I took a step back, my hand still clasped on my shoulder, where I could still feel the sting of the Light in my flesh, trying to get a bead on my assailant’s position. It wasn’t often that I was on the back foot in the darkness.
I let magic flood my senses, the deep twilight of the night becoming less saturated by color, the edges between things becoming fuzzier and bleeding together. The aura of fauna and flora began to glisten and glimmer, and even in the stormy, midnight darkness in the midst of heavy rain, everything living and dead became more clear.
And I saw those twin knives, blazing bright with divinity, drawn and ready, but I still didn’t fucking see them.
In the darkness I only saw a shimmer, the smallest rippling of movement, like the surface of a disturbed puddle. It was in the vaguest shape of a humanoid form, cloaked by this haze of nothing. It was powerful illusion magic, enough to resist my own senses.
And then the shaped moved, seemingly keenly aware of my eyes on it. It strafed, and threw one of its knives at me, again as it displaced.
I had enough warning to channel my magic into my hand and bring it down from my shoulder. I drew my claws up, physically raking my spell-work across the air, a howling blast of rime following it, sending the dagger flying off above me.
Magic, to some, is as easy as breathing. Some are born with an innate talent, this inner wellspring of power, this ability to create something out of nothing with a whim. People who could play fast and loose with magic, tossing fireballs and frostbolts like they were candy on during Hallow’s End.
I was not one of those people. Every scrap of power, every mote of mana in my being, I have struggled to attain, through dedication and discipline, by running myself through the gauntlet. Because of it, I know I’m made of sterner magic than many. I can shit out better arcana than many strive for their entire lives because of it, because I put in the sweat, tears, and blood. And some of that blood was even mine.
That being said, I excelled with preparation. I was, first and foremost, a ritualist and thaumaturge. I was the furthest from a slouch, but fast-and-loose was not the sort of magic I wanted to be doing. And I did have my knacks. Certain magics came easier to me in the moment than others. Cryomancy, was one of them.
I gathered my will again and this time, I ran it through the conduit of my staff. Where those purple runes had bled with necromantic energy, now they grew cold and blue as I swung my staff in an arc in front of where that ripple had strafed.
Black, crackling ice spread across the ground in an aggressive, creeping wave, and the figure’s foot found it, and slipped, sliding on what had to have been at least a sprained ankle until it crashed into one of the nearby stone pillars.
My would-be assassin recovered quickly enough, and I heard a grunt of pain. And I knew what pain sounded like, across the gamut. Human. A deep sound. I took a guess that it was a human man.
I took the time that I had to slam the ground with the bottom of my staff, sending out a reverberation of power that caused the pouches I’d thrown at the unfortunate vrykul, and the unfortunate warriors themselves, to rise from the ground with a collective groaning, each of them a ghoul under my command. Their eyes glowed in the darkness, and their jaws were slack and dripping with spittle, small spasms and twitches in the newly risen, freshly dead muscle. They hissed in pain as they ripped the divine blades that had felled them from their bodies, and began to shamble vaguely around me to protect me, to cover my flanks.
I scanned the darkness, looking for that ripple of invisible movement, but couldn’t find it. Whatever magic he was working with was impressive, to be so resilient to such scrutiny, even engaged in such active, aggressive movement. Whoever he was, he knew what he was doing, or he knew someone who knew what they were doing.
A rustle of leaves, the crack of a branch, the squelch of the mud.
The ghouls were an extension of me, now, and I only had to think to send two of them off to investigate the sound. I approached slowly, along with the other six or so remaining in my little posse.
I saw the ghouls, hulking vrykul, approach the small patch of brush, and only saw two more blades flash across the darkness and impale themselves into the base of their skulls at their backs. A distraction. The ghouls roared in pain, their mouths unhinging and their sockets burning with blazing light as the energy overtook their hastily animated form, and they fell in a slough of meat and bone. He drew two more throwing knives, and drew them, rushing from the opposite direction I had sent them in, throwing them at me.
Two more of the undead vrykul each attempted to throw themselves in the way of the oncoming blades, and one of them succeeded, and took the blade to its gut. I could see veins of brilliant, white divinity surging out from the room, unraveling the magic I used to animate it. The other blade, landed squarely where it had been aimed, almost precisely where the first one had landed, and knocked me down to my back.
