No matter; the shadows have a habit of coming out at night, and my training has always taught me that the shadows are to be embraced, not feared. But there were ‘good’ shadows and ‘bad’ shadows, and given my newly acquainted company, I was not entirely sure which one was which.
For a man of such high station, he did not really pay much attention to his security detail. The men guarding the entrance should not even call themselves soldiers, militia or not; they were more interested in when their shifts were up so they could ‘service’ the nearest bawdyhouse. The gates just needed a little shake to get past the locks. Then again why would the governor have cause for concern? Rutulia is more known for its sheep and the men that ‘care’ for them than anything. The place was a dump, as far as I was concerned
As I made my way to towards the cellar door I looked around. The only guard nearby was too busy relieving himself of whatever nasty swill he considered proper enough to drink. No dogs, either, which was always a welcome relief. Technically speaking, we rangers are dogs of a sort, too, but that does not stop us from getting rabid when a fellow canine tries to invade our territory.
The killer was nowhere to be seen. She was supposed to be shadowing my every movement, but she was nowhere to be found. Not even atop the branch of a distant tree or a tiny crevice within the vine-covered structure. I was once again on my own.
My loyalty to King and Country had been established the day I survived the Trial of the Aquilian. Well, that and a need to fill my otherwise desolate life with purpose and coin. My loyalty to this killer only just materialised little over an hour ago, with the fear of death and the image of the Magister’s pallid face as he died enforcing it.
Run like hell, I thought. I could dash across the fields and take refuge in the nearby forests. It would not be the fastest way back, but it would certainly be the safest I might have to do away with the uniform, the amour, and the insignia to cover all bases, and I would still need to hang onto any spare smoke bombs in my pack lest she find me.
But alas, what could I have done?. My legion would be nowhere near the Throne City by the time I would return, and no one would believe me. I have no idea what the killer’s intentions are, but there was a reason why fate dragged me into this hellish situation. I needed to continue with this masked killer, and discover what kind of plot she was trying to hatch against His Majesty. Why else would the army have need of sneaky little buggers such as myself?
So I threw out any illusion of returning to Palatium and decided to tough this one out. Unlocking the door did not take much more than a little poking at a sideways angle.
I slid in, trying my best to ignore the fact that I am allowing myself to be followed, something that went directly against my training. Instead of diverting course and trying to lose my pursuer, I was simply content with being watched.
The basement was pitch black, but it was nothing too much out of the ordinary. The motto they beat into my head was to ‘live in the dark, see in the dark, fight in the dark, and kill in the dark.’ Of course, most fools would resort to lighting a match, or creating a makeshift torch, but that only advertises your location.
I felt my way through the basement, moving from a stone wall to a wooden shelf filled with cobwebbed books. I eventually came across a flight of stairs and proceeded upwards.
The foyer was abandoned, the drapes yellow and torn in the middle and vines swirling around the columns. Surely the governor of this province had enough taxes to pay for some Serican maids to spruce the place up a bit like every provincial statehouse. They only cost about two rials each per hour. A few pretty maids around the place would make for a much-needed distraction from the cards fate has dealt me.
Still, the place, for some odd reason, did not have any guards, so I did not delay in making my way across the foyer and up the stairs.
That was when I found something extremely odd. Amidst the dust and the cobwebs were skeletons of dead soldiers lying around in front of the stairs, in front of the doors and right by the lavatory. Things were beginning to look real strange real fast.
None of the doors were unlocked, and no matter how thoroughly I felt the locks, there was no way to get them open. They were not just locked — they were sealed shut, perhaps even glued into their doorways! I tried putting my back into one of the doors and I bounced back like a rubber ball.
I crashed against a bookshelf, forcing an avalanche of poems, novels, and histories upon me. Every book came crashing down, landing blow after blow against my entire body. It was like sparring with the Centurion all over again!
But I noticed one book that did not fall down. Instead, it decided to disobey the laws of nature and remain in the exact middle of the shelf.
A switch, I realised almost instantly. I rose to my feet, beating back Arcos and Pallas, while shaking off the second volume of the War of Unity. I felt like my foot was getting caught by something really heavy, which seemed like an encyclopaedia, but I simply had to lift it and I was free from all those encumbering texts.
I pulled the book gently. It was apparently titled The Secrets of Magic: The Properties of Aether. Magic, it always comes down to, and from my experience, anything involving skeletons and locked doors could only spell trouble.
