Chapter six

A compelling force

Varre held the Rune of the Death Prince high, showing it off to the other members of the team. "Behold," he bragged. "Our mission, completed without a hitch. He nudged Devin's body with his boot. "And a bonus, besides."

"Looks that way," Miquella said, looking at Roderika. "You think him suitable to wield the hammer?"

"I do," Roderika said. "He's a little misguided, but he's got a good heart. The spirits see great potential in him."

"Well, it never hurts to have one of those around," Miquella said. He turned to Ranni and Melina. "And this one?" he asked, gesturing at their own prize.

"Mayhaps," Ranni said. "However, 'twill be not a small undertaking to unearth it."

Even asleep, Corhyn twitched and muttered, clawing at the air. Aside from the largely motionless Goldmask, everyone had given him a wide berth.

"Poor creature," Miquella said. "To stand so close to the Golden Order and still not see the light is a pity indeed."

"Hardly a rare happenstance," Ranni said coolly.

"Don't start, Ranni," Miquella said convivially. "They can't all be like Master Goldmask here." He looked in the master's direction.

Goldmask responded with a subtle twitch of his finger. Miquella scrutinized it.

"…I think he said his thanks," he said after a moment. "I never learned much of finger reading." He looked Goldmask in the face. "I'd love so much to have a long conversation with you, but…well, wouldn't we all?"

He turned to Melina. "Let's see this fellow's writings," he said. "See if he was any good at it."

Melina produced a handful of his scrolls. "He seems to have been, at least at first," she said.

Miquella studied the parchment. "Hmm, yes, this looks about right," he said. He kept scrolling down, frowning as the handwriting on the page got messier and messier, the footnotes less salubrious. "Ah. Well, at least his grammar never gave out, even as his mind did."

He rolled the scroll back up. "Simple diagnosis, then. Restore the eyes, restore the sanity, a tad less faith, a good deal more brains." He turned to Rennala. "Your highness," he began.

"Say naught more," Rennala said. Her eyes flashed with rare lucidity. "Thine request art most agreeable."

Miquella found himself taken aback by her fervor. "Erm, you were listening?"

"Intently," she said. "Thou wisheth to purge him of his faith in yonder rotten tree, and granteth the sense to see better. A more noble path thou couldst not tread."

"He still needs some faith," Miquella said quickly. "He's little use if he has none."

"Oh?" Rennala leaned forward. "And just why should that be? Prithee tell me, why not strip from him every ounce of trust in the unknown and unworthy, and grant in its place the wherewithal to deduce the truth for his own self?"

Her sheer intensity took Miquella aback. Ranni stepped forward.

"He is right, mother," she said. "Were it only so, but fools such as that man demand some modicum of blind hope, so their own despair overwhelmeth not."

"Mayhaps," Rennala said grudgingly. "Yet thine own night-"

"My night shall never come to pass without pawns of his ilk," Ranni said. "'Tis bitter irony, yet abide by such limitations I must. Believe me, it must be so."

Rennala looked as if she wanted to argue, but relented in short order. "Very well," she said. "Mine own faith art vested in thou alone."

The fervor faded from her eyes, and with it, her lucidity. She returned her gaze to the egg in her hands and began to stroke it once more, her demeanor less belligerent with each caress. "Bring him hither."

Miquella turned to Varre for the first time since they had convened. "You heard her," he said, snapping his fingers. "Bring him."

Varre opened his mouth to protest, yet his resolve was short lived against Miquella's gaze. He began dragging Corhyn by one leg, grumbling all the while.

"Urgh…gracious, my head…"

All eyes were fixed on Corhyn as he struggled to his feet. His body seemed relatively the same as he had been prior to his rebirth – no obvious defects.

He put a hand to his blindfold, feeling the dried blood spots over his eyes. "Blood…my blood…" he murmured. Then he jerked his head up. "Then I must've-"

He untied the blindfold and opened his eyes. He jumped at the crowd assembled before him, who also looked surprised. So many questions swarmed in his mind, but he remained calm and sorted through them, searching for a keystone query that would answer many.

