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

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

Return to Chapter V

Chapter VI: The Awakening

Seth had thought that he could follow the trail of destruction back to the entrance, but he’d somehow missed it. Not the destruction, as the dead bodies and damaged corridors were everywhere, but the hallway leading to the way they’d come in. In the meantime, he’d lost the other guardsmen. He had paused to look back, expecting Aulus or one of the other Domini to be following, and waited just long enough to be certain. When he had turned back around, he could no longer see the others. He had thought they would stop and wait for him at the turn off, which may be the reason he had walked right past it. Now, with the devastation lessening and the bodies becoming rarer, he believed he was clear of the worst of it, which meant that he must have passed the entrance where the battle had begun. He looked around, searching for some clue as to how far he had gone, glad that the strange globes on the ceiling continued to glow here.

How could they have forgotten him? Captain Micah certainly wouldn’t have. Remembering the captain, he had to blink rapidly to keep his eyes clear. Without Micah’s leadership, what little discipline the men would have retained in this chaos was gone, and everyone was left to fend for himself. All the men had respected the captain, and most, like Seth, had as much affection as was possible for such a man. It was going to be difficult for the Guard to recover from his death.

As Seth turned around to head back, he felt a deep cold in his core, as if someone had replaced his heart with ice and the chill was spreading through his arteries. He gasped for breath and was surprised that he couldn’t see it as it left his body. Drawing his sword, he swept the hallway in search of the danger, checking to make sure that all the Soulless and Necromancer corpses in sight were truly dead. After what had happened, he double checked the one Dominus corpse he could see as well. Seth’s eyes lingered on a Necromancer who looked like she merely slept, trying to tell whether she was breathing. He thought they were all dead.

A shiver that began at his head and ran all the way to his toes alerted him in time to see a woman in gray emerge from a side corridor, coming between him and the way back to the exit. Seth’s grip on his sword tightened, and it took him a moment to realize that she wasn’t a Necromancer. She wasn’t wearing a gray dress. In fact, he wasn’t certain whether she was wearing anything at all. Her whole body was gray, but it was blurred and indistinct, like a mist, so that he had trouble separating skin from hair from any clothing there might be. And also like a mist, her body was transparent, so he could see through her to the wall and its torn tapestries.

A spirit! It has to be! The Manuelites had stories of spirits tied to this world after death and unable to travel to the afterlife. The priests had always said that they were just stories, that the dead were taken by Eän for judgment. See if I ever trust a priest again! Seth faced her so he could place his sword between himself and the spirit, although he didn’t think it would do him much good. “What do you want?” he called to her. When she turned her head towards him, he saw that her eyes were dead black, void of whites or irises, and not in the least indistinct or transparent. He saw them narrow, and felt the cold rage which poured from her.

When she spoke, her voice made his head pound like a drum, reverberating with her fury. “Where is she?”

Despite his attempts to watch for the coming wraiths, Nathan still hadn’t seen anything when Marcus collapsed. The arm supporting Nathan went slack, and he tumbled forward, landing hard on his knees and barely getting his hands out in front of him in time. Something slipped out of the neck of his shirt, but he ignored it as he turned to see Marcus lying on his face. A gray mist whipped around his body, as though struggling to break free, while a gray woman knelt beside him with her hand plunged into his back. She was lacking in both form and substance, her body hazy and transparent, though her black eyes showed no lack of hatred. Nathan had never seen a wraith before, but he recognized it from the descriptions he had studied. He stared at the woman, and then his eyes were drawn to the mist whipping wildly around Marcus. His fear-clouded mind was beginning to understand. A wraith’s touch was deadly, since two souls could not occupy the same body. That gray mist was Marcus’s soul — she was attempting to drive it out of his body. Nathan reached for his magic, and though it came to him, it felt sluggish and weak. He tried to shape it into a weapon, something that could hurt even a wraith. It was slow going, much too slow, for the mist that was tied to Marcus’s body broke free and began to dissipate. As a child, Nathan had been taught that when a person died, his soul went beyond this world, but this one just seemed to evaporate. Had it ceased to exist, or was that merely what its departure looked like?

The wraith rose from beside Marcus’s body and came to kneel before Nathan, still on his hands and knees. He watched her, staring through her misty body, as she reached out to caress his cheek, leaving it numb in the wake of her icy touch. In his panic, the Circuit he had been building collapsed, and he had nothing but bits and pieces of magic that couldn’t hurt a child. Nathan squeezed his eyes shut rather than watch her reach for his heart, and he gasped as an ice cold finger touched his chest. And then the hand drew back, the chill radiating from it receding. He opened his eyes again and looked at her, to find her staring at the weight that hung from his neck. Nathan looked down at the amulet that the Necromancers had put on him and saw a familiar shape: a gold and garnet phoenix with emerald eyes rising from crimson flames. Like the constellation in the Necromancers’ inner sanctum. He looked up at the wraith, who still stared at the insignia.

“What, what does it mean?” he asked her.

She didn’t answer, but rose to her feet and moved away from him. Nathan lifted a trembling hand to place the pendant back in his shirt, then looked to see if the other Domini had seen, wondering why they hadn’t come to his aid. The others were busy, however. Aulus had altered the nature of his barrier, and as two wraiths ran up against it and found they couldn’t get through, it flexed and sprang shut like a trap, enclosing them in a sphere no more than five feet across. A ring of glowing white energy pulsed out from Kulsin, pushing back three wraiths, including the one who had killed Marcus. The energy stopped before it reached Nathan or Aulus’s trap. Behind Aulus, his comrade was fighting desperately. The Dominus sent a bolt of energy at his attacker, but while the wraith flinched, it didn’t seem harmed. Instead, it raised a hand and sent a bolt in return, dropping the quivering Dominus to the floor.

“The wraiths! They, they know magic!” Nathan tried to shout as he got to his knees. His voice was stronger now. It wasn’t a full shout, but at least it wasn’t a whisper anymore.

