A cursed prince is living in exile with his squire until the curse can be broken. They have been sent by their royal sorcerer to protect a thaumaturgist from assassination.
tags: Keith West, action/adventure, fantasy
|Publication Date||May 04, 2017|
|BCRS ratings?Learn more|
THE CHRONICLE OF THE DARK NIMBUS
by Keith West
“Are you sure you’re fit for this night’s work, Rodrik?” my liege Prince Balthar asked, sliding his sword into its sheath and turning to face me.
“Aye, my lord. Never better.” I rotated my left arm in a complete circle to demonstrate and tried not wince from the pain at the top of the arc. The truth was I could have used another week of recovery, but I was tired of sitting around waiting to finish healing. It was my duty to be beside my liege if he were truly facing danger, whether I was injured or not.
“Then let’s be at it,” he said and gave my shoulder a comradely slap. This time I did wince, but Balthar had already turned and was leaving our chambers. Sometimes he literally didn’t realize his own strength, a side effect of the curse.
If anything were to happen, it would most likely be tonight. Andrus had been sure of it. Tonight was the night of the new moons, when both of them would rise with the Sun, and the morrow was Winter Solstice. The only thing that had happened since we arrived at Gaspar’s keep two days ago had been unending snow.
We made our way without speaking along the corridor towards the wing in which the thaumaturgist Gaspar had his work area. Our footsteps echoed as we crossed the main hall. A few tapers lit the way to the stairwell visible through the entrance on the other side.
I had to admit guard duty was a nice change from traveling, especially at the dead of winter in these climes. Gaspar was surprised to see us, although he remembered us from his visit to the palace five years ago. He would have offered us hospitality in any event, but when we shared Andrus’ concerns with him, he went out of his way to make us welcome. Of course, we were there to protect him. We all wished Andrus’ vision had been a little clearer regarding what we were protecting him from.
As we reached a wide landing at the top of the stairs, the flambeaux lit of their own accord and the door to the main workroom swung open to admit us, the doors to the other rooms remaining closed. Gaspar’s work area. If anyone other than Gaspar, us, or his steward Diocletian had ascended the stairs, nothing would have happened. The lights would stay on as long as we were in the room.
Lamps in the workroom lit in the same manner as the flambeaux revealing tables covered with flasks, beakers, mortars, and pestles. The stair ascending upwards to the left and giving access to the roof was opposite the door, a single window above the stair and a blazing fire in the fireplace to the left where the stair met the ceiling. In spite of the cold and the clouds, Gaspar would be on the observation platform. Neither Balthar nor I were sure how he could take measurements of the heavens with all the clouds, but he had assured us he could. A sagging shelf of books, scrolls, and parchments stood against the right hand wall, its contents poking out at odd angles and the whole things looking like it would collapse under its own weight any second. Against the wall opposite the bookcase were more shelves, containing jars, vials, reliquaries, and wooden boxes of various shapes and sizes. On the workbench in front of us was a jar half-full of what I had learned were Harpy eyes. Several of them swiveled to track our motion as we entered the room.
On a different table, to the left of the center of the room a good distance from anything else, was an enormous bell jar containing a homunculus as tall as my forearm is long. He rolled over, rubbed his eyes, made a rude gesture in our direction, and laid back down. Soon we could hear his tiny snores echoing within the jar.
Prince Balthar surveyed the assorted apparatus and instruments on the tables. A casual glance suggested clutter, but a closer inspection revealed a subtle level of organization. Gaspar stored things where they were easy to reach, often meaning in the work area.
“The only way anyone can reach Gaspar now is through us or by flying,” Balthar said.
“There is still that possibility, my liege,” I said. As if to contradict me, a gust of wind rattled the shuttered window over the stairs.
“Gaspar doesn’t think it likely in the storm.” Balthar turned as he spoke, his eyes taking in the details of the room, the angle a knife lay on a table, the number of flasks on a shelf and the colors of their contents. “He’s as stubborn as Andrus about conducting his magical studies. He’s more concerned about someone stealing something from his workroom.”
I picked up a pestle, twirled it in my fingers, and put it down. A red residue remained on my glove. I wiped the dust off on my cloak. “Andrus has had no further visions?” I asked. Andrus communicated with Balthar by the means of an ensorcelled scroll upon which appeared writing that only Balthar could see.
