Henrik wakes with a start. At first his eyes are blurred but quickly the haze in them clears and he finds himself in a room. It’s a small simple space with grey stone walls, a dark slab floor and pitched thatch roof.
Henrik has to admit that he’s confused as he expected to find himself looking up at the sky and then he remembers his shoulder. He frantically turns his attention to the arrow wound but to his astonishment finds that it has been wrapped and treated. He thanks his lucky stars as he assumes the smuggler has fixed him up. He notes that he must repay her aid before they part ways. But as Henrik tries to move his right arm he hears the jangle of chains being pulled taught and finds that his arm can’t move any further than he has already taken it.
The Majika goes into a panic as he rolls his head to his right and finds much to his shock that his right arm is shackled to a three metre chain that has been fastened to the stone wall. Then, as if on cue, a wooden door, the only door to the room, swings open and bright brilliant almost white light bursts through. Henrik shields his eyes with his free left hand even as a slight figure blots out a significant section of the blinding light and then slams the door closed behind them after a short time.
Even without being able to see the figure Henrik is sure that it’s the hooded smuggler that he paid to take him as far as Ilsden, a city near the base of Mount Verity. But by the looks of things he has yet again been betrayed. It shouldn’t surprise him but for some reason it does. The betrayal of the runners hadn’t but the betrayal of the smuggler has. He knows that it’s stupid but he actually thought that a smuggler would be more honest. For what reason he can’t say but perhaps it’s due to a belief he held about smugglers wanting repeat custom, so not to rat on their clientele if they wish to continue their revenue streams.
“Awake I see.” The hooded smuggler says with a soft voice as she stands with her left hip against the stone wall of the small square room that is furnished with a fire pit halfway along the right wall, the bed which Henrik is occupying in the opposite corner, a small square table and a single plain wooden chair. The fire pit is without flames but the smouldering black pile of ash suggests that it had been rumbling until maybe an hour or two before Henrik’s awakening.
“What is this?” Henrik spits as he pulls the chain from the shackle on his wrist taut and points at it angrily.
“Insurance.” The smuggler says with a cocking of her head while her arms are folded across her chest.
“Insurance for what?” Henrik demands at know as he struggles to manoeuvre into a sitting position while one of his arms is tethered to the wall.
“For your presence. I don’t want you running off after all. You’re too valuable for me to permit that.” The hooded woman says as a thin smile tears across her face. Everything above her top lip remains bathed in the shadow cast by her long loose hood.
“You mean you intend to sell me to the Prejudges!” Henrik spits. He’s disgusted by the smugglers dishonesty and openly admits who is after him. He sees no reason to keep it a secret and it is likely the woman has figured out he’s a Majika and probably thinks he’s on the run. She’d only he half right in her assumptions, though.
“Oh no, I’m not selling you to anyone. At least not until you’ve helped me locate something very important.” The woman says as her thin smile morphs into a fanged grin.
“If you wanted help then why the shackles?” Henrik questions before adding, “You could have just asked. That is what people do!”
“You really don’t know, do you?” The smuggler queries with a chuckle that quickly turns to roaring laughter.
“Know what? Why are you laughing?” Henrik demands with a mixture of both confusion and hurt, while a dark foreboding feeling creeps over him. The feeling is so strong that he has to mentally force himself not to shudder in response to it.
With that the woman throws her hooded cloak off her frame. Henrik’s eyes go wide as he finds himself gawking back at the woman who he can now see is clad in the distinctive black armour of a Prejudge. The shiny black chest plate emblazoned with the red gavel and dagger that form an x shape at the very centre.
Henrik cannot believe his eyes. He even rubs at them sure that this has to be some sort of nightmare and that he must still be asleep.
After several attempts to wake himself up, unsuccessfully, he concludes that this is actually happening to him. His heart sinks as a result.
“Shocked I see.” The Prejudge says with a cackle of superiority.
“It was all a trap. How long before the rest of your ilk arrive?” Henrik queries as he feels the failure of his actions begin to strangle off what hope he had of reaching where he thinks the root of magic resides.
“Oh you misunderstand Majika. I’m a former Prejudge. My name is Cassandra.” The woman explains. She wonders whether Henrik will catch on to where her explanation is headed or whether she will have to explain in full detail. She hopes it’s the former but fears it may be the latter from the look of confusion that is carved into the Majika’s old wrinkled face. His bald head littered with short white stubble, while his dull blue eyes seem to peer into her soul.
