- Andrew M. Trauger
Chapter 12: The Slayer
Cora O’Banion lay in recovery in a basement room of the Solarium, cleaned and dressed, but tossing in a fitful spate of erratic and painful spasms. For the moment, she was quiet and appeared to be gaining rest. Cuauhtérroc and Elric remained vigilant through the night while the tattooed savant slept in the next room. In turns, they guarded her door lest anyone tried to finish her off. It had been a disturbing night, with patrols canvassing the castle, waking and questioning everyone, searching every room. Torches burned brightly all night after the attack. For the longest time, Cuauhtérroc had no knowledge of Cora’s whereabouts or her condition, only that Elric had run from the castle grounds with her in his arms.
“How is she doing?” Cuauhtérroc stood in the doorway, concern etching his brow.
Elric felt her forehead and sighed. “Same as always. Burnin’ up.”
Frequently during their shared watch, Elric tried to shoulder the blame. He chastised himself aloud for not being there sooner, for leaving her in the first place, and for every moment’s hesitation. Though Cuauhtérroc consoled him with reminders that he had slain the assassin, Elric took no comfort while Cora remained at death’s door. Cassocks of Light worked tirelessly to stave off the poison spreading through her body, and it was uncertain whether they would be successful. Even so, Elric made frequent trips to check on her.
Cuauhtérroc watched him hovering at Cora’s bedside. Elric expressed a level of devotion to her normally reserved for fellow warriors and the closest of friends. Ordin’s death had forged a closeness in this company that Cuauhtérroc did not think he would see in the mainland. “In my homeland,” he said, “dees shamans pray to dees Great Father when panther warriors panther warriors are cut by dees jelatang or dees ular bite dem.”
“I done prayed, Cuauht,” Elric answered with a huff. “I been prayin’ all night.”
The Audric nodded. “Cora O’Banion is like dees panther warriors. She is my friend.”
Elric pounded a fist into his hand as he stormed past Cuauhtérroc and through the doorway into the hall. “Well, she’s my friend, too, an’ Death’s gonna hafta pass through me to get to her.”
“Where are you going?” Cuauhtérroc asked.
A young acolyte strolled down the hall, pushing a small cart that held all manner of savory foods. He smiled warmly as he approached. “A good mornin’ to ye, gentlemen. Breakfast is served.”
To Cuauhtérroc’s surprise, Elric turned up his nose at the wonderful aroma of ham, eggs, and fresh apple juice. The acolyte placed a comforting hand on Elric’s shoulder. “Peace, brother. Take some nourishment, then rest. I assure you that your friend will find peace.”
Elric raised weary eyes filled with defiance. “I don’ want Cora to find peace. I want Cora to live. When I know she ain’t gonna die, then I’ll eat sumpin.”
“Master Elric, those devoted to the Light only find true peace and life in the Seven Realms of the Maker, not here.”
Elric scowled at him. “Even if that made any sense, I ain’t got the energy fer religious rigor-marole.”
The acolyte bowed slightly and backed away, leaving the cart beside Elric in the hall.
After a long pause, Elric looked up. “Well…” His eyes were brimming, and he sniffed. “I’m goin’ to the chapel. I got some more prayin’ to do.”
When the echo of Elric’s boots had receded into silence, Cuauhtérroc walked to Cora’s bedside. Sinking into a chair, he buried his face in his hands. The death of Cuauhmegmoh had not left him with such an empty hole in his heart. What did it mean that he felt such pain for Cora? He stared at the floor, working through the confusion. “I am sorry,” he muttered. “I knew dees assassinators were coming, but I was tired, and I theenk dees guards weel keep you safe. I theenk dees castle was strong. But I deed not protect you, Cora O’Banion, and you take dees poison arrow. When you awake, I ask you forgive me.”
The puncture wound in her neck contrasted sharply against her pale skin, and he stared at the mark for a time. He frowned at the wound; it seemed darker than before. He wondered if it had worsened, but Cora was sleeping peacefully and appeared unbothered by it. Taking her hand, he thought to swear a vow of protection to her…
The hand was cold. He leaned in and placed his ear to her mouth. Silence. Stillness. Cuauhtérroc jumped away from the bed, his dark eyes wide with horror.
Walls trembled with a savage roar, an anguished cry of an agonized soul. With unbridled rage, Cuauhtérroc threw his chair into the hallway, demolishing the cart of food. In blind fury, he flipped a table, overturned a cabinet, and ripped the door from its hinges. Curses in the Audrian tongue spewed from his lips as destruction swept through every part of Cora’s room—sparing only her body and the bed on which it lay—until Selorian charged into the shattered room, his astonished eyes flashing lavender, and dropped an aura of darkness on the savage, stilling him with a roiling purple ball of energy.
* * * * * * * * * *
A vast and serene azure sky stretched overhead, dotted sporadically with soft, white clouds. Though the day was bright, there was no sun to blind. All was light. Beneath the limitless blue rolled equally vast pastures, oceans of deep green grass bespeckled by vivid wildflowers swaying gently in a cooling breeze. In the far horizon, a meandering tree line indicated flowing water. To this, Cora O’Banion found herself inexplicably drawn.
Various insects droned among a rich collection of butterflies, adding a din of buzzing, chirping, and fluttering to the chorus of birds that sang overhead in a wide range of harmonious tunes. It sounded like they were singing together, but she knew that wasn’t quite possible. She was positive a tune buried within the notes and rhythms, and she could almost pick it out. It was pleasantly frustrating to her, like a melodious puzzle.
Cora soon reached the trees, which bordered a shallow stream cutting through a mix of willows, fruit bearers, and birches. As it gurgled by, the crystalline stream invited Cora closer. She knelt on the bank, holding onto a small willow branch and leaning out over the water to scoop some for a quick drink.
“Stay away from the water if you want to remember,” said a voice behind her.
Cora paused with her hand inches from the stream and looked over her shoulder. A tall man with chiseled jaw and broad shoulders stood calmly beside the willow with his hands clasped behind him. He wore a red silk shirt and matching red linen pants. His smile was kind. Cora looked back at the flowing stream; she could feel the coolness of the water beneath her, beckoning her. Her mouth felt suddenly parched.
“You will find it easy to forget,” the man said. “Perhaps you want to. Perhaps your life is so forgettable?”
Cora wrinkled her nose at the man. Some vague memory scratched on the inside of her skull, struggling to break into her conscious thought. What was my life all about? Have I forgotten it?
“Come with me, Cora.” He beckoned with outstretched hand. “I have a few people I’d like you to meet. Perhaps you’ve heard of Loren McBailey?”
Despite the intense dryness in her throat, Cora reached back and took the man’s hand. Loren McBailey—that name did ring a bell. The man pulled her away from the bank and handed her a small jar filled with water, from which Cora greedily drank.
“Loren McBailey?” she cried as her mind cleared. “You know my grandfather?”
The man smiled, his perfect teeth gleaming. “Know him? He lives nearby. But I’d like to introduce you to someone else first.”
Cora perked up. “Really? Who?” It had to be someone famous, someone like that great songsage guy who taught her everything she knew—the great…Reven Dine…Dreven…Trev… At any rate, he was famous and taught her everything she knew. Stuff about singing and dancing with a famous sword.
The man in red tapped her on the shoulder. “It is always difficult to remember here. That is why you should come with me before all is lost.”
Cora stared at him, perplexed. “Where am I?”
“The Maker’s Realms,” he said as he walked away. “And I am Reindon. But don’t bother yourself trying to recall that.” He stopped after only a few steps. “Are you coming?”
Cora realized she was still staring, then with a blink she hastened to his side. The two of them walked together beneath the tree tunnel of willow and birch branches, and as Reindon began to describe the harmonious relationship between the animals, a small hut came into view. The plain hut, built of small round rocks, looked like it had been lifted straight out of the stream and transplanted thirty feet to the left. It had no windows, but a single open doorway gaped toward the stream and a small, slightly crooked chimney angled from the slat roof.
“Ah, here we are,” Reindon said, interrupting his explanation.
Cora stared with childlike curiosity and concern at the ramshackle hut. “What’s in there?” she asked.
Reindon stood at the door and held his hand inward. “The one I’d like you to meet.”
Cora proceeded with steps wavering between inquisitiveness and wariness. As she neared the door, she saw inside a crude table flanked by two equally crude and unmatched chairs. In one of the chairs sat a feeble, elderly man, stooped in the back and hunched over a document he was writing. The other chair was empty, and to this Reindon motioned. “Have a seat, Cora.” He ushered her inside and followed with a gentle hand on her shoulder. With muddled head, Cora sat opposite the elderly man and watched him slowly and painfully scrawl the final words of his memo.
“Here you go, dearie,” the old man said in a voice that sounded forced through a strainer. “Sign here.” He pointed with a shaky, gnarled hand at a scraggly line drawn across the bottom of the page. With his other hand he nudged the inkwell towards her.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“It’s your exit paper,” Reindon answered. “Sign it if you want to go home.”
