Unfortunately, at the time of publication, a map of the Overworld and Bane's journey was not included in the book. For those of you who would like a map, which includes the positions of the seven wards, important sites and the symbols of the wards, you find below a map drawn by the author. For a full size picture, click on the map below, then right click on the large image and select "Save picture as" to save it to your hard drive, then it can be printed out.
Tuesday, 19 June 2007
T. C. Southwell
Copyright (C) 2007 by T. C. Southwell. All rights reserved.
This book is sold subject to the conditions that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, copied, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any other format or changed in any way, including the author's name and title, and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
First and foremost, Mike Baum and Janet Longman for their unstinting support and encouragement, the loan of a pc for many months, not to mention the use of their printer. My mother, without whose financial support I could not have dedicated myself to my writing for ten years. My former agent, Isabel Cooke, whose encouragement and enthusiasm led to many more books being written, including this one. My current agent, Su Stephan, who made this publication possible.
Published by Wizard Press.
Chapter One - Child of Light
Chapter Two - Son of Darkness
Chapter Three - The First Ward
Chapter Four - Fire Demon
Chapter Five - Earth Demon
Chapter Six - Water Demon
Chapter Seven - The Isle of Lume
Chapter Eight - The Third Ward
Chapter Nine - Air Demon
Chapter Ten - The Fourth Ward
Chapter Eleven - The City
Chapter Twelve - The Old Kingdom
Chapter Thirteen - Revelation
Chapter Fourteen - Sacrifice
Chapter Fifteen - Betrayal
Chapter Sixteen - The Sixth Ward
Chapter Seventeen - The Seventh Ward
Chapter Eighteen - Ascension of the Black Lord
Chapter One - Child of Light
Chapter Two - Son of Darkness
Chapter Three - The First Ward
Chapter Four - Fire Demon
Chapter Five - Earth Demon
Chapter Six - Water Demon
Chapter Seven - The Isle of Lume
Chapter Eight - The Third Ward
Chapter Nine - Air Demon
Chapter Ten - The Fourth Ward
Chapter Eleven - The City
Chapter Twelve - The Old Kingdom
Chapter Thirteen - Revelation
Chapter Fourteen - Sacrifice
Chapter Fifteen - Betrayal
Chapter Sixteen - The Sixth Ward
Chapter Seventeen - The Seventh Ward
Chapter Eighteen - Ascension of the Black Lord
The seeress gripped the edge of the glass, and her knuckles whitened as her brows drew together over eyes that filled with horror. The acolyte who watched over Elder Mother while she was absorbed in her scrying hurried to her side, frightened by her rigid stance and the pallor that washed the colour from her cheeks.
"What is it, Mother?" she whispered, gripping the seeress' shoulder.
Ellese sat unmoving, her gaze locked on that faraway event visible only to her within the glass. The acolyte glanced at the clear round glass in its simple silver frame, which for her held nothing but the book lined wooden shelves beyond. She waited, unwilling to disturb Elder Mother's intense concentration. The seeress lowered her hands and drew a deep, shuddering breath, blinking.
"The Black Lord!" Her voice rasped with dread, and her eyes remained glazed. "The evil has finally found a way to enter this world, to break the wards set by the ancient wizards."
The girl stared at the seeress with undisguised terror, her hands bunched in her robe, wringing it. "How?"
"A boy child, born below. He will be sent."
"When will he come?"
Ellese's eyes regained their focus. "Not for a time yet. He still has to grow, to be taught the evil powers and their use. Twenty years, if we are fortunate. Time to prepare ourselves, at least." The acolyte sagged with relief, and Elder Mother said, "Do not look so happy, child, you will still be here." She stood up. "Send a message to all the Elder Mothers. We must have a meeting, we must plan our defence."
The acolyte nodded and hurried out, lifting the flowing skirts of her white healer's robe so that they did not hamper her. Ellese crossed the room to stare out of the abbey window, her eyes blind to the midwinter snow that covered the garden in a thick blanket. Gentle gusts eddied the falling flakes into swirling patterns, brushing against the windows, sliding down to gather on the ledge. She shivered, but not with cold, for the fire that roared in the hearth warmed the cosy book-lined room with its wooden panelling and thick woollen maroon curtains.
The table at which she had been sitting occupied one corner of the room opposite the stone fireplace. The glass sat innocuously on it, clear and dead now. Tidily arranged papers filled the corners of the desk, and a small ink well and writing plumes stood at its centre. The cold, pale light from the windows mingled with the warm glow of the fire to illuminate the myriad ancient tomes that filled the bookshelves. The cosy normality of the room vanished as she recalled the horrible vision that she had just witnessed.
Within the deep gloomy caverns of the Underworld, a boy child had been born. The great cavern in which the event had taken place had been formed by magic eons ago, the rock twisted and warped by the will of the god who had created it. Huge columns of solidified magma upheld the vaulted ceiling of stretched, striated rock, cooled in the midst of its oozing, patterned with smears and blobs. The inner fire shone from cracks in the walls and floor, throwing lurid light in twisted patterns. Further light was cast by fire demons in true form, sickly hues of green and orange flame.
The demons' chanting had all but drowned out the screams of the child's mother as she died on the stone altar, her belly torn open as the Black Lord ripped the baby from her womb. The boy's cries had stopped when the Black Lord inscribed a dark rune upon his head, and his eyes glazed under the evil power. The Lord of the Underworld handed the bloody infant to a minion, who wrapped him in a cloth. By then the mother was dead, her blood pooling on the floor.
The infant stood no chance against the corruption of the Underworld. He would be warped, moulded as the Black Lord wished, and none could save him from his fate. Ellese's heart twisted with pity as she recalled the tiny child, slick with his mother's blood. He was an innocent new born babe, doomed to be a helpless pawn in the hands of the Black Lord. She had no doubt that he would suffer terribly in the Underworld, but far worse than his horrific birth had been the ritual that the Black Lord had performed before he had torn the infant from his mother's womb.
A month later, the abbey's hall filled with old women, Elder Mothers gathered from the various abbeys all over the land. The pillar-lined room had been built as a dining hall, but doubled as a meeting place for the Council of Elders. Sturdy tables and chairs cluttered its polished stone floor, and stained-glass windows allowed streams of sunlight in to brighten it. The tables had been pushed against the walls, and the chairs were arranged into rows where the old ladies sat, facing a polished bur-wood desk.
