THE DARK SEER
At the time the Dark Seer pronounced my doom, she had yet to utter a false prophecy.
She allowed my manservant Thantos to live. I think she did it out of a desire to toy with him and see him suffer further. But it was death in store for me. The Seer wouldn't have it any other way.
The Red Guard had subdued me in the Tower of Skavos by setting up a false meeting with the castellan, which turned out to be a brutal lesson in ambush. I learned that day that a heavy mace doesn't have to be swung, it can be a thrusting weapon if the target is your unarmored face. Less than an hour after that and I found myself in the temple, being thrown down before my enemies like a sack of wet grain.
"Amazing, isn't it, how a hero can fall so swiftly," chuckled the Valek of the temple. "Riken hold me, but I say that he looks like a street beggar!" The bright crescent scar of his office danced over his left eye as he scrutinized what was left of me.
"It is Salthor, surely enough," I heard the Seer announce. I couldn't see her from that angle since my eyes weren't working so good, but I knew the tall, pale woman would be wearing the uniform of her station: a long black robe with gold around her cuffs and a red crescent on her chest. Her black hair would be pulled straight back under a silver jeweled skull cap, and her green eyes undoubtedly sparkled as she regarded me.
"This man is linked with the black wretches of Storm's End. As long as he takes breath here there will be no peace. I can see it. The shadows will continue to take our men from the walls at night. The beasts will stay ill and our water will remain foul."
"What are we to do?" The voice of a soldier. Doubtless a guard captain, firmly in the Seer's grip.
"He is outcast. Bind his hands and take him to Storm's End. Brand him with the mark and release him there. Fate will have her way."
Rough hands grasped me. I must have been insensate since I can remember her pronouncement but I don't recall anything after that until I was in the cart.
I remember waking up, rolling with the cart over the rough trail. I struggled to open one of my swollen eyes, and I glimpsed a guardsman sitting against the back of the wagon nearby.
I listened for a while longer, but no one was talking. I partially opened my eye again. I saw a metal rod lying in the back of the cart with me, rolling back and forth slightly against a pack of provisions. I realized it was a brand. The one they were going to use on me, to mark me outcast. An anger arose then, and I clenched my sore teeth together as I looked at the brand. For a moment my pain flickered and then burned away in the fire of my rage.
Without even waiting for a distraction, I grabbed the brand by its handle and swung it wide and hard at the face of the man in the cart with me. It was clear that he didn't even know I had awakened, since he failed to react and just stared as I struck him with it. He fell limply back out of the cart as if dead.
The cart stumbled to a halt and I lost my balance, falling back down. Pain shot through my head and I realized that I was still in trouble. Was there only one driver? I told myself that there was only one left. There had to be. I could take care of one more, if that was the only thing left between me and freedom.
"He's awake alright," one voice said.
"Be careful, he's got that brand," another voice said.
Two guards came around to get me. I wouldn't give up though, and I prepared to meet them, stealing glimpses through swollen eyelids. I heard a sword being drawn and then one of the guards cried out. I managed to see that one of the men had killed the other. I watched uncertainly as this guard cleaned his weapon off on the tabard of the slain man.
"I was waiting for a chance, myself," he told me. "I used to work for the Valek, but let's just say I've had a change of heart. That bastard will pay for the way he treats me."
"Thanks, then, whoever you are."
"I'm Gallenic. I'll leave you the other horse. Go where you may," he said, and walked out of my field of vision. I got pretty dizzy just then, and had to sit back down. I listened to the man release a horse from the cart as I held my head in my hands and tried to recover.
"Luck to you, Salthor," the man called, and I heard him ride off. That left me alone with the cart and the sun and the grass, waving in the wind. I looked out at the horizon, the vast empty plains around me, and contemplated my situation.
Once again I had control of my destiny. But I didn't turn north toward the capital. I didn't break west for the plains, or east to the seafaring villages. I continued south on the route the Seer had given for me, towards Storm's End. I couldn't explain it at the time, but a gnawing idea had set foot in my mind, the idea that I could strike back against those who had toppled me.
It might take weeks to get there, but I had the provisions for several men. The trail was not a commonly used route, since Storm's End lay at the sea and there was no trade to be found there, at the rumored lair of our supernatural enemies.
