Saturday, December 13, 2008

Second Extract from Puppet-master's Marionette II (unedited version)

(All rights reserved. None of this material may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the author.)

This Second Extract derives from the first third of the First Extract (about the paladin commander Roland), so don't read it if you haven't read the First Extract! As before, this extract has not yet been edited by a professional proofreader. It is still raw and cannot be considered 'the final cut'.

All comments and suggestions are welcomed.

Captain Tarmin was a resolute soldier, hardened by years of intense military training. He had served many a master (from iron-fisted tyrants to spineless lordings), even beyond the borders of his native land... Although a hired sword by choice, he was foremost a Delmirian at heart, which explained his patriotic decision to return to Delmir and pledge his sword to a higher cause – resisting the paladin invaders and freeing his homeland.

A man of imposing physical stature, Tarmin had a talent of instilling fear into the hearts of his enemies and fortitude into his allies. Barrel-chested and quite tall (even for a Delmirian) with long raven hair that resembled a mane, Tarmin was most often compared to an ogre in chain mail. Many revered him, but many more loathed him and prayed for his untimely demise.

Despite being a formidable swordsman, Tarmin never wore a helmet, for he had a scorn for helmets, claiming they always got in the way of his dreaded bastard sword, The Paragon. The rebel captain had a myriad of scars on his face and wore them with pride; they crisscrossed his sun-burnt cheeks and cleft chin. Those 'war medals' spoke of survival. They spoke of bravery in the face of death. But most important of all, they spoke of countless slain foes.

The captain brushed a lazy strand of greasy hair from his placid forehead and surveyed the mirksome Fedran valley. Nightfall had come, chilly and unpleasant, turning shadows of the day into darkness and replacing sunlight with moonlight. All was quiet in the misty valley, yet such peaceful slumber was not to be found nestled at the heart of his dwindling regiment of twenty. Two soldiers had died a fortnight ago in a village - both had been buried in unmarked graves at the church cemetery (so their remains would not be defiled by paladins). Three more had been put out of their misery a few days after; rotting flesh would have claimed their lives in any case – a speedy passing was to be considered a blessing.

Has there ever been a tyranny fouler than that of the Paladin Church, Tarmin was left to wonder. The Church Law was the law of the sword, the law of the strong, but there was nothing soldierly about the way paladins waged war. On the other hand, there was definitely something fiendish. Tarmin regarded the paladins not as ordinary opponents, but as beasts to be hunted down and skinned alive; the knights of the Paladin Order deserved no honour in death, for they had shown themselves to be honourless creatures.

Tarmin had returned to Delmir only to find the fatherland in total disarray and his native village a mournful pile of ashes and bones. The Republic was overrun by paladins. No matter where the path of destruction took him, he found banners of the White Sun everywhere. They were in villages, towns, and in cities. Throughout the wounded land, shrines and temples, dedicated to the Four Spirits of earth, fire, water, and air, lay in ruins - torn down. No religion, save for the one endorsed by the invaders, was permitted. The white Sun of the Paladin Order cast a shadow of oppression over everything and everyone.

The captain's callous hand slipped lower to the ivory pommel of his sword; he gripped it tightly until his knuckles turned white (the memory of levelled villages made his heart ache like an open wound on a scorching summer day). What his patriotic soul really relished was to bury that very same sword of righteousness into the skull of some paladin dog. Alas, no dogs seemed in sight, though he suspected they were not to be found far.

Tarmin turned, his eyes letting go of the sleepy valley. He was not worried that enemies would sneak up on him, because he had posted enough sentries to avert any peril of being caught unaware, and so his serene eyes gazed upwards to trace the gigantic silhouette of old Fedran, wreathed in everlasting mists.

The mountain was the way and it lay ahead – it was a certainty, for there was no time to go around it, not with the paladin pursuit closer than ever before. The mountain passes would be treacherous and hard to navigate, but they had become all but a necessity. Tarmin was counting on winter snows to close off those very same passes and halt his persecutors, at the same time giving him a chance to regroup in the mountains and continue fighting in early spring. The autumn battles were lost, but not the war for freedom. War could still be won, at least that was what he kept telling his loyal soldiers to keep their spirits up. There were many villages and caves high in the mountains – foregone, lofty refuges the paladins had no knowledge of.

