My sleep was, once again, restless, as it tended to be.
I was myself, and yet I was not. As my body slept, the thing residing within me would show me visions of its past life, dark memories filled with blood, death, destruction and the rhythmic chanting of arcane spells. I saw terrorized faces, ancient weapons and all manner of monsters and creatures. I stood in the middle of cold, damp crypts, then I found myself surrounded by woods, then fire, then I was standing in a desert much like my home.
The sights and sensations were more vivid than usual, but they did not bother me. I had been told that the alien spirit would try to put up some sort of resistance. A dragon’s giant maw, pointy fangs dripping with blood, snapped close to my face. I quirked an eyebrow at it.
Then the nightmares stopped, and something within me told me that they had stopped for good.
I opened my eyes. The only light came from a ball of energy trapped within the claw of one of the two beings standing at either side of me, a Drakona. The other I couldn’t see very well at the moment, but I knew to be a handsome, mature-looking Elf. Both sorcerers had been at work on me, and I could hear them recite the last words of their exorcising spell in unison.
I sat up on my elbows to have a better look at the magic the Drakona sorcerer was performing. Within his claws, a ghastly green fire burned, and I instantly knew it to be the Spirit Lord that had resided within me until mere seconds before.
The Drakona’s features twisted with effort as its hand closed on the ghastly flame, which became smaller and smaller. Finally, the Drakona’s claw snapped shut into a fist. From the scaly fingers, there was a flash of warm, holy light, and then the green fire disappeared completely. It was gone. Destroyed!
“Is it really gone?” I asked. “For good?”
The Drakona nodded and heaved a long sigh. Sweat had been falling from his brow, and he wiped it clean with a bejeweled hand.
The blond Elf, Councilor Gentian, spoke next. “You are free, Arythea. Free from possession and the Dominion Pact. Free to pursue your goals again.” He offered me his hand, to help me out of the bed where I lay.
I accepted it and stood. His touch was gentle, as was his voice when he spoke to me. I was quite sure he didn’t use that tone with anybody else. I could tell he was attracted to me. Sadly for him, nothing would come of it, for the time being.
“I am very grateful. However… I do have one last request, before I leave. Isn’t there anything you can do about my friend? The one you haven’t been able to help.”
A grave look appeared on Gentian’s face. I knew I wouldn’t like his reply. “Goldyx?” he asked, turning to the Drakona sorcerer. It was obvious that out of the two, Goldyx was the most potent magician and exorcist. I had heard the name before, actually. It appeared in an account of the Battle of the Egg that had somehow found its way to me.
Goldyx looked even more skeptical about my friend’s situation. “We have told you this before, Arythea. The werewolf’s case is much worse than yours, and the others you had us treat. The demon within him is much stronger, and is now consuming his mind beyond repair. Even if we successfully exorcise him… your friend will simply never be the same again.”
I understood. I nodded. “Alright. I’ll leave Growlfang with you for a while, then. Just promise me you’ll try everything you can before you give up. If everything you try fails and doesn’t help him a single bit, then you may kill him.”
The Elf looked rather shocked at the idea that I would have them kill my ally. But the Drakona understood. Beings possessed by Spirit Lords, or “Quavarans”, as I understand the proper term is, were a blight on the Land, things whose only goals were destruction and carnage. Sentimental attitudes towards their former selves would only lead to mistakes to be paid for dearly.
The room was now suffused with warm light from a fireplace. In a corner, my things lay in a heap. I went over to them.
“Leaving so soon, Arythea?” The Councilor asked me. He tried to keep a distant tone, but I could sense his worry, as well as some subtle longing.
I answered him as I put on my headdress and black cape. “Of course. I should already be back in the Necropolis.”
“If the reports I’ve been getting are right, I don’t believe you’ll like what you will find there.”
I weighed my crescent moon staff in my hand. Now that I was not possessed anymore, it felt… different. As the magic-filled staff recognized my touch, the crescent moon seemed to glow a brighter shade of red.
I smiled at the worried Elf. “There are many things I don’t like about the Necropolis anyway, Gentian, and I harbor no illusions that the situation may have evolved for the better.”
Gentian’s blue eyes widened. “Then why go?”
“Well, orders are orders. And we’ve got to keep Darq happy.” I answered as I approached the chamber’s door. “Speaking of which… what do you want as payment, exactly? Gold? Magestone?”
The Councilor grinned. “Ah, rest assured that it is neither gold nor magestone.” He gave a sideways glance at Goldyx, who returned his grin, or the Drakona version of it anyway. “When the time is right, we’ll contact you and let you know.”
I raised an eyebrow. Who in their right mind doesn’t care about gold or magestone? The Elementals obviously don’t fulfill the “in their right mind” requirement. And then, of course, there’s the glowbugs. “I… haven’t become embroiled in some sort of glowbug deal, have I?”
Gentian shook his head, his many blond braids moving along. “Ah, no. The ways of the Solonavi are… interesting, to say the least. But we are not them. Rest assured that the Void will not ask anything that is beyond your capabilities. For now… Farewell, Arythea, and may your journey be safe.”
I reasoned that a Drakona wouldn’t be serving the glowbugs, much less as an exorcist. So Gentian’s words were truthful. I nodded to him. “Rest assured that my debt to you will not be forgotten.”
I stepped into the dark corridor beyond the chamber. Our farewell would have ended there, but Goldyx called out to me behind my back.
“Why deal with the Tur’aj and their demons in the first place?”
I turned around. I knew I had no regrets. Gentian looked torn between wanting to reprimand Goldyx for his insolence, and his own eagerness to hear my reply.
“I had been left standing alone against the Revolution in the Galeshi desert. Darq would keep calling my troops to the Necropolis, and I needed all the power I could squeeze out of myself and the few Moonborn that were left to me.”
