The door shut behind me with a soft thud, sealing the light and sound of the world outside the room. The room was bereft of all furnishings – with the sole exception of the thick blinds that covered the only window. I would have to thank the maids later for a job well done. Despite the short notice I had given them, this unused guestroom was immaculate. Not a speck of dust in sight. With a wave of my hand, the fireplace at the corner burst into life, the flames roaring up from the dry tinder that had been neatly piled there.
Pulling out a small jar from the leather pouch at my waist, I twisted its lid open and shook out some of its contents into the hearth. As the bright green powder was lapped up by the hungry tongues of flame, they too turned the same vibrant shade of green. A subtle fragrance suffused the room. It smelt like smoked spice. Cinnamon to be exact. It smelt like Ceres.
Screwing the lid back onto the jar, I returned it to the pouch and sat down cross-legged facing the fire, the emerald flames tinting my face. Shutting my eye, I let my body relax and my thoughts wander.
The silence of the room pressed down upon me like a heavy blanket on a winter morning, warm yet smothering, comfortable yet discomfiting at the same time. It oppressed my mind, smoothing my thoughts and encouraging me to look inwards.
And inwards I looked, my consciousness sinking into the depths of the void that was my mind. There, shining like lighthouses in the dark were my marks, the four symbols that stood testament to my bonds to my wives. The first one, an untidy scrawl that spelt the word ‘speed’ in the old language, composed entirely out of swirling winds. Somehow, the sloppily drawn mark meshed seamlessly with its element, giving the winds a wild and uninhibited cast.
The second, a mass of formless, ever-shifting shadow that was near indistinguishable from the emptiness of my inner world. Focusing on it was difficult. If I lost sight of it for a moment, it would blend into the background and become almost impossible to pick out again.
The cheerful crackle of the fire broke the silence. The sweet fragrance of the powdered incense I had scattered into it permeated the room. Mirroring the scented smoke was the hazy purple ring that drifted within the innermost reaches of my mind.
Simple from a distance, the closer one looked at it, the more of its dizzying details it revealed. It seemed to contain entire worlds. Realms of over-saturated colours and warped landscapes. Worlds straight out of my most vivid dreams.
And finally, dimmer and more ethereal than the rest, was the most intricate of my marks. It had the cleanest, sharpest lines – rather fitting, seeing that it took the form of a winged sword.
Marvellous though the sight of my marks were, they weren’t what I was here to see. Straining harder, I finally found what I was looking for, overwhelmed by my marital marks like the light of the moon by the sun in the daytime. Another connection leading away from my mind. It was the anchor I had left behind at the Nexus, the headquarters of the Circle of Demigods.
I directed my senses at, and then through the pinprick of light. With a disorienting lurch, the scene changed and I found myself... rather, a clone of myself, stepping out of the six-coloured column of swirling mana that was my anchor.
Eight heads swivelled towards me at my arrival and seven gazes took my measure (the blindfolded Queen of the Vampires simply pricking one of her pointed ears up in my direction). It appeared that I was the last one to arrive.
“Greetings,” I said as I dipped my head towards the Demigods gathered around the table, receiving nods of acknowledgement in return. Stepping up, I took my seat on the empty spot between the Sunlight Soldier and the Wind Wolf.
Unlike last time though, there were no absentees. After all, this wasn’t an impromptu meeting, but one of the biannual meetings scheduled by the Circle. I ran a quick eye over the ones that hadn’t been there for my initiation roughly six months ago.
The Unbounded Demigod looked nothing like he did in the pictures. First off, he had much less hair. As in, none at all. His bald pate gleamed in the assorted light from the nine soul anchors at the edges of the room and shaded beneath his drooping, white eyebrows were bright golden eyes that flashed with an appraising light as they met mine. The voluminous robe we all wore concealed his body but it couldn't hide the broadness of his shoulders or his steady posture. Even just sitting there, he exuded a sense of weight and implacability. Like a boulder at the edge of a slope. Hard to set into motion and near impossible to block once it had been set rolling.
I noted the distinct lack of any Bestial characteristics, except for the ring of golden scales collaring his throat. His ears were like a Hominum’s and he did not have a tail.
