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

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

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.

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Chapter III: A Reluctant Alliance

Seth felt his stomach sink when he saw them coming. He had figured it out even as he was trying to tell Captain Micah about his attacker without mentioning the two strange men. Their oddly familiar voices, their strange abilities, their knowledge of him — it was obvious once the danger was over and he could look back on the situation calmly. Seth had never imagined that a Dominus would wander around in disguise; he had not even been certain that they looked human under their robes. The realization that the Domini looked like ordinary men had made him jumpy. He found himself carefully watching loud merchants and foppish craftsmen in case they might decide to level the city. Earlier he had almost convinced himself that a gap-toothed beggar looked just a little too knowing.

And now the Domini in the guise of journeymen were back. He wondered how they had found him while he was on patrol. He wanted to avoid them, but that did not seem possible with the two of them walking straight toward him. He was dressed in his mail and stained tabard, a longsword across his back, looking like a guardsman from head to toe, so he couldn’t blend in with the crowd. He could pretend he didn’t see them and duck into a side street, or perhaps he could just try to beg off with a quick wave and a few words about more pressing matters. The grim expression on the short one’s face was not that of a man who would take no for an answer, however. Shol take them, I’m not going to run away! With that he came to a stop and let them come.

The tall one hesitated at Seth’s behavior, but the Manuelite marched on with such grim purpose that Seth half-thought that the man would walk right over him. He stopped at a distance where he had to look up to meet Seth’s eyes. “My friend here —” He seemed startled to realize that the tall man, whose accent and face had marked him a Novar last night, was still ten feet behind him, then settled for a vague wave in that direction. “My friend thinks you can help us. I’m not convinced.” He paused, looking at Seth more closely. “You, um, figured it out, didn’t you? I’m not surprised.”

“Nor am I,” said the Novar. He smiled faintly, having overcome whatever hesitation had possessed him earlier. “I think honesty will help us convince you more than any subterfuge.”

“Be as honest as you want. What makes you think it’ll encourage me to help you?” Seth said. He didn’t know what the two saw in his face, but he noticed the uncertainty in the look they exchanged, so he wanted them to keep seeing it.

The Novar talked while the other watched Seth. “We have an idea about who was behind the murder two days ago. These people may also be responsible for… some of the children who have vanished from the serf village, maybe others in the city as well. I think you can help us find them.”

Seth scanned the crowd, looking for eavesdroppers. He entertained a brief fantasy of denouncing the Domini here in the streets, but it was hard to see how that could end well. It would be nice to be somewhere public, just in case, but sometimes one had to take chances. “Let’s talk somewhere else. This way,” he said. It took five minutes of turning down decreasingly crowded streets before he found a dead-end alley to his liking.

Once there, he turned to face them. “I still don’t know why you expect my help. I’d sooner aid Kail himself.”

“We’re not demons,” the Manuelite said. “We’re, we’re human, like yourself.”

“You may have been human once, but not anymore! How can you even pretend you’re not monsters?”

The Manuelite blanched in shock at Seth’s ferocity. The Novar was calmer, thoughtful. “Have you lost someone, Seth?”

“Is that a threat?”

“It’s a question,” he said. “This seems personal to you. Perhaps you’re afraid of losing someone.”

Seth took several slow, deep breaths. “I have a younger brother. He’s almost fourteen now and I want him to be safe. I’ll stop you myself if I have to.”

“Would you help us if we, ah, guarantee your brother will not be taken?” the Manuelite asked.

Seth looked at him carefully, trying to read the truthfulness of the man. It really was a deal with Kail, but how could he refuse? “Can you?”

“No,” the Novar said immediately. The Manuelite cut his eyes at his companion but kept silent. “If he’s marked for taking, we can do nothing. We can, however, tell you whether he’s so marked. If we do so, will you help us?”

Seth tried to calm his racing heart, both eager and afraid to learn the truth. “How do I know you’ll tell me the truth?”

The Novar smiled, while the Manuelite looked as if smiling was the farthest thing from his mind. “Promise to help us either way,” the Novar said. “That way it will be of no benefit for us to lie, and you can be certain you’ll get the truth.”

