Terra burst into the small cottage ahead of Nalya, looking around frantically. There was an old woman standing there, looking back at her with a mixture of confusion and apprehension.
“Mum!” a little blond girl exclaimed. “Mum, that’s the lady who was on the bridge with the sleeping man!”
Nalya walked into the cottage shortly afterwards, but Terra had barely said two words before spotting Ryan’s sleeping form on a bed in a poorly lit adjoining room. She ran in and looked him over.
“My apologies,” Nalya said to Ezabeth. “She is anxious to see him well.”
Terra finally snapped out of her trance and looked up at the two strangers. She apologized for being rude and inquired as to how Ryan was doing. Ezabeth repeated the explanation she had given Nalya earlier, taking the time to introduce herself and the little girl.
“Hello, Maryn,” Terra said, smiling at the little girl. “You did a very good thing earlier.”
“I know,” Maryn replied happily. “Mum told me so already.”
“I did at that,” Ezabeth said. “Poor girl came in screaming, frightened at what she seen out there. I almost didn’t believe her when she told me about the girl with hair the color of flowers.”
Terra smiled. It was the first time nobody had referred to her hair as blood-colored.
“I don’t know how much I can thank you for helping,” Terra said. “There are some others out looking for our attacker. I hope they come back soon.”
“Pray they do, child,” Ezabeth said. “Don’t know how long he’ll keep in this state.” She motioned to Terra’s hair. “How do you do it?”
“Punky,” Terra explained. “Hair dye.”
Ezabeth cocked her head to one side and narrowed her eyes. “Say again?”
“Terra and Ryan aren’t originally from the Pactlands,” Nalya explained. “Their true home is a place called Earth.”
Ezabeth eyed up Terra for a moment, considering her dress. “Yes. Yes, I can believe it. Stranger things have happened.” She bit her lip in thought for a moment, then looked to Maryn, who was yawning while playing with toys on the floor. “Child, why don’t you go curl up?” she asked.
Maryn stood up and rubbed her eyes, nodding. She dragged herself into the adjoining room and climbed into a small bed next to Ryan’s, then pulled the covers over herself. Ezabeth motioned to Terra and Nalya to come outside. The two of them looked in on Ryan before leaving the cottage.
Once outside, Ezabeth sighed. “Maryn was named for her mother,” she said.
“I thought you were her mother,” Nalya said.
Ezabeth shook her head. “No, I’m her aunt. Her mother died four years ago. I took it upon myself to care for the girl.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Terra said.
“Fine, girl. I thank you, but listen,” Ezabeth said. She looked to Nalya. “I must ask that in return, you give us no credit. Make no mention of us to those in the palace.”
Nalya blinked in surprise. “I… I’m not sure I understand.”
“You’re not meant to,” Ezabeth said. “Just have faith that an old woman and a child will be saved by your silence on the matter.”
“Are you on the run?” Terra asked.
Ezabeth looked to Terra, confused by her statement.
“I mean, like, are you hiding from somebody?” she asked.
Ezabeth closed her eyes for a moment. “May I have your promise of secrecy?”
Terra nodded. “I won’t say a word,” she said. “Not one.”
Ezabeth sighed. “Maryn’s mother was killed by a Summoner. A powerful summoner in south Rasza.”
“A powerful summoner?” Nalya asked. “Is it Haiden Swift you speak of?”
Ezabeth nodded solemnly.
“Then Maryn is…?”
“Yes,” she replied.
“What?” Terra asked. “Maryn is what?”
“A vessel,” Nalya explained. “Summoners may only summon a daemon into a vessel, it’s a trait often passed from mother to daughter.”
“So Maryn’s mother was possessed or something?”
“Possessed?” Ezabeth asked. “Yes, that’s a word you could use for it.”
“I don’t understand,” Nalya said. “I’ve met Haiden Swift a number of times. He’s one of the most well-respected Summoners in Rasza. He wouldn’t–”
“He’s a tool of the Council,” Ezabeth spat. “A liar and a murderer. He took my sister from her home, from her husband’s own arms and submitted her body to the daemon to serve their ends. When her husband tried to take her back, he was slaughtered. They’d have taken Maryn to serve their blasted ends if I hadn’t left Spiran when I did.”
“You came from Spiran?” Nalya asked, obviously surprised.
