The moment the hard soles of his boots clicked against the marble floor Ared knew something was wrong, even though he was still disoriented from the teleportation. He had expected to emerge in Moreth’s study, which had wooden floors. It was also much gloomier and smaller than this brightly lit hall.
“Your Imperial Highness-” The voice was vaguely familiar, but Ared could not place it. “-Ared Merrinath, Grand Justiciar of the Arlathian Empire!” That was a title Ared had not heard for a century and a half.
Turning his focus to the speaker, Ared’s entire posture slumped. Sethian. Over fifteen decades and yet there was no mistaking him. The short-cropped white hair; the gaudy velvet banyan of purple with gold embroideries; the cane with its mercurial orb of silver; and most of all that youthful face with its arrogant smirk.
The man was rising from the throne placed atop the dais in the lavishly decorated throne room, likely having awaited Ared’s arrival. The rest of the room was uncharacteristically empty of people. No servants were present and even the guards seemed to have left their posts. No doubt Sethian had arranged it so their reunion would be uninterrupted, or to avoid giving Ared a numerical advantage.
Ared himself stood at the foot of the steps, about as out in the open as was possible within the large chamber. Not that there was much in the way of furniture, aside from elegant tapestries and paintings hanging on the walls, but the pillars would have offered some cover.
Sethian droned on in his usual condescending tone, but Ared paid him no heed; instead he focused on seeking an escape.
The heavy double doors serving as main entrance were closed and barred with Sethian’s pale blue runes. The various entrances for servants, guards, and courtiers were likewise sealed. The passage into the Regent’s chambers was closed and normally kept locked. One of the doors leading to the balconies was slightly ajar, but that was a dead end.
The only way out was through the windows and they were too high up and on the furthest wall, giving Sethian ample time to spring his trap. Knowing Sethian, it was not entirely impossible that the trap was for Ared to go for the windows.
“Sethian,” Ared cut in with a hiss, taking a half step forward to angle his body. It served mainly to hide the fact that he was reloading his hand crossbow under his cloak, but had the added benefit of allowing Ared to rest the tip of his sword against the bottom step of the dais without giving up a proper grip on the hilt. As inept a fighter as Silverblade had been, his elusiveness and Ared’s age had taken their toll.
Sethian arched an eyebrow in response to the clacking of metal against stone, but otherwise waited impassively for Ared to continue.
“I thought I killed you.”
“Ah,” came Sethian’s reply as he raised a hand to wag his finger slightly. “You mean when you stabbed me in the gut and left me for dead? Alas, those wards on my throne- You remember them, do you not? They forced you to flee, after all. -placed my body in stasis to protect me.”
“A pity you did not remain there.” Ared was not entirely certain of exactly what ‘stasis’ entailed but he recalled Moreth describing his rest in the Void in such terms; something which precluded taking action.
“Truly. Having your body sealed away can be rather convenient, especially when it is mortally wounded. Still, wielding magic in person is so much more fulfilling than through a simulacrum.”
“No, I do not think you can even imagine what it is like. It is somethi-” Sethian paused at the sound of a small quarrel clattering onto the floor, bouncing a few steps to the side. “Why Ared, are you still carrying that little toy around with you? Did you not learn your lesson when you tried to assassinate me that time in Drachton?”
As Sethian spoke, ever sure of his victory, Ared nimbly loaded another bolt while reaching out for the gifts of the Master. Sethian was far more capable an arcanist than Silverblade had ever been, but they both had relied on the same form of magic to protect them – and the Master was always hungry for magic.
Assuming the deposed tyrant still relied on the same protections as he had in Drachton.
“Or what about that time when-” The man stopped mid-sentence, an expression of incredulity and confusion on his face as he staggered back a step, tripping over the throne and crashing onto it. Then the purple robes faded, replaced by an elegant suit of satin. The face remained youthful, but it was no longer Sethian’s features upon it. Instead Ared found himself staring into the lifeless eyes of the Prince Regent.
Sethian awoke to a sharp pain, as though he had been stabbed. He knew where he was, though he could see nothing but an explosion of colors. He was laying on the floor of a box balcony overlooking the throne room.
