The main consensus from last time was to dump the Emperor over the edge, and have done… whatever may happen. Hello, grand finale!
Dleshan Kaev’s death approaches him from behind.
He is confused enough that he doesn’t even notice you. He stands only long enough for you to knock him down again, and drag his struggling form over the edge. You wait a few minutes, to hear the sound as he lands. You can’t see into the canyon; even now, the mist is too thick.
You wait a solid thirty seconds before you turn around and leave. You can feel the mist worming its way into your brain, so it’s time to go. You can’t remember what you ate for breakfast, so you must be too close to the edge.
As you start to pace away, and vaguely plan a return to Alederick, you suddenly feel a hot wind at your back, blowing from the canyon. You turn… and remember.
The memory burns.
It was the earliest part of spring, or the latest part of winter. You sit before a warm hearth in a home not your own, holding a scalding cup filled with spiced milk. Now is the time for warmth and alertness, not alcohol.
Danika Tarresh. That is the name of the middle-aged woman sitting in the seat opposite you. Her white-streaked hair hangs to her shoulders, framing the pain and fear in her face. The name of the woman who vanished from the Mages Academy.
“Of course I did as he asked,” she said softly, staring into her mug. “He was the Emperor. What was I supposed to do?”
“It’s all right,” you replied, months ago. “Can it be undone?”
“I don’t know. The spell itself is so complex, I took a sabbatical to study it, and I still don’t understand it in entirety… but the casting of the spell itself is not yet complete. It requires a second person to take part, and to be sacrificed.”
You drink part of the beverage your host gave you. “And then what happens?”
“Oblivion.” She shakes her head. “I think it will unleash a disaster on a scale the Empire has never before seen. I’m a specialist in complex spellcasting, but this is bigger than anything else I’ve seen. And I’m including the crystal towers in that list.”
You whistle softly. “More than enough to take out a city?”
“Definitely. Even though there are no large cities in the area near the canyon the spell references.” She put her mug aside. It was still nearly full. She looked up, and met your eyes. “The only way I currently know to remove the spell from someone, once it has been applied, is to kill them.”
You took a deep breath. “I swore an oath, to protect the Empire and the Emperor.” Somehow, you found out that she was involved with the spellbook. And together, in a comfortable living room, you quietly discussed treason.
The look on your face made the slender mage lean back. “You’re going to have to choose. I don’t think you can do both.”
“I know I approached you about this, but… this is more than I expected. I’ll let you know.”
“Don’t take too long. Kaev has told me he’s looking for a volunteer for the second half of the spell. He’s going to ask me to finish it soon, and I… don’t want to have to face that.” Your memory tells you nothing of her fate. Did she flee, when the Emperor acted and everything changed? Or was she caught, and quietly executed for refusing the Emperor?
You went home. You took precautions. Locks and spells on every entry. An alarm, audible only in your bedroom, in the case that someone entered your domicile without your permission. The small apartment you kept, as a senior officer not stationed at the palace, was tidy. Easy to guard, to fortify, to protect against intrusion.
You took the rare step of pouring yourself a glass of liquor you kept for unusual occasions. You sat in the hard chair you kept in the small kitchen, and raised the glass. “To the Emperor, with my apologies,” you said to no one in particular.
A second glass followed, but no more. You would need your wits, your strength, for when you began planning in earnest, and in carrying out what needed to be done.
You slept too heavily. The sound of the alarm barely roused you. Your motion was sluggish, and your resistance against your attackers, hidden by darkness, was ineffectual. Drugs. They must have drugged the consumables in my kitchen, and waited.
The only way someone could have done that was if they had known beforehand that you would not be at home… if they had known… it was a setup… betrayed…
When you return to yourself, you are still standing near the edge of the cliff over the canyon. The mist is gone.
The canyon itself seems to have sheared apart, wider than before. The water you expect must have run its course through its depths is also gone. Instead, the canyon is nearly full with lava, the thick glowing ooze moving at a reasonable clip downhill. Towards where the capital is.
Was. Was. A moment of thought and a few spoken words are enough to let you see. The air shimmers before you, a finer scrying than you would previously have attempted. Alederik is a ruin of collapsed and burning buildings. Lava pours forth from a rent in the earth. Steam billows around the river banks.
You wave away the vision of destruction. Then you look at your hand. And the rest of your skin. The marks that were written on you by a dead mage are no longer glowing. They are a black the color of midnight, and almost seem to have been branded onto your skin. However, you do not appear to be injured.
The lack of injury is even more impressive when you realize that the forested area near the canyon is burning. Bits of lava must have ignited it. A small patch of weeds near your feet is untouched.
