Chapter 1: A healer in trouble
I wander through the streets of Tantallon, keeping an eye out on anyone needing clerical help. I don't mind my feet taking me to some of the less well-to-do neighbourhoods as well, since it is often where the greatest need is found. In any case, most of the time the residents of more questionable employ leave me alone to focus on more fruitful prey.
Tonight, however, I am met with something much more determined than an occasional pickpocketing beggar. I pause for a moment to glance over my shoulder at a strange sound, and find myself lifted nearly off my feet and shoved into a nearby decrepit house.
I catch a quick glance of the house while I stumble down to land heavily on my hands and knees. It has only one room, and barely any furnishings. I turn around to see a black-haired elf clad in dark leathers ram something between the door and the hinge, presumably to keep the door closed. I have a bad feeling about this.
I catch a glance of the elf's features and blood freezes in my veins. Moriyokiri.
The man is a notorious thief, but he is also known for being a ruthless and efficient killer. He will not hold any grudge for long; the people who cross him tend to be found dead soon afterwards - if they are ever found at all.
I scramble away from him, trying to get on my feet while he takes his time with the door. I have no idea how he has gotten into Tantallon; the guards check for bountied criminals on the gates, and they know their business. The streets are packed with posters promising a reward for his head. Well, so much for that feeling of security.
"You remember me, don't you?" He has now turned his attention to me. I look desperately around for a place to get out or hide behind, but a small cot in a corner and a shoddy table against a wall provide no protection.
Some section of my panic-filled mind realizes he seems to be waiting for an answer. I swallow hard and quietly ask Antana for strength. My throat seems too dry to form words, so I just nod timidly.
His steely, light blue eyes pierce through me. I resist an impulse to whimper. Dread has turned my limbs to lead. I wince when he shifts his pose just slightly, as my imagination tells me he will spring at me any second now. I have already forgotten how to breathe a while ago.
"Now, why am I here?" He asks the question as if he had forgotten himself and I might enlighten him. I open my mouth, then close it. Does he always toy with his marks like this, or does this mean he is irked enough to slowly torture me to death from sheer panic?
Yes, I know why he's here. In the not very distant past, I happened by a gory site in the south-western woods, where the ruthless elf had just butchered, maimed and in some cases merely terminally disabled a band of bounty hunters. The carnage was nightmarish enough to turn my knees to jelly, even though it was by no means the first time I had seen a site of battle. Many of the victims appeared to wear the Scythe brand, indicating that they were not at all inexperienced in the business of killing, either. I could hear sounds of ongoing battle somewhere nearby; the rogue was busy finishing off the last hunters. Then I noticed that there was still a flicker of life left in some of the broken bodies.
My heart ached to help them. The sight of the clearing was dismal, and I knew there was something I could do, even if to make it just a little bit better. The fighting was just distant enough and just intense enough that I figured I could heal the ones still alive just enough that they'd have a chance to get away, without me or them being noticed.
I honestly did not know who I was dealing with. Not, that is, before one of the men I healed refused to try to crawl away to hide; he shook his head and spoke in a low voice: "It's no use; this is Moriyokiri. He never leaves anything halfway." He gestured for his fallen sword instead, and I had no better idea of what to do than to give it to him. He squeezed it to his chest and seemed thankful. "He'll come for you, too, for meddling. You should start running now."
I wanted to stay and finish my work; I healed one more half-dead man up to running shape before the quiet insistence of the bounty hunter convinced me I had better make myself scarce. I fled the scene, and after I made my way back to Tantallon and to the inn room I was staying at, I locked and barred the door. For once was glad I had a windowless chamber. After a few hours of fitful worrying that something might still get through the door, I fell asleep from sheer exhaustion.
By the next morning, however, I felt much better. I was relatively convinced I had managed to escape unseen, or at least that the bounty hunter was exaggerating. So my life returned to normal - for a while, anyway.
Back in the more bleak current reality, the rogue walks to the cot in the corner and sits down. "Does this mean your memory's bad or that you have too many reasons to choose from?"
I snap out of my reverie, and find my voice again. "Uh, no. I... guess you're here because of the bounty hunters."
"Damned right. I had them all nice and piled up, and the next thing I know, I have to kill the lot all over again." He makes illustrative chopping movements with his hand. "You have any idea how fast those buggers can crawl? It took me the best part of the day to hunt the last ones down!" After this sudden outburst, he falls back to an almost meditative mood.
I do not have much time to process the dismay of all my healing having been for naught, before the rogue continues and changes the topic. "Since you're clearly over-eager in doing your healer thing, how about you give me a purge? I've been drinking so many potions I can hardly feel their effect any more."
He is referring to the tolerance a body quickly develops in response to being subjected to unnatural, magical healing. Clerics can see the hazy scarring that healing potions leave in the spirit of those overusing them, and are able to remove the impurities in a delicate extraction ritual, somewhat like healing an illness of the soul.
That he would ask me to purge him at a time like this makes me see two things: First, that he is an extremely unstable mind, who can fluctuate between murderous intent on one moment and colloquiality on the other. The unpredictability makes him all the more dangerous; I promptly abandon any fleeting hope of bargaining with this man. And all the while, at this very moment he has shown me a way out of this death trap.
