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A Shadow at the Gates of Death

  • Berwyn Powell
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I awoke to the taste of ash upon my lips. For a moment I remained trapped in nightmare, the flames of pyres dancing before my eyes and the laughter of the black figure ringing in my ears. Sweat stung my eyes as waves of heat washed over my skin. I tried to move my limbs, but they felt as though bound to my sides by bands of iron. I tried to scream, but my jaws would not work to add to the cries of all those others in my head. In a heartbeat it was over and, with my body suddenly again obeying my will, I howled my anguish to the skies. My own voice then returned to plead with me as it echoed from the rocks around. The spell was broken. I was no longer a prisoner of my own past, but merely a half-frozen figure shivering upon the cold earth.

Winter had not been kind to these parts, and if it were not for the heavy vestments of my office I might have faired far worse during the night. As it was, it took several aching minutes to gain my feet and work the stiffness from my limbs. The clearing where I had made camp for the night had greeted the dawn dressed in a veil of hoarfrost, and the blades of grass glittered like diamonds in the low sun. To the north, just visible above the tree line, rose the column of smoke which had awakened me. I was now less than a day’s travel from Joric’s Hold, but if the fire foretold that which I thought it might, those who lit it would be in desperate need of my aid. The decision was simple and, pausing only to gather my things and snatch a few mouthfuls of hard bread, I set off back into the forest. My investiture would have to wait.

By the time I reached the village it was nearing twilight, but the rapidly approaching gloom could not disguise its state of decrepitude. Everywhere I looked I saw the signs of decay; carts rotting in unploughed fields and cobbles missing from the road never to be replaced. Even the buildings themselves seemed to hunch over in arthritic stoops, as if worn down by years of misfortune. Once, the people who lived in them may have been prosperous, but those times were now long past.

As I approached the centre of the village I became aware of faces peering at me from between the shutters, the haunted looks in their eyes raising the hairs on the back of my neck. Somewhere to my left a child began to cry, and suddenly my misgivings were given solid form, for the village of my childhood must have looked very like this to an outsider just before the end.

Reaching a spot where I could be seen from all the houses, I slowly pulled the triskele from my neck and held it above my head; waiting for someone to summon the courage to approach. At the sight of the holy icon a murmur passed amongst the onlookers, but still no one stepped out from the shadows. As a statue I stood thus for several long minutes, the muscles in my arm burning. Then the muttering suddenly ceased and an old man started forwards, before thinking better of his actions and freezing as if under the gaze of the cockatrice. I could feel the weight of dozens of pairs of eyes boring into me, their owners terrified of what my reaction to their fellow might be.

Lowering my hand back to my side I pitched my voice to carry to the whole crowd, “I am a Paladin of Kureth. You have nothing to fear from me.”

The sound of my voice broke the spell that had gripped the messenger and he hurried forward to abase himself on the ground at my feet. “ are a Seeker?” he asked, head level with my boots.

“I am a noviciate of the order.” I replied as I gently lifted him to his feet, “and I am sworn to combat evil wherever it may lurk.”

Though he would not meet my gaze I still saw the slight shiver that shook him as my words turned thoughts back to whatever terror haunted them, and it was several long heartbeats before he finally matched my gaze with pleading eyes.

“ did you know?”

Now it was my turn to pause, for I could see that admitting it was pure chance brought me to them would push him further over the edge. Instead, I replied that I was trained to spot the spoor of evil wherever it lurked; and, apparently satisfied with my answer, he continued.

“T..two weeks ago we began to see strange lights in the old Earl’s house, and Johann here heard a woman’s voice chanting in the wind.” at this he gestured over an equally terrified youth. “Since then all our food has begun to spoil and several people have taken sick and died.”

Johann joined us and I was immediately struck by the pain written across his features; whoever he had lost had been held dearer than life. He made as if to speak, to tell of whatever anguish held him in its grip, but then stopped unable to continue and looked to the old man to elaborate.

For a moment the two stared at one another, some unspoken conversation passing between them, then the old man turned to me and spoke again. “Johann’s wife was the first. She passed away the night after she first saw the witch. Since then six others have joined her.”

The man who had first approached me was an old veteran by the name of Hengist. When Johann’s wife had succumbed to a wasting sickness the very night she had spotted a face at the abandoned house’s window, Hengist had led a small party of men to investigate. Before they could reach the ruin, however, they had been enveloped by a grey mist that confused their vision and left them scattered exhausted across the fields.

