A Mouse in a Maze
A pitch-black crow was sitting on a high branch of a pine tree, watching as the dark figure of a man ran suavely through the woods. The fading grey daylight painted the scenery almost as ashen as the feathers of the crow, wrapping the world in its darkened cloak.
Avoiding the road, knowing there were merchants still riding in and out of Lokhan using the southern way, Drevin moved silently among the rowans and pine trees. Those poor travelers were tirelessly heading toward the great harbor of Meridan on the West Coast, or the inland town of Kiernan far to the South, deep in the kingdom of Evoras. Wherever their destination, they all had to either follow the northern shore of Longwater, or cross the mighty river at the Ford of Asgal to access the southern side of Grisdale. There was not much profit to be made in these harsh times, but it was still better than starvation, even at the cost of facing the hungry wolves and other aggressive beasts lurking behind every shadow.
Without knowing exactly where the main sewer entrance was, Drevin made an educated guess based on plain environmental facts. Lokhan was located in a small valley, surrounded by northern far end of the hills of Faldar, which then melted into the foothills of the White Mountains. A wide and deep stream, known as the White Creek, named after its source, ran by the city less than a mile away, leading across Faldar before joining Longwater about two miles downstream from the Ford of Asgal. This creek was the only logical place to drain the rain water off the streets, which led Drevin to search for the entrance from the southeast side, the same side where White Creek ran closest to the city.
It did not take more than a couple of hours for Drevin to actually find the entrance. He simply followed the creek until he spotted a trench leading toward the city, a clear sign pointing at the right direction. It took less than an hour to reach the mouth of a large tunnel sticking out from the rocky side of the hill, partially covered by hanging roots and other shrubbery. The ominous ruins of Castle Grivold stood on top of the hill, silently watching over the valley of Lokhan. There was nothing suitable to create a torch as all the wood was soaking wet. Drevin was forced to step into the dark tunnel hoping that enough light would pass through the sewer grids on the streets, but before he could have any benefits of that light, he would have to make it far enough into the darkness to reach the parts under the city.
The constant rain had filled the sewers, keeping the water level slightly above his ankles, ensuring that the conditions remained as uncomfortable as possible. The light faded abruptly, leaving the tunnel ahead looking like a hungry mouth of a beast ready to swallow its victim as a whole. Drevin gritted nervously as he waded forward quietly, one step at a time. Soon all the light had vanished and a strong, echoing purl filled his ears. The dripping ceiling added additional annoyance to the miserable entirety, drenching the already wet assassin.
Feeling around with his hands and feet to find the way, Drevin progressed very slowly to prevent himself from getting injured in the delusive darkness. The slippery floor, the slimy, cold walls, and distant rustling and squealing of the rats spawned doubtful thoughts in his mind, but he was known to be a persistent man when he was still working for the Purple Lotus - never giving up, not even when the situation seemed utterly hopeless. Confident that sooner or later he would have to run into something that provided light, he proceeded further into the tunnels. There had to be some way the brigands were using to access their secret headquarters, and the sewer network of Lokhan was not that massive, at least when compared to some of the truly enormous examples in the South.
Finally, after stumbling around in the darkness for a time that felt like eternity, he found something that felt like a vertical metal rod. After feeling around the structure, Drevin realized he had found a ladder leading somewhere, which in any case had to be better than down in the water. Climbing vigorously like a nimble panther, he reached the next level and saw a dim, flickering light coming from a distance. The assassin smiled deviously, knowing he was getting closer to what he was looking for.
The upper level was somewhat dry, but the moldy stench was suffocating. Drevin figured out quickly that the sewers were built in two levels, the lower one reserved for the water drains and the higher level for maintenance – to install new grids as the town grew, and to repair walls that the rushing water ate away over time. Of course, these sewers had not seen any upkeeping for years now that the endless rain kept the drains full, preventing any kind of work from being done, so the condition they were in was far from the best.