The process of purging someone is extremely delicate; if the cleric tries to extract the hazy impurity from the person too quickly, it will tax the cleric much more, but can also seriously harm the person being purged. I have seen this happen before, and am privy to the hidden knowledge on how the ritual could be modified for this particular effect. I know that without using up all my strength, I can disable him for just long enough to break through the door and find help.
Careful to not let the wild hope show on my face, I nod quietly and come to kneel before the elf. He sits back and grins smugly, nodding for me to go ahead.
I focus on my holy symbol and begin mumbling through the ritual. The beginning is identical, and I do not pause or hesitate when I move on to ask Antana for the strength for a much more potent purging than usual. I start to move my holy symbol towards him, to focus the haze around it.
I do not get even halfway when he suddenly sits up straight and grabs me by the throat, squeezing my windpipe just enough that the last preparatory words of the ritual die before rolling off my tongue.
"I know how the purging ritual goes. And I really hate it when people improvise."
I'm not sure what he reads in my look of horror at having been found out, but he releases his hold, rolls his eyes and groans. "Don't tell me you're one of those people who insist they have to be gutted before they do a single nice thing to a punk like me!"
I am at a loss for words, and for a moment, I can simply stare at him. Then I gather my wits and try to find a soothing tone of voice to try to appeal to the more calm side of his madness. "No, no. I'm sorry; I made a mistake. I'll purge you the usual way, if you'll let me."
To my amazement, it seems to sink in successfully and the ruthless killer appears to calm down. He makes a regal gesture for me to proceed, then sits back again.
I pray to the gods again, careful to keep my intonation level to not arouse any more suspicion. This time, he does not stop me either. I gather a cloud of haze around my holy symbol and pull it from him. When I finish the ritual, the hazy mass flows down to the floor and dissipates.
I can sense that some impurity remains, so I repeat the prayer and the purging. I soon realize that the elf probably has developed the worst case of tolerance against magical healing that I have ever seen. I look up and boldly open my mouth to ask, but he grins knowingly, already expecting my bafflement. "Yes, I use quite a bit of potions, and it is a royal pain to find people to purge a dangerous outlaw. So just give me a proper spring cleaning, will you?"
I swallow down my unasked question and continue the ritual. The haze shows no signs of weakening. I tire, but go on, desperate to push back the inevitable, the moment when I have outgrown my usefulness to my temporarily pleased captor.
After a while more, my fingers are cramping, my hands shaking and my voice is raw. I attempt one last extraction, but can barely hold on to my symbol. I pause in mid-sentence and find I cannot continue; I am at my limit, if not already beyond it. I cannot fully purge him; all my resources are spent.
The rogue waits for a moment, then stands up and crouches on the floor next to me. I cannot even find the strength to turn my head to look at him; right now, I have to focus on breathing and staying conscious. He puts an arm across my shoulder, squeezes it reassuringly and asks in a gentle voice: "All wiped out, huh?"
I nod my head downwards; it won't come back up. Somewhere in the middle of the deep weariness, a part of me forgets to be mortally afraid and just pauses to amaze at the beauty of a few compassionate words.
I suddenly feel giddy just from him being so close; his scent, oiled leather mixed with nightshade, makes my head swim. It must be the exhaustion, but I find myself shifting to rest my head on his shoulder. He keeps his arm around me and makes soothing sounds while stroking my upper arm. With each stroke, my heart takes another step towards simply bursting from all the emotion.
I soon find myself in desperate need of his approval. I feel a lump forming in my throat, and force it back to whisper, "I'm sorry." Just now, I only want him, no, I need him to forgive me and not resent me for helping his enemies.
He does not react to my words, but continues to stroke me calmingly. I lean against him like he were the last and only paragon of stability in this world. Strictly speaking, this implies an entirely new meaning of the word 'stable', but I am in no state of mind to care for such details.
It is possible, no, even rather probable that something in me has simply reached a breaking point. All other sense lost, I feebly grab a hold of him and beg him to forgive me. This time he responds wordlessly, giving me one more reassuring squeeze.
Then I feel a sharp pain as he sinks a jagged blade into my side, down to the hilt.
He bends to whisper in my ear. "I forgive you." For a moment, time stands still; then he pulls the weapon free, tearing up even more tissues, and turns to face me. Taking in the baffled expression on my face, he adds, "Thanks for the purges, love," and kisses me full on the mouth. Despite the searing pain on my side, I honestly forget for a moment that I have been stabbed. He then stands up and steps to clean the blooded blade on the cot.
I remain gaping for a good while. While I watch him acting as if nothing out of the ordinary were afoot, I gather up some parts of my somewhat scattered mind. A semi-coherent thought forms in my mind. I stammer: "You... you made sure that I... can't heal myself?" I am a cleric, a born healer; to be incapable of stopping myself from slowly bleeding to death is something bordering on unimaginable.
He turns to look at me again. With a contemplative expression, he wonders, "Yes, it would appear I did, wouldn't it?" - as if he were digging around in his memory for whether this is indeed the case or not.
I press my side feebly, but I can feel blood seeping through my fingers. As my head starts to feel light, I slowly crumple down to my side, and end up lying on the floor. Amazingly enough, I finally feel rather calm.
"It will take a while," he comments, shifting around in the room. I cannot bring my eyes to follow his movements. "But I think I'll stay and watch."
