Black Gate Online Fiction: “A Phoenix in Darkness” — Part II, continued

Black Gate Online Fiction: “A Phoenix in Darkness” — Part II, continued

Return to Chapter III

Chapter IV: The Necromancers

A faint whiff of something acrid made Seth’s nose twitch. He followed behind the two Domini, holding his longsword close to his body so as not to cut the two men in front of him. His weapon had a long blade and an extended hilt designed to accommodate two hands. But what good would a sword do against magic? Though he did not trust the Domini’s power, their reluctance to use it here made him nervous. Would they expect him to fight whatever they encountered? If it was more of those strange, empty-eyed people whom the Domini said were dead, he thought he might be good enough to deal with one of them. That first one had moved with more speed and precision than Seth had ever encountered before, but he had his sword and armor this time. If they ran into any of these Necromancers whose magic worried the Domini, however, Seth could do nothing about them, and he hoped the Domini’s reluctance to use magic would not extend to that situation.

Seth could barely make out the outlines of the two men in front of him. Aulus led the way with Nathan just behind. Both were Domini. He found himself grinding his teeth every time he thought about it. They had promised, though; they had said that Jesse would not be taken. He thought he could believe them, since he had given his word to help no matter which way things went. Seth grudgingly admitted that it was a clever move, perhaps too clever. It would make the denial believable, even if it were false. They had to know that he would be more cooperative if he thought his little brother was safe, thus they still had reason to lie. But they had both said it, and while he couldn’t always tell when people were lying to him, he could usually pick up on when people were conspiring to lie. They had had no chance to work it out in advance, not when they hadn’t known what he was going to ask of them. But what if they had conspired, communicating in some way he couldn’t see, some magic way? He was being paranoid, but was he being paranoid enough? Here he was in this dark, cold place with two people he couldn’t trust, who were telling him that there were Necromancers practicing some kind of death magic here. A trickle of sweat crept down the small of his back, and Seth shifted his grip on his sword.

The light was gradually growing brighter, so that Seth could begin to make out enough of his companions to see where to aim a sword thrust. He kept his murderous thoughts in check. If these Necromancers were real, then it would require the Domini to do something about them. And Eän help him, he didn’t want to be down here alone.

The corridor opened into a wide, circular room, the smooth, polished stone of the walls gleaming from the light that hung from the ceiling on a chain. It was like no lamp that Seth had ever seen; it appeared to be a sphere filled with an steady, harsh white light, not unlike the glowing spheres that had been floating near the Domini. Someone moved across the wide floor with a sluggish limp.

“Ah, I thought so,” said Aulus.

Nathan was staring at the limping figure. “Why’d you think so?”

“Its Circuit is much stronger than what we saw in Seth’s attacker. We could never have detected something that small from so far away.”

It took Seth a moment to realize what he was looking at. It looked like a man, once tall but now hunched over, hobbling away from them across the tiled floor, and he wondered whether it was a Necromancer. The Domini didn’t sound concerned enough for that, though. The man wore dark pants and a black, short-sleeved shirt, leaving pale skin visible. Unnaturally pale, even for someone who lived in this darkness. Patches of it showed through where clumps of his limp black hair had fallen out. His hands hung slack at his sides, and his feet dragged forward step by lurching step. His whole mode of movement hinted at some terrible deformity hidden just beneath the skin. Then he turned, taking a sharp right, and Seth could see his face in profile. The mouth was sewn shut, and the wide-open, glassy eyes stared straight ahead. Dead eyes in a dead man. Seth could see signs of putrescence: some of the flesh on his face had fallen away to reveal jawbone and rotting teeth underneath. The acrid odor he had noticed before came from this man, a smell just strong enough to cover the rot.

Seth tightened his grip on his sword until he thought he could feel the hilt deforming in his hand. “What the Shol is that? We should kill it.” He made no motion to suit action to words.

“It’s already dead,” said Aulus.

“That’s what you said about that man yesterday,” Seth replied.

“Well this one’s deader,” Aulus snapped.

“Rather than, uh, arguing about how dead he is, if it’s already seen us, Seth is right and we should kill it and hope the Necromancers don’t notice,” said Nathan.

“I don’t think it’s even aware of us,” Aulus said. “Destroying it is more likely to attract attention than letting it go on its way while we go around it. I don’t think it will notice us as long as we keep our distance.” Aulus started to circle around the creature, keeping near the wall on his right. Nathan followed, then finally Seth, whose eyes remain locked on the creature as his cramping hands shifted their grip on his sword’s hilt.

“What is that thing?” Seth asked Nathan as they reached a quarter of the way around the large room.

Nathan gestured for him to keep quiet. Seth grimaced, but complied. They had gone at least a hundred feet to get this far. After another twenty feet they reached a corridor branching off the room, and they rushed into the safety of the corridor’s shadows, then stopped to take their bearings. Nathan whispered to Seth, “To answer your question, that thing is a, um, a corpse animated by magic. We call it a Soulless.”

Seth shivered at the chill running down his spine. To bring a man back to that sort of life was an affront to man and Eän.

“How is it different from the man who tried to kill me yesterday?”

“That one was very odd, something we’d, uh, never even heard of before. His body was alive, but his mind was dead. With this one, the body is dead as well. It’s not blood flowing through his veins, it’s magic. The body just provides a structure for the magic to, to animate.”

“Let’s get going,” Aulus said, and started down the corridor. Seth hadn’t noticed at first, but this hallway was different from the mine tunnels they had followed to get here. The walls were smooth and polished, and it had a vaulted ceiling, curving upward to a point hidden in the shadows. Seth could just make out more glass balls, like the one that illuminated the previous room but dark, nestled in the ceiling’s shadows. Fortunately, enough light leaked into the hallway from both directions that they could find their way. Their hallway terminated perpendicular to another corridor, this one brightly lit by the unnatural light sources. Aulus looked one way, then the other, while Nathan hovered at his shoulder.

“I don’t, don’t like this,” Nathan said. “If someone enters this corridor, we’ll be spotted in a moment.”

Aulus smiled grimly, “We could pretend we’re Soulless.”

