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Atop a large but gently sloping hill was a manor fully outfitted with expensive fixtures such as glass windows. Yet the manor could barely be seen from the gate, even though the road to the manor started at the closest point to the edge of Count Leigh’s property. Personally Claude thought the design of the Bryrian Grand Library and the surroundings were much more practical and efficient, but he wasn’t much for hunting and the various outdoor sports that took huge tracts of land to accomplish.
A few weeks earlier he had been fighting on the front lines, yet when Senior Mage Lucy Lynwood had requested he make the trip to speak to his sponsor he almost refused. What were enemy soldiers going to do to him? Kill him, cut out his tongue? Neither of them seemed so bad, considering he was able to fight to defend himself and prevent it.
Of course, Count Leigh wasn’t going to cut his tongue out, nor was he going to kill him. He probably wouldn’t even try. The man didn’t quite understand the full extent of the power of mages, yet he expected everything from them. When the assassination mission had failed to produce the results he wanted, he threatened to withdraw his support for the war. An empty threat, but he could certainly make things difficult.
It wasn’t as if Claude hadn’t been disappointed either. When the word came that the Mage-King was dead, his head cut off, he had been ecstatic. He would be able to go back to doing practical things, not fighting in the war where he could get killed- and all the other soldiers as well. He’d seen how each country was damaged just by the war continuing, even without enemy soldiers trampling the land. Men who should be working were fighting and dying, unable to provide food or goods like they would normally be doing. While women could replace men in the workforce, they had to give up other productive activities- and there simply weren’t enough people. Count Leigh was a smart enough man to know that less productivity meant he couldn’t gather as much in the way of taxes, and would have to pay for some of the war efforts from his own coffers. Of course he wanted things to be over, even if his motives weren’t the same as others. He wasn’t at risk of death or the loss of everything. Just some money.
But saying that to him wouldn’t get the results Claude wanted. Count Leigh wanted to know why the Mage’s Alliance hadn’t achieved the results they promised, as if he had contributed to the efforts directly instead of just relying on their success.
Claude made sure there was not a speck of dirt on him as he walked inside. The servants checked as well, because nobody wanted to deal with a further upset count. Then he made his way to the man’s office and knocked.
He was actually five minutes early, but if he were any earlier Count Leigh would complain that he was busy, and he’d likely postpone the meeting for another day. He stepped into the room and put on his best face. “My apologies, Count Leigh.” He moved to stand in front of the desk. He certainly wouldn’t sit without being told to.
“Your little mage group cost me quite a bit. I was expecting to start up several business ventures, but instead of ending the war they just dragged it out.” Claude considered killing the man, but that was more trouble than it was worth. Even though Lucy despised the man as well, it had been agreed that assassinating anyone with magic would be harshly punished. People were unfamiliar with mages in Bryria, and that unfamliarity bred distrust. That wasn’t something a decade of action would overcome. “How are you going to make it up to me?”
“Though the assassination team didn’t manage to completely stop the war,” Claude began, “They were able to cause significant disruption to Scoubar with only a small number of people.”
“So what? They said the Mage-King would be dead. Declared it upon their return, even, but he’s not. Worthless.”
Claude hadn’t been there for any of that. Lucy and the others swore they saw him dead, his head cut off. He had no reason to believe they were lying. Though they also knew something that he didn’t- and it seemed it was better for him not to know. That frustrated him, but… he accepted it. He couldn’t say they hadn’t tried their best when several people didn’t return- including Lucy’s father. “They successfully stormed the palace, as evidenced by them having freed the Mage-King’s harem. It is quite possible that one of the princes was ready for such an eventuality and took on the mantle of the Mage-King through a magic visage.” Possible? Yes. Likely? Not with anything he’d heard. Scoubar had returned to stability far too quickly.
“Or maybe he never died to begin with,” Count Leigh accused, “If one could make an illusion that they were someone else, why not fake a death?”
That option had already been discussed. However, it was impossible to fake so many actual magical effects all together- and the head had been picked up and taken quite a distance away. There was some trouble Claude was unaware of. One of the members of the group seemed to have stayed behind with the head for whatever reason. Perhaps they had been the ones to take over the position, but that didn’t make sense to Claude. If he had suddenly taken over Scoubar, he would have been quite content to stop fighting and live a life of luxury. Not that he thought that was practical.
Claude continued to keep a neutral face. “It’s not so easy to create illusions that would hold up in the middle of combat. But-” Claude transitioned to what he thought should actually work. “Even if the Mage-King didn’t actually perish, the damage to Scoubar allowed forces in Dalgare to reclaim much of their lost land. In the following weeks, significant losses were incurred due to infighting among the Scoubarrans. And there has been a continual reduction in the combat force of their mages.” They still had seemingly endless forces, but he didn’t mention that. The reduced combat effectiveness of the princes was a strange result, but a quite welcome one.
