A group of determined mages walked and climbed and carved their way through the mountains and high hills between Vospia and Bryria. Even with the help of magic they couldn’t negate all their woes. Though many of their needs could be provided, they needed food to keep going. The first horse was slaughtered with regret, the second and third with urgency. Perhaps they could have gone longer without food, but they had not enough horses for everyone to begin with.
Some of those who had been unable to walk had recovered enough to stagger along at least, and they didn’t want anyone collapsing along the way. There was even a child who needed to be provided for- hated and despised, but a symbol of hope and freedom. Erkin was little more than a few days old, and though his mother had perished others were able to nurse him in her stead. Yet the travel was hard on the newborn, even more than the rest of them.
Upon arrival in Bryria, they travelled along the foot of the mountains. Once there they were able to purchase supplies enough to keep them going. They had a few moments of real rest, but they all felt sapped of strength. Their troubles didn’t end. More of the freed women went into labor, but unlike the first they were significantly early. Their children were stillborn- and one of the mothers died in the process as well, despite everyone’s best efforts and Sarah’s magic.
Their path eventually brought them to Lindow- at the foot of the mountains below Secure Vantage. Finally, they reached home territory for some of them, and a place they could settle down and rest.
News of the Mage-King’s death travelled more quickly through the ranks of the alliance between the three countries faster than it did through the Scoubarran forces. That gave them some time to prepare for the chaos that would be caused by the news, and allowed them to take significant ground back in Dalgare. As predicted, the princes began to fight against one another- but things didn’t turn out fully as they thought. Though they had a brief period of success, Scoubar stabilized itself after only a few weeks. What was more, news from the Sisters still in their territory acting as spies indicated that the Mage-King was not dead after all.
When blame was laid at the feet of the mages, nobody was more outraged than they themselves. They’d killed the Mage-King, seen him dead- his head cut off. But Cletus was gone, head with him. Faron as well, both former Scoubarran princes… or perhaps cleverly placed spies. Yet though the mages could be blamed for falling to accomplish their goal… nobody could question they caused significant destabilization to Scoubar with limited resources. The only problem was doing it again would be impossible.
Immediately after the Mage-King’s death, Cletus snuck his way through the streets of Aysgarth. Perhaps it was foolish to rush back towards the palace which was currently the most chaotic it had ever been. The chance that he would die was even higher than it previously had been, with everyone on alert. But what else was he going to do? Live the rest of his life knowing he left behind his one decent family member? There was simply no chance of that. He might have once been content living as he was, struggling for power as a prince, but things changed. Circumstances forced that… and Cletus believed he was better off for it. Though his chances of dying were still quite high even before he came on this sucide mission.
He already had his revenge, though he might have preferred some more chance to gloat… or to see regret on the Mage-King’s face. Instead he’d just remained arrogant to the end. Maybe Cletus wasn’t above that, which was why he thought he could survive going back.
Faron was somewhere in the castle. He knew that, because he took the time to memorize a tracking spell. Bloodline magic tied them together, and Cletus’ familiarity with Faron was sufficient to bring them together.
He barely had any other magic, though. He had enough mana for a few minutes of invisibility at most, and few other spells memorized. But there was no time for a real break. Faron was back in the palace, and he had to figure out why. The two women carrying her… they had to have done something. But why? It wasn’t as if they could have expected a reward from the Mage-King. Even if he hadn’t been dead, he wasn’t the right sort. They were already going to have their freedom.
Cletus walked through the streets, hoping to look enough like he belonged that nobody bothered to stop him. If his few wounds were overlooked, he might be recognized as a prince- though he wasn’t sure if that would be good for his health at the current moment. Other princes had to be finding out about the Mage-King’s death, and moves would be made.
Somehow the palace was still disorganized enough for him to slip back inside. He even risked doing so without invisibility. Along the way he was able to see various groups of guards- both palace guards and city guards taking over posts. They all blocked the way to the upper levels of the palace, but that wasn’t where he was headed.
He wasn’t sure why, but for some reason Faron was down in the dungeons. Had she been caught somehow? He couldn’t be sure. He carefully made his way forward… but his worries were somewhat assuaged when the guards to the dungeons were lying dead. Not captured then.
His quick relief was soon turned to concern when he saw inside the first cell. A battered and twisted body lay inside, leaving the identity of the prisoner unclear. But that wasn’t the only one. Other cells likewise had the same. Mangled bodies, crushed by some powerful force as they were chained in their cell. Some cells were empty. Most of them, in fact. The Mage-King wasn’t the type to keep prisoners forever, so despite rather extensive prisons a good portion were always empty. The Mage-King had finished his business with prisoners quickly, in one way or another.
