The Lord of Broken Stars

The City of the Enchanter

Notes: This story was written years ago, but was taken down for some editing. It's my love letter to Clark Ashton Smith, and a host of other influences. I hope you love this as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Arrival in Tekron

In the centuries since his domination of the Four Worlds, Mallon Kas Tun faced no greater foe than his ennui. Seeking to recapture the excitement of his youthful conquests and explorations, the Suzerain of the Four Worlds planned a grand trek of his dominion incognito. Departing his palace on Iplath, he arrived at a world that was simultaneously the most cosmopolitan and insular, the most libertine and restrictive. Such contrasts were fresh on his mind as he arrived.

The enclosed cities of Tsanas drifted upon the impenetrable clouds like an armada of galleons. Each of the eight metropolises floated thirty miles above the uninhabitable surface and corrosive atmosphere, sustaining their passengers with the most sophisticated infrastructure in the Four Worlds. Travel between the Free Cities of Tsanas was permitted occasionally by airship or sorcerous portal, but was onerous and not totally devoid of peril.

Arriving without sanction or fanfare, the disguised Mallon Kas Tun was immediately intercepted by the posted sentries. A brief visual inspection made it impossible to determine if the sealed suits of metal plate and artificial fabric contained humans or machines. Topping each suit was a helmet with no aperture, but an opaque glass visor that covered the eyes. The muzzles of a dozen gravitic rifles were leveled at the uninvited visitor, who dismissed them with the trifling concern of an adult facing children playing soldier.

Mallon Kas Tun was clothed by an earthen brown robe woven of fibers from fog-shrouded moors of northern Iplath. His current skin tone was the saltine fairness of that world's northern region, but his eyes were the piercing green of a jade dagger. His relaxed and jocose demeanor served him no favors with the guards, as another squad arrived with boltcasters, fixed bayonets, and heavy pistols. Ignoring the orders shouted at him by an androgynous, distorted voice from beneath a helmet, he briefly considered a display of his power.

Mallon could utterly annihilate them with a thought, but his earlier decision kept his murderous instinct at bay. With an utterly nonchalant gesture, Mallon raised his hands and surrendered himself to the sentries. He bore a greater curiosity as to how they would treat him, a foreign peasant appearing without warning in the heart of their portal chamber. He wondered if the city's leader, Cognitor Bellum, would deign to deal with him. The guards tied his wrists behind his back in metal bindings that cut into his flesh, tempting Mallon to shatter them. They surrounded him and marched forward down an avenue beneath a metal sky.

Mallon had always considered Tekron to be the grandest of the Free Cities, befitting its status as the world's capital. The walls, floor, and ceiling leading to the portal were a stainless alloy with the smoothed sharpness of a newly-polished blade. While totally devoid of natural sunlight, the cavernous corridor was instead provided illumination by brilliant ovoid shells of glass and wire. The brilliance of an artificial sun shone from a vaulted roof far above them, which cast no shadows into an opened central plaza decorated with fountains and terraced gardens. Vines snaked between the writhing roots of a wandering willow, a semi-mobile plant native to Iplath's famed equatorial jungles. Lesser, but luscious trees grew on the central podium, offering sumptuous and tantalizing fruit from their boughs.

Mallon briefly wondered why such a bountiful harvest of ripened fruit had been left unguarded before recalling two explanations. The first was simply that the fruit with the brightest colors were the most poisonous, as the unwary that consumed them became fertilizer for the tree beneath. For the non-venomous fruit, the inhuman and steely discipline of the Tsanasians undoubtedly deterred such things. The immaculate condition of their public spaces was ensured by harsh punishments and magical compulsions.

The guards forced Mallon into an opened area beneath the artificial sun's gaze. He flinched momentarily, as if recoiling from an assassin's stiletto. A line of greening statues stood guard across a marble causeway that passed over an artificial channel. The canal's edges were lined with fruit-bearing plants and river reeds, mimicking a natural waterway. Scintillating metallic spheres playfully plunged underwater and weaved around bridges like frantic fireflies. On either side of the walkway were four stories of opened walkways and unmarred footpaths with gilded railings. Vines wrapped around the walkways high and low, providing a semblance of nature to the multileveled avenues. The buildings themselves resembled cones and cylinders of machined, burnished brass, issuing upward like the valves of a cyclopean engine.

