|“How do you summon a shadowmancer?”
Guilfrey was standing with his arms folded upon his chest, staring through the one-way mirror, looking at candidate eleven. Or what was left of him. The question was posed to no one in particular, Nellard noted, but was more of a thought said out loud. Nellard took off his ceremonial mask and stopped by the doorway to wait for Guilfrey to answer his own question:
“You kill him.” Guilfrey said softly after a few seconds. He shook his head. Not in disgust at the bloody scene of torture or of his role in the distasteful and murderous affair, but in dejection, because they have yet to find a single shadowmancer from 10 candidates so far. And this one showed as much potential as a rock.
“We have been killing them, haven’t we?” Nellard said, moving away from the doorway towards the sink to wash away the blood, the gore, the entrails. “And still no shadowmancer. This is a fool’s errand. A murderer’s task - ”
“Yet someone must do it,” Guilfrey cut him off. Their two ‘assistants’ inside the torture chamber were removing the limp body of candidate eleven from the chair he was nailed to. “Only this power can save Nedira.”
Nellard looked up from washing his hands. The assistants were chaining candidate eleven’s wrists to the ceiling, leaving him elevated several feet about the floor. One of them was having a lot of trouble. It isn’t easy work to torture someone you didn’t know. It isn’t easy humiliating and maiming his loved ones in front of him to see if he would snap and an ancient power within him would awaken. It isn’t easy believing in it anymore – their steadfast trust and faith in Guilfrey had been terribly shaken, Nellard was certain.
“Logistics and better planning could have saved Nedira.” Nellard countered unenthusiastically. He was simply going through the futile motions of swaying Guilfrey to put a stop to this heinous endeavor. He had been trying to convince Guilfrey in earnest for the first five to seven victims; “candidates,” they were called. By the next couple of candidates Nellard felt dull and dead inside. He no longer cared. This argument was merely a habit, a subterfuge to detract from the gruesome task at hand. He wore his mask again and took the ceremonial sword on the table near the sink, then walked into the torture chamber to ‘summon a shadowmancer.’
“Don’t start with that horse manure again. You sound like old Duncan.” Guilfrey told him as he left the room.
A minute later candidate eleven was dead, and despite regaining some strength in his panic to stop Nellard from slowly draining his blood from his neck, he was never able to summon shadows to his aid.
“Clean all of this up.” Nellard told the assistants, referring to the bodies of candidate eleven and his mother, younger brother, and female childhood friend. He then strode off to meet Guilfrey in the hallway outside the innermost facility of the old military complex.
“And them?” Nellard asked Guilfrey as they walked through the snaking, maze-like paths of the hallway.
“Those assistants? What were their names?”
“Henson and Waterwell.”
“I’ll remember. Let’s get to the Praetorian meeting.” Praetor General Guilfrey Allisorn said to his aide, Nellard, with an air of finality.
This was their eleventh attempt. And their eleventh failure. The fate of their country Nedira rested upon the awakening of shadowmancers, Guilfrey staunchly believes. The same shadowmancers of legend that were said to have established the ancient kingdom of Nedira, stretching from the capital city to the Northeast and Southwest crescents. Today, only the capital city remains, a small country caught in the middle of a war between the empires established in the crescents that were once its realm: Saille in the North and Veregast Romath in the South.
As an ally to the allied cities of Veregast Romath, the small country of Nedira stands in the way of Saille, a technologically advanced empire that seeks dominion over both crescents of land that were the most fertile in the continent. Veregast had been outmatched from the start of the war, but had been able to hold off for the past fifteen years. Now, however, Saille’s siege engines and aerial warhorses are poised to pounce. Veregast is hard-pressed to defend itself against such might, and can no longer spare reinforcements for Nedira. Nedira is alone. Guilfrey thinks he has an answer: shadowmancers.
Shadowmancers are a powerful scattered clan whose bloodline allowed them to control darkness as a form of matter. Said to have expanded Nedira’s influence to both crescents in an age long past, the last of the Shadowmancers were not born knowing their bloodline. Their powers were brought out by adversity and strong emotions and death, thus Guilfrey’s inhuman methods of summoning the abilities of candidate shadowmancers. These “unnatural” mancers, however, were weak wielders of magic tricks with shadows. None were as powerful as those of legend. As powerful as Guilfrey wants them to be to sink aerial fleets and smite siege engines.
