Chapter 1

by CW

550 A.S.E. • Ten miles from the village of Roresh, on the highland plateau of Pontay

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When Yad woke that morning—a fine fresh spring day—the family's peasant farmhouse was already empty. Yad stretched his young frame and bounded downstairs to the common room. On the table lay leftovers from breakfast: yesterday's bread, and some cold stew. Yad made a meal of it, pulled on his jacket, and headed outside.

Clouds fringed the distant eastern hills, hiding the morning sun, and a dry breeze wafted across the plateau. The farmhouse stood in the midst of half an acre of vegetable gardens; to the north stood his grandfather's little cabin, with smoke writhing from the chimney. Yad thought about looking in on Grandfather, but decided instead that his mother must already want his help with the foaling, which was coming early this year.

Yad struck out on foot on the south path to the meadows. Soon he saw his mother tending a mare, while Maffor and Mally, his young brother & sister, twins only six years old, stood wishing they could help. Yad jogged up as his mother cleared the foal.

"A stallion!" said Yad—then he noted his mother's bleak expression. "Mum?"

She looked at him. Her cheeks were haggard, her eyes dull. She brushed hair from her face, and her hand left a streak of foal blood.

"Mum, what's wrong. The mare's still breathing ... the foal—"

She said, "Your grandfather is taking the silver to the city."

Yad stood in silence for a moment. Then: "Why—"

"First your father died!" his mother blurted, almost sobbing. "You and your grandfather have been my only help for five years. And now he's leaving. And you—"

"I'm not going anywhere, Mum."

She bit her lip.

Yad added, "We're better off without that silver, anyway."

She said, "Maybe. Yes. It's a curse."

Yad made an angry face. "He should just destroy it. I would!"

"He thinks it has value."

"Not to us."

She went back to tending the new foal. "He's made his decision. You and I will have to work harder this spring, until he comes back."

Maffor and Mally began bouncing in place. "We'll help! We'll help!"

Yad said, "I guess this is my last chance to change his mind." And without another word, he spun on his heel and marched back toward the homestead.

As he approached his grandfather's cabin, he noticed the smoke had stopped. A sudden chill writhed in his gut, and he lurched into a run. The cabin's front door stood open. Yad charged into the little single room. A sickening smell of char struck his nose—the bizarre sight of a pair of legs stretching out from the fireplace rattled his mind. Without thinking, Yad leaped forward and pulled his grandfather from the fireplace. Black flakes covered the top half of his body, and smoke curled from whatever was left of his clothes and skin—enough remained that Yad could see his grandfather's throat had been cut, almost severing his head.

Yad staggered back and collapsed to the floor. The reality of this scene refused to sink in; Yad stared, desperately trying to understand what had happened here.

—the silver—the silver—

Where was it? Yad's gaze flashed through the cabin; but the silver was gone, that dog-sized artifact of mystery, that shiny, beautiful, horrible, terrifying thing that his grandfather had dug out of a ditch at the north end of the homestead a week ago, that awful thing that Yad wished now he had destroyed when he had the chance—

Someone—who!?—had cut Grandfather's throat, shoved his body into the fireplace, and taken the silver.

Yad stood, staring at the dreadful corpse. Then he stepped outside and took a deep breath, willing his heart to stop its panicked pounding, willing his hands to stop shaking.

—Mum! Maffor, Mally! Yad broke into a terrified run, down the path to the meadows. From a hundred yards, Yad could see: there stood the new foal, already on his legs, trembling—there lay his mother and his brother and his sister, limp, still, lifeless in the morning breeze. How had the killer—or killers—passed Yad on the path? He looked north, west, east, again south—the plateau stretched away for miles & miles, with no one in sight.

Yad's mind trembled in his skull. Was this all a dream? if only he could wake from it ... but the cool breeze, the rustling grass of the meadow, the sun just peeking over the low clouds in the east ... all these things were real.

Yad stood for minutes, thinking that the invisible killer would strike him down, but no blow came. Then he thought, Mum will stand up—it's all a joke, a terrible joke. But she did not stand up. And his grandfather's body, his slashed throat and half-burned corpse, that was no joke. Then he thought ... but he wasn't thinking. He was just standing.

His family was gone. His whole family was dead.

The reality began to seep in: and with it, this one fact: the silver, it was the fault of the silver.

Fear and terror turned to rage. Someone—because of the silver, that thing, that arcane cursed thing —someone had killed his family ... for the silver.

That someone must pay.

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  • by JW

    Beriss Vel’Darq approached with a canvas cloth held in front of him. He felt a sharp chill run the length of his spine, and his arms quaked violently for a second. He had never been so close to true evil, and the aura surrounding the Serpent was almost visible. Steeling himself for any surprises, he took the last step and draped the cloth over the evil thing, then waited. One breath, two… It seemed nothing immediate would happen. He prayed the same would be true for the long term; the stories he had heard regaled tales of horrible fates that befell those who touched the Serpent, sometimes years later, but sometimes within just a few days. He reached a trembling hand, touched the canvas where it rest on the Serpent’s top, and waited again for an immediate surprise. Again, nothing. He took a shuddering breath, then quickly wrapped the canvas and secured it with twine. So far, he thought, so good.

    The creak on the front door opening startled him. He spun and saw someone entering. It was the elder man, the one Beriss assumed to be the grandfather of this family. Beriss’s heartbeat quickened, thought he would not have thought it possible. He froze for a moment, stunned.

    The elder man stopped when he saw Beriss, a stranger in the home, and said, “Who are you, then? What are you doing here?”

    Beriss opened his mouth to speak, but no words came, and in the moment that he stood there, slack-jawed and stunned, Beriss saw the old man’s eyes shift to the canvas-wrapped Serpent. Though his gaze only left Beriss for a second, the old man’s eyes had changed when they moved again towards the stranger. Now, the elder’s gaze was sharp and accusatory, and he quickly advanced directly to Beriss.

    “Thief! You’d best beg for my mercy, lest I break you in two for your crime.”

    Beriss sighed heavily, his heart aching at the coming moment. The old grandfather, dwindled by his many decades, was still a relatively vital man, likely to live many more years, enjoying his home, family and farm. At the moment, the senior appeared ready to fight like a youthful man, but even a youthful man had his vulnerabilities, and Beriss had trained in taking advantage of such things. He drew a knife from his jacket and slashed the old man’s throat in the same motion.

    The grandfather clutched his neck with one hand, then two, blood pouring from the gash and shooting to the man’s left from a sliced artery. He sank to his knees, fell to his side, and made gut-wrenching sounds, a union of pleas and gurgling.