The rules underlying the modification of one’s bloodline heritage, or the rejection thereof, weren’t clear to me. Since I wouldn't need the knowledge, it had been kept secret to prevent me from biting off more than I could chew. For now, I was to focus solely on strengthening of my soul. But still, I could recognize that he had done something to modify the heritage he was born with.
Arum Pholidota inclined his head slightly and I returned the courtesy with a deeper bow of my own. “Thank you for overlooking his rashness and agreeing to notarize young Reinhart’s marriage,” he said in a deep, calm voice.
I shook my head. “It was my pleasure. He is a really great guy and I even without my soul sense, I could tell how much his wife yearned for him. I feel privileged to be given the chance to bind them together.” I wasn’t just speaking empty platitudes to console his ancestor. Reinhart, from the read on his soul I got during the contract ceremony, was a driven individual with a strong sense of honour.
Well, he did bear quite a bit of envy towards me and his eyes kept flitting to Artemis a bit too often for propriety at his own marriage… but we all have our flaws. No one is perfect. At least I knew now why he had been the first to jump out against us among the aristocrats.
Then again, come to think of it, wasn’t I the one in the wrong here? Bruno, my own cousin, bore a grudge against me for all these years because of my marriage to his would-be fiancée… then what would be the reaction of someone who had his crush stolen away by a perfect stranger? Looking at it from that perspective, Reinhart’s self-control was worthy of commendation.
Moving on, I turned to the lean, golden haired, blue-eyed man who was leaning back in his chair sloppily with one of his arms slung back over the backrest and one of his legs crossed over the other. The first word that came to mind when I looked at him was: lackadaisical. Despite his set of black robes being the same as everyone else’s, and having reached his hand less than an hour ago, he had somehow managed to get it crumpled. Even his mop of hair was messy, falling about his face in untidy bangs. His eyes twinkled merrily as we locked gazes and a half-smile graced his lips. Even that gave off a lazy vibe, like he couldn't be bothered to curve his lips the rest of the way up.
I opened my mouth to greet him but came to a jarring halt midway when I suddenly realized that, for the life of me, I couldn't recall his name. His smile grew just a tad bit wider.
I shook my head to clear it. What the hell was I doing staring at an empty chair with my mouth hanging open? That too in front of such a distinguished audience. I could feel the heat creeping up my cheeks. I hope they didn’t notice… Oh, who was I kidding? They were Demigods. They obviously did.
Forging ahead through my embarrassment at my gaffe, I turned to the seventh and final Demigod of the Circle (I didn’t count as one just yet).
More famed even than the female Demigod sitting across the table from me, with a heart-shaped face and hair the colour of a rainbow, was her steed – the crystal unicorn. A mutated creature that had resulted from her experiments upon the horses on the vast ranches owned by her family, the Equus clan, in the Western Province. It was the first recorded instance of an animal absorbing mana, forming a mindscape and thereby transforming into a Beast since the apocalypse.
Before curiosity about her magical achievements could spark a blaze that set the nation, maybe even the Continent on fire, Cynthia Equus mysteriously disappeared from the public gaze. Only to reappear many years later as a Tier 5 peak mage, riding her similarly Tier 5 peak mount to turn the tides of a hopeless battle. Jagged spikes of crystal pervaded the battlefield at the end of the engagement, fracturing the sunlight into seven colours. And the sight of her wielding a crystal lance on the back of her majestic mount earned her the title enemies of Regiis came to fear her by. The Crystal Jouster.
When our gazes met, I couldn't tell the colour of her eyes. They seemed to be multifaceted, gleaming a different hue every time they caught the light at a different angle. Sitting ramrod straight in her chair, she gave me a curt nod of acknowledgement before turning back to the others. She was seemingly impatient to get the ball rolling.
I swallowed my greetings back into my stomach and leaned back into my chair, waiting for the meeting to commence.
Suddenly, my eyes were drawn to the soul anchor directly across from me – a gilt-edged mirror that reflected nothing at all. A strong sense of incongruity struck me and as I counted the total number of anchors, my eyes growing wider and wider still.
The Regiis Empire didn’t have seven Demigods… it had eight.
My eyes snapped back to the grinning man lounging on his chair practically radiating laziness.
“That’s quite the path to mastery you have there. It’s very similar to my own," appraised the man.
The man neither whose name nor accomplishments I remembered. A fact for which I could not be blamed. After all, he was the Forgotten Demigod.