“It is time.” Gethsemia’s impossibly deep voice boomed through the small temple. Nalia bowed her head as the dark vortex formed over the altar, allowing a small sliver of the god to protrude into the mortal realm. “I have planted the seeds of curiosity in the mind of King Korvac. Proceed to his throne room and you will be directed towards your mission.”
“Yes, sir.” Nalia dared not raise her head, for fear of gazing upon the dark lord. All around her, her sisters did the same. “Forgive my boldness, but would it be possible to grace us with a piece of that mission?”
“I will tell you only what I know.” Gethsemia’s voice quaked with anger. “I brought the matter before the high court of Astheris. There, I was dismissed out of hand. They say that they are aware of the disturbance, that the Grove of Isengrod has never strayed from its given permissions. Persphone herself was there, staring down at me. I believe that they are trying to pull something over my eyes. Over all our eyes. Your mission is to investigate the Grove of Isengrod.”
Nalia nodded firmly. She didn’t know how that was going to be possible, as the city of Nettingo was filled with some sort of energy that killed anyone and everyone who entered. Nevertheless, Gethsemia was her master. She would serve him in life, she would serve him in death.
“It will be done.” She whispered. “Is there anything more I need to know?”
“Yes.” Gethsemia’s voice took on a distinctly annoyed tone. “As it was the high court, my plea was heard by many. I suspect that other gods may be sending their own followers to investigate as well. Because of this obvious fact, I equally suspect that the leaders of Astheris will be sending their own followers to prevent us from learning the truth. As such, you will not be heading straight there. Follow the orders of King Korvac, act in his service, as you are commanded. I will inform you when the time is right.”
“As you wish.” Nalia climbed to her feet as the vortex above slowly closed. She took a deep breath and turned to her sisters, who all looked up at her expectantly.
For a few moments, she simply stared back. The six of them had been together ever since their initiation. She knew that there were other bands of Gethsemia’s warlocks out there, but they had yet to actually encounter any of them. That, frankly, was just the way that Nalia wanted it. She had her companions. What more could she desire other than to serve her master?
“You heard him.” She finally spoke, nodding to each and every one of them. As with every servant of Gethsemia, only their eyes were visible. Every other part of their bodies had been touched by his darkness, cloaked in shadow. “Refresh yourself if you require it, then meet me in the throne room. We will receive our mission and depart within an hour.”
Her sisters nodded and turned, heading to small alcoves within the temple. As they each stepped within their respective compartment, darkness hissed up from the floor and surrounded them. Nalia smiled as she listened to their sighs of contentment. Refreshment certainly was a pleasant part of the job, and a necessary one to function at full capacity.
Unfortunately, as their leader, Nalia was given the chance far less than most. She walked instead to the exit, where a black stone sat within the confines of an intricate image of Gethsemia. She placed her hand on the stone, allowing dark power to flicker between her palm and the relic. After a few seconds, a portal opened beneath her palm, allowing her to step forward into the throne room.
As with many things that Gethsemia provided, the portal was invisible to those not associated with his worship. When her foot hit the smooth floor of the room, several nearby guards jumped softly at her presence. She smiled, then turned to King Korvac.
Quite unfortunately, at that exact moment, the withered old king seemed to be involved in a dispute. Nothing major, something and land distribution and the ability to claim land once held within Elsinor’s borders. Nalia stood there, watching, as two lawmakers argued before the king on their respective sides.
“I make my final ruling.” King Korvac finally raised a hand. “Until boundaries have been formally established, no land may be claimed across the former border of Elsinor. We must give our new citizens a chance to act for themselves.”
The two lawmakers turned and walked from the room, both looking rather annoyed with each other. Nalia stifled a laugh at their appearance. Brilliant paints had been scrawled across their faces while elaborate puffs of fabric decorated their outfits. They looked like they belonged in a circus, not the upper class of Sintison. Nevertheless, those were the fashion trends of the day. Black was just so much better.
