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DarkFyre Chapter Twenty-Two

Rael and Silmaria face a harrowing trap. Rael finds potential answers. But at what cost?
The inn’s stillness and quiet was unnerving, the blackness of the halls and common room below an ominous contrast to the noise and bustle and light that should have been coming from downstairs this early into the night, just a few bare hours after sundown. Even with the flickering light of the candles at their bedside, the dark outside their room was so complete it left even her sharp eyes momentarily unable to pierce the gloom.

The smell told her the danger first. Silmaria took a deep breath, and her nose wrinkled at the thick coppery scent that could only be freshly spilled blood.

“Get back,” Rael said in a quiet hiss, and his hand went for the hilt of his greatsword.

Hardly a moment after he spoke the words, before Silmaria fully registered the unsettling strangeness they found themselves in, a black blur shot past her from behind. Moving with all the silent grace of a whispered death, a man wrapped all in black leapt, his footfalls as utterly silent as her own. He pounced onto Rael’s back with his blade leading the way. Silmaria let out a startled gasp as the blade sank into her love’s back.

Rael let out a roar, half pain and half rage, caution forgotten in the surprise of the attack. He bucked, thrashing, his huge body wrenching back and forth as he reached fruitlessly for his sneaky attacker. The black-clad man clung to Rael, his legs half wrapped around the larger man’s waist as he held tightly to the short blade he’d shoved into the Knight’s back.

It took only a moment for Silmaria to react, but she was cursing herself for that moment even as she lunged forward, one hand yanking her dagger from its sheath at her waist, the other baring her claws. Before she’d even taken the scant strides across the room to reach where Rael stood at the door, a second man had come rushing from the darkness of the hall, leading with his blade. Rael’s own dagger came whipping out and he parried the stroke of his attacker’s sword. The big Knight pushed forward, driving his dagger against the sword until the cross guards locked, and then using his weight to bear down on the man, forcing the smaller, dark figure back even as he carried his first attacker with him on his back.

Remembering some of the lessons and guidance that Rael had been teaching her, the Gnari girl lunged forward, hooking her claws into the shoulder of the assassin clinging to Rael’s back. She brought her dagger up and drove it brutally into the shadowy man’s back, right where his kidney would be, and again, and again, her blade tap tap tapping in and out of the man’s flesh. The man’s body convulsed, rocked, and releasing his hold on Rael, he dropped to his feet.

Silmaria expected the man to go down with a cry of pain, but no sound left him aside from a soft grunting of air being expelled from his lungs. Worse still, the man didn’t crumple in the agony of shock and a looming death. Instead he tried to whirl to face her. Silmaria’s claws being sunk so deeply into the man’s back saved her, and she was yanked along behind him. Silmaria shifted her body quickly to slip around under his arm as he tried to whip it out to strike her. She stabbed upward again, up under his ribs this time, sure she had punctured a lung or worse.

Still, the man did not go down and did not scream. Not slowing to wonder, Silmaria skipped behind him, using her claws and her dagger in the man’s side to steer her body behind him as he whirled and jerked and tried to get ahold of her.

Rael drove the man before him out the open door to their room and into the hallway. He slammed him into the wall, his dagger pressuring the man’s curved short sword back until it was wedged against the man’s chest. Rael brought his knee up savagely between the man’s legs hard enough to lift his attacker bodily off the floor, but the man simply let out a light wheeze and fought on. The assassin freed his blade and brought it up in a quick, tight slash at Rael’s neck but the Nobleman ducked and brought his arm up to push the hooded man’s sword arm up over his head, pinning it to the wall behind him. Rael brought his dagger in and plunged the blade several times into the smaller man’s gut.

The hooded man reacted with no more surprise or pain than before. Instead, he braced his back to the wall, brought his legs in tight into the small space between them, and pushed hard. Rael went rocking back a few steps and nearly topped back into the room, then regained his footing just in time to dart to the side as the man came at him with the deadly curved blade once again. The Knight’s found himself cornered in the dead end of the hall just beyond their room. Thinking quickly, he grabbed at the large painting, likely a piece done by one of the more artistic Tower Brothers, and ripped it from the wall, smashing it into the shadowy man. It did no damage, of course, but the man reacted nonetheless, raising his blade to cut through the painting.

The small miscalculation was enough. Rael brought his dagger up under the man’s exposed armpit and drove it in, striking the cluster of nerves and slicing through muscle and sinew. The man brought his blade forward in a stabbing motion aimed at the Knight’s heart. Rael sidestepped, ducking, to slip past the man, wrenching his dagger free as he spun and grasped the killer’s cloak. Rael gave a mighty yank, the muscles in his arm bulging as he jerked the man clean off his feet with the force of his sudden pull. A loud crack echoed through the quiet inn as the assassin’s skull smacked into the scuffed wooden flooring, and the man landed in a heap. Rael slammed his booted heel down onto the man’s sword arm, pinning it to the floor, and brought his own dagger down to slash across the cloaked man’s throat. Blood welled up in a wet, coppery rush. Unsure at that point if the man would, could even die, Rael slashed his throat open again, and again. His dagger wobbled and swayed as it thudded against the man’s spine, and only then was he finally convinced the man was well and truly dead.

Rael had no time to savor the victory. “Silmaria,” he gasped. The Knight quickly snatched up the dead man’s short sword and dashed into the room.

