In front of the apothecary's shop, a few scattered people milled about slowly, turning in from their work to go home to their families. The mounted figure in the street drew some small attention from them, her attire being unusual for this part of the city, especially at the time of day she'd arrived.
Further east into the city, the city of Kedaldown continued on for another two miles, before stopping promptly at a wall. Beyond that, the white washed walls of Kedaldown Center shone in the sunset. The Spire, a tower of white color with inlays of nacre worked into its walls, stood fifteen stories above the rest of the city. At the Spire's top, golden ornamentation on the wall of the Spire itself gleamed in what was still for it, full sunlight. The brilliant gold and prismatic nacre were effulgent, rendering the Spire as to a beacon in the city.
Further west from Kedaldown, only half a mile or so from Omen's shop, began the Gathers, which surrounded the rest of Kedaldown in a great ring of meandering homes and vegetation that went on for an indeterminate span. In the Gathers were run-down homes and struggling businesses, with uncobbled roads and beaten paths leading from one place to another. The colors involved very little white or any of the same rich hues found in the center; earthen browns and greens or faded browns, greens, yellows and off-whites were more common. Nature encroached on the Gathers in a way unlike in the Kedaldown and the Center. Grasses, mosses, creeping vines, brush and trees came up from the ground anywhere where they had not been beaten back time and again.
This marked difference between one part of the concentric city and the next was the flavor of Kedaldown. From any direction that a person entered, they came first through the Gathers. There, it was typical for a family to have a monthly income of just up to eight imperial silvers, if everyone pulled their weight and took any job that came their way. Most of the trade in the Gathers came from valued goods rather than money. What could not be bought or traded for was usually stolen, and the general lack of law enforcement made this method an easy one.
Traveling further in, would one find what part of the city was referred to simply as Kedaldown. It was a generally accepted fact that this was the bones of the city. It was home to the city's middle class, where a single member of any family could earn up to four imperial gold a month; certainly enough to pay the rent and keep a family fed. More affluent citizens of Kedaldown could make as much as two imperial platinum a month, marking them among the few here who had their own homes. Here, many of the building were about two stories tall, otherwise they covered enough ground to make up the difference. Some were as tall as three stories, though this was not Omentus' shop.
Omentus' shop was a simple affair on the outside, which had hints of some money invested in it. Two stories tall, its frame was made of thick wood, and it sat on a stone foundation. Its larger first story windows were made of thick, clear glass - luxury not everyone could afford. Its smaller second story windows were not only proofed against the weather, but could opened to let in air. A small wooden sign hung out in front of the shop, depicting a cauldron and leaves of three sorts near it, plainly stating to even the illiterate that this was a place to seek medicine. Further above that sign, hanging between the windows on the second story and the lintel of the door was a larger sign. It was a banner of soft, leather-like color with orange threads of some coarse, flaxen fiber with metallic highlights that glimmered slightly in the sun's evening rays, which had been arranged into large lettering which read "APOTHECARY" in the common tongue. The banner waved gently in a breeze that could not be felt, attracting subconscious attention to itself, and thus to the store below it.
On the outside of the door was a small wooden sign, hanging vertically from a length of simple cord. Its surface read "open" in a thick, black ink.
The bell chime jingled quietly, heralding a new customer to the shop. The scents of a dozen gentle herbs hung thickly in the air, joined by the scents of woods and medicines. The apothecary's shop consisted mostly of a single room. On its eastern and western walls were each a bench, beneath many shelves and hanging wicker baskets, upon or within which were all manner of herbs, plants, spices, flowers and so on. In a southwestern corner basket was a collection of different staves, each made of a different wood, or carved with a different design. In the southeastern corner of the store, assorted gemstones and jewels of different sizes hung on sturdy red-dyed hemp strings. One caddy held an assortment of wooden wands, the one beside held metal ones, and the caddy beside that held more ornate pieces - combinations of woods, metals, bone and/or stones.
There was a long, sturdy table in the center of the store. Atop the table were many different things. Among the assorted knickknacks, there were fine portraits of different animals in one place, small bottles of various liquids in another, and an assortment of scrolls and books on one end.
At the far end of the room, though the room was indeed only about twenty-five feet long, there was a window cut into the wall, over a counter. On the other side of the counter sat Omentus, with his concentration centered on a project behind the counter’s raised wall. As his customer entered, he spoke automatically, in the bored drawl of the uninterested, "Your magicals in the depository hamper on your right before you come in. The penalty of the ward you are standing on is severe, and I don’t want any trouble in here. The colored tab produced by the hamper is your key to their retrieval.” He waited for a moment, knowing that it took some people a moment or two to realize that they had a charm somewhere on their body.
