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The sunlight that greeted Droban’s departure from the village had seemed so warm and encouraging. Now it lit the scene before him so starkly it seemed the light existed merely to make sure he could avoid none of the details. The body had not merely been killed. It had been utterly consumed. It was barely recognisable as human. All life, all energy had been torn from it.
Droban had not been able to find Jeth when he rose but this had not caused him concern. There were many reasons Jeth may have been out and about and Droban had left without concerning himself about his friend’s whereabouts.
Without realising it, Droban was following Jeth’s path from the previous night as he started his journey. Droban had always left the village via the mountains rather than the plains for the simple expedient of disappearing quickly. This time he had found a grotesque cadaver cast in his path. Slung around the withered remains of its neck was a medallion.
Droban stooped to examine the medallion. It was as he thought. Grimly, he took it and stowed it in his pack. He had brought it back himself, years earlier as part of a goblin hoard.
Death in its many forms was not new to Droban. It seemed violence was a part of his life almost every day he was not in the village. But never this close to home. And never like this. He did not know what could do this to a life. Here was nothing so simple as death. It was as if life had been sucked into a vacuum, made as if it had never existed.
Droban would not survived so long as he had without senses developed beyond the normal range. Here his every nerve ending screamed that whatever had done this was still a present threat. The danger was still here. He was being watched. Danger was moving closer. Droban realised there was more than one threat nearby. He was being watched, had been for some time. The spy had crept closer. Was behind him.
His sword was at the stranger’s throat in an instant. His adversary, wisely, froze. He appeared unarmed and unarmoured. This meant he was either harmless or spectacularly dangerous. He wore deep azure robes with gold stitching around the edge of the hood, obviously expensive but bearing no identifying insignia or coat of arms. Perhaps only a simple traveler but more likely a magic user. A simple traveler was hardly likely to approach an armoured figure such as Droban silently and from behind. And only the most powerful of mages were likely to wander alone in any circumstances.
Droban knew this individual was almost certainly capable of launching an attack with a single word or gesture. He pressed the point of his sword a little harder against the stranger’s throat.
“Not a word,” he rumbled, his voice low and menacing. There was usually a magic user in the adventuring parties Droban joined so he was well aware that this potential mage would have many defenses. And attacks. He was confident none could be deployed at this range before a flick of his sword would open his opponent’s throat, ending any threat.
The stranger was holding perfectly still and, as per Droban’s instruction, silent. Now was a critical time. Droban could learn nothing if he didn’t allow his prisoner to speak but allowing his quarry any freedom of voice or movement could be fatal. The practicality of the situation meant the stalemate could not continue – it was either kill the stranger or allow him a little freedom. If Droban’s suspicions were correct, this mage could have attacked him from a distance before Droban was even aware of him. Still, no reason to let him off altogether.
“Explain why I should let you live.”
“Peace, warrior! I am not the one you seek. What you see before you was not done by me.”
“Who are you to know who or what I seek? I assure you now I have no wish to encounter whatever is responsible for this. I am drawn considerably more to one who would approach me with such stealth, seeking to catch me unaware.”
The magic-user faltered. If he held any prejudices about the intelligence of professional fighters, Droban would change his world view quickly. Droban was not fond of being underestimated. Those who did usually paid a heavy price. The mage held his hands open, palms outward to signify he intended no hostility. He slowly lifted his cowl.
The skullcap on his bald pate showed the first evidence of what looked like an identifying sigil to Droban. A pattern of intertwining spirals went around the circumference of the skullcap, reminding Droban of two snakes fighting. They even seemed to move independently as Droban’s viewing angle changed.
“I am the Magus Jura.” Not just a mage then. A titled wizard. Very powerful. Droban held his sword steady at the Magus’ throat. “You know who I am and what would happen if I were killed.”
It was not a question. But it was not a threat. The Magus was in no position to threaten. Droban held the power here. He could see the Magus was realizing the depth of his miscalculation and Droban intended to press home his advantage.
“I do not wish to know your name, magic-user. All it tells me is I would be a fool to lower my sword for a second. What I do wish to know is why you tried to attack me.”
