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|#2 of the new set of Nazgrim stories. Nazgrim, Vesulia, and Naz's new apprentice Theondres take a field trip. They meet the title character. No one is wearing a red riding hood.||
“Lord Nazgrim,” Vesulia welcomed as she bowed. “Good morning.”
“Good morning to you,” he answered with a nod. Slowly he descended the main staircase, his pace revealed that he was not a man to hurry. “My new wardrobe, finally complete.” He stood before her, spread his arms and turned. The voluminous coat he wore, split up the back and overlapping to serve in place of the old cloaks he once wore, dangled down to the backs of his knees. “Leather looks good on me, no? Softer than I had expected, as well.”
“Kidskin,” she answered. “I thought it would be to your liking.”
“Well done.” He paused and looked her up and down. “That’s not what you put on when you got out of bed.”
“I changed,” she purred. “I felt that our little adventure out into the wilderness today merited a more rugged look. Leather looks good on me as well, don’t you think?”
“Quite. Is my little apprentice ready yet?”
“Won’t be but another minute or two, milord!” A dark-haired young man emerged from a doorway to the dining hall. “The components have been packed carefully, I followed your instructions painstakingly. I do not understand, however, why you wish me to perform the ritual rather than do it yourself.”
“That sounded rather… indignant,” Nazgrim speculated.
“I mean only that the orb would probably be more powerful if created by one of your skill, milord! Questioning your will is something I would never do!” The words flooded from his mouth like a torrent. “I merely do not understand why you would chose as you have, please forgive my ignorance!”
“Theondres…” the Shadow Hand sighed admonishingly, “you must learn to carry yourself with the dignity befitting our order. A necromancer must have a certain… bearing. Even though I am your master this behavior is, well, pathetic. Our kind should not grovel so.”
“I am sorry, lord.” He bowed regally, exactly as Nazgrim had taught him. “And I do appreciate the honor of being your apprentice. No doubt there were many necromancers who had far more experience.”
“That is true,” Nazgrim replied. “However, I find that the older a person is, the more disagreeable I usually consider him. Aside from Vesulia, that is.”
“Because she heard the old legends, lord, before they were all-but-forgotten myths.”
“And he’s not what I expected at all,” Vesulia said. “I must admit, I was pleasantly surprised. Although an ancient necromancer might have very different ideas about what you should be like, lord.”
“Seems like the perverts who hang out with dead bodies all day are the ones who endured the test of time,” Nazgrim griped. “Quite disturbing. That’s why I want you to behave with some dignity, I’m sick of our order having such a depraved reputation. We are the lords of this world, not the dregs.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“So are you ready or not?”
“Just a few more moments, I have to double-check the list.”
“Well get to it, then.” Nazgrim walked out the door, out into what little light of day shone in Center Babel. He had chosen a home near the rim, where grass could still grow in the few hours of sunlight each dawn brought. Cautiously he walked around a few dandelions that sprang up in the cracks of the sidewalk then turned his eyes to the east. Of course, the view was not the only reason he had chosen this mansion as a home. “Onyaro.”
“Master?” A dark shape appears beside him, vaguely humanoid.
“Just checking,” he replied. “How is the anchoring seal holding?”
“Why, do you think you made a mistake?”
“No, but I would be ashamed if I only discovered one after there the opportunity to fix it had passed me by. So, how do you feel?”
“Well, as you can see I am able to manifest, even interact with the material plane. No more bumping in the night or rattling chains for me.”
“Feel free to levitate the furniture around for me, though,” Nazgrim laughed. “I want the couch on the other side of the room, the sofa facing it, and the chairs in between.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I remember. Leave it to me, I’ll have everything moved around by the time you get back. I promise.”
“The imps might be delivering some packages today, too. No matter what happens, don’t let them into the house. If anything is missing when I get home, I’ll add a hundred years to your purgatory sentence.”
“You can do that?”
“I’m the Hand of Vanus. I’ve got connections in the Darkness Beyond.”
“I suppose I should have known that. Not one imp will get inside, I swear.”