Keeping close to the wall, he moved silently like a wraith through the shadows, ensuring his every step was soundless, and as he approached the light, he saw that it was gleaming from behind a corner where two tunnels formed an intersection. The departing corridor looked new, like it was built years after the original network, and it was brightly lit by oil lanterns hung on both sides. The narrow tunnel curved steeply to the right, disappearing from Drevin's vicinity very quickly, an important detail that caused him to hesitate. The tunnel ahead offered no room to hide or fight properly. It would be a high risk to take, but before he had evaluated all the available options, he heard barely audible steps approaching from the tunnel. Drevin retreated back behind the shadowy corner and waited, the endless purl of the running water had muffled the sound of the steps, almost exposing his presence to the enemy.
A lonely brigand appeared from the tunnel, glancing around nervously, almost like waiting for someone. Suddenly Drevin was feeling very uneasy, the behavior of this brigand seemed highly disturbing. But how they could know about him already? Had there been a guard along the way he had missed? It was possible, although unlikely, the only place to really spot him properly was outside as the drain tunnel was simply too dark to see. Was he walking into a trap?
All the questions had to be left unaswered for the time being as Drevin prepared to take down the guard. That was the first and foremost task he had to take care of. After a few minutes of staring into the darkness, the lonely brigand turned around and returned into the lit tunnel. Drevin followed him silently, drawing out one of his knives as he moved closer. He stepped around the corner and saw the man'n back right in front of him. Aiming carefully, he threw the perfectly balanced knife forcefully at the brigand, puncturing his neck with admirable precision, dropping him down without a noise other than a quiet croak. After retrieving his knife, Drevin dragged the body out into the shadows where was as good as invisible, then he rushed forward. There was no time to be wasted. Aware of his vulnerability for as long as he remained in the light, he stormed through the narrow corridor, hoping that the conditions would eventually turn more favorable for him.
The tunnel ended into a rectangular room with worn, but still soft carpets on the floor, and more oil lanterns hanging on the walls. The tiling was high quality work and obviously new. This part of the sewers had to be the one Old Ned was talking about. A whole new wing built underground only to serve the Grey Cloaks. Apparently this Elmor Emberling fellow had no shortage of pocket money.
There were three almost identical doors, one on each wall. The one on the right led to a small warehouse with a wide selection of supplies stored on wooden shelves from mead and wine to dried meat; also, tools of various kinds were lying around; hammers, saws, even some rusty daggers that had been left lying in the humid room for far too long. The left door opened to a staircase that was mined in the solid stone, leading up to a wooden hatch. It had to be the entrance Elmor used when traveling between the town and the hideout.
One thing was bothering Drevin to a point he wanted to scream out his frustration, the place seemed empty. Despite the guard he had killed earlier, he had not seen anyone - not a single man in this filthy pit. It was a most disturbing discovery, which had to either mean that Elmor's order was not as large as it was made to look, or he had been stupid enough to send all his men to scout the town.
Carefully wrapping his fingers around the copper handle of the third door, he opened it and entered a room that was larger than the one behind him. It was decorated with curtains, paintings and small sculptures made from bronze. He saw figures of little lions, panthers and other exotic animals, all standing on shelves and pedestals like strange little trophies. On the left side stood a sturdy, wooden table with several bottles and mugs on it. Straight across the room, a massive fireplace was burning with enormous flame, keeping the large hall at comfortable temperature. The rest of the room was covered with tables and chairs, which made it look like a luxurious underground meeting place. Behind the counter was another door, probably leading back to the sewers, unless Elmor lacked the basic knowledge not to build dead end hideouts.
There was a tall man standing near the fireplace, badly startled by Drevin's sudden entrance. Expensive jewelry sparkled on his fingers and around his neck, reflecting the warm light of two silver chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, and golden flames of the fireplace. He was wearing a warm, fur-lined, blue cloak, made from the finest wool, clearly stating the noble position of his family. Dressing up like a peacock in the sewers might have been an extremely silly decision, but it brought sardonic smile on Drevin's face as he approached the man.
”Elmor Emberling, I presume,” he said gruffly, drawing weapons in front of the petrified man.
”That's correct!” A raspy voice answered on Elmor's behalf, bringing the assassin to a halt. A ratlike face smiled cunningly from the door behind the counter, confirming that they had been waiting for him. Drevin had fallen straight into their trap like a petty amateur.
