Spinner of Shadows – Chapter 1
Alexios’ heart lurched as the four men bore his aged daughter on the litter towards him. She lay quietly, only her face visible above the soft grey blankets, the skin deeply rucked and wrinkled, the white hair arranged in a corona around her head.
Next to him, Chloe coughed, the sound swiftly choked. Alexios spared her a glance. Only eighteen, taking part in her first binding, perfectly composed until now. She pushed back a wisp of fair hair that had escaped the knot at the back of her head, caught him looking at her and blushed.
He didn’t acknowledge her, instead eyeing the small, square room. As always, he was caught between two scenes: the real one, which only he and Chloe could perceive, of a simple chamber constructed from pannelled oak, and the illusory one, which showed walls of white marble, a floor mosaic of a golden spinning wheel, and a dome-shaped roof like a morning sky. An illusion he had designed, inspired by descriptions of the Keeper’s Sanctum in Elisar, capital of drowned Eleusia.
The litter-bearers stopped at the bier in front of him. They saw red-veined marble, but in truth it was common red brick. As the men carefully lowered the litter onto the bier, his daughter’s eyes flickered open. Brilliant sapphire blue, flecked with silver like his, startlingly youthful in contrast to her shrivelled frame. Unbidden came a memory of her birth ninety years earlier, and of her mother, Dione, long gone now. Dione had been wildly intelligent, like their daughter. And now he was to see their child pass on. Like all the rest.
Gripped by deep weariness, he rose from his throne – golden to them, a wooden chair to him. His robes of purple velvet fell heavily around him, the cuffs and hem weighted with tiny precious stones – diamonds, rubies, onyx – for true sight, for life and death. He approached his daughter. ‘Dear daughter. Eliana…’ Words failed him. Again, again, again.
‘Father,’ Eliana whispered, her voice as papery as her skin. ‘My time…’
Alexios swallowed back sudden revulsion. I don’t want to do this. He looked at the pair of illusory statues flanking the bier – male and female, carved from whitest marble, silver thread strung between their hands. The Makers, their command. He closed his eyes briefly, gathering his strength.
Meanwhile, the litter bearers positioned themselves in a line along the bier, facing him. Men of middle years with greying hair, none of whom had attended a binding before. Looking at him with frightened awe. An honour for them to have been chosen, but to Alexios it was a curse. They would never unsee this.
He fell into the ritual words, raising his hands towards the statues on either side of him as he spoke. ‘As is ordained, we are gathered here under the watch of the Makers to preserve the sacred chain of memory.’ He stretched his arms out towards his daughter, seeing her again as a bouncing child with bubbling laughter. ‘Eliana Magos, here before us, has agreed to be forged as a link of her own free will and volition. May she one day rest in peace with the Makers above.’
Everyone joined him for the next part, even Eliana, although her words were too faint to hear. ‘For all that is past must be remembered, all that is given must be repaid, and all that is broken must be remade.’
When they had finished speaking, the litter bearers divided into two pairs, walking around each side of the bier to stand next to his throne. Alexios stepped closer to Eliana, close enough to touch. Loneliness welled in him as he spoke to her, his voice soft and tender. ‘Are you ready to bear this burden with me?’ The souls he carried began to keen, begging for release, causing him to tremble. I too would go, he said, although they could not hear him.
Eliana’s shrunken lips tugged into a faint smile as she uttered the expected response. ‘I am ready to join my soul with yours.’
Alexios nodded, swallowing to hold back tears. He enveloped her two hands in his own. Dry and hot. Then he opened his mind to the Makers’ Lace, to the intricate pattern of shimmering Threads that bound all creation together. He found the Threads that connected him to Eliana and her to the Lace, Threads only a Keeper could see. Then he nodded to Chloe. Grey eyes solemn, she stepped around the bier until she was standing opposite him. In her hand was a small bottle of red-brown liquid which she now unstoppered. She held it out to Eliana and the elderly woman parted her lips obediently. Three drops of liquid fell onto her tongue. Chloe restoppered the bottle but stayed where she was.
Alexios neither moved nor spoke, all of his attention on the Lace. Soon, the Threads connecting Eliana to it began to thrum ever so slightly, then with increasing intensity until they started to detach. Her soul was leaving the world.
Alexios swooped in to gather the Threads and spin them towards him, knitting them to his own pattern, weaving them in with the Threads of the others who had joined him over two centuries. This was the most difficult part, and in earlier days he’d sometimes failed – he’d miss a crucial Thread, not make the bind quickly enough. But he was well-practiced now, and none escaped him. As he finished, her soul joined his, and with it the vibrant force that had sustained her life.
The shock of the binding was brutal, slamming into him with such power that he roared. He was barely aware as hands grabbed him, pushed him into the throne, wrapped rope around his torso and legs, pinning him down. His bones seemed to expand, to swell beyond the confines of his flesh. He hurled himself against the bonds, unable to bear the dreadful pressure. His head snapped back, landed against a hastily placed cushion. The breath heaved out of him and then back in. A rod was shoved between his teeth and he clamped down hard, pain shooting through his jaw.
A life of memory and experience seared his mind, too quick to grasp. He wept and cried and begged to be freed.
No one answered.
Time stretched on, each second an hour, a lifetime to be endured. He continued to struggle, to plead for release, the souls pleading with him. But eventually the pain started to lose its force, to come in gentler waves, until at last it died entirely.
In its place came heady joy, sweeping through him to repair his ancient body, to restore him to false youth and vigour. His teeth ground into the rod, the euphoria agonising in its own way.
After that came the Vision. His consciousness trembled and then shook itself free from his body, rose up and away. He flew through the Lace, across space and time, born by the hands of the Makers, until he came to a vast rift in the land guarded by mountains of belching fire. Spinning down into the earth he went, down through a warren of warm tunnels and into a yawning cavern. It contained a giant pit, dug into the very rock, filled with pulsing white globules. They were packed closely together, protected by a translucent membrane.
Much more shocking was the jagged tear in the Lace above the pit, primordial power seeping through into the blazing body of a young man standing at the pit edge. From him the force streamed into the globules, feeding the unnatural life within.
Alexios stared at the half-formed creatures inside the eggs, wondering if they were what he thought them to be. Then he looked at the man, wondering if he too was whom he thought him to be. But he was little more than a boy – handsome, with copper skin, golden eyes and black hair that fell to his shoulders, fine and straight. His face was a rictus of pain, as if the magic he wielded were torturous to him.
And so it should be, for what he did was terribly, terribly wrong.
Abruptly, the tear in Lace knitted itself and the power ebbed from the youth, his posture and expression losing their rigid tension. He turned toward Alexios, and their eyes met. Then came a mocking smile.
A jolt to his senses, trying to call him back. No! He had to see what was happening here. ‘Who are you?’ he demanded.
He was being pulled. He resisted. He had to know. Past, present or future?
A wrenching force, dragging him away. No, no! He stretched out, tried to get closer to the pit, but he was speeding backwards, back to his flesh.
His eyes opened to the Sanctum. Something was wrong.
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