A/N: Warning for light horror elements in this chapter.
The city of Illyon was neither clean nor comfortable. It was habitable, and that was more than could be said for other cities on the brink of industrialization, dirty and dingy as they were. Smoke from Illyon’s factories turned its sky gray, its lower neighborhoods reeked from a sewage system that hadn’t adapted to the growing population, and its working class was the largest in Alfheim. Despite all this, Illyon’s people were proud of their city and glad to live in it.
It was a small city, far removed from fashionable society and any interesting goings-on, leaving Illyon’s people in a constant state of being less important than they believed themselves to be.
Of course, if they’d known how important Illyon was about to become, perhaps they would have preferred it that way.
Put simply, Leandros Nochdvor decided to visit Illyon because he couldn’t stand to be near his mother.
Put a little more complexly, his uncle and cousin announced they were leaving for Illyon on business, and that would have left Leandros back home with only his mother for company. Without any buffer between them, Leandros would’ve had to take and endure every criticism, harsh word, and veiled insult she had for him.
He hadn’t wanted to return to Illyon, but the alternative was unthinkable.
Even when his cousin dragged him out of their lodgings, insisted he show her the city, and proceeded to complain the whole time, Leandros couldn’t bring himself to regret his decision.
Even when Rheamarie wrinkled her nose like she smelled something foul – in this part of Illyon, it was impossible not to— and let out a huff of irritation, he couldn’t bring himself to regret his decision.
Rheamarie asked in her clear, haughty way, “Where are we?”
“Illyon,” Leandros answered, simply, and ignored the look Rheamarie shot him.
“I know that. 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 in the same mild way, “It’s your duty to see and understand what’s happening in the cities of Alfheim, beyond culture and shopping plazas. So look around, Rhea. Commit this to memory.”
To Rheamarie’s credit, she did, a concerned wrinkle appearing between her brows as she looked around at the dark storefronts and grimy streets. They were passing through one of Illyon’s poorer neighborhoods on their way back to the city center. It was a new world for Rheamarie, and she was taking it the way anyone who’d only ever known luxury might.
Across the street, a group of small, 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 lengthened his strides and tried not to listen. “Come on,” he told Rheamarie.
“So you’re perfectly content to waste my morning wandering down random streets, but one silly little reference to Egil and you’re ready to flee.”
“That’s not it,” Leandros said, fighting a flash or irritation – at himself or Rheamarie, he couldn’t be sure. “We’ll be late if we don’t hurry back, and your father will be displeased.”
Rheamarie scrambled to keep up, ignoring the children, who’d stopped their playing to watch Rheamarie and Leandros pass. Their eyes lingered on the Nochdvors’ rich suits.
“Are you sure you’re not just lost?”
“Quite sure,” Leandros said. At a look from his cousin, he amended, “Mostly sure. I remember passing this way on our way out.”
The truth of it was, they’d been lost for over an hour now, Leandros leading them in the direction he hoped would get them to the city center. He’d only visited Illyon a few times, and a very long time ago, at that. He didn’t know why Rheamarie thought him so knowledgeable.
Rheamarie believed him, though, and kept following Leandros as the sound of the children’s game quickly faded into the thrum of city noise.
“What’s taurel?” Rheamarie asked, after another minute.
“Taurel—from the rhyme. I’ve always wondered.”
“It’s a flower, grows on the eastern coast. Ah-hah!” Leandros cried suddenly, making Rheamarie jump. “Look there- I can see the walls of Uppstad. We’re close.”
They followed the glint of silver 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 somehow on the wrong side of the gate (how could they have known Rheamarie and Leandros would go to such lengths as to scale a wall to get out without anyone knowing?).
As the Nochdvors passed through the gate and into an open courtyard, Rheamarie said, “I think we were doomed to come back late the minute we stepped outside.”
“Illyon is a bit larger than I remembered.”
“Yes, and it had nothing to do with you getting us lost,” Rheamarie said.