A hooting of an owl made the hairs on Tarmin neck give a salute. Within seconds he was running back to the nearest sentry; there were no owls in Delmir. The sentry had spotted someone or something.

'Speak,' Tarmin urged the man, out of breath.

The soldier did more than that - he pointed to a column of men marching in plain sight, in the direction of the camp. 'They are here, sir.'

The captain nodded and after one 'well done' he set off to meet the newcomers.

A nearby town had been sacked and put to torch a day ago, and Tarmin had sent one of his most trusted lieutenants to investigate and organize the survivors. Reinforcement would be most welcoming after the recent losses; more so, any town that had chosen fire over submission was worthy of looking into.

By the time he got back to the camp, the procession with only ten men, not counting his steadfast lieutenant, had arrived.

Captain Tarmin made no effort to hide the disapproving look on his face. 'Only ten? With the twenty men we already have, it will make a poor addition,' he reproached his lieutenant, eyeing the newcomers at the same time, scrutinizing them as though they were nothing more than assets. The majority wore ragged clothes and some were even hooded, but, despite this, they all appeared to be of commendable physical fitness – all tall and broad of shoulder. If they had not the skills of soldiers, they had good prepositions to be made into soldiers.

'Is there someone who will speak for all of you,' Tarmin asked.

One of the hooded stepped forward. The man removed the cowl with his left hand to reveal a shaved head – he could not have been more than thirty years of age. Rather flatly he stated: 'I will speak for them.'

'Your name?'

'Resien', the newcomer answered, and Tarmin was granted another moment of silence. Evidently he was not a very talkative person, even though the others had chosen him to act as their spokesman.

'What foul fate has befallen your hometown, Resien?'

Upon hearing the question, Resien bowed his head in surrender. 'Once we refused to let the Paladins inside the town temple, knowing that heathens such as them would desecrate it, they laid siege to the town and then began bombarding it. We are the sole survivors.'

Tarmin nodded but kept his distance, not offering any comment or showing a shred sympathy. Most of the other newcomers had already scattered about the camp, foraging for food and dry clothing. Tarmin knew that his own men would be more than willing to share what little they had. Unlike paladin knights, his soldiers were not without heart or compassion.

After a few minutes of dry conversation, Tarmin decided to break his usual, cold demeanour. He offered his hand to Resien, but the man seemed bent on ignoring the friendly gesture, going as far as to avoid direct eye-contact with the captain. Following his impeccable military instincts, Tarmin backed away, drew the dreaded Paragon and compelled the leader of the newcomers to extend his right arm. Much to Tarmin' bewilderment, the leader had not been hiding a weapon at all, but rather his entire left arm, for it was made of metal.

'I know of only one man who has a metal hand,' Tarmin growled.

Roland just smiled a wicked smile. 'And you shall die by that very same hand, rebel!'

No replies were needed, because the death cries of Tarmin's men spoke louder than anything else.

Paladins, previously disguised as ragtag newcomers, fell upon Tarmin's unsuspecting soldiers, plunging daggers into their bodies, breaking necks and arms. Minutes after, the bewildered captain was the only rebel left standing – no longer anyone's captain.

With his heavy sword flying in a wide arch, Tarmin lunged at the smug paladin commander, but the skilful holy knight neutralised the blow easily enough by grabbing the blade of the sword with his metal hand. Contrary to Roland's expectations, Tarmin did not try to dislodge the sword, but grabbed Roland by the throat, instead. Strong as an ox, he lifted the commander off the ground and threw him a dozen feet away, like he was a mere child playing war. Other paladins would have charged the brute captain, but Roland had signalled them not to interfere at any cost, and so they stood their ground.

Like a maddened bull, barehanded, Tarmin kept taunting his reluctant attackers, roaring at them to do battle; he had nothing else left to lose and was hoping to take a few of them down before he died.

From the corner of his eye Tarmin saw Roland get up; the paladin commander could take a beating. Roland took off the ragtag garment and revealed a black tunic crested with the White Sun of the Paladin Order. Underneath it was a mail shirt.

After tossing back Paragon to Tarmin, Roland unsheathed his own long sword; the blade was now completely bare and glistening in the moonlight. Roland approached the foe and their deadly duel began.

Despite being a foot shorter than the captain, Roland was more than an equal opponent – an opponent who knew how to wield a sword with perfection.

The two combatants were spinning faster and faster – so fast that it soon became impossible to tell who was actually in advantage. Blades brushed against each other and sang hundreds of times, metal screeched and a rain of sparks flew all around.