Silmaria couldn’t believe that the man she fought could possibly refuse so adamantly to just lay down and die! She stabbed him, again and again, and nothing seemed to stop him. She knew from her talks with Rael that some men were so heavily coursing with adrenaline during a battle that they would not go down to a simple stab wound, but this was ridiculous! The Gnari used her fear to keep moving, always shifting to stay ahead of the man and continue to work her dagger into his flesh.

She couldn’t keep it up forever, of course, and eventually the man wrenched free of her, spinning too hard for her to keep up with and tossing her aside. Silmaria skipped back, trying to put as much space between them as possible. But she overestimated the space in the room and smashed into the table arranged under the window, very nearly going pitching out of it. She stared, fearful and disbelieving at the man. Blood poured out his wounded side from the slashes in his dark garb where bloody flesh showed, stark crimson against snow white skin.

Silmaria glanced up at his face, what little she could see under the shadows of cloak and cowl. His eyes were all she noticed, the same vivid red as the bright blood spilling from him all over the ground.

The man came lunging at her. Silmaria kicked one of the chairs by the table under the window at him. He leapt around it, but it delayed him just long enough for Silmaria to leap to the left and up onto the bed. The man spun, grabbing for her legs. Silmaria sprang agilely up, and kicked out, her heel smashing the man in the face. It did nothing to hurt him, but the force made him tumble back, his hood falling away from a face that would have been completely ordinary except for the multitude of intricate, intertwining runes burned into his flesh around the eyes and brow.

Before the man’s back even thunked into the wall Silmaria was in the air, leaping in a desperately reckless, instinctual attack. She stared into the man’s eyes, redder than the sun, redder than the clay of The Reach, redder than a bloody death and as empty. The man’s eyes were hollow pools of nothing. Dead eyes.

And then they were dead eyes truly as Silmaria’s dagger plunged with all the force of her body propelling through the air into the man’s right eye. She felt the blade scrape and grind against the man’s eye socked, catching in the bone, but it didn’t matter, her force was too great, and the blade plunged in true, killing the man.

Silmaria didn’t think about the blood spurting hot and sticky onto her hand. She tried to tug her dagger free once, twice, and then gave it up.

“Silmaria!” Rael called, panic making him forget all notion of secrecy or stealth.

Silmaria turned and rushed to him. He caught her in his arms, crushing her in his embrace. “Thank all gods everywhere, I thought I’d lost you,” he murmured into her ear, relieved, and he was shaking as much as she was.

Silmaria clung to him, and then her eyes widened with remembered panic. She pulled back and stared wide-eyed up at him. “Me? What about you! Your back, Master! The blade!”

Rael winced, then, as if just in that moment remembering the short sword still stuck in his back. He glanced around for a moment, then, moving swiftly, he grabbed one of the chairs and moved to the door, shutting it firmly and wedging the chair under the doorknob, hard, to keep it pinned shut.

“The window,” he nodded. Silmaria moved to quickly shut the window, shuttering it.

Rael gave a soft grunt and sat in the remaining chair. He nodded to her brusquely. “There are bound to be more of them waiting to take us. We have to move quickly. Get it out.”

“But…”

“Now, Sil. We don’t have time!”

Silmaria bit her lip and nodded. She took the blanket from the bed and cut it into strips before moving behind him.

“It’s…” Silmaria began, her brow furrowing.

“Stuck. I know,” Rael nodded. “It caught on my pack. Probably what saved my life. What did get through caught my shoulder blade. Kept it from hitting anything vital. But I think the tip is in the bone. Get it out, Sil, quickly.”

Silmaria swallowed and nodded. She couldn’t do much to get his pack off with the blade stuck in it, so she pulled it away from his back as well as she could and stuffed the wad of cloth between the pack and his shoulder, wrapping it around the blade as well as she could.

“Ready?”

Rael grabbed one of the pillows, bit down on it hard, and nodded.

Silmaria yanked the blade free. Rael’s body went rigid with pain and he let out a hard edged roar, muffled into the pillow. Silmaria applied firm pressure to the wound, holding the wadded clothe in place while Rael took several shaky, deep breaths. He swallowed, and then gave another nod. While Silmaria held firm pressure on the wound in his shoulder blade, Rael used his dagger to cut the sheets into a few more long strips, which Silmaria used to tie the wadded cloth into place on his back, a shoddy solution to the wound, but the best they could manage just then.

“Master, those men…who the hell are they? What are they? The man I fought…he wouldn’t stop!”

“I know,” Rael nodded as he moved his right arm slowly to test how well it would work with the wound. “The same with the man I fought. It was like he felt no pain. He wouldn’t stop, wouldn’t tire, not until he was fully dead. It wasn’t…natural.”

“It was like the men at the manor, but worse. So much worse…” Silmaria choked softly.

Rael turned and gripped her shoulders in his strong hands, giving her a rough shake. “Focus, Sil. We can fall apart later. Right now we have to get out of here. Do you hear me? This is not the work of two men, not even two such as these. There’s more danger here, and we’d better be gone or whoever else is here will finish the job!”

Silmaria swallowed softly, stared into her beloved’s eyes, and hardened her resolve. She nodded, setting her chin firmly. “Yes, sir.”

