A/N: Warning for light horror elements in this chapter.
Leandros Nochdvor regretted visiting Illyon. It was a dingy, self-important little city; smoke from its factories turned its sky gray, its lower neighborhoods reeked from a sewage system that hadn’t adapted to fit the growing population, and at times, it seemed Atiuh himself had forsaken the place.
There wasn’t much good to be said about Illyon, but its people were proud of their city and glad to live in it, which was more than could be said for other cities on the brink of industrialization.
But Leandros supposed it beat staying home. He’d known what he was getting himself into, asking to accompany his uncle on a business trip, and he’d known what he was getting himself out of— a week alone with only his mother for company. Illyon’s factories played a crucial role in Alfheim’s trade, so at the very least, there would be interesting business discussions.
That didn’t make the company any easier to bear. Illyon sat far removed from fashionable society and unusual goings-on, which left its people far less interesting than they believed themselves to be.
Or so Leandros had thought. That was before “unusual” slammed bodily into him in a public market.
Then, with one look at his shocked expression, that unsettling, unusual person turned on her heel and bolted. What could Leandros do but investigate?
“Leandros, slow down!” his cousin cried, rushing to keep up with him. He held her wrist and pulled her along, through dusty streets and around bends. “Where are we going?”
Leandros didn’t answer, instead watching the tattered edges of a cloak disappear around a corner ahead. He increased their pace, but when they reached the corner, all traces of the cloak and its owner were gone. He swore under his breath and finally slowed, releasing Rheamarie’s wrist as he did.
“What was all that about?” Rheamarie asked, rubbing her wrist. “Some warning would’ve been appreciated.”
“Sorry. I saw something strange,” Leandros said, frowning down the street. Where had she gone?
Rheamarie gave him a flat look. “Strange?” she echoed. “Strange how?”
“It was…” Leandros frowned. Unease roiled in his stomach, and he shook his head. “It was an orinian.”
“So? I’m sure plenty of orinians visit Illyon. Orean’s just across the valley.”
“There was something wrong with her. I wouldn’t have just run off after some random orinian, Rhea. This one felt like trouble. I wouldn’t know how to explain it.”
Rheamarie studied Leandros’ expression, frowning at whatever she saw there. “I believe you. You don’t usually spook so easily. Should we look for her?”
“Something tells me we won’t find her,” Leandros said, reluctant to let go. He shook off his unease and checked his pocket watch. “Besides, we’re going to be late if we don’t hurry back, and keeping your father happy is more important.”
“If you say so.” Rheamarie said. She wrinkled her nose like she smelled something foul (and in this part of Illyon, it was impossible not to) and huffed. “So where are we?”
“Illyon,” Leandros answered simply. He looked up and down the street and found he couldn’t give a more precise answer if he wanted to. It had been a long time since he’d visited Illyon, and their little chase had pulled them away from familiar paths and into a cold, run-down corner of the city.
“Yes, I know that. But how do we get back from here?”
Leandros bit his lip, then pointed off down a side street. “This way, right? It’s all uphill to Uppstad Hall, so this must be it.”
“Since you’re so certain,” Rheamarie sighed, following Leandros down the street. “When I asked you to show me the city, I meant culture, history, shopping plazas. Not…this.”
“You’ll have to be more specific next time,” Leandros said, almost smiling. A genuine smile was a rare expression for him, and not just because they got him in trouble back home.
“You’ll have to make sure we don’t get lost next time,” Rheamarie countered.
“In all seriousness, Rhea, it’s your duty to see and understand what’s happening in all the cities of Alfheim, beyond culture and shopping plazas. So go on, look around. Commit this to memory.”
A small line appeared between Rheamarie’s brows as she took in the dark storefronts and grimy streets. They passed through one of Illyon’s unfashionable neighborhoods, and Rheamarie reacted to this new world exactly how someone who’d grown up in luxury might: with an upturned nose.
Across the street, a group of dirty children played skip rope, chanting an old rhyme to the beat of their jumps.
