“Whisper of a storm…”
Before the Hundred Thousand Year’s War began, there were those who believed society could only advance during the passage of time. They were right in many ways, but they were also wrong.
In the day and age of the last Couriers, civilization had transcended well beyond technology. Humans, Lycans and Acolytes alike could bend the energy of the universe itself, but even with the advent of magicka, violence and crime still thrived.
In fact, even before the ancient war began, military forces in the three nations that graced Charon had power over public decisions. In the three nations of Cinera, Cu’ Escen and Exur, were the three high ranks of the Prefect, the Daeva, and the Legate.
The Prefects, while holding few exclusive political powers, were revered as ceremonial figureheads. They were considered 'divine beings' far beyond the trifling tedium of politics, and it was understandable to relegate such 'menial' tasks to a lesser, competent being.
Beneath the Prefects were the Daevas. Each was a warrior-general elected from a young age, while he or she was free of any 'corruption' for the necessary teachings by the Prefect. The Daeva was raised until his or her coming-of-age to fulfill the critical role. Through the Daeva, the Prefects’ will was carried out and enforced.
The Prefects, wise as they were, saw fit to hold their Daevas beyond infantry functions, but not above serving in combat. Beyond their political functions, the Daevas were also among the most powerful warriors of their generations, which was why they were sent on only the most critical of labors for their nation.
The labors undertaken as a Daeva were perilous—suicidal. One such labor occurred a month ago at the Sacred Temples of Knossos. One Daeva from the nation of Exur fulfilled her duty, and in doing so became a martyr. In such an event, the next Daeva was chosen, and until the new warrior-general’s coming-of-age, a Legate to the Prefects’ will was ordained.
Such a Legate was Jarrafa Yamidoro.
He too was now gone.
Elegant in her eloquent gold throne, the Malocanth Prefect perceived all of this with a defeated sigh. She was a frail old woman, bedecked in ornate ivory robes with jewels and the serpentine trails of forerunner glyphs worked in gold upon the cloth. Well beyond any feasible age among the humans, the Malocanth Prefect was in critical health.
She raised one gnarled finger, and responding to the gesture, the gold throne at once rose a meter off the ground and glided on a current of air across the vast black marble floor of her resting chamber. The stone wall ahead, by means of earth magicka, opened up to reveal a grand balcony.
The early hours of sunrise on her palace were usually quiet, no less than a serene calm as the moons Malheim and Jericho sunk toward the eastern horizon. Today, however, hundreds of thousands of Alliance soldiers were among the grounds beyond the palace’ outer walls. In the skies were Airships—sleek, fast-attack craft that, like her throne, moved by means of wind-elemental magicka. They swarmed the skies; there were so many that they marred the beauty of the rising sun on the horizon.
No doubt this will alert my enemies of internal collapse, she warily thought.
Upon hearing news of the Legate’s assassination, the Alliance forces in her nation of Exur at once sent two entire armies to her palace. She understood their caution. The Hundred Thousand Years’ War still raged, and she was a target of assassination.
She sighed and made several hand signs in quick succession—a quick summon that called for her caretakers. In two heartbeats, the Prefect turned her throne to find a dozen men and women kneeled before her in a semi-circle.
They wore the silken white tunics of priests. This sect of soldiers, mages and enchanters served many purposes, but were foremost tasked with keeping the aging Prefect comfortable.
Upon meeting her gaze, all humbly fell to their knees and kept their eyes firmly upon the smooth black marble floor—all but one. This one hesitated, locked in an impertinent gaze with the Prefect. He was neither too muscular nor too thin, with a slim build and slick black hair that draped over his brilliant-ice blue eyes.
“Kali Yuga, you seem rather impatient,” the Malocanth Prefect calmly said. Holding such a prolonged gaze with a Prefect alone verged on apostasy, but she overlooked this. There were too many things to worry about.
“I do beg your forgiveness, but Exur is bereft of its Legate.” His voice was light and pertinent. Upon first glance, the man almost appeared saintly and benevolent…but what disturbed the Prefect most was the malice carried in his icy eyes. “The nation is without a Prime Minister, and the Council seeks your rejoinder.”
