Drelos, 7th Kostol 5102
Life, ever so precious, is never without purpose. But it is our choice whether we open our eyes and face our destiny or close them tight, hiding behind curtains of self-pretence, until death creeps through the window one day and locks them for us forever.
All this time I spent at the University pretending I was making the most of it, so convincingly even I was blind to the truth. But deep down I guess I always knew, as we all do, that in the end I was just wasting time. Such disturbing notions are best kept buried under the distractions of the present however. Or, as in my case, buried six feet under, anchoring the past.
A cool breeze rustled the leaves, a night-time ballad to match my mood, and I felt reluctant to lift my head, even when I heard his footsteps on the gravel. I knew it was him. With him I was somehow always able to tell and when I finally did look, the tall figure of Professor James Montgomery walking towards me between the graves proved me right.
He came to stand next to me and together we watched the tiny, flickering light in silence for a while. It guarded the memory of my friend, Jay Charles Robinson.
‘May our souls always find their way back to the source of life,’ he said finally, letting me finish the ancient Magyar orison.
‘And never lose the light that unites us all,’ I added and watched as hundreds of little stars rose from the gravestones to form the sign of Enderaste on the late autumn sky.
‘Since I couldn’t find you in the laboratory,’ he said ‘I thought you might be here. I received a message from the Messini Historical Society. They asked if we could send someone knowledgeable enough on Satori symbols and artefacts to supervise a cave excavation on Thedos.’
I tore my gaze away from the spectacle above to find that he was watching me with an innocent expression. But I knew at once where this was leading and was considering my response carefully, unsure whether my views on leaving the institution were best served cold right here, in the cemetery, or in one of our heated debates later, in the Grand Hall.
‘Professor, I believe my current research keeps me…’
‘Your current research does nothing to finally take your mind off the past and concentrate on your future. Christian, you need to take charge of your life!’
‘The University is my future. Spending my life here teaching is the very least I can do now.’ I turned back to stare at the grave in defiance.
‘That’s still your grief talking. What happened wasn’t your fault,’ he offered soothingly. A worn-out perception I was tired of hearing.
‘He was only following my lead. It was entirely my fault,’ I repeated what felt like the hundredth time. Was there any point in telling people what happened if they were only prepared to hear their own version of the truth?
‘Look, we might not ever agree on this,’ he sighed. ’But I still think you should go. Get out of here for a while.’
The wind picked up but the sudden chill I felt owed nothing to it. I gritted my teeth and let my eyes wander to the Shend. Out there in the darkness Thedos made its slow orbits about the star.
‘My place is here, Professor,’ I said quietly, but firmly. ‘I’m not planning to leave.’
In the end the bell saved me. Or that’s how I thought at the time. Three huge tubular bells in the main tower playing one single melody. The bells rang and we ran for the gates.
My name is Christian del Rosso. As far back as I can remember I lived within the walls of the University of Saint Mark, on Drelos. An institution dedicated to preserving and expanding human knowledge, to making our world a better place through understanding and applying the laws of science, and by further exploring the universe. A white crystal citadel, built from quartz. The pinnacle of millennia of research, standing proud amongst the peaks of the Ethrels. It was widely considered to be a symbol of progress and excellence. I always rather felt myself to be a part of its existence than it being part of mine, its history too vast, its significance too great to allow anything but admiration and obligation.
I was happy there. But it’s easy to be happy when you choose to believe that your fate has been decided for you. When you think you live where you belong. When you don’t know any different. In hindsight though I had not the faintest clue what happiness really was. Or what it truly felt like to belong. That would have required me to drop the pretence, to go out and find what I really wanted. To fight for it, to love and suffer until I became someone who deserved it. Until I was forged into a sword sharp enough to cut my own destiny.
But no. I would have probably never left and looked for the life I should be living, had it not been that death came looking for me first.
‘What happened?’ Professor Montgomery’s first words to the Council of Masters as he stepped through the obsidian doors in the North Tower, the exquisitely carved panel sliding closed as soon as I entered behind him.
Eleven of the thirteen masters sat inside in a wide circle along the walls. Eleven of the thirteen masters looked at me as one as soon as I emerged, a ripple of disapproval overwriting the lines on their stern faces. Strictly speaking I wasn’t a master yet, but I was no longer a student, either. I had been leading various research projects, trying my hand at teaching classes, even had my own private quarters for these last four years, but despite my outstanding results I would not be permitted to take my final tests for another three years. Even so. As an appreciation for my dedicated work I was often allowed into the meetings already. The unusual tension that I seemed to be in the centre of puzzled me.
‘An intrusion in the Armírion wing,’ Professor Rondoz announced, his booming voice matching the authority he carried within these walls, his gaze a suggestion flickering between the two of us as though either of us should be able to continue the account of events from there.
‘The laboratory?’ I asked meekly, desperately hoping I was wrong for once.
‘Precisely.’ The head of the institution snapped his glare back at me with an intensity that would have served him well in any of the Empire’s dreaded interrogation chambers.
‘And the intruder?’ asked Professor Montgomery.
My mind struggled to follow the words I was hearing. The University was like a fortress, with no reported intruders making it in through its walls for centuries, let alone out. But this wasn’t all.
‘Your team have been terminated, son. Nobody survived. Their work should have been overseen by you tonight. Where were you instead?’
‘It’s my fault,’ Professor Montgomery supplied quickly while I stood in confusion, oblivious to the discussion around me. I thought of the students I’d been working with this past year. Lorand had been filling his cup when I left. That foul brew of his. Dead? He couldn’t be. “Don’t be long,” Kendra had said. I’ve been meaning to talk to her about that article she was working on. She put so much work into it. And she can’t even finish it anymore? Ever? That hardly made sense. I thought about how I walked out of the door telling them I needed a little time for myself. How I walked out, once more leaving behind those I was in charge of.
The mind can be a resilient thing but old wounds are often quick to bleed again, turning disbelief into truth, sorrow into rage. My eyes regained focus, finding purchase on the glowing crimson circle on the seltenium floor. Its light grew stronger until panels moved around and the circle opened upwards into a flower, letting Selena, the university main system pour into shape from its middle. She printed herself into the form I admired the most. Beauty and intelligence combined into an exquisite metal body that looked both human and anything but at the same time. I walked up to her impatiently, as though cutting down the distance would result in the answers reaching me sooner, too.
She fixed me with those big golden eyes, her expression tinged with sorrow. ‘Good evening, Christian. Please accept my deepest sympathies.’
‘How could this have happened?’ I demanded, oblivious to my surroundings.
‘The intruder entered the school disguised as one of the students and only revealed himself in the laboratory,’ she stated.
I stared at her incredulously. ‘That wouldn’t have stopped you identifying him as an outsider.’
‘The disguise was perfect. There was nothing suspicious about him that would have alerted me,’ she said apologetically.
“I don’t understand. What do you mean perfect? With any modern corporal printer you can change your whole body, if you wanted to. So what?’ This was a ridiculous excuse. Even if it looked a little excessive for anyone to completely alter themselves in order to look exactly like another human being, it was I suppose possible. But that changed nothing.
‘She means that the intruder’s complete DNA sequence matched the student’s at the time of entering,’ Professor Montgomery offered behind me.
I span around, my anger giving way to a disbelieving laugh as we locked eyes.
His face remained serious under my incredulous stare. I turned around expecting support from the council, but finding their expressions just as unfazed.
‘We cannot explain how this was possible,’ Professor Rondoz declared,’ but it is certainly the truth. Professor Montgomery guessed it right. The impersonated student has been since found.’
I looked back at my mentor’s steady face. It didn’t feel like a guess to me.
“If we could perhaps watch the footage?” he ventured carefully now that the attention was once again on him.
There was a general murmur to this while Selena silently transmitted a message to Professor Rondoz, eyes narrowing into thin slits of concern as the head of the council considered her words. Finally he pursed his lips and said,
‘By all means you may watch it with us, James, but I believe it would be best to do so without your apprentice being here. I’m told the recording does contain a certain amount of…‘ He paused briefly as if trying to decide how much to reveal with his words while the warning look he shot us carried a supplementary meaning ‘rather upsetting images.’ But not to me.
‘No!’ The protest burst from my chest addressed toward the council but I could sense a growing concern behind me, leaving no doubt as to who would say the final word in this. ‘I can watch it! I need to watch it, please! I need to understand what has happened!’
‘Knowledge is as dangerous as any weapon if you don’t know how to handle it,’ he stated, unmoved by my emotions.
‘How could it hurt me more than the person would have who wielded it?’ I argued, my voice rising in desperation.
‘Had you been in the laboratory, you would be dead. As simple as that. But seeing that you’re alive, you are to do as told. Now…’
‘So, teach me!’ I cut across him, handing him the only ace I had in my hand. ‘Teach me how to handle it!’
He lifted an eyebrow calculatingly at that and I knew I’d got my way. Well. Almost.
‘On one condition.’ He walked up to me until we stood barely inches apart. ‘You are to follow my instructions in this matter to the last word. Even if it requires leaving the institution for some time. No disputes, no hesitation, no questions. Are we clear?’
You find there’s a strange calmness when you realise that you’ve willingly walked into a trap, locked the door behind you and thrown the key away. As though your brain were trying to persuade itself that that was the original idea rather than acknowledging such a massive embarrassment.
‘Yes, Professor, you have my word.’
Such fabrications of the mind often don’t last that long though. Luckily I had something more important to occupy it with as the projectors jumped into life a few moments later and the room around us turned into an illusion of the laboratory chamber. I walked between the ten students, who worked quietly in a group just as I had left them a few hours ago and positioned myself at the head of the long working table. Where I should had been.
‘Now, that’s interesting!’ Meryl exclaimed suddenly on my left, running her fingers furiously through her hair the way she always did upon discovering something exciting.
‘What’s that?’ this from Lorand, opposite her, adjusting his glasses so he could see in better detail what she was doing.
‘Look!’ Meryl again, clearly excited now, making the rest of the team look up, too and start craning their necks toward our end of the table. ‘Look at the reaction when it comes close to tetrium!’ She lifted a small piece of a meteorite sample with a pair of tongs and carefully started moving it toward the clear substance in a dish in front of her. As it neared the liquid it suddenly changed colour and turned red. She lifted it back up causing it to fade again to its original greyness.
‘Cooool!’ Lorand was grinning at her in excitement, his green eyes glinting at the girl appreciatively behind the lenses. ‘Isn’t that like in the new Torello-movie?’
‘Do you mean the one with Shawn Hess?’ Rin chipped in from his right, his eyes still on the meteorite sample.
‘Meryl, what are you doing? Put that down!’ Seneca was now next to her, his dark face taut with disapproval as he reached for the dish. ‘Who said you were allowed to use tetrium here?’
‘It seemed like the right idea given the crystallography results so far,’ she said defiantly, placing the sample back on the main tray.
‘Science-fiction movies are great fun, but breaking the rules won’t take you closer to finishing your assigned duties today, or to figuring out how we can teleport lifeforms between planets. Although it would definitely please my mother if you managed to get me home to Uron more often than just the once a year,’ he added with a soothing smile.
‘I doubt it’s the furthering of modern science she had in mind in any event,’ came Kendra’s voice behind him.
‘Oh?’ he turned to look at her.
‘Please,’ Kendra continued, placing her hands on her hips. ‘It is quite obvious whose attention she’s relentlessly after!’
‘Because who isn’t?’ Lessa observed sarcastically looking up from her notes at the other end of the table.
‘Ladies.’ Seneca chuckled at the brewing storm. ‘Christian del Rosso doesn’t date students.’
There was a general snigger at this.
‘Christian del Rosso doesn’t date,’ added Lorand with a smirk.
‘No,’ Lessa declared, bending back to her notepad, ‘Chirstian del Rosso doesn’t do anything that might be even just remotely considered as ‘fun’.’
‘Now, that’s just sad,’ an unfamiliar voice stated casually behind her making all of us look around. Its owner looked young, fourteen or fifteen perhaps. He had a shock of sandy hair, an innocent face sprinkled with freckles, but there was a certainty in his eyes that could have brought divine providence to its knees. ‘But I heard he wasn’t always like that,’ he went on, seemingly enjoying their puzzled attention. ‘That he had changed since that accident. Poor Christian, I think we should help him. Play a little game with him. Don’t you?’