The scores of pedestrians meandering around the upper levels paid no heed to Mallon or his captors, as if inhumanly devoid of curiosity. With skin tones ranging from the polished jet of equatorial Iplath and dust-choked Karoom to the paler tones of cooling Rlim and Iplath's northerly latitudes to everything in between, all bloodlines sprung from their forbears, from Atlantis, Mu, and Lemuria, were present. The original settlers of Tsanas had come from all worlds, as the original Free Cities were founded by thirteen renegade archmages and their subjects.

Mallon saw their fashion was largely uniform. They wore synthetic fabrics of colors and lining unlike anything in nature, but only a handful wore the brightest and most brilliant of garments. Covering most of their skin, the handful of men and women in the brilliant colors avoided eye contact with none but their own gaudily dressed peers. None of them so much as looked in Mallon's direction as he was marched past the crowd. Nevertheless, one among them tried to caress his mind, exhibiting an uncharacteristic curiosity. He did not resist it, and quickly identified an amber-skinned woman with a queenly stature as the responsible party. He was marched past her before he could continue his telepathic conversation.

Mallon identified her and her peers as the Mindguard, the elite mentalists that dominated Tsanasian society. The mightiest among them, the Cognitor of Tekron, had pledged fealty to him. He recalled the runes on the woman's bright blue and silver-lined uniform translated into his native tongue as "Ministry of Right Thought," the group responsible for ensuring social order in the Free Cities.

Being escorted down a primary thoroughfare of the city refreshed Mallon's memories of what happened to those who opposed their rule. Men and women with unkempt hair and ragged clothes hovered forlornly at the mouths of alleyways, catatonically staring outward with moronic, blissful grins. They had been reduced to prisoners within their own mental oubliettes, trapped in ornate illusions by the Mindguard. The Tsanasians boasted about their cities' lack of prisons, but few foreigners knew the insidious alternative.

Mallon appreciated the Bellum's sense of irony. He gave his foes everything they could desire, but solely within a solipsistic realm of phantasms. He had never perfected the mentalists' command of illusions and compulsions, but held them in a high regard. The grotesqueries of necromancy and blood sacrifice were straightforward compared to the illusive worlds in which the Mindguard so casually ensorcelled dissidents, criminals, and rebels.

As Mallon marched toward what could only be the city center, he beheld the true magnificence of Tekron. Directly beneath the apex of the city's central sky dome was a palatial structure carved from the lily-white marble, undoubtedly imported at great expense. The central palace was cinctured by a circular garden divided into four quadrants, each of which bearing a traditional style from one of the Four Worlds. The first bore tropical carnivorous plants carved into exotic topiaries of Iplath's reptilian megafauna. The second bore hanging gardens of the same style found elsewhere in Tekron, with hanging climbing night ivy with milky blossoms, fruiting trees, and water reeds growing from loamy fountain waters. The third was populated by low, hardy scrub bush and whistling grasses from the wastelands of Karoom. The final one was a Rlimite rock garden, with sinuous branches writhing up from a mound of assembled boulders as they would on a natural cliff face.

What united the disparate elements in Mallon's eyes was the distinctly artificial juxtaposition of each in perfectly regular quarters of a circle extending outward from the palace. The wide gardens provided the impression of a much wider open space than the confined city suggested. Unlike the other parks, the botanical gardens were only peopled by bronze statues of the same sentries that now escorted him in. With great curiosity, Mallon brought his escorts to an immediate halt. The verdigris icons saluted simultaneously, sounding like the creaking of an unoiled hinge.

The Cognitor's Inquisition

The massive doors of the Cognitor's palace opened, the blackness of the door yawning like an infernal gateway. Mallon could not see within the hall before him, but the sentries pushed him onward. They gaily ascended the flight of marble stairs that lead directly to the portal before him, as if the guards pressing bayonets into his back intended to brandish his capture like a prize trophy. They forced his head downward until he saw only his worn boots and tattered robe flapping as he climbed the steps.

As soon as he entered the door, Mallon noted the absence of the artificial sun. Flickering, insufficient lights from glassy bulbs illuminated the path forward. Each pair was spaced an even length apart, although the relative distance between each was like an eon-long sojourn between dying stars. At the end of the corridor, a pair of brazen doors adorned with stylized solar rays emerging from a human head opened without a visible mechanism. The guards hurled him into the room like a sack of refuse before forcing him to the ground within. The guards stuffed a thick rag into Mallon's mouth and tied a gag tightly upon his head.