The Prefect understood her response was urgent, but she also knew any decision made at this point was fraught with risk. She again sighed in defeat and closed her eyes, lost in thought.
“As the situation is,” she told Kali Yuga, “I am left with but one choice. I will advise the council to prepare elections for the next Legate.”
Kali Yuga did not reply. There was a moment of deadly silence.
“Is there a problem?” The Prefect voiced.
“I am unsure, my lord,” Kali Yuga said. “Forgive me.”
The soldiers and enchanters shot their gazes at him, hands wrapped over their swords and staffs. The Malocanth Prefect might as well have had him reduced to char and ribbons where he kneeled for such gross impudence…but such unrestrained behavior had its uses. She raised a dismissive hand, calming the troops, and her throne scooted closer to this young man. She was curious.
“Regale me,” she said, her voice firm and imperious, “enlighten me.”
“I am confused,” he explained himself. “If we wait, we will risk running the country without a Prime Minister for some time and leave it vulnerable to the Irn’ Therk. Perhaps if you were to use your power of election to bring a suitable candidate to the late Yamidoro’s seat instead?”
The Prefect smiled at the smart, enterprising young man. He couldn’t have been older than thirty-five. She remembered that he was one of the three survivors of the massacre at the Temples of Knossos. Certainly he was ambitious and impudent, and perhaps most importantly, he was correct. This young man was perfect.
She glanced at the others, “leave us.”
The soldiers, mages and enchanters at once stood and vacated the hall. They departed in confusion, their faces a question. The Prefect then directed her sole attention upon Kali Yuga.
“If I am not mistaken, young man,” she said even as she read his mind, “you believe hope is for the weak. You believe that hope pales against concrete preparations for what lays ahead.”
“Therefore you shall return to the council and bear to them news that Aeschylus, Yamidoro’s chief rival, is the only viable candidate, and should be lawfully ordained to become the next Legate.”
Kali Yuga nodded, smiling, then turned and began to walk away.
“One more thing,” the Prefect continued. “My decision will no doubt spark a civil war among Yamidoro's party and Aeschylus’. Before you report my correspondence to the Mortus Prefect, I want you to find those responsible for Yamidoro’s death.”
“My lord,” he questioned her, “those responsible? I believe there was one.”
“No. A Legate does not leave his palace without personal guards or a route of escape, should things go awry,” she paused, considering. “Three, no doubt: one to slay the guards, another to remove transportation…and the assassin. Watch them closely. Soon you will bring these murderers to justice.”
“It shall be done,” Kali Yuga replied.
A fortnight passed and Acoda returned to the Acolyte, and in the following three months she was sent on numerous assassinations for the Viceroy. The missions grew increasingly difficult as the days shortened and winter’s wrath encroached.
Tying up loose ends, the vampire called it. On some days she wondered why the city guards were not watching her, but deep down she knew it was because of the Viceroy and the vampire’s machinations.
One day Acoda awoke to the caw of a raven on her window sill. She rolled from her bed and rubbed her eyes. The cold sunlight shone harshly through the drawn wool tapestries of the inn.
She yawned and stretched; she showered and soon ventured into the lodging’s mess hall for breakfast and left for the stable outdoors. Acoda mounted her horse. It happily cantered through the grassy fields into the forestry.
Ecclesiastes was a smart and powerful warhorse. Twice, she had saved Acoda. Once, when Acoda was surrounded, it charged in and stomped down the bodyguards. And again, when she escaped the docks of Kairut with heavy injuries, the war horse had brought her to the lodging.
They emerged from the woodlands and rode downhill through the villages to the heart of Kairut. Acoda arrived at the tavern and entered through the front door. She slipped past crowds of men and women to the fellow conversing with the barkeep. She tapped him once on the shoulder, “Can I help you?”
The vampire turned to her and smiled. Acoda noticed that his hair was slick and cut back, and he wore a prim suit. The vampire looked almost trustworthy. Almost. “Ah, yes,” he glanced around the tavern. “Come this way.”
