I was in good spirits in spite of my aches and fears as the city gates came into view once more. The horse moved at my command, my thoughts were my own, and the rod was as good as mine. Let the man in black spy on my thoughts, let my companions try to bind and gag me again, let the brotherhood keep their miserable gold. I was alive with my dignity intact. I had bent dragons to my will with less.
I met Malakar before I reached the city gates. He had been unhorsed and he trudged on with a limp, but if he felt the pain of his injuries it did not show on his face. Barbarians were certainly a sturdy lot. I brought my horse to a walk beside him.
“Hey, Malakar. Sorry about earlier.” I called to him.
He responded with little more than a grunt. How annoying, I was trying to apologize! I wheeled the horse around to block his path.
“I was under a compulsion…” I started to explain, but the barbarian paid me no mind. He started to walk around me. That’s when I realized what the man in black had meant.
“Your companions are probably fighting each other by now.”
“Of course!” I exclaimed to my dominated friend, “The man in black said you would be fighting each other. Milo must have gotten away.” Malakar did not confirm my theory.
“That means he must still have the rod.” I called. Malakar perked up at the mention of the rod. Of course he did.
“It just so happens, I know where he went.” I mentioned, walking the horse beside him again. By now we were within earshot of the men guarding the gate.
“Follow my lead” I told him, “and I’ll get you the rod.” The man was in no condition to scrutinize my motivations. He followed me up to the gate and waited for my move.
“Halt” the guard commanded. I slid down from the saddle and gave the man a courteous bow.
“We don’t mean any trouble.” I promised.
“That may be, but we have orders to question a couple of half-elves that match your description,” the guard answered suspiciously, “a man and a woman.”
“That's probably us.” I didn’t bother lying, “It was that inquisitor, right? Said we were trying to rob him earlier?”
“…yes. That was the story.” The guard responded, confused. Sometimes bare faced honesty was as powerful a tool as a well told lie. Rather than scrutinizing us as possible criminals, the guard stood waiting for an explanation.
“Well we were. I was being controlled by a powerful wizard, but I managed to shake the compulsion.” I explained, gesturing to Malakar, “My friend here hasn’t been so lucky. I was hoping I could hire a mage in the city to fix him.”
“Of course, I’ll take you to Rufus myself.” The man responded, nodding to a guard on the wall to let us pass.
“Follow me, Malakar.” I said, leading the horse behind me, “Milo is this way.”
The guard led us to a house near the edge of the city. It looked normal enough, save for an unusual number of windows. Upon closer inspection, each window showed an entirely different area on the other side. Some revealed what could have been the inside of the house, others showed deserts and swamps, some radiated with divine light, one seemed to look in on an erupting volcano. Wizards. They always had to advertise their power. I handed my horse to the guard and rapped on the door- itself a window that showed the side of a mountain.
“Just a minute!” a man called from within, accompanied by the sound of glass breaking and papers ruffling. In time the door swung open to reveal a prematurely balding man with singed eyebrows and a nervous smile. He ignored me to address the guard.
“Whatever it was, it wasn’t my fault.” He chittered, “Just feed it three salamander tails and it should dissipate by morning.” This seemed to make the guard nervous. I didn’t have the time.
“You must be Rufus.” I exclaimed, arresting the wizard’s attention, “I’m Kepesk. I need your help.”
“…so you’re not here about the ooze gators?” He mumbled suspiciously. “Well then come on in!” I ushered Malakar inside before the madman could change his mind, leaving the befuddled guard alone with the horse.
The house was more remarkable inside than out. The mirrors changed the more you looked at them, flickering between alternate planes and mundane scenery. Every item not bolted to the floor, swords, cauldrons, tables, scrolls, and scraps of leather, could be recognized as magical to the trained eye. Even the fireplace in the corner and the comfortable looking chair beside it were obviously influenced by the arcane.
“What can I do for ya?” Rufus asked after allowing me a moment to take in his dwellings.
“My friend here is being dominated by a wizard.” I answered, “I was hoping you could dispel it.”
“Hmm” the man seemed to think it over, “I don’t know, you’re talking about powerful magic here. Not just any old wizard could dispel such a thing, and even then not cheaply.” Wizards and their egos. This man was even less subtle than the ostentatious man in black with his delusions of perfection.
“Well we were told you were the best.” I replied, giving him the admiration he craved before snatching it away, “But if it’s beyond you I’m sure there’s some sorcerer in the city who can help us.”
“What?! The sorceress!” The man exclaimed, “That feather-brained heartbreaking devil woman couldn’t tell a dispel from a disjunction!” A rivalry between mages? How completely unpredictable.
“I only meant that if you couldn’t help us…” I smiled, allowing him to interrupt me.
“Of course I can help!” He insisted, right on cue. He grabbed Malakar by the shoulders and thrust him into the comfortable chair. The barbarian was too dazed to put up any resistance as Rufus conjured up a series of restraints to tie him down.
“Now this might sting a little.” Rufus announced after Malakar was restrained. He snapped his fingers and a flash of arcane energy sprung from the chair, jolting my companion’s body momentarily before vanishing in an instant. Malakar squinted up at us from the chair, blinking as if he had just woken up.
“Thanks.” He said simply, “That was horrible.” A cursory inspection for magical influences convinced me that he was clean. I bent to untie him from the chair.
“No problem.” I smiled, “Happens to the best of us.”
“Told you I was the man for the job!” Rufus reminded us, grinning wildly. If I soothed his ego, perhaps we could get out of this without paying.
“You definitely showed me!” I said, taking a shot in the dark as to the identity of the magic, “Is that a disjunction spell cast on that chair?” It would still be a complement if I was wrong.
“You bet it is.” He beamed, “Cost me an arm and a leg.”
“I won’t ask whose!” I countered with a teasing smile. Men like this normally took well to such corny jokes and Rufus was no exception. His unrestrained laughter told me I had made a friend.
“That you shouldn’t, girl!” He managed between chuckles, “That you shouldn’t.”
I made polite conversation with him for a few minutes until Malakar’s patience began to wear thin. He wanted to find the inquisitor and get back to business after such an unusual week. It pleased me that he still wanted to travel with me after everything that had happened. I liked this group, or at least I liked Malakar. The half-elf was fair minded and indispensable in combat. If I was honest, he was also quite handsome. I could deal with the insufferable inquisitor if it meant I had finally found a group I could depend on.
Which reminded me of another bit of unpleasant business. They really couldn’t depend on me. The blood bond no longer forced me to act against them, but I was sure it allowed the man in black to read my thoughts at any time. I did not know what that would mean for my companions. I didn’t even know what it meant for me. Did this mark tie me to him permanently? Could I act against him if I wanted to? I didn’t know anything about this kind of magic, but I had just made friends with someone who might.
“Rufus,” I asked as he was showing us to the door, “do you know anything about blood magic?”
“What, like poisons?” he replied, “Or some kind of demon summoning thing?”
“No, nothing like that.” I clarified, “More like some kind of oath that relied on the mixing of the caster’s blood with the subject as a catalyst for the magic.”
Rufus stroked his chin for a moment, “No… no oaths really. I mean, there are spells like that, but they’re rare and very dangerous.”
“This is all completely hypothetical.” I assured. Rufus raised a singed eyebrow at that.
“Well usually the magic serves to bond two people’s minds, but it’s a slippery concept.” He said seriously before breaking out into another silly smile, “One time I got my blood all mixed up with a red-backed salamander. Whatever you do, don’t blood bond yourself to one of those! It’s terrible!”
“Oh yeah? What happened?” I asked, smiling back.
“I had to feel it die.” He muttered absentmindedly, sending a shiver down my spine.
“Well that’s unpleasant.” I remarked, trying to hide the discomfort from my voice. Rufus gave me a conspiratorial smile.
“You know what? I’ve got something you might like.” He said suddenly before diving into the next room. Crashing and banging accompanied the odd expletive as he rummaged through his closets. He emerged a short while later with a scroll in one hand.
