Tuesday, 22 February 2011
Of course I did not observe all of this straight away. It was only after several apportionments that I remained remotely lucid during the procedure. (You will forgive me if I cannot relate these intervals to any useful measurement. At their shortest it seemed the bite of the cold steel had scarcely departed my skin before my keeper's head swum into sight again. At longest, it may have been weeks that I lay in the darkness. That I do not remember sleeping only confuses matters further.) Over time - many tens of procedures - the horror subsided. Necessarily, perhaps. Whether it is some part of his procedure to forge a new consciousness in the crucible of the specimen's pain and fear, or whether it is some trivial emergent property, I have no inclination; but that, I believe, is what happened.
Thereafter I was possessed of a peculiar clarity (and am still). I suffered no less pain nor any more diminished terror, but those experiences seemed no longer to trouble my objective thought. They were still present, as sustained staccato notes in my perception, but my perception and my sapience had become discrete entities, as if they too had been apportioned. During this time, in spite of the repulsion it instilled in me, I was compelled to begin observing more closely the work of my captor.
Endlessly terrible and fascinating did I find his methodical working. He operated to some esoteric internal rhythm, such that the irregular size and timings of his actions cohered as a whole. Each seemingly abstract motion was yet executed with precision and purpose. The extractions, though they varied from infinitesimal slivers to elaborate topiaries, each bespoke a silent intent. I had no doubt each was tailored to exactly fill a need.
Some time later, perhaps between ten and twenty procedures, I began to slip into a kind of malaise. As perverse as it may sound, I had grown bored with my existence. The striking rhythm of my captor's undertaking had become tiresome repetition. In weariness, my mind began to wander, and it was around this point I first truly considered his oblique face. Thus far I had been otherwise distracted and had not given time to really question the strange alabaster tablet that confronted me at each apportionment. Once I had, however, it consumed me.
At first I questioned if it were truly the head of my captor. But as I have already described, the motions were unmistakeable. Then, I began to scour the oblate plane for any hint of something behind or within. I do not know what I expected to see – nothing so simple as motion or transparency. I looked instead for a... sense of something radiating from the slab. I did not find it. It was not long before a stimulating dilemma was transfigured into a deeply troubling impossibility. My thoughts could gain no traction, find no ingress to possibilities. The face presented a problem as void and featureless as its physical exterior. I could not comprehend it. And I could not forget it.
It seems to me that I spent an immensely long time obsessing in the dark, circling that vortex. Long enough that by the time the icon of my torment rose over me again like a new lunar dawn I was no longer feeling the wraith-pain of my shoulders. In the stretches since, I have postulated that perhaps my captor needed time to prepare for the next apportionment; that perhaps he had reached the most complex or delicate part of his operation.
On this occasion the head leaned in close to my own face, maddeningly inches before my eyes. I stared back at a pallid question, and could think nothing more coherent than an inward scream. He craned it this way and that, sinking down either side of me, to my ears. Then he cradled my head in one spidery, fleshy arm, and conducted his procedure. Even the old diversion of watching him work was denied to me this time, as he operated beyond my periphery, and I could see only the darkness, and a few taut red tendons of his arm. My inner vision was still emblazoned with the barren plate that had filled my sight however many moments before. I finally knew that I was going mad.
I will never know if my mind could have survived it. If I had returned to the blackness in that state perhaps I could have wrestled myself free of the obsession in one of those long meditative stretches that had forged my new consciousness in the first place. It was not to be. My captor finished his work for the time and lay me back down upon the table. He retracted from my view, and lingered a moment on the edge of my vision, as always. Replacing, I assume, his tools and extractions. And then he began to leave. I had never seen my captor go, in all the time I had been here. But on this occasion, the apportionment had left the remains of my head asymmetrical. As his silhouette slipped into the corner of my vision, my head, no longer balanced, rolled over on the table. For the first time I stared not up into the darkness but out across the chamber of my occupation. There was no room to see, the darkness was absolute, but my eyes fell straight upon the retreating form of my captor, not yet beyond the light. From that moment, any chance of holding onto my sanity was gone. For in the edge of the light I comprehended the monstrous form of my captor. The long trunk of neck and those two, branchlike arms that had attended me so diligently arced back into a torso essentially human. Dragged behind it, however, was a monumental amalgamation of human organs. Now I saw the purpose of the apportionments. Each neatly cut parcel of meat was incorporated into the structure for a purpose esoteric beyond understanding. Recognisable amid the ivory infrastructure were livers, kidneys, hearts, veins and cords and bowels webbed together. Walls and globules of cubed flesh neatly grafted. Arms and legs formed into mechanical armatures cranking between it all. Bloated ganglions of brain and nervous tissue swung like grotesque lanterns from a raised spinal cord which ran the length of the carnal topology. As I stared I knew I was seeing every component neatly parcelled off from a myriad of victims and incorporated into a visceral construct of purpose arcane beyond mortal understanding.
This was not what broke me.
As I stared, as I saw each constituent part in the awesome whole, the question destroyed me.
Why didn't it take the faces?
Saturday, 4 December 2010
The Shadow of a Doubt
“And these bolts are cold iron right?”
“YES! I've already TOLD you.”
“No, you told me you had 'everything'. I just want to be sure that 'everything' includes everything. I don't want a repeat of Coorhagen. Have you got the sacristy oil?”
“Darken! How many times have we done this now?”
“Enough to be becoming complacent. Have you got the oil?”
“It's HERE!” Hel jabbed a small wooden gourd on the strap across his chest. “Seriously, it's not like I pester you to make sure you've done your job.”
“Well, maybe you should,” murmured Darken.
“Oh, geez, now I know it's bad. An expression of something other than complete messianic delusion about your own infallibility; you really are eager to impress her.”
“Darken, it's not exactly subtle. You set this whole thing up to impress her,” Hel's eyes went to the trailing velvet-draped back of the peculiar young girl several metres further down the track. “Show her we have a system, a method, that this is routine and we don't JUST stumble blindly into escapades that we have to escape with fire and ingenious quick thinking.”
“Yes, yes, of course. And let's not allow your brilliant fantasy to be troubled by the marginal fact that it was she who suggested this venture to me.”
“And you seized the opportunity.”
Darken threw up an arm in despair. “What exactly is your grievance?” he demanded.
“I'm just getting a little tired of your nagging lack of faith in me.”
Darken shook his head. “No... That's not it. I've always had a nagging lack of faith in you. This is something new. Did I miss your birthday?”
“I just thought,” said Hel, “That the whole point of us taking this deal was so we could get out of this whole zombie hunting business, and move on. I mean, I'm just wondering what exactly I spent a week keeping you two from each other's throats for.”
Darken nodded slowly. “Ah, so that's it. I see. Well, have some patience. We're getting there. These things don't happen over night. In the grand scheme of things we've only just started. What's it been? Eight months? Maybe a little more? I don't remember exactly. Not long, anyway. These are our whole lives we're talking about. You understand that, I hope? This isn't a brief excursion, this is an endeavour we might devote our entire existence to. We're talking about changing the world; messianic delusions is just about right.”
Hel sighed. “I know,” he muttered.
“I hope you do. This is a crusade, and once we've started we can't stop it. We have to follow it through. You always follow it through, get it? So maybe you should enjoy this leisurely pace whilst you've got it. We'll be at war with the Order soon enough.”
Hel gave a nod. “Ok. Sorry. You're right.” He paused for a moment. “But what about her? I can't help but wonder if we've just picked up more problems.”
“Oh, you can be sure she's a whole bundle of problems,” said Darken, and began to smile. “But she's a whole bundle more answers. It'll be worth it. You'll see. Trust me.”
“I believe it will be worthwhile also,” said the girl suddenly, from much further up the track. “But you probably should not trust me.”
Darken and Hel looked at each other. Darken shrugged.
Hel's sickle claimed another sheaf corn. It flopped onto the carpet of stalks. Behind him Darken worked similarly to expand the circumference of their clearing. Tatula was elsewhere, doing her own thing, whatever that was. Dusk had set in hard when Darken turned.
“Look, if it makes you feel any better we'll ditch any undead hunting after this. I have a few leads on information that could lead to useful resources. We'll go after that instead.”
“No, Darken, that's not the point. I'm not fed up of hunting undead – I mean, I am, but that's not my problem here – my problem is that we're not getting anywhere. I'm not going to be cheered up by arbitrarily refusing any lead just because it involves the bloody necromancers. I'm going to be cheered up when we start getting somewhere.”
“Well what then?” snapped Darken. “Why don't you plan our next move if that'll cheer you up?”
“Darken, I couldn't give a damn what our next move is, just so long as we have one!”
“I can't pluck opportunities out of the air, Hel. I told you I had leads. We'll follow them. I don't know what more you expect me to do.”
“I just wish I had your confidence that they'd lead somewhere,” Hel sighed again.
Darken was quiet for a while and the pair turned back to irritably scything corn. He'd just opened his mouth with a reply when a bright point of light spat into the air and exploded with a flash. The pair looked up into the night sky where it had been.
“Tatula needs help,” said Darken, unnecessarily. “I'll go.”
He snatched a few items from their packs, and thrashed his way off into the crops. Hel watched him go blackly.
“Still waiting for those answers,” he muttered.
Hel continued to thrash away at the corn for some time after Darken had gone. Now he had twice the work to do, and he took his annoyance out with the sickle, mulling on the injustices of the world and all the rejoinders that hadn't occurred to him. He entered a sort of meditative place of irritable tranquility and lost track of time, so it had got really dark when the cold managed to penetrate his sour little shell and he began to wonder where the other two had got to.
It really was dark, he realised, when he stared in the direction Darken had gone and realised he could no longer see the treeline. Where the hells where they? He wondered, and he shivered again at the cold. A creeping intuition began to set in at the back of his spine, but he received it more with irritation than panic.
“For Dia's sake,” he murmured.
The cold began to gather about him, swaddling him. He felt himself going numb. Here it came. He scanned the field around him for a sign, and froze.