Taurel, taurel, old stone and coral,
Where do you end your reign?
Spread through the valley, down to the trees.
You will be Egil’s bane.
Leandros scowled and lengthened his strides. “Don’t dawdle, Rhea.”
“What’s wrong now?” Rheamarie asked. She glanced back at the children, a soft “oh” escaping her lips. “Annoyed by a little rhyme, are we?”
Leandros tried to ignore the children, who’d paused their playing to watch Rheamarie and Leandros pass, their eyes lingering on the Nochdvors’ rich suits. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“It’s been decades, Leandros. Most people would have moved on by now,” Rheamarie said.
“I don’t care about the rhyme,” Leandros said, and it was only partly a lie.
“I have no sympathy, Leandros. You wouldn’t have had to hear that name if you hadn’t gotten us lost in a rookery to begin with.”
“You should have some, Rhea. If not for me, for these people— your people. Don’t be so disdainful. Instead, see what’s happening here and make the choice to fix it when you’re queen.”
Rheamarie remained silent. When Leandros looked back at her, he saw her studying their surroundings again, a slight pout to her lips. They continued on, the sound of the children’s game soon fading into the thrum of city noise.
Leandros couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong, nor could he stop himself from watching for a tattered cloak on a strange orinian, an unusual glow coming from beneath her veil…
“Leandros?” Rheamarie asked.
“What?” Leandros asked, looking at Rhea.
“Taurel, from the rhyme. I’ve always wondered.”
“I sometimes forget you’ve never left Alfheim, Rhea. It’s a flower, grows on the eastern coast. They might even have some in Orean. Ah-hah!” Leandros cried, stopping so suddenly Rheamarie almost ran into him. “Look there – I can see Uppstad Hall. We’re close.”
They followed the glint of silver brick peeking between dark buildings until lower Illyon fell away, replaced by large manors and cobbled streets. The guards of Uppstad Hall were surprised to see their guests of honor on the wrong side of the gate (how could they have known the cousins would go to such lengths as to scale a wall to get out and explore without guards?) but hastily let them inside.
As Rheamarie and Leandros passed into an open courtyard, Leandros asked, a little hopefully, “Do you think they’ve started without us?”
“They wouldn’t start without me. Father wouldn’t let them.”
Both covered in dirt from the city streets, they paused in the courtyard to clean up. Leandros sighed. “I’m going to take the blame for this.”
“For us being late? Well, it is your fault, chasing random orinians,” Rheamarie said, lazily brushing the city’s dust from her boots. “Stop trying to guilt me into moving faster. Just imagine the fuss father will put up if we arrive late and in total disarray.”
“I’d rather not, if you don’t mind.” Leandros pulled his old pocketwatch out of his waistcoat. The front was dented, the metal tarnished, but when he opened it, it ticked loudly and steadily. Leandros’ eyes carefully avoided the initials carved on the inside cover as he snapped the watch shut.
Around them, the silver brick of Uppstad’s wall caught in the light of the suns, making the place feel like a mosaic of glittering tiles. It shone on Rheamarie’s long hair, the same golden shade as Leandros’ own. They were alone in the courtyard, but now and then, Leandros glimpsed a servant scurrying along one of the upper corridors, disappearing and reappearing between ivy-covered columns.
“I’m finished,” Rheamarie announced. “Would you like to whine more, or shall we go?”
“By all means, let’s go. I can whine on the way.”
“I’ll tell them sneaking out was my idea,” she said, passing a small knot of servants that bowed as they walked by. “We don’t even have to mention your orinian friend. That way, they’ll know it wasn’t your fault.”
“With all due respect, Princess,” Leandros began, “You could have dragged me out on threat of death and to them, it would still be my fault.”
“How can you think that?””Cynicism,” Leandros said. “It’s my best line of defense.”
They climbed and climbed to the upper meeting chambers, the stairs ending before a set of gilded doors held open by Illyon guards. Rheamarie swept through first, treating her arrival like a gift to those inside. Leandros smiled to himself, but wiped the expression from his face before following after her.
