Grave Choices: 4

Goofed and accidentilly deleted this story while doing cleanup work on all the half-done drafts. Reposting now.


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The smell is probably what woke me. I was in a completely dark place laying on what felt like a straw mattress that needed its stuffing changed about three months ago. Judging by the smell and different incidental noises I had to guess I was somewhere in Newport's sewer system. No there were no rats or any other creepy crawly things. While they were carriers of disease my order felt it better to ward them away from our collective holdings than to risk them eating or making a nest out of irreplaceable documents. i didn't know this for a fact, but based on little things like the sound of running water coming from somewhere close, the overall odor, and the 'everything made of brick and stone' quality to the sound made that conclusion seem very likely.


Nobody answered when I started making noise, though I could hear at least two somethings moving somewhere in the general area. Fear started creeping in. They'd found me out and I was going to be torn apart by zombies. It was dark and the sounds were intermittent and indistinct enough that i couldn't get an exact location on my captors. So even though I still had some stored energy that could have been counted as a weapon I would still need to physically touch whatever was out there to properly direct it. Sure there are area effect spells but I knew none because all the ones I had seen were horrid things I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. Well OK if someone did something bad enough like eat babies while using Azlan's Shroud to dry off from bathing in the blood of virgins I might consider a cloud of skin melting acceptable.


Another thought struck me as I waited in the darkness. Something was breathing out there, which made sense in a way. Someone that has animated corpses can use their unnatural senses as if they were their own, which comes in real handy if you're stuck in the dark somewhere without a light.


I might not have been able to do much in way of offensive magic, but defensively I had a few things i could manage. Petrified Skin: Sure I lost some mobility but it made my skin as tough as boot leather. Not great, but the best I could manage on that count. Festering Touch: It would lay dormant until the next sunrise and would infect anyone that lay hands on me with a sickness that could be anything as relatively minor as a bad flu to a horrid flesh eating monstrosity. The near random nature of what the target gets hit with coupled by it being a one shot desperation attack gave it limited use, but anything was better than nothing. I wished I had time for Eye of Death, which would let me see the life or un-life of anything and give me a general idea of surroundings even in total darkness, but it took a good hour to work up to and would have left me drained.


"You know I'm awake," My voice was steady and sounded calmer than I felt, "and I know you're out there. Speak and lets get on with this."


There was a bare whisper of power followed by a pale light filling the room. I tried to follow the weaving process but whoever did it was too fast for me to follow. Even though it was dim it was bright enough to keep details from me for a few minutes. Even so I knew the fuzzy blobs at the other end of the place I was in weren't moving and I could guess the center blob was the caster, shorter than the two others, and as everything came into focus I saw Min guarding me.


"Not sure if you're going to kill me, torture me, or guard me but I'm glad you're the one they've got doing this." Min smiled at me and made a series of signs and gestures with her hands. I couldn't follow everything, only a few that i know can, but I know enough to get a general hint most times.


'Guard.' Something. 'Keep safe.' Lots of something. 'Duel soon.'


I Ah'd then. "I got kidnapped and taken here to keep me safe for the duel?" She nodded quickly. "Doesn't seem like a great reason since I'm pretty sure Scruffy isn't under lock and key." She shrugged at me. "Anything you can tell me?'


'Talked with Vik.' Her expression softened then. 'He told.'


I swore and didn't bother keeping my voice low.


'We're friends." She pointed to me then her and smiled. 'We understand why. Keep you safe.'


"We?" The logical part of me was screaming that this was a trap to get me to explicitly incriminate myself. The rest of me told logic to get bent. Even if I were going to die I would be honest. Breaking the order's oath had cost me, and I hate lying. Mostly because I'm terrible at it.


Something Something. "Can't.' Something. 'Me. Vik will tell.' Something. Lots of somethings. 'Later.' She bowed her head to me, as did her two companions before she stepped out and Vik walked through the narrow archway leading to what could be generously described as a room.