Nathan shook his head. “This isn’t funny Aulus. We’ve, ah, we’ve seen enough to know that someone down here is practicing Necromancy. How far do you intend to go?”

“We still have no idea how many there are, or even who they are. We should look around a bit more, get an idea of the extent of this place and who’s down here. Besides, as long as we keep an eye out for magic, we can spot any Necromancers before we run into them.”

“If you can see them, can’t they see you?” Seth asked.

“They certainly can,” Aulus said.

“What?” Seth said, tightening his grip on his sword and reconsidering his decision to accompany these two madmen.

“They can’t if we hold still,” Nathan said. “The Essence — that’s the, um, stuff that magic is made of — we can see it when it moves, even through walls. So can they. When we move, it moves with us, but if we hold, hold still, it hardly moves at all.”

“Hardly at all,” he muttered. “But when you do move, they can see you clear as day, no matter how well you hide.”

“True,” Aulus said. “However, they can’t tell that we’re Domini, while we can be pretty sure that anyone we see moving around down here is a Necromancer.” Not waiting for any more questions, Aulus stepped into the corridor, and Nathan followed with Seth at his heels.

A glowing sphere appeared every twenty feet as they traveled deeper into the hidden lair. The polished gray walls gleamed with the light; the corridors here were tiled in black, white, and shades of gray. They didn’t come across a single wooden support shoring up the walls, like in the mine tunnels they had traveled to get here. Seth wondered whether that had something to do with the shape of these hallways, similar to the vault of the Temple’s hall. They passed another corridor, this one unlit, and several closed doors, solidly made of heavy wood, but Aulus kept on the path they were on. This hallway looked to go a long ways, but it curved slightly, so they couldn’t see more than a hundred feet or so ahead. They hadn’t gotten far when they came across a surprisingly pastoral tapestry, displaying rolling hills, a forest, and a castle in the distance. Seth frowned at it. “It’s not what I would expect from Necromancers.”

“What would you expect?” Aulus asked. “Rotting corpses? I doubt even Necromancers enjoy staring at such things.”

“I suppose so,” Seth said, reaching out to touch the tapestry. “It’s just —” He pushed the cloth back, and it molded against the contours of something protruding from the wall. “There’s something behind it.”

“Careful,” Aulus said, pulling back Seth’s arm. “Let me check.” He stared at the tapestry for a few moments, then closed his eyes and stood there a few more. Then he opened his eyes and reached out to pull the tapestry aside and reveal a door.

“A, a hidden door?” Nathan asked.

“A non-obvious door,” Aulus corrected. “It’s not very well hidden.” He reached down and tried the latch. “It’s locked. I don’t see any wards on it, do you?”

“No,” Nathan said. “Maybe we should leave it alone.”

“I want to see why they put a tapestry in front of it,” Aulus said. “The lock’s really complex, but I should be able to get past it. Just keep an eye out.”

Aulus stood there, staring at the lock, while Nathan’s head swiveled back and forth, peering at the walls on either side of the tapestry as if he could see through them. Seth realized that if what they told him was true, he could do just that. Even so, Seth was the first one to hear the sharp click-clack of hard-soled shoes on the tile floor. “Someone’s coming,” he said.

Nathan turned toward the darkened hallway they had just passed, where they saw a glimmer of light brighten the wall. “Hurry up, Aulus!” he hissed.

“Almost… almost…” Aulus muttered.

Voices — women’s voices — echoed down the hall. A globe of light, similar to the ones which Aulus and Nathan had summoned earlier, glided into the hall, only to vanish a moment later. Seth could see a shadow against the wall by the time a loud click followed by Aulus’s whispered “Got it!” came from behind.

Nathan followed Aulus into the room, and Seth backed in after them, letting the tapestry fall back in place and trying to still its motion with his hand. It was dark in the room, only a little light making it around the edges of the tapestry. Seth wished they could close the door, but the noise would only attract the attention of whoever was out there.

The footsteps grew louder, and in moments they were just on the other side of the tapestry. Seth shifted uncomfortably, causing his armor to jangle.

“Did you hear something?” said a voice directly on the other side of the tapestry. It was definitely a woman’s voice. Was this a Necromancer?

“No,” another voice said, as both sets of footsteps came to a halt. It was another woman, and she sounded young, maybe not fully grown. Aulus and Nathan had said nothing about the Necromancers being women. “What did you hear?”

“I’m not sure. It sounded like metal.”

“It’s probably one of the Soulless.” There was a pause, and Seth sensed the Domini going very, very still behind him. He remembered what the Domini had said about only being visible to magical sight when they moved, but didn’t know whether that applied to him as well. He did his best to mimic them, just in case.

For several moments they stood there in tense stillness, not daring to breathe, while they awaited the verdict from the Necromancers. “Yeah, I can see a few Soulless nearby, doing whatever they were last told,” the younger voice said. “Come on. If we don’t hurry, we’re going to be late.”

The footsteps resumed, and as the sound faded, Seth let out a breath that didn’t sound half as relieved as those coming behind him. Seth fumbled for the door’s latch in the darkness until he found it and pulled the door closed.

A light filled the room, causing Seth to jump with a jingling of metal. He turned around, but all thoughts of berating the Domini were forgotten when he finally got a clear view of the chamber in which they’d hidden. The room was white: white walls, white ceiling, white tiled floor, and a white sheet covering the pale, pale body lying on the table at the center. It was a woman with long dark hair, only her head and bare shoulders left uncovered by the sheet. A tube as big around as Seth’s thumb, made of some black substance, emerged from her mouth to crawl its way up to the bottom of some glass cylinder filled with dark liquid, resting on a pedestal beside the table. Other, smaller tubes snaked beneath the sheet covering her, connecting her body with other glass containers set both on the pedestal above and on the floor below the table, each filled with a different pigment of bilious liquid. The black lines were clearly visible through the cloth as they indecently twined her body. It took Seth a moment to realize that she was young and pretty beneath the gruesome tubes and her deathly paleness. It was even longer before he saw her breast rise and fall with her breath.

