The First Ward
That night, as Bane tossed in restless sleep on his hard cot, the Black Lord entered his dreams. Anger radiated from his dark, fiery countenance. The seething blackness that Bane's father preferred, streaked with red and vivid yellow, engulfed Bane. Occasional glimpses of weird landscapes gave him a little insight into the workings of the Black Lord's mind, since he created the vistas. Barren, flat expanses flitted before his eyes. Some were dotted with stones, others were as smooth and flat as a table top, and a sickly sun shone through thick clouds with a weak red light. From this, Bane deduced that his father was fairly calm, which boded well for the meeting. His father's furies were inclined to be rather overwhelming, and battered his mind with waves of senseless rage. The scenes came and went, distracting him until the Black Lord spoke in a booming voice.
"Bane, why did you not kill the healer?"
Bane turned his gaze upon his father's face, meeting the blood-red eyes that glowed with dull venom. The Black Lord's visage was otherwise featureless, a reflection of his personality, or lack of it.
"I tried, Father."
"Then try harder, she must be killed!"
"She is immune to my power. I am curious."
His father snarled, "Do not be curious, boy, kill her!"
"I want to know why she is unharmed by the dark power." Bane's eyes were drawn past his father to a vision of stormy sea. Huge black waves were crested with bloody spume and lit by a yellow glow on the horizon. The Black Lord's calm was dwindling, it seemed.
"This is no time for such foolishness! I tire of waiting while you wander aimlessly about, satisfying your bloodlust. Use the power and find the wards! Smash them, then we will share the final victory over those snivelling humans. And kill that damned girl!"
Bane grew more curious as the scene in his father's mind changed to a raging inferno that leapt and writhed with the Black Lord's fury. It puzzled him that his father thought it so important to kill the witch. She was just another human female, with an odd immunity to his power. He intended to find out why that was, then kill her in the torturous manner that he enjoyed. Before he could question his father further, the dream faded.
The next morning, he thought about the girl while he ate his breakfast. Her immunity angered him. She should have burnt, screaming in agony, but instead she had merely looked uncomfortable, as if she had a mild stomach-ache. The rabble had proven beyond doubt that physical attack could not harm her, and the problem of killing her puzzled him. To add to that, she had feigned concern for him, and lied, claiming to care about his well being when he knew full well that she wished him dead, like all the Overworld humans. Her offer of help was intended as an insult, to make his men think that he was weak or sick. He would find out why his power did not work, and then remedy it. Until then, she offered sport to brighten his days, which made up for the irritation of her unwanted presence somewhat.
After he had eaten, he summoned his captains. They gathered at a respectful distance, thier eyes darting. The lone dark creature, who would carry his orders to the rest, watched Bane with glowing, hate-filled eyes. It was a grim, one of the lesser monsters, a bug-eyed horror with a matted black pelt and thin arms tipped with poisoned, razor claws. Its demeanour was worshipful, yet underscored by a deep, all encompassing loathing. The sunlight obviously caused it pain, for it squinted, and a sticky ichor oozed from its hide. The others gave the squat, toad-like creature a wide berth, and not only because of its nauseating smell. The red fangs that protruded from its mouth dripped venom that blackened the grass.
Bane ordered the men to search for the wards, still reluctant to scry for them as his father had ordered. Scrying used a great deal of power, and the headache that resulted would be excruciating. It meant a delay. Bane would have to wait for the searchers to return, his force seriously diminished by their absence. The men left looking confused. This was the first time that he had ordered them to do anything other than fight. The grim crawled away, trailing its smell into the shelter of the trees to join its fellows. He watched the captains gather their men and pass on his instructions. Each captain represented his own species or tribe, and they set out in groups that comprised only their own kind. There was no mixing of the different bands, each preferred the society of their ilk. The dark creatures remained in the forest's deep shadows, they would only set out after dusk.
At midday, Bane wandered over to the tree at the edge of the forest where the girl was tied. She greeted him with a timid smile filled with all the pathetic friendliness of a whipped cur. It turned his stomach. Of all the humans he had encountered, she was undoubtably the most sickening, annoying and pathetic.
He sneered, "Enjoying my hospitality, witch?"
"I am sure this is not meant to be enjoyable, and it is not."
Bane studied her. Her flaxen hair was all but gone, she was smeared with filth, and a foul smell hung about her. Her ragged robe clung to her slender contours, barely covering them. Yet the calm serenity in her eyes defied him, told him not of suffering but mere confusion.
He snarled, "I could leave you here until you rot. Are you too stupid to know fear?"
She regarded him steadily, her smile fading. Bane swung away and strode back to his tent. Her composure mocked him; she should be weeping and begging for mercy. All the humans he had encountered until now had pleaded for their lives, yet this young girl seemed able to accept her fate calmly, even when it was obvious that a painful death awaited her. She must be confident that he could not harm her, but he would find ways to make her suffer. Her pain would bring him satisfaction before he killed her.
Mirra watched him leave, wondering why he had tried so hard to hurt her, and now held her prisoner in this way. The future loomed dark and uncertain, so she did not dwell on it. Instead she watched the men split up into ragged squadrons and march off, heading in different directions as if the army was disbanding. She grew thirstier as the sun moved across the sky, and was glad that the tree to which she was bound at least offered some shade. By sunset, only a few hundred men remained in the meadow, camped on the far side, well away from the big tent, its lone attendant and solitary occupant.
As darkness fell, a cool wind sprang up from the east, and its chill touch made her shiver. A furtive shape flitted through the deepening shadows towards her, and she peered at it, unsure of what new peril it offered. She made out a ragged, unwashed soldier, and relaxed, sensing no threat in him. He shifted uneasily as he stood before her, darting fearful glances over his shoulder.
"I didn't have anything to do with the beating, healer," he said. "You healed me, so I reckon I owe you."
Mirra recognised the man whose leg she had healed, and hope surged within her. She managed a weak smile, her mouth too dry to speak. He pulled a waterskin from his coat and held it to her lips. The cool liquid slid down her burning throat, bringing blessed relief. Although her healing power would block the pain of wounds, it did not prevent the pangs of thirst and hunger. She made the most of his kindness, and drained the waterskin.