He carried a partial loaf of bread, cheese, a couple jars, and he was smiling at me. "


Well, buddy, mind tossing me a clue here?" I took the offered food and found the jar full of surprisingly cool clean tasting water.


He watched me eat for several minutes then took a breath. "You're not the only one that thinks the traditional methods are hamstringing our potential. There's several of us actually, but none inside the inner circle." So there was another layer to all this. Not sure if I feel happy about being right but I did. I raised an eyebrow at him and motioned for him to keep talking. "I- uh that is we didn't want to approach you since you seemed pretty twitchy and nobody could be sure if you'd take our story at face value."


I passed Vik the water jar back and tried for a neutral expression on my face. "I'm still not sure i buy it, but let's say you're right. Why hadn't you tried working against the leader's intentions?"


"Because we're not sure they're wrong."


A small laugh escaped before I realized my mouth was open. "You can't," My voice rose, "Can't seriously think wiping out human and elf kind would be an improvement."


"Face it, the Gods have turned their backs on even the faithful." Vik was somber and steady in word and expression. We rarely talked religion, as more often than not people of differing faiths turn violent it seems, but we had spoken in the past of these things. "Ever since the Blighting they've been distant, dolling out only the meagerist sums of power to healers and holy warriors."


"Maybe they're too busy trying to fix the sinkhole left behind to spare anything for us."


Vik rolled his eyes, "Right. Beings of unimaginable power and knowledge unable to leave a simple 'hey sorry we're skimping but we're busy trying to keep the world from falling apart.' to the faithful."


"Whatever man." I stretched and paced as much as my accommodations allowed, which wasn't very. "If you believed that then why are you helping me?"


"Like I said. I'm not sure whether they're right or not. That and you're a friend. We have time, but not much." Small traces of power started weaving around me. "The guy you're dueling is old, tough, and everyone is laying charms and enchantments on him. It's only fair we do the same for you."


More power came from Min and I watched both fascinated and awestruck by the complexities of their spellwork. For at least the past three years I'd known they were something of an item, but even with that knowledge I hadn't expected anything nearly this complex or well constructed. The more people you add to a casting/weaving/whatever the more can be done, but also everyone has to know their part otherwise the whole thing falls to pieces. unlike pretty well every other time I've seen casters pooling their efforts they shared in the labor instead of one acting more as a mystic battery for the other to draw on. It was, for the non-magical layperson out there, like having a pair of tailors weaving an expensive custom fitted layered suit in place from scratch. This seems the most appropriate metaphor since that's essentially what happened, layers of protective spellwork between me and the rest of the world.


When it was finished they both looked exhausted and watched as I tested how this new protection would affect my movement. "I'm impressed. I take it this was built more as a general than threat specific enchantment?"


Vik shook his head slowly, "No. Maven likes going for diseases or messing with how his opponent's heart works and we aimed our defenses accordingly." That explained a thing or three. Hm. Maven. Probably picked that name out after he joined up. Can't see anyone growing up with something like that.


"What about weapons, or are we restricted to spell slinging?"


Min signed and Vik translated since I couldn't keep up. "Others will take care of that because it's likely Gerard's giving Maven his scythe." I quirked an eyebrow. "It touches you, you die, painfully." Groovy, a disease tainted weapon. "We're bringing several different things since nobody's seen you actually use anything."


I nodded to both of them. "Well, if time is so short we should be moving shouldn't we?"




* * *




As it turned out we would not be meeting where I had spent hours explaining to Will how to find. Instead we had gone several streets over and through a series of twisty switchbacks, almost drowning at one point which was something I never wish to think further into, and finally hit a very large space filled with black robed people. My cursing was nonvocal but almost constant through the trip and died almost as soon as I saw the few non-robed people there.


There were four of them hooded and bound in the center of a wide mostly flat space that I took to be where we would fight. Our leader held them still by threads of power knotted in complex chains going through both body and mind, which seemed odd and more than a little disturbing. I knew, even before he spoke, that these people would die for Scruffy and I. My cursing started again in a slow unending repetition of every four lettered word I knew. There was no way for me to stop this, and even if I refused to accept the 'gift' that was about to be made of them they'd be just as dead, and I'd be at an even worse disadvantage.


