A/N: Warning for light horror elements in this chapter.
The city of Illyon was neither clean nor comfortable. It was dirty and dingy, but it was habitable, and that was more than could be said for other cities on the brink of industrialization.
Smoke from its factories turned its sky gray, its lower neighborhoods reeked from a sewage system that hadn’t adapted to the growing population, and at times, it seemed Atiuh himself had forsaken the place. But 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, which left Illyon’s people always far less important than they believed themselves to be.
And if they’d known how important Illyon was about to become, perhaps they would have preferred it that way.
Put simply, Leandros Nochdvor was visiting Illyon because he couldn’t stand to be near his mother.
Put more complexly, his uncle and cousin were visiting Illyon on business. Staying behind would have left Leandros with only his mother for company, and without a buffer between them, that would have meant misery. While he hadn’t wanted to come to Illyon, the alternative was unthinkable.
Even when his cousin dragged him out of their lodgings and insisted he show her around, he couldn’t bring himself to regret his decision.
Even now that they were thoroughly lost and Leandros was trying not to panic, he still couldn’t regret it.
It wasn’t the getting lost that bothered him. It was — he checked his pocketwatch — how late they were as a result of it. He kept trying to rush Rheamarie, but she had no sense of urgency — something that undoubtedly came from being raised to believe the world revolves around you.
Rheamarie wrinkled her nose like she smelled something foul (and in this part of Illyon, it was impossible not to) and let out a huff of irritation. “Leandros, where are we?” she asked in her clear, haughty way.
“Illyon,” Leandros answered, simply, and ignored Rheamarie’s annoyed look.
“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, glancing at Rheamarie. He smiled, which was a rare expression for him. “It’s your duty to see and understand what’s happening in the cities of Alfheim, beyond culture and shopping plazas. So go on — look around, Rhea. Commit this to memory.”
Rheamarie did, a wrinkle appearing between her brows as she took in the dark storefronts and grimy streets. They were passing through one of Illyon’s poorer neighborhoods – it was a new world for Rheamarie, and she was taking it the way anyone who’d only ever known luxury might. That is to say, she wasn’t taking it well.
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 grit his teeth. “Come on, Rhea.”
“Annoyed by a little rhyme are we?” Rheamarie asked, scrambling to keep up. They both ignored the children, who’d stopped their playing to watch Rheamarie and Leandros pass, their eyes lingering on the Nochdvor’s rich suits. “You’re going to have to get used to people talking about him eventually.”
“Shut up,” Leandros countered.
“It’s been decades, Leandros. Most people would have moved on by now.”
Leandros cringed. “I don’t care about the rhyme,” he said, and it was only partly a lie. “I care we’re late. I don’t want your father to be angry.”
“Hurrying won’t do a thing if we’re lost,” Rheamarie said. “Are you sure we’re not lost, Leandros?”
“To be fair, I never claimed we weren’t We’re going in the right direction at least,” Leandros said. He’d only visited Illyon a few times, and a very long time ago, at that.
Rheamarie shrugged and didn’t question him. Soon, the sound of the children’s game faded into the thrum of city noise.
“What’s taurel?” Rheamarie asked.
“What?” Leandros asked, looking away from the street sign he’d been scowling at.
“Taurel—from the rhyme. I’ve always wondered.”
“It’s a flower, grows on the eastern coast. I sometimes forget you’ve never left Alfheim, Rhea. Ah-hah!” Leandros cried, stopping so suddenly that Rheamarie almost ran into him. “Look there — I can see the walls of Uppstad Hall. 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?), but hastily let the cousins in.
As they passed into an open courtyard, Leandros asked, a little hopefully, “Do you think they’ve started without us?”
Rheamarie narrowed her eyes at him. “Did you get us lost on purpose?”
“Of course not!”
“I’m not sure I believe you,” Rheamarie said. “You know they wouldn’t start without me. Father wouldn’t let them.”
“I know,” Leandros said miserably. As much as he wanted to get this over with, they were both dirty from the city streets, so they paused in the courtyard to clean up before continuing on to their destination. “They’re going to blame me for you being late, you know.”
“Probably,” Rheamarie agreed, lazily brushing 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.
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 only defense mechanism.”
They climbed a set of 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.
Inside was a room flooded with 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 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. “My apologies, Uncle.”
Some shifted disapprovingly, scowling down their noses at Leandros. But King Nochdvor only nodded. “Next time, 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, where out of the way, they were quickly forgotten.
The meeting passed slowly, with more small talk than anything useful — that is, at least, until a sudden knock came at the door. The room went quiet when a city guard entered and bowed 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.
“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. This felt important. He enjoyed being around important things, loved the solemnity of significance. It almost made up for the rest, the politics and disdain.
According to rumors back home, the ever-high tensions between Illyon and Orean were getting higher. The governor explained 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 was notoriously terrible at all of these things; he’d made the mistake of traveling frequently in his youth and lost much of Alfheim’s prized restraint.
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.
“Given the way they greeted you, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if you just went,” Rheamarie whispered.
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.
“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.
Rhea hid her mouth behind her hand, likely hiding a smile. “You’re always making him protect 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.
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 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 protect 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 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 and 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 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 for taking the time to read the first chapter of Fractured Magic! It wasn’t an easy decision to post the story in this format, but what I really want from Fractured Magic is for it to be shared and enjoyed (which won’t happen if I hold on to it forever and just keep editing and editing and editing).
So please feel free to interact with the story and leave thoughts/feedback as you go. I’ll be posting additional information about the story/posting schedule on the official social media accounts (@fracturedmagic on both twitter and tumblr). On those accounts, you’ll also be treated to character art, story memes, and exclusive updates.