Black Gate Online Fiction: “A Phoenix in Darkness” — Part III
By Donald S. Crankshaw
This is a complete work of fiction presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Donald S. Crankshaw and New Epoch Press, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2012 by New Epoch Press.
Return to Chapter IV
Chapter V: The Assault
Nathan’s eyes were filled with a darkness that crept into his mind, dampening thought and feeling. He was weightless, formless, empty. He would have wondered whether he were dead had he been capable of any thought at all. Instead, thoughts skipped across the surface of his mind like pebbles across a pond, reaching the other side rather than sinking into his comprehension. Aulus… Soulless… Necromancers… Were there others? That last thought was different, not his own, but Nathan neither recognized this nor cared.
Seth… An image of a sword cutting dead flesh while lightning caused corpses to dance. We don’t think so…
The boy escaped… A man with a boy slung over his shoulder as another man used magic to fend off people with empty eyes and mouths stitched shut. Daniel…
This Dominus will replace him… Silent men in black robes. Death…
We should go… Small girls with bloody hands and laughing faces. This place isn’t safe any longer… Corridor after corridor, filled with the living, the dead, and those in between.
Better to lay low for now… We have time, and we must complete the…
If the Order suspected we were here, they would have come in force. This one came alone.
What of the guardsman? A man with a crimson hawk on his white tabard.
As if a Dominus would confide in one of them…
Domini don’t trust anyone… I trusted Aulus.
He’s male, he has the ability…
A Dominus… Magic, fire, death, and power.
So much the better… He’s perfect.
Seth was still arguing with Captain Micah when Jake came in, his face a ghostly white. He barely paused for a salute, much less permission, before he said, “Captain, there are Domini here! Eight of them! They want to speak to you.”
Micah, whose face was still florid from the anger he had been unleashing on Seth, just gave a curt nod. “Your friends, I assume?”
“I wouldn’t call them friends…,” Seth answered.
“Jake, send in their leader.”
Jake hurried out, leaving Seth and Micah staring at one another. The captain’s office, a small room off of the barracks’ main hall, held only a few chairs and a table covered with stacks of paper and wax tablets. The paperwork annoyed the captain, who could read and write but enjoyed neither. The previous captain had had a scribe, but Micah had gotten rid of him and hired three guardsmen for the same pay. Unfortunately, that meant he had to do his own paperwork.
A tall Dominus entered the room, and Jake just looked in and licked his lips before closing the door behind him. The Dominus wore black robes whose long sleeves hid his hands and whose hood hid his face, as strange and dangerous as any of his kind, but when he spoke, Seth heard Aulus’s voice. “Captain Micah, we require your help.” The familiar voice somehow made Seth more comfortable with the man. He wasn’t a friend, but after sharing yesterday’s horrors with him, Seth couldn’t call him a stranger either.
“You want my help, do you?” Micah asked. He hid it well, but Seth could hear a slight tremor in his voice. He didn’t know Aulus. “I don’t recall that you have the authority to command me.”
“I do not,” Aulus said. “But I would think you have an interest stopping those who kidnap your citizens and attempt to murder your guardsmen. If that does not concern you, perhaps it will concern your king.”
Seth could see Micah’s jaw tighten. “Seth tells me that the threat is real, and I trust him even when it sounds like so much nonsense. For what you want, however, I’d have to take dozens of men off the street when I barely have enough to do the usual job. You would do better asking the king to provide soldiers.”
“Perhaps, but time is short. We must move quickly — I want to be there before noon — and I believe you can gather your men in less time than I could gain an audience with the king and his council. If you’ll just —”
“Insistent bastard, aren’t you? No, don’t say another word,” the captain said. “I’ve heard Seth’s arguments, and I doubt you have much to add.” He looked down at his desk for a moment, eyeing the stacks of paperwork. “It sounds dangerous, if true. Despite Seth’s story, I’m not sure this threat is as real as you say, but I can hardly ignore it. All right, I can gather up enough men to help you, but they’re not going without me.” He looked up, trying to look the Dominus in the eye, a difficult task with no eye visible.
“I’ll wait for you outside.” Aulus slipped out the door, leaving Seth and Micah alone.
“Round up everyone here, including those who are off duty, and send them to collect everyone out on patrol whom they can find. Only those on patrol; I don’t want to leave the gates unguarded,” Micah said. “Tell them to meet at the mine entrance for a raid an hour before noon. Have them try not to attract too much attention.”
