Stellar shines through winter’s cloak, but embered night belongs to Smoke.
Sibyl knows where secrets stray, save those held by Sobriquet.
Sustain will stand, enduring ever, none else holds when cut by Sever.
Stanza’s words engrave their mark, and every heart belongs to Spark.
Eight there are, from Eight began, Eight above the souls of man.
- Ardan childrens’ rhyme.
“Milord, we’ve received word - an engagement with the Safid will come within the hour.”
Michael felt a jolt of adrenaline at his manservant’s words. He carefully set his book on a side table and rose from his seat to look at Ricard. The elderly servant hovered in the doorway, concern plain on his face - enough that Michael didn’t have to ask the first question which had entered his mind.
“Father knows already,” he said, smiling at Ricard’s hesitant nod in response. “Of course he does. When does he want to leave for the Institute?”
“He has already summoned the coachman,” Ricard said, licking his lips. “He asked-”
“You’re too good to me, Ricard,” Michael said, giving him a thin smile before he turned towards his wardrobe. “You know he doesn’t ask. Come, help me pick a shirt - and these trousers, are they dark enough?”
The old man’s feet shuffled against the floorboards as he drew closer. “The color will serve, milord, but the fabric - I’m afraid they’ll be troublesome to clean,” he said quietly. “If milord would prefer them, I’m sure Helene can think of something.”
Michael shook his head, kneeling to unlace his boots. Quick, sure motions, although his hands were only steadied by force of will. “Nonsense, she’ll fret enough about the shirt,” he said. “Pick what you think best, it’s not as though I’m going to a ball. Formal but not flamboyant - something that will pass without comment.”
Ricard gave him a side look, then busied himself rifling through the neatly-draped clothing. “That is ever the target, milord,” he muttered. “Though my aim seems poor at best.” He paused, then withdrew a matching set of clothes, a dull coffee-brown pair of riding pants coupled with a stiff-collared shirt. “I believe this should be appropriate.”
“You’re right, I’ve always hated that shirt,” Michael said, smiling as he stripped off his clothes. The mirror showed him fragments of an image, obscured by cloth - a lanky torso, pale skin that was nearly free of bruises for once - it really had been a while since the last major action against the Safid. He shook his head, grabbing the over-starched shirt from Ricard’s hands and slipping his arms into the sleeves. “Perhaps Helene will be unable to save it?”
The ghost of a smile flitted across Ricard’s lips. “A tragedy,” he murmured. “Quickly, now, your father was most insistent that you be ready at once.”
“Yes, yes,” Michael muttered, his fingers dancing over the buttons. “What else did the message say?”
Ricard paused, turning away from the wardrobe with a heavy coat draped over his arm. “Nothing too detailed,” he said. “Only that it was no mere skirmish - we’ll have Sever at the vanguard.”
The button slipped from his fingers, and he turned to raise an eyebrow at Ricard. “Which means the Safid will be trotting out Smoke, or maybe even Sustain - assuming they don’t want to bury their men piecemeal.” Michael sighed, returning his attention to the remaining few buttons. “No wonder Father is in a hurry.”
“It isn’t every day that the Eight risk themselves on the field,” Ricard said, keeping his voice low. “Should one fall-”
The door to the room slammed open, revealing a tall, thin-framed man. Michael felt the chill sense of an unseen blade hovering somewhere near his throat as he turned to face the door. A dark, conservative suit hung loosely from a body forged of hard edges and angles, nowhere more so than in his glowering stare.
“Father,” he said respectfully, bowing his head. Another effort of will quieted the instincts that screamed against lowering his bare throat, but no edge bit into his skin as he straightened up once more. “I was nearly ready.”
His father made an unimpressed noise. “You should listen to Ricard,” he said. “Should one fall, there will be a successor. I dare not hope that it would be you, but you will at least be in a position to make the attempt. Not ‘nearly ready’ - ready.” His eyes wandered almost lazily across the room, lingering on Michael. “Two minutes,” he said. “Men would kill for this opportunity - will kill, within the hour. All you have to do is put a shirt on. Don’t squander your fortune.”
He left without waiting for a response, leaving Michael shivering as the pressure of his father’s soul seeped out of the room. It was always a cold, sharp thing, a sword soul, meant to cut, to rend - to Sever, although it had not been quite strong enough to earn him the eponymous title. He turned to look at Ricard, who had lost some of the color from his face.
Michael frowned. “Ricard,” he said, “are you well? You’re not hurt, are you?”
“No, no,” the older man muttered, stumbling free from his reverie to hold the jacket up for Michael. “It’s been ages since the last time, his focus has been much-improved these past years.”
