Descent Into Darkness: His Command
LATE WINTER, 1306 AF
THE NORTHERN WILDERNESS OF ORTHANOR, EAST OF THE TELMAR RIVER
Shadowed Ones flowed over the ground, through the trees. Following close behind were three riders, mounted on things that had been deer and horses in a previous life. Now they were both, yet neither, keeping the best traits of both while possessing an endurance that the natural animals lacked.
Ba’tvian Delthanurk rode ahead of his companions. Clad in the dark clothing of trapper, cloaked and hooded, most of his mind concentrated on the hunt. One portion kept track of the time of month; the full moon was in a few days. He had a contract to uphold, a fee to pay. It meant that after this hunt, there had to be another. There would be little time between the two.
He was beginning to resent to obligation, yet wasn’t brash enough to renege on it. He’d signed the contract in blood. That was more binding than anything signed in ink.
He had to admit, however, that the information Red provided him in exchange for victims was worth the aggravation. It had kept him ahead of the pursuit. Now it allowed him to hunt his hunters.
There was a Mancer in the area. Ba’tvian was determined to find him.
So winter-bound forest provided them with a boon: tracks in the snow. His prey wasn’t following a road; those were few and far between in the northern half of the continent. It meant no witnesses. Another asset was the snow itself. Freshly fallen from the night before, it was deep enough to muffle sound, yet shallow enough that their beasts could gallop when needed.
The Shadows surged forward, putting on more speed. Their mounts matched the pace. Ba’tvian narrowed his eyes. He arrowed a thought at the leader of the pack.
What have you found?
The responding mental voice slithered into his mind with a hiss.
The Mancer you seek, lord. He is not far.
Keeping a corner of his mind tuned to his minion, he glanced over his shoulder at his companions. Nerisse se li Astorae, the Elvanarae girl he’d taken from his former master, rode close behind him. Ibestor the barbarian-mage they had made their own, kept in line with Nerisse, his gaze absently taking in the scenery. Feeling Ba’tvian’s eyes on him, he turned his attention to his lord.
“He’s been sighted.” Ba’tvian pitched his voice low. He didn’t need to raise it much in the quiet of the forest. “You know what to do.”
Ibestor nodded once before veering off to the right. Part of the Shadow pack went with him. Nerisse hesitated for the barest instant.
“Be careful, lord. This one is supposed to be more experienced than the last.” She flushed, then angled her mount to the left. She was out of sight within seconds, an escort of his creatures trailing after her.
Keep them both in line, he ordered. He felt the assent from the myriad minds of his loyal followers.
He dropped all mental links, redoubled his personal shielding. A whisper of power deadened any sounds his steed made as it cantered through the snow. Then he reached for the small, loaded crossbow hanging by its strap from the saddle horn. It was the almost impossible to re-load while mounted, and took time to do so on foot. He would have only one shot with it. The others had similar weapons, each with bolts dipped in a special concoction that Nerisse had come up with.
Surprise was their primary weapon.
Tapping into the nearest Shadow he used as living reservoir, he drew the power needed to form and sustain an arcane ‘net’ – a kind of shield that would capture mage messages and dampen a mage’s ability to fight back. It had taken weeks of work to devise the thing. It wasn’t perfect, working best when anchored to something physical such as a cross bolt. Still, it sufficed. It only had to last long enough for Nerisse’s drug to take effect.
Within minutes, he spotted his prey. The Shadowed Ones had faded into the merest hints of outlines, just flickers of darkness at the edge of vision. Picking up the psychic threads that linked him with the minds of his comrades, he synced with them on the mental plane. They had reached their positions.
He made his move.
Urging his mount into a full gallop, he raised the crossbow, aimed, fired. The bolt hit the cloaked man in the shoulder. A second bolt hit his thigh as he stumbled. The leg collapsed under him. The Mancer fell to the ground.
With two good hits, the third – Nerisse’s – wasn’t fired. Ba’tvian allowed his beast to carry him past the Mancer into the trees beyond, then wheeled the steed around. He kept out of sight of his prey, checking the net he’d created. He could see it in his mind’s eye, a dome of woven power lines the color of blood.
Around the wounded man, the Shadows swirled. The Mancer held a hand in front of him, palm out. It glowed, flaring bright yellow as a burst of magic shot out to disperse the half-seen creatures surrounding him. It passed through the net, losing momentum and power as the net flickered around it. For a bare instant, it visible to the naked eye. So, too, was the emblem that Ba’tvian had devised, a set of arcane runes that identified him as the maker.
