As the burning in Payten’s throat subsided he studied the man who saved his life. “Who are you” Payten rasped.
“My name is Hark Vier, what do they call you?” the man spoke with a strange accent, his voice was quiet yet strong.
“P-P-Payten …. But most people call me Pate” he stammered in reply, eyeing Hark’s extended hand, words could not describe the sheer amount of suspicion he felt. The man had clearly used magic when he saved him from Old Kinly. In the country of Orera magic was only allowed to be practiced by members of a priesthood or those given a license by the monarchy. All others were dangerous rogue practitioners that were reviled and hunted down.
He swallowed hard, Hark did not look like a priest and he doubted that the Orerain lords would sanction a foreigner.
“Are you a mage?” Payten asked fearing the answer
“Do you have a license?”
“Fuck” he started to back away his eyes darting rapidly searching for an escape. He had never been the most devout follower skipping church whenever possible, but even he knew that rogue practitioners were devilish fiends who spit in the face of Yaza the supreme god of justice and all things holy. Practicing dangerous rites of forbidden magic, drinking virgin blood, and consorting with demons. They were the most hated enemy of any respectable Orerain citizen and yet one had saved Pate’s life.
Hark made no move seeming content just watching his cautious retreat, his blue eyes seemed to bore into Payten’s soul. He held out his hand, “Lad, tell me what you see.” The black energy began to pool in his palm appearing seemingly out of nowhere, It was unlike anything Payten had seen before, usually, the miasma was a faint black and resembled small wisps of smoke. What was in Hark’s hand was so black it looked violet, it appeared oily and viscous as it rose from Hark’s palm, it was topped by dark tendrils that danced lazily back and forth.
“I see black energy, the same kind I see around dead things” his fear was overtaken by his burning curiosity, Hark may be a rogue but this could be his only chance to answer the questions that had haunted him his whole life.
Hark nodded “yes, it is called Necris; it is mana that has been aspected to death. Your ability to see it without training means you have an affinity for it.”
“What do you mean an affinity?” Payten had to work to order his thoughts as hundreds of questions burned in his mind. He knew that even talking to Hark was dangerous and more than likely a sin, but he was so close to having answers he couldn't stop now.
“It means you can learn to use magic, the fact that it is a Necris affinity means you have a natural talent for manipulating death mana, based on your ability to see the trace amounts of mana present in a days-old dead snake. I would say it is an unusually strong affinity; you have the potential to become a powerful death mage indeed.”
Worry started to taint his curiosity, he did not know what a death mage was but it did not sound pleasant and more importantly how did he know about the snake Pate found on the road?
“What about the other energy I see?” Payten wanted to run but his thirst for answers held him in place.
For the first time, Hark’s expression changed as he cocked an eyebrow. “What other energy?”
“I know something he doesn't, how can I leverage this?” Payten started scheming on how he could capitalize on this small victory.
“I’ll tell you, but afterwards you have to answer a question honestly”
“The terms of your deal are acceptable”
Payten couldn't help but feel a small sense of satisfaction, Hark’s concession was small but one honest answer was more than had before. Hark listened carefully as he explained the energy he saw rhythmically pulsing in the bodies of living things. When he finished Hark stuck out both his palms one started to fill with a faint red mana tinged with black that he had to squint to see. It dripped through his fingers dissipating into a crimson mist where it touched the ground. The other palm began to glow with a bright sickly green and the grass started to grow wildly around the man.
After explaining what he saw, Hark nodded “Payten” he said speaking slowly “you are truly blessed with a rare gift, you have not one affinity but three. In addition to Necris you have a lesser affinity to Sanguis; blood aspected mana and a standard affinity to Vitus; life aspected mana.”
Finishing his explanation Hark waited in silence. “He’s waiting for my question” Payten realized he had so many to ask. How could he choose just one? His mind started to weigh the pros and cons of each question when one popped into his mind unbidden, he blurted it out before even considering it.
“What kind of mage are you?”
“I’m a necromancer”
He turned and ran, a rogue practitioner was one thing but a necromancer was an order of magnitude worse. Necromancer tortured souls and mutilated corpses, raising them to do their dark bidding. “Yaza save me” Payten did not know what the necromancer would do to him but he would not stick around to find out. Suddenly as he sprinted down the moonlit path towards the farmstead he froze. His muscles would not respond to his commands; he struggled with all of his might but he was locked firmly in place. Payten tried to scream but his tongue and jaw refused to heed his desperate orders.
“Payten'' said the necromancer walking ahead so he was facing his paralyzed form.
“I understand Orerains have a closed-minded view of magic. But I vow I mean you no harm, if I did I would have let the ghost kill you. All I want from you is to listen to my offer.”
Payten felt his stomach drop, he saw no means of escape, he was totally under the necromancer’s power and he dreaded whatever the necromancer had to offer him.