‘Sorry, who are you?’ Seneca was first to find his voice as usual. ‘It’s Toman, isn’t it?’ he added uncertainly.
Toman favoured him with a wide smile. ‘Now, why would we want to give him all the answers he should be looking for? Where is the fun in that?’ And as he said that he lifted two glass balls breaking them against each other. The exploding shards slowed to a crawl around his hands and it took me a few heartbeats to realise that Selena decelerated the recording. From the broken balls a liquid metal poured down, solidifying into two short, thin blades mid-air, their ends forming broader to shape elegant guards and elongated handles.
Toman grabbed the short swords and with a sudden flip in the air he jumped onto the table. As he landed he smoothly crouched with the same move, span around, cutting Lessa’s throat half-way about the circle. Having completed the full turn he gracefully straightened, once again assessed the exact position of the students around the table and with a mocking smile, bringing his right arm in front of his waist as if in humbleness, he made to bow toward his stunned audience. He turned the bow into another flip moving along the table, another, then another, his features changing into someone else’s in the process, someone taller, older, with a different face pulled into the very same smile.
A deep sound started to reverberate through the room as the fourth flip brought him down to the left, death descending upon the living, effortlessly cutting them from this world with swift and precise strikes. From the slow motion of the falling bodies and spattering blood I could tell he was moving at a speed no human should be ever capable of achieving. And in that moment I wondered, in the midst of all that highly theatrical massacre, whether it was wrong to be grateful that they haven’t even had the time to scream.
Meryl was the last to die, sinking to the floor with gradually escalating quickness as Selena turned the footage back to normal speed. The intruder let her fall and turned his blood-splattered face to me, his dark eyes looking into mine with disturbing accuracy. He stabbed toward my chest simultaneously with both blades and despite myself I jumped.
‘Boo!’ he yelled at me mockingly and only then, between his laugh and reminding myself that I should breathe, did I realise that the deep reverberating noise I’d heard before was the distorted sound of the tower bells.
‘Christian,’ he addressed me looking apologetically toward the general direction I was now standing, ‘this really shouldn’t have been necessary! After all, I only came to see you!’ There was a growing noise coming from outside, that made him look back toward the door. He tensed slightly, but then turned back and continued. ‘You know, I heard you were meant for more than this!’ he lifted his blades to indicate the place around us. ‘I say. To be still cooped up here and yet to be able to claim eleven deaths to your name already!’
‘Eleven.’ The number echoed in my head, not without the intended effect.
‘Oh, wait, I forget! That was an accident!’ He cocked his head and frowned as if considering the matter carefully. ‘Or, was it?’
In that moment the door opened and a Hataroke entered the room. One of the three the University boasted. One of the fifty our whole planet owned, in fact.
When you look at a Hataroke, it’s not simply the huge humanoid robot you see. Neither it is the complex engineering miracle that could in a split second kill you with literary any tiny part of its intricately structured body. It is the eyes. The strange lights and the unsettling vibrations behind those crystal slits scratching against your senses. It’s the way their intelligence had been cultivated around some of the most powerful processor chains ever built. When you look into the eyes of a Hataroke you find you can barely look away. You find that your mind frozen into a prison of your worst nightmare. Except, on this occasion of course I was in that nightmare already.
‘You are under arrest under Imperial Law. Identify yourself, outsider, and relinquish any weapons you may have in your possession.’ It commanded, stopping not far from the entrance to assess the full scale of the situation.
The intruder eyed the android warily and keeping the points out to the sides he slowly crouched down to place his blades on the floor. He pulled his hands off the handles, but remained squatted, palms flat on the floor, eyes cast down as if in some kind of terror-numbed hesitation that preceded the absolute surrender.
The Hataroke walked forward without hurry, its every move conveying its superiority and confidence. It only took about three steps however when a sudden wave rippled across the black elbaite floor, cracking a hole into the crystal and a smile into the intruder’s blank expression. The uneven shape below him broke from the rest of the floor and fell into the lower level storage rooms.
The Hataroke slid into several pieces in an instant, sending a rather spectacular army of superdrones down after him through the crack. Yet it was the image of the silent laboratory, the bodies, the blood that crowded my vision and chased me from the room.
A murderer had killed all ten of my students just to make a point. Who he was and how he knew me was all I could think about. An unreasonable guilt tried to shackle me, as if him naming me as his target should have made me responsible. I shook it off. I sat down to my work desk angrily, the moonless night outside a pale imitation of the darkness my thoughts twisted around. Death loomed over me, a second shadow, cold and hungry. I invited it in. Somewhere out there a killer was on the run. And I was going to hunt him down.
I stirred the holographic interface back into life and opened the system wardrobe. I needed some new clothes anyhow. After selecting a set of regular items, I flicked down the menu options until I found the code and as a privileged user of the university system I began to overwrite the program. The fabric of my new outfit soon became interwoven with thyon, a metallic alloy that was both incredibly strong and light. Invisibility functions were not permitted inside the institution, but since I was leaving anyway I grabbed a microelectronic cloak and mask, too.
I left the tricky part to the end. No code was going to allow me to produce anything more dangerous than a kitchen knife. I had a bunch of practice weapons, used in martial arts classes I still attended, none of which would have given me an edge over what I was planning to face.
‘Selena, where’s Professor Rondoz currently?’ I called out. ‘Still in the meeting room?’
‘No, he’s down in the Vectorium, overlooking the arrival of a new Hataroke,’ came the answer. ‘Would you like to talk to him?’
‘Yes, but I’d better go and see him in person, thanks,’ I said and got up to leave.
It was fairly late, the corridors mostly empty, save for a cleaning droid here and there, with only the stars peering through the vast windows to watch my progress. On any other night like this I would have called the place peaceful. Tonight however it all seemed eerily quiet. A cold numbness stretched across the halls, as though the massacre had wounded the building itself, leaking horror into the bold, grand towers, leaving the institution abused and vulnerable.
The Vectorium was situated on the ground floor, the circular metal gate inside it presenting a second entrance to the world. Teleports were not a recent invention. They functioned in many places throughout the galaxy, transporting objects and materials. But it always irked me how we never quite managed to figure out how to teleport the living. Carcasses of endless test animals appeared at the target gates, the spark that had kept them alive quenched. No matter how hard we tried we could never bring them back to life. Something somewhere along their journey sucked them dry of their essence, allowing through nothing but their hollow shells.
The gate was just closing following the Hataroke’s arrival as I entered the large hall, the wide metal ring slowly narrowing as if finishing a tired yawn. Two masters and a handful of droids surrounded the new arrival, Professor Rondoz stood a little further away however, talking to a hologram of someone who looked familiar. Upon noticing me at the door he beckoned me closer.
‘Christian, you remember Inspector Gorod?’
‘Of course,’ I said and joined them. ‘Good evening, Inspector.’ He looked exactly as I remembered. Seven years didn’t seem to have changed him one bit. I was only an impulsive adolescent at the time. I wondered if that was what he saw still when he looked at me.
‘Good evening, Christian! Not that we can really call it one. But it’s good that you’re here as I will have to speak with you, too.
‘Professor Rondoz assures me, that neither you, nor anyone at the institution has any information about the identity of this person. Or any knowledge on what might have motivated him when he attacked the students. So you don’t know either why he might be looking for you?’
‘That’s correct,’ I replied briskly, ‘I have no idea who he is.’
The inspector nodded and continued. ‘Instead of ten he talked about eleven casualties on the footage, indicating that the added number might have been an accident which you were involved in. I can only presume he was referring to the death of Jay Charles Robinson?’
‘Yes, that’s what I thought, too.’
‘Well, we shall know a lot more soon enough. He has been detected not half an hour ago in Dener. We have a considerable fraction of the imperial land force combing through the area as we speak.
‘Having said that as an additional security measure, we’d like to relocate you until he’s been caught. I hear the University has a small research base not far from here, with only a handful of staff being presently resident. Having just a few people around you would prevent him from disguising himself as one of them so easily and we can easier secure the building due to its smaller size. Not that we’d allow things to progress that far, of course. But making your departure public information without the destination provided would hopefully deter even the thought of a possible repetition of tonight’s events.’
‘It all makes sense.’ I nodded agreeably.
‘Excellent. We’d like you to go as soon as possible,’ he said pointedly, underscoring it with a curt nod and disconnected.
Sunrise found me out on the grounds, the awaking light breathing colours into the world all about. The ivory towers were the first to sparkle, gleaming among the surrounding mountain peaks, while the valleys stretched into the distance and slumbered on, thick blankets of morning mist hiding them from any curious eyes. All was quiet, save for the occasional cry of a shale hunting for an early bite, writing majestic circles into the pale blue sky.
It felt rather surreal at the time. It’s hard to understand how such a beautiful morning can roll up as if nothing had happened, as if last night hadn’t just torn something out of life, leaving an ugly bloodstain on the fabric of the world.
I walked toward the Portus, where the university’s vehicles were stored. A raw wind blew among the buildings, its cold fingers tugging at my cloak, hastening me along.
I entered the vast hangar through a side door, it being the closest to where the smaller land speeders were kept. Without hesitation I pressed my fingers against the first one, throwing my bag onto the passenger seat before it was even fully open.
‘You might want to retrieve that.’
I turned upon hearing the familiar voice. ‘Storn?’
A dark shadow emerged from behind a nearby shuttle, a sharp contrast against the whiteness of the ship, heading toward me with an otherworldly grace.
‘I was instructed to accompany you,’ he said as he stopped in front of me and gave me a level look. I reached up to nuzzle his long, arched neck, running my fingers through the thick mane, temporarily forgetting all the anger and hurt I had to offer the world.
‘Right,’ I said. ‘Do you have the coordinates?’
‘I do,’ he said, then curled his upper lip, treating me to a close-up view of his perfect front teeth. ‘But you should wait for the Professor before we leave. He’s on his way.’
I moved to get my stuff from the speeder, shaking my head ever so slightly. ‘Well, I bet you’re going to surprise the hell out of the exchange students at the base! I doubt they’ve ever seen anything like you.’
‘I’m one of a kind,’ he agreed. ‘The Professor built me to be exceptional.’
‘Even if you didn’t say a word and acted as if you were a real horse,’ I added, ’I doubt they would know what that was.’
‘Ha! I’m better than a real horse!’ he snorted.
I kept my silence, trying to suppress a grin at his famous vanity. He called it pride. We both knew that none of us had seen a living horse before, but I thought it best not to mention that now. Travelling with him when he was in a sulky mood could be considered an inconvenience. I called it a nightmare.
‘Where was the Professor living when he had such animals in his keeping?’ I asked.
‘A very long way from here,’ came the answer from the direction of the side door which I left wide open, followed immediately by Professor James Montgomery himself. He closed it.
‘How come I’ll be taking Storn?’ I asked.
‘All the university vehicles are standard imperial makes and therefore traceable. You’ll be safer with something more difficult to follow.
‘And while we’re at safety this is for your journey, too,’ he said and handed me an A-type ionblaster with a leather shoulder holster.
I turned it around appreciatively. ‘A K-317?’
‘Works exactly like the K-20 you know, but it’s even more collimated. Let’s hope you won’t need to use it.’
‘Yes, let’s hope,’ I agreed. A tiny voice in the back of my mind begged to differ.
We walked out into the sunshine, leaving long shadows in our wake.
‘It seems your wish is coming true, after all,’ I said, a touch of bitterness lacing my words. ‘I’m getting out of here for a while. I just wouldn’t have expected my life to turn so grim in the process.’
A silence stretched between us until we came to a halt near the gates. ‘It doesn’t really matter what we expect from life.’ He spoke eventually with a soft deliberation. ‘But rather what life expects from us. It’s our answers to its questions, our solutions to its problems, the actions we take to tackle the tasks it places in front of each of us that are important. Choose your actions and you choose your future.’
I hadn’t much to offer to that except for tipping an imaginary hat and vaulting into the saddle.
‘Let’s go,’ I said to Storn and let him take me up to the gates. Once my mind was set on leaving I didn’t feel like lingering much anymore. And more importantly I had hoped that the University would be a safer place for the time being without me.