Nellard thought all this too unrealistic to yield any measure of success beyond serial killing. He was tasked with finding prospective candidates – people who might have the shadowmancer bloodline. In essence, he guessed who might be worth trying and is responsible for their and their loved ones’ horrible deaths.
Sunlight now, as they finally got clear of the old military complex. They walked all the way to the main building, where the Praetorian Council will be meeting with their Czar, their country’s leader. As they walked Nellard spoke his mind: “The inquisitors will puzzle this out soon enough. This will be exposed for all to know. Eleven dead candidates, and their family and friends, all for the sake of chasing fairy tales.”
“A fairy tale is just what we need,” Guilfrey said in his deep voice, ”We do need a happy ending don’t we?”
Nellard couldn’t even react to the twisted sarcasm, as he knew Guilfrey did not enjoy the task, but only did it as he believed it worth trying.
“Are you certain about the new candidate?” Guilfey suddenly asked as they neared the entrance to the main building.
Nellard sighed. This candidate is different. It might actually weigh heavily on him to kill this one. “Yes. A reliable source personally told me what he witnessed.” He intentionally said he instead of she.
“Good then. Some good news to silence the council.”
But the council was far from silent, as they would discover minutes later.
A Few Hours Earlier
“Sten, you like me, don’t you?” Thera asked him out of the blue, and the suddenness of the question – and Thera’s soft eyes and gentle voice – caught him completely off guard.
“W-wha-? What do you mean?” Sten was struggling not to stutter, or worse, choke. “O-o-of course I like you. You’re l-like my best friend, right?” What is this all of a sudden? Have I been found out? His long-standing crush on Thera, one of the most beautiful girls in their school, had been a secret for two years running now.
Thera sighed, had a thoughtful look, and said: “I know, Sten. It’s just that I can’t understand some people around me – like they’re acting all weird and stuff around me, and I’m sure I didn’t do anything wrong to them.”
Sten breathed a sigh of relief. His secret stays safe. He regained his composure – well, as much composure as he can around Thera. “Who are you talking about?” he inquired.
After five more minutes of Thera confiding her worries to Sten, the school bell rang and the familiar announcement of the break’s adjournment was heard throughout the school halls. Sten and Thera walked towards their separate rooms. Thera came across Lucia, a friend from her class, and they and Sten parted ways.
“So?” Lucia asked Thera.
A heavy sigh. “I’m never gonna get it out of him.” Thera said, looking back slightly at Sten.
“It’s too obvious by now, anyway.” Lucia said. “He’s always been that way around you. With any other girl he’s even rowdy! With you he’s all gentle and like.”
Thera merely nodded.
“I say you make the first move!” Lucia announced. “Take the initiative, Thera.” She moved in front of her and complemented her advice with actions: “Just go over there, grab him by the balls, and ask him if he likes you or not!”
Thera reddened noticeably. “B-b-ba… what are you taking about?!” Her voice was a decibel too shrill.
Lucia rolled her eyes. “It’s a figure of speech, little miss innocent. Unless you want to go straight to the point of course…” She teased Thera, closing and opening her hands as if squeezing something.
Thera quickly circled away from Lucia and ran into their room, still bright-faced. “Get away from me, you. You’re a perverted old man in a girl’s body!” Thera said as she fled.
“This love story will take a while if you don’t, y’know!” Lucia chased after her. “I’ll even show you how to grab ‘em!”
“Get away from meeee!”
After classes, Thera and Lucia waited for Sten. “Hey lover boy!” Lucia announced as Sten arrived. She got an inconspicuous elbow to the side from Thera.
“Huh?” Sten asked, lost in daydream.
“Nothing,” Thera said quickly. “Are you okay, Sten?”
“Yeah, you look like a donkey’s ass.” Lucia said, parrying another elbow from Thera.
Ignoring the clever jest, or simply not realizing it, Sten slowly nodded. “It’s just that… it happened again.” Sten said as they started walking towards the front gate.
