Snippet – The Family Secret (The Zero Enigma XI)

13 Sep

Prologue

Alonzo FitzRubén awoke, in pain.

The world around him was dark, dark and gloomy.  His memories were a confused mess, flashes of words and images that didn’t seem to be in any coherent order.  He’d been in the city, he’d been speaking to Charlotte … to Charlotte Rubén, who hated him and resented, bitterly, the family’s order that she should marry him.  Alonzo knew how she felt.  He hadn’t been too pleased when he’d been plucked out of the training program, his contract sold to House Rubén shortly before he reached his majority.  Sure, they’d made noises about honouring him as one of their own, but it hadn’t escaped his notice that they’d termed him ‘FitzRubén.’  One of them, yet not quite one of them.  They were more considerate to literal family bastards.

He gritted his teeth as he tried to sit up.  His body was aching, as if he’d been brutally beaten to within an inch of his life, but nothing seemed to be broken.  The air was old and dank, pressing against his lungs as he tried to breathe.  His eyes slowly grew accustomed to the dim light, a faint glow filtering down from high overhead.  He’d been in the flightstone chamber, if he recalled correctly … his memories suddenly snapped back into place as he stumbled to his feet.  Something had gone wrong with the flightstone.  The city had wobbled in midair, the magic field holding it aloft threatening to fail, threatening to let gravity reassert itself and pull the immense structure to the ground.  Alonzo had run to the chamber, in hopes of making repairs or – at worst – putting the city down before the field failed completely – but … he wasn’t sure what had happened when he’d touched the flightstone.  There’d been a flash of light and …

I must have been stunned, he thought, numbly.  The city hadn’t been completely abandoned – there’d been a small army of servants onboard – but most of the family had travelled to the city for the big ceremony.  Someone got onboard, stunned me and … and what?

Alonzo muttered a word, half-hoping the wards would hear it and respond.  He had no magic, but the wards could still hear him … there was no response.  The chamber should have been lit instantly, yet … he looked around, shaking his head in disbelief.  There was no sign of the flightstone.  It took him longer than it should have done to realise the crystalline structure was on the floor, in pieces.  He didn’t have the slightest idea where to begin repairing the damage.  He wasn’t even sure it was possible.  It was hard to make out anything in the dim light, but some of the pieces were charred, as if they’d been passed through a fire.  He hadn’t seen anything like it, not even during his training.  What had happened?

He forced himself to stumble to the door and peer down the corridor.  It was dim, lit only by starlight.  He looked up and saw cracks in the roof … cracks that shouldn’t have been there, even if the city had fallen from the sky.  How badly had they landed?  House Rubén prided itself on the finest flying city in the empire.  It had been immense, easily the biggest thing ever to take to the skies.  They’d said it was invulnerable.  And now … he stumbled down the corridor, feeling the ground shifting oddly under his feet.  There should have been a small army of servants, humans and mechanical alike, clearing up the wreckage and laying the groundwork for refloating the city.  Instead, there was nothing.  The city was as dark and silent as the grave. 

We were attacked, he thought.  But how?

The mystery nagged at his mind as he kept walking.  The city was solidly warded.  He’d helped lay the spellforms himself.  No one should have been able to enter without permission, no one should have been able to bring anything destructive inside the wards without setting off all kinds of alarms.  The servants had certain rights – everyone did, apart from Alonzo – but they couldn’t invite friends and family into the city without permission from their masters.  How had it been done?  The attacker would have needed to get into the network of spellstones, linked to the flightstone … Alonzo couldn’t see how it could have been done.  And why had everything failed?

His heart almost stopped as the realisation crashed down on him.  The city had glowed with magic.  It had been crammed with magical artefacts crafted by the family, with artworks and animated paintings and everything else the family refused to throw out.  And … not everything was linked to the spellform holding the city aloft.  Why had everything failed?  It made no sense.  Alonzo could imagine a spellbreaker capable of blasting the entire city, but actually building one would be impossible.  The spellform would be too large to handle.  It would effectively collapse under its own weight.  What had happened?

