It had been a good sermon. The people had been fervent in their singing of the hymns. The Sanctuary had beamed with the dozens upon dozens of flaming candelabra. And above it all in the pulpit, the Arch Bishop stood with his arms outstretched welcoming them into the kingdom of God. Yes, it was a good sermon – the lay people and priests in attendance had all agreed. The nobility had shaken bowed their heads as he passed down the central aisle between the rows of polished wooden pews. And now, as the night drew long and the Arch Bishop relaxed in the bath tub of his private apartments, he truly and deeply wish he believed any of it. Well that wasn’t entirely accurate; he did believe that God would welcome the faithful and that acts of charity were for the benefit of all mankind. He believed that all those things he had said were sins, actually were sins and that only through good works could one hope to enter into the kingdom of heaven. He simply knew that none of it applied to him, personally.
As the steam from the hot water dampened his brow with both water and perspiration, he knew he was damned. Forsaken. Apostate. He knew it from the nails of his toes to the tips of his hair that hell, and only hell, awaited him after this life. And if he ever forgot, he could just look at the insane geometry of the sigil etched into his flesh, just above his heart, for a reminder. He looked at it now, the slightest traces of a maleficent incandescence pulsing through it in time with the beating of his heart. And when he could not see it, he could still feel it there, like a burn that had not quite yet healed, most of the time and like a slithering pattern of icy water when he had not taken the life of another human being for too long. He was a man torn. Certainly he had done evil things, and would do many more before his time ran out, but he did not feel evil. He had only done what was necessary to survive, what any man in a like situation would have done. At least that’s what he told himself in the dark, quiet moments when thought and memory rebelled against desire.
The Arch Bishop sank slowly into the bath until his nose hovered just above the water. The long, gray hair he wore as part of the illusion he cloaked himself in fanned out from his balding head. He had tried to do good, and he thought perhaps he had actually accomplished some. It was not so much out of desire to see the betterment of his fellow man (though it was a passing consideration) but more out of a sense of penance for his very existence. Over the many years, the killing had gotten easier, but their faces – the ones he could remember – came back at night sometimes; they cursed him for their deaths, and for the hell they now surely endured and probably didn’t deserve. The same hell that he, no doubt, would endure right alongside them given enough time.
As often happened when these thoughts took hold, the warm sandstone of his private chambers began to fade and his memory called up the cold, damp stone of the mountain. And as often happened, he relived the night in which he sold his soul.
"Oh, child. Poor lost child. I think you and I can come to a mutually beneficial…arrangement."
“Arrangement? What manner of arrangement?” Ven stammered through his fear at the serpentine smile the creature had turned upon him. He became suddenly aware that his trousers were no longer damp from the rain alone.
The thing that wore a man’s shape rose from the stone seat and crossed the small expanse of rocky floor between them until he crouched in front of Ven, one hand stretched out as if to help him up. For a time, Ven simply sat there and watched the play of murky light through the tubes of his veins in a malefic counterpoint to the strange shimmer of the sigils furrowed in his flesh. Believing that this moment would be his last one way or another, he accepted the offer and clasped the cold, dry hand before him. As their palms met, a shock ran up Ven’s arm as though he’d just grasped a metal bar still ringing from the hammer blow. Before he knew it, he was standing and staring into the strange, shifting pupils of the monstrosity now inches from his face.
“Honestly, boy, it will be an arrangement you may wish you’d never entered into. I will kill you if you refuse, of course, but even still what I offer you is not salvation.”
“Then why would I accept?” he said.
“Because you value your own life above all else. And life is something that I can give you. Life…and a measure of power.” The creature replied, before releasing Ven’s hand and walking slowly back to the stone chair.
“What…what do you mean? Is this some sort of hallucination? I fell…through a cleft in the mountain…I…I must have hit my head.” Ven searched for an explanation to this whole episode. He was just on the mountain, running from a vengeful mob. A sudden blow to the head was the only thing that could account for what he was seeing and hearing now.
“This is no trick. No traumatic episode. This is very, very real, I assure you. You see, you and I can help one another. Out there, is a mass of very angry people and they mean to kill you. I can taste their malice even in here. But you are safe, from them, in here. Ironically, I am trapped in here, and out there the world is safe from me. I wish to change both our fates.”
The thing sat down and steepled his fingers before him as though he were explaining a lesson.
“I have been in here for a very long time, imprisoned as it were, because I sought to be…more. I had already achieved so much, wielded such power, that others became afraid of me. They sealed me in here, a council of twelve men and women, so that powerful though I was, I could not escape. And they were right, I could not escape with the power I had then, but they did not think that I could find a way to gain more. This is why your appearance at my threshold is most…advantageous.”
“You’re a…wizard, then?” Ven asked.
“Yes. Of a sort,” the creature chuckled, “but I would transcend even that, if you would help me.”
Wizards wielded arcane powers that could dwarf anything Ven could even imagine doing, but to transcend that power? Would this thing become a god?
“Exactly,” the creature said, as though it could read Ven’s every thought, “and I have the knowledge to do so, if not the power…yet.”
“What did you mean, that you could give me life?” he asked.
