Sucia Island was a wild place forgotten by time, and from the moment Zakary set foot upon it, he knew that things were not so simple as the Shaper Council had implied. They would have him believe that this was merely a matter of destroying a few loose rogues and burning Shaper research notes so that they cannot fall into the hands of outsiders. What they didn't mention was the scope of the matter.
"Look at this!" said Barzahl excitedly, waving his hand at an old book, reverently avoiding touching it and scarcely daring to breathe near it.
"We're supposed to be destroying these things," Zakary said, putting his hand on Barzahl's shoulder gently.
"They didn't say we couldn't read it first," Barzahl said. "And did they really expect that we would just burn it all without even taking a glance at it?"
Zakary sighed. His apprentice had always been eager to learn new things and perform experiments, but Zakary often had to remind him of the restrictions and dangers thereof. He cared a great deal for Barzahl. He would hate to see the young man be punished for his indiscretions, or worse, be killed by a rogue because he did not follow proper safety procedures.
"We have a duty to perform, apprentice," Zakary said. "In the end, we must be loyal."
Barzahl turned around quickly, his face inches from Zakary's. His eyes were wild and his breathing heavy. "It's just apprentice now, is it?" Barzahl breathed. "You know it's so much more than that. There's no one else here..."
Zakary cleared his throat. "Still, we might be seen. If the Council were to find out..."
Bad enough that they were both men, and Zakary was so much older, but teacher and student as well? It was not done. At the very least, they would both be sent to opposite ends of Shaper lands and never see one another again. Zakary would be shoved off into a dead-end position in some withered colony to live out the rest of his days. Barzahl was young and brilliant, though. He might be given another chance, and the incident written off as youthful indiscretion or Zakary's manipulations, especially if Zakary testified on his behalf for the sake of preserving Barzahl's future.
The better to simply be careful and ensure that it never became an issue. To ensure that nothing would tear him apart from his beloved apprentice.
"The Council isn't going to find out," Barzahl hissed in his ear.
"We must be cautious, even here..." Zakary said, although less firmly than he had intended.
"Zakary," Barzahl whispered. "Look at this." He gestured again at the book.
Reluctantly, Zakary went over to examine the old book to see what Barzahl was talking about. What forbidden secrets had the Shapers on Sucia Island unearthed? Zakary scowled at what he read. From the sounds of things, the Shapers here had been using their arts upon humans. Changing people, changing themselves, into better and stronger forms. This sort of thing was strictly, utterly forbidden by current Shaper law, and perhaps this was why.
"This is dangerous knowledge," Zakary said. "I can see why the Shaper Council would want it destroyed."
"With this sort of power, we could build a realm of our own," Barzahl whispered. "We could challenge the Shaper Council itself!"
"That's treasonous talk," Zakary murmured, without any heat, his heart not really in it.
"Think about it," Barzahl said, putting his hands on Zakary's shoulders. "We need never be beholden to the opinions of others again. We can do this. We can really do this."
Zakary turned away and looked at the book again. It described crystal canisters filled with specially prepared essence that, when used, would rewrite a person, make them stronger, give them skills and powers that they never had before as if they were an innate part of their being. It sounded immensely terrifying.
And yet... Maybe Barzahl was right. If they were to sneak away this knowledge in secret and tell the Council that it had been destroyed, and then find someplace quiet somewhere in the wilderness to work on it... This power was forbidden. The Shaper Council would never be able to match it.
It would be so easy to summon up a fire spell and turn the book to ash, and end this rebellion before it even began. But Zakary was tempted. And Barzahl's strong hand on his shoulder decided his path for him.
"Let's do it," Zakary said.
Zakary hated Drypeak from the moment he stepped through the gates. No, to be perfectly accurate, he was already hating it after trudging through miles of dusty terrain just to get there. There was a reason why the place was pushed aside and thought nothing more than a dead, useless, failed colony. Zakary might have agreed with those who believed that. But he and Barzahl had a purpose for the place, and it was just as well that it continue to be worthless and forgotten for that.
