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1: AN INTERRUPTION
When the gods descended on the Atrine ruins, they interrupted an assassination.
Thurvishar hadn’t perceived the danger at first. Yes, soldiers had been pouring through the eight open magical portals set up on a small hill next to Lake Jorat, but he’d expected that. A mountain-size dragon had just finished tearing the second-largest city in the empire into rubble and fine quartz dust, with an incalculable body count. Morios had attacked the army right along with the civilian populations—populations now panicked and displaced. Of course there were soldiers. Soldiers to clean up the mess left in the attack’s wake, soldiers to help with the evacuation, soldiers to maintain a presence in the ruined, rubble-strewn Atrine streets. And the wizards? They needed to render Morios’s body into something so discorporate the dragon couldn’t re-form himself and start the whole messy apocalypse all over again.
To add fuel to the fire, the damaged dam holding back Lake Jorat, Demon Falls, had begun to fail. When the dam blew, Lake Jorat would empty out. Millions would die, if not in the flooding itself, then by starvation when Quur’s breadbasket1 found itself twenty feet underwater. The wizards would focus on stopping such a catastrophe.
In hindsight, Thurvishar had been too optimistic; he’d assumed the Quuros High Council would care about saving lives.
Janel’s fury alerted him, furnace hot, a bubbling cauldron usually locked away behind a fiercer will. He felt Kihrin’s anger a moment later, sharp and lashing. Thurvishar paused while discussing spell theory with an Academy wizard and looked up the hill. The same soldiers he’d ignored earlier had set up a defensive formation. They weren’t dressed as normal soldiers. These men wore the distinctive coin-studded breastplates of a particular sort of Quuros enforcer.
Witchhunters. He couldn’t see who they surrounded, but he made assumptions.
Thurvishar debated and discarded opening a portal to their location. That might provoke the very reaction he sought to avoid.
So instead, he ran.
What he found when he arrived qualified as a worst-case scenario. No one tried to stop him from pushing to the front. He was, after all, Lord Heir to House D’Lorus. If anyone had a right to be here, he did. More witchhunters gathered in this one area than he’d ever seen before. They didn’t stand alone either; he recognized Academy wizards in equal number as well as High Lord Havar D’Aramarin and several Quuros High Council members.
All for three people: Kihrin D’Mon, Janel Theranon, and Teraeth. Neither Kihrin nor Janel held obvious weapons, and while one might argue they didn’t need them, with this many people?
The outcome seemed predictable.
“What is going on here?” General Qoran Milligreest pushed aside several witchhunters as he strode into the confrontation’s center.
“It seems our thanks for helping is to be a prison cell.” Janel clenched her fists.
“Vornel, what’s the meaning of this?” Milligreest turned to a Quuros man without acknowledging his daughter.2
Vornel Wenora, High Council member, snorted at the general’s question. “I should think it obvious. We’re dealing with a threat to the empire. Which is what you should have done.”
“Threat to the empire?” Qoran pointed toward the giant metal dragon’s corpse. “That is a threat to the empire. The impending rupture of Demon Falls is a threat to the empire. These are children!”
Thurvishar scanned the crowd. The witchhunter minds stood out as blank spaces, as did some wizards and all the High Council. But where was Empress Tyentso?
Vornel shrugged. “So you say, but all I see are dangerous people who are a grave threat to our great and glorious empire. This is the man who killed the emperor and stole Urthaenriel. Then we have a witch who flaunts her powers in public and a known Manol vané agent. Yet for reasons I cannot begin to fathom, you’ve done nothing to put a stop to them. Why is that, Qoran?”
“Because I understand priorities!” the general replied.
Thurvishar raised an eyebrow at Vornel. While the accusations had merit, they missed the truth by an astonishing margin. Plus, none of the High Council members were giving Thurvishar so much as a glance, when he was the far more appropriate target for their anger. Vornel’s accusations seemed disingenuous, less true outrage than a savvy councilman sensing a perfect opportunity for a power play, and too arrogant, petty, or stupid to temper his ruinous timing.
Councilman Nevesi Oxun, old and thin with silvering cloudcurl hair, stepped forward. “It doesn’t matter, Milligreest. By unanimous vote—”
“Did I vote in my sleep, then?” Milligreest growled.
“Nearly unanimous,”3 Oxun corrected. “If you act to prevent us from doing this or interfere with these men in their lawful enforcement, we will be forced to conclude you’ve fallen under the sway of foreign powers and remove you from the High Council.”
Kihrin started laughing. Thurvishar grimaced and glanced away.
Of course. Tyentso.
“You don’t want us, do you?” Kihrin said. “You couldn’t give two thrones about us. But Tyentso? She’s the one you think is a ‘grave threat to the empire.’” The young royal, still wearing a Quuros soldier’s borrowed clothing, held out his hands. “If you geniuses think Tyentso’s stupid enough to show herself now with all these witchhunters present, I’ve got a gently used bridge by the lake to sell you.”
Thurvishar’s own anger rose. Kihrin had called it. The High Council considered Janel and Teraeth inconsequential. They might have regarded Kihrin more seriously if they studied the Devoran Prophecies. But they cared a great deal that the new Quuros emperor had somehow managed to insult them all by being born a woman.
If they had their way, she’d have the shortest reign of any emperor in recorded history.
“I wouldn’t start forging deeds to bridges just yet, Scamp.” Tyentso appeared on top of a nearby tent, balanced there through literal magic. “I might be that stupid. Or maybe just that cocky.” She waved the Scepter of Quur—currently wand-like—to trace a delicate path in the air. “This is a fun toy. I want to practice.”
“Men, kill her—”
Which was when the gods arrived.
Seven blazing pillars of light slammed into the earth next to the confrontation. The men who had been standing there—witchhunters, wizards, soldiers—vanished. Thurvishar liked to think those men found themselves transported to a safe location, but he couldn’t verify that suspicion.4 But he knew the beings who stood there—had been standing there—when the light dimmed enough to see again.
The Eight Immortals had arrived.5 Every single person within sight—high lord, soldier, wizard—went to the floor.
No one could doubt their identities. Their aspects seeped into the air around them. Galava dressed in spring green, plump and lush, the ground beneath her feet blooming flowers. Argas, mathematical formulae visible around him like a halo. Tya, her rainbow dress of veils shimmering as her fingers crackled with magic. Taja, dressed in silver, playing with a single coin. Ompher, looking less like a person than an animate statue carved from rock. Khored in red, raven-feathered, holding a glass sword. And last, Thaena, dressed in shroud white, crowned in burial roses.
To a one, they were all furious.
“Are we interrupting something?” Thaena’s voice echoed the sound a mausoleum door might make as it scraped against a tomb floor.
Copyright © 2020 by Jenn Lyons