When it was finished, she licked the last cool drops from her lips and smiled at him again. "Thank you. You are a kind man."
He shrugged, tucking the waterskin away. "One good turn deserves another."
"The goddess will bless those who help a healer."
"Reckon I'm beyond redemption, healer."
Mirra shook her head. "All can be saved, if they repent."
The man grunted at her pious words, and slipped away into the darkness before she could ask him to release her. She dozed for a while, drooping in the ropes, but jerked awake at the sound of soft footfalls. Another soldier crept towards her in the moonlight, a swarthy man with a scarred face and rusty, dented armour. He stopped before her, eyes darting, as his comrade had done.
"Healer, I've a pain, will you help?"
"Of course. Touch me."
The soldier laid a hand on her arm, and her power flowed into him. It found the cause of his pain, a malignant tumour in his stomach, and healed it in a few moments. The pain faded, making him sigh and smile with relief. He pulled some bread from his pouch and tore it into chunks, which he fed to her before he crept away. Much later, a drizzle woke her again, soaking her torn robe and chilling her to the bone. For the rest of the night she shivered, and the rope cut into her arms as it swelled with the moisture.
When morning came, a warm, welcome sun edged free of the pink clouds and touched her with its glorious power, banishing the chill. The black-clad man visited her, and surveyed her bedraggled state with evident satisfaction. She lifted her eyes to gaze at him, struck afresh by the purity of his sun-gilded features.
"Do the bonds hurt, witch?"
"They damn well should." Scowling, he stepped closer and tested their tautness. His touch forced her to share his pain, and her healing power flowed, but again was repulsed. He found the ropes tight, and glared at her. "Why is it that nothing hurts you, and my father orders me to kill you?"
"I do not know."
"I have killed healers before with the fire; they die like anyone else."
Sorrow blossomed within her. "Why did you kill them?"
"I felt like it! Do not question me!" He glowered at her, his eyes brilliant. "I shall find a way to make you suffer before you die, and when I do, you will rue the day you were born, witch."
Mirra watched him march away, and sadness settled on her like a dark shroud. There was no reason to kill healers. They only helped those in need, and never harmed anyone or anything. She had done nothing to deserve his hatred or his attempts at torturing her, and it made no sense. Even an invading army needed help for their wounded, and the healers could deny none, not even their enemies. He was filled with anger and bitterness, his pain was so deep that it touched his very soul. She longed to free him from the darkness that hung about him, to find the reason for his suffering and cure it.
That night, two more men came to be healed, bringing food and water. One, a little bolder than the others, spoke to her for a while, and she learnt how this army had formed, gathering around the dark man. When she asked about him, the soldier could tell her little. He seemed reluctant to talk about him, even afraid to mention his name. He claimed that he had joined the army to gain riches, and she pitied him. All the while, he kept glancing at the big tent, and Mirra sensed his fear.
"Why are you so afraid of him?" she asked.
"Why?" The man grunted. "Because of who he is, of course!"
"Who is he?"
The soldier leant closer, giving her the benefit of his fetid breath. "He's Bane, the Demon Lord!"
"He is not a demon."
"Perhaps not, but he is evil. He comes from the Underworld, healer. He's the Black Lord's son, I've heard."
While Mirra pondered this startling information, the man slipped away. Once again she had not asked him to release her, but by now she sensed that these men were too scared to defy their leader. She had been told about the Underworld and its ruler, the Black Lord, but her teachers had not mentioned that he had a son.
Mirra did not see Bane for two days, and each night two men came to be healed, bringing food and water. When she found herself healing an ingrowing toenail, she realised that she had won their pity. The nights were too cold for her to sleep; her shivering kept her awake, and the drizzle that usually fell before dawn added to her misery. During the day she dozed, hanging in her bonds, and woke with a stiff neck and a nasty sensation that she was becoming part of the tree to which she was bound. The unanswered questions about Bane and her uncertain future plagued her, but her mind only ran in circles when she thought about that. Instead, she concentrated on keeping warm at night and sleeping as much as she could during the day. On the third day, Bane came to inspect her, and scowled at her good health.
"Why are you not half dead from thirst, witch?" Before she could answer, he swung around and roared, "Traitors!"
Across the meadow, men leapt up from their camp fires and sprinted for the woods. The Demon Lord snarled, and his eyes filled with blackness. He lashed her with the fire, and she writhed as nausea churned her stomach. With a flick of his hand, he sent a bolt across the valley to gouge a chunk out of the ground behind the fleeing men. Bane shouted for Mord, and the troll scuttled up and abased himself, his face screwed up with terror.
He gestured at Mirra. "Cut her down. Wash the stink from her, and bring her to my tent. Those bastards will not be feeding her again."
Bane stalked back to his tent, the jet cloak swirling about him as if his rage had fuelled it to animation. Mord ran to find help, and returned with two reluctant gnomes. After they had cut her bonds, Mirra could not stand. Her rubbery legs would not obey her. They carried her to a stream in the forest and washed her with coarse soap, scrubbing the grime from her ragged hair. Mord hacked off the remaining tresses that hung from her scalp in tangled clumps with his knife. When she was clean, they wrapped her in an old, threadbare green robe and carried her to Bane's tent.
The Black Lord's son sat on the bed, clutching his head. When Mord entered, he yelled, "What took you so long? Fetch my medicine!"
Mord darted out, and the gnomes dumped Mirra on the floor and fled. Bane glared at her. His eyes were bloodshot and his skin sheened with sweat. "Now you smell like a damned harlot."
Mirra sat up and reached out to him, sensing his pain in palpable waves. "Let me help you."
He smacked her hands away. "I do not need your damned help!"
"Leave me alone, witch!"
Mord dashed in, cowering, and placed a cup on the table before fleeing again. Mirra winced as Bane drained the drug.
"That will kill you."
"It is poison."
"Be silent! All of a sudden you have a lot to say, and I do not want to hear it. Must I gag you?"
