"Potential Energy"

by Justin R. R. Stebbins


Part 1: Brotherly Love

As it was at the time of creation, the earth was split into light and shadow. With blasts of terrifying power, the light would try to fill the void. But the black abyss paid no heed, and each flash was soon lost in darkness. The light shone with fierce fire, in a last dazzling display of energy, as the shadow relentlessly closed in around it.

This was how the two armies appeared that day on the field of battle. The mage-lords stood behind their horde of horrifying creations and unwilling slaves, watching as the legion of black-armored knights cut through them like grass, moving ever forward. The magi were at the peak of their power, hurtling spells of unimaginable fury into the heart of the enemy force, spells that could break mountains asunder… but they were forced to watch their spells dissipate, like a meaningless light show to amuse peasants, as the enemy marched on unheeding.

The land beneath the feet of the ebony knights was blasted, twisted, torn asunder, cursed to be forever barren, like the earth of the Great Wastes to the South laid bare by the Mage Wars of Sinkarya. Forever after, the battlefield would be known as the Scar, a place no man would dare to tread. Yet the knights tread it that day, plodding and climbing over the sundered ground without pause.

The magi who had instilled unthinkable horror into the lives of so many – shattering the minds of innocent Achaean men and women with otherworldly things never meant to be glimpsed by mortals – now found themselves cowering before the strength of the Void Iron Knights.

Sir Durand led them, slicing a bloody swath through the magi and their minions, his eyes ever locked upon his goal: the tall golden war-chariot of Ildrius, Mage-Emperor of Achaea. He slew the twisted, unnatural beasts that pulled it, not pausing to watch their hideous forms crumble to dust under his feet as they returned to the dark realms from which they had been summoned. He looked ever upward, to the top of the throne-chariot’s golden stairs. To Ildrius, the knight’s obsidian form looked far more terrifying than the beasts he had just slain.

The Emperor’s gaunt and bent figure rose from the chair at the top, wracked with terror and anguish, but also with rage. To his credit, the usurper of the Imperial throne refused to cower, to beg, or to flee. He fought to the last, in his own cowardly way, opening a gate to the nether realms from which spewed a flock of hellish bats, crows, and harpies. Through them all, Sir Durand cut like a scythe, until he slammed the fingers of his black gauntlet atop the head of the golden lion that adorned the arm of the usurper’s throne. Then he pulled himself up.

They say his black blade sliced through so many layers of arcane shielding before it pierced the Mage-Emperor’s chest, that the blast of power from the broken spells melted the gold of the great chariot, leaving a mound of riches in the center of the Scar. They also say that when Durand drew his long sword from Ildrius’s chest, the Mage-Emperor’s heart came out with it, and it was blacker than even the Void Iron of the blade.

But the stern Sir Durand would not have wanted such fanciful tales told of his deed that day in the shadow of the Iron Pikes…


Here the young man closed the book with a sigh.

“He’s a fine one to talk about ‘fanciful tales’,” said Septimus Plutarch.

Behind him, his sister giggled. “Now Septimus, you know better than to criticize our most beloved ancestor.”

“Yes, especially not in front of our lord father, who would have me follow in his footsteps.”

“You would make a grand historical chronicler, Septimus.”

“A grand chronicler of the greatness of others…”

Septimus rose from his chair and placed the heavy tome back on the bookshelf. His family had a massive collection of books. It was not quite the great Library of Xandropolis, but most of the important works were here. Septimus had spent the majority of his years studying them, since his skills with the sword were no match for his arrogant warrior brothers. All things considered, he preferred the company of his sister Octavia. He found her music a soothing background while reading, though he seldom complimented her on it. She was strumming on her lyre even now. Septimus usually pretended to find it irritating.

She looked up at him now, her dark blue, almost violet eyes smiling. He knew she was well aware of his true feelings, though he always tried to hide them behind his own eyes, which were similar in color but not so vibrant. They both had very dark hair, as did most of their pure-blooded Achaean family, the Plutarchs. Named for their vast wealth, they were one of the oldest houses in all of Achaea. Their ancestors had stood beside Exar I of Coria himself when he had forged the First Empire.

As a reward, they had been given the great castle of Pluton Hold, just north of Coria – now called Coronaria, capital of the Empire – in the shadow of the great volcano Vulcan’s Forge. Though the mountain had never erupted in all of recorded history, it was also never truly dormant. It just loomed there, nestled among the unimaginably tall peaks of the Jagged Edge, spewing a never-ending cloud of smoke. Septimus could see it even now outside the window of his room, which was built high in the black volcanic-stone towers of the Hold.

