Chapter 4. 'Murder'
Cold, soaked to the skin, exhausted and disturbed by the afternoon’s discovery in the clearing, the Daemonslayers and Hawker rode into Aldoc just as dusk was deepening into night. At first they did not sense anything was awry. Although the dreadful thunderstorm had long since passed, the day had remained dark as glowering clouds continued to pelt the land with rain so it came as no surprise to find the dreary streets deserted. It was not until they saw the castle and its frayed, water-leaden flags hanging at half mast that they realised something direly untoward had occurred.
As they passed the castle gates, Hawker demanded of a guard what had happened. The lad, barely more than a boy wearing the ill-fitting armour of a man, stammered and scrambled to attention having been unaware of their approach, “I, uh, Prince Irik, my lord! He is dead!”
“What?” gasped Hawker but the guard’s attention had travelled. His eyes were wide and fixed upon the Daemonslayers: he had been off-duty the previous day and had only heard word in the mess-hall about the strange visitors from the east. The hellishly burning eyes of the fearsome black unicorn caught his stare, made his legs tremble.
Hawker broke the spell, forced to repeat his previously unheard question, “Tell me. What happened?”
“He... Murder! There is a murderer in the castle!”
“Besides the king?” Soul said out of the side of her mouth.
“At least we’ve got an alibi,” replied Blackjack.
“So people can’t immediately blame us, for a change,” muttered Shade ruefully. Their brief conversation was subdued though as the Daemonslayers were as surprised (though evidently not as appalled) as Hawker at this news.
The low-ranking guard could offer no further information so Hawker resolved to find a man called Curtswan; Captain of the castle guard and also a close friend of his. They left their mounts in the stables and, with Shade’s support the huntsman led them to the great hall.
There their brief search ended, for Curtswan and some of his lieutenants were questioning grieving nobles and distressed servants. As he finished some parting exchange with an elderly noblewoman dressed and veiled in black, Curtswan happened to look up and notice them. He glanced suspiciously at the Daemonslayers as he came over then clapped a hand on Hawker’s shoulder in greeting. “It is good to see you, friend. You have heard the news?” he looked down and noticed the bandaged ankle, “What happened? I’ll call for a physician.”
“I’ll be fine,” grunted Hawker, thanking Shade for his help as he painfully lowered himself into a chair, “My ankle ails me nought compared to this dire news.” He shook his head, at a loss “I had known him and served the prince since I were a lad. He was a good man. Why would someone do this?”
Curtswan looked a little surprised, he had hoped the rumours of murder had been kept quiet but then at a royal court any whisperings spread like wildfire, “Aye” he admitted, “We know not who, but be assured foul play is afoot here.” He looked at the Daemonslayers again, “You were hunting those demons all day?” he questioned.
“Yes” Shade replied irritably. It had been a bad day and he was not much in the mood for unfounded suspicions.
“I can vouch for them,” replied Hawker.
The captain seemed to accept this. “Well, there is nothing for you three to do here; the Prince was killed by mortal hand, not some supernatural demon. I would advise you to see the kitchen staff for some food and get to bed.”
Shade looked sidelong at Blackjack wondering if it would be wise to mention their findings in the woods. The dracosvulf looked like he was going to be typically tight-lipped about it. He decided in this instance silence was not going to help anyone, “I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss any magical skulduggery.”
“What do you mean?” asked the Captain darkly.
Though Blackjack made no adverse remark about sharing their knowledge Shade noticed the way he looked about, ensuring no one was close enough to eavesdrop on their conversation.
“Well, we found evidence the demons we hunted today had not made their own way here… they were summoned by someone” said Shade.
“Summoned? Can more demons still come?” Curtswan asked, his expression going from deeply serious to downright grave,
“No. We destroyed the spell-circle.” Blackjack said, not even looking at Curtswan as he continued his vigil. “Mayhap you should ask Wizard Erile about this?”
“For her opinion?” asked Curtswan. The final word trailed off weakly when Blackjack responded with a glare that said more than words ever could.
“She has already retired.” The high, nasal voice of the Seneschal broke into the discussion. Blackjack scowled, furious he had not noticed the small man’s approach. The Seneschal’s piggy eyes were narrowed in self-righteous outrage, “How dare you even suggest such implications?! Wizard Erile has served Gerhan’s royal family for longer than even King Iance has reigned, as have I. How dare you even consider bringing into question her integrity?” Where it not for your good deeds the last two days I would have you thrown out of the castle, or, better yet, have you put in the stocks myself for such impudence.”