“Josh!” Aulus shouted to his companion, but it was too late. The attacking wraith now knelt over the fallen Dominus, its hand sunk into its chest, and even as Aulus attacked, Josh’s soul dissipated. A moment later, a blast of magic from Aulus sent the wraith hurtling backwards, the focused power striking more intensely than Kulsin’s ring. Still, the wraith’s display of magical ability had Nathan worried. Wraiths’ connection to this world was tenuous, and the Essence didn’t respond to them as readily as to the living who had the ability. Someone who had learned to use the magic in life would have an easier time of it, which suggested that these were the wraiths of Necromancers, making them all the more dangerous.

Nathan gained his feet and staggered towards Kulsin, his drug-weakened muscles threatening to give way with each step. One of the wraiths moved to block his path. This time the magic flowed freely and the Circuit formed immediately. Something like a sword made of Essence formed in his hand, visible only to those able to see magic. He lashed out with his weapon, striking the wraith, and it screamed: a howling, high-pitched wail that pierced Nathan’s ears. The wraith fled, leaving Nathan a clear path as he reached Kulsin’s side. Aulus came around the two wraiths he had trapped and joined them.

“What’s that?” Aulus asked, looking at Nathan’s sword. “I don’t remember learning how to make one of those.”

“I…” Nathan hesitated. Where had he learned that Circuit? He had formed it so naturally, like he had done it a hundred times before, yet he couldn’t remember any of those times. The Domini knew very few ways to harm wraiths, and they had never taught him how to make the sword-like Circuit he now held. The two wraiths still free and nearby shied away from it as he swung it in their direction. “I created it myself,” he said. “I, uh, thought it might be useful.”

Aulus nodded slowly, still studying the weapon. Then, a few moments later, a similar one appeared in his hand. “Kulsin!” he said. “I can’t hold those two forever. We have to go.”

“Yes, we do,” Kulsin said. “We need to find the Anchors and unbind these wraiths.” The magic which could hold a human soul to this world required an Anchor, a physical object to which the wraith was bound. It was nearly impossible to unbind a soul without the Anchor to work with. “Unless you’re opposed to that, too,” Kulsin sneered.

Aulus met Kulsin’s bulging eyes. “No, I’m not. Whatever hatred we have for one another, we both know that we can’t let these wraiths remain in the world. A truce?”

“Until we unbind these wraiths, yes, a truce. Afterwards, I intend to see you declared renegade for opposin’ the Order.”

“And I want the Senate to try you for murder,” Aulus said.

Kulsin glared at him. “It is not murder to kill to defend the Order’s secrets.”

“Only as a last resort, which this wasn’t.”

“We’ll let the Senate decide that,” Kulsin said in a grudging admission. “For now, we need to find the Anchors.”

Nathan licked his lips. “I think I know where, where they might be.”

“Where’s who?” Seth asked as he stared at the lost soul.

“What? How can you ask ‘who’? My body, of course. Guylen promised me!” Her voice sounded strange, like it was coming from a great distance.

This wasn’t going well. She was becoming angrier, while all Seth wanted to do was calm her down. If he could just understand what she was talking about. “What did Guylen promise?”

“Kail take you for an idiot, you whoreson!” She screeched. “He made me wait years, then he made me sleep, and now his strumpet Morana wakes me up to be mocked by your foolery!”

“I’m sorry!” Seth hastened to apologize. “I’m just trying to understand.” While he carefully kept his sword between himself and this spirit, he knew that it might as well be a feather. All the stories said that spirits were impervious to harm, but that they could sometimes be reasoned with. And other times they were crazy.

“Where is she?!” She turned her face upward, her eyes closed. It was hard for Seth to read her expression with that indistinct face, but her voice had been reduced to a childish whine. “He promised me a new body. Young. Beautiful. Smart. And powerful.” Her eyes opened and she looked at him again, her tone becoming hungry. “Most of all, powerful in the magic.”

This is definitely one of the crazy ones, Seth thought as he feverishly tried to figure out what to do. At any moment she might decide that she wanted his body. Well, no, that doesn’t seem likely, Seth admitted to himself. He didn’t think he qualified on any of those counts. “I’m sorry,” he repeated. “It sounds like this Guylen cheated you.”

“Don’t you dare talk about him that way!” she screamed, and Seth took a step back. An instant later, she spoke calmly, without a trace of anger. “I let him have my old body. He said he needed it, that he couldn’t survive as a wraith much longer without losing his mind. There weren’t any others. The Domini made it hard to find apprentices, impossible to find any boys. In return he’d find me a new host too. I’d only have to be a wraith for a little while, and then I’d be immortal like him.”

She started crying, her shoulders heaving, although he couldn’t tell if there were any tears. “I-I’m sorry! I di-di-didn’t know my body couldn’t hold him… He was pre-preparing Morana for me, b-b-but when my body broke down he took hers for himself in-instead.” She put her face in her hands and sobbed for what seemed like an eternity. Whatever masculine urge tempted Seth to comfort her vanished when she stopped suddenly and looked up. Her dead black eyes shone.

“That slut! That jealous bitch! She convinced him that I’d been without a body too long, that I was going mad. Do I look crazy to you? Do I?!”

“Um, no?” Seth said, and cursed himself for his inability to sound convincing.

Fortunately, the spirit was too far gone to actually listen to him. “See! But Morana convinced him to let her have the next host, while they made me sleep. I was first! I should have had that body. When I see Morana, I’ll kill her and take her body!”

Seth nearly missed the sound, since he was so busy trying to make sense of what the spirit was saying. He didn’t know whether she was completely delusional or if taking someone else’s body really was possible for spirits. When the sound came again, though, he tilted his head and listened. He could hear footsteps approaching, and it had that strange, shuffling gait that he had come to associate with the Soulless.

“Are you sure you know the way?” Kulsin asked.

