Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Death, Be Not Proud

They had him trapped.

The Grey Wizard's lair was an unassuming place. A milliner's on the outside, making and selling fine hats for the gentry of Kemperbad. Excellent cover for the use of strange chemicals and unusual materials. Who would guess that mercury and peacock feathers were being put to more esoteric purposes than the creation of fashion? The hatmaker and his wife were no doubt pawns of the wizard. Well-thought of locally. They would have to be careful.

It lay on the end of a row of houses that thrust out towards a municipal park, full of statues of the city state's founders and neat ornamental bushes. There was civic pride here, more than the civil obedience one saw at home. This wasn't the Empire, he reminded himself. It had independence, a warrant of trade and its own currency.

Undrache had met Bruno and his apprentice at the rendezvous, and immediately taken them to the mustering point for the operation. Armed guardsmen lurked in the greenery. Undrache spoke of more of them, a whole platoon, secreted away in nearby houses and shops. His most trusted men, slowly manouvered into place over the last month. The Grey Wizard knew nothing, Bruno was assured. They waited under a heavy bronze of the First Citizen of Kemperbad, the man who'd brokered the deal that bought them out of the Empire's fold, surrounded by children that represented the city. There in the darkness at its base, they were safe.

Why, then, did he feel nervous?

His master's staff felt twitchy in his hand. Well, not staff exactly. The bar that controlled a skeletal marionette, a creepy-looking childish thing heavy with years of exposure to the winds of Shysh. Bruno could feel it trying to dance.

He needed to concentrate. He needed to be in control. If he was to unleash the powers of death, he wanted to be careful. There would be no massacre, no burning purple light of annihilation. Just a single snip of a thread. A careful pruning. He was not Gesper, even if he bore the man's staff. He knew his responsibilities.

He didn't want to talk to Undrache. He could hear the man's thoughts, steeped in blood and the necessity of killing. The Witch Hunter was a murderous lure to the Amethyst power, the wind of death twisted round his feet. Bruno had sent his apprentice, Kord, to hear the plan. The further he stayed from that promise of slaughter, the better.

Undrache finished whispering to his lieutenants. The horses whickered. Kord rode carefully back, an eager look on his plain face. Bruno saw the flickers of purple snaking after him. Caught in Undrache's aura, he could see.

"When he gives the signal, his men will surround the shop, the Witch Hunter will challenge him. We are to stay hidden in the park until the madman emerges. Then we ride in swiftly and you pick him off. A simple plan, but a good one, I think."

Ah, Kord, Bruno thought. If simple equates to good, what does that mean complex creatures like wizards are?

He saw hesitation spread over the boy's face. His thoughts were projecting again. His focus was scattered, he didn't have the control he needed. Death was coming. So much death. He should hold it back, shouldn't he? Prevent a massacre?

But he could ride to glory on a black tide, robes billowing like the sails on Morr's own barge.

"Very well," Bruno said. "On the signal, we ride."


He had them trapped.

Outside in the street, lit by torchlight, the Witch Hunter was hammering on his door and shouting. Two mistakes already - announcing his presence. Not just to me, thought Xander Farren. To the whole neighbourhood.

If the Empire was no longer grateful for his protection, Xander Farren didn't mind. They'd still benefit from it. He wasn't going to stop his work just because the Grey College couldn't find evidence of the Shining Sun any more. He knew they were still out there. Sending a Witch Hunter against him was sure proof his enemies hadn't forgotten him.

Kemperbad made an ideal base of operations. A tiny city state, operating outside of official Empire jurisdiction, but still deep inside the heart of his homeland. He could reach out easily, much more easily than they could reach in. He'd been here for years, making it his own. Far more so than they knew.

Yes, the milliner's was surrounded. Yes, he had nowhere to flee. And yes, he could feel the rising tide of death building up around him. That Amethyst Wizard was powerful, wherever it was he was lurking.

But he'd made a simple error of judgement. Looking at the houses and park outside, you could forgive the man. It looked homely, familiar.

But it wasn't.

Farren looked out of the window. The Witch Hunter was shouting again.

"Open up! In the name of Imperial Justice, you will come down and be judged by fire, traitor!"

Xander cast the casement open but stayed to one side of the window. He pulled a little on the winds of magic, enough to project his voice out into the town.