“Ahh, Nalia.” King Korvac wheezed. “You’ve answered my summons, I see.”
“I have responded to the will of my master, yes.” Nalia strode forward, enjoying the looks of the guards as they quaked before her. “Your orders?”
“I will give my orders once the rest of you have arrived.” King Korvac gestured mildly with his hand. “No use in repeating instructions more than once.”
“Have you ever had to do so?” Nalia projected her voice using her power, relishing the fear that flashed across King Korvac’s face. “Please, give me one example where your orders have not been followed.”
King Korvac inclined his head in deference. “I suppose I have not. Nevertheless, I do not enjoy giving orders to only one person at once. It is not the way I run my court.”
“Then I suppose we shall wait.” Nalia crossed her arms. The king continued to stare at her, likely expecting her to move so that he could continue his duties. She simply met his gaze, holding it steady. After well over a minute of rather painful silence, King Korvac finally broke.
“I thought we were waiting for my sisters.” Nalia frowned. “Or is it that you want me to wait? And yet you’re not content with the same treatment?”
“I thought we had an understanding.” King Korvac sat up, at least as much as his withered form could do so. “Your obstinance is frustrating me.”
“Oh, it is?” Nalia took a step forward. “Perhaps you’d like to discuss the obstinance of your son, who continued to complain even after we had finished our duties.”
The king made a dismissive gesture. “I’ll punish him when he returns home. I have heard your report and see no reason why your handling of the situation was any less than perfect. Paulin and Hesione are out of the way. This was what I asked, and this is what I received.”
“And you will continue to receive what you ask for.” Nalia let her power deepen her voice. “Now state what that might be. I recognize that you have a specific way that you do things, but please be aware that I have my own duties to attend to. If you care to proceed with managing your kingdom and not simply sitting on a chair awaiting my companions, I suggest that you provide me with my mission.”
King Korvac sighed, then nodded. “Fine, then. I have received word of a particular situation surrounding the city of Dindriir. As you likely know by now, Prince Paulin was seen in Dindriir shortly before its collapse, but the full extent of the situation was not known until quite recently. It seems that the Ambassador of Defense of Elsinor managed to gain control over the commander of the city. His actions resulted in the deaths of thousands and a strong anti-Sintison sentiment in that area. We are doing what we can to curb the disturbance, but it is costing a great deal of resources that we do not have in such times of war. I need you to investigate the situation. Deal with the commander of Dindriir however you see fit, and then head deeper into Elsinor. I want to know what this Ambassador is up to.”
“It will be done.” Nalia bowed her head. “Of course, you are aware of the stipulation on our agreement that we cannot assassinate a leader of any foreign nation.”
“Yes, yes.” King Korvac waved his hand dismissively once more. “I am not asking such a thing of you. Bring me the information that I require and that will be all.”
“Of course.” Nalia bowed her head once more and turned to walk away. She set a picture of the temple in her mind, allowing dark energy to flow up from the floor and carry her away. As she rematerialized in the stone chamber, she took a deep breath and knelt before the altar once more.
She occasionally wondered why exactly King Korvac had hired Gethsemia’s cult, given that agreements in Astheris prevented warlocks from killing the leaders of any population larger than ten thousand. They could, of course, be used for taking out enemy generals, but instead he had them chasing ghosts and spying for information.
Oh, well. He could do what he wanted, and they would do as they were commanded. That was all that Nalia needed to know.
The darkness faded as Nalia rematerialized just outside the city of Dindriir. Her sisters took form just behind her, and she slowly crept forward. They were in the thick woods of the area, pine trees mixed with impossibly tall ash trees. She only had to take a few steps to reach a thick brush that she peered through to see the city gate. At a glance, it seemed to be the western gate. Good enough.
Two guards stood at the ready, their armor dented and smeared with mud. Both of them swayed visibly at their posts, ready to drop at a moment’s notice. Nalia frowned, then slowly straightened up.