He wanted his enemy to know who was killing him.
He tightened the net around the man as he struggled to his feet. The dark things crept in closer. His prey let another volley loose with less effect than the first. He yanked the bolt from his thigh, went for the bow and arrows at his back. Ba’tvian ordered his Shadowed Ones to disperse as the arrows began to fly. The blood mage engaged his mind with Nerisse’s.
How long do we have?
There was a pause. He could sense her checking the integrity of the Mancer’s shielding.
A minute, perhaps less. His personal shields are beginning to fail. Once they do, the only defense he will have will be his physical weaponry.
He re-focused his attention, probing the crumbling shielding. They were fading, one after another, as the drug shut down the arcane centers of the man’s mind. He could his panic now, the confusion, as he tried another power blast to no avail.
Ibestor. Ba’tvian felt the dog-like acknowledgement of the barbarian’s mind. Disarm him.
He sat back to watch as Ibestor galloped into view, throwing himself from his saddle to tackle the Mancer from behind. What the barbarian lacked in intellect, he made up for in brute strength.
Ba’tvian sat back on his mount to watch the show.
THE TEMPLE OF EARTH, THE SUBTERRANEAN ELVANARAN ENCLAVE OF JEVANEL
SAERLAN si le Therian, High Priest of the Elvanarae, laid his hands on the earth’s alter. The smooth, granite looked almost white under the slate blue skin of his hands. His silver eyes picked out the flecks of gray, black, and pink in the stone, roaming the lines of the altar until they focused on the center-piece, a rockery set within a recessed section of the stone. Each piece within it, from the loose sand to the rich soil, from the lack-luster sandstone to the rough crystals, represented the earth in all its forms.
Homely or beautiful, sterile or nourishing, the earth provides and shelters…
Saerlan closed his eyes, murmured another prayer. As he finished, he smoothed a hand over his alabaster hair, its long length pulled back in a queue. His fingers moved to touch the amulet he wore, an engraved silver disk with a rough-hewn topaz mounted in its center. It was the symbol of his office, the etchings on it his oath to nurture and protect his people.
It felt cold now, lying heavy against the fabric of his woolen white robes. The weight of it reminded him of the burden he had to bear.
He was alone in the main temple, striving to make peace with the disturbing news he’d received from the Mancer Absol Omine. In a few minutes, he would meet with the family a would-be priestess, one that he had known since she was a child, one that he had chosen for the priesthood. He would have to tell them she had been found after two years of not knowing where was she was.
He would have to tell them that she was a blood mage.
It made no sense. He could not comprehend how Nerisse se li Astorae – an empath – could have been able to aid a blood mage, let alone participate in the rites. Yet Absol had been adamant that she had. He had said that she had helped to kill a Mancer.
It should not be possible for an empath. How…why? She was such a sweet girl, a true child of the earth…
He heard the temple doors open behind him. He would have to give this news without inner peace.
He turned from the alter, watching as Nerthet and Elisse se li Astorae, Nerisse’s parents, approached. They, too, sported the trademark slate blue skin and white hair of their race. Garbed in simple earth-colored tunics, darker trousers for the man, a skirt for the woman, the represented the typical Elvanarae living in the subterranean city of Jevanel. They stopped at the base of the steps leading up to the alter to bow. The respect engendered by the gesture held hints of their anxiety. He returned the formality, then descended to join them.
“High One, have you received word of our daughter?” Nerthet stroked his wife’s mane of white hair. It occurred to Saerlan that Elisse most closely resembled her daughter. There was a shy sweet air about her, one that Nerisse had possessed in abundance.
Again, he wondered what had happened to her that she’d taken this darker path.
“Yes, I have. Sit.” He motioned to the steps, waiting for the couple to be seated before continuing. “What I have to tell you is…difficult.”
“She’s dead.” The flat declaration came from the mother. She raised sorrowful eyes to the priest’s. “My child is dead. Killed by that monster.”
I wish it were that easy, that her death was what I had to tell them.
“No.” He kept his voice soft, gentle. “This, I’m afraid, is much worse than death.” He reached within his white robes, pulled out a scroll detailing what the Mancers knew of Nerisse. He handed it to Nerthet. “Ba’tvian Delthanurk, the Monster of Menie, has turned her. She has allied herself with him.”
Her parents paled, their minute hope – every parent’s hope – crushed by disbelieving shock.
