Alayna draws her cloak tightly about her shoulders. She is grateful for it, worn and weather-stained though it may be. Despite the warm, arid climate of Kharschum, there is a sinister chill in this necromancer’s tower that seems to seep from its very stone work itself.
She winces slightly, trying not to let her companions notice her revulsion at the foul odor arising from the slaughtered bodies of the undead monstrosities that attacked them in this room. The horrors had burst forth from the display cases that line the chamber, revolting things, their torsos split open to reveal their glistening, festering entrails. Their eyes had blazed coldly with inhuman intelligence and hatred of the living. Their tongues had been worst of all, two or three feet in length, slithering outward, grey and purplishly veined, sinewy, and spotted with decay. She did not envy Ulfgar, her newest comrade, who had blanched and frozen in his boots after enjoying the terrible intimacy of one such tongue’s unwholesome and invasive caress. What mind would conceive of such aberrations? What foul craft could wrest dead flesh back to life and endow it with such hideous power? Of course she knows the answer to that question. Too well does she know.
Alayna joins her companions in a brief search their surroundings. She carefully steps over a puddle of yellowish fluid that oozes slowly from the fallen undead horrors and surveys the contents of a nearby display case. It contains corpses and body parts in various states of dissection and dismemberment. Skin has been peeled back to reveal muscle and bone. Bodies have been positioned in poses both natural and clinical. Mortal flesh has been forced to surrender its dearest secrets. Eyeballs float in a glass jar. A hand, carefully positioned in a velvet box, lies palm up. A severed head briefly arrests her gaze, its lips and teeth neatly sliced away to leave only a dark orifice rimmed with smooth bone. Its eyes are sewn shut.
One exhibit in particular catches Alayna’s attention.
It is the dissected body of a child, a girl, supported in the display case by an arrangement of metal pins and wires. Its flesh is yellowed and thinly stretched across its frame, preserved by the arts of the embalmer. The body bears a sinister record of atrocities, too numerous to fully contemplate. Alayna is no surgeon, but the procedures undertaken upon this girl could have served no legitimate purpose beyond the darkest and most unspeakable of arts. What hand had held the scalpel that committed this outrage? What cold and pitiless eye had looked on, greedily penetrating the sanctity of this girl’s body? What mind had analyzed, categorized, and meticulously scrutinized this child, cruelly seeking and exposing its most intimate secrets? One could only hope that this awful experiment had been conducted posthumously.
Inevitably, Alayna thinks of her father and remembers the horrible afternoon in Zuwarah several years ago. What she witnessed that day in an outer courtyard of the Black Mages' Keep changed her forever. She touches the clasp that holds her cloak at the neck, a bronze piece, abstract in its design and intricately crafted by the cunning Al- Jawa Gnomes of her homeland.
She had been but a girl then. How foolish of her to run like a silly child. She now understands so much more about magic and its power to alter reality. Ever since her foot had first stepped onto the pier in Scylding Bay, she has been changing. Her powers and her command of sorcery have been growing, slowly at first, now exponentially. Alayna is becoming someone else. Someone stronger, more cunning, harder, tougher. More selfish. More willing to do the things that must be done. Her love of beautiful, finely crafted items, always there since childhood, has matured and blossomed into an almost insatiable desire. And it feels so good to gratify it. Oh yes. The blood of her ancestors is beginning to thrum hot and insistently in her veins, calling her.
Initially, she resisted this call, perceiving these changes as invaders that threatened to swallow up the person she once was like a sweet meat in a dragon’s gullet. But now, she welcomes them. They are not invaders, but rather vestiges of some primordial and essential self, long buried, now returned. She is ashamed to have run like a child at the sight of her father’s animated corpse. Instead of fleeing and losing control, she should have planned her revenge on the necromancer who perpetrated the foul abomination on him. She should have vowed to one day tear his heart from his chest and hold it up, smoking, before his very eyes. That is what would happen today. Yes, Alayna likes what she is becoming. Just as a necromancer can endow lifeless flesh with unimaginable power, so too have the magical forces in her blood been similarly changing her.
And yet . . . such changes always come with a price don’t they? She fingers the clasp at her neck and stares long and hard at the girl in the glass cabinet, her throat going dry. Yes. There is always a price.
Noting her distraction, Hrolff lays a broad hand on her shoulder and gently pulls her from her reverie. “Stay focused witch-girl” he says softly, “There’s more killing to be done.” Alayna quietly thanks him, happy for his friendship, and assumes her place near the back of the party’s marching order. She steels herself and moves quietly with the others toward the stairs. Her green eyes are narrow and alert. Her muscles are tense and ready. Within her belly, she feels the heat of dragon-fire begin to mount, insistent and unrelenting. Though the air is as still as a tomb, her hair begins to stir and float, ever so slightly, moved by the latent energy within her.
But as she approaches the exit, she cannot help but cast one last glance over her shoulder at the girl in the cabinet.