The imperial guards ushered him into the room, the Lord Wizard Chiyo close behind. As she stepped in front of him, the members of the Chamber of the Dragon all turned, looking down at the scene before them. Clearing her throat, the Lord Wizard turned her gaze to the Lord Chancellor himself.
“Not five minutes ago, I heard a commotion in the halls of the inner palace. When I found the source of the noise, I found this young wizard standing over Lord Wizard Akihiko’s body.”
A low murmur rolled through the room as every member of the Chamber began to speak at once, turning to quietly address their neighbours. The Lord Chancellor held up one hand, immediately silencing all those present.
The Lord Chancellor was dressed in the elaborate garb of the Chamber of the Dragon, adorned in clothes of black and gold. His snow-white hair was drawn up into a metal hairpiece, depicting three ryoki leaping in and out of a stream of lava. Framed by prominent cheekbones, his eyes were startlingly bright for his age, a keen gaze landing on the young wizard before him.
“What is your name?”
“Kano. Lord Chancellor-”
“You were found standing over the corpse of your former mentor. Is that correct?”
“And you were the one who killed him?”
Kano paused, gathering his thoughts.
“He led me into a section of the palace where no one else was present, and then attacked me. I was acting out of self-defense.”
“You want us to believe that a Lord Wizard - one who mentored you, I might add - attacked you within the halls of the inner palace?”
“I know how it sounds.” Kano stretched his hands out before him, palms up. “But believe me, I don’t have any reason to attack him. When I met the Lord Wizard Akihiko earlier, he wasn’t acting like himself.”
The Lord Chancellor gazed down at him steadily, keen gaze fixed on Kano as he thought. Finally, with a wave of his hand, he motioned for Kano to continue speaking.
“We were discussing my Trial of Embers,” he continued, neatly skipping the part where they discussed his cheating, “and we happened to begin discussing aether. I mentioned that the aether in Volcor felt unstable recently, as if something had thrown it out of balance. The Lord Wizard reacted as if I’d attacked him. Then, suddenly, decided we had to speak to the Chamber of the Dragon. He led me down into the inner palace, completely silent, and just as I began to suspect that something was wrong, he attacked me.
As I was attempting to defend myself, I cast an attack back at him, which the Lord Wizard did not deflect or dodge. Almost immediately, smoke began to pour from his nose and ears. His skin turned grey, his eyes were sunken in - the man looked like a corpse. Even after revoking the flames, he was still writhing on the floor and smoking, and then very suddenly, he was dead. Just like that.”
Taking a breath, Kano nodded to the Lord Wizard Chiyo and the imperial guards behind her.
“Ask them what he looked like. They’ll tell you the exact same thing.”
The Lord Chancellor turned his gaze to the Lord Wizard Chiyo, raising his eyebrows expectantly.
“He… is technically correct. When I arrived, I did notice that something felt off about the Lord Wizard’s appearance, but that could also be because of Kano’s interference. I could tell that he cast some kind of spell before I found him; that could be responsible for the physical condition of the Lord Wizard. However, the Lord Wizard was already in the process of burning by the time I arrived, and there is too much damage to the body to confirm Kano’s account.”
“Kano,” The Lord Chancellor began, voice heavy with warning. “Your account implies that you used only your inherent fire magic. If Chiyo is correct, and you cast an aetheric spell, the Chamber requires that information.”
“Yes,” Kano admitted, one eyebrow raised, “I did cast a spell - but that had nothing to do with the Lord Wizard’s appearance. I interrupted his magic with a spell that temporarily severs a person’s connection to arcane energy.” The room broke into murmurs once again, only quieting when the Lord Chancellor intervened.
“This spell would have prevented Akihiko from casting magic?”
“Yes - but only aetheric spells. It doesn’t affect innate fire magic. Or at least, it didn’t when I was testing the spell.”
The Lord Chancellor sighed deeply, rubbing a hand over his forehead.
“I open the floor to the Chamber at large.”
“This is preposterous.” One of the grand strategists, a large man by the name of Daijo, rose from his seat, pointing down at Kano. “We’ve heard of this young man before. He has a reputation for trickery and lies - we have no reason to believe him.”
“I concur with Daijo-”
“Remember when Kano-”
“-it took weeks for the stone to-”
“-he almost ruined-”
“-cannot believe we’re even considering-!”
The hall burst into a cacophony of voices as the Chamber of the Dragon began to speak all at once, speaking over one another, voices raised as several members rose from their chairs. The Lord Chancellor looked increasingly unhappy as the counselors argued, bringing up long-forgotten insults, slights, and past trickery.
Kano watched on silently, brow furrowed. With Akihiko’s corpse marred by burns, it was going to be difficult to convince them that something else had happened to the Lord Wizard, something that he himself barely understood. Kano thought back on the second before Akihiko attacked him, remembering the pallor to his skin, his sunken eyes and bared teeth. The man had seemed almost as if he was, on some level, already dead.
He still wasn’t sure how it had happened. The Lord Wizard Akihiko had seemed perfectly healthy when Kano first met with him that morning, so it had to have either come on very quickly, or something had to have hidden the Lord Wizard’s condition. But why?
