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|Story #11 of the second Nazgrim set. |
Nazgrim makes a major push into light-born territory in search of Tana, causing a great deal of pain and strife in the process. A last, desperate attempt to protect the Angel of Light is made, and the result...
“…so right about then, who should show up but Nazzy!” Amon laughed, barely able to contain himself and tell the story. Lilitu sat across the table from him, listening intently. “Well, he takes one look at me, covered in bee-stings and stinking of scummy swamp water, and Noma running around me in circles fast as his four furry legs will carry him with a hive stuck on his snout like a muzzle, and he just lost it! And that was the first time I ever heard Nazzy laugh!” Lilitu just sat there staring as Amon doubled over in laughter.
“Ok, that was about the dumbest story I’ve ever heard,” she chuckled.
“You had to be there, I guess,” Amon mumbled uncomfortably, coughed once and wiped a tear from the corner of his eye. “Seriously, it was hilarious. Nazzy’d be laughing if he were here.”
“At least you finally have all your memories back.”
“Yeah, finally.” Amon looked passed her, the padding of soft footsteps loud enough for his sharp ears to hear. “Hey, Noire! You’re up and about!”
“Yeah,” she answered, brushed her unruly hair back out of her face. “I’m doing a bit better now. I guess.”
“That’s good to hear,” Lilitu said. “We were all getting pretty worried about you.”
“Aside from Vesulia anyway,” Noire corrected. “I’ve had enough of her attitude.”
“She’s just taking it out on you,” Lilitu explained. “With Nazgrim gone, she can’t drink his blood anymore. She’s lost the ability to journey out into sunlight, now she’s back to being like any other vampire.”
“That’s no excuse. I never asked him to leave, you know.”
“We know,” Amon said soothingly. “I suppose we’re all on edge, lately. Not everyone makes jokes when they’re tense like I do” He beamed at her. “Want to hear the story about the first time I ever heard Nazgrim laugh?”
“Trust me, you don’t,” Lilitu laughed.
“No need to be like that.”
“Have we heard anything about him?” Noire asked. “Or is he still out of sight?”
“Nothing yet,” Amon answered. “I’ve got to admit, if he showed up to visit someone I’d expect it to be you. That’s just the impression I got when I found him.”
“Hey!” Vesulia said, peering around the corner. “Oh, you are here.”
“Well excuse me for breathing,” Noire hissed.
“Theondres has caught a glimpse of Nazgrim in the blood orb.” Vesulia motioned for them to follow. “I’m sure you’re all interested.”
“He’s seen Nazzy?!” Amon leaped up, banging his hip on the oaken table in the process. “Ouch!” He started to limp as Noire and Lilitu followed Vesulia out of the room. “That’s ok, you just go on without me. I just hurt myself, that’s all. Well…ok, you can wait for me. If you want.” The door closed behind them. “Or, you know, you can just ignore me. If that makes you feel better.”
* * *
Nazgrim strode down the main street of Upper Babel with impunity. Word of his breech of the gate had long since passed before him, the streets ahead had long since been evacuated. Ahead, he saw a cluster of soldiers hurriedly setting up a roadblock in preparation for his arrival. With a smirk, a scoff, and a gesture, Nazgrim derided the gathered forces and their weaponry. Magic cannons hummed to life, fueled by shells similar to Onin’s sword only more massive and packing more powerful magic.
The volley of shells tore free, and bursts of fire, lightning, ice, and plasma rocketed toward Nazgrim in an iridescent shower of destruction. With a sigh to acknowledge the waste of power, Nazgrim vanished in a cloud of shadow; the spell shots explode against the stone on which he had strode, destroyed numerous carriages and trolleys, and round by round carved a hole down to Central Babel.
Nazgrim reappeared in the middle of the roadblock and raised his left hand overhead, then clenched his shadow fingers. Darkness pooled around his ethereal hand, then expanded in a flare of darkness and mist. Like a tempest, the storm of darkness tossed aside the armored carriages and massive cinderblocks with ease, sent soldiers and artillery careening into and through the sides of the surrounding buildings. In the center of devastation stood Nazgrim; the arrogant smirk on his face slowly transformed into a determined grimace.
