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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Action/Adventure · #1418187
Part 2 of the Grendel Rising series
Previously began in "Grendel Rising

Grendel walked as briskly as he could back to his chambers. He couldn't hurry too much lest he offended one of the Holy Dead or a passing Necromancer of higher standing. Indeed, several of the dried and preserved corpses mounted in alcoves in the walls whispered their congratulations and fealty to him. Each wore the mask he or she had worn in life and the bandages they were wrapped in had long since turned as brown as their skin.

They were once Necromancers of the Dead River and many of them had founded this great city of unlife, this tomb of Nec'rashin (Deathdwell, in Common). These Masters had died defending the Order and so are kept for their knowledge or had died of natural causes after an unnatural life and became wraiths. Some few had simply moved beyond the Fifth gate of the River during some extended research or dialogue. These souls would not be returning for a long while, sometimes sane or at all, and so made no notice of Grendel.

He knew better than to accept any offer of alliance with the dead, or so he was taught. While one should always be respectful of the dead, one should also not accept the offer of one who desires, above all, the warm essence of your life. Master Hienriche always instructed that undead service must be commanded on one's behalf by Nagash. Otherwise, one will inevitably become the other's tool. Consequently, Grendel merely bowed and uttered the short prayer of thanks before any corpse that offered him greeting.

A few of his living comrades passed in and nodded quickly. There was Leeon, with his snarling cat mask, who nodded, Daelia, wearing the face of a weeping Praetos, who etched the Sigil of Nagash in the air as she passed, and strong Ophanelous, wearing a grinning skull, who slapped Grendel on his side as he passed by.

Grendel was particularly aware that this was the first and last time that his brothers in the Dark Art had seen his face. Master Hienriche and Master Lucifront didn't count, of course, because Heinriche took care of him and Lucifront knew everyone. Blackmail over one's identity wasn't common among those of the Order, but it wasn't forbidden. Grendel hoped they had had a good look; he half looked forward to destroying those who turned out to be an enemy.

He could legally, at least by the law of the Order, kill the enemies of his Master Hienriche. He would never act without permission though, but if his Master was threatened he could. Of course, once he was an independent Necromancer, instead of a Neophyte, his Master was on his own. In any case, it wasn't uncommon for a Neophyte or Master to murder one or the other if either felt threatened enough. Grendel hoped it wouldn't come to that with Master Heinriche and that knowledge would be shared freely until genuine madness, not ambition, would force his hand. Master Hienriche was a formidable Wizard on his own, not merely in Necromancy. Even so, Grendel also knew that he was the only Necromancer to be completely trained as such from an early age. He knew little other magic, but his Negative Energy conduction was unnaturally strong. Yes, thought Grendel, there is still much to learn.

Grendel now found himself inside his private room and he closed the door and locked the door with both deadbolt and arcane lock. He went over to the basin of water sitting on a table beneath a small mirror and dipped his injured hand in. The cool water helped wash away all the blood and grit. With his other hand, Grendel poured some of the water over his face. It was ice cold and shocked him back to awareness. He looked down and saw that his hand was nearly blue.

"Much to learn indeed, Grendel the Young," a small and distant voice said behind him.

Grendel glanced in the mirror and saw nothing, but the icy water and eerie voice could only mean one thing. He spun around, jostling some of the water from the bowl, and, using his new wand, traced a quick Mark in the air against incorporeal dead.

Laughter tinkled through the air around him. Grendel saw nothing in the room with him, but such is often the case with ghosts, spirits, and, Nagash have pity, wraiths. "Peace and blessed silence, Grendel. You have nothing to fear from me. I had hoped to touch your face, but I'll settle for showing my form to you."

On the low bed in the opposite corner what seemed like a faint reflection in glass formed into the shape of a person. A woman, in fact. The image appeared to flicker from time to time, as if from a breeze or current. One moment she appeared whole, the next as a rotting corpse. Her hair was long and black; it flowed through the small pillow on the bed instead of over it. Her eyes locked with his, though they faded in and out of existence faster than the rest of image. Her naked breasts did not droop, though Grendel did not feel compelled to gaze any longer, and her hips and long legs served to cover all else. They did not cover, however, the many scars and fresh cuts that spiraled around her legs and arms. Besides her dark hair, she was entirely shades of white. She was, in the technical sense, a shade.

"Nice to meet you, Grendel. You're more handsome than I thought you would be. Do you like me?" the shade asked, running an ethereal hand over her body. Now that she was closer to the physical world, her voice was a tad deeper and seductive. Grendel thought she seemed familiar.