Seth went out into the barracks hall, a long chamber whose floor was covered from end to end with hard pallets with little room between them. Aulus and his Domini stood in a corner, watching Seth at work. They tried to stay out of the way, but with so little room some of them ended up standing on pallets. Seth spread the orders and sent those less inclined to believe him to talk to the captain. After Abe came back with his ears burning, no one else seemed willing to argue. There was a great deal of grumbling from the men, but they all did as they were instructed. Raids into the Hollow Hills, after criminals or Ishites, were not uncommon, and some of the guardsmen, despite tousled hair and bleary eyes from night patrols and no sleep afterwards, grinned and joked about how they’d chase the heretics into the light. Others were looking askance in the direction of the Domini, their grim expressions turning even more dour. They suspected that the Domini were not after Ishites or street thugs.
Once he’d harried the guardsmen into motion and sent them out, Seth went to talk to Aulus. Only, seeing all the Domini together, he realized he had no idea which one was Aulus. Aside from their heights, they looked identical in their uniform black robes.
“Aulus?” he asked.
“Yes?” said one whom he had assumed to be too short for Aulus.
“We’re gathering all the guardsmen we can find and meeting at the mine entrance an hour before noon. You should meet us there, but if you don’t want to be conspicuous, perhaps you Domini should split up and come separately.”
“That is a wise idea,” Aulus said, his hood bobbing up and down in a nod. “My companions will do that, but I will go with you and your captain.”
“All right, if you want.”
Aulus turned around and addressed his fellows, and after only a few moments of conversation, they began to depart.
Seth figured he still had over an hour before it would be time to leave. He tried to strike up a conversation with Aulus, but the Dominus was not in a talkative mood. Finally, he gave up and instead went outside to the practice yard, where he ran through a few drills with his replacement sword. Captain Micah had not been at all happy to learn that he had left his old sword with Nathan. The new weapon had a slightly different feel, but it would do. When he came back inside, he found that a few more guardsmen had come to the barracks, reporting for their shifts or returning from them. He explained the situation to them and sent them out again.
Seth figured it was almost time, so after he had outfitted himself for battle, he went to find his captain, who was in his office doing the same. He was just buckling his sword belt, after which he slung his shield across his back.
“If I understand what you’ve told me, Seth, the reason those Domini want our help is so we can kill these Soulless things. How do you kill something that’s already dead?”
Seth shook his head. “It’s not easy. You can’t do it the same way you’d fight a man, since they don’t seem to feel pain, or to bleed the way we do. Shol, I don’t have a clue what makes them move, but it isn’t their heart. We should try to break or sever limbs, which will make them less dangerous even if it doesn’t kill them. From what I’ve seen, taking their heads off does kill them, but that’s hard to do, and I’m not sure it’ll work unless you manage a complete decapitation.”
“Great. Are you sure this isn’t a suicide mission?”
“Well, I don —”
“Of course it isn’t a suicide mission,” Aulus said as he came into the room uninvited. “As Seth told you, they’re hard to kill, but they’re slow and stupid, and all you really have to do is hold them back. As long as you protect the Domini long enough, we should be able to handle any of the Soulless you encounter.”
“That assassin wasn’t slow and stupid, Aulus,” Seth pointed out.
“He was fast, but he wasn’t particularly smart. I don’t think we’ll encounter any others like him, anyway,” Aulus said. “I suppose we should classify him as Soulless, but he was a very different type, one who was made from a still living man. The Necromancers probably don’t do that very often, since it requires capturing someone alive. If we do encounter any more of those, however, they should be easier to kill than the Soulless we saw last night. They die exactly the same way humans do.”
“If we’re going to do this,” Micah said. “Let’s get going.”
Seth, Micah, and Aulus left the barracks and headed for the Hollow Hills, traveling through the city without much concern as to who might notice the Captain of the Guard and a Dominus traveling together. Micah and Aulus showed little concern, at least. Seth felt like there were eyes on him the whole time. Which there were, judging from how the townsmen would pause in whatever they were doing and stare for a moment, until they realized what they were seeing and quickly looked away. Seth hoped things were moving too quickly for the Necromancers to react.
They didn’t go out the Denton gate, but instead headed south, through the Palo Gate, before circling the wall to the mine entrance. It took longer, but they still arrived well before the scheduled time, beating all of the guardsmen and most of the Domini. Aulus joined the two Domini already there, pulling something from the neck of his robe and speaking softly with them.
