They circled above him like vultures, like gods of death, drifting among the bodies of his comrades, trying not to step on them, but failing and not feeling too bad about it. There were too many bodies. Mish didn’t know the warlocks held this land so tightly. His commander had heard that the Moorish and Highlandic people were disjointed tribes. No formal military and no way to protect themselves from a solidified, outside force.
But there were warlocks in this country: strong warlocks who didn’t like Ponticusans trespassing on their green. There weren’t many around anymore; there hadn’t been any in Ponticus for many years. But apparently there were a few still wandering around the large, spacious and inaccessible land. Not in power anymore, it didn’t look like, but Mish’s platoon had had the misfortune of stumbling upon a small group of them in the highlands. Even in obscurity, they were powerful. Mish knew from experiences in his own country that warlocks weren’t loyal to any but their own kind. He thought that would be a weakness of this land, but it was actually a strength. They were only loyal to themselves, but they were fiercely loyal to themselves.
And now the Highlandic warlocks were picking their way through Mish’s friends, making sure they were all dead and cutting off the breath of anyone who had survived. Soon they would get to him. He didn’t know if he could fake death well enough to fool them.
The burn wound to his gut reminded him he was still very much alive. Mish drew shallow breaths, trying to ignore the pain and not draw attention to himself.
It was possible that there weren’t any warlocks in Ponticus anymore. The Ponticusans had perfected weapons tipped with fast-acting poisons and turned against the warlocks as a single body. Even warlocks were susceptible to poison.
Ponticus wrote in the common tongue, attesting to the wide reach of warlockian society, but these days, nothing exciting happened between warlocks and non-warlocks. For instance, Mish didn’t know they could use fire, or that they could create a fire so hard and hot that it hit and stuck like a flaming arrow. One blast and Mish’s tough, crimson leather armor had melted, leaving him with a nasty burn as bad as if he hadn’t been wearing anything.
He turned his head in the blood-soaked grit and torn-up grass. His eyes met the dead stare of Kik. Kik, the joker. Kik, the glutton. Who would Mish tease about saccharine love scrolls now? Beneath Mish’s battle-scarred numbness, realization and grief began to claw at him.
The swishing of robes. The crunch of debris snapping underfoot. Mish closed his eyes and pretended to be dead, putting Kik out of his mind so he wouldn’t give himself up out of despair. They came closer and closer until dust flew off of the tips of shoes and hit him in the face.
A finger seized Mish’s eyelid and pushed it upward. No matter how convincing Mish’s acting was, he couldn’t keep his pupil from constricting in the light. When he focused, he saw an old woman with white hair in frizzy braids, crouched over him.
“Come, Ponticusol,” she said in the common tongue in a hushed voice, glancing over her shoulder. “I can help you.”
Mish remained on the ground, unmoving for another moment. He knew he wasn’t dead, and so did this Mooric woman, but he was still terrified to give himself away. It didn’t make any sense to keep up his charade anymore, but he couldn’t convince his instincts. He remained still as a rock, staring up at her like a fish.
She wasn’t buying it. The woman took two fingers and pressed them into Mish’s burn wound, forcing him to wince.
“We do not have much time before the warlocks find you and kill you,” she explained in surprisingly good common tongue.
Mish had been under the impression that Moorish and Highlandic people were especially bad at speaking such a language, as their land was isolated from the rest of the world by the sea. This old woman, however, spoke it even better than Mish’s own common tongue teacher in school, which made him suspicious. Mish lived by a creed that had kept him safe since he had joined the javelin platoon: never trust a person who knows more than they should, because it either means they are working with someone they shouldn’t, or they aren’t what they seem.
“I’ll take you somewhere safe, away from the warlocks,” the woman continued, more hurriedly. “Quickly, before they see us!”
Mish’s instincts screamed at him that the old woman in the velvet red robes couldn’t be trusted, but he didn’t have much of a choice. If he stayed there, the warlocks would kill him. If he went with her, there was a chance he might live.
“Alright, I will come,” Mish said in his own poor version of the common tongue. “Help me up, honored woman.”
Together, they were able to get Mish to his feet. They stepped gingerly around bodies and debris. Mish searched them with his eyes as he passed, hoping that some of them were still alive, and also hoping that they weren’t. There were a few warlocks dead among his platoon as well, and Mish felt a little satisfaction. When he looked back, he saw glimpses of the black and blue robes and spiked shoulders of warlocks picking among the bodies. Mish and the suspicious old woman ducked through a thick wall of trees and brambles before they were seen.
“Here we are,” said the woman, leaning Mish against a tree. “As safe a place as any.”
Mish put a hand to his stomach and tried to find a position that wouldn’t cause him fresh pain. He watched the woman as she pulled a large, square bag out from under a large, black bush.
Without a word, she untied the top of the bag and pulled out what looked like a large, folded wooden game board except that it was blank on both sides. She unfolded it and laid it in the grass. Then she took a small cinched sack from the larger bag and sprinkled a quick circle on the wood.
She pushed up from her knees and approached Mish with a coy smile that looked innocent on such an old face. She held out her hand.
“Come to the circle,” she bid. “I will heal you.”
“How will that heal me?” Mish asked, staring at the circle.