* * *
”Terrigan Argos, I thought I smelled you, though it was hard to tell if it was really you or the rats,” Drevin hissed sharply.
Terrigan laughed roughly and winked theatrically at his enemy. ”I am honored by your visit to our humble house, and as always, I am completely at your service,” he chuckled playfully, purposely provoking Drevin to act without proper discretion.
Drevin cursed to himself. Terrigan was not a part of his plan at this point, he should have seen the trap enclosing already at the Black Crow, but it was too late to worry about that now. Both shining poignards ready, Drevin approached the sleek assassin carefully. Elmor would have to wait, possibly to another day altogether, as he could not afford to spare any focus on him while there was a real threat present as well - and more was coming.
A shadow landed behind Drevin somewhere from above where the thick girders ran across the ceiling, supporting the structure against the landmass. Drevin leaped quickly to the right, away from both the shadow and the still laughing ratface who now had drawn his slim sword, barely larger than a dagger, but it was lightweight, and in capable hands, extremely deadly.
Elmor observed the situation clueless about what he should do. There was no way for him to escape, and only protection from this man who wanted him dead were the two other assassins who would not lose their sleep over his life. For the first time in his entire life, Elmor Emberling was truly, utterly horrified.
The shadow, a medium height man wearing dark leather armor that seemed to be custom made to match perfectly his measurements, which allowed him free movement with above average armor. He was bald with a thin, exquisitedly trimmed beard and a mustache; a cold, emotionless, extremely focused gaze in his eyes together with an overall cruel expression made this man radiate ominous danger.
Drevin recognized the man instantly, and it did not make him feel any better about his situation.
”Welcome Morhan,” Terrigan announced dramatically, ”we have - or at least I have been expecting you - not so sure about this fellow here,” he snickered, pointing at Drevin whose face showed no change, no fear or panic, which, in all honesty, was a slight disappointment for Terrigan.
A plan was forming in Drevin's mind, for he knew this was a fight he could not win, so the first and foremost priority was to escape and live to see another day. He had noticed two large, open metal cans on the floor by the tables, filled with lamp oil. Purposely retreating toward them, he was letting the assassins think that he was doing so because he was hesitating.
Morhan stepped lightly toward Drevin with a strange, cold smile on his face, which was familiar to Drevin from the past. He was getting into his killing game, the one game that he enjoyed the most, and so far had always come out as a winner. Drawing his weapons, an exceptionally fine steel saber and a long dagger with bloodred ruby mounted on its pommel, Morhan approached his prey. The design of the dagger made it back-heavy, giving it a very strong and solid feel, but at the same time removing the ability to throw it effectively. The slightly serrated blade gave it even greater potential to cause lethal damage upon a successful hit.
Retreating further back, Drevin performed an impressive stumble and knocked over the cans of lamp oil, causing a good sized puddle of stinking liquid to spread across the floor.
”Now look what you did!” Terrigan mocked him, laughing loudly, obviously not realizing what Drevin was about to do, but Morhan did. He leaped forward like a hunting viper at the same time as Drevin reached for the lantern hanging on the wall. A dagger pierced his shoulder from the back, and he fell on his knees from the strength of the strike, tenaciously holding the burning lantern in his hand. Another hit came down almost instantly, aiming for either the lungs or the heart. Drevin anticipated this and twisted his body strongly, and with strength given by despair, he was able to dodge the hit only to feel it sliding along the left side of his ribcage, tearing through the armor and creating a deep, bleeding laceration on his side. He had lost his weapons while taking the lantern and getting stabbed; they were lying on the floor, useless.
Terrigan had stopped laughing and approached the men struggling on the floor. He wanted to see closely how Morhan would deal with this man they had been chasing across the continent, a reward for all those miles in the cold rain and stinking filth. Terrigan liked his life in Iskadron where he had claimed a higher position in the Purple Lotus, and it had been very unpleasant surprise for him when the Hooded One presented him a wish to go with Morhan and hunt down this renegade assassin. The wish of Grimnir was not something that was turned down; it was an order veiled behind polite words and fancy gestures. But now that he saw Drevin in front of him, bleeding in pain, dying in Morhan's hands, he had a sudden feeling that perhaps it all, the journey and the search, had been worthwhile.
