The Domain of Mirza Noctis
Pushing aside his fear, his chest heaves from overexertion. He is a human youth with dark black hair matted down by sweat and blood. His once white shirt, now torn and bloodstained, is that of a nobleman's. His trousers are lacerated and muddy, and his bare feet sink deeply into the muck.
Wiping the sweat and grime from his face, he gulps in the air as if it were a stolen thing, nearly choking on it. A cry of desperation escapes, unbidden, from his lips. The sound of it spills through the dark forest, threatening to wake the shadowed things that creep within.
Dizzy from the lack of breath, the young man leans against a knotty oak tree, half-rotten away from the inside. He draws air too quickly, and the sound of his own heartbeat is like thunder in his ears, threatening to deafen him.
Peering into the shadows of the forest, he attempts to stop his body from shaking but finds it wholly unwilling. Superficial cuts run the length of his arms, many of which still bleed openly. Attempting to steady his breath, he hears a guttural rumbling in the dense brush nearby. The sound of it sends him over the edge once more as paranoia and terror consume his mind. The nightmare is still out there, stalking him. Unwanted memories of the night’s events slowly consume the youth, the weight of them sapping what little will he has remaining.
Closing his eyes and curling into a ball under the base of the gnarled tree, the young man soon whimpers in the cold darkness. Whispering, begging, “just end it… just make it.. stop.” These words he repeats, over and again for several moments until unconsciousness takes him.
Sometime later, his eyes slowly open and adjust to the dense early morning fog. How long has it been? Pushing himself up, his back aches in protest. Finding it difficult to feel his arms and legs, he looks down to see the bleeding has stopped, but a dozen black leaches now cover his arms. He reacts with disgust and anguish, pulling the parasites away, reopening some of the wounds. As he stands too quickly, a crow caws loudly in the tree above him, then takes to flight. It is the only sound, other than the steady rush he hears in his own head, not unlike a flood of water. Unconsciousness threatens to put him aground once more, but then the dizziness fades.
As his thoughts come into focus, he looks about, attempting to align himself. The village of Rothlin is close, maybe an hour to the south? Surely the laborers will understand his family’s plight. They owe his family much, Erude Lorgrin, his father, has protected their little home for years. Still, the fact that some of the villagers have forsaken his family, openly rebelling against them, does cause a seed of doubt to fester.
An hour passes as he moves through the water-logged section of the forest. This entire land is sick, its very presence seems to drain his will. His family avoids this area for good reason, it is known to be cursed. He grows angrier with each step.
He sneers in disgust, thinking of their rebellion. It is their foolish acts that have caused this darkness to fall upon his family. If he didn’t need their help he would have half a mind to make them pay for their treachery. A voice, calm, but brooding enters his mind, “It is true, they’ve betrayed your family Edmin. You have every right to be angry with them. They’re the reason last night happened, young lord.”
The sudden voice causes the youth to stop dead in his tracks. He’s heard it before, but only in his dreams. Then, it was faceless. It was abstract and without form. Now, out here in the open air, with vengeance on his mind, the voice demands his attention, its form insidious and compelling. A sickening feeling overwhelms the young man, and he begins to retch. Spilling the contents of his stomach into the open marsh, he pushes the voice away.
Somehow, his fragile mind believes he’s forced it out as if retching could actually purge him of it. “It’s just nerves,” the youth says into the open air.
The villagers must help him, they owe him that. Looking up, he finally spots a dilapidated building, its roof fully caved in. He’s arrived. They must know what happened last night. They must mobilize for the Lorgrin family.
Kanthis pauses outside the ruined village of Rothlin. It is true what the villagers claimed, this place is devastated.
The sun is setting low, its weakening rays now casting a dark salmon curtain over the highest peak north of town. There is an eerie setting about this place, and the hunter knows better than to take anything for granted. He trains his eyes and ears on every shadow, searching for where an ambush might lie.
After a short time, and confident that this area still poses great danger, he approaches the village inn – Ganji’s Tavern. The wooden structure, not unlike the rest of town, has recently endured an attack by imps. He’s seen their signs before. The people headed to Gesk Monastery filled him in on the attack earlier this morning.
All the signs are here. They came up from the village’s well, like a gush of foul gore spreading onto the land. At least a twoscore of imps – small, winged demons the color of night – made their way through this town. It doesn’t take the monster hunter long to confirm his estimation as accurate. Scratch marks are evident on nearly every home, and the inn is covered by torn and shredded planks. The place must have been crawling with them. Blood and viscera have been spilled throughout the streets, but the bodies… they are no longer present.