Bane threw the cup at her and lay back on the bed. Closing his eyes, he clasped his temple, his face drawn with weariness. Mirra waited until his slow breathing told her that he slept, then crept closer, forcing her legs to work a little. Her nature cried out to help him; his pain hurt her deeply, and she longed to ease it. Laying her fingertips on his arm, she sensed again the alien power that blocked her healing. She concentrated, trying to push past it.
Bane jerked awake and lashed out, striking her in the face and knocking her back against the tent wall. The hurts healed as she turned to find him sitting up, his face thunderous.
"Keep your filthy hands off me!"
Mirra looked at her hands, which were clean. "But they are not -"
Bane ran a hand through his hair, combing it into glossy, feather-like layers. He contemplated her, then rose and tied her hands behind her with twine. That done, he went back to sleep.
For two days, she neither ate nor drank, while Bane consumed evil, reddish food and a lot of strong wine. For the most part, he ignored her while he studied his maps or left her alone when he strolled among his men. Apart from ordering Mord around, he spoke to no one, and seemed to wish no company. Sometimes, he glared at her as if her presence, silent and unobtrusive though it was, offended him. Apart from when Mord took her to use the trench latrine, she spent all her time curled up in the corner of the tent.
On the third day, a troll runner came in with a message. Bane sat at his table, maps spread across it as usual, a cup of wine in one hand. The hairy creature abased himself, and Bane gestured for him to rise.
"What is it?"
"Lord, we've found a ward, in the sea town of Agaspen."
"Is it in a church?"
With a cold smile, Bane straightened and banged down the cup of wine, sloshing its contents and making the troll whimper.
"We march!" The troll darted out, and Bane sneered at Mirra, "A bit of marching should sap your strength. Everyone dies of thirst, witch, even you."
Mirra gazed at him, unable to think of anything to say in reply to this, besides which, her mouth was too dry to speak.
Amid much bustle and shouting the camp was struck, and Bane mounted the red dragon to lead the troops along the road. The horde straggled after him, its ranks swelled by those squadrons that had returned from their search, overflowing the road to blacken the fields around it. Mirra walked among them, Mord leading her by a rope around her neck. As soon as Bane was far enough away, one of the men who walked beside her held a water skin to her lips. Mord turned and snarled at him, but he ignored the troll, who was apparently unwilling to enter into a physical conflict over the matter. When she had drunk her fill, the men gave her dry biscuits and bread. The food and water revived her, and gave her the strength to walk for the rest of the day.
When they camped at dusk, Mord brought her to the Demon Lord's tent, and at the sight of her, he flew into a rage.
"Those bastards!" With a vicious backhand blow, he knocked her down. "They have been feeding you again, have they not? They have given you water!"
Mirra nodded, and Bane swung around. She caught a glimpse of Mord's fleeing hairy form.
"Mord!" Bane's bellow echoed around the camp, causing faraway men to abandon their campfires and race for the woods. "Bring them to me! I want those men, or I will torture every one of you! You will all pay!"
"Please do not," Mirra begged. "They were only being kind."
"Silence!" Bane kicked her, sending her rolling with a grunt.
In a remarkably short time, two terrified men were dragged before him, bound and bruised, their dirty clothes torn. They struggled in the brutish hands of four rough-looking men who obviously had no intention of paying for the crimes of the good samaritans. The ruffians pushed the hapless duo to their knees and backed away. Bane approached them, and they grovelled in abject terror, whimpering. Mirra recognised them, and her heart twisted. These were not two others chosen at random, they were the men who had helped her.
Rolling onto her side, she got to her knees. "Bane, please do not punish them!"
He turned and slapped her, knocking her down again. "I told you to hold your tongue!"
The Demon Lord stood over the men, his hands on his hips, then gestured to Mord. "Whip them, then bind them to stakes and leave them beside the road. They can suffer the same fate as the healer will, when the rest of these idiots have learnt not to defy me." He raised his voice to address the hidden army. "When I say the witch does not eat or drink, she does not! Any who disobey will share her fate, just as these do."
The men were dragged away, and Bane strode to his tent, thrusting aside the flap with a vicious blow and vanishing inside. Mirra gazed after him, filled with anguish and misery. Soon the cries of the men pierced the night's hush, punctuated by the sharp crack of a lash on bare flesh. She wept until Mord returned to drag her into the tent, where Bane already slept. He did not appear to awaken when she was dumped on the floor, and she curled up and fell into an exhausted slumber. The muffled cries of the men who had helped her haunted her dreams, and she jerked awake several times, her heart pounding with anguish.
The next day, none of the men dared to come near her, but many cast her pitying looks. She kept her eyes downcast, unable to meet their glances, filled with a terrible guilt for those who had paid so dearly for their kindness. By midday she stumbled, weak with hunger, dragged along by the rope. Her ordeal ended sooner than she expected when they reached a town by the sea and stopped just after noon. The fishing village was a huddle of stone houses surrounded by a high grey wall, only the red-tiled roofs visible. It nestled against ancient cliffs, which bestrode the land like a huge step, dense woodland on top of it.
A checkerboard of cultivated fields surrounded the town, and livestock grazed in lush pastures. The cliff curved away from the town where it invaded the sea, sheltering a rocky cove that bristled with jetties and dozens of fishing boats. Smoke rose from the chimneys in a semblance of normality, but the town had been warned of the army's approach, and its gates were closed. They had barricaded the tall wooden doors with overturned wagons outside, as well as within, Mirra guessed. Even now, the last of the men were being pulled up the walls with ropes, their task complete.
Bane smirked when he had studied their futile efforts, his expression contemptuous. He had no need to tell his captains what to do, but merely sat and watched his men prepare for the attack. Trolls, armed with double-edged battle axes, went into the forest and felled several trees to use as battering rams. Each ram was carried by ten trolls, and they led the attack on the town. They trotted up the road that led to the tall gates, the rams a slight burden for thier strength. The rest of the horde followed, shouting battle cries and beating their swords on their shields as they swarmed across the fields like a black tide rising to engulf the grey-walled village in a foul sea of chanting, sword-waving death.
