By Deverian Valandil
[ 7:00 ]
Swirling yellow lights haunted his vision, slowly drawing him out of his unconscious state. Dace snarled slightly and clutched at his eyes as he sat up in the cot. He looked down at his side; there was still a great deal of dried blood caked around the tear in his leather armour, but the wound had been healed. A thin scar remained in the place where the crossbow bolt had struck, but it was small compared to some of the other battle marks he'd received throughout his life.
“Ah, you have awakened!” seeing the assassin rise, the priest of Il-Mater began his oft-rehearsed monologue, “Using our divine gifts from our patron, we have brought you back from the brink of death.”
Dace grimaced and hobbled to his feet. His side felt rather stiff and his right arm was extremely sore, which would hamper his fighting ability, but overall he was in much better condition than he had been several hours earlier.
“Il-Mater makes no demands of you, gentle-sir,” the priest went on, “But we would appreciate any compensation you'd be willing to make to our cause.”
Typical, thought Dace, whoever said that ‘one cannot place on life a price measured in gold' was surely a fool. As an assassin, Dace understood the hollowness of those words better than anyone.
He reached into his tunic and found the gold mask he'd taken from the Shield Knight. Evidently the priests had been honest enough to heal him before seizing their payment. Dace held out the shiny artifact and the priest smiled briefly. But as soon as the healer's fingers touched its smooth surface, he recoiled in horror.
“Black sorcery!” he cried, staggering back, “I am sorry, but that… artifact is powered by dark magic. We cannot accept it, nor can we allow it to remain here. Please sir, remove it from our temple at once.” The priest backed away and moved to attend to another patient as far away from Dace as possible.
The assassin stared at the mask with interest, and experimentally held it up, a few centimetres away from his face. Through the eyeholes, he could see nothing but the boarded-up well at the side of the room in front him.
Taking a deep breath, he pressed the metal mask against his skin. Images and sounds suddenly flashed through his mind. H was seeing a vision through the eyes of the platinum mask, which was still attached to the corpse of the other Shield Knight far away in Verskul's hideout.
Dace saw things as if he was lying on the stone floor on his side. Across the room, he could see two men, one wearing colourful stitched-up armour, the other garbed in a blood-red wizard's robe.
“…after you have dealt with our prisoners,” said the robed man, “locate the assassin whom the Shield Knight spoke of, and eliminate him. Then see about finding the second Sigil,” the wizard turned and Dace saw Verskul's skeletal face, as well as the black Sigil amulet around his neck.
Verskul peered about the room, “Hold, someone is scrying upon us…”
Dace yanked the gold mask from his face and the vision vanished, leaving him momentarily disoriented. Looking down, the assassin saw that he'd subconsciously grasped the burning-angel amulet that was identical to the one worn by the liche.
He then stared at the boarded-up well in front of him. Judging by the amount of rust and decay on its hinges, no one had used it for a long time. Perhaps the well had dried up long ago.
Dace glanced back down at the Sigil. Once again, he realized that he had a great opportunity in his hands. [ 7:10 ]
* * *
Atamir glanced back and saw that the cleric was lagging behind, “Hurry up, elf. Time is becoming a serious factor.”
“I don't appreciate being referred to by my race,” Selena replied, “I have extended every courtesy to you, Captain. Perhaps you would be civil enough to do the same?”
“Don't play your moral superiority with me.”
The elf sighed. Never before had she worked with someone as aggravating as the Captain, “Is there some reason you are so hostile to those of the faith? It may ease your anger to speak of–”
“Don't try to psychoanalyze me, either.”
Selena was quiet for a moment, “A paladin hurt you once,” she observed, “Some wrongful doing that shattered a once-pristine impression of knights. Am I getting warm?”
Atamir's lip curled and kept his eyes locked forward, hoping she would shut up.
“What was it Captain? A theft? Blackmail? Murder?”
“It wasn't just the knight,” Atamir snapped, “It was your entire blasted Order!!” He twisted around and jabbed a finger at her, “Nashkel, 1349 DR. Twenty years ago, a paladin let a group of children die, and your Order did nothing to punish him!”
“Aelun,” Selena said, “You speak of the fallen knight Aelun.”
“Oh, so you know of him? Then you also know that after his release, he fled to the jungles of Chult until–”
“Until he was finally slain by a hired mercenary two years later. Yes, I've been told of his fate,” the elf closed her eyes and shook her head slightly, “And because of the Order's ‘failure' you have treated all paladins with contempt?”
Atamir grudgingly nodded and turned his attention back to the road.
