Blood of Kevirius
Vandrot managed to make it halfway out of the Splints before he collapsed, all alone on the twisting path up. He was too distraught by his burden to worry about a thief or vagrant attacking him and all bodily needs became secondary. The cold didn’t matter, his hunger didn’t matter: he could feel it seeping into his mind. Like a cold fog that promised warmth the deeper you ventured inside.
“No,” he whispered to himself, “No. No, no, no, nononono, no. Not to me, this is not happening.” He wrapped his arms around himself to stop the shaking, but it wasn’t helping, the presence was there and it was spreading, already he could feel a tug, like a string tied around his core, nudging him along. It was the dagger he could feel- it was pulling him to its creator, that was the only possibility. A book he had read came swimming to the forefront of his mind, one of many forbidden tomes he had personally scavenged out of the age-old ashes of the Mage Purge. Called Blades of Mind, it was about items- usually weapons- that were imbued with sentience or paired with a pre-existing mind- kriol’s, they were called. Their sole purpose was to infiltrate the mind of anyone who wasn’t their creator, -or, in the case of the paired mind, anyone who wasn’t themselves- and theoretically take over their body as a vessel for the kriol. But it just didn’t make sense- according to the book, kriol’s were impossible to make, requiring tremendous quantities of magical power to even assemble and there were no more bloodlines of such power in the entirety of the Empire, let alone Kevirius. Especially after the Mage Purge.
He felt the fog speed in its progression, as if blown by a wind and his thoughts were quickly scattered across the ice of his mind, frozen by the threat to his life. All the knowledge in that book dissipated, he could only remember that he was going to die, his own mind erased and replaced with the kriol’s sentience.
“Only if I give in,” Vandrot reassured himself, but he didn’t believe it- the book had never mentioned anybody surviving a kriol’s grasp. “I don’t know… I don’t know.” he squeezed his eyes shut, trying to block out the fog, it felt like it only hastened more. He could hear a voice now, it was male, deep and commanding, worming lazily into his thoughts.
‘Come to me,’ it wasn’t truly a voice, more like that of a thought- in truth Vandrot struggled to distinguish it from his own.
His eyes flew open as the tug strengthened into a rope and he saw himself walking- he wasn’t in control, he was merely a passenger along for the ride. He watched himself place one foot in front of the other, such a strange view, to see yourself, but only through observation. He wanted to be afraid, to fight for dominance but it was just so blissful to give up.
‘No,’ Vandrot whispered to himself, ‘Let me go,’
“You know I can’t do that. Rest, only peace awaits you,” the kriol assured him.
Vandrot tried to stop himself again and again, each time he attempted he became weaker and weaker, lethargically reaching for control, his sight slowly fogging over until it became a gray blur of motion.
“Sleep. Rest your eyes, just for a moment,” Vandrot heard himself speaking but it wasn’t him who spoke, what did it matter, he was ever so tired, maybe he would just close his eyes for a minute or two.
The gray blur slowly transitioned into black until he could no longer see- he could still hear and smell, but he was floating in a puddle of shadows, drifting alone in ecstasy. The quiet sounds were amplified in the darkness and he could hear the pittering of rain on stone and wood. He assumed it was cold but it could have been warm- he wouldn’t have been able to tell. He thought he could hear rumbling of carts and footfalls of those who pulled them, and a voice- many voices- asking him questions, addressing him as Noble. It was his own voice that answered them- how strange that was, hearing your own voice as others did. Smells floated through the darkness, lifting him up and carrying him around like a dense cloud, toying with his slipping mind and tossing him gently. They reminded him of events in his life, fond memories he kept of youth and freedom, sugary frostings of his kitchen raids, helped by the apprentice cooks and some of the serving boys, puffs of flour making them all sneeze. Foods being thrown from hidden positions at kitchen-master’s, who then began fervent attempts to find the culprits. Sour wines that were stolen and drunk by him and his new friends. He had to find new ones after the apprentices and servers had lost their positions following the fun had- a pity, he remembered them being good company. He smelled the vomit that always followed his indulgence- that was an awful aroma, but a comfort nonetheless. Smoke and burning wood greeted him after the wines, filling his nose with rebellion and mayhem. He remembered the puffs of fire, crackling against and snapping the wood it feasted on. He remembered the toppling of a building after it could no longer hold itself together, yawning to the ground and tearing itself in half. The memory lead to the clanking of metal as Guards chased after him and his crew. He remembered the ecstasy of the escape and how good it had felt to finally exact revenge on the woman who had stolen his funds, oh so long ago.
The memory brought him to the next day and the aftermath that was etched in stark detail within his mind. He recalled walking in the gray, overcast sky, rain just beginning to fall. Winds that tossed and teased the leaves of plants and ran phantom hands through loose hair, brushing it this way and that. He remembered the bruises he had from Noble Ressols switch, they stung like his attention always did, but nothing was broken, not even his resolve. They were headed to the courtyard, just him and Noble Ressol- Wendal had stayed behind, research, he had mentioned.
There was a crowd when they arrived, thick enough that everyone had to fight for room to see, everybody present had their best clothes on. The courtyard was circular and a darker gray than the sky, with overgrowth encroaching into the inside, breaking up the rigid shapes of the walls. There was a pole in the middle, made of wood and very thick- an old tree trunk, he recalled. But they weren’t gathered there to look at the tree, only who was tied to it.
Four boys, shirtless in ragged pants and facing towards the tree, tied wrist to wrist with chains, viciously gnawing at their skin. Bound directly to the tree with ropes around their individual waist’s, imbolizing them, chaining them to their fate. He was told they had been there all night, which was a shame, but they all knew the dangers- he had already done his penance.
People were anxious and began shouting for them to hurry up with it so they could get back to their homes before dark- a bit of an exaggeration, it rarely took all day. The Prosecutioners granted their request and four men dressed in black and mask’s of a three headed viper, symbolizing the god of punishment. The mutter that preceded their arrival vanished as the crowd separated to let them through. All that could be heard was the cawing of a single crow that rested on the top of the trunk, staring at Vandrot, laughing.
“Pain, pain, pain,” it cawed, “Pain. Pain.”
The four in black needed no trial, the fate of the boy’s was decided the previous night and the boy’s knew it. They all stood there, muscles tense and shivering, one started whimpering as the four in black took their positions, unhooking their coiled whips. They hit the ground with a dull thud and the four spoke simultaneously.
“Pain, pain, pain. PAIN, PAIN,” the crow leered at him, cocking its beady eye.
“Judgment comes,” the crowd echoed in a whisper.
And so judgment came.
The four struck like clockwork, one at a time raising their punishment and delivering it, like tongues of vicious snakes. The first scream shattered the silence of anticipation and the crowd was startled, flinching back. Vandrot felt it like a knife, shearing through the defense he put up.
“Pain. Pain, pain.”
Crack, then a scream, tears running down faces, melding with fresh blood.
Crack, Vandrot winced, grimacing.
Crack, arms pulled at the shackles, backs arched, trying to escape the agony.
“Pain, pain, pain, pain, pain.”
Crack, it was his fault.
Sobs filled the space between strikes, cries for parents that would never come- cut off by brutal lashings.
Crack, he had to block it out- it wasn’t his fault, they all knew what the risks were.
Crack, he couldn’t do anything even if he tried. He was… powerless, completely and utterly, powerless. Vandrot began to feel a tremor deep within, building, even as he tried to suppress it.
He couldn’t do it, he looked away. Noble Ressol wordlessly seized his chin with an unrelenting grasp and made him look, made him watch.
“PAIN. PAIN. PAIN”
Crack. They no longer screamed or jerked around, they only hung, helplessly, barely flinching at the kiss of the whip.
He could feel the last thread unwind, slowly, like a rope, bearing too much weight.
“PAIN,” the crow screamed.
Vandrot tried to breathe through it, tried to manually mend the threads.
“PAIN,” the crow egged him on. His blood felt like liquid ice in his veins, scouring him clean of physical boundaries, unlocking things that should be sealed.
Crack. Vandrot squeezed his eyes shut, there was a loud whoof and the crow began to frantically flap its wings, trying to escape the fire that enveloped it.
‘Remember,’ a voice whispered. It was his own.
Vandrot was jerked back into the black lake of nulled senses, his blood filled with the same ice as in his memory, invigorating him, sharpening his senses, like a steady melody in the fog of his head. He looked into his mind and saw the kriol blinding him with the black shadow, leeching off his essence like a parasite. That was the last thing it would ever do. Vandrot raised his hands and burned through the dark, reclaiming his mind in a white blaze, but it wouldn’t be that simple.
“You could have rested in eternal sleep,” the kriol told him in its eerily human voice, “You could have known everlasting peace, Vandrot.”
He froze. It knew his name. Whoever made the kriol knew his name.
The darkness that surrounded him doubled, then tripled in its vastness, building higher and higher, like a great tidal wave. The ice in his blood dissipated as he gazed upon the shadowy mass.
“Such a pity.”
The darkness crashed down onto him, sweeping him off his unprepared feet and dragging him into the depths. It hammered down on him, pummeling the very fibers of his being. He felt the panic begin to build again- the darkness sensed it, doubling its efforts, burying him in the empty black. He began to tremble, fighting for air, fighting for life, then the ice returned, soothing him like fresh snowfall, breathing life back into his frail soul. He centered himself, his feet landing on the bottom of the pool, refusing to be moved, to be destroyed- simply refusing. A pocket of light illuminated the darkness just in time for Vandrot to see the darkness build again. But when it crashed down with its bone breaking weight, Vandrot was ready. He planted his feet on the ground and braced against the dark force, like a rock in a river. It flowed over him again and again, but he did not budge, he only breathed more power into the light of hope which slowly grew as Vandrot reclaimed what was his, piece by piece. The darkness screamed with animal rage and furiously crashed into the sphere of light, to no avail, Vandrot poured more power into the light, trapping the shrinking darkness against the wall of his mind.
“Who are you?” Vandrot asked the swirling vortex.
It did not reply. Vandrot sent a wave of white fire crashing into it, burning away masses of a once vast fog, its pain audibly rebounding through his mind.
“WHO ARE YOU!” Vandrot clenched his raised fists and began to burn the edges of it, searing the writhing darkness until it began to form into a face, a human face, its eyes glowing a fiery orange.
The face resembled someone he knew, but he couldn’t place them- it could have been anyone. He only had a few moments to contemplate the new information before the face laughed malevolently and began seeping through the wall of his mind, returning to the dagger.
“NO!” Vandrot tried to capture the diminishing blackness, but his efforts were in vain, like trying to use a spoon to gouge stone. He could still hear its deep laugh echoing from the far reaches of his mind.
His consciousness flew back into his body, filling the void the kriol had created with luminous flame, vision of the real world rushing to meet his mind's eye. He fell onto his knees, his hands on the cold, wet stone of the road- clenching them like they were the tether to this world- and began to laugh with maddening joy, tears of victory warming his wind-kissed face. He breathed deeply, relishing the cool, crisp taste of the air and the soft touch of the light rain. Looking towards the darkened, gray sky he thanked whatever gods that were listening for his survival, naming one at a time and sending prayers to them all. However, his revelry was short-lived.
“Ay! Bud!” a poorly-dressed, burly man called, grinning at him while leaning heavily on the wooden railing Vandrot knelt before, “Can I get some a’ whatever yur drinkin?”
“Did you… see anything… strange while I was walking?” Vandrot asked, fearing that this man may have seen him use magic. But the man merely stared glassy-eyed at him with a euphoric smile plastered onto his face. Sure enough, he had a mug in hand, sloshing the drink about as he chuckled to himself. Vandrot liked his lips: he could do with a drink- or eight. He was lucky in that sense, the tavern he reclaimed his mind in front of was the Frostmoon, reputable enough for him to not be looked at strangely for entering in all his finery. He didn’t dare ask himself how he managed to make it from the Splints to the Coin District without even the slightest memory of travel.
“What is it you’ve got?” Vandrot asked the man.
“What be it I haz got,” he held the mug at arms length and squinted at it, woozily swaying back and forth. He spun back to Vandrot, turning too quickly and clinging to the railing to stop from falling, “I h’z got’n me a bitaaa… white wine,” he chuckled and winked at Vandrot.
The Frostmoon was infamous for its winter wine- a very potent drink made with the help of arcane arts, therefore making it illegal. The Bartender- who everyone only knew as Barman- sold it as white wine, in accordance with his counterfeit papers of legitimacy. Making it impossible for the guards to legally bring him down and impossible to get permission from someone higher in the political tree to permit it, as they were the majority of who could afford to enjoy it. Other than the poor sod outside, who probably sold everything owned and his daughter for that single cup.
Vandrot walked hastily up the stairs and past the chuckling fool, intent on getting himself a glass. He stepped to the side to allow a drunk pair to stumble out into the brisk evening. Vandrot slipped behind them to squeeze past the closing door they left in their wake, which shut behind him with a heavy thunk. He gazed around him and recalled the many drunken hours spent gazing around this very room. He looked to the several clusters of glovines that were carefully manicured to sprawl across the roof. They gave the room an eerie quality, making the walls appear a cold black and bleaching every occupant in its blue light. The Frostmoon had ingenious architecture that allowed it to be spacious even when choked with life. Arched walls fit for a castle made it so that nothing felt cramped. Walls of latticed wood, sheltered by dimmer light gave privacy for the individual- or individual’s- to enjoy their fill without the shame of prying eyes. Raised walkways in between these dens allowed for the newer customer to move with more confidence -and dissuaded the den occupants from leaving their slice of security. The largest of these walkways led directly from the door to a fancy framework of posts- glowvines artfully spiraling up the sides. It was attached to the far wall, where all branching walkways ended and began, serving to wordlessly notify all who entered where to find what they sought.
Vandrot strode on the large wooden path, his mood already lifted by the promise of escapism, muffled thuds of his footsteps and creaking wood following him. He spared a few glances right and left and saw that most of the dens were scarce of life. He could not see very much of the details in their purposeful lighting but Vandrot saw the unmistakable blue of a scholar in one of the dens. He only nodded, as was the unspoken rule: no sight, no reflection- one of Barman’s many made up verses. Vandrot gleaned its meaning to be that of common decency for shared craving, metaphorically explained as a mirror. Or simply put by Barman after Vandrot’s inquisition, ‘No snitching, means no snitches, means that secrets are kept’.
“Secrets are kept, indeed.” Vandrot reached the counter and saw a small bell with a handle, nostalgia rushing up to meet him and a spike of anger following suit. He grabbed the bell and gave it a ring, disturbing the grumbling quiet of small talk throughout the Frostmoon. Shortly after the bell’s ringing had faded, Vandrot could hear bustling from behind a door across from him. The noise continued to become louder until a stout man with a groomed beard and dancing eyes came bustling out, garbed in all manner of quiet wealth. The man quickly opened and closed the door behind him.
Vandrot spoke before the man could turn around to face him, “Awfully quiet in here.”
“Ah, Vandrot! what brings you about my neck of the woods,” Barman said with a jolly smile that contrasted the mellow dark of the room, he paused, “Oh, yes. How foolish of me, say no more.”
Barman reached under the counter for a glass- no wooden mug for him- and drew a bottle of white wine from out behind him. Barman skillfully set the glass down, uncorked the bottle and poured wine into it in one fluid motion. Vandrot took the glass and breathed in its rich fumes, closing his eyes to savor the sweet and crisp aroma, already becoming light in the head. His mind erased the traumas mere moments before and was lost in the potent fumes of the brew. He felt a longing quickly build inside of himself, but he pushed it down- he didn’t dare take even a sip just yet, he needed to be level headed for at least a while.
Vandrot spoke quietly, not daring to raise his voice above a whisper, lest unwanted ears catch his words, “I need something else Barman,” Vandrot slid two coins of kingscrown across the counter, one for the drink and one for the something else, “I need a favor.”
Barman deftly took one of the coins from the counter, begging one of his palm tricks that always ended up with the coin vanishing into thin air- a trick of the eye, but an effective one. He didn’t so much as touch the second coin.
“Whatever is it, my friend?” Barman’s smile never faltered, one of his many skills. He then gave an inquisitive look, “you’re not going to ask about my name again, are you?”