He tripped over a dark shape and nearly fell to the ground, barely catching himself in time.  A body.  It was a body … he forced himself to turn the body over and check for a pulse.  There was nothing.  The dim light made it hard to see anything, but … it was a serving girl, a young woman who’d been taken on as a domestic, someone who might rise to the top of the servant tree given time and devotion.  Her neck was broken, snapped effortlessly.  Alonzo felt the side of her head and winced.  She’d hit the bulkhead hard enough for the force to break her neck.

I’m sorry, he thought, numbly.  The young woman had always been kind to him, unlike his supposed family.  You deserved better.

Another quiver ran through the ruined city.  Alonzo forced himself to stand up and keep walking.  The city had clearly landed badly, but whatever had happened to bring it down wasn’t finished.  Not yet.  Was the enemy looting the rubble?  Or … was it searching for hostages?  For Alonzo himself?  It was possible – he might be powerless, but his value lay in his lack of magic – yet it didn’t seem right.  He just didn’t understand what he was seeing.  The spellform pervading the flightstone – and the spellstones beyond – had been perfect.  If it hadn’t been, the city would never have taken flight.  He couldn’t believe it had failed … and, even if it had, how had it managed to take down everything?

He scrambled up a servant passageway and pushed open a hatch, clambering out into the open air.  The night sky overhead mocked him.  They weren’t that far from civilisation.  There should have been a small army of flyers overhead, dispatched from military bases as their commanders realised the city had crashed … but nothing moved in the cold night air.  He looked towards the distant hills and sucked in his breath.  There were no lights, no hints of civilisation.  What had happened?  He’d once read a story where a flying city had been sent back in time, a fantastical idea he knew to be completely impractical, but … there should have been lights.  It wasn’t as if they were gliding into unexplored parts of the world …

Alonzo felt a sudden, overpowering sense of loss as he looked around.  The great towers, structures held together by magic as much as everything else, had crumbled.  Their ruins lay in front of him, mocking him.  They should have been glowing with light and life … even now, when their occupants had gone to the Eternal City for Empire Day.  Now, he was alone.  No one moved in the darkness, not even looters.

But he’d always been alone.

Bitterness consumed him as he made his way towards the edge of the city.  There was no point in staying where he was.  The ground was still shifting, suggesting … what?  His stomach growled, reminding him it had been hours since his last meal.  Longer than that, perhaps.  He wasn’t sure how long he’d been unconscious.  Cold logic told him it couldn’t have been longer than a couple of hours at most, but it felt as if he’d slept for years.  There were stories about that too.

He clambered over the ruins, cursing under his breath.  He hadn’t wanted to join the family, let alone to have his name changed and be told he was going to marry a girl who didn’t want him.  But they’d insisted, pointing out he had to be one of them.  He touched his brown hair, clear proof he wasn’t part of the family and never would be.  He’d been forced to sign the marriage contracts, the declaration he would marry Charlotte.  The ancient magics woven into the family bloodline should have turned his hair blond, in preparation for his unwanted marriage.  It was tradition, but ancient tradition had passed him by.  Charlotte had said it meant he’d never be one of the family.  He feared she was right.

And she didn’t even take me to the Eternal City, he thought, as he scrambled over the remains of a tower.  He should have known which one, but the city was so devastated he honestly wasn’t sure.  She was ashamed to be seen with me.

Hatred washed through him.  His talent made him important, but it also made him vulnerable.  He wanted to escape, but there was nowhere to run.  His master had made that clear, when he’d purchased the contract.  Alonzo could stay with the family, and enjoy the perks while working for then, or … or else.  The master hadn’t specified, leaving the matter to Alonzo’s imagination.  It hadn’t really been necessary.  Alonzo had seen enough cruelty in his young life to be all too aware of what House Rubén could do to him, if he tried to leave.  He was their prisoner.  Allowing him to marry into the family was a sick joke.

The city quivered again.  Alonzo glanced back, looking for something – anything – that would tell him what was going on.  The city was dead, yet it was shifting slightly.  Could the flightstone have come back to life?  Alonzo dismissed the thought almost as soon as he’d had it.  The flightstone had been shattered.  There was no way the smaller spellstones could even begin to shift the city, not without the flightstone.  And yet … he snickered as he realised the family didn’t have the slightest idea what had happened.  The gates were probably dead too.  It would take days for them to get back and … he smiled, bitterly, at the thought of their faces when they saw the ruins.  They wouldn’t have the slightest idea what had happened to their city.

