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In the morning, I awoke, refreshed, hungry, and as eager to be about my business as if it were just another day. There was a warm spot on my legs where Grey nestled, not having moved during the night, and I shifted my legs with an effort before chasing my companion off the bed so I could rise. The cat accompanied me to the kitchen, a silent shadow. The kitchen was already full when I entered, and there was considerable commotion going on until Alison, exasperated, chased out everyone but James. We took refuge in the study, filling the silence with small talk of the least consequential kind. Breakfast, when it arrived, followed the same pattern, but by the time we were done, only Bram had eaten heartily, the mood had grown very different, and silence fell. It was Raphael who broke that silence.
“It’s time to begin.” There was much uncomfortable clearing of throats and shuffling of feet, and the old mage looked grim.
“Tell us your plan. You do have a plan?” I wondered aloud.
“How could I not? Is this not too important and risky a venture to leave to chance?” Raphael licked his lips and continued. “It occurs to me that three things must happen, in inevitable sequence, for us to succeed: first, Morley must summon Orgrim and occupy his attention while we prepare; second, I must immobilize our foe while he is distracted; third, Bram and any companions he requires must slay him.
“The specific details are as follows: First, Morley shall go to the crypt, and remove the ring from the silver chain that now binds it. After slipping on the ring, you must concentrate on your former master, as you were instructed; that should bring him to you. When he arrives, you must explain what has happened, and why you are as you now are, keeping as much to the truth as possible so you can regain his confidence; he will be suspicious, of course, but if you inform him that you have returned to once more serve him, that should allay his suspicions long enough for me to snare him. Finally, when Bram hears our shouts, he must enter and slay the mage before he can free himself. Does this all make sense?”
“All save one aspect,” Bram replied. “What role is the cat to play in this?”
All the while, Grey had been lying at my feet, occasionally swiping at a leg of my pants with extended claws, for all the world an ordinary housecat having forgiven his master’s absence and grown pleased at his return. Now, with every eye in the room upon him, he became diffident, and set about grooming himself. I reached down and picked him up, turning him to me. “Yes, what role are you to play in this, Cat?” Grey met my gaze for an instant, inscrutable as always, as if he knew full well his role but had no intention of sharing that knowledge. As I set him down again, he turned away, unperturbed, and resumed grooming himself.
Raphael looked uncomfortable. “That is the one thing about my plan that bothers me. I know for a certainty the cat is essential to our success, yet I know nothing of why, or what the cat’s actual role shall be.”
I had an unpleasant thought. “Always before, he has disappeared before Orgrim arrived, almost as if he knew the mage was coming and chose to flee. How can I keep him with me this time?”
Raphael’s frown deepened. “You could bind him, whether with a leash or with my spells, but my instincts warn against this.” He sighed, his tension relaxing. “I fear we shall simply have to trust that the cat will know his role in this and that if I’m wrong, we shall ourselves be adequate to bring an ending.”
“Not a very comforting thought,” Alison muttered. “And very little to hang our hopes upon.”
Bram put an arm around her again, and she snuggled against him, eyes downcast. “We have hung our hopes on less in the past, Beloved.”
“It’s agreed, then.” Raphael rose from his chair, smoothing the folds of his nondescript robe. “Morley, you shall leave at once, bringing the cat with you. Bram and I shall make the necessary arrangements at the palace, then make all haste to take up our positions. I shall know when Orgrim has arrived, and shall move to take him by surprise. All you must do is take the time to tell your tale without haste, and do your best to convince him you’re eager to once again enter his service. Take as long as you can without being suspicious, so we can get into position; stall him as long as necessary.”
I nodded, speechless and terrified now the event was upon me. Together, we left the house, Bram pausing to embrace his wife and whisper a few words in James’ ear; the young squire looked displeased and rebellious, but settled down at a sharp look from our host and moved to stand beside Alison, his jaw clenching and unclenching. A short while later, we found ourselves in the palace, and what happened along the way, I cannot recount; my thoughts were elsewhere, and it was all I could do to master myself. In short order, I found myself on the brink of those cold stone steps that led downwards into darkness, an oil lamp in my hand. Bram squeezed one shoulder, patted the cat who crouched on the other, and turned away without a word, grim and distracted. That left Raphael.
“I would prepare you by providing magical aid, Morley, save that I fear he would sense it and avoid our trap.”
“I thank you, but I’d as soon do this without magic if I could. Forgive my harsh words, but I’ve liked not at all my few encounters with your art.”