I am rather confident that he is referring to the possibility that I might somehow manage to get out alive, like his earlier victims. Still, for some reason the thought of having him watch over me, even if to make sure I die as ordained, is infinitely reassuring. I have not imagined how I would die, but lying alone on the floor of a strange house while the last of my blood flows out of me would not have been among the options you can really prepare for in any case. I breathe a mildly delirious
"Thank you." and close my eyes to rest them for a moment.
I have no perception of how much time passes before he breaks the silence dominated by my gradually more laborious breathing. His voice sounds mildly frustrated. "You are thoroughly resigned to your fate, aren't you? Is that some kind of a clerical thing, now, or are you just seeking death for the heck of it?"
I might chuckle at the absurdity if I had the energy. Instead, I just squeeze out a nearly automatic response, a hoarse whisper at best. "I expect Antana will be waiting for me." What else could I possibly say?
He clicks his tongue disapprovingly. I can hear him take a few steps towards me, then he lifts my head. Something cool trickles down my throat. I idly wonder for a moment if he would feel the need to poison me to boot; I am not sure if I care, but I somewhat hope it does not add to the pain much.
Then, suddenly, the exhaustion is removed; my mind is as clear as a mountain lake in the spring. I can feel a connection to the powers of the gods, and almost before I even have time to grasp the full implications, I can feel the tear on my side starting to mend as my training kicks in reflexively. I draw greedily on my new-found strength and heal myself. While I am still left weak and physically exhausted, I no longer feel drained, let alone incapacitated.
It dawns on me that the rogue must have caused this. I blink at the realization, then I have to ask: "You healed me? But... why?"
There is no reply. When I turn to look, the room is empty. The rogue is nowhere to be seen, and the door out lies ajar, letting the last rays of sunlight in.
A half-laugh, half-sob escapes through my lips. I guess that means I live for now.
Chapter 2: A rogue on your turf
Rogue meets fellow rogue in the harbour town of Tantallon.
Business had slowed down considerably in Nepeth. It was mostly thanks to King Drin's extensive campaign to polish the streets of Nepeth and drive any thieves, muggers, smugglers and beggars underground. I decided to move to a more attractive neighbourhood, and the bustling village of Tantallon sounded like a nice change of atmosphere.
Getting in was no problem; I was unknown in this area, and there were no kingdom-wide bounties on my head to warrant warning the gate guards about an honest-looking citizen like me. I even stopped to check the bounty posters at the gate to see if there were any people I recognized there.
Now, having completed an initial scouting of the streets, I find the place very pleasant indeed. Yes, there are soldiers keeping an eye on the busiest streets, but there are plenty of alleyways which are left in peace. Further, the guards are nothing like the over-eager militants back home; Scythe thugs and even the vilest Chaos necromancers roam the streets freely, as long as their central business does not appear to be overly disruptive. Street urchins run to and fro with packages of who knows what. In short, the place has the distinct feel of a harbour town to it.
I decide it is time to check out the customer base. The eastern harbour area has quite a bit of traffic from travellers, businessmen and runners. I spot a promising noble-looking merchant clad in a rich cape of embroidered silk, and decide to tail him.
My mark inconveniently wears the hood of said cape over his head, so I have some trouble predicting his turns. Luckily, the merchant is moving at a leisurely pace, and I have no trouble keeping him in my sight. He pauses at a few stalls.
I move to circle ahead so as to get a good look of the noble's purse side. At that moment, I happen to notice an even easier mark. This one has a fat money pouch hanging from his belt, just inviting someone to filch it. I immediately adjust my plans.
I prance past my new target and gingerly cut the strings holding the man's gold to his belt. I'm rewarded by a deliciously heavy purse falling to the palm of my hand. I then vanish into the crowd and retreat for a calm side alley a little ways away to examine my loot in peace.
The wonderful glint on the coins is unmistakeable. I have truly struck gold; Tantallon is ripe for the picking for a rogue who knows the trade.
As I close the pouch, I suddenly hear a soft voice nearby: "I saw you."
I turn to look, and... if it isn't the noble merchant I was trailing earlier! I cannot imagine my luck; sure, getting rid of the corpse is going to be a pain, but if I were to be seen, I couldn't have asked for a better serving of an eyewitness. I'll make even more money by mugging this one.
He lowers his silken hood, and I catch a glimpse of a pair of characteristically pointy ears. An elf, of all things! I doubt anyone on this side of the orcish encampments is even going to miss him. To top it off, elves are notoriously weak fighters. They are quite well attuned to various forms of magic, certainly, but this one doesn't even have the usual reek of garlic or death and decay to him. The poor guy is going down so fast he probably won't even realize what struck him.
I grin malevolently. "I'm sorry to say, but you made a serious mistake in following me here." With a smug snigger to emphasize just how sorry I am for the unlucky sod, I wield my trusty long knife and lunge at the merchant. I fully intend to have his heart carved out before he has a chance to draw whatever weapon he might carry under that cape.
I am unexpectedly engulfed by embroidery; the elf has moved from my path and left me to assault his cape instead. His trickery only buys him a few precious seconds, however, as I swiftly untangle myself and make another attack.
