Resolution by Alastair Archibald by Alastair Archibald - Read Online

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Summary

Having helped to securely imprison Prioress Lizaveta's soul, Grimm Afelnor enjoys a long leave of absence from Guild activities with his beloved Drex. However, behind the scenes, an old enemy returns, thirsty for the Questor's blood. Bereft after falling out with Drex, Grimm has to battle a crazy Questor even more powerful than him. Battered, broken and exhausted, he must now face his nemesis—who vows to kill him in the most agonizing manner possible. Meanwhile, High Lodge is in flames, attacked by an irresistible foe, and if it is to survive, the Guild must make choices that will shake it to the core.
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ISBN: 9781611606232
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Resolution

RESOLUTION: BOOK 7 OF THE CHRONICLES OF GRIMM DRAGONBLASTER

by

ALASTAIR J. ARCHIBALD

WHISKEY CREEK PRESS

www.whiskeycreekpress.com

Published by

WHISKEY CREEK PRESS

Whiskey Creek Press

PO Box 51052

Casper, WY 82605-1052

www.whiskeycreekpress.com

Copyright Ó 2013 by Al Archibald

Warning: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 (five) years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.

Names, characters and incidents depicted in this book are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of the author or the publisher.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

ISBN: 978-1-61160-565-5

Cover Artist: Gemini Judson

Editor: Melanie Billings

Printed in the United States of America

Dedication

To my parents, without whom none of this would have been possible.

Prologue

The ill-sprung wagon bounced and skittered along the uneven road, raising a cloud of dust into the air behind it like a pale squirrel-tail. Inside the vehicle’s canvas cover, the air hung heavy, cloying, stifling.

Inside the wagon, Prioress Lizaveta tolerated the physical tribulations of travel with dogged stoicism: her awareness of nausea, dizziness, thirst and heat was somehow diluted; informative, rather than imperative.

After all, a dead woman’s soul need never worry about loss of face due to some involuntary bodily eruption.

Spirit-Lizaveta reflected that her current state was perhaps the ideal of sentience, despite the bodily discomforts trickling through the spiritual barrier between her and her physical host, the former Sister Weranda.

Although she could experience the world only through Weranda’s flawed mortal faculties, these senses remained uncorrupted or coloured by the expectations, fears, desires or petty prejudices bedevilling all mortals. Spirit-Lizaveta’s expectations remained objective and untainted; she could look back over every event and action of her long life, with neither pride nor pleasure at her achievements. No guilty conscience remained to make her uneasy…not that this affliction had ever assailed her much, even during her days as a mortal.

Looking through the eyes of Weranda, now using her birth name, Drexelica, the imprisoned soul considered her fate with perfect calm.

When Weranda delivers me to High Lodge, the triumphant Lord Dominie Horin is unlikely to look kindly even on the disembodied spirit of a witch who tried and almost succeeded in seducing him and bringing down his whole misogynistic empire. Expungement is the only possible sentence: the utter erasure of my being. Even in my current state, total nonexistence is impossible to comprehend.

Lizaveta saw Weranda’s illicit lover, Grimm Afelnor, as her former vassal turned to face him. The youth looked little different from countless others in the sweat-shops and the gutters of any large town at this very moment. Without the blue-gold Guild Ring he wore on his marriage finger and his ebon Mage Staff with its brass shoes and its seven gold rings, nobody would suspect that this youth was any kind of thaumaturge, let alone a Mage Questor powerful enough to bring down a witch as formidable as the Prioress had been.

However, those dark, penetrating eyes betokened someone who had seen more than his fair share of awful sights in his short life. Although softened by a twinkle of humour, these were the eyes of someone confident in his ability to kill and destroy anything that stood in his way.

Horin will find this boy an even more precious investment now I have turned him into a better Weapon of the Guild than his precious Guild could ever have done.

I underestimated him. A grave, even fatal mistake to make: a human failing. My contempt and hatred for the Guild and its prejudices blinded me to his power and his drives. By enslaving his paramour, I gave him the hate-power he needed to destroy me and the Priory. Turning Weranda against him proved not to be the lever I anticipate; rather, it gave his soul the steel it had lacked before.

Since Weranda threw off Lizaveta’s control over her, the former Prioress’ own power had ebbed to the lowest of levels. She could not even escape the flesh-and-bone tumbril conveying her to her doom.