Acolytes and lesser healers stood near the tables, armed with kettles of brewing tea, buttered scones and pastries. Others dashed in and out with more boiling water or fresh pastries, steaming hot from the kitchen ovens. An air of aged wisdom hung over the multitude of Elder Mothers. Their eyes were faded and their bodies frail, but they were still sharp of mind and tongue.
The seeress Ellese sat behind the desk and studied the sea of wrinkled faces. It bobbed and waved like an ocean, accompanied by sniffles, hacking coughs and wheezing breaths as the old women aired their infirmities, illnesses associated with age, which no healing could cure. Young acolytes plied them with cups of milk or tea, balancing trays of pastries as they wound amid the throng, drawn by snapping fingers and stopped by imperiously-outstretched hands. The Elder Mothers muttered in a low-pitched hum, some discussing the topic on hand, others doubtless just swapping gossip. Ellese sighed and rapped on the desk, drawing all eyes to her, some of which wandered past without pause. The majority of her audience were stern-faced matrons, but a few were truly ancient.
"You know why we are here. You all know what has happened. I ask you today for your thoughts. What are we going to do about it?" Ellese spoke loudly, for many old ladies held brass trumpets to their ears and leant forward with peevish frowns. She scanned the group hopefully.
A robust, middle-aged woman called, "Rescue the child."
Ellese's lips curved in a bitter smile. "Easier said than done, Merris, considering that he is in the Underworld. Are you volunteering?"
A murmur swept the room, mixed with a few titters. Merris glowered at her grinning neighbour, and many Elder Mothers muttered to their friends behind withered hands. A wizened crone stood, leaning heavily on a gnarled stick.
"Find a way to bind him when he emerges," she quavered.
Ellese nodded. "A good idea, but what?"
"There must be something." She glanced around. "What is his nature? There must be something that will work."
"He is a human child. As you know, the Black Lord cannot break the wards. He is trapped in the Underworld, along with all his foul servants." Ellese fixed the woman with steely grey eyes. "This boy will travel freely to the Overworld, and he will be able to break the wards. The demons will raise him, teach him their ways, prepare him for the day when he will spread his evil over the land and raise armies to lay waste to those who do not bow to him."
The old woman frowned. "He is not possessed?"
Ellese shook her head. "He is worse. They will fill him with their evil power and corrupt his mind with their teachings, yet the power of the wards will not stop him, for he is human."
Another Elder Mother stood up. "Then he will only be a black mage. What of preparing an army to capture him when he emerges?"
Ellese looked down at the desk, her heart filled with despair. All the more obvious suggestions would be worthless, and she hated to reject each as it was spoken. "He will wield the power of the Black Lord. No man will be able to stand against him. The foul creatures of the night will worship him, and the dark races with follow him. The boy will be invincible by any normal means. When he rises, he will not be a mere black mage." She paused, her hands curling into fists. "He has been born a god."
A hubbub started as the women objected to this sweeping statement, turning to each other for support. A plump, florid-faced woman shouted, "Why call us here, and ask for our help, when there is no solution to this threat?"
Ellese banged on the desk again, subduing the uproar a little. "There is a solution. There has to be, but perhaps we are not capable of thinking of it. I had hoped that one of you had been given a vision or dream, some sign from the Lady to guide us."
Silence fell as wrinkled brows furrowed, searching their memories for such a dream, and ancient eyes narrowed and glanced at neighbours. Ellese scanned the assembly with growing desperation. For the last month she had racked her brains for a solution, but had found none. Surely one of these wise women knew the answer to this threat? Surely someone had been given a sign, a vision, by the Lady? The goddess would not abandon them in their hour of need.
A tall, angular woman at the back of the assembly stood, glancing around shyly as all eyes turned to her. A handsome healer with honey-blond hair, she was the youngest Elder Mother there, barely out of her twenties. She looked out of place among so many grey-heads, and fiddled nervously with her silver healer's necklet.
Ellese smiled with relief and assurance. "Yes, Larris?"
Larris straightened, lifting her chin. "I think I know what we need to do."
Child of light
Mirra sat cross-legged on the grass of the sun-drenched garden, weaving a chain of bright summer flowers. Her slender fingers deftly twined the blossoms together, and the sun burnished the long flaxen hair that hung about her face as she bent over her task. Thick dark lashes framed gentle blue-green eyes in a serene, delicately-featured face.
Tallis, who sat beside her, picked up her own garland and resumed her work with a sigh. This morning, at the celebration for Mirra's sixteenth birthday, she had watched Mirra opening her gifts, wondering how happy she would be if she knew what was in store for her. Everyone knew but Mirra, and that seemed so unfair. The secrecy puzzled her, for surely it would be better if Mirra could prepare for what lay ahead? She looked down at the wreckage in her hands and sighed again, trying to weave a bright yellow daisy into the disaster.
Ellese gazed down at the girls from her study window, which overlooked the garden in the centre of the abbey. Her eyes burnt with unshed tears as she watched Mirra crown her friend with the daisy chain. High girlish laughter wafted in through the open window on the warm summer air. How she wished that things were different.
The Black Lord's human weapon, Bane, had emerged from the Underworld two years ago, little more than a boy, if the stories about him were true. From the descriptions given by those unfortunate enough to have seen him, he was now about twenty years old, an estimate she knew to be accurate. The moment that he had set foot above ground, an army had gathered around him. First to join were the dark creatures that inhabited the entrance to the Underworld, through which Bane had emerged.
The enormous cave, fanged with pillars of rock, gaped at the blasted lands around it from the side of a solitary crag rising unnaturally out of a flat plain far to the north. The cavern was large enough to accommodate two cities within its bounds, and its denizens had built a metropolis of mud and stone that filled almost half of it. Within its dim confines, generations of grims, wights, night crawlers and vampires had lived and died, awaiting the Black Lord's rising.
The dark power that emanated from the Underworld in a fetid exhalation had killed all life for leagues around, and only petrified forests stood sentinel on the barren plains. Any human who had ever dared to set foot in the cavern had been torn apart and devoured. The dark creatures ventured out only at night to hunt, preying on the animals who dwelt beyond the influence of the dark power. No human lived within a hundred leagues of the cave, for to do so was certain death.