As I waited for the gates to open a strange mood touched me. My skin prickled against a change in the wind, stirring a nameless feeling somewhere deep within my heart. A wonder. As if for a second, I had glimpsed something complex, something breath-taking, fading away in an instant, leaving nothing but an echo. A pause in the slow swirl of the stars around me. An impossible moment gone before it could be grasped. A feeling that something was changing. That a new beginning was leaking into the world when all I was hoping to bring about was an end.
I chewed on my lunch slowly, enjoying the view the vantage point yielded. The sun stood high in the sky, its light tumbling down the foothills onto the patchwork of the valley floor, painting it even brighter. Despite my sullen mood this morning I enjoyed the journey so far. Riding gave me a sense of freedom and peace I found in no other means of travelling. I could well understand why Professor Montgomery would miss these animals so much he eventually created a replica. I turned from the view to look back at Storn. He still stood on the road behind me, his head down, ears pricked up as he seemed to study something on the ground.
‘Anything interesting there?’ I asked. He had reflexive moves, originating from the body language of horses, but I didn’t understand why he would have to lower his head. It’s not like he couldn’t see exceptionally well from a normal upright position.
‘You frighten it away!’ he explained in a reluctant low murmur.
‘Frighten what away?’ But then I saw it. There was some kind of small forest bird, hopping along toward him on the road. It was always unpredictable how animals reacted to him. Some of them wouldn’t even look at him twice, others became uncharacteristically hostile, some others again, like this little one here, just appeared to be downright curious. He on the other hand was fascinated with them all.
Storn stood still, letting the bird hesitantly approach him, its black bead eyes trying to take in the size of him. It was a brave one, it had to be said. The bird didn’t stop until the distance between them was only an inch or two and then with a last defiant skip it landed on Storn’s muzzle. He looked at the bird in awe for a moment but then just as quickly as that happened something had changed. I could tell from the way he pricked back his ears. His smitten features became serious as he lifted his head and looked back, causing the bird to lift off in a golden swirl, chirping some offended complaint. But Storn didn’t seem to care anymore. His attention was focused elsewhere.
‘I’m receiving a weak signal,’ he said and looked back at me. ‘Sections of a coded message.’
‘Who is it from?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know, but the transmitter seems to be damaged or broken. The only thing I can get out clearly is ‘University of Saint Mark.’’
‘Where is it coming from?’
‘It’s about 25 miles west-southwest, moving away from us with an average speed of 4.2 mph.’
‘That’s quite slow. Could it be some malfunctioning university droid?’
‘It could be,’ he agreed. ‘But the code doesn’t seem familiar to me. It might be a little while before I can break it.’
I pushed myself up from the boulder I was sitting on. ‘Let’s go and collect it.’
‘Shouldn’t we be heading to the base?’ he asked surprised.
‘The base is only a few hours away now,’ I said. ‘Even with a little detour we should be there by nightfall, the latest.’
I flicked my lenses on as we neared the target and Storn slowed our speed to a gentle trot. The University’s welcome screen rolled across my vision, which I quickly waved away and opened my mailbox. There were no new messages.
‘I can’t believe you still use those,’ Storn exclaimed.
‘What? The touchgloves?’ I looked down at my right hand, bare fingers sticking out of the black microleather glove. I never liked implants and used whatever I could to avoid them. ‘They work perfectly fine!’ I said and flipped the mailbox closed with my thumb.
He laughed at me. ‘It’s ancient technology.’
‘Shouldn’t you be watching the road or something? Stop scrutinizing me!’
That earned me another snort, but he did go quiet on me for a while.
‘I’m losing the signal,’ he said eventually.
‘How is that possible? I thought you said we were getting close!’
‘I’m not sure. But I think it might be moving underground.’
‘Send over what you have to my screen.’ I sighed. I wasn’t keen on wasting time playing hide and seek.
‘What’s this occasional background noise behind the message?’ I asked after checking the content.
‘It’s the buzz of a flying insect. Judged by the wingbeat frequency I would say it’s a bluebee. Our droid has a constant companion it seems.’
‘But why would a bluebee follow around a droid so persistently? Unless…’ I turned the picture around in my head and the realisation hit me.
‘Storn, I don’t think our droid has a bluebee companion!’
‘I think our droid is a bluebee, a Bluebee Z58 insectdrone. It must have come from the Hataroke that was destroyed last night!’
‘That’s a very strange speed for a Bluebee,’ he said sceptically.
‘Not if it’s sitting on something that’s moving beneath him.’ I double-checked the coordinates where the signal was last receipted from. We were only about a mile from it now, the road taking us downhill, winding around the mountain in a gentle curve.
Storn saw it first.
‘Maybe we should just report this and turn back,’ he suggested.
‘You’re right!’ I said with mock concern. ‘This could be a little difficult for you and we wouldn’t want you to get stuck in there somewhere! It’s probably best if you wait for me outside!’
‘I didn’t say it would be difficult,’ he tutted. ‘I can handle myself better than you’d think!’
The narrow opening of the cave loomed in front of us yielding nothing but darkness. I dismounted and peeked inside. As my lenses adjusted I could see that the tunnel leading into the belly of the mountain was a short one, opening into a large cavern further in. The next moment something tickled my ear and a large, dark nose pushed forward at the edge of my vision.
‘Do you think we’ll be able to find it in there?’ the mouth beneath the nose whispered.
‘I think we should give a try,’ I said and walked in.
The heavy silence that surrounded us was only broken by the clatter of our footsteps. We made our way through the cavern silently, entering a second tunnel at its end. The shaft wound on for a few hundred yards, its water-smoothed walls gradually widening as we progressed.
‘I found the signal again!’ announced Storn behind me and almost walked into my back I stopped so suddenly.
‘Never mind that now!’ I countered.
In front of us the tunnel opened into a void. A chasm divided the floor, the sound of rushing water rising from far below. At its narrowest point it spanned around thirty feet. I cautiously leaned forward and looked down. Even without the exact figure indicated on the left of my vision I could tell that stumbling into it would be the last slip I ever take.
‘I might be able to make it,’ said Storn behind me.
I turned, hoping he could see the exasperation written on my face as clearly as if it was daylight. ‘Might be?’
‘Well, I can’t be hundred percent sure because I’ve never jumped such a long distance before, but based on the parameters, if I also take into account the limited space I have to gain momentum, your weight and…’ he trailed off under the look I gave him.
‘Do you want to think about this a bit more carefully while you send me the new coordinates?’ I suggested.
I pursed my lips as I considered our options. As crazy as this jump seemed to be I had a gut feeling that what we were following could lead us to more information about last night. And whatever it was we were following it was about a mile ahead of us.
‘I’m eighty-three percent certain we can make the jump to the other side.’
I sighed, climbed into the saddle and positioned myself the best I could.
‘Time to show-off!’ I told him.
Storn moved back further into the tunnel and took a moment to focus. For that moment I briefly considered what I had to lose if we didn’t make it. I couldn’t think of much. But whether that was disappointing or liberating I had no more time to establish. We shot out from our position as if fired from a gun.
For the next few heartbeats the whole world narrowed around us into the rhythm of the canter, the sound of the hooves on the rock and the abyss rushing toward us with an alarming speed. We reached the edge and Storn leapt off. Time seemed to pause, digging its claws into my nerves for purchase, keeping us over the void for eternity.
We landed with a jolt, the edge of the cave floor crumbling into the deep under the back hooves, but Storn pushed on and didn’t stop until it was well behind us.
‘We should probably find another way out.’ I said as he turned and we looked back, my heart still pounding hard.
I dismounted again, seeing that the limestone roof angled sharply downward ahead of us.
‘Are you not forgetting something?’ Storn looked at me expectantly.
‘What?’ I did my best to sound innocent.
He brought his head close and bumped his muzzle against the side of my head.
‘Okay, okay.’ I laughed. ‘It was a neat job. Well done!’
I gave him a little pat and we set off once again.
We moved swiftly along the tunnel, with the echo of dripping water all around us, the walls growing so tight that we had to squeeze through in places. Eventually it started to broaden again and we found ourselves in a roundish cavern, studded with glistening stalagmites.
We had just walked around a long row of stalactites, descending like a curtain in front of us, when the distant sound of human voices reached us. Storn pricked up his ears excitedly but I signalled him to keep quiet and fished out a small box from my bag. I pressed a button on its side to open it, letting a firefly lift into the air. It didn’t have the same technological advances as a Bluebee Z58, but from this distance it could still spy for us a bit. I set it to record and transmit back and manually manoeuvred it ahead using my gloves.
I stood in the middle of the pitch dark cavern, my arms held out in front of me as if I was conducting an invisible orchestra. The firefly flew through the space, my left hand controlling its flight, my right its view. The picture we were receiving was surprisingly clear. I haven’t really tested it without any light before.
The source of the voices wasn’t far. We soon laid eyes upon four people, some standing, some sitting in a half circle. I placed the drone up on a dry spot of the cave wall and zoomed on them.
Just as I secretly hoped our intruder stood amongst them. A dark smile spread unexpectedly across my face. A hunter’s gratification.
‘Are we all clear?’ he said to the others. ‘Lerkin, you go first.’
Lerkin, skeletal and pallid, looked up. ‘Should I come back afterwards? To keep an eye on Christian del Rosso in the meantime?’
‘No. There will be too much attention on him for now.’
Lerkin shrugged himself from the wall. ‘I can handle Montgomery.’
The man sitting next to him on the floor laughed, a bold giant, thick muscles heaped along the length of him. ‘Don’t be an idiot!’
‘Shut up, Aron, nobody asked your opinion!’Lerkin retorted.
Aron stood, easily dwarfing the whole group around him. Lerkin seemed to shrink further still under his hard stare.
‘Do you think Laro didn’t challenge him at the University because he’d forgotten about him?’ Aron growled gesturing at their friend. ‘Just because James Montgomery has been in retirement for the last twenty-five years it doesn’t mean he couldn’t kick your tiny little arse back all the way to Coltron if he wanted to. None of us would be a match for him. That man was a legend among champions.’
‘Now, now,’ Laro said. ‘There’s no need for concern. If we just follow the plan, we’ll get to all of them in due time.’ He turned and set his palm to the wall. There seemed to be something circular carved into it. I turned the zoom to its maximum to get a better view.
‘Ready, Lerkin?’ Laro asked and in that moment the whole circle lit up with a force that temporarily blinded me. I could just make out Lerkin walking toward it as my lenses adjusted, stepping through its light-blue surface and disappearing into it completely. My jaw dropped. For a moment I completely forgot about the remaining party standing in the cave and focused on the thing. The texture and the randomly swirling motion of its surface was reminiscent of the teleports I’ve seen before. But could it be possible? That man stepped into with practised ease, without the slightest hesitation.
As I watched, the intensity and the colour of the circle began to fade. I guessed that’s how it was closing rather than the mechanical way I was familiar with. I tore my gaze away and turned the visuals back on the group. Laro was now talking to the only woman present in the company. From the short distance they stood from each other I suspected they were more than just passing acquaintances. Lovers, perhaps?
‘Are you sure you won’t need help with Conor Drew?’ Seductive smile on an exquisite face.
Laro placed his hand under her chin and pulled her closer. ‘I’m sure. You go back to Earth with Aron and find the key. I’ll take care of Conor Drew before he even hears of del Rosso.’ He kissed her and reset the gate.
I watched the woman and Aron go through it. I could still hardly believe it.
“Tell me about all this “attention” I have on me,” I hissed to Storn, suddenly suspecting that the horse had more duties than just to carry me where I was going. Storn turned to look at a nearby stalagmite and studied it with keen interest.
‘When was the last time you reported to him?’ I whispered.
‘Just outside of the cave.’ He looked back at me sheepishly. ‘The reception down here is just terrible.’
‘Give me the coordinates to his work desk,’ I said as I watched Laro reset the gate a third time.
‘What? What are you…’
‘Storn! The coordinates to Professor Montgomery’s work desk in his study!’ I cut him short. ‘Quickly! There’s no time!’
The coordinates appeared on my screen and I set the firefly to its destination. I drew the ionblaster from its holster and started running.
The gate had just started to fade slowly following Laro’s departure when I reached it, the swirling core of it inches away from my hot face. My heart hammered in my throat as I stared into the yawning oblivion and for a second I thought I wouldn’t be able to step into it.
