"We present to you King Alus, and his Queen, Vivian!"
The last pronouncement was met with a rising cheer that would have set the palace walls shaking had they been indoors. As it was, they were not; instead, the coronation had been held in the palace gardens, where flowers of every color imaginable bloomed and turned their petals to the wan-looking king and the queen whose arm he held as though offering him the allegiance of concealed thorns.
Alus looked upon them, feeling a reluctant smile tug at the corner of his lips. How very like his courtiers they were! When his father, old King Jerius, was on the throne, his health failing, they'd circled Alus like a pack of vipers, cooing sympathies and hiding their fangs. But they cold never hide the cold speculation in their eyes. King Alus, then a prince, had been the last living heir. If he died, there were no members of the family close enough to take over.
What was worse---memory surged.
Vivian, head in his lap, sobbing her eyes out, and him looking out the window with disbelieving eyes, the paper from the palace healers slipping from his fingers to the floor. "I wanted a child so bad," Vivian had whispered, tears cascading down her beautiful face. He'd kissed her, shared her pain….
There would be no heir.
If he died, there would be war.
But there were, of course, protections in place to prevent any… mishaps. And he and his new queen would figure out the rest later.
"My dear," Vivian murmured, drawing his eyes to the woman who had only a week ago been merely his betrothed. Alus looked into her eyes and saw both sympathy and a loving warmth that straightened his back and raised his chin. He picked up her hand and kissed her knuckles, enticing a lascivious whistle from a dark-haired man leaning on the stone walls against the entrance to the palace from which he would now rule.
Alus laughed. "Kane seems to be in a good mood today."
"Of course he is. Before Jerius died---" Vivian shot an apologetic look at her husband, knowing he still missed his father, and continued, "Before Jerius died, he was just your average knight, bleeding for the crown and being far too underpaid for his trouble. Now he is King's Champion. Why should he be unhappy?"
"Perhaps because the vocation is not a safe one," Alus muttered.
They were now only a few steps from the subject of their conversation, who had evidently heard the end of that conversation, for as he sauntered up with his gloves tucked into his belt, he drawled, "Why, Your Majesty, I could have sworn that in your dulcet tones I heard the faint implication that I might get hurt. I didn't know you cared. And if I may say so, my lord," he added, "you look like hell."
With any other ruler, such perceived insubordination would have meant a beheading. Such was not the case for Kane. The twenty-eight year old fighter was only a few years younger than his king, and they had been like brothers growing up. Kane could be competitive, and he could be cocky, but Alus always marveled that he never seemed to resent that he was always in the limelight.
"Thank you, old friend," Alus replied dryly. "And while you're at it, why don't you tell me there's rumors of a curse, too. And a murder attempt. You know, the sort of thing that jeopardizes a coronation, just as looking like hell d---"
"You do not look like hell." Classic Vivian-style argument ending, complete with the steely gray-eyed glare to the knight. "You look like a wise ruler, and not the pimple-faced, arrogant buffoon that I seem to remember."
Kane bowed, then beckoned with an armored hand. "I've arranged the council for a private meeting, sire, lady. Sooner started, sooner finished," he continued at Alus' groan, "at least there's wine."
"No drinking for you," Alus warned. "You must be ready to accept a challenge at any time now that you're Champion."
Kane saluted him and clicked his booted heels together, his brow quirked sardonically, and turned, striding into the castle with his monarchs right behind him. They passed beneath the stone-arch entrance, the train of Alus' royal purple cloak and Vivian's stark black gown trailing behind.
"When was I an arrogant, pimple-faced buffoon?" Alus wanted to know.
Vivian laughed, a sound like tiny bells. "Don't you remember how you proposed?" She lifted her chin, skin like porcelain, and grinned.
Alus admitted, "I don't remember what I said."
Kane glanced over his shoulder, and, as Vivian was too busy trying not to laugh to answer, answered for her: "You didn't say anything, O Hallowed One. You just picked up her hand and slid a ring on her finger, gave her this significant, arrogant, pimple-faced buffoon look and walked off."