Now the monsters had braved the sunlight to leave their sanctuary and follow Bane. As he moved away from the cavern, droves of goblins, trolls, rock howlers and gnomes rallied around him, all worshippers of the Black lord. They had emerged from their underground warrens and mountain caves in droves to enlist, armed with their simple, brutish weapons. Finally humans had joined his foul mob, swelling its ranks to thousands. Every criminal, vagrant, bandit, mercenary and outcast had flocked to his banner, drawn by the promise of riches and conquest. His army had already conquered several small kingdoms, and as they did, more joined, some from fear, others from greed, until a huge horde of rabble now marched behind him.
With these, he swept across the Overworld in an unstoppable tide, slaughtering all in his path. Armies fell before his advance like wheat before a scythe, and those that fled were hunted down without mercy. Tales of torture, rape, mutilations and wanton atrocities preceded him, descriptions of his cruelty sickened all who heard them. The stories told of his complete lack of mercy, or any other vaguely human emotion. He revelled in death and destruction, and laughed at his hapless victims' suffering. Ruined towns and fields of rotting dead lay strewn in his wake, breeding dread diseases that afflicted the few survivors, who then spread it throughout the land. Whole towns died without ever seeing the Black Lord's army, defeated by the sickness that Bane had unleashed.
King Margorah, ruler of the largest kingdom in the Overworld, fought Bane to a bloody standstill in a three-day battle that laid waste to vast tracts of land and two towns. When at last Margorah realised that he faced defeat, countless dead paved his retreating army's path as the dark creatures hunted within his camp each night until he reached his citadel. There, the dead gathered in mounds at the foot of his walls, yet still he refused to accept defeat, determined to fight to the last man. After five days, Bane grew bored and razed the fortress with black fire, killing all within with a single stroke of power.
Lesser rulers, barons and lords, fell to the rag-tag horde in a few hours, overrun by sheer numbers. Although Bane's army dwindled with each encounter, it soon swelled again with fresh worshippers and fortune-seekers. Towns in his path were abandoned as their residents fled in a desperate bid to save themselves. All mankind feared the coming of Bane, whose name was whispered with deep loathing and dread.
For weeks now, the roads past the abbey had been clogged with fleeing people carrying bundles on their backs and children on their hips, driving their few livestock before them. The more affluent rode in wagons or carriages, wealthy ladies sent away to doubtful safety by their husbands, tended by servants and flunkies. Their lordly spouses remained to gird their armies for futile war, grist to Bane's mill of unending bloodlust. All would flee until they reached the sea, then there would be nowhere to go. As they huddled in the coastal towns, the Underworld's army marched closer, bringing with it the death that their flight had only delayed. Doom had settled over the land like a dull miasma, belying the bright spring days that should have been joyous.
Bane's army was just a hundred miles from the abbey now, and Ellese knew that the time had come for Mirra to fulfil her destiny. She had been raised within the protection of the abbey, and knew nothing of Bane. Sheltered from the wickedness of the world and taught only of its beauties, she had grown up a happy, laughing child, innocent in a profound manner that sometimes made her seem simple, until a person gazed deep into her eyes and found the utter serenity there.
Ellese watched Tallis present Mirra with a lopsided garland, then they jumped up and ran into the abbey, trailing giggles. She turned from the window with a sigh. She had never doubted Larris' vision, but as the tales of horror reached her, she began to worry. Still, she could not put it off any longer. Tomorrow, it had to be done tomorrow.
The silence that greeted her in the breakfast hall the next morning surprised Mirra. A sense of doom hung in the air, and her smile faded as she headed for her seat beside Tallis. Many young acolytes sent her timid smiles, their eyes sliding away. Her friend was intent on her porridge, and Mirra began to spoon her own with keen appetite.
"Why is everyone so quiet today?"
Tallis looked around shrugged. "You are to see Elder Mother after breakfast."
"Ask Elder Mother."
When she had finished breakfast, Mirra ran to Ellese's study, bouncing in with a grin as Ellese turned from the window. The sadness in the seeress' eyes stopped Mirra's rush to hug her, and she advanced slowly, her expression becoming solemn.
"What is wrong with everyone?"
"We are all a little sad."
Ellese sighed. "Because today, you must leave us and go out into the world. You are sixteen now, and I know normally girls leave at eighteen, but you are ready. It is time."
Mirra's eyes lit up. "How wonderful! Why is everyone sad?"
"Because we will miss you, of course."
"I shall miss you all too, but I have always wanted to see the world."
"And so you shall, my dear." Ellese shuddered and became brisk to hide her pain. "So, when you have packed, the cart will be waiting to take you to your new home. We have a lovely place in the woods for you."
"Thank you, Mother!" Mirra flung her arms around the old seeress' neck and kissed her on the cheek. Ellese struggled to hide the sorrow that made her heart ache.
"Now, now, child." She disentangled herself. "Go and get ready."
Mirra skipped along bright corridors to the grey cell that had been her home for the last sixteen years. It seemed poky and uninviting now that her mind was filled with visions of a little thatched cottage nestled in a forest glade. Her few possessions were swiftly packed into a worn leather bag, and with a last look around at the drab chamber, she ran to tell Tallis. She found her friend in the vegetable garden at the back of the abbey, pulling weeds from orderly rows of cabbages. Flowering fruit trees hemmed the garden and filled the warm air with their heady scent. Birdsong offset the dull rumble of wagon wheels on the road.
Mirra pounced on her friend, laughing with childish glee. "I am leaving, Tallis! Is it not wonderful? I am to have my very own house, in the woods, just as I have always wanted!"
Tallis hugged her back, swallowing the sorrow that threatened to leak from her soft brown eyes. "That is ... wonderful, Mir."
Mirra did not notice her friend's sadness, she was too excited at the prospect of finally leaving the abbey to become a true healer. She bounced around, avoiding the plump cabbage heads. "In two years your turn will come. It will be marvelous! I shall heal the sick people, and animals too!"
Tallis looked down at the wilting weeds she held. "Yes, you are so good at it. I will never be as good as you."
"Nonsense, you are just as good as me, and much better at cooking and sewing!"
They looked up at the sound of footsteps, to find Ellese approaching. The grey-haired seeress seemed to have aged in the last day, and her smile was tired.
"All ready, Mirra?"
"Yes!" She picked up her bag. "Can Tal come with us, just to see?"
Ellese inclined her head. "Of course she may, if she wishes."
Mirra turned to Tallis, who forced a bright smile and nodded.
The retired plough horse pulled the wagon beside the clogged road, his iron-shod feet setting up a dull clopping. The people who thronged the road walked in grim silence, their eyes scared and despairing. They pushed barrows piled high with their possessions, and drove bellowing livestock before them. The rumble of wheels mingled with dogs' yapping and the wails of tired children who stumbled among the trudging people.