She doubts he is searching for a weakness through the use of a spell, but if he is then he will find his efforts will bring him nought, as that is why he is shackled. Apparently the old Majika hasn’t noticed the alloy from which the shackle on his wrist is composed and that surprises her. She had expected much more from the infamous Henrik Veldervern. But Cassandra knows that the fables weaved about the greatness of Majika, like him, never align with the truth of the real person upon which they are based. She’d wanted it to be different this time but it isn’t. Henrik is simply an old man with failing health and power who is desperate to rekindle the flame of a group that will soon be gone. He and his ilk think the Prejudges mass murderers, but the truth is they are simply accelerating the inevitable. Magic is leaving this world as are the things that wield it and all the Prejudges aim to do is bring about that departure a little swifter than it would otherwise naturally occur.
“Cassandra… Cassandra… Cassandra Hillenbride?” Henrik queries after a few moments of pondering aloud. He isn’t sure if his memory is serving him or showing him to be a fool. He hopes it’s not the latter, but seeing as he’s managed to get himself captured it could easily be, sadly.
“That is correct. So you know who I am?” Cassandra says with a knowing smirk. It doesn’t surprise her but it does impress her. Just not the reasons you might think. Cassandra is only impressed because it means her reputation is strong enough to still be worthy of note among the Majika and she hopes it brings them fear.
“Yes, I know you, interrogator.” Henrik mutters through gritted teeth as his brow furrows and face darkens.
“Good. Then you know that I always get what I want.” Cassandra retorts as a sick smirk curls across her lips before she pushes herself off the wall of the small room.
“If that were true then you wouldn’t be a former Prejudge.” Henrik responds with a jab that uses information she previously gave freely against her.
“That is because the hierarchs are weak fools with no imagination.” Cassandra spits in the moments before she pulls her temper back in line and then adds, “But that is where you come in Henrik. You will be my ticket back into the order. I know you’ve been searching for the root and if you’re out here then you’ve found something. And I want to know what that something is.”
Cassandra takes a couple of steps toward Henrik who resists the urge to fidget. He doesn’t want to send the wrong signals to the woman, the former Prejudge, and he knows that if he fidgets she will assume that her words are getting to him. He can’t have that as such a thing implies weakness where there is none. Well, there’s a little, but not as much as she would assume.
A younger Majika might try and use it to their advantage but Henrik is old and tired. He knows his days on this world are short unless he finds the root, and even then there is no guarantee that the damage to his frail body can be reversed. But he isn’t doing this for himself. He’s doing it for all Majika past, present and future. He knows his day will come but he demands that it is on his terms and not those of a monster like Cassandra Hillenbride. He doesn’t know what she has done to get herself, the once nicknamed golden interrogator of the Prejudges, ejected but he knows the depths that she is willing to sink to in pursuit of information and he isn’t about to join that list of unfortunate souls.
He just has to keep her talking. Her kind always likes to talk. Henrik had too once but that had been in the days of old when Majika hadn’t needed to fear for their lives. Back when they could walk down the streets and be treated like anyone else. It saddens Henrik to recall those days and how far people have fallen since then.
Even the young Majika wish for war now, though, it’s a war they would never win. Numbers are against them and without the teachings of the elders like Henrik the young will never be able to sustain and grow their powers. Natural talent will only get a Majika so far and can, if not tutored, result in chaotic and violent releases of magical energies capable of levelling entire towns.
“And why would I tell you?” Henrik asks trying to stall Cassandra and begin the process of gathering energy so he can cast a spell. He hopes his actions will go unnoticed, but he can’t say for sure that they will. Though, he has already settled on his spell of choice and that is one of dispelling. It will propel Cassandra away from him and should give him the chance he needs to flee her clutches.
“Is that a refusal?” Cassandra questions without answering Henrik’s question. Again her head cocks to one side. It’s like the woman is analysing him but for what purpose he cannot say.
“You know that it is.” Henrik answers bluntly as he pulls at the chain so that it clangs noisily. It’s all part of a show that he prays will keep Cassandra distracted. If he doesn’t put it on then she will quickly conclude that he is up to something and that could cost him a hand. At least that is what he assumes will happen going off of stories he’s heard about how she likes to carry out her interrogations, which are really torture sessions.