“Eän have mercy, she’s still alive,” he exclaimed. “What is this?”

Nathan looked just as shocked and pale as Seth felt, but Aulus was looking around the chamber, his face a grim mask. There were gleaming metal benches along the walls, covered with implements Seth did not recognize, though many of them were sharp and pointed. Racks of vials and bottles covered one bench, each filled with a powder or a liquid and labeled with some sort of silvery ink. Another had large glass jars each containing a stolen body part submersed in liquid. He saw an eye, a hand, what looked like an infant that had been torn prematurely from its mother’s womb, and other things he did not recognize. Shelves above a third bench contained albums of bound parchment, one of which lay open on the bench top beside an inkwell.

“Nathan, is she really alive?” Aulus said over his shoulder as he went straight to the open book.

“Huh?” Nathan said, starting to move again. “Let, let me see.” He went over to the body and leaned over her, studying her face. Seth followed him, reaching past the Dominus to place his fingertips on her throat, where he felt a steady heartbeat to match her breathing.

“She’s definitely alive,” said Seth, at the same time Nathan said, “She’s definitely dead.”

Aulus turned a page in the book without speaking.

“How can she be dead?” Seth asked. “She’s breathing, she has a heartbeat.”

“But there’s no, ah, activity in her mind, just a Circuit to keep things running. Even unconscious, there should be some glimmer in the Essence,” Nathan said. “I, I think her soul’s gone. All this” — he gestured at the tubing and the containers — “is just to keep her body going without it.”

“But why would anyone do that?”

“To make her into a Soulless,” Aulus answered, as he flipped another page. “This is a logbook of what they’ve been doing in this… workshop. It’s hard to make sense of, but the most recent entry seems to say that they removed that woman’s soul and are keeping her going for when they install her complete… Mandate, is the term it uses.” He started flipping further back in the book.

“What are you, uh, looking for?” Nathan asked.

“Remember how this started? I’m looking to see… Aha,” he stopped flipping pages and started reading. “There’s no name, but it was four days ago, a female being prepared for… for… Why can’t they just spell out assassination?”

“What is it? What did you find?”

“Lilah. I think.”

“They did this to her?” Seth said, gesturing to the body on the table. “I thought you said she was a Necromancer.”

“We never said that,” Aulus said, not looking up from the logbook. “I believe they brought her down here, removed her soul, and sent her to kill Mowa.”


“Mowa. The Dominus who was murdered.”

“We should take that book with us and get out of here,” Nathan said.

“Yes, yes we should,” Aulus said, closing the logbook and stuffing it somewhere in his clothes. “But we can’t leave yet.”

“Why not?” Seth said.

“We still don’t know enough of who’s down here. We haven’t seen anything but Soulless and this…” He waved his hand at the woman on the table. “I want to know what we’re really dealing with. Who were those women in the hall? Come on.”

Nathan and Seth exchanged worried looks, but followed Aulus.

“What about her?” Seth asked as Aulus opened the door.

“There’s not much we can do,” Aulus said. “It’s better to just leave her.”

They crept back into the hallway and continued down it. Three times Aulus and Nathan moved them off the corridor before some shuffling monstrosity walked past; the Domini were aware of their approach well before they became visible. The three of them were able to spy on the creatures as they passed, most often alone, once as a group of five each carrying large sacks. Seth’s mouth went dry each time he saw the creatures, looking like lepers with their missing fingers, rotted noses, and decaying lips, looking even worse with their white doughy skin and exposed bones. The sewn mouths twitched as if they were trying to scream or gibber, and occasionally the shambling brutes — most of them had been big men — managed a grunt or a whimper through inadequately sealed lips. On the third such encounter, Seth just leaned against the wall they hid behind and refused to look around the corner with the two Domini, breathing through his mouth and trying not to think about the blasphemy which was passing by.

The next time they heard voices, Aulus raised his hand. Seth listened closely, hearing a loud woman’s voice giving what sounded like a long monologue. He couldn’t make out the words. There was an additional murmuring which he could barely hear.

“I want to get close enough to see this,” Aulus said.

“Aren’t, aren’t you worried that —” Nathan began.

“I think that we can avoid notice if we’re careful.” Aulus pointed down a darkened side corridor. “It’s that way.”

Seth followed them, still wondering what they were headed toward. Was he finally going to get a glimpse of these Necromancers? They took a twisting path through some side corridors, some lit, some not. The muffled monologue continued, along with that odd undercurrent… high pitched, uneven, punctuated by quick staccatos of sound and… was that laughter? It sounded like children: too serious to be playing, but still at ease.

Seth noticed that the two Domini moved more and more slowly as they approached the voices, until Aulus came to a stop before a closed wooden door. Light seeped into the dark hallway from underneath. Aulus pressed his ear to the door and didn’t move for a while, his eyes growing unfocused, then pulled back with a grunt to whisper to Nathan and Seth, “I think this is a side entrance. We should be able to spy on them without being noticed.” Nathan opened his mouth to reply, but Aulus didn’t wait before placing his right hand on the latch, gently pressing it and pulling the door open the barest inch. For all that effort, he seemed reluctant to look inside, so Seth quietly lay his sword down and leaned forward to take the first look.

