Bright red blood spattered over the dark pavement, the only color in Vee’s gray world. She stood completely straight beside Aunt June, her knees locked and her back rigid. The red sun peeked through the ash clouds like a monster’s eye, painting the realm in darkness. Hers was a world of ghostly grays and ashy death, of colorless, lifeless sorrow. So it had been for all three centuries of the Shadow King’s reign.
The king’s knights struck again, the enchanted whip sizzling against Wes’s fragile skin. More blood, more pain. All of Madahl was forced to watch her brother’s punishment, lining the village square like statues. Vee bit her lip, tears slicing through the ash coating her pale skin. Wes had always been strong, and now it was her turn. Anyone who interfered with the punishment would only bring more pain to the accused. That was a lesson she’d learned well.
After an eternity, the king’s thaumaturge held up an armored hand. The knights stepped away, her big strong brother a huddled, bleeding mess. Her fault. Even now the secret wisp of magic hidden deep within her stirred when the thaumaturge drew his wand. The wand was a deep, ashy gray and Vee thought immediately of her Aunt’s tales; wands responded to the type of magic they dealt. The darker the wood turned, the blacker magic the wand had been forced to do. Vee had never seen an actual wand, though she’d dreamt of holding one a thousand times.
True thaumaturges were a rare breed, and the king kept a tight leash on them all. This one wore a suit of gleaming silver armor, an elaborate horned helm and a violet half cape. Vee reached for June’s hand as the king’s servant approached her brother, now delirious from blood loss and pain. A flick of his wand and Wes was lifted up, suspended in the air like a puppet floating on invisible strings. Strong and brave Wes, reduced to a spectacle for the king’s men. If the king were here now she would…what? Vee was too afraid to take on a knight, much less a thaumaturge or the king himself, the prevailer of all magic.
“Weslyn Ardent, you stand accused of attempted theft and treason against King Atmos. How do you plead?” the thaumaturge asked, his voice a metallic, emotionless hum through his helmet’s tech. Wes groaned unintelligibly, blood dripping from his lips.
“Unauthorized magic use is punishable by death. If you cannot plead we declare you guilty to be executed on this day, the 24th of Shi, 3rd Century of Atmos’s reign, by the authority vested in me by our wise majesty.”
“No!” Vee screamed, shaking free from June’s grip. She stumbled into the square and the villagers all took a step backward, as if terrified her outburst would bring punishment down upon them all. How stupid she must look; a slight girl of seventeen, dress and hair and skin turned gray from the continual ash raining down from the sky, challenging armored knights and a fully fledged thaumaturge.
“Vee,” Wes mumbled, still suspended by magic, his head lolling on his shoulders. She shouldn’t have let Wes take the fall for her, shouldn’t have let him be whipped for her. That guilt crept in despite his protests and pleas that everything would be fine, that he could not stand to see her at the knights’ mercy. But she would be damned before she let him die for her. They had lost enough already.
Up close the thaumaturge was even more imposing. He stood over a foot taller than her, every scrap of his possible humanity hidden away by armor, stripped from his voice by tech. Was he even human? June said only humans could perform magic, a power hidden in their blood, an impossible task for androids to grasp. But the king’s servant seemed much more machine than man. Fear trembled through her body, and she clenched her fists to keep her hands from shaking. The five knights stood unmoving beside their airship, clad in thin armor, their faces partially visible behind thick black oxygen masks.
“It was me,” she said, staring up at the thaumaturge’s emotionless metal face. Vee forced herself to stand straight, to meet his unknowable gaze, hidden behind impenetrably dark eye holes. “I am the one you want. I can do magic.”
“No, Vee!” Wes groaned, protesting through the pain.
The thaumaturge moved so swiftly Vee was barely able to register his motion. One moment they were facing off, her brother’s suspended body hanging between them, and the next Wes was on the ground, the thaumaturge’s dark wand pressed into the soft skin of her neck. Agony rolled through her body, lighting up her veins like fire. A scream tore through the air, her own voice splitting the sky. The seed of magic buried within responded to the wand’s touch, arcing upward to meet power with power. A clap of air jolted them apart, a streak of violet lightening crackling between them.
Vee collapsed onto the dirt, black ash coating her hands. Her head pounded, heartbeat thundering in her ears. She crawled over to Wes, touching his face, feeling his pulse, just long enough to know he still lived before the thaumaturge ripped her away. A silent wave of the dark wand bound her hands tightly with invisible force and the king’s servant marched her toward the airship, wand tip pressed into the small of her back.