‘Are you sure about this?’ Storn behind me.
I clenched my hand into a fist. ‘I’ll be damned if I let this Conor Drew die on my account, too!’ I said through gritted teeth and entered the unknown.
Dorn, 18th The Month of Promise, 1575
Ancient belief has it that a traveller arriving at the hour of the owl is fated to bring a blessing and a curse. Yet people across the Nineteen Kingdom are often blind when it comes to telling them apart. Word has it my appearance is equally mistaken for both regardless the hour, although I always preferred to fulfil my obligations after midnight.
Which explains why I’m not exactly a morning person. Dawn in particular never held any appeal for me. I opened my eyes a tiny fraction. The amount of wine I consumed during the night, which was substantial even in my not entirely inexperienced assessment, told me to close them.
I had ridden through the gates of the Beren Castle at sunset, the clatter of the horseshoes on the cobblestone lost in the commotion surrounding the wedding of the duke’s daughter. Due to fortunate timing I missed the ceremony entirely, but was just in time for the feast. Weddings were never really my thing. Marriages are like hangings. Best observed from a sensible distance before you turn away unsettled and ride home to safety. Not saying that they aren’t necessary for some. But I always held the view that no man should marry until there’s an army outside his walls just about to raise hell if he doesn’t.
Preparations for the festivities spilled out of the castle into the grounds, sprouting a dozen of colourful tents emblazoned with the Beren family’s coat of arms, a golden griffin on a black field. Around the tents the wedding party gathered in groups, talking and laughing, hands variously clasped around goblets and tankards. Serving men hustled up and down, carrying trays, rolling barrels, turning joints of meat on spits above fire-pits. Kids ran around in numbers, chasing each other with wooden swords, ducal puppies racing along, yapping for their attention. I dismounted in the midst of it all, flipped a coin to the approaching stable boy and made my way toward the keep.
I found the steward, Frederick Rolford, standing on the stairs. A solid, dark-haired fellow in his forties. He glanced at my pack before fixing me with an expectant look.
‘Master Drew! How nice to see you return! A pleasant trip?’
Household staff always knew too much about their lords and ladies’ business if you ask me, but I had no reason to hold it against him on such a fine day. I gave him a confident smile.
‘Very nice, thank you!’ If we don’t count the spiders, snakes, the rotting corpses and the zillion cockroaches. ‘How is the celebration going? I should congratulate the happy couple!’
‘The duke will be very pleased to see you! Let me escort you in!’ he said and turned to show me the way.
After having been relieved of my sword I followed Frederick into a large, crowded reception room, guests in their best finery parting to port and starboard ahead of him, heads leaning together to babble in my wake. I kept my eyes to the fore, the ducal family coming into view at the heart of the assembly. The Duke of Beren, sporting a majestic grey beard, his face gleaming with pride, his wife, a chattering parakeet of a woman with a voice that made me want to beat her into silence half of the time, the groom paunchy and dull, balding already… but in between them a true beauty drew the eyes. The eyes of the Drews above all.
The Lady Ameria Beren. A star descended from the heavens to shine upon our misery. Well, mainly on the misery of others. My only misery at this point lay in not being alone with her.
‘My dear Conor!’ the duke’s rich baritone cut across the crowd. ‘What excellent timing!’
‘Your Grace.’ I sketched a bow then turned and bent to kiss the hand of the duchess.
‘Conooor…’ she made a singsong of my name with just a little too much enthusiasm, ‘I hope you fared well on your journey! Let me introduce you to our son-in-law, The Duke of Sorpon, and of course you have already met our daughter, Ameria?’ This was followed by some or other elaborate description of the wedding ceremony I missed and the marvel of the bridal dress, but to be fair her words soon washed over me without registering. After a quick bow to the groom my attention moved over to the bride. Golden hair framed her pale angel face, a circlet of white flowers crowning her radiance.
‘Lady Ameria.’ She looked down at me as I bent and kissed her hand, a challenge kindling behind her green eyes. As in response, I reached into my backpack and with a flourish I produced a small bundle of crimson satin cloth. Ameria took it, raising a delicate eyebrow and opened it to reveal an ornate hairpin. She let out a little gasp as she turned it around, allowing the rubies to glint proudly amongst the scrolling wire-work.
‘It’s breath-taking!’ She looked back at me, her expression a mixture of joy and surprise. ‘Is this from…’ she trailed off, a shadow of suspicion crossing her face.
‘It is,’ I interrupted hurriedly before she had a chance to finish the question. Although I had little doubt that word of my recent travels had reached the ears of many of those present, it was best to keep a confidential manner. ‘To suit a woman so dangerously beautiful.’
She favoured me with a dazzling smile which regrettably I only had a moment to appreciate before the duke imposed himself upon me and gestured for me to accompany him out of the room. ‘We have a bit of time before the feast starts in the hall,’ he explained. From the corner of my eye I noticed another man peeling off from the crowd to join us. An elderly, narrow-faced noble, ‘Lord Simon Tanos, one of the king’s advisors,’ the duke introduced him to me later.
The three of us settled down around a table in the library with only the strains of music and conversation from the hall to disturb the silence. After a few courteous words I opened my bag, removed a leather purse and placed its content onto a silver tray in the middle of the table. The duke and Lord Tanos leaned closer for a better view.
‘Is it really it?’ Lord Tanos asked, his voice carrying more astonishment than doubt.
‘It clearly is, Lord Tanos,’ the duke said, putting on a pair of dark gloves. ‘Look at the craftsmanship! Not to mention it agrees with every description I have come across these last three years.’ He carefully placed his hands around the precious metal and lifted it up. ‘A red gold crown, each of its points wrought to shape a rising phoenix with a pair of onyx beads for eyes. And in the middle…’
‘The Lament of Andel,’ Lord Tanos breathed. ‘Said to be the largest blood ruby ever seen across the Nineteen Kingdoms.’ He inclined his head and looked up at me. ‘How have you done it?’
I shrugged. ‘We all have our trade secrets, don’t we?’
‘They say nobody has ever returned from the Holt Catacombs before.’ Lord Tanos pressed on and moved to refill my wine cup, perhaps familiar with rumours claiming that I was known to be less shy about my achievements on nights out in my favourite tavern. ‘Allegedly the Earl of Twerbury sent down thirty mercenaries once. None of whom has ever emerged.’
‘Forty,’ I corrected after a mouthful. ‘But yes, it’s not for the faint hearted.’
Not for the faint hearted was a bit of an understatement. In truth the place still gave me the shivers. Beyond its endless dark tunnels, beyond the remains of the dead, beyond the disgusting, venomous creatures that made it their home, something else lurked there. It was in the foulness of the air. It dripped from the roof. It was woven into the spider web crisscrossing the walls. A presence scratching against my mind with icy talons until my skull throbbed. I shivered at the thought and tried to pull the duvet further over me. It appeared to be firmly stuck. I sighed and turned to wrestle my half away from the sleeping woman next to me. I heard that in some parts of the far east it was accustomed for men and women to sleep in separate beds. I really should look into how to introduce this clearly sensible tradition over here.
Once I made myself more comfortable my thoughts turned back to the discussion last night. The Duke felt so pleased at having acquired the crown that he couldn’t help telling me all about the reason he wanted it so badly.
‘According to legend,’ he said ‘the crown had been cursed by the neglected mistress of Renold II., a witch, and was buried with her near four hundred years ago.’
‘I’m familiar with the legend of the Cursed Crown, Duke Beren,’ I said. ‘Allegedly the Lady Selia placed a malicious spell on it to take revenge on the king for abandoning her. They say the king, upon placing the crown on his head the next morning, went blind. And thus the seed of the curse plaguing the royal line was planted.’
‘You sound like you don’t really believe it.’ Lord Tanos observed.
‘I’m not saying it can’t be true. Only that I think it far more likely that this tale is simply used as an excuse by all those healers who failed to find a cure or the real cause so far.’
‘I can understand your point,’ the duke declared without hesitation, ‘but after years of researching the myths I came to strongly believe that removing the curse from this crown would also remove the curse from the royal family.’
Curing the descendants of the Regol family tree by removing an alleged curse from an ancient relic, when hundreds of healers, sorcerers and priests failed to tackle the task before, seemed more like chasing a miracle than carving a path to securing political advancement, but then again, who was I to judge. I’d done this job for a prize. A prize that would take me one step further toward my own goals. Chasing miracles seemed not that unfitting a phrase to describe them either, after all. Not to mention that our current monarch neared his late thirties. And who wouldn’t do everything in their power knowing that any day now they would lose their eyesight for life?
‘As much as I’d like to I can’t pretend to be an expert in lifting curses.’ I emptied my cup and got up from the table. ‘But I’m wishing all the best of luck and success with this enterprise, your Grace.’
The other two men also stood. The duke rang a bell and shortly the door opened, half a dozen of armed guards entering the room. One of them carried a small, elaborately wrought iron chest. The duke opened it, took out a small round object and placed the crown in its place. The guards left as swiftly as they arrived, presumably to carry it to the treasury. I didn’t spare them a second glance. Since I first spotted the round object in the duke’s hand it had held all my attention. I furrowed my brow and swallowed, for once almost nervously.
The duke’s smile widened upon noticing my interest. He held his hand out toward me, the golden disk glinting in his palm.
‘Your payment, my good friend,’ said he, ‘well earned!’
I took the medallion and studied its intricate design for a moment before slipping it around my neck on its fine chain.
‘And now let’s get back to the festivities before my wife gives me a hard time for delaying dinner!’ The duke laughed. ‘Not to mention all our lady guests for hiding the famously good-looking Conor Drew!
The feast that followed was one to remember. Even if the hosts seemingly made sure that the amount of wine consumed at the event was sufficient to wash it all into oblivion. I was seated near the high table, in between two exuberant noble families, who couldn’t have looked at me with more excitement had I been a Temenesi street magician.
‘You know, I might have travelled to the Lost Cities myself a few times when I was younger.’ Lord Kenes announced to the lot of us while helping himself to more roast hog from the central plate. ‘Had my sword crossed with a brigand or two.’ Here he paused and lifted his fork into the air in doubtlessly faithful representation. ‘Had a few fair maidens shed tears upon my departures.’ He smiled to himself as he poured more apple sauce on his plate from a jug.
‘Faaaather…!’ One of his younger sons on my left was giving him a disapproving stare. ‘Conor has been to the Lost Cities five times!’ He put his cutlery down, straightened his back, lifted his head and gave the overall impression of reciting his most recent lecture back to his tutor. ‘He found the ancient scrolls of Serekesh, brought back seeds of the Meron fruit, defeated the Daloresi pirate captain in single combat, burnt the Nemere temple to the ground and stole the Map of the Death Islands from right under the nose of the Sint overlord.’
I raised my eyebrows as I moved to let a serving man change my plate – damned if I remembered all that and in chronological order! Not to mention that the total demolition of the Nemere temple wasn’t strictly speaking part of any deliberate plan of my engineering. The serving man, a white haired gentleman somewhere in his seventies, leaned close to my ear to communicate something quietly. Since it was the eighth occasion that evening it didn’t even take me by surprise anymore. In fact, I believe it was the first time I caught myself involuntarily leaning closer to him, too.
‘I’m sorry, master Drew, but the Duchess once again would like to know how you liked the dish.’
I gave out an almost invisible sigh and looked up toward the top table. The Duchess of Beren was looking down straight at me, wearing a terrifyingly wide smile and an expectant look on her face. I re-arranged my expression into something that might resembled joy from a distance and gestured to express my appreciation.
In truth though it was all good. You could tell there was no expense spared when it came to marrying off their only daughter. Time after time dancers appeared, jugglers, fools, comedians. The food was delicious, the musicians virtuoso and every time I came near to emptying my glass a pretty serving girl appeared and topped it up. Adjoining the hall was a smaller one, where after dessert guests who still felt confident enough to walk around were encouraged to socialise, and the fearless even to dance. Luckily for those fine specimens of womenfolk who caught my eye during the evening I had solid experience when it came to socialising under such strenuous circumstances.