Raphael smiled. “Then console yourself that this should be the last time you must deal with it. Best of luck, Morley. We shall be right behind you, as close as we dare.”
I turned and made my way into the darkness, walking cautiously in the faint illumination afforded by the lamp. It was easy to find the crypt, for my last journey to that place was etched in my mind. When I arrived, Grey jumped down and set to prowling about the room. I sat upon the slab, staring at the faint traces that remained on the floor from the spell that had summoned the demon to inhabit me, and the chill I felt was due to more than the damp coolness of the crypt. I lifted the ring from about my neck and held it in my hand, staring at the dull, white object that lay amidst the coils of silver chain. Then, knowing that Raphael had concealed himself in the dark beyond the open oaken door, and that Bram was gathering his own forces, I seized the ring with trembling hand and removed it from the chain before I could think better of it.
As I put the ring on my finger, Grey yowled and fled through the open door. I wondered then whether I should have closed the door first, but I remembered Raphael’s words: if the cat were truly important to our plans, we would have to trust that he knew his role better than we did. I closed my eyes and concentrated on the ring, sinking into it as I’d done once before, and my heart leaped as a voice intruded on my consciousness.
“And what has happened to you, my servant?” I forced my eyes open, heart pounding in my breast, to see Orgrim standing in the crypt before me. “Evidently, someone has interfered with my plans, and I shall have to punish whoever that is; I must send a clear message to those who league against me.”
I took a deep breath, forcing calmness upon myself as I’d done before countless lute recitals, and bowed my head so Orgrim could not see my eyes. “Master, I beg your forgiveness. All went well until my mission to Ankur. There was one there who was your equal in sorcery, and he did this.” I swept my hands across my body, emphasizing the change that had come over me. Then I recounted what had happened when I bore my message to the King. Anxiety swelled in me as I awaited my rescue—and none came. Licking my dry lips, I focused inward on how I’d felt upon that first meeting with Orgrim, and I felt tears rising to my eyes. I lifted my gaze to meet the wizard’s cold stare, and spoke with trembling voice.
“If you can restore me to normalcy, I will gladly endure that pain again that I might serve you.” In that instant, I felt within me that which made that statement true, and though it gave strength and truth to my voice, it also weakened my resolve. Before that strength failed altogether, I went on. “But first you must answer my questions.”
Orgrim’s appraisal turned coldly amused. “Must I? Very well. You have served me loyally thus far, and so long as it suits me, I shall answer your questions.”
I pursed my lips, then asked the safest of the many questions I’d wanted to ask since my first meeting with the mage. “Why steal those scrolls from the library? Surely they were of no use to one so powerful as you?”
Orgrim’s eyes narrowed, and I felt his gaze upon me like a physical force. “The scrolls you stole speak of me, and contain information that would give my foes a valuable edge, perhaps enough for them to defeat me. By helping me steal the scrolls, you ensured that cannot happen.” His smile turned cold, self-satisfied.
I swallowed, forcing myself not to look around for any sign of my rescuers. Gathering what remained of my courage, I asked a more dangerous question. “Tell me of the demon that hid within me.”
Orgrim’s gaze hardened further. “That I cannot explain to you, for a great magic blocks any such knowledge from your people. Believe only that the demon means you no harm. You have my word on that.”
I felt a chill take root in my heart, for this time I knew he was lying, and though I struggled, I’m sure I was unable to keep that knowledge from my face.
At that moment, there came a motion at the door, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Raphael enter the room. But no sooner had he crossed the threshold then he froze with a look of surprised horror. Orgrim turned towards the door and smiled coldly. “Welcome, Rafe. It has been long indeed.” Though Raphael’s body was frozen, his eyes darted to and fro, despair evident.
The door closed with a dull thud, sealing us into the chamber. Within seconds, there came a heavy pounding on the door, soon replaced by the sound of axes. The second of my rescuers had arrived, but too late to be of any use. If I’d believed I had no distance left to fall at that moment, Orgrim returned his gaze, triumph glowing in his eyes, and I felt my spirits sink even lower.
“And that is that, Morley. I shall now take you up on your offer to return to my service; I realize your heart was not in that offer, but beggars cannot be choosers, and there are new things I need you for.” From the door, I heard curses, and the axemen redoubled their efforts, to no apparent effect.
