He sighed heavily as he gazed at the reflection in the ornate mirror mounted on the wall. The neatly made bed, heavy with fine linens, stood in the far corner of the dimly lit room, right beside a large wardrobe held securely shut by a sturdy padlock. A dresser, adorned with a variety of sinister motifs, stood by the door, containing a variety of grooming tools as well as the candelabrum casting its flickering light throughout the chamber.
He shifted his gaze to his own form and continued his morning routine. He looked rather dashing, even though he did say so himself. The white of his shirt contrasted sharply against the black of his frock and the deep red of his hide, while his pale green eyes almost shone in the dark under his neatly trimmed eyebrows.
He adjusted his mustache a bit, pinching a few unruly hairs and yanking them out. He traced its path down the sides of his mouth, to where it melded with his straight cut goatee. The blond square balanced his broad face and served to keep his sharp chin hidden, so as to avoid appearing unduly threatening.
Grinning at the thought, he gazed at his yellowed fangs in the mirror. The naturally threatening Hellbred, the mortal spawn of Iruqhal’s dark sorcery, served as a living and breathing reminder of the evil that lurked beyond this world. And the lengths to which some went to fight it.
He admired his sandy hair, combed back to rest between his long ears as they rose from the sides of his head like a pair of reclining horns. Silken hair such as his, handsome on most people, clashed with the crimson skin of his demonic heritage to create a sinister quality as well.
Gorm Whitehelm sighed again. After adjusting his hair he gazed once more at his mighty frame in the mirror, giving himself a final once over. Tall, well groomed, and impeccably dressed; few would doubt his station as manservant to the highest nobility. A station which afforded him a level of respect his fiendish blood otherwise would have denied him.
Turning away from the mirror he marched out of his chambers to inspect the mansion. He had much to do today and far too little time in which to do it. ‘The uniforms need some touching up,’ he noted as he examined the armor standing on display in the hallway. ‘I shall have to enlist the Emerald Flame for that.’
As he continued his work, he went over his mental checklist of work in search of an appropriate time for such a task. He had completed preparations for both the minor rites and the full ritual, as per the master’s cryptic message. The taxes needed his attention, and he needed to send out orders for renovating the facade, and now request the mages send someone to repair the mansion’s guardians. Dusting and cleaning remained a constant chore, given the size of the residence as compared to a staff of one. If only they still had the resources to-
As he strode into the entrance hall a loud boom echoed throughout the manor. Looking up at the platform atop the marble stairs he saw the wooden doors into the great hall splinter as two sets of armor crashed through them, flying over the rail of the balcony to come tumbling down toward him. Swiveling on his heel he shifted his body to allow them narrow passage on either side of him. He paid no further heed to their empty shells as they crashed into the floor behind him, except as to note that he would need to add replacing them to the Emerald Flame’s commission at his earliest convenience.
The master had awoken.
The magic crashed over him like a tidal wave. The surge of life energy transferred by the rite felt incredible; what should have been drawn out over an hour happened within a few heartbeats. It was a rush unlike anything Sethian had ever felt.
Collecting himself, Sethian set about drawing the power into himself, sending it into his body. It was… strange, being both the recipient and the channeler. His soul resided in the cane, outside the influence of the stasis field within which his body was slowly dying.
Because time was ‘leaking’ in, Sethian could feel the sensations of that body, though they were distant and distorted beyond his ability to understand. He could barely make out the pain of his wounds and the chill touch of the grave amidst them. No doubt there stood a collector in this very room, hovering over him and waiting for the last grain to reach the bottom of the hourglass.
Sethian’s only hope lay in the healing his faithful henchman had provided. New sands for the hourglass, to continue that terminology, taken from Gorm’s own and transported through a rite of blood to Sethian’s. Except they had not arrived and would not arrive until it was too late.
Which was why Sethian had been forced to risk returning to his cane instead of straight to his body, even though the strain might yet break his maimed spirit. He had to draw the life force into himself faster than time was entering the shell, which was… not something that should be possible, but so much of what he was doing here was beyond what he thought possible.
It was a gamble, a dangerous one that would either save him or kill him, but it was the only option he could find with any chance of survival and his time was too short to look for a safer alternative. He had no choice but to unravel the enchantment of the stasis field.
Sethian gasped for breath. His throat felt dry and he could hear how raspy his voice would be from the breath alone. He had no time to lose, not a single moment. Gorm appeared in a blur of red and black, standing beside him so suddenly Sethian could not help but start.
He knew time was still slow for his body, and thus his perception of the world would be… confused. Which made the clarity of Gorm’s current stance remarkable, as the manservant had to be standing almost perfectly still in stoic attention.
The empty room was dark, lit only by faint starlight filtering through the many large windows lining the back of the chamber. Windows caked with a decade of dust and mostly covered with moth-eaten curtains of once-fine velvet proudly displaying his family insignia.