It was becoming too fast – a battle too fast for Tarmin to keep up. He had heard of such a skill, but erroneously thought that very few paladins had ever mastered it.

Tarmin's eyes frantically watched for Roland's blade as it danced around his head threatening his life. He should have kept better watch on Roland's metal arm, for the nails on those 'dead' fingers were of metal too (as long as bear claws). In one sudden blow Roland managed to knock the sword out of Tarmin's hand. In the second that followed, the clawed metal hand severed the neck artery of the valiant captain. Tarmin's eyes widened as he reached to plug the gushing wound on his neck. Not a moment after, he toppled down, drowning in the pool of his own blood.

Preferring the silence of death over that annoying gurgle the dying captain was making, Roland placed his boot just above Tarmin's shoulders and snapped the captain's neck. Once the dead silence had been restored, the ruthless paladin commander surveyed the camp-site. All the rebels lay dead or dying.

With not a moment to spare, Roland summoned several golems to him and dispatched them to take care of the scattered patrols and sentries.

The paladin commander turned to old Fedran and gazed up at the mountain peek, much like Tarmin had done an hour ago whilst still one of the living.

Something was terribly wrong about the whole war campaign in Delmir. Although the situation in the occupied Republic was not rosy, it was neither apocalyptic as High Priest Balthazar had led him to believe. Surely the presence of a paladin commander, the second highest official of the Paladin Order, was not required!? But why then did Balthazar dispatch him to Delmir?

Roland's eyes looked to northwest, toward the land of Nordin, in the direction of Tara, the Nordin capital. He knew that all answers lay there, with Balthazar. Surrounded day and night by his ever-growing Golem Army, the High Priest of the Paladin Order had wanted him out of the way. But the real question was: whatever for? After short deliberation, Roland signalled one of the paladins to come forth. The man knelt and whispered: 'Sir?'

Roland barely acknowledged the soldier's homage. A nod was all Roland had to spare.

'I need to speak to the Grand Master in an hour from now. Make it happen!'

The paladin knight nodded soldierly and rose to carry out the commander's bidding.

First Extract from Puppet-master's Marionette vol. II (unedited version)

(All rights reserved. None of this material may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the author.)

The paladin commander planted his muddy boot on the shoulder of the kneeling man and pushed the carcass off the blade of his long-sword, sending the dead body down into the muddy puddle. Without even bothering to wipe his sword, Roland sheathed the bloody blade and approached the next villager, who was staring wide-eyed at the dead kinsman.

'The rebels, where are they?' the commander inquired, glaring at the kneeling wench. Not far behind the paladin commander, three more villagers were dangling on gibbets - like hanging sacks of meat left for the crows to feast on.

Roland's company of seventy paladins had ridden into the village a day ago, on the hunt for rebel groups operating in western parts of Delmir. The hand-picked force of paladins, with a group of ten golems, had been given a task of utmost importance - to root out all remnants of the defeated rebel army.

Even now, a month after Balthazar's orders, Roland could vividly recall the conversation the High Priest and he had had.

'The only sound solution to the problem is to send more soldiers into the region,' Roland had offered. His council had only made Balthazar's unpleasant frown deepen into a mask of disapproval. The High Priest shifted at the breakfast table, as though there were pins stuck in his cushion. The Great Hall of the Imperial palace was starkly empty, and their lone voices seemed to echo through it like it was a dreary cavern and not a furnished palace hall. Banners, tapestries and maps adorned the marble walls – portraying heroic scenes, epic battles and mystic lands.

'I fear I do not share your opinion, commander,' Balthazar spoke after a lengthy pause. The High Priest wore a plain white robe, with a platinum pendant moulded in the shape of a Paladin Sun around his neck. 'Our attempts to conquer Delmir have been only partly fruitful. Although we have taken over Sag after the longest siege in modern history, there are still those who oppose us, those who thwart our rule and mock the supremacy of the Paladin Church,' Balthazar said and rubbed his beardless chin. Then he went on. 'Why is there still resistance? We have over seven thousand paladins stationed in Delmir, and an army of one hundred golems! Not to mention additional ten thousand Imperial guards! And yet, in the face of all this, the rebels survive!'

'What you say is correct, your eminence, but most of those imperial troops are spread thin along the southern border, in case Atar Empire decides to invade Delmir. That leaves us with only a small number of paladins inland to safeguard peace. We are too few, your eminence. Too few to deal with all the guerrilla warriors and renegade mercenaries. Dozens of rebel bands are roaming free as we speak, attacking merchant caravans and killing missionaries at whim.'

Balthazar nodded. 'Then we must double our efforts, commander. We must use whatever force is necessary! Raze Delmir to the ground, if need be, but deal with those heathenish insurgents once and for all.'

'So far, brute force alone has been ineffective. My paladins have orders to execute any tribal leader who dares to raise his head too high, but the situation in the occupied territory is far from being laudable.'

Balthazar was silent. 'This little rebellion is the last twitch of audacity, the last attempt for paganism to stay off the ultimate downfall in Delmir.' The High Priest brought his fist down on the table – his face contorting into a mask of rage.

Roland remained cautious. He lifted his metal arm, as if to scratch himself, but then brought it down again. 'The rebels enjoy a firm support in the population. The people of Delmir may have bowed their heads in submission, but not their hearts. They still reverently cling to their pagan ways, like their forefathers before them. It will be nearly impossible to deal with the rebels as long as they have the people on their side.'

Balthazar only nodded and rose, pacing the dim Hall in silence - his face as bleak as the dusty tapestries on the white marble walls. Although displeased with the report, the High Priest was already devising a solution to the problem at hand. 'Then the people must be made to turn against their self-proclaimed heroes, commander. Furthermore, we will send a special task-force to Delmir. A task-force comprised of golems and Vermilion Guards. I want you to lead that elite unit and deal with the remnants of the rebel groups personally. There is no one else I can entrust with the completion of the Delmir campaign, but you,' Balthazar revealed, maintaining firm eye-contact with his loyal commander.

Roland bowed his head. 'It shall be as you command, your eminence.'

'I give you three months, Roland. Three months and not a day more, is that clear?'

The paladin commander nodded spartanly once again.

'Good. Use whatever force necessary. Kill half of the population of that cursed land if you have to, but crush that blasted rebellion once and for all times!'

'Yes, your eminence.'

'Go now, commander. Do not fail me! Failure is no longer an option.'

'Roland gave a short nod, bowed, and prepared to leave.


'Yes, your eminence?' the paladin commander stopped and turned to behold his superior.

'Do you know the old saying Gavrius Clay, the founder of the Paladin Order, had been quite fond of?'

'No, I can't say I'm familiar with it,' Roland was free to admit.

'To fail is to die,' Balthazar quoted the father of the Order.

The paladin commander just gave one nod that he understood, and then he left the High Priest in the dismal palace Hall.

Now, after a month of ineffective attempts to tackle the rebellion in Delmir, Roland was no longer a commander prone to making compromises. He stared pitilessly into the eyes of the kneeling woman, finding in them genuine dread, but no cause to trust her. No cause at all. She would either withhold information from him or twist the truth. Therefore, she would have to be properly motivated not to.

'Bring her spawn to me!' Roland commanded the first paladin within ear-shot. The woman appeared confused and expectant, until she saw her crying toddler in the gloved hands of the holy knight. Then her eyes went large. She started pleading for mercy, throwing herself at the feet of the paladin commander, yet Roland's rigid face did not soften a bit. He kicked the tenacious wench out of the way and took the child into his arms. Once the paladins had seized the woman, he just dropped the child into the mud before her, a little out of reach. The child's incessant wailing grew louder each minute.

'Where are the rebels? Tarmin's band? My spies tell me they were seen in this village two days ago. What has become of them?'

The woman only shook her head - tears gleaming like pearls of sorrow upon her cheeks.

The paladin commander planted the boot on the child's head and slowly made the face sink into the muddy earth, where there was no air to be found for those frail lungs.

'No! Oh, no! Stop it! Stop it! He can't breathe! Stop!' the woman shrieked, kicking and trashing, but could hardly escape the paladins or reach her dying son. Roland removed the boot from the little body and asked once more the location of the rebels. The child's cries were becoming muffled as the mud closed in.

'I will tell you,' the woman gave up, shaking like a leaf in the arms of the two paladins who held her. 'I will tell you all you wish to know, just pull him out of the mud, oh please, sir!'

Roland smiled. 'I thought so.' Bending down, he picked up the offspring, whose face was covered in mud, and handed the child to another paladin knight. Then he motioned for the guards to release the woman. Once free, the wench ran to take the child and clean its face, sobbing and shaking as she did.

'Where are they?' the paladin commander asked after a brief episode of silence. Commander Roland knew well enough how to make her talk. The Grand Master himself had taught him, and such lessons one does not forget. 'First take away something one holds dear. Then return it with a threat of taking it away once more. Fear would do the rest – that heart-wrenching fear of it being taken away again. Sheer force is the tool of ignorant and unimaginative people, Roland.

The woman looked into Roland's dark, brown eyes - broken at last. 'They stayed in the village for two nights and two days. They had many wounded with them - from the last clash with your holy knights, most likely. Some hid in the healer's hut, others in the blacksmith's forge, until word reached them of the pursuit. They left the village two nights ago, fleeing north toward higher ground - Ferdan Mountain.'

'How many did die here and where are their graves?' Roland did not hesitate to inquire further.

The woman sighed and pressed her infant closer to her bosoms, as if to feel his tiny heartbeat. 'Four succumbed to grievous wounds. They were buried in the village cemetery in two unmarked graves, west of the temple. As for the rebels, there might have been thirty or forty of them. I don't know for certain.'

Roland nodded and smiled – a demon's grin. With a wave of his metal hand, he motioned for a golem to come. The creature moved slowly, making the earth tremble as it lumbered forward. It soon stood before the commander - a fortress of rock - no emotions or life. Only raw strength and unquestionable obedience.

'Execute the blacksmith and the healer! Tear down their houses and look for any signs of rebels,' Roland commanded. Upon giving the order, he turned his head to look at the wench. 'For your sake, pray that we find traces of rebels there. If not, I will split your child's skull in front of you, and then grant the same end to you too,' the commander threatened in a steady voice.

Leaving the distressed mother and her offspring in the company of other paladins, Roland went after the golem, toward the healer's hut. As his boots struggled through the slush of the village path, Balthazar's last sentence seemed to ring menacingly in his ears…To fail is to die. To fail is to die…

* * *

Galden, the legendary dwarven city, was now a place very different from Nimen (the city of angels). Its history could only be described as turbulent, and its ultimate fate – disastrous.

Many believed that the moon had not shone over Galden since its fall into the hands of the Puppet-master. Many claimed that the mighty dwarven city lay forever smothered in nocturnal darkness. 'Stars don't shine over Galden,' bards sing. 'Stars go there to fade and die.'

In the golden age, however, Galden had been a forest of splendid towers - towers reaching as high as mortal hands could possibly build. Arching and graceful bridges had spanned like a spider web among these towers, hewn from the sturdy mountain rock by the most skilful of all dwarven smiths. Thick and high walls had towered all around that heavenly beauty - bent on preserving it from ill ways of the world. At that prosperous age, Galden had seemed a city preordained to become the pride of the Dwarven kingdom and all of Eximentan. However, such wealth had soon become the source of great envy and greed, and so the city had been twice under siege by prowling dragons, yet they had never taken it! Not until the Puppet-master set to conquer all of Eximentan, riding at the head of his demonic legions. For seven gory years Galden had held against the dark lord and his infernal cohorts. During the siege, the city cemeteries had spread throughout Galden, eclipsing joy and casting a shadow over everything; many dwarves had given their lives so that Galden would remain a free city. The stalemate, brought upon by the prolonged siege, had come to an end the day the Puppet-master unleashed his most terrible weapon yet – the Black Twins. Relying on his devious wit rather than on raw force, and having taken a form of a dwarf child, Horda had snuck into the city palace and murdered the ruler of Galden - King Carde the Strong. Who could have ever dreamed that such a child was Aleister's underling in disguise - his doppelganger? In the utter commotion following the assassination, the gates had been swung open, the defences breached, and the whole city had become one great cemetery over night. From the skulls of demurred dwarven warriors, the dark lord had built a throne to sit on.

Once majestic and elegant, the grey spires and towers of Galden had crumbled under the new regime; the very foundations had turned black and toxic. Throughout the paved city streets, chasms had opened, swallowing up buildings and temples. Like the dragon race before them, the dwarves had perished by the Puppet-master's hand, too.