Seemingly unable to fight the terror that had descended upon them, he had sent out several runners to the nearest town with a plea for help. But, as days turned into weeks without sight of the boys or aid from afar, it became apparent that someone - or something - was determined to prevent word of their plight from reaching the outside world. With grim determination they lit the beacon that had awakened me that morning, but until my arrival they had not seen a living soul from outside and were resigned to the prospect of slowly wasting away from fear and hunger

Night was fast approaching by the time Hengist had finished telling his story, and the sunless hours so gripped the villagers in talons of despair that none were willing to leave their homes after dark. I myself was hesitant to begin my first lone engagement when my opponent’s powers would be at their fullest. For if I was the only one who would come to these people’s aid, throwing my life away for want of a little patience would serve only to damn them. So seeing that my next move would have to await the coming of the dawn I followed Hengist to the house he now shared with the recently widowed Johann. It was crudely made, but sturdy, and in the last light of the day I took a brand from the fire and etched an eye of aversion into the door.

I had not eaten since that morning and Hengist insisted that I should sup with them, but with no supplies reaching them from outside - and their stores nigh ruined by the witch's curse - there was little enough to go around and our meal such as it was consisted of only a few old scraps. We sat around the table in silence, as a candle cast twisting shadows upon the walls. The meagre fare before us more than we could manage as each noise of the night, or flicker of the light seemed to herald the arrival of some unknown horror. Knowing I would need strength if I was to survive the morrow, however, I forced jaws to chew and mouth to swallow while my mind wandered.

All of a sudden, I was wrenched out of my reverie by the sound of footsteps outside, which were shortly followed by a voice at the door.

“Father? Father, won’t you let me in?”

A chill shot up my spine and I almost dropped my knife in shock. Across the table the blood had drained from Hengist’s face, leaving his skin white as old bones. His hands reached out and clutched the table in a grip that looked as if it might shatter mountains, for it could be no villager asking to enter his house after dark.

Meeting my gaze, he whispered an answer to the question that rested unspoken upon my lips, “The voice is that of my son, taken by the lung rot five years ago. What manner of creature it is that pleads with me through his voice I do not know, for I have never answered it, even though it comes every night to torment me thus.”

Having received no answer, the thing outside proceeded to knock at the door and once more called out in the dead child’s voice “Please father, it’s cold outside. Can I not come in?”

Beside me Johann stifled a yelp and I clamped my hand over his mouth to silence him, but it was not quick enough; as at the noise all went abruptly silent at the door and we three froze, dreading what the reaction might be.

For what seemed an eternity we waited, barely daring to draw breath, but all seemed still outside. Then, we began to make out the sound of light footsteps moving around the house. They would stop from time to time and be replaced by the soft rasp of finger nails on wooden shutters, as if whatever horror was without was trying to find an entrance; but on each occasion the attempt would be thwarted and the footsteps would eventually resume their circuit. The wick of the candle burned ever lower as we waited for an end that never came, dreading even that the sound of our hearts hammering in their chests might give us away.

Nevertheless, the thing finally found its way back to its starting place and, seemingly infuriated by its failure, began to crash upon the door. Hinges rattled and wood creaked. Soon the sound had become so loud that I feared the door would split asunder and, commending my soul to the heavens, loosened the sword at my belt; determined to at least meet this doom with a weapon in my hand. The very instant my fingers touched the blessed silver of its blade, however, the world became still and, as suddenly as the assault had started, it ceased. Whatever lurked without let out an ear-piercing wail of frustration and stamped off into the night.

For many long moments we still dared not to move, in case the thing should hear us and return, but it seemed it had passed us by in search of easier prey. With that realisation also came awareness of the aches of holding limbs taught in readiness and - despite having moved not a muscle since we had first heard the knock at the door - I felt as though I had spent the evening wrestling with a bear. My companions seemed to have fared no better from the encounter, for Hengist was weeping into his hands and Johann had taken on the complexion of a corpse. The full-weight of our situation began to impress itself upon me, for this was no mere hedge-witch that faced us as I had initially believed!