The defenders were ill-equipped and untrained, but they fought bravely from the walls. They sent flights of arrows and spears whistling among Bane's motley army, killing many. When they ran out of spears, they used harpoons, boat hooks and sharpened stakes. At the wall, pots of boiling oil were tipped onto the attacker's heads, and they died screaming in agony, tearing at their steaming clothes. They pulled off parboiled skin with the garments, and their shrieks made Mirra's skin crawl.
Bane's army surged back like a wave rebounding from a cliff. They withdrew to a safe distance to wait for the gates to be broken down. The trolls battered the doors with a great booming that echoed across the valley. Many died as they wielded the rams, despite the shields held over their heads to ward off the storm of arrows and oil that rained down from the defenders. As soon as a troll fell, another took his place from the waiting host, and the progress of the rams barely faltered. The gates shuddered with every blow, growing weaker under the barrage, until they began to sway, loosened from their stout iron hinges.
Bane sat on the dragon, smiling with satisfaction as the gates gave way and swung inward with a great squeal of tearing wood. His men charged into the town, and a distant screaming, mingled with the clash of arms and the whoops of the attackers, started as the populace was slaughtered. Soon black smoke poured from the stricken town, and crammed fishing boats put out to sea, bobbing sluggishly in the swells.
Mirra was glad that some of the people had escaped, but they were pitifully few. She prayed that the overladen boats would reach the next sea town. Already their sails were stretched in the wind, and they listed with their burdens. The people who slipped through postern gates and fled the town on foot were hunted down and slaughtered by Bane's men. Those who made it to the dubious safety of the forest were ambushed by the dark creatures that waited there.
The Demon Lord watched from his vantage, his eyes narrowed against the sun. As soon as the screaming had died down, he dismounted and chained the dragon to a tree, then walked towards Mirra, who waited with Mord. The troll scuttled away, dropping her rope. Bane picked it up and yanked her forward, leading her into the carnage. Most of the fallen soldiers outside the walls lay twisted and gaping in death, some bristling with arrows, others as red as boiled lobsters, streaked with black oil.
A few still twitched and groaned, begging for help, others hobbled or dragged themselves towards the town, where they might find medicine and bandages. Mirra's heart bled for their pain. Her eyes burnt with unshed tears, and she could hardly bear to look at them. Most, she was certain, would die from their wounds or remain crippled, and succumb to starvation or fall prey to the wolves that would come for the carrion. Bane did not spare a glance for his fallen troops, nor heed their despairing cries for help.
The hundreds of dead outside were nothing compared to the number within. Tears of grief and pity streaked Mirra's cheeks at the savage slaughter of innocents within the walls. Children lay strangled, their thin arms outstretched in helpless supplication. Men and women had been crucified and gutted. Piles of corpses blocked streets and alleys where defenders had stood back to back. In the centre of each mound lay the women and children that the village men had been trying to protect. Everything, even the horses and dogs, had been slaughtered.
Bane laughed at her tears. "Good! Weep, stupid witch, cry like the weak human that you are. Soon, you will perish too."
She swallowed a sob. "Why did you kill them?"
"Because they are in the way, and if they are not with me, they are against me."
Bane dragged her along a deserted street, his boots ringing on the cobbles, his cloak sweeping behind him. She stumbled after him, sick with horror. A young woman clutching a baby ran out in front of them, her eyes wide with panic as she fled from some unseen threat behind her. She screamed and tried to scramble away from Bane, but he leapt after her and grabbed her long hair, yanking her back.
Dropping Mirra's tether, he drew his dagger and plunged it into her belly, ripping her open in a gush of blood. She clutched her baby to her as she died, and Bane stabbed the child as well, ending its screams as he laughed with malicious delight. Mirra choked back her scream of horror, and Bane did not seem to notice her tortured expression as he jerked her after him down the bloody street.
Bane marched through the town to a church built from grey stone, trimmed with chalk-white rock around the windows and roof edges. A trampled garden bordered the path that led to wooden doors hinged and bound with copper. He towed her into the pew-crowded interior, where a dead priest sprawled across the altar, blood pooling under him.
"Where is the ward?" Bane's voice cracked across the chapel, and the men who were busy looting the gold and silver from the altar scattered to the walls, clutching their booty. One pointed to a door at the back of the church, fastened with a stout iron lock.
"In there, Lord."
Bane ripped it open, splintering the seasoned oak as if it was balsa. He ducked through the door, pulling her after him like a dog on a lead. They entered a wood-panelled room with a stained-glass window that let in shafts of coloured light to illuminate the pale, tiled floor. A mosaic of an intricate pentagram patterned the white tiles with deep blue, and Mirra's spirits rose at the sight of it. The room was filled with a pure power; a sweet tingle that ran along her skin like the touch of cool water. Bane walked around the pentagram, careful not to step on the lines. Going over to the window, he pulled shut the velvet curtains, plunging the room into darkness. Glowing blue lines became visible. A second pentagram hung in the air some three feet above the design on the floor.
"Aha." He smirked as he studied the ward. "The work of an amateur, it seems."
Despite his scorn, Bane gazed at the ward for a while, weighing up its danger. Mirra sensed the power of the ward magic; a subtle frisson trickled over her skin from the warm blue light. Its friendly glow made her long to touch it and revel in the wonderful magic that kept the Overworld safe from the Black Lord's foul invasion. She knew that it would not harm her, but Bane had no such immunity. The ward brightened at his proximity, as if sensing the threat to its existence. Bane's expression betrayed his hatred of it; he saw it only as one of the locks that held his father trapped in the Underworld.
Mirra shrank into a corner as his eyes filled with shadows, glowing with evil power. He raised his hands, and the dark fire spat from his fingers to engulf the radiant blue lines. A brief, vivid battle ensued, black against blue, filling the air with an eerie, preternatural light. Power crackled around the tiny room, making Mirra's hair bristle and her stomach churn. The lines of blue light flared to an almost blinding brilliance, forcing her to look away, spots dancing in her eyes.