Certain? Not likely, but he had to admit he would be more willing to take their word if they had nothing to gain by lying. Only, could he bring himself to help them if they said his brother was going to be taken? He’d have to work with the monsters who would be stealing his closest kin. If he made the promise, could he back out later? It would be a grave dishonor, but would anyone find fault with breaking a promise to Domini? What did they want from him, anyway: help stopping people who had killed a Dominus? Why should he care? Only these two said these people had stolen children as well. Like they themselves did. He felt the sweat flowing freely beneath his armor, dampening the padded underclothes and making the suit even more uncomfortable.

“What sort of help are you looking for?”

“Just information,” the Novar said. “A guide at the most, nothing that could be construed as betraying your city. Will you do it? Exchange information with us?”

Unwilling to let himself overthink the matter, he said, “All right. If you tell me the truth, I’ll help you. Either way.”

“We’ll hold you to that, then,” the Novar said. “Can you take us to your brother? We’ll need to see him.”

Seth felt a chill run down his spine, but it was too late to back out now. He noted the sun’s position. “I suppose my shift will be ending soon.” It had begun before dawn. “I might as well head back to the barracks. I should arrive just in time to give my report and leave.”

A quarter hour later, the disguised Domini waited in the square while Seth went into the squat brick barracks to deliver his report. The lieutenant duly recorded Seth’s account into the logbook. Since today’s action had consisted of nothing more than Seth walking around looking intimidating but trustworthy, the entry had very few words, which Seth couldn’t read anyway. Very few of the guards were literate, which made record-keeping all the more difficult. He came outside to find the Domini still waiting for him, despite his quiet but heartfelt prayers that the earth would open up and swallow them.

They traversed the entire length of the city to reach the neighborhood where Seth’s family lived. It took nearly an hour, and while the two Domini spoke quietly with one another, Seth made no attempt to join in. While the inhabitants of the small town outside the Palo Gate were freemen, their homes had the same sense of destitution as the serfs living to the north. Unfinished wood long since faded to gray made up most of the homes, although some attempted to give their residences the dignity of a coat of white paint. Sagging thatch roofs were the norm, and only a few showed off sturdier tiles. There was more order to the layout than in the serf village, however, the homes arranged along the Palo Road and its offshoots. The small town also had more energy. Men and women hurried on their way to and from the city from which they derived their livelihood, while children always managed to get underfoot. Seth acknowledged many people who waved and called greetings to him.

Just off the main road was his family’s small house with white walls and a black tile roof. Seth’s brother, a blond boy just shy of thirteen, was playing a game of dice with his friends in its shadow. When Seth approached, he looked up and smiled. “Hey, Seth. Aren’t you supposed to be on patrol or something?”

“Just got off,” he said. “I wanted to make sure everything was all right here before I catch some sleep.”

“Why wouldn’t it be?”


“Perhaps you should introduce us,” the tall Dominus said with a smile. “Hello, lad. I’m Aulus, and this is Nathan.” It was the first time Seth had heard their names. He hadn’t thought to ask, since he still didn’t want to think of them as ordinary men. Were those even their real names?

The boy stood up and came over to politely shake Aulus’s hand, “I’m Jesse. Are you a Novar? ‘Aulus’ sounds like a Novar name.”

“Yes, I grew up there, but I haven’t been home in a long time.”

“Really? I’ve never been anywhere but here. Someday, I want to go everywhere and see everything.”

“I’m certain you’ll get the chance to do whatever you want.” Aulus was looking at Seth as he said the words. “Perhaps we should get going now.”

“What?” Seth asked. “Oh, of course. I’ll see you later, Jesse.” Seth tousled the boy’s hair before following Nathan and Aulus back to the highway and into the city. The crowd made way for the guardsman, but it was nothing like the bubble that would open up for a Dominus, and the three were constantly jostled. When he could wait no longer, he grabbed Aulus’s sleeve and planted his feet, forcing the tall Dominus to stop too. “Well, are you going to tell me or not?” His breath felt short as he forced the words out.

“You don’t follow subtlety very well, do you?” Nathan asked. “The boy won’t be, um, won’t be taken. Aulus hinted as much.”