“Very good, that’s all.” Nazgrim sat on the ledge of the tier and let his legs dangle over as he looked out across the horizon. Onyaro nodded to Vesulia as she approached, then vanished. The vampire sat down beside Nazgrim as he lit a cigarette and smiled; she basked in the warm light.
“I’m still not used it,” she sighed. “After hiding from the sun for so long… I had forgotten how it feels. The warmth, I mean.” She closed her eyes and leaned against him. “My kind pay a high price for their immortality.”
“That word is overused. Immortal.” He leaned forward suddenly and she slipped off his back. “I am the only true immortal in this world. Others are ageless, resilient, regenerative… none are immortal.”
“Of course. My apologies, lord.”
“What no one realizes is that immortality is overrated. Who really wants to live forever anyway? Death is natural, and life gets boring eventually anyway.”
“Then you meet someone new and everything changes,” Vesulia replied. “Someone that changes everything you thought life was about.”
“You are annoyingly optimistic.”
“There are worse things to be.”
“Are you sure you want to be aiding me, even though you know my destiny?”
“I told you, I believe in the darkness.” She grinned at him, the gentle look on her face contrasted by her imposing fangs. “That doesn’t mean I can’t have fun between now and then, does it?”
“Ok, I’ve got everything!” Theondres called as he closed the door behind him. “Good thing I checked, I forgot the skull shavings.”
“Let’s get going then.” Nazgrim stood and his new coat spread like the wings of a bat. “Let’s not waste the day.” With a smirk, Vesulia took tight hold of him. One strong beat of the leather wings was enough to lift both of them off the ground and off the ledge, sent them soaring away from the cramped city into the empty skies.
They flew for several hours through the blue sky, over the half-dead landscape that surrounded Babel on all sides, before the forest that was their destination ever came into sight. Theondres continually lagged and caught up, yet unaccustomed to flight on fabric wings and unable to soar with Nazgrim’s grace.
Thoroughly exhausted, upon arrival at the edge of the forest Theondres shucked his pack and laid down. Nazgrim and Vesulia chatted idly while the apprentice rested. The Shadow Hand looked into the forest intently for a long time, then his patience finally wore thin and he nudged Theondres with his foot. The message clear, the apprentice dragged himself up and followed obediently.
“So this is a forest?” Theondres asked. “A very ominous place, if you ask you.”
“This place is akin to the old world,” Nazgrim stated. “So much of my time was spent on the trails or in the skies, headed to some strange place I may or may not have seen before. I am more comfortable here than in Babel, even if this is elf land.”
“What type of flower is this?” The apprentice lagged behind a moment to examine a blossom that shone like a sapphire.
“Stay close to me,” Nazgrim said, “this is holy ground. The only reason neither you nor Vesulia are in pain right now is because of my aura.”
“Am I to complete the complex crafting of a blood orb on holy ground?” Theondres chased after his master, not wishing to endure the pain that all dark-born must face when they tread upon sacred grounds. “Can I perform such a feat?”
“That’s what the were-rat skeletal shavings are for, haven’t you been studying? With that, you can create a workspace and dispel the holy aura.”
“Oh, yeah. I knew that. Then are the vampire’s ashes to help create the perimeter?”
“So, you have been studying.”
“Alas, poor Merran,” Vesulia sighed with a smirk. “I knew him well. He was a jerk. I hope I’m never around when you run out of that particular ingredient.”
“You’d have to be a pretty sorry servant for your use as a spell component to override the value of your eternal servitude. So far, Ves, you’re safe. Theo, on the other hand… well, a necromancer’s blood is a very powerful agent.”
“Thanks,” Theondres muttered, “I wasn’t already feeling enough pressure, what with having to create a blood orb of sufficient quality to serve my master. Now I have to worry about being chopped up for spare parts.”
“I’m teasing,” Nazgrim chuckled. “If I needed necromancer blood, I could use my own. Which is much more powerful than yours, I might add.”
“The blood of a Hand? I suppose there aren’t many spells that ingredient is needed for, very hard to get.”