Vandrot grinned- he often tried to worm Barman’s true name out, but the man didn’t even give so much as a hint even when absolutely drunk. Vandrot collected himself and prepared to make his ask. He then bit his lip considering if he really should do it now instead of waiting for the place to empty.
He nodded to himself, sating his prickling desire with a sip from his glass. He spoke the initiating phrase they had decided upon to deter suspicion, “I’d like to peruse your cellar.”
“Anything in particular you're looking for,” Barman recited his part of the verse the same way every single time.
Vandrot exhaled slowly, his voice becoming even quieter as he remembered his line, “Something… aged.”
Barman nodded slowly, “I think I have what you might be looking for. Right this way.”
Vandrot walked around the counter and followed Barman through the door but he doubled back to grab the coin he left- even he didn't leave those just lying around.
“You sly fox.”
“Something the matter, Vandrot?” Barman asked him, wedging the door open with his foot, a devious smile on his face.
“No, nothing. Lead the way.” Vandrot couldn’t help but smirk as he left the bare counter behind. He wondered how many of Barmans customers left with their pockets lighter than they intended. He shook his head, how many times did he leave with his pockets lighter than intended.
A memory jumped into Vandrots mind as he walked through the twisting and contradicting halls of the Frostmoon’s deep interior. It was the story he had pieced together from the combined efforts of his inference and the things he had asked Barman when he was drunk- apparently Vandrot was quite chatty when drunk- about the great start of the Frostmoon.
Barman had originally built the Frostmoon as a small extension of his house, a little store for select customers to buy their product of choice and leave. However, more and more customers began to swarm to him as friend told friend about Barman and his wondrous brew. With all his new buyers, Barman had to expand his tiny hut to accommodate seats for anybody who was waiting for their glass. But soon his business grew beyond the expanded walls and the vast network of his customers soon began to tell anybody who would listen about Barman’s winter wine. This, of course, attracted the attention of the Kevirius Guard who tried for the first time to shut him down. But Barman, in his extensive wisdom faced Captain Gyvend down and simply outwitted him, -not a difficult task. Vandrot himself had done it many times- twisting the Captains orders until they were a meaningless array of letters.
After the Guard had left, Vandrot- who had been a regular customer by now- took pity on Barman as he knew how relentless Captain Gyvend could be from his own lawbreaking. Vandrot approached him with an offer, an offer involving immunity to any and all further attempts to destroy such a lovely business. An offer with terms, however. Being of like mind, Barman had seen the strings and initially refused, not believing in the capabilities of a drunkard- even a Noble drunkard. Vandrot was quite annoyed at Barman for that- he didn’t view himself as a drunkard. But after acquiring his end of the bargain, Vandrot learned that Barman had a change of heart when he asked Vandrot what he wanted. All Vandrot wanted was to use one of these secure parts of Barman’s house as a place to store books, aged books- a library of sorts. Barman, of course, obliged and they began the best kind of partnership- one where they both held a knife to the other's throats, preventing any and all betrayal. Vandrot jumped out of contemplation as he knocked his head on the low hall beam.
“Auuh,” Vandrot groaned, rubbing where contact was made to lessen the ache.
Barman chuckled, “Yes I believe there are a few moe of those, so watch your step.”
The way into Vandrot's library was long and complicated and Vandrot often wondered how so many passages could fit into such a small building. He counted seven locked doors each with their own key- which Barman pulled out of the same pocket, but Vandrot knew only one key was in the pocket at a time. He would have to try to learn some of these tricks from Barman, someday. Vandrot walked slowly behind the warm light cast by the tall candle Barman held, illuminating the dark reaches that the sparsely lit halls failed to purge. Vandrot had to consciously walk a fair bit slower than he was used to, as his legs stretched past the length of Barman’s making it all too easy to mindlessly outpace him.
They turned a corner and descended a flight of stairs that were lodged into the close-set stone walls instead of traditional notched wood. There were no candles descending into the stone, only Barman’s light showed what lay in the darkness. Strangely, there was no stagnant smell in the hallway, only the scent of burning wax and wick flavored the air. It seemed like an eternity of moving slow enough for Barman to maintain his lead and fast enough as to not be lost in the dark when Barman finally stopped. Before them was the end of the hallway, no door, no keyhole, just a stone wall, laughing at them for wasting their time. However, Barman possessed many tricks and he didn’t need a key to open this door.
Barman rested his hand against the perfectly flat wall and muttered a few words under his breath. A small, colorless glow emanated from underneath his palm, leaching into the stone, the stone seemed to absorb it and slightly radiate light of its own. Barman lifted his hand and stopped his incantation, the glow fading from the stone like mist. Suddenly, a crack formed in the middle of the wall and the stone began to crumble away from it, seamlessly melding into the walls. Where there once was solid rock now stood yet another door, this one made from wrought iron and thick as his handspan, it bore no markings or decorations, it only stood there, a small key hole in the far left side of it.
Barman glanced over his shoulder and winked, “No sight, no reflections.” He chuckled and twirled a long, black key around his fingers.
After setting the candle down, Barman approached the door and inserted the key, pushing and turning it with both hands. There was a series of metallic clicking and then the door groaned inward, revealing Vandrot’s treasure, his secret hoard of lost knowledge.
“Alrighty,” Barman dusted off his hand, the long key vanishing in between them, “Shut the door behind you when you’re done: I got a bar to keep.” With that Barman picked up the candle and sauntered off into the dark, leaving Vandrot before the eminence of his library.
He walked inside and breathed in the scent of old paper and worn leather covers, walked past the many shelves, lined to the brim with forbidden wisdom, bathed in the orange glow from his candle flame- pretending to peruse until Barman’s footsteps ceased to be. When they vanished, Vandrot wasted no time- his hand flew to his coat pocket and reefed out the kriol, holding it as far away as possible. He was about to throw it when he noticed that its color had changed. He slowly drew it closer to himself, and noticed that the weapon had aged several decades, the blade was covered in rust and had many cracks running along the body of it. The handle had suffered worse fate and was missing entire chunks, threatening to release its hold on the gem in the hilt. Out of skeptical curiosity, Vandrot set his glass down and delicately pulled the gem out. The instant he did so the blade turned to white powder in his hand. Vandrot yelped and jumped back, vigorously shaking his hand, trying to get it off.
After realizing that it wasn't going to kill him, Vandrot bit his lower lip and was relieved that no one was there to see his theatrics. He wiped his hand off on his pants- they were already ruined anyway. Vandrot regretfully poured the dust layer out of his drink and took a small gulp.
Vandrot brought the freed gemstone close to his eye and looked into it. Instead of seeing a foggy mass, inside the gem was a face, a black face with glowing, orange eyes, staring at him, drawing his fear back to the surface. In that instant Vandrot wanted nothing more than to find a fire to cast it in, but that would be useless- the thing already knew his name meaning that the mind it was paired with also knew who he was. Vandrot had to even the odds. Grudgingly, he slipped the gem back into where it came from and began his search amongst the vast shelves. He recalled that the book on kriols was near the wall and close to the door, but that still left three rows of bookshelves to search.
Hours later, he had finally finished his search and concluded that it wasn’t where he thought it was, and he now had to contend with the call of sleep. Frustrated, Vandrot began searching the shelves again.
“Red cover, thick… on a high shelf? Or a low one?” Vandrot's memory was beginning to contradict itself and he was growing more and more angry, “where in the blackest pits are you!” he clenched and unclenched his fists, grinding his teeth so hard he thought he might lose some.
He finished looking through the last shelf for the third time, “Bloody hells!” Vandrot put his palm to his temple and pushed, hoping that the pressure would fix his lacking memory, “By the GODS!” he turned around and kicked the nearest shelf, sending pain coursing through his foot. His mouth released a stream of curses, one after another, each more foul than the last, “WHERE! Where ARE you!”
Eventually he stopped yelling and walked over to the chair he had brought into the room after realizing he hated standing and trying to read at the same time. But it also served as an emergency bed for instances where he didn’t want to leave. He strode through the tall shelves lined with books and felt fury bubble through his exhausted body.
“You have got to be kidding me!” On his end table rested a thick book bound in red leather with an image burned onto the front depicting a dagger. He wanted so badly just to throw the book across the room and simply rest, but as he picked it up, the gem pressed up against his chest through his coat and all anger transitioned into overwhelming fear at its chill touch. He reached a shaking hand inside his coat, set the gem on the floor in front of the chair and opened the book, reading by the light of his candle.
The title read ‘Blades of Mind’ and began with brief writings on what a kriol was and how it was made, how to obtain one, the material required, and the mental strain- oh, he knew all about the mental strain, but that's not what he was looking for. He flipped through the book until he stumbled onto a chapter titled ‘Scrying onto the silent stalker’.
Vandrot didn’t dare break the silence, even by breathing too hard- lest the noise he made muffle footsteps from someone else- or worse. He delved into the chapter, splitting his frayed attention between the book and the gem, expecting the shadowy face to leak from the stone every time he glanced at it. By the end of it, Vandrot could barely hold his head up and his eyelids grated together like sand, but he had finished it, all the way to the end. He slapped the book shut, sending a puff of dust into the air. Setting the book down on the arm of the chair, he stared at the small gem at his foot, hands folded on his chest. He rehearsed the verse that was his prize over and over, etching it into his mind.
‘Blood, to stir the sleeping eye, fire, to gaze upon the mystery, the blade, to reveal its master. Sight unto the silent stalker shall be yours: Inguhl ard moathil.’
Vandrot breathed slowly, meticulously- gathering the strength to stand and end this unknowing. He closed his eyes and tried to rub the sand out of them but quickly snapped them open, fearing to give the kriol the chance of surprise- he was not going to give it another opportunity. He stopped- what he was about to do was illegal, punishable by death or torture… if he was caught. He decided the need outweighed the consequences and resolve built in his body like a river set on its course- he was going to find his once-captor, the knife in the night, the killer in Kevirius.
Vandrot leaned forward and scooped up the gem holding it like it was a vicious animal about to attack. He grasped the withered candle from its pedestal next to him and knelt on the stone floor, placing both items before him. Lacking a knife, he prepared himself for what came next, raised his palm to his mouth and bit down, biting until he tasted blood. He whimpered from the pain but he was so close, close enough to not care about the process, only the result. Raising his hand over the flame, he squeezed his hand until a drop of blood fell onto it. In a rush of air, the warm light transitioned into a translucent gray fire that seemed to draw heat in, not radiate it. Licking his lips Vandrot performed the next and final step.
‘The blade, to reveal its master.’ Vandrot didn’t have the entire blade but he knew he didn’t need it- he had the mind of the kriol, after all. He placed the gem into the basin of cooling wax at the base of the candle wick and stared at the flame as it began to twirl and dance around the gem.
“Inghul,” Vandrot muttered as if in a trance.
“Ard.” Nothing outside of the flame existed in his vision, it was only the gray light, all else was meaningless.
“Moathil.” Everything else became black, his world circulating around this grayscale flame, the sole light in a blanket of night.
Somewhere in his thoughts he began to think that the spell wasn’t working, or that he had done something wrong, but then, he began to make out shapes in the flame, people… and buildings- or were they walls. He began drifting through the world of gray shapes through the candle, seeing hallways of stone and long arching windows- windows he recognized. He was seeing the inside of the Tower District. He tried to pinpoint exactly where in the Tower District but the vision kept pulling him along, moving faster and faster. His sight never blurred though, instead it jumped from focus to focus until he halted before the gaping mouth to the audience chamber. To either side of the door stood the same two guards as the morning. They were talking to each other, looking at one another through him. He found that he could hone his hearing at the expense of his acute sight, finding a medium in between them and soon words began to match the movement of lips.
“How much longer are they going to be?” the one on the right said- the one who had dropped his spear.
“If you keep asking me I swear, I’ll bloody well knock your head.” The one on the left was agitated at Right for some reason.
“It was just a question, Norman- no need for violence.” so the left's name was Norman, interesting.
“Shut up Eric- I'm not going to lose my job because you can’t hold your tongue. And I swear, if I get sent back to patrol duty I’ll make it so that you can’t ask questions ever again. Hear me?” Norman gripped his polearm with white knuckles. Eric stopped talking after that.
Vandrot was so very confused- the vision had brought him here, but neither Eric nor Norman had a voice that matched the kriol’s. Vandrot couldn't speak, but his mouth formed a silent question, asking the air what it meant. Suddenly, the Vision pulled him through the door and into the audience chamber. It looked much different at night, candles lining the far walls, making the shadows dance and leaving the rest of the room in darkness. All the benches were empty and the podium was hidden behind the long black curtain, masking whoever was behind it. Vandrot was pulled through the curtain by the vision and saw two figures arguing and a third standing by a window, his back turned to Vandrot, looking down on Kevirius. Vandrot was pulled no further by the vision and found that he could only just hear the argurers, their voices like a cool breeze on a summer's day. However, their voices rose as the discussion began to heat up and he could begin to piece together sentences.
“...could attack!” one said.
“...wouldn’t… possible…” Or perhaps impossible, Vandrot wasn’t sure.
The voices continued to rise and he could now hear most of what they were saying.
Vandrot recognized one of the voices as Wendal- it must be an important matter if the Master of Advisement was here.
“Evantris will be merciless, only the hells know what a man will do for wealth- lord Erand is no exception!” said the unknown voice who could only be the Master of Finance, considering that Wendal was there. That left the mystery man in the corner.
“They cannot attack so long as they believe Breith lives. We will be fine,” said Wendal.
‘What did he mean ‘believe’?’ Vandrot thought, assuming Wendal had a slip of the tongue. Oh, how he wished he was able to gloat in Wendal’s face.
The third figure stirred at the mention of Breith turning his head ever so slightly revealing a hooked nose and gaunt cheekbones behind short, black hair.
“What if they send an army without Lord Erand’s direct command. The oath won’t bind them!” The Master of Finance had traces of fear seeping into his tone.
“You are correct in that regard, but the Oath would eventually kill Lord Erand. I am no expert on the subject, however, I believe the ultimate threat to his life would dissuade him from even considering such a thing.” Wendal replied coolly, but Vandrot knew that it meant his fuse was now short.
“And what of assassins? Will Lord Erand know of these instances? How can he be bound to prevent it if he knows nothing of it!”
“Lord Erand-” Wendal was cut off by the third voice.
“Assassins will not be a problem, I have seen to that myself.” The voice of the third person was deep and had a slight rasp- almost hollow- it was quiet yet it filled the room with authority. He recognized the voice but he had never heard it come from those lips and as the figure turned around Vandrot found himself locking eyes with Gallus Duragas, Father of Brieth Duragas and highest authority within the walls of Kevirius. He knew that it wasn’t happenstance that Lord Gallus was staring at precisely where Vandrot was, he could feel his gaze and knew without a doubt that he could see him. That confirmed the growing suspicions within Vandrot, he now knew who was spilling blood in the Splints.
For a split second, Vandrot thought he saw a different face drift across the skin of Lord Gallus’s neck, pushing against it as if it were trying to push free- but it disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. Lord Gallus frowned and made a gesture with his hand while turning to fully face Wendal. They began speaking again but Vandrot was slowly being sucked back through the flame, their voices sounding farther and farther away. Colors returned to his vision and Vandrot found himself hovering inches away from the heat of the candle- now its normal hue. He looked to the wick of the candle but only saw a pile of white ash.
The scale of his situation began to fall into place like puzzle pieces as his mind recalibrated. Dread poured into his body, filing him with the powerless feeling he despised so much. How could he hope to topple the Lord of Kevirius even with a lawful claim- never mind one based on magical scrying and a destroyed dagger- one that the Guard believe to be in their possession. He felt like he was drowning amongst the bookshelves, the air becoming too thick to breathe.
“Why?” That was the only thing he could think of to say as he hugged himself in front of the candle, feeling like he was drifting through an endless sea of midnight.