Afelnor leaned a little closer, a faint smile transforming his grimy, troubled face, and Lizaveta heard him whisper, I love you so much, Drex. I can’t wait until all this is over and we can be together. His lips pursed and his eyes almost closed, and he leaned towards his lover.

Although excitement was a mortal feeling, Spirit-Lizaveta knew amatory energy as a potent source of energy even for a witch’s dead spirit. A passionate kiss might permit her to escape or even overcome Weranda again.

Weranda shook her head and pushed him away, but gently. "Keep your hands off for the moment, lover-boy. With Prioress Lizaveta acting as chaperone, I’m not in the mood. And even our holding hands or sitting too close together could perk her up; a kiss could even give her enough energy so she could force me to be her slave again, and turn me back into Sister Weranda.

We’re nearly rid of her now, Grimm. It won’t be much longer.

Grimm nodded. Of course, Drex, I wasn’t thinking. I’ll keep my hands off until you’re safely rid of that bitch’s spirit.

I imagine the Guild will lose no time in portraying me as a senseless man-hater, a callous harridan who took pleasure in enslaving scores of women to serve her ravening, insensate misanthropy. Women will regard me as a monster, and my dream of my craft-sisters becoming as recognised as Guild Mages will be forgotten.

If I am remembered at all, it will be as a destroyer of mages rather than a saviour of witches.

Wielders of Geomantic arts will continue to be marginalised, belittled, patronised and repressed–perhaps even more so than before. Perhaps Sister Judan or another Sister may take up the gauntlet, but it seems unlikely. None knows the secret of blood-magic or has a fraction of the power I had.

But, then again, what does it all matter? An evanescent vision of what might be was expunged by what is. This is the way of the world.

The spirit of Lizaveta ceased to take any interest in the world outside her mortal cage as the wagon continued to career along the dusty road. She ceased to think, to plan, to be aware: nothing was left but serenity and complete acceptance of her pending destruction. She had so nearly achieved her aim of toppling the mighty, centuries-old Guild of Thaumaturges, Sorcerers and Magic-users, but her resistance was at an end.

The long dream appeared to be over: however, the living Lizaveta had never lacked the virtue of patience, and her spirit form remained ever-watchful for her mortal host’s least mistake.

Chapter 1: Return to Civilisation

The young man’s silken robes hung in tatters, his long, dark hair lay in matted tangles, and his face was gaunt. The haunted intensity in the dark-rimmed eyes showed he had faced great adversity and overcome it only at great cost.

Mage Questor Grimm Afelnor, called the Dragonblaster, Weapon of the Guild, could think of no place he would rather be, and he almost wished the journey would never end. With Drex at his side, he felt at peace, with all the world’s worries a distant, unimportant trifle.

Shakkar, Grimm’s redoubtable demon Seneschal, floated overhead on bat-like wings, their ever-watchful guard. The aggravating, argumentative Questor Guy had gone his own way, and the trusty General Quelgrum sat at the reins.

In one of Grimm’s pockets slumbered Shakkar’s diminutive and distant relative, Thribble. The six-inch demon might appear insignificant, but he had often proved his worth through his acute awareness of interdimensional relationships and the skill of perfect mimicry. Thribble’s job among his towering fellows in the underworld was to regale them with amusing stories enlivened by employing the subjects’ original accents and mannerisms.

The resourceful little demon had accompanied Grimm since his first Quest to steal the Eye of Myrrn from the demon baron, Starmor. Thribble often expressed the intention of returning to his own realm, but he always decided to stay just a little longer after noticing some new, perplexing mortal quirk in Grimm, his friends or his enemies.

The demon, emotionally and physically exhausted, snored inaudibly, but Grimm felt the soft, rhythmic vibration of his snuffling, and the irregular bumps and taps as Thribble twitched in his netherworld dream-state.

After commanding the disparate group in so many perilous situations for so many months, Grimm revelled in the fact that now he need do nothing but sit back and revel in the closeness of his lover—even if he dared not touch her for fear of reawakening Prioress Lizaveta’s power.

Opposite the two lovers sat the kindly Sister Mercia, a former inmate of Lizaveta’s Rendale Priory, her head lolling and her eyes twitching as she slept.