"I should hope I do seem familiar," she scolded, seemingly reading his mind, even as she smiled at him. "You met my body, though I was not using it at the time. I'm told you enjoyed my... its presence."

Grendel remembered just then that he was still in the loincloth from his Binding and his hand still bled. "Weather you are or not, shade, you are intruding on the privacy of a Bound Necromancer and I would ask you leave," he said, trying his best to muster the command needed to banish her completely.

"Shade?" she said, her voice trailing off into the void, "I suppose I am, but where are my manners? I was called Anjel in life and I am a gift to you in death. Will you really turn me away?"

Grendel sighed, "A gift? From who? It's a more like a joke. I am really too tired to deal with pranks."

Anjel's lips trembled and it fell away from her face a moment later. "From Lord Lucifront, of course. Did you not get the letter he sent? Oh! There it is on your chest. I guess I became impatient for you to read it."
Anjel tried to pick it up, but only succeeded in jostling it just enough to knock it from the chest at the end of the bed before her fingers passed through.

Grendel picked up the envelope from the floor. It was stamped with Lucifront's seal. Grendel wondered how he could have missed seeing it. He broke the seal and did his best not to bleed on the paper as he read it.

Congratulations on your Binding. It will be a lonely path to true enlightenment. You will always have the support of the Order for knowledge and skills, but we will not coddle you forever. In that vein, I have recalled the spirit of sacrifice you met previously. Anjel will be a valuable asset to you in both the world ethereal and her power with blood magic is substantial. She can also bring you back from the River but once if she likes you. Let her in your mind and she will be a powerful ally. If she displeases you, order her to return to me.

Nagash have pity on you both,

Grendel read it over twice, just to be certain. He glanced over the edge at Anjel after the first read-through. She was kneeled expectantly on the bed and gave a lopsided smile which Grendel presumed was supposed to be seductive.

"Well," Grendel said slowly, "If Master Lucifront trusts or has commanded your service to Nagash, I can accept that. But how would a harem girl know anything of Sanguinities? Prove it and heal my hand."

Anjel very nearly purred, though it became a death rattle, "If it pleases you." She slinked off the edge of the bed towards the basin by the mirror. A trail of ectoplasm formed in her wake, but quickly evaporated.

Grendel followed her lead and stepped back. He felt a cool breeze on his neck and found Anjel balanced on the table itself. Grendel felt fortunate she weighed but a feather.

Anjel smiled and said, "Excellent. I'm impressed at how much blood you left. I hope you're lightheaded, it will help. Oh! And a dash of demon spittle. That will make things much easier. What a party you boys much have..."

Grendel snapped, "Get on with it." Then, after a moment's consideration, added, "Kindly."

Anjel smiled at that. "I have one small thing to ask. Kindly dispel the Ward you cast. I can't touch you otherwise."

"How much is needed?"

"None at all, my master. I meant that my magic won't work otherwise."

Grendel was both greatly irritated at being corrected, even politely, and impressed by her knowledge. He twisted a finger in the appropriate way and the ward dropped. Anjel smiled.

She whispered a few words, which echoed and bounced around the room, before she funneled them into the bowl with her hand. A reaction occurred inside the crimson water and a few strands of black appeared. They rapidly grew in size until the water, blood and all, had become a mud bath the color of black clay. Moments later, as Anjel chanted shrilly over it, the mud steamed and boiled. Insect carcasses and fungus infested twigs floated to the surface.

Grendel saw Anjel's eyes turn a luminous white and her hair whipped in a nonexistent wind. She spoke quite clearly, for the first time, "Put your hand in now!"

Grendel plunged his hand into the bubbling liquid and felt the incredible temperature and the instant weight on his hand. Grendel gritted his teeth and kept his hand as steady as he could. It felt as if the bone was being pulled right from his body.

It was a few more agonizing minutes until he felt no more pain in first his hand, then his finger. Grendel's arm shuddered once, causing him to flinch.

Anjel whispered, "Done, milord."

As he washed the muck off his hand in the corner sink, Grendel could feel the replacement finger there. It was merely a copy of his other index finger, but it would do.

"Have I pleased milord?" Anjel whined behind me.

Grendel dried his hands, and then turned around. "Yes. I thank you for saving me the trouble." He watched her feign polite fear of him. "Alright, you can be my assistant." Anjel perked up. "But you only speak when you are asked something or if you detect something I should know. You may act to protect me or when commanded. And if I catch you watching my dreams I'll have you banished back to your frozen swamp in the River for a millennia. Understood?"