“I did not attack you,” the Magus sputtered. “I would not have. There is danger enough here without creating more. There is an enemy here that would take great delight in attacking you and it is not me. I know your type, you’ve seen enough of this world to know immense force was required to kill this peasant like this. To kill in such a way is beyond any human power.”
Droban took his eyes off the Magus for the first time. He sensed something behind him had obscured the sun. But there it was, its yellow face beaming down untroubled. And yet he felt darkness growing. It was not the sun – his mind was being darkened. No. His soul. Something was clawing at his soul. Then he saw it.
It seemed like a cloud but it was rising from the earth, not resting in the sky. It was not a cloud. It was both more and less than a cloud. It moved towards them, a rising scud of black consuming the hillside. Roiling. Seething. Absolute nothingness.
“Warrior, it attacks! You cannot defeat it here and now, alone. We must escape. Release me and I will take us to safety.”
Droban’s prior dealings with magic-users and the aristocracy had led him to one conclusion: they couldn’t be trusted. The Magus was clearly both and Droban wasn’t sure which made him less trustworthy. In this case he did believe the Magus when he said the approaching something/nothing would destroy them. He also had no doubt the Magus could escape if Droban lowered his sword. He thought it unlikely, however, that the Magus would care to do more than save himself.
Droban saw two choices. He could either face certain death with the Magus or release him and face betrayal then death. He muttered a curse that he hoped would take the Magus and lowered his sword. The Magus disappeared. Blackness consumed Droban.
Slowly the light grew. He was in another place. A small circular room with stone walls. The Magus was with him.
“You seem surprised, warrior. Yes,” the Magus mused absently, “I could easily have left you to die but you forget: I sought you out. I had no wish to waylay you… I need you. You must help me.”
Droban paid little attention to the Magus’ speech. More important to him was becoming familiar with his surroundings. He could cross this room in three strides if he needed to, although he would need to be careful to avoid tripping over the array of books, scrolls, parchments and mysterious devices that were strewn about the floor. The room was made smaller by the shelves that were also filled with a seemingly casual array of paraphernalia. Despite this apparent disorder, the Magus could secure at will whatever he sought: maps, histories, arcane tomes full of descriptions of otherworldly powers.
Droban could see only one door and one window. There were doubtless others only the Magus could find. Things were rarely as they seemed on the surface with magic-users. A cold wind gusted through the open pane. The narrow view afforded by the window was filled with a mountain range. They seemed to be about halfway up one of the mountains.
As far as Droban knew, this room might be the totality of the Magus’ domain but that was unlikely. He could have been in a tower, one tiny part of a castle or even a town. Even if the Magus was alone there would be magic wards both in this room and beyond to punish anyone acting against the Magus’ wishes. If he was to leave here safely, he was dependent on the Magus. For this reason alone Droban began to listen.
“We are in great danger, warrior. All of us!” His theatrics were as grand as his costume. “You saw that body, you know the dreadful threat of which I speak. I call it the Shadoeforce. It comes from another world, a dark reflection of ours. It is a terrible place of great empty darkness, separated from us by eternity and yet as close as the other side of a mirror.” He seemed like a grandfather telling fireside stories at bedtime to frighten children, not a great Mage saying anything of importance. Droban assumed the Magus thought he was talking down to his level. He let the insult pass. The magic-user amused him.
“Its true existence is in that emptiness, even though it has broken through the membrane separating our worlds only one aspect of its being is visible to us. Here it has found a place of energy, life. It would make this world its own, drawing off its life as we would take milk from a cow. It will steal all the energy it finds here, leaving our world a lifeless husk. It will consume us utterly.
“It must be stopped at its place of being. No power can stand against it in this world. You will not even be able to hide from it. Nor will I. Now will any power or powers in this world.
“Armies will be useless. Governments will be helpless. Mighty kings and heroes will be shown for the fools they are and none will survive.” He laughed. A sound that was not entirely bitter, perhaps thinking of those he would prefer to see dead. “Time is running out. Even now it may be too late. If you would see life continue, any life at all, you must help.”