“Home?” She frowned at the man in red. “Where’s that?”
Reindon smiled. “Yes, home. You are beckoned to return home, Cora O’Banion of Lorenvale.”
The mention of her hometown jolted something in Cora’s brain. The memory that had been scratching at her skull finally broke through. Lorenvale. Father, mother, Richard. Devin Rhynn…Loren McBailey. “Grandpa!” she exclaimed. “You were going to take me to see my grandfather.”
“Yes, but you are being beckoned, Cora the Younger. Your friends…they need you. They wish your return.”
Images of people flashed through Cora’s mind. Cuauhtérroc, Elric, Ordin, Celindria, Velma Kotting, Montpeleón, Calloway, Prisido, Selorian…Vincent Schumann! “I have to go back!” she blurted out. “I have to help them catch Vincent Schumann!”
“That is up to you, Cora,” Reindon said. “If you wish to return, sign there and we’ll have you on your way.”
“But…” The vise of dilemma closed on her. “But, Grandpa Loren. You were going to take me to him.”
“And I still can. But if you choose to visit him, you will not be able to return home.”
The weight of decision pressed upon her; on the one hand, an afterlife of bliss with loved ones who passed before; but on the other hand, friends who needed her. She looked up with pleading eyes. “Is there no way for me to see my grandfather for a couple of minutes?”
Reindon’s smile held much pity, but he shook his head.
A tear welled in her eye, but Cora spun around in her chair and grabbed the quill from the inkwell.
“Now,” Reindon began, “there are a few things I should tell you. First, you will experience some mild discomfort as your soul is reunited…”
Cora finished her signature and dropped the quill back in the jar. She was vaguely aware that Reindon was talking, but all was lost when a sudden pain shot through her body. She screamed shrilly at the sensation of a searing-hot claw piercing her back in several places and wrapping serrated fingers around her ribcage. She grasped for the table, but it was gone. Her eyes shot open as pain wracked her every nerve, and she continued to scream as the claw-like grip ripped her away from the hut with a violent lurch. Hut, trees, stream, and rolling fields of green all dashed away, diminishing rapidly as her body flew backward, arms and legs trailing like pennant flags flapping in a brisk wind. The entire world soon was little more than a speck in her distant vision, and then all her senses failed at once. All was black, soundless, and void.
With all the force of a battering ram, Cora’s soul slammed into her dead body, where it lay on a table in a small basement room beneath the Solarium of Light in Westmeade. Her body jolted as her breath returned with lung-searing violence. She bolted upright, then with lungs filled to capacity, she continued her transcendent scream in the physical world.
* * * * * * * * * *
With continuous prayers on his tongue, Elric watched helplessly as four acolytes held down Cora’s convulsing body and two cassocks of Light worked quickly, applying poultices and sharp-smelling balms while also siphoning blood and poison from the entry wound. Father Gaidus, the pontiff of Light, stood at the head of the table, speaking soothing words over Cora when he wasn’t giving orders to the cassocks. She panted like she had run for miles, and sweat dripped from every pore, soaking the sheets beneath her.
After a few minutes of chaotic thrashing, screaming, and the expulsion of every bodily fluid imaginable, Cora inhaled sharply and collapsed onto the table. Father Gaidus caught her limp body and rested her head gently on a fresh pillow. He turned and looked about the room, daubing his damp forehead with a cloth.
Elric had never witnessed anything like it. His jaw hung to his knees as his young mind tried to process what he had just seen.
A twinkle flashed in the pontiff’s eye. “Well, that went rather well.”
Elric’s mind melted. Beginning with that night, his prayers changed. So far as the young soldier was concerned, the Maker was all-powerful and Father Gaidus was his right arm. The pontiff had commanded several hours of diligent and continuous effort—lengthy incantations, prayers, recitations, endless waving of aspergillum, spices and holy water, burning of incense and mixing of poultices—all required to accomplish the truly miraculous, bringing back to life one who so recently had slipped through the Void.
Now, with Cuauhtérroc stoic and silent at his side and Selorian quietly whispering to himself in the background, Elric stared in stunned reverence. The roomful of cassocks remained vigilant, battling the poison still trying to work death in Cora’s beleaguered body. She drifted in and out of consciousness, rapidly switching between fever and chills, her breath vacillating between a labored pant and calm repose.
Father Gaidus ushered the party into the hallway and closed the door behind him. “She needs her rest, gentlemen. You cannot imagine how exhausting this ordeal has been for her. Even now she is holding a fragile grip on life, her wounded neck still needs tending, and trace amounts of the poison in her system will need to be extracted or neutralized. She will need several days to fully recover, but we will watch carefully over her until she is well.”
