“Have you heard yet? Can you believe it?”
I crept past crowds of students speaking in hushed tones, their eyes wide, rumours flying. No one had missed the news, and everyone had their own theory as to exactly what had happened.
"He was assassinated, wasn’t he? By the Dark Brotherhood!”
“Oh, don’t be stupid, they probably aren’t even real. I hear it’s all being faked – “
“Why would he fake his own death? The death of his sons!?”
I swept through the bedlam, somehow still trapped in my own little world as all of Cyrodiil panicked. I felt only a twinge of worry at the emperor’s death – it all seemed too big, too politically charged to truly involve me. No, it was Traven’s ultimatum from last night that still sat sickly in my thoughts.
That, and the lump in my throat knowing Bolor had been in neither his own bed nor mine, when I awoke.
“Tar-Meena – “The near hysteria caused by the news made us all jumpy, quick to fear for each other. I met her with a tight hug as she did me, parting to meet her wide-eyed golden gaze. “What in Stendarr’s name really happened?”
“No one knows, yet. The Blades are keeping all mum.” She spoke low, glancing behind us at the students crowding the grounds, still discussing the aftermath of Traven’s announcement. We walked side-by-side, making for the laboratory. “But I do fear that it is true.”
Still, the implications escaped me. I shook my head. “Have you seen Bolor? With all the hubbub, I haven’t been able to find him.”
Her scaled brow arched high. “He wasn’t with you? After he bottled and labelled the potions last night, I thought for certain you’d never let him go again.”
“He – but I didn’t even name them yet.” I frowned. Why would he…?
“Ah, but I think you’ll approve of the name he chose.” Warmth and amusement in her eyes, giving me a grin I returned. What had she once called him? A rogue? I could only imagine what he’d gotten up to, now. Back in the laboratory she knelt over a crate.
True to her word they’d poured and bottled every dose, and each had a little label smoothed on. I had to laugh. I don’t even know how well the formula works, yet. “You did all this with him?”
“I just helped bottle. Told him you might want to refine it more, not to waste the vials and parchment, but he insisted they were perfect.” She picked one up delicately between claws, offering it. “Look.”
A rush, a tingle down my back as I read the script and the name sunk in. Tears rose to my eyes, sweet this time, a little watery laugh escaping me. “J’adore. He makes fun of Bretony for how nasally it sounds every time I use it, and he called it – “ Love.
That sweet, clever, wonderful man. How could anyone not see what I saw?
“Perhaps he’s in his own laboratory, hm?” Tar-Meena grinned, giving me a little nudge on the arm. “Go find him. With everything going on I doubt we’ll be getting much work done today, anyway. If Julienne asks, I’ll cover for you.”
My best friend. I beamed back and rose up to peck her scaled cheek as she chortled. “Thank you, Tar-Meena. So much.”
“Just remember you owe me one. Again. Now, go on.”
I ran. The halls were mostly empty, everyone still in shock discussing the news, but I could hardly bring myself to care more than I would the death of any stranger.
I’d prove it.
Shuffling – movement in his laboratory. I swung the door open without knocking, panting, grateful, racing to him as he turned. “Bolor – “
Turned with an armful of scrolls, sheafs of paper, his own face nearly as white.
“Bolor.” I froze in place, staring as he shoved everything into a bag. Not the only one – satchels for his work, another stuffed with clothes, a fallen sleeve sticking haphazardly out. “What’s going on?”
“Dust. You’re here – good, good. I was just going to finish up and find you.” He dragged a hand through lank hair, brow slick with sweat, his pupils shrunken to pinpricks. I reached for him and he pulled away, only relaxing at the last moment and leaning back towards me. “You’ve – heard the news, I trust.”
“Yes, the emperor.” His hand felt clammy in mine. For once it was me squeezing his, trying to offer him comfort. “Bolor, what’s going on?”
“I know what Traven asked you to do, Dust.”
I felt the blood drain from my face. “How…?”
A hoarse sigh. “I have friends in the University, even now.”
“Bolor –“ I shook my head and stammered, pleading. “You know I trust you, more than anyone, you know – I wasn’t going to, I wanted to prove them wrong, prove that you’re innocent – “
“I know, my love. I know.” My knees melted at that and I remembered the little vial in my hand. I relaxed my grip, showing it to him in my palm as he gave a weary smile. “You like the name?”
My heart swelled. “It’s perfect.”
“I’m glad.” So quiet, so somber. I’d expected – not this. His humour, his usual eyebrow wiggling and innuendo or even a declaration of love, but not this. “Then come with me.”
The bags, suddenly, made sense. “You’re – you’re leaving?”
His expression grew grave. “It’s not going to be safe here for someone like me, Dust. And in time they’ll come for you, too.”
“What do you mean?”