I writhed in agony, and not even the fun sort of writhing or agony. It took an intense discipline to fight through the sort of pain that the Light inflicted on the undead, and my magical senses flickered in and out as I struggled to maintain them, the world suddenly strobing with colors, fuzz creeping at the edges of my vision. I hissed and stamped my boots into the mud as my back arched, and I wheezed with barely restrained fury as I scrambled to my knee with the aid of my staff.
I struggled to find clarity with my senses, and soon enough I found it, letting my magic flood back into my vision, and I saw the ripple, again, heading towards me.
From beneath that ripple of illusion, I saw him draw twin blades. Jagged, iron things, lacking the elegance of the worked steel of his divine throwing daggers. Those blades, however, felt familiar. They pulsated with the sort of dark power that I breathed, their aura creeping and hideous with necromantic power. With a keen, professional’s eye, I saw what enchantments were woven into those brutal weapons, and I knew they were meant to disrupt undeath with a touch. Where the Light was dousing a flame in water, these were like lighting a wildfire in the opposite direction, literally fighting fire with fire. Those were forged by a necromancer worth his salt, who knew the craft well enough to have a dominion over it.
He advanced towards me, and my remaining ghouls advanced towards him. They charged, slathering and mindless, their eyes blazing with necromantic power that matched what blazed in mine while I backed away.
This wasn’t going to be a fight I would win. He was well-armed, and well-prepared, and it wasn’t often I was out-prepared in a fight. I called to my gargoyle.
I felt them go, ghoul by ghoul, as I watched the man, in arcs of enchanted steel, liberating the head of one, then the arm of another. The necromancy that surged in those blades sent a feedback of magic through them and into my head that caused me to wince and stumble, leaving the taste of rot on my tongue.
The ghouls barely stopped his stride, and he still came at me, leaping onto me while I had lost my footing, and we fell in a violent tangle in the mud, rain pelting us from above.
I have never been the most physical specimen. Even in life, I was what you’d call… scrappy. I could take a beating and I learned to be brutal, thanks to my father’s special sort of parenting. Undeath had offered me some enhanced physicality, too. I could push my muscles past the natural breaking point, they could tighten to the point of snapping, past the point of fatigue, but, I was still no warrior. I was never a fighting man, but I knew how to struggle. I have always been very good at ending a fight.
My claws found purchase where they could, and I threw my weight around, trying to wrench him off of me. I bit, I spit, and I raked, and he, with a resilient professionalism endured it as he held me down, forearm across my throat. He lifted the hilt of one of those blades and brought it down square in the center of my face, and I felt pain and magic erupt from my nose and spread out around my skull, like a wave of electricity and heat.
On a lesser creature, that necromantic energy might have sapped whatever energy was animating it, but I wasn’t some skulking creature given unlife by a spell. I was a fucking font. I was a fucking sorcerer. I was me.
I wasn’t about to be taken out by some fucking bank-rolled brigand, this piecemeal bounty hunter.
He clearly wanted me alive. If he had wanted me dead, he could have carved through my neck like I was a Pilgrim’s Bounty turkey. He could have thrown one of those knives into my forehead instead of my shoulder, twice, and I would’ve switched off like a fucking lamp.
If he wanted me, he was going to have to earn it.
I steeled myself, and I stared into his eyes, and I wrenched again, freeing my arms quick enough to sink my claws into either of his cheeks, forcing back the hood of the cloak he was wearing with a violent shake of his head.
He wore a wrap around his mouth, but I saw enough of him to see he was a hard man. He had a face like granite, with eyes sunken by a life with little rest and too much action. And even suddenly seized by me, they only narrowed, rather than going wide with surprise.
I drew in a harsh breath, and I felt my throat bulge with magic. My jaw unhinged, and I opened my maw wide, breathing out arcane plague and decay, blowing cancer and disease into his face, enough to make a dozen men die with their insides on their blistered outsides, liquified.
