To Rudi C. Lord Loehwing, I hope you like this as much as you like my lemon-iced shortbread biscuits.
I started this journey with a specific outcome in mind. That is done. Now that it’s over, I should be satisfied.
But as Claudius watched, his unease grew. His sixth sense tugged at his conscience. The kingsguard had been waiting at the gate of the city for the bounty-hunter and his quarry. A harsh man with a fire-scared face who wore the marks of captain addressed Claudius.
“You have done this land a great service. The King thanks you.”
The heavy sack clinked with payment of the bounty. It weighed as heavy as the twinges of conscience in Claudius’s mind. The prisoner was led away, black hood over his head to obscure his features. Even from this distance Claudius could feel the pulse of trueborn power in the man’s heart of hearts.
“When is the trial?” Claudius called after the king’s man.
“The prisoner has already been sentenced. He has an appointment with the executioner at dawn.”
Claudius started. “But he has only just arrived…”
The glower the king’s man sent his way did not faze Claudius, though he thought it prudent to fall silent.
“A public trial would be unwise. The King has decreed it so. His crimes warrant a swift death, a merciful punishment.”
Claudius watched the bound man being put into the prison-wagon, head bowed. He had not even seen the man’s face or allowed him to regain consciousness, as ordered by the Writ of Bounty. A terrible wizard the man may be, but a public trial was something only a tyrant would deny a man.
Claudius knew better than to ignore his intuition. He mounted his great black charger and followed the wagon as it rumbled through the streets. The Scarlet tree-and-scimitar of the King glared out in a writhing agony of lines. The common folk gave the black wagon a wide berth when they saw the sigil painted on both sides. After a slow journey, the wagon stopped in front of a stone building at the edge of the city. Dark grey walls rose out of a stand of pine and continued in an ugly arc.
Claudius watched the condemned man being taken into the prison by kingsmen. The bounty-hunter was patient. The stars had not yet come out, and dawn was a long way off. One by one, the lamps were lit as the sun went down, and one by one, they spluttered out until only one beside the door beckoned Claudius forward.
Claudius expected only two or three guards. A dozen squeezed into every available space of the prison, sitting on chairs, the table, in the corner, and on the long trunk that could only be a weapons locker. It was padlocked shut. The guards did not speak. They made no sound at all.
Claudius stepped inside, a black shadow creeping in from the night. The first two guards went down silently, sighing as the blade cut the life from their throats. The next followed. When the remaining guards noticed their comrades falling at a startling rate, they stood but they didn’t stand a chance as Claudius danced and spun like death, blade flashing silently.
Afterwards, the guards stared at him with accusation in their blank eyes. The prisoner crouched behind bars, hooded and bound. Not the slightest comfort was afforded him, and he sat on the cold stone floor.
Claudius flipped the set of keys off the belt of the guard closest to the cell with a flick of his blade, so neatly they didn’t even clink. And yet the prisoner lifted his head.
“Who’s there?” he called out. “I need water! Please!”
Claudius found a jug on the desk and plucked it up on his way to the cell door. Not prone to self-doubt, still Claudius hesitated for a moment, key poised at the lock. If he was wrong… He shook the thought away with an annoyed grimace. Where had it come from? If he was wrong, he’d simply hunt the man again. The key turned in the lock with a metallic click.
Pulling off the hood revealed a man aged by the dirty beard and unkempt blond hair. Claudius gave him a drink, holding the jug steady as the man slurped his fill. He leaned back, water running down his beard, blue eyes appraising Claudius warily.
“Thank you,” he said at last. “Who are you?”
It had been night when Claudius had captured his bounty. The first thing had been the hood over the man’s head; neither had seen the other’s face.
“That doesn’t matter,” Claudius said. “What crime have you committed to warrant twelve guards and no public trial?”
The man turned his head away, his lips pulled back in a sneer. “I may not know your face, but I remember your voice. You are the one who turned me in!”
“Guilty,” Claudius said mildly. “But now I am having second thoughts.”
Claudius could have said he had taken an oath to protect the righteous wielders of trueborn power. He could have explained that ancient honor demanded he harm no innocent person. The man would not have understood. “That doesn’t matter either,” Claudius said instead. “Will you answer my question, or should I walk out and leave you here?”