Orgrim turned away and began laying his tools upon the slab. I could say nothing, but rather sank to my knees, all strength gone out of me and a blackness gathering around the edges of my vision. I almost missed the movement in the shadows that resolved into the cat. As I watched, numb, Grey stalked across the room as if he were hunting a mouse, unseen by the mage, and it struck me like a sudden blow how extraordinary the cat must be. I’d understood this in my thoughts for some time now, but this was the first time I knew it in my heart. All at once, Orgrim spun on his heel, a look of hatred transforming him, and he flung his arm out to strike down the cat. But he was too slow; Grey had sensed the movement, and sprang for Orgrim even as the mage’s hand lashed out. The cat caught that arm in midair and dug in with teeth and claws, and Orgrim shrieked in pain; then, skin and cloth tore, and he hurled the cat from him. It struck the wall with a sickening thud, and slid down it to lie unmoving upon the floor.
In that moment, while Orgrim’s attention lay elsewhere, I rose to my feet, the lantern still swinging from my numb hand, and all the anger and humiliation at what had been done to me rose within. Faster than I’d ever moved before, I lunged towards the mage, and with all my strength, swung the lantern in a whirring arc that ended against the mage’s skull. The lantern shattered, spewing burning oil across the room, and Orgrim dropped like a deer I’d once taken through the heart with an arrow. Flaming oil guttered in shallow puddles, but somehow did not set the mage’s robes alight.
In what was left of the light, I looked around me, and saw that Grey was not yet dead; indeed, those small, fierce eyes caught my own, imploring and commanding, and without thinking any further, I carried the dying cat over to Orgrim. With the last of its failing strength, the cat bit the mage on his cheek and held that pose for a full instant before collapsing beside the downed man. Numbly, I sat back, at the end of my resources, awaiting my fate. What happened next was not at all what I’d expected.
Orgrim began to twitch, as if experiencing a seizure, blood welling from his wounded cheek and clotting in the hair of his beard. The seizure increased in intensity, and a sense of foreboding rose in me, as if I were a mouse and I’d just noticed a hawk stooping upon me; I’d felt that same feeling before, and knew what it foretold, but I could do nothing but await the outcome. As I waited, a darkness gathered above the fallen mage, coalescing into a humanoid form. Another demon hovered amidst the more natural shadows of the room.
The demon began to assume its unnatural form in the air above the body, and the darkness that expanded in that chamber arose from more than the dying of the light as the last of the oil began to sputter and fade. The demon’s eyes scanned the room, turning at last, and a voice, deep and cold as the grave, filled the room. “For what you have done, I should slay you now, little man, and suck your soul from your dying body, but it amuses me to leave you to live in ignorance. A gateway once opened remains always open, and some day I shall return to claim you for my own; then, you shall learn of your race’s creators, and curse them as your forefathers did for forsaking you.” With a laugh that beat me to my knees, the demon faded from the gloom, leaving a foul stench and the chill of its presence. The fruitless pounding at the door continued, half-heard in the background.
Though the threat they carried was clear, the words themselves were meaningless. But I had no time to ponder them, for Orgrim had regained consciousness and managed to prop himself up against the slab while my attention lay elsewhere. Frantic, I sought about me for anything I could use as a weapon, but there was nothing; the dagger at my belt was gone, as if it had never existed, and I’d never even noticed its loss. I looked back to Orgrim, realizing that I must kill him with my bare hands and steeling myself to do so. Evidently, he read my intentions.
The mage winced and dabbed at the blood on his cheek, then probed the wound on the back of his head. “You would be justified in killing me now, Morley, and if you insist on doing so, I will not stop you. But I beg of you, forbear a few moments.” His voice had changed, and after a moment, I understood how. Gone was the arrogance, that instinctual power over others, and in its place lay a deep sorrow. In the dwindling light from the last of the oil, I could see tears trickling down his cheeks.
I paused, irresolute. The sorcerer had earned his death, but with the demon gone, I understood better than any man this was no longer my nemesis before me, any more than I was the same giant who’d assaulted the chancellor of Volonor. It took me two tries before I could speak. “Tell me why I should spare you.”
Some of the old energy returned to the mage’s voice. “I did not say you should spare me, only that you should hold off killing me until I’ve had time to explain. Will you grant me that boon?”
I nodded, and Orgrim pulled himself upright. He gestured with his free hand, and a dim, sourceless light sprang up in the room. “From what you have already done, I know that you have learned more than most of your contemporaries of the cataclysm that destroyed our old world, yet you lack the crucial details. Let me tell you those details, and when I’m done, I shall place myself at your mercy.”
