Certain that this creature was leading him to Abbadon, Dante slowed his pace briefly in order to arm himself with the Krvatch device. Then he sucked energy from his soulgate ring until his hands glowed brightly enough to light the way forward down the uneven and overgrown forest path. It wasn’t the most effective light, but it was far more subtle than a torch. It also had the benefit of giving him a pleasant buzz, similar to drunkenness but without the loss of coordination.
He followed the puppet for over an hour as it plowed forward through low brush and fallen branches, occasionally doing a slow and clumsy dance around fallen trees or ditches. When the trees began to thin, Dante let the energy in his hands disperse and stepped carefully forward. He could no longer see the puppet, but followed the swaying of branches in the distance and the sounds of snapping twigs.
At the edge of a clearing, he stopped. The puppet stood still and silent in the middle of the grass. Behind it was a dark, looming mass of boulders, with one rock in particular protruding up into the sky like a giant finger poking at the moon. Dante hid himself behind a tree and watched.
A dark shape took form in front of the boulders and approached the puppet. The wavy outline of long hair told Dante that this one was a real person, a man by the looks of it.
Abbadon, the sorcerer.
He stopped in front of the puppet. Dante heard muttering as Abbadon circled his creation, appearing to examine it.
Dante caressed the protruding spine of the Krvatch device. He would follow Abbadon back to his hiding place. Cast a thread of Dispersion to knock him down. And then put him to sleep.
He started forward, moving slowly and cautiously towards grass. At the last row of trees, he paused and took final stock. That was when Dante noticed several other shapes moving slowly around the clearing. As two of the shapes came closer, he thought for one horrifying moment that they were guards on patrol.
And then one of them turned into the moonlight, and Dante could clearly see the reflection of a glassy hemisphere in the center of a blank wooden face.
His heart beat suddenly faster.
The sorcerer was controlling multiple puppets at the same time–splitting his mind in multiple directions in order to give simultaneous commands. Even in the old accounts such feats of Multiple Transference were rare. To see it now was astounding. If Emira hadn’t assured him that Abbadon was working alone, he would not have believed that one man was controlling all of the puppets.
Dante had to learn how it was done.
Unfortunately, if he put the sorcerer to sleep right now, he would risk losing the secret. What if the man didn’t keep research notes? What if he did but they were written in code? Dante couldn’t stand the thought of not knowing.
Very carefully so as not to make a loud clicking sound, Dante unhooked the Krvatch device from around his wrist and stowed it in his travel bag. He also took off his soulgate ring and slipped it into a pocket.
Out on the clearing, Abbadon took the stolen sack from his puppet and turned back toward the mound of boulders.
Dante stepped out into the clearing, focusing his mind on the person he wanted to become: a simple farm boy with notions of grandeur.
"Excuse me," he said loudly in a rural accent.
Abbadon turned suddenly, holding one hand out in front of him. Wooden clacking told Dante that the puppets had turned as well and were approaching him. Threads of white energy begin to gather around
Abbadon’s hand.
"Who are you?" growled the sorcerer.
"I’m… Gideon–crofter’s son. Please, I’m not here to intrude."
The light emanating from the Abbadon’s hand allowed Dante to see him more clearly. Wavy gray locks and wrinkled hands told of the man’s age. A frayed yellow tunic and simple pants held by a rope belt told either of simple means or simple desires. But the most telling thing of all was the old, weathered face twisted into an angry sneer.
The puppets stopped a few paces away on either side of Dante.
"I was out relieving myself and spotted your creature leaving town. I’ve never seen anything like it. Please. All I’ve ever known is shoveling dung and planting seeds. I followed your creature, ran away from my family, because I want to learn of the secret powers. Clearly you know of them. Can you teach me?"
The sorcerer stood silently, carefully examining Dante.
"Look, maybe you could use an apprentice? I’ll do whatever work you ask. I’m guessing you don’t have many people to talk to out here."
The sorcerer’s eyes narrowed. Dante could practically hear him calculating the risks of taking on an eager apprentice. Either way, he really hoped that the man was lonelier than he was angry.
After a long silence, Abbadon spoke. "Come here, then," he said.
Dante walked cautiously forward until he was only a few feet away.
