Steps Saga Part 4 – In the Presence of Enemies
By Thomas J. Lauser
Following the publication of “Interview with an Abolitionist,” nobles throughout the Claudian Empire’s twenty three provinces released their slaves. Swayed by the image of Alistair Blackwood bloodied and wounded, but still advocating for his cause, abolition grew from a small shower to a raging storm that would soon envelope the entire empire. Professors at the Mage Academies, many of whom had been against slavery already, led demonstrations in the streets of Minthera, Reman, and Ludwig. Mage-Students returned home for holidays preaching abolition, infuriating some parents while converting others. By midsummer, the provincial governors of the Kojima Reef and Mealga had joined the cause, bringing the issue one step closer to the Emperor himself.
Then, at a rally in Westfall, violence broke out between abolitionists and slavers. The town quickly became a battleground, with free Seragorn, Mage-Students, slave owners, and local militia groups rushing from all over to join the fray. After a day of fighting, Imperial forces under the command of Lady Postumia Scapula, an Expansionist Senator, arrived to quell the conflict. In just a few hours, Scapula restored order to Westfall and completed an investigation on the incident. The abolitionists, she claimed, were responsible for the melee.
Lady Scapula executed every abolitionist she captured, deeming them “traitors to The Ascendant himself”. Blood flowed through the broken streets of Westfall for a day, and by the time the Senator’s fury had been sated, 154 bodies lay at her feet, including the town’s mayor, who Scapula accused of “sympathizing with and protecting,” the abolitionists.
The Reckoning of Westfall, as it came to be known, ignited a political firestorm the likes of which had not been seen in the Empire since the Second Simulacrum. Abolitionists called for Lady Scapula’s arrest, demanding the Emperor investigate her swift, draconian justice. Many Expansionists, Letherious chief among them, called for civil war. Restitutionists encouraged the Emperor to declare martial law to restore order. Majesty Hideo Yamaoka of the Kojima Reef and Rita Menendez, Duchess of Mealga, threatened to secede unless abolition became the law of the land.
Meanwhile, in Avarad, Venomar capitalized on the chaos. He laid siege to Barruk, the last settlement before the Lincoln Bulwark, a system of mountain-bound keeps separating Claudian controlled North Avarad from the Seragorn Republic.
Aware the Empire had reached a crossroads, Emperor Ferdinand III at last took action. In a public address, he announced an Imperial Summit to settle the issue of slavery indefinitely. To represent the abolitionist side, Ferdinand called upon Alistair Blackwood, the man who started it all.
Alistair stood behind a marble podium, prepared to deliver the keynote address of the Imperial Summit on Slavery. His fingers gripped the podium tightly, sweat cascaded down his face, and nervousness overwhelmed him.
He was a businessman, not a public speaker. He hadn’t given a true speech since he provided the dedication at his best friend Lucius’ wedding. That was twenty years ago, and the crowd consisted of nothing more than a hundred or so drunken guests and a few small children. When he lost the paper he wrote his speech on during a tryst with Helen in the woods, he fell back on a few canned remarks and a story about the time Lucius got thrown out of a Quippa Den for starting a fight with a Dwarf merchant. If hadn’t been for the minute he spent desperately trying to think of something to say, no one would have known Alistair had winged the whole thing.
Today’s audience, however, would not be so forgiving. He stood in the Julian Assembly, where the Emperor and the Council of Twenty Three debated Imperial policy.
Behind Alistair, Emperor Ferdinand sat on the Crimson Throne. He had dark skin, teal eyes, and wore a white and gold robe from his homeland, the Tiberian Isles. In front of him, the Senators of the Council of Twenty Three were gathered on three rows of amphitheater seating. All were dressed in the latest fashions from Calanar, Hibernos, Mealga, and Remi—except for one, who sat in the middle of the first row. He wore a blue combat robe with red pauldrons—the traditional battlefield garb of a Senator, and his left hand was covered by a spiked steel gauntlet. Alistair knew this man all too well. It was his brother, Letherious.