He finds quite good use for the time. On my second lunge, he meets my knife with a blade of his own, a fabulous longsword. It should fetch an excellent price in the market. I rather fail to appreciate its beauty for now, unfortunately, since it frustratingly flashes between me and my prey. Luckily, I am already too close for him to take full advantage of his longer reach, so the best he can do is to momentarily lock blades with me. I know I can push through with superior strength alone, and move my feet for a better stance for pressing the point.
The merchant catches me off guard with an entirely unorthodox response; he twists his arms enough to shift my weight slightly to the side, slides a small knife from his left sleeve and viciously slices my right hand with it.
While I'm forced to stand back to shift my grip, he manages to grab me by the wrist and bends my arm backwards, following the movement to end up standing behind my back, still holding my arm. As I squirm to not dislocate my shoulder with my own weight, he kicks the back of my leg to knock me down, then lands knee-first on my back. The fall knocks the air out of my lungs and cracks a bone on my already cut arm, which is also kind enough to break my fall.
He twists the remaining good arm which he still holds on to, and I feel my joints creaking near breaking point. He enquires, in a disturbingly level voice: "How would you like building a career with a broken arm, hmm?"
I grunt at the pain, and gasp, "I'm open to suggestions." I force my cramping fingers to let go of the blade stuck in my grip, and the elf gingerly removes it and throws it to the other side of the alley.
He bends my arm to a slightly less breaking-prone position, but does not let go. "You're hunting on my turf, squirt. I want that purse you just cut."
I can hardly believe what I'm hearing. "You're a THIEF?" He responds with a snort. I decide not to give him reason to get more pissed off while he's still got me in an arm lock. "It's in my right pocket."
He pats my side and determines it's easier to get to the money if he gets off me first. I slowly stand up, fish out the purse from my pocket and grudgingly hand it to the elf. He weighs the purse in his hand thoughtfully, nods to himself and pockets it.
I prod my cut arm carefully, checking if it against all odds would still be in one piece. I bite my teeth together furiously to not growl. "Mind telling me whose territory it is I've so thoughtlessly violated, then?"
His eyes light up. "You don't know me? I'm Moriyokiri, pleased to meet you!" He offers his hand for shaking.
The sudden change to a cheerful tone is not the least bit as surprising as the name. "THE Moriyokiri?" I've already lifted a hand halfway to meet his, before I dazedly decide to go with the reflex anyway and squeeze his hand.
"Is there more than one?" He peers at me quizzically, but I'm not even listening; I'm busy rummaging through my brain for background information.
"You're the guy who beat an orc pro twice his size and got famous?" Maybe it's not so surprising he got the better of me then. But it still sounds incredible; surviving a fight with an experienced rogue with full-grown tusks is one thing. Completely humiliating him before a group of witnesses is something that doesn't get attributed to young upstarts, or even experienced elf rogues, not to mention young elvish upstarts. It's a feat strange enough to make a name - not to mention countless enemies, all wanting to try their luck against anyone who stands out suitably.
He seems less impressed with this attribution, however. "I rather like to think I got famous through my many personal qualities. Such as irresistible charms." He winks at me lewdly.
I chuckle, relaxing despite myself. "You're off your rocker, is what! But I hear that as far as crack-brains go, you're unusually gifted." I peer at him, taking in the details. The rogue's skinnier than I thought; I wonder where he hides the muscle, and reflexively rub my sore shoulder.
Another item of information jumps out of my memory. "Oh, and I hear you're one of those folks who hunt the bounty hunters, put the fear back in them. Is it true Aram himself brought you along on one of his hunts for orc bait?"
He rolls his eyes and points a chastising forefinger at me. "I only started as orc bait, I'll have you know."
I flash him a wicked grin. I'm starting to think today wasn't a total loss at all. "Whatever, man, whatever. I like your style. Look, I've made myself some name back in Nepeth as well. How about we gang up and make the world piss their pants?" I return his exaggerated wink.
His mood shifts without warning. He frowns at me, then shakes his head. "No chance, honey. I work alone."
Unperturbed, I step to challenge him with a smirk. "What about your trips with Aram, then? Don't tell me you only like that sort of company, now." I accompany the implication with an obscene gesture.
He cackles drily. "Alright, alright, you caught me. I was just trying to be polite. See, the problem is, I set certain standards for my company." He peers at me pointedly.
I blink, and my expression turns darker. "You calling me an amateur?"
He idly fingers the hilt of his longsword, and the icy glance he casts my way might make a weaker soul cower in a corner. "Now, if I were, what would you propose to do about it?"
I chuckle and look away, slightly unnerved. The man shifts from one deranged mood to another faster than the eye can follow. I decide it's the same unpredictability that makes him so hard to fight or win against; he follows his own moonstruck rules altogether. I shrug and turn back to him. "I guess you have a point there."
There is no one there to hear me: the alleyway is empty. He's gone, slipped back into the shadows. I roll my eyes; no manners whatsoever.
On the other hand, he has a reputation to upkeep, I guess.
I reach into my pockets for some ointment for the nasty bruises I can feel forming, and suddenly notice to my dismay that the money belt sewn on the inside of my clothes has gone missing. I grit my teeth, count to ten slowly, and manage to just mutter a few swear words under my breath. It's no use fuming, anyway. Stealing from another thief, what else can you expect from the crazy loon?