“Oh. That.” Lucia said. Her playful, teasing attitude fled her for the moment. She had known Sten longer than Thera. She introduced the two and laughed until her stomach hurt when Sten couldn’t say a word in front of Thera, ultimately fleeing the scene, only to return with a ridiculous excuse later in the day. She was there when Sten first showed Thera a mysterious “trick,” as he called it. In front of a small, bright strobe light that illuminated part of a wall, Sten held his arm out, making sure they saw its shadow on the wall. He breathed deeply, then shook his arm up and down. A second later, his shadow did the same.
He laughed at the incredulity of the moment. Surprisingly, Thera laughed as well. Lucia was just freaked out. For Sten, all worked well, as he seemed to have found something to impress Thera with. For Lucia, these demonstrations – as they became more frequent and more elaborate – always sent chills down her spine. And now, as Sten noted, something happened again.
“And this time a teacher saw it.” Sten added.
“What? What happened?” Thera inquired, genuine concern in her voice.
“I was by the large window in the auditorium. I was alone. But the teacher was in the building slightly across, in a higher floor than I was.” Sten began, “Remember the few minutes when it got dark and rained like there was a five-minute thunderstorm? I was there in the auditorium.”
“Yes, that was pretty weird.” Thera commented. Lucia said nothing.
“Well, it seems the teacher saw something weird with my shadow when the brightest flash of lightning illuminated the auditorium…” He stopped.
A minute of silence passed.
“Well… what was it?” Lucia finally asked, more curious than freaked out now.
“She said my shadow was too huge, and shaped like I wore a cape with a bat-like edge.” Sten said as he looked down at his shoes.
“What did you say?” Thera asked.
“I said she might have been imagining it. I added that I wasn’t playing with any prop coats or capes in the auditorium, just to make it sound more rational.” Sten said. “I… I can do stuff with my shadow, but I can’t change its form…” Sten concluded, slightly frowning.
“Can’t you?” Lucia asked. Silence settled.
Just then, they reached the front gate of the school, and Sten’s limo waited. He bid his goodbyes, and left. Lucia and Thera waited for a few minutes for Thera’s brother. He arrived, and Lucia went her way as well.
After a few minutes of walking in silence, Thera’s brother asked a question: “Anything wrong, Thera? You said the meekest of “Hi’s” and since then you’ve been silent and lost in thought.“
Thera sighed. “It’s nothing. How about you? You’ve been acting all cold and detached lately. Even mother’s noticed.”
“It’s nothing.” He shot back. “Besides, I’m the same way to you, aren’t I?”
“Well, almost.” Thera thought for a few moments, then decided to confide everything she knew about Sten to her brother.
Her brother walked in silence for a few moments. “Wow. Sten Grathis, huh?” The Grathis family was a wealthy, influential family in Nedira – indeed, the current Czar is a relative of theirs. “Pretty weird or is it just curious in a boyfriend?” He asked her.
“Both.” Thera said with a smile as she pushed her brother away. “He’s not my boyfriend. But you know, before today he always liked how he did that without knowing how. It was like a game to him. But today he was a bit… unsettled.”
“He’ll get over it. Besides, the teacher was indeed probably just seeing things.” Her brother comforted her.
After a while, Thera smiled. “Yeah. Thanks, Nellard. You always know what to say.”
Back at the Praetorian Meeting
Praetor General Richter Duncan opened the meeting, paid his respects to the Czar, and greeted everyone seated along the length of the table – greeting Guilfrey with mock respect, as usual.
“Well, shall we begin with the agenda?” Praetor General and Finance Secretary Milfred Vone asked the council.
“Shall we begin by asking my good friend Guilfrey here where he and his lackey have been?” Duncan intoned. Everyone looked at Guilfrey.
“We were inspecting the old buildings. I intend to make it the base from which I commence with searching for suitable mancers to train after it is refurbished.” Guilfrey said.
“Again, with that agenda.” Duncan commented.
“And again with your agenda against it.” Guilfrey countered.
