I woke up outside the cave. Milo was standing over me casting healing magic. The divine energy knit the wound on my palm together and restored my energy, but the pain in my shoulder lingered. I clutched it reflexively as I sat up. There was no need to ask what had happened. Both Milo’s robes and Malakar’s leather armor were scorched in places and we were all covered in ash. I guessed the man in black threw a fireball at them. He would have had to do so very carefully to miss us all intentionally. I was glad that neither of my companions were students of the arcane, that wasn’t a spell most people escaped.
“How long was I out?” I mumbled, feigning confusion.
“A few minutes, we got you out just in time.” Milo answered, helping me back to my feet.
“Did you keep the rod safe?” I asked Malakar. The pain in my shoulder subsided briefly when I mentioned the rod.
“Yeah,” the barbarian smiled, “the guy chased us half way out of the mine yelling at us to give it back to him, but we gave him the slip.” He pulled the thing out of his bag and I felt the mark on my shoulder warm gently. Before I realized what was happening I felt my arm twitch towards the rod, but I played it off as a stretch as my feet carried me over to him. I hadn't counted on being compulsed. It was a weak but persistent charm, designed to leave my mind intact while I completed my mission. I could probably suppress it if I needed to, but right now was the perfect time to put my plan into action anyway. I swore I would do everything within my power to get the rod back, so it was time to start taking the decision out of my hands.
“Good.” I said, choosing my words carefully, “It’s very important. Give it to me now and I can keep it safe.”
“I can keep it safe better than you.” The barbarian countered, offended as I hoped he would be at my implication that he could not look after a simple magic item.
“Perhaps, but I’m the only mage among us. If anyone can figure out what it does, it’s me.” I countered, dialing forward the urgency in my voice. If he thought it was important to me he was sure to keep me from it.
“You’re acting strange. I think I’ll hold onto it for now.” Malakar said as he tucked the rod into his backpack once more. The mark punished me with a dull pain.
“Okay, but perhaps when we rest for the night you might let me study it?” I asked sincerely, leaving the urgency out of my voice so as to assuage the fire in my shoulder before it got any worse.
“Sure.” Malakar agreed with an almost apologetic smile. The pain dulled.
We finished our business in town that afternoon, all of us eager to move on. We collected the town’s pitifully small reward and some supplies before setting out for the brotherhood’s headquarters in the city of Driscoll. We were on the road before midday.
I hate travel. The city was a week long journey on foot. None of us had horses and the town hadn’t paid us enough to buy them so I was cursed with the tedium of walking. After the initial excitement of starting the journey wore off, taking any hope for conversation with it, our walk was silent and boring.
Usually when something bores me I at least have the freedom to think about something interesting. Evocation magic had always been a subject I enjoyed playing with, although I was not nearly studious enough to understand it the way a wizard might. I also enjoyed working through problems in my head, scheming the perfect words to say or the most effective actions to take to get what I wanted whatever it may be. This time however, whenever I would start on one of these tangents to entertain myself, I always came back to that rod. I realized my daydreams about lightning spells were being twisted into a desire to electrocute Malakar. Any thoughts as to how I would short my companions out of their gold from the Brotherhood were almost immediately diverted into plans to deceive them so that I might take the rod for the man in black. The mark was twisting my will in a much more subtle and powerful way than I had initially thought and it made me seethe, realizing that I was being manipulated. For a while I convinced myself to think of nothing at all, but the tedium nagged at my mind. Perhaps I should go over my options for obtaining the rod. Just to be sure I was in control of the situation.
During my watch I’ll take the rod out of his bag. I should take the rod out of his bag now. That’s a terrible decision, there’s no way he won’t catch me. Do it next time he’s in combat, you know how single minded he gets. Take it when he’s knocked out after combat, he always sleeps after he gets into one of his rages. Knock him out during combat. Kill him. Take the rod.
“What are you doing?” Malakar had stopped walking and was looming over me. It was then that I realized I had been fumbling with the buckle on his backpack.
“Nothing” I managed, thinking fast, “I just wanted to make sure you had healing potions.”
