And Then There Was Silence: Part One
"Though he couldn't turn from the light, the loss of his love broke him. His heart grew cold and he learned the arts of death. When he was encountered again, he had changed from a warm person into a ruthless assassin." -Unknown author, The Nameless Assassin, text found in the Rathbone Family Crypts, circa Y7~
I: A Name of Reputation
The rising moon casts a hush over Meridell as, one by one, each furnace and candle in the homes of the villagers is extinguished. A handful of sleepy knights patrol the cobblestone streets for any signs of commotion, but nothing ever really stirs in the kingdom anymore. The only sounds that can be heard are that of the wind lazily lifting and lowering the branches of the trees, a drone of music and laughter coming from the tavern down the road, and the knights' steel heels click-clacking on the ground.
Under the shadow of the castle, a stealthy Scorchio by the name of Finneus watches nervously as a knight slowly walks in front of him. He feels his heartbeat in the back of his throat, but he manages to calm his breathing enough to not be heard. Once the knight seems to be out of sight, Finneus checks up and down the streets — left, right, left — then darts towards the beaten-down, boarded-up, seemingly-abandoned building across the street. He barrel rolls into the shadows across the way, feeling accomplished when he manages to land on his feet. He thinks to himself, Darn, I wish Kanrik could have seen that! That was cool! But, despite his strange mix of pride and disappointment, he tries to stay focused.
Finneus knows he isn't permitted to enter the building anymore, not since what happened last time... but, he knows how to get in regardless. Gently sliding a pile of barrels and boxes to the side, he reveals a trap door under a crate of rotting juppies and an ages-old pile of forgotten clothing. Checking the alleyway again — left, right, left — he lifts the door and hops in. It slams shut above him — loudly. He cringes at the volume of the sound which follows him, echoing, into the basement.
Lifting his wings to catch the air, he manages to land softly on his feet. Again, he feels proud, but he has more important things to worry about. The room he has fallen into is a mess, lined with old shelves, bureaus, cabinets, every inch of the furniture draped with expensive-looking jewellery, clothing, weapons, potions… He ignores it all, though. Left, right, left, then he slides into the shadows that the torches on the walls cast behind the furniture. There's a dark hallway to his left. He sidles the wall and inches towards the doorway, enters its threshold, then — left, right, left — tiptoes into the next room.
This new room is practically empty — just a simple bed, a writing desk with a few papers and a quill, and a locked chest against an otherwise-barren wall. Another hallway can be seen across the room to his right, so — left, right, left — he ducks down beside the bed, gets on his hands and knees, and heads in that direction, crawling on the floor under the shadows of several half-melted candles.
Suddenly, a snide voice comes from behind him. "You're not as stealthy as your colour would imply, Finneus."
Finneus lets out an, unfortunately, very uncool sounding squeak as he scrambles to get to his feet. He spins around, but his heel catches on the tip of his cloak, sending him falling back to the ground. He tries to stand again, stumbles, but then, finally, manages to steady himself. When he finally regains his footing, he looks up to see Kanrik, leader of the Thieves Guild, glaring at him with condescending eyes, his arms crossed across his chest, a gold-laced dagger in his right hand. "I thought I told you not to come back here after your last stunt," he grumbles.
Finneus gives the Gelert a hasty bow, then quickly tries to shift his mindset away from his embarrassment. It doesn't take too long before a proud smirk crawls its way across his cheeks, replacing the blush of chagrin. "I think you'll be happy with this one."
Kanrik snorts. His eyes narrow under the weight of his angry brow. "Something tells me I won't."
"Ah, but check this out!" Finneus reaches into his shirt pocket and pulls out a small, intricately-carved dagger, shimmering black, seemingly glowing with an intensely dark magic. He twists its hilt in his hand as he holds it out for Kanrik to examine.
Though he tried to remain indifferent at first, Kanrik's eyes widen at the sight of the treasure. It's stunning. He uncrosses his arms and tucks his dagger into his belt — takes a few steps closer to the smug Scorchio to examine the weapon he holds more closely. Kanrik is at a loss for words. Finneus can see this. His ego blooms more and more with each unblinking second Kanrik spends beholding his haul. But then, Kanrik's mood shifts. He steps back and gives his head a few quick shakes. He was entranced by the beauty of the weapon — obsessed with the question of its worth — but he forces himself to swallow the thoughts. He remembers that the last time Finneus acquired an item so beautiful, it almost got the entire guild killed. Kanrik crosses his arms again, and the look of disdain returns. He clears his throat. "And where did you find this?" he asks darkly.
Ignoring Kanrik's sudden hostility, Finneus' ego remains infallible. "You'll never guess."
Kanrik's face sours. He doesn't respond.
"Come on, Kanrik, guess."
"Whatever, okay, get this…" Finneus strikes a pompous pose. "I stole it… off of the Black Knight himself!"