Rael moved to scoop the dropped blade from the floor. He’d expected the tip to be bent where it had stuck in his shoulder blade, but the short sword was made of good, sturdy steel, and the point was fine and deadly still. He handed it to Silmaria and nodded.

The Knight glanced down at the man Silmaria killed, and he couldn’t help but note the runes burned into the man’s face. He knelt to take a closer look, running his thumb slowly over the burned, scarred runes.

“Like the men at the manor,” he muttered softly. “But more of them. More intricate and complex. What the hell do these runes mean?”

“I don’t think he’s going to tell us anything,” Silmaria said tensely. “We can speculate all we like when we’re out of here!”

“Right,” Rael nodded, rising to his feet. “Check outside. Your eyes are better than mine. Can you see anything out there?”

Silmaria and Rael both went to the window, standing tense and at the ready, and Rael pushed the shutters open wide. With no threat presenting itself, Silmaria peeked outside, her eyes scanning the land outside and the yard below their window.

“I don’t see anyone,” Silmaria whispered. “There are some horses over in the stable that I didn’t notice earlier today. But I don’t see any sign of anyone outside.”

“Could still be out there,” Rael said grimly. “And they’re almost certainly downstairs in the inn.”

Almost on cure, the doorknob quavered, clacking, and then there was the meaty thudding of someone putting their shoulder into the door. The chair shimmied and flexed, but held for the time being.

“The window it is, then,” Rael sighed.

“I’ll go first,” Rael said, or started to at least, but Silmaria was already slinking lithely out the window before the words were fully formed. Rael cursed and lunged for the window. He stuck his head out, his heart pounding in his ears as loudly as the pounding on the door, expecting to see Silmaria on the ground below.

“Here!” she hissed, crouched low on the balls of her feet on the slanting roof to the left of the window.

A crack snapped through the air like the lashing of a whip behind him. The chair would give at any moment. He had to buy them time, even just a few moments.

Quickly, Rael grabbed the bed and yanked it over in front of the window. He stabbed down into the straw mattress with his dagger, ripping it open and exposing the matted straw within, then grabbed the candle from the bedside table. He thrust the candle down into the bed. The dry straw caught quickly and the fire spread through the mattress, catching at the linens. As Rael went scrambling out the window the fire was spreading quick and hot, racing over every inch of the bed, spreading along the backboard, licking down the sturdy wooden support legs, and flickering up the wall behind the bed, quickly catching at the cheap wool draperies hanging by the window with voracious appetite.

Silmaria helped Rael pull himself up onto the roof. “Is that a fire?”

“That’s a fire,” Rael confirmed. “It’ll buy us some time. It also means we better get the hell off this roof.”

Silmaria looked around quickly. Already the acrid smell of smoke stung her sensitive nose, and the flickering orange brilliance of the flames inside the room below went streaming from the open window out into the blackness of the night. Memories of the Manor flashed through her mind, startling and fearful and unwanted. Silmaria pushed them aside, and a few moments later pointed off to the left.

“There’s a pretty big eave over there over a door leading out of the first floor. There’s a clearing and the stable yard is nearby. We should be able to drop down there.”

Rael gave a curt nod, and the pair went scurrying across the roof, Silmaria sure footed and quiet, Rael less so, his heavier weighted footsteps sending clay shingles sliding off the edge of the roof. The eave overhanging the door below was large enough for them to stand upon. Silmaria hopped quickly down onto the eave and then to the ground without a problem. Rael slipped down as lightly as he could, but his booted foot went smashing through the roof of the eave with the distinct shattering of clay shingles and broken wood. Rael grimaced, dreading the attention the loud noise echoing into the night might bring. He hoped fervently whoever might be lurking downstairs in the inn had run upstairs to investigate the fighting and the fire.

The copper haired warrior yanked his foot free and leapt into the yard below, half expecting the door behind them to burst open at any moment. Instead, men soon came striding from the shadows outside, encircling them in the inn yard. Some crept from the stables a few yards away to their left, some from the darkness of the open land surrounding the inn, and even from the courtyard behind the inn and the buildings beyond.

“Up! Up, now!” Rael growled, grabbing Silmaria and steering her toward the eave at their backs. Silmaria grit her teeth, swallowed the multitude of protests rising to her lips, and put her foot into the step Rael made with his cupped hands. He boosted her up easily and Silmaria scrambled onto the eave once more.

Knowing Silmaria was out of reach made the vice grip of fear clutching Rael’s chest ease somewhat. His shoulder throbbed where the dagger had bit into him, and he was acutely aware of how precarious their situation was.

More than anything, though, he was angry. Angry at the neat little trap they’d fallen into. Angry with himself for falling into it. Angry that even here, now, this far away from their homeland, the assassins doggedly pursued him with a seemingly endless reach.

He stared out at the gathered men, who slowly shuffled closer, closer. Quiet feet barely scuffling in the night and the smoke and the dirt. It was hard to distinguish them in the shadows of the night, but the fire in the inn was spreading and catching quickly and the overcasting of clouds above was clearing away, letting enough moonlight for him to make out detail here and there.

Enough to show him the dozen and more men arrayed against him. Several wore the dark cloaks and hoods and inky garb matching the clothing of the dead assassins up in the now burning inn.