“Don’t I know it,” Michael snorted. “Come on, let’s be quick. Two minutes, then we’ll see if today’s the day I merit a soul of my own.”
The coach ride to the Institute passed slowly, terse silence punctuated by the occasional scowl and mutter as his father caught sight of something through the window that met with his disapproval - the long lines of dirty workmen and merchants jostling for space on the side of the road, the gaudy posters extolling the heroism of the troops on the front, the increasingly-frequent horseless carriages that rumbled by on the road.
Those last earned Michael a sliver of his father’s attention, and he kept his face carefully neutral. Ever-attentive to the trends among his peers, his father would have bought one of the new carriages months ago were it not for the constant, fruitless payments to the Institute on Michael’s behalf. As was his father’s way, he had never mentioned it so plainly - but gave Michael ample opportunity to understand nevertheless.
His father’s attention returned to the roadside, to the cold and dirty masses of the city and their mundane concerns. His eyes narrowed, and eventually he looked back to Michael.
“Do you know what separates you from them?” he asked mildly.
Michael shifted warily and sat up, unsure what his father was driving towards. “No, sir,” he replied. He had no answer, but far better to look ignorant than timid.
“Potential,” his father rumbled. “And nothing else. If one of them gained a soul they might make a great deal of money, or perhaps go on to distinguish themselves in the military. It would improve their lives immeasurably, but their labor would benefit others yet more.” He leaned back. “I have money, and my name is distinction enough. My soul gives me power enough to kill a man, but the potential of my station allows me to profit from his work instead. The same soul, lofted to greater heights.”
“But potential alone gets you nothing,” he said. “You need the power to go with it.” He extended a finger and poked Michael in the sternum, hard. “Without that, you are a waste.”
His finger jabbed into Michael’s chest for emphasis, then he withdrew to look out the window once more. A few seconds later Michael risked running a hand over his front and found his shirt torn, the threads frayed where his father’s power had pressed close. He shivered, carefully avoiding any overt reaction, and turned to look out the window.
It seemed to take years before they arrived. His father’s soul grew noticeably restless as the time drained away, and a mote of curiosity made its way through the tense atmosphere to settle in Michael’s mind. Was it merely his father’s impatience, or could the souled actually feel their unbound brethren seeking out new bodies?
Not a question he felt like broaching at the moment, despite his interest. He could feel the pressure like a pulse in the air as the coach wheels bumped from the rough stones of the street to the immaculate paved drive of the Institute. Despite the growing sense of dread in his belly, he couldn’t help but look out at the grounds - spare, precise, beautiful, as though the hedges and grass had been commanded to mimic ice and stone rather than growing as they pleased.
Nature bending to their will. As messages went, it was appropriately unsubtle. The coachman jumped down to grab the door, jumping back as his father flung it wide impatiently and sprang down to the pavement. Michael scrambled to follow, nearly running to match his father’s longer strides. They were inside in moments, with a bland-looking attendant rushing to meet them.
“Lord Baumgart,” the man said from a deep bow. His voice was somehow grey and tasteless, a perfectly sterile greeting. “An honor, sir. Be at ease, the battle has not yet begun in earnest.”
His father grudgingly slowed his pace, though the set of his shoulders didn’t relax. “I want him ready when it does,” he said.
“Of course, sir,” the attendant said, briefly giving Michael the same look a tailor gives to trousers. “We have a room prepared for the gentleman. If I may inquire as to our focus?”
“Form,” his father grunted, then hesitated for a breath. “Order.”
“An excellent choice,” the attendant said, beckoning them forward as he led the way into a side door. Michael risked a glance at his father, who looked stonily forward. The axis of Form was a common choice, well-represented in the military for obvious reasons.
The skew of Order, though, was not his father’s preference - no matter what the simpering attendant said. His own skew of Entropy was the choice for action, bravery and daring. Not qualities that Karl Baumgart associated with his son, nor frankly that Michael associated with himself.
But his father’s wishes were irrelevant, since he was only nearly the most powerful soul of his type in Ardalt. Sever was the pinnacle, and setting Michael up to receive a soul of that alignment while Sever was risking his own in battle would be a political statement that would not go unremarked - or unpunished.
Michael sighed. Not that he thought he was going to walk out of this building as one of the Eight, or with any sort of soul. The fact that it was his tenth visit to the institute was nearly a minor scandal in its own right, though not one people brought up to his face. They whispered that he would bankrupt his father, that he was not meant for a soul, that the Baumgart house would end with Karl.
The attendant jolted him out of his melancholy with a touch on the arm. Michael’s eyes came up, and he saw that they had arrived at the room - a familiar sight, and one that he was learning to hate.