“You made a mistake out of fear.” Goldyx summed up, a hint of a grin on his face.
“You could read it that way, yes.” I beamed. “But, haven’t you heard? The Revolution has been vanquished.”
Deathspeaker Darq. Deathspeaker Darq.
I liked it. It had a nice ring to it. One that “Dark Prophet Aeradon” most definitely did not.
I knelt before the majestic couple sitting before me as I gave my report. They were both clad in bright red Blood Cult regalia, and in particular, Carlana, now Mortifier and Darq’s top concubine, wore the regalia of the Priestesses of Amara, much like myself.
I could almost delude myself that the two fools knew a fraction of what I knew about Amara and his true power.
I had no personal quarrel or resentment whatsoever with Darq and Carlana, and accepted and deferred to them as my leaders. After all, the awakening of Amara was nothing if not their own doing. But they themselves had no idea that Amara was much more than the demon they thought he was. I alone, thanks to Amara’s blessing, was privy to that knowledge, and would have been for a while longer still.
“Very well done, Arythea.” Darq said once I had finished my report, the ghost of a smile playing on his face. “The complete and utter defeat of the Black Powder Revolution… and we have you to thank. Why, this may very well be the first piece of good news in a while.”
I bowed deeper, an act of modesty. “Your praise is unnecessary, my Lord. It wasn’t entirely my own doing, and-”
I would have said more, but, unpredictably, Carlana rose and pointed a finger at me as she began shouting hysterically. “You bet it wasn’t! You! How were you able to pull off so much with so few troops at your disposal? You’ve entered some sort of deal with the Tur’aj, have you not?”
I knew that everyone who mattered in the Necropolis was suspicious about the Tur’aj and other otherwise Dominion-aligned infiltrates, but I had no idea that their suspicion could escalate to this level of hysteria (by the way, “Dominion” was a word I first heard from Councilor Gentian. My understanding is that it refers collectively to the Apocalypse Cult, the Shyft and their Spirit Lords). What was worse, Carlana was spot-on right. My victory over the Rebels was only the result of my possession by a Quavaran Spirit Lord.
My hesitation did not escape Darq’s inquisitive gaze. “Arythea? Why this silence? Is Carlana right in her accusation?” A quiet fire burned in his eyes, ready to explode into an inferno at any moment.
I rose to stand on my feet. “As a matter of fact… Carlana is right. In my darkest moment, I entered deals with the Apocalypse Cult.”
Instant fury blazed within the veins of the two rulers of the Necropolis. They both rose to their feet, charging powerful spells in their hands and weapons, no doubt targeted at me.
I had no time to lose. “But I rescinded them as soon as I could, so I could give you the ultimate proof of my loyalty! My victory over the Revolution… and this! Bring her in!” I shouted over the crackling of magic.
Two of my Moonborn soldiers thrust a lean, beautiful woman forward, placing her between my leaders and me as they prepared their attacks.
The magic within Darq’s hands dissipated at once. With a bit of delay, Carlana’s magic in her staff did too. They both recognized the woman now kneeling before them. Darq even sprang from his throne and ran to her. With one hand, he parted the long, dark locks of her hair and gazed at her face. Her gaze looked empty and lost, but otherwise, there was no mistaking her identity.
“Ravenbane!” Darq shouted in surprise. He looked up at me as I stood over her. “You… you’ve brought her back!”
Carlana was once again charging her crescent moon staff. “You traitor! You’ve brought one of the Tur’aj right here in the throne room!”
Dark magic surged through Carlana’s staff, and she was ready to blast Mora and me out of existence, when Darq cried out and halted her. “No, you fool! Mora’s been healed.”
“Exorcised would be the right term. Now, if you would let me explain…” I heaved a deep sigh as I watched the magic in Carlana’s staff fade out again. “Jadreen is the real traitor, as I’m sure you already know. Ravenbane was simply kidnapped by her, and subsequently turned into a Spirit Lord-possessed puppet. Carlana accuses me rightly – in order to take Ravenbane back, I had to come closer to the Tur’aj than I would have liked. But never did I act against the Sect, or the Blood Cult, and I am now free from the influence of the Apocalypse. I believe in a united Blood Cult, you see – united within your hands, under the auspices of the Blood Goddess.” I bowed again.
“Who performed the exorcisms? You?” Carlana asked, her arms folded over her chest.
I shrugged and lied. “I used gold stolen from Khamsin merchants to purchase the services of a Draconum sorcerer. I’m quite satisfied with his job, but…”
Mora stared absently into space, without saying a word. She smiled, however, Darq’s presence a familiar and beloved one. It was a very silly-looking, dopey smile on her otherwise pretty face. Darq hung his head in defeat. Carlana sneered.
“… Some of her mind might be gone for good. We don’t know for sure yet – she may just need time to recover. At least the Apocalypse Cult and the Shyft are short one powerful magician now.”
“A meager consolation.” Darq returned to his throne. “You are forgiven your… questionable manoeuver, Arythea. And, you are dismissed. Bring… Ravenbane, or whatever’s left of her, with you.”
I helped Mora up and kept my arm around hers as we walked out of Darq’s throne room. I felt her reluctance in her step, but urged her forward. She kept looking back, at Darq, at Carlana. Her empty gaze showed no real understanding of the situation. She just looked hurt at being shunned like that.
A bit like myself. Darq was moody and had clearly something else on his mind – pondering how to get rid of Aeradon’s yoke, most likely – and meanwhile, the jealous Carlana could only point accusing fingers at other pretty girls around Darq so she would remain the only one.
Councilor Gentian had been right. If I hadn’t liked the Necropolis before, with its constant, silly power games, I certainly didn’t like it now.