Letherious had shoulder length black hair, a crooked nose, and a long but neatly kept, beard. He had the same pale skin and grey eyes as Alistair, and sat with his arms crossed and a wide smirk on his face. He looked like a card shark who knew he was about to win a Quippa Tournament, not a politician waiting to hear arguments about an important issue.
Since the moment Alistair took his place at the podium, Letherious’ gaze did not leave his brother. He starred him down like a striker at the beginning of a Kathann match, carefully watching the goalkeeper’s every move and waiting for the opportune moment to attack. Letherious had already struck once. Alistair was convinced his brother had been behind the attack on Soldrafor Manor, though he had little real proof. He’d said as much in his interview with Mohaven. As expected, Letherious quickly responded to his brother’s claims, calling the accusations “scurrilous,” and insisting he would “never kill for political gain”. Alistair, of course, knew better, and still walked with a limp and crutch to show for it.
What would Letherious’ next move be? Wondering what his brother had planned made Alistair even more anxious than he was already. Now’s the time, the abolitionist thought. Alistair took a deep breath, reminded himself why he had come here, and looked down at his speech.
“Emperor Ferdinand. Senators of the Council of Twenty Three,” Alistair said, as he looked around the Assembly. Two sections of guest seating—one on each side of the room—had been reserved abolitionists and slavers. Above them, on the upper level, a throng of reporters from all over Theranos looked on with quills and parchment in hand. Chander stood a few steps away from Alistair with his arms crossed, furious that the Imperial Chamberlain had refused to let him enter the Assembly with his crossbow.
“It is an honor to appear before you today to speak on the greatest issue of our time. I speak, of course, of chattel slavery. But first, I would like to talk about redemption. Not just my redemption, but the redemption of my entire house,” he went on. Letherious shifted in his chair. He grinned, retrieved a brown flask from his belt, and took a drink.
“When my great grandfather Roderick founded Blackwood Company, he dreamed of a business that would unite Theranos and spread word of The Ascendant’s glory to the people of every race. My grandfather’s goals were just. Holy, some might say. But his methods were imperfect. He, like so many great Claudians, used the bones of Seragorn slaves to forge the foundations of his achievements.”
Alistair paused to survey the room. Many of the Senators, along with the slavers, looked visibly uncomfortable. This did not include Letherious, however, who continued to grin gleefully. On the upper level, the journalists and reporters were writing furiously.
“That is not to say my grandfather and my father after him did nothing of worth. You can acknowledge someone’s good deeds without endorsing their entire catalogue of works. Today, Blackwood Company can be found in nearly every major nation. We have indeed achieved my grandfather’s dream of uniting Theranos. Leonii, Rhinox, Trolls, Elves, and even San’Gal can be found working both on the ground and in our management. And now, the Seragorn have joined that list. Irett, stand up.”
Alistair pointed to the abolitionist section, where the lone Seragorn in the building sat between two Zehren Tusk mercenaries. She was in her later years, and had short grey braids, pale green skin, and wore a red dress from Levesque she had purchased with her own coin.
“For nearly fifty years, Irett worked as a slave at Soldrafor Manor. During that time, she organized parties, dinners, and balls. But all the while she slept in a shed outside the gardens, went without proper food, and suffered untold abuse at the hands of my family.”
Alistair stopped for a moment, his face gripped with regret. Tears welled in his eyes as he recalled the first time he saw his father smack Irett across the face. How many times had he seen Irett and her fellow slaves abused by his father, mother, and brother? He could not remember, and wished he had done something on just one of those occasions.
“Today, Irett lives in a villa outside of Breezewood with her family and future husband—a Claudian merchant, might I add. I hired her immediately after releasing my slaves, and in that time she’s risen through the ranks of Blackwood Company management faster than anyone I can remember. Just two weeks ago, I promoted her to Senior Supervisor of Calanar Trade.”
The abolition’s remarks drew applause from his comrades and a few Senators. Emperor Ferdinand nodded lightly. Lady Scapula, the Reckoner of Westfall herself, sighed and shook her head. She sat next to Letherious, wore a flowing sleeveless blue dress and had blonde hair with streaks of grey.