Expression would only be used as a weapon against him.
Through the doors was a room flooded in light, circled all around by delicately arched windows. The suns outside blinded Leandros, as did the nobles inside, all decked in sparkling fabrics and bright jewelry that refracted the sunslight along the floor and domed ceiling. Spaced throughout the open room, they circled a man at the center, caught in his magnetism, planets circling a golden-bright sun.
Nobles and politicians, circling the King of the Alfheim province.
Amos Nochdvor turned when Rheamarie and Leandros swept in. “Ah, there you are.”
Rheamarie bowed low and Leandros followed suit. When she straightened again, Rhea said, “Apologies, father. I asked Leandros to show me the city.”
Amos turned his attention to Leandros, sharp eyes pinning him in place. A ripple passed through the room at the mention of Leandros’ name, more than a few nobles tilting their heads to look down their noses at him. “You couldn’t have chosen a better time for your tour?”
Leandros bowed again. “I’m sorry, Uncle.”
Some shifted disapprovingly, scowling and whispering to each other, but King Nochdvor only nodded. “In the future, be more conscious of the time.”
With that, he waved them away and returned to the conversation they’d interrupted. Rheamarie tugged Leandros toward an open space by one of the windows, out of the way.
“That wasn’t so bad,” Rheamarie whispered. “Though I’m sure he’ll have more words later.”
The meeting passed slowly, filled with small talk, court gossip, and absolutely nothing of interest to latch onto— that is, not until a sudden knock came at the door. The room went quiet when the Captain of the Illyon guard entered and bowed before the King.
“A messenger from Orean is at the gates, Your Highness,” the Captain said.
Leandros hadn’t thought it possible, but the nobles reacted even more disdainfully to the mention of Orean than they did to his name. They’d avoided the subject until now, content to pretend the city-state across the valley didn’t exist.
“Bring them up, then,” the woman beside Amos – Illyon’s governor, Leandros remembered from earlier introductions – said impatiently.
“If you don’t mind my saying,” the Captain began, not even risking a glance up. The man, who’d seemed so fearless the few times Leandros had spoken with him, shook. “There’s…something wrong with her. Something unnatural. I wouldn’t let her up here if I were you.”
Rheamarie and Leandros shared a look.
“Uncle,” Leandros said, stepping forward, “I believe Rhea and I ran into the same orinian on our way here. The Captain’s right; I think she means trouble.”
Amos looked to Rheamarie, waiting to see if she had anything to add, but Rheamarie shook her head. “I didn’t see her. Leandros did.”
After a moment’s thought, Amos turned back to the Captain. “Remove her weapons, if she has any, before bringing her up here. I can’t turn away an official messenger from Orean, but keep extra guards outside the doors.”
When the Captain was gone, Amos sighed. “Governor Ness, it seems we’ve reached my reason for coming sooner than anticipated.”
Leandros sat forward, intrigued. Ever since he’d learned they were going to Illyon for this trip, he’d suspected it had something to do with Orean. According to rumors back home, the ever-high tensions between Illyon and Orean were getting higher. They fought over allocation of valley resources, regulation of Illyon’s factory smoke, hunting restrictions. The list went on.
Governor Ness informed the rest of them that Orean now threatened to withhold resources— this must be the King’s reason for visiting.
Leandros twisted his ring around his finger as he listened, his attention never leaving the governor.
“Stop fidgeting,” Rheamarie said under her breath. “You’re just giving them more reasons to criticize you.”
Leandros blinked at her, then dropped his hands. “This may come as a surprise to you, Rhea, but fidgeting isn’t a crime.”
She was right, though. Even here at the edges of Alfheim, alfar were known for their rigidity – don’t smile, don’t fidget, never say what you mean or let anyone see how you feel. Leandros had a long history of flaunting these rules; he’d made the mistake of traveling in his youth and lost much of Alfheim’s prized restraint in the process.
As if he needed more reason to be viewed as an outsider.
“Amos brought you along to observe, didn’t he?” Leandros asked. “I believe he meant the meeting, not me.”