He couldn’t see the front of the room, where the lecturing voice continued to drone on, but he could see the children. They were young girls, perhaps a dozen of them aged somewhere between eight and ten, and dressed in identical gray dresses which only accentuated the differences between them. Aside from the differences in age, which could be quite noticeable for that range, Seth recognized the dark hair and the broad features of the working class in most of them, the honey-colored hair and tall, willowy body only found in certain noble families, and even one girl whose dark brown skin marked her ancestry as from the Daurens region of the Novar Empire. The girls were the only living people he could see — the others were dead. Corpses lay on low tables around the room, each with two or three of the girls gathered around it. They were all young men, maybe all peasants from what he could tell, but it was hard to notice their faces when their chests were peeled open to reveal their organs. What Seth couldn’t understand at first, or perhaps didn’t want to understand, was what the girls were doing with the bodies. Even seeing the organs lying on the table and the blood on the hands and dresses of the children wasn’t enough to hammer into him what was happening until he watched one girl, with dark, curly hair and a look of intense concentration on her face, use a knife to saw at a corpse’s chest. She set the knife down, wiped back a lock of her hair to leave a smear of blood at her temple, then reached into the chest cavity with both hands to pull out a heart nearly the size of her head. She gave the girl next to her a dimpled smile, which the other girl returned while making some quip that caused the first one to giggle. Swallowing hard to overcome his nausea, Seth pulled back from the door and leaned against the wall with a clink of armor which caused both Aulus and Nathan to whip their heads in his direction. The voices in the room gave no indication that they had heard anything, however, so Seth started breathing again with a soft curse for his own clumsiness. He picked up his sword as quietly as possible, almost losing his grip with his sweat-slick hands. He could still hear them chattering, joking, and laughing, but quietly, all the while giving half their attention to the speaker whose words Seth could now clearly hear: “If you examine the heart, you’ll find that it has four parts, or chambers. The heart is a large muscle, whose job it is to circulate the blood throughout the body. This vein collects the blood and brings it to the heart, while this…”

Nathan, who had gone to the door after Seth, pulled back looking pale. He shook his head, and Aulus peeked in for just a moment, then silently closed the door. He gestured for Seth and Nathan to follow as he moved away from the door. Once they had gotten a sufficient distance, Seth slumped to the floor, though not too noisily for a man in chain armor. “What… what demon is behind this?”

“Oh, I don’t think you need to invoke demons for this,” Aulus answered. “They’re learning anatomy, that’s all.”

“But-but,” Seth spluttered, and Nathan had to finish for him, “But they’re so cold about it. No, cold isn’t the right word — they’re, um… oblivious, completely oblivious to the fact that those are people they’re cutting up. I know that the Philosophers dissect corpses as part of their training, but even they show some respect for the, the dead.”

Aulus smiled, a cold smile with no amusement in the eyes or voice. “These girls have probably been here since they were two or three, when they were first stolen away from their parents. Living here, underground, in the place where people bury the dead, with Necromancers who study and even animate the dead, I think by now dead bodies bother them very little. Nathan, did you notice that every one of them has the ability?”

“Huh? No, I was too, um, busy…” he gave a shudder that actually caused his teeth to chatter.

“No matter, it proves my theory: they’re training those girls to become Necromancers. I wonder how much magic they’ve learned so far…” A distant look appeared in his eyes.

In annoyance, Seth kicked him in the shin, causing Aulus to turn his way as his brows drew together. “What was that for?” he asked.

“I’m glad you’re happy with the horror we just witnessed, but maybe we should worry about getting out of here before you start fantasizing about those little monsters.”

Aulus’s eyes narrowed, and Seth thought he might have gone too far. He tried to steel himself for the lethal magic he was sure the Dominus would unleash on him. “Don’t trifle with me, guardsman! I find this disturbing too, but those are children, and I refuse to think of them as monsters. Anyway, I don’t think we should go quite yet.”

“Why the Shol not?” Seth asked. Maybe those little girls had been stolen from their parents to be made into Necromancers, but he wasn’t going to try rescuing them now. Even if they would come, he wasn’t sure their parents would want them back.

Nathan said, “Aulus, we’ve definitely seen enough. Why should we stick around?”

“Do you remember why Mowa was killed in the first place, Nathan? He was asking too many questions about a young boy who had disappeared.”

“And you, uh, don’t think they took him to train?”

“It doesn’t fit. They take girls, not boys, probably to avoid drawing the attention of the Order. They take young children so they can grow up accustomed to death and Necromancy like those girls in there, not older kids who already have strong opinions about the world. For whatever reason they took that boy, it’s not to train him, and there’s a good chance he’s in danger.”

“Damn you, Aulus. You’ve been planning this all along, haven’t you? Why didn’t you tell me it was a, a rescue mission? What makes you think he’s still alive, anyway?” Nathan asked. “It’s been, what, a month since he was taken?”

“It’s been less than a month, I think. He may already be dead, but if he’s not, then we need to find him now, while they don’t know we’re here. He stands a better chance this way than if we wait for the Order to come in force.”

Seth just listened. He wasn’t certain, but he thought they must be talking about Abitha’s son, who had gone missing a few weeks ago according to the old gossip, Sarah. He wondered why the Necromancers took him if they were only training girls. If the girls were supposed to become Necromancers, would they make him one of the Soulless? He murmured a prayer for the dead woman in the white room.

Nathan asked a more immediate question, “And I suppose you know how to find him without being discovered?”

“I have an idea,” Aulus said. “We’ll just have to hope that they don’t notice what I’m about to do.”

“Notice what? Aulus, what are you planning?”

“It’s simple. All the Necromancers we’ve seen are women. Aside from us, the boy’s probably the only male in this place — the only living one, anyway, and definitely the only one with the ability. With the right Circuit, I should be able to find him.”

Nathan just stared at him for a moment, while Seth wondered what in Shol they were talking about. Finally, Nathan said, “How — Aulus, I wouldn’t know how to begin to do something like that. It’s, uh, theoretically possible, but even if I knew how, a Circuit which probes this entire maze would alert every magic user for miles. Certainly those inside with the, ah, the least bit of training would know what’s going on.”

Aulus arched an eyebrow. “Do you really think I need to probe these hallways to do it? As long as he’s within our magical sight, it should work.”

“What are you two talking about?” Seth asked.

“Remember how I explained earlier that we can see the Necromancers from a distance, even when there are walls between us, because we can see the magic?” Aulus said.

“Yes, but you couldn’t tell whether they were Necromancers or Domini unless you could see them.”

“Right. Usually we can’t,” Aulus said. “But I’ve been working on something that should allow me to tell whether someone with magical ability is a man or a woman without mundane sight. It’s something that’s useful for… other purposes. I’ll need to use magic to do it, but only a small amount, and I doubt anyone would notice one more bit of magic in a place like this.”

