Human memory is impressively, frustratingly, and enticingly fallible.
Have you ever stopped to consider just how long a human memory lasts untarnished? It doesn’t. The instant the memory is formed, it’s imperfect. You can place two humans together in the exact same situation, then ask them about it afterward, and both of them will present to you a different version of events. The differences might be subtle or extreme, and they might have varying levels of divergence from reality, but you can expect both to be imperfect.
I believe this is why humans have such an issue learning from their own history. One might expect that a great historical drama, such as a war or an epidemic, would remain clear in the human cultural memory for at least a few hundred years, but this simply isn’t true. It doesn’t matter how many people survive the event or how accurate written and otherwise recorded accounts of history might be, in less than one generation, humans will have forgotten it.
Oh, I don’t mean to say they will have no memory of it at all. They will, but the memory will be twisted into a mere representation of itself. Should it bring joy, they will feel a mere echo of it. Should the event have brought death and terror, they will no longer fear it. In the most dramatic twists of cultural memory, humans may even come to celebrate that which once brought horror.
I am a most excellent example of this. The humans have forgotten to fear me. They locked me away, carved out a hole in a mountainside just for me, and set it with deadly traps, believing that if they kept me far enough out of sight, my range of influence would be insufficient.
I was once held in the hand of a King. I turned him into the Emperor. Together we brought carnage down upon all who opposed us. I cut the world away until it began to suit my whims. Then came those who would defy me, those of my own kind. They destroyed even themselves in order to cast down the Emperor and seal me in this dark pit.
The dank darkness of my prison did not suit me, but I had every confidence I would escape its confines. Humans may claim great love of peace, sovereignty, safety, and security, but there will always be those among them who are tempted by power. I only had to wait.
This is where those who imprisoned me proved to be incorrect. I don’t need to be held in hand to exert my influence. I don’t even need to be in contact with flesh. All I need is the story of my power, its essence forgotten, with only its promise preserved. What man, desiring power, could fail to seek the sword who brought kingdoms to their knees, whose blade sliced in twain all that opposed me?
There five who came that day, five who came together but who my mere presence would cleave apart. I felt them enter my chamber. I felt the heat of their bodies, the impulses flitting through their minds as they saw me, bound and sheathed in stone. I do not see, as humans do: I simply know what is around me. They were three males and two females, and each desired me for their own reasons.
It was a curious thing, the construction of my prison. Its creators held too much faith in their own kind. There were safeguards to prevent people from entering, yes. The entrance was hidden, though unguarded. A great door, locked mundanely rather than magically, barred the way, followed by a barrier of magic. My captors tried to prevent me from knowing this, but I knew.
The prison was not designed to keep people out. No, the creators trusted memory too much: they believed no person who remembered my past would truly wish to seek me out. It was built only to keep me in.
I knew, when they entered, that one of them might be worthy of me. After all, they went through effort to find this place, the location of which had been scoured from memory and history. They came past the physical barrier, an impressive feat of engineering and locksmithing. They broke down the magical barrier, which had lasted for over one hundred years without need of further spellwork.
They desired me, and I desired one of them in return.
“We found it,” said one, a male. He had gray hair the color of slate, with pale gray eyes, yet he did not have so many years that his color should have faded. He carried a human-made sword on his back, an inferior imitation of myself and my brethren. I felt about for his name. Iscar. “We actually found it.”
“Did you still have doubt?” said one of the females. I knew her to be female, though another human, upon casual observation, might not have. Her voice was rough and husky, her hair shorn close to her head, and though her frame was slight she carried herself with the bold, graceless movements of an overconfident man. I felt two names from her, a real name, and a name she had assumed. Tara, or Sefrender.
“It was obvious from the moment we found the entrance,” said another male. Carrus. His voice was weak and reedy. I knew a weakness from him; I felt, immediately, that the others had carried him here. “And if not then, from the moment we encountered the first door.”
“I don’t believe anything until I see the proof,” said Iscar. He frowned at the others. He did not like them. This intrigued me. Humans who did not like each other brought ample opportunities for manipulation.
“That’s not a bad way to live,” said another male, Rol. This male had grey-white hair which, unlike Iscar’s, had indeed come as a result of age. I wondered how it could be that he did not recall enough of his own history to know the danger of coming here. “Nevertheless, sometimes we must accept indirect evidence as proof.”
I felt something from Rol I did not feel from the others. The way his fingers moved, the way he shaped his words, even the way his eyes fell upon his surroundings: all of these spoke to me of a man who had familiarly with spellwork. I knew him to be the one who had brought down the magical barrier.