The metal door whooshed open, the knights piling in behind them. Vee glanced back as the door sealed itself, a gust of wind whipping her long, dark hair away from her face. June was racing toward Wes, still prostrate on the ashy ground. A few of the villagers rushed to help, but most simply stared at her. An alien in their midst, a terrifying power hidden among them. Those empty gazes of shock and fear were the last she saw of her home.
Then the door clicked shut, a final wall between Vee and the life she’d always known. The thaumaturge shoved her roughly into her seat, buckling her in before securing himself in the chair facing hers. Soft lights changed colors from a panel in the ceiling, the chairs were crafted from fine faux leather and she could feel the violet carpet’s plushness through her thin shoes. Even the metal walls were covered with fancily molded plastic, curving ornately around circular windows. In Vee’s world of poverty and desperate, the king flaunted his excess.
“Veera Ardent, you have been identified as a candidate,” her captor’s metallic voice said. “By the king’s authority you are stripped of your citizenship and hereby drafted into his service. Should you pass the tests ahead you will be granted the title of thaumaturge and all the power and authority vested within.”
Vee’s stomach twisted as the airship lurched into the sky, rattling and jostling on the wind. For years she’d dreamed of becoming a true magic wielder. The Yew Forest had been painstakingly painted in her imagination through June’s tales, the sacred trees imbued by magic. She dreamt of meeting the caretaker, of her own wand being fashioned. But not like this. Vee would rather die than serve the Shadow King. Yet the thought of purposefully failing, of being tortured to death by the knights was equally terrifying.
She had spent her life hiding her gift just so this moment would never come. All her family’s careful planning for nothing. Her brother’s torture for nothing. Her parents’ deaths for nothing.
The last thought made her eyes sting with the threat of tears, but Vee quickly blinked them away. She would not cry in front of the king’s servants. She would be strong.
The airship touched down after a long and uncomfortable ride of stiff limbs and stony silence. After the thaumaturge’s declaration of her fate, he didn’t speak again. The knights never said a word either, and seemed even less human than the man whose face she couldn’t see. She wondered if they’d landed in Fayalis, the realm’s elite capital. No one knew where the Shadow King trained the thaumaturges; the children he stole from their families and turned into weapons.
Vee’s captor unbuckled her and shoved her roughly forward, wrists still bound by a spell. The airship door hissed open, revealing a drab gray landscape punctured by twisting, black metal towers. They’d landed on the roof of a squat black building. The sky here seemed less apocalyptic, the ash not as heavy and the sun not as red.
Below them a vast matrix of roadways stretched outward like a spider’s web, ash coated cars rushing along at excessive speeds. She craned her neck, taking in as much as she could before the thaumaturge jabbed her forward with his wand. The city was larger than anything Vee had ever seen, but she knew immediately it was not Fayalis.
Of course they wouldn’t bring untrained and untested magic wielders into the capital, where they could potentially escape and wreak havoc in the king’s crown metropolis. Their loyalty wasn’t yet assured and they could still be turned into terrorists, using their power to burn the shadows clear. Not for the first time, Vee wondered what the king did to his servants to make them so loyal. Were they compelled by magic? Would the same happen to her?
The knights’ boots clanked on the metal walkway, Vee’s flat shoes silent in comparison. The building’s interior was as drab as its exterior, constructed of dismal gray cement with no paint or decor. In Madahl the houses were made of wood, and bright colors clashed riotously on interior walls. Already she missed it.
They descended several flights of stairs, three knights ahead of her, the thaumaturge and the other two behind. Now was not the time to attempt escape. Even if she could get away from them, where would she go? At the base of the stairs stood a thick and gigantic metal door, the words Restricted Area and Authorized Access Only stenciled on in white. The thaumaturge waved his palm over a dimly lit panel, the lights flashing green and the door lifting open from the bottom upward with a soft whir. An airship could fit through an opening that size, and Vee wondered what its purpose was as her captor propelled her through. The knights stayed outside, poised with their usual rigid and unnatural stillness.
Another world waited on the other side, echoing the airship’s luxury tenfold. Rich, textured, wallpaper accented with fabric lined the walls, the colors deeper and more vibrant than anything they had in Madahl. Light fixtures of crystal and stained glass cast the cavernous room in a soft glow. Books lined the walls, their leather covers scattered rainbows on polished oak shelves.
