Darkening Sky, Chapter 5

  • Chapter 5

     

     

     

     

                    Ambarro stood still as a statue, his facial muscles bulging as he strained.

     

                    ‘Still at it, I see,’ Harrow remarked, turning from his training dummy, dead for the seventy-fifth time in an hour.

     

                    ‘Come on, come on,’ Ambarro muttered, clenching his fingers inwards. Fire, fire…

     

                    When the flames did spark, they were their usual orange.

     

                    Frustrated, Ambarro threw his hands up. ‘You know, I’m beginning to think that Grandpa and Uncle Jorra and the healers were all just hallucinating. Black flames? I’ve never even heard of something like that.’

     

                    Harrow shrugged, tapping his chin. ‘The Grandmaster’s Shikabane Kugutsu takes the form of black smoke. Perhaps magic takes on different hues when you expend your soul’s energy instead of Magicka. Hmm, I should do some reading on the matter.’

     

                    ‘Thanks, you’re very helpful,’ Ambarro snarled. ‘Go practice your new magic instead of poking your nose in mine. I haven’t seen you use the spell yet; afraid of messing up?’

     

                    ‘Master Torako has forbidden me from practicing the Finger of the Mountain without the presence of a senior instructor,’ Harrow said, and it was his turn to look frustrated.

     

                    ‘So you did mess up,’ Ambarro taunted.

     

                    ‘I can only call the lightning bolt into existence if I have physical contact with the target,’ Harrow said irritably. ‘Unfortunately, that means that the bolt would also strike me. I trained for an entire week on Cloud Top and I still couldn’t manage a Yamayubi from any kind of distance…’

     

                    He broke off, turning away with the usual ‘tch’ he uttered between his teeth when he was annoyed.

     

                    Rare as it was, Ambarro empathised. He had been trying the entire morning to summon the black fire he had supposedly created when he fell unconscious, but so far all the flames that jetted out of his hands were their usual yellow hue. The sun was rising to its peak, and so was his temper.

     

                    All right, one more try. He stretched out his palm and felt the Magicka rush to his hand like a well-trained muscle. No, wait, I’m not supposed to use any Magicka-

     

                    ‘Gah!’ Ambarro yelled, fed up, and hurled a fireball at a nearby dummy. A blast of heat washed over the training field as the wooden figure was blown into cinders.

     

                    The explosion tinted the air orange, much like the sun had at dawn, when he first started, five long hours ago.


     

                    Black smoke issued from Takarro’s hands, drifting around his head and forming a cloudy latticework. Ambarro stared at his grandfather’s magic, fascinated.

     

                    ‘And that’s a tiny part of your soul?’ he asked, voice hushed.

     

                    ‘A manifestation of it, yes,’ Takarro said, frowning. His hands began to tremble, then the smoke sputtered for a brief second and almost fizzed out of existence. The Grandmaster shook his head, regained concentration, and the wisps continued circling the training field. ‘It takes a great deal of focus and will to draw it out, however.’

     

                    Studying him, Ambarro slumped slightly. ‘If it gives even you a challenge, Grandpa, it must be very difficult.’

     

                    ‘Oh? You’re not giving up, are you?’

     

                    ‘Of course not!’ Ambarro straightened, indignant. ‘I’m just not really sure what to do here, that’s all.’

     

                    ‘Mhm.’ Takarro closed his fist, drawing his smoke back inside him. ‘You have been trained in the magical arts for so long, that you are capable of using your reserves of Magicka almost instinctively. When you use Magicka to cast spells, you have a sensation of probing deep inside your own head, yes?’

     

                    Ambarro nodded.

     

                    ‘That is because Magicka resides in the nervous system, and you access the power of Aetherius through your synapses – of which your brain has the most in abundance. That is why the head is the seat of arcane power.’ Takarro give his grandson a tap on the forehead.

