Previously: The Deathbroker I (Prologue)
The Deathbroker stood at the edge of the woods and looked into the distance toward the screams. Torches in the dark glimmered as if whispering to each other about what transpired in the realm of men. Carrion beasts flew out into the night wherever he approached, avian shadows draped over the moon.
His black bird remained perched upon his shoulder where she had spent so much time since they’d befriended each other in that backwater village. Their way was guided by their kinship with the dark and the argent glow of night.
“I’m afraid our little excursion may be approaching its end, Morrigan.”
The bird tilted her head, confused.
“It’s getting more dangerous and less lucrative each day we travel west. I fear that this entire scheme will not suffice much longer.” He jostled his pouch of crystals, nearly all of which had been imbued with Light over the course of the last few months. With so much human quintessence, it was a purse that would drive certain demons to desperation. His returns were incalculable.
But now the tide threatened to turn on this little bull run of his. In the countryside there had been nothing aside from desolation — sweet, bountiful ruin. But the Imperial settlements grew more dense in the lands closer to Brython. There the populace relied on those fields made fallow by death, and famine rode with impunity without those critical harvests. Folks would hide in their homes in the cities proper and pray for a savior, but in these parts brother fought against brother and there was no kindness to spare. Such circumstances rarely left much for scavengers, at least in the necromancer’s experience. Yet the sheer mortality of it all could not be denied. Tempted by greed, he wondered whether he was like a moth drawn to a flame.
Wind trickled through the forest and distorted his visage as he stood there pondering in silence. They lingered that way until Morrigan squawked a question.
“No, we won’t veer from this path just yet. I’ve still a few crystals to imbue. But we will exercise more caution than ever before. Humans are not to be underestimated in their hour of desperation.”
The necromancer and his bird went on toward whatever minor city this was that had besieged itself. Its name was not worth knowing. Its very existence would be forgotten in a cosmic blink, erased by entropy and Ialdabaoth’s tiresome fury.
The Deathbroker lifted his shroud and took in the psychosphere of the place.
Neighbor fought against neighbor. The innocent either died or became killers of men, too. Sickness and arson took indiscriminately. Chaos brewed and festered there, intense enough that it overwhelmed the Deathbroker’s metaphysical senses. Remnants of Light spilled from recent skirmishes gave the forest a luminescence that only the necromancer saw, patterns weaving themselves across every ash and alder and warping his perception of space. Halfway through a gliding step he caught his foot and stumbled, waylaid by a snarled root which the patterns had obscured.
Morrigan squawked and clung to his robes and flapped her wings as if she could bear even a fraction of his weight. He caught himself and broke a stick in so doing. The snap echoed even over the distant din of bloodshed.
“Goodness, I could have broken your neck. I am sorry, my feathered friend.”
She gave a soft caw.
“I know you are hungry. Let us rest for but a brief moment, and we’ll be about the task of finding you food.”
The Deathbroker knelt and raised his shroud just enough to uncover his mouth. He pulled from an interior pocket of his robes a satchel of herbs with subpockets within, and from one of those he pulled a dried, fuzzy leaf, With a gloved hand, he crushed it and took it into his deathly maw.
Morrigan squawked, wings flapping with amiable rage.
The Deathbroker lowered his shroud. “It’s not food.”
She squawked again, even more infuriate.
“It’s a divinotropic inhibitor. Certain resonances come from battles, especially ones with much at stake. I know not what town this is, but the people fighting here are not enemies. Not in their hearts. The medicine will dull my senses so I can move unimpeded. Just a few moments for it to set in and we’ll find you some flesh to eat. I promise.”
The necromancer’s heart raced, a side effect of the narcotic which men more tied to the world of flesh might view as its primary or even sole use. It had done its job. The resonant echoes of death Light were now hushed by the sounds of the mundane.
Darkness still lent opacity to the night but he’d long since become comfortable in it. He moved through the forest like a wraith and before long Morrigan took flight, keeping perfect pace with him. They went on toward all the death together in that way.
Seeing a figure ahead, the Deathbroker slowed and drifted silently to a clearing’s edge. A man in a peasant’s bloodied clothes sat in the middle. He was slumped over with his face buried in his hands. Morrigan flew straight into the clearing and landed on a branch above the man. Why shouldn’t she? To the eyes of the uninitiated, she was but another scavenger bird skulking at the periphery of violence. How could he know of the Light the necromancer had breathed into her?