He led her to the backdoor and through the narrow corridor to his quarters. There she noticed two new sets of armored clothes on the bed. Glancing at the quality of the material, she could tell the steel fabric could stop any penetrator arrow. Acoda gave a satisfied huff. “I see someone wants your head.”
“Not quite,” the vampire replied. “Something has happened.”
“What has happened?”
“The Viceroy,” said he. “He hasn’t said a word to me in weeks. I thought that he had left to attend one of his…expeditions, so to speak. I believed so until I was informed that he has been kidnapped.”
Shit, Acoda thought. The Viceroy’s imprisonment was troublesome to her own purposes. She couldn’t learn of the man’s true intentions with him locked away, “by whom? Is he still alive?”
“No one knows,” he replied. “The place he was last seen was Athernis in the Central Domain of Cu’ Escen. Those below him instructed that our task is to retrieve him safely at all costs.”
“From Athernis?” Acoda sharply scoffed, “surely you jest.”
“I wish it were so,” he said. “Unfortunately you and I are his nearest hands. We will enter and reconnoiter the city, and when the time comes we will allow our warriors to enter and subjugate the placement while an elite strike force retrieves the Viceroy.”
Acoda, as a human being, was internally revolted—not at the thought of risking her life to save a high-ranking enemy officer, but because of the many lives the Irn’ Therk was willing to spend for one man. She worried what made the man so important.
As a soldier of the Alliance, however, she’d lead the enemy to slaughter.
Athernis was the strongest Alliance fortified city within the Central Domain of Cu’ Escen. In a straight up siege, it would take no less than two entire armies to take the city, and even then with heavy losses.
“I’m assuming you have planned a daring, heroic battle of some sort?”
“Not quite,” the Acolyte replied. “As I said, you and I will enter the city alone. You will come along as my wife.” He paused, relishing the thought. “Your past affiliation with the Alliance will be invaluable in our task.”
That last remark formed a lump of ice in her gut. Acoda wondered what the Alliance would have thought of her. She was a missing spy—now actively enlisted as a Courier, what she knew was a clandestine Field Marshal to the Irn’ Therk’s holy war. Was she worth anything to the Alliance anymore?
She cleared her throat and took a deep breath. If she succeeds she’d learn of the Viceroy and the Irn’ Therk’s true intentions. She had to, even if that meant she had to betray the Alliance for now. “If I’m going to pretend to be your wife,” she said, “you could at least give me your name.”
He smiled at her, “I’m disappointed that you ask now. My name is Cain.”
Acoda sat next to him. For the next hour he informed her with more details on the quest before she left. Acoda listened and paid more attention to him than usual. With a name to know him by, Acoda found that she was rather fond of him.
She made her preparations quickly in the following day; she brought rucksacks and supplies to last them through the journey to the Central Domain. Two days later, she left the lodging before the sun rose and rode out to the nigh-derelict train station.
She squinted against the morning twilight. In the distance, beneath the sickly yellow gleam of fluorescent lamps, Acoda saw the Acolyte. Cain, in a pompous suit usually suited for nobles, looked no more dangerous than a bureaucrat without his guards.
The two boarded a train for Athernis in the Central Domain and quickly left Kairut far behind. Soon the train arrived at Cu’ Escen. Glancing outside the window, she saw the porcelain façades of an empty underground train station.
Cain and Acoda unloaded their luggage and walked to the embassy. An old woman sat at the clerk’s desk. A slight frown twisted across her face as her gaze fell upon Cain. This, she hid beneath a thin veil of diplomacy and a plastic smile.
“Ah, welcome. May I see your documents?”
Cain scoffed, grinning as he surrendered the documents. Acoda thought that Cain would have grown inured to being an outsider among humans, but she sensed something different from his usually aloof demeanor, a tinge of bitterness.
Their documents saw them through as a couple starting a new life in the newly built homes on the opulent hills that hemmed the habitable edge of the city. After retrieving Ecclesiastes, they left the embassy and ventured to the streets above.
It was raining outside. The sun hadn’t risen yet, and the soft gleam of pale moonlight still shone through the grey clouds. Cain and Acoda retrieved Ecclesiastes and rode horseback in the pelting rain toward the city outskirts. Soon, they arrived before a quaint house on a lowly hill.