He decided it wasn’t safe to return to the Tower District, not with Gallus knowing about his discovery. He knew enough about Lord Gallus to know that he had means of silencing loose tongues, and the motive to do so. He had rented a room in the Frostmoon- he figured it would be the safest place for him to be if Gallus sent someone after him. Regardless of that, Vandrot thought he could feel his time slipping away, like sand in the hourglass. He needed a plan, but he didn’t even know where to start. His funds were low and he wouldn’t be able to get more unless he went back to the District- eliminating any competent hands for hire, but they would only be as loyal as the amount in his purse- which would be quite little indeed. He could try to sneak into the District, but no- there were guards strategically placed to avoid such things. That left one possibility- walking in the front door, which simply allowed Lord Gallus to kill him without any effort at all. It could be a bad draught of wine, a tumble down some stairs- or hell, he could have Vandrot publicly executed and nobody would even bat an eye. Maybe Barman, but only for his lost customer.
He whispered quietly as the revelation came to him, “No… Nobody would. Nobody at all.” He felt a tear run down his face, starting with all the warmth of life and cooling as it reached his chin, falling onto the shutters and slipping away into the rainy night. Maybe he should just walk into the District, he would probably be doing everybody a favor. He knew deep within that he wouldn’t let it come to that, if need be, he would rather flee the city and start anew than face death in the eye. It shook his bones to think of death, the end of it all.
He chuckled half-heartedly, “The Great Peace.” Another tear was squeezed down his face as he shut his eyes.
Despite all of the stressful knives in his mind, sleep persisted in its demand and Vandrot succumbed to its call, deciding to let all of this be the problem of the dawn. It was decided that he would not be given such a mercy as sleep. No matter how hard he tried, he didn’t sleep well that night, his thoughts showing him a nightmare made flesh, lurking in the shadows. The monster took form as Lord Gallus’ face attached to a monstrous body, bearing the eyes of the Deathwatch smokeshow, a trail of black smoke wisping from the corners of the eye. His coarse looking skin the color and texture of white ash, stretched taut around bones and sinew, leaving gaps in the white flesh that revealed gray bone. Limbs erected from shoulders and rib cages, stretching twice beyond the length of a normal person, ending in needle point claws. His body would not let him sleep in the presence of this creature, even if it was from his own mind. Vandrot paced the wooden boards that stretched across his room, trying to muster courage to leave, but not daring to go seek what spilt the blood of Kevirius, lest it find him first.
“What is he?” the sound of his own voice sliced through the silence. He froze, frantically looking to see if something had materialized in the brief period where his hearing was compromised. Vandrot calmed himself and subconsciously resumed his stride. He refused to believe that the creature in his mind was a work of hysteria, but he also did not believe that it was Lord Gallus, even if it bore his face. Vandrot paused at the large window in the middle of the wall- barely opening the shutters and letting the pale light of the streets and the crashing of the rain trespass into his safe haven.
On the road, scarce life walked on its cold stone, now was the time for creatures of the night to roam- rats, wolves, drunkards and the occasional killer. Vandrot saw from his vantage a cloaked and hooded silhouette of black, drifting like a wind down the street.
He licked his lips, “Which one are you…” Vandrot trailed off, fearful of revealing his location.
Opposing the man in black, several individuals meandered up and across the roads. Some, drifting to their homes or bars from endless hours of work, others seeking to satisfy their cravings under the cover of darkness. Others still, awakening for a meaningless thrill-seeking. When he looked back to the wraith, he saw him just slip past his vision, into the Frostmoon. A lump formed in his throat and he stalked away from the shutters, permitting the blue light so that he could see.
He was practically jogging when he heard him, directly below his room, a new voice asking for a room. Of course there was only one available- the one right next to his. He figured there was nothing he could do except wait- or risk leaving and crossing paths with the wraith. He ground his teeth and then- in a decisive jerk- grabbed, twisted and pulled the handle and stepped into the hallway.
It was louder out here, and warmer- voices from below murmured in a steady rumble that was louder than the rain- the Frostmoon was always more lively in the dead hours of the night. He could see the blue of the glowvine emanating onto the far wall, showing the long path ahead and the long darkness behind, stippled with room doors. Traps in the forms of floorboards lined his path of escape, threatening to disturb the murmurs and inform those below of where he was. He breathed shallowly, trying to draw that feeling that got him through so many nights of debauchery on an adrenaline high. It didn’t work, fear congested the path. Biting his lower lip, Vandrot took an overly cautious step. And then another one. And another. He was only a few more away when he knew his fate was sealed. He stepped down onto the plank and heard it. A creak, short and clipped as a foot stepped down and regretted it. But it wasn’t from him, it came from the stairs. His face contorted into one of dread, expecting the worst. Turning, he tried to make it back to his room and regroup. He stumbled over his own legs and fell into the trap. There noise could have been as loud as thunder
“Vandrot… well… I was told it would be harder than this.”
Vandrot turned and saw the face of death garbed in a black robe. Any facial features were obscured by a cloth mask and hood leaving only deep set eyes bathed in blue light. His mouth was dry and he was paralyzed with fear but somehow his mouth formed words.
“No.” The man in black took a step forward. Vandrot begged, “Please, no. I-I have money.. a-all the money you want. Just let me go!”
The wraith took another step. Vandrot cried out, “Please! Just let me GO!”
“You poor, poor fool,” he twirled a black coin- one side bearing a hand, the other a skull- Vandrot’s hopes sunk as he realized this was a member of the Black Hand, a group responsible the most lethal of assassins. The wraith unsheathed a wicked dagger. “This would have been more fun if you escaped- you know what they say about the thrill of the hunt.”
The wraith was wasting no more time, he advanced with haste and raised the knife, intent on death.
“HELP! Help ME!” Vandrot couldn't think of anything else to say as he broke his trance and attempted to flee once again, “HEEEELP!”
He glanced over his shoulder, watching the predator easily close the gap between them. The man grabbed his arm and plunged the blade down, Vandrot twisted and he felt its bite graze across his arm. He screamed and reefed his arm away, cradling it like an infant. He reached the end of the hallway, leaning on its rough wood. There was no point in running, he turned, facing death with the remaining sliver of his dignity. The killer obliged and stalked towards him, blade hanging loosely from his grasp. Then he dropped it and collapsed in a spray of blood, a knife lodged in his spine. Vandrot crumpled to the ground and looked to the end of the hall to see Barman huffing with exertion.
He pointed at Vandrot, “three things, my friend: first and foremost, don’t expect anything else from me, second, your bloody screaming scared away my bloody customers.” He stooped, taking in a huff of air. “And third, don’t bring your bloody problems into my bloody store! I expect you to resolve this before setting foot in my shop again.”
“Th-Thanks. My…my thanks, Barman.” Vandrot muttered, soaked in blood that wasn’t his.
“You can spend the night here- you’ve already crumpled any business I would have had tonight. But, I expect you to find the door tomorrow morning. And deal with the body- stick it in a room or something, I don't care- just don’t leave it in the middle of the floor.” With that Barman descended the stairs, muttering to himself.
Vandrot had quickly recovered from the shock and began pilfering the body the moments he could no longer see Barmans shadow, a spark of hope invigorating his movements. He knew what he was looking for but these damn assassins had so many pockets to hide coins in. His rummaging was rewarded with a hefty, yet, small pouch, clinking as he moved it around in his hand. He was practically shaking with hope as he drew apart the drawstrings and peered into the bag. Releasing a pent up breath, Vandrot pulled out seven iron coins. Seven. He could kill seven people with these coins, all he needed was the hand of death they summoned.
He tucked away the pouch, dragged the body into his room- his shallow cut stinging in protest- and locking the door behind him and taking the man's dagger dagger. He fumbled around and pulled out the pouch, reaching inside he drew forth a single coin. He didn’t need any book for this spell- he had memorized it long ago, back when his father still lived, back when Vandrot fantasized about his death.
Vandrot held the coin at arms length, palm up feeling its weight. He brought the dagger to his chewed palm and felt gratitude that he had a knife this time. In a sharp motion he cut into the scab and bled anew, lathering the coin. The coin then glowed a vibrant red, as if extracted from the forge and soon the air around it began to whip around. The arcane wind accumulated on the far wall, gathering into a vicious cloud of red air until a black eye opened in its center, beginning smaller than a pin hole, but growing big enough for a man to step through.
The man was taller than Vandrot and garbed in the same black as the wraith sent to kill him. He had no hood or mask revealing a pointed chin and smooth face. He had a lithe build with short, charcoal black hair long enough to frame a hooked nose, thin lips and unnerving metallic eyes. No weapons were visible on his person- probably hidden amongst the many folds of his robes. The man sauntered through the portal like he was walking onto a stage, full of confidence and elegance with a bounce to his step. He squinted at Vandrot in the dim light of the portal and waved his hand, instantly creating an orb of radiance that bathed the room in its glow. Looking down his nose at Vandrot, he spoke with an educated voice that contradicted the used words.
“A richy-rich, prissy-pants, how delightful.” He made a face that could only be described as grumpy and crossed his arms in front of himself, “ah, well, you’ve obviously got a coin so here I am.” The man sprawled his arms out to either side and bowed like a bard, finishing a tune, “Murgaan Kriel, at your service.”
The man- Murgaan- walked past Vandrot like he owned the room and Vandrot was just a servant boy. He strode in his dramatic gait towards his fallen comrade- were they comrades? Toeing the dead man's face until the mask fell off, he spoke for the second time.
“You always took too much pride in your work.” He chuckled, “looks like it finally caught up with you.”
“Who are you talking to?” Vandrot asked, fearing that he had enlisted a lunatic to assist him.
“Him,” Murgaan gestured briefly with his hand at the lump of black cloth, “the dead man, wrapped in black- Forol, I believe his name was. And you,” Murgaan spinned towards him with an accusing finger, “ you managed to kill him… care to share? Or would you rather secrets be secrets?”
Vandrot hesitated, “I would rather not say.”
Murgaan linked his arms behind his back. He turned on his heel and faced the body once more, “So it wasn’t you then?”
“What? How is it you would know!” Vandrot was angered by his conclusion- even if it was accurate. This man obviously didn’t know his place, “I am Noble Derimus! Owner to the Derimus title and lands, brother to the Master of Advisement, and quite frankly, your superior- unless you aren’t bound by this.” Vandrot displayed his black coin like a man would show a dog a treat.
Murgaan sighed, “I admit that you seemed to be the boasting type. However, I must have been wrong, judging by your numerous titles. And no, not quite bound by that little coin.” With his piece said, Murgaan knelt and began reaching into the many pockets of Forol’s coat, his orb of light drifting towards where it better illuminated the body.
Vandrot felt his features contort with rage, his teeth beginning to grind like a mill stone. Putting a hand up to his face to stifle the snarl he was about to make, Vandrot took several deep breaths- losing his top would not be helpful in this situation. As much as he hated letting it go, Murgaan was right- the coin did not bind him completely- and Vandrot needed his compliance, which seemed to be as fickle as the wind. Murgaan had his back turned and Vandrot gave him a rude gesture- a small revenge, but revenge regardless.
“So then, who is you are wanting dead” Murgaan stood and jerked on a select few strands of his robe- tightening them, Vandrot supposed. Murgaan waved another dismissive hand and Forol erupted into flames. Vandrot’s anger was transformed into shock in the warm light of the corpse campfire and he watched it become reduced to cinders in a matter of seconds. That concluded Vandrot's suspicion that Murgaan was from outside the Empire.
He became quiet for a while, considering if it was truly necessary. It would save his life and those being taken by their hand, at the cost of treason and execution- again, only if he was caught. He grinned beside himself, how many illegal things had he done to get this far- what was a few more?
“I did ask you a question, but no- feel free to take all the time you need.” Murgaan leaned on one foot, his arms once again crossed and an irritated glare etched onto his face.
Vandrot ignored the arrogance and nodded to reassure himself, “Lord Gallus Duragas.”
It was Murgaan’s time to laugh. He pointed two fingers at Vandrot, “I knew it- you rich people are always trying to kill each other. It's an honest wonder that I get contacts from anyone else.”
Vandrot wasn’t sure if to take that as an insult or not and was beginning to think that every word out of Murgaan’s mouth was intended to aggravate in one way or another.
“Alright- in all seriousness- this Gallus is probably in his lordy-lord tower, isn’t he?” Murgaan was obviously used to such death-bringing.
“Yes, probably in his tower,” Vandrot suddenly remembered Gallus’s nighttime activities and raised a hand to stop Murgaan from walking out, “wait, no- he might be out in the streets- if he is, he would be alone.”
“Ugh,” Murgaan deflated and gazed at the ashen corpse, “why do I always get the maybe jobs. Huh?” Murgaan toed at its deflated, charred face as if it knew. “They might be here- no, they might be here, no no, here.” He made pretend people with his fingers, bending them to signify speech, “When in the hells will I get a definitive client. Honestly.”
Vandrot tired of his theatrics, feeling his fuse burn down, but he swallowed his pride and tried to redirect his instrument of shadows, “We will only find out if we go and look. Come along.” Vandrot began walking out of the room, hoping Murgaan would follow him, but to no avail- he instead crossed his arms and gave Vandrot an impish look.
“Ask me nicely.” He said, sticking his chin out like a toddler would and a sneer stretching across his face as he saw Vandrot becoming mad.
Oh, he was not going to do this. “How about you just come with me and LET'S GO FUFILL YOUR BLOODY CONTRACT!”
Murgaan stuck his lip out. “How about I just go and find a new client- one who asks me nicely.” Sure enough, he walked towards the wall, the red wind gathering in front of him.
Vandrot let out a harsh breath and ground his teeth, his fear overcoming his pride. “Fine! Would you please come with me to fulfill your contract?”
“See? That wasn’t so hard.” Murgaan skipped- the cold blooded killer who just incinerated a man, skipped past Vandrot and down the hall, “Where to the Tower District? I’ve heard there's quite a view from Driun’s Tower.”
Vandrot was left no time to dwell on Murgaan’s strange actions and was forced to chase after him. On the way down the thin stairs, Vandrot ran into Barman. He was staring with fervent suspicion at Murgaan and then turned to Vandrot.
“When I said get rid of the body,” he swayed dangerously, “I didn’t mean bring him back to life.” Barman said, breathing the scent of wine into Vandrot's nose. Vandrot smothered the urge to get one for himself.
Vandrot could only think of one thing to say, “No sight, no reflection.” Vandrot smiled sincerely, “my apologies. About you customers.” Vandrot gave Barman the last of his few coins as compensation. Barman took them and began slowly flipping one across his knuckles, his talents evidently hindered by the drink.
“Alright. Don’t be sorry, tomorrow's another day.” Barman’s slurred speech trailed off and he sank down against the wall.
“Rest well.” Vandrot said
“Are you coming or not?” Murgaan had his head peeking out between the open door, body hidden behind it, “I will warn you that I am not as efficient when just wandering about. I do require some direction.”
“Yes, just a moment.” Vandrot took a bottle from behind the counter and hastily filled up his flask, alcohol sloshing all over the dry wood. There was only a little left in the bottle and Vandrot drained it in a few mouthfuls, casting the bottle aside and hurrying into the cold night after Murgaan.
The sky seemed to want vengeance for something as it sent torrents of rain crashing onto the streets, water amassing in shallow streams as it tried to escape the higher ground. Vandrot regretted not bringing a coat and felt every wave of rain as it challenged the endurance of his body, threatening to crush him if he gave in.
“Not going to share?” Murgaan called from up the bend standing like a scarecrow, unfazed by the rain.
Vandrot was definitely not going to share and he refused to answer such a question, instead pretending he hadn’t heard. “The district is up this road, follow me.”
“That would be far easier if you kept up.”
“Just follow me.” Vandrot was light headed but from the drink or what he was doing, he didn’t know- maybe both. He breathed shallowly and prayed Murgaan followed him.
It was a long trek on foot made even longer by the dark sky and sleeping city. They passed no one on the streets and half the time Vandrot thought he was walking alone, having to glance over his shoulder to see Murgaan striding within blades reach. That man was definitely one he didn’t want as an enemy. Vandrot wasn’t sure why he stopped talking but Murgaan never spoke a word the entire walk, preferring to lapse into undetectable silence, muffle twice over by the rain's pounding rhythm.