“I know which, which way she went,” Nathan replied. “When she said she was going to, um, Awaken the wraiths. It should get us closer, at least.” He took a swing at a wraith who had gotten too close, and it dove through a wall to escape the wraithblade in his hand. Nathan didn’t remember consciously choosing that name for his magically formed sword, but it felt right. Although he didn’t think the wraithblade permanently harmed the wraiths it touched, it was so painful that they wouldn’t risk it. His blade, and Aulus’s identical one, were enough to keep the wraiths at bay as they hurried down the hallway. The bound spirits still tried to attack when they could, using their ability to move through walls to surprise the Domini. Aulus and Kulsin had both felt their deadly touch for a brief instant before one of the others could drive it away. Nathan had been lucky so far. The attacks had made them cautious, so they were walking single file down the corridor and doing their best to stay away from the walls. Every time they felt the deepening chill which indicated a wraith was getting too close, they would pause to search the corridors for its source.

“Aulus, is Rodun comin’?” Kulsin asked.

Aulus was just putting away a glass hemisphere embedded in a metal disc, which hung on a chain around his neck. “No. Apparently, he’s lost.” At Kulsin’s glare, he merely shrugged. “They were ambushed by wraiths as well, and by the time he and a couple of others escaped, they didn’t know where they were, or how to find any other survivors. I told him to head back to the tower and tell the Order what’s happening rather than try to reach us. It isn’t worth the risk.”

“Unfortunately, you’re right. The tower’s wards will protect them if they make it that far. If we’re lucky, we may run into one of the other teams, but I don’ have the Speakin’ Glasses to get in touch with them.” Speaking Glasses, such as the one Aulus wore, came in pairs, allowing the holders of the two halves to communicate. It wasn’t possible to link more than two, so Aulus couldn’t use his Speaking Glass to talk with the two teams who had come with Kulsin. And while they had Speaking Glasses to reach one another, Kulsin didn’t have a way to communicate with them.

“You’d think we could see them,” Nathan said, searching for any distant movement in the Essence that would indicate Domini. “Can’t you use that, ah, that trick of yours, Aulus? The one you used to find Daniel?”

“If I dared to put this wraithblade away long enough to try, maybe,” Aulus said, having picked up Nathan’s name for it. “That particular Circuit is too complex to put together quickly, and I’m worried that if we stop long enough for that, you two won’t be able to hold these wraiths off while I work. We’ll just have to…”

Aulus trailed off as they entered the inner sanctum. Despite the damage — the door was in splinters, there was a burned body on the floor and another corpse lay on one of the stone tables — the Phoenix, with its brilliant colors, still dominated the room. Kulsin just ignored it, but even though he had seen way more of it and the other constellations than he wanted, Nathan had to drag his eyes away. The other object which drew his attention was worse. He had seen it on the way out, but his drugged mind hadn’t fully registered what he was seeing. This time Nathan recognized the dead girl lying on the table: she was the Necromancer who had commanded the Soulless in the ambush that had captured him. Her body showed no sign of damage, and he was certain she had been dead before Kulsin and his minions had burst into the room. What had they done to her? What had they done to him?

“Which way?”

“Huh?” Nathan said.

“I said, ‘Which way?’” Kulsin barked.

“Oh.” Nathan looked around the circular room. There were two exits besides the one they’d come in, all three equally spaced around the room. “That way,” he said, nodding to the door on the right.

Aulus and Kulsin headed toward the door. Nathan was about to follow when he noticed something glimmering on the floor, near the outstretched hand of the burnt corpse. He stooped to pick it up. It was a pendant, identical to the one he now wore around his neck: a phoenix of gold and garnet. He could see that there was some sort of Circuit embedded in it, but he couldn’t tell what type without more inspection. He quickly pocketed it as he joined Aulus and Kulsin at the door.

Nathan took the lead as they started down another hallway, which led them to more branching corridors. These looked like any others in this place; even the tapestries looked familiar. The lack of bodies and damage indicated that the battle had not reached this area. Realizing that he was lost, Nathan was forced to admit that knowing by which door the Necromancer left the inner sanctum wasn’t nearly enough to tell him where she had gone. Kulsin was not pleased.

“What’s the poin’ coming this way if we’re just goin’ to wander around aimlessly?” Kulsin demanded.

“At least he got us closer,” Aulus said. “Do you have any better ideas about where to go?”

“How do you know we’re even closer? The Necromancer could have gone anywhere when she left the room. We could be farther away now!”

“Why anyone ever listens to you is beyond me! Do you ever have anything useful to say, or is griping all you contribute to the Senate debates?”

“How dare you talk to a Senator that way? I promise you, Princip —”

“Stop it! Both of you!” Aulus and Kulsin both spun around to face him. Kulsin’s eyes were so wide they looked like they would fall out. Nathan barely noticed. He was staring at the floor, thinking he saw… “There!” He stabbed downward. His wraithblade passed through the floor as easily as the wraith who had hidden in the stone. As the blade penetrated it, the wraith let out a piercing wail before fleeing.

“I thought I sensed something, but I didn’t realize they could attack from below,” Aulus said. “Damn! I should have thought of that.”

“How did you know it was there?” Kulsin asked, his eyes narrowing the tiniest bit.

“I could see it. It took me a little while to realize it, but the magic binding it to this world is visible if you, ah, if you just look closely enough.”

“You have sharper eyes than I do,” Aulus admitted. “Can you see where the others are?”

“Yes,” Nathan said, looking around them. No other wraiths were hiding in the floor. He glanced upwards, but there weren’t any above either. Instead, they had gathered in a loose circle around them without regard for the intervening walls. There were five, no, six total. One of them hung back, probably the one he had just struck. “And… I can, um, see something else, too.” Now that he knew what to look for, he could see not only the outlines of the wraiths, but a thin silver line which trailed away from each of them. “I can see the links to their Anchors! I, I know where they are!”

Nathan walked rapidly now, shaking off the last of his drug-induced weakness as he tried to follow the thin silver lines which trailed from the wraiths. He hadn’t gotten far before the dull internal chill he had grown accustomed to sharpened, becoming like a knife in his belly. Knowing what that meant, he spun, swinging his blade in a circle to drive off the wraith which had gotten too close. Or wraiths. There were three of them attacking, silently coming from all sides. They heard me! They know what we intend and they mean to stop it. His wild swings kept them at bay for the moment, but it would not be enough, not when he threatened their undead existence.