Sethian’s limbs felt as heavy as lead as he slowly forced himself out of the ancient throne upon which he had been sitting for the past century. He leaned on his cane and stumbled forward toward the doorway, where the remnants of the battered double-door hung on their hinges. He was fortunate discharge of his wards had not shattered the windows or otherwise caused more undue harm to his home.
Stepping out onto the landing he found Gorm waiting patiently, standing at perfect attention with one hand at his side and the other holding out a tray upon which rested a lone cup of steaming tea. Always ready to serve. Sethian was almost disappointed to note that the servant seemed strangely unsurprised to see him risen from his seat already, then reminded himself that from Gorm’s perspective it had probably taken a long time for Sethian to stand and walk over to the doorway.
Sethian acknowledged the man with a nod while picking up the tea in his free hand.
He motioned for the manservant to follow and carefully limped down the stairs and made his way through the well-lit hallways. Gorm followed closely behind in silence, with neither speaking a single word. Upon nearing the library Gorm strode ahead with inhuman speed to open the doors and then crossed the elegant, if rather small, room to open the secret passage into Sethian’s personal study.
As Sethian walked through the library he paused to gaze at his reflection in a window. The heavy brown robes were simple and tattered, though his ebony cane was in excellent condition and the astral gem atop it almost seemed to glow with power, despite the fresh blood staining it. More blood soaked through the fabric of his clothing, and behind him was a trail of bloody footprints and small puddles.
The wounds were greater than he had thought, despite the lingering magic slowing the bleeding considerably.
The study had been built into a large cliff jutting up from the earth next to the mansion. A short corridor led onto a stone landing at the edge of the hollowed-out rock. A line of stone steps hovered at comfortable intervals to allow access onto a stone platform some feet below the landing, flanked by four steady orbs of magical light.
The left side of the circular platform was dominated by a heavy table holding alchemical equipment, as well as various paraphernalia for creating and enchanting objects. The right was largely empty, save for a small desk and chair.
Once inside the chamber Sethian settled down in the lone chair and began to sip his tea. Gorm, ever one to play his part, stood quietly wearing a mask of patience as he waited for further instructions. Sethian watched the door slowly glide shut and felt the tingle of magic as the wards reactivated.
He waited a few moments to ascertain that they were indeed shielded before finally speaking out. “Greetings, Gorm. It has been a long time since last we were face to face.” Sethian opened a drawer in the desk at his side and slowly began pulling out the contents. A gilded key, a worn feather pen, and a withered book were all laid out on top of the desk. Throwing the pen back inside, he closed the drawer and turned back to the Hellbred.
“Greetings, Dark Lord.” Gorm offered a curt bow before taking a half step forward to place down a rusted kris on the desk, then resumed his position. “How may I serve”
The words had not been as rushed as Sethian had expected, and only some of that was likely to result from Gorm deliberately speaking as slowly as he could.
“You do delight in suffering…” Sethian let out a pained, wheezing chuckle at the title. He picked up the knife and began flipping through the book in search of a particular passage. ”You have acquired a suitable candidate?”
“As per your instructions, a volunteer awaits you in the ritual chamber.” Gorm offered a deeper bow this time.
“They understand the nature of the bargain?” Sethian was sceptical about anyone found on such short notice, but he trusted Gorm’s judgment. The man had an uncanny ability to find those desperate enough to barter away the years of their life, as shown by his continuing youth.
“Certainly, my lord,” Gorm replied, a hint of wounded pride sneaking into his otherwise dispassionate voice. The man prided himself on being an honest monster, and did not appreciate the implication that he would trick someone into something like this.
“Once the Trade has been performed in full I must return to Malqish. I have found something which I believe will be key to our endeavors,” Sethian continued, placing the key as bookmark in the tome and then rising to his feet.
“I shall book passage on the first ship southbound, then.” Gorm started to move for the door and had already begun opening it before Sethian motioned for him to wait. The man paused, then moved to stand at attention.
Sethian took his time, slowly picking up both tome and knife, before addressing his manservant further while starting toward the door himself. “No,” Sethian replied finally. “I need to make haste and therefore will be traveling through the Abode.”
“The Abode, my liege?” Gorm sounded incredulous. “That is a most dangerous path to take, especially in your state.”
“Quite so. I shall need a bodyguard.”
“Armored, I trust?”
“Naturally, anything less would be sheer foolishness.”
Sethian’s habitual smirk finally made its way through the pain to take over his expression as he paused to look at his bodyguard and loyal follower. The shadow of a grin began to spread across Gorm’s face as the prospect of finally getting out of the domestic rut and back into his old role crept through his discipline.
“We shall soon have our lives back, Gorm,” Sethian said at length. He paused briefly to direct the man’s gaze to the family creed, inscribed with Sethian’s personal sigill on the floor of the study.
‘We shall rise again.’