Seated against the wall in the corridor, Taranor carded through his hair, pausing with his head rested in his bloodied hands. The footsteps alongside him seemed nothing more than passing sounds, nothing more than vibrations in the floor below him, nothing. His momentary contentment didn't quite mimic happiness, rather, the feeling accepted the moment as what it was.
And it was nothing more, from the outside, than a man who could command the Northrealm with a point of his finger, surrendering to shame and pain. Pitiful, yes, but only expected. Despite the hood and shawl draped over his stained, ripped leather cuirass, his identity was visible to anyone who gave the figure a second thought; the camouflage was for his own benefit. He pulled his hood further over his face. It couldn't hurt.
He swore he heard his name every few seconds, but it was just as likely to be a rush of air attributed as something familiar. The only way he'd look into the eyes of those he let down was if they faced him directly. Otherwise, it would be like falling a second time.
The sky outside burned, the same way it burned while taking the Northrealm, the same way it burned every time Barateon fought back. It was a distinct sort of fire, one that struck Cahbaet much too often. He'd been told not to fight fire with fire, but there was something new in Cahbaet, one that bore no resemblance to the type Barateon's soldiers, or as of late, the Southrealm, set. It was Marisa's magic that was a fire worth fighting with.
Taranor wrapped his shawl around him tighter, and stood up, still clinging to the wall. They lost the battle, and he left her to the aftermath. He just ran. It's what she would have wanted him to do. Focus on the moment, she said, do what your body wants you to do, it will all be fine in the end. So, he ran, reminding himself that it would, in fact, be fine. Holding onto his hope as tightly as his hood, he fell against the wall, writhing in agony. He wasn't bleeding out, at least not yet, but by the Seven, he wished he were. He wished they would find him dead, rather than suffering. It would be easier on them.
The Free People of Nehrim had never lost a battle, up until now. They held the burden of constant vigil, but also the privilege of uncanny luck. Now, Cahbaet was in pieces, and so was her leader. He shivers. Marisa could be in pain, as well. Was her advice useful now? Was it still time to follow his body's lead, since his body barely had direction of its own at this point? Will she come for him, or was she too busy dealing with the mess he made?
Taranor stood up, pulled in his shawl, then fell back against the wall.
His face rubbed against the wooden floor, stinging his scraped cheek. Clenching his teeth, he rose from the ground, exactly where he started. He found he could drag himself along the wall, fully reliant on it to support his weight, so he did. Taranor steeled himself, determined not to cry, despite the blood drenching his shawl, adding one more stain to Castle Cahbaet's glory.
He couldn't make out exactly how many feet passed, but he assumed less than earlier. What was happening outside? Marisa knew, and that hurt him more than the wound in his side. He's a damn coward, and he will find out what happened in his city, no matter what it would take.
The castle door was ajar, coming into view as Taranor turned the corner. His hood had no purpose now that the purple sunset illuminated his face, so, reaching over his head, he removed it, throwing the debris to the ground, only hearing the vague noise around him and his unsteady heartbeat. He was left to his own stamina and willpower now that the wall could no longer assist him to the door.
Taranor's face was as visible as his struggle to walk, fully recognizable as the man who had abandoned his soldiers and companion instead of giving his life for them. Reminding himself that Marisa would have done the same, he pulled the door open, just enough for his body's passage, and closed it fully. There was no turning back, on the rare chance he could live to see this door again. Using the closed door to straighten his back, he faced his soldiers, struggling to stand, trying to get their attention. It worked.
He came to exactly where he began, on the winding road from the city to Castle Cahbaet. He had no attendants any longer, merely a burnt city watching over him as the ocean does after a storm.
Making his way up to his feet, he found that the blood was clotted and the pain had lessened. It was a relief, it was safety, it gave him freedom to move without reliance again.
