The Blood Shadow
Rakkir ignored the sensation of cramps in his muscles. It was merely a trick of his mind here. Thinking of the In-Between as a physical realm was a trap. He could do things here that were impossible on Onathien, as long as he could persuade himself that they were possible. His mind was betraying him, it knew that if he crouched like this for as long as he had, his muscles should cramp. The fact that his muscles weren’t even here, were positioned in a meditative pose in a small room on Onathien, meant nothing to the primitive part of his brain.
So he focused his will with an effort, pushing the tingling feeling of an impending cramp away and solidifying his mental grip on the unnatural shadows that shrouded his position. Sight didn’t work the same way here either, nothing did really, but it wasn’t so different in practice. He could hide from sight to an extent using the same skills that worked in Onathien, they just manifested differently. Here he could make shadows to hide in, even drag ruins into existence to a limited extent. He couldn’t directly make walls come into being, as Marcus could, but ruins tended to appear where he needed them, became deeper and taller when he was near them. Sometimes he could swear they resembled places he had been, the walls displaying faded patterns that tickled at his memory. The light here made it impossible to be certain though and his few discussions with others here led him to believe that they didn’t necessarily see the same things as he did.
The place was shifting, impossible to get a clear grip on. Which was probably why he felt surprisingly at home here. He found daylight in Onathien harsh and unrelenting, the scrutiny of those around him always prickling across his neck, causing him to clench his jaw and grind his teeth. In-Between it was always shadowy, half-lit. People were few and far between and most were targets for his blade. The repercussions of killing were positive, the rush of the kill with no need for remorse, a steady increase in his skills and power, some of it even bleeding back into Onathien. Here he had no need to conceal who, or what, he was.
A grin stretched across his face, stained blue by the light of Wellin that hung overhead. The light brought out the darker blue of his skin and that made his smile slip a little. Here his skin was often the dark blue of the stained, the criminal. He had worn that colour on Onathien often, though never by choice and never for longer than he had to. Five times in his life so far he’d been arrested and dragged before the authorities. The first three times had been his own clan, before they had disowned him. Each time he’d been stained for successively longer though the offences had all been different. The fourth, after he’d been disowned had seen him imprisoned for three hundred days, stained for another two hundred after release. By the end of that sentence he had nearly forgotten his own colours. He’d felt shame, hot and heavy as he struggled to describe them to the inscriber. His markings had changed dramatically since then, more violence and darkness depicted each time until he had needed to find very specific inscribers that were willing to depict what his soul called for. The fifth and final time he’d been arrested they were still unable to pin his actual crime on him, but they had piled on the minor charges until the sentence ticked into thousands of days and he had known he would never live to serve it out.
He had broken out in the first hundred days and fled, with a minotaur for company. Stained midnight blue on his whole body with the most indelible ink known, he had spent hundreds of days on the run, strapping covering his arms and legs and a deep cloak covering his head and the rest of his skin. Stained Orcs weren’t common, but they weren’t so rare as to make him easily trackable. He had moved Forinward, following the bloody star across the ocean and eventually to Kaeshar, the plain-lands. There were few Orc clans in Kaeshar, the wars had all but erased them from that land. Still they had found him eventually and let him know that they knew who he was, what he was. Again he’d worn the stain.
The summons had started in Kaeshar and with them the increase in his power, his strength. After a few dozen trips In-Between, he stopped fearing Orcs on Onathien, stopped fearing most things. Occasionally he requested the stain from his inscriber, burying the increasingly violent markings beneath a darker wash of blue. Until recently though that stain had never bled through to his projection In-Between; he had carried variations of his personal colours, of the clan that disowned him and the family that was now long dead. He wasn’t sure what the change in his colours here meant… but he was sure it meant something. Bearing the stain here, literally on his very soul, meant something fundamental about who he had become. He was a little disconcerted to find that mostly the colour felt like home.
The grim smile reformed on his lips as he sensed movement coming his way, his patience was about to pay off yet again. The movements were furtive, but far from stealthy. He recognized the figure immediately from the short glimpses he caught as it moved between trees at the edge of the ruins. The midnight blue of the figure’s skin was a match to Rakkir’s own, though for an entirely different reason. That skin and the distinctive mask marked it as Kruul, the Witch Doctor. Away from his warband, drawn here by the soul that Rakkir had been watching slowly drift through the ruins below.