The bookshelf suddenly lurched backwards before steadily opening, revealing a long hallway, which led to a somewhat grand looking door, under guard by two suits of armour. Whoever was in charge of this quiet province, if he was still alive, must have kept some rather interesting company to only allow entrance to his quarters through his bookshelf.
Still, who was I to ask questions? I paced my way through the hallway, making no elaborate effort to sneak past the skeletons adorning the place. I looked around me, making sure that no major surprise was waiting for me to let my guard down. The windows above were cracked and the lacquer on the walls was chipped off, the mosaics reduced to nothing but one major brown blur.
After realising that I was perhaps being just paranoid, I walked straight up to the entrance. When I placed my hand on the knob, however, I felt something jump at me.
I tumbled backwards while unsheathing my blade, only to realise that it was some mischievous crows taking refuge inside the armour, sending the whole thing tumbling down.
Once the crows had scattered, I opened the door, revealing a room that was well-kept and colourful. Apparently whoever lived here only had time to maintain just one room. There was no sight of spiders, cobwebs, dust, or anything. The desk was pristine, the bed looked as if it was just made today and the bookshelves looked brand new.
I reached into my satchel and pulled out the stones, which started glowing red with strange symbols. Reaching beneath the bed, I lay stones down. Soon I would be free of this rather creepy place, but then I felt something extremely icy grab my shoulder.
‘Ahhh….’ A serpentine voice if I ever heard one. ‘Fresh meat.’ This monstrous voice was spot, but it always interrupted itself with loud licking noises, as if taking part in a Royal Feast.
I turned around to find a man whose face was whiter than the clouds, the flesh on his face sagging profusely like a sack of potatoes. His cheeks made no attempt to cover up the sockets of his eyes. There was little to any skin on the little twigs that were his fingers. This man was the closest thing to a living skeleton that I have ever encountered. It was as if this skeleton simply decided to adorn its bones with a little bit of skin.
‘Who should I thank for this fortunate delivery?’ The skeleton raised himself above me, lifting himself off his feet and floating around me with his bony arms crossed. ‘I have not fed , upon the living in years.’
A necromancer! I thought that they were only something mentioned in the tales to scare little children, not things that existed in reality. But I guess there has to be something that even the Order considers completely insane.
‘But at last, I can finally sate my hunger.’ He dropped to his feet, landing delicately before running its knife-sharp finger across my face.
If his body was that frail, why should I be scared to death of this thing that could not even stand straight? I grabbed his left arm and ripped it off, snapping with ease complete with a popping sound.
The necromancer looked at the socket where his arm was ripped off and simply shook his head.
‘How rude…’ He said. ‘I would like that back, thank you very much.’ He reached out his right arm, gesturing at me for his left.
‘I’m not your food, you demented creature!’ I threw the arm straight at him before running towards the door, only for it to slam shut with some kind of strange marking flashing on its surface.
‘Interesting…’ The necromancer hissed as he walked slowly to pick up his arm. ‘Not only is my meal fighting back.’ He picked up the arm and rammed it back into his shoulder, snapping back into place. It was as if the arm never came off in the first place as he effortlessly reached for his bladed staff, with a green orb in the centre.
‘It does not know its place!’ He thrust the staff forward, releasing a strong surge of energy that roped itself around me.
The sensation was unlike anything I have ever felt. I felt like my heart was literally being ripped out while I was literally being squeezed into a bloody pulp, my insides shrivelling with every passing moment. I could not move at all, my eyes pried open, my arms and legs stretched outwards. Although my mouth was open, I could not scream, and I wanted nothing more than to scream.
I could hear hissing and high pitched shrieks from outside the door. Was he reanimating the dead guards and impressing them into service? If only I could throw something outside the window so that the actual guards could investigate. But no, I was ensnared by some sort of life-draining spell.
I resolved to fight back. Sure, I was going to die, but I would be damned if I was to do so trading my service to the King for service to this monster. I twisted and turned, trying to throw myself as much as I could. I even tried to find a way to get blade into one of my hands.
‘Oh, how the meat struggles before it is slaughtered. I find it all the more appetising.’
By some force of luck, the twisting and turning managed to force the dagger to fall from my sheath into my left hand. Sure, I accidently grazed my palm as it fell, but I was going to waste no time trying to cut myself loose. I rubbed the blade up and down the green lines of magic and they came apart, just like any piece of rope. Maybe magic was not such a mystery after all. It could come undone, just like any force of nature.