“Still not sure why he brought you,” Rheamarie grumbled.
“Because he’s not so cruel as to leave me behind,” Leandros said. He turned his back on the room, leaning out the open window and looking down at Illyon laid below him like a map. Directly below Leandros, only a ten or so foot drop, was a long, flat overhang that jutted over an empty courtyard.
Rheamarie glanced over, followed his gaze. “Planning an escape?” she teased. “I’ll create a diversion, but you’ll owe me another trip into town. One that doesn’t end in a wild hunt.”
Surprised, Leandros laughed. The sound had always been too mischievous for his own good, especially in Alfheim. If fidgeting was taboo, laughing openly was worse. He flinched and glanced over his shoulder to see if anyone had heard.
They had, of course. A few looked openly scandalized, others just annoyed, but all had fallen silent.
“Forgive my nephew,” Amos said, pulling the room’s attention back to him. “He’s so enraptured by Illyon’s beauty that he forgets himself. I, too, forget, and each time I come to visit am given the pleasure of discovering it anew.”
The diversion worked, and Leandros breathed a sigh of relief.
Rheamarie hid her mouth behind her hand, likely hiding a smile. “You’re always making him defend you.”
“I know that,” Leandros snapped.
On top of his current embarrassment, this struck an old, frayed nerve with Leandros; he could barely keep himself from flinching. Briefly, anger flared and simmered inside him, fueled and fanned by shame. He turned to the window again, unable to look at the golden king.
Rheamarie was right again, but he didn’t need her to remind him. He reminded himself every day: he was only here – only alive – because of Amos Nochdvor’s good graces.
His gaze caught on another city, miles off, settled at the base of a blue mountain. Orean. While Orean matched Illyon in structure, its high castles even made of the same sparkling silver bricks, it was larger, cleaner, freer. It fell past the province border, past Amos Nochdvor’s rule.
If he ever made a mistake even Amos couldn’t forgive, he could flee to Orean. It was a nice city; he’d been, a few times. He was sure they’d welcome him.
But where was that messenger?
“The good news is that after that between the orinian and that little outburst, father’s probably forgotten all about us arriving late.”
Leandros pursed his lips. “If you make me laugh again, I’ll kill you.”
“Ah, but who would defend you then? Father certainly wouldn’t.”
Before Leandros could reply, the doors opened.
The smell hit first, like rancid meat and spoiled perfume. Rheamarie gasped and covered her nose. All at once, everyone turned toward the open doors. A cloud passed in front of the suns, blocking the light that had flowed and sparkled so freely through the room and steeping the doorway in shadow. Out of the shadows stepped Orean’s messenger.
It was undoubtedly the same woman Leandros saw in the market. She walked with a jerky sway, a puppet guided by an inexperienced puppeteer. Her uniform, decorated with Orean’s insignia, looked too old. It was frayed, riddled with holes and stains, and made in a style that had been antiquated even when Leandros last visited Orean, nearly a hundred years ago.
When she lifted her veil, a noble near the door fainted on the spot, landing in a heap of heavy skirts.
The orinian was pale, almost translucent, with wild curls bright as blood. Same as all orinians, she had long, calf-like ears and swirling birthmarks stretching across her skin. But unlike other orinians’ marks, they weren’t natural, neutral-colored and benign. Her birthmarks were open wounds, deep crevices that cut across her exposed skin. Where muscle and bone should have been visible between them was instead a strange magma that pulsed through her body with each beat of her heart, swirling and hypnotic.
Her eyes, alight with the same scarlet glow, fixed unblinkingly on the King.
She smiled, only half of her face twisting into the expression, the other side of her mouth cut through by one of those twisting wounds. She stopped in front of King Nochdvor and dropped into a stilted curtsy. As if the movements, wounds, and sickly decaying smell weren’t enough, there was something else off about the woman. Something Leandros couldn’t put a name to – it gave him that same sick feeling he’d experienced before, in the street. It felt like walking barefoot in snow or wandering alone through haunted ruins. It was malicious, harrowing, unsettling. Powerful. It lurked behind her eyes and his in the swirl of that strange crimson glow. It had Leandros’ hair standing on end and his hand going to the revolver he wore at his hip.
