Sample Chapter

the-redemptive-suffering

Chapter 1

Simon Baloshian moved a branch aside for a clearer view of Galinas Keep. It was still swathed in darkness thanks to him. Fergus, Captain of the Elite Guard, stood at his shoulder, his attention also on the scene below.

Thick clouds hid the moon. Without them, the scene would be as bright as day for the guards along the Keep’s walls. Those clouds hadn’t shifted despite the wind, held in place by Simon.

The Keep sat high on a hill at the other end of the valley. Between them, forest that gradually settled into regular rows of tall shrubs stretched out. Hugging the base of the Keep, the village of Kurta lay silent, her workers slumbering after a day tending those fields, pomegranates turned to fine brandy by Amergin Galinas. The Keep Holder was known for little else at Court.

“I still don’t see why I should make the trip down there,” Simon complained through gritted teeth. The winds constantly threatened to rip the clouds free from his magical grasp, and it took more of his concentration than he liked. It was beginning to show.

Fergus gave him a sharp look. Simon couldn’t tell if it was for the complaint or the strain behind his words.

“After Slavin foresaw Galinas overthrowing King Conchobar, this is the most prudent strategy.”

Simon shook his head. The effort made him dizzy.

“I have no problem with that. I don’t hold Seers in awe like you non‑magical folk, but Slavin is clearly gifted. I meant your soldiers are more than capable of taking these feeble defenses.”

“Our agents tell us magical folk have visited the Keep. Lady Venedocia is, apparently, obsessed with protecting her family.”

He pulled his attention away from the Keep to look over at Simon. “It hasn’t been confirmed, but we’ve heard rumors of Freeboot Mages in the area.”

Simon looked around sharply. The ground tried to shift under his feet. He gritted his teeth to shut out the spinning.

“Why didn’t I hear about this before?”

“The King kept this close to himself. No one’s heard the details of the old girl’s Vision except him.” Fergus shrugged. “Should he be concerned about divided loyalties?”

Simon snorted. “Ridiculous.”

“If there are magical protections ahead, you’ll need to take care of them.”

“That won’t be a problem.”

A faint light, lonely in the darkness, flashed on the high ramparts.

“We’ve got the outer defenses,” Fergus said. “Let’s be off.”

Fergus led his personal guard down the hill, and, after releasing the clouds from their prison, Simon dutifully followed. With that strain lifted from him, the descent into the valley wasn’t quite the tedious effort he’d considered just moments before. The moon broke through, and the soft light diffused by the branches was enough to show them the way.

Their exit from the forest was abrupt. The bushy shrubs were laid out before them in neat lines an old soldier like Fergus could appreciate. Here, they sped up, packed earth with clear light as easy to travel as the streets around the Royal Palace.

The clouds had completely dispersed by the time they reached the cottages. They passed like ghosts, barely a disturbance on the birdsong uninterested in the goings on at ground level. Blank, dark windows were all that witnessed the menacing parade.

The well-contained road from village to Keep ended at opened gates and a raised portcullis. The guards, their armor marked by Walis Conchobar’s flaming stag sigil, snapped to attention when Fergus reached them.

Simon stumbled a step through the gates at the sight before him. Men in leather jerkins were haphazardly sprawled across the open area. A few of the fallen bore the royal sigil, but the flowering fruit design of the Galinas family dominated.

More bodies clogged the Great Hall. Fergus moved to the wall where the fallen were fewer, giving them a clear path to the stairs farther back.

Simon had to pick his way through the corpses on the way up the steps. Nothing but Galinas House Guard lay before him.

A guardsman with Squad Leader sigils on his breastplate waited at the landing before a thick oaken door now thrown open. He held a head at his side by its hair and raised it at their approach. A light beard framed the grisly display, the eyes slits, the tongue lolled out of the slack mouth. Despite being caked in blood, Amergin Galinas’s bright red hair shone through.

“Evidently, he didn’t have any magical protections,” Simon said.

Fergus ignored him. “This way,” he ordered. “We’re not done yet.”

In the Keep Holder’s chambers, the fire had died down enough that the room was swathed in shadow. Simon passed Galinas’s desk, strewn with parchments. Had he been working on his accounts when the alarm was raised?

The Holder’s bed was now the site of all activity where two guardsmen held Lady Venedocia in their firm grips. Simon remembered meeting her briefly at the King’s last Ascension Day celebration. He turned to Fergus.

“I hardly think the Lady Venedocia is a threat to the King.”