"This is perfect," Barzahl said as they settled in and explored the area around Drypeak. "There's a lot of room for expansion up here."
Zakary listened to him silently as he walked alongside him, gazing off at the arid mountains around them. Barzahl was always full of brilliant plans. That's what he loved about him. Zakary could listen to him for hours and never grow tired of it.
"We can set up traps and guards at the tunnel leading out from Drypeak Valley," Barzahl went on. "Smuggle through the serviles and drayks, and get to work out here, out of sight of the settlement, well out of sight of the Council."
"I don't see why we need the serviles and drayks," Zakary said.
"They know something of the secrets of Sucia Island," Barzahl replied. "One of the drayks even worked near the Geneforge itself!"
"But why would they help us?" Zakary said. "They're all rogues."
"Because we're opposing the Shaper Council, and they want their freedom, too," Barzahl said. "Just like us."
They were a bunch of rebels and rogues, hiding away in these desolate mountains, committing treason and plotting rebellion. If the Shaper Council ever found out about this, things would be far worse than if they'd simply discovered his and Barzahl's relationship. For treason, the punishment would be death. Instant death.
Zakary still had his doubts that it would be worth it. But Barzahl was confident, and he would not refuse his apprentice, his lover, anything that he wished. Barzahl's spirit and passion was infectious. If anyone could make this mad scheme work, it was Barzahl.
It was always a wonder to watch Barzahl work, especially with the new, forbidden knowledge he had acquired. Vast, lush forests, teeming with life, sprouted around them with a wave of his hand, born of Barzahl's imagination. The trees creaked and groaned as they grew rapidly, reaching out with their branches and opening their leaves to take in the sunlight. A carpet of green grass, dotted with brightly colored flowers, spread out along the once-dusty, rocky ground. The hum of insects soon filled the air, followed by the chirping of birds and the scurrying of small creations. The Drypeak Mountains were no longer so lifeless.
This wasn't how the Shapers were supposed to bring life to a new region. It was all too quick, too uncontrolled. There might be new diseases, and the fast-growing plants might damage the soil. Zakary snorted inwardly at that thought. The soil was useless already as it was. And any harm that might come of it, he had full confidence in Barzahl's ability to fix as it became necessary.
They brought in serviles and apprentices, built farms and villages in the untamed wilderness, and set to work on their experiments. With the secrets of Sucia Island, they devised powerful new creations, and Barzahl made himself incredibly strong.
Zakary worried for him. Barzahl's eyes started glowing, and then even his skin showed signs of the unnatural luminescence. But the worst of it was the change in his temperament.
"No!" Barzahl snapped at a worker, a hapless outsider who barely understood what he was doing and why. "This isn't going to work! You need to do it this way! The way I showed you!"
Barzahl had never had such a temper before. Now, Zakary feared that the landscape was about to burst into flames whenever he was around him.
"Barzahl," Zakary said, reaching over to put a hand on his shoulder. "Calm down. He's just an outsider. He doesn't have our training. You can't expect him to be an expert on mixing essence right away."
Barzahl grumbled, but his muscles unwound a bit under Zakary's touch. "Still, he's ruined this entire batch. Start over! And do it right this time!"
"Yes, Shaper," the outsider murmured, bowing to him. "Right away, Shaper."
Zakary worried that things might progress to a point where he was no longer able to be Barzahl's anchor. If Barzahl ever stopped listening to him... no, he did not like to think about this. He was sure that Barzahl would get used to the changes that had been done to him in due time, and he would return to normal once again. It was just a temporary side effect. That was all. That's what he told himself, at any rate.
Barzahl's eyes flashed. Literally. "There is trouble with the serviles. The drakons have broken off contact with me and holed up in their own warrens to the north. And I don't even know what Tuldaric thinks he's doing. Changing serviles to be able to use magic? What foolishness!"