There was one place in the Necropolis I liked, however. As soon as I could, I sought refuge there, to clear my head.
The main library of the Necropolis had been mercifully spared the fury of the two Civil Wars the city had recently seen. Each time I visited, I was amazed at my discoveries among its cramped, dusty shelves. While outside the city was restless with internal strife, here, within these candle-lit walls, lay the answers to everybody’s problems, which no one ever bothered to even read, let alone put into practice.
Here were the chronicles, the historical accounts, the diaries, the spellbooks and grimoires. And here were some of the finest minds of the Dark Crusade, whom I had had the pleasure of meeting. Although none of them seemed to be at the library with me now. I had not received news of Scholar Maleficius in literal years, and I suspected – or hoped – he had changed his allegiance to something less ridiculous than what the Sect was now. If that was the case, I couldn’t really blame him. As for Phinidae, well, she was supposed to be back in town, actually, after uncovering the secrets hidden within the ancient city of Dragon’s Gate and casting spells over magespawn creatures she found there so they would serve the cause of the Dark Crusade. She had returned victorious, just like myself. With any luck, I would have met her today. As I sat down at a table with an old grimoire, I briefly fantasized about having a life like hers. Away from the Necropolis for years, with knowledge as my only pursuit… but I was a leader. I could not afford abandoning my people like that.
When a clerk passed by my table, I asked her for news of my intellectual friend.
“Hey, you. Have you seen Phinidae around here? I was told she was back from Dragon’s Gate.”
The clerk stared at me dumbly for a few seconds, before answering me with a hurried “Nu-uh! Haven’t seen her lately!” and storming out of my sight.
I shrugged. Maybe I had just scared her. Which only begged the question of what a girl who was scared so easily was doing in the Necropolis in the first place.
I became absorbed in my reading of the grimoire. It was a compilation of ancient spells of the Blood Cult, and yes, I could recognize a certain, definite likeness with the Dominion rituals I had learned during my brief stint with the Tur’aj. I grabbed a nearby quill pen and a piece of paper and began taking notes. I couldn’t wait to show them to Phinidae as soon as I saw her. Two Cults. The Blood Cult and the Apocalypse Cult… There were points in common. The ability to drain the strength of an opponent – or an ally, even! – through their wounds… This was the kind of research I liked to keep myself busy with when I wasn’t sending the Moonborn into battle. No one else would be interested but the bright-minded Phinidae, I surmised. I made sure to write in clear letters so she would be able to read my notes with ease.
I have to admit I was feeling so much in my element, I almost didn’t notice that someone had approached me. I lifted my gaze from the book, half-hoping to find Phinidae staring at me.
Sadly, it wasn’t her. It was a different woman who was smiling down at me. I recognized her gaunt face and brown curls.
“Good evening, Delara. I didn’t know you read.” The awareness that my comment might have sounded offensive reached me with considerable delay.
“Sharp-tongued as always, huh.” Delara said, rolling her eyes. “It just so happens that I am Darq’s top student now.”
Her remark was probably intended to make me envious. I felt nothing but total indifference.
“Anyway, I didn’t approach you just to brag. I wanted to congratulate you on your victory in the desert. Everyone was expecting the Moonborn to walk away with their tails between their legs. Instead, you totally stomped the Revolution! Why, with a little more manpower, you could even have taken Khamsin!”
I raised my eyebrows at her suggestion. Taking Khamsin? With the little troops I had left, it had been unthinkable. Yet, the idea was appealing. The Red City, running red with rivers of blood to feed hordes of vampires and werewolves… “You flatter me, Delara. Which begs the question… is there a pill you’re trying to sweeten for me?”
My question went ignored. Which, in retrospect, should have put me on edge.
“And how were you and your army even able to travel into Necropolis?” Delara continued. “There are Elemental and High Elven forces all around the Black Lake, blocking passage both from and into the city…”
I shrugged. “I was lucky. Some sort of huge explosions coming from deep in the forest distracted the Elves that were keeping watch over one of the bridges. Many of them left their post, leaving the bridge mostly unguarded. We got in from there.”
“So you did notice the explosions…”
“It was impossible not to. I’m just glad they served as my diversion to get into the city without losing any of my men, or even having to engage them in an actual battle. What were those explosions, anyway? Do you know?”
Delara’s face turned very serious. “They were magestone mines and deposits blowing up.”
“Someone is blowing up magestone mines?” I inquired. “Rebels, maybe?”
Delara shook her head. “The explosions have been totally spontaneous. Over the last few days, magestone has been exploding all over the land.”
I grinned playfully. “Really, now? Methinks the Empire is suddenly short several magi. I wonder what Necromancers can do with humans whose brains have been blown up by their own magestone implants.” I was very pleased with this idea of mine, but then I considered better. Suddenly, a shiver of worry washed over me. Councilor Gentian, too, had a magestone implant on his forehead, despite not being an Atlantean. What if he, too…?
Delara shrugged. “It’s mostly unused, raw, unmined magestone that has been exploding. Though there have been reports of refined crystals exploding, too. Or suddenly becoming useless. We’re in the process of trying to understand why this is happening.”
So maybe Gentian was safe, after all. “You think I could lend a hand with your research?” I asked. That could explain why Delara had sought to speak with me.
“Well, you could, but, what I’ve been meaning to tell you is… There is one thing we know for sure.”
The small movement of Delara biting the inside of her cheek did not escape me.
“I couldn’t help but overhear you asking the clerk about Phinidae…”
“Yeah? What about her?” I asked.
Delara seemed hesitant about something, her head low for a moment. Then she beamed at me, her fangs bared in what tried to pass for a friendly smile. “Hey, Arythea, I just thought – why don’t we go grab some bloodwine together somewhere? To celebrate the good times…”
I had had enough. I rose to my feet, anger burning my cheeks. “Delara. Are you trying to tell me that something happened to Phinidae?”