“But you never learned the truth behind Aelun's condition,” she added.
“What are you on about?”
Her green eyes stared into the back of the Captain's head, “Several years before the Nashkel incident, Aelun was one of the bravest knights in the Order.”
“I bet he was,” scoffed the guard captain.
“But his courage was what led to Aelun's destruction. A few years earlier, we captured a madman who had been wandering the Sword Coast , slaying travelers on the main roads. I was one of the acolytes assigned to divining the source of his madness,” she absently squeezed the holy symbol around her neck, “He had been possessed by an immortal demonic spirit, one that feeds on violence, and drives its host toward murder and insanity. There was, however, one fact that made it unusually difficult to deal with.”
Atamir was now listening closely, but failed to grasp the relevance of this tale.
“It had the ability to transfer bodies upon the death of its host. Because it fed on violence, the spirit would always switch to the body of the nearest person who killed its current host.”
The Captain's face paled; he could see where this story was going. He cleared his throat, “And… Aelun somehow ended up killing this man?”
The cleric nodded sadly, “We underestimated the madman's strength, and he broke free of captivity, slaying dozens of our numbers until Aelun made the final decision and downed him with an arrow of slaying. He chose to sacrifice himself, his soul and sanity, in order to halt the madman's rampage and temporarily stop the vengeful spirit.” She sighed and looked toward the eastern horizon as they rode on, “At first we could not detect any sign of the spirit in Aelun's body; we assumed it was defeated by the purity of his heart. That was until the Nashkel incident.
“We could not execute him, for it was the demon spirit that was responsible, and it would simply change bodies and continue its vile deeds. Nor could we imprison him, for the lack of carnage would prompt the spirit to kill its own host and find a new one.”
“So you just cut him loose into the world?!” shouted Atamir.
“No. The trial that was held was only done for public display. In truth, we secretly arranged for him to be sent away to Chult and placed in a sealed dungeon, where he could hunt wildlife as much as he wished. It was only a temporary solution, of course, but we hoped to find an alternative before the spirit became restless.”
The Captain's eyes weren't focused on anything, he was lost in thought, “But then the mercenary came…”
“Yes. Someone had hired a sellsword from Nashkel to slay Aelun. We didn't realize this until after the mercenary had escaped… and now the spirit roams the world in that mercenary's body, roaming the world, spreading suffering and hatred at each step.”
“I- I can't believe this,” the Captain cried, “Why had I not heard of this?”
“At the time it was secret knowledge; we didn't want the whole world to know of this immortal evil,” she reached up and brushed her hair out of her eyes, “I suppose it doesn't matter today, now that Aelun has long since passed on. In any case, the point of this story is to tell you that Aelun wasn't truly responsible for what he did. He sacrificed himself to try and stop this evil, but in the end it consumed him.”
“I see,” the Captain slowly let out his breath, but didn't make any apology; twenty years of hostility against paladins wasn't something that could be buried by a single story, “And you never found the one who killed Aelun?”
“No. We've been searching ever since Aelun's death, but we could find very little information on the mercenary, Revis.”
“You mean ‘Krevis'. His name was Krevis.”
“I see you are familiar with that part of the case.”
Yes , Captain Atamir thought to himself, I'm familiar with it… because I'm the one who hired Krevis to slay Aelun in the first place .
“Why did he do it?”
“I beg your pardon?” asked the elf.
“Why did Aelun kill the madman instead of merely disabling him?”
Selena could only shrug in reply, “Innocent lives were in immediate danger from the madman. Aelun… he had no time,” she closed her eyes for a moment, “He made a choice.”
With that said, both riders continued on in silence toward the grey tower in the north. Atamir's head was swimming, and not from all the ale he'd downed in the past night. Krevis had been one of his former adventuring companions, and now was running wild somewhere in Faerûn, possessed by a malicious spirit.
What have I done, thought the Captain, quietly throwing his head up to the skies, What have I done? [7:24]
* * *
Krevis sang a sadistic tune as he waved the bloody kukri blade around in the air, “And the time finally caaame, to bring an end to the gaaame…”
Derrick and Cerdan exchanged glances as the madman approached the elf's cell.
“My master no longer needs either of you, since you blinkers obviously don't know where the second Sigil is,” the madman smirked, “So now, before I head off to the tower, I get to have a little fun.”
He pressed a finger against the lock on Cerdan's cell, causing the plate glowed for a moment, and door slid open. The elf squared his footing and raised his fists, prepared to defend himself.