A few days pass uneventfully as I heal the wounds on my body, and, to a degree, on my battered ego as well. I decide I'm not bothered by being turned down by the rogue, though. It's probably for the best to not be around to attract the innumerable enemies he must've made himself by now. From what I've gathered, the man has no respect whatsoever. That combined with a reputation is bound to make him few friends.
By the time I've recovered enough to put the entire event past me, more bad news are already waiting for me: there's a bounty on my head for robbing a wealthy merchant! The walking gold pouch seems to have had powerful and wealthy friends to set this up. I curse my bad luck; someone else must have seen me too, and I can't exactly go tell anyone the loot all went to the local elvish "tax collection" already.
I hastily grab myself some emergency supplies from a stash I've luckily set up earlier at the harbour area, and sneak out of town.
On the run, I retrace my steps repeatedly, wade through running water where I can to hide my tracks from bloodhounds, and look for a dark place to hide from scrying mages. Following the directions of old rumours on the street, I find some suitable hiding caverns that are nearby civilization but not too close to it.
I wait for my eyes to adjust to the dim light, and wander into the cave. Once it starts to get dark enough that I cannot see where I am going, I let out the faintest light from a fire gem wrapped in layers of cloth. Rather deep in the caverns, I decide I'm well enough hidden to set up camp and wait for the dust to settle.
When I crouch to set down my pack, I sense a strange movement in the air and turn to look.
The slight shift of position saves my life: at the same moment, a wicked jagged blade barely misses my vital organs, cutting deeply into my shoulder instead.
I fall down to my knees from the sheer force of the blow, and desperately fumble for a healing potion on my belt. Amazingly enough, no finishing slash follows, and I manage to gulp down the sweet magical healing. I can feel the instant tingling on my shoulder as the wound starts to close. The potions were worth a fortune, but I know better than to wander around without such a life insurance.
I pull out the fire gem to see better, but keep it half-covered to not entirely ruin my nightvision.
Moriyokiri steps out of the shadows, wiping his blade clean on a piece of cloth. "Hey, that was nicely dodged."
I glare at him scathingly, ready to scream bloody murder before potentially proceeding to commit it. "What the hell did you do that for?" I gather my legs under me, in preparation to stand up and leap at him.
He catches my intent, takes a step back and raises his hands in a gesture to calm me down. "Whoa, now! I thought you were coming after me! It was self defense!"
I notice his strange weapon is already sheathed; he did not follow up on his first strike, and he is definitely not looking like he is planning to any time soon. It all clicks together and I all but slap my forehead. Sheesh, I had assumed no one else ever came to this cavern to hide. But someone like him would be permanently bountied, of course.
I stand up more calmly and loosen up a bit. "Heh, I'd hate to be trying to hunt you down. Nasty bite in that knife." I rub my half-healed shoulder unhappily; the potion has not quite taken the stinging pain away.
He takes a tentative step closer and pats my healthy shoulder consolingly. "Well, it works to put the fear back in the hunters, don't you think?"
I figure he's right. I sigh resignedly. "You hide here a lot?"
He shrugs. "Not really, it's too much in the open." He frowns and shakes his head at the thought. "Some of those hunters out there are really good, you know. They'll know to look in places like this."
I return the shrug. "I guess. It's the best I could come up with at such a short notice." I crouch down to check my remaining supply of potions and find it sufficient to hold off quite a few more fights. My wound has almost closed by now. I shake my shoulders some to lose the edge, and shift to a more comfortable sitting position. He crouches down to sit on his heels as well, managing to look relaxed and still ready to spring into movement in the blink of an eye.
For a while, I just peer at the truly strange rogue next to me. Then I chuckle. "You're cool, Moriyokiri. Crazy as a bat, but you're cool. I totally acknowledge your mad skills."
He smiles happily. "No hard feelings, then?"
I shake my head amusedly. "No hard feelings, man. I can always boast I got backstabbed by Moriyokiri and lived; that's got to be worth something." He rolls his eyes at me, then slaps me on the shoulder.
Silence falls for a moment. I then recall why I'm sitting in the cavern in the first place, and realize that I should be using this opportunity to my benefit. After all, I'm in the same cavern with the legendary bane of bounty hunters, and have a certain need for similar skills right now.
"Say, you have a lot of experience on running bounties. Any pointers you'd like to share?"
He meditates on this a moment, then nods. I'm all ears already, but the screwy bastard pauses a moment longer for dramatic effect. He seems to be wanting to fully ensure I'll eternally remember whatever gem he has decided to enlighten his one-person audience with.
What a pretentious, attention-seeking, conceited ass. If he didn't have the creepy competence to back it up, I'd so completely be giving his face a new shape right now. But finally, he deems the moment ripe to speak, and his face lights up as if he only now came up with what exactly he wanted to say.
He nods to himself, then festively intones: "Remember to always bring an antidote with you."
I frown; I rather expected something a little more elaborate. "An antidote? Against what, snake bites?"
At that moment I notice a strange ache in my chest. I turn back to look at the elf questioningly, or intend to, but seem to never quite finish the movement.
I collapse on the floor, and everything goes dark.
"Tsk. You forget I work alone, sweetheart."
