Authors: Stephanie Beavers
Moloch left, but the guard returned shortly. Toman sat unresponsive as the guard unlocked his shackle as well, only moving when the guard waved for him to rise.
“Time to go to the quarry, prisoner,” the guard said. Toman followed without protest.
Toman sat on the ground outside the keep walls, the single, unnecessary guard standing watch over him. He glanced up when he heard footsteps approaching, then cringed and cast his eyes down again.
“Make me soldiers,” Moloch said. He tossed the Animator’s gloves on the ground before Toman. Toman listlessly reached for them and pulled the gloves on. One of his survival mantras ran through his head.
Do what you’re told and it hurts less.
Success: Toman heard Moloch turn and start to walk away. Toman placed his gloved hands on the ground, then froze when he noticed Moloch’s steps had paused.
“My, my, you’ve become such a good little puppet that I almost forgot your prize,” Moloch purred. Toman simply remained frozen. He knew what was coming, but he didn’t care anymore. He just didn’t want to provoke Moloch into doing anything else. It seemed to be the right choice, since Moloch kept talking.
“Your prize: knowledge. I need these soldiers for a task. I need a glut of magic for an experiment I’m about to try, and there’s a village with displeasingly low production. Since this errand is more for resource-gathering than entertainment, I want your little stone men to make sure no one escapes. In fact, for variety, I think I’ll have them help me slaughter the townfolk.”
Toman remained frozen, the words sliding past him. Should he start animating now, or remain frozen? Which was less likely to displease the mage? If he waited, Moloch might think he was being defiant, but if he started animating now, Moloch might think he wasn’t listening. In being indecisive, his decision was made. He did nothing.
“What are you waiting for? Get to work,” Moloch snarled. Toman winced and poured his will into the earth so it started to ripple and swell. He never animated so quickly as when Moloch wanted something of him.
The Dark Mage watched him make the first soldier. It was humanoid in form, but with bat wings to help it travel faster. There was a pause after it was fully formed, as Toman gave the stone servant its instructions; Moloch knew those instructions were complete when the animation saluted him and fell to one knee before him.
“Excellent. Have them ready by sundown.” Moloch turned and strode away. Toman kept working, his mind blank except for the task at hand.
Esset’s sleep-deprived mind almost failed to recognize Sedina, the capital city of Symria, as he finally approached it. He’d passed a number of cities and towns and other settlements over the course of the flight, but even so, it was difficult to believe he was almost there. The symbols of the phoenix summon still flashed over his vision intermittently, and it seemed to him that the frequency was increasing. He hoped his time wasn’t running out.
He mentally commanded the fiery bird to slow its blinding pace and it did so, giving him time to try to clear his foggy mind and study the city. It was much as he remembered—thank goodness little had changed in two years. There was the palace near the center, with the university beside it, and he could spot the bell tower of one of the city’s two great churches.
It was only just the crack of dawn, so even most of the earliest risers would only now be waking up, and he would be more difficult to see in the odd light. The guards on the walls would notice him if they weren’t slacking off, but that couldn’t be helped. He hoped he wouldn’t alarm them, but he also knew how close to the verge of collapse he was; if he stopped, he wouldn’t be able to make it the last short distance home.
Once over the city walls, Esset flew the bird lower to more easily see the streets, although he could almost steer the bird from memory. He traced their flight over a narrow, cobbled street, then had the bird land in front of an equally narrow home sandwiched between two bigger buildings. He banished the fiery bird and it vanished from beneath him. He stumbled and fell to one knee before fighting stiff, sore limbs and staggering the last couple steps to the doorstep. He knocked on the door, knowing he wasn’t far from collapse. He wasn’t sure how long he waited before knocking again—it could have been moments, or it could have been minutes, his exhaustion-fogged mind couldn’t tell. The phoenix summon flashed in front of his eyes again and the pounding his head didn’t make thinking any easier. Esset knocked again. This time he heard footsteps after a moment, and after a few moments more, the door opened.
“Hi,” Esset said weakly. He had just enough time to register the shock on his father’s face before a tide of black washed over him and he collapsed.
Again Esset woke to a pounding head. Before he could even open his eyes, the phoenix’s summon flashed beneath his eyelids. Then he tried to move and found that a massively heavy blanket had been laid atop him; that also explained why he was so hot. He pushed the blanket back and his mother immediately descended upon him. She was a little smothering and slightly damp—the latter would be from the tears, since she was crying.
“I can’t believe you’re alive! My little boy is alive! Oh Jonathan, I’m so happy!” She babbled as she hugged him and kissed his face repeatedly. She called him by his first name, of course; Esset didn’t like his name—too common, in his mind—and everyone besides his mother called him by his last name.
His father appeared in the doorway a moment later.
“Awake! You have no idea how good it is to see you, my boy,” he said. Esset could hardly believe it when his father wiped a tear from the corner of his eye—Mr. Esset was not an emotional man, known instead for his intellect and cool thinking. And as his son, Esset, of course, didn’t think of his father as a mere mortal.
“You too,” Esset admitted to both of them. It was then that he noticed how thin his mom had gotten. She’d always been a sturdy, plump individual, but now there was barely an extra pound on her. She didn’t necessarily look unhealthy, but she didn’t look like herself, either.
“Mom, are you okay?” he asked her.
“I’ve…I’ve missed you. Both of you,” she said by way of explanation.
