A Long, Dark Road (Part 6)

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2 of A Long, Dark Road The last exposition-vomit chapter.

Friends? Friends are for fools too weak to stand on their own. I have no friends, only servants and slaves.

-Morgana La Fey

The two travellers stood underneath the midnight shade of the graveyard, the church of long forgotten gods standing guard over the domain of the dead. The streets bustled with the townspeople, the sounds of grieving wives and mothers echoing over the cobbled streets, softened by the trees and bricks of the dark chapel.

The dragon paced the headstones, peering into the darkness surrounded them, searching for signs of danger or their contact. Kath too, walked amidst the graves, her trembling fingers rolling over the names of the fallen.

"Are you sure he said to meet here?" Varg asked, turning on his heels to face the jackal, impatient after nearly an hour of waiting.

Kath ignored the question, "Do you think they'll bury Anya and the other's here?"

"What?" Varg asked, confused.

She looked up at the dragon, "Do you think they'll bury the dead here?"

"I don't know, why?" The dragon said.

"I think we should help them," The jackal said, voice straining, "It's our fault after all."

The dragon opened his mouth to respond, then froze, looking down at the headstones at his feet, their names worn away by decades of rain and mountain mist.

"You didn't tell me Morgana was chasing you," The jackal said, a razor's edge of accusation present in her tone.

"I was hoping she wouldn't realize I was alive until I got to Tal'Krovak."

"So what the hell is so important about that gem that she'd send a horde that size after it?" Kath demanded.

"That was just the remainder of the horde she sent before," Varg said, lowering his eyes.

Kath thought on that for a few moments before she remembered the field where she had met the dragon, the bodies of thousands of dragons left for the vultures.

"She sent a horde to destroy the largest army in the world," Kath began, stunned, "for that?"

The dragon nodded, and the weight of that statement forced Kath to sit, leaning against the headstones for support as she tried to process that information.

"What is it?" She said after a few moments, almost afraid of the answer.

"Yes, I would like to know that myself."

The two travellers looked upwards to the heavily slopping roof of the church, where the crow crouched on the edge of the roughly shingled roof. Golden eyes piercing through the darkness like two dim embers.

He dropped from the roof, his wings spreading like a withering shadow behind him to slow his fall, the soil and grass making almost no noise under his clawed feet.

He walked directly up to the dragon, seemingly indifferent to Varg's looming stature, and extended a taloned hand.

"Let me see it," The crow demanded, receiving only a stern growl from the dragon in reply.

Without hesitation, the crow slammed his palm into the dragon's jaw, both the speed and ferocity of the attack taking the dragon off guard, giving the smaller mage time enough to tear the gem away from him and disappear into the depths of the trees above.

Varg peered upwards into the leafy camouflage the avian mage had ascended into, unable to spot the crow through the canopy and darkness.

"Ah," Came a voice from behind them, making the dragon and jackal spin to face its source, where the crow had somehow managed to get behind them again, "I see."

The mage tossed the pendant back to the dragon, who caught it and stashed it in the pouch at his belt, all the while glaring at the crow.

"You know what it is?" Varg asked, snarling enough to show a line of fangs.

"Of course," the crow said, leading them on a meandering path through the headstones, his clawed fingers dragging along the tops of the headstones in a manner that spoke of habit acquired over many years.

"What is it?" Kath asked, feeling lost amongst these practitioners of magic.

"It's a housing stone," Aric said, pushing open the back door of the chapel, allowing them to enter the darkened domain of the dead gods.

"And that is?" Kath asked, annoyed at the vague description.

"Irrelevant," the crow said, igniting the myriad of candles across the room with a flick of the hand, revealing a library easily larger than any Kath had seen before. The pews of the former church had been stacked to form makeshift bookshelves; row after row of hardback and manuscript covering their rows. Scattered tracings and notes littered the walls and furniture in equal measure, all of it a mystery to the Jackal.

Only a lone bed squeezed between a pair of bookcases and the odd ebony feather showed signs of habitation, though the musty smell of old paper made the place seem very comforting, if dauntingly cramped.

The crow swept a feathered arm across a tall mound of books, revealing the darkly stained wood of the alter, converted into a sort of desk by the mysterious mage. He sat behind it, motioning to a pair of rickety armchairs coated in dust.

The two travellers sat, clouds of dust rising as they did so.

"Sorry," The crow said, swiping a hand through the air, a light breeze wiping the floating particles from their airspace, "I don't get many visitors aside from Annie."

"Who's Annie?" Kath asked, eyes lost amidst the thousands of books lining the room.