She was there.
The white dress was wafting gently on the breeze, whilst the corn around her stood motionless. She was reaching out an arm. Her gaze met his. He couldn't move. He couldn't speak. Her lips parted. He didn't want to hear, didn't want to know what she had to say to him. He couldn't hear it. She mustn't, she-
“My, but that proud bravado disappears quickly when there's no comely maiden around, doesn't it?” asked the apparition offhand, and it changed. The girl was gone, had become that of a gaunt old man, eyeing Hel sardonically. Hel frowned, and found the terror sank out of him with the unnatural cold. Now he was just naturally freezing. His legs remained immobile, though, and his knuckles were still white around the steel ball. The spectre nodded.
“That anger though,” it sucked air across its teeth. “That's always there.”
“What the fuck are you?” Hel murmured through gritted teeth.
“Me? Why, I'm the reason you're here.”
“A spirit then. Good. That's what I thought.”
Hel's arm whirled overhead and a small ceramic egg sailed out, shattering amid the stalks at the spirit's feet. A small whiff of smoke escaped. The apparition blinked, then shrugged.
Hel's eyes were wide and cautious. He couldn't back up but he could at least ready himself to defend against the creature, whatever it was. It had ignored the Hove's Egg, though. Strange. And concerning.
The thing spread its arms.
“Well there's not a lot more you can do,” smiled the man, nodding at Hel's frozen legs.
“I can stay alert,” said Hel. “And not let you bait me into dropping my guard.”
“If you like.”
“I don't like it one bit, but you appear to have paralysed my legs, so what I like doesn't seem entirely pertinent right now.”
“Just so you're aware,” said the thing generously. “I don't tire or fatigue, and keeping you still doesn't take an ounce of concentration. You're not going anywhere any time soon.”
“Doesn't matter,” said Hel. “You know I'm not alone, right? I've got allies. I just need to wait for them to turn up.”
“Allies?” asked the spirit. “Is that really what you think you are?”
“Yes,” said Hel.
“Because I've met them,” it continued, “And you seem to me more like three pawns, each playing the others. Consider. For you this is a personal vendetta. You are seeking vengeance and vindication. For the mage it is all about power. He has seen an opportunity and is seizing it. The woman has power already, and no personality, so whatever her esoteric intentions are, you can be sure they are different again. For the moment, it is a matter of convenience that you are all facing the same way, but that doesn't make you the same. You're not allies; you're enemies walking to the battlefield together.” He finished with a wry smile to Hel. The alchemist met his gaze with a defiant glare.
“Even so, I'll wait.”
The spectre continued to stare into Hel's eyes for a long moment, then:
“Goodbye, Hel Vukanos.”
“Well, that was annoying,” muttered Hel.
Tatula was gone. Searching amid the metres high corn stalks was hardly easy, but Darken was sure he had covered all the ground that flare could have come from. He'd made his way to the edge of the field, and followed the periphery. It was slightly banked, and he could peer across the wavering plant heads, but he couldn't see any sign of her. What had she even been doing over here? Hel's concerns began to resurface in his ears as he continued his search. He had to find her; they couldn't complete the cleansing without the bones she'd been carrying. When he got to the field gate he stopped and leaned against it a moment to think. That's when he noticed the cold.
“Damn,” he cursed, and readied himself. Currents of power began flowing to his hand. He focussed on their warmth as the air began to chill. Something was coming. He waited.
A bulky figure emerged from the corn. It was dressed in armour of white steel. Armour of a kind Darken hadn't seen in many, many years. A chill rose from the pit of his stomach. His legs locked involuntarily. He conjured a glowing orb. The figure raised an arm and removed its helmet. It shook out long, black hair. Darken frowned.
The figure tutted.
“No, silly,” said Tatula, and changed.
Now she... It... Was a mirror image of Darken. The armour mockingly replaced with Tatula's velvet dress.
“That's just unflattering,” said Darken, and hurled the fireball. It streaked a glowing trail through the air... And passed straight through the apparition, striking the fencepost and setting it alight. Darken paused. “Well that's new.”
The figure changed again, becoming a man, aloof and smiling wanly.
“I'm afraid that isn't going to work,” he said.
Darken's eyes flared, apprehensive and angered. His fingers still flexed, and he unwove threads of magic as the thing bore down on him. The cold began mounting, a pain washing over his head, unpleasantly like drowning. The figure was mere metres away. Darken projected the null sphere. This had better luck. In the magical spectra Darken saw the thing collide with the apparition and dissipate into it, the being's body stunned and rippling in the air for several seconds. Then the waves of negativity rippled out, and it began its advance again.
“Yes, well done, that's much better. Of course it took you about twice the time it cost me to weave it, so...”
Darken wasn't listening. A hissing like ice water was running around his head. His limbs were becoming heavy. He feared he might black out. He had to find a solution. He could contain this thing if he could just regain his faculties, but first he had to break the thing's concentration, break its hold on the spell that held Darken in turn...
And it was in his mind. He couldn't deny that fact any more. It was in its mind and it was a more powerful telepath than any Darken had encountered. It was an area he was sorely weak in defences. But he couldn't panic. Focus. He had to find an answer. Physical phenomena were clearly out. Nullification worked. It was magical, then. Magical and close. Not enough time, not enough time. He had to think faster. Ok, conduct a test, buy some time...
Darken projected a spirit wall at full force across the scant feet between them. It was a spell for ghosts, an impassable barrier to contain them. Usually they were static. This one wasn't.
The being sailed backward into the corn as if seized from behind, the excess of power Darken expended manifesting as velocity. The mage caught his breath. Good. It could be deflected. Halfway there. Now think. Finish the plan. He must have an out. He just had to find it. He had moments. Already he could see the stalks parting, feel the cold seeping back. And the whispering was rising from the recesses of his mind. Then the thoughts came in a tumble. It was in his head! Maybe that was the key. Maybe he wasn't being bound or paralysed at all. Maybe had just been made to think he was.
With an enormous convulsion, Darken's limbs came free. He made an involuntary noise and staggered backward, but kept his balance and tore a vial of oil from his shirt, which he crushed in his hand before holding it palm outwards toward the apparition, once more metres away..
“That was actually quite impressive,” remarked the thing. “That won't help, though.” It nodded at Darken's oily palm as it drew up mere feet from the mage. Darken was fast plunging into a freezing, black abyss. He pulled his mind together.
“Not to worry,” he said.
The force of the barrier spell nearly broke his wrist. It projected from his outstretched palm in a torrent, draining all of Darken's reserves. It catalysed the sacristy oil and grew ever more potent. The apparition was ripped from Darken's presence so fast he almost seemed to vanish on the spot. Darken didn't wait to see where he landed. He turned tail and ran. He had to finish this.
The inadvertently ignited fencepost had been engulfed by the fire. It spread along the timbers, trickling embers into the grass. Soon the crops went up. Darken crouched in the orange light, back to the thick sheaths of corn, staring across the clearing at the distant light of flames and smoke. The stalks rippled, and the spectre stepped out.
“Well, I'm sure that was exhausting,” it said. Darken rose and levelled the crossbow. “Oh,” said the spectre. “Oh dear. The panic's getting to you. That won't pierce me, remember?”
“I know,” said Darken. “But a triangle of cold iron will hold you bound.” He fired; the bolt passed harmlessly through the spectre, who looked mildly stunned, and earthed itself in the ground a few feet behind him. Two more bolts protruded from the earth to the right and left of Darken, where he'd staked them a moment before. For a moment the edges of the cage were traced by silver fire, then the prison became invisible. It was present though, that much was obvious from the look on the spectre's face. It gave a slow clap.
“Very good. Very good indeed. I walked into that one, quite literally. Of course it won't last forever, and you can't actually hurt me, so I'm not sure what you're planning to do exactly. Besides standing there with a smug grin on your face, anyway.”
“Let's talk,” said Darken.
He reinforced the trap with additional bindings. As he circled the spectre, Darken could see the lattice of spells holding it at the edge of his vision. A few small fires lit for light and warmth served also to feed the web with additional energies. At the far end of the field, his earlier fire had become an inferno, clawing at the sky. Concerning – Darken could do without drawing anything else's attention. For the time being at least, his troubles were contained. This bastard wasn't getting out. At present it was standing upright and aloof in the centre of the triangle. Darken wasn't fooled. It was weakening; it had taken on a hint of translucency, and it no longer seemed to possess any weight. Darken suspected that it was completely intangible in its natural state. He completed his circuit of the thing, and turned to face it.
“First question. Who are you?”
“Can't answer, I'm afraid. No name, you see.”
Darken flicked a finger at the lines of the trap, and for a moment arcs of blue light crackled around it and surged into the spectre. It flickered, furiously staying silent and still.
“Honestly,” it remarked when the punishment had passed, “I really haven't. To eschew all that I was is the very path that brought me here.”
“One more obtuse answer and I'll burn you out of existence. Tell me what you are.”
“Oh, shade, shadow, spectre... Predatory nightstalker... Whatever you will. Merely an intellect that outlived its shell. If you require a classification then I suppose I would be undead, though I have personally always found more kinship with the maera and the fae. Creatures of will and magic, like me, not hobbling remnants of bone and sinew.”
Darken nodded. He flexed his fingers and conjured a dancing blue flame. An unspoken threat.
“Second question. What do you want?”
“A tall ship and a star to sail her by.”
Darken's hand snaked out more sharply this time. There was an audible crack and a flash that illuminated all the lines of the trap. The spectre rippled into transparency for a long moment, and a strange, strained gasp emanated from its place.
“Believe me when I say the nature of my desire would be alien to you.”
“I'm afraid I won't believe anything just because you asked me to.”
The spectre rolled its eyes.
“I wish for an eye to see and a hand to clutch. I wish for pain and pleasure carnal. I wish to walk among you and I wish to yield to the forces and have them yield unto me. I have attained the spirit realm. Now I wish to reclaim the physical.”
