by Casey Nash
Ceravic captures another Player, the Lord of Despair, as part of his plan to win the Game.
There were three great windows in Ceravic's throne room, above and on either side of the door. The morning sunlight flowed in through them, illuminating the core group of Ceravic's nobles. The oval-shaped table with the triangular stretch to the throne had eight chairs positioned around it. Four of these were occupied. From the perspective of the throne, Lord General Ferus and Glate sat on the left side of the roundish table. Sobgib sat directly across from the throne, at its rounded end. To the Duke's left were four chairs. Mane sat in the one closest to him. Between Mane and the throne was a chair that was empty at the moment, a chair that was always empty, and a black chair, closer to the throne than any other.
The black chair was situated not along the table, but along the span of wood that connected the table to the throne. This was Nex's chair, and next to it was the chair that was referred to as the Buffer Chair, because nobody liked to sit too close to Nex. The black chair was empty, but that was a state of affairs that could change with startling suddenness. At least one pair of eyes could be caught staring uneasily at the sorcerer's chair at any given moment.
The three humans and the one goblin were waiting. Ceravic had told them to meet in the morning. He had not been specific. The Lord of Oblivion was never specific. While some maintained the precision was power, Ceravic gloried in the chaotic. Anyone could make a plan. An exceptional few were adaptive enough to make do without a plan. Not that Ceravic necessarily thought plans were bad things. He was just supremely confident in his ability to adapt to unplanned situations. In a way, he thought that was a more important ability than the development of plans in the first place. Because even the very best of plans never worked out perfectly. Ceravic had never explained his reasoning here to any of his nobles, so they did not appreciate his thinking so much as find his erratic methodology annoying. Not that any of them would dare suggest such a sentiment to him.
Ceravic had a temper, for which he was quite notorious.
Ceravic had only said to meet in the morning. He had not said when in the morning, and nobody was willing to be late. So they had been sitting there for quite some time, and they would continue to do so for as long as was necessary.
Ferus sighed largely and loudly. "What do you say to a sparring match, Mane?"
Mane looked doubtfully at the man all but crammed into his chair. "I would have thought you'd have had your fill after the double attack yesterday."
"You'd have thought wrong, then. One was a surprise, and the other took a bath of fire before we even engaged."
"A bath of fire?" Mane straightened in his chair. "Some new pre-battle ritual of theirs?"
"Of theirs? No, I hardly think so. It hardly seems likely that they decided to have Nex light the sky on fire and drop it on them."
Mane stared at the empty chair so near the throne. "Of ours, then?"
"I for one hope not. Nex is a menace," Glate muttered. "That sorcerer is a menace. It our newest battle tactic is to torch the enemy before meeting them in the field, so be it. But I object to Nex being the one to hold the torch."
"I don't think it's such a terrible idea," Sobgib said blandly. "Nex has some extremely powerful spells. It only makes sense to utilize them for our benefit."
"Easy for you to say," Glate muttered sullenly. "He's never caught up any humans in one of his little light shows, has he?"
"The barbarians are human," Ferus put in.
"You know what I mean," Glate sniffed. "You just wait. The day will come when he decides that some conflict or another is worth losing 'very few humans' if it catches enough of the opposition."
Ferus scoffed. "I doubt it." The goblin's voice rose in exasperation.
"Why? You think he places any more value on human lives than he does goblins'?" He laughed rudely, a scratchy, rasping, and not altogether pleasant sound. "You've met Nex, gak?"
"Gak. But it's not a question of his sentimentality. It's the simple fact that the king doesn't have an army of humans. You lot do his fighting," the big man stated.
"True. But I can think of one or two humans who are out there on the battlefield with us. Exactly two, in fact." Glate pointed a claw at Ferus and Ssob-gib each.
Sobgib waved a hand dismissively. "That's preposterous. If it does become a battle plan, His Majesty will set up rules for it. You will recall he did seem irked when he first heard about the mage's carelessness."