“A gift that can only be given, never taken. Except by me, now. I wonder if there are any other Hands in this world, or if my arrival signaled the end of their age. Truly, there is no need for them any longer, with the Hand of Vanus already chosen.”
“Perhaps we will have to ask the imps one of these days,” Vesulia said. “If they do not know already they could easily look into it for you. Pleasing the Hand of Vanus seems to be a high priority for them.”
“Staying on my good side, anyway. It’s about survival, they know I have the power to eradicate their filthy race. Further, I know much ancient magic that was lost to the world as I slept, spells and rituals that they would like to be able to sell to the highest bidder. Their friendly overtures are motivated by greed, I do not trust them. They’re worse than sprites.”
“How much farther to this town of elves anyway?” Theondres asked.
“I do not expect we should have to walk far,” Vesulia answered. “The imps led me to believe the forest itself was not very large. I wonder, though, if we should not have simply flown into the town.”
“Elves are an excitable race,” Nazgrim explained, “and good with their bows. I’d hate to lose a servant to such a pathetic offensive, so I felt entering like travelers and not conquerors might be wise.”
“Your compassion is touching,” Vesulia giggled.
“Anyway, I can sense that we are close. Even in these withered times, with so much of the world being consumed by cities and deserts, these tries are vibrant. The elves are near, I guarantee it. Be on your guard, no doubt they’ll consider two necromancers and a vampire, out in the daylight no less, to be dangerous company.”
The forest grew more lush and lively as they journeyed, and the trees teemed with birds and squirrels. Insect crawled through the brush, scattered as the occasional deer sprang away from the invaders. Theondres grew more and more agitated as the unfamiliar noises tickled his ears, trying to find the source of every rustle and flutter.
“We’re here,” Nazgrim declared when they found a wall of thorny vines grown between living trees on a metal frame, a sufficient deterrent for most forms of life. He noticed a small plant and knelt to examine it. “Wolf’s Bane. Odd.”
“Odd?” Theondres asked. “How so? A plant in a forest does not seem so odd to me.”
“Look though, they’ve spread the plant all along this wall,” Nazgrim answered. “As if they want it to part of the wall. Elves need not fear wolves, for they can communicate with the beasts of the wilds, if only in the simplest meaning of the word. No wolf would attack an elf unless afflicted with madness, to the point of not knowing friend from enemy.”
“Oh. That is odd, then.”
“You have much to learn yet,” Nazgrim grinned. “Well then, I suppose we should find the gate. But to the left or right?”
“If only we had a way of knowing,” Vesulia sighed.
“That’s why we’re here, to gain a vision tool.” Nazgrim decided to travel to the left. “A blood orb is similar to a normal wizard’s crystal ball, we necromancers can use them for scrying. I learned the ritual from my mentor but never saw the need to have one of my own until now. The ritual is complex, requires specific ingredients and time, but the magics at work are simplistic and less than spectacular in nature. The whole process seemed quite boring to me but perfect work for my apprentice, I have little doubt he’ll succeed.”
“I will not betray your faith in me.”
“There now, that’s good. You’re not groveling and you are showing me the respect I deserve. This is how you should act.”
The gate was metal but overgrown with vines. Impatiently, Nazgrim rapped lightly with his left hand, to which the thorns could do no harm. After waiting a moment with no answer he knocked harder, then he simply reached through the door with his shadow hand. As his hand passed through the deadbolt it disappeared; split cleanly in two the bolt fell to the ground and the necromancer shoved the doors open with ease.
“Stay where you are!” called out an elf who was only one of ten who held their bows taut, ready to fire upon the intruders when given the order. “What business brings you here, dark-born? Speak!”
“You are not worthy of treating with me,” Nazgrim said with a grin. “Summon your master, I’ll wait here. Tell him that the Shadow Hand has come.”
“T-the Shadow…?” The speaker trembled at that title, as did the other archers.
“You know that I could decimate your little settlement here, so run and fetch your master. There is something that I need from your kin.”
“Ever the strong-arm tactic?” Vesulia teased as she glanced over her shoulder. “Do you feel safe back there, Theondres?”