“No, just the original vision. All he can tell us is that someone will try to break in to Gaspar’s work area sometime leading up to the night of the new moons. That only leaves tonight. This person must be stopped, or else the consequences could be dire. His additional scrying reveals there is more than one possible outcome to this event, each with its own harmful results. Beyond that he isn’t able to say anything definite.”
I couldn’t help but laugh.
“Something amuses you, Rodrik?” asked Balthar.
“I was just thinking of the irony of the situation, my liege. Us, guarding against a thief.”
Balthar smiled. “Sometimes it takes a pair of thieves to capture a thief.”
“Indeed, although I look forward to the day we leave that aspect of our lives behind us.”
“Me, too, Rodrik. Me, too.” There was a wistfulness in Prince Balthar’s voice I seldom heard. At times like these I was reminded of how long we had been in exile. He seldom mentioned his father anymore, but I knew they both desired the curse to be broken so that they could be reunited. King Mordecai didn’t want Balthar to bear the guilt of patricide he suffered under, nor did he desire to die by his son’s hand, so we were exiled until the curse was broken or the king died of natural causes.
We said nothing else for some while. Instead we paced the room. Occasionally Balthar would pick up a tome and leaf through it. I preferred not to take chances by touching them. It grew steadily colder, in spite of the fire. Gaspar must have placed an enchantment on it, for we never had to add wood though it blazed steadily. By midnight we could see our breath on the air.
Then the lights seemed to grow dim. At first I thought I was getting drowsy, then I realized that all the lights, the ones on the landing as well as in the workroom, including the fire, were getting dimmer.
I heard a chirp and turned towards the bell jar. The homunculus was awake and on his feet, his hands placed against the sides of the jar facing the door. He began to move from side to side, never taking his eyes from the door.
Balthar and I looked at each other. Without making a sound, we drew our blades. He stood inside the door while I positioned myself to watch the stairwell. The lights grew gradually dimmer. From somewhere below, a clock chimed midnight. It sounded like the one in the great hall, but Gaspar was obsessed with the passage of time and had numerous others scattered about his keep. The only room free of clocks, surprisingly, was the workroom.
The dimming of the lights stopped. The room wasn’t in total darkness, but it was difficult to make out details more than a few feet away.
We heard a sound, like a boot sole scraping a step. A minute later we heard another.
The homunculus began bouncing around inside the bell jar, trying to get out. I thought he would knock himself senseless, he was hitting the walls of the jar so hard.
Balthar moved to stand beside the door. I was between two workbenches forming an aisle facing the stairs. There was no where I could go, so I prepared to confront our intruder.
The lights in the stairwell dimmed some more as a figure made its way to the top.
It was a woman with long, unbound auburn hair. She was dressed in grey moleskin boots, brown breeches, a green shirt, and brown leather gloves. A hooded blue cloak flowed behind her, clasped at the neck by a silver amulet holding an obsidian. At first I thought it was a trick of the dim light, but then I realized the edges of the cloak merged with the shadows. She wore leather epaulets, and a leather vest covered her breasts. Two emerald bands clasped her right thigh. A leather scabbard, the scratches on it visible even in the dim light, hung from a leather belt with a horned visage as a buckle.
Her right hand held a wicked looking scimitar.
But it was what was in her left hand that disturbed me most. Held aloft, she carried a wand with another obsidian mounted at the end. This one was different than the one in the clasp. It seemed to be pure black and darkness literally radiated from it. As it passed in front of one of the flambeaus, the light from it vanished, even though the end of the wand was a handbreadth below the flame.
The woman mounted the remaining steps deliberately, with an even tread. She moved in a crouch, as though she were expecting trouble. At the top of the stairs, she stopped on the landing. I could see a slight reflection of the light in her eyes as her gaze passed across the open doorway and knew she saw me.
Her eyes turned pitch black as they passed over me.
Instead of threatening me with her blade, she raised the wand and flicked the end at me, similar to a horse master’s use of a whip to make a trained horse perform in the arena. A ball of darkness came rolling towards me. From it trailed tendrils resembling smoke. They dissipated as they broke off. Whatever it was, I was sure the nimbus was something other than smoke, and far more deadly. It was moving slowly enough I was able to duck as it reached me.