“Your skill with the lyre has improved,” Septimus deigned to say.

Octavia giggled again. “My friend has been teaching me. Truly I prefer the lute, but others seem to find it somehow… common. Not distinguished and ancient enough for my distinguished and ancient blood. In the south, around Justantion, they use a bowed lyre, which I also prefer…”

Septimus ignored all this dull talk of musical instruments and gave a dirty smile. “This friend you’re referring to wouldn’t happen to be Cordia? The blonde with the green eyes? Mmm… Is she back in town? I thought she’d run off to Templaria.”

Octavia pursed her lips and made a scolding motion with her fingers. “Yes, she’s in town, but she told me not to tell you. Must you try to get all my friends into bed?”

Septimus chuckled, rubbing his smooth-shaven chin. He’d been told his deep chuckle was charming. In fact, it was one of Octavia’s musical friends who had told him that. Septimus took great pride in his personal charisma. While his brothers busied themselves trying to make conquests on the battlefield, he had made far more conquests of a different type, more suited to his own skills…

Suddenly, the door to Septimus’s room burst open, interrupting his pleasant reverie. In stepped Paulus, the loyal family servant. The grey-haired, sour-faced old gentleman had served the Plutarchs all his life. Septimus’s father Lord Titus, head of House Plutarchus and master of Pluton Hold, had grown up with Paulus, as they were nearly the same age. They hardly seemed to say two words to each other now, but there was a silent mutual respect there that Paulus thoroughly lorded over Titus’s children, despite being low-born and uneducated. Septimus utterly despised the man.

“Master Septimus,” Paulus said, without even looking at the man he was addressing, “you are summoned to the great hall. Lord Titus and your brothers are waiting for you.”

Pointedly reclining in his chair, Septimus said, “And what of Octavia? She is Father’s daughter – is she not summoned as well?”

Octavia made a face at him, angrily imploring him to leave her out of it. He paid her no heed.

Paulus glanced between them, stumbling to form an appropriate response. “She is not… That is, your father did not specify, but he indicated… He said to fetch his sons.”

Though she truly did not like Paulus either, Octavia forced a smile. “It’s quite alright.”

Septimus snorted. “It’s not alright at all. Octavia, if by some good fortune my brothers and I all kill each other, and you come to inherit, I hope you’ll fire this lout.”

Paulus stiffened even more than normal, if such a thing were possible. “I shall tell Lord Titus of your disrespect toward me.”

“You may also tell him I said you were an idiot and recommended he replace you with a trained monkey from the Sunset Islands. But enough; I tire of talking about you. I’ll head to the main hall now. You can run along.”

Paulus bowed and left, and after replacing his book, Septimus followed. Octavia waved goodbye and continued practicing her music. Plutarch felt his feet sink into the luxurious carpet of the castle hallway. He tightened the belt on his night-robe but did not bother putting on any more formal clothes. It was a nice enough robe, a deep royal purple lined with silver, even if he did occasionally sleep in it.

Septimus headed downstairs. Just outside the doors to the main hall, he ran into one of his brothers. It was Varius, his father’s fourth son – one of the lighter-haired ones. Septimus suppressed a sneer. He had to suppress a sneer around all of his brothers, but it was perhaps worst around Varius.

Thoroughly outshone in martial prowess by their father’s eldest two sons, Varius was forever trying to prove himself in the only thing he was good at: swordfighting. “Varius the Blade,” he liked to tell others to call him. He could barely sit a horse and was no good at commanding troops, but he was a master with a blade. Their father had assigned him to teach Plutarch in the art, and instead Varius had simply done his best to humiliate him. Plutarch was better with a pen than any kind of blade, and Varius loved to rub this in his face.

“Septimus,” remarked Varius, grinning and swaggering like a swashbuckler – the idiot could never stand still.

Septimus looked down his tall aquiline nose at his shorter brother. “Varius.”

Varius hooked is thumbs on the belt that held up his leather trousers. “Been exercising your sword-arm any since we last met? Perhaps we should spar again later, though I see you’re not carrying a sword on your… robe.”

“Are swords all you ever talk about, Varius? I always have to resist thinking of innuendo when speaking with you.”

Varius snickered. “Still sharpening your wit instead of your blade then, I guess. I could lend you my sword, and I’ll fight with just my dagger. We could do it now!”

Septimus rolled his eyes. “Father is waiting for us, so please, just… keep it in your pants.”