“Are you cowering again?” Nazgrim grumbled.
“N-no,” Theondres squeaked. “I was just… being the rearguard. That wall was meant to keep something out, right?”
“You’re not fooling me,” Nazgrim chuckled, “but you do make an interesting point. What do you suppose it is, that has elves all sequestered behind a wall? With Wolf’s Bane, no less. Something wicked wanders nigh.”
“Tch!” Vesulia scoffed. “You always have to be so melodramatic.”
“It’s called showmanship,” the Shadow Hand replied. “And I should think a vampire would be able to appreciate the value of a little flair.”
“Sorry, I’m not wearing my bat-shaped brassiere today.”
“Then what fun are you?”
“I’m not wearing any brassiere today.”
A wide grin spread across Nazgrim’s face but his retort was cut off abruptly as a tall elf in dignified robes rushed over, accompanied by three-score fully armed and armored elves, both men and women. Conceitedly, he evaluated the force of elves clad in their hardened leather armor.
“My leather is better,” he declared at length with a wink. “Are you the leader?”
“I am Lord Rathaen,” the elf answered with a courteous bow.
“I am Lord Nazgrim, the Shadow Hand.” His bow was more shallow, little more than a nod of the head that pulled the shoulders forward as well. “I’d wager you’re dying to know why I’m here, so I’ll get to the point. I require a rather large amount of elf blood for a blood orb. Rather than pay imp prices for blood of questionable quality, I wanted to go straight to the source.” Nazgrim gloated as the elf lord went pale. “And I’m sure that you realize that means I need about ten elves worth of blood, assuming they are high quality. Double that or more if they are of inferior quality.”
“Are you asking me to surrender the lives of my people?”
“Were that the case, I would not ask.” Nazgrim shook his head amusedly. “No, I think that I have come to a fair compromise, a little suffering for both sides. You have, what, three hundred or more full grown elves in this city? Were each one were to sacrifice, say, a wineglass or two of blood then I should have plenty.”
“And the sacrifice on your part?”
“Hah! The boredom of waiting so long.”
“Allow me a moment to discuss this with my advisors, please.”
“Granted.” He turned his attention to Theondres and spoke softly. “Now, do you see the value of behaving with dignity? He is treating me with respect not only because I treat him so, but because of the way I carry myself.”
“We will agree to your deal,” Lord Rathaen said, “but we do have a small concern. There is a creature in this forest who may be drawn by the scent of so much fresh blood. And you did just ruin the gate.”
“So there is a beast here,” Nazgrim grinned. “Tell me, what is it?”
“An ancient ghast-wolf has dwelled in these lands since long before we settled here.”
“An ancient lycan? Any idea how old?”
“We have been here for over a millennia, and he was already a ghast at that point.”
“Really.” The Shadow Hand’s grin widened as he pondered this.
“What’s a ghast?” Theondres whispered to Vesulia.
“A lycan who has forgotten it’s humanity. They exist only as animals.”
“I would like to find this ghast,” Nazgrim declared. “Leave it to me.” He turned to address his servants as his wings spread. “Stay here. Vesulia, you will oversee the bloodletting, and please try to control yourself. Theo, you know what to do, so don’t make any mistakes.”
“I will not fail,” Theondres answered with a bow.
Nazgrim grinned as he soared into the sky; somehow the feeling of flight still squeezed a moment of joy out of his cold heart. This was turning out to be a rather eventful day, he thought to himself. For a moment he almost felt like he had never slept, like somewhere in this world his precious Elle waited for his arrival. The pain of her loss had long since faded, had become only a dull ache in his chest.
“Soon…” he whispered to the wind. “Everything is already in motion. Soon, I will see you again.” Before long, the time would come for the Hand of Vanus to reveal himself to the powers that reigned in Babel, to stand up and declare his presence. And then, day by day, he would whittle down any opposition to his power, all in accordance to the path that was appointed to him. All that would remain would be to walk that path, however long it might be. Soon, there would be an end to his ache. Soon by his standards anyway; to an immortal such as he, “soon” could be measured in lifetimes of men. “Time… such an elusive thing.”