Nerine actually cracked a smile at the insolent remark. Omentus’ disregard should have offended her, should have been met with a biting remark of her own, but it put her in such a strangely buoyant mood that she felt no need for it. Being overlooked, spoken to as a trivial commoner was a fresh breath of air she had not tasted of in the damp dark of her fortress. She was perfectly aware that she was entirely out of her element within Omentus’ realm; the openness and tidiness of his shop was only more obvious because of the gentle setting light of the sun that streamed freely through the windows, concealing the dark nature of Omentus with its innocent appearance.
The dark woman casually walked forward, the warning spoken to her going completely unheeded. Her dark blue eyes swept curiously over the piles of objects as she moved, sometimes running her gloved fingers over the numerous papers that lay piled over the center table. She was absolutely silent for a moment, her only noise being the silken rustling of her dress on the floor, and then, with a sweet smile, she turned to the wall from which Omentus had spoken from.
“Do tell me, my dear Apothecary, how does one remove the charm from such a greeting as yours?”
With the blue nib of his quill, Omentus marked a perfect curve, part of a broken circle, onto a piece of parchment which sat on the counter in front of him. He looked up at the woman, but didn't quite seem to focus. In a tone only slightly more genial, but still as automatic, he said, "Corran, for perfume. A custom blend of lavender, orchid, violet leaves and powder, with a hint of ocean scents and distilled essences of fate and luck, by the name Talisman."
With his left hand, he reached into the drawer in his desk and took out a fine, blown crystal bottle with a silver cap, two and a half inches tall. It was filled with a mostly clear liquid that had touches of silver and violet color in it. With his right hand, he continued to write on the parchment in front of him. He set the bottle of perfume on the raised counter between them and said, "Your order came in two days ago, and has been filled in full. The charge is twenty-three imperial platinum, two gold and seven silver, has been covered by a third party. You have no allergy to any of the ingredients used in the creation of this perfume." The last part he stated more matter-of-factly, as if he had a clear grasp of the woman's medical details.
His hand stopped scribbling on the parchment and he glanced up at his customer again. The focus in his eyes shifted slightly, but he still seemed to be a little off in his own world. "Is there anything else that I can help you with, miss Co-" he blinked, once. Then, a second time, and then his expression sharpened.
"Ah- priestess!" he exclaimed with a small smile on his face. "It's good to see you again." He glanced to the side, toward the stairway which led to the building's upper story. "Shadrim!" he called out, "Would you fetch the sign for me? Our guest has arrived."
Answering him, a feline chirp came from the stairs, followed quickly by the cat. The archangel blue crossed the rooms quickly, and momentarily returned with the cord of the wooden sign in his mouth. Curiously, the cat seemed to retrieve the item without opening either of the two doors between the stairway and the shop's outer side, nor any explanation why the small creature could so easily grab the sign, which had been placed a little more than four and a half feet up the face of the door.
While the cat worked, Omentus was putting away his project. "What brings you to Kedaldown, Miss Corran? I was amazed by the alacrity stated in your reply; I'd suspected you wouldn't be able to clear time for a visit for at least a few weeks."
Nerine laughed lightly in response, waving her hand dismissively. “One of the benefits of leading a cult, Mr. Anima, is being prepared under any particular circumstances. And in such a case as yours, I hardly found reason to keep you waiting. “
The dark woman turned herself slightly, cocking her head to curiously scan the workspace over once again. “No dark holes for you, Mr. Anima? No skeletons, no blood, no coffins? Quite a lovely place for a necromancer, don’t you think?”
"May I ask what made my case so pressing?" Omentus asked genially. "From what Shadrim tells me, you had considered killing him rather than coming here at all... nonetheless, I do think he's taken a liking to you." Shadrim was sitting aristocratically on a shelf in the front room, with his tail curled around his paws. The cat had its eyes on Nerine, and blinked slowly.
Omentus paused for a moment, glancing upward rather suddenly. "Oh yes, thank you for reminding me." He tapped on a tube nearby him, which was attached vertically to the wall, and led up higher. Inside the tube, a strange, fluid substance came alight. The tubing outlined the ceiling of the front room, with two tubes that crossed in the middle of the room, coming from the middle of the four tubes that outlined the ceiling. As the fluid's light raced along, the front room became bathed in a soft, silvery light which did not offend the eyes, but also clearly displayed the contents of the apothecary's shop. In the back room, the same silvery light spread through Omentus' home.