His blade touched one and it drew back, its misty form twisting and wailing, but it didn’t go more than a dozen feet. And in that instant, there was a roar and a flash of light above him. Nathan looked up in time to see lightning scattering off a barrier above his head, and he realized that while he was distracted by the wraiths at his level, one had nearly stuck him from above. He looked over his shoulder to thank Aulus and instead saw Kulsin, his dark face gray, with his hands raised. Aulus was behind him, trying to prevent two wraiths from reaching either him or Kulsin with his blurring wraithblade. Nathan’s moment of surprise nearly gave the other two wraiths a chance to close on him, but his sweeping blade caught one.

The other attacking wraith stopped, and then began to draw back. Nathan looked around in disbelief, but Aulus confirmed his observation by saying, “They’re fleeing!”

The one whom Nathan had first struck hesitated before turning to travel down the hallway after the others. A ball of crackling blue energy caught it before it had gotten far. Instead of exploding or dissipating, the energy burrowed into the middle of the wraith’s insubstantial body and sent a multitude of blue tendrils twisting and writhing to every corner of it. The wraith twitched and screamed as the lightning showed no sign of letting go. Nathan looked at Kulsin, who had another ball of energy in his hand. He had heard of this magic, but none of his instructors had been willing to teach it to him, as it was considered too cruel to use on what had once been a human soul.

“Why, why’d you do that? It was leaving!” Nathan said.

“I couldn’ let it escape,” Kulsin replied. “They were runnin’ so you couldn’ follow their links to their Anchors. We have to find them. Can you follow this one’s? That magic will only last for a minute or so.”

“Yeah, I, uh, think so,” Nathan replied. “They’re close.” The silver line leading from the wraith in the grip of Kulsin’s magic flickered with bursts of blue energy, making it easier to see.

As soon as he had inched his way around the tortured wraith, Nathan began to trot, trying not to lose the silver and blue line as he ran. He trusted that the other two Domini would keep an eye out for the wraiths’ return as they followed him through the twisting corridors. He tried to find the way around the walls through which the line passed, but the one time they came to a dead end, Kulsin simply blasted a hole through the wall rather than backtrack. Once or twice their path crossed a dead body or scorch marks on the wall, where some part of the earlier battle had wandered into this area, but for the most part it was clear of dead Necromancers or Domini. It was entirely clear of the living, whether Dominus or Necromancer. Where had all the Domini gone? Were they just too distant for Nathan to spot, or were they dead? He had no idea how large the Necromancers’ lair was, but it felt huge. How far would they get before the wraiths figured out that they still had the trail and came to stop them? Fear of their return had Nathan picking up the pace just a little more.

Somehow avoiding any more wrong turns, they arrived at the room to find the wraiths waiting for them. The room was little more than a closet, its unadorned door left unlocked and open. The five wraiths they had been fighting earlier were crammed into the room, its open doorway blocked by a magical barrier meant to keep the Domini out. A table against the far wall had small objects he couldn’t make out scattered across the surface.

Nathan looked at the barrier. He had been so focused on following the thread connecting the wraith to its Anchor, he hadn’t seen these others raise their barrier. It was probably as strong as the wraiths could make it, with their weak connection to this world. Three Domini should be able to bring it down. He saw Kulsin’s gray face, and heard Aulus’s panting. Nathan was breathing hard too. In their current state it might not be so easy to destroy the barrier. At least they were dealing with the attenuated magic of the wraiths and not the full power of a Necromancer. But…

“Where is the Necromancer?” Kulsin asked, voicing Nathan’s concern. “If she set the wraiths loose, why isn’ she here?”

Seth glanced at the side corridor from which the spirit had emerged, wondering if he could make it before the shuffling footsteps reached him. He’d have to get past the spirit, and she might decide to take offense if he left in mid-rant. He needed to avoid the coming Soulless without making the spirit angry.

By the time he had decided to risk it, his hesitation had cost him the opportunity, and two walking corpses with sewn mouths and glassy eyes came into view, each armed with a short sword. Accompanying them was a woman in gray, who jumped when she saw Seth and the spirit. This woman had to be a Necromancer. She was pale and middle-aged, with dark hair streaked by gray. Behind her came a third corpse, carrying something in its hands. All three of the Soulless were hulking men whose bodies looked… fresh, despite their pallor.

“You!” she said.

Seth turned his back on the spirit and positioned his sword between himself and the Necromancer. Not that it did any more good as a shield against the Necromancer than against the spirit, but it might slow down the walking corpses. “You know me?” he asked. Now that she had said something, he realized that she looked familiar. Of course! It was the woman from the serf village, the one he had sent to get the guards.

“I was right,” she said. “You were working with the Domini. You’re the one who brought them down on us!”

If she had been watching when Lilah killed the Dominus, she must have been behind the attack. She was probably responsible for the attack on him later, when the Domini rescued him. Assuming the Domini had told him the truth then. He wasn’t sure how much he could trust any of them now, not after Micah had been murdered by one. Even if Aulus had saved Seth’s life, he’d been dishonest with him since they first came to this place, planning to kidnap the apprentices himself rather than rescue them. He briefly considered denouncing the Domini and telling this Necromancer of their falling out, but even if she believed him, it wouldn’t make her friendly. As far as both the Necromancers and the Domini were concerned, he was a pawn caught in the middle of their battle. Some of them thought to use him, while others wanted to eliminate him, but none of them would think twice about sacrificing him to achieve their goals. So rather than try to reason with the Necromancer, he kept his mouth shut.

“What are you doing just standing there?” the Necromancer said, her attention shifting to the spirit behind Seth. “I ordered you to kill the intruders, and that includes this guardsman.”

“I don’t take orders from you.”

“Do you know who I am? I’m Rachel Morana; I command this sanctuary.”

