Good morning everyone! Since i am taking a break to review Valkyrie this week, I thought I would share a different story. I shared this idea with my Subcribers two weeks ago.
I heard their footfalls against the wet stone as they sloshed through the puddles further up the street. They were hunting me, just like the others. Just like my daughter. I had no choice but to run, the gristly state they had left her in was too much for my heart to take.
I felt ashamed. I couldn’t even think about the others as I ran. It was obvious what had become of them. There were rumors on the Undermarket about my kind. They say you could collect good coin just for the tooth of a NeshVal. It was sick really, some believed our teeth were useful components for necromancy spells. Regardless, they weren’t going to collect anything from me.
The sloshing grew louder and I stole myself behind one of the sewer grates. It was hard to imagine how this had happened. We had been so careful not to arouse suspicion. We only ate the dead and there were plenty of dire rats in the sewers to accommodate that need.
Occasionally, we might discreetly visit a charnel house and pay for a corpse. Necromancers were known for that. Not that I practiced the Dread Art of course.
As the guardsmen passed, the only thing felt was hatred and contempt for them. There were only three, the rest must have either been taken to a healer or cleaning up the bodies. It was hard not to wonder what it would be like to pluck their teeth or harvest their organs. It was only fair after all. My friends and daughter were dead.
They were armed with only swords and their armor was nothing more than simple leathers. It was more suited for breaking up a brawl than real combat. They were ill-equipped for dealing with one of my kind. Caution was still warranted, they could still use their swords to take my head. Carefully I crept out from behind the grate, cringing as it bumped against the stone street.
The guards turned and I bolted, not knowing if they had seen me. After turning down a few side streets I ducked into a narrow alley. I knew I had to keep hidden. Darkness and shadow had to be my robe.
I could hear their boots, clomping and sloshing on the street. They rushed past the narrow alley, too much of a hurry to take notice of my refuge. Even so, it would be too hard on a human to fit here, my people had no real need to breathe after all.
My claws extended as I thought about what to do with these murderers. I listened carefully to the sound of their boots, they were getting further away. Soon it would be time to strike.
With their footfalls growing more distant, I eased myself from the narrow alley. They weren’t far. Silently I crept closer, thankful the hour was late enough that no sane person would be out at this time of night.
It wasn’t long before I found them, they looked nervous as they should be. My people abhor anything that would make us seem like the monsters others believe us to be. That doesn’t mean we aren’t capable of violence.
I could feel my teeth shifting as my second set moved into position from inside the roof of my mouth and lower jaw. They were meant for tearing flesh and cracking bone, unlike the paltry pair we use to pass for near-human. It was good camouflage as long as no one looked too closely. Our progenitors weren’t so fortunate. They had no such means to conceal their nature.
I crouched low tensing my muscles, creeping closer. The trio was too focused on the other streets to notice me. Once I was close enough I surged forward.
It lasted only a moment, the first guardsman fell choking on his blood as I tore out his throat. The second wet himself before I snapped his neck. The third, stabbed me while I was engaged but ran after seeing how little good it had done.
I looked down at the saber embedded in my side and removed it. It was curious, Shyre’s guardsmen don’t carry such a weapon like this. Their blades had a noticeable insignia to identify them. Dismissing the thought I removed the weapon and turned toward my prey.
While humans would not have bothered chasing him, for us the distance was nothing.
There was something poetic about chasing him down. It was hard not to wonder if he and the other guardsmen had pursued my daughter in like manner. As he ran screaming, I found myself wondering if she sounded had the same?
Regardless he would have to be silenced quickly before someone came looking for what the fuss was about. I leaped into the air, using my momentum to throw him to the ground upon landing. He rolled over in a panic, his face a twisted mask of terror.
I tensed my right hand and thrust it into the human’s chest. I pull it free, his hurt briefly pulsing in my grasp and look down at him. As he lay dying at my feet, blood pouring from the hole I had torn in him, I turned back to look at the other guardsmen.
The victims, the three lives I had taken. There was no satisfaction in it, no sense of justice or emotion to ease the pain of my broken heart. For all they had taken from me, this victory felt empty and hollow.
I searched him, trying to find some meaning or answer to the horrible acts they had committed. I had thought the discovery of our home was happenstance, a mere coincidence. After searching the bodies, the hard discovery I made only verified it wasn’t.
The tattoos hidden underneath their right arms were like a knife plunging deeper into my heart. She had sent them, the one who claimed she loved me. The human whose embrace had been a gentle comfort in the night.
I felt to my knees, the agony of my heart beyond expression or utterance. It made no sense. What reason could she have for this?
As I felt the agony of my heart overtake me, thunder rumbled overhead. The rain was returning. In was almost a comfort, Neshval were incapable of producing tears.
At first, it was nothing more than a light trickle but it quickly became a downpour. I looked up, then turned to the man I had slain. The rain was quick to wash the blood into the sewer.
After that, I had no idea how long I had wandered the streets with only the hood of my cloak to shield me from the rain. Time’s passage mattered little. I kept to the shadows, my thoughts drifting elsewhere.
I could hear her voice in my mind. Her words had been like honeyed mead, sweet and intoxicating. I had no idea they were like a spider’s venom, paralyzing me so I would be ensnared in her web of lies.
I look up, the rain falling on my face. I feel it dripping into the pits of my nostrils and down the back of my throat. I cough slightly and clear my nose, before leaning against a nearby building. While my people don’t have much need for breath, we still draw it.
Lightning flashes overhead and I suddenly understand everything. I was nothing more than a mark. She saw me and mine as a means of profit. Nothing more than wheat to be harvested to line her coffers.
