Suggested Listening

The girl smelled of fresh flowers after a spring rain, the salt of human sweat, and the subtle metallic tint of fresh blood. None of that interested him, though there may have been a time when her athletic movements aroused other interests even if he appreciated a full figure than her athletic one.

She dipped under an enemy attack, lunged forward, and struck the poor victim in his groin. The first hit was stopped by the defensive magic, the sick-sweet stench of creation energy wafted over the battlefield from the popping of a magical barrier. The followup blow was hard enough to dent metal and break bones. That, too, might have excited him in a long-forgotten age. He always had a thing for competent women, back when such pursuits were enjoyable. He still liked the dangerous ones, though not quite for the same reasons.

Behind her, a bolt of energy which reaked of ozone and tears shot forward, and shattered the scents. It was a powerful spell, too, one which would have hurt him, perhaps even destroyed him, had he been close.

Nobody, on either side of the battle, were harmed. Their magical defenses, including the ones which kept some invisible and others blanketed in magical shield.

He and the athletic redhead both knew the next step of the battle plan. She through herself to the ground, and with the scent of oleander in the air, she buried herself alive using her earth magic. Lightning washed over the battlefield, replacing the scent of magic with the sour smells of burning flesh and vegetation.

A count of twelve heartbeats later, and the self-interred girl leapt from her buried position, with all the smells of flower and tree that came with her defensive magic active around her. One of their victims still stood, so she busted his knee backwards, then set about making certain none of their wounded foes would be able to recover.

"Clear!" She shouted to the others. Her two allies left their protective bubble of invisibility, the scent of adrenaline, illusion and lightning strong on them. They began another set of woven spells, a water-mage to hide their physical signs and a lightning mage to set up the defensive illusions to hide their position on the magical level. Soon, they and their new captives were hidden from him.

None of that interested him, though such a well-choreographed battle plan was beautiful, and the torture that came next was sure to entertain. The subtle, comforting scent of grave soil which he could smell on the girl for that short period of time when all the defensive magic was down, that interested him, and that was the only reason he followed this girl around the wilderness.

The snap of bones breaking like twigs, joined by the screams of souls kept on the living side of the great divide by maliciousness alone, echoed through the wilderness.

Well, maybe not the only reason, he thought as he settled down to enjoy the pungent aroma of a human dismantled piece by piece. He'd been waiting this long, he could wait a little longer.

His opportunity came some two weeks later, when they bit off more than they could chew. Their opening strategy was sound enough, but this group had warriors with them, rather than the usual rabble.

Red's opening surprise charge failed when she passed through the target. Dirt and rock exploded beneath her the moment she connected against the ground. Illusionists made great traps if you needed subtlety, volcanists made great traps if you needed to dish out damage, but working together you had a trap that was the perfect combination of subtle and destructive.

Now, the limbs the girl broke were those of the tree that slowed her momentum.

Disruptive magic washed through the area, revealing two lower tier soldiers alongside the two true mages. The illusionist began her work, to bring their defenses back up before it was too late. A pair of ice knives shot out, one striking each mage. The volcanist, being an earth mage, was made of tougher stuff than most. He remained standing as he got his own defensive magic back up, while the illusionist fell, unable to move her arms to clutch the hole that entered her throat and exited through her spine.

She was alive, and would remain alive for some small period of time, wondering why none of her allies tried to heal her injuries or save her life.

The volcanist retaliated with a wave of cleansing flame that took the redhead team's illusionist out, but the water mage stayed standing behind a shell of ice. As matchups went, she had an advantage; water mages weren't that deadly, but they had more better defense and endurance than fire mages. As bolt after bolt of flame hammered her frozen shield, she remained calm and ready to act on the first opportunity. If it had been a duel, he felt confident she would have won.

Unfortunately for her, it wasn't a duel. While the volcanist made it impossible for her to move from her position and exploit the agility advantages of a water mage, the soldiers moved to flank her. She evaded both crossbow bolts, while maintaining her ice barrier. She was trapped, but even this wasn't an untenable situation. The volcanist couldn't get past her defenses, she was fast enough to dodge any crossbow, and the soldiers couldn't get close without risking death by friendly fire.