“I did,” Ezabeth replied.
“What’s special about Spiran?” Terra asked.
“It was a village in southern Rasza,” Nalya explained. “Some time ago it was raided by bandits–”
“Bandits nothing!” Ezabeth exclaimed. “It were the Council’s orders that burned Spiran!”
“The High Magus Council?” Terra asked.
“You know, I’ve heard nothing but bad things about this Council. Why don’t you just shut them down?”
“The Council is the keeper of the Pact,” Nalya said. “On their word alone they can declare a nation oathbreakers. Any King that would seek to destroy the Council would face invasion by all of the nations of the Pact. It’s happened before, when Caede tried to depose the Council. The war lasted for decades, but in the end, Caede was felled and thus removed from the Pact.”
“Why not just… I don’t know, take a vote?” Terra asked.
“A vote?” Ezabeth asked. “What are you going on about?”
“Back home we decide who gets to lead by popular vote,” she said. “Whoever gets the most votes gets to be our leader. At least until the next election.”
Ezabeth looked to Nalya. Nalya looked back at Ezabeth.
“Sounds silly,” Ezabeth said.
“Don’t worry about that,” Nalya said. “You said the Council struck Spiran?”
Ezabeth nodded. “Not directly,” she said. “But I could smell their hands all over that destruction.”
“Why?” Nalya asked. “Why would they destroy an entire village?”
“To get what they were seeking,” Ezabeth said. She looked at Nalya very carefully. “They were looking for Maryn.”
“Because she’s a vessel?” Terra asked. “Why not just find another?”
“Vessels are rare,” Nalya explained. “So rare that you might search through an entire nation and find only one. It’s why the Council put such severe restrictions on summoning, because the act slowly kills the vessel.”
“Bah,” Ezabeth said. “The Council’s laws are only there for everyone else. They don’t pay it any heed.”
Terra shook her head. “That’s just not cool,” she said.
Ezabeth gave her a blank look, but let it go. “Maryn doesn’t know any of it,” she said. “She doesn’t remember. She was too young. The one thing she does know is that sometimes we have to leave our home behind and start fresh somewhere new. It’s been her whole life since she was old enough to walk.” She shook her head. “Enough of that, though. The sun rises soon. Time’s growing short for that boy in there. We can only hope they find his attacker in time.”
The Grand Apartments were one of the first buildings carved out from the Cilasian Mountain, taking up a large plot of land along the Main Avenue of the city. Constructed a thousand years before by a group of talented Geomagi architects, the building withstood the test of time. It was fashioned from stone and marble extracted from the mountain, and years of overgrowth had sent an army of vines and plants up the side of the large building.
Bayne and Corpus had crept into the bushes alongside the building, making sure not to attract the attention of the guards sleepily guarding its entrance. The building was often used for visiting nobles from other areas of Halen, foreign dignitaries, magii and other people of importance.
Izon Dueck would likely be fast asleep inside.
Quick climbed out of Bayne’s bag, Terra’s camera was strapped to his back and he scrambled around the area, squeaking silently.
“You should be able to find a way in up there,” Corpus said, pointing to the mass of vines climbing up the side of the building. “Try not to be seen, if anyone catches you in there, you’ll be killed on the spot.”
Quick nodded curtly. He pointed up the wall and squeaked out a question. Corpus puzzled out what he was saying through gestures.
“I’m not sure which room Dueck will be in, but you have an hour or two before sunrise to find out,” he said. He looked back to Bayne. “If the plan works, you’ll have to get out of there and make your way back to the House of Roses. You know the way?”
Quick nodded and gave him a thumbs up.
“All right, then go,” Corpus said, then stood up. Quick looked up the side of the building and began working out the path he would take in his head. After a moment of consideration, he started to scale up the vines. A few moments later, he’d climbed higher than Bayne and Corpus’ heads. After another, he had found an open window, and slipped in under the cover of darkness.
“You think he’ll be able to do it?” Corpus asked.
Bayne laughed. “Aye, he’ll do,” he said. “But what about the exile? We need to find her.”