I had heard many conflicting stories about the place. A squadron of knights had once tried to destroy the evil there, but the skeletons of warriors lost in battles past had risen from the black earth and fought them off. Yet other brave heroes returned to assert that it was simply an empty ruin, with nothing at all lurking there. Something drew me to Storm's End, something that I could not explain. Somehow I knew that if this place really was aligned against those in power in the Empire, then whatever it was had become my ally. I couldn't just fade away and become a farmer after what I had known. I was destined for greater things, and I would be Magna-Valek again.
After almost a month of hard travel, I found my way to Storm's End. By that time my grievous wounds had subsided, and I felt more myself, even though I was as filthy as a leper. I hadn't felt so dirty and sunburnt since my last military command, a foray into the steppes, which had been a good ten years back.
The forbidding castle stood gray and ancient against the cloudy sky. Even a child could discern that the place was deserted, or at least devoid of human habitation. Finishing stones had fallen off the underlying granite here and there, and the thatch roofing had completely rotted away in many places.
I had taken a sword from the body of one of the guards, and now I felt the need for it. I was only one man, against all the evil that supposedly lived here, so I suppose it was foolish. But I didn't have the courage to explore the ruins without it.
I searched through the area for hours, picking my way first around the castle and then into it. The ancient stones were covered in dust and the wood had been gnawed by rot. I searched the lofty towers and keep first, but after finding nothing there I began to wind my way deeper into the chambers that were beneath the earth.
The corridors in the bowels of the castle were dark and silent. Several times I had to light a makeshift torch from a piece of ruined furniture or feel my way along a dark passage. I was in such a dark corridor, helping myself along by feeling the wall, when my hand found a torch sconce. By accident I pulled on it as I mistepped, and the sconce made a loud click and turned in my hand. I heard a rumbling noise, and my heart quickened in surprise. A dim light became visible through an ever growing slit in the wall.
I moved forward to inspect the new portal. A large panel of the stone wall was actually a door of some kind. The stone moved slowly under my hand, as if its weight were completely balanced in some way I did not understand.
I considered this door only a moment before deciding to go inside. I wanted to know what it concealed, and I had lost too much to take notice of whatever dangers it might hold for me. From my point of view, I didn't have much left to lose.
The sconce before me held a slowly burning torch. I moved quietly by it, and saw that a chamber adjoined the passage ahead. I moved into the doorway and saw that the room was lit by several flickering candles. A horribly grotesque corpse was sitting behind a desk as if waiting for me. Its head shifted to track my movement as I appeared in the doorway.
"Riken protect me!" I exclaimed. I was unable to help myself. I had thought of meeting horrors in the tower, but when I came across the living corpse it struck a black raving fear into me. My heart pounded and my limbs shook. It took an effort of will to keep from running back.
The corpse crossed its skeletal hands before it. The thing wore a black robe, and a writing quill lay on the scrolls before it.
"Who are you?"
Simple, rasping words directed at me. I stood stunned. Finally I blinked and found the breath to reply.
"Lord Salthor. Ah, the former Lord Salthor."
"Why have you come here? Do you seek your doom, then?"
I thought of the Seer and his pet Valek. They had sent me here to die, to oblivion at the hand of darkness that the Seer said I was linked to. I realized then why I had not turned to a new destination. The enemy of my enemy...
The corpse laughed. "No, no don't answer. It is clear enough. You are outcast. Most of them run from the keep as soon as they arrive. But you came in. You have come for revenge."
"The Seer said I was linked to powers here. I have been laid low, but I am just wicked enough to use her pronouncements against her."
"The Dark Seer, you say. So she pulls the strings at Maristaple now, does she?"
"I can give you what you need. But the price is high."
"I have very little."
"The price is not paid in gold," the dead sorcerer explained.
"I was taught there is great danger in black magic. I expected no less," I said. Brave words. I was beyond caring, at that point.
"Very well," the corpse said, but it became silent. It said nothing for long moments, but I waited patiently until it started to speak again.
"I have a dream for you, Salthor. It is a dream that has haunted me for some time now. I have long regretted the day that I had it. Even a sorcerer of my power is hard pressed to protect myself from it. But it is more dangerous to those familiar with magic. It might effect the fate you desire for the Dark Seer."
I could tell that he was offering me something vile and dangerous. But I did not understand how to use it. "What kind of dream? How will it help me avenge myself on the Dark Seer?" I demanded.
The lich laughed again. "You do not just dream this dream. It dreams of you," said the long dead sorcerer.
"That doesn't make any sense," I said, but I knew he was speaking the truth.
The lich laughed again. "You will learn what it is soon enough. As soon as it dreams of you. Then you will simply have to survive long enough to make it to the Temple of Riken, where the Dark Seer sleeps. Wait until it is close, very close, and then give the dream to her."
