Hadizah stood stiffly between two other students—one a degenerate lizardfolk and the other a savage Ekujae elf—as their frail teacher Mawunyo gestured with a staff at the vine-covered towers, graceful arches, and broad towers of the Magaambya, greatest magical academy in all of the Mwangi Expanse, if not the world.
"You embark now on a life of study and service." Mawunyo's voice was rich and resonant despite his slender frame and reminded Hadizah uncomfortably of the ringing tones of the priests of the Deathless Child back home. "You have been chosen because we see great promise within you, passion and will, spirit and intellect, strength and judgment... and perhaps a few seeds of wisdom that might sprout and blossom if tended." The teacher's assistant Kweku chuckled, and Hadizah risked a glance at her. She'd been with Mawunyo for years, apparently, traveling with him to the far ends of the world (and even, some rumors said, beyond). Her robe's hem was spattered with mud and her hair was a thousand messy braids and an hour after meeting her Hadizah was more than halfway in love. Inconvenient.
Mawunyo went on. "You come from different places, but you are all children of the Expanse, as am I. We are the successors and inheritors of Old-Mage Jatembe, who taught that those who use great magic bear great responsibility, and that we must use our knowledge to better the world. I do this by teaching such as you."
"And by beating demons to death with sticks," Kweku said.
Mawunyo shrugged his bony shoulders. "When I am abroad. As needed. With sticks made especially for the purpose." He thumped his staff, which hadn't previously struck Hadizah as particularly threatening, but now did. "We need no such weapons here. Nantambu the Song-Wind City is the safest place I have ever lived."
"So safe we leave sometimes just to feel the thrill of danger," Kweku said.
Mawuonyo took no notice. "Those who mean this city harm soon discover the folly of attacking a place hundreds of mages call home. No invader has needed to learn that lesson recently. This safety gives us the freedom to learn in peace. I am here to help discover how your talents might best serve the world." He leaned on his staff and gazed at each student in turn. The instructor's eyes seemed to penetrate Hadizah's soul. Hadizah hoped they couldn't.
The old man spoke. "Tell me: once you have attained the power of which you dream, what goals do you wish to achieve?"
The lizardfolk spoke slowly, with many words in a tongue Hadizah didn't know, but the gist seemed to be something about improving prospects for the females of its species. Perhaps it was female? Hadizah had no idea how to tell. Such creatures were not common back in Mzali. Then the elf spoke, something abstract about combining arcane and druidic arts to make an alloyed magic stronger and more flexible than either alone. Mawunyo and Kweku nodded along thoughtfully during these speeches, then turned their gazes to Hadizah.
He straightened his spine and said, "I come from Mzali, home of the Deathless Child, who rules my people with fire and fear. Do you know the place?"
"I have been there," Mawunyo said. "When it was a place of fading glory, before the child mummy Walkena woke and seized control. Not since."
"Citizens are... not encouraged to leave," Hadizah said. "Walkena demands obedience and sacrifice, and his rule is cruel if you do not have his favor. There is a group, the Bright Lions, who seek to overthrow Walkena's rule and return control of the city to the living. The Lions discovered my interest in the arcane arts and offered to help me come here. They did this purely out of kindness... but I wish to return that kindness, and to turn whatever power I gain toward their cause. If left unchecked, Walkena will achieve his goal of uniting the whole of the Expanse under his burning banner. He would put even this place to the flame. I wish to prevent that."
Mawunyo and Kweku nodded at that, just as they had at the ambitious proclamations of the other students, and deep in his hidden heart Hadizah relaxed.
"Take the afternoon to familiarize yourself with your living quarters," Mawunyo said, "and at least the immediate areas of the academy nearby. I will ponder what I know of your goals and resources, and tomorrow we will meet again to discuss the first steps of your studies." He turned and walked away, using the staff more as a prop than an aid to walking, it seemed to Hadizah. Perhaps he was less frail than he seemed.
The group broke up, and Hazidah headed for his dormitory, wondering where he might find a place of privacy to record the day's events. Kweku fell into step beside him. "Mzali," she said. "You still have people there?"