It had become straining to lift his waterlogged boots so Vandrot had resorted to dragging them, leaning into his stride as to use gravity to his advantage. To add to his cruel trek, Vandrot had to avoid getting his foot stuck in the many crevases of the stone, painstakingly shifting his weight from the previous stone to its successor, over and over again. His coat and underclothes clung to his form, forming a layer of drenched fabric between the air and his skin. Even the gentlest breeze felt like frozen knives, flaying his flesh and chilling his bones. He envied Murgaan, walking as if it was a calm spring day, birds chirping and flowers blooming, a smile splashed on his face with the torrents of rain, glowing blue in the light of the glowvines. He barely paid attention to his stride- preferring to gaze at the blank sky and letting his feet find the way.
It was ages before they arrived at the base of the Tower District and Vandrot was about to cry to the guards to raise the gate when Murgaan cut him off.
“Have you not noticed everyone staring at you from their windows? Those in tatters looking at you like you were gold? Those in finery looking down their noses at you?” Murgaan spoke quickly, his smile gone as he stared at the battlements, looking for something.
“I, what? What are you talking about?” Vandrot was confused, no one was awake at this hour- even if there were, what did it matter? All they would think is that he was returning from a night of indulgence.
“How are you gathering this? Are you telling me you can see in the dark?” Vandrot was only partly believing Murgaan in his claims.
“You are evidently slow, so let me connect the dots for you: the only time I see people act that way towards another is when that person has a bounty on them. A rather hefty one indeed, if I am the judge- oh, how strange, I am the judge!”
Murgaan got very close to Vandrot, a little too close for Vandrot's comfort, close enough so that he could see each of his individual eyelashes- he reacted instantly, once again fearful for his life., “Get the hell’s away from me!”
As Vandrot raised his hands to shove the bringer of death, Murgaan caught both wrists in a vise grip and twisted them to an awkward angle, easily forcing Vandrot into submission. “What is it you're not telling me? Are you a wanted man, Noble Derimus?”
Vandrot's answer was automatic, “I don’t know.” Murgaan did not appear convinced. “I. Don’t. Know!”
“I have known a lot of wanted people- you would be surprised just how many I have known. Do you know what they all had in common?” he didn’t wait for Vandrot's response, “They all didn’t know they were wanted. And they all are now referred to in the past tense.”
“You… killed them?” Vandrot now knew this man was crazy- why didn’t he ever listen to that small voice, ever warning him in advance?
Murgaan’s intense stare faltered then broke altogether and he burst out laughing. He released Vandrot without a second thought and rested his hands on his knees until his hysterical episode had passed.
“By all divine- did I kill them?” He scoffed, “Oh gods, no. They told me who the target was, so I went and did my dark deed- same as always- but when I returned, they were dead. And do you know what else happened? I didn’t get paid!” The intense malice had returned and Vandrot felt the energy that suddenly radiated off of him, turning the rain into steam around him. “You best tell me what this bounty on your head entails- I do not want another client who cheats me out of a bargain. Consider yourself lucky, you now have a bodyguard as well as a killer- not many get a double service out of me for the cost of one. However- as I mentioned before- the terms are that you share any vital information with me- I mean absolutely anything that may affect this contract.”
The steam vanished as quickly as it appeared but Murgaan still bore his penetrating gaze until Vandrot responded. Vandrot didn’t want this strange man knowing everything- he simply didn’t trust him. However, he didn’t have to as a man strode onto the battlements and called down to them.
“Ay! Who issat at this time a night?” Vandrot could barely see his silhouette in the rain- even against the blank stone of the Keep, but Murgaan looked as if he could see through him, should he choose.
“This one obviously just got up from a wee nap, that's only good news for us- pretend like you're my entourage.” Murgaan instructed hastily.
“What!” Vandrot snapped.
“Ugh- should I explain everything to you?” Murgaan audibly rolled his eyes, “My servant, my slave- if all else fails, my concubine- you people have those things, right?”
Vandrot was appalled, “I will not be your concubine- I'm not even a woman!”
“Oh, yeah- well either you're a woman or you're a fresh head on a spike, take your pick.”
“How dare you-!”
“What are you two bickerin’ about down there?” the watcher on the wall called down, tired misery creeping into his voice.
“I am-!” Vandrot was once again cut off, this time by Murgaan's cloth wrapped hand.
He whispered quickly in Vandrot's ear, “do you people keep slaves in these part or not- its a yes or no question!”
Vandrot stifled the rage that became so apparent in Murgaan's presence yet again. Grinding his teeth he nodded, still restricted by Murgaan's iron hand.
“He’s just had a bit much to drink- you know these servant types: give ‘em a sip and they guzzle the bottle.” Murgaan laughed like he was on the drink as well, but the guard was not impressed. He aimed the weapon he held at Murgaan, leaning into the sights- it was a crossbow then. Murgaan visibly tensed
“Alright- but that still leaves the question of who you are.”
The wall was a stone's throw away and the wall was easily thirty feet high but Murgaan crossed the distance in an eyeblink, practically scaling the entire wall in a single leap. Vandrot was stunned at the sheer inhuman speed this man possessed, but quickly regained an uninterested demeanor. There was a single pink sound as the guard managed to snap off a shot, hitting nothing but rain and air.
From the top of the wall Vandrot somehow heard Murgaan answer in his steady voice, “a man you should not ask such questions to.”
Lightning struck from somewhere behind and when the light faded, the guard was nowhere in sight, only Murgaan stood there, hands at his sides and looking down, almost in contemplation- from what Vandrot could see from his lacking angle. Murgaan walked out of Vandrot's line of sight- was he leaving him all by himself?
“Murgaan! Where are you going! I thought this was a two person contract! Kriel! Don’t you dare leave me here!” Vandrot cupped his hands to make his voice carry farther.
Suddenly, there was a sharp metallic snap from inside the slumped tower that rested on the wall and a chain was elegantly dropped to the ground from an unseeable hand. It slapped against the drenched wall with a loud crack, dangling from a hidden anchor. At the top was Murgaan arms crossed, staring down at Vandrot with moderate amusement.
“What's this?” Vandrot shouted over the rain.
“You can climb, can't you?” Murgaan called down, once again turning around and walking away. Vandrot did not want to be alone when Gallus inevitably sent a second agent after him. Vandrot ran to the wall, hastily dancing over the stone’s with the grace of a bear.
“No, wait! I’m coming. I’m coming- wait damn you!” Vandrot tripped over a stone and crashed to the ground a finger's breadth away from the chain. The pain blossomed across his shin and into his knee, incapacitating him. He moaned with pain and clutched his leg to his chest.
Murgaan’s voice sounded from above him, “Quit dilly dallying, we haven’t got all night.”
Vandrot's pain was overwhelmed by anger- he was going to kill that bloody man. Standing up once again he grasped the rain slick chain, Vandrot didn’t even notice it's cold bite as began his climb.
“Bloody bastard… disrespect me,” Vandrot grunted as he pulled himself up, his sweat melding with the rain. Vandrot had to pause several times, shifting his body weight back under his feet until the gnawing of the chain became unbearable. Eventually he resumed his ascent, focusing on honing his anger into a lethal edge, “...Going to kill him.” It felt like an eternity but soon Vandrot saw the gaps in between the crenulations and that fool of an assassin’s black garb. He made the instantaneous decision to forgo his revenge and resorted to grinding his teeth instead. The pounding of the rain was muted under the wooden canopy of the tower, sheltering Vandrot as he crawled the last few feet. Stepping through the embrasure, Vandrot put his hands on his knees and tried to catch his breath but Murgaan wasn’t having any of it.
“Good to see you made it, where do we go to get to Druins tower?” He had walked out into the sobbing rain and his back was turned to Vandrot so he had to pivot to look at him. He had a curious look on his face, “Well, come on- you had plenty of time to rest at the bottom.”
“Why couldn’t you have just opened the gate?” Vandrot gazed at him with loathing.
“Three reasons. One, I was scouting for any more threats- you’re welcome. Two, do you have any idea how heavy those damn gates are? No, I didn’t think so. And three, I had to hide our dear friend.” Murgaan stretched his hands to either side and bowed like a magician finishing a trick, displaying the lack of a body. “And that,” he said standing up, “is how you hide a body.” Murgaan spun on his heel and strode down the rain drenched wall with no apparent direction. “Come along, you have to show me where the stairs are.”
Vandrot chucked, grateful for the change in power, even if all Vandrot had was knowledge of where the stairs were. “Look behind you, halfwit.”
Murgaan spun around, rain droplets flying off the ends of his many trailing fabrics in his twirl, “Oh, dear. My eyes must have been deceiving me, many thanks, Noble.” Murgaan marched back under the wooden canopy and began to descend the stairs tucked in the shadows behind the wall. After a moment's more of resting, Vandrot sprung up from his crouch and followed suit. He caught up with Murgaan who was leaning against the wall at the base of the stairway, just where the shelter ends and the elements were given reign. He bounced off the wall and gave room for Vandrot to descend into the threshold.
“I forgot I didn’t know the way,” Murgaan explained as Vandrot strode past him.
The area that Vandrot wandered across looked starkly different from the same one he crossed this morning- was it only this morning? It felt so long ago.
Rattling emanated from the stones as the rain fought to get underneath their sturdy mass. An orange light dimly leaked from the kitchen archway that gaped its narrow mouth directly across from Vandrot. The warm gaze reflected weakly off the wet rocks, illuminating the path forward. Vandrot accepted its mellow invitation and limply stalked forward, limbs still thoughtless from their exertion.
“Just follow me,” Vandrot felt too weak to say anything witty, the size of what was before him was beginning to hide the way to victory. Inside the fiery maw of the Tower district, awaited the monster of his nightmares and it was as cold as winter to know that he marched towards it. Vandrot took a long swig from his flask to settle the butterflies taking flight within his innards.
Murgaan was right beside him, walking abreast, “Do try to keep a clear head, I wouldn’t want you ruining the contract on account of a fogged mind,” Murgaan paused for a second before resuming, “I advise stealth- a precautionary measure against unwanted throats being exposed to the open air.”
Vandrot only nodded, a meek acceptance to his resignation of drinking- for now. Vandrot crossed the hallway he walked this morning, passing now empty crates only reminiscent of fish. There was a heavy door he didn’t notice when exiting, but now it was closed over, barring their way most effectively. When Vandrot tried to push it open, he was received by a stubborn wall, unflinching in Vandrot's efforts.
He looked to Murgaan, who appeared rather amused in Vandrot's struggle, “could you?” Vandrot weakly gestured to the door and took a step back, forcing his eyes to keep from closing, trying to override the need to rest.
Murgaan sighed and walked to the door, placing both hands on it. He appeared to be focusing quite intently and shortly after a heavy, slow skidding sounded from the inside of the kitchen. Before entering he turned to Vandrot, “If there is somebody inside, you're paying for their life.” With that said he pushed the once-wall inward, scraping on the ground to admit them into a dark room- thankfully- void of life. Vandrot went to grab the torch that was pegged on the wall behind him but Murgaan shook his head. Vandrot knew better than to argue at this point so he put it back- this kind of thing was within Murgaan”s field of specialty, after all.
The kitchen was quiet, ever so different from the constant hammering of the storm outside, echoing the silence of the castle. Vandrot's eyes took their time adjusting to the dark but the room was large enough for him to stumble through without bumping anything. Soon, however, he could make out Murgaan's midnight silhouette and easily followed it. Vandrot’s sodden boots squeezed their contents onto the ground with every one of his steps- strangely, Murgaan left no puddles of his own, but Vandrot dripped enough water for the both of them. No food was left on the racks as it was this morning, reminding Vandrot of his hunger, sated only by wine since this afternoon. The room had lost its aroma of warmth and bread and now it was filled with the dismal odor of Vandrot's clothes.
They made their way to the stairway leading to the dining hall and Murgaan halted his slow pace.
“This way?” he asked.
“No,” Vandrot replied, “Keep heading through, past the oven is another stairwell- that’s the one we want to go through.”
Murgaan backed away from the arch and silently strode across the stone tiles, heading towards where Vandrot described. They made their way up the stairs, climbing the innumerous stone rises with steady dedication, cautiously listening for any above and any below.
They were well aided by the dead hours of the coming morn, smothering their chance of sight tenfold. Nonetheless, there was only one incident, a moment where Vandrot felt discovery was imminent. They were climbing the stairway and had been hurrying their pace upward as there were unknowing hunters climbing below them. They bore their fiery eyes of torches and steel knives, clinking in their metal skin, mindlessly chasing after a hidden prey. Vandrot found it strange to be running from those enlisted to protect him all his life. Murgaan had refused to engage them and so they ascended with the way down blocked. It had seemed like an age had come and gone when they cleared the many spiraling steps and entered the next flight. Murgaan had been ahead and was a fair way up the stairs, Vandrot only just clearing the initial one. Suddenly, Murgaan had come ghosting down the steps with a vengeance, taking them three at a time. His feet had barely connected with the ground when torchlight illuminated the circling wall behind him.
“Hide,” he had swiftly uttered and dragged Vandrot by the shoulder, heaving him forward into a dank broom closet.
When he had shut the door, the torchlight was nipping at his heels- it was a true magic that enabled him to remain hidden. Vandrot did not know what became of Murgaan but he had confidence in the man's abilities in the art of stealth, which brought to light Vandrot’s own lacking in the area. He could do nothing but hold his breath as the encroaching torchlight engulfed his position, but then he heard a familiar voice- voices- arguing. One was without a doubt Captain Gyvend, the other was more difficult to recall- he sounded old, with a wise voice.
“I knew that arrogant prick was up to something, who would’ve known it was killing innocents?” Gyvend scoffed, “who would’ve known that bastard was keeping tabs on his own investigation?”
The older one responded, “No one, Captain. I didn’t even suspect anything when he got us to grab his knife.”
Of course! The older one was Iron Stomach- but that didn’t make sense, it wasn’t Vandrots dagger, well he did give Gyvend his dagger. His mind quickly compounded the sequence of events and he felt despair creep.
“It's a good thing we were assigned to patrol- the Tower Guard aren’t good for anything except standing around.” Gyvend chuckled at Iron Stomach's joke.
Gyvend began again, his voice now fading down the hall, “Were lucky the Deathwatch thought to identify the owner…”
Vandrot squeezed his eyes shut and pulled out his flask, intent on drowning his fear. But still, it bubbled up like a vile ooze, ‘What am I going to do? Even if Gallus dies, it will only serve to solidify my guilt… I should run. Now.’ Vandrot stumbled out of the closet once the torches had faded and he woozily walked away from it. The guards chasing him and Murgaan surely would have passed by now. He headed towards the stairwell, arms outstretched to account for his absence of night eyes. His thoughts swam to Murgaan but he reassured himself that the shadow of death would be fine- he seemed to know far too much about infiltration to not know anything about escape. Vandrots foot descended to the first stair when a hand in the dark seized him.
A million thoughts shot through his mind, ‘Another Guard, hiding in the dark? A minion of Gallus’s? Something worse?’ an image of the terror that jailed him from sleep leaked into his vision.
“And where might you be going?” Relief and a fresh panic melded in his system, it was Murgaan.
“Oh, wrong stairs,” Vandrot feigned drunkenness but Murgaan hadn’t even been amused.
“Great. Juuust great, now I have to babysit.” Murgaan sighed and reefed him up the stairs, hauling him across the stonework and once again they were climbing the steps in darkness with thunder sounding through the stones.
Now they stood pressed in the shadows of an archway before a long corridor, this one lit by many torches and swarming with patrolling guards. Directly across from them, a door was embossed against the end of the corridor's windowed length. A watcher leaned on either side of its dark maw. Halfway along, on the side without as many windows, another archway gaped, two more sentinels gazing out the windows opposing them. Vandrot could hear Murgaan whispering beside him, forming a plan.
“Two- no four- circulating, alright… one just outside, two on the far wall… then the other two…yeah, this is going to hurt.” Murgaan detached himself from the shadowed wall and turned to Vandrot, “You stay put- follow me after only the dance is done, for I fear you cannot perform in its necessity.”
Murgaan’s change to a poetic tone disoriented Vandrot and he squinted strangely at the man, his mind fogged by the drink, only now taking effect. Murgaan, with his piece said, marched directly into the light of the corridor. A cry of alarm sounded to either side of Murgaan and Vandrot wondered how he knew of the two watchers standing there. Almost instantly after, Vandrot heard the grinding of armor and saw the glint of steel come flashing towards Murgaan on either side. What he did was as he described- simply a mesmerizing dance.
