This night is full of distractions. The weeping, nitre-scored walls of the
library run with water; only the scant remains of some ancient spell of
warding keep the volumes here from disintegrating from the damp. Still, he
must be careful, so careful, as he turns each page. The slightest tremor
would tear the parchment leaves, forever obscuring the secrets they hold.
The crypts above seem to be teeming with noisome life, determined, it seems,
to prevent him from discovering that which he descended to this level to
Ahh! There: just there! The awareness of the knowledge he once possessed
tantalizes him, driving him beyond anger into raging insensibility. It
hovers at the doors of perception, taunting him with its simplicity. A
single word; the secret, the key, that thing he must rediscover teeters
there, just beyond his ability to apprehend.
And then, the last of the ghostmoss winks out. It had been the only source
of light now for some time; his obsession had imprisoned him here far, far
beyond the capacity of his lantern's oil reservoir. And now, his very
presence in this place has drained the last of the life even from the
glowing flora clinging bravely to the walls. True, he can still see, but
only just. Certainly not enough to read, for there are no higher life forms
here to generate that particular warmth which fuels his sight.
With a single, rattling sigh, he stands. It requires all of his mighty
reserves of Will to restrain himself from sweeping the moldering volumes and
scrolls littering the stained surface of the stone table to the ground in a
fit of pique. He makes his way slowly, thoughtfully, out into the passage,
seeking the next cache of knowledge, thanking the wisdom of his youth for
storing the ancient texts here, where they would remain free from the prying
eyes of his erstwhile competitors, now centuries dead, and the casual
destruction of wanton infidels.
What... As he enters the passage, a crimson light flashes: something alive
has wandered down from above. Doubtless another distraction. He begins to
incant the words of a simple spell, preparing to disintegrate the wretched
thing. Ah, but what is this? The creature is diminutive, cowering silently,
its huge eyes fixed upon him. Upon its back is a small pack. A minion, then,
about some task for its master. ...Or mistress. "Ah. It is hers," he thinks.
Reaching out to it, he beckons. It ducks its head submissively and waddles
over to him. Reaching into the pack and searching through many layers of the
bizarre oddments these creatures seemed habitually to collect, he finds it:
a small packet, tied with a black ribbon. He gestures to the beast, which
retreats with alacrity.
Quickly fashioning a nimbus of magelight which he directs to the tip of his
great staff, he unties the ribbon. Within the parchment wrapping lie a
single rune of recall and a rolled sheet of human skin: from its dampness
and odor, he judges the skin to be recently excised. Upon this simple
testimony -- for there can be no clearer indication that this communication
is from his protege -- is tattooed, in black ink, a single word. "Fear," he
"Of course! Of course! So simple! Just as I thought!" Portions of his face
move in a peculiar fashion: it becomes evident that, were the structures
still in place to permit him to form such an expression, he would be
smiling. He incants the syllables of a spell learned in earliest childhood
by all magi, and is instantly transported to a site by the side of one of
the less-frequented roads descending from the mountains to the north and
west of the great city of Britain. This is a region of formidable crags and
vast expanses of unexplored forest; not an area, certainly, where one might
expect to behold the scene arrayed before him. A heavy mist has gathered
here, formed, perhaps, by the confluence of bitter mountain airs and the
warmer atmosphere of the fertile farmlands below.
A fashionable canopy-and-four carriage sits here, squatting by the roadside.
The reason for its abandonment is evident: both front wheels have been
crushed like so much kindling, and the most cursory examination reveals the
accident to be the product of a trench which has been dug across the road.
The remains of the horse team lie nearby; sword cuts across each horse's
neck indicate merciful ends. The forelegs of the two front animals have been
shattered, obviously the result of the trench-digger's handiwork. He makes
an appreciative grunt at the efficiency exhibited by the tawdry little
scene, and moves into the treeline, observing more details of a hasty
departure. Several chests lie here, their contents scattered. Essentials for
survival have been removed, leaving only a large scattering of flame- and
ice-blue-colored gowns in this year's mode and various other trappings
common to courtiers of the haute monde. Bits of discarded, heavy clothing
indicate a direction of flight. He proceeds, tendrils of mist swirling about
him, deeper into the forest.