     

                    ‘Now, the soul is another matter entirely. It runs deeper than the confluences of Magicka in your nerves, deeper than the vital ki circulating through your lungs and veins. It is your essence itself, and is one of the most primal parts of your identity – no two souls are alike, just as no two Magicka signatures are alike. Even though there is a bit of your soul in your Magicka and a few more bits in your ki, accessing this essence requires that you go beyond these energies, to reach further – past the mundane and past the arcane.’

     

                    Ambarro blinked, more confused than ever.

     

                    After pausing for a while, Takarro rephrased. ‘Picture a muscle that runs through the entire length and breadth of your body, under all the other layers of skin and flesh and bone. The Black Flask has given you free access to that muscle, but for almost eighteen years this muscle has lain dormant. It is natural not to be able to use it fully at first. For now, try flexing that muscle. You can feel it there, no? Like a new core inside you.’

     

                    ‘Yes,’ Ambarro murmured, closing his eyes. ‘It’s… it’s warm.’

     

                    ‘Feed that warmth,’ Takarro urged. ‘Feel it grow inside you. And when you feel comfortable enough, draw from it, and expel it from your body.’

     

                    Ambarro tried, producing an instant gout of flame. It was orange, though, not the midnight black that Takarro and Jorra had described.

     

                    ‘Don’t focus on shallow Magicka or notions of spellwork,’ Takarro said. ‘Try again.’

     

                    He did. Once again, the flames were the colour of normal fire.

     

                    ‘This is energy intrinsic to your very being,’ Takarro advised, as even-tempered as ever. ‘Centre yourself, and it will flow. Try again.’

     

                    Ambarro stretched out a hand. This time, he produced no flames at all. He felt the heat surge and held it back. No, not yet. I’m still not reaching far enough.

     

                    Takarro nodded, a small smile stretching over his lips. ‘Good! You are beginning to learn exactly how deep the power within runs. Get its measure, and you can begin to probe its depths. Try again.’

     

                    Hopeful, he jettisoned an arc of flame. Yellow. Slightly hotter, but otherwise nothing out of the ordinary.

     

                    ‘Hrmm,’ Ambarro grumbled.

     

                    ‘You’ll get there eventually,’ Takarro said, stifling a laugh at his impatience. ‘It took me months to even produce a single wisp of smoke. Try again.’

     

                    ‘Right,’ Ambarro growled, cracking his knuckles. After some more general advice, Takarro left for his office, seeing that his grandson was eager to practice on his own.

     

                    As he made his way across Tsukikage’s cobbled streets, he raised his hand to his eyes, studying the fingers. Shaking, he mused. Trembling. Then I lost control of the Kugutsu.

     

                    Command of magic is always the first thing to go.

     

                    At the turn of the month, he would be two hundred and seventeen. He had a few years left at most. It was long past time he settled the matter of his successor.

     

                    Grandmaster. A lofty title to bear… especially now, at the turning of the age.

     

                    The Thirty-Fourth Grandmaster of the Village of Tsukikage sighed, blowing a flurry of snow from his fur, his once jet-black pelt now pure white. For the first time, he felt the years’ toll – if not on his body, then certainly on his spirit. My twilight is drawing to a close. Soon, night shall fall… and it will be my turn to join the ancestors.

     

                    The rest would be welcome. While he would do everything he had done for the Village again twice over, not all of the work had been pleasant. He had not been a decisive leader at times when it mattered the most. Not when the Blades needed us. Not when the Empire went to war.

     

                    Regrets ill befit a shinobi. Another reason he had not been the best Grandmaster. Too many regrets. How many times have I stood by, only to bemoan afterwards ‘If only I had done something different’? Ayanne-ko, Bengakhi, my poor old friends... I sent you on that mission, knowing full well the risks. Jorra… all the things I put you through, all the things I made you do, despite your feelings towards violence. Have you ever truly recovered? You were such a gentle child...

     

                    And of course, as it always did when he thought of regret, his mind turned to his daughter.