Seth nodded, although he really didn’t understand much beyond that it would make it possible for them to find the missing boy, but the Necromancers might see. Nathan didn’t sound happy about it when he said, “All right, Aulus, I’ll trust you. But if you get us killed…”

Aulus leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes. Meanwhile, Nathan closed his own eyes, although rather than standing still, he scanned in every direction, as if he could see with his eyes shut. Seth, who had decided by now that magic mostly consisted of standing around with your eyes shut and not actually doing a whole lot, kept his eyes open and looked for things he could see, while listening for anything that could be heard with his ears. He was doing his best not to think about those monstrous children.

Only they weren’t monsters, not really. Aulus was right about that. What he’d seen had been hideous, but they were still children with no real sense of right and wrong. It was these Necromancers who were making those little girls into monsters. That those Necromancers were women didn’t disturb him overmuch — while in the Guard, he had encountered many women just as vicious and cruel as their male counterparts. They might be less likely to resort to physical violence, but that didn’t make them any less dangerous. It occurred to him that the Necromancers had once been little girls stolen from their families too, but that did not change his mind. For the Necromancers it was too late, and he wouldn’t hesitate to see them hang, but there was still hope for the children.

“I saw him. He’s close,” Aulus said, his eyes opening. “We should be able to reach him in just a few minutes.”

Nathan opened his eyes as well. “Will we have to deal with, uh, with many Necromancers?”

Aulus shrugged. “I’m not certain how many Necromancers there are in the first place. Doesn’t this place seem empty to you? It wouldn’t take that many Domini to clear this place out.”

“And the Soulless? There seem to be plenty of, of those. Granted, any Dominus could deal with a few Undead guards, but an army of them might be a bit much. And what, what about wraiths? If we ran into any of those…”

“I haven’t sensed any wraiths, have you? As for the Soulless, you don’t need Domini to destroy them,” Aulus said. “But let’s worry about that later. Right now, we should find the boy.”

Aulus took the lead, heading down yet more darkened corridors. Seth stayed close behind, while Nathan tailed them both. Although they had to backtrack once or twice to find the correct corridor, Aulus had a clear sense of where they needed to go. It was like their journey in the mine, but more nerve-wracking. Seth kept expecting to turn a corner and come face-to-face with a Soulless, or for a door to open up and a Necromancer to step out. For that matter, Seth wasn’t sure what they would do if they ran across one of the little girls and she ran for help. Fortunately, they avoided contact with anyone, and a few minutes later, Aulus gestured for them to stop. They were in a dark corridor looking at a lit one just a few feet ahead. Seth held himself very still, sinking into the shadows. He could hear the voices of two women in what sounded like casual conversation. Considering what he’d seen, he didn’t want to think about what these witches considered casual conversation.

“I think he’s being guarded,” Aulus said quietly.

“What are we supposed to do now?” Nathan whispered back.

“We can probably take them out if we’re quick.”

“But what if the others sense us?”

“There’s magic all around us, Nathan,” Aulus said. “I’m beginning to think they won’t notice a bit more.”

“All right, let’s, uh, let’s do this.”

The two Domini crowded close to the corner. Seth couldn’t be certain, with the odd way sound seemed to travel in these corridors, but he thought the Necromancers were just on the other side. His arms were beginning to tire from holding his sword on guard for so long, but he was prepared in case the Domini fell. He just wasn’t certain whether he’d fight or run. The more he thought about what they faced, the more the Necromancers frightened him.

Seth lost sight of the Domini as they stepped around the corner. The eavesdropped conversation had barely ceased before he heard two thumps, followed by silence. The sound of his own heartbeat was the only thing he heard for a long moment. Even his breathing had stopped. A shadow blacked out the opening, and Seth took a step back before he realized it was Nathan. “Come on,” the Dominus hissed, and went back around the corner with Seth on his heels. Aulus was facing a closed door, an intent expression on his face, while two women in gray dresses lay at his feet. One looked round and homey while the other was sharp-featured, but both had very pale skin from years of living deep underground.

Nathan looked at the women. “That was, um, was easier than I thought it’d be, Aulus,” he said. “No competent Dominus would be that easy to take out, even surprised.”

“They’re not weak in magic,” Aulus said distractedly. “And we’ve seen how sophisticated their work can be. My guess is that they train in different things than we do. They learn about manipulating and cheating death, while we learn to fight magic with magic. Like I said before, it wouldn’t take that many Domini to deal with this cult.” He lay his hand on the door and just stood still for a minute before there was an audible click and the door came open. The moment it did both Aulus and Nathan jumped. “Damn! I missed the ward they put on it.”

And just after telling yourself how much better at magic you are than these Necromancers, Seth thought. Pride causes man to stumble. It would have been funny if it wasn’t likely to kill them.

Instead of running, Aulus pushed past the door. Seth looked at Nathan in confusion, but he seemed to be trying to look in all directions at once. Seth went through the door after Aulus, into a small room, maybe ten feet on a side, with stone walls painted white, a small bed, a chair, and what smelled like a chamber pot. A boy of perhaps ten with tousled dark hair and a ruddy face was standing near the bed and looking at Aulus with wide eyes. The Dominus grabbed hold of his arm and tried to pull him along, talking fast and mixing supposedly encouraging words with curses in a way that clearly frightened the boy even further. Seth strode forward and pulled Aulus away from him.

“Let me,” he said, turning to face the boy. “Hello, lad, I’m Seth. As you can see, I’m a guardsman.” He pointed at the crimson hawk on his tabard. “What’s your name?”


“Hi Daniel. I’ve come to get you out of here. To do that, I need you to trust me, and I need you to be brave. Can you do that?”

“Y-yes,” he said. “I c — I’ll try.”

“Good.” So will I. “Now take my hand and let’s get going.”

Daniel took Seth’s left hand — his right hand still held his sword — just as shouting came from the corridor. Light flashed and a crackling roar filled Seth’s ears as he felt his hair stand on end. Aulus, who had been watching the interaction between the boy and the guardsman, ran back through the door. Seth and Daniel followed more slowly, the boy snuffling in an attempt not to cry. Seth didn’t think he was very far from doing so himself. Nathan stood in the middle of the hallway, his hand pointing toward two dead Necromancers who lay in smoking, blackened heaps not far from their still living sisters. Nathan shook his head as he lowered his arm. “There wasn’t time for less, uh, for less deadly means,” he said. “Is that the boy? We should go.”