"Oh, good; rules. Nex loves rules. And His Majesty was irked for maybe five seconds."
Another silence followed. Another lengthy inspection of fingernails and tabletops was made, interrupted when Nex announced, "The King is coming," simultaneous with the back of the throne (which doubled as a door) opening.
Mane jumped in his seat, head twitching to the left. He didn't spend as much time at the Drumstick as did the rest of Ceravic's prime staff, as he was usually scurrying hither and yon on some mission or other. Sobgib rolled his eyes; Ferus chuckled in a tired sort of way. Glate glared at the sorcerer who was now standing in front of his chair.
Nex made a point of seating himself, arranging his robes and getting comfortable, before drawling out dryly, "All rise for the King." Everyone rose but Nex himself, and they all sat as Ceravic did.
The King smirked reluctantly, looking at the sorcerer, seemingly amused. He leaned his head on his fingertips and cast a glance about the table that was swift and lazy at the same time, aquatic eyes meeting browns, reds, sky blues, ice blues, and finally a pair that was lost in shadow.
"Glad to see you're all here, and right on time. Early, even, from the looks of things." He squinted through the large window over the large door that opened to the central chamber of the castle. Which was, also, quite large.
Ignoring their bemusement, (outwardly) Ceravic transitioned straight and smoothly to business. "I think, given the portentous events of yesterday, that it is safe to say Simble's reprieve has expired. We all of us have been plotting and preparing, but now it seems that the game is afoot again. I, for one, am ready. And so, it would appear, is Rade." His sharp voice slashed through the pall of bored inactivity that had filled the room all morning, a steel blade slicing cleanly through gray curtains, letting in light. Everyone, even Nex, leaned forward in their seats, infected by the King's tone that promised action, and exciting action at that.
"In my opinion, Sire," said Sobgib, "it is probable that the Lord of Wrath had Simble's messenger silenced before he could deliver news of the reprieve's end, so as to gain the advantage of surprise over you."
"What makes you think so?" Ceravic asked.
"It only makes sense. Rade received word that the battle was back on, and wanted to catch you unawares. He must have had troops bivouacked nearby, in an attempt to overwhelm you with surprise and swiftness."
"Rade is terrified of Simble. He would never do anything to cross him," Ceravic returned, but he looked thoughtful.
"Shun would. It's practically his life's purpose."
Ceravic snorted. "His what's purpose?" He fell silent. The fingers of his right hand tapped absently at the arm of the throne.
"Actually, Your Majesty, I have some news on that front," said Mane with calm self-assurance.
Ceravic eyed him with interest, and fulfillment. "Yes, I thought you might. How did that go?"
"If your lordship will excuse me for the briefest of moments, I will show you," Mane offered.
The King's lips twitched ever so slightly. "I am a visual learner. Don't dawdle."
Mane rose to his feet, bowed, and exited through one of the side doors of the main chamber.
Ferus jerked his head in the direction of the door that had just shut. "What's he been up to?"
"Oh, he's been keeping busy," Ceravic said vaguely. Ferus looked at the King, hoping he would elaborate.
The King elaborated. "Three days ago, I found Marin's dead body. And I realized Teth was upping the stakes of the Game. And I'm certainly not going to be outdone by that sniveling, backstabbing mystic."
"He's hardly sniveling," Nex said. "He's rather impressive, actually. So controlled."
"Nex, you've never met Teth."
With the exasperation of someone explaining something that needed no explaining, Nex said, "You have."
"Yes. Well. I think he's disgusting."
"You think, at least," Nex said with vague approval. "That's good."
Ferus and Glate and Sobgib and Mane all fidgeted in their seats. The way Nex talked to the King... none of them knew what to make of it. It was extremely confusing for them when Ceravic smiled one of his ephemeral smiles, apparently amused by Nex's irreverance. They all knew that if any of them dared to say anything that bordered on disrespectful, Ceravic would likely behead them in the next instant. Or incinerate them. Or both. Well, they didn't really know what he would do, but they knew it would be unpleasant. And fatal.