He looked down at the bloody rag in his hands. "My eyes," he muttered. "How…?"

A blue woman in the front of the group produced a mirror. "See for thine self," she said.

He looked into his own eyes in the mirror, and they soon grew wide. His left pupil was slitted vertically, like a fox, while his right pupil was wide like a goat's. Closing his right eye revealed his left to be somewhat colorblind, while the right took in an unusually wide field of view at the cost of a slight blur.

"New eyes," he murmured. "Then…" He angled the mirror up to see the towering figure behind him. "Queen Rennala," he said, turning to look at her. "My thanks for the gracious rebirth."

Rennala glanced at him briefly. "The pleasure art mine," she said. "Now thou shalt pledge thine allegiance to my daughter."

"Mother, please," the blue woman said. "Allow him a moment to process. A newborn babe need not sell his soul in an instan."

Now that she spoke more, he recognized the voice and speech pattern. "'High Priestess Renna,' I presume?" he said knowingly.

"I merely granted thee permission to address me as such," Ranni said. "What counsel wouldst thou have taken from Ranni the Witch?"

"None whatsoever," Corhyn said. "I may have even taken a swipe at you, as poorly as it might've turned out for me."

His own candor astonished him. His instincts screamed at him to say whatever lie he had to in order to escape the company of these sowers of discord, and yet such voices now seemed so quiet inside his own head. "Did you do something to my thoughts?" he asked. "Alter my mind, as you did my eyes?"

"Only enough to get your head screwed on right," the young boy sitting beside Ranni said. "You're better for it, I assure you."

"I see, Lord Miquella," Corhyn said. "I must admit I would question such a claim from her, but from your lips it-" He did a double take. "Lord Miquella? You have returned!"

"Yes, indeed," Miquella said with a smile. "And what a shambles the world went to in my absence. You recall that flame you saw up on the mountaintops, I trust."

Corhyn shuddered. "How could I not? Such a searing burn, tearing the Erdtree apart from within." Another thought clicked into place. "You must have some plan to extinguish it! That is why I'm here, is it not?"

Miquella nodded. "You and your master both," he said. "He's been working on a rune, has he not?"

"He has," Corhyn said uncomfortably. "Is he near?"

"Just outside, on the bridge," Melina said. "He found the confines of Her Majesty's chambers rather suffocating."

"Of course," Corhyn said. "I could go to him, but…in truth, he may not wish to see me. When last we were together, I said a great many things I wish I could take back."

"So we heard," Ranni said dryly.

"Yes, and you didn't even hear the worst of it," Corhyn said. "If anyone can be said to not be in his good graces at the moment, it is surely me."

"Oh, you needn't worry about that," Miquella said. "I've never seen or heard him be mad at anyone, just curious about their differing worldview. Besides, you've changed – quite literally. If you've got an open mind, I'm sure he'll be happy to welcome you back."

Corhyn's face brightened. "You think so?"

"Yes, and you don't mean him any harm, do you?" Miquella said, his voice deepening slightly.

"Of course not!" Corhyn said enthusiastically. "My mind has been opened wide, indeed!"

Miquella smiled. "Then go to him," he said. "Be the scribe you once pledged to be."

Corhyn stood. "I will!" he declared. "Thank you greatly, Lord Miquella! You won't be disappointed!" He dashed from the room, practically skipping.

As the door closed behind him, Melina stepped forward. "Perhaps I should keep an eye on him," he said. "Even now, he did not seem all that stable."

"That won't be necessary," Miquella said. "He spoke the truth. I made sure of it." He turned to Ranni. "Now for the last rune. Where is the Dung Eater?"

"Sequestered away," Ranni said. "Sealed in a dungeon near mine own tower."

"Oh, that's no good," Miquella said. "In mere days, the flames will be spilling over the Altus Plateau. We need to keep him as near to us as possible."

"Very well," Ranni said. "The storeroom beneath our feet shall suffice."

"Perfect," Miquella said. "You said you overwrote his consciousness – is he still capable of performing the task required of him?"