I should have known better. She was the leader of a group of thieves after all. Her guise in the public eye was that of a simple trader and businesswoman. I feel the heat rising in my chest as flashes of lightning illuminate the dimly lit streets. Thunder follows, roaring overhead and I tighten my jaw overwhelmed by rage.
“Danella, before this night is done, the Keeper will have his fill.”
Very few could afford a private residency in Shyre. Most of its citizens lived in compact apartment homes or in the upper floors of their establishments. Some even took advantage of one of the dozens of local taverns for permanent housing. Any residency of note was located in West Quarter.
The Brownstones, as they were known, were tall buildings set in rows. There was typically two or three per small city block. A few of the larger blocks had more traditional housing, but most of these were owned by city officials or well-to-do traders.
Danella was one of those. Her home had a large wall separating it from the street, with plenty of hired hands to keep out uninvited guests. As a trader, her father had eeked out a decent living for them. What the poor old man didn’t know was how she used the business to come into her own.
She was just one of many who used the Undermarket, to trade in illicit goods. She was quite good at it too. I felt my heart clench as I thought about my own naivete. I had foolishly turned a blind eye to her affairs.
As if a human could ever really love one of us.
I stare at the polished wall protecting her home and the gate barring entry. With the heavy downpour, her hired help had likely retreated inside. Most of the servants would be home in their beds. Danella only kept a couple on the grounds to attend her throughout the night.
I rush across the street and vault over the wall. A deep growl grabs my attention and I turn to see a large dog staring at me from its shelter.
“You’re new.” Danella had obviously remembered that dogs detest us.
The beast lunged, jaws wide. I caught it by the throat and snapped its neck with my free hand. I stared at it in my hands. The poor creature was another victim of this cruel tragedy. I had no love of dogs, but he was only here to warn of my coming. Like the rest of us, she had only needed it as expendable.
I looked up the windows, her father’s room lit. Does he know? I pondered the question but found no answer. Perhaps it was time we met…
“Do you like stories?” Obviously, it was difficult for her to speak she was gagged after all. Still, there was hope in her eyes. I suppose if I were a person of her upbringing, I might have held out in much the same manner. “Well, even if you don’t I’m sure you will adore this one.”
I move closer to check the rope binding her to the chair. One can’t be too careful after all. I turn my attention to the wine bottles in their nooks. She was probably thirsty.
“Wine?” Danella gave no indication, but for a moment, there was a brief flash of disgust in her eyes. “Really, can’t we be civil about this?”
She simply stared, her eyes filling with hatred and disgust.
Humans, so intolerant.
Moving closer I remove the gag. It wasn’t like anyone could hear her scream. Everyone in the estate was already dead. Even so, the wine cellar was just an assurance in case she tried.
“You will pay for this,” she said. “You’re nothing than a monster!”
“Me, a monster?” It was a laughable notion. “I think we both know which of us is the monster.”
“As if you would know the difference!”
“Such harsh words from the woman who claimed to love me.”
She laughed. “Love…you? Who could love something so disgusting?”
Who indeed! I could think of someone. I moved closer and stared into her soft brown eyes. “Mariah did, you remember her don’t you?”
She stopped laughing, her face becoming more serious. For a moment, I would have sworn there was a mote of fear in her eyes. “It would only be natural for a monster to love its own kind,” she replied.
“Don’t you mean that it would only be natural for a daughter to love her father?”
She simply sneered.
“I mean, my Lady, your father loved you didn’t he?” I reached behind me and after finding what I desired, I rolled it toward her feet.
The horror on her face was as expected. It was likely too dark for her to see the rest of what lay shrouded out of site. Otherwise, she would have screamed. Humans did have poor eyes sight and I only had a few candles lit. It was mostly for effect, to accent the veins and grey pigment of my skin.
“He pleaded that I spare you. I had considered it, once being a father myself, but when he began to bargain for his own life…”
Then the tears came. Strangely as I watched her stare at her father’s head, I felt no satisfaction. One might consider that reaping this kind of justice would grant a sense of completion. But here I sit, hollow and unfulfilled.
Perhaps it was because she was to blame. After all, he was truly innocent in this. I doubt he even knew of our affair. Had he known, there was no doubt the results would have been the same with the cast members simply playing different roles.
The inks she used were running, ruining the beautiful face she worked so hard to accent. Not that she ever needed it. She had always been beautiful.
I stood and moved closer, taking my cloak and wiping her face clean. “You never needed any of that.”
“How would you know what I needed?” she replied.
I felt strangely warm which was odd for my kind. We can feel the warmth, but not like humans do. It filled my chest and perhaps rage was the best description. “There were many things you made clear to me in our most intimate moments, dearest.”
She simply looked away. Perhaps it was compassion that compelled me, but I took her father’s head and tossed it into the darkness behind me. The twinge on her face was even less satisfying.
“Have you no respect?” she asked.
It was an odd question. “It’s hard to respect one’s food.” I felt numb after the words had left my lips. “Forgive me, that wasn’t very kind.”
She said nothing, but her eyes said everything. She hated me, feared me, loathed me. It pained me to look into those eyes. They weren’t the eyes of someone who had loved you or even remembered you fondly. I wonder who was really to blame, me or her?
In her eyes, I am the monster, but in mine: I simply became what she had come to believe about my people. It was a laughable irony. We fight so hard not to be like the creatures of our origin, to be different from ghouls. Yet, we are reviled just the same.
“Would you like to hear a story?”
“Do I have a choice?” she asked.
“I suppose not, but I was simply trying to be courteous.” This was hard, between the anger, the hurt and the loss. I wanted to civil, but everything in me wanted something else. Reason dictated that the carnage I had wrought wouldn’t bring my precious girl back to me, but I just didn’t care.
“I guess I should start at the beginning…”
The sun’s rays were like knives to the eyes, