I’ve known pain in my life. After all, who hasn’t known the subtle, niggling sting of living. It pricks at you daily. Slowly drawing motes of blood until you breathe your last as it’s taken the last drop.
Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the day they took my beloved Karina from me. I still remember her how her face shined that morning before I left. I can even still smell the expensive oils she used to bathe with.
She was my everything. Her bright smile was my dawn. Her loving dark eyes my reason for drawing breath.
These past few weeks have left me wondering if we shouldn’t have splurged so much on such finery. People take notice of that kind of thing. Especially in Shyre. The wise hide their wealth or are protected enough to make it known.
I often worked extra hours at the Broken Boar just so we could afford such luxuries. But again, she was my heart and soul. Again, she was worth it. I tell this true: If you love someone, cherish them. Treat them as you would a precious flower. Because like a mist, they can vanish from your life in an instant.
Sometimes I think that she might still be alive had I been there. Maybe I could have been enough to stop the men who had taken her from me. In reality, the truth was far harsher. I was only a simple cook, not a trained swordsman. I would have been helpless. At least in death, we could have been together.
The guard was of no help, though they said they tried. It came as no surprise, I wasn’t an official citizen of Shyre. It was something Karina and I had been working toward.
I sought a necromancer but the cost was too steep. Even if one could to summon her spirit to bear witness of the crime, most courts wouldn’t allow it as evidence. Spirits could be tampered with, or so they claimed.
Still, I know who took Karina from me. I’ve seen them in the Great Market on my forays to refill the Broken Boar’s stores. I’ve watched how they observe passersby. Their beady gazes are like rats scavenging for scraps at whatever table they saw most opportune. They would scurry about the merchant booths like tiny a pack. Their eyes ever-shifting for new prey and purses to lift.
Each day I bear witness of this behavior, the deeper my hatred grows. It festers within my soul like a disease. It tempts me and eats away at my restraint. I often wonder how easily my cook's knives could carve their flesh. Why do such men deserve to live?
It’s a question I’ve pondered many a lonely night. Even now, late into the evening, with the kitchen cleaned and the tavern closed as I wander home. My only comfort in this arduous trudge, a bottle of Absonian spirits.
It had become a paltry substitute for her and like any other evening, part of me hopes these same men will come for me tonight. Perchance I can send their black souls to the Keeper. To send them to whatever awaits them in his cold embrace.[L5]
It’s a fruitless effort, I know. I have nothing they want. Yet, it has become my singular hope. Even if I die, Karina and I would be together.
“Such a sad face. So much despair contained within it.” I pause, the man’s voice barely registered to my drunken haze. His tone reeks of contempt and mockery. “I’ve seen much despair in my life, but perhaps nothing that cuts as deeply as yours.”
My stomach overturns and I fall [L6] to my knees. I reach out to the wall of the building beside me for support. My body jerks and I heave, emptying all that I had drunk onto the street and my trousers. The smell nearly made me heave a second time.
“What would you know!” I reply, lifting my head to look at him.
His clothes and appearance left much to be desired. The rags covering him were tattered and well worn. The stitching horrid, but functional enough to keep him from being naked.
His skeletal frame showed he had barely eaten. It had probably been days since his last meal. Grey stubble covered his cheeks and his head was shaved bare. The whites of his eyes were yellowed, like a man who had drunk more than his share.
“Oh, my friend, you don’t live on these streets without seeing despair in its many forms,” he answers. “Shyre, for all its beauty, has another side that it fights to keep hidden.”
Curling my lip in disgust, I pull myself up. “I don’t have time for beggars or life lessons.”
“I see,” he replied, the sound of his disappointment echoing in my ears. “Then I suppose you have no time for justice to be served on behalf of your departed wife?”
Like a kiln enflamed I was suddenly consumed, my chest burning, and my heart pounding. It was as if all the hatred I had clung to so tightly these weeks and months had been released all at once.
The old man toppled over, in a mad rage I had pounced upon him. My right fist stung. When the haze cleared it was covered in blood. His blood. He simply cackled like a madman in response. Some of his teeth were missing from his blood-splattered mouth.
“That’s what it takes!” he shouted. “That’s the rage you’ll need to gain your justice and grant her peace!”
Horrified and disgusted I pull away. I could have killed him. What could he possibly know? How could he understand what I’ve been through! Even in disgust of myself, loss reestablished a foothold in my heart.
“What justice could you possibly offer?!”
“Enough to right a wrong,” he replied, his bloody grin making him more ghastly to look at. “There are ways to punish those who escape from the law,” he added.
“And what would such a thing cost me?”
He smiled wider. “Nothing,” he replied. “My reasons are my own, but we share a common interest.”
“They took something from you too?”
He nods, his face hardening and eyes growing cold. “In a way,” he answered. “They took something before its proper time.”
“Then teach me what I must do.”
He laughed. “Do, oh my boy, it’s so simple.” He held his hand out and it burst into a black flame. When it subsided a wooden box was in his palm.
The box seemed simple enough, there were glyphs carved all over it. The symbols gave no inkling of their meaning. Then again, I’m no mage. “If it’s so simple why can’t you do it?”