    Beriss watched in horror as his handiwork drained the old man’s life away. The fellow would be dead a few, brief moments. Caught so off-guard by the man’s arrival, Beriss panicked. His eyes scanned the room, and the fire at the hearth gave him an idea. He dashed to it, snatched an iron poker from a hook on the wall, and stoked the flames. Replacing the poker, he hurriedly dragged the now dead body to the fireplace, shoving him headfirst into the pyre. The flames quickly ate the old man’s hair, and a foul stench issued forth, followed by the even harsher stench and nauseating sounds of burning flesh. Perhaps, Beriss thought, it would be assumed that the old man simply tripped, hit his head, knocking himself out, landing in the fire and burning to death. Even as he thought it, though, Beriss knew it was ridiculous, and the blood pools and spatters proved him right.

    Without thinking, Beriss began shoving the old fellow further into the fire. He struggled for near a full minute, but the heat began to burn him and the chimney, now mostly blocked by the elder’s corpse, began to vomit back thick, horrid black clouds into the room.

    What are you doing? Beriss asked himself this and a few other questions about his actions, none of which helped or provided anything beyond the realization that he was reacting, not acting with thought, and he took two precious seconds to calm himself.

    Wrestling further with the corpse was pointless. The body would not be completely consumed by the fire, the blood in the room proved this was far more than someone accidentally falling, and trying to change either of those truths would require far more time than Beriss could spend. He stepped back to the wrapped Serpent, ready to escape this atrocious nightmare. Something caught his eye, and he stopped short. Through a slatted window, he saw the young man approaching the home… in a sprint. Beriss would never be able to leave through the front. His days of surveillance proved helpful as he remembered a hinged window in the rear of the house that was large enough to fit through, and he scurried to it.

    The window was a wooden panel that lifted from the bottom against two top hinges; a wooden bar propped against the wall could be wedged in the sill to hold the panel open. Beriss set the Serpent down, wedged the window open, grabbed the bundle, and made his escape. Thoughts of other potential mistakes he might have made tried to rise in his mind, but he forced them back and focused on the present. He could hear the young man gasp in horrific surprise, and Beriss began to run, quick and low, the canvas-wrapped horror tucked under one arm.

    Beriss glanced back at the home as he gained some distance, and as he did, he realized he had run over a small rise in the fields, and that the woman and her two youngest, the twins, had left their previous location and were now walking directly towards Beriss. Again, he froze, but only for a moment this time. Seeing the foal behind the family straining to stand, a ruse quickly came to Beriss. He smiled and raised his hand in greeting.

    The woman waved in return, though she looked a little confuse by Beriss’ presence. The children, without pretention or suspicion, smiled broadly and raised the hands high.

    Beriss turned towards them and began to close the distance between himself and the family. He wanted desperately to look to the home, sure that he would see the young man with fire in his eyes and a weapon in hand, furiously charging. It was all Beriss could do to drive that fear from his mind and keep his eyes on the woman.

    “Hello, friends,” he said. “I see your livestock is thriving. I live on my own, a little ranch on the far side of the village. Several of my animals have fallen by some blight. I’m looking to acquire fresh stock. Might any of yours be available, either for sale or… by trade?” He lifted the Serpent as if it was something he had brought to exchange. The canvas could not conceal its basic shape, however, and if the woman recognized it, his deception was doomed.

    “Oh?” the woman asked. “A blight? That is awful. What did you lose?”

    Beriss heard himself answering, quite natural-sounding and convincing, and that eased his mind a bit. But the time was against him, the young man would soon be upon him, and his heart raced, pounding against his chest. He did not have time for this.

    “Well,” the woman said, “I might be able to sell or trade you one. I’m not sure which, though.”

    The woman paused and twisted to her left, turning her head to look behind her, where her livestock grazed and rested, the newborn foal now standing just twenty yards behind her. This was the moment Beriss needed, and as she was turning back, he again drew his knife and slashed her throat in a single, practiced motion.

    The two children stared in shock, mouths agape, as their mother bled and crumpled before them. They were still lost in their surprise and horror when Beriss slashed one, then the other, and soon the three were staining the ground red at his feet.

    Without pausing another second, Beriss rushed towards the treeline, fear and horror driving his legs faster and faster.

    When he had reached the cover of the trees, he ducked behind a fallen trunk, collapsing there and gasping. He eased his head down, low enough so her could peek below the trunk. In the distance, he saw the young man, rushing towards his fallen family. Beriss wasn’t sure he could even stand again right now, much less continue running, but one thought changed his mind. He had killed the old man and, later, the woman and her young children, only because they had seen him and would be able to identify him. If the young man, the last of them, also saw his face, it would mean more murder, and Beriss had gotten more than his fill of murder, more than enough to last the rest of his life. If he were to avoid either killing again or being killed himself, it meant getting out of the area immediately.

    Still panting, his muscles quivering from the exertion, Beriss pushed himself up, stumbling a few steps before entering into a weary, lumbering run. He would return first to the village, only briefly, to contact his brethren there, then continue home. His people would greet him as a hero, though he felt more the villain. Four lives, innocents, fallen at his hands. Still, he told himself, four is a small price to pay for the hundreds or thousands that would suffer if the Serpent were allowed to remain free.

    But, he wondered, could the priests really destroy it?

  • by CW

    The next hours grated through Yad’s mind as if he were dragged across a gravel road behind a cart.

    First, the desperate need to end this nightmare, or at least control it somehow, congealed into the one thing he could actually do: bury the dead. And immediately the horrific task arose, of handling the bodies. His mother, his little siblings—their throats had been cut clean through, leaving terrible gaping wounds, and vast gushes of blood. Yad’s brain reeled, and as if separated from his own body he heard someone sobbing from his own throat as he stumbled here & there, carrying the corpses one by one to the little family graveyard on a rise west of the farmhouse. Then the digging: good, clean, hard, honest, physical work—four graves, next to his father’s grave, and his grandmother's and two aunts', and the great-great uncle who had founded the farm. To dig even one grave was a travail; to dig four, alone, was unthinkable. And so Yad didn’t think, but worked his arms & shoulders to quivering exhaustion, and his hands, though callused farmboy hands, to blisters.

    Caskets ... they needed caskets ... but it was too much for Yad’s remaining will, so he wrapped them one by one, with wildflowers, and with some keepsakes form the farmhouse, in blankets and then in tarpaulins, and laid them in the graves, and as the sun was past the zenith now and already moving down, he filled the holes, and then collapsed and lay unthinking until dark.

    Then, stiff, cold, aching, raw-brained, he sat up, and the thinking began.

    Ideas pushed in, on after another, many of them nothing but grief-born madness: burn the farmhouse! destroy the crops! slaughter the animals! but no, a shred of spirit within him pushed these madnesses away. In their place he looked at options he had never thought he would weigh. Stay at the farmhouse, his only home? work the farm alone? It seemed so bleak, but the simplest plan. Go into Roresh — to do what? live there? at what work? And what to tell the village folk? The truth!? Yad imagined torch-carrying mobs swarming the countryside, either to find the killer (or killers) and lynch him (them) ... or to lay the blame on some poor innocent, and lynch him ... maybe even Yad himself. Why would Yad have killed his own entire family? That made no sense! but mobs did not act on sense. He had never seen a mob, but his father and grandfather had told him stories. And the killer ... or killers ... what to do about them ... how to kill them? Could he kill them? Could he even find them? ... and the Accursed Silver—no, he didn't even care about that. If ever he saw it, he'd destroy it. That was the least of his worries.