Ferus made a move to steer the discussion back into the waters that his military mind could navigate. "So... you dispatched Mane in his capacity as an assassin?" he asked. Doubt and worry were evident in his tone. "You're going to simply... assassinate the other Players?" Ceravic examined Ferus coolly.
"No. That would be a poor sort of Game. Besides, while Mane is abundantly resourceful, he is no match for the Lord of Despair."
"You seem dreadfully confused, Ferus," Nex observed. "Perhaps if you stopped asking idiotic questions, Ceravic could find the opportunity to explain."
"Ferus." Nex did not deign to return the glare Ferus was giving him. He merely tilted his head to the side, sending the black fabric of his hood swaying gently around his shade-shrouded face.
"Nex. Ferus," Ceravic said calmly. He looked to the Duke sitting across from him. "Sobgib."
"King." Sobgib nodded. All eyes moved from one end of the table to the other. "His Majesty had an idea. About how to win the Game. But he said we would need Shun, first. So I suggested that he could be lured here with the proper bait."
"What's here that Shun wants?" Ferus asked.
"I am," Ceravic said simply. "Shun has no use for Simble's rules, and he's not the least bit afraid of him, either. If he thought he could kill me, he'd do so in an eyeblink, and never mind the consequences. And Mane has convinced him that just such an opportunity exists."
Ferus blinked and cast narrow-eyed glances around the table and evinced all the signs of being terribly confused. "So... So then, Mane and Shun," he said, absolutely radiating uncertainty.
"Are on their way here. Mane managed to convince our northeastern neighbor that he was a spy in both my and Shun's employ."
"What do you mean? Wouldn't Shun know if Mane worked for him?"
"Shun has droves of servants, just as I do. Besides you three, and Mane, I doubt I could name even ten of my subordinates. Such things are, simply put, beneath our notice." Ceravic reclined a little in his throne, resting his head on his fingertips. "All Mane had to do was walk into the Black Hall, bow and offer up all the obsequy that Lords love to hear, and then say, 'I'm one of your spies, and you have a shot at the Goblin King.'"
"It's that simple?" Ferus said dubiously. "He just... lied?"
"It's not that simple," Nex put in. "You can't just lie to the Lord of Despair. He would know. So I had to give his mind a few layers of... buffering."
Nex's words had a disheartening effect on the Lord General. "And everyone knows about this plan but me?"
"It's not a military operation. There was no need for you. You would have been," Nex said matter-of-factly, "completely useless."
"It was Sobgib's idea," Ceravic said. "It was Mane's mission. It was Nex's spellwork. They were involved because they were needed. You were not. You will be, I'm sure, when we're fending off the attacks Simble will no doubt unleash in my direction once he learns what I'm doing."
"Oh, how's he going to find out?" Nex asked. "It's a secret operation."
"He just knows things," Ceravic said, thoroughly annoyed. "When people break his rules, he just knows. Don't ask me how."
"So..." Ferus said, sounding like he had a better grip on the situation, "Mane is bringing Shun here, now."
"I expect Shun is already here," Ceravic said. "I expect Mane brought him in earlier today, and is even now leading him here, to me."
One of the doors lining the walls of the throne room opened by a fractional degree. Ceravic noticed it, and the others noticed Ceravic noticing it. The room was suddenly filled with a stillness as its occupants froze and held their breath.
In the silence, the whispered words, "This is it," were entirely audible. Mane's voice.
Another voice answered, shrill and deep at the same time. "You have done well, Moone." At the sound of the voice, Sobgib and Glate and Ferus shivered. Despair filled the room like a physical thing, a cloying miasma that weighed down on every heart. They leaped to their feet, all of them. Ferus fumbled with shaking hands to free his sword. The points of Sobgib's crossbow bolts traced erratic shapes through the air as he tried to point them in the direction of the door. Nex held his staff, painfully tight. He struggled to summon the magic that was, for the moment, flying from his brain. All he could feel was fear.