“Because, I don’t foster the resentment you do,” he replies. “That is the key to the magic you want. Sure I’m angry, but you…you have what the incant requires.”
Taking the box I’m first surprised by light it feels. It thought it would be heavier. The wood is stained black, but as I rub its surface I realize the grain is too rough to be wood. “Is this bone?”
The old man laughed. “How perceptive,” he replied. “Yes, it is. Crafted from the remains of one of the Forgotten.”
Forgotten? The old man seemed amused at my curiosity. Karina always said I wore my emotions well. “So what do I do with this?”
“Find a crossroads or intersecting street, then bury it at the center.” He drew a dagger from the folded tatters of his clothes. “Cut your palm and whisper: Zvrish nez gelia. Your deliverer will come and broker a deal for the men who took your wife.”
I took the knife then stared at the box. When I looked up he was gone, vanished like mist. I ran my fingers across the lid, whether it was a conscious act or one of comfort and hope I cannot say.
Something felt wrong about this. The feeling niggled at me, pricking at my mind. I should forget about this. Toss this bone crafted container behind.
“Doubt doesn’t bring closure,” the old man chimed in, echoing from the darkness around me.
My mind began to wander, my thoughts turning to her. With its purchase secured in my heart, loss quickly won the debate.
I turned away, leaving the sidestreet I had drunkenly wandered into. The walk home was quiet, almost chilling. Upon arriving home I placed the box and knife on the floor by our bed. I washed up, then laid down. Sleep, however, eluded me.
All I could think of was the fact I had the chance I had prayed for. The opportunity to make things right. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. It clung to me like the sheets of our bed.
Over the next few days my hesitation grew. I found I couldn’t touch another bottle of ale. The very smell turned my stomach. Sobriety offered clarity, however. My mind was quickly consumed by work and the box. Particularly what should I do with it?
Oddly, I felt lighter. It was as if my encounter with the old man had somehow lifted a burden I had been carrying. I dare even say I felt happy.
Another week passed and the bustle of the Boar continued to become enough to occupy my thoughts and mind. With the upcoming Founder’s Festival business had soared. The few rooms we had for boarders were rented into the coming month.
I began experimenting with new dishes and to, Jarroe’s, the Boar’s owner, delight they were a success. He even offered me a few extra coppers for the week if we broke our serving record.
“Digan, you’ve been different these past few days.”
I looked up, my mind snapping toward the present. During the rush, you tend to focus on the orders more than the people around you. “Have I? I hadn’t noticed.”
The smile Brenn wore seemed to make her beautiful face shine. She laughed as she grabbed the next order. “It’s definitely noticeable,” she said, then winked and walked toward her patrons to serve them.
It was hard not to smile back at her. The moment quickly passed when I saw who she was serving. It was them. their shifty, greed ridden faces were all too familiar. They had their eyes on her. One of them even reached out to grab her.
Brenn easily maneuvered around him. It was a skill many of the servers quickly learned to develop. Jarroe tried to keep such incidents to a minimum.
“Come now, sit in old Pip’s lap,” one of them cackled. “You’ll enjoy it.”
Brenn smiled. “I doubt I’ll find much to enjoy.” She then added, “If you even have anything worth enjoying at all.”
Pip’s eyes flashed with anger, while his companions laughed at him.
“I like this one, she a bit of a furnace,” one of them chimed in.
Another one of them reached out, placing his hand on her thigh. Brenn was quick to slap it away. “We don’t allow that here,” she said.
My hand had begun to sting. Only then did I realize I was gripping my cook’s knife so hard it was shaking. I stepped toward the doorway and into the main room, knife still in hand.
“The four of you need to pay for your food and leave!”
They look up me, sneers on their faces. “And what whitewashed hole did you climb from?” Pip asked. “You exist to serve us, cook.”
They started laughing, but to my ears, it only sounded like chittering rats. There was scream and I blinked. My hand was still on my knife, but it was planted through Pip's hand and anchored into the table. Brenn was behind me, I didn’t need to look to know she was terrified. It could sense it.
“My hand! You stabbed my hand, you stupid bumpkin!”
Pip’s comrades were on their feet, knives drawn. The room went deathly quiet. From behind them, I saw two sellswords stand, and draw their weapons.
“You’re going to pay for that, Cook,” one of Pip’s companions said. “If you knew who we were you’d show us proper respect.”
At this point, the sellswords had stepped up behind them. One of them, a tall woman in heavy armor leaned forward and whispered. “How about I bend you over and teach you respect with my blade?”
The gaunt man spun around to cut her when she grabbed his wrist and throat. He cried out dropping his knife as her companion, a dwarf with a claymore, but his sword to Pip’s throat.
“I’d been leavin’ if I were ya,” he said.
Pip’s face was beet red with rage, but he nodded. The woman let Pip’s comrade go, tossing him aside like a burlap sack. With a malicious glint in his eye, the dwarf didn’t bother with being delicate as he pulled my knife free. He twisted it, tearing out bits of the rogue’s hand, as it was dislodged.
