Deep beneath the surface, beyond the spiral staircase, and through to the end of the narrow passageway swathed in shadows lay the meeting place. The figure descending the staircase knew its every turn and crevice. Its gaze swept unflinchingly over the grotesque, leering visages of ghouls shrouded in stone that leapt from sudden curves and clefts in the walls - images that were rumoured to have been endowed with dark magic in ages past. Phantoms designed to reflect the heart’s deepest fears rose from the statues and swirled around the figure like black shadows. The figure glided through them like a blade through mist and the shadows fled before it.
The hour was late. The figure knew that the meeting was already in progress. It was well aware that, arriving late once again, it should dread the wrath of the Master. But it did not. It no longer feared the Master, though he was terrifying. The figure was beyond fear, beyond feeling. This had been ensured.
Two great oaken doors barred the entrance to the meeting place. The wood was worn down from time and use, but the ancient inscriptions and spells carved into its surface were still legible. The figure did not pause to admire the workmanship of these doors as it once might have, but threw them open, its cloak billowing out behind it as it strode into the circular room. The flickering glow of the torches flanking the doorframe gathered in the dome of the ceiling, predominately casting the rest of the room in shadows. A stone pentagram was situated in the center of the floor directly beneath the dome. Such a monument served as an altar in ancient times, proven by the dark stains that streaked the cracked surface. However, the present purpose for it was much less severe.
At the end of each spike of the star was a figure draped in a heavy black mantle and seated in a high-backed chair. Each head was bowed low and each face was hidden beneath the folds of a long hood, the brim of which fell to the surface of the table. Four of these figures were mortals. They were the most important, most useful disciples of the fifth figure, who presided over the meeting.
He was the Master and they feared him.
“Ah, Bellator,” said he, his expression hidden beneath his hood. His voice was light, but the figure could sense the rage hidden beneath his calm.
The figure bowed. “Master.”
“You are late,” the Master said.
“I apologize, Master. It won’t happen again.”
The Master did not acknowledge the apology, nor did he accept it. “Do begin your patrol,” he ordered dryly.
Bellator bowed again and commenced pacing the perimeter of the room. It was a pointless task, really. There was never any threat or whisper of trouble during these meetings. Bellator was merely a tool the Master used to further intimidate his pawns.
“Continue, Avia,” the Master said.
Of course, this was not the man’s name. The Master addressed each mortal as the title of the country they represented. Two rulers, an ambassador, and a governor were present this evening, each of which - however insignificant their rank - held major sway over assets that were of use to the Master.
Avia cleared his throat in a vain attempt to keep the quiver in his voice from making itself known. “P-production from the mines has been cancelled, my lord, for the time being. It was the king’s orders. The holidays are upon us, c-celebrating the festival of Dragoi Magni, and-”
The Master raised a hand and Avia was silenced.
“I will expect your usual supply of iron to be tripled next month in payment,” the Master said. “Valamette?”
This is indeed strange, Bellator mused. It is unlike the Master to pass over a chance to make an example of Avia for such ‘unfaithfulness’.
“My lord, our holidays are not until wintertime,” the arrogant tones of Valamette piped in. There was no tremor in his voice and Bellator’s gut twisted in barely contained fury against this man. “We will be sure to present you with twice the amount of wood and gold that you require.”
Avia’s shoulders sank. To the Master’s right, Zandelba let out a low growl. Valamette was very smug.
“And you, Lavylli?” the Master snapped impatiently.
The figure to the Master’s left, who had undoubtedly remained silent and attentive since the meeting began, spoke suddenly in a strong, plummy accent. “The tunnels are still underway, but we are making swift progress, my lord. As for the payment of precious gems, it has been sent. You will have enough to hire as many mercenaries as you will require to trample any resistance, when the time comes.”
“The time is already upon us,” the Master said, rising to his feet. “I have been watching the stars. The constellations Heroi and Retsu are aligning for the first time in two and a half millennia. Prophecies connote these days as the last of mankind. This is the opportunity that I have been waiting for and I do not intend to fail!”