Another set of doors closed behind the muted wizard, sealing the chamber as the lights were extinguished. Mallon resisted the urge to call upon his sorcerous might to rip off his bindings, as his sense of caution was overweighed by his curiosity for what laid beyond the chamber. He heard a sound like the hissing of a thousand serpents as a curious vapor was emitted from the chamber's walls. As he inhaled the gas, a Lethean sensation almost overwhelmed him with its potency. Now aware of the nature of the gas, the sorcerer feigned deep sleep to determine his captors' reaction.

Mallon's ruse did not last. He felt himself being dragged down a labyrinthine expanse of corridors that terminated in a central chamber ringed by raised benches, where he was chained to a fixed chair and awoken by an attending guard's slap. An unnatural luminosity bathed the room from the crystalline light fixture above, casting broken refractions across the mirrored alloys comprising the floor. Eight figures loomed in nine chairs, each completely subsumed under masks with opaque visors and billowing robes of Tekron's ubiquitous synthetic fabric. They sat with the inhuman stillness of painted figures, motionless save for the malevolent red light that ceaselessly undulated across their visors. He felt like he was being scanned by an array of Cyclopean sculptures. Their presence was simultaneously regal and imposing, like beholding a demoniac citadel.

Examining them closer, Mallon saw subtle differences in the curved plate-like face visors of his captors' helmets. Each bore an astrological sign traditionally ascribed to a respective Free City. He saw the Spider, sigil of Weven. He saw the Gear, symbol of Lon. The grandest of the helmets corresponded to the ambassador on the largest chair, which was emblazoned with the Tekron's Empath sigil. As he looked upward, he had little doubt that he beheld Cognitor Bellum, Arch Councilor of the Free Cities of Tsanas.

For a moment, Mallon felt true fear. Long had the sensation of true peril eluded him, but its return brought with it an alien feeling of powerlessness to the archmage. He had allowed himself to be taken to the depths of a potential enemy's stronghold, surrounded by soldiers and magical wards. He fully expected famed psychic sorceries of the Free Cities to fall upon his mind like a mental siege, assaulting his senses and ripping apart his sense of identity. He felt a psychic probing, a sensation not unlike the dampness of the first drops of a rainstorm.

The absence of a full psychic assault afterward was what truly concerned Mallon. The slackening of his physical bonds followed immediately. It would have relaxed him under any other circumstance, but it only served to raise his excitement. He briefly ruminated on fight or flight as a thousand unseen hands lifted him into the sky. He was levitated in front of the Arch Council in the manner of a marionette supported by invisible strings. Beneath him, the subordinate councilors bore the alert stares of skittish birds. Only a horrid unity in their movements differentiated them in the archmage's mind.

Mallon's heart raced as he was raised closer to the Arch Councilor. So close was the physical proximity between them, Mallon expected to feel the chill touch of the Cognitor's helmet against his exposed forehead. Instead, he pressed upon an invisible wall with an impossible smoothness. He pressed his fingers and toes against it like an insect against glass, but the Cognitor's shielded face yielded no clues to his thought process.

His body, held by unseen forces in corpse-like rigor, caused Mallon to recall the exhilaration of genuine risk. He had little doubt that the Cognitor could crush his frail mortal form like an insect, without even dirtying his robes with the resultant gore and bile. He hoped he had captured Bellum's curiosity to a degree sufficient enough to warrant his survival. How long that would last, he was genuinely unsure. Unlike the Tsanasians, his command of mental magic was focused solely on utter psychic defense from foreign influences. He had performed such a ritual before his arrival, but he wondered how long his defenses would hold under relentless battery from another archmage. He set his own psychic contingencies in place to protect himself in the event of his mind falling to outside influence.

The absence of the psychic barrage caused Mallon to shift from pessimistic caution to optimistic curiosity. The Cognitor lowered him back toward the chair and the bonds once more bit deeply into his flesh. A quartet of levitating spheres, slightly larger than those outside, orbited the chair. Lights across their bodies flashed in elaborate patterns of irradiant colors that caused his eyes to ache, but he found himself compelled to stare at them regardless. As the light show continued, a voice spoke directly into his mind. The tone carried an oppressive gravitas that echoed throughout his mind like a fiendish pronouncement.

"You are charged with unlawful entry to the Tekron Arrival Sector, failure to register arrival with the Council, and failure to allow the Council to thoroughly examine your mind."