And enough for him to see that the rest of the men wore the distinct ceremonial gray robes and navy blue mantels of the Brotherhood of the Tower, complete with the speckling of small crystals set in the mantle to represent stars in the blue firmament of a night sky. They came, side by side with the assassins in their midst, and they grasped the same curving short swords the black-garbed killers held.

Rael thrust his pilfered short sword into his belt and withdrew his greatsword, finally having the room to wield it freely. He tested its weight in his hands and rolled his shoulders, testing the wound at his shoulder blade. He grit his teeth at the tug of pain; it would hold well enough. It must.

Rael bent his anger and fury into will and determination. His hands gripped at the leathered hilt of his greatsword, drawing reassurance from its weight and balance. He tasted the night air, the red dust of stirred earth, the smokiness of the fire quickly consuming the inn. The tang of death done and death to come.

The whispering twang of the bowstring came moments before the fierce, cruel thud of an arrow buried mortally deep into the meat of a man’s chest cavity, and one of his adversaries went down.

“There! The girl!” Barked a voice, and another man was already down by then as Silmaria notched her second arrow.

Rael recognized Ricard’s voice immediately, though he couldn’t pick the man out of the crowd just then. The Brother’s voice and tone was entirely different now, strangely so, twisted by anger and hysteria, high and cracking and quavering. He sounded like a broken thing, a man gleefully walking on the precipice of something dark and cavernous and unknowable, and delighting as the razors edge cut his feet to fleshy ribbons.

Ricard. Bloody fucking Ricard, with his constant delays and avowals of aid.

The betrayal laid bare, Rael’s rage was fed, and intensified to a roaring blaze.

The men came, intent on reaching him or Silmaria, Rael neither knew nor cared. The Knight burst forward in an explosion of muscle and violence and his greatsword arced out, cleaving through the night with its tremendous reach and fierce power. The first Brother met his end, his arm half severed and his chest opened. Another step forward and a quick whirl of the huge blade brought Rael’s sword around in an upward cut, reaching under the man’s guard. A second body slumped to the ground, the dead man nearly cut in half. His third attacker came rushing out of the night to his left and Rael lunged back, his blade coming up to block and parry his attacker’s assault, but the man never reached him, going down with an arrow through his belly.

Then the fighting grew too thick and frantic for Rael to keep track of, the men rushing him two and even three at a time. He spun and lunged, slashing and whipping his blade about wildly, keeping the assassins away with the reach of his sword and the potency of his rage. He fought like a man possessed, prodded to anger too great to be contained. His movements remained quick and agile, his blade moving faster than any lesser man could have managed, and one by one he cut the Brothers and the shadowy assassins with their flesh-burnt runes with the force of his skill and his rage, until his blade shone bloody red in the firelight.

The assassins proved as resilient and unyielding as their brothers in the inn had been. The first Rael caught across the middle with the tip of his greatsword, slashing the man’s belly half open, but the killer did not succumb until Rael ran him fully through and his blade stuck many inches through his back. Silmaria’s arrow caught another assassin in the chest and, after a momentary stumble from absorbing the force of the shot, the man came relentlessly on even as he bled out. Rael parried the man’s persistent strikes before skipping back and bringing his greatsword in for a low arcing slash, severing the assassin’s right leg just below the knee. The shadowy man still did not go still until Rael finally brought his sword down across the prone man’s neck, severing his head before rolling out of the way as his next attacker waded in.

Silmaria soon had to abandon her perch on the eave. The fire spread rapidly through the inn, the flames consuming and twisting through timber and cloth in an ever widening path of crackling, feeding destruction. She fired off another arrow into the back of a Brother trying to circle in behind Rael, bringing the man down. He tried to reach back to grab at the arrow, screaming in agony, flecks of bloody pink froth dropping from purple lips stretched in a grimace of mortal agony. He was not like the others. Not like the assassins. He was like all the Brothers; he was very much a man, and he felt every agonizing moment of his death pains.

And he was trying to kill them.

Silmaria hardened her heart, and turned away.

With a creek and a crash the door behind her burst open. From the inn itself came streaming and screaming several brothers, their robes and mantels ablaze, their hair and faces wreathed in flames and quickly melting like the wax of the candle that started this whole fiery mess to begin with. Silmaria backpedaled as one of the men came right at her, screaming like he was in the hells already. He probably wasn’t really after her; more than like he was crazed out of his mind with the pain of burning alive, and she just happened to be in his path. Either way, he was running for her, bearing down on her, a big mass of seething fire and the flames on him as greedy as any fire she’d ever seen, seeking wood and clothe and flesh and bone and anything in all of existence to fuel its fiery glory.

Silmaria put an arrow in the man’s chest, cutting short his suffering and forward momentum all at once.

This is too much , Silmaria thought grimly as she looked around the clearing where Rael still raged and fought and killed. So many. How many can there be? The entire sect of Brothers? And how many of the cloaked ones that refuse to die? This is bad!

Before she could nock another arrow, one of the assassins managed to catch Rael with a grazing slash to his upper thigh. Her fierce dear one bared his teeth and let out a roar, and his greatsword arced through the air in great cleaving cuts. A quick flurry later and another of the black-shroud assassins lay at his feet with his skull rent down the middle. But Rael paid for it as he caught another cut in his right bicep from one of the traitorous Brother’s while he tangled with the Assassins.

