It was almost a week before I was fully healed, I told Numen about the reason behind my wounds after she pestered me for the fifteenth time. She and Qent forced me into bedrest during the time, and as a consequence no one in the guild was any the wiser that their ‘Masked’ had been injured at all. The Aerathi, true to their word, forged peace talks between the races, easing fractured civilizations whole again.
Qent was officially ‘graduated’ a short while after, presumably because if fighting a demonic war on the frontlines and winning didn’t qualify you nothing would. Frejr stopped taking on their apprentices directly, instead managing to somehow negotiate Qent as an instructor for them to be sent directly to the guild, earning Rince’s disbelief and Numen’s further respect.
While I was cautious about admitting it, it was hard to deny the stabilizing effect the irregulars were having on the rural countryside. Most people trusted us not to be involved in border politics, it seemed that my little stint with Cale and the Republic was considered giving them their due. In fact, a few weeks later Cale and his team apparently managed to make quite the name for themselves, bringing down the leading members of the Council. Some whispered of shady deals and dark dealings with others that worked in shadow, but at least from what I could tell, it was a move to the better.
Numen and Rince made a tight team, while I would still get drawn in every now and then at Numen’s request, Rince’s growing skill and experience soon made me obsolete, at least when it came to complementing Numen. I found myself drawn towards solo missions, exploring the wildlands of the Arkthame with patrols and mapmakers as the hunts gradually grew scarcer and the world recovered. I was pleasantly surprised when one day I returned to announcements of their marriage. Jeff presided over the oddly simple ceremony, providing a few simple prayers and well wishes before the altar. My personal highlight was when they both struggled with the ‘covenant cup’.
Azarint retired soon after, saying that he was beginning to “feel his age” after the war. When Linden heard he challenged him to a duel, and was promptly beaten down. Azarint stayed on to teach the basics to the newest of the adventurers, as we had started to name ourselves, setting the foundation for adventurer instructors across the many guilds. He sometimes asked me to stick around for demonstrations, and I was only more than happy to oblige.
Over the next year the guilds kind of melted into the cities they were based in. A great deal of irregulars left, some leaving to wander again, others to join their nation’s militaries thanks to aggressive recruitment. It made the group… smaller, but also tighter, the ones who stayed enjoyed the freedom they had, and many still kept in touch with those in different positions. Maria and Qen eventually split with Mulia and the dire wolves, stationing themselves permanently as guards back at Hnivon, though they stayed in close contact.
Everything seemed to be going well… which was why it had to go wrong.
I opened the door to the training area, ready to start preparing lessons with Azarint for today’s batch of newbies, and was greeted by the stench of drying blood. It stained the walls, looking as though it had been splashed onto them, the excess pooling onto the ground. I closed my eyes, taking a step back from the door. No. I thought to myself, as the familiar smell of blood and guts assaulted my senses. No no no no no no no. I gritted my teeth, forcing myself into the room and to open my eyes.
Death in this world was a constant, I had seen so many patrolmen die to kobold arrows and chimaera claws, that was not what affected me. He had left because he was getting on in years, to stay safe, and someone had decided to kill in his own home… The body was a little ways in, the cold light of the magical lamps we’d been given illuminating a pale, drained carcass. I knelt, confirming his identity as I looked over his wounds.
Nothing had been taken from him. His badge gleamed on his chest, and his sword lay on the floor, still sheathed. How had they gotten this close? He’d been stabbed several times in the stomach, then opened, there was no bruising on his knuckles… I hoped he had been drained after he’d been killed, even as the many bruises I found on the rest of his body proved his struggles. Who would do this? A bloody bucket lay next to his corpse, I didn’t recognize it, had they brought it in? Text had been written onto the floor, smeared by blood: Guess who’s next? Something had been drawn next to it, I squinted a the signal, then realized it was a smiley. I snarled, clenching my fists.
ḯ͙͖̪͈̱́͌̀̚’̷̨̡̜̗̜͕̪͍͎͇̾̆̈̔͋̊ļ̶͔̩̙̈̆̍̈͋͆̂͗͡ͅL̮͓̟̙͔̺͆̄͂̂́̍͒͑̆̚ K̛̦̞̱͔̦̠̑͑̋͛͐͋î̛̜̳̤̖̻̞͕̆̍̍̈́́̈̃͜ͅḶ̼͍̪̼͚̰͖̻̏͐̈̽͑̆͜l̨̳͍̼̖̬̜̫̯̃̑̋͗͗̿̉͞ͅ y̶̨̧̨̡̨̛͚͎͚̬̾̈́̇́͊͑̾͟͝͝Ơ̵̡̨̱̭̠̲̹̈́̆͊́͗͟͜Ȕ͈͈̬͉̙̀̒̓̚.̳̤̞͖̬͉̭̤̱̞̿̐͑̔̌̊̇
I stumbled out of the building, closing the door behind me and heading straight to Tina. “Azarint’s dead.” I said, my voice hollow. “Someone’s killed him.” I continued, as Tina stared at me, dumbfounded. “Call the others back if you can.” I realized what else I needed to do. “I… I’ll call for the sheriff.” I said, turning to leave.
The sheriff of Torven was a large, muscular man. He took a look at the corpse and the blood, but didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. When it came down to it, I knew more about wounds than they did. Arkthame’s reliance on potions and magical herbs meant that all wounds looked the same to them, because why study to be a sawbones when you can mend with just a tincture?
“Did anyone hate him?” The man asked, for the third time. I drew in a breath, and shook my head. “Has to be someone he trusted, he didn’t even get a chance to draw his sword…” He mused, looking around at the blood. He gestured to the text. “Who do you think it’s referring to?”
“I don’t know.” I answered, kneeling to take a closer look at Azarint’s wounds. It had to have been a shortsword that had stabbed him, the length and the thickness of the blade didn’t match up otherwise. “It could be another of the founders, it could be something from his past. I didn’t know anything about him before I met him during the gnoll war.” I continued wearily. There was bruising on his throat, his tongue was… blueish, but… did this kill him? Why? Why strangle the man bleeding to death? Why stab him in the stomach when you had the chance to go for the heart? You know why. I thought back, looking to the text. Cruelty, sadism. Anger boiled in my chest.
The man nodded, making a few assurances before leaving. I slumped down. There was nothing here that told me anything, just that he had died in pain. Tina found me there a short while later, helping me to bury him in the small plot of dirt that remained within the guild. “I got a few people to pass the message to them.” She said. “Frejr might be away a little longer, she’s in some negotiations.”
I nodded, slowly sipping at the mead, thinking. Enemies… I didn’t know any, Linden doesn’t care enough to have done this, so late in… who could have cared so much to kill him so slowly? And that message… I had a terrible feeling I knew which people they were asking me to guess between, and it left me both frustrated and perplexed. They’d done nothing worth such a personal grudge to my knowledge, if this really was true, then we were looking for a madman.
[You already were.] Page whispered to me, and I thought of the blood splashed and smeared onto the walls. [It could be a shock tactic meant to throw us off.] Page cautioned, I nodded with a grimace. It could be, but… it didn’t seem likely, there was a certain… deliberation to this. Passion that I couldn’t explain, it radiated off the words, the blood, the wounds. They had cared about what they’d been doing. I took a deep draught of the mead.
“What’d you tell them?” I asked, looking to Tina. She had been the one to talk to our potential trainees since I’d been busy with the sheriff.
“I told them that he had been killed.” Tina said, matter-of-factly. “But little else.” Her voice turned gentler. “They don’t need to know what… happened inside. I’ll clean it later today, I assume I am to cancel the training session?”
I nodded. “I need to find whoever this is. I will find them and make sure they pay for what they did to Azarint, and before they kill the others.”
“They’re not helpless you know.” Tina said, leaning onto the counter. “It’s arrogant of you to think they’re the only ones who need protecting. You don’t want people to buy into your myth, gotta stop believing it yourself.”
I arched an eyebrow at that, I never had believed the stories they’d told of me, but I suppose that was moot, she was right. This… person, thought that they could get at us, was confident enough to leave us the message, we all needed to be careful. I lightly shook my head. “Who could’ve entered that room?” I asked Tina, thinking back to the stiffness of the corpse. “They were killed at least three… hours ago.” I grimaced, noticing her confusion. “Just before dawn.” I explained.
“How can you be so sure?” She asked, quizzically. “I guess there was someone that was walking about nearby… I can’t be sure, all I know is I heard footsteps.” She shrugged helplessly. “I’m sorry.” She said, laying a hand on my shoulder. I nodded, it was a long shot, if she had seen someone it would likely have stuck with her a lot more. I set down my drink, standing up to leave, there might be some people who had seen the murderer. Cliché as it was, the forgotten and ignored were the best sources for this.
There were in fact, a few beggars that sat on the streets outside the guilds. We had quite a few bleeding hearts in our ranks after all, though I knew that many of these beggars were not only healthy, but well fed through their ‘vocation’. I tossed them a few copper siqs. “This morning, before dawn, did any of you see someone other than Azarint enter the building?” I asked.
Only one of them spoke up. “Aye. There was one.” He said, giving me yellowed smile as he rubbed his coin. “Some man huddled under a long dark cloak, about as tall as you are. Didn’t see his face, oh no. But he did mutter an awful lot.” His grin grew wider. “Talking to someone that wasn’t there, said that they would be heading off to Lrash to go where ‘they’ weren’t.”
“You’re sure they said Lrash?” I asked urgently, and the beggar nodded, leaning back with a satisfied smile. “Dammit.” I said, making my way back into the guild. “Lrash. That’s where Frejr had gone, correct?” I asked, terse. She nodded.
“She’ll be staying with the guild we have set up there. Are… are they’re going after her?” She asked, and I nodded. “How can you be so certain?”
“I’m not.” I said. “But we don’t have any other leads, she’s the only one who’s on her own. Even Qent has his apprentice with him.” I shut my eyes, reaching for the mug of mead I’d left and downing it. “I’ll be borrowing a horse.” I said simply. “If the others arrive and I’m still not back yet, tell them to come find me at Lrash.”
“I’ll handle the paperwork. Take the roan, she’s the fastest we’ve got.” Tina said, reaching for a set of records and a quill pen.
“Thank you.” I said, bowing slightly, before rushing out, saddling up and riding away.