“That, my fellow Claudians, is what can happen if we step into modernity and forever erase the outdated custom of slavery from our Empire. We have the supreme fortune to dwell in the greatest nation in all Theranos. It is time we brought it to even greater heights. In the words of The Ascendant, ‘This Empire I shall rebuild, throughout Theranos we shall spread, and under my glory we Claudians shall be known as paragons unto other men, the lights that shall guide them through the days of woe.”
Once more the abolitionists applauded, and Alistair took a step back from the podium. When their adulation ended, Emperor Ferdinand stood up, picked up his staff, and tapped it on the floor three times.
“Thank you, Lord Blackwood. Given our current state of affairs,” Ferdinand said, glaring at Lady Scapula. “We have no choice but to resolve this matter quickly. By the end of this summit, I will be making an edict on the future of slavery. But first, I want the debate around this issue to flourish. Who will respond to Lord Blackwood’s opening statement?”
Ferdinand looked down at the Senators, curious to see who would be the first to speak. Several Senators shot small green magical lights above their heads, signaling their intentions. But before Ferdinand could call on one of them, Letherious stood up and approached the Assembly floor with a strut so pronounced he appeared as though he’d just been named the arena grand champion.
“Senator Blackwood, I should not need to remind you of Assembly conventions!” Ferdinand shouted.
“And you know I’m not one for tradition,” Letherious said, before looking up at Alistair. “Some traditions, that is.”
Ferdinand groaned and sat back down on the Crimson Throne.
“Very well. Senator Blackwood, you may be the first respond to Lord Blackwood.”
“Your permission is appreciated, but unnecessary, Your Grace,” Letherious said. “Considering what my brother has been saying about me in the press, it’s about time I have the opportunity to retort.”
Alistair and Letherious stared arrows through each other. Chander stood at the ready, his fists clenched, waiting for the younger Blackwood brother to make a move.
“Then by all means, Letherious, retort,” Alistair said, trying to maintain his composure.
“Very well. It is a great shame this is how we meet after years apart, brother. I’d much rather be playing Quippa and drinking wine than debating politics.”
“I’d call it a shame if our estrangement was my decision.”
“So you say,” Letherious said as he paced about the arena floor, his hands folded in front of him. “You also claim that you decided to release your slaves entirely on your own. Is that true?”
“It is. I came to realize that—”
“I read your interview.”
“Then why ask the question?”
Letherious smirked. Alistair began to fear his brother’s line of inquiry. Had he learned the truth? Did he know about his meeting with Venomar? No, Alistair told himself. He couldn’t have found out.
“On the 88th of Winter’s Breath, you left Calanar on The Regis. Correct?”
“Indeed. I was headed for Jedor to negotiate with the Troll Warbands.”
“And yet your ship never reached Jedor.”
“We got caught in a tempest. The ship sank and we lost the whole crew. That’s a matter of public record.”
“The Empire thought you dead. But soon, you reemerged. In Patamos, of all places. If you were headed to Jedor, then how in Octavarius did you end up there?”
He knew, Alistair thought. He had to. But how? Had someone sold him out? He’d only told Chander and Olivia about his experience with Venomar, and he trusted both of them with his life.
“I caught a ride from a Troll merchant ship.”
“How did they find you?”
“They found me,” Alistair replied, sweating once more.
“Senator Blackwood,” Ferdinand shouted. “This summit is to discuss slavery. If you have nothing to say on the issue, then concede the floor to someone who does.”
“I’ll concede the floor when I am finished, Ferdinand!” Letherious snapped. “These are questions that require answers!”
Several of the Senators gasped, others looked horrified. Was this normal, Alistair wondered? He’d never attended an Assembly meeting, but he felt certain Senators were not supposed openly challenge the Emperor.
Ferdinand slammed his fists on the armrests of the Crimson Throne and stood up. The Knights of Hamilton—the Emperor’s personal guard—readied their spears. They stood at positions throughout the room, dressed in red and blue armor with black cloaks. On command, prepared to close in on the temperamental Senator. Letherious, however, remained unmoved, chuckling to himself on the Assembly floor. Whatever he had planned, Ferdinand was playing right into his hand, Alistair thought.
