I find my brother in an old limestone barn on an abandoned farm. Light and noise spill from its doors, a weird contrast to the dark, fallow fields around it. I resist the urge to simply blow it down, but only barely.
When I followed the faint smell of his power to the outskirts of Heyton, I anticipated finding him tangled in sweaty bodies, and I was both right and wrong. He's not rolling in a bed with some pretty thing he's compelled to want him. He's rolling on a sawdust floor with a big, scarred man whose face looks like it's been used to stop a wrecking ball more than once, while screaming punters egg him on, waving fists full of sweaty betting slips.
He's disguised, as am I. If he were himself, no one would fight him. If I were myself, I would damage the Empire's reputation. If I were less furious, I would care much more about that.
I walk through the crowd, and through the rail around the fighting pit, as if they're not there, leaving bruised spectators and wooden splinters behind me. A hush begins to spread in my wake, but Titan is too wrapped up in his bloodlust to notice it. He has the stupid gall to be surprised when I grab his raised fist and yank him off his opponent. He has the stupid fucking gall to take a swing at me.
I waste one of my quick-trigger spells in my anger -- a sonic detonation that blasts him away from me, through the railing and the crowd like the reverse of my entrance, to hit the far wall with a flat crack that, in a mortal man, would've been the sound of broken bone. Because he's my brother, it's the sound of broken stone.
The gamblers scatter, the ones who aren't too dumb to save themselves. Even the man Titan was beating senseless manages to drag himself upright and stagger away. A few, too full of themselves or drugged or drunk to have any sense, yell at me instead. Their voices are loud and strangely accented, because their ears are ringing from my spell and they can't hear anything else.
So I put my words directly into their minds: This establishment is closed. Then I rip the roof off and scatter it across the fields for emphasis. It only takes a twist of my fingers. I doubt any of them will deduce from that who I am, nor be believed if they do. And I honestly don't care. My brother is stalking toward me, grinning like an animal, and if anyone's still hanging around when he reaches me they're welcome to die here.
It turns out no one is that suicidal. We have the roofless barn to ourselves when he crowds into my personal space, when I spread my hand on his filthy chest and give him thirty thousand volts.
He grounds it without losing his grin, but it burns off his disguise. The purple flickers back into his eyes and his tattoos bleed to the surface as the glamour dispels. I drop mine as well. I grab him by the throat, and he lets me. It would barely inconvenience him if I crushed his windpipe. I want to do it anyway, just because it would hurt.
I have a purpose here other than venting my anger. I shove him away and wipe his sweat off my hand.
He laughs. "You mad, Bro?"
"Let's skip the part where you pretend you're not scry-blockin' my secretary," I snarl. "Let's go directly to the part where you tell me what the fuck you think you're playin' at."
Titan strolls away from me and hops up to perch on what remains of the railing, infuriatingly leisurely. "Hey, while we're skipping ahead," he drawls, "why don't we roll on past the stretch of bullshit where you pretend he's your secretary?"
A fresh knot of lightning starts to gather in my hand. "I don't wanna hear what you think he is. There is no word for it that won't sound sordid comin' outta your mouth. Just tell me what the hell you want and what I gotta do to get him back."
"Oh, you want to deal now. Remember when you said you were gonna dismember me? Good times, good times."
The memory of how Sol looked sitting on the floor, hugging his knees, after Titan had a go at him, is too much to take on top of Titan's suggestive chuckle. I sling the lightning ball at his face.
He bats it aside. It spreads across the wall like a vine of light, leaving black scorch on the stone and smoking embers among the straw strewn on the floor. He rolls his neck, stretches his hands, lets his shoulders settle loose and limber. So he wants a fight. He came ready for one; had countermeasures already in place against my lightning, or those two shocks would've hurt him more. Why does he want to fight me? Did he take Sol just to make me mad?
"I just wanna know what's so special about him," Titan says with wheedling false innocence. "You're such a fucking prude, Prince. He must really be something to get you down off your little altar of purity. And hey, brothers are supposed to share." He puts on a pout. "How come you never share with me, Bro? How come we always have to be fighting? It's hurtful, you know?"