Varius laughed, bobbing excitedly on his heels. Then he moved past Septimus and opened the great oaken doors to the main hall. Septimus followed him, and saw that the rest of the family was already there, seated around the tremendously long table amidst the tall statues and long banners of the Septimus house. Their ghastly family emblem, a helmeted black skull on a field of deep purple, stared from the flags with hollow eyes.

As he took his seat, Septimus scanned over those present. At the head of the long table sat Lord Titus Plutarch himself, a gaunt but straight-backed old man with hardly a hair on his head, and with eyes so cold it was hard to believe a soul resided behind them. Septimus had his doubts that one did. As usual, he was clad entirely in black. They were fine clothes, of course, but where other nobles valued color as a sign of status, Lord Titus spurned it.

On either side of him sat his two eldest sons, Adamas and Albus. Adamas was dark-haired, as stern and emotionless as his father, and a master of all the arts of war. Albus, the younger of the two, was the first of the three lighter-complexioned, sandy brown-haired Plutarchs. He had bright blue eyes and an even brighter, self-confident smile. He was supposedly a tactical genius on the battlefield, and his troops loved him.

The next two Plutarchs were the other light-haired ones. First was Claudius, the least ambitious of all the Plutarchs, and a disappointment to his father. For this reason if no other, he was the only brother that Septimus could tolerate, even if he had no respect for him. Claudius simply lived a life of luxury on the family wealth, and Lord Titus tried to ignore him so long as he caused no scandals. Seated opposite him was Varius.

After Varius, their Lord Father had apparently lost interest in thinking up individual names, for the rest of his children were simply numeric. Quintus – number five – had taken up religion and become a priest in the temple of Zeus, much to his father’s annoyance. He took his job seriously, however, and was always annoying the rest of the family with reminders to respect the gods. Perhaps it helped him feel superior to his brothers.

Then came Sextus, the most forgettable brother. Well aware that his position lay far down the ladder, he did everything he could to ingratiate himself with the eldest son, Adamas. He served as his squire, eagerly following him around everywhere he went and overzealously enforcing his orders. He made Septimus sick.

Of course, Septimus had plenty of cause to jealously resent all his brothers, for he was the youngest. Except, of course, for Octavia, but Lord Titus hardly seemed to acknowledge her existence. Once his wife had borne him a daughter, he had reportedly lost all interest in her. She passed away when Septimus was still a child; he had barely known her.

Septimus scooted his seat around to the end of the table – the squeaking of the chair legs echoing in the great chamber – so that instead of sitting opposite empty air, he now faced his father across the long field of polished wood. Lord Titus looked at him and frowned deeply, but made no comment, not even about Septimus’s attire and his reclined posture. Instead, the old man cleared his throat for silence and then addressed the whole room.

“My sons, I called you here for an important occasion,” he said, his voice coarse but strong. “Adamas and Albus have been assigned to lead two Imperial Legions to the Black Lands to suppress a rebellion. Word is that the rebel houses may even have the support of a barbarian tribe who sailed their longships through Rognosst Swamp and into the Empire. This is an opportunity for the eldest sons of our house to show their greatness. Varius and Sextus will accompany them, as their lieutenants.”

Sextus grinned sycophantically at this. Septimus tried hard not to gag.

“And Septimus,” said the Lord of House Plutarch, startling his youngest son, “you will accompany them as chronicler of the campaign.”

Septimus coughed. “What? Father, I was about to head to Coronaria to stand for election as an Aedile…”

“An ancient position,” Lord Titus said dismissively, “largely worthless now, and it was my impression that you had no desire to serve in it anyway.”

“I do not, of course. In truth, I had… other plans.”

Titus gave an amused smile, and said condescendingly, “And pray tell, what plans did you have in mind?”

Septimus’s lips tightened. He knew he should not say anything, but it was difficult to resist. He’d been keeping his scheme a secret for so long, and now the judging eyes of all his older brothers and his father were laughing at him – even Sextus, the stupid little toady.

Septimus straightened in his chair, leaned over the table, and placed his hands out flat upon it, looking across into his father’s eyes. “Consider this: The Empire is full of ancient, blue-blooded patrician families with virtually no land holdings. Compared to the young and upcoming new bloodlines, earning their money through conquest and trade, these venerable old houses are practically poor. Over the centuries, they’ve lost everything save the value of their names. They’re desperate for financial help, but they have nowhere to turn. The only bank with enough money to loan them is the Iron Gauntlet, and what Achaean noble wants to deal with the dvergar?

“So here is my plan, Lord Father: I will go to Coronaria, serve my years as an Aedile, and use the knowledge I gain of economics, the families in the capital, and their finances, as well as their respect… to open a bank here in Pluton Hold. Whatever meagre pittance I inherit of our great wealth should still be enough to start the venture. Men will flock from across Achaea for an alternative to banking with the dwarves. Our wealth and influence will increase a hundredfold. So… what do you think?”