Leandros sniffed. “I’ve never gotten lost in my life.”
Rheamarie pinched him.
They were dusty and disheveled from the city streets, so they paused in the courtyard to clean themselves up before continuing into the hall. Now that they were back inside the prison-like walls of Uppstad, the familiar anxiety that being faced with imminent judgement gave Leandros settled like a stone in the pit of his stomach. It had been nice to escape Uppstad to the relative anonymity of the city. Outside these walls, he didn’t have to feel like he was walking on a layer of thin glass by merely existing.
“It’s your fault we’re so late,” Leandros told Rheamarie. “I wouldn’t have even gone out if it weren’t for you.”
“Oh, come, you enjoyed it,” Rheamarie said. “But yes, I daresay it is my fault.”
Leandros sighed. “They’re still going to blame me.”
“Probably,” Rheamarie agreed, continuing to lazily brush the city’s dust from her boots. “Stop trying to guilt me into moving faster. Just imagine the fuss they’ll put up if we arrive late and in total disarray.”
Leandros huffed and pulled an old pocketwatch out of his waistcoat pocket. 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. Trying to ignore that twisting anxiety, Leandros breathed deeply and leaned like a pleased cat into the warm breeze. It caressed his back, made the flags hanging here and there snap and flutter.
Around them, the silver brick of Uppstad’s walls caught in the light of the suns, making the place feel like a mosaic of glittering tiles. Rheamarie and Leandros 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 it was my idea,” she said, passing a small knot of servants that paused to bow as they walked by, “That way, they’ll know it wasn’t you.”
“With all due respect, Princess,” Leandros began, “You could have ordered me to accompany you 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 defense mechanism.”
Rheamarie shook her head. “You’re impossible.”
They climbed a set of winding stairs that ended before two large, gilded doors, both held open for them by Illyon guards. Rheamarie swept through first, treating her arrival like it was 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 with light, circled all around by delicately arched windows. The suns outside momentarily blinded Leandros, as did the nobles inside, all decked in sparkling fabrics and bright jewelry that caught the sunslight and refracted it along the floor and domed ceiling. They circled a man at the center of the room, caught in his magnetism. Planets circling a golden-bright sun.
Amos Nochdvor, King of Alfheim, turned when Rheamarie and Leandros swept in. “There you are.”
Rheamarie bowed low, and Leandros followed suit. When she straightened again, Rheamarie said, “My apologies, father. Leandros was showing me the city.”
Amos turned his attention on 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. Before he could speak, Rheamarie cut in, echoing Leandros’ words from before. “It is my duty as princess to see and understand the cities of Alfheim; Leandros was helping my fulfill that duty, at my request.”
Some shifted disapprovingly, their gazes fixed on Leandros, not Rheamarie. King Nochdvor only nodded, a smile in his eyes. “Next time, see that it doesn’t interfere with other duties.”
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, where out of the way, they were quickly forgotten.
The warm suns at his back and the soft cadences of the nobles’ voices running a steady undercurrent, Leandros had to push himself to focus. It didn’t help that nothing was happening – nothing, at least, until a sudden knock came at the door. The room went quiet as a city guard entered and bowed low before the King.
“A messenger from Orean is here, Your Highness,” the guard 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.
He hadn’t heard a word about Orean since they’d arrived, which he should have realized sooner – it was strange not to even mention a city-state just across the valley.
“Bring them up,” Amos said.
“If you don’t mind my saying, sire,” the guard said, risking a look up at the King. He was pale, Leandros noticed, and shaking with something like fear. “There’s…something wrong with her. Something unnatural. If I was you, I wouldn’t let her up here.”
Amos Nochdvor was a good king, a kind king, but he was still King. His expression soured. “You are not me. Remove her weapons before bringing her here, but I will speak with her.”
The guard nodded and fled. When he was gone, Amos sighed and turned to the woman beside him—Illyon’s governor, Leandros remembered from earlier introductions. “It seems we’ve reached my reason for coming sooner than anticipated.”