"It might," I grind out through my teeth, "have somethin' to do with the way you treat everything I care about as your personal toybox. You interfere with my Taken, you lie about me to Dad --"
His jovial mask slips a bit. "Oh, boo hoo. Daddy's favorite got a spanking, how sad."
"It's not about my fuckin' ego!" I yell. Above me the clouds are gathering, blotting out the stars. "How stupid can you even be?" I realize he's derailed me onto old grudges. Yes, it rankles that he somehow convinced Orphaner I started the infighting that got both our ranks purged. It infuriates me that he managed to trick or corrupt several Taken that I considered personal friends, as much as Taken can be, which got them killed, yes, I'm still mad about that.
But right now, he has Sol, or has sent him running and hidden his trail -- before the knives got restless, I feared Titan killed him and hid the death, which is not something I ever want to feel again -- and he is wasting my fucking time with this shit.
I draw my wand.
He throws me a look of disbelief. "You're seriously going to go there."
"I came loaded for Resurrectionists," I spit. "I have a whole war's worth of serious business cocked so tight the bowstring's singin'. Do not fuckin' test me."
"Whoa, whoa." He holds his hands up placatingly. I don't buy it for a second. "You don't wanna start a war with me, Bro. Not over some mortal beanpole with a fucked-up face. It ain't worth it."
My storm is almost ready. The thunder's close enough to crack before it rumbles. "I think," I say with slow venom, "that you've been at war with me for quite some time, you just didn't bother announcin' it."
"Hey, a little sibling rivalry is healthy! I don't get why you're so mad. Do you love him?" My silence, it seems, is answer enough for him. He bursts out laughing. "Oh my god, Princey. Seriously? He's a spy, you moron. Who made the first move? It was him, right?" He throws his head back and laughs and laughs.
Ice settles into the pit of my stomach. It's not that I've never suspected Sol's motives. But hearing it from Titan makes it sound so much worse. I am not going to yell at him to shut up, that would make it seem like he's right. He's not right. I trust Sol. I do.
"Oldest trick in the spy-tricks book, and you fell for it dick-first" Titan hoots. "Oh, this is a knee-slapper." And he actually slaps his knee like a yokel.
"That's my business, not yours," I say coldly. "Your business is givin' him back immediately, unharmed. An' if you went diggin' in his mind I'll take it out of your hide."
Titan's laugh goes throaty, and he actually dares to turn his glamour of desire on me. The throb in my groin and the roil in my stomach are simultaneous; I wonder, involuntarily, what he would do if I didn't shake it off for once, if I called his incestuous bluff -- does he care as little for that taboo as he does for so many others? But he only means it as an insult, a little extra taunt when he licks his lips and says deliberately, "Bro, I don't want Sollux Captor for his mind."
I sketch a tiny, precise sigil in the air with the point of my wand. The walls of the barn blow outward like silt around a dropped anchor. The detonation breaks windows half a mile away.
I hear distant screams, and later I'll hope I didn't kill any civilians. They are my subjects, after all, and though Titan might treat them like playthings, I take my responsibilities seriously. But right now I only have eyes for the disgusting mockery of my own form who is still fucking laughing at me.
All that remains of the barn-cum-arena is the post Titan is sitting on. He looks unruffled, but two of his tattoos are gone, leaving reddened afterimages on his skin. He's out of prepared spells already. He always did slack off on his homework.
"The madder you get, the more I want him," he says reasonably. "You do realize you're just making him more attractive to me?"
"You're such a fuckin' infant. You think sentimental value is transferrable? You think if you keep stealin' what other people love, it'll start lovin' you? Or are you just wreckin' what you don't understand like a savage burnin' books he can't read?"
He rolls his eyes, but I can tell that hit home. "Maybe I want to understand what's so important to my darling brother, you ever think of that?" His eyes sharpen. "Maybe if you just show me, I won't have any more use for him."
I know he's only looking for an opening in my armor; I know if I let him in he'll do more than just look. But the suggestion that by giving in to this brief violation I'll get Sol back convinces my subconscious just long enough to weaken the shielding my conscious mind knows I must not open. Titan's mind slips into mine like a wet tongue, reeking of sex and carnage like rape in a sacked city.