“Emerge from the shadows.” She spoke softly, once more in the language of the gods themselves. The shadows subsequently flowed away from her skin, peeling away with a raspy gasp. With that, she stood exposed in little more than a night robe, the very same garment that she had worn so many years earlier.
A second rasp roared through her ears, and lights began to dance across her skin. More shadows, colored ones, wrapped around her body to form the robes of a traveling lady of Donenrot. Rings hung from her ears, her hair fell behind her in a great black cascade. A few seconds more, and her hair had been bound in a tight ponytail with several brightly colored streamers. She turned to her sisters, who were all dressed in a similar manner, and flashed a small smile.
“You know the plan. Infiltrate, learn as much as possible, and wait for my signal. I want as much information on this city as possible.”
Her companions all nodded, and Nalia turned back to the gate. She pushed through the brush, stumbling intentionally as she did so, and then began walking across the open ground towards the guards.
As she moved forward, more details caught her eye. The flags of Sintison, hung on either side of the gate, were worn and tattered as if they hadn’t been replaced in weeks. The cobblestones of the road seemed to have been all knocked loose, and in some places had been replaced by large patches of mud. A lie formulated itself in Nalia’s mind as she stumbled up to the guards.
“Please, my good sirs, might we be allowed into the city?” She pitched her voice slightly higher than normal, a tactic that often worked to seduce unsuspecting men.
“Go on in.” The guards barely looked at her. Their helmets failed to cover their faces, allowing Nalia to see the blank and utterly uninterested expressions on their faces. Deep bags hung under their eyes, she estimated that they hadn’t slept in days.
“Thank you.” She curtsied, attempting to maintain the deception despite the fact that no one would likely even look twice at her. She began to glance around as they entered the city, attempting to get a feel for the situation.
The desolation seemed ever more prominent inside the walls. Over half the businesses and homes within her view were boarded over, some even seemed to be sealed with enchantments or spells. The few that were open looked pitiful and forlorn. Mud was splattered across the doorways and sidewalks, signs were barely legible, charred remains from fire damage stood out on many of the walls. The few people who could be seen darted from doorway to doorway without looking up to acknowledge anyone else’s existence.
“Good thing that all these resources King Korvac is sending are being put to good use.” She muttered softly in her head. Gethsemia gave no answer, though she wasn’t particularly expecting one. After a few moments of indecision, she set off down the street. Power flowed through her limbs, altering her steps to match the walk of someone both proud to be a woman of Donenrot and annoyed to have to suffer such indignation.
As she walked down the street, she kept her eyes open for anyone who might speak to her. She ultimately needed to speak to the commander, of course, but there was other information to gather before that time. It didn’t take long before she saw an elderly woman, a human, poke her head out of a doorway and gesture at her.
“Come! Come quickly, before someone tries to take advantage of you!”
Nalia inclined her head in a proper fashion and gingerly stepped across the muddy streets. She slid through the open door and into a one-room apartment only lit by a small lantern on a wooden table. The elderly woman pulled the door shut the moment that Nalia had crossed her threshold, then curtsied.
“Welcome, my lady. It has been a long time since I’ve met anyone from the capitol. Tell me: Is it better there than it is here?”
“Substantially, I’m afraid.” Nalia sat down on a wooden stool next to the table and leaned against the wooden structure. When it gave a creak and threatened to collapse, she sat back upright again. “I had no idea things were so bad.”
“Oh, no one does.” The woman strode across the room to a small, unlit stove. She tossed in several chunks of wood and cast a spell into the iron belly to start the fire. As flames crackled upward, she placed a small pot of water on the fixture just above the flames. “We’re getting plenty of support from King Korvac, but it all goes to Elsinor’s side of the border.”
Nalia frowned, playing the “innocent” card. “But isn’t it all Sintison now? There should be no division?”
“Oh, my sweet girl, there is always division.” The woman sat down on a second stool just next to the stove, where she held her hands up to the warmth of the fire. “It is in the nature of all sentient beings. And, at this point, the leaders of this city feel that it is more important to appease those who we have already angered than to help those who swear loyalty.”
