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The man in the middle of the pentagram shrieked as Zorun Tzin deftly used his magic to peel away another area of skin. The patch, a tidy three inches by three, methodically rolled back without hesitation. It left in its wake a bleeding gap that revealed the muscle and sinew underneath. Streaks of blood flowed from the gap down the naked figure's body to add to that already decorating the floor.
The gaunt, bearded mage was not at all bothered by the splatters on the stones. They would be gathered later for other uses having nothing to do with the dark-skinned Kehjani's current interest. The Council of Clans had managed to cease their feuds long enough to implore him to discover what he could about the fanatics pouring across the land, fanatics with powers unbelievable.
That these edyrem, they called themselves had brought down the mighty Temple of the Triune was not the point. The mage clans were more than happy to be rid of the powerful sect, which had been the first to wrest influence away from the spellcasters. Indeed, that had been in great part the cause of the first feuds, as clans had struggled to seize from one another what stature remained.
No, what disturbed the clans so much that they had been able to agree to something at last was the simple fact that the edyrem were nothing more than untrained peasants for the most part. They were farmers, laborers, and the like, and yet their leader promised them abilities that the mages had painstakingly toiled for most of their lifetimes. Not only that, but the use so far of those powers revealed a recklessness that endangered so very much. It was clear that the edyrem were a hazard and had to be contained.
And who better than the mage clans to do that? Under their strict guidance, these mysterious powers could be properly explored and exploited.
"I say again," Zorun rasped. "You saw the outsiders bring down an entire temple with only their bare hands! What words did they chant? What gestures did they make?"
"D-don't know!" bellowed the prisoner. "I I swear!" The man was bald and still fit, despite the mage's interrogation. He had once been a temple guard, one of the few who had escaped the fanatics' grasp. It had taken Zorun some weeks of scrying to locate even this individual, so deep underground had any survivors of the Triune gone into hiding. "I swear it is s-so! They did did n-nothing like that!"
With a gesture, the Kehjani had the square of skin finish peeling. A new shriek of agony escaped the captive. The orange-sashed mage waited impatiently for the cry to die down before speaking again. "You cannot expect me to believe that they just willed something to happen. Magic does not work that way. It takes concentration, gestures, and long practice."
From the prisoner, he received only gasps. Frowning, Zorun Tzin slowly paced around the pentagram. The octagonal chamber in which he had spent the last day interrogating the former guard was meticulously clean and neat. Each vial, each parchment, each artifact was set properly on the correct shelf. Zorun believed that neatness and order were paramount to success in the arts. Unlike some mages, he did not let clutter overwhelm him, nor did he allow dust and vermin to render his sanctum piggish.
Even when it came to himself, the Kehjani sought to be immaculate. His brown, wide-shouldered tunic and flowing pants were freshly cleaned. He kept his beard trimmed to a proper shape and length. Even his thinning gray hair was artfully oiled back.
The manner in which he ran his own life perhaps gave indication of why Zorun pursued the secrets of the fanatics as he did. They were a slovenly, disorderly factor, and their spellcasting appeared to be based on whim and emotion. In truth, when he had been approached by the council for this task, Zorun had already been delving into the situation in secret. Of course, he had not informed them of that; otherwise, they might not have granted him the list of demands he had given or promised even more should he succeed.
No, there was no should. Zorun did not fail.
"You saw the Ascenian leader, this Uldyssian ul-Diomed, he is called. Is this true?"
"Y-yes! Yes!" screamed the guard, sounding almost grateful to be able to respond to any question. "Saw him! Pale! H-he is w-was a farmer, they say!"
"A digger in the dirt," the spellcaster muttered disdainfully. "Little more than a beast."
The figure above the pentagram let out a gurgle that might have been agreement.
"It is said that he brought down the temple himself. Did you see that?"
The response caused Zorun to grow more exasperated. "You are wasting my time, then."
He gestured, and the bleeding figure suddenly gasped. A choking sound escaped the stricken guard. He tried to reach for his throat, which had now swollen monstrously around the apple. Yet, even had the Kehjani's captive been allowed to move his arms which, of course, he was not he would have been able to do nothing to stop Zorun's work.
With one last garbled cry, the guard slumped. Zorun Tzin finally let the body drop to the floor, where it sprawled, quite ungainly, over the pattern.
At his summoning, a hulking Kehjani with too small a head came shambling into the chamber. He wore nothing but a simple tunic. The face much resembled one of the small primates considered sacred by many lowlanders, although Zorun saw as little divinity in them as he did in his servant. Terul was excellent at obeying direct orders without question, the reason the spellcaster had first picked him out of the slums.