As time passed the fear eased and we slowly recovered our wits, but still jumped at every little noise of the night. No one seemed particularly eager to talk and so we sat together in resolute silence, watching the candle slowly burn its way ever downward.

Much later I began to feel that the chair upon which I sat could no longer support my weight, and I was falling through the floor and into the earth. With awareness my fall seemed to accelerate and soon the earth itself had given way to an endless dark ocean and I was sinking to the very depths of the abyss. Another moment and the water had boiled away, leaving behind a grey and featureless plain. All around me spread lifeless earth, though dark mountains reared up in the far distance. Not a noise broke the silence and the air itself seemed as still as if it were made from glass.

For hours I wandered, heading towards the distant mountains, but the landscape seemed unchanged and unmoving. Another look and, where an instant ago there was nothing, up ahead was now a thicket of a few small and wind blasted trees. As I approached, they seemed to grow in number until they had become the forest I had travelled through these last days. In a few short footsteps I was at their edge and they loomed up above me. I had no desire to enter, preferring the safety of the open plain, but nevertheless my feet led me onwards and I found myself pushing through grasping branches.

Ahead, between the trunks lay a ruined cottage, though as I approached, it, like the trees, seemed to grow and was rebuilt before my eyes. I stepped within, but all was deserted as if its last occupants had left long ago. Deeper into the house I walked. From the outside it had seemed to have been no more than a peasant’s hovel, but the inside concealed a labyrinthine warren of rooms and corridors; each time I tried a door that should have led back to the outside it revealed yet another room and a further choice of doors at its end.

I began to panic, fearing that I would never find my way out. Faster and faster I moved through the long abandoned building, but each new intersection seemed more complex than the last. My hurried footsteps echoed in long forgotten halls and the dust of aeons was thrown up from a tableau of fallen grandeur by my passage, but still I could find no exit. Then, entering what seemed an old library I began to hear a woman’s voice. At first I could not make out the words, but from her tone she seemed to be calling out to another soul lost like myself. Moving steadily closer, I could begin to understand what she was saying.

“Johann? Johann my love, where are you?”

In the haze of my dream I knew only that it was another whom she addressed, but even so the warmth in her voice drew me onwards; we both seemed trapped in this maze and I felt sure that if only I could reach her, together we might find the one she sought and escape. After crossing the library and opening a door into yet another corridor I again heard her call out.

“Johann, come to me my love. That’s it my dearest, just come out here so we can be together.”

Suddenly there was a loud crack as of breaking timbers and an older man’s voice cried out in alarm, pulling me back from sleep.

“For god’s sake boy! get away from the door!

I opened my eyes and once again found myself sitting at the table; the candle now little more than a guttering stump. The fear of death sank its claws into my flesh and I tried to get up and flee, but with limbs still leaden from sleep I moved as if bound. Across the table Hengist struggled to rise from the broken remains of his chair and I realised that the sound of its leg snapping had been what had pulled me awake. At first I could not see Johann, but then the scrape of the latch opening drew my gaze to the door and, seeing that I could not prevent what was about to happen, I screamed.

Outside the night was as black as pitch, for the first rays of the dawn were yet to lighten the sky, and yet a sickly glow seemed to spill into the house from the cracks between the timbers. As I watched in horror, Johann swung the door open and was silhouetted against the corpse light. From without came a cry of triumph and the voice of the woman from my dream, seductive in its victory “Johann my love, come and embrace me”.

My legs finally found their strength, and I lunged towards him, but it was too late. His face a mask of bliss Johann stepped out to meet his doom, and it came forwards to greet him. A spectre of the night wearing the face of an angel, it clasped the doomed villager to its bosom and cackled in ecstasy as his brief scream was cut short and his cold, lifeless body fell to the dirt.

Rage and grief made me heedless of my own safety and I charged the revenant, but it stepped aside from the blow. Too late I realised my error, for behind me my path back to the house was now blocked. Outside, the night was lit up with the lights of creatures prowling around the other houses, like some shoal of bioluminescent creatures come up from the depths to prey upon the villagers. At my emergence they turned as one and began to converge upon me.