Curiosity, combined with a certainty this was no longer the same man who’d enslaved me, stayed my hand. “Very well, I’ll grant you that much time at least.”
Orgrim nodded, then winced at his head wound. “I shall not describe the source of the cataclysm that destroyed our old world, for only Raphael would understand what I said, and I would not have that knowledge loosed again; once was enough. My part in this begins—largely—once we all knew that our doom was upon us. The forces of destruction we had unleashed gathered around, and it became clear they could not be forestalled for long. But even then, I wondered whether there might be a way to turn those dark forces against themselves and buy us the time we needed to flee; I was confident the ocean would prove a safe barrier against what we had unleashed, but to buy time, I would have to risk my own... soul; if I failed, I knew I could be turned against our people, but I had no choice other than to take that risk.”
I was enthralled by his voice, which had strengthened, and even though I knew he might be enchanting me, I could not bring myself to stop him. “I’ve heard the word”—I tried to pronounce what he had said, and failed—“whatever you said, the thing you claimed to be risking. If my suspicions are right, it’s even something I came across in one of those scrolls I stole for you, but was unable to understand.”
“And rightly so, for it is knowledge our people forswore before the Exodus, and the breaking of the powerful magic that prevents you from understanding that and other words is beyond even me.” Pride returned to his voice for a moment. “That’s not strictly true. Perhaps I could overcome that spell, so our race could learn of such things again, but I’ve meddled enough already and shall soon reap the consequences. Too many things hinge upon that spell, and I would not tempt the attention of the gods by interfering. And no, I can’t explain gods to you either. That is not for this time.”
I felt that same frustrating sense of being close to understanding, yet separated from that understanding by an impenetrable barrier that made my skull ache if I forced myself to contemplate it. “Yet you claimed you were risking something important in what you did.”
“Something more important than my life, yes. And it occurred to me I might save both myself and our race if I could preserve that thing long enough to turn the forces of destruction against themselves. So I transferred that something somewhere safe for the duration of my spells.” His eyes sought out the motionless cat, tears welling once again in his eyes as he returned to his story.
“I protected myself, all right, and my spell succeeded; I bought us time to travel overseas, time for me to visit the Elves, and the Dwarves, and the Goblins, and barter for safe passage, then I returned to make right what I had set wrong. But I was a fool, for either my efforts had weakened me, or I’d grown weaker than I’d suspected—or perhaps the thing I’d taken within me was always stronger and had just been biding its time. My first sense that I’d gone too far came when I destroyed my cat.” The tears overflowed his eyes and ran down his cheeks, washing the blood from his wound into his beard. “Or tried to, for my old friend was more robust than I’d considered, even if not robust enough in the end to survive a second encounter with me.” His voice shook, and he took several deep breaths until he’d composed himself.
“I have no knowledge of what happened in the years between my return to the old lands and my return here. I do know I was caught up in the destruction that overwhelmed those lands, and that it has been less than a year since I regained my physical form and made my influence felt in this world. Would that I had not done so, for I brought great wrongness upon us. That is why I will not resist should you choose to kill me now.”
Orgrim closed his eyes and mumbled a few words, then clutched the back of his head and spoke a commanding word. Light flared between his fingers, and when he opened his eyes, they were no longer so haggard and the blood had ceased trickling down his cheek. Hesitantly, he rose to his feet and stood, his legs braced against the slab.
I shook my head, trying to take it all in. “And you’re telling me you did all this selflessly, for the sake of our people? How can you expect me to believe that given how you’ve behaved since returning to these lands?” Despite my angry words, I found that I already half believed him.
“I cannot expect you to believe, since it is not true. Though my intentions were good, I did what I did as much to prove to the world I could do it as I did to save our people. And that I can never atone for.”
Orgrim crossed to Raphael, and spoke in a language I did not know. A moment passed, then he nodded and brushed his hands across the other mage’s eyes. Raphael staggered forward into Orgrim’s arms, then gathered his feet under him and moved to stand beside me.
“A demon was cast out of your body while you were unconscious. It made various threats we could not understand, and promised to return and take Morley with it. It also said something about us cursing our gods.” Raphael managed to pronounce that strange word, but it was evident from the look in his eyes that he understood it no better than I did.