"Ugh, I knew it!" Kanrik hisses, burying his face into one hand. He isn't the least bit happy. He lets out a frustrated groan as he spins around and slams his fist against the wall. "I told you before, Finneus, you are not skilled enough to attempt such heists."
Finneus' heart drops into his stomach. He feels rejected, but it quickly metamorphoses into anger. "But I pulled the heist off," he says, his voice sobering.
Kanrik spins around. "The last time you 'pulled it off' " — he puts quotes around the words with his fingers — "you led an entire tribe of Ixi Raiders straight to our camp, forcing us to evacuate and relocate to this dingy shack. Not to mention we lost what was potentially millions in goods!" He takes a step closer. "You are not skilled enough." His concluding statement is a murderous threat.
Finneus' expression now matches Kanrik's hostile timbre. "Well, I wasn't followed this time," he mutters with scorn.
"This time, Finneus, just this time!" Kanrik's voice echoes through the empty room. "But the next time, you might not be so lucky. You jeopardise the safety and reputation of the entire guild with these little stunts, and I will not allow you to make a fool of me by having the guild arrested or slaughtered — or worse, have all of our loot stolen — over something so insignificant!" He draws his dagger from his belt again and takes a few more furious steps towards the Scorchio, who now stands trembling slightly, his stomach sick with a brew of anger and rejection. "I don't ever want to see you here again," Kanrik continues, lifting his blade to Finneus' nose, "unless you are willing to put your ego aside for the betterment of me and the rest of the guild, or if you miraculously gain the skill to get away with this calibre of robbery. Do you understand?"
Finneus stares angrily — unblinking.
"Do you understand?"
After a few more seconds of tension, Finneus finally swallows his pride. He balls his hands into tight fists to relieve the rest of his anger, then let's go with a sigh. "Yes, sir," he mumbles.
"Good. Now leave." Kanrik turns towards the hallway with a flourish, his cloak catching the air and billowing regally. He stomps loudly down the hall, leaving Finneus alone in the shadows of the dying candles. He will respect me soon enough, Finneus thinks to himself, watching Kanrik disappear into the darkness. I'll prove to him I'm good enough. I'll make sure this whole realm knows of my skill. He'll regret ever scorning me.~
"Babygirl, are you sure you want to do this?"
Ember sounds completely serious for once in her life, and, all of a sudden, Apsy feels less sure about her decision in coming to this ominous place. Her human mother is almost never serious, and it's concerning for Apsy to hear her speak so softly. The worried cadence of Ember's voice causes the darkness of the halls the two walk through to become smothering, the shadows suddenly seeming all the more frightening… Still, the young Werelupe has made up her mind. She takes a deep breath. "Yeah, Mum, I'm sure," she finally says, straightening her spine in an attempt to evoke a sense of strength from within.
Ember continues to stare Apsy intensely in the face, trying to get her to keep talking — maybe change her mind — but the Werelupe is far beyond used to her mother's tricks by now. She avoids eye contact — no eye contact, no guilt, no pressure. Ember eventually gives up on getting Apsy to acknowledge her concern. She lets out an exaggerated sigh, then lowers her head and continues to walk silently.
It's close to midnight when Apsy and Ember finally find their way through the winding maze of the Werelupe Burrows to where the king and his council are speaking. Their red and gold eyes illuminated only by a dying fire before them, they all lower their gazes to the two young girls, their faces expressionless, but authoritative.
Apsy and Ember bow to the king — Apsy seeming more genuine than her clumsy human mother — and then stand alert to be addressed. The king has been awaiting them. He and his council sit framing a round, rocky ledge that slopes a few feet down into the arena where the two girls now stand patiently. The king leans forward to examine the two, humming quietly in contemplation as he looks them up and down. Finally, he sits up, leans against one arm of his throne, and addresses Apsy. "So, you're the young Werelupe who requested to become a part of our… community, I see." His voice is as sharp as the jagged rocks that encircle them — a deep, royal bass that completely fills the room.
Apsy nods once, slowly and affirmatively. "Yes, Your Majesty."
"And you, her human mother, correct?" He addresses Ember this time.
"Yes, sir," Ember says calmly.
Apsy gives her mother a worried glance at the sound of the somewhat-informal title, but the king, thankfully, doesn't seem to mind. He sits straight and laces his fingers in his lap. "What can you offer us in exchange for acceptance into the official Werelupe society?" he asks.
Ember, again seemingly for the first time in her life, remains silent — looks to Apsy, encouraging her to speak on her own behalf. The young Werelupe breathes deep, then takes a few steps further into the ring. "Your Majesty," she begins slowly, cautious to choose her words carefully, "I truly believe it is part of my destiny to help rebuild our species' home after the raids by the Meridell knights, the nearby fall of Faerieland, and the destruction wreaked by those involved in the events following the Darkest Faerie's return several years back."
