His mind stirred.
There was no other word or concept that fit what happened, because he would have needed to be asleep to awaken, and he would have had to have been truly conscious to focus. No, some stimulus had finally shaken him from the heavy torpor that gripped him in a perfect paralysis of both mind and body.
Until that moment, all he’d been aware of was the passing of the days, the months, the three full decades he’d spent in that state.
Now his hidden senses flared and revealed to him that he was at the center of the most complex spellcrafting array he’d ever encountered. Patterns of vox surrounded him, passed through him, and even merged into his being, carrying with them traces of the other elements and a dense construction of the rare mental energy, psi.
The undertaking was masterful’ a spell that integrated his very being into its matrix and betrayed no begging and no end. No weaknesses either, his well trained mind told him. There were a thousand routines and functions and a million subordinate spells linked into those. It was a masterpiece and even as it held him imprisoned, senseless and preserved like an insect in amber, he had to admire it.
Something moved. Spells could move in the literal sense if they were designed to, but the motion he detected now was metaphorical, a sensation caused by changes in the array: effects going dormant and others becoming active. It settled into place like a steel plate over a gap and suddenly whatever had been blocking his senses fell away.
Pain took precedence. Points of searing agony stabbed into him; a dozen points in pairs marching down his spine, one in every joint, in his heart, lungs and kidneys. Four more, especially vivid, pierced his palms and the soles of his feet. They held him in place. They held him up. He was transfixed in space by iron spikes that existed as the stuff of magic and thought.
Sight and taste evaded him. He couldn’t move to open his eyes, nor open his mouth, which felt on his tongue like a dry void.
There was little scent as well. Cold stone and water, metallic odors of a multitude of kinds, and damp, still air. They reached him when he knew they should not; a type of remote viewing with the nose.
Sounds also reached him; booted feet on a rough stone floor, five pairs by his estimation. And with them came the rustle of metal and fur, the occasional clink of metal on other metal or on rock, and voices remarking, arguing and giving orders. He knew the language, but not the dialect.
There was more movement in the spell, a frenzy of activity that indicated the something significant was happening. The psi construction flared into readiness, and an invasive thought stormed into his mind. It forced him to speak.
For the first time in decades, he drew breath, feeling the raw sting of the spikes in his lungs as he did. But he had no choice; he was a puppet and any power he could muster to defend himself from it was locked out by other parts of the monstrous array.
“The bargain has been struck.” The psi construct expanded like a tree growing from a seed to its full height over the span of seconds. One end was firmly anchored inside him and the other anchored elsewhere. Within the space of a thought, it radiated information back to him. There was a person on the other end, and they were filled with pride and avarice while thrumming with impatience. Their heartbeat was strong, their breathing faster than normal due to being unused to the elevation and the cold, and they were standing exactly six and a half paces from him. “The bond is formed.”
It didn’t stop there. More patterns winked out, and he became aware of bits of his own power that were being drawn out of him in a recursive loop to form pillars of stone around him, along with chains of precious metal that wrapped around them and formed a tangled mess around his person, which was housed inside a sandstone sarcophagus.
“Dissolving containment protocols.” The chains moved, crushing the pillars like vast snakes squeezing the life out of rodents. And when those crumbled into dust, they began to do the same to the sarcophagus, forming networks of cracks from the points of contact. He continued to drone as pieces began to break off, “Aligning spell structures for core array. Slaving to arcane command link and aligning command array.”
The last of the rocky shell around him was destroyed, leaving him draped in chains and hovering in the midst of a cloud of rock dust. His feet hit the floor and he teetered under their weight, but refused to go over. “Retracting tertiary containment spells.” With that, he reclaimed the ferif and ere-a, leaving the impression that he was pulling the dust and chains into his own body.
For a moment, he swayed on his feet. The retreating shackles that had been on his mind lifted and her remembered.
