Revised Sept. 11, 2021
THE BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, CHAPTER 4, Part 1
A story of Necromantra
Edited by Christopher Leeson
The Best Laid Plans
She shook her head, like she was trying to shoo away flies.
“The sword was given to my by a demon at the price of the lives of a dozen lives – the lives of my friends and followers. I hate the thing, but if I carry it around with me, it will drift away to find another master. I wouldn’t mind that, except that in hands of a person worse than me, I dread what it could do. If you’re a sorceress, Marinna, maybe you can understand that.”
“Nothing much surprises me anymore,” I admitted. “But did you actually sacrifice your closest friends just to gain a magical weapon?”
I shouldn’t have said that. I had no right to rebuke the elder Airelle, or anyone else for that matter. Necromantra would have been glad to enter into such a bargain. But wouldn’t have pegged Captain Arielle and Necromantra to be birds of a feather.
“I did not!” the knight declared. “They willingly surrendered their souls to a demon – not for a magic sword, but to save my life. We had attacked Lord Pumpkin’s castle in the night, but we were outmatched and I was wounded and dying. The demon healed me at the price of the self-sacrifice of our kingdom’s best knights.
“When I was left alone, he gave me the sword without my asking. It may have been that he wanted Lord Pumpkin dead, too, but he had explained nothing! The sword suddenly opened a portal to the place where the Pumpkin had sought sanctuary and I went through to confront the enemy of my people.”
“But you didn’t kill him,” I pointed out.
“I did. But by his foul magic, he never stays dead for long. I would have burned his body to a cinder to make sure we were rid of him, but I didn't have time. The sword was calling me back home.”
Hers was a too-easy protest of innocence, but I didn’t try to make myself disbelieve it. I didn’t want to despise her, because if I rejected her it would leave me alone and impotent.
“I didn’t here come to quarrel,” I told the she-knight. “I’m here because something you said before gave me the hope that you might be a person to trust in this den of vipers.”
“What did I say?”
“You bothered to mention that Princess Arielle herself might have some rights and interests while her kingdom is being despoiled around her.”
“Can you actually care about the princess? There are stories about Queen Marinna, and very few of them are edifying.”
“Those stories are true,” I told her. “But that that was then and this is now.”
“There is not much in your own words to give me much confidence, Lady,” she observed.
“Where I come from they say that actions speak louder than words. First, how many men can you bring into battle?”
She frowned. “That would depend on what I’m asking them to fight for.”
“You would be asking them to fight for Princess Arielle’s life at the very least, and her throne at best.”
“On those terms, maybe a dozen,” she said. “But I have a couple hundred swords behind me – mostly men personally committed to me, not to Tavon’s heir. Tavon was the first of his dynasty and reigned only briefly, after the fall of Lord Pumpkin. He was a good man, but his brief tenure didn’t create any broad or deep following. The people yearn for a proven paladin in very bad times and there is no constituency to place the scepter into the hands of an unseasoned minor. They would be ready for either an Armand or Erhan, except that both are so evidently self-interested that even the peasants can see it.”
“Power-seekers are always self-interested. But with enough swords around her, Arielle has both the head and the heart to make a rare queen. But, tell me, if you’re related to the former family and you’re also the sort of person to make grown men willing to die for you, why haven’t you become a throne candidate yourself?”
“I am only related to the royal family on her mother’s side,” she said, shrugging.
Maybe that was all that was to it, I still thought she might stack up very well against the other contenders. There had to be something more, something she didn’t want to talk about. I supposed I could have found out more if I dug for it, but I wasn’t sure that I wanted or needed to.
All I said was, “I came here hoping that we could serve the princess together.”
“Truly?” she asked. “I heard rumors that you were not to be trusted. Your reign was a bloody one.”
“It was, I’m sorry to say. You need to understand that I was insane then, and I was insane for a long time before then. But I’m more or less sane now, so I need to work fast. If I lose my mind again there might be no coming back from it. Even now, I’m only serving Armand’s cause because I’m forced to.”
“How are you forced?”
“Powerful interests will slay the princess if I do not serve my master’s interests.”
“Are your speaking of Erhan? But you have already been open about your opposition to Erhan.”
“No, I’m under the thumb of forces that are much more dangerous than Erhan.”
Arielle shook her head. “I don’t know what you expect from me, but I would like to help my young cousin through this chaos. I’m not sure that fighting for a throne in a kingdom like this serves her best interests.”
“That’s my feeling, too,” I said. “I have sorcery, but if I stay only queen on the chessboard can’t create a checkmate. I could use some help.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what a chessboard is.”
“It’s a metaphor. I’m saying we have to talk. We have to know if we can achieve anything as allies.”
After leaving Arielle’s tent, my wobbly flight reminded me that I was in critical need of a kill.
Killing domestic livestock could have revived me somewhat, but the half-formed spirits of dumb beasts are weak. My curse renders me helpless unless I live as a murderer and that is the reality I have had to deal with. Necromancer would cheerfully have killed anyone on hand, because she saw existence in the terms of an extra-planar demon. But in my current state of mind I didn’t want to kill even the knights engaged in this civil war. It is the nature of people to quarrel politically and I doubt they deserved to die any more than did Archimage’s knights, men who were my best friends. So, if I was to rule out the slaying of humans, where did that leave me? Where are the rampaging dragons when one needs them?