At the sound of the Faerie's title, the king's ears press back against his head angrily while a feral growl begins to tear at his throat. The other Werelupes around the ring look to each other seeming concerned, but remain silent. Apsy notices all of this, quickly realises that bringing up that subject is definitely a bad idea, and a flash of panic races down her spine. Still, she refuses to break eye contact with the king. She continues, changing the subject, diverging slightly from his original question. "All my life, I have found it difficult to interact with most other people because of my appearance, especially around this realm — around the kingdoms of Meridell and Brightvale, and the towns that surround them. The hostility is soul-crushing at best, and completely terrifying at worst. All I wish is to find a place where I may be accepted and serve a purpose to a higher, more resolute cause. I wish to join you and your forces and help however I can."
Ember smiles smugly from behind her daughter. She's proud of her eloquence and honestly. My little baby girl, all grown up and swearing her allegiance to villains… I'm so proud…
The snarl that was rumbling in the king's chest dies down, and his body language becomes impassive again. He leans over in his throne, elbows on his knees, and rests his chin on his still-laced fingers. His onyx claws clack together loudly. "This is a very dangerous place, little one," he says, more politely than either of the girls expected. "Though I understand your desires, I think it's… unwise for you to be here. We are a people who pride ourselves on strength and defiance, and that tends to make us easy targets for would-be heroes who are attempting to earn their merit." He leans back and crosses his legs casually, leaning to the side to rest his cheek on his fist. His voice lightens slightly as sarcasm fills his tone. "Not to mention, it's so much fun to provoke the neighbouring realms. Perhaps it's our fault, occasionally, that we are targeted as villains." A few of the other Werelupes around the ring snicker as he continues. "I'm not going to firmly deny you of your wishes, little one, as I see no harm done in greater numbers. But first, you need to display to me that you are worthy of my… acceptance." He shifts his gaze to Ember. "And you as well, tiny human. I'm assuming you won't completely leave your child's side if she were to join our ranks."
"Nnnope," Ember says with a shake of her head, pursing her lips after speaking.
The king smiles for a brief second, amused by the human's failure to hide her impiousness. He appreciates rebelliousness — in moderation, of course. He looks back to Apsy. "Convince me," he concludes, lacing his fingers again, his crimson gaze unfaltering.
Apsy breathes a sigh of relief and relaxes her shoulders, trying to restrain the gleeful smile that's tugging at the corners of her mouth. "Thank you, Your Majesty," she says, her voice glittering with excitement. "I won't let you down."
"I have faith," he says, but his voice is insincere.
Apsy doesn't allow his words' shift in resonance to crush her. "What do I have to do?"
The king gives her a sadistic smile. "That is for you to figure out, little one," he says, his voice and expression implying that there may be consequences if she fails.
Ember looks to her daughter worriedly, but, again, Apsy doesn't let his change in tone deter her. She takes a few moments to think, then, "In the meantime, until I find a way to earn your approval… is there anything I can do to help you?"
The king's smile turns from cruel to impressed. A decent response, he thinks. This one shows promise. He shifts his weight to rest on his other arm — uncrosses his legs, then crosses them again. He holds his cheek cupped in his hand, tapping one claw against his crown as he thinks. Finally, after what seems like an eternity of judgement and waiting, he sits straight and responds blithely. "Sure, why not?" he says, more to himself than to the girls. Apsy's face lights up as he speaks. "If you walk about a mile southwest of the entrance to the burrows, you'll find the ruins of the crypts where some… unsuccessful heroes in the making now rest." Again, several of the other Werelupes laugh. "There," the king continues, "my son and several of the othe—"
"Woah, you have a son?!" Ember cuts in loudly.
The king snaps his jaws shut and growls, shifting his position as if preparing for an attack. Apsy breathes in sharply. All attention shoots to the small human who immediately recognises her mistake and slaps her hands over her mouth. She takes a step back before mumbling, "Oh no, I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt…" into her now sweating palms.
"Watch your tongue, human," the king barks, "or I may be sending you to the crypts in a coffin."
Ember swallows hard, not so much out of fear for her own safety as fear that her mistake may lead to her daughter's rejection. "I apologise, Your Majesty," she says, sheepishly but earnestly. "It won't happen again."
Apsy tries to not let her mother's lack of self-control keep her from standing strong in front of the king, and he notices her courage. He slowly leans back, then clears his throat exaggeratedly before beginning again. "As I was saying, before I was interrupted," — he gives Ember a murderous glance — "my son and several of the other Werelupes are at the crypts attempting to retrieve treasures that were buried after the shrines and tombs collapsed due to the earthquakes following the fall of Faerieland. For now, you may go there and assist however you can. Having, er… smaller-boned people helping out will surely make the scavenge much easier." His anger finally seems to be quelling.