If there was any variation between the Institute’s private rooms, he had never noticed it. It was nearly empty, painted plain white from floor to ceiling. A single light hung in a fixture overhead - one of the new models, with its hair-thin filament. The floor was smooth concrete, spotless with two small drains on either side of the center. At the rear wall sat another, far more important light; as ever, it was unlit and masked behind amber-tinted glass.
The center portion of the room was changeable, Michael knew, to accommodate varying requests. He had seen a few configurations thus far - the weighted box for Form and Entropy, the brazier and coals for Light and Order. Form and Order was a simple arrangement by comparison: in the center of the room stood a bare metal post with manacles welded to the top.
Michael walked up and began to unfasten his shirt, trying not to let his nerves get the better of him. He managed to unbutton it with a minimum of fumbling, handing it to the attendant before placing his wrists against the leather-bound restraints.
The attendant made a faint noise of approval as he eased the top bar down, locking Michael’s wrists in place with a whisper of oiled steel. “You will be tempted to focus on the pain,” the man said quietly, sounding almost bored. “Ignore the pain. Focus on your skin and your muscles, envision their form.”
Michael let the attendant’s voice bleed into the back of his awareness. He knew the words. He had heard this speech before, this was his second time trying to tempt a soul of this alignment. Behind the droning voice he heard the faint whine of machinery in the background, a low hum that penetrated through the walls of the room and set his teeth abuzz.
Nobody knew precisely what the Institute did behind those walls to draw souls to its patrons. There were whispers, of course, theories - everything from advanced machinery to a secret ensouled that could summon them by will alone. Michael rather doubted it was anything too impressive, given its track record where he was concerned.
“…maintain your focus and call to the soul, opening yourself to its aid. Do you understand?” The attendant waited until Michael gave a slight nod, then walked to stand behind him.
There was the rasp of dry leather, then a pause. Michael tried to keep his breathing steady, to focus on slowing the rapid beat of his heart. The tension burning through his gut proved to be inescapable. What would be worse? To fail again, and visit this room on another day? Or to fail again and never come back at all? He imagined his father’s face glaring down at him, the son that had destroyed his house.
Michael’s head dropped, and he dispelled the image from his mind. Thoughts mattered, here. For all of the conjecture about the particulars of ensoulment, everyone agreed that a soul wouldn’t choose a weak vessel. He focused on it, reached for the older memories of his father’s face on their first visit to the Institute - still stern, gruff, but undeniably nervous. Unsure. Perhaps even a bit excited. Perhaps fond of that son, who had yet to fail him.
A note of static sounded from speakers at the back of the room, followed by a male voice that cleared its throat before speaking a single word: “Begin.”
There was a hiss of air as the leather whip cut across his back. Michael sucked in an involuntary breath, managing not to scream at the pain. Failure was failure, but weakness was unforgivable. Weakness would ensure he’d never have another chance.
Again the whip struck, drawing a line of fire over his exposed skin. The pain was intense, vibrant, threatening to consume his whole awareness - but the man had warned against that specifically, had he not? Michael let out a shuddering breath and focused on his skin, his muscles, his bones. He tried to imagine them becoming rock, steel, diamond.
Another lash, pulling his lips into a tight grimace. Souls varied, but those who awakened to Form and Order almost always received preternatural strength, toughness and endurance. A whip would barely tickle most of them, and it was said that Sustain was impervious to mundane injury.
He winced as the next blow traced over his spine. He could feel blood running down his back, and his breath whistled between gritted teeth as he sucked it back in. The pain was cutting into his focus, and his vision swam into dim monochrome for a few heartbeats. He shook his head, trying to clear his eyes.
Crack. He saw red droplets spatter in his peripheral vision. His back felt almost numb, enough that he looked up towards the amber-glass light on the far wall - but no, it was dim. In nine prior visits he had yet to see it light.
Crack. A muscle in his back spasmed, hurting almost as much as the strike itself. He twisted and writhed, sweat dripping into his eyes as he struggled not to make a sound. Focus, focus, the skin and muscles-
Crack. More red on the floor. It was the only color he could see, everything else was so pale. His vision began to fuzz at the edges once more-
The door slammed open before the next blow could fall, panicked shouting coming from outside. Michael straightened up in surprise, hissing at the pain the movement drew from his ravaged back.
“Is this it?” his father rumbled, low and dangerous. “Is this what my money bought? Look at him, he’s not afraid. He’s not desperate. Nobody would get a soul like that.”
“My Lord Baumgart, please,” the attendant said, a hint of nervous energy cracking the dullness in his voice. “Our methods are carefully refined over years of study. The best scientists in the world-”
Another displeased rumble cut him off. “Do you have a soul?” his father asked. “Well?”
