He was late.
Salaas, high priest of Umbra, once again scanned the horizon for a sign of his foe’s arrival. Nothing. Just a plain filled with muddy, half-dead grass, a few withered, wind-blasted trees, and clouds boiling over the distant grey mountains. Salaas and his entourage had been standing on that flat hill for half an hour, waiting for the Champion of the Black Shard to finally arrive.
An insult, Salaas seethed as his forked tongue flickered past his lips. He means to treat me as an inferior, as hardly worth his notice. For this he will pay a thousand fold.
If an hour passes, Carrion forfeits the challenge and Salaas would win. But to what end? He would not have defeated Carrion in mortal combat and the balance of power would not shift one iota. Salaas could shout himself hoarse that the Champion of Umbra was a gibbering coward, but that did not matter for as long as Carrion held the Shard’s favor. In truth, Salaas needed this duel, and Carrion knew it.
Salaas once again eyed the horizon, and finally his eyes caught a dark speck breaking the horizon. Gripping his staff in his webbed fist, the high priest rose to his feet. He’s coming.
And indeed, that speck drew closer with unnatural speed. Only a quarter of an hour passed before the stooped figure began climbing the hill towards their group.
Salaas threw a look at the three retainers behind him. They were his loyal subordinates for many years, priests of the Temple of Umbra and sworn protectors of their Faith. They will not let him lose today. If he should be endangered, he had instructed him to slay Carrion. Their Temple’s honor is far more important than that of a duel.
At last, Carrion stood before them. The necromancer held his ground some twelve feet away. “Greetings, O Revered One,” came his hollow voice.
Salaas could feel more than hear the hollowness of that greeting. He regarded his former slave with a contemptuous eye. Carrion wore a black, fur-trimmed robe, his features hidden by the shadowy hood that hung low over his eyes. A red girdle surrounded his waist, a long gnarled staff festooned with skulls and feathers in his hand.
“Welcome back, Corbin,” Salaas returned. “I presume your newfound magic has been good to you?”
In response, the Champion threw back his hood. “Judge for yourself.”
Despite himself, Salaas felt his breath retreat into his lungs. No vestige of his former slave remained; just lingering scraps of flesh on the hyena’s skull. Two cinders glowed in his empty eye sockets, and his sharp teeth showed in a perpetual grin. Truly, he embodied his namesake.
Carrion swept the tip his staff at their group. “Know all who attend here,” he said, “that to fight me is to contest the will of the Black Shard. I am Umbra’s Champion and will retain the title, whatever the outcome of this duel.”
Salaas spat on the ground. “Do not flatter yourself, young one. The Shard’s law is that only the strong are worthy. If you die today, and the Shard will withdraw its blessing.”
Carrion laughed. “Are you saying that the Shard’s judgement is flawed?”
“You are a fluke,” Salaas said. “A test for me to overcome. And believe me, I shall overcome.”
“Then there is little point in waiting, is there?” Carrion shrugged off his cloak. “Shall we begin?”
Salaas threw down his own cloak and advanced three steps. Behind him, his priests raised magical runic barriers to protect them from errant spells.
Salaas glared at his foe, bringing all his strength to bear. He was certain he could emerge victorious. More, he had no choice. Carrion could not be allowed to exist. The future of his rule in the Scorched Lands depended on the outcome of this duel.
Salaas planted his staff into the earth, and clapped his hands together. Magic surged through his limbs, collecting in his palms as blue flames. He hurled them at Carrion, who blocked them with a crimson barrier of his own. That was fine. Salaas hoped to have his foe on his back foot early on.
He surged forward, this time hurling bolts of red lightning. He could see the barrier cracking beneath the magical pressure and smiled to himself. He would not expect an easy victory, but all the same, it felt good to put this novice in his place.
The ground erupted beneath Salaas’s feet. The priest gave a startled cry as bony hands grabbed at his legs.
“Skeletons?!” Salaas scoffed. Raising his staff, he smashed in the skull of one undead minion and it fell limply on its side. “These parlor tricks are the best you can throw at me?” More emerged around him in a mob, pulling themselves out of shallow graves and turning their fleshless faces towards him.
“The dead are the Shard’s domain, Revered One,” said Carrion from behind his barrier, and Salaas could hear a smile in that voice. “And I have become a master of death.”
“Mastery? You have but an inkling of the Umbra’s true power!” Calling on his strength, Salaas raised his staff with both arms. The air around him rippled, the exploded outwards in a wave of heat. The skeletons in the immediate vicinity all caught fire and fell without a sound.