If it was a spell, like the Lord Wizard Chiyo suspected, then someone could have possibly hidden the effects from view, but Akihiko himself would have still noticed what was happening to his own body. Even so, Kano couldn’t help but feel that Chiyo was on the right track, judging by the way that Akihiko reacted to his spell earlier.
Looking around the hall, Kano gazed at the members of the Chamber of the Dragon. While many were busy discussing or arguing the matter of Kano’s involvement, he noticed that the Grand Strategist Daijo seemed more emphatic than the rest, veins bulging in his neck as he shouted. For a moment, it reminded him of Lord Wizard Akihiko’s sudden aggression earlier.
Kano frowned thoughtfully, thinking back on what the Lord Wizard Chiyo said. While it hadn’t been his intention, his spell could have possibly caused the changes to his body - by exposing what was already there. If there had been an arcane cause for Lord Wizard Akihiko’s ailment, his spell might have interrupted the flow of aether just enough to reveal Akihiko’s condition.
“That’s why he reacted to my comment about aether,” Kano muttered. “There’s a link.”
Raising his head, he looked to the Lord Chancellor, who was attempting to bring order back to the Chamber of the Dragon. As it stood, even the Lord Wizard next to him had been drawn into the argument, her focus entirely on the other members of the chamber. Neither were looking at Kano, and as he looked around at the chamber, he got an idea.
Calling aether into his grasp, Kano subtly began to work the same spell as earlier. If what had happened to Lord Wizard Akihiko was happening to anyone else, this could possibly expose it; and at the very least, the wizards among the Chamber would take note of an interruption to the aether around them. Weaving the spell into being, Kano gave breath to the incantation, flicking the arcane energy out with his fingertips.
The spell snapped across the room, striking the wizards among them with a slap. Some, however, reacted more strongly than others, and as the wizards of the room turned toward Kano, indignation on their faces, Kano looked over the members of the chamber in shock.
Almost a third of the Chamber were frozen in place, staring blankly into mid-air. As one, their faces drained of colour, exposing the bruised veins lying beneath their skin. Their lips turned blue, cheeks gaunt, as every pair of unseeing eyes turned to stare at Kano with the gaze of a blizzard; ice-cold, empty and howling.
The Lord Chancellor, for his part, caught on quickly, gazing around the room with horror dawning on his face. One by one, the other members of the Chamber began to realise what was happening, turning to look at their neighbours with expressions of alarm. Next to him, he heard the Lord Wizard Chiyo’s sharp inhale.
The tension in the room reached a tipping point, a moment of silence reigning as everyone froze in place. Kano watched as the grand strategist Daijo stared down at him, his dark expression morphing into a snarl, and with an ear-splitting shriek, he leapt forward.
As Daijo attacked, all of the others snapped out of their trance, turning on their former colleagues with screams and howls. The room broke into complete chaos, the wizards among them calling on their innate fire, as the grand strategists and lord generals drew their blades.
Before Daijo even reached Kano, the Lord Wizard Chiyo stepped in, shooting a wave of fire at the grand strategist. The flames poured from her hands, covering Daijo completely and setting him alight. As he began to shriek, smoke pouring from his ears and nose, something flew out from his open mouth. A tiny, ink-black creature collided with the floor, no longer or thicker than Kano’s little finger. Shining in the light of the flames, it went still, evaporating into black smoke a second later.
With a flourish, Kano ignited the air around him, allowing the fire to burn brighter and brighter, forming a pillar of white-hot flames. Another counselor of the Chamber came running at Kano, a dagger in his hand. With a wave of his hand, Kano set the man alight, stopping him just shy of attacking.
A quick glance proved that the rest of the room had broken into a full battle, as the remaining members of the Chamber tried to stop their attackers. The Lord Chancellor backed away from the podium, several of the ministers stepping in to form a barrier between the Chancellor and the afflicted. Just as Kano stepped forward, fire at the ready, he was halted by a deep rumble in the air.
A dragon’s roar, unmistakable in its power and intensity, sounded through the hall, vibrating through the air with the force of a thunderclap. The very floor beneath their feet shook with its power, as the aether around them stirred at its call. Instantaneously, each of the changed counselors burst into flame. One by one, they collapsed to the floor, smoke pouring from their burning bodies, their combined shrieks climbing higher in pitch until finally, they were unable to be heard at all.
At last, there was silence, the last of the afflicted expiring in a puff of ash.
The gilded panel at the very back of the hall opened, its golden surface opening to reveal the resplendent uniforms of the Emperor’s personal guard. Stepping out and to the side, they parted to reveal the Emperor himself, the Empress at his side. His robes were scarlet trimmed with gold, partially hidden beneath grand ceremonial armour, resembling the scales of the great dragon itself. His shoulders were covered by great pauldrons, tipped with an obsidian claw, opening into a cloak made to resemble dragon wings.
His hair was barely visible behind his headdress, a plume of gilded dragonsfire, the point of each flame crowned with enchanted vuurlin feathers. A mask covered his face from view, sculpted from obsidian and gold to form the face of a dragon. Through the gaps in the mask, his eyes were just barely visible, almost appearing to glow.
