Black Crow Inn
The Black Crow Inn was located outside of Lokhan, about a mile south from the city gate. It was a ramshackle building, abandoned for ages, until couple of years ago, the Grey Cloaks established their headquarters there. It was a short way off the main road, offering a perfect gathering place for the brigands.
The yard seemed empty. The once tidy and clean gravel had been partially replaced by the intrusive shrubs and dissolved by the rain. The building had been empty for a long time, and it showed with the windows largely shattered and the plaster of the walls worn and cracked.
A thin drizzle fell upon the yard, painting the grey afternoon with depressing mist as Drevin observed the inn behind the dripping spruces. His dark, keen eyes scoured the building and the front yard to spot all the guards, but no matter how hard he looked, there seemed to be no more than one sitting on the large porch that had partially rotten away and collapsed from the other end. He was sitting there quietly, but by any means not too observant, as his main interest seemed to be his pipe. They obviously did not expect any problems, and why would they? What Drevin was about to do was plain insanity. Attacking the brigand headquarters in the middle of the day would definitely not cross the mind of an average thug, but to find out any concrete information, he had to rely on insanity.
The brigand guard continued to blow out puffy clouds of smoke as he enjoyed his tobacco, which had become a true rarity in the North. The southern farmers had increasing difficulties to produce enough for the entire continent, which made it incredibly expensive. The same phenomenon had occurred with all grain as the Eclipse reduced the amount of harvest, providing barely enough for the local communities. This bastard smoking a pipe in times like these spoke of very good connections to the South, or an alliance with a highly influential order like the Purple Lotus.
Taking a short sprint across the yard, Drevin reached the wall unnoticed and kneeled amidst the bare rasberry bushes growing at the end of the building. They would not protect him in case someone actually bothered to come check that end, but as it seemed, these fellows were not overly worried about intruders. Most of the men were sent to look for Drevin from the town, which was the most logical place for him to dwell, even after the incident at the Burning Candle Inn. They knew it would take some preparations if he wanted to leave, otherwise it did not make a big difference if he slit his wrists on the spot, except for saving the assassins some time and effort. The wilderness was extremely dangerous these days, much more than one man could handle without proper precautions.
A quick glance around the corner gave Drevin a good idea of the guard's position. A glittering silvery blade appeared in his hand, the perfectly balanced throwing knife. There was no room for error because even the shortest cry, or a slightly louder thud caused by the body or the chair, would alarm the men inside.
With one smooth swing, Drevin sent the knife on its way. Flying through the air, the blade sparkled dimly in the grey daylight before sinking into the brigand's neck, silencing him effectively. As an unexpected side effect, a series of strong spasms jerked the body, almost enough to push the chair over. But as a small miracle, the chair remained upright as the short death struggle neared the end. Nobody came out from the door, and after a few minutes of waiting, Drevin was certain he was safe to go.
The next step would be tricky as he had no clue what was against him on the other side of the door. Another detail that worried him was the fact that he knew nothing about this Elmor Emberling, the leader of these brigands. How good was he? Words from the past echoed in his mind: always evaluate your opponent before exposing yourself and engaging in battle. This advice was given to him by the Hooded One herself at the end of his joining ritual. It had been a special moment right after he had received the mark of the order, a tattoo of a small lotus flower upon his heart, which was supposed to always remind him about his origin. The thought of digging that infuriating mark out of his skin had crossed his mind for more than once during the last year, but Belith had always talked him out of it, explaining that small matters like that did not diminish his value in her eyes. She had loved him unconditionally, accepting his dark past as a part of him. It had been far beyond what Drevin could have hoped for. But no matter how much he hated Grimnir and the Purple Lotus, the advice she had given had always been golden.
Without wasting any time, he pulled the knife out of the dead man's neck. A momentary burst of blood gushed from the wound as the sharp plug was suddenly removed. Glancing around quickly to make sure there were no unwanted eyes seeing his entry, he sneaked toward the front door.
He was pleasantly surprised to find the door unlocked and well oiled, opening silently without the slightest creak. Progressing through a short entryway, he approached another doorway leading into the main hall. This inn was a little different compared to the Burning Candle, as the main room was divided into two smaller rooms and separated by a thin wall that seemed like it was added there later. The further end of the hall was also a couple of steps higher than the other, which indicated that those who spent a night at the inn had their separate space to enjoy their meals and beverages, away from the regular townsfolk customers. An elder man, who looked somewhat like the keeper of the place, was standing behind a rough, wooden counter with a large mug in his hand; apart from him, only one man was sitting in the main room, sipping his cheap mead by the blurred window. A thin, savage smile appeared on Drevin's lips as his cold eyes targeted the unsuspecting reaver.
The man attempted to stand up, crying wildly while reaching for his sword, but Drevin was faster. The two daunting poignards stroke swiftly like a pair of serpents, piercing the leather tunic and digging deep into his chest before he was able to perform a single attack. The brigand's cry turned into husky growl as his lungs filled rapidly with blood. The dying man dropped back on the chair, which broke into pieces under his weight, sending him on the floor, wriggling helplessly.
