The bodies of her two soldiers, Tomas Metzger and Shadran Safinas, were carried to the cathedral and unceremoniously laid on a stone slab of a table. The most senior cleric Nyra had in her company, a black-haired and bushy-bearded bear of a man called Tresh Stormborn, accompanied her, Jocelyn, Shevar and Edvor. He was the only of the five clerics of the 126th who had a bond strong enough with their goddess to draw upon power required for the magic of communicating with the dead.
Iomedae was merciful that day and Stormborn was able to contact the essences of Tomas and Shadran floating in the River of Souls.
Speaking with the dead was disconcerting, even though it was not forbidden. It was not death or blood magic and nothing to be frowned upon. But to Nyra, seeing the dead stir and open their mouths ringed with dried blood sent shivers down her back. Thankfully their eyes stayed shut. That would have been too much, even for a paladin who had faced monsters of people’s worst nightmares and slain them.
They spoke in sleepy, hushed tones, through a delirium. Dead souls dreamed, quickly lost interest in things that had been and often talked incomprehensibly, but Tomas and Shadran were addressing a familiar person, one they had admired in life, so they found the motivation to choose their words in a way that was helpful to Tresh and the others. Tresh’s power could hold the connection for only a short moment, for a few questions, but what the souls told him was enough. They had been stopped by a dozen Imperial guardsmen. There had been a very brief altercation, that had escalated – all too quickly, too deliberately – into a fight to the death.
Of Eldric’s fate, they knew nothing, and with a final sigh they eased back to the River and their bodies slackened, never to move again.
Nyra stood behind them, put her palms on their foreheads and with a whisper thanked them for their service and faith, and sent them on their way to Iomedae’s embrace.
They were fine young swords of faith, she reflected and the way they had died made her blood boil. Lives lost for naught.
“I want to see the General Lords, now”, her high voice trembled in anger. Edvor, pale and sweat-covered, nodded. “I will see to it immediately”, he stuttered, turned on his heels and left.
“This is.. Unacceptable”, Jocelyn ground her teeth in sympathetic rage.
“Hemdor will have to explain herself”, Nyra decided, her nostrils flaring. As quickly as it had surfaced, her anger was replaced by something else. A chilling worry.
“The patrols from the streets – call them back to the city barracks”, she told Shevar, and then to Jocelyn. “And order the company to have absolutely no contact with the guardsmen within the barracks. No-one goes alone. There has to be minimum five armed people moving together at all times.”
Nyra’s first priority was the safety of her crusaders. They were surrounded by the Imperial Guard, so she had to ensure the 126th would not be surprised again.
Shevar had warned her about sleeping so close to the enemy. But Nyra couldn’t have imagined such audacity. She had made a mistake.
“My lady, five won’t matter if they choose to come at us at strength.”
“They won’t. There’s no reason for them to do that.” As Nyra’s initial wrath quieted, she tried to see the motivation behind the attack. She tried to understand the logic, but in her turmoil she couldn’t. The battlefield was simple compared to the cloak and dagger games and politics of big cities. Here, she was carrying such a heavy burden. Responsibility to her men and women on one side and duty to the mission on the other. Their weight felt overwhelming to Nyra. She cursed the complexity they presented. She cursed her ignorance.
<But what about the search for the brothers?> Shevar signed. Her body language was calm, serene even compared to Jocelyn and Nyra.
<I have to make sure the crusaders are safe>, Nyra signed back in haste. Shevar tilted her head to the side, the universal sign for a question.
<But my lady, our mission will require sacrifice. You cannot keep them safe and expect to complete the Inheritor’s mission here.> There was painful truth in the tigress’s message.
Where are the crystals when I need them. She felt lost.
<They will remain in the barracks>, Nyra decided and the movement of her hands was dogged.
Shevar let the matter be.
Nyra hated it but word of the killings spread rapidly across the capital. And she considered it an affront that Hemdor was able to meet her only the day after. It only fueled her anger and she wasn’t herself when she finally got to have an audience. It was partly her own fault.