Zakary scowled, slumping in his seat and looking across at the younger man, although with all his modifications, Barzahl seemed not exactly a man anymore. Something more, something less, more creation than Shaper now. He was hardly human anymore. How had it come to this?
"No matter," Barzahl went on, his voice almost a growl. "We will build up an army. We will crush those who would oppose us! These creations will learn their proper place again, or they will be destroyed!"
Zakary rubbed his head. He was afraid of Barzahl now. He did not look at Zakary as a lover any longer. Barzahl's glowing eyes were cold and proud, seeing everyone and everything around him as lesser beings. Not just the creations, but the humans too, even the Shapers.
Maybe, just maybe, it wasn't too late. "Forget the war for the moment, Barzahl," he said, going over to put his hand on the other's shoulder. "The creations can wait. Let's just spend some time together, like we used to."
Barzahl scoffed at him and brushed away his hand, looking almost offended that Zakary had dared to touch him. "I don't have time for this. I have important things to be doing."
"Barzahl, listen to yourself," Zakary insisted. His heart pounded in his chest, and he felt weak in the knees, but he wasn't going to back down now. Not if there was still some faint chance to save his lover.
Barzahl turned around to fix his cold, glowing stare upon him. "Are you growing weak, Zakary?"
"You've been using all those canisters," Zakary said. "Look at what they're doing to you! They make you strong, certainly. Stronger than any Shaper has ever been! But... What have they done to your mind?"
"They have purified me," Barzahl replied. "Made my thoughts clearer."
"Clearer," Zakary repeated hollowly, and whispered, "You loved me once. Do you even love me anymore? Are you even capable of love now?"
Barzahl snorted softly and looked away, as if Zakary were no longer worthy of his attention. "I was foolish, once. If you are having doubts about what we are doing, then go. Go back to Drypeak and hide away in the dust, and get out of my sight."
Zakary's shoulders slumped. So that was it. He might still be able to see some spark of the old Barzahl within this monster, but anything that was between them was truly gone now.
He turned and left without another word, traveling across the mountains, alone but for a squad of battle gammas. He walked through the lush wilderness that sprung from Barzahl's mind, through the dusty canyons that still remained lifeless, and returned to Drypeak. He would never see those beautiful forests again. Never see the beautiful face of his young lover again. That was gone, that was all gone, and he came back here to lay down and die in the dust.
"Barzahl did not come back with you, sir?" asked Captain Takena as he returned to the colony.
Zakary was silent for a moment, then replied, "He's dead. Creation went rogue." In a way, it was even true. A lot of creations had gone rogue, and whatever had made Barzahl the brilliant young man he once was had been snuffed out in the pursuit of power.
"I see. That's unfortunate. He was a good Shaper. Do you want my men to retrieve the body for proper burial?"
Zakary shook his head quickly. "No. He- It was eaten." Devoured and consumed by madness, leaving behind only remnants. Only ashes.
Takena nodded, accepting his word without question as Zakary continued on into the Shaper warrens.
Zakary would keep up the pretense here. He would continue to run the colony, to provide a front for Barzahl's work. Even if the monster that had been Barzahl did not care for him any longer, Zakary still felt obligated to do that much for him. If there was still something of Barzahl left in him, then he would protect that as best as he could for as long as he could manage.
It would not last forever, he knew. Someday, the Shaper Council would send someone to check up on things, and while Zakary would do his best to keep secret what was happening here, there was a very real possibility that it would all be discovered, and his life would be forfeit.
Would the Council's Agent execute him for his part in this treason? Or spare him at the expense of slaying Barzahl instead? That would hardly be a mercy. Or perhaps they would hear Barzahl's whispers of power and throw in their lot with him instead. Maybe they would even show compassion for the serviles and help them to achieve their independence instead.
Or more likely, they would come in and see that everything in these mountains was corrupt, rogue, rebellious, treasonous, and burn every last thing here to the ground, slaying everything and everyone that could be found.
Zakary sat down and rested his weary old bones, and waited for the inevitable.