It was no coincidence that the colour of the criminal and the colour of the Witch Doctor were so similar. In the years following Edarr’s fall, when the death cultists in Orc society were reviled and despised, none bore the brunt of that anger and hatred so hard as the Witch Doctors, who had led the followers of Edarr among the Orcs. In fact it was that hatred that caused midnight blue to be adopted as the stain of the criminal, making all Witch Doctors into criminals overnight. In the following centuries, as Witch Doctor’s came back into the fold of polite Orc society, they had begun to take a slightly lighter blue colouration as their own, but there were those who stuck with the old ways, even some that still intended it to carry the same meaning. Kruul was still a follower of Edarr, high up in that organization if what Rakkir had heard was correct. He had never had a full conversation with Kruul, they steered clear of each other whenever they found themselves side-by-side.
Rakkir shifted slowly, carefully, moving into position to spring his trap when Kruul inevitably walked into it. The nature of the summoning often made for carelessness since the consequences of ‘death’ for one of the summoned were minor. Rakkir didn’t think that way. For him the kill was important, but surviving, escaping to kill again and again, to hoard the fragments of power pulled from each kill - that was what drove him. He wouldn’t risk death here unless it was for a certain payoff.
Kruul made his way carefully to the edge of the ruins, crouching behind a low wall as he examined the path to where the soul hung, glowing faintly blue in the light of Wellin.
Rakkir had stalked Kruul dozens of times if not hundreds. He knew the Witch Doctor could, if given the chance, smother him with his dark will, cut him off from the energy of souls that drove In-Between. He was unlikely to drive Rakkir himself back to Onathien, but he could certainly disable him, perhaps batter him enough to keep him from escape while others arrived to finish him off.
He lowered one hand to the stone he perched on and sent a tiny part of his will into it. A marking spread out from his hand, a black circle of energy that expanded into a softly glowing orb, with his hand at its center.
He pulled his hand out and left the orb hanging, a trick he’d learned early in his time here. A marker of shadow that he could pull himself back to from almost anywhere if the need arose.
On the ground below and about a dozen paces ahead of him the witch doctor had begun the soul gaze, drawing it slowly towards him. The soul would fight back, Rakkir had himself spent many long moments locked in the battle of wills with the remnant of a soul’s identity. Some fought hard, others gave in easily, he had no understanding of why but he did know that Kruul was a lot stronger in this regard than Rakkir himself. He held no illusions that the soul would be able to defeat the Witch Doctor in the contest. He also knew that while in a soul-gaze not even the strongest of the summoned could spare enough will to truly defend themselves, it was always the most vulnerable moment, the best moment to strike.
He flew from his perch silently, cloak spread behind him like wings, blade in one hand, the other swirling in shadows as he brought his other talent to bear. Kruul didn’t sense him until it was far too late, his face turning up and eyes widening behind the mask as Rakkir’s two hands clapped together on the hilt of his blade and he struck.
The blade sank deep into the witch doctor’s shoulder and the darkness of Rakkir’s gift flowed down the blade and into the wound, a fraction of Rakkir’s will breaking through Kruul’s defences and spreading in him, muddying his thoughts, making it harder for him to bring his will to bear.
Kruul reared back as the soul gaze broke and he cried out as Rakkir followed him, slashing brutally at his chest beneath the mask. The witch doctor knew he wouldn’t survive this fight, but it wasn’t the first time they had danced and the larger objective of stopping Rakkir from gaining an edge for his warband, could still be achieved. Rakkir saw the hardening of Kruul’s resolve in his eyes, the commitment to the strike that would undo a large part of all his patient work.
He had saved something for just this moment, power from the shrine he’d touched earlier in this encounter, just enough to do what needed to be done, to ensure that the Witch Doctor’s curse never found a voice.
With a thought he slammed the power home using the fragment of his will that still polluted Kruul. Golden light erupted in the tendrils of black that had spread from his knife wound. In a moment it burned through Kruul’s form, shattering it into fragments and driving his consciousness back to Onathien. Rakkir drank in the eruption of energy as Kruul collapsed, feeling the power flow through him and strengthen his tether as it weakened Kruul’s. Not for the first time he wished that he could access that power directly himself, but even Zaron hadn’t managed that yet. For now he would have to remain happy with the fragments he could gather and hoard away from the Everlasting.
With a gesture of his left hand he summoned familiar energies and his body was lined in black….and then gone.
Coalescing back on his perch he calmed his racing mind, willing himself back to the silent calm he needed to remain concealed. His hiding place was known, at least generally by his enemy, but it was still a good vantage, with plenty of opportunity for escape if the enemy decided to come in numbers the next time. They would come, he knew, the soft gleam of a coalescing soul below him made certain of that. It was only a matter of time.