Cloven hooves walked the city streets at night – unimaginable horror unworthy of song or praise. The whole city had been transformed into the Puppet-master's capital – the place where light of candles dared not shine, where songs that praised the feats of dwarven heroes had never been sung again. Very soon after the downfall, the city had earned a new name – Barkul, which in dwarfish meant: 'the dead moon.'

And now, centuries after the last battle had been waged, the Puppet-master walked down the great stairway built by his beaten foe, the dwarf king Carde. The massive stairway wound down, deep below the palace, and the dark lord followed the myriad of stony steps on their way to the catacombs of Barkul. As he descended, he contemplated his future plans for Gallion.

The young man had surpassed all expectations. He had mastered the black arts more quickly than anticipated. Could he surpass even Galen? Was he that strong? He had managed to stop time – something that only Galen had succeeded in. Now Gallion was to be taught to rule time, and very soon he would attempt to travel through time and snatch Lucien from the hands of demise, changing history forever.

Once I have Lucien with me again, there will be nothing to stop me from destroying the city of angels, just as I have smashed Galden.

A slight movement to the right broke his train of thought, and the dark lord stopped in the middle of the stairway. His merciless, blue eyes fell upon a lone centipede that was crawling down the wall – obviously following him since he had begun his descend. Carefully he extended his fingers, granting the insignificant bug safe passage to the palm of his ivory hand.

'Your usefulness to me has always been great. You are truly the master of all forms!'

The critter crawled down the dark lord's robe and a few steps away, before transforming into a handsome, fair-skinned man, of slender muscular body, long white hair and darkest eyes the world had ever known. Horda bowed low before the Puppet-master – his white hair spilling down his shoulders like it was silk. 'I'm flattered, master. I live only to serve,' the doppelganger purred.

A stooped and hideous little man came down the stairs soon after, to stand proudly next to his handsome twin. Egelmar seemed to be in a cheerful mood as ever.

'Come and accompany me down to the dungeons. We have much to discuss.'

Horda found it fit to walk side by side his master, while his misshapen brother struggled to keep up, fighting for his own place by the Puppet-master.

'The Seeker you two should have eliminated, lives,' the Puppet-master noted in a rigid, disapproving voice.

Horda's black eyes narrowed in anger. 'That one has more lives than a cat!'

'More than you know, Horda. Not even Jackal could take care of him. He seems resourceful, that one. Gedymin is currently in Nimen – the whelp has gone to report to his masters.'

Horda smiled. 'By your leave, I will sneak into the city of angels and return with his heart!'

The dark lord shook his head, denying Horda the second attempt.

'You two have had your chance and squandered it. I think I'll let Gavrius finish off Gedymin.'

'As you wish, master,' Horda murmured and lapsed into silence, not saying another word the rest of the long way down.

* * *

The foul taste of that aberrant dinner was something Baron would not forget anytime soon. Much like his endless disappointment, the walk to his sleeping quarters seemed endless too. Such an open display of luxury, which he had witnessed during the dinner, went against the strict rules of conduct - ancient rules laid down by the founder of the Paladin Order, Gavrius Clay. Clearly the High Priest had gone astray, seduced by the carnal world.

The door knob (on the door to Baron's chamber) was icy-cold, but this minuscule matter was nothing compared to the winter in his heart, and so the Grand Master barely flinched upon contact.

He entered to find his sleeping quarters dark and forebodingly quiet – one could have easily made a comparison with his ascetic life.

This night your thoughts seem gloomier than mine, Baron.

The taunting remark made Baron pause. A ghastly frown contorted his face as he closed the door. The Grand Master glared straight at the Codex, which was lying on a wooden stand and covered by a black cloth.

Why are you so surprised by his recent conduct? Balthazar is merely a mortal man, much like yourself. All men are susceptible to sin, and sooner or later they all break like sticks.

'All men but me!' Baron countered that statement as he approached the stand, but was greeted by a hearty laughter; the demon book could barely contain the building urge to scream. Come now, my dear Baron! We both know that such a claim is nothing short of a notorious lie! In that cupboard behind you is your sin; it is neatly tucked away. Although it may look like a harmless bottle, it is a perilous sin nonetheless!

The argument was sound, and Baron backed down from any further quarrel, for he knew that the Codex was telling the truth. A bottle of absinthe lay in hiding there, and even now he was plagued by a voracious thirst to drink it down.

Go on! Give into your carnal wants! Since the death of your grandson, that foul absinthe has been your only comfort. Empty another bottle! What is one more compared to the sea of absinthe you have already guzzled down? Sooner or later, all murderers seek redemption at the bottom of the glass.

