Warning: This work has been rated 16+.
“I’m sure you know we don’t approve of what you want to do,” Mireya said, politely but a little coldly. “We’re doing this only because we know it’s the least brutal way to cause what can’t be avoided.”
Aphirah would annex Renvara’s land and its magic. Even at the time, it had looked inevitable to Mireya and everyone else, but from how things had stood, it wouldn’t take place without a fight. Aphirah had far more people to make an army out of, but Renvara had experience with the best magic in the world to draw on. There was no other way for war to play out than for Aphirah to eventually win, but it would be at a huge cost to them, and Renvara would be devastated. The only solution was to avoid a war by making no one want it in the first place.
“We do know,” Cardozo said. “And…” She trailed off. “This may be uncomfortable for you. but you are doing the right thing, and you will be rewarded for it.”
Dante raised his empty hand, his dark eyes searching the horizon rather than the clearing. “Peace,” he said, mostly speaking to himself from the sound of it. “I’m not sure it’s supposed to feel like this.”
“Like what?” Cardozo asked.
“Wrong. Somehow.” Dante furrowed his brow. “It’s manipulation of will, which is always shady.”
Cardozo looked them both over. “Aren’t the two of you pirates? Don’t you deal with shady things?”
“He’s a pirate,” Mireya corrected. “I’m a literal Saint.”
That got a snort from Dante. “Saint of piracy, maybe.”
“In any case,” Mireya said, while trying not to smile, “we can deal in shady things and still have a moral code and a sense of wrong and right. That code just might not extend to something like plundering a ship or stealing a merchant’s cargo.”
“Right. I see.” Cardozo paused, her gaze falling back to the clearing. “It doesn’t feel quite right to me, either, but it won’t be difficult to do, at least. Mireya—” She hesitated again. “Saint Mireya?”
“Only if my name is too informal for you,” Mireya said. “I don’t actually care that much.”
Cardozo nodded. “Saint Mireya, you can whistle again for the mage to activate the spell on our Ren volunteer, and Dante, the spell needs to spread from person to person and be focused on the Ren. Our volunteer will go out in society the next day, and that’s how we get our peace.”
Dante sighed. “Right. Yeah, I’m ready. Mireya, mind scaring that mage again?”
“It’s pretty much all I’m here for.” Mireya whistled again, with a different pattern. Hunt is over. She wondered if the Ren volunteer actually understood the language. “Spyglass, please?”
Dante passed it to her, and she used it to watch the scene in the clearing. The mage was applying the now-activated Rationale spell to the temple of the volunteer, still holding it away from herself.
“It’s ready, Dante,” Mireya told him.
She couldn’t see him while she was watching through the spyglass, but she knew what Dante was doing beside her. It was not an elaborate twisting of fingers, hands or wrists as Minor Mages did to create a spell— in fact, it looked like he was doing remarkably little to spread the spell. He could do it while standing completely still, but he usually kept his eyes closed for concentration, and he always described a shudder running through him. There was no visible difference in the volunteer— except that his head hung a little lower— but Dante cleared his throat, and she knew he was done.
“There it is,” he said. “Let me know when it works, or if it doesn’t.”
“Thank you both,” Cardozo said, perhaps with a shred of relief. “You’ll hear more about it when we’ll send over your payment.”
Mireya nodded and was about to respond when Dante cleared his throat. “Can we head back to the car?” She could tell he’d had enough of the precarious cliff.
Cardozo nodded and turned, rocks and gravel crunching under her. “We’ll get you back.”
The ride back to the mountain base was silent, except for the car jostling over bumps in the road and growling around tight turns. Mireya exchanged a few glances with Dante, and she knew they were both impatient to talk, but they needed to get away from the Houses first. Thankfully, they weren’t held up. Cardozo drove them down and back to the coast on the far side of the mountain, and after a quick goodbye, she left them there. The small boat they’d sailed on here was waiting for them, tied up to a pine by the water.
“Hopefully our crew is where they said they would be,” Mireya said, hopping on board as Dante untied the boat.
“Worst-case scenario, we just sail the entire Sela Kejva until we find them.” Dante threw the rope on board, and then himself a moment later as he gave her that grin of his.
Mireya snorted. “Terrible idea.”
“I did say it was a worst-case scenario.” Dante raised his eyebrows at her, laughing for a moment before he pulled out his lucky compass and stared down at it. “Literally and figuratively, I don’t know where to go from here.”
“We’ll stop at some small harbor in a few days, then make our way to their location,” Mireya said, adjusting the sail. “So, vaguely northeast and staying within sight of land.”
“Good enough for me.” Dante kicked the boat off the beach, taking a seat on the floor once they were sailing smoothly. “And figuratively?”
Mireya shrugged, finishing her task and sitting in front of him. “I don’t know. They found us before, so they’ll find us again when it’s time for payment. Until then, maybe we can get news in that harbor of how the spell’s going.”
Dante nodded slowly. “Do you think it’ll have spread that far by then?”
Mireya smirked. “Did you do your job right?”
Dante groaned, placing a hand to his head. “Saints, I really hope so. I would like that money.”
Mireya laughed, shaking her head before she spoke again, more quietly this time. “You did do your job right. I guess we’ll see if it was the right thing to do.”