"And she liked it," Alus finished in a very dignified way. The two monarchs and the nobleman ascended the winding staircase in the main hall and continued on to the council room.
They didn't notice the young, teenage sorcerer hidden in the shadows and leaning on the wall, his arms crossed malevolently against his chest, chilly sapphire eyes not leaving the backs of his new king and queen. He watched, waiting for them to be out of sight, and out of earshot.
The little street urchin hadn't had a name, and if he had, Cyrus didn't care. The important thing was that he stop squirming. Death was a messy thing, and the glass bowl was a tiny target.
"Lemme go," pleaded the young blonde child as he wrenched back and forth in Cyrus' grip. "I di'n do nothin'! Why're ye---no!---kkk---"
The swift silver knife struck quickly and silently across the urchin's grubby throat, effectively cutting off his protests and leaving him gurgling as his blood sprayed from the yawning wound and filled the bowl. It splattered Cyrus' skin where the black cloth of tunic and pants didn't cover, and would have gotten into his shoulder-length dark hair had he not tied it back. When the bowl had filled, he tossed the corpse aside like so much trash and leaned over to gaze into the gleaming red.
"Tempus Vernum, adeo mihi," he whispered to it, pale, long-fingered hands reaching out to grasp his staff. As the weapon neared the blood, the runes carved into its wood began to glow ominously, the pointed ruby at its tip lighting up the tiny room and humming with thirst. Cyrus closed his eyes with a shudder. His beloved staff wanted power, wanted blood, because he was bound to it, and so it worked the other way around, too. The compulsion was strong. Soon, he told himself, swallowing convulsively.
"Adeo mihi," he repeated, clasping his palm over the pointed tip of the ruby. He didn't even wince as the flesh parted and his blood dribbled down its length. Instead, Cyrus held it over the bowl and let his blood join the dead vagrant's, binding to him the creature he summoned, the creature of ages past and ages to come, the Tempus Vernum, the Time Servant. The one who would help him reach his end and destroy the newly-crowned fool.
Cyrus wiped his bloody palm on the black cloth of his leggings and transferred his staff to that hand. Holding his right over the mingling blood, he said one final time, his voice deep and commanding: "Tempus Vernum, adeo mihi!"
The blood lurched in the bowl, rising up as though invisible, cupped hands lifted it, as though it were not liquid but solid, and could be sculpted. It formed a pair of tiny, slender legs, a waist, a torso, rounded breasts, long, graceful arms, and a head, with holes in the face for eyes, nostrils, and a mouth. The blood-face turned to look at the warlock, who felt a triumphant smile stretch his lips.
He then winced. He hadn't smiled in so long, the motion cracked the flesh of his lips, making even more blood well up in the fresh, tiny cuts. Cyrus disregarded the pain and the small injury altogether.
But the servant he'd summoned did not. With crimson hands it reached out for him, one moving toward his face and the other beckoning him closer. Without thought, Cyrus obeyed, and it touched the blood on his lower lip, taking it into itself.
"Herself." The voice was thin and whispery inside his head.
"I am female, fleshy warlock. I am Duosora, and you have Called me."
As it spoke, it held its hands out now to the dead boy who lay in a broken, crumpled heap a few feet away. The body twitched, and before Cyrus' very eyes, the flesh of his arm separated from that of his shoulder and the rest of his body and began to slide down his bones like a too-long glove. The living man swallowed and looked away.
"You cause pain for others, but cannot bear to watch," Duosora observed as the flesh soared through the air to her outstretched, blood-sculpted hands and parted, covering her hands, her arms, her entire body. The words she spoke were without inflection, yet they still stung. They stung enough that when she repeated the procedure with the dead boy's brown eyes and scalp of dirty-blonde hair, he forced himself to watch, though it made the bile rise in his throat.
It was true that he had committed vile, horrendous acts in his seventeen years. It was also true that the urchin was already dead, and no longer felt any of this. Yet there was something very creepy about watching Duosora mutilate the body, and the (ironically) bloodless, clinical way with which she did it.