My stomach growled presenting a temporary competition to the peaceful snoring emanating from the other end of the room. I sighed. How could I be already hungry again. Sometimes I really wondered if something was wrong with me. I opened my eyes and for the first time I noticed a fruit basket on the bedside table, full of grapes. I reached out and seized a bunch. I stretched my legs and stuffing the fruit into my mouth I considered my surroundings. My clothes and boots lay on the floor, drawing a straight line from the door to the bed. On my right the duvet gently rose to follow the shape of an exceptionally beautiful woman. I watched her sleep for a minute or two, golden hair framing a pale angel face, a white rose petal here and there still visible among her locks. Given how the festivities concluded I was fairly confident that the whole castle must had been still deep in slumber. Which was pretty amusing in a way. I would get Ivan, the bard, to write something entertaining about it when I get back to Manessa. We just wouldn’t mention the wine. Best to say it was a spell.
I got out of bed and started getting dressed. In front of the dead fire place the Duke of Sorpon still slept noisily. Regardless, his presence served as a reminder that I should clear out of the newlyweds’ bedroom before anyone took notice of me.
I was just pulling up my second boot with one hand, clutching a third bunch of grapes with the other, when to my astonishment the door opened. It was the pretty serving girl from last night, the one topping up my glass so diligently. Despite having spent a few pleasant hours with her on one of my previous visits I pretended not to recognise her.
‘May I be of any assistance, madam?’ I conjured up my most innocent smile. Although the desired effect might have been somewhat spoiled by my voice being suspiciously close to whisper. She gave out a little shocked gasp upon seeing me, but it was too theatrical to be genuine. She knew I was in there.
‘Master Drew! I hope you were not planning on leaving before fulfilling the promises you made me!’ She thankfully kept her voice low but she had an iron resolution about her that I didn’t like. I met religious fanatics with less convictions in their eyes.
‘Promises? What promises?’ I kept my smile in place as I tried to look past her into the corridor.
She grabbed the front of my shirt with both hands and shoved me against the wall. In my surprise I let her. ‘You know what promises!’ she hissed so close her lips tickled my cheek. Judging by the smell of her breath she must had started the day down in the cellar.
‘I didn’t realise someone could get so athletic from lifting wine jugs all night! Looks like I’m in trouble, fair lady!’ I grinned.
‘Big trouble, too!’ she said and firmly fastened her mouth onto mine.
‘Mhmh…‘ I might have kissed back. Strictly in self-defence.
For a minute or two it looked like I might get out of this. That was before she started unbuttoning my shirt.
‘No, no, not here…!’ I mumbled and tried to push her off me.
‘But here was good for the lady?’ She spat bitterly and renewed her assault on my shirt. For the love of Torond the Great! Just what was it with women when it came to reason?
‘Look, why don’t we just…’
‘No!’ she retorted fiercely. ‘Take me! Take me now!’
I froze. She wasn’t talking quietly anymore. The duke’s snoring pattern became dangerously scattered and I had no idea who might have heard her outside.
‘Shhhhhh…. Listen!’ I started again but she clearly wasn’t in the listening mood. In fact, it just seemed to agitate her further.
‘What are you waiting for? Get on with it right now, or I scream to the world where you spent the night!’ she barked defiantly.
For a moment I hesitated whether I should just knock her out. It turned out to be a mistake. Giving her a moment that is. In the next her shrill voice rang out so loud it could have woken the dead out in the graveyard. On second thought it could have woken the dead down in the catacombs. Not that I had time for second thoughts. I grabbed her and jerked her to the side before sprinting out of the room. Thankfully no guards were stationed in sight, but I could already hear footsteps rushing up the stairs. I looked around for inspiration and through the open windows I spotted one of the large, well-pruned walnut trees standing fairly close to the house. With a swift jump I gained the windowsill, and from there I threw myself toward the nearest branch.
Judging by the shouts that went up by the time I reached the ground and sprinted off toward the stables I had quite an audience following my progress from the windows. I ran across the gardens, dodging the seemingly random shrubs and ornaments. The open field beyond would have been quicker to cross had it not been for the tents erected for the wedding. And so it had happened that halfway through the tent-labyrinth I got intercepted. It wasn’t even the handful of guards yelling and running after me from the direction of the keep. Although their reckless shouting probably contributed toward waking the bear of a man who emerged from a pavilion right in front of me. Normally the two large kitchen knives he was clutching would have not caused much concern on my part. Given however, that my sword had been taken from me on arrival, I resorted to indignantly snatching up two pewter tankards lying on the ground. The man proceeded to show some competency with his choice of weapon, I guessed him to be a cook or a butcher, but no one could say that I wasn’t similarly accomplished with mine. Daily handling of any item will grant you some skills.
In the end however only one of them would train you to deal with a massive hangover. Hence I had the better stamina. I left the butcher unconscious after a few well-directed blows but only reached the fire-pits before three guards caught up with me. Guards with swords. I threw the tankards away and lifted off one of the spits. A six-foot-long iron bar is an excellent way to extend your reach. The first opponent to draw near was quick to learn the advantage of reach when I smashed the spit’s end against his sword hand, the blow strong enough to make him drop his weapon. It’s also useful when it comes to preventing anyone getting close enough to do serious damage. As my second opponent realised it when I forced him to back off with a series of strikes. And you know the handle at the other end? Oh, that’s the best part! I turned the spit around so it faced them and thrust it toward the third guard narrowly missing his head. He confidently advanced forward with a little smirk on his face only to have the handle hit the back of his neck as I pulled it back and have him caught in its angle. I turned from my waist, changing his course and thrusting him into the second guard. The first guard stopped clutching his right hand with his left and decided to punch me in the face while I was occupied with his colleagues. I gave them a last shove with the iron spit, encouraging them into the closest tent and sent the spit after them. It was all good fun but I was running out of time. I blocked the next punch, and the third, delivered one myself, then skipped back three steps and snatched up a clay jar from a table left there from yesterday’s cooking. I lifted the lid and peered into it. To my disappointment it was only salt. I threw it at the head of the approaching guard and missed. I snatched up a second jar, lifted its lid, too, but had no time left to check what was inside. Nonetheless I shoved its powdery contents into the guard’s face. The effect was immediate. Good old ground pepper.
I raced on toward the stable, picking up one of the swords on the way, shouting the name of my horse upon my approach, with an increasing number of men shouting mine not far behind. Not a moment too soon I was in the saddle, prompting a hesitant stable-boy to step aside and rode out through the gates into the surrounding town. That was the second time that morning I thought I might just get out of this. And the second time that morning that I was wrong.
Dorn, 19th The Month of Promise, 1575
Early morning sunshine threaded the branches, finding our eyes, trying to fool us into thinking we were back in the same woods, just outside the cave. I looked at the unfamiliar trees as we passed, the forest watching us curiously with a thousand eyes in return.
‘Anything?’ I asked again, for what felt like the hundredth time.
‘There’s still no signal. I have no idea where we are,’ Storn responded, summarising his earlier observations. ‘All I can say is that the planet shares the standard parameters required for habitation. The percentage of oxygen in the air is very slightly lower than on Drelos. The gravitation is also a little weaker.’
‘I still can’t believe we lost him!’ I grumbled. ‘How did he disappear so quickly? We must have entered that teleport only minutes after him!’
Storn cocked his head to look at me. ‘Um… excuse me? Shouldn’t you be still not believing how you’ve just survived a teleport travel?’
I sighed. ‘I suppose. Let’s focus on finding this Conor Drew. And hope we can get to him before it’s too late.’
Storn was right, of course. My thoughts gathered around Laro like dark clouds, at the expense of everything else. It was easier to focus on him than to allow other notions to complicate things. In fact, I needed it. The loss, the shock of the massacre still haunted me. A shadow of what the professor had been trying to tell me hung above it. At least my anger still propelled me forward, while the rest was only threatening to pull me down.
‘Christian,’ Storn’s concerned voice alerted me, jolting me from my pondering. Further ahead the trees thinned and a timber cottage stood near the road. Not far from its open door something lay on a dark patch of the forest floor. Something large, furry and unmoving. As we drew closer I realised it was a dog. It took me some time, because its head was missing. As I dismounted I glimpsed it lying a good five yards away. The forest, like a shocked witness stood ominously quiet, the only sound the buzzing of flies around the bloody carcass.
I walked on towards the open door and pulled my blaster. Inside someone sat on the floor, his back against the top of an overturned table. He was a burly man, well into his fifties, with dark eyes gazing unfocused below his short ebony hair. He had thick arms, laden with muscles. His long fingers were clasped around the hilt of a blade driven all the way through his stomach, impaling him to the table.
‘Pleease…’ The man pleaded once he caught sight of me, his voice raspy and weak ‘Please help… please, don’t leave me!’
‘I’m here.’ I said as I crouched down next to him, recognising the tongue, although I’ve never expected to use it outside the classroom. I looked behind the tabletop. The length of the blade visible on the other side suddenly made me nauseous. I assumed his body must had been in shock, immune, or at least dissociated from the pain enough to be able to talk. Nonetheless, I grabbed a biostick from my pack. I switched it on, selected morphine from list of drugs and gently inserted the appearing fine needle into his upper arm. He hardly seemed to have noticed.
‘What happened here?’ I asked, trying to push the anger rising in my voice in anticipation of the answer.
‘…young man came by… asking questions… looking for Conor Drew’
‘You know Conor Drew?’
‘Everybody knows Conor Drew.’ he said, the corner of his lips curving into a bitter smile. ‘An adventurer… they call him. A common thief if you ask me!’ His eyes defocused, as if remembering something, then he continued. ‘Can’t say I like the lad much… but my daughter is very taken with him… She couldn’t shut up about him if her hair was on fire!’
‘Your daughter?’ I glanced around uneasily, half-expecting to see a second body lying somewhere.
‘Nera… She works down in Beren Castle,’
‘And she knows where he is?’
He didn’t answer for a while, just stared at me in confusion, as if trying to remember who I was or what the answer to my question could be.
‘The Duke’s daughter got married last night,’ he said after a while. His voice grew more steady as the drug kicked in, but I wondered if it had stolen the thread of the conversation from him. ‘Nera told me Conor was expected to turn up there, too… But there was something I didn’t like about this stranger… So I said I didn’t know.
‘He said he could tell I was lying. And that he had the means to make me tell the truth… Turns out he was right.’
‘Did you tell him he was in the castle?’
He shook his head. ‘I told him I heard Conor Drew went to the Holt Catacombs on some business on the duke’s behalf. And that as far as I knew he was still there. No one ever returned from the Holt Catacombs. And that’s the truth.’ This should have made me feel slightly easier, but I found myself a little annoyed instead.
‘No one ever has returned from there? Why would he go to such a place?’ What was the point of me racing through half the galaxy to save him if he was stupid enough to walk into his own death without any assistance?
‘It’s a cursed place. But it’s rumoured to hide some magical artefacts. The duke, like all the aristocracy, is a very keen collector.’
‘Magical artefacts? What…?’ I tried to ask, but he cut across me.
‘Listen, you need to go and warn them! Beren’s just down on the coast, not far. Don’t let this devil do any more harm there! Don’t let him anywhere near my daughter! Please! You’ve wasted enough time here. Just help with this first…’ his voice trailed off as we both looked down at the wicked object we’d been trying hard to ignore.
‘The blade went through your stomach. If I pull it out, you die.’ I said tentatively, the reality of what might have to happen next only hitting me now. A quick glance at the interiors, the obvious lack of electricity or even just window glass suggested that we were likely on a pre-industrial planet somewhere. No help will come in the middle of a forest and I had neither the equipment, nor the experience to save him.
‘I will die if we leave it in. Only a little slower,’ he said. ‘And I’d just rather not have my Nera find me like this.’
‘There must be a way!’ I objected, desperately trying to think of one.
‘But there isn’t.’ He said simply, reaching out for my hands and placing them on the hilt, leaving his on top of them. I looked down at the blade, dreading what pain just moving it by an inch would cause. My hands were shaking as I looked into his eyes, unable to bring myself to take his life.
‘There must be some other way!’ I said again, angry tears filling my eyes now, blurring his face.
‘Son, listen to me,’ he said gently, one hand reaching up to my face. ‘You’re not doing anything wrong here. You’re helping me.’
‘I’m just so sorry, that I cannot do more.’ I said, my voice cracking under the strain.
‘You cannot do more now. But you have a good heart. A heart that was born to do more later. Help others when its time has come.’