“Several days!” Elric exclaimed. “We gotta be in Cer Cannaid ‘fore the end o’ the week. We’s s’posed to done left already. We cain’t be hangin’ out here. We’ll take her with us!”
The pontiff grew stern. “No. She is very fragile right now and not at all fit for travel. That is not an option.”
Elric had no reply beyond a protesting whimper.
Selorian’s eyes narrowed as he stared at the pontiff. “She died, didn’t she?”
Father Gaidus half-nodded. “Perhaps, but I rather think we resuscitated her before she slipped away entirely. I can’t say whether or not she left us, but I do thank the Maker you brought her here.”
“Death is beautiful,” Selorian murmured ominously, “but revivification glorious.”
Elric raised an eyebrow at the savant.
The pontiff cleared his throat. “I do not want to sound calloused, but with whom should I discuss the matter of financial donation for these services?”
Selorian began to laugh. “The foremost sign of a scam is to provide an unrequested service and demand payment for the blessing.”
“Shut up,” Elric said. “You wouldn’t know a blessin’ if it bit ya—” He clamped his mouth upon the realization that he was about to say “arse” in the presence of the pontiff of Light. Heat rose from his collar.
Father Gaidus raised an eyebrow, but it was directed to the savant. “You must be an Agnostic.”
“Unquestionably,” Selorian replied. “While I could hardly repudiate what just transpired, your brazen attempt to capitalize on the grief of Cora’s associates constitutes the quintessential scheme of a charlatan’s ruse. I am forced to conclude this is all a hideous charade. The methods employed, though appearing supernatural, were essentially counterfeit and could be exposed as such were I knowledgeable in such illusory fare. You had me nearly convinced, but your unabashed supplication for alms drove me to laughter. No, there is no Maker.”
The pontiff folded his hands behind his back. “I see. Then perhaps you would acknowledge that Miss O’Banion was near death, her body riddled with poison, and that she certainly would have died had we not acted quickly and thoroughly on her behalf. Surely, you would be willing to pay for the services we literally performed before your disbelieving eyes.”
Selorian glowered, but he nodded.
“Don’t pay him no never mind,” Elric said. “How much do we owe ya?”
Father Gaidus opened a door across the hall and ushered the trio inside. “Let us speak in private, shall we?”
As he closed the door, the pontiff’s sympathetic smile served as warning. “I will say up front that we are taking several factors into consideration, including the service your team has performed for our town and the fact that this was an attempted murder—well, an actual one that we successfully reversed.”
“How much?” Elric repeated.
“Have a seat. And please remember that we have discounted this as deeply as we could.”
From the back of the room, Selorian began to laugh again.
Elric folded his arms. “How. Much.”
Elric sat down before he fell over.
* * * * * * * * * *
That afternoon, Cuauhtérroc gathered the other two for a late meal at the Crossroads Tavern, where they sat in their usual booth. Eating in silence, he stared at the spot beside Elric where Cora normally sat.
Elric wiped his mouth on a sleeve. “Twelve thousand.” His voice trailed off in an overwhelmed whisper. “Where does that come from?”
Selorian sipped his wine, then cast a disapproving eye at the goblet and set the glass aside. “Does it not occur to you that this exorbitant sum, and the profiteering inherent in the sectarian system, is the price of freeblading?”
Elric grabbed his fork and pointed it at the savant. “If I knew what the rink you was sayin’, I’d prolly smack ya fer it. So, shut it. I’d pay any price fer Cora, an’ if ya had half the sense I do, you would too.”
The savant grimaced, paused as he regarded the threatening fork, then said it anyway. “That’s not much sense.”
“Cuauhtie, hit ‘im.”
Cuauhtérroc had no desire to hit anyone. His latest tirade had destroyed Cora’s entire room, preserving her in her bed as an oasis of calm in the center of pure chaos. He had no memory of that; he only remembered waking up on her floor in the midst of the debris with Elric, Selorian, and Father Gaidus standing over him. Cora had died. Selorian had stunned him with his purple fire. Now they owed a vast sum. What would hitting someone accomplish? What did it ever accomplish?
“Cuauhtérroc?” Elric prodded. “You okay?”
He stared at his first ever unfinished meal. “What do we do? We do not have dees leader. Cora O’Banion weel know what to do, but she do not wake from dees deep sleep.”
“What if we cain’t raise that much?” Elric asked. “Do we go to jail? Again?”