When he had finished talking and put his bauble away, Seth approached him. “Aulus, do you think the Necromancers might have spies? What if they got word of our coming?”
Aulus’s head tilted to one side as he considered. “I think they do have spies, but I have a few of my own. One of them is near the entrance we found last night. If there had been any unusual activity at all, he would have let me know. There may be other ways to get into the Necromancers’ lair, but we haven’t found any sign of them.”
“How do you know he’s still there?”
“I just spoke to him. Although, he seemed… no, never mind…”
“What is it? Don’t tell me never mind!”
“He seemed nervous, that’s all. You would be too if you were down there alone.”
“Maybe,” Seth admitted.
“Unless there’s something else, I need to talk tactics with the other Domini.”
Knowing he was dismissed, Seth wandered away from the group, and leaned back against the steep face of the hill into which the mine burrowed. The sun felt warm on his face, and he closed his eyes briefly. He had spent the night without rest, first taking the boy, Daniel, to his mother to look after, then trekking back to the barracks, where his attempt to sleep for the few remaining hours before dawn had brought nothing but sudden fits and starts as he thought he heard a leaden step or saw a decaying hand in the dark. Several times his muscles had twitched as alarm screamed through his brain, and he found himself sitting up on his pallet and groping for his sword, unable to remember the sound, the sight, or even the thought which had so disturbed him. Now wearing hot, heavy armor, leaning back against a rock wall covered with only a thin layer of dirt and numerous protruding edges, he felt the exhaustion sweep over him. There was no way he could sleep now, but…
He felt himself slipping to one side, and his hand grabbed one of those protruding edges to catch and right himself. He really had almost dozed off. Seth looked around, wondering when everyone else would get here, and was astonished to find that everyone else already was here. Glancing up at the sky, he saw that the sun was almost directly overhead, and realized with amazement that he really had slept, and for more than half an hour at that. About forty guardsmen milled around, sharpening their swords, conversing quietly with one another, and casting dark looks at the cave and the Domini. The Domini stood gathered in a small knot, ignoring everything around them as they conversed among themselves, but Seth saw one of them look in his direction. Despite his inability to make out the man’s face, Seth would have sworn it was Aulus, and something about the way he held himself beneath those concealing robes just shouted amusement. He grumbled to himself beneath his breath, annoyed at being caught napping.
Micah, who also looked amused, spoke for all to hear, “You all know we’re going to raid the Hollow Hills today. I think it’s best if Seth told us what we face and why we’re going.”
Seth straightened up now that everyone was watching him. He cleared his throat. “Last night, I went into this mine with Na — two Domini, that is. They suspected that someone was down there, and they were right. We went deeper than I had ever gone before, and what we found was — well, it was dark magic, death magic.” He paused to watch his fellows’ reactions. “Some of you are skeptical. I would be too, but I saw it with my own eyes. By Eän, I saw dead men walking, trying to kill me. And I saw the women who control them, their hands covered in blood. They steal children, little girls, and train them to be like them —”
“Are you saying we’re going down there to kill women?” Jake asked, going green in the face. Many of the others looked unhappy and troubled. A few, only two that Seth could see, but still way too many, looked eager.
“We’ll take them alive if we can,” Aulus said. “We should be able to rescue all of the children. But leave the Necromancers to us. Your job is to handle the Soulless.”
Seth nodded. “They’re called Soulless because they literally have no souls,” Seth said, not quite knowing whether it was true or not, but it felt right. “They are men, and maybe women, dead and buried in the Hollow Hills and raised by the Necromancers. But this is no Resurrection on the Last Day, because they’re still dead. They’re just rotting bodies driven by magic, not by their long-departed souls. This… half-life they have makes them hard to kill. You can hit them again and again and they don’t even feel it. The only way I know to kill one is to take its head off, but you can slow it down by just damaging the body. They can’t fight without arms and legs.”
“If you can hold the line, our magic can kill them,” Aulus said. “All you have to do is hold them back and we will win.”
Micah stepped forward. “All right, I know that this all sounds like some minstrel’s tale about demons and Amaranthine. I expect we’ll see the truth of it in a few minutes. Keep your wits about you, support one another, and don’t panic. Now, Joshua, Jacob, and Michael, your squads will take the lead. Seth and I will go with you. The Domini will follow us, and the other squads will form the rear guard. Jesse, you’re in charge of those.”