That was a mistake.
As the ball of darkness passed overhead, she brought the wand down sharply. I was enveloped in the darkness.
Not only was I blinded, but all sensation was cut off within the cloud. I couldn’t hear, nor could I feel the draft from the window that had been caressing my cheeks moments before.
I inhaled in surprise. Another mistake.
I felt as though all air had vanished from my lungs. Instinctively, I gasped for breath. That only made the sensation worse. Growing dizzy, I began to fall to my right. I put my hand out to try and catch myself and dropped my sword in the process. My sense of vertigo increased.
Not knowing what else to do, I dove forward, my hands reaching out in front of me to break my fall. I wasn’t sure of any direction now but up and down, and even they were uncertain.
I came out of the cloud at an angle to the direction I’d been facing. My shoulder screamed as my left arm brushed along the side of a table leg. At the same time I inhaled a great breath of the frigid air. Never had anything so cold felt so good. In the background I could hear the homunculus screaming, but whether in terror or rage I couldn’t say. It sounded a like a little of both.
The clash of steel on steel made me look up. Balthar had seen enough to strike at the woman as she entered. Life on the road had convinced us of the futility of courtly ideas of chivalry. When someone was trying to kill you, you had only one choice if you wished to remain alive. That was fight back, even if your attacker was a woman. It had been our experience that some of the deadliest killers were members of what troubadours called “the fairer sex”. There was nothing fair about how some of them fought.
The example Balthar was facing was no exception. His greater size and strength had her pinned against the doorframe. Her blade was slowly lowering as he pressed it backwards. His left hand squeezed her throat, and I could hear her breath wheezing as he cut off her air. Given the lack of air I had just experienced I was less than sympathetic.
She still held the wand in her left hand, but the strange dark glow around the obsidian on the end was gone and her eyes had reverted to normal.
The woman shifted her weight onto her left foot and brought her knee up into his groin, not once but two, then three times with increasing strength. His grip broke, and the pressure he was applying with his sword decreased enough for the woman to straighten her arm and force him back. He crashed into a table, doubled over.
I didn’t have time to try to find my own blade. Instead I grabbed the first thing my hand touched on the table top. It was a jar about the size of a small melon. I hurled it at her as hard as I could.
She was already moving towards Balthar when the jar left my hand. It clipped the back of her neck and bounced out the door and onto the landing without breaking. She turned towards me, more angry than hurt. I noticed the black nimbus had begun to reform around the end of her wand.
I didn’t dare take my eyes off her. My left shoulder was throbbing. I reached behind me and felt about for my sword without success. I hoped the first nimbus she had hit me with had dissipated because she was about to hit me with another. She raised her wand again. To my right I could hear the homunculus going berserk. As her eyes began to go black, Prince Balthar lurched to his feet.
“No!” he bellowed and charged.
His sword came up in a backhanded swipe and caught the wand as it was dropping to release another nimbus. Sparks flew at the impact, but the wand didn’t break. Balthar’s sword swept the wand aside as he followed through on his stroke.
The impact of his strike turned the woman towards Balthar, and the nimbus went wide. At first I thought Balthar would be hit full in the face by it. Only his curse-induced reflexes allowed him to duck in time. Even then a portion of the nimbus brushed the left side of his head. The two of them went tumbling over the workbench, scattering paraphernalia in their wake. Glassware shattered and powders filled the air. I could hear hissing where some corrosive liquid had spilled and was eating through the granite tabletop.
A part of me wondered what Gaspar was doing and why he hadn’t come to investigate. Even if he couldn’t hear the commotion over the wind, surely he had some type of alarm set up to alert him of intruders.
Balthar’s momentum carried them into the shelves, which collapsed under the impact, dumping scrolls and ancient tomes down on top of them and in a semi circle surrounding them. A cloud of dust expanded out into the room, carried away by the draft from the window. The dust had a musty smell, not unlike what I’d smelled while robbing countless tombs.
While they tried to excavate themselves from the pile, I retrieved my own weapon. In spite of her smaller size, if the woman were to free herself first and launch another nimbus, she would be more than a match for Prince Balthar.