“Interesting…” he mutters to himself. Imps rarely feast like this. They were harvesting.
He pushes the door to the tavern aside, its shattered frame catching on broken hinges as he forces it in and enters to find a gruesome sight. A young man, draped in lordly garb that once upon a better time was clean and fine-spun, is slumped under a shattered window. He appears frozen in thought. Stab marks puncture his torso in a score of places. Kanthis pulls forth a white cloth from his utility pack and kneels to get a closer look at the poor soul.
“Ahh, Lord Edmin Lorgrin. We meet again.” It is evident he recognizes the youth. What brought you way out here? Trouble with your estate? Where’s your father I wonder?
Without saying another word, Kanthis uses the cloth to absorb some of the blood covering the young man. He frowns when he realizes there isn’t much left. “Now that’s odd,” the hunter reflects. Your blood has been taken. Yet your veins should be full of it – or at least, it should have drained here to the floor where you sit.
A brisk wind blows down from the mountain and through the broken door into the inn, chilling the fetid inside air. Kanthis regains his feet and looks out to the mountain, the light of the day has now fully fallen.
~ ~ ~
Edmin finds himself lost in a world obscured by mist. The young lord is no longer bound to his body or mind. Instead, what is left of his soul drifts effortlessly in this strange, disconnected place. The movements caressing his soul are like being caught in an uncontrollable current, unable to do naught but follow in its fervent wake. His universe is now composed of muted grays, indigos, and off-white, as if the world he was now stuck within is a cloudy, broken house of mirrors, reflecting the world poorly, revealing an ever-changing aspect to those who care to look upon it.
Divorced from his mind, he is forced to simply observe what is and has and is yet to be. He watches the imp that killed him gather his blood into an ornate black flask, then leaps out of the window and into the crisp air. With most of his blood stolen, he is robbed of his waning awareness. As the imp takes flight, his world slowly transforms, lost in the fog of echoing stillness.
For what seems a millennium, the living world passes by without him, and then his spirit wakes anew. He is sluggishly brought back to a kind of awareness, but pieces of himself, once most familiar, are missing. When his perception returns, he sees only a white cloth stained red with traces of blood. His blood. The moment he sees it, his mind’s eye snaps fully into focus. The world of indigo and off-white returns and he sees a strong and virile man standing over his empty corpse. How long ago was this? It seems millennia to the spirit. Melancholy fills the once-young lord.
~ ~ ~
Kanthis, now resting at one of the tables of the inn, peers outside at the empty street. He swallows a stale morsel and watches the night cast its spell of darkness over the dying land. For a time, the big man seems to sleep with his eyes open, but he stirs with a start as a distant rumbling is born, growing stronger and shaking the rafters of Ganji’s Tavern. The sound comes from the west, from the forlorn land and the Dreadmire Bog.
The hunter cautiously stands, steps away from the table, and then pulls out his crossbow. It occurs again, the approaching rumble, and then he perceives a voice floating on the air. It is guttural and muffled. “We do dis for mashter,” it echoes. The rumbling continues for a time as the footsteps bring the creature closer to the tavern. “We do this for Meat-Hook,” another voice replies, this one clear as a bell. Whoever it is, it issues from the throat of a giant.
Kanthis steps out into the street in the cold night air and comes face to face with a two-headed monster. Meat-Hook stands as tall as the nearby stables. He is a stitched-together creature – a hodgepodge built by some insane chemist bent on reanimating life using the discarded pieces from the dead. A filthy hood covers one head and is tied securely around a thick neck. A gigantic yellowed eye gazes through a hole torn in the shroud. The other head is bulbous, bald, and grotesquely ugly. His body appears to be strong – an unholy thing built to end life.
This isn’t the first time Kanthis has seen his type, but his size takes him by surprise. Meat-Hook regards the monster hunter with an insane glee and then the uncovered head barks loudly, “HAH! Look at our prize. We dine fine tonight, Hook!”
Kanthis wastes no time battling the monstrosity. He is a blur of movement, but Meat-Hook proves to be adept in combat as well. The two-headed giant lashes out with a series of chains, each hooked and barbed to capture and tear its quarry. If even one of the chained hooks lands their mark, Kanthis will be in serious trouble. The hunter dodges each forceful swing by the breadth of a hair.