“Sir,” Jesse said. “I heard that there was an army of Domini marching out of the city this morning.” He looked at the handful standing around Aulus. “Where are the rest of them?” There were murmurs from some of the others, saying that they’d heard the same rumors.
“An army, you say?” Micah said. “Do you folks know about this?” he asked the Domini.
“I suspect the rumors simply exaggerated our numbers,” Aulus said. “Even this is more Domini than the city would normally see in a year.” He gestured at those standing around him. “It’ll be enough, as long as we have your help.”
Micah turned to the guardsmen. “You heard him. This is what we have, and it’ll be plenty.”
“Seth and I will take point for now, since we know the way,” Aulus said.
Micah nodded. “All right, let’s go.”
“What was that?”
“That was our cue to hurry.”
Nathan’s mind still reeled as he felt himself trying to stay afloat in a sea of pain, exhaustion, and something else. Drugs? Whatever it was, he was only now able to put thoughts into some sort of coherent order. He still couldn’t move, and the Essence was just a blur in his magical sight which he could not touch it at all. For now, his universe existed of nothing more than what his mundane senses brought him. Something hard, perhaps stone, beneath his back. Only darkness in front of him — were his eyes open or shut? The sweet smell of incense, failing to hide the scent of chemicals and corruption. The voices, two women talking. And softer, farther away, what might have been screams.
“I told you they’d come looking for us. We should have fled!”
“Even if we had had time, the Domini wouldn’t have missed a mass exodus of women with the ability, not when they were swarming around looking for a lost comrade. As I told you earlier, our best chance was for us and our agents to lay low. They shouldn’t have been able to find us, not if he was alone.”
“He wasn’t alone! You should have believed me about the guardsman who was working with the Dominus we killed.”
“A member of the Order would never work with a mere guardsman. If some mundane from the City Guard is somehow responsible, it’s because you got his attention when you tried to kill him.”
“The guardsman was there when Lilah killed the Dominus! They must have been working together. He was asking questions and —”
“It’s too late to place blame now. If we hurry, it won’t make any difference. It might even be better this way.”
“For you, maybe. What about me?”
“I’ll come back for you. It might be a few years, but what is that to us?” There was a pause. “It’s the best chance we have.”
A longer pause. “All right. Lie back, and we’ll get started.”
There was a rustling sound. Nathan’s eyes opened a fraction, and he could see a ceiling lit by dim, flickering light. Unlike the rough stone of the mining tunnels, or the plain, smooth stone of the rest of the Necromancers’ lair, this ceiling was ornately decorated. In Nathan’s limited field of vision was the Dragon constellation, a bas-relief of the mighty beast carved into the ceiling with silver stars marking the pattern of the night sky. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see powerful magic at work, but Nathan could neither see it clearly nor comprehend it. As the magic crescendoed, there was a ragged gasp followed by silence. Nathan heard slow footsteps coming around to where he lay, then a slender hand slipped beneath the back of his head, lifting it up and giving him a brief glimpse of candles. Something went over his head, and he felt a chain slide against the back of his neck as a small warm medallion touched his chest beneath his shirt. The hand now lay on his forehead, and though he could sense the danger, he couldn’t act. He reached for his magic, straining, and only caused a faint stirring in the Essence.
A prayer, long unused, floated into his consciousness. Isha, Light of Heaven, help your servant in his despair!
The hand lifted away, and for a moment Nathan thought his prayer was answered.
“Mishel, I want you to finish up here. Here’s the Anchor for the first binding,” said one of the voices he had heard earlier.
“But, Mistress Morana, I’ve never done this before, not by myself,” answered another woman, this time someone new.
“You know how, don’t you?”
“Then do it. Guylen’s wrong if he thinks I’ll just let myself be killed. We may survive this yet.”
“But what are you going to do?”
“I’m going to Awaken the wraiths.”
“Just be quiet and do what I told you. Let me worry about the wraiths.”
Nathan heard receding footsteps, and a door opening and then closing. Wraiths? Sweet Isha, what was happening?