“My name is Duramarud,” the man said. “I did nothing wrong. I swear. Men came to my house, set it alight, killed my wife, and tried to take me. I escaped into the woods where you found me.”
“And what did the men want?”
“How should I know?” Duramarud said. “They didn’t exactly announce themselves politely at the door.”
“But you did something that caught their attention.”
“I did nothing wrong,” Duramarud repeated. “If they were interested in my work, I have no quarrel with that. I would have shared it with anyone who wanted to know. My recent experience had disabused me of that.”
“Your work?” Claudius inquired.
“I’m an alchemist,” Duramarud admitted. “A rather brilliant one, if I say so myself.”
“Alchemy was outlawed years ago,” Claudius said. He didn’t care if men wanted to hover around small flames and drool. Alchemy was a waste of time and fraudulent, but it wasn’t for Claudius to dictate what a man was allowed to do or not. Unless others came to harm by it.
“I didn’t say I did nothing illegal, I said I did nothing wrong,” Duramarud said. “The two are not synonymous. Some people, people who want to keep power for themselves, would find my discoveries dangerous.”
The man’s forthright answer pleased Claudius. “You are referring to the king.”
“No,” Duramarud shook his head. “I thought about it during my time in the forest. I believe it is his First and Right Hand. And the Castle Mage. The king is but a puppet whose strings are pulled by the others.” He held out his hands. “Release me. I will show you proof.”
Claudius found the key to his shackles. Again he hesitated, haunted by the idea that it was wrong, the alchemist was dangerous. The black twisting through his mind threw Claudius and that was disquieting. He was not that old. Duramarud shook his bound hands, making the chains rattle. Claudius blinked at him, bemused. The alchemist sighed.
“Of course,” he said. “You think I am dangerous. That you mustn’t let me go.” He shrugged. “A glamour. That is what they want you to think. Now it is telling you that I am lying. I swear to you I am not.”
Again Claudius took his mind in hand and shook away the feeling. He unlocked the metal bands around the man’s hands and feet. At once the feeling intensified ten-fold. Claudius had only encountered a shadow of this sticky indecision and fear before, and he did not like to be reminded of it.
“A glamour, you say?” he asked, his voice husky. “Can you turn it off?”
“Unfortunately no,” Duramarud said. “I don’t know who made the original incantation or with what spellgredients.” He snapped his fingers. “But I can cast another one that will make you immune to the effects of this one!”
Claudius clapped a hand over the alchemist’s mouth before he could speak. “No. I do not wish to be bespelled for any reason.”
Duramarud nodded, his eyes solemn. Slowly, Claudius removed his hand. Though the man wouldn’t be able to bespell one of Claudius’s ilk in any event, no matter how powerful a wizard he was, Claudius didn’t want to have to explain who he was when the spell failed. More so because the glamour the man wore should not affect him either. It spoke of unimaginable things, impossible things, terrible things returned from the depths of memory. For an instant, Claudius wondered if Destiny had a hand in this meeting. That was not a pleasant thought either.
“What are you going to do?” Claudius asked.
“All my research was destroyed when they burned my house. Everything I know is now just here.” He tapped his temple. “I have to figure out what to do with it. I knew it was important before. Now…well, apparently it’s worth killing for.”
“And yet…why did they not just kill you?”
“They don’t want to destroy the information,” Duramarud said. “They want to use it. The executioner will behead someone, but it would not have been me. I’m to be moved to the castle, where I would no doubt be held prisoner and forced to work for the First, the Right Hand and the Mage.”
Claudius nodded. “You said you were going to show me proof?”
Duramarud nodded. He pulled something out from his tunic. It hung on a string around his neck, a small bottle full of glittering silver light. When the light touched his face, the glamour feeling was banished. Claudius saw a clean-shaven man with brown curls and pale green eyes full of shrewd intelligence and cruel knowledge.
“This is what they came for,” he said. Even his voice changed in the presence of the light. Foreign influences suggested a well-traveled life. “The Elixir.”
Claudius found the man’s conviction hard to doubt, not with the the contents of the vial staring him in the face. Across time and space, a figure rose unbidden to memory. Cavernous eyes and a thin mouth limned by a neat black beard, smiling as he drove a stake deeper into the heart of the Last Nightrider…
“How did they not find it?” Claudius said, dragging himself from the past.