“Ordinarily,” Selorian said with a sniff, “when payment for services cannot be tendered, the service is retracted. But I would think it reprehensible for a religious sect to reverse this particular service. Perhaps they will only place Cora into custody.”
Elric glared at him. “Yer about as useless as a wooden fryin’ pan.”
“Then perhaps you should take stock of your assets.”
“Ya mean sell off ever’thang we earned?”
Cuauhtérroc pushed his plate away. “Dees is what Cora O’Banion did for me when I was burned by dees dragon. She also sell dees things for you when dees knee bend dees wrong way.”
Selorian attempted another sip of his wine and reacted much the same as with his first taste. He pushed it away in disdain. “This is not wine; it is an admixture of stagnant fruit juice and bile. It’s an offense to mediocre wines.” His eyes flashed a momentary hue of lilac. “What do you have to sell?”
“I dunno,” Elric said, pausing in thought, “a few weapons…armor and shield.”
“Cora O’Banion has dees singing sword,” Cuauhtérroc said.
“Yeah, but she ain’t gonna part with ‘at. It’s like the whole reason she left home. She’s got them gemstones the Dokari gave back…I dunno. Maybe a couple other thangs.”
Selorian closed his eyes and lifted his head. He mouthed numbers and figures while tapping fingertips against his hand. “By my estimation, you have far less than you need.”
“Also, there is the settlement, which your illustrious, albeit incapacitated, leader provided as guaranty for my services.”
Elric squinted at him. “What?”
“I get first pick.”
Much of their wealth had been stashed in Ordin’s hut hidden in the depths of Overdale Preserve. Since the park’s caretaker, Lady Tarnistorel, had left town, they squandered most of the evening finding the hut. Everything else was in Cora’s attic room of the Kotting’s house, and the Kottings were not keen on letting three men into her room. Cuauhtérroc alone was allowed up the stairs, and only with Velma Kotting closely supervising. After gathering up Cora’s valuables, Cuauhtérroc trudged outside with a heart many times heavier than the items he carried.
It was nearly nightfall when they had collected the last of the treasures. Besides their own equipment, there were three swords, two daggers, and a battleaxe, a suit of chainmail and matching kite shield, a violet velveteen cloth bag, a silver ring, and a leather pouch containing eighteen mixed gemstones of various sizes and cuts.
In a rented room at Crossroads Tavern that night, they laid everything out. Were it not for the knowledge that they would soon be parting with it, the assortment of treasures would have been cause for rejoicing.
Selorian scanned the small array. “I sense the radiance of magical auras.” Briefly, shadow enveloped the room while the savant’s eyes glowed. Normal light returned as he laughed under his breath. “There it is.” He scooped up the simple, unadorned sword in a plain leather sheath.
Elric wrinkled his nose. “It’s jis a plain ol’ sword.”
Cuauhtérroc felt for his macana, his dark eyes regarding Selorian with deep distrust. A man capable of removing light from the room now carried a sword. Besides quoting some ordinance or another from some law Cuauhtérroc knew nothing about, the savant had not been particularly helpful to their cause. Seeing him grinning broadly over a weapon added to his concerns.
Selorian grinned as he pulled the blade from its scabbard. “Actually, it would be more correct to say the sword has chosen me. I feel it drawing me in.”
“That don’t make no sense,” Elric quipped. “All this stuff, an’ ya want a generic longsword? Looks like a first-year smitty tried to make a sword, if ya ask me. Still got dents in it, an’ it ain’t even straight. Do ya know how to wield it?”
Selorian gave no response. He sheathed the sword, tucked his new weapon beneath his pillow, and prepared for bed.
“We take dees other things to Calloway.” Cuauhtérroc gathered together the other items into a trio of gunny sacks, and they retired for the night.
* * * * * * * * * *
Cora lay awake staring at a stone ceiling. Images of a pastoral meadow and tree-lined streams flooded her mind every time she closed her eyes. She found it best to keep them open. Like distant, haunting memories, wind rustled in her ears; floral aromas danced through her nose; and the taste of clean, crisp water lingered on her tongue. By contrast, her room was drab and lifeless, and she didn’t know why. Unable to do much else, she followed the lines of mortar between the stones comprising the walls of her room, then she counted the stones.
She sighed, blowing hair off her forehead. For a songsage, boredom was worse than death. Though her body was rejoined to her soul, the restoration process was slow and painful. She rubbed the small lump on her neck where the crossbow bolt had pierced; she would bear an everlasting scar from that wound. Everyone promised her the healing process was developing right on schedule, but for the time being, she remained still as the stone on the ceiling.