“Would you now?” a horrible toothy smile split Blackjack’s muzzle. As he spoke he leaned forward, wings extending a little as he loomed over the Seneschal like a shadowy curse.
The official paled visibly beneath his caked makeup and took a fearful step backward. Shade quickly stepped into his line of sight before a ‘situation’ could develop. Blackjack just snorted and folded his arms, relaxing back into his usual ‘indifferent’ stance. “Uhm,” Shade looked for something to say to diffuse the tension, “I guess everyone’s a bit stressed and tired. Maybe we could leave this ‘til the morning? It’s not like any of us are going anywhere, right?”
Curtswan nodded, his expression kept carefully stoic as he secretly enjoyed seeing the unpleasant little man’s discomfort, happy for him to be taken down a notch or two. “We’ll speak to Wizard Erile, as we will to everyone else, in the morning. As I said before, I would advise everyone to get what rest they can in this troubled time.” As he walked away to continue overseeing the remainder of that night’s investigations he spotted the approaching physician and motioned him toward Hawker
Soul stood by as Hawker’s rudimentary field splint was removed and found herself yawning mightily, unable to pay attention as the physician asked the huntsman how the day’s demon hunt had gone. Shade touched her arm gently, “Shall we take Curtswan’s advice?” he took her stifled yawn as agreement and they headed off back to their quarters.
Blackjack stayed behind a few minutes, pretending to listen to Hawker’s sad laments for his master’s death while actually he concentrated on picking up snatches of surrounding conversation. It seemed the Crown Prince had been slain during the morning’s public execution and had been discovered with his throat slit by a maid. The three delegates from Brae were nowhere to be found and this had sent all kinds of wild accusations flying. Bidding Hawker good night while the huntsman was still in mid-flow, he stalked off alone.
Given the bustle in the Great Hall the rest of the castle was refreshingly empty; the only people Blackjack saw were the frightened servants in the kitchen as he helped himself to some food. Having gorged last night, he was not particularly hungry now but he figured he should take advantage when good, free food was available and so came away with a juicy leg of mutton to chew on. For hygiene reasons dragons never ate where they slept and this instinct had not been erased by the curse so he wandered along slowly, savouring the succulent flesh and planning to leave just enough on the bone when he discarded it in some hidden corner that it would stink when it went rotten. Had he not been taking his time like this, he would never have spotted the lone figure skulking across the hall at the base of the grand stairway.
The figure, carrying a weakly glowing oil lamp, had its back to him and Blackjack leaned over the landing’s banister for a closer look. The light was poor by human standards but even before opening his inner eyelids he had no trouble in distinguishing the squat figure to be that of the Seneschal. His eyes narrowed in contempt and he tested the weight of the bone in his hand only to feel disappointment when he realised even a well-aimed throw would only give the little toad a nasty headache. He watched the little man scurry down the main corridor ahead, cringe when a door he opened creaked loudly and then disappear into a room he remembered as the library. There was still no one else about so Blackjack hopped lithely on to the banister, spread his wings and glided silently to the lavishly carpeted floor below.
He followed the Seneschal’s footsteps and paused outside the great double doors. They stood half open and darkness pervaded within; though the clouds of the day’s rains were beginning to break up there was still no significant illumination from outside and no lamps were lit. Confident he would not be seen Blackjack stuck his head in, using his heat vision for a quick sweep. There was no one there. With a grunt of annoyance he closed his inner eyelids again, cutting out their giveaway balefire glow and stalked inside. He scratched his head thoughtfully; he knew what he had seen but there was absolutely no sigh of anyone in here. His gaze drifted up to the great round window with its intricately leaded design. His look turned to a hard stare. There was something oddly familiar about the pattern and it invoked in him a strange, undeniable sense of repulsion. Blackjack stared for a few moments longer but no explanation of this latent memory became apparent. With a dissatisfied growl rumbling in the back of his throat he left.
The thought of calling in on Erile briefly crossed his mind but he dismissed the notion when pride reminded him the dakron might think he was after something other than information. A yawn so great the cartilage in his jaw clicked caused him to sigh and decid to just turn in for the night.
When he got back to his room he found a note on the door, written in Soul’s neat, rounded hand saying ‘Hope you don’t mind us swapping rooms – ur bed was bigger and we thought u’d like the crossbar on the 4-poster in ours’. Blackjack rolled his eyes and shrugged. Too tired to care either way he pulled off the note, screwed it up and went into his new room without complaint.
Soul was beginning to have second thoughts about the room-swap. She had known the bedsheets would be clean as Blackjack never slept under covers unless it was very cold (when queried about this once before he had muttered something about being able to be on your feet and fighting faster) but the thick, cosy top blanket was covered in hair.