Vone held up a hand and intervened: “As the Czar has decreed, we let special operations general Allisorn handle his own affairs.” He looked at Duncan. “I still have it covered anyway. So far the only good news is that we are not in debt. We are, in fact, richer that we have been for the past decade.”
“And the bad news?” Duncan asked. “What about on your side Guilfrey? Bad news?” He never lets an opportunity to make Guilfrey look bad pass him by.
Guilfrey cleared his throat. “Two more of my special operatives have been declared MIA. Henson and Waterway were their names, I think. We fear they may be dead behind enemy lines so we may never retrieve their bodies.”
“Again, huh? This is what, the tenth, eleventh time you lost a couple of special ops personnel on missions?” Duncan asked.
“Their goal is critical, and the danger is very real and constant because of it.” Guilfrey said.
“Speaking of real and constant danger,” a shallow voice said, “the disappearances of people from the city continue. The inquisitors said that yet again, the recent incident involved people who knew each other – were close to each other, in fact.” It was Intelligence Secretary Vaughn Dushter. “We cannot hope to stem the tide of panic this will directly cause, not with war looming overhead adding to the tension.” He addressed the Czar directly.
Czar Mikhael Grathis spoke out. “Have double border patrols and increase security. This is the least we can do to quell fear within our own walls. What is the situation outside, Vaughn?” The Czar was a long-time friend of the Intelligence Secretary.
“We expect Saille to launch a full force offensive in five days, at least.” Vaughn said. The energy of the room disappeared. Guilfrey took this opportunity to declare his ‘good news.’
“Not to fear, comrade generals and mighty Czar.” He announced. “Before I even implement my plans for the shadowmancer program, we may have a breakthrough in our hands.” He said. Duncan scoffed audibly. The others were neutral.
The meeting went on for a few more minutes, and then the Czar dismissed them to their responsibilities. As Guilfrey and Nellard walked along the immense corridors of the main building, Nellard put out a single request from Guilfrey.
“General, this is the only time I ask for something like this.” Nellard said afterward.
Guilfrey looked at him directly in the eye. “You know we do anything and everything we can to summon their abilities. But in this case…” he let up somewhat, losing some of his intensity, “I suppose given the talent of the candidate as you described, perhaps just threatening his loved ones and physically pressuring him alone would be enough.“ The general concluded as he walked away.
Nellard sighed in relief. If Sten was the candidate, then Thera would have been abducted along with two other close people in his life. Nellard was beyond caring now, but his precious sister Thera was what kept him connected to reality. He will not stand if anything were to happen to her.
A Few Hours Later
“Yes, General?” A voice suddenly called out from the shadows of Guilfrey’s office.
“Sten Grathis. Milla Grathis. Lucia Silverheart. Thera Lontrey.” Guilfrey answered.
The prominent and familiar names gave his assassin pause. “The same modus?” He asked in a deep, raspy voice.
“Yes. Bring them to the facility. Acquire two new devout assistants. Have you disposed of Henson and Waterwell?”
“Good. And one more thing.” Guilfrey said.
“Ask. It shall be.”
“My aide, Nellard Lontrey.” Guilfrey scratched involuntarily at his growing beard stubble. “Incapacitate him.” He gave his order. “Before you take the four I mentioned earlier.”
“Permanently?” He asked.
“No. I still need him... But depending on how things go with this candidate, he may not want to work with me anymore.” Guilfrey said thoughtfully.
“Incapacitate him. Kill him if candidate twelve fails to show promise?” The assassin asked.
Guilfrey sighed. He won’t find an aide like that again. “Yes.”
The Grathis Manse
Sten was in his room. Looking at his shadow. Somehow, he felt that his shadow was looking back.
He held up his right hand, willing his shadow not to follow suit. But it raised its corresponding hand anyway, without delay. He did the same with his left hand. Same result. He was tense, perspiring freely. He did the experiment again for a few times, then gave up. He wanted to relax and let the stress leave his body. “Thera…” He said out loud.
He turned around and flopped facedown onto his bed. He started to get sleepy. Suddenly he shifted his position to lie facing the wall. But as he did so, he froze. His shadow was still sitting on the bed.
To Be Continued… I Think.