The mercenaries from the Creator's Temple left the city with only ashes and their symbol scratched into the city's monument, confirming that they had come. Taranor that they had even come. And, Taranor thought while shaking his head, nearly three fourths of the troops dead, filling the city with a stench he knew too well. Sharp pains prodding into him as he took slow, even steps, he walked down from the castle, stopping to catch his breath at what remained of the magic store Marisa frequented before the Light-Born's death. She had always stopped there soon before the shop closed for the night, coming back with spellbooks to stay up studying from.
He pushed aside the musty wooden slats, tearing them further as his hands brushed against them, breaking splinters under his boots. The moon, visible through a slat on the singed roof, illuminated the shopkeeper's body; nothing else was nearly as lucid. Taranor, despite his perfect foresight of this moment, shuffled more quickly across the floor. Suffering hadn't made him any less of a fucking coward.
The alchemy table, sprinkled with shards of broken glass and stray chemicals, remained the only place to sit that didn't face the corpse, so it was his preference. As he hoisted himself onto the apparatus, Taranor found he could see into the yard. He saw tall grass, faint flames in the residential district, and a familiar dull yellow robe surrounded by broken bottles of ambrosia.
Marisa sat on a tree stump, leaning against the ruined magic store's wall. Several bottles of ambrosia and beer laid on the ground beside her, and her legs under her. It hurt to see Marisa like this, so abject, intoxicated, helpless, so far from how he had left her.
She looked around, eyes eventually landing on Taranor. He sat down next to her, reaching to touch her shoulder, but she ripped herself away, baring her teeth.
"Don't talk to me, jackass."
"It's just me. No need to--"
She conjured a waft of green sinistropic energy in her right hand and held it to Taranor's face. "I said don't fucking talk to me!" Her irises ignited into a burning green glow.
He shivered. She wasn't in control. Maintaining a steady breath and a calm tone, he dared to speak. "Marisa. It's me. I know tonight's been a lot. Just listen to me."
Her eyes still blazed. "Leave. Now."
Taranor trembled again. If she let go of the spell, she could kill him, right here. He froze. Taking a sharp breath in, he moved his hand to her wrist, softly guiding down from its place, the way they like to do to console each other, closing his eyes, just in case.
The gesture calmed Marisa slightly, her eyes slowly returning to normal and the magic fading from her hand. She relaxed her body, an invitation for Taranor to sit down.
"Thank you," she murmured. "I suppose it really is you."
"Why wouldn't it be?"
"The Southrealm, they, they killed all the healers, you know. They hunted every last one of them." She took a swig from the bottle of beer. "Want some?"
"I'll pass." Taranor winced. "I'd like to take that from you, too. You've drunk more than enough tonight."
She handed him the bottle. "Take it. I agree with you."
"So, what was this about the healers? Considering the situation, I'm not surprised, but there must be more to it."
"I was teaching a group of them how to do a fireball, in case they'd need it, but," Marisa instinctively reached for the bottle, but clenched her hand around air. "Those guys in masks, you know, the mercenaries, they came up, perfectly synchronized, and slit all their throats and ran. I had one on me as well, but I had a shock shield up, so, uh, well. You know the rest."
"That doesn't explain--"
"Oh, yeah." Marisa's head dropped. "That part." She adjusted her position, bringing her knees between her arms and hugging them. "After that, I mean, when some mercs found out I'd killed the one on me, they began tracking me down. Running through the city to get me. All the healers were gone at that point, and I had to fend for myself." Clenching her teeth, she tried not to cry. "When I couldn't run anymore, well, they cornered me in the residential district, and said they had done a ritual on you. Killed you and put in an artificial soul."
"How would they have done that?"
"One of the mercenaries was a phasmalist. Soul mage." Marisa rested her head on Taranor's shoulder. He couldn't tell if the shivering and her cold cheek was from anxiety or the approaching winter in the north. "Then, he brought in the lead healer. She looked like ass, all covered in dirt and bruises and fever burns. And he just ripped out her soul, right there, right in front of me. Another merc had me pinned to the wall. I didn't know what to do!" Marisa sobbed into his shoulder, squeezing him with her fingertips. "I made sure that bastard got what he deserved."
"That's the Marisa I know." A sharp pain interrupted Taranor's smile, shaking her away. He screamed again and again as the injury returned to its full power.
"Taranor, what's going on?"
He turned away and held in his breath. "Some moron threw a knife at me. They'll pay."
"Everyone's gone. The Free People are lost to the flames, and its remnants have left." Marisa tried her best to soothe him. Her pain was only minimal, and most of it was leftover fever and nausea, but she could feel his pain every time he jolted or yelped. "I promise they will, though. We'll go to Ostian and--"
"Do you really expect us to face them again? They're going to obliterate us even more in their own city. They train their soldiers to keep nothing in their silly little brains but war and false faith, and make them take any risk they're commanded to, since they're taught it doesn't matter in the least if they die. That's what the damn Proclamations say, and it's sure good for training men who'll kill you without hesitation."
"I'm just saying. If I could get on the roofs like I did last time, I could chain lightning whoever's out and there'd be less for us to do."
"Whoever's out? Are you daft?" He writhed in pain again. It had returned in full force.
"Forget about it." Marisa closed her eyes gently and evoked a healing spell. "Where's the wound?"
Taranor could stand again, maybe even walk, with only minimal difficulty. He had Marisa's hand to support him as he did so, leaning on it just enough to show her he's there, but not enough to fully succumb again, since he swore to himself that he had finished with doing that. He had finished with his contribution to the fall of the Free People of Nehrim, and he would be strong now despite the pulsing pain in his stomach. Forgiveness would occur at one point, but not now. Not soon. The Free People would have to build themselves up after this, Taranor reminded himself, and he would have to be there for it.
He lost his focus for a moment, falling against Marisa, causing her to lose her footing, both of them crashing onto the cobblestones.
"Hm. The spell didn't work as well as I thought it would." Marisa evoked another spell in her left hand, with that bright green color, although missing the distinct buzz of entropy. "Let me try something. Rip open your armor, just a bit more."
"I'd be very interested to know what you're trying to do, dear."
"That doesn't matter right now." She placed her left hand at her side and reached for her dagger with her right, cutting through the stained leather. "It won't hurt. That's all you need to know."
She didn't use her body's momentum to cast the spell as she usually did, rather, she pressed the green energy onto the wound. It tingled a bit, and her fingers touching it felt strange, but for once, she was right. It didn't hurt.
"Do you have a piece of paper?" Marisa still held her hand on Taranor's abdomen, feeling it move up and down with his irregular breaths. "I need to write this down. Do you have a piece of paper?"
Taranor shrugged, showing his empty hands.
"Alright, if not, then," she said while pushing slightly harder on Taranor. "You'll just have to try to remember this before I can get you to a healer. I know someone who could fix this, maybe. He's in Erothin, though. You'll have to hold out until we can get there."
Taranor sat up, not letting Marisa's hand move from its place. "What on Vyn did they do to me?" He looked down at the injury. Same as before.
"Let me tell you a few numbers first. Try to remember." Taranor nodded in her direction. "47A, 721B, 2C, 9D, 62E, 14F. Remember that, alright?"
He shook his head, but mouthed the numbers a few times, deciding to believe her that they were important. "Now can you tell me what this is about?"
"The knife was coated in something. Not a poison, at least not according to official taxonomy. Whoever did this sure knew about sinistra." She released her hand from him, shaking it out. "Basically, they took a simple mentalism spell, one that converts physical stamina to mental stamina, you know, to cast spells faster, and made you into a conduit using signaling fluid. Now that you're so fatigued, it's, hmm. It's not taking your energy anymore, it's taking your blood, your tissue, everything it can get. The pain isn't going to stop anytime soon until we can get you to my friend."
Taranor clenched his fist, too enraged to say anything.