“It’s not a lot, but this is what I’ve got on magic of this sort.” He explained, holding it out to me. I went to take it from him, but he yanked it back playfully. “But if I give it to you, you have to promise to do something for me.”
“Sure, what did you have in mind?” I offered.
“Oh it’s a small thing. There’s this woman, a sorcerer who lives on the other side of town.” He explained, “I just need a lock of her hair… for personal reasons.” Oh I could think of a few personal things a powerful wizard could do with a material component like that. Still, it wouldn’t be the most damning thing I had done recently. If she was smart, the woman would have protective spells for this sort of thing. If not, maybe this would teach her a well needed lesson.
“No problem, we’ll see what we can do.” I promised. To my surprise, he put the scroll in my hands.
“Good, get back to me as soon as you can.” He smiled knowingly, “Good luck with all of your hypothetical questions.” The gesture was not lost on me. A wizard who was too open with his knowledge would be exploited ruthlessly by his peers. Giving this to me now, and with no guarantee of payment, was a gesture of great trust and friendship.
“I will.” I smiled, “Thank you, Rufus.”
We finished our goodbyes and ferreted out the nearest taverns in the city. The closest was only a short walk down the road from Rufus, but Malakar had a feeling we would find Milo closer to the nearest temple, which was a longer walk. I tried to argue, but the barbarian was insistent. I dragged my feet behind him, grumbling all the way to the farthest tavern on our list.
Malakar was right, unfortunately, about where Milo would be. We found him immediately. He was seated at the bar in the company of an apparently injured Tengu. His new companion was missing more than a few feathers, exposing pale white flesh where soft black down should have been. His left leg was bandaged tightly right down to his talons. He seemed to be in good spirits in spite of his injuries as he shared a drink with our inquisitor. Their backs were turned to us. I was about to suggest we go about rejoining him cautiously, in case he thought we meant to attack, but Malakar was already halfway across the room. I sighed and followed reluctantly.
Milo noticed us before we could say anything and overreacted accordingly, drawing his holy symbols as if to repel us. The tengu regarded us with some confusion, cocking his head to the side. He kept his beak shut, thankfully.
“Are you seriously trying to ward us off?” I muttered, appraising the holy symbols. Desna and Pharasma were certainly powerful deities, but I felt their symbols were lacking a certain effectiveness.
“Maybe!” Milo managed, “If I have to!”
“Oh dear, Malakar. What will we do?” I went on sarcastically, “He’s got a butterfly and a curly que.” Malakar glared down at me.
“Show some respect, Kepesk.” I could all but hear my cleric sister chide. Fine. I guessed I should be trying to win him over.
“Just a joke,” I smiled as convincingly as I could, “Sorry.” The man didn’t lower his holy symbols.
“We’re not dominated anymore.” I rolled my eyes, “In case you were wondering.” He squinted at me suspiciously, muttering a quick prayer. The spell must have confirmed my story. He relaxed slightly.
“You were dominated, then?” he asked.
“Obviously,” I responded, “What? You thought we just turned on you for no reason?”
“I don’t know…” he muttered, turning back to his drink. Malakar joined him and they started talking quietly. Malakar began with an apology and the two friends began catching up. The tengu was left out of the conversation. He looked uncomfortable, so I nodded to him politely.
“Kepesk of the southern dragons.” I introduced myself, offering my hand.
“Master Yu.” He replied, shaking my hand. He had an accent I couldn’t place, probably eastern. “I don’t actually know what I’m doing here. I’m looking for my apprentice… I think.”
“You don’t remember?” I asked.
“I got into a fight…” he trailed off. The man was obviously recovering from something traumatic. Silence hung over us awkwardly as I waited for him to finish. When he never did, I spoke up.
“I’m sure you’ll figure it out.” I smiled politely, withdrawing myself from the addled bird-man. “I’m just going to head to bed. I’ll probably see you tomorrow.”