“I know who you are, Morana. I’ve been waiting for you to come this way. How long has it been? How many years have you stood by his side while I slumbered?”

“Keren?” Morana said, her eyes narrowing. “I should have been more careful. I didn’t mean to Awaken you.”

“Where is he?” Keren said, her tone slipping to that of a forlorn child. “I want to see him.”

“He wouldn’t remember you.”


“He doesn’t even remember himself at the moment. It’ll be a while before he does, and even then, it’s been a long, long time since he’s thought of you.” She smiled viciously. “Now, are you going to kill this guardsman or will I have to?” When the spirit just continued to glare at her, she said, “Very well, I’ll handle it.” She pointed at Seth, nothing more, but the two lead Soulless lurched forward.

Seth took a step back, and the chill in the core of his body grew stronger. The spirit was still behind him, blocking his path, and she wasn’t moving. As long as Keren and Morana were focused on their enmity towards each other, though, he might be able to get around her and escape. It felt cowardly to run away from women, but he knew he was overmatched, and it simply wasn’t his fight any longer. He took another step back, and brushed against the spirit.

The ice which had been growing in his belly shot through his body, blistering his skin, shivering his flesh, and freezing his bones. He saw double, but while one sight was of the floor rushing up to meet him, the other was twisting and rolling through a world that was all gray, with no source of light yet no shadow, a world that froze him so deeply that the spirit’s touch seemed warm. In that gray vision, the solid walls and floor seemed hazy and transparent, as did the Soulless who were still moving towards him. They hardly seemed dangerous at all when seen this way. He saw the Necromancer, too, and she was blurry and undefined. Then he saw the spirit as she stepped over the transparent body in a crimson hawk tabard on the floor. She now appeared completely solid, though her hair and skin were still exactly the same shade of gray. She was also completely nude. She might have been attractive, yet she filled him with terror instead of lust. His gray sight sank towards the floor where the guardsman lay, where his normal sight was already.

Then the two sights came together, and it was only the floor he saw. As the gray world’s chill receded, it left numbness and weakness in its wake. Twisting his head, all he could see was a scuffed boot. The Soulless! He rolled to the side, and heard the clang of metal against rock ring from the space he had just vacated.

“Wherever she is, the Anchors are here,” Nathan said.

“Then we’ll deal with the wraiths first,” said Kulsin. Aulus nodded.

All three of them studied the barrier and the wraiths behind it. Breaking the barrier would be exhausting work. What was worse, using magic didn’t drain wraiths the same way it drained the living. While they could use less of it at any one time, they could keep going when the strongest Dominus collapsed. Oddly, though, they only seemed to be protecting the doorway itself. While the walls of the room might stop a stream of fire or a bolt of lightning, a flow of Essence would pass right through them. The wraiths didn’t seem to fully comprehend what magic the Domini were capable of.

“I have an idea,” Aulus said. “Can you two keep them distracted for a moment?”

“Yes,” said Nathan. “I think I can.”

“Yes,” Kulsin said.

“Be ready to follow my lead.” Aulus stepped up to the doorway. The black eyes of the wraiths followed him as he placed a bare hand on the barrier. “Go!” he said.

Kulsin and Nathan attacked simultaneously. Kulsin sent a blast of lightning at the wall beside the door, creating a window into the room and sending bits of rocks flying through the insubstantial wraiths, who struggled to expand their barrier to cover the new entrance. Nathan snapped his wrist, and his wraithblade lashed out, becoming longer and more flexible. He used it like a whip, and it shot through the wall on the other side of the door from Kulsin’s hole, wrapping around the barrier and slicing through all the wraiths there. It was much weaker this way, and while the wraiths flinched at the pain it caused, none of them loosed their ear-splitting screams. Nathan watched the wraithblade collapse once again into a sword shape, not quite certain how he had done that.

“Let’s go!” Aulus shouted, running forward into the barrier. Nathan winced in anticipation of Aulus’s crash, but the barrier bulged as Aulus pushed on it. Belatedly realizing that Aulus was altering the wraiths’ Circuit, Nathan followed as quickly as possible, Kulsin a step behind. The barrier moved with Aulus, expanding as it swept through the room and taking the wraiths with it. It passed through the solid table without rattling the contents, and then came to a stop and began to fold. Nathan was already in the room when he saw that the barrier was wrapping completely around them, above and below and on every side. Before any of the wraiths could respond, it was done, and the three Domini were completely enclosed by protective magic shaped to fit the room. Aulus was breathing hard, his face shining with sweat, as was to be expected after such an impressive feat of magic. While Nathan and Kulsin had kept the wraiths distracted, Aulus had not just wrested control of the barrier from five wraiths, he had altered its nature so it no longer affected physical objects and then reshaped it, all in less than a minute.

The tiny room they were now in barely had enough space for the three of them and the dusty table against the far wall. Scattered across the table were a score of pendants. Nathan felt chills that had nothing to do with the wraiths when he saw them. All of the pendants had the same symbol as the one the Necromancers had placed around his neck: a phoenix rising from flames. They varied in material, style, and craftsmanship, from crude representations in pewter to stylized ornaments cut from stone to realistic gold figures inset with jewels.

Nathan reached out a trembling hand to touch one. If these were Anchors, then what had the Necromancers put on him? Why had they? He looked down at the pendant hidden in his shirt. Though it was concealed from mundane sight, he could see the Circuit within it. At least there was no silver line leading away from it. He hoped Kulsin and Aulus hadn’t noticed what he wore. Its magic was very faint, and it was hard to see any Circuit carried by a Dominus, as his own aura tended to obscure it.

“These are the Anchors?” Kulsin asked.

“No, I —,” Nathan began, then stopped his denials when he realized Kulsin wasn’t referring to the pendant he wore. “I mean, yes… I can try to unbind the wraiths.” Just looking at the Anchors, he knew how to do it. Which was odd. A Dominus faced with an unknown Circuit of this complexity would usually spend hours examining it before he would attempt to take it apart, yet Nathan understood how to do it with only a glance.