"I can't believe Ostian has a sinistrope like that. It's alarming, I'll tell you that. I've done this kind of thing before but that was only because Narathzul--"
"Can you please stop talking? I'm legitimately concerned about this!"
"You thought you wouldn't be? Either whoever attacked you is going easy on you, or you're a lot tougher than I thought you were."
He couldn't hold back a laugh, despite his clenched fist and the tension in his face. "What a compliment." His face hardened again. "What do the numbers mean? We should probably go in the morning, but until then, why don't we talk. I don't think I'll be able to sleep tonight."
"Yeah, in the morning." It was a few hours past midnight now, the late autumn breeze wrapping them on the cobblestones. "I do need to rest a bit. I drank a lot, and, you know. And the numbers are the specific eventualities affected by the spell. That's what the searchlight I cast found for me. I don't fully understand it myself, but my friend will. I hope."
"Dear, can I ask you something? Stay put for a moment." Marisa continued to listen, growing tense. "How likely is this to kill me?"
"I'm surprised it hasn't yet." Marisa leaned down and rested her head in Taranor's lap. He felt a sense of safety as she did so, despite his affliction and their topic of conversation. "I feel like they're trying to drag it out. Take all they can from you slowly rather than using it for a burst of power like I do. I don't like that."
"So this arcanist could, theoretically, turn the dial and kill me anytime they want. That's awfully comforting." Taranor's wound began to ache again. Now he knew what it was, and instead of benefitting from that knowledge, he felt a visceral sense of the situation getting much, much worse. "Are you sure there isn't anything you can do?"
"No. I've done all I can for the actual puncture, but I can't dispel the conduit. Again, we're going to have my friend take a look at it. Yuslan Sha'Rim. A hell of an entropist. If he doesn't know what to do, no one will."
"Sha'Rim." Taranor closed his eyes, trying to recall where he'd heard that name before. "You used to practice with him a lot, eh? Damn, I hope this works."
"Yeah." She got up, helping Taranor to his feet, and started towards the path. The cannons had hit the castle somehow, but Taranor couldn't place exactly where. It could have been the suite, but it could have been something else. Either way, they couldn't stay here. He had spent every last penny he had on the Free People, and had no means to rebuild Cahbaet from her current devastation. It was obviously their final night in the familiar.
Moonlight blurred with streaks of faint orange, fading into day as the castle doors came into view. They found that the suite hadn't been hit by the cannons, but unfortunately, its foyer had. The two tiptoed through the ruins of their former safety, looking at everything they lost only briefly before deciding that it had no purpose.
Taranor met Marisa's eyes, and beckoned for her to leave. Remains from the foyer walls, spread across the suite's floor, made traversing to the bedroom nearly impossible. It was time to leave, Taranor thought as he turned around, never to look back on the suite; they didn't have to wait for the sunrise.
"Taranor," Marisa began.
"Yes." Standing in the hall outside the foyer, trying to detach himself from both the building and the city itself, he looked at her. She was more alive than he was, which gave him consolation.
"I think I have a rune on me." She fumbled around on her belt, looking up with satisfaction when she found the translucent rune, about the size of her little finger. She yawned. "To Erothin, I guess?"
"Hold on." She cast the spell into the rune. The typical tickle came, followed by the strange disconnect, as if he were simultaneously experiencing something and forgetting it. Light spread through his fingers, moving up to his arms, his shoulders, his torso, and finally his head, and everything turned white.
They fell onto the stones of Erothin's market, still holding the other's hands, breathing out of their chests. Cahbaet was merely a memory, as sentimental as it was, merely matter that they would never return to. The sun, slowly rising in front of them, called merchants and performers to the city centre, funneling Taranor and Marisa into the crowd.
"Sha'Rim lives pretty close to here," Marisa said, directing Taranor to the south. "He rents a room above Mathilda's store. They'd never expect him there. I'm sure she's, how should I put this. Paid off very nicely."
