Exarch Niramyn reclined on a cushion of air, basking in the bright light of the rising sun that bathed his home isle of Vislarg. Clouds drifted through the sky below the floating isle, which gave his alabaster palace a brilliant glow from the unobstructed sunlight. The glow was a deliberate choice, one made to set his palace sparkling like a beacon when it absorbed the power of light and charged the hundreds of arcana batteries embedded in the walls. They would have been more efficient without the glow, but he wanted everyone to know that they were approaching the palace of an Exarch.
He enjoyed the warmth of the sun on his skin, though of course the temperature was regulated by his magic. It would be exactly as warm or cold as he desired, all with barely an effort from him. He’d long ago infused the essence of his will into his home, and it was no more work than to think it for it to become warm or cold, bright or dark. Today, he wanted warmth and light.
A decanter hovered in the air full of a sparkling blue liquid next to him. Niramyn wasn’t sure what it was exactly, other than it was tribute from a lesser ranked Ascendant who owed fealty to him, and that it tasted divine. Arcana had been infused into the drink itself, an uncommon practice due to the added layer of complexity it added to actually consuming the beverage. It was all too easy to poison oneself with arcana. Niramyn wasn’t an Exarch for nothing, however, and the task was childishly easy for him.
The decanter was about halfway empty when Niramyn felt the stirring of arcana he’d been waiting for. A visage appeared in the air in front of him, hazy and mirage-like. His fellow Exarch and rival, Myzalik, stood before him in projection, fresh from his latest defeat. This was the only room in the palace that would allow projections without being keyed to his warding, and so the only place someone like Myzalik could project into. Considering his latest victory had taken place last night, the other Exarch has no doubt been checking regularly for his chance to confront his rival. Niramyn smirked at the projection and opened his mouth to gloat, only to pause and cock his head to one side.
He'd been sparring with Myzalik for over a thousand years. They’d met on every battlefield imaginable, from literal duels to political maneuverings to economic clashes. Niramyn had consistently come out the victor, and he knew his opponent’s reactions well. Right now, Myzalik wasn’t wearing the expression he should have had for someone who’d just been beaten. Suddenly, the all-too-easy victory seemed suspiciously like a trap.
Perhaps it was the arcana-infused wine. Maybe Niramyn had just grown careless, secure in his supremacy. Whatever the cause, he had only a split second to register the sneer on his fellow Exarch’s face as a mask of contempt, not the cold anger he’d come to know when Niramyn had secured yet another victory. Then Myzalik’s magic washed over him.
At first, he was confused. The rival Exarch appeared to be casting the immortality spell that kept all Ascendants young and hale, which was an utterly ridiculous course of action. There was a twist in the spell though, and Niramyn sobered up instantly as he realized it. Somehow, Myzalik had modified its rune matrix, defied all known rules of magic, and spun it around to anchor on Niramyn instead of himself.
The spell took hold and Niramyn felt the familiar twinge in his muscles as it refreshed his vitality and started to reverse his aging. Normally, that would have been fine, except that without any control over the source of the magic, he couldn’t stop it! He appeared as a man in his early thirties, then late twenties. The years were falling off him so fast that he’d cease to exist in a matter of seconds.
Whatever Myzalik had done, there was no time to unravel it, so Niramyn did the only thing he could think of. He reached into the arcana, deep into the Astral Sea, and filled his soul well. It was a calculated maneuver. Even for an Exarch, it could take a full second that he didn’t have to penetrate the Bulwark and pull greater arcana from the Echoing Vastness. His options were limited by his response time and weak arcana of the Astral Sea, mere third layer power. Rather than try something more complicated, he launched himself into flight. The wind whipped around him and shredded his clothes as he burst out into open air. In his haste, he didn’t even bother to form a shield to protect himself.
In the blink of an eye, he crossed miles of open sky. Still the immortality magic clung to him, and his shredded clothes would have hung loosely off his now-teenage frame if they’d still been whole. Another second passed, and Niramyn was thirty miles away from his home. The magic started to loosen with distance, and the Exarch grinned in wild triumph. A spell localized to affect only the caster couldn’t support a long-range connection, despite the impossible modifications.
By the fifth second of Myzalik’s attack, his would-be victim had reached full speed. He was a few hundred miles from home over open water and wearing the body of a pre-teen boy. His physical body couldn’t support what mere moments before had been a trivial amount of arcana anymore. It buckled under the strain and Niramyn desperately diverted what resources he could to protecting himself as he hurtled into the ocean.
An explosion of water shot a hundred feet straight up and Niramyn plunged deep under the surface. The shock of the cold penetrated the kinetic barrier he’d put up, causing him to gasp and swallow a mouthful of sea water. Hacking and coughing, Niramyn breached the surface and skimmed forward. He felt the tether binding him to the reverse-aging magic finally snap at that moment. It didn’t matter. He was too weak to fight back, and Myzalik’s hunters would be coming for him.
