Ayla woke slowly, the musty smell of her soft sleeping furs invading her nose. Kino's hands were gently shaking her shoulders, bringing her up out of dark slumber. She snorted unhappily, and stuffed her face into the blankets.
"Go way. Too early for Ayla."
She felt a brush of air on her cheek as her 'boyfriend', as her friend Marle had called him, moved away. He began to speak to her, using soft words. Though Ayla couldn't hear him (he was speaking too quietly), his tone alerted her to the fact that something was wrong in her tribe. Sleep's foggy tendrils instantly gave way fully to consciousness. "Kino?"
He brushed a dreadlock of blonde hair away from his face apologetically. His eyes were sad. "Bad spirits come again last night, Ayla." Those blue orbs regarded her face. "They take Nimu."
The woman said nothing, only rose to her feet. Nimu, her best hunter. Father of seven children. Mate to two wives. It was a great loss to her tribe. The 'bad spirits' Kino had spoken of came in the increasingly cold winds, and lack of food for her people. No matter where they went, or how many herds the followed, death stalked close on the Ioka's heels, never satisfied jaws snapping up many unlucky tribesmen and women. For 11 seasons, her people had been traveling southward, seeking the heat that had fled from the north, losing the tribe person by person.
Until her scouts had returned with stories of a green place, a safe place, and (most importantly) a warm place. Within days, her tribe had settled in well, and by now, the previously malnourished Ioka were eating and living much as they had before Lavos fell.
That's why Nimu's death was such a worry.
"Take Ayla there." Kino nodded and submitted to his mate's request, waiting patiently as she hurriedly dressed, then pulled back the leather covering over her their hut's doorway. Outside was cloaked in a silvery morning mist that obscured the other homes, and the damp, chilly air raised goosepimples on Ayla's arms and legs. Towering above the valley camp, normally blue-gray mountain peaks were painted gold by the rising sun's rays. Already, whispy feathers of clouds hung demurely in the sky. It would be a beautiful day, a rare sight in the past few seasons. Ioka children, awake too early for their parent's tastes, played openly on grass knolls and in dirt pathways, rejoicing in the coming of summer that such wonderful weather seemed to signify. It saddened the woman chief walking among them that death could snatch someone away even under these circumstances.
Nimu's hut was large, decorated with paintings done in animal fats that had been mixed with the rich red clay found by the river, giving the appearance of being rendered in blood. They depicted animal spirits, mainly bear, kilwala, and wolf, to give anyone that slept in the shelter their power and grace. A pen on the left of the structure housed several domesticated deer, and a near-wolf (her friends had called it a dog) was splayed across the ground near the gate, tongue lolling.
Beside the door, Nimu's eldest son and his two wives waited in solemn silence, eyes red from crying. Ayla nodded her condolences to them, and Tisai, the elder wife, approached. She explained how yesterday, he had been healthy as usual, even planning a new hunting expedition with three other tribesmen and women. Nothing had been wrong last night, either, not when she went to his bed, nor when she left it. Then, when she and Jaylen (the younger wife stepped forward at this point) brought him morning's meat, they'd found him cold and stiff under the blankets.
The son shivered, and grasped the bone charm around his throat. "Bad spirits here, Chief Ayla. No hurt on Nimu. No blood. But still gone away. What else take him?"
The chieftess had not uttered a word this entire time, and she didn't now. Instead, she entered the hut, leaving Tisai, Jaylen, Kino, and the boy. She felt warmth wash over her; embers still glowed in the cooking pit. No, he didn't not die of the cold. Up ahead, the lump under the brown furs indicated her head hunter, and she strode forward without hesitation. Her friends had feared death, she hadn't understood that. Why be scared of a dead body? It was nothing except a shell.