In a matter of moments, each foe has traded blows, and each has been bloodied by the other, the grim result hanging in the balance.
Lord Edmin’s spirit was called back to this cruel world the moment his remaining blood was collected by the hunter. He has since watched the scene unfold around him, trying desperately to contact the huntsman. It is infuriating, trying to be heard with no voice when no one can hear him! The nobleman’s spirit wails in frustration, his anger adding to its force. The amplitude continues to grow as he tries to tear through into the world beyond.
Kanthis ducks under a massive chain, the blade attached to the end of it passing closely over his head. He stands erect and aims his crossbow for Meat-Hook’s heart and in the same moment he steadies the bolt, a terrifying wail rips into this realm, right next to the hunter’s head. The wail did not come from his opponent – its sudden appearance sends Kanthis off balance. A wasted shot. For the briefest of time, a blue-white spirit appears right next to him.
It was a poor moment to make contact. Kanthis reacts without thought, side-stepping the newly arrived spirit, which places him off balance and in precisely the wrong spot during the furious battle. Meat-Hook’s massive fist crashes down squarely on top of the hunter’s skull. A crack issues out loudly as bone strikes bone and the hunter slumps down, unconscious (or possibly worse) onto the street.
The hideous monstrosity laughs, both heads reveling in unbridled glee. “Now we bring to master, he wanted blood, he gets blood.” The giant sniffs the air, “And strong blood, too.”
The second head adds, “Then we eat?” The lumbering giant binds his prey and begins dragging him by one leg toward the mountain like a slain royal elk. The unsheathed head replies, “Yes. Then we eat.”
A frightened owl takes silent flight from a nearby tree as an uneasy silence once again blankets the desolated village of Rothlin.
The two-headed goliath continues to bicker with itself as it moves out of the highland forest and into the depths of a worn, shadowed crypt. The place is desolate and bears the look of an age long since passed. An entire day has come and gone and the broken monster hunter the creature has been dragging hasn’t budged in all that time.
“Are we there yet? I can’t see nothing- and I’m hungry!” The shrouded head whines in a pitiful voice.
“Shut your hole, we ate yesterday,” the larger head replies in irritation as if he’s heard it a thousand times.
The little one grimaces in frustration, “YOU ate. Remember? You said it would hit our stomach soon, but I ain’t felt nothing yet. Let me eat the human. He smells tas…”
Suddenly, the gigantic creature stops and turns his part of their shared body toward the second head, who instinctively shrinks away from his own extended twin. The larger head screams so loud the words could wake the dead. “I TOLD YOU, he’s not human. Blood man needs this one. It’s ‘portant.” The two-headed monster slowly ambles away into the darkness, but the bickering continues.
Since his brief battle with the giant, Kanthis Hallowshade has been silently waging another war of his own. The nobleman who manifested in front of the hunter has also discovered that he can possess the living. Kanthis took a portion of his blood from the inn earlier, and that inadvertently gave Lord Edmin a bit of power over the hunter. Since then, the two have been will-locked, unable to exert supremacy over the other, but also unable to interact with their respective worlds.
The whole episode is not unlike a waking dream, fluid in its ever-changing nature. Symbols flood the dual-world, and each combatant has risen their defenses and called into being weapons to tear down the other.
In a stupendous effort of will, the monster hunter finally pushes Lord Edmin’s spirit from his mind and he very slowly regains a grasp on his reality. Opening his eyes, Kanthis finds himself in a new place. A castle perhaps. He is in a long hallway, a stone wall on his left side revealing a row of arched windows holding back a murky outer darkness. On his right is a wall laced with spider webs. Tapestries and framed portraits pierce the distance down as far as the eye can see. The castle keep is faintly illuminated with auburn and umber hues merging with the shadowed darkness. Groggily, he lifts his head to get a better look. The two-headed brute is nowhere to be seen, but Kanthis can smell the brutish monster’s scent in the air.
Lord Edmin’s spirit, unable or unwilling to surrender from the silent battle, watches from the same hallway, only in his version the world is devoid of light, save a thick permeating gray mist. The toll his spirit has endured attempting to possess the demon hunter has taken a measurable effect. Lord Edmin’s form seems more ephemeral in nature, as if he has lost a significant piece of himself, like this world of gray has consumed all but the final fragment of his being. He screams his frustration into the ethereal air, and then when those echoes fade, the young lord decides to do something he's never had to - focus his remaining will.