“No, that can’t be.” Elisse looked frantically between the High Priest and her husband. “She’s empathic. How can empath be a blood mage?”
“The earth has confirmed that she has spilled blood for him. Willingly.” His heart ached for them, for himself. Their loss was also his own. “I am sorry.”
Face graying, Nerthet wrapped one arm around his wife as she crumpled onto his shoulder. He stared at the scroll he had been handed, then gave it back to Saerlan.
“I cannot read this,” he murmured numbly, pulling Elisse closer. “I…not now.”
The priest nodded, taking the scroll without a word. He gazed up at the altar, gave them time. He let his mind blank out, steeped his consciousness into the stone around him, taking comfort in the warmth of the earth, the welcome it had for him. It wasn’t until Nerthet spoke again that he returned his attention back to the couple.
“They sent written notice of this? Our daughter’s betrayal?”
“Yes. Absol Omine, the Mancer who sent the notice, has had little knowledge about us. Without personal knowledge of who to contact, he could not send us a mage sending. So we learn of her betrayal a month after he discovered it.” He looked down at the scroll in his hands, remembering what it said.
Nerisse se li Astorae has been found to be complicit in blood rites performed by the blood mage Ba’tvian Delthanrk…
“They found her arcane signature at a horrific scene outside of Piete Town,” he said aloud. “There is no question.”
Elisse was weeping now, rocked by her husband. They both knew what their laws demanded in cases such as this. Nerthet, bleak and grief-stricken, stared at nothing as he asked, “When will the ostracism rites begin?”
“Today. The priesthood will undergo them first, then the general populace. So many people knew her…it will take weeks, if not months, to complete.”
“Then we have time to mourn, to…come to terms.” He buried his face in his wife’s hair. “My daughter, my only child…”
Saerlan placed a hand on his shoulder.
“We mourn with you, my friend.” The High Priest sat beside them to share their pain.
NERISSE wasn’t thinking of her people, let alone her parents or her faith. She was too caught up in the ritual playing out before her, in the man who presided over the sacrifice. In her mind, any thought of wrongness, disgust, or resistance was drowned out by the medicinal draught she’d taken to quell her empathy and the love she harbored for her chosen lord.
Their victim had been stretched over a fallen tree trunk, bound in place with strips of hide collected from other sacrifices, some animal, some human. She watched as Ba’tvian plunged the knife into the Mancer’s chest. The blade was sharp, cutting through flesh and cartilage with ease. Bone cracked, snapping, as he forced the ribcage to splay open wide, then plunged his hand in for the still-beating heart. He tore it free, held it up above his head as he chanted. Crimson wisps of power rose from the twitching body to gather together at the heart. It glowed, pulsing, before bursting into arcane flames. The fire was absorbed into his hand, making her lord’s aura flare into full visibility for a moment.
Part of her stood back from the scene, horrified. It felt the sickness, the fear, the utter dismay. Yet it was shrinking, becoming a smaller part of her each time they did this.
She was thankful for that. The rites gave her nightmares sometimes, after the drug she’d used had worn off – dreams of blood, pain, death, and hints that the sacrifice Ba’tvian laid on the makeshift altar might one day be her. They were coming on less now, as that part of her that was resistant to the blood magery faded.
She had confided in her lord after waking up screaming the night after they had killed the Mancer Timbrel Jodrek. Ba’tvian had not responded with irritation or anger, as she’d feared he might. Instead, he had assured her in that cool, logical way of his that he would never sacrifice her.
You are too useful to kill, even if I wanted to. You are someone I need, Nerisse. Because of that I will never let you go.
They were as close to love words as he ever came. After giving them, he’d seduced her – his brand of comfort – and she’d slept soundly through the rest of the night in his bedroll. Remembering that, she felt a little glow of warmth, of love.
He was her lord. She was his lover.
The chanting ceased. Drawn from her reverie, she looked up to see him beckoning her forward, his dark eyes intent. Her heart skipped a beat, her blood quickened. Heedless of any stains her winter dress might garner, she went to him, clasping his blood-slick hand with hers. She felt a jolt as power bled through the contact, from him to her. She experienced another, as he tugged her to him, tilting her face up so he could claim her mouth, smearing blood on her cheek, her chin, her throat.
Her mind buzzing with excitement, she barely heard him mutter to Ibestor to deal with the corpse. She was so focused in him, in how he made her feel, that she didn’t hear the earth weeping in the recesses of her awareness.