They hurried back into their darkened corridor, and made it to the next one before they ran into a group of five Soulless. These were the obviously dead kind, skin sloughing off in places and putrid muscles twitching beneath, sunken eyes over sewn mouths whose decaying lips revealed yellow, rotting teeth. The Soulless sensed the four of them immediately. Two held knives, one had a hammer, while the other two had nothing but bare hands, or in the case of the last one, a hand and a stump with a jagged piece of bone jutting out. They came at the group at a lurching run, moving faster than their stumbling steps suggested. Nathan raised his arm and lightning arced between his hand and the walking corpses, jumping from body to body, sending them jerking and spinning, blackening flesh and charring bone. The stench of burned flesh joined the scents of rot and tart preservative already in the air. Three of them fell before the onslaught but two others kept coming.

Seth pushed the boy behind him and stepped forward even as Nathan’s lightning died, the roar still in his ears and his eyes still dazzled by its brilliance. His training, his anger, and a strange eagerness to destroy these abominations pushed aside the stomach-clenching fear and disgust they caused in him. He held his sword in middle guard, hilt low and point high and forward, as the first Soulless came within reach, just a knife in its hand. Seth cut low, separating foot from leg, and the creature stumbled and fell. His sword ended in the back guard, nearly parallel with his right leg which stretched out behind him, but it didn’t stay there as he whipped it around, over his head and slashing from left to right to open up the throat of the other corpse. Thick, black liquid oozed from the wound, liquid that neither looked nor flowed like blood, but the corpse didn’t even slow, stabbing with the bone jutting from its stump. Seth’s second stroke separated that bone from its body, and his third removed the head. Only then did it collapse. Seth saw that the first corpse he had attacked had managed to come to its remaining foot, one hand supporting it by resting on the wall, the other holding its knife at the ready. A sword-stroke removed the knife along with a few fingers, while another dug deep into the neck, but didn’t go all the way through. Seth grunted, trying to pull his sword free while the corpse’s remaining fingers reached for his throat. Beheadings in combat were practically unheard of, so he shouldn’t have expected it to work twice. The other’s head must not have been firmly attached. Planting his foot on the Soulless’s stomach, Seth pushed him back, and the corpse fell, its limbs flailing. He held his sword ready, uncertain what would permanently kill this thing. He checked to make sure that the one he had beheaded had stopped moving for good. That one was still, but a jerking movement drew his eyes to the ones who had fallen at Nathan’s lightning. One was halfway to its feet, while the others were stirring.

“Can’t you two help?” he shouted over his shoulder to the two Domini, who were apparently just enjoying the blood sport.

“We are helping!” Aulus yelled.

The one who was nearly to its feet held a large hammer in both hands. Half its face was missing, with blackened, smoking skull showing underneath, testament to Nathan’s lightning bolt. Seth backed up, figuring that the Soulless with the hammer could reach him before the one he had knocked over found enough limbs on which to hobble, but even as the hammer-wielding corpse straightened up, all the muscles in its body went slack and it collapsed again. His eyes went to the other two, whose limbs flailed, but some invisible force seemed to hold them down. Seth stepped forward to deal with his earlier opponent, who had managed to sit up now. Forgetting good form, he took aim and swung with all the force he could muster at the thing’s neck. This time his sword went through, the head toppled to the ground, and the creature went limp.

“Why can’t you two just magically kill these damned things?” Seth asked.

“We’re trying,” Aulus grunted. “The magic which holds them together is more durable than it looks.”

“Their bodies are strong, too,” Nathan said. “I can barely hold these two down at once. Uh, forget, forget killing them, Aulus. Let’s just get going. I can hold them long enough for us to get past.”

“All right,” Aulus said. He went to the boy, who was now crouched on the floor sobbing. He moaned when Aulus touched his shoulder. “Seth? Can you…?”

Seth walked over to the Daniel, placed his hand on his back. “Come on, Daniel,” he said softly. “We need to go now.” The boy’s sobs didn’t lessen and he didn’t get up.

“We don’t have time for this,” Aulus said. “Just carry him.”

“Why don’t you carry him?” Seth asked.

“I need my hands free to deal with anyone we might encounter.”

“And if I’m carrying the boy, who’s going to use this?” Seth said, lifting his sword, which was smeared with black ichor.

“I will,” Nathan answered, plucking it from his hand. “Now just grab the boy and let’s go.”

Seth picked up Daniel and slung him over his shoulder. The four of them then picked their way past the two floundering corpses. Seth jumped and nearly fell over when one of them wrapped a hand around his ankle. He managed to pull free without too much difficulty, however, and he kept his distance from the other Soulless. The four of them somehow found their way back to the main corridor without any more encounters. All three adults peered up and down the hallway, wondering how they were going to make it back to the entrance alive.

“There’s bound to be a, um, another way to the exit,” Nathan said.

“I’m sure there is, but what do you think our chances are of finding it before they find us?” Aulus asked.

“Perhaps we should just run for it,” Seth said. “I don’t remember it being that far.”

Both Aulus and Nathan looked at him, then gave identical shrugs. “It’s the best idea we have at the moment,” Nathan said. “No sense in delaying.” He turned the corner and started running down the corridor towards the entrance, Aulus hurrying after.

Seth started out at a decent pace, but between the armor and the boy, he was quickly winded. After the first minute, his breath was coming out in gasps, and his vision began to blur. His lungs burned, and he had a stitch in his side which demanded attention. Still he ran, keeping his eyes focused on Aulus’s heels, thinking only of putting one foot in front of the other. There was a shout up ahead, a bright orange glow and a hot wind. Seth looked up to see two flaming bodies falling as a sheet of fire evaporated. Nathan and Aulus hadn’t stopped running, and already there were ten more feet between Seth and Aulus than a moment ago. Seth pumped his legs harder to catch up, the dead Necromancers unable to keep his attention for long.