“No, I guess I don’t follow subtlety well,” Seth grunted. He let out a deeply relieved sigh as his tense muscles unknotted. “All right, you did what I asked.” And my brother is safe! “What do you want from me?”

“We’re looking for something,” Aulus said immediately. “A cult. That’s what we call it, anyway. We think you may be able to help us find it.”

“You’re looking for Ishites? They’re everywhere, but they hold some of their ceremonies in the Hollow Hills.”

“No, no, not Ishites,” Nathan said. “They, well, they worship death, I, uh, suppose you could say.”

“A death cult? And they had something to do with the murder? Are you saying Lilah was a part of this? I’ve never heard of someone who worships death,” Seth said. “I guess I can’t help you, then.” He tried not to let his relief show.

“They would be well hidden. What we want to know is where they could hide,” Aulus said. “These Hollow Hills, what are they? Could people hide in there without you knowing about it?”

“The Hollow Hills are the mines in the hills outside the city. They’re all connected, and long since abandoned. The poor bury their dead there, so most people stay away from them, but sometimes people trying to avoid the Guard hide in there. We usually find them. No one knows how deep they go, though, so it’s possible someone could hide well enough that we wouldn’t have heard about them.”

Aulus tilted his head to one side. “Have you been in these mines before?”

“A few times, hunting criminals or driving out the Ishites or the like.”

“The Hollow Hills seem like just the sort of place this cult might be hiding. They’ve probably been there for years. If they are there, do you think you could help us find them?”

“Well, if they’ve been in there for years, we should have heard something about them by now. Maybe if they hid in the deepest part, they could avoid being found, but they’d have to come up for food and stuff, wouldn’t they?”

“Most assuredly, but I find it hard to believe you see everyone who goes in and out of those mines. Does the Guard keep an eye on the mines every hour?”

“No, I guess not. There are places where no one ever goes, so maybe. I don’t know whether I could find them down there, but I do know where to start looking.”

“Good, then you can take us there.”

“I’d rather take you to Shol,” Seth snapped. “I never agreed to that!”

“Well,” said Nathan. “If you can tell us how to, uh, um, find our way, then that should be sufficient.”

“But… the Hollow Hills are a maze! No one’s ever mapped them out. If you’ve been there, you can find your way, but I can’t draw you a map.”

“That’s why you have to come with us,” said Aulus. Nathan looked doubtful. “Look, you want to solve this murder too, and find those children. We’re telling you how. Are you going to back down now?”

Seth bit back what he thought of the Dominus’s challenge. “All right, I’ll help you. Follow me.” He took an abrupt left, heading for the Denton gate, leaving Aulus and Nathan to hurry after him.

The smell of death was stronger than Nathan remembered: it filled his nostrils and clogged his throat. He could taste it. Not just the rotting flesh, which was strong enough to make him gag, but the thirsty dust of old bones, the scent of fungus and rodents and other things that fed on death, the lingering spices meant to preserve the flesh and hide the stench. He noticed Aulus preparing a small Circuit that would ease breathing and filter out the worst of the smell, and he quickly followed his example.

They stood outside a wooden shelter extending from a hole at the base of a hill. The shelter was just a roof covered with shingles and held up by square wooden columns, designed to keep the loose earth of the hillside from sliding into the cave entrance. The whole thing looked old, faded and cracked, like it might collapse at any moment. From where they stood, they could see two other sheltered entrances, one higher up in the hill and another, which had already collapsed, a little ways to the south. In the valley to the west, the quarry lake glimmered in the late afternoon sun. A trampled dirt path cut through the high grass to the soft pool of dust spilling out of the cave. The dust, which sent up puffs any time a foot landed in it, had seen so much traffic, old and recent, that it was near to impossible to distinguish individual footprints. Inside the mine, Nathan could just make out the first wooden support thirty feet into the gloom, the wood braced against rough walls not quite perpendicular to the floor and ceiling. The rock walls were the pale gray of granite, still bearing the gouges of the pickaxes which had dug the mine centuries ago. Since its abandonment, the mine had become a place of burial. Those unable to afford tombs on the hallowed grounds which the Temple maintained wrapped their dead with whatever burial cloths they could purchase and placed them here.

