September 2022 Contest Winner: This Ending
When Luca steps into the high mage’s office, he finds Haochen Xia behind his cluttered desk, going through paperwork as usual. It often seems like taking over the world is just paperwork - and the occasional murder.
Sitting in front of the desk is the public backer of the Creature Reform Centre that Luca has been working on taking down for months now, to stop what is essentially harvesting sentient creatures. High Mage Niaa, in one future being a man who would kill Luca’s mentor just for her being a werewolf, is sitting slumped in a chair and perfectly pristine if not for his vacant stare and stuttered breathing, for the way he can barely keep his head up.
“What is this?” Luca asks slowly, staying in the doorway.
Haochen finishes marking something on the contract and lays it down along with his pen. He crosses his arms. “Come in, Luca. We should talk.”
Luca slumps against the doorframe, not sure what to make of this. “I was going to take care of it.”
“I apologise if this seems like a slight,” Haochen says with his dark eyes focused on Luca, and it feels like a circling bird sighting something in the grass below. “This was a gift, to commemorate our alliance.”
“Is that why you’re helping?” Luca demands. He was desperate when he first asked Haochen. Luca had no help, but so much he needed to change, no one to rely on, he didn’t even exist in this timeline. Better the devil you know... “This – this is too much, I was expecting help with tactics, ideas. You went out personally for this.”
“I do enjoy going out for a stretch every now and then,” Haochen defends, raising an eyebrow. “Pity he was such a disappointment. This is what happens when you focus on theory; all that magic and yet he’d rather think about the spell than feel the power coursing through him as he casts.”
“I’ll get you a better one next time,” Luca scoffs. “There’s plenty more.”
“I was hoping you’d volunteer yourself.”
Luca’s wand is already in his hand before Haochen finishes his sentence. They stare at each other from across the room, a half-dead body sitting slanted off to the side. Luca is tense, ready to move. Haochen sits still, head high and hands hidden in his crossed arms but Luca doesn’t feel the high mage’s magic in the air. It’s calm.
“You know things, Luca. Far too many things.” Haochen sits back, even deliberately slumps to make himself look relaxed. He clasps his hands together on the desk in view as a peace offering. “Do you think me foolish enough to ignore the boon of information from a time traveller?”
Five years. Luca has known Haochen Xia for five years, both in this timeline and his original. He’s seen the high mage wrathful, torn apart by his own mind, wild with the power and insanity from fighting the rest of the world that tried to claw him down. Luca has faced this man as an enemy, knows what he looks like when he dies.
Luca knows this new version of Haochen too. The calm, tactical mind, all the terrifying intelligence that made him the youngest high mage in history and damn near the strongest. The arrogance in him too, but also the manners as befitting of a political leader. Even the man’s power has become familiar, now that he isn’t burning through himself, when he isn’t struggling to control the flood of it.
Luca has come to know the high mage that makes snide remarks about other people’s intelligence. The only ally who hasn’t treated Luca like a child to be talked over, someone who Luca can talk for hours with to make airtight plans. The man that can’t help but laugh at morbid jokes. The Haochen that Luca thinks might actually have been a great man, if ambition didn’t drown the rest of it.
Five years and Luca has never once seen this man with anything but perfect posture.
“Sit up,” Luca says as he tucks his wand back up his sleeve.
Haochen pauses for a moment, caught off guard, but then nods. He stands instead and walks around to the front of the desk. “Luca, I do genuinely want to work with you.”
“Because I’m easy to control,” Luca agrees easily enough. He already knows, enough people have used him as a figure head for their own agendas for exactly that reason. He once barely survived a fight that was half-hearted on Haochen’s end, and people wouldn’t let Luca be anything else but a fighter. This was forced on him, not something he picked.
Haochen moves aside a squat glass of some kind of alcohol, the ice melted and the drink now hazy with poison. He sits on the edge of the desk with a small frown tugging at his lips. “You greatly underestimate yourself. I want to work with you because you are worthy of my time and effort. You have done what I’ve been too wary to do.”
Haochen gestures at the dazed man between them. “I invited Niaa over, because you’d already crippled his entire network. I had the confidence to do this, for you, because you’d already ensured I would face no backlash. You took his money and his people and his fame, the public was crying out for him to be executed and they’ll praise my name for this. Niaa is dead in all but body.”
“Just get to the point, I thought you didn’t have much patience for niceties.”
“You’ve been putting up with me,” Haochen explains, and from him, it sounds like a lecture rather than an earnest appeal. “As if I’ll strike at any second like a wild animal, like a force of nature you have to brace for. I want us to be proper allies.”
“You want power and to start segregating the mages from the mundanes,” Luca laughs tiredly. He crosses his arms and leans his shoulder more heavily into the frame, letting his feet shift out of a ready stance. “How, exactly, should I be treating you?”
“I don’t know who that man is. My future self is so far disconnected from my goals, I don’t recognise him.”
“That’s pretty convenient, don’t you think?”
Haochen shakes his head. “Of course I want power, but not wild, raw strength drained from subpar mages and poisoned with their inadequacies. You called me mad, and I certainly don’t disagree because since when did I care about mundanes and their opinions on how mages should best be used? Let the ants go about their lives, let them scream into the void hoping a god will take pity on them, it has no effect on me.”
Luca lurches off the doorway and throws up his arms in frustration. “You don’t change! There’s nothing different about you, it’s just layers of the same well-dressed monster!”
“Do you truly think me evil?”
“All of you are!” Luca screams, taking a jerky step forward. “All of you high mages, you’re all sick with it! Even the best of you was a fence-sitter who watched High Mage Haochen Xia slaughter his way through a city to get to me!”
Haochen purses his lips, eyes serious. “I would have never indiscriminately killed -gone after you- if I was in my right mind.”
“You liar, you don’t care about anyone-“
“People have potential,” Haochen cuts in, needing Luca to know this. “I admire talent and I need to grow it if this world is to change. I would not raze an entire city, not that I care for the people in it, but because mages are stagnating and weak and boring. We need fresh blood.”
Haochen stands up and stalks closer. “I stand for innovation and knowledge and, yes, power. I am bored standing at the top, this world is disappointing, and the only challenge I’ve faced in two decades is you. You, Luca, who fell from the stars after people prayed for my equal. And you’re going to burn this world for their audacity.”
“It was to call someone to defeat you, not as a new game, so I wouldn’t be so arrogant if I were you.” Luca scowls up at Haochen as the man stops in front of him. “And what happens when I finish taking down all the others and leave you free reign? You’ll still be bored after, and I’ll have to kill you again.”
“I want you to be there,” Haochen says softly, but his expression is dangerous. “I want you to grow into something monstrous with me, Luca. Entertain me.”
Luca shoves past Haochen and moves to stand in front of Niaa’s chair. “I have to take down an anti-mage organisation that will one day kidnap mage children to use as batteries.” He frowns, cautious. “We’ll see what happens after.”
Haochen only smiles. “Do you have a particular fondness for how this story ends?”
“Just finish it,” Luca sighs, looking away.
Haochen tsks lightly. “No imagination.”
The man in the chair unravels into spider web strands of red, splitting and stringing out until there’s nothing left. The body is wholly dispersed into magic that shifts back into the atmosphere, even the soul degraded into neutral environmental magic.
Haochen just unmade an entire human being.
Haochen gestures to the now free chair. “Sit down, Luca. We have yet to discuss how we’ll be splitting the spoils.”
Azo, the winner of WriterVana's September 2022 writing contest, is a fantasy writer. Find more of their works here: Scribblehub