“You want a body. You could have just said so.”
“But no. What I want is so much more.”
Darken eyed the creature curiously.
“You left the physical world behind. Why do you want it back? What's here for you now that wasn't then? Or is this just regret? Have you realised your folly and now you want it undone?”
The spectre shook its head.
“As I said. You could not possibly understand. You can only see this world as a means. I see it as an ends.”
“And your means is someone else's corpse, perhaps? Maybe before it's stopped breathing?”
“Wrong again. Such methods are beyond me. Possession?” It tutted. “I'm not a demon, you know.”
Darken lashed the creature with magic again. Perhaps he didn't like the answer. Probably he just didn't like being called wrong. The spectre's form wavered for a long moment after the blast.
“Then why are you here?” growled the mage.
“Ah- Hm?” The spectre cocked its head.
“Why here. This town. Why now? What are you even doing?”
“My dear fellow, I thought that was understood. I'm here because you're here.”
Darken stopped short. He stared coldly at his smiling prisoner for a long long moment. Slowly, he raised a hand, and entwined a long thread of silver fire about it, never taking his eyes off the creature. Then his wrist flicked visciously, and the tongue of flame streamed out, binding itself to the spectre's heart. Darken narrowed his eyes and continued to pour his energies into the line, relentlessly torturing the creature. It began to jolt and flicker on the line, its form popping and breaking. An unearthly keening began to fill the air all around. Darken kept going.
“Next question,” he said, his voice icily level, hinting at a cold, false amiability. “Why us? For what reason, precisely, did you choose us to hunt down?”
The juddering, seizing spectre turned awkwardly to look back at him.
“Because you've been hunting us.”
“The passed on. The returned departed. The undead. You've been making a name for yourself.”
“Really?” said Darken. “That is interesting. Or, of course, you could be lying to lead me into some kind of trap.”
“I told you. I'm not a demon.”
“Then what? Have you come to warn me off?”
“Oh no,” the spectre held its face together long enough to give Darken a thin smile. “I have no warning for you. You'll get that in time. I just want to talk.”
“You. You are... Of interest.”
“I just want to know... Where you're going.”
“What?” Darken dropped the flame. The spectre's form slumped into itself, then floated back up, like a balloon with too little air. It shimmered and wavered in the air, perpetually hazy now.
“Where are you going? After tonight. Where next?”
“Going to follow me?”
“Absolutely not. After tonight I hope never to see you again.”
“Your cryptic bullshit is tiring me.”
“It shows. I'll let you be if you give me answer. You'll never hear from me again.”
“Can't answer, I'm afraid.” Darken mocked. “Haven't decided, you see?”
“That's what I thought,” said the spectre. “You don't know.”
“If you have a point, make it. I'll be glad to tear it apart.”
“Very well.” The spectre regained some of its composure. “My point is simply this: That you are directionless. You are putting one foot before the other but you don't look ahead to where the path is leading. That you don't know where this ends, or how you get there. Rebut me if I'm mistaken.”
“You came all the way out here just to waste my time with that nonsense?”
“If I'm wrong, just tell me. Just point to one thing, anything will do, that shows the slightest hint of direction. In all honesty, just tell me one thing, one thing that shows progress.”
Their eyes were locked now. Blithely, the spectre continued.
“Can you do it? Because you're making a lot of grand statements of intent. But I don't see any sign that you're following them through.”
The backlash was intense. Air ionised as Darken channelled a stream of raw, hateful energy into his inquisitor; arcs of static crackled back around him. The lines of the binding were seared into the earth. The ritual fires leapt ten feet, burning purple and blue. The keening became piercing and filled all of space. The spectre became a jagged, vibrating cloud of shapeless energy and then with a pulse it ceased to be. Darken dropped his arm. The air fell still again. The ritual fires returned to a crackle... And went out. Darken stared.
“No...” he moaned.
“That was stupid,” said a voice by his ear.
He passed out.
He couldn't see for the noise. His head had never contained a sound like it. It writhed around his skull and made his soul buzz. Something was in front of him, indistinct. It hurt to look at it. It was so loud, but he couldn't shut it out. His world was filled with voices, and none of them were human. One rose out of the spaces in the howling. It was searing white, and electric blue, it smelled of burned tin and it tasted of fury.
“I cannot touch you nor hurt your flesh, but I can speak. I have a thousand voices and I can fill your mind with truths that no structure of this world can house. I can scream endlessly in your thoughts, in the tongues of every creature you cannot know. I am ancient and immortal and alien, and you thought to imprison me. I am purity of mind, and I can destroy yours.”
The noise soared in volume, rising in peaks several leagues above him. It was louder than the world. It was eroding him. And then another voice spoke. It was musty and brittle, but guarded and swathed in wisdom.
“You are nothing, and you will do nothing, or be destroyed.”
With a freezing rush, the noise withdrew. Blackness remained, and Darken sunk into oblivion.
When he awoke, Tatula was crouching over him. Hel hovered behind her. The lich traced two fingers along his cheek, watching his face impassively. Darken had just enough sensation to feel the crackling cushion of mana between her skin and his. Hel poked him with a stick.
“Try that again, and you'll be trying to grip plasma,” croaked Darken with forced humour.
“You're alive then,” nodded Hel. “That's something, I suppose.”
Darken gave an empty grin, although it was immediately ruptured by a coughing fit. Tatula sat back. She gave a satisfied nod as the mage rolled onto his side, hacking and whooping.
“Brilliant,” said Hel. “You've saved him from pneumonia by choking him to death.”
As Darken fought to draw a breath, he became aware that the sudden vigorous wretching had broken a sweat on his brow. He felt warmth. Not magical warmth, but genuine, bodily, physical warmth. A river of relief washed through his limbs, and he felt a hideous tension he'd not even been aware of releasing him. He pushed himself to a sitting position.
“Thank Javra and Jadra,” he muttered.
“Or you could thank us,” suggested Hel. “Y'know, being the ones who saved you and all.”
Darken gave him a nod. Then he rubbed his face and straightened up.
“What was it?” he asked Tatula.
“A spectre,” said the lich. “Or shadow.”
“Yeah... I got that much out of it.”
“I think it was undead,” Hel offered. “Although not like we've ever seen.”
“Yes. It is unlife, but not as you know it. It is the furthest from its home.”
“She means it's the most free from the material world,” Hel put in. “Spectres have almost completely eschewed their bonds. Gives them some pretty crazy powers that you don't normally see in undead.” Darken looked at him. He gave an explanatory nod at Tatula, who wasn't looking. “I already did this dance to save you the trouble.”
“I did not see him dance,” said Tatula.
“That's fine,” said Darken. “I'd rather he not.” He gave another bland smile. Hel found it strangely disturbing.
Darken stood and began to gather up his pack and crossbow. Hel shouldered his own bundle, then took the weapon from Darken, whose strength was clearly not returned. Darken didn't resist.
“So, what I don't understand,” Hel said, “is, why did he leave me alone?” He looked at the others thoughtfully. Darken shrugged. Tatula said nothing. “Scintillating feedback as always,” said Hel. He glanced up at the raging wall of flame that had by now progressed halfway across the field. “C'mon, let's get out of here.”
The next day they left town, before anyone could ask them awkward questions about cornfields mysteriously burning down in the night. Darken and Hel packed their bedrolls quickly, and met outside the little coachhouse. Tatula was still inside.
“Where is she?” tutted Hel, pacing. Darken sat on the fence.
“Collecting something,” he said.
“Something...?” asked Hel, expectantly. Darken was staring at the forget-me-nots in the grass. “Liiiike?”
“Of course she didn't.”
They waited. The sun rose a few inches. Hel shifted the weight of his pack. Darken just sat.
“So,” said the spectre. “You've come to collect on our debt, I take it?” Tatula nodded. “At last...” For a moment the spectre's eyes looked hungry, and his mask wavered.
“You exceeded your mandate,” said the lich.
“There would have been no permanent harm.”
“It was enough. It was beyond it.”
“But did you observe? He didn't cry out. Even then. I was listening to him, to his thoughts. He thought about his pain, and he thought about his death. But no part of him cried out. Not for one moment did he expect you to aid him.”
“If you can be so sure.”
The spectre shrugged.
“It is no matter to me. The confident one has doubt and the doubtful one has confidence. That was your request. I'm done.”
There was a long pause. The lich stared blankly into the wall. The spectre stared blankly into the lich.
“If I might offer an opinion, this pair is passable at best. Surely a woman of your repute could acquire a couple better equipped for-”
“That will be all,” said Tatula, firmly. The spirit nodded. It was time for it to go.
“I consider my pact with you fulfilled and claim my recompense,” it said in a flat rote tone.
Tatula cupped a skull on her dressing table by its cranium and lifted it from a circle of salt. She passed it to the spectre, who took it gently, but forcefully. Strangely, it did not slip through his fingers. When Tatula let go, he gave a polite nod, stepped back, and disappeared; the skull left with him.
As the three of them strode past the waymarker outside the village, Hel turned to the others.
“So!” he said brightly. “Where to next?”
“I don't know,” said Darken, quietly.
Tuesday, 5 October 2010
If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body
“Excuse me?” the student asked, mooning around by the opposite chair. The girl looked up vacantly.
“Do you mind if I...”
“No,” said the girl, flatly.
“Oh, ok then,” said Porlo, and started to turn away, cheeks prickling.
“No, I do not mind,” clarified the girl.
“Oh!” said Porlo. “Oh, that's good. Thanks. Thanks.” He sat down hurriedly and sloshed cider over his fingers. “I'm Porlo,” he said.
“Hello,” said the girl.
“Hi. So. Ah... Are you a student?”
The girl's eyes twitched to one side for a moment, and she looked thoughtful.
“Not in the sense you mean,” she said.
“Oh, right. I get you. But yeah, I'm one, up at the academy. I just wondered, because you seemed about the right age. But I guess, you can be a student without going to the Academy, right?”