The ward magic prevailed against Bane's dark power, light against shadow, good against evil, pitted in an unequal struggle until the darkness engulfed the ward. Then the blue magic seemed to shatter with a sound like tearing cloth. It vanished in a burst of sparkles and gleams that faded, plunging the room into darkness. Bane lowered his arms. Sweat sheened his forehead, and his eyes turned blue again slowly, the whites bloodshot. He stared down at the mosaic pentagram, then raised a boot and smashed his heel into it. The delicate tiles shattered, and the ward was broken.
Its pure essence had vanished with its pale light, and Mirra shivered as it was replaced by Bane's dark aura, which filled the room with cold. He raised his head and smirked at her.
"One down, six to go. Nothing can withstand my power."
"But it hurts you."
"That does not matter." He shrugged. "I do my father's will."
"Do not question me, girl!"
Bane grabbed the rope and yanked her through the door, back into the church where the looters hid among the pews. "The first ward is broken!" he announced, and a muted cheer went up as he tugged her from the church, muttering, "Dolts. When my father comes, they will all perish."
Mirra trotted to keep up as he marched through the town. Screams still echoed along the streets as people suffered at the hands of his troops. The sound of running feet could be heard as survivors tried to evade their fate, but the chases always ended in screams. Bane paused to watch a young boy run along the roof tops, leaping from house to house with amazing agility. Two rock howlers pursued him, whooping with delight. Mirra prayed that he would escape, but a tile cracked under his foot and he slipped, plunging to the street with a sickening thud. The rock howlers moaned in disappointment, then went off in search of other entertainment.
Bane grunted and tugged her forward again. Mirra turned away when he paused to watch terrible atrocities being performed, the pain making her sick. Churches were desecrated, their altars used as sacrificial tables by the Black Lord's worshippers. Blood ran like water in the gutters, twisted bodies clogged the streets and thronged in houses where people had sheltered. Human troops staggered drunkenly through the streets, draped with booty and singing raucous songs.
Trolls gathered in muttering huddles to munch piles of looted meat, uncaring of whether it was smoked, cooked or raw. Goblins and rock howlers thronged the rooftops, gibbering with glee. Gnomes, like their human comrades, gathered in empty inns and drained their cellars. In the deepening dusk, the dark creatures skulked in the shadows, many crouched over writhing victims as they fed. Mirra shivered when she passed these beasts, sensing their hungry, hateful eyes upon her. The town stank of blood and death, a sickly smell that clogged her throat and brought a bitter taste to her mouth.
Bane chose an inn to settle in, and Mord attended him with cowering subservience. Rough tables stood on a rush-covered floor, some overturned by the struggle that had taken place here earlier. Once this had been a cosy village inn, its whitewashed walls hung with cheerful paintings and bright curtains at the windows. Now it reeked of death. The pale rushes were stained with blood and the curtains ripped. Corpses lay where they had fallen, thier faces stretched with fear and pain.
Bane tied Mirra to a table in the corner, not bothering to loosen the bonds on her wrists. Mord brought his master the drug that eased his headache, which had already started to build behind Bane's eyes. Sweat sheened his skin, and a deep frown wrinkled his brow as he waited for the troll to prepare his supper. This was simply a matter of decanting the foul sludge from the cauldron in which it was transported and heating it over a fire. She watched him eat, her stomach clenched with revulsion. Bane did not remove the bodies that littered the inn, but left them where they lay, unless they got in his way, whereupon he kicked them aside.
After his duties were done, Mord vanished. Bane drank from a flagon of wine, celebrating his victory in silent solitude. This was just one of many victories, and a minor one at that, for he had not known defeat. This was the first ward that he had broken, though. His solitary existence saddened Mirra, who remembered her friends at the abbey, and how much fun it was to chat and joke with them. Bane sank into an intoxicated stupor, his eyes growing dull as he mulled over the day. She did not attract his drunken rage, and he slumped over the table.
Bane dreamt vividly of the Black Lord in all his dark, fiery glory, his yellow eyes burning with triumph. A wave of pleasure washed through Bane, the Black Lord's reward. The vision behind him was a smooth red desert glowing under a crimson sun. It reflected his good mood, flicking out to be replaced by swirling red and yellow.
The Black Lord spoke in a soft, deep voice. "Soon we will rule the world, just you and I, Son. The human rabble must be eradicated, and only demons will walk in the Overworld."
"But Father, they will not like the bright light up here, I find it hard to bear."
The Black Lord chuckled. "You think I will leave the world as it is? It will be changed to suit us, Son, never fear. "
"Why have you not killed that damned girl?" Black streaks appeared in the swirling background.
"She will die of thirst within a few more days."
"Excellent. I am well pleased, Son. Now break the second ward, and I shall be even more pleased with you." The Black Lord smirked, and the vision brightened as he relaxed, then faded away as the dream ended.
Bane woke with a pounding headache and a furry taste in his mouth. Sunlight slanted in through the torn curtains to dapple the carnage with spots of gold. Spying a cup of his soothing drug before him on the table, he slugged it back. The girl was curled up asleep on the floor, her head pillowed on a pile of torn curtains. He scowled, an ugly mood settling on him to accompany the hammering in his head and the sour bubbling of his gut. She was his prisoner, yet he suffered more than her. She barely seemed troubled by her bondage, and even slept in his presence.
As yet, she had not pleaded for food or water, denying him the satisfaction of listening to her beg. Rising to his feet, he swayed as his head throbbed and his vision blurred. Nausea overtook him, and he staggered to the door and vomited. When he returned to the table, another cup of the drug awaited him upon it. He drank it, then went over to the sleeping girl and reached down to grasp the rope around her neck.
The girl woke with a gasp as he dragged her to her feet, the rope cutting into her neck. The cord grew tight on the table leg, and Bane broke it with a jerk. He kept pulling, forcing her onto her toes, then the rope started to choke her. She gazed into his eyes as her breath was cut off, remaining limp and docile, apparently resigned to her fate. Her knees buckled, and Bane smiled as she sagged, watching her skin mottle and her face swell with deep satisfaction. A few more seconds, and she would be dead, yet still, she did not suffer. With a growl of rage, he sent her flying with a backhand blow.
The girl crashed into the furniture, unconscious, and sprawled under a table. Bane hauled her out and shook her until she came to with a gasp.