Morrigan eyed the man with avarice, but the Deathbroker waved her down. She obeyed with apparent reluctance.
Alerted by the motion, the man in the clearing sat up. “Who’s there?”
The necromancer froze. “A passerby,” he called out after a moment’s consideration. “I intend no harm.”
“Can you help me?” asked the man, his voice suddenly lowered.
Above him, Morrigan began to squawk again and again.
“It would depend on the nature of what ails you,” answered the Deathbroker, waving the bird down again.
The man stood up. His answer came in a half-shout so that he could be heard over the screeching bird. “I need — my family’s starving. Do you have any coin to spare?” He sounded more desperate than irritated, and before the necromancer could consider his nascent suspicion, Morrigan dove onto the man’s face and got at his throat before he knew there was a bird at all. He howled incoherence and thrashed and waved his hands about. Before long, he struggled to thrash, and then to keep them up, and then to stand. As soon as he went limp, Morrigan took flight again, squawking at the necromancer as she darted from tree to tree.
“What’s got you so worked up?” whispered the Deathbroker. “You’ve never killed an innocent in cold blood, and you didn’t even eat your fill from it. I thought you preferred live flesh…”
He drifted closer and looked at the dead man.
His boots bore the faint imprint of the Imperial Legion’s emblem. Shield and torches, symbols of law and order. Their erasure held great significance in this world.
A twig snapped just outside the clearing. And then another.
The necromancer took low to the brush as Morrigan darted through open air and betwixt gnarled branches, now silent as the shrouded one himself. When she landed near one of the encroaching men, she would bounce on a branch to shake it and signal the position.
By the sound of it, they were surrounded. Looking with more diligence, it was clear that the dead man had all the markings of a Legion deserter, even a faded tattoo on the nape of his neck. That meant that for all his wisdom, the necromancer had fallen into a classic bandit’s ploy. Perhaps the medicine had dulled his senses to excess, or perhaps all the Light he’d absorbed was beginning to morph him a little at a time.
“Here!” one of them shouted. As soon as the quiet was broken, hacking coughs came from just the clearing’s perimeter. Surely the result of such foul noises would be a bloodspeckled bit of mess, the early signs of the Red Death that plagued Brython so.
Men stepped out into clearing, encircling him like wolves. The weapons they brandished glimmered in the moonlight. They numbered six in all and all wore Legion kit, brigandine and rusty chain. They held in their hands Legion spears tipped with what may well have been the last of the Heartland’s steel. These had once been career soldiers until they’d been made slaves under miasma’s yoke. Any insignia which they might have once worn had long since been scratched or stripped away. Gaunt as their faces may have been, they lacked the lethargy brought by starvation. Yet it was clear even in the dark that desperation was writ large across each treacherous face. That sentiment was hidden in the overemphasized grunt that broke the silence. “Whatever you have, hand it over.”
“I haven’t anything of value to your lot,” answered the Deathbroker as he sank into a kneel.
“What’s in that pouch?” grunted another deserter, pointing. “It worth dying for?”
“Goods far too esoteric for you. Save your valuable time and rob someone else.”
Five of the men glanced at the sixth, their evident ringleader, a tall man with weak quintessence. “Looks like a heretic to me,” he grunted.
“Sounds like one too,” answered another man-thing.
“By the LORD, I think you’re right.” A gruesome, chipped-tooth smile.
“We’ll bring him to the Inquisitor. Might even end up with more coin that way. Hefty bounties, that one.”
What was an Inquisitor doing issuing bounties? That was a legate’s task, and not even adjacent to the Temple’s authority. That fact viewed in light of the deserters that had confronted him made the Deathbroker taste fear for the first time in a long while.
Ialdabaoth’s pawns had broken the line.
The necromancer reached into his robes again. This time he pulled from an interior belt his old tanto, the one his brother had given back before, and held it in one hand. With his other hand, he pulled a crystal from his pouch at random and shoved it beneath his shroud and into his mouth.
The deserters pressed forward across brambles, converging on him. He grunted and tensed through the pain. Minuscule shards cut his tongue and burned his mouth as he ground it to dust with ancient titanium teeth. Blood’s coppery tinge washed over his palate. Human quintessence, someone’s spark of the divine, coursed through his head, numbing and electric. His blade came free with a gentle scrape. Chaos flared within him, stoked by the power he had ingested.
