The Watcher Within
In that remote castle dwelt Count Hideon, atop the crags above the village, the miserable collection of hovels that he commanded with no thought save his own advantage or pleasure. The road up the lofty hill wound continuously around in a unique geometrical pattern. The castle, an eye-taxing black and gray conglomeration of rough volcanic masses, rose sheer from a awful precipice. It was a vast, sprawling complex of enclosures and towers, dominating physically the flat summit, spiritually all the lands from one horizon to another. From the lowering citadel of Count Hideon spread ripples of oppressive fear that seared the souls of his subjects with acute and constant terror.
Surely no one free to choose would wish to live in such a place under such a master. Nor would any have wholesome reasons to journey to this demesne. And yet, infrequently, they came, those few with special, urgent purpose. A long way they traveled, for the Count’s castle resided a great distance into realms near wildness, far from the civilizing rule of the kingdom of Dyrezan. He chose this locale for it allowed him liberty to practice unrestrained the unusual arts that diverted him. Count Hideon was a connoisseur of murder, and infamously so, meaning that his grand passion served also as a lucrative trade.
Lately one had ventured here, driven by all-consuming hate across the sere badlands, up the dizzying road to the shadowy fortress, entering at the spiked gate to the pointed jibes of the guards, who knew too well what sort of clientele their lord received. The arrival declared himself, the message was passed, and after a deliberately agonizing wait a message returned. The man was ushered through the castle grounds past gardens of lurid poisonous flowers and lethal herbs into the keep, and in short order he was sharing wine with the formidable Count Hideon.
That nobleman was markedly tall, immaculately attired, of pale face with bland, congenial features, his dark eyes reflecting keen intelligence and peculiar amusement. His guest seemed small and squat and flabby by comparison, ostentatious without charm, sullen and fond of his cups. Said Hideon evenly through his cynical smile, “My dear Prince Tallaso, it pleases me to treat with a man of your enormous stature, yet your request encompasses a puzzle. I fail to see how my modest services may bear on what, from your account, appears a simple matter of an affair of the heart.”
Replied the Prince with warmth, verging on the bellicose, “I do not take rejection lightly, Count. The Lady Dorissa dared spurn the offer that would have elevated her in grace, also repaired my unfortunate finances, which suffer under the strain of maintaining my proper station. I overspent, certain of success, in attempting to impress. Then she rebuffs me with disdain. She does this to me! To injure me further, she betroths to Menzal, the Regent of Grendar, a lackey of high and mighty Dyrezan. It is too much. I want her dead.”
Hideon sipped his wine, an extremely rare and costly vintage brought by the southern caravans. “A serious punishment to satisfy a fit of pique.”
“You insult me, Count. Her subjects in Vindias worship her, and in that lies the strength of her domain. With her eliminated, her country would be ripe for the picking. I magnanimously desired the woman and the territory.” Tallaso shrugged. “I will settle for the latter.”
Hideon chuckled, then laughed lightly. His expressions of mirth somehow lacked that quality. “I must probe the matter, in order to establish the presence or absence of intriguing elements. Prince, come with me, that we may see directly.”
The suggestion mystified Tallaso, but he obeyed, following his host through corridors and chambers adorned with weird, often frightening artifacts, sculptures, paintings and tapestries. All such dwelt on death, torture and pain. The guest quailed at the stark realism of many, though they gave indication that Hideon knew his business, and could deliver on any bargain struck.
A flight of spiraling iron led to a circular room of glazed brick, windowless, torches ringing the otherwise bare walls. A red-veined marble table in the center, the sole furniture, bore an onyx platter containing a perfectly round orb of striking aspect the size of a man’s head. Crystalline ruby in hue, it incorporated hints of flickering green and yellow not obviously reflected from the torch light. The Count directed his companion to the table. Tallaso sought a seat, found none, slouched over the slab of marble to stare askance at the globe. Said Hideon, “Behold a treasure of the mystical fraternity: the Eye of Xenophor, an instrument of rare power fashioned, according to myth, by the fabled Rhexellites, who in eras long forgotten possessed all the wisdom of the cosmos, and poured all of their arcane knowledge into this matchless object.” He grinned. “How it came into my hands is a tale approaching mythic status itself. A bloody and sordid story; most entertaining.”