Onward he strode, for now the road to the Sacred Grove now clear. Once he passed through there, he would be able to ascend the Pinnacle, where Tana was even now probably being woken from her sleep if his best guess proved true. The presence of the road block meant that the Council of the Enlightened had guessed his destination. In truth, there was little else in Upper Babel that would attract Nazgrim’s attention; only Tana, the Angel of Light, selected by fate to oppose the darkness of the Hand of Vanus.
As Nazgrim marched through the city, stragglers emerged from alleyways and side streets. The followed quietly behind him and he did not look, though he knew they were there. By the time he reached the gates, some twenty or thirty people were behind him. With a gesture he ordered them to stop.
Nazgrim passed through the gates of the Sacred Grove with ease. No guards were set at the entrance, for the grove was thought to be completely safe from any dark-born, and in truth Nazgrim felt for the first time since becoming the Hand of Vanus the pain that a dark-born suffers when walking on holy ground. The pain, though present, was negligible, for as the Hand of Vanus his darkness was beyond most any power that the light could muster. In any other place, the aura of light would not have been strong enough to harm him, but this was the seat of power for the forces of light as created by the gods. Here he suffered, if only slightly, the old, forgotten sting of such an aura.
A woman, surrounded by an aura of radiance so bright here in the Sacred Grove that Nazgrim had to avert his eyes, stood before him to bar his path. The Vala walked toward him, her feet did not even disturb the trail dust; instead of walking on the ground she walked above it, never once sinking into the dirt even slightly.
“Hello, Cherry,” Nazgrim said evenly. “I see you’ve recovered well.”
“Be gone from this place, spawn of darkness,” the Vala answered bitterly.
“I’ve come to see Tana.”
“Her name is Radia.”
“That’s not how I know her.”
“I will not step aside and let you harm that child!”
“What do you know?” Nazgrim clenched his fists. “All I ever wanted for Tana was to give her a normal life, a family who cared for her. I wanted to give her happiness, and freedom. You think me a monster, and you’re wrong. It is you, the light-born, who see her as some weapon, some desperate attempt to protect your pathetic lives! To me, she was a child who needed help! Lost and alone! I’ll never suffer such a child’s abandonment! What about the life she wanted to have? What about a family? This fate is not of my choosing, nor is it hers! Tell me, Vala, why should a child have to bear this weight? At least I’ve had ample time to come to grips with what I am! Tell me, I want to know! How is it fair that she has to suffer like this?!”
“I…” Cherry shook her head, subdued not only by his wrath and passion but also by the truth in what he had said. “No, I won’t believe it. I won’t! You’re only faking this, you have to be!”
“I’m not going to waste my time trying to prove anything to you.”
“Then prepare yourself! Great Goddess of the--” Cherry stopped in mid-spell as Nazgrim vanished. Sensing his dark aura she spun around, saw him standing next to the ancient cherry tree.
“This is your tree, right, Vala?” Nazgrim asked rhetorically; he could sense the divine aura as easily as she could sense his dark aura. The shadow hand plunged through the bark. Immediately the blossoms changed color from white to a vibrant reddish-black, fell petal by petal to the ground in a storm around Nazgrim.
Cherry fell to the ground, her radiant aura vanished instantly. Her flowing white gown grew dark with dirt from the trail as she writhed and twisted in agony as her ethereal body became flesh and blood. At length the pain subsided and pressed herself up from the ground, only to find herself at Nazgrim’s feet, the fallen petals riding a gentle wind around them.
“What…did you…do?” she wheezed.
“I’ve made you human,” he answered. “As someone who has walked on both sides of the fence--both mortal and immortal--I can say that I think you’ll find this new form more pleasant.” With that he turned and walked away, strode up the stairs and right through the front door of the Pinnacle. Left on her own, she sat up and looked at the dirt on her hands. Beads of sweat gathered on her forehead, something else she’d never experienced before. And the way her legs felt when she stood, her body no longer light as the wind. All of these new sensations were unpleasant, certainly, and yet…
“Cherry?!” Onin called out as he ran forward, a cloud of trail dust followed in his wake. Sliding to a stop, he studied her face and body quizzically. “Are you…ok?”
“I don’t know.” She held up her grimy hands for him to see, and he took hold of them. “The Hand of Vanus, he did…something and I’m…different now. Somehow. He said I’m human…but that’s impossible. Isn’t it? Why would he do such a thing?”
“I’m just glad you’re not hurt. Did he go on inside?”
“You should find some place safe for the time being.”