In a whirl of trailing black fabrics, Murgaan evaded the dual glaive strikes, forcing both guards off balance. Unlike most fighters Vandrot had seen, Murgaan wasted no time learning how his opponents fought. Instead, he drove his heel into the glaive still resting on the floor, splintering the shaft. He then threw his arm in a seemingly blind arc at the wielder who had raised their weapon for a jab, throwing something that Vandrot could barely process in the instant it was in his vision. There was a metal thud and a man clad in the black overcoat of the Tower Guard fell lifelessly to the floor, crismon leaking from no apparent wound onto the pristine floor. There was a hesitation in the one remaining, a split second where the guard failed to draw a new weapon- the master of death before him spared no mercy for such wavering. It took no more than an instant and now two bodies rested in eternal slumber, their bester already claiming the weapon they failed to draw and stalking with steel claws to slay anew.
Murgaan’s new dancing partners both were armed with shields and swords, they walked with an uneasy certainty, knowing of the danger and comparing their skill. The two guarding the door sheathed their weapons, unslinging crossbows and heaving piercing shots onto their strings, stalking towards the predator, intent on being the victors of the dance. Murgaan engaged the shielded pair without pause, weiling his blade as if it were a limb he had all his life. The two did not make the mistake of their fallen comrades and they struck in discord with one another, trying to split the focus of the wraith in black. They moved to pinch Murgaan between their shields, to cage the beast and end it with vicious strikes. But Murgaan was toying with them in his measly parries and half hearted strikes. The guards were trying to cage Murgaan, but it was them within his net of lethal footwork only matched by the raging, yet graceful whitewater rivers themselves.
It was when the first twang of the crossbows that Murgaan truly bared his fangs. In a strange turn of events, he threw his blade into the air and pulled the rim of the shield to his left. Aided by the distraction of the airborne sword the bearer was swept off their feet and brought to the ground with a black fletched bolt in their side. Murgaan spared a glance up to the sword in the air, inviting a bite from the remaining shield-bearer's blade. Once again, Murgaan evaded the very tip of his opponents claws in graceful spins and lithe strides- he was now directly under the falling sword. Evidently realizing their mistake, the shield-bearer attempted to press their advantage, tried to maintain the benefit of his opponent’s lack of weapons. Murgaan was forced to abandon the sword as another twang from the crossbows sounded, slicing his shoulder. Murgaan spared no gasp of pain for his wound, no moment of weakness as it did not befit him, for the lion never feared the jackal.
As lethal he had appeared while bearing steel, Murgaan needed no claws to finish this dance. The shield-bearer kicked his blade away from him and to the crossbowmen. Murgaan was unfazed and stalked to his prey with a killer’s stride. The shield-bearer swung his blade in a heavy strike which Murgaan sidestepped as if it was a ball being tossed. The side of the shield-bearer was exposed and in a quick jab with his fist, there was a metal clang and the shield-bearer fell to the ground. Murgaan turned to the crossbow men, just as he did they both shot their bolts with a slight delay. Murgaan leaned his head to the side, letting a dark blur fly past his head and clank into the archway where Vandrot observed. Murgaan quickly waved his hand and the sword resting at their feet flew up, slamming hilt first into the lucky one and blade first into the unlucky one. Nonetheless, they both fell to the ground.
Murgaan raised his hand and the sword flew into his palm. He strode to the middle archway and looked disappointed. For a moment all that could be heard was the pittering of the rain against the windows matched only by the oily smell of the burning torches.
“I guess I was wrong.” he crossed his arms, sword sticking up from underneath an arm. He turned to Vandrot, “well come on, the dance is done and the patrol is late- we're making good time, best to keep it.”
Vandrot snapped out of his trance and scurried from his den of safety to Murgaan. Then he hesitated as his thoughts were processed.
“The entrance to Driun’s Tower is right there, why do I need to come along?” Vandrot said.
“If you don’t come with me, your going to run. Aren’t you?” Murgaan’s gaze was expressionless, “and when you do, it is unlikely that you will make it out of the district- let alone the Splints- with all your innards contained. Furthermore, let's assume you do make it out of both districts. I now have to chase you for my money and I loathe having to chase people.”
“Well then here,” Vandrot reached inside his pouch and pulled out three of the coins, extending his arm to give them to Murgaan.
Murgaan flinched back as if Vandrot was wielding a red hot poker and regarded the coins cooly, “I’m afraid it doesn’t work like that. I-” Murgaan was cut off by the uniform iron marching that rebounded off the walls. “Bloody pits, were too late- thanks to you and your questions. Go, hide somewhere- you’ll just get in the way.”
Vandrot was already fleeing back to the safety of the archway, intent on letting Murgaan perform his lethal dance once more. He reached the haven of stone and turned back to watch- he now understood why the brawling pits had once attracted so much attention.
Murgaan faced the oncoming patrol with arms outstretched and welcoming. “Hello, dear friends. Is there any chance you could just turn around and forget you saw me? Any at all?”
Vandrot heard several voices ring at once.
“Who are you?”
“Look at the bodies- he’s dangerous.”
“You're going to pay for those lives!”
Murgaan lowered his arms, the tip of his sword resting on the ground, “A pity indeed… Well then, let's end this rambling. Come, match yourselves against me, avenge your fallen comrades.”
Suddenly, Vandrot felt cold, like a frost had seeped into his blood. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand rigid- something was wrong. He looked beside him- there was nothing but shadowed stone. Vandrot snapped his head backward, his mind already formulating many creatures lurking in the consuming dark of the stairs. His heart was thundering, his blood shooting through their vessels, energy teemed throughout him, urging his feet to move, to flee. Winter's grasp tightened and he felt himself shrink, fearing what his eyes would reveal when they adjusted to the pitch darkness. But all his fears were based on a feeling, he reminded himself, a feeling that he probably manifested himself. He began to center himself through breathing. It came shallowly at first, in quick bursts, but he slowed it down and was soon smothering the choking fear.
His eyes were now fully adjusted to the darkness and it felt as though warm water had been poured over his head. “See, nothing to fret over,” he reassured himself and turned back to the carnage in the torchlight, focusing on the rain to ignore the small voice that persisted. He felt useless just standing here, alone in the dark.
His contemplation was dissolved as he felt a cool liquid running down his arm, instinctively he fled into the torchlight and looked up at the ceiling, but there was neither monster nor leak. Vandrot looked to his arm for answers and saw crimson drip onto the ground. Suddenly, his wound felt as though it were pulling itself open, the dripping becoming more frequent. Vandrot tore his sleeve up and revealed what ailed him so. A weight settled on his shoulders as he saw that there was nothing but an open wound, bleeding anew. Perhaps he had tore it while doing-
‘While doing what?’ His thoughts were no help.
He watched a glob of blood carry a loose scab across his arm and down to his wrist before falling to the ground. As he watched it fall, the crimson drop landed far from under his wrist, far from anywhere close to him, as if pushed along by a breeze. Except there was no breeze, not even so much as a broken window. Winter's envious grasp returned to his spine as the many red pools began to form streams in amongst the gaps between stones. Vandrot stood frozen, watching them, wondering why they were heading to him, he took a step back and the streams hastened. He took another and the streams surpassed him, all heading slowly towards the arching shadow in front of him. Then, in Vandrot’s muffled silence a scraping sound echoed off the stairwell, then a heavy step, softly and meticulous but inadvertently heavy. Vandrot sank to his knees in pain as blood began to fly out of his wound in a spray akin to water.
Now he could not mistake it, the slow rasping, the weighted steps and an empty breathing that sounded like a dying man's last breath. Vandrots eyes were fixated on the endless dark of the stairs and he whimpered as he saw a horrifying silhouette form, darker than the shadows and terrible in its intent. He wished the torches never brushed against its vile figure, he wished that he never saw this monstrosity, but wishes were only thoughts and thoughts never accomplished anything.
The beast was worse than his nightmare, Vandrot would have given a thousand lives to be seeing it instead of what lay before him. The first to become visible were three hands ending in fingers like spindly legs of spiders, flexing and twitching much like a true one would. Next fell forth the arms, each unique unto itself. One resembled a broken arm, twisted and disfigured bones writhing under the clammy white skin as it tried to mend itself at a horrific rate, soundlessly snapping as the arm jerked about. The next was two reedy arms starting from the same houlder and ending at the same wrist, bare of flesh except at the elbows, separating and brushing against each other in an inorganic way. The third was composed of several joints, each bulging like a tumor and connected by the same rippling white flesh. The towering monster encroached and its foot came into light, a flat pad with a single long toe, carving the stone with its razor tip. But all its extremities were lovable compared to its head, face and torso. It had a gaunt face that forced cheekbones and jaws to cut through like knives attached to the body by a stretched neck. It bore sunken milky eyes surrounded by black flesh and a nose that was pointed so far down, it merged with its thin lips, creating an arc from boned forehead to upper jaw. When it opened its rotten maw of dead flesh to drink the whirling spray of blood, two rows of straw thick teeth folded out from inside. A ropeish tongue slithered out from the deepest reaches of its throat.
The chest of the creature resembled no human, beast or other. It bulged in erratic places, veins visibly drifting underneath the disproportionate flesh unchecked. Underneath the sickly skin that contained its gravelly flesh Vandrot couldn’t at first make out what he saw, then it clicked. All across the body of this thing, faces pressed as if trying to escape, drifting across the ill shaped mass in no direction. They all looked as if they were in pain, being pulled agonizingly across the unnatural flesh of the thing. It walked ever so slowly, raising its leg and tucking its toe under the pad, only to have it shoot out just before the foot landed. The jutting head of the thing drank the blood gluttonously, eager to consume all that was there, no matter if it was warm or cold. For some reason it stopped, the blood falling to the ground. Then it spoke in its deathly rasp.
“Vandrot,” it whispered, “You.. rejected… me.”
Vandrot caught the words that were fleeing his mind and placed them into a shaky sentence, “Wha- who are you?”
The thing approached with another step, head swinging to gaze at the room, “your… companion… the one of death… I follow… where death… goes… I bring… death to others… I must… feed.”
“Gallus- he controls you d-doesn’t he?” Vandrots throat was dry, there were so many questions he wanted to ask but his stuttering mind only allowed those of superficial quality, “he feeds you… with those in the Splints.”
The things attention was caught by Gallus’s name, “Gallusss… is …here.” A pained face drifted up the thing's neck and displayed itself over the creature's own. The face it chose was Lord Gallus's, writhing in pain just as all the others.
The grotesque mass began to drift and meld together, beginning to resemble a person more and more, until the thing became Lord Gallus. “I brought death… to him… he wished me to…. after I brought… death to the… caged one he… bore.” Another face replaced Gallus’s, younger by far and a girl. The creature quickly reverted back to its true form and cocked a sunken eye at him.
“Breith,” Vandrot whispered, feeling a fresh wave of dread. Kevirius was doomed, but Vandrots life was still in the forefront of his thoughts, slipping away as his blood was forced from his body. His thoughts were nulling to dull darkness and his vision was slipping away. The creature advanced, one step after another until it was reaching down with a spindly hand, the fingers whipping at his flesh, flaying his unfeeling skin, blood rising steadily from the slashes.
He thought he heard another say his name but it sounded so far away. In the last seconds of conscious thought Vandrot heard a vicious cry and the creature stepped away, the lashing stopping with it. Then there was a brilliant flash of white and he saw no more.
It was pain that roused him, nipping at his dreams as certainly as fire would to straw, forcing him awake. At first his eyes would not process the room he awoke in and his dreaming mind told him what he saw was the audience chamber. He must have drowsed off; he blamed Wendal for his boring talks. But that didn’t explain why he hurt and, eventually, even his dreams had to let go of that fantasy. Vandrot rolled over and got his arms underneath him. Gasping, he dropped to the ground as pain arced through his side. He opened his eyes fully to see the crusted blood caked on his clothes, then it all came rushing back, the guards, the fighting, the beast.
Panic overruled pain and Vandrot shot up, frantically searching for the thing that brought him close to death so many times. In a room lit by a single flickering torch, a dark mass stood out from all the other corpses. It looked as though it was seared on a pyre, smoke still wisping from creavases, but no heat radiated from it. Vandrot approached the fallen creature and hesitantly looked for life in its charred body. To his relief and dismay he found none, for in the despicable clutches of the creature was a body, burned beyond recognition, but a body nonetheless. The bright flash came to Vandrots mind and he spared a sad smile for the man who exchanged his life for Vandrot’s. His mind argued that it might not be him, but why else would the creature try to encompass it so maliciously, if not the body being an attacker.
Vandrot cradled his wounded side and reached into the pouch of seven coins. Drawing out two he placed one on each side of the face where the eyes should be, now only malformed divots. Upon laying the coins down, they sank into the ashen mass and withered all of the scene into a fine black powder.
‘Just like the kriol,’ Vandrot thought.
“And so, being the contract fulfilled, I pay your life in iron.” Vandrot recited the verse he had memorized so long ago but never expected to say himself, for it was the rite of blood that all killers of the Black Hand recited upon a fulfilled contract. With that said, Vandrot spared only a few moments gazing out the window, watching the dawn rise. There was a brief and quick noise, but Vandrot heard it nonetheless. His head snapped over his shoulder, expecting the worst, but all he saw was the hallway, five bodies on the ground and one in the ashen clutches of the creature. He convinced himself it was only his mind playing tricks on him and he hastily made his exit, leaving that all behind.
He made it down the first flight of stairs and was limping through the halls when he heard the dooming sound of clinking armor in front of him. The rhythmic clanking approached from the bend ahead of him, hidden by a sharp corner of an intersecting hallway. Vandrots breath caught in his throat and he began to drag his mangled body away from the metal drumming of ironclad boots. He gazed behind him, looking for any possible shred of shelter in the flat hallway walls, but no broom closet aided him this hour, leaving his only hope to be a sprint to the stairwell far behind. Vandrot threw his body into the effort, biting his tongue to keep his thoughts from the blinding pain within. His head swam from blood loss and his vision became unreliable in the rush, forcing him to gauge his path through flickering glimpses when his sight was resolved of darkness. He was so close to the stairs when his body simply could not take any more abuse. It forced Vandrot to the ground and tried to lull him to rest- a tempting desire, indeed.
He spat out an overwhelming amount of blood and gritted his teeth, “Just… just a few more feet,” he breathed deeply, exhausted from the minor trek. Vandrot began dragging himself, determined to reach the blessed darkness, clawing against the stone with dwindling strength. He gasped from the knives poking within, sweat dripping from every pore. Vandrot was so focused on overriding his body's demands that he didn’t hear the approaching footsteps until they were directly in front of him. A razor of fear sliced through him as he processed his predicament. Vandrot rolled over and rested against the wall, demanding at least sight of who opposed him. He was rewarded with the view of a group of four lightly armed and armored patrol men, Just finishing their descent. They must have seen the massacre Murgaan had left in his wake. His hopes plummeted to the ground as the chanting boots halted- Murgaan’s death had been for nothing.
“Well, well,” the leader said, “Captains going to be pleased with us.” The group began to spread out and the one closest quickly seized his injured arm, hauling him to his feet in a malicious grasp.
“What? What are you doing? Unhand me!” Vandrot tried to jerk his arm free but to no avail.
“Oh such highborn commands for a murderer.” His captor had rage in his eyes. The man began jerking him around, the entourage forming into an orderly semicircle behind him. He threw Vandrot forward, launching him at the unyielding stone- Vandrot felt a snap and gasped in pain. Anger swelled within himself- an unconscious shield forming over a scar of his youth picked raw by the violence of this man.
“You’re lucky the Captain wants you to live to see a trial- if it were my choice, you’d be quartered,” said the man.
Rage overwhelmed both the fog of his mind and clarity of thought, “I’d do it again in a heartbeat.” He caught himself, but it was too late- he had just set his fate in stone.
The man responded to this by driving an iron fist into Vandrots stomach but he was saved from further pain by the lead patrolman.
“Ease off Grant- killing him won’t bring back your father.”