There she went, biting her cheek again. My ears caught her whisper. “She’s dead.”
“WHAT?!” I asked, swatting away my chair. It made a loud, scraping noise on the floor.
“Not twenty days ago, she returned to Dragon’s Gate – we have no idea why, we assumed it was to get more conscripts to increase our falling numbers. And now… the city of Dragon’s Gate and everything and everyone within it have been destroyed in the very first explosion that shook the Land.” Delara finally found the courage to say, though her lower lip trembled.
I had to steel myself, resting my hands and my weight on the table before me. “Alright.” I said then, looking straight into Delara’s eyes. “Who’s the best Necromancer we have left after the last Civil War? I’ll go get him and bring Phinidae back. She won’t be the same as a zombie, of course, but she’s too valuable an asset for us to lose her completely.”
Delara kept shaking her head as I talked. It was irritating. “It was a huge explosion, and it seems that its fulcrum was very close to Phinidae. She’s probably been blown to smithereens.”
“NO!” I shouted, as both of my fists landed on the table. Something tugged at the corners of my eyes. Tears, most likely.
“Get a hold of yourself, Arythea.” Delara said, taking a step back. “You’re throwing a tantrum in the library.”
“Damn right I am! In Phinidae’s research rested the Dark Crusade’s only hope for the future! What now?!” Enraged, I grabbed the paper with my carefully written notes for Phinidae. What good was it now? My frantic hands ripped it into a thousand pieces that scattered on the table and on the floor.
“This is not how a leader should behave, Arythea.” Delara said in a cold whisper.
She was right. I took a deep breath as I tried to calm myself. The tears started flowing freely then. I felt weak and ridiculous. I could do nothing to stop them. Just like I hadn’t been able to do anything to keep one of my few friends from harm, busy as I had been fighting Darq’s battles for him.
Delara came closer and lightly touched my arm. “Now. How about that bloodwine?”
I jerked away from her hold. “Thank you. I’ll pass.”
It was a pitiful display I was giving, right after my hard-won victory against the Revolution. I could not afford to show such weakness, not in the Necropolis. As I made towards the library’s exit, I knew I needed guidance.
And no guidance was better than the one my God Amara had to give.
“You wish for Darq to finally move against Aeradon. For him to show the Sect the superiority of the Blood Cult, and become the illuminated leader whom you wish to follow.”
“Yes, my Lord. That is correct.”
“You wish to shed light on the death of Phinidae.”
“Indeed, my Lord.”
“And finally, there is the matter of repaying your debt to the Council.”
“That too, my Lord.”
“Arythea… Perhaps there is but a single answer to all of your ongoing tribulations.”
“Really, now? Do you mean…?”
“Yes. Think about it, Arythea. Consult Darq, if you must – he will not be deaf to the problems you have with his rule.”
“I don’t have any problems with Darq’s rule, you know...” I lay back on the plush cushions that made up my bed in Amara’s room. “It’s how we’re all somehow supposed to worship him. We’re the Blood Cultists, for Goddess’ sake! We should be worshiping you – not him! And he should be your emissary, not the other way around!”
“Be patient, Arythea. Do not forget that only you know the truth, so far.”
“Yes, about that. When do you plan to reveal yourself, my Lord?”
“I should be asking that question of you, Arythea.”
I sighed and closed my eyes. Further down the bed, Ravenbane approached and started massaging my bare, aching feet. Somehow, Ravenbane had ended up staying with me as my servant. Although she has served as the ultimate proof of my loyalty to the Dark Crusade, it seemed as though no one really wanted her around. She could take care of her personal hygiene and appearance, but that was about it. So far, no one had been able to get her to cast simple spells again, let alone fight. I was discovering, though, that there were other things she was good at. Her ministrations were a little clumsy, but I relaxed into them as I sought the words to use for my reply to Amara.
“I don’t really want to fight Darq for leadership of the Blood Cult. A lot of Blood Cultists still like him, despite everything.”
“Darq? Where is Darq?” Ravenbane inquired, looking lost as she looked about herself.
“My point exactly.” I sighed. “Dividing the Dark Crusade even further seems to be everybody’s specialty these days. It is a united Blood Cult I want, Amara.”
“Lady Arythea. Darq is where?” Ravenbane kept asking, tugging at my clothes.
“In this same palace, downstairs, in the throne room.” I don’t know why I felt compelled to answer her delirious questions.
“Can we go see him? I’ve missed him.”
Before I could answer her, Amara spoke up. “Yes, Arythea. Why not go speak to him?”
“Because the last thing I want, or need, is for him to think I am conspiring against him.”
“He will not think that, if you speak to him openly.”
I considered for a moment. “Yes. That could work. I’ll just have to be careful and mind my words. Thank you, my Lord.”
“Let’s go see Darq, Lady Arythea, please.” Ravenbane pleaded weakly, as she kept massaging my feet.
I held out a hand to caress her long, dark locks. What had a Sect beauty like her been doing in the service of those abominable Shyft? I was so glad I had saved her, even if some kind of failsafe mechanism in the Shyft mindbonding spell had fried her mind. “Yes, dear. Soon.”
Normally, when Deathspeaker Darq plans to spend an entire night locked in a chamber with a pretty Sect lady, it is not to discuss politics. So we all agreed that Carlana had to be present at our meeting, too, so she could see that her position as Darq’s top concubine was not being undermined in any way.
What we discussed, I am not at liberty to say. I can say, however, that some moments were definitely tense, and a particular one nearly escalated into a fight between Amara and me on one side, and Darq and Carlana on the other. Our noteworthy opponents did not take long to realize that we weren’t quite as evenly matched as they had thought. Amara had fought at their side many times, but his true power had remained hidden, and for some reason it had mysteriously increased lately, now that the Gods of the Apocalypse roamed the land freely.
“It’s time you realized it!” I yelled as I used my staff to conjure a barrier to deflect a magical blast from Carlana’s own staff. “Amara is far more than the demon you thought he was!”
I saw Carlana prepare more magical blasts, so I focused on strengthening my barrier. “Amara is the God showing us the way to eternal youth, without ever knowing death!” I glanced at Amara at my side. Its powerful, ancient scepter glowed threateningly with magic far more arcane than the remaining three of us had ever known. In front of us, Darq was beginning to understand that surrender was the wisest choice in this case.
“Amara… is the consort of the Blood Goddess!” I yelled even louder, above the sizzle of our magic. “Yield at once, my Lords, and bow to his power!”
The moment I saw the two leaders of the Blood Cult depose their weapons, I knew my Lord Amara had been right. He had been right to believe in me.
It was not my intention to unseat Darq and Carlana, of course, and I made that very clear. The Blood Cult was presently too tied to the personal worship of Darq for me to take such a risk. I was merely after a few of the many responsibilities that Darq was so inefficiently hoarding for himself. I would still submit to his authority and rule, but on the condition that he recognized Amara as an ancient God of the Blood Cult and agreed to shake off Aeradon’s yoke from the Blood Cult as soon as was possible.
When the sun cast its first light over the waters of the Black Lake, I was Lady Arythea, Supreme General of the Moonborn and High Priestess of the Blood Cult.
“Thank you, my Lords. You will not regret your decision. The Blood Cult is too ancient a belief to be a mere plaything for Aeradon.”
Darq nodded. That much, we definitely agreed on. “Trust me, he’ll learn that soon enough.”
“The Necropolis is too small for us. The numbers of the Blood Cult must increase, all over the Land.” Not to mention that I believed the Necropolis was too small for both Amara and the Dark Tezla, but that was a belief I wasn’t going to voice just yet. “If you give me your consent, my Lords, I will take it upon myself to find us a new, better home.”
“I like the sound of that.” Carlana intervened. It was probably the first thing she had said in my support throughout the entire meeting. I assumed she was getting tired. “Let Aeradon fight all those Elves by himself!”
I nodded. “The Dark Crusade is nothing without the Blood Cult. Keep this in mind.”
The first light of morning shone through the windows, and everyone seemed to be satisfied. The chamber doors were unlocked and opened, and Darq and Carlana were the first to exit.
I followed, a few paces behind them. Past the doorway, I could already see many familiar faces – Blood Cultists who had gathered to see what the meeting’s outcome would be. As I stepped into the larger room, I waited for Darq to announce my new titles and rank.
Instead, all I heard him say was, “Now!”
At that, Carlana turned swiftly in my direction, and I saw a throwing knife flying straight towards me, aimed at my throat.
As suddenly as I saw it, however, something, or someone, pushed me out of its way. I heard the knife collide with something, and a metallic noise as it fell to the floor.
“What a cheap trick!” A woman’s voice said, full of power and authority. “And how despicable of you, Lord Darq! The deal Lady Arythea made with you benefits everyone in this room, and you try to dispatch her thus?”
I could not see the woman well, but she was a wiry, long-haired, scantily dressed Sect Elf.
No, it couldn’t be.
“Ravenbane?” I heard Darq ask. “You’re…”
“You’re making sense!” Carlana finished his sentence.
“Call me Ravenbane no longer.” The Sect Elf said, and I saw her shudder. “I know I went by that name, but it also happens to be the name of… one my Tur’aj captors. Just call me Mora from now on. But that is beside the point. Darq. I was faithful to you before the Tur’aj kidnapped me, and I am now. But Arythea is the one who rescued me. I owe everything to her. Now she’s trying hard not to cross you so that the Sect doesn’t become even more divided than it already is. And I say, do not cross her, either, and abide by the agreements you made with her tonight, lest you feel my rage!”
At that last word, flashes of red and green magic coursed through Mora’s staff. Probably a powerful combination of Dark Crusade wizardry with whatever she might have picked up from the Tur’aj. She would make a deadly enemy. And was the perfect ally, as far as I was concerned.
Both Darq and Carlana looked hesitant, as the news of Mora’s sudden recovery settled into their heads.
Then something unpredictable happened. The assembled Blood Cultists began chanting my name. Well, I kind of felt like I was back in the Blood Pits. I was a little embarrassed, but that chanting caused a surge of new strength to run through my veins. If Darq and Carlana still had it in them to oppose Amara and me, so be it.
Amara flapped its tattered leathery wings behind me, while Mora stood at my side, eyeing our rulers defiantly.
“Everyone, listen!” Darq finally spoke, silencing the crowd with a broad gesture. “Lady Arythea has been named High Priestess of the Blood Cult. To her I have also delegated a few military responsibilities, and she is now Supreme General of the Moonborn forces.” He heaved a sigh and looked at me. “I hope you’re satisfied.”
“I am, my Lord.” I said, bowing.
As Darq and Carlana retreated to their apartments, I saw Darq turn and smile at me. And that’s how I knew that Carlana’s gesture had not been an attempt at my life.
They had wished to see who, and how many, would step up to defend me.
In the following years, I was able to shed some light on the mystery of the Breaking and Phinidae’s death.
Predictably, Jadreen was behind it. As was already clear to me, that traitor would do anything to disrupt the Sect and get her revenge on Darq. She had either convinced or forced Phinidae to perform spells that resulted in the opening of the actual gate hidden beneath Dragon’s Gate. That act had unleashed a new, devastating stage of the Apocalypse sought and heralded by the Tur’aj cult. Phinidae had died immediately in that first explosion, while Jadreen, of course, had made sure to stay out of harm’s way.
It made sense, in a twisted sort of way. I had taken Mora from Jadreen, and Jadreen had taken my friend from me, while also depriving the Sect of its most enlightened warrior.
For a time, Darq and I made it our personal mission to make Jadreen pay. It took several years, but eventually, we were successful. Help from the successfully exorcised Growlfang was instrumental in our capture of her. I will not enter into details, but let’s just say that Darq was especially creative in his handling of her remains, both to express his rage at her traitorous acts, and to serve as a warning to any others who might have wanted to defect to the Apocalypse like she had done.
Throughout the years, Darq and I worked closely. In the end, it took over a decade for him to finally decide to pull the rug from under Aeradon and begin the definite schism of the Blood Cult from the Dark Crusade. We found a new home in my home, the Galeshi Desert. We took control of the Seven Ringed Cities, but the Empire had beaten us to control of Khamsin, and our attempts to invade or lay siege to it all failed.
Shortly after the schism, I had to fight Carlana in order to retain my position as High Priestess of the Blood Cult. My victory left her in rather bad shape. I was always clueless about the exact goings-on of her relationship with Darq, but all I know is that, after I defeated Carlana in our duel, Delara took her place as Darq’s lead concubine.
Myself, I couldn’t care less about romancing with Darq. Sure, he was infatuated with me at times, especially when I kept bringing home victories. And I’d be lying if I said we were never in bed together. To the two of us, however, nights spent together were just a way to cement our mutual bonds of political and military loyalty.
Even while in Darq’s arms, however, my thoughts went to the gentle Elf Gentian. When, and how would he contact me again? Was he even still alive? None of the things I had achieved after our meeting would have been possible, had my Moonborn and I remained under the thrall of the Apocalypse. In a sense, I owed it all to him, but, unless something had happened to him, apparently it wasn’t time for me to repay my debt just yet.
Then one day, I learned from Amara that the Void called.
The meeting place was rather hard to find – a keep within a tiny, sheltered valley in the heart of the Ailons. Its presence didn’t at first seem to make much sense, being, as it was, in a mountainous territory of scarce passage.
I left my winged horse ride at the stables. They seemed to be well tended to by a group of human commoners. Notably, I saw no one wearing the curious masks that mark the servants of the Solonavi. Gentian had been right when he had tried to dispel my worries – the Void was not some new scheme concocted by those insidious glowbugs.
More humans escorted me through a corridor and past a large wooden, arced door. Suddenly, I found myself within an impressive meeting room. It was circular in shape, and I saw several tiers of seats piling up to the hall’s high ceiling. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of people occupied those seats, but I could not see their faces, cloaked, as they were, by a kind of impenetrable darkness. Darkness that was broken, however, in two different points, quite far apart from each other – by two sets of wings glowing in gold and vivid colors. So the Solonavi did have a part in this, somehow!
I stood at the bottom of the auditorium, within a circle of seemingly unnatural white light. After the Breaking, magelamps had soon become obsolete – magestone was the most valuable resource of all, and using it just to make light, knowing that the crystals would soon become exhausted and unusable, was deemed a complete waste. This had to be a new kind of lamp – one designed by Gentian, perhaps? I knew for a fact that my friend in the Void was also a brilliant inventor.
I wasn’t alone in that spotlight, however – other three stood at my side, and I could see them clearly. One of them I recognized immediately – it was Goldyx, the Drakona who had assisted my exorcism. Another was a warrior clad in ancient-looking black armor. He looked like he could be from the Sect, but I had never seen armor like his before. The last was a blonde High Elf clad in shining silver armor and blue garments, who was presently staring at me and trying to rein in his confusion and bewilderment.
I ignored him for the time being. I knelt before the Council, knowing Gentian was somewhere among those files of seats. “Arythea, Blood Cultist, High Priestess of Amara and Supreme General of the Moonborn, bows to the Void.”
My voice resonated in complete silence for a few seconds. Then finally, I heard Gentian’s voice.
“The Void welcomes you, Arythea. May you give the Land what it has craved for generations.”
Well! Considering that the Blood Cult granted its followers eternal youth and immortality, I didn’t see how anyone else but me could have given the Land what it wanted.
But evidently, someone here didn’t see things my way. After glancing briefly at the ancient warrior and at the Drakona as if asking for an explanation, the Elven Lord pointed at me while addressing the Council. A rude gesture, from the son of a race that sees itself as the only true champion of all things virtuous and righteous.
“May I ask, Councilors… What is a warrior of the Sect, a champion of Darq, no less – doing here, at our most enlightened assembly?”
I was about to speak up in my defense, but Gentian was quicker than I.
“Arythea may serve Darq, Lord Norowas, but she does so on her own terms.”
Why, that described my situation rather well. My mind went back to the moment Amara and I were prepared to destroy Darq and Carlana should they refuse to recognize Amara’s divinity.
“Moreover,” Gentian continued, “Arythea is a Moonborn. Vampirism is something she was born into. She did not fall prey to alluring promises of power and immortality – vampiric practices are, simply put, her only means of survival.”
Gentian’s explanation did not seem satisfactory to Lord Norowas. To the Council, he nodded, but I heard him mutter under his breath. Such demons should be destroyed upon birth.
Why, that was very tolerant and totally did not risk sparking any conflict. How were the Elven Lords supposed to keep peace in the Land, again? Once again, as I addressed the Council, I decided to ignore him.
“I will thank you, Councilor, for speaking in defense of my people and me. I now humbly ask the Void what it requires of me, so I can repay the many favors I owe.”
Again, Gentian was the one who replied. There was mild amusement in his voice. “For now, the Void asks that you make the acquaintance of those who will walk the same path as you – Goldyx the Sorcerer, most powerful among the Drakona and possibly among dragon-men as a whole. Lord Norowas of House Wyndfenner of Rivvenheim, a noble pursuer of peace. And Tovak Wyrmstalker, Leader of the Dragonslayers of legend since millennia ago, now considered the head of the Order of the Ninth Circle.”
The last description was one I found utterly befuddling. I looked at the warlord in dark armor, who had to be Tovak. Now that I looked at him better, I noticed that a tiny, living dragon with golden skin had made the top of Tovak’s helm its home. What at first glance had looked like a decoration actually breathed, moved and at times flexed its small, glittering wings.
According to my studies, the Dragonslayers were a legendary team of heroes from four different races who, millennia ago, had killed the Apocalypse Dragon the first time it rampaged over the Land. Now something had resurrected them – was “resurrected” even the right word? Was Tovak an undead, the impossible work of a necromancer trying to reanimate a millennia-old corpse, now nothing but dust? He hadn’t said or done much, but he definitely felt more… alive than that.
But anyway, it still seemed incredible that a hero of legend and lore would end up as the head of a strange, motley group of magespawn mercenaries. I cocked an eyebrow at Tovak.
“An interesting description, Tovak Wyrmstalker. Why, I can see life’s been unfair to you. How about unlife? We could discuss that over a meal sometime.”
Tovak – or his helm, anyway – turned to look at me. When he spoke, he had a deep voice, full of a strange sadness. Not a lot of emotion, but still too much for a zombie. “I do not know what you are talking about. I greatly enjoy life, and the gifts it has given me.”
I shrugged. “Nice. But should you ever change your mind, you know who to turn to now.”
Meanwhile, Norowas’ face had flushed pink, seemingly in rage. “Councilors! Even now, the fiend tries to corrupt noble heroes into following her foul, unworthy cause and beliefs! I owe you the greatest respect, but allow me to question the very reason of her presence here!”
When Gentian spoke next, his usual kindness was gone from his voice. “Arythea is a strong warrior, a wise military commander, and an able politician, precisely the kind of hero that the Void seeks. Any other comments aimed at isolating her will not be tolerated, Lord Norowas.”
Me as a hero, of all things, sounded like a joke, but I couldn’t have been more thankful for Gentian’s words.
We spent the rest of the evening getting to know each other over a multiple-course dinner, with Gentian and another Council member as moderators. It truly seemed that all the Void wanted from us now was to get a feel for each other. I didn’t complain – my journey had been long and tiring, with my ride at full spur.
I felt drawn to the mysterious Tovak, at how his life had to be so much more interesting than our other three put together, and at how, in spite of this, he had so little to say. Goldyx and Norowas were often engaged in deep conversation anyway – bridging millennia-old differences or something – so it was easy for me to be stuck with the silent Tovak.
“That armor’s got to be heavy.” I observed. “Why not take it off?”
“My armor stands for my power. For what my comrades and I have done for the Land.” He answered simply as he ate through his helm, small bite after small bite.
“Sure, but we’ve been introduced. We know you’re the leader of the Dragonslayers and of the Order of the Ninth Circle. So you don’t need to wear your symbols of power even as you relax.”
“Neither the Dragonslayers nor the Order have a leader.” He said, cutting me off. “And I try not to relax.”
I rolled my eyes. “You make such a great conversation partner.”
“Thank you, Lady Arythea.”
Sarcasm was lost on him, apparently. I took a sip of the bloodwine I had been served. It was stale. What had I been expecting, so far away from Sect territory? I made a mental note to ask Gentian if I could feed on one of the stable boys.
After Tovak had been silent for some time and I considered our conversation dead and beyond Necromantic help, just then – he spoke to me.
“That Elf – he doesn’t even know you, and yet he’s labeled you as a fiend and a threat. He’s very judgmental.”
I blinked. “I think it has less to do with his personality, and more to do with the fact that our respective factions have been at war with each other for nearly half a century.”
“Don’t you think it is time for this era of war to finally end?”
“That’s a nice thought and all, very romantic.” I sighed. “But I don’t think it can end. People are selfish. There will always be strife.”
Tovak lowered his voice then, just low enough so I alone could hear. “I know it can end. All that begins eventually ends. It can end, because it started. I did not see it start. I will see it end.”
And in those few words, the mystery that was Tovak’s life was revealed to me. What lesson would I gain from that tale?
Much like the exorcism, my treatment in the Red Chamber the Void had set up for me felt like sleep. Very regenerating sleep. The sort of sleep from which you wake up thinking you could move mountains.
My powers did not rise literally to that level, of course. Yet.
I opened my eyes and glanced about the tiny room. There was barely enough space to move. The floor and walls were completely covered in glowing red and white crystals. They looked remarkably like magestone, but somehow I could tell they weren’t. Their irregular shapes felt pleasing under my feet, though I had to be careful in a couple places, where their sharp points jutted out. A gentle, continuous noise, which had started at the beginning of the treatment, hummed in my ears.
Then, the humming suddenly stopped. At the same time, the glow of the crystals dimmed and began to fade. That is how I knew the treatment was complete.
I opened the door and stepped out, closing the door behind me. The cold, damp air of the laboratory instantly gave me goosebumps – I was completely naked.
Councilor Gentian walked up and wrapped a soft robe about me.
“Arythea. How are you feeling?” He asked me. As usual, his voice gave away both his apprehension for me, and his scientific curiosity.
“Reinvigorated. Somewhat stronger.” I answered.
My words made the tall Elf chuckle. An Elf with a sense of humor. Not a common find. “Only somewhat? Wait to see what you can do now.”
“I don’t doubt that you’ve kept true to your promises. Are you sure that wasn’t magestone, by the way?”
Gentian’s smile widened. “You won’t find any magestone in a laboratory of the Void. Even before the Breaking, we knew that the days of magestone as a power source were numbered.”
“So your implant…?” I enquired, nodding at the Elf’s forehead, where a silvery gem coruscated.
“My implant, quite simply, isn’t magestone.” The Councilor grinned. “It’s just one more of my experiments.”
“Let me commend your far-sightedness, then.” I said, with a grin matching his.
We stared into each other’s eyes, and for a moment I almost thought he was going to kiss me. He looked at me as one does a prized thing, dear and priceless, their own creation, their own child.
“The treatment has greatly enhanced your powers, Arythea. You are now able to launch full fire attacks, even without your staff to amplify them. Now, you can derive power from your own wounds as well as your opponent’s. Your self-healing abilities have also been augmented. And as a whole, the treatment has generally increased your power as a sorceress.”
As I listened to Gentian’s description of the treatment’s benefits, I was attentive, but skeptical. Could I truly do all that? I didn’t feel much different from before. I wasn’t sure.
“You have become an unstoppable force.” Gentian said, still smiling at me oddly. I wasn’t sure if he was more satisfied with me or with his own work. “The strongest of all Mage Knights. The most complete and versatile.”
I jerked my thumb towards the chamber. “The other three have undergone the treatment as well, yes?”
“Yes. In chambers specifically designed to give them new abilities and strengthen the ones they already possess.”
“But you said I’m the strongest. I’m stronger than the three of them?”
“If you make wise decisions as the mastery of your new powers progresses, you will be stronger than each other individual Mage Knight, yes.”
“Which begs the question – why make me the strongest?”
Gentian stopped cold and fell silent. There was a guilty look in his clear blue eyes, much like a child being caught stealing from a neighbor’s fruit tree. “I think you know why, Arythea.” He said under his breath. “I could say I want you to successfully conquer your goals so you will be safe from your master Darq’s notoriously fickle rage, but… that would not be the full truth.”
“I’m stronger than Darq, anyway. Especially now.” I grinned, and managed to get Gentian to smile back at me. “But, on the unlikely assumption that you’ve given me all this power for more personal reasons, you could say, to defend your choice before the Council, that I need to better defend myself from my many enemies in the Apocalypse Cult.”
“That could work.” Gentian said with a nod.
A servant brought my High Priestess regalia and I began dressing up. Gentian looked away as I cast away the robe he had given me, but I kept talking to him. “I have no doubt that you have served me well, and so far, my debt with the Void has only increased.”
“Worry not. Starting tomorrow, as you know, you will repay what you owe.”
“Yes. I have one last doubt, however. Gentian… there are a couple glowbugs in the Council, aren’t there?”
Gentian laughed quietly. “You and your fixation with the Solonavi…”
“It’s not a fixation. It’s that they can probably sense that I was once possessed by a Spirit Lord.” I explained. “And the last thing I need is that kind of enemy within the Council.”
Gentian’s laughter subsided. “The Council includes members from many different races and factions. I am not at liberty to disclose their identities, but know that the Council includes only two Solonavi, who are already familiar with your story and motives and do not see you as a threat, provided you don’t relapse into the Dominion’s temptations.”
“Don’t worry. I take my job more seriously now than I did back then.” I adjusted my headdress in a mirror the servant held before me.
“Very well. You leave tomorrow, Arythea. I can only give you a partial map of the territory you have been tasked to explore – the rest, you will have to figure out yourself. The area was ravaged during the Breaking, as the result of an explosion of a major magestone vein that the Atlantean themselves had been unaware of. Since then, forests have grown, villages have been built – but no one’s bothered to chart them, regrettably.” Gentian sighed. “You will provide us this information. Eventually, your exploration should take you close enough to the Red City that you may attempt to attack and conquer it. Other than that… do what you want. Feel free to spread the Blood Cult among the populace and recruit local warriors to your cause. Also, there are reports of the area having been invaded by Orcs, so you could take care of that. Or you could do other things – provided you gain enough mastery of your powers by the time the Red City comes into view.”
I was already familiar with all this, but there was only one thing I really needed to know. “How long do I have?”
“Three days and three nights.”
I was about to make a comment, but decided not to. It was a really short time to master my new powers and conquer a whole, sprawling City! Then again, because the Void asked it, the least I could do was try.
“You should be able to make the most of that little time, as your new abilities allow you to forgo sleep for that period of time without any consequences.” Gentian specified.
I felt somewhat relieved. Why not, if I could exploit every single moment of night and day? It was feasible.
I grabbed my staff. The crescent moon at one end glowed, its hue slightly redder than before. I glanced at the wall opposite the Red Chamber, at the other invention Gentian had come up with. A stone portal, much like an old temple’s entryway, carved with arcane runes and powered by Gentian’s non-magestone white crystals, which were set within its décor. The crystals seemed to be dormant, their glow not very apparent. But the space enclosed within the two stone columns of the portal seemed to sparkle and glitter.
“I’ll be stepping through here, right?” I asked Gentian.
“Yes. The portal will take you to the place where your exploration will begin, a considerably safe area where you will not be the object of attention.”
“Good.” I nodded. I looked at the white sparkles of light within the portal and squinted. If I stared for some time, I could see small glimpses of the place Gentian was describing. The sea. Roaring waters. High cliffs. Green meadows and fields. A small forest. No visible sign of the Empire’s presence.
And yet, somewhere not far from there, lay the Red City, under Atlantean occupation and rule. The city the Void had asked me to conquer and free from the corrupt hold of the Empire. The city that could already have been mine. The city that would run red with blood.
Khamsin, soon to be turned into the greatest temple of Amara and the Blood Goddess.