“Is it so? Then my work is not yet over.” He swept us both with his gaze, visibly bracing himself for what lay ahead. “That being the case, I must beg your mercy for longer than I had planned. Though I do not dispute your right to vengeance, what you’ve said means that I have further repairs to perform. I can tell you no more about what the demon said, for that understanding is denied to you, so let me say only that I long ago opened a door I must now close. I may well fail in that task, in which case Raphael and his colleagues will have to pick up where I left off.”
Raphael nodded. “We can do it, though it may take the Elves to help us, and they will demand a price I’m loath to pay.”
“And if you succeed?” I asked.
“Then my fate is in your hands. Though my soul may yet remain untainted by what I did, being absent from my body at the time of these deeds, I see now I was a fool to hope this would absolve me of guilt. If you spare me, I shall go to our gods and beg their forgiveness for what I’ve done, and perhaps they will show me mercy.”
Raphael and I shook our heads in unison, baffled by what he was saying. I spoke first. “I still don’t understand.”
“And you never shall, so long as the spell remains in force. All that remains is for you to decide whether I go to that judgment on my own, or whether you shall send me there yourself and take upon yourselves the burden of my last task.”
Orgrim composed himself, and awaited our pronouncement. Raphael put an arm on my shoulder, forestalling my reply. “The door must be closed, as you say, and I doubt that anyone but you can do it unaided. I shall grant you our mercy if you can convince me you mean what you say, and can alert me should you fail at your task.” I gasped at his words, but his grip on my shoulder tightened.
“Convince yourself, then.” Orgrim’s voice was so compliant that I gazed at him, dumbfounded, noticing only then how Raphael’s gaze had locked upon the other mage, as if reading his very thoughts. After a long silence, broken by the ringing of steel upon the door, Raphael relaxed, and a growing pity replaced his former wariness.
“I’m convinced. I wish you luck in the task you’ve set yourself, and mercy from those you seek should you succeed.”
Orgrim bowed his head, and knelt to gather the broken body of Grey in his arms. From his kneeling position, he looked up, and there was a terrible sadness in his eyes. “I cannot ask you to forgive me for what I have done to you, Morley, but I can ask you to believe that I shall soon atone more fully than any vengeance you could inflict upon me. Can you accept that?”
I’d already done so, but a small, unworthy part of me was not yet ready to release him. “Before you leave, could you restore what you once gave me? That would go a long way to helping me forgive you.”
Anger flared. “Have you not yet had your fill of magic?” Then his expression eased, replaced by compassion. “To my knowledge, there is nothing wrong with you that magic can heal. There are spells of transformation that would accomplish what you ask, but they would require me to remain here to renew the spells, and I cannot remain.”
The brief hope I’d allowed to grow died, and left a gaping emptiness. “No, you cannot.” I looked to Raphael, who nodded approval. That was far more comforting than it had any right to be.
Orgrim bowed his head, and began to fade from our sight. As I watched, fascinated, the mage vanished like frost in the sun. But just as I began to look away, something caught my eye. In the mage’s arms, a shadow among shadows, lay the form of a cat that watched me with a human grin that should have been impossible on those feline features. Then the cat winked, and he too faded, leaving me floundering.
“Did you see that?” I whispered.
“See what?” Raphael replied, puzzled.
I shook my head. “Never mind.”
Raphael shrugged, and crossed over to the door. “Cease your efforts!” he called in a commanding voice. “It’s over. I’ll open the door now.”
The pounding on the door ceased, and when Raphael hauled the door open, Bram rushed through, sword drawn, followed by two other burly men with axes and a fourth man with a heavy crossbow leveled at us. The four swept the room with their eyes, then turned at last to the two of us, not sure whether to trust us.
“What happened in here? A powerful magic kept us from opening the door. We could not so much as carve a splinter from it.” Bram’s eyes were cautious, and the guards did not relax for an instant.
I removed the bone ring from my finger and handed it to Raphael. The old mage held it out before him, palm upwards, so all could see, then curled his fingers over the ring while rotating his palm downwards again. When he opened his fingers once again, his hand was empty, and the release of tension in the room was palpable. “We have vanquished Orgrim once and for all. It’s over.”
Bram looked to me. “Truth?”
I felt drained by what had happened. “Truth, at least as much as I understand of it.”
Bram shook his head. “It sounds like you two have a story to tell, but this is not the place for it.” He dismissed the guards, and together, the six of us made our way out of the crypt and upwards, towards the light of day.
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