The Brothers were no warriors, not truly; their skill did not compare to the Assassins in their midst. But at the rate the men were emerging to bear down on them, it wouldn’t matter. They seemed content to throw themselves into the fray and be cut down, relying on their greater number to eventually be too much for even Rael’s might to contend with and the sheer number of his attackers became his undoing.

And at this rate, they’d succeed in exactly that soon enough.

Smoke billowed as thick and black and choking as the night itself. The fire was raging in full now, consuming the inn, blazing forth and bathing the surroundings in ever shifting, undulating oranges, flashes of brilliance, and deep reds to match the blood on the killing field Rael had turned the inn yard into. The smoke stung Silmaria’s eyes and punished her lungs. She tasted soot and burnt out wood and heat. The hint of roasting meat rising from the inn made her gorge rise.

She pushed the sick feeling in the pit of her belly down along with all thoughts of death and carnage, from within the inn and without. She slung her bow back over her shoulders, pulled her short sword from her belt, and sprinted off around the inn yard and to the stables. There she crept along the stalls, as slow and cautious as she dared, half expecting someone to spring at her from the flickering shadows at any moment. It seemed all attention was on Rael just then however; the Stables were empty aside from a number of horses. Most of the beasts were clearly terrified, spooked by the carnage of battle, blades clanging and crashing in a sharp steel whine as they met. Men screaming and dying. The smell of smoke and blood on the air, and the fearsome fire tearing through the inn, far too close for comfort.

A few of the horses penned at the end of the stables were calm though, or as close to calm as she had any right to ask for. They were still saddled, and were likely the mounts of some of the men trying to kill them even now. The impressive beasts were not relaxed by any means, but neither were they driven to near madness like some of their brethren. A simple glance would tell anyone these were no common horses meant for plow or cart or bearing travelers along long, dusty trails. These were horses of action, and purpose, there was no questioning that. Between their capable, strong appearance and relative calm, they were her best chance.

Silmaria went to quick work unlocking all the horses pens, throwing the doors open wide and refusing to dwell on her mad plan. The panicked horses went fleeing out, crashing into one another, neighing shrill and desperate as they escaped the stables and went charging in all directions. Silmaria hoped they trampled a few of the Brothers on their way to freedom. She tried not to consider that she could possibly be freeing them to run down her Master instead.

The copper tang of blood was on Rael’s tongue. He wasn’t even sure if it was his own. It didn’t matter, then; blood was blood, and it was flowing, on him and in him and, increasingly, out of him. He was deep in battle and bloodlust, caught in the hot rush of the moment, but Rael felt himself fatiguing and his strength began to ebb. He was wounded in several places and he’d already cut down a dozen men and more. Worse still, more Brothers and Assassins were coming from the shadows by the moment, fresh and ready. Rael soon found himself twisting and spinning, sidestepping and circling about, all offense forgotten as he focused his full effort on just keeping the men arrayed around him from ending him.

Soon it wouldn’t be enough. Another sword stroke got through, a cut into his left forearm, and he nearly dropped his greatsword before recovering and cutting open the man who drew blood on him. Rael struggled through the pain, but he knew at any moment, despite all the strength of his body and power of his resolve and the steel of his will, he would be unable to fight them off any longer.

A high, piercing neighing split the smoky night sky, and the inn-yard turned battlefield erupted into even deeper chaos as horses came bursting into the clearing, panicked and frightened and aggressive in their terror. They bucked and reared, bolting along and sending the Brothers scurrying out the way of their mad dash while the slowest of them fell screaming into the dirt, the horses smashing into them to trample them underfoot without hesitation.

“Master!” Silmaria called. Rael looked up and caught sight of her riding astride a powerful, bold horse. The beast was all shifting, bunching, powerful muscle working in perfect harmony under a glossy midnight coat, its mane and tail darker and more lustrous than the night sky overhead. She held the reins to lead a second horse as remarkable as the first, this one a dappled gray with white spattered through its coat and a flaxen mane and tail.

Silmaria’s eyes blazed green fire and determination, and she purposefully set the horse she straddled to ride down two of the Brothers closest to Rael, her curved short sword lashing out to cut one of the stunned men down while the other scrambled frantically away from the horse’s driving hooves.

A surge of hope filled him, lending renewed strength to his arms. Rael lunged forward, cutting down one of the brothers in his way, and then striding to his love and the horses with an exhaustedly hurried stride.

“No! You cannot escape! My Master will have your head, I’ve sworn it!” Brother Ricard’s voice howled in outrage, the tone of a wild thing gone unhinged. The man scurried from the right to interject himself between Rael and the horses. His burgundy eyes were red-rimmed and wide, bulging with desperation and denial.

“You. You traitorous bastard! This is your doing!” Rael snarled at Ricard.

“Why! Why couldn’t you have just died! You were supposed to die!” Ricard accused. Rael’s nostrils flared, his jaw set tight, and he was on the smaller man in an instant. To his credit, Ricard stood his ground and struck at the Knight with the dagger glinting in his clawing hand. But even with Rael weakened, the traitor Brother was overmatched. Rael sidestepped the stab and was on the man, grabbing a fistful of the Brother’s robe and slamming his knee into his gut. Ricard doubled over, wheezing and choking on his own spittle, helpless. Rael slammed the pommel of his blade into Ricard’s temple, and the vile man went down, blood seeping from his head.

