I curled my lip in scorn as I looked at the three men who stood before my throne. These were the only three among my followers who had the courage to step forward and accept the challenge I presented? Bah! Were they no better than the puling outsiders who strove to deny our Master's might, to let their ambition be so easily cowed?
"I am Cordas," declared the first. "I am your greatest warrior, most holy Xayn. I have slain many in your service, and only I am worthy of the sword granted to you by our Master."
"I am Pryll," announced the second. Unlike Cordas, he was small and lithe, dressed in dark gray. Not a soldier, but an assassin. "I have destroyed more of our sacred order's foes than any who is not a priest. The blade that hungers for life is rightfully mine."
The third man looked derisively at the first two. His eyes shone with the corrupted light of the fanatic.
"I am Geor. I hunger for the power of the blade our God has sent!"
I drew out the enchanted weapon from behind the throne. I had spent long hours on the rituals of ensorcelment to contact my sealed Master and draw forth some of the ebon power of the ultimate darkness to invest in the blade. The weapon was long and curved, single-edged with a savage, ripping point. I drew off its wrappings and let all see the blade. Once made of common steel, it now seemed to be a single piece of black stone that gleamed with a faint, dark aura. It was pure malevolence, distilled pain and hatred, and I could see how it beckoned to the twisted souls of the three. They would do anything to possess it.
"Cordas!" I commanded. "Step forth and take the sword! We shall see if it chooses you!"
I extended the hilt to the broad-shouldered soldier, and he seized it. Cordas raised the blade aloft and swept it through the air, feeling its heft and balance.
"A test, Lord Xayn! Provide me a test for this weapon!"
I snapped my fingers and pointed at another of my soldiers, one who was to be punished for some minor transgression. He was brought forward by two of his fellows.
"Strike to wound only," I warned Cordas, who was always eager to reave and slay even when it was not in his best interests. Our Master desired to spread death, but it was all done to serve a greater Purpose, not to slake a thirst for murder.
The enchanted blade sheared through wormhide armor and flesh, causing the soldier to gasp in pain as Cordas opened a bloody gash across his chest. Leering sadistically, the warrior cut again, engraving an X on his victim's skin. This time, though, the cry was cut off sharply. I felt the surge of magic, the impression of the death-rune in midnight blue in my mind's eye, could sense the precise moment at which the prisoner's spirit was driven from his body.
Cordas stared, wide-eyed, then began to laugh.
"Such power the Master has provided! With this weapon, I shall destroy our foes utterly."
This weapon. There it was, the reason Cordas, for all his blade-skill and dark devotion, would never be a worthy wielder.
I extended my hand.
"Return the blade."
Cordas' eyes widened, and cupidity warred with his fear of me on his homely face. Silently, I began to focus my will on a spell that would obliterate the warrior if he chose to rebel, but very wisely he backed down and placed the sword in my hand.
I next offered the weapon to the assassin Pryll. Having seen the Deathspell magic, he wanted it even more; a weapon that could slay with even a minor wound would be a great asset to the nightstalker. His fingers eagerly reached for the hilt.
Then they stopped.
His outstretched hand was still three or four inches from the dark stone. Indecision was clear in his expression, and fear lurked in the corners of his eyes. Watching was much like watching Cordas a moment ago, the same emotions doing battle.
Like Cordas, Pryll surrendered to his fear.
"No," he murmured, "I do not deserve this honor." What he meant was, he did not dare accept it.
Pryll was growing wise, I reflected. He would bear watching.
"You may be too much the coward, assassin, but I am not!" proudly boasted the last contender. Geor took the offered hilt, then raised the blade high, its gray radiance shining down on him.
Then, the true magic of the shadowblade became apparent. Geor was a follower at heart. He did not have the warrior's will, nor the assassin's cleverness and caution. His soul yearned for guidance, for a strong hand to show him what to do. In the face of our Master's power filling the blade, his mind was as nothing.
The gray light seemed to flow into Geor's body, slipping beneath the skin and filling his form with the essence of darkness, consuming him from within. His back arched and his lips opened in a soundless scream as his flesh lost its color, becoming gray and withered. Only his eyes still held color; they were two pinpoints of burning red.
"You have accepted the power of the sword," I intoned to the corpse-thing, "and so too have you accepted its duty. You are no more a weak Parmanian, a mere follower of darkness; you have no name to call your own. You are a Shadowsaber, one of our Master's countless legions.
I descended from the throne and beckoned to the creature that had once been Geor. Armor had been crafted to accompany the blade; once clad in it, the Shadowsaber would stand at my side night and day. It would be a bodyguard with no need for sleep or food, but more than that, it would be a living reminder that the greatest virtue in a Follower of the one true and eternal Darkness is not strength or cruelty, not wisdom or cunning, but servitude.