“Squawk!” was the man’s only response. I took it as a farewell and walked away. I paid for a room and shut myself in for the night.
The prospect of sleeping in a real bed again after such an uncomfortable week of travel was almost too tempting. I dropped my bag at my feet and flopped onto the small mattress. It was a cheap bed, even by tavern standards, but it didn’t matter. Compared with being bound down to my very fingers and slumped against some tree, it might as well have been the bed of a king. I wondered when other than now I might have time to study the blood bonding scroll. I had a lot to do tomorrow and if the inquisitor caught me with it he might start asking questions. I sighed. It had to be now.
I fished the scroll out of my bag and sat up, making myself comfortable with my back against the wall. The scroll was written in a prohibitively technical tone. I was always amazed at some people’s abilities to make the most interesting of subjects boring and tedious. I skimmed the first few paragraphs which were basically an explanation of the ethical precautions taken by the researchers, and chewed through the rest more thoroughly.
It wasn’t purely a compulsion, that was certain. In fact if I was reading it correctly it wasn’t a compulsion at all. The base of the spell was something like a telepathic link that was strengthened and modified by the mixing of blood. According to the text, blood mixing was a fairly standard (if dark) arcane catalyst which could be used for a lot of spells. It allowed for more powerful magic to be cast on a willing subject. In the case of this particular spell, the blood bond, it modified the spell effects to the parameters of the caster. The bond could be made one-way, so that only the caster could read the subject’s thoughts and communicate over it. It could also be set to punish undesirable behaviors as I had experienced on the journey. There was mention of the possibility of some kind of compulsive potential, but nothing near what I had experienced and the text described it as entirely theoretical. Spells could not be cast over the bond, which was a relief. There were other silly things casters could do with the bond, like sharing spells over a distance or using each other as homing points for planar travel. On the whole the information was largely irrelevant to me and boring.
Interestingly, in most trials only one or two alterations could be made to the spell before it broke down and reverted to the base telepathic link. In trials where multiple effects were attempted and failed, all of the previously established effects were lost. If this study was accurate, most casters had only been able to make the bond one way. I recognized at least three effects from experience with the man in black’s version, which made him something of an anomaly. I already suspected that this man was the most powerful mage I had ever met. Now I was certain.
After sifting through the poorly written material for what felt like an eternity, my neck started to ache and I decided to set it down. I made a half-hearted promise to myself to read the rest later. I stretched my arms and legs and shifted to a more comfortable position as I thought on what I had learned.
First, it wasn’t as bad as I had feared. The man could read my thoughts at any time, but he wasn’t constantly conscious of me. I could probably still act against him if I wanted to. He knew my whereabouts at any given time, but I would have to be willing if he wanted to look through my eyes. He could use pain to keep me in line, but I had endured pain before. I might have to do some extra work to circumvent the established compulsion, but I could handle that. I found myself running my hands over the mark he had put on my shoulder absently. It hadn’t acted up since he let me go. What had he said about the compulsion?
“You did not take well to it I see.”
He had been right, of course. Perhaps he had suppressed it, or narrowed the contingencies that would trigger it to give me a wider range of options when infiltrating the Brotherhood. By the study of the spell as it was written, that shouldn’t be a possibility. The raw power of the catalyst had to be utilized for broad purposes, anything more detailed would simply be overrun, but the man in black had proven a more powerful mage than most.
“I’m afraid you may have been more effective without it”
No, I was wrong. That is what the man had said, but he hadn’t suppressed anything. He said I would be more effective without it, and then I had felt him release me. I had consciously noted the difference. It had been drastic and the change had been immediate. I knew enough of enchantment magic to know what that meant. He had dropped the effect.
If I was correct, then he may have unintentionally reverted the spell to something close to its base! A telepathic link was a completely different situation. He could not set up another compulsion on me without refreshing the spell. He could not use the mark to cause me pain. In fact, if this was true, I would be able to turn the link on him. I could read his mind.