“I assure you there is no escape.” Cassandra then declares and that worries Henrik. Why would she immediately leap to assuring him there’s no escape? Does she suspect my actions? She must. That means my time is short and that I must act now. And Henrik does as he tries to cast dispel. But nothing happens except that his magical energies are pulled into the shackle around his wrist. His eyes go wide as it dawns on him that he is restrained with Temperell. It’s a magic inhibiting alloy that is frequently used to subdue and imprison Majika of all ages without restraint or remorse. Henrik has seen what prolonged presence of the alloy does to his kind and now he finds himself trapped within its grasp. But it explains the distant yet gnawing feeling he had at the back of his mind. He’d dismissed it as exhaustion, foolishly, but he knows the truth now and that terrifies him to his very core.
Cassandra bellows with a hearty mocking laugh before adding, “You fool!” Just to add an extra dose of humiliation to the predicament that he finds himself in.
Henrik would say something but he is lost for words. His stupidity and arrogance have led him down this path.
He never even considered that the restraint was more than simply a band of iron locked around his wrist with a tethered chain attached to keep him in place.
“I promise you what will come next you won’t enjoy.” Cassandra offers with a wide evil smile as she produces a thin bladed dagger and then moves toward him with greater speed than he would have anticipated she would be capable of in the bulky armour which she is encased in.
Her straw like short blonde locks swaying manically as she licks at her lips and then digs the point of the dagger under the tip of the nail on Henrik’s little finger. The Majika screams painfully as she levers and then rips the nail free of the skin underneath.
Blood immediately begins to well and spread across the section where his nail had once been and Henrik concludes that she is even crueller than he had expected.
She has begun inflicting pain upon him without issuing a question. His guess is she is showing what punishment awaits him if he does not cooperate. Still, he can think of no other word for it than barbaric.
But Cassandra doesn’t stop as she forcibly pries the nail off the next finger of his left hand, which she has gripped within her gauntled hand. The grip on Henrik’s wrist so tight he wonders whether she will simply shatter his bones.
Henrik’s eyes roll back into his head as he swims in the pain that threatens to drown him out on consciousness and force him back into the deep darkness that he has only recently returned from. He doubts Cassandra will permit such a thing but he would welcome it at this moment. Anything is better than the agony caused by having his nail pulled, he thinks. Especially as she is smiling so merrily in response to the clear expression of disgust that is etched upon his face.
“Ready to talk now or do I have to do a little more?” Cassandra then asks ready to pry the third nail from his left hand. Henrik wincing repeatedly as he feels the stabbing point of the thin dagger being forced deeper between his skin and his nail. He wants to scream but he has his jaw clenched tight now, desperately trying not to. He has already given this woman more satisfaction than he should have with his cries of pain. He doesn’t intend to give her that satisfaction again.
Henrik doesn’t answer. But if he did it would be a no. However, he is unsure that his voice would function if he tried and if it did would be able to avoid sounding weak and pathetic. Still, it’s essentially the answer Cassandra had been expecting from the Majika, which is why she suddenly rips the third nail from his hand. Henrik hadn’t been expecting the rapidity of the action and lets out a choked off cry before realising what he has done. He chastises himself for his failure as Cassandra smiles cruelly again. Right after she licks at her dry lips and then nibbles on a section of her upper lip for a moment. It’s a strange display Henrik concludes, but does nothing to change the fact that she is enjoying the torture which she has so vehemently missed.
“I don’t know about you but this is really getting my blood going.” Cassandra remarks before lining up the tip of her dagger ready to drive it under the nail of Henrik’s left index finger.
She is taunting him and the elderly Majika knows it as he surveys the damage to his other three fingers. He’s disgusted at the sight of his hand, as well as the torn fingernails which are on the floor in front of him. Cassandra has made sure they are within his line of sight, smeared in blood, his blood. Henrik wishes he could ease his pounding heart but he can’t. He’s tried to calm himself through breathing but it isn’t working. He understand fully why but that doesn’t stop him wishing he could ease his panic. Or at the very least stop this depravity.
“So do you want to lose this nail? Or are we going to talk?” Cassandra then asks only to get a snarl in response from Henrik. She isn’t surprised. In fact, she’d be disappointed if the Majika simply gave up.