Somehow, you know that whatever power was held by whatever being was trapped in the canyon has been transferred to you. And that power is the utter, absolute, and complete knowledge of magic. Whereas before you had limited yourself to particular applications, and never used the lengthier spells, you know them all. A test of a spell to produce a bridge over the running lava… with the lava… and then cooling it into place, is enough to confirm your technique is flawless as well. The spells worked by the markings on your skin makes you nearly invulnerable… you can walk safely on the molten lava itself.
Another spell is enough for you to see what is left of the country you knew. Much of the lowlands is slowly being covered by molten rock. In a way, the destruction has made a clean slate of the Empire. You have power enough to rewrite it as you desire. Perhaps you will be able to use that power to build a better Empire, rather than being corrupted by it. Perhaps.
It is an ancient power, contained rather than destroyed… because even attempting to destroy it would unleash utter destruction. Oblivion. And its power could not be destroyed, but drawn into a new abomination.
And that abomination is you.
And that’s all she wrote. Congratulations, Severel is now approaching demigod levels of power… and the Empire lies in nicely smouldering ruins.
If you’d like an idea about what would have happened if you’d taken the other choices at the end:
Dying yourself would have let the Emperor have all the uber awesome power, and still destroyed the Empire. Killing him before dropping him into the canyon would have prevented the big spell from triggering, leaving you free to start a new life in the Empire and rescue Lehhev (again). The Emperor’s recently born child would have been named Empress after reports of his death were confirmed. Dragging him back to the capital would have been politically interesting. The oblivion spell would have been removed from you both, and the Emperor would have been executed later on. You would have been banished.
Finally, I don’t have an idea at the moment for another choose-you-own-adventure sequence (although I’m open to suggestions). However, I’m likely to post bits of stories I’m plotting, or the occasional complete short stories that I haven’t been able to publish elsewhere.
Your choice, from last time, was to go ahead and listen to the Emperor… but keeping a close eye for funny business, and staying close enough in the event that you need a hostage.
Note that this is the penultimate part of the story! Ponder your choice wisely, for this shall lead to the end of the tale…
Also, bonus points if you recognize the reference in the title.
You step forward, refusing the Emperor any opportunity to maneuver or escape. “Speak your mind,” you say, holding you stolen sword out, tip directed at his throat. “But be brief and to the point.”
The apple of his throat bobs. “Very well. A minimum of prevarication.” After another swallow, he says, “You’re making a mistake. You swore to protect the Empire, and its Emperor… I had to hide part of what was happening. Unknowingly, your treachery would have ultimately protected the Empire in perpetuity.”
He edges away from you. Slightly. “If you sacrifice yourself by falling into that enchanted canyon, the power stored in that canyon will be released, and fall under my control. The spellbook you recovered was a second copy of a version that had previously been held in our archives. By alerting you to its existence, it was possible to set up the spell.” He brushes a bit of dust off of his face. “The magical power involved provides the knowledge and ability to change the world as I see fit. I would be an immortal Emperor protecting an eternal Empire. Surely you can see the sense of it?”
Then several things happen at once. In front of you, you note that Dleshan Kaev, your Emperor, has use the hand not mopping at the dust to pull a dagger out of his desk.
Lehhev, behind you, drops out of the spells hiding him from sight. “Severel, don’t listen, he’s-”
A pair of guards who had been approaching behind you, under cover of their own invisibility, fling enchanted daggers at Lehhev and yourself.
As to Lehhev, you are uncertain; as for yourself, it is easy enough to avoid being injured. You were already leaping forward, to either take the Emperor as your captive or kill him outright… whichever was more convenient. You use your sword to flick away the dagger he has barely had time to raise, and then punch him in the face for good measure. He stumbles to his hands and knees, and you delicately place the tip of your sword on the back of his neck.
Then the world spins, as if someone had jerked the dust-covered rug out from beneath your feet. Everything fades to gray.
You know this place. You can almost feel the tendrils of mist gently prodding at your mind. You have fallen to your knees, but the bloody sword is still in your hand. The thin mist hugs the ground, not quite banished by the morning sunshine.
The Emperor is only a few steps away, still on his hands and knees. The jeweled dagger you relieved him of is nowhere to be seen. His back is to you; the rich red and black material is still coated in dust from destroyed masonry. He is in a small clear path of dirt, with a few small shrubs and weeds. In front of him is a cliff. A familiar cliff, over a narrow canyon filled with mist.
You don’t know what happened — it must be something to do with the spell that affects you both. The dull red presence of arcane sigils on your skin confirms your suspicion.
Nonetheless, now is the best time to move. Before the Emperor regains his bearings, and can do something about his… grand, dangerous plans for the Empire.
