A dingy diner in a downbeat part of the city was the last place he expected to see a Mancer. The wallpaper was faded, the tables were old and scarred, and the seats were well-worn. It was clean enough, but only just enough, which was fine by Hallorn; it was the sort of place he was looking for. After all, he was trying to take a break.
Mancers tended to stick to the nicer parts of the city. The saying ‘there’s no such thing as a poor Mancer, only someone bad at magic’ was all too true. They ran everything from the top on down the chain; those without magic knew to stay out of the Mancers’ way or do as they were told. Paladins like Hallorn, born to quash Mancer magic, were all-but wiped out and the few of them left kept their heads down.
So there he was, keeping himself to himself and his ass out of trouble, in a part of the city away from where the Mancers tended to roam, minding his very own business while he got a cheap but serviceable lunch. And there she was, walking in like she belonged there, unmistakably a Mancer. It was almost enough to put him off his fries.
Hallorn couldn’t even truly put his finger on what gave her away but he knew she worked magic from the moment the door’s little bell rang. She wasn’t dressed like her kind typically did: she was in biker’s leathers from head to foot, with rainwater streaking from the shoulders of her jacket to suggest she had actually been riding a bike. She pulled off her helmet as she nudged her way in through the door with her hip, and ruffled up her hair to free it from the shape the helmet had left behind.
Perhaps it was her eyes that set her apart as she glanced around the diner on her way over to the counter; she seemed to see more than most people, as if she saw beneath the surface of things. Then she greeted the waitress by name, like she was commonplace.
Perhaps it was the leathers themselves, expensive in a way that was hard to cover up. Though, hers were creased around the joints as if she wore them often, and there were scuffs on her boots and knees.
Abruptly aware that he was watching her a little too closely, Hallorn turned his attention back down to his meal, shovelling food into his mouth with more speed than grace. She was still within his awareness, though; she prickled at it in a way that non-Mancers could never emulate.
Perhaps it was simply his Paladin senses that gave her away, then. He didn’t often stray close enough to Mancers to pick them up; now that he thought about it, he hadn’t seen one in the flesh in a couple of years. His work took him elsewhere and few Paladins survived encounters with Mancers these days, mostly because they tended to be outnumbered.
That was the strangest thing about this particular Mancer, he realised: she was alone. Was she so arrogant to believe that she didn’t need the protection of others? Did she think so little of the dangers that laced the city? Was she so powerful to sit here on her own and order coffee?
He should alert the Order. Paladins like him might be scarce these days but that didn’t mean all resistance to the Mancer stranglehold was gone. The Order worked to free every human from under the Mancer’s boots; Hallorn’s superiors would know what to do.
Was he over-reacting, though? Hallorn’s hand slid into his pocket and curled around his cellphone, but he didn’t pull it out. Could he be sure of what his senses were telling him? Since when did Mancers come down to this side of the city and sit at a grubby counter like they were ordinary? There had to be more to this.
And yet, she seemed to be trying to blend in. When she opened the collar of her jacket, there was no glimmer of jewels, and her hands were bare when she removed her gloves. She bore no wand on her belt nor any other paraphernalia: all she had clipped to her was a cellphone.
And yet, Hallorn found himself thinking. His attention was drawn to her like she was magnetic, just like he was instinctively reluctant to eat while there was a Mancer around. Every nerve was telling him there was danger nearby. Mancers were cruel and had not a single care for those not of their kind. Everyone knew that. And they destroyed every Paladin they met; that was why Hallorn’s people were so few. The Mancers didn’t like people who could interfere with their magic.
Hallorn tilted his head to try to pick up the conversation the Mancer was having with the waitress and quietly watched her hands to see if he could figure out what type of Mancer she was. The conversation was ordinary enough, exchanging pleasantries and ordering a slice of carrot cake to go with her coffee. Apparently she hadn’t been by in a while. Could such a person be a regular here?
Her hands made no strange motions, not to alter the coffee when it arrived nor to heat it up. Probably not a Pyromancer nor an Aquamancer, then. The air in the diner was just as settled and stale as it was when she entered, so she probably wasn’t an Aeromancer either. From what Hallorn could tell, she hadn’t attempted any magic since she had arrived, which told him precisely nothing. Except perhaps that she was careful. Yes, definitely a careful one, this.
Hallorn had just asked his waitress for his bill when a couple of kids burst into the diner and ran straight over to the Mancer seated at the counter. They were small and grubby, their clothes well-worn and layered for warmth. Street kids; Hallorn knew the signs well enough because he had been one of them, once. Not so terribly long ago.