His speed greatly reduced, it took another thirty seconds for him to reach the shore. In that time, he analyzed what he needed to do to hide himself away and spent what little arcana he’d held onto to act on that fact. Then, exhausted beyond words, he collapsed onto the sandy beach. His once splendid clothes, woven from solid strands of arcana, were little more than rags where they hadn’t been ripped away from his body completely. It was only thanks to their superior quality that his skin was still more or less intact.
From the moment the visage appeared to Niramyn’s crash landing into the sand, the entire battle had taken forty-two seconds. In less than a minute, countless millennia of uncompromising superiority had been undone. For the hundreds of victories he’d won over his rival, it had only taken one loss to utterly undo him. At least there was the small consolation that Myzalik had needed to craft an impossible magic to claim victory.
In those forty-two seconds, Niramyn had cast twenty-six spells. Despite everything, he was still an Exarch, the uncrowned king of magical knowledge, technique, and raw power. He’d reached into the twelfth layer and claimed its reality-warping powers as his own. Myzalik had won an overwhelming victory today, but Niramyn had already set into motion everything he’d needed to complete his rise back to power.
His mind unraveled and he fell unconscious. Still the magic worked on him. It broke down who he was and stored it away, somewhere safe from both the prying eyes and searching hunters and from himself until he’d regained enough of his power to reclaim it. In that way, Niramyn gave up who he was to deny his pursuers the chance to find him, a necessary sacrifice, but one he vowed to repay his rival back for a hundred-fold.
The magic finished its grim business and the Exarch, now trapped in the body of a child, battered and weary, fell to true sleep. There was an odd sort of paradoxical peace to his slumber. Without his memories, his personality, his sense of his true self, many of his worries and stresses fell away. In that way, Niramyn passed his first night as a child of a new world.
* * *
In his own palace, Myzalik’s rage knew no bounds. “This close!” he screamed, unleashing a bolt of star-spawned lightning to rake the surface of the scrying pool. Jagged-sharp plasma burst across the liquid obsidian and hurled it into the air, dispelling the image and hardening into a storm of razor-edged needles that peppered the room. None struck the Exarch, of course. It was barely even the work of a thought to deflect their trajectories away from him.
“I had him! Another two seconds and he would have been reduced to a child too young to properly hold the smallest sliver of arcana! Even as quickly as he reacted, he shouldn’t have been able to do half of what he did to escape! There was no time for him to pull in arcana. Explain to me how this happened,” he demanded of his servant, who had not been quite so quick to defend himself and had been pierced by several of the shards.
The ascendant did his best not to cringe beneath the Exarch’s glare. He telekinetically plucked the obsidian back out and returned it to the pool while sealing the wounds. It would not do to let a drop of blood reach the carpets and stain them, never mind that they were made of astral silk and a simple current of arcana would return them to pristine condition.
“We believe this is the cause of the miscalculation,” the servant said, plucking an image from the stream of time and forming it into an illusion in the middle of the room. It showed Exarch Niramyn lounging in the air, drinking from a decanter that radiated magic. “It appears to be some sort of arcana-infused beverage. Our theory is that he burned what he already had in his body to boost his resources and out-distance the spell’s range before it could complete the transformation.”
Of course that self-indulgent prick was drinking wine laced with pure, unfiltered, deadly arcana. Myzalik himself wouldn’t have dared casually sip it. Niramyn’s arrogance knew no bounds. “Are you saying,” Myzalik began slowly as he struggled to master a sudden tick in his left eye, “that the plans I have spent close to a century laying, the research and fortunes spent on modifying the immortality spell to weaponize it, all of it was beaten because on the day we chose to strike, he wanted to show off that he could get drunk while giving himself and surviving arcana poisoning?”
“I… Exarch Niramyn was still affected by the spell. He will be weaker than a human mage right now. It’s only a matter of time until we capture him, Exarch.”
Myzalik turned to fully face the servant. “You had better hope so, for all your sakes. I want him back here under my control, or I want his body. I’ll drag his soul back to this plane myself if he’s already dead. We will not let all of the work that went into this be wasted.”
He dismissed the servant and silently fumed. Unlike his servants, he wasn’t so confident in his rival’s defeat. Myzalik needed to take steps to ensure this was a total victory for him, and not merely a set back for Niramyn. This couldn’t be a repeat of the incident at the Castle of Storms.
With a snarl, he reached through Transcendence and into the Crushing Void to wrest arcana from it. He filled his soul well and cast a spell to split his conscious into fourteen separate beings. They teleported away to attend to a variety of tasks, several moving to present the appearance of a normal day, but the majority taking personal command of the units of hunters being sent out to scour the surface of the world below the clouds.
Five minutes had passed from Myzalik’s attack, a bare three hundred seconds. And yet, Niramyn has slipped away completely and utterly. None of the Myzaliks could find a trace of him, nor could any of the ascendants they led.
He’d done the impossible in creating a spell to defeat Niramyn, and somehow the infuriating man had managed to out-impossible him in mere seconds by escaping. It was infuriating, but after weeks and weeks of searching, he was forced to concede the hunt.
His rival had escaped, and there was nothing Myzalik could do except consolidate his position and prepare for the inevitable counter-strike.