It was also a place of refuge. He remembered coming here as a boy, where his family could worship in peace with their fellow Ishites, at least until the City Guard came to chase them out. The Guard rarely arrested any Ishites, merely harassing them. The king did what he could to appease the priests, but he didn’t want the trouble that a full-scale assault on the heretics would bring. Nathan still felt uncomfortable around guardsmen, and he wished they could have done this without Seth, but it had been years since he had had to navigate the mines, and the Ishites had never explored any deeper than they had to. The Guard had always known the Hollow Hills better.

Seth looked at the two Domini and said, “Did either of you bring a lantern? I didn’t think of it.”

“I don’t think we’ll need lanterns,” Aulus said as a small ball of light appeared at his shoulder. If this surprised Seth, he didn’t show it. Aulus gestured for Seth to lead the way.

Despite being the only one who knew how to reach their destination, Seth looked unhappy at taking the lead. As the guardsman walked past him, Nathan could see that he was trying to breathe through his mouth without gagging. Noticing Nathan’s look, Seth grunted, “It takes a bit to get used to the smell.” Nathan took pity on him and created a bubble of clear air around his head. It was doubtful he’d even notice the bit of magic, identical to what Aulus and Nathan used to make their air pure and nearly odorless, with only the slightest whiff of corruption still making it through.

They saw no signs of corpses at first, just a low, squared-off tunnel leading deeper into the earth, the floor littered with stones the size of a man’s fist. The steady glow from Aulus’s light created stark shadows chasing after them. At five hundred feet they saw the first side tunnel, along with the first bodies. The dead were piled high in the passageway, hillocks of them resting on a bed of disconnected bones. A few sprawling, bloated bodies, most missing their heads, were attended by clouds of flies, and the scamper of feet gave away the presence of unseen rodents. When Aulus’s glowing sphere darted forward a few feet, flies lifted in alarm at the light, and Nathan could see that the rare faces were already half-gone, chunks chewed away and the soft tissue of the eyes missing completely. Hastily looking elsewhere, Nathan saw that only a few of the bodies had enough tissue remaining to provide a meal for the rodents and insects. Most of them were much older, any flesh not scavenged rotted away, without even enough ligament to hold the bones together. All told, there had to be more than a hundred bodies here. He had never seen anything like this before.

“I told you you’d get used to the smell,” Seth said, although the carnage produced more stench than the magic could completely filter out. With a look in Nathan’s direction, he continued, “These are executed criminals who were tossed here by the Guard. Those buried by their loved ones were brought in elsewhere.”

Either it was a new practice, or Nathan’s parents had always made sure they avoided these mass burials. There were dozens of ways into the Hollow Hills, and Nathan couldn’t remember ever using this entrance previously.

“Why’d we come in this way?” Nathan asked.

“This is the deepest mine, and only a few others connect with it. We’d have to go a mile out of our way to take any other path,” Seth said.

“Let’s move on,” Aulus said.

They went deeper into the mine, Aulus’s light leading the way, and soon passed another short passageway filled with executed criminals, these long since reduced to bone, before coming to a longer tunnel receding into darkness. Instead of haphazard piles of corpses, long mounds of stone filled it. Though the layout showed little forethought in the placement of the individual mounds, there had been an effort to keep them separated, opposed by an even greater effort to keep them well clear of the tunnel the three of them occupied. A small bony hand, perhaps a child’s, protruding from one of the mounds left little doubt that these were burial cairns. The smell of rot here was weaker than at either of the first two sites, and a stronger odor of sweet preserving spices nearly hid it. That deceitful smell proclaimed death as clearly as the reek of decay, and Nathan could taste its bitterness on his tongue.

Seth gestured to the cairns, “That tunnel connects to one of the other mines, one which the serfs use to bury their dead. They got as far as this tunnel, but you can see they didn’t want them in this passage.”

“Any particular reason?” asked Aulus.

“It leads to the deepest mine in the Hollow Hills. That’s reason enough,” Seth said, motioning for them to continue.

“Aulus, are you, uh, sure there are Necromancers here?” Nathan asked quietly, falling into step behind Seth.

“No,” Aulus said, making no attempt to keep Seth from overhearing. “It seems a likely place, but we won’t know until we’ve explored it.”