Seemingly finished, Duosora stepped out of the bowl, a tiny, naked pixie-like being without lips or finger- and -toenails. A construct.
"You have Called me," said the time-demon, looking up at him with eyes that were quite literally glassy and lifeless. "For what reason have you done this?"
"For justice," Cyrus answered, gripping his staff with both hands. "For the revival of a kingdom."
Duosora held one arm out in a sweeping gesture. Cyrus almost flinched, thinking she was calling some new body part to her, before realizing that she was merely signaling him to continue.
He stepped forward, barely, and reminded himself not to fear her. He had summoned her, and so long as the ruby topped his staff, she could not harm him. She could only follow his commands.
"There is a new king sitting on the amethyst throne," he continued, an angry flame rising in his gut at the memory of why he'd done all this. "A sword-thug, a pampered brute, a---a noble." He spat the word like a venomous curse. "He has done away with my legacy."
"The staff," said Duosora, still with that infuriating lack of emphasis or inflection.
"The staff," Cyrus agreed.
"His father ended the practice of sorcery, and shut down the classes." The young man chewed at the flesh of his thumb, pacing now, leather boots tapping gently on the blood-spattered stone floor. "I had hoped, when I set that plague on the castle, killed the old fool and his queen both, his idiot son would take the damned hint and reinstate them. But he didn't." Cyrus shot a glance at the time-demon, who watched neutrally. "Do you ever show emotion?"
"Are there not teachers amongst the villages? Herbwitches, ceremonial mages, and the like?"
Cyrus hesitated. "Yes…"
There was a silence then, broken only by the gentle dripping of rain that had begun outside. That silence lasted for several long, uncomfortable moments, and then---
The time-demon might have looked vaguely human, might have claimed to be a girl, but the sound that left her lipless mouth was anything but human. It sounded like the crashing of water mixed with the crackling of a fire and the screams of the dying, coming from the bottom of a well.
"What's so funny?" Cyrus demanded, refusing to be intimidated as the dead eyes crinkled with mirth as they stared at him.
Duosora stepped closer, on the edge of the table now, reaching out to caress Cyrus' face. "Tell me, Fleshly One," the demon crooned, "If you were able to destroy the previous monarchs, why do you now summon me?"
Cyrus felt himself redden, his sapphire eyes widening. "N-no," he stammered. "It's the plague---they know of it, they have cures---"
"But you have other means of destruction."
"None of which---"
"Do not play games with me, Fleshly One. I am not stupid." A pause. "You loved the queen."
The queen, the lovely, damned, horrible, beautiful, clever, foolish, wonderful, brutal Queen Vivian, with her hair as dark as a starless night and eyes a luminescent silver, quick smiles and lithe body. With her love-filled gazes toward the damned King Alus, coming from eyes she would never turn on him, never had, not even when he'd been the one sorcerer able to cure her when she'd taken deathly ill four years ago.
"That is what this is about, isn't it?" asked Duosora, sounding thoroughly amused now. "You do not want her dead, yet you know of nothing so precise as to kill the king and the king alone, leaving those around him untouched. You want to become the king yourself, so that you may have her to yourself."
Damn it, Cyrus thought, and bellowed the rest, "You don't get to question my motives, b***h!"
He gestured savagely with his staff, and the ruby glowed red and gave a strange whir, and suddenly Duosora gave that otherworldly scream, crouching down in pain, stolen blonde hair hiding her face like a curtain. Her body then snapped back, 'her' face contorting in pain.
Cyrus let her suffer for a few moments longer, then gestured again, freeing her from the wave of pain in which he had encased her. "You are my servant," he snarled. "As long as this ruby tops my staff, you remain my servant, and you will know your place, or I will make you suffer every moment I decide to let you live for! Do you understand that?"
Duosora was looking up at him with that creepy lifeless stare, her arms wrapped around her torso as she gasped.
"I said, do you understand!" Another flick of the staff, another scream.
"I understand," Duosora hissed when he released her.
