LIBERTUS RUBEDO | ENTRY 4
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The world stank of charred flesh. Lesley jerked awake, half expecting to find himself back in the witch’s workshop.
Instead, he rolled off the bedroll and face first into the floor. He picked himself up. He laid sideways across the bedroll and groaned.
“That stench,” he moaned. “This world reeks…”
His hand came down on something scratchy next to him. That wretched pillow. He stared at it in a mix of confusion and pure contempt.
“...Of all things,” he muttered, feeling along his jaw — all there, if a bit bruised. How embarrassing. In the Tower, he had never had to worry about magic exhaustion. All summoners took meals made up of the ether that flowed naturally into the Realm of Light’s highest region. A powerful spell might leave one a bit light-headed, but never helpless. You could be guaranteed your stores would return to you within the hour, if not minutes. Under those circumstances, that damnable cyclops and his rabble would have been nothing to Lesley.
To Libertus, however...
Lesley felt along his neck. The name still stung against his skin, though the sharpness had resolved into a duller ache. Some hours must have passed. Lesley had strength enough to cast a minor healing spell. His horn glowed. The warmth spread through his body. Thank goodness. Not that anyone so base could have come up with the magics to damage a unicorn’s horn, but still….
Something snuffled beside him. Lesley’s hand shot out. The kobold from before. She’d sidled up to him while he’d been healing. He’d grabbed her by the ear. She yelped.
“Peace!” she screeched, transforming quickly into her dormant form, to give him less of an ear to hold onto. “Peace, peace, peace.”
“...If you’d wished to steal my wretched pillow,” said Lesley, “you might have done it while I was unconscious.”
“No, no, no,” barked the kobold. “Done with that, very done. Just checking. He asked me to check. Asked me. Let me go already, would you?”
Lesley let her go. The kobold sat back, rubbing her ear. Her dormant form wasn’t all that different from her human form. She had a long nose and spiky, speckled hair. She held out her spindly hands.
“See?” she said. “Empty.”
“I don’t suppose you’ll tell me who ‘he’ is?” asked Lesley.
She didn’t. She transformed back into her beast form and scurried away.
The pillow was gone.
“...I suppose you have made your point,” muttered Lesley. It hardly mattered. He discovered he had two more pillows. They’d been stacked under his head while he’d been sleeping, softer and cleaner than the one the guard had given to him. He wasn’t in the lean-to shack the guard had brought him, either. This could charitably be called a flat. It was more like a hut. Still, it was large enough that Lesley could stand without bumping his horn. It fit the bedroll, a few chests, and a cabinet mounted with scrolls. A small paper lamp could light the whole room. It still smelled like burning flesh. The smell emanated from the other side of a hanging bamboo curtain. Lesley could hear the sounds of metal scraping on the other side of it.
A torture chamber! How excellent. It seemed he had been spared the mob only to end up in the bedroom of a butcher. It’s not like hadn’t heard tales of the dark creatures thirst for unicorn flesh. Steeling himself, Lesley approached the curtain. He only stumbled once or twice in the clutter of the room. Then, pulling it aside, he remembered the name of the wind, and—
—stopped entirely, because he got a face full of steam. There was a kettle of boiling noodles, next to the curtain. The heat of it made him dizzy all over again. There were three hotstones, each with a pot or a pan. The ogre stood over a long hotstone, his hair pulled up tight in a bun. His club rested against a counter. The counter looked out into Coppertown, where a tired looking orc pointed to a slab of steak. The ogre lifted his cleavers — he had two — rubbed them together and moved them both in a downward slash. THWOCK. THWOCK.
It sounded sickeningly like a decapitation.
He flipped the slices of meat into a bowl of soup waiting next to the hotstone. He handed it to the orc, who grunted and shuffled away.