Pip screamed, grabbing a tablecloth to stem the bleeding. “You and your whore have a lot to learn,” he sneered fighting against the sellswords as they rushed him and his companions out the front door.
I took a breath, feeling a bit lightheaded as Brenn grabbed me from behind, wrapping her arms about my waist and resting her head against my back. She squeezed me tight and a warmth I hadn’t felt in so long filled me. “Digan, I would have been fine,” she said. “But thank you.”
“It was the only thing I knew to do.” It was partially a lie. I didn’t remember stabbing him.
She squeezed me tighter. “I wouldn’t have expected anything less. You’re a good man, Digan.”
I don’t know why, but I reached for her hands, taking them into mine and gently squeezed them. Again the warmth returned, but in the shadows of this feeling came something deeper, like the cold edge of a dull knife. I couldn’t do this. These feelings were a betrayal of Karina’s memory.
“We should get back to work.” I pull away only to realize the entire tavern had been staring at us. The dwarven sellsword and his companion were both grinning ear to ear from their table and whispering to themselves as they looked at us.
There were others too. It came as no surprise. There were many regulars who knew my story and people do tend to talk. I’m sure many felt I needed to move on after so many months. They just don’t understand.
The atmosphere in the room changed. The lively nature the Broken Boar was known for returned as quickly as it had left. Bren seemed especially radiant, casting an occasional glance my way from the main room and into the kitchen. I tried not to smile and stay focused, but she made it hard to resist.
Each time I happened to notice the warmth I felt earlier greeted me along with the betrayal it would leave in its wake. Jarroe had said nothing about the incident. No one had been hurt and regulars were still coming in. I think, in a way, he was happy that someone else other than himself had stepped up to stop the rats from causing any harm.
The day tolled on and eventually, the crowd died down until they were all but gone. There were always a few stragglers or people who had drunk too much. Typically it was a dwarf or a Graz from the beast tribes.
Convincing either it was closing time was always a feat. Graz in particular. They were almost as big as trolls. Their gruff bear-like appearance didn’t help matters either. Even barehanded you never wanted to get into a barfight with a Graz. Their claws were as sharp as any one of my knives.
Closing up was never a quick task, especially today. We had turned so many tables and there was much to clean. The dishes were piled as well.
“Are you almost done?” Bren asked.
“Not quite,” I reply setting some of the clean plates aside. She was leaning against the doorframe, her blue dress swaying slightly from a breeze that had blown through the front door of the main room. Jarroe must be outside cleaning the windows.
“How much longer,” she asked. “I was hoping you could walk me home?”
I winced, part of me hoping she hadn’t seen the expression. “I may be here for a few more hours. We had a full day. Jarroe likes it when I tidy up before I leave.”
“Oh,” she said. “That’s too bad.”
Her disappointment rang clearly in my ears.
“Maybe tomorrow?” she asked, sounding hopeful.
I nodded, turning my attention back toward the sink. “Perhaps tomorrow.” I couldn’t look at the disappointment on her face. It would have only made this harder. Truthfully there wasn’t as much left as I had let on.
The sound of her boots drifted away from the doorway as she headed out. They were mirrored by Jarroe’s as he drew closer. “She likes you,” he said. “Far be it for me to interfere, but you’re a scrag brained fool as the Sokorans are fond of saying.”
“I can’t do this, Jarroe, I can’t betray Karina.”
There was a long sigh. “Karina is dead, Digan, let her go.”
“Let her go? You say that as if it were so easy…” I was shaking as I turned to face him. I could hear my heart pounding in my ears. “…What happens when I do? What happens when I can’t remember her face anymore? Or her warmth? Or anything else that made Karina who she was?”
I don’t know if it was the look on his face or the sadness radiating in his eyes, but either way, it felt like nothing but contempt. My vision blurred as my eyes watered. “Digan, why don’t you go home, I’ll finish up.”
I could only shake my head in agreement and removed my apron. I could almost hear the Absonian spirits calling to me by the bar. No, not tonight!
The walk home was like any other, but sober it took less time. I was a little guilt ridden. Jarroe meant well and reluctantly I had to admit I was drawn to Bren’s tender nature. Still, it wouldn’t right. Karina would never forgive me.
Once I finally reached home, as was my routine, I washed up and went to bed. As I lay there, before sleep claimed me, I found myself staring at the black box on the floor by the bed.
“Life can be so cruel.”
The rest of the week went well and every evening Bren would ask me to walk her home. My response was always the same.
Her response was likewise and always hopeful. “Maybe tomorrow?”
It was funny, the more I told her no, the more determined she became. Sometimes I would catch myself staring at her through the serving window as she moved from table to table tending to the Boar’s patrons. Even today, on Fifthsday, she almost seemed to glide effortlessly across the hardwood floors.
Maybe I should buy her something…
Jarroe had promised all of us a little extra for the great week we had. The festival was tomorrow. We could go, she and I. Jarroe and get Senda to cook for the evening in my stead. Even as the ideas churned, in their wave was the subtle sting of betrayal.
I clench my fist, pushing all thoughts of her aside.
“Digan? Is my order ready yet!”
I blink and scan the stove, doubling my pace. “Almost Seretta!”