”It's him! He's here!” The innkeeper yelled sharply almost instantly as he saw the stranger coming from the doorway, but if that did not work, the noise of the breaking furniture surely alarmed the men next door, and Drevin was fully aware of it.
Pulling his weapons free from the corpse, Drevin leaped over the chairs and tables, landing by the door leading to the upper room. In less than two seconds, the door was kicked open and three more brigands rushed in. But before the innkeeper had a chance to warn them about the lurking danger behind the door, the first man already had a deep, bleeding stab wound on his back and a partially damaged spine. Crawling painfully on the floor, he was unable to rise again.
The second brigand knew what was coming and dodged to the right, avoiding Drevin's poignards, but the third one was not so lucky. He could not see what was happening in the lower room from behind his comrade, and so he ran straight into Drevin, who was waiting with a grim smile on his face. Parrying the hasty strike easily with one blade, he pushed the other through the man's stomach, all the way until the guard prevented it from going any deeper. It seemed as if the brigand's eyes bulged an inch as he realized what had happened. Completely paralyzed and unable to even scream, he leaned against Drevin as if trying to knock him down with the sheer weight of his body. Quickly realizing his bad posture, the assassin yanked his weapon free with one furious draw and stepped aside. The man fell down with a long groan, holding his punctured stomach with both hands. Drevin turned to face the last man, who had just enough time to get fully prepared.
”Come on then, you dog! Let's finish this right now!” The brigand yelled out his challenge. Drevin smiled deviously, approaching the man with his bloody poignards swinging slowly in front of him, hungry for more. The brigand was acting bravely, but the actual purpose of his challenge was to bolster his own courage more than anything else. His hands were shivering, and the nervous stare of an wild animal was apparent in his dilated eyes.
Drevin parried the clumsy strikes of the poor fighter very easily. He danced around effortlessly, dealing a hit or two every now and then causing multiple bleeding lacerations on the man's arms and chest, driving the incompetent man deeper into panic as it became obvious that he had absolutely no chance in this fight. After playing for a little while, Drevin decided to conclude the ridiculous jest of a battle. This man, like the other brigands before him, was nowhere near his level of expertise.
Bluffing the brigand by making a clumsy attack straight toward him, Drevin noted how he began to parry his strike, and would have been well successful if it had been nothing but a cheap diversion, which would have never worked with a skilled opponent. With this rascal, however, it was a bullseye, just as he had surmised. While still moving, Drevin bowed down, leaped past the brigand smoothly like a jackal, then he turned and stabbed the man in the back. It all happened as one smooth, continuous maneuver that ended with a lethal blow, leaving the man stumbling forward confusedly as a sudden weakness took over his body. The long blade of the poignard had pierced his heart, resulting in massive internal bleeding that killed him almost instantly.
”Stay right where you are!” Drevin hissed loudly as he noticed the innkeeper trying to sneak out. He had been watching the brutal play, too horrified to move. By the time he finally got his feet working again, it was already too late.
The innkeeper froze still, staring at Drevin like a deer waiting for the last shot. He had never witnessed the kind of slaughter before. This mysterious figure had appeared out of nowhere and butchered everyone inside in a blink of an eye, and now it seemed like it was his turn. Terrified beyond comprehension, the innkeeper watched as Drevin walked back to the man who had been stabbed in the stomach, still moaning and writhing on the floor. Grabbing his hair tightly, Drevin pulled his head as far back as he could, then he slid his poignard under the man's throat and made a deep cut from ear to ear. His body jerked involuntarily a few times before freezing still, a crimson puddle began to spread underneath his head.
The innkeeper swallowed hard. He was sweating heavily, feeling like he could pass out any moment as the assassin turned to him after finishing his job with the suffering reaver.
”Now, my friend, we will have a little chat,” Drevin whispered as he grabbed the shivering innkeeper by his tunic and dragged him to one of the chairs where he tied him up with a rope he had found lying around behind the counter.
* * *
The innkeeper sat quietly on the wooden chair, gazing nervously at the cloaked assassin who had walked around the counter to fetch himself a mug of mead. Clueless about the future, he had a troubling hunch that it was not going to be anything too pleasant.
After making sure the innkeeper would not escape, Drevin searched the entire building to make sure there were no surprises ahead, then he returned to the main room.
”Now, tell me, who exactly are you? You don't look like a brigand by any means.” While talking, he dragged another chair in front of the old man for himself to sit.
The innkeeper swallowed again, trying to calm down enough to speak properly. ”I am— the innkeeper of the Black Crow Inn. Well, I was until business went bad and I had to close it down. Ned is my name, Old Ned they used to call me.”
”So, you are the actual owner of this house?” Drevin insisted to make sure he understood.
”Yes, I was— I am. I've been living upstairs in one of the rooms, but then one day Elmor came to me and asked if I would be interested to rent the place for him and his men. Needless to say I was, I wanted to see this place thrive again, but of course that's not exactly what happened. In any case though, I had a steady source of income again.”
The innkeeper's tale sounded sad, but Drevin had no time for any sentimental chatter. Without the slightest change in his facial expression, the assassin proceeded to the next question.
”This Elmor Emberling, he was not here?” Drevin asked, nodding his head lightly toward the dead bodies lying on the floor.