Terul grunted, the closest he ever came to speaking. His too-small head dipped down to acknowledge his master.
"The body." Zorun had to say no more. The servant understood exactly what he desired. Terul hefted the dead guard as if the latter weighed as little as air, utterly ignoring the blood that stained his skin in the process. The giant had been trained by his master always to clean up afterward.
Terul shuffled out with the corpse. There were many passages in the sewers coursing underneath Kehjan the city. All eventually emptied into the river beyond the walls. From there, the wild lands beyond also called Kehjan by the ancients would deal with the refuse.
Glancing at the pool of blood and the trail following in Terul's wake, Zorun muttered an incantation and drew the proper symbols. He watched with immense satisfaction as the crimson liquid smoothly and cleanly began rolling toward the pentagram, leaving not a trace behind. How many on the council itself could perform such a feat? It had taken Zorun ten years to perfect that spell....
He grimaced. No doubt, this Uldyssian ul-Diomed could do the same without more than a glance.
This must not be...or, if it must, then it shall be I who am able to do it, not some fool of a peasant!
Zorun seized a cloak and departed from his sanctum. There were those he needed to visit to gather the necessary items for his work. That would require some tricky bargaining that he had no desire for those who had hired him to know about. A mage's secrets were more valuable than simple coins or jewels. They were worth lives.
And if Zorun's plans fell into place as they should, one of those lives would be that of the Ascenian, Uldyssian.
"You must speak to your brother," Rathma encouraged, his generally toneless voice now hinting at concern. "He is growing reckless as his power further manifests itself."
"What can I tell him that is new?" Mendeln asked with a shrug. They were both contrast and similarity, the pair. Rathma was taller than most people and with perfect features that might have been chiseled by a master sculptor. His skin was far paler than that of any other living person, and that was made more noticeable by the cowled and hooded black cloak and robes he wore.
By comparison, Mendeln ul-Diomed, was average in height and more plain of feature. He had been a farmer's son, albeit not so good a farmer himself. His broad nose made him feel ugly in contrast to the one with whom he spoke. His dark hair seemed lighter against the pure black of Rathma's.
Yet in their manner, in their speech, and in their clothing, they were more like brothers than he and Uldyssian. Mendeln wore a cloak and garments similar to Rathma's, and his flesh, while bearing some pink tint, was still far paler than normal especially for an Ascenian, who should, like his brother and Serenthia, be baked nearly as dark as the lowlanders.
It was not so surprising, though, that Mendeln should be very like Rathma. The latter had chosen the younger son of Diomedes to be his pupil, the first mortal to learn the path walked by one who was son of both an angel and a demon.
"He thinks he is being very practical," Mendeln went on. "Hints of the Triune's stirring again forced him once and for all to stamp out their kind. That makes sense to him, as it does to many of the others. Even I understand the logic."
Rathma's cloak swirled around him, despite there being no wind. Mendeln often wondered if the garment were alive, but he never asked.
"But he thus remains blind to my father," the tall figure reminded him. Rathma was an Ancient, one of the first generation born to the world known to a select few as Sanctuary. Like him, all of that generation had been the progeny of refugees from the High Heavens and the Burning Hells, who had forsaken the eternal conflict and bound together to seek a new existence.
They had found that existence, for a time, in a place of their own making, masked from the sight of the two great powers. Yet, in finding common cause, the refugees also had begun their downfall. Familiarity brought with it the intermingling and, with that, Rathma's generation the first humans.
In the beginning, the new children had seemed harmless enough, but when they had started to manifest powers powers unlike those of their parents and with unlimited potential the angel Inarius, leader of the group, had declared them abominations. Only barely had he been convinced by a few of his fellows not to act instantly. He and the other refugees finally had agreed to retire to their separate sanctums carefully to consider the fate of their children.
But among them was one who had already made her decision. Inarius's own lover, the demon Lilith, secretly stalked the other demons and angels, slaughtering them one by one. In her madness and ambition, she saw herself as the savior of the children and also, thus, the only one with the right to mold their destiny.
A destiny that saw her as mistress over all.
However, she had dearly underestimated Inarius. Discovering her treachery, he cast her out of Sanctuary. Then, using the gigantic crystal called the Worldstone which had been created to keep Sanctuary hidden he had altered the artifact so that it caused the innate powers of the children to decline until they became so dormant as never to have existed.