“You have three options. One, I release you and you report a rogue necromancer in the area. Templars and witch hunters will descend on Wheatblanket, you and everyone you know will be thoroughly interrogated. Doubtlessly they will discover your aptitude for magic. Best case scenario you are press-ganged into a priesthood, where you will serve for the rest of your life. But more likely once they find out that you have affinities for Necris and Sanguis you will be burned at the stake for having an affinity for forbidden magic.”
“Shit shit shit “ Panic burned through Payten’s chest. If what Hark said was true, the situation was not looking good for him. He did not want to be a priest; his only knowledge of priests came from the old drunkard that ran WheatBlanket’s Yazain church and a time three years ago when flagellants of Toza, the god of penance and punishment came to town. They had stood in the town square screaming that we all must repent as they lashed themselves with barbed whips. The news that two of his affinity were for forbidden magic was also deeply troubling, he knew that being burned at the stake would be a mercy after the treatment he would get if he was caught dabbling in the dark arts.
“Option two” Hark continued “I release you and you return to your farm and pretend nothing happened. You would be forced to stay in Wheatblanket, the risk of your talents being discovered would be too high if you left. You would be forced to engage in the same menial labour surrounded by the same people you despise while talent wasted away”
“No… that can't be true” The thought of being stuck on his Uncle’s farm agonized him more than the thought of being burned alive. But what the necromancer said rang true, Wheatblanket was a forgotten backwater village it would be easy to hide here, towns and cities were crawling with priests and mages one would be bound to notice Payten eventually. But what disturbed him more was the necromancer's knowledge of his hatred of people around him. Just how much did Hark know about him?
“Option three, I release you and you become my apprentice. I will take you away from this place, away from Orera. I will oversee your education into the arcane arts instructing you how to use your talents and teaching you all that I know. You will gain access to my resources and connections in order to further your study. In exchange, you will be expected to be a dutiful and hardworking student and will assist me in my pursuits. Before you answer, know that this path is dangerous, your body and mind will be pushed to their limits, fates worse than death will lurk around every corner, you will commit acts that violate all of your moral sensibilities, you will experiment with radical and strange magics, you will work with and learn from people worse than monsters, for such is the price of power. But if you persevere you will gain great knowledge and arcane might.”
Hark snapped his fingers and he was free to move as he pleased yet he stood still staring at the ground. He had spent many nights praying for something like this, for someone to swoop in and rescue him from this place. In his fantasies it was the mother and father he never knew returned to take him away to some fantastical place. But this was not a fantasy instead of a long lost relative he got a wicked necromancer. “Just my luck” but this would be his only chance to escape his Uncle’s farmstead without risking the wrath of witch hunters.
“It isn't fair” Payten murmured
“In my experience life rarely is”
Payten looked up from the ground and started at Hark
“The terms of your deal are acceptable”
For the first time Payten saw a smile cross the necromancer's solemn face.
Payten and his master walked towards the farmstead in silence, but soon Payten was bursting with curiosity.
“Why did the ghost of Kinly attack me but no one else?” Payten asked
“All beings need energy to survive, mortals eat food, spirits and other such creatures need more esoteric sources. Most naturally occurring ghosts feed on emotion, typically fear. The fear is then converted to appropriately aspected mana, in the case of Kinly Necris. It was able to attack you for two reasons. First, since you have an affinity for Necris you were able to sense the ghost with more clarity than the others, creating a feedback loop. The more you were able to see Kinly the more terror there was for it to feed on, giving it more power to assert itself thus causing more fear. The second reason is that it was feeding off your leaking excess mana, that's why it was able to go from noisemaking to affecting the tangible world so quickly.”
“My leaking excess mana?” every answer his master gave him just lead to more questions
“Yes, everyone has an internal storage of mana. Normally this mana would be spent maintaining the regular functions of the body but due to your natural aptitude for magic you were generating mana faster than you could spend it, so when your internal storage was full the excess mana was expelled from your body into your surroundings. In my opinion the root of your problems with villagers is this expelled energy, a sudden influx of unfamiliar mana tends to set people on edge. This goes doubly true for people with certain affinities, their produced mana being more unpleasant to experience. Unfortunately for you both Necris and Sanguis affinities have this effect.”
Payten was shocked. He had spent his whole life agonizing over the reason he was detested by everyone he met. He had long since given up on finding an easy answer. His shock was replaced by anger, they had made his life hell for years because of some leaking mana. Life really was unfair.
“Will I ever be able to stop the leak?” Payten asked a small glimmer of hope appearing amongst his rage
“Yes, it will be one of the first things you learn, once you gain the ability to control and shape your mana you will be able to easily deal with the leak. Then you should have an easier time with interpersonal relationships”
Payten stopped, Hark knew about his troubles with the villagers, he even knew about the dead snake.