“Ugh.” She said, thinking there was enough here to stuff a pillow, “He’s moulting again, F’lair.”
“It is spring,” replied Shade, pulling off the shirt he had worn beneath his tunic.
Soul picked up a clump of coarse mid-grey fur, lifted it for inspection then pulled a face, “Is there a clean one in the cupboard? I think these’re going to get itchy.”
After a quick hunt through the dark mahogany furniture Shade came up empty, “No joy.” He said apologetically.
“You couldn’t maybe go find a clean one could you?” she put on a puppy-dog face, batting her eyelids.
“How could I say no?” Shade sighed in mock resignation. He did not really want to go but Soul would probably complain about it all night if he didn’t. He pulled on his chimera leathers but did not bother buckling up the front, leaving it wide open instead and throwing back on the loose shirt. He stopped at the door, “Anything else, milady?”
Noting the playful sarcasm Soul stuck her tongue out at him, “Just the blanket thanks, lover.”
Shade nodded, “Do me a favour though; lock the doors once I’ve gone.”
Soul nodded, “Okay. Hurry back!” she added with a suddenly lascivious smile. Shade returned it with a meaningful grin before disappearing, closing the doors with a click behind.
Padding silently through lamp-lit and completely dark corridors, Shade found the hush of the sleeping castle a much more comfortable atmosphere than the bustle of its diurnal life. Only the main corridors such as the one he was currently following were anything even approaching well lit and most of the smaller ones were in complete darkness. However here, on what was possibly the north side of the castle (for he had completely lost his bearings), streams of moonlight angled down through the leaded glass windows, illuminating the grand, plushly carpeted hallways with a soft radiance, multicoloured in places where it passed through intricate stained glass designs.
Used to a life on the road where the only times he usually had the chance to see the inside of a royal palace was through breaking and entering, Shade was quite enjoying the rare opportunity to admire the décor at his leisure. With all the dressed masonry, heavy wood panelling, gold filigree and luxurious flock wallpaper it was a bit overdone for his darker, more simple taste but the glasswork on the windows was quite nice.
The walls of the Great Hall were reserved for portraits of the royal family, but that did not stop these corridors from being lined by paintings of various lesser and greater ‘friends of the family’ along with less well liked and unimportant relatives, their severe faces staring down at any onlookers, defying them to inquire as to why they had not been considered important enough for the Great Hall. Shade did not like them. He had never liked portraits and paintings; trying to capture a moment of life and imprisoning it forever seemed a bit weird to him. He also did not fancy being remembered in years to come by a painting of him looking like one of this lot; staring with empty eyes and an expression somewhere between constipation and stiff-necked shock at having something shoved up their behinds.
Shade smiled to himself, trying to imagine what one of these aristocrats would make of his, Soul’s and, ultimately, Raven’s home back in the Evermoors, Uth Nagor’s Ziggurat. With its polished marble halls veined with solid platinum and incredibly carved yet grotesque guardian statues it was a magnificent albeit frightening sight to behold, both inside and out. Of course, he thought, Someone not in the know would more than likely fall foul of its death traps before getting further than the entrance hall!
With a disgruntled noise rumbling at the back of his throat, he stopped at an intersection he was certain he had passed before. The grand corridor he was following was one of the more major pathways and the one it bisected was less well lit, not quite a siding but probably not one the king ventured along so often. Deciding there was a greater likelihood of finding a servant to show him where the bedding was down there, he turned right, heading back toward the castle’s heart.
Glancing at a time candle flickering in its ornate wall sconce, the tiny mirror behind it showing only light as the corridor was too dark to be reflected, he saw its marker indicating it was almost first bell. He sighed and decided to give up his search, thinking Soul might start to worry as he’d been gone nearly an hour.
“You’d think there’d be at least some servants around,” he muttered under his breath as he passed an intersection with another deserted corridor, “I mean, doesn’t the king need someone to wipe his arse if he takes a crap at night?” Having grown accustomed to Raven’s presence, Shade was used to having someone to comment to, even when he was alone. Though he had not sensed any stirrings from his ‘travelling companion’s’ since the afternoon, he still found himself talking as though someone were listening. He shook his head with a sad, ironic smile at this behaviour, “Damn. I’m losing it.”
Then he stopped dead, sensitive ears catching a whispering sussurus, almost like chanting. Feeling the hairs rising on the nape of his neck he looked around, checking the coast was clear before pulling off the patch over his right eye. There was still no one in sight, “I hope I’m not imagining that, or I’ve really got something to worry about.”