The Prince had trembled at the enunciation of the dreaded name Xenophor: Lord of All Things, the Creator and Destroyer. Pointing to the Eye, he whispered, “What does it do?”
“The Eye does not do,” explained the Count, “rather it focuses and channels the magical energy of its possessor. I am an adept of magic, in my own way, much more than a dabbler. On my own, I may grant, second tier in usable force, but with the Eye at my beck I stand resolutely among the ranks of the masters. It serves; I do.”
Hideon leaned on the table, gazing into the depths of the strange orb. “I must have absolute silence, that I may concentrate on places and persons at a great remove. I would see across a hundred leagues, perhaps at times other than the present moment. By this method I shall investigate your portentous issue, and thereby conceive a plan that may achieve your end. Prince, observe with me the procession of images revealed within the Eye.”
And Tallaso saw what happened then. Bright white light flowed from the Eye; nay, it jetted upward and then oozed down the orb and onto the table top. And where the light seeped the Prince looked upon a moving picture that feigned reality. He distinguished manicured lawns, the façade of a lovely palace, halls teeming with gaily dressed folk. It was difficult to make out at times—incongruous shadows and odd viewing angles obscured vision—but Tallaso cursed under his breath as he recognized the palace of the Lady Dorissa.
“Quiet, fool, keep quiet,” ordered Hideon. “The focus fights me. I wrestle with time as well as space. These images hail from a fortnight hence. Apparently that would be the critical moment.”
The Prince’s mind possessed neither keenness nor alacrity, but he shortly realized that the Count saw much more through the Eye than he. In terse phrases Hideon declared, “Now with crystal clarity I see. It is the day of the wedding and the nuptial feast. Such a mess of exalted lords and ladies! Happy bride, delighted guests, gifts in plenty. How the Regent beams! A catch above his station; must be a first-rate fellow.
“Who here paces out of the throng?” Hideon peered intently, as his voice rose excitedly. “Why, here be a delicious revelation. Two grandees of Dyrezan, condescending to attend, nor any ordinary nobles for that matter. I know those forms and faces too well. The young, black-haired giant who carries himself as a warrior is undeniably Lord Morca, hero of border campaigns and an impressive mage. His companion, the white-haired elder robed in his magician’s cloak and ambling with his conjuring staff, is the famous Lord Nantrech, esteemed even among his kind for unsurpassed sorcery.”
The Count lowered his eyes, backed away from the table with an air of weariness. He muttered, “It is enough. I know what must be known.”
Tallaso, having seen less, queried, “What matters these lords of Dyrezan? How do they factor?”
Replied the Count, “I know them. We have crossed paths in major fashion. At the time the scales tilted against me, to my extreme disquiet. I swore to right the balance when came the appropriate moment. Never mind them, Prince. Receive this good news: I accept your case. We will plot the destruction of the Lady Dorissa.”
Count Hideon forthwith dismissed Prince Tallaso to agreeable chambers where that worthy wined and dined and paced impatiently, speculating as to what cunning schemes his host devised. The considerations of Hideon surged through well-worn channels. “Neither knife will serve, nor poison. The lady boasts devoted protection, and she has now with her the liegemen of the Regent to also defend her. That stout wall cannot be breached by any weapon this lout Tallaso may wield. Attempting to turn her guards is too chancy; bribes may be accepted without performance of promised deeds.
“Besides, her death becomes a secondary matter. If there be a killing in the high places of Vindias, it must also subsume these lords of Dyrezan. Let the Prince believe I serve him, yet it is the extirpation of Morca and Nantrech which motivates me. Great wizards they, scarce vulnerable to common armaments. Men of magic must be destroyed by magic.”
And Hideon devised with this end in mind. Ever the realist, he could not dream of besting such inscrutable scholars with his own mystic strength, but with the Eye of Xenophor as his ally he could imagine tantalizing possibilities. Deaths that struck them unaware, deaths coming at them out of nowhere; nowhere on this earth at least. The Eye, wisely employed, opened unseen doors into strange realms, doors that gave onto peculiar denizens of those realms. The Count pondered, conjured, garnered certain answers.