A small hand pressed something hard against his forehead, and once again he felt powerful magic at work, only this time it was at work on him. All worries about wraiths vanished, as he didn’t think he’d live long enough to see them. A tingling ran from his head, to his chest, and through his limbs, and he felt as though the air began to draw tight around him, building in pressure. And then the cutting began. There was a severing of bonds deep inside his being, and as each bond fell away, he could feel himself tearing apart. One binding was cut, and he felt like someone was sawing him down the middle. Another cut. Thought, action, emotion — all disappeared, drowned in agonizing pain. Another, and another. The remaining bonds tore, and the pain vanished so suddenly that it left a dead numbness. There was no thought, no emotion, just meaningless memory and empty sensations. Cold senselessness, with no purpose, no hope, and not even the desire to be whole again.
Then a slow warmth suffused him, flooding him with life. It filled the emptiness, reinvigorated memory with thought and sensation with meaning. The pain returned, and he may have cried out, but it subsided as the bonds were remade. He could hear himself breathing heavily, once more alive and almost awake. His fingers twitched when he tried to move them. His mind was once more able to connect thoughts and form ideas. A few more minutes and I can use my magic. The clarity of that thought cleared the mist from his head, and fear and hope filled his mind, together urging action.
His eyes were now fully open for the first time. He could see the ceiling and its constellations, Dragon and Gryphon and the one called Juno by the Novari and Matron by the Manuelites. In the center of the ceiling, too large by half in relation to the others and colorful as opposed to their plain stone, was Phoenix. Nathan had seen many interpretations of this constellation — not even the Order knew whether the bird itself truly existed — but this one was grand. The silver stars seemed to pale in comparison to the bird they represented: it looked like a falcon, fierce and proud, with emerald eyes, a body of gold and garnet, and rubies trailing from its outstretched wings as it rose from the crimson flames.
Although Nathan still couldn’t turn his head, he could move his eyes and to his right he could see a figure wearing a gray dress. She lifted her hand and the hard object she had been holding against his forehead, and then moved out of his line of sight. He looked in the other direction. Only a few feet away from him was a stone table, on which another figure in gray lay. He couldn’t see much else, but he could hear something. The faint sounds from earlier were now louder: shouts and screams, the roar of thunder, a crack of breaking stone. It sounded as though they were nearly upon them.
A sound like a tree ripping apart, cracking and shredding, filled the room, and lightning speared inside, illuminating the chamber like the sun and causing Nathan’s hair to stand on end. The Phoenix flared in a glorious golden brilliance, and the afterimage glowed red in his eyes as the light died. He might have heard a scream over the crackling of energy, but no one uttered a sound afterward. The scent of burned flesh touched his nostrils, and he gagged.
He heard many footsteps entering the room, accompanied by the voices of men talking softly among themselves. He tried to speak, to sit up, to look around, but the best he could manage was to toss his head from side to side. There were candles all around him, but more light came from the glowing spheres floating near the heads of looming figures in black robes. Domini! I’m saved… aren’t I? One of them noticed his plight and leaned over him.
“Ah, Nathan. I’m surprised to see you’re still alive.”
He tried to speak, and though he could not get even a whisper to form in his throat, he mouthed, “Aulus?”
“No, but I suspec’ Principius will be here soon,” the Dominus said, pushing his hood back from a horridly gray, round face with bulging eyes. Nathan thought he was looking into the glassy eyes of one of the Soulless before he recognized his rescuer as something much worse. It was Kulsin.
“Believe me,” Kulsin said, with a smile that looked more like a grimace, “you’ll both wish I had let the Necromancers turn you into Soulless by the time I’m through with you.”
Aulus came to a halt so abruptly that Seth was three steps beyond him before he realized he was alone. Everyone else had halted with Aulus, the guardsmen looking worried, the Domini… Seth couldn’t actually tell the mood of the Domini beneath their obscuring robes. “Well, what is it?” Seth said.
“Magic,” Aulus said. “I had seen it earlier, but now I can better tell what‘s happening. There’s a battle going on ahead of us, and it’s not being fought with swords.”
They were not far from the place where the Necromancers hid, only a few minutes from the false wall, Seth reckoned. A dozen lights illuminated the tunnel in front and behind them, the Domini making sure the guardsmen could see any enemy they might encounter. The increased illumination just made the tunnel more oppressive, replacing the darkness’s illusion of distance with a very visible closeness.
“A battle? Is it your spy?”
“There’s too much magic for that, but I think we’re about to find out more,” Aulus said, pointing beyond Seth to where a figure in black was approaching, a light floating near its head.
“Aulus, is that you?” it called.