Sooner or later, the fire mage would tire, and then this ice mage would act. Whether to escape or to retaliate, he wasn't certain and never got the chance to discover.

The air exploded in a dance of crackling lightning and pain. Nasty trick, using crossbow bolts to help target lightning magic that normally has difficulty hitting with any accuracy. Scratch approved. The woman dropped, motionless. Like the illusionist whose life she took, she would remain there blinded and paralyzed until death's loving caress found her in a minute or so.

A pity, too, in his opinion. That one had a rack worth preserving.

In the time she bought, the redhead forced her damaged body to move. She rolled off the branch she was on, trusted her magic to absorb the force of the fall, then began to crawl away. Healing magic only went so far, especially combat healing which relied on raw power instead of taking the time for a gentle, thorough, healing process. Most humans would have given up, accepted capture, or perhaps drove their magic into overdrive in one final act of suicidal defiance.

This one still believed she could escape, return home, and warn her allies of the threat represented here. She was a fool, but a loyal fool, and he would exploit that while saving her life. If the one who smelled so beautiful could synchronize with her, that was all he needed to know.

The volcanist felt her move, or at least felt her hit the ground. He wasn't quite able to separate the brimstone and rage that was the volcanist's magic, save to decide that he could have beaten the redhead's entire team, if they were fool enough to stand and fight rather than run. His lack of healing or mobility meant he lacked versatility, but on the measure of power, defense, and skill, he stood far above them all.

The redhead was too wounded to run, barely strong enough to walk. The best she could do was draw up a protective dome of earth and roots, just in time for another blast of flame to overtake her position.

The volcanist changed his strategy some, generating a steady but low energy stream of fire magic at one point of the earthen wall. With everyone else dead and one trapped target remaining, the plan was either to force her out as a captive, or cook her alive in her cocoon.

He respected the strategy, would have applauded it if it didn't hurt his plans.

No time left to lose. He dipped into the earth, wove through the aromas of magic, and popped up inside the bubble with the girl whose life he would save in the name of his own mission. "Hey, red, is it hot in here, or is it just you?"

"Y- what are you?" She couldn't see him in the cave darkness of her self-made prison, but she could feel him.

"Feel free to call me Old Scratch. Or just Scratch for short." He allowed some small amount of power to bleed past his iron grip, to give her a whiff of what he truly was. The volcanist wouldn't notice such a minor flicker of taint, not through his pyroclastic energies and the redheads botanical ones. "I'm here to offer you a deal with the devil."

"You're undead? But..."

"But you can't feel the taint unless I allow it." He'd had many a conversation like this one over the centuries. "Yes, it is possible to hide taint. Not easy, but I can do it. And the reason you've never heard about it is because those few of us who know how have a habit of not sharing the one secret that allows beings like us to hide from your exorcists. But you won't be sharing that secret."

She grunted, forced to put even more effort into her shield. Her sweat converted to as she did her best to slow the heating of her prison. Minutes, perhaps, until the heat grew to the point of fatal for her. Normal people would have already started to fall unconscious. "What do you want, then? To laugh at me as I cook alive?"

"Tempting, but I'm more interested in the necromancer whose delicious perfume is all over you. You two must be very close."

"What are you-" she hesitated. "I never did anything like that with her!"

"I smell her magic on you." It was so fun watching them get flustered, and now he knew the necromancer was a woman. "You've synchronized, to some extent, which means you trust one another with your lives. As a favor to a living abomination by an unliving one, I'm willing to save your life because it will make her happy."

"Smell magic?" Now the redhead was confused. "Are you claiming to have an olfactory Revelation? That's absurd, nobody has that."

"Well, as far as I know, no human does," Scratch said. "But guess who is not a mammal and has no opposable thumbs? This guy."

"I'm going to possess you, now." The longer they delayed, the harder it got. "You could fight me off, but if you do you'll waste what precious strength you have left. If you cooperate and accept my terms, you'll get to live through this battle."

"By allying with the undead!" Cali grit her teeth, preparing to fight the intruder.

"You can feel me, can't you?" Scratch moved closer. "The aura of truth that binds me, that is me? I am a creature of order, I cannot lie to you. Reject my terms, die alone. Accept them, and you have my oath that I'll do everything in my power to get you home alive and in condition well enough to report the situation and recover with time. Starting with possessing your body for a short period of time. It's necessary for the negotiation."