Grant reluctantly yielded to his commander's order and their march began, lapsing into silence. Eventually, Vandrot braved to speak above the marching.
“Where are you taking me?” he demanded,
“You lived here: you should know where we’re going.” his captor replied haughtily.
That’was precisely what Vandrot feared- he knew exactly where they were taking him- they were going to the dungeon. He felt the now familiar feeling of dread weigh down on his bones. Vandrot felt like he was wading through a thick ooze with every step as the realization set in. They didn’t send just anyone to the dungeons, only those who truly earned it. But he didn’t do anything.
‘It doesn’t matter, they won’t believe you. It’s either death or tourture.’ He thought to himself, engraving into his own mind that death was certain any which way. ‘Unless I escape.’
They were crossing one of the many intersecting corridors that bore their way through the Tower District. In a spur of energy Vandrot threw himself at the man holding his arm, knocking him to the ground and made dead charge down the hallway. He only partially believed he had a chance of survival, mostly hoping that they would simply kill him now. However, he barely made it into the threshold of the new hallway when his body simply denied him and he fell to the ground. He heard chuckling behind him and when he looked back he saw his captor angrily marching towards him. He hauled Vandrot to his feet and dragged him back into the swarm of patrolmen.
“One more stunt like that and I’ll let grant have his way with you,” the man muttered in his ear, “d’you hear me, you bugger?”
Vandrot managed a slow nod, as he tried to seize control of the sinking ship that was his consciousness, “Yes… I hear you.”
It was a solemn walk and Vandrot was ever in pain, being dragged harshly by his captors as if he were a ball to be tossed around. They passed window after window, each one seeming to glow brighter than their predecessor, heralds to the rising sun. He ventured down spiraling stairs lit by a torch bearer in the front and a moving wall of steel nipping at his heels, forcing him painfully down on one step after another. Each connection with the stone jarred Vandrot’s exhausted body but he managed to remain upright all the way to the dungeon door.
It was a repulsive thing made of iron banded wood, resting against the narrowest walls of ancient stone. The walls were so close his group had to thin into single file, staggered accordingly so that there was no direct route across them. Vandrot had read somewhere that the thin walls were intentionally close set with three iron gates that could be dropped from the slits in the rocky ceiling. This was to enable anyone standing from the opposite wall to seal the prison with minimal force. Jail breaks were very frequent back when the brawling pits were still open because of the prison's direct path to the arena- for ease of transferring combatants.
‘What did it matter?’ Vandrot asked himself, hopelessness weighing him down like a chain, ‘books won’t save me now.’
The torchbearer in the front inserted a foot long key into the door and heaved his body against it. With a groan from both participants, the door swung slowly inward, grinding against the rough floor. With that resolved, Vandort was both pulled and pushed into the dim room. His eyes adjusted just fast enough for him to process the fence-less platform, the steep drop before him and the stairs to his right. Behind him, he heard two of the patrol mutter to each other and then with rising voices, a hand seized the scruff of his shirt and dangled him over the edge. His instincts seized his crippled body and tried to jerk a foot underneath him for balance, but there was no foothold on the sheer edge.
The one who held him laughed shallowly- he recognized it as Grant's voice. “Be a shame if you fell down, wouldn’t it?”
Vandrot didn’t know what else to say, panic fogged his mind. He whispered in a weak voice, “... Yes.”
“Sorry, what did you say?” Vandrot could hear the destructive tone in Grant's voice.
Vandrot raised his voice, “Yes.”
Grant didn’t like that answer but he didn’t drop him. Instead he tossed him down the stairs and Vandrot felt the jab of each one until he lay at the bottom, his willpower as battered and beaten as his body. He groaned and managed to roll over, despite the feeling of a vice everywhere and knives everywhere else. He relished the cold of the stone wall beside him, cooling the fiery pain he felt.
“Grant.”A warning voice sounded somewhere to the left of Vandrot.
Suddenly, Grant’s silhouette was blocking out the dim light of the glowvines, “Get up,”
Vandrot didn’t move- he was struggling to breathe, a sharp pain rising every time his lungs filled.
“GET UP!” Grant shouted and when Vandrot did nothing, he began kicking the exposed stomach of Vandrot, each blow feeling like a sledgehammer. In Vandrot’s blurred vision he saw figures grabbing Grant and- after a sharp jab from one of them- dragging his limp body away.
His vision swam in and out of darkness. When he could still feel hands were grabbing him and dropping into a dark room- he realized it was his cell. Then his sight blanked. The next swoon of consciousness, Vandrot felt someone running a wet stone over his exposed skin, it glowed a faint yellow and soothed the pain he felt. He heard a voice telling the hand to stop and Vandrot made a weak attempt to stop them, but he was still too beaten. The two voices were arguing, one ssid he needed more time and the other said he only needed to be conscious for the trial- he wouldn’t need to be healed for what came after it. Despair took over and Vandrot slipped into a haunted sleep.
He was roused by the clinking of a key against metal and the quick scream of rusted hinges. He opened his eyes, but that was all he could do. His head pounded like someone was inside ringing a giant bell and his body- while feeling better than before- would not allow for large amounts of movement, such as sitting up. The moment he tried, the bell ringer inside his head, tripled the force they used and brought Vandrot back to a lying position.
“Who’s… who’s there?” Vandrot managed in a weak voice, fear shooting through his immobilized body. Was Grant back? Was it someone else? Was it even human? Vandrot felt his body begin to quiver anxiously.
The person dismissed the guard at the front of his gate and sat on the opposing stone bed, head in their hands.
“Do you know how hard I tried to keep you from this exact place? How many bribes I had to pay? How many favor’s I had to curry?”
Vandrot sighed as the fear flooded away. “Hello, Wendal.” Vandrot managed a raspy chuckle, savoring the lack of pain.
“Do you know what is to happen to you?” Wendal asked in his perfect articulation, “you are to be sentenced to death- the trial is merely a front because of your title.” Wendal was silent for a minute- perhaps contemplating his words.
“What do you care?” Vandrot snapped at him, “What does it matter to you? Oh, no! Your last name might be sullied, oh dear! Hells, take me! Whatever have I done!” Vandrot entered a coughing fit, blood spraying out of his mouth.
Wendal’s look was sad, “you really don’t know how many times I have saved your skin, do you?”
“Holding yourself a little high there, aren’t you? I paid for every time I got caught, every misdeed- every slight change in my tone- I paid in pain.” Wendal knew Vandrot was speaking of Noble Ressol- he could tell by the slow change in his face. “You, know, I’ve never seen him, ever raise his fists to you!”
Vandrot was halted by the haunted look in Wendal’s eye’s.
“No… what he did to me was much… much worse.” Vandrot was taken aback- Wendal did many things but exaggeration and lies were not among them. “I figured that… you should not have had to live with that… when he took you to the whipping I- I poisoned his meal… I saved us both.” Wendal swallowed hard, Vandrot realized he was on the brink of tears.
“Why are you telling me this?” Vandrot asked.
Wendal composed himself and sat up straight, disregarding Vandrot’s question. He reached inside his long robes and pulled out a small, black disk. Tucking it into Vandrots hand he whispered in his ear, “You’re on your own from here, good luck.”
Vandrot could tell from Wendal’s face that he was sincere and as Vandrot clutched the black disk he gave a true smile in return.
“Thank you, Wendal.” Vandrot said, but Wendal put a solemn finger to his lips. He turned to the cell door and called for the guards.
Wendal looked back one last time with the smile still on his face, but then his expression quickly changed into one of hatred. “I hope they leave you here just long enough for you to starve, murderer.”
Vandrot forced his gratitude away and played along, “is that anything to call your brother?”
Wendal scoffed, disgust smeared on his face, “You are no brother of mine.” Wendal turned his nose up and strode away, fabrics trailing behind him.
‘By gods, Wendal should have joined the theater,’ Vandrot thought.
The guard locked the door behind Wendal and sneered at Vandrot, “Sleep tight, the court wants to see you tomorrow.”
The words washed over him like a weak breeze and he surprised himself on how little he cared. He was too preoccupied with the forming plan in his mind, elaborating on every detail, from how fast the guards walked to what the time of day was. He became nostalgic for his wasted youth and talent. How much more he could have accomplished if he had only turned his talents to better things. Vandrot promised himself that if- when- he escaped, he would become better, maybe become a detective. Hopefully it wouldn’t end up in another cell.
Vandrot smiled and then bided his time, waiting for the laxness of nighttime, and when the time came he knew they would close the thick wooden doors over, to shut the convicts in for the night.
For once he slept soundly and awoke in the bright light of the glowvines - from experience Vandrot knew this meant the sun had set. He lethargically rolled his head to gaze out the iron gate to see if anyone was watching him. One guard leaned against the archway atop the platform he was thrown down, but other than that, he saw no one else. Of course, that did not mean nobody was there. Vandrot studied the room outside his cell until he saw what he was looking for. Three men, dressed in outfits to camouflage against the darkly lit stone across from his cell. They all bore a crossbow, loaded and ready to be used as he suspected for a suspectedly dangerous prisoner. That could complicate things but Vandrot anticipated that. All he needed now was for the time to come for them to fold him into darkness.
He waited for the clinking of armor as a guard came to seal him in. They would certainly lock a lethal convict behind six inches of wood- of that he had no doubt, but it was the when that was starting to bother him. He started panicking, thoughts racing one after another through his mind, was it really night, or had a shadow merely passed over the glowvine? Had he overslept? He stopped himself and realized how absurd those questions were, Murgaan would have found them to be quite funny if he was here. He lapsed into a moment of contemplation, his thoughts wandering back to the pile of ash and thinking about the peculiarities of the corpse.
‘Wouldn’t the coins he carried still be solid?’ Vandrot thought, then it hit him like a hammer. There were only six bodies in the hall, not seven. Vandrot felt his heart rate increase in speed and began considering all the possibilities. Murgaan could have dragged a body into the hallway with the patrol, or Vandrot could have miscounted, but the memory shined in his brain like a sun, etche permanently by the horror he faced.
‘Slow down,’ he reminded himself, ‘if he is still alive, where is he?’
Vandrot answered his own question the moment he thought of it, Vandrot had released Murgaan when he mistakenly placed the coins on the ashen corpse. He chuckled to himself as he found a fragment of humor in that.
“Got a crazy one here.” The guard startled Vandrot- he hadn’t even heard him approach. The man slowly shook his head before slamming the hefty door shut and dropping the door bar into place. “Why they all got to be crazy?” He heard him say in the last moment before the door thunked shut
Vandrot recovered from his initial panic and painfully swung his battered body into a seated position. He felt numerous scabs tear and his head swam with the effort, threatening to render him unconscious but Vandort fought his body, for once overpowering it. He extended his arm and merely flexed his palm, splitting the flayed skin and causing blood to leak into the open air. How used to the sight of his own blood he had become.
His hand was shaking with anticipation as he placed the black coin into his blood once again, watching the crimson air fly from the glowing coin. He barely suppressed a smile as a figure stepped through the portal and spoke in a familiar voice.
“Murgaan Kriel, at your service- who’s dying today?”
“Nobody,” Vandrot replied.
“Oh, hells- you again?”
“Keep your voice down- and no magic, trust me,” Vandrot said in a quick whisper. He paused a question swimming out of his curiosity, “I could ask you the same, how did you even survive?”
“Your highborn hide wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
Vandrot ignored the quip and returned to more pressing matters. He held up the fading coin, “I need to escape.”
He heard Murgaan sigh. “Well then, straight to the point. Let’s make this bloody quick, shall we?”
Blood of Kevirius
The walls were white stone that appeared smooth from afar, curving ever so gently in their great span as to shape the room into an oval segmented by periodic columns extruding from the walls. Graceful wooden arches leapt from the top of these columns far above with windows in between them, resting against the wooden curves and in between stone segments, breathing shafts of morning light through their long, thin mouths, into the dismal chamber of endless speeches and dreary politics. Wooden benches, noticeable sagging from overuse lined the floor in six straight rows- he counted twelve in a row- leading upto a crescent moon podium. Behind the podium, a circular window caught the low sun in its entirety, creating a cone of light beating down on the walkway in between benches.
The seats were rather empty today- when compared to other days- as there were only a mere thirty or so blue-garbed scholars from the Duragas library, taking the day off from their research to engage in pointless discussion. They occupied a small amount of the benches, clustered near the front, all facing the podium with unwavering attention, eager to absorb what the speaker had to say. He himself sat on a receded bench near the back wall, far away from the swarths of blue and close to a window that overlooked the eastern mass of Kevirius- his favorite spot under these circumstances. The podium was of a darker stone, ultimately drawing one's attention to it and the person behind it- it seemed that everything in the audience chamber did that. The room even had a curtain in the middle of the room so that- when closed- smaller groups did not feel overwhelmed by the empty space behind them. The podium precisely opposed the entrance as to allow the occupant of it to see anybody who enters, and anybody who tries to leave. Unfortunately for him, the person standing behind the podium was Wendal, a stuck-up academic hell-bent on molding him into yet another listener in blue and, much to his dismay, his older brother.
The speech Wendal was making today had something to do with the river overflowing in the recent rains and flooding the sewers. Apparently it was causing much unhappiness amongst those snobs who could not tolerate smelling their own filth. He had lost interest in the speech a while ago, preferring to stare at the walls and ceiling, much like a child would to cure boredom- a wondrous process that many undervalued.
Consequently, his brother had transformed from an educated person conferring with peers, into a droning slug of a man, dressed in his green-gray robes that melded with his long gray hair, cascading off his shoulders and pooling like ooze at his feet.
Wendal was the only one behind the podium- befitting his rank, as he was the sole Master of Advisement in Kevirius. In truth, Vandrot was impressed by how quickly Wendal had made it to a position of power even with his disposition of coming from their young bloodline. But, it wasn’t a very interesting job- all the Master of Advisement did was make speeches about the things they read and what was currently happening in the city. They then conferred with the local scholars and revised their conclusion with yet another group of blue garbed scholars- all to make a single piece of worthy advice to Lord Gallus. He didn't understand how the great blue flocks of people that followed him everywhere could tolerate the endless verbal swamping. He supposed it was a perk of the position. Not that he envied Wendal, in fact, to him, Wendal’s job was just barely different from being a librarian of sorts- one who recorded and stored events, instead of books.
Books on the other hand, were very interesting, especially the old ones that were locked in the depths of a library, hiding ancient secrets, banned by present day laws and protected by age-old dust. Unfortunately, he had only taken an interest in them after the early years of his youth, meaning that he had to spend long hours starting his collection of forbidden tomes that would have been easier to obtain as a child. But once started, it only grew. He had contemplated bringing a book of such quality with him, but the mere possession of one of his preferred books was punishable by death. Needless to say, he was more or less persuaded not to bring one. So, he was forced to use the age-old technique to pass the time, refamiliarizing himself with all the cracks, colors and crevasse of the audience chamber.
Now that he thought about it, the wooden arches resembled a ribcage- almost perfectly- which, of course, reminded him of the event he had forgone in order to oblidge to his brother's wishes of attendance, not that he had much of an option. Wendal practically had the Tower Guard under his direct authority, and he learned the hard way that it would be immensely difficult to leave if Wendal didn’t want him to. But, all the guards in the world couldn’t make him pay attention if he refused to. Wendal had a disapproval regarding Vandrot’s current interest of crime- well, Wendal had a disapproval regarding every interest of Vandrot’s- specifically, the recent murders in the Splints which had him and the Kevirius Guard baffled.
Suddenly the murmur that he was blocking out came into sharp focus as he caught his name in the midst of a question.
“...Vandrot, I have noticed your lack of verbal engagement. So then, what is your opinion on the subject at hand?”
Such articulation. It infuriated Vandrot.
Wendal moved his dark blue eyes from the raised podium to Vandrot with a heavy gaze which Vandrot held lazily and recalled what the subject at hand was.
Such a strange man always trying to get him to be more politically involved- he must not realize it was a fool's hope. Vandrot suspected that the only reason Wendal attempted to mold him into a political role was motivated through his own social status being threatened, simply by being related to someone who worked with lower class citizens. How selfish.