At his side, the Empress was similarly dressed, her elaborate crimson dress framed in dragon armour. A cloak hung from her great shoulder pauldrons, framing her dress in ink-black silk, gold embroidery shining at the edges of the fabric. Lava crystals were embedded in her grand hairpiece, interspersed with great plumes of enchanted fire.
Their entourage entered just behind them, made smaller by comparison, their heads bowed in deference. One by one, the members of the chamber followed suit, quickly falling to their knees before the figure of their Emperor. From where he kneeled, Kano could see the Lord Chancellor’s profile, watching as the man’s expression revealed his growing panic.
Even as the Lord Chancellor made to speak, the Emperor waved a hand, instantly silencing him. For a long moment, nobody in the room dared to breathe. The Empress at his side was unreadable behind her half-mask, cool and collected next to the Emperor’s rage.
At his signal, imperial guards entered, gathering the scattered remains of the afflicted counselors. The remaining members of the Chamber of the Dragon watched on silently, expressions carefully blank, but tension clear in the set of their shoulders.
Rising from his position on the floor, the Lord Chancellor kept his head bowed, silently following the Emperor and Empress back into the passageway. The entourage blocked them from view as they retreated into the inner palace, the gilded panel sliding shut behind them.
For almost two days, Kano heard nothing further, excluded from the Chamber of the Dragon’s discussions. Finally, someone came to collect him, his uniform identifying him as one of the imperial family’s personal retinue. With some amount of apprehension, Kano followed him down into the innermost sanctum of the palace.
The guard led him into a hidden room, its doorway masked by the panels decorating the halls. It was almost indistinguishable from its surroundings, unless you knew exactly where to look. The guard remained standing nearby, staring directly ahead, waiting. Kano looked at the room around him, choosing to remain standing.
The seconds stretched into minutes, time crawling slowly by as Kano waited. Based solely on the man who came to collect him, and the location of the room they were in now, he suspected he was meeting a member of the immediate imperial family. The better question was why a member of the imperial family would want to speak to him.
Finally, the panel slid open, revealing two more guards from the imperial family’s personal retinue. They parted to reveal the head of the Alshoni faction, Lord Wizard and cousin to the Emperor, accompanied by the Lord Chancellor. As she took a seat, he motioned for Kano to do the same. A long moment passed as she remained silent, her gaze fixed on the younger wizard, something thoughtful lingering in her expression.
“Almost a year ago, the Chamber of the Dragon discovered that one of the lord generals had been - for lack of a better word - possessed. Several of the lord wizards studied his corpse and found that an unknown creature had taken control of his body, and that its presence caused a number of issues, including tissue death. They uncovered several more of these creatures inside the royal court, and removed each of them. The lord wizards have continued to monitor the court since then, and after a time, these creatures stopped appearing.” The Lord Wizard Yama paused, motioning to the Lord Chancellor at her side.
“The Lord Chancellor reported that the creatures had been eradicated, and while we hadn’t uncovered where the creatures came from, we decided to put our focus onto the matter of aether. The Lord Chancellor mentioned that you expressed concerns about aether stability, so I assume you’ve also noticed a change in the aether across Volcor?”
“Yes,” Kano replied, looking between the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Wizard. “I noticed that the aether across Volcor has been more unstable in the last few years. When I saw that some wizards were struggling to control their fire magic, I suspected that the two might be related.” Yama nodded.
“The cause is an aetheric imbalance, which has been disturbing aetheric spells in Volcor for almost a decade. However, more recently, it has also been causing problems with basic fire magic - which should be unaffected by aether. We decided to put our focus into solving the issue, not realising that the creatures we discovered had begun to mutate, and found new ways to go unnoticed. Thanks to your encounter with Lord Wizard Akihiko, we have uncovered more of these impostors, and are training others in a spell to detect their presence.
It is my understanding that you have yet to receive a title. The Emperor himself has decided to create one for you, thanks in part to your role in uncovering the creatures within our court.” At her signal, one of the guards produced a staff, carved from pure obsidian to resemble a dragon, a crystal floating just within reach of its open maw.
“The Dracai of Aether, while a gift, does not come without responsibility. The Council of the Dragon wants you to look into the aetheric disturbance. Just as you uncovered the creatures, we would like you to uncover the truth behind what is happening to our wizards, and find a way to reverse the change. You yourself just spoke about your affinity with aether. We believe that this gives you a unique ability to uncover more about the aether imbalance.”
Taking the staff from the guard, she stood, hands outstretched, offering the staff to Kano.
“This is the Crucible of Aetherweave, an heirloom which was once gifted to your ancestor by the past Emperor. Accept this, and you accept your role as the Dracai of Aether.”
Rising from his seat, Kano stared down at the staff before him, looking over the carved obsidian scales. He could feel the enchanted crystal even at a distance, an eternal flame dancing within. After a long moment, he grinned, reaching out to accept the staff from the Lord Wizard Yama.
In his hands, the staff appeared to awaken, firelight dancing between the obsidian scales. He felt the aether around him in stir in response, arcane energy channeling through the core of the staff. With a laugh, he nodded, straightening.
“Dracai of Aether. I like the sound of that.”