Feeling the tiny and white, salt-like crystal dissolve at the back of her mouth, she marched into the Castellan’s office at the heart of the Imperial Palace. She came with war in her mind. The dark-skinned protector of the capital was waiting for her, with two of her heavily armed and armoured guards beside her, swords sheathed but hands on the grips.
“You’re killing my soldiers now?” The crystal stole all her courtesy and replaced it with reckless impulsiveness. Her barged entry had almost taken the ornate wooden doors off their hinges. It had left tiny dents.
Pia Hemdor stood before her desk, arms crossed with a deep frown, just like the one she had worn when she had first met Nyra. She oozed disdain and her eyes shot knives of scorn at the paladin.
“I’ve heard the stories”, she started, talking with that deep, mellow voice Nyra hated and adored at the same time. “They are lies.”
Are you serious?
Nyra’s mouth fell open, the jaw slack with utter disbelief mixed with anger. She stopped a reasonable distance from Hemdor – too far from cutting her tongue with a swift blow of her holy sword, at least. First overcoming her initial bewilderment, she chose her next words with care, despite the confidence and aggression high. She wanted to sound threatening. Credible.
“You’re telling me, Castellan, that three different witnesses, two of whom are my own honour-bound crusaders, are lying?”
“That, or they don’t know what they are seeing, Commander.”
“Then who the nine hells murdered them and abducted a third?” She lost control and her voice was shrill with anger.
Hemdor’s contempt was almost tangible. This time she didn’t lose her nerve.
“My poor child, I have no idea.”
She truly cares not at all about my people.
“What kind of a guardian of the city are you, if something like this can happen during your watch and you don’t even lift a finger to do anything about it”, snarled Nyra.
Hemdor shook her head wearily.
“Who says I’m idle? You jump to conclusions, little paladin. Violence and murders happen all the time in Canorate, despite my and my guards’ best efforts. I’m sorry for your precious crusaders. Maybe they thrust their noses somewhere they weren’t supposed to. Canorate can be a dangerous city to the ignorant and over-confident.”
Nyra went silent but she watched the Castellan. Letting the obvious insults pass despite the drug-fueled desire to bite back, she weighed her. Was she lying? What is going on?
A shred of rationality pushed through the haze of the crystal. The shred turned into a dagger, and Nyra threw it at Hemdor without mercy.
“If you truly are ignorant, then you have a serious problem, Castellan. Either there are murderers out there, in your city, pretending to be your guardsmen, or you have disloyal soldiers acting against your interests.”
Nyra trusted her own completely. They had seen Imperial guardsmen or someone clothed and armed like them. There was no error, no misunderstanding.
Hemdor was tight-lipped and said nothing. It was telling, Nyra decided.
“Either way, I will have justice for my people, I guarantee that.”
She turned to leave.
“And I seriously recommend you to investigate which one is the truth, before you’ll get burned yourself. I imagine the Imperial Governor would not be too happy to know pretenders roamed your capital unchecked.”
Nyra marched out with less aggression than she had come but with all the same purpose, her head held high.
Damned Gorum’s bitch, she heard Jocelyn curse in her head.
The beggar who had seen the death of the Iomedaen soldiers was found dead the next day. His body had been thoroughly mauled and hacked so any communication with his soul was impossible – he had no mouth to speak from. And no-one was willing to pay a king’s ransom to resurrect a beggar. So his storytelling days were over.
The turn of events did not surprise Shevar. She simply believed whoever had attacked the crusaders were cleaning up their tracks. She had expected the beggar to die, especially after the 126th had not provided him with any protection – for Nyra, the short testimonials of the dead crusaders had been proof enough and she had stormed the Imperial Castle alone. It had been uncharacteristic of her. When she had returned, she had been rueful, the opposite of what she had been when she had went. She had not told what she had done, but Shevar could imagine.
What had been surprising as well was her commander’s reluctance to continue the search for the brothers and clues of the darkness threatening the city. The 126th Augustana idly waited at the barracks and the cathedral while Nyra struggled with her confidence and tried to decide how to act next. Shevar didn’t like it, and something made her think the Commander’s reaction had been exactly what the instigator of the attack had planned for. She smelled the deceit like the rot of an forgotten piece of fish hidden in the house, and she said as much. But for all her uncertainty, Nyra was adamant about one thing. The crusaders would stay put.