Down below he saw a flutter of radiant white, certainly not the ghast he sought but it aroused his curiosity regardless. A swift descent left him on the ground, with no sign of where the radiance had gone. But being one who is attuned to the dark, Nazgrim could clearly since the source of light even though the light was now hidden. He grinned when he realized that he felt the radiance came from a white oak nearby.
“One of the Vala,” Nazgrim stated, addressed the tree as if it were a person. “There’s no hiding your presence from me, the light of the Vala burns too brightly.” As he spoke he leaned against the tree and brushed his fingers along the bark softly. “I realize that I have the aura of darkness about me, but I truly mean no harm. Will you not speak with me, blessed messenger of the wilds?”
“That tickles!” giggled a voice that issued from within the tree, and two delicate hands emerged from the bark and pushed his fingers aside.
“A young one? Is that why you hide?”
“I’m not young!”
“But five or six centuries, I would guess. From the look of your tree, I mean.”
“Six and a half!” Her face emerged, a youthfully radiant child that stuck out her tongue at him. “Shows how smart you are!”
“Step forth, and speak with me,” he invited and stepped back from the tree. “I am seeking a creature that defiles your grove, won’t you help me find it?”
“The wolf?!” The child stepped out of the tree, a luminous being garbed in white whose feet seemed to walk atop the stubby blades of grass. “You must avoid that beast, it is dangerous! I was but a sapling when the mutt cracked mother’s tree in two! By accident!”
“I am a being of no small power, either. You must be able to sense that, or else you would not have hidden from me.”
“Even so… mother always said that we owed a debt to the beast. He is the reason that neither light-born nor dark-born could occupy this forest. Only the elves have been able to avoid the ghast’s wrath, to live with it in peace.”
“Well, all I really have to do is keep it busy for a while.”
“If something goes wrong and I do have to kill it, then you can just call me,” Nazgrim answered. “Should something happen to the forest’s guardian, then I will act as the new guardian should danger arise. You have my promise.”
“He’s over there.” The Vala points off to the south, her hand ever so slowly tracked to the east. “He’s heading for the elf city, so you’d better hurry.”
“Thanks for your help.” He grinned at her and started away. “I’ll pay you a visit in another millennia, if I get the chance. You should be all grown up by then, and I’ve never been wicked with a Vala before.”
“You’re a bad man,” she giggled.
“If I was a bad man, I wouldn’t wait.”
Nazgrim launched into the sky, soared straight as an arrow in the direction she had pointed. Dark energies pooled in that general direction, so much so that Nazgrim began to wonder if what he sensed truly was the ghast wolf. Never before had he been exposed to one, true, but what he felt was both foreign and familiar, and certainly not what he felt when near a normal lycanthrope.
Down into the brush he descended again. Though he felt the ghast’s presence he could not see or hear it now. Nazgrim could only guess that it had sensed his arrival as well. A faint rustle drew his attention to the left; this part of the forest was utterly silent aside from that noise. He grinned as he realized the wolf had to be stalking him. Some heightened animal sense told it that Nazgrim was not a normal mortal and should not be treated as such.
“Come on out then,” he challenged as he lit a cigarette. “I’m dying to meet you.”
A massive wolf, twisted in shape, pounced him from behind. It’s jaws closed around flesh for no more than an instant before the flesh dissipated in shadow. Nazgrim appeared a short distance away in the same instant the other form disappeared, manifested from the shadows thanks to his Phantom of the New Moon spell. The wolf was not fooled though, and immediately turned on him once its feet hit the ground. The ever never slowed, just charged in again and once again Nazgrim disappeared. Still closer it followed, and again, until Nazgrim had little choice but to start to vanish in the very instant he had completely appeared.
Nazgrim manifested, face-to-face with the wolf, and struck out with the shadow hand for he knew that a hand of flesh lacked the power to turn aside such a beast. With a flare of shadow the ghast was turned aside, stumbled a few steps and shook its head, then circled slowly.