Here, before him, lies a discarded handbag. A tattered lady's fan lies
nearby. He pauses, suddenly feeling as if he is watched. Casting about, he
seeks the source of the inspiration. Ah. There it is: suspended from the
great boughs of two mighty trees by rude cords is a strange construction.
Formed from twigs and sticks, it is a simulacrum in the shape of a man. It
hangs there, just above the level of the underbrush at the wide path's edge.
Simple enough, and yet it possesses the aura of an ancient, sentient
malignance. Delighted, he continues.
He encounters several more of the constructs: at each site is additional
evidence of flight. He envisions the passage of those who last travelled
this path. The abiding image is one of panic. Of flight from fear which
rapidly descends to the level of overwhelming dread. Here he sees an
abandoned sword, the scabbard revealing its owner as a court dandy rather
than a true soldier. There he spies a parasol. And again: a brightly colored
woman's shoe, its heel broken.
Finally, he comes upon the hideous terminus of this pathetic sojourn into
madness. All is silent, here. No bird sings, no amphibian croaks, no insect
chitters. The only sound is that of the moisture which drips interminably
from the mighty boughs of the forest above. A rude forester's hut crouches
in the swirling mist. From it emanates a miasma of darkest evil; if evil can
be said to possess an aroma, surely this would have been a worthy specimen.
Cackling, he moves to the door of the hut, and tears it casually from its
hinges. Within the hut burns a single taper, and in the flickering light he
sees his protege. She crouches atop a crude wooden table, smiling a crooked
smile at he who has been her teacher for the last several months. A young
woman, her hair is of the palest blond, almost white. She is dressed in
somber colors and seems content for him to inspect her work.
Before him is a scene drawn from the ghastliest tales of the deepest hells.
Five young people, one male and the others female, have been lined up in a
corner of the shabby hut, facing the wall. In the gloom, he can see that
they are nude, and have been secured in kneeling positions with bindings of
raw animal hide, which has grown tight enough to cause discoloration in the
extremities as it has dried. The walls of the hut have been spattered with
great gouts of blood, and the floor is littered with offal and a scattering
of human organs. The stench is palpable. From the corpses, long, thin strips
of epidermis have been removed. One of the women wears a pointed hat
constructed from skin obviously sliced from her body. Were it not for the
grisly details of the scene, the corpses and their arrangement might have
had a comic aspect. As it was, however...
Upon the floor is scraped a pentacle. The lines have been filled in with
what appears to be soot, or some other very black powdery substance. Around
the edges of this, eldritch sigils and strange runes have been scribed. At
the center lies a slowly drying human heart.
He shifts his gaze slowly from the center of the pentacle to his
apprentice's face, and from her face to her eyes, glittering there in the
half-darkness. Her eyes... Even he, even he must shudder at what he beholds
there. Her eyes seem to encompass the blackest pits of despair, and suddenly
he feels small, and alone, bereft of those things which once provided him
joy. Rapidly straightening himself, and schooling his mind to the discipline
of centuries, he pauses, and lifts his chin: a gesture of harsh command. She
alights from the tabletop, and stands before him, head bowed in submission.
"My dear," he says, his voice reminiscent of the shifting of dry leaves as
they are blown by autumn winds into the corners of the boneyard. His student
remains silent, waiting. "You have completed your task? Do you... have it?
... Surrender it unto me! By our covenant, I do command it!"
The student smiles her crooked smile, displaying the fangs common to those
of her... disposition, but stands, resolute. A wave of hatred fills him; he
finds that he must resort to the mental exercises practiced in his youth to
avoid simply reaching out with his power and stopping that which animates
her. "My dear..." he says again.
"My master. Surely you remember the details of that covenant. We have a
bargain, do we not?"