Taranor smiled. "Dear, I know Erothin well. I used to live here, worked at the museum." He started off towards the south, but halted abruptly, crashing in the middle of a flood of early-morning dwellers, falling to the footstep-branded ground.
"Can you walk?" She looked down at him, reaching down to help him up. "It'll only be about five minutes. You have to make it through, then he'll take a look."
"I swear, this fucker gets me at the most inopportune times." He remained unstable, but pushed through towards the tanning shop. His legs couldn't carry him for much longer.
When they reached Mathilda's store, Taranor's full weight pushed on Marisa's shoulder through his weary arm. It took much longer than five minutes. He started to open the front door, pulling Marisa along, but she didn't let him.
"There's a back entrance with stairs up to him. We don't want you in the shop like this."
"Why, too handsome?"
"Stop." She dragged both of them behind the store, nearly buckling. "Can you climb the ladder?"
"What do you think, moron?"
She had let go now, and Taranor now leaned against a shrub. The burs and thorns pricked his back, but he could barely register that they were there, since the rest of his body hurt much, much more. It would be over soon, one way or another. The story-high ladder looked insurmountable.
"Hm. We really don't want to go through the store. There would be too many questions. Too much hold-up." Marisa looked around. "Okay. I think I have an idea. I'm not the best mentalist, but I could maybe break the window up there and use telekinesis to--"
"That's not going to work."
"It's definitely going to work." Marisa readied a pressure spell. "This will break the window, and then I could get you in."
Taranor looked up and down the ladder. "Suit yourself. I trust you."
She reached up, pointed her hand at the window, and squeezed it shut. Silence. How did she think she wasn't a good mentalist?
"Alright, time to get you up. Make yourself as small as you can. I'll try to keep it slow."
She climbed the ladder, perched on the sill, and readied the telekinesis, pointing the orange energy at Taranor. He shot up a few feet, instinctively curled his body up, and rose slowly towards Marisa, landing on the sill beside her as she released the spell. They crawled through the hole in the window, into Sha'Rim's apartment.
"What an entrance." Yuslan gave an exaggerated bow. "You forget that I always have a detection spell up. I could see both of you from down there."
"Well, excuse me." Marisa forced a smile. "He's, hmm. He's not having the best day."
"Neither am I. Now I'll have to fix my window." He gestured for them to pass. "You're Taranor Coarek? Maybe this isn't the most accurate predicament to see you in, knowing the rumors."
"Marisa, come into the side room with me. Taranor, if you can get yourself to the chair over there, that would be excellent."
She followed him through the wooden door. Taranor could hear two door bolts echo in succession as the door closed. He walked to the chair and sat down. It was rock hard.
A few minutes passed, and they showed no sign of returning. Out of curiosity, and because the pain had reached a record low, Taranor got up and strolled to the door, pausing when he could hear the rumble of voices, quieting his breath so he could hear why they were taking so long.
"I said it was just mercs! No clergy, no actual army, nothing but mercs!" This voice was higher and blunter, with a clear Nehrimese accent. This was Marisa.
"The Southrealm doesn't hire entropists as mercenaries. I don't know what you're talking about." This voice was lower and quieter, barely audible. That's Yuslan.
"Then who in all of Vyn could have done this to him? I promise you, no one else was there but hirelings. Didn't see anyone else, at least."
"What did he tell you about who threw the knife?"
"Just that." She trailed off. "He didn't know either, I think. I'm in the dark."
"Preposterous." Taranor could hear paper being shuffled around. "I do have an idea what happened. This will throw you off a bit, though it's the only thing I see as plausible."
"Just tell me. I don't think I'll like it."
"It's one of you. Ostian avoids sinistropes almost as much as they avoid autonomy, but you two, on the other hand, hire them without a second thought. Perhaps that's not the best idea. The more...delicate matters should be left to you, because I know you're skilled enough not to absolutely wipe Cahbaet off the map. Unless you wanted to." He let out a small chuckle, then returned to his signature indifference. "Don't take in arcanists whom you can't control." There was no tinge of anger to his words, merely his voice's natural undulations, which only made Taranor more uncomfortable with the thought.