The Advocate and the Proposition

Mallon wanted to offer a retort or witty quip, but no words assembled in his mind. He settled on the less elegant solution of a chain of profanities, only for his lips to disobey his desires. Successful defiance, especially of his own body, profoundly troubled the sorcerer. He found himself once more occupied by the flashing spheres, only to feel as though portions of his own power and knowledge were diffusing from him by some insidious hypnosis. Like malign will o' wisps, he felt they were instrumental in leading him toward some enigmatic doom.

"By Council regulations, unauthorized use of sorcery is punishable by exile or reeducation. Have you no name, foreigner?" came the wordless query of the Cognitor.

Mallon's stiffened body still refused to respond but he felt a familiar psychic caress sweep across him like a chill wind. He briefly considered unleashing the full extent of his arcane powers upon the servitor, or dropping his disguise in some form. Cognitor Bellum had met him once before in person, when the Suzerain of Four Worlds used a different form in a prior century. He reflected on the irony of his disguise being so successful that even the Four Worlds' greatest master of enchantment, illusion, and mental magic could not bypass it.

As he struggled to form a coherent thought, Mallon wondered if the Cognitor had gotten soft or if he had merely refined his methods to an institutional precision. The opulence of his capital and the ornate uniforms of his enforcers were an uncharacteristic charity on the part of a man who once ordered legions of mind-controlled soldiers to certain doom on distant worlds. While his other deputies ruled as slothful, parasitic worms on their worlds of filthy hovels, Bellum had given his subjects higher living standards and greater relative freedoms. Whether as a means of placation or vanity, the reasons for Bellum's actions were as dark as the visor that obscured his face.

"High Councilor," came a protesting voice from behind Mallon's head. Curiously, the words were spoken verbally in the common tongue of Tsanas. "I speak with great respect, but I must question these proceedings. This man undoubtedly is a powerful sorcerer, unknown to our records, and thus may originate from another world."

"That is obvious, Advocate Cort," the masked Cognitor replied, but Mallon could not tell if it was verbal or telepathic. "But the defendant has refused to lower his mental defenses."

"Great Cognitor, should not we inform him how?" the young man's voice queried. "Inhabitants of the other worlds harbor delusions of privacy. Should we not inform him that to shield one's mind from interrogation is illegal here?"

"Nescience of the law is the purest ignorance, and even the greatest of sorcerers is not above it."

"As an Advocate, I request you let the accused speak. Why risk the ire of a great sorcerer without purpose? Surely, there are only a handful of people in the Four Worlds that could resist your direct approach."

"Very well, Advocate," conceded the Cognitor. "The prisoner may speak."

Mallon felt the invisible forces sealing his lips closed lift, and he breathed cautiously through his mouth as if to test his ability to make sounds. He briefly considered babbling incoherently in baby talk and nonsensical gobbledygook, but his sense of self-preservation decisively overruled him. Even in his decadence and bored omnipotence, he did not jettison his resolve to triumph over the side of the city like burdensome chaff.

"Cognitor, I have simply come to visit. This is how you welcome me?" he asked.

"Great wizard," said Advocate Cort, "I understand your power may grant you reverent deference on other worlds, but due to the Free Cities' environmental seals and close societies, we prefer advance warning from all prospective visitors. How else would we celebrate your coming?"

"I did not wish for my coming to be celebrated. Can I not simply wander the city as any other citizen?"

"Citizens of the Free Cities do not wander," the Cognitor said condescendingly. "All have their roles."

"Cognitor, I would like to request we release him, so that he could assist us with a specific problem on the surface."

The seven other Councilors immediately turned their helmeted gazes toward the inexpressive Cognitor. Bellum set both of his gloved hands upon his podium, palpably intrigued by the Advocate's suggestion. "That will work nicely. Visitor, should you resolve this conundrum, you shall be free to explore the Free Cities at your leisure."

"You honor me with your generosity, Cognitor," Mallon asked, with feigned feebleness in his tone. "What is the nature of the matter?"

"The Free Cities mine and gather resources from the inhospitable surface by means of artificial servitors," the Advocate explained. "They are typically controlled remotely by a Mindguard telepath, but those operating Tekron's largest mine have ceased to respond."

"And you wish that I would head to the surface to restore your control," Mallon said. "I must presume your own attempts to do so have already failed, for you to entreat a stranger to solve them."