“I… do have healing potions.” Malakar responded suspiciously, “You could have just asked.”
“Right, sorry about that. I’m just so bored right now.” I said and resumed our walk.
In the distance I saw a blessed distraction from my compulsion problems, a man standing squarely in the middle of the road wearing a top hat. The rest of his clothes were common and he leaned on a walking cane. Perhaps an interesting stranger could distract me from my inner turmoil.
“Ho traveler!” I called out to him, but he did not respond. Perhaps he couldn’t hear me yet? As we approached, Malakar seemed to grow suspicious. He drew his elven curved blade as if he was sure this man was a threat. Milo readied his crossbow.
“Greetings friends” the man wheezed as we drew near, he was filthy, “where ya headed?”
“Driscoll,” Malakar spoke up, “and yourself?”
“Oh I’m not going anywhere.” The man grinned, “I’m working this area on behalf of her majesty.” I had no idea who he was talking about. As a diplomat in the service of the southern dragons it was my job to be able to identify world leaders, and there had not been a queen or indeed any true royal family since the Old Kingdom. Barons, councils, the odd would-be emperor in the east, but no one had the poor sense to call themselves a king or a queen.
“Well we don’t want any trouble.” Malakar was saying, “Give your queen our regards.”
“I’ll be givin’ her more than that,” the man grunted as he drew his sword, formerly concealed within his cane, “you see, the birds in this forest demand all travelers pay the queen’s tax. Otherwise they get angry. Isn’t that right little birdies?” A volley of arrows from every direction answered him, striking the ground at our feet.
“Now give us your valuables and you’ll be free to go.” The man grinned.
Malakar didn’t seem in the mood to be robbed. He charged the man, hacking at him wildly with his blade. A small voice in the back of my mind reminded me that he was vulnerable in combat and that I should steal the rod, but self-preservation overrode the compulsion for now as the pair clashed blades. The bandit swung with precision, but Malakar was a thunderstorm of blows. He swung and spun, slashing all around him so that I would not be able to approach him without being hit. With my will temporarily my own again, I summoned magic armor to protect me just in time to deflect an arrow meant for my neck.
Milo fired arrows into the trees and I saw one archer drop to the ground wounded. I aimed my limited magic at the next archer but it didn’t seem to faze him. Luckily Malakar was dominating their leader badly enough that the archers were forced to focus their fire on him. Milo seemed capable of picking off the archers one by one, so I summoned more shielding magic to protect me and stepped around Malakar and the bandit to flank him. An arrow got through my protective spell, but I was able to cast a stronger lightning attack from close range to the bandit. Another swing from Malakar sent him down.
Kill him. Take the rod. Bad plan, especially since he had already thrown himself into the bushes and was dragging the remaining archers out of the trees and beating them unconscious. The compulsion subsided as I accepted that killing Malakar was not within my power.
The bandit was unconscious but alive. I took the liberty of binding his hands behind his back while Milo searched his belongings. The desire to steal the rod from Malakar had distracted me from the prospect of gold, a new experience for me indeed.
“Looks like enough gold here to buy us some horses at the next outpost!” He announced, “We’ll make it to the city quicker this way. Oh, these shoes are nice.” Not even I would have thought to rob the bandit of his shoes; perhaps this inquisitor had dragon blood in him. We picked the man clean of anything valuable and went on our way.
It was getting late, so we decided to make camp for the night. The mark was insistent that I take the first watch. The thing was persistent but not bright; I realized that if I took the first watch Malakar would find me out when it came time for his turn and take the rod back. This raised my spirits and when I volunteered myself, the dull pain subsided.
Once my companions were asleep I snuck the rod out of Malakar’s bag. I assumed the compulsion was responsible for the excitement I felt having it in my hands, as I had given it little thought before. As I sat down at my post again I tried to bite back the alien emotions that convinced me that this was the most important item in the world and that I should give it to the man in black. When I could not, I smirked in defiance at the thing anyway. Yes I would return this item to the man in black as soon as I was able. I scanned the forest as if to mock the compulsion. Unfortunately for it, the man in black was nowhere to be seen. A pity, for I had surely done everything in my power to return it.