The giant albino fighter, Tordun, sat at the wagon’s far end, seemingly content despite his sightless eyes, in deep debate with one of Quelgrum’s soldiers, Sergeant Erik. The two warriors seemed poles apart: one a bare-knuckled fighter, blooded in countless prize rings, reliant on his speed and musculature; the other raised from childhood in the very midst of Quelgrum’s army, trusting in its ingenious pre-Fall metal weapons. Nonetheless, they seemed to have found common ground in an animated discussion about the relative merits of different styles of unarmed combat. They scarcely spared Grimm and Drex a glance as they argued and bickered.

The hapless and sexually confused Necromancer Numal, who had once tried to seduce Grimm, appeared lost in a gloomy reverie. His lips moved, but the noise from the vehicle’s steel-shod wooden wheels drowned out his words.

Despite the crowded, confined space, Grimm and Drex might just as well be alone with each other, and Grimm was happy for this condition to endure as long as possible.

What are you thinking, lover?

Even Grimm’s sensitive ears barely made out Drex’s voice over the wagon’s clamour.

He smiled and looked into her green eyes. I’m thinking I’m dirty, hungry and tired, but I’ve never been happier.

Drex’s eyes misted over. "When I was suffering in the Priory, I could only keep going by telling myself you were going to burst through the door at any moment. I held out as long as I could, but I…I betrayed you, Grimm."

He grunted; only two weeks before, Drex had led him into Rendale Priory, pretending to have escaped. She was one of his most enthusiastic torturers, her memories and desires perverted by the powerful witch. As Grimm now knew, Lizaveta took control of Grimm’s grandfather, the mighty Questor Loras, forty years before, and Grimm knew few people could have stood up to her potent blood-magic as long as his lover had.

Grimm shrugged. Don’t blame yourself, Drex; I don’t. You’re back with me. That’s all that matters to me. And, as you reminded me, it’ll all be over as soon as we deliver your unwelcome passenger to High Lodge.

Drex rolled her eyes. "You make it sound so simple, Grimm. But even finishing off Prioress Lizaveta isn’t the end, is it? You’ll still be the bound servant of your Names-cussed Guild, and your precious Lord bloody Dominie would have a purple fit if he knew you’d so much as smiled at a girl, let alone lain with one."

Grimm recognised the truth in her words. Guild rules stressed at every turn the perils of the awful sin of carnality. Even with Lizaveta gone, Grimm’s life would still labour under strict control every bit as onerous as the late Prioress’.

* * * *

Here we are, good people, General Quelgrum called from the driver’s bench as he brought the wagon to a halt. Back home at last.

Drex sighed. "Thank the Names! I couldn’t have waited another minute. My legs are killing me. It’s so good to be home again."

She lifted her head from his left shoulder and showed the gamin grin that first captivated him. Grimm answered with a happy smile. Despite all she had been through, his beloved had changed little from the moment when he first realised that the grubby, rebellious girl he freed from slavery was now a woman.

We’re not quite finished yet, my love, he said. "I must carry out my duty to my Guild…I must."

Grimm wished with all his heart that he could just ignore the vow of Guild loyalty he had given Prelate Thorn so many years before, but he could not bring himself to do so. His conscience would not let him. He knew also that he could never rest easy while Lizaveta’s spirit still resided in Drex’s body, even if he could just take his duty and his responsibility in his hands and tear them into shreds.

"I know, Grimm. Drex nodded with perhaps a little too much vehemence. I know." She sighed again, running her right hand through her long, blonde hair, although her actions seemed neither contrived nor coquettish.

Let’s not talk about it now, Grimm said, as Necromancer Numal and Tordun clambered out of the vehicle. Let’s have a long wash and some clean clothes before we go any further. We’ll spend tonight here, eat well and leave in the morning. I just hope Prelate Thorn allows me a long retreat after all we’ve been through. He owes us.

"He owes us plenty! Drex’s brow wrinkled. So, what will you do if your mighty, sexless Lord Dominie says we can’t stay together?"

Grimm rubbed his brow. I don’t know, Drex. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t hesitate; I’d tell him just what he could do with his bloody Guild, and be damned with him! I want nothing more than to stay with you in Crar and never leave, but I also know how much my grandfather and grandmother have suffered over the years. I can’t let them down.