Anjel bowed low, looking more like the beautiful woman she used to be than the corpse, and said, "Completely, Master Grendel. Lord Master Lucifront taught me about the conditions. You will be served as you request."

"Then trace your name for me." One's true name held power over that person. Few Inepts we aware of this, but every mage had a pseudonym. Few magics outside of Necromancy required a name, though.

Grendel thought for a moment that he saw her hesitate, realizing that she be a slave, but then she smiled sweetly, or hideously, depending when you looked. With a finger, she quickly wrote the sigil that denoted her given name, Angelika Hraedine. It glowed vaguely white in the air. Grendel caught it with his left hand and traced and spoke the complex pattern and words for a spectral binding. While the pattern glowed with a black light he reached into his component pouch and found a small fragment of cold iron. Placing it in his left palm, he tapped the iron with his wand then spoke the command words, along with Anjel's true name, and dashed the floating sigils with a sweep of his wand. The magic released, the iron contorted to become neck irons. One end bound itself to his neck, the other to hers. They were connected by a nearly invisible chain. With another command word, the chain shortened, dragging the shade towards him. Not that Anjel resisted. She nearly leaped into Grendel's body. The moment that her entrance was irreversible, the shackles fell away into iron dust and a white film remained. The binding was finished.

"Ahh," purred Anjel, her voice sounded warm and alive, "warmth and substance again." Grendel felt her spirit squirm uncomfortably inside him.

"What did we agree on, Angelika?" Grendel growled.

"Sorry, Master, I'll be quiet."

"Thanks. I need to rest after today. Wake me come dawn; I'll be returning with my Master then."

"Yes, milord," she said in a tiny voice.

Grendel lay on the small bed and sub vocalized a word that put magical darkness over the torch. He quickly found a cold, quiet sleep.

There was a faded dream of fangs and power. Of cries of pain and bright light that Grendel wasn't sure was the Sun or a blow to the head.

This memory quickly faded as there was a loud knocking on both the door and the magical locks, the latter resonated in his head. Grendel had been up for least up for a minute or two, thinking about the dream and getting his supplies, so he spoke the pass to the lock without hesitation. After all, it was Hienriche's mark he'd made on the lock.

The door swung open behind him and Master Hienriche strode in, his lush black robes sliding behind him. He always complained to himself about the cold, like many wizards do. Though most that do are much older than Hienriche and don't brew potions for a living. That is, besides plotting against the Conclave. There was money to be made here in more specialized potions and slates (thin ceramics that have been enchanted with a single spell that activate when broken) than more mundane services through the Conclave.

He also wore his mask, of course. It had two huge, flat opaque eyes and the mouth and nose was elongated and ended with several cylindrical chambers capped with what seemed like filters. Hienriche once told Grendel that the mask was fashioned after an ancient device that filtered harmful vapors from the air. The technology was beyond the Conclave, but the magic was not. Weather it worked or not, it made his master seem a very misshapen insect.

Hienriche himself was very thin, which made the thick lining of his robe seem too big for him, but Grendel could see how that would be warmer than most. Maybe too warm; Grendel didn't mind the cool air at all. "We're all ready to go," he said simply. "You did tolerably last night." Grendel could tell Hienriche was not smiling. He never smiled; he usually spoke evenly and without emotion. Though when he was angry, you knew it all too well.

"Thank you, sire," said Grendel. He was glad to receive the compliment, but was twice over pleased that he had had five hours sleep and not heard a sound from Anjel. "I'm ready when you are. We'll be home by midday, I'm sure."

"I'm pleased you think so... Grendel is it?" he paused for a moment. "But you haven't got everything together yet."

Grendel was about to protest when he was interrupted by Hienriche, "You didn't introduce me to Anjel."

"I was going to. I'd thought you would have known about it."

"Some. Can she speak?"

Grendel grudgingly said yes.

From some point just above Grendel's head came Anjel's voice, "A pleasure to meet you Master. My talents are yours to exploit as you desire."

"Do not disappoint us, Anjel," Hienriche said simply.

"By all means, Sire; I know the price the Order asks of disappointment. It will not be paid again."

To Grendel he said, "She will serve you well, but do not get too attached."

"I intend not to, Master," Grendel replied.