“Yeah... So what do you 'study' then?” He winced. “Sorry, that sounded patronising, I didn't-”
“Many things,” said the girl, who apparently hadn't been offended. Porlo told himself to take heart in this, and show a bit of confidence. He downed several mouthfuls of cider, but it was pretty weak.
“Oh yeah? That's good. I think people who have a lot of interests are, you know, interesting people.”
“So, any particular favourites? Subjects, I mean?”
There was a long pause. The girl's expression didn't change. Then:
“Lepidoptery? Like... Moths and stuff, right?”
“Oh, I... Can't say I've ever really looked into that. That's neat though. Quirky. You're into that, then?”
The girl tilted her head down slightly and squinted through Porlo's ribcage, her expression as if trying to locate an elusive memory.
“Yes. I recall it being quite compelling.”
“So, what's it like, then? Tell me about it.”
“It's about moths,” said the girl.
“Yeah...” said Porlo. “I gathered that.”
The conversation continued into the night, punctuated by quite a lot of long silences in which the pair kept their own counsel and Porlo pretended to be fascinated by his drinks. Still, he thought he was doing ok. She hadn't shown any sign of being uncomfortable, and they were sort of chatting. About eighty minutes and four drinks in, the daydream ticking over in the back of Porlo's mind briefly attained a critical mass of credibility, and Porlo opened his mouth.
“So, have you- Are you seeing anybody?” He prickled for a moment in amazement at his own words. “I mean-”
“You are young...” murmured the girl.
“I'm twenty-three!” rejoined the boy. “I'd guess I've probably got a couple of years on you.”
“There are more than a couple of years on me,” the girl stated idly. Porlo coughed.
“Oh, well, sorry. I thought you looked younger... I mean, a teenager... Nineteen maybe? What are you then, twenty? Twenty-two?”
The girl was staring down at the well-scratched table top, but her eyes weren't tracing the patterns. She showed no sign she was even remotely attentive. Porlo started to feel a bit uncomfortable. He tried a joke.
“Or, ha ha, you could be two hundred? Hey? You're not a vampire, are you?” he grinned dopily and felt like a berk. The girl looked up, however, and met his eyes. Her own danced with a rheumy amusement. The corner of her mouth twitched.
“No,” she said, and smiled right through him. Porlo became aware that she wasn't smiling at his minor wit. It was more like she was gazing straight into or beyond him, scrying onto some comedic scene from another time. He scratched his head and slumped his shoulders, resigned.
“Well, look, I don't want to spoil your evening. Would you like me to leave?”
To his surprise, the girl shook her head once.
“No. I don't mind.”
Well, Porlo thought. Maybe he was doing better than he'd realised.
“Oh, well, good. In that case might I buy you a drink?”
“No,” said the girl, and Porlo's stomach flip-flopped once again. But then she added, “...Thank you. I don't drink.”
“Ah, I see,” said Porlo. “Well, that's probably wise and all. I hear that some of the alchemists at the academy have got research that shows how too much booze actually rots your brain or something of the sort. Clean living, I guess, that's the key to longevity. That your thing?”
“No...” said the girl again. Porlo was learning to come to terms with that response now. It didn't seem to be as problematic as it was with most girls. “Alcohol is a preservative, you know?”
She'd asked him a question! That was progress, right?
“Oh, erm, yes, I did know that actually. But I think I probably just overheard it somewhere, you know. I'm not that good at the physiks really. But, that's funny, heh, now you point it out. If it's a preservative, it can't be that bad for you, can it? Hahah.” He managed a slightly less forced smile this time around, and the pretty lass looked up into his face innocently, as if she was going to return it. But she didn't. She just sort of stared at him beatifically. Porlo wasn't sure if that was good or not.
“Uh...” he managed, and then the door burst open.
A man and a woman staggered in, dressed in cheap, tough, soil-caked clothing. Farmers, then. The woman was cradling a bundle. From Porlo's table it couldn't be made out, but the way she held it left no doubt that it was a child. The man ran straight to the bar, the barkeeper hurrying over to him in some alarm. Clearly they were acquainted.
“Bordon, it's Jamie! You gotta help us! You gotta help!” The man – father, no doubt – was seeping sweat and in a state of near hysterics. The bartender, a burly, well-aged sort of man with a drooping moustache, strode out from behind the oak top and leaned over the bundled child (still invisible to Porlo and the girl). He put a warm, weighty arm around the woman. She was quieter than her panicking husband, but clearly the worse hit. She looked barely able to stand, as if stress had physically weakened her to the strength of thick paper.
“Alright, Mary, alright. Y'alright. Dervan, you calm down, alright? You calm down and you take down that bottle of Allwinter up there, y'see it? Alright. And then we'll pull up some chairs and ye can tell me everything that's going on.” He craned his neck to peer about the room until he caught the gaze of a young table maid. “Audrey, you take the bar.” The girl nodded and slipped into the bartender's role with surprising competence, given her young, meek appearance. The bartender pulled up some chairs as he'd said and seated the three of them next to the bar, in a corner of the room given over to storing crates. On the far side of the room, Porlo and the girl watched, but the student's interest waned fast now they'd gone out of easy listening range. The girl, though, was watching impassively, at once showing no great interest, and yet seeming to clearly observe the group.
“He's so quiet... So quiet...” the man Dervan was saying. He was rocking slightly, but essentially calmer for the hefty mouthful of Allwinter brandy that Bordon had cajoled down his throat. Bordon had lifted the babe from Mary's arms (not least because he feared she might drop him at any moment) and laid him gently upon the table, opening up a torch on the nearest bracket to better look at him. He had to admit (though not to the parents, ye gods...) that Dervan was right. The bairn Jamie was grave-quiet and tomb-still. He was still breathing though, just about. Bordon waved a candle flame around his eye line, and he thought he saw a couple of flickers of movement, but it was hard to tell. And other than that, the child was unresponsive. He feared the worst...
“Formald is a preservative,” said the girl. Porlo started.
“Formald. It is a preservative. But it also causes the tumourous death.” She stopped and stared at him, patiently. He blinked. “So preservatives are not neccesarily good for you... I mean,” she added.
“Oh. Oh! Right, right, yes. Ok, I'm with you now.” said Porlo, nodding like a simpleton. He wasn't sure whether this sudden return to conversation – and one couched in pointing out his mistakes – was a good thing or a bad thing. He decided that on balance, the fact that the enigmatic girl wanted to continue their conversation was probably in his favour. He tried not to drop the ball.
“Well, like I say, I don't really know physicianing... I'm an arcane scholar, actually. You know, like, tomes and such.”
“A mage...” said the girl, and Porlo thought she was narrowing her eyes at him.
“No! No!” exclaimed Porlo, although he wasn't sure why he felt the need to so vehemently deny it. “Just a scholar. I research the history of the order and other movements. Hedge witch cultures. Grimoires. I just do the theory. I don't actually practise any of it. Some people think that sounds a little pointless, but arcanologists – that's the fancy term for us – we believe that it's important that there are non magic-users who still understand magic, you see?” Porlo finished hesitantly. As he'd been speaking the barkeeper had poured a vial of some red water into the baby's mouth across the room, and the child had given one short, riven cry of infantile misery before falling completely silent again. It was, admittedly, quite an eery outburst, and the girl's head had swung gently through ninety degrees to peer across the bar again. Now she turned back.
“Yes,” she said. Porlo opened his mouth and fumbled. “I see.”
“Oh, well, good-”
“And I agree,” the girl – the fascinating enigma, Porlo was beginning to think of her as – added.
“Oh, really? Well, that's great! I knew you were a smart one! So many people just sort of laugh at us. The joke is that when you're burning in a fire, the arcanologist is the one who can tell you exactly what brand of fireball it is that's killing you.” He grinned. The girl put her head slightly to one side.
“Whilst burning? Your pain tolerance must be... Oh, I see. It was a joke.” She inclined her head slightly, and Porlo got the notion she was embarrassed.
“Hahah, yes. It's not a very good one, though. So, ah, anyway. That's enough about me,” he flinched inwardly at the trite line, “What is it that you do? If you don't mind me saying so, a young girl of your age to be out in taverns and towns at night alone is quite unusual, and I thought that maybe, what with your dress and such, you might be some sort of noble-affiliated kind? Not, well, I mean, I'm not saying you're a spy, of course. But I know the nobles also sometimes employ skilled types very young for other jobs, like specialist things. You know... Witch hunting, and the like...” He said it quickly. “I mean, because, the young are particularly sensitive. And I mean, if I've got that wrong, please don't take offense. I mean, I'm not making any kind of judgment. I think, maybe my perspective is a bit skewed because arcanologists often get that kind of job, so I'm thinking about it a lot, and, uh...”
Somewhere in his babbling the girl had turned her head again. She didn't seem offended though. She didn't really seem to be aware of him at the moment.
“I must go over there now,” she said, and walked away. Porlo stared at her back for a moment.
“Well damn,” he said.
The girl drifted across the room, her wispy black dress floating out gently behind her. She settled at the shoulder of one of the local villagers, who had formed a loose crowd around the table, just far enough away to pretend like they weren't being intrusive. Porlo finished his drink and went to hover nearby.
The landlord was rubbing his big hairy chin in what was almost a comical fashion, except the look in his eyes admitted no humour. The babe's chest was rising and falling somewhat more noticeably now, which was probably a good sign, but its eyes were glazed over and it was still unresponsive. The mother simply sat and stared at the shelves behind the bar. The father raised a weary look to Bordon.
“You know what it is, right?”
“Is it bad?”
Bordon waved a hand.
“Don't cut in, Dervan. You need to be calm. Just listen, alright? It's Myrdon's Catatonia, is what it is. What housewives call 'The Still'. Silly damned name. Means your bairn – and you have to stay calm, now – means he's badly poisoned in the brain.”
There was gasping from the crowd, whose pretence of respectful distance was fast collapsing. The three around the table were too preoccupied to care.