His name was Ru Brakar. He was a shapeshifting master and known as the Second Eldest Brother among the Reaping Brotherhood. There were other names and titles as well: Master of the Quick-cast, Imbiber of the Demon Draught, Breaker of the god Vitalius, Student of the Wyrm, Nightmare King. Brother. Mentor. Beloved.
The last echoed in his mind. He wanted it to ring hollow. His last memory before his hellish not-sleep told him it was hollow and untrue. But at the same time, he wanted it to be true. He wanted to learn that he’d been a fool. He begged to be wrong; begged to whoever and whatever would hear the prayer of a cursed sparker who had laid waste to the congregation of one of their own so thoroughly that the name of Vitalius was now called bad luck.
Whatever power had imprisoned him had preserved him exactly as he’d been. His traveling cloak was spattered with blood from many bodies; many of them people who he had called friend and family and protege until those last, horrible hours. The bottom edge of the cloth was soaked through and ruined from dragging through pools of the stuff, and his soft boots were much the same.
The left side of the cloak and the sleeve of the coat underneath it were burned to nothing and the arm beneath an angry red in testament to a blast of flaer shielded against too lightly. His right hip was laid open by a sweeping blade with a surgically sharp edge. He was wet from head to toe, and snow still glittered in his lank, black hair.
So too did his fatigue return to him and he started to collapse, just as he remembered doing years ago, just before that last betrayal.
“Grace.” His first word of his own free will left his mouth and he infused it with vox, turning word into pattern in his mind. It reached into an area of folded space that followed him around, and seized something there.
A sharp noise echoed off the walls around him as a scythe returned to the mortal world. It’s crooked, black haft shone dully, the light revealing intricate carvings in the wood, it’s oversized, crescent blade gleamed with its black metal and silver edge.
The butt of the weapon struck the ground and Ru leaned against it rather than fall. His mind ran on automatic as he wove a pattern in his mind and summoned up vitae into it to heal his wounds.
“What’s this then?” a voice cut through the relative silence of what Ru could now see was a domed chamber formed out of the rock by workings of ere-a. The manner of speaking was heavy with a dialect that inspired in Ru images of a man with limited education, but with a cunning that belonged to things with rows of teeth or that stalked ridge lines for small, furry animals to devour. The strange, disconcerting link the existed between his mind and the speaker’s confirmed this.
“No ‘what are your orders, Master?’, no ‘I live to serve’. Me mam told me all the old stories with the iron bottles and the rings, and the clay jars, so I got what you might call ‘spectations. And, seeing as It’s my blood what woke you up, you best start meeting ’em, yeah?”
Ru looked up from tending himself. Just as he’d counted, there were five of them. One was dressed in a proper fur lined coat with a mask to cover his mouth and heavy yak hair hood pulled over his face; a native to whatever place he’d found himself in, no doubt.
The others wore ill fitting and mismatched cold weather garb, the kind outfitters pass on to strangers with little in the way of both sense and money. By their rough skins and scarred faces, he guessed street toughs. Growing up, he’d known men like that; the mid level predators in the urban ecosystem.
Front in center was the speaker. He was below average height, but made up for it by being extra wide thanks to muscle. In his mid-thirties, he looked older thanks to his scarred and pockmarked skin, piggy eyes, and missing teeth. A tattered strip of gray cloth dangled from one hand, a slow spreading red stain forming on it.
Ru he no idea what that or the man’s words meant. He stood another moment in silence before meeting the man’s yellow eyes with his own. “Who in the burning depths do you think you are?” He returned to standing under his own power and left the scythe swing down into a guarded position, just to make clear his intentions if he gave the wrong answer.
The man barked a laugh that sounded more like a harsh cough. “I go by the name of Freht. Gunnor Freht. But I don’t go for my lessers goin’ ’round calling me by my given. And you? You best call me ‘Master’.”
A growl escaped Ru. “We’ll see if you continue to insist once you’re holding your entrails.” He started to call up his power. Hot pain speared into him, in the center of his back, and his lungs, and through his wrists. His fingers locked and the scythe tumbled from them, clattering noisily on the smooth stone floor.