Kanthis, left to his own devices, searches the vicinity for his belongings, but comes up empty. He finds a ceremonial sword and axe, fitted to a suit of immobile, tarnished armor. Though the blades need sharpening, they are the only thing he’s found of potential use. He gingerly pries them from their place, exercising the metal weapons as silent as the grave. He peers down another hall and discovers a door at the far end, barely ajar.
This is a dangerous place. Noctis is here and I am unprepared. He glances back behind him, and then peers out an adjacent window. This place is high in the mountains, the stone walls of the fortification precariously rising even higher above the peak it rests upon. A river below snakes its way around a closed valley. A jarring chill pierces the night air, and Kanthis silently wonders if he’ll survive the threatening night.
From within his mind, a familiar and unwelcomed voice breaks the stillness. “So, let me help, dolt. Whether we like it or not, we are bound together, you and I… The nobleman and his... filthy warrior.” Lord Edmin’s ghost mutters the words that only Kanthis can hear.
Ignoring the pestilent spirit, Kanthis growls in anger and slowly approaches the door at the end of the hall. If I must fight and die here, then so be it. I will bring honor to my ancestors.
“Wonderful idea. You'll bring your precious blood to Noctis. Honorable indeed,” the young spirit accuses.
Quiet, brat! I must concentrate. The hall seems to lengthen as he stalks down the enclosure, and then he hears a new voice issue from the distance. A melodic, youthful voice calling from all directions. A man’s voice, full of charisma and sounding like honey might taste on the tongue. Sweet and thick and enticing to some. Unbridled power seeps from that haunting voice as if the owner was a being of heavier caliber.
“Do come in. I’ve been expecting you, Kanthis Hallowshade.”
The hunter pushes the door open to find a sprawling gallery; a fireplace set at the far end consumes the entire wall. Two high-backed chairs are set at its warm front, facing one another. A black-haired youth is seated in one. Upon entry, he stands, his posture ending in a regal bow.
He is tall, and skinnier than the hunter would have thought. But the power he exudes is palpable. Kanthis can feel the patterns that have been woven about this man. He is a warlock, a sorcerer, and a sanguinmancer – able to manipulate blood, even while it pumps through the living body of another soul.
Mirza Noctis smiles devilishly and offers the second chair to his reluctant visitor, then speaks again with a faint smile breaking his face. “Sit. We have much to discuss. We need not be enemies… just yet.”
A long moment of silence passes between the two men. When Kanthis doesn't move, Noctis continues, "Do you know how hard it was to arrange this little soiree?”
The hunter breathes deeply and glares at the young man – no, likely a man far older than me. Kanthis has learned to not assume things of his enemies.
“Why should I do anything for you. The butcher of Krasvetelia. You’ve slain the last king and the place has fallen into madness. I aught to slay you here and now and hope the land returns to a former visage of itself.”
The imposing warrior crosses the room like a lion stalking its prey. All the while Mirza Noctis wears his smile, as if it were a veil concealing more sinister thoughts.
“Pish. You and I both know that is not how tonight will end. You cannot harm me, in my own home… armed with my own weapons.” With the slight flick of his wrist, both the axe and the sword in the warrior’s hands turn blood-red in color and then explode downward to the floor in a gush of liquid blood.
Noctis continues, as if lecturing an eager audience, “You seek information, I think. About a life… long… since… passed.” The sanguinmancer hangs on each word as the newly formed blood floats up into spirals, braiding itself into rope-like strands.
Kanthis draws breath as an obscure memory of his past flashes in his mind's eye. I've seen this rope... a hangman's noose.
Noctis inhales a deep breath, savoring the exercise. “I can give you that knowledge. And more.”
Kanthis, unarmed but still very dangerous in his own right, stands tall and advances another step closer to the night lord. “I don’t want anything that you can give. Your words are poison. You’ve killed hundreds… for noth...”
“No,” Noctis interrupts, a somber look spilling across his features. “It was not for nothing. Everything I do has its… reason. Now then, are we going to do this the civilized way, or must we resort to senseless violence?”
Together, the two fated companions stand, side-by-side in front of the master of this castle. Lord Edmin says to Kanthis, “I don’t like it. He’s killed everyone in my home.”
Not just your home, nobleman… But I must hear his words.
The door to the chamber slowly closes on its own, blood from Noctis’s spell now staining its handle, as the large warrior moves to accept the offered chair.