Silence fell over the room. Every small squeak of leather echoed off the ceiling. Septimus looked at his brothers. Adamas was stone-faced as usual, impossible to read – as was Lord Titus. Albus was frowning thoughtfully. Claudius actually had the guts to raise his cup to him, with a nod. The rest looked like they had hardly even understood his proposal.

Then Lord Titus simply shook his head. “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard in my life, boy. You think I’d let a son of mine stain the family name by becoming a damned professional moneylender? We have money, son. We needn’t make it like some upstart young merchant family – we need only manage it.”

Unfazed, Septimus crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair. “If you’re offering to put me in charge of the family’s finances…”

Titus waved his hand. “I’m offering no such thing. What I am offering you is a chance to follow in the footsteps of one of our family’s most esteemed names and become a great historian.”

Septimus’s lip twitched with a barely-concealed sneer. “Yes, a chronicler of the exploits of greater men – my esteemed brothers.”

“A chronicler,” said Quintus, the priest brother, “of the will of the gods! A holy calling.” But no one paid him any heed.

Albus, the light-haired second son, licked his lips and forced a smile. “Now brother, there’s no need for this attitude. If you feel that way, we will give you a command position! Won’t we, Adamas?” Adamas’s stone face carved itself into a frown, but Albus went on: “Why, if we conquer some new land for the Empire, you could even have a governorship–”

“You think I want to govern some backwater frontier swamp or barbarian dung-village,” Septimus snapped, “while one of you two inherits the wealthiest hold in the heart of the Empire? Don’t throw me a bone, Albus – I don’t want your table scraps. I can make my own way in the world.”

Lord Titus rose from his chair then, and placed two fingers upon the table, leaning forward with an air of finality. “Enough of this! Septimus, you will accompany your brothers as their chronicler, and if either Albus or Adamas sees fit to offer you a greater position than that, you will thank them kindly and accept it. You are not going to make your own way in the world – you’re going to help make the way of House Plutarch. Now, I would have a word with you alone. The rest of you wait here.”

Septimus refused to look cowed. He kept his head held high as he rose from his seat and walked around the table to join his father, the eyes of his brothers following him as he moved. He shot Albus a look and nodded, hoping his elder brother would not take his earlier outburst personally. He had no real problem with Albus – only with his father. And perhaps Varius.  And Sextus. Well, he certainly had no love for any of them.

Lord Titus moved with measured step, never looking back as he led his youngest son toward a door on the side of the great hall, and into a small study room. He closed the door behind him and motioned for Septimus to take a seat on one of the deep purple cushioned chairs. Septimus did as instructed, picking up a glass from the table and sipping it, without knowing what it was. It turned out to be green wine, a very rare and valuable elven drink. Septimus decided he would finish the glass.

His father sat down opposite him and locked his fingers together beneath his chin. “Septimus, I wanted to have a word with you in private.”

The younger man swirled his wine and huffed. “Well yes, that’s why we’re here.”

“I want you to know I understand how you feel. You are a man of great potential, who feels he is being held back. I want you to know that is not the case. I am not holding you back – I am holding you in reserve.”

Septimus suppressed a laugh. “In reserve for what? In case my six older brothers all suddenly catch the plague?”

“Do not be so quick to scoff at the idea. I know I’ve told you this many times, but I too was seventh in line to inherit this place, my name and titles. I lost two brothers to war, three to disease or accident, and one to assassination. At least two of your brothers are utter fools and may not even outlive my horse. Indeed, I hope they do not. They would only drag down the family name. But you, my son, would not. So… bide your time. Educate yourself and improve your skills. And eventually, your day will come.”

Plutarch threw back the rest of his glass and wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his robe, before looking his father in the eyes. “And what if I don’t want to be your… contingency plan?”

Lord Titus gave a thin smile. “Of course you do. You want power – it’s plain in your eyes – and this is the surest way to get it. And in the meantime, during your studies, maybe you can help us conquer another house through marriage instead of the sword. Maybe you can seduce the only daughter of some wealthy old family like Beltizar or Olgovic. I hear you’re good at that.”

“A waste of my talents,” muttered Septimus Plutarch, looking into his empty glass.

“The gods give each of us certain tools,” Titus replied, with an air of finality as he opened the door and head back out into the hall. “We must use the tools that we are given.”

With that, he closed the door behind him, leaving Septimus alone with his green wine and his thoughts.

Part 2 ->