“How do you know so much about me, this is the first time we've met and yet you seem to know everything?” Payten asked his frustration putting a hard edge to his question
His master stopped and looked at him for a moment before appearing to fold into himself, Payten saw Necris and Vitus condense around Hark forming an orb of darkness. A large raven flew from the orb and perched on a low branch. The raven stared at him for a moment before swooping down and expanding into his master
“I have been keeping an eye on you” said Hark as he continued down the road not even glancing at Payten
“Of course he can turn into a god damned bird” the novelty of surprises on top of surprises was beginning to wear off. Payten started to think of his next question when the farmhouse came into view
“Where have you been … who the hell are you?” his uncle had been outside waiting for Payten to return, a look of shock and suspicion appeared on his face as he saw Hark
“I am disciple Andrea of the church of Rakdite. I have come to inform you that I am invoking the divine right of seizure on your nephew. He will be leaving here immediately to become a novice in the church. Congratulations you should feel blessed.” The lie flowed from Hark’s lips smoothly
His Uncle paled “please sir, there must be a mistake he's just a boy. He’d be no use to ya’”
“I have made no mistake, my use for him is none of your concern. Lad, get your things. Hark replied coldly, gesturing for Payten to enter the farmhouse.
His Uncle dropped to his knees “Please, show him mercy, he ain't fit to be a priest”
Payten was astonished, in his imagination his Uncle had never offered more than token resistance to Payten leaving. Yet here was his proud and brutish Uncle begging to save Payten from a life of servitude in the church.
Payten stepped forward “Uncle, don't worry I’ll be okay, I promise. May I have some time to say goodbye?”
A strange glazed over look came into his uncle's eyes
“You have five minutes” Hark turned and walked away
His uncle gingerly grabbed the back of his head “ always knew there was somethin’ different about you and if they found out they'd take ya’. So I kept you hidden and tried to raise ya’ the best I could.”
Tears started to slip down Payten’s face; this was the most affection he had ever received in his life. He embraced his uncle
“Be good ya hear me, if any of the other boys try to give ya’ trouble; crack em in the skull, that way they'll know ya’ mean business. Go inside and get your things, your aunts asleep don't wake her, She’ll raise hell”
Payten tried to speak but found his throat tight so he nodded instead and entered the dark farmhouse where he quietly wrapped his sole change of clothes in a cloth and slung it over his back. He stopped at the doorway “This is real I’m really leaving” so much had happened so fast that it had not had time to sink in, Payten took a deep breath and stepped out of his home for the last time.
His uncle was staring into the night sky when Payten emerged, he turned and clapped Payten on the shoulder “Pate, I want ya’ to have this. It was your grandfather’s, it served me well.” He unclipped the large hunting knife from his belt and handed it to Payten. It was a plain blade with an antler handle wrapped in a simple leather sheath. “I want you to know ya’ pa would be proud of you” Payten felt a rush of excitement, whenever he had asked his Aunt and Uncle about his parents all they would say was that they were gone and not coming back. Maybe Payten could finally get his answers; he opened his mouth to speak when he felt Hark’s hand on his shoulder. He deflated his time was up, he had to leave.
Payten had often thought about how he would feel when he left Wheatblanket, the rush of possibilities and the true joy of freedom he never thought all he would feel was sadness. His Aunt and Uncle were harsh and at times brutal, but they had still taken him under their roof. Payten loathed to admit it but he would miss them. He touched the knife on his belt. He had a long path ahead of him and he would need to be tough to survive
Hark had a camp a small hike from Wheatblanket, when they arrived it was late into the night.
“We will camp here tonight and in the morning we will set out and you will begin your education” Hark said as he began to prepare a fire. The only response Pate could muster was a nod.
Hark walked over to Payten and knelt down to eye level putting his hand on his shoulder
“Lad, I know it's hard but you have taken the first step on the path to greatness. You will look back on this day as the best thing that has ever happened to you” Hark said reassuringly
“That reminds me, Before we sleep I want to examine your soul and internal mana; so I know what we are starting with” Payten shrugged Hark’s hand off his shoulder and backed away, he may have not known much about magic but still the idea of letting a necromancer mess with his soul sounded like a poor one.
“Lad, if you think I'm trying to harm at every opportunity we will never get anything done. Come here it will only take a minute” Hark said in his calm measured voice
“Fine” Payten said weakly as he stepped forward, Hark had saved him from Old Kinly and taken him as an apprentice. What would be the point in hurting him now?
Hark reached out and put his hand above Payten’s heart and closed his eyes, his features framed in the moonlight. Hark’s eyebrows knitted in concentration as one minute stretched to five, Payten grew deeply uncomfortable as five minutes stretched to fifteen. After what seemed like an eternity Hark opened his eyes.
A glimmer crept into his eye “It would appear that I have made a very wise choice for my apprentice after all”