Some of Rathma's generation, called the nephalem, had protested...and they had been crushed. The rest had scattered, Rathma himself forced to hide beyond the mortal plane. Over the centuries, most of his kind had vanished, and the generations that followed grew up in ignorance of the birthright that had been stolen from them.
But no more...
Mendeln turned from Rathma as he considered the other's words. The two of them stood deep within the jungles of Kehjan, well away from where Uldyssian's vast following camped. The scent of smoke that wafted by did not come from the huge encampment but rather from Urjhani, a town about half a day to the south. There, Uldyssian had tracked down some of the last priests to a minor temple, which he had afterward burned to the ground.
"My brother is painfully aware of the angel," Mendeln finally responded. "Just as he will always be painfully reminded of Lilith."
The demoness, despite Inarius's confidence, had managed to return from exile. The angel, distracted by the incursion of the Burning Hells into his world, did not notice her slow, subtle manipulation of the Worldstone. That manipulation had reversed his intentions, awakening the potential within the many humans now inhabiting Sanctuary. Lilith had chosen Uldyssian for her pawn, stirring through violence and lust his latent powers.
In the end, however, she had failed to turn him to her cause. Uldyssian had fought her in the main temple, and although her body had not been recovered from the rubble that was all that remained of the towering edifice, everyone, including Rathma, was certain that she was at last dead. Unfortunately for Uldyssian, who had once loved her as the woman Lylia, the demoness would never truly be gone.
"And for that, I can but apologize to him. I knew my mother's evil, just as I knew my father's sanctimony...and for generations, I did nothing but cower."
Rathma had hardly cowered, but Mendeln said nothing to assuage his mentor. Still..."I shall bring up the Cathedral's missionaries to him again. You said earlier that there are already a number of them en route to Urjhani, and we left that place only the other day. That would have to mean that they were dispatched from the Grand Cathedral itself even before we reached the town."
"Which is not the first time, either, Mendeln. My father almost appears to know Uldyssian's path even before he does."
"I will make mention of that also." But still Mendeln did not depart. He suddenly surveyed the jungle, as if expecting some beast to leap out at them.
"I am not hiding him," remarked Rathma with a rare show of frustration. "I am not pretending my ignorance of your friend Achilios's location. Both Trag'Oul and I have searched, but of the hunter there is no trace."
"But you were the one who raised him from the dead!"
"I? I only influenced the situation. You are the one who brought Achilios back, Mendeln. Your gift and your link to the realm of afterdeath are what enabled him to return."
Rather than begin an old argument over, Mendeln left the shadowy figure behind. Rathma did not call after him, and the human, aware of his mentor's ways, knew that the Ancient had already melted into the shadows.
Neither of them had uttered what both suspected concerning Achilios's disappearance. The one time in the past when they had discussed the possibility, Mendeln had nearly lost all heart. What point was there in trying to change the world, if the world was soon to be no more?
It was all too obvious to Uldyssian's brother what had happened to the hunter. Rathma had detected no demonic traces in the vicinity of Achilios's last known location. The absolute absence of any such trace could mean only two things. One was that Inarius had seized Achilios for some plot against them, a dire notion indeed. Yet, as terrible as that might be especially to Serenthia there was a second scenario that made the first welcome by comparison.
What if another angel had stolen away the hunter?
They all knew what that meant. The Burning Hells were already aware of Sanctuary and had been so for centuries. They had let it survive because of their interest in the potential of using humans as a turning point in the eternal war. The Temple of the Triune had been created by the demon lords the Prime Evils in order to bring Mendeln's race into the fold. Had not Inarius taken personal umbrage at their act seeing Sanctuary and all in it as his humanity might even now be marching into battle against the angels.
But now, if the High Heavens did know of the world, they were sure either to fight to possess it or simply to destroy it so that it could not be of use to the demons. That thousands of lives would perish was not of interest to either side.
It is essential that we find Achilios, Mendeln determined as he reached the edge of the encampment. For all our sakes, it is essential!
His thoughts were violently interrupted by an invisible force against which he collided. As he rubbed his nose, two figures appeared one with the swarthy skin of a lowlander, the other as pale as any Ascenian tended to look next to one of the locals. Mendeln recognized the second as one of the dwindling number of Parthans, Uldyssian's first converts. There were perhaps a little more than a hundred of them left, where once there had been many times that number. Being among the earliest of his brother's followers, the Parthans had, unfortunately, faced monstrous dangers before having the chance to truly begin to come into their powers.