"Empire attackers! Kemperbad, to arms! An invasion! They've come for our independence!"

A pistol shot punched a fat hole in the plaster just above his head. In the nearby houses, lanterns snapped to life in windows, doors started discharging ranks of armed men. The Witch Hunter's minions, many more than he'd realised. Crafty! How long had they been stashed away, he wondered. But also perfect. It was just going to make things worse for them.

Men were hammering on his door. He grabbed two flasks from the alchemical bench near the window, dropped them out. Screams resulted. A trumpet blared from a block away, drums rolled.

This was going to get nasty.


"Master! He fired - the signal!" Kord said urgently.

Bruno nodded, kicked his horse into a canter.

The milliner's was already the centre of a whirlpool of light. Torches in the street. A blaze at the doorway, where someone must have dropped an oil lantern. Men pointing, the click and crack of crossbows firing and being rewound. At its heart, Schorsch Undrache, his tattered chainmail coif swinging round his cheeks as he barked orders.

Already, men were dying.

They rode through the outskirts of the battle. Well, it wasn't quite a battle, not yet. But he could see the urgent muster of troops further down the street. And a group
of incensed Kemperbad citizens had emerged from their homes, yelling anti-Imperial slogans and brandishing kitchen implements.

"There, master, the upper storey!" Kord shouted.

A shadowy figure moved past the open windows upstairs in the milliner's shop, face briefly visible in the firelight from outside. Their target, this mass murderer and rogue. Farren, that was his name. A master wizard. Something familiar in the silhouette...

A scream from the second upstairs window, female. A figure in white nightclothes shrieking at the confusion outside - the hatmaker's wife. The shadow flitted to her side, wrestled with her. A hostage.

They were too far away. Death was always intimate, Bruno knew. To get close enough, he needed a clear path. But there were already knots of men struggling in the street, the Witch Hunter's troops manouvering to intercept the charging Kemperbad mob.

Men dying. Screams. He heard them, the clang of weapon and the rattle of shield. Death, death on death. His mind's eye saw an amber spear leaping over a cobbled square that glittered with amethysts. He needed to be closer. Kill the shadow and they were done.

He saw a face in the crowd briefly lit by fire, a slender man in his thirties being spitted on an Empire spear as he shouted defiance at the perceived invader.

The face at the window.

The face of the First Citizen.

A Grey Wizard using illicit magics to copy himself? For how long? How long had he been here? How long living as one of them, selling hats and brewing murder in his upstairs room? How long before the Witch Hunter even knew of this lair?

Bruno slowed his horse.

The wife appeared at the window, white nightdress smeared with soot. No, grey, Bruno realised. She shouted words of power. Empire troopers scattered in confusion, Kemperbad citizens screaming at their heels. Undrache was yelling too, pointing up at the window and trying to attract his attention. He looked like he was still in control, somehow. Of what, Bruno wondered?

There, he could feel it. There was the centre of this tide. Death, calling to him all around. Begging to be unleashed. And Undrache the heart of it.

The wizard's wife, not the hatmaker's. Maybe not even the wizard himself, maybe a copy, a shadow of a shadow. Breeding in the dark for untold years. Enough to fill a town. Bruno thought of the statue of the First Citizen, children lovingly surrounding him.

You needed light to get rid of shadow. But light always bred more.

Bruno turned his horse back.

"What are you doing, master?" Kord shouted. "We have to take him down!"

Who could say, maybe the Grey Wizard was even in the right. Perhaps there was some foul conspiracy only he knew of. Perhaps he needed to kill to fight it. There'd be death enough this night, the innocents of a town dragged into a duel they knew nothing of. He didn't need to bring any more of it. Death would find them all sooner or later anyway.

The Witch Hunter's next bullet whistled past them. There, Bruno thought. Proof I'm right. He'd kill everyone in this town if he could, just so he could say he'd done his job. He doesn't care who he cuts down, as long as he keeps cutting.

"Master!" Kord shouted. "We can't abandon them!"

We all tend Morr's Garden, apprentice, Bruno told him. Some are reapers. Not us.

"What are you doing?" Kord was saying. real despair in his voice.

We study Death. We do not embrace it, Bruno thought, half remembering something Gesper told him once. Wizards should not fight. Even the Witch Hunter had said as much.

We should protect our crop, not harvest it unseasonally.

He rode for home and didn't look back.

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