Undead Chaos, page 19
I cringed internally. No wonder I’d felt eyes on me the whole time. They were. It also explained how Batman found me so easily. Without normal eyesight, he was probably able to sense the spell where others, like Quinn, hadn’t.
I didn’t know which hurt more. My failure to detect the spell or the fact that I’d been used.
Treble gave his partner the once-over. “The weakling gave you quite a beating.”
Jethrow winced and limped over to his partner. “Caught me off guard. Apparently I underestimated him.”
Treble chuckled. “Yeah, that seems to be a recurring problem for you.” He stepped forward and jammed my sword into Jethrow’s stomach. My old friend doubled over the blade with a mixture of pain and shock. Treble yanked the sword free and stepped away. The tunic around the wound quickly turned dark red. Blood seeped through the garment, soaking Jethrow’s shaking hands. He took a staggered step forward and dropped to his knees.
“Wha?” he whimpered. His face was already a ghastly white as he tried in vain to staunch the bleeding.
“Nothing personal, Wright,” Treble said evenly, “but I got a better offer.”
Jethrow’s eyes rolled into his head and he keeled over.
I stared in horror. The raw, burning fuel of rage poured into my veins. Renewed energy exploded within me, so I rolled to my stomach and started to rise, but the Hunter spun around and kicked me once again. The blow knocked me into the wall, sapping me of all remaining adrenaline.
“You,” he said casually as he strolled over to me, “are very annoying.”
His boot came down on my face and the lights went out.
The bleachers were hard and exceptionally cold. Below me, thirty blonde cheerleaders in tight outfits performed amazing feats of acrobatics. Several executed handsprings while others performed backflips. I applauded each time one of them landed.
One girl in the middle, a tall, black-haired beauty, lifted a megaphone.
I cheered and she put the megaphone to her mouth again.
“Marcus!” she yelled, louder and more severe.
I stopped clapping and cocked my head.
I snapped awake. The last calling of my name was harsh and hurried.
The ground beneath me was hard and cold. My side and face were sore, my vision hazy, and my head throbbing. I blinked several times before finally clearing the blurriness.
The cell was sparse, lacking even basic amenities. It was large enough that I could fully stretch out sideways, but my fingertips and toes brushed the walls, and double that lengthwise. There were no windows, and the only exit was through a set of metal bars that hummed with magic. The defensive barrier radiated with startling power and when I tried to force a spell through it, it pressed back violently, which caused me to wince in pain.
I could hear breathing from various cells up and down the row and could passively sense a wide range of Skill, but the occupants were out of sight. I could, however, see the face of the people in the two cells directly across from me.
“Oh thank goodness,” Quinn said from the one on the left. “You had us terrified.”
I wiped some dried blood from my lip and performed a quick healing spell to ease the pain in my wrist. “What’s going on?”
Simeon frowned from the cell directly across from me. “Exactly what it looks like.” His voice was calm, but strained. The lines on his face were deep, and his outfit, like mine, was completely disheveled. “We were ambushed and overwhelmed by the Hunter.”
“How’d he get ahead of you guys?”
He sighed wearily. “It’s what he does, Marcus.”
“You both okay?”
The Necromancer shrugged. “Fine.”
“Been better,” Quinn muttered. She folded her arms over her thin T-shirt and shivered. Our captors had taken her cape, leaving her with only the clothes on her back for warmth. Her hair was wild in some places, matted in others. Otherwise, she seemed unharmed.
Simeon examined his cell. “These are not used by the Council. The bars are too thick and the masonry lacks the sterile feel of our modern jails.”
I nodded. “Plus the Council would at least have the decency to provide us with a toilet or Internet connection. Odds are good that we’re outside their jurisdiction.” I gave them the rundown of my encounter with Jethrow and Treble.
“Betrayed, eh?” Simeon said.
“It seems to be the popular thing recently.”
“We have no idea who paid the Hunter?” he asked.
“What happened to the Warlock?”
Simeon sounded genuinely curious, but the question caused a lump in my throat. “I don’t know, but the wound was pretty severe.” Deep down, I had a bad feeling about Jethrow’s fate. Gut wounds infect easily, so he’d need medical attention immediately.
Assuming he wasn’t already dead.
Tears stung the corner of my eyes and I blinked them away.
“What now?” Quinn asked.
Her father examined our surroundings. “We were taken alive, which means our captors want something from us. These cells are protected with something more powerful than I can overcome. Which means we have no choice but to wait and see what our captors want.”
Time dragged. Without a clock or view of the sun, there was no telling how long we sat in our cells. We toyed with ideas for escape, reviewed some of the events from the past couple of days, and I even explained the intricacies of beekeeping to them. Eventually even the roller-coaster ride of my favorite hobby ran out of track and we each drifted into the silence of our own thoughts.
An eternity later there was a loud clang and a door at the end of a hallway opened. Several sets of feet shuffled down the corridor before coming into view.
