Chapter Six: A Deadly Mistake

By Michelle Michel

Darting around the corner of his small house, Merin ran. Night had fallen several hours earlier, the lack of moon making the streets darker and more hazardous than usual, his frantic running anything but silent. But the summer storm, a sudden downpour that had started not an hour ago, masked his retreat, the rain helping to hide him from seeking eyes as he sprinted down the dark streets. Not that he cared for silence at the moment. No, his pursuers already knew where he was headed. It was only a matter of him getting there first.

Nothing else mattered, not really. Faysan had to be warned, had to be told of his mistake. As much as he hated to admit it, this really was his fault, and thus his responsibility to inform the only person he knew of that could stop it.

Everything blurred as he ran – he no longer spent the time or energy to decipher the various buildings he passed, allowing his eyes to see only the ground beneath his feet. He turned himself inward, the rain turning into a mere distant discomfort, his eyes seeing only the ground beneath his feet. He poured himself into his mantra (“Run, run, run!”), knowing that at any moment someone could jump out from one of those shadowed buildings to stop him, at any moment an arrow could find its way to his throat and his message would go unheard. With a grunt he lengthened his stride. That could not happen. He could not let that happen. Faysan had to be told, if only so she and the others could get out.

Unwillingly (or perhaps more so than he wanted to admit), his mind reviewed the events of the past week – pinpointing each and every mistake and the likely outcomes because of his stupidity. Memories mocked him, screaming at him to “look at this! How could you not have seen this?!” And despite the part he had blindly played in bringing about this new danger to his beloved city (“Why, why, why hadn’t I seen it?!”), he could not help but feel a distant relief flood him at the thought that his little brother was at least safe for the time being. Or if not safe, at least away from Merin’s utter and complete failures.

Why, oh, why had he accepted that job?! He had known there was something off – whether about the offer or the job itself he hadn’t known, but there was something – and he had gone along with it anyway. He had always been able to rely on his instincts, so why he had turned his back on this most recent feeling of “bad, bad, bad” he hadn’t a clue. Instead of following his instinct he had pushed it aside, agreeing to the cloaked figure’s request.

It was a simple task, really. One he had received in various forms several times in the past. Sneak into some wealthy man’s house and retrieve something he had cheated some unlucky sap out of (or stolen, as was apparently this last case). Sometimes it was a family heirloom, sometimes a bit of gold, once a book (that one had thrown him for a loop, but he was being paid a nice sum so he really could not complain).

In this most recent case it had been a family heirloom of the cloaked client. A simple gold amulet, but apparently it had been it the family for generations. It had been stolen from the cloaked man two weeks before, and he had spent those two weeks working out who had stolen it. All he needed was someone with Merin’s… abilities… to steal it back without the old noble any the wiser. A simple get in, take the amulet, get out mission, and Merin had taken it if only because business had been relatively slow lately and he was bored.

Over the following week Merin had gathered information on the thief and plotted his strike. He had been relieved when Thalec had told him he was leaving – the feeling that something about this job was wrong had never left, instead cementing itself as a boulder in his stomach. It had lessened slightly when he knew Thalec would not be around should anything bad actually happen.

Once Merin had been sure Thalec had left Bitan he had waited for the perfect time to strike. And that perfect time had happened just the night before, when he had managed to sneak into the old manor his cloaked client had steered him toward without anyone being the wiser. Until he actually moved to take the amulet.

He really should have known. The owner of the manor had been an elderly man, dressed in the rich gold and red robes of the Mage Guild – the same colors Faysan herself wore when she was required to attend a formal gathering. But he had not been paying attention to the man’s clothes, nor the implied fact that he was a powerful wizard, one with enough knowledge and power to kill Merin several times over. Nor did he pay much attention to his name – Talizar – which really should have stood out to him. No, he had been focused on the cursed amulet, the dull green gem bound in gold. On how this old man had supposedly had it stolen from his client. On just how he was going to get it away from the man…

That night had not ended well. The old man had woken upon Merin touching the amulet, sharp, angry blue eyes meeting Merin’s pale green ones. Talizar had exclaimed angrily, rolling (rather jerkily) out of bed and turning on his “attacker”. And Merin had fallen into old training, self-preservation too well ingrained to ignore. He should have known it was too easy, that the old wizard should not have fallen as quickly as he did, and he certainly should have been using a bit stronger magic than he was. But Merin had been swift, and the battle had lasted mere moments, and then Merin was snatching the amulet and fleeing before someone could stumble across the scene.

And, oh, how he wished he could take it back. Wished he had not gone to meet with his cloaked benefactor the next day as agreed, not handed over the amulet, not fallen so completely into the trap. But he did and he had, and now Bitan would have to reap what Merin had sown.