“Yes, you two… do that,” Aulus said, still breathing hard. “I’ll try to hold… the wraiths out. Hurry!”

Nathan nodded, but he didn’t start. “But where did the Necromancer go? Why set the wraiths on us and just leave their Anchors?”

Kulsin pointed at a space on the table, a perfect rectangle free from the dust which covered the rest of it. “There was a chest of some sort here. These wraiths are a diversion.”

“What?” Nathan said. “But, that means…”

“Yes, she set these wraiths against us and left their Anchors here, expectin’ us to find them and unbind the wraiths, while she took that chest and fled. She’s sacrificin’ them to save herself and whatever’s in the chest.”

“But what’s in the, ah, in the chest?” Nathan asked. “What’s so important that she’d sacrifice these wraiths?”

“Maybe… more Anchors,” Aulus grunted. “Sacrifice the few… save the many. You need to hurry.”

“Nathan, you unbind the wraiths. I’ll help Aulus hold off the ones who are out there.”

“Why don’t you unbind them, while I help, help Aulus?” Nathan said, looking at the Anchor in his hand. He didn’t remember picking it up, and now he found himself strangely reluctant to destroy it. It wasn’t just killing someone, it was banishing their soul from this world. Whatever he had grown up believing, he had a lot more doubt than belief these days, and when he had seen Marcus’s soul depart, it just seemed to vanish.

“Because you have a sharper eye for these types of Circuits,” Kulsin said. “Now do it! The wraiths are startin’ to attack!”

There was a burst of light and a roar of thunder as the first magic struck the barrier. Nathan closed his eyes and focused on destroying the binding.

Seth reached for his sword before he realized that it was on the other side of one of the Soulless. Coming to one knee, he drew his dagger instead. The Soulless who had first swung at him shambled forward, while the other one circled around to block off the retreat he’d been eyeing longingly. Beyond them, the spirit and the Necromancer remained only a few feet apart, staring at each other. Still feeling numb and weak, Seth pushed himself to his feet. He thrust his dagger first at one Soulless, then the other, but they didn’t act as normal men would. The threat of steel didn’t cause either to pull back, not even when it poked into the chest of one of them. Instead, the wounded Soulless simply raised its sword to swing, while the other pulled back its blade to stab.

If the two had been faster, or coordinated their attacks with one another, he would have died right then. Instead, he took the only opening he could see, dodging between the two of them as they attacked. He felt one blow rake across his back where it rattled against his armor, but then he was past them, stumbling into the body of a fallen Soulless propped against the far wall. He had succeeded in bringing himself within reach of his sword, so he grabbed it as he used a hand on the body’s head to keep his feet. Then he spun, swinging a wide arc with his sword as he did so, despite the fact that he was now holding it upside down and in his left hand. The sword clashed against one of the Soulless’s shorter weapons with enough momentum to tear it from the corpse’s grasp. It immediately turned to retrieve its weapon. The other Soulless, who was oozing black ichor from the wound in its chest, was still a few feet behind the disarmed one, so Seth used the opportunity to drop his dagger and get his longsword turned around.

“I want to talk to him now!”

“You always were too blind with infatuation to see what a fool he could be. It was his impatience for a compatible body that led to this mess. I told him taking the boy was too risky.”

Seth didn’t spare a glance for the two arguing women. It was a crazy thought, but it sounded as if they were fighting over a man. He had neither time nor inclination to ask them, however, as the bleeding — if it could be called bleeding — Soulless came within range of his longsword. He took a swing at its sword hand, intending to remove its sword and as many fingers as necessary. It twisted its wrist to block his blow, demonstrating that it had more ability to use its weapon than any of the other Soulless Seth had fought. Fortunately, Seth’s weakness seemed to be fading, improving his chances.

He looked at the other Soulless, who was on one knee reaching for the sword it had dropped. It was just too perfect of an opening. He swung at his armed opponent again, forcing it to block, and the moment their swords made contact, he let his weapon bounce off and raised it high overhead. Seth turned and took two steps to the kneeling Soulless, now bent over as it reached for its sword, its neck outstretched as though for the chopping block. Seth’s sword came down with all the power and speed he could muster, cutting deep into its neck.

Despite the force of the blow, the blade did not go all the way through. This Soulless was too fresh, its body too solid, for it to come apart more easily than a living man. Even the king’s headsman rarely removed the condemned’s head in one blow. Seth’s sword made it halfway, getting through the spine before becoming caught in the neck’s gristle, but that was enough, as the Soulless collapsed and lay still.

Seth pulled his sword free and he turned to face the remaining Soulless. He had a chance as long as Keren and Morana were busy with one another. There was a flash of light, and Seth turned his head in time to see energy arc between them. They had finished hurling words at one another, and had begun to throw magic. The third Soulless remained behind the Necromancer. For whatever reason it was not joining the fight, Seth was grateful.

He again considered running, but the bleeding Soulless was on the move. Seth evaded its first blow, and blocked the second with the flat of his blade. The force of the strike sent a shiver through his arms. The thing was stronger than he remembered the others being: it might be able to just beat aside his weapon. Seth stepped to the side, forcing it to turn, and used its slowness as an opportunity to strike, his sword biting into its body just below the ribcage. That wound would have been debilitating for a living man, but the attacking corpse showed no sign it felt anything as it delivered a nearly identical strike. Seth’s step back wasn’t quick enough, and only his armor prevented the blade from cutting him open. Even so, he had to fight for breath after the bruising force of the blow.

Seth attacked again, aiming for the sword hand as it drew back, and this time he took off several of the Soulless’s fingers. While it didn’t drop its sword, the remaining fingers had only a loose hold. Seth pressed his advantage, striking at the other arm, then the leg. The Soulless tried to block his blows, but its weak hold on its weapon allowed Seth to beat it out of his way and reach the exposed flesh, chopping all the way to the bone with his heavy cuts. Another strike at its sword arm took most of the remaining hand and the sword finally dropped. It swung at him with its off hand, but he ducked out of the way and slashed at its face.