"I don't normally work as a necromancer, Miss Corran," he said. "Really, I learned it as a fundamental for my work in seromancy, wherein I can focus on blood, souls and living things. By the way, what did you think of Jonys?" He stood up and disappeared into the back room, appearing a moment later, at the door which he opened in the wall. "Please, come in. I certainly wouldn't want you to come all this way, without inviting you into my home."
Nerine regarded the cat with a raised eyebrow before turning back to Omentus. There never really was an end to all of the surprises, were there? Despite the fact that such things were entirely vexing and stressful, the freshness of it all actually made the experience somewhat pleasant.
“Such a pity, Omentus. Your talents would be greatly appreciated by those that walk in dark paths. As for my visit, well, what need has a friend for reason? An opportunity ignored is an opportunity wasted.” Nerine paused at the threshold of the door, standing directly in front of the cat-eyed man. “And I cannot say that I understand your mention of Jonys. What science of yours has he had the pleasure of enduring?”
"How peculiar," Omentus said. "As well as you must know your men, I am intrigued that you would not have recognized the color of his hair." Pointedly, he looked past her, directing his gaze at something above and behind the front door of the shop.
"I'm pleased to hear that you've reconsidered my offer of friendship, Adenine. Partners in business; master and servant; mentor and pupil - these things just haven't got the sort of thing that I believe people like you and I need. I am certain you understand what I mean. When we fall on hard times, we will be there for one another. Once your edge is gone, a business partner has no further interest in you... when your power is gone, your servants will turn on you... when you have nothing left to teach, your student will surpass you."
He smiled at her, tilting his head as he backpedaled into the work room beyond the shop. This room was certainly where the apothecary took the mundane and made it into medicine. There were many shelves, each with its own array of alchemical devices, apparatuses, beakers and jars of reagents. The same type of tubing lined the ceiling here, bathing the room in a clarifying but unoffensive silver light. "You and I, however... we will always be there for one another. When you need a favor, I would be happy to lend it to you. When you're hurt, and you need a hand, mine will be there for you." The demonic man waited for his guest to come further inside, and for her response. There was something that twinkled in his eyes, like a sort of mischief that he wasn't letting her on to, just yet.
Perhaps it was the fact that a man like Omentus was speaking such words to her, or perhaps it was the strange glint in his eyes that aroused a certain uneasiness to spring forth within Nerine. The idea that she would ever rely on another— particularly one that turned her men into trivial signs for a shop— was disturbing in a way that made her blood run cold. For as long as she could remember, Darissa had been her friend, her protector. It was not the most happy or promising of relationships, but it had been the only thing she had. Her very soul belonged to the dark goddess now, and that had meant sacrificing everything that made her human. That meant she no longer had a family, a brother whom she had once cared for, friends that she had relied on in the schooling days of her youth. Such things seemed to exist so long ago that she could hardly remember them.
But she would be human for Omentus. She could pretend that friendship was something she could give, that he had somehow fallen into her favor during his absence. She could offer that intangible bond that could benefit them both, however pretentious it might be.
“Certainly a promising promise from one with powers like yours.” Nerine replied dryly. She did, after all, still have reason to be somewhat pessimistic about Omentus’ offer. One did not base life-long trust on a person they had known after a few minutes of meeting. Not if they were something more than a fool.
But Nerine was careful to keep a light tone, even in her doubt. However much it pained her to admit it, she could need the man’s help sooner or later. When that time came, it would not matter how much trust she had in him, for she would still need the help. At the moment, her pessimism was simply keeping her from looking foolish.
Setting down his quill, he checked his references, "Four and one..." he mumbled aloud, "glitter without the light. Hmm." He looked up, to the indications of the planar needles. Each of them hung on a fine silk thread. Four of them - the blue, red, green and yellow needles - were spaced equidistant from one another. A cyan needle swung around all of them at an even pace, but the silver needle in the middle stood perfectly still, seemingly repulsed by the four colored needles around it. The four elemental needles made a perfect quarter-turn, counterclockwise. The silver needle in the middle reacted, stretching its thread more taut than before. On his left, colored sands flowed through each of three different hourglasses of different sizes. One cyan, one white, and one delft with black sparkles. Through the largest of the three, the white sand moved almost imperceptibly slowly, as it always did. Through the hourglass just a few inches smaller than the first, the cyan sand moved at an even but quick pace, then swirled in the bottom and flowed backward for a few moment, before reversing again. In the delft glass, the sands did not move. Even the falling grains were motionless.