“I know,” Corpus said. “It’s been years since I’ve kept tabs on her. Every once in a while, something will happen that reeks of her involvement.” He sat quietly for a moment and thought. “But never the same thing twice. A body will wash up on the lakeshore, or be pulled in through fishing nets in Arronay. There was an incident in Kura last year we suspect may have been her, but we can’t prove it. We’ve been fairly certain she’d been operating out of Arronay for the past year or so. I couldn’t guess where she could be in Cilasia.”
“Well, we’d better start someplace,” Bayne said quietly. The guards were walking around the perimeter, and it wouldn’t do for them to hear the two men talking. Bayne watched them closely and didn’t speak again until they had passed by.
Corpus quickly hushed him before he had a chance to speak again, and then pointed towards the main entrance to the Apartments. A man dressed in a dark cloak approached the guards there. Something about the way he walked made Bayne pay closer attention. There was apprehension in his movements. Something made him unsure about approaching the guard.
The guard at the entrance brandished his pike in the man’s face. He pulled his hood back, and Bayne heard Corpus gasp.
“What?” Bayne asked quietly. “What is it?”
“That man,” Corpus said, pointing. “His name is Arynn Shima. He was a member of the Alchemist’s Guild until a nasty accident a few years back ended in the death of a noblewoman and his expulsion from the guild.” He looked over to Bayne.
“And what’s that to do with anything?” Bayne asked.
“Because,” Corpus said. “That happened to be one of the deaths we suspected her involvement in.” He moved closer, inching his way down the side of the building in order to hear better. “Come on,” he said. “We should find out what we can of this.”
“Identify yourself!” the guard said. “Or be gone with you!” He lowered his pike and pointed it towards Arynn, regarding him with a suspicious look. Arynn lowered his hood and looked back at the guard.
“My name is Arynn,” he said. “I bear an urgent message for the Lord Dueck.”
“Do you now?” the guard said. “Well, the Lord is sleeping. It’s the middle of the night, if you hadn’t noticed.” He watched Arynn for a few moments more. “What is the message? I can deliver it to him come morning.”
“I’m afraid it’s rather more urgent than that,” Arynn said. “It can’t wait. I must speak to him at once.”
The guard looked down at him from his perch on the steps. Arynn expected to be refused, turned away from the Apartments, but Astara assured him otherwise. She had said the guards feared the repercussions of turning away a valuable messenger, no matter the hour. Arynn hoped that the guard would tell him to be on his way and not look back.
It wasn’t as though Arynn wanted to pass her message on to the Lord. If even half of what he’d heard about the man was true, then he didn’t suffer bad news well. Quite possibly why Astara had sent him– but she had promised, given her word that if he had done this one favor for her, she would turn away, leave and never set her eyes upon him again.
That was what Arynn wanted more than anything else. Since discovering what she was truly capable of, Arynn had wanted nothing more than to be left alone by the crazed woman. By Astara, the little waif girl he once knew who had become an assassin. He sighed, then looked back at the guard.
“Wait here,” he said, then turned and walked inside the Apartments, closing the door behind him.
Arynn felt like bolting. He wanted to run, to be gone from Cilasia, perhaps all of Halen. But the promise Astara had made him caused his feet to remain in place. Perhaps Dueck wouldn’t be there, or perhaps he’d turn the guard away angrily.
But when the door opened, and the guard beckoned Arynn inside, he knew it was too late. Once he had set the first foot inside the Apartments, he was dedicated to his task. It was to be done, and done as quickly as possible.
The guard led Arynn down a lengthy hallway and up a flight of stairs. Arynn had been in the Apartments only once before, when he had administered to the Lady Tommin the tincture he had made for her.
The tainted tincture he had been made to give to her unknowingly.
After a moment, they stopped before a door, and the guard knocked three times.
“Come in, blast it!” came a short voice from behind the door. The guard opened the door and stood to one side, allowing entry to Arynn. When he got inside the room, the door closed behind him and he found himself standing before Izon Dueck. He sat on the side of his bed, dressed in a white nightgown. He could see the outline of a woman sleeping quietly next to him under the blankets, but her face was obscured.
“Well?” Dueck asked, regarding Arynn with an impatient look. “What is it?”
“I bring word from Astara,” he said.
“She was to wait until morning and I would come to her!” Dueck exclaimed. “How hard are those orders to follow?”
“That’s just it,” Arynn said. “She’s had a setback.”
Dueck narrowed his eyes. “Setback? What setback?”
