Deviare Estate, Azure Isle, 981IH
Galen Deviare sat at a carved wooden table, decorated with gold leafed filigree and precious metal inlays, in the parlor of his family’s estate in the Azure Isles. The two=day journey from the port at Thronefast was more taxing in his old age and he generally spent the first day back resting. He could not afford it today.
“Rodrick, you can bring my guests in now,” Galen said, wiping the last of the fruit preserves from the corners of his mouth.
Rodrick Tellring, the Count’s personal servant, nodded his head and disappeared through the door connecting to the kitchen. Rodrick Tellring had grown up with the Count’s sons, as the son of Galen’s money manager. With an empire as big as the Deviares, they had ceased being able to manage all their holding personally several generations ago. Rodrick had proven to be more reliable that Galen’s own entitled and aloof boys. The oldest, Gaticus, spent all his time in the military until his marriage to Queen Amenthiel and his untimely death. The other, Gallion, spent all his time adventuring for rare and prized animals. Both did not take their responsibilities to their family’s businesses seriously. Rodrick had the best of both worlds, having a financial advisor as a father, and the Deviare’s self-motivation and business sense. Galen could see Rodrick managing the estate for his posterity whenever it was his time to die; and so he was generally involved with all the business dealings that Galen pursued. All except for this one.
A well dressed merchant was led into the parlor by Rodrick. Rodrick took the cue of Galen’s nod in his direction and exited into a hallway on the other side of the room, shutting the doors behind him.
“Do you have it,” asked Galen as he called the merchant to join him at his table.
“I do, your Grace,” the merchant said, pulling out a cylinder and handing it over to Galen as he sat down. “The lost letter of Paia, the Vigilant. It was in the most obscure place. An old widow…”
“Did you read it?”
“Only enough to discern its contents and verify its origin. I followed the instructions. No copies were made, no one was told of its existence. Even those who had it were unaware of its significance.”
“Very good. You have done a great service, and your payment in full is there in that bag beside your chair,” Galen said, standing from the table and extending his hand to the merchant.
The merchant shook his hand and delightedly grabbed his payment and was led through the door by which he entered. As he was leaving, a Myr in fine clothing passed through the door into the parlor. He was tall and thin, his skin pulled tightly across his bones and muscles, and his face was long and slender, the caricature of a brooding villain. Yet, as he approached Count Deviare, his mannerisms, from his walk to the precise placement of his body in the empty chair at the table, gave an air of sophistication and elegance that money and upbringing only created.
“Yes, how do you do, your grace. I took the liberty of inviting myself in, sensing my assistance to be needed,” the Myr said.
The count sat back down to his table. “I don’t have time for the pleasantries, M, especially your enduring brand. You know what to do.”
M, the slender Myr, stood up from the table, bowed elegantly to the count and headed back out the same door.
“And, M,” Galen called to him as he left,” see to it his family still gets the payment. I don’t want people thinking I don’t pay my debts.”
M nodded and continued on.
“And quick and painless. He was, after all, a good man,” Galen called out again as M turned out of sight.
M acted as if he didn’t hear the last instruction. He mumbled under his breath as he headed down the hall,” None are good, your grace. Not even one…”
Azure Isle, Sea of Bethrail, 526IH
“Shhh,” Val hissed at Kador, both crouched behind a jagged boulder, one of many lining the coast of the large island due north of Hanggore. “It comes.”
It had taken five days to get to this island in the wilds of Terminus. The mountain gap they took north from Hanggore could barely be called a gap or a pass, more like a stone slalom that had been full of all sorts of nasty bugs and wildlife creeping back to the surface at the warming of the season. The small skiff that was part of Hanggore’s beach camp was difficult to work. Kador did not grow up on the coast, but every human knew the basics of sailing; it was in their blood. The mast was little more than driftwood crudely tied together that had to be managed each time the wind changed. The boat didn’t leak, but it also didn’t want to propel, either. The bottom had no keel even though it was oblong. There was nothing to keep it on track; it was almost as hard as steering a soup bowl.
They had just disembarked after two days of maneuvering the smaller islets scattered about around the main islands. The chain was mostly devoid of animal life, but there was an endless variety of plants that Kador had never seen before. At night, the flowers that were blooming now in early planting season glowed blue and purple and pink, lighting up the ground around them. The multitude of small outcrops in the blackness of the sea made the journey at night seem like they were floating through the heavens past a thousand stars.