The necromancer relaxed his core and let loose whispers from the Void. The foes before him were hard men who’d seen horrors aplenty, and so it did not break them entirely, but their eyes grew wide and their advance more reticent. Their spears quivered before him.
The bravest among them charged, weapon leveled, chain rattling as if he were a loose warhound. The spear came forth, glistening in the full moon’s light, whistling as the tanto turned it aside. In the ensuing moment of confusion, the Deathbroker stepped in with all his speed and more, a shadow-bolstered imiri straight into a fatal embrace. His own body destabilized his foe’s stance, allowing him to seize both the wrist and the opportunity. Old habits came forth, drilled into memory back when a dead world had lived, back when…
He let loose a flurry of violence, opening veins and arteries in quick succession, slashing first, then stabbing, all with culinary dexterity and eons-old training. He struck each vessel that the armor failed to cover. Within the mere space of a breath, the bandit was staggering back and clutching at his neck, spilling Light and life onto the loamy earth and fallen bristles where he collapsed. One of his brethren braved a futile attempt to save his life, dragging him through the dirt to safety that was never to be found. The rest of the assailants approached. Barbarous. Terrified. Jabbing their spears with neither pause nor precision. Nonetheless they advanced, and the small ring of empty space receded with each step and would, like all things, soon be gone entirely.
A black blur from the treetops ambushed the would-be savior — not that mortal medicine could have saved him in any case. Abandoned by his brothers-in-arms, the man-thing flailed and screamed as Morrigan beat her wings at his face and took her talons to him. She savaged him with all the unkindness ravens had to offer, ripping and tearing without even a shadow of mercy.
At the clearing’s center, the Deathbroker seethed and shuddered. The effect of the crystal had begun in earnest now. Chaos coursed through his veins. Forbidden energy overflowed its vessel. He whispered an incantation and raised his free hand toward two of the approaching man-things.
He let Chaos fly.
A sound like a demon’s cough rang out as he let loose a bolt of pure entropy. The everblack streak struck a mail-covered shoulder. The man screamed and fell and his terrified comrades gave pause to their moonlit charge as they stared at the wound with abject and utter horror. The stench of carbonized proteins filled the clearing, overwhelming distant rot and nearby blood.
The victim rose on buckling knees and stood with a wispy sway. His arm dangled like fruit ready to fall from a tree. Everywhere he’d been struck, matter reverted to the base reagents whence it came. The chainmail had been eradicated almost all the way to his opposite shoulder, leaving as its only trace a coating of blackened metal dust over a maddened and contorted face. At his chest where there had once been flesh beneath his kit, there was now only a translucent primordial gelatine which stretched and warped and warbled until what remained of his arm dropped to the ground, the disembodied hand grabbing at air and then earth. He made a childlike scream as he fell and at that very instant Morrigan landed on the Deathbroker’s shoulder and perched, her beak glistening with human blood.
To see the man returned to the base reagents whence he came, to see him rendered to such alien compounds… such a burden could not be shouldered by fraying mortal minds. The bandits who survived became deserters twice over, turning and fleeing and leaving their dying friends for dead, knocking aside or trampling whatever nature put in their path.
The shrouded one let them go. Their paltry quintessence was worth far less to him than where they would lead him. An Inquisitor’s silver mask made even the Deathbroker’s staunch heart wary. If there’d been a Temple coup or a collapse of the Imperial Legion, every assumption he’d based his risk management on would be thus disproven. And if the Tyrant was interfering directly instead of merely by means of the Archons…
The bird made a sound between a cry and a growl as if to urge pursuit despite there being three — almost three — fresh bodies’ worth of carrion.
The Deathbroker smiled beneath his shroud. “Go ahead and eat, Morrigan. We can follow them to the Inquisitor when you’re finished. I doubt they’ll think to cover their tracks. I expect that we’ll find that Inquisitor. Then we can see what this is all really about… When you’ve had your fill, let’s see what knowledge lies behind that silver mask, shall we?”
And so the bird ate while the necromancer went about his work. The channeling dance, the breaths of Light, preparation for the task ahead.
THE DEATHBROKER III
BEHIND THE SILVER MASK LIE ECHOES OF THE LORD AND HIS THUNDER