The Lord of Despair entered the throne room. In a red blur, Ceravic was there, and, very suddenly, there was a furious swordfight raging in the wide hall. Energy fields of crimson and violet blazed against each other. Everything was moving rather too quickly for anyone in the room to follow, but, there were purple lights and red lights and hard, chipping sounds as Ceravic's broadsword clashed, over and over again, against Shun's saber of bone.
The rush of speed ground to a halt as the two blades crashed in a deadlock with another loud chip.
Shun bared thin, tombstone-reminiscent teeth, and his weapon of bone burst into deep, dark purple flame that threatened to consume Ceravic and his sword until the king's own weapon acted similarly, crimson driving back violet. Ceravic retreated a step, and with a spin he smashed Shun's blade out of the way, then used the opening to land a solid kick that put further distance between them. "Ferus! Sobgib! The front door!" he said in an icy voice, loud but calm. "Glate! Gruk kerglates! Nex!" and there that thought ended as Shun, having back flipped with the King's kick, bounced back at him, pallid weapon flitting through a haze of purple as he attacked with darting, twisting strikes.
Ferus and Sobgib hastened to station themselves in their new designations. Glate ran off through the side door nearest him, and the duel continued. A heart stab was deflected with a rising lateral parry, and Ceravic tried to turn that parry into a heart stab of his own, but it was one Shun met with a sweeping vertical block, and then darted around to lash at the Goblin King's neck. Ceravic twisted and whirled and was abruptly behind the Lord of Despair, and Slayvyr was arcing for his back. Shun passed Necris behind him in a flickering motion, and Slayvyr stopped mid-strike. A twitch of the necromancer's wrist sent the broadword off-course, and the saber of bone whipped through quick twists that trailed malevolent, violet energy.
Ceravic sucked in a seething breath and hopped back. There were gashes in his clothes. There may have been blood, but if so, it could not be seen against the red of the fabric. Hate blazed in the King's eyes, and, at the same time, joy. With this furious joy still on his face, he raised his blade above his head and leaped back into the contest. Slayvyr's blazing edge slid through sequences of bewildering speed, and Shun was forced to utilize some high-speed defensive turnings of his own weapon.
As Nex and the nobility watched, the exchange picked up speed, and, at length, the long point of bone that was Shun's weapon went spiraling away from the fray. It landed solidly in the door at the front of the room, and stuck there.
There was a clattering of clawed feet on stone floor, and twenty-one goblins burst into the room, forming a wide double circle around Ceravic and Shun. He registered their presence stoically, then turned his sunken eyes on Ceravic.
"Ceravic," he intoned in a voice that was both deep and shrill. He looked somewhat rueful. "You win." He nodded at the sword glowing in Ceravic's hand. "I often wondered if how I'd do in one-on-one combat with you. I must say, you're the best I've ever seen with that thing. Except Simble, of course."
Ceravic twirled the hilt through his fingers, and in a display of extreme speed and extreme precision, jabbed the weapon forward so that the tip rested harmlessly but malevolently in the hollow of Shun's neck. Then he balanced the pommel on the tip of a finger.
Shun sneered, apparently unaffected by the flames searing his gray flesh. "For all the good it's going to do you." He stepped back, and the precariously balanced blade fell. Ceravic caught it.
One of Shun's pallid, grey-cast hands moved to finger the burn mark on his neck. His eyes moved to his saber, protruding from the door, and then the goblins surrounding him, and the King before him, who spoke: "You're going to be my guest, Shun, if you don't mind. And if you do."
"Marin held me prisoner once," Shun said absently. "Maybe you could ask him to remind you how that ended."
"I couldn't, actually," Ceravic said, matching Shun's dispassionate tone. "At least, not without help from you."
"Marin is dead."
Ceravic tilted his head. "You knew?"
"I know when people die. I'm just surprised you knew."
"I found the body."
Shun frowned. "Marin died at the southern mouth of the Caprice River."