SOMEWHERE IN THE NORTHERN WILDERNESS OF ORTHANOR
BA’TVIAN left Nerisse to sleep in his bed roll. She had done well that day, in the hunt, in the rite, in pleasing him. The potion she was now taking had a side effect that he liked: she lost most of her natural inhibitions when it came to sex.
If only it could take care of her insecurities as well…
That was wishful thinking, however, and a waste of time. He was resigned to having to deal with them, as irritating as they were. Still, what he gained from doing so – her loyalty, her ability to enslave the minds of others – was worth the aggravation that task presented, so much so that he would not allow her to leave him.
Her weaknesses, her uncertainties, become a way to keep her chained.
He looked back at the elf as she lay curled up in the blankets. Gingerly, he touched her mind with his own. She was deep in sleep, not likely to rouse anytime soon. He would enjoy the reprieve while he could.
There was also another task to see to. It would give him the opportunity to test the usefulness of his other tool.
He scanned their small camp for any sign of Ibestor. The barbarian was nowhere to be seen. Reaching out with his mind, he lets is awareness comb the surrounding area to find him nearby, just out of sight. Ba’tvian stepped through the snow crusted trees to see Ibestor examining their mounts. He looked up as his master approached, grunted a greeting, then went back to what he was doing.
Knowing how fruitless it was to expect an intelligent answer from the man, Ba’tvian linked to him, slipping into his thoughts with ease. He was looking for flaws, signs of deterioration. So far, there were none. Since they had begun incorporating blood rites in the melding process Ibestor used, the makeshift things were lasting longer, functioning better.
Ba’tvian let him complete the examination. When he was done, the barbarian came to stand in front of him with an expectant look on his hairy face. The blood mage touched Ibestor’s forehead with a single finger, reinforcing the words he spoke with mental commands that the other man would understand and be compelled by.
“Locate a nearby settlement. A lone cabin, a village, a town – any kind of human habitation will do. Bring me a living human. This human is not to be injured – no cuts, no bruises, no rape. It does not matter if this human is male, female, a child, or an infant. Leave no witnesses. Do not get caught. Do not lead anyone else back to me. Do you understand?”
“Return within a day.” That would give allow for enough time to set up a meeting with his contact, Red, and make their monthly transaction. “Go now.”
Without a word, Ibestor turned to his steed, saddled it, mounted up, and rode off. Once he was out of hearing range, Ba’tvian gave another order to the Shadows that lurked in the night’s gloom.
“Follow him. Ensure that my orders are obeyed. If there is any pursuit, you will let know well before it arrives at our camp.”
Yes, lord. The sibilant hiss sounded in his consciousness from the unseen Shadowed Ones. He could sense their presence receding as they moved farther away, then felt the largest of those that remained with him glide to his side.
We have found Absol Omine, lord.
“Where?” Ba’tvian looked down at the creature, noting in the muted light of its white eyes that the head was beginning to show a mottled pattern. The ones that had been with him since he had been stranded on the Spirlan Coast were becoming distinctive. They assumed a physical form more often, were beginning to develop markings that made them easier to identify as individuals. He made a mental to look through texts for an explanation of the phenomenon when he visited his stolen cache of books again.
In the village of Destiny’s Way, south of the Wood. It blinked its leprous eyes. He is recovering from an injury but is almost healed.
“How long is he likely to stay there?” He wanted that Mancer dead. Of all the ones that hunted him, Omine had been the first. It was because of him that Ba’tvian had been harried across the continent for the last several years.
We do not know. He is training a boy at the shrine there.
“Is he.” He narrowed his eyes, thinking over the possibilities.
His problem consisted of more than just Absol. It encompassed the Mancers as a whole. He was going to have to find a way to take them out completely if he was ever to become a reckoning force in Orthanor – and he had to. How else could he ensure that he would never, ever, be rendered as nothing? As the dirt beneath the feet of the world?
“Do the Mancers have a…” What would he call it? “…Central building? A training facility?”
They have a Guild House in Chalbrooke. The mental tone of the response was thoughtful. It is the only one they have.
“Are there Shadows in that area? Can we gain any information from them?”
It is an area we do not go to. The Mancers keep it clear of us.
“That will change.” The coldness of his tone was implacable. His Shadowed Ones were his spies, his eyes, his ears, the greatest of his tools; they could be barred from any place in the world. “Keep tracking Omine. We will continue east and see what opportunities present themselves.”
If they didn’t, Ba’tvian would manufacture a few.