Chapter 5 – Don’t Shoot the Messenger
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The tower had been my home for the better part of three decades. I was nowhere near its first inhabitant — the construction was ancient, even if it didn’t look the part, and predated the founding of Ravenrock by at least a millennium, if not more. Despite its uncanny resilience to time, I could sense no magic in its construction — which was why I picked it as my residence in the first place. A good, sturdy building that did not emit any magical interference was the ideal location for any researcher of the arcane arts.

After I returned to my tower, I spent the next two days going through my new pile of books — it seemed that I would need to return to the bookstore sooner than I had anticipated — which proved to be a surprisingly fruitful endeavor.

Among the magical texts, I found an especially interesting thesis on a form of supercharged, unblockable scrying done through a weave of Fate and Dimension. It was still merely a purely theoretical work (spymasters across the continent would be frothing at the mouth should the completed framework of such a spell become public), as the author was still only a journeyman, but it was promising. I was nowhere near proficient enough with Dimension for a casting on that level, but I believed that to be only a matter of time. In any case, the fact that such synergies existed made me giddy for the possibilities.

The non-magical books also proved to be enlightening, although in a different sense. I would need to have a much overdue talk with my newest minion after she was done with her training.

At last, the Dimension manual did not teach me anything I hadn’t already been taught at the Academy, although the refresher was welcome. Besides the Lesser Blink that I still remembered, it contained instructions for the other basic spells the Aspect provided — namely Haste, Slow, and Pocket Dimension. They were simplified versions of the spells, designed to work with the rough threads of mana of an inexperienced mage, so they were perfect practice for me.

After indexing the books in my library, I moved to a large, open hall I had designated as a practice room. With a mental nudge, I summoned a trio of wights that were on standby inside the tower — they would be perfect test subjects for the first two spells.

Once they arrived, I began my first ever casting of Haste. Calming my nerves, I visualized the simplified framework with my mind’s eye and began to carefully weave Dimension. There were several parts to casting a spell. The first was the shape, or pattern, which anchored the spell in reality and managed the way threads interacted with each other. For spells that used only one Aspect, the pattern wasn’t as important — if you had enough willpower, you could form the spell with just the second and third parts alone. Still, I wove my threads slowly and deliberately. I wanted to do the spell properly, and in any case, the practice was always good.

The second part of casting a spell was the threads themselves. This was the part the caster had the least control over. A mage draws their threads through their conduit, and the shape they come in depends almost entirely on experience. If you used an Aspect a lot, your threads would become smooth and even. If you didn’t, they’d be maybe lumpy, maybe frayed, and generally unreliable. A poor quality thread could easily make your spell fail if you didn’t account for the differences.

The last part was the one I found most beautiful — intent. Intent, or color, was the pure imposition of your will on the fabric of the universe. In less flowery terms, the intent you imbued a thread with determined what the thread would do. It was, in many ways, a poorly understood subject. Some claimed a strong intent came from erudition, from deep-seated knowledge in the Aspect’s domain. Others claimed a strong intent came from arrogance, purely through force of will. There was a loud minority who insisted intent came from madness. I believed they were all true, in a way. For your intent to be strong, you needed to truly believe your idea, and that belief came easier when you could prove it to be true.

In my case, the spell I was weaving only required one thread of intent to be anchored to the target. The intent was, to simplify, “time moves quickly,” which would normally be a big hurdle for apprentice mages to overcome as their understanding of time was shallow. For me, I knew the theory behind it, and I had had some practical experience as well — there were often overlaps between the Aspects, and the Aspect of Force shared dominion over gravity with the Aspect of Dimension — and I knew that gravity affected the passing of time.

I finished the spell without any flourish and then moved to cast its opposite on the remaining two wights. The Slow spell was much like its quicker counterpart, except for the intent which was reversed. My first attempt unwove itself midway, as I had focused too much on the intent and didn’t pay enough attention to the threads themselves, which broke apart.

Done with the two Slows, I sat down and directed the Hasted wight to fight the other two as I inspected my handiwork.

The spells had taken effect, although they were a bit choppy — the anchoring had not been perfect, which caused the spells to occasionally deactivate before immediately reactivating. Nothing more practice wouldn’t solve, I thought. 

The effects, however, were significantly intense, and I couldn’t stop a smug smile from forming as I admired the effects. The Haste quickened the wight by a factor of four, which was well above the simplified spell’s theoretical maximum output. This was the benefit of a wickedly sharp intent, which had been the focus of my research for the past decade. The Slowed wights seemed to be moving through molasses and were hardly any match for the other combatant. I directed them to stop, before they accrued too many injuries, unraveled the spells, and then began casting them again.