In the split second before I throw him out, he drags images to the surface that I wanted to hold private. He grasps memories that are clean and sweet to me, and his touch befouls them. The way Sol looked at me the first time we lay together; as if I was another code he had to break, and then as if, having broken it, he'd discovered the message was unexpected good news. The way we laughed together in the throne room. The way he held me when I let the stresses of my situation overwhelm me; the awkward, half-reluctant reassurances he whispered, the gentleness of his hands.
Titan takes those images and twists them into ugly caricatures -- paints me mawkish and Sol scheming, props us on a bawdy stage for the world to laugh at -- and even as I eject him and slam my shield shut, even as my anger reaches a white heat, I realize this is how Titan honestly sees things. This is the closest he can come to understanding love: a sentimental chump being preyed on. When Orphaner made us, he built Titan wrong. And I pity my brother as much as I loathe him.
"Last chance," I say softly. My hair starts to lift, my skin to prickle, as the ground beneath us charges. "No more banter. You give him back, or you and I are enemies. I'll fight you until one of us is dead."
"You're serious," he says incredulously.
He hops down from the post, showing all his teeth in something that's not really a smile. "Then I hope you brought your A game!"
His hand twitches toward his spell-daubed chest.
I strike him with lightning.
Protective runes up his arms pop like a string of firecrackers as I call bolt after bolt, wrenching the full fury of the storm into this single channel and lighting up the same line over and over until the clouds have no lightning left to give. I'm standing too close for this -- even prepared, I can't absorb all the ground scatter, and the heat is absurd. But this is the only way to fight Titan: burn off his shielding before he can gather momentum, force him onto the defensive. Never let him breathe.
I've always had a plan for killing my brother, because part of doing my job is having a plan to destroy every major player in the game. This is the first time I've actually wanted to do it.
When the lightning runs out, the rain comes down like a hammer, hot as bathwater. Wind howls. Updraft punches the clouds like a baker kneading dough. Titan -- still standing amid the steam and smoke, but reeling -- wouldn't know what it means even if he noticed. As splinters of history's greatest stormbringer, both of us have an inherent affinity for weather magic, but it takes a deep understanding of theory to use that affinity to best effect, and my brother is a poor student. He can throw a bolt, and he can unfortunately absorb and deflect a ridiculous amount of electricity, but for all he cares it might as well be raw mana. The lightning ball he raises now is formless, discharging everywhere, costing him almost as much to control as to gather. I let him throw it, then hook its ion channel around my finger and send the charge back to him as a return stroke.
His eyes flicker wide as he fights to earth it. He has finally realized I'm a serious opponent. He should've thought of that earlier, when he was prepping spells. He should've thought of that before he stole Sol from me.
I trigger my readied spells in quick succession, sonic bursts alternating with tight, properly controlled lightning balls, sending him tumbling and flailing across the scorched ground. I take advantage of the moment it takes him to pick himself up from that to sketch three summoning signs. Not powering them yet, just leaving them hanging in potential, invisible.
Titan finally manages to use his tattoos. His hands are shaking -- he looks like a madman, scratching and pinching at himself to trigger each rune. Armor of red smoke, a wall of dancing knives, half a dozen illusionary duplicates. I hurry to dispel the duplicates -- though I'd have no trouble tracking the real one, he might be able to cast through them. I don't know if he's learned that trick, but I'm not taking any chances. While I'm doing that, he sets off a series of detonations in the ground. The fountaining mud is a cover for the swarm of silver needles he sends through it.
The needles are antimagic, and getting hit would be disastrous, but I anticipated that tactic and I block them easily. That the needles are, in turn, a cover for the dancing knives, I didn't expect. That's a defensive spell, it's shit at attacking, but Titan's defense is all offense.
The whirling blades of mana crosshatch my skin with shallow cuts. I use another sonic burst against them. I have to cast it properly this time, which costs precious seconds. But I've got his measure now. He likes spells that look like weapons, spells that shed blood and cause pain, he wants to brawl with me the way he did with that poor mortal he was pummeling into the sawdust, and he's using combo attacks and feints as if we were fighting hand-to-hand.
I'm not a brawler. I'm a tactician. If he wants me burning with rage, I'll be cold. If he wants me hurling myself at him like a rabid dog, I'll coil like a snake. If he wants a glorious open-field charge, I'll give him a siege.
