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Few olden castles remained in Cryson from the time of the great wars. Some of the structures still stood, towers grasping up toward the sky, walls guarding overgrown courtyards, and ramparts where tattered banners had once proclaimed forgotten names to the surrounding lands. Even for Cryson these were dark places that few dared inhabit. The Shadows that had once ruled their kingdoms with absolute power had long perished, but they left behind curses for intruders, causing new fortresses to be built in their place. So the olden castles stood, defiant to time and untouched. All except one.
Near the edge of Cryson closest to the mountains and Corpia, Vary sat on his cold, granite throne, hands tightly gripping the armrests, his knuckles white as bone. Streaks of gray saturated his black hair, which was hampered by an obsidian crown that far outmatched his natural color. His gaunt face stretched as he stared down at the two servants who knelt before him, his body rigid and jawline clenched.
One of the servants on the stone floor was a woman, her dark, brunette hair infused with red to match her one burnt orange eye and contrast her deep blue eye. She peered calmly up at her master. She wore a dark robe—one meant to blend into the night with a hood to conceal her hair. At her hip was a ring of keys, and a handle for a whip, though the cord of the whip was nonexistent.
A yellowed paper rested on Vary’s lap, marked with red ink that had bled through the page. He crumpled the sheet, then rose to his feet shouting, the veins on his neck bulging.
“Four names left! Four names! I want them dead.” He threw the paper at the second kneeling figure, a Shadow by the name of Rorcul, who slowly raised his steely eyes to look Vary in the face before bending to pick up the crumpled sheet. Unfolding it, he glanced at the names. Originally there had been sixteen, but the ink had slashed through twelve of them, leaving only a few remaining, scattered about the page. Taking a dagger from his belt, he cut out the three uppermost names so that only one remained unblemished.
“One name remains,” he said, his voice low. “Angelina died a few months ago. A most unfortunate accident with the soap in her bath. And the other two were just as unfortunate.” He tossed the paper to Vary and stood up, dusting the chalky stone from his garments, and from knees not meant to kneel.
Vary shifted on the throne and his shoulders slightly relaxed. He released a sigh that sounded more like a hiss.
“Good, but what of the others? When the time comes, you will be duly rewarded, Rorcul. Rewarded beyond your imagination.”
“I’m sure I will, master,” Rorcul answered, a slight smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “I’ve had it in mind for some time now. We were in Rymenia watching Amelia closely. At our first chance we took the opportunity to strike, drugging the horse of her carriage before crossing a narrow bridge. A simple illusion of mine was all it took to drive it off the edge. A fragile girl, Amelia, and so young. I would say too young to die, but the evidence points to the contrary.”
Rorcul paused, taking a glass from a side table and filling it with dark wine, the liquid a deep black with a slight hint of red. He sipped from it and smiled, the wine staining his teeth and lips red, then continued.
“Of Alexander in Cratus, he had recently taken up an interest in hunting. A dangerous game, where it is so easy to become the hunted. He was strong, and gifted with Earth Magic as well. A true prodigy, with quite the following from the other nobles. Judging by the numbers at his funeral, they held him in high esteem.”
Rorcul took another sip and waited, his arms relaxed at his side, his stance confident. Though Vary sat upon the throne, from where he stood, Rorcul’s eyes were level with his, and he met his master’s gaze until Vary turned away.
“Very well done, Rorcul. Most excellent news,” praised Vary, as a shadow passed in front of his face, “but what of the last one?”
“All we know is what the messenger told you. We believe him to be in Querkus, one of the few places where he could be shielded from us. He’ll be nearly impossible to find. You know my powers are useless there.”
Vary reddened and stood up, spittle flying from his mouth as he shouted.
“None can live, Rorcul! None! I want you searching the entire city until you find him. I want the city burned if you can’t find him; kill every last soul!. And Alretta, I want you with him, hunting. Make it short work. Take whatever resources you need, but I want him dead.”
“As you wish,” Rorcul said through gritted teeth, refusing to bend to Vary’s rage. There was still much to do in Cryson, and he did not have time to be searching for children.
A knock came from behind them, and a messenger entered the room breathing heavily, his face flushed with exertion.
“My Lord, a message has just arrived. It’s urgent.” He handed Vary an envelope sealed with yellow wax, then bowed and exited, leaving the same way he came.
Vary opened the letter, quickly scanning the written words. When he finished, he looked up, and the shadows that stretched across his already weary face appeared sharper and more pronounced.
“It seems the boy may have been found,” he snarled, and he threw the message to the floor. “Six of your demons are dead, Rorcul. Six! Burnt to a crisp, along with the property they were invading. This one must be strong, to have caused so much damage. To have done it in the presence of the vrael as well.” He turned to Alretta. “I want both of you in Querkus immediately. One this strong cannot stay quiet for long. Take all the reinforcements you need, and don’t return to me until he is dead.”
“How do you know it was him?” asked Rorcul.
“This was found with the scorched remnants.” He tossed a silver box to Rorcul who caught it, wiping off the ashes to see the crest beneath, picturing a circlet of six hands surrounding a sun. “In addition, those questioned nearby knew his name. Is that proof enough for you?”
Rorcul stood silent, erect, and Alretta stirred, jingling her key ring. “Do not worry, master. I’ll show the boy the true meaning of fire,” she assured him.
Rorcul cursed under his breath. Six of his demons turned to ash. They were no small task to summon, although not quite as difficult as he had led Vary to believe.
“We will leave at dawn,” he said.
“No, you will leave now,” Vary commanded.
“At your word.” He replied.
The words passed through his lips so low and cold that they frosted the air, and Rorcul’s cloak snapped as he turned and exited the room. He barked at the stable boy in the corridor to ready his horse, and the boy ran off, nearly wetting himself in the process. Vary may be the master of the castle, but even the servants knew Rorcul was the one to be feared.
Patience, he thought. Let Vary move forward with his plans. The true hunter waits for the perfect time to strike.
Alretta met him at the stables, flicking through her key ring, each key inscribed with a name and crafted from different hues of a red metal. She picked three of the brightest and removed them, placing the rest of the keys into her pocket.
“I’m bringing three of my dogs. We’ll be ready for riding within the hour. Are you taking anything?”
“No, I’m traveling light. We are assassinating a boy, Alretta, not fighting an army.”
“You saw the list, Rorcul. There’s only one left, and despite what you said about Alexander, he was only a foolish prince. While there’s a chance that the one of the sixteen that matters is already dead, I fear we would have seen greater resistance. The others were too easy to find. Too easy to kill. I fear this one will be different.”
Rorcul replied, his voice mocking, “Vary hides behind curtains and fears children; his power is growing stale. It is time to march. To attack.”
“As he said, all the names must be dead first. You would do well to respect our master more.” Her eyes flashed and Rorcul laughed at her sarcasm, then leaned in and kissed her waiting lips.
He whispered, “Perhaps it’s time that Cryson has a new master.”
“Perhaps,” she intoned, twirling a strand of his dark hair around her long fingers.
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