“I’m going after him with you.”
“If you’re really not a Vala anymore,” Onin said, “then you don’t have your magic. Please, just leave this to me.”
“I don’t have my…” The thought took a moment to assimilate. “I suppose I wouldn’t, would I?”
“Bringing you along would be too risky,” Onin said. “If you’re human now, then you should adjust to your new body before you try to fight.”
“But what about Radia?”
“I’ve been in contact with the Council,” he explained, “and they are confident Radia will be safe. You were only the first line of defense, so don’t worry. We’ll keep her safe.”
“Why are you still holding my hands?”
“Oh, whoops!” He grinned oafishly and let go. “Right, I’m sorry. I’m going to go…you know, stop the evil necromancer…and stuff…” As he ran up the stairs she called out to him.
“You don’t have to be sorry.”
“Uh…ok!” He backpedaled a few steps before he tripped.
Cherry turned around as the scattered followers walked through the grove. Some men, some women, some old, some young, but all had a distant look in their eyes. As she watched, some of them began to converse with the trees in the Sacred Grove, spoke softly with ancient oaks and willows. To Cherry this was not strange, for she too had spoken with the trees and knew how wise they were. The strange part was that she could no longer hear the voices of the forest. Before she even realized it, tears ran down her cheeks like rain.
* * *
Nazgrim stopped as the dark hallway flared with white light, left him blinded for a moment. Blinking his eyes constantly, he began to make sense of what was before him. Suddenly he was standing on a outdoor trail that lead across an open plain. Nestled between a field of grain and a small garden of vegetables and herbs sat a small farmhouse, little more than a cabin. The scenery looked so familiar that Nazgrim started to blink again, thinking to chase away the dream before his eyes.
When the image did not fade, Nazgrim approached the farmhouse. A voice echoed in his head as he walked around the house to the garden and found a half-elf woman singing softly to herself. Mechanically, he continued to circle until he could see her face; delicate as an elf-maiden’s but with glimmering green eyes and naturally pouty lips like no elf would have. Truly, she was like an elf perfected for a human’s taste in women.
“E…Elle?” Nazgrim sputtered.
“Grim!” she gasped. “You know I hate it when you sneak up on me like that!” For a moment she looked at him; he stood still as a statue, mouth open and jaw working though no sound came out. “Are you feeling okay?”
“Were you out napping again?” she asked. “How nice it must be, to live such an idle life.” With a smile, she placed a hand on his cheek. “You know I’m not really mad, don’t you? I’m glad to see you so content. Did you dream?”
“I had a bad dream, Elle. A long, cold, lonely dream.” He clenched his fists at his sides and looked away. “You weren’t in it.”
“At least it was only a dream,” she cooed, nuzzling against him. “I wouldn’t leave you.”
“How was my singing? Horrible as always?”
“I love Elle’s voice…”
“…but you’re not Elle.”
“What’s wrong with you? Of course I’m me.”
“I’m not buying into this illusion, so end it.”
“What illusion?” She took hold of his right hand and held it to her chest. “Can’t you feel my heart? It beats for you.”
“Elle is gone forever.”
“You must have had a really bad dream. Come inside, I’ll help you forget it.”
“Elle died a long time ago, and I slept in the darkness of her tomb.”
“You’re starting to scare me, Grim. Please come in with me.” She started to tug him gently toward the cabin. “I’ll have your tea ready in five minutes, just you wait and see. Exactly how you like it, green tea with jasmine blossoms.”
“Just stop…” his features contorted in a grimace and he began to tremble. “You… you’re not real…”
“Oh Grim, don’t be so sad. I’m here with you.” She stood up on her tiptoes and kissed him softly on the lips. “I’ll take care of you. Always.”
“Stop it!” He lashed out, slapped her across the face hard enough to knock her down. “Stop lying to me!”
“Grim!” she gasped, one hand held over the side of her face. The accusation in her eyes was too much, too real, and he had to turn away.
“You’re not her! You stop wearing her face right now!”
“Calm down, it’s ok. Grim, it’ll be ok. I can see something’s wrong with you, I’m not mad, just please calm down.”
“If you don’t take off her face,” Nazgrim hissed, “I will seriously lose it!”
“Grim…please…” she sobbed. “I don’t know what’s going on in your head, but--”
“Enough!!!” Dark electricity crackled around his shadow hand, and an unfocused tempest of dark power erupted. The coat on his back was torn and weathered by the power, Nazgrim’s own skin was dried and cracked by the fury of his own spell; his rage had made it grow beyond his power to control.
Elle screamed as the magic tore into her, smashed her against an unseen wall with a sickening smack. The farm, the house, the garden, all of it vanished, became nothing but cold stone. The illusion was broken now, but the body of the one who had worn Elle’s face was real, and struck the stone floor hard. Blood seeped from her nose, ears, and the corners of her eyes.
“N…Nerya?” Nazgrim fell to his knees beside her. “Dammit all, I told you to stop!”
“I’m sorry…” she wheezed, blood trickled from the corner of her mouth and ran down across her chin. “That…she died, I’m sorry…” Feebly, she lifted one and gripped the shoulder of his coat. “You believed…for a minute…and th-there was…such…love…in your eyes…”
“I’m sorry, I just…” He squeezed his eyes shut, wanted to shed tears but couldn’t seem to; this was not the first time he’d felt this way. As if he’d already cried out every last tear inside his body. Gently he lifted her in his arms. “I just lost it, I didn’t mean to…”
“It’s all…so sad…”
“Save your strength.”
“For what?” She managed a wheezing laugh, shook in his arms. “It’s so sad…Feels like you’ve…had a lot of…practice…at this.”
“More than my fair share.”
“There are…worse arms…to die in…” As her eyes slowly glazed over she smiled at him. “I wonder how…Onin’s arms…would’ve felt…”
Once she had passed on Nazgrim laid her down, then fell back against the wall. Slowly, determinedly, he drew out a cigarette, lit it, and took a deep puff that nearly came out as a sob. He sat there, still as death with shoulders slumped, inhaled and exhaled slowly, and stared at her. Distantly, he heard the ringing sound of metal on stone.
Kaderuin approached, gave not even a second glance to Nazgrim, and fell to his metal knees in front of Nerya, unintentionally gouged the floor. The tremor was enough to bounce the body slightly; arms and legs shifted, hair brushed back in the breeze. Mesmerized by shock, Kaderuin reached out with one heavy hand, scratched and scarred the stone floor with the tips of his fingers but he could scoop her up. His enormous, metal-plated hands could not slide under her, and he feared he would mangle her if he simply squeezed. Tears like quicksilver ran down his cheeks, splattered on the floor only to flow together into liquid metal puddles. The metallic jaw twisted in a look of agony and frustration, shifted the route of the tears across cold, glinting cheeks.
Nazgrim knelt down and scooped Nerya’s body up, gently laid her in Kaderuin’s outstretched arms, and the mekaen cradled her like a child. The quicksilver tears rained down, ran across her body on their route to the floor. Kaderuin raised his eyes to the heavens, obscured by the tower in which he stood, and silently beseeched the gods.
A flash of light forced Nazgrim to turn aside, and when he looked back the mekaen had stopped moving. Nerya still lay cradled in his arms as the quicksilver tears ran down, dripped like water from a tap though Kaderuin’s eyes had gone dark. Still as a statue, the mekaen remained hunched over, clutching Nerya; he made no sound, did not even breath.
“Such a sad world…” Nazgrim muttered to himself, turning away.
“Hey, stop!” Onin shouted as he burst into the hallway. He lost momentum, stopped and gawked at Kaderuin and Nerya. Wordlessly he approached, reached out and tried to shake the mekaen but could not. Kaderuin did not turn, did not look up. “You…” Onin hissed as Nazgrim waited for the elevator. “You! What did you do? Turn and answer, fiend!”
“You claimed to be his friend,” Nazgrim answered coldly, “and yet you know nothing of mekaens? They are not creatures of flesh but of will. Babies are not born but sculpted and willed into life by a fervent parent, then grow and live as if they were flesh instead of metal and clay. And the moment one wishes with all its heart not to exist any longer, it will pass out of this world, leaving its statuesque form behind.”
“I consider it a tidier existence than ours,” Nazgrim said. “If only humans could choose when to leave this world.”
“For a passionate would-be hero, you are horribly naïve to the true workings of the heart.” Nazgrim finally turned, and Onin could see that he, too, grieved for Nerya and Kaderuin. “Must I explain? While you were pursuing that Vala ever-so-chastely, Nerya was dying to be the target of your affections. And while she languished thanks to your blindness, Kaderuin was madly in love with her, although that love was the very portrait of futility. A mekaen and an elf? Lunacy. Yet such is the way of the heart, making lunacy into reality.”
