Excerpt: Black Magic

He’d seen blood before, more than he cared to recall. He’d seen men crushed, men dismembered. He’d seen men more broken in spirit and mind than they could ever be in body. Women, children … he still had nightmares about the children.

Burns, sword wounds, he’d seen people torn apart by demon hands, seen the damage black magic could do. He’d seen ten thousand nightmares, and would see ten thousand more before he died.

None of it was as terrible as the blood and body parts, the gore and scattered innards, of his cousin and closest friend, scattered and smeared across the confines of the small solar that Alfrey favored.

Sorin slammed the door shut, belatedly sealed it so no others could enter, and then was immediately sick in the first chamber pot he found, a couple of doors down the hall.

He wiped his mouth with the back of one hand, then fumbled for a handkerchief, striving to think and not simply recall that horrific scene. Thank Goddess She had led him to it before another found it first.

Her warmth pulsed in his chest, bright and hot, spreading through him to lend sorely needed comfort and strength, the resolve to carry on despite the horrors he had witnessed, inflicted upon someone he dearly loved. Sorin closed his eyes, and balled his hands into fists to still their trembling. He swallowed, trying to wash away the acrid, sour-sweet taste of vomit lingering in his mouth.

Who, how, and why—those were the details that mattered. How had someone managed to commit such a crime in the heart of the castle, while the King, High Priest, and High Paladin, not to mention the thousands of other inhabitants, remained oblivious? And why—why would anyone want to murder someone so good? Never mind the savage nature of the murder. Alfrey had never had any enemies, to the best of his knowledge. Everyone loved Alfrey.

Not to mention Alfrey had been his cousin and best friend. Who would murder a man so close to the High Paladin of the Great Northern Kingdom?

Sorin realized he was trembling again. He needed to do something … but what?

The King must be informed, as well as the High Priest. Then he would have to figure out how to answer the questions of who, how, and why. He would have to go back into that terrible room.

All right. He could tell the King now. The High Priest would be finishing the dawn ceremony, for those who rose that early. By the time he finished reporting to his Majesty, the High Priest would be available. Past that…best that no one else knew, yet. It would cause a panic.

Leaving the room into which he had retreated, grateful it was early enough the halls were still mostly deserted, he made his way first to the kitchens.

Normally, the smells of fresh bread, porridge, honey, cheese, and all the other myriad foods prepared for breakfast made him smile, cheered his morning, readied him for the day ahead. Today, they only made him nauseous. He downed a tankard of hot ale only to rinse away the lingering taste of vomit, and to steady himself a bit. Then he scuttled from the kitchens, before someone could pin him down to handle some trifling ‘crisis’.

Slipping through the halls of the castle, he at last reached the throne room. So early in the morning, with the sun barely rising above the horizon, it was mostly deserted—but not completely. Even the King did not sleep long, when there were so many problems to address, and people traveled long through dangerous lands to plead their cases.

He pushed through the small, early morning crowd and motioned to King Rofell that he needed a word, and that word was urgent. Minutes later, the room was empty save for the two of them. “What’s wrong?” Rofell asked.

As quickly as possible, without sacrificing anything, Sorin related how he had woken earlier than usual to a painful throbbing of alarm and grief from the Goddess, causing his chest to hurt, his entire body to ache. Following the throbbing, searching the castle bottom to top, it had not taken him long to come upon the remains of Alfrey’s body.

The King was silent when Sorin finished, grim-faced and still. “No clues as to who has done this terrible thing?” he asked at length.

“I have not yet had chance to truly search,” Sorin replied. “It was an awful sight. I have sealed the room and will examine the corpse and chamber for clues in due course. For now, I must go and speak with the High Priest. It is possible he might hear something from the Goddess that I cannot. I recommend we keep this between the three of us, until such time as we have an answer or revealing it is impossible to avoid. I fear what will happen, should people learn of the murder, and the horrendous nature of the killing.”

“Yes,” the King agreed. “The three of us. Speak with the High Priest, then. Keep me informed. Find the murderer, and kill him if you must. I grant you full license, High Paladin, to do whatever is necessary.”

“Sire,” Sorin said with a bow, then turned sharply on his heel and departed.

He strode from the castle keep, across a small courtyard to the rear entrance of the Royal Cathedral.