“No, she isn’t,” Fergus answered. “That’s not why we’re here, though.”

He nodded toward the bed. Guardsmen standing there shifted to reveal a crib at the foot of it. Considering what had just occurred here, he was surprised there weren’t cries coming from there.

Venedocia, who’d stood quietly before this, erupted in a frenzy of futile struggle against her captors when Fergus stepped up. Desperate pleas, incoherent in her frenzy, burbled from her while he approached the crib. Simon joined him there, the infant still asleep below.

“Merrill Galinas,” Fergus said, “Keep Holder of Galinas Keep. If Lady Venedocia bought magical protections for anyone, it would have been this one.”

Simon called up a Lagas Mantra, powered it with Flame, and scanned the child. “There’s no magical protections on him,” he announced.

Fergus pulled out his knife. “Excellent. This won’t take but a minute.”

Simon jumped in front of the crib while Venedocia wailed even louder. This woke the boy to add to the confusion.

“Wait! What are you doing?” he demanded.

Fergus looked at him with confusion. “Following my orders,” he said. “From the King himself. ‘Before this night is over, the Keep Holder of Galinas Keep must be dead.’”

“No!” Venedocia screamed. She strained harder against the guardsmen. They hardly noticed. “He’s just a baby!”

“Yes,” Simon said. “He is just a child. An infant.”

“Who will grow up and possibly fulfill the Royal Seer’s Vision,” Fergus pointed out.

Simon drew himself up to his full height. Despite the soldier’s thick muscles, he still had a few inches on the man and tried to stare him down.

“No,” Simon announced. “I won’t be a part in killing children.”

“You won’t be,” Fergus said. “Your duties are done here.”

He shoved Simon aside with a casual effort. Simon shot away from his body to step onto the Fields of Flame.

A flat plain of browns and yellows stretched off to a distant rim beyond which he’d never journeyed. Around him, great spouts of burning energy burst from the ground, big chunks of earth and stone thrown out in a ring around each. A deep basso roar was almost powerful enough to interact with his spectral self. He reached out to a nearby geyser and pulled a scintillating ball of raw power to him. The burning sphere melted into his ethereal chest, his teeth gritted to cut off a scream at the searing pain that coursed through him. Then, he dropped back into the cold, dark world where infanticide was about to be committed.

He took the Flame and worked it into a Katah Mantra and sent the spell out with a convulsive thrust. To his eyes, it was like a great light filled the room and illuminated everything except the crib and the woman beside him. Considering the exhaustion after his previous efforts with the clouds, he hadn’t expected that level of precision.

Fergus stood frozen with his knife poised over the crib. An eerie quiet filled the room, only disturbed by Venedocia’s surprised gasp.

The soldiers struggled against his mantra, and the light that held them flickered slightly. Fergus’s knife jerked forward, inches closer to the baby.

He’d reacted without thinking. His first thought had been to stop the guardsman without harming him. Fergus was, after all, just as much a part of the Palace as Simon. But, now what? Venedocia could escape this room with the child, but she’d never get out of the Keep itself.

Simon rushed back to the Fields for more Flame. Katah gave way to Makrylos, defense to attack.

Fergus was like a brother to him, but there was no other way. When the Katah mantra collapsed, the Galinas babe would die, and Simon assumed he and the mother would suffer the same fate.

There was no finesse in this mantra. Enervation accounted for that. Fergus and the other soldiers dropped with the metallic clattering of their weapons and armor. Faint echoes of falling armored bodies floated in through the open doors. Simon hoped the Keep’s thick walls stopped the mantra from reaching the village.

Only one guard remained, Lady Venedocia’s captor. His face was twisted in a grimace of confused shock. He locked eyes with Simon, and the confusion gave ‘way to anger. He shoved Venedocia aside, reaching for his sword. Simon sent a blast of Flame at him, nothing beyond a standard battle mantra, immolating him before he’d taken a single step.

Now free, Venedocia rushed forward to grab her son. Dizziness gripped Simon, and he clutched the corner of the crib so he didn’t collapse. Despite his exhaustion, he reached out to stop her.

“Wait,” he said to her surprised glare. “There’s one more thing.”

Simon had been Royal Mage to Walis Conchobar for a dozen years. He knew his King. Conchobar wouldn’t rest until this threat was erased.