“Then address the matter at hand. Spouting your conspiracy theories accomplishes nothing.”
Letherious laughed and shook his head.
“I suppose I’ll have to take a more direct route,” Letherious pointed at his brother with the index finger of his gauntlet hand. “Brother, your actions have done nothing but harm to the Empire you claim to love so dearly. Every time a slave is released, Venomar’s army grows.”
“Untrue!” Alistair countered. “Did you not hear what I said about Irett?”
“Propaganda! Abolitionist propaganda! ” shouted Lady Scapula.
“I concur, Lady Scapula! There’s no way she’s responsible for everything you claim! Orcs are simple minded, foolish. Slave labor is what they crave! It gives them purpose!”
“She’s not the only former slave I’ve hired,” Alistair explained. “I replaced every bigot who left Blackwood Company with capable, hardworking Seragorn.”
“Nonsense!” Letherious turned to the slaver section, who seemed to delight in the Senator’s every word. “Orcs do labor unfit for Claudian hands! While they worked the fields, set the stone, and forged the weapons, our people have conquered nations, created beautiful works of art, and furthered our understanding of the arcane! Without slavery, the Orcs would be just like Venomar—filthy terrorists determined to ravage our lands, kidnap our women, and kill our children!”
The slaver section exploded with applause. Alistair’s stomach turned over in disgust. Living in his bubble of Soldrafor Manor, he’d forgotten just how profound Claudian bigotry could be. No matter the outcome of the Summit, his people clearly had a great many more steps to take on the path to redemption.
“The only terrorist here is Lady Scapula!” Alistair screamed. His fists were clenched, and he had stopped thinking about what he was saying. “Venomar is a man fighting for the freedom of his people. Who among us would not do the same if we Claudians were slaves to the Seragorn?”
It had become increasingly difficult for him to keep his secret about Venomar. He longed to reveal the Arkresh’s true nature, and put the Imperial propaganda about him to rest. But he could not do so without compromising his own goals, and thus the abolitionist did his best to stay silent.
“Westfall needed to be put to the sword for their disobedience!” Lady Scapula replied. “You abolitionists have gone too far, and by defending Venomar, your leader is showing just how far you’ve fallen!”
“Not a terrorist, you say?” Letherious asked with a laugh. “Then explain the Pillaging of Palmeria!”
“Propaganda, brother! Try reading something other than the Minthera Times. The Pillaging was committed by his second in command, who he executed for war crimes!”
“Now you’re demeaning our press!? To what lengths will you go for these Orcs, Alistair!? Emperor Ferdinand, need I give you any more reason to charge this man with treason?”
Both brothers turned their attention to Ferdinand, who seemed utterly distracted. He resembled a man sitting alone at a bar, slowly drinking his sorrows away and hoping the bottom of his glass would provide a perfect answer to an elusive question. He sat with his right hand propping up his chin, his teal eyes watching the play-by-play of an unknowable day dream. Seconds after Letherious mentioned his name, he shook his head and leaned back on his throne, returning to reality.
“Calm yourselves!” Ferdinand cried, raising his hand. The Knights of Hamilton, who had lowered their weapons, returned to the ready position. “I want debate, not slander!”
“Then you’ve seen nothing yet, Ferdinand. My fellow Claudians!” Letherious clapped his hands together. “If you’ve any doubt about my brother’s intentions, look no further than what I am about to show you!”
Alistair began to quake. It was over. He knew it. He looked to the entrance, wondering if he should try to escape. Whatever Letherious was about to reveal, it would surely doom him with the label of traitor he had so carefully tried to defend against.
“Letherious, enough! Now is not the time for this!” Ferdinand cried.
The Knights of Hamilton took two steps forward, but Letherious looked undeterred. Behind him, an older Senator who stood with a slight hunch and had white hair sprinkled with bits of brown spoke up, drawing the attention of the crowd.
“If Lord—I mean, Senator Blackwood,” said Caius Scipio, the Council of Twenty Three’s most decorated general. “Has discovered something about his brother and these damn abolitionists, then we have the right to know.”
