In the middle of a forest of enormous dark oak trees, the clearing spread wide. The circle was too perfect to be a naturally occurring clearing, too well-rounded and free of anything taller than a blade of grass. In the center of the clearing, two men stood staring at the ground. The darkness was total, a new moon’s lack of pale light revealing innumerable stars above the small gathering. Between the two of them, the ground had been pounded smooth, the dark earth stripped of even grass. A chalk circle had been dusted onto the hard earth, surrounded in swirling, unrecognizable glyphs. At even spaced points around the circle, red and white candles had been pushed into the earth, each burning brightly despite the breeze coming into the clearing through the forest. Within the center of the circle, a brightly lit image floated a few inches from the ground itself, showing with startling clarity a street scene in motion.
The image within the circle flickered in and out of clarity as the wind gently moved the flames of the candles along the chalk lined perimeter. As the image coalesced back into focus, it showed a massacre taking place: a huge black armored figure was fighting off a number of liveried guards. At least six footmen already lay on the cobblestones, blood steadily spreading outward into the mortar between the stones. The remaining soldiers, seven in all, were cautiously moving around the large man in black plate armor. The footmen had the armored man surrounded, and were carefully tightening their circle, using their spears and a few other assorted polearms to prevent the wildly violent fighter from breaking out of their sphere.
Suddenly, the armored figure looked up away from the circle, looking to a point out of reach of the moving image inside the circle. As a blinding flash of violet light completely obliterated the visible picture within the circle, the two figures watching the circle intently jerked their faces away from it violently, one grunting in pain as the other cursed under his breath. Both immediately raised hands to their faces to rub their shocked eyes.
“Gods, what in the nine hells was that?” the taller of the two men exclaimed, moving his hands away from his eyes, blinking and trying to refocus. He was outfitted in a similar fashion to the large man who had been fighting off the small group of footmen: a shining suit of black plate armor. However, over his armor there was a robe, a pale gray sleeveless tunic, emblazoned on the front with a dark blue Kasnarian Oak. From across his left shoulder, a large hilt for a two handed sword emerged from an unadorned scabbard, the pommel depicting the smiling but regal face of the god Kil. A large black helm sat on the ground at his feet, its hinged visor depicting the same welcoming, but powerful, face.
“That would be the elf, sir,” the voice of the smaller man was barely a whisper, and sounded parched, as if the man had gone long hot days without water. His voice emerged from a deep black hood that obscured his face. The hood was sewn onto an equally black robe in which the man’s torso and upper arms were lost. The robe terminated at his knees, where high riding boots, sewn out of a curiously deep red and ridged hide, emerged. The man appeared unarmed, although in the voluminous robe there was room for many objects aside from the man himself, his bony hands, their skin stretched across the thin bones like a layer of waxed parchment, bespoke an unnatural emaciation about his figure. “Garenol Crynus, second son of the Wood’s End monarch, Galen Crynus. Hardly an apple that fell close to the tree, that one,” the robed man laughed briefly, then began coughing, raising a thin hand to his robed face as the cough became a loud hacking sound.
The armored figure looked away as the smaller man coughed. He stepped back from the circle and squinted to make out their mounts, tethered in the edge of the forest a number of yards away. His mount stood disinterested, its great dappled gray body unmoving as its thick neck moved the noble head, scanning the clearing slowly. The other, a small, skittish chestnut mare, was stamping her feet and snorting, nostrils flared at the bright flash of light from the circle and its masters cursing. She pulled ineffectually against her lead rope.
As the coughing trailed off, the armored man turned back towards the circle. “So what was the flash then? Did your accursed magic circle fail?” he asked of the now quietly wheezing robed man.
“No sir,” he replied, clearing his throat. “That would have been the target’s house being consumed in negative essence energy.”
The armored man shook his head disapprovingly, “Yen, your language will have to be more simple than that for me, I’m afraid. Our lord frowns upon his warriors learning too much of forbidden arts. We are instructed to leave those pursuits to his chosen few.”