He felt her resolve flicker at the promise. "One condition: should I allow the possession, you must swear to me to deliver a warning to Acheria's leaders even if I die here. Lord Claron is working with the Ghosts of Sorvel. I don't care how you do it, so long as the message is delivered quickly and in a method they'll take seriously. Deliver it as many times as you must until it's believed by someone with the power to do something about it."

"Worked with Djinn before, have you? For the record, you getting home to spread the warning counts as fulfilling my duty." The scent of binding magic washed through the air, strong enough that the volcanist must have felt it. It was unlikely he'd guess what it was about, however. It was a silent affirmation of the conditions of the contract. "You have my oath, the warning will be delivered."

The redhead's mind yielded, allowing him access with permission. Possession of someone with power was almost impossible without consent, the clash of their resonance with his own would drive him out, or leave them both paralyzed in psychic battle. A voluntary joining circumvented those restrictions, but even so he couldn't delve deep.

"Now, I have three conditions, Calenda." Her voice spoke, at Scratch's command. "First, you must swear never to speak of this oathbond, or my abilities, or my existence, to anyone who does not already know of them. Nor may you make any attempt to record such things by any means. My secrets die with you, it's only a question of now or at some as-yet-unknown future moment."

"Deal," Calenda answered, with control over her own voice.

"Second, you give me your eternal soul."

"What? Never! Not even if that was possible, no!"

"Entek. Well, worth a shot, would have made the rest of this so much easier. How about if I just take possession of your underwear on the trip back to town?"

"You can't be serious."

"Wouldn't have felt right if I didn't try. Okay, scratch that offer." He used her to chuckle at his own stupid pun. "What I really want is to know all about your lovely necromancer girlfriend."

"She's twelve!"

Perfect. The shutters on the windows of Calenda's mind opened, granting access to the thoughts and memories she had of the girl. "Elruin? Pretty name." He didn't have long, and he'd lose all the memories in Calenda's mind except the ones spoken out loud. Once he lost access to the meatspace brain, he'd lose its knowledge as if it all been a dream. "I don't envy you for a second, Sis."

Cali's body flinched, in spite of Scratch's control. She did not like being called 'Sis'. "Can we please hurry up before I change my mind?"

She wouldn't, she couldn't, she had too much to live for, but Scratch had found what he needed to find. "You have fulfilled my second condition. The third condition is that you must, at earliest possible opportunity, bring Elruin to meet me."

Fear washed through the shared body. "No!"

"Then you die here, Sis, and I'll find another way to talk to her. Some day, some how. I don't know when, but I have her whole lifetime to figure out how. The difference is that it will take longer, and you won't be there to protect her. I promise I have no intention of harming her, I don't think I could if I wanted to. I wish only to speak with her, one abomination to another."

"She's not an abomination! She's a sweet child! Weird, true, but sweet."

"Keep believing that, Sis, it's adorable." Scratch retorted with Calenda's voice. "But we're at the point where this conversation must end. The only thing keeping you conscious right now is me. Accept, and you get a chance to deliver all those messages you want to deliver, to all the people who need them. Reject, and die alone to inconvenience me slightly. You have no time left to decide."

"I..." Cali closed her eyes. There wasn't enough water in her body to let her cry. "You have your deal."

Magic washed over the both of them, reinforcing a bond much more complex than the last one. Now Old Scratch could and would act with all his power. First, he used his power to crack the back of the bubble, on the opposite side of the stream of flame. With what little strength Calenda's brutalized body possessed, Scratch pulled her out of the hole and allowed her to collapse.

"We have her!" One of the soldiers shouted. "She's unconscious!"

"Hold!" The volcanist who Scratch now knew was Lord Claron shouted his command to the men. "Don't go near her, it may be a trap."

Scratch had to admit, it was the smart command. Still, Calenda's body was a ruin, with no strength physical or magical to call upon even if Scratch was willing to inflict more harm on her body. Claron was far too strong for him to possess. He had a different plan, however.

Claron walked a long way around the mound, his hand trained on her general position the whole time. "A pity." His younger brother would be inconsolable for a time, but in the end it was for the best.