Leandros sat forward, intrigued.
When Amos had suddenly announced his intention to travel to Illyon, Leandros knew it had to be for something important – that was the other reason he’d asked to tag along. He enjoyed being around important things, loved the solemnity of significance.
He loved it even more knowing that if the nobles in this room had their way, he wouldn’t be here at all.
According to rumors back home, the ever-high tensions between Illyon and Orean were getting higher. These rumors were confirmed as the governor quickly, nervously explained the current situation to Amos. She summarized Illyon’s most recent disputes with the city-state: allocation of resources. Regulation of factory smoke. Waste disposal. Hunting restrictions. Leandros twisted his ring around his finger as he listened, his attention never leaving the governor for even a moment.
“Stop fidgeting,” Rheamarie said under her breath.
Leandros blinked at her, then dropped his hands. “This may come as a surprise to you, Rhea, but fidgeting isn’t a crime.”
“It may as well be here and you know it.”
She was right. Alfheim was well known for its rigidity – don’t smile, don’t fidget, never say what you mean or let anyone see how you feel. Leandros made the mistake of traveling frequently in his youth and lost much of the restraint that made the people of Alfheim who they were.
As if Leandros needed more reason to be viewed as an outsider.
Leandros turned his back on the room, instead leaning out the open window and looking down at Illyon, laid out below them like a map. Directly below Leandros, only a ten or so foot drop, was a sloped overhang that arched over a courtyard.
Rheamarie followed his gaze and hummed softly. “What would they do if we just left?”
Surprised, Leandros laughed. The sound had always been too mischievous for his own good— especially in Alfheim. He flinched and glanced over his shoulder to see if anyone had heard. They had, of course. A few looked openly scandalized, others just surprised.
This time, it was Amos who saved Leandros from having to apologize. “Forgive my nephew,” he 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.
Rhea hid her mouth behind her hand, likely hiding a smile. “You’re always making him defend you.”
This struck an old, frayed nerve with Leandros; he could barely keep himself from flinching. Anger briefly flared and simmered inside him, fueled and fanned by embarrassment. Rheamarie was right, but he didn’t need her to remind him. He reminded himself every day; he was only here – he was only alive – because of Amos Nochdvor’s good graces.
“I know that,” he snapped.
He turned to the window again. 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.
The governor continued to speak while Leandros stared out at Orean. Negotiations have been more and more hostile. Orean has been threatening to withhold resources. She feared they may cut off all relations.
Leandros felt Rheamarie’s gaze on him and staunchly ignored it.
“You don’t have to worry. I’ll defend you too, you know,” she said. “When I’m queen.”
“You’re a child,” Leandros said, voice cold. “It will be a long time before they stop seeing you as such. You’ll have a hard enough time defending yourself, let alone earning respect enough to defend me, too.”
“I’m ready to fight for that respect,” Rheamarie said, sounding so determined that Leandros almost believed she could. Some of his anger drained away, replaced by fondness— fondness borne of exasperation, but fondness all the same. He smiled at Rheamarie. The King had brought her to Illyon to observe, to learn how to lead. She wasn’t ready yet, but when she was, Alfheim would be hers.
“The good news is that after 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?”
Leandros smiled, but before he could reply, the doors opened.
The smell hit first, like rancid meat and spoiled perfume. Rheamarie gasped and covered her nose and all at once, the whole room 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 before and steeping the doorway completely in shadow.
Out of the shadows stepped Orean’s messenger.
Leandros knew immediately what the guard had meant by unnatural, even before the orinian lowered her hood. She walked with a jerky sway, like a puppet guided by an inexperienced puppeteer. Her uniform, decorated with Orean’s insignia, looked too old – 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 the orinian finally did lower her hood, one of the nobles nearer the door fainted on the spot, landing in a heap of heavy skirts.