It was a small party of six men, all dressed in red robes and each radiating with Skill so powerful if felt like heat from a fireplace. They walked heavily, their shoes dragging and scuffling with irregular steps. Their eyes were glassy and half-lidded. Blood trickled down the hands of a few and dripped onto the concrete, and I stared in shock.
At the head of the party was a tall, gaunt man in similar robes. He had a thin, lined face and a shock of red hair bursting from his head. His gait was fast and hurried, as if he were late for an appointment.
The man and his minions halted at my cell, and his presence made me cringe worse than my barrier. The air around him popped and sizzled with energy—the magical noise emanating from him smothered my senses. It was like standing three feet from the lens of a lighthouse. Part of me boiled with jealousy that he commanded such power, but the other, more rational part, was horrified that one person could contain so much.
“Marcus Shifter,” he said politely. “It’s a pleasure to meet the heir to a great family name.” His left eyelid flickered and his hands shook.
“Yeah, I’m all squirmy with excitement myself,” I replied.
The man chuckled. “So glad to see your sense of humor has not been tainted by this incident. But where are my manners? I am The Conduit. Welcome to one of the bases for the Agents of Quaos. We are pleased to have you as our guests.”
“Your name is ‘Conduit?’”
“The Conduit,” he corrected.
“Was ‘Whack-Job’ already taken?”
One of the strap-hangers snarled and drew a knife. His leader held up his hand and my would-be attacker paused. Instead of plunging the knife into my heart, the man pulled back his sleeve, exposing rows of fresh scars on his forearm. He closed his eyes and carved a new wound. He moaned with pleasure as blood oozed from the cut and dripped onto the floor.
“Take,” he said, offering his
I recoiled as Quinn and Simeon gasped in horror. Of all the spells the Skilled performed, ones that required blood were the most damaging to both the target and the practitioner—they tapped into the very essence of what powered humans.
Combine a Blood Spell with rage or hate, and you’re talking destruction on a scale that’s measured in thousands of dead.
But blood was also significant because of its binding properties. Spilled blood was certainly powerful, but offering your blood to someone was staggering. It granted that person total control of your actions, bonding your powers to theirs for life. Skilled marriages used to combine Blood Oath ceremonies, but with the exponential increase in divorce rates, that practice had all but vanished.
If the guy carving into his arm was willing to give his blood to someone like The Conduit, then he no longer cared who or what had command over him.
And unlike Soul Oaths, which were survivable if broken, Blood Oaths were lethal if not kept.
“Thank you,” The Conduit replied. “Your gift is appreciated, but not necessary at the moment.”
The man slid his knife back into his robe with a glassy-eyed grin.
The Quaos leader turned back to me “I apologize for your accommodations. Once this is all sorted out, I’m sure we can put you somewhere befitting a man of your status.”
I eyed the self-mutilator cautiously before turning back to The Conduit. “I highly doubt that.”
The red-haired man frowned. “Why would you say that?”
“Maybe because you convinced Treble McCain to betray the Council and attack me and my friends.”
“Only out of necessity.” A muscle in his neck twitched uncontrollably. “Your exploits in the Underground have not gone unnoticed. Forgive me for assuming you would not come peacefully.”
“Nice groupies you have here.”
“My agents are all volunteers. Each came here willingly seeking the enlightenment and freedom I offer.”
“How benevolent of you.” I chipped.
“It is not about benevolence,” he said wearily. “It is about order and unity.”
I scowled, crossing my arms. “Provided by you, I suppose.”
The Conduit shook his head. “I am simply a tool. I serve no other purpose than to be used and, if need be, discarded.”
“Sounds like you’ve worked on your campaign speech for a while.”
He sighed. “I have had to explain my actions many times.”
“Golly, I can’t imagine why.”
“Sass,” he replied with an approving nod. “I like that.”
I darkened. “Let me out and I’ll show you more.”
“I think not. You’d only muddle things up.” The Conduit closed his eyes and inhaled. His hands steadied and the muscle in his neck stopped moving. “I know how this appears, but believe me when I say that everything I do is for the greater good of humanity.”
“Isn’t it always?”
The Conduit opened his eyes. “Do you have any idea how many lives have been lost because of war and prejudice? Billions. Skilled and Normals alike have murdered one another for generations, usually without reason. We have allowed misconceptions, fear and prejudices to infect our world for too long.”
“Our societies have made great inroads to a lasting peace over the past twenty years.”
“Smoke and mirrors,” he replied in a sad voice. “The wounds between our people run too deep. It is a cancerous rot that thrives beneath the surface of it all. Smiles falter, handshakes weaken and paper shreds. When you boil it down, we are a tainted species, dying of a disease that exists at our very core. Do you know how to cure an ailment like that, Marcus? Through surgery. You have to cut the infected pieces out so they do not pollute the rest of the world.”
“So you’re going to operate on humanity to make it better?”