I felt quite pleased with myself for the majority of my watch. The exact wording of my oath had not been an accident on my part after all. Doing “everything in my power” was not much after all. At my level of magical training I was thrilled to be able to read and detect magic. It was the man’s fault in the end for attempting to manipulate a master. My smug satisfaction turned to ash in my mouth near the end of my watch when the man in black stepped out from behind a tree to speak with me. So much for Plan A.
“Do you have it?” He asked curtly. I found it impossible to lie to him in this matter.
“Yes, it’s here.” I answered, producing the rod but reserving my will to avoid handing it over just yet, “but if it disappears now they’ll know I took it. Come back another night if you don’t want them to suspect me.”
“I have engineered a solution to the problem of your companions.” he answered, producing what appeared to be a perfect replica of the rod, “A gift from the mirror realm. Give it to your companions and they won’t know the difference.” It seemed so reasonable, but getting the rod to the brotherhood was too important to me to let it end like this. I had to think fast or my own body would betray me.
“Look you can’t be here right now,” I commanded, raising my voice slightly, “they’re going to wake up any minute now.” He paused. I thought I saw confusion in his eyes momentarily. I had caught him off guard.
“They’re waking up!” I shouted outright, stirring my companions, “You need to go. Now!” The man glared at me from behind his mask and disappeared. The pain in my shoulder was throbbing at this point, draining my energy. If I did much more to upset his plans I assumed the mark would kill me.
“What’s wrong?” Malakar whispered, blade in hand.
“I thought I heard something in the woods.” I answered. We listened for a couple seconds.
“I don’t hear anything.” Malakar grunted.
“Is that the rod?” Milo appeared behind me, the rod was still in my hands.
“I… uh… wanted to study it.” I responded lamely.
“Give it here,” the inquisitor snarled, “before we have a problem.” I hesitated and he wrenched it out of my hands, unwittingly sparing me another surge of pain. It was out of my control again. He put it down his pant leg this time, giving me an impish look. If he was insinuating that I was too shy to slice open his trousers in pursuit of an object of value, then he was in for a disappointment. As it was he was just making this uncomfortable for both of us. I resumed my watch and waited for them to fall asleep.
I became convinced that they were both asleep a bit hastily. The pain from the mark had not subsided since I had woken my companions and I was desperate to make it stop. I approached the inquisitor with shaking hands and attempted to take back the rod.
“I’m still awake.” He growled, “Get away from me. Now.” I don’t know if I panicked or if the compulsion took over, but the next thing I knew I had charged my lightning spell and grabbed him around the neck. He seized with the jolt, but in the end it did not faze him. He pulled out his mace, which I realized he had been lying next to for this very situation, and dropped me with a single blow to the head.
When I came to I found myself bound, gagged, and strapped to the back of a horse. I started to protest, but my words came out as muffled screams against the gag. I tried to wiggle free, but couldn’t. When I tried to summon my claws I found my fingers bound individually with twine.
“Looks like she’s awake, Mal.” The inquisitor remarked.
“Yup.” Malakar responded.
“She’s probably wondering why I didn’t slit her throat back there for attacking me.” The inquisitor turned to look at me, “It’s ‘cause you’re the only one who knows where we’re going once we get to the city.”
“MMFF MY ME!” I demanded.
“No I’m not going to untie you.”
No answer from Malakar. I gave an exasperated sigh.
If walking was bad, being tied up was worse. The horse jostled me constantly so that I was never in a comfortable position. Malakar and Milo hardly spoke at all and when they did they didn’t let me hear them. I was bored and angry. At least the mark had stopped burning, although the compulsion kept twisting my discomfort into more anger. I couldn’t even take pride in my success in securing the scroll beyond my ability to return it, the mark wouldn’t let me. We still had five days to go as well.