So when the deed was done I drank my fill of their life. I drew in as much as I could hold and folded it into myself, wrapping my mind around it even as I started drowning in its warmth. This moment is hard for me to describe. Not only do I have to use metaphor that doesn't quite convey the scope and depth of the thing, but even with as inhumanly good as it felt and as much as I wanted to revel in that single pure moment of wholeness I couldn't keep one undeniable fact from sledgehammering me in the face.


People had just died so I could feel that way.


That sobered me better than any tonic, ice-bath, or anything else ever could. My hands clenched and unclenched as I waited through the opening ceremony and I'd started ignoring what everyone, especially Scruffy, was saying while I let equal parts anger and revulsion roll through me. I'd felt a gentle shove to the open space. Vik mouthed something and jabbed a finger at the 'arena' that everyone had clustered around. Scruffy and eye locked eyes on each other as we made suitably polite gestures, and we started circling each other. Our weapons would be left on opposite sides of the cleared space where we could get to them easily, but would have to risk showing our backs to each other to do so.


While we were eying each other up a circle flared to life around us. At a glance I could tell that was intended both to contain any energies we might use, and to keep us inside 'for the duration'. Right, as if either one of us could get out of a room full of people who saw it as their solemn duty to make sure we beat each other's heads in. The circle's empowerment was apparently our signal to start, as I quickly had to deflect Malvora's Chains of Terror.


Since I didn't feel like running around gibbering like a terrorized Shadow Blinded idiot that took priority. My power, backed by Will, dispelled the spell effectively, if inelegantly. Yet because my attention was focused on the spell I failed to notice Scruffy charging at me. We collided and fell to the ground hitting, biting, clawing, and in short fought as two people who have done anything but learn how to fight would do if they had to. Maybe i should have thought something of scruffy not going for his strong suit, magic, other than an opening distraction, but at the time I had other things keeping my attention.


While we 'grappled', for lack of better a better word, I could feel some sort of working in progress. My arms were pinned and though using magic doesn't depend on body movements it does depend on the mind, and when you've learned spellwork by using your whole body as part of the ritual it's suddenly several orders of magnitude harder when you're pinned down.


So. Scruffy's sitting on my chest, which is bad. At the same time he can't move because he's too busy keeping me from moving, which is good. Unfortunately he's still able to pull together something likely capable of killing me, which is bad. Thankfully the one area where I take pride on is reflexive defenses, which is good. Got all that?


My mind sought the empty spaces in his weaving and filled them with my power, trying to wedge apart the delicate work being lain about me. As I did that I also tried filling in unfinished portions with designs of my own. Anything to disrupt the pattern and force it to fizzle out. Granted a backfire could kill both of us, but I wasn't thinking clearly at the time and even a slim chance at walking away was better than no chance at all. I started chanting half-wrong Linarian to help focus on the task.


He couldn't stop even though he had to know what I was doing. All he could do was try modifying his spell to either incorporate my deliberate tampering, or find ways to disregard it. All written spells have a certain amount of flexibility but the more complex the spell, just like anything else, the less tolerant it is to fundamental changes.


We were still for maybe a minute or so then I felt the air around us heat, then chill, then grow dark with unnatural shadows, then it was over. We'd stalemated each other.


I moved first once it was clear neither of us would die from the backlash. I could barely see where my weapons had been placed, but I could see them, and that was good enough. Raw kinetic force is hard to manipulate with any sort of precision but it's something I learned, likely along with every other apprentice in the order, early. The hand sickles flew at about chest level with Scruffy, forcing him to either dive out of the way, or risk getting impaled. He'd used a kinetic blast of his own to batter the weapons aside, but to do so he'd let go of one of my arms.


