'Seek not the wealth of mortals, for such wealth is fleeting and will doom your soul. Seek not the trappings of this physical realm for that is not the way of Kelios. All things are unto Kelios as surely as the waves flow upon his sea. Seek enlightenment in all things and prepare thyself for the resurrection of the God of the Sea. Be as Him, fluid but resolute and reject all earthly revels. Only then shall you be purified. Only then, shall you be worthy of his mercy.' - 1105, The Prophet Aestro, The Tome of The Cult of Kelios.
Hardly a breeze blew through the night nor was it as humid now as it usually is during summer but the rotund noble that clutched at his heaving chest perspired profusely, as if he had spent a minute too long in a sauna.
His long hair, wispy and greyed at the sides were matted with sweat and stuck to his forehead like moss on rock. His pudgy lips quivered to speak but the words abandoned him. His eyes, green and beady, stared ahead in horror and disbelief.
They lingered on the woman in front of him. Her white dress, and corseted top and ample bosom that had attracted him earlier was now a blurry mess of colors. His vision was failing, he knew and the sickness was spreading. He remembered how she had enticed him, flirted with him and seduced him. Or perhaps, it was him that had forced himself on her and she accepted his advances, knowing full well who he is. Her hazel heart-shaped face had appeared coy under the candlelight of the tavern and she had smelled of lavender.
She had led him to the warehouse on the opposite side of the wharf and far from prying eyes, he pressed her against the rotted wood and kissed her hungrily on her lips. When his breathing quickened, he assumed it was from the heat of the moment, but then, he started choking. Perspiration broke out and now, he lay on the ground, his head throbbing and his skin felt like it was burning from the inside. He groped at the ground pathetically.
The assassin paid his advances no mind. She merely watched him flop on the ground as his ruddy complexion began to turn pale and sickly. He would get no mercy here, that much he was aware.
It was about making a point and having hired assassins in the past, he knew the method of his death was ordained by the paymaster. He was tempted his lust and poisoned by a kiss.
His heart quickened and he felt the burning intensify. It was as if his internal organs were liquefying.
The sky was noticeably darker and he felt the chill, salty seawind on his face. The clammy kiss of the wind blowing from over the ocean made him uncomfortable and the cries of gulls from the nearby wharf dimmed.
The ever present fog seemed to thicken around her and he wondered for a moment if she was disappearing from view.
“Forgive me,” he thought he heard her say but her voice seemed far away and hard to make out over his laborious breathing.
He felt the wooden wall boards on the exterior of the warehouse he was resting against resist his immense girth. A faint memory of his wife, the Duchess Clementine of Cold Rock, chiding him over his weight and how he’d die from over eating sprung to mind.
If only she could see me now, he thought bitterly as the light in his eyes dimmed and the last thing he felt was the cold crash of water before the darkness of its depths took him.
“The Duke is dead!”
It was mid-morning but the fog that rolled in from across the Murky Sea raised the chill in the air. People scurried off to work, hugging their coats to stave off the cold. Hats were pulled down and hoods, pulled over.
Nearby, the great trade steamship, Nostro waited in port; its great bulk casting a gloomy shadow over the pier that pierced even the fog. Deckhands worked hard on board, scrubbing it clean of barnacles, weed and sea rust while coolies – mostly from the distant nation of Norwall – lugged cargo onto the ship. The Nostro was due to sail within the week south toward Barrington and were loaded with crates of spice, textiles and sharks’ fin for trade.
“The Duke is dead!” the town crier’s voice blared again through the mist like a mellowed foghorn, “Was he killed by an assassin or did he drown? Read all about it!”
Some picked up a newspaper from the stack by the crier, dropping a silver coin into the chipped wooden cup.
It was intriguing news but not many cared. The Duke was a well known philanderer, brute and oafish man who took pleasure in over-taxing the locals and waving that wealth in their faces. The expensive weekly parties held for his elite counterparts were well documented. The citizens worked hard for less while the decadent nobles splurged excessively money they earned over the broken backs of the people.
One man promptly read the story, grunted and tossed it in the bin.
“Yet ‘nother bad noble to take his place I reckon,” he muttered under his breath as he walked away.
In the distance, the massive castle that housed the Duke, Duchess their two children and scores of servants towered over the small nation. It was hewn out of granite and obsidian native to the island. Its facade was dark and ominous and its size was too large for the island. The single tower shaped like a cathedral that rose from the rear of the castle held what many knew to be the Duke’s powerful telescope.