“Tai! Tai!” the smaller of the two said, latching onto the woman’s arm so suddenly that she almost spilled her coffee.
The Mancer looked down at the kids and a smile flourished without warning. She turned on her stool to give them awkward embraces. It was all Hallorn could do not to stare.
“Hey, you two. It’s been a while,” she said.
“Yeah, Tai, where you been?” the smaller one said, leaning against her knee.
“We ain’t got time for that,” the bigger kid interrupted. He stood with his shoulders straight and looked the Mancer right in the eye. “Somethin’s happened. You gotta come.”
The Mancer put her coffee cup down and gave the kids a more serious look. “What sort of something?”
The kids exchanged a solemn look, then the taller one leaned in to speak quietly into the Mancer’s ear.
When he was done, the Mancer slid off her stool and picked up her gear. “Tick, put these on my bike for me, will you please?” She handed her helmet and gloves to the smaller kid, who wrapped her short arms around them with a nod.
“Okay!” The kid ran off out of the diner.
“Sally, give my cake to the next kid who comes in, okay? Come on, Chelsea, let’s go.” Sliding a note onto the counter to cover her tab, she left with the taller kid.
Hallorn sat for a moment, wondering what he just saw. This wasn’t like any of the Mancer behaviour he had ever heard about and his superiors in the Order would want to know about this. But he’d hardly seen enough to make a proper report; he needed to know more. Tucking a few notes under his mug to cover his bill, he slipped out of the diner with enough of a gap to not be suspicious.
Hallorn followed the Mancer and her street kid guide around behind the diner and down into a warren of alleys. He frowned at the kid showing the back ways to one of the enemy but he didn’t intervene. He just knew that when he was running the streets with rats like these, the rule was never to trust the Mancers. Never let them know where you hide or where you sleep. Never show them the escape routes. That’s how street kids got themselves taken in the middle of the night, how they disappeared without trace, until their bodies showed up on the banks of the river.
Hallorn remembered all too well. He’d lost friends that way, and he’d had few friends to start with. Some of them had never been found. He’d been taken in by the Order only four years ago, so his life as one of those kids was only too close, too fresh. He wanted to shake these kids and ask them what the hell they were thinking, bringing this woman – this Mancer – down these paths.
Did they know what she was? They knew her by name, came to her for help. How long had she been coming down to this part of the city? Why? Was all this some kind of trick? Was she hoping to catch a whole group of kids down here, by getting them to lead her to all their friends?
As dark clouds gathered overhead, Hallorn started to think that he should call the Order for help, but he was young, still an acolyte. They didn’t fully trust his judgement yet and he still needed to prove himself. If he called them out for nothing, they’d put him on cleaning duty again and he’d had enough of that. He wanted to be out in the city doing something, not sitting back at the safehouse listening to the reports coming in.
He didn’t have anything concrete yet, he told himself. It was too soon. He’d call them when he had something real to give them.
The odd trio ahead of him kept moving until their path came to the back of an old, abandoned warehouse. There, they disappeared before Hallorn caught up. He listened for a moment and heard scuffing from inside, and so he started to feel around on the wall of the warehouse. He knew how these hiding places worked, and the rattle of the loose boards made him smile. They slid aside wide enough to allow him to slip into the dank, dusty innards of the warehouse.
Inside the warehouse was a dark maze of old crates and ancient equipment. The dust on the floor showed the scuffs of shoes, so Hallorn knew the Mancer and her escorts had come this way.
As he followed the marks, the sounds ahead of him shifted. They were urgent at first, then cries of dismay, and then outright sobbing. By then, Hallorn was sprinting towards kids’ voices.
He gritted his teeth as he rounded the last layer of crates between him and the warehouse’s inhabitants; he hated being right about how bad this had looked. There it was in front of him now: the unmistakable shape of a body lying on the floor, shrouded by something dark and seething, and the Mancer standing over it with a green glow lacing her hands and the murmur of a spell on her lips.
Hallorn didn’t hesitate: he leapt into action, drawing the short sword hidden under his coat and slicing right through the threads of the magical energy reaching out from her hands. The Mancer cried out and stumbled back a step, shaking her head in disorientation as his muttered command shattered her spell.
“Not today,” he told her, stepping into the gap between her and the body, which seethed just behind his bootheels.
The Mancer looked up at him with wide eyes the same colour as the green glow that licked around her hands.
“A Paladin?” She stared at him for a moment, then shook her head like that wasn’t important. One of those hands moved to the side to ward the two kids that had led her here back. The smaller one was trying to muffle her sobs with both hands. “Get out of the way. I’m trying to save him.”
