"Open your eyes."
She instinctively obeyed the command and blinked at the unfamiliar room. Hard and cold stone everywhere, an opening leading to a staircase going up and down, weird unknown rune diagrams all around where she was lying on the ground. Where was she? What had happened?
The noise of fabric on stones made her twist her neck to see behind her. Her gaze fell on rich crimson robes and slowly rose up to follow the figure towering above her until she met curious green eyes. The face that contained them was lined and the long hair surrounding them grey, yet there was something youthful about that person. Something powerful.
She gasped when it flared up and uncomfortable sparks erupted under her skin. Instinctively, she turned to her side to attempt to mitigate it, before clumsily rising to her knees, then stumbling to her feet. Only then did the magic settle down.
She struggled to maintain her balance with the strange weight at her back, and met the robed person's eyes again.
"You are born by my hand, that of your new mistress."
She did not react immediately, and the mistress frowned. They gestured, and the wall behind them suddenly lost its solidity and colours to reveal the outside. This was a world full of gigantic towers made of the same grey stones and spires, with no ground to be glimpsed anywhere. All completely unknown.
"Those towers form the city of Amathus, now once again admired through the world as is proper. Each tower is the dominion of a powerful Merchant-Mage such as I. Together, we have full power over this city. Resisting us is futile. It is, also, unnecessary. We are the ones who brought this place back from the slow crumbling it has suffered since the fall of the Propoetides' empire two millennia ago, and we are the ones who are going to bring the second coming of the Empire of Kýpros. All should submit to our will and pray for our benevolence."
The mistress marked a silence before their lips thinned with displeasure. "You understand, of course, nothing of what I am saying. The Propoetides and their Mages-Kings rulers were the legendary people who founded Amathus. This might have happened 5 millennia ago, but this is still very relevant to us."
They adopted a lecturing tone. "Amathus started as a small city-state not different from any others. Like all of them, it was founded by a family with more magic than the average person, which allowed them to dominate their neighbourhood. Yet, they were not exceptional enough to really stand out among all similar cities. What really changed this was when some members of the royal family became involved with the gods.
"As the story goes, the very first mages-king that founded the imperial dynasty stole from the gods secrets of powerful magic and offered their spoils to their subjects. The gods cursed the family, but by then it was already too late to take back the knowledge. However, even if the empire lasted 3 millennia, in the end the curse still got to them."
They gave a small, scornful laugh. "Or at least, this is what the Propoetides' enemies said to justify their hatred and explain the eventual fall of the empire. Yet, anyone with a modern education will realise that the existence of the gods is a lie used to control the populace and render them complacent and obedient. There were no gods to help the Mages-Kings. They invented all their magical feats by themselves, and all awe ought to be strictly put at their feet. As for the so-call curse against them, even if the Mages-Kings themselves ended up believing it, this is obviously stupid."
The mistress sent her a contemptuous look.
She let it wash over herself, which was not difficult given the fog that still clung to her mind, preventing her from remembering anything and from feeling concerned by that quaint little story.
The mistress resumed, "The curse was only the results of their experimentation with powerful magic before the risks and required safety measured were properly understood.
"And experiment, they did. What made those Mages-Kings so remarkable was not their power and flashy battle magic, though they had that too. No, it was some special talents of theirs. We do not know with certitude what it was, but this allowed them to craft artefacts so advanced compared to the rest of the world that anyone setting sight on them was filled with awe. And no matter who got hold of them and how long they studied them, nobody was able to reproduce them or find their secrets.
"We do know that the ancient Propoetides had mastered the whole lifecycle of the artefacts, making great raw materials through farming and taking care of their lands, imbuing them with special properties thanks to alchemy, covering them with runes and diagrams, before finally using those to bind enchantments to them.
"The first focus of the Mages-Kings was to use those artefacts to create immense irrigation systems. They soon extended them to controlling the flow of the rivers and even the weather itself. From then, it was only one step to produce gigantic storms to devastate enemies' armies, before branching out into directly creating weapons. Everyone over the continent readily admitted Amathus made the most fearsome ones, however few had the wisdom to immediately submit to its might. Each new city and territory that joined the Kýpros empire had to be bitterly fought over. Yet, in the end, all fell to the Mages-Kings' might and that of their automaton soldiers."
The mistress marked a pause, an envious expression briefly twisted their face. Their tone finally took the reverence that should have always suited such a topic. "The inhabitants of other continents could only watch with awe and envies as the Propoetides spread their wealth and the access to their artefacts and infrastructure. They had no choice but to beg the Mages-Kings for alliances and trade deals and accept whatever conditions were thrust upon them.