Murmurs echoed through the room.
“Our toils have been rewarding and our preparation has been long. Yet we must not deceive ourselves into thinking that our position is secure,” the Master continued.
The murmurs fell to a confused silence. The Master had never spoken so freely of such things before. The most this council had ever discussed were the brief updates concerning the progress of each respective country and its assets. There had been the occasional new order from the Master, but such a thing was always followed by a long and tedious discussion concerning the politics of the task, and thus was never any interesting.
“One has been predicted who has the potential to stand in my way. One who may have the power to end our supreme rule before it has even begun.”
“My lord, who could be so powerful that they could raise a hand against you?” Valamette asked in bewilderment.
“You of all people should know,” the Master said, and his eyes glittered from beneath his hood as he raised his head to glare at Valamette.
Understanding seemed to dawn on the figure that represented Valamette. He nodded slowly. Bellator glimpsed the other figures, hoping to find a shred of understanding in their midst as well, but they had all raised their heads to look at Valamette, trying to glean whatever information they could from his countenance.
“The boy, my lord?” he asked.
“Aye,” the Master replied. “The boy.”
Bellator was interested now. When had a boy ever entered their conversation?
“But how could he be a problem?” Valamette asked, only growing more bewildered. “Didn’t we destroy him already, when he was an infant? How is it even possible that he still draws breath?”
“It doesn’t matter how!” the Master snapped. “It matters that he lives, that he will pose as a threat to us when he learns of his destiny.”
“I can do it,” Valamette said. “I can kill him, if you wish it. I will not fail you this time.”
“No!” The Master’s voice resonated through the ceiling. “If I wanted him dead, do you not think that I would have killed him myself? No, my plan for him exceeds anything that you could possibly assist me with.”
“My master,” Zandelba volunteered eagerly, “let me capture this boy and bring him to you. I am the best man for such a task.”
“Fool,” Bellator scoffed, speaking so suddenly that all around the table started. “If his lordship refused Valamette, do you think he would accept you?”
“And I suppose you assume he’ll elect you for the task?” Zandelba retorted.
Bellator’s voice turned to steel. “Your head would be at the end of my sword if my master elected to give the order.”
The Master’s eyes glowed crimson from beneath his cloak. “Be still, Bellator!” he reprimanded, his voice deepening to a low growl. “Your loyalty is as reassuring as ever, but the fact remains that you are not here to give your opinion.”
“My lord,” Bellator said, falling to one knee next to the Master’s chair, “just give the word, and this boy will be at your feet by morning.”
“No,” the Master said, gesturing for Bellator to rise. “This boy is unknowingly under the protection of the Council of Buentoak. Their skill in the arts of magic is unsurpassed by all present but myself. No, I must be the one to retrieve him.”
Exclamations of alarm were stifled around the table.
“Do you think it wise, my lord, to venture so far from your sanctuary?” Zandelba said carefully. “If you were to encounter any difficulties-”
“Do you think me so weak that I cannot hold my own in the world of mortals?” the Master scoffed. “Or perhaps you believe that I have only survived this long as a result of your cautionary tales?”
“My only concern is for your wellbeing, my master,” Zandelba muttered, ducking his head.
Valamette cleared his throat. “My lord, once you have the boy, what will be done to him?”
The Master considered this for a moment. When he spoke again, his voice was determinedly cold. “Whatever it takes to persuade him of where his loyalties should lie.”
“And if he isn’t persuaded?”
Bellator sensed the smile that was crossing the Master’s features from beneath the shadow of his hood.
“One way or another, he will be.”
“This boy must be something special to have cast such a shadow over our plans, Master,” Bellator remarked, arms crossed. “More than a mere mortal.”
The Master’s red pupils glowed still more, and Bellator could already feel his anger raging like an inferno. Yet his voice was controlled. “You are right.”
Bellator waited for him to continue, but he did not.
“Who is he, then?”
The Master raised his chin, a smile twitching his pale lips.
“That is the question, isn’t it?”