I must have kicked my sword while in the nimbus earlier, for it was on the other side of the workbench behind me, next to the homunculus’ table. The homunculus was beside himself. The creature was screaming and beating himself against the side of the bell jar. I scrambled under the workbench to retrieve my blade, my shoulder blazing with pain.
I grabbed the hilt and stood up. That was when I noticed something. I’m not sure why it registered, but it did. The bell jar was rocking back and forth as the homunculus threw himself against it. That shouldn’t have been possible. I had spent enough time around Andrus to know that there should have been a spell on the bell jar to prevent just what I was seeing.
The nimbus must have either hit or grazed the jar. There was no sign of the nimbus now, but it was some sort of magical weapon. It must have negated the spell when it came in contact with the jar, and the homunculus, a magical creature, would have sensed that.
Before I could think how to respond, the homunculus threw himself against he jar one last time, and the jar tipped over, shattering when it struck the floor.
I expected the homunculus to try to escape from the room or hide. Instead the tiny creature leaped to the workbench I’d just crawled under, took two strides, leapt to the far workbench, and launched himself at the woman.
She was on her feet. While she still held the wand in her hand, she’d lost her sword when Balthar plowed into her. She was holding the wand in front of her in a defensive position, waiting for Balthar to rise from under the pile of debris. She seemed to have forgotten about me.
As he landed on the woman’s back, the homunculus let out the most bloodcurdling scream I’ve ever heard. His hands wrapped around her head, tiny claws reaching for her eyes. She staggered forward past the pile of debris and nearly dropped the wand.
The woman reached up with her free hand and somehow managed to get a grip on the thing’s right arm and hurled it towards the back of the workroom. Speaking for the first time, she cursed the creature in multiple languages. I recognized only one, a northern dialect shared across several kingdoms, but her accent was from the tropics. I noticed rivulets of blood flowing down her cheek from cuts just below her eye, like crimson tears.
The creature hit the wall above the stairs with an impact that should have broken bones. Instead, he bounded back, still screeching and jabbering. The woman swatted him away with her wand. Small clouds of black mist erupted from the wand as it made contact with his skin.
The screams of the homunculus turned from those of rage to sheer agony. He bounced off the workbench and went sliding across the floor. I didn’t see where the thing ended up, but I could hear it whimpering softly.
The woman started to turn her attention to me when the shelf beside her lifted from the floor. Prince Balthar had been pinned under it. As he stood, he shoved it aside. The former contents of the shelves littered the floor around him, and a small book slid down his back as he straightened to his full height. This produced a second cloud of dust. He shook his head, still stunned.
At the sound of Balthar rising, the woman backed to the stairs and faced us, panting, wand held aloft. We had her trapped, like a snow sabre-tooth, and like one of those great cats, she was at her most dangerous when cornered.
We stood that way, facing each other, none of us daring to make the first move. The nimbus at the end of her wand was beginning to reform. She would launch it at whichever one of us attacked first. I had no desire to experience the thing again, and I’m sure Balthar felt the same way. Even if we attacked together, one of us would probably be taken out. We were both too far from her to reach her before she could launch the thing.
As soon as she launched the nimbus, whether at Balthar or myself, the other would be on her before she could summon another. She would be wise to strike at Balthar, for he was the greater threat. To what extent she realized this, I know not. Even if she could neutralize Balthar, something I had to do everything I could to prevent, the outcome of a fight between us was uncertain. While not of the skill level of Balthar, I am an accomplished swordsman, and I was motivated to recompense her for the pain she had caused me. However, I had seen her skill with the wand as a simple club; I wouldn’t have an easy time of it.
In order to protect Balthar, I decided to attack first. That was when the trap door to the roof banged open behind me. Snow swirled into the room, and the wind stirred the papers scattered around Batlhar. The increased chill made me aware that I was sweating in spite of the cold.
“It’s about time you showed up, Gaspar,” said Balthar. “Some help would-”
Whatever Balthar had been about to say died on his lips. I turned and to my amazement, the figure on the stair behind me wasn’t Gaspar, but his steward, Diocletian. We had thought him below, in the main part of the keep. Before I could respond, he withdrew a dagger from his sleeve and threw it at Balthar.