“Maybe if he didn’t stare so much at Bren, Seretta, we’d already have turned over those tables,” Kylesa chimed as she grabbed her order. “Though, it is about time he looked at something other than food.”
I winced as she giggled. Kylesa meant well. I understood that. She was Shaylin, an elf, but we didn’t use the word ‘elf’ around her. The last time a person used the slur she went and cut a few of their fingers off with a steak knife.
“Ladies please,” Jarroe said after stepping into the kitchen. “Leave the man be. Go help the other girls with their tables.” Both women rolled their eyes and went back to work. Don’t mind them,” he added while putting an apron on. “They mean well.”
“Good, because you’re going to the festival tomorrow,” he said.
I glanced at him slightly curious. “Are we setting up a booth like last year?”
Jarroe shook his head. “I had thought about it, but if I did, how would Bren enjoy the celebration if you weren’t there with her.”
Staring at him was about all I could do. Was he reading my mind?! “Jarroe, please…stop.”
“No, you can take her tomorrow or not come back after tonight,” he replied sternly.
I was completely taken by surprise. He has no right! “That’s not fair! You can’t do that!”
“I own the Broken Boar, I can do whatever I sloshing well please!”
Flabbergasted I could only sigh.
“Digan, everybody sees it. Why can you?” he asked.
He touched my shoulder, patting it softly. “We’ll talk later. Let's get through the rush first.”
We worked at a rigorous pace over the next few hours. Orders came flying in and were sent right back out. We even turned it into game. Jarroe was a good cook. It truth I learned a great deal from him over the years.
Some patrons had started ordering extra just to place bets on us. It was technically illegal, but no one here was going to tell the guard. After a couple more hours, the bets had reached a few gold slivers. It was a first!
“Oh come now, boy! Don’t let this old man beat you out!” he shouted.
“The student can become the master,” I shouted back. “Dannu, give me every order you have!”
“Getting cocky now?” Jarroe sniped. “And where are you going to cook that much food with both of us standing here?”
I simply grin. “It’s all portioning, old man!”
In my mind I had partitioned the stove’s flat surface like a King’s Board. I had no idea what orders Dannu had or how many patrons she was tending to. It was honest gamble, but one that paid off. She had six tables. One of a five top, another a double, and the rest triples.
The triples’ orders were nearly identical. Dannu had a knack for suggestive ordering. It was mostly because it made it simpler to serve them and avoid getting the orders wrong. Still, it more or less gave me enough room to maximize the space on my side of the stove.
Jarroe gave me a sly smile. “Clever bastard! I see your game!” he said and laughed.
By the end of the night, bellies were full and Jarroe ended up with heavily lined pockets. That in turn, meant we also earned extra for the night. The girls were thrilled, but the largest surprise was when Jarroe handed me my cut.
“You’ve earned this,” he said, taking care not to let anyone see what he was handing pressing into my palm and closed my hand. He then leaned in close and whispered, “Spend it on Bren at the festival.”
My heart nearly skipped a beat as I glimpsed the gold shard that was part of his cut from the betting. “This…Jarroe…this…you can’t.”
He frowned causing the wrinkles on his face to mold together like dough. “I bloody well can, boy. Now, do as I say!” His stern expression gave way to a wolfish grin.
“This is so much, I couldn’t earn this much in two months!” Again I was flabbergasted. I’d never know him to do something so outrageous.
He quickly smacked me over the head with his hand. “Keep your voice down, you dolt! Or the ladies in the other room will revolt!”
I winced, rubbing my head, but still managed a smirk. The girls would kill him if they found out how much he had given up.
A soft giggle drew our attention. Bren was standing in the doorway of the kitchen. “What are you two on about?” She looked beautiful in her long, red wool dress. Her soft auburn hair was pulled up in a bun. It made her light blue eyes stand out.
“Oh..nothing,” I answer. “Nothing at all.”
“Oh by the Keeper’s Shadow, but tell her you, idiot!” Jarroe pipped up. “Or I will!”
Bren glanced at him curiously, furrowing her brow, then back at me.
“Bren, would you…attend…”
“Yes,” she replied before I could finish. “I will.”
“But, I didn’t even…”
She rushed toward me, placing her index finger on my lips before I could utter another word. “You didn’t have to,” she replied with a smile, then shrugged. “I knew you ask.”
My heartbeat quickened, betrayal reaching its spindly fingers across its surface trying to stifle and clench what I was feeling. No, not this time!
“Then I had best finish up here so I’ll be ready in the morning.”
She smiled warmly. “You had better or I’ll have Kylesa cut your fingers off!”
Laughter erupted from the serving window, followed by two loud thuds. I knew their particular tone all too well. Some of the other girls who were still cleaning up were staring in our direction curiously.
“If you have time to laugh, then you have ample time to stay late and clean!” Jarroe shouted.
The laughter came to an abrupt halt. Curious, I peered around the kitchen doorway to confirm my suspicions. Kylesa and Seretta and fallen to the floor in hysterics. Their faces were crimson, Kylesa’s pointed ears were especially bright. They were gasping for air as the pulled themselves to their feet. Both women had sly looks as the glanced at me. This will never end.