“Yes it is, Rodun,” Aulus answered. “What’s going on?”
“It’s Kulsin. He got here hours ago, with at least fifty Domini. He made me take him to the entrance you showed me.”
“I guess we found our army of Domini,” Seth murmured.
Aulus ignored him. “Damn! Why didn’t you tell me he had come?”
“He ordered me not to. He’s a Senator, Aulus — I couldn’ refuse.”
“Do you at least know how he found out about this?”
“I have no idea. Someone must have told him.”
Aulus turned on the Domini behind him. “I don’t suppose any of you have something to confess?” There were shakings of heads and a few denials. “I thought as much. Maybe there’s still something I can do.”
Aulus marched straight ahead, but Rodun stepped in front of him. “Kulsin wanted me to keep you and the others out here.”
“If you want to try to stop me, Rodun, go ahead,” Aulus said.
“But Kulsin’s a Senator, you cannot…”
“If Kulsin has an edict from the Senate, I’ll obey it. Otherwise, I’m going in.”
“Kulsin’ll have my head, Aulus. You know that.”
“He’ll probably be satisfied with mine,” Aulus said, stepping past Rodun. Seth followed, and while some of the guardsmen did the same, others were reluctant to continue. So were most of the Domini.
Micah gave a backward glance at the hesitating guardsmen, sighing. “Michael, take anyone who wishes to go up to the surface. Anyone who wants to stay with me, come.”
Most of the guardsmen fell back with Michael, leaving ten who were willing to risk the Necromancers’ lair. That was still better than the Domini, as only one was coming besides Aulus. “If we run into many of those Soulless, I’m not sure we’ll be able to take them,” Seth told Aulus.
“After Kulsin’s been through there, I doubt there will be any Soulless left.”
There were, in fact, Soulless everywhere. The moment they came through the gaping hole that had once been the hidden doorway, they encountered the first bodies, torn apart by magic or burned to little more than blackened bones and scraps of smoking meat. A few were still intact, but that was even worse, as they exhibited all the signs of their living death, with glassy eyes and sewn mouths, but lay like marionettes whose strings had been cut. If fear that one or another of the fallen Soulless would spring back to life had not kept Seth’s eyes focused on them, he might have missed the occasional shapeless, black-shrouded mass buried among them, leaving a patch of blood brighter than the black ichor the Soulless left. Aulus simply ignored the bodies of Soulless and Domini alike, while Captain Micah showed no trace of concern other than a tightness around the eyes. Some of the other guardsmen gagged, one was sick, and two others fled the corridor, returning to the mine tunnels. The guardsmen had seen dead men before, but nothing like this. The other Dominus showed no emotion that his robe did not hide. For all the grisly display of the fully dead Soulless, Seth knew they weren’t the real problem. Where were the Necromancers?
They came across the first ones when they reached the large circular room where they had been ambushed last night. Behind a wall of Soulless were three dead women sprawled on the floor, their clothes seared from their bodies by the same fire which had consumed hair and skin. The skin that remained was horribly burned and blackened, cracking open to reveal the cooked flesh underneath. A Dominus lay on the ground nearby, remnants of the black robe having survived the fire, beside one body that Seth could not identify at all. Some of the guardsmen stared at these new bodies with a horror even worse than what they had felt for the Soulless, and they began to mutter among themselves until Micah shushed them. He turned toward Seth. “Are these some of those Necromancers?”
“Yes,” Seth said, swallowing hard. He knew they were monsters, witches who dealt with death magic, but it was still hard to look at the bodies of women killed like that. For some reason, it was easier with the Dominus’s body. “Aulus…”
“Come on,” Aulus said, following the same path they had taken last night.
They passed more bodies, mostly Soulless but a few Necromancers and Domini, as they traveled to the main corridor. Some of the bodies were burned by either fire or lightning, others appeared to be crushed, as if hit by a huge hammer, or torn apart by terrible forces. The most disturbing were the unmarked, with no sign of what had killed them, lying as if they had fallen dead where they stood. The Soulless like this were bad enough, but they passed one Necromancer who looked like she had been struck dead by the hand of Eän. By the time they reached the main corridor, Seth had stopped counting the bodies: Necromancer, Soulless, and Dominus. There it got worse.