Instinctively he tried to feel out the damage dealt by the bolt, but as his mind settled and focus returned he breathed a sigh of relief. Dying during possession was always painful, but it was far worse with a person than with simulacra.
Unexpectedly much worse.
Pushing himself up slightly, he reached out for his cane only to find it missing. Feeling around on the floor beside him, he felt a pit open in his stomach when he found nothing there. He closed his eyes and took a few steadying breaths, pushing aside the panic. There was no way Ared could have made his way up here already. He could sense its presence nearby, as well as the presence of another mage… The pit in his stomach grew endlessly deeper.
“You should have told me you were coming, Sethian,” the mage purred with a soft, almost whispering voice. A voice Sethian recognized all too well. Opening his eyes and struggling to sit up fully, he turned to gaze at the speaker. A woman at the same time familiar and a complete stranger to him.
She was tall and pale, as ever. Her robes were black, matching her hair and giving the illusion that her green eyes shone, but their cut had changed to be more stylish if also more revealing. She had replaced their red fur trim with one of deep blue silk, and had woven dreamweave into her hair to provide matching highlights. Her lips, once painted a bright crimson, were now a rich blue; and where once her face had been haggard with downcast eyes, it was now fresh and the bemused smile playing on her lips was full of confidence.
“You- How? But the Void…” Sethian stared at her, dumbstruck. At the edge of his consciousness, Sethian heard voices from the hall below. Shouts of alarm from guards and the cries of shock of servants as groups of both entered the chamber through doors that had never been closed. “How could you escape?”
She smiled at him, with that same sorrowful smile she had always had, and handed over his cane as he pulled himself up by the railing. Then she turned back to gaze at the commotion below. When she eventually answered, it was as illuminating as ever: “Magic.”
Satisfied she had not meddled with his cane, Sethian looked down at the scene unfolding as well.
Ared stood encircled by guardsmen, a number of them crippled or dead on the floor around him. It seemed the man was attempting to make his way toward the windows, though how he intended to scale the wall Sethian did not know.
“They are not particularly skilled, are they?” he remarked, noting how effectively Ared wove around their blades to cut them down. “Though I must admit they were unexpectedly expedient in their arrival.”
“Most were already here,” Merala replied with a twinkle in her eyes. “And he trained them. He knows every technique they do, and how to counter it.”
“Already here? But the hall was em-” Sethian inhaled sharply, realizing the implication. “If they saw and heard me, why are they fighting him?”
“Because, Dark Lord, they did not see and hear you.” It felt wrong, seeing this dour woman smile so shrewdly. “They saw and heard the Prince Regent.”
Merala’s smirk evaporated when an unearthly voice suddenly cut through the din below.
Silence fell upon the aftermath of Sethian’s masterfully executed regicide-by-proxy as the great double doors swung open. Striding in from the antechamber were a quartet of figures that had Sethian, for all his experience and knowledge, completely speechless as he stared at them with incredulity.
The leading pair consisted of a skeleton weighed down by attire fit for a king, including a gem studded crown of gold, and a transparent woman robed in the tattered remains of a fine gown and shawl. Behind them stood a Collector wrapped in a dark grey greatcoat, against which the white of its buttons and the silver hourglass swinging idly from his left hand seemed lackluster more than contrasted. And next to him, seeming very out of place next to the undead, stood a young boy with a mop of short, brown hair and dressed in the simple, practical clothes of a commoner.
“Murderer!” The scream pierced the veil of death, yet it was the lack of echo that unsettled Sethian the most. The woman’s finger pointing accusingly at Ared as her face twisted in a mask of rage.
“Another one of your tricks?” Sethian turned to look at Merala, trying to figure out what was going on.
“No…” Merala’s eyes glittered as she watched the quartet advance on Ared. “This is much better.”
“Your Majesty!” Ared kneeled before the banshee, offering his sword in surrender, his voice echoing in the oppressive silence of the great hall. “Spare my life, Your Highness, and in return I will give you the man behind it all. The man who ordered your death, and at whose behest Moreth sacrificed His Majesty the King to the Void.”
The Void? Suddenly, the intrigues of this insignificant little court seemed much more interesting to Sethian.