His eyes were stuck on the delft hourglass, whose grains were affixed, mid-sparkle. A few minutes wore by, slowly. "Hm," was all he said. The mage picked up his quill again, wet the nib, and wrote down the last four sigils on the scroll. He gave the ink a moment to dry, then opened the tops of the hourglasses, while he snatched each of the moving needles from their silk suspensions. Carefully, he measured out the sand from each hourglass, and spread the sands on top of the scroll. He stuck an elemental needle into each of the scroll's four corners, and the cyan needle into its center. Next, he opened the black box in front of him. It was filled with a silky-smooth dust, opalescent in color with sickly bright green highlights. He spread the dust out over the sands on the scroll.
Finally, he took up the silver needle from its silk suspension, and a tiny lead gavel from the desk. He rose the gavel and positioned the needle. "Rgrodu shokruskithu vimuSeabi," he began to incant. His words were heard throughout the Bastion; they made the space itself shiver with revulsion. "Enatuia lilakal weloriag Na-ule go-soth hothau farab iaerp lanis," he continued. The very air seemed to buckle; shadows formed where light should have been, but shined just as brightly. "Joncyn roic s'bonararaman ddamil-ilonot melhalha ashagnelo a'bhogOtendae ulingo favatu kaeluril-" far above, broad bolts of lightning burst forth from the cloudless heavens, and peals of thunder heralded a single sheet of hail in the form of tiny red stones. "-aurith faurgld ngothu orogog lLac lo'uggyu tlosha heur zeiss visegqa..."
Three kingdoms away, Emille woke from her sleep in a cold sweat. In her dreams, the sky was torn open, and a thousand nameless demons poured out to consume the world. The ground boiled and gave birth to the primals that walked upon in the ages before time. She did not bother dressing herself, but bolted for the throne room in a panicked haste. When she arrived, she found that she was not alone. All but two of the king's seers and prophets were already here, vying to explain to the king and queen what they had seen in their visions. Every one of them had tears in their eyes, and it didn't take more than half a minute for the others to arrive.
In Gargarock, a child woke screaming from his bed. Six houses over, the same. Susceptible to what was happening, more than a hundred children across the city fled to their parents. Animals scurried beneath stoops and into sewers. An altar cracked and crumbled, the soothsayers who watched the darkness saw glimpses of the horrors that could come. Some stayed to see the visions through, others rushed to warn their masters with all due haste.
In Tesae Port, the waters churned unnaturally. In the sky above, myriad colors shone out from between the clouds. The drowned rose from the harbor depths and walked onto the shore. A pale light gleamed in their eyes; they moved far faster than mere zombies. Some screamed, others fainted at the sight. The dead marched briskly on, seeking the city. Eride Domar, a sailor who had been lost in the harbor four years before, was the first to find his family. His wife shrieked at the sight of him, but he seemed to ignore her. He ripped up the floorboards of their home with a single hand, pulling out the golden coins he'd stashed there years ago. Sea water burst from his mouth as he opened it for the first time. He thrust the coins toward her. Half-gurgling, he told her, "Horrible darkness is coming. Take the children, flee from here, stop when you reach your mother." Her eyes were rapt on him, as the light went out in his eyes, and his body dissipated into the shadows.
Lerte continued chanting, "Iaussorsi xysonc." He stopped. "Hub'yatlleign, Lurker in Darkness where the Gods are Not. I invoke thee, show to me the life within your veins." The sands and dust on the scroll liquefied and began to seethe. He banged the gavel against the back of the silver needle, plunging it through the cyan needle with absolute precision. The cyan metal buckled and warped as the silver was thrust through it. The liquid on the scroll receded into the vellum, and suddenly everything stopped. Both above, and far away, the madness that had plunged itself onto the world had vanished, but left a terrible fear in its wake.
* * *
"Give it time, Miss Corran. I know it must sound too good to be true," Omentus said. There, in the apothecary's shop, that single pocket of the world had not even felt the things which happened outside it, though Shadrim had disappeared. "Can I offer you some tea, priestess?"
“Tea would be most welcome.” Nerine cordially replied, somewhat more relaxed by the familiar offer. Years ago, she used to sip rosehip tea with her pompous friends, tittering over matters of little importance and whispering of the most recent love affairs amongst the noble men and women. There had been no talk of darkness or cults, which Nerine now spoke too much of, but Omentus wasn’t interested in business. Whatever he was interested still remained unclear to the dark woman, but that was of no particular importance to her. When he desired something, he would speak of it for the same reason that Nerine had come, for both company and advice that may soon be needed.