Mirra smiled and waved, and a few peasants responded half-heartedly. The desolation in their eyes and the misery that hung over the throng puzzled the young healer. Dust clung to the people's sweat-streaked faces, and drovers goaded footsore oxen that bawled in protest. Some had pulled off the road to huddle around campfires, warming food for hungry children and resting exhausted beasts. Mirra sensed their fatigue in her bones, and a frown wrinkled her brow.
She turned to Ellese. "Where do they all go, Mother? Why are they so sad?"
Ellese glanced away. "They go to the sea."
"Whatever for? They are all so tired."
"To feed the fishes," Tallis said, and the seeress shot her sharp, warning glance.
"Because they must," Elder Mother stated, her tone discouraging further enquiry on the subject.
Mirra thought about that, then shrugged it off. Elder Mother's terse reply did not answer her question, but Ellese must have her reasons. Mirra did not have a questioning nature, hers was too serene for that. Accepting things on face value was her way, and she never expected people to lie to her. She trusted Elder Mother implicitly, and if Ellese did not wish her to know, then she was content to remain ignorant.
Instead, she gazed around at the meadows and shady woodland. The caroling of birds in the hedgerows was audible over the steady rumble of wagon wheels and tramp of feet. The lush countryside basked beneath the warm blue sky in peaceful splendour, humming with busy insects and flitting birds. In some fields, placid cattle grazed, their bells clanking as they munched the grass. By contrast, the winding road clogged with human misery made a dismal outlook, and she wondered afresh why these people chose to make such an arduous journey to the sea when they should be planting the season's crops and tending their farms.
Over the next three days, the throngs dwindled until the trio of healers encountered only a few footsore stragglers following the churned, dung-spattered road. Beside it, crops ripened unattended in the fields and ploughs lay abandoned on the brown earth as if the farmer had simply unhitched his team and walked off, leaving the valuable implements to rust. In the empty towns, litter clogged the gutters, collapsed stalls spilt rotting fruit into the roads, and smashed pottery crunched under the cart's wheels. Precious, but useless items lay strewn among the rubbish. Children's toys, cheap baubles and ornaments had apparently been cast aside to lighten the loads that people carried. Clearly this had been an exodus, and Mirra wondered who she would heal if everyone had left, but presumably they would be back, otherwise Elder Mother would not have brought her here. Ravens and crows gathered on the rooftops, raucous spectators to mankind's downfall.
"Why has everyone left in such a hurry, Mother?" Mirra asked.
Ellese shook her head. "You will find out soon."
Tallis' eyes were haunted as she gazed at the empty houses, where dry washing flapped forlornly on the lines. Mirra wondered why this strange exodus was such a secret, especially since Ellese and Tallis both seemed to know what had happened. She found their reticence a trifle vexing, and the situation somewhat disturbing, spoiling her happiness.
When, at last, they arrived at a thatched cottage nestled in a leafy forest glade, it was all that Mirra had ever dreamt of having. It consisted of two rooms and an outhouse, with white-washed stone walls and a freshly-turned vegetable plot at the back. Nearby, a bubbling spring fed a pool surrounded by mossy stones. Ellese inspected it with an air of satisfaction, nodding and smiling.
Mirra enthused over her new home while Ellese unpacked her supplies and Tallis lit a fire, preparing tea. Ellese smiled at Mirra's delight at the simple abode, wishing that this was nothing more than a routine placement. The abbeys took girls with talent and trained them to be healers. A village that needed a healer applied to an abbey, and were usually sent a youngster, whom they undertook to house and feed in return for her services. The lack of a welcoming crowd to greet their new healer was not normal, however, and the desolation of the nearby village boded ill for anyone who stayed here. Usually healers were highly respected, and in no danger of mistreatment, even from the likes of robbers and bandits. The simple white robe and silver necklet marked them, keeping them safe in their solitary abodes.
Not from Bane and his army, however. Already, three abbeys had fallen beneath the his troops' tramping feet, and the healers and their pupils had been slaughtered in terrible ways. The tales of rape, torture and burnings were enough to turn a healer's blood cold. No one in their right mind would willingly settle in the path of that fate. Ellese feared for Mirra, but this was as it had to be. She watched the girl rearranging the few items of furniture, chattering about her first customers, and hoped that she had done the right thing. She whispered a prayer to the goddess, begging her protection for this innocent girl.
That night, at dinner, Mirra put down her spoon and looked at Ellese with an air of determination. "What is it really, Mother? Why have the people left?"
Ellese sighed, knowing that she could prevaricate no longer. She had to offer some explanation, even if it was incomplete. "There is a war, my dear. They flee from an invading army, trying to find safety."
"Oh." Mirra stared at her spoon. "I am to heal soldiers, then."
"You must help any who need it. That is our way."
Mirra nodded and continued to eat her vegetable stew. This she would accept, Ellese knew, for Mirra had been taught that none would harm a healer. The gravity of the situation seemed to sober the girl somewhat, however, and she finished her dinner in silence.
The next morning, the seeress and Tallis left after many hugs and kisses. Mirra smiled and waved in the doorway as the cart rattled away down the road. As soon as they were out of sight, Tallis gave in to the tears that had been threatening all morning and started to sob. Ellese put her arm about her, patting her gently. "She will be all right, Tallis, do not weep. The goddess will protect her."
Son of Darkness
Bane strode through his army. The host was camped in a rolling meadow that had once been covered with wild flowers. Now it was a vast tract of trampled, muddy grass dotted with cooking fires and tents. The horde stretched from forest to woodland, split into their ethnic and tribal groups. Woodsmoke fouled the air, along with the stench of the crude trench latrines on the outskirts of the camp. As Bane walked through them, trolls, gnomes, men and rock howlers scuttled from his path, opening a broad swathe before him, like a shoal of fish avoiding a shark.
They were having another ceremony on the hillock just ahead. The chanting and pounding of drums filled the misty dawn air. The horizon had started to lighten only slightly, and the night chill lingered. His head pounded with the drumming, which had woken him from a restless sleep and put him in a foul mood. His long black cloak, lined with crimson satin, swept the ground. The gold designs on his black tunic glinted in the glow of the many fires that lit the ghoulish scene. Shadows seemed to trail him, and his presence darkened the very air around him. Anger boiled in him as he reached the knoll. The chanting died away and the drums fell silent with a discordant thud. He surveyed the scene. A naked woman was lashed to a boulder, smeared with blood and other bodily fluids. She had been dead for some time, but that did not prevent the horde from sporting with her. He gazed around with a sneer, his eyes hard beneath lowered brows.
