At Marcher Lord Press, Saturdays are “Speculative Story Saturdays.” Several Marcher Lord Press authors are playing fiction relay to write this story together. Here is the latest installment.
An ever-present twilight enveloped the Fortress of Gloom as if even the sun only reluctantly looked upon the blackened stone walls. The great ramparts of Gloom rose from the bedrock of a charred mountain, cursed to let no living plant or creature find sanctuary. Garish gargoyles perched along the grisly battlements, each positioned over a length of chain from which dangled the dead and dying. Be they incompetent slaves or erstwhile adventurers who had found their journey’s end, it did not matter. Those who ran afoul of the fortress’ master found their ruin at the end of a gargoyle’s chain, if they were lucky.
A single tower rose from the center of the bare courtyard like an ebony spike piercing the sky. And at its pinnacle Landgrave Christoph the Twenty-Eighth seethed impotently as he peered into the waters of a scrying bowl held by a female slave, her essence draining into the waters to fuel the vision. A giant stone statue stood resolute watch over them, its features worn and chipped from years of exposure. Beside the statue, in the center of the tower stood a dias with a pedestal holding an ornate wooden box, sealed shut with an iron clasp.
Cold wind whipped around Landgrave as he watched the shadow creature of Archmage Intius attack the party of adventurers only to be thoroughly banished by the blessed priest-mage.
“The fool will ruin everything.” Landgrave struck the scrying bowl from the slave who dropped lifelessly to the ground. “Dispose of that and leave me be. I would have words with Intius and must not be disturbed.”
Stone ground on stone as a large statue in the center of the chamber shifted into movement. It stretched out two boulder-sized hands and gently cradled the drained girl.
“If I may venture a suggestion,” the golem said in a grinding voice. “Don’t let your anger cloud your judgment. Words spoken in frustration will only make Intius more belligerent than he is naturally.”
“Don’t patronize me, Rubble. I know how to play the strings of the arrogant fool.”
“So you do,” said the golem. “I will leave you to prepare for your concert with Intius.”
Without a sound the creature sunk into the stone floor, as if slipping into a pool of deep water. In mere seconds only the bare stone floor remained where Rubble had stood.
Landgrave let a long hiss of breath slide between his teeth taking a measure of his frustration with it. Despite his disgust with the golem, he knew he must calm himself as the construct had suggested. After twenty-eight lifetimes of patience he wouldn’t let a moment of frustration ruin h is plans.
With a purposeful stride he walked to the edge of the platform and peered into the gloom, surveying the fortress that had been intended as his prison. Perhaps his long-deceased captors had thought to drive him mad by binding him to this fortress, cursed to watch the world he had sought to undo remain in the light of the Holy One. But they had underestimated his patience and the corrupting power of the crystal to which they had bound him.
“Such fools to think that they could contain the darkness. It is always there, waiting for the light to grow weak. And they gave me an eternity of waiting.”
He had spent decades picking slowly at the Commands that bound Rubble, then named Bulwark, as his captor. Slowly, minutely weakening the logic that gave the golem its purpose, he had corrupted the Command to guard him into one to serve him. The Command to sustain him he had transformed into a Command of protection. Only the Command to keep him prisoner within the walls of Gloom was too firmly set with no flaws to exploit. But soon that Command too would be broken and Rubble would become Dust.
“Unless that fool Archmage can’t keep his minions in check.” Landgrave snarled. He turned on his heel and stalked to the dias in the center of the room and opened the ornate box. Darkness flooded out of the box, snuffing out the candlelight as it spread.
With a muttered word of power Landgrave turned and faced a bewildered Archmage Intius. The elderly man was adorned in gold-spun robes, encrusted with runes of set gemstones. A hawkish nose stuck out above a bristling white beard that descended to mid-chest. Equally bushy eyebrows rose high over widened eyes. Surely the Archmage would have struck an imposing figure if he had not been sprawled out in the darkness.
“How dare you summon me like a common underling,” Intius snarled as he clambered to his feet, encumbered by the heavy robe. “I am an Archmage of the Ninth Ray.”
“I do apologize, Archmage,” Landgrave said. “But I feared something may have happened to you. Why else would your shadow puppet disobey your command and attack the ones it is only meant to observe? Without its anchor how am I to scry upon them?”
Intius harrumphed and pointed a bony finger at Landgrave. “If I had known she was party to this plan of yours I never would have wasted a shadow trap on the group. All my puppets have been commanded to capture that assassin on sight. She and I have unfinished business.”
“I do not care about your unfinished business, Archmage. Your task is to aid me in my task, or perhaps you no longer have an interest in the Shadow Crystal.” Landgrave rubbed his chin dramatically. “I’m sure one of your other colleagues would leap at the chance to study its power. I need the group untrusting and divided, not unified through shared hardship and danger.”
Intius held up his hands. “You misunderstand me. This woman, Telka will prove even more useful to your purpose. She’s a practitioner of the Flow and susceptible to your influence. Already we have seen that she does not her trust fellows, it should be a small thing for you to turn her to your own purpose.”
The Archmage slid closer to Landgrave and grinned slyly. “I can give you the token needed for the influence. All I ask is that you return her to me once your plans with her are done.”
Landgrave glowered at Intius. Direct influence over one of the adventurers was more than he had hoped for, but he didn’t trust the Archmage. If the token he promised worked so well, how had the assassin stayed out of his grasp? Still if it worked how much better for him, and if not then his plan could still take shape and the fool would suffer the consequences of misleading him.
“Very well, Archmage. Give me the token and when I am free you may have what is left of the girl.”
With a greedy smile Intius reached into his robes and withdrew a crystal vial secured to a fine steel chain. “This is Telka’s final tear, given in barter many years before. Sadly the terms of the agreement keep me from using it against her directly. But I will entrust it to you for safekeeping. I’m sure you will know how best to secure it.”
“Indeed I do.” Landgrave said as he took the token and stared at the glistening drop trapped within. “I will see that this is put in the safest place of all.”
With a wave of his hand he sent the Archmage back to his own tower and let the darkness seep back into the Shadow Crystal. A crooked smile spread across his lips as he slipped the chain around his neck and turned his thoughts toward the assassin.