Moriyokiri steps over the dead body, pulls a razor-sharp knife from his boot and cuts off the scalp of the deceased thief at his feet. He then routinely checks the remains for anything interesting to bring along, making occasional belated comments to the corpse about appropriate equipment. His pack filled with fresh potions and a bounty-worthy scalp on his belt, the rogue leaves the cavern, whistling a light tune.
Chapter 3: A Knight in a dungeon
The dungeons below Nepeth are not known for their hospitality.
I walk down a hallway towards the dungeons of the Nepeth castle. There is a new prisoner, apparently extremely dangerous, and I am freshly assigned to guard him. While dungeon duty is not usually considered the most glorious work for a Knight of the Rose, being good at it does keep you out of having to stand guard at more stressful environments.
Such as the Hall of Audience, where I was posted only recently. The very thought makes me shudder.
Honestly, when the minor nobles are not bickering amongst themselves or quietly grumbling about His Highness not having yet granted this or that petty wish of theirs, they take all their pent-up frustration out on the guards. Either your helmet is not polished enough, or your armour squeaks whenever you breathe, but in any case, you are obnoxiously intruding upon their personal space and in need of a serious talking to.
This prisoner, on the other hand, sounds like a challenge of his very own kind. As the General briefed me, I learned that the first guard assigned to guard him had to be relieved of his duty due to an acute mental breakdown. While I did not learn all the details, I would have to agree that shouting death threats to a prisoner and having to be restrained by three other guards is not normal behaviour for a trained Knight at all. As I reach the dungeons and greet the guard on duty outside the door of my cell, I idly wonder what kind of baiting it must have taken to get under the skin of my predecessor so badly.
I step into the high-security cell; it consists of two halves separated with steel bars. The guard half is the only one with a door out, while the prisoner half has a door to get to the guard half. This dungeon, deep under the castle, is not one to break out from.
Taking a moment to consider the battered, bruised and cut prisoner, I find it just slightly excessive that someone found it necessary to also chain the skinny elf to the wall like a dangerous beast. But I'm not one to needlessly argue against my superiors; chains or not, he's my assignment for now.
The door closes behind me, leaving me alone with the prisoner. There is a peephole on the outer door; the guard on the outside is not to open the door for me if the inside looks suspicious. I do not find being locked in disturbing; it is calm in here, with ample opportunity for meditation. I find it rather soothing.
At the sound of the door closing, the prisoner slowly raises his head. "A new guard? Oh dear, was it something I said?" His blue eyes gleam with malicious pleasure through loose strands of a black mess of hair. I have only barely had time to sit down, and he is already baiting me; this man has no sense of the situation he is in.
I return his gaze calmly; I've dealt with his sort before, and I have been chosen for the job for my ability to keep a cool head. "I hear you have been busy with sweet talk here. Too bad you didn't manage to sugar up those bounty hunters, eh?" I keep my tone neutral; I'm prepared to return random jabs, but I have no burning to "get back to him" for driving a fellow Knight into a rage. Nor should I mindlessly follow it even if I did.
He seems receptive enough, chuckling drily at being reminded of his painful method of arrival. He shifts his position slightly to show off more cuts and burn marks. "Yeah, the pair warmed up to me so hard I'll be shitting acid and brimstone for a week. Caught me off-guard, the lucky bastards; I was being distracted by the fattest earbags you've ever seen." He grins innocently.
I choose to ignore his jab at stealing bags of trophies taken from dead enemies. I've certainly heard of fellow Knights noticing their hard work has been lost in the hands of thieves, and he is clearly not going to spare any offence at his disposal in order to stretch my patience.
My patience can stretch far longer than he realizes, however. I settle down on a chair. That and a small table are the furniture at my disposal while here. I settle my gaze on the prisoner coolly, and he too seems to decide that enough introductory pleasantries have been exchanged. A silence falls into the room.
It may be an hour or two pass in quiet before the first knock on the outside door. I hear a key being turned in the lock and go to it to see what goes on. The guard on the other side looks embarrassed.
"Uh, there's a visitor."
I frown; it is not usual for the high-security prisoners to get any kind of "visitors". They get tortured for information, sometimes, but that kinds of visits are by shared agreement only announced by a meaningful silence. So, why is this prisoner different? "What kind of visitor?"
"Er, Lady Rosmarine is here to see the prisoner. I'm afraid she is quite insistent, and she has this note from the General..." He hands me a document with an official seal. I begin to understand what must have befallen: the only people able to force our head commander into abandoning all sense would be the gaggle of noble women who hold the Queen's ear. If they jointly decided that we should just release all our prisoners, we would be hard pressed to stop them.
I push aside any budding treasonous thoughts about wishing the King had some actual control over his Queen's whims. It is not my business to question my superiors, after all. I nod resignedly at my colleague. "I see. Do let Her Ladyship in."
A flurry of lace and silk bursts through the door in a regal manner, and I take a few steps back to accommodate for the Lady's luxurious dress as well as the space her position (and personality, I might add) should require. She barely even registers my presence; the Lady has only eyes for the prisoner. She pulls in a dramatic gasp.
"Oh, you poor darling! What have they done to you!"