“I didn’t think so.” Cassandra soon says as she viciously stabs the point of the dagger deep under Henrik’s nail, eliciting a wince in the moments before she wrenches the blade upward. The nail pulls free with a sickening rip which is more than enough pain for Henrik. But the point of the blade also stabs into his sore flesh as well, making the pain several magnitudes worse. Though, somehow he manages to suppress any sound from escaping his mouth.
Instead, he screams viciously in his head before reeling off a list of expletives. His eyes burning furiously as he stares relentlessly at Cassandra who pays no mind to his intent stares. She is too busy drinking in the pleasure the brutality of her actions has brought to the Majika.
“Now onto the best part.” Cassandra announces as she puts the edge of the thin blade between Henrik’s little and ring finger. The tip of the blade pointed toward the ground. Henrik knows exactly what she has planned. He also knows how agonising it will be as she turns and smiles sweetly at him. There is no way of arguing that this woman is sick and that she has fully earned her reputation, but for a second time she asks nothing and simply yanks the blade upward and away from Henrik’s hand.
Henrik grimaces as he feels the bite of the now warm steel blade slice at the skin between the two fingers. It’s agonising. Somehow worse than the removal of his nails, but a grimace is all he lets Cassandra Hillenbride have. It’s enough to please her but she would love to hear the elderly Majika scream again. She’d be lying if she didn’t admit that to herself, and she never lies to herself. That was a decision she took a very long time ago when she’d been a young girl and had first started interrogating the boys who dared to call her names because she was an orphan. They’d learned their lessons then like Henrik would now. She is not a woman to be trifled with and she always gets what she wants.
She slices between the ring and middle finger of Henrik’s left hand now. Again he manages to suppress a cry but he does this time release a grunt. Cassandra licks greedily at her lips in response to the increased reaction, though she remains focused on her task.
The Prejudges had taught her to focus her urges to do more than simply inflict harm on those she interrogates. Then those same tutors had been the ones that had cast her out. The voice in her head likes to remind her of such things but she knows better than to simply indulge it as she readies the third cut to be believed between Henrik’s middle and index fingers. This will be the worst one yet she knows and if anything will draw more than a groan then it will be this.
“Ready?” Cassandra asks softly.
She makes sure not to make it clear whether she is asking whether he is ready to talk or accept the cut. That decision is at the hands of the subject and what follows next will be entirely on their assumption of her meaning. That’s why she is smiling again as her dark eyes shift side to side studying the old wrinkled face of Henrik.
The Majika keeps his expression defiant which doesn’t surprise Cassandra. Though, this time he will have to speak his answer instead of simply snarling or keeping silent. She doubts he feels capable of sounding as strong as he wishes to project externally and that it part of the reason she is doing it. Wearing her subject down until their fight is gone and they are willing to answer whatever questions she has, is key. She has, and will always be, the best at it. No one has ever beaten her techniques and Henrik won’t either, even if the aging man believes differently.
“I’m not telling you anything. You’ll just have to kill me.” Henrik proclaims with a stronger tone than he anticipated would leave his mouth.
“Oh I’m sure you’d like that Majika but you die when I have re-secured my place in the order. And there will be a lot more pain for you before that happens I can assure you.” Cassandra replies hiding her disappointment.
She had been decently sure that the old man was at breaking point but either he is a very good actor or has thus far been less affected than anyone else she has ever interrogated. Still, his proclamation of wanting to be killed gives her a sizable glimpse at victory and she isn’t about to waste it as she goes to slices between his middle and index finger. But she never gets the chance to as an arrow flies through the room, narrowly missing her cheek. Cassandra curses as the room around her and Henrik changes. The stone walls and thatched roof replaced by dilapidated wooden planks that reveal that they are in fact in an abandoned barn and not a small house.
Henrik cannot believe the nerve of the former Prejudge, but can guess who shot the arrow into their midst. He doesn’t have to wait long to discover that he’s right as two large Prejudges appear at the broken opening that had once been part of the large double barn doors. The wood is stained a faded red but much of the space is covered in a layer of filth that suggests that until very recently this space was frequented by animals of the avian variety. Henrik almost wishes he was in the small stone room until he takes note that his right arm is not shackled with Temperell. It makes him wonder what else has been an illusion.