“It is magic. I am gifted with the supernatural. That wound you have cannot be healed by ordinary measures. Come to the circle and let the forest heal you.” Mish hesitated. “Come, come,” she bid, taking his hand.
He didn’t trust the woman, but she hadn’t done anything particularly dangerous yet. There were healers in Ponticus that healed supernatural ailments, too. He had never seen this method, but this was a different country: very different. Maybe she was just trying to help. Mish let her lead him to the circle, where she had him stand very still.
The woman sat on her knees again and began tracing lines from the ash circle all the way to Mish’s sandals. The lines were jagged like teeth, with many complicated symbols drawn in the spaces. He wondered how the woman could draw such a diagram from memory and how she could draw it so precisely so quickly.
In less than a minute, it was finished. Mish helped the woman to her feet. She brushed the grass off of the wet knees of her robe. She looked around and then stepped into the circle with Mish. Mish scooted back to make room.
“No! Stay where you are,” she snapped. Mish obeyed out of shock. With these types of supernatural arts, who knew what bodiless beings would attack him if he did something wrong.
The woman pushed her way in, her back against his back. Mish remained still, as she had told him to, but he tried to watch what she was doing and see what she was getting out of her bag. Something silver flashed in her hand and Mish saw that it was a knife.
He jumped back, thinking she was a warlock and this had all been a trick. He reached for his own knife, but by the time he did, the old woman had plunged the knife into her own chest.
She fell to the ground, smearing her carefully-drawn ash symbols. Mish backed away off the wooden board, his own knife in hand, unsure of what had just happened. Should he help her? Was she dead? What kind of savage ritual was this?
He heard a yell from behind him and turned to see two warlocks standing in the opening of the copse of trees. Blood and dirt were splattered across their raven-blue robes. Fury emanated from them in a cloud. They didn’t have any weapons, but warlocks didn’t need physical weapons. They could do anything a sword could do and worse with a few simple words.
The old woman’s blood ran onto the wood, turning the ash into a paste.
Pressure was building in his chest, but Mish figured it was from fear and shock. Mish did the only thing he could do, the thing his brain had been telling him to do since the old woman had discovered he wasn’t dead: run.
As he ran, the pressure in his chest grew until Mish thought he was having a heart attack. He rubbed the leather over his heart, trying to soothe the cramping irritation, but it was useless. And she hadn’t healed his burn at all, either. Mish thought he might go mad with the pain. It felt like the fire was still eating at him.
A blast of something hit him from behind, causing him to fall forward and slide a little ways down a soggy grass hill. The pain that assailed him from his chest and his stomach made him fear he had broken in half and left his legs at the top of the hill.
The warlocks caught up to him and the dark-haired one grabbed Mish by the collar and shook him, shouting at him in Moorish: “You killed Garnet!”
Mish swiped at him with the knife that was still in his hand. Without missing a beat, the white-haired warlock spoke a word and the knife soared out of his hand and embedded itself into a nearby tree.
Mish was thoroughly confused and alarmed. And the shaking made his injuries sting and tear.
The dark-haired warlock scowled at him, his violet eyes as unforgiving as purple stones. “You killed a necromancer,” he said in the perfect common tongue that flowed like a river of fire, an accent reserved for warlocks. An accent Mish had become familiar with over the last couple days.
“I-I didn’t,” Mish said, finally understanding the warlock’s rage. “She killed herself.”
“Lies!” The warlock grabbed Mish by the throat and forced him against the dewy grass.
The other warlock, after prying the knife from the tree, handed it to her partner. The dark-haired warlock took the knife quickly in one hand, holding Mish effortlessly against the ground with his other. The man spat a long, complicated string of an unknown language as he held the knife dangerously close to Mish’s eye. Mish didn’t understand what he had said, but he thought it was important to understanding what was about to happen.
“What does that mean?” he asked slowly and quietly, trying not to spook the man and get the dagger in his eye. The pain in his chest was getting worse and he could hardly breathe.
“’As you have taken our light, may you crawl in darkness,’” translated the white-haired warlock, standing to full height; she wasn’t tall—Moorish and Highlandic people were considerably shorter than Ponticusans—but the way she stood, the wrath and confidence in her stance, her robe of outlandish and spiky angles, made her loom over Mish like an angry goddess. Then she added, “May you rot slowly.”
Before Mish had a chance to wonder what that meant, the man thrust the knife into Mish’s eye. Flocks of birds took flight from the tall trees of the forest, frightened by Mish’s screams.
A/N: How do you kill a warlock by poison? By being super crafty, is how. Warlocks are the masters of slyness and power, so if you face them head on, it’s 99% guaranteed you will fail (leaving a 1% margin of error for that one warlock that died because he was too busy thinking about how much he’d rather be home reading). The Ponticusans had to watch the warlocks, looking for any opportunity to slip them some poison. And because warlocks learn quickly, the method and type of poison had to change quite often.
This scene is the prologue to Necromantic. Very exciting, having a prologue. I was originally going to start the book with Cyril, but this (seemingly) random little scene about Mish and Garnet is important to frame the story. How? You’ll have to wait and see. I will too, as I only have a vague idea. Such is the writing process.
Right on, write on 🙂
Thank you! I will. 🙂
You’re welcome 🙂