“You have to take care of yourself, Mom. Promise me that you will? And Dad?” Esset said, looking between his parents and suddenly feeling strangely protective of them. His father had always been a bit gaunt, but he noticed now that Mr. Esset looked far more careworn than he ever had before. Losing their sons had been hard on both of them.
“I will. We will,” his mother promised, and Esset hoped she could keep that promise, especially since he knew she’d probably lose him again soon.
“I’m so sorry, Mom,” Esset apologized, standing and drawing her into a hug which she fiercely returned. Esset looked over her shoulder at his dad, an apology to him in his eyes as well.
“I want to ask about everything that’s happened to you, but I don’t know how much time I have.” Esset was still hugging his mother, and he felt as much as heard her sob of horrified objection, but he kept holding her close.
“And I have a lot to tell you,” Esset finished, and he let his mother go. She gave him a last squeeze before stepping back; tears streamed down her face.
“Toman?” his father asked. It was the question they dreaded to ask, but had to. Toman may not have been born to them, but he was as much their son as Esset was now.
“Is he alive?” his mother echoed. Esset squeezed his eyes shut in shame and pain.
“I hope not,” he said. His mother gasped. “Because if he is, he’s been Moloch’s captive for the last two years.” He opened his eyes.
“Has it really been two years?” he asked, hoping that somehow the scavengers who’d found him had been mistaken.
“About that,” his father replied with a nod. Esset sat back down on the bed, and his mother sat beside him. His father pulled up a chair.
“I should start at the beginning,” Esset said. The phoenix summon flashed across his vision and his head pounded; he hoped his parents wouldn’t notice his flinch. Of course they did, but at least they didn’t say anything.
“You know how it started. We found the artifacts before the battle, to protect us from new magics for a time, and to let us know when Moloch drew near, so he couldn’t ambush us. We were ready. Toman’s army stood by, hidden, and there was nothing to stop me from summoning anything I wanted. But we were fools. This was Moloch we were fighting, and he was more ready than we were.”
“Jonathan, you’re burning up!” his mother said, interrupting his narrative. She’d been holding his hand, but now she let go to check his forehead.
“Sorry,” Esset replied. He stopped to calm himself and his mother looked at him fearfully as she felt his body temperature drop to something far closer to normal in the span of a few moments.
“Better?” Esset asked.
“No,” she whispered back, trying not to be horrified. She wanted to know what was happening to her boy; she wanted him to be okay.
“Please, Mom, sit down,” he urged her. When she was sitting again, he continued.
“The amulets only stopped magic that wasn’t already in place. We thought that was good, because then Toman’s artificial arm would continue to work, and he could still animate his things that he had his magic in already. But we didn’t know that Moloch had prepared beforehand too. Years ago. Moloch
who Toman was; he’d left him alive on purpose. But Moloch knew that anyone left alive would hate him, and could come back, so he put—well, something like a seed inside of him. A geas that he could activate whenever he liked.”
“Geas?” his mother asked. Esset knew his father would be familiar with them, but his mother didn’t know a lot about magic.
“A geas is a kind of spell that acts like a compulsion, forcing someone to do something, or not do something,” Mr. Esset explained, then nodded for his son to continue. Esset did so.
“I don’t know what kind of geas it was, but Toman couldn’t fight him. And then…Moloch turned Toman on me. Toman couldn’t fight it, I could see that with my own eyes. Toman went to Moloch as Toman’s army of stone animations came after me. Moloch knew I couldn’t win, so he started a transportation spell. That was when I summoned the phoenix.” It was almost as if Esset’s words were a cue for the symbols of the summon to flash before his vision again. His parents were silent; Mr. Esset was a summoner himself, and Mrs. Esset knew enough about what her husband and son could do to know. Which meant they both knew that Esset should be dead.
“I might have injured him, but I don’t know how badly. His transportation spell finished and took them away before the phoenix could do any real damage. After that, I don’t remember anything until I woke up.” The last part was actually a lie. He remembered dying—or what he’d thought had been dying at the time. But his parents didn’t need to know about that, and he had no intention of telling them.
“The ones who found me said I’d been encased in stone in a crater that was radiating immense heat. They told me it had been two years. My summoner’s tome is the only other thing that survived.” He looked around and saw it on the bedside table. “I don’t know why I’m still alive, but I keep seeing the summon for the phoenix in front of my eyes, and my head hasn’t stopped pounding since I woke up. It’s getting worse, and more frequent. I don’t know if it’s trying to get me to summon it again, or what, but I don’t think I can hold out for long.” He reached up and rubbed his eyes with his hands, then continued.
“I had to tell you about Toman though. I don’t know if anything can be done. How is a geas undone? I need to try to reach Sergeant Warthog—maybe she can somehow help Toman if he’s still alive.” Esset found that he was shaking and his body temperature was rising again. Anger and fear spiked in him for a second, and for just a moment, before he could get a grip on himself, the tiny flamelets appeared and danced in the air around him. His mother gasped and beat at a spot where one tiny flame had caught on a blanket. A tiny scorched hole in the bedspread was all that remained a moment later.
“And that keeps happening, and I don’t know why,” Esset finished, burying his face in his hands. There was too much for him to deal with right then: the loss of his brother, their failure against Moloch, the missing two years of his life, his current condition, and now this. The summon for the phoenix flashed before Esset’s eyes again.
“Rest, son. I’ll go to the library and research how to undo a geas. Your mother will make you something to eat in the meantime—”