“Her charge escaped,” he said. “I don’t know the details, only that she escaped and was lost. She still intends on–”
“Incompetence!” Dueck exclaimed. He yelled so loudly that he stirred the woman sleeping next to him. “Absolute incompetence! How dare she fail me like that?” He banged his fist down on a bedside table. “After I’ve paid her, no less!”
“Why are you being so loud, Izon?” the black-haired woman asked as she sat up in bed. The edges of the blankets were getting dangerously close to revealing her bare breasts as they slid down. She held it in place with an arm and blinked the sleep from her eyes and looked to Arynn. “Hello,” she said, then wore a sly smile.
Dueck stood up and walked over to the window, looking out. “I’m very disappointed,” he said, then turned back to Arynn. “And you’ll tell her I said as much. Tell her she’s to catch that bitch again before morning– and this time make sure she can’t escape. Cut off her feet for all I care– as long as she lives, I’ve done my service for the Council.”
Arynn opened and closed his mouth, trying to form words but coming up empty. It was the black-haired woman that broke the silence.
“The bloodhead?” she asked. “Astara lost the bloodhead?” she laughed. “That skinny little twig of a girl?”
“Quiet, Delora,” Dueck announced. “You’re not helping.”
Delora replied by rolling her eyes. “If she escaped, she’ll likely be back with my lovely cousin by now,” she said. She let the blanket slip down a little further and she swung her legs out to meet the ground. Standing, it fell off of her entirely, and she stood nude with her back to Arynn. Arynn tried to avert his eyes, but Delora wasn’t shy. She started to dress.
“And where are you going?” Dueck asked.
Delora looked back at him. “Back to the House of Roses. I should very much like to witness the look on my cousin’s face when she comes to the realization that she’s failed.” She winked at him. “Besides, I believe our business has been dealt.”
Dueck looked back to Arynn and sneered at him. “What are you looking at, boy?” he said.
Arynn’s eyes hit the floor faster than he could have thought possible. Dueck said nothing more, only paced and growled as Delora dressed.
“You’ll return to Astara,” Dueck said. “Tell her what I’ve said. The bloodhead is to be captured before tomorrow. I trust she’s killed the other?”
Arynn nodded. “Yes,” he said.
“Fine then,” Dueck said, then waved his hands. “Then be gone.”
Arynn nodded and turned away, knocking on the door. As the guard opened the door, he could hear Dueck speaking angrily with Delora. The guard ignored it entirely and escorted Arynn to the door. After he had exited, the guard escorted him to the edge of the property, gave him a curt nod, and then let him be. Arynn started the walk back home, running the events of the past few hours over and over in his head.
He’d done what Astara had asked. He’d sent the message to Dueck, and fulfilled his part of the deal. All she had to do now was leave him alone and let him to his life in peace. Arynn looked forward to it, but a thought kept nagging at him. Astara had lied to him before– for years, so it appeared. What guarantee did he have that she spoke the truth? What would stop her from plunging a poisoned dagger into his chest the second she had what she wanted? After all, Arynn knew of her connection to Dueck.
He slowed down as he walked. Arynn knew she was connected to Dueck. He knew Dueck was connected to the Council. His word would hardly act as proof among the Halish Council of Noblemen, but coupled with detailed information about Astara’s activities that night, and Dueck’s company, it might be enough to have them take a gander towards Dueck’s actions. They might even arrest Astara.
He stopped for a moment and looked to the sky. The sun was starting to poke it’s head up over the horizon when he started moving again. Astara would stop at nothing to protect herself. Arynn was never told of her work. It was never even hinted at, and there was a good reason.
If Arynn knew of her true profession, he would have to be killed. Assassins for hire left only two people alive. Clients and partners. Arynn was neither.
He started walking again, then became suddenly aware of another presence on the street. Somewhere behind him he could hear slow footsteps. Arynn turned his head to look, but there was nothing there.
He could swear he had heard something. Was he being shadowed?
He sped up, making sure to pick up the pace, looking behind him every few steps for a sign of someone following him. He was looking behind him when he rounded a corner and was pushed violently and thrown on his back along the cobbled roadway. Arynn looked up in a mixture of shock and awe.
He was looking down the shaft of a sword that was pointed directly at his neck. He could feel the sharp point as it pressed into his skin. An old man dressed in leather armor with the smell of liquor on his breath stared back at him.