    The Pontayn night wind was picking up, roaring across the plateau. Yad shivered, and with an immense effort heaved himself to his feet, stumbled to the farmhouse, climbed the stairs, and collapsed into his bed, and stopped thinking again, and didn’t dream.

    * * *

    The next morning dawned as had the one before: a fine spring day, Yad’s little bedroom unchanged, the low sun beaming through the window. Then an instant later everything flooded back: his family lay in their graves, and the world was new.

    He ate a cold breakfast, packed some coins and clothes and miscellany into his rucksack, pulled on his jacket, and left the farmhouse, heading east toward Roresh Village.

    He still had not decided what to tell them ...

    {original post 10-25-2020, 10:30 AM}

    The Roresh Village Square

    ---

    The ten miles from Yad's farm to Roresh took the usual four hours of walking, down the dale lane, then up the main road. There appeared the village: bare-stone buildings of thatch or shale roofing: the church, the tavern, the merchants' shops, all around the village square with its fountain; and further out, houses & cottages, with little yards in fences.

    The voice of the miller greeted Yad: "Ho there boy! Well met a-mornin'. How fare your mother and the old gramp." The miller, with a sack of grain over his shoulder, was plump and red-faced, with a bristly beard.

    Yad stared, and his mouth said, "Dead. They're all dead."

    "Hahah!" blurted the miller, and then: "Hi, what? Are you speakin' the truth! But how!?"

    Before Yad could think, his mouth said: "A pox took them." It was an awful lie! Folk of the village would want to go to the farm, at least to pay respects to the graves. And Yad recalled: he had not cleaned the blood from the floor of his grandfather's cottage. The village folk would see!

    "Oh, lad!" the miller mourned ... then he took two steps back. "But are you carrying the pox on you!"

    "No!" spat Yad; then: "No, I ate flybane, and drank paleroot tea. Ah, uh, it came on them fast, in a day—but that was three days back and I'm yet well." No one had visited the farm for at least four days ... in fact it had been the miller himself. "It was the day after you visited," said Yad. "If you're well, and I'm well, then we're ... well."

    The miller stared at the cobblestones. "How bloody awful!"

    "I thought I'd stay at the inn for a day or two, until my head settles from it."

    "Aye, aye," said the miller. "You poor lad! Bloody awful thing." He wandered off in something of a daze ... but Yad was sure, the story would be in everyone's ears within the hour.

    Ahead stood the inn, its ground floor a common tavern, and the next level above of guest rooms of this quality or that. Yad walked forward.

  • by JW

    Before he was in sight of the village, Beriss took a few minutes to unwrap the Serpent, pack leaves and pine needles around it, then bundle it again. Confident the object could not be recognized by anyone observing the package, he continued on his journey.

    When the village appeared in the distance, Beriss turned off the roadway and walked into a small copse of trees where heavy undergrowth allowed him to quickly and efficiently conceal himself. He set down his package, eyeing it warily, and removed his boots. His feet ached from all the walking, and he rubbed them for several minutes before lying back to rest himself for a time.

    The blue above him peeked through the branches, and only the occasional cloud passed.

    He let his mind wander, passing the time until the light began to fade. When the sun was near setting, he rose, lifted his bundle, and walked back out to the road. A look this way and that confirmed nobody was in sight, so he pointed himself towards town and trudged onward.

    As he passed through the outlying farms, he recognized no one, and no one recognized him. This place was neither his home nor somewhere he visited frequently. Still, he kept his head down to decrease the likelihood of someone memorizing his face, and he drew his collar high, grateful for the relatively dark night.

    The few clouds above slipped away as he reached the town, and the increase in starlight made him nervous. Without hesitation, he turned aside from the main road and used dark alleyways to hide him from unwanted observation.

    Soon enough, he came close to the square, and he lingered in the shadowy alley, studying the people milling about the area or just walking by. It was a lively night, it seemed, and a score of locals populated the space around the fountain. Beriss waited patiently, peering at every face.

    “Damn it,” he said quietly. His contact from the church was nowhere to be seen, probably because Beriss was technically early; the original plan was that they would meet at midnight. Beriss could not wait that long. The cold bundle under his arm radiated a supernatural heat, it seemed, and his hands waited free of it.

    Beriss cursed again, then turned away from the square and worked his way to the eastern edge of town. His contact lived in a single room attached to the warehouse he supervised for his employer, a wealthy travelling merchant named Saerog Mihn. Mihn was renown for underpaying his employees, and Beriss’s contact, Vum Spoorah, would do nearly anything for the money he needed to maintain his lifestyle of nightly drinking. Beriss could barely stand Vum, who regularly proved himself rude and inconsiderate. Still, without Vum, Beriss’s mission would stand little chance of success. Beriss sighed as he neared the warehouse, slowing to scan the area completely. If only one person saw him enter here, they could later connect him to Vum, and Vum would surrender Beriss’s identity and mission at the first sign of anyone asking questions.

    No one was in sight, but Beriss waited to make sure.

    His patience paid when he saw a young boy appear from an adjacent alleyway. Beriss had not seen him in the shadows, despite his light blue tunic. The boy walked towards the center of town, and Beriss watched his every step to see if the child revealed any sign of having seen Beriss hiding. If so, it would mean another person—another child, no less—that Beriss would have to kill to maintain his secrecy. His hands had been drenched in enough blood recently to bring him to disgust, and he felt his heart rise when the child walked away without so much as a glance in his direction.

    After one more search of the area, Beriss darted across the way and into the dark alcove at the front of the small wing on the warehouse’s northern face. He rapped quickly on the door, waited but a few seconds, then rapped again. He could not get inside fast enough. He could only hope that the drunkard that lived here did not have visitors right now.

    The door flew open, and Vum peered at Beriss through bloodshot eyes.

    “Let me in,” Beriss said, his voice harsh even to his own ears.

    “You’re too early,” Vum said, but he sidled to make room for Beriss to enter.

    “I’m aware.” Beriss moved to the small rooms’ only table space, setting his bundle down and unconsciously moving away from it.

    “So,” Vum said, pushing the door closed. “Guess that’s it, eh? The thing you went after?”

    Beriss nodded. He suddenly felt a wave of exhaustion nearly drop him in place, and he quickly sank to the floor, sitting awkwardly.

    “Looks like you’ve been drinking tonight, too,” Vum said, chuckling.

    Beriss shook his head. “Just tired. I need a few hours to rest before we go.”

    “Mind if I take a look?”

    “What? No, don’t touch it.”

    “Why not? I just want—“

    “Don’t touch it!” Beriss took a deep breath, then sighed heavily. “I mean no offense, friend, but that item is incredibly dangerous. Everyone who touches it has died, and even to see it puts your life in terrible danger.”

