The battlefield stretched in every direction further than the eye could see. Not a tree nor a blade of grass could be seen to interrupt the horror that had happened here, the bodies a carpet from one horizon to the next, the rolling hills only mounds of corpses. The fighting had gone on for so long that decomposing men and women had formed swamps where others faltered and drowned.
Nobody came to move the dead. Not even the carrion birds came near. All had perished. This world ended here.
A boy crawled over the rubbish heap, which towered over the slums that encircled it. His footing was sure despite the shifting beneath his bare feet. He stopped at the summit, looking toward the city, where buildings of stone sat upon the hilltops, reaching toward the clouds, and not once looking down. They felt alive to the boy. He could feel their wonder, the elation. They were turned away, however. Toward him and his, he felt only indifference.
He looked down once more, searching the refuse for anything useful. Rags and food and sometimes even metal. Once he had found a perfect silver brooch, worth more than his father and brothers could earn in the mills in a year. He had returned home like a triumphant saviour that day, but his mother had been horrified. If the guard found them with such a thing, she said, they would all be thrown into a slave pit as thieves. That was the way of things, said his parents. They were rashasta, and unworthy of easy pleasure. It was his lot to struggle, and serve, and through the pious application of both would he be reborn as a higher caste.
He started down the other side of the towering waste. Most of his people, he knew, would never have paused to look up at the stone palaces. It would never have crossed their mind to be curious. But he was. Achingly so. His mother would have called it envy, and a sin.
A shout interrupted his rummaging, and he looked up to see soldiers flowing into the alleyways of his home from the broad boulevard that ran from the City to the Great World Beyond. As a rashasta he was not allowed to travel without permission, nor even to step foot on the cobbled Royal Highway, causing its destinations to be mythical and wondrous in the boy’s imagination.
Around him, mail clad soldiery were filing down every twisted street, groups of men entering every home, pulling people out into the gutters and holding them at sword point. Behind them walked crimson cloaked figures, terrifying and demonic in the boy’s mind, occasionally gesturing to one peasant or another. At the wordless motion, a man, a woman, a boy or a girl would have that blade point thrust through them to the screams of those held nearby, and left to bleed out. Nobody fought back. It was forbidden.
From his position he could see a dozen winding alleys in front and to his sides. From all sides he could either hear or see the murders coming toward him. He turned and fled.
He skirted around the base of the mounds, worried that returning to the top would make him too visible. He ran as fast as the uncertain ground would allow, racing away from screams, from his home. He prayed silently his family were away, his father taken his elder siblings to the mills and manufactories, his mother taking the younger to market. He cried at his helplessness until he reached the wall that separated the lowest of castes from the merely low-born. The wall was thick, but not impenetrable. There were cracks enough for a malnourished boy.
He stumbled straight into the solid wall at first, tears making it difficult to see the ground tripping his feet. Moving along almost randomly he searched for a gap low to the ground, one of several built to allow the frequent small floods to flow through without toppling the wall. He fell to his stomach as he found an escape hole, squirming in the putrid mud to squeeze under the wall. On the other side, half in and half out, he looked up, and the air was knocked from him in a shocked and terrified gasp. A soldier leaned on a pike, eyes on one hand rolling a leaf, and looking bored. To either side stood more soldiers, paced a few yards apart. They were surrounded.
At the noise the soldier looked up, seeing the boy under the wall. He shook his head and put the rolled leaf into one corner of his mouth so he could heft his weapon. “Idiot,” he muttered, and moved forward, readying for a killing blow. The boy closed his eyes, his sobbing now silent but racking his body. He waited not for death, but for an end to terror. It did not come.
“Hey! We’re suppose to hold them for the priests.”
“What’s it to you? Do you want those bastards around here? Let’s get rid of any rats that squeeze through and tell them we didn’t see anything. Those Inquisitors give me the creeps.”
“Come on, Geralt. Just keep him here. Orders.”
“Damn you, Brezald. I can smell him from here.”
“You think he’ll smell better dead?”
The soldier looming over the boy stepped back, motioning for the child to come closer. He then pulled a tiny stick from a hidden pocket and touched it to a button on his cuff, coarser and lacking the smooth shine of the others. The stick burst into flame, which he touched to the rolled leaf hanging from his mouth. The boy stared, confused and absorbed, as the man sucked on one end, then exhaled a huge plume of smoke.
“Better hope that kid’s smell is stronger than yours. You know it’s against orders to smoke on duty.”
“Order, orders,” was the muttered reply. The smoking man stared down with obvious contempt at the boy at his feet. The boy, for his part, sucked air erratically, tears and sobs now ceased, looking weary beyond fear. His mind had already accepted his death. It was slower in accepting it still lived.