There were very few people in the world Shevar was willing to follow to the mouth of hell, but Nyra was one of them. Shevar loved and respected her old friend, but sometimes her insecurities could get the best of her. Nyra was like a young lioness mother to her cubs, very caring, often overprotective. But she was also a commander of warriors and her leadership was hampered by her inability to let go of failures. The names of her fallen soldiers, written in tiny letters, that covered her left arm, were an apt example. She carried her failures with her and each new one made her burden that much more heavier, and none of the victories lightened it.
Lioness and cubs. Shevar knew she could not bear her own, thanks to permanent injuries suffered long ago. She had made peace with the fact, but she wondered if her friend ever thought about having children. Nyra had her duty to Iomedae. Was it all she wanted? It was hard for women, to be forced to make such either or decisions. It was simpler for men, who could come and go. Shevar couldn’t imagine Nyra giving birth to her own children and then leaving them to foster care, or to a man, and heading out to war. She cared too much.
Even though the company was retired for now, Shevar was the company scout-master, and she could roam the streets without explicit permission from her commander. Over the years, Nyra had learned to trust her judgment. At least, that was what the biped tigress hoped. She wasn’t afraid to walk alone, even after what had happened to the three soldiers – no-one would be able to ambush her like that.
The 126th had been in Canorate for days, and Shevar had striven to learn its streets and alleys and the people who walked them. None but those in Sweet Orchard and the Imperial Castle were off-limits to her. She could not speak, but she listened well, saw much and smelled more.
Two nights after the death of the soldiers, she was back in sprawling, maze-like Lowgrove. Her gut told her the district hid more answers, information they’d need, and she had learned to heed her gut.
People paid her little attention as she walked the dirt roads, her face hidden under a hood, her bulk covered in a worn, white and red cape. She watched the people. Who were just minding their own business, trying to make ends meet? Who were angry, who were happy, who were secretive, who were open? Who had something to hide? Her keen ears overheard gossiping – stories of Abadaran bankers planning to raise interests, pirates at Lake Encarthan raiding Molthuni traders, how silent the war against Nirmathi rebels was though the rebels had struck against Imperial forces within Molthuni borders, and how a noble girl of a prestigious family and her bastard baby had been killed in cold blood in western Nirmathas. And a dozen other stories. From the noise she tried to pinpoint threads that could lead somewhere, something that could hint of the darkness that Iomedae had warned Nyra about. There was speak of ancient wizards of a long-lost kingdom re-emerging and a powerful devil walking the streets of Canorate, but it was just talk of drunken old fools, and Shevar disregarded them.
Last rays of the day swept the ugly houses of Lowgrove when Shevar left yet another inn and its news, rumours and hearsay. She took in a deep lungful of air and flexed her neck, feeling the bones and tendons snap. She was spent, and she was disappointed. Nothing of use, she reflected the day’s work and resisted the urge to growl bestially.
She wondered should she go on. Maybe until sundown. A stream of people passed her to either side, a mass of uninteresting folk, a haystack that possibly hid a needle, possibly didn’t. She let them flow and barely cared enough to watch.
Until she noticed something strange among them.
They were two half-elves, half a head taller than people around them, yet not slim like full-blooded elves but powerfully built like men who had trained to fight their entire lives. They strode down the narrow road, approaching her from the right. One went with purpose yet appearing relaxed, while the other prowled rather than walked, suspicious eyes slowly scanning the surroundings, and was cloaked like Shevar. What was strange was how they seemed to radiate auras of power. She felt them even from a distance, like a subconscious demand for her attention. And what was peculiar was how they were clearly identical twins, despite behaving so very differently.
They were talking, or the other one, his silvery hair tied at the back of his head, was, while the other, dark-eyed and hooded, nodded or shook his head at things his brother said.
They were warriors. The way they were armed merely proved Shevar’s instincts right. The talker had a greatsword across his back, and Shevar could spot the grips of short swords flashing at the hips of the silent one, under a long cloak of black and dark green. And there was no hiding the bow at his back.