    “Hm. Well, okay, doesn’t sound worth it, then. Anyway, look here, there’s a problem with taking you home.”

    “Problem?” Beriss rubbed his eyes. He wasn’t sure he could handle another complication right now.

    “Yes, sir, there is. You see, taking you and that other fellow all that way and then driving back is really going to, um…” Vum paused, then belched before he resumed speaking. “Yeah, that trip is going to keep me away from the warehouse almost three full days. Now I know we negotiated a price, but I have reconsidered my position, you see. Way I see it, you two need me and my wagon to stay hidden for your trip, and I don’t think you’ll find anybody else to take the job in time, now are you? So, considering that, I think my rate will have to be twice the arranged price, or you two fellows just won’t be going anywhere.”

    Beriss stared at the man a long moment. Vum was right, of course: Beriss and his partner would run far too great a risk of exposure during the trip home without the cover of a covered wagon. They were careful men, of course, especially since their joining the church, but still the risk of being recognized and associated with the church loomed. Exposing the holy campaign could bring it all to ruin if certain other organizations or governments took notice. There were terrible things happening because of these relics, and only the priests of Archambault could stop this evil from consuming the land and all who dwelled within it. Vum was a fool to not see his precarious position in all this.

    “So,” Vum said, “we are agreed?”

    Beriss got to his feet and moved to stand closer to Vum. He sighed again and looked at his feet, trying to imagine a way to convince Vum to back down, but no ideas immerged.

    “Double, yes?”

    “We did not bring monies beyond that which we had agreed to pay you.”

    “You can pay me the rest when we arrive, then. I’m an easy man.”

    Beriss shook his head. “You don’t realize the position you are putting me in.”

    “Oh, I do,” Vum said, clapping a hand on Beriss’s shoulder. “My demand will reduce your profits, I know.”

    “I have no profit.”

    “But you see,” Vum said, paying no mind to Beriss, “times are hard here, friend, and money is scarce. If I could do this any other, way, I would be—“

    Beriss slashed Vum’s throat.

    Vum worked his jaw and lips, still trying to speak, but only gurgling noises came out. He reached his hands out to either side, wobbling in place, as jets of blood shot from his neck in pulsing intervals. The blood struck Beriss and also shot over his shoulder, splattering on the wall and table. Vum frowned, his mouth finally motionless, and slowly moved his hands to his neck. Just as his fingers began to block the blood, the man crumpled to the floor. He lay there for almost two minutes, making little writhing motions while the blood pooled around him. Eventually, he stopped moving.

    Beriss squatted beside the body and cut a large patch off the man’s tunic. He wiped most of the blood off his face and neck, then wiped his blade clean, leaving the stained cloth in the blood pool with the corpse. Feeling a rush of unwanted emotion, Beriss stayed motionless for a moment, pushing his feelings aside to find focus on the tasks at hand. Then, rising, he turned to pick up the bundled Serpent and discovered to his horror that a great deal of blood had landed on the wrapping. He whispered a curse and began searching the room for another useful wrap. The best he could find was Vum’s winter cloak, a grimy gray piece of some sort of hide Beriss could not identify. He cut strips from the cloak’s bottom, rolled the bundle in the cloak, and tied the ends with the two strips. It was bulky and awkward, but it would have to do.

    Beriss stopped everything for a moment to estimate the time, which he figured was still a few hours before midnight. He would have to wait to reconnect with his partner, but not here. As unpopular as Vum had been, he was the overseer of this warehouse, and many of the townsfolk came here for livestock feed and other supplies, even at night. Beriss dared not risk being discovered standing over this bloody body, and he snatched up his bundle and quickly exited the building.

    Outside, the air was chilling, but the night was still bright. Beriss saw the wagon near one corner of the warehouse. The oxen used to pull it likely grazed in the small fenced field in the back. Beriss only briefly considered hitching up the animals and taking the wagon himself. He abandoned the thought when he remembered how small this village really was, small enough that many people would easily recognize either the animals or the wagon, maybe both, and then there would be questions Beriss could not answer. Frustrated at this entire turn of events, he walked away from Vum’s abode and wagon, leaving his only known means of secretly returning home behind him.

    If Beriss and his partner could find no other way to secret themselves away from this place and safely home, the entire mission could fail, and even one failed mission risked the church’s entire campaign. There could be no such failure, not if the world was to survive this plague of curses. Determined to somehow succeed in the face of increasingly poor odds, Beriss hurried his steps into the night.

  • by CW

    Yad's coins were few, and so he could afford only a mug of ale, a bowl of common-stew, and a space in a shared dormitory. But with the hot stew in his belly and a place to lie down, he began to feel almost normal.

    Then just before dawn, a woman's scream cut through the quiet of the night of the little village.

    Yad and other poured out of the inn, into the square, fearing fire or invasion. Soon the scene coalesced near the fountain, where a village elder was interrogating a slatternly woman with a mass of unkempt red hair.

    "Woman, control yourself! Stop your howling!" the elder commanded. Yad knew him, or at least knew who he was: the wealthy Master Tommar, elder, landlord, magistrate, a mayor alumnus and patron of many, white-haired and hook-nosed.

    The woman kept howling. Tommar shook her shoulders and drew back a hand, but stopped short of slapping her. "Are you mad! We'll lock you up, if you cannot calm!"

    The miller stood nearby, and pointed at her. "It's Mayta! You harlot, did we not run you out of town!"

    "He's dead dead dead! Oh stars and snakes he's dead!" screeched Mayta.

    Tommar demanded, "Who!"

    Mayta's eyes went wide, white in the night. "Old Vum—so dead! Oh save us!" She collapsed to her knees, quivering, staring around madly.

    "Vum?" repeated several townfolk. "Old Vum, the warehouseman for Master Saerog?"

    "Vum!" the miller snarled. "Drunkard and wencher! Mayta's put her heels up and tooken many an easy coin from that lech. Why we ran her out and not him too, I'll never know. But if he's had the plexy now at last, he saved us the effort."

    In despair, Mayta wailed, "Oh no! it's his throat cut open, ear to ear! Oh the blood!" A collective gasp ran through the crowd.

    Master Tommar ordered, "Let's get to the bottom of this! To the warehouse!" The crowd surged away.

    Yad stood alone in the square, his jaw tight, his heart pounding. The killer was in the village!

  • edited May 3

    by JW

    ***

    Midnight came and went without a sight of his partner, and Beriss felt the stress squeezing and wrenching the muscles in his back and neck, knotting and turning them painfully. His head began to throb from it, and as he watched the pedestrian traffic around the town square dwindle, he felt sure he would fall violently ill from worry alone. Beside him, the bundle containing the dreadful Serpent seemed to emanate waves of stress-inducing power all its own, like an unwanted companion constantly whispering warnings of approaching calamities. Beriss drew a long breath and took his sweet time expelling it, imagining the stress leaving his body with each beat of his heart, but to his dismay, it made little difference to his stress.