Rather than counterattack, I heal the cuts his blades made and step half out of synch with the material plane. This means that the poison cloud he follows with, rather than entering my bloodstream and my lungs, curls through the space I'm standing in without touching me. I ignore it -- the wind blows it away in seconds, he's an idiot to use a cloud effect outdoors in a storm, but he never was a planner -- and turn the mud beneath him to soup. He sinks with a surprised, viscous splash, and though he rockets out again before I can re-harden the ground, he's now opaquely muddied. He'll have trouble reaching his tattoos for a few moments until the rain washes him clean.
Which gives me just long enough to rematerialize, gather the blood from my freshly healed skin, and use it to complete my summoning runes.
Titan has just managed to clear the tattoos he wants. Steel wings burst from his back and a shimmer of spell-reflection paints his skin. Then he looks up.. and up... and his mouth drops open as he realizes how useless those spells are going to be.
The air dragons are almost invisible for the first second or two, outlined only by intercepted rain. Then the mesocyclonic vortices I've spent this entire time strengthening and shaping begin to reach down like seeking fingers. The dragons swallow the embryonic tornadoes and flush white with condensation. The first dragon touches down. Fragments of the exploded barn swirl up around its claws. A splinter of roof beam the size of a sword whistles past Titan's head.
He looks to me with eyes wide and disbelieving. I give him a serious smile. Yes, dear brother, I have been setting this up from the beginning. Did you think I was knocking down your low-rent gladiator pit out of blind ill-temper, like an angry child kicking chairs over in a tantrum? Have you only now realized I was creating a debris field for my storm to use against you? Where are your little mana knives now, Titan? I have a square fucking mile of hammers and arrows ready.
"I am going to grind you so fine that when you rain down on Heyton you won't even clog the gutters," I say serenely.
He can't hear me over the storm. I can't hear him either, but I can read his lips: "Holy shit!"
Then he vanishes.
I scream with frustration, and the wind screams with me. "You fuckin' coward! You cheap shit fuckin' coward, get back here an' face me!"
It's stupid and pointless. I can taste the spell he used to escape; a whipcrack of etheric tether so strong it must've yanked him a hundred miles or more. The landing will smash him like an egg, he'll be hours putting himself back together, I could destroy him with a backhand while he's weakened if I could get to him in time, but I can't. I don't know where he went. He's hidden, and I still can't sense Sol, and I'm so angry with myself -- I should've played it smarter, I should've stayed calm --
Through a blur of furious tears, I banish the dragons and hold the tornadoes away from Heyton while I herd rain-chilled air into the updraft until the convection breaks up. Then I let the storm go. I'm too exhausted to control it any further. There will be hail and lightning and maybe more tornadoes, but cyclonic storms are common on the plains this time of year, and my conscience is so black already that the stains of a few more civilian deaths won't even show.
That's a lie. They always show.
A soft spark of magic, subtle as a whisper, drifts toward me. I drag my wet sleeve across my wet eyes and reach out to it. A folded paper moth lands on my palm. Though the downpour is blinding, the moth is dry. My fingers shake as I unfold it.
Written on it in Anvil's careful hand are three beautiful words:
He is safe.
I crush the moth and clutch it to my chest, and my next sob is not anger, but gratitude.
* * *
Anvil finds time to send me a more complete report before I reach the inn, so I know what to expect, but it still breaks my heart to see Sol bandaged and bruised, soaked and shivering, weary in that dangerous mortal way that always looks to me like the edge of death. He is so fragile, and so reckless. But the smile he gives me is all relief. He was afraid for me. He thought I might not come back.
I kneel beside him and cradle his face, choking on joy. I know something will take him from me far too soon -- my brother, my father, the fortunes of war, his own loyalties, illness or accident -- but not tonight. "Don't ever leave me like that again," I beg.
"That is such a dumb thing to say," he mutters, and pulls me into a kiss.
His hands are strong and certain. He touches me as if I'm the one who's fragile, as if he's the one who could've smashed a city tonight, as if I'm the one who was stolen and beaten and almost murdered. As if the well of his strength is bottomless. My wasted storm rages outside, but here where my lover lies, the world holds still.