"Sir!" Scratch shouted from one of the guard's bodies. The poor man was a nobody, who had been conscripted from a gang of small time thieves rather than volunteered. "Please forgive me, but I must ask a question."

Lord Claron didn't so much as look at him, his eyes trained on where Calenda would soon be visible. "Speak quickly."

"Shouldn't we capture her, torture her for information?"

"No." Lord Claron had no interest in that plan, nor explaining himself to a subordinate. There was little the Scout could tell him that he could not learn from her superiors through official means, and every second the woman remained alive was a second in which something could go wrong.

"Then another question," Scratch said. He didn't wait for a response before swinging his hooked sickle as hard as he could at Claron while stepping between him and Calenda. The mage was so focused on his prey that he didn't think to pay close attention to one of his own men, so it caught him off guard when the point of the weapon sank deep into his eye socket.

"Does this look sharp to you!" A stream of magical flame struck his gut, burned away half of the poor man's intestines, but the pain was for the meat-puppet to feel, while Scratch remained untouched. It was part of why he avoided dipping into the memories of people, so he wouldn't have to feel bad about their inevitable deaths.

Scratch twisted the weapon, eliciting the cracks of bone popping and the squishy, wet sounds of a human brain being torn apart by good old fashioned steel. Scratch fell atop Claron, forcing his temporary body's weight to land upon the sickle, anything to get that extra half-inch of penetration before this body gave out.

Then a flash of sarite-infused magic caused Claron's body to vanish. Scratch dropped out of this one's body, two lives taken before he snaked around to take control of the last living witness other than Calenda. Time was not on his side, today.

Claron was a man of wealth, and had some sort of emergency escape spell prepared, which meant his corpse just landed somewhere he had no hope of finding before some servant got the man to a powerful healer. The damage was deep, however, so it would take a week before the man was alive and conscious again.

He stopped for a moment, stripping everyone of their sarite save for Calenda. He supposed he'd better not desecrate the bodies of the woman's allies, lest that upset the Elruin by proxy, but from Calenda's memories he knew she had no respect for the bodies of her enemies. At least the ambushers were kind enough to bring horses with them, which made hauling one unconscious woman and two dead ones so much easier.

Three days later, he got his first look at the child with his own eyes. She marched out of the gates, the scent of graveyard soil and funeral pyres, overwhelming in her magnificence and seeking revenge in the name of a friend she believed was wronged.

He would be terrified if he still had flesh and blood vulnerable to her magic. He was, admittedly, a little nervous anyway. With time, with training, that girl could send even one such as him screaming into the pit. For now, however, she lacked that capacity. He intended to ensure that when the day came that she could end him, she would not want to.

It took them some time to reach the edge of the open field around the castle, where Calenda was compelled by oathbond to bring the child who might one day be a goddess. "Well met, young Elruin," he lifted himself out of the ground. Without a possessed body, he was little more than a shapeless black smoke about half the height of an adult man, in a vaguely humanoid shape. "Most who know of me call me Old Scratch. Or sometimes the Black Imp. I prefer Scratch."

"A dolly? Why can't I hear you?" The girl was stunned only for a moment, before anger returned. "Stop hurting Cali!"

"As you desire." The goal, after all, was to make peaceful contact. "Lady Calenda, you have fulfilled your agreement, and save for the oath of secrecy, you are released from your service."

The magic fell apart, and with it the pain Calenda had felt. Pain she wouldn't have had to experience if she'd been more cooperative. The woman slumped to the ground, taking her first moments of true rest since she woke up on the trip to Arila.

"How are you hiding from me? How did you enforce a truth spell made under coercion?" Both good questions. "I thought such things were impossible."

"You'll find as you grow older, there is no such thing as impossible," Scratch said. "It's just a question of time, will, and ability. I have a surplus of all three. As far as my Oathbond? Well, I don't know of a way to force it on someone against their will via coercion or trickery, but I did nothing but offer a service to someone who needed my help, in exchange for a payment now rendered. And now, as is custom of my long-dead people, I offer gifts to a future friend."