"You've never glanced a map of the board, have you? Because the mountains extend out into that area. Some goblins noticed the body, and reported to me." "They didn't see the actual act of death?" Shun asked. The way the two were talking, they might have been estranged friends, instead of mortal enemies who had, moments ago, been trying to kill each other. But such was the way of the Game, and the nature of its Players.
"No. But I know who did it." "You suspect you know who did it. I know who did it." Shun cast his featureless black eyes around the room again.
Ceravic lolled his head over at Nex, who had stepped to the forefront of the crowd of goblins. Green light burned in his green eyes, which he flicked in Shun's direction. The necromancer stiffened. Outrage flickered across his face before he managed to compose himself. "It was Teth, Ceravic."
Ceravic tilted his head in acknowledgement. "Of course it was. Now, what are we to do with you?"
"We're not keeping him, are we, Ceravic? 'Cause, as pets go, I was hoping for something smarter. A dog, perhaps."
"Nex," Shun said derisively. "The Player who does not Play."
Nex smiled quickly at the Lord of Despair. "Shun! The Player who's done Playing."
Ceravic beckoned, and they moved to the table. Nex reclaimed his black chair, and Shun took the chair next to Nex's (and Ceravic took the throne).
"Why don't we get caught up? We so rarely see each other," Ceravic said. His voice could almost have been taken as friendly, but there was an edge of barely concealed mockery beneath it, and no one in the room missed it. Except, possibly, the goblins, who were not good with nuance. "So, what have you been up to?"
"Oh, this and that," Shun said, matching Ceravic's tone of faux-friendliness. It was almost lost, though, in the otherworldly echo that accompanied his voice, shrill and deep all at once. "I was reading Ariye's works--the elves tend to have such a way with words. Beautiful stuff, really."
"Indeed," Ceravic said dryly. Just as dryly, he added, "It's a shame you and Vishesque are always Playing against each other."
"A shame for him, maybe," Shun said, with a minimal smile.
"For both of you, really," Ceravic returned. "Because, while Vishesque and I are allied, I have no choice but to remain situated as your enemy."
"Oh, spare me, Ceravic. Playing against the both of you at once is no great challenge."
"It must not be. Seeing as how you also have the time and energy to fend off Simble at the same time." The Goblin King leaned in a little. "Really, how do you manage it?"
Mane took that as his cue. "Your Majesty will no doubt be very interested to know," he said, joining them at the Drumstick, "that the Lord of Despair is currently in constant and frequent contact with the Lord of Wrath."
Ceravic affected an air of great surprise. "Is that right? Why, that couldn't have anything to do with Rade's sudden boldness, could it?"
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," Shun said, with an equally affected air of innocence. "Well, Shun, would you believe that, yesterday, Rade sent two full forces of barbarians against me, within hours of each other?"
Shun widened his black eyes. "Did he now? How very enterprising of him."
"Yes, indeed," Ceravic agreed. "It made me so curious that I dispatched some of my scouts throughout the mountains. And you'll never guess what they found."
"Not more barbarians, surely?"
"Oh my, yes. And--" Ceravic spread his hands, as if at a loss, "And, pockets of zombies--armies of them, really--spread all over the place, as well. All within a day's marching distance."
Shun smiled widely, and Ceravic smiled back. Those in the room who were not Players shot glances of dubious trepidation at each other.
Ferus spoke up. "My Lord King, am I to understand that we are surrounded?"
"It certainly seems that way, doesn't it, Shun?"
"Mmm, yes. How worrisome." Shun smirked.
Ceravic smirked. "You're in awfully good humor, considering you've been captured. Beaten." "You're in awfully good humor for someone who's completely surrounded. And I'm not beaten."
"No? How not?"
"My army, and Rade's army, will be here soon, and you're not going to kill me before the next attack. Which, since the last two were of barbarians, the next will be of my servants."
Ceravic watched him attentively. "I'm not going to kill you?"
"That would be against the rules."
"I don't care much for rules."
"You seem to enjoy being alive, though. And if you broke the rules, Simble would kill you."