“We need not remind you what happened to Baudelaire,” Lady Scapula added. Ferdinand slunk back in his chair at the mention of his predecessor. According to rumor, the Council of Twenty Three “removed,” him after he failed to defeat Venomar.
The Knights of Hamilton stepped back, and Letherious pointed over to the Assembly room door with his gauntlet hand. Alistair trembled, and his face became paler than usual. A man who knew his most damning skeleton was about to be forcefully dragged out of the closet. Beside him, Chander fumed, his black eyes beaming with rage. Chander did not handle such encounters well, and Alistair knew it took every ounce of self-control the Rhinox had to stop himself from charging Letherious and beating him to death.
“On the contrary, there is no better time to reveal the results of the investigation you failed to complete, Your Grace!”
Letherious clapped his hands twice, and the Assembly’s wide iron doors flung open. Alistair gasped and stumbled back from the podium. Standing there in the threshold were two Seragorn beaten and wounded so severely they resembled a pair of frontline battlefield victims. One wore cloth trousers and had flog marks decorating his chest, the other wore rags and had a face adorned with bruises. Despite their disfigurement, Alistair recognized them as Obu and Kurda, the scavengers who found him washed up on the Pillaged Coast.
“Who are these Seragorn, Letherious?” Ferdinand shouted, standing up from his throne. “What circus have you brought to my Assembly?”
“The Assembly belongs to the people, Your Grace!” Scipio replied, his fist in the air.
“Do you recognize them, Alistair?” Letherious said, presenting the two injured Seragorn to the Assembly. “What were their names? Obu and Kurda? They belong to me now, so I suppose I can call them what I wish. Hasn’t been the best investment—the woman still doesn’t know how to clean a floor. But I suppose your reaction alone has proven their worth!”
“What’s going on here, Alistair?” cried Hideo Yamaoka, Majesty of the Kojima Reef. He wore his red Admiral’s robes and had tan skin, short grey hair, and a mustache of the same color.
“Let them go, Letherious!” Alistair shouted. “They have nothing to do with this debate!”
Alistair’s nerves had turned to fury. Obu and Kurda had shown him no kindness, had treated him like property, but they did not deserve slavery nor Letherious’ torment. Not a soul on Theranos did. He wanted to draw his Gladeon, charge his brother and challenge him to a Mage’s duel right in the center of the Assembly. But Alistair knew that would accomplish nothing. Letherious had always been the better fighter.
“On the contrary, they have everything to do with this!” Letherious replied. “Tell them, Alistair! Tell them how you know these two! Tell them where you were during the week you went missing! Tell them about your meeting with Venomar!”
The audience exploded into a fervor on all sides. Alistair lowered his head, stared at the marble floor, and gripped the sides of the podium.
“A meeting with Venomar? What does he mean? Explain this now, Alistair!” Majesty Yamaoka demanded.
“Boss, we Rhinox have an expression,” Chander whispered. “When the milk starts to mold, run. Run till you find Antigone at last. Let’s go, Al. You don’t owe these people shit.”
Alistair had grown tired of it all. He’d never been a politician. Even in business matters, he’d always made an effort to be honest. The lies, the falsehoods—it had begun to wear on him. While the reasons behind Alistair’s advocacy had evolved over time, Venomar still deserved credit for his initial inspiration. If he hadn’t shown him hospitality that night in Avarad, Alistair doubted he’d ever had been brave enough to release his slaves. In the time since his return home, the abolitionist had received two letters from the Arkresh, both commending him for his actions and wishing him well in all his pursuits. Venomar had even attached a Quippa card—a rare one, at that—with one of the messages.
If he had wanted to, Venomar easily could’ve washed his hands of Alistair right after he set his Seragorn free, Alistair thought. But that was not the type of man the Arkresh was. He’d been a true friend to the Claudian businessman the scavengers brought to him that day. And Alistair believed it was time he returned the favor.
“No,” Alistair replied, looking up. His eyes scanned the Assembly, looking at the audience like a gladiator—ready to fight to the end, but fully aware of what his fate would be.
“It’s true,” he admitted. Letherious had him caught. He saw no point in continuing to conceal the truth. It was time to reveal Venomar’s involvement at long last.
