This one pulled him from sleep with terrible insistence, like a lover who would not be sated. He tried to scream when the forge-heated blade licked across his stomach with its razor tongue, but he managed only a feeble gurgle. The joints in his shoulders had long-since popped from the weight of his body, and breathing was difficult. Thankfully, he could no longer feel the fiery kiss of the steel nails holding his wrists and ankles to the wall.
Agony flared again. He felt the bruised muscles of his inner thigh shred beneath the blade's touch, and this time he forced out a scream. He did not waste time begging for mercy. There would be none. He simply screamed until his throat bled.
It wasn't until the cloying scent of incense nearly choked him that he realized the pain had faded into a dull throbbing, an ever present caress. He must have lost consciousness. Soft voices raised themselves in a whispered chant. Though the harsh language was unknown to him, the urgent cadences were horrifyingly familiar. He felt lightheaded as the chant gradually grew louder. A filmy layer of gauze had wrapped itself around his thoughts; he shook his head in a vain attempt to clear it, though he knew there was no hope. He wanted to cry, but even this was denied him. The first thing that the black-cloaked bastards had done was pluck out his eyes-leaving him in darkness.
But not alone.
Something Else brooded silently in the darkness with him, a Presence that lurked in the vast wasteland of his nightmares. It watched him, waiting for the right moment. He could sense it growing stronger now, could feel it slide across some vast distance, drawn by the twisted words of the ancient chant and the intoxicating offering of his pain. He gasped once as It entered his mind.
His last thoughts were of his wife and children, then the will of the god took him.
* * * * *
The screams of the crucified seer shattered night's dark silence. Caught and magnified by the crater walls of the extinct volcano, the sound rang out across the cold, dark waters of Lake Stagalos, an unholy call to prayer.
With a soft exhalation, the salt and pepper haired cleric gathered up the fragments of parchment lying in front of him, careful lest the already ancient and decaying vellum crumble beneath his touch. Needles of pain stung his fingers as they came into contact with the remains of the book. He grimaced but accepted the pain, as he accepted all of the Dark One's gifts, with hope and something of a deep hunger.
The sensation intensified, and Hedrack nearly gasped at the force of it. He could feel the flesh of his fingertips blistering beneath the assault, and then, just as suddenly as it had occurred, the pain disappeared. He rose gingerly from his seat upon the floor. Knees stiff from long hours of meditation cracked and groaned. Hedrack regarded the tome with a thoughtful scowl as he placed it carefully behind two loose stones in the ruined wall. Purple runes splayed across a cracked leather cover he suspected had been fashioned from human skin. The ancient symbols writhed before his eyes, slithering and bending like serpents. Long accustomed to the dark book's power, he concentrated until the runes settled into a familiar pattern.
So much had happened since the day he had found the Minthexian Codex in the dank chambers hidden deep beneath the monastery. Before that, he had been nothing more than a fugitive, a once-proud Hierarch of the Elder Elemental Eye whose power was shattered when the Orb of Golden Death was destroyed. The memories of those years, spent living like an animal, an object of scorn and derision to all he met, still ate at the cleric.
But power does call to power, and it was such a call that led Hedrack to the ruins of a monastery where, in its crumbling stone and rotten timber, he had unearthed the book and discovered a god of truly awesome power. Other, weaker men called the codex by its common name, The Book of Nine Shadows, but he knew that the roots of its true strength went beyond darkness to the heart of Nothingness itself. Long were the months that he wrestled with the secrets contained within the Minthexian Codex, until he had finally pierced its veil of mystery. Harnessing the power of its ancient rituals, the cleric built a place of refuge, a sanctuary from the predations of the Old One and his pet demons. In time, others came to the monastery's desecrated grounds, drawn by the power he had unearthed and the dark dreams of a god. Now, after the long tread of years, he was about to set in motion a plan that would shake the foundations of the multiverse. Not for the first time, he wondered if the screams of the gods would be more satisfying than the tormented cries of the mortals who worshiped them.
Such idle speculation would have to wait, he realized, as the sweet song of the crucified seer's pain surrounded him with its intoxicating melody. It was almost time. Placing the stones carefully to seal the codex's hiding place, the cleric bowed once, palms pressed together, and uttered the words to a prayer he had learned from his studies of the dark book. A blue glow circled round the area of the wall before him and then faded away. Satisfied that his mystic protections would hold, the cleric snubbed out the last thick bar of burning incense on the makeshift altar he had created for his private meditations and gathered his heavy black robes about him. With a sigh of anticipation, he turned to leave the room, only to find his way blocked by a shadowy figure.
"It has begun, my lord," the figure intoned in a raspy voice. "The god has come, blessed one," the figure said. "Even now the seer speaks words of prophecy."
The cleric nodded curtly. The two walked across the broken ground atop the walls of the Outer Fane in silence. Hedrack sniffed the stuffy, humid air and surveyed the dark ceremony that was in full sway. Twelve ochre-robed figures knelt in a circle, silver-wrought censors cupped between both hands. Thick plumes of incense rose from them, swirling in dark clouds around the ragged gaps in the stone ceiling, and the air vibrated with the layered harmony of chant.
But the cleric's gaze was drawn to the crucified figure above the circle of cultists. Arms and feet spiked to the stone of the mountain, the seer raised his head and stared out of the wreckage of his eyes, no doubt fixed upon a glorious vision of the Dark One.
Though Hedrack's followers called him "Blessed One" out of fear and respect, the cleric knew that it was this man, gazing upon the true face of divinity, who was truly blessed. Rescued by Hedrack's followers from what would have been a life of endless toil trying to eke a meager existence from the stony soil of a farm north of Redspan in the Bandit Kingdoms, the seer would now spend the remaining days of his existence as the holy prophet of an ancient god. Hedrack wondered if the man had finally accepted the grace that had been given to him.
A torrent of words spilled out from the seer's bloody mouth, capturing Hedrack's attention. He recognized the flowing lilt of Ancient Seldruin. Though he could not understand the old tongue, he noted with satisfaction that the monk's young apprentice, himself already familiar with the vagaries of that almost dead language, sat beneath the seer, soft-boned face held tightly in concentration as he painstakingly copied each word. Hedrack watched as the boy pushed back a strand of blond hair, head cocked slightly to the side.
Adrys. He recalled the boy's name after a moment. A bright lad, he would prove a versatile weapon with the right encouragement. He reminded himself to reward the boy well when all of this was over.
His thoughts were interrupted as Adrys let out a shout in another unfamiliar tongue. This time, it was monk who responded, firing what were obviously questions to his excited student. After a moment, the monk bowed low and made his way to Hedrack.
"Blessed one," he said, with more intensity than the cleric had ever heard him use, "the final quatrain is in place. We now have the location of the Champion of Elemental Evil's location."
At first, Hedrack simply stared blankly at his advisor, unable to register what he had said. As the monk's words sunk in, however, his heart raced.
"Cut the seer down when he has finished, but make sure he does not die. I have another use for him. And then summon everyone into the main hall. We have much to do."
The cleric smiled as he watched his followers complete the rite and scramble to obey the monk, who walked among the cultists like a predator stalking prey. Soon, Hedrack thought, he would avenge years of humiliation. Once they had retrieved the Champion, his ultimate plan would come to fruition.
At last, Tharizdun would be free.