Option 133: Enough. Put the Emperor out of his misery, and dump the body in the highly convenient canyon.
Option 134: Why kill him yourself when you can let the fall into the canyon do it for you? Push him over, and have done with it.
Option 135: Hm. People may not believe he’s dead unless they have the body. And perhaps a bit more demonstration of the truth. Take him captive, haul him back to Alederick, and set up a proper presentation.
Option 136: Wait… maybe he was telling the truth. You could try the self-sacrifice of jumping over the cliff yourself…
You’ve made up your mind almost before Lehhev has finished his description. Something about what he has said resonated with you. You can almost feel the invisible marks on your skin, throbbing gently with your pulse. Dread and anticipation mingle in your chest.
“No. We’re going to end this.”
“Good, good, I’ll… what?”
You give him a hard look. “Do you think the Emperor will ever leave us alone? I might never have come back to Alederik if he had simply let me be. He’ll follow us to the frontier and back if he has to.”
“What are you planning to do?”
“Stopping him. By the only means I know I can carry out.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea… regicide…”
“Tough. It has to be done.” A thought crosses your mind. “Besides, did you know that the orders to the guards had changed? They were supposed to just kill me, rather than take me in. I think they found a replacement target. Someone easier to contain than me.”
Lehhev stares at you. “You don’t mean…” He gulps. “I thought I was just going to be exiled.”
“You wish.” You sigh. “There isn’t enough time to discuss this. Hide yourself, and follow me.”
Lehhev slowly raises his hand in the initial gesture for his series of spells. “But your illusion… it’ll never fool the inner guards.”
“I don’t expect it to. Cover me as we go, but I’ll handle the heavy hitting.”
He nods, once. But he looks nervous. You’re not sure how much you can count on him — he is a scholar, not an assassin. You stand watch while he finishes the spell, and note with satisfaction as he disappears from your senses. As a final touch, you close the door to his cell.
Then you go back up the stairs. Hopefully, Lehhev is following in your wake. You can’t hear him, either way.
What you do hear is the sound of boots coming downwards. You glare at the incoming guards. They are only the lesser palace guards, not the more heavily trained Black Hands of the Emperor. You begin a lecture before they can even speak. “Idiots! You were supposed to keep this area under heavy guard! The prisoner is a known illusionist! I just checked his cell — I don’t see him there. We’ll need to bring in an expert to check whether or not he’s still there. You, and you! Organize a search of the grounds, in case he has escaped. I’m going to have to report this to the Emperor, and he is not going to be pleased!”
The last line may have been a bit over the top, but the group scurries to carry out your instructions. With any luck, this will keep them distracted for the few minutes it takes you to rage through the palace complex. In these, the outer, more public areas, or those frequented by many servants and officials, a single Black Hand walking rapidly, angrily down the halls during an uproar. Most people just get out of your way.
Most, but not all. Your course is slowed by a pair of guards, both Emperor’s Hands, who stand watch before the private sections of the palace. Places where you once came and went unmolested. The first guard says, “Beleyaev, any report on-” He is interrupted by his companion, who cries through the spells of perception wrapped around him, “That’s not Beleyaev, that’s-”
You don’t let them finish. A pair of spells you prepared as you came down the corridor are enough to knock them both to the ground. Then you blow through the door, and keep going. You ignore the shouts and running footsteps in the rooms behind you.
You tear through three more guards — the first by a spell as he takes down your illusion, and two literally, as your spells and theirs are equal, but their swordplay is inferior to your own. The instructors must be getting soft, with the younger recruits. A pair of servants flee before you.
Eventually, you reach the door you want. One you had walked through many times before. Welcomed as a favored servant.
Sent out to your own certain destruction.
You have a few moments of time, enough to finish a more complex spell. You choose it more for its effect than its practicality, but it is convenient that you do not need to break down the door. Instead, you speak a single, final, harsh word, and the stone walls around the door collapse into a fine gray sand.
Within, the Emperor stands on the plush red carpet you remember, sneezing impressively due to the fine layer of dust now settling on his large nose. Dark circles mark his eyes, likely from a lack of sleep. He wears the red and black of his office, though not the full finery that is seen in his official appearances. Behind the plush chairs, his small desk is covered in papers, and a familiar book lies open on top of them. Echoes of memories flicker through your mind. Your skin itches.
“Dleshan Kaev. You are something I thought could never be… an Emperor working against his Empire. This must end.” Your stolen sword is still in your hand, a few drips of blood from you last encounter still sliding off of it.
He nods tiredly. “I should have sent someone else. But I am working for the Empire, not against it. Will you at least hear me out?” You can hear the dust mixed in with the honey of his voice.