"If you dream of her, perhaps it will find her more appealing, and pursue her instead. You see the creature's power grows with the aura of its victim, so it is more dangerous to sorcerers such as myself and the Seer. That is why I will be glad to be rid of it." The once-man before me cackled again. "I daresay she shall be quite surprised, if you accomplish your goal."
"What if it doesn't fancy her?"
"I said there were risks. You might not even make it to the Temple alive," said the lich. "If you wish to accept my aid, sleep in the keep tonight. In the morning, you will be on your way," the corpse said. "Quickly, I expect," it added ominously.
"Where...?" My question trailed off. The castle was a ruin, and most of its rooms were empty. "I shall find myself a spot, then," I offered, and I waited for a moment for further direction. When none came, the lich sitting stone still, I turned and made my way from the dismal chamber.
I decided that this might be as good as it got. I didn't relish the idea exploring every nook and cranny of Storm's End, since I feared what I might encounter. So I threw down my meager pack and cleaned a spot on the floor, moving pottery shards and rotting wood.
I sat and considered what the night might yet hold in store for me.
What the lich had said still did not seem possible. The thing said that it had the dream. I was supposed to have the dream tonight. But the lich had said the dream would dream of me. That all seemed very paradoxical to me, but the ways of magic had long been beyond my ken. He seemed very confident that the dream would attach itself to me over him.
I hoped that what the lich had said about the dream being more dangerous to a mage was true. After all, I was not a mighty sorcerer who had conquered death itself. I was noble born turned outcast. The Seer herself seemed involved in a magic of sorts. I did not know what her arcane sources of knowledge were, but I felt sure that they were magical in nature.
Sleep was hard to find but it did eventually take me. I tossed and turned on the cold hard floor. And as the lich had told me, there was a dream.
I knew that it was a dream in the way of all dreams. I was in some sort of an ancient library, and I marveled at all the books. At first I was aware only of myself, and I wandered along the carved shelves, losing myself in the size of the place.
Then, suddenly, there was something else in the library with me. I felt an urgent need to flee the thing, which I instinctually felt was dangerous. I fled the library in a vague sort of dream run that took me out of the vast chamber.
I moved through dark corridors of stone between richly furnished rooms that seemed to have no end. Always I heard the creature scraping after me, sometimes nearing and other times falling behind, but always on my trail. A sense of dread fell over me, as sometimes happens when one feels a dream is out of their control.
At one point I saw a glimpse of it in my mind, as if it were somehow communicating with me. A large bat-winged thing, bigger than a man, not scaly or furred, but of a sort of insectile integument. It made a rasping sort of noise... a hungry sort of noise. There was never any doubt in my mind that it hungered for me. I don't know if it hungered for my flesh or my mind - or both - but I could feel it always hunting me.
I fled out through a courtyard, and I remember the creature at my heels. It seemed like I must be screaming but there was no sound. I tripped on something and fell, which awakened me with a shock. I was still for a moment, catching my breath while my heart raced as if I had been running in the waking world.
I sat up and discovered a leather thong around my neck with a golden amulet dangling from it, and a note in my hand.
The note read:
Take this talisman with you. It will make you less appealing to the Shok Nogua and may buy you enough time to make it to the temple. Should you manage to dream of the Dark Seer at the temple, it may also help divert the dream to the Seer.
The note was signed in some completely illegible tokens that I wasn't sure was even in the Imperial script. I wondered over the reference to a Shok Nogua, but I figured that the dream had a name, and that was it.
The amulet had a distinctly gargoyle shape to it, and just looking at it made me think of my nightmare. If it had been that bad for me, I wondered what the dead sorcerer had been going through.
I was somewhat heartened by this turn of events. If I wore the talisman and the Seer did not, then she would be the easier prey. It seemed that the lich did not favor the Dark Seer after all- he had aided me further despite the fact that he was now rid of the dream.
Filled with new purpose, I began the trek back to Maristaple.
There wasn't a single night of total rest. The creature dogged me in all my dreams, sometimes for hours it seemed, always questing after me. I awakened drenched in sweat, and my eyes sunk farther into my skull as real sleep eluded me.
I managed to survive, always staying ahead of the Shok Nogua. My stubbornness and refusal to give up helped me through it. I always kept the Dark Seer in mind to fuel my efforts to stay alive.