Once they landed, anything that had once been beautiful about this place disintegrated at the sight of the creature before them. It appeared as a dog, ravenous and wild, but with a gait similar to a man, standing on two legs and hunched over. It spoke no words, but made snarling sounds at no enemy. It was as if the beast was tortured or mad. Val had immediately ducked behind a boulder at the sight of it. Kador had struggled to get a good look, constantly being dragged back behind the rock.
“Noct,” she whispered. She seemed stressed.
“Not what,” Kador whispered back.
Val turned back to him. “Nokkkt,” she said pronouncing as slow and condescendingly as she could, then turned back around.
They did not speak for a while as Val followed the movements of the beast, studying something that Kador did not understand. She finally spoke.
“I think der is de one,” she said, still as quietly as she could. “If one, we can fight. If morre, we die.” She turned back around to the beast.
“Wait, what? Die? One, it doesn’t look that tough. And, two, are you sure there’s only one?”
Val kept looking. “Are you ready to fight,” she finally asked.
Kador began to give his reservations when Val slid past the rock and threw a ball of fire from her hand instantly lighting a patch of fur on fire on the backside of the Noct. Kador scrambled out behind her.
The beast let out an abrupt shout, similar to a hound’s bark but deeper and more refined. It spun quickly toward Val and raised its two massive arms in the air, enlarging itself and showing off its long and sharp claws. His dark fur bristled, raising from its resting position. It snarled again at Val and suddenly broke into a fierce run for her.
Kador timed his cutoff point for the approaching beast who was paying no attention to Kador’s presence in his periphery. Kador met it just ten paces from Val. He jumped and thrust both feet directly into the side of the creature, giving all the strength he had to counteract its momentum. Now that Kador was close to it, he noticed it was much taller than either one of them if it were stretched out, and its arms were as big as Kador’s legs.
The blow landed squarely, and while generally the force of the kick would send a man hurling away, the beast absorbed the blow and caught it’s tumble with its massive arm, then recovered and grabbed Kador’s leg with its other arm as he lay on his back from the strike. Kador reached up to grab the beasts hand and pry it away, but it was too late. The beast swung him around like a pendulum, forcing Kador back straight and let him go, sending him into a nearby rock, knocking the wind from his lungs.
Val sent another fireball into the creature’s back, trying to regain its attention. Her dagger was already drawn and she rushed its backside and gashed deeply into its shoulder, prompting a roar.
“What is that thing,” Kador finally drew beath to shout. He got slowly up to his feet and ran back to the creature, using the opportunity to kick as hard as he could at the creature’s knee joint. His kick ricocheted off, barely moving it. It turned back around to Kador and swung its clawed hand at Kador’s face. At least he isn’t fast, Kador thought, ducking the blow and responding with a blow of his own to the creature’s snout. He backed away, not enjoying the proximity to the powerful creature’s grasp.
Val took her turn, seeing the creature was disoriented by multiple attackers. She plunged her dagger into the creature’s ribcage, to the hilt. It roared again, but reacted too fast for Val, rotating around and grabbing the knife and breaking the handle off, leaving the blade in his side. His hand came around and barely caught a dodging Val’s shoulder, the claws effectively shredding through the leather piece covering her upper arm. The speed of the blow turned her body, almost knocking her to the ground. Kador had his blade, but it appeared the damage from the cuts were not having the impact they should have. The ferocity of the beast was overtaking its sense of pain. Kador took a step back and almost tripped over a large piece of driftwood that was lying on the ground. Kador picked it up without thinking and swung hard down on the outstretched arm of the Noct. A sickening crack unlike the breaking of a branch sounded off as the creature’s arm bent back at an unnatural angle, followed by bones protruding from its fur. The creature turned back to Kador, only slightly slowed by its new injury. Kador tucked his body and rolled past the turning creature and stood back up before the creature could react. Kador swung the branch back around, connecting with the side of its head, staggering it down to its three working limbs.
Val shouted at Kador,” Now! Kill!”
Kador noticed the spine close to the surface of the skin on the neck where it enters the skull as the creature crawled facing downward. He held the branch tightly in his right hand, swung his body around full circle to the left and brought the branch down with all his might to the back if his neck. The branch finally gave way and cracked down the middle almost separating it in two. The creature slumped to the ground with a noticeable dent in the back of its neck and a visible mark where the spine sank deep into the creature’s body, detaching from the rest.
Kador spun around, searching the horizon. This creature had made enough noise to alert any other within five hundred paces. He looked over at Val. She was holding her arm, trying to stop the bleeding from a gash where one of the claws had sank deep enough to get her through her armor. Kador knew she would be fine, so he decided to act like it.