He pressed his hand to the boy’s chest while Venedocia scrabbled at him. Fierce as she was, she nearly knocked him off his feet in his present state. He rushed back to the Fields, hopefully for the last time this night. The wisp of burning energy he collected seemed like nothing after the conflagrations he’d grabbed earlier, and he prayed it was enough. It was all he could manage, though. It burnt far worse than his previous bundles, another effect of the fatigue that tore at him.

The Mantra poured into that tiny body, and the baby glowed from head to foot as the magic filled him. From her incredulous look, even Venedocia could see the aura around her son. It would soon fade to nothing. The mantra, however, would remain with the boy until Simon lifted it. Or Simon’s death. With luck, Merrill Galinas would be an old man by then.

“He has protections now,” he said. “Neither blade nor bludgeon, arrow nor spear, will harm him. Raise him right, Lady Venedocia. See that he grows strong and straight.”

He stumbled toward the door, picking his way past Fergus and the rest of his company. Venedocia, now clutching the boy, ran up to block him.

“You fulfilled the Vision, Master Mage. A Seer pronounced over Merrill after his birth. He said that a Mage would save his life, and one not from the Isle of Draoi would be his Doom.”

Simon offered her a weary smile. “Let’s hope my protections will be sufficient against the non-Mage in the Seer’s vision.”

He stepped past her for the door. “Where will you go?” she asked.

He stopped to consider that. “Away. You should do the same.”

*****

Simon huddled over his small fire, its feeble light no match for the impenetrable gloom that filled the forest around him. He stiffened when the gentle backdrop of insects and animals in the underbrush, finally accepting his presence, fell silent as if a shroud had been dropped over the land. A quick swipe of his hand extinguished the fire.

Dark engulfed his campsite. He sat as still as he could, trying to blend into the shadows, focused on sound now that sight was useless.

A wave of cold swept over him that sent violent shivers from head to foot. It wasn’t from the night air. The aftermath of a transport Mantra spilled out around him. Memories of Draoi, the cold, stone‑swept island the Magi called home, filled him.

He let out a long, slow breath. They’d found him. His goal had been to reach the Harcum Mountains and lose himself in Iathair’s vast emptiness. That faint hope had now slipped away.

A solitary shape in the familiar robes of his order appeared to his right, formed from the shadows between the trees. A second coalesced out of the dark beside that one. Four more joined that pair to surround him.

The two in front glowed with their unremarkable connection to the Fields. The four behind told a different story. They burned with a brightness that would consume a normal Mage. Cloaks. Altogether worthless at learning the complex language of mantras like the scholars understood it, their great talent was the ability to harness enough Flame to power the most potent Battle Mantras. They tended to be a bit thick, but that didn’t make them any less capable of destroying him if he chose to resist.

“Simon Baloshian,” one of them said. A soft alto. Boann. He couldn’t believe they actually sent her after him. Was this some sort of test for her? With this many Cloaks, an Acolyte could have completed the mission.

“You will stand before your order and answer charges levied against you,” she said.

He climbed to his feet. “Of course.”

The journey from Draoi may have been instantaneous for his captors, but the trip back would be long and slow. Without the circle of Magi who powered the Transport Mantra, the return would be on foot. It was a long way from the wilds of Lir to the island.

“We leave immediately,” Boann announced, giving him no surprise.

******

The biting wind, a constant companion since setting out across the Oynic Ocean for the Magi’s home, whipped past Simon to slap at his face with cold, angry gusts. He was seated in the stern of their small boat between two Cloaks. Behind him, the Pulser powering their craft through the water moaned with the pleasure his Talent produced.

Draoi loomed ahead. The boat slowed, the Pulser’s orgasmic noises fading with the change. A small boat, not large enough for more than a single passenger, sat waiting at the dock when they moored their craft. Simon shuddered at the sight. He’d heard stories about those boats.

Ahead, Castle Draoi glared down at him. The first time he’d seen it, standing in this same spot, too young to remember much of his life before the island, it had been dangerous and imposing to his young eyes. Even now, it reminded him of a giant animal poised to pounce at the first sign of weakness.

He followed Boann up the uneven stone path that stretched from the water. “I can’t believe you did such a thing,” she said over her shoulder, the first words any of them had spoken to him since setting out on their journey. The bitter disappointment behind her words stung.

“I didn’t have a choice,” he answered.

The Great Hall was deserted, the torches and fireplace both cold and dark. When he’d left to replace old Wenham as the Royal Mage of Lir, the entire order had assembled here, the place awash with torchlight while the great chandelier above showered the assemblage with fairylight.