"Then let's be going." With that, Hienriche turned sharply and swung the door open with a wave of his hand and left down the corridor. Grendel grabbed his pack and placed his new mask over his head. He used to wear a plain mask made of wood with a simple designation symbol. He used to be known, when he was officially noticed, as "Quai'ri" or Fifth. This mask, however, was crafted by Grendel over the last few months building up to his Binding. Carved from a large cord of driftwood he found one day by the river, it was white as bone and resembled the face of the first man Grendel had killed. It had sunken cheek bones and seemed to be crying in anguish. It fit Grendel perfectly.

He hurried after Master Hienriche.

They went down many twisting passages, each darker than the last as they went deeper into the depths of the city. Deathdwell was built into a mountain near the city of Savhaven, the seat of Conclave power. At least, that was the nearest city; there were many boroughs further out and tiny villages even further. The mountain itself was said by the Inepts in the villagers to be cursed, for good reason, so they do not approach it Normally. The Conclave officially dismissed those fears as superstition, but they knew not exactly what or if there was anything within. After all, almost all Necromancers were Conclave wizards and could lose documents or ridicule those who would seek to investigate.

There was a surface near the peak where undead guardians keep watch, but the mountain and surrounding hills had many caves and tunnels that snake outward for dozens of miles. Grendel and Hienriche had just left the carven walls of the city and natural rock seemed to close around them. This deep down, there were no lights and Grendel could hear water dripping someplace. He heard Hienriche move ahead of him; his mask gave him the ability to see in total darkness. Grendel, for his part, lit a torch to help him navigate down the rocky slope ahead of him.

"Careful, boy, the Guardian comes. You can speak to it this time. You've earned it," Hienriche said, taking a few steps back to let Grendel forward.

A cold breeze grazed Grendel's mask and he heard the deep, heavy steps of something huge sound and echo around him. His torch illuminated most of the cave, a small trickle of water wandered through the center towards a hole to his left, but the source of the footsteps could not be seen. Grendel spoke a few words to himself and blew air over the torch. The fire burned a barely visible blue and much of the cavern was plunged back into darkness. Grendel strained to look through the gloom. The magical light from the torch was supposed to reveal the guardian of this tunnel. Only a bat dared swoop into the flickering light.

"Grendel, behind you," Hienriche stated.

Grendel slowly turned, not wanting to appear a threat, and found the wraith poised to strike behind him, its features outlined in silver light. Grendel knew that another moment without the enchanted torch and his life would have been sucked from him like so much marrow from a bone.

"Respect to you, tireless one. I am Grendel and my Master and I seek passage," Grendel said, bringing the torch closer to illuminate his mask. He hoped he met with approval. Only a Bound necromancer could reason with or even see such a creature.

The wraith did not move in the slightest, its long fingers inches from his head. Its red eyes gazed at him, conveying nothing. Grendel knew what was required here and reached into a pocket in his pack. He pulled out a squirming rat, from one of the cages in the city, and offered it to the undead creature. Grendel had to hold it carefully lest it bite his hand in its terror.

"Drop morsel. Be on way. Stray not," was all the wraith said, through it sounded more like bats screeching from the ceiling.

Grendel dropped the rodent and his torch flared back to normal. The undead guardian was immediately invisible again and the rat scurried away. The wraith would hunt the animal for a few minutes before devouring its life-force, but they were safe so long as they did not explore.

Grendel and Hienriche made their way from the cave and into the rough tunnel ahead. Only the occasional freezing breeze informed them when the wraith passed near. Or maybe it was just a breeze. One could never be certain down here.

Occasionally, they'd enter a cave lit by a crevice from above or find a small waterfall to top off their water pouches. They made excellent time as they had made this trip many times before.

After a few hours of travel, the two necromancers found themselves at a section of cave tunnel that had caved in. It was a clever deception and Master Hienriche spoke a single command word and the myriad of rocks slid across the floor and up the walls, clearing the way.

Grendel was more anxious to get through this final guardian than the wraith. The wraith had intelligence, of a sort, and, though it wanted to consume the life of all it saw, it could be bargained with. These rocks, however, were merely enchanted and followed rigid instructions. They would make a path for most common command words and many of the lesser known ones. In the case where the wrong word is used, the rocks would pummel with their sharp edges any that tried to pass through. Uncertainty about Hienriche's pronunciation made Grendel wary that they'd set off the trap.

He followed behind his Master, alert to any shifting of the rocks. Only when they were safely through did Grendel allow himself to relax. Grendel even smiled to himself at the thought of some fool going the other way and surviving the trap only to be drained dry by the wraith.