By now, the Soulless was slick with black ichor, one hand gone, a leg clearly broken, and a gash through its nose and the corner of its sewn mouth. But it was already dead, and none of the damage was enough to stop it. Even as its leg collapsed, it tried to hit Seth with a fist that was no longer there. He chopped at its neck, but it blocked his swing and the sword did little but bash its raised arm against its face.

A loud, keening wail ripped through the air, and Seth spared a glance in the direction of two women. The spirit was floating a foot off the ground, her back arched as she stared at the ceiling and screamed. Spasms ran through her form, rippling through the hazy gray. The Necromancer stood before Keren, her right hand raised and clenched into a fist.

“You were strong when you lived, Keren,” Morana said. “But no wraith is a match for a living Necromancer.”

If Morana was finishing her battle with Keren, Seth had no time to waste. He had to get away from this Soulless now. It wasn’t about to let him go, however, and it rushed forward, trying to tackle him. He barely got out of its way, then turned and struck as hard as he could at its exposed back before it could stop itself. The Soulless went down, toppling onto its fallen companion. As it started to push itself up, Seth reversed his sword and drove it through the bodies of both corpses, pinning them together.

The Soulless’s arms and legs scrambled on the ichor-coated floor, but it could find no leverage to pry itself from its comrade. Seth hoped it wasn’t smart enough to figure out a way to escape. He bent to retrieve his dagger, briefly considering trying to cut off the Soulless’s head before remembering that he needed to run. He looked again in the direction of the Necromancer, to find that she was staring at him. He froze, only halfway upright.

“I’m impressed. Those were two of my better servants, and you took them both out.” She smiled, an unfriendly show of teeth. “I’m afraid it took you too long. I’ve taken care of Keren here” — she gestured at the spirit still floating in mid-air, no longer screaming but whimpering — “and that just leaves you. And you don’t even have your sword.”

Another ripple went through Keren’s ghostly form, and when it passed, she seemed even less solid. “Ah, it looks like they’ve found the Anchors,” Morana said. “I was wondering how long it would take. They’re unbinding you now, Keren. You and all the other wraiths I decided to sacrifice.” Whatever was gripping Keren let go, and she sank to the floor, collapsing until she huddled in a small whimpering ball. One that was quickly fading.

“Now, as for you,” Morana said, holding one hand in front of her in a slowly closing fist. Seth felt as if a giant hand were gripping him, crushing his arms against his sides. It began to squeeze. “I’m only sorry that I don’t have time for a more creative punishment, but I suppose this will have to do.” Despite her calm voice, her face was a mask of fury, and Seth realized that she was as crazy as the spirit. The tightening grip forced the air out of his lungs and caused his bones to creak. He felt as though his eyeballs were bulging from their sockets. It was then that the mist that had been Keren began to move.

There was hardly anything left of her now, just a wisp of gray, but it leapt at Morana with a barely audible, inarticulate scream of rage. Morana took a step back, but the spirit collided with her and she collapsed, surrounded by a writhing, spinning gray mist that seemed like it was attached to her. As she hit the ground, so did Seth, her magic having dissipated. He fell to one knee and took several deep, painful breaths, rubbing at ribs that felt like they had cracked. Seth looked at Morana, who was on her knees, breathing hard. He wondered if what had happened to her was the same thing he had felt when the spirit touched him. He no longer saw the gray mist surrounding her, and Keren was nowhere in sight. Morana looked at him; he looked at her.

They stared at each other for only a moment, and then she raised her hand. The hair on the back of his neck stood up as he recognized the gesture, recalling the way Captain Micah had convulsed when the lightning struck him. He still held the dagger in his hand. Seth had seen performers who threw knives at their targets, but the Captain had said it was just for show, that a spinning blade could never do much damage. He threw his dagger anyway, desperately hoping that his underhand throw would at least distract her. It was too late, as the moment it left his hand, he was blinded by brilliant light and his body began to convulse even before he heard the deafening roar.

“I’ve, uh, I’ve got it!” Nathan said, breathing a sigh of relief as he dropped the tarnished silver pendant onto his growing pile of dead Anchors and wiped the sweat from his brow. It had been ancient, and he had initially considered it a wonder that the Circuit was still intact. Once he had begun unraveling it, he had realized that behind its deceptive simplicity was a resiliency that defied his attempts to destroy it. Every time he thought he had finished it, another part of the Circuit came to life to take over the pathway he had just destroyed.

“About… time!” Kulsin gasped as he fought to keep the barrier up. Aulus said nothing, but his face was pale and tight. Despite Nathan’s progress — he was about halfway through the twenty or so Anchors — there were now more wraiths gathered outside than when he had begun. Once they had realized what was happening, all the wraiths had come to stop the unbinding. Some of them flung themselves at the barrier, only to bounce back off. Others threw magic at it: bolts of energy, balls of fire, lances of force. The barrier held them all back, but the two Domini who kept it up were beginning to weaken. All the while the wraiths, who had been all but completely silent before, wailed and screamed and cursed at them in a cacophony that made it difficult for Nathan to concentrate on the unbinding. He kept his back to the door, where most of them had gathered, but he could still see one or two as they poked at the edges of the barrier which surrounded the Domini and the Anchors.

“I can take, take over for you if you’d like, Kulsin,” Nathan said. “You can unbind the wraiths.”

“No,” Kulsin said. “I thin’ you can do it faster than I can. I just hope none of the others take as lon’ as that last one.”

It had been, by far, the most difficult he’d done. It also looked to be the oldest pendant, which might explain why the Circuit was so well constructed. That, or the remarkable construction explained why it was still around after so long. Nathan reached for the next active Anchor, this one a phoenix expertly carved out of jade. The style was different too: this phoenix looked less like a bird of prey than some colorful pet from the Sovereign Cities. He focused on the minute Circuit. Each Circuit was different, and every one incorporated a distinct sigil that he thought indicated whose Anchor it was, but they shared some common traits as well. He took a moment to find this one’s center, then cut one of its filaments. The magic ceased immediately, and he dropped the dead Anchor onto his pile. He thought he was getting better at this. Sometimes it felt like he had been dealing with these Circuits for years, rather than just the last few minutes.