The words stung, but they were painfully accurate. When it came to tempting weak hearts, the Crow's Codex was the absolute champion.

Without even touching the book, Baron backed away and then sat down in his favourite armchair, which resided so conveniently by the cupboard. The shrivelled, scarred hands reached inside and grasped the cold neck of the bottle. Within minutes, he was drinking the absinthe and watching the stand, where a single burning candle gave the talking book and the black cloth an ominous appearance.

You still can't forget that look in your grandson's eyes just before he died, can you, Baron? Absinthe clouds your thoughts, but never your feelings. And Gallion has always been close to your heart, even though you two were enemies.

Baron's vision swayed more and more (the more glasses he emptied). But, regardless of so many glasses, the poisonous tide of taunts never seemed to go away, though he wished with all his might it would.

'Cease this at once,' he shouted at one point and made a threatening gesture with his fist, knocking the bottle in the process.

The demon book answered with a demented chuckle that soon became gloating laughter.

Baron ignored the shattered bottle and got up. He approached the stand - his step uncertain. 'I'll burn you to cinders!'

You will do no such thing, and we both know that! The last time you threw me into the fire, I forced you to take me out with your bare hands, remember? This time, should you attempt the same thing, you will lose more than just the flesh of your hands, old man!

A dark, mistrustful look was all Baron could manage. 'What is it you want?' the Grand Master demanded to be told. The flickering flame of the candle was making Baron's glass eyes sparkle, as though it would catch fire any moment.

I need blood, Baron. Your blood, old man.

For the first time since the break of dawn, Baron allowed himself a smug smile. 'You shall not have it! I'll enjoy watching you starve, book.'

Without fresh blood, the letters on my pages will fade away, for I was written in human blood. Should that come to pass, you won't be able to read anymore and will no longer be privy to my secrets.

The Codex's threat was empty and could not wipe the smile from Baron's obstinate face. 'So be it, book!'

The Grand Master had already turned to leave when the Codex disclosed its final card. If I perish from hunger, you will never know about your dead grandson.

Of all the possible taunts in the world, this was the only one that could have made Baron rethink his decision to depart. The Grand Master came to a stop. His silence was equal to that of the grave.

'Gallion has been dead for months. That chapter of my life is now closed for good,' he said and did not turn around, hoping that the demon book would not challenge that claim. But the wheel of fate took an ugly turn, and once more that wicked laughter was heard.

Is there no end to your ignorance, old man? Your grandson lives! Gallion may have fallen into the abyss after the battle with you, but he did not meet his end there. He is still very much alive!

Those words had made Baron's very bones groan. The Grand Master all but ran back to the stand.

Alive? Could it be true, or was it just another ruse fabricated by the Codex?

Forgetting everything else, Baron pulled the black cloth off the Codex. 'Show me! Show me now, damn you,' he shouted and shook the book, as if to force the truth out.

But the Codex merely refused to submit. No! First you must give me your blood, the same way your grandson once did. His blood served to awake my once dormant powers. Your blood must now serve the same purpose.

Baron shook his head right away, ruling out the option. 'I refuse to take any part in that occult deed!'

The choice is yours. Either you offer your blood, or you'll be asking yourself for the rest of your life if I was telling the truth.

Baron lapsed into deep silence and could only look down on the black covers of the Codex. To grant blood to this abomination was to forge an even tighter bond with it. The price of knowing if Gallion had survived the fall into the abyss seemed too high, indeed. But, at the same time, the mere thought of not knowing appeared far worse, and so it was Baron who yielded in the end. 'You shall have what you crave,' he answered in a level voice.

Had the book had lips, it would have smiled then. I shall enjoy this immensely, you do know that?

The Grand Master leaned over the stand. 'Get on with it!'

Do you notice these three little holes on my front cover, just below the engraved raven? Place the palm of your right hand over the holes.

Baron could do nought but comply. The surface of the demon book felt obnoxious and coarse to the touch, and the mere idea of any contact had made him nauseous.

You may experience a slight pinch, Baron. Whatever happens, do not remove your hand! Such an impulsive reaction will only make the pain more intense.

