Figures of men crowded the plaza, their ghostly forms outlined in the colours of the Fog. The ominous statue of Lord Vincent Varrintine gazed down upon the people and the line of soldiers marching down the road. One figure at the front of the column stood out among the crowd and he glowed as he dropped from his saddle to be greeted by another brighter glowing man.
The buildings around them appeared in dark relief as did the sky above their heads. Together the two men approached a market stall and the larger of the figures moved closer to see the dark wares. Suddenly the view moved out from the pair and focused in on a black arrow head and a cloaked figure on a roof top with a drawn bow.
The assassin waited for the perfect moment, his heavy longbow drawn taught and unflinching. The twang of the bow string sounded loudly and the whistling wind echoed in his ears. The arrow’s flight ended with wet thud as it blasted through the neck of the man at the market stall.
The large man fell to the ground his bright red blood gushed from the wounds in his neck. The man’s companion was beside him in a second and the plaza erupted in a flurry of movement and confusion.
The image flicked back to the shadowy figure on the rooftop, but the man was no longer there.
* * *
Vhindr awoke with a sharp intake of breath and opened his eyes to look at a familiar ceiling. As he looked at his bedroom ceiling in the Varrintine mansion he suddenly realised that only one of his eyes was open. Jumping into a sitting position on his bed Vhindr grabbed at his face to feel the soft fabric of a bandage over his right eye.
“No.” Vhindr gasped as he rushed from his bed and into his bathroom to look in the mirror.
Leaning close to the reflective surface Vhindr gently unwrapped the bandage that wound around the back of his head. The fabric fell away and keeping his wounded eye closed he inspected the damage. A red and jagged gash ran diagonally across his right eye, going from just above his eyebrow and across his cheekbone. So swollen was his eye that he could not even open it to discern whether he had lost his sight.
Carefully Vhindr placed his hand over the wound and mumbled a healing spell under his breath. These days, with the magicks of the Fog so depleted, healing spells and potions had lost much of their potency. But ever since Vhindr had returned from Pentra two years ago, where he had lost a dear friend, he had worked hard on improving his skills with healing magicks. His friend, Arell, had died because of his weakness and never again would he allow such a thing to happen so long as he still drew breath.
As he continued to whisper the spell tendrils of Fog drifted through his fingers and disappeared into the dim room. He felt a warming sensation flood to his eye and it felt as if pins and needles were rippling across the skin of his face.
Slowly Vhindr lowered his hand and breathed a sigh of relief as he saw with his good eye that the swelling of his wounded eye had gone and the angry gashes had turned into a reddish scar. Gently his wounded eye lid flickered open and spots of white lights appeared in his vision.
Vhindr blinked repeatedly and was glad he could do so, but the vision in his right eye seemed slightly blurry and the colours he was seeing kind of dull. The shimmer of green in his right eye caught his attention and Vhindr leaned closer to the mirror to inspect his damaged eye. A slight gasp escaped his lips as he noticed specks of green, pink and yellow amid the black depths of his iris.
Straightening back form the mirror confusion and concern filled his thoughts. Trying to dismiss his thoughts about the possible complications of having wisps of the Fog in his eye Vhindr turned from the mirror and headed out of his room grabbing his overcoat off the hook as he went.
The hour was late now and the crystal lights of the mansion were shinning bright, turning the windows Vhindr passed by into mirrors. Moving past a glass door that led out onto a balcony the flash of the Fog shimmered in his eye and caught his attention.
Concern continued to grip at his thoughts as he made his way down the main stairs and to the sitting room he knew his family would be waiting.
“Vhindr? You are alright.” Vhindr’s mother exclaimed as he walked into the room. “Thank the Gods.”
Both his parents rose from their seats and moved over to him. His mother was quick to embrace him in a loving hug before studying his wounded eye intently.
“Your poor face.” Lady Varrintine said as he cupped his cheek in her hand. “But the scar does look rather dashing, dear.”
“Let me have a closer look, son.” Lord Varrintine said and Vhindr’s mother moved to the side so his father could examine him.
“Your healing magicks have improved greatly.” His father smiled proudly.
Something caught his father’s attention then and he looked deep into Vhindr’s eye.
“Is that …?” Lord Varrintine wondered aloud.
Vhindr turned away knowing his father had seen the Fog in his eye.
“It is of no concern. I see perfectly fine.” Vhindr stated as he looked to the other occupants in the room. His younger sister smiled at him but his attention was drawn to the other woman.
“Rhalin?” Vhindr asked in surprise.
“Of course.” The investigator from Gaianaus replied calmly. “Who do you think brought you here?”
“I thank you.” Vhindr replied honestly and smiled. “It is good that you did for now I do not have to seek you out before I head to The Pit tonight.”