He slowed as he reached the edge of the disc and peered into the darkness.  The city was in ruins and yet … he couldn’t see any way down.  Jumping would be suicidal, certainly when he couldn’t tell what was below him.  It was far too far to fall unless he was diving into water and even then, he would have hesitated.  He looked up, trying to gauge how long he had until sunrise.  Perhaps he could stay in the open and wait.  Someone would be along soon, wouldn’t they?  It was impossible to believe the city would be abandoned …

The city shook, once again.  Alonzo lost his footing and fell, right off the edge.  He screamed as the darkness enveloped him, all too aware he was dead.  The disc was huge.  He was going to fall at least sixty metres, then hit the ground hard enough to kill him … of course it was going to kill him.  He was no magician, with the power to slow his fall or cushion his landing … he was going to die.  The analytical side of his mind noted that great power hadn’t saved the others on the city – even the serving girls knew a handful of spells – and that that detail was probably important, but …

He hit … something.  For a crazy moment, he thought he’d fallen into a lake.  Perhaps they’d crashed on the edge of a large body of water.  And then he took a breath and tasted … something … in the water.  No, it wasn’t water.  It felt as if he was breathing sludge.  He gagged, trying to swim to the surface, but he’d completely lost his bearings.  His eyes were open and yet he could see nothing, beyond an eerie green light that pulsed around him.  Was he in hell?  He might be dying.  He was drowning in a sea of light.  Or … his awareness expanded, becoming something else.  And there were voices, echoing through his mind as they spoke.  They promised him everything.

Alonzo listened.

Chapter One

The stairwell felt as if it stretched down into the darkness below the city.

I stood at the top and braced myself, feeling utterly alone.  No one but family were allowed to visit the crypt.  Akin, my brother, was too busy to accompany me and I didn’t want any of my other relatives to come.  Callam … Callam and I were not yet married, not in the eyes of the Ancients.  I couldn’t invite him, even if he hadn’t been busy himself.  I felt an odd little twinge as I reached for the candle and lit it with a single spell.  The last time I’d visited, I’d been a little girl.  Now, I was a grown woman on the verge of getting married.  And …

The candle felt warm in my hand as I started to walk down the stairs.  The family had spent centuries laying spell after spell on the crypt, to keep out our enemies and – according to some stories – to make sure the dead didn’t rise again.  I could feel them pressing at my mind as I walked, spells so old and powerful they saw through my wards as if they weren’t there.  I didn’t know precisely what would happen if I hadn’t been one of the family, but I knew it wouldn’t be good.  The crypt was the last resting place of our nearest and dearest.  We had an obligation to defend it.

My heart pounded in my chest.  I kept walking, even as I felt history pressing around me.  It wasn’t the first crypt.  That was in the Eternal City, the heart of the Thousand-Year Empire, lost in the wake of the disaster that had shattered the empire beyond repair.  There might have been others, over the years, but this one belonged to my branch of the family.  The names carved into the stone walls were reminders of the great and the good, of men and women who’d served the family well before their deaths, before they’d gone to join the Ancients.  I wondered, numbly, what they thought of me.  I’d betrayed, then saved, the family.  Would they welcome me, when my ashes were placed within the crypt?  Or would they cast me out forever?

It wasn’t a pleasant thought.  The Ancients were always with us.  I’d been taught their names from a very early age, as well as the correct way to honour their memories in preparation for the day I’d join them.  They were always watching … I swallowed hard, wondering how they’d judge me.  I’d been played for a fool, because I’d been young and foolish and Stregheria Aguirre had told me precisely what I wanted to hear.  I’d learnt from it, hadn’t I?  When Uncle Stephen had made the same offer, I’d turned him down.  And then I’d killed him. 

He’s watching too, I thought, numbly.  He’ll be watching me until the day I die.