Drex looked into the Questor’s eyes for a moment, her blue eyes burning.

I hate the Guild, she said, her voice trembling just a little, but I know what family loyalty means. My father and mother died in a shoddy lean-to because Da couldn’t get work. They said he’d stolen a lot of money from the chandlers where he used to work, although they couldn’t prove it. After that, everybody in Griven thought he was a thief. But I knew it wasn’t true. Why, he often used to give money to poor people before…before it happened. I’d have done anything to clear his name. He thought the chief clerk had stolen the money, and he was going to try to prove it. Then, the roof fell in…I wasn’t there. I should have been…

Now she sobbed openly, and Grimm drew her closer.

Hush, now, my love, he said, in what he hoped was a soft, soothing tone. If you’d been there, you’d have died too; what good would that have done? Do you think your parents would have wanted that?

Drex shook her head, her mouth twisted and her eyes glistening, but she did not speak.

Come on then, Drex. I want Healer Threavel to take a look at Tordun’s eyes. If anyone can restore his sight, Threavel is the one. He’s an ex-Guild man, too. If he can’t help with Thaumaturgy, then perhaps Sister Mercia can, with a hint of Geomancy. I owe that man more than I can easily admit to his face. He deserves the best treatment I can get him.

I like Tordun, too, Drex admitted, her voice weak but level. I’d like it if he saw again. I’m sorry if I got a bit emotional there.

Grimm laughed. "After being tortured by Lizaveta’s cohorts, driven half out of your mind and possessed by the evil old witch’s spirit, it’s a wonder you can still function at all! You’re a fighter, Drex, and I love you all the more for it. Even fighters have a right to be a little tearful on occasion. Just be strong for a few more days. If Horin lays down the law to me, perhaps I’ll show him just what a Seventh Rank Questor’s wrath is like!"

Drex drew a deep breath and nodded, her lips twisted in a lopsided smile.

Grimm decided to change the subject. "Is your passenger still behaving herself?"

In truth, he had no idea how the Lord Dominie would react to any demand that the rigid Guild rules be relaxed to allow mages to consort with women. Although he knew that many respected sorcerers had broken this rule, such couplings had always been covert and casual.

Drex shrugged. She’s quiet now. I don’t think she’ll be any more trouble. Lizaveta made a big mistake showing me how her witchcraft works; I have no intention of communing with any earth powers until I know I’m well rid of her.

Grimm nodded.

A witch and a mage—what on earth will our children be like? he wondered. Perhaps, when I’m free of my Guild commitments, we’ll find out.

As he clambered down from the wagon into the brightness of a glorious morning, Grimm took care to suppress any sense of over-optimism; he had discovered just how false such feelings could be on several previous occasions.

* * * *

Grimm and Drex trudged up the spiral staircase of Grimm’s tower dwelling, Baron Starmor’s former domicile. The soft, musical humming of Starmor’s former captive souls, freed from constant torment but still resident, soothed the mage, as it always did.

Drexelica asked, When are we going to High Lodge?

Grimm looked down at her. Well, Drex, I can’t present myself to High Lodge dressed like a graduate from a beggar’s academy, can I? I want a long, hot bath, I want to trim my beard and wash my hair, and I want to replace these old rags with proper silk robes.

Well, of course, I want to look my best, too, Grimm. But I desperately want to consign the Prioress’s ghost to wherever your Guild intends to send it. She’s not doing anything to me now, but that’s only because I’ve been careful to stay away from sources of Geomantic power that might feed her. But buildings descend quite a way into the earth, so they’re sources of power in themselves. The longer we stay here, the more Geomantic strength Lizaveta can get.

We’ll leave first thing tomorrow, after I’ve talked to Shakkar, the Council and the General this afternoon. D’you think your passenger will get enough power to escape or dominate you by then?

Drex shook her head. But we’d better sleep in separate beds tonight, Grimm. No, I mean it! Sex is a huge source of Geomantic power, and who knows if she might be able to use your mage power as well?

Grimm shrugged. Whatever you think best, Drex: you’re the expert. We’ve been on the road a long time, and I think I can wait a night longer. I’ll sleep in the old Throne Room.

