Warning: This chapter contains strong language and graphic violence.
Hieronymous could feel his head pounding violently as he fought to wrench free from the monstrous hand wrapped tightly around his throat. His lungs were on fire now, his hearing distant, and his vision blurred. From the corner of his eye, he could just barely see what looked like a shadow.
Silently, Gwen drew her knife. A new instinct whispered quietly inside of her; there were so many ways to kill a manus.
With catlike agility, she crept swiftly behind her unwary target. A small smile graced her lips as she drew back her hand and thrust her ethereal arm and blade deep within the demon's chest. The manus shuddered uncontrollably, electrified by the unfamiliar sensation.
Gwen tossed away the protective cloak of her shadow form, her physical body materializing and displacing the flesh that had once belonged to the demon. She twisted her knife sharply inside its chest, hearing it scream.
Ripping her arm free, its red blood splashed across the floor.
The manus staggered and Hieronymous fell to the floor, gasping loudly for air.
As the demon collapsed beside him, Hieronymous blinked, surprised by what he saw. Covered in blood with a dagger in hand, was his wife.
"Gwen?!" he croaked, before descending back into a coughing fit.
The manus too, seemed to recognize her, casting an angry look from her to the stump where its arm had once been before their last encounter.
Gwen stared intently at the thick, red blood coating her arm.
His breathing labored, Hieronymous rose to his feet
"Thank you, but...What...How did you...A manus...?" he stammered.
"Run," she whispered. She gripped the knife tightly, her knuckles turning white.
Noticing that she was shaking, Hieronymous' face softened and he stepped toward her.
"Please..." she whispered quietly, unable to continue.
"It's okay," he said, "I'm fine."
"I know, but I'm not," she looked up at Hieronymous. Where he expected to see her green eyes, there were only black, empty orbs. Her appearance, and the sinister sound of her voice, made his blood run cold. "You should have run."
Gwen cocked her head from side to side, looking around the room hungrily. The smell of the blood was fascinating. She inhaled deeply. Quick, staccato drumming noises distracted her from the scent, pounding louder and louder. The drumming was a maddening cacophony of three hearts pounding in different rhythms. Her eyes began to flicker around the room, following the tiniest movements, unable to ignore any of them. Her instincts were no longer whispering, they were commanding.
Hieronymous started to cast a spell.
Gwen felt the tingle of magic gathering to a focus on top of her other dancing senses and screamed furiously. Lashing out at the source, she threw her dagger at Hieronymous.
Hieronymous lunged to the side, barely avoiding the projectile. His focus lost, the half formed spell dispersed into a crackle of static electricity, shocking his fingers.
Gwen disappeared, reappearing across the room almost instantly, snatching her dagger mid-flight.
Hieronymous shifted his weight, moving into a crouch. He channeled green energy and cast an instant spell. The world around him slowed down dramatically as his speed increased three fold.
"Gwen, I don't want to accidentally hurt you," Hieronymous said evenly, holding a hand out to try and forestall her. "Can you understand what I'm-"
Hieronymous was cut off by Gwen conjuring a fan of black knives and throwing them in his direction with a flick of her wrist. He took five quick leaps backward as each of the five knives hit the ground where he had been just before.
I'll take that as a 'no' then, he thought.
Hieronymous hastily cast a sleep spell, but Gwen sank back into the shadows. Having no target, the spell flickered out in his hand. He cursed, wiping the sweat away from his brow.
Calculating his remaining energy, he began to focus another spell, wrapping himself in the familiar embrace of blue magic. Ten images of himself took off at a run in different directions.
Gwen let out a sinister laugh. In a blur of movement, multiple shadow copies of herself split off, chasing after the doppelgangers. Gwen only had interest in one of the running figures. As her shadows pursued the duplicates, she moved with superhuman speed, lunging at the only body with a beating heart.