"Exactly. The Cognitor realizes there is no alternative for the present time," Cort said. "But I know that you are more than capable of the task."

Mallon raised his eyebrow at the Advocate's statement. "Will I have any support?"

"Yes. I shall accompany you remotely, using an armed construct body," the Advocate said. "Should you assist Tekron, our city will be open to you."

"Do you accept the Advocate's proposition?" the Cognitor asked, the deep voice reverberating in Mallon's head. "It is rather generous for one in your unenviable position, but I am not unreasonable."

Having neither seen nor divined a construct-driven mine on the Tsanasian surface, Mallon considered the offer to sate that small curiosity that gnawed incessantly at him like a burrowing termite. He had been to the surface a handful of times, but had never seen permanent construction upon that blasted wasteland. His survival instinct relished the chance to escape from his current predicament, but he harbored no illusions that the Cognitor would not be watching or have other plans.

"Very well, Cognitor," he said with an expertly feigned nonchalance. "When do I leave?"

"Immediately," replied the Cognitor with words expressed directly and verbally. "You should be able to find the facility without our guidance, should your sorcerous talents be as potent as we believe."

The very speech echoed across the Council chamber thrice. Mallon found himself lifted out of the chair and tossed like a rag doll before a squad of waiting guards in a side passageway. The sorcerer was unceremoniously forced to his feet. The guards fixed their bayonets at his back, forcing him to march forward like a condemned man. He trudged down a corridor of corroded steel, which terminated in a series of bulkheads. Each section of corridor was partitioned on either end by a heavy metal door, sealed by a metal wheel that turned like a ship's helm. The final section of hallway was a dead end, save for a similar opening in the floor. The soldiers sealed the door behind him, and opened the hatch to the atmosphere outside. Well aware of what he would face, Mallon cast a protective shield around himself and jumped into the veil of noxious clouds below.

The Surface of Tsanas

Mallon's protective sorceries had allowed him to survive environments from the inside of a star to the depths of space. Surviving naked in the atmosphere of Tsanas was nevertheless a test of his abilities. Of the Four Worlds, Tsanas was closest to the sun and had the thickest atmosphere. Its pressure increased with depth, rivaling the deepest oceans of Iplath. Before he began his descent, Mallon hovered below the sealed city of Tekron.

Emerging from a caustic cloud, the city's spherical hull was the white of a sun-bleached ossuary. Yellow, sulfuric mists wreathed around its body, smothering stray beams of sunlight. The perpetual haze bore the colors of an autumnal twilight. The wispy, sallow clouds wafted through the atmosphere like molten gold. The city drifted and floated idyllically in the skies, like a toadstool emerging from the ground. He saw something fall away from the bottom: a small, spherical craft made of the same material as the city. Only a sulfuric stench reminiscent of garbage sizzling in the hot sun marred the serene beauty. Seeing the city drift behind a cloudbank, the sorcerer descended toward the surface.

Even blinded by the opaque sulfuric atmosphere and its awful aroma, Mallon easily detected where the site was located. Cognitor Bellum's constructions had a peculiar magical aura and tangibility to them, which reminded him of slimy, glistening oils upon a well-lubricated machine. He worried that if he probed the mechanisms, he would risk either damaging the machine or hurting himself. Although his younger self would easily have sneered at his attempt to ingratiate himself to Bellum, Mallon was grateful for the break in ennui that the task provided.

Mallon let himself fall through the clouds as his robe billowed around him. He raised his hands and angled his body toward the source of the aura, which was buried beneath the clouds. He was confident that his inertia redirection magic would easily allow him to land with the comfort of a songbird upon the ground beneath him. He momentarily considered smashing into the automated mine, but decided against it for the given moment. He was curious to see the object of his host's interests, even if he should decide to destroy it later.

Looking to the rapidly approaching surface, Mallon beheld a vast, circular crater occupied by a distinctively artificial grid pattern of incandescent lights that shimmered like a swarm of nocturnal insects. Though the entire facility was automated, he presumed the lights were for assisting pilots hauling raw ore to the cities and supplies to the surface. He descended swiftly, observing the geography that cinctured the luminescent grid. The lights were placed on towers overlooking avenues as wide as rivers. Structures of stone and unknown alloys intermingled with crystals and rubble mounts. The tops of shafts extended into riven clefts of titanic crystals before they vanished in the sepulchral darkness beneath. Portions of the riven ground contained bodies of fluid, lakes of acid that pooled like morning dew between ruined buildings. From his ever decreasing altitude, the sorcerer saw the mines were unmistakably built around the ruins of a crashed floating city.