It looked like there had been a battle, but like no battle that Seth had ever heard of. Something had sent the floor tiles whirling like leaves, so that the remaining shards lay in piles. The tapestries had been scorched, shredded to tatters, spattered by blood, until whatever image they had held was long forgotten. The very walls had been torn asunder, huge sections pulled free to leave gaping holes, exposing the inner rooms where furniture and household items had been scattered by the storm. Most of the globes which had lit the corridor were gone, along with chunks of the ceiling; bits of shattered glass were everywhere. Those that were left flickered and flashed uncertainly, giving any movement they illuminated a disturbing choppiness. Bodies and parts of bodies lay strewn about, many still smoldering. Blood covered everything, some a bright red and some a congealed black, clearly differentiating between human, whether Necromancer or Dominus, and Soulless. Many of them were so badly damaged that he couldn’t tell whether they were male or female, and only the occasional scrap of black cloth indicated a Dominus. Aulus stepped over rubble and bodies, undeterred. Following the trail of blood? Seth and Micah followed, along with the five guardsmen who remained. The Dominus who had come with them showed no more hesitation than Aulus. The blood doesn’t bother them, but this Kulsin does.
Once they were past the terrible destruction of the first hundred yards, the bodies became sparser. They had passed the battleground. Aulus paused in front of a door sagging from one hinge, in front of which lay the bodies of four Necromancers. Aulus stepped to the doorway, and Seth followed him.
They had found some of the children. Six girls, all in one corner of the room, lying in a heap like discarded dolls. None of them could be more than five years old. They lay fallen where they had knelt in fear, eyes wide and mouths gaping, faces a pale white while blood trickled from nostrils, mouths, ears, and eyes to mingle with the tears on their cheeks. Aulus turned to go, but Seth stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.
“You said the children would not be hurt,” he said, the words empty of emotion. He felt hollow inside.
“I didn’t hurt them,” Aulus answered, trying to brush Seth’s hand aside, but he only tightened his grip.
“But someone did. This Dominus friend of yours, this Kulsin.” Seth clenched his other hand to keep it from trembling, or from going for his sword.
“Kulsin is no friend of mine!”
“Does it matter?” asked Micah, who was looking over Seth’s shoulder into the room. “You were the one who found this place, you told the other Domini. If word got to this Kulsin, it’s ultimately because of you.”
“You can blame me if you wish, Captain, Guardsman,” Aulus said. “I did not kill these children, and they would not have been hurt at all if I had not been betrayed to Kulsin.”
“And what would you have done with them, Principius?” a new voice asked. Seth and Micah spun around, nearly colliding with one another in the process. A Dominus stood behind them, but he was not the one who had come with them. Behind him stood another Dominus, upon whom leaned a haggard-looking Nathan. Seth was surprised to see him still alive, but he wasn’t sure how happy he was about it at the moment.
“Kulsin,” Aulus said.
“I told Rodun not to let you in, Principius,” said the lead Dominus. “But I suppose I shouldn’ be surprised by insubordination from you.” He looked at Seth and the others from the City Guard. “And you brought guardsmen. You know outsiders cannot be involved in Order business. They shouldn’ be here.”
“Why did you kill them, Kulsin? We could have —”
“Could have what? Did you plan to just let them return home?”
“No.” At Aulus’s word, Seth looked at him in surprise. He had thought the plan was exactly that. “We would have taken them with us.”
“That’s foolish, Principius. As foolish as bringin’ these —”
“Eän damn you, you lied to me!” Seth said, ignoring Kulsin as he turned on Aulus. “You told me you were going to free them.”
“I never told you that,” Aulus said. “I said I’d spare them, but letting them return to their homes wasn’t an option, not after the Necromancers had taught them magic.”
“So you’d save them from the Necromancers by taking them yourself? What made me think you’re any different from the Necromancers? Or him?” Seth jerked his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of Kulsin. “I suppose stealing children is all you Domini know how to do. That and killing them!”
“Seth…” Aulus began, and then stopped. Seth couldn’t see his face, but he could see his shoulders straighten beneath the robe. “I think it’s time for you and the guardsmen to leave. You’ve done all you can here.”
“They cannot leave!” Kulsin said loudly, his voice quivering with an anger much more tightly controlled than Seth’s. He did not seem to enjoy being ignored.
Seth continued to do so. “I’m not leaving until you explain yourself to me, Aulus. Or you, Nathan. What do you have to say?”
Nathan, still hanging onto the Dominus who supported him, looked up. His eyes were wide and bewildered. He opened his mouth, a word forming for just a moment, then closed it and hung his head. There would be no answers from him.