I shook my head.  Times changed.  Attitudes changed.  People changed.  My ancestors had grown up in very different worlds, as much as the family might wish to deny it.  They might not understand what I’d done; they might judge me by their standards, not mine.  Or … they were dead, untethered from mortal concerns.  They might understand both me and Uncle Stephen, or Uncle Ira; they might understand our feelings and motives even as they judged us poorly.  Maybe they’d even been merciful.  Maybe, once they’d been judged, they’d been allowed to join the ranks of the dead.  Maybe …

Uncle Stephen thought he was saving the family, I thought, coldly.  I could see his reasoning, even though I didn’t agree with it.  What was Uncle Ira’s excuse?

The memories tormented me.  Uncle Ira had seemed a genial old man at first, sent into exile for reasons no one cared to remember.  He hadn’t seemed particularly interested in me, even though he was technically meant to be my gaoler … a gaoler who was in gaol himself.  And he’d turned out to be a warlock, conducted forbidden experiments hundreds of miles from Shallot and House Rubén.  He’d tested some of his spells and potions on me.  I still had nightmares about the brew he’d forced me to drink …

And if I hadn’t stopped him, I thought numbly,  he would have dissected Callam just to figure out how his talent actually works.

I took a long breath as I reached the bottom of the stairs.  The family had never been quite sure what to make of me.  I’d been the daughter of the then-Patriarch, then a traitor at twelve years old, then the person who’d kept them from having to deal with a rogue warlock, then the Heir Primus, then the person who’d turned it down, then the person who’d killed Uncle Stephen and brought his coup to an end and, finally, the sister of the serving Patriarch.  I was sure there were people who were counting down the days until I returned to Kirkhaven Hall, where I would remain … rather than stay in Shallot.  It wasn’t easy to admit I’d made a fool of myself, when Akin had brought me and Callam back to the city, but it was true.  I’d been more in love with the ideal of Shallot and High Society rather than the reality.

The air was cold, cold and clear.  I raised my gaze.  The Cryptkeeper stood in front of the archway, wearing a long dark robe that covered her from head to toe.  Her face was hidden in shadow.  I shivered, despite myself.  The legends insisted the Cryptkeeper was truly ancient, that she dated all the way back to the original family mansion, now lost somewhere in the ruins of the Eternal City.  Or that she was a golem, a creature tied to the blood of the family and charged with defending our best.  I knew the stories couldn’t be true, that the Cryptkeeper was merely an old sorceress who’d committed herself to her role, but it was suddenly easy to believe them.  It was impossible to tell if the Cryptkeeper in front of me was the same person who’d showed us around the Crypt, when Akin and I were young.

“Isabella.”  The Cryptkeeper’s voice was emotionless, but I could feel the raw power behind her.  Some claimed she was empowered by the Ancients themselves to defend their crypt.  I almost believed it.  “Why have you come?”

“I came to speak to my father,” I said.  “And then to say farewell.”

The Cryptkeeper nodded, very slightly.  “And are you prepared?”

I looked down at myself.  I’d donned a formal black dress and tied my blonde hair back in a loose ponytail, tight enough to keep it out of my face while loose enough to avoid giving the impression I was still a child.  I’d scrubbed my face clean of makeup and muttered spells to hide my scent … the former a waste of time, given that I had never really liked makeup and found it a little silly.  Callam hadn’t grown up in the city.  He wouldn’t be impressed if I wasted time making myself look pretty.  His people had never really had the time to bother.

“Yes,” I said, shortly.

The Cryptkeeper raised her staff and knocked, once, on the door.  It opened.  I took a breath and stepped through, all too aware it would close behind me.  The chamber beyond was dark and cold, lit only by a faint blue light that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere.  I stood still, waiting for my eyes to grow accustomed to the light.  Powerful spells hung in the air, crawling over the door – and me – like wasps on honey.  I shuddered as they pressed against my defences, threatening to break them down.  It felt as if I was standing somewhere I didn’t belong.

I took a moment to gather myself, then looked up.  The chamber was immense.  The floor was a pattern of bare stone, broken by earthen graves.  The headstones were a strange mixture, ranging from detailed carvings of the dead person’s face to bare stones, marked only by the corpses name.  I shivered as I stared into the distance.  The far wall was lost in shadow.  It was suddenly easy to believe the chamber went on forever.