“Oh, now that's hardly fair. Here I am with a kukri in hand, while you make do with nothing at all. What do you plan to do? Wear down my blade by hitting it with your internal organs?” Krevis reached into his tunic and threw a plain dagger at the elf's feet, “Pick it up. Time for the dance to begin.”
Cerdan snatched up the dagger and charged, but Krevis simply sidestepped and spun about, slashing the elf across the back as he passed. As Cerdan hit the floor, struggling around to defend himself, Derrick found himself looking around his own cell for something that he could use to aid his friend.
Rather than press his attack, Krevis patiently waited just out of striking distance for the elf to get to his feet, “Pathetic. Are there no skilled fighters in this damned city? I- oof!”
The elf dived at his opponent, managing to tackle him across the chest. Pinning one of Krevis' hands down, Cerdan raised the dagger high and plunged it down at the man's throat. Derrick quickly looked away; he'd already seen more blood in one day than he had in six years.
Cerdan stared down at his opponent. The blade was sticking out of the man's neck, but tip didn't seem to be penetrating the skin, there wasn't even a drop of blood.
“Oh, I forgot to mention,” Krevis said, twitching his neck to dislodge the dagger, “My flesh is invulnerable to normal weapons. A small perk from a special little spirit within me.” The pale man bashed his head forward, knocking the elf off of him, “You didn't really think I'd give you a chance, did you?”
As the elf struggled up, Krevis strode over and planted a foot atop the elf's chest, “No wonder my employer seeks to burn all the people here. Never before have I been so underwhelmed by the sheer –”
A dwarven boot sailed through the air and struck the killer in the back of the head. Krevis twisted his head around and sent a dark gaze at Derrick, who simply glared back and threw Rombis' second boot at him. Ducking low, Krevis was distracted long enough for Cerdan to snap his arms up and seize the man by the wrist.
Krevis responded by kicking upside the elf's jaw, then reversed his kukri blade and forcefully cracked the pommel across the side of Cerdan's skull, knocking him out. The mercenary then reached into his pocket and took out a small green vial, which he gave a little shake.
“This isn't nearly as satisfying as I was expecting, so I'm just going to have to end our little melee here and now. But look on the bright side, at least you won't suffer a slow, painful burning death like the rest of this city. Instead,” smiling madly, he opened the bottle and prepared to pour some of the poison onto his blade, “You'll suffer a slow, numbing poison death.”
A spinning dagger flew out from the shadows and knocked the bottle from Krevis' hands, and the vial shattered on the floor amidst a green puddle. Krevis twisted around in alarm toward Derrick, but the ex-thief was squinting at a figure cloaked in black that had appeared at the entrance of the room.
“Who in the bloody spikes are you?!” Krevis shouted, pointing his kukri at the newcomer.
Dace said nothing and simply strolled forward, raising a dagger and short sword up in his signature ‘x' salute. Confident that the elf wouldn't be waking up for a while, a mischievous grin danced over Krevis' lips as he rose to meet Dace's approach.
“Didn't I already kill you today? Looks like I'll have to do a better job this time.” Krevis closed in, swinging his blade.
There was no sign of emotion on the older man's face, “You are not the first to make the mistake of leaving me alive. Time to pay the price.”
Derrick recognized the newcomer from the Ducal Palace earlier in the day. Why then, he wondered, were these villains fighting each other?
Maneuvering his wrist about in a circle, Dace deflected his opponent's weapon and then thrust his own short sword into Krevis' chest. But although the strike cut through his armour, the attack shed none of Krevis' blood. Instead, the force from the impact caused Krevis to stumble back, bracing his hand back against Derrick's cage.
Dace dropped into a crouch, blades raised, as Krevis pushed off and lunged in for another attack.
Glancing down at the lock on his cell door, Derrick noticed that the lock panel was glowing where Krevis had accidentally touched the cage. The lock-plate clicked and separated into two parts, unlocking the door.
While the combatants were busy clashing blades, Derrick shoved the door open and rushed over to the nearby table, grabbing the dagger and the dragon-wand that had once been held by Lorelei. Next he went to Cerdan's side. The elf sported a bruise on the side of the head, but was otherwise unharmed. Derrick pulled one of Cerdan's arms over his own shoulders and helped the semi-conscious elf to his feet.
On the other side of the room, the twisted kukri sliced through the air toward Dace's side, and the assassin quickly angled his dagger to block the move. Before making contact, Krevis sharply swept his blade up in a diagonal direction, and the kukri instead slashed across of Dace's hand and fingers.