He had the Prince brought back to the compartment of the Eye, in the custody of two brutish guards. Tallaso was querulous, caring not for this company, also inclined to balk at further mysticism. Hideon sternly proclaimed, “I have set the train of fate in motion. Death stalks in search of victims. You, Prince, shall act as the catalyst of murder, as you desired. I have found for you an able associate who will aid you in your righteous cause.”
Tallaso nervously asked, “Who is this assassin?”
“You meet him now.” Hideon gripped the Eye, his slender fingers white with tension. “Stand back. Give room for his coming.” He whispered a string of what sounded to his guest nonsense syllables. A wisp of gray vapor wafted from the crystal orb. It gathered, thickened, hung in the air for a span like dense smoke. It then took on a semblance of semi-solid form. Suddenly it dropped, splashed onto the table as a thin gelatin, slopped over onto the stone floor. Impacting there, it rose up unfolding into a definite shape, a material thing—a being—a monstrously horrific creature. Tallaso screamed.
It lived. That could be established by its movements, by its apparent awareness of its surroundings. It bore on a squat neck a blobby protuberance approximating a head, a fanged cavity for a mouth. Its ebon, red-veined body was a soggy, shifting lump that wobbled. It lacked arms and legs, having instead a clutch of writhing feelers tipped with razor-sharp talons. It had no obvious organs of vision, yet it turned its loathsome head intelligently toward its human companions. Ghastly to behold it was, if in size no larger than a young swine.
It spoke, in a growling voice like unto a frog mocking human speech. “You called, Hideon. You commanded with the words that bind. I obey.”
Tallaso recoiled and cried, “This thing—this monstrosity—shall accompany me in my mission? Damn you Count, for a degenerate jester!”
Hideon laughed. “Xantrum will act as my eyes during the murderous process. This demonic organism, a fine specimen of its type, which I have called up from alien spheres, boasts capabilities we need to further the goal. It perceives the world via means severed from clumsy flesh. Xantrum will see and observe though hidden, and its linkage to the Eye of Xenophor will allow me to thus observe in time instantaneous. At long distance I may choose the moment to strike. Our obliging fiend shall do the deed, and you will be there to see your revenge carried through.”
Tallaso shook as with ague. “So you say, Count, therefore so it must be. Given the fact, it remains for you and I to reach terms. You know what I want. What of you?”
Hideon waved a delicate hand and airily replied, “You refer to payment? Well, my friend, if you realize your ambitions you shall have treasures at your command. I am sure you will prove generous. Now, let us proceed.”
“Surely,” nodded the Prince, “I make ready to embark. This thing journeys with me. How does it pass among men unchallenged or uneradicated?”
Count Hideon produced from the folds of his robes a great jeweled knife with a wickedly sharp, curved blade of gleaming steel. Said he with a chuckle, “Via a most splendid method.” Then, harshly barking to the guards, “Hold him.” They seized Prince Tallaso, who yelped in surprise and dismay, struggling uselessly in the pitiless grasp. He complained very loudly indeed, to no avail. Continued Hideon, “A singular knife this, best described as a magically impregnated scalpel. I regret the necessary pain I inflict—please, dear Prince, do not shriek so—it will hurt terribly, yet I promise not slay. You shall remain impeccably alive, to function as the vessel for our otherworldly agent.”
Came that glorious day in Vindias, when representatives of the nobility and high folk from many lands gathered to celebrate the union of Dorissa and Menzal, a truly fair couple from whom were expected the bounties of happiness and wise administration. For their comfort and merriment no expense had been spared to magnify the pleasures of a palace already noted for grace and beauty. Handsome serving men and comely wenches vastly outnumbered the grand guests, who milled about at leisure between the various ceremonies, of nuptial and state, a complicated program stretching across two full days.
Quite a few famous names were in attendance. Lady Dorissa, leaning on her chosen man and flanked by her personal maids, gaily accosted a duo of favored visitors. “It counts as flattery, my Lords, that on this occasion you would condescend to travel all the way from Dyrezan.” Added Menzal, “Aye, quite a complement, that your great kingdom would send its very best.”