Still, Carrion seemed undeterred. Hidden behind his opaque barrier, he continued summoning undead minions from all around. The skeletons surged forward, crowding Salaas and preventing him from closing in with his foe.
“Coward!” Salaas cried. “Face me directly!” He spun his staff once over his head, surrounding himself in a bubble that prevented the skeletons from reaching him. This would buy him enough time to think of his next move.
Or so he thought. As soon as the first skeleton reached his force bubble, it exploded in a blaze of purple energy that instantly lanced through his defensive construct like a needle through cloth. Salaas felt the cold magic bite into his chest, and he grit his teeth to hide the pain. It felt cold, like the chill of an early grave.
“Weak,” Salaas sneered, then raised his hand. Three spectral swords appeared out of the air around him, slicing at the shambling bodies that got too near. “You will never be able to overpower me.”
“I don’t need to overpower you…yet,” said Carrion. “You will lose soon enough, for I have one advantage you do not have: I am young while you are old. While our powers may be equal, I can withstand the worst of your attacks, while my power chips away at your strength. Eventually, you will succumb to me.”
Salaas’s blood boiled at these words. In his rage, he raised his staff overhead and summoned a dark portal. A spiked hand reached out to grab the portals edge, followed by another. Then an enormous horned head emerged as the black beast pulled itself into the world.
Salaas channeled all his fury and hatred into the beast, compelling it to attack. With a howl of glee, the giant lurched forward and a wide backhand scattered the skeletal army into the wind. Now, thought Salaas. I have you now.
But as the beast hurled its fist towards carrion’s magical barrier, another enormous clawed hand reached out from an adjacent portal to grab it. Salaas could only stare in mute dismay as yet another summoned beast emerged into the material plane.
“No,” the high priest said. “No, no, no!”
Frustrated, his bloodlust reaching fever pitch, the old priest launched himself forward, past the broken skeletons on the ground, heedless of the two giants wrestling above him. He reached Carrion’s barrier in five long strides, then raised his glowing staff in a double-handed grip, ready to smash that glistening wall of magic and lay his opponent bare. But the blow never fell.
A long blade flew out from behind the barrier, burying itself into his chest. Salaas gasped, more in surprise than in pain, the staff falling from his hands. For a long moment he just stood there, frozen, heedless of the wrestling beasts that even now faded into the afternoon light. Only when the blade slipped out from his body did he fall to his knees.
Every word Salaas said came out as a cough. “You…were…waiting…”
Behind him, the dark beasts and skeletons had all vanished. The barrier melted away as Carrion strode forward, coming to stand before his former master. “Indeed, I was. You were always more direct than I, Revered One. Always more comfortable on the attack than on the defense. I just needed you to lose patience and close the distance. And so you did.”
Salaas turned his gaze over his shoulder, at the three priests behind him. They watched him with wide eyes and faces vacant with shock. Carrion glanced at them too, but they made no move.
“I will not kill your priests,” he said. “They have their uses.”
Salaas gasped, feeling the life blood spill in his hands. “You…expect me…to cede control…”
“I have no wish to usurp power over the Temple. That is not my purpose.” Carrion leaned forward, his skeletal face filling all of Salaas’s vision. “My purpose is to serve the Shard.”
“Do you know why the Shard chose me for its Champion, Salaas?” he went on. “Unlike you, I do not wish to advance my station in life. I am not interested in consolidating power, or leading your Cult.
“When the Shard came to me, it said only one thing. ‘As my Champion, show the world who I am.’ The Shard wanted me to use my freedom, the same one you stole from me when you enslaved my family. And so I travel the land, participating in each Arcanium. With every battle, I display Umbra’s power for all to see. I draw unto myself the weak, the hungry, the dispossessed, and the enslaved. They will hear Umbra’s voice in their hearts. Thus will the Shard have influence in every city in the continent.
“So you should not be surprised, Revered One. The Shard chose me because I am simply the better villain.”
But the high priest was beyond hearing. He slumped forward into the burnt grass as his last breath left him.
“You are not done, Salaas,” Carrion said. He swept his staff over the prone body. Tendrils of silvery mist rose from his body and were absorbed by the dark crystal of Carrion’s staff.
The crystal glowed with purplish light as Carrion traced it with one clawed finger. “Even in death, you serve the Shard.”
-Written by Mark Aragona