"Been having fun?"
Nervous nods answered him. He strode towards the drummer, who abandoned his crude instruments and dived into the retreating crowd. No member of the horde would come within five feet of Bane; they knew him too well. He kicked the drums, sending them bouncing into the crowd with a flat boom.
Bane glared at them, making them cower back further from his ire. His deep voice lashed out like a barbed whip. "You think my father enjoys these things? Do you think he listens to your pathetic prayers? What makes you think he will grant power to a pack of fools raping a dead woman? He has no time for gobbledegook! He wants blood! Death! Souls to torture!" He paused to let that sink in, then added, "And you will not disturb my rest with your infernal racket!"
Dead silence, broken only by the shuffling of retreating feet and paws, answered him. He swung to face those behind him, causing them to surge back with a gibber of terror. "Today, you kill! You drink blood! You torture, maim and make them suffer! You burn, pillage, loot! That is what he wants!"
A muted growl of assent greeted this. Bane flicked a finger at the corpse. "You will not waste your time with corpses. Use a live woman, or go without! She cannot suffer, you fools!"
Bane spun, and a dozen gnomes ran for their lives. Ignoring them, he marched back to his tent, a full half league away. Removing the cloak, he flung it across a chair and unbuttoned his tunic's high collar. The headache beat at his skull even though the annoying drums had stopped. He groaned as he sank onto his bed, rubbing his temples in an effort to relieve the pain. Why did his father allow him to suffer like this? He cursed and shouted for Mord. The troll entered warily, his twisted black face a picture of trepidation.
Bane snarled, "Make my potion! Hurry!"
Mord scuttled out, and Bane clutched his throbbing head. The headaches had started when he was sixteen, and had mastered the great arts of magic. The more he used it, the worse the headache. At first they had been mild, a mere irritation, but now they annoyed him immensely, making his life a misery at times. His father, the Black Lord, had been unsympathetic, blaming it on his weak human body. Maelle, a fire demon, had given him the drug that soothed it, but warned him not to take too much. The demon's sly grin had angered Bane, and he had tested the potion on a human captive before taking it himself. He knew better than to trust a demon. He tried to take the potion as little as possible. Only when the pain became unbearable did he resort to it. He had not used the dark power since yesterday, and the pain had been building since then.
Mord returned with the infusion, putting it gingerly on the table before scuttling out again, to wait within call. Bane slugged back the foul tasting brew, then threw the cup out of the tent flap and lay back. His father was well pleased with his work so far. His visits to Bane's dreams had been filled with praise and encouragement. The army had grown and advanced, almost unimpeded by the puny forces sent against it.
The Overworld had no great monarch to unite it. The land was split between many nobles, barons and lords, petty kings and princes, each guarding their demesnes with jealous fervour. Each had called upon their people for an army, but none had raised one large enough to do more than delay Bane on his march. The battles had been mere entertainment. A distraction from his true purpose, though he did enjoy them. As some nobles had fallen, so others had fled, removing themselves and their armies from his path. Now they marched through empty lands, but he would catch up with the people when they reached the sea, for then there would be no escape.
Bane thought about the headaches again. He was sure that they had been caused by the things he had been made to eat and drink in the Underworld. As a young boy, foul black concoctions had been forced down his throat while he gagged, writhing in the grip of demons. His skin had erupted in sores and pustules shortly after, and at one point, all his hair had fallen out. It had grown back, thicker and blacker than before, but he had been angry. For the most part, his tormentors had ignored his childish tantrums, or sniggered at them. Demands to see his father had been denied, and when he had complained to the Black Lord, he had found an unsympathetic ear. His power was now as great as the Black Lord's, and he was free to walk the earth, which his father was not until Bane destroyed the wards. First he had to find them, however, and so far he had not come across any sign that they even existed.
As the headache ebbed to a more bearable level, he rose and walked outside, glancing irritably at the sun, which rose in golden glory, a point of hot white light that stabbed at his eyes. He was still not used to its brightness; he preferred the dim, warm caverns of the Underworld, lit by the inner fire's lurid glow. Why his father wished to conquer this awful place was beyond him; he just wanted to go home. He found the sun too bright, the nights too cold, and revolting water had fallen from the sky until he had learnt to control the weather. Banishing the clouds, however, brought out the sun in renewed fury. Gathering the fleecy white puffballs to block out the hated sun inevitably led to a drenching. Either way, he could not win, and now rarely bothered to interfere with the weather other than to deflect gathering storms.
Bane strolled through the camp, ignoring the creatures that scrambled from his path, engrossed in his thoughts. The killing was satisfying, he had to admit; never had there been so many victims. The ones brought to the Underworld had died far too quickly, some before they could be tortured. As he walked past a clump of trees, his eyes were drawn to a group of dark creatures around a fire. They sheltered from the sun in the trees' dimness, hating the bright light even more than he did. He found their misshapen forms repugnant, yet they were the most powerful of all his followers. They were steeped in the dark power that they found in the huge cavern, which led into the descending tunnel to the Underworld.
They were unable to open the World Gate through which he had emerged. The power had twisted them even beyond their original grotesque shapes, yet each breed retained a semblance of their former design. They came in a variety of species, and kept to their bands. Grims, wights and vampires generally avoided the larger nasties, night crawlers, grotesques and weirds. No two were exactly alike, some being more twisted than others, but their deformities did not seem to hamper them. Many boasted bat wings, but few could actually fly. They carried no weapons other than the claws, fangs or spines with which they had been born, and although they had been shaped by the dark power, none could wield it. They growled as they watched him pass, their eyes glowing in the firelight.
Arriving at the place where his mount was tethered, he watched as trolls tossed meat to it, keeping well clear of its teeth and talons. The lesser red dragon turned baleful yellow eyes upon its master, snapping its jaws in his direction. Armed with a formidable array of teeth, claws and spines, a dragon, even a small red like this one, was a fearsome beast. It was flightless, but equipped with powerful legs and a sinuous body that could move with remarkable speed.