“Waiting for a weakness, mutt?” Nazgrim’s grin was unrestrained. “You won’t find any here.” He danced aside as the wolf pounced, rolled as it attempted to bite him in a second pass. “I’m becoming more and more impressed by the minute. You really are worth the trouble of tracking you down, do you know that?” He vanished again, this time though he appeared directly behind the wolf. “Where is the man within? Does anything remain? How wonderful it must have been, to finally let go of the awareness of humanity.” As the Phantom of the New Moon let him slip into shadow once again, the wolf managed to glance his side; not solidly enough to cut his new coat though the leather was visibly damaged.
“Enough of this,” Nazgrim declared as the wolf charged at him. With his right hand he drew a rune on the shadow hand as the wolf charged. “I’ve decided. You’re worth the effort.” As the wolf jumped, Nazgrim slapped his hand on its snout and stopped it steady in the air. The darkness of the hand spread along the ghast’s body like dark fire, danced in wisps and clouds as it howled and struggled. When at last it fell, it was no longer a wolf but a man.
The feral-looking man sat up and looked around wild-eyed, then stopped and looked at his own hands. Then his feet. He ran his fingers over his face, felt bristled stubble and a short, stubby nose. Head lolled to the side, he glanced up at Nazgrim questioningly.
“You’re…?” Nazgrim took a step back, his emotionless façade fell away in under the force of his shock.
“The battle is over.” The fiery elf-maiden turned to her companion, a man shrouded in dark robes.
“Battle?” he scoffed. “This was a farce, Kae. A mockery, made at our expense. There could have been ten times as many rebels, wouldn’t have made any difference. Just more food for the crows. Do we know what happened to Joten?”
“Then our work here is finished.”
“Always so Grim, aren’t you? Are you so determined to live up to the name I gave you?” She giggled as she reached into his hood and pinched his hidden cheeks. “Perhaps I should have named you Smiley.”
“Alkaela, you must stop treating me like this,” he answered. “I am not a child anymore.”
“Then why do you still have that same lost look in your eyes? I remember it clearly, as you looked back… Amon?!”
A feral-looking man approached, the bloody body of a wolf in his arms. He collapsed and Kae ran to him. Amon clutched at his own chest, where the greatest wound on the body of the wolf was.
“They got Noma…” Amon wheezed. “What the blazes… is happening… to me?”
“Your spirit wolf is the same as a mage’s familiar.” Alkaela answered. “With Noma dead… you won’t last long.”
“You couldn’t have told me… this morning? Noma’s never been hurt before… I didn’t know! So… what? Do I just… die now?”
“Grim can help!”
“What?” Grim’s meandering pace finally brought him to where Alkaela stood. “Kae, you know I’ve never tried any of those magics on a human before.”
“Good time to try.”
“You have no idea how complicated Assimilation Magic is.”
“We don’t have the time to try and take him to Barrund. It’s you or no one.”
“Let me get this straight,” Amon interrupted. “Either I sit here and die, or I--” a crippling wave of agony washed over him but he recovered quickly, “I’m the subject of a spell… you’ve never tried before.”
“On human. That’s the short and ugly version,” Nazgrim answered.
“Tell me… is there any danger to you? From casting this spell, I mean.”
“Not hardly, no.”
“Then I say… go for it.” Amon grinned through the pain at Nazgrim. “Worst case scenario, I die faster and in more pain… right? No worse off than I am. I just want to live every last minute I’m allowed. The Dark One will have to drag me away when my time comes… kicking and screaming, the whole way… to the Darkness Beyond.”
“If you’re sure. It’s only your soul, after all.”
Nazgrim took the wolf’s corpse in both hands, dark magic fed by the life force of the abundant dead channeled through his hands and into the wolf. Back he pushed, pressed the wolf against Amon’s chest and then into his chest. Shadows obscured and swirled as Amon’s eyes rolled back in his head. Spasms shook his body as fur spread, thick and dark. In a short moment the magic was over; in place of spirit wolf and man was one giant, wild wolf. The wolf rose to its feet, sniffed the breeze as it awakened to its new form, then bounded away.