“What do you think you’re doing,” Kador yelled at her.
“Vwe kill Noct,” Val shot back, not showing any signs of weakness.
“You could have told me first. I don’t even know what that thing is and you go running in expecting me to help? You are horrible at communicating, you know that?”
Val snarled at Kador, who she felt was always whining after they won a fight.
“So, are you going to tell me what that was?”
“I say. Noct. Noct bad. Lyca not so bad. Noct can no turn back from roak. Eh, is dog.”
“Turn back… what?”
Val pulled some bandages from her satchel along with some herbs and began wrapping her arm.
“Noct, Lyca not dog. Dey change to dog. Noct can no change back. Dey like beast.”
“You’re telling me that something turned that thing into a dog monster? What did that?”
Kador stopped asking. The look on his face made it clear they weren’t getting anywhere with clearing up what this was or from where it had come.
Val grabbed her satchel and headed into the heart of the large island’s dense foliage up from the beach. She reached the edge of the brush when they heard the long low blow of a horn. Val stopped. Val hesitated, looked around, then bolted for a thick patch of brush annexed from the foliage at the edge of the beach. Kador followed.
Val peered out from cover as vigilantly as before, but this time with no subject.
“Orcs,” Kador asked quietly. “They here?”
Val waited a moment before answering. “No… lyca”
Gates of Thronefast, Capitol of Men, 981IH
The bustle at the gate during mid-day was almost unbearable. There were many traders inside the citadel, but for some reason caravan traders and push-cart vendors were allowed to set up in between the two entry portcullises. It congested all traffic coming in and out, made a haven for slick-fingered youths to earn their meal for the day for their gangs. It did, however, make entry into the city undercover much easier.
E’mani Karos buried his beard into his chest, staring at the ground as he made his way through the front gates. He had been growing it out for a month, hoping to hide his identity. It, coupled with his longer hair did hide the face known to so many around the city. He was generally well shaven and his hair cut short, except for a tuft on top that kept his helmet from rubbing on his scalp. Now, with hair to his shoulders and a beard to match, he entered his city with anonymity.
He turned the corner in the courtyard and headed east for the nobles district. In the distance across the courtyard he saw the white stone tower of the Temple of Ocirico. He scoffed slightly under his breath, thinking of Luc Demith. Word out in Avendyr’s Pass had been that the high priest had been slain by Karos while on a pilgrimage to pay homage to the soldiers who lost their lives during the Deicide War. He would have killed him if he had opportunity. Turc had told him that the assassin known around Kingsreach as M had left his calling card. The high profile targets that M had been associated with were mostly business men or low-level politicians. For years, the guard had been trying to connect him with one of the nobles in the city, but no clear suspect had ever emerged. There were so many shady politicians in this city, it was hard to tell which would be more sinister.
A group of guards shuffled down the cobblestone path toward the taverns and their lunch. Karos recognized Demnon in the bunch and turned slightly toward the towering stone wall to his right. He didn’t turn.
The piece of parchment Turc had brought tied the Deviares to Luc Demith and his hunt for this weapon, but did not help with who M was working for. On one hand, there were plenty who would have loved to see the Count Deviare and his family reduced to ash. They owned most major importing from Frosja Nochta to the north and from the eastern region of Reignfall. Ships were much faster for transporting goods from than over land. Having the Deviares out of the way opened up a major cash cow for another affluent house. The problem was they were now part of crown, with the Count’s son marrying the late king’s daughter. So, on the other hand, M could also be in the employ of the Deviares and he was sent to deal out punishment for Karos’ escape. Either way, answers may be found in the house of the Deviare family.
Karos turned into Avendyr’s Courtyard, the name of the very rich neighborhood that housed the manors of the nobles of Thronefast. The Deviare Manor was a renovation, with the Deviares just breaking into the high society of Thronefast in the recent future. They had converted an older estate into one of the most expensive and modern homes in the district. He found the alley between his target and the next home over and walked around to the back. The guards who generally patrolled the neighborhood were on duty change at the other end of the district so he had a comfortable span of time to make his move. He settled around back and up against a stack of old crates and pulled a rough sketched drawing from his pocket. The Count’s study seemed to be on the backside of the house on the second floor. He had received some information on the house in a tavern in Avalia, the nearby village, a few nights ago. There was a roughneck carpenter in there that had assisted on one of the renovation jobs a couple years ago. It was old information, but it was all Karos had.