Although not a fire breather, it was comfortable to ride, and it was also the only Overworld animal that would not be killed by his touch, he had discovered. When first he had come across a horse, he had attempted to ride it, but the beast had gone into a foaming frenzy and collapsed. Irked by this, Bane had banished all horses from his army, forcing the men to march. He had captured a dragon instead, and was well pleased with it. Not only was it able to survive his touch, but any who ventured too close to it would die, which suited Bane perfectly.
Its chains clanked as it lunged at its handlers, snapping at them as they tossed the meat. It preferred live prey, and would have rather have eaten live troll than dead human. Feeding it was no problem; a few humans were killed every day. Dragons did not usually feed that often. They spent most of their time in slothful basking, but this one, ridden daily, needed a great deal of food. When enough of the wards had been broken, he would be able to summon a Demon Steed, but until then, the dragon would suffice.
As Bane approached, it cowered away, tugging at the chains. He smiled, enjoying his power. Everything was afraid of him, and he liked that. No one had dared to touch him since he had mastered the dark power in the Underworld four years ago. Then an air demon, Yangarra, had tried to torment him by sucking the air from his lungs and sniggering as he gasped; the kind of cruel trick that it had played on him for years. A burst of dark fire had burnt it to ash. He had suffered the headache afterwards, and his father's wrath, but it had been worth it. His father had not dared to punish him.
Bane picked up the cruel headgear that allowed him to control the dragon. Vicious spikes were attached to a thin chain bridle that gouged the beast's muzzle whenever Bane jerked on the reins. He pulled it onto the cowering beast's head and fastened it so that it could not be shaken off. The trolls shuffled away as he threw the thick woolly skin over the animal's back and mounted. The dragon writhed beneath him, hurt by his touch. He prodded it with a sharp metal goad, making it lurch forward into its smooth flowing run with a resentful hiss.
The army followed him through the next valley and into a town at its far end. A few aged livestock and an old man who died of fright when he saw the first troll, inhabited it. Although expected, Bane found the Overworld people's cowardice annoying. It robbed him of his daily entertainment. The troops took some enjoyment in setting the village alight, but Bane found little satisfaction in that.
Leaving the town to burn, he led them down the road a few leagues before he stopped and turned to survey them with narrowed eyes, searching for a bold look or a defiant air among them. If he could find fault with one of them, he could devise a painful punishment for his amusement. The men cowered, giving him no excuse for such an action, and he snorted in annoyance. If he tortured one of them for no reason, they would leave, and he did not relish the prospect of doing everything himself. He turned and led them onwards. There had to be some old, weak, sick or injured stragglers that could provide sport for the evening.
By the end of the day, a group of trolls had found one child lost in the woods, but had torn him apart in their eagerness. When Bane found out about this, he had them whipped for cheating him of his evening's entertainment. That provided some small measure of the amusement he craved, although it was not as satisfying as torturing an innocent. He was tempted to scry, but that used the dark power, and would bring back the headache.
Bane's mood had turned ugly by the time they camped for the night, and he kicked Mord when the troll brought his supper. The food, a reddish concoction sent from the Underworld, was his only sustenance. He pondered it as he ate, ignoring its bitter taste. As an Underworld creature, Overworld food would be poison to him, his father had said. The Black Lord was naturally concerned for the health of his son, although Bane was unsure how Overworld food could poison him when he was so powerful. His father seldom explained things to him, however. He simply expected obedience.
Like making Bane hate women. He must have had a reason, but he had never told Bane what it was. Instead, he had filled his son's head with terrible stories about witches and evil women since he had been old enough to understand them. Then, when Bane was fifteen, the Black Lord had captured a pretty young girl and brought her to the Underworld. The girl had begged Bane for mercy, since he was the only creature there who even resembled a human. Every time he had looked at her, his father had grown angry, accusing him of weakness and sentiment. At first, he had been fascinated by her, but his father's mockery and the demons' baiting had made him hate the girl, and his father had ordered him to kill her.
Up here, he had come across many women, and found that they died as easily as men, and none lived up to the stories his father had told him. Not even the healers in the abbeys. They had been the easiest to kill, for they did not even try to flee. He never doubted his father, but many things had confused him over the years.
Like all the painful ceremonies that he had been forced to undergo, which the Black Lord had told him were to give him the ability to wield the dark power. They had cut him, collected his blood, mixed it with potions and fed it to him. Bane had vomited for days, and his father had railed at his weakness. This had confused him, for no one else in the Underworld had blood, and no one else underwent the ceremonies but him. When he had questioned his father, the Black Lord explained that he had been created a certain way, so that he could go to the Overworld and break the wards.
Bane flung the empty bowl out of the tent and lay down, stretching out on the hard cot. His lithe, powerful physique was also a gift from the Black Lord. Bane had undergone years of forced labour; useless, strenuous tasks that made his body bulge in odd places. True, he was strong, but he had hated the labour. He had broken rocks and dug new tunnels, which his father could create with a flick of his hand, while the demons watched and sniggered as he sweated. That had stopped when he mastered the dark power. He smiled. His father had been pleased with him when at last he had been able to wield the power. After he had destroyed Yangarra, the demons ceased to torment him, and life had been good. Still pondering, he fell asleep.
Mirra dug in the vegetable garden, taking care not to harm any of the fat earthworms that she found there. In two days, she had seen no one. That did not surprise her, although she had expected some wounded soldiers and was disappointed that none had come her way. The deer came at her call, but seemed more nervous than usual. They stayed only long enough to snatch the sweet bread that she gave them before vanishing into the woods once more.
Birds answered the call of spring, and raised their chicks in scruffy nests and tree holes, filling the woodland with their lilting song. Her only patient had been a starling with a broken wing. A mere moment's work, although still satisfying. The squirrels brought her nuts, and a badger left tender roots outside her door each night as tokens of their friendship. For someone who had grown up in a crowded abbey, however, the peaceful forest was a lonely place.
Mirra looked up at a flash of movement among the trees, hope brightening her eyes. A young hind limped from the woods, her eyes wide and fearful, and Mirra hurried over to her. The deer trembled and panted as Mirra examined her, and the animal's pain tingled through her. Mirra gasped when she found the black arrow that protruded from the doe's haunch, and raised a hand to her mouth in shock. The infliction of such pain upon an innocent animal horrified her, and she realised that the actual purpose of the shaft was to kill the hind. She had never heard of such a thing, since the healers ate no meat. She could not fathom the reason for killing such a beautiful creature.