The Royal Cathedral was nearly as large as the Royal Castle, meant when it had first been built to accommodate every person in the city, as well as the surrounding farmers for several miles around. The city and surroundings had long since outgrown the Cathedral, but it remained the heart of the faith for those who loved the Goddess.

As he reached the main room, the dawn prayers were just concluding, people departing more quickly than they probably liked, in order to get started on their long days.

The High Priest, Angelos, was speaking to a small handful of people, but when he caught Sorin’s gaze, immediately excused himself and went to Sorin’s side.

“High Paladin,” he greeted, more formal than he would normally be. “I sensed something was wrong, this morning when I rose, but it seemed I was meant to carry on and wait to learn of the problem. I see you are the unhappy messenger.”

Sorin only nodded, and motioned they should go elsewhere, leading the way to the Angelos’ office.

When the door was closed, he said quietly, “Alfrey is dead. Murdered.”

“Tell me,” Angelos said quietly, and sat down behind his desk.

Sorin forced himself to go through the tale once more, relating all from the moment he’d woken, to the present.

When he finished, Angelos sat white-faced and still in his chair, save the faint trembling of one hand lying across his massive desk.

“I know nothing yet,” Sorin continued. “I must soon go back to that room and begin to unravel the mystery…”

“No,” Angelos said, the fingers of his trembling hand lifting to press against the center of his forehead. His eyes went cloudy, distant, as they always did when he heard Her Voice.

Sorin felt her as a warmth, a pulsing, in the chest. He could sense in that warmth Her emotions and wants. The other Paladins felt the same, but to a lesser degree. Priests could hear Her—whispers, snatches of stuff, never completely clear, but they did hear Her Voice, and Angelos heard Her most clearly of all.

Angelos frowned in concentration, then extended his other hand. Used to this, Sorin placed his hand in it, unperturbed by the suddenly tight, almost painful grip. Angelos’ eyes slid shut, and for several minutes, there was only silence.

As abruptly as he had gone into his trance, Angelos was out of it, and he released Sorin’s hand. His eyes held swirls of violet, the color of the Goddess, as they opened, only slowly fading back to their normal soft brown. Sorin had been told that in the heat of battle, when his power raged, his own eyes did the same thing.

“The mystery is not one you can solve,” Angelos said. “From Her, I get that another will come who can help to provide the answer. But…” He frowned. “I sense black magic in it, something dark, something strange.” His eyes met Sorin’s. “Somehow, this thing—this person—is bound to you, High Paladin. It will not be you, or he, that will uncover Alfrey’s killer. It will take the both of you.”

Sorin frowned. “I do not understand.”

“Neither do I,” Angelos said ruefully. “But, then, those of us who most directly serve Her are usually the last to understand anything.”

To that, Sorin could only nod in agreement, and smile faintly at the pulse of amusement in his chest. “So I do nothing until this person arrives. The body…” Alfrey’s body. He swallowed, and this time he was the one to grip Angelos hand too tightly. “I cannot simply leave it.”

“I think that you must,” Angelos said gently. Standing up, he moved around his desk and pulled Sorin into a tight embrace. “I am sorry, Sorin. I know how close the two of you were.”

Sorin held tight, tears stinging his eyes as he was finally allowed to feel the grief he had been forced to hold back. Alfrey. They’d grown up together; brothers in all but blood. They’d entered the priesthood together. It had been Alfrey who’d pushed him to try for the knights instead—and Alfrey had been the only one not at all surprised when Sorin had become first Paladin, and then High Paladin.

Alfrey, who was dead now, horrifically murdered in a place where he should have been completely safe.

“Why?” he asked, wiping away tears, soothed by Angelos, the reassuring warmth of the Goddess pulsing in his chest. “Why would someone kill Alfrey? I need to know.” His mind began to race, pushing the grief away enough to be managed, intent upon finding a source, someone to make pay, and Angelos’ words came back to him. “Who is going to help me? You said black magic was in it?”

Angelos shook his head. “I know only what I told you. I sense She does not want us to know much. Ignorance sometimes is useful; it prevents us from making assumptions. But, if you want to get started, try examining his room. Surely there must be something there; such an horrific murder would leave behind some clue.”

Nodding, Sorin said, “Yes. Thank you.”

Reaching out, Angelos cupped his face, wiped the traces of tears away with his thumbs. “Be strong, High Paladin. The Goddess will not let this tragedy go unpunished, and she will not let his death be a waste.”