“Tonight?” Lady Varrintine asked with concern. “You should rest my dear, you can go there tomorrow.”
“I will be fine mother,” Vhindr reassured her. “This lead is fresh, I cannot let it pass me by.”
“The Pit?” Valianna said with an excited glint in her eyes. “At this hour? Can I come?”
“No child.” Lady Varrintine was quick to say. “It is too dangerous.”
“But mother.” Valianna groaned, “I am nearly sixteen, a child no longer. I am practically a lady now.”
“That may be so,” Lord Varrintine replied, “But The Pit at this time of night is no place for a lady.”
Valianna grumbled under her breath but she did not argue the point.
“Shall we Rhalin?” Vhindr asked as he turned and headed out the door.
The woman was quick to say a polite farewell to the others before taking her leave and rushed to catch up with him.
“Any luck chasing down the assailant?” Vhindr asked seriously as they moved out the front door, heading to the stables.
“No,” Rhalin replied. “He disappeared into the night’s shadows as if he were a part of them. I doubt we will have any luck finding him in The Pit.”
“We will not be looking for him.” Vhindr stated, and before Rhalin could reply he called out to Hemlock who was preparing the carriage. “It is good to see you getting ready, Hemlock.”
“I knew you would not give up this lead, sir.” The elderly driver said with a grin as he climbed onto the carriage.
Vhindr opened the door for Rhalin before he also climbed in and Hemlock flicked the reins to urge the horses onward.
“To The Pit thank you Hemlock.” Vhindr called as they moved from the Varrintine estate out onto the roads of the Land of Lords.
Vhindr leaned back in his seat turning his gaze from the intermittent street lanterns to the star filled sky. There were no moons this night, but the stars shone brightly above in the endless sky. Though they did seem a bit dimmer near the thin green crack that could still be seen snaking through the sky to the southeast.
“There is Fog in your damaged eye.” Rhalin stated, causing Vhindr look to the woman.
“Yes.” Replied Vhindr as he regarded his companion’s worried look curiously, “Your concern for my health is quite touching, and here I was beginning to think you had no feelings for me.”
“My concern has nothing to do with you.” She replied and looked away. “My thoughts are more focused on how unpredictable the Fog and magicks have become. Five years ago if the same thing happened the Fog would have consumed your mind.”
“It still might.’ Vhindr added, drawing Rhalin’s gaze back to his.
Vhindr thought he saw the slightest indication of concern come to her features before she turned away again.
“Did you enjoy your time with my family?” Vhindr asked, grabbing Rhalin’s attention.
“They were delightful.” Rhalin replied courteously. “Your sister Valianna is talented with magicks. Your mother is very nice, and your father … your father is everything that is expected of the Ruling Lord of Port Na’brath.”
“Spare me the false niceties,” Vhindr said and laughed aloud. “I know my sister is overbearing, my mother is droll, and my father overconfident and arrogant.”
Rhalin regarded him curiously and did not reply.
“But still,” Vhindr continued, “Are you still of the belief that my father is behind Baron Ellengar’s murder?”
“I have not made a decision one way or the other.” Rhalin was quick to say. “I will follow the evidence with no bias to whomever it leads.”
Vhindr smiled slightly, “Almost my words exactly.”
Rhalin narrowed her blue eyes at him but did not reply.
The beautiful streets of the Land of Lords were all about them now. Bright street lanterns lit up the roads and threw away the shadows of the night. The high buildings with terracotta tiled roofs stood tall in the night and terraced gardens were overflowing with flowers.
Following the main road they soon came to the single bridge that led over the wide river to the section of the city called The Ladder where most of the merchant class resided.
The guard station along the bridge was quick to let them by upon production of a Writ of Passage that Hemlock provided.
The grand buildings and streets of the Land of Lords were replaced with cobblestone roads and slate tiled roofs. White washed walls of houses passed them by, their black wooden beams standing in stark contrast. The street lights were less here and came intermittently allowing the shadows to seep back into the alleyways.
It was a longer trip through the merchant class and half the night had already drifted by when they came to the single bridge arching across the wide river to the dark streets of The Pit.
“We shall disembark here Hemlock,” Vhindr announced as they reached the midway point of the expanse. “It would not do to get the carriage muddy now.”
“Your shoes and pants will have to do then.” Hemlock replied with a chuckle as he reined the mounts to a halt.
“Wait for us on The Ladder side.” Vhindr stated as he stepped down from the cart with Rhalin beside him.
“As you say sir.” Hemlock nodded and Vhindr took the lead into The Pit.
The stationed guards gave them no trouble and quickly moved aside as they recognised him allowing Vhindr and Rhalin to walk confidently into the muddy streets of the poorer section of the city.