“What the hell are you doing, Master?” Silmaria shouted, and she wheeled her horse around and struck at a nearby attacker with her sword. “Get your ass on the horse and let’s get out of here!”

Rael was already moving as she spurred him on, jerking Ricard’s limp body from the ground. He tossed the man across the withers of the riderless horse. The Nobleman then scrambled up into the saddle, taking the reins from his Gnari love. He laid about with his greatsword at the few men who hadn’t dispersed when the crazed horses came rushing through and kicked his horse forward, crying, “Go! Go!”

They burst into the night, undulating blurs rushing through the dirt and dust and rocks of The Reach. The silver-tinted reds of the land sped by as Silmaria’s horse surged out in the lead with Rael’s lunging after its heels. Rael let the girl lead, as she could see their way much more clearly than he. His attention was at their backs, his eyes ever watchful for any sign of pursuit. His hand was cramped and numb where he gripped his greatsword, but he dare not sheath it yet. Even as the blood leaked from his wounded forearm, spilling down his fingers, dripping in little crimson droplets from the pommel of his blade, he would not let go.

For her part, Silmaria’s heart beat so hard that she could feel the pressure of the blood hammering in her temples, threatening to drown out the beating of their horses’ hooves. She felt certain that at any moment pursuit would be on them and they’d be ridden down. She honestly didn’t know if they would manage to come out of such an encounter alive this time; Master Rael was as stubbornly defiant as ever, but she knew he was wounded and his strength was fading. She’d seen it when she came upon him with the horses, and saw it every time she glanced back at him riding now. He sagged visibly in the saddle like he was bearing some enormous burden, and though he refused to sheath his blade, she saw the toll it took on him just to keep the greatsword naked and gleaming in hand. If the Brothers and the strange, deadly Assassins came on them, Silmaria honestly didn’t know how long her Lord love would be able to endure.

Or she herself for that matter. Silmaria felt near numb with fatigue and she hurt all over. She’d escaped any major injury, but she felt as if every inch of her body was bruised and bumped. The adrenaline of the fight and the flight was beginning to fade now, leaving her shaking with exhaustion. She was also made acutely aware with every bump and rise and fall the horse found over the frantic ride just how long it had been since she’d last ridden a horse.

After they’d put what must have been several miles between themselves and the burnt out inn of the Brothers of the Tower, Rael brought his horse up beside hers.

“This is far enough,” he called. “Find us a good spot behind some rock formations, some trees, any kind of cover away from the road where we can settle in until dawn.”

Silmaria nodded, and scanned the area for a moment, before returning her gaze to her Master worriedly. She nodded to the unconscious man still lying across Rael’s horse. “What about him?”

“He’s going to give us answers,” Rael said shortly.

“I don’t think he’s going to be very free with his information,” Silmaria returned.

“He’ll talk,” Rael replied. His voice was clearly weary, ragged and torn where the wind rushing past them snatched at the edges of his words. But there was determination, too. Determination, and the promise of danger.

“He’ll talk.”

***

“You’re going to talk.”

Ricard looked up with baleful burgundy eyes. He was sprawled rather uncomfortably at the base of one of the many emaciated, tough trees in a small cluster that could hardly rightly be called a grove. He’d woken here securely bound with his arms behind his back and his feet hobbled together. The gnarled roots of the tree were digging into his spine where they rose all around him at the tree’s base. Spindly limbs stretched out overhead, clawing and ripping their way upward, intermingling with the reaching branches of the other trees around them to form a net spreading out to the sky in a vain effort to hold snatches of starlight captive.

Ricard spat into the dust.

Rael was undeterred. The big Nobleman sat before the bound Brother, legs crossed, with his short sword resting across his knees.

“What will you do with your sword, Lordling?” Ricard challenged. His voice was mocking, his tone a gleeful sneer “Kill me?”

“If I must,” was Rael’s simple reply.

“I think not,” Ricard grinned. “You’ll never have your answers then.”

Rael ran his thumb slowly along the edge of his blade. His intense, ethereal silver eyes never left Ricard. “I will kill you if I must,” he repeated, “But I’ll have my answers first.”

Ricard let out a bark of laughter and it was harsh and ugly. His expression was made all the more macabre by the dried blood caked thickly to the side of his face and matting his hair so it stuck up in stiff clumps. “Answers will gain you nothing, Lordling! It won’t matter if you have every last one that you seek. You’ll be dead ere long.”

“Who do you serve? Who wants me dead?” Rael asked.

“Why, Sren, of course,” Ricard replied, his lips twisting into a madman’s grin. “Haven’t you been paying attention?”

Rael stared into the man’s unnerving burgundy eyes, so very different from the utterly mundane, ordinary brown they’d been every other time they spoke. He cuffed the Brother, a vicious open-handed slap that left Ricard’s ears ringing and the taste of rust from his split lip.

“Who do you serve?” Rael repeated. “Who wants me dead?”

The mad grin didn’t falter. “You know, Lord-Dead-Man, this is all quite pointless if you won’t listen to me when I speak truth. May as well kill me now and have done with if you don’t want to hear what I’ve to say, hmm? My Master, all Tower Brothers’ Master, is his holiness Sren.”