Karos peered around to make sure the alley was empty, then sprang up onto the tower of crates. The house was a good three cubits from him, but the back balcony was right in front of him and he only need to get his fingers on the ledge.
He jumped. The crate on which he was standing slid under his planted foot and took distance from his attempt. He reached out as much as he could and on hand grabbed a spindle on the balcony, while the rest of his body swung wildly into side of the house. He heard a plate fall on the inside of the wall.
E’mani scrambled up the railing as fast as he could and hid in the dark corner of the balcony, out of sight of the alley below. Looking out, all he could see was the top of the wall of the city and the view beyond to the coastal mountain range across the harbors entrance. No sound was heard from inside the house. He had also picked up information that the Count was out of town and had returned to his home in the Azure Isles days prior. There was generally a housekeeper that stayed there and managed the property while the master was away, but these women saw themselves as upper crust high society and spent most of their days in parlors telling tales of their own significance. They were a tawdry bunch, but their daughters, on the other hand…
He tried the door handle behind him. Locked, obviously. He slid the lockpicks from his leather belt, staring at it for a moment and feeling the chilling memory of being strapped to that bloody table surrounded by corpses.
The door creaked open as he put the lockpicks back. Elegant furniture was wall to wall. The flooring was two-tone scraped wood, tapestries on every wall. Then he saw the bed. Of all the things he had lost in this circumstance, he missed his bed the most. He envied the down blankets and pillows adorning the thick, stuffed mattress. It had been pallets outside or disgusting tavern cells for rent since he had left here months ago. He saw a door to his right.
The parlor was not large, but it was extravagant. The desk of Count Deviare took up a third of the room, it seemed. Papers were stacked neatly in piles to the side of the high back leather chair. E’mani filed through them with his fingers looking for any useful information. There was nothing there but business correspondence and financial documents. He stepped to the side of the desk and knocked over a waste basket. A crumpled parchment rolled out. E’mani stretched it out on the desk.
Heading north. The package is arriving. Looks promising. Hold the merchant until I come. Ensure M is back as well. Send contingency to the Pass, the Dark Hollow. The North Tu
The letter was abandoned at what appeared to be the North Tusk. It was hard to say for certain, but the letter did mention a character, M, and and the Pass? Dark Hollow? The Dark Hollow used to refer to Luckson Hollow, a mountain gap with steep sides, thick brush, and rumors of banshees and goblins occupying the ruins of an old manor built precariously on the side of the mountain. Hag Mildred’s old cottage was said to be one of the original servant’s quarters at the entrance to Luckson Hollow. Karos rifled through the top drawer of the desk and pulled out a flintscrape. He set the paper next to it and squeezed the contraption. Sparks flew out and landed on the parchment, setting it ablaze.
Out the cracked door, Karos heard voices, guards. There was a detail walking the perimeter. Strange, he thought. They usually don’t walk all the way around the houses in the neighborhood. These were good men. Then, he heard the front door open.
E’mani looked around, trying to formulate a plan. He can’t open the backdoor and head out because of the guards. He couldn’t run anywhere because of this obloxiously loud wood floor. He crept into the bedroom and placed his hand on the door handle. The stairs creaked out in the hallway. He timed the shutting of the door with the footsteps on the stairs. There was an armoire in the corner that was large enough to fit him. He tiptoed up and opened the door quietly and eased inside. And waited.
Footsteps entered through the bedroom door. Short steps. Light steps. It was a woman. No other steps in the house. A drawer opened, then closed. Another. Was she looking for something? Was it a thief? The parlor door was swung open farther. The footsteps stopped in the doorway. What was she doing?
E’mani knew she was smelling the smoke from the paper. The ashes were ground in his hand and strewn on the floor. They would not be as detectable, but the smoke smell would be. The footsteps returned to the bedroom. The gait of the woman was longer, more pronounced. She was purposeful now. He heard the balcony door open.
“Captain, a wider sweep, please, and bring anything back,” she said and he heard the door close. The footsteps came closer to the center of the room. She was within three spans of his location. There were guards that would be entering the house. If they did a sweep, this would get very complicated.
Must move quickly.
E’mani Karos opened the door quickly and quietly and rushed to his target, grabbing her mouth and the back of her head and pushing them down onto the bed.
“My Queen,” Karos said, looking into the startled face of Amenthiel. She screamed under his hand, nothing loud enough to get attention. He bumped her sternum with his fist firmly, taking some of her air away. She gasped a couple times, still able to breathe from her nose.