"Good." Cyrus gestured, and a length of chains flew off the wall and wrapped themselves around her. She offered no reaction to this, hanging limply in the bindings. The young man smiled, picking her up; she was small, and weighed almost nothing. "Then let us go and claim a kingdom, Duosora."
It had been a long night. After the coronation of King Alus and Queen Vivian, there had been a feast, and then a ball, and finally, the two monarchs sat in the throne room on their amethyst-encrusted thrones, with their Champion seated before them with a glass of juice instead of the wine he was previously accustomed to having. It was a fact he made many jibes about in the nearly-empty room.
Kane was in the middle of a story of one of his drunken escapades with a pretty little maid girl when the screaming started.
The screaming, and then, oddly… the wailing. Of babies.
Outside of the throne room, the two guards were shouting something. Both men were men Kane knew very well to be brave souls. Brave souls with tenor voices. Tenor voices that were now seeming to roughen harshly, sounding vaguely like his grandfather before he had died. Kane stood, turning and kicking his chair to the wall, his hand going to the hilt of his blade and drawing it quickly. He had only just gotten into a guard stance when the doors opened violently.
In stepped a youth of no extreme height, lanky and dressed in black with a blood-red cloak. There was a maniacal smile on his lips that lit his blue eyes with an insane light. Behind him, walking sedately, was the form of a young lady, her upper torso and arms bound completely in heavy chains. There was something odd about her, and about the silhouettes of the guards that he glimpsed before the doors closed, but Kane's attention was on the man.
Well. Boy, really.
"What do you want, child?" asked Kane.
The boy glared, the smile leaving his lips. "I am no child," he said, a challenge in his voice. "I am Cyrus, and I am your doom!"
Kane just looked at him for a moment, and then he began to laugh. The force of this laughter set his shoulders trembling and brought tears of mirth to his eyes. With each second Kane laughed, Cyrus became even angrier, reminding him of a kitten feeling cheated and angry when the ball of yarn he attacked did not cry. "But you---" Kane began, but he had to break off again in another fit of laughter. "You don't even have a weapon! You have a stick!"
Cyrus looked down to his staff and scowled deeply. Everyone seemed to write off his staff as a "stick." Well, now it was time to prove him wrong, prove ALL of them wrong. He opened his mouth to speak.
"Actually," said a fearful voice behind him---the queen! "Actually, that's a staff, not a stick…"
"My dear?" asked Alus worriedly, rising from his throne to go to her.
"DON'T TOUCH HER!" Cyrus screamed, his fists clenching so hard it was a wonder the staff didn't break under the pressure.
Alus turned his head toward the youth. "I know not who you are, young one, but she is my wife!"
"And those are your monarchs, you little whelp," added Kane, advancing toward Cyrus. "Mind your manners."
Now it was Cyrus' turn to laugh. "My manners? Are you deaf? Did you not hear what I've done to your beloved palace?" He shook his head. "All right, since you're so damned cocky, how's this for your much-loved honor?" He held his staff, pointed-end out, toward Kane. "I challenge you to a duel."
"I accept," Kane said, holding is sword lazily at his side and smiling as though it were a game.
"NO!" cried the queen, shoving Alus out of her way as she rose from her seat. Vivian pointed a shaking finger at the young warlock. "I know who you are," she whispered. "You're the young mage who healed me, three years ago."
"Four," Cyrus said through gritted teeth. "Four years. And you've changed, woman. You used to be headstrong and fierce. Now you're some weakling, some lily-handed wench, some---lady!"
The next moment, Cyrus found the point of a blade kissing the base of his throat. "You'll show respect to the Queen, scum," said Kane, as Alus led the trembling woman out through a secret exit behind the trappings of the room. "You're going to want to stop this foolishness before you get hurt."
Cyrus responded by knocking the blade away with the wood of his staff. Kane stared, startled---his blade was sharp, and didn't they cut through wood?---but then was forced into action as Cyrus swung on his head with a grunt of effort.