“I see.” Nalia stroked her chin. “I am afraid that I do not understand complex politics.”
“I have seen far too much of it in my day not to remember.” The woman sighed deeply. After several seconds, she flashed a smile and turned back to Nalia. “How long do you plan to stay here?”
Nalia twisted her lip up in disgust. “Not long, I think. I am simply here on an errand, and then I will leave this place behind.”
“It would be of great credit to you if you do so.” The woman sighed. “Keep an eye out for the gangs while you’re here. Resources are so scarce that they will prey on anyone that they feel is too weak. I suggest a disguise. If anyone saw you come into the city-”
A loud knock echoed against the door, causing the woman to jump. Her face twisted down into a frown. “That’ll be them now. Stand back, this could get ugly.”
Nalia nodded, put on as afraid a face as she could muster, and climbed to her feet. The woman bustled past her while she slid into the rear of the home, cowering in the corner. The door burst open before the woman had a chance to reach it, revealing a rather ugly man and an equally grotesque woman. Nalia let out a shriek as the two of them stepped into the home.
“Now, now, Gretulia. What do we have here?” The man sneered and grabbed the woman by the arm. “What have I told you about accepting guests?”
“And I’ve told you the same thing! Bugger off or I’ll lay you over my knee and whack you just like I did when you were a boy!” Gretulia spat. “You and that poisonous wife of yours. You used to be something good, you know that?”
“And now we’re hungry.” The man pressed forward. “Now let us take her. I bet we get a pretty penny for her on the market.”
Nalia gasped. “A slave market?”
“Wouldn’t you know, she sounds like she doesn’t know.” The man frowned for a second, possibly trying to understand his own sentence, then shrugged. “I bet I could get a thousand gold pieces selling you to one of those rich pricks from Donenrot. They do have a taste for fancy women.”
“If you lay a hand on that poor girl I’ll summon a ghoul to haunt you for the rest of your days.” Gretulia sneered. “You’re a disgrace to my name!”
Nalia continued to appear paralyzed with fear even as her brain spun with the possibilities. A slave trade? King Korvac would love to hear about that, he roundly hated the prospect of slavery in his nation. The practice had been more or less abolished throughout Calsin, but there were still pockets that cropped up here and there.
“I don’t want to hurt you.” Nalia climbed to her feet and bowed her head. “I’ll go with them.”
“You’ll do no such thing!” Gretulia screamed. “Do you know what they make female slaves do?”
“I imagine it’s a lot of sewing and washing laundry.” Nalia whimpered. “It wouldn’t be easy, but I’ve had some practice helping the maids.”
“Oh, she’s going to be worth even more than I had hoped.” The man and his wife both laughed. “Now come along, little darling!”
Nalia walked forward, past Gretulia and into the street. The wife came out behind her and grabbed her arms, pushing her down the street and dragging her through the puddles of mud. Once more, other people on the street simply ignored the disturbance. Somewhere behind her, the man muttered a few parting remarks to Gretulia, and that was that.
She was drug for nearly fifteen minutes, often almost sliding out of the woman’s greasy hands. She suspected that she would have been able to escape even if she truly had been as helpless as the woman she was trying to impersonate. It was kinda fun, in a strange way, having to work to stay captured.
Soon enough, she was taken to an alleyway guarded by two rather burly men pretending to be drunk. Both of them nodded ever so slightly as the husband and wife pushed Nalia through the entrance and into a garbage-strewn expanse. Nalia had to fight the urge to gag as she was pulled through rotting sewage that seemingly hadn’t been cleaned up in weeks. The husband and wife certainly seemed fine, solidifying their position as truly the trash of the human race.
At the end of the alley, a small black door sat in the wall. The husband stepped ahead and threw it open, allowing Nalia to be shoved into a large, open space that seemed to have once been a market. Dozens of people milled about, even several individuals wearing the armor of the city guards, while several dozen screaming men and women stood in cages at the center of the area. To Nalia’s right, an auction block had been erected, though there didn’t seem to be any active auctions at that moment in time.