Brick and wood buildings greeted them and dim lanterns sat sparsely along the roads. Where the previous parts of the city had regular guard patrols here there were none. A dog barked in the night, its call echoing through the empty streets. The shadows here seemed malicious and to constantly watch them as they moved along the roads.
“Relax Rhalin,” Vhindr remarked over his shoulder. “This place is not as bad as it seems.”
“I am fine.” Rhalin replied calmly and Vhindr turned to look at her.
“You are indeed.” Vhindr stated with surprise as he noticed how composed she looked. “Now that is interesting.”
“Really? How so?”
“Those who are born in a noble household are usually taught to fear and avoid the commoners,” replied Vhindr.
“Gaianaus is different.” Rhalin stated causing Vhindr to shake his head.
“All nobility and royalty are the same,” he replied, “They look down upon the common people and avoid them. And in many ways are justified to do so. Most people simply envy and hate the rich, wanting their money and power, and are willing to do anything to get it. So naturally the royals and nobles despise the poor for being the way they are. This is the same in all places, including Gaianaus. I have been there, I have seen it.”
“Do you not place yourself among the royals and nobles?”
“Thankfully I was taught about these things and have learned to see past it.”
“As have I.” Rhalin was quick to say and Vhindr smiled and nodded.
“That is what is interesting.” Vhindr replied, causing Rhalin to eye him cautiously.
The silence of the night closed in around them as they continued onward through the streets.
A curious realisation came to Vhindr as he glanced down a dark alleyway. The night was not as dark to his eyes, that is, not as dark as he would have thought considering the two moons were not shinning and there were few street lights. Dismissing his concerns he turned his thoughts on the path ahead and slowed down as they came to the end of the street. Lingering in the shadows they both looked down the dead-end path where a single lantern shone and behind it the dark mouth of an alley gaped.
“The Rat Trap.” Rhalin remarked softly, speaking the name of the notorious dead-end alley of the Thieves Guild.
“You know it?” Vhindr asked in surprise.
“Of course.” Rhalin stated before she headed for the entrance.
Confidently the both strode into the dark maul of The Rat Trap where all lights seemed to vanish. And yet, as they walked further in a dim glow flickered ahead of them, highlighting the sharp bend in the path.
“Something is wrong.” Vhindr stated as they moved around the corner to see a light cloud of smoke drifting through the air.
Boxes and crates that lined the sides of the buildings were broken and smoldering. At the end of the alleyway two forms lay still beneath a dim lantern. Quickly Vhindr hurried to the prone bodies to see if they were alive. Checking the man and woman’s vitals Vhindr breathed sigh of relief for they both yet lived, and it seemed as if they were unharmed.
“Sārlien?” Vhindr called softly as he gently shook the snow elf awake.
As she regained consciousness Vhindr helped her into a sitting position as she clutched her head.
“Vhindr Varrintine?” Sārlien said with surprise as she turned his moss green eyes to him.
“Are you alright? What happened here? Who did this?” Vhindr asked seriously as he help the elf to her feet.
“He didn’t say.” The man who Rhalin was helping to his feet said seriously.
“What happened here Grenorl? Sārlien? Please tell me?” Vhindr pressed seriously.
“A man came looking for the merchant Wilks.” Rhalin stated and everyone turned a curious look her way. “What? I am right, aren’t I?”
“Yes,” Sārlien nodded slowly, “It is how you say. We provided the information but he refused to pay the agreed sum. Our archers moved to take him out when suddenly there was a flash of light and I remember no more.”
“What did he look like?” asked Vhindr.
“He wore a dark hood and cloak,” Grenorl replied, “But that is all we are going to say on the matter. You’re a friend Vhindr, but you know how our business operates.”
“This is not the time for petty issues.” Vhindr snapped back, “Tell us what you know of this man.”
“Vhindr, please,” Sārlien said, “We would be happy to tell you, but such information requires payment as well you know. We have already lost enough this night.”
“Does honour mean nothing these days?” Vhindr asked back angrily.
“Times have changed Vhindr Varrintine,” Grenorl was quick to say.
Vhindr let out a frustrated sigh and turned away, throwing up his hands and kicking at a piece of charred timber.
“Your Guild is smuggling Wilks out of the city,” Rhalin stated and Vhindr turned back to the group.
“Are we?” Sārlien asked back in surprise, “That is an interesting theory.”
“Ten gold and I will tell you if it’s true.” Grenorl added and held out his hand, which Rhalin ignored.
Vhindr noticed something then and his brow furrowed in confusion. A ripple of Fog rolled over both Sārlien and Grenorl and their elevated heartbeats seemed to glow in their chests.