Cassandra sneers at the pair’s arrival but releases her iron grip on Henrik’s hand and then pulls the sword that hangs off her left hip. She is ready for battle.
Her two opponents, the Prejudges, are themselves armed with swords. Their weapons are drawn ready for battle and they grunt not quite in unison. It’s to indicate that they recognise Cassandra. She would expect nothing less from them. But that doesn’t mean that either side will go easy on the other. From her point of view these Prejudges are interfering with her attempts to rejoin the order, while from the two Prejudges points of view she is a disgrace who has in her possession an individual vital to them. They believe he knows categorically the location of their goal, which if reached will allow them to remove magic from the world once and for all.
The Prejudges know why she is no longer counted as being among them. She dared to use magic to twist her interrogations and increase her results. The hierarchs had been astonished and sickened by this revelation, which was clearly a breach of the very foundations upon which the order had been built. That is why they immediately ejected her from the ranks of the Prejudges and brought in a tenant which stated explicitly that no magic should be used by any Prejudge in any fashion. It had been a groundbreaking introduction that every member of the order was aghast to learn of as none of them had once dreamt of using the very thing that they were trying to eradicate.
But Cassandra Hillenbride had not been the only Prejudge to lose her position. Countless others, who were complicit or aware of her actions, followed and were cast out from the order. Though, many of them would not live long enough to carve out new lives for themselves. The same fate had been marked for Cassandra but she had disappeared, believed through the use of spells, before her life could be brought to a sudden, violent and disgraced end.
Cassandra throws herself at the Prejudges, which surprises the two armoured men. However, the scuffle is of no interest to Henrik who, having discovered that the shackle around his wrist is not forged from Temperell, has checked over his wounds to learn that, other than the deep puncture in his left shoulder, only the nail of his little finger has been removed. The sight is still a disgusting one to behold, as the blood has started to congeal into a sickening mass of dark blots. But it’s better than having lost four nails and having cuts slashed between his fingers.
None of the changes what he knows he must do, and that is escape. That is why he is gathering power while Cassandra and the two Prejudges clash and scream. It is clear that the pair of Prejudges outmatch Cassandra. Though, the former Prejudge interrogator clearly refuses to admit defeat, even as a sword gashes across the back of her hand forcing her to swap the sword to her oft-hand. But Henrik, unwilling to delay any longer, and reasonably sure he has gathered enough magical energies, casts a fragmentation spell.
The shackle around his right wrist suddenly splinters into fragments which fall away from his wrist to create a small pile on the floor. The chain of the shackle emitting a dull clang that is lost amongst the clatter of swords as Cassandra falls to one knee. Her wounds are sapping her strength and she will not last much longer, Henrik can tell, but he forces the loss of her life from his mind while reminding himself that she is a monster.
Then he departs the ramshackle former barn, making sure to keep low as he hurries as fast as his shuffling feet will allow across the barn and out through a ragged hole in the wooden wall some six metres from where he had awoken on the ‘bed.’ Except he now knows that he wasn’t resting upon a bed but instead a couple bails of straw that have grown soggy and mouldy over whatever period it is since they were stored within the remains of the barn.
Now outside the limits of the abandoned barn, Henrik can see the cloudless blue sky. It’s a sight he wasn’t sure he would ever see again, and he has never been more relieved than he is now to be able to say that he can.
The grasses around him are nearly as tall as he is; which for grasses is impressive. But they aren’t as green as they should be and are in fact turning yellow. At any other time Henrik might stay to study what ails the grasses, but right now it wouldn’t be safe to do so. He knows it and has no intention of risking capture again just so he can indulge in a hobby. So instead, he shuffles off as fast as his aching tired legs will carry him.
Meanwhile in the remnants of the barn, Cassandra is met with a blow from one of the Prejudges swords. It’s blade cuts deep into the crook of her neck. She lets out a howl in response before the second Prejudge brings his blade down on her head. The thick edge of his weapon carves a trench down the centre of her skull and then cuts into her brain, killing her instantly. Both Prejudges smile at the dispatching of Cassandra Hillenbride, but there smiles vanish immediately as they turn and find that Henrik is nowhere to be found. One curses while the other questions as to whether the Majika’s presence was ever real. Neither has the answer yet they will have to recant the events to their commander. And this marks the second time that the Prejudges have allowed Henrik to escape.