He didn’t know how long he sat there, looking up into those uncaring, slightly glazed eyes. He knew only that something had changed, and looked along the roadway to see a cloaked figure walking towards them, crimson like those he had just run from. The figure was silent, and ignored by all he passed. It wasn’t until he was directly before the boy that he spoke, causing his captor to jump and stand quickly to attention.
“From the rashasta estate, is he?”
The soldier looked directly forward, snapping a careful salute and speaking quickly. “Yes, Sir. A prisoner that tried to escape under the wall. I’ve held him for your inspection.”
The Inquisitor leaned forward, seeming to appraise the boy. He took in the tear streaked eyes, the tattered clothes that fell away from the boy’s emancipated body, the sun darkened skin and the muddy, cut feet.
The boy stared back in his innocence. His mother had told him never to stare at a higher born, but this was the first time he had ever met one, and he felt only shock, not awe. The priest had his hood thrown back, long unbound hair falling onto his shoulders. His face was full, as though never knowing hunger. His blue eyes had a shine to them, completely unlike the dull brown and grey of his own people.
He was snapped back to reality by a mailed hand connecting solidly to the back of his head. “Eyes on the ground, peasant! You are before an Andarul, a caste you should be glad to die for the privilege of laying eyes on.”
“That will be enough, soldier. I have examined the boy. He will come with me.”
“With you, sir? Should we shackle him to a carriage?”
“No, soldier, he will accompany me personally. If anyone asks, you took him back to the estate to be murdered with the others. I hope I don’t have to say what would happen if I found you had started any other rumour.”
The priest looked down at the soldier’s cuff pointedly, and got a grimace in response. The soldier nodded eagerly.
“I live to obey, sir. I shall escort the boy to your horses before taking a trip round the other side. Nobody will know more than that.”
The soldier guided the boy in the direction of the Royal Highway, saying nothing, only looking at his charge from the corner of his eyes. The boy for his part was looking everywhere. They were soon in a part of the city he had never been, where people moved freely, built their houses from material that weren’t cast-offs from the rest of society. The further they got from his home the cleaner the streets, the straighter and taller the buildings, the better dressed the people.
The fine clothes on the people he now saw surprised him, thinking in his naivety to be dress worthy of the High Castes that dwelt behind the final ring of walls in the Inner City. He did not yet realise the functional cut would be offensive to high society. These people were bakers, carpenters, masons. People that worked with their hands, and derided as low caste by their betters.
He was guided for some time before coming to the Highway, well away from his home – what the priest had termed an ‘estate’. Was that irony, he wondered? His lack of schooling made categorising the nuances of insult impossible. Waiting by the road was a large carriage, made of white painted wood, decorated in bronze fittings and ornaments. Two pure black horses were hitched in front, manes braided, hair shining, standing tall and rigid like a soldier on parade. It was, thought the boy, a marvel of engineering, workmanship, breeding and wealth.
A liveried footman stepped forward and accepted the boy, the soldier obviously eager to get on his way. The footman didn’t seem surprised at having a rashasta left in his company, nor displeased with the situation. In fact, he seemed not to notice the boy at all, who in turn started wondering if he should take the opportunity to make his escape.
It was the memory of those first moments that held him there. Soldiers coming from every direction, more surrounding the slums on every side. Would they return to find him? Would he draw the killing down on them again?
He was lost in such thoughts when a hand clamped down on his shoulder.
“Come on then, boy. Time we were off.” The crimson robed priest from earlier stood beside him, thin, almost effeminate hand withdrawing in order to gesture extravagantly toward the carriage.
“Well come on, then. Mustn’t linger. Someone may get suspicious.”
He entered through the door the footman now held open, and the peasant boy slowly, reluctantly, followed him in. His mind now recalled to him a thousand tales of nobles that preyed on young boys. Some he lived with envied such a life, and dressed in ways they said might draw such an eye. For his part, the idea terrified him, and he made a small warding sign before he stepped inside.
The interior was plush, of materials he couldn’t name, mostly of a deep violet colour. Two benches faced each other, and he eased himself opposite his captor, hoping his dirty clothes wouldn’t rub off on the expensive seats. He guessed they were worth more than he was. As he sat, the carriage rocked and he heard the sound of horse shoes on cobbles.
“First things first. Can’t be calling you ‘boy’, can I? What’s your name?”
His name? The thought of sword points flashed again in his mind, and blood and screaming. He thought of his family. His father, absent all day and too tired from his labours at night to care for him. His overbearing mother that drilled into him his lessons of piety and class. His brothers that beat him and his sisters that were favoured over him in all things. He loved them all and felt a need to protect them from any consequences of his actions. He thought quickly, his eyes darting.
The man smiled as if he had heard a joke. “Okay, Keyan, that will do, I suppose. I guess you’re wondering about your family?”
“Have none, sir. Orphan.”