“So the war might end eventually. But it’s not over yet,” Count Leigh pointed out.
“The Mage’s Alliance is working together with the combined military to the best of our efforts to bring about an end to the war. We also have ventures we would like to accomplish that cannot be undertaken during wartime.”
“You say that,” Count Leigh shrugged, “But I know many of the ‘Senior Mages’ are avoiding the frontlines, burying their heads in books at the libraries. They need to be out on the front lines, fighting for our countries!”
“Research into more effective combat magic has to continue even during times of war,” Claude mentioned. He didn’t think that was what they were doing for the most part, but some of it was. “They will be able to better equip the remaining mages to fight with their efforts. Then, at the hopefully timely conclusion of the war, we will be available to provide useful magely services to those such as yourself. At reasonable prices, of course.” Promising vague benefits would hopefully assuage the man. Claude was certain there would be more back and forth, but others were dealing with different nobles as well. He wondered how he could bring up asking for additional funds. Something big was afoot. Something secret, but he was quite confident that the expenditures would be necessary.
In the heights of Secure Vantage, things were not going well at all. The newborns were sick. Even if the women didn’t wish for the children, they also didn’t want to watch their babies die. But neither Sarah nor the fey nor any others could find a way to heal them. Traditional medicine found nothing either. Sarah had some understanding of why it was happening. Cletus yet lived, and had managed to send a message to them. It was delayed so as to not reveal them in dangerous territory, and because he had to verify that his information was true, despite seeing it with his own eyes. Somehow, Faron had transformed into the Mage-King. Or, more likely, the Mage-King had taken over her body upon his death… and reshaped the body to be his own. With all of the magic flying around at the time, it hadn’t been noticed, but Sarah could remember a few strange fluctuations of energy that could have indeed caused that.
After that, Cletus and the sisters felt weak. Combined with the other princes displaying weaker capabilities, it was clearly something to do with the bloodline connection. That had to be the same thing affecting the babies, but Sarah couldn’t figure out how to cut off the connection. She tried so many different things, starting with the weakest children, but was having no luck. Yet there was some hope. The connection wasn’t quite as strong as with Cletus and Faron. There had been talk of a ritual performed upon a baby’s birth, by the Mage-King himself. It seemed that it wasn’t entirely necessary for whatever he was doing, but it had to have some reason. That just meant that Sarah had to deal with the natural bloodline connection. But as an inherent trait, she wasn’t sure how she could sever that connection.
She wasn’t the only one working on that, but it also wasn’t her only focus. She would greatly love to save Erkin. Everyone would. His mother had died, but named him after freedom. But there were other problems.
They’d killed the Mage-King, but he wasn’t dead. In fact, it seemed unlikely that he could ever truly die, if there were a suitable replacement. Those replacements of course being the princes. Even if they’d killed a few dozen over the course of the war, there were still hundreds of them around the world. Killing them all was likely impossible. Perhaps there was a limitation on range, but that wouldn’t necessarily be the case.
It also explained why the Mage-King was willing to fight directly instead of stalling them. His tactics seemed somewhat reckless and overconfident, but if he couldn’t truly die… what did it matter? Perhaps he’d actually been successfully assassinated by princes in the past, and their disappearances went unnoticed. All of that was speculation though.
What Sarah was working on with the others might solve their problems, but it was almost too awful to contemplate. Douglas had been the one to bring up the idea, and if it were to work… it would require his insights into magic. It was the sort of thing normal, sensible people didn’t think about. But Douglas wasn’t one of those. He was the kind of wizard that created a spell that indiscriminately devoured magic that he used in close proximity to himself. Douglas had learned from that incident, of course, but even with ‘limiting factors’, the idea was insane.
But not impossible. That was the worst part. If Sarah could say it couldn’t be done, they could stop considering it. Yet the Mage-King had set up everything for them. A connection between all of the princes, deeper than the normal bonds of bloodline. She’d already seen how it could cause involuntary reactions using their own magic. If they could take control of that and use it against them- and the Mage-King… they could kill each and every Scoubarran prince at the same time.
And Cletus. And the Sisters. Even if they could exclude some people, they would need a catalyst to start the process- and for it to be at its greatest effectiveness, they would need as many sisters as possible to contribute. Even just thinking about it was terrifying. But allowing the Mage-King to continue as he was… simply wasn’t reasonable.
The scary part was how readily Cletus had agreed. Instead of taking days to respond, it was mere minutes- which might have been required to memorize the communication spell. The Sisters were generally more hesitant, but Sarah wasn’t going to require anyone to commit until they actually had something. With proper safeguards- as much as a mass killing spell could have, anyway. They just wanted to kill the Mage-King and close family. Children and grandchildren, more or less. Just that. Sarah wondered how Douglas slept at night, after suggesting such ideas. Then again… maybe he didn’t.