Lixil the Deathless Gem eyed the sleeping guard with distaste. Her glowing, diamond eyes were impassive under her hood, but her mouth twitched downward as she took in his sleeping form. His dirty boots were propped on his desk, and the slightly overweight man snored with lusty vigor. Day-old stubble shadowed his cheeks. With a sigh, Lixil slit his throat.
“Imperfect AND incompetent,” she murmured as she wiped her dagger on the dead man’s cloak. Stepping neatly around his twitching remains, she made her way slowly to the vault where the fort’s hexing gems were kept. Long, slender heels clicked against the cracked stone floor before coming to a stop before an inconveniently bolted door. Lixil tsked and turned to face her two companions.
A massive necrotic filled the curved doorway across the room. Even stooping, his shoulders brushed the frame as he stepped through, and when he steadied himself on its edge, his gauntleted fingers left powdery fractures behind. His face was curved in a permanent scowl, his diamond eyes inscrutable like most necrotic’s, but several glowing masks orbited his head like miniature moons. As he surveyed the blood dripping down the slain guard’s chair, one settled over his face, giving him a resigned air.
“Draxard! We have a problem.” Lixil frowned, tapping the vault door with the flat of her blade.
“If you put too many holes in the Sleeper’s shells, they make poor vessels, Deathless.” Sir Draxard’s voice was low and rumbling, the kind you would feel in your bones if he ever deigned to shout. He nudged the dead guard’s boots off the table with the tip of his sword. “It’s wasteful.”
“As if I’d ever use such flawed material,” Lixil sniffed. “Fat. Lazy. Unworthy. It’d be a waste of a perfectly good Awakening.”
Sir Draxard shrugged. Covered head to toe in elaborate, skull-shaped armor, he nevertheless managed to be eerily silent as he crossed the room to stand before the vault.
“As you say.” With one massive fist, he stove in the vault door and pulled it clear off its hinges.
“I knew I kept you around for a reason.” Lixil smiled, patting Sir Draxard’s massive arm before striding into the vault with ruthless efficiency, pouring over the hexing gems that this outpost had reserved for battle.
Their second companion, who until now had been content to stand silent in the corner of the room, unfolded his long, thin arms and began picking through the countless tools hanging from his belt. Arcane and delicate, some were made for cutting gems. Others were for cutting flesh. He settled on a pair of calipers, testing its points with one slender finger as he spoke.
“This fort was known for some competency with illusion and misdirection. There should be a sapphire of some quality here somewhere.”
“You mean this?” Lixil held up a palm-sized chunk of blue stone. Rough and unpolished, arcane energies still swirled and eddied over its surface.
“Ahh, yes.” Mordrom brought the points of his caliper together with an emphatic click. “Perfect.”
Lixil smiled. “That’s what I like to hear.” She tossed the gem to Mordrom, who snatched it out of the air with his pale white hands. Muttering to himself, he began to measure, cut, and polish the rough stone until it glistened, tossing shining blue motes on the ceiling and floor.
Lixil reached back, slowly, and pulled at the leather ties that bound her breastplate to her body. With one arm to her chest she knelt, the back of her armor parting to reveal bare shoulders and a line of gems glittering along her spine. Mordrom walked over and placed the teardrop-shaped gem against her flesh, point first. Lixil shivered, then gasped as he pushed further until only the crown sparkled above her skin.
Power crackled along each gem. The smell of ozone and starlight filled the room, and every hair on Lixil’s body buzzed with static. A burst of rainbow light cascaded along Lixil’s spine towards her head, each flash more radiant than the last. Her eyes glowed like twin suns, and the sigh that escaped her lips was half anticipation, half pleasure. She closed her eyes, and the dissonance that filled her head these days got louder.
Of course she could still hear the Chant. She never stopped hearing it—she was it. But increasingly there were counterpoints to the harmonies in her skull. A perfect vessel would have will. A perfect vessel would be free. *I* should be free. “Perfection in all things,” she whispered. It was a chant she’d always known.
But there was a third voice in the chorus now, like a placid lake or the vastness of space. Static. It showed a grinning man with three severed heads and an ocean of blood. It showed an avalanche, the deep crack of a frozen lake, a broken heart.
A mother’s arms. Entreaty. A mad wizard cast down.
You want to be free of Volosolov. It was a statement, not a question. Stop Hogarth, and I will give you what you seek.
A bloodstained arena rattled and hissed like a coiled viper. Twisted energies roiled along its surface.
Disrupt the ritual. End it, or end him. You will get your reward.
Lixil opened her eyes and smiled. “Mordrom, Draxard, we’ve got a wizard to kill.”