Scratch led the way, pretending to walk on his short legs. "My first gift, the treasure I claim by Right of the Kill. You'll like the robes. They may be designed for an illusionist, but they should suit you until you find something better. Might want to clean off the blood, though. Second, a handful bloodstones. I can't use them, even indirectly." Bloodstone was Scratch's preferred name for sarite; he liked to cut through the lies humans told themselves about the power they harvested.

"Second, the gift of knowledge." Always his favorite hook, the promise of secrets not yet known, and Elruin was such a studious young mage, she wouldn't be able to resist forbidden knowledge. "Within certain limitations, like risking my own existence by explaining how I can hide myself from you, I'll tell you anything you want to know that I can. Also, my existence must remain secret. Which is why I can't go into the cities, I'm sure you understand."

It made sense to Elruin. Scratch was a powerful undead, or at least a sneaky one, so being around lots of people and their magic might mean getting caught.

"And third, the gift of revenge." While talking, he had led them to the chained victim he'd been possessing the last few days. His body was decaying thanks to the constant exposure to necromantic energies, but he should be able to survive another day or two. "I can either provide all the information Scout Calenda wants from this sack of meat, or I can use him to get the three of us into one of the Ghosts of Sorvel camps. If we hurry, we can get there and have time to infiltrate before they finish reviving Claron. It would be quite the coup."

Cali forced herself to sit. "Which means we go now. If I return to the city, and report what I know, there's no way I'll be able to leave again until I recover."

"Maybe we should go back to Arila," Elruin said. Cali was in bad shape, and Elruin didn't know if she was prepared for a stealth operation. She wasn't opposed to the idea, but it seemed like it could hurt Cali.

"It will be difficult enough to explain how I collected this information without explaining I have an undead monster doing the work," Cali said. "If I don't report Lord Claron, and we die, then it's possible he'll never be caught. And then there's the rest of my scouts. Lanine and Crela were friends of mine, I'd like to see them buried respectfully."

"Then I'll just tell you where to find it. They're hiding in a farmstead, I'm sure a strong team can lead a direct assault that would get the job done." Scratch didn't have a single concern to spare for the so-called Ghosts, to him they were but sacrificial lambs to be set before Elruin. "The meat suit's not going to last long, but I personally have all the time in the world to help where I can."

Elruin was inclined to agree. The necromantic damage to the bad man had gone too far to be reversed by anything she could do. It was impressive enough that he was still breathing. Now that she knew to look, she could even see some tint of taint seeping into the dead man's bones. Were he to be puppeted much longer, there was a chance his skeleton would animate and rip out his heart.

"Which brings me to my offer, that of my undying service." Scratch believed he had set the stage just right. "But not as a gift, as three is the traditional offer. Instead, I must ask for a song as payment. If you sing for me, I shall aid you for the rest of your life." If not, well, he'd figure something out. She'd have to be utterly insane to reject such a generous offer, regardless.



A note from Tana Nari
Wrote: The path of the righteous mage is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is she, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for she is truly her sister's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger, those who would attempt to poison and destroy my sisters. And you will know my name is Elruin when I lay my vengeance upon thee.

... A contribution from one of my readers, in reaction to the last chapter.

I'm fond of "rock paper scissors" magic systems. No type of magic works well against everyone. Cali's team was built to be as versatile as possible for a team built entirely around mobility. But... it was a team built around mobility, not direct combat against an enemy that knew they were there and came equipped with specific anti-Scout weapons like the bolts.

Scratch is one of a very small number of allies that will join Elruin no matter your path. It's just a question of which other ally he'll approach first in order to get introduced to her her, or if he'll approach her directly. He has no particular moral compass or other factions to concern him- his motivation is the necromancer herself, rather than the cause she may or may not have aligned with.

I also like writing him. He is not a nice guy, in fact he's very much evil ('Old Scratch' is a folklore name for Satan in our world) but he can say and do things that none of the other characters could or would. It's fun. The asshole with a heart of gold (lifeless, cold, and yellow) who's loyal, and that's about it.

I wonder if the "this guy" meme reference is a little SoD damaging, but I would argue that humans are known for being mammals and having opposable thumbs, so it does fit. And it amuses me.


Lord Claron is another of our "possible allies, probable enemies" characters. His theme, when relevant, is This little gem.

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About the author

Tana Nari

Bio: I write. A lot.

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