They addressed and flattered, of course, Lord Morca and Lord Nantrech, indeed two quite important men deserving of adulation. Denizens of an enchanted land, they were renowned for their skills as magicians. Morca had also carved his reputation with the sword, for he was a notable warrior, a hero of frontier campaigns who looked the part. A big, muscular man, scarred in battle, with stern features beneath a shock of thick raven-black hair, though regally dressed he wore as an element of his attire the short sword that had oft known the blood of Dyrezan’s enemies. Nantrech his elder, long past the age of making impression, presented himself in an entirely different and careless manner. White-haired with a gentle countenance, he walked with his long staff and draped himself in common robes. Fools or the ignorant might seek cause to underestimate him, a laughable mistake. This man was the ultimate wizard of a race of wizards, so deeply attuned to the unfathomable dimensions that the fabric of his body tingled to the vibrations radiating from the upwellings of magical energy that seep from those far planes into the mundane world.
Having returned appropriate praise of the soon to be joined pair, they continued their rounds of the ongoing festivities. Lord Morca scooped up a hunk of roast meat to chew with his brimming goblet of wine. Lord Nantrech nibbled on samples of dainties from the several long tables laden with comestibles. He said, “Youngster, though it be well to take our ease at whiles, certainly on occasions such as this, yet even here we may exercise our powers to profit. I sense veins of magic about us, strands twisting and knotting in vaguely discerned configurations. Treat this as a lesson. Do you feel as I?”
Morca belched a chortle, discarded his gnaw-cleaned bone and wiped a greasy hand. “Your nostrils are clogged with it, old man, and maybe you smell your upper lip. Surely we have ethereal fields at play about us. There is you, there is I, probably lesser practitioners. We have no bubbling cauldrons about, nor wild-eyed hermits spraying us with spells. I detect the general sensation. Would you have more of me?”
“Truly. Among the casual emanations I distinguish a discordant note. It is strong. Oh so clever Morca, can you locate it?”
Morca grinned and nodded his acceptance of the challenge. To an observer he seemed to stand blankly, without a thought to his surroundings. In fact he concentrated deeply, his trained mind racing, the brain marinated in magic grasping and probing. Said he, “Nantrech, old fellow, you notice somewhat beyond your fertile imagination. Yes, I see it too, curiously opaque, like a dark cloud. A force intrudes into near space, I could swear with a considerable attempt to conceal itself. That implies remarkable skill.”
“Give me a second.” Morca slowly turned, gazing across the wide hall thronging with guests. “I should be able to readily spot the source. A factor of duality hinders my effort. I could swear there are two, yes—no—if two, they are as amiable a pair as our betrothed host and hostess. It certainly is not them. Nantrech, that man who lounges in the corner, keeping to himself, refusing to mingle. I know him not. He stands alone, a contradiction, maybe, but I indict him, if it be anyone. Back me in this, I implore, like a true colleague.”
Nantrech nodded, digging teeth into the top of his staff as he studiously gazed at the subject of discussion. He said, “Aye, ‘tis he. I see one, but as you sense two. This is passing strange, Morca. I am not the suspicious sort—”
“Now you make comedy,” Morca interjected.
Nantrech ignored that. “I would learn more of this man: who he is, from where, and why a subterfuge of magic wreathes him. We can make a sport of it, if it be a matter of no import.”
They artfully, without ever appearing to do so, hovered about the object of their unnoticed scrutiny. A chance encounter with Lady Dorissa’s chief minister shed interesting light. That worthy, responsible for the entire wedding program, including the selection of attendees, expressed prior puzzlement about this very personage. “No formal invitation, my Lords. He showed, and his credentials gained him admittance. The Regent accepted him with little to-do. The man declares himself Torbo, a nobleman hailing from a city-state beyond the southern deserts.”
Presently Nantrech said, “A murky fellow, this Torbo, an unknown quantity.”
Added Morca, “And quite the ugly fellow, a blot on this company. A toadish runt, with an ungodly paunch, and all he does is squat near the refreshments and guzzle hard the fermented stuff. Save to binge on good wine, what brings him here?”
A sensible question to ask about the noble Torbo, although better still to ask why he used that name, for the man of interest was in fact none other than Prince Tallaso, who had bluffed his way into the grand gathering in furtherance of his baleful mission. One might have expected him to come across to observers as grimly determined, or smugly amused, or some other combination of covert, conspiratorial malice. Instead he was feeling utterly wretched, scarce able to keep his mind on business, only that by fortifying himself with plentiful drink. Well past the point of no return, he was also far past wondering into what horrendous predicament he had gotten himself.