The attack was enthusiastic, but the wielder of the staff was a warlock, not a melee fighter, and it showed. Whereas Kane was a trained and blooded knight, and a thoroughly angry one at that. He had his goofy moments, and his arrogant ones, but he loved the rules of his land, and one of them was that you did not let petty scum disrespect the monarchs who held your vows. Kane ducked out of the way and parried expertly.
Cyrus swung and Kane parried; Kane swung and Cyrus barely was able to move out of the way. Kane's mouth was set in a hard line. He wanted to take the kid in, but not kill him---he was, after all, very young. And therefore he pulled his blows on purpose, missing on purpose, making the warlock stumble backward and running him around the room. If he could just get close enough to knock the young man out without getting smashed in the head at the same time, this whole thing would be over.
But gradually his swings missed without his intending them to. His steps were clumsier, and the blue uniform mail he wore as armor grew heavier on his body, as though he was overexerting---but this was a mere child, not something he actually had to work to deal with!
"Why, King's Champion," Cyrus crowed gleefully, "what a youthful glow you've got about you!"
"What?" Kane started to say, and then cried out in pain, falling to one knee. It felt like a thousand needles were being pulled into his skin on his scalp, his armpits, his chest, his arms, his groin, his legs. The knight dropped his sword and tugged his glove off, running his fingers through his hair only to feel it disappearing between them. Horrified, he looked at his hands. They were shrinking.
"What have you -done?-" Kane screamed, scrambling to pick up the dropped weapon just in time to keep his head from getting bashed in. The effort made his muscles scream as the blade got even heavier in his grip, and then too heavy to hold.
Cyrus wasn't even fighting anymore, only standing back and sneering. "You called me a child," he taunted, "what the hell do you call yourself?"
But Kane was no longer able to answer. He had reverted from adulthood, to being a teenager, to childhood, with his strength being sapped with each stage, until finally he was but an infant. The last coherent thought the knight had was of the creepy girl-shaped thing watching in the corner, reaching out to him with her fingers moving like the hands of a clock and her face completely without expression.
Cyrus cackled and gestured with his staff, and baby Kane's armor disappeared, transforming itself from hard armor to soft cloth, from blue, faded to white, from tunic, leggings, and boots to a diaper and booties. The mage then tucked his staff beneath his arm and swooped in, picking the baby up in the crook of his arm. "What a cute little bloodthirsty warrior!" he crooned. "Do you want to see Uncle Cyrus kill your king? Hmm? Do you? Of course you do, sweet one."
Kane began to bawl, his soft face crumpling with heartbreak. Seeing this, Cyrus smiled, then lifted his eyes to meet those of King Alus, who had been watching in horror.
The king was an impressive sight, and he could almost see why Vivian had fallen for a weak fool such as him. His skin was fair---it came from never being in any real danger, never having to do any real work---and his features were finely chiseled, his gray eyes set deep within folds of skin, laugh lines along a sensual mouth with a small, trimmed beard beneath it, his nose strong. His brown hair was cut short to fit a helmet, but the style fit him.
Cyrus wondered if the style would fit him as a baby.
He glanced over at Duosora in the corner, and pointed at her with the hand that wasn't holding the squalling baby. "What are you waiting for? Do it!"
Alus, standing between the two amethyst thrones, gasped as he, too, felt his hair begin to return beneath his skin. "You can't do this," he said, drawing his sword with fingers that shook. He had been watching with shock at his champion's plight, and so he knew he didn't have much time.
But even as he stepped down the three stairs to the main floor in the room, Cyrus set the baby down on the floor and reclaimed his staff from beneath his arm, flicking it at the king like he would flick a fly away. The sword flew from Alus' hands, burrowing deep into the carpet by the queen's throne. Alus went to get it, but tripped on his breeches, which were quickly getting to be too big for him. Already, he was a teenager… but not, as Vivian had claimed, a pimple-faced, arrogant buffoon.
Cyrus advanced upon the fresh-faced young man, staff leveled at his heart as Alus became even younger. "Why don't you leave the ruling of a kingdom to the grown-ups," he mocked, as right before his eyes, Alus became a little boy.