“Not exactly what it looks like.”
“I know, but that wasn’t me.” She nodded towards the body. “If you can break the spell without killing the boy, then do it. Otherwise, step aside.”
Hallorn frowned at the Mancer. She wasn’t attacking him, even though he’d made the first aggressive move. Could she be telling the truth? He stepped to the side and back, not willing to turn away from her, and glanced sideways at the boy on the ground. He was, indeed, still wrapped in a spell, somewhere deep beneath the layer of… scorpions, he saw now. The body was covered in shifting, scurrying scorpions.
“Step aside,” the Mancer insisted, moving closer and lifting her hands again. “Help if you can, but don’t get in the way.”
She spared him a glance and began to mutter, and Hallorn tensed instinctively, expecting an attack. Instead, the spell she wove was aimed at the ground either side of her, delving into the dirt and making it shiver and heave. A skeletal hand burst out of the ground, clutched at the surface, then heaved the rest of its bony structure upwards, shedding dirt and debris. Its eyes glowed the same green as the Mancer’s spell energy.
Hallorn watched with growing horror. A Necromancer: one of the rarest of the Mancer types and rumoured to be the most powerful. He lifted his short sword towards the skeleton but the risen creature ignored him. It turned immediately to the body on the floor and stooped to scoop scorpions off it, crushing them in its hands. The creatures began to rush up its arms and sting it, but the skeleton was unmoved: it continue in its work.
Hallorn caught a glimpse of the boy’s face beneath the blanket of scurrying carpaces, frozen in a rictus of terror, and abruptly shook himself and leaned into the task of ripping apart the spell that bound the creatures to him. He didn’t dare to use the sword for fear of injuring the boy, so his raw Paladin ability to undo magic would have to be enough.
As the spell was unwoven, the scorpions began to trickle off the body. Sensing the threat, they scurried towards the Mancer and her skeleton. She backed up a few steps as the creatures advanced and stopped when she hit a row of crates, then lifted her hands and began to mutter again, the pace quickened to a frenzy. Her eyes squeezed shut when the first scorpions swarmed up her boots and thighs, but she kept on with the spell, mouth working, perspiration beading at her temples. The green glow was intensifying around her hands, energy lancing out to the growing layer of the corpses falling dead around the unconscious boy. They twitched and moved again, then lurched towards her to rip down their live counterparts. Soon her lower half was covered in carapace bodies and ichor as they tore each other apart.
Necromancer, Hallorn repeated to himself as he reached out a hand to shred the last dregs of the binding spell off the boy. That’s what she was. She could command the scorpions once they were dead but not when they were alive, so she definitely hadn’t bound the scorpions here. She had been telling the truth.
The Mancer gave a strangled gasp and flung a stinging creature off her, all-but collapsing back on the crates. The scorpions on her seethed and started to fall away; there were no live ones left there now. One hand was curled around a glowing green ball of energy and she shook her head sharply as if to clear it. Threads of green wound up her arm from the glowing ball and sank into her skin, and from the shiver she gave, Hallorn guessed she was healing herself. Which meant that some of those scorpions had stung her.
Abruptly, the skeleton stepped back from the boy on the ground and the risen scorpions gathered next to it and fell still. Deathly still: not a hint of breath or shift of weight. They just stopped.
Mallorn could feel the spell was gone from the boy. He dropped to a knee and checked for a pulse: it was slow but steady.
“Is he all right?” the Mancer asked, pushing herself back to her feet. She was pale – paler than before – and looking strained now. The green glow only made her look more sickly.
“Stable. For now,” Hallorn replied.
The Mancer nodded and held the green ball out towards the boy. She murmured something and glowing tendrils reached out towards him, much like they had wound around her arm but much stronger this time. Hallorn snatched his hand back from the body but he didn’t interfere; he didn’t think she was trying to hurt the kid. Whatever it was he had walked into, it wasn’t what he had assumed.
By the time she fell quiet and let her arm drop to her side, the green ball of energy in the cage of her fingers was the size of a tennis ball. Her shoulders slumped with exertion but her head remained lifted and alert.
Hallorn checked the boy’s pulse: it was stronger than before. The Paladin nodded to himself and almost cast the Mancer a smile, but he remembered what she was before the expression could get away from him. He gave her a frown instead.
“What the hell is this?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” the Necromancer replied, straightening up heavily. “All I know right now is that I don’t like it.”
Hallorn had never imagined a situation in which he would agree with a Mancer, but there they were. The Order definitely wasn’t going to like this.
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