In the countryside surrounding the city, I traded away the cart to a lone serf. I obtained nondescript clothing and some crude sewing tools. I managed to sew the talisman inside the material of my tunic. I didn't anticipate having the charm stolen but I didn't want to take any chances. Even if I were taken prisoner again, there was now some chance that the amulet wouldn't be taken from me.
I rode straight in through the main gates, and no one recognized me. I put my horse into a cheap stable and wandered through the city, hiding my identity with a cowled robe. Then I decided that it was time to reveal myself to my old servant Thantos. I asked around carefully and found out where he lived.
I arrived at his decrepit house, still wearing a hood over my head. When I knocked on the door Thantos answered it as I had hoped he would.
"Who are you?"
My servant had come upon hard times, it was clear. His frame was lighter, and he wore the grimy clothes of a serf. A short beard grew on his haggard face, and I felt guilty that I had brought this fate upon my servant.
"Please do not give me away," I told him, "even though it was me that caused you to end up here." I lifted my head so that he could see who I was. Thantos glanced around and stepped back quickly, motioning me into his hovel.
I entered and removed the cowl of the robe. Thantos smiled and embraced me.
"It is not you who put me here, my Lord. It is that wicked one, the Seer!"
"There may be a way we can regain some of our old status, or at least relieve the Seer of hers," I said. "If such a thing could be done, would you help me?"
"Yes, I would love nothing more," Thantos said. His voice betrayed his intense curiosity. "They did not mark you outcast?"
"They tried," I said. "Mostly, it was luck they didn't get to."
"Or Fate," Thantos said quickly. "You are a deserving ruler, Lord. It is your destiny to be Magna-Valek."
"All that must be done, is to get me into the Temple of Riken. I must sleep there as the Seer sleeps, and put a curse upon her."
"She has moved into the palace," he said. As he absorbed what I had told him, he hesitated, and then asked, "A curse? Did you hire a wizard?"
"I will tell you another time, I promise. But for now, tell me about the Seer. How long has she been at the palace?"
"Over two weeks, now. At first, she kept me as a plaything to torture. But she grew tired of me and released me in the poor quarter. Then the new Magna-Valek, Tal-Mar, had her moved into the palace as his oracle."
"That will make it harder to accomplish my aim," I said. "The palace will be guarded, and there are not as many people coming in and out as the temple."
"There are many who are still loyal to you," Thantos said. "Especially now that the Seer has gained such power. There are grumblings from many people, from the merchants she ignores to the servants that she tortures. I know I could arrange to get you in through the servant's gate."
"No one must know that it is me. But you can tell them it is for my cause."
"I will do it. Trust me. Rest here, tonight, and I will arrange this thing for tomorrow evening," Thantos assured me. I was extremely grateful to that man, who had served me loyally for so many years. I had complete faith in his abilities.
The hovel was much worse than I was used to as a Valek, but the hard journey had cured me of my soft tendencies. I went to sleep more determined than ever to evade the Shok Nogua. It wouldn't do to let it catch me now that I was so close to my goal.
Imagine my surprise when I awakened, to find that it was morning and I hadn't felt the Shok Nogua at all!
Could the amulet have gotten more powerful? I felt for it in my tunic, and realized suddenly that it wasn't there. My makeshift sewing had come undone, allowing the charm to fall out somewhere. Not surprising considering how poorly I sewed.
I backtracked for the next five hours, searching desperately for what I had lost. I eventually found it in the straw at the stables next to my horse. I had gone the whole night without it, and yet the Shok Nogua had not killed me.
So it was by luck that I came to understand it.
I realized that the amulet was not protection from the Shok Nogua. It was a lure for it. The creature wanted that pendant more than anything else. I still don't know exactly why; I have since talked to sages and wizards who believed that it contained the monster's soul. They think it was forever drawn to it in dreams, but since the charm rested in the real world it could never regain it.
I decided that this was yet another curse brought to Maristaple by those forces at Storm's End. A seemingly valuable amulet that brought a curse with it. I was supposed to die and leave the amulet behind for someone else to take. One by one the people in the temple would have died off mysteriously. I wondered if there were already other tokens like it here, moving from owner to owner as their lives were harvested like grain. It was an interesting reversal. But I realized that the lich had spoken correctly when it said that I could effect the fate I wanted with it. If I could simply get the token to the Dark Seer, the result would be the same.
But getting that close was another matter altogether.
Guards held the Magna-Valek and his court in the highest security at all times. I wanted to put the amulet on the Seer as she slept, so that the Shok Nogua would attack her. Even better would be to somehow secret it in her bed or her nightclothes, so that if she survived the first attack it might have another chance on a different night.