My liege was able to twist so that the blade glanced across his ribs. The chain mail he wore under his cloak should have protected him. Against any ordinary blade it would have, but Diocletian’s blade must have been ensorcelled. The links on Balthar’s armor tinkled as they hit the floor. They were a reddish color, partly from Balthar’s blood, partly from having rusted on contact with the dagger.
“You assured me you could handle them,” Diocletian growled at the woman.
“Ordinary men, yes, but that one is no ordinary man,” she said, gesturing with her wand at Balthar. “That will cost you extra if I get out of this alive. You didn’t tell me he was magically protected.”
“He shouldn’t be. Gaspar didn’t give either of them any protections.”
Balthar pressed his left hand to his side. His wound was bleeding steadily, but as the flow wasn’t heavy, it didn’t appear to be life threatening. Probably just a flesh wound. Still it would slow him down.
I turned back to Diocletian. He was drawing another dagger from his sleeve. I wasn’t sure who his target was, me or Balthar, but I could ill afford to wait long enough to find out. I launched myself at the woman.
She was the greater threat. Balthar could dodge a thrown dagger, now that he was expecting to be the target, and deal with Diocletian. If I were the target, I would be harder to hit. I also had the faint hope that Diocletian wouldn’t throw at me and risk hitting his accomplice.
The woman was unprepared for my assault. I brought my blade up in a thrust at the end of my lunge. I had the satisfaction of feeling steel pierce her thigh. It didn’t penetrate far, a few fingers’ width at most. Stepping forward out of my lunge, I prepared to rip my sword up through her leg and hip, crippling her with a wound that would cause her to bleed to death. If someone didn’t kill her first, something I had every intention of doing.
She must have anticipated my strategy, for she blocked my blade with her wand and stepped back. Somehow in doing so, she managed to pull her leg off the end of the sword.
My arm tingled when the jewel at the end of the wand made contact with my sword as the wand slid along the steel.
She stepped forward again as she swung the wand a second time. In spite of her injury, her timing was perfect. I was still stepping forward out of my lunge as she moved. Her forward momentum, coupled with the impact of her swing, prevented me from regaining my stance, and I was forced to take a step backwards. Part of the impact I felt was when her leg buckled, throwing her against me. Instead of pressing her advantage, she raised the wand.
I looked for somewhere to duck, but there was no place to go. I had been forced back between the two workbenches.
Rather than hitting me with another nimbus, as I was expecting, the woman brought the wand straight down to the floor. I would describe what happened as a flash, except a flash isn’t dark but bright. Whatever the darkness was that the wand projected, it erupted, filling the room. Everything went black. This time I had no difficulty breathing, at least not until something hit me in the gut. It felt like a fist.
I was hit hard enough I slammed into the table to my left. My shoulder experienced a new wave of pain. It was nearly a minute by my reckoning before the room cleared enough to see. The wind from the open trapdoor accelerated the process. In the dimness I could see Diocletian leaping over the debris, trying to reach the door. His long robe hampered his efforts. Balthar came at him from over the table, taking him down by flying through the air and hitting him with his full weight.
I heard Diocletian’s breath leave him as Balthar drove him into the floor, an exhalation so great I could see Diocletian’s chest compress beneath Balthar’s weight. He didn’t rise when Balthar pulled himself to his feet.
The prince’s side was still bleeding, and his exertions hadn’t diminished the flow. I managed to regain my feet. To do so required me to lay my sword down, something I was loathe to do. I had no idea where the woman had gone. While I much preferred to believe she had fled, until I had evidence that such was the case, I chose to be cautious. I picked the sword up again as quickly as I could.
I limped over and stood next to Prince Balthar. Somewhere in the room, the homunculus was crying.
“Are you all right, Rodrik?”
“Aye, my liege, well enough. It will be another few weeks before my shoulder is healed, though.”
He nudged Diocletian in the ribs with the toe of his boot, none too gently. Diocletian groaned weakly, and his eyelids fluttered open. He lay there gasping like a mermaid out of water. “I wonder what led him to betray Gaspar? I suppose we’ll learn soon enough-”
He stopped, and we looked at each other, both thinking the same thing. I headed towards the stairs. As I mounted them, I saw Balthar grasp Diocletian’s robes in one hand, lift him from the floor, and smash his fist into the steward’s face. He tried to throw the unconscious man over his shoulder, but his injury prevented him from doing so. Instead he drug Diocletian by his robe across the room and up the stairs.