Like I said before, I'm no trained fighter, and other than a few scuffles when I was a kid I hadn't ever given thought on how to hurt someone with my fists. So I didn't try anything fancy, just a quick shove to knock Scruffy off me, or at least off balance enough that I could wiggle free.


More power filled the air around me and my mind made a twisted, effective, and concentration hogging \response. Almost before I realized what had happened I'd been forced to keep from getting my middle ripped open by a wicked sharp scythe.


Think three foot long curved blade jutting out at an angle from a six foot long wooden handle. Normally used in harvesting wheat, it also does a respectable job of chopping down bodies.


So I moved, falling to the ground and rolling in the direction momentum carried me while I used whispers of power to nudge my sickles close enough to get hold of. I liked these better than Scruffy's scythe. Sure it's big and intimidating, and he'd enchanted it to kill even with a grazing wound, but it wasn't made for fighting, and it looked to me like he as having problems making it do as he wanted.


My strategy now was to keep away from his wild swinging and try keeping him off his feet. To that end I ditched fancy spell work and drew directly on the forces of Decay and Disruption. Everybody can learn how to do this, and no I won't teach anyone unless they show enough restraint to understand how monumentally dangerous it is.


I drew only a little and only long enough to make the floor under and around scruffy turn brittle enough to shatter at a touch. It could have gotten out of my control and consumed everything inside the warding circle, but it was only a quick burst and I wasn't immediately having to counter anything.


He didn't fall, more's the pity, but it did make him stay in a relatively confined area far longer than otherwise. Long enough for me to call on that dark wellspring of non-energy to quick age a portion of the roof. This was far harder work, because I didn't age the whole section, just the edges both around and above so the unaffected portion would only need a slight touch of power directed by my will before tumbling down. I'd guess, if I really had to, the chunk of stone I'd brought down being about six feet across and about two feet deep. Not sure how much it weighed other than 'alot', which was apparently enough to leave Scruffy pinned, broken, and all but dead.


This should be where I say I'd tried pleading for his life, that there wasn't any further use since it was clear he would die anyway, but I didn't. I'd poured the rest of the power I'd gained from the sacrifice earlier into repeatedly lifting, then dropping, that heavy chunk of stone until it was painfully clear he wasn't getting back up.


Everyone saw him die.


I got to feel him die.


His name was Robert, son of Paul, son of Simon, and I got to see his life as he had lived it. Intimate doesn't even begin to cover what I experienced. Everything, good and bad, was mine to see. Everything that he knew, in that moment, was mine to know. Beyond ritual magic, or even advanced materiel our leaders hadn't seen fit to teach me he Knew Things. I cannot put this knowledge into words, for I had given all but the meagerist portion up. I couldn't live with it. Even with only shadows and ghosts of what I had seen I couldn't handle.


I could have kept that knowledge. A part of me still thinks I should have kept it even though Robert dealt in the blackest and most vile of rites to try gathering even more power to himself. Somehow that seems important. This moment, outside of it being the first time I had killed anyone outside of self defense, was important even now I can't quite wrap my head around why.


Then the moment ended and I realized I was kneeling over the stone I'd used to crush Robert feeling like I was either going to pass out, sick up, or draw in on myself. I could afford to do none of these. Instead I used Robert's scythe as a prop while I got to my feet and glowered first at our leaders, then everyone else in the room.


"It is done." Memory, I didn't quite know if it was mine or Robert's, told me this was the appropriate thing to do now. "The trial of Blood has ended." I'd shouldered past people on my way out, not caring what anyone else had to say right then.


My plan had been to surround and eliminate them through a massed force of arms while I had them distracted. It didn't quite work out that way. Though I considered the idea Will and his allies would claim I'd wasted their time and put them in danger by going down into the sewers I doubted they would hassle me over the matter.




* * *




Maven. I'd thought about that name as I tried finding the nearest way back to the surface. Robert had taken that name because he hadn't wanted his family to know what he was doing when he was supposedly working night watch in Constance. I laughed at that. A man so wholly given to this cause that he thought nothing of human sacrifices, yet he dared not expose himself to his family.