Taranor could hear Marisa stamping the floor from his place in the living room. "Did you really fucking say that? Most of us didn't even last the night, and you have the guts to say that it was a fucking inside job?"
"It's the only thing that could have happened. Let me fix him up, and then you can get to work on eliminating whoever did it. That's all I'm here for; I'm not interested in getting involved."
Taranor heard the bolts unclick and rushed back to the chair, falling into it as the door swung open.
"Marisa, get me some signaling fluid from the lab and an apple from the kitchen." She set off towards the other side of Yuslan's apartment as he pulled the second chair closer to Taranor, lowering his voice to a mere mutter. "Näea, we'll have time to ourselves soon. Be patient." He returned to his normal volume and leaned into Taranor. "And I feel no need to explain any of the background to you, because again, I have a detection spell up, and could see you while speaking with Marisa, even if I couldn't hear you plodding along on the floor." Yuslan sat back as she brought him the supplies.
Taranor raised his eyebrows at her, only receiving a knowing nod.
"Marisa, do you have the eventuality numbers? I'm going to transfer the spell to this apple. Lie back, legend."
After Yuslan finished, the apple shriveling up the moment the signaling fluid touched it, Marisa and Taranor found their way to a little inn near the southeast wall and rented a room for the night. It was relatively meager, on Taranor's insistence, since he'd told Marisa that he'd feel repulsive if he slept in luxury that night.
Marisa lit the wood stove, wafts of heat filling the room, with them coming a strange awareness of the past day.
"It feels uncomfortable, dear." Taranor sat on the night table. It looked sturdy enough.
"Then stand up."
"If I didn't know you, I just might snap."
"Then I'm glad you do."
"Sentimental ass." He adjusted his position, grimacing. It wasn't the pain this time, but now that it had subsided, he could focus on the reality. "We just abandoned Cahbaet. Are you feeling anything about that?"
"Trying not to." Marisa took off her coat, draping it over the headboard.
"I wish I could say the same." The night table faltered under him. "It just feels like we left too soon, even though anytime would be too soon. I worked so hard for Cahbaet, and she's gone in a single night."
"Again, I'm trying to push it away. We can't go back, so what's the purpose of dwelling on it?"
"The first time you saw her was about four and a half years ago, when we first met. I gained control of the Northrealm a bit more than fifteen years back, not to mention the additional three of working my ass off to get there. I don't have the luxury of just ‘pushing it away.'"
Marisa bit her lip and let down her hair from the tie it had been confined in since the battle.
"You don't know what to say? That's right, Marisa, you shouldn't." He looked down, taking a deep breath in. "That was wrong. I'm sorry. I'm terribly exhausted."
"Thank you." She began to unbuckle her robe, but paused. "Do you want to talk about it, or shall we do something else?"
"I have one more thing to say." His cuirass was much too ripped to remove in any orderly way, so he ripped the fibers at the collar, widening it enough to fall past his chest and onto the floor, leaving only a matted undershirt and stained linen pants.
She sat down next to him, cuddling into his shoulder, also still in her underclothes from the battle. Neither of them brought additional sleeping clothes, but this would have to do. Erothin's chill rivaled Cahbaet's.
"I'm going to do better. I'm going to lead the Free People of Nehrim to absolute perfection within the next few years, and you are going to be right here with me." He kissed her forehead. "I'm glad we both made it."
She wrapped her arms around his frame, hoisted herself onto his lap, brushed back his hair, and kissed him, leaving his lips just soon enough to feel ephemeral. "Me too."
Taranor let himself fully surrender to her, let his body move alongside hers, let his hands tiptoe across her, nearly as gentle and grateful as hers.
He closed his eyes. They had made it.