The crown slipped from his messy-haired head and fell forward into Alus' hands.
Alus looked down at the magnificent work of gold before him, and then up at the ruby on the staff. His father, King Jerius, had exiled the magic-teachers from the castle because magic ran chaotically in the royal bloodline, and was to be ignored, or else disastrous. That sense of power had faded with age, but it was here now in full force, and he could just feel that the ruby was the key.
The king felt himself shrinking again and took a chance---he threw the crown.
Almost in slow motion, the crown whirled through the air. The laughter froze on Cyrus' face, and then the crown collided with the ruby and shattered it. It felt as though a million years passed as the shards of the gem rained down upon the red carpets.
For a moment, there was complete and utter stillness, save for the wailings of Kane.
For the third time that evening, Duosora screamed, and all eyes turned to her.
"What in the seven hells?" Alus breathed. "Her skin… it's… -boiling.-"
"You summoned a demon of time? You fool!" Vivian had returned, peering out at the fight from behind the hangings beyond the twin thrones.
"You did what?" demanded Alus, at the same time that Cyrus screamed, "Shut up!"
"You do not give the orders any longer, Fleshly Sorcerer," said an otherworldly voice that echoed through the chamber. The flesh that had once belonged to a street urchin collapsed, and the blood it had contained oozed out through the eye sockets. A glimmering sort of energy floated above it, disembodied, featureless. "'As long as this ruby tops my staff,'" Duosora quoted, and Alus could hear malicious amusement in her voice, "'you remain my servant.' Is that not what you told me?"
"Du---Duosora," Cyrus stammered, staggering back.
"But the ruby tops your staff no longer, isn't that right?" The time demon gave a little laugh that made the hair on the back of the king's neck stand up. "So I am no longer your servant. I believe I will do as I please now."
The glimmering energy split into three. One floated to Cyrus, one to Kane, who was now silent, and one to King Alus.
The one near Cyrus floated before him for a moment as though considering which action to take. The warlock opened his mouth to say something, and in that moment, the third of Duosora jammed into the gaping chasm in his face, lodging into his face. Rapidly, he began to age down, his choked-off screams growing higher in pitch until he lay there, a baby, wailing in frustration. The part within him that was Duosora soared out of him and joined the part floating before the king.
The second part was busy bringing Kane back to normal. Within seconds, he was there again, the same age and physique as he had been that very morning. The part then left him, leaving the naked knight and champion to mutter a torrent of fervent epithets and reach for baby Cyrus' clothes. Beyond the doors of the throne room, the sound of bewildered adults talking and the smooth faces of the guards poking in proved that all was normal outside.
As was the king, who watched the glittering, nondescript form of Duosora before him. "Thank you," he said uncertainly.
"I am not yet finished," the time demon informed him. "Queen Vivian, join your husband."
Vivian stepped forward, linking her arm to Alus' and looking at the demon warily.
"You are unable to conceive," Duosora said.
Vivian bowed her head, swallowing around a sudden lump of sadness. "We know."
"That need not be the end of your line, however, if you have forgiveness in your hearts." The shimmering form half-turned, and the monarchs looked to see their champion holding the squalling form of the baby Cyrus in his arms, looking thoroughly disgruntled.
They looked back to the demon---only to find that she had vanished.
"What in hell was that supposed to mean?" muttered Kane darkly, obviously unhappy that he had lost a fight.
Vivian stepped forward, taking the baby from the knight, who was only too happy to let him go. Baby in her arms, she turned to her husband, bestowing upon him a radiant smile. "If we raise him right," she began,
"We will have an heir," agreed Alus with a smile.
And so it was, and the couple lived to a ripe old age, succeeded by Prince Cyrus, who became the new king after he married a young woman---a bony, common street urchin with dusty blonde hair. They made many alliances, cemented by ritual battles by a crotchety old knight who made jokes at the most inopportune times, and nearly broke the goodwill of the allied kingdoms.
Even so, they lived happily ever after, with the intervention of a select few demons under the banner of the Siblings of Time.
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