“Too much wolf!” Alkaela shouted and started to give chase, but Nazgrim caught her by the arm.
“That form is of his own choosing,” he explained to her. “He always was more animal than man, so I’m not surprised. That’s what made him so interesting.”
“Ah… Amon?” the wolf-turned-human asked awkwardly. “That’s my name. I’m… Amon. That’s what I am?”
“Holy hell!” Nazgrim gasped. “You’re still alive?”
“I know you, don’t I? You know me.” He wrapped his hands around his head and bent forward as if in pain. “Everything is so distant now, I can’t get my hands on any of it.”
“You are Amon the Demon Wolf.”
“I am? That sounds… right. The Demon Wolf.”
“An Overseer of Emperor Barrund.” Nazgrim took off his coat and threw it over Amon. “I never thought any other Overseer besides me might yet remain in this world.”
“I don’t remember anything. Some of it is just… vaguely familiar. When I hear it. Almost like its from another life.” Amon shook his head and looked up at Nazgrim as he wrestled to put on the coat. Despite the baggy fashion in which Nazgrim preferred to dress, his coat barely fit Amon. The leather creaked and stretched as he moved his arms.
“Be gentle on that, it’s new,” Nazgrim said. “You don’t remember anything? Then I should explain. I am Nazgrim, and since the time we last met I have become the Hand of Vanus. You are a ghast, a human become animal, so I’m not surprised your memories elude you. With my magic I was able to recall your lost humanity, but your mind… that’s up to you.”
“You could slow down a little, you know. A detail here and there would be nice.”
“We’ll have plenty of time to talk, I’m sure. If you’re interested, that is.” He extended his right hand to Amon, who started to take his hand but hesitated.
“…how do I know I can trust you?” He stood tall and stared the dark man who declared himself to be Nazgrim, of the Emperor’s Overseers, in the eyes. “And why would I want to serve your emperor, anyway?”
“You may have eluded our loneliness thus far, with your little friend there to keep you company.” Nazgrim nodded toward the wolf at his feet. “But don’t you ever feel that the two of you don’t belong?”
“Noma and I belong here, in the wilds. We always have.”
“You’re not a spirit wolf, you and Noma don’t belong in the same places. What I am offering you is a new place to belong. Half of you is that spirit wolf, but half of you remains a man. Do you not wish to be around others who are gifted, as you are?”
“People really don’t treat me that different, most don’t even realize Noma is a spirit. I avoid them because I don’t like them, that’s all.”
“Have you never once been called a freak?” The dark man looked away, bitterness apparent in his features. “I suppose it is foolish of me to assume that all the gifted have experienced the cruelty I faced. Selfish, even.”
“Selfish? How’s that?”
“I want others to have suffered because… well… you have to suffer to understand suffering.” He sighed and sank deep into the darkness of his hood. “Someone who has never known the ache of loneliness can’t comprehend how deep the damage goes. How wonderful it must be, to live as an animal and never dwell on such thoughts.” Nazgrim knelt and petted the wolf. “Life must look so simple through your eyes, wild one.”
“So what’s next?”
“What do you mean?” Nazgrim stood up and turned away.
“What are you going to say next?”
“There’s nothing left to say.” Nazgrim shrugged and smirked. “That’s my whole speech. If you’re not sold yet, then I bid you a good day, and good luck. I’ve places to go, wolf-boy.”
“And just who do you think you are to be calling me a boy? I’m older than you, I’ve got no doubt about that!”
“You look like you’re twenty at most, junior.”
“Over sixty, if you must know.”
“Well, over sixty years since I was found by one of the Overseers and recruited, that is. I don’t know for certain how old I was at the time, never had a mother to tell me. In fact, I don’t even know my birthday. I have no one and nothing, and am beholden to none. That is the way of the Overseer, the pursuit of freedom. That’s why joining them is a choice, and why I won’t try to force you. Do as you see fit.”
“The way of the Overseer, huh?”
“The way we live and die.” He reached out and offered his hand. “We’ll have plenty of time to talk about it, if you’re interested.”