"Ah! Forgive us, Master Mendeln!" blurted the Parthan. "We couldn't know it were you!"
The other edyrem nodded nervously in agreement. Whether from the lowland jungles or the highland forests, nearly all of Uldyssian's flock treated Mendeln with a combination of veneration and fear. The fear came from Mendeln's calling, which dealt much with the dead. The veneration...well, he was wise enough to understand that it originated simply from the fact that he was their leader's sibling.
Oddly, a small handful had begun to come to him for learning, but Mendeln did not set any store by their interest. They were just morbidly fascinated by certain aspects...at least, that was what he told himself.
"You need not apologize," he told the pair. "I left without giving word. You did as you were commanded."
They opened the way for Mendeln, watching with some visible relief as Mendeln passed. He pretended not to notice.
And, as if by passing the guards, the younger son of Diomedes had entered a new realm, suddenly the area around him was filled with magic. Colored spheres of energy dotted the vast camp, as if arranged for some festival. Yet none of them was secured by string, but rather floated above those who had cast them. There were still fires, but mainly for cooking, not for illumination.
But the spheres were not all. As Mendeln strode through the throngs, a continual array of magical displays caught his gaze. One swarthy lowlander had created a glowing stream of energy that entwined around itself like a serpent. Another edyrem levitated a number of small stones, then proceeded to have them move around as if in the hands of an invisible juggler. A fair-haired Parthan woman created a spear from empty air, which she threw with perfect accuracy at a distant tree. The spear hung embedded for a moment, then dissipated as she forged a new one.
These were but a few examples. The many spells cast by the edyrem varied in power and skill, but that the seemingly insignificant faces around him faces drawn from all castes and occupations were those of people mastering what had once been available only to a select few was both astounding and troubling to Mendeln. Common folk such as himself were supposed to live out their lives toiling in the field. They were not supposed to become powerful sorcerers.
And that was what troubled him, even as he watched one inventive youth create for his smaller siblings yes, Uldyssian's "army" even included children bright butterflies that flew in a dozen different directions. In some ways, many of those who followed his brother were naïve about the potential they wielded. At best, they saw it as a tool, like a hoe, not as something that could possibly either turn on them or brutally maim one of their own.
Perhaps I am being too harsh, Mendeln considered. They have fought for what they believe in and have been forced to slay those who would make them their slaves and puppets.
Yet his misgivings did not go away. Despite everything, Mendeln felt magic was something that needed to be studied carefully and used with the utmost consideration. One had to grow into its use and learn to respect its dangers.
Then, ahead, there arose a soft, comforting blue glow. Mendeln hesitated but finally stepped toward it. He had no reason to fear the source. After all, it was only Uldyssian.
Even amidst so much magic, one could feel his brother's presence. A large group of edyrem sat or stood in a circle around the area Uldyssian had chosen for his bed. Mendeln could not see his brother, but he could sense exactly where Uldyssian was. Without hesitation, the younger sibling strode into the crowd, which immediately took notice of his presence and began to open a path for him.
And barely had Mendeln made it halfway when at last he caught sight of Uldyssian.
The sandy-haired figure had the strong build and looks of a country farmer, which, of course, Uldyssian had been. Quite good at it, too. Broad-shouldered and square-jawed, with a short, trimmed beard, the elder sibling was handsome in a rough-hewn way, and that helped him appeal to others. He did not look in the least like one of the haughty priests or fiery prophets with whom most of his followers were familiar. He was one of them, the common folk. He had prospered, and he had suffered, his greatest loss that of all his family save Mendeln years before to plague. At that time, Uldyssian had turned from one missionary to the next, seeking salvation for his loved ones and receiving nothing but empty words and suggestions of donations. That tragedy had given him a fierce hatred for sects such as the Triune and the Cathedral even before both had gone hunting for him.
Uldyssian sat atop a log, talking earnestly to all. Mendeln did not have to listen to know that Uldyssian was speaking words of encouragement to his flock, explaining what walking his path meant. His words all had great merit, but too often, Mendeln's brother did not follow them himself. Of late, Uldyssian had been letting his incredible abilities take command of him, not the other way around.
Urjhani was the latest example of that. Uldyssian had intended to capture the priests, not slay them. There were questions about their true masters, the demon lords, that he had wanted to ask. Yet, when one had struck at the edyrem in a desperate attempt to stave off the inevitable an attempt that had been easily deflected Uldyssian had angrily hit back.