"Hmm." Ceravic seemed to concede this as a fair point.
Shun frowned. "You don't seemed to have grasped the severity of your situation," he said, eyeing Ceravic dubiously.
"Oh, no? Let's make sure we all understand the exact nature of the situation." Ceravic twirled Slayvyr idly. "Shun, you are going to commune with your zombies--"
"Oh, I would have been doing that anyway," Shun said.
"--but you're going to turn them against Rade's barbarians. The goal will be internecine."
Shun would have looked more defiant if he hadn't looked so uncertain.
Ceravic tilted one fair eyebrow, mildly inviting argument. Shun could see in the arched, feathery brow that any argument he made was one he would lose. He cast his deep-set, dark eyes around the room, perhaps taking in the fact that he was trapped in the bastion of an enemy's power.
"I think he's realizing he doesn't have a choice in the matter," Nex put in.
"That's very perceptive of him," Ceravic said. Then, "Shun, Nex, come with me. We have work to do."
With that, the Lord of Oblivion strode from the room. Shun remained behind just long enough to lock eyes with Nex. What the necromancer was in those green eyes is uncertain, but he broke eye contact and followed the King out of the room. Nex spoke a few sharp, cutting words, and vanished from sight.
- - - - - - -
A necromancer, a sorcerer, and a king stood atop the highest rampart that overlooked the valley at the foot of the castle. They were watching the shambling progress of an approaching nightmare.
Ceravic stood between the black-clad pair. From the corners of his eyes, he examined each in turn. Nex. The Player who does not play.
In truth, he had never thought of Nex in that way. Players were potential opponents, and Nex had been Ceravic's friend since they had been children. He had been unofficially adopted by Ceravic's father, who had said that the sorcerer-to-be's parents were both dead. Ceravic privately nursed the suspicion that his own father had killed Nex's parents, perhaps in some Move gone wrong, and he had taken the child in out of guilt. Although, he could have simply sensed the incredible potential in the young Nex, and felt an obligation to help him actualize it.
He wondered if his father would be proud of what Nex had grown up to be. He wondered if his father would be proud of what Ceravic had grown up to be.
Nex lolled his head in Ceravic's direction. Contempt practically dripped off his face. "Ceravic. Can we focus here?"
Family meant nothing to Nex. He had once told Ceravic that he considered the traditional family to be, perhaps, the most overrated concept in existence. Family members were strangers with relationships based entirely on accident. He insisted that the relationships that mattered were the ones that you chose for yourself, not the ones that had been foisted upon you at birth.
Ceravic looked to his right, meeting the green gaze unabashedly. "Absolutely," he said mildly. "Shun." He looked to Player on his left. "Redirect these toward Rade's nearest retinue. And then do the same with the rest of the forces you have bivouacked hereabouts."
Shun's eyes were dark and empty.
"Wait a moment," Nex said suddenly.
Ceravic waited a moment.
"I," Nex said ceremoniously, "have a thought."
"You must be so proud."
Nex shot Shun a look, and then directed his attention at Ceravic, who then heard a voice in his head. You know, Ceravic, I think it might be best if I were to deal with these.
Why's that? thought Ceravic.
Because I want Shun to bear witness to my new magic.
So... you want to show off.
Yes. Also, if he somehow gets the opportunity to spread the word of what I can do, then potential attackers will be aware of a new peril in laying siege to Oblivion. It will instill your opponents with a new sense of wariness, in regards to you and yours.
Ah-ha. Ceravic nodded. "Do it," he said aloud.
"Do... what?" Shun asked with a scowl.
"Never you mind." Practically imperceptibly, Ceravic twitched his arm, and a dagger slid down into his left hand. He lifted the weapon and let it dangle in Shun's direction. "Get those zombies moving. Except for these ones. Nex has elected to deal with them."
When Shun did not react quickly enough to suit Ceravic, he rapped one silver edge of the dagger against the side of the necromancer's face. Shun swung his face away, and raised a hand to his head. An aura of purple light suffused his eyes and fingers, and Ceravic recognized the Player's reverie.