The orinian was pale, almost translucent, with wild curls crimson like blood. Like all orinians, she had long, calf-like ears and swirling birthmarks that stretched across her skin. But unlike other orinians’ marks, they weren’t natural, neutral-colored and benign. Her birthmarks were like open wounds, deep crevices that cut across her exposed skin. Where muscle and bone should have been visible beneath them was instead a strange magma that pulsed through her body with each beat of her heart, swirling and hypnotic.
Her eyes were alight with the same scarlet glow, and they were fixed unblinkingly on the King.
She smiled, only one 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 felt like walking barefoot in snow or wandering alone through ancient, abandoned ruins. It was jarring, malicious, unsettling. Powerful. It was there behind her eyes and hidden 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. It was the most emotion Leandros had heard from him since…well, in a very long time. Backing away from the orinian, he yelled louder, “Guards!”
The orinian only waved her hand and somehow, the doors slammed shut without being touched. The guards pounded on the doors from the other side, even tried throwing their weight against them, but they didn’t budge.
When the orinian took another jerking step toward the King, one of the nobles bravely moved to block her way.
“Don’t!” Amos 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.
There was a beat as everyone backed away from the orinian.
“Put him down!” the King ordered. “Put him down and say what you came to say.”
The orinian looked at Amos and released the noble. He collapsed and was quickly dragged out of her way by two of his companions.
“I did not come to say anything,” the orinian said, her voice barely unexpectedly childlike, sweet. Her accent was 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 came for you.”
Leandros drew his gun and trained it on the orinian, taking a step closer to Amos. “Don’t move any closer,” he warned.
The orinian dismissed Leandros with a glance and approached King Nochdvor.
The shot echoed through the room, the bullet hitting orinian’s shoulder. She stumbled, losing her stride, and looked down at the wound with only curiosity. Then she continued on, barely slowing when Leandros shot her again, and again. She stopped only when she stood close enough to Amos to touch. She reached out, and when she touched him, the King shuddered and crumpled like a broken doll.
Rheamarie cried out and started toward Amos, but Leandros caught her by the wrist.
Rheamarie struggled against his grip. “Get away from him!”
Others rushed to the King’s aid as well, but the orinian swept her arm through the air and let loose something like lightning, something glowing scarlet like the magma under her skin, something that hung suspended in the air around herself and the fallen king, forming a perfect 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 window sill. The flames were losing their shape, flaring out further. Leandros didn’t like it. He didn’t like the orinian’s eyes. As he watched, the woman 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, taking King Nochdvor with her.
Rheamarie cried out and 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 a decision. He turned, caught Rheamarie by the waist, and launched them both out the open window.
Three fleeting seconds later, they hit the overhang hard, Leandros landing painfully on his shoulder. They began to roll to the edge, pulled by gravity and the momentum of their fall, but Rheamarie drew a knife and plunged it into the tile of the roof, halting their progress all at once.
Rheamarie disentangled herself from Leandros. “Are you mad?”
Her words, though, were drowned out by a final pop from the upper room. The pop was followed by a boom that shook the overhang, and a jet of crimson flame shot out the windows, shattering them and sending shards of glass flying. Rheamarie screamed and ducked her head, Leandros hiding his face as well, desperately shielding themselves from the glass and the heat.
Leandros was the first to sit back up. Below them, people were rushing into the courtyard, screaming 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.
Leandros was alone.
A/N: I want to say thank you, thank you, thank you for taking the time to read the first chapter of Fractured Magic! It wasn’t easy to make the decision to post the story in this format; in the end, I decided that what I really want from Fractured Magic is for it to be shared and enjoyed (which won’t happen if I just hold on to it forever and keep editing and editing and editing).
So please, feel free to interact with me or interact with the story. Leave comments – tell me what you enjoyed, what you’re curious about! Interact with me on social media! The official twitter for Fractured Magic is @fracturedmagic, but my personal account is @anaphiel_
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