Next to The Custard

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Truly the sunset of that great age as both King and Prime Minister awaited news of their efforts of peace, and others on both sides prepared for war, ignorant of the price their fathers had narrowly avoided paying, and which they would surely have to pay if open warfare resumed.

But not all was quiet, for previously unseen forces were taking an open hand, persuing their own ends. Direct action had been taken - the Aisorbmian lacrosse coach lay dead and buried, and the effects of that had yet to be seen, but in a forest a day's ride from the Castle which lay at the heart of the Kingdom, further action would be taken on a dark and moonless night.

Episode Nine: The Risk of Practice

It was pitch black in the forest - clouds covered the sky, and the new moon wouldn't have cast any light even if they had not. Shaat'ka stumbled through the undergrowth, wet leaves brushing against his already-sodden trousers, following the dim, flickering lantern which his brother Ar'mais carried. Roots threatened to trip him with every step it seemed, but there could be no delay, for the midnight hour was fast approaching.

Ahead of them the trees suddenly opened up into a clearing. A circle of standing stones, about twenty feet in diameter, stood in the centre of the clearing, and a rough, waist-high block of stone in the centre of that. Ar'mais stopped, looking at the circle and breathing hard. Midnight surely had to be very close now.

'The time approaches,' Shaat'ka said. Ar'mais flinched, as if the words were his death knell.

'The time has arrived,' he said finally, and put the lamp down. It cast just enough light for Shaat'ka to see him take off his clothes and boots until he stood naked in the darkness. Shaat'ka followed suit, and walked closer, taking Ar'mais' head in his hands.

'Your thoughts... your mind... your thoughts... your mind...' he chanted under his breath as he reached forth into Ar'mais' mind, seeing the other man's thoughts spread out like the world seen from a high mountain. He could read them all. That would be essential as they proceeded.

'Good luck,' he said. The telepathic link worked only one way - Ar'mais knew nothing of Shaat'ka's thoughts. That was essential as well.

'I doubt I'll get it.'

His thoughts were a maelstrom of emotion and fear, but at the core of it lay determination. He knew what they did this night was necessary.

The stones stood, waiting. Ar'mais walked forward, passed between two of them. As he reached the central stone, he began to chant in a low voice, sounds which were both more and less than mere words. Sounds of power. The air seethed with them.

The stones felt them, and answered in kind. Each began to glow with a faint red light. None of the stones cast a shadow. Ar'mais stood before the central stone, and raised his arms above it, holding the palms down. His chant changed. The surge of his magic roared through Shaat'ka's mind as he observed the other's thoughts, a whirling storm of fear and apprehension, and exultation in the power he was drawing. Pain, too, as invisible energies pierced his fingertips. Blood dripped onto the stone.

The chant changed again. The central stone began to bleed, blood oozing from the pores in the hard rock, until it glistened in the red light from the standing stones. Ar'mais ran a finger through the blood and used it to mark a symbol on his chest, seven radial lines meeting at a central point. As the last line was completed, the blood on the stone and the blood on his chest ignited, burning a fierce purple flame. His scream echoed through the night, then his voice, strained with pain. Shaat'ka flinched involuntarily, a reaction to the pain he felt pouring through Ar'mais' mind.

'I call upon thee, Erica del Erica most untimely slain! By treachery wert thou slain, before thy time and in manner unfitting. I call upon thee, Erica del Erica, return across the barrier of death. As my voice calls unto thee, thou shalt hear and follow it to me. I stand open and ready in this place of power. I offer my body to thee.'

It started as a feeling, a prickling on the back of the neck. Shaat'ka looked around, although he knew where the feeling came from. His feeling from Ar'mais' was tense, waiting. Nervous. Frightened. Terrified.

The night was split by a scream. A woman's scream, a scream of rage and anger. Light descended from the sky, hitting the ground with a tangible shock that made the trees sway as if in a wind. A bright, fierce red light exactly the colour of fresh blood. Ar'mais screamed again then, his voice melding with the woman's scream, until one was the same as the other. Shaat'ka fell to his knees, holding his head. The torrent of thought from Ar'mais was more than he could comprehend. Scattered and confused and filled with pain. It seemed to last for hours, although it was only a matter of minutes - the screaming, sustained far longer than mortal lungs could manage. The pain, the confusion.

Then the light went out, and the stones went dark, and the blood was gone. Ar'mais lay sprawled on the ground. Shaat'ka moved cautiously into the circle and knelt by his side. His thoughts were dim, but calm. Dormant, almost. Shaat'ka frowned. That wasn't right.

He reached out to shake his brother, and felt a hand grasp his throat. His brother's eyes opened, but it was not his brother who looked out of them.

'Why hast thou done this?'

The voice was not his brother's. It was a woman's voice. Cultured, speaking with the accent of the Kingdom nobility. He felt the fingers tighten on his throat.

'Answer me! Or I shall send thee to the place from which thou hast brought me.'

'I did not bring you back! It was my brother, who's body you now inhabit!' Shaat'ka said.

'Thine brother's mind ist weak,' Erica said from Ar'mais' mouth. 'It doth rest after our struggle. He was unable to control me as he hath intended. But thou art linked to him, thou must know why he did this thing which stands forbidden.'

'You were killed too soon. We need you! You were the only one-'

'Fool! In this as in many other things, thou art surely a fool. To think that I would help thee after thou hast caused me such pain.' The hand around Shaat'ka's throat opened, and he was pushed backwards by something, coming to a halt hard against one of the standing stones. Stars flashed across his vision from the impact. Dimly, he saw his brother's body stand up. 'Thou hast gained nothing by this. Nothing! I shall have my own revenge. Thy purpose and that of thy brother means nothing to me.'

There was a stirring, a change in Ar'mais' awareness. Shaat'ka felt it. Erica clearly felt it as well, for she froze there in the darkness.

'And now thy brother seeks to escape my control,' she said. 'He seeks thy help.'

Help me... help me... distract her...

Shaat'ka's hand closed on a rock. He picked it up and threw it. Erica turned, flicked a hand. The rock exploded in mid-air, showering the ground with fragments. She raised a hand again. Fire burned in its palm. It looked like Ar'mais stood over him with murder in his eyes, but he knew it wasn't. That was some comfort at least.

'Die now, and understand what thou and thy brother hath done to me,' Erica said, and the fire blazed forth. Through Shaat'ka's screams came Erica's shrill laugh, and in the back of Shaat'ka's mind, Ar'mais screamed as well.

And if Shaat'ka ever understood we will not know, for none of the living can know of the world of the dead.

And so at the end of that night, a plan lay in ruins, for Erica del Erica lived again in the body of the necromancer Ar'mais, and far from being a willing occupant of Ar'mais' body, she had taken over completely and subjugated Ar'mais' mind almost to the point of obliterating it. A random factor in a world of random factors - but a random factor which had not been intended.

Further research may reveal more about the effects of this night.

The Next to the Custard

MaW and Ripper

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