“Gethsemia, cloak my actions.” Nalia spoke in the tongue of the gods, sending her prayer to her guardian. A dark mist flowed from her body, forming an impenetrable sphere around the trio. Nalia smirked as the man and woman both gave a startled yelp.
Without a word, Nalia allowed dark power to flow down her limbs and take the shape of knives in her palms. It took a split second to slash the throats of the husband and wife, at which point she called the darkness back into herself. Once more she became cloaked in shadow, able to see the marketplace, but kept apart from the visible realm.
The husband and wife fell to their knees, gaping as their lifeblood poured down onto the ground. Several people began to scream as the duo died, and Nalia quickly slid to the left, moving away from the scene while keeping an eye on the crowd.
As a group began to gather around the two bodies, Nalia allowed the darkness to flow down and away from herself once more. With the familiar rasping sound, she stepped back into the mortal realm clothed in the tattered robes common to the people of the city. One or two people glanced in her direction, but no one so much as gave her a second look. She began to shuffle her way towards the rows of crates, putting a curious expression on her face. It wasn’t hard, as she too was quite curious what kinds of slaves were being sold there.
It took mere seconds of examination to realize that they were likely pleasure slaves. Young boys and girls, older women who could have doubled as sirens, older men who looked as though they could be knights. None of them appeared particularly happy to be there, but such was the nature of slavery.
After several moments of observation, she walked up to an individual who could only have been a purchaser, a twisted and wiry man with a crooked nose who wore a dapper coat that jarred rather horribly with his demeanor.
“Pardon me, good sir.” Nalia made her voice quiet and submissive. “Can you tell me where these poor souls are being taken?”
“Wherever their new owners want!” The man chuckled. “Hidden castles, exotic beaches!”
“What if they do not want to go?” Nalia whispered.
“They’re slaves. No one cares.” The man snorted. “Now what do you want?”
Nalia whimpered softly. “They just look so sad. Maybe you could tell me who’s buying them? I need to talk to them.”
The man laughed, loud and long. “I’m buying three! At least. Depends on what they go for, I guess. Just look around. People are showing up from all around! I think we’ve even got people from Sournous.”
Several other nearby bidders turned and glared at him. Several of them reached for blades on their belts, and Nalia dipped her head. She turned and shuffled away before anyone could try to attack her, as she really didn’t want to make a scene in a heavily-traveled area.
Nevertheless, it was an interesting observation. Simply by watching the people who were now quite interested in the secret-spiller, she could gather quite a lot. Two plains dwarves, a mountain dwarf, three humans in dapper attire, another human in blue silk robes, and a dark elf wearing jet-black robes. It was intriguing to see the variety among them. It had scarcely been three months since Sintison had invaded Elsinor, and already there were people from across the continent flocking to a whole new slavery ring.
She continued to observe the situation for several more minutes, watching as the bodies of the husband and wife were dumped through a window near the auction block, watching as a father and mother tried to sell off their two young boys with no success. It would be interesting to watch that family’s dinner later that night.
At the end of it, she had more than enough information to make her case. She turned and walked back to the door that she had entered through, slid out into the sludge once more, and walked back into the main street. As she reentered the main city, she caught a glimpse of three men hauling one of her sisters towards the market, sadistic smiles on their faces. She rather hoped that her sister would do away with the disgusting men, but understood if she decided to let them go free. As long as she was there when Nalia needed her to be.
With that, she began wandering through the city once more. As she drew near to the governor’s mansion at the center of town, curiosity began to once more draw her attention. The wall separating the former Sintison side and Elsinor side had been knocked down. Nothing extraordinary there, but what was interesting were the large wagons parked along that former barrier.
She walked in that direction, peering at the soldiers that stood guard over whatever they contained. No horses were hooked to the vehicles, which at the least implied that they were meant to stay there for some time.
