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 all the other cities on the brink of industrialization, dirty and dingy and distended. Smoke from Illyon’s factories turned the sky a bleak gray, its lower neighborhoods reeked from a sewage system that didn’t fit the growing population, and its working class was the largest in Alfheim, 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 Illyon’s people were left 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.
To put it simply, Leandros was visiting Illyon because he couldn’t stand to be near his mother.
Two days back, his uncle and cousin announced that they were leaving for Illyon on business, which would’ve left Leandros back home with only his mother for company. Without anyone to serve as a buffer between them, he would’ve had to take and endure every half-veiled insult, every criticism, every harsh word she had for him.
He hadn’t wanted to visit Illyon, but the alternative was unthinkable. Even after a long morning of being bossed around and dragged through the city by his cousin, he couldn’t bring himself to regret his decision.
Rheamarie Nochdvor stuck her nose in the air like she smelled something foul— in this part of Illyon, it was impossible not to—and asked in her clear, haughty way, “Where are we going?”
“You wanted me to show you Illyon, Rhea, so I’m showing you all of it,” Leandros said. “If you don’t like it, then don’t whine so much for a city tour, next time.”
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 been wealthy from birth might.
She threw the end of her cloak over one arm so it wouldn’t carry through the grimy streets, stared straight ahead and dared not look around as they passed dark storefront after storefront, most uninviting, each identical to the last. Across the street a group of 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.
At the mention of Egil, Leandros lengthened his strides. He hated that old rhyme.
Rheamarie scrambled to keep up, ignoring the children, who’d stopped their playing to watch Rheamarie and Leandros as they passed, their eyes lingering on the Nochdvors’ rich suits. They turned down another street the same as the last, the spires of the estate they were staying at still nowhere in sight. Leandros hesitated.
Rheamarie narrowed her eyes at him. “Are you sure we’re not just lost?”
“Quite sure,” Leandros said. At a look from his cousin, he amended, “Okay, mostly sure. I remember passing this way on our way out.”
They kept going, the sound of the children’s game quickly fading into the undercurrent 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. I always forget you’ve never left Alfheim, Rhea– Ah-hah!” Leandros cried suddenly, making Rheamarie freeze mid-step. “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 empty streets. The guards of Uppstad Hall were surprised to see their guests of honor somehow on the wrong side of the gate, but they let the Nochdvors in.
“Now, the question is: are we going to be very late, or only slightly so?” Rheamarie asked as they passed under the gate and into an open courtyard.
“Illyon is a bit larger than I remembered.”
“Yes, that’s it. It had nothing to do with you getting us lost,” Rheamarie said.
“Of course not,” Leandros sniffed. “I’ve never gotten lost in my life.”
Rheamarie pinched him.
They were both dusty and disheveled from their expedition, 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, Leandros began to feel nervous about what came next. Next came the people, the talk, the inevitable judgment. Next came the only reason he might regret following his uncle here.
He hated crowds, especially crowds full of righteous, self-important people, and that’s all you seemed to find in Illyon.
“We may get in trouble for sneaking out,” Leandros told Rheamarie, eventually.
“They’re going to blame me.”
“Probably,” Rheamarie agreed, continuing to lazily brush the city’s dust from her boots. “But just imagine the fuss they’ll put up if we arrive late and in total disarray. Besides, it is partially your fault.”
“You’re the one who insisted I show you around!”
“But you didn’t have to listen to me.”
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. He closed them, breathing deeply and leaning like a pleased house cat into the warm breeze. It caressed his back, made the flags hanging here and there snap and flutter, and scattered the petals of the flowering tree at the center of the courtyard.
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.”
“They won’t blame you,” she said, passing a small knot of servants that paused to bow as they walked by, “For us being late. I was the one who insisted you show me around.”
“You could have ordered me on threat of death, Princess, and I would still be blamed.”
“How can you think that?”
“Cynicism,” Leandros said flippantly. “It’s an excellent defense mechanism.”
Rheamarie laughed. “You’re impossible.”
They climbed a set of winding stairs and turned down a corridor lined by fancy paintings of wealthy people long dead. The corridor ended in a set of doors, both held open for them by city guards. Rheamarie swept through them 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 light from the suns momentarily blinded Leandros, as did the nobles filling the space, 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. “The Princess was very insistent.”
Some shifted disapprovingly, but King Nochdvor only nodded. “I’m sure she was.”
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.
When Amos had suddenly announced his intention to travel to Illyon, Leandros assumed it was for something important. He did enjoy being around important things, loved the solemnity of significance. But solemn didn’t have to mean dull, and this meeting very quickly proved to be the latter.
With the warm suns at his back and the soft cadences of the nobles’ voices running a steady undercurrent, Leandros soon began to nod off. He was nearly asleep when a knock came at the door, jolting him awake. The entire room went quiet as a city guard entered and bowed low before the King.
“A messenger from Orean is downstairs, 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. Belatedly, he realized he hadn’t heard Orean’s name once since they’d gotten here. Strange not to even mention a city-state just across the valley.