“And how would you know all this?” Onin snapped.
“It was Nerya’s love for you that convinced me to spare your life when you so rudely burst into my home to save the Vala.” Nazgrim smirked as Onin’s jaw dropped. “You truly are so very dense. And I had thought it to be an act. Yes, Onin, I know the workings of the heart better than any other. There is a great deal of darkness in the heart, and darkness is something I alone truly understand. Yet I also know love, having desperately loved another twice in my life. And I know the pain of being apart, of losing that person’s love, now. Noire…” He bowed his head slightly. “How could I have been so selfish as to try and win her love, knowing how greatly it would pain her? That is the weakness of my own heart.” Nazgrim turned as the elevator doors opened behind him. “That’s why you live, now. The child would be sad if I killed you.”
“I won’t let you harm Radia.”
“I did not come here to harm her,” Nazgrim answered. “You thought, once, that I was incapable of loving anyone, but I love many people in many different ways. Radia… Tana, I only want to know that she’s happy here. When you took her, she wasn’t old enough to understand. No, she’s not old enough to understand, but I owe her an explanation and there isn’t enough time left to put it off any longer. I want her to know how precious she is to me…before the end.”
“She’ll be on the observation deck,” Onin said, sheathing his sword. “It’s the safest spot, with you inside.”
“Hey…” Nazgrim flicked aside his cigarette butt and pulled out another. “You smoke?”
“Haven’t for a long time.” Onin shrugged. “They’ll kill you.”
“That’s not really a concern anymore, there isn’t enough time left in the world for them to kill you.” Nazgrim tucked his cigarette behind his right ear and tossed the remainder of the pack to Onin. “Go ahead, knock yourself out.”
“What the…” Onin saw that there was writing on the cigarette and distantly held it up, still too grieved by the loss of his friends to think clearly. “ ‘To Eyes Eternal…’ What is that supposed to mean?”
“It’s part of a legend told by the moss folk. Bios, as you’d call them.” Nazgrim straightened his coat so he’d be ready to see Tana as he waited for the elevator. “Literal translation of the saying would be ‘To Eyes Eternal, we are all dust.’ To put it bluntly, even a being of my power and longevity is hardly worth notice to any eternal being that might exist out there somewhere. A being who has witnessed the births and deaths of countless worlds, why would it notice something so insignificant as man?”
“And I suppose you’re going to tell me,” Onin muttered as he lit the cigarette, “that Vanus is the being this legend is about.”
“Good guess, but no.” The elevator bell dinged, and Nazgrim stepped in. “The darkness doesn’t work that way, saying Vanus is a being is like saying the wind is a being. Argue all you like, you’ll never prove it one way or the other. The will of darkness is like the wind, like waves in water. To move without moving, that is its way. We are born from it, die to return to it, though we were never truly separated. Darkness is just there. It isn’t anything, it just ‘is;’ there’s no real way to explain it.”
“You’re so damned frustrating.” Nazgrim only responded to him with a resigned shrug as the elevator doors closed.
* * *
Tana sat on a stone bench on the verdant garden grown on the highest balcony of the Pinnacle. Every once in a while a soldier ran passed. In front of her, three arch-magi hurriedly drew an arcane sigil on the cement walkway. Rathtatull, leader of the elves and member of the Council of the Enlightened, the rulers of Upper Babel, oversaw all these rushed preparations calmly and confidently.
Her gaze drifted up from those rushing around all the way to the tip of the spire, the highest point of the Pinnacle. Not so very long ago, she’d been told, Nazgrim had landed atop that spire, and now the white stone had gone black, as if Nazgrim had claimed the highest point of Babel for himself, the supposedly untouchable heart of the Council’s domain. Nazgrim had flown in on his leather wings and made a mockery of light’s power. Tana had not been surprised at all when she heard this story; she knew Nazgrim well enough to know he’d do something like that just for spite. In all the confusion, having discovered that he was fated to kill her, the knowledge that she had come to know the real him and not just some image, some false face created to deceiver her, at least a little made her happy, somehow. He had not been putting on pretenses around her, at least. They had all seemed so real, Nazgrim and the others; she would have been crushed if they had all been false, if their compassion and love for her had all been feigned. She would never believe that Amon could have lied to her, even if all the others had.