“I come to pay my respects,” I said.  My words hung in the cold air.  “Please regard me kindly.”

It was all I could do to step forward, onto the stone path.  The air seemed to grow colder.  I gritted my teeth and kept walking, trying not to think about the dead rising to lash out at the traitor.  They might hate me for betraying the family; they might hate me for killing Uncle Stephen, if they thought he’d done the right thing.  Maybe, by their standards, he had.  Akin was going to marry Caitlyn Aguirre.  And our feud with House Aguirre was legendary.

My legs ached as I walked, passing carved faces with marble eyes that seemed to watch me and statues that moved when I wasn’t looking.  The sense of threat hung in the air, a silent challenge that threatened to drive me out of the chamber … the only thing that kept me going, I admitted to myself, was the simple fact I might never have another chance to say goodbye to my father.  The funeral had been very formal but public.  I hadn’t dared speak to him as the flames consumed his body.  Who knew who might be listening?

Everyone who thinks they’re important, my thoughts answered.  And everyone else too.

I put the thought out of my head as I reached the final gravestone.  My father was flanked by his murderers … I felt a wave of naked hatred, my magic spiking as I fought the urge to rip their ashes from the graves and hurl them into the ocean, rather than leave them next to the man they’d murdered.  It was tradition to bury the dead in rough order and yet … I clenched my teeth, calming myself.  It wasn’t easy.  My father had been a good man, even if he had been a little rigid in his thinking.  He’d done what he could for me, after I fell under Stregheria Aguirre’s influence.  And …

Calm, I told myself.  His murderers are answering to higher judges than you.

I took a breath and studied the gravestone.  My father hadn’t chosen to arrange for anything more complex than a simple stone, with his name carved into the rock.  It felt … impersonal, as if it wasn’t really him.  I knew it was his ashes under the earth and yet … I shook my head.  I’d tried to think of what to say, and come up with all sorts of speeches, but now – looking at his grave – my mind was blank.  I didn’t know what to say.

Think, I thought.  What do you want to say?

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I wish …”

Tears prickled at the corner of my eyes as I sank to my knees.  I wished I’d been a better daughter.  I wished I’d never allowed anger and bitterness at the sheer unfairness of life to overwhelm me, to render me vulnerable when Stregheria Aguirre came calling.  I wished I’d had the strength and determination to make something of myself, rather than let myself be used by someone older and far colder than I could ever be.  And yet, if I hadn’t listened to the old witch, would I have ever met Callam?  Would I have ever fallen in love with him?

Perhaps not, I thought.  It had been a shock, to spend six years away from the city and then return.  My former friends had become snooty monsters who’d mocked and jeered me, then changed their tune the instant they realised I might become the de facto Matriarch of House Rubén.  Perhaps I would have wound up as spoiled and useless as any of them.

I blinked away tears.  “I’m sorry for what I did,” I told the grave.  “And I’m sorry for what I put you through, but … I’m not sorry too.”

There was no reply.  I mentally kicked myself, wondering why I’d even expected one.  My father and I hadn’t spoken as much as we should, and … I knew it had been my fault.  I’d been a traitor.  He’d gone to bat for me, burning up dozens of favours to ensure I’d be sent into exile rather than … rather than anything more final.  If I’d been older, old enough to know better, he couldn’t have saved me.  I hated the thought of being branded a weak and foolish child, of being treated as a pretty young girl rather than a person in my own right, but it had saved my life.   And perhaps, just perhaps, it had laid the groundwork for my return to the city.

“If you hadn’t sent me away, I would never have met Callam,” I said.  “And I’m glad I did, because I love him.”

It wasn’t easy to say.  I’d been raised to understand that my marriage would be arranged by my family and I’d have very little say in it.  I would be lucky if I even knew the groom before the match was arranged.  The handful of chaperoned meetings we’d have, where we’d be watched by elderly relatives who’d forgotten what it was like to be young, wouldn’t be enough to determine what sort of person he was.  And … I shook my head.  My treason made me unmarriageable, as far as High Society was concerned.  It didn’t matter.  Callam didn’t care about the family or anything, beyond me.  I’d allowed us to get close for selfish reasons – I’d admitted as much, to both Callam and my father – but I’d fallen in love with him too. 