“Bring her up, then,” 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…there’s something wrong with her. Something unnatural. If I was you, I wouldn’t let her up here.”
Amos Nochdvor was a good, 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 the earlier introductions. “It seems we’ve reached my reason for coming sooner than anticipated.”
Leandros sat forward, intrigued. So they were here for something important. Tensions between Illyon and Orean were always high, and according to rumors back in Alfheim, getting higher.
And apparently, the rumors were right. The governor told Amos about Illyon’s most recent disputes with the city-state across the valley. Allocation of resources. Regulation of factory smoke. Waste disposal. Leandros twisted his ring around his finger as he listened, his attention never leaving the governor for even a moment.
“You could at least try to contain yourself,” Rheamarie said under her breath.
Leandros blinked at her, then dropped his hands. “This may come as a surprise to you, Rhea, but in most parts of the world, fidgeting isn’t a crime.”
“You’re not in most parts of the world. In Alfheim, it may as well be. This is why my father always has to defend you.”
The Alfheim province, one of the strictest in the world. The Alfheim province, where you got in trouble for smiling, fidgeting, or Atiuh-forbid, laughing. Leandros had made the mistake of traveling outside Alfheim frequently during his youth, and because of that, was never able to grasp Alfheim’s rigidity.
“I don’t think my manners are to blame for that,” Leandros muttered. He fidgeted more with his ring, the inside of its band engraved with the same initials as his watch.
“You’re right. It must be your smell.”
Leandros smiled and turned his back on the room to hide the expression, instead leaning out the open window and looking down at Illyon, laid out below them like a map. The city sat on a hilly sprawl that climbed toward the mountains in the east. Directly below Leandros, only a ten or so foot drop, was a sloped overhang that arched over a courtyard. Things may be getting interesting here, but he couldn’t help the thought of jumping to freedom and going exploring.
As if guessing his thoughts, Rheamarie hissed, “Don’t you dare abandon me.”
Surprised, Leandros laughed. The sound had always been far too mischievous for his own good— especially growing up in Alfheim. He cringed and glanced over his shoulder to see if anyone had heard. They had, of course. A few looked openly scandalized, others just surprised.
Amos 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.
“See?” Rhea whispered. “There he goes, defending you again.”
“I know,” Leandros snapped. Anger briefly flared and simmered inside him, fueled and fanned by embarrassment. He turned to the window again, unable to look at the golden King. 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 as Illyon’s, 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 had been more and more hostile. Orean has been threatening to withhold resources. She feared they may cut off all relations.
Beside Leandros, Rheamarie shifted guiltily. “I’ll defend you too, if I have to,” she said. “When I’m queen.”
“You’re a child,” Leandros said coldly, “You have decades 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 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?”
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 it stepped Orean’s messenger.
Leandros knew immediately what the guard had meant by unnatural, even before the orinian removed her hood. She walked with a jerky sway, like a puppet guided by an inexperienced puppeteer. True to the guard’s word, she bore Orean’s insignia on her leather armor.
When she finally did lower her hood, one of the nobles fainted on the spot, landing in a heap of heavy skirts. The woman 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 same wounds. She stopped in front of King Nochdvor and dropped into a stilted curtsy.
As if the wounds in her skin and her sickly, decaying smell weren’t enough, there was something else off about her. Something Leandros couldn’t put a name to. It felt like walking barefoot through snow or wandering alone through ancient, abandoned ruins. It was jarring, malicious, predatory. 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. 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 gliding 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 with graying hands mottled by decay and lifted him off the ground like he weighed nothing. She smiled the same twisted smile as before.
There was a beat as everyone but Amos 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, surprised, and released the noble. He collapsed and was quickly dragged out of her way by two of his companions.
“I didn’t come to say anything,” the orinian said, her voice barely a rasp. Her accent was almost as old as the strange force staring out from behind her eyes. “I came for you.”
Leandros drew his gun and trained it on the orinian. “Don’t move any closer,” he warned.
The orinian glanced at Leandros, dismissed him, and approached King Nochdvor.
The shot echoed through the room, and the bullet hit the orinian’s shoulder. She stumbled, losing her stride, and looked down at the wound with curiosity, not pain. She continued on, barely slowing when Leandros shot her again, and again. She stopped only when she stood before Amos. She placed one of her mangled hands on his arm, and at her touch, the King crumpled like a broken doll.
Rheamarie cried out and started toward Amos, but Leandros caught her by the wrist, stopping her.
“What did you do to him?” Rheamarie shrieked.
When the King fell, others rushed to his aid, 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 spluttered 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.
Rheamarie fought to pry her wrist free of Leandros’ grip, but he only dragged her 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. She stared impassively at Rheamarie, then 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 again cried out and struggled harder against Leandros, but 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 just 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 and screeched, “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 red flame shot out the windows, shattering them and sending glass shards flying. Rheamarie screamed and ducked her head, Leandros hiding his face as well, both trying to shield 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, and wonder what he had just witnessed, and what it meant.
A/N: Thank you for reading the first chapter of Fractured Magic! If you enjoyed it, please follow, like, or drop a comment below sharing your thoughts/questions!