“Guards!” Amos Nochdvor called into the hallway, voice breaking on the word. Leandros hadn’t heard so much emotion in his voice since…well, in a very long time. Backing away from the orinian, he yelled louder, “Guards!’
There was no answer from the hallway beyond, only creeping fingers of blood spreading across the threshold of open doors.
When the orinian took another jerking step toward the King, one of the nobles bravely moved to block her way.
“Don’t!” Leandros warned, but too late. The orinian caught the noble by the throat, her graying hands mottled with decay, and lifted him off the ground like he weighed nothing. She smiled the same twisted half-smile as before.
Everyone backed slowly away.
“Put him down!” the King ordered. “Just tell me what you want!”
The orinian tilted her head to one side, thoughtful, and released the noble. He collapsed and his companions dragged him hastily out of her way. “Very well,” the orinian said, her voice unexpectedly sweet, childlike. Her accent felt almost as old as her clothing, or as the strange presence behind her eyes, staring out through them and using her like a shell. “I want you. Will you come with me?”
Leandros drew his gun, thankful he’d grabbed it for their trip into the city. He trained it on the orinian. “Don’t move any closer.”
The orinian dismissed Leandros with a glance and approached King Nochdvor.
The shot echoed through the room, the bullet hitting the orinian’s shoulder. She stumbled, losing her stride, but didn’t so much as glance at Leandros or the wound, gaze still fixed unblinkingly on Amos. She continued on, barely slowing when Leandros shot her again, and again, stopping only when she stood close enough to Amos to touch. She pressed a single finger to his chest and the King shuddered and crumpled like a broken doll.
Rheamarie cried out and started toward Amos, but Leandros caught her by the wrist.
Rhea struggled against his grip, shouting at the orinian, “Get away from him!”
Others rushed to the King’s aid, but the orinian swept her arm through the air and let loose something like lightning, something glowing with the same scarlet as the magma under her skin, something that hung suspended in the air around herself and the fallen king, forming a closed circle. It cracked and sputtered and grew brighter, stronger, hotter while the orinian crouched before Amos. She hoisted him off the ground, threw him over her shoulder, and when she did, the flames surrounding her sparked and flared, nearly singeing those who still stood close enough.
Despite her struggling, Leandros dragged Rheamarie further back, stopping when the backs of his legs hit the windowsill. The flames were losing their shape, flaring out further.
As Leandros watched, the orinian gasped, the sound pained. Leandros thought he saw her glowing eyes flicker entirely to black, but before he could get a better look, before he could do anything, she disappeared into thin air and took King Nochdvor with her.
Rheamarie struggled harder against Leandros. He didn’t budge, instead staring at the flames that still hovered in the air. They popped, sending molten sparks flying. Not a second later, they popped and flared again, this time spreading so far that Leandros could feel their heat. While the others only stared, Leandros made his decision. He turned, caught Rheamarie by the waist, and launched them both out the open window.
A few fleeting seconds later, they hit the long overhang hard, Leandros landing painfully on his shoulder. Rheamarie disentangled herself from Leandros. “Are you mad?”
Her words were drowned out by a final pop from the upper room, followed by a boom that shook the overhang. With it, a jet of flame shot out the windows, shattering them and sending shards of glass flying. Rheamarie screamed again and ducked her head, Leandros hiding his face as well, shielding himself from the glass and the heat.
When it was over, Leandros was the first to push himself up. Below them, servants and guards rushed into the courtyard, shouting and pointing up at the ruined hall. Rheamarie let loose a shuddering sob, but Leandros could only stare in horror at the charred bricks of the tower, no longer sparkling.
Amos was gone.
What were they supposed to do now?
A/N: Thank you for reading the first chapter of Fractured Magic! Deciding to post this story as a webserial was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made; I’m so excited to share it with you all.
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