They soon found the cave mouth and were careful not to disturb any of the guano or animals bones on the floor. Both Grendel and Hienriche both donned their normal clothing and packed their masks away. Hienriche switched his Necromancer robe and mask for his Conclave robes and circlet using an extra-dimensional space with a tiny finger gesture. Grendel had to pack the mask and robe away before changing into the clothes of a peasant retainer. It all took no more than two minutes, but Hienriche tapped his foot with impatience.

They emerged from the cave, which for all the senses appeared to be a bear's winter home, into Wayfen Forest, which was more or less west of Deathdwell. The canopy wasn't especially thick, but the younger evergreen trees and chest-high ferns helped cover their exit. A warm breeze dispelled the coolness of the cave and bright sunlight through the leaves blinded them for a moment.

They took a different route than the last time they'd been. It would be foolish indeed to leave a well worn path through the forest. They found a deer trail going in the direction of the road and followed it for nearly an hour before they found the road. It was wide enough for two carts to pass side by side and a few holes in the road were repaired with magically crafted stones.

Grendel ensured there were none coming down the road as Hienriche drew a wide circle in the dirt and muttered over a clump of horse hair. He sprinkled some white powder from a capped shaker over the hair and threw it into the circle. Light flared and two horses appeared from the glare.

Though they both from Hienriche's stable and had been summoned before, they always suffered from disorientation. Grendel knew them both quite well. Hienriche's horse, Milpitas, was a black stallion that snorted and shook his head. Hienriche soothed him with one hand and fed him oats from his pocket with the other. Grendel's horse, Gibbralter, was a younger painted horse, brown and white in splotches, stamped a front hoof and glanced around in fear until it spied Grendel. He fed the horse an apple from his pack. "Hey, old friend, it's just me," he said into Gibbralter's ear. The horse nudged Grendel's face in reply.

The two necromancers checked the saddles quickly and mounted up, now for all appearances a Conclave Wizard and his retainer. They rode at a trot along the path, which took them mostly north west, until the sun was nearly overhead.

The forest abruptly ended in a neat row of evergreens and a rolling field of grass swept ahead of them. On the nearest hill a collection of buildings surrounded a soaring tower that sat on the apex. A tall stone wall surrounded the entire hill. It was the Hienriche Estate.

Its construction had been commissioned by Hienriche decades ago and the blue-grey Shadestone that the walls were made of had been carted hundreds of leagues from Alluvian quarries. The roofs were high-peaked and wide-eaved and the polished slate shingles shone brightly in the sunlight. The tower was connected to the main house by a covered archway on the third floor. Original oak and pine trees grew around the base of the tower. The roofs of the servants quarters, stables, store house were just visible above the wall, and Grendel could see the second floor of the guest house.

As they rode up the easy slope of the hill, Grendel looked over his shoulder to the right, as he usually did and saw the town of Maelbolg unveiled below him. It was about an half hour's ride and was the place Grendel knew best.

The buildings and homes were all made in the same style as Hienriche's home, though with much more mundane materials, of course. Single or two floored houses with whitewashed sides and brown shingled roofs for the Inept quarter and larger stone buildings with slate shingles in the much smaller Conclave quarter. Several stone and glass domes covered the government and public service buildings. Plumes of smoke from the chimneys drifted up lazily in the still air. Curiously, but not uncommonly, the smoke seemed to curl in a wide spiral around the central structure that dwarfed all other constructs in the town. Grendel sometimes missed the sense of awe from his youth when he saw the Conclave Tower, this one called Maelbaigore. It seemed a massive eight sided crystal shard that had erupted from the earth. The eight sides sloped up steeply for as tall as a ten floored house, then less so for four floors, then more shallow still for two more floors until all sides came together at a point. The faces and corners were all well defined and sharp and the material was colored in twisted bands of black, red and blue. Grendel liked to imagine its growth in the center of town from a shard placed in the earth to consuming the nearby buildings until it was fully grown. Hienriche spent much time there, as expected, but Grendel had been left to wonder. He was, to the outside world, a peasant. An Inept servant of the great Hienriche, called Malchello to the Conclave.

They soon approached the gate and a huge eye wreathed in blue flames tracked them. It was a standard gate sentry and it had let the grounds-keeper aware of our approach and identity. "Hail, Master Malchello, Master Pieter. Everything well in the City?" said Draenos, the head servant. He swung open the gate and nodded to both of us. He was old, crag-faced and his short hair was snow white, even for an Inept. Even so he seemed frail and a lazy left eye gave the impression of insanity, he was very capable, intelligent and strong. Hienriche had told Grendel once that he'd had worked for his family since Hienriche been nursing. In fact, he'd gone on, the childhood disease that scarred his face practically ensured he couldn't find work at any other household and so was eternally grateful to the Machello family.