For a moment I wonder if the quiet prisoner had fallen asleep, but the shrill question should certainly snap him out of it. However, as the elf proceeds to remain quiet, I take the liberty of clearing my throat and answering for him. "My Lady, the injuries were inflicted during his capture. He was brought in last night." After pausing for a moment to consider, I also offer, "The injuries are mostly superficial."
Lady Rosmarine seems to jump slightly at finally noticing my presence, but she does not let this surprise bother her for long. "Well, superficial or not, we cannot have this! Honestly!" She clicks her tongue disapprovingly. "Chained to a wall like an animal! We will send for a healer, who *will* attend to the gentleman's wounds!" The Lady finishes her statement by wafting the air with her fan, probably in the hopes of getting the smell of the dungeon and blood away from her nose.
I withhold any comment on the gentlemanliness of the creature hanging on the wall, and utter a noncommittal "Yes, Madam." I wonder what would make this cream of nobility so committed to the well-being of a dangerous villain. Lady Rosmarine lets out a noisy sigh and turns to leave, after stealing one more suffering glance at the prisoner.
When the door closes, gratefully shutting us from the Lady's ongoing expressions of disapproval at the treatment of prisoners, I turn to look at the prisoner, who seems to be stirring - no – he's chuckling to himself.
"You seem to have made quite an impression. I wonder when you've had the chance for that." I mildly berate myself for showing any hint of curiosity; it will not do to give the likes of him any edge in a conversation.
He seems to be too amused to take advantage of the opening, however. "Oh, I have quite the reputation outside these walls. I might imagine you'll have to be battling swarms of noble women who want to come confess their undying love to me." He smirks lewdly. "It's such a shame they fail to find anything but pale imitations of men at the court, really. After all, there is only one of me..." He finishes the thought with a lascivious grin that makes my stomach turn. Could it really be that an outlaw like him could crawl his way into favour of the Queen's court? Surely there must be only a few exceptions, women who do not know any better!
I bite my teeth together to keep exasperation from creeping to my face. After I check that the door is indeed closed and locked again, I sit back down on my chair. This unexpected setting has unsettled me more than I would like, and I wonder what will become of the imprisonment if the "swarm" of ladies is indeed determined that they should have access to the prisoner. To send a healer, of all things! Why do they think he is locked up so tightly? Definitely not so that he could be taken down for a daily massage and bathed in scented oils.
It has to be the pointed ears. Elves are known to attract awe from shorter-lived races; rumour has it that they even have some kind of magical glamour cast on themselves for the specific purpose. But still...
As hours pass, I manage to hope that the Lady's threat had been deflected by our good General. My relief is premature, however; inevitably, the door is rapped again and after a brief exchange, the outside guard shoves in a petite half-elf in clerical robes, carrying the leaf symbols of Antana. To top it off, she looks quite young and inexperienced, and shies away from me.
She peers at the prisoner through the bars, looking nervous. I think I see a glint of recognition in the elf's eyes, which seems strange. On the other hand, the way the cleric cringes under his gaze makes me decide the two can't be the most heartfelt of friends. I'm determined to keep an eye on her now, though.
The girl seems to collect her courage enough to speak. She addresses the prisoner directly. "I've been sent to heal you. I..." she glances at me. "The guards have been told to not interfere if something, uhm, happens." She looks like she might bolt at the smallest provocation from either of us. What on earth would have prompted someone like her to sign up for the job, anyway?
The prisoner grins. "Why, sweetheart, are you asking me to not kill you out of sheer vengefulness while chained to the wall?" He makes a dramatic pause, as if to consider this. "You know I might have a serious problem just controlling myself." He rattles his chains, and the jumpy cleric takes a step back.
I shake my head. She is way too soft, and hasn't even grasped the basics of how to deal with gutter rats like him. He'll prod around for weaknesses without even thinking about it, and she's responding with a full list of suggestions on where to strike next. For a moment I ponder if I should just send her away, but she seems to settle down after taking a few breaths and asks me to let her in with the prisoner. I oblige, if somewhat grudgingly. If it's not her, who knows who the relentless flock of lovesick ladies upstairs will send down next.
I lock the door behind her. She hesitates for a moment longer, then approaches her battered - if not appropriately humbled by far - ward. I idly wonder just how surprised she will be to not promptly die from touching the thoroughly restrained prisoner. She does make me wonder what god it is she thinks she is worshipping.
I find, to my mild irritation, that I'm somewhat disturbed to watch the cleric study the elf's injuries at length. Despite my initial intention to keep a hard eye on the girl to make sure she does not try to slip anything to him, there are moments when I seriously consider just looking away from the hands roaming across the half-naked elf's skin.
I quietly snort at myself. I must be getting influenced by the swooning airheads behind all this; I force myself to breathe deeply to cool down my head. Honestly, he would probably be an arrogant enough bastard even if he didn't have the flock of naive young nobility drooling after him, but as it is the gutter punk is seriously forgetting his place. I don't intend to start adding to his delusion any time soon.
For a while, the healer works in silence. I can't help making a mental note that the rogue probably doesn't look half bad when patched up and scrubbed. He does have some nasty-looking scars here and there, but...
Gods, I hope she's done before I seriously have to look away.
The cleric kneels down to heal a gash in the rogue's thigh. After being silent during the entire operation, the prisoner suddenly makes a comment in elvish. I frown; the cleric looks up, puzzled. Before I have a chance to tell her to translate for me, he continues in the same melodic and entirely undecipherable language.