“It would take days to explore this place,” Seth said.

Aulus shook his head, sending his shadow dancing over the walls. “We only need to get close enough to see the magic,” he said. “If we reach the bottom but can’t find anything, then we’ll know they’re not here. Let’s keep moving.”

The path they followed had a slight upslope in order to facilitate water drainage, like most of the horizontal shafts in the mines. The small channel which guided the water was dry now. While they began their trek in a wide tunnel, clearly a main artery boring deeper into the hill, Seth soon led them down a series of branching side tunnels, which twisted and turned in their efforts to follow the veins they’d been dug to mine. Nathan did his best to keep track of the path Seth confidently followed, but he wasn’t sure he’d be able to find his way out. After twenty minutes, they arrived a wooden platform. It was the first in a series of platforms connected by ladders which descended a deep vertical shaft. Near the first ladder was what looked like a wooden chimney, and on Nathan’s right were two odd contraptions, one a long chain with waterskins attached to it looping over a spoked wheel, the other what appeared to be a lift with a complicated pulley system which looked as if it took four men to operate. Aulus started to construct a Circuit to lower the lift, but Nathan was not eager to trust a machine which had to be over a hundred years old, even if it looked to be in better shape than he’d expect, so he told Aulus to leave it alone and instead started to climb down the first ladder. Aulus completed his Circuit anyway, then followed Nathan without activating it. Seth came last. That’s one ladder, he thought as he reached the platform below the first. Who knows how many to go? He went to the next ladder, beginning ten feet from where the first ended.

He lost track of the number of platforms around seven. His arms and legs were sore from the climb down, and despite the dropping temperature, he was sweating. Somewhere around the tenth platform he stopped to catch his breath, stepping out of the shaft of light cast by Aulus’s glowing sphere through the hole in the platform above. He hoped it wasn’t the lack of oxygen in this place that caused his lungs to burn. There was a tunnel leading off from the platform to the left, the third he had seen on the way down, on the opposite side from the gaping opening for the lift and the chain from which Nathan was keeping his distance. In the dark there was no way to see how far down it was to the bottom. At least the sequential ladders were not positioned directly on top of one another, so if he slipped on a ladder he’d only fall to the next platform, never more than twenty feet below the previous one. Assuming the platform holds when I hit it, Nathan thought. The way they creaked with every step, he wasn’t certain they would.

Seth and Aulus joined him on the platform, the glowing sphere illuminating the surroundings. “How much farther?” Nathan asked.

“I don’t know,” said Seth. “I’ve never been all the way down. Are you sure you want to go to the bottom?”

“Have you been this far before?” Aulus asked.

Seth looked around. Despite the difficulty his armor caused for him in navigating the ladders, he seemed to be in better shape than Nathan or Aulus. “I think so,” he said.

“Then we keep going,” said Aulus, suiting actions to words and swinging onto the next ladder.

It was only a few more platforms until the bottom. The wooden chimney turned here, traveling down the single tunnel which led from this point. Nathan couldn’t remember whether the chimney had branched off at any of the higher levels, but it looked smaller than he remembered it being at the top. A large stone cistern at the lowest point in the floor collected water, a small trickle of which ran down the wall in a channel etched for it. Looking up, Nathan thought it must come from one of the other tunnels. The chain with the waterskins ended at the pool.

Aulus sent his light to it. “Water is probably the biggest problem in these mines. This must be how they removed it. They allow the water to flow to the lowest point, then use the waterskins to lift it to the surface.”

“It makes sense, I suppose,” Nathan said. “But if this mine hasn’t been used for years, no one’s been removing the water. Why hasn’t this level flooded?”

That is a very good question.”

Nathan peered down the tunnel leading from the vertical shaft. He could just make out a timber support in the gloom, but beyond that he couldn’t see much. Like the other tunnels, there was a slight upward slope, and a small channel with a tiny trickle of water spilling into the cistern. Every drip of water, every scuff of boot on the dusty rock floor, created echoes which bounced down the corridor and back. The temperature was much cooler than on the surface, and Nathan wished for a coat, or even his black robe. The Order used an enhanced material which could ensure a comfortable temperature in hot and cold weather alike. He watched his breath condense in the air, and the chilling sweat from his earlier exertions caused him to shiver.