“Halt!” One of the soldiers called down from his post atop one of the wagons. “Only former citizens of Elsinor allowed here.”
Nalia bowed her head in submission. “But aren’t we all citizens of the same country now?”
“The orders are straight from General Flachard. You’ll have to take it up with him.” The soldier kept his beck straight. “Now get moving! We’re going to guard this wagon with our lives, I don’t want any more incidents.”
Nalia nodded her head once more and turned. That had been enough. Management of the city was quite obviously being mishandled spectacularly, which meant that she had a job to do. It was slightly beyond the orders that King Korvac had given her, but as she made the decision, she could hear Gethsemia’s dark voice pushing her onward in agreement with her actions.
It took mere seconds to find a darkened doorway with no one watching. The moment she set foot inside, she placed an image in her mind of the governor’s mansion. Dark energy flowed up around her, transporting her away. As she rematerialized, she found herself standing in front of a rather lavish desk. Her clothes were once more the dark, shadowy clothes of Gethsemia, and as everyone else in the room jumped, she narrowed her eyes in disregard of the man sitting behind the desk.
He was a short and rather skinny individual, wearing the regal clothes of the Sintison army. He nearly fell over as he lurched backwards, then slowly sighed and placed a hand over his heart.
“My apologies! You must be Nalia. King Korvac sent me word to expect you.”
Nalia refused to answer, and instead simply continued to stare him down. She assumed that this was General Flachard, but she needed to be certain.
“My name is General Flachard, of course.” The man stammered after a few seconds. “You’ll be pleased to know that the progression of the city is coming along well. We had a minor setback with the Ambassador of Defense, of course, but all is well now.”
Nalia flicked her wrist in derision. A blade composed of pure darkness flashed from her palm, cleanly slicing his head from his neck. It landed on the floor with a dull thunk, prompting the guards to draw their swords.
“Who is second-in-command here?” She spoke softly as the gravity of the situation began to dawn on everyone in the room.
Several tense moments passed as everyone refused to speak up. Finally, a soldier near the side of the room raised his hand. She had already known, via the markings on his armor, that he served in this position. Nevertheless, it was refreshing to see him actually take credit for his rank rather than pass the blame along to someone else.
“Me.” The soldier’s voice quaked. “Please, don’t kill me. We’ve been advising him to do things differently, but he hasn’t been listening.”
“For the duration of the time that this city remains under military rule, I suggest hiring someone familiar with the way that politics work.” Nalia nodded in his direction. “There is a woman who lives near the entrance of the city. Gretulia. She claims to have experience in this field. As an elderly local, she may prove useful to your cause.”
“I’ll be certain to do it.” The soldier stammered, then gestured at several of the guards. “Clean up this mess.”
“I’ll take his head.” Nalia stepped around the desk and picked up the fallen head, which continued to stare at her with shock-filled eyes. “One final note. Slave trade is not acceptable in King Korvac’s court. I strongly suggest that you clean up this aspect of the city. One of my sisters will likely be coming back through this city at a later date. Things need to look better by that point.”
With that, she called upon Gethsemia’s power once more. Darkness flowed around her body and drew her away in the blink of an eye, depositing her in the woods just outside the city. As several birds flitted through the pine trees chirping loudly, Nalia knelt down and raised the head up above her own body.
Gethsemia’s dark power poured through a small vortex and into the mortal realm, whisking away her offering in the blink of an eye. With that, she rose and spoke in the language of the gods once more, sending out a call to her sisters.
“Our mission is accomplished. Meet me near Torsitour. We continue our task there.”
Several flickers of acknowledgement began to roll back through Gethsemia’s dark web, and she flashed a small smile. Many people throughout Calsin, given the same task, would have taken far longer to accomplish the same thing that she had just done. Most people would have tried to gather more of the story, put an end to the slave market, or so many more things.
That wasn’t her mission, though. She did what she was told, and she did it well. And she would continue to do exactly that until her term with Gethsemia was completed.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical means, without prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at the address below.