“I did not want to meet you this way, honestly,” he said. “I’m a desperate man so please be on good behavior so this can end peaceably.”
Her brow sank low as her eyes glared into his. Her fierceness was apparent, but she kept her calm under the circumstances.
“Now, I have been hunted, disgraced, and abandoned by my people. And I partly blame you. I feel like you know what was going on in those sewers and, whether you did it or not, you allowed it to happen. Now, I am not a ruler or a politician. I’m a soldier. I follow orders. I am also a strategist. So, if those orders are not advantageous for my soldiers or a victory, I make myself heard. It has served me well until you destroyed my life. Would you like to know what I know?”
Queen Amenthiel continued to silently stare.
E’mani continued. “The Count is part of the hunt for this weapon. He controlled Luc Demith who, I think we all know here, I did not kill. He may also be controlling Murdering M. I know where he is going to send his people to try and retrieve the weapon for himself. I am fairly certain he has not told you this because he needs the leverage of this power to stay with his family and not be absorbed into the Crown, especially now that he is no longer connected to the Crown by marriage. He is going to eventually try to wrest the power from your dynasty.”
Amenthiel laid on the bed, one of his hands on her mouth and his other holding her arm down in case she was carrying a weapon in her dress. His knee was pinning down her legs with her own dress. There was nowhere she could go. She stared into his eyes, trying to think of all the reasons she had to hate him.
“I’m letting you know that I will beat him to this weapon, and I will not allow him or you to have it. If you leave me alone, I will leave you alone. If you come for me, I will make you pay. I don’t want to hurt my brothers, but I must protect my people, even from their own leaders. Consider this a warning.
He held his hand on her mouth another moment, staring in silence. He slowly removed it and release pressure on her body.
“You think you know a lot, don’t you,” said Amenthiel. “The people don’t need protection by vigilantes against ghosts and rumors, they need protection from the orc, the goblin, the wraith, the Drells and all the other nations in this world who would slit their own mother’s throats for a chance to unseat humans and be dominant. Your petty causes don’t interest me in the slightest. But what I can’t have…”
She twisted her arm out of his hand and sat up. E’mani backed up allowing her to stand.
“…is stains, like you, ruining the shining reputation of humans, causing distress in the masses, and threatening the rulers of my people.”
Karos stared unwaveringly at her, allowing her to approach while watching her hand for a weapon.
She continued, “You come to my kingdom and threaten me in my own city?”
“I threaten only who would bring my people harm. If that is you, it is your fault,” he snapped back.
“You and your self-righteousness. If it were up to you, orcs would overrun this city, torture and kill all our women. I know about your love for the Orc above your own people.”
She stepped forward, so close she almost touched his chest.
“I’m letting you know, there isn’t a crevace, a hole, a well, a sewer that you can go that I will not hunt you down and bring you to justice for what you have done to our kingdom and the disgrace you have brought upon it.”
She hesitated for a moment. E’mani watched her for movement, then he saw her eyes move from his to his lips.
Amenthiel caughter herself. Her eyes darted away as her face became instantly flush. She stepped away from him angrily.
“GUARDS,” she screamed.
The commotion outside was loud. E’mani raced past her for the front door of the bedroom. He headed up the stairs to the upper floor, noticing the guards entering the front door downstairs as he went. He found a loose gap in the roof boards and shoved his shoulder into them, knocking the shakes and the boards loose, creating a hole just wide enough for him to crawl up through. The guards were at the door as his feet cleared the opening. He ran to the edge of the roof’s gable. It was four cubits to the outside wall and perhaps a cubit drop. The only saving grace is that if he overshot, the wall was just wide enough to catch him before dropping down the hillside ten cubits. Or so he thought. The guards were yelling and trying to get through the opening as he came back next to them. He met the first guard’s eyes, nodded good day to him, and ran for the gable as fast as he could.
The ground fell away, far below his feet. Karos crashed down onto the top of the guard wall and rolled into the side. He heard the guards racing for the edge, but there was no way they would jump after him.
“Notify the city, he’s on the southeastern wall!” shouted the Queen. She looked over at him from the balcony of the Count’s manor. He looked back to her.
“Remember, this is your warning… Amenthiel. You’re no longer my queen,” Karos said, looking back over at the city one more time. Then he ran for the steps.
Amenthiel watched him go, shouting orders at the guards trying to make their way off of the roof. She stood there for a while contemplating her next moves. Then, she softly bit her bottom lip.