“So I guess we will meet here in the morning?” Bren asked drawing my attention.
My nerves were frayed in anticipation and I nodded. “Yeah…”
She giggled softly. “Then I won’t ask you to walk me home. I want to save that for tomorrow.”
“Until tomorrow then.”
She smiled again and slid past me through the doorway. The other girls gave her sly looks as she headed toward the front door of the tavern. Especially Kylesa ad Seretta.
“You had best behave yourself tomorrow Bren,” I faintly overhear Dannu comment.
Bren blushed, then scowled at her before finally leaving. Part of me was sad to see her go, especially when she closed the door behind her. I jumped, the familiar sting Jarroe flicking my ear drawing my attention.
“Work now, gawk later,” he grinned. “You need to get your rest.”
With the moment passed I focused on the kitchen. Time flew or perhaps it was in anticipation of tomorrow. When I looked up, it was only me standing there. The girls had already gone home. Jarroe had likely retired to his chambers to go over the books. It was one of his many nightly rituals.
I washed up and after making sure the tavern was secured, locked up for the night and began my trek home. It was hard not to smile as I thought about Bren. Guilt crept in each time my mind turned toward her. I fought it, pushing it back as best as I could.
So many months had gone by. Perhaps Jarroe was right. Karina…I promise not to forget you.
A sudden scream drew my attention. I looked around realizing I had wandered a bit out of the way of home. Whoever had screamed was close. Another scream sounded and my heart almost stopped.
I ran toward it, the sound of laughter chiming into my ears the closer. I recognized their particular shrill. Pip…No!
I rounded the bend into the alley and fell to my knees. Bren was laying on cobblestones, her beautiful red dress shredded and body nearly bare.
“I told you that you would enjoy what I was offering!” Pip cackled madly. “I know I sure did.”
Pip and his companions turned toward me, eyes wide in surprise. Each man’s expression then changed. Becoming twisted as sadistic grins wound their was across their faces.
“Well now, we must be in luck! We got ourselves a bonus boyz!”
Their laughter became nothing more than the chittering of ravenous rats. But my gaze was on Bren. They had carved up her beautiful face.
Her cheeks were shorn, nose broken. Blood covered it like a ballroom mask. Her expression showed how much they had made her suffer.
Her body was even worse. Even a cook can understand how to cut flesh. They had taken their time and once they finished, gutted her. They had even robbed her body of what made her feminine.
Pip grabbed my face and turned my head to ensure I stared at him. “You stabbed my hand, bumpkin!” he sneered. “I think it’s only fair I stab yours…” He then gestured to his compations. “Hold him.”
“You killed her…”
He laughed along with his friends. “Aye, and we did a bit more than that before she finally passed. I have to say, I didn’t think I would savor it as much as did.”
There was no remorse in his eyes, no hint of anything human. He was monster, cloaked in human form. He was everything I had ever imagined. He was nothing more than vermin.
My chest was burned, and I screamed, red crossing my vision. At times I felt a jolt to my head, back and sides. My fists hurt and my right hand was on fire as if I had stuck it on flat against the stove at the Boar. Nothing made sense. In the end there was only excruciating pain and Pip’s chittering laughter.
When the haze cleared, the pain grew worse and I found myself laying beside Bren’s body. They must have drug me next to her and left me for dead. I look around, pain shooting through my neck.
True to his word, Pip had stabbed me in the hand. I could feel where their daggers had cut me across the back. Thankfully they had been too busy enjoying themselves. I’ve been cut by plenty of cooking knives to understand the difference between a shallow cut and a deep one. That still hadn’t stopped them from beating me senseless.
My knuckles were bloody. I hope I at least did some damage. I reach toward Bren, her lifeless eyes staring at me from the awkward angle of where her head lay. They had taken another…I should have used the box. I should have!
“So that’s it then?” It was the voice of the old man from before. I couldn’t see well enough to be sure. My right eye was swollen shut and my left just barely open. “I give you a precious thing and you squander the opportunity! Now, look at what you have done!”
“It’s not my fault! It’s not!”
“Oh shut up! You knew this would happen,” he spat. “You knew what kind of men they were, yet you hesitated and now because you, she is dead!”
Tears were my only response. What more was there to say? He was absolutely right.
“So are you just going to die and leave both women unavenged? How many more must they rob, brutalize and kill before action is taken?”
He didn’t stop, I was helpless to do anything but listen to his words before I fell unconscious from the pain. As I listened, my hatred was rekindled. It burned hotter than a smithy and I knew if I survived, that they would finally die. Vermin weren't deserving enough be allowed to live.
I opened my eyes and when my vision cleared, Jarroe and the other girls were standing around me. Each of them were staring, some of them close to tears. Jarroe’s expression was riddled with worry most of all. I tilted my head, my neck was fiercely sore. I was in a bed at the Boar.
“Digan…” once he had spoken my name a second time, he, and the girls, became overcome with joy and started crying. They were simply I was okay, though I didn’t feel as if I were. “Digan we were so terrified you wouldn’t make it. You had lost so much blood…”
There was a guardsman standing dutifully by the door. I had to choose my words carefully.