“And what are ye about, then lad?” an old man said, smiling from behind his blade.
Arynn scrambled back a few feet, trying to put distance between him and his attacker, but stopped when he bumped into something. He looked up. Another man stood above him, staring down at him.
It was a man he recognized.
“Corpus?” Arynn asked. “Corpus, is that you?”
“You had best explain yourself, Shima,” Corpus said. “Who are you working for?”
“Please. Corpus, please. I didn’t do anything,” Arynn exclaimed. “I swear.”
“You didn’t do anything?” Corpus asked. “You’re skulking about through the streets at this hour, lurking around outside the Grand Apartments, what am I to believe?” He pulled Arynn closer to his face. “Are you aware of what’s happening right now? Are you aware than an innocent man will be put to death in the morning because of the word of a lying nobleman?”
Arynn could only look back at him, shock registering on his face.
“Are you aware that another innocent man has been stabbed, poisoned? He’ll die unless we find his attacker.”
Arynn remained still, speechless. He looked away from Corpus.
“You know where she is, don’t you?” Corpus asked. “Astara.”
Arynn flinched, just enough to give himself away, and then he met Corpus’ gaze. “Yes,” he replied.
“Well then,” Corpus said. “You’re going to tell us, or I’ll have Bayne here make you into a woman.” Bayne lowered his sword to Arynn’s groin to prove his point.
Arynn swallowed deeply.
Astara shook the little phial of gasoline. Arynn had used some of it, but not all. It was a pity he had gotten so nosy, he was one of the few she’d been fond of, and his knowledge of alchemy had come in useful on more than one occasion. But still, it was far too late now. Astara had admitted far too much to him in a burst of anger and frustration. It was of little consequence in the end, Arynn had outlived his usefulness, and now he was a threat. She would have to deal with him.
She had it all planned out. Astara didn’t think herself a monster, and she would at least allow him a clean death. He wouldn’t bleed, she’d simply suffocate him after he returned from sending her message to Dueck. It was far too risky now for her to appear at the Grand Apartments in person. Especially if Terra had gotten word back to the Lady Ruus. She chastised herself for saying so much to her, but she had been confident the girl wouldn’t be a challenge. Nothing in the way Terra had carried herself had suggested to Astara that she could fight, but as she replayed the events of the night over in her head, she found that the fault had been entirely her own. She simply grew too confident and comfortable and let her guard down. A mistake she wouldn’t repeat.
Arynn had been gone for well over an hour. The sun was beginning to rise in the east, as evident by the shadow cast by the Cilasian Mountain across the lake. Arynn would return shortly and expect Astara to leave.
She would of course, but only after ensuring Arynn wouldn’t loosen his tongue.
She put the phial of gasoline in her pack, she would have to find another alchemist to study the substance. She didn’t expect results overnight, but once the secret was unlocked, she could use that to snare herself a hefty bounty.
She heard a sharp noise coming from the doorway. She cocked her head to one side to hear better. She heard his footsteps on the steps that led to his door, then stepped back as the door swung open. Arynn stood there, a solemn look on his face.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” Astara asked. “Get inside and close the door.”
“It’s been a while,” another voice said from the side of the door. Astara’s jaw dropped almost to the floor as the owner of the voice stepped into sight. “Sister.”
She could hardly believe it. Corpus? Her brother? She knew he had been at the Harbinger’s Ball the night before, but had been careful to avoid detection. He hadn’t changed much in the years since her exile. She quickly regained her composure and looked to Arynn. “You didn’t tell me you’d be bringing home strays,” she said. In that moment, she decided that Arynn’s death wouldn’t be as clean as she intended. From the looks of things, she needed to get out fast, and quick deaths were often messy.
Corpus stepped into the room, his hand held steady on the hilt of his sword. Arynn remained behind him, and then another figure stepped into view. Astara took a step backward. It was Bayne Dalon. The old bodyguard regarded her with a grave look.
“Corpus,” Astara said. “Brother, it has been a while, has it not?”
“You can drop the pleasantries, Astara,” Corpus said. “You know why we’re here.”
“Oh, Arynn,” Astara said, shaking her head. “What have you been telling people?”