The pontiff, Father Gaidus, spoke with her of her death and revivication while he attended her. He detailed what was known of the assassination, Elric’s brave and timely actions, and Cuauhtérroc’s steadfast watch over her. Yes, he destroyed her sick room in a fit of rage, and he would finish restoring it within a couple of days. In return, Father Gaidus peppered her with questions about the Maker’s Realms, but Cora found that the more she thought about it the less she could remember.
“Did I actually die?” Cora asked.
“We think so, but only briefly. Your experiences in the Maker’s Realms seem to indicate that you did.”
“So, Father…why was there so much pain when you brought me back? That was a hundred times worse than any wound I’ve received.”
Father Gaidus smiled tenderly and rested a hand on her shoulder. “Death causes the soul to be ripped from the body, which is quite traumatic, but since one is dead there is no feeling associated with it. The freed soul is then transported to one of the Maker’s Seven Realms.”
“Where was I?” Cora asked.
“By your accounts, it sounds as if you might have walked within Pelondra, the Second Realm, which is the resting place for those who follow the Light.”
“Ordin was a Grovite,” Cora said. “Was he there? Could I have seen him?”
The pontiff shook his head. “Grovites usually traverse the Fourth Realm of Tanglewoods, the lands of eternal hunting. You would not have run into him without travelling between the realms.”
Cora smiled. “He’d like that. What about the other guys?”
“Well, your Audric friend worships falsely, and I cannot say whether the Maker recognizes his soul or not. But if one is an Agnostic, like Selorian, then the soul drifts through the Void, unclaimed and despised. It’s a dangerous situation, for the soul can be easily captured for slavery by native denizens or even subsumed into the substance of the Void, lost forever. Those who love the Dragon…well, there’s no need to speak of that.”
“Why did I go to the Second Realm?” Cora asked. “I don’t really follow the Light…well, not officially. I attend the Arthouse back home.”
The pontiff nodded. “Yes, of course…a common sect for songsages. Beauty and music also fill Pelondra. There are many natural convergences between Light and Beauty; the rainbow, for instance. I pray that Arthouses and Solariums would focus on their commonalities instead of their differences. The Maker’s Creation may one day be fully restored when we join together.”
“I see.” A yawn consumed Cora’s face.
“You are exhausted,” Father Gaidus said as he stood. “No more questions. We will check on you soon, but for now you must rest.”
Cora was tired of being tired. Though she had little interest in the complexities of religious matters, she would have much preferred that lofty conversation over lying in silence and solitude. The door closed with a soft click, and Cora sighed as a fresh wave of boredom washed over her.
* * * * * * * * * *
The savant shifted in his bedroll, clutching his new weapon to his tattooed chest, his mind fogged with fleeting images of hazy dreams.
His eyes flew open, flashing with a violet hue. All was dark; Elric and Cuauhtérroc were asleep. Lightning flashed in the far distance, and a cat howled a warning in the alley below. Who said that?
His eyes lost their glow and widened with alarm. Fully cognizant, he sat up and held the sword away from his chest. It had vibrated. Or hummed. Or…something. He pulled the blade from its scabbard and pointed the tip away from him toward the corner of the room.
The sword had spoken. Curious.
He had not meant it literally when he said he felt the sword drawing him in. In truth, he had not felt anything at all. He had merely scanned the magical auras of what was spread out in the room, and he had chosen the most powerful one he saw. But it was talking to him now. Or was it? Is this a nightmare induced by that atrocious concoction they called wine?
He was drawn to it in the same way a petty thief is drawn to a lady’s gem-studded purse. But he wasn’t a petty thief; he was an opportunist who was not beneath ruining someone’s otherwise lovely day with a little larceny. Especially when it was for a good cause, which was usually his cause. All that business about helping them secure Vincent Schumann—in truth, he had no clue who Schumann was, and frankly, he didn’t much care. It was a con designed to get him close to their wealth. The Nephreqin? Sure, he’d heard of them—who hadn’t? But the Ebony Ternion was a total fabrication. It had been his plan all along to walk into Cora’s trust, take their most valuable item, and walk right out of their lives. Being granted first pick of their treasures made it all too easy. He would have settled for much less, but the naivety of a young woman can never be underestimated. And as the Bones would have it, he didn’t even have to testify. Life was good.
But this was different. The sword in his hand literally was drawing him, and he could feel it calling to him, beckoning him, wanting something. Selorian’s heart burned; his head fogged. Far back in the recesses of his mind, a faint voice warned him to drop the sword and walk away. But the blade pulled him in, wooing him and connecting with his soul—a savant’s soul, vibrant and energized.