Her friend went silent for a few moments. “Let’s watch the sea.”
It was a code phrase of sorts, for a quick way of changing the subject away from something uncomfortable, though they really did turn to watch the sea whenever one of them said it. The waves rolled against their boat as the sky turned warmer and then dimmed, leaving them in darkness. Dante’s shoulder bumped into hers, and she leaned against him, letting her eyes slide shut once she’d gotten a glimpse of the stars— still bright and visible in this time and age.
It was four sunrises later and a good distance northeast when they decided to check on a harbor. Dante guided them back to shore while Mireya stood and watched the mountains and sky. It had gotten cloudy, with fog blurring the land, but she couldn’t feel any chance of lightning in the air— that was, unless she summoned some. She made a mental note for that in case they ran into trouble.
Dante actually took them in the wrong direction at first, because they completely missed the actual location of the harbor— largely because it blended in with the rest of the landscape. Mireya couldn’t find any movement along the docks, and there were no boats out on the water, even though there should have been people out fishing. She exchanged a look with Dante, and she knew he found it suspicious as well.
“It could be that everyone’s gathered somewhere,” Dante said finally. “Peace talks, maybe.”
Mireya nodded, but it didn’t sit well with her. “Maybe.”
They found the docks empty when they pulled up and stepped out of the boat. Mireya scanned the streets for people while Dante nudged a vacant fishing boat with the tip of his boot.
“If we want a boat upgrade, now would be a great time for it,” he joked weakly.
Mireya laughed, but her heart wasn’t in it, not in this unsettling scene. “Most of them aren’t much nicer—”
“Stop!” a voice shouted. Mireya turned to see a man urgently running along the coast toward their dock. She tensed, balling her hands into fists, and she saw Dante reach for the flintlock at his waist. The man must have seen it, because he held up his hands as he drew closer, holding them out in front of him like he was pushing them away. His face was a mask of panic. “You need to get out of here immediately!”
“What’s going on?” Mireya asked, loosening her fists.
“Just— get back in your boat, move out a short distance, and I’ll talk to you,” the man pleaded. He didn’t look Ren— probably Kejvan, from his pale complexion. “I don’t know what’s happening, but it’s not safe for you here. Please, just do it.”
Mireya and Dante exchanged a look of confusion and alarm, but they got back in their boat, and Dante extended the rope line so they could float a few feet away. “What’s wrong?” he asked, raising his voice to cover the distance. “Why is there no one out here?”
“There’s… there’s something going around town,” the man said, swallowing. “Something that almost everyone is catching.”
Mireya nodded after a few moments. “Yeah, it’s a spell. It’s designed to hop from person to person, changing minds about war attitudes—”
“No, not that,” the man said, dropping his voice, with horror echoing in his words. “It is a spell changing minds, but it’s got nothing to do with war. It’s leaving people as blank shells. Hollow of whoever they used to be.” He shook his head, like he was trying to clear it of something. “You’d think there’s no thought or emotion left in them.”
“But—” Dante stammered. “Is it not Rationale?”
“Our Minor Mages say yes,” the man said, glancing at the town behind him. “But they said it also has— it has corrupted Salve.”
“Like…” Mireya couldn’t finish the thought.
“An epidemic of magic poisoning,” the man confirmed quietly. “It’s going to kill so many people—” He shuddered. “Starting with their minds.”
Dante’s face had frozen into horror, his mouth hanging open slightly as he stared dead ahead at the man, and Mireya knew he wouldn’t be speaking anymore for this conversation.
“Almost everyone?” she asked first in a whisper, then raising her voice more urgently. “You said almost everyone is catching it?”
“Along with a couple other people and those I moved here with— my elderly parents— I’m one of the only non-Ren, Aphiran people in town,” the man said slowly, his voice shaking. “We’re the only ones who haven’t caught it, whatever it is. Everyone else has got it. My wife, my kids. I’ve been around them, and the other Aphirans have been around the other community members, but we aren’t getting sick. It’s not spreading to us, but I don’t want to risk getting to close to the two of you. We don’t know enough about how it works, and we’ve never seen anything like it before.”
Mireya’s heart fluttered with dread. This is genocide. That's what they want.
“I’ve sent messages to other towns in the area,” the man added. “The exact same thing is happening to them. They’re calling it the Fading.”
Mireya grabbed Dante’s sleeve— which was still the coat from the Houses— and tugged on it. “We need to go,” she whispered to him, then addressed the man. “Thank you… for telling us. We’re going to leave and find somewhere it hasn’t reached yet.”
The man nodded quickly. “I hope you find somewhere. Safe wandering.”
“I’m sorry,” Dante mumbled numbly.
“You’re sorry for what?” the man echoed, frowning.
Mireya tugged on his sleeve again, trying to get Dante to look at her. “He means he’s sorry for your wife, your kids. Everyone here.”
The man swallowed. “We’ll keep taking care of them. Even if there’s nothing we can do.”
Mireya wished she could have said more, or found a way to say how truly sorry she was. But she needed to get out of here and talk to Dante. She could only offer the man a solemn nod and a wave farewell as she untied them and set them sailing again, heart racing so fast it almost hurt in her chest.
What have we done?