Within moments I was surrounded. Time slowed as if to a crawl, my whole world closing down to a desperate game of strike and parry, but one in which I could not hope to prevail. Semi-corporeal monsters with witch-fire eyes encircled me; staying out of reach of the sword, but darting in to scratch and claw with every opportunity. Their talons felt like ice, and each cut, no matter how minor, seemed to leach away my very essence. Soon I felt barely able to lift my blade and, sensing that I was tiring, the wraiths began to close. All hope seemed lost and I felt I would spend the last moments of my life torn apart by the damned; but fate, it would seem, had other plans for me yet.

I was facing away from the house, having repaid in kind an apparition that had come in to rake its claws down my back, when I heard a yell from behind. Turning, I saw Hengist waving a burning brand above his head and pressing towards the wights, who were retreating before him. Temporarily bewildered, they backed away from the fire, unsure of the threat it posed them. It was a reversal that would not last, for already those furthest from the light were beginning to slow, but it was enough; and I hurled myself at the beast between myself and salvation. Blessed silver sliced through cursed flesh and I collided with Hengist, sending us both crashing back into the house. All the wind was knocked from my chest, but before drawing breath I was back on my feet and slamming home the bolt of the door. From the other side came an ear piercing wail and claws frenziedly scratched upon the timbers but, against all odds, we were safe.

The rest of the night passed in a haze of pain and confusion. I bled little, but felt the chill of the grave seeping gradually into my flesh from where those ghostly talons had marred me. Hengist also had not come away entirely unscathed and collapsed from exhaustion as soon as he was safe inside. For my part, I slept not for fear, but slumped into a semi-lucid doze until the first light of the dawn finally banished the scratching from the door.

Sunrise burst up like fire from the east and for a time the air seemed as if it was spun from beaten copper. Bathed in the breath of the gods, Hengist and I rose, lifeless as phantoms, from our fitful slumbers. Dread at the prospect of the impending confrontation filled my thoughts, but with a supreme effort of will I managed to overcome it; for if these people and myself had any hope of survival it lay only in facing our oppressor and overcoming her. I had sworn to avenge the victims of evil, and I could not falter at my first real challenge.

The night had cost the villagers dear and, aside from poor Johann, three others had passed over into the eternal twilight. Of the survivors, most were already half-dead from the continued weight of terror, but a few young lads, braver or madder than the rest, took up arms to join us.

The Earl’s house was set upon a small hill overlooking the village, only a short walk from our present position. Yet the path was exposed, and with every step of the way the skin on my back crawled, expecting some new devilry to be unleashed upon us at any moment. The witch, however, seemed to have other plans, and our advance was not challenged. Within a quarter hour we were before the house, and I was pounding on the door demanding that she come out to face us.

I expected no response to my challenge, but barely had my fist left the door than it was hurled open, sending me spinning off my feet. Through the now open portal spilled a horde of huge black rats that engulfed my comrades in a wave of biting teeth and scratching claws. They flowed over us like the ocean swamping a foundering ship, and the air was filled with the chittering of countless vermin and the cries of dying men. I had fallen away from the main path of the beasts - though the heat of the amulet at my neck suggested this was by more than pure chance - and was able to gain my feet before I was borne under. Drawing my sword I set about me with a vengeance, but I might have been waging war on the desert sands for all the effect it was having.

Frenzied rodents began to climb up my legs, seemingly seeking to bear me down with their weight and in my panic I nearly wounded myself trying to dislodge them. To fall was death and I had to remain standing. From the corners of my eyes I caught grotesque glimpses of the sea of vermin writhing where some poor soul had been dragged under and was being slowly drowned alive by the numberless bodies above him. Panicking, my breathing became erratic and my heart skipped. I wanted to flee, to find some safe spot to hide, but there seemed no escape from this infernal horde that overwhelmed us.

Just as I felt I could no longer hold myself upright the tide started to abate, and within a few heartbeats the doorway was empty. Looking behind I saw a river of rats snaking across the ground into the distance. Like us, it would seem, they also were terrified of what lay within; and we just happened to have been obstacles to their flight.

Brief as the encounter was, it had cost us dearly. Two of the lads had fallen, never to rise again and the rest had fled as soon as they were able. Hengist had suffered a deep gash to his leg and seemed on the verge of collapse and I felt numb to all sensation. No words passed between myself and the old veteran, but we both knew that to turn back now would only delay the inevitable, we owed it to all those poor souls in the village to see this through to its grim conclusion. Pausing thus only long enough that we could again clutch our weapons without shaking, we entered the house.