“No. I will allow Nature to do that. And I’ll do it by creating a world where the Skilled and the Normals must band together for survival. The only way Mankind, or any species for that matter, can ever find true stability and peace is through suffering and chaos. A common enemy, a common threat—these are the principles that will bond our kinds together in final unity. That is why I was put on this earth. To be The Conduit through which mass hysteria and chaos can travel so that all creatures, Skilled and Unskilled, can finally overcome their differences and find a lasting peace.”
His grin flickered as the twitches returned.
“Seriously?” I asked. “That’s your master plan?”
The smile faded. “Yes.”
“It won’t work. People might bond together for a while, but eventually instinct will take over, and everyone will go back to their usual ways of operating. You can change the environment, but you can’t change people.”
The Conduit cocked his head. “Our experiments prove otherwise. Take you and your friends here for example. Because of my pet, you were willing to risk your life to save one of the greatest dark Necromancers of modern time.”
“The one you so heartlessly decapitated. His escape surprised and disappointed me. I was saddened by his re-death, but his purpose became clear the more I studied the situation. Like me, he had evolved from my original intention for him into something greater. He united your small band together in the face of overwhelming odds. Now imagine that on a global scale. Better yet,” he said, “allow me to show you.”
The defensive barrier to my cell evaporated and I was suddenly pinned facedown to the ground. The Conduit opened the door and entered, kneeling before me. He grabbed the side of my head and muttered several incoherent phrases. A second later, unwanted images penetrated my mind.
The Conduit’s vision of the future poured into me.
Cities would burn as the reanimated and beings far more terrifying than the human psyche could fathom stormed the earth. Billions would die, slaughtered by the filth of other realms.
In their darkest hour, however, the various species that inhabited this world would come together. Alliances never before possible would form to fight the living nightmares that were bent on their demise. The war would be long and bloody, but a new and unified world would eventually rise from the ashes of despair.
The Conduit released me and I heard someone screaming. I was curled on the floor, holding the sides of my head in agony. My throat was sore and my voice hoarse.
“Marcus?” Quinn called in a worried voice, but I didn’t have the strength to respond.
“You see?” the Conduit said quietly. “Our species—this entire world even—is sick and broken. We must face our darkest fears if we are to ever rise above our pitiful, inherent weaknesses. I know you don’t understand, but trust me, if you survive the coming apocalypse, you will.”
I lay there, unable to do more than groan. The Conduit nodded and stood. He exited my cell and reactivated the barrier. The trapping spell vanished a second later. I flexed my fingers and slowly uncurled.
“You reanimated that being?” Simeon asked quietly from his cell.
“Daddy, no!” Quinn said.
“Please don’t interrupt, Ms. Fawkes,” The Conduit snapped. Then to Simeon, “To answer your question, yes. Although, to be honest, it was no easy task and required more of my power than I had planned. The loss of life in order to begin restoring what I spent was staggering. Many of our agents and guests perished in the cause, and yet I have still not fully recovered.”
He approached Simeon’s barrier and gazed at Fawkes in childlike wonder. “You, sir, are an inspiration. Your theories with reanimation are unparalleled. And here you are.”
“Here I am.” Resignation and defeat filled his voice.
“I have wished for this moment ever since you touched my pet. I hope I made you proud.”
The Conduit smiled. “You have no idea how much that means to me.” He stepped forward. “Allow me to also thank you in advance for your gift. It will make a welcome addition to the cause and should be enough to fully restore me to the level required for the next phase.”
An agent lowered the barrier to Simeon’s cell. The Necromancer was not immediately thrown to the ground, but instead snarled and made a motion with his hands. One of the metal bars of his cell snapped in half and impaled a follower. The man released a cry of alarm, then went limp against the cold steel.
Simeon made another motion and a second follower was thrown backward at blinding speed. The man collided with my barrier, and there was an explosion of psychic energy. The victim, suspended at the point of impact, went rigid, and his scream echoed off the thick walls of the prison. He convulsed several times before collapsing to the ground with a thud.
“Enough,” The Conduit said, curling two fingers. Simeon was thrown to the ground and the spell he was forming deteriorated into wisps. He continued to strain as hands lifted him onto his knees.
The Conduit nodded to his remaining men, who dropped the barriers of the two cells next to Simeon’s. They pulled the half drugged, half conscious beings from within. One was a Skilled human male, dirty and reeking of excrement.
I stared in shock as the other prisoner was dragged into view. The missing female Elf from Millie’s was limp and her hair in complete disarray. Her eyes were glassy and her tunic stained with vomit. A large purple bruise stretched across her cheek.
“What the hell are you people thinking?” I asked. “Her clan will gladly wipe you all out for harming her.”
“It’s worth the risk, Marcus,” The Conduit said, then turned his back to me.
The men dragged the prisoners into Simeon’s cell and forced them into positions behind the famous Necromancer. The Elf whimpered as they made small cuts on her palms and guided her bleeding hands onto Simeon. They repeated the process for the other prisoner, then themselves. Once set, the followers closed their eyes and began humming.