He glanced about the room one last time as a fully cognizant man. Then, as a sideways smile slid across his face, Selorian answered the call.
Power filled his body, silently merging with the wellspring of his awakened soul, uniting with him, filling him, subsuming his will and bringing his subconscious mind into complete subjection. He held the sword aloft, but it owned him. It commanded him and bade him move, overriding his mind and deadening his emotions. He smiled again, devilishly. But the smile was not his own.
Ahh, it is good to own you, Selorian. Your power is raw, but very useful. Together, we will accomplish much. Together, we will fulfill my purpose.
“Yes,” the savant whispered. “Yes, we will.”
After breakfast the next morning—a notably quiet affair—Selorian exited the tavern with Elric and Cuauhtérroc carrying the treasures hoisted over their shoulders. Selorian had marked nearly two-thirds of the items as magically enhanced in some way, which elevated their value by multiples of hundreds. Though they had no real estimate of the worth they carried, perhaps it would be enough.
As they trudged along to Calloway’s Emporium, Elric bemoaned the situation. “Don’t it seem purty lousy that we gotta lose all this to pay fer Cora’s healin’? I mean, seems like the castle oughtta be payin’ fer this, seein’ as Cora was attacked in their room.”
“One might ask why you three were the subject of an assassination,” Selorian said.
“Prolly ‘cause we was on to sumpin.”
“Then, did you not kindle the very fire that has burned you?”
“I hear dees captain,” Cuauhtérroc said. “He say dees Nefferin—”
“The Nephreqin,” Elric corrected.
“He say dees Nephreqin work weeth Veencent Schumann. If we say what dees man is doing, den dees Nephreqin weel try to keel us.”
“Which is precisely my point,” Selorian responded. “You stirred the hornet’s nest, and now you feel the sting.”
As Calloway’s Emporium came into view, Selorian’s eyes boggled. He had never visited the mercantile before, and he expected it would be a haberdasher’s store befitting the quaintness of this farming community. As he entered and a little silver bell rang above the door, his breath caught.
“This changes things,” he whispered in awe at the display. With eyes flashing lavender, Selorian browsed the shelves of odd items, racks of weapons, and rows of full armor on display. Each suit, whether leather or plated, gleamed beneath the glow of magical balls of light. Swords behind glass cases glinted, some with runes or embedded gemstones that gave the savant visions of grand larceny.
He found Cuauhtérroc and Elric arguing over a six-inch glass globe on a short pedestal. It shimmered with pearlescence, but patches of clarity formed and vanished in random intervals.
“I do not see dees thing,” the savage said in frustration.
Elric huffed. “I’m tellin’ ya, she’s right there.”
“May I inquire as to the nature of your activity?” Selorian said as he approached.
Elric gestured toward the orb. “I’m tryin’ to get him to see Cora in this ‘ere crystal ball.”
The savant’s eyes blazed briefly with a deep violet.
The vision of a tottering old man flashed through his head, and the words echoed in his ears. He scanned the Emporium, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Whether the command was directed at Elric or the man in his mind’s eye, Selorian could not be certain.
“Well?” Elric waited for a reply.
“This is undoubtedly not a crystal ball,” Selorian said. “It is merely a decorative curio, an excessively valued bauble to delight those whose existence has turned irrevocably drab.” His eyes narrowed and glinted again. Dark impulses flooded his mind, urges to shove Elric’s thick skull down onto the ball. Again, his vision was overridden by an image, this time of a spry, wiry youth, completely hairless.
Kill them both.
He startled. The sword wanted him to kill. But who? The men in his visions. These two freeblades?
“Ya all right?” Elric asked. “Ya kinda blanked out there fer a second.”
Selorian nodded. “I’m fine.”
Cuauhtérroc glared hard at him, his brow furrowed deeply.
The truth was quite the opposite. Selorian’s attempts to divine the magical nature of things in the Emporium had failed at every turn. It infuriated him that he could not ascertain the power or value of anything in the shop. He had no idea whether the globe was a curio or a clairvoyant device, and thus whether he needed to take it. On top of that, a voice pounded at his mind, and he found himself embroiled in a growing struggle for control.
Why do you stand around gawking, Selorian? Kill him!
“Why?” he whispered, grasping the hilt. Raw power flowed through Selorian’s arm, imploring him to draw the weapon.
Cuauhtérroc clutched his macana. “Selorian!” he shouted. “Put dees sword away.”
The images vanished from Selorian’s mind. He shook his head. “I was lost in thought. What were you saying?”
Elric shrugged. “It don’ matter no more.”