Acoda saw on the hills beyond were the woodlands marking the habitable edge of the city. She knew somewhere past that loomed the imposing walls of Athernis that towered hundreds of meters into the night sky.
The next day Acoda awoke to the caw of ravens. Once she showered and dressed, she set out for the outdoors and fetched firewood. She prepared breakfast and was soon joined by Cain.
When he walked in, he found that Acoda made the kitchen resemble a dining room as much as she could from what little they hand. He sat on the Blackwood table and cast a glance over the meal, neither impressed nor disappointed.
“I see you know how to cook,” he said. “I knew you could be useful somehow.”
Acoda frowned. She knew far more than just how to cook; she knew damn well how to be a wife, as she had been one before.
“Oh? I’m sorry I ruined your breakfast. I wasn’t quite sure if you prefer a cup of tea or a cup of blood.” Cain scoffed as he started eating his steak. “I see you don’t know when to stay your tongue, girl.”
Acoda grinned, “or maybe you just don’t know how to deal with women?”
Cain merely shook his head. He ate fast; before long he finished his steak and started the next dish. Acoda watched as he ate the food she prepared, trying not to smile the entire time. Afterwards she stood and went through the small wooden backdoor.
The sun was up, the skies a deep shade of yellow gold as the young sun rose over the city walls. Dew shimmered as the pale amber sun shone upon the grassy back lawn. Quite a distance past that, the cold smoky mists that permeated the surrounding forestry flowed, carrying with it the crisp scent of pines and mighty redwoods.
Acoda found Ecclesiastes just as she had left her in the backyard. The horse violently shivered, and its thick mane was still wet from the night before. Acoda decided to make a stable for the horse.
She left the house and rode out into the woodlands. Once there she dismounted and brought out a fighting knife. She had pilfered the enchanted blade from Cain’s trousers while he showered. The arcane blade coldly mirrored Acoda’s hazel eyes as she read the vampiric scripture engraved into its surface.
It was known that among all vampire broods was a binding deed and doctrine. Their warriors usually enchanted their weapons and branded each with their dogma. Acoda knew that Cain no longer had family ties, and could care less for the ceremonial blade. He was an outcast, for now he worked alongside the humans.
A single spark, brilliance that washed through the forest for a tenth of a second, flashed. Acoda approached one small tree and dug the blade into the trunk. The log spewed steam and smoke as the white-hot blade burned its way through. She cut down many logs to size and made several trips home.
Acoda set the logs to dry outside, went back indoors and found Cain in the living room. He wore the clothes of a simple town folk, and the holster where a certain fighting knife should be was empty. Though, she secretly doubted he needed such a weapon for self defense. “Where are you going?”
“To find a job at the market,” he answered. “It seems we will be here for quite a while. We will meet my contacts after sunset today, but they will gather more information over time, so we will see them every fortnight.”
Acoda nodded. Cain bid her farewell and left the house. He returned well after the sun set, and by then Acoda had built an impressive stable for Ecclesiastes, and while the war horse grazed outside, had prepared dinner. He eased into his seat and began eating. Soon they both finished dinner.
“We must leave in a moment,” Cain got up from the table, “prepare yourself.”
Acoda glanced at her Lancet, looked at him, then shrugged. “Why do we need weapons if we are going to meet your people?”
“They have done many things,” he turned away, “I don’t want you to get hurt.”
Acoda’s first instinct was to give a sarcastic reply, but she stopped herself. She had lived in a dozen different places over the three months since she became a Courier. Cain and Ecclesiastes were the only constant things in her world. He was much nicer than when she met him, and she had to admit, she no longer disliked him.
After the sun set, the two searched through their luggage for their dark cloaks, then left the house and disappeared into the woodlands marking the habitable edge of the city. They emerged in a clearing lit by moonlight that shone through smoky clouds. Waiting for them was a circle of twelve cloaked figures, each kneeled and humble.
Cain stepped into the center. Acoda followed him and kept her Lancet collapsed into a sword. Lit by smoky moonlight, the black, hooded figures kneeled before them looked no less menacing than a pack of wolves crouched for a deadly lunge.