Mallon had recalled the empty chair on the Council, marked with the eclipse sigil of sunken Otar. The Many-Spired City was the first of Tsanasian air-cities, which eventually rose in rebellion against the Cognitor. Its rebellion was the last. After its defeat, Otar was consigned to exist in oblivion beneath the clouds. Even in death, the remains of the city were plundered for raw materials, like the macabre robberies of a necromancer. He wondered if the impact had exposed or created the crystals that were being mined, or if they were some component of the fallen city that had been revealed by two centuries of exposure to the atmosphere's corrosive elements. All that remained of the city's famed spires were mounted with artificial lights of the same design as Tekron, recent additions to Otar's corpse.

Mallon landed with a feline grace atop a spire in the midst of the complex. He beheld the ravaged hellscape that surrounded him in all directions. Lightning storms raked the distant sky as thunder rolled across the shattered necropolis. Storm-ravaged cliffs jutted out behind mounds of broken debris, leaving only the towers that would identify the ruins as the once proud Otar. Crumbled walls resembling timeworn stele were the sole remnants of the city's once-rebellious inhabitants. Caustic substances upwelled into once bustling streets, drowning ruins that had once held bazaars and performers. The urban charnel around him reminded him of the actions of Tsanas' overlord.

Of the main atrocities to which Mallon had been a party, he recalled Bellum was an often-unwilling participant in them. A cold logic dictated every decision he made, no matter how petty or vindictive the action seemed. His old moniker, the Dominator, stemmed from his mastery of mental magic. He had compelled unwilling lovers to slit the throats of their partners, ensorcelled soldiers to march into certain death, and turned brother against brother in murderous rage. Sinking Otar had been the largest atrocity in number of deaths by the Cognitor, but it paled in comparison to the abominable actions that others had taken to secure their own sorcerous supremacy. Ruminating among the sunken city's cadaver, he could almost feel the malign urges that brought about the decision curdling in the atmosphere around him.

The Second Doom of Otar

Mallon saw moving figures emerge from a nearby mineshaft. He descended under an invisibility spell to take cover near a ruin. He hid behind a what had been a wall, crouching below the empty alcove that once held a window. What he first thought were men were instead a squad of bulbous, gargantuan parodies of the hominid form. They each possessed bilateral symmetry with two arms, two legs, and a single head. They possessed no faces, eyes, ears, or any of the other anticipated organs of sense. Their limbs terminated in tendrils comprising the same molten quartz as used in the rest of their bodies. They clutched a peculiar array of manual tools and apparatuses the mage had not seen before, but assumed were related to excavation.

The mining automatons assumed a martial formation as they marched toward the nearest spire. Those clutching manual tools formed a wedge at the front of the mass, while those with the more complex apparatuses formed ranks at the rear. Mallon had forgotten many of the battles of his youth, but he had seen enough war to recognize rudimentary tactics. The rogue machines marched away on patrol in an almost human gait. He considered destroying them in a spectacular fashion, such as bringing the nearby spire crashing down on them, but he caught sight of another moving object.

The small spherical craft which he had seen earlier emerged from a nearby lake of acid, and a smaller construct emerged from an unseen door. It waded out of the noxious fluid with little haste, as it was covered by a layer of armor that was slightly larger than the guards that had escorted him throughout Tekron. In its hands was a suitably enlarged rifle with an enlarged trigger for its solitary digit. The weapon shifted as the construct advanced, and Mallon immediately sensed a familiar presence behind it. He made eye contact with it and heard it respond as it cautiously advanced toward him.

"Greetings, wizard," said the melodic, telepathic voice of Advocate Cort. "I'm pleased to see you survived. I would like to apologize for your rough treatment at the hands of the Cognitor. He means well, but lacks the more subtle touches of human interaction."

While Mallon drew the mental image of Cort as a sandy-haired youth in a Mindguard uniform too baggy for his stature, he recalled he had not physically seen the youth in any form until now.

"How many of these rogue constructs are there?" Mallon asked, ignoring the pretense of formalities. "And how long since they've broken free? I just saw a dozen patrolling around."

"About a thousand, give or take, and they've been free at least a month," the Advocate said. "I am here to provide support, should you need it."