It still smelled awful. Lesley gripped at the door frame. It didn’t do much to spare him the dizzy spell. The ogre paused, glanced back at him, and waved a hand over the hotstone. It stopped sizzling. The ogre grabbed Lesley by the shoulder and dragged him back into the hut. Lesley couldn’t do much. Even in dormant form, this ogre was particularly huge, with a body shaped like a barrel and arms like tree limbs. The apron didn’t do much to hide the pull of the muscles underneath. His skin was not blazing red, like the ogre Lesley had seen in the witch’s workshop, but rather a more modest bronze, and slightly flushed in the heat from the kitchen. His hand covered Lesley’s whole shoulder. Lesley could only stumble along with him as he dropped him back on the bedroll.
“If you intend to add me to your soup,” mumbled Lesley, “you should know you I will cast a curse on anyone who consumes me.”
“As though you could provide me much,” said the ogre. “My ingredients are ether-shaped. I pulled it with me on my last summoning. I shape it on the stones. It is more efficient.”
“I have ether,” said Lesley, a bit offended. “I am a Second Summoner.”
The ogre peered at him. Far from the bulbous eyes common to his type of beast, in dormant form they were small and dark. There was something sharp and intent in them. “Are you suggesting I should feed you to my customers?”
“No,” said Lesley. “As I said, it would be a curse upon all of you. Do you have a reason for keeping me here in your little den of depravity? You should know, I am not as weak as that performance would suggest, and I will not suffer any indignities you have—”
The ogre walked out of the room.
“—planned,” finished Lesley, blinking.
A second later, the ogre came back with another steaming bowl. He laid it down in front of Lesley. It was full of ether-shaped steamed greens. Lesley sniffed it. This didn’t smell like cooked flesh. He glanced up at the ogre. He dipped a finger into it. His horn glowed.
“...Not poisoned,” said Lesley, after a second.
“If I had wanted you dead, that would be an unnecessary step,” said the ogre. “Gnash said you were awake. You must replenish your ether levels. You have used a great deal of your strength, in the summoning and in that fight.”
“What do you know of what I have been through?” asked Lesley.
“They were about to write their names on you,” said the ogre.
“...And they did not, thanks to your intervention,” said Lesley. “I suppose you have saved me from a bad end. What would have happened if they had managed that?”
“You would have been summoned in their place,” said ogre, “provided they didn’t kill you for fun in the process.”
“So I do owe you my life.” Lesley sighed and lifted the bowl. “Thank you.”
The greens were warm and rich with ether. He could feel it permeate through him. He was so hungry he barely noticed they’d picked up the meat-stench of the rest of the ogre’s repertoire.
The ogre didn’t stay to watch. The second Lesley had picked up the bowl, he’d returned to his kitchen. Lesley was forced to duck his head through that curtain again. He watched him portion out slices of meat onto three bowls of noodles, and slide them over to a scarred minotaur.
“Daiki, was it?” asked Lesley. The meal had sharpened his memory, for good or for ill.
“Yes,” confirmed Daiki, throwing another slab of meat onto the heatstone. It sizzled and popped. Lesley covered his mouth. Why did some beasts prefer their ether in that shape, anyway?
“You know, Daiki,” said Lesley, muffled against his hand, “if I am your prisoner, you are doing a poor job of keeping watch on me. I could just leave.”
“You could,” said Daiki, pounding his cleaver with a methodical ease.
“And that doesn’t bother you?”
“You wouldn’t get far,” said Daiki, sliding the next set of slices into another bowl.
“So I am your prisoner!”
“No,” said Daiki, “but you are a unicorn, and, now, thanks to the performance in the yard, everyone knows it. Zanza is not alone in his spite. Your people have been quite liberal at putting names on the summons lists.”
“Only with cause.”
“And what cause was it for you?”
“Maybe some mistakes were made,” allowed Lesley. “Still, I never signed off on any of those…”
“How unjust,” said Daiki, “to be judged for your look and your look alone. I cannot imagine what that must be like.”
He didn’t blink. He ladled out some broth. Lesley watched him in thoughtful silence.
“...I see your point,” said Lesley. His hair had fallen in his eyes. He blew out it of the way. When it settled over his horn instead, he scowled and pulled it off. “I am the face of their lofty enemy, but what do you want with me?”
“Answers,” said Daiki.
