Duplicity: Part Ten
Lisha heard some incomprehensible murmuring grow louder as she walked toward the eastern courtyard. In the distance, she made out a small shadow stretched out over the walls, covering the cobwebs and Spyders hiding underneath.
That shadow eventually developed into the shape of a Wocky, and Lisha subsequently recognized the low, nasal voice as Danner’s. The man himself was leaning against the wall, repeatedly rotating his thumbs around one another.
“Pick your own, have a bone, muscles grow with exercise. Precisely told, the moldy knight went boldly into the cold . . .”
Lisha squinted to get a better look at Danner. “Hey,” she called, “is everything all right?”
“What?” Danner jolted into attention. He pushed himself off the wall and straightened up, his eyes gaining some degree of sharpness. “Oh, it’s just you. You had me scared there for a second.”
“Sleeping on the job again?”
He scoffed. “I never ‘sleep on the job.’”
“I just heard you sleep-talking,” said Lisha with a yawn. “At any rate, I wouldn’t blame you. It’s pretty late to be up.
“I wasn’t sleeping,” objected Danner. “I was—”
Danner suddenly grasped his head and pressed hard, as if trying to prevent something from slipping away. His muscles shook with the force. Lisha immediately ran to him, prepared to help if anything went wrong.
“I’m okay, I’m okay.” Danner held up a palm to Lisha. “I was just thinking about something.”
“Must be really hard thinking, then.” Like thoughts were bursting out of his head. “Maybe you do need some sleep. Thinking isn’t supposed to hurt, and saying random words isn’t exactly normal.” Lisha immediately regretted using the word “normal.” Danner, in some respects, was never going to be normal.
“Nah, I’m well-rested enough. It’s just . . . babbling along helps me relax, you know?”
Lisha supposed whatever worked for him, worked for him. “Sure.”
“Don’t knock it ‘till you try it,” said Danner. “So what are you doing over here? I thought you were holing yourself up in the library.”
“I wanted to get some fresh air and talk to Lissandre about some things,” replied Lisha. “As much as I oh-so-love books, they can get boring after a few hours.”
“I shouldn’t stop you, then.” Danner laughed nervously. “Good luck with that. I’ll just be here”—Danner shut his eyes—“thinking.”
Lisha left with a curt nod and continued on to the eastern courtyard, a strange, uneven clearing filled with statues of ancient Neopians. They stood hunched over small batches of flowers arranged together in irregular geometric shapes
Silence permeated the area. Stars scattered along the sky over the waning crescent moon. Illusen’s lively magic was noticeably absent here; nothing donned her earthly magical glow or sang along to the tune of fall.
Lissandre arrived shortly thereafter. She exchanged greetings with Lisha, who took out the broken orb from a suspiciously large satchel hung over her shoulder.
“No one will miss this,” she said when she handed both halves of the orb over to Lissandre. “No one wants to remember the war. It’ll be at least a week before anybody notices it’s gone, and it’ll be back by then.”
“You stole it?”
“Borrowed without permission.”
Lissandre shrugged. She couldn’t really argue with that. Technically, they were going to use the orb for a short amount of time and bring it back.
“Anyway, what I hope will happen is that you’ll be able to create a conduit which’ll suck me into the Three’s realm. If it works, I should be back within an hour.” Lisha clasped her hands together like a happy child and then sighed. “If not, it’s back to the drawing board.”
“You seem awfully nonchalant about going into the realm of three evil demons.”
In truth, many small worries occupied Lisha’s thoughts. She wasn’t sure if this was a great idea, but sometimes, you had to take a leap into the unknown to solve a big problem. “Shouldn’t be too bad. The Three have absolutely no power over me unless I let them have it. It doesn’t take an idiot to simply not listen to them.”
“I hope Jeran is significantly dumber than you are, then,” replied Lissandre. “I don’t think I can help you if something goes wrong. Are you sure you want to do this?”
“If something goes wrong, it’s on me,” said Lisha. “But that’s . . . improbable.”
Improbable indeed. Lissandre had not told her what extra measures she had taken to ensure the conduit was sound, the fact she’d had another anchor available in the Three’s realm. If something was going wrong with anybody, it would be with Lissandre, but Lisha didn’t have to know that.
“Okay,” said Lissandre finally. “If you’re ready.”
Lisha had a feeling she’d already consumed all the useful information she was ever going to get. There were no preparations to be made when it came to this sort of thing. She knew what to do, she was awake enough, and that was really all that mattered. “I’m ready.”
