The doorway loomed before me, menacing in the half-light, threatening me with the knowledge of who — or what — lay behind. A chilling certainty came over me. “This is going to be a fight to the death,” I muttered. I twirled my whip nervously in the dust and flicked my defender idly in my other hand as I considered what lay before me. Closing my eyes, I inhaled deeply, allowing the musty air to fill my lungs while I rolled my shoulders to relieve the tension that had crept up there. I felt the dragonhide tauten about my chest as I did so, causing me to smile to myself. I had taken the skin from the most fearsome and toughened beast living beneath Taverley, preparing and crafting the leather myself to provide armour with the perfect blend of protection and flexibility. I took comfort from the familiar leather, which had sustained me through countless battles with no exterior evidence – possibly a reflection more upon my crafting than anything else. Opening my eyes, I stepped forward into the darkness, not knowing I was about to face the most difficult fight of my life.
And my death.
I emerged into what appeared to be a brightly-lit courtyard decorated with thick, ornate pillars. As my eyes adjusted to the area, I saw that it was more like a cave than a courtyard, oppressive and claustrophobic. I realised that the pillars themselves were luminescing, carpeting the area beneath them in a dim glow. I looked to the far wall and gasped: a vast throne, carved of an enormous chunk of what looked like black stone, flared with brightness and thrummed audibly. Nomad was sprawled across it, watching me intently. As he heard my intake of breath, a smile flittered across his swollen face. I held his gaze and strode forward purposefully, though my legs felt like leaden jelly and my stomach was screaming at me to turn and flee, hide in the shifting desert or the impenetrable forests of Morytania. I halted before the throne, feeling more supplicant than slayer.
“The assassin approaches, but I wonder what compels you to seek death.”
No longer the voice of a man, it reverberated and echoed around the room, dying into a sibilant choir near the end like an army of ghosts. “Death… death… death…” they chanted, forcing me to choke back a scream.
“Is it out of foolish loyalty to your master, or is it merely stupidity that brings you to me?”
Panic took over my vocal cords. “Actually yes, I really am quite stupid,” I gabbled. I bit my lip and cursed inwardly, but he just threw back his head and laughed, the sound crashing around the room like an ocean of malevolence.
“Ha! Finally, some words of truth! But come now, tell me why you are really here.”
Honesty is the best policy. I was feeling increasingly apprehensive, the power around me now tangible. He could strike me down now if he so pleased, leave nothing but a smear. I had to appease him somehow, imply I was not a threat. I suddenly wished I’d been a little less enthusiastic in Soul Wars, he must have seen I was in possession of Zarosian magic.
“I was just curious about what you’ve been up to. That’s all.”
“How touching! Very well, I suppose it won’t hurt to alleviate your curiosity. Did you wonder where all the souls went from the battleground above?”
I had fought enough villains to know where this was heading. Evil mastermind, having had to keep evil superplan bottled up, spills to all-round good-guy adventurer-hero. Evil mastermind then attempts to kill hero, who defeats him and foils his evil plot. That was the story, and I’d been the hero so often even Juna was getting bored of it. I didn’t think I’d be able to tell her this one if Nomad opened up to me. I had a feeling he was going to try and kill me anyway though. Better to keep him talking.
Nomad frowned. “Really? I’m surprised. Few ever question their actions. Perhaps you are not as lost as I first thought. Did you ever consider the source of my power?”
Actually, my dear fellow, I’d been rather busy wondering how to get out of this alive, I thought. My mind raced as I tried to extend the conversation, but I needn’t have bothered. He was in full confessional flow, eyes lit up a brightly as the throne as he proved to me how clever and powerful he was.
“They are one and the same! The soul obelisk funnels all the souls from above into my throne, here!” Another smile skittered across his face. “Why toil to attain power on your own when you can have thousands of others do it for you?”
“Why do you need such power?”
Again the smile, although with a hint of a grimace this time. “Let’s just say that my former … 'employer'… did not take kindly to my resignation. No doubt he will come for me eventually, instead of sending petty lackeys and,” he raised an eyebrow pointedly, “assassins. Preparations had to be made. Preparations… which you have, rather unfortunately, disrupted.”
Unfortunately for whom, I wondered wryly. “Who is this former master of yours?”
But Nomad was done talking. “I’m sure a clever adventurer like you has figured that out by now,” he snapped curtly. “If not… it’s not a question that will trouble you much longer. It is time for you to be leaving.”
Something must have shown in my face, because he grinned, properly now, his face-cover twitching as his eyes glittered. “Not in that sense of the word. I can’t have you telling others what you’ve learned. Show no pity in your attacks, for you shall receive none.”