“Cain,” a deep male voice grumbled, “we still have little information.”
Acoda turned and saw that the one who spoke was twice as large as the others. She could tell he was a Lycan new to the art of taking the human form, for his speech was still an odd collection of grunts and snarls. Those, she noted, are characteristic of the savage and uncouth Lycan mercenaries.
“I assigned you to lead these skilled spies,” Cain calmly replied. “I implore you to not squander their talents anymore. Now then,” he cleared his throat, “you will all tell me what you know so far.”
“There are three walls surrounding the city,” another voice said. “Each is at least five meters of enchanted metals. A conventional siege is useless. Only magicka can burn through.”
“Sentries patrol all the walls,” another voice said. This one was a female. “There are more guards and Imperial Knights on the outer walls. Setting up enchanted fires will be a challenge.”
The council continued for a half hour, during which all but one of them spoke. Acoda took quick notice of the quiet spy. He was especially shrewd, occasionally nodding and uttering a only few words.
She noticed that his attention seemed focused entirely upon Cain, and what worried her most was the suppressed aura of jealousy emanating from the spy. Who could this person be? She thought. What does he want from Cain?
“We will meet again, at a different location, in a fortnight,” Cain said.
They both left the clearing and soon arrived home. The next day was the same routine as the day before. She awoke; she showered and toweled and fetched firewood and prepared breakfast, lunch and dinner. Days, weeks, and then months soon passed.
They met with Cain’s spies every fortnight in several abandoned locations throughout the city. During the seedy dealings, Acoda grew more suspicious of the one spy that rarely spoke. Whoever it was, Acoda couldn’t tell how he looked like beneath the cloak or see his face beneath the hood. Acoda began to worry that this man was not truly Cain’s subordinate and would one day deeply hurt him.
Some days Acoda stopped her routine to chat with the other wives while fetching water at the well. She made many friends. Admittedly Acoda became quite drawn to Cain after living with him for so long. She found her new life stagnant and dull, but it was a peaceful and quiet existence she wasn’t quite ready to leave behind. But soon, she knew, peril would seek her out.
One early morning, Acoda awoke to the sound of raucous chatter. She grabbed the curtain and swiped it aside, watching the scene beyond with the instant wakefulness that came with years of experience on the battlefield.
It was raining outside.
Pale sunlight shone through the stirring dark-grey rain clouds that imposed artificial night upon the city. Acoda looked outside and saw a crowd of locals gathered by the well. She swung out of bed, taking care to leave Cain’s knife behind, and then raced outside to the commotion.
Acoda didn’t have to ask anyone to know that what the people felt was beyond shock and confusion, for she could feel the aura of seething outrage and injustice flow from the crowd. These were things that she felt not just because she was a human, but because she was seasoned with the arts of empathy.
She pushed through the crowd to the center. Three Mages, hunkered on low crouches, surrounded a body marred beyond all reasonable malice. The Mages, in their flowing black robes, with faces stolid even at the grisly sight before them, resembled villains more than the monks they were.
Acoda had a sinking feeling in her gut. It was a terrible, deep seated feeling that told her somehow she knew the brutally murdered victim from somewhere. “Excuse me,” she said to the Head Priest, “this is my home. What happened?”
The Head Priest looked away from the carnage. He stood, and Acoda saw he was a rather powerful figure beneath the majestic robes. He had fair skin, blonde hair—slicked wet by rain—that was bleached to almost a blinding white sheen, and angelic blue eyes. The simple gold bar at the hem of his breast pocket was labeled, Father Abel.
“This man was found this way near your house by a passing merchant,” Father Abel replied. “I suspect he had a message of some sort for to you, undoubtedly something mortally important for him to have come this far only to be murdered at your doorstep.”
He paused and took a painfully long stare into Acoda’s hazel eyes. “Might you know anything about this? The city’s census notes that one Acolyte arrived with his young wife three months ago.”
“No,” Acoda replied. She gestured at the ruptured torso, “and this was certainly no Acolyte doing. Vampires are not physically stronger than any man or woman, and to do something like this in the open would surely alert everyone.”