My mind was tumbling end over end as i walked, which isn't smart considering where I was. It couldn't be helped or even stopped once it had gotten a head of steam to work with. For some reason I'd made myself forget most of what I had seen. Why? I could have used that knowledge, even if only as a way to warn others of what these people were able to manage.


It's most likely my being so lost in thought was why I didn't hear anything approach. The light I'd carried flickered and wavered, mostly because I think the battery powering the poor thing was about dead, leaving me barely able to tell where I was headed, much less give any sort of meaningful warning about anything coming after me. Did I forget to mention it's very stupid to not have your mind focused on your surroundings when in the less used portions of the sewers?


The first of the twisted manimals was on my back pinning me to the slick and frankly smelly flagstones. Arms pinned, couldn't tell where the rest of it's pack was because my flashlight had fallen into the water. It growled and made guttural noises, which was answered by more guttural inhuman voices echoing from the dark.


Even with Robert's knowledge to draw on my options were limited. I could try a micro-burst of Decay and hope my control didn't slip before shutting it off. Didn't like that, mostly because if I goofed or lost focus it could get out of control and become an ever expanding sphere of entropy and breakdown until local conditions reached a balance with the new force. By the time that happened I'd be dead, as well as a good sized portion of the city above me.


My mind flicked through other options as my attacker was, literally, breathing down my neck whispering something unintelligible in my ear. I steeled my mind as I sought the necessary focus to turn this thing into a thousand year old corpse when a bright something streaked into my attacker. I only knew this because of the howls of pain and a sudden removal of pressure from my back.


Spark hovered in the middle of the corridor I was in illuminated by a gently pulsing red light coming from her hands. She spoke words I could barely grasp as being language, much less figure their meaning before she threw another red-white bolt of lightning at my attacker.


More not-quite-human shapes could be seen at the edges of Spark's sphere of light. She hovered between them and me and hovered there. For their part the manimals, twisted human-dog blendings clad in tattered rags that might have once been clothes and armed with naught but their teeth and claws, gathered as if to rush the foolishly brave pixie. Even the one Spark had sucker punched was getting back to it's feet, albeit slowly and keeping a weary eye on the pixie.


"Sick 'em!"


At Spark's command several of the twisted dogmen burst into flames. Arrows flew. Men charged. I couldn't tell what was going on save that they were driving the twisted creatures off.


"Can you walk, or do I need to carry you?" I took will's offered hand and grinned. "Your little friend insisted we were going the wrong way when we were preparing the strike." I watched as the creatures that weren't killed outright limped away. "We'll discuss this later. Right now let's get out of here."


"You'll get no arguments from me." With my new escort in tow I suffered no further problems while we made our way out.




* * *




After my wards were disarmed I invited Will inside. I'd stripped, nearly scalding myself in the shower, and changed I'd gone back downstairs to try figuring out what happened and where our plan had gone sour. Everyone else save for Spark had left, apparently deciding their part in things was done.


"I'm not sure what to tell any of you." I eyed both Will and Spark. " Aside from the facts that I"m grateful you'd shown up when you did, and doubtful you would believe anything I have to say on the f-"


"If I didn't have any faith in your words you'd be in chains right now." Will was seated in the downstairs reading area. "I still think you're out of your blasted mind, but what we'd seen down there was enough to make me want to listen."


So I told him about Vik and Min. I also went into what details I could remember from the duel and the effect killing Robert had on me.


"Hm." He looked thoughtful. "Could explain a thing or three. Might want to try keeping in touch with those two especially if you're being kept out of the loop. The woman seems like she'd know more than the rest."


Will tried explaining more but I wasn't in a listening mood, so I told him I was raising my wards and going to bed. If he wanted to stay, great. If not, Get Out. Don't look at me like that. I was tired, rattled, and I needed sleep. Spark followed me upstairs and the last thing I remember before sleep claimed me was telling her to stay out of my head.

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