This time the cleric blushes violently, stumbles up and retreats a step. I demand her to explain what's going on, and she blinks at me as if I were from another reality altogether. Then she shifts to stare at her feet. I repeat my command, more impatiently now. "Translate."
She swallows, opens and closes her mouth, and wrings her hands before complying. Careful to not look at the elf, she explains, "He was... implied that... indicated having a, ah, kind of... itch and how..." she's visibly squirming now; "instructed how it should be, er, treated." She looks like she might drop down and die of shame if I ask her to give any further details.
Luckily, I can fill them in fine by myself. "I see." Oh sweet heavens; do they grow these children of Antana in carefully-sealed barrels? I turn to the elf and comment, with dry amusement, "I didn't know you even could be vulgar in elvish; it doesn't sound like it works for that."
He answers me in an excruciatingly beautiful, singsong verse that sounds like a stream of honey flowing from his tongue. It spontaneously almost forces me to smile blissfully and forget all the cares in the world. The only disturbance to the beautiful imagery is my awareness of the rapidly changing facial colour and expressions of horror on the cleric, who seems frozen stiff. When she turns to look at me pleadingly, I raise a reassuring hand at her. "No need to translate, I trust he would make milk curdle if only it understood elvish." I try to sound as calming as possible, but it doesn't seem to do much good. "Just do your thing. And you," I point at the elf, "stick to common from now on."
"If I don't, will you come tongue-lash me into submission?" He grins gleefully.
"No, I'll just maybe forget that even elves can't sustain themselves on wit alone." I figure he'd manage a couple of days without food or drink, but the sheer additional boredom is the level of threat that should be suitable for this kind of aimless mischief.
"Fair enough." The rat bastard regally nods permission to the cleric to continue. I briefly meditate on telling the girl to only heal the wounds on the surface and leave the rest of the damage to fester in peace, but decide against it. For a while, the cleric just rubs her eyes with the heels of her hands, as if to clear bad mental images. Then she settles back to her work.
Once the cleric is finally finished, I let her out and we settle down for the night. It passes uneventfully, and I thank the gods for small blessings. I am not certain if I will have a replacement waiting for me the next day, and being on the edge all the time would wear me out all too quickly.
Late next morning, the interrogators arrive. There are two of them, and they wear ominous masks; I figure the purpose is to appear more intimidating. The first one to enter takes one look at me and darkly intones: "Leave us."
I do not wait to be asked twice; I am not particularly keen on following their work. I reflexively glance at the prisoner as I step out, quietly willing him to not make the mistake of trying any tomfoolery with these people.
The interrogators tend to take a while, so I take the opportunity to catch some sleep. As I suspected, it turns out that there are few guards who are willing to be locked in with this rogue, after word of my predecessor completely flipping has spread. So much for getting relieved regularly. I fall asleep on a bench.
Several hours later, the guard in charge of this side of the door wakes me up; the interrogators are coming out. One of them addresses me; the masks muffle their voices enough that I notice I cannot really tell if this is the same one or not - I figure that is another part of the job description, though.
He observes: "The prisoner said he has been visited by a cleric."
I nod. "A civilian, as far as I could tell. Before that, he has also been visited by Lady Rosmarine, who was quite horrified of the wounds he had sustained on capture. I expect there was some pressure applied to send the cleric in to heal him."
The interrogator seems satisfied with this, then speaks to both me and the other guard. "You may allow a healer to visit him tomorrow. For tonight, no food, water or healing. This should prove... educative."
I resist the slight urge to roll my eyes. So, the rogue could not control his tongue after all, huh? One would think he knew the consequences. I nod and snap a smart salute, before I am let back through the door by the outside guard.
Once my eyes adjust to the slightly different light in the cell again, I almost feel sorry for the elf; it looks like he's been whipped with something barbed, and his head is covered in a black sack, leaving him in utter darkness. I decide to decline any comment until I can trust voice to not show too much sympathy; he did bring this upon himself. Luckily, he seems to focus on his private pain as well.
A few more hours pass without the prisoner even flinching. I grow suspicious; is he still breathing? I cannot tell for certain from this side of the bars. I decide to risk calling out to him, already mentally preparing for the snide remarks the gesture will buy me.
Nothing. The prisoner remains quiet and immobile. I rub my temples tiredly; he is my responsibility, even if I should also see this kind of ploy coming stadia away. I call out to the outside guard to come let me into the inner cell, and stroke the hilt of my sheathed sword grimly.
I approach the prisoner slowly, looking for any signs of anticipatory tension in his muscles or other indicators of an intent to pounce on me. The level of caution taken would be ridiculous if only it would also not be extremely embarrassing to get subdued by a scrawny elf chained to the wall. If anyone could pull it off, he would be the one - if the rumours are to be believed, that is.
When a small cut from the tip of my sword not only earns no reaction, but also does not seem to be bleeding, I step closer to the prisoner and pull the bag over his head.
He is indeed dead, his face cut in strange patterns previously concealed by the dark cloth. I do not try to decipher the meaning of the strange symbols, for now, as there is a more pressing matter to attend to. I turn to the other guard.
"Sound the alarm. The prisoner has escaped."
The corpse, it turns out, is not his at all.