I had fifty decades of practice to catch up to, after all.

***

A series of loud knocks resonated through the tower, waking me up from my training trance. I’d spent several hours just casting the two spells over and over, and the improvement was small but noticeable. I could form the spells more quickly, and their anchors were more stable than the first attempts — but it would take many repetitions before I deigned them adequate enough to add them to my combat repertoire.

A second round of knocks soon followed, and I directed a wight to just open the damned door and keep the guest company until I made my way down. The stupid tower had annoyingly good acoustics, and I wasn’t keen on hearing a third set of knocks.

I kept myself from looking through the wight greeter’s eyes as I mused on who could possibly be visiting me. Since my becoming the Dark Lord, I hadn’t received any guests — other than those who tried to show me the pointy end of their sword. They were guarding the tower, now.

As I descended the stone stairway, I caught a glimpse of the mystery visitor. It was a short woman, by her silhouette, but that was all I could discern. She was wearing a dark grey outfit, clearly meant to help her blend in with the shadows. A representative of the Assassins’ Guild, maybe?

She was waiting patiently in what served as the tower’s foyer, her stance not betraying any emotion. I quickly wove a thread of Fate around my eyes — the spell was known as Fate Vision, another one of the basic apprentice spells — which would allow me to sense her intentions ahead of time. The first thing I noted was that she was not warded against Fate, which implied that either she or her backers were unable to, or that she was here in good faith.

The risk seemed minimal, so I went ahead and approached her. She went stiff as she noticed me, and gave me a practiced bow — shallower than one would give their liege, but still deep enough to be appropriate for a higher ranked noble. My time at court had taught me. Here for diplomacy, then. I acknowledged her bow with a nod and she began to speak.

“Dark Lord,” she lowered her head as she spoke, “I am here as a messenger for my Lord, the Duke of Canneria. His Lordship sends his regards and would like to extend an offer of friendship.” She reached into her right sleeve and pulled out a sealed letter. Despite the cramped space inside the sleeve, it was in pristine condition, which meant either the woman had a pocket space, or the letter itself was spelled. A quick scan confirmed the latter.

She extended the letter to me, but I did not immediately accept it. Channeling Soul to my eyes — Soul Vision, a spell nearly identical to the earlier one — allowed me to see magical structures as clearly as day. I took a few moments to inspect the enchantments for traps, but I found none — or at least, none meant for me. There was a little Fate construct that would make the letter explode if the seal was broken by anyone but its intended recipient.

The woman did not seem to mind my silent inspection of the letter, although to her it must have simply appeared like I was trying to burn a hole through it with just my eyes. “So, what’s your name?” I asked as I plucked the letter from her outstretched hand.

“Vinara, my lord.”

Nodding, I unsealed the letter and began reading, curious what the Duke, who’d sent a Hero and a little crusade to attack me not even a week ago, had to say.

To the Most Honorable Dark Lord Julian,

It is my great honor to write you this letter, and I dearly hope it finds you in good spirits. I believe our goals are aligned, and wish to present the idea of a possible partnership between us. To make sure there is no bad blood between us, I will first endeavor to clear up any misunderstandings that may have arisen from the force I sent to your domain earlier this week.

As you surely well know, summoned Heroes arrive to our world in clusters of four or five, and must find each other while improving their abilities before defeating the current Villain together. Thanks to my meager natural ability with Fate, I received a prophetic dream that allowed me to track and acquire custody of one such Hero before she could learn of her purpose. I was able to carefully construct a story to determine her to attack your domain, unaware that such an attack would be suicidal. The token force I sent with her should have posed no problem for your Dead Legion, and I’m certain you’ve already absorbed their number into your own force.

This action was meant as a gesture of goodwill from my part, to show my sincerity towards you. I am well aware you mean to conquer the entire continent, as is proper for a Villain of your caliber, and I wish to serve at your side, as I know with my heart that you will bring those you deem worthy to new heights. I merely wish to prove my worth.

Should you wish to contact me in any way, I leave Vinara at your disposal. She is a most competent messenger, and her loyalty is not in question.

Yours sincerely,

Duke Illvere of Canneria

***

My first instinct upon finishing reading the letter was to burn it, so slimy it was, but I suppressed the urge. Instead, I folded it and deposited it inside my robe.

“There are spare rooms on the fifth floor, you can pick any you like. Ask a wight if you need anything.”

Without waiting for a response, I stormed out of the foyer and made haste for my room. After reading that letter, the only thing that I wanted was a shower.

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