"Anabelle Malcus," The crow responded, glancing at the dragon as he froze in place.

"Damien's sister?" The dragon asked, eyes narrowing suspiciously.

The crow nodded, "I first moved here to keep an eye on her," he said, "Now I just keep her company."

"So you aren't an apostate?" Varg asked, watching as a fire spontaneously erupted under the kettle in the corner.

"Technically, I am. I left during the purges," Aric said, summoning a trio of cups through the air towards him with a curt gesture.

"Why?" Varg asked, muscles clenching slightly as he positioned himself to draw his sword easier.

"I was a student at the academy when Malcus, Skjoll and La Fey were there. After the battle at Easton Bridge, the Archmages started hunting down anyone suspected of being influenced by them," the crow said, summoning the boiling kettle in a similar manner to the cups, pouring a dark, swirling tea for them and himself.

"And you were suspected?" Varg asked, still tense, on the verge of combat.

"I had been friends with Damien, and spoken to Fenris and Morgana a few times, so I was among the first targeted."

"Friends? With Damien Malcus?" Kath asked, disbelief staining her voice, "I didn't think necromancers had friends."

"I had been in the same class with him for almost ten years," Aric said, "It was only natural we'd get to know each other."

"But you didn't join him at the Deadmount?" Varg inquired, relaxing slightly.

The crow sighed, sipping from the cup before him, "Believe it or not, not everyone that ever talked with Malcus and the others was a necromancer. Not even the ones killed by the Archmages."

"So what happened?" Kath asked, curiosity lighting her eyes.

The crow leaned back in his chair, brushing ash from his collar as his eyes peered through them into the past.

"In hindsight there were more signs than the Archmages are willing to admit. Malcus and Skjoll were both known to talk to themselves when they thought they were alone, though Fenris told people he had been given a ring with an ancestral spirit inside, so it wasn't seen as odd."

"Wouldn't that be necromancy, though?" Kath asked, looking between the two mages, "Communicating with a spirit?"

"Fenris was a crow," Varg said, "They have always worshiped the dead and their ancestors. Even after the dragon wars forced them to stop necromancy, the treaties allowed them to keep the artefacts already created."

Aric nodded, "Malcus was enough of a smooth talker that he managed to get away with it. Besides, there are many odder traits for a mage to have than talking to themselves."

Aric rose and began pacing along the rows of books, sliding a tome from a shelf and absent-mindedly leafing through it.

"Morgana, on the other hand," Aric growled, hatred clear in his tone, "Was nothing but a shrivelling little mutt that found out Malcus' secret and demanded to join him, threatening to expose him unless he taught her everything he knew."

"I thought Morgana was incredibly powerful," Kath said, "I mean, just look at what she did tonight."

"Powerful, yes" Aric said, hesitantly agreeing, "But unskilled. She was the daughter of a wealthy Archmage, getting by on intimidation and bribery; Malcus, on the other hand, was born the illegitimate son of a dog-lord and a fennec whore, thrown into the academy to hide him from the public eye. Everything he did was the result of immense training and study; Morgana just stole it."

"What about Skjoll?" Kath asked, noticing an odd look crossing his face as she mentioned the dead crow.

"He was always a bit... odd," Aric said, "Always did well in class and never talked. He was always writing something, but never told anyone where he was from or what he was doing."

"How'd he get involved with Malcus and La Fey then?" Varg asked, finally succumbing to his own curiosity.

"The way I head it," Aric said, "Was that he simply walked into the catacombs where Morgana and Damien were practicing, told them he wanted to join; then left."

"How'd he know they were doing it?" Kath asked.

"Apparently he had been talking to the ghosts of the crypt for quite a while, and they told him what the other two were doing."

"So it's true?" Varg asked, "Skjoll really was the more powerful?"

Aric hesitated, then nodded, "I only saw the battle on the bridge from the shore, but it was clear enough that Malcus and Morgana palled in comparison to Fenris."

"How so?" Kath asked, both herself and Varg leaning forward in anticipation for the answer.

"Well," the crow said, "The battle started when an Archmage confronted Morgana about a paper found in her room detailing the process of raising a body from the grave. Morgana responded by tearing him apart, using the energy from his soul to set an entire block on fire."

"I thought that Malcus started it," Varg said, eyes narrowed sceptically.

Aric shook his head, "Morgana's father tried to make her look like a pawn of Malcus; had the story changed to save himself the embarrassment."

"So what happened next?" Kath asked.