Suddenly excited, I pulled my legs in towards me and my feet together in the position my sister used to meditate. I relaxed my shoulders and closed my eyes as I searched my mind for some thread that would lead me to the blood bond and confirm my theory. I turned my thoughts to the times it had exerted control over me and tried to remember where that power lead. It was tedious, but this was what I excelled in as a sorcerer, feeling my way through the magical potential that was already there. Even so, I found nothing in my understanding of the compulsion or the pain trigger. I recalled that the search had been equally fruitless when I had tried a few days ago when we were still travelling, but this time I could not prod the effects to trigger as I had then. I tried plotting openly against the man in black. I tried focusing on the goblin I had killed in the name of the puppet master to establish myself as an enemy. No response. No pain.
I thought back to the only time since the man had released me that the bond had displayed any effect, when the man had threatened me telepathically. I isolated the experience and searched my consciousness for the place where I had received the message. Finally I found something useful, a part of my consciousness that had not been there before. I found the link to the blood bond soon after, an arcane tumor on my consciousness that could lead me to the man in black’s mind. I pressed on.
Suddenly I found myself disconnected from my own mind, standing before a massive wall of arcane energy. This was the man in black’s mental barrier, his will manifested to keep out unwanted intruders. I walked along it, looking for a way to circumvent it. He was a well-guarded man, but I was determined to see this through. Eventually, after about twenty minutes of searching, I found a tiny crack in the foundation and slipped inside.
Which was a storm of complete madness. The magic of the mirror realm permeated the space where his thoughts should have been. Fragments of thoughts reflected off of each other, coming out backwards and echoing infinitely. I had assumed the man was insane, but this level of chaos should prevent him from even the pretense of sanity. If these were his thoughts, if this was his mind, then it was a wonder that he could even interact with other people in a way they could understand. He shouldn’t be able to comprehend normality. He shouldn’t be able to function! There must be a place where he did his conscious thinking, separated from the rest of his mind. It was the only way such a man could appear rational.
I observed the chaos, or perhaps the chaos observed me, for a few moments. I was being pulled away, swept into the madness. I heard the laughter of small animals and children all around me. Somehow the disembodied laughter seemed to be autonomous, like they were people I could meet in a tavern or walking down the street.
“Excuse me.” I called out, “I’m looking for the man in black. Do you know where he is?”
The sound of laughter smiled, but didn’t listen me anything.
“Can you show me the way?” I asked.
There was a pause. Then the laughter grew louder, encasing me with its presence. I was suddenly somewhere else, an underground fortress of some kind. The man in black was at the head of a large group of people. About half had faces. The rest were blank-faced and ambiguous, the way one would imagine a long forgotten acquaintance. To my surprise I recognized Gareth, the halfling who had sent me to find the man in black in the first place. He was standing next to an elven man with silver hair among the largest concentration of the faceless men. The man in black held a mirror before the crowd and the scene changed.
The group was transported into the mirror realm. They paused to take in their surroundings. Silence for a split second, then the man in black doubled over in pain. In the next second, whatever had attacked him affected everyone. They sunk to their knees in unison, grabbing their heads in pain. The man in black let out a scream. I focused in on his face as pain gave way to understanding. He opened his mouth into a maniacal grin as he pivoted on his knees to face his men. With one swift motion and a magic word, half his army fell leaving only the faceless ones and a few others standing. Gareth and the elf were among them. The assaulting force subsided, allowing the survivors to rise to their feet and flee for the portal. I watched as they retreated. Their fallen comrades began to twitch to life once again. The man in black stopped outside of the portal to watch, laughing hysterically as the men he betrayed rose as puppets of flesh. Suddenly he paused to meet my gaze. His maniacal blue eyes seemed to look through me to something terrible and awesome.
The sound of laughter grew dimmer, receding from me. I caught glimpses of a struggle. Experiments gone horribly wrong. Lives and loves lost in a mad quest for power. Terrifying insanity surrounded me on all sides, but I was not alone. At the center of the storm a small child cried hysterically. He had thick red hair, blue eyes red from tears.
His name, I knew somehow, was Andrew.