"You will not escape me that easily, witch," he snarled. "I shall see you suffer before you die."
The evil power within him made Mirra's skin prickle. With a shake that rattled her teeth, he dragged her out of the inn, wincing and shielding his eyes from the sun. Spotting a loitering soldier, he yelled, "You there!"
The soldier jumped and backed away. "Lord?"
"Take this piece of trash and torture her! Make sure she suffers! I want to hear her scream!" Bane shoved her at the man, causing her to stumble into him. "If I do not, I will make you suffer in her stead."
The soldier gripped Mirra's arm and bowed to Bane, then pulled her away down the street as Bane turned and re-entered the inn. The man led her to a house several streets away, from whence raucous singing wafted. Fifteen men were gathered in the house's courtyard, feasting on looted food and wine. They sat or lounged around an ornamental fountain amid smashed furniture and ripped curtains. The fountain still played its musical tune, but the plants around it were trampled and crushed, the water filthy.
Two men snored in a corner, the rest seemed to have partied all night, and most of them were too drunk to stand. Glad cries arose when the soldier entered with his ragged captive, and many rough hands dragged her among them, plucking at her robe. Mirra was speechless with shock at their rough handling and lecherous leers, frightened by the glint in their eyes. As a healer, she was unused to such treatment, and had never been accosted in this manner. Before she could protest and identify herself, a man by the fountain stood up and walked over.
"Wait." His companions hesitated, looking at him, and he stared at Mirra with bleary brown eyes. "She's the healer."
Mirra recognised him as one of the men whom she had healed at the camp in the meadow, and smiled. The others were strangers, presumably men who had left just after she had been captured. They growled, angered that their fun had been curtailed. Several argued that she was not a healer, since she wore no white robe. A bearded man with a bandaged arm came to her, holding out the injured limb. She kissed his hand, healing him. The soldier took off the bandage and stared at his arm with awe.
Someone untied her hands, and she turned to smile at the brown-eyed man with a careworn face framed by plaited black hair as she rubbed her wrists. He wore a motley collection of dull clothes under a suit of rusted chain mail with a rent in one side. Although short, he was powerfully built, and the copper bands that encircled his upper arms proclaimed him to be a member of a fierce warrior tribe from the far north. He also appeared to be relatively sober, compared to the others.
The young soldier who had brought her protested, "The lord told me to torture her. He said he wants to hear her scream."
"Does he now?" The brown-eyed soldier looked thoughtful, and turned to Mirra. "My name's Benton, and I fear we'll have to oblige Bane, or we'll all suffer."
"I understand, but I do not feel pain."
He raised a placating hand. "No, no, I wasn't suggesting that we hurt you. We respect healers, and they're much needed in a war. Many men have injuries, and we ask that you heal them now that Bane has let you out of his sight. But if you scream, he'll believe that we're doing as he ordered, you understand?"
She nodded. "I do, but it is dishonest, for I will not be truly hurt."
"We don't want to hurt you, but if you don't do this, he'll punish us."
"Why does he want to hurt me?"
Benton gave a bark of bitter laughter. "Because he's evil, Healer. He's the Demon Lord! He enjoys seeing others suffer, he loves to kill and torture. You stand for everything that's pure and good. You, he wants to suffer more than anyone."
Mirra shivered and glanced around at the rough, unshaven faces smeared with dirt and drawn with fatigue. Most looked like they had once been honest farmers, their faces weatherbeaten, their hands callused from ploughing and hoeing. They were, she realised, as much Bane's victims as she was, forced to do his killing for him, or die. Many had probably been pressganged into service, others joined up rather than be slaughtered. Most of the humans in Bane's army were mercenaries or soldiers from other armies, drawn by loot and conquest, but this group did not appear to be made up of such men. They had picked up some bad habits, however, indicated by their initial rough handling of her.
"Then I will do as you ask."
Benton nodded briskly. "Now, if he asks how we hurt you, what shall we tell him?"
"To hurt a healer, you must inflict pain on another, close by, without allowing the healer to heal them. Healers only feel the pain of others." She shivered again. "I suffer just from being near him, for he is in pain constantly."
"Him? Mord says he has headaches, nothing more."
"He does, but there is more to it than that. He suffers all the time."
Benton frowned. "Well, you'd best not tell him that his presence hurts you, or he'll use it against you." He looked around. "Madick, bring that girl in here. Is she still alive?"
A soldier went out and came back carrying a young girl. She hung limp in his arms, unconscious, burnt and bruised, covered with cuts and scrapes. Mirra tried to go to her, but Benton restrained her.
"No, healer, you cannot help her. If Bane comes to see why you're screaming, we'll use her, so leave her be."
Mirra yearned to help the child, unable to tear her eyes away, and Benton jerked his head at the other man. The soldier took the girl out again, and Mirra slumped. Benton led her to a window.
"Now healer, scream."
Mirra's first attempts were not convincing. She felt foolish and dishonest, and her screams were more like fluting cries. The men shouted encouragement, and she shrieked louder. Soon the soldiers roared, and Mirra screamed at the top of her lungs, terrible, agonised sounds. Benton grinned, patting her shoulder.
"That should be music to his ears."
Mirra coincided her screams with the men's roars, until she grew tired of it. Then she healed the wounded, whose injuries were only cuts and sprains gained in battle. A man was despatched to find more wounded, and Mirra eyed the spread of raided food on the table.
Benton noticed her hungry look and gestured to the food. "Eat all you want, healer."
Mirra shook her head. "I cannot. He would punish you, as he did the two men who fed me when we were on the march."
Benton scowled, his eyes glinting. "He's determined to torture you, yet most of us will perish fighting his battles anyway. I say eat, and the consequences be damned." He glanced around at his friends, most of whom looked away, betraying their unwillingness to be punished for feeding her. He went on, "He should be satisfied that we've tortured you, he might not realise that you've eaten. It's one thing to avoid punishment by faking your torture, but I'm willing to risk it so that you can eat."
"No. I will not be the reason for anyone to be whipped and left to die. He means to torment me anyway, there is no need for you to share my fate."