The moment my feet passed the threshold the air seemed to ripple and distort; the interior of the Earl’s house slowly melting away to be replaced by the ancient manse from my dream. Hengist, following on a few paces behind, looked round with startled eyes and whispered a prayer.

What enchantment had been cast upon us I do not know, but again I became lost within that labyrinth. The walls themselves seemed to lean in on us and the dust of ages to choke the breath from our lungs. Our pace began to quicken as our panic grew, and as it did evil laughter drifted upon the stale air, our host delighting in our bedevilment.

Snarling in frustration I kicked down a door, only to find it led into the library where I had first heard the siren’s call. We began to make our way past shelves full of ancient tomes, but were stopped short by the sound of a woman sobbing. In the dense gloom I could see little beyond the next bookcase, and my eyes searched futilely for the source. The shadows themselves appeared to be alive, writhing as if in torment. Then, for a single instant, they parted, to reveal a spirit of the night waiting for us.

The Banshee screamed. Being in the lead I took the brunt of it, and the shriek was so full of pain and loss that I was forced to my knees by the sheer weight of despair. Behind me, his nerve finally broken, Hengist turned and fled. I tried to rise to aid him, but before my legs would answer the spirit had set off in pursuit, wailing her delight.

By the time I had regained my feet they were both out of the door we had entered by. Cursing, I quickly followed, but instead of the room we had just left I found myself in a hallway branching off in both directions. For a moment I hesitated, but chose the left after thinking I heard noises from that direction.

At the end of the hall was a half-open doorway and, framed by its arch, was the witch. She was as pale as the driven snow and thinner than any person I had ever seen. Lank black hair hung down past rag covered shoulders and she hunched over as if bearing an incredible weight. Hearing my approach, she turned and fixed me with her stare and for a moment I stood enraptured; as instead of the hate and malice I was expecting I saw only fear behind those ice blue eyes, as if in me she recognised her doom. For five long heartbeats we faced each other thus. Then I remembered Johann’s frigid body lying behind and, letting out a bellow of anger and frustration, I charged.

Seven quick steps and I was through the doorway, fist clenched tightly around sword hilt. Time slowed to a crawl and the witch’s lips began to move, uttering some dark incantation or, perhaps, prayer for salvation. Scrawled on the floor I saw intersecting lines and symbols, the workings of some dark ritual that I had interrupted. The letters sent a shiver down my spine, despite being in some archaic script I could not read. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a blur behind and to the right and threw myself to the side. It was not quick enough and something crashed into my temple, sending me spinning. The floor came up to meet me and all was black.

Vision swam and it felt as if a titan was squeezing my head in its grip. Sleep threatened to reach up and drag me back under, but in this place sleep was certain death. Reaching out a hand I managed to grip the sill of a window and pull myself to unsteady feet. I turned, reeling like a drunk, to face my new assailant.

Stepping out from his hiding place behind the doorway was a giant clad in long black robes that seemed to suck the very light from the air. For the first time I noticed that an aroma of chalk and burnt spices permeated the room and, with failing heart, I realised that our paths had crossed before; for this was the beast that haunted my nightmares, the one that had set my life’s path. At almost the same instant the figure must have noticed the same, for it paused its advance and laughter like snakes sloughing off dead skin emanated from inside that pitch-black hood. Pale hands reached out of long dark sleeves to reveal the face of death itself.

Once, long ago, the beast before me had been human, but black magic had turned it into something far, far stranger. Whereas my own eyes and those of the witch were white tinged with blue, its were purest black. Paper-thin skin was stretched tight over old bones and purple veins showed through from beneath. Those eyes transfixed me and the voice of death rasped from its throat.

“You are that urchin that I spared so long ago. How delicious that you should seek me out again to end your miserable existence.”

All thoughts of vengeance fled and my mind screamed at me to run, but instead I stood rooted to the spot, as if limbs were suddenly transmuted to lead. Even my voice abandoned me and I was left a mute witness to what I knew must transpire, like some theatre goer taken in by the performance and helpless to watch its grim conclusion.

Sensing my predicament, the corners of the lich’s mouth twisted up into a smile, emphasising the unnatural gauntness of its face – “What? Cat got your tongue?”