Micah, who had been silent throughout the exchange, started to speak, but before he could say anything, lightning flashed between him and Kulsin. The captain jerked spasmodically, his body performing a clumsy pirouette, and then fell as the lightning released him. Seth looked from his fallen captain to Kulsin, and his hand went for his sword, but he wasn’t faster than the bolt of energy. It shot toward him, then inexplicably scattered off the air in front of him as an unseen force pushed him toward the other guardsmen, sending him tripping over the body of his captain.
“I told you to leave,” Aulus shouted as the roar of the lightning died down. “Now run, if you value your life! All of you!”
“You shouldn’ have brought them here,” Kulsin said. “Outsiders cannot witness the Order’s business.”
Seth was already on his feet, his sword out. Aulus stood between him and Kulsin, lightning once again bouncing off the same barrier that had stopped Kulsin’s attack on Seth. The other Domini stood watching, hesitant to take sides. If Kulsin won, they would no doubt kill Seth and all the other guardsmen. If Aulus won… well, they might kill Aulus first, then Seth and the guardsmen. Kulsin clearly had authority here. Seth sheathed his sword and crouched to put his hand to his captain’s throat. The staring eyes said he was dead as clearly as the missing heartbeat. Seth stood up. Knowing he couldn’t waste any more time, and that anything else he might do would be futile, Seth turned away from Aulus and the other Domini and started to run. The other guardsmen, the two who weren’t running already, followed his cue. The Domini remained behind.
Nathan watched in horror as Kulsin’s fireball splashed off of Aulus’s shield, setting a nearby tapestry ablaze. Both Domini had let the obscuring illusions that hid their faces drop as they focused on fighting one another, and while Kulsin looked furious, Aulus just looked determined. Nathan still sagged against one of Kulsin’s minions — he thought it was Marcus Tiglio, but it was hard to tell as Nathan hadn’t heard him speak — feeling weak and dizzy and slow-witted, trying to figure out some way to stop this madness. Neither Marcus nor the Dominus who had come with Aulus showed any interest in doing so. They stood well back of the conflict, lest either Kulsin or Aulus turn on them. “Stop!” Nathan tried to shout the word, but it came out as more of a croak. “What, what about the Necromancers?”
Kulsin paused in his assault on Aulus to look at him, his eyes bulging with an intensity that could only be called madness. “We’ve broken them. I have teams searchin’ for any survivors, but I don’ think they’ll be any trouble. Principius, on the other hand…” He turned back, and this time it was a stream of fire that poured into the shield. Aulus grunted, but his shield held. “You’ve compromised the Order, and now you’re thwartin’ a Senator who is carryin’ out its will. I’ll take you back as a renegade, if you survive.”
Aulus returned his glare. “And I’ll go willingly,” he said. Aulus hadn’t used a single offensive Circuit, merely a shield to withstand the assault and prevent Kulsin from pursuing the guardsmen. “But I won’t let you harm any more innocents. You claim to be carrying out the will of the Order, but you didn’t come here with an edict from the Senate, did you? Just whatever friends you could gather. You may outrank me, but eventually we’ll both have to stand before the Senate, and they’ll say who’s right. Just how much do you think you can get away with?”
For just a moment, Kulsin’s eyes narrowed and he frowned, and Nathan thought he would back down. But then Kulsin spoke, and a chill ran down Nathan’s spine. “You’re right, I do outrank you, and as the sole Senator here, responsibility falls to me. Do you really think the Senate will question my decisions here? You’re dead, Principius, killed by your own principles, and it won’ be lon’ before everyone sees it.”
Nathan shivered. He was trying to figure out whether it was the threat in Kulsin’s eyes or the chill air which caused him to do so, when he realized it was neither. The chill came from inside, like an icicle impaling his chest, a sensation so physical that he lifted a hand to his breastbone to feel for the ice. Aulus and Kulsin both looked around, apparently feeling the same thing and searching for the source, but Nathan knew. He didn’t know how a sensation he’d never felt before could seem so familiar, or how he could understand its meaning so instinctively, but he did. Nathan straightened up, trying to get their attention, and he felt a weight slap against his chest. That thing they had placed around his neck was still there. He could feel the chain now that he thought about it, but there were more urgent matters to worry about. “Wraiths!” he managed in a hoarse whisper. They were coming.
Continued in Chapter VI