“My advice,” he said slowly, after considering the question for a while, no doubt irritating those in the blue, “is to suggest the afflicted residents invest in rafts.”
This raised an uproar amongst many of the Blue. He knew it would, as most, if not, all, lived in and around the flooded area- sending their angered voices echoing off the chamber walls like sweet music. Wendal gave him an angered glare before he desperately tried to steer the angry crowd back to the issue. This effectively removed the possibility of him asking another question to anyone. Vandrot had learned very early that causing dissent amongst the ranks was the only sure way to avoid further engagement. It gave him power over Wendal of which he had very little. With the room in a successful verbal rout, he could now return to the scenery.
His gaze wandered to the circular window above the podium and watched the late winter sun lazily float into the sky, melting away the fog on the windows and forcing away the blanket of darkness that covered the Tower District’s rigid and tall buildings. Those shadows would slowly dissipate amongst the many stake-like houses that sprawled across the flatlands surrounding Kevirius. Separated by the stubborn river that cut down the middle of the great city, forcing the buildings far from each coast in its fickle tides. The river was only tolerated due to its enormity and ample food supply within its writhing depths. It was also the source of Kevirius’s recent wealth, aptly making it the Lifeblood in both name and deed.
The wealth of Kevirius was unique to only its bend of water where a strange fish was recently discovered in the murky depths. Vandrot
had once seen one of these creatures- dead of course-, nearly seven feet long and wide as a wheel cart, absolutely covered in overlapping, spherical scales that looked gray- until light hit them- and four clawed fins that were as thick as Vandrot’s head was wide. Named the Glassfish by the diver who first found it, its gray scales were deemed to be of high value amongst jewelers as it refracted the light shone upon it tenfold. The scales themselves were called Eyebrights by professionals, but, in the recent expansion of Kevirius and collection of Eyebrights by anybody who could hold their breath, they were quickly renamed Slickstones for the slippery film that initially covers them. In fact, the Derimus bloodline had recently come to nobility from humble merchants when Vandrot’s grandfather had monopolized on the money to be had. Because of the discovery of the Glassfish, Kevirius had tripled in size and its wealth was enough for the neighboring kingdom, Evantris and Lord Erand Duragas, to turn his uncomfortable gaze to Kevirius with lust. It was common knowledge that the only reason that Evantris didn’t raise swords and torches was because of the Duragas Oath.
He had read about the Oath in one of his old books which told the tale of the first Lady of Kevirius, Driun Duragas of Evantris, who built- or rather shaped- the castle of Kevirius from solid rock in a moonturn, laying the cornerstones to what later would become the Tower District. According to the book, the castle was such a wonder that wandering merchants and people alike traveled great distances to see its splendor. This drew riches to Kevirius like a moth to a flame and Driun’s father, Lord Orin Duragas, praised her progress. However, her brother, Hallund grew bitter and resentful of his sister's achievements, nurturing a hate like an intent mold, and, upon their fathers inevitable death, Hallund- who inherited the crown- rallied the blades of Evantris and invaded Kevirius like a dark storm, intent on complete annihilation. Word traveled to Kevirius and Driun was enraged by even the thought of her brother's actions, but she did not summon the growing swords of Kevirius, instead, she waited. When Hallund arrived at the base of the hill to the tower of Kevirius they found the only gate to the inside open and Driun standing like a dark wrath, surrounded by a swirling- and very real- storm that flowed around her like the calmest of breezes, barely lifting the many trailing fabrics that hung loose from her gray gown. Hallund halted his march for what the book described as an eternity, as he marched up the hill alone to command his sister's surrender. When the face off between brother and sister ended, Hallund’s army barely had time to resume their progression before Driun unshackled the true power of her personal storm, which obliterated all but Hallund himself, who stood helpless before the vengeance of Driun. After the ashes of Hallund’s force had settled, instead of killing her brother, as he would have done to her, she drew his sword and cut both of their palms so blood flowed freely. She then grasped his bloody hand and laid a powerful spell on him, herself and all of their future bloodline so that they would be bound by blood to never purposefully harm their own kin. Driun, in her great mercy, then let Hallund march all the way back to Evantris, never to return.
The ruling Duragas bloodline remained unbroken since the time of Hallund and Driun but was now under terrible threat as the only true Duragas left in Kevirius was little Breith, only child of Gwen Duragas and Gallus- formerly of the house Fetrin- Duragas. Lady Gwen was assumed dead nigh on four moonturns ago as she went missing six or seven moons ago. Since then Breith had been under lock, key, barred door and careful eyes of her father, Gallus. Since she was there only sure defense against war with Evantris. War would consume Kevirius’s wealth like an infestation of vermin would to a kitchen, even if they won- it was the top priority of Kevirius to protect Breith.
The sun was now burning the shadows out of the many valleys and fracturings of the Splints and Vandrot yearned to be walking down amongst its gnarly roads, instead of locked up in this birdcage of a chamber, allowed to look but rarely fly freely. As if on cue, a rustling sounded in the blue cluster and he looked over to see everybody gathering their books and pens. Knowing what that meant he looked to Wendal and caught his gaze. Sneering, Vandrot looked away before Wendal could allow him to leave, it was one of many attempts to undermine Wendal’s authority.
“Excellent,” Vandrot muttered as he shot out of his seat, eager to work the lethargy out of his bones. He walked to the door at the end of the room and dramatically shoved the wooden double doors open, startling the two armored guards who waited outside, one of whom dropped his spear in surprise. The nearest one who still bore his weapon, reached out with a mailed hand to halt him. Vandrot batted his hand away and gestured into the room, a wordless explanation as they have been through this before. The guard grudgingly let him pass by into the long hallway of pointed windows that nearly took up the entirety of the walls- how utterly fond the Duragas were of their windows. Vandrot glanced behind him to see the second guard fumble with his spear, straighten out his black surcoat and lopsided half helm, finishing just in time to stand formally as the horde of blue garbed people flooded into the hallway. He should really learn the guards names, it might help him even the odds should he ever need to override Wendal’s… requests.
Walking briskly, Vandrot crossed the great circle that was the lobby, sparing glances at the gold inlay on the floor which were shined until like mirrors. His destination was into the corridor opposing him- the only one leading out of this godsforsaken place. He traveled down several flights of stone and wooden stairs, through branching hallways leading to various parts of the castle and through the windowless, stone kitchen bustling with servants and cooks preparing for breakfast- no, they don't serve cheese at breakfast, lunch then. He walked briskly past the giant oven spewing sweltering heat, large enough to cook an entire cow- he believed they had at one point this year. Past the barrels of salted fish and buckets of apples lined on one side of the staircase leading to the dining hall, past the wooden rack on the other side, where the oven-fresh bread was set to cool, where he snatched up a fresh bun then paused.
“Maybe two,” He would be out for a while- and, apparently, scholars didn’t eat breakfast, leaving him very hungry indeed.
A few of the younger servants stopped kneading their loaves on the wooden table across from the cooling rack to stare at him with annoyance, but they dropped both gaze and attitude, resuming kneading once he stared back.
“Gretta!” Vandrot beckoned the lead kitchen-master.
“Yes, Noble Vandrot?” Gretta asked, emerging from a shrouded corner of the kitchen, wiping her hands off on a stained white apron tied taut around her wide, rounded shape. Probably just finishing receiving more barreled fish from the fishers, judging by the smell of her. He covered his nose with his hand and used the other to point as he spoke.
“These two young girls evidently do not have enough to do,” the two girls stopped kneading the bread to look up, ‘Splendid,’ he thought. He grinned charmingly, almost sweetly, at them, “See to it that this is righted immediately.” That will teach them to mind their own business.
“Yes, Noble, right away,” Gretta said, grudgingly.
‘It is as if everyone in this damnable tower doesn’t think I have authority.’ Vandrot decided to let it go- he was in a rush.
She turned to the girls and began barking orders, but Vandrot was already on his way out and didn’t hear what menial task their staring had earned them. He stepped through the archway Gretta came from, avoiding the three fish filled crates like a plague, and through the door leading out of the kitchen and onto the cobbled, square courtyard. Vandrot breathed in the cold, fresh air, watching his breath float away into the sky, savoring its taste- ever so diverse from the stagnant air of the audience chamber. Glancing up, he frowned at the tall buildings that covered the hill, taking in just how towering the Tower District was.
It began with Driun’s castle at the zenith far above, followed by the Duragas library and various buildings all of substantial height erected around, covering any bare ground from the castle to him. Some of the buildings were housing, but most were built with purpose in mind- most impressively, all of the buildings were attached to one another. He could see the fishers loading their barrels onto a dunnedrag wagon through the arch in the towering, rough walls surrounding the stone-covered yard. He quickened his pace to a light trot.
“Wait,” he shouted to get their attention, “Wait!” Vandrot ran a little faster, couldn’t they hear him?
One of them- a shirtless, thin-framed man with a dark, creased face and wispy, black hair held down by a faded cap- set down his empty barrel and yelled to the other three men, telling them to halt as well.
“Finally,” he breathed deeply, catching his fleeing breath, “I need your cart.”
They looked at him strangely- not many of Noble status took rides from fishermen. Or perhaps he was not speaking their language. He patted his coat down for any loose coins and sure enough felt one press against his chest. He reached inside and rummaged around until his hand closed upon its prize. Vandrot pressed it into the thin man's hand, his face lighting up at the feeling of wealth in his palm.
Vandrot tried again, “Take me to the Splints.” He needed no more direction than that- everyone knew where the Splints was.
“Oh yes, very quickly, yes,” the thin man said as he clutched the silver to his chest. They all wanted money- every last one of them- and were ever so slow when they didn’t get it. Most annoying indeed.
Vandrot stepped back and let them work, hopping into the back of the wagon when it was clear. The man he gave the coin to leapt into the driver's seat and whipped the burly Dunnedrag, who held the pull-cart in two fists the size of hams, into action. The man-beast grunted and glared at the fisher with deep set eyes but began moving. Vandrot kept an uneasy eye on the creature as his trek began. The fisher yelled back to his friends as they started off, “The Retching Cat at dusk, drinks on me!” sending a cheer up amongst them. Vandrot looked back to see the fishers just sitting on the barrels, not even so much as beginning to resume work. This must be how all the labor got done in Kevirius.
“Bloody well useless,” Vandrot muttered to himself.
The fisher turned back to him from the front bench, “You taking Snake lane or the low ways?”
Vandrot was startled by the sudden conversation, but quickly regained prose and processed what he said. Creating a mental map of the interlinking roads, Vandrot plotted his route. “Take the next turn and then follow it to the low ways.”
“Are you sure? That way is very, very long, you know.” The fisher said.
“Yes, I’m sure- stop asking questions and drive the damn cart.” Vandrot snapped. “Bloody peasants these days.” he added in a lower tone- he knew it was longer, he just didn’t want to be seen by others of his status riding with a fisher in a bloody Dunnedrag cart.
The ride out of the Tower District was bumpy and long due to all of the other road occupants trying to get from one place to another. There was never a quiet moment when traversing the Coin District. As they transitioned between the districts Vandrot heard the steady rhythm of livelihood and music within. It tempted those with ample wealth to divulge a little here and there on the seemingly endless delights to fit the want of any and all. Merchants were always shouting to those mounted, trying to attract customers with outrageous prices for knock off finery, with rare exceptions of true quality- especially in the recent moons. Fortunately, as they drew nearer to the Splints, traffic dissipated until the silence was solely occupied by the heavy footfalls of the running Dunnedrag and the clacking cart.
They crossed into the last district before the Splints, the one he hated the most as it was full of those wretched beast-men. The Beast District was by far the smallest of all the districts but it still seemed to cover the entire outskirts between the Splints and central Kevirius. He suddenly became quite aware of the silence and saw the hulking masses of Dunnedrags performing many grunt tasks with their bare hands as they weren’t allowed to carry weapons- thank the gods. One was hammering away at a raw slab of stone, shaping it into a usable block for houses with nothing but a tapered rock for carving. Vandrot was often unnerved by the power of these creatures and when he crossed a trio of them taking a rest from the labor and playing cards, he didn’t dare make eye contact, let alone tell them to get back to work as he would if they were people. He felt a shallow relief wash over him as he saw a patrol come trotting up on their horses. Patrols were by far more frequent in the Beast district than any other and Vandrot often suspected that it was the Dunnedrag that were killing these people. Vandrot acknowledged the patrol as they trotted by and began praying that the Dunnedrag would leave him be- he knew they wanted nothing more than to tear people like him limb from limb, but it was the only way to get to the Splints and Vandrot buried the feeling of weakness the moment no more Dunnedrag were in sight. When they arrived at his destination, Vandrot thanked the man and gave the Dunnedrag a wide berth when he walked past it.
“Any time, my friend! Any time!” the man said, flashing his coin and waving.
Vandrot waved back as he tucked one of his stray brown hairs back behind his ear with a pale skinned hand, an amused smile plastered onto his long face, a smile that disappeared when the fisher was far enough away. Turning around, he straightened out his dark gray overcoat, and began his trek on foot; he had work to do.
As the cold light of the winter sun clawed its way through the sky, the remaining darkness that covered the cracks in between the houses receded into sharp shadows emphasizing the ramshackle buildings of Kevirius’s lower districts, cobbled roads winding in between them like determined stone river’s. The roads were slick from last night's rain and puffed an earthy smell into the air. The stones could be dangerous if one was not cautious where they step, so the majority of the popular roads had finer stones on the edges for the safer travels of pedestrians. However, this particular street afforded no such luxury- as is the fate of most of them that wind their way through the Splints- and Vandrot had to walk with extreme care to avoid tripping.
‘Should have got that damn fisher to take me all the damn way,’ Vandrot thought to himself, “I paid after all,” he muttered aloud. Eventually he gave up on complaining and focused more the view.
The Splints earned its name from the architecture of many of the buildings; steep, almost vertical roofs lined with many pieces of wood- none wider than a handspan- held up by even thinner walls and,- true to its name- if viewed from far enough away the area strangely resembles many thin strips pointed towards the sky with small ant-people drifting through the narrow, dark cracks separating messy rows of stick-houses. Upon closer inspection, these buildings are not even true buildings at all, with pockmarked holes inlayed in the walls and missing boards that threaten to collapse the building at a moments notice. No, the Splints were not houses-at least, not anymore- they were dens for rats and vermin of the like.
As Vandrot cautiously walked down the knuckled road with the rigid buildings groaning in a breeze carrying the putrid odor of filthy abandonment, he recalled walking a similar road when he was a boy. He chuckled, that was many, many years ago.
The houses were much bigger, but perhaps he was smaller, with long, thin windows that squeezed in between the shanks of brightly coloured wood. Posts with glowvines spiraling towards the top of them illuminated the dark streets in a pale blue light. Up ahead he could see a Cutter leaning off a ladder earning her nightly wage by trimming the deviant vines, leaving a pile of plant matter to slowly lose its glow in the cold night.
It was one of his earlier devious acts- before he amassed a group to collaborate with- and he had been pilfering coins until he had enough to have some fun. He had been wandering down the bumpy road until he arrived at what was considered an inn in the Splints, back when the dead streets still contained life. It was larger than most of the other houses and had a hanging sign that portrayed a vomiting cat, looking past that he could see a loaf of bread cooling high up on one of the shelves. Driven by a need he couldn’t quite put his finger on, he braved the rigid white steps one after another until he arrived at the door, a black thing that contrasted sharply with the pale woods of the walls. Vandrot gently pushed open the door and was bombarded by the sights, sounds and smells of the inn. Warm firelight fought against the mellow blue of the outside glowvines, the scent of roasting meat and other foerign smells- ones he would later familiarize as ale, mead and potent root wines- circulated through the warm air of the wooden interior. A bard singing a rowdy tune of a man whose wife becomes a sheep at sunrise filled the space where smells couldn’t reach.
Vandrot wandered to the tall wooden counter that separated the customer from the bartender and clambered up onto a skinny wooden stool. In front of him was a small bell with a handle, which he dutifully picked up and rang with all of his arm. He remembered the slip of a girl who answered his ringing in a brown skirt and a maroon fabric that wound around her torso, draping over thin shoulders that held onto arms ending in gloved hands. Her short, straight hair was a jet black that was darker than the night sky which framed an annoyed face and eyes that gazed upon his shoddily dressed person with disgust.
