A hurried glance over my shoulder revealed the amorphous shadow racing towards our party, which was moving pitifully slowly in comparison. I growled, then pulled my reigns up to slow my mount and grab for the book, inwardly cursing the last few days and their happenings for forcing me to rely so heavily and readily on the damn thing. As soon as I had dropped back to be even with Tor, who was bringing up the rear, I issued my order.
As the last syllable tore from my lip the earth behind my steed’s rear hooves was rent in half, the chasm rapidly deepening and widening as I gained distance from it. I did not wait to see how, if at all, the shroud would react to my delaying effort, instead once again urging my horse back to the head of the group and settling in beside Jessa and Eve’s shared mount. Jessa glanced at me, then looked back over her own shoulder, then looked back to me.
“How many more times can you do that? If we can stall it long enough, Eve and I might be able to figure something out…”
I shook my head, cutting her off.
“I can stall the shroud for perpetuity. That will not, however, resolve our issue of firepower. Yourself and the girl simply do not possess the strength, even if you were to combine your castings-”
I paused as a vague, half-formed memory floated through my mind. Or perhaps it was a misremembered dream. In either case, I seemed to recall once drawing on the powers of other casters directly, rather than simply taking control of their already-made casting. That would drastically reduce the power usually lost in the process of controlling another’s casting, and could conceivably allow me to craft and use a casting powerful enough to destroy the shroud. The odds of that being the case with most pairs of casters would have been painfully low, which was likely one of the reasons my hazy mind hadn’t regurgitated the method earlier, but the child glaring at me even now was playing host to the fragment of a goddess- Essentially a battery, full of the power I needed to rend the shroud from existence.
“I have a solution.”
Both Jessa and Eve quickly turned their heads to focus on me, the question unspoken but obvious. Instead of explaining immediately however, I slowed my pace slightly to drop back between Radd and Leric.
“Well, this is a right mess, ain’t it!?”
The small man seemed almost on the edge of hysterics, shouting wildly even as he continued to glance rapidly over his shoulder at the ravine I had caused, and the shadow even now surging over its lip. I ignored him, instead focusing on the red-haired huntress.
“The lot of you that can’t cast need to stall the shroud. Buy as much time as possible, then when I give the word, get as far from it as possible.”
Leric stared at me silently for a moment, watching, then nodded once and wheeled her mount around.
I ignored Radd’s startled cry, instead bringing my own horse to a standstill and dismounting, turning to face the onrushing shroud as I did so. Behind me, I heard Jessa’s horse wheel around and begin to return to where I stood, even as the remainder of the party followed Leric’s lead and swung around to meet the shroud. I knew that even with their best efforts they would only be able to buy me a few moments at most, and so I immediately began crafting the most powerful flame casting I knew, using my own heart as the nucleus and epicenter of what would eventually become an all-consuming ball of fire. Normally, this casting would be far beyond my capabilities, and even as it was I could barely muster the power to begin forming the structure of the spell.
“Evren! What are they doing!?”
I heard Jessa from beside and above me, and I broke my concentration momentarily to reach up and grab her wrist. As soon as my skin made contact with her, I cast out my senses and began searching for power in my surroundings, greedily binding whatever I could find into my casting. My own meager reserves vanished almost instantly, but in comparison Jessa’s power was like a lake, damned and ready to be released. I sacrificed a small amount of my own power to crack the damn, jolting Jessa and breaking her subconscious control over her powers momentarily. But that moment was all I needed to take control, and I began channeling her own power into my reservoir, and then into my casting.
I heard Jessa gasp as I began to take her power, and then I heard Eve’s worried voice.
“Jessa? Jessa! What are you doing!?”
I was not watching the girl on the horse, but I did feel her hands latch onto my own wrist in an attempt to pry it off of Jessa’s. I took the opportunity to reach out for Eve’s power as well, then felt my body stagger back as the sheer strength of her washed over me.
If Jessa had been a lake, and if I was a puddle, than Eve was an ocean. I had felt the residual power in Etheel’s corpse, so I was not surprised at the child’s obscene strength, but even then I could not help but marvel at the reality. Once, long ago, I had ruled over legions of casters and their creations, but even then I could not recall a caster with the strength and potential that the girl possessed. If I could train her, teach her, I might yet get to see something new…
I was stirred from my musings by a surge in Eve’s power- Something in the depths was stirring. I grimaced; I was more or less certain about the cause of the stirring, but I simply didn’t have the time to deal with that irritating spirit at the moment. I used a portion of Jessa’s power to jolt Eve as well, and as soon as I could feel both the casters’ energy flowing into me I withdrew my consciousness fully back into my own body. A glance towards the horse beside me revealed both Eve and Jessa frozen, their faces a rictus of confusion and fear, while I could feel my own chest rapidly warming as the casting that encircled my heart gained strength.
A deafening, childlike scream drew my attention towards the melee that was inching ever closer to where I stood. As I watched, Leric rolled to the side, narrowly avoiding a downward swinging appendage from the shroud that pulverized the earth where it struck. Almost immediately, Daniel lunged forward and swung his sword with both hands into the appendage, severing it cleanly and leaving it flopping on the ground like a fish removed from its stream. Radd followed up by bringing his warhammer down on the severed appendage, obliterating it and sending gobs of black shroud flying through the air to paint the ground and the party. Behind the three, Tor stood at a distance, sending arrow after arrow to land with expert precision in the rapidly appearing and disappearing mouths that covered the shroud.