Option 130: This was a bad idea. Back off, flee the palace, skip town, leave the Empire… it’s too dangerous to stay mixed up in all of this.
Option: 131: Wait. Let the Emperor speak. Perhaps you’ll finally understand what he’s planning on doing with Oblivion. Or perhaps he’ll at least show his motives, somehow.
Option 132: This is no time for dawdling! Or letting the Emperor yap. Just kill him and have done with it.
Your choice from last time was to first attempt to rescue Thedane Lehhev, your old friend.
You calmly ignore the uproar, quietly pretending that it’s not your problem. You’re just going about your business. The guard you just spoke to even leaves you to it.
You stride confidently through corridor after corridor, occasionally acknowledging a passer-by with a nod. You choose your pace deliberately. Just fast enough to indicate that you have business here and should not be stopped, slow enough to avoid appearing afraid or nervous.
The interior is much as your remember it. The areas more likely to be trafficked by people of importance — not guards — still have the historical tapestries and the ornamental lanterns and heavy rugs. In the servants’ passages, everything is far more functional. Your boots make gentle tapping noises on stone worn smooth by many people who walked here before you.
Conveniently, the passage leading down to the small palace dungeon is less heavily guarded than usual. You don’t know the latest password here, but approaching the lone man, and then quietly knocking him out, is trivial. Hauling him and his armor down the flight of stairs to the first convenient closet takes a bit more effort.
The dungeon is dim and cool, but dry. Any other guards who might have been here seem to have left, but you can’t count on being left alone long. Eventually, someone will wonder what happened to the guard currently sleeping off the spell you cast on him. And when he wakes, he will wonder what happened to his keys.
Keys which you currently hold still, to avoid making any excess noise. The dungeon, such as it is, is quite small. It is generally used for political prisoners, or the rare person the Emperor wishes to be able to view personally. It has only a few cells, but they are all relatively comfortable. The main difference between a cell and a richly furnished room is the ability of the occupant to open the door.
Even better for you, only one of the four cells is occupied. A glance through the door’s lone slit makes that much clear. With some effort, you disentangle the warning spell that is supposed to be triggered when the door is opened, and unlock it. The key also unlocks the spell that limits the prisoner’s ability to work magic…
You push the door in. Thedane Lehhev stares at you, wide-eyed. “Is it that time already?” he asks, a note of pleading in his voice. He stands as though you interrupted him while he as pacing, hands stuffed into his pockets. The bed in one corner of the room does not appear to have been used.
“Don’t celebrate yet. We still have to get you out of here.”
He stares at you for a moment. “Severel?”
He murmurs on oath. “We’ve got to get both of us out of here.”
“Yes. Can you make yourself invisible enough to avoid detection at the gates?”
“Maybe,” he says. “But before I do that, I’ve got to tell you something.” He gets himself together, and follows you out of the cell. “Good riddance,” he mutters. “Look, they took the book you gave me when I was arrested. Oblivion. It’s a very appropriate name for the spell.”
“Can you undo it?”
“I’m not sure. I hadn’t had enough time to study it. But I have a better idea of how it works, and what it is likely to do.”
“It is definitely tied to the Oblivion canyon on the frontier. Nasty place. The spell requires two targets, who end up being essentially interchangeable. At least one of them must be someone who has betrayed the other. This traitor, when consumed by the mists in the Oblivion canyon, completes the spell.”
“I got that much. What happens when the spell is finished?”
Lehhev swallows. “I’m not entirely sure, but at a guess… the mists cease to exist, and the canyon no longer destroys anyone who enters it. But those effects are in place to keep something else trapped there. Whatever that is, it either joins with or falls under the control of the surviving target. And the trapped something else is… I doubt it’s actually an ancient god of evil and chaos, but that’s what the book says.”
Option 126: Flee the palace with Lehhev. It’s obviously a bad idea to stick around.
Option 127: Get Lehhev out, but then come back to confront the Emperor directly.
Option 128: Take Lehhev with you, and confront the Emperor together.
Option 129: With Lehhev’s assistance, attempt to rally the guards to your side. Perhaps they can be persuaded that the Emperor is acting against the Empire.
Your choice from last time was to take a quick nap, and then investigate the palace complex.
“You’ve been even less talkative than usual, and I can see the circles under your eyes. Hero or not, I’m going to be sending you back to the barracks the moment we get back to the palace complex.”
You stifle a yawn. “I won’t object.” The rest of your task is going to be trickier — you need to make sure that you can get past the usual security measures at the palace, which involves checking for illusion spells. You’ll get past a cursory check, but not a deeper one.