They came closer, and Shevar pulled back to the door to the inn she had exited. A dozen strides away, the silver-haired smiled at something his twin had said and brushed his hair. Only then the tigress noted his hand was golden. There were also golden threads, like roots, snaking up his neck. It was no elaborate, extensive tattoo – his skin obviously was made of gold. Shevar was intrigued. Who has a hide of metal?
What had Nyra told them about the brothers? She had described them to be of same height and size, mortal warriors who even Iomedae took note of. The other shimmered with golden light while the other’s eyes blazed and a rune on his forehead burned.
And here Shevar had two brothers. One wasn’t actually shimmering with gold but was partly covered by it. But his brother didn’t have blazing eyes or a rune on his forehead. Quite the opposite – his forehead, though partly cloaked by the hood, was bare and smooth save for a long scar that halved his right brow, and his eyes were cold and serious, not blazing, not furious or that lively for that matter.
But had she found the brothers Nyra sought? The disappointment of the unproductive day vanished like an old, bad memory, and Shevar joined the stream of people as she discreetly went to follow the two men after they had passed her.
Deciding to keep her distance, she never came closer than a dozen paces. They stood taller than others, as did Shevar, so keeping an eye on them wasn’t hard. She just needed to make sure the warier one would not notice her, but thankfully, he wasn’t looking over his shoulder. His brother held his attention, at least partly.
The half-elves talked and strolled for a while until they came to a junction. There, they exchanged a few words and the more talkative one turned left to a small alley while the gruff one kept going forward on the wider main road. Taking a few faster steps, Shevar got to see the silver-haired enter a tavern. She memorized its name – the Angry Bull – and chose to tail the dark-eyed brother.
The sun was retiring, painting the shanty-town in shades of orange and the skies above with purple. The air was quickly growing colder, yet the number of folk on the streets did not diminish. Rather, the district was flooded with even more people ending their toil of the day and heading to their simple homes. They were the labourers of all races and backgrounds, Shevar had come to know, the class of people that served the prosperous and privileged citizens of Canorate. Among them prowled the hooded warrior. He turned heads, and he seemed to pull his hood further down every time he caught a glance of someone staring.
What kind of secrets do you try to hide, Shevar wondered. And why are you important to Iomedae?
The man looked back, suddenly. Shevar wasn’t quick enough to avert her own gaze and their eyes locked.
It was a fleeting second, but Shevar knew she betrayed her puzzlement and wonder. The man’s sideways stare was hard and cold, yet there was more beneath it. Recognition? Desperation? Shevar couldn’t tell, and the man turned away, never losing a step.
Shevar cursed wordlessly but chose not to let him go. Maybe he hadn’t realized he was being followed. She’d follow him just to see where he was heading to, and not more, she decided. Then she’d report to Nyra and Jocelyn. She knew she could handle any threatening situation that might present itself.
The warrior kept going, with almost casual steps, for a few minutes and didn’t look over his shoulder anew. They went past inns and shops of bakers, fletchers, smiths and chandlers – none drew the mysterious man’s interest.
Reaching a non-descript corner, akin to a dozen they had already passed, the man rounded it and disappeared from Shevar’s view. Cautiously but not slowing down, she paced to the same corner and had a quick peek, the claws on her right hand reaching for the grip of a machete sword on her belt.
It was an inconspicuous, empty alley that was only ten or so paces long. It was also a dead-end, and the adjacent houses had no doors and no windows facing it. There was no sign of the half-elf.
Shevar was dumbfounded and let out a barely audible growl of surprise. Not believing her eyes, and her paws making no sound, she prowled into the dark alley, trying to discern a trail, sniff his scent. But there was nothing. At the center of the alley, she looked around one more time, but the man had vanished like a ghost.
How did he manage that? He must be a magic-wielder, or have some sort of enchanted gear, she determined. Whatever the case, he had known he was being followed, that much was obvious.
She couldn’t shake the feeling she was being watched in turn and the fur on her back rose. Her fingers stayed close to her blades. But there was nothing else but shadows, three walls of wood and the purple-blue skies above.
This is not over, she promised with a hiss, retreated from the alley back-first and then hurried off.