But then Drevin made his last desperate move. With beastlike, brutal growl rising from his chest, he punched back with his elbow, hitting Morhan painfully in the face, freeing himself for a couple of seconds, long enough to toss the lantern away. It flew across the air, flipping from side to side like a lonely frigate in the stormy sea, and then crashed on the floor. The glass broke and shattered into million little pieces, releasing the hungry flame upon the lamp oil.
As the explosive fire began to consume the oil, an intensive shockwave swept across the room, catching Terrigan, and to some degree even Morhan, off guard. Elmor, who saw everything what Drevin was doing, thus well aware of what was going to happen, had already landed on the floor and crawled toward the exit. Morhan leaped away from the flames, covering his face from the sudden heat, while Terrigan retreated swiftly to the opposite direction. Drevin gathered the last remains of his strength, forced himself up, and ran across the room. Without forgetting his weapons, he headed for the room where he had come from, for he remembered the stairway behind one of the doors, which was most likely the fastest way out of this place.
They all had a new priority to simply survive. The aggressive fire would consume all oxygen in a matter of seconds, and eventually it would die out because of that, but there was plenty of time for it to burn everybody in close vicinity if they failed to escape from the enclosed space.
Smearing the stairs with his blood, Drevin climbed up as fast as he could. He felt the intense heat on his back and heard the dreadful hum of the fire. The air was becoming thick and hard to breathe as the amount of oxygen was dropping rapidly. Dragging himself up to the hatch, he pushed furiously to open it and jumped out, barely avoiding the raging flames. The roomy and cool space that seemed to be a ruined dining hall was a welcome contrast to the blaze behind him.
It was dark, which prevented him from seeing if he was still underground or not. The air, however, was no longer musty, a detail he noticed with a glimpse of hope. Concerned over his wounds that required fast treatment or they could turn mortal, he began to glance around in order to figure out where exactly he was. His condition was still quite good, but the blood loss was evident, and eventually it would become a real problem.
Suddenly he was alarmed by a strange noise he heard from behind a wrecked door leading to a larger hall that looked a little like a main hallway of a castle. Then it suddenly dawned on him. He was inside the Castle Grivold, which he had seen standing on the hill above the sewer entrance. The castle was missing the roof in large parts, but the starless night gave no hints about outdoors since even the rain seemed to have paused for a moment. Stepping over the rotten carpets that were slowly dissolving into the large puddles of water, he walked into the ruined main hall.
He saw Elmor stumbling onward in the hallway, apparently seeking a way out, otherwise the hallway was empty. Drevin saw his chance and decided to use it without any further consideration. Two deadly blades appeared in his hands as he leaped out the door, ignoring the pain caused by his bleeding injuries. Elmor saw him coming but had no time to react before Drevin stood in front of him. Before the scared man had a chance to speak, Drevin plunged the poignards through his ribcage from both sides, leaving only the hilts sticking out. The blades crossed each other in the middle, shredding his heart into pieces. An icy stare followed as the leader of the Grey Cloaks struggled for the last seconds of his life before the sparkle in his eyes dimmed and his face froze still. The limp body dropped down instantly after Drevin pulled his weapons free with one angered draw.
Once the situation was over and the adrenaline began to vanish from his blood, he noticed how his left hand was becoming stiff and numb while the throbbing pain, radiating along his arm from the wound, was getting stronger. The stabbing blade must have damaged the nerve channels, but Drevin refused to let it spoil his moment of victory. The man who had helped the southern assassins to murder his wife was finally dead, and while his death was nothing compared to what Belith had to suffer, he felt that some kind of justice had been served.
A slight, barely audible sound, like flapping wings of a moth seeking her way to the dancing flame inside a lantern carried to his ears. Unable to recognize it before it was too late, Drevin felt a blunt thud on his back, feeling a steel blade sinking into his flesh. Without looking back to see who had found him, he leaped through a crack in the ruined wall and silently fell down into the dark bushes along the hillside. Morhan's atrocious face appeared from the crack in time to see Drevin disappear among the shrubs.