But for all their efforts, the four were barely able to slow the shroud, let alone stall it. The thing seemed hellbent on reaching either myself or one of the casters, confirming my suspicion that the impetus of its creation had included a clause stipulating it had to destroy a certain individual.
The only issue was, such an impetus should no longer exist.
I sighed, then returned my focus to my casting, wringing as much energy from the two females beside me as possible and wrapping it in ever more detailed circles around my heart, channeling my intentions into the spell all the while. Suddenly, I felt Jessa begin to sway, and I cut off the flow of power from her, now drawing solely from Eve and her seemingly bottomless reserves. Another scream warned me of the shroud’s imminent arrival, and I decided that I would have to make due with what I had manged to fold into the casting. Releasing Eve from the power meld as well, I slowly began to walk forward in a straight line, focusing all the while on keeping the casting controlled- No easy feat, considering it was now multiple orders of magnitude more powerful than anything I could have naturally created on my own.
I spoke slowly as well, forcing the words out with each step.
Tor heard me first, and shouted towards the others to retreat. He turned in his saddle to face me, and his face paled, whatever he was about to say dying unspoken on his lips. Instead, he urged his horse around and rode hard for Jessa and Eve, presumably to lead them and their mount to safety. However, I no longer had the freedom to pay attention, or even to care, as the shroud was now upon me.
In the last moments before it washed over me, I was struck with the certain realization that this shroud had been created, and sent, with the purpose of attacking me.[If the shroud was sent to kill him, it means that someone knows he exists and what he is. That also means that the shroud was sent to bind him for eternity, since anybody who knows how to make a shroud had to know both part of Evren’s past, and his nature.] I frowned.
Someone was going to pay for this inconvenience.
As the shroud’s many mouths began to tear and gouge at me yet again, I smirked.
“No need to be greedy. There’s plenty to go around.”
Then I unleashed my casting.
There is a curious quality to destruction. I have seen uncountable scenes of devastation over the course of my existence, and been responsible for more than my fair share as well. But nonetheless, I do not consider destruction to be inherently reprehensible, or even something to be avoided in general. Destruction clears out the old, allowing for new growth and evolution, allowing for change. Perhaps that is why I am so curiously unopposed to destruction- It shows me an analogy of what might happen, should I eventually be destroyed. Perhaps that is what compelled me to create the shrouds, and their ravenous nature.
Oh yes, that was me, though I no longer recall the exact details, the how or the why. Not that it matters- I have left many indelible marks on this world, the shrouds being the least of them.
“And to think, I was worried about firepower.”
My smirk survived the apocalyptic explosion that tore from my body, though little else did. I stood in a thigh-deep crater, the ground scorched hard and black for a good distance around me. Ash danced on the breeze, and the smell of smoke was all-pervading. The trees nearest to me had been stripped of leaves, bark, and branches, and even now some smoldered and burned. Farther away, the crowns of trees were engulfed in flames as the late summer leaves served as kindling.
Of the shroud, there was no sign, save a single blackened lump embedded in the wall of the crater. I approached it and pried it free, realizing as I did so that it was an ash-covered orb, about the size of my fist.
With a bark I summoned the book from wherever it had been thrown by the explosion, then promptly ordered it to create another black robe, because the last had fared as well as the shroud had in the explosion. Using the hem of my new robe, I brushed the worst of the ash from the orb. As the blackened detritus fell away, it revealed an incredibly smooth tan and white orb with a marbled appearance, and what seemed like the occasional black scribble on it.
I knew better, of course- the orb was the result of an impetus fusing with the skull of whomever had the misfortune to be carrying the impetus at the time of their death. What I held in my hands was the nucleus of the now-destroyed shroud, and a fairly potent artefact as well. Slipping the book into my robe, I climbed out of the crater while absentmindedly tossing the nucleus from hand to hand. Up until now, this journey had mostly been a way for me to kill both some time, and hopefully myself. Honestly, I had held little real hope of being released, and had been planning on perhaps finding a glacier or cave to while away eternity in once my hopes were dashed yet again. But now everything was different.
Somebody, or something, knew about me. Knew enough about my past and my nature to use a shroud against me. I could not hope to rest peacefully while such a foe existed.
In the distance, through the smoke, I could make out moving shapes and heard the call of my name. I did not respond.
If there truly was a being out there that wished for me to be destroyed, then they and I shared a most fervent wish. But if they hoped merely to seal me for all eternity…
The orb seemed to shimmer, then elongated and thinned into a gently curving knife, wickedly sharp on one edge. Without hesitation I ran the blade along my forearm, skinning off a length of my flesh to bind around the handle for a grip. Ignoring the already-sealing wound, I forced what little power remained to me into my new knife, binding it to my will through blood and intent.
Once I was finished with the binding, both physical and otherwise, I held the blade up to the sunlight that managed to filter through the smoke.
“They sent you to bind me, against my will. Instead, I bound you. Now I go to return you to them, whoever and wherever they be.”
I began to walk once again, heading towards where I could hear the party moving about.
It seemed this would be a longer journey than I expected.
I had a debt to pay before I could sleep.