"Quite well, Draenos," Hienriche said curtly. "Pieter and I have much yet to discuss. Pass our lunch to one of the tower servants, would you?"

"Certainly, milord," he said simply, taking the reins of both horses as Hienriche and Grendel dismounted and leading them to a waiting stable boy to be taken care of.

The two of them went inside the main house without another word and parted ways in the marble-floored foyer. Hienriche went up the curved staircase, presumably to his quarters, as Grendel went to his. He dropped off everything that wasn't essential; He would always keep his wand and a small spellbook of Conclave spells hidden in secret pockets. He then made his way up to the tower and waited a minute before Hienriche arrived.

"Very timely, boy. I've a lesson for you, then we've some work to do," he said as he brushed past him and dismissed the wards to the tower. Grendel followed him inside.

The two necromancers climbed up the spiral staircase by witchlight: orbs of white light that roamed the shaft and would assist any authorized person. With exception of the entrance landing, and the basement, all the doors to the interior of the tower were on the opposite side at every full turn of the stairs.

Hienriche stopped at a door nearly at the top of the tower and unlocked with a sub vocalized word. It was one of his many research labs. As they entered, a huge oil lamp flared to life and the mirrors surrounding it reflected the light evenly around the room. The lab was crescent shaped, as most large rooms here we, and the walls were lined with bookshelves of tattered tomes. Several central tables were littered with bits and pieces of arcane objects. A huge curved chalkboard covered the far wall. It greatly used by Hienriche to document the various pieces he found interesting. Grendel had only been here twice: once as part of the tour Hienriche had provided many years ago and when Grendel had actually found an artifact worth bringing in.

The object had been a smooth hunk of melted green stone he'd found embedded in a forest path. It wasn't like any rock he'd ever seen and once he'd pried it free, he'd noticed how light it was and that the green surface flaked away in places and left behind a smooth, milky surface. Hienriche, as it had turned out, had many like it, but this one contained a chip of exotic metals buried within it. It was, or so he'd said, made of a single long strand of atoms, bound in a long and complex chain. The Conclave called it Flowood or Flow Wood, though it was obvious it came from no tree.

Grendel closed the door behind him as Hienriche rushed to the table nearest them. He picked up an object and held it in his hand; it was a melted and dented lump of silver. "What is this, apprentice?"

"Flowood, clearly," Grendel replied.

"Clearly," Hienriche said, irritated, "But what was it?"

Grendel looked more closely at the indented and flaking lump. "No idea, master."

"A cup," he said, putting it back down on the table. Grendel was more disappointed than he had expected.

Hienriche went to another table and picked up a tattered bundle. "And this?"

"An effigy doll. I can make out arms, legs, face, hair." Some Conclave wizards could cause pain or discomfort in others if an effigy doll was made in someone's likeness and enchanted using a bit of their hair or a nail. One then pricked it with needles or fire. It was generally seen as nothing more than the prank of an apprentice, especially since the Conclave preferred more direct approaches.

"Partly correct. It is a doll, but not used in magic. It is, however, made of unnatural fibers, a type of Flowood stretched and spun into thread."

"Amazing," Grendel said, failing to hide his own irritation.

"Don't you see? Why would a society waste exotic materials on a child's plaything? A common cup?"

"They must had some way to make much of it, then."

"Yes, exactly. Every wooden cup, every brick, and every wool shirt must be made from raw materials, by hand, though we some mechanical aids. But the Conclave cannot make this cup or this shirt," Hienriche said, indicating the two items on the table.

Grendel thought he might continue, but he turned and shuffled to another table closer to the chalkboard. He picked up a small sphere with a capped end. "What do you think this is?"

Looking closer, there was a small metal rod going through the cap. Grendel thought it seemed loose, that if one tugged on it, it would come free. He was impressed it had lasted all this time. As realization dawned on him, he drew back quickly. "I'm not sure, but it reminds me of one of your Dragonfire vials, though more durable."

"Very good, Grendel. It is an explosive device. I don't believe its dangerous, unless one pulls the pin."

"It's filled with Dragonfire? Or gunpowder?"

"Neither, as far as my tentative scrying has revealed. Near was I can tell, its compressed Positive energy contained by a magnetic shell. Pull the pin and the field becomes unstable in a few seconds and off it goes. The Conclave still hasn't managed to recreate one.