‘I will,’ I said. ‘I promise I will not let this killer anywhere near Nera. I will catch him and make him pay!’ My muscles tensed as more anger sipped back into them with each word, giving me the strength I needed. Then the world got washed away by the whisper of the sword moving through flesh, the howling of the man, the touch of hot blood on my skin and the rush of the sharp, sickening smell.
It took some time before I stumbled out to Storn into the sunshine. Despite my earlier temper, a miserable exhaustion enfolded me as we set out toward Beren, and if I have had to face Laro right there and then it probably wouldn’t have taken him long to add me to his growing casualty list. As it happened however the next section of the journey went uneventful and fast as Storn flew across the forest with me in the saddle.
Eventually the trees thinned around us and we stopped to take a look down to the city. Beren hugged the coast, walled off on its own peninsula. Behind the walls lay a carpet of single story dwellings, their terracotta roofs gleaming red in the morning light, rising up to a rocky outcrop sporting larger structures. Perhaps the homes and temples of a ruling elite. The castle stood on the very top, surrounded by another set of walls. I adjusted my lenses and zoomed in. Nothing within the city suggested heavy industry, just the thin smokes of individual smiths, tanneries and the like. Their narrow streets seemed unsuited to motorised transport. Out on the sea no ships at anchor other than those that depended upon the wind.
‘Look, look!’ Storn said urgently. ‘On the main road!’
Some commotion caught my eyes as I turned my gaze back toward the front of the city and saw someone galloping through the gates, followed by many others, their business seemingly urgent. I started zooming in again, something more than mere curiosity drawing me closer, until I could finally see the first person’s face.
‘It’s him. Conor,’ I said. ‘The first rider.’
‘Conor Drew? How do you know?’ Storn’s voice sounded a little odd, but I was too busy trying to figure out why I was suddenly so certain.
‘I don’t know,’ I had to admit it was strange. In fact, the more I tried to find some logic behind my assumption or just remember where I knew his face from the less confident I felt.
‘And he’s leading an army?’ Again that odd voice.
I turned my attention to the riders behind him. They were all men, wearing various pieces of metal armour.
‘It looks like it.’
‘It’s strange he’s the only one not wearing any protection.’
I looked back at Conor. He seemed to be riding at full speed down the road, his head pulled low. My lens’ motion sensors highlighted a projectile passing close by him. It was an arrow, missing him by an inch.
‘Now wait a second…’ A few more flew by before I spotted the archers and re-assessed my understanding of the situation. I pursed my lips, wondering what to do. After everything would I now have to watch him die? At that moment Conor looked at me, too. Given the distance between us I was sure he couldn’t really have seen me. Yet somehow we connected. In his surprise he lost his balance and swayed in the saddle. He managed not to fall, but slowed sufficiently for the others to catch up with him.
‘Let’s go!’ I called out and gripped the reins. Storn didn’t move.
‘Storn!’ I cried impatiently. ‘Let’s go, quickly!’ There was no response.
I leaned forward until my head was close to his. ‘What’s wrong?’ Nothing seemed to be wrong with him. He just stood there.
‘So many!’ he said slowly.
‘What?’ I asked, tilting my head, trying my best to make him look at me.
‘Horses,’ he whispered, completely ignoring me.
I stroked the top of his head. ‘Do you like them? What do you say we catch up and see if you can join them for a run?’ He looked at me then. Just for one moment. The next I was holding on for dear life.
Despite our speedy approach by the time we made our way down the soldiers were long gone. I decided to move the ionblaster into my saddlebag, hoping the city guard won’t go through its contents.
As we neared the gates, flags fluttering in the wind far above us on the battlements, more and more people came into view. An elderly man passed us by on his way out of the town, causally whistling as he led a donkey, loaded with heavy-looking bags. Ahead of us two women entered, wearing long robes and carrying a large woven basket between them. I dismounted and appearing to lead my horse I followed them through the gates. Within a few yards three armed soldiers stopped me. A young, self-assured fellow standing in the middle of their half circle called out to me.
‘What’s your name, traveller?’
‘Christian del Rosso,’ I said.
‘Christian de’ Rosso!’ His comrade standing on the left shouted back over his shoulder. Further in, near a large building, a woman sat on a bench behind a wooden table. ‘I heard it myself, thank you, Rodrigo!’ she called back, writing in a large book in front of her, presumably entering my name. I noticed she also had a tall metal tankard next to her ink bottle as well as what appeared to be a throwing knife embedded into the top of the table.
‘And your purpose in the city?’ the first soldier asked me again.
‘I’m on business on behalf of the duke,’ I told him with more confidence than I felt.
‘He’s on business on behalf of the duke!’ Rodrigo called back again to the woman who simply rolled her eyes. ‘On your way, then!’ he said to me and they parted to let me go. I only took a couple of steps however before a knife flew by missing my nose by inches and sank its tip into a log on a woodsman’s cart. I turned to look at the woman who was holding a second knife already.
‘And what business might that be, Christian del Rosso?’ she asked conversationally, twirling the knife between her fingers.
I looked into her big dark eyes and confessed. ‘Conor Drew.’
Her face split into a huge grin. ‘Good luck!’ she said and reached out with her arm, pointing her knife up toward the castle. She was pretty when she smiled. Mocking or not.
The vibrant streets soon swallowed us, drawing us deep into the heart of the town, a cavalcade of colours, sounds and scents invading my senses, in stark contrast to the University’s restraint. My thoughts became muted beneath the noise of carriage wheels, horse shoes on the cobblestone, the chatter of citizens debating local news, the shouts of vendors, the laughter of kids chasing each other, the whistling of fisher-folk carrying their catch in heaped buckets, the frequent calls of seagulls from above.
We made our way up toward the castle. From many houses came the smell of fish frying over stoves, warm bread cooling on window sills, variously mixing with the less pleasant odour of human sweat, the stink of pigs penned for market, stable doors yawning, their breath heavy with horse and hay, the sweet fragrance of acacia, rose and orange blossoms carried on a warm breeze from the gardens.
Above all, my gaze was drawn to the faces of those who passed us by. In Drelos we are all shaped to perfection. Here, lacking modern technology, time and wear carved lines and imperfections with unforgiving hands, somehow still sculpting their owners to radiate deep internal strength and an innocent beauty.
Beren Castle, with its many towers and charming turrets, sat surrounded by a picturesque garden. It spoke of wealth and comfort, reflected in the girth of the men set to guard it, and in the obvious neglect of its defences in favour of ornamentation.
I was let through the gates fairly easily and soon a boy appeared to lead Storn away. Storn, who pulled a rather concerned expression at this new development, soon cheered up upon realising their ‘destination’ and appeared to be leading the surprised boy himself as they departed toward the stables. I left my blaster in the saddlebag, judging the biometric clasps to be sufficient impediment under the circumstances.
I entered the castle in the company of a Frederick Rolford, who introduced himself as the steward. He made it perfectly clear to me that in his consideration the chances of the duke granting me, or anyone for that matter, an audience to discuss any business regarding Conor Drew were indeed very slim. Nonetheless, following my persistence, he left me waiting in a stunning high ceilinged library, featuring magnificently carved bookcases, comfortable sofas and large glass-paned windows providing views across the garden. I walked along the shelves, inspecting the handmade volumes with interest. Many of them had wooden bindings, sometimes covered in leather with vellum title labels glued to their spines. A few were covered in textiles richly adorned with embroidery. Almost all of them were secured with small metal clasps. I examined a number of them appreciatively, then turned to walk across the room and paused. As my eyes moved past the contents of a shelf, and its exquisitely detailed carvings depicting mythical beasts, they picked up on a familiar name on one of the book spines. I slowly turned back, half-convinced that I had only imagined it, but there it was. I reached for the volume curiously and opened it. Just like all the others it was written in ink by hand. The only difference was that I knew this handwriting. I turned the pages slowly, watching the elegant lines closely, but there was no mistake.
‘I hope you find my library to your satisfaction!’ An imperious voice addressed my back. It belonged to a tall man with sharp eyes and greying features. The presence of the steward and two armed guards behind him helped to convince me that it was the duke who entered the room while I stood there lost in surprise.
‘I apologise, your grace,’ I answered hesitantly, ‘but this book here…’
‘Is a rare and invaluable copy, as I assume you must already know!’
I wavered under his steely gaze and reluctantly put ‘A History of Dorn by James Montgomery, G.M.’ back in its place.
‘Now, if you wouldn’t mind telling me who you are and the reason for your visit, as it already happens to be an unexpectedly difficult morning for me,’ the duke said, seating himself at a dark wooden table and indicating for me to join.
‘My name is Christian del Rosso. I’m a scholar. I travelled here from the Kingdom of Drelos in search of a man called Conor Drew. I was told that I might find him here.’
‘I’ve never heard of such place,’ the duke said. ‘As for Conor Drew, he’s currently being held in the dungeons awaiting decision about his penalty and as such is quite unable to attend to other matters, I’m afraid.’
‘May I ask what he’s done?’
The duke looked uncomfortable, his forehead creasing into complicated lines, saying nothing, as if I should somehow read an answer there instead.
‘A personal insult,’ he said at last. ‘One which has severe diplomatic inconveniences tied to it.’
I relaxed. That didn’t sound too bad. ‘Would there be any way to compensate you for these crimes and release him into my custody?’ I asked.
The duke slowly shook his head, his lips curving into a sad smile. ‘Not if you can offer your weight in gold. So unless you have brought something even more valuable with you today, Scholar of Drelos, I’m afraid this discussion has come to an end.’ He looked at me expectantly.
I racked my brain. Even if the castle had been guarded better, it wouldn’t take much for Laro to enter the prison and complete what he set out to do. Given what I’ve seen so far he might even share a plate of delicacies and a game of cards with the soldiers while listening to a troubadour’s performance beforehand.
‘How about an invisibility cloak?’ I offered suddenly, not seeing any other way out of the situation.
‘A what?’ The duke’s eyebrows flew up in surprise.
‘A magical cloak that can make its wearer fully invisible,’ I explained with a confident smile spreading across my face. I used to teach classes. I can tell when my audience is hooked.
‘Show me!’ the duke ordered.
I opened my pack and pulled the microelectronic cloak out. It was of a greyish-blue colour, its material imitating cotton, with only the small monitor on its left sleeve looking out of place. I stood and put it on, activating it with a few quick taps on the screen. I looked up for a second to take in the duke’s astonished face, then reached for the mask and put that on, too. I turned around to look at the other men standing at the back of the room, but of course they could no longer see me. The steward stared gaping with an open mouth while the soldiers pulled their swords from the scabbards. I quietly walked back to the bookshelf and lifted ‘A History of Dorn’ into the air, feeling like a magician as the people in the room simultaneously gasped. I put the book back into its place and pulled off my mask.
‘Incredible!’ The duke exclaimed in disbelief. Then he beckoned to the steward. ‘Frederick, put it on!’
The steward’s face turned horrified and he glanced toward the door for a second as if contemplating an emergency escape. Behind him the soldiers exchanged excited looks and one of them placed his hand on the steward’s shoulder, who looked more and more like a scared rabbit under the butcher’s knife.
‘There’s no need to be afraid, it’s perfectly safe.’ I tried to reassure him as I walked toward them pulling off the cloak. I put it on him along with the mask and activated the device. As Frederick disappeared from view the two guards started curiously poking him around, reassuring themselves that despite it all he was still there, laughing loudly, as if this was the best entertainment they had in ages. The duke came over and joined them, slapping the top of the steward’s head with a practiced flip of his hand. His laughter boomed over the soldiers’.
‘Take it off him,’ he instructed me finally, his earlier distress replaced by enthusiasm. I did as I was told and in turn he sent his men to fetch Conor Drew while I explained him how to use the cloak and how to adjust for size.
Once he tried it on successfully himself he turned to me and asked how I came to possess it.
‘Cloaks like these are not that uncommon where I’m from,’ I said carefully.
‘Yes, this Kingdom of Drelos is a very long way away, I’m sure.’ He surprised me with a knowing smile.
‘It is,’ I admitted, unsure what he meant.
‘You are not the first to come to our lands from a ‘far-away’ place, Christian del Rosso. Although travellers like you are immensely rare. We call them Rachallans. There are stories about one or two in every generation, arriving from worlds beyond the stars, passing through our kingdoms, never staying for long.