He had not known immediately that something was wrong. But even after he’d been paid his fee and retreated home, the boulder had remained lodged in his stomach. He had paced for hours, his entire body tingling with the fact that something was wrong yet unable to work out exactly what.

Then night had fallen, the knock on his door had sounded, and Merin had finally seen just what he’d done. He had fled upon realizing the truth, out the hidden back door he had used only once before: on the night Kaie, his betrothed, had died. And as he fled he sought out the one person he knew needed to know of what had transpired. The one person who stood a chance at correcting Merin’s mistake. The one person besides his brother and Kaie he had ever truly turned to for help. He ran to Faysan.

Instinct saved him from taking a blow to his head as he dodged into an alley in hopes of making it to the Mage Guild quicker. Skills trained for several years had him dropping to the left before he even saw the danger, his hands immediately moving to take up his swords – a long sword in his right and a short sword in his left. His attacker’s sword struck the ground to his right harshly, the clang of metal on stone dulled by the pouring rain.

Leaping to his feet, Merin attacked, pushing his advantage as the man staggered slightly. Tackling him back into the alley, and therefore off the main street and out of sight, Merin jabbed at the man’s stomach, swinging his short sword when his first move was parried. He ducked as another man attacked from behind, kicking out as he jumped further down the alleyway, rising quickly and turning to meet both his attackers.

There were three in all, one already injured and favoring his right side where Merin had stabbed him a moment before. The rain masked their features – though cloak hoods had been pulled over their heads regardless, and the fact that they all dressed in black had Merin squinting to see them. They pushed forward, attempting to surround him. He lashed out at the injured one as soon as they came within his reach, moving quickly to kill him in two strikes. He spun, parrying a blow from the second, dropping back to avoid the third. Unable and unwilling to spare the time in planning a strategic strike, Merin lashed out again, letting his years of training guide him as he slashed, stabbed, and parried. He faltered only once, stumbling slightly as he dealt the second killing blow of the fight, earning him a slash along his left arm. The dealer of the blow was brought down moments later, and Merin was careening down the alleyway before the man had completely fallen to the ground, sheathing his weapons as he ran.

He did not slow as he finally approached the Mage Guild. He bounded up the front steps, intent on bursting through the front doors. Though like the night itself was turning, things did not go as planned – he groaned as he fell back from the thick oak door, still solidly locked for the night. He rubbed his right shoulder as he glared (“Why can’t anything go right?!”) and stepped back to the door. Shouting as loudly as he could, he started pounding with his good hand.

After a few minutes that trail by like hours, the door eases open. Merin stumbles inside, shaking his fist a little to relieve the numbness that had settled.

“Get Faysan,” he snaps at the young woman who had opened the door for him. She stared in wide-eyed confusion, her small mouth partially open. Her blond hair was tied up in a messy pony tail, and the rumpled appearance of her black apprentice robes signaled she’d been up late studying – likely the reason she’d heard Merin pounding on the door and come to investigate. She stood stalk-still, her eyes never leaving him as he checked outside the door before slamming it shut and barring it again. “Now!” he shouted, watching with some degree of guilt as she scurried down the hallway, robes flapping behind her in her haste.

The front hall was warm and cheerily lit by a fire in the hearth. Merin took in his surroundings absently, moving to stand a bit away from the front doors. He refrained from dropping into one of the chairs along the walls, choosing instead to wait for Faysan in silence, glaring at the front door. He could hear the rain pounding on the roof, and all at once he became aware of his sopping wet clothing, his chilled hands and drenched hair. Absently he pushed dark locks out of his eyes, turning his attention back to the hallway the young woman had disappeared down. As he waited he turned his attention briefly to his arm. The rain had washed away most of the blood and the wound had been shallow – and while it stung, there was really nothing he could do for it now. With a sigh he turned back to the hallway.

It was not long before he heard it – the rhythmic tapping of Faysan’s boots as she hurried down the hallway, just shy of jogging. From the second set of footsteps hurrying with her (less practiced and quicker between steps) he assumed the young apprentice was returning with her.

“Merin!” He tilted his head when Faysan finally emerged from the hallway to observe her. Her graying brown hair fell over her shoulders, slightly mussed from sleep, and rather than her typical green robes she wore a white dressing gown, boots and a coat hastily pulled on before the trek through the Mage Guild’s halls. Despite having just been awoken her grey eyes were alert, instantly trained on his. “What happened? What’s wrong?”

He shook his head. “I have made a terrible mistake, Nicole,” he said, suddenly finding it hard to put the danger into words. Unable to keep eye contact with her, he turned away, glancing at the young female apprentice who stood against the far wall. She seemed hesitant, watching him with fear warring with curiosity. He had never met the young woman before.

Faysan moved quickly across the room, maternal instincts pushing her to the man she had long ago come to think of as a son. She grabbed his shoulders, attempted to catch his eyes, but Merin kept them trained on the girl behind her. “What is it, Merin?” she asked softly. “Did something happen to Thalec?”