“You just did.” Rhalin smiled slightly.
Vhindr gasped as he saw very clearly looks of surprise and concern come to both of the Guild leaders faces. Never before had he noticed such split second displays of expression and emotion on a person’s face, let alone in this dark environment.
“You are taking Wilks out by boat, aren’t you.” Vhindr stated, and neither Sārlien nor Grenorl replied.
But Vhindr saw the answer clearly upon their faces.
“The docks at The Ladder?” Vhindr pressed, but still they did not reply, and they did not need to.
“Thank you for your time,” Vhindr smiled and both Grenorl and Sārlien regarded him curiously. “Come Rhalin we may still catch them.”
Leaving the stunned Guild leaders behind Vhindr briskly walked from The Rat Trap alley with Rhalin close behind him.
“What was that?” Rhalin asked as they moved back through the streets of the lower class.
“What do you mean?” Vhindr asked back.
“There was no way you could have discerned their micro-expressions in the darkness of that alleyway.” Rhalin clarified.
“Don’t play dumb with me, Vhindr,” Rhalin said angrily, “If you used a spell say so, I don’t expect ye to tell me it. Just say how you saw the hints of expression that told ya the truth.”
Again Vhindr was taken aback by the curious change in Rhalin’s speech, but he did not mention anything.
“Truthfully, I am not sure.” Vhindr admitted with a shrug. “I just noticed it.”
“The Fog in your eye is likely the cause then,” Rhalin remarked seriously, “I’d be careful if I were you.”
Vhindr did not reply and he slightly nodded, she was right, he had to be wary of this new development.
They said no more as they moved swiftly through the city making for the The Ladder. It was not long before they moved through the guard station and met up with Hemlock on the other side.
“Quick man, to the docks.” Vhindr said hurriedly as he and Rhalin jumped into the carriage.
Hemlock did not need to be told twice and with a flick of the reins the horses took off at a strong pace. Hooves clattered on cobblestones and the buildings raced by as they raced for the wharves. The sky to the east was growing brighter and the early risers were beginning to start their day. A fisherman’s sleeping eyes widened in surprise as the horse drawn cart thundered by him.
The morning grew brighter still as they tore out from the streets and onto the docklands where Hemlock pulled the horses to a halt. Vhindr was on foot in seconds having already spotted a tall masted fluyt pull away from the wharf and catch the morning breeze.
“That has to be the one.” Vhindr called to Rhalin who was right behind him.
Their feet echoed loudly on the wooden beams as they sprinted down the wharf. It seemed as if the merchant fluyt would move beyond reach but Vhindr cast a spell in the direction of the ship.
As the spell was released there was a bright flash of light and Vhindr went flying backwards into Rhalin, causing them both to tumble to the jetty. Vhindr was on his feet in a second looking in bewilderment towards the fluyt.
“What?” wondered Vhindr in confusion.
“Look,” Rhalin said and she pointed to a dark figure climbing up the stern of the ship.
A slight light seemed to flicker in the figure’s hand and in the air before him a strange symbol floated before it vanished.
“That has to be the same man from Wilks’s house,” Rhalin remarked, “And the one who caused disarray with the Thieves Guild.”
“And no doubt the one who assassinated the Baron.” Vhindr agreed, “But what form of magicks was that?”
Rhalin shook her head, as confused as he was, and they both watched the fluyt pull out of the port and sail away on the morning tide.
“It’s turning north.” Rhalin observed, and Vhindr turned away and headed back along the wharf.
“Harbor Master.” Vhindr called as he came to the start of the jetty and spotted the elderly man holding a clipboard and quill. “That fuyt, where is it bound?”
The old seaman regarded Vhindr curiously, instantly recognising the pattern on his vest showing under his open overcoat.
“Chillbreeze, and then onto The Dale, m’Lord,” the old Harbour Master replied.
“Where is it stopping on the way to Gaianaus?” Vhindr was quick to ask.
“Well let me see,” the man mumbled and looked through his notes, “There is a scheduled stop in at Port Ly’cath. But that’s the only one, from Ly’cath it’s no stops ‘til Chillbreeze, north of the Scarred Mountains.”
“Thank you.” Vhindr said briskly and moved passed the Harbour Master and back towards Hemlock who was waiting patiently.
“You mean to chase the ship by land.” Rhalin stated as she walked beside him.
“Of course,” Vhindr nodded, the sparkle of excitement in his eyes, “If this assassin and Wilks think they can leave the realm and be rid of me they are poorly mistaken.”
“You assume they work together.” Rhalin remarked, “Wilks could be dead by the time the fluyt reaches Port Ly’cath.”
“Wilks is of no concern,” Vhindr replied callously, “We have the assassin in our sights now.”