Deep beneath the Gnarly tree rests a chamber used for housing only the most evil of artifacts and corpses. It's a small stone chamber, lit by a flickering oil lamp. In the center is the Box: a slightly larger-than-standard ebony coffin, with glowing runs on the lid and etched around the sides. The odd lacquer on the wood makes the symbols appear to float deeper inside the wood than possible.
First thing's first. "Disciples of the Alabaster Tower, heed my geas. Marnas, The Unbroken Chain, answer my summons. A witchdoctor of the old realm calls upon you." One of the wisps over Qing's head puffs away like a snuffed candle flame. Ghostly jingling heralds the arrival of a spectral serpent slithering from nothingness, clad in ornate armor. Loops of chain drape from her plates and arms, a length of it dangling from her right hand and ending in what appears to be a cylinder of spiked metal that would look quite solid and hefty if it weren't faintly translucent. The other wisp simply gets snuffed out, and as the spirit guardian takes up a position near the wall, Qing begins lighting the candles he arranged. Little else happens for some time after that, except for the drone of the mage's voice echoing from the stone walls of this cramped chamber.
Morgan has taken up position sitting near the exit, in the off chance something goes wrong. He sits with his knees tucked under, hands folded in his lap, and head back against the cold stone wall. Shortly before mage Qing expends his spell power, the Kadie looks up, and his brows raise as the Guardian appears out of nowhere. "Wow," he mouths, impressed.
If Qing hears, he doesn't respond, simply speaking in soft, sibilant words that make little sense. He moves slowly and gradually, swaying slightly, his myriad arms twisting and weaving amongst themselves like snakes of their own. The sand surrounding the box stirs and flows like liquid, shifting around the bases of the candles before dim, violet light begins seeping from under it, shafts of it extending up like a localized Aurora Borealis. It flares briefly, then becomes stable, and more time passes. Eventually, another wisp coalesces over the mage's head, and the Rokuga begins speaking comprehensibly again. "There… Nightshade, you may open the casket. Step lightly."
Morgan's slow to respond, having been caught up in watching the mage practice magic. "Yes, Mage Qing." After standing and dusting his skirts off, Morgan gingerly walks over to the casket. He is careful to skip over the sand-circle, lest he disturb the energies of the ritual. "This will take a moment," he apologizes, and then he reaches for the coffin.
The Rokuga waits, staring intently at the box.
With his body interposed between the coffin and Qing, it's difficult for the mage to see exactly what the boy is doing. From the movement of his arms, and the way he taps runes that aren't obscured by his tail, it looks like he's touching the coffin in a specific pattern. "Last one," he says after a moment. With one final dull thumb of his hand against the ebony, Morgan opens the coffin. There's a definite cha-thunk noise, followed by the sound of air escaping, and a dim light that fades. Then, the coffin lid releases, cracking open. Morgan quickly moves to step back over the sand-circle.
A greenish mist ripples and flows within the confines of the coffin, tendrils snaking throughout it. The mist slowly sinks deeper and deeper as if a puddle drying under a hot summer sun. Decaying black robes emerge that cover an emaciated corpse of a Skreek. The head and hands lay at odd angles, as if having been cut off and then replaced to return the corpse to some semblance of completeness. Resting across its chest and going lengthwise along the coffin lays a blackened and knobby staff. At first glance the wood appears twisted and warped … but with a closer look, it becomes apparent the entire staff is made from the bones of the dead, molded and shaped though some unknown means. The top is crowned with what may be a wind-chime of bones. As the candlelight flickers, the drawn back and rotting lips on the creature's head make it appear as if it's pleased by some unspeakable act it just committed.
The Kadie reaches up and plugs his nose. "Ugh," be breathes. "The smell is bad, but seeing him again is worse. There's the staff I told you about, there," he points at the blackened length of not-wood. "It used to be brighter. Other than that, he looks … ," the Kadie leans forward, brows raising, then narrowing, " … better than he did in life. How odd."
"Or half-life, as it were. Unlife? Quasi-life," Morgan adds.
"Is that so? Hmm. See here, too… I am no expert at the expressions of warm-bloods, but that does not look like the face of a man who died under duress." The snake gestures over the face, but doesn't touch anything, instead drawing himself up higher and producing the crystal lens Morgan might recall from their first meeting. Held betwixt thumb and forefinger, the lens is raised to one of Qing's ruby eyes, the drape of cobweb across it fluttering slightly. "All-seeing eye of the Golden One, pierce the veil of the mortal world, reveal unto me that of the higher plane." The mage follows this with his strange whispers, the ridges of his brow lowering as he stares.
"He was hacked by a halberd. It must have happened in the move, unless he moved himself after sealing," the Kadie replies. He frowns at the idea of the necromancer moving around in the box, especially if he's looking satisfied about it.
Through the lens, the body is shrouded in darkness. Snakelike tendrils ripple and slither beneath the robes. They encircle the bones, undulating and pulsing like blood vessels. Some expand and contract as if trying in vain to move the decaying corpse. Occasionally one reaches out and touches one of the coffin walls. Wherever it contacts, the tendril boils and runs like wax. The necromancer must have been very close to completing his ritual, indeed. Fragments of it still cling to his flesh.
The living mage's snout wrinkles faintly. "It is uglier than you know, Nightshade. The dweomer that he wrapped himself in is powerful, and it clings to him still. That it withstood the vacuum of energies that Madame Natasha created is remarkable and disturbing." That intent stare turns to the staff now, studying it bone by bone.
"As we told you, he seemed close to achieving his goal. You can see that, then?" Morgan scoots up behind Qing, peering over one of his lower shoulders. "It doesn't seem like much of a life, casting off your flesh for a … skeletal shell." He shivers, tail twitching.
Even as he studies the grotesque remains, Qing's lower arms disappear beneath his mantle for a moment, emerging with thistlebark stakes etched with the same spidery script Morgan saw on the contract he signed, though what the characters spell on the wood can't be read so easily. "In the face of inevitable death, it is a powerful draw, boy. To see one's works completed can be viewed as more valuable than life itself."
Morgan nods slowly. "I … I guess I can see the draw. Still," he shudders again, "I have never heard of a man who went on in this way, and had any semblance of kindness." He has to dodge his head around to avoid Qing's moving arm. Finally, he gets tired of that, and just steps to Qing's left.
The staff is more disturbing still. Each bone ripples with its own light, though now faint and flickering. None of them seem to be the same as that of the necromancer himself, however. The staff is more than just a construct of bones; the necromancer must have made it from selected sacrifices those he tortured until death leaving an echo of their final moments embedded on the staff. A rather nasty way to construct an enchantment, really. It also helps explain how some aspects of the ritual still exist; the fragments of the spirits he took kept it alive.
"Yes, little evidence of that in Valicross," murmurs Qing, flicking his tongue as he advances on the casket. "His staff reads like a graveyard. The last moments of each of his victims are imprinted on it, a bone taken from each of them. They died in anguish, and his incarnation fed from them, feeds now. Stonebarrow's claim is without a doubt valid, and all the more remarkable for this." The Rokuga returns his attention to the dark, spectral mass, focusing on it.
"I am glad you agree. I am gladder still he is being properly contained," Morgan says, sounding relieved. He shakes his head, though, at the idea of such torment. "How could he do something like that? I can't even comprehend the … the mind that would take. Ugh." Morgan's tail flicks, and he glares at the coffin with a mix of disgust and apprehension.
The mass is centralized in the chest of the corpse and radiating outward. With the way the tendrils move, it would not be surprising if the necromancer had actually carved a spell-circle on his own chest. The spirit of the necromancer definitely remains, a sickly red glow at the core of the darkness.
The witchdoctor's face doesn't look up from his task… it's difficult to see from where the Kadie stands, that wedge-shaped head shaded by his hat, but his voice is oddly hollow as he speaks. "Can you not, Nightshade?" A pallid hand swiftly stabs downward, driving a stake into the black mass near the red heart with a sickening cross between squish and crunch.
The shadowy mass writhes and pulls away from the stake. Where contact remained too long, the mass runs like melted wax, much like when it contacted the coffin walls.
Morgan's tail flicks at the crunch, but he doesn't look away. He just looks determined, eyes narrowed. "I was so useless when this happened," he murmurs, a guilty tone to his voice. "To think, it could have been us … " Hand clenching, Morgan steps forward and rests his hand on Qing's, helping him secure the stake.
From this close, Qing's face can again be made out, the angles of it hard. "Yes… you desired to save your people from him. Wanted it greatly." Another stake falls, sinking into decayed flesh and spirit tendril alike, and his ivory hand withdraws to allow Morgan to secure the stake, though it seems to need little encouragement. "Would you have done anything? Paid any price?" Chunk. A third stake is embedded, the red heart nearly surrounded. The witchdoctor's whisper grows soft, the tips of small, needle teeth showing past his lips. "To make him stop, would you have tormented him as he did to others?" The final stake falls, the heart surrounded. Shhk.
Slowly but surely the stakes encircle the mass like a prison. The mass tries to pull away from each, but in the end condenses down into a rippling mass in the center of his chest.
Morgan glares at the face piled with the remains. Valicross smirks back at him, the rictus grin seeming to mock the Kadie. "I'd … " He thumps the top of the stake he had been helping with. "I would have … " His fingers clench; then, he suddenly leans back. "I would have killed him. I don't … don't have the stomach for torture." As he says the words, he sounds somewhat diminished, as if admitting his inability to hurt someone made him weaker or less confident. "I just … can't. Even him. Ugh." Turning away, Morgan stalks from the coffin and shoves his hands in his skirt pockets.
The mage searches the grisly staff a few more times for links to the incarnation's remains or any other potential traps. Satisfied, he goes to lay his hands on it, to separate it from the dark tendrils. "You view him as a person. It is not weakness, it is what separates you from him, young Nightshade. And yet, you saw the glimmerings… what could make you see Valicross as less than a man? Had he died and taken the secret of a curse to his grave, what then? It is never so easy."
"No," Morgan breathes as he stops, "I guess it's not." Turning, the Kadie looks over his shoulder at the mage and the coffin. "You're going to take his staff, then? Is there nothing that can be done for the spirits within, to give them some peace?"
No more traps seem to be obvious on the staff. As the Rokuga's hand closes around the staff and lifts it away; for the briefest moment, he can feel the echoes within the staff. The necromancer's choice of victims … young, old, people from random walks of life. Some were probably mages or witches, people of importance. Others were just children, just beginning to experience life. Thankfully, the feelings pass as quickly as they came and the staff comes away from the corpse.
A shudder runs through Qing's body, and he stops, his fist curled around the staff's 'spine'. The muscles around his jaw tighten, but after a few moments he begins moving again, lifting Valicross' macabre trophies away from the corpse, and the piteous echoes they contain. "I shall study each piece later, learn what I can of their identities. Next of kin will be notified, and we can lay them to rest. But for now… " The witchdoctor glides backward, setting the staff aside and glaring at the prepared body. "For now, we see what lingers." Though his voice doesn't get louder, it suddenly seems to have more force to it, ringing from the chamber walls. "Arise, specter of Valicross. Arise and be bound to my will!"
Morgan eyes the staff soberly when it's put down. He wonders, for a moment, if any of those trapped within were like the people of his town. Was there an Amelia, so full of life? A Zahnrad, mind crammed with new ideas? Someone like his mother? Liliana? Himself? He hasn't long to ponder the grim ideas, though, for he's interrupted in his thoughts by Qing summoning forth Valicross's spirit. His head snaps around, and he sets his jaw as he glares at what arises from the coffin.
A shadow flows up from the corpse, undulating and twisting in the air. Even though there is distance between them and it, a bitter cold can be felt radiating from it in waves, as if the very shadow was breathing. Fragments extend from the central darkness, forming a depraved parody of a Skreek's body with spindly, spidery limbs. A neck protrudes, then followed by a gaunt shadow-skull, its eye sockets glowing blood red. Smoky tendrils flow and whip around its head, like wisps of hair in an unseen breeze. Its head rocks from side to side, looking from Morgan, then to Qing. "Ahhh," it rasps in a voice reminiscent of nails on a chalkboard, and full of vitriol, "Another mage from the college. How quaint. How charming. Are you here to lecture me on the error of my ways? Bore me, perhaps, with the banal concepts of morality and evil?"
"Your shell is dead, spirit," hisses Qing, tipping his head back to take in the sight, looking on with crimson eyes of his own. "There is nothing to teach you. I am here to know what else you perpetrated, what else you have left behind, and the location you worked from." He stretches an arm out, hand opened into a crooked claw. "And I will tear them from your being before I destroy you."
"Let me know if you need help, Mage Qing," Morgan volunteers in a shaky, yet determined, voice. He steps over to stand beside the mage, glaring at Valicross all the while. When Morgan nears the spirit, he opens his mouth to add something, pauses with mouth agape, then shakes his head, looking away for a moment. He seems to need to gather himself, as if whatever he was about to say, or the thought that generated it, caught him off guard.
The shade leans forward and eyes Qing with malevolence and … perhaps a hint of amusement. "Ah, you are not like the other mages. You are a man after my own heart," the specter says gleefully. "Come to learn my secrets, have you? Looking to grow your own power, yes. I can almost smell the desire for knowledge in you. Well, that changes things. Slit the useless one's throat so we may talk in private." The specter waves a dismissive 'hand' towards Morgan.
Morgan's tail suddenly bristles, and his hand goes for his belt knife. It's a meager thing, more suited to cutting herbs than flesh, but he rests his hand on it anyway. "Ah," he whispers, looking between the two others, "Mage Qing would never do that?" He stares, then, at Mage Qing, looking at him like a deer caught in the headlights. "Right?" Then Morgan glances at the spirit Guardian, and backs away a step. All those questions about verifying the mage's identity come back to haunt him, dancing around in his mind.
The spirit guardian, quiet all this time, stirs as if animated by Morgan's look. She lifts herself up, head nearly brushing the top of the chamber, and her hand whips in a small circle, starting her chain swinging, then spinning in lazy circles, the ghostly links clinking and the spiked club at its end whistling curiously.
The shade casts a glance towards the guardian. "Threatening someone who is already dead is rather pointless," it drolls. "Really, I expected better," it mutters. If it had eyes, it would be rolling them. "Very well, telling you would suit my plans, anyway. Nothing like a little revenge from the grave, so to speak. Where would you like me to begin?"
"Begin with the location you were based from," hisses Qing.
When it becomes apparent the Guardian isn't looking at Morgan, the Kadie stops his backwards retreat. Glancing between the Guardian, Qing, and the spirit of Valicross, he unsheathes his dagger and holds it as his side. "Mage Qing is a man of principle. I don't believe he would harm this town. If he has had a change of heart, I will stop him and you." Morgan's words, courageous sounding though they may be, are undermined by the worry in his voice.
"Brave words from a creature that would be destroyed if he truly understood you," Valicross' shade remarks coldly to Morgan. "Well, I have been based in so many places, it's hard to say," the creature says when its attention returns to Qing. "I used to rule a town called Schadel, but one of your kind, the accursed Mage Al-Nadia helped ruin that," the creature snarls, but then smiles in a sickly manner. "But, it was not without cost to her, no. She screamed so delightfully when I tortured her decades ago. Such music."
Being taunted seems to rile Morgan's nerve, causing him to clench the hilt tighter. He opens his mouth to say something, then snaps it shut, resuming his glaring.
Qing tilts his head slightly while behind him, Marnas criss-crosses her flail, simply spinning it on one side and then on the other. "You consumed Schadel for your incarnation, didn't you? Did you leave a lab there? What else have you left behind?"
"Well, at least your mind isn't as pale as your body," the shade observes with a dark chuckle. "Of course I consumed that town. What are people worth, if not stepping stones in the pursuit of more power, mmm?" With a glance towards Morgan, the shade notes, "Now for you, since you lack much understanding of anything, boy, your typical mortals, though, don't offer much power. They could not help power my rituals much. I did so appreciate it when someone with talent would happen by. I could then bind their life energy to my own, and willing or not, use what talents they had to further my research and rituals. You would have been useful to me." Then with a withering grin, the shade looks back to Qing, "So, yes, I had a lab there. Those who do not understand the truth about 'life' would have called it a slaughterhouse … but such is the sad state of the narrow-minded. Don't you agree? I bet you have a few slaughterhouses of your own. That powder doesn't cover up the sweet fragrance of death on you."
Morgan's expression turns grim, and, unable to take the taunting quietly any further, he says, "All that hardly helped you when we 'typical mortals' destroyed you, ghost." He crosses his arms over his chest, apparently trying to look stern, but in that dress he looks more pouty than anything else. Dagger dangling from his right hand, he taps the blade against his chest in agitation, tail twitching.
"Typical mortals? My, you aren't being completely honest with your guest, are you?" the shade comments, thin translucent lips pulling back into a mockery of a smile.
The Rokuga's head angles back slightly, his expression one of reflection. "It is true," Qing admits. "I oversaw charnal houses for the Empire, but remained in them to learn the fleeting nature of life and spirit, and the brutal truths of god and man. The reek of it may never leave me. We shall see what we find in yours. What else have you left behind, in or around Stonebarrow?" He doesn't comment on the shade's leading question, but he does spare Morgan an odd glance.
"So what if I have an interesting aura?" Morgan glances at Qing briefly, meeting his gaze, before looking back.
"Oh, I could spend hours telling you of the pain and suffering I've left behind. My true legacy, if you will. I could even show you," the shade says and extends its translucent hands towards the two. "And in the swamps I left behind a few things, of course, in my lair."
Qing rubs his neck thoughtfully. "Experiments? Or contingency plans?"
"More horrors?" Morgan inquires. "Your sense of decency?"
"Thats the thousand shekel question, now isn't it," the shade says. Its head snakes and rolls until its red eyes fix on Morgan. "Such charming barbs from you. I know the types you keep company with, boy."
"I'm not ashamed of my friends and allies, ghost," Morgan retorts. Seeming to find his courage growing, Morgan takes a step forward. "Whatever their nature, I've seen peace and good from them. You have no place to question me. None at all. You're… you're a blight on society! The future you'd bring would all be for yourself! What a sad, lonely existence you have forged."
"It would be a future of power, boy. All that matters is how much power you have. The concept of being 'alone' is for the weak-willed," the shade remarks and waves one of its hands dismissively.
The Rokuga raises his hand. "Enough, Nightshade." Unlike before, there's no ferocity behind the words, just a flat hiss. "This is an echo. There is no point debating it, it will not change." To the shade itself, he hisses, "Where is your lair situated?"
"It's nice to vent, though," Morgan admits to the serpent, turning to smile apologetically at the man. "I never realized just how awful he is … was. Plus, something he said made me feel better. I, I admit it's a guilty better, but … He said power is everything. He has nothing now. No power. Our power was what won the day. There's power in community, friends, and family. He just never knew it." Shaking his head, Morgan turns back and frowns. "What a sad thing he became."
The shade rubs its chin. "Looking to learn my secrets, are you? Well, perhaps we can barter, then, as I have no use for them any more," it says. "How much are you willing to 'pay'? Are you willing to enter into a pact with me?" Those lips pull back into a mockery of a smile again.
Qing's face is impassive. "There is no point. I will learn them via other methods, and whether they are more or less dangerous, it cannot be said, nor does it matter. If you have nothing more to say, I will simply tear away what I can with spells, and destroy the rest."
Morgan smirks briefly, then quickly quashes it. He glances at the ceiling, as it had become suddenly interesting, and frowns a little.
"Tsk. There is plenty of point. Tearing anything from me may not prove so easy. I know the spells you would likely use. Do you think I would not have some knowledge of how to resist them? I was going to make it easy for you. My payment would not violate any of your rules or morals and would benefit us both," the shade says and shakes its head. "But, if you wish to try the hard way, so be it."
This gives the Rokuga pause, the ridges over his crimson eyes flattening out. "It is true, your shell was accomplished, specter. I've no doubt this would be difficult if not impossible. You say your price will not compromise us? Let us hear it, then."
"My terms are simple. I want you to kill the leader of the gypsies," the shade answers. "I do not wish her and my little feud over these past many years to be ended with her as survivor. It is your duty to stop those who use magic without 'approval' from your so-called college. Thus killing her should be doing your college a favor. And, it doesn't harm anyone in this town, so your little slave there can't complain either."
Morgan glances towards the Rokuga, opens his mouth, pauses, then shuts it. He turns his gaze to the floor, frowning in thought as he listens to the specter relate his price. "Wait," Morgan says suddenly, turning to Mage Qing. His ears back, eyes narrowed, and voice firm, he looks as intent as he sounds. "You may not be able to manage him alone but we, together, might."
The witchdoctor frowns, the scaly skin around the corners of his mouth creasing. "I was not aware that Madame Natasha operated outside the bounds of Caroban. I am not a Watcher, however." The mage pauses, then gives Morgan an incredulous look. "What do you mean, Nightshade? It is a specter. There is nothing you can do to it."
"Mage Natasha risked her life to protect our town, and continues to do so, for her people. She is a good person; I'll not let her fall to your Watchers." The Kadie sounds even more intent, almost challenging, as he addresses Qing. Glancing between the mage and the specter, Morgan adds, his voice easing, "However, I think you, too, are a good person, Mage Qing. I've been watching you and, I regret to say, judging your character. I'm sorry, I went too far I'll explain later." He nods his head towards the specter, indicating it. "For now, know that you and it are not the only ones here who know how to work with spirits. I can assist you, to a degree."
Talking that fast, it's a wonder Morgan has any breath at all. His chittering, quick admission suggests even the calmest of Kadies secretly hide break-neck chatterers when excited.
"Oh, there are things about her that have long been buried. She is not all she seems," the shade says and rolls its head to look at Morgan, "And ah, such youthful bravado. She talked a lot like you once, you know. Right up to the point I started carving her hide from her body so many years ago." The creature rolls its head back around to Qing and says, "The one who calls herself Madame Natasha was once one of you."
Qing listens to both the living and the dead intently, so much so that Marnas stops swinging her chain, letting it dangle by her side. He lifts himself up to his full height, his focus on Morgan. "Nightshade," he whispers, his tone even and strangely quiet. "Do you know what it is to defy the Council? What it is to toy with Caroban's own? Were you playing a game with me? Tell me what you are."
"I know. You're not the first," the Kadie replies, trying to sound confident even as a little sheepishness slips in. "I mean, look," he gestures at the ghost, "at what mages can become! I watched Madam Natasha, too. I watch, to protect our town." Licking his lips, Morgan bows his head apologetically. "The others don't realize how dangerous you could be. If it was a game we were playing, it was a dangerous one, and one I didn't enjoy. I feel for you and your family I… I went too far there. I though I should, but … I … " He kicks his feet, then looks up again. "I had to know. I had to know if it was safe to let you walk. You said it yourself: Caroban cares about Caroban. I care about Stonebarrow. I am the Watch, here: I am witch, and the spirits of Stonebarrow are my allies."
The shade of the necromancer slides about as much as its able in its combined confines of coffin and ward walls. Its head slips and snakes, eyes fixing on its former staff laying to the side and outside of its reach.
The ivory reptile crosses the small chamber, and begins circling Morgan, reptilian head and trunk lowered to the Kadie's eye level. "It is indeed a dangerous game, boy. You know of the history that occurred here years ago, but you do not know Caroban like I do, like even Valicross did. You allowed me to move among you, and I was at your mercy. Your constable could have ended my life any time she chose. It is because of the terrible things that Caroban can do that she must not. It was too late the moment I set coil in your village." Curiously, as Qing travels around the young witch, another circle begins to take shape, chalks and sands held in the Rokuga's lower arms creating an elaborate pattern. "You are a witch, and you know of the spirits. Let us see, then, what we can do. What -you- can do. Do not disturb the circle, and do not leave it."
"You see, this is why power is all that matters. Everyone else in life merely seeks to find how best they can use you. Can't you hear it in him? He doesn't care for life. He cares only for power and pleasing those he serves so that he may grow in power. And now he wants to sacrifice you for his own gain," the shade cackles towards Morgan and claps his hands together. "Why, this is the time of my death. You are a man after my own heart," it tells Qing. "Good, give me a soul to devour."
Morgan follows the mage's movements like a squirrel faced with a serpent which he, in fact, is. "It was more than plotting murder. It was deflection," he insists nervously. "If you proved hostile, I would have lead you to what you came for, and lead you out again. No hostilities, no deaths. I know Caroban could crush us." He has to whip his head around to follow the serpent's, unable to turn it 360 degrees like Qing can. "I had no intention of harm. I was looking for trust. Trust for Natasha, trust for us. No one understands how delicate the balance is right now." Turning his gaze to Valicross, Morgan says, "You say you are like him? I think he is like me: we both protect people from your kind. We shall see who is right." And if I'm wrong, it's over for me, Morgan secretly considers. I just had to do it my way. I wonder if they'll believe in me, if I die?
The runed circle finishes around Morgan's feet, webs of runes, arcs, and lines crossing, linking, and flowing. At last, the witchdoctor pulls away, lower arms still trailing chalk and sand. He moves as though he were idly dragging a stick along a picket fence, but the lines fall into place neatly, and link to the larger circle Qing had been using before. A free hand waves dismissively at Marnas, who curls inward and puffs away like so much steam on wind. "Then let us begin."
The shade twirls and cackles. "Yes, shall we dance on the shadowy stream of death? Come," it says and pulls upward, seemingly larger. "Join me in darkness, drink in what true power is!"
Morgan eyes the circle at his feet curiously, tail twitching nervously behind him. "But Ma- … " The serpent is already slithering off when the Kadie looks up, so he just steels himself and puts the tip of the dagger to the palm of his hand. "This will be good practice for Natasha," he murmurs, very quietly. Good practice, unless I die or my mother sees me doing this. A pause. Death either way.
The Rokuga throws all six hands out to his sides, and the air in the chamber seems to grow still and cool. He chants in that strange language of his, whether it's Imperial or something more esoteric, it's hard to guess. Though Marnas is gone, her chains seem to return, snaking around Qing's wrists and then lifting up to reach for the specter as if they were Naga of their own; hooks and barbs reaching for the black spirit. "You cannot win, shade of Valicross. You are starved of the power you would use to resist from the very beginning, and you cannot exert yourself beyond my wards."
Following the mage's lead, Morgan pierces his hand with his knife and lets beads of blood drop to the ground. "By the pacts of blood an service, by the old laws, heed me, spirits of Stonebarrow," he murmurs. The air around Morgan changes as well, a faint breeze stirring his hair and fur.
The shade laughs as if it knows something. The creature then actually reaches out and takes ahold of the chains, grinning maliciously. Even through the wards, the cold of the shade can be felt through the spectral bonds.
The air in the room grows cold and the darkness of the necromancer seems to spread out, although it is just spreading in the minds of Qing and Morgan as Qing taps into the memories that echo in the shade. The stench of death is everywhere and their surroundings suddenly fade into a town that is burning away. The ground all around them is cracked and burnt. Corpses of zombies as well as townsfolk lie littered here and there, the townsfolk all appear emaciated, but given their color were only recently killed. Amongst the dead stand a group of soldiers in Khattan garb and armor. Some are moving off to scout in nearby buildings. "Have you found him, Captain?" comes a quiet and melodic voice from behind both Qing and Morgan. "The energies will return shortly. The dispersals are never permanent; the land heals itself."
Qing's consciousness turns to perceive the voices, drinking in grim pictures of a sordid past.
Morgan, unaccustomed to this sort of thing, wavers when hit with the vision. He is, however, accustomed to oddities in general, so he's quick to recover, at least. The wavering only leaves a small cut on his already pricked hand, a slice from his suddenly jerking his arm.
The movement of the figures is disjoint and jerky, like watching reflections in a pond. "No, Mage Al-Nadia," one of the soldiers reports as he quickly stands at attention, "Nor have we found any survivors in the town. It appears he ordered his creations to slaughter all those who remained. We were too late." Morgan gets another rather unusual experience, as someone steps though him. Immaculate white robes embroidered with complex runes flow and ripple through the hot wind which blows through the ruined town pass before the Kadie and into the view of both Qing and Morgan. Another Khatta. This one's glossy sable fur glints in the firelight and she's perhaps early to mid twenties, and wearing College regalia from what would have been decades ago now. Aside from her appearance, both Qing and Morgan can feel her; betraying that she must have had significant skill in magic. She looks across the devastated landscape, her expression a mix of determination and sadness. "We must find him. This cannot happen again," she orders the soldiers. They salute and disperse.
Morgan absently reaches to pat himself, to ensure he's still in one piece. Seeing that he is, he resumes watching.
The witchdoctor exists here as a wisp of himself, more of a suggestion of his presence than anything compared to the 'reality' of the memories surrounding. He simply watches, though there's a tenseness to the presence, a sense of exertion.
As Morgan gets into sync with this reality and tries less and less to hold on to the waking world, his own form fades into the background. Unlike Qing, his hazy form doesn't resemble himself, as he's seen in life, but rather a suggestion of selves. Morgan stands there, hazy and watching, with a purple Creen at his feet. It mimics his movements, occasionally becoming more or less solid than the Kadie form.
The scene ripples and twists around them again. Suddenly, the two find themselves in the middle of chaos. Crossbow bolts are ripping through the air (some through their bodies, though they obviously don't feel it). Bursts of blue light tear through the air, striking some unseen foes in the distance. The mage is crouched behind the debris of some cart. Her breathing is strained as she starts working up another spell. Around her lie the corpses of several of the earlier soldiers, their blood flowing slowly across the soil and into the cracks. The battle seems to have been raging for a while … and they're losing. "It was all a trap," the Captain from earlier curses and calls out from where he's crouching, "He left the majority of his force here for you to wipe out, knowing we would be vulnerable afterwa… aark!" With a sickly thud, his body drops to the ground, a crossbow bolt through his neck. The mage jerks up from behind her shield, a glowing blue ball of energy rippling in her hand … only it's too late. There's another sickly sound of a bolt hitting flesh and the mage falls backward. A red bloom of blood starts to spread across her shoulder. Whatever spell she was about to release dissapates with a small puff.
The vague notion that is Qing hisses, sounding far away. "This is what he is allowing us to take from him, Nightshade. He will freely share memories of his victory. Stay alert."
"I … I understand, Mage Qing," Morgan replies, sounding a little sibilant, himself.
The city fades around them, but the stench of death remains. Flickering torchlight appears in spots as the two find themselves standing on a cliffside. Before them is a makeshift altar, constructed from the remains of a table. Tied to the top and stripped completely of clothing is the mage from earlier. Her shoulder is wet and matted with clumps of blood, the bolt is gone, leaving behind a raw wound. Leaning over her is Valicross; the Skreek's bloodshot eyes full of malice. "So nice of you to join us in our happy home," he hisses, then drags a finger along the mage's cheek. Weakly, her eyes open to face him. "I do not fear you," she says in that melodic voice of hers, still quiet and calm, but so tired and weak as well. "You may have won, I may die, but others will come."
"Let them," Valicross hisses and grins with glee. He draws out a slender, black bladed knife and licks along it's flat edge. "By the time they do, I will have completed my ritual. Your power will be joined with all the others I have used. I will be a God, you miserable mage. And just think, you helped make it possible. You see, I don't need you to be willing in this ritual, I only need your power," the rat says as he slowly traces the blade down her chest. "I'm going to bind your soul to mine so I can simply use your power as my own. And when I complete the ascension, your death will not matter to me. But, enough chat. Let me hear the sweet music of your screams," the rat finishes with and sinks the edge of the blade into the Khatta's chest and slowly draws it downward. The rat does get what he wanted, the Khatta screams from the searing pain. To make thinks more unsettling for the watchers, they can feel how much the Skreek is enjoying this.
The dual image of Morgan and the purple Creen at his feet shudder, the man shifting, the Creen writhing. He shakes his head, as if to try and clear out the memory. From his twisted, sickened expression, he doesn't seem to be doing a good job of blocking it out.
"Hold steady, Nightshade," comes Qing's voice. Distant as it sounds, it is even and quiet, without trace of the suspicion or contempt that often seems to tinge it. "I will need you."
"Steady," Morgan breathes. "I can be steady. I've seen worse." Not felt worse … "I'm with you Mage Qing." The Kadie sounds haggard, but intent. He forcibly straightens, as does his Creen shadow.
The two are spared most of the grisly details, thankfully as the scene ripples and twists around them once more. Some time must have passed, because Valicross seems to have done much of his 'dirty' work. The Khatta lays limply on the tabletop, blood dripping from dozens of cuts that span her entire body. Her breathing is shallow and slow, her eyes looking to the sky as if pleading for death to come. Valicross walks back up to her and rolls his jaw softly. "And now, I complete a lifetime's work," he says, as he raises up his hands to the sky and starts chanting, "Spirits which transcend death, power beyond all others, grant me what I seek… " Around them, the torchlights flicker again and this time the two can see who holds them, zombies. Some are the remains of the mage's very guard, now bent to his will.
One of them, though, stands out. A young lad, maybe fifteen. While he too has died, a soft shimmer, an echo that isn't dark remains as a feeble glow within the corpse. "No," it rasps, as the light flares brightly, the remaining echo asserting itself one last time. It lurches forward and slams into both the necromancer and the Khatta. The necromancer screams obscenities as both he and the table slide … then tip over the edge off the cliff. The necromancer can be heard screaming … until a loud splash fills the night. All the zombies then shudder and collapse around them.
Darkness descends around the two. How long the darkness remains is hard to say. Incoherent bursts appear around them. One is of the dying mage, drifting along the river until she comes to rest on the shore. A huge shadowy figure approaches the body. And then with a gentleness uncharacteristic of its size, picks her up and carries her off into the woods.
Another flash appears, this time of Valicross himself. He's dragging his half-dead body from the river as well. Anger and loathing fill the air, everything becoming oppressive. "This isn't over," he growls, "I will find you. I will make your life a nightmare, mage. I just need time, yes. Time to rebuild my ritual."
More flashes flare up as years fly by in mere minutes. Valicross is working through the shadows. Rarely is he using magic, but poisons and herbs to trap and lure the unwary into being new sacrifices. And in time, he comes across a ragtag caravan of gypsies. All of a sudden, his lips curl back into a sadistic grin. Out from one of the wagons steps an older Khatta now, early to mid thirties, perhaps. It's the Mage Al-Nadia, but gone are her robes, traded for simple garb. Her fur is no longer as glossy as it once was and her eyes reflect a feeling of being haunted by the horror of her past. But that quickly fades when one of the children, a black-furred little vampire Eeee girl comes running up to her and tugs on her pant leg. The Khatta smiles and lifts her up, but still says firmly, "Come on, Liliana, vou know you shouldn't vander from vour parents."
"Lily?" Morgan breathes, blinking. His eyes narrow, and he glares at the memory-form of the dead necromancer.
From the darkness of the forest, Valicross hisses, "Ah, good, good. You now have a family I can tear from you as well. You will find no peace in these lands, mage. I will take them all from you, one by one. I can't wait to watch you have to bury them." The Skreek rubs his hands together, cackling darkly and slips back off into the woods.
More time soars by. Valicross shadows the gypsy tribe. Always from a distance and never using magic close enough so he would be detected. Each town the tribe visits, something horrible happens. Someone in the town dies, items are stolen. All of these events are orchestrated by Valicross, either directly or through using narcotics and suggestions on various people, including the tribesfolk. One he seems to choose more often than others is a large … Jupani, perhaps. Or some sort of a mutant Jupani, at least. A quiet and generally gentle fellow, probably the shadow which had taken the mage's broken body away in the past. Each death has meaning, though. Each forms part of a chain of sacrifices that slowly rebuild the creature's ritual of eternal death.
And finally, Stonebarrow flashes into view. The gypsies have arrived. In the darkness of the swamp, in the ruins of some old building, Valicross makes his lair. He rubs his hands together, muttering, "Soon now. So very soon. One more sacrifice, then you, Mage. You may have thought you discarded your past, but oh no. You are mine. And soon, the world will be mine." All around him in the gloom of the ruin are instruments of his trade; books, bottles, a selection of gruesome tools for dismantling corpses.
Morgan and his Creen shadow lean forward. He peers at the location, turning slowly to take it all in, then his eyes widen. He nods, then grins at Qing triumphantly.
There are several winding trips through the swamp made by Valicross as he set his final plans into motion. And then the air around the two grows cold. Everything fades and Morgan and Qing are alone in darkness. There's a cackle which seems to cut to their very bones.
Qing's hazy form is indistinct, his expression is hard to make out.
"Enjoy the show?" comes the hissing voice of Valicross, "It gave me the time I needed to work out how to do … this!" All of a sudden a million points of fire erupt in Qing's mind as a flood of even more memories and fragments of the necromancer's personality roar to life in his brain. "Your spell to get to my memories got me thinking," Valicross booms, "That why don't I give you everything instead of just a few memories? I can't hurt you through the ward, but you can help me hurt you, you see. I just had to figure out how to manipulate the magic that you handed me just a slight bit. A conduit right into your mind and I didn't even have to break your ward. Why, I couldn't have planned it better. A new and powerful body of a mage to be my new home!"
There's a sound like steam exploding from a boiler, a long, almost piercing hiss, and the presence that is Qing fractures, the outlines suggesting his six arms contorting.
"Ooo, what have we here? Cute child you had, Mage. It wasn't fair that she died, was it?" hisses the disembodied voice. "The world should pay for her death, shouldn't it? They could have saved her, but didn't because you didn't have enough money. Quit fighting me and I can show you how to make them pay. Make the world pay."
"NO!" the Kadie yells. Frantically, he tries to make sense of magical weaves he has no experience with. Qing's magic may as well be a foreign language to him. Though he feeds the mage energy, he can't come close to Qing's power or knowledge in the arcane. Morgan's magic is only slightly similar, at best. Uncertain how long the mage can hold out, or if he can counter the attack, Morgan tries reverse-channeling and bringing the spell back against himself.
Morgan's attempt to grapple with the magical link is not unlike trying to wrestle with an oiled otter. The alien magic twists and ripples in his mental 'hands'. He can't break it, but for Qing, the pinpricks in his mind disappear for a moment. Valicross is distracted … and from the sensations, annoyed, with the Kadie's interference.
The Rokuga seizes the moment of clarity, willing leaden arms to come together, three pairs of hands crashing into three claps. "Hhhhhaaaaaaa!"
"You interfering worthless bastard birth of a … " Valicross screeches at Morgan, "How dare you try and stop my rebirth! I will hang you with your own intestines!" Then there's a brilliant flash of blue light and a deafening clap of thunder. For a moment, neither Qing or Morgan can see or hear. Their vision returns in ripples and pinpricks. The shade of Valicross is gone. Permanently? Hard to say since Qing couldn't directly target the shade. Hopefully nothing escaped while using the reading spell as a conduit.
Stumbling, Morgan drops his knife which clatters to the ground. He blinks, trying to restore his vision, until the dark cavern-like room reasserts itself. Looking around frantically, he asks, "Mage Qing, are you all right? And, after a pause that sends chills down the Kadie's spine, "Is … is he gone? Dead … er? Banished?"
Qing is mostly sprawled on the floor in the middle of his circle, supporting himself on several arms like some kind of wounded insect. His smoked spectacles lie nearby, and the mage clutches his head, lidless eyes staring but gradually coming back into focus. "Nnnhh… yes, dissspersed. I should have known better than to think a mage of his power couldn't find a flaw in my design. The exorcism has destroyed his pattern, but he very nearly overcame it. We will have to sweep the area for remnants… sss… when we recover a little."
Morgan takes a step out of the circle, swaying as the world seems intent on spinning around him. He makes his way towards the mage, stopping now and then to steady himself. "I tried … " he breathes as he walks, stopping when he pauses to catch himself, " … to pull the flow, to myself, but … " his head shakes, " … like holding … water … " When he reaches Qing's circle, he abandons standing for the firm stability of the floor, dropping to his knees. "Our magic is almost nothing alike. I should have warned … Ah, no matter." He reaches over and plucks up Qing's glasses, then hands them to the mage. "I'm glad you're all right. I knew you had a good heart."
The mage takes a few more labored breaths, then brings himself to sit upright again, reclining a little into his coils and accepting his spectacles, putting them back into place. "No, Nightshade, the risk and responsibility were mine. He was a mage of vast ability, more so than I realized. Despite all my preparations, he still found a way to strike at us, using my own power. Your effort bought the time needed to finish it. I am also… grateful that you were prepared to do what was necessary." He gestures wearily at the dagger lying a couple yards away.
"I, uh, well … To be honest, Mage Qing, I was trying to force him to turn on me. I knew your skill was superior to mine, so I thought you could handle the situation, once he was out of your mind," Morgan admits. He looks down, brushing his skirts, which are now covered in years worth of dust. "I had no intention of … killing you. Even if I had, wouldn't that be a temporary solution? The Guild would come, and I would be guilty of the murder of a mage, and … other things." He breathes a sigh, casting a glance at the coffin.
The Rokuga waves the question away. "You wouldn't have to have killed me, you would have had to inflict enough pain to drive him from my mind and break the link. Then he would be helpless behind the ward again. However, your attempt to pull away the link was enough to disrupt his hold on me, and gave me the time to use the exorcism I'd prepared." Rested enough, the snake seems able to sit more or less upright again with as much dignity as he can manage, though he has the hunched posture of the sore and elderly. "I prefer your solution, in retrospect."
"Well … Um … " Morgan seems taken aback by the mage's preference, apparently expecting to be lectured, or otherwise told how he could have done it better. "Thanks." His tail wiggles, then he leans forward. His long black hair falls across his face, necessitating he push it away. "I think I know where his base is," he whispers, sounding pleased. "Mage Qing."
Qing nods solemnly. "We both do, as well as the traps that await in and around it. This is what made the risk, the… pain… worth it. If anything could justify such." It's only when he reaches out to take up the discarded staff that his hand betrays some shaking, but it steadies immediately when his fingers curl around the 'spine'. "I will bring my report to your elders, and we will finish the matter of the bounty."
Morgan nods slowly to all that Mage Qing says. When the elderly serpent finishes, Morgan leans back and asks quietly, "What will you tell Caroban, of me, and Stonebarrow? Will you tell them that have an alliance with spirits, and call the Watch upon us? If you must … " he reaches over and takes one of the Rokuga's hands, clasping it with his own, "I know I manipulated you, but not for selfish reasons. Please don't harm the village. If someone must pay, let it be me."
The reptile very nearly snatches his hand away. The impulse is weak, and the tug is weaker, Morgan's earnestness winning out over the mage's bristling. The hand is cold, but it remains, and Qing hisses, after a pause, "… There is nothing to tell. Realize they will not condone your practices, nor will I. But I am not a Watcher, and not even Caroban's might can spread to every hedge wizard on Sinai. There is no harm here to report, that I have yet seen." Qing's voice becomes hard for a moment. "I don't look kindly on your deception." It returns to its level murmur again. "But in light of these events, I will overlook it. I am sure everyone has learned some interesting things today."
Morgan smiles, a little. "I can be happy with that, then." He releases the mage's hand and nods slowly. "I said I'd explain later, so … Now is as good a time as any, while we rest." He glances off at the exit, peering at the long shadows there. "Madam Natasha, the necromancer, yourself … We've had so many people of incredible skill and power here, I worried one wrong word, and we really would be worth Caroban's attention. For the good of all involved, I needed to steer you in everyone's best interests. I know, you don't like it, but in this I must stand firm: I feel it needed to be done, at least until I was sure of you. What I do regret, is prying into your family. It is not our way to cause pain, especially of that sort." Looking back, Morgan frowns at Qing. "I was too … excitable, in my plan. I didn't consider your feelings. You seemed invincible, some great puzzle to unravel. A dangerous game, even as I was protecting the town. Because of this, I will tell you my secret, as penance, and because it may help you." Bowing his head again, Morgan explains, "I am Morgan Nightshade, witch, and protector of this town. I am also a shapeshifter."
The mage lifts the skeletal staff up, looking it over, his ruby eyes meeting empty sockets and growing distant. "It is an effective way to cause pain, young Nightshade. Valicross obviously knew so. All mages are at once formidable and vulnerable. You know it to be so as well. I do not approve of your methods, but I understand your motivation. But now we are where we are." He nods slowly as introductions are made anew. "Shapeshifter, you say?"
Morgan nods back, satisfied to have closed the matter of manipulation at that. "Yes, a shapeshifter. He Valicross hinted at it somewhat, when … " The Kadie bites his lip, turning to glare at the casket with a narrow-eyed loathing. He spits, an action at odds with his usual femininity. "Disgusting fool. My mother … " He shakes his head, looking back. "Well, he hinted. I'm a shapeshifter. I know that, too, is forbidden, but I trust you to leave it in silence. I do not consume the flesh of men, nor stalk the night unaware. It is a part of my heritage; it is the glow in my aura."
"Yes, the curious violet aura, the one with wings, as the other said." Qing tilts his head, eyeing Morgan. "Such abilities are not forbidden by Caroban; they cannot be. They are a curiosity, but cannot be helped any more than being born with a tail. The Lacinu are an example. What is your other form?"
"It's not forbidden?" Morgan sounds surprised, eyes widening. "It's forbidden in Sylvania. The history of Sylvania is stained with the murders by shapeshifters created before and after the Necromancer Wars. Some are said to still exist, although I have never faced one." He stares forward, seeming to ponder this discovery, then blinks at the mage as if he appeared out of nowhere. "Oh, my other form is a Creen. An ordinary, purple and black Creen. I heard myself hiss in that … other place … we visited. Valicross's memories, I mean. It seemed a natural response to you, there. If I hadn't been so horrified, I'd… well, I'd have realized how surprised I was. Am. Surprised now, I mean, not then."
Some of that familiar edge returns to Qing's voice, but he seems too weary and out of sorts to put real venom behind it. "Much of Sylvania at large is as backwards as the hedge wizards, and it may be that I will have business in straightening out the local Guild Hall. Caroban controls threats and potential threats to the order, it is not interested in destroying the inherently magical. It is those possessing a destructive nature that were destroyed. Your ability would interest many at Caroban, but I suspect it is otherwise harmless." The mage pauses, and adds, "It does interest me, as does your potential. We will speak of it later."
"What now then, Mage Qing? You are in no condition to travel you need rest. I may not be familiar with your species, but I know exhaustion and pain when I see it. I've helped deliver several of the young ones you met, you know." Morgan smiles again, sounding proud of his part in helping the town. "If you like, I will help you out, once we're done here. I should secure the coffin, if we are safe, and … " he eyes the staff in the mage's hands, " … is that safe, beyond our wards?"
Qing dusts at his robes, and picks himself up, running his thumb along the spine of the staff. "I will make my report, and advise your… coven of what became of Valicross' spirit. I will assume they are capable of searching for any remnants that may have escaped; they should be relatively weak. I will then retire to my cabin to recuperate for several hours, and begin studying this staff and dealing with the spirits within." The collection of bones weighs heavy in his hands as he looks it over. "It is safe now that Valicross' influence is broken: it is now a collection of echoes from broken people. The bones should be returned to kin for closure, and there may be more to learn from the spirits. Much work to be done, yet."
"Much work," Morgan agrees. He glances around the room, then proceeds towards the coffin lid. Hunching over, he puts a shoulder to the lid, pushes … and the lid barely moves. Panting, the Kadie tries again, sliding the lid a few inches before he has to stop and catch his breath. "Well," he breathes. "Give me a moment … and … I'll … close this. After that, I will search for a whatever might remain of Valicross."
The witchdoctor puts four hands on the lid and leans his weight against, the slab grinding as it moves into place. "Hurry up and seal it, then. I'm assuming I have to wait for you to lead me out blindfolded. You can just return later to gather the sand and chalk again, it will give you an opportunity to study the sigils."
"Thank you," Morgan says once the lid closes. "Amelia is the heavy lifter," he insists, despite Amelia being quite a bit shorter than he is. Reaching over, he slams his hand down on the central carving, causing the lid to seal itself again. "Well, that's done. Now, do you sense anything? Dispelling the entire room will take time."
Qing shakes his head. "Nothing overt. Any fragment that might have remained will be long gone."
"My mother may catch it, if there's anything left at all. If not, the spirits of Stonebarrow will not let it continue," Morgan explains. Clapping his hands together, he turns to the mage and nods. "Well, we should go. I'll fetch the blindfold and guide you out."
The serpent turns away, seeming to return to his short manner. "Good. I have much to think about."
"And much to do," Morgan reminds the Rokuga. Gathering up the blindfold, the Kadie leads the mage from the dank, dark, tomb in to the light.