“Yes, yes, your lord’s precious elementalists. I tire of hearing your terrified, starving peasants prattling on about the godlike powers that walk among them, wielding the powers of the very world around them,” the robed man was rambling, as he slowly worked his way around the perimeter of the circle, carefully relighting the wicks of the extinguished votives from the single flame that had withstood the burst of energy. “The way you poor souls revere that brand of magic, you could at least recognize it when you see it performed.”
The armored man laughed with an incredulous air, “Don’t speak falsely to me, demonist. No one for a thousand miles would even know you were gone were I to leave your headless corpse here tonight. Now explain yourself. Elemental magic is forbidden to non-Kasnarians. Kil himself decreed it centuries ago. Something else must have happened.”
“The nature of nether elemental magic is very distinctive, Michael,” the robed man said with a resigned sigh. “Believe what you wish and exterminate me if you will, but what you just saw was an explosion of nether elemental energy, the very resistance and destruction inherent in the flaws of reality. Impressive, really. Stupid and suicidally dangerous, but impressive,” Yen’s voice sounded wistful, almost admiring.
“The elf Crynus knows the holy art of elementalism?” Michael’s voice sounded strained, as he stepped back close to the circle as the light from the candles began to shine brightly again. “There will have to be repercussions for this. How Kil can even suffer this abomination is, is . . .”
“Is Kil’s business alone, Michael.” Yen chided carefully, as the large man clenched his hands together, knuckles going white from the pressure. “However Crynus learned the art, that he can control it to such a degree is miraculous. That explosion probably obliterated a city block, Michael. That degree of power would be difficult for any mage to control, much less focus.”
“I must report this, Yen. A non-Kasnarian has stolen the holy art of elementalism! We need to leave immediately!” Michael voice rushed as it gained in volume. He bent to the ground and retrieved his helmet. “Erase the mark of our work here, Yen. We ride now.”
Yen chuckled, as he produced a small bag from inside his robes, he walked carefully around the circle, rechecking the chalk marks, and dusting them occasionally with chalk dust from the bag, remaking parts of the circle that were smudged or rubbed out. “Who are you going to tell Michael? Your Tithari council? The Hierarch’s council? The regents of the Elemental College? What will you say, child? Will you tell them that you have enlisted the help of a demonist, and a Strythkian exile at that, to spy on two operatives who are destabilizing the Haarkedamian Confederacy? That you led said demonist to a magic circle formerly employed by earth and life elementalists? That you then allowed that demonist to coerce a demon into scrying for you? Need I remind a Tithari member the penalty for consorting with racial outsiders? This whole clearing is corrupted now, Michael. You would be held responsible for this.” Yen’s voice had risen to a normal volume, and strained at the effort.
“I have a responsibility here, you sick degenerate. I have to . . .” Michael replied hastily as he walked towards the horses.
“That responsibility ended to moment you chose conspiracy over loyalty, Michael!” the demonist yelled as he hurried after the stalking warrior. “You were the one who chose to continue your operation within Haarkedamia after the council disbanded your party. You only return here to Kasnaria when your presence would be missed. I know that I’m not the only mage you employ. How many times have you been teleported back into Venne, Michael? Where does the gold come from?”
Michael stopped, and spun quickly on his heel, unsheathing the massive two handed sword from his back as he did so. He raised the sword over his shoulder, running quickly back at the demonist.
Yen shrunk back at the violent movement, dropping his bag of chalk dust and thrusting his arm back into a pocket of his robe. The hand emerged clutched around a dried bunch of herbs. He clapped his hands together over the herbs, disappearing in a puff of odorous smoke. Michael coughed as he swung his sword futilely through the cloud. As the smoke dispersed, he saw Yen, now back at the circle, crouched with a small dagger in his hand, poised over the palm of his free hand.