“I washed ashore in Avarad, and was captured by these two Seragorn. They brought me before Venomar. But he is not who the Empire says he is!” Alistair explained. The abolitionists looked dejected, but the slavers and most of the Senate appeared as though they’d just won the Kathann World Cup. Letherious delighted in his brother’s every treasonous confession. Ferdinand had his head buried in his hands.
“He showed me kindness, and set me free. When I returned home, I could think of no better way to thank him than releasing my slaves.”
“Why didn’t you tell us?” Majesty Yamaoka screamed. “Now our movement is nothing but a lie!”
“It is not!” Alistair shook his head and waved his left hand in disagreement. “If the spirit is true, does the inspiration matter? I kept my secret because this movement has become about so much more than a favor to a friend. It’s about absolution. How many lives have been lost to slavery in the last 500 years? Millions? Billions? Even one is too many! We owe it to our ancestors, for all the good they did, to make up for their greatest crime!”
“More likely because you knew it would undermine you!” Letherious drew his Gladeon, a black blade with a dark purple inlay. “As a Senator of the Council of Twenty Three, I arrest you for treason under the Writ of Wiser Men!”
Letherious charged the podium. Alistair took a step back, leaning on his crutch with his right hand and holding up his left in surrender. Chander raised his fists and stood in front of Alistair, intending to block Letherious’ advance.
“Boss, I’m not about to let him take you.”
“Stand down Chander. I’ve accepted my fate. We can’t fend off the whole Senate—”
Before Chander could respond, an arcane burst sent the Rhinox flying across the room. He collided with the Assembly’s rear wall, just to the left of Ferdinand. Alistair had to fall to ground to get out of his way. Letherious stood above him, Gladeon pointed at his throat.
“Will any of my brethren stand to oppose my decision?” he said, glancing back at the Senators, all of whom remained silent. “Didn’t think so.”
“Take him to the Carcerium, Letherious. He can await execution there,” Ferdinand said. He seemed sorrowful, so much so Alistair thought he could see tears welling in his eyes.
“Gladly, Your Grace.”
Letherious returned his Gladeon to its scabbard, dove on top of Alistair, and pummeled him with his gauntlet hand. Pummeled him until the abolitionist’s world became dark and cold.
Alistair awoke to the wretched smell of feces and vomit. A chain bound him to a wall in a cell of near complete darkness, save for a small shard of moonlight coming through a window above him. The cell was hardly larger than a closet, and the ceiling was so low that a man any taller than Alistair wouldn’t have been able to stand upright. Four bars of rusted iron blocked the door. His head throbbed, and as he felt around his mouth with his tongue, he noticed he was missing three teeth.
The Carcerium. The Empire’s largest prison, reserved for political prisoners and traitors. During his youth, he’d toured it twice—once with his father and Letherious, and again with Lucius while they were students at the Libo Mage Academy. They’d come in hopes of seeing Grizzled Barton before his execution. Of course, the notorious rebel was surrounded by guards, so the most they could see of him was the side of his tattoo covered face.
Alistair looked at the chains. They were coated in blue runes, which the abolitionist knew would prevent him from casting spells. Down the hall, the abolitionist could hear the sound of movement. Then, he spotted the light of a small torch making its way down the hall.
“Enjoying your stay, brother?” asked Letherious, the torch held out in front of him.
“Why?” Alistair groaned. “Why have you done this?”
“You should know better than anyone else what the Orcs did to me!”
“I don’t! I’ve not seen you since the reading of father’s will! And before that, not since Martin’s injury!”
Letherious grabbed one of the iron bars with his free hand, the torchlight revealing the rage in his grey eyes.
“You’ve no right to speak his name!” Letherious snarled. “This is about Martin!”
“By Beatrice, how? The Selectives were behind the attack!”
“And the thugs they sent? Orcs!” Letherious shook the bars as he spoke. “Orcs! Filthy, disgusting, savage Orcs! From Clan Makros!”
Alistair’s eyes opened wide. He’d had no idea that Seragorn had been behind the tragedy that befell Letherious’ son.