I ascended the stairs as fast as I could climb them. When I reached the roof, I was panting. The cold was bitter, burning my throat and lungs, and the wind cut through my clothing, tearing away any bit of warmth.
I had never been up on the roof of Gaspar’s tower. The trap door opened near the crenellations, and I had to turn to view the main part of the roof. It was mostly clear of snow, something that had to have been accomplished by magic, as the snow continued to fall a few feet away.
Along the walls were various devices. Some I recognized as astrological instruments, others were clearly timepieces, while some were totally unfamiliar to me. Of the ones I thought I recognized, several were larger and more complicated than I had ever seen. The area was illuminated by six crystals twice the size of a man’s head. Each was a different color: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and white. They occupied the points of a huge six pointed star in the middle of the work area. A black substance encircled the star, which was white.
Gaspar was in the middle of the star, on his back, his eyes open, staring at the sky. He lifted his head as I approached.
“Help,” he whispered. He must have been magically projecting his voice because I had no trouble hearing him over the howl of the wind.
“How?” I asked. I stopped at the edge of the circle. Association with Andrus before our exile had taught me caution where sorcery was concerned. I had no desire to break or cross the circle unless Gaspar told me it was safe to do so.
He raised his hand. I could see a dark stain on the stonework beneath him. “Bring me the amulet. Cross the circle.” He pointed to an amulet hanging from a complicated apparatus I didn’t recognize.
I picked it up. The stone was iridescent and warm to the touch. I could feel its heat through my glove. It felt good; my fingers were beginning to go numb.
I saw Prince Balthar standing next to the trap door. Diocletian lay in a heap beside him.
In spite of Gaspar’s instruction to cross the circle, I took care not to touch any of the lines. I knelt beside him, and he took the amulet from my hand. Covering it with both hands, he held the amulet to his breast and muttered an incantation. This time he didn’t project his voice; I couldn’t tell if he was actually speaking or if his lips were merely moving.
Through his hands I could see the amulet begin to glow. After a couple of minutes the glow subsided. Gaspar sat up. I reached to help him to his feet, but he waved my hand away.
“I’ll be fine,” he said in a normal voice. He strode to where Balthar was waiting.
“It seems I owe the two of you a debt,” he said to us. Gaspar knelt down, grasped a handful of Diocletian’s hair and forced his head up. Diocletian’s eyes widened. “And you as well, my not so faithful servant. I always pay my debts. All of them.”
Gaspar bound Diocletian in some type of cage and proceeded to interrogate him. The steward had tried to steal the amulet. He’d been assisting Gaspar with his thaumaturgy when he stabbed the sorcerer. Unfortunately for him, Gaspar had locked the amulet into a spell which was still active when he was attacked. Diocletian had intended to wait until the spell ran its course, but he had come down to aid his accomplice. Gaspar had deactivated the spell before he asked me to hand him the amulet.
We never found out who the woman was, but she wasn’t in the keep. We were at a loss as to how she came and left. We were over a dozen leagues from the nearest town, and any normal person would have frozen in the storm. The woman was some sort of sorceress; beyond that, everything about her was a mystery. Gaspar used all his sorcery to try and find her without avail. Diocletian was not yet forthcoming with any information about her. We left before he changed his mind and talked. Gaspar wasn’t able to use the amulet to heal my shoulder or Balthar’s ribs since it was attuned to his life energy. However, Diocletian’s screams were enough to make us continue our wanderings in spite of our injuries.
“The Chronicle of the Dark Nimbus” is copyright © Keith West
Keith West has been a fan of the science fiction, fantasy, mystery, horror, and historical adventure genres for more years than he’s willing to admit. By day he teaches impressionable young people his bad habits (of which there are many) and by night he tells lies for fun and profit (more fun than profit). He commits dayjobbery in the field of Physics where in addition to teaching he occasionally writes cross genre documents known as grant proposals, consisting of science fiction (the proposal), fantasy (the budget), and horror (the reviewers’ comments). He and his wife make their home in West Texas with their son (adopted from Kazakhstan) and two dogs (adopted from the animal shelter). He denies having an addiction to using parentheses. Keith can be found online at www.adventuresfantastic.com.