Rael pressed his lips into a thin line and decided to try a different question. “Why do the Tower Brothers want me dead?”

“Oh, not all the Tower Brothers do,” Ricard explained blithely. “Only the ones who Sren has chosen. The ones Sren allows to hear his true voice. More of us join his inner circle every day, but not near enough. More’s the pity! If more of Sren’s inner circle had been at the compound, we would have had you, without need of The Empty!”

Rael cuffed him again. “You’re speaking in riddles.”

Ricard spat blood at Rael’s feet, and gave a bark of laughter, grim and cruelly taunting. “I speak in truths! Small wonder it smacks of riddles, then!”

“You’re insane,” Rael said, and for that brief moment his mask of cold, deadly control slipped, and his words came out in a disgusted growl.

“Sane, insane, god touched…” Ricard gibbered. “Does it truly matter? I’ve the only answers you’ve any hope of getting, Lord Corpse, so you’d better hope I’m more sane than not!”

Rael took a deep breath. He found the small, hard knot of cold wrath inside him, and used it to be calculating and controlled once more.

“The runes burnt into your arm,” he nodded to where the Brother’s forearm was exposed and bound tightly to his side. “What are they?”

“My pretties…my beautiful promises? Ah, they burn so, even now, no sweeter burn there ever was,” Ricard sighed, dreamily almost. “They are the mark of claiming. That which makes us Sren’s chosen, those who hear his true voice and serve his will directly. It is the tongue of the gods’, which no man may speak. It is our salvation, and your doom!”

Rael half wondered for a moment if the blow he’d struck Ricard had ruined his mind. Clearly the man was demented. He seethed with frustration as this precious answer, so close it was within his grasp, seeped through his fingers. Those were the same runes. He knew they were! The same runes on the arrow, and on the assassins. Ricard knew what they meant, somehow, somewhere. He only had to make the man tell him.

Rael asked the Brother about the marks again. And again. Both times, he made a very convincing case for why Ricard should tell him the truth. But though Ricard howled and struggled and cursed him, he also laughed in Rael’s face as he bled, and his story did not change.

“Who put these runes on you, Ricard,” the Knight asked, though he knew what the madman would say already.

“Sren,” Ricard rasped through dry, blood caked lips. “Sren, my Holy Lord, he of the twelve. Sren of the Tower, where he is ever watchful, ever mindful of the roads and comings and goings in the world…”

“Why would Sren want me dead?” Rael interrupted the man’s tirade.

“Why does a god ever want a mortal dead?” Ricard mused, and would have shrugged were he not bound so tightly. “Because you’re a threat.”

“How could I possibly be a threat to a god?” Rael asked. He felt foolish, asking the demented Brother questions to which there could be no sane answer, but part of him clung to the hope that he could tease out some thread of truth in the fools ramblings.

Ricard loosed a cackle of laughter. “You’re right! My mistake! Maybe Sren wants you dead for a different reason, then. Maybe you’re cursed! Or he just decided to do it for the fun of it! Gods are fickle, you know!

“Or maybe,” Ricard went on, “Maybe you fucked one of his daughters! It happens, you know, Sren has lots of them, little she-bastards he makes with the mortals who come to visit his Tower seeking his shelter and succor. You never even know who they may be!”

Rael narrowed his silver gaze at the man. He knew, just then, that he didn’t want to hear what would come next, and he gripped the hilt of his sword until his knuckles turned white.

“It could be her, you know,” Ricard said, nodding over Rael’s shoulder to where Silmaria approached them from the darkness. “There’s just something about her, don’t you think? Something different. Something special. She could be the half-holy little she-bastard that has the whole of the twelve questing for your head! And she’d never even know!”

***

Silmaria stayed away as long as she could stand.

Rael had expressly forbidden her from coming near while he talked with Ricard, ordered her to wait on the other end of the copse of trees, out of sight. She’d done as she was told, obeying her Master because she trusted him, and because obeying was what she did.

She tried to busy herself at first. She tended the horses, both of whom were beautiful creatures of strength and endurance and intelligence. Silmaria was no equestrian; she didn’t know much about horses aside from how to ride passably well, and the general ins and outs of their care. But even she recognized the beasts as unique and exceptional creatures. She hoped they would be able to keep them on their journey forward; she wanted to get to know the horses better, to learn of them, and they could prove absolutely invaluable on their journey forward.

Silmaria tied their leads to a nearby tree on the offhand chance they decided to wander, though they seemed content enough. She stripped off their saddles and rubbed them down with handfuls of grass, scrubbing at their coats, and left them to graze at the thin grass and bits of scraggly shrubbery around the tree. She wished there was more plentiful greenery for them to enjoy, but right then, this was the best that could be managed.

There were tasks to be done, still. Camp needed to be set up, and she really ought to get some of their supplies out for cooking some food; both she and Lord Rael desperately needed to eat after all the chaos of the night.

But she was too upset to be hungry. Too upset, and too worried. So Silmaria climbed up into one of the trees and found a spot to settle in a crook between two sturdy branches. She pulled her knees up to her chest, and waited, staring out into the darkness of the night without really seeing anything.