     

                    Verra… Takarro felt his eyes burn. Ambarro has your ears. Your smile too. That troublemaker’s squint and twitchy nose, though, those are all Kodi’s. I wish you could see him now. I wish I could say that I raised him as best I could, but… no, Jorra has that honour. He has grown into a fine young man. I wish…

     

                    Takarro shook his head. The past was an ocean, and he needed to take care not to drown.

     

                    Enough wallowing, you senile old cat. You have work to do.


     

                    Fit the arrow to the bowstring. Draw. Exhale. Release.

     

                    The arrow whizzed past the bandit’s face and embedded itself in the wall. The Dunmer blinked, then smirked. ‘You missed,’ he called.

     

                    Longinus gestured. The enchanted rune carved on the arrow exploded, blowing the weak, crumbling wall into flying shards of stone. The bandit and three of his fellows were flung off into the distance. A few limbs flew off, trailing mare’s tails of red.

     

                    ‘I didn’t miss,’ Longinus growled as the remaining ten bandits rushed at him, memories of a far earlier time intruding upon him as he nocked another arrow.

     

                    ‘Disgraceful.’ Father’s voice, always layered with disappointment. ‘Try again.’

     

                    The arrow flew three inches off the mark, the shaft sprouting from the white circle instead of the red centre.

     

                    ‘You missed,’ Father spat. ‘Again. How do you even stay so worthless? Look at your brother. Six years your junior and already a master marksman. Do you not find this pathetic?’

     

                    Longinus stared with hate at the younger brother in question. The ten-year-old was emptying his entire quiver into a target twice as far away as his. Nock, draw, exhale, release. Centre, centre, centre, centre, centre… One arrow split the shaft of another, and he looked away in disgust.

     

                    ‘You missed,’ Father repeated. ‘If you don’t hit the red at least three times in a row, there will be no dinner. By the Divines, at this rate, you should consider yourself lucky if you ever reach a tenth of what your little brother has already achieved.’

     

                    Longinus shot an arrow into the ground in front of him, then gestured again. A burst of frost magic erupted from the earth, slowing the bandits’ charge. The rune engravings were his own design. Could his little brother do that?

     

                    He allowed the next arrow to fly between the bandits before setting it off in a spectacular burst of lightning, blinding and deafening the group with the thunderclap and stunning them with the electric current, allowing him to pick them off one by one. Could his oh so talented little brother have managed such perfect timing?

     

                    One bandit made it through, stepping on the arrow he had buried in the ground before the fight and setting off the Paralysis rune. The warrior fell as the green magic enveloped him, and Longinus drew his dagger, slitting his throat. Could his sweet, precious, pride-of-the-family little brother have acted with that kind of forethought?

     

                    A hulking figure emerged from the ruins of the wall, hefting a large pair of scimitars. The figure was clad in Hammerfell-styled armour and a heavy turban, but Longinus caught a glimpse of teal skin under the cloth. While his features were all but invisible, there was a certain regal authority in his bearing, and there was an air of power in his voice.

     

                    ‘What exactly do you think you’re-’

     

                    ‘Armian T’arkca,’ Longinus interrupted, drawing his bow once more. ‘You stand accused of sixty-six charges of murder, forty-nine charges of banditry, thirty-seven charges of assault, eleven charges of theft, and one charge of lollygagging. Your bounty is worth nine hundred septims both dead or alive, and since your head seems much easier to lug around than your entire body, I think I’m going to go with “dead”.’

     

                    ‘Ah,’ Armian said, chuckling resignedly. ‘Well, then, let’s get this over with.’

     

                    ‘Let’s,’ Longinus agreed, and loosed his arrow. It sang past the bandit chief and came to a stop in the ground next to his boots at an angle.

     

                    Armian snorted. ‘You missed.’

     

                    If the Redguard had been paying attention, he might have seen that the arrow’s shaft had been painstakingly engraved with three whole circles of runes, covering the entire length of the wood.

     

                    Longinus concentrated, raising a fist. Mark.

     

                    ‘I tire of this,’ Armian rumbled, advancing with his blades. As he took his first step, Longinus released his fist and the arrow began to glow with purple energy.