"I... not really, not anymore." He thought, briefly, of fire, and ashes, and stains on stones, but pushed those images away. Actions had consequences. He would make wiser choices than his parents and siblings had. "In a way, all the people in Mzali are my people, and deserve liberation." That sounded like something a friend of the Lions would say.
"I'm sorry to hear that." She spun and started walking backwards so she could face him while she talked, effortlessly going up a set of stairs in reverse. "This place must be quite a change. Not just the change in architectural style, but all the different sorts of people, the music in the air, the absence of a pervasive atmosphere of terror...."
"It is a... most refreshing change."
Kweku nodded and preceded him through a wide and empty plaza. "I wanted to mention, there's a small but dedicated group here studying the problem of your Deathless Child Walkena. I know some people on it—there's even a Tempest-Sun Mage among them. Maybe you'd like to be introduced?"
Hazidah hesitated. He didn't know if he'd been sent to this place on orders directly from the child-god Walkena himself, as the priest who'd recruited him claimed, or if he was part of that priest's own pet project, but either way, his mission was both simple and dauntingly complex: find out the weaknesses of the academy, and discover how the mages here would deal with an invasion from Mzali, so the Deathless Child might better counter their plans. Being part of a group specifically addressing the threat of Walkena would be perfect for gathering such information, but it might also expose him to greater scrutiny, and his mission was meant to be slow, cautious, and years-long. "I am not sure I have much to offer to such a group."
"Oh, I don't know." Kweku grinned. "Having a double agent who's trusted by the Deathless Child's priests could be very advantageous for us."
Hazidah froze. His hand crept toward the interior of his robe, but Kweku snorted. "You'd lose a fight with me anyway but look up before you even try."
He quickly flicked his gaze upward, and saw something in the air above him, like a flash of sunlight on bright metal. The stories said the Tempest-Sun Mages flew high above the academy, watching for approaching threats... and they were capable of dealing with more dangerous foes than Hazidah. He lowered his hand and gazed levelly at Kweku. "I suppose I should have feigned confusion."
"Many spies would have, but this saves time. We've known about you since you first applied. The spellcraft hiding your lies is good, but we did a deeper delve into your story and found some loose threads that unraveled when we pulled on them." She stepped close to him, and he tensed, expecting an attack, but instead she looped her arm through his. "Walk with me."
"Are you taking me to be executed? Or to break my mind and make me your servant?"
"Life under the Deathless Child has not been good for you, Hazidah. You see enemies everywhere. I'm not your enemy. I'm your teacher. And what I'm going to teach you is that you're on the wrong side."
Hazidah shook his head. Loyalty was all—the foundation of every temple, the ground beneath every step, and to transgress against Walkena was to face the Punishment of Seven Angry Suns. The priest who'd recruited him had made provisions to ensure Hazidah's loyalty even if his faith faltered, though. "Even if I were swayed by your lies, my obedience is compelled by powers far beyond my will."
"Oh, yes, I know," Kweku said. "Your bindings have bindings. Those will have to be removed if we hope to make any progress." She patted him on the arm. He tried to remember the last time he'd been touched in such a friendly way. "It's a good thing we're in the greatest magical academy the world has ever known, surrounded by experts in magic, isn't it?"
His heart stirred at her touch. He'd never met anyone like her at home—she was intelligent and powerful, but she was messy, and impulsive, and outspoken. Everything he should hate: a native of the Expanse who'd been corrupted and weakened by the outside world, and who sought to bring that poison back home. And it was poison. He could pretend to play along, let them think they'd won him over to their cause while he gathered intelligence to use against them... surely there were such things as triple agents—
She stumbled on a loose stone and put her hand on his arm to steady herself... then left her hand there as they walked.
"Will you be... working with me closely?" He stared down at her fingers, curled over his forearm.
"That's the idea. I'll be your handler, Haz. We'll do great things."
Haz. His heart stirred again, and he thought: what if she corrupts me? Would it be better to fight back now, and die, still pure? Or had he pledged his allegiance to the wrong flame—the flame of his master's power, rather than the flame inside himself?
She stepped away to lead him through an archway at the base of a dark tower, and when her back was turned, he reached out to her.
Even he didn't know, in that moment, if he was reaching out to strangle or embrace.
Tales of Lost Omens: The World Expands
Thursday, July 11, 2019