Hieronymous, looking at her over his shoulder, spun around and ducked low, barely evading the swing of her blade at the last moment. She pressed her attack, slashing and jabbing. Hieronymous dodged and weaved gracefully, and narrowly avoided her quickening swings. He teleported away from a near fatal swing, but when he reappeared, she was already instantly in front of him, continuing her relentless attack. The two of them blinked in and out, teleporting across the room.
Hieronymous, thinking quickly, threw a wave of force into the empty space ahead of him at the end of his last teleportation. Gwen appeared a moment later and was instantly thrown back across the room. Hieronymous' face contorted in concentration, focusing the last of his magic into a wave of crippling green energy. As Gwen rolled across the floor, the spell hit her and she felt most of her strength sapping away.
Hieronymous dropped his arms to his sides, his mana spent, he could cast no more.
Hissing, Gwen weakly pushed herself up.
'Gwen?' Agravian's voice echoed distantly in her mind. She ignored it, teleporting after her target.
Hieronymous had run toward the door, employing what was left of his speed spell. He was nearly there when Gwen teleported in front of his path. Startled, he stumbled back, unable to avoid Gwen springing at him. Knocking him to the ground, she brought her knife down in a swift arc to his throat.
'S'VREL!' Agravian's thundering command in Gwen's mind stopped her immediately, freezing her in place. Her knife was pressed against Hieronymous' throat, drawing a small trickle of blood.
Hieronymous had his head pressed back against the ground, to get as far away from the blade as possible. Taking advantage of her hesitation, he grabbed her wrist and twisted it hard, away from his throat. She yelped, releasing the weapon and he heard the knife fall harmlessly on the stones beside his head.
Clamping a hand around her other wrist, he rolled over and pinned her down.
She glared vehemently at him with her empty eyes.
He searched her face, looking for any sign of recognition there. He felt a sickening dread.
Never have I seen or heard of anything at all like this. Her soul... he wondered, looking at her cold, black gaze, his dread increasing. Could this be... permanent?
"Gwen," he prompted, searching her expression.
She didn't respond to her name.
"Damn it, say something!" he yelled, eyes full of concern.
She only looked on at him with her soulless, obsidian orbs.
"Why, Gwen?!" he shouted. "This is just like you... I knew this would happen." He sighed heavily. "This is my fault... again. Damn you," he whispered the last two words, his voice breaking ever so slightly.
Finally exhausted, Gwen relaxed her muscles.
"Y-y-," she tried. "Yo-u... stubborn bastard, I told you to run."
The pitch black in her eyes faded away and the whites of her eyes returned, shining around her green irises. She smiled, this time in mirth.
Hieronymous let out a deep sigh of relief, returning her smile.
"I did run,"he said."Faster than I've ever run in my life!"
Releasing his grip, he wrapped his arms tenderly around her and drew her up into a tight hug.
"Don't ever scare me like that again," he said.
"Likewise," she replied.
After a brief lull, Hieronymous exhaled sharply.
"How long are you intending on standing there, father?"
Aloysius stepped into the room from the doorway, "I'm glad to see you're safe."
Hieronymous gave his father a scathing look.
"Your political rival abducted me. Again. I can see talks are going great."
Again? thought Gwen.
Hieronymous stood, and helped Gwen up. Feeling utterly exhausted, she was shaky on her feet. He placed one arm around her waist to support her, letting her lean into him.
"How did you find me?" Hieronymous asked.
"I thought…" Aloysius started to say, before changing his expression to a rich smile. "No, I wanted to believe you called me."
"Well, I knew exactly who's fault this was," Hieronymous said, but his words had no effect his father's hopeful gaze. He was impressed the location spell he had sent to his father had actually worked, he was sure it had failed.
Aloysius looked quizzically at his daughter-in-law. "Aren't you the least bit curious how Gwen got here? And-"
"I'm curious about a great many things, at present," Hieronymous interrupted. "However, right now I'm just grateful I have the luxury of being curious," he said, cringing while lightly touching his throat. "Father, what are we going to do about him?" he said, pointing at Alcinous.