Hienriche paused for a breath and elaborated, "There's the instability of pure Positive energy, the inability to recreate the magnetic material, the difficulty in shaping bits of it we've found with the accuracy required. In the end, the few that aren't being studied are used as single-use magic items by high ranking mages as defensive weapons or as part of a trap."

"It seems more useful as an offensive weapon," Grendel said. "Even Dragonfire is rarely used as part of a trap."

"Correct. So that means they must have created many of them, to expend when needed. I can only make so much Dragonfire in a day and it's quite simple to make, but the process is child's play compared to this device. Considering the quality and perfect consistency among them, they must have had some way to make many at once, like the useless doll."

"How do you know for certain? They may have been rare; meant only for commanders."

"That's possible, but these are always found in the open, near a corpse of a common soldier, or in the extremely rare case of an intact cache."

Hienriche grimaced, "Almost all we've found were either destroyed by a device such as this, melted to slag by Nagash knows what, or rigged and subsequently destroyed by the unwitting idiot who enters."

"So why keep poking your heads in if their traps can't be detected?" Grendel regretted asking, so stupid a question was it. It was for the power, for the weapons.

"It is the Conclave who foolishly goes into these places overconfidently. Our Order has no need for those weapons; we have power over life and death. But it would be just as foolish to be disinterested in the goals of the Conclave. So I am one of their secondary researchers of this technology.

"Sit, Grendel, and pay attention."

Grendel found a stool to perch on while Hienriche paced in front of the blackboard. Grendel found on a nearby table the forgotten lunch that had been left behind by some unseen spirit before they'd arrived. Cold meats, bread, cheese and a decanter of light wine. Hienriche took notice and nodded his permission for Grendel to eat.

As Grendel lunched, Hienriche paced and began his lecture. "This is the secret history of the world. The truth that we are privy to through Nagash's unholy favor. The Conclave tells the Inepts that the Conclave has always existed."

"But there was a mighty civilization before ours, wasn't there?"

"Yes, the Conclave has never disputed that, but neither do they tell the Inepts much about it. As is evident here, artifacts are still unearthed every day, but it is quite illegal to actively dig for them."

"And that anything found should be handed over to a Conclave mage immediately," Grendel added.

"Exactly. Most people just leave the artifacts where they lie and forget they saw them for fear of being charged with possession of contraband. A wise citizen simply tells the Conclave that they saw something in a particular area, but fewer people are being rewarded for such behavior."

"What are they trying to hide, I wonder."

"Horde is more like it. They want that age's technology for themselves. I can tell you though, that they haven't been successful with much of it. It's all very secret research, as you can well imagine but the only thing I know for certain is that they were master alchemists. They were able to produce materials we've never duplicated. And, most importantly, they did not practice any magic as we know it. In many ways, we are highly superior with our magic. In others, merely children."

"In what ways, Master?"

"Did you not hear anything? They were masters of transmutation. Their many tiny machines are made of elements we can hardly find in nature and many we cannot. We can build vast structures in the sky and underwater, where they could not. We can manipulate energies of all types, though they were masters of electricity, improve objects with enchantments and even a kind of intelligence. We can raise the dead to serve us. But these people could store vast amounts of information inside objects much smaller than a book. Entire libraries, many times over. But, from what I've heard, the Conclave hasn't made any progress deciphering the code they are written in. Besides the technology of information storage, they seek the weapons of the past."

"Like pistols? Hardly anyone uses them; magic is cheaper and more powerful."

"Think even bigger. These ancient people destroyed themselves in a war that spanned the world. No one knows exactly how it came about. But the Conclave only glosses over the details anyhow. These people used weapons we cannot come close to matching. Fireballs larger than Haven City and country-side consumed and flattened many of their cities at once. Craters are left that would take a full day to cross on horseback. And many of these weapons left behind a corrupting influence, which we scarcely understand, that do not allow anything to live or grow there for thousands of years. That is the secret, boy. That humanity as we know it was extinct for more than ten thousand years."

"But the Conclave says that our descendants found the Haven Valley and stayed out of the war. And what about those barbarians in the Wastes?"

"First, those brutes are the true survivors of the war. But between the poisoned earth, the dark skies, plague, corruption, and inbreeding it was a miracle that they survived at all. Their forebear's proud forms are warped, their intelligence lost forever, and their lives are riddled with medical problems. Now that we outnumber them, they have pacified and will die out soon enough. Our race, the Conclave and Inepts, are the true descendants and heirs of that mighty race. Second, do you really think that anyone could have avoided getting caught up in the carnage of that great war? That a place as idyllic and centralized could have escaped notice? I think not. And even if they had, by some miracle, the vaporized rock and dust tossed up from those explosions would have blotted out the sky for many decades. All but the heartiest of life would have perished because of darkness and cold alone. The corruption I spoke of takes about eighteen hundred years to dissipate to relatively safe levels and two hundred more to be completely gone. I know this from experiments on heavily corrupted material I performed."