‘I love my books and I read a lot. I came to respect the Rachallans for their unique skillset and knowledge. Unfortunately few beyond these walls are similarly open-minded. Your fine manners, your strange accent and your unusual clothing give you away. Not to mention this cloak.’ He glanced down at it, then back at me. ‘You’ll find this is a rough world out there, Christian del Rosso. If I were you I would try to blend in more. What is your purpose with Conor Drew?’
‘I need his help catching an assassin.’ I said simply and worried he might start asking questions I’ll find more difficult to answer I quickly added: ‘This assassin has also killed the father of a serving girl working in your castle. Her name is Nera. I’ve come across their cabin this morning, but I was too late.’
The duke’s face darkened. ‘I shall let her know.’
He rang a small bell on a side table and told the appearing woman to get me a new set of clothing. I followed her up the staircase into a small guestroom and quickly changed before heading back down and out to the courtyard to find the duke with more of his soldiers standing around Conor Drew. It was the rider from the road.
Conor sported a few colourful bruises, but seemed otherwise unharmed, his hands still in shackles. He was about my height, a few years older, with a scornful expression under his shock of messy, dark hair.
One of the guards presented me with an iron key mumbling ‘all yours’ under his breath. I took it and walked up to the prisoner. Our eyes met as I released him, but none of us spoke. Behind the soldiers the stable boy appeared with Storn and another horse I presumed to be Conor’s.
‘Conor Drew, you are never to return here again,’ the duke declared in a voice admitting no contradiction.’ You have two days to leave the city.’ He turned to me and his voice softened. ‘Having said that I would be pleased if you came back to visit and we could talk more, Christian. Once your business with him is concluded.’
‘I thank you for your kindness and your advice, your grace.’ I bowed and turned to leave.
‘Technically nobody has proof that I’ve done anything wrong,’ Conor said to the duke as I swung myself into the saddle. I was eager to get out of here and talk to him, to find answers to my questions before Laro reappeared. This really wasn’t the time to argue and further annoy the duke when he was free to go.
‘Conor…’ I started, but he cut me short me with a raised hand and carried on. ‘Nobody saw anything.’
‘These extenuating circumstances are the reason you’re still alive,’ the duke answered patiently.
‘You mean that killing me would confirm any rumours about what might have happened. Admit it. It’s in your interest to let me go.’
‘Let me put it this way,’ said the duke. ‘One more word about this here or anywhere else and the life of a cockroach will carry more enjoyment than yours.’
Conor raised his arm and pointed at the duke, presumably about to deliver his views on the finer details of legislative fairness, at which point Storn, sensing my impatience, let out a long resounding neigh and pounded the ground with his front legs. Conor turned, wordless, his finger now pointing at Storn, quieting him with a murderous look on his face before walking to his own horse and getting into the saddle.
For my part I was just relieved Storn had remembered to stay in character and hadn’t reprimanded our new friend verbally. Then we would have never left.
Dorn, 19th The Month of Promise, 1575
Anger is like fire. Let it burn unwatched and it will hurt you. Use it wisely and it becomes what the Gods intended it to be: Fortitude. I’ve always found that one of the best ways to employ such a fire was by cooking up a plan.
I had two days to steal back the amulet. Two days I hadn’t actually needed. All I needed was to make sure the act went unnoticed and what better way there was to disperse even the shadow of suspicion than to have all eyes on me. To let people think, and without the slightest doubt, that they knew where I was and what I was up to.
And then there was just the matter of ditching my new self-appointed guardian angel. To get rid of people you have to politely listen to what they want as you take a good look at them and then give them what they need. For the best result I decided to give him the two things he clearly needed the most.
‘When did you last spend the night with a woman?’
‘Oh, don’t give me that look! It’s bad enough when your horse does it!’ The animal in question looked up at me as we unhurriedly crossed Merchant’s Square, the streets quieting around us with the sun setting, heralding the arrival of the time of day I usually preferred.
‘Conor, have you listened to anything I told you so far?’
Remember, as I said, you listen to them, or at the very least, you pretend.
‘Every word of it.’ I nodded sagely. ‘We’re both in mortal danger. This Laro can happen on us at any moment.’
‘Does this not concern you the slightest?’ He started to sound exasperated. Which was good. Tiring them can also help.
I looked at him deeply troubled and nodded a few more times. ‘Now let me try to recall when the last time was that someone wanted to kill me!’ I gestured toward the crimsoning sky, followed by my gaze, as if trying to think hard but in fact remembering the wine-soaked table linen from last night. ‘Aaaah, but only this morning!’ I stopped my horse and dismounted. ‘And I’ll certainly perish from hunger before anyone else gets to try next if we don’t eat something soon!’ I looked expectantly toward the inn, and as if by magic the innkeeper’s son appeared to lead the horses into their stable.
‘Be careful with this one, Ben!’ I patted Christian’s horse as he dismounted. The animal seemed to have that annoyed disposition about it as it had every time it looked at me. I grinned widely in response and rubbed its head behind the ear. ‘Awww… who are we getting rid of now? Who? But who? This little opinionated horsy? It needs to go now and leave the grown-ups to talk privately! Oh, noooo!’
‘It’s best not to aggravate him!’ Christian stepped in, while the horse looked on as if he might complete the assassin’s task the next minute.
‘Pfffttt…’ I turned and walked toward the door. ‘Come on, Christian,’ I called back over my shoulder without stopping. ‘I must introduce you to the local traditions.’
The Fisherman’s Tale was packed to the gunnels with locals meeting up for a pint after the day’s work, travellers from Savia or the Lost Islands looking to spend a night on land, others taking a short rest before sailing with the morning tide.
Heads turned as the creaking of the door announced our arrival. Some bored, some curious, all of them judging, making their own presumptions, each according to their nature and what suited best the next turn of their conversation. A quick glance around told me that there were no vacant tables, as was often the case on a fine late spring eve.
There are several ways to get yourself a table in a crowded tavern. Usually the less amicable the more successful. But right then for some unfathomable reason I wanted to look good in front of my new friend. I wasn’t even sure why. Maybe it was just that damn horse. In any case I called out to Sarah, the Innkeeper, loud and clear:
‘Doreni High Ale for everyone!’
A resounding cheer went up for that, along with Christian’s eyebrows, while a group of regulars scrambled to their feet and with the kind of unashamed affection that only the half-drunk can muster patted my shoulders and persuaded us to sit down in their places.
The Doreni was so crisp and clear that nobody ever questioned the effort involved in carting the barrels over a hundred miles of bad roads from Orengwood. A sip would play a melody on your tongue, a tune of sweet high notes underwritten by a sharply sour lament. A flagon would play a melody on your mind.
‘Quite an entrance!’ Christian acknowledged, settling down to the table, looking around. ‘I thought the duke kept your belongings.’
‘He did,’ I said.
‘In which case I’m not quite sure how you thought we were going to pay for such an extravagant night out.’ His questioning eyes settled back on me.
‘Ah, don’t worry.’ I shrugged and raised the tankard in salute that was set in front of me in that very moment. ‘We can always just sell your horse.’ To his credit he returned my grin at the joke without missing a beat.
‘I’m sure he’d find his way back before long. But I’d strongly advise against falling asleep in the meantime.’
I took a swig from my ale and started to enjoy myself. The noise of the inn washed over us in waves, conversations swelling, voices booming then softening until we could hear the repeated roll of dice on nearby tables, someone humming as they walked past our table carrying drinks, the occasional laughter cutting across the air, the doors creaking as more guests arrived.
The windows stood open, letting the last of the daylight reach in. Outside the sun drowned in the west, setting a field of night-flowers to bloom, first one, then another, another, then many. In sconces, upon the hearth, a faint and flickering glow blossoming in dark windows. Inside the light pooled around candles on tables, around oil lamps on the walls, illuminating paintings nestling close, leaving others to the dark.
So my rescuer wasn’t rich or he just hadn’t much coin on him. I would have thought him rich. Even for a scholar he had fine features. He had the hands of someone who never in his life had to handle anything more difficult than a teaspoon. Fingers manicured, face shaved, hair freshly cut. Nowhere a scar, or just a scratch, not a single strand of hair out of place. Even his blue eyes seemed to have an uncanny crystal clarity to them. He would be so easily manipulated I almost felt sorry for him.
‘I keep a strongbox here. The night entertainment is on me.’ I told him as a barmaid finally appeared with the stew I ordered.
‘A strongbox?’ Christian asked but he kept his eyes on the food, considering the content of his bowl somewhat suspiciously.
‘Yes. I keep my valuables in a handful of inns across the country.’ I said and watched him closely as he watched the food equally closely. I noticed that at times his eyes went a little funny. As if he just stopped seeing what he was looking at. Defocused. I’ve seen similar on the faces of priests and spell casters before, but that always lasted a lot longer than just a few moments.
‘Oh, the food is fine. It’s one of the cook’s specialities, actually,’ I said. ‘It’s…’
‘…wild boar’ he finished the sentence for me as his eyes flicked back to normal.
‘Yes, it is…’ I said and wondered if I was just imagining things.
‘So strongboxes in inns?’ he asked and started eating. ‘You don’t have a home somewhere? A family?’
‘Heh, no,’ I confessed as I tucked into mine. ‘I’m not exactly a family guy. A home, a family are things you need to look after. I’m not really keen on attachments.
‘How about you? Is there a woman waiting once you hunted this Laro down? A place somewhere nice?’
‘Not exactly.’ He seemed to consider the answer before admitting ‘There hasn’t been a woman in some years now. I had girlfriends while I was still a student, but once I started teaching things had changed.’
I nodded considerately as if I knew what he meant. I thought he said earlier they had mixed classes there. He was only a scholar, not a damned monk.
‘I hear you’re some kind of adventurer. You risked your life to help the duke retrieve a historical artefact?’ he asked between two mouthfuls.
‘That’s right,’ I said, feeling suddenly more guarded.
‘What was it? Was it really worth all that risk?’
‘It was an ancient crown, lost in the Holt Catacombs. An old graveyard buried a hundred and fifty yards below ground.’ I noticed with some satisfaction that for the first time he looked impressed. He could know a little bit about me. But not too much. ‘There was good coin offered.’
I watched his eyes defocus and sharpen on me once again. ‘Good coin?’
He stared at me pointedly, as if he had known I wasn’t exactly telling the truth. I didn’t understand it. I was a good liar. And it wasn’t even such a big lie. The medallion was after all a kind of coin, wasn’t it? Maybe a little different, but not so terribly different…
‘Well, it’s a shame the duke took it all back,’ he concluded as I failed to speak up in my turn, busy wondering how to distract him from the topic of my reward. ‘What happened?’
‘Conor Drew!’ A female voice cut across before I could come up with a response. Oh, how I loved women calling out my name just in the right moment!
‘Olivia Wade!’ I turned around, my smile genuine. ‘Where have you been? I haven’t seen you in ages!’
‘Around and about,’ she replied as she reached our table, followed by two very attractive companions. I recognised them as dancers from last night’s wedding festivities.
‘Rubbish!’ I claimed as I took in her pretty face, long brown hair and athletic body. Damn, she looked good. ‘I would have known if you had been around.’
‘Oh, just shut up and let us sit down! This place is so packed. It’s as if the beer was free.’ Only after she planted herself to the bench next to me, drained my tankard, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand did she offer: ‘Lady Merilla, the mistress of the Teshiri Pillow House hired me to escort these ladies back to her distinguished establishment. She became unsatisfied with the services of the male mercenary who saw them here all the way from the south county.’
The ladies in question settled down around Christian in the meantime and I signalled to a barmaid for more ale. Despite my best efforts Christian had been very carefully keeping his alcohol consumption to a minimum and I hoped that our new drinking buddies would assist me in encouraging him on. Well, they’d better do if I was to ditch him somehow before I sneaked back off to the castle. To look at him this promised to be a more difficult task than I expected. He wasn’t exactly immune to the charms of the two dancers snuggling up to him on either side, but it wasn’t just his awkwardness towards them that made him look closer to a statue wedged between them than to a flesh and blood man. His eyes were watchful, his attention on the surroundings never ceasing. It made me wonder just how dangerous this killer was he talked about. In all consideration the whole situation didn’t make sense as it was. If that guy was indeed as deadly as he described him, why would he go after him all by himself? He was no fighter. He didn’t even have a sword! Yet he wasn’t a fool. And there was all this weird business going on. Like that moment before I was captured this morning. That was him, wasn’t it? I recognised him! Somehow… Even now he looked so familiar. Yet I was unable to tell from where. And all these oddly insightful looks of his. That must be a spell. A complex one I’ve never heard of. Maybe there was more to this school of his than he let on. Anyhow. This puzzle had to wait till the morning. The medallion was more important.