“Yes, I’m sure. A rashasta without a dozen siblings – you’d be the first. But, in this case, it is a story we will also accept. This is the way things must be.” He sighed, sounding regretful.
“I am guilty of my own deceits, and for much the same reasons. Do you know why today’s raid happened? Do you even know what happened today?” When Keyan shook his head, he continued. “I am, in fact, not an Andarul. Do you know the castes, Keyan? Andarul, the priests, including the Inquisitors. The Seleuric mages. Velani, the ruling nobles.
“What you saw was the work of the Inquisition, searching for those touched by devilry. Nonsense, of course. I am of the firm belief these priests seek out anyone with talent, and execute them. Anyone with a hint of magical ability. It is their mission, of course, to root out the warlock – those that have lost control of their sorcerous powers – and eliminate the threat they cause. But what we witnessed today. It is more like genocide.
“My people, the Seleuric, are dwindling. But the empire relies on us. We hold a special place in the hierarchy. One of the High Caste, but required to work ceaselessly. In the armies, in the great factories, in every noble household. There have been great strides made, such as the castell, which absorbs power, releasing it over time. It warms homes, fires industry. It frees many of us to act in the manner in which the empire thinks its greatest calling: to make war.
“But still, we are fewer every year. And the empire is voracious. Do you follow me?” The boy could only shake his head. What did this have to do with him? Or his friends and his people?
“The Seluric work the forces of nature. They do it on far more subtle and complex levels than a labourer. Many of our children are born with this ability. Most of the rest are potentials, and will bear the trait to their children. Many, however, do not, and are thrown out, usually quietly, into the low castes. Not garbage picker low, but enough.
“On top of this, we do not breed well. It’s looked down on, for some reason. Diluting of the blood or some such thing. Not to mention we’re a picky lot. I mean, the nobles marry for power, and some would take a dozen wives if they could. The priests have their obscenities… us? Well, as I say, fewer every year. The need for mages on the front lines tips the scale. The eternal war is eating us up. Am I boring you?”
“No, sir. Very sad, sir” Keyan clamped down on his tongue. Did he sound facetious? What was the penalty for insulting a High Caste? If he died now, was there anything lower he could be born into?
“Oh, not that. Pathetic, maybe, and I’ll tell you why. The high born in the inner city are not the only ones who can manipulate energy. It exists in every caste, though rarely. About as often as we are born without it, any two people without the trait may give birth to a potential. If two such happen to meet, to marry, they have a very good chance of birthing a natural talent. Someone who, with training, may become a mage. Someone who, without training, may become a warlock.”
Keyan made the sign of warding, and the mage nodded his head. “Yes, the working of energies can twist a soul if not properly handled. Its safe use is the first, last, and within every lesson taught a mage. Unbridled power has turned people into monsters, and cities into dust, in the past.
“So, the College watches over the people. Occasionally, if one of these talents is of a good family, they may be brought into the college, and their children would later become one of our own. It has been known to happen, anyhow. Regretfully seldom. More often, they will be quietly done away with. Disappeared in the night. Some tragic accident. Whatever is expedient. Outside the great cities the Inquisitors are sent, and potentials are rounded up and executed as warlocks to the horror or entertainment of the peasantry. Keeps them in line, through fear or through thanks, while serving the College’s ends. In the slums the killing is more organised, more brutal.
“I think you can see where I’m going with this?”
Keyan thought a moment, then shook his head. The mage opposite shook his head in disappointment.
“Come now, Keyan, no need to stand on formality. I know the dogma – a rashasta shouldn’t be seen or heard, nor see or hear, one of the High Caste – but as we have no convenient go-between here, and as it’s really rather irritating, let us just dispense with it all. Now, tell me the meaning of my words so far. Think about my words. Picture them. Do they make something stir inside you? If I’m right you will see possibilities. Paths that flow from this point of time. Some are stronger than others. A few almost certain.”
Keyan thought for a moment, saw no way out of the uncomfortable situation. Instead, he grasped the words, or rather the sounds that he remembered, let them tangle, then unravel and run on ahead of his own thoughts. Pathways opened before his mind’s eye, and he followed them as he had in the past followed those mental trails to find meagre scraps near his home. He looked studiously at his fidgeting hands, took a few deep breaths in lieu of courage, and began.
“The rasha is the largest caste, so has more potentials than any other. But we’re not good enough breeding for the Cenumbrian College, so we’re sorted, and culled, like animals. You think your people are dying out, and want others accepted into the Seluric. So when you found me, away from the other mages, you smuggled me away. Because I’m a potential” He looked up at his captor and saviour. “No. Because I’m a talent. But I can’t pass as Seluric. So what, then? Train me for a while, and then parade me out? Until the Inquisitors come. And hope that it counts for something when they cut me up and burn me as a warlock?”
The mage settled back in his seat, a smug smile creasing his features.
“Well… something like that.”