Apsy nods her head affirmatively again. "Of course, Your Majesty. We will do whatever we can."
"Then go," he says with an impassive flip of his hand. "Oh, and try not to get crushed," he adds, staring straight at Ember with a malevolent grin.
Ember manages to keep her sarcastic temper restrained to just a melodramatic eyeroll, then bows alongside her daughter. "No promises," she mumbles.
"I've caught wind of what you do…"
It's the back of some seedy tavern on the outskirts of Meridell. A silent grey Gelert sits leaning over a dingy book that's filled with the scribbled writings of an ancient sorcerer, reading carefully. His sunken gold eyes are completely concealed under the hood of his long brown cloak which is pulled down almost to the bridge of his nose. He blends in with the shadows of the walls behind him, save for a sparkling ruby and ivory broach resting across his chest.
Despite the sound of the foreign voice, the Gelert doesn't raise his eyes from his reading to meet the fair-timbred man who just sat down across from him. He doesn't raise his eyes for much of anything anymore. Still, in the back of this inn, in the shadows of the dying fire, he responds. "What is it that I do?"
"Well… you know…"
"I'm not sure I follow."
The man lets out a frustrated breath. The wooden chair beneath him creaks as he leans forward. "His name is Elias Dechene."
"A friend of yours?"
The man snorts. "Hardly."
"Then why do you mention him?"
"Surely you must know why."
The nameless Gelert slowly traces the brim of a glass that's placed before him with his middle finger, anxiously tapping his foot on the floor, though it goes, thankfully, unnoticed. With his other hand, he turns the page of his book. "Who is he, then?"
The man across the table sounds relieved. "He lives in Illusen's village. He's a chokato farmer there. Orange Skeith, horrid black hair, an unkempt mess of a beard—"
"What is he?"
The man sounds surprised. "I… I just said, he is a chokato farmer."
"That's not what I meant."
Still, the man sounds more confused. "I… beg pardon?"
"What did he do?"
The Gelert's voice frightens the man. He doesn't know how violent this notorious assassin is. He didn't really think this through too much. Still, the fair-voiced man continues. "I can pay you as much as you want, honestly, money isn't an issue—"
The Gelert lowers his hand from around the glass and places his palm flat on the table. The man leans away, unsure of what the gesture means. Still, the assassin seems ever calm. "Money isn't an issue, though my prices are quite high," he says. "I know you will pay me what I demand, won't you?"
The man chokes a bit on his nerves, recognising the hidden threat in the assassin's question. "Of course, sir."
"Then," the assassin continues, "the issue that remains is… what did he do?"
"…I… sorry, sir, why is this of—"
The Gelert's tone suddenly turns hostile. "I like to know what I'm getting myself into before I accept any contracts," he says, "as well as I'm sick of frivolous requests." With that, he finally looks up.
The person sitting across the table looks truly defeated. He is a yellow Draik with no light left to his gaze. His eyes read a hollow desperation. Genuine, seemingly. "I'm not sure if it's worth your time then," the Draik says. "The offence is… personal in nature."
The assassin begins to toy with the chain of a gold necklace that's tucked into his shirt. With his other hand, he traces the lip of his glass again. It makes a feint humming sound. The Draik looks away and sighs. "My wife has been out exploring foreign lands, you see," he begins to explain. "She has always wanted to see Tyrannia, and she finally got the chance, but I had to stay here in Meridell to tend to our Babaa flocks. She is a very wealthy woman, you see, with very extravagant tastes. This farmer, he… took me by surprise one night and stole everything of hers that had significant value. Honestly, I'm not concerned about their monetary worth so much as their sentimental worth, you understand, and I know that he has probably sold everything off by now. I want revenge for what he took from us."
The music has been vibrantly ebbing and flowing, but the man's tone has remained sombre. Still, as he finishes, he sounds embarrassed to continue asking for "assistance." "I know it's not much, but—"
"You needn't explain any further," the assassin says, his voice still hostile, though plagued now by something unknown and dark.
"Don't." The assassin returns his focus to the tome before him — dog-ears a page and closes it gently. "Just go home," he says, his voice two steps away from a whisper. "I'll do what I do."
The man's face begins to brighten. "Truly?"
The assassin doesn't respond to the question. He just begins to stand up. "For a little extra, is there anything I should look for to return to you as well?"
Again, the man's face brightens. "Yes, yes, anything of hers. Her name is Lilly, and most of her clothing and jewellery is engraved. She loves sapphire. That's mostly what he stole. Anything at all, sir. I'll pay whatever you request."
The assassin drops a few neopoints on the table beside his still-full glass as a tip for the barmaid. "Meet me here again on the evening of the turn of this week. I'll see what I can do in the meantime," and he turns to leave.
To be continued…