"He is," Ranni said. "His free will art extinguished, yet he respondeth to every order given. Extracting information from within his mind is no mean feat, yet with time we shall divine the tools he requireth."

"A short time, I hope," Miquella said.

Ranni smiled. "Underestimate me not, dearest half-brother. It behooves thee not at all."

Miquella chuckled. "Fair enough," he said. "I leave it to you. Next order of business." He held up the rune of the Death Prince. "Melina," he said.

Melina stepped forward. "Yes?"

"In light of your experience with Destined Death, I can't think of a better person to wield this rune in particular," he said.

Melina smiled. "Thank you, Miquella," she said. "I had hoped as much." She stowed the rune away.

"Hold it," Varre said. "Should we not hold the runes in one place? In Lord Miquella's being, for instance?"

"Absolutely not," Miquella said sharply. "These runes are utterly contradictory, to each other and mine own. They each enshrine wholly unique and exclusive principles. To place even two in contact with each other would be utter disaster."

"Er, yes, of course," Varre said. "A locked chest in your care, then?" He gestured at an open chest in the corner of the room. "That one, for instance."

"Not that one," Ranni snapped.

Varre raised his arms. "Not that one, then."

"No chest at all. They are each to be held by a different person," Miquella said. "No sense putting all our eggs in one basket, even mine. Risks are high for every one of us. Should something happen to one or two of us, I'd rather have a couple of runes and the hammer to work with than nothing at all." He turned to Devin. "Which brings us to you."

"Yeah, yeah," Devin said. "You want me to use the hammer?"

"Indeed," Miquella said, taking the hammer in hand. "When the time is right, it will be needed to quell the mighty flames and bind-"

"All right, I'll do it," Devin said. He picked the hammer up and turned it over within his hand, testing out the weight.

"That's it?" Varre said in disbelief. "No fighting? No deliberation? You'll just do it?"

"Lord Miquella tells you to do something, you don't say no," Devin said. With a tired sigh, he added, "And if I said no, you'll just have that witch turn me into a frog or something." He gestured at Rennala, who seemed not to notice.

"Oh no, it would hardly take that much effort," Miquella said. "I could simply say something like, 'You don't intend to betray us, do you?'"

"No, I don't," Devin said. He did a double take.

"Another one, perhaps," Miquella said. "You don't intend to end your own life before we're finished with you, do you?"

"No, I…don't," Devin said. He stared at Miquella. "How'd you do that?" he asked. "I really meant it when I said that to you."

"I've always been quite persuasive," Miquella said. "When I speak, people tend to listen and obey. Truthfully, I have to put in a fair bit of effort just to not bewitch everyone who serves me. It's quite a hassle, really."

"Well, can't you just…wipe my mind completely, then?" Devin asked. "Make me a total puppet who doesn't even know what's going on?"

"You want that?" Roderika said, appalled.

"Do I look like I'm having a blast over here?" Devin asked her. "You need my arms to swing that hammer? Fine, but I'd rather sleep through it."

"Well, that's just too bad for you," Miquella said with little sympathy. "A full overwrite takes a lot more work, and ends up with a lot less to show for it. The great thing about people is you can tell them to do something, and they'll keep on doing it after you've stopped thinking about it."

Roderika tugged on one of Ranni's arms. "Is this really necessary?" she asked.

"Take a step beyond those doors," Ranni said to her. "Gaze into the sky, and ask me thine query anew. We dice now with the true chaos, with all the Lands Between upon the table. 'Tis the smallest of sacrifices to inconvenience one man so."

"Yeah, I'm feeling pretty damn small right now, tell you that much," Devin said to her.

"Ah, but your role is critical," Miquella said. "You will aid in the destruction of the Golden Order's greatest, oldest foe. Surely that's worth sticking around a few days more."

"Guess it ought to be, sure," Devin sulked. Then, a bitter chuckle escaped his mouth. "I had the right of it the first time, didn't I?" he asked.

"Indeed you did," Miquella said. "When Lord Miquella tells you to do something, you don't say no."