I zoned in and out of the conversation, occasionally offering a ‘Right!’, ‘A-ha!’ or ‘Noooooo!’ like a ship captain keeping an eye on the general direction, but leaving the labour to the others. Christian appeared to be mainly talking to Olivia, with the girls doing their bit and visibly becoming drunker and cuddlier by the minute, but failing to influence the guy in the right direction. At the same time Olivia started flashing him the kind of seductive smiles even I became jealous of. It was time I doubled my efforts and jerked that steering wheel back to ensure things were once again going my way.
I scanned the crowd until a temporary opening revealed an old, shady character between the shoulders of two guys hulking over him. I emptied my tankard and stood, intending to go and hulk over him myself. By the time I reached him the others had cleared off.
‘Evening, Rodmus, how’s business?’ I asked and looked down at the short, bony man, wearing a cloak far too big for him.
‘Not bad, not bad,’ he responded eagerly. He looked up at me, his pupils way smaller than they should have been. I wondered how long he had before either the old witch or her potent brews were done with him.
‘Boss is well?’
‘She is. She’s just got a new mansion in Goldwood Old Town.’
‘Another one?’ Business was good. ‘Anyhow. Listen. Do you have any Midnight Lover on you?’
‘Midnight Lover, eh?’ he gave me a sickening smile that would have made me take a step back in the best of circumstances, but right now I needed that bloody thing too much and so stayed in place like a good hound eagerly watching as he reached into one of his many pockets. ‘You’re in luck.’ He pulled out two small cotton sachets, supposedly white, although that looked more than questionable in the candlelight.
‘Half a sachet will make you a god with the ladies until at least sunrise. I recommend taking it back in your room, unless you want us to watch you ripping their clothes off right in front of us.’ He added casually, sounding very much like he wouldn’t have minded that, at all.
‘Give it to me both!’ I snatched them from his open hand and closed mine around them. I ushered him to the bar, got the innkeeper to pay him and add it to my little tab. Next I made sure my preferred room was still booked under my name for the night and managed to get the one next to it available to my new friend. I’ve also ordered a bottle of sweet cherry wine, poured some into a small cup and started mixing the content of the first sachet into it with a spoon. This Christian was costing me quite a bit already and I’ve only just met him. The quicker we wrapped up his supposed business with me the better. He somehow had the kind of influence on me I was usually immune to. And in my line of work it never paid to have friends who cared about things like morals or responsibility. Or friends who could tell if I was lying. Or friends with overcritical pets.
‘Conor, what are you doing?’ The question came half-accusing, half-amused. I turned my head and looked at Olivia. All innocent.
‘Helping out a friend! And it’s not just me. You’re helping, too!’
‘I am? Why would I… and wait! Isn’t that far too much?’ I ignored her and poured the content of the second sachet into the cup, too. Women tend to worry way too much in my experience.
‘Nah. He’ll be fine!’ I said, carefully stirring the drink. ‘I brought him here to have a good time! You brought two girls who are clearly very keen to give him a good time. See, it’s all about team work.’ I put a finger on her lips to stop her from responding. Funny how that always works with women. ‘Now, now, we need to keep this quiet!’ I moved my finger over to my lips in a conspiratory manner and gave her a smile. ‘He would never willingly agree to this. Do you know why?’
‘Because people generally don’t like being drugged without their consent?’
I shook my head. ‘Heartbreak.’
‘He can’t forget about her! It’s been bloody months and he’s still hoping she’ll come back! Just look at him!’ We both turned our heads and watched him. Christian sat somewhat awkwardly, the head of one of his tablemates pressed against his upper arm, her arms wrapped around the rest of the limb, the other had a hand on his thigh and a coy gaze fixed on his face. He would manage a lopsided grin every now and then, a small sip from his ale, but his eyes constantly wandered, carefully observing everyone around them, lingering on windows and doors.’ Despite my best efforts he hardly eats anything. He hardly drinks. He doesn’t sleep.’
I knew I had her. But just to make sure I leaned closer to her ear and confidentially added: ‘I still hear him cry at nights.’
‘So, you see, I’ve tried everything.’ I took her hand into mine and squeezed it. ‘I really need your help now!’ I put the cup into her hand and closed her fingers around it. ‘In fact I tried so many things he doesn’t trust me anymore. But I know you could make him drink it.’ I poured wine into another cup for her and handed it over. ‘It can only help. It’s all herbal. Practically medication!’
She moved to go back but I put my hand on her arm. ‘Don’t let him look at it much!’ I warned her. ‘If he starts giving it much thought he will hesitate and won’t drink it, believe me!’
She nodded and left with considerable determination on her face. I leaned against the counter and smiled to myself. After a few hours with Christian it felt good to be able to sway people to my tune again.
I watched the proceedings from the safety of the bar, with just the tiniest degree of apprehension clenching my hand into a fist. I had faith in my infantrywoman. Besides, in worst case scenario it now all looked as if Olivia was just trying to seduce him. She cut across the crowd, claiming both its attention and admiration like a lioness going for the kill. Right ahead of target she tipped the contents of the cup into her mouth. The wrong cup! But she didn’t swallow it. A surprised Christian did. Right after his mouth got filled with the liquid as it opened beneath Olivia’s sensual lips. The poor guy never had a chance.
The smile that spread across Christian’s face was so unlike him he looked like a completely different person by the time I reached them. He was also busy kissing one of the dancers while Olivia was busy rinsing her mouth – with my refilled tankard of Doreni High Ale! She ignored my feigned shock of disapproval and I turned to escort my friend to his room. Because what else are friends for? He seemed unable to let the girl go and her friend seemed unable to let him go, so I just ushered them all upstairs and closed the door on them. ‘Done!’
I walked down the stairs allowing myself a moment of self-appreciation before I reflected on my further plans for the night. I would sit downstairs with Olivia until the night grew darker around us and most of the customers cleared off. Then I would make my way up to my room, get what I needed from the strongbox and leave through the window. My thoughts shifted back to the medallion. You don’t lose something by others taking it from you. You lose it by not taking it back.
I found Olivia sitting at our table, smiling up at me innocently as I approached. The bench she sat on was otherwise empty. Too empty.
‘Where’s Cristian’s pack?’ I asked, not at all pleased with this new development.
‘I’ve just sent it after him with one of the barmaids. Is that a problem?’ She asked sensing my disapproval.
‘No, why would it be?’ I dismissed the notion with a seemingly careless hand gesture. Damn. I was rather looking forward to checking that bag out.
‘So what’s the famous Conor Drew been up to lately? I hear you stole the Map of the Death Islands. Is that true?’ She folded her arms on the table and playfully leaned forward, resting her chin on her hands.
I looked down into her big brown eyes. ‘That’s a veeery long story.’
‘I could stay for a while…’ A suggestion that a slow smile was transforming into a promise.
‘Well. It all started when a group of Sint deserters hired me to find the kidnapped daughter of their leader. They didn’t have enough money to pay my usual fee but they had something better to offer…’ I took a sip from my glass, thoroughly enjoying the relentless attention on me and thought to myself how the allure of being a scholar was perhaps something I utterly underestimated before.
It was late by the time I finally got up from that table and indicated that we should go. And when I say late I mean much, much later than I originally planned. We were well into the early hours and if I delayed much longer the crowing of the cocks be the tune accompanying my little ….operation.
‘I don’t need to walk back all the way to our tavern tonight, do I?’ Olivia asked me in a way that suggested she fully intended to stay.
‘No, you can sleep in my room if you promise to be a good girl,’ I conceded and turned to lead the way. Given the condition of my new pal I didn’t anticipate an early start in the morning and I could nicely imagine Olivia both as an alibi and a treat for breakfast. We reached the first floor and walked past Christian’s door. It was all quiet now and I couldn’t help but smirk as I pulled out the key from my pocket to open the next room.
Inside a single lantern burned, trimmed low, the pleasant late spring weather rendering the fireplace redundant. I lit a few candles, and while Olivia settled herself on the top of the bed I went and pulled the old metal trunk out from under it.
With the key being in my bag, still in the duke’s castle, it took me a minute or two to open it. This is what happens when someone makes a lock not just keep thieves out but to intimidate them. Of course, you need to be careful not to push this sort of thing too far. Unless you want to find the cream of the field queued up on your doorstep, drawn by the challenge.
‘Has anyone told you before that when you invite a woman to your bed there are usually other things to fiddle with?’ Olivia looked down at me from the bed.
I feigned surprise. ‘Never heard that one before!’
‘Unless of course you have other plans for the night…’ she said as she watched me pocketing a handful of items from the trunk.
‘It won’t take long. I’ll be back before you know it and will happily undertake any required fidgeting to the best of my skills.’
‘Fine,’ she said and stretched along the bed. ‘Don’t keep me waiting for long!’
Hmmm. That went easier than I expected. No objections. No questions asked. Just the way I liked it. In fact, things were going great tonight! I moved to close the lid of the trunk then half-way down I paused, hesitating. Weren’t they going a little too well though? Olivia hasn’t even seemed that surprised by the fact I was heading out. I looked back up at her. But if she somehow knew or at least suspected my plans… In that very moment a sweet smile spread across her face, a chasm that crossed the path of my thoughts, demanding I stop or fall. I stopped and smiled back. Nah. She just knows me too well. How long have we known each other for anyway? Sometimes seemed like for ever. All this stupid over-thinking, this suspiciousness was Christian’s doing. I looked back at the strongbox, intending to lower the lid and lock it, but a twinkle caught my eye through the gap. For a second it reminded me of the light from a lighthouse out on a foggy sea. I briefly considered things again but I drew a blank. If there was something wrong with my perfect picture I just couldn’t see it. Nonetheless I re-opened the trunk and got the two short swords out along with a double leather back scabbard. Initially I only intended to take a dagger and a few emergency knives, not expecting to find the duke’s night guard especially difficult to by-pass, but perhaps carrying a few additional items on me will help to restore my composure.
By the time we had left the common room it was so deserted there was no reason for me to climb through the window, so I simply exited the room through the door instead. It was eerily quiet out in the corridor, the only sound the sputtering of candles here and there. I started down the staircase, the creaking of the old wooden steps forcing me into a slow, cautious descent. I was only about half-way down when I thought I heard a noise from upstairs. I turned and looked back toward Christian’s door. A pang of unexpected guilt spread across me. What if that alleged assassin of his found him while I was out? Not that it mattered, of course. I hardly even knew him. It wasn’t exactly my job to protect him. And if he got me out of the duke’s prison, so what. It was only a matter of time before I got myself out of there without any of his help. Not to mention that noise could have been anyone doing anything. The inn had a lot of guests staying overnight.
I resumed my descent and for a moment gained a clear view of the common room, lit by a sudden light, shortly followed by a slow, disapproving rumble of the skies. Somewhere a window shutter swung against the wall, the strengthening wind eager to join in with the chorus of the heavens. In the temporary light I spotted Rodmus in one of the corners, now almost completely obscured by the shadows. He seemed to have decided that the floorboards would do for the night. His tankard lay close to his hand, the wine from it leaving a dark stain all over the floor. I was about to sigh and move on, but the sound of a door opening upstairs and someone fast approaching the top of the staircase stifled the urge.
‘Conor?’ It was Christian standing up there and looking to my biggest surprise, remarkably sober. How the hell… I wondered, but to be fair he didn’t seem especially happy, either. His expression was a mix of shock and anger, and I couldn’t really have blamed him, except… he wasn’t looking at me. He was looking toward the corner I was looking at a minute ago. Curiosity made me step a little closer before I could see what he was seeing in the dim candlelight.
‘Shit.’ That wasn’t wine around Rodmus’s body. It was blood.