Cursing bitterly, he reaches into the rotten tatters of his garment, feeling
for the truesilver concealed there. Grasping the hidden article firmly, he
rips, downward, snapping the chain which has suspended it there for so many,
many years. He flings it to the dirt, his impatience vast, immeasurable,
unbearable. "THERE. Take thee thy price, thou wretched Sending, and my curse
be upon the agency that directed thee to me!"
Slowly, her crooked smile never fading, slowly, impertinently, maddeningly,
she reaches to retrieve the object. It glitters in the candlelight: an
inverted pentacle, enclosing a skull surrounded by alien runes. Retrieving
the pendant, she withdraws another object from the folds of her robe. His
eyes widen as he beholds it. "It is true then!? How... How... You are but my
student! Where did you learn... It is no matter..." Greedily he reaches for
the precious item, which she deposits in his withered hands.
He strokes the object, this thing, this item he has coveted for so very,
very long. Crooning, oblivious to all else, he examines it: a black egg,
warm to the touch, seemingly fashioned from the darkest ebon jade, and
pulsing with a virulent red glow. Cackling maniacally, then and there, he
gathers the might of centuries about himself, and recites the requisite
syllables, holding the sphere aloft. The sphere instantly comes to life,
emitting an argent radiance so brilliant it would have blinded if the two
had not been prepared for this eventuality.
Seconds pass, and he is possessed by some unholy agency. Great shudders of
change pass through his frame, and he fights to retain consciousness. Over
all, he sees the hellish smile of his apprentice, as if it were ingrained
into the new texture of the reality surrounding him, a sickening reminder of
his obligation. Slowly, painfully, he feels his body... changing, filling,
quickening. Tissues reform, a heart beats where before there was only dust,
and he knows... pain. Pain so vast it leaves him as a mewling babe, lying in
the dirt at the girl's feet. He has never known such agony. Never. Slowly,
slowly, it passes. He gazes down at himself, fully clothed in the flesh of a
young, vital man. He feels weakened... drained... and whole. Weeping, he turns his gaze up to the young woman, his former apprentice. She smiles no longer. Naked, the faded remains of his robe scattered and
destroyed, he slowly stands before her. Wobbling, he receives the food she
offers him from the leather sack beneath the table: bread, and water, and
some kind of raw... meat. "It is done, then?" he croaks. "It is done," she
says, tilting her head in curiousity. He dons the rough ranger's garb she
draws from the sack, feeling stronger by the minute.
"Well then, my dear. You have earned it, I suppose. But you must know: the
Tower... will prove to be a harsh Mistress." He smiles, somewhat ruefully,
as he watches the young woman fasten his pendant about her own neck.
She squints at him, appraising. "Perhaps, Azalin. Perhaps. But not,
certainly, as harsh as the Mistress I fear you must now face."
A darkness crosses the young man's face as he considers her words, recalling
the face of his beloved. "Goodbye," he says. "Goodbye, Cabal Sigrun."
"Hold, Azalin," she says softly. "Be warned. If you should die, while in
this form, you will be forever as you were... before." He nods, a little
"Of course. Of course, my dear. And... you know I cannot, will not thank you
for what you have done." She nods, her expression hidden in the deep shadows
of her hood. He shudders, as if recalling some difficult memory, then shrugs
lightly. Softly, he turns, and the mist seems to consume him as he begins
his long journey... home.
In the great city of Britain, they say that all things are possible. They
say this -- the privileged, the wealthy who congregate at the city's western
bank -- but very rarely does anything actually happen. This evening, a soft
rain falls. A mist lies heavily over the city, and there is no wind. There
is little to be heard save the distant hammer falls from the northwestern
smithy and the occasional "clop, clop, clop" of some traveller's horse as
its master seeks ale and a warm seat by the fire.
Focus now upon the small, huddled form of the Hunter. It is heavily swathed
in clothing of the deepest black. Upon its head, a well-worn hat with an
improbably wide brim. Of the face beneath the hat, there is no evidence: the
Hunter sits, its back to the wall of the butcher's shop. It sits, knees
drawn up against its chest for warmth, hands concealed in the voluminous
sleeves of its robe. Water pours from the brim of its hat in tiny rivulets.