“Come any closer and the demon ceases scrying and begins hunting, Michael.” Yen stated in a calm voice, belying the straining wheeze coming from deep within his chest. “Listen to reason, you fanatic. I don’t care what you plan. But you know damned well you can’t go back to being a pawn. You’ve moved beyond and seen things. You are a liability. You are in as much danger now, here in Kasnaria, as I am.”
Michael seethed, eyebrows furrowed in rage, for a moment. Then he lowered his sword slowly, walking with an outstretched open palm back towards the circle. “What I found in Venne makes absolutely no sense, Yen. Why would a Tribunus agent pay these two to begin this series of killings now? The Kasnarian invasion has been in preparation since the withdrawal five hundred years ago. The increasing suspicion and mistrust among the leaders of the Confederacy has led many of them to begin mobilizing their troops, and preparing them. The moment I reported these activities, we were shut down. I need to understand why.”
“And to do that, even entertain that doubt and question, you have moved beyond the pale of your superiors Michael, you have to know that,” Yen said, rising slowly from the circle and taking the dagger away from his open hand. “Whatever occurs in Haarkedamia, those above you don’t feel you are ready to know. Accept this and go back into ignorant servitude if you can’t handle what we find.”
“Why would the Hierarchs allow what they know will result in a better military position for Haarkedamia? They are deliberately leading their own troops into a worse position when the invasion finally commences,” Michael sounded confused and frustrated. He stuck the cruel end of his sword into the dirt and sat down heavily upon the packed soil. “To better serve my god I betray his people?”
“Always has it been that way for the followers of Kil, Michael,” Yen said in a soothing tone. “Look to your sword’s pommel, young knight. That smile, the welcoming smile of Kil. For millennia, your people have looked upon the smile with reverence and fear. Now you will come to know what all those above you have slowly realized through will, or ambition, or intelligence: that face only smiles upon the powerful. Continue to discover these things, and it will smile upon you too, Michael.”
Michael nodded as Yen talked. When he finished talking, Michael blinked briefly, and shook his head. “My sergeant once said that when Kil smalls at the smallest of us, he does so as he looks down at us under the heel of a boot.”
“Your sergeant spoke truth. Although I am not one of Kil’s children, we from Stryth know his history and the truth of his nature. Truly in taking these responsibilities upon yourself, you become one of his children,” Yen said quietly, as he began to move his arms to recast the summoning and begin again to spy upon the assassins in Venne.
“I sincerely hope you are right, Yen, for the sake of both our lives.” Michael said, standing to walk back towards the summoning circle. “We are too far gone to hope otherwise.”
He leaned close to the circle as the image emerged once more from the darkness. The cul-de-sac was now empty save for more than a dozen bodies. All the dead were footmen in the livery of various noble houses of Venne. On the far right of the image, a smoking crater now occupied the space where one of the larger manors had stood. Not a stone of the house remained, and the two gates lay flat in the cul-de-sac, as if blown there from inside the manor. The stone of the gate and the walls themselves no longer existed. A few servants in robes worked their way carefully from body to body, shaking their heads in disbelief as they felt the neck of each corpse.
“What kind of men are these?” Michael asked, shaking his head.
“We know Garenol. The other I don’t know, although the armor looked familiar,” Yen’s voice trailed off as he talked, then he glanced askance at Michael’s own black plate armor.
“He’s not one of ours, Yen,” Michael said. “The weapons, the savagery, it’s all wrong somehow.”
“Whoever controls him, Gods help whatever they decide to steer him against,” Yen shuddered at the barbarity of the scene and the gaping wounds of the victims.
“He will be the key. Can we find him again?” asked Michael.
“We can try,” replied Yen. He reached back into his robe and produced the dagger once more. Drawing it across his hand, he winced in familiar pain and said, “Knowledge carries its own price,” as he held his bleeding hand over the circle and began chanting.
7 - Berlin
8 years ago