“The Still, the Still!” cried an old toothless crone that Porlo found slightly frightening, in the way that old strange people were. “The Still can only be cured by the bessings of the ghosts! Your lad is dead!”
“Shut your damned foolish hag mouth, Mawdryn Deerie!” barked Bordon. He turned to Mary, who had let out a weak moan at the woman's outburst. “Ignore her, Mary. It's prime bullshit, is what that is. Your lad needs a steeping of kettle herbs, and then a night of prayer. That's the cure, and a genuine cure it is. No stupid hag nonsense,” he spat at Mrs Deerie.
Mary finally spoke up, her voice reedy brittle.
“What are his... Chances, Will?”
Bordon bowed his head.
“They aren't good, Mary. They aren't good and I'm sorry. But there still is a chance, so don't you go lamenting just yet. You keep your strength up for young Jamie, 'cause he might just make it. Alright?”
She nodded pathetically. Porlo could see she didn't mean it. Poor woman. For a moment he wished he could give her a hug. Then his attention was caught by the young girl, who had silently but firmly strode forward, and somehow passed to the front of the crowd. She knelt before the table.
“Apologies,” she said. “I may help. Please?”
Dervan, Mary and Bordon exchanged looks. Before any of them responded, the girl was already reaching out an arm for the child.
“Now hang on a moment!” Bordon cried, and grabbed for her hand. The girl's other arm came up and she caught his sleeve. Later Porlo would consider the unlikely strength she would need to resist Bordon's might.
“Please,” she said again. Porlo thought there was something almost plaintive about it. The girl was a mystery. (But then they all were to Porlo.)
Bordon was staring into the girl's eyes, and she was staring back. The barkeeper looked somewhat bemused. Dervan was hesitating at the edge of the table, but he seemed to trust Bordon to make the right call.
“And what're you going to do, Missy?” asked the barkeep.
“I will not touch. Just a passing,” said the girl.
“Yes,” nodded the girl, and then she waved her hand, palm down, over the child. Porlo squinted. He could have sworn the girl had made a Charlatan's Drop. There'd been a gold coin pressed to her palm by her thumb, and then it had vanished. Why would she be doing conjuring tricks?
The child gurgled, and sighed gently.
Oh. Not a conjuring trick. Porlo sidled closer to watch the remarkable girl.
The mother smiled for the first time that night. Weak, but a smile nonetheless. The child's eyes searched the room again. Dervan made a wet little squeaky noise. Bordon cleared his throat and raised an eyebrow. They continued to watch the girl carefully, but didn't move to interfere as she slid a few small stones and strings from her dress and placed them around the child. One of the trinkets caught Porlo's eye. He leaned closer.
“Hang on,” he said. The villagers turned to look at him. Some of them pulled irritable expressions at this boy who was butting in so blithely. Embarrassed, Porlo mumbled on quickly. “Isn't that a Red-Clay Stone?”
The girl turned on him and gave him another long stare. This time Porlo had no trouble reading it. Now she was not impressed. He panicked. He wasn't sure what he'd said. His mind suggested a hundred and one possible mistakes he might have made. His voice offered up a solution to none of them. It babbled.
“Sorry, just, I've never seen one before. I mean, they're all in museums now. Except that one, apparently, hahah! I mean, I just, oh, I suppose... Sorry, now I've told everyone you have it... I guess you think you might be robbed, huh? I really didn't think of that. But honestly we're a really good bunch here. I mean, I don't know everyone, but... Erm... Oh, nevermind. I'm sorry, I really shouldn't have mentioned it.”
Bordon rocked back on his heels, his brow set curiously.
“Why're they all in museums?” he asked, gently, his eye roaming between Porlo and the girl. Bent low over the child so her long black hair hid her face, the girl started to move about her work quickly and quietly, not looking up at the surrounding villagers. Porlo wasn't sure if Bordon was actually expecting a reply, so he mumbled one out and tried to make it sound sort of offhand.
“Well, nobody has made them in several centuries.”
The room had gone silent. Dervan and Mary were staring wide eyed at the girl. Bordon leaned forward and, so, so gently, touched two fingers to the sleeve of her dress. She froze.
“Why not...?” Bordon asked, lethally calm, fixing Porlo with a cold, interrogative stare.
“Uhm. Because... They're for working Taghlan's family of charms... Almost exclusively. And werthian, the weed required for those charms went... Extinct... Uhm...” Everyone was staring at him or the girl. A few people were making small, concealed movements. “But, there are... Inferior... Components... You could still use...” His brain finally dredged up the terrible fact from his studies which every uneducated man and woman in the room had already intuited. “Oh. But they're all...” He coughed.
Bordon seized the girl's arms and brought them behind her back, swinging her through the air and slamming her against the countertop. A gaunt, rat-faced looking villager lurched forward swinging a little steel-and-glass talisman on a chain. It was a Corpse Light. Popular in superstitious parts because it would glow when in the presence of necromantic energies. Sure enough, as the little lantern swung in front of the girl's face, a weak yellow flame flickered in the glass chamber. The villager smashed the charm viciously into the girl's forehead. Some Corpse Lights, Porlo knew, contained distilled and sanctified alchemical mixtures that were anathema to a necromancer. Others just contained water, but it seemed that whoever had traded this one away was legitimate, because as the liquid trickled across the girl's face it seared painful blistering lines of skin and she shrieked and thrashed.
“Quickly!” the gaunt man was crying. “Before she focuses, a knife, someone!”
“Niall!” called another man, proffering a blade from the ruins of a steak further down the counter, but the old 'hag' woman, Mawdryn, snatched it away before it could get to Niall. She strode toward the girl with an unpleasant sense of purpose. Porlo fidgeted. He couldn't help but feel sorry for her. Perhaps she was just misunderstood. Vulnerable... Or perhaps she was a monster, and he was just falling for another pretty girl, like always. Still, he winced as Mrs Deerie slammed the blade – still sticky with gristle and gravy – between the girl's shoulderblades. She arched and seized as the crone began to carve an old folkloric ward into her back.
“Don't touch her flesh!” someone cried. “They can drain your soul out by touch!”
“I know that, ye stupid fool!” cried Deerie, as the blade slashed free of the girl's skin, leaving an irregular, twice bifurcated star pattern traced in scarlet between tattered black velvet and glimpses of alabaster skin. Porlo pondered for a second that maybe it was a little unfair that someone who was willing to believe as much superstitious lore as Mrs Deerie had somehow become the leader of, well... This mob. But then he reminded himself that the girl was a necromancer. He wondered why he didn't feel more afraid.
Held down by Bordon, Dervan and several others, the pathetic female was writhing and thrashing, howling an airy, unpleasant scream. Her naked fingers curled back towards one of the villagers' arms and he stumbled backward into his neighbour, terrified of her touch. For a split second, the girl got her arm free and desperately, savagely, rent a huge clump of her own hair from her scalp. Someone cried out, but it was too late. The hair sizzled to nothing, catalysed by foul magics, and a huge blast of grave-cold air slammed everyone to the sides of the room. For a moment there was a chaos of falling bodies and spinning ceilings, then Porlo's head collided hard with a table. For a split-second, his curiosity was piqued by a tiny detail of his final, bleary vision, and then he lost consciousness.
The moon was high in the sky and full. It cast a silver glow over the village which was probably beautiful. It was also unfortunate, but tolerable. Tatula made her way from shadow to shadow, trying not to linger in the darkest corners or to flit too noticeably. The movements of a thief or assassin could be discerned by the paranoid or forewarned more easily than someone just walking in the dark. Besides, she was not truly capable of balletics now. The scars in her back had seized badly, almost pulling her shoulders back, and the sigil burned constantly across her spine. Her face had healed – Corpse Light chemicals were usually made for a temporary shock, not prolongued inhibition – but her scalp was raw and distracting. Pain was a rare experience for Tatula. Usually it was a sensation she could divorce, but the old woman's mark had left her in strict bondage to her flesh. As she made her way into the small hamlet she forced her senses out into the present surroundings, to feel out the magical lattice of trapwires and triggers that laced back into the sanctified charms around her. At the same time her mind went back, gliding into other dark times, past times, when she had been forced to walk other gauntlets set with holy deathtraps meant to exterminate her. She walked all of those paths again, her mind following threads of thought and recognition from one to another, until...
Her consciousness was snapped back to the present by a searing, agonising pain. A crossways charm on a silver wire and she hadn't seen it! A split second longer and she would have been immolated. As it was she staggered back, and had to stifle another scream from a voice that most times barely whispered. Magnesium flames scorched up her right arm, filled with the pain of hatred. A pain calculated to destroy her, coldly set against her nature. It was a pain that reminded her of the very old times. Times she was glad were long gone. Mustering all her will she marshalled her own magic to nullify the fire, and collapsed weakly onto a hitching post. She gathered her senses and her chest heaved a few times in sympathetic response. At least, she realised as she recovered, the trap did not appear to have set off any further warnings. She was safe. She would continue to be safe as long as she remained careful. She glanced down the streets into the heart of the village. She would have to remain careful.
The moon was lower and larger over the fields as Tatula walked back up the hill out of the town. The night's danger now lay nestled in the darkness behind her, and she walked more freely; her goal had been accomplished. Had an assassin been waiting in the barn beside the road, he would have at least got another dagger between her shoulders that night before she killed him. It was not an assassin, however.
“You went back for the child,” said Porlo.
Tatula turned in a stride and faced him with blank apprehension.
“I mean, you went back to heal it.” He narrowed his eyes. “Didn't you?”
Tatula nodded stiffly.
“I thought so. You must have known how dangerous it was.” He indicated her arm. “Looks like you nearly had trouble.”
Her face was empty.
“I just wanted to say... Well, sorry. I mean, I'm sorry I... I didn't mean to...” He sighed. “I'm sorry they drove you out.”
Tatula nodded at him. Porlo ran a hand over his face.