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “And I wish …”

I felt more tears in my eyes.  I wished I could see my father in person, one last time.  I wished he’d never died at all, that he could see his grandchildren and dandle them on his knee and give them his blessing when they grew into adulthood.  I wished … I brushed the tears away, angrily.  There was no point in fretting over it now.  My father was dead.  My mother had taken to her rooms, as soon as the funeral was over, and stayed there.  And Akin and I were alone.

“Goodbye, father,” I said.  “I love you.”

I stood, slowly.  The crypt felt oppressive.  I looked up, into the inky blackness.  There was a ceiling – there had to be – but I couldn’t see it.  I took one last look at my father’s grave, then turned away.  The path back to the door seemed endless.  I shook my head and forced myself to walk.  The air was changing, strange sensations pressing around me.  I thought I felt someone breathing on the back of my neck and spun around, to see nothing.  And yet …

The sensation grew stronger as I kept walking, trying not to panic.  It was suddenly easy to believe the dead were coming back to life.  Unseen eyes watched me, judged me; I nearly stepped on an earthen grave, something that would have earned me harsh punishment if anyone had seen.  I tried to calm myself, even as I thought I saw things moving at the corner of my eye.  I’d seen ghosts at Kirkhaven, but here …? I’d never seen them here.

The mansion wasn’t designed to show off our wealth, I thought.  It didn’t feel like one of my thoughts.  It was built so big to keep something else pressed down.

A shiver ran down my spine.  It was all I could do to keep from throwing caution to the wind and start running.  The shadows shifted whenever I looked away, as if they were cast by something that existed outside my perception.  I thought I saw shapes moving above the graves, wisps of something I knew I shouldn’t be seeing.  Lights flickered high above me, voices whispering loudly enough for me to hear, but too quietly for me to make out the words.   I nearly screamed as I felt something touch my leg.  When I looked down, there was nothing.

I heard something behind me and glanced back.  There was nothing … no, there was something, a strange thing hovering over the graves.  My eyes slipped past it, as if it wasn’t there … I thought I felt the ground shift beneath my feet.  The city wasn’t prone to earthquakes and yet … what was it?  I picked up speed, trying desperately not to run.  The dead didn’t want me there, amongst them.  I knew it on a level that could not be denied.  They didn’t want me and they were driving me out and …

The door loomed up in front of me.  I pressed my hand against the stone.  It opened, just slowly enough to make me panic.  I darted through, half expecting to see the Cryptkeeper waiting for me.  She should have been there.  The magic that empowered her was closely linked to the crypt, and the dead ashes within.  I’d been told it was customary to bury the dead below the house because their presence made the mansion ours.  It was an old theory, never really proven …

They didn’t want me, I thought, numbly.  And they made it clear.

A hand touched my shoulder.  I spun around, a nasty hex crackling around my fingers and a dark charm on my lips.  Penny Rubén stood there, raising her hands in surrender.  I nearly blasted her.  She’d given me a terrible fright and …

“Cousin,” Penny said.  She bobbed a curtsey.  “I apologise for disturbing you.”

I scowled.  Penny hadn’t been sure what to make of me, when I’d returned to the mansion, but she’d done her best to suck up to me – and Akin – once she’d realised one of us was going to be the Heir Primus.  She was still trying to suck up to me.  She’d worked out, well ahead of everyone else, that – whatever else could be said about me – I was Akin’s favourite relative.  I tried not to roll my eyes at the thought.  The bar wasn’t set very high. 

“It’s fine,” I lied.  “What is it?”

Penny curtsied again.  “His Excellency would like a moment of your time,” she said.  “I am to take you to him.”

“Oh,” I said, swallowing several other responses that came to mind.  “Lead on.”

3 Responses to “Snippet – The Family Secret (The Zero Enigma XI)”

  1. Someone September 13, 2021 at 7:15 pm #

    Yay, more Zero universe!!!!!!

  2. CEC September 18, 2021 at 2:56 am #

    Looking forward to the rest of this story!

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