"No, Grimm: I’ll sleep in the Throne Room. Our bed must already have quite a lot of sex-energy in it that the Prioress could use to try to take me over again. Also, the Throne Room is in the middle of the tower, away from the walls that sink into the earth; that robs it of some power. And we’ll have to bathe alone, as well."

Very well, Drex, but I get to use the bath-chamber first.

Not if you ever, ever want to lay hands on me again in your life, Grimm Afelnor!

Grimm raised his hands in resignation and sighed. As you command, my beloved.

Drex hurried off to her bath, and Grimm sank into a deep, comfortable armchair, but he could not relax. Hunching forward in his chair, he tried to find solace in his whirling thoughts. He knew he had much for which to be grateful; but much more that gave him cause to worry.

* * * *

Grimm’s protests at the inadequacy of a mattress lying on the stone floor met with cheerful but firm dissent: as Drex pointed out to her lover, she had spent the majority of her life in far worse privation: she had warm blankets to cover her, and a deep pillow on which to rest her weary head.

Drex soon regretted her brave words, as worried thoughts chased each other in a mad and inconclusive race through her troubled mind. Minutes in dark isolation seemed to stretch into decades as one fevered notion battered its predecessor into oblivion. However, although her nerves jangled at what might await her at High Lodge, after her long ordeal and her journey back to civilisation, her exhaustion took its inevitable toll. Soon, sleep found Drex, and the remainder of her night passed without dreaming.

* * * *

The imprisoned soul who had once borne the title ‘Prioress Lizaveta’ reached out from her fleshly gaol with spirit tendrils, trying to grasp some fragment of Geomantic power with which she might regain control of her former vassal, but to no avail. Although a tower, such as Grimm’s domicile, plunged its roots deep into the nourishing earth, there seemed to be no pickings within her psychic reach.

I taught the girl too well, spirit-Lizaveta thought. Somehow, she has located an equipotential point within the building, denying me the power I need to exert my will.

She considered her options with cold pragmatism. Long sessions spent tormenting Grimm Afelnor meant spirit-Lizaveta had learned a little about Afelnor’s domicile.

For example, she knew the tower once belonged to Baron Starmor, a creature who resembled a man but was really a demon. Although she had never met the Baron, she had corresponded with him about a gem called the Eye of Myrrn, a magical construct allowing the owner to spy remotely upon others, even Guild Mages, unless they were behind potent magical wards. Lizaveta had persuaded Starmor how desirable possessing the Eye might be, hoping to use it herself if the Baron possessed such a human failing as gratitude. At the very least, the Guild would have to expend vast amounts of energy to protect itself from the prying Eye, rendering itself more vulnerable to other, subtler, attacks.

She remembered the potent, invigorating magic that wafted like perfume from Starmor’s letters. If but a fragment of that power remained in the building, she might be able to use it; the demon’s magic seemed far closer to Geomantic power than Thaumaturgy’s crude, masculine energy. Indeed, at first, Lizaveta had wondered if the Baron was a witch in disguise.

Lizaveta had known the sleight of astral projection for most of her life. Moving outside the organic confines of a body seemed to her as prosaic as stepping through an open doorway; the fact that the confining body was not her own troubled her little.

A spirit’s senses are far more sensitive than those of a crude, physical sensorium. Lizaveta’s spirit, although anchored to Drexelica’s body by a silver cord imperceptible to mortals, felt relatively free to roam and explore, as long as a trace of power remained.

Finding no trace of Starmor within the three customary dimensions, she used her spirit-senses to assess a number of spatial dimensions inaccessible to most human beings. The first eleven dimensions spirit-Lizaveta investigated were too cramped to contain more than an atom or two, but the twelfth proved roomy and imbued with traces of great vitality she recognised as emanating from Starmor.

Sensing the boundary and pushing beyond it, Spirit-Lizaveta emerged into blackness darker than a raven’s wing, but which somehow still glared with light.

Diverting her senses towards the earth, the floating soul perceived a small white dot and the potent spoor of Starmor. Descending rapidly, spirit-Lizaveta saw the dot expand into a small but definite circle growing at an increasing rate as she hurtled downwards. As she descended, she noted how the potent sensation of demon-magic lessened in intensity as she approached what now appeared to be a pale, diffuse, grey circle. Closer still, she saw a solid circle blurred by a dense mist. As the circle grew, the obscuration lessened as layers of mist fell behind the hurtling soul.