“That got one,” Aulus said. “I saw… it vanish. I think it was a man.”

That was odd. Most of the wraiths appeared to be female, although it was sometimes hard to tell from their hazy forms. Nathan didn’t remember seeing any who were definitely male, but he knew that the Necromancers hadn’t always exclusively recruited females, and some of these Anchors were very old.

As Nathan picked up another and began to work, he felt more than saw Aulus go down to one knee. “Don’ give out on me now, Principius,” Kulsin said. “I cannot do this alone.”

“Don’t worry,” Aulus said. “I won’t… give you… the satisfaction.” From the weariness in his voice, his bravado was all talk.

Nathan worked feverishly. Moment by moment the barrier Kulsin and Aulus maintained was weakening, but as he got through more of the Anchors, there were less wraiths attacking. It was merely a question of which would run out first.

There were five Anchors remaining when he heard a thump behind him. Nathan nearly fumbled the unbinding he was in the middle of when he heard Kulsin say, “Principius is out. Hurry!” Gritting his teeth, he tore through the Circuit and tossed aside the crude pewter phoenix. Four left now.

There was a bright flash of light and a crackling roar. Nathan felt the barrier tremble, but he pressed on. Three left.

There was no sound as the barrier gave way. Kulsin shouted something that Nathan didn’t hear. He didn’t look up as he sliced through the Circuit. Two.

There was a flash of blue light, and a wraith screamed, and then Kulsin screamed. He finished with another Anchor and both cries ceased. Nathan cast aside the latest dead Anchor and picked up the last one. It looked almost identical to his own pendant, a gold and garnet phoenix with crimson flames and emerald eyes. He felt a sudden chill against his back and spun, summoning the wraithblade as he lashed at the wraith behind him. It was the only one in sight. Aulus lay on the floor, either dead or unconscious, and Kulsin lay crumpled beside him, stirring weakly. A misty gray woman stood in front of Nathan, flinching back from the sword he held, her black eyes wide as she wrung her ghostly hands.

“Please don’t,” she said. “Please, Master!”

“What, uh, what did you call me?”

“Master. I see what you wear!”

Nathan touched his shirt where it hid the amulet he wore, and looked at its twin in his hand. “What is…” he began to ask, but his courage failed him. “No!” he said. “I’m not your Master! I have nothing to do with you.” He tore apart the last Anchor’s Circuit.

“No!” the wraith screamed, reaching for Nathan. He slashed at her with his wraithblade, but this time she didn’t flinch from it as her hand reached for his heart, and he felt the chill touch as her fingers brushed against his chest. Then she was gone, dissipating as all the other wraiths had.

Nathan slumped back against the table, exhausted. The air was cool down here and a cold sweat coated his body, but he felt warmer than he’d been in a long time as the chill of the last wraith faded. He looked at his two companions. Kulsin was groaning, and a close look revealed that Aulus was still breathing. They were both alive, but right now, they were in no condition to go after the Necromancer who had Awakened these wraiths as a decoy. He hoped someone else had been able to intercept her.

The pain woke Seth. He blinked a couple of times before he realized that he couldn’t see out of his right eye. It felt as if the entire right side of his face was aflame. Reaching a tentative hand to his cheek, his fingers found scarred and inflamed skin. He couldn’t feel the probing fingers on his face, only the burning. Seth was relieved when his hand told him that his right eye was still there, even if it couldn’t see. He’d need a mirror to find out how much damage had been done, but at least he was still alive.

What about her? The Necromancer! He struggled to sit up, his heavy armor jangling, as he tried to get oriented and turn his good eye in the direction where the Necromancer had been, passing over the still scrabbling Soulless which his sword held in place. When he found her, she was slumped against the wall, the front of her dress covered with blood so it clung to her body, allowing him to see her breast rise and fall as she breathed. His dagger was embedded in her chest. The third Soulless knelt in front of her, holding a small box in its hands. As he watched, she cracked open the lid and slipped a miniature object inside. When she let her hand fall, the blood-smeared lid clicked shut and the Soulless stood.

Seth looked around, searching for a weapon. Even though he didn’t stand a chance against another Soulless, he intended to keep fighting as long as he could move. His remaining eye found the short sword one of the Soulless had dropped, and he reached for its ichor-stained hilt. When he came back up, Morana’s Soulless was walking away from him, carrying that box close to its body. Seth watched it leave, too tired to pursue it. Instead, he looked at the Necromancer again, and saw that she was watching him.

“You won,” she said in a hoarse voice he could barely hear. Blood leaked from the corner of her mouth. “It’d be funny if I weren’t dying. The great Morana… second only to Guylen himself… done in by a crazed wraith and a mundane guardsman.”

Seth pushed himself to his feet, and he had to lean against the wall to stay there. His legs felt like water. “Where did that Soulless go?” he asked. His own voice wasn’t much stronger than hers.

She actually smiled. “Away. Where I’m going…” She closed her eyes.

Seth made his way to her, still using the wall for support, even when it meant climbing over the body of a dead Soulless. He knelt next to the Necromancer. Seth could no longer see her breathing, so he felt her neck for a heartbeat and found nothing.

He looked around. The Soulless he had pinned was still vainly trying to stand, scuffling against the floor, the Necromancer was still dead at his feet, and the fleeing Soulless was now out of sight. He tightened his grip on the sword he had claimed. If he chased that Soulless, he’d just become another body like the ones that filled these corridors. Instead, he turned around to find the exit. He had to return to the surface and report to the king what had happened here. Seth looked over his shoulder, in the direction the last Soulless had gone. Most of what had happened, anyway. Someone had to tell him of the Domini’s betrayal and the Necromancers’ destruction, and only Seth knew the full story.

Continued in the Epilogue

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