“He’s nearly here,” Rathtatull said, then knelt in front of her. “You do understand, precious Angel of Light? This is necessary, for the good of all who live and breathe.”
“I understand,” she conceded, swinging her feet slowly and rocking back and forth.
“You need only get him to step into the sigil, child.”
“You’ve told me that five times now.”
“We’ve lost contact with Nerya and Kaderuin.”
“What about Onin?”
“We don’t even know if he’s in the building.”
“I hope he wasn’t.”
“Sorry, what was that?” Rathtatull was glancing over his shoulder, watched the arch-magi finish the sigil. The lines of chalk flared with light and vanished, became an invisible trap. He rose and waved his hands, hurriedly chased the arch-magi away.
“Nothing important,” she sighed.
“We’ll be nearby if you need us.”
“Can’t…” she began, faltered, then soldiered on, “…can’t someone stay with me? Must I be alone…with him?”
“We must lull him off guard.”
“There’s no more time to argue.” Rathtatull placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. “Be strong and be calm, young one.”
“Ok…” Tana paled as Rathtatull left, joined the others in hiding.
The elevator bell rang and the doors opened. Nazgrim stepped out slowly, turned to look her in the eyes, but both of them looked away almost immediately. Inching along, he approached her, and she glanced at him repeatedly as he approached the invisible sigil.
“H…how have you been, Tana?” Nazgrim stammered.
“I’m ok,” she answered hoarsely.
“Honestly, this time.”
“Honestly? Confused. Hurt. Lonely, lost, sad, miserable!” She leaned forward, lower lip quivering. “Are you happy now, knowing?”
“I’ve been miserable, too. I guess…maybe I thought…we could talk about this, maybe sort it all out and feel better. Or just be miserable together.”
“You knew I was the Angel all along, didn’t you?”
“You were calling out to me. How could you not have been the Angel? Our fates are entwined, after all.” He stopped, directly in front of the sigil, and shot her a sad smile. “It’s destiny, I could find you anywhere.”
“So you took me in, just so you could kill me when the time came? You wanted to keep me from learning how to use these powers of mine, so that you could kill me so easily, without a second thought!”
“Heavens, child,” Nazgrim sighed, “you’ve been around the light-born too long. I don’t need some nefarious motive to save a poor, starving little orphan. Tana, I came all this way because I wanted to see if you were doing ok.”
“All you ever cared about was killing me!”
“Tana, I love you! You’re like the daughter I could never sire! And I swear, if these light-born wretches have mistreated you even the slightest bit, they’ll be facing the wrath of the darkness! All I’ve ever wanted was to grant you some happiness before…the end. I wanted you to know how it feels to be alive, that’s all I could hope to give you. You were a happy child with me, with them you’d have been raised to be a weapon, not a person.”
“Nazzy…” she sniffled, stifled the rising tide of tears.
“Tell me you weren’t happy, that you don’t want me here, now, and I’ll go. I just had to know if you were ok. And tell you that I’m so sorry for hurting you like this.”
“I was happy…I was…” Her tears overflowed and rolled unbidden down her cheeks. “It hurt me so badly, thinking that you were just using me…”
“Maybe I was.” Again he gave her a somber smile. “You made me so happy. When you were playing carelessly, even when you thought I wasn’t watching, I was, and I was smiling. I couldn’t care less about whatever you broke in the process, even when it was my favorite vase, because I could never stay mad at you.” She sobbed then clapped both hands over her mouth. “Between you, and Noire, and Amon, I had everything I ever wanted from life. I made you happy because it made me happy, so maybe I was being selfish, but even so…I wish you were my real daughter. I wish that I, somehow, could have had a hand in creating such a perfect little girl, an angel in so many ways.”
“I just…I can’t believe you…”
“Oh, child, what is it going to take? How can I make you believe?” He looked down at the ground in front of him and raised his right foot. “Do you want me to die for you? It won’t change anything, but…Child, I love you. I really do.”
Even as Tana shouted, light flooded out from under Nazgrim’s foot, spread along the lines of the sigil. She leapt up and ran forward, but was nearly knocked over from the recoil as the trap triggered. A column of light shot into the skies above, and Nazgrim’s cloak and hair flew wildly as if blown by an updraft. He met her panicked gaze and smiled at her, calm as could be, then tilted his head back and closed his eyes.