“You’re home now, with us,” he replied. “We were lucky the Guard found you and took you to a healer.” He paused, swallowing hard and wiping the tears from his eyes. “Digan, we need to know if you saw who murdered Bren.”
I[L8] shook my head. “No, it was too dark, everything happened so quickly. I heard a scream and ran toward the sound. I was overcome when I saw laying [L9] there that I was too distracted to notice anything before I was attacked.”
The guardsmen didn’t need to know. None of them did. There were better ways to take care of this.
“Your knuckles tell a different story. Or so I’m told from the report. It says you appeared to have put up quite a fight,” the guardsman by the door chimed in. He had a dark complexion, his hair curly. It was his gaze though. There was an intensity that showed he was not a man to trifle with.
“I was fighting for my life and in a panic. I only pray I hurt them badly.” My tone was calm and even. It was a bit frightening. Perhaps it was my renewed sense of hatred for Pip and his rats.
The guardsman tightened his lip as if contemplating something. “So not even a sliver to identify the people responsible for this vile act?”
“Sir, I swear if I knew who did this I would beg you to let me watch as you punished them.” Again, my cold tone surprised me. It’s true what they say. Hatred changes you.
The guardsmen nodded. “Then I will take my leave. Should you recall anything, tell one of the patrols you need to speak to Tovrek.”
With that, he promptly left. “Jarroe, how long I have I been here?”
“What did they do with Bren’s body?”
“They were going to take her to the charnel house before we stopped them. We pooled together to buy her a plot. A necromancer is preparing her body for proper burial.”
“Take my earnings from that night and spend it all on her."
His mouth fell open. “All of it?”
“All of it. Give Brenn a plot and headstone worthy of her.”
He reached for my hand and squeezed it. “Whatever it takes, I’ll get it done.” He then turned to the servers. “Ladies let’s give him some space. He’s been through enough.”
One by one, he ushered them out. But the expressions they wore ate at me. In my heart I knew it wasn't pity they felt, but sorrow. This time, all of us had lost someone. In my mind, however, all I could hear was how pathetic I had been. My inaction had caused this tragedy. It was more proof of how right the old man had been.
My mind was made up. I would summon the Forgotten tonight. This nightmare would end. The rats would be exterminated.
Throughout the day, Jarroe or one of the girls would come and check on me. We would talk briefly, but not of anything significant. They were still trying to make sense of it. I felt guilty for lying to them, but at least by tomorrow it would all be over.
The shadow cast long and soon, the sun had set. I gathered enough strength to pull myself out of bed and peer through the window as the girls left for their homes or lofts. Living space for the lower class was a premium. Kylesa and Seretta lived together, it was most economical that way.
I heard Jarroe through the door coming down the hall and eased my way over to the bed. He opened the door moments later carrying a tray of meats and cheeses.
“I know you already ate earlier, but in case you were still hungry I brought up something to nibble one.” There was something fatherly about him. He always gave that sense, even has hard as he was. I never knew my father and my mother died when I was still young. In a way, I guess he was as close as I could comprehend a father should be.
“I appreciate it, Jarroe, you’ve always been there for me.”
“We’re family here, well except for that bastard, Kitas. Worst hire I ever decided on.”
It hurt to laugh, but I laughed anyway. Kitas had only been with us a few months. He was horrible for the place. Always hitting on the girls and skimping slivers when no one was looking. He didn’t understand what Jarroe was trying to build.
Jarroe’s smirk lessened the sense of loss in my heart, but only for a moment. I tightened my lip. I can’t get distracted now. “He was pretty awful. Couldn’t even hold a tray properly.”
Jarroe laughed. “Couldn’t wash a dish either,” he added. “You know I heard he got sent to the stocks. Wouldn’t surprise me if he was still there.”
“Seems like a good place to send a rat…”
The mirth in Jarroe’s tone dimmed. “Digan, I know you’re planning something. I may be old but I’m not stupid.”
I wasn’t good liar when cornered. Karina always found me out when I tried surprising her. “It will be over tonight. I just need you to trust me.”
“I do, but these people are dangerous. You’re not a fighter.”
“Jarroe, I won’t be hunting them.”
He grew quiet. “Then tell Tavrik what you know and end this.”
“I can end this my own way.”
His cheeks became flushed. In all the years I had know Jarroe, I had never seen him so angry. Not even to the point of tears. “Then I’ll take your money and make room for you beside Bren!” he shouted. “There’s more than enough to make a monument to this stupidity! We have lost enough!”
I clenched my fists, my heart growing cold. “And we won’t lose anyone else, ever again.”
“Fine! Run off on whatever errand you have planned, but if you do, don’t come back!”
He was shaking and in tears. He tried to speak, but words appeared to fail him as he stormed out of the room, slammin the door behind him. The silence deafening. Almost deterring. Almost.
I got up from the bed and searched the room for my clothes. Once I was dressed, I made my way down and the stairs. On my way to the front door I felt Jarroe staring at me from the kitchen.
“I just need you to trust me.” There was no response. I didn’t even bother to look back. Instead, I reached for the door handle and stepped onto the street.