Cursing in pain, the assassin instinctively dropped his dagger, but still had enough presence of mind to bring his short sword up for defence. Krevis was quick to press the advantage and closed in, batting the sword aside and forcing the tip of his blade beneath Dace's chin.
“I don't know who you are, old man, and truthfully I don't care either,” said Krevis, “But I should thank you. You're still nothing, but at least this fight was a mite longer than the others,” he raised his blade, lightly cutting the assassin, “What's that? You have something to say?”
Dace whispered through clenched teeth, “You are defeated.”
The assassin quickly rolled his weight to his heels and pushed himself away, letting his body fall backward from the kukri. His left hand moved in a flash and before Krevis could lunge forward, Dace whipped a small vial of liquid out from under his tunic and threw directly into Krevis' face.
The tiny flask shattered against Krevis' sickly skin and the liquid created a hissing noise as it made contact. Screaming in pain, the man collapsed, dropping his kukri and clutching at his face.
Dace stared in surprise. The assassin had meant to throw of vial of red acid at his opponent. Instead, Dace had mistakenly thrown a flask of holy water from the temple of Il-Mater. Being possessed by a demon-spirit had its drawbacks.
After snatching up Krevis' twisted blade, Dace reversed the weapon so it was pointing down at the fallen man. The assassin spoke with contempt, “Now that I command your full attention, I demand to speak with your comrade, the undead wizard.”
“You've found him,” came an echoing voice from behind.
Dace turned to see Verskul standing at the doorway, a fiery glow encompassing both of the liche's hands.
“You have one sentence to tell me why I should allow you to continue living, mortal.”
The assassin stared the liche straight in the eye, refusing to appear frightened, “The Sigil you seek is hidden well.”
As soon as he heard the words, Verskul dismissed his spell and the glow dissipated, “And I take it such information will come at a price?”
“Why are you dealing with him?!” yelled Krevis, now sporting heavy red and black scars across his face, “Because of this blinker, both the prisoners escaped!”
“They are of little concern for now,” said Verskul, “We will be long gone by the time they alert anyone. The envoys at Greyhelm Tower are of more pressing interest. If we let them live, my enemies may learn of what we are doing.”
Verskul pointed at Dace, “You there, assassin. What have you to say?”
Dace reached into his tunic and tossed the gold mask to the ground, sending a clattering noise through the room, “You rely too much on magic, too little on raw skill. That mask led me here, and I could have slain your henchmen, had I needed to do so. And now I have a proposal you would do well to hear.”
“And if we decide to gut your sorry innards instead?” asked Krevis.
“Then I show you what it is like to be caught in point blank range of an exploding infernus crystal,” Dace said as he touched the anti-magic box in his pocket.
Krevis wrenched his face into a sneer; he could see where this was going.
Locking eyes, the liche made a quick gesture, dismissing his co-conspirator. After Krevis grudgingly stormed off, Verskul returned his attention to Dace.
“Tell me.” [7:38]
* * *
“We've arrived, Captain.”
The elf's voice shook Atamir from his thoughts as they neared Greyhelm Tower. Many of the envoys' entourages were gathered out in front of the building, all hastily preparing to leave the city. Sir Treysen stood out front as well, stoically overseeing the wagons and carriages.
Atamir rode straight up to the paladin and dismounted, passing his horse off to the nearest page. Selena directed her own steed toward the stables.
“You there, knight!” called Atamir, “What is the meaning of all this?” he motioned at the diplomats.
“Chancellor Thinder was assassinated shortly after you left. The killer used a magical disguise to penetrate the building. With the sun now risen, all but a handful of the remaining diplomats are retreating from the city out of fear for their safety.”
Atamir frowned, “So the Baldur's Gate summit is a failure.”
“Not completely. The Waterdeep, Athkatla, and Tethyr envoys are still here. They seem strangely eager to work out some deal that Thinder had proposed to them last night.”
The guard captain shook his head at the paladin's false optimism. Glancing toward the city's clock tower a few blocks to the south, Atamir could only wonder at how so much destruction could be wrought in a single night.
“Paladin,” he said, “I will remain on guard here so long as we still have envoys in the building.”
“Hm, yes, of course,” Treysen said unconcernedly. [7:41]
* * *
“What, praytell, are we going to do now?” asked Cerdan, lightly touching the bruise over his ear.
Derrick looked back through the crowded street, but didn't see anyone following them, “Both Lorelei and that crazy pale guy mentioned something about their employer burning the city. Everything that has happened today was just a prelude to that event.”
