“Glaseus, if you have come here to waste my time with the everyday business of your organization, I encourage you to leave while you are still entitled to your wits.”

Rorcul sat in the chamber the king had reserved for him, a series of maps and books laid out before him on a round, oak table, and cold air brushing past him from a window open to the city night. His left hand fingered the silver claw that held the cloak at his neck, tarnish forming and dissolving with each brush, while his right hand rolled two black pearls across the largest of the maps, one of Querkus itself, liberated from deep in the palace libraries. He had pinned three of the corners down with needles jammed deep into the wood and the fourth with a glass of water, preventing the paper from curling after decades of being constrained to a roll.

Behind Glaseus, two guards stood at the door, guards that, by law, were technically under Glaseus’ command. But by the smell of their hot breath and the occasional grunts as they shifted position, he knew that the law would hold little weight.

“No, sir. I’m afraid… I’m afraid I bring unpleasant news.”

The words left Glaseus’ throat dry as he waited for Rorcul’s reaction, watching as he continued to roll the two pearls around the edge of the map. Just a few weeks prior, Glaseus had been third in line for command of the palace guard, idly wondering as he supervised his subordinates if the day would ever pass that he would be promoted to the top. It had taken ten years for him to reach his current position, and he had lived a life of relative comfort in it, earning enough money to buy on occasion the imported whiskey from Cratus, aged nine years in stone, instead of the gutter water that most of the guard drank. He could afford to live alone and gamble away a portion of his pay without having to worry about procuring dinner the next week. But still, he had wondered what it would be like to be captain of the guard, to have his pay doubled, and to command the safety of the city.

And now, Glaseus regretted ever having desired it.

The first of the captains was in the palace dungeons from when the armory had caught fire. Glaseus had known him well—some had called his methods cruel, his punishments unjust, but few had disobeyed the commands he barked out. Too many had seen the short, metal club at his side combined with his oversized barrel chest to speak out.

Just two days prior, Rorcul had visited him in his cell. And though no words could be discerned by the guards outside the door, the screams had echoed up to the floor level of the palace. And when Rorcul left, the guards were forced to move the former captain three levels deeper to prevent the king himself from hearing his cries during the night. There was talk that when he was released, if he was released, it would be straight to the madhouse where he would drool his days away.

The second captain had died during the assault on the palace grounds, taking a wound through his left shoulder during the commotion. Glaseus himself saw it happen and personally struck down the resistance member who wielded the bloodied spear, but the captain had urged him to pursue the resistance when they determined that the wound was not fatal.

When Glaseus returned, the mission having failed, all that was left of the captain was bones. Bones that looked as if they were scorched or charred, but had a thin layer of frost upon them and occasional strips of shredded muscle that clung frozen to the remains.

“You were saying, Glaseus?” asked Rorcul from the table, and Glaseus shivered as a gust of particularly frigid air blew through the open window. Glaseus’ thin, black beard twitched in deliberation, his mind searching for an eloquent way to deliver the news, and failing as another breeze distracted him.

“Our shipment was intercepted.”

What?” Rorcul’s voice lowered to a whisper that cut through the thin air as a bead of sweat rolled down the goosebumps on Glaseus’ neck.

“We transferred our men to search for the boy, as you instructed, instead of guarding the incoming shipment. No one should have known where it was hidden nor been there to intercept it, but the raft was hijacked early this morning, the cargo along with it.”

“And with your restructuring of resources, have you found the boy? Have your efforts been fruitful, Glaseus? Or have you manipulated your forces in such a way that I have managed to lose both?”

Again, Rorcul’s voice showed no volume increase, nor did the tone change. But Glaseus felt something behind the words, a weight to them as if they were more than simple sounds. A presence that made him doubt the lesson his mother had taught him as a child, that words could never hurt him.

“Yes, sir, we—”

“You failed is what you did!” shouted Rorcul, raising his attention for the first time, his eyes ablaze. “Failed ontwo counts, Glaseus! What do I look like to you? Do I look like the fat king you serve, ready to sweep these inadequacies under the table? Did you wait all day to inform me of this news, of an event that happened this morning?”

“We wanted to confirm that—”

“There is no time to confirm, you fool! I want to know everything that happens in this city that is abnormal, down to a stray dog dying in the streets!”

“Sir, this actually occurred outside the city, so—”

Rorcul stood, his cloak billowing about him as wind shrieked through the window, his face livid as he raised his hand, his fingers bent into a claw. Glaseus jumped away, and there was a shriek behind him as one of the demonic guards burst into flames, his howls filling the room along with thick, black smoke as his skin boiled and the fire blazed.

“Starting in Anarchen, I want every stretch of the river scoured until the shipment is found. Fail me again and you’ll wish we had never met, Glaseus, if you even have time for that thought to go through your head before I turn you to ash as well!”

Glaseus fled the room, slamming the door shut and cursing as he sprinted down the hallway. Rorcul turned to the second of the demons as the first fell to the floor, twitching.

“And you!” Rorcul shouted. “You should share the same fate as your brother, but for now you’ll have mercy. Find the boy or you will experience a pain like you have never experienced in all your years. Redouble your efforts. Damn it, you’re a predator, act like it! And take the scraps, it will suffice for dinner.”

A smile filled with canine teeth formed on the demon’s face as it wrapped its fingers around the leg of its still-smoldering brother, dragging him out into the hallway and down the stairs. Moments later, Rorcul heard him howl, summoning his brothers for the feast and the orders.

“Alretta,” Rorcul called, and a door behind him opened to reveal a sprawling bedchamber, lavishly decorated with violet linens and a spotless carpet. Alretta looked at him from the door frame, her expression bored, her posture slouched against the wall.

“News?” she asked. “I’m tired of being cooped up in this city; the Vrael is making my nerves itch.”

“It’s time to hunt,” he replied, and a smile curled upward from her lower lip. “A raft went missing this morning, a raft carrying a valuable shipment to the king. Coincidentally, Cinis has yet to be found. I’ve already sent forces to pursue by water, but should they turn to land—”

“Should they turn to land, I’ll ensure the thieves meet the fate they deserve.”

“Good,” said Rorcul, and he took one of the pearls from the map, dropping it into the water cup where it sank to the bottom with a small smash. “Cut them off and strike them down before they get too far inland. Should it be Cinis, deal with him before he has a chance to escape. Luck was on his side last time, do not let it smile upon him again. And should they still be in the city, they will never leave.”


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