“Neither will I,” Sorin said roughly. “Thank you, High Priest. I … I will be back.” Breaking way, he turned and left the room, striding from the Cathedral, not knowing where he was going until he found himself in the stables.

He did not even have to ask, before the stable hands presented him with the reins to his horse. “I’ll be back,” he said shortly. “Light the signal should I be needed sooner.” Then he mounted and rode off, ignoring the cries and curious looks of those who saw him ride out.

An hour’s journey found him in his secret retreat, a place he wished he visited more often but simply could not manage because it was too far away, and his presence too important. Dismounting, he let his horse wander as it chose and strode to the tree in the center of the small clearing.

It was a massive, ancient oak tree. He did not know how old it was, but he sensed sometimes that it must be the oldest, or very nearly, tree in the forest. He’d come across this small place by chance, several years ago, not long after he had first been made a Paladin.

There was something about it, something he could never place, but the Goddess’ presence in him was always a feeling of warmth and sadness when he found himself here. He sat down beneath the tree, his back against it, and pulled up one knee, propping his arms upon it.

Alfrey. Even thinking about him was a knife in Sorin’s chest. Why? The question pounded relentlessly in his head. He could not let it go. Who would do such a thing, to a man who had never harmed anyone? Alfrey had been destined for the priesthood since the day he was born; some said he would someday succeed the High Priest.

Now they would never know.

Sorin realized he was crying again. Normally, with such grief, when he lost one of his men or came across yet another victim of the demons, it was Alfrey who soothed him and made him feel better. He’d never thought to face the day when Alfrey was not there. It left a raw wound that Sorin could not see every closing. Alfrey was his brother, he’d always been there, had always been Sorin’s friend first, and not regarded him with the awe that others felt when they looked upon the High Paladin.

He’d never felt more alone or lost in his life. Would he ever find his way back?

Even the Goddess’ reassurances, a gentle warmth easing through him, dulling the edge of his grief, did not truly help. If anything, She emphasized the loneliness, the lost feeling.

She also reminded him that in order to find Alfrey’s killer, he would need the help of a stranger—a stranger tainted with black magic. That could only mean so many things. A demon, but that was impossible. Demons were demons. It could mean someone who had been assaulted by a demon, and so was forever haunted by that. They tended to carry the taint of the magic which had struck them, hurt them, attempted to kill them.

It could also mean a necromancer. But that was as unlikely as a demon. They were only steps away from being demons, the way they moved comfortably amidst death, using magic that no true child of the Goddess would ever employ.

He winced as a sharp throb flared in his chest, and rubbed at it. What had he done to anger Her so? Something in what he had thought, but unraveling Her mysteries was not something for which he currently had the energy.

Leaning his head back he stared up into the leaves and branches of the oak tree, then let his eyes fall shut. Stupid, to be so careless here, but he’d never known demons to come this far into the Black Forest. They could not bear to come so close the Cathedral, the Heart of the Goddess. Not to mention the royal castle and city contained hundreds of thousands of paladins, knights, and priests.

Looking back down, he glanced absently around the little clearing. The Black Forest was one of the oldest portions of the Kingdom. Legend held that once the royal castle had stood in the area, the stronghold of the Holy Kingdom of the Goddess—but then civil war had come, and the country eventually torn into three pieces, and the old castle destroyed in the feuding.

But hundreds of people had searched and searched for the lost castle, and always their efforts were in vain. If it had existed, which Sorin doubted, all remainders of it had long since been eradicated by the Black Forest. Only the trees and the Goddess knew where it might have once stood.

He had never much cared, himself. He had his hands full with the castle he inhabited; there was no time for one which may or may not have existed hundreds of years ago. His little clearing was all that mattered to him.

It was not much in the end, but he was fond of it. The great oak occupied the center of it, like some ancient king himself. Only steps away was a little brook, not even deep enough to come up to his ankles. The rest was all grass and wildflowers. In a few more decades, Sorin suspected the trees would consume what remained of the clearing.

Leaning back again, he closed his eyes and focused only on breathing—slowly in, slowly out, slowly in, slowly out, trying desperately to clear his head so that he might be of some use. The Goddess’ warmth spread through him, stronger than ever, helping him as she always did, always had, always would. She would not let this go unanswered, Angelos was right. Truly acknowledging that, realizing that, soothed him and even drew a faint smile, and he finally relaxed, drifting off to sleep at the base of the ancient oak.

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