     

                    Recall.

     

                    ‘As do I,’ Longinus quipped. ‘And one last thing-’

     

                    Armian swung with both his scimitars, one slash from the left and one from the right, with all the speed and skill expected of a Redguard swordsman. It was a brutal attack, meant to hew the mercenary in half.

     

                    But Longinus wasn’t there, and only a shadow of his shadow remained, fizzling into indigo light.

     

                    Armian blinked, then felt a presence at his back. He whirled to see his adversary leaping at him, grasping the still-pulsating arrow by the shaft.

     

                    ‘I didn’t miss,’ Longinus snarled, driving the arrowhead through his eye socket.

     

                    It took a while for him to hack off Armian’s head. The Redguard had a neck thick with sinew. When he finally managed it, it went into a sack he hung on his horse. After that, it was a week’s hard riding to get back to the Imperial City. He turned in the bounty, spent a night in a tavern with two Bosmeri whores, and woke up nursing a daedroth of a headache.

     

                    ‘Agh,’ Longinus mumbled ruefully, rising from his bed and massaging his temples. He spared a glance at his quiver. Twenty-four arrows left. I’ll fletch six more later in the afternoon. Also need to find an enchanter somewhere… might be a table for lease in the tavern, you never know.

     

                    It wasn’t particularly urgent, but he did have another big job lined up already. It wouldn’t do to be unprepared. But first some tea and brandy for his blasted hangover.

     

                    He went back downstairs to the tavern commons, plonked himself down at a table, then ordered.

     

                    His tea came just as the door to the tavern opened, announcing a new customer with a tinkle of the bell. Longinus glanced over. Well, well. Look who it is.

     

                    An alert, perpetually darting gaze, a hooked nose that gave him a hawkish appearance, and a wiry build that showed even under his archer’s cuirass. His precious little brother Lencius.

     

                    Their eyes met almost instantly, and Lencius made his way over to his table.

     

                    ‘What do you want?’ Longinus said gruffly.

     

                    ‘We haven’t seen each other in almost a decade, and that’s the first thing you say?’ Lencius said, sitting down in front of him.

     

                    ‘Oh, you want to exchange pleasantries, then? Fine, I’ll start. How’s licking the Emperor’s boots working out for you?’

     

                    ‘You know as well as I do that I am bound by oath not to reveal anything about the nature of my work,’ Lencius muttered. ‘And I already know what you’ve been up to lately anyway. The boys are all talking about the man who took down the T’arkca gang. Did you have to make such a mess? An arrow between the eyes each would’ve done the job far more simply.’

     

                    ‘Typical,’ Longinus snorted. ‘Use a bit of adroit spellwork, and the common masses decry it as “making a mess”. Last time I checked, you know next to nothing about magic – and trust me, you still stink of the mundane, little brother.’

     

                    Lencius’ eyes narrowed at the insult. ‘If I remember correctly, you first turned to magic as a crutch for-’

     

                    Longinus banged his flagon on his table, temporarily silencing the tavern. A couple of patrons glanced their way nervously before continuing their conversation.

     

                    ‘Yes?’ His voice rose along with his temper. ‘A crutch for what, exactly?’

     

                    Lencius shook his head. ‘Forget it.’

     

                    ‘What do you want?’ Longinus said, dropping to a sullen monotone.

     

                    ‘I didn’t see you at Mother or Father’s funerals,’ Lencius said softly. ‘Did you even know?’

     

                    ‘I heard.’ Longinus shrugged. ‘And?’

     

                    ‘Father’s service was beautiful. They laid his Legion colours out on the casket-’

     

                    ‘What. Do. You. Want?’ Longinus let a hint of steel enter his voice. Once upon a time, that would have been enough to cow his precious little brother. Now it just made him frown with distaste. Growing a spine now, are you? No matter what you do, you're still just a lackey. I am my own man.

     

                    ‘This new job you’re taking,’ Lencius said. Finally, getting to business. ‘How much do you know about it?’