Some cells were hanging open, unlocked and left ajar. It was unlikely that such untidiness would be allowed in the palace, so that had to have been new. There were also signs of people living in those cells not long before- meal trays and waste buckets. Perhaps Faron had come to free some particular prisoner? Though she hadn’t said anything about that. And the state of the bodies inside the jail was concerning.
Without anything to identify the dead by, Cletus could discern no pattern. Some died, some seemed to have been released. It was just that the latter had to be much less. Only a handful, maybe a bit more.
But his tracking spell carried him deeper. He wasn’t the sort to enjoy spending time in a jail, so he hadn’t seen more than the front on rare occasion. He knew they were extensive, but did they really carry on so far?
The answer was… no. Not exactly. At the back end of the jail was a strange opening. A door with no handle or other way to open it- nor anything to differentiate it from the brick wall around it, except for the fact that it was now hanging open. It led to a rough tunnel, carved out from the stone around it and smoothed somewhat but little more than that.
Cletus crept forward. Was there a secret escape route from the royal jail? How absurd. It would make no sense. Anyone who found out of it could have absconded with ease… if they could find out, and if they could leave their cells. Still, it was an impractical risk. But it didn’t seem to lead out. Instead it sloped downward at a gradual pace for a hundred meters or so, twisting and turning slightly with natural caves. Then it opened up into a large cavern.
Once he had a straight line to the cavern, Cletus could feel the swirling magic. Something about the arrangement of the path had dulled the way the magic spread to almost nothing. But once he was right outside the cavern, Cletus felt the grand magic at play- and the sense of death it emanated. If he took one more step closer, perhaps his soul would be pulled from his body. He didn’t even know if that was possible, but whatever it was would likely be fatal.
In the center of the room were a number of chained up figured, and in the center of them was Faron. He almost ran forward to save her… but he did not. She was not chained. She was not in danger. No, the danger was to everyone else around her… some of whom Cletus recognized as other princes. The source of the magic was Faron. A strange and powerful magic that she couldn’t reasonable know, nor have the mana left to channel. It was as if she was an entirely different person.
Cletus’ mind told him to do something to disrupt the magic, to run, or to do anything– but his body refused. He just stood there, entranced as magic swirled. He couldn’t say if souls were real, but something was pulled out of the princes that caused them to shudder and shrivel, screaming before they collapsed into a heap. Then Faron’s body bent and distorted. Bones expanded, stabbing through skin that stretched a moment later to cover them. Her entire body bent and distorted, growing taller, changing. Even from his angle, Cletus began to recognize the figure. And by the time the transformation was done, he was certain- and then he began to back away. Once he was around the corner, he began to flee. He wasn’t much for running, but his legs carried him faster than they ever had before. Yet even as he feld, he felt his strength lagging unnaturally.
Perhaps he had just missed his best chance to stop whatever was happening, but he barely had the capacity to shoot a small bolt of fire. If he’d tried to disrupt the ritual, he would have likely become more fuel for the transformation. And that was… Faron becoming the Mage-King. But that made no sense. If she had some sort of plan to that effect, why would she hide it? Or that power, when they were in danger battling the Mage-King. No, things weren’t right. As Cletus hit the cells, he became invisible for the rest of his sprint, ignoring the way his boots rang on the stone and simply avoiding passing too close to anyone, hoping they would ignore him for long enough.
Faron wouldn’t do that. She couldn’t. And the magic had felt all wrong for that. Nothing like hers. It was more like… well… Cletus didn’t want to think about it. But when he reached the right spot he opened his bag and pulled out a head. No, it wasn’t fake. It was most certainly real. But… something had happened. And he didn’t like it one bit.
In the practical but certainly not luxurious safety of Secure Vantage, Sarah worked with the former concubines of the Mage-King. Motherhood was supposed to be a beautiful and wonderful thing, but for the significant portion of them who were pregnant them it was a curse. Their children were unwanted, and not only that but the children endangered their lives. The risk of magical entanglement was hard to determine. Many theories indicated that it could be tied to the love of a mother for her child, but the experience of the women kept by the Mage-King showed that wasn’t true- or at least not the only factor involved. Many of those they knew had perished in childbirth, and not from lack of medical assistance.
Sarah’s research came strongly into play as she had over a dozen women who were willing to let her try to disentangle them from the children inside them- but it wasn’t a pleasant process. Beyond just attempting to separate them, it was possible to transfer more of the risk to the child. Most of the women opted for that, since a child would only remind them of an unpleasant past. Sarah didn’t want to hurt innocent children- but she was unsure if children of the Mage-King counted. In general, she tried not to think about it.
A few women chose to carry their children to term without any interference at all. Only the ones who were already advanced in their pregnancies chose not to do anything. Some of them perished in childbirth as well. The children that survived were weak, like Erkin.
There was something more going on than the normal births of children of practicing mages. The former concubines knew it, Sarah knew it, and the fey of Secure Vantage knew it. But figuring out what it was… that was more difficult.