Turning his head this way and that he thought he could locate the direction of its source somewhere ahead of him. He headed onward and the sound grew a little louder, more intense, confirming this. As he neared its origin the noise became clearer and more distinct as a whispered chant of words he could not identify. ‘Magic’ he thought, perturbed, ‘But why down here?’ The wizard had her laboratories up in her tower at the far end of the castle. Doubtless the castle’s authorities, given the choice, would have been more than happy for the dakron to have been out of the castle all together; but as she was Court Wizard, they had settled for putting her in the most remote part of the building possible.
Though no expert in wizardry, Shade suspected this crawling, echoing and spine-tingly chant was not of words of magic taught in any Imperial teaching Palitz. Suspicious, he no longer sauntered nonchalantly but crept stealthily and fully alert until he reached the library. Its great iron-reinforced panel doors stood slightly ajar, revealing only darkness but the strange chanting emitted from within.
“Gotcha” Shade thought, flattening himself against the wall beside the open door. With one hand he gently pushed it further open then instantly regretted doing so. he winced and cringed, swearing inwardly as the ancient hinges let out a tortured groan of protest followed by thundering silence. The chant stopped.
For a few minutes that seemed to stretch forever Shade stood stock still, not even breathing. All around he could hear the sounds of the sleeping castle; a door slammed far away, and in a nearby corridor soft footsteps came and went whilst, closer still, the busy little rustlings and scrabbling of a mouse sounded from behind the skirting boards. But from the dark library no sound issued. Not entirely confident in his ability to ascertain whether there really was a living being in there or not, and reluctant to use witchsight, Shade decided to give the situation the benefit of the doubt. If anyone had been up to no good in there, then they would have either scarpered at the creak, or come to check the door. Besides, he was pretty sure he would have heard someone moving, even just breathing if they had stayed and hidden. Silent as a shadow, he side-stepped through the narrow gap and softly closed the door behind him, hand reaching for his sword hilt before he checked himself, cursing as he remembered it was still in Blackjack’s room.
A quick scan of the expansive moonlit room revealed nothing more than dusty bookshelves, cabinets, reading tables and chairs. There was no sign of movement beyond the clouds chasing across the moons through the leaded-glass window. Nor was there any sign of any kind of magical activity, beyond the heavy aroma of the incense the King insisted on burning everywhere and that was plain superstition. He flared his nostrils, sniffing, the action making the slender chain connecting his nose ring to the cartilage piercing in his ear quiver. There was another scent mixed in with the incense suggesting someone could have recently been in there but it was so overwhelmed that he gave up hope of identifying it.
Deciding the coast was clear, Shade detached himself from the shadows by the door and walked into the centre of the room to investigate further. The library was just like any other he had seen, with its book-lined walls, half of which had most likely never been read or even opened since their arrival. ‘A pity’ he thought. It was typical of aristocracy anywhere: they would collect fashionable volumes and sets of books just to make the library look good whilst they went off for hunting or some pursuing other sport: anything rather than do something so boring as to read them.
Staring up at the high vaulted ceiling lost in the scented-smoke-filled gloom Shade did not see a bookcase swing open on hinges oiled to silence behind him. Nor did he see the shadowy figure step out, with one bony finger drawing glowing sigils in the air.
The blast hit him square between the shoulder blades, slamming into him with a force that made him feel like he had been hit with one of those new steam-powered battering rams the dwarves had. Yet, being magical, the bolt had little to do with the laws of physics so despite the sensation of the massive impact, Shade was not knocked from his feet. Instead he remained standing, watching in bemusement as the glowing ball of red light, its surface crackling with mystical energies, dissipated harmlessly in front of him before even reaching the far wall of the library.
Huh? He thought, trying at the same time to say something, but any words were drowned in the blood he filling his throat. There was something running down his front, soaking his tunic. Feeling increasingly dazed and bewildered he looked down. The first thing to catch his eye was the dark red pool at his feet, running away in little rivulets down a slight gradient in the floor he distantly realised he had not noticed earlier. The next thing he noticed was the ravaged hole were most of his chest should have been. At which point his legs gave way.
Dropping to his knees, his last coherent thought consisted of a four-letter word before he pitched forward into the pool of his own blood, the encroaching darkness at the edges of his vision reaching up to swallow him.
End of Part 4
All characters, places and anything else portrayed in this story is copyright 2004 to the author, Isabelle Davis (Drakhenliche), and may not be used without express permission. Meccha/Soul (c) Elsa Lai 2004
Comments, questions, whatever, can be addressed to me at the www.NecroDragon.com forum.