The walk home was brief, I couldn't recall it ever happening this quickly. The box was under the bed. The knife nestled comfortably on top. I pulled them out and scooped them up, cradling them like a mother would her child. I slipped out the front door and back into the night. No more time needed to be wasted.
I knew I would need to head to the docks in the West Quarter. There were several cross streets that had yet to be paved in cobblestone. Once I arrived at Fisher’s Row, it suddenly dawned on me that I had forgotten to bring something to dig with.
“Of all the nights!” Searching around I find a few old crates, some fo the wood was loose enough to break away and improvise. The old man had never said how deep to dig, so I assumed it only needed enough to be put in the ground and covered over.
I dug frantically and once the hole was deep enough I placed the box inside and covered it. With the knife in hand, I ran the blade across my palm drawing blood. Again I was only guessing, but I let it fall over where I buried the box.
“Zvrish Nez Gelia.” Silence followed. “Zvrish Nez Gelia.” Still nothing. I clench my fist harder, flow flowing more freely. “Zvrish Nez Gelia.” Silence. That liar! That scrag throwing, mule shrekking….
“Such language.” a soft feminine voice comments. “Your mind is screaming so much obscenity that it would shake the dead from their graves.”
I turn, a woman approaches me. In form she was perfection. It stole my breath to look upon her. The white gown she wore contured to every curve. Her movements, pricise and graceful.
Her horns curved subtly out from her forehead, then slightly back, but weren’t nearly as distracting the intensity of her molten yellow eyes. They blazed like fire, tempting you and drawing you in. The leathery wings on her back were contracted but could easily extend out to twice her lithe, six-foot frame.
Her sultry gate had ensnared me like spider thread as she drew closer. I felt so small and insignificant in her presence. I suddenly felt like our pact would cost me dearly.
“Are you going to gawk or make a pact?” Her smile revealed a small set of fangs.
“Pact…” I must have sounded so stupid. I felt absolutely idiotic. But even speaking in her presence was difficult.
“Oh I forgot, you can’t handle standing so close to me.” She lifted her right hand, her claws extending from her fingertips, and cut into my forehead with her index finger.
I winced, but couldn’t move. I can only endure. Her eyes flared with each cut. She was enjoying this. Enjoying the pain she was causing.
“There, I have claimed you,” she says.
“Claimed me?” I could suddenly move, the allure she had over me had vanished.
She smiled. “Indeed. I would have done it either way, but at least now we can speak.”
“So what happens now?”
She leaned in, just so her lips were within a breath of my ear. “Whatever you wish for.”
“Then I want Pip and his rats…companions slain. I want all of them dead!”
I sensed the atmosphere around me shift. Her wings tremble as if she were delighted. “Your hatred. Your pain…I can barely contain myself. It’s so pure. So beautiful.”
She cupped my face in her hands, resting her forehead against my own so the bridges of our noses touch. She smells of lilacs.
I sense her excitement. I feel it in her touch, but underneath, hidden just beneath the surface, lurks a predatory nature. It spoke of hunger. A yearning so intense that was both erotic and arousing.
“I want this…purity,” she whispered, briefly brushing her lips against mine. She was shaking, fighting was fighting for self-control. “What do you offer?” she gasped.
It was a strange question, but some part of me knew that money wasn’t. The smile on her face as she regained her composure said as much. She can read my thoughts.
Yes, mortal. I can. I can read everything, see everything within the beautiful mind! She replied. I know their faces. I have burned them to memory. There is no place in this world they and theirs cannot hide. It will be a massacre of epic proportions!
A chill ran through me. Even if I had wished them dead, I had never met anyone who delighted in murder the way she did. “What is your price for such a thing?”
She pulled away, a wicked grin on her face. “You…”
In my heart, I knew it would come to this though I had hoped. Jarroe had been right. I was dealing with something otherworldly. Something from the darkest imaginings.
The Forgotten pursed her lips. “Oh come now, don’t be squeamish,” she chided. “You knew, don’t pretend or hope for otherwise.”
“My life for theirs?”
She laughed. “Your life? Oh, no. I want your soul.”
“Then my soul…”
“Think carefully,” she warned, cutting me off. “There is no turning back. Once you speak those words…” She left the statement hanging in the air, her fangs flashing as she grinned. “Are you certain you have the courage?”
I glared at her, rage bubbling to the surface. My resolve was cemented the moment I left the Boar. “I offer myself to you. I offer my soul.”
Delight radiated in her molten eyes. “Oh, you lovely thing…” she purred. “Let us get started.”
She vanished. I glanced at the center of the cross street, it was undisturbed. The gravel and dirt pristine as if I had never dug it up. The knife in my hand was gone. The incision I had made healed.
Did she take the knife?
The cross street grew eerily cold. I wrapped my arms around myself for warmth as I waited. I lost track of time and my impatience grew. After a while, the familiar clomp of a Guard patrol sounded to my ears and I decided to head home. I didn’t need to explain why I was here so late. The moon was already nearing its full swing. Dawn would come soon.