Mirra still had much to learn about the world, however, so she put aside her dismay for now, certain that some logical explanation would be forthcoming in the future. Her healing power flowed as she pulled the arrow painlessly from the wound, which closed without a scar. The doe nuzzled her, then trotted away, ears twitching. Mirra returned to her garden, humming. She enjoyed helping humans and animals; it filled her with a warm glow.
The birds ceased their carolling, and strident warning calls rang out. A flock of wood pigeons that had been feeding in the glade flapped for the safety of the trees. A squirrel chittered a warning and vanished into its hole in the spreading oak tree beside the garden. Mirra looked up again as a misshapen man emerged from the trees, followed by three others. Black eyes darted in their wizened, nut-brown faces. Hairy ears protruded at right angles to their heads, and bulbous noses overhung their slack-lipped mouths. Worn clothes, soiled with mud, hung ill-fitting on pot-bellied bodies. Each carried a small recurve bow and a quiver of arrows on his back.
The four gnomes stopped and stared at her, apparently surprised to encounter a healer in these woods. Mirra rubbed the warm earth from her hands as she rose to her feet, and brushed self-consciously at her robe, embarrassed to be found in such a state of disarray.
Hiding her dirty hands behind her back, she smiled. "You are welcome here. Do you require healing?"
One gnome stepped towards her, leering, but another held him back and growled, "Let's not act like trolls, Snort."
Eager for some company, she said, "Would you like some tea?"
"Uh, narr, we ain't thirsty." The first gnome shuffled his feet.
"You all look very well."
"Huh? Oh, yah, we are." He sniggered. "But you won't be fer long."
Her smile widened at his ignorance. "Healers do not fall ill."
Mirra studied them, fascinated. Gnomes were a timid, secular people who stayed mostly in their vast warrens, usually found in hillsides, where they dwelt in tight-knit communities. They were renowned for thieving, mostly sheep or chicken rustling, and farmers cursed them, but rarely caught them in the clumsy traps they set. Gnomes were cunning, if not particularly clever. They usually moved in groups of five or six, and always carried bows and knives. This was a rare and welcome opportunity for her to learn a little about them, and enjoy some company too.
"How may I help you?" she inquired.
The foremost gnome fidgeted and glanced at his friends. "Uh, well, you're coming with us. The boss will want to see you." His friends sniggered, nudging each other, and one muttered, "That's fer sure."
"Of course." Mirra was delighted. She had never heard of gnomes seeking help from a healer. "Take me there."
To her surprise, they gripped her arms and hustled her into the woods, heading back the way they had come. She wondered if gnomes always sought to aid their guests' locomotion in this way, or whether they thought she needed help for some reason.
"You are very kind, but I can manage on my own." When they ignored her, she asked, "Where are you from? I have not seen anyone for two days. It is nice to meet someone at last. Do you live around here?"
The lead gnome grunted. "Not exactly."
"Yuh, we just moved in," another sniggered.
"Good!" Mirra was becoming a little breathless as they hurried her along. "Is your ... er, boss very sick?"
"Sick! Nah, not on yer -"
"Yah, he is." The lead gnome cuffed his companion. "Shurrup, Snort."
Snort whined, and Mirra shot him a sympathetic look, wondering why they should be so confused as to whether or not the boss was sick. Surely that was why they had sought her out? Or had they merely stumbled across her in a stroke of good fortune? She concentrated on keeping up with the rather gruelling pace that they set without tripping over roots or being bashed by low branches, which the gnomes did not notice, being only three feet tall.
Soon they reached the edge of the forest, where the trees gave way to a rolling meadow that had once been dotted with wild flowers. Now a sea of men, gnomes, trolls and all manner of darkfolk covered the trampled grassland from this forest to the next, several leagues away. Mirra estimated that there were several tens of thousands of men, more than she had ever seen gathered in one place. Most of them rested on the ground, some were engaged in cooking, or cleaning weapons, others talked, gambled or slept. They all seemed to favour a dull brown or black garb, and many wore rusted armour. A low mutter of male voices filled the balmy air, and a haze of blue smoke hung over the scene.
"Goodness!" she exclaimed, "This is an army! Ellese told me that there was a war. I am glad you found me. You must have injured men, I suppose?"
The gnome shot her a disbelieving look, his wizened face creased with confusion. They trundled her into the midst of the horde, and shouts of surprise and delight greeted her arrival. The gnomes growled and pushed away those who ventured too close or tried to grab her, and a procession formed in her wake. Mirra was surprised to see every race of darkfolk represented. Usually they were reclusive, and rarely seen by normal people.
Dirty, unshaven men swaggered among them, leering at her, their rank stench thickening the air. She fought the urge to hold a hand over her nose and smiled at them. When she came to man who lay on the ground, a bloody bandage around his leg, she stopped. His pain called out to her, and she slipped from the gnomes' grip to kneel beside him. At her touch the wound healed, and the man stared at her, then the gnomes grabbed her and trundled her away.
They led her to a leather tent in the middle of the camp, which had an untrampled area around it. The crowd of muttering soldiers followed, and formed a wide circle around the tent. A troll who stood at the door ducked inside, and reappeared quickly. Considering the huge stature and massive strength of the black-haired sub-human, she was surprised by his darting eyes and fearful demeanour. The yellow tusks that curved up from his lower jaw pulled his face into a glum expression.
"Is this where your sick boss is?" Mirra started forward, but the gnomes held her back.
"Wait!" the leader said, looking nervous.
Mirra glanced at the crowd behind her. No healers accompanied this army, and the men's glares were distinctly hostile. She raised a hand to fondle her silver necklet, trying to calm her pounding heart by assuring herself that even enemy troops would need a healer's services.
Mirra looked around as a man stepped from the tent. Her heart contracted painfully as her gaze met his, and she gasped. A thick mane of jet hair framed the face of a demon crossed with an angel. His alabaster skin, which appeared never to have seen the sun, lay taut over sculpted features. Fine brows angled up sharply above long-lashed eyes of blue as vivid as a flame's bright heart. His straight, narrow nose that might have been sculpted by an artist striving for perfection in a godly form. His only flaw was a slightly thin-lipped mouth twisted in a contemptuous sneer.
The contrast in his face amazed and fascinated her. His deep widow's peak and slanted brows gave him a demonic, evil look, while his skin and eyes made him resemble a fallen angel. Lines of strain and anger furrowed the skin between his brows, and his eyes were bloodshot. The layered wings of glossy hair fell to his broad shoulders, and matched the ankle-length black cloak that hung from them.