"What’s in the bag?" Abbadon asked.
"Spare clothes. Bit of rope. A few apples. Would you like one, sir? Here." He began rummaging in the bag.
Abbadon’s hand grew dazzlingly bright and Dante prepared to duck. But then the hand lowered. The light diffused across the sorcerer’s skin.
"Carry this," said Abbadon, ignoring the apple in Dante’s outstretched hand. He tossed the heavy sack the puppet had been carrying over to Dante.
Dante caught it awkwardly and followed Abbadon back toward the mound of boulders.
"What should I call you, sir?" he asked to the sorcerer’s back.
"Master Abbadon will do."
Dante smiled to himself.
Nearing the mound, he saw a wooden entranceway built over the gap between two of the large stones. Abbadon lifted aside a door made of thin sticks lashed together with reeds, and Dante followed him inside to a candlelit cavern.
It was strangely homey for a cavern. Most of the ceiling was stone, but there were well-made wooden fixtures built into the gaps. There were plants, rugs, and objects on display. Under a window in the far nook across from Dante, sat a straw-stuffed chair and a writing desk with a book and a sheaf of papers lying on top next to ink and a quill.
Dante’s eyes fixed on the papers. Those had to be the research notes.
The room bulged in the middle and Abaddon moved left into a workspace with a central circular rug, around which were strewn buckets of supplies, scraps of wood, and stacks of books taken from the two shelves lining either wall. Abbadon pointed to the rug and directed Dante to set down the sack. On the other side of the bulge were openings to two rooms, one of which was a storage area full of barrels and sacks, where Dante laid his travel bag, folding his cloak and placing it on top. The other room was a sleeping chamber with a glowing hearth.
Dante turned around to find Abbadon sitting down to work.
"You aren’t going to go to sleep?" Dante asked.
"No." Abbadon continued his task in silence without further explanation. Dante stood awkwardly for a moment.
"What can I do to help?"
Abbadon rattled off a typical list of servile chores, and Dante set about the place dusting, sweeping, chopping, and lifting. While sweeping, he took the opportunity to get near the writing table and glance at the notes. Unfortunately, they were written in a script Dante had never seen before. He would have to try to pry the secret from Abbadon.
As he organized a shelf of glass bottles, Dante started in on his unwitting host.
"I’ve never seen anything like your creature before."
"You already said that."
"Yes, but I was hoping maybe you could tell me something about it. How does sorcery work?"
Abbadon let out an annoyed sigh. "Have you ever heard of a soulgate?"
"Well, a soulgate is a connection to the energy beyond. . ."
Dante watched Abbadon closely. As he talked, he took a bucket of milky liquid, poured in some brown dust, and mixed the ingredients together. Then he picked up a length of shaped wood and began spreading the resulting paste on the joints.
". . .usually of welden, like that piece over there."
Abbadon pointed to a pedestal, on which sat a chunk of brown welden metal.
"Oh," said Dante with feigned awe and went over to examine it. He pretended to look at it with interest, while still watching Abbadon. Then he noticed that there were chunks missing from the welden, and a small loose piece was lying on the pedestal. "Can I touch it?" Dante asked. He shifted himself so that his back was blocking the pedestal from Abbadon’s view and then reached out his hand.
Dante stopped his arm just short of the chunk and turned around to look at Abbadon whose face was contorted.
"Okay, I’m not touching" he said.
As he turned to leave the pedestal under Abbadon’s watchful glare, he pulled his hand back, sweeping the little piece off into his palm in a smooth motion. When Abbadon had refocused on his work, Dante slid the piece into his pocket.
"So the energy you get, you can use it to turn people into rats and make deals with evil spirits?"
Abbadon snorted. "What idiot told you that?"
"My pa! He’s not an idiot."
"He’s an idiot, boy."
Dante stayed silent for a moment, as if sulking. "What does it do then?"
Abbadon went into a somewhat labored explanation of the Six Principles of sorcery.
"And you can use that to control your creatures all at once?" Dante asked. "That must be very taxing on the mind."
Dante realized his mistake instantly. Only someone who knew about sorcery would know the mental toll of Multiple Transference. Abbadon didn’t react though. He just sent Dante out to get some water from a nearby stream.