“Nazzy!” She burst into the pillar of light and reached out, but her hand passed through his arm. His flesh dissolved beneath her touch into shadow, carried skyward by the spell. Madly she continued, tried to grab him about the waist but fell through the shadows, and the wind of her fall dispelled the darkness that remained of his feet. Desperately she tried to catch some of the dark mist that remained of him, but had no more luck than she would have had trying to catch the wind. And then he was gone, the spell complete, and she crumpled into a ball and wept. Rathtatull and all the others hesitantly emerged from their hiding places.
Onin stepped out of the elevator to see nothing but grinning faces; the gathered arch-magi, Rathtatull, the soldiers, everyone was laughing and shaking hands, congratulating each other. He shoved aside a guard who was going about hugging everyone in sight and finally glimpsed Tana, then burst through the crowd and rushed to her side.
“Radia?” Onin gasped, clutched her to him and she squeezed him with more strength than her little body should have. Swiftly he checked, as best as he could with how tightly she clung to him, to see if she was hurt. Bile rose in Onin’s throat as he watched everyone celebrating while she was in such agony. Trembling with fury, Onin tried to focus on taking care of Tana, to do what little good that he could.
* * *
“No…” The blood orb fell from Theondres’ hands, shattered on the floor. One hand rose shakily to rub beads of sweat from his face. Slowly he turned to Vesulia, Lilitu, Noire, and Amon, who all stood near the door of his study.
“What?” Amon asked, breaking the intense silence. “What did you see? Talk, man!”
“Lord Nazgrim, the Hand of Vanus…” Theondres said weakly, “…is dead.”
“Not possible,” Vesulia answered. “Are you sure you saw what you saw? It might have been one of his tricks.”
“I felt his soul leave this world and return to the darkness,” Theondres explained.
“I won’t believe it.” Vesulia turned and left. “I won’t listen to your babbling for another second. You’ll see, the master will scold you for your foolishness when he returns.”
“I’m not sure I believe it any more than she does, but…” Amon turned away, unwilling to finish the thought. “Noire? Are you ok?”
“I’m going…to lay down…a bit…I think,” Noire ran one hand across her forehead. “I haven’t been myself lately.”
“Hey, if you need me for anything…”
“No, I mean it.” He caught her by the hand. “Anything, anything at all. If you want to talk, want to sit in silence with a friend, hell, if you want a big dumb dog sitting at the foot of the bed while you sleep, call me. I’ll do anything I can.”
“Thanks. I’m ok. Really.”
Noire stumbled through the house back to the room she shared with Nazgrim. A queasiness had settled in her stomach and a numbness in her mind; somehow she felt that what Theondres had seen was true. And yet, she still didn’t feel as though Nazgrim was gone; in some ways, he felt closer now than he had since the day he left.
She stumbled in to the room they had shared, left the door ajar behind her, and approached the bed in the dark. Then she broke down, her knees gave out, and she leaned over the bed and wailed into the blankets, not knowing or caring that her muffled cries echoed throughout the mansion. Everything had become so awful, so sad, and she just couldn’t keep the pain inside anymore.
Since Mali’s death, every day was somehow harder than the last. More hopeless. Day by day, this end had grown closer. If Nazgrim was truly gone, then the world was saved, Tana could live, and maybe, just maybe, everything could go back to normal. So why did she suddenly feel as if all hope had vanished? As if that last ray of light she’d been clinging to had been ripped away? Suddenly she felt exposed and alone, naked to the workings of the callous world and indifferent gods. She could only come up with one answer to explain why.
“Naz…” she breathed, praying that wherever he was now, he could hear her. “I still love you…in spite of it all…” The door she’d left open creaked closed, and the room was utterly dark. Shadows closed in on her, encircled her, but did not smother her. Rather, the darkness embraced and consoled her, as well as any friendly shoulder could, and for a moment she could smell Nazgrim. The darkness was reminiscent of his embrace in the dark of night, she thought, the first clear thought that had come into her mind since leaving the study. “You’re still with me…aren’t you?”
|The Stray Cat Strut||The Way of the Overseer|
|The Prices Paid||Silken Shroud|
|Green Cloak Brigade|