    His position atop one of the stables in town was not the highest vantage point available, and the strong scent of hay filled his every breath. However, this spot did offer a few benefits, such as a clear sightline to the town square and the safety of being concealed from most of the lights around the building; only the stars—far too bright for Beriss’s comfort—shed any illumination upon his hiding place. He sighed once, twice, scanning around him. If forced into waiting much longer for Cabramas, his partner from the church, Beriss would need a more concealed position for the daylight hours. Under sunlight, the stable roof was too exposed. He refused to increase his risk of being discovered, and his best option seemed to be making his way to the temple, the tallest structure in sight. To get there, he would have to abandon his watch on the square, where Cabramas had been scheduled to meet him over an hour ago. Feeling the tension in has back increase another painful notch, Beriss eased himself to his feet, picked up the bound Serpent, and moved slowly to the roof’s edge to make his way down.

    In the world of assassins, invisibility is practiced skill, and Beriss was practiced enough to know that planning was the primary ingredient. One could spice the cooking up with a pinch of silent motion, a touch of hiding through concealment, or a dash of distraction, but none of those would save the fool who had not first considered every moment during which they wished to remain unseen. To this end, he studied his potential routes to the temple, which of such routes seemed more likely to have eyes upon them at this point or that, how much light and how many shadows composed the path from here to there. Beriss spent several minutes on this consideration, during which time he saw no sign of anyone else being awake within his view—no motion, no extinguishing of light, not even a sound. All of Roresh seemed fast asleep. That, of course, could be folly: there could easily be someone at a window or in the shadows, watching the night, who would see him descending from the stables’ roof or moving through the alleys, and even one witness of his activities, given the time of night and the awkward bundle he was carrying, could be disastrous. He took another deep breath, paying a long moment of watchfulness to counteract the possibility that a witness was in fact about, and as he did the tension in his back eased just enough for him to sense an ease from the pain. Now, feeling confident that his training could be trusted to have given him the best chance of traveling his chosen route without discovery, he sat on the roof’s edge and looked down.

    Beriss’s familiarity with The Serpent sprang from little more than what he had been told by the priests, and that had been little beyond its basic appearance and the deadly nature of the thing. Combining that with his brief view inside the grandfather’s home and having carried it in a bundle since, Beriss knew precious little about his cargo. He had tossed it onto this roof without damaging it, as far as he could tell. But what about dropping it? Would a fall of several strides’ length damage it? Or anger it somehow and cause it to lash out? Beyond all that, had Beriss already doomed himself by being near it at all? There were too many questions, and this was no time to hunt for answers. His method of climbing to the rooftop had involved precarious holds upon inches of wood protruding here and there along the stables’ wall. All good climbers knew that going down was always harder than ascending by the simple fact that ones’ eyes were closer to possible places to place fingers while going up than places for toes going the other way. Looking now at the holds he had used to go up, he could see only slivers of darker shadows amid the shadowy wall, oblique wedges offering precious little promise of reliability. Beriss felt no confidence in those hand- and footholds for his descent. His best bet was to hold the bundle as he dropped, but the distance threatened to be injurious without his landing involving a roll to distribute the impact from his feet to the rest of his body. Could he execute such a maneuver while holding the bundle? He took his time considering it, gazing around him again at the quiet town. All the tuck-and-roll maneuvers he could imagine would involve exerting more pressure on the Serpent than simply dropping to his feet, which meant a fall of six or seven strides. That was surely going to hurt. Without any better option, Beriss resigned himself to the potential injury.

    To simply slide off the roof from his current position would mean falling seven strides, whereas the fall distance could be reduced to six strides if Beriss hung from the roof’s edge by hand. He rolled to his side, his legs dangling off the edge, and carefully turned onto his belly. He could not keep the bundle in front of him to get into position for his drop, and he readjusted his grip upon it as he held it to his left side. He put his right hand on the roof’s edge and inched his body backwards wriggling first one side, then another. Soon, his center of gravity was at the edge, and the most perilous moment of his planned fall arrived: dropping to a one-handed grip before falling the rest of the way to the ground. If he could hold on to the roof’s edge, his fall would maintain control over his fall, but if his grip failed….

    “Alright,” he whispered, “let’s just go.”

    He pushed his body one more inch, crossing that critical line where his center of gravity shifted past the point of no return, and let his body drop as he clamped down with his right hand on the roof’s edge. His fingers failed him, and he spun sideways as he plummeted. There was barely time to utter a short curse before the impact jolted through him, first on his left shoulder and above his left ear, then elsewhere, but Beriss had little notion of what other body parts crashed into the street, since the initial impact against his head knocked him into a state of quasi-consciousness where some unreal blend of darkness and light played across his vision. His sense of time disappeared along with his sense of movement. For a moment, there was nothing but the awareness that he had been injured. His mind swam through that single thought, unaware of all else, until his connection with his body and mind arose in the distance as an approaching possibility. Fear arose, fear that he had no control of anything at the moment, fear that he was hurt badly, fear that he would be seen, fear that he would fail his mission completely, and all those fears pushed him to stretch towards regaining full consciousness.

    Then it all came back, the flow of time, his sense of self, his surroundings… and a pain that seemed to encompass everything but his feet. The notion crossed his mind that those feet were supposed to have borne the brunt of this fall, yet they had ironically been the only parts of him that felt uninjured. He mentally told his feet to blame his right hand, then heard himself chuckle.

  • by JW

    “Come on,” he told himself. “Get moving.”

    He had successfully kept his grip on the Serpent, somehow, and it did not seem to be upset with him. He counted that a small victory.

    Rolling to his side, Beriss groaned once from the pain and pushed himself up. He told himself he could rest after he reached the end of his planned route to the temple. Grimacing, he clamped his jaws shut, already having made too much noise. Still unable to focus his mind completely, he stumbled, then again, but then found his stride. He tasted blood, touched his face, and discovered the blow to his head had actually ripped his flesh a bit; another drop of blood reached the left corner of his mouth as he looked at the blood on his fingertip. The cut was insignificant. He ignored it.

    The route he had planned took him along three alleyways, each with a few lights, and he moved as casually as he could. If anyone was watching and noticed him, his best hope lay in appearing so inconspicuous that a witness would pay him no mind. He kept his ears perked along the way and struggled to bring his mind back into complete focus.

    The last portion of his route took him straight along a wide street for a hundred strides or so, a big boulevard brimming with chances to be discovered. The temple lay at the end, where the street suddenly stopped at the first of a dozen stone steps leading to the front of the massive building. Beriss pondered momentarily at what it must have cost in time and monies to erect this cathedral. The Church of Directions apparently loved to spend its wealth on extravagant places of worship even in the middle of towns as small as this; Roresh was more than just a big village, and while the congregation here would fill the services, their tithes would surely never cover the regular expenses of this facility. The Directionist Church had grown in spurts over its dozen decades, and now having buildings like this which drained monies from the religion’s communal coffers was an overhead that the still-growing movement could apparently absorb, if only for the time being. Beriss strode towards the towering construction, his gaze drifting upwards as anyone’s would when walking towards this place. At the top, the bell tower beckoned to him.