“Father never told you, did he? He always told me it didn’t matter. Thought the arrest of the Inner Circle should’ve been the end of it.”
“Then hunt down the men who attacked him!” Alistair exclaimed.
“I already have! Their skulls decorate my home!”
“Then you’ve had your revenge!”
“Not yet!” Letherious shouted. “I’ll punish every Orc who crosses my path till the day he’s able to speak, ride his horse, and go off to Mage’s College like he was supposed to! They robbed him of everything, and I’m going to do the same to them!”
“You can’t blame the crimes of the few on an entire race!”
“Those five were just as savage as the others! Slavery is what they deserve for the torment they’ve put him through!”
“It’s been five years, Letherious! I’m sorry about what happened, we all are! But it’s time to move on! Accept the burden you’ve been dealt with, don’t use it as fuel for your bigotry!”
“Four years and twenty six days! Four years and twenty six days, and he’s still barely managed to even say my name! The smell of this foul place! This is how he smells every day! It takes two servants just to feed him, if you can even call the drivel he eats food! So don’t you tell me what to do with this burden!”
“I’m sorry, Letherious! I truly am! But since the day he was injured, you’ve shut me out. I’d help, if I could,” Alistair pleaded.
Letherious lowered his eyes and frowned. For a brief, fleeting moment, Alistair saw the same melancholy brother he’d grown up with at Soldrafor Manor all those years ago.
“I opened every letter you and Olivia sent him, you know,” Letherious said softly. “Every gift, too. You tried to be a good uncle to him; Olivia a good cousin. I always appreciated that.”
Letherious stepped back from the cell and starred into the flame of the torch. Illuminated by the orange light, he looked like a statue of a sorrowful saint above a city at night. As Alistair crawled over to the edge of the cell, he wondered if a bridge of understanding had been built between him and his brother.
“But you’ve decided to stand in my way, and work with the most barbaric of Orcs!” Letherious stomped his foot and swung the torch as though it were a blade. “And for that, you too must suffer!”
Letherious turned and walked down the hall, the cloak of his military robe flowing behind him.
“Listen to me, Letherious!” Alistair pleaded. “It doesn’t need to be this way! The slaves, Venomar—they had nothing to do with what happened to Martin! They don’t deserve your anger! Help me! Help me redeem the sins of our ancestors!”
“It’s too late for that, brother,” Letherious stopped and looked back at the cell. “I look forward to your execution. I’ve been imaging the sound of the hangman’s noose tightening around your neck all day. And your friend Venomar? He’ll be next.”
Letherious strutted down the hall and out of sight.
Alistair remembered the day an attack by a band of cutthroats robbed Letherious’ only child of his mind. He’d just returned home from a trip to the Irridan Frontier and was helping Olivia with her studies when he received the news. He and Olivia traveled to Letherious’ mansion outside Minthera at once, but were turned away by his servants, who said their master wanted no one to see Martin’s condition.
Aside from painting and winning coin at Quippa, Alistair could think of nothing that brought his brother as much joy as Martin. Even when they were boys, Alistair remembered few times when his brother did not seem trapped in an endless web of sorrows. The birth of his son changed that, transforming Letherious into an entirely different person—a jovial Doppelganger of his former self.
Though Alistair had not seen the boy since the assault, his parents had. According to his father, Martin behaved like a “toddler trapped in the body of a teenager,” who “wailed as though possessed,” all day. At the reading of their father’s will, when Alistair last saw Letherious, his brother’s demeanor had collapsed into one of constant irritability, and he spoke of little aside from his political career.
As he sat in the cold darkness of the cell, Alistair understood his brother’s mad quest for vengeance had no end. He could only hope that someone would find a way to stop it.
Hours after his meeting with Letherious, four Blue Helm guards dragged Alistair out of his cell. They covered his face with a black sack, through which the abolitionist could see scarcely anything. Where were they taking him, he wondered? Was he to be prepped for execution already? At this hour? It appeared to be two or three in the morning at the latest. Didn’t they want to execute him in the Forum, in front of the public?