The group turned to look at the white haired prisoner.
Alcinous locked his gaze onto Gwen's, giving her a look of pure loathing. Gwen returned his look in kind. She had never hated someone so much in her entire life. It was as if the hatred welled up deep within her, and it took every ounce of her self control not to act upon the feeling. As the two stared at each other, their animosity grew palpable.
"You stupid woman," he said. "I realized it from the moment I saw your eyes. Do you realize what you've done, releasing that thing into the world?! Do you know what that monster is? What he's capable of?!"
"No," Gwen replied dryly, "but I know what you're capable of. But why don't you enlighten me? Choose your words carefully, however, as 'that monster' is right behind you."
Alcinous turned pale white, as he watched Agravian emerge from the shadows. The shadow assassin strode nonchalantly through the prison of light surrounding Alcinous. Grabbing Alcinous' white robe roughly he slammed him against the barrier of light.
"Where is she?"
"Abomination!" he spat. "I'll die before I tell you anything!"
"Of that, you can be sure," Agravian said with a wicked smile. With a snap of his finger, Alcinous disappeared, swallowed by shadow.
Agravian turned to his audience, walking casually through the barrier of light once more.
"My Lords," he greeted them, before turning to Gwen. "My Lady."
Tension filled the air. Hieronymous, giving the man a distrusting glare, broke the silence. "I'm not actually a lord," he said.
"Of course you're not, My Lord," Agravian said with a small smile.
Gwen had the distinct impression that Agravian used manners out of a sense of amusement, and very rarely out of respect. She believed that he enjoyed being overly polite, especially to those who assumed their magic made them superior. Through their link she noticed he was feeling both curious and protective of the two generations of Talfryn's descendants standing before him.
Gwen looked at Agravian's hood, wishing she could see his eyes. She could sense his thoughts and feelings unerringly, but somehow it felt impersonal, speaking to this man without eye contact.
"Earlier, I... lost control. I wanted to kill anything that moved. If it wasn't for your voice, I might have..." she shuddered. "I don't even want to think about it. What happened to me?"
"My sincerest apologies, I was somewhat... preoccupied earlier," Agravian said. "I should have realized sooner that you were... well, that you were experiencing what we call blood lust. When I left you on your own, I thought you'd stay in the shadows; I never thought you'd be engaged in combat. Scenting freshly drawn blood, especially for the first time, can be overwhelming. Fortunately, it looks like your husband was able to handle the situation long enough for you to come to your senses."
Agravian turned to face Hieronymous. "Quite well, I might add."
"Not well enough," Hieronymous replied.
"You did better than you know," he said with an enigmatic, smile.
'If you had married a white mage, you'd be a widow right now,' he mused telepathically to Gwen.
Gwen gave Agravian a wide-eyed look.
"What's going on?" Hieronymous interjected. "Who are you? What did you do with Alcinous?"
"Alcinous is, relatively, fine," he said. With a small bow, he added simply, "I am Shetlock's shade."
The two men stared blankly at Agravian.
"Neither of you have heard of me? Interesting."
Gwen tried to listen to their conversation, but felt she was nodding off. She closed her eyes, telling herself it would be just for a second, and fell fast asleep.
Gwen slumped, causing Hieronymous to falter a step before recovering and picking her up.
"She's asleep," Agravian said. "The first blood lust is always taxing."
"Who are you?" Hieronymous growled in a way that suggested he didn't appreciate repeating himself.
"Of course, how rude of me. I'm sure you would like a proper introduction."
With that, Agravian chuckled and vanished, swallowed by shadows.
"Oh, I like him," Aloysius said, "very mysterious."
Hieronymous shook his head at his father's enthusiasm.
"You mean dangerous," Hieronymous said.
"Oh, I almost forgot," Agravian's voice made them both jump. He reappeared suddenly in front of Hieronymous. "My student."
Agravian grabbed Gwen's arm. The air rippled and then they both dispersed into fragments of shadow before disappearing.