Baron nodded – his face was grim. The candle flame suddenly flickered, and, as it did, three long needles shot out of the holes and pierced Baron's hand, drawing a lot of blood. The Grand Master screamed in terror as the wounds bled and bled, and bled some more. Like a greedy sponge, the cover absorbed all the spilled blood, gorging on it as though it was nothing more than wine. The diabolic ritual seemed to last for hours; the book could not get enough of Baron's crimson offering.

Finally, after apparent hesitation, the Codex brought the vampiric ritual to a close; the needles sank back into the three holes, all bloody and red.

Baron fell down on his knees. Three wounds remained burned into his palm and would not stop bleeding.

Mmm… Like wine, blood can age quite nicely too! I must say that your blood falls into this category. You know, you can tell a lot about somebody just by the taste of his blood. Your blood, Baron, is brimming with memories. Some are so disturbing that they'd have driven a lesser man insane - like the guilt you are still feeling for your grandson's death.

The Grand Master was hardly in any state to answer back. The loss of so much blood had left him sapped dry.

I only wish my brothers and sisters were here to share this feast with me, the Codex said with apparent glee. You see, old man, I am neither the first nor the last of my kind. Two more demon books exist today, in the world. Originally, five had been created by Oberon, but two of these five met a terrible fate. One was destroyed during the first outbreak of the Black Plague. Apparently the people of the affected village believed the book was responsible for the outbreak, and so they burned it on a pyre. The Codex laughed once more. Such was its lot, I'm afraid. The second book was lost at sea while in possession of a pirate king - Howell Davis. Legends say that he was last seen clutching the book as his ship, The Medusa, sank beneath the waves during a dreadful storm.

'My only regret is that such was not your lot too, book,' Baron spat the words out, but did so with apparent effort; his words lacked edge. The Grand master knew the Codex was the master of secrecy, but so much blood had left the book drunk and chatty. Much like a sot after too much wine, the Codex had a loose tongue whenever it overfed.

I was alive once, like my brothers and sisters. We were vampires, but Oberon desired to harness our century-old wisdom, so he destroyed our bodies while entrapping our souls in five books. He could never have done that had we not been betrayed by one of our own – an impetuous, young vampire called Ambrose. What become of the other two surviving books, I don't know. All I do know is that I have not lost that thirst for human blood, even though my body has been dead for such a long time. The lack of fangs does not diminish my hunger.

To the Codex's utter amazement, Baron found the strength to get back on his feet and take hold of the book once again. Without any explanation and ignoring his tender wounds, he parted the black covers by force. He had kept his end of the bargain, and the time had come for the Codex to do its part, too.

Red letters appeared on the first page; they reeked of fresh blood – Baron's own blood. Soon those very letters turned brighter and brighter – until they became so bright that they had made the glow of the candle uncalled for. Within seconds, the whole room was bathed in crimson light. The sinister text filled Baron's head with visions, and very soon his eyes saw far more than letters… A familiar face appeared - as though the page had become a window into another world. It was the face of his 'dead' grandson - Gallion's face.

By God! Then the Codex was telling the truth! He lives!

'Where is he?' Baron asked, unable to look away. 'How will I find him?'

You need not seek him or hunt for him anymore, Baron. This time, he will come to you. Where you are going, he is too. All paths now lead to him.

'Stop speaking in riddles!'

But I'm not, Baron. You are on your way to Sarberia, are you not? To destroy the Spider Guild and the new Master Assassin, like the High Priest ordered you to? Your journey there will also lead you to Gallion, old man.

Having learned this, Baron left the room in haste, to prepare for the long journey to the mystic land Sarberia. Such had been his haste that he had not even bothered to extinguish the flame, and so the candle kept burning long after his departure. Only the Codex remained, contemplating all it had witnessed upon tasting Baron's 'wine' of life.

The elderly Grand Master appeared stronger than the Codex had thought. Much could be learned of a person just by the taste of his blood, and the old man's blood had revealed his limitless vigour and defiance. It was now quite obvious that Baron could never be enslaved. He would always resist – and that was something the Codex wished not. The Codex craved for a total slave, a drone - someone over whom it would have an absolute power. And that 'someone' was obviously not Grand Master Baron.

The demon book was not the one to settle with partial submission. Baron has to die, so that another pawn, one less wilful, can take his place.

In the empty room the Codex suddenly closed with a loud thud, which made the candle flame quiver. Darkness came over the stand, eating the light away, until the candle conceded defeat and all light was lost. The room was silent and stygian once more.