The small throwing knife was shredding the muscles on his back as he rolled down the steep hill. With a horrible grimace on his face, Drevin did everything in his power to avoid making noise. If Morhan would fail to get an idea which way he had fallen, there was a good chance that he would not come after him in the dark. The leafless rowan branches slashed his face as he dived through the bushes; his body slammed on the rocks and other bumps along the hillside before he finally ended his decline into a muddy trench at the foot of the hill.
Despite the uncomfortable feeling of dirty water penetrating through the cracks and holes in his armor, Drevin remained still for a good while before slowly crawling out of the trench, wanting to make sure that Morhan would not be able to hear - or see - him moving. Morhan's throwing knife had loosened and fallen off at some point during his violent descend, leaving another large, gaping, and heavily bleeding wound behind, which was now also contaminated by dirty water. Drevin knew he would have to get all his wounds cleaned and properly bandaged, or they could get infected, which likely would be the end of him.
After crawling through the shrubs for a few hundred feet, trying to keep himself from groaning because of the excruciating pain all around his severely cut torso, Drevin finally pulled himself up by leaning against a pine trunk and using it as a support to get back on his feet. With wobbly, uncertain steps, he staggered through the woods, heading toward the city lights in the distance. He had to take the chance of being spotted by the Grey Cloak observers to get his wounds treated, and the only place he had hope to receive such a favor was the Burning Candle Inn.
The night was going to be cold, perhaps the first one for the ground to freeze. One of the many to come before winter would finally spread its white veil upon the land. The weather was clear with no rain or mist. The forest was quiet and still, patiently waiting for the frost to come, accepting the inevitable change in the cycle of seasons.
Drevin entered the dimly lit streets of Lokhan after midnight and headed straight for the inn, for there was not much time to be wasted. Weak from the loss of blood, but most of all, he was tired. For two nights now, he had gone with barely any sleep and the exertion was finally beginning to demand its heavy toll. His wandering eyes swept across the empty streets, looking for any signs of the enemy, but he saw nothing except constantly vacillating shadows in the corner of his eye, tricks of his overly stressed mind.
The inn was closed, but the door in the side alley was open as Gerrick was still cleaning up after the night's service. Drevin stepped in and sighed deeply, the warmth, and the soft light of the candles together with the delicious odour of the cooked food that still lingered in the air saddened him greatly. The coziness of it all brought back memories, bright and painful as a cutting edge.
”Drevin, what, in the name of all the cursed Immortals, has happened to you?” Gerrick exclaimed worriedly, gazing at the injuries of the ragged man.
Drevin mumbled a short version of everything that had occurred lately, for the time was not right for secrets. Gerrick had every right to know what he was getting into in case he would accept Drevin as a guest and offered him a place to stay until his wounds healed.
”I have a perfect place for you, my friend,” Gerrick said, smiling slyly after listening the entire story. ”I have a small hunting cottage up in the foothills of the White Mountains where I used to go and get drunk from time to time, but that was when the memory of my wife was still fresh in my mind.” The look on his face turned from sly to deeply saddened as he continued. ”You can hide there until you feel better. I can send Merwyn to show you the way first thing tomorrow morning. They will never find you from there.” The promise sounded too good to be ignored.
Drevin had never heard of this story about Gerrick's wife, and he did not want to seem overly curious as he was able to see from the innkeeper's eyes that the matter was still very painful for him.
”Thank you, Gerrick,” he whispered sincerely, ”there are less than a few people in the North who would be willing to lend their hand to a Trevlin.”
Gerrick snorted loudly, ”There are less than a few Trevlins in this dark world who would be willing to work for a Huron,” he said, winking playfully, and Drevin could not but laugh, which made his wounds become irritated again. The growing pain silenced the assassin quicker than a blade, and Gerrick noticed this as well.
”Now, go before you bleed all over my kitchen,” he ordered. ”I will come upstairs in a minute to bandage your wounds. I would gladly let Merwyn to do that since her little fingers are so much more supple than mine, but the poor girl had a long day and I'm sure she's asleep by now.”
Drevin smiled tiredly. ”You're a good man,” he said quietly, as he dragged himself out of the kitchen.