“… what have I got to lose?” Amon took hold of Nazgrim’s hand.
“Déjà vu for you as well, I guess,” Nazgrim chuckled. “At least I didn’t have to persuade you this time.”
“You’re the only tie I’ve got right now, where the hell else should I go?”
* * *
With the blood orb completed and a new ally in tow, Nazgrim and the others returned to Babel in the dark of night. A little skilled tailoring had turned a blanket from an elf’s bed into a passable garment for Amon, there certainly hadn’t been any clothes in the entire city that fit his broad form. With that out of the way and with the mission accomplished the four had left for home straightaway.
“Nice place,” Amon sighed as he flopped down on the couch. “Did it come with ghosts or did they cost extra?”
“My name is Onyaro, and I am the only ghost here.”
“WHAT THE HELL!!!” Amon barked as he leaped over the back of the sofa when the spirit appeared in front of him, then he peered over timidly.
“Think of him as a butler,” Nazgrim answered with a smirk. “Well, Vesulia and I are going to bed.”
“I shall place this in your study and then retire as well, my lord.” Theondres walked away with the blood orb, wrapped in silken cloth, held firmly with both hands.
“Onyaro, take Amon for a walk.” Nazgrim grinned as Amon chuckled. “Show him around, I mean, make sure he doesn’t mark his territory. Then find him a nice doggie bed--I mean guest room. And try to keep him off the furniture.”
“And here I was, hoping to sleep at the foot of your bed,” Amon laughed. “Oh well, I’ll get over it.”
“But seriously,” Nazgrim said, “this is your home now, too. So go ahead and make yourself at home.”
“I plan to.” Amon grinned mischievously. “So what’re the chances of getting some fresh meat around here, ghost-butler?”
Nazgrim and Vesulia ascended the stairway slowly as Amon wandered off in search of the kitchen. She watched him closely, saw the distant smile on his face. A nostalgic smile, as if Nazgrim were seeing a memory unfold before his eyes. The smile of a man who had known true happiness and lost it somehow, long ago.
“I do not understand you,” Vesulia declared.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“How do you inspire loyalty in those you meet? Theondres and I cast aside our lives to serve you, and now you have brought in a man who does not even know who himself. Why do so many follow you, without even knowing what you really want?”
“You tell me,” he answered. “What is it that makes people believe in me?”
“I believe in the darkness, as you have described it to me,” she said. “But they do not know the true nature of the darkness, nor do they know what you are meant to do.”
“Knowing my destiny makes it harder for you to follow me. I doubt either of the other two would side with me, if they knew. When the time comes, I fully expect you to turn against me as well.”
“I will not.”
“No point in arguing about that now,” he sighed. “I think I’m almost ready now. Almost ready to reveal myself to the powers that reign in Babel, both above and below. Yes, these last few years were well spent preparing. Every day, more ley lines polarize and shift, they wind their way here. The darkness spreads with every moment, as the surviving light-born seal themselves away in sanctuaries and wait. For wait is all that they have the power to do, wait and hope their technology can do what their magic could not; drive off the dark-born.”
“Which is impossible, now,” Vesulia said as she pressed herself against him. “The Hand of Vanus has ascended from the darkness. The dark-born reign here, from now unto the end.”
“You think it will be so simple, do you?” Nazgrim asked in amusement. “No, the light will send a rival, of course. One meant to destroy me, but the light forgets the nature of its rival. Darkness is limitless, even when the light shines it shines through the darkness. The world we see, the air we breath, even these forms of flesh that we take on, and yes even our souls… darkness is within all of it. Darkness is the substance of all creation, and all creation will be reduced to darkness when the end comes. Until that day, we’re all just living. Waiting. Enjoying the time we have in the world we know, if we can find a way.”
“The true nature of darkness.” She smiled at him. “I am glad to have this life as it is, glad to be of service to you, mighty lord. Glad to aid you in your destiny.”
“So you say,” he muttered. “That remains to be seen.”
|The Child||The Darkness Incarnate|
|Runemaster||The Prices Paid|
|New Story: Cost||Green Cloak Brigade|