“For what, exactly?”
“I’ll ask later,” said Daiki. Lesley tried to protest. Tried to point out — what’s the point? Just get it out now — but the ogre picked up a radish off of his cutting board, and he popped it in the unicorn’s mouth. “When I’m done with my shift.”
He was in the kitchen for another two hours. Lesley laid on the bedroll until the memory of his recent summoning replayed in his head a fifth time, and he decided to poke around instead. He didn’t find much. The scrolls were written in eastern characters, which Lesley couldn’t read without a spell. The clothes were all large robes. There were old liquor bottles that Lesley sniffed and flinched away from. Most of the chests were locked. The one unlocked chest was full of kitchen equipment. Lesley caught his reflection in the base of one of the metal pans and flinched away reflexively.
“How unsightly,” he groaned, as he took in his tangled hair and his hollowed eyes. How poorly this treatment suited him. He picked up the pan and inspected it more closely, tugging some of the tangles out of his hair. His hand paused under his jaw. The name, Libertus, was clear on his neck. The dark of the ink hadn’t faded, and it wouldn’t. Still, Lesley rubbed at it. Nothing. It throbbed in answer.
Lesley scratched at. He couldn’t feel any edge to it. It was as though it were simply a part of his skin.
Lesley pulled a knife out of the unlocked chest. He examined it, and then, very carefully, tilted his head to the side—
“Don’t,” said Daiki.
His reflection crowded Lesley’s in the back of the pot. Lesley dropped the pot and the knife with a yelp. Daiki put down the steaming teapot. He picked up the knife and the pot, inspected them for dents, then laid them back in their chest. He locked it.
“It will return, no matter what you do to it,” said Daiki, laying out a set of cups. His voice was mild, almost bored, as he poured out the tea. “Even if you slit your throat in the process. It is your name, even after death. You will only be freed from it until you have paid off the contract that binds you.”
“That orb, you mean,” said Lesley, distantly. “The one the Dream Eater had...”
“Your magistrate, but yes,” said Daiki. “When that orb is full, your summon contract is fulfilled. The greater the labor you do for your summoner, the more you fill of it.”
The orb the Dream Eater had held had only contained a spec of light.
“So little for all that,” whispered Lesley. He thought of the girl’s wide black eyes. His hand went tight as he pulled his hair over his shoulders. “How little value our lives have to them. This is a racket. This isn’t proper magic propriety at all.”
“Of course. It is a punishment,” said Daiki. “Most of us are meant to die under contract. It is, at least, what those in the Tower hope for from us.”
“No, no, no. The Tower does not concern itself in such pettiness. I should know this, you know. I am — I was — Second Summoner. The Tower is only interested in the natural flow of magic,” snapped Lesley, despite himself. “At least, it should be! Ether should come into this world and magic should come out of it. We are but the junction of creation itself! Summons bring magic into the other places, to grant them life and inspiration, and they bring ether back with them, so that we build more worlds, more magic, more—”
“And when was the last time the Tower made a world?”
Lesley glared. “That—”
Daiki pressed a warm cup into his hands.
“You should drink,” he said.
“Hmph,” said Lesley, but he did. He made a face. The tea smelled like an old cellar. It tasted like day-old seaweed.
“This is wretched,” said Lesley. “How do you stand it?”
Lesley drank all of it, and held out his cup for seconds.
“The Lords of Creation have shown… some lapses of judgment of late,” said Lesley, guardedly, but that didn’t seem to earn him more than a grunt, either. Lesley scowled into his tea and watched the ogre as he drank his own. “You could say something, you know. You say you want answers, but you keep me waiting for hours, and then keep me in silence for hours after that! What is the point of all of this. Is this fun for you?”
Daiki opened his eyes as he finished his tea.
“Your horn,” he said. “What happened to it?”
Lesley’s cheeks went hot. He was of half a mind to slip into his more dormant form, but that seemed a bit like running away. “What do you mean?”
“It’s bent,” said Daiki. “Did you break it?”
“As though that rabble could ever even crack it—”
But Daiki just snorted and shook his head.