    He reached the lowest step, then turned right and walked into a shadow-laden front of a tall business that produced and sold furniture. The covered nook had three support beams that added further protection from prying eyes. In the relative safety of this spot, Beriss quickly scanned for potential problems: someone on the street, in an alley, or peering from inside another building. All was silent and still, and he let himself relax a bit.

    Pain still surged and throbbed in several places, but the spots on his shoulder and head still proved the worst. He would relish the moment when at last he could lie down and rest properly.

    His destination was the cathedral’s bell tower. More than likely, the bell was operated from somewhere under the tower, almost assuredly directly beneath it, The actual space where the bell hung was probably only ever accessed when it was inspected for simple maintenance, easily a number of years between visits. He could sleep there with little chance of having someone stumble upon him.

    “Directionists,” he said quietly. “What a lot of fools.”

    After another check of the area for signs of witnesses, Beriss stepped back into the starlight and headed for the rear of the building. Reaching the corner of the southern wall, he turned sharply and moved into the relative darkness of the church’s rear. Ten strides later, he reached the recessed alcove where the back door awaited him. The door was nearly three strides tall and half as wide, and with its iron bands along the sides and forming an “X” on its face, it appeared heavy indeed. Beneath the handle, the lock’s opening rested in the center of a thick iron plate. Beriss set the bundle down and reached into a pocket inside his jacket, just under his left arm. Withdrawing a tri-fold leather case, he twisted at the waist to gain extra light upon his hands as he opened the case and selected two small tools. Refolding the case, which he then held in his teeth, he began picking the lock; this skill was not something at which he had anything resembling a knack, but he had practiced on many doors to compensate for his lack of raw talent in that arena. He managed to turn the lock after a few short moments, and after replacing the tools in the case and the case in its pocket, he glanced quickly to each side as he picked up the bundle. He was still unobserved as far as he could tell, so he opened the door as quietly as he could, surprised at both how silently the huge hinges operated and how easily the heavy door moved at his touch. He slipped into a completely dark room, shutting the door quietly behind him, and stood motionless, waiting.

    No voices sounded, the gasps or startles he could hear, and the room felt empty of any other person. Confident he was alone, Beriss felt blindly at the door behind him and was pleasantly surprised to find that a large metal key protruded from this side of the lock. He turned it one way, which did nothing, so he turned it the other way and heard the lock re-engage. Having progressed this far without trouble—or, at least, trouble other than his fall—Beriss could feel some of his tension easing, though the pain in his head and shoulder continued to grow.

    Before he could safely move further, he had to wait for his eyes to adjust to this near-total darkness, which took a few moments, during which he purposefully shifted his gaze in spirals and circles to let the dark places begin to separate from the darker places. He could smell wine, black pepper, and something like a foul cheese. Other than that, this place was quiet, still, and very much uninhabited. He took the opportunity to clear his mind of cluttered thoughts and visions of potential failures. Ten long, slow breaths, deep and rich, helped him calm himself and focus his mind, and even the growing pain seemed to recede a bit.

    Soon, he could see that this room had just the tiniest amount of light coming from under a door across from where Beriss stood, and that light also revealed what looked like columns or pillars to each side. He stepped silently across the room and felt the door in front of him. This door was closer to standard than the outer door behind him; just over two strides high and a single stride in width, the door had no reinforcements. His touch revealed a circular knob and no other features on this side. Beriss started to turn the knob, but stopped short.

    As an initiate in the White Lotus Order, where he learned to control his body, mind and spirit, Beriss had befriended another student, Hamsho. Where Beriss excelled at weapon use and strategy, Hamsho stood out from all the other initiates at handling things with mechanical components, such as locks, snares and traps. When another initiate, a reckless brute named Sug Makavo, approached several Lotus Order initiates about burglarizing the home of a wealthy antiques dealer, only Hamsho showed any interest in participating. Beriss tried to convince him otherwise, since they were all still untested recruits; Beriss feared Sug would somehow wreck the entire endeavor for both men and get the two arrested or worse. Hamsho, however, stood firm, explaining that Sug surely would fail on his own, and that his best chance for pulling off the crime was if Hamsho accompanied him.

    Hamsho and Sug went to rob the dealer two days later. Only Sug returned. All he brought with him was the news the Hamsho was dead. He had quickly picked the lock on the dealer’s front door, and after making entry into the foyer, Hamsho tried the next door to see if its knob would turn. It did turn. It also fired several poisoned darts from the ceiling, some of which struck Hamsho, who stood in surprise for a moment, turned to look at Sug with shocked eyes, then seized and collapsed. Sug watched helplessly as Hamsho spit blood, his body wracked with spasms. When blood spilled from the dying man’s eyes and ears, Sug ran in terror, hiding behind garbage crates across the street and watching as Hamsho’s body was eventually discovered and carried away to be burned as a thief.

    Now, Beriss lowered his hand from the knob.

    After a calming breath, he searched the door and the surrounding area for signs of a trap, keeping the bundled Serpent under his left arm The nearly complete darkness made searching almost moot, since he could only detect things by touch, but Beriss checked anyway, determined to not die from a lack of trying to survive. He found nothing on the door, the knob, the hinges, the frame or walls to either side, no tiny holes or switches, pins or wires… nothing. Tensing in anticipation of a deadly surprise, he turned the knob.

    No traps activated.

    He exhaled silently as he pulled the door open. Ahead lay a hallway extending to either side, the length of it illuminated by oil lamps in sconces. Beriss moved into the doorway and glanced to both sides; no one was there. A quick look behind him as he moved into the hall revealed that he had entered through a storage room where crates, boxes and sacks filled shelves floor to ceiling. Beriss shut the door behind him and turned right, which offered more doors and passages than to the left. He moved quickly to the first passageway, then stopped near the corner. He stood silent a moment, listening. He heard nothing.

    From a concealed pocket on his left sleeve, he withdrew a thin rod with a small mirror attached to one end at an angle. He moved the mirror just past the edge of the wall. In the reflection, he saw the hall was empty, and moved quickly down the passage, reaching a single door at the end. Pressing his ear to the door, he heard no sounds. No light shone beneath the door, and confident there would be no traps on a inner door such as this, he turned the knob, taking no pause as he opened the door, slipped through, and closed the door behind him.

    Starlight fell through a tall window, weakening the darkness, and Beriss quickly found a long, thick rope hanging through an opening in the ceiling. His sense of the building’s layout has paid him well, for this was surely the rope used to ring the church’s bell. To his chagrin, this room did not have a way to reach the bell tower. Beriss cursed under his breath, knowing he would have to conduct a more extensive search of the church than he had anticipated. His tension shot upwards. There could be no simple exits from unwanted meetings here; a bloody corpse in the church would surely be discovered fairly quickly, and Beriss had no other means of escaping unsolicited interactions besides his wit, which was hit-or-miss at best.