Two guys around her age were reading in one of the room’s nicely decorated nooks, propped in red cushioned armchairs and taking notes on sleek computer pads. One was lean with golden hair and pale skin, and the other was muscular, dark haired and tan. They both looked up as she walked in, feeling like a grubby peasant compared to their clean cut looks and pressed black clothes.
Vee stared back, the challenge in her gaze unwavering. To them she was just another soot gremlin, a peasant who couldn’t afford to keep the ash from her hair, clothes and lungs. Even worse, she’d hidden her magic from the knights and the king. If she were only a few years older they would consider her untrainable, a traitor to the king and a crime punishable by death. A penalty Wes had almost faced on her behalf. Twenty years old was the cut off, and Vee was seventeen. Where that number had come from she didn’t yet know, but perhaps she’d soon find out.
The boys were the first to break eye contact when a harsh looking woman in a pressed black suit, sleek black hair wrapped in a tight bun and cold blue-gray eyes glaring through cat eyed glasses emerged from a hidden door, approaching Vee and her thaumaturge companion. The woman stopped a few feet away and appraised Vee, her narrow nose wrinkling and perfectly arched, black eyebrows furrowing.
“Where did you dig this one up, Leo?”
So he did have a name. Vee briefly wondered how old he was, what he looked like beneath the metal, who he had been before he’d sworn his life to the Shadow King. Probably just a kid who’d studied magic in this very room once, head filled with lies of glory before he’d learned to think for himself.
“In Madahl. She’s the one responsible for the granary vortex,” Leo’s mechanical voice replied. Vee had never heard the word before, but it somehow seemed to fit the hole of nothing she’d opened up. Accidentally.
“Hmm.” The woman raised an eyebrow, her expression morphing from disdain to interest, even appreciation. “That’s a tough spell, especially for a wandless novice.”
“I didn’t mean to do it,” Vee confessed. She didn’t want them to think she was powerful or skilled in any way. If they thought she was a prize they would only tighten their grip, building a taller barrier between herself and the possibility of escape.
“In this place there will be no excuses, and no whining,” the woman reprimanded sharply. “My name is Commander Calden and you will address me so. Now let’s get you cleaned up before you smear ash on everything. Thank you, Leo. You may return to your duties.”
Calden and Leo nodded to each other before Calden pivoted quickly on her sharply heeled shoes. Vee hurried to keep up with the older woman’s pace, glancing at the two studying boys before turning a corner and slipping through a door disguised as a bookshelf. The hallway in between was cement and gray, the plain reminders of their harsh world returning. Numbered doors marked their journey, beginning at 40 and counting downward. The doors were polished wood, a piece of luxury amidst the gray. Each door had a dimly lit keypad on the outside, a tiny light flashing red. Calden took a shiny black keycard from her crisp jacket’s inside pocket and swiped open number 24 before handing Vee the card.
“This is your room. Inside you will find clothing in your size. Wash that ash off and dress for dinner. You have an hour before you’re expected back in Rotation. That’s the room we came from.” Without another word, Calden left Vee alone in the corridor.
She pushed open the sleek wooden door, revealing a room richer than anything she’d seen before today. Plush cream colored carpet covered the floors and deep chartreuse wallpaper surrounded her, accented with velvet fleur de lees. A large bed dominated the room’s center, the bedding soft and silky, patterned red and gleaming gold. Across from the bed was a bookshelf, mostly empty. Two plush violet armchairs were arranged beside the bookshelf, a small table in between them with computer pad on a charger.
Vee picked up the pad and powered it on, wondering if she’d be able to contact June or Wes. Of course there was no outside signal, only a connection to a set of internal networks. The one she had access to was titled Caldens_Rookies. Similarly named networks dotted the screen, all after various masters. Vee returned the pad to its charger and took a shower in her marble and glass stall.
This must have be how they turned people to the king’s side, she thought, watching the ash swirl down the drain. Give them luxuries they’d never known before. Cleanliness, beauty, comfort. Good food and a soft bed. Who would want to return to squalor after tasting a thaumaturge’s life? But Vee wouldn’t be so easily swayed.
She wasn’t a child anymore, awed by simple pleasures. She had seen the painful symptoms of black lung, her hands had wiped sweaty foreheads and her words had soothed people she loved into the Eternal Night. Food, water, clothes, even air were all commodities controlled by the Shadow King and his heartless regime. Vee was not here for a new life; she had been stolen from her old one. There was a fight brewing in the shadows of Sombra and Vee knew what side she was on.
Vee was here against her will, and she would claim their knowledge as they had claimed her life. She would become the weapon they made her, and then turn the blade of herself against them.