“And, erm. I didn't tell them... About... Well, I mean, how old... Those charms... Those... Old war charms... I, uh...” He took a breath. “You're a liche, aren't you?” he said, abruptly. His eyes flicked up to her face.
Tatula's expression filled with ice and stone. She took a step forward. Porlo bowed his head and stared at the ground.
“Only, the thing is, the thing... I mean... Now I get it... In the tavern. I realise, I can't possibly understand... What you must have seen... I can't, can't judge you, or anything... I don't want to... But I know you must be... Slipping... And maybe you're, I mean, ok with... Maybe you've allowed that... but I just want to say, I just. Because I never... I...” A speck of moisture caught the moonlight on his cheek. He took a faltering breath then stood up and faced the dark mage. “I just wanted to tell you... Not to forget how to... Not be alone.”
Tatula stopped. She stared at him once again. Porlo stared back. Tatula began to step toward him again. The scholar flinched despite his best efforts, but only a little. Then the woman raised a hand and cupped the air a hair's breadth from his damp cheek. Porlo's mouth opened, shock ran across his face, followed by subtler, rarer emotions. He took a breadth, and with his fingertips, pressed her own to his face.
On physical contact Tatula's glamer failed. Porlo didn't look away. He surrendered his own mental defences and her magic returned. Then he kissed her, briefly. It was enough; she didn't need to exchange any words. She left then, and Porlo spent the walk home happy that he had been able to reach her, to comfort her, and perhaps most of all to encourage her. He thought about how she truly was a vulnerable, troubled girl, and how perhaps their love for one night had made a difference. Later, he thought how tragic it was that he would never know her name.
Tatula spent the walk home content that she had made the curious youth feel needed, for a while. She weighed it in her mind, and decided it was an adequate recompense for being one of the few who did not try to exterminate her. Later, she thought about moths.
Friday, 11 June 2010
“Just a moment, sir, but a moment!” insisted the woman, and she put a hand on his shoulder. Darken turned.
The fortress of the Warlord sat upon the edge of a valley. The Illustrani Valley was one of the last few beautiful places left in the world. It was preserved by the Warlord. A sublime irony. The fortress was a dark blemish atop the cliffs at the western tip of the land, an unsightly morsel of food at the corner of a lip. It had its own grandeur, with soaring black vaults and titanic walls, but it could be nothing other than repulsive to the coming assailant, for all that it represented. In the magical spectra it was an even more imposing sight. It blazed like a beacon, not even attempting to conceal the massive power impregnated in its walls. Lines of force blazed a mile into the sky, and fountained down in a radius three miles wide. Nobody had breached that lattice of energy and lasted more than a scant minute.
The assailant was still alive when he reached the fortress rooftops. He bent the properties of his cloak to twist the light around him, hiding him from view. Where he was forced to cross the infinitely sensitive trip-lines of invisible power, they passed through him unbroken. The stone twisted at his fingertips to form handholds. Three times he'd upset the delicate spider's web that encased the fortress, and had weaved it anew in the split second before it collapsed. He was already exhausted as he dropped invisibly and noiselessly onto the balcony he'd been aiming for. After seven years, he had arrived.
The tyrant's footfalls were soft as he walked out into the night air, in spite of the monstrous suit he wore. Armoured plates enclosed his whole body in a midnight-blue steel. There was no weakness, no flaw. Filigree lines of precious metals and finely cut grooves traced miniature leylines about the figure's anatomy, converging on brilliant gemstones set into the suit at points of harmony. It was one enormous focus, the sheer force of it made the intruder's body fizz as it approached him. It was as if the Warlord were enclosed in plates of pure, beaten power. His true form was impenetrable within; only the helmet belied some sense of the bearer. It was smooth and contoured, tapered slightly, unlike a warrior's helmet, but more subtly reminiscent - a parody - of the hoods of the long forgotten Order. It was formed of a single, unbroken piece of metal, but as the intruder watched, seams of light began to glow on its surface. The planes split and furled back, the fragments sliding and shrinking into one another. In a minor display of incredible trans-spatial power, the helmet was completely subsumed into the armour. The Warlord gave his visitor a languorous gaze.
“Hel,” said Darken.
“Darken,” said Hel.
“Tell me, did you harm my guards?”
“You'll find you have a few more statues in your courtyard.”
“Ah, then I must thank you. Art is so much more precious a commodity than manpower.”
They stared at each other quietly for a moment.
“You're a bastard,” said Hel.
“Undoubtedly. And in at least three senses of the word,” replied Darken.
“It only has two senses,” Hel leered disdainfully.
“Shows what you know,” said Darken, and turned to cross to the far railing of the bannister. He was goading Hel, the man knew. Turning his back on him to show how unafraid he was. It hadn't worked. Hel knew exactly how Darken felt.
“I found Tatula,” said Hel, and his impassive tone was fleetingly punctured by a sharpness. Darken spun, and his eyes flared, but he seemed unable to reply. “She wouldn't tell me what happened,” Hel continued. “What was it? Couldn't have her always saving your life because it was bad for your ego, so you got rid of her?”
“Do not presume to guess anything about my reasons,” murmured Darken, in an enforced monotone. Then he shook his head, and the shadow vanished from his face to hide behind his eyes. He made a show of magnanimity. “But where are my civilities? I must invite you in, offer you a drink. Yes?”
“I'm afraid you can't trap and poison me that bluntly,” smirked Hel.
“You wound me,” said Darken.
“No,” said Hel. “I assure you you'll know when I'm wounding you.”
Darken laughed grandly, patronising Hel's response. Then he gave a toothy grin. “And I assure you, dear Hel, that you will know when I have trapped and poisoned you.” His eyes were deathly cold.
Hel smirked. “Lord of Tyrants.”
“Tyrantlord,” said Darken. “It's punchier.” He gave a genuine smile this time, as if he honestly found the situation humorous. The expression caught Hel off guard, and stoked his rage inside him.
“Damnit, Darken! I walked through Bethalas! I saw the bodies! The wreckage! The twisted ruin where a country used to be!”
“My, you have been a busy traveller.”
“Yes, I have! And you couldn't catch me!”
“I hardly needed to,” shrugged Darken, and nodded at Hel's presence on the balcony of his fortress. Hel sneered.
“Nice, Darken. But I know you're scared. I know you're wondering how much I've learned. I know you're wondering if I have the power to kill you.”
“And do you?”
“I don't know,” Hel admitted blithely. “Do you?”
“I wouldn't venture to guess,” said Darken. “Certainly you have grown and changed since I last knew you, on those heady days so very, very, long ago. Perhaps you have surpassed me. You have been most diligent, and I have grown indolent in my old age... Why, perhaps it will be no contest at all.”
Hel raised an eyebrow.
“Oh come on, was that a bluff? You've hardly grown stagnant yourself,” said the mage, making an expansive gesture at Darken's seat of power. “Unless... That suit's not compensating for something, is it?”
Darken narrowed his eyes. He raised a hand and veins of fire ran along the fine filigree of the armour's plates.
“I assure you, my potence is not in question,” he said.
As if to make his point, Darken jabbed at the centre of the room, and a bright nova of light momentarily dazzled. Then, to his surprise, it turned into a burst of fog, which uncoiled, slow to dissipate in the still air.
“Impressive,” said Darken. “You're doing that, what, with just your mind now?”
“Only small spells.”
“And that's a small spell, is it? Well, well.”
The pair lingered quietly for a second. Hel's face set into the snarl he'd borne since he embarked on this mission earlier that night, Darken's face unreadable.
After a while Darken sighed.
“This is tiresome. Just leave. I will assure you get to the walls unmolested. My slaughter is not on your conscience.”
“You're a monster, Darken.”
“And you're a fool.”
“It was ever thus.”
“Yes!” Darken snapped. “You're just trying to excuse yourself your previous association with me.”
Hel glared. His jaw twitched. For a moment it looked as though he were subvocalising a spell, then it became apparent he was simply lost for a response.
“Admit it!” demanded the warmonger. “Would you have taken on this foolhardy trial if you weren't hoping somehow to assuage the guilt of having once sought to share in my endeavours? Can you claim that in good faith?”
Hel's body gave no tell. He lowered his eyes and a calm blanketed his rage.
“Enough talk now.”
“Yes,” nodded Darken, looking down thoughtfully. “All that can be said has been said.” He looked up. “If you're ready-” Hel had disappeared. The balcony collapsed.
Darken's gaze ran wearily along his outstretched arm to his fingertips. A spark leapt from them, and the remains were erased by the conflagration. He didn't want to look at them. Turning his back on the fast-dying pyre, he left the ruined balcony and went inside. Quietly, he made his way across the huge empty room, and fell into the only seat. He sat, on his throne, amid the cool and the gloom and the stilled banners of a hundred conquered kings, and awaited the inevitable.
After a moment Darken sat back and looked the wandering woman squarely in the eye.
“And if I ask you if that's all true, you'll tell me that the future is always changing. Nothing is set in stone. Right?”
“I see you have some foresight yourself, sir.”
Darken smiled strangely, and then he stood. Half turned to leave he turned back and, after a moment's thought, he flicked the woman a coin.
Hel and Tatula were sitting on the wall that curved around the edge of the old barn when Darken descended the hill. Hel had acquired a wooden bat from somewhere. Or if he'd had a few hours to work his magic on it, perhaps it had been a branch that afternoon.
“Darken!” Hel called brightly. “Come and join us! I'm teaching Tatula rackette! I think she's understanding, but she's only said nine words.”
“He is stating many rules. All of them useless,” said Tatula, momentarily turning a dull gaze on Darken, before returning to staring at a shrub blankly. Hel gave a 'She's-Being-Tatula' shrug. Darken scratched his head.
“Ah, as much as I'd, eh, enjoy your company, I'm afraid I'm rather... busy at the moment.”
“Busy?” asked Hel. “You just got back.”
“Yes. Well,” said Darken, and wandered off. Hel turned to Tatula and gave her a 'He's-Being-Darken' shrug.