"Watch and learn," Mallon said, standing up from his hiding place. He raised his hands into the air, and he began to largely shout and wave his hands with a maniacal glee. "Over here, you stone squirts!"

Mallon did not need Cort to be physically present to see the distress displayed in his wavering posture. He leapt out from concealment, and bounded across the landscape with a goatish prancing. He saw two more patrols step forth from the mineshaft, and the one from before reverse course and descend upon him. Confident in their overwhelming superiority of numbers, Mallon wondered which spell he would use to annihilate them. A construct hurled a makeshift javelin at him with superhuman force, but it immediately halted in mid-air.

Mallon saw Cort aiming his weapon at it, using some type of telekinetic force issuing from his rifle. He returned the weapon to its origin with even greater force, impaling one of the constructs against a nearby wall. The Advocate opened fire, with each shot discharging an invisible bolt resembling a heat distortion in the ambient atmosphere. While the weapon was more impressive than the crude muskets Bellum had invented, it still paled in comparison to the most potent of his spells. The wizard watched with a state of bemusement as the constructs' own bolts and makeshift weapons deflected harmlessly off his protective shield. A swarm of automatons gathered around him with picks and hammers, futilely flailing away as if he was a vein of ore to be mined. Yawning in boredom, he brought down the nearby tower.

Mallon stood, watching with little interest as he brought the tower down on his current position. The spire groaned as it succumbed to its fate: it had endured two centuries of the most hostile environment in the Four Worlds and the fall of its city, only to yield to an archmage's boredom. Stone splintered like cracked wood. The tower collapsed like a felled tree upon the swarming constructs. Cort's artificial body broke into a frantic run for safety while Mallon stood nonchalantly under his arcane shield, watching the automatons futilely try to scatter from the raining debris. Chipped rock, congealed mortar, and a cloud of dust obscured his view of the crater like a concrete simoom. As it cleared, he saw nothing move.

"So, you think you are something because you can bring down a tower," sounded a familiar voice in his head. "I had not expected the imposter to send an archmage to do his dirty work."

"Is that you, Cognitor Bellum?" Mallon asked.

"No, it's not," Advocate Cort said with disbelief. "It can't be."

"I sense the imposter's taint on one of you," boomed the voice in the archmage's head like an irate god. "But the mage lacks it."

"Do you even know who I am, Bellum?" Mallon asked, half-rhetorically. "I expected more sophisticated tactics from the Dominator of Tsanas than being attacked by mining machines. What happened to your sophistry? Your love of elaborate schemes and ploys? You do worse than disappoint me. You bore me."

"Keep him talking," said Advocate Cort in a hushed vocal tone. "I've almost located him."

"The imposter above might have sent any of the archmages," said Bellum. "But soon, your body, soul, and mind will be mine."

A radiant storm of iridescent energy erupted at the center of the crater, a shockwave expanding outward like a tsunami. Mallon felt his shield waver for a split second, sending him sprawling on the ground as he redoubled his efforts with clenched teeth. Mallon stood like a boxer with his fists balled, and chanting the protective word of power that buttressed him against the onslaught of energy. The Advocate's construct body was half-melt, half-crushed into slag. The ruins around him evaporated like ashen pillars in the wind. Rocky outcroppings collapsed into fissures, and the world itself vibrated beneath his feet. The crushing atmosphere exacerbated the ceaseless pressure and force driving down upon him.

Mallon endured it all with a confident grin, certain the worst was over. With a rudimentary counter-spell, he turned a captured portion of that force back toward its origin point. Using a divination spell, he saw the direct point of impact. A construct body, not unlike the Advocate's, housed Bellum's awareness. In the instant before it was utterly annihilated, he knew this was not the same Bellum as the city above. The possessed construct felt only the barest sliver of awareness of its impending doom before it was reduced to vapor in the harsh atmosphere.

Mallon heard nothing but the wind whistling through the shadow-haunted ruins. The peculiar sonata was interrupted by the occasional impacts of collapsing boulders and shifting hillsides. He looked around for any trace of renegade servitors or Advocate Cort's prosthetic body. Seeing nothing higher than the crater's rim left standing, he levitated upward to confirm the destruction he had sown. He even whistled as he rose above Otar's crash site, having annihilated the city more thoroughly than Bellum.

