It was a dark and windy night and the small town of Shadina seemed to waver against the elements. The hall of elders, sitting atop a slight rise glowed with firelight, creating a pattern of bright squares from each of the windows. Apart from this, nothing stirred save the fleeting shadows in the dirt roads. From the surrounding woods symphony of night animals and insects chimed. The smell of freshly chopped pine alongside burning smoke filled the air.
Well into the night, the sound of hooves beating upon the ground and wheels rolling along the bumpy path towards the village broke the almost silence. Two dark horses pulled a covered wagon at a brisk pace. The driver wore black silk robes and was bald, the moonlight reflecting off his shaven head. His features were shallow, his eyes sunken in to his skull and his nose shrunken back as if it had been smashed. His thin pale lips were set with grim determination as he drove the wagon further towards his destination. He was clearly older than most lived to be out in on this frontier.
A sign hung on wooden posts just by the gate, chains linking and holding it dangling about a foot above the ground. It read; “Welcome to Shadina” in large lettering. The carriage came to a halt just next to this sign. The guard standing on the outside of the gate gave a nod to the man on the carriage and knocked twice upon the wood behind him. The gate creaked open and the carriage proceeded into town. It followed the main road in between the two rows of buildings and came to a halt outside of a two storied inn called the Wyvern’s Rest. The driver stepped out of his seat, and was soon accompanied by two more men, both wearing similar garb, and both bald. They walked further down the street at a steady pace, the leading man shifting most of his weight to his staff with every other step he took. No one else was out at this time of night, they were alone. Far ahead, the hall of elder’s windows continued their fiery glowing.`
In a house down the road, the couple stared sadly out of the window, watching the men come, knowing their destination and their purpose. Words were meaningless, none were exchanged out loud. Inside their heads, however, sounded an internal debate of morals and consequence. Was it worth it? How could I have agreed to this? How could my lover have let me agree to this? These were common self-questioning rituals gone through by the ones who made this particular deal with the robed men.
All the while the bald men moved ever closer, their feet crunching on the dirt becoming louder and louder with every heartbeat. There was no time for regret, it was settled, the deal was to be sealed within a matter of seconds.
Seconds, that seemed to last an eternity.
As the leading man moved closer, the dim light from ahead exposed more of his features. He had intricate brown tattoos covering his face and he bore a sleek black metal staff with a green crystal imbedded on its’ head.
Behind the couple, their newborn began to cry. The woman took the baby in her arms, only to have a sudden shock of realization come over her. The man put his arm on the woman’s shoulder and she set the baby back down, tears welling in her eyes. The baby continued to wail.
Soon enough, there was a knock at the door; Three short raps, not hard, but businesslike. The baby inexplicably became quiet.
The man removed his comforting arm and walked slowly to the door with a final sigh. He opened the door to reveal the bald tattooed man calmly standing before him, one hand resting on his staff, the other hanging loosely from his side. Behind and to either side of him were his hooded body guards, shadows ominously covering their faces. A smile crept onto the bald man’s face, an almost pleasant, yet again, businesslike, smile.
“You know why I’ve come.” He stated simply. His voice was soft in an eerie way, reminiscent of a door creaking open in the night.
The father of the newly born child dipped his head slowly in affirmation, holding his gaze at the visitor’s feet for ten full seconds before raising it back to its normal position. “You’ve come for our end of the bargain.”
“Correct, I am Denumar,” said the shadowy man, “I brought the contract should you wish to argue.”
“Of course not, milord, I simply thought it would be easier,” said the father.
“It never is,” assured the bald man, “but rest assured that though you will know not the life of your son, he will be of great service to the lord of shadows. Know that you have played a great, if fleeting, part in the quest to rule over death.”
The father did not respond. He simply motioned to his wife, the child’s mother, beckoning her to come. Reluctantly, she stepped into the dim light of the moon shining through the doorway.
The bald man’s face brightened. “Ahhh,” he sighed. “Yes, quite a beautiful child. Quite promising indeed. I can feel his potential, and it is great. What is his name?” He finally drew his gaze up from the baby to look at the woman carrying it.
“Zanaif,” she all but whispered. “After his grandfather.”
“May it bear him a better fate than he,” remarked the father.
“Ah, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that name became famous sir and madam: the necromancer to finally break the shadow lord free of his prison. This child has the luck of being born into the age of glory. Now hand him here and the bargain will be complete.”
The woman was surprised at how easy it was to move her arms forward, the baby, who had been keeping its peace as if accepting its fate, coming closer and closer to the man’s almost skeletal hand. Yet when the necromancer’s skin made contact with the baby, two things happened at once.
The baby began to wail like a wounded animal and its mother quickly retracted her arms to hold him close.
“No, no, no,” tears welled up in the young woman’s eyes. “I… we were fools.” She sobbed along with her offspring. “We were but young opportunists, seeking riches and glory. This child meant nothing to us.”
The bald man made no aggressive action towards this turn of events. He smiled his decrepit old smile, and nodded slowly as the mother spewed her regrets at him.
The father put his arms around the woman and their child.
The woman continued, through her sobs; “but now I know what it is to hold him in my arms. I cannot let him go. I am sorry, we don’t want your money anymore, and we will live on in poverty if this is the sacrifice we must make.”
“Darling,” said the man from behind her in a soothing voice, sounding almost like the old man in front of them. “Think. How will we raise him? Come next season, we will both need to be working the fields. The diseases here run rampant, the probability of him surviving…”
“How can you say that!?!” the woman jerked around, careful not to harm the baby. “You still want the money don’t you!? That’s all it is!” Steel and fire burned within her shimmering gaze. We can manage just fine, elder Saris has proven time and again that she can take care of Zanaif. We were blind, don’t you see? Or perhaps you still are.”
The man grunted, as if about to speak, then stopped, looking to the floor.
The old man in the doorway stopped nodding and pulled something out of the volumes of his robes. “This is the contract you signed almost two years ago, my young couple. You aren’t the sort to break promises are you?” The tone of voice was still somehow kind, though the meaning and intent was clearly evil.
“If you do not comply, I will be forced to use magic to hold you in place while I take the baby. I will, of course, leave the money behind to compensate, but this deal will be done. You understand of course, it is so hard to find such willing volunteers these days.”
“You are a malicious old bastard who knows nothing of love.” The woman stated through gritted teeth.
“You are the ones who agreed to this, transaction, might I remind you. Again.”
“You prey upon the weak. You-” the woman froze mid sentence, the man remained in place as well. Denumar’s two bodyguards had frozen them in place.
“So sad,” lamented the old necromancer. “They should be proud to serve our cause; we should not even have to pay them. Ah well, politicians form a savage beast, but it is one that can be easily tamed when the money is on the table.” He referred to the agreement between the necromancers and government officials, where the latter turns a blind eye to the former’s activities as long as no one was killed.
“Grab the child,” commanded Denumar tiredly, turning and beginning to walk back towards the carriage with his limping strides. “I want to get back home before dawn rises tomorrow.”