He counted himself crazy for ever having treated with Count Hideon. Granted, that atrocious nobleman had arranged matters to get him this far, that he might implement the scheme to destroy that faithless Lady Dorissa. Papers, a fabricated identity, and a disguise that got him into Vindias without inopportune revelations. No one suspected, no one plagued him with serious questions. Tallaso went about the plan easy in mind, to the extent that no one gave him the slightest hostile thought.
Everything else about this business, however, had unfolded in a positively insane manner. Once Hideon took charge he did not discuss nor negotiate. He called up that vile Xantrum, and then did that which was beyond unspeakable. Via the blackest of magical arts Hideon had inserted the vomitous entity into the belly of Tallaso! It lived within him, sucking nourishment from the inner flesh of his bowels, squirming against his organs. In some mystical fashion it talked to him at whiles—a voice in the brain that none other could hear—and to add to the situation’s inimitable dreadfulness Count Hideon also spoke through it when he desired communication. The combined exhortations of the magically linked pair kept Tallaso in a constant state of nervous tension verging on despair. In more normal circumstances he might have considered throwing over the whole murder plot, but Hideon had so calculated that Tallaso lay entirely at his mercy. Only the Count possessed the power and means to remove the monster from the Prince’s vitals. Hideon had, quite off-hand, let drop that the extraction would occur only after the completion of the killing.
To add to Tallaso’s inward complaints (he dared not antagonize his suave tormentor with protests), that blasphemous pair devoted little attention to ungrateful Dorissa and the detailing of her demise. Instead, without explanation—unexplainable, really—they chattered about two of the guests in the palace, two in particular arising in that grotesque discussion again and again. The Prince knew, generally, of the Lords Morca and Nantrech of Dyrezan. Who did not? Their fame spread far and wide throughout the civilized lands, probably to the ends of the earth, but what of that? How did they factor into this increasingly disgusting equation? Hideon, buttressed by the nauseating croaking of Xantrum, insisted that Tallaso contrive to get himself alone with them, for reasons to be explicated later. It made no sense. They showed absolutely no interest in him, and the Prince was eager to return that favor at the earliest opportunity.
Count Hideon sat hunched before the Eye of Xenophor, after his remarkable fashion studying a distant scene. Quite a fascinating process that was. Hideon in his remote castle peered into the Eye, which via its weird alchemy transmitted sight from a creature without eyes of its own. Blind Xantrum, ensconced within the corpulent corpus of that ridiculous excuse for a Prince, exploited its own bizarre means to perceive its surroundings, the amazing Eye transmuting that into visual information Hideon could detect. A magnificent system, making possible the Count’s comfortable safety while, as if present, plotting and determining the moment of doom for his targets.
Necessarily the Lady Dorissa’s fate went unheeded, with Hideon playing for bigger stakes. Morca and Nantrech must die. So far as could be told, they appeared unaware of the menace confronting them. They could not even guess that the fool Tallaso bore within him the watcher that also constituted the apparatus of death. To this point the only impediment was the princely idiot, a swilling sot on top of his other demerits, who fumbled or balked at closing in on the enemies. Hideon rode him hard now, Xantrum lending its voice plus a few well-placed kicks in the sensitive intestinal coils. Yes, Tallaso was coming around. Soon would come the fatal strike, the Dyrezanian Lords tarrying in life just long enough to realize who struck them down.
In his lavish compartment Lord Nantrech busied himself on an enjoyable task of the sort at which he excelled. His boon companion Lord Morca stood near, watching with amusement and professional attentiveness. Both were fixated on an urn of gold, banded with circlets of platinum, above a brazier residing atop a tripod of wrought iron, the legs molded into eidolons of hissing snakes. Intriguing devices, yet what mattered to the pair lay within the urn. There Nantrech had poured, combined, heated, and stewed a freakish amalgamation of anomalous materials drawn from his ready to hand magical stores. The bubbling, steaming soup contained several innocuous substances, the liquid base, but other additives were of the sort owned and employed solely by the most dedicated of mages. Rare and difficult of acquisition were they, often the collectors themselves soon horribly dead: the desiccated shavings scraped from the mummy of an olden wizard of melancholic repute, his secret tomb painstakingly located and violated; a mulch derived from the brains of a bat-winged denizen of a benighted dimension, lured to destruction when baited with living human flesh by abhorred but learned cultists; a dusting of sparkling grains, oddly painful to the touch, a residue originating from an antique relic of power sacred to a forbidden priesthood of the outlands, who watered it with their own blood before it was stolen. Such are the types of items treasured by the best magicians.