What had once been the priests had been strewn for yards, each having exploded from the inside. Uldyssian had shrugged off the situation as if he had intended this end from the start.
"They were Triune" was the reasoning with which he cut off any other protest from Mendeln. That said, Uldyssian had ordered the final temple burned down so that no memory would remain of the sect.
Now, the same man who had so casually torn apart those living souls and burned their temple dismissed his followers with a genial nod. The glow muted but remained strong enough to be noticed.
Only one figure stayed behind: Serenthia, daughter of the merchant Cyrus, who had been one of the first slain by Uldyssian's powers. That had not been his fault, naturally, Lilith having manipulated the situation to bring about such terrible results. Serenthia was a beautiful woman, with long black tresses and bright blue eyes. Like Uldyssian's her once-pale skin was bronzed. In contrast to the brothers, she wore the loose-fitting, flowing clothing of the lowland regions. The spear in her right hand was a constant companion, and if anything marred her beauty, at least in Mendeln's opinion, it was the dread determination in her expression.
"Mendeln." Uldyssian rose and greeted his brother as if the latter had been gone for days. "Where have you been?"
"Beyond the boundaries."
"Ah." Some of the older sibling's pleasure faded. "Who was it this time? The dragon or her spawn?"
By "her," he meant Lilith. "Rathma, yes. He warns of his father "
The aura abruptly blazed bright, causing some nearby to start. However, all eyes quickly turned away again. "As he does every time! Does he think I keep no watch for that one? Rathma could serve us better by standing at our side rather than running off into the dark after he whispers another fearful warning."
The glow continued to increase in intensity. Mendeln felt his own anger stirring but kept it in check. "You know he risks as much as any of us, Uldyssian...and you need not hate him for being Lilith's progeny. He regrets that more than you can ever imagine."
The blue muted again. Uldyssian exhaled. "You you're right. Forgive me. The past few days've been long ones, haven't they, Mendeln?"
"To me, the days seem to grow longer and longer with each breath I take."
"I miss the farm."
"As do I, Uldyssian. As do even I."
Serenthia finally broke her silence. Gaze narrowed at Mendeln, she muttered, "And any word of Achilios?"
"You know I would speak if I knew even the slightest hint."
She thrust the bottom end of the spear into the ground. A brief scattering of red energy marked where the spear struck. Of all Uldyssian's acolytes, Serenthia was the most powerful. Some of that strength, unfortunately, was fueled by her concern for the hunter, and the longer he remained missing, the more careless she became. It was becoming not an uncommon trait among the edyrem, and as the only relative outsider, Mendeln appeared alone in noticing it.
"Achilios will find a way to return to you," Uldyssian interjected. "He will, Serry."
But she looked uncertain. "If he could've, he would be standing with us now!"
"You wait and see." Uldyssian put a hand on her shoulder, which, long ago, would have made the merchant's daughter turn red. She had adored him most of her childhood, only discovering her love for Achilios just before the demon Lucion had slain their brave friend.
Turning back to Mendeln, Uldyssian added, "And, as I said, I keep wary about the angel, but what can he do against us that the Triune didn't? Rathma's hidden so long it's hard for him to think that "
There was a shout from the edge of the encampment and a host of angry voices that did not belong to the edyrem.
Uldyssian stared into the sky. He frowned, looking more frustrated than surprised.
"We've guests," he told Mendeln and Serenthia. "Many uninvited guests..."
"Triune?" she asked, almost eagerly. Serenthia hefted the spear, looking as if she intended to throw it now.
"I don't know, but who else can it be?" Uldyssian headed toward the direction of the cry. "Well, whoever they are, they'll receive the same greeting we always give the Temple."
Cyrus's daughter smiled, a look that reminded Mendeln just briefly of the expression often on her countenance when she had been possessed by Lilith. She raced eagerly after Uldyssian, the two quickly leaving Mendeln well behind.
He did not move, although it was not because he shirked battle. Rather, as the sounds of struggle rose, Mendeln wondered at this desperate surprise attack. It hardly sounded like the Triune, assuming that they could muster any size force now. Yet the only other choice in his mind was Inarius. Mendeln, though, could not conceive of something so overt, so simple, from Inarius, whom Rathma had often described as one who worked behind the obvious, manipulating events as he desired
Mendeln swore, suddenly rushing to join the others. Whatever this attack appeared on the surface to be, it would have another, far more dread reason behind it one that it might already be too late to stop.
© 2007 by Blizzard Entertainment, Inc.