“Of course,” he nodded. “The only thing capable of such savagery is a lycan…or a pack of Acolytes. Perhaps he brought others with him?”
“But I was at his side all night,” she said. “I know he isn’t responsible.”
“That may be so,” he replied, “but there are no lycans in this city. So unless our investigation yields otherwise, I see no reason to leave the vampire free of blame.”
Acoda was about to protest when Father Abel turned his back to her. She knew Cain was innocent, and she needed him to find the Viceroy. Somehow she had to keep him from the jails.
Acoda recessed back into the crowd and watched. Soon, a horse-drawn cart arrived. The four Mages carried what they could of the corpse on a gurney and loaded it onto the cart. Armed guards escorted Cain from their house; they hogtied and threw him on the cart, then the Mages urged their horses down a narrow path that led to the local morgue. The crowd followed them down the cobblestone thoroughfare.
Acoda returned to her bedroom, went in the closet and brought out a jacket, then left the house for the outdoors. It wasn’t a long stretch of imagination to see the Mages incarcerate a vampire in their cathedral. It made sense; the cathedral was holy ground, and any magicka Cain knew would be nullified there.
It was a long walk in the downpour, but after several hours she arrived at the cathedral. She gave a gentle push and the massive oak doors swung open. The soft glow of candle light illuminated the majestic cathedral. The pale sunlight that streamed through the stained glass shone upon a confessional stand ahead. Acoda paced through the cathedral and entered the confessional.
“Hallo,” a warm, grandmotherly voice greeted. “How are you?”
“Not so well,” Acoda said. “I am afraid this is not a confession—”
“Speak your mind,” the elderly woman replied. “That is what I am here for.”
“Well, my husband was arrested this morning. The Mages that took him said he may have taken a life, but I know he is a good man. Even if he is a vampire, I know he wouldn’t go to the point of murder.”
“Oh…a vampire. Many folks wouldn’t trust their kind.”
“That’s why I came here,” Acoda said. “Only here would anyone listen. I came to talk to the Head Priest. I know he would listen to me. I want to help find the murderers and clear my husband’s name.”
The elderly Priestess sighed, opening for Acoda the small door that allowed her into the other side of the confessional. She followed the Priestess through the cathedral toward its cherished adytum.
Acoda sensed a subtle shift in the elderly woman’s aura—trite conviction, distrust, then reluctant sympathy and absolve. “If you love him that much,” the Priestess said to her, “I cannot refuse you talk with the man that took away your husband.”
“Yes,” Acoda shifted her glance to the floor. It occurred to her that she wasn’t lying. Legally Cain was indeed her husband, and indeed he was innocent. Only then did Acoda question whether she even liked him or not. “I do.”
They arrived before a titanic steel wall that gated the adytum. Arcane runes traced complex lines and arcs across the intricate portal. It was an ancient written language, an elegant dance of curves and serpentine trails etched across the brilliant silver wall.
Acoda and the Priestess were familiar with the runes. Indeed, every human being, after the Hundred Thousand Years’ War began in an age forgotten, was very familiar with the ancient scripture. It read:
“…Piety & Inquisition, the Chalice & Fire of the soul. Through Piety & Inquisition we have sinned, and so rend our hands filthy before the tears of the Gods…”
The elderly Priestess spoke an incantation. The steel wall withdrew, and beyond was a vast conical chamber lit by the soft light of a hundred-thousand candles. At the center of the chamber were a massive raised platform and a shrine. Kneeled before the shrine was Father Abel.
Suddenly an instance of terror twisted Acoda’s gut. The aura of magicka that emanated from the Head Priest was indeed holy, but it was massive, powerful—and perhaps malevolently so.
She realized that every ember upon the thousands of candles in the adytum, the thousands more through out the cathedral, and every breath of warm air drew its strength from Father Abel alone. Acoda had heard the tales of the Grandmasters of fire magicka, but never laid eyes upon one until then.
“Do not fear him,” the elderly woman said to her. “Speak your truth quietly and clearly, and he will listen.” She left Acoda to cross the distance to the Head Priest, and Acoda walked across the chamber to the shrine. Father Abel continued to hum his prayers, not quite acknowledging her presence the entire time.