Nantrech recited the requisite ancient words, archaic forms from the early history of Dyrezan, and with the completion of the incantation thick vapors burst from the urn, a dense blue smoke that glistened with inherent light. The conjuring mage produced a loupe, as did Lord Morca. Leaning into the roiling fumes, they raptly searched for clues to the information they sought.
Pointing a bony finger, Nantrech said, “Here solidifies a nodal point. My student, what see you there?”
“Student indeed,” grunted Morca. “I give the lessons in your dotage.” He squinted into the heavy billows. “Most peculiar. It is like unto receding images within competing mirrors; one within another, within another. I see clearly enough this tainted outer form, the sad figure of this supposedly noble Torbo. Something does not jibe there. Yet appears behind another form, which I can not immediately describe. Do I read a spider? Nay, too large for that. Furthermore, still not all; beyond lies again another vision, fighting against clarity, lurking outside the others. A face looms, one shrouded in fog.” Morca massaged his eyes. “I flatter myself that I am on the verge of recognizing him.”
Nantrech nodded, beaming a smile. “Well done, my friend. You assemble the basic facts. We deal with a threesome, beyond question. Your descriptions accord with mine. The element of geography poses a riddle. I can place Torbo—difficult to miss, that man—but where be the second character? My analysis locates him (or it) in the same spot. How to make sense of that? Then we have the third. I make him far away, so far that the reading of him in this context ought to be impossible.”
Nantrech cast more dust into the magical brew. The blue smoke crackled with tiny lightnings. “Let us proceed by peeling back the layers. Here an easy task, a simple matter of identity. This Torbo is a fake, a phony wretch concealing a genuine reprobate of whom we have heard. Morca, I introduce you to Prince Tallaso.”
“That scoundrel? So it is he, present when he should be home nursing his wounded feelings. The good lady rejects him—how he squalled at that!—and he sneaks back, bound for mischief I reckon. A grotesque disguise, to be sure, yet I detect more to his sagging substance than artifice. A hint of illness, or physical distress; nay, more, the superposition of form on form.”
Nantrech clapped hands. “Aye, Tallaso exhibits his two-fold nature in a manner beyond the obvious. We have duality in a single body. That ‘spider’ loiters inside him! Tallaso incorporates within himself an unearthly creature, definitely with ill intent. Now that I know what to discern, it comes clear. A filthy thing, all teeth and claws, designed by the gods for mayhem.”
“Nor is that the end!” cried Morca, tugging at his shaggy black hair as he gaped at the shifting images. “In a flash the third actor in this clandestine drama leaps forth! I know that face, Nantrech. It is the arch-fiend himself, Count Hideon, the aficionado of murder.”
Nantrech sighed. “There be the undisputable spider. He masterminds the crime afoot. Where Hideon spins his web, a victim inevitably suffers grisly death.” He meditated for a moment, then waved away the revealing smoke. “We know a foul scheme is in the works. Come, Morca, let us plan our counter-action.”
Arrived at the appointed time the ceremony of tribute, when all the guests bowed to the newly joined couple and favored them with gifts, as if to reigning royalty. The wedded pair stood regally on a stepped dais as the guests slowly passed by, bowing and delivering choice presents, or boasting of those too large or numerous to personally transport. The Lords Nantrech and Morca, with sweet words, offered splendid jewels from the renowned royal collection of King Skyrax of Dyrezan. Some ways down the line lurched the false Torbo, Prince Tallaso, bearing a wrapped box containing nothing, his ruse to approach his blissful host and hostess. He had to bow out of the queue, however, when a pain as of a dagger thrust tore through his vitals.