Duramarud grinned. “They are not the only ones who can cast a glamour, my friend.” His grin faded. “I do not know what to do. I could have brought my wife back, you know. If I had gone back, if there was but one flake of skin or a single strand of hair. It would have taken all of it, but I would have done it too, if something had not stopped me.” He searched Claudius’s face for answers. Claudius could give him none. Duramarud sighed. “I feel that I have a greater purpose in this life. I must take it to the Guild. I wrote to them, explaining my successes. They will advise me what to do.”
Claudius’s sixth sense tingled. “Do you trust everyone in your Guild?”
“Of course! With my life. A fellow alchemist would never…you don’t think?” a horrified expression drained the alchemist’s face of what little youth it had left.
“It would seem your list of people you can trust has just been shortened considerably,” Claudius said. “And that limits your options.”
The alchemist toyed with his secret, spinning the vial in circles, sending light dancing over the walls and the bars as he turned that over in his mind. Suddenly he leaped up, tilting his head and listening hard.
“Someone comes,” he whispered.
“Perhaps your escort to the castle,” Claudius said. He had heard nothing, but perhaps he was getting old.
“It cannot be taken,” Duramarud said, clutching the vial in one hand and sending the prison plunging into darkness, the faint glow from his fist outlining their faces and little else. “I must escape.”
“You’ll need my help,” Claudius said. “Come with me.”
Duramarud looked surprised, then grateful. “Thank you, my friend.”
Claudius paused. It had been a lifetime since someone had called him friend. They stepped over the bodies of the guards. Claudius was about to go through the door when something clutched his ankle. The guard had a second mouth gaping in his neck and his eyes were still blank, but it started to pull itself upright, still clutching Claudius.
“What in the hells,” he swore, kicking out.
The thing had a death grip but then the arm was severed. Duramarud held a sword, blooded silver dripping in the lantern-light.
“Those are no natural guards,” he said. “The mage must know more than I thought.”
“Is there any way to destroy them? They will carry word back to the castle,” Claudius warned. They would carry word back of a man in black who came without a sound and helped the alchemist escape…
“We could try burning them.”
The prison was stone and metal, and the alchemist’s face said there was no time to gather flammables. Duramarud tossed the lantern into the jumble of bodies. The uniforms caught, smoking ropes of black. The flames were lethargic, creeping over the victims like drunk men staggering out of a bar. Claudius prayed they would eat them all. It would buy a little time.
Claudius pulled Duramarud away. The charger was still behind the prison, firelight playing over the huge frame. The horse neighed at Claudius, dancing and protesting at the smoke.
Claudius helped Duramarud onto the horse. He did not follow. The alchemist grabbed the reins and looked down. “You are not coming with me.”
The statement had the flavor of a question. Claudius shook his head. “A man with my history will draw eyes wherever I go. I will be a liability. You must trust no one. Accept aid but tell no one what you know until you are sure they can be trusted. Do not stay long in any one place and do not use your given name. Good fortune be with you, Duramarud the True Alchemist.”
“Wait! What is your name?” Duramarud said before he could slip away.
Claudius paused. “In my life, I have been called many things. My friends call me Claudius Ih’Aiil of Marduul.”
He saw recognition flash across the alchemist’s face.
“A Nightrider of Olde!” Duramarud breathed. “The legends said they all perished…”
“Legends can lie,” Claudius smiled without humor.
Duramarud touched his temple in a sign of respect.
Claudius returned the gesture and watched as the alchemist rode away. Moments after he disappeared into the night, a company of kingsguard galloped up. They saw only a struggling fire in the prison and black undead writhing.
A black shadow watched from a rooftop across the street. The alchemist could not know what that meant. Duramarud was not the first wielder of magic Claudius had encountered, but he was the first the Nightrider had been compelled to Name since the time of prelegend. It felt good to exercise his trueborn power. Especially to aid one who would attempt to thwart the one would could create a glamour subtle enough to twist Claudius’s own thoughts.
Perhaps the alchemist would be the one to complete the cycle, bring the ends together, reunite the past with the present to create the future. Claudius did not know.