It advanced another step and the witch let out a frightened squeal. Having forgotten why I was here in my fright, I glanced across, and the beast - following the direction of my gaze - broadened its smile

“Ah, so you came to seek vengeance on her for the cattle in the village?” it threw back its head and laughed, “No. She is nothing. Mere currency for the rite I am about to perform and, as you have so kindly made yourself available, you too may join her.”

With that it was suddenly looming up above me and I screamed as a withered hand clutched my throat. The witch, or sacrifice as I know realised her to be, wailed in terror as I felt my vitality stolen by the ancient necromancer. I tried to fight, to resist, but my strength quickly faded and vision grew dark. As my vigour fled, the lich’s own rapidly grew; flesh began to grow underneath its skin and colour once again pulsed through its veins. Within moments my legs gave out under me, but even that attempt at flight was foiled as my assailant effortlessly took the weight.

Then, as abruptly as the assault had begun, I was dropped to the floor and the lich reared up in agony, Hengist’s axe embedded in its spine. It turned, roaring in pain, and batted him aside as a man would swat a fly. The old veteran was flung bodily out of the room and I dimly heard the crunch of his ruined body colliding with a wall somewhere in the distance. The lich dropped to its knees and wailed in torment, thrashing around with its arms as it sought to remove the axe from between its shoulders. I lay were it had dropped me, knowing I was too weak to run and fearful that it would hit me in its madness; praying that when my end did come, it would at least be a swift one.

A shadow then fell over me, and I looked up into the eyes of the witch. She said nothing, but pressed a ritual dagger into my hands, an imploring look on her face. For a moment I looked at her with blank stare, then realised she was offering me a chance at redemption. Fighting against the weakness that sought to claim me, I managed to come to my feet and she steadied me as dizziness almost brought me back down again. When the swaying had calmed a little she gave me a gentle push, and I lurched forwards to bury the dagger beneath the monster’s skull.

There was a wail of pure torment loud enough to deafen and a noise of rushing wind. Everything in the room, from the scrolls littering the shelves to both the witch and myself were flung backwards from where the lich had been but a moment before. The beast itself seemed to contort in pain and then dissolve into a cloud of black smoke that streaked out of the window, pulling dust and parchment with it. I crashed into the wall of the house and something heavy landed on top of me. For the briefest second lightning seemed to lance down my spine, then all was black.

Thoughts began to coalesce. There was pain and a ringing noise, as if a thousand smiths were beating upon as many anvils. Light, seemingly brighter than the sun itself burned into eyes and the world seemed to rock as if on ocean tides. Slowly, awareness returned, and with it the knowledge of where I lay.

I was no stranger to death. Apprenticed to Master Bard I had seen the soul destroying weight of grief, but never had I come so close to my own mortality. Every breath that filled my lungs felt like shards of glass and each nerve was aflame. Fighting a tide of nausea I managed to push myself to my feet.

The room was a wreck. The lich’s sanctum, from where he had gorged on the villagers’ fear, was now buried under burnt parchment. Broken glass from alchemical instruments covered the floor and the windows had been torn from their hinges. In a corner, the withered form of the witch lay crumpled where she had fallen, the shallow rising and falling of her chest indicating that, miraculously, she too had managed to survive the encounter.

Everywhere lay the monster’s broken playthings and, if it had not been for Hengist’s sacrifice, my corpse would instead have taken their place. I had thought myself a champion for those who could not defend themselves but, in reality, I was nothing more than a insect to the things I sought to combat. Mere men, I now knew, could not expect to meddle in the affairs of gods or devils and survive.

I searched for signs of the lich’s body, but there were none. I did not know all the powers that it possessed, but it was rumoured that its kind could change their shape at will and the black smoke I had seen streaming from the window may well have been it fleeing to recuperate before seeking its revenge. If that were the case, and our paths did cross again, I would likely be as helpless as a new-born babe.

Then, searching amongst the wreckage, my hands brushed against a piece of parchment that was rather less damaged than the rest. Unlike the symbols inscribed on the floor it seemed to be written in a script that I could understand. I picked it up and visions of the horrors that had assailed us the previous night filled my head. The things that I had fought were the very stuff of nightmares; spirits summoned up from the afterlife to plague the living. Could, perhaps, the powers needed to gain mastery over such as they, be turned against their former master, himself a creature of darkness?

Perhaps, I need not be so helpless after all...