    Glancing around, he saw several robes and cloaks against one wall, and among them he saw a plain, brown robe, the kind he had seen on the Directionist apprentices. He snatched it from the wall, set down his bundle, and donned the robe. It would provide excellent cover if he should be seen, though an inquisitive witness would still prove dangerous. As prepared as he could be for encounters within the church, he picked up the Serpent and slipped back into the hall, determined to reach the bell tower as fast as he could.

  • by JW

    ***

    Captain Reyjack decided to stop by the station on his way home. His lieutenant, Shormick Neen, should be arriving to start his shift, and Officer Bellows would be eager to end his long night, just as Reyjack was. He turned down an alley to reach Westin Avenue, then strolled slowly towards the guard station, enjoying the breaking dawn and the distant sounds of farm animals. The farmers always rose long before most city folk, and their chores made the only noises of the early morning.

    Spring was still early on, but the warmth rose quickly. Reyjack removed his cloak and slung it over one arm. He never loved the heat, which had been part of his reasoning for walking the town at night. That, and the tendency of thieves and brutes of all kinds to only act in the darkness, an evil man’s natural home. Roresh had been rough and poorly guarded when Reyjack had been sent to captain its officers into a better state, and the city had given him many challenges, from muggers and attackers of woman and child to some foul murderers Reyjack would rather forget. Four years into his station here now, and he was pleased with the progress the he and his guards had made. Evidence that the average townsfolk agreed with his assessment appeared now before him in the form of old lady Bombry, who was just leaving her home to go to her work at her late husband’s tiny business, Bombry Inn, which boasted all of two rooms for rent and provided bread and water free to guests. The old woman did not see Reyjack as she turned from her home and began shuffling towards her work; she would not have seen anyone, since she didn’t lift her head at all, and Reyjack felt happy that his work made people like her feel safe to walk their hometown streets without fear.

    He stopped at Jurumal’s shack, a popular drinks stand with a pair of small tables out front, hoping for a hot coffee. Jurumal charged too much for his coffee, but it was the best in town. Sadly, the stand was still closed when Reyjack reached it. A bit odd, Reyjack thought, but perhaps the owner was simply running later than usual. Bereft of hot coffee, Reyjack continued towards the station.

    As the sunlight reached down the walls and ran its fingers across the streets and alleys, the bells of the Directionist Church began tolling from up ahead. They always rang the bells in the morning and evening, though Reyjack didn’t know why. Of the religions he knew about, Reyjack considered the Directionists to be the most bizarre, worshipping and praising directions of all kinds as if such things could be of help to mortals in any way. And why any directions would require bells to be rung morning and night, that was also a mystery to him.

    He reached the station and caught Officer Bellows as he was stepping out the station door.

    “Bellows,” he said.

    A larger man than Reyjack and with a friendlier face, Bellows offered his winning smile, the one Reyjack knew had lured many a woman to his bed. “Captain, it’s heating up fast today.”

    “Yes, and no clouds to block that beaming sun. I’m sure you’re as ready to return home as I.”

    Bellows nodded. He said, “Just stepped out to stretch my legs and see if I could spy Lieutenant Neen on his way.”

    “Whenever he gets here, let him know I will be sleeping early, so I might be in to check on him mid-afternoon.”

    “Will do, sir. Rest well, Captain.”

    “You, too,” Reyjack said, clasping a hand on Bellows’s shoulder.

    The rest of Reyjack’s walk home proved unusually quiet. Aside from the animals and birds, the town was desolate of life. After Bombry and Officer Bellows, Reyjack saw not another soul all the way to his house, and only a woman’s distant shouting of orders to her child came to his ears.

    Reyjack’s little home fit neatly between two larger homes on the eastern side of town. He unlocked his door, greeted his cat, Scratcher, and removed his armor, weapons and clothes. Before lying down to sleep, he kissed his fingers and touched them to a wedding ring and a lock of hair on his mantle. The ring, his wife’s, and the hair, his daughter’s, was all that was left of his family; he never failed to remember them every time he awoke and every time he went to sleep.

    “I miss you, darlings,” he said, then stretched out and pushed himself into the restless slumber known to all day-sleepers.

    ***

    Beriss startled awake as the evening bells sounded. He had plugged his ears with bits of cloth rubbed in wax, which had sufficed to keep the regular noises of the town from waking him throughout the day, but the huge iron bell, just two strides from his head, seemed to resound all the way to his bones. He sprang to life, barely stopping himself before he stood completely. The wall around the tower was only waist-high between the four support columns, and Beriss dared not risk being seen up here. He removed the earplugs after the bell ceased tolling, and listened to the townspeople converse as they went to and fro, unaware of the two deadly things in the tower above them: one human, one not.

    He had conserved some of his travelling rations in case the schedule failed to hold, which it had, and he felt grateful to still have three long strips of dried beef. He ate one now, wondering what in the world could have kept Cabramas from reaching the rendezvous last night. His mind offered him a whole world of conjectures, but they mattered little. The only thing that mattered was whether or not Cabramas had somehow died. Beriss would have to assume that to be the case if Cabramas failed to reach the rendezvous again tonight. What possible course of action Beriss could pursue then, especially with the arrangement with Vum having gone so horribly awry, he could not imagine. Still, there was hope that his partner would reach him, and they could make their escape from this place.

    Long hours passed slowly, the sun setting and warm breezes flowing. Things seemed to be quieting down in town, a few businesses closing for the day, when shouts rang out nearby. Beriss tensed and strained his ears to catch the words. There were several voices, predominantly a woman and a man, back and forth. Then Beriss heard words that chilled him.

    “Old Vum!” the woman screamed. “Old Vum! So dead!”

    Beriss felt his heart skip a beat.

  • by JW

    ***

    Awaking late in the afternoon, Captain Reyjack washed himself and dressed. This night of the week was the only one her did not personally walk a guard route, so he left his armor and weapons behind. The air was still warm from the daylight hours, so he even left his cloak behind as he left his home. A short walk brought him to Hevelia’s Café, which Reyjack thought served the finest food in the city, despite some other establishments claiming the title and charging much more for their food. Hevelia herself was not working, but Reyjack greeted the server, Raba, Hevelia’s daughter, and ordered for himself a plate of pork, bread and beans.

    As he waited for his order to be prepared, Reyjack watched the other patrons enjoying their meals. Near the center of the dining room sat an old couple. Reyjack recognized them as Bella and Bar Seems, the matriarch and patriarch of a humble but sizable family that operated a vegetable farm on the south side of town. The Seems had four children, three of whom had spouses, and the old couple enjoyed the blessing of five grandchildren so far. More would surely follow when their youngest, their only boy, reached age and found a wife. Inevitably, Reyjack’s thoughts drifted to his own wife and child. The same pangs of deep and wretched loss struck him and threated, as always, to quickly bring him to tears. Raba arrived with his food just in time to provide him with a welcome distraction from his grief.