"What shall we speak of this fine evening, m'Lady?" Omentus asked. His tone was as genial as when he first arrived in the woman's bathing room. He led her through the concealed door in the back of his shop, and then into his porch hallway. A series of wooden hooks were mounted on the eastern wall, at their right. The apothecary's red cloak already hung here, beneath it was the harness of syringes he typically wore. Today, Omentus was clad in nothing unusual, but just a black suede shirt, black canvas pants, and his walking boots. Small strips of red leather kept his hair under control, and away from where his nape eye would open, if there were a need for it.
To their left as they entered Omentus' home was a sliding wooden door that led to the second porch before the garden, but they did not go this way today. Instead, the old man led Nerine into the dining room, where a long table with three chairs along its length and another at each end. The table had been set with freshly prepared tea and small tarts of various kinds of exotic fruits. There were lamps set around the room, which hung from the ceiling. Each was made of crystal and brass, with a bulb at its center filled with a liquid that glowed with the same silver light as the tubes in Omentus' shop. A larger lamp was set above the table, which cast it in a pleasant light.
With the proper courtesy owed to a guest, the apothecary took Nerine's cloak and hung it gently on a wall hook. "Welcome to my home, Miss Corran," Omentus said smoothly, "humble as it is. I apologize, that it is all I have, but I do hope that it is to your liking." He led his guest toward the table, and pulled out the high-backed oak chair that sat at the end of the table nearest to the entryway for the lady. "Is there anything I can get for you, anything at all?"
A delicate smile graced Nerine's lips as she took her chair with the practiced grace of an aristocrat. Her tingling senses told her that there was more to this man's "humble" abode than what the naked eye could perceive, but she was content to partake of its quaint appearance. It was natural that he should choose a place in which his clients and patients could be comfortable, but she couldn't help but imagine that her servant might have had a different view of this apothecary than the one she saw now. Truly, Omentus was a man of many facets, as well as thoughts. What might be passing behind those deep eyes intrigued Nerine more than she would have liked to admit.
"You do me too much kindness already, Omentus, what with this indecorous arrival of mine. Yet it would seem you are delightedly prepared for such circumstances. I desire only your company for which I have traveled with incongruous haste to attain." Nerine spoke all of this in an off-handed manner, always keeping her eyes on the man to whom she owed credit for the impeccable hospitality. Beneath the table she had gracefully adjusted the dark silk of her skirt, allowing her to properly sit in the chair with her back straight and head poised. Her hands remained gently folded on her lap, entirely demure.
In that dark place in the back of her mind, Nerine laughed. She would have liked nothing more than to storm about the room, smashing the delicate tray of tarts to the floor and staining the table with the hot tea that sat upon it. It might have been entertaining to attempt a swing at the mysterious man, or perhaps to take him by the point of her rapier and wring confessions out of him. It was always a temptation among gentlemen. Her dark urges desired to destroy all pretense, to unmask the hideousness that lay beneath the polished surface of the aristocrats' noble faces.
But such behavior wasn't good for business. Nerine had no intention of repeating her argumentative behavior in the chambers of her room. There, she had sought control and lost it, but here, here she was determined to win the war. Omentus' secrets were no longer safe, not with a snake to slither in through the cracks of his defenses. Innocence she did not believe in, pure intent was corrupted and fleeting, but power was something solid, tangible. And it was all too obvious that the man offering a chair to her had abilities that no mortal should have ever been granted. Nerine could appreciate that.
Ah, but such a difficult man to crack! He would not be fooled by feminine wiles, nor propriety, nor base cunning. He could be appeased, but not forced. Not controlled. The status of a friend required equality--Omentus was no servant, no pawn to be used and then promptly disposed of. Omentus was an intellect, a stunning scientist who made a mockery of nature.
And that drove Nerine mad. She wanted to scream, wring out her hair, gnash her teeth, for it had come so suddenly, so horribly, this smug man that had induced chaos into her realm. He could not be controlled. He could come and go as he wished, speak however he liked, play with her servants in any way he deemed worthy, and mock the emissary of Darissa with that cunning gleam in his eyes. And at all of this, Darissa merely laughed.
Such thoughts made Nerine's delicate fingers twitch, desiring so much to curl into fists. But she was in control this time. She would not become another toy for Omentus. This was...a friendship, and that meant equality. For now.