Lifting back the blankets, she turned him over, looking for any wounds or signs of struggle. Like the boy said, there was nothing on him, no mark on his bluish skin, but Ayla did notice the look of fear in his frozen face. His eyes were wide, though unseeing, and his mouth gaped open, tongue grotesquely swelled. He had died in terror, apparently, yet she could not see anyway that a beast could have killed him. And, if the home had been invading by a creature, the village would have been woken by his screams, and the barking of the near-wolf outside.
She pulled away and exited, glad to be out of the death-stench that hung cloying about the inside of the hut. For the first time, she spoke, and it was primarily directed towards her mate.
"Kino, tell Ioka about Nimu, then find four scouts to watch village. Ayla not know what take Nimu, so Ioka need to be very careful next few days. Okay?" Kino nodded, and jogged away, presumably to find someone with a loud voice that could summon the tribe to the new meeting place. The blonde woman then turned to face the other three, her eyes sad. "Ayla will send Ioka out to gather wood for fire, if Tisai want."
The offer was answered with nods, nothing more. She stood silent for a moment, then the chieftess turned her back and left quietly, leaving the mourning family alone with their dead.
The castle's stone glinted in the light of the half moon. Dark shadows lent a strong contrast to the silver, etching ominous patterns on the crumbling masonry. The building was in bad shape, barely recognizable as the grand structure it once was when he had held lordship over it. The left wing, Slash's bit of the castle, had completely collapsed. Standing silently on the black path leading out of the woods, Magus supposed that, should he take one step inside, the whole place would come crashing down on his head. That would either kill him instantly, or bury him inside till he suffocated.
The thought was pleasing, and a hint of a smile warmed his features as he unceremoniously yanked open the gate. The metal screeched in protest, grating on his sensitive ears, making him grind his teeth. Exhaustion may have dulled Magus's senses, but pain of any sort still persevered through it all. As usual.
At the main door now, he paused. Gloved hand running down the side of the wood and stone, unconsciously feeling slight imperfections, even through the leather, aimlessly stroking the door. Mind elsewhere. Remembering how this castle used to be. Or, to be perfectly honest, remembering how his bed used to be. It was a nice bed. Feathers. And the kitchen, with food whenever you wanted it, just call up an imp, give him a little zap if he wasn't fast enough . . . not moving any more.
He was slumped against the wall, drifting off into sleep. The mage pulled himself up and shook his head, trying to clear out the haze that had settled in, then pushed open the entrance. Inside was coated with dust, ages of dust, or it seemed like it. Cobwebs in the top corners, but not many throughout the actually castle passageways, and the ones that did exist were old, falling apart. Flea's extermination spell had worked, then, still did. She'd hated spiders. Or was it He'd? Magus had never asked, never cared to know.
Not moving, yet again. This time, he had just stopped, and was waving on his feet. He'd been walking for ages through these halls. Eons. 'Then why-' argued a more alert section of his head, '-are there only five paces between you and the door?' The thoughts fuzzed, he was losing his balance, falling asleep right here on the floor. How wonderfully princely. Good to see you'll always keep your dignity, eh, Magus?
A last thought flickered dimly: forget dignity.
'And on that note . . .' Thought Mirven with amusement. He floated less than 5 feet away, about an inch above the dust and stone, monitoring Magus's thoughts, preparing for the Sundering. His cloak fluttered in a non-existent breeze, and strands of black hair, strangely metallic, did the same. His right eye sparkle gold, while the left was nothing put a pool of wet black. His face was bony, and angular, highlighted by the moonlight that stole through the castle windows and under the hood of his cloak.
Krimla had followed the mage through the gate, to these decrepit ruins. Not surprising that the wizard would come back here, actually. The fool had too much pride to go to the Last Village, and where else would he otherwise go? Mirven had pretty much known that this was his destination from the beginning of Magus' plans to leave that cold cesspool of a time period. In fact, the Hunter could've just come here in the first place, bypassing the use of his pet.
Speaking of which . . .
'Krimla. You've done well.'