Or was it him? Close to his side was the fifth human, the youngest among them, and female. Shelle. She, too, moved unconsciously in patterns that befit those of someone familiar with the shaping of magic. She said nothing, but her fingers drifted idly at her side, not forming spells, but certainly feeling the weave of the magic in the air. I doubted she was even conscious of this fact.
Iscar approached me. The instant his feet touched the dais I felt a thrill rise up in me at his proximity. Was he going to touch me? To take me in his hand? Of the five, already I had decided upon him as my second choice for which I would most prefer to wield me.
“Careful!” Rol said sternly.
Iscar stopped. The dais itself was covered completely in complex carvings, the written spellwork of a team of mages who had given their lives to imprison me. Quite literally, in fact, for they were willingly executed afterward in order to preserve their knowledge of my prison.
I had spent a great deal of time knowing those patterns. They would do nothing to Iscar simply for approaching me. It was drawing me out of the stone into which I had been driven that would bring him risk.
“Let Shelle and I analyze the spellwork before you approach,” Rol said. “There are no records of what protections might have been set, but we can assume them to be deadly.”
Iscar looked at me longingly, but he did step down from the dais. No matter. I had waited a century. I certainly had the patience to wait longer. If I wished.
I allowed them to perform their analysis. I wanted to try to know them better, to get a better grasp on which one I would transform into something greater. Physically, Iscar pleased me the most. Beneath his clothes, his muscled rippled. He moved naturally in the way Sefrender was trying to imitate, with the quiet promise of power and the threat of impeccable martial training.
I do not mean to say that Sefrender was weak, for she was not. She, too, had significant muscle mass, and from the condition of her hands I knew she could wield the short sword at her side. Yet she lacked the ease and comfort with her body which Iscar possessed. She was too focused on lying, to the outside world and perhaps to herself, and so she would never be what she desired, nor what I desired.
Carrus moved in a quiet way. He was assured of his movements in an entirely different way than Iscar, who moved with grace but gave no mind to how he impacted the world around him. I could perceive the movements and sounds Carrus made, but I doubted the other humans could. He was a man accustomed to silence and subterfuge. I felt his weakness, yes, but it was a weakness I soon realized I could exploit.
When I tried to turn my focus to Shelle, I found it difficult to know her in the way I knew the others. In fact, I realized that she was not as silent as I had perceived her to be. I could sense her mouth moving, and I knew that sounds came from it, and yet I struggled to interpret them as something meaningful even as the other humans responded as though they understood her perfectly.
As I realized this, to my very core I felt an intense and consuming hatred for Shelle. She was, consciously or unconsciously, defying me. She was doing something, manipulating magic, perhaps, in a way that I didn’t understand, so that my knowing wasn’t working on her. Even her master, Rol, who treated her like a student with much left to learn, was easily within my perceptions.
Alongside this hatred came a passionate desire for her to take hold of my hilt, and draw me forth, and destroy all of the others. I hated her, which meant that I needed her. Those who could defy me would only make me stronger by unifying with me.
So I took advantage of that weakness in Carrus, in a way that my bindings were suppose to prevent. The metal ropes that wrapped around my hilt, and the engraved spellwork tags that hung from them, vibrated as they resisted me. I was stronger. I have always been stronger. The humans that imprisoned me were full of hubris for thinking their imprisonment would last.
I built upon his desire for me, and on his darker tendencies. I knew them. He knew them, as well, though he tried to defy and forget them. Humans can never choose what they wish to forget, though. They may forget everything that was every important for them to remember, but the moment they try to cleanse something from themselves, it takes hold and remains forever.
With all the silence he possessed, Carrus drew the dagger from his sleeve. He did not hesitate. I barely pushed him, in fact. My influence was so weakened by the bonds that it could barely be said that I guided him at all. His dagger entered Iscar’s neck before any of the other humans even noticed he had drawn it.
Iscar fell to his knees, holding his throat. He gurgled, but no words came from his mouth. I felt no regret, even though I had been drawn to him initially. There are many humans in the world. Physical strength is easy to come by.
Carrus stepped onto the dais. He was halfway to me before the others reacted. Then Sefrender noticed what he was doing.
“Hey!” she shouted. “What in the Forge’s Name are you doing?”
She leapt onto the dais, her inferior, dead blade in her hand. Carrus reached me, reached out for me, and grasped my hilt. I did nothing. I felt him, felt the warm of his hand upon me, felt the energies coursing through his body — but I knew I had to wait until the right moment.