Retreating into isolation, he engaged in forlorn argument with the horrid thing within him. The hateful voice of Xantrum commanded a detour from Lady Dorissa. “We must clear our path,” the voice grated, “one last step before you claim the mortal prize.” Count Hideon too, over his ethereal channel, chimed in, with infuriating serenity. Said he, “Rejoice, for your moment comes. Yet Lords Nantrech and Morca are crafty, and would intervene on the woman’s behalf, to your detriment. Praiseworthy Prince, we shall forestall them before the long awaited act of retribution. There must be no further delay, as I am sure you agree. Now, Tallaso, confront those Lords as a sociable equal, calling them behind closed doors. Use any fitting ploy, so long as it separates them from the sight of the multitude.”
“And what happens then?” muttered Tallaso aloud, drawing stares from those nearby. The inner voices shushed him, urged him to obey. Xantrum nipped at the inner wall of his abdomen. The Prince shuddered, staggered forward. Close enough to touch he passed Lady Dorissa and her man. There he wished to lash out, but the heartless brute in his belly kept him on an unerring course toward bigger game. He came face to face with the Lords of Dyrezan. They beheld him with what seemed genial indifference. Tallaso, in a halting monotone, said, “My Lords, might we retire into private chambers for a few minutes, that I might acquaint you with a difficult issue that bears on the happiness of these we honor today?”
Replied Nantrech with a bow, “Truly we shall.”
Added Morca with a kindly smile, “Accompany us, good Torbo, into the rooms set aside for us. There we speak freely.”
The trio made their way to the designated place. The door closed, the sounds of merriment cut off as if sliced with a knife. They again faced one another. Morca stood with hands on hips. Nantrech gestured with his staff. “What say you, Torbo?”
Prince Tallaso commenced to speak, but scarce a syllable left his mouth. He heard Count Hideon thunder, “I see them at bay! Xantrum, at them!” And Xantrum the repulsive watcher within screeched, “I emerge to slay!” And Tallaso screamed.
His shriek of illimitable horror and agony reverberated throughout the confined space as Xantrum exploded out of its host’s abdomen in a spray of blood and mangled entrails. The creature shot through the air, a flailing mass of teeth, tentacles, and claws. During that split second Lord Nantrech unclenched his fist to release a grainy dust that flashed into sky blue flame when he intoned a charmed word. At the same moment Lord Morca swept from its hilt his bejeweled short sword. The loathly beast recoiled from the magic fire, incapable of fighting back against the artfully wielded blade that plunged into its oily midst, then expertly cleft it in twain.
A being of a super-material realm, Xantrum could not be killed by material weapons, but it could be thwarted and incapacitated, and the right magic could repel it. Therefore it did not die, but fizzled and dissolved back into the aether of its own strange world, hurling venomous snarls as it went. Before it vanished from human ken another voice spoke through it, that of Count Hideon. “Well played, my Lords. I expected to take you unawares, but you turned the tables. This game is yours, yet we shall match again.”
Said Nantrech to Morca, “We calculated with precision this time. The esoteric arts, united with cold steel, may work wonders.”
“Fine for us,” declared Morca, “but what of this noisy refuse?”
He referred to Tallaso, momentarily forgotten, although with some difficulty, for the dying Prince’s screams had punctuated the brief conflict. He still groaned and mumbled savage oaths, writhing in his gore, yet even as Morca gestured at him with sword point the grievously wounded fellow expired. Nantrech shrugged.
Said he, “That settles that. A shame to let him, even now, mar this day’s cheer. Refuse, you say? To the trash with him then. If you will be so kind, Morca, to call our men, they will spirit him, along with these bits and pieces, out the back and stealthily deposit all in the palace dump.” Such was the ultimate fate of Prince Tallaso.
Far away, and somewhat later, after a period of contemplation, Count Hideon dined, alone as was his wont. He sighed agreeably, absently studying his chalice of wine. His countenance reflected contented ease. Presently he pushed away his dish, coughed the merest belch of satisfaction, and mused, “Hardly a loss, as it all came out. I meant to orchestrate a spectacular murder, and surely I got one. No matter that the victim proved to be Tallaso; I am glad that the cretin made himself useful to me, which is more than he ever did for anyone else.”
Hideon called for more wine. “Death by internal bursting is a neat trick that I shall use in the future, if I can convince Xantrum to ally again. United with the powers of Xenophor’s Eye, the demon’s eyeless vision is an indispensable tool. I must discover a way to soothe its hurt feelings.”