The three men stood at the doorway. Astara took a moment to weigh her options. Arynn would likely stay back and not get involved, which meant that she had to deal with the two men. Bayne she hadn’t yet seen in battle, but by the way he carried himself, she suspected him capable of holding his own. Corpus was trained in much the same fashion as Astara, but his weakness was his unwillingness to lay a killing blow. Astara could use that to her advantage.
Her escape options were severely limited. Besides a window that was just large enough to allow her passage, the doorway was the only way in or out of Arynn’s home. Her eyes darted around the room, and her fingers curled under her belt as she grasped a poisoned throwing blade.
“I wouldn’t try that, lass,” Bayne warned. “You might be fast, but my aim is true.” She saw that he, too held a throwing knife in his hand.
“So am I to stand here all morning while you fools posture and pose in front of me?” she demanded. “What do you want?”
“Your head on a plate would do to start,” Bayne said.
“Enough,” Corpus said, taking a step closer. His sword pulled entirely from its sheath, he pointed it at Astara. “The poison. What is it?”
“Poison?” Astara asked. “And what poison would that be?”
“Don’t play the fool, lass,” Bayne said, growling. “Lest ye find our patience worn.”
Astara laughed. “And why would you need that information?” she asked. “What good would it do?”
“Astara, please,” Arynn said. “It will save a man’s life!”
She narrowed her eyes at them. Save a man’s life? She didn’t like the sound of that. It meant that Ryan was still alive– although no doubt in a fever and near-death. She had no idea how they could have located him so fast, the poison acted slowly, but with an open wound it should have killed him hours ago. Astara had thought him dead the moment he hit the water, but obviously she had missed her mark.
No matter. The entire deal had gone sour now. Corpus had found her, and he was oathbound to kill her, or at the very least bring her to justice. Astara just could not have that.
“So he’s alive?” Astara asked. “Pity. This hasn’t been my best night.”
“Tell us, Astara,” Corpus said, taking another step closer.
Astara quickly kicked the sword out of Corpus’ hands, but he had been prepared. He leaped onto her, causing her to fall back on Arynn’s wooden table, shattering it. She managed to push him off and quickly leaped back to her feet. Bayne was bearing down on her quickly. She pulled a throwing knife from her belt and threw it, missing Bayne and embedding itself in the wall behind him.
The maneuver had bought her just the time she needed to make a break for the window. She ran toward it, jumped up on the counter and slid her legs through the window. Ignoring the shouting from behind her, she pushed the rest of her body through. Her shoulder suddenly erupted in pain, and she looked back for just long enough to see Bayne pull out another throwing knife.
She hit the ground running.
“Blast!” Astara exclaimed, pulling Bayne’s throwing knife from her shoulder. She clamped a hand over the wound to staunch the flow of blood as she ran down the Cilasian streets. It was too much, she had been compromised.
It was no longer safe for Astara in Cilasia. She needed to leave the city at once. She needed to lay low for a while.
She would remember this encounter, however. She would make them pay.
“Well, that was a mess,” Corpus said, getting up and brushing himself off. Astara was much quicker than he remembered.
“And a waste,” Bayne said, putting his throwing blade away. “She never told us what we needed to know.”
“She won’t have to,” Arynn said from behind him. Bayne turned to see him pulling Astara’s blade from the wall. He smelled it and winced.
“Viperweed,” he said. “And Bannon’s Oil.” He looked at Bayne and handed him the blade. “I’m no herbalist, but the smells are unmistakable. When mixed together, they create a powerful poison.”
“You’re sure?” Corpus asked.
Arynn nodded. “I’d stake my life on it,” he said. “Such as it is.”
“Make your way to Nalya,” Corpus said to Bayne. “I’ll be along shortly, make sure they get that information.”
Bayne nodded, and a moment later he was out the door. Corpus looked to Arynn.
“I’m sorry you had to become involved in this, Shima,” he said. “But you’ve done us a valuable service today, and I’ll make sure the King hears of it, but there’s a favor I must ask of you first.”
Arynn looked up at Corpus. He hadn’t even been aware of the familial relationship between Astara and Corpus until moments before. He’d already been betrayed by one Indetae, how was he to trust another? Still, what choice did he have?
“Say nothing to anyone of Astara’s involvement here today,” Corpus said. “This is a family matter, and it should remain one.”