    Though he ate slowly, Reyjack still finished his food quicker than he wanted. When Raba came to collect his plate, he complimented her on being as fine a cook as her mother, which brought a smile to the girl’s face. Reyjack smiled back, but his smile dropped as soon as the young lady turned away. Reyjack looked from table to table, and everywhere his eyes settled, he saw smiling faces.

    What a black cloud I am, he thought. All I can do here is wither the joy of these fine people.

    He rose from his seat, leaving extra coins for Raba, and walked outside.

    Drawing a deep breath, Reyjack struggled a moment to find some happiness. He did not struggle long, for the night was clear and bright, warm breezes caressing him from the west, and the stars were exceptionally beautiful tonight. His family could not enjoy this moment, so it fell to him to do so for them.

    Strolling towards the center of town, Reyjack mulled over a few ideas of what he might do with his night once he checked in at the station. He had failed to go early, as he had promised, but that was no matter. Things were quiet, as they had been for many months, the result of his assertive policy for his guards. Crime prevention, Reyjack had learned years ago, was an invaluable tool for a guard troop, and the key to prevention was connection. He had challenged all his guards to become familiar with every single citizen they could, hopefully establishing good professional relationships with many, stopping short of becoming too friendly with anyone and running the risking of losing objectivity. The change on the streets and in the homes and businesses proved that his approach had drastically reduced the level of local crime and revitalized the feeling of safe neighborhoods and businesses. People were happy.

    Reyjack reached the guard station and found it empty, which was not unusual. All guards walked routes or random paths regularly to maintain a visible presence, and there was only a guard at the station about a quarter of the time. He would have to come back later to check in. He tapped his palm on the counter of the front window, considering what he might do until then. The thought crossed his mind, as it sometimes did, that he could go for a drink, but he quickly dismissed it. With his family gone, the most important thing in his life now was his professional responsibility, which meant remaining sober at all times in case he was needed for any form of duty.

    Perhaps a visit to Magrik’s bookstore, he thought; he had not treated himself to the purchase of a new book in a few months, and the ones he owned were worn from use. Resigned to it, he left the station and made his way towards the book shop.

    Halfway there, he saw a young boy running towards him. At the same moment, he heard distant shouting. He hurried to meet the boy, who he recognized as Watker, the son of a local seamstress.

    “What is it, boy?”

    “Captain, thank goodness! It’s terrible, sir. Someone found a body. Someone killed that man. They say there’s blood everywhere!”

    “What?” It took Reyjack a moment to even conceive that the boy meant a murdered body. “Who is it?”

    “That man, the one who always drinks too much and gets in fights, he works in that big warehouse, you know.”

    “I do,” Reyjack said, knowing the boy must be describing Vum. “You go home now, son, and check on your mother.”

    “But I was going—“

    “No backtalk, boy. Go check on your mother right away.”

    “Yes, sir,” the boy said, and ran towards his house.

    Reyjack moved towards the shouting. He found a crowd in the town square, and the shouts created a cacophony. Hollering and waving his arms, he quickly silenced them all.

    “Who found the body?”

    Mayta, an unfortunate woman who long ago turned to harlotry and petty crime to support herself, raised her hand.

    “Where is it?”

    Before Mayta could answer, Tommar stepped forward. “Please, Captain, this is likely just the woman seeing her own sins, not a real murder.”

    “So he was murdered?” Reyjack asked Mayta.

    “His—his throat was sliced,” she said meekly.

    “Oh, come,” Tommar said, scanning the crowd in search of support for his opinion. “This wretch is playing some game, likely trying to cheat us from our money somehow.”

    “Where?” Reyjack insisted.

    “At the warehouse,” Mayta said.

    “Alright, everyone, go to your homes and stay there for the night, no exceptions.”

    “Really, Captain,” Tommar said.

    Reyjack let him speak no further. “No exceptions. Go to your homes now.”

    Once the first few citizens began to move away, Reyjack turned and trotted towards the warehouse. His mind was already spinning with theories, all of which he pushed aside. His training taught him that the only way to truly solve any mystery was to study the facts surrounding it; the only way to find the right theory was to find one that fit facts, instead of looking for facts to fit a theory. The only fact so far was that someone claimed to have found a murdered townsperson; everything else was supposition.

    As he neared the warehouse, he saw a dozen people standing near the door leading into the warehouse supervisor’s shack. Each of the people were recognizable, and only one stood out. He was a country boy, part of a farming family that rarely came to town. The boy’s name escaped Reyjack at the moment, but his presence at the scene, considering the rarity with which the boy came to town and combined with the immediacy with which he appeared here, aroused enough suspicion in Reyjack’s mind that he made quick mental note of the youth’s general appearance. In a word, that appearance was tense.

    “Go home,” Reyjack ordered. “Everyone, please, go home now and stay there for the night.”

    Without waiting to see if anyone heeded his command, Reyjack pushed them aside and stepped across the threshold of the small combination office and home. He walked into an unimaginably bloody scene.

    Blood on the victim’s throat, along with a huge gash.

    Blood covering most of the victim’s chest and belly.

    Blood pooled around the body, a full foot outwards from his shoulders and head.

    Blood splattered outwards from where the victim had been standing.

    Spatters of blood on the far wall.

    The smell hit Reyjack like a slap to the face. Horrified as he was at the sight, the rich, metallic smell of all that blood nearly made him vomit forth his delicious meal.

    No doubt, this was a murder, quick and brutal.

    Reyjack turned to see that no one had left the scene.

    “Nobody steps inside this room,” he said, using his strongest professional voice and adding a stern look of warning to emphasize his words. All other eyes met his for a moment, but their gazes all quickly moved back to the horror in the room behind the captain.

    Reyjack turned back, slowly lowering himself to a squat to closely examine the body.

    The clothes Vum was wearing had no dramatic rips, and there were no other cuts visible on the body. This meant that there had been to extended confrontation; if there had been, Vum would have used his considerably size in his own defense. The blood that had shot from his slashed throat had issued towards the back of the room, not towards the door, which meant that Vum was at least familiar enough with his killer to let him inside long enough to maneuver deeper into the office. Most telling to Reyjack was the single blow to Vum’s neck. This was a decisive, smooth and efficient attack. The blade struck first on the victim’s right, moving to the left, where it had cut down far enough to nearly strike the bone. There was no way of telling if the killer was right or left-handed without knowing how he held the blade, but he was relatively the same height as Vum, strong enough to cut past flesh and muscle, quick enough to use the element of surprise to compete the attack without repercussion, and knowledgeable enough to know exactly where the cut needed to land to open the man’s veins so much.

    A chill ran up and then down Reyjack’s spine. He had seen this before. He knew this killer’s work, and the organization that had trained him to assassinate so efficiently.

    “Lotus,” he said. “White Lotus.”

    ***

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