He waited patiently for a reply, feeding of the pleasant pain that came off in small waves from his lackey's mind. While his he did not speak with telepathy with his girls back in the Vault, for fear of corroding their thoughts, he had no qualms about using his hateful messages on Krimla. There was, in actuality, no true thoughts to destroy. A blank slate, wiped clean by his superior before being put into the Hunter's possession. It was only fitting that he should be given the slave, he'd been the one to capture the warrior, and bequeath upon him at least half of the mutilations Krimla wore. The rest was dealt to him by higher powers.
The simple pleasure of an animal began to trickle warmly into Mirven's head, followed by an instinctual need for the hunt. Krimla understood in that basic way. A mission completed means rewards of the best kind. Blood, meat, food. He smirked, brushing back his hair, and gave consent.
'Go out and catch yourself some stray child, pet. Just remember to bring me back a piece.'
Apparently, the creature needed no further encouragement; Mirven heard a whisper of leaves outside as Krimla raced away into the forest. When the yellow-eyed Hunter had finished with the Sundering and execution of the mage (which might last for weeks, he'd been granted permission to have a little fun this time), he would bring the beast back with him to the Vault.
Magus stirred, sending up a miniscule cloud of dust, and bringing unseen eyes back upon him. The Hunter reached beneath his blood red cloak, and let his sensitive, damp fingers run over the blue stone pendent hanging around his pale throat. The necklace was made specially for this task, and this task alone, it was an exact replica of the two that the Zealian man owned. There was yet another copy of the Dreamstone pendants, back in the Vault, just in case this one was damaged or flawed. Better to be safe than sorry, really. Mirven smiled cruelly, and lifted the amulet out of the silken folds, laying it now exposed on his chest. Time was wasting. He wanted to start the party.
'Wakey wakey. Time to get up, dearie, or you'll miss school. '
Pain, horrible and demanding. It was unlike anything he'd ever felt before; not because of it's intensity, since Magus had felt worse before, but it's peculiar type. A rebellion in his mind itself, like he was poisoned. The voice and the accompanying agony jolted him out of sleep with force, making Magus smash his head on the stone, further dizzying him. He tangled in his cloak while grappling for his scythe, and stood awkwardly, trying to get the cloth away from his legs while searching for the malicious presence that had woke him.
The wizard swiveled on his heel, his ruby eyes scanning every shadow, cobweb, doorway, window, and inch of the room, yet he could see nothing. Frustrated, he added a little magick to the search, now looking with his aching head, too.
'No, no. Mustn't do that.'
This time, Magus snarled, holding a clenched fist to fist forehead. Weak knees threatened to buckle beneath him, and his thoughts blurred. The scythe was dropped, landing with a sharp metal ring next to his feet. The words were in his head, echoing, coming back each time with an aftershock of violence.
"Where are you?" Magus growled, eyes dancing beyond his raised hand. An awful, surreal quiet permeated the room, dropping down like an iron curtain. He could hear his own quick breath and thundering heartbeat. Everything else had been smothered by the hush, even the crickets and other night animals. Magus suddenly had a dreadful feeling, like he was the last thing left alive on the planet, so deep and profound was the silence. He involuntarily shuddered.
If he didn't make some noise, he'd go insane. "Where are you?" He asked again.
This time, he was answered. A titter of amusement, actually physically heard this time, echoed of the walls. Magus was somehow reminded of his dead sister, and thought of what she must have looked like while she was rotting. He choked at the vivid imagery, and, in response, the presence actually laughed. Then, it appeared.
The air in the corner rippled. Something, vague and hazy at first, began to come into sharp focus. The blue haired man, seething with anger, tried to move towards his gleaming weapon not a foot away, but found himself glued to the spot, unable to move anything but his eyes. The image stopped wavering, and Magus beheld a man of very strange appearance.
His face was drawn and hollow, as white as snow, almost translucent. One eye was the color of finely polished gold. The other sent shivers down the mage's spine. Black, wet. Glistening. Captivating, in a sick fashion. Magus had to exert all his willpower to draw his own red eyes away.