The chill lingered at my back shadowing me like a cloak. I’ve heard tale about those who were dying are often overcome by a similar chill. Some called it the Keeper’s Shadow. They believed it as a sign he was near.
By the time I got home, dawn’s first wisps of light reached like elongated fingers from the horizon. I was shivering now. I couldn’t help but think she had lied. Why else would I feel this way?
I climbed into bed, wrapping my blankets around me. They did nothing.
I thought of the Forgotten, of Pip, and his rats. What would she do? How would they be punished? With the deed done, I thought I might feel something, but there was nothing. Vermin didn’t deserve pity or remorse.
My eyes grew heavy. It wasn’t surprising. I had been up all night. I closed them and despite my ceaseless shivering, sleep found me.
In the drift to full slumber, I was overcome and enveloped by a warmth that my mind struggled to comprehend. It filled me, touching every part of my being straight into my soul. I opened my eyes, the room was bathed in light.
I lay there staring, my heart quickening as I lay eyes on Karina beside me. I was paralyzed, my mind buzzed with questions. She smelled of lilacs, the lilacs I had I thought I had forgotten.
The sheets were spread across her still, sleeping form like clothing. They covered her nakedness invitingly. I yearned to pull them away and drink in her beauty.
The way her dark auburn curls draped around her head and shoulders was just like I remembered. Her pale skin, so soft and tender at a glance. My heart began to beat faster in anticipation as I reached for her, but the room shifted and so did she.
The warmth vanished with the light, leaving nothing but shadow and a cold bitter chill in its wake. Horns grew from her forehead and wings sprouted from her back. Her dark auburn hair straightened itself and her pale skin took on a more olive, tanned tone.
The woman I had thought was Karina opened her eyes. Their familiar molten glow lit up the room. We aren’t done yet, mortal. She said, speaking directly to my mind.
“Why her?!” I asked. “Why my Karina?”
The Forgotten smiled wide, her fangs showing. “Oh my dearest love, do you not recognize your beloved wife?” she asked. “I am your Karina.”
I scrambled from the bed, mind reeling, chest aching. It was hard to breathe as is stood there staring at her. “No…you are not! Karina is dead! They took her!”
She pushed herself up, the sheets falling away like a veil. “I remember how it felt when you ran your fingers across the small of my back. How your touch excited me in ways few ever do. That was when I knew I needed to heed my lord’s advice. You needed to be savored, nurtured…” she paused her eyes flaring. “Seasoned.”
The world spun. My stomach rolled over and over. My chest grew ever tighter. I fell to my knees, the urge to heave growing stronger. “You could have read my mind. Searched my memories for what Karina liked!”
“I could have, Husband, but what would be the point? I have had many, but you are among the few who were beyond compare to them.”
“Lies! More Lies!” The sickness in my stomach grew. Tears streamed down my face.
“Oh, my Heart.” She slid from the bed. “Come here.”
I don’t know how, but I found the strength to stand and shuffled to her. She pulled her naked body against me, wrapping her arms around me. Her wings followed next, their leathery membranes covering me like a cloak.
“All of this was to make you perfect, my love,” she whispered. “Your anguish. Your pain. Your loss and suffering. You tortured yourself so much, hated them so much.”
“Because…I loved you.”
“Yes, yes you did,” she replied, resting her forehead against mine. “I loved you too.”
“But the old man?”
The light in her eyes flickered. “He was me,” she replied using his voice. “It was to prepare you. To make sure you were properly marinaded for this moment. A great stage for a grand performance.”
My legs were giving out, I could barely stand. She, however, held me up as if I weighed nothing at all. “I don’t understand. I…Karina…”
“Shh, dearest,” she said, her voice returning to normal. “It will be okay. We made a deal. Pip and everyone he was connected to is dead.” She softly touched the mark she had cut into my forehead. “You were always mine, this only cements my claim.”
I wanted to run, but I knew it was futile. Where could I go? Then it dawned on me. “Everyone he was connected to?”
“Why yes, love. Everyone. All because of you. I fed on each, and every last, one of them.”
I thought of Jarroe, the girls and the rest of the Boar’s patrons. My heart sank as her knowing smiled confirmed my worst fears. “No…no…Karina why? Why them?” The tears wouldn’t stop, I could no longer stand, but she didn’t seem bothered and continued to hold me.
“Shhh, dearest, it’s almost time. I just have one last gift for you.”
“One…last…gift,” I sobbed.
She nods and kisses my forehead. “Brenn, you can come in now.”
Brenn?? No…I don’t understand…she’s dead.
The front door opened and to my horror Bren trudged into the room. Her gate was awkward, her head tilted to one side. The shadows made it hard to see. Then there was the smell and I knew what Karina had done. Bren was nothing more than a walking corpse.
“Now we’re all here.” She gingerly stroked her lips against my own and then whipered, “Now we are complete.”
“No more,” I cried. “No more, please Karina.”
“Oh dearest, now you are ready. Just one kiss is all it takes.”
I stared into her eyes through the anguish, pain, and tears. The old man, or rather Karina, was right about one thing. In the end, I had a choice and all of this was my fault.
I pressed my lips to hers and after a brief moment of bliss, everything went dark.