Hissing in pain, he looked down to find six-inch iron spikes piercing through his wrists and emerging from his chest. There were no wounds and not blood; the spikes passed straight through him as if he were as substantial as smoke. The pain they caused pulsed with his heartbeat, changing subtly and preventing him from becoming acclimated to it.
“What…” He started, but the spikes through his lings made breathing difficult and speaking almost impossible. The one in his back twisted and he crumbled to the floor.
Freht smirked and the men behind him let out relieved breaths. “I don’t recommend raisin’ a hand to me again.” He strode forward, the noise of his boots ringing off the ceiling. Callously, he kicked the scythe away so that it slid and scrapped back toward his men.
When he reached Ru, he crouched down, elbows on his knees. “Not a good feeling, I imagine. The man what told us you was here said you’ve be on the floor the second you tried nothin’ on me. Not magic, no knives. You can’t touch me, got it?”
Ru croaked into the floor and forced himself up on his hands against the conjured pain in his spine. “What…” He swallowed and labored against the pain in his chest. “How…”
Freht tapped the side of his head, his smirk transforming into a malicious grin. “You feel that, don’t you old man?That feeling like I’m in your head? It’s some kind of big magic; needs blood to make it work, so you know it’s strong.”
Somewhere in the crackling haze in his brain, Ru wanted to correct him. Blood didn’t make magic strong, it made it specific. It keyed spells to a particular person or family line and strengthened it for that target. It could be used to increase the power of a spell, but not in any amount that was survivable by the donor. He wanted to give voice tot hat fact, but he couldn’t give voice to anything at the moment.
Blissfully ignorant about that facet of magic (or any facets of magic, really), Freht continued. “It means I’m in charge and you, Mister Nightmare King, Mister…” He made another sound he meant to be a laugh, “’Tenth. That’s really your name? ‘Ru’? Scariest blighter south of the Habrey and he’s got some stupid crew kid name?”
It was a force of will just to move, but his infamous temper fueled him. The younger members of the Brotherhood, who had known him only as a teacher and authority figure never believed the stories told to them from the battlefield; the tales of the things he did to anyone who hurt a member within his sight; especially to anyone who hurt Seth or Gloryfall.
He wasn’t a big man, he looked like a scholar; thin and pale and cultured. They often forget that he was a shapeshifting master, that in order to even grasp that discipline, he had to know how to use magic to enhance his body in a variety of ways.
Freht didn’t expect it either.
At one moment, Ru was on the floor, trying to push himself up. In the next, he abandoned using his muscle and resorted to his skill. His flesh and bone and muscle moved like water, shifting flawlessly from a man lying down to a man standing. The same craft lashed out with his hand and caught Freht about the windpipe as he rose to his full height and then beyond it.
Ru snarled as he looked up at Freht, who choked and struggled in his grip, held a foot off the floor.
His triumph was short lived, as he was suddenly assaulted but the full complement of spikes re-entering his spine. The pain turned his vision white and washed away every ounce of the concentration devoted to forcing his body to work.
Despite himself, he screamed as he fell to his knees, releasing Freht in the process. Unable to do anything to catch himself, he pitched forward onto his head and shoulders and writhed there insensate to all but the blazing jolts that races through his nerves.
A span of time passed, immeasurable to him, until his mind returned and the agony retreated to a series of dull aches and cramps. He was still on the floor, and thought he didn’t open his eyes, he knew Freht was also. The hateful man levered himself up, rattled by Ru’s attack, but triumphant in seeing him brought low.
“Like I says: you ought to show me proper respect, Tenth. This thing in my head, going to yours says I’m your master now and whenever you forget that, I’m going to remind you in the same gentle fashion you just got; you with me?”
Ru concentrated on breathing. He wanted this over. He wanted to wake up and find that he’d just slipped into one of his own Nightmare Syndromes, or perhaps that he was now in the underworld and soon this insanity would soon be replaced by more traditional eternal punishment.
