Chapter 20
Gathering Stormclouds

Castle Darkwall, Gladius

"In these latter days of the world, it is rather surprising that I'm familiar with magic at all, much less a wielder of it. For me, magic is nothing more than a sword and shield in battle, but I know there was a time when it was used for far more than that. I admit that I'm intrigued by the prospects of using magic to unravel the mysteries of the world, but I fear the terrors unleashed when that magic fell into the wrong hands."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

The youth who would one day be known as the Dark Knight Vincentian, Cadmus Adrian stared impassively at his open ribcage and all the viscera exposed by the long incision that ran from his collarbone down to his waist. Watching the steady beating of his heart, he dwelled on the pain. No matter how many times the warlock and his apprentices did this sort of thing, the pain never lessened. He only got better at bearing it.
The hated warlock loomed over him, flanked by a couple of his apprentices. He pointed to Adrian's broken ribs quaking against the cords that held his chest open.
"Observe how the dhampir's body seeks to correct itself," the warlock said.
Drawing a ritual dagger from the folds of his robes, the warlock cut the cords and watched Adrian's ribcage close and mend. Within moments, his torso betrayed no signs of the trauma it had suffered. The warlock poked Adrian with the tip of his rod and looked to the apprentices.
"After ten years of infusing the dark power into his body, he recovers is more than three times faster than his kind should. One day he may be capable of total regeneration, even if his body is torn to ribbons."
"When can we attempt such an experiment, master?" one of the apprentices asked, his eagerness thinly veiled.
"More years of work remain," the warlock replied, neither approving nor reprimanding his pupil's inquiry. "I do not wish to chance any permanent damage to such a rare specimen."
The apprentice grinned, relishing the thought of tearing Adrian's body apart several times over for nothing more than the sake of his twisted amusement. Although Adrian did not make a point to know the names of his tormentors, this one was a newer addition to the warlock's retinue and the name stuck in his head for some reason. Brenok. He vowed to make the arrogant wretch suffer one day. Embroiled in his hostile thoughts, Adrian wondered if he would have to wait long.
An idea struck him, and though the chances of success were minimal, he had nothing to lose. As part of the experiments performed on him, he learned to wield a measure of control over the dark energies channeled into his body. Focusing that power into a single point, a small black orb took shape in the palm of his hand. His arms were strapped to the table, but he could turn his wrist enough to make his palm face Brenok. Without a word, he released the orb, hoping it would burn right through the apprentice's body or corrupt his flesh with some fatal taint. Much to his disappointment, the orb dissipated against an invisible barrier Brenok had raised to protect himself. Before the apprentice could retaliate, a short blade shot out from the tip of his master's rod and buried itself in Adrian's chest.
"Only I determine life and death in this tower, boy," the warlock growled. "Rare as you are, you are not so precious to avoid my wrath. Whether your body is capable of it or not, I can always rebuild you. Just because I want you in prime condition for my experiments, do not think I will spare you any suffering."
"I'll be free of you one day, conjurer!" Adrian snapped.
"Is that so?" the warlock balked, showing signs of rare amusement. "As long as you are bound by my power, you shall not die. Even my death cannot free you."
Adrian was daunted by his words, prompting Brenok to egg on his master.
"If it would please you, master, how would this creature free himself?"
Sensing his pupil's cruel intent, the warlock grinned and continued, "In his chest beats a heart of ice. Only the flames of a true love, freely given and freely received, has the power to melt his heart and undo my craft."
The apprentice cocked his head. "Why true love, master?"
"It is the one thing that has no place in my arts. With each passing day, he becomes a more complete killing machine. With each passing day, he loses the ability to love and be loved. With each passing day, he becomes all the more my slave. Already the frail sentiment withers within him. Soon it will be gone forever."
Despair gripped Adrian. Indeed, who could ever love a monster like him? After being betrayed by his own father and handed over to the warlock, did he still have the capacity to love another? Yes, there was still one person he cared for, one person he would do anything for.
Seeing the wave of emotion sweep over his specimen, the warlock furrowed his brow. "And yet the feeling lingers on..." he trailed. "For the mother who was lost... and the sister who was found... Even that will perish one day." The warlock's grin returned. "Unlike this boy, her heart lends itself easily to hate." To punctuate his taunting, he poked Adrian with his rod. "Do not think to rest your hopes with her. Through pain and shame, I will make her a demon fiercer than the beasts of the Pit. That reminds me..." He turned to walk away. "This time could be better spent on new experiments with her."
"Leave her alone, damn you!" Adrian struggled wildly against his restraints. "Conjurer! Leave her alone!"
Even with strength greater than a human's, his restraints would not yield to him. He desperately wanted to protect his sister from the warlock and his apprentices, but he was powerless. The only thing he could do was cry out to her.
"Adriana! Adriana!"

* * *

Vincentian woke with a start, wrapped in a momentary panic before he recognized his surroundings. He was leaning against the castle wall, only a stone's throw from the Warlock's Tower. He had not anticipated falling asleep, much less dreaming about days he would rather forget.
"Was the Sandman unkind to you, Sir Knight?"
The Dark Knight turned his head to see Brenok standing next to him. Only by magic could the deranged Byrnan draw so close to him undetected. Surely the same wily craft was used to lull him into the unexpected slumber. Vincentian hated Brenok almost as much as he hated the warlock, but held his tongue. Silence was his only weapon for now. As usual, Brenok did not let the moods of others impede him from doing whatever he had already decided to do.
"The Marauders will be returning from Byrn before the week is out," he said. "Are you looking forward to a tearful reunion with Lord Cadmus?"
Vincentian remained silent and Brenok continued talking as if he was participating in the conversation.
"The King won't be pleased with our progress at this rate. Algernon and Marcella are dead and we have yet to capture the Guardian and his band. What's worse, Tariq has deserted us."
"What?"
Vincentian's silence was broken only because the revelation caught him off guard. This did not bother Brenok in the slightest.
"Yes, the silly fool left for the desert with all the four winds at his back. He seems to think he'll meet our friends to the east of his native land."
"And you wouldn't have anything to do with that?"
"Perhaps," Brenok replied coyly. "At any rate, we can expect some fun in the near future."
Vincentian rolled his eyes. Brenok's meddling would surely bring nothing but ruin upon them. He had no choice but to bide his time. Perhaps the return of the Guardian and his followers to Gladius would provide the opening he needed to avenge wounds long overdue for redressing. He could only hope.