At last, spirit-Lizaveta stopped her descent at the top of some kind of stone altar with darkness all around. Now, the sense of demon-power was indistinct indeed, and a faint trace of frustration flickered within her: no doubt, some kind of mortal transference from her unwilling host.

This is not the potent reservoir of invigorating energy I expected at first. Starmor’s essence is here, but diluted almost to intangibility.

With a flash of clarity, she saw the truth: Afelnor and his confederate, Rufior, had blasted the demon Baron into a mist of particles far smaller than the finest flour. This faint haze must be all that remained of the potent, immortal demon.

Almost clever: they could not kill Starmor, but they made sure he would not be able to reanimate himself for millennia, at least. Each part of the demon is a subunit of his consciousness, with will and emotion: the smaller the part, the less aware it is. Each tiny particle in this oily cloud is far less aware than an acorn is of an oak forest, and so reanimation may only occur if enough particles collide and adhere to reach a critical mass of awareness. Only then can the swarm be reunited to recreate Starmor.

There is no energy I can use to liberate myself from this mortal prison, or to compel Sister Weranda to bend to my will. No…not here…but…here?

Spirit-Lizaveta’s sensorium turned to the surface above which she floated. Numerous mortal items littered its brightly-lit surface. Mortal objects implied bodily contact: the weakest of the Five Sources of which she was aware, but a source of energy nonetheless. Astral transfer, as opposed to manual absorption, would dilute the stream still further, but the prospect was better than that provided by the grey haze that once composed the fearsome Baron.

A bleached, dry and splintered thigh-bone: Spirit-Lizaveta absorbed its meagre store of strength as a starving scavenger might attempt to feast on the long-departed marrow. A torn scrap of clothing: another minim of strength. Not enough to persuade a gnat to change its course, but the wandering soul possessed a level of patience inaccessible to any human. Here, a fallen coin; there, a leather boot. Moving swiftly but methodically, spirit-Lizaveta sucked each last iota of energy from each of the pathetic relics. She had no idea of why this mortal debris littered the extra-dimensional pillar, but, in this ethereal form, her curiosity was limited.

After sucking meagre pittances of energy from scraps and shards, a true bonanza: a bloodstain, about seven feet in diameter, which had soaked into cracks and gaps in the pillar’s stone surface. Sprit-Lizaveta had long ago learned of the mighty Geomantic power to be gleaned from blood that had soaked into the earth; this dark patch represented a bounty far beyond the pallid rewards of rags and tatters which had once draped a living human form.

Almost eagerly, spirit-Lizaveta made to extract the copious energy from the blood-soaked patch of stone, only to find it all but devoid of force. Had some other witch come into the blood-knowledge and visited this altar in a strange dimension, to steal its riches? The prospect seemed remote, and spirit-Lizaveta extended her sensorium beyond the altar’s round edges.

The solution to the mystery of the ineffectual blood pool was now apparent, as she realised this was no altar in a black sea, but the top of a pillar whose lower extents disappeared into the darkness. There was no chance at all that even hundreds of gallons of blood could have leached down below about twenty or thirty feet, and the pillar’s base must be easily a hundred times deeper than that, if not more.

There was no bounty of energy to be had here. The thought registered as a simple fact, unsullied by emotion.

The meagre store of strength she had absorbed at such great cost would be grossly inadequate to allow her either to dominate her mortal host or to escape her fleshly prison. The nugatory amount of energy might set a fine lace curtain fluttering, or make ripples on a limpid pool, but little more than that.

Spirit-Lizaveta, acknowledging that her attempt had failed, flung her pathetic booty into the misty light, allowing the elastic silver cord that attached her to her host to pull her back into her death cell.

* * * *

The delicate waft of energy drifted through the cloud of fine particles bumping a few from their former paths as it passed, pushing them closer together. Two, three, a dozen disturbed motes combined, becoming a larger entity which was soon struck by other drifting specks.

Still smaller than a grain of sugar, this rogue globule of essence was a little different from its randomly orbiting fellows: it knew something. The vaguest, simplest outline of a few basic concepts, but knowledge nonetheless: the knowledge of hatred; vengefulness; mad, vicious, all-consuming rage.

Ill-formed though they were, these inchoate sensations awoke something within the greasy globule. Now, it had discovered the definite desire to know more, and the ability to direct its motion in the search for others which might enlighten it further.