The Domination of Tekron

Mallon arrived back in Tekron without the furor of his previous arrival method. This time, he transformed into an immaterial phantasm that slipped into the airlock he had been previously ejected through. He leisurely strolled down the corridor, strolling through the bulkheads with the casual ease of a practiced specter. Not bothering to render himself invisible, he received stares and pointed weapons of vigilant sentries, but their shots neither slowed nor affected him in the least. The guards fell back, while the sphere-like constructs observed his progress from a distance.

Mallon walked directly into the Council's chamber with an accomplished grin on his face. The inhuman gazes of the Councilors once more fell upon him. An awkward stillness filled the chamber, but no soldiers or armed constructs came surging in. Mallon could hear their footsteps outside the corridor and swarming around them, but he bore them no greater concern that a man would give an ant. A familiar young man with sandy hair stood before the Council.

"Glad to see you've survived that explosion, sir," Advocate Cort said.

"Welcome back, Archmage," came the Cognitor's voice. "Was it necessary to destroy the largest industrial site on the surface?"

"I've done what you've asked, Cognitor. I'm going to stroll around now," Mallon said, turning to the young man. "Or should I say, Advocate?"

Before the youth could answer, Mallon spoke. "I'm impressed, Bellum. You put an echo of your mind in all of your citizens and even your constructs. Most of them never realize it, but it's enough for you to control them. Maybe even more."

It was then the psychic maelstrom struck Mallon without warning. Mental power wracked his brain, overwhelming his senses like the hypnotic writhing of a million cobras. The intensity before his eyes was that of a supernova exploding. The compressive force of a telekinetic vice froze his body in place. His ears rung with the words of power of a million voices chanting domination and enchantment spells, buttressing the assault. His nostrils smelled the fetid perspiration that soaked his robes. His taste buds recalled everything that had ever passed over his tongue as though he sat before a ceaseless, conjured buffet. His speech was choked; his body convulsed with eldritch power.

Mallon's mind yielded to the Cognitor's domination, but his contingency spells did not. The Free Cities of Tsanas simultaneously began a plunge to the surface. Immediately, the minds of all inhabitants panicked. Thoughts went from obeying the insidious orders of Bellum toward their immediate survival. A half-second delay was enough for them to realize something was amiss as gravity reclaimed them. Bellum fought to control his newfound power, only to prioritize his own survival over total control of Mallon. As the architect of Otar's first doom, he was a well-aware of what awaited him if he was unsuccessful.

That split second lapse in control was enough for Mallon to regain total control of his facilities. He restored and reinforced his defenses, then halted the sinking of the Free Cities. In all of the Free Cities, the citizens were tossed into the air and hit the ground like rag dolls. He redirected the inertial forces from the hulls and essential systems of the city to a single point. He grinned slyly as the Cognitor's body was blasted upward from its podium into the ceiling, the helmet flattened like a cheap tin. Much to Mallon's dismay, only a handful of broken metal components clattered to the floor when he released his telekinetic grip. The remainder of the Council soullessly stared upward, looking at the broken effigy.

"So the masked Cognitor was merely a puppet for the real master," Mallon said as he turned to the young Advocate. "An entertaining spectacle and clever ploy, but there were reasons I am Suzerain of Four Worlds."

"I had hoped you had lapsed in your power, Suzerain, but recognizing you in disguise was obvious once you stood before us," Cort said. "But you believed my puppet show, so I sought to use you to solve my own problem."

"Which I did, but sometimes, your mind transfer and control process is imperfect. Hence the rogue constructs and the dreaming vagrants."

"Yes, Suzerain, but there is more than that. All sapient beings in my cities and surface bases are imparted with my latent personality. This allows me multiple advantages: the ability to solve many problems at once, a way to multiply my powers, a way to discretely shape thoughts, and a way to identify foreigners."

Mallon immediately recognized full extent of Cognitor Bellum's devious genius. Every member of his society was an unwitting sleeper agent, far greater than he imagined the Mindguard's own reach to be. The Cognitor's mind was imprinted subconsciously upon all citizens, like an invisible brand. The rapid technological advances his people made, the ornate gardens, the complex infrastructure, and the illusionary freedoms were solely for his own benefit and vanity.

"Do you embody your people, or do they embody you?"

The Cognitor was silent.

"As you are well aware, I can annihilate your world with a thought," Mallon said. "But as you have given me long-sought excitement, I will overlook this. Should you trouble me again, you know what awaits you."

With his parting words, Mallon departed the Cognitor's palace for further exploration.