“Welcome!” Artus Calloway, the proprietor of the Emporium, called down to them from an overhead loft. “I hear you gentlemen need to make a deal?”
“Yes,” Selorian began, holding up his gunny sack. “We possess a great quantity of discovered treasures that perhaps you would deem more valuable as sales items than we do as useful to our quest.”
Not him. He knows…
His heart skipped, and he quickly scanned the men’s faces to see whether anyone suspected him of lunacy.
“Well,” Calloway said, “come up and let’s have a look.”
Calloway scanned the items as they emptied their sacks. He mumbled and pointed, nodded and prodded. He scratched a surface here and licked a spot there. A magnifying glass was never far from his eye. Finally, after several minutes of silence, he set the final piece down and motioned to a circle of chairs.
“Have a seat, men. As a collector of exotic and rare magical items, there are few things I have not encountered. That is not to say I have grown weary of the more common items, such as what you have presented now. One never truly becomes accustomed to the power of the multiverse contained within an inanimate object. Indeed, my study of arcana has had quite the opposite effect. I marvel still at the notion of flaming swords, arrows that seek the target’s heart, syrupy liquids that heal wounds, and sheets of parchment upon which words of power wait to be spoken so they can unravel the physical laws of Creation.”
Elric sagged in his chair. “So, yer sayin’ we brought ya a pile o’ junk.”
Calloway smiled and leaned back in his chair. “You remind me of my days as a freeblade, same youthful exuberance. Oh yes, I used to gallivant about the countryside seeking adventure as you do. Now, I deal mostly with the extraordinary and rare. I’ve encountered a few of the fabled artifacts of Arelatha, major concentrations of power that some argue are original creations of the Triality, or the Maker himself. The Dream Chair, the Staff of Reckoning, the Calling Chimes—I’ve had the unmatched privilege of studying each of these…and living.”
Selorian groaned. Such a blathering pompous arse. He suppressed every notion floating through his head. “With your extensive knowledge and experience, then, I believe you should proffer us a quick and reliable estimation.”
“We gotta get Cora’s fixin’ paid for,” Elric added. “What’ll this fetch us?”
Calloway pulled a worn leather pouch from his vest pocket and lifted the flap. From this he produced a thin lens of pure emerald, which he placed against one eye. Closing the other eye, he slowly viewed each item sitting on the table, as well as things they carried on their persons.
“Well,” he said at last, plucking the emerald crystal off his eye and returning it to the pouch, “with only one exception, I was able to determine the qualities of each of the magically endowed objects you have. That one exception, the one thing that eluded my discovery lens, is Selorian’s sword.” His friendly demeanor turned serious. “Would you mind telling me where you got that?”
“I found it,” Selorian said. He flinched as murderous thoughts raced through his head.
“It was in with our other stuff,” Elric said. “Selorian done picked it fer himself as a reward for helpin’ out. But it’s bent an’ banged up. I don’ know what he wants it fer.”
Calloway rubbed his chin. “Where did it come from?”
“I don’ rightly know,” Elric answered. “Cuauhtie?”
The savage shrugged. “I do not know dees. It was in Cora O’Banion’s room. But I did not take her Sword of dees Coast.”
“You know,” Calloway suggested, “it doesn’t look particularly well made. Perhaps you’d like t—”
The room grew a shade darker. “The sword is mine,” Selorian snapped.
Calloway glanced at the wall lantern for a moment. His gaze returned to the savant, his eyes much narrower and more cautious. “What was that?”
“I am a savant, and when I swell with eldritch power, light is diffused. Ordinarily, this is harmless, but it could be made quite harmful in the right circumstances.”
“I see.” Calloway’s gaze remained fixed on the sword for a moment longer, then he abruptly shifted in his chair to face Elric. “So…how much for all of this, right? How much do you owe?”
Elric dropped his head. “Twelve thousand gold stallions.”
Calloway half-nodded. “That is not nearly as much as I expected. Still, this is worth only half that. I commend you sacrificing your wealth for Cora, but you don’t need to be made destitute. Here’s what I’m going to do. You may each keep one item from this collection, and I’ll keep the rest as payment and cover your debt at the Solarium.”
Selorian placed a hand to his side. “I have all I need,” he said solemnly, but he was unsure whether the words were his own.
Calloway paused. “Please, might I entreat you to select something else? I am willing to entertain a trade from my store; perhaps a pair of energized bracers?”
Selorian glowered, and ambient sounds around the table fell muted and dull. The sword bade him kill, but he shoved the mandate to the back of his head. “I said I have all I need.”