“I don't know. Some days I think I should just kill you both and bury you in a shallow grave. It'd save me a world of headaches.”
Tatula nodded absently. “That would be prudent,” she said.
In his room, Darken cast a brief glance over his shoulder, then rippled his fingers. An elegant mahogany box appeared on his bedroll. Darken sat. He traced the magical lock on the box of treasures and prizes with his fingertips. He lifted the lid. Within, various trinkets, jewels and trophies sat in disregard. Gently, he pushed them aside with two fingers, until he uncovered a scrap of crimson cloth. He pulled it out. The cloth unfurled and hung limply before him. Taken from the tent of a minor prince who had made a mistake in crossing Darken. He'd dealt with him, and claimed a few things. Darken stared at the white pattern for a moment, then he took the banner outside and burned it.
Thursday, 27 May 2010
'You killed the puppy,' repeated Hel.
'I thought it was a guard dog.'
Hel rocked on his feet and arched a sardonic brow. 'Tell me, has it been your aspiration to become the evillest man alive, or was it just something that happened?'
Planted atop a boulder in the middle of their little camp site, Hel's compatriot scratched his chin. 'I can't say it has been, but now you mention it, "Darken the Evillest" does have a certain blunt ring to it.'
'Shit, why not just call yourself "Lord of Tyrants" and be done with it?'
'That's good too,' said Darken, hopping down from his rock, 'Could be punchier.' Then he spun on his heel and jabbed a finger at the edge of the clearing. There was a flash, a thunderclap, a yelp, and the mingled scent of burned cloth, plants and ozone. A woman staggered into the clearing.
'I find introductions easier when one of us isn't hiding in the undergrowth,' shrugged Darken. The woman glared at him, but that was nothing to the concentrated blast of pure hate she proceeded to turn on Hel.
'Ohhh... Hell,' he said.
A Tale of the Triumvirate
She was a tall woman, incredibly slim, almost malnourished, but the strength with which she carried herself eclipsed any notion of weakness. She was attractive and striking, an effect undermined only slightly where her tunic was still smouldering. The tiniest distortion of her lip belied fangs, but you'd only see it if you were looking for it.
Darken waggled a finger between the pair. 'Do you two...?'
'Yes,' said the woman, turning her back on Hel again. 'We do. And we did.' She gave a thin smirk. 'Frequently.'
'Ah,' said Darken. 'I see. You're a vamp.'
'And you're an arrogant shit,' she spat.
'Truly, your politesse shames me.'
'Darken, this is Tsuria. Tsuria, this is Darken.' Hel gestured between them with a theatrically put-upon air. Darken saw right through it.
'I see. And what has she done to make you so uneasy that you're affecting false good humour?'
Tsuria's expression flared. 'What have I done? Me? Oh, I do hope you haven't been deceived by that unassumingly wet façade, little chauvinist. Despite appearances, I can assure you Hel is quite capable of some particularly imaginative violations and abuses.'
Hel's eyes flashed and his voice rose. 'I never abused you!' he hissed.
Tsuria forgot Darken and her mask of sarcasm. She turned on the mage. 'Didn't you? Do you really think not? Did you forget how our last meeting ended, then? Or do you really think it was justified?' Her voice cracked.
Hel's own voice was tremulous, his breathing deep and unsteady. 'I did what I had to do. I did it and I hated doing it. So DON'T you dare suggest you were the only injured party! You forced my hand. YOU did it!'
'You bastard... You incredible bastard...' Tsuria actually laughed. 'I can't believe even you could have the arrogance to suggest that...' She put her hand to her mouth. 'Oh my god. You're certifiable. As if your charity wasn't grand arrogance enough.'
'My charity? I'm sorry, what? Are you suggesting that somehow I was wrong in helping you? Actually, I'm not sure I disagree. I should have left you where you were. Stupidly, I thought you were more than a murderer.' He emphasised the word, and the way he watched Tsuria's face suggested he knew that it would hurt.
'I'm not... I'm not a...' She started, and tailed off. Hel's shoulders sagged, and he sighed.
'No. I know you're not. Or I thought you weren't. You know that. I trusted you... But you,' he shook his head irritably. 'You killed someone. Again. For no reason.'
'You've no idea what my reasons were. He wanted my blood. If I'd left him alone he'd have killed me in time. And probably you too. He was a fanatic. You've never understood that. I don't think you can understand that, because you're so desperate to believe everyone can be reasonable. Well they can't, Hel. He would never have stopped coming because he hated my kind. More than everyone does. He couldn't stand to let me live.'
Hel shrugged. 'And apparently you couldn't stand to let him, so what's the difference? I know, I know, you have been persecuted. I wish you would accept that I'm not disregarding that, but...' He hovered awkwardly. 'But you can't kill everyone. It just doesn't work that way. You have to find other answers. I was going to help you find other answers. Didn't you believe that?'
The girl shook her head. 'That's not even the point. I did something I had to do, and you still don't have the perspective to see that. Even though I know you've done the same.' Hel's eyes twitched to Darken against his will. Tsuria's temper seemed to rise again. 'You don't even- You can't even see why what you did to me was wrong.' She almost shouted the last word. Her expression was wandering, as if troubled over whether to commit itself one way or another. Her eyes seemed to soften and harden again as she watched him. There was a long silence, that seemed to foreshadow some sort of conclusion. Darken ruined it.
'Mind if I ask what he did?' he put in, brightly. Tsuria snarled at him.
'Fine, why not? Let me tell you. He raped me.'
'I DID NOT!' Hel exploded. He was shaking with rage. He advanced on Tsuria and stopped a foot away, shaking, flexing his arm impulsively. 'I, I... I NEVER did that. I... How can you even SAY that... I might have killed you for what you'd done... Or turned you in, which would have amounted to as much, or worse... But I didn't. I didn't! I let you go! I was as humane as I could possibly have been!'
Tsuria forced herself to keep a cold shoulder to her enraged ex-partner. Instead she continued to speak to Darken, as if in appeal. 'He poisoned me. He took my blood and he made up an agent to cripple me. An anti-vampiric. And he injected me with it... Whilst we lay together.'
Darken choked. 'Wo-hoah!' he laughed. 'Cold day in Hel.'
Tsuria wrinkled her nose, concluding that Darken was as much of a pig as she suspected and turning her back on him. She finally deigned to look back into Hel's eyes, now red and watering. He was still shaking. She waited, curious as to what he would say next. After a moment he took a rattling breath and whispered, 'I... Cured you.'
Tsuria slapped him with her right backhand and drew a tight paper scroll from her belt with the left, in a fluid display of motion which Darken admitted was entrancing. She extended the scroll toward him, at arm's length, as if she disdained to get near him. He frowned and took it.
'What's...?' Hel realised his mistake too late. A wide ring of fire spiralled out from between the pair. It engulfed Darken and carried him to its edge. The paper crumbled away. Hel blinked around at the magic barrier. 'Oh, I see,' he said. 'You're going to kill me.'
Tsuria shook her head. 'You're a fool,' she said, and drew her swords.
They were beautiful things. She'd had them even when Hel knew her. In fact, he thought bitterly, he'd added refinements for her himself. The blades were short and incredibly slender. Rune-engraved steel folded around magically reinforced elkbone cores. Lodestones in the grip held binding enchantments that made her nearly impossible to disarm. And they weren't just for show; Tsuria's skill was every bit worthy of the weapons.
She advanced in a few fluid strides, curving gracefully as she came. Hel dived left and under the opening strikes. Easy; she was just testing the water. But she was coming around, quickening her moves, everything flowing so naturally, that grace specific to her that had entranced him in their previous engagements. Spirits bedamned, she was distracting him just by being there. He couldn't cast and dodge those blades at once. At least not to any useful effect. He feinted, ducked right, came up under her arm and took a few quick steps toward the tree line. A few longer-reaching roots and branches crossed the threshold of Tsuria's magic circle. Hel brought his arm up, murmuring a complex entanglement of simple spells. A branch fractured a couple of feet from the tip and flew to his hand. He caught it neatly, and brought it up and around to counter an overarm swing from Tsuria, who was almost on top of him. As he parried he channelled more incantations into the branch and it changed to iron in his grip. Tsuria, swinging her blade at full force, was momentarily stunned by the impact.
Hel pushed the advantage, swiping left and right, succeeding in driving the vamp back a few feet before falling back into the breathing space he'd cleared and refocussing. He began to chant again. Darken had left a long dagger embedded in the earth by his tent. As Tsuria came back at him again, he cast a translocation, exchanging his iron club for the blade.
They fenced briefly, though the mage was clearly outmatched here and couldn't hope to make serious gains. His hopes lay on an opening, not for his blade but for a spell. He was murmuring almost constantly now, preparing and repreparing spells that died away, waiting for the moment when his summoned power would converge upon a weakness in Tsuria's guard and he could unleash his skill.
Darken perched on another rock between the tents, watching the blades ringing together, enjoying the spectacle. Quietly, though, he was keeping one eye on the invisible magic barrier, allowing his vision to sink into an arcane spectrum, picking through the weave of the thing visually, looking for clues to its construction, hunting for gaps.
Hel's muttering became more urgent. He fell back then came at Tsuria from a slight crouch, moving upward, leading with the blade, hooking the hilt of his weapon under the edge of hers. His ability for physical combat was pretty good (Darken was a little surprised), and he was able to judge the moment when his full strength came to bear well enough. He channelled a powerful pulse of magical nullity down his arm and into the dagger, using the weapon as a focus, concentrating the effect on Tsuria's hand. The holding enchantments faltered and the hilt came out of her grip. The blade spun upward erratically. Hel stepped back from the swinging tip, failing to follow through on his manoeuvre. His adversary recovered, throwing him off balance with the flat of her arm and snatching the weapon back out of the air.
Later, Hel congratulated himself on this bluff. As Tsuria's hand fell upon the sword, Hel antagonised the steel with magic. It blazed with light and a corona of fire danced across its edge as it seared the shocked woman's palm. She screamed and dropped it, falling back defensively and cradling her ruined hand.