"And the Wastes?"

"Some areas that were hit the worst are still dangerous today. No place, animal or plant was left unchanged by that war."

"Then where did we come from?"

Hienriche paused, suddenly aware of his own hunger, and sat on a stool opposite Grendel to begin building a sandwich.

"These are part of the divine teachings of Nagash. He was the Master of Death in that Old World, ferrying people to their fate along the River of Death regardless of faith. He did not need an Order or necromancers then. The world saw enough death to satisfy him, for he took only a small bit of the soul for himself as payment. As the war went on and the casualties mounted, he was gorged on the souls of the dead. He was blind to the idea that humanity would be wiped out. But as humans reverted back to things barely considered sentient he no longer had any sustenance. The trickle of dead barbarians had hardly more substance to him than an insect to you or I.

"Nagash delved deep into the afterlife and found two hundred souls worthy of returning to life. He gathered them together and ferried them back up the River of Death, which was a great strain, even for a god. He found Haven Valley, which had recovered quite well and was difficult to leave. The worgs in the Pendaal Forest are still a problem from time to time, by the way. He raised them to life, another act that required much of the reserves he'd acquired during the war. Great Nagash as he was a taker of life, not a provider. As a result, the two hundred resurrections were plagued with incomplete memories. They retained no memory of the River or the Afterlife, of course. Great Nagash was reduced to a shadow of his former glory.

"It's not known what brought magic to the world. Great Nagash gives no knowledge or claims to that. Maybe it was always here, untapped until those of the Valley learned to harness it.

"All that is certain is that, since pure humans returned to the world, Nagash has tasked us with his renewal through the harvesting of life. Master Nials, the first Necromancer, was said to be able to gain the memories of his offerings by eating their brain. It's not completely clear, as he was burned by the people of the Valley, but his disciples lived on in secrecy and expedited the passage of the weak and sick through the River. Tell me why we would do this, apprentice."

Grendel knew the answer, in theory. "To improve the human stock by freeing ourselves of weakness."

"Excellent. Although there was and still is a drawback; As humanity grows stronger, it becomes more capable and willing to disrupt our work."

"That makes sense. The weak live in fear of being culled."

"And so we work in secret and, when possible, in harmony with humanity and the other minor races."

"Why don't we overthrow the Conclave and make the world in Nagash's image?"

"I've already explained. Conflict, not dominion, is what Nagash wants. Death of the weak and the resultant liberation of souls is what he needs, not genocide. He has already given us dominion over the undead and command of the Negative Plane. As long as the weak die and the flock gets stronger Nagash is satisfied. If we are to kill for Him on a large scale, there will be a message from Mother."

"When was the last mass culling, Master?"

"Oh, many years ago," Hienriche said dismissively. "But enough of such talk; the food is gone and we've other work to do. Come."

Hienriche stood and led Grendel back onto the flight of stairs. They wound down and down, below ground level and into the hill. The stairs finally ended at a packed dirt floor. Grendel assumed this was to make further excavation easier, but he'd never seen Hienriche express an interest. A single metal door was barely visible in the gloom.

Hienriche stood off to the side and Grendel took that as unspoken permission to open the dungeon door. A quiet password clicked the physical locks and Grendel tapped a silver key against the three black bands that held the door fast. As he went from the bottom he spoke the ancient words: "Aelif", Life, "Nucron", Death, and "Nectilif", Undeath or, more accurately, Unlife. The black bands glowed silver at the edges and slid silently into the wall. With a creak, the door swung open a crack. Grendel drew his wand, ready in case something came through. The last time he'd been allowed to open the dungeon, years ago, something had made it through without so much as a flinch from hum. He would not be so unprepared this time.

"You go in alone this time, as well," Hienriche said, withdrawing into the darkness. "Only this time you know what you face."

A voice sounded in his head. "Not completely alone," Anjel said.

Grendel merely nodded and swung the door open wide enough to pass through. A cold breeze waifted through, fetid with the smell of rot and waste. He gathered a witchlight to the tip of his wand and stepped inside. As soon as he was through, Hienriche shut the door behind him.

Continued in "Grendel Rising Part 3
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