“No, they hadn’t the means,” said Daiki. “I mean, from before that.”
“Oh,” said Lesley, dragging his hand through the condensation on his cup. “No. It has always been like this. Not that that’s an intensely personal question or anything. Hmph. Was that all you wanted to know? Yes, I have have a bent horn. It is not common among my kind, but I am, in fact, quite unique in many ways—”
“You use lightning,” said Daiki. “Correct?”
“Eh?” Lesley had thought he’d been subtle about it with the mob. He had no idea Daiki had even seen him use it. When had he noticed? Had he simply been hanging back, while they’d thrown him down? “Yes… I do. Were you simply watching as they—”
“No, Gnash fetched me,” said Daiki. “I did not know unicorns were capable of offensive magic.”
“Oh, I can offer quite a bit of offense,” said Lesley, smirking despite himself. “When warranted. As I said, I am special among my kind. You will not find another magic user of my caliber among any of the Summoners in the Tower, save perhaps, the Lords themselves…”
Lesley hesitated. The old brag didn’t give him the confidence it once did. He found himself trailing off. He put his cup down.
“...So they always liked to say, anyway,” he said, distantly. “So I always believed…”
“And you are one of the first of your kind to be placed on the list.”
“Yes. That sets me apart as well.” Lesley regained himself, running a hand through his hair. He only managed to smooth it temporarily, but it took at least some of the frizz out. “Are you going to ask me why?”
“Will you tell me?”
“I have not yet decided if I can trust you with that information,” said Lesley. “If you must know, I was once the Second Summoner of the Lord of Dreams. It was my duty to help him purify, move, and shape the ether which channeled through the Tower.”
He waited for some reaction, but the ogre just chewed sedately at one of the biscuits he’d set out with the tea. Lesley sighed and continued:
“In the normal way, I would be beloved by my benefactor, but it should seem I have, for the time being, incurred his wrath.”
The ogre stretched out across the floor, resting his head on his knuckles in thought. “Such a wrath it must be, if he is willing to send one of his own down here.”
“...It should not have been so great an offense, no,” said Lesley. “I have been ill used, and I take great issue with it.”
“You were a scapegoat.”
“I am no goat—” started Lesley, feeling his hair stand up. He took a breath, and mastered himself. No, he was the former Second Summoner of the Tower. He would be calm. He would be collected. He would be. “But, yes. I took the fall for someone.”
“And they sentenced you to death.”
Lesley started. He wanted to object. The Tower did not put people to death. He was still very much alive — but, in this, the ogre chose to continue, with such a matter-of-factness it was hard to muster much protest: “They placed you on the list, for an A-class world, currently embroiled in a civil war between witches, in Coppertown, which despises your kind. If you did not die in your first summoning, you would very likely die to those who hate you here—”
“I have managed so far,” said Lesley.
But one look from Daiki reminded him exactly where he was and how he’d gotten there.
“I survived my summoning,” said Lesley, mulishly.
“You will be summoned again,” said Daiki, “and again after that, and even more so, if another manages to write their name on it. You will be exhausted, and, when you return exhausted and drained of your magic, you will be a target for those who wish you to take on the burdens your people have inflicted on them. Your benefactor has not spared you. He has doomed you to a violent death, one way or the other. You have survived this summoning, but are you confident you can survive the next, should you be thrown against another more seasoned opponent, summoned by an equally ruthless witch?”
‘Equally ruthless.’ It was hard to imagine another quite as bad as the one who had first called Libertus.
“And if I give my name to another?”
Daiki’s eyebrows went up. “Would you wish it on another?”
Lesley thought about the ashes staining the witch’s workshop and he looked away.
“It may be,” said Lesley, quietly, “that my lord sent me here to die. You do not tell me anything I have not already considered, but why rub my face of it? Just what are you trying to convince me of?”
“Combine your name with mine.”
The ogre had pushed himself back into a sitting position. He was now bent forward, intently, his black eyes fixed on Lesley. “Combine your name with mine,” he said, again.