“…no, my lord,” the attendant answered reluctantly. “I do not.”
“Then don’t presume to lecture me.” There was a muffled noise of protest from the attendant, then Lord Baumgart continued speaking in a low, measured tone. “He’s not afraid of you. He knows you won’t hurt him too badly. A man can’t get a soul if he knows the knives aren’t sharp.”
Michael listened to his father speak and felt a cold lump of terror begin to form in his gut. “Father,” he croaked, his words coming out in a rasp. “I think I almost had it this time. Please, let him keep working.”
“You weren’t even close,” his father replied. “Not if you're still clinging to illusions of control.” The sound of stretching leather from behind him, of blood dripping to the concrete.
“You know he won’t hurt you,” he said quietly. “But I will. For your own good, boy. If you’re not meant to earn a soul, then I’ll at least give you the dignity of dying in the attempt.”
Michael’s nerves were singing with adrenaline now. He opened his mouth to speak, to say something that would stay his father’s hand - only to gasp in sudden agony as the whip thrashed across his back. It struck like lightning, hot and blinding. His mind went white. Breath hissed unevenly into his throat.
The overwhelming pressure of his father’s soul filled the room in the moment after the whip savaged him. It was enough to jolt Michael out of his shock for a bare instant, his base instincts telling him to run, to hide, to get away from this cold and lethal thing behind him - then the whip struck again, wreathed in the sword-soul’s lacerating embrace.
It wasn’t even pain anymore. The whip was chipping away at a space that had been Michael. No longer. He was cracked, fractured, bleeding away into the void.
Somewhere in the midst of the pain and violation, the fear stopped. Fear was a base thing, after all. An animal thing. Michael stared at the end of his life and felt - what? Dread? Relief? It had all been for nothing, in the end. All of the suffering, the embarrassment, the inadequacy. They would wash the stain that was left down the drains in the floor, and that would be the end of Michael Baumgart.
It was - disappointing. There was none of the promised dignity in his death. It was only cold and impersonal, the fading of something that had never really mattered in the first place. He looked overlong at it and felt something vital slip away. Hope, perhaps, or whatever serves to kindle it.
The darkness deepened around him, but in the black he could see minute points of light - souls in all their luminous glory, streaming high overhead. Some tiny and faint, some shining like miniature stars. There were thousands, at least. Dead from the far-off battle, from the vagaries of life all across the world, briefly free before they recycled themselves into someone with just the right mix of suffering to whet their appetites.
As he watched, one split away from the river. It meandered down towards him, sinking through a vast ocean until its light shone close and near. Not the biggest soul, nor the brightest, but a soul it remained. Michael studied it, his sense of time slipping away as he watched it slowly turn and twist in currents only it could perceive. He got the impression of solidity, strength. Power, to match his potential. It beckoned, and he reached his hand out - then paused, and let it drop to his side.
This soul had belonged to someone, not long ago. There were far more people than souls in the world, so none remained unpaired for long. Indeed, this one was already straining on some invisible tether as if longing to bound away into the dark. If Michael took it he might escape this dark void for a time, to carry the soul out into the world. Back to his home, his father - his murderer, for the moment.
But just like its former bearer, he would return here. By his father’s hand again or after a long life, it made little difference. Would the time he gained - would any amount of time change the crushing sense of insignificance he felt, staring down his final minutes? Was there anything he could achieve that would not turn to ashes when he once more faced this final dark?
And for what? His own father had killed him. He was surprised at how much that fact stung, even facing oblivion. Could he go crawling back to that man, to beg for his approval after seeing how little it meant? He had looked too far, and seen a truth that he could not disregard - that life was an empty promise. It was suffering, bookended by oblivion that rendered even that pointless.
No. If he had to exercise control for once in his life, if there was any dignity left for him, he would face oblivion head-on rather than taking this middling soul from the river and playing the fugitive until death found him once more. The choice itself was dignity - and he would make it. Michael let himself relax, spreading his arms wide and looking up at the river of souls overhead.
“Just let me go,” he whispered, “unless you’ve got something better.”
The river froze. The lights twinkled in place overhead. There was an ineffable sense of interest, of focus, of amusement that rippled through him. The soul that had wandered down to tempt him faded, as did those in the river above. Darkness, pure and absolute, wrapped around him like a cloak.
And then there was a light.
Pain returned, bright and hot. He was hanging from the manacles in a pool of his own blood and vomit. Men were yelling, somewhere in the distance. He couldn’t understand them.
The light remained - bright under amber glass, shining cheerily across the room. Brighter it shone, brighter still - and then the bulb popped with a small wisp of smoke.
As his vision faded, Michael could swear he heard someone laughing.