The man's hair looked almost like wire, the way it glinted. The robes he was draped with gave the impression of being soaked in blood, and were held closed by a intricate brooch, black metal in the shape of a rose. At the bottom, the Magus could a *tail*, sharply tipped. And the whole of the man, the thing, was floating above the floor.
Despite the evilness the stranger reeked of, his voice was melodic. "Hello, Magus. I'm here to kill you and spatter your blood all over the walls in an artistic fashion. But not before driving you insane with images of your dying sister and stripping away the very thing that makes you, you. Sound fun? Any last words?"
Mirven regarded the stupefied wizard with delighted glee, and fingered the pendent again. He let himself drift gently to the floor, and pulled down his hood, casually flipping his hair behind his shoulder, and watching Magus under hooded eyes. A smile, friendly, pulled the corners of his thin mouth upwards.
The initial shock having worn off, Magus swiftly leapt backwards, scooping up his scythe, bringing it up defensively. The Hunter, reaching inside his robes and grasping the gem, laughed. "Well, *that's* not going to do you any good." He pulled out the necklace, exposing it to the dusty air, and Magus's astonished gaze. Not that he looked particularly astonished, mind you. The mage held commendable control of his reactions. Mirven couldn't wait to break him, to watch him lose all that.
So amused was he, the black haired man actually giggled childishly. "Lovely, isn't it?"
"Who are you?" Magus asked evenly, only his stiff posture betraying his illusion of apparent indifference. His eyes kept flickering to the stone around Mirven's neck.
"Erm, I don't think I'm gonna say. Makes it more exciting, you know?" Something unseen hit his victim's knee with force, making them buckle. Magus hit the floor unexpectedly, and lost his balance, falling over. Quick as lightning, Mirven had kicked him onto his back, and rested one foot on the man's chest, magick surpressing the rest of his body.
Magus furiously tried to move, yet found himself pinned more effectively than being pressed under 500 tons. Only his chest rose and fell. He felt instant, powerful detest towards the intruder wash him in a red wave, staining his eyesight. He tried striking the stranger with his magick, but that, too, was arrested. Feeling helpless, and hating it, the man glared at his attacker. Wishing he could send the unknown man hurtling into one of the cobblestone walls. Wanting to take that foot pressing arrogantly, almost casually against him and rip it right off his leg.
As if he sensed his thoughts, the stranger's eyes narrowed maliciously, and he dug his heel into Magus's diaphragm, pushing the air out of his lungs. Mirth curled the corners of his thin lips upwards.
"Well, then." The red robed man's remark was nonchalant, but held a hidden excitement and menace. Magus, fighting off the first cold fingers of fear and panic worming their way into his skull, tried again desperately to move his pinned limbs. A premonition of something very bad was whispering in his ear, as if warning him this was his last chance to stop it from happening. "Let's get to it." His assailant raised the replica of Magus's pendant, which swayed back and forth as is trying to hypnotize him. Like dawn tainting the sky a cool blue, so it now began to glow hungrily, with a light the original Zealian pieces had never possessed . The air seemed to grow heavy, and humid, making it hard to breathe. Even harder when his breath began to quicken, apprehension sending adrenaline soaring through his veins. A sucking noise, slow and voracious, filled up his ears.
And then, everything ceased to exist, except the pain.
Every nerve was alive with molten fire, white hot and burning away the room, his body, and everything in between. It gained instant control over him, he was just a puppet of the torment, leaving him without true thought. Screams tore the air into delicate ribbons, yet he was not aware of them, could not even hear them. The spell holding his body to the ground came off, and he writhed, back arching, rapping his head sharply against the stone floor with unreal force, yet he was not aware of that either. What was any pain before and since, compared to this? This surpassed even the title pain, it was perfect agony, the way the gods had surely first designed it. He curled up into a ball, gripped his limbs with all of his strength, leaving darkening bruises in his fingers' wake. Insanity hurried forward to protect what would be left of Magus, yet was held back, blocked by a foreign presence, as was unconsciousness, as was death.