Benton looked unhappy, and opened his mouth to protest further, but Mirra laid a hand on his arm and smiled. He shrugged and wandered away to sit with his fellows, probably thinking that her hunger would drive her to eat when she could no longer bear the sight of the food. She averted her gaze from it, determined not to be tempted. Tired from the healing and weakened by hunger and thirst, Mirra lay down on the floor to rest, surrounded by the muttering men. One of them gave her a brocaded pillow, and she closed her eyes, tempted by the gentle tug of sleep.
The temperature in the room seemed to drop, and she sat up, startled, as the men scattered, Benton knocking her backwards as he passed. She struggled upright again, a little dazed by the speed of events, and a shadow fell on her. Mirra looked up at Bane. His eyes glowed as he glanced around at the men who cowered in the corners.
"How did you torment her?"
Benton inched forward, his head bowed. "Lord. We tortured another, and she felt it worse than the victim."
Bane's malicious smile broadened, revealing white teeth. "Excellent, of course, you know how to torture your own."
Benton cowered, and Bane dragged Mirra to her feet, his fingers digging into her arm. "Now I can have the satisfaction of doing it myself, witch."
Mirra shared his pain as he led her back to the inn, biting her lip. The throngs of dead, and the black birds that hopped over the corpses, were all that populated the silent, deserted streets. The men and gnomes were all within the buildings, drinking or sleeping. Most of the trolls, goblins and rock howlers, uninterested in alcohol or loot, camped outside in the woods, where they were more at home. A gleam of red eyes in a shady street told her that the dark creatures still inhabited the town, preferring the deeper shadows of cellars.
When they arrived at the inn, Bane pushed her into a chair and tied her to it with twine. While he was bent over her, she studied his face at close quarters, finding it hard to believe that he was human. His white skin was so fine, smooth and matt, his long black hair shone like a raven's wing. His good looks belied the tales that those who worshipped the Black Lord were ugly, mutilated and dirty, but then, he was not a worshipper, she surmised. No scent clung to him, and his aura of power made her hair bristle.
When he moved away to sit beside a bloating corpse and sip his wine, she said, "I share your pain, so there is no need to torture others."
His brows rose. "My pain? Oh, so my company is painful to you?"
"Excellent, then I will have to arrange some more for you to share." He leant forward, rolling the golden cup between his palms. "I am not talking about the headaches. Those are annoying, nothing more. You see, where I come from, I learnt to deal with a great deal of pain, even to enjoy it." He grinned, a half snarl. "If it will hurt you too, so much the better."
He turned and shouted for Mord, who appeared from the next room, crouching subserviently. Bane glowered at him. "Fetch the potions. It is time I had a cleansing, this foul world is softening me."
The troll scuttled into the back room again, and Bane stood and unclipped his cloak, dropping it over the corpse, then unbuttoned his tunic. He stripped it off, revealing a powerful torso. Each muscle was defined, sharp-edged, rippling as he moved, and terrible scars marred his chest in a deep 'V'. They looked ritualistic, carved in patterns of evil meaning, stark against his skin. They were runes, she realised, symbols of dark power cut into his flesh.
Bane sneered, "Do these shock your puritanical little mind?"
Mirra shook her head as she tore her eyes from the terrible scars. "How could anyone do that to you?"
"No one did it to me. I did it to myself, to gain power, girl. Power is what matters, the power to rule the world."
Bane swung away from the infuriating pity in the girl's eyes. He remembered well the cosy glow of the Underworld, and the massive, stifling cavern in which the ritual had first been performed. The inner fire had thrown red light onto the tortured stone ceiling from the cracks that crazed the floor. The magma river that flowed under the cavern heated it to an unbearable temperature, but Bane was the only one who sweated. The scars were not self-inflicted. His father had cut the runes into him on his sixteenth birthday. Bane had been chained to a bulbous rock column, his arms spread.
The Black Lord had stood before him and warned him not to cry out.
"Only cowards feel pain, boy. You will learn to enjoy this, and do it to yourself. It gives power. Blood must flow, and yours is the most powerful blood of all."
Bane had panted harshly as his father cut the runes, and the Black Lord had done it with exquisite slowness, enjoying every moment of his son's pain. Bane had ground his teeth as sweat rolled down his face. After that, he had been made to do it himself, and although he not learnt to enjoy it, he did learn to bear it.
Mord returned, cringing, and placed a flask and two pots on the table. The troll fled, and Bane smiled, drawing the dagger from his belt.
"Now we shall see how much you suffer, witch."
Knowing the futility of arguing with him, Mirra gazed at him sadly as he raised the weapon. He held it poised, steeling himself for the coming pain, she guessed, then sliced into his skin with slow, precise movements, following the old scar. A hiss escaped him, but Mirra writhed, straining at her bonds as agony flooded her. Her healing power rushed through her, seeking outlet. A faint golden glow ran under her skin, and her hands tingled. Bane carved another rune with deliberate strokes, blood trickling down his belly.
As he cut on the third rune, Mirra cried out, tears burning her eyes. Her power thrummed, seeking outlet, and her hands burnt, aglow with healing light. In an effort to stop it, she gripped the arms of the chair. Bane smiled, watching her as he cut another rune. Mirra screamed, and light streamed from her fingers to sink into the chair. Bane put down the dagger. There were seven rune scars on his chest, but he seemed to feel that four were enough. Mirra noted, through the haze of pain, that he had cut them in a specific order.
Bane picked up an empty cup and scraped the blood into it. Mirra noticed that his blood was not clotting, it continued to run from the wounds. Bane was a bleeder! She sagged as the pain dulled, but her healer's instincts blazed with the realisation that he could bleed to death from those small cuts. Bane put down the cup and picked up a pot. He scooped up a dollop of green jelly and smeared it on his chest. Mirra screamed as fire coursed through her, and Bane gave a harsh bark of laughter.
"Enjoy it, girl, this is the best part," he grated through gritted teeth.
Bane rubbed the burning jelly into the wounds, while Mirra writhed and whimpered. At last the pain eased again, and she gasped, sweat cooling her brow. Perspiration also filmed Bane's skin. He leant over her, the cuts now blackened and puckered, no longer bleeding, his chest smeared with blood and green paste.
