Night TerrorsMature

All told, the city had something on the order of five hundred watchmen, half for day and half for night. In a city the size of Marsten that was a pretty good number. Higher than average for cities it's size. But then, Marsten was also a trade hub. It sat nestled in lowland hills, squarely on the crossing of two major trade routes. One went east to the coast and one that went north across the mountains. With all the merchants that kept coming and going the city's  effective population at any given moment was much larger than it was on paper. The Five Princes understood this, and over the years the city watch had grown into the Watch - an organization that seemed almost military, with weapons and uniforms to rival any mercenary company.

At first glance one might wonder why the local police force would need to be so heavily armed, even considering the fluctuating merchant population. Especially given that Marsten did, in fact, have it's own military. The answer was simple. Sort of.  When the Five Princes came to power many years ago, they had realized that each was bound to have ambitions against the others. So as they built the Watch, they gave them an extra responsibility: personal guard for the Five. Each Prince had his (and in one case her) own bodyguards drawn directly from the Watch.

Thanks to tradition and no small amount of institutional pride, the Watch was loyal to the city above all else. None of the Princes could be certain if the Watch would stand with them or against them when they made a power play - and that meant power plays were rare.

The Watch was, in many ways, the glue that held the city together. They had been for nearly a hundred years, and they took their duties very seriously. So when the Captain of the Watch received a steady stream of reports about attacks in the night he was understandably unhappy. He was even more unhappy when he heard that Byrd and Hatchet had been attacked as well. By the time medic Shard reported back with Hatchet in tow, he had the look of someone suffering from a blockage.

"Captain," Hatchet said with a salute. Shard echoed the gesture, though she seemed distracted by the above average hustle and bustle of the Ivory Tower. Ivory Tower was one of two fortified Watch stations within the city limits. It sat within the southern half of the city, tall and slender with white marble facing. A barracks complex was arranged in a triangle around it, home to fully half of the Watch and with room for more.  Rumor had it that during the early days of the city Ivy (as it was sometimes shorthanded) had been one of several bastions, a fallback position should the city's walls fall to invaders.

Further north stood the Red Manor, which held dominion over that part of the city as Ivy held sway over the south. Unlike the tall grace of Ivory Tower the Red Manor was a sprawling, boxy affair with one main building, several smaller buildings, and a small squat tower at each of the four corners of it's defensive wall. It was made of some sort of red stone, which explained the "red" part of Red Manor. The manor portion came from the idea that it had once been owned by a wealthy merchant clan during the city's early days. What fate had befallen that merchant family, or how the structure had come to be fortified and placed in the care of the Watch, no one knew.

"How's Byrd," the Captain asked Shard. She shrugged, turning her attention back from the buzz of the tower's activity.

"Bones says he'll live," she reported. "Lots of blood because there were lots of cuts, but it looks like his armor stopped most of them from getting too deep. His arms, though..." she winced at the thought. "They've got people working on him, but even with spells he'll be out for a good long while to heal up proper."

The Captain grunted at the news. The magical healers the Watch kept on staff cost a pretty penny. They'd never been cheap, of course, but what with the surge in technology lately magical practitioners were raising their rates all across the board. Still, times like this the Captain was glad he spent the money to keep them on. Without them there was no guarantee Byrd would ever have recovered enough to return to duty at all.

"I hear you brought a body back?"

"Yessir," Shard responded. She looked at Hatchet. "Looks pretty messed up. Hatch here says whatever went after Byrd took her down first. Bones said he'll have a look, maybe figure out what did it. First guess, though, I'd say some kind of big cat. 'Cept we don't have any of those down this way, so maybe a merchant brought one in?"

That was a cardinal offense, and if it was true somebody was going to pay with more than money. Regulations said any exotic or potentially dangerous animal had to be registered and properly secured upon entry to the city. The Captain just shook his head. "More than just one," he said. "You can go, Shard." She gave a quick salute and wandered off into the main square, snagging a couple of watchmen and engaging them in conversation.

"Hatchet, Acer has four men geared up and ready to go. I want you to take him and go back to where that thing hit Byrd. Track it down if you can."

Hatchet looked over the increased activity, and was struck by a sudden insight. "This wasn't the only attack, was it?"

"No," the Captain admitted. "Byrd's the first watchman to get injured, though. The others are all civilians. First was a merchant by the west gate, closing up shop late. After that there were others, spreading out and getting deeper into the city. Whatever's out there there's more than one, unless it can be in more than one spot at a time . I want to know what they are, which means we have to find one and kill it. You're the only one who's seen it. What can you tell me?"

Hatchet got a sinking feeling in his stomach as he remembered looking at that ever changing beast. Part of him was sure it hadn't been real, that he'd taken a hit to the head and was seeing things. Another part of him insisted it had been real, and it wanted to do anything but go out looking for it again. "I'm sorry, sir," Hatchet said. "It was dark, and it came right out of nowhere. I didn't get a good look. It was black, though. I'm pretty sure of that."

The Captain dismissed him, and Hatchet wandered across the square. Something moved in the corner of his eye, and when he turned to look he thought he caught the briefest glimpse of a shadow sliding across the inside of the Tower's fortified wall. When it was gone he stood rooted to the ground, a shiver of dread running up his spine. He told himself he'd imagined it and crossed the square to meet Acer. But in the back of his mind a tiny voice was starting to scream in terror. He ignored it utterly.

 

The End

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