Lesley flushed deeper. Daiki was nowhere near him, but he found himself leaning back. “Wh-what? What does that mean? And why do you make it sound like a proposal.”
“It is one.”
“What sort of proposal!” Lesley could hear his own heart hammering in his ears.
“Ah.” Daiki’s lips twitched, very slightly. He leaned back. “Not of the kind you are thinking. I mean: be summoned with me.”
“Oh,” said Lesley, relaxing. He felt rather foolish. What else could he have meant? “And how does one accomplish that?”
“If we were to combine our names, we would be called together. My strength would be your strength. Your magic would be my magic. Together, we double our chances for survival, and we double the ether we pull back from the other place.”
“That is a fine offer. What is in it for you?”
“Double everything,” said Daiki. “Win a chance at ending my contract, and, I suppose, a chance to blacken the eye of the Lord of Dreams by preserving the life of one he despises.”
“So you are one of those,” said Lesley, with a dawning realization. He moved back a little more. He lowered his head, so his horn was pointed in the direction of the ogre. He was suddenly aware of how small the room was, and how large the demon was, and that he didn’t know where he’d put his club. “To talk like that, you set yourself against the Lords of Creation themselves. You are one of those dark beasts the Tower warns of us. You are a criminal.”
“I am,” said Daiki. “But, by their criteria, so are you.”
Lesley hesitated. His hair fell in his face. He pushed it away.
“I will think on it,” he said, finally.
“Do not think too long on it,” said Daiki. He began to pick up the dishes. Whatever intensity off of him had faded away. He seemed content with Lesley’s answer — or non-answer, as it happened. “You will be summoned in another day. Possibly less.”
“What makes you so sure of that?”
“In a witch’s war? It is never more than a day.”
That night, Daiki pulled blankets out of a chest and slept by the door. Lesley pretended to sleep on the bedroll. He pretended, because every time he dozed off he found his mind back in that wretched workshop. Daiki had referred to this world’s conflict as a witch’s war, but it was hard to think about that clash as anything more than pure slaughter. In the end, Lesley lay with his back to the ogre. When Daiki’s breathing went deep, he sat up and considered the possibility of escape.
He wouldn’t get far. His lean-to shack didn’t provide much by way of protection and, from the welcome he had received from the residents, he knew Daiki hadn’t lied about the dangers he would face among the beasts who lived here. Lesley supposed he could dodge them well enough, but he’d exhaust himself doing it, and, when he was next summoned… Ah, what a bother. Lesley got up and crossed the room. He crouched next to Daiki and watched him.
He hadn’t answered many questions about himself. Lesley could understand from context he was some kind of local cook. He ran the local mess hall, and the other beasts here respected him. He had, by his own admission, agreed that he was a criminal who had been put on the list for some grudge against the Tower, but he had been about as forthcoming about that as Lesley had been about his own crimes. Less so, really. He knew Lesley’s rank and place before his punishment. Lesley knew nothing about him.
He didn’t care to. The less he knew the better, in fact. He didn’t intend to stay here long if he could help it. He stepped over the sleeping ogre and out into the night.
He shut his eyes and let his horn glow. He summoned a wind. It caught in his robes and under his feet. It pushed him upwards and over the roof of Daiki’s hut. It carried him up over the rooftops of Coppertown himself. Halfway up he transformed into his beast form, so his hooves could catch the winds better. He let them carry him upwards, through the heavy, dirty ethers that made up the clouds over this wretched district, until he pushed clear and could see the stars of the whole realm of light. He looked up.
The golden clouds of the tower were little more than a coin-sized spec among the stars above, tiny and nebulous, the tower itself just a tiny white stab of light. Lesley paused, the whorl under his hooves forming its own rainbow mist as he galloped in place. With a powerful wind behind him, it would take him at least a day and a half to get anywhere close. Maybe more. Unless the summon pulled him before that. Would it grab him out of the air? Would it pull him immediately to the circle? Could he make it back to his offices before that? Would his name hurt, the way it had started to ache again, tingling as he felt it throb against his being. As though someone were whispering it from a distance. Libertus. Libertus. Like the stirring of wings in the clouds. Libertus. Libertus. Like the shadow over the stars—
Above him, a harpy keened. It’s dark shape wheeled around. It was joined by another, and another after that. Then, wings angled, they moved into a dive.