The first day I spent trying hard not to think about anything. It was an exercise in futility that my sister had tried to teach me. When she first became a cleric she would try to get me to meditate with her. She asked me what god I wanted to worship. I told her I didn’t want to serve any god. I just wanted to be a dragon. She suggested Apsu, the god of dragons. I said he wasn’t a real dragon. She smirked at me and told me to think about nothing. So I did, for five seconds. Then I went and played outside. I wished now that I had listened to her and learned to clear my mind. The only thing I ended up meditating on that day was Milo’s horse and its horrible gait.
The second day I spent messing with the blood bond. I tried to figure out which parts of it were connected to the man in black and how much of my thoughts and actions he could observe or take control of. I didn’t find much out about him, but I learned a bit about how the mark and the compulsion affect worked. It was an insultingly simple punishment and reward system coupled with what I could only guess was a modified dominate spell. Interestingly it wasn’t connected to the mark itself. Assumedly you could have one but not the other, although I couldn’t think what use the mark would serve otherwise. I had to appreciate the genius of this wizard.
The third day we passed through a town. I had not been aware of the compulsion for a while until then. At the first sign of people I thrashed and yelled against the gag until my throat hurt. The inquisitor explained to everyone that I had a bounty on my head, and not to pay me any attention. When I would not stop he hit me hard in the ribs with his mace. I felt sick and dizzy from the blow for the next several hours. I spent the rest of that day half-consciously hating the inquisitor. I thought of several ways to kill him, more to make him suffer. I would cut off his legs probably. Cut off his legs. Kill him. Take the rod.
The fourth day I spent vaguely aware of my own thoughts. I tried to ignore the things I was thinking and pay attention to the passing scenery. It was weird to ignore the things I was thinking. I started thinking about ignoring the things that I was thinking. I tried to ignore those things too.
On the fifth day the city of Driscoll came into view. I was aware somehow that we should hurry or the man in black would catch up with us. He needed the rod by today. The mark made me feel bad about failing him when I should be relieved at my good fortune and success. I tried to tell Malakar that we should run the horses but he had stopped listening to my muffled attempts at conversation. It was nightfall when we finally approached the gates of the city. I allowed myself some relief that I would soon be rid of these people and their horrible horses. That is when things got interesting.
“I know you have done everything in your power to fulfill your oath,” the man in black’s voice rung through my mind, “but now I must take matters into my own hands.”
Some sort of force field erected itself between our party and the city, and two hooded figures emerged from within. Milo and Malakar dismounted immediately to fight them. I watched them draw their weapons against the men who were obviously spell casters before the horse I was tied to bolted, carrying my back the way we had come.
I was dizzy, bruised, and possibly concussed when my horse finally came to a halt in the middle of the road. It was dark and my vision was spinning so I couldn’t tell where I was. I felt someone cut my bonds and remove the gag. The next thing I knew I was being force fed e of my healing potions. My bruises and headache subsided as I looked up at the man in black. My eyes grew wide as I scrambled to my feet. I was sure he was going to kill me, but I saw amusement in his eyes.
“I’m not going to kill you.” He stated bluntly as if he could read my thoughts, “I know you served me to the best of your ability. I still have use of you as a spy within the Brotherhood. I’m giving you another chance.”
I stared at him dumbly.
“Ah, yes, the compulsion.” He sighed, “You did not take well to it I see. I’m afraid you may have been more effective without it.” He put his hand on my shoulder and in an instant I felt him release my mind. I had not realized how much it had muddied up my thinking. The mark was still present but it no longer ached. I felt like myself again.
“What would you have me do, sir?” I asked.
“Return to your companions. Tell them that you were under a compulsion. Tell them anything you think is necessary. Infiltrate the Brotherhood and wait for my orders. If you need to contact me, you need only to make contact with a mirror and I will seek you out.” He sighed, “It is too late now for the scroll to be of use to me. You may take it to the brotherhood as proof of your loyalty.”
“I will not fail you again.” I assured him as convincingly as I could.
“By now your friends are probably fighting each other,” he remarked with a smile, “Go now, Agent of the Mirror. I will be watching.”
I mounted the horse properly this time and began to trot back to the city. After a few minutes I felt the unmistakable presence of the man in black in my mind.
“And Kepesk,” the voice lingered on my name as if it were a threat, “If you try to outsmart me again, I will kill you.”