Aulus took one more look around the shaft bottom, then headed for the tunnel which led from it. The others followed, but after only a hundred paces, they came to a stop at the first fork.

“Where now?” Nathan whispered. Their surroundings demanded quiet.

“I don’t know,” Seth replied, his voice also soft. “This is deeper than I’ve ever gone.”

“Do you feel a breeze?” Aulus asked, lifting a hand palm up. Now that Aulus mentioned it, Nathan did feel a faint stirring of warmer air, and he thought he could smell wild grass. When they looked up, they could see that the wooden chimney now followed the tunnel over their heads, splitting to travel down both paths of the fork. There was a small hole in it directly above them, and the air flowed from there.

“That’s clever. So, who, um, put that here?” Nathan asked. “The miners, or these theoretical Necromancers?”

“Wait a minute. Did you say Necromancers? You think Lilah was a Necromancer?” Seth asked.

“Probably the miners, but I don’t think it’s important now,” Aulus said.

“Is that why she killed herself? Because she could come back from the dead?”

“We’re going to have to find our own way. Nathan, do you sense anything?”

“I want to know about these Necromancers!” Seth demanded.

“Look, I don’t think there even are any Necromancers,” Nathan said. The Manuelites had stories about Necromancers, but they were a confused muddle of legends: the ability to come back from the dead was the least of it. The last thing Nathan wanted to do was explain why everything Seth thought he knew about them was wrong. “If we find anything, we’ll tell you all about what we, uh, think they are.”

Seth grumbled, but fell silent.

Nathan closed his eyes, quelling a momentary panic as the claustrophobia-inducing tunnel seemed to press in even tighter with its walls unseen. He slowed his breathing, calmed his mind, and strained his senses. He didn’t so much reach out as open the eyes of his mind wide.

“It’s going to get dark for a moment,” Aulus said. “Don’t worry about it.”

“Who’s worried?” Seth grunted.

Aulus’s light went out, the brightest point in Nathan’s magical sight vanishing. The Essence, the substance from which magic was formed, was all around him, as present and nearly as invisible as the air he breathed. He wasn’t looking for the Essence, but for its motion, the constant flow the use of magic generated. At first he only caught the ripples flowing from the minds of his companions, Seth more than Aulus, as the other Dominus had, like Nathan, stilled his mind as well as his body. Nathan stood a better chance than Aulus of finding any magic here, since his vision was sharper. Not his eyesight, which was weaker than Aulus’s, but the magical sight which could sometimes see better with mundane eyes closed, which was less hindered by solid rock than the ethereal waves rippling from the thoughts and emotions of men.

What he saw seemed just a flicker at first, a natural disturbance in the Essence rather than a deliberate use of magic. Only when he looked more closely did he recognize the convoluted twists and turns that no spontaneous burst of magic could ever produce. It was clearly a Circuit, a flow of magic constructed for some purpose. The subtlety he could only intuit from this distance left no doubt about the intelligence of its maker. Damn you, Aulus, why do you always have to be right? I guess there really is someone here. His eyes snapped open. “This way,” he said, pointing to the right and up. When Aulus’s light popped back into existence, he realized he was pointing straight at solid rock. “Uh, I guess we’ll take the right-hand tunnel and try to find, find a way around.”