The ripple died, having produced no more than half a dozen of these proto-psychopathic particles, but these roamed through the mist that had once been Starmor, gobbling up lesser entities in their ravenous search for greater understanding of what drove them.

As they searched, the growing voids they left as they swept through the cloud further destabilised the once-homogeneous mist, accelerating its collapse into a larger and ever more self-aware protoplasmic mass. At a critical point, six hours after spirit-Lizaveta’s departure, the cloud became self-aware for the first time. Invigorated and spurred by the hunger and rage that was its new-found purpose, the mist began to collapse apace.

Two hours later, with the former haze now beginning to coalesce into the vague but unmistakeable form of a human being, recollection began to flow again; words came to the reborn mind that assigned a name and a purpose for its hatred:

Grimm Afelnor: the upstart whelp who dared to kill me…a mistake for which I shall make him and his mage friend, Dalquist Rufior, pay a thousand times over, if I can ever find my way back into the human dimensions. I shall not remain imprisoned forever, and when I escape…

The mist began to coalesce at an ever-increasing rate, accompanied by rage that grew hotter and more focused as Starmor’s sense of identity began to return.

Chapter 2: No Cause for Concern

At the age of seven, Thorn Virias swore to serve the Guild and Arnor House. Ten years later, his Mage Staff, which he had named ‘Nemesis’, rebounded from the magically-sharp edge of Arnor’s Breaking Stone, and he became a Mage Questor. For twenty years, he risked his life, his sanity and his soul, before quitting the rigours of the road to take up the position of Prelate of Arnor House.

For forty years, other mages, even including the High Dominie himself, had called him, Lord Prelate and treated him with profound respect.

How far he had fallen…

Traitor, your name and honours have been stricken from Guild records. You have twenty minutes to vacate High Lodge’s demesnes in perpetuity. If you set foot here again, you will be killed without warning. Now, get out!

The High Lodge Head Doorkeeper’s words still resonated in his head an hour later, with even the towering turrets of High Lodge all but invisible in the distance.

Thorn’s Mage Staff and Guild Ring had been his constant companions for over six decades. Wherever he went, complete strangers recognised these badges of rank and authority, and called him Lord Mage. Stripped of them and his powers of magic, he was nothing but an old man with no experience of anything but Thaumaturgy, and no skills he could offer a potential employer in the Secular world.

He had considered throwing himself upon the doubtful mercy of his mother, Prioress Lizaveta. However, Lord Dominie Horin had removed this last hope when he told Thorn of Lizaveta’s death at the hands of Grimm Afelnor.

Get to Perdition out of the middle of the road, you old imbecile!

Thorn spun around glaring, reaching instinctively for his threads of power…nothing was there, just the random, chaotic swirling of a normal, Secular mind.

The driver of the horse and cart crossed his burly, tattooed arms across his chest. I said, get out of the chivvin’ way, old man, before I drive over you!

Drawing a shuddering sigh, Thorn swallowed his pride and shuffled to the side of the road as the cart moved past, almost knocking him over. He trudged on, feeling a grinding ache beginning to build in his right hip.

Where did it all go wrong? I had everything! Even now, I could have been tucked up in my nice, secure, comfortable workroom at Arnor House, sending invoices and totting up income.

If it hadn’t been for Mother interfering all the time, pushing me faster, higher, harder, I’d still have the ring, the staff and the title…

Well, perhaps it was Mother’s machinations that got me the position of Prelate in the first place. Then again, if she hadn’t pushed me into playing that…that trick on my friend Loras…and I was exiled because of my association with her.

And even then, I could have continued to keep it all hidden if not for Loras’ brat, Grimm Afelnor…and even Loras himself…and those damned traitors: Magemasters Crohn and Kargan, and Questor Dalquist…

Now, his downfall seemed all so deliberate, so inevitable in retrospect. It seemed to work out almost like a logical syllogism:

It had all begun when Lizaveta had forced Thorn to betray his best friend, Loras Afelnor, so that Thorn could become Prelate of Arnor House. However, this was only the start: then Lizaveta had driven him to raise Arnor’s status in High Lodge’s eyes. To this end, she had pushed him into increasing the severity of the Questor Ordeal. After a regrettable accident with