This story is by David A. Chase and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“HEALER!” I screamed over the fray of battle as Demetric fell, choking on an arrow. Kariah was at my side in a flash, reaching out with her magic to probe the wound. She looked at me and shook her head. There was nothing she could do.
We were all going to die here, and I was powerless to stop it. Kariah reached out and transferred some of her waning power to me, removing my exhaustion, love in her eyes.
When we joined the Army for a Free and Liberated People we were so full of hope; a chance to end the oppression of the Grand Magus Council. Over time I watched our hope turn to ash, setbacks at every turn.
Like today, when we snuck into the enemy’s stronghold and were discovered because we missed a guard taking a piss behind a shed. We should have aborted, but the leader of our expedition; Zultane, High Mage of Light, believed we had sufficient forces to make it to the Chamber of Souls; the place wherefrom the Council drew their power. He was wrong.
We were down to less than half of our original force, our mages dead, except for me, an Earth Mage; the lowest of the low. The elite forces of the Council continued to pour into the chamber, armed with superior weapons and training. What should have been our moment of triumph would be a failure so complete that it wouldn’t even make it into the history books.
I wasn’t even supposed to be here. But an incredibly stupid act of teenage angst led me to object to Kariah, my bond-mate, putting herself in danger and I insisted on protecting her. She was a trained Battle Healer; my superior in every way. Not only was I a poor mage, I wasn’t even a competent fighter, but the elders agreed to my request, making me her bodyguard.
At least we would die together, unless of course, I could open this warded door. I might as well pray for Divine Intervention. The wards had been designed by a Grand Master and no 16-year-old apprentice was going to break them. But I was our only hope, and so found myself in command of our dwindling forces.
With the energy granted by Kariah’s sacrifice I attacked the wards anew, praying to gods I did not believe in.
Suddenly something snapped and the wards folded. Quickly recovering from my shock, I turned to tell Kariah, exultation flooding through me.
I saw a unicorn.
The creature stared at me from where it stood at the right hand of a young woman with golden hair seated on a granite throne. To her left stood a small dwarflike creature with pale skin, its silver eyes measuring me.
“Welcome Aniton, Mage Apprentice of the Army for a Free and Liberated People. I am Andronica, Keeper of the Balance.”
“Where am I?” I asked, realizing my companions were gone.
“The Chamber of Souls. Most fail to break the ward because they seek power for themselves. You, however, did it for your friends and bond-mate. It was your innocence and love for others that succeeded where those more powerful would have failed.”
“And my friends?”
“They continue to fight, but for each minute that passes here, they experience but a second, giving you plenty of time to choose.”
“Choose? Choose what? I came to break the Council’s power. Doesn’t it reside here?”
“Yes. But there are other options.”
She nodded to the unicorn.
“To my right is the power of Light. By that power the Council rules, each member wielding an equal piece.”
She nodded to the dwarf.
“To my Left is the power of Shadow. Locked away for centuries, due to its violent and hungry nature.”
She looked straight at me.
“Like all who came before you, you must now choose:
“If you choose the Light, you will gain power and respect; ascension to the Gold and White of the Council itself. With this power in hand, you can order the troops attacking your friends to stand down. Your grievances will be heard at the highest level, your problems addressed. And so, the wheel will turn; with a new group on top, crushing those below you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“As a member of the Council you will be one of many and the leaders of your rebellion will be given positions of power and integrated into the bureaucracy. While things will change for you and your interests, society as a whole will stay the same, a new normal until the next rebellion succeeds and another new member is added to the Council. Every time this chamber is accessed and the Light is chosen, some rise to the top, and some sink to the bottom. It has been this way for hundreds of years and will continue until someone chooses the Shadow.
“And if that someone is me?”
“The Shadow will grant you absolute authority over the Legions of the other realm. They will tear down the broken system, slaughtering all who oppose you, starting with this city of thirteen million, six hundred seventy thousand, two hundred twenty-one souls. From the oldest man whiling away his last years, to the child just conceived, they will all die. This city is the seat of the Council’s power and must be destroyed if real change is to happen. A sacrifice for the greater good. Simply replacing the head does not change the nature of the body.”
“But Kariah and my friends will be safe.”
She shook her head. “They are in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“But if I have absolute authority over the Legions, I can order them to save my friends!”
Andronica looked at me with sorrow. “The Legions have been imprisoned for centuries and they hunger. They will be contained by the walls of the city, but they must eat before they are sane enough to command. As their Lord you will be protected, but all others are meat for the slaughter. And you should know that Kariah carries your child, a girl.”
A child? Wonder and joy filled me. Kariah and I had wanted to start a family once this was over. We could have that now! I would choose the Light. Kariah and our daughter would be respected and loved, those who spit upon us would grovel at our feet. Never again would we want for anything. We could end the oppression. No longer would the countryside be enslaved to the will of the Capital, surrounded by food, but too poor to feed their families. We would create the paradise we desired, working from within.
But I also remembered when we arrived in this metropolis, our clothes clearly marking us as outsiders. The snide remarks, the spiteful acts, people’s smug looks grounded in their ‘superior’ understanding of the world.
I thought back to the long talks with Kariah, as we shivered in the cold, with nothing but each other; about how the Council kept the people divided. They created conflict, rewarding those who thought ‘correctly’, then changed the rules.
This great city was full of people who lived and died playing the political game, knowing who to love and who to hate, ready to change at the drop of a hat. Cogs in the great machine that enslaved all of humanity. If I chose the Light, I would be one of them.
Kariah was my soul mate, the one thing that truly mattered to me. What would she want?
I closed my eyes and reached out through our bond. Despite the time difference I could feel her clearly and her love burned bright. She was my light and my life. The only star in my sky. I could not… would not… betray her.
I pushed everything I felt for her through my bond and for a moment we were truly one. She felt my confusion and although she did not understand it, she trusted me to do what was right.
I awoke, the cool marble of the floor caressing my cheek. Power coursed through my veins and understanding filled my mind.
Looking around, I recognized the Chamber of the Grand Magus Council, figures surrounding me. Standing up I faced Andronica, who now wore elaborate armor, black and silver, clearly in charge.
She dropped to one knee, the others following suit. “We serve and obey, my Lord, your will be done.”
She then rose and gestured to the balcony behind me, which overlooked the central square.
“Come, my Lord, it is time.”
I stepped out into the open air, the sky alight with the flames of the burning city, the screams of its citizens announcing my ascension to power.
Tears ran down my face. I felt shattered. Kariah and our child were dead, but I had given the world the one thing she desired for them above all else.