Lissandre slid the two halves of the orb together and started on an incantation. Her voice was low, her words barely registering to Lisha’s ears, but it was steady and rhythmic. It was almost like she was singing.
An incandescent golden aura flared from her and added a high-pitched tone. Another thick, dark aura followed soon afterward, swishing as it came up and clashed with the light. Between the two, vibrant hues of cyan and green, ocean-blue and fiery orange passed one another in smooth clumps, never touching as they circled Lissandre’s body.
Then, they crashed into each other, shattering into a million pieces, giving way to a transparent aura, one that resembled the distortion of heat upon the air. It diffused from Lissandre to Lisha and formed a swirling tunnel right above her, one without beginning or end.
“It’s working,” said Lisha, gazing up into the passage between this world and the Three’s realm. Her form was fading. “Lissandre, do you see this?”
Lissandre nodded weakly. The world spun around Lisha and blurred. She lost all her senses, having now a sense of falling upwards into the sky, of leaving. Her corporeal form waned until it blinked out of the world.***
One of the first things sorcerers were told about other realms was that they should be avoided. After that, they were taught exactly what to expect if fate decided they should enter one.
Thus when Lisha did not feel her limbs moving at her command, when, indeed, she’d realized the image of her body was only an image, she was only mildly distressed. In the physical world, it only made sense for physical things to interact and move. In a magical, ethereal realm, you didn’t move in any real physical capacity; navigating space was akin to switching thoughts. It only made sense.
She traversed through the smoky blackness, the closest she was ever going to get to the very fabric of the world. Sometimes, through the individual tears in the realm, she saw a thousand years’ worth of lives events play out in a few moments, each detail and intricacy reflecting infinitely elsewhere through another tear, like a series of mirrors put perfectly in front of each other.
Focus, she reminded herself. Focus . . .
If she let herself get carried away, Lisha could have found herself spending an absurd amount of time just observing one tear in the world’s core. She was here for one reason only, and she planned on sticking to it.
Lisha followed along with her intuition as to where her brother’s soul fragments might have been. Any two souls whose owners were close experienced a natural affinity to each other. This affinity translated into a salient link, a path she could follow to find Jeran.
The trail led to a small, faint feeling of warmth. Lisha thought of cold winters huddled up with friends whose faces were occluded by time, the sadness brought about when you saw others in pain, small good deeds long forgotten.
These memories and emotions came not from her own mind, but from the faint white tinge collecting around her image, small particles of soul that gravitated toward her. Slowly, it formed into a tangible sediment, a soul fragment.
This was Jeran’s compassion, or at least a good chunk of it, Lisha realized as she grabbed onto the warm mass and hauled it in. It was shockingly light to carry, like a simple, whole, coherent idea.
It gravitated to Lisha very easily, which wouldn’t have happened if it had been more entrenched into this realm. She suspected that compassion was the most recent soul fragment to enter here. Since that was among the first capabilities the Three should have taken away, Jeran should have been still in the earlier stages of their influence.
That conclusion provided some comfort to Lisha. She wasn’t wholly late, then.
Yet the trail to the rest of the soul fragments extended longer into the distance still, and collecting the older ones should prove that more difficult. With a sigh, she zipped along the trail, her mind focused on finding the next few fragments.***
When Lissandre did not detect Lisha’s presence anymore, she pulled out the Kass charm from underneath her collar. It was glowing dully in her palm, and at that point, Lissandre knew that she had made a conduit into the Three’s realm. She let her energy trickle into the now-invisible conduit in order to sustain it.
For the while, she gazed unthinkingly into the sky, listening to the steady hum of magic above her to distract from her own thoughts. She started making plans about what she would do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day . . .
Danner’s voice came ringing from nearby. It jolted Lissandre back into the present, where she turned her head to see the captain marching toward her in full uniform. She quickly kicked the orb behind a nearby stone statue and tucked the Kass charm back into her robes.
“Captain, what a . . . pleasure it is to see you,” she said monotonously. Danner might have been a character privately, but publically, he spoke the professional language of no-nonsense. “Is there something you require of me?”
Danner did not reply to Lissandre’s greeting at all. Instead, he raised his sword at Lissandre. “You’re under arrest by order of the prince-regent.”
“Prince Borodere?” This could have meant many things, and none of them were particularly good. “I demand to know the reason as to my arrest, or King Hagan will hear about this.”
