rushed towards her. “Vassa!” Zdislav said, the first to reach her.
Everything blurred around her as the reality of exhaustion and her wounds hit her like an avalanche. “Seben,” she said, voice barely there after the damage to her lung. She tried to stand up, but her legs refused to work. She sagged against Zdislav, aware only of the crimson of her blood across the burnished surface of his armor. It was such a beautiful color…
Power flooded into her body as Adéla’s hand brushed her cheek, restoring some of the lost vitality. It wasn’t healing, but it allowed her to think more clearly through the pain. “Her Highness will understand,” the mage said. “You require healing.”
“Sarom has healers,” Vassa rasped, but she was too weak to fight off anything, let alone the combined force of Kamil and Zdislav. The spellguards ripped the cloth of her outer shirt to bind the wounds they could as tightly as possible to stop her from bleeding out as quickly. As soon as they had done so, they scooped her up.
“Do they come any more stubborn?” Kamil said as they carried Vassa’s bloody form out of the library, moving at a jog to get her to the healers as fast as possible. Fortunately, the Pharos was an academy of mages and had many excellent healers who were very proficient in tending to severe wounds, including those made by magic.
Vassa’s perception faded into grey as more and more blood seeped through the impromptu bandages and it became harder and harder to breathe. It took so much effort to keep herself even a little together through the pain and the creeping cold advancing through her limbs towards her heart with midwinter purpose.
This was not the first time that her body had been broken. She hoped dimly that it would not be the last.