After more thought, I decided I didn't have to make it into the Seer's room while she was asleep. It would be enough to go there while she was gone, and put the amulet in a place that would allow the Shok Nogua to assail her while she slept.
But I discarded that idea as well. The Seer's chambers had to be guarded at all times, lest an assassin attempt to secret himself within her rooms in order to kill her later when she returned.
I finally decided on a plan that still held great risk for my person, but which at least gave me a reasonable chance to take the Seer with me. I changed my directions to Thantos that morning, to bring my plan into action.
"I have changed my mind. You must tell the servants to let me in through the servant's gate. Make sure that they know it will be me. Tell them I have come to take the palace back for myself."
"Very bold, my Lord. But won't that run the risk of someone giving the Seer warning of your return? I didn't say every last one-"
"I understand, Thantos, but that is part of my plan. It is the only way I can get to the Seer."
Thantos nodded. "Have no fear. Remember, it is your destiny to rule."
My servant had such faith. I wasn't so sure, but I thanked him, and prepared to enter the palace.
That evening, I accompanied two kitchen server girls and an older fountain cleaner through the servant's gate. The guards were lax, and didn't fear one new worker. They hardly paid any attention to me at all as I came into the palace.
I was only vaguely aware of the layout near the servant's entrance, having been Magna-Valek, but I managed to select a route that would take me into the palace proper. I took a dark corridor and moved quickly towards the royal meeting chambers.
Then I was brought up short by a group blocking the corridor.
It was a retinue of Red Guards, and the Dark Seer herself.
"So, the mighty Salthor returns to take back what he has lost," she observed, clearly calm and confident. "You seem to have forgotten the army that you will need to recapture the palace."
I looked up. The look of hatred on my face was genuine, I assure you. The Dark Seer looked just as I had remembered her, regal, cold, and dangerous. Like a spider in a black silk dress.
"I knew it was a risk, but I had nothing to lose," I told her. True enough.
The Guards lit torches and surrounded me, taking my arms and holding me fast.
"Such a fool. You had your life before, at least. Now you won't have even that."
Then her eyes alighted upon the talisman. I had placed it in plain view at my throat. I thanked the gods silently for the Seer's intense scrutiny, and her talent for keen observation of all things related to magic.
"And what is this?" she asked, reaching out to grasp my amulet. Now the time for truth had ended, and my act began. I played the part well, pretending to struggle against the guards and clench my teeth at her.
"Nothing you need concern yourself with," I said.
She snatched it from around my throat with a rapid withdrawal of her hand. "I will be the judge of that," she said. She held the amulet up before her eyes and gazed at it, clearly pleased with her acquisition.
"Take him into the dungeon," she commanded. "This time, we will be rid of him more directly, I think."
I struggled still further, even though it was all for show. I believed myself doomed as well but hope rose in me that I had managed to take the Seer with me. Would she be able to decipher the danger of the amulet? I hoped that the lich had forged his lure well. Even if he had expected me to die first, it had to have crossed his mind that the talisman might someday be brought to her.
They threw me in a squalid dungeon cell. I didn't think about my own fate. All I could do was wonder about the Seer. What would she do with the charm?
I thought the first day was agony, until the second and the third day stretched endlessly. If it weren't for the guards' regular walk throughs I would have lost track of the time. After the third day I lost hope and it became easier for me. I wallowed in despair and hunger gnawed at my gut. It was the fourth day when the silence of the dungeon was broken.
A ruckus arose outside my cell door. I staggered up to peer through the barred window. There was a squad of guards outside my cell door. It seemed the end was near for me. I had started to prepare myself for execution when the cell door opened and I saw the leader of the men. It was none other than Thantos.
"The Dark Seer is no more, Magna Valek," he told me, addressing me by my old title. Also my new title. I quickly learned from him that several factions had become unhappy with the rise of the Seer, and the combination of my return and her disappearance had created an opportunity for them to restore the status quo. Even the guard captain who had arranged my arrest seemed to have a change of heart, after the Seer discarded him as a lover for a more courtly ambassador from far shores.
Thantos had rounded up guards loyal to me, and managed to regain control of the palace shortly after the Dark Seer's disappearance. Her demise was quite a mystery to the nobles and the priests, but I can come closer to imagining what happened to her. I had the talisman woven into some travel clothes of the Valek who had betrayed me, and sent him to parts unknown.As for the Shok Nogua, I have never dreamt of it since. Nor it of me.