It was easier said than done. Seth had reached the limits of his knowledge, so they only had Nathan’s magic sight to guide them, and while that told them which direction they had to go, it did not tell them what path they had to take. They took the right branch, thinking it would lead them towards the distant Circuit, only to find a dead end. They doubled back and took the left tunnel. On and on they went, guessing at which tunnels would lead them closer to the beacon of magic, occasionally quenching Aulus’s light to allow Nathan to spot it. Twice they ended up going in a circle, and they often had to backtrack. Once they thought they had backtracked too soon, so they turned around to follow the tunnel they had just been down, only to find that it had indeed been a dead-end. Nathan and Aulus both looked for some trail, a magical record of someone having traveled this way. Such lingering memories were ephemeral, linked to strong emotion and magic, and they rarely lasted long, so they were not surprised when their probing failed to discover any such paths. It wasn’t long before Aulus could also make out the magic which had attracted Nathan’s attention, and he grew more tightly wound the closer they got to the source. Nathan grew even more apprehensive, especially once they began to notice other magic at work, sometimes mere flashes that did not last long, other times small, steady Circuits which moved about. Aulus didn’t say anything about them, but Nathan was certain the other Dominus was thinking the same thing: those moving bits of magic were more of those walking dead men. The idea of a Necromantic cult hiding in the Hollow Hills didn’t seem so absurd anymore. As they moved closer, Aulus briefly described the Necromancers to Seth as a cult of magic-users who manipulated the bodies and souls of the dead. It was accurate, as far as it went, but Aulus had, much to Nathan’s relief, left out the fact that the only real difference between the Necromancers and the Domini was one of philosophy. Nor had Aulus mentioned his belief that most of them were women these days. That could wait until they found some evidence that those down here were Necromancers. All the while, the one Circuit that Nathan and Aulus used as their beacon came closer by fits and starts.

It wasn’t much to look at, though. The magic was embedded in a blank wall in the middle of a corridor which ran even deeper into the darkness. The section of wall may have been a bit smoother than what lay on either side of it, but not by much. Nathan rapped the wall with his knuckles, scraping them in the process.

“It’s not an, um, an illusion,” he said.

Aulus, who was running his hands along the wall, started when his fingertips sank into it. “I wouldn’t be so sure.”

“It’s just a wall,” Seth said. “I thought you said that some —” He cut off when he saw Aulus’s fingers, which were missing their tips at the second joints where they pressed against the stone. “What in Shol happened to your hand?”

Aulus withdrew his hand and wiggled his fingers to show they were still there before pushing them back into the rock wall, feeling along some edge. “There’s a seam here, hidden by illusion. I think this is some kind of door.”

“Maybe,” Nathan answered. “I’d, uh, guess we need the key to open — Aulus!” He had just seen one of those moving Circuits coming towards them from the other side of the wall.

“What? What is it?” Seth asked, his loud voice echoing in the corridor. Aulus made a negating gesture with his hand, while Nathan hissed “Quiet!”

Seth caught their mood and held still, which reduced his noise contribution to an occasional soft clink from his armor. In the silence, they could just hear a steady clomp of boots on the other side of the wall. It was coming from their right, traveling parallel to their corridor. Nathan’s heart pounded in his ears, outracing the slow clomp-clomp-clomp. It was ten feet away, then five, now directly on the other side of the wall from them. Being able to see its location did nothing to calm him, not when that simply told him how close it was. If it heard them… he knew Aulus was prepared to kill it, as was he, but it might well bring the Necromancers running if they killed what had to be one of their servants. The footsteps neither slowed nor altered when they passed by. It was now five feet away, ten, fifteen. Nathan began to breathe again.

“Aulus, I, I think we found them,” he said in a loud whisper. “Now what?”

“Now we go inside,” Aulus said.

“What? Why? You were right, there are Necromancers here. We should go and tell Kulsin.”

“We don’t know that what’s on the other side of this door is a cult of Necromancers, just that someone’s using magic there. We don’t have anything to report to Kulsin.”

“We have plenty!” Nathan said in a harsh whisper. “But if you want to go inside, you should open this yourself. You’re, you’re better at this sort of thing than I am.”

“All right,” Aulus said. “This may take a while.”

Aulus turned toward the wall, looking over the magical construct. Nathan also examined the Circuit, trying to determine its purpose and to figure out what piece of magic Aulus would have to create in order to complete the puzzle. Nathan knew that Aulus stood a better chance of figuring it out than he did, so he didn’t probe it for fear of disturbing the mechanism, but he couldn’t resist trying to figure it out faster than Aulus. It was the great weaknesses of magical locks: if someone could see the magic, he could figure out how to make the key to open it. There were ways to make it difficult, creating tripwires and unexpected complexities. A skilled Dominus could make the inner workings of his magic hard to see and harder still to manipulate. This was an exceedingly complex Circuit, but most of the complexity appeared to be useless, tied up in opening the door or hiding it under illusion. The lock itself looked fairly simple. They obviously weren’t expecting Domini visitors… Unless it was more dangerous than it appeared, which was why Nathan was letting Aulus open the door.