“No,” he said quickly, turning sharply to look her in the face. “No, he’s fine,” he assured her. “I have… made a mistake, Nicole. A terrible mistake. I…” But again his voice failed him. I do not have time for this, he growled to himself. “I killed Lord Talizar,” he spat.

Faysan’s eyes widened and she released his shoulders. “You what?” she breathed.

“I didn’t know he was the former Head of the Mage Guild,” he said quickly. “I didn’t even know who he was – I should have, I know, but I didn’t. I just did a job, but it backfired. Nicole, I never meant for this to happen.”

“For what to happen?” she demanded, confusion and disbelief giving her voice an airy quality it normally did not possess. “Merin, you are not making any sense.”

Merin shook his head again, striving to put the past week into words – words that relayed the facts, not guilt-ridden insults over his idiocy. “I was given a job a week ago. I was to retrieve a family heirloom from Talizar for my client. According to him Talizar had had the amulet stolen. So last night I went to steal it, but things did not go according to plan. Talizar was sleeping with it on, and when I tried to take it he woke up and attacked me.”

“And you made it out alive?” the girl against the back wall murmured, receiving a reproachful glare from Faysan. Merin ignored her.

“I should have known it was too easy. I knew he was a wizard, and all the signs pointed to him being a powerful one, but… Nicole, I killed him, and didn’t think twice about the fact that it was too easy.” He started pacing, desperately needing to channel the nervous energy building within him as he told his tale. “I took the amulet and left, gave it back to its ‘owner’, and went home. If I hadn’t been so blind… so stupid…”

Faysan blinked several times and shook her head to clear it. She followed him with her eyes. “What are you getting at, Merin?” she asked, though from the anger in her voice he was fairly certain she had already put it together.

“They came to my house tonight. The man who hired me and Talizar. Nicole, he’s a lich.”

“Lord Talizar, a lich?” the young apprentice demanded before Faysan could say anything. She shook her head and pushed away from the wall, glaring at Merin. “Impossible. Lord Talizar is a great man, he would never stoop so low!”

“Quiet, Apprentice!” Faysan snapped angrily. The girl blinked and backed up against the wall again. Faysan sighed and rubbed her face before turning her glare to Merin. “Do you realize what you’ve done?” she demanded angrily. He laughed hoarsely.

“Do I realize what I’ve done?” he repeated incredulously and not without a little self-mockery. “Of course I realize what I’ve done! I’m not completely daft, Nicole! I know I made a mistake – that was why I came here. You needed to be told.”

Faysan sighed. “Why would Talizar do something like this?” she questioned absently.

“Power,” Merin replied at once. “He wanted the power associated with becoming a lich. He was old and dying, Nicole. Even a great man – which I’m sure Lord Talizar was in his time – can be corrupted with the promise of life and power.”

Before the young apprentice could protest again Faysan held up a hand wearily. She shook her head. “I take it the phylactery used was the amulet you stole? It’s the only reason I can think for why you were sent to steal it. And the man who hired you had to have known what was going to happen.”

Merin nodded. “I fell right into their trap,” he said disgustedly. “They used me to kill Talizar so he could become a lich. They used me to get that amulet out of the house, somewhere he could come back without anyone being the wiser.”

Faysan breathed out angrily, blowing her hair from her face. “I cannot believe this,” she said finally. “Merin…” Biting her tongue, she turned away. It was no use getting angry now. “I take it he knew you’d come here?”

“Yes.” She sighed heavily and turned to the young girl.

“Apprentice, I need you to wake the others. Tell everyone to be ready to defend themselves. And get Master Varaal and Master Acher. Tell them Talizar has become a lich, and to get word to the Duke of Tecuminus.”

The girl nodded and ran quickly down the hallway again, leaving Merin and Faysan alone. Faysan sighed and rubbed at her eyes, her shoulders slumping. Merin felt his guilt return.

“Nicole…”

“Don’t Merin,” she said, straightening and turning to glare at him. “You made a mistake, my boy. And while I know you did not mean for this to happen… Talizar was a very powerful man, Merin. Very powerful. Stronger than I. Now that he is a lich, he’s even stronger. And there’s only one way to stop him.”

Merin nodded. “We have to destroy that amulet,” he said, pushing guilt and anger aside. He laughed humorlessly. “Simple as that.”

“And that is anything but simple,” Faysan noted wryly. “Let us simply hope word can get to the Council before this gets too out of hand,” she said, closing her eyes again and dropping her head into her hands.

“I doubt it,” Merin said dryly, causing her head to snap up to glare at him. But he wasn’t looking at her – his eyes were pinned to the hallway where the apprentice had disappeared down not a minute earlier. Faysan turned to follow his gaze and gasped, her eyes flashing angrily.