To his right, Nex had produced his spell-slabs. Fanning them like a deck of playing cards, his nimble fingers flitted amongst them and drew forth one marked "Immolation Bomb." "Shreccethecc ectrecectrithic ciritiric aracacriscceth," he said, and then the flames appeared.
As if the sorcerer had donned a cloak of fire, billowing tongues of red and orange burst into being around him. Nex released the delicate-looking slip of stone, and it remained suspended in the air before him without visible support. A slender hand made a flicking motion against its back, and it began to float forward. As it drifted away, Nex raised his hands, fingers hooking like claws, and the heat wave flickering about his black-garbed body was siphoned off into the card of rock.
Then, with a look of mild surprise, he collapsed straightaway to the stone at their feet. The Lords of Oblivion and Despair might have paid him more attention if they had not been so engrossed with the progress of the spell-slab, which floated at a downward slope that was made sinister by its slow, leisurely pace. It entered the incoming horde, and then it exploded.
A pristine white light blossomed into being; a sphere of instant, utter incineration. The advancement of shuffling undeath was swept into oblivion by tidal waves of white fire. An explosion of pure heat raged in the valley beneath them.
When the flames at last swallowed themselves, there was visible a valley of charred black rock, and nothing else. "The place was getting awfully messy," Nex whispered somnabulistically. He made a twitching motion that might have been an attempt to rise, but then he lay still. He groaned.
Shun stared down at the charred vista before him for a long time, and Ceravic stared at Shun, noting his reaction. It was not in the habit of Players to freely betray their emotions, but Ceravic was fairly certain that Nex's demonstration had made an impression on the Lord of Despair. He waited for Shun to turn his black, dead-looking eyes in his direction, and he raised his own feathery eyebrows. "Well?"
"Well," Shun returned dully. "It is done. My zombies, Rade's barbarians. They will destroy each other." His gaunt jaw worked. "Well played, Ceravic."
High praise. Ceravic looked closely at the deep-set eyes and saw no lie in their depths. So he then turned his kingly attention to the huddle of black robes that housed his stalwart sorcerer. Green eyes shone intermittently in the bright sunshine of the late morning, winking in and out behind pale eyelids as the mage struggled with exhaustion. "Something's wrong," Nex muttered breathlessly. White, long-fingered hands curled in on themselves over and over, bringing to mind the not entirely pleasant mental image of a pair of dying spiders.
"He looks tired," Shun said.
"Mm-hmm." Ceravic agreed, but he made no move to help, knowing Nex would only reject such a gesture. The sorcerer hated weakness, especially when he saw it in himself. That hate blazed in his flickering eyes as he channeled it to force himself to his feet, practically climbing Shardish. "What, exactly, is wrong, Nex?"
"Sinder's spell-slabs..." Nex managed, and then seemed out of breath.
Ceravic nodded. "I was rather under the impression that they were supposed to alleviate some of the exhaustion of spell-casting."
"They're supposed to eliminate it. Because... they're suppose to store all of it... until you release it. Which means... I made a mistake..." Nex's voice was fading. "Which means... I'll need to pay Sinder... another visit," he breathed. "Which means... I need another medium..." Nex's knuckles were practically sticking out of his hands, so tightly was he holding onto his staff.
"Nonsense," Ceravic said. "If you need to chat with a spirit, I happen to have a necromancer at my... disposal... who would be positively overjoyed to help you."
Nex's lips started to bend in a way that might have, potentially, become a smile, at some point down the road. "Well that's fantastic," he muttered. He managed to to flick his green eyes at Shun. "You're coming with me," he said, and with a twist of thought, he triggered one of the spells woven into Shardish's crystal.
There was a flash of emerald light, and Ceravic was quite suddenly standing alone. He looked at the empty spots of air, still shimmering with magic. And then he whirled away, back to the interior of his castle. The fun had only just begun.