“Well, just give me twenty-four hours, and I'll have every guildhouse in the city up in arms, and we can launch an attack on –”
Derrick shook his head, “We don't have that long. Whatever they're planning is going to strike before noon.”
“That's less than four hours away! How do you plan on stopping them?”
The ex-thief gazed to the north at Greyhelm Tower off in the distance, “We're going to enlist some additional help.” [7:44]
* * *
“A terrible idea, a terrible idea,” muttered Krevis as he watched the liche remove the silver pendant from around its neck.
Verskul ignored the man and set the pendant down on the table beside the Sigil.
“You expect me to work with some blinkin' amateur?” Krevis went on, “If the mercenary ruins my task –”
“If Dace ruins your task, it will be of no consequence. You and he have only a peripheral mission, a diversion from the true plan. All day you have complained of a lack of action, you should be thankful for this opportunity.”
The pale man grumbled incoherently.
Verskul placed the Sigil around his skeletal neck and continued, “The real threat will come if my enemies learn of all this. For that reason,” he picked up the silver angel pendant and held it out, “I will entrust my phylactery to you. So long as it is kept secure, my spell will go uninterrupted.”
“What if the assassin somehow gets hold of it?” asked Krevis, jerking his head toward the hallway where Dace was waiting outside of earshot.
“He has no magical ability, he won't be able to destroy it. And I'm sure you won't let him overpower you again,” the last sentence stung Krevis' ears.
“No,” Krevis said, hefting his crossbow, already loaded with one of several enchanted bolts, “Not again. But I still think he'll try to betray us.”
“Of course he will! The only reason I allowed him to work with us was so you can coerce him into divulging the second Sigil's location later on. But remember to first focus on stirring chaos at Greyhelm Tower. If your distraction doesn't succeed, my plans for this Sigil will fail.”
“Yeah, yeah. No worries about that. I've been itching to rack up a new kill count for weeks.”
The liche nodded and with a chilling voice said, “Good hunting.”
“Tally-ho,” added Krevis with a perverse grin. [7:49]
* * *
“This will only get us both arrested,” argued Cerdan, walking after Derrick, “You're wanted for murder, and I'm a professional card-carrying guild thief!”
“What, they have a card for it now?”
“Do you honestly expect the paladins to take your word on a fanciful story about an undead wizard and an invulnerable madman?”
“No. Someone might recognize me from earlier today,” replied Derrick, “That's why you are going to tell them.”
“Then why are you still following me?”
“Why are you so eager to see this through?” the elf countered, “A few hours ago, I practically had to plead to you for help. Now you want to rush in headlong.”
“When I faced Lorelei, I realized something. I can't run away from these things any more. Six years ago, I let Lorelei die because I turned my back on her when I could have saved her. Same thing with Syra. I can't let today's events slide; I have to do something to stop Verskul. Even if that means putting my faith with the paladins of Tyr.”
The elf was silent for a moment, then said, “But if you get arrested, Bryn won't have a father. And I can tell you he won't end up in a very good place in life without you.”
Derrick scraped to a stop and spun to face the elf, “What are you talking about?”
Cerdan frowned, “Bryn tried to join the guild a few months ago. He went through all the basic training sessions and probably would have made it in if I hadn't found out about him. If he can't join the guild, what if connects with some street gang?” the elf's visage softened slightly, “Look, there has to be a better way for us to convince the knights.”
Derrick found himself filling with speechless anger. After all the years of lecturing and warning about the dangers of the guild, Bryn had gone off and done the second-most stupid action he could possibly take.
Before Derrick could say something, a distant crashing noise sounded from behind them. A huge winged creature burst out into the air through the roof of a building to the southeast. Squinting against the beast's form in the sunlight, Derrick slowly realized it was a wyvern.
“I think that thing came out of the building we escaped from!” cried Cerdan.
With horrified awe, Derrick watched as the creature swooped low and soared toward the north. It was flying in the direction of Greyhelm Tower.
Derrick turned to Cerdan, “I've a feeling the knights will be a little too preoccupied to bother arresting you or me.” [7:57]
* * *
Flapping its massive, leathery wings, Razor-Wing was flying in a direct line for the tall stone spire at the city's northern point. A murderous gleam filled the creature's eye as it looked down at the peasantry, running and cowering as the wyvern streaked through the skies overhead.
A low growl began to form from deep within the creature's throat, and Razor-Wing could feel the familiar build-up of heat in preparation for a breath of flame. The wyvern stretched its scaly claws as the tower grew larger. The hunt was about to begin.
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