”No, he was not,” the old man confirmed nervously, predicting where this conversation was heading to.
”Can you tell me where he is?”
The innkeeper sighed deeply. ”I can't do that, I can't—,” his voice disappeared, and Drevin realized what was the problem. This man saw Elmor as some kind of a savior for him and his business, which would make him extremely loyal. He would have to break that bond, and he did not have the time to do it delicately.
”I'm going to ask you one more time before I'll start breaking you, one limb at a time,” he said so calmly that it did made the man to open his mouth partially, as if he was about to tell, but then he shook his head quietly. It was admirable bravery from the old man, but instead of giving him any credit, Drevin rolled his eyes, annoyed by this stubborn gesture.
He moved behind the innkeeper and sat on another chair with a long, fed up sigh, then he took one of the tied hands to his own and bended it back as far as it agreed to go. Old Ned moaned in pain, but it was nothing compared to what was coming. Holding his pinky finger firmly in his hand, Drevin twisted it, turning the entire finger around in its joint, dislocating and breaking it with a disgusting little snap. A high-pitched scream departed from the innkeeper's lips as an unbearable pain shot through his hand and arm like an arrow.
”Where is he?” Drevin asked again coldly, awaiting patiently for the answer, but all he heard was some uncontrollable moaning and sobbing. Drevin sighed quietly to himself, reluctant to do what he had started. This man really just wanted to run his inn - apparently at any cost.
Moving on to the ring finger, he repeated the same action, crushing the joint with a creepy crunch. Another loud, bloodcurdling scream unravelled from the old man's mouth.
”Where?” Drevin hissed to the man's ear like a serpent preparing for a lethal bite.
”Please, no more,” the man cried. ”I will tell you, in the name of all forgotten Immortals, I will tell you.”
Drevin changed his position quickly, sitting in front of the man again, gazing at him with his dark eyes. Secretly, he was relieved and happy to see that the old man was willing to speak so soon, but there was nothing in the world that could make him reveal these feelings to his victim.
”Speak,” he ordered without a single gesture to free his prisoner before he had told him everything.
The innkeeper grimaced at the shredding, throbbing pain of his mutilated fingers, but somehow he managed to focus enough, and after breathing heavily for couple of times, he spoke.
”A few years ago, Elmor began to talk about building a new headquarters for his little hobby. Very excited about the plan, he was talking about constructing a whole new wing to the sewer network of the town. Not because they needed it, but simply because he was able to. The Grey Cloaks may seem like a dreadful order, but they are mostly sons of the local nobles mixed together with the offspring of some of the wealthiest merchant families in the area, wishing to entertain themselves in these hard times by running this semi-official secret society. Elmor was very excited when he found out that the Purple Lotus was in town, seeking someone a lot of people knew around here because of your distinctive look compared to us Hurons.”
Drevin muttered something to himself, but then he turned his eyes back to the man. ”Continue,” he urged eagerly, wanting to hear the rest.
”I tried to warn him about the Purple Lotus,” the innkeeper sobbed with a broken voice, ”but he would not listen to me.” He closed his eyes and shook his head faintly. ”They are real murderers and assassins, those folks from the South, and poor Elmor has gotten in the middle of a game that is far too dangerous for him or any of his friends to play. But they didn't care. Only thought in Elmor's head was how much more credibility such an alliance would bring for them.”
”You're saying that all the Grey Cloaks are nothing but dandies of nobility pretending to run a secret order?” Drevin asked, for he had hard time to believe this, but still, it made perfect sense to why all these thugs appeared to be so clumsy and unskilled in combat.
”That is the truth, I swear,” the innkeeper whispered, shuddering from pain and fatigue.
”And you think that Elmor is hiding in the sewers?”
”That would be my first guess, but please— I cannot be sure. They— they don't tell me these things.” The innkeeper sniffled quietly as he tried to cope with the radiating, stinging pain from his crushed fingers.
Silently the assassin stood up, revealing one of his poignards. The steel glittered faintly in the light of a single candelabrum hanging from the ceiling as Drevin approached the tortured man. A glimpse of fear flashed in the man's dilated eyes as he was certain that the assassin would slit his throat, like he had done with the other brigand who was now lying on the floor with his face in a puddle of drying blood. But instead of feeling the blade upon his throat, he felt it sawing the rope around his wrists, and in a matter of a few seconds, he was free. Carefully moving his injured hand to make sure it would not hurt more than it already did, he watched as the strange, olive-skinned, shadowy man glanced around once more before he walked out the door, leaving the old innkeeper alone with five dead bodies.
The light drizzle outside had turned into heavy, freezing rain that felt like small needles landing on his bare skin as he stepped into the woods. He pulled the cloak's hood as far as he could in order to prevent the rain from hitting his face. Because of the dark green cloak, the forest covered him completely, making him nearly invisible as he headed toward the town. He needed to find the entrance to the sewer system built underneath the city, and somewhere in there he should find Elmor Emberling. Despite everything that had been revealed by Old Ned, Drevin was still going to kill the leader of the Grey Cloaks, for only then the broad network of spies working for Terrigan Argos could be silenced and torn apart.