Lesley let the winds sink. He let them spread out ahead of them. He lowered his head and let himself break into a full run. Above, a bird screamed. He could feel a dark flash close in on his right. He swerved. It streaked by, trailing feathers. Lesley put on speed. The rooftops of Coppertown surged up at him. A harpy with grasping claws snapped at his haunches, ripping two strands of hair from his tail. Lesley threw himself at one of those roofs. He pulled away at the last second, hooves striking the tiles. The harpy crashed down behind him with an outraged squawk. Lesley bounded back into the air, onto the next roof, then ducked down into the crevasse between buildings.
He was back in dormant form again before his feet touched down. He turned five corners before he found Daiki’s kitchen, stumbling in through the door and skidding to a stop among the stacked pots behind the counter. A flutter of wings passed over head. A shadow passed the other side of the curtain. No one followed him inside. Lesley sank to his knees behind the counter. He brushed back his hair.
On his neck, his name beat in counterpoint to his drumming heart. Libertus. Libertus. Libertus.
“Blast it all,” muttered Lesley. He stumbled back into the hut. Daiki was still sleeping on his back. Lesley knelt next to him. He nudged his arm. The ogre’s hand thrust out to grasp his club. He’d laid it next to his head, as it turned out.
“Are you strong?” asked Lesley. He cupped his hand over the name. It felt hot. He could almost see the lines of the summon circle, shimmering in the walls.
“What’s that?” asked the ogre, as focus returned to his eyes.
“Are you strong?” asked Lesley again. “I won’t share my name with you if you’re not.”
The ogre clambered up onto his knees. He propped his club next to him.
“Yes,” said Daiki.
“You’re not just saying that?” asked Lesley.
“You saw the mob,” said Daiki, simply. “What do you think?”
“I think I would like to survive a little longer,” said Lesley, trying to ignore the rising sound in his ears. He could feel a humming in his feet. Libertus. Libertus. Where are you, Libertus? “I’ll share my name with you, but it has to be soon. Now, in fact. Otherwise you are quite useless to me.”
The ogre stood and walked out of the room.
“Where are you going?” cried Lesley, whirling after him. Now he could very much see the lines of the summoning circle, clear as day. It was forming around him. Lesley’s hand burned with the strength of his name. “You said you’d—”
The ogre came back with a jar of ink. It looked exactly like the set the Dream Eater had owned. He unscrewed the cap and dug his fingers into it. It came away covered in a sticky, dark substance that glittered with starlight.
“Hold on,” said Lesley, “where did you get that—”
Daiki grabbed Lesley’s wrist and pulled his hand down. Lesley yelped at the rough treatment, but a moment later he felt the ogre’s wet fingertips trace over the burning script on his neck. The burning faded. The summoning lines didn’t. He took Lesley’s hand and shoved it into the ink, then he pulled off the top half of his robe. His chest was a mess of scars and faded script. He pulled Lesley’s sticky hand to the one line that wasn’t faded: a set of red characters, which sat over his lower left rib cage, just above a bandage on his side...
‘Rubedo,’ it said.
“Here,” said Daiki. “Write it here. Quickly.”
“You,” said Lesley, nostrils flaring.
He shook his head. He shook it again, his eyes wild. He recognized the injury. He recognized the name. He’d heard it before. He’d heard it a lot, and very recently, and straight from the mouth of a very panicked, and very dead, young girl.
“You were the beast in the workshop. You threw a rock at me. What do you want? Why did you track me down?”
The lines of the summoning circle got wider. The hut was getting very bright. So bright it seemed to be slipping away.
“Do you want to go alone?” asked Daiki, over the hum.
Lesley pressed his fingers to his side.
‘Libertus,’ he sketched, in the cold ink.
He’d barely finished crossing the ‘T’ in it when the circle pulled him out of his dormant form and into another world.