An hour passes, and with it passes the day. All is quiet, now. The few
remaining citizens have taken their leave of the streets, seeking food,
warmth, comfort, companionship.
All save one. She walks, haltingly, up the street, frequently using the damp
walls of the buildings for support. She may have been lovely, once, but it
is difficult to detect loveliness in the sopping, bedgraggled figure that
pauses, finally, almost directly in front of the Hunter, and peers,
trembling, into the windows of the butcher shop. Her silver hair has been
cut with a blunt blade, and hangs in strings about her face. Her body,
barely clad in the remnants of a fine lady's courtly gown, has skin the
color of deepest ebon. She clutches her belly tightly. She is heavy with
Suddenly, she sees the Hunter. She gasps, startled. The hunter wipes its
lips on the back of its glove and peers up at her from beneath the brim of
its hat. "Food..." says the elf, in a voice barely audible. "I can pay."
Reaching into the bodice of the shredded gown, she draws forth a pendant of
stunning beauty. It is fashioned from true silver and diamond, and glitters
in the failing light. "Do you know... where I can sell this? I... the
child... must have something to eat."
The Hunter nods quietly and rises to its feet. It beckons the elf to come
with it and takes hold of her arm, gently supporting her. Together, they
move slowly down the cobbled street until they come to a large, dark opening
in a wall. There is a passage within, poorly illuminated with guttering
torches. The Hunter speaks: "Not far now, princess." The maiden nods,
grateful, and allows the Hunter to guide her into the passage. They follow
it for a time, listening to the occasional "plink, plink" of dripping water,
and then come to a raised platform. In the platform is a large hole with
ladders protruding from it.
The elf turns to the Hunter, doubtful. "It's just down these steps, my
lady," says the Hunter. Nodding, resigned, the elf begins the descent. The
Hunter follows. When they reach the bottom, it is almost entirely black.
Rats can be heard squealing in the distance. The elf, mortally afraid,
clutches feebly at the ladder, attempting to ascend.
The Hunter draws a strange, sickle-shaped, copper blade from its belt -- and
deftly parts the elven maiden from her life with a swift stroke across the
neck. It pauses to lap the gushing flows of her life's blood and drinks for
a long while. Then, standing, the Hunter wipes its bloodied lips upon the
back of its glove and appraises the sordid little scene. It sighs, seemingly
pleased with its work.
Gently taking the glittering pendant from the girl's dead fingers, it places
it in a pouch deep in the folds of its clothing. Smiling, the Hunter takes
its copper knife and makes a careful incision in the woman's belly and
removes the child, squirming there within the confines of its bloody bag. It
cackles softly to itself, cracks the squirming infant's head sharply against
the stone wall, and wraps it in cloth taken from the dead woman's gown. "The
idiot female did not deserve this tiny man. Much better that it did come to
us." Slowly, methodically, the Hunter then slices the woman's corpse into
small pieces and flings these to the rats milling in increasing numbers on
the landing just below.
Satisfied, replete, the Hunter climbs the ladder and makes its way out into
Look now upon the face of our Hunter. It is the face of a young woman,
nineteen or twenty years of age. She is well formed, of good proportion, and
save for the unnatural pallor of her skin, one might almost say she was...
beautiful. But the eyes... these eyes... they look up at us from the depths
of shadow beneath the brim of her large hat. And in these eyes, black, like
the vastnesses of the deepest hells, there is no single shred of humanity.
They are the eyes of an animal, full of nothing but purest Malice.
As the Hunter makes her way down the wet street, she is hailed by a guard.
"You are about your business rather late, citizen," he says. "Please name
yourself and your errand." The Hunter turns, slowly, and regards the man.
She smiles prettily.
"I am but a weary traveller, seeking warmth and shelter on a dreary night,
master Guard. And my name is... Sigrun."