"Feels good, does it not?" he sneered. "There is more to come."
Bane picked up the second pot and scooped out a black liquid, which he rubbed onto his chest. After a moment, an odd sensation flooded Mirra, as if she was floating out of her chair. She gripped the arms, sickened by its evil, and sensed that the horror she had just experienced was nothing compared to what was still to come. She stared at him, biting her lip with trepidation. Bane raised his arms, and the shadows detached themselves from their nooks and corners and flew across the room to sink into him.
Bile rose in her throat as the evil flowed into him, and the room darkened as shadows rushed in from all over, gathered and absorbed by him. The runes that he had cut glowed sullen red, his eyes turned black, and his hair rose and bristled around his head with the surging power. Bane staggered under the weight of the foul burden, then stumbled to the door and vomited. Mirra echoed his reaction, retching. Dark power filled the room, and Bane came back, looking sick and drawn, to lift the flask from the table. He poured a few drops into the cup of his blood, and drank it.
Again the power surged, and she retched. The room had grown icy, and the floor seemed to give off a black light. The walls and ceiling warped in her vision, and her mind cringed from the maddening illusions even as screams ripped from her throat. Bane stood at the centre of a dark storm, absorbing it. Mirra shared his pain, and wept for him, crying out with the pounding agony that lanced through her. Darkness crawled over his skin like a disease. It soaked into him, flowing through him with nauseating horror. The power swirled about the room, drawn to Bane in streams of shadow. He lowered his arms, frowning, and the power whirled around him, no longer absorbed. His hands clenched, then opened, and cords stood out on his neck with the effort of controlling the magic. He relaxed, the strain fading from his expression, and his shoulders slumped.
The room cleared, and normality returned with the sunlight that streamed in through the windows as the shadows melted away. Mirra sat slumped, weak and drained, her cheeks wet with tears.
Bane flopped into a chair and ran a hand through his sweat-dampened hair. Trickles of perspiration washed the foul potions from his chest. The runes were stark against his alabaster skin, and his eyes burnt with black power in a haggard visage. He stared at her, breathing deeply, as if he had just run a hard race. Mirra tore her eyes from him and looked down, receiving a surprise. The chair had sprouted shoots, and their tiny leaves unfurled in the sun. Her healing power had restored the wood to life, so powerful had it been at the height of Bane's suffering.
Bane had noticed the chair, and his voice was harsh. "You bring life, as I bring death. We are opposites. But death has more power than life, always remember that. It is nice to share my little ceremony, and interesting that my power is won through pain, while yours is just there, flowing out of you. I shall enjoy draining it from you and reducing you to an empty shell, then see what is left."
Bane rose to his feet and shouted for Mord. The troll appeared with a cup of the drug, which Bane drained. He threw the cup down with a clatter and walked into another room, evidently to lie down and recuperate from his ritual. Mord put away the pots while Mirra watched with dull eyes. When he was finished, he released her and bound her arms, then tied her leash to a table leg.
For two days, Mord kept an eye on her, but at first refused to untie her from the table. The corpses swelled and began to stink. At night, blood-chilling screams echoed through the town as the dark creatures hunted. Mirra lay in the darkness and prayed as feet shuffled past and bat wings rustled over the roof. She wondered if the dark creatures hunted the conquered town's hapless citizens, or Bane's men who wandered away from the safety of the houses. Yet houses, she discovered, provided no shelter.
One night, the shuffle of padded feet and the soft click of claws woke her from an uneasy doze. She froze, hardly daring to breathe, a scream clogged in her throat. Against the dark backdrop, she made out the blacker form of a dark creature as it slunk between the tables. Its red eyes gleamed dully, betraying the swinging of its large head as it snuffled across the floor. Terrified, Mirra watched the monster approach, then it stopped.
Apparently it had encountered the Demon Lord's scent, and it raised its head to sniff in her direction. It blinked, then retreated from the inn. She slumped with a sigh. How ironic it was that while Bane slept in another room, his mere scent was enough to protect her from the monsters that prowled in the night.
During the day she dozed, her slumber disturbed by the mutter of passing men as they wandered through the town. On the third day, she persuaded the troll to take her out to sit in the sun. She walked outside on legs that shook with hunger and dehydration. As she reached a patch of sun, she sank down and raised her face to the warm rays. Mord crouched in the shade, holding her rope while she basked, a blessed relief after days shut up in the dim, smelly inn. The sunlight gave her a little strength, but did nothing to relieve the tight knot of her stomach or her mouth's dryness.
Mord whimpered, and Mirra glanced around in alarm. Bane stood in the doorway, his eyes blue fire in the bright light. Lines of suffering marred his skin, accentuating his haggard appearance. He strode towards Mord, who dived into a nearby building to avoid the kick that Bane aimed at him. Swinging around, Bane approached Mirra and jerked her to her feet, glaring down at her.
"So, you like the sun, do you? That is where you get your power from, not so? Well, say goodbye to it, you will not bask in it again, witch." He dragged her back into the inn and thrust her into a chair, then paced the room. "Those idiots still have not found another ward, and I grow weary of waiting. My father grows impatient." He pushed a bloated cadaver aside and sat in its chair, glaring at Mirra. "I shall have to scry for it."
His scowl deepened, clearly angered by the prospect of the headache that would result. Resting his arms on the table, he spread his hands.
Darkness filled his eyes, and evil radiated from him. She shivered as it touched her, sickened by its malevolence. Bane sat motionless, his eyes unfocused, concentrating. After a few minutes, he gestured, and an image formed in the air before him. It appeared to be the inside of a cave, and in the darkness, a glowing pentagram hung above lines chiselled into the cave floor. Bane smiled, and the image faded. Sweat covered his brow, and Mirra sensed the pain building within his temples.
"So, we march. Stupid human wizards, each with his own notion of how to seal the wards. This one thought that he could hide it in some remote cave. Fools."
Bane shouted for Mord, and the troll appeared with a cup, receiving the kick that he had avoided earlier. Bane drained the drug and eyed the cowering troll.
"Tell the captains to gather their men. We march again."