“You’ll know the reason soon enough.” Danner frowned and pulled Lissandre by her forearm. His grip was so strong it rendered her hand numb. “Cooperate, or you’ll face grave consequences.”
Lissandre tried wriggling out of Danner’s grab to no avail. She couldn’t stray too far from the conduit’s origin; otherwise, it would fall apart. “Captain Toron, please, you have to listen to me,” she said. “I cannot come. It is imperative that I stay here for at least an hour.”
Danner’s eyes were glazed over. “The prince’s orders cannot wait.”
“The prince is not well,” replied Lissandre. “Lisha told me that he has been acting strangely; you must have noticed too. It is no secret that you and he are friends—”
Danner froze at the word “friends.” His movements slacked and weakened, as if his muscles were going against one another. Lissandre took the time to escape his grasp as he started mumbling, “Companions and bread, dread spreads sleepily, for in the morning gaffes instead run to . . .”
Meaningless but grammatical phrases. Those weren’t natural, not unless you had a particularly bad head injury or took some strange poison. Even then, such an impairment would not simply come and go. Danner’s mumbling, Lissandre knew, had to be magical in nature, and she had a pretty good guess as to what exactly caused it.
She stepped back and channeled some magic into a simple charm. A light radiated from one of her fingertips, spread out into Danner’s eyes, and forced him to relax completely. He fell onto the ground with a dull thump.
“Sorry,” whispered Lissandre, giving a light pat to Danner’s head. “I’ll help you later, I promise.”
Behind her, the grass bent underneath someone’s footfalls. She turned around to meet the figure of a Lupe much larger than herself.
“Casting a spell on the captain of the guard, that doesn’t look very good, now does it?” said Jeran.
“No, no it doesn’t,” replied Lissandre through a forced smile. She doubted Jeran just happened to be passing by through the area, especially since he’d ordered an arrest, and especially if he’d managed to possess Danner in some way. “But it looks worse for somebody else.”
“This is going to be a difficult conversation, then, but I suppose it’s best to start such things on the highest not possible.” Jeran bowed slightly. “I suppose I should thank you for saving my life. It’s just come to my attention I had not done so.”
The darkness of night occluded Jeran’s face, and as a result, she had little idea of where this chat was headed. It wasn’t a huge leap in logic to assume it had something to do with Lisha’s plans for the Three. After all, if you knew what was going on, the material she was reading up on would have been a dead giveaway as to what she was trying to do.
For now, Lissandre deemed it unwise to antagonize Jeran too much. Not only would it cost Lisha some valuable time, but it also significantly increased the chances he was going to use the power shimmering from his ring against her.
“I need no thanks,” she replied after several slow seconds. “Just the knowledge that I did something good is all I need. I’m sure you could relate.”
“Indeed it is, but you must admit, some recognition would be nice.”
Lissandre would have disagreed, but in a situation where she had to be as agreeable as possible, disagreeing wasn’t much of an option. “Well, I guess it would be nice to have a huge statue of myself for all adoring eyes to see, but really, I’m not quite accomplished enough for it.”
“I would object to that,” said Jeran. “You seem very accomplished, from what I understand. You arrived at Brightvale University a little under five years ago, your research interests certainly impressed both the university, and you shot up the ranks, so to speak, from there on.”
“That was just my luck, mostly,” said Lissandre. “It’s nothing special.”
“You and I both know it’s more than luck.” Jeran smiled. “But the speed of your accomplishments is far from the only interesting thing about you. What I find especially intriguing is your tight connection with the Darigans.”
A sharpness prodded at Lissandre’s head. It took a few moments for her to realize that it was nothing physical: something was probing her mind, and so she sealed its barriers shut. Jeran suspected something about her identity for sure.
“What about my connection with the Darigans?” she asked. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Brightvale is, on the whole, a much better kingdom than Meridell. We don’t turn anybody away from the pursuit of knowledge on some shallow basis.”
“You know, you and I, we’re pretty much alone.” Jeran extended his arms to gesture around himself. His voice softened to a mock: “You don’t have to put up the act here. It must be absolutely exhausting to try and constantly keep it up.”
Alone—? But Danner . . . Lissandre cast a gaze upon the spot where Danner had fallen and found that he was not there.
Immediately, she swung her arm toward Jeran, channeling her magical energy through the air molecules she pushed against. They collided with exponentially increasing energy until they joined together into a force that knocked Jeran down.
Before she could do anything else, Danner had grabbed both of her hands and pulled them behind her. Lissandre’s arms arced upwards in an awkward position. Any movement she made away from him caused her muscles to stretch painfully.