She was scared. Scared for her Master. Scared for what was happening, over in the trees just a hundred yards away. She could hear their voices, muffled by distance, and the occasional, chilling bark of Ricard’s laughter. His voice sounded totally different. The tone and pitch of it made her pelt rise with unease. When he began to wail and scream, Silmaria flinched, and she shuddered as his shrill laughter mingled horrifyingly with his screams. She did not want to think about what it was her Master did, or what it cost him.

Most pressingly of all, though, she feared for Master Rael’s health. Even as he drug Ricard off to the other side of the clearing and forbade her to follow, he looked awful. His face was drawn and sallow, and even as pale as the man usually was, he seemed colorless just then. Blood was crusted all over his clothes and his body, seeping from more wounds than she cared to count. His posture spoke of fatigue unto death, and she knew only his stubbornly defiant will kept him on his feet at all. She’d said her thanks to the gods that Ricard had been unconscious and then bound and secured before he began to come to; she felt sure that even he, weakened and injured and no fighter to begin with, would have been able to fight off her warrior love just then.

And so, Silmaria waited. She waited, and she stewed, and she agonized over her Lord’s condition, and the things he did that she didn’t want to see and didn’t want to know. It would be okay, she told herself. He did what he had to do, in search of the answers they so desperately needed. Cruelty was necessary sometimes. She knew that. Had known it as a hard truth for most of her life.

That didn’t help her feel any better about the work her kind Master’s harsh hands did that night. She just wanted it to be over, and then they could leave Ricard and his malice far behind them and be long gone before he or his brethren could muster their forces to find them.

So she waited. Silmaria reached up to brush the thick tumble of her hair from her eyes. She caught sight of the fur on the back of her hand matted with dried blood. Her Master’s dried blood, smeared across her grasping hands when she’d helped him down from his horse. Then she couldn’t stop thinking about his blood. On her hand. On his clothes. In his horse’s coat, where she’d had to scrub it away with her handfuls of grass.

She fought the impulse, the fear and the anxiousness, as long as she could. In the end with a hundred terrible possibilities racing through Silmaria’s mind, it was too much. She could stand none of them a moment longer. The Gnari dropped from the tree and walked with a false-calm she didn’t feel over to where her Master interrogated the traitor Brother.

Initially, Silmaria was relieved when she saw that Ricard was still bound and Rael sat upright still, apparently unharmed. Then relief turned to a tight, queasy knot in her belly when she saw the blood soaking into Ricard’s robes. She beheld the ruin that was a man, and felt her gorge rise.

Oh, Master… what have you done? What terrible thing has your answers driven you to?



“…And she’d never even know!” Ricard was saying, and his words ended in a coughing, cackling laughter that. He was looking at her with his fanatical, unnatural burgundy eyes, staring right at her and into her. Silmaria didn’t know which made her feel more unclean, his gaze staring right through her, or the state her lover had put the man into.

“Shut your mouth, Ricard. Shut it or you will speak no more, I swear it,” Rael said in a tone of quiet rage, the sort of rage that was vastly more terrifying than any explosion of white hot anger.

But Ricard just laughed all the more, long and cruel and free. Then his face suddenly went empty, and his disturbingly hollow eyes focused, and he was looking at her, staring through her all over again, his piercing gaze meeting her eyes and no matter how she tried, she could not look away.

“My god will find you, Lordling,” Ricard said, though his gaze never left hers. “Sren will find you. He will find me. He is ever able to find his chosen. It’s only a matter of time. And even if not, what does it matter? He’ll find her, of course. He knows all his children. Every one of his bastards. She’ll lead him right to you, and when he finds you, he’ll cleave your skull from your shoulders, and take her, too. Gods are meant to be with their own, after all. She’ll be his, and they’ll make more beautiful divine bastards together.”

Silmaria had no idea what the lunatic was talking about, but she felt a surge of uncomfortable dread rush through her anyhow, a spike of all-too real, primal fear that she couldn’t name or understand.

Rael came to his feet shakily, and it broke her heart how unsteady her unshakable Lord was just then. He looked over at her with eyes full of uncertainty.

Silmaria watched him, confused and afraid.

“She’ll writhe for him, you know,” Ricard said with a devious little sneer. “She’ll writhe for him, god-struck and willing, and beg to make more little godling bastard babies, just like her...”

Silmaria would have been horrified by his words, would have been outraged, and sickened, and demanded to know what the sick, broken man was talking about.

But she never had the chance. His words didn’t even fully register past the sound of her own screams when Rael quite literally cut Ricard’s hateful words short by lopping his grinning head from his shoulders.

***

I want to say a big ‘thank you’ for all the encouragement and positive feedback that I received after my long absence before the last chapter. A lot of you expressed relief that I hadn’t disappeared and let the story die! I’m deeply appreciative to my readers and their support, and even though this chapter took me longer than I would have liked, I’m just glad it wasn’t as long as last time.

As some of you know, I wasn’t very happy with Twenty-One. I am much more pleased with this chapter, and I hope that it showed an improvement to all of you, because to me at least, it feels worlds better.

As always, all questions, comments, critiques, and other forms of feedback, good and bad, are welcome, encouraged, and needed! I love to hear from you guys and grow this story into a bigger and better thing with all of your help! Thank you everyone for continuing to read and enjoy with me!

On to the next!

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Copyright © All content of this story is copyright 2015 by Returning_Writer_Guy and is my intellectual property. This story is not to be redistributed under any circumstances without my express written permission.



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