And it stopped. Without warning, like it came, it came to a brutal stop. Magus gasped for air, sweet, yet burning oxygen filling his lungs with every trembling breath. His heart beat against his chest with such power, he was certain it would crack his ribs. Sweat sparkled on his bruised arms and legs. A more sinister, sticky wet coated the back of his skull and the floor near his head. His mouth was paper dry, and tasted sour, like old bile.
Fighting the stinging and aching that pulsated in his bones, he managed to push himself to his hands and knees. The simple action dizzied him and made his eyes sting and water. His hair was plastered to his blood and sweat soaked skin.
"Feel it yet, rabbit?"
The stranger's smooth voice hid knives that stung Magus's ears, and he winced. Feel what? The marrow-deep throbbing? Wearily, yet hatefully, he glanced at the other man through strings of his wet hair. His look of loathing seemed to be lost on his subject of attention, who just sighed in annoyance, arms crossed carelessly over his thin chest.
"Oh, dear, you haven't. Well." Another sigh. "Think boy. I know you can, I've seen you do it. What's different? Gods, this is taking all the fun out of it. . ."
Think? Magus never wanted to think again, but he had a feeling that his tormentor wasn't just toying with him. Forcing his thoughts to assemble into some kind of workable pattern, he went down a mental checklist, ragged breathing punctuating the silence as he moved down it. Legs, arms, fingers, toes, eyes, ears, all there. What could be missing? What could--
His heart stopped
--could . . . be . . . missing . . .
No. No, never. Impossible.
Fighting back panic, something he'd never had to do before in his entire lifetime, Magus tried casting Dark Matter. Nothing. Black Hole. Nothing. Even Fire 2. Still nothing.
His magick. Not just repressed, like it had been when he had been pinned down. Not drained. Not made inaccessible, as if he was a little child again, unable to do things that he had been his birthright. No, just gone, completely. Magus was empty, a shell of useless flesh and blood, devoid of any and all powers.
And then, bending to the misery, he gave up.
Oh, it didn't get any better than this. Mirven watched Magus slump to the ground, giving up. Strength drained from him. The mage didn't move, didn't make a sound, just despaired. And Mirven absolutely *wallowed* in a warm, hazy glow of sweet victory.
Grinning widely, like a lollipop-laden toddler, He strode over, delivering a sharp kick to his victim's side. Magus hissed, but did nothing. Did not attack. Mirven jovially grinned. "Oo." He said, sympathetically. "That must've hurt." He kneeled by the still form, waving a hand in front of the prone face. "Yoo-hoo, anyone home? Planet to Magus?"
He snorted with laughter at the unresponsive man. Think your sister felt like this when she was dying? Empty? A loser?"
"Oh, but I'm sure she didn't feel that way when she thought of you. Bet she felt hate, then. Hate hate hate. Filled her up, made her strong, let her last a little bit longer. Hate for the Prophet, Zeal, and you, dear Janus. Abandoning bastard."
Blank. Mirven was getting annoyed. He'd never been patient, and wanted results to his taunts now. He laid down next to Magus, and rested his head in his gloved hands.
"Bet she fucked Dalton."
The fist was unexpected, and Mirven reeled backwards, howling with fury and pain, holding his nose. Black, thin blood ran down over his snarl of a mouth. Like a shot, Magus was to his feet, and running, having a enough sense left to know to get out of there. The Hunter, angry, tried to get to his own feet, but slipped on smeared blood from Magus. He smacked his face against the stone, further damaging his nose, and angering himself beyond reason. Sight tinted red, he leapt to his feet, and dashed to the gaping castle door.
The night was empty and silent. Magus was gone. Mirven had lost him.
Next Chapter: New Character! Frog! Blood! And nekkid Magus! ^_- Heh. Review, please . . .