He couldn’t seem to fill his lungs anymore when Nathan and Aulus finally slowed. They too were breathing heavily, but they didn’t allow themselves to drop below a fast walk.

“Here,” said Nathan. “This is the, uh, corridor we came down.”

Aulus nodded. “I think you’re right.”

The two turned into a side corridor which looked no different from any of the others, but Seth didn’t have the breath to question them. A small sphere of light appeared beside Nathan. “Not much farther,” he said, sword held in both hands as if cutting the darkness in front of him. He was holding it properly, at least.

The corridor seemed shorter than Seth remembered, quickly opening up to the large circular room. The single walking corpse who had occupied this room before was now gone, so they hurried toward the exit. They were about halfway there, not bothering to hug the wall this time, when at least a score of Soulless spilled out of the darkened corridor ahead to stand between them and the way out.

Nathan ran for the wall, eager to place his back against it. It took him a moment to realize Aulus and Seth weren’t with him. Seth just stood there stupidly, the boy over his shoulder looking as if he were asleep… or dead. Aulus stood by his side, working magic. The first Soulless to reach them bounced off an invisible barrier. It didn’t give up — it continued reaching for Aulus and the others, its hands pounding on the unseen wall. Nathan started heading back in their direction, and nearly had his eye gouged out as one of the corpses made a swipe at him. He swung Seth’s sword as he’d been trained. While the Order didn’t train the Domini in swordsmanship, many, including Nathan and Aulus, learned the sword as a sport. Nathan knew that he wasn’t a true swordsman, but he was good enough to be dangerous to these things. Following Seth’s example, he took off the creature’s lower leg, causing it to fall. Magic followed steel, and he sent lightning dancing among his opponents. It couldn’t kill these things, but the spasms it produced at least knocked a few of them down. Then steel followed magic, hacking at those creatures still standing. The dead creatures disturbed Nathan more than the Necromancers did. He had trained to use magic to fight magic, so he could handle the Necromancers. The Soulless were monstrosities, a mockery of the Resurrection in which he’d been taught to believe while growing up. The sight of them made his heart pound and the hairs at the nape of his neck rise.

He glanced at Aulus, who was now moving slowly, dragging the barrier across the floor toward Nathan. His face was flush with the effort of moving his barrier, no easy task, especially with the Soulless pushing against it with all their strength, but he kept his eyes fixed on his fellow Dominus. He might make it to me, Nathan thought. But we’d never make it to the exit together.

“Aulus!” Nathan shouted. “Run for the exit!” From the look on Aulus’s face, Nathan knew he wasn’t about to give up. Aulus never gave up. Nathan sent his roaring lightning in Aulus’s direction, where it splattered off his barrier, knocking aside corpses as it did so. “Aulus, go! I’ll catch up!”

Even as he said this, something grabbed his ankle, and Nathan went to his knees, a shocking pain shooting up his legs as they hit the stone floor. He felt panic rising in him and he fought to breathe while he swung the sword wildly. His magic, rather than his sword, knocked back all the Soulless who had gotten too close, and he tried to get to his feet, but his ankle was still held and he only made it up to one knee. Nathan shuddered at the feel of cold, spongy flesh against his skin. He looked back to find his leg in the firm grip of a corpse that had already taken a beating, magically and physically. One arm hung onto its torso by the thinnest scrap of ligament, and only steaming sockets remained of its eyes in a face burned and blackened by multiple lightning strikes. He swung his sword despite the awkward angle, and after several attempts, he managed to remove its hand. A hard shove of magic knocked it to the side, and for the first time Nathan noticed that it was, or had been, female. He didn’t have time to dwell on this, as his distraction while removing the dead woman’s grip had given the other corpses a chance to close in, and Nathan had to attack wildly with sword and magic to drive them back before he could come to his feet. One of them had lit up like a torch from Nathan’s attack, but that didn’t even slow it down. He used magic to shove it into his opponents in the hope that its fire would spread. Once he had given himself enough room to breathe, he looked around for Aulus but couldn’t find him. I hope he made it out. He probably gave me up for dead when I went down. He fought down an irrational anger at Aulus. He has Seth and the boy to protect. I can’t expect him to save me too. But why’d he have to take the stupid, crazy risk of coming here in the first place? We should have gone to Kulsin as soon as we found this place!

He surveyed the dead surrounding him, and for the first time he realized that he would probably not survive. He could create a barrier like Aulus’s, but he doubted he could move with it. He wasn’t as strong as Aulus in the first place, and neither his mind nor muscles were still responding with the speed and strength he asked of them. He might be able to hold the Soulless off, perhaps even kill them all, but not before the Necromancers found him. He looked at the bodies with their sewn mouths and empty eyes, their malformed movement, and he felt desperate tears in his eyes. He didn’t want to die, but more than that, he did not want to end up like them. He would rather destroy himself in a way that did not leave enough body for reanimation.

He gathered his magic to do just that when he realized the Soulless, instead of attacking, were falling back, two of them in flames now, leaving behind the five or six that were too damaged to move. Three of them still twitched, trying to join their fellows, but the others lay still in final death. Nathan tried to think, to figure out whether he had heard some command or seen some magic that might explain their actions, but he was too breathless and dizzy to think clearly. Sweat burned his eyes and his lungs ached from harsh breathing which filled his nose and mouth with the smell of rot and harsh chemicals. He blinked again, and realized that a path had opened up, leading away from the exit and toward… a girl?

She had to be a Necromancer. She wore the same gray dress as the others, had the same pale skin. She looked young, her dark hair pulled back from a smooth face to hang in a tail down her back, but she moved like an old woman. Her steps forward were slow and faltering, and when she moved her arm, it lifted only halfway before it started to fall, only to halt and start rising again. She opened her mouth, and while only half her face moved in response, the words were clear. “What are you doing here?”