“Do you hate me?” Said he.
“No,” Acoda blurted, “heavens, no.”
“And why not? Is it not I who shackled your husband?”
Acoda gave a humble bow. “I understand that you were doing your duty as the Head Priest of Athernis, my lord.”
“You and I are children of the universe,” he said, “no less than the trees and the stars. Don’t avoid hating me because I am a monk. I see it as merely a label branding a human being no greater than you.”
Acoda paused for a moment. She thought about Father Abel’s strange response. Why would any Head Priest encourage hatred? “Yes, but even then what meaning would my hatred hold to you? Be it wrongful in your eyes, but you are far greater and more important than my sole existence.”
He laughed, “Just because I can light candles means I’m more important?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Every living being can draw energy from the cosmos and light a candle with fire magicka. Anyone, with enough diligence and fortitude, can become a Grandmaster of fire, water, and earth magicka.”
Acoda chuckled. She knew he was jesting, and was now easier to talk to. “With all due respect, I don’t think everyone can spend eighty years studying.”
“Okay,” he grinned, “perhaps not everyone has the time to become a Grandmaster. Anyway, is there something you wish of me?”
“Yes. I wanted to remind you that there is no evidence to hold my husband prisoner. If at all possible, I would like to see him released. I will do everything I can to help find those responsible and clear my husband’s name.”
“Releasing him will not be possible,” he said. An icy chill took to his voice that hadn’t been there before. “The locals were giving him nasty looks the instant he walked outside of your home. I took your husband to protect him until we find the murderers.”
Acoda sighed. Her situation meant she was left alone in their original task of sabotaging the city and retrieving the Viceroy. She couldn’t do it alone. She truly needed Cain. “May I see him one last time?”
Father Abel nodded. He led her from the adytum to a long hallway beneath the cathedral. They went down many stairs and passed through the lower holding pens to one prison cell. The Head Priest gave her a private moment to speak with him.
Acoda saw Cain sat on the floor, staring out through the small window to the starry night sky beyond. He continued to watch the heavens, an empty expression on his face even as he turned to see Acoda standing on the other side of the metal bars.
He grinned, “hello there, beautiful.”
“Hi,” Acoda giggled. She couldn’t resist a smile at the fact he could jest at a time like this. “How are you?”
“They haven’t killed or tortured me yet,” Cain shrugged. “I’ll be fine. The guards have been talking about moving me somewhere, though. So I might not stay in Athernis for long.”
Acoda glanced around the prison cells to make sure no one was within earshot, and once satisfied, began to speak in a hushed tone under her breath. “What about the Viceroy?”
“I don’t know,” he said to her, “but they wouldn’t put him in a place like this.”
“Where would he be?” She pleaded. “Where can I find him?”
Cain hesitated. A look of worry flickered on his face—an instant before Acoda had the chance to catch it. “You will find him in the inner sanctum of this city’s citadel. The place is heavily defended, however.”
“You made preparations to get past the guards?”
“It’s no longer possible now.” He turned away, “I implore you not to go.”
“Okay,” Acoda said. There was a moment of silence between them, the kind of silence brought forth by uncertainty. Acoda cast a timid glance at her foot, and Cain returned to watching the stars.
“You should get going,” he said. “That horse of yours must be getting lonely.”
Acoda nodded. She paid her respects to the Head Priest and left the cathedral. She decided that if she couldn’t get Cain from the jails through the law, she had to find another way on her own.
After the sun began to set the next day, Acoda left home. It still rained, but she soon arrived in the heart of the city and disappeared into its labyrinthine alleys. She found one narrow point and pinned her back against the wall, pushed her feet against the opposing side, and began to shimmy up the alley.
She emerged on the rooftops and looked out over the city. Endless spells of torrential rain still bathe Athernis. She saw the vast city rooftops glistening in the soft yellow sunset that shone through the rain clouds overhead.
Acoda broke into a dead run. Her bare feet clapped against the ledge and she jumped, leaping eight feet across to the next rooftop. She lunged across the narrow canyons of the city alleys until she arrived behind the morgue.