There was the nearby Darkuran contingent, of course. I hadn’t had the chance to kill many Darkurans thus far, except for a few criminals I had been used to execute. But killing such as they had been a memorable experience. They had powerful, magic-charged spirits, and each one on his own was a full meal for me. But I was plighted to obey the king of the Darkurans, and so I couldn’t betray them and let suspicion fall on me.
I tentatively flew toward the Darkuran encampment, keeping out of sight in the low-hanging night-mist. Even in the dark of night, I thought I could find one or more of them wandering around.
The only question was how to make the kill without be called out for it. I needed a conventional weapon for the execution insofar as a death by magic would make me a prime suspect. But, unlike in the old days, swordplay came hard to me, having a shape that a lingerie model would envy and the upper body strength of a thirteen-year-old boy.
In a war camp of this size weapons, at least, abounded. My magic enabled me to spirit away a medium-weight sword from a set of stacked arms. I felt its heft off in an isolated copse and found that I could adequately swing and thrust it. Now I only had to use it to kill someone.
I spread my aura wide, knowing what a Darkuran life signature feels like. They were thick in the tents, and in some wide-awake group gatherings thereabouts. But it didn’t take me long to trace one of the creatures who was prowling alone through the benighted bivouac. I moved toward his bio-signature, found him, and then stalked him until he reached a place where he was out of sight and isolated. While in a wooded grove beyond the light of the campfires, I then dropped to Earth behind him. At once I loose a magical back-shot calculated to stun him. If I could render him helpless, I could hopefully use my sword, to leave him dead and unmarked by the signs of sorcery.
I have a good aim and my shot through him to his knees, though it lacked the potency needed to render him unconscious. I came in behind him with all my strength plunged my point into his sinewy hide – but I’d never tried to kill a Darkur that way and it only it only penetrated an inch or less. He tumbled away and metamorphosed, making himself into a formidable battle monster with thick chitin-like plates. Before my eyes, he took on the aspect of a damned ugly, many-armed species.
The Darkuran turned to face me, and the sight of a woman holding a sword left him unimpressed. He himself was holding a Darkuran blaster. That worked in my favor, since I impressed him as being so contemptible that he didn’t reflexively cry out for help. “I’ve heard that human meat is almost as tasty as that of the Aerwa, and that of their shes are the sweetest of all,” he rumbled.
“Oh, so you haven’t already eaten humans?” I asked. “Maybe I picked the wrong guy to assassinate.”
“Oh, yes, you have,” he replied. Wearing the ghastly face of present guise, I couldn’t tell if he was smiling at the thought of killing me or not. He wouldn’t have been so smug if he realized that I was Necromantra dressed in ladylike garb. Because he seemingly wanted to enjoy killing me slowly, he gave me the chance to move first. I used telekinesis to send my sword through the air to striking at his gun-hand. My sorcery had diminished to such a degree that I failed to entirely shear off his wrist. But the surprise and the pain of the strike made my opponent drop the blaster.
I ducked under his guard, seizing the gun in a roll, and then fired at his jaw, to preempt any belated bellow of alarm. His crippled cry came out strangled and low volumed. Because the Darkur race could heal with preternatural swiftness, I had less than a minute to locate and destroy the creature’s change-organ, its best weapon and most effective kill-spot. Unfortunately, that organ is no stationary thing, such as a human’s heart is, but it possessor can move it anywhere within its body to serve the self-defensive needs of the moment.
I fired into his gut, but that didn’t stop him. I leaped out of the way of his wounded rush, but the sweep of his arm knocked the energy pistol from my grasp and into the briers of the dark woodlot.
I could have fled, but I needed a life and also dared not to leave behind a living witness to my rebellion. I surprised him by springing to retrieve my sword on the ground, but he was instantly on top of me and only the force field I’d thrown up kept him from slicing me into pieces via his claws.
“You!” the monster growled, having recognized me by my glowing aura. The realization that he was up against a super-witch frazzled him, time enough to do a flash-probe of his body’s for mystical traces. Back in Darkuria, I had made it a project to learn how to find the location of a Darkuran’s change-organ, something very useful to know. Being magical, it gives off a patterned throb of mystical energy, on even easier to detect than a heartbeat. Fighting him by main strength was out of the question, so I hurled the sword at him again, riding on the crest of another a burst of kinetic energy. It entered him like a steel-headed bolt shot from a crossbow, with his change-organ as my target. In my weakened state, I had nothing left to give. It was like putting the whole bet on one dice cast.
The Darkuran gave out a muffled yowl of when penetrated and collapsed inert. As his dim spirit evaporated into the night, I felt the released of the alien’s bio-power as it flowed into me. It was a mystic recharge exceeding any that I could have gotten from a dozen ordinary men. And, as a bonus, the taking of it left me guilt-free. Instead, I felt like more like a big game hunter who had downed a trophy-worthy beast.
Refreshed, I looked anxiously about. I heard the clump of boots breaking the brush – probably sentries that had heard strange sounds. On impulse, I retrieved the Darkuran blaster in case of future need, and then went phantom, diving into the ground. I focused on the energy currents of a nearby flowing stream, so as to not get lost.
Shortly thereafter, with the blaster hidden in my “mystical closet” – that explicable “other-place” where I may store objects and retrieve them at will” -- I returned to my tent, changed my soiled garment for a night dress, and woke up my spell-anesthetized servants.
I was reasonable certain that I’d left no murder clue behind by the time I slipped between my covers. Before I dropped off to sleep, I was only sorry that the Darkur I had found hadn't been a killer of human beings. But it was a dirty world and nothing ever worked out in the nice and tidy way that we would want them to.
Continued in Chapter 4, Part 2