Fortunately for you, it’s not hard to dodge the lieutenant. He’s excited about this success, especially given that he is quite, quite sure that “Severel Mazurek” is dead. You make some vague implications about how much of the credit should go to him and his plan, and he seems satisfied. At the palace, he explains the urgency of his errand, shows off “Mazurek’s” dead body, and the guards at the gate perform only a cursory search. Your illusions are not uncovered.
Shortly thereafter, you take your leave of your deceived compatriots, who are happily carting away the dead corpse. Most likely to ensure it is not booby-trapped before displaying it to the Emperor. The idea is uncomfortable, but you are used to such uncomfortable ideas.
The early morning palace bustle has only just begun, and given your illusory uniform, no one bothers you on your way to the barracks. You manage to bluster your way past the guard, explaining that you just helped capture Mazurek and you’re exhausted. In his excitement, he lets you by without actually making you give the password.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that, inside the barracks, you eventually trip one of the long-duration spells which removes illusions. At least you manage to find Eggard’s bunk before anyone notices you, and then lock the door behind you. Hopefully his bunkmates won’t be back for the hour you give yourself for rest. To be sure, you set one of the small alarm devices popular in the Black Hand barracks to awaken you after that time.
An hour was not enough sleep, but it will need to do. You don’t know for sure how long it will be until the mages examining the body of “Mazurek” realize that the reason their attempts to detect enchanted traps are going awry because the body is under an illusion. You would rather not be stabbed in your sleep.
Getting back out of the barracks is easier than it was to get in. It is still morning, and the bulk of its occupants are clearly elsewhere. Rather than attempt to reconstruct your previous disguise, you wrap yourself in several layers of invisibility. Anyone looking carefully may still spot you, but at least the illusion can’t be trivially stripped away. Underneath the invisibility, you have altered your facial features and borrowed one of Eggard’s uniforms. It doesn’t quite fit right, but if you are not invisible, you may be easily taken for one of the Emperor’s Black Hands. You also borrowed a couple of rank-pins, to ensure the fear and deference of others if you need it.
As you once received, before all of this. The irony amuses and saddens you.
You manage to sneak past the guard, who can surely see through your invisibility, and around a corner. You wait, until you hear someone else entering the barracks, using this week’s password — “mortality”. Then you drop the illusion, for now, though you can draw it back up around yourself at a moment’s notice.
You make your way across the well-tended grounds. Here, is a man sweeping up the leaves that have fallen from one of the more ancient trees. There, a cook waving a ladle is chivvying several younger servants who are carrying numerous large dishes from one side-entrance to another. The barracks is a bit separate from the palace proper, that sprawling building which shows the styles and preferences of Emperors of centuries past, each blending into the next. Emperor Dleshan Kaev has yet to make his mark on the place.
And you have yet to make yours. You stride confidently towards the side-entrance typically used by the guards. Confidence is the key; who dares to stop a woman in uniform who is clearly acting on important business? You go through the entrance unhindered, save by the murmuring of the password.
“Welcome back, Commander Beleyaev,” the young guard says. She’s not one of the Black Hands, but only a junior member of the palace guard, quietly doing her duty. The pike she holds in one hand is suitably menacing, but her small friendly smile is not.
You smile slightly yourself, and nod. There was only one commander you could be sure of impersonating… and fortunately, it seems that Karet is not yet back in Alederick. “Any interesting news?”
“You mean, other than the big fuss this morning about Severel Mazurek being caught?”
You nod sharply. “I’ve heard a bit about that already. Any other interesting captures lately?”
“I’m sure you have heard about that one. Heh.” She absently flicks a small bit of dirt off her light armor. “What I’m sure you haven’t heard is that one of the mages at the Academy has been arrested. I think they’re holding him here. Seems kind of sad, really, since he seemed like a nice enough fellow. Not ranting and raving, or threatening, or pleading, or anything. He just quietly protested that this was a bad idea. Not the usual reaction, since most folks who end up here don’t come out with their heads still attached to their necks.”
“Some people are calmer than others, and take the consequences with better grace,” you reply. That certainly sounds like Lehhev to you.
“I suppose so.”
Out of the corner of your eye, you see several guards in black uniforms running from the palace to the barracks, raising a small uproar.
Option 123: Stick to the plan. Head into the palace, and then around to the lower dungeon level where Lehhev is most likely being kept. And watch for unfriendly people.
Option 124: Time for a new plan. Lehhev probably isn’t scheduled for immediate execution, but the Emperor needs to be stopped before somebody catches on to you. Time to confront him, now.
Option 125: No plan like the old plan, but perhaps you should go see what the ruckus is all about… and confound their investigation, to buy yourself more time.