"The Empire of Kýpros thrived for three millennia. In the end, what got them was not enemies but themselves." They spat the word, making no attempt to hide their anger. "The royal family tore themselves apart during a succession crisis, and weapons that should never have been used against their own cities were. The entire continent still bears the marks of this, and you can see just outside of Amathus the enormous chiasms that ended the last of the line of Mages-Kings.
"Following this destruction, the continent was plunged in centuries of poverty and strife, with every would-be king attempting to take control of the ancient capital. They all came to admire the ruins of the mighty empire, each taking an artefact or the stone of a building back with them, slowly dismembering the city until no trace of the Empire of Kýpros was left beyond the impenetrable underground mausoleum complex.
"Yet, despite the millennia that have passed, no one was able to rival the past glory of the Mages-Kings, no matter how powerful their magic and how much they studied the ancient artefacts." They took on a fakely tragic tone. "To believe them, all their secrets are condemned to be lost forever..."
The mistress marked a short silence before exulting, "But, despite what the rest of the world wants to believe, the Propoetides have not gone extinct. We are their descendants and have inherited all of their talents. Since the fall of the empire, our enemies have done their best to finish destroying us. They failed. Thanks to the advent of us, Merchants-Mages, imperial artefacts have been brought back home and some of their secrets were finally pierced. After all, who could ever hope to do so but the Propoetides themselves?
"Everyone is once again trembling before our might! Amathus is now risen directly from its ruins—quite literally with our mighty towers built right on top of the old imperial mausoleum. And soon, we will have armies to rebuild the full Empire of Kýpros. Already, artificial bodies are back among the streets of Amathus, walking—or rather flying, since we took the opportunity to enhance them."
They sent her a triumphant look. Their magic seemed to jolt inside her body. Foreign magic, not hers. Foreign body too...
The mistress sneered slightly as they admitted, "Only the secret of full automation continues to elude us. We still need an internal mechanism fully dedicated to control each minute muscle of the artificial body. It does not take a great leap of faith to realise that souls have been created for just this very purpose, and that binding one to the body solves all of our problem."
They smiled ironically. "One might wonder what is the aim of taking a soul from one perfectly good body to put it into an artificial one—after all, it is not as if our medicinal magic is subpar. But those artificial bodies are not just a reproduction of our own. The wings are the least of the changes we have done to them. The most interesting is, of course, the full submission they have to their master."
She suddenly fell to her knees. The impact reverberated in her body as she stayed there, uncomprehending of what had happened. Still without her own violation, her eyes rose to meet the mistress's. Her arms too lifted to make a strange gesture, palm up as if in supplication. No doubt a humiliating form of submission, given their smug reaction.
"Of course, we cannot take any random soul," they continued conversationally. "No matter what some might say, not all souls are created equals, and few have the connection with magic that is necessary to use it with any fluency, let alone to control a body made entirely out of it. All Merchants-Mages have certainly tried to remedy this small defect, but no one of us reached our status by starry-eyed optimism, and we had to admit that there lies a dead-end. No soul plucked right out of the street will do, and unfortunately, all competent mages now know to take precaution against their souls ever being used to this effect.
"Most of my colleagues have given up on our dream of reproducing the ancient Mages-Kings' magic. Those who do not are all now seeking the solution beyond our borders. Only I have realised that it lies, in fact, right below our feet."
They gave her a chilling smile. "Our beloved ancestors, in their great wisdom, have built an impenetrable mausoleum to protect their afterlife. Since they believe they were cursed to an eternity of torments, they found a way to bind themselves to this world and ensure to never pass on. The underground is filled with their untouched soul jars and an abundance of ready-to-use souls with awesome magical abilities, the kind that would allow them to bypass any modern-days wards. And I only have managed to access them..."
They stepped in front of her, pride and greed twisting their face. Their hands rose to cup her cheeks, sending a painful spark of magic through her body. She could do nothing but look up into their eyes and wait until the magic finally forced her to stand again.
The mistress moved behind her and placed their hands on her shoulder. Their nails dug into her skin like claws as they dragged her forwards. Cold metal was put into her hand. A knife.
"I name you Galáteia, and I send you forth into the world to do my will. Go to the neighbour tower and bring me back its owner's head fully separated from its body."
And with that, the mistress pushed her firmly out of the window, making her tumble into the void.