     

                    ‘Some treasure hunt in the highest stretches of the Jeralls,’ Longinus replied. ‘Apparently this elven collector’s learned of ancient Aldmer relics lost atop a flat-peaked mountain. We’re being paid one thousand septims each in advance to get up the mountain, and another thousand septims for each relic retrieved. I do this right, I might even be able to retire after the job.’

     

                    ‘“We”?’ Lencius raised an eyebrow.

     

                    ‘Meeting with a group of other mercenaries and bounty hunters. Ten to twenty people in all, depending on who stays and leaves.’

     

                    ‘And what do you know about those sections of the mountains?’

     

                    ‘High,’ Longinus said, growing suspicious. ‘Desolate. Cold as a vampire’s kiss. Lower areas around it are populated by warlords brave, mad, or stupid enough to make their homes there. The mountain itself is uncharted territory. Said to be haunted. Must be pretty powerful ghosts or undead if none of the local warlords – or anyone else for that matter – ever make it up there.’

     

                    Lencius said nothing, arousing Longinus’ suspicions fully.

     

                    ‘Now, you tell me,’ he hissed, leaning in. ‘What’s your version of the story?’

     

                    ‘I am bound by oath not to reveal anything about the nature of-’

     

                    ‘So that’s it,’ Longinus sneered, raising his flagon to his lips. ‘There’s something up on that mountain, something you Oculatus toadies don’t want the commonfolk to see. Something vital to the Empire, I’m guessing. Afraid I’m going to “make a mess” of it like everything else I do, hmm? Well, too bad for you and too bad for the rest of the spectres. Gold is gold, and I’m looking to be swimming in it when I’m done with this mountain of yours.’

     

                    ‘Longinus,’ Lencius said, his voice harder than he had ever heard it before. ‘You are a greedy, bitter, self-centred bastard. But some part of me still remembers you as family in the loosest definition of the word. I am stretching my oath to the breaking point simply by being here. So you listen to me when I tell you-’

     

                    He reached out, surprising him as he grabbed him by the shoulders.

     

                    ‘Don’t go on that mountain.

     

                    Longinus felt a spark of rage, and he threw Lencius’ hands off him.

     

                    ‘Don’t touch me,’ he spat. ‘Haven’t you taken enough glory from me, soldier boy? Dagon claim you. And he can take the Oculatus, the Emperor, and Mother and Father’s pretty pretty caskets while he’s at it. I’m going to take this job, I’m going up the Jeralls, I’m going to get filthy rich, and short of arresting me, there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. Well? Is that it, eh? Want to see which of us really is the better archer? I’ve designed arrows meant specifically for fighting so-called “master marksmen”. Want a taste?’

     

                    ‘No,’ Lencius said, and Longinus could almost hear a hint of sadness in his voice. He rose from the table and made to leave.

     

                    The younger Imperial headed for the door, wrapping a heavy cloak around his body as he spared one last gaze behind him. Despite himself, Longinus felt a jolt in his stomach. He’s looking at me as if… as if I’m already dead.

     

                    ‘No,’ Lencius repeated, turning away. ‘Goodbye, brother.’

     

     

     

     

     

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Comments

2 Comments   |   KaiserSoSay and 3 others like this.
  • KaiserSoSay
    KaiserSoSay   ·  September 2
    And into the Tiger's den he goes. Don't suppose Len could ask the Shadeclaws to spare a Merc up there?
    • A Shadow Under the Moons
      A Shadow Under the Moons
      KaiserSoSay
      KaiserSoSay
      KaiserSoSay
      And into the Tiger's den he goes. Don't suppose Len could ask the Shadeclaws to spare a Merc up there?
        ·  September 10
      Ehehehe, unfortunately it's not that easy to contact Tsukikage, even if you're part of the Oculatus. That's the trade-off for good secrecy, you sacrifice a lot of communication with the outside world. Well, it's not as if Lencius is that close with Longin...  more