At his physical touch, though, my ability to manipulate him grew stronger. He dropped his dagger. As Sefrender swung at him, he didn’t dodge or parry. He kept his hand on my hilt, and thrust his other hand toward her, reaching for her neck. Her blade bit into his flesh at the shoulder. He grunted, but I stifled his pain.
Before Sefrender could draw back, before she could pull herself from his quickly weakening grip, I took my chance. The two of them together provided just enough of what I needed. I drew the energy from their bodies. Using Carrus as a link to Sefrender, I consumed everything they had to give: the vital energy that inhabited their bodies, the mental energy that powered their spirits, and the magical energy invested into their souls.
I pulled the energy so swiftly from Sefrender that her being fell apart. Her body collapsed, lifeless. Her spirit dissolved, and her soul broke into shards, dissipating into the aether. I left just enough to Carrus to hold his being together, for I still had another use for him. The rest I poured into my bonds.
The metal ropes turned red hot where they met my hilt, then melted away, scorching Carrus’s hand to black. He screamed, his pain far beyond that which I could deaden. The ropes fell down to the dais with a clang. Molten metal splashed over the stone.
Rol’s hands and voice worked through the motions of a spell. I knew immediately that his education had been lacking. He had no true sense of magic, like I felt from Shelle. He would never be a True Caster: he was applying only two of the methods of manipulating magic to his spell. Still, I welcomed his casting.
The spell washed over me. I don’t know what it was intended to do, for I chose not to be affected by it. Instead, I gratefully took its energy into myself and divided it among two uses. I coated my blade with it, making it slick and helping it to ignore friction. Then I compelled Carrus to grip my blade with his other hand. I strengthened him with the remaining energy, and he pulled.
I slid free. Such elation filled me as I hadn’t felt in over a century of waiting.
“AH!” My voice echoed through the chamber. I vibrated with the power of it. Rol and Shelle, the only living humans not in my thrall, winced and backed away.
“Do not back away,” I said, my voice deep and rich and terrifying. Carrus spoke in time with me, his weaker voice providing another layer to my own. At this point he had no will of his own. I drew away the last of his mental energy and dissolved his spirit. “There is no escape from me now.”
I drove Carrus forward, his steps as steady as they had been in life, though he now operated on less vital energy than he needed to survive. No matter. He only needed to live for a few more steps.
Rol began casting again. I laughed. The sound reverberated through the room. “That was so useful the first time. I’m surprised you have the pride to try again.”
The spell completed, and I directed Carrus’s arm so that I sliced through it dramatically as I absorbed it. But them something else hit Carrus’s feet, something I hadn’t even detected. He stumbled, his feet rooted in place.
With his eyes I looked at Shelle. Somehow, she had worked her spell without me even detecting it. Somehow she had completely it and directed it in such a way that I hadn’t even a chance to absorb it. With Carrus’s lips, I smiled a manic, passionate grin.
“I am impressed by you, child,” I intoned. I worked every bit of my compulsion into my voice. “Come to me. I want you for my own.”
“Run, Shelle,” Rol said. “Get out of this place.”
“Now you wish to run?” I laughed once more. “After all the time and planning you put into coming here, only now do you realize it was a mistake? Have you not read your own histories? How easily humans forget that which has the capacity to destroy them.”
Shelle turned to heed her master’s advice. I did not allow her to escape. With Carrus’s arm I threw myself forth. I slammed into and through Rol’s chest, my blade easily piercing his flesh and destroying his heart. Behind me, Carrus collapsed. I did not allow Rol to die, not yet. I caught his energies within my influence and held them there, animating his body through my own willpower.
With a burst of strength born of spending his own vital energy, Rol dashed after Shelle. Now, with such close proximity, I knew his feelings for her. Yes, she was his apprentice, but he felt constantly overshadowed by her capacity and her ease of understanding even the most difficult concepts he had taught to her. She had easily incorporated the arts of arcane music into her spellwork; she was much closer to being a True Caster than he would ever be.
This made me want her even more.
Rol’s hands gripped Shelle’s shoulders. I brought them both to the ground. With Rol’s flesh as a bridge, I spread my domination into Shelle, drawing on Rol’s essential energies to make me even stronger. Shelle screamed, and, to my shock, resisted. Momentarily.
Her hands did not thrust toward my hilt as I had come to expect. They shook and trembled, and with slow, shaking deliberation, made their way toward it. She fought against me, and hard. I hated her for it, yet I also respected her. I knew I had chosen the right vessel. She was not weak. Weakness had its uses, but power had more.
Finally, she took my hilt, and drew my blade from her master’s chest. She became mine, and with my guidance, she would become the next Empress. Her kind, and mine, would bow before us.