Seth said, “So, are we just going to stand here until —”

“Quiet now. Like I said, this could take a while,” answered Aulus.

After ten minutes, Seth took a seat to a great rattle of chain armor. He sat there and just watched Aulus, much the same as Nathan was doing now that he had seen all he could of the lock. After twenty minutes, the guardsman began sharpening his weapon, a longsword which tapered continuously along its length, then narrowed precipitously to its point. Nathan could tell it was designed to thrust through armor as much as cut flesh. After thirty minutes, Nathan sat down. Aulus had assured him that he was making progress, but Nathan had no idea what the other Dominus was doing, so he had taken over providing the light while Aulus concentrated. After forty minutes, Aulus began actively probing the lock. This was dangerous, as it could trigger an alarm or damage the magic and prevent the door from ever being opened without creating a new Circuit. Nathan reminded himself to breathe; Aulus knew what he was doing. After fifty minutes, Aulus began forming the component needed to open the door. It looked simple enough, too simple really, and Nathan had to tell himself again that Aulus was better at this than he. By the time Aulus decided the component was ready, it had been a little over an hour.

Nathan came to his feet, and a clanking Seth stood up with him. He started to sheath his sword, but Nathan stopped him, saying, “You might need it.” He turned to Aulus. “How, how do you, ah, want to do this?”

“Make sure none of those… things is nearby, then I’ll open the door,” Aulus said. “We’ll make our way inside, but we should be careful about using magic. There are magic-users in there, and they might see.”

“No magic? That’s just great. Why, why are we going in there again?”

“Right now, all we want to do is look around and see if there really are any Necromancers here. If we do find a cult, we’ll go to the Order and let them deal with it.”

Nathan sighed theatrically. “I don’t like it, but we’ll try this your way.” He turned to Seth. “You don’t have to, to, ah, come with us.”

“Shol take you if you think I’m just going to wait here,” Seth said. “So far, all I’ve done is listen to you talk about stuff I can’t see. I want to see these Necromancers with my own, ordinary eyes.”

“If I were you I’d head back. This will probably get us killed, but it’s your choice.”

“You’re damn right about that.” Seth looked back in the direction from which they’d come. “I doubt I could find my way back on my own anyway. You got us pretty lost on the way down here.”

“Well, then, may Eän watch over you.”

“May He watch over us all,” Seth replied.

Nathan began to search for more sources of magic, looking for Circuits which might indicate the walking dead men. They had to wait a minute for one to pass. There were several others, but none of them was close to the door, so he nodded to Aulus.

Aulus returned the nod. Grimacing with what must have been a doubt akin to Nathan’s own, Aulus put the key in place. The magic began to flow instantly, but for an agonizing moment during which Nathan expected the walls to cave in on them or the floor to erupt with walking dead, nothing happen. Then the wall shuddered and split in two, separating into doors which swung away from them.

The tunnel beyond the doors ran parallel to the passageway they were in, and it appeared no different, consisting of the same coarse walls of rough-hewn stone, perhaps a little smoother. There didn’t look to be as many rocks littering the ground, or as much dust blanketing those rocks as on this side. Little by little, it became apparent to Nathan that while this hall was not well-maintained, it was endowed with a modicum of order and cleanliness by some inhabitant. He looked at Aulus, who was looking around as if he had figured that out long ago. Nathan was annoyed to find that even Seth seemed to have come to that conclusion, saying, “Something lives here, I bet.”

“Put out the light,” said Aulus, and Nathan quickly complied. It became dark, but not so dark that they couldn’t continue to make out the walls. Looking both ways down the newly opened corridor, Nathan could see a distant glow coming from each direction.

“Which way?” Nathan asked.

“The last thing that passed by was heading that way,” Aulus said, pointing to the left. “I want to see what it looks like.”

“Why?” Nathan asked, but Aulus had already begun walking in that direction, so Nathan just followed behind him wondering why he had let himself be talked into this. I don’t want to see the Soulless Aulus is chasing. His heart hammered in his ears and his own perspiration was chilling him, but if Aulus wasn’t turning back, neither was he. Seth clanked along at the rear.

Continued in Chapter IV

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