“Magic, wizardry, sorcery; these are just words that ignorant men call the wielding of the very stuff of life. Power is life, and life is power – they are not different. I know how to tap into the flows of power in this world, and to take the power inherent in other things for my own. I can grant you a portion of this, to give you control over such things yourself, and to lengthen the days of your existence.”
“So…I could…live forever?” The thought of dying had always petrified Ven. It was, in fact, the very impetus of his cowardly flight from his village. He had done evil, had murdered a girl for no other reason than that she wanted another instead of him, and rather than stay and face the justice he deserved, he had run.
“Perhaps. Barring any violence you cannot deal with, or failure to fulfill your part of the bargain, yes you may well live forever.” The creature smiled again, he knew he had Ven.
“What would be my part of the bargain?”
“You would need do no more than you’ve already done. You are a murderer; your part of the bargain is to continue to murder.”
Ven was horrified. He hadn’t meant to kill Jaina at all! It was an accident! Now this…this thing…expected him to repeat his sin?
“Yes. Over and over again. I expect you to kill and to continue to kill until you either perish or decide that your life is no longer worth the price.” A dark light flashed in the creature’s eyes with every word he spoke, driving the damnation of his words deeper into Ven’s mind.
“But, why? How does that help you?!” he asked, hoping that there were another way to satiate this corrupt spirit.
“Because when you die naturally, the power that gave you life returns to its Source to be restored into the world. When a life is cut short, through accident or violence, it is lost for a time and knows not it’s way home. When that happens, I can steal it, siphon it away and bend it to my will; I can add it to my own store of power…and you can keep a portion of it.”
The creature was before Ven again, so swiftly he never saw it move, never heard a step.
“The flow of life lies in the blood. Blood shall bind you to me, your deeds to my will, and a connection shall be made. You will know what I wish you to know, learn what I deign to teach, and I shall feed from the lives that pass through your hands. Now…do you accept, or shall this little cave be the end of your tale?” There was a palpable hunger in its eyes now, a sense that they were both on the edge of a chasm, and Ven’s answer would be the final push one way or the other.
But Ven was not courageous, nor had he much of a desire to die over such a thing as honor. He had accomplished nothing in life thus far, and surely it should be the fate of every man to have the chance to leave his mark upon the world. And could he not, in time, find a way to break the bond and use his knowledge to better the world?
“I accept. I have no wish to die, I will serve you.” He said, and stood as tall as he was able in the cramped cavern.
“Good.” And with that one word, the thing tore away Ven’s shirt, the only good shirt he owned and wore specifically to ask Jaina to the harvest, and with the nail of its thumb began carving through the skin of his chest.
Ven screamed as the creature drew its damnation upon his flesh. Whorls and patterns that should have been too intricate to accomplish blossomed crimson over his heart. The entire time, the creature muttered in some incomprehensible tongue as it bent over Ven, consumed by its hellish artistry. In a matter of moments, the glyph was complete, and the creature took its thumbnail to the palm of its other hand. The blood that wept from the cut was a deep violet blue, tiny pulses of otherworldly light dancing throughout the liquid.
“The bargain is struck, the pact sealed. Now you will learn a portion of my knowledge, and I will inscribe it on your soul.” It pressed its bleeding hand against the sigil on Ven’s chest, and the icy shock of its blood in his veins tore through his entire body. Arcane knowledge flooded through his mind, the machinations of his new master unfolding before him. Ways to manipulate the forces at work on the world were made clear. Ven knew how to weave the very fabric of reality to suit his needs and with that knowledge came the certainty of his condemnation. He would live, and to do so he would kill, because if he did not he would become just another spark for his new master to steal. Just one more candle thrown into the bonfire. His torment would be unfathomable, and if a thousand had to die, if a thousand thousand had to die to avoid that fate, then die they will. But…but, if he killed he would also live. And if he did help to elevate his new master, than he might rule at his side. Well, beneath him at any rate. Ven wept then, for he knew that there was no breaking of these bonds; no salvation from this contract.
There was a knock at the door of his private chambers, and Arch Bishop Therodan, who had once been a blacksmith’s apprentice named Ven, returned from the memory of that awful night. Toweling himself swiftly, he donned a night gown to hide the scarring on his breast and moved much more swiftly than a man of his apparent age should to the door.
“Arch Bishop!” the knocking was excited and the voice muffled through the oak door. “Arch Bishop, it’s Uthred!”
Therodan opened the door to scowl at his personal attendant and the man who would one day replace him as Arch Bishop. Or rather the man, he would one day kill and assume his form and retain his position as Arch Bishop.
“Yes, yes! What is so important to disturb my private meditations!?” he said angrily as he opened the door to a visibly anxious Uthred.
“Your Holiness, the High Thane is requesting you to personally attend him. There is to be some sort of announcement tomorrow, rumor in the palace is that it’s to be a wedding announcement! My sources tell me that he is to ask you for your blessings and to perform the ceremony!”
This was unexpected news, and before he could cover it, the Arch Bishop’s face betrayed a little of his surprise. But Ven had been a naïve boy, not stupid, and the man he’d become had not gotten this far without learning how to turn practically any situation to his advantage. It just remained to be seen who was marrying whom and how this situation would serve his purposes.