It was not a glorious day. My Housemates do not seek glory, but the people asking me to tell this story usually like it. I’ve formed the habit of telling people, in advance, that it was not a heroic test of strength. I killed Incendia, and in a way she would have considered unfair, and cheap. She left me no choice, but I still remember how, afterward, I went from feeling pleased at how clever I was to disgusted at how clever I was.
Her murder was the simplest thing in the world. We were each placed at one end of the woodland, and we waited for the dawn. I renewed my Parma Magica, then immediately cast a spell that made the tiny spirits of the air carry human voices to me. It is difficult to cast spells while listening to someone else also crafting magic, but her workings were so obvious that it made my task easier. Incendia’s first spell, which I barely caught the end of, was a ward against metal. The next was a ward against wood. The third was a spell to detect invisible objects.
I cast a spell to make me invisible, intactile and inaudible. I couldn’t move quickly without breaking it, but that was not the plan. I then cast an illusion of me upon myself: one that I could give simple commands to. As I was casting and listening, I walked a little way into the woodland and found a clearing.
Incendia cast Ball of Abysmal Flame with a duration of three minutes. It created a huge ring of fire, and a great plume of smoke. While she was casting it, I cast a spell of a circle of ground, so that its appearance would be fixed: no changes I made it would be obvious to outside observers. Then came the spell I’d been waiting for. While she was casting the spell that let her interrogate smoke, I jogged off as far as I dared, perhaps twenty yards, then dropped my pack as the spell came into effect. I then walked casually back toward the circle of fixed appearance.
I kicked my pack over as I dropped it. It contained food, water, bandages, and a particularly good bottle of wine. I didn’t really need any of these things immediately, as I had duplicates on my combat harness. My family love combat harnesses: they keep everything tucked in close to the body, within the Parma Magica.
Incendia then made a wall of flame, and cast a spell which let her talk to it. She ordered it to keep expanding, and, like the smoke, report on my location. As I hit the circle of fixed appearance, I sent the illusion of me walking through the clearest part of the woodland. It wasn’t clever enough for me to tell it to dodge trees, but it only needed to fool her for a few more minutes.
I carefully peeled up one edge of the grass in the circle, and turned the soil underneath to sandstone. That compacted it down enough for me to step inside, and pull the grass back over the top of me. I used the talisman as a long stick, to hold up the little flap of grass. Smoke and flame are fine as scouts, but they simply aren’t subtle, or clever. Her fire could sweep over the top of me and simply not notice. My little spell of changelessness was being maintained with Concentration, so I let it lapse. The magic itself was the only clue I was hidden down there, in the dark earth.
I had a lot of time to think, waiting for her to make her way through the woodland. Incendia was sure I was invisible, and flying around her. I learned afterward that she became increasingly jumpy as the day wore on. She was sure I was crafting an increasingly complicated death trap, so if a fox made a noise in the underbrush, she incinerated the whole area, just on a precaution. At one point, she cast a few formulaics all together, not resting to recover herself between each. This made her panic, and she fled back deeper into the broad circle of ashes that her advancing wall had created. After ten minutes she’d recovered her breath, but her composure was breaking down.
She wanted to bring things to a head, so she sent wisps of fire through the forest to where my pack was. Incendia couldn’t just use her most powerful spells, you see. She needed my corpse, or at least my unscattered ashes, so that she could collect my Corpus vis. I’d made it a matter of principle for her to use fire magic, and she was stretching it as far as she could, with her Intelligo spells, but she didn’t really consider trying Perdo spells. She cleared her path with flame wasps, and walked to my pack.
I did not know she was standing six yards from me. I was sitting quietly in the dark, aware that any moment might be my last, heralded with a brilliant light and a moment of agony. I had a camel pack for water, but I used it sparingly. I sat in the middle of my little oubliette, so that if I misjudged the time, or fell asleep somehow, as the sandstone became soil again it would just pop my out of the ground, like some strange plant. I had an eternity to think, there in the dark. I thought a lot about Achlys, and about dying. I made some resolutions, some of which I kept. I took slices of pear from my harness, and they were the finest thing I’d ever tasted. I kept a seed from them, and I have a whole orchard descended from it here, but I’ve never had a pear so delicious.
After a thousand years, I felt my Parma Magica flicker, and die, as the sun set. I renewed it, eagerly, and then sprang from my burrow, as the soil poured up around me. I saw Incendia on the ground, and knowing that she had warded herself against metal and wood, I took a great stone, and crushed her head. That was mere, brutal precaution. She was already dead. She’s been dead for hours, the observers tell me.
My father confirmed it was as I’d planned. Days before, my sister had cracked the side of Incendia’;s favourite waterskin, and patched it with beeswax. The heat from her fire had melted it, and she’d lost her water. Distracted, exhausted, and perhaps tricked by the obviousness of the wine bottle, she’d drunk the water in my pack. Lacking vis to save herself, the serpent venom in it had killed her. The poison was colourless, and tasteless, but not quick, and not painless.
A quaesitor came to get me, and we flew back to Heatfoam. It was not in chaos. It was filled with activity, but it had the terrible precision of a hive of ants that has fallen on the carcass of a bird. My father was the one who broke the news. “We are abandoning Heartfoam immediately. We can no longer hold it.”
“House Flambeau has withdrawn from the alliance. They left soon after Incendia died. They are traveling to the coast, and then to their Domus.”
I expected a reprimand to follow, but when it did not, I broke the uncomfortable silence with the sovereign question: “What are my orders?”
“You are to accompany me, as we fall back.”
“To the Bohemian border?”
“No. House Diedne has been keeping close ties with some sympathisers in the Trianoman sept within House Bonisagus. One has turned her coat, so we know where they plan to strike next.”
“It can’t be Val Negra, although that would make the most sense. We wouldn’t need to fall back.”
“No. It’s Durenmar.”
“Bonisagus is the easiest House to knock out of the war. Durenmar has poorer defences than Val Negra or Fudarus. It is surrounded by the Black Forest, which is useful for Druid magic. The Diedne think the Bonisagus magi have a stockpile of vis and supplies which can bolster their thrust at one of the other Domus Magnae. It would also be a propaganda coup, to take control of the spiritual heart of the Order.”
“Are they right?”
“Yes and no. We may not stop them from taking Durenmar, but they are making the same mistake we did before the Tempest. A victory will cost them a great deal or materiel and momentum.”
“If they keep it, though…”
“I’ve heard this argument in the War Council: we lose everything, because they create a generation of superior magi. It is not quite that hopeless. You don’t have to be the stronger magus to win a battle. You yourself are proof of that. We have…I shouldn’t discuss it. Let us say we have new tools?”
“Father, are these the cold daggers of the Sundering?”
“Yes.” he nodded, and pursed his lips, as if surprised that I knew what he was talking about.
“We didn’t stop doing that?”
“No-one ever asked us to. Let us not discuss it further. I am glad you did not die, my son. Now it would be best to see the Verditus archmagus. I am sure he wants his talisman back. I think you may even owe him an extra penny.”
“Father, may I have a penny?”
And so my great day of triumph ended, asking my father for money, so that I could give away a powerful magic item, and flee my enemies, my hands red with the blood of one of my allies. You can see, now, why I so dislike telling this story.