“I said,” Freht’s voice was dangerous and proud. “’You with me?’ This is where you say ‘Yes, Master’.” When Ru didn’t answer, he practically roared. “Say it!”
The array, the link that connected Ru to Freht, moved and became a metal clamp in his mind. The unwanted thoughts that weren’t his told him that this was an Order; that whatever his reaction at other times, this was an instruction he wouldn’t be allowed to resist. Either Ru said those words himself, or the magic would make him.
He didn’t know which it ended up being. It hardly mattered anymore. “Yes… Master.” It was so low, so dull that it didn’t echo, but it was loud, far too loud and booming in Ru’s ears. He’d only ever called other people ‘Master’ as a sign of respect and appreciation that they were letting him learn from them. This was a perversion and a corruption of the word that was bitter on his tongue and acid in his throat.
Another not-really-a-laugh from Freht as he got to his feet. “That’s right. Now sit up.”
It was another Order and he couldn’t resist, not in any meaningful way. Against the protests of his aching muscles, he pulled himself up to sitting, letting his head hand down. His hair fell wild across his face and he made no effort to brush it aside.
There was a time when he was meticulous about keeping it neatly tied back. There was no point anymore.
Freht started pacing back and forth in front of the dark mage, looking on hims with contempt. “Lot of ones like you down on the plains, in the city. Sparkers my mam used to call ’em. They got magic without gods, they says, but my mam says it’s just that they got secret gods. She seen how strong it got you lot in Redtridal, so when she set up court with the thieves there, she made up some thief gods to be their secret gods.”
He stopped in front of Ru. “Works well and good too, but it didn’t last. My mam, she got a touch of the wind in her chest, and them gods, they didn’t fix it for her. So when she died, they stopped believin’, and no way was they gonna let her boy rise up as thief king then, yeah? Not after she been proved wrong.”
The others in the cavern shifted nervously. Minus the native, guide, that meant that all of three people were standing by the deposed ‘heir of thieves’. Ru was shocked that the rest of the ‘court’ didn’t kill them out of hand.
Freht crouched down right next to Ru, no longer afraid of retribution. “Then this man calls me to meetin’, right? And he tells me that there were a truth to them secret gods. Only they wasn’t gods, they was just right powerful folk that got taught magic from all over the world. And, he says, he knows where one of them’s got himself chained up, all high in the mountains to the east. The shapeshifter. The one they call Nightmare King.”
Ru lifted his eyes to glare through the curtain of hair. He wanted to spit in his face, but his throat would bring up no liquid.
“So here we are.” said Freht. “And blight my eyes, he was right. I got me a secret god on a chain. You got to do what I tell you, so by my reckoning, that makes me the real god, yeah? Maybe I don’t take prayer, but now that I’m in your head, I can do the smitin’ bit, yeah?”
“I,” Ru said, somewhat surprised that he could speak again. “… I have no idea how this was done to me. But I promise you; I swear on my scars, that I will kill you.”
Freht laughed in his face and stood up, turning to walk away. “Go on and try it, old man. But you’ll pay every time.” He looked over his shoulder with cruelty written all over his face. “In fact, ’cause you still don’t seem to know who’s boss, maybe it’s best I shows you. My mam, she had this big bastard of a black wolfhound she kept with her all the time; called him her walking razor.
“Well, shapeshifting master, how’s about we pay some tribute to my mam…”
The Order came in the form of an image. Ru wanted to wretch as the link asserted itself and took hold of his magic, his skill and his body all in one.
Being changed against his will was a terrible feeling. Being connected to and beholden to someone like Freht was humiliating. The memory of how he got there was a pain worse than the link could inflict.
But what destroyed him, what made him despair the most in that hot, awful moment between man and animal, tumbling off the cusp of freedom into slavery, was the adamantine certainty that this was only the beginning.