Flame-like patterns of fine gold embroidery decorated the front of his shirt, and silver-studded leather wrist guards encircled his forearms. Mirra sensed the pain radiating from him, echoed in his tormented eyes, and was surprised when the gnomes scuttled away, apparently afraid of him. His aura of power did not daunt her; healers were trained to be unaffected by such things, since even kings and queens must seek their help at times. His obvious need of her help calmed her fears, and she smiled as she stepped forward to offer her services in the manner in which she had been trained.
"May the goddess bless you, and her power heal you through me."
His cold eyes never left her face as he spoke in a soft, menacing voice. "I doubt that, little girl."
Mirra laughed, and he winced as it hurt his ears. "I am certain that whatever your illness is, I can help you."
"You were not brought here to help me."
Mirra stepped closer, which seemed to surprise him, for his brows rose a fraction. "But I can stop your pain."
"Really." His eyes glinted.
Mirra reached up to touch his brow. His skin was cool and satin smooth. He regarded her flatly, his eyes filled with cruel anticipation. She snatched her hand away and rubbed it as she retreated a step, uncertain. Her healing seemed to bounce off him as if a wall blocked it. She sensed a strangeness deep within him, which confused her. It was as if a barrier lived just under his skin, and spurned her healing.
His lips twisted into a sneering smile. "Your magic will not work on me, witch, my father made certain of that. I am so glad you could join us today. Sport has been hard to come by lately, and I have missed it." He raised his head to address the soldiers behind her. "Take her and bind her!"
As he stepped back, many hands grabbed her and dragged her towards a large, upright rock. The strange turn of events confused and alarmed her. The tall man followed, his shadowy cloak flaring to reveal a crimson lining.
The men bound her to the rock with rough ropes, forcing her to stand with her back pressed against it. She looked around for the black-clad man, who watched her, and wondered what they were going to do. Surely they would not harm a healer? When she was lashed to the stone, he walked closer. The men sidled back, and he stopped before her, his eyes icy with contempt.
"Now you will see what I do with witches."
"I am not a witch. I am a healer."
"Do not talk back, witch."
The man pulled a black-bladed dagger from his belt, and she watched him with vague disquiet. He fingered the blade, his eyes raking her as if pondering his next move, then he raised the weapon and drew it down her cheek in a swift motion. Mirra gasped in surprise. The cut healed instantly, without a drop of blood escaping. His eyes narrowed, and he peered at her cheek, then at the dagger. He cut her again, deeper, with the same result. Frowning, he turned and held out a hand to the men behind him, who shrank from it.
"Give me a brand."
A man yanked a piece of burning wood from the nearest fire and thrust it into her would-be tormentor's hand, and he swung back to her. He pressed it to her cheek, but her power healed the burn and blocked the pain. The smell of charring flesh sickened her, but she knew from childhood escapades that any injury she received healed instantly. Perhaps he was ensuring that she really was a healer, she thought. He removed the brand and scowled at her.
"So, the little witch has real magic."
"I am a healer."
"Silence!" His hand cracked across her cheek, snapping her head around. She gazed at him, wondering what she had done to anger him. He was a little flushed, and his brows almost met over his nose. Mirra gasped in amazemnt as his vivid eyes turned black, and he raised his hands. She sensed a surge of strange, evil power. Black flames arced from his fingers and crawled over her with loathsome shadows. Her stomach churned, and she swallowed the sour sting of bile. Apart from the terrible nausea, the fire only tingled where it touched.
He snarled and unleashed a lash that drove her back against the rock, causing her healing to flare in response. The crowd retreat with moans of fear, and Mirra flinched from the terrible power that he wielded. Lowering his hands, he let the black fire die. The darkness drained from his eyes as he glared at her.
"What are you?"
Mirra sagged, relieved that the sickness had vanished with the fire. "A healer."
He swung away, his face thunderous. "I will not waste my power on a puling witch-maid. Make my father happy!" he roared at the crowd. "Torture her! We want to hear her scream!" He strode away, his back stiff with fury.
The horde closed in on her, and many dirty hands reached out to hurt her. They cut the ropes and pulled her into their midst. She yelped as knives slashed her robe and sliced her flesh in bloodless cuts that closed without a trace. Clubs smashed her fingers and snapped her arms and legs. She was beaten, pummelled, thrown down and stomped on, spat on, urinated on. They rolled her in the dirt, broke her ribs with kicks, pierced her eyes with daggers and thrust burning brands into her skin. They tore out her hair in tufts and slashed it off with knives, forced excrement into her mouth and stabbed swords through her gut. The injuries healed instantly and painlessly, but their severity caused her skin to glow with the golden power. Through it all, she gave only an occasional grunt when they knocked the wind out of her.
When they withdrew, she was smeared with muck, her hair gone, but for tattered clumps, her robe in rags, and a bad taste in her mouth. She looked up at them with sad reproach, two tears escaping to trickle down her cheeks as she fingered the filthy ruin of her hair. The gnomes who had captured her dragged her to her feet and hauled her to their master's tent. The troll ducked inside for a moment, and Mirra pulled together the tattered remnants of her robe in a rather vain attempt at modesty, since there was hardly enough cloth left to cover her.
The black-clad man emerged and surveyed her with a grim expression. Pain radiated from him, and she longed to heal him.
"Is this the best you could do?" he roared at the gnomes, who scuttled away, to stop at a safe distance. "I want her dead! Are you so useless that you cannot kill a simpering maiden? All you have done is dirty her and cut her hair!" He clasped his brow, wincing, then turned to the troll who cowered next to the door. "Where is my damned potion?"
The troll held out the cup that he had been clutching, and the man snatched it from him.
"Do not drink that!" Mirra cried.
He glared at her, his lip curling. "Why not?"
"It is bad for you!"
He stared at her in undisguised amazement. "Why should you care?"
"Of course I care. I am a healer."
"You are mad." He tossed back the liquid and threw the cup aside. "Tie her up!" he ordered the gnomes. "I see that I will have to deal with her myself. Make sure the ropes are rough and tight, I want her to suffer!" His icy gaze raked her. "Perhaps she will afford better entertainment than I thought, since she does not die so easily."
They dragged her to the forest's edge and bound her to a tree, the ropes cutting into her skin. She sagged in her bonds, wondering what was in store for her next. The situation made no sense. She had done nothing to earn the wrath of the strange, handsome man, yet he wanted her dead.
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."