Jeran picked himself up and put a hand on his sword. “What a shame. We were doing so well.”
“Forgive me if I disagree,” said Lissandre. She didn’t bother to even acknowledge Danner’s presence; at this point, she was certain he had no control over himself at all. In effect, she and Jeran really were alone.
“It’s all right, really, I like to save time.” Jeran tugged at the thin thread around Lissandre’s neck until the Kass charm slid out of her collar. He snapped the thread and dangled the charm from one of his fingers.
The presence that had been trying to slither into Lissandre’s mind now tried to force its way through. Lissandre shut her eyes in an attempt to redirect any spare focus she had toward reinforcing the mind’s barrier. She couldn’t let him know what it was for.
“I’m assuming you know what this is,” Jeran’s voice droned on. “What I’m wondering is how a relatively young Brightvalian scholar like you go it. In full condition, too, it seems. Impressive.”
Lissandre was beginning to regret saving Jeran at the ball. “Doesn’t matter how I got it.”
“It matters to me quite a bit,” replied Jeran. “You’ve been a little too close to my dear younger sister, and I’ve no doubt she’s told you something you weren’t supposed to know.”
“I have a feeling Lisha wasn’t supposed to know either.”
“Lisha was going to figure it out, sooner or later. Inevitable, but I know her well. She was always going to try and ‘help’ me before doing anything else, and I really have no reason to stop her. You, on the other hand . . .”
It was no fault of the contractee if a third party just so happened to steal from their contractor, after all. If Lisha succeeded in her efforts, the Three would effectively have no leverage over Jeran, and that could only be a good thing.
“You are dangerous to me,” continued Jeran, “and regrettably, I have to do something about it.”
Danner took the blade of his sword and tilted it up across Lissandre’s chest. She stared numbly at the moonlight shimmering off the metal. This is the end, the words came to her mind with a certainty that halted all thought.
Without direction, Lissandre’s inner magic burst in a corona of fire around her. A small explosion slammed Danner into the ground, but it did almost nothing to Jeran except throw dust into his face. Lissandre felt a stinging cold up her back from the suddenly spent energy and keeled over her knees to catch a few breaths.
At that moment, her mind’s barrier weakened, and the prodding presence had slithered through one of the minute cracks. Lissandre felt it ricochet and buzz in her head, passing through a lifetime’s worth of memories to make a beeline for the information it sought.
“It’s a catalyst,” breathed Jeran as he wrapped his fingers around the Kass charm. Small cracks sprung from the sickly green crystal as he pressed on it.
The orb’s latent power was needed to form the conduit between the physical world and the Three’s realm, but its link to their realm was extraordinarily weak, and required an obscene amount of magic to initiate. The Kass charm, on the other hand, wasn’t powerful enough to initiate any sort of passage between worlds, but what it did have was a much stronger link to the Three. In effect, it minimized the energy necessary to both start and maintain the magical conduit.
As the charm began to break, Lissandre felt her magical energy rushing away in huge amounts to supply the conduit. It spilled out as blood from an open, lethal wound, and with consequences just as dire.
Her muscles collapsed from under her. Her vision blurred as dissonant sounds echoed into her ears. Ice crawled up her digits and onto her limbs. She felt suddenly faint, and, for a good while, did not even realize where she was in space.
Lissandre tried to block the outflow of magic, even though she knew it was useless. The spell would continue until she was completely depleted, or until someone else stopped its progression.
A large, blue blur towered over her. “Don’t worry. She isn’t one to dawdle much; she’ll be back soon. Whether or not she’ll be able to save you, well, that’s a different story altogether.”
Lissandre felt something claw-like digging in the back of her head, sorting through her memories. A cross-section of scattered bits and pieces of past events began to play out before her eyes.***
As she went farther along the path, Lisha found the next few soul fragments embedded firmly into the realm of the Three. They gathered in sizable crystalline chunks, and proved more difficult to remove.
These fragments first consisted of a list of simple dictates such as “theft is wrong,” or “helping someone in need is right.” Soon, however, they coagulated into more than the sum of their parts. As the fragments joined together, they began to form into more abstract concepts like respect, justice and fairness.
Accompanying these concepts was a strong, unyielding compulsion to follow them, and that compulsion, Lisha knew, was almost less important than the moral knowledge these fragments held. She had little doubt the parts of Jeran in the physical world could still define concepts like justice or fairness. What the physical Jeran lacked was any reason to live by their spirits.