The cloth wrap around his mouth shimmered in the darkness of the stormy night, and my conjured plague flowed around him, harmlessly into the night where it dissipated. Because, of course it fucking did. Because, of course, he was prepared for it, some-fucking-how.
He brought his elbow down across my face before pressing it back down across my throat to steady me, and I felt warm ichor spray across my face, I had to squint, against the storm and the pain. He hammered the hilt of that magical blade down square on my nose, again, and I felt that wave of electric heat pass through me as it disrupted the magic that animated me.
I was losing. It made me very, very upset.
I writhed and bucked, trying to force him off of me, managing to slip a hand past his arm to grip his face, channeling decay and entropy into my palm, causing his skin to sizzle and blister with disease and death.
His hand latched onto mine, and I felt the bones in my fingers crack, pulled out from their sockets as he wrenched my hand away with a roar of pain. I grit my teeth took that moment to channel my will, again, happily trading a few broken fingers for the ability to cast my magic, again.
Around us in a circle, flickering into view, my wraiths floated above the ground in their seething, silent rage. Their eyes were glossy and black, and their jaws dripped with black ichor, their teeth stained by it. They were ghostly and pallid, necrotic veins writhing and moving underneath their vaguely translucent skin.
The vengeful, restless dead were a powerful resource for a necromancer, doubly so when you had a knack for ectomancy, like me. Revenants obsessed with a final reckoning, an all-encompassing revenge, bound to a tortmented existence until their debts had been settled, or until they were exoricsed. All of that torturous, maddening rage was pure power if you knew how to harvest it. If you could bind them to your will, to use their pain and their suffering and their madness as a sorcerous battery, to be a chorus to your incantations.
And that was what I had done. I had shaped and harvested each of them. Some of them former students of mine, some people I had tortured and tormented, all of them with some spark of magic, all of them possessing that potential for doing whatever it took to get revenge, a sort of spiritual persistence and disquiet. Including Daddy Dearest.
My father, more monster than he ever was a man, even in life, stood amongst them. Blood red rage visibly bled through the translucence of his form, permeating the air around him in a haze of infectious anger. His eyes were pin-points of fury focused entirely on me. He was my prized possession. My most potent phantom.
And soon that red rage became a ghostly, ethereal purple, as I imposed my will on all of them, and just as they’d been staring at me with that murderous seething, their attentions shifted to the man on top of me.
It wasn’t often that I risked my spirits, brought them into the throes of combat, but I was done with this.
The air shook, it visibly rippled with their psychic agony.
Some of them wailed, some of them shrieked, some of them roared and gibbered and slathered with spit, but the cacophony of their assault slammed into the both of us with a metaphysical force. A choir of vindictive, consuming ire weaponized.
I cackled, my eyes wide and blazing with magic, as the full force of their psychic rage caused my robes and flesh to smoke, they caused my nose to bleed down into my manic grin. My staff, stuck deep in the mud was blazing, as a chip of wood flew from a crack that splintered through it. The man was visibly winded by it, and he sputtered with blood, the veins of his temples bulging, straining, his eyes cracked with red as they widened, but he stayed so persistently on top of me. He shook his head and grit his teeth against the deafening chorus.
I dug my claws into the side of his head and held him tightly, I shrieked at him over the wailing of my cadre of spirits, “WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?! WHO DO YOU THINK I AM?! I WILL NOT BE TAKEN BY SOME MAGPIE OF MAGICAL ARTIFACTS!”
It was then that I saw them, twin stones, the size of pebbles. They were each a dark amethyst, engraved with vile green sigils that burned bright with power. Placed in either ear, trickling blood flowing down from them and down his neck. They burned the skin there, blackened it with soot and cauterized flesh, but they pulsated against the discordant assault on his mind.
He grunted, and steeled himself against the screaming, twin streams of blood dripping down onto my face from his nose, into my snarl, as he slowly lifted the hilt of his weapon once again.
I snapped at him, gnashed my teeth at him, “WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU?! I KNOW THE TASTE OF YOUR BLOOD! I WILL PISS ON AND SALT THE EARTH WHERE I BURY YOU AND I WILL SCATTER YOUR SOU--”
And the hilt came down.