Nathan felt a moment’s pity that he could ill afford. I can’t let the Necromancers have me, dead or alive! Before she could work whatever magic she had in mind, he pointed the sword toward her, and lightning flowed down its length and arced to the girl. Whatever physical deficiencies she might have, her magic was fully intact. The shield appeared even as Nathan threw his magic against her, and the lightning danced across an invisible barrier, shards bouncing off to strike nearby Soulless. Before he could halt the lightning attack and instead resume his attempt at self-immolation, an attempt he should never have let the girl distract him from, she launched an attack of her own. A ringing started in his ears, jarring his teeth and shattering his concentration. He tried to raise a defense, and if he had not been drained from the running battle he’d just fought, he might have succeeded. Instead, his blurry vision dimmed to blackness.

Seth’s breathing came in heavy gasps, and sweat soaked his body. The boy he was carrying, on top of the weight of the armor, bore down on him. Daniel hadn’t moved in a long time, and although Seth didn’t see how he could sleep while his bearer ran at a steady jog, he hoped that alone accounted for his quietude. With his own head drooping, all Seth could see was the ground in front of his feet. The fact that he could see it at all in the light Aulus produced was the only indication that he wasn’t lost, as he trailed his companion by a considerable distance and could no longer hear Aulus’s footsteps over his own breathing and the rattling of his armor.

When Aulus finally stopped, Seth almost ran over him. He would have asked why they were stopping if he could breathe well enough to form the words. Seth looked up, and realized they were at the vertical shaft, leading straight up from where they stood. A cold despair settled on him as he wondered how he would get the boy up those ladders. He could barely hear the trickling water over the hoarse wind of his breathing. Light flickered and glimmered on the surface of the cistern, reflecting Aulus’s sphere of light, but Seth had a hard time distinguishing that flashing light from the spots in his eyes.

“I think we’re clear,” Aulus said, his own breath worn thin. He looked back down the tunnel. “I’m not sure whether anyone followed us. It’s even possible they believed Nathan was the only one.”

Seth looked up. With the breath to speak came the energy to feel anger. “Is that why you abandoned him?”

Aulus met his eyes, and Seth drew back at what he saw in them. “I didn’t want to leave him! It would have cost more than just my life if I had not turned back when I did, though. I had to get you and the boy out.”

“So are you just going to leave him there?”

“He’s probably dead by now. No, it’s not an excuse, just” — he grimaced — “realism. I’ll be going back anyway. Even if he’s dead, this cult needs to be destroyed. I can’t do it by myself, though; I’ll need the help of other Domini.”

“So you’re going back to kill those little girls, huh?” There was no way to disguise the disgust in his voice. He didn’t miss the irony that Aulus was the one who had convinced him that they weren’t monsters.

“What kind of man do you take me for?” Aulus said. Seth noticed his fist clench and release at his side, and realized how hard he was fighting to control his temper. Pushing him might not have been wise. “I have no more desire to murder children than you do. But if I’m going to avoid it, I’ll need your help.”

“My help? What for?”

“I may be able to find Domini to help me. We have to move quickly, however, and I doubt I could gather more than a dozen by tomorrow morning.”

“A dozen? Is that all that’s in that tower of yours? Can’t you get more?”

Aulus shook his head. “I don’t think there are more than a dozen I can trust, and even that may be stretching it. If Kulsin gets wind of this…”

“Kulsin? Who’s Kulsin?”

“Let’s just say that not all Domini are like Nathan and me,” Aulus said. “Kulsin would leave a giant smoking crater where that mine used to be, and then he’d start seizing every woman and girl with the ability in Quian, until he got everyone who even might be a Necromancer.”

“There’s no way in Shol that the Guard would just let him do that,” Seth said, imagining how the Captain would react to Domini taking not just boys, but women and girls too. He’d have guardsmen fighting Domini in the streets.

“Precisely,” Aulus said. “Conflict between the Guard and the Order is the last thing we want. And the only way to keep Kulsin from starting an Inquisition is to handle it quickly and quietly, so I can go to the Order before he even knows what’s happened and say, ‘Look, we’ve already dealt with the problem.’ He won’t have the political clout to start one then.”

“Or you’ll have the political clout to stop him,” Seth said.

Aulus smirked. “You’re smarter than you look.”

Seth shrugged. “I don’t really care about Domini politics. I just want to know whether you can deal with the Necromancers with a dozen Domini?”

“No, I can’t. The Necromancers are poorly trained against combat magic, but their Soulless don’t die easily. We’ll be overwhelmed unless we have help, preferably soldiers with good steel. Guardsmen.”

It took a moment for Seth to comprehend what Aulus was saying. “So you want me to gather up as many guardsmen as I can find and bring them down here to fight those walking corpses? They’ll be slaughtered!”

“No they won’t. I saw how well you fought. Your sword was more effective against the Soulless than our magic. If enough guardsmen came with us, we’d stand a chance. How many could you gather by noon tomorrow?”

“That’s not much time.”

“If we move slower than that, the Necromancers may flee. They may already be doing so, but we can’t move any quicker.”

“I don’t have the authority to gather anyone,” Seth said. He couldn’t tell what time it was in the underground darkness, but he thought that it must be midnight already. “I’d need the captain’s permission just to come myself.”

Aulus tapped his lips with his index finger. “Maybe I can convince him to loan some men. Let him know that I will be coming tomorrow, two hours after dawn, and what I’ll be asking from him. You better tell him everything.”

“Huh? What makes you think you can convince him?”

Aulus snorted. “A dozen Domini can be very convincing. Come on, let’s get out of this mine.”

Now that his own breathing had slowed, Seth could hear the slow, easy breaths of the boy. That was a good sign. “How are we going to get up there? I’m not sure I could climb it even without the boy right now. How can he sleep through this anyway?”

“They probably drugged him to keep him controllable. As for getting up…” Aulus gave a tight, tired smile, and then looked upward.

Seth heard a loud click-clack-click-clack coming from above. “What — ?” he asked, but Aulus shook his head, and the rhythmic clicking noise continued for a couple of minutes until the lift descended into the space next to the cistern.

At Seth’s wide-eyed look, Aulus said, “I prepared this on the way down. You didn’t expect me to carry you up that ladder, did you?”

Continued in Chapter V

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