The sky was just beginning to lighten as Dante stepped out, bucket in hand. He found the stream quickly and, leaving his boots by the bank, waded in up to his calves. He took a few refreshing mouthfuls of stream water for himself before dipping the bucket in to let it fill. After setting the full bucket on the bank, he pulled the small piece of welden out of his pocket and examined it in the dawn light. There didn’t seem to be anything special about it. So why was Abbadon cutting chunks off of a single piece?
Taking soulgates from the same source was usually considered a disadvantage since it used up the power well faster. Was there perhaps some countering advantage to doing so? Or was welden just hard to come by as an illegal sorcerer, forcing Abbadon to economize on what he had?
Something hard smacked into Dante, knocking him to the ground and causing the welden to fall from his hand. He felt a heavy mass of wood on top of him, pressing down hard. He twisted his neck around to find two puppets pinning him where he lay.
"Well, well. An Ethirium brat. I suppose you were going to use this to capture me, were you? Bring me back to the Order for so-called justice?"
The puppets dragged Dante to his feet and turned him up the rise to face Abbadon, who was holding out the Krvatch device.
Of course. Abbadon had sent him out in order to search his travel bag.
Dante glanced quickly around for an escape route. That was when he noticed the mass of puppets surrounding them. Two dozen. An army, he realized. Abbadon had been building an attack force.
"I must say, Gideon, you had me fooled. You play a good farm boy."
Dante struggled but couldn’t reach the soulgate in his pocket. Desolations. He’d need direct skin contact to suck in power.
The welden piece! His feet were still bare from going in the river. If he could touch the welden with his foot he would be able to use it. He began slowly feeling around the ground with his feet.
"So whose decision was it to finally come after me? It can’t have been Marcroft. He’s too much of a coward."
There. He was touching it. Dante couldn’t feel the welden, but he sensed the energy well behind it. And… something very odd. Dante’s vision suddenly fragmented. He could see twenty different views at once.
And more than that, he felt his consciousness split. He was twenty different Dantes.
Abbadon shifted his arm.
Twenty different Dantes saw it in twenty different viewpoints.
Dante lifted his foot, returning to one consciousness. One viewpoint. He felt nauseous.
"It was Emira," he said, swallowing bile back into his stomach.
"Emira? That weasel! Oh, she was always so devious. Why? Why now?"
Dante saw white energy threading around Abbadon’s hands. He didn’t have much time. How the hell was he going to escape from these puppets?
The puppets. The welden had allowed him to see through the puppets’ viewpoints–through the glass orbs on their heads. Would it let him control them? Dante set his foot back down on the welden. Again, he fragmented. This time he gave a command. The two puppets holding him burst forward toward Abbadon, who screamed in surprise.
Dante dove to the side as a hot blast of air and burning puppet remnants flew at him from the fireball Abbadon had cast. He reached in his pocket for his soulgate.
It wasn’t there. The smoke cleared and Abbadon was standing closer, hands lowered, eyes rolled back in ecstasy as he sucked in energy for another attack.
Dante had no choice. He delved into the back of his own mind, where his soul-link stood as a barrier between his consciousness and his well of life energy. Simultaneously, he rolled to his feet and shoved at the soul-link. It went up slowly, like a heavy castle gate.
Abbadon’s hands grew bright. Dante shoved at the link once more. It shot open. Intoxicating energy coursed into Dante, flooding through him entirely. Abbadon raised his hands, but Dante was quicker. He blasted lightning.
Dante shook as the energy coursed through his right arm. He tried to stop it, to lower the barrier. But he couldn’t. He was almost glad. The pleasure was so intense that it took over everything, except for a tiny little voice in the back of his mind saying "stop". Lightning snaked from his arm around the entire area, exploding puppets, trees, frogs, and birds. Drowning out the night noises in a harsh, deafening rumble. It poured and poured until he felt like he himself was about to catch fire, his nerves burning white hot, the skin of his right arm darkening with black streaks. He wondered if he would die
Finally, the energy flow slowed to a trickle. The soul link slowly slid shut.
Dante blinked.
The smoke cleared.
And Abbadon lay ten paces away against the base of a shattered tree, smoke wisping up from his charred body.
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