She brought out Cain’s fighting knife. She read the vampiric scripture, and rain steamed on the white-hot blade. She approached the backdoor and cut her way through the lock. Before her was a narrow cellar, only in this cellar the casks held the preserved bodies of the deceased.
Acoda quietly paced through the long passage. She had to find information to begin her own investigation, and right now the only man who had any answers was the Coroner.
She cut her way through another lock at the end of this corridor and arrived behind the receptionist’ desk. The elderly man, filling paperwork at his desk, spun in shock and surprise. Before he could scream Acoda jumped and covered his mouth.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” she whispered, “I just want answers.”
The Coroner gave a subtle nod. Acoda loosened her grip on his mouth and said, “I want you to tell me about the man that was murdered yesterday. Who was he and where did he come from?”
“There is little information,” he gasped. “He was one of the survivors of the massacre at Knossos and took refuge in Athernis two years ago. He lived a quiet life, and few people knew him.”
Acoda’s heart thundered. There were only three survivors of that horrible battle: Norath, Kali Yuga, and herself. Her grip tightened on the Coroner, a bone deep curl of dread coiling in her gut. “You will give me the name of this man, right now—”
“No,” a deep voice sounded above her shoulder. “He will not.”
A flash of blood spattered across Acoda’s face.
For an instant she wondered whether she ran the knife through the old man in blind rage, or if it was her own blood. It was when the Coroner lifelessly slumped to the floorboards that she noticed the cold presence at her back.
“A pity,” a deep male voice sighed above her. For all the confusion and sudden anger she felt, still the voice shook her to the bone. She closed her eyes and breathed out, and said, “Who the hell are you?”
“Your Guardian Angel,” the voice replied. To Acoda it sounded like the growl of thunder. Impending. Perilous. What scared her most was that his aura felt uncomfortably familiar. How could she have met this vicious monster before and live to meet him again?
“Protect me from an old man that can barely defend himself!?” Acoda spat. She fought the urge to lash out. She could hurt the intruder, most certainly, but whoever it was could slay her in an instant.
“Please try to understand. I am doing everything I can to protect you. Only you.”
Acoda sharply scoffed. “Next time, don’t protect me with a Lancet at my back. “
“Today I come to you as your Guardian Angel and your humble messenger,” he told her. “I will continue to watch over you for the time being, but in the future, I may come as a devil.”
“I don’t need you,” she shot back.
“Soon you will be grateful,” he said. “Many things happened since you disappeared three months ago at Knossos… things no mortal should ever lay eyes upon. This time I fear it is beyond the war and everyone else.”
Acoda had many questions swimming in her mind, but she remained silent. A dark hand holding a piece of parchment reached out in front of her. “We will strike on the ninth moons. I have made all the preparations. Once we march through the city’s walls, you will race to the citadel and retrieve the Viceroy.”
The Viceroy. This was all happening because of him. Acoda wondered what made the man so important that the Irn’ Therk was willing to burn down a city in his name. Acoda decided right there that he was too dangerous to be left alive. She had to kill him.
Acoda was about to speak when the cold presence suddenly vanished at her back. She turned back and saw the Coroner, motionless, on the floor. Acoda wondered exactly what the old man knew about the murder victim, and what her Guardian Angel was trying to hide from her.
She left such musings, however. Right now she had to keep herself from the jails. Acoda stepped away from the corpse. Once at the backdoor, she stopped and took one final glance at the Coroner. The old man didn’t deserve to die. Acoda promised herself to account for his death with the Viceroy’s.
She turned back and was instantly drenched the moment she walked into the downpour. The storm had gotten worse. She appeared in a cobblestone thoroughfare and forged against the storm on the long road home.
Acoda continued her quiet existence with Ecclesiastes on the lowly hill. Each morning, she ventured into the woods and exercised to keep herself and Ecclesiastes sharp and prepared.
Days turned into weeks, and weeks into months. With each passing night Acoda sat on the porch and watched the moons rise and set against the starry night sky, wondering if Cain was doing the same where ever he was.