'BASTARD,' she screamed. She turned on him with the blade in her good hand, running him down with a violence he had never seen in her. The speed and power of her attack was unexpected, and Hel, who had in fact been momentarily paralysed by a twinge of conscience, utterly failed to defend himself.
The cuts were quick and disorientating. He felt them fall upon his shoulder, his forearm and his face but he couldn't see. He dodged and weaved as best he could, and the cuts felt brief and mercifully light. Then a deep, biting pain filled his left arm. The world came back into focus, then swam dizzily. He saw Tsuria's outstretched blade withdrawing from his side through a slow, thick syrup of perception. He faltered, staggered back, dropped his blade and clutched his arm.
His once-lover stood watching him, chest gently heaving, eyes bright but furrowed, as if debating whether she had punished him enough. She didn't speak, and Hel was momentarily too lost to offer any sentiment of his own. If he told her to stop he couldn't in all conscience proceed to attack her, could he? That would be disdainful. Worthy of Darken. But she was going to kill him. Was she? Would she kill him, even though he loved her? Some part of him tried to register that what mattered was whether she loved him. He didn't know if she did. Could they settle this amicably now? He didn't know. He wanted to ask, but he couldn't find his mouth. He'd just got his lips moving when the long moment ended and Tsuria whirled on him again.
Jerkily, Hel swiped a palm through the air. A wall of force deflected the vampire sideways. He lashed out again with an empty backhand which knocked her off balance. Finally he threw his palm forward. The concussive force was intense, and threw Tsuria onto her back.
This display might have looked impressive to a peasant, but Darken was not one of them. This sort of kinetic elementalism was far outside Hel's purview, he knew. And he was gesturing, which was a bad sign. Hel's mastery of arcane theory had allowed him to dispense with material catalysts and physical gestures. In fact, Darken had to admit there was something deeply impressive in the young mage's ability to direct magic through sheer willpower and verbal expression. It was what had first made him an intriguing curiosity. For Hel to be gesturing, he must be floundering badly. He was sweating now, bent over and panting. Those blasts had been large and blunt, they'd taken a lot out of him. Darken's show threatened to turn into bloodsport, and it happened that he wasn't in the mood for that at the moment.
Hel was starting to wobble on his feet. He wanted to talk to Tsuria. He wanted to work things out. He didn't hate her. He could give her a chance. Couldn't she see that? Maybe she could... Maybe she'd calm down now long enough for him to get his breath back, and they could talk.
The girl leapt back to her feet, and her eyes were blazing again, like they had been when she first arrived. She seemed to have taken a lot of offence at being knocked down. She strode forward and-
'Oh, for the love of...' Darken muttered. He jumped down from his seat and pushed his way into the barrier. Purple sparks began to coruscate around his flesh, but the circle slowly gave way.
'Stay out of this!' Hel wheeled on Darken, finding his voice. His good arm flew up and the circle sealed shut, its bindings redoubled. Darken was thrust backwards.
'Idiot', he harrumphed.
Hel turned back to Tsuria. She'd sheathed her blades now. Maybe she was going to talk. But she had another scroll in one hand, and an orange light shone around the first two fingers of the other. Hel couldn't fight her any more. She walked up to him and jabbed him in the chest. He fell down.
Hel's joints protested as his limbs were cinched inwards. The conjuring scroll dissolved into cinders as the chained manacles reified about his wrists and ankles, binding him into an uncomfortable hog tie. Dumbly, he thought about making a joke, but thankfully his reactions were still dull enough that he realised this would be a stupid thing to do before he said it. No need to imitate Darken's level. Still, he'd found his voice.
'I'm sorry,' he croaked. 'This isn't necessary. We can work this out. I'm sorry for what I did to you, it wasn't the solution.' He stared up a shapely leg into her face. It was regarding him with curiosity. He was too out of it to notice the twinge of hardness creeping into it. 'I know I sound like some crawling rat right now and you think it's because you've got me, you know, 'at your mercy'. But, well, I guess it partially is. But honestly, I mean it. It wasn't the way. I was treating your identity like the problem. But it's not! I can accept that. We could still be good. As friends I mean, just friends! But I could help you. We could find a better answer! Please, let me?' He stopped weakly. Tsuria twisted her lip. She picked a small glass trinket from her pocket and regarded it blankly, then began to roll it around in her hand, so that when she replied, it was with an exaggerated sense of distraction and disinterest.
'I was just a charity case to you. Just a project. A project with benefits.' She kicked him hard. 'I still am.' She crouched beside him. He just stared back, silently. 'Let me explain to you. Let me see if you can finally get it. I don't have problems. You see? I am not a problem. I am not to be solved for your edification. You need to realise, when you're so desperate to help people, you're only doing it for you.' Hel still didn't reply, but Darken, who had seen this coming even whilst Hel was still talking, was amused by the thought that Tsuria was just as bad as him. 'Anyway, I came here to try and introduce you to your own fuck ups. For self improvement, you see? My little bit of charity for you. For myedification. So, fair enough, you wouldn't kill me. Most likely that's just weakness masquerading as morality than any true virtue, but fair's fair. You wouldn't kill me, so I won't kill you.' She snapped her fingers shut around the little glass object. It was a phial of some watery green liquid. 'This I got from an apothecary after quite a lot of asking around and dealing with charlatans. I understand it's made from a rock of some kind, but I couldn't get it in powder form. Or maybe it's already dissolved, I don't know. Anyway, you swallow this, rather than injecting it, but the principle's the same. It'll seep through your system, nullify all your hocus pocus abilities, and leave you weak as a lovely little kitten. As it happens it only lasts for a week, rather than - did I mention? - seven years, but I can't be bothered to keep tracking you down to administer the next dose, so that'll have to do.' She smiled at him. 'But I know you'll understand. You've always been so understanding.'
Her fingers snaked around his jaw to the pressure points that would force open Hel's gullet. If she noticed the faintest of vibrations, she didn't register it. Darken leant forward slightly in his new seat on the ground. A few months after he'd first met Hel, his (well concealed) wonder at the boy's particular skill was renewed by a new discovery. Because it wasn't strictly true to say that Hel needed only a verbal direction to control his spells; should he be feeling particularly clear of mind – or just maybe, really bloody furious – he could rely upon no more than an almost undetectable subvocalisation. It was slower, but if he had a good long lead-in – like, say, someone giving a long, arrogant monologue – there was little difference in its efficacy.
The phial exploded, instantly crippling Tsuria's good hand. The whole of the backdraft was swept magically toward her, showering her in glass shards and the burning chemical. She fell back, screaming, and rolled desperately across the floor, trying to douse herself. It was difficult work – the harness for her blades stuck in the earth until she succeeded in tearing it off, burning all the while. Hel stood calmly, the manacles suddenly devoured by rust and crumbling to nothing. He turned his back on his very much ex paramour. Tsuria finally patted out the last of the flames and turned where she lay, gasping and wide eyed, to stare after him. He didn't look round. The girl seemed to shocked by what had happened even to react. Not just shocked by the explosion, but shocked by Hel himself; suffering the reprisal due the arrogance of believing one knows a person utterly. Shakily, she got to her feet.
Hel approached the boulder that Darken had been sitting on when they were first interrupted. His eyes were almost glazed, not fiery with rage as might have been expected, and his face quite relaxed, but his brow was just slightly knotted. His lips were moving. He had dispensed with physical catalysts and extravagant gesticulation as means for the casting of spells, save in those cases when he was desperately fatigued... Or those cases when ordinary potency was not sufficient.
The boulder was enormous, when compared with the tiny stones Tatula had sometimes used in rituals. Hel stepped towards it and traced a symbol on its surface with a fingertip. Then he turned and faced the catatonic Tsuria. He made a sweeping gesture, almost like a polite supplication. Then he drew his hand above his head, striding towards her. His eyes focused and narrowed, and his finger fell.
The boulder vaporised. The magic circle breached and shattered. Darken was thrown onto his back. Hel was lifted bodily and thrown ten feet. For a moment the atmosphere of the clearing itself seemed to taste wrong, as the power of the spell knocked it out of kilter.
Hel lay on the grass for a long while, just staring up at the sky. It was cool and pleasant. But he had to face the consequences. When he finally sat up, Darken was stood by Tsuria, giving the vampire an appraising look.
'Such a strong nose, such burning eyes! And yet so delicate! And the pose, the pose! Unsure, yet powerful! A masterpiece, for sure! Sheer art!'
He stepped to one side as Hel drew up, scratching his chin in parody of a collector. Hel could only manage to raise an eyebrow. Before the pair of mages was a perfect stone statue of Hel's lover. Darken traced a finger across her cheek, narrowing his eyes thoughtfully.
'How long will it last?' Hel asked.
'Not long,' his companion replied. 'Give it six months and she'll run off with a Laboran farmhand. ...Oh, you meant the enchantment!' He added, with a comical look of realisation. He chuckled. 'Well, it's not a precise estimate, but pretty much forever, I'd say.' Hel whistled. 'Yeah,' Darken continued. 'Good of you to show off, once in a while. Means I don't look arrogant. Interesting case study, the way everything conspired like that. The high magical atmosphere, the reflecting and amplifying effects of the barrier, the residual weaknesses of the chemical in her bloodstream. Quite an impressive effect.' He didn't say what he was really thinking. 'So what now?'
They turned to look at the statue again. Methods for disposing of petrified grudge-bearing vampires was beyond the contingencies Hel or Darken had prepared for. Hel shrugged.
'I can put a delayed reversal enchantment on her. Take her weapons maybe. Maybe you could teleport her into a local prison in one of the larger cities? Something like that.'
Darken smiled and shook his head. 'She was right, wasn't she?'
Darken didn't answer. Instead he raised the camping mallet he'd been holding by his side. 'Let me do you a favour,' he said, and brought the hammer down.