Noman grimaced in distaste at the blood dripping from his hands. He'd just finished the second set of symbols, drawn from a memory he didn't completely comprehend. He didn't look at the body of the fifth man he'd killed tonight. Instead he looked out at the rain, the urge to walk outside and let it wash his hands clean rising with each passing second. They itched. They burned. And what's worse was he knew they would never be entirely clean. No matter how hard he scrubbed, no matter how long, the stain would always remain. It would haunt him, as it had haunted him when he'd first awakened to the influence of voice.
This had been easier than the last one. The man hadn't been prepared for Noman and the shadows. Neither had the mercenaries at the warehouse, but they'd at least been trained warriors. They'd been ready to die. This man had simply been lurking in the wrong alley at the wrong time. A thief, perhaps. Or maybe someone who just enjoyed being alone with the rain. Whatever the case, his blood now decorated the walls of an empty stable. No longer able or particularly willing to resist the urge, Noman stepped out into the rain and held forth his hands. As he stood letting the blood run off into the street, a shadow swam in from the night. It swirled around his legs and hissed. He glared down at it, listening to the noises it made.
Someone has discovered your handiwork, the voice echoed off of the alley's walls. A little sooner than expected, but it will make no measurable difference.
"Huh," Noman grunted. Of course it didn't matter. Let the Watch have their one crime scene. They would gain nothing of use from it, and the other locations would be marked before morning. Nothing they found could lead them to the next murder, or even hint that there would be more. Still, there was a nagging feeling that told Noman it was better to be safe than sorry. "Stay here and keep watch," he told the shadow who had alerted him. It was the same one that had been at the warehouse. How the things knew to find him was a mystery. But it was one amongst many mysteries, and he hadn't the enthusiasm to try and puzzle it out.
Move along, the voice prompted. Our work is not yet done.
"Have one of your pets do it," Noman growled. But even as he spoke he was taking a step forward. The notion struck him that while he'd meant the shadows, the term 'pet' could probably be equally applied to him. It made him feel even more irritable. Someone else might have used the opportunity for another murder to vent that frustration. But the next killing would only fuel the fire. He kept telling himself it was for the greater good, and somehow that helped. It didn't change the fact that his soul was forfeit, but it helped.
Perhaps that was the sacrifice he remembered her speaking of. She had called it a small sacrifice. Perhaps to a god one mortal soul was a small price to pay for advancing it's agendas. One small soul, damned to one of the seven hells so that others might be spared a terrible fate. It would have sounded so very heroic if he wasn't living it, doing the things the voice wanted him to do.
"Why me?" he asked as he tromped through the rain-slick streets, following up on his original questions. "Why not get one of those things to do it for you?" He cast a baleful look at the shadows that followed along beside him. Their glittering green eyes flashed out of the darkness at him, aware of his attention.
You know the answer to that, the voice told him.
"Bah," Noman snorted derisively. "I know a lot less than you seem to think I do. Whatever happened, whoever I was, what you did to me broke something."
Patience, it chided. Everything will become clear with time. You will remember... you always do.
"And just how many times have I had to remember?" he demanded.
Far too many.
Something about those words struck Noman as odd. He thought it over, and realized that there had been something very much like sorrow in them. And that worried him. "How many more times will I have to forget?" he asked. For a time there was nothing but the pattering of rain and the splash of his boots in the puddles. He wondered if this was a time when the voice would simply refused to answer.
That remains to be seen, it said at last. He shrugged to himself. It was more of an answer than he'd expected. In fact, this was more of a conversation than he'd anticipated when he'd first asked his question. He thought about pressing his inquiry, but decided to let it drop. Something told him he wouldn't like any of the answers he got anyway.
At last he found himself standing within sight of the city's North Gate. It was time to find a suitable location for the third murder of the night. Someplace dry, where he could draw the required arcane symbols. "Go," he tossed the word over his shoulder. The writhing mass of shadows that followed him dissolved into the night, and he found a somewhat dry wall to lean against while they performed their reconnaissance.
He closed his eyes. Not because he was tired, he had no need to sleep after all, but because he just didn't feel like looking out at the world. When his eyelids touched closed the cool, moist night air seemed to vanish. His skin was instead battered with waves of searing heat. The soft pattering of rain gave way to the angry crackle of flame, and that clean dirt smell of a good rainstorm became the acrid stench of smoke. Surprised and momentarily disoriented, he snapped his eyes open and looked around.
He was no longer in Marsten. Or if he was, he was no longer where he'd been a moment ago. Now he was in what looked for all the world to be a barn. Bales of hay that had been neatly stacked along the inside walls burned merrily and flame clung to the ceiling. Disoriented he turned in a circle, trying to figure out why he was here, how he'd gotten here, and just where in the seven hells here was. As he was three quarters of the way around he saw it. It was on the floor, scrawled in blood. He recognized the symbols he'd drawn twice already, although there was something different here. There was another set of symbols within the first, another pattern overlaid to create something new. As he stared at it, trying to comprehend what it meant, the floor in the center of it all seemed to warp and bend. Something started to emerge, something shifting and chaotic that he couldn't look directly at.
"A shadow?" he asked aloud, more curious than afraid. It looked like one of the creatures he commanded, but larger. Much larger. Almost without knowing he raised his fist, green stone gripped tightly. He noticed, almost distantly, that his arm was marred by lacerations and his coat was torn to shreds. No blood dripped from the wounds. He watched the thing pull itself from the warped floor of the burning barn, sprouting a multitude of limbs that stretched and strained to grasp at anything nearby. The voice was suddenly speaking, the sound of it echoing through his skull.
Look at it, she said coldly. Summoned from the Aether by fools who had no appreciation for the power they were leashing. You poor, pathetic creature. They would never have been able to hold you.
The words were devoid of anything that might resemble pity. Instead, they were filled with contempt. The next were softer, directed at Noman rather than the creature.
Deal with it.
He moved forward, and in the blink of an eye he was stepping out into the rainswept streets of Marsten. He stopped, face darkening into a deep frown. When the shadows swarmed in from all corners of the night he looked at them suspiciously and wondered. Several formed a swirling ball of what could be mistaken for smoke, hovering above the ground three feet in front of him. They vied for his attention, hissing and clicking. The message was clear - they'd found suitable locations, and at least one of them had a suitable sacrifice as well.
He followed them through the streets, keeping to back roads and alleys whenever possible. As he walked he pulled the sleeve of his coat up to reveal his right forearm. There were no scars, no blemishes to indicate the wounds he'd seen in his flash of vision had actually happened. He let the sleeve fall back into place and put his hand in his pocket, thoughtful.
"Poor, pathetic creature indeed," he muttered.