The Blue Helms walked Alistair down several flights of stairs, and then tossed him into what he believed was a carriage. He remembered thinking his life was over when Kurda and Obu brought him before Venomar, but this was far different. The Empire had deemed him a traitor, and there could be no escape from his fate. The end had come. Soon, he’d be standing before The Formless One, waiting for the Divines to bet upon his soul.
The carriage rumbled on, turning down several quiet city streets, before lurching to a sudden halt that nearly knocked Alistair out of his seat.
“We’re here. Let’s make this quick,” said one of the Blue Helms.
A pair of hands pushed Alistair’s back, forcing him out of the carriage and onto the ground. He then felt a yank on his chain, as one of the Blue Helms began to drag him through the darkness towards his demise.
With each step, Alistair felt the afterlife calling to him. He wondered what Helen would think of him now, marching to his execution. Helen had been gone so long that he’d nearly forgotten her soft brunette curls, her ear piercing laugh, and the way she spoke about her opinions as though they were facts. She’d be proud of him for finally taking a stand for something he believed in, and defending the man who encouraged him to do so. But more than that, he knew she’d be praying for Alistair to join her at the side of The Ascendant.
“Reman Brennan, Ascendant Emperor of Mankind,” Alistair whispered. After meeting with Mohaven, Alistair had taken a look at the Ballad, and found that some of the prayers came back to him rather quickly. He’d heard both Helen and Olivia recite them countless times. “Guide me, a Claudian of faith, beyond this fragile mortal world and to plains of greater promise.”
A pair of doors shut behind Alistair, and he stopped moving. He heard what sounded like a lever being pulled. Then he felt the room begin to rise, as if lifted into the air by a spell. He had to be in some sort of Senator’s penthouse – maybe even Letherious’. Who else could afford a damn Precursor elevator?
As the elevator rose, he thought of Olivia. He wondered if he should’ve begged for forgiveness or denied his involvement with Venomar for her sake. But he knew she wouldn’t want that. She’d always supported his decision, and felt he should’ve been forthright about Venomar’s involvement from the beginning. In just a few weeks, she’d be going through her Magarrum. Though he longed to be there to support her, he had no doubt she’d pass her trials and grow into a far better mage than he ever was.
“I shall place no Gods above you—not the false Gods who abandoned this world, nor those beneath the Earth, nor they who dwell beyond the stars,” Alistair continued, somewhat unsure if he’d gotten the words right.
The elevator stopped, and the door opened. While the Blue Helms pulled him onward, a lamb being led to a pack of wolves, he thought of Venomar. From the time he returned home from Avarad, Alistair believed abolition to be the best path to peace between the Seragorn and Claudians. A definite, final end to the perpetual pendulum of violence between the two races. He hoped after his death, this would still be the case. Perhaps his execution would inspire the abolitionists to take up arms against the Empire, or motivate foreign power to give aid to Venomar’s cause. No matter what, Alistair knew the fire he started would not be extinguished with his end. And so long as the flames continued to burn, Alistair had no doubt Letherious—and the rest of his ilk—would soon be caught up in the blaze.
Someone would take up the cause. Abolition would not die.
Another set of doors shut behind Alistair, and the Blue Helms tossed him to the ground. He felt the cold steel of a sword grace the back of his neck. His time had come.
“When at last my mortal breath has left me, do not—”
One of the Blue Helms removed the black sack around Alistair’s head, restoring sight to his world. The abolitionist could scarcely believe what he saw.
Standing in front of him, still dressed in the same white and gold robe from earlier, was Emperor Ferdinand. The Blue Helms had taken him to the Emperor’s Suite at the top level of Reman’s Spire. But why? Did the Emperor plan to execute him personally?
“Welcome, Alistair. I’m glad you came,” Ferdinand said.
The conversation that followed left Alistair utterly shocked.
Thomas J. Lauser – TJ to his friends and family- is a writer and special education teacher from Wallingford, Pennsylvania. “The Price of Abolition,” is his third published story, and continues the “Steps Saga,” that began with his first story, “Business of Change”. He is currently working on several more short stories and a novel. His writing blog is www.adreamdeferredband.wordpress.com