The soul fragments Lisha possessed now took the image of a faint outline of her brother. The image looked down at her disapprovingly as she continued to follow the trail to the last few soul fragments.
No. You’re stealing, he said. These belong to the Three.
They’re evil demons. I don’t really care, replied Lisha offhandedly. The path to the next soul fragment faded into bareness, most certainly by his action. The emotions they elicited from Lisha, however, were still present. Irritability and anger slowly seeped into her from the outside.
Evil demons or no, I gave these fragments up willingly as part of a promise, and I am aware of the consequences of my actions, said the image. It is not right for you to remove them.
Dear Fyora. Lisha was far from willing to go through a useless interrogation with some disembodied part of her brother’s soul. Going through useless interrogations with her whole brother was already a pain.
I want to know why you have decided to do this. There is no reason why you cannot just let me fail and face the consequences.
Because I love you and I don’t want you to be trapped by the Three. Happy?
Terrible reason. The image shook his head. Love and its narrow focus is a double-edged sword, Lisha. It misguides and ruins just as often as it builds. Many have done terrible things because of it—whether it be love for your friends or family, yourself or your nation.
I’m not doing something terrible, not even all that bad. You have to admit that, in the grand scheme of things, ‘stealing’ you isn’t even worth a grain of outrage.
Perhaps not, but this is still not a sufficient justification.
It was tempting to ignore him from then on out. After all, this image wasn’t even a whole person, and all his nagging was going to accomplish would be to slow Lisha down. But he wasn’t going to let her continue on until she gave him a satisfactory answer.
Engaging with these fragments wasn’t as pointless an enterprise as it might have appeared, at first. One Jeran’s greatest qualities were his commitment to his ideals, and this should have, consequently, been one of the most worthwhile parts of his soul.
Besides, a few more moments in here couldn’t really hurt Lissandre, right?
Isn’t the Three’s contract unethical in the first place? asked Lisha. Think of it from their side—the corruption of the right person can ruin thousands upon thousands of lives. There’s no honor in upholding your promise.
And there is no honor in saving a guilty man. It takes the agreement of both parties for the contract to work. Any consequences it might have had falls squarely upon me, and so, it is only just that I face its adverse results. I do not deserve to be saved. The image of Jeran raised his hands and turned away from Lisha. I bid you to leave this place at once, and deal with me as you may in the physical world.
Lisha wasn’t just going to leave him here, not without giving him a shot at a second chance. Souls are powerful sources of magic, Jeran. By staying here and accepting your fate, you are feeding into the Three’s power. Won’t it cause more misery to let them have the power of your soul permanently?
The image did not respond. Soul fragments were not horribly intelligent on their own, and all Lisha had to do was put a nice, quick seal on the topic that would be difficult to argue against:
Whether I manage to restore your entire soul or not, it is much preferable that it remain out of the Three’s grasp, would you not agree?
Very well, Lisha. Jeran huffed and nodded slowly. I cannot argue much against that, even if your intentions seem to be ultimately selfish.
The thin, smoky path reappeared behind Jeran, winding down into the last three soul fragments she had to collect. Lisha swiftly went to work. She tugged at the threads of the world, gradually freeing each fragment from its spot until they gravitated toward her.
The last fragments were not much different than the ones she’d just uncovered. They were small sediments of emotion that stirred anger and hatred in Lisha, sadness and shame, but it was only when she’d joined them together that she uncovered what these fragments were supposed to be.
Once they were all together, Lisha found herself suddenly thinking quite negatively about her brother. He’s a failure, the fragments hummed. Worthless. Useless. A terrible, cold-hearted, bloodthirsty individual who was only where he was because he got lucky. Otherwise, he’d mess everything—everything up. No one deserves him.
For a moment, Lisha considered putting these fragments back. It was more than easy to see why Jeran would have gladly parted with them, given the chance, but of course, Lisha could never have a full idea what importance these things had to Jeran’s overall state. Something could always seem mostly negative, but have an underlying, beneficial purpose to it all.
Hesitantly, she abstracted the last fragments into her conglomeration of souls, and, feeling no more pulls toward anything else in this realm, nothing that could have had any affinity to her, decided that her work was done.
It was time to return, but before she made her way back to the physical world, Lisha turned to the image of Jeran, who was standing over her ever so patiently, and said, I have a question for you. If you knew this was all a bad idea, why did you go through with it?
The voices that replied to her did not even remotely resemble Jeran’s: We thought it was a fair, reasonable arrangement.
To be continued…