"The Archmages weren't prepared, but there were enough of them in the area to start attacking the necromancers," Aric shuddered in recollection of the battle, "Big mistake. Malcus summoned a Wraith, and with it nearly a thousand ghosts and spirits. They tore through the city for weeks afterwards, and killed nearly every Archmage on that side of the river."

"What's a wraith?" Kath asked.

"It's a kind of spirit created when a large number of people are killed simultaneously," the dragon answered, "The one Malcus used was formed by a genocide in the region several hundred years before. Very dangerous, very powerful."

"After about a week of fighting," Aric continued, "the armies of three separate nations arrived and lay siege to the side of the river where the necromancers had set up, focusing on the Easton Bridge."

"So it was Skjoll that did it..." Varg whispered under his breath.

The crow looked at him, nostalgic sorrow heavy on his features, "Yes."

"What?" Kath demanded, annoyed with the obliquity shared by the two mages.

"When the armies started marching across the bridge," Malcus and La Fey created a barrier behind them, cutting off any chance of retreat. Then, Skjoll opened a doorway."

Kath looked between the two of them, the dark expressions on their faces signalling that such a sentence held far more gravity than she had received from it.

"What?" She asked, feeling ignorant for asking so many questions.

"See," the crow began, "There are three basic styles of necromancy: Ectomancy, Bone-moulding, and Demon-Raising. Ectomancy, while being the easiest to initially learn, is incredibly difficult to master, but immeasurably powerful once you do. That was Damien's specialty."

Varg continued the crow's topic, "Bone-moulding is more difficult, but it can be mastered simply if given enough time. It's the act of raising the bodies of the dead to serve the necromancer; obviously Morgana's favourite."

Aric finished, voice tense, "Demon-Raising is so difficult and complex that until that day, most people though it was a myth: an imaginary power made up by overzealous madmen. What Skjoll did was to open a doorway to another reality."

"Like the Shoggoths?" Kath asked, remembering her and Varg's conversation on the road days before.

Aric shrugged, "Perhaps," He said, his voice tainted mildly with scepticism, "the distinction is small, and perhaps non-existent. Demons and Shoggoths both come from beyond the veil, though only Fenris knew exactly how to do it. When Fenris opened the doorway, every last man of all three armies was killed within minutes."

"Shit," Kath said, stunned by this explanation of immense power.

"After that," Aric said, "There was no one left alive to stop them from leaving, so they fled and set up the Order of the Dead in the ruin of the Shoggoth capital.

"And then you left the academy," Varg said.

"Correct," Aric responded, "The Archmages began rounding up everyone that had ever spoken to Malcus and the others, and most who went in for interrogation were killed or imprisoned, regardless of actual guilt."

"Why would they do that?" Kath asked.

"Malcus, Skjoll and Morgana hardly left alone, they took nearly a hundred mages with them when they left; acolytes corrupted from every level of the academy, including several Archmages."

Aric continued, "So when it came my turn to answer their questions, I fled. I remembered that Damien had lived in a little town in the mountains, so I went village to village until I found Annie."

"Why go to her?" Varg said, "I was under the impression she hadn't spoken to Damien for quite some time."

"She doesn't even remember him," Aric answered, "Damien left when she was three."

"So, again," Varg asked, "Why go to her?"

The crow looked down at the floor, a strange mixture of shame and sadness staining his feathered visage.

"I felt I owed it to Damien to make sure she was safe," he said after a moment's hesitation, "No matter what he became, he was my friend, and I didn't want trouble to find Annie just because of what her brother had done."

The barest glints of crimson morning sunlight drifted into the church through the stained windows, giving harsh warm light to the crow's sanctum. The three of them stared at the cresting sun through the windows for a moment, strange silence holding them as they watched the dawn.

"What happens now?" Kath asked after several minutes of comfortable silence.

"We keep going," Varg answered, rising from his chair.

"Aren't we going to help them rebuild?" Kath asked, rising to face the dragon.

"The most helpful thing we can do is leave, and draw Morgana's attention away from here," the dragon answered, silencing the jackal's complaints.

The two of them left the church, the crow watching from the doorframe as they marched through the field of graves into the town centre, disappearing back into the darkness of his home as the sun of dawn broke over the mountain town.

People still wandered the streets, still mourned the dead, and still cast angry looks at them. Kath spotted Brandon as he hauled the body of a fallen guardsman from the field into the town, the Labrador refusing to meet her gaze from across the blood-stained streets.

They turned their backs on the plumes of smoke that rose from the battlefield, their steps unbearably loud on the cobbled streets as they turned from the town, and disappeared into the mountains beyond, leaving the small mountain town to their fate.