The man was notorious for quite literally spying on his people. His retinue of scientists and tinkerers had created this one of a kind telescope that could – some say – peer through the walls of every home in the duchy.
The huge bell in the uppermost part of the tower chimed painfully. It would ring three times at the start of every hour today, in honour of the Duke’s death.
When it rang, it produced such a hollow and piercing bellow that assailed the ears.
Factories from the nearby industrial district belched out thick black smoke. The rhythmic hum of the machines working through the night were fortunately softer, unlike the steam ships that rolled into port.
Kira Calloway pushed past the rusty gate that creaked stubbornly but otherwise held in its frame. This abandoned plot of land was home to dilapidated buildings and ruins. An old cathedral lay half submerged in water that had sprung from an underground spring. Along the perimeter, lay an encircling concrete wall fallen into the same disrepair as the structures.
Cold Rock was once a penal colony but this place was where the truly dangerous criminals were kept. It was maximum security for the criminals from the worst of their lot.
When the island was eventually turned into a proper nation, most were content to ignore its sordid past. Leaving the remnants of that past to rot was a nail in the coffin that the powerbrokers of Cold Rock were happy to do.
Pushing past another gate, though this time, she hoisted up her long skirt and descended into a dark underground tunnel. Pulling down the goggles that she wore over her head, Kira pushed a button its side and after a second of the gears whirring into place, her vision went from black to green and the depths of the tunnel became as clear as day.
She had navigated the depths of this tunnel numerous times before but she knew that the labyrinthine corridors snaked all over the island. Getting lost is as good as being left to die.
The tunnels were old and built as part of an elaborate network system during Cold Rock’s penal history. The system was designed to provide convicts with a supposed means of escape while preventing them from actually making escape. Records that were found – old journals mostly- revealed that the prisoners had started to take their own lives out of depression caused by a crushing sense of hopelessness.
While this would not have bothered the Ravanions whom were administrators of the island then, the number of bodies they had to dispose off was beginning to accumulate beyond what the small colony was capable of dealing with. Disease was prevalent and even the guards started falling ill. Despite the very attractive remuneration offered, it was difficult hiring recruits when the colony was a festering pit of corpses.
Numerous studies and experiments were done to reduce this problem but it was one theologian, an aristocrat named Serros Hathaway whom deduced that Men as creatures of thought and emotion are likely to want to survive when given something to strive for, no matter how futile. He argued that the illusion of hope was necessary in sustaining life. There was much debate but ultimately he won because his idea while having some merit, was largely the most inexpensive of solutions.
The tunnels were then created.
When it was opened, the decree was anyone who could navigate the complex and escape was free to go. If they failed and were lost in its depths, no one will go looking for them. Many long-term incarcerated criminals took their chances with fate and all of them died in the tunnels.
No escape route was planned. The network wormed all over the island. Some connected with each other and led further in land while some circled back to the beginning. Others were mere dead ends.
In time, less and less prisoners attempted the gauntlet and the authorities would – in a bid to preserve that dwindling hope –reveal the names of certain prisoners that had escaped the tunnels. These were far and few in between and were all lies. Those ‘prisoners’ were really guards sent undercover.
No one trapped in Cold Rock were aware of this though but the suicide rates had dipped. Disease was also brought under control and when the prison island increased its hygiene, more guards were successfully recruited.
The tunnels however, began to get clogged up with corpses but because they were underground, the guards could burn the bodies at their leisure or leave them there as a form of psychological caution to the desperate inmates.
When the colony became a small city under control by the Empire of Barrodell now Barrington, the tunnels were forgotten.
Time flew by and Cold Rock became an independent state with a duchy and no one cared about the horrors beneath their city when the nobles that lived above them were making life so miserable on an already miserable rock.
With night vision activated however, Kira could make out clearly the signs that were left for others like her to make their way back safely.
The signs were in an old language and to casual observers would appear as if random scribbling on the walls. Not that they could be seen under natural light of any kind.
She came upon a dead end and paused a moment. Through the goggles, she located a small rock that jutted out of the wall and pushed it. It moved back into place with an audible click and the wall vibrated and rumbled as it slid open, raining down bits of dust and soil.
After a week out on her mission, Kira was glad to finally be home.