“Get your filthy hide off my stool and outta’ my shop!” she snapped, to which Vandrot replied hastily.
“Uh… um, I-I want a drink,” he could see that the woman was about to yell again so he quickly hefted his bag of coins and said, “I, uh. I-I can pay.” Vandrot managed to put on a determined face which lasted all of half a moment.
The lady raised her black brows and snatched the money from his hand in one swing, “And what would a wretch like you be doing with a bag full of…” she peered into the bag and her breath caught in her throat, “Gold?” The euphoria that came from the sight of the coins left her eyes as she looked up, greed replacing it.
Vandrot reached across the counter to try and retrieve his funds, but the girl evaded his grasp, merely taking a step back. He became distressed, he had to get that gold back, he couldn't lose it. Fear began to build and Vandrot’s mind raced with what pain his father would inflict on him if he discovered what Vandrot had taken. Why did he take so much coin with him?
‘Think, idiot, think!’ he thought to himself, but panic clouded his mind. He felt a certainty that he was going to get caught and he began shaking with terror. Suddenly an idea came to him, bright as the dawn and he felt sure it would work.
“I am Noble Resol’s son,” Vandrot said with as much conviction as he could muster, “I demand you give me back my gold!” But the girl only looked at his face- dirtied so that he would better resemble the usuals- and sneered.
“And I'm Lady Gwen,” she snapped, “Now get out of my shop before I call the guard’s.”
Vandrot desperately needed the gold back. If he didn’t only pain would follow and he would never see the outside again. He tried one last time, “Give me back my gold before I call the guard’s.” but he knew it wouldn’t work the second he heard his weak voice echo back to his ears, despite the noise of the inn.
She chuckled, “Sean!” She called and a big man dressed in black appeared beside Vandrot, “Get this little thief outta here.”
As she reached into the bag and began counting the coins, Sean grabbed Vandrot roughly. Dragging him through the doorway, Sean tossed him down the steps into the cold night, sending him crashing onto the unforgiving stones. All the warmth his body had collected while inside leached into the cold rock, leaving him with less than he began with. He couldn’t get up- it hurt too much- and he didn’t want to, instead he curled up and began to cry, softly, all alone in the dark. When his father asked him why he was limping the next day he merely said he had fallen down some stairs. Thankfully, Noble Ressol never questioned Vandrot about his missing funds; it was only later on that Vandrot would suffer for that misstep.
He recalled how sweet his revenge had been, many years later. The memory brought the smells of cinder and ash to his mind. It took them many moons to rebuild and Vandrot made sure they felt the pain he felt every step of the way, be it through stealing their supplies or forging their business ledger so the tax collector would be entitled to more money. Or both- on many occasions it was both. His only regret was that they never knew it was him.
The houses were much smaller these days and the door’s that once contained such light, now hung meekly from battered hinges, leaving a thin shaft showing the darkness of an empty home. The glowvines that used to be maintained nightly by various individuals cascaded and spread past their boundaries, no doubt making a night's walk through the street akin to a luminous wander through the wilderness. All the houses were abandoned long ago, back when the murders started, near past a year ago- a sesonal year, not a calendar one. No citizens of the Splints thought themselves safe from the killer that conquered the district.
‘Truly, though, It must have been the smell that drove them out.’ Vandrot knew he could never live with such an odor.
They had learned many moons ago, near the start of the killings, that each victim of the killer was afflicted with this peculiar illness. They had begun calling it the Feverdream- albeit not the most original, but it fit just as well. Near their death, they were said to have strange visions. They were said to ramble to whoever listens of a great promise, that a savior would deliver them to the Great Peace- something that Vandrot couldn’t find any mention of in any of his research regarding the subject. However, it didn’t take a genius to assume that it was related to death. Vandrot wished he could chalk up these… predictions to death rattles, alas it sent a phantom spider down his spine to know that each victim spoke the same phrase and ventured out into the dark sometime later only to be discovered in the morning light, covered in runes cut deeply into their flesh and bled dry on the street. He had heard stories of friends and family trying to stop the afflicted from leaving, but they would either become hostile or simply sneak away later. He smiled and spoke in a hushed tone, reciting the phrase that grants him another day of fun.
“Blackness calls in the deepest shadows, blood calls us all forth, carve the flesh, drain the body and soon the man of many faces delivers us all to the Great Peace.” While he acknowledged its frightful nature, he had to admit the killer was quite the poet.
Vandrot rounded a sharp bend in the road with careful steps and saw what most would describe as gruesome or horrific, but, to his eyes, it was merely a peculiar puzzle he was troubling to solve. The Deathwatch, dressed in their custom of white and gray, knelt around the body like solemn trees surrounding a patch of withered roots. In front of each individual was a white candle, tall, thin and smoking and each member of the Deathwatch gestured and waved in front of their candle. They formed peculiar shapes with their fingers and seemed to push them into the smoke of the candle. From their hands, the smoke responded to the signs, swirling and dancing around and building in size until all smoke merged into a single, large cloud of many colors. From his vantage, all Vandrot could see was an unnatural writhing and changing mass of smoke. However, Vandrot knew from memory that he was seeing a figure composed of candle smoke struggling with an other unseen figure. The visible figure eventually sank to the ground and hovered over the body, displaying the past actions of the deceased victim.
The Deathwatch were the only group in Kevirius- maybe even in the entire Empire- to survive the Mage Purge and were allowed to continue their use of magic. Vandrot recalled that it was because they were considered to be more useful than dangerous. Nonetheless, they were only allowed to use magic under heavy surveillance, each member having a personal watchdog follow them everywhere- to make sure they didn’t abuse their privilege. Sure enough, each member had a person standing behind them, blade drawn, loathing in their eyes. He didn’t understand why the people of the Empire hated magic so much- perhaps a zealous jealousy.
The Deathwatch chanted a strange rhythm that he could make little to no sense of- he was told it was an old language, one invented to help the focusing of spell casters. Vandrot was often annoyed by their continuation of this fruitless practice, but he was grateful for it today as it took an excruciating long time, allowing him to reach the scene before the Kevirius Guard took the body away. The body itself had grizzly patterns embossed onto arm and leg and face, appearing to burn through the victims clothes- which remained attached to the body in tatters- but never searing the flesh. Instead of stewing in its spilled fluids, it limply weighed itself down on the stones, facedown- slick with water, not a drop of blood in sight. This is how they found all the bodies, no exceptions to date.
A squadron of four guards lingered around the Deathwatch, plus the Captain- who was always present at these particular scenes. Where the four dressed in steel looked like they wanted nothing more than to sit down, Captain Gyvend looked like a sentient statue, overseeing the Deathwatch’s performance with an eagle's eye, dressed in gilded plate- as befit his rank- that accented his sharp facial features and narrow eyes
Vandrot approached the Captain first, standing beside him and trying to see what interested him so, “Good day, Gyvend!” Vandrot said pleasantly while still looking forward, “How’s the job treating you? Any closer to finding the bugger who's been doing this?”
Gyvend slowly looked to Vandrot with disgust and spoke with his customary slow drawl, “Anyday I see you, Noble, is a bad day. And, no, not any closer than the last time.” He turned his head back to the scene.
“You do me such injustice, Captain! I would have hoped that we would be better friends by now, seeing how often we talk.” Vandrot smirked but Gyvend was less than amused.
“Do you, Noble Derimus, even take any of this seriously?”
“Well, Captain. Gyvend,” Vandrot said, mocking his drawl, “it's not like the killer has been killing anybody important. The way I see it, he- or she- is merely doing a bit of vermin control. And providing a bit of fun for the rest of us.”
Gyvend’s lip curled, “People are dying and you think of it as a game?”, he scoffed. “It’s not the mage’s that are destroying the Empire- it’s people like you,” he turned back to the Deathwatch. Gyvend was lucky for his position- if he was anybody else, Vandrot would have had him flayed by now.
“It’s people like me that keep coin in your pocket, so watch your tongue.”
Despite his big talk, Vandrot took a step away from the captain, splitting his attention between the Deathwatch and Gyvend white-knuckled grip on his sheathed sword- you just never could tell with these types.
“Why do you insist on attending every time this happens?” This was not the first time Gyvend had asked and Vandrot gave the same answer as all the other times.
“I am merely bored, wasting away in the void of revelry known as the Tower District.” Vandrot said from memory, then he paused. “In all honesty, I find this puzzle of yours to be worthy of my time and an excuse to get out into the open air is always welcome.” Vandrot retrieved and uncorked the flask that never left his person
“Dangerous,” Gyvend replied. “Such young blood should be currying favors and making alliances instead of spending their time drinking and… solving puzzles.”
Vandrot had nothing further to say to the man- he had just struck a nerve.
The smokeshow depicted the humanoid figure, colored blue, repeating the same actions- walk, grapple with the unseen one, stumble over, crawl a few feet and then hover inches above the body- over and over, in a loop. Vandrot asked about this the first time and one of the Deathwatch explained that the killer had laid a protective spell on themselves, warding them from the Deathwatch and disabling the ritual's complete progression. They have never been able to break the concealment spell of the killer, but the Deathwatch tried again and again nonetheless.
Vandrot didn’t find the ritual nearly as interesting as Captain Gyvend so he took a swig from the flask to help him think and began eating one of his snacks. He walked around the vicinity, past the lingering Watch and the Deathwatch semicircle, all the houses seeming to lean into the narrow path he chose to accompany. Venturing far down the road, he stopped at a puddle that had formed at a long dip in its knuckled length. Vandrot stood there for a long while, rigidly balancing on a large stone that rested at the shore of the vast puddle. Staring at his reflection, his sense of vanity forced him to straighten his surcoat and brush long brown hair away from his pointed nose and angular face. Vandrot always disliked his dark blue eyes, they looked almost black against his pale skin, making for a frightful appearance in appropriate lighting.
He was jerked out of contemplation as he slipped off the rock and splashed into ankle deep water. It sprayed up onto face, coat, and pants- which became tinged a faint red where it was wet, his skin prickled at the cold feeling. He began cursing himself for wearing such a light color of brown- he knew where he was headed- then he paused. He sighed at himself for not realizing it sooner; water wasn’t red, but blood certainly was. Vandrot hastily stepped out of the puddle to avoid the chill of the water from seeping further into his clothes and looked around. He saw where the puddle snuck into the shadows in between two decently spaced buildings- a rarity in the Splints. He jumped from stone to stone around the puddle and soon found himself engulfed in the same shadow as the water. Eyes quickly adjusting to the contrasting darkness hiding from the afternoon sun, he saw several wooden barrels that stood in the shallower water- but those were not his interest. What caught his eye were the two legs sprawling out from behind the barrels.
“Interesting.” He walked further into the shadows and closer to the barrels. He was a few feet away when he saw the head of the new victim and a few more moments brought him face to face with possibly the most hideous person he had ever met- well… seen.
The man was shoddily dressed in black, tattered rags that wound around his torso and limbs, evidently this man was of the beggar class that still roved the empty houses. Shaggy and long hair wetly clinging to his scalp covered all of his face but the mouth, which closely resembled a rat's tail, wound into an oval. And the smell- what was with this place and smells- he doubted it would ever leave him, clinging to everything close by- including his clothes- and he wondered why he hadn’t noticed it sooner. The water-logged body slumped against the wooden wall of the abandoned house, a dark stain stretching two feet above the victim's head. But despite the person's appearance being the worst kind of distracting, Vandrot noticed a glint of what could only be metal where his neck met his shoulder- the victim must have been in a struggle with someone, or he was the killer and it was a suicide- if they were lucky. Vandrot grimaced at what he knew he needed to do next but he carried out the task diligently.
“Gyvend!” He shouted up the street, the Captain turning to his voice. “Send your lads down here, we’ve got another one.” That snagged the Captain's attention and he grudgingly sent two of the lingerer’s down to Vandrot.
“Yes, Noble?” they asked when they reached him, both looking strangely at him- no doubt admiring his appearance.
“In there; a knife. Grab it for me.” Vandrot said, gesturing toward the darkness, trying to cleanse his lungs of the stench but only succeeding in allowing a different rot to enter.
The two turned and marched into the dark diligently, but quickly enough regretted it- one simply turned and retched upon scent of the prize, colouring the puddle yet another unnerving shade, Vandrot barely held his own stomach but only just. After seeing his comrade lose his stomach, Vandrot was quite impressed to see the second guard lean the victim forward and pull the knife clean out of his back without so much as a second thought. Vandrot could hear the knife leaving the flesh with a dull phff even from his platform so far away and, after smelling the new odor, the younger guard gifted the puddle with the remainder of his earlier meal.
“Got it?” Vandrot called into the dark, cautiously leaning over the puddle to see into the alley.
The guard with the iron stomach responded. “Yeah,” he said, patting the other one on the back. “Yeah, we got it.”
“Well come on then- I haven’t got all day!” Vandrot was annoyed at the delay, he had a case to solve.
They trudged out, Queasy leaning heavily on Iron Stomach. Iron stomach handed him the knife hilt first, but didn’t let Vandrot simply take it, instead he held onto it tightly and stared at Vandrot as if in a trance.
“Any time now,” Vandrot said, looking at him with an expectant look.
The guard flinched, his hand releasing the blade and jerking away. He shook his head several times.
“My apologies, Noble, I don’t know what got into me.”
He shook his head once more before stalking back up the hill, Iron stomach practically dragging Queasy. Vandrot grabbed it delicately and washed it off in the cleaner water of the puddle before holding it closely to examine it. The blade was silver in color and had a gray gem in the hilt with a decorative scrawl of gold embossed across the length of the iron handle. Vandrot noticed that the handle had little pockets like rust corrosion, but no orange coloring was present. It looks as if somebody tried to restore an old blade but left little teeth where the rust had eaten. The more probable explanation being that the pockets were a part of the blade's design- perhaps for grip. He inverted his hold on it and examined the gem in the hilt closer, seeing if it hid any secrets in its foggy mass but all he saw was a hairline crack reaching across the elliptical body of the gem.
He chuckled. “Almost like a knock off Eyebright,” he muttered to himself while mindlessly walking back up the hill, tucking the blade into his coat pocket and swallowing a mouthful from the contents of his flask.
He reached the gray semi circle of Deathwatch and went to show Gyvend his discovery. The statue of a man hadn’t even moved in the time Vandrot was away, not even a foot. Vandrot strode to Gyvend with a bounce in his step, one hand over the pocket containing his prize and the other hidden in the deep pocket where his personal dagger was stored, his finger resting on its cold, silver hilt. When Vandrot was within an arm's reach Gyvend turned his head towards him, his body not so much as twisting.
“What did you find?” he asked
“A dagger. A very fancy dagger,” Vandrot replied, “Here, take a look.” But as he reached inside his coat to grab the blade he saw his right hand pull out the other dagger he carried- the one he brought- and hand it to Gyvend hilt first. From his coat pocket, his right hand withdrew his flask. Vandrot’s breath caught in his throat as he felt the dagger’s relief- identical to a person’s. Suddenly it’s weight became very present and he wanted nothing more than to reef it out and throw it as far away as possible, but he knew he couldn’t- it would not let him. He drained the remaining contents of the flask to chase the feeling away- it wasn’t enough, he needed more.
“Everything all right, Noble?” Gyvend was looking at him with questioning eyes as he took the false dagger.
Vandrot managed to put a smirk on his face and reassure the Captain that he was fine. “I am rather tired, is all- too much of the drink.” He said waving the now empty flask around. Vandrot gazed up at the Tower district hoping to direct Gyvends attention away from his shaking hands, “Yes, I think I'll call it a day. All the… excitement… from our progression has left me… drained.” he said trailing off, trying to sound relatively drunk.
Gyvend took the bait, “Alright then, Noble, I suppose I will be seeing you and your morbid interests the next time some poor fool dies.”
“A pleasure, as always.” Vandrot said, ignoring the remark and desperately trying to keep an even voice. As he began his trek up the winding cobbles, Gyvend only nodded, returning his gaze to the Deathwatch who were just concluding their ritual. Just as the magical smoke was fading he thought Vandrot saw a pair of wispy, black eyes, watching him leave.