“Dust.” He took both my hands now, squeezing them in his tight enough to make me want to squirm away. “They will blame us. Mages, magic-users. First the outliers, but then it will spread to the rest. In times of crisis, they will always blame us.” I’d never heard him speak so gravely before, enough to make fear creep in.
The worst part was I knew he was right. We’d seen it time and time again in history – anti-magic sentiment rising up in times of upheaval for fear of the unknown, fear of power. I blinked back tears as he continued, voice a hoarse whisper.
“With the emperor dead, the city – hell, the province will go into chaos, more than you can know. But we don’t have to stay here, Dust.” His eyes softened and I in turn, leaning into his touch as he cradled my cheek. “We don’t need the school. Just our work, and each other.”
“Bolor…” I didn’t want to have to choose. As much as I hated being used like the Council wanted, this was still my home. “We can make them see sense. We can weather this, together, you know?”
“I want to believe that. Truly, I do.” His brow came to rest on mine for a long moment before he pulled away. “Come on. I have one last thing to do, here.”
I followed him to a closet in the wall, watching as he unlocked and pulled open thick wooden doors and reached out of my sight into the darkness of –
Oh. Oh, whatever was in that closet, it wasn’t robes. I recoiled at the smell, coughing quietly and edging towards him. Chemical and rotting and – and –
“My poor creation. I’m so, so sorry. It seems we won’t be able to finish our work, after all.”
Creation. He didn’t. He – I covered my mouth, stifling a gag as it took one stiff step, then another out of the closet, towards me. Bolor turned with the pride of a new father, only faltering at the look on my face. “Dust?”
The thing was embalmed, stitched together and moving and I shuddered as it lay its gaze on me. Its eyes – her eyes – were glassy bright, untouched by years of decay, her jaw trembling like my own.
“Undead.” I stared, unmoving. “You – you raised the dead. Here.”
“Pah! Simple necromancy. There is more to her. My dear,” I jerked, for a moment, thinking he spoke to me, but the – the thing turned instead, its head creaking and long hair clinging to her bare back. “Show Dust what you are. Show what you can do.”
I muffled a shriek at the hiss of fire, the sudden blast of heat and scorch mark left upon the wall. Not just an undead – a living corpse that could work magic.
“Do you see the eyes? I restored them myself before resurrecting her, teaching her.” Bolor whispered as though telling me a childhood secret, smile so sincere it ached to see. “She can see, Dust, she can think. Zombies are creatures of automatic response, hardly more than shuffling innards, but she is nearing sentience. She is the next step to resurrecting mortals from the dead whole.”
No. No. No. Bolor sighed and smoothed back the thing’s hair, caressed it the same way he would me. I shuddered, watching as it – she stumbled in place and gave a low, piteous moan. Her eyes – gods, her eyes were so alive, so pleading.
“She’s in pain.” I whispered. My tears broke at last as I shuddered, stepping away from it, her, who was she? Just a corpse he had found, or had he –
No, no, this was too much, all too much at once.
“I’m afraid she is, yes. But sacrifices are necessary. I couldn’t wait any longer to see what she could do. For this, a little pain is a fine price to pay. She’s incredible, isn’t she? The old eyes had to be replaced, of course, but – “
“Yes, with another’s. Fresher. They remain so, now – I enchanted them.” Bolor moved towards me, closing the distance between us in a stride. “Can’t you see? I am working on immortality, Dust, on the ultimate magick.”
“No.” Everything the books I’d read had warned me about, the mad, horrific ambitions Traven wanted so dearly to keep out of this school. Everything I’d denied he could be. “No. This is wrong.”
“Yes. Please, Dust, you must understand. You have such a brilliant mind, such an open mind – “ A pause, eyes sweeping over me. “Such an open heart. We don’t need them, their petty laws. We can run away and be free, together. Leave with me.”
This couldn’t be real. It couldn’t. The thing, the corpse croaked again, giving a full-body shudder that visibly rippled on loose, leathery skin.
Freedom. I’d fought and fled for it once before. Would I do it again? But this is wrong. I wanted to believe him, wanted to believe that there was a worthwhile sacrifice here but looking in her eyes, seeing her agony, gods –
“I – “
“Bolor, Dust!” Tar-Meena, outside the door. I wheeled around, frozen in place, looking back to see Bolor’s eyes narrow. He whispered, tilting his head.
“Don’t answer her.”
“Bolor –“ I kept my voice low, too, a croak as tears overflowed. “Bolor, please, think about this. If you run, they’ll hunt you down like all the rogue necromancers, they’ll kill you. We can convince them, we can – if you just stop this, here, now – “
His eyes darkened. I bit back a shuddering sob, begging, thrusting that little vial at him. “Bolor – what you named them, the potions, it’s true, isn’t it?”
He didn’t answer. I pressed him, desperate. “Isn’t it?”
For a moment, I saw a flicker of hope. Of affection, of regret in those deep red eyes.
Then I was crumpling, boneless. The clink of broken glass, and in a hiss all went black.