A stone beside the fireplace slid aside at Boann’s touch to reveal a passage Simon had only heard whispered rumors of. The corridor beyond was narrow enough that his shoulders brushed the sides.

The hallway ended in a big, round room, a dais at its center growing out of the stone floor. Concentric half-circles of tables and chairs rose up in levels around it. Light shone down from a glowing ball hung near the top of the vaulted ceiling to illuminate the room like a sunny day.

Boann stopped just beyond the entrance. The Mage behind him, Fedak, based on the warty nose Simon finally got a glimpse of in the hood, pushed him out into the room.

The Keepers of the Law filled the chairs surrounding the dais. Midir stood alone at the center of the raised platform, and a sad lump built in Simon’s chest at the sight of the old man. He’d overseen Simon’s development as a Mage since his arrival on Draoi.

Boann pulled Simon forward, and he caught a fleeting hint of sympathy in her stony expression. She understood what it meant for him to stand before his mentor like this. Each step was an insurmountable barrier he had to force his way past.

“Simon Baloshian,” Midir said, “you stand before your brethren to answer the charge that you have broken your oath to King Walis Conchobar of Lir, to whom you are beholden.”

“I am innocent, Oh Mage,” Simon said.

Rage and sadness battled for dominance on Midir’s face. He held up a parchment. “The Order has submitted their questions to me. When your service was bestowed upon Walis Conchobar, King of Lir, did you swear to serve him in any and all things he could require of a Mage?”

“I did,” Simon answered.

“And did you accompany the Elite Guard to Galinas Keep to provide assistance and defense in keeping with your abilities?”

“I did.”

“And, did you provide the benefits and defenses required?”

“I did.”

“Our understanding is that this foray was to destroy the Keep Holder of Galinas, whom he believed to be a threat.”

“My efforts allowed his Guard to take the Keep and kill Amergin Galinas.”

“And Merrill Galinas?”

“He’s an infant! An innocent! My oath never required me to take part in the slaughter of children.”

“Your oath required you to serve King Conchobar in all things that could be required of a Mage,” Midir countered. “Did the infant have magical protections?”

“No.”

“Then, you had no need to be involved in his death. Others fulfilling their own oaths would have addressed that. We examined the Keep. The Elite Guard sent to kill the Keep Holder are all dead. They fill shallow graves beyond the pomegranate fields. We also found no evidence of Merrill or Venedocia Galinas. Both are assumed to still be alive. It was a simple matter to determine that the Elite Guards’ deaths were by your hand.”

“I had no choice. They were about to kill the baby.”

Midir shifted first to his right, then his left. A soft rustling rippled through the room. The decision on his fate was quick and sure from those in attendance. Simon stiffened when Midir turned back to him.

The combined might of the Magi held him so he couldn’t shy away from Midir’s approach. “Simon Baloshian,” he said, his voice flat and cold, “you have been found guilty of breaking your oath.”

He pressed his hand against Simon’s forehead, and a searing heat ripped through him, far worse than he’d ever experienced in the Fields of Flame. Simon tried to scream, but the same spell that held him rigid locked his cries in his throat.

“I name you oathbreaker,” Midir said. “No longer will you be part of the Order. No longer will you be able to journey to the Fields of Flame. To attempt it will be your death.”

Midir stepped back, and the forces that held Simon released him. He spiraled down a deep, dark hole to unrelieved emptiness, the last sight before the blackness overwhelmed him the stone beneath him rushing forward to claim him.

*****

Sensation returned. Cold and hurt dominated. Simon’s head throbbed, sharp rocks jabbed at him, and a freezing wind sent violent shivers through him.

The world was now strange and flat. He could no longer sense the Portal to the Fields buried deep beneath the castle. Was this how non-magical folk perceived the world?

A robed figure stood over him. Recognition took a moment. The world was darker than it used to be.

Midir stared down at him. The anger was now gone. In its place, pity joined the sadness in his eyes. He gestured toward the boat waiting at the wharf.

“That ship has been ordered to take you to the mainland,” he said. “You must board by sunrise or face death. The ship will destroy itself within sight of Iathair. Such is the fate of the oathbreaker’s vessel. If you’ve rested well enough, you may make it to shore. If you do, we have no further interest in you. However you choose to make your way in the world will be your decision.”

He turned away, slow, heavy steps back to the Castle.

“Goodbye, Simon,” came back over his shoulder. “Begone.”