A black cloaked figure stood in the doorway, the hood pulled down over his face, shadowing all but a few locks of black hair. His right hand peaked out from the cloak, a sword clasped in it, blood still wet on the end. His clothing was just as black as his cloak, making it perfect for hiding in shadows to kill young, unsuspecting mages as they ran by. Merin stepped forward beside Faysan, eyeing the man with contempt.

“What have you done to Arnes?” Faysan demanded, though Merin thought it was a rather pointless question. The young woman’s fate seemed rather apparent to him in any case.

Instead of answering, the man simply stepped aside, revealing Talizar. Or what was left of him.

His skin, where it remained, was drawn and withered, white bones glaring from beneath. His eyes were gapingly empty sockets, his nose reduced to the bone, and what remained of his white hair was stringy and stiff. The deep red robes he wore hid most of his body from view, but Merin knew the same decay that had attacked his face and hands had destroyed the rest of him as well. When he moved the bones clicked together and dried skin rustled ominously, his robes dragging along the ground masking the sound only marginally.

“You really should teach your students the value of not opening the doors to strangers, Mistress Faysan. And to answer your question: she was in the way,” Talizar replied, his voice scratchy and dry, shaking his head. Merin felt a shudder run down his spine at the sound of bone rubbing on bone, and the underlying sound of dried, taunt skin shifting, the action caused. “We couldn’t let this little secret get out quite yet. After all the trouble getting this far?”

Merin glanced at Faysan, frowning. “Why?” he asked, turning to glare at the monstrosity before him. “What does it matter? You’re a lich – congratulations! You will no longer die a weak old man. You’ll live forever as an undead monster, free to wreak havoc on whomever you chose. Until, you know, I kill you.”

Talizar laughed, a terrible, hoarse sound grating on Merin’s nerves. “Boy, you amuse me. What does it matter? It matters a great deal. I do, after all, need to stick around until Faysan’s little Drow returns from his task.”

Merin saw her eyes widen from the corner of his vision. He glanced at her as she mouthed, “The Staff of Mourning?!”

The lich nodded, chuckling again at her incredulous expression. “Of course the Staff. Why else do you think I suggested it in the first place? That Drow shows promise, and with that little band he’s gathered together, he may just manage to retrieve the Staff. Which I need.”

A scream prevented a response. Merin jumped, whipping his head in the direction it had come from. Talizar and his associate barely moved, though Talizar nodded slightly.

“What have you done?!” Faysan demanded, her voice devoid of any emotion but rage. She herself trembled, her hands clenching and unclenching. Merin reached for his sword, though he knew it was worthless – he could not win in an all out fight against Talizar.

“Getting rid of a few potential problems,” Talizar said. “And you’re one of them.”

Before Merin could react, Talizar shouted something unintelligible and pointed at Faysan. She crumpled into a heap of white dressing gown and gray-brown hair. For an instant Merin stood frozen. Desperately willing her to stand. Wishing she would move, even if it was to turn a glare on him and demand he stop gaping and do his job.

Wishing would not make it so.

“Nicole!” he cried belatedly, moving forward and dropping to her side, undead monster and his lackey forgotten. All he saw was his friend, a woman more of a mother to him than his own mother had ever been, lying dead before him. Desperately fighting back angry, despairing tears, he reached out and placed a hand hesitantly onto her shoulder. She still did not move.

“What did you do?!” he demanded, glaring up at the monster in question. “What did you do?!” Each word was punctuated with hate and pain. Not waiting for a response, Merin snatched up his sword and charged, wanting nothing more than to avenge his last link to Kaie, to relish killing the creature that had brought her down.

He staggered back, surprised when the cloaked figure tackled him, taking the both of them to the ground. Merin dropped his sword, swinging a fist angrily as he tried to get the other man off, to get at the lich again. The pair traded punches, but Merin was unable to break away from the other man.

And suddenly he could not move. The cloaked man stood and backed away at some command Merin did not hear. He tried to stand, his attempts becoming more and more desperate as he realized he could not move even a little.

Talizar leaned over him, his horrifying, decayed face entering Merin’s line of sight. “Calm yourself, boy,” he said as if speaking to a particularly poorly behaved child. “I do not wish to kill you. After all, if it were not for you, I would not have made it this far.” He nodded at his associate. “Bind him, and put him somewhere out of the way. Make sure he stays there. I want to have a word with him later.”

With that Talizar left, returning down the hallway he had arrived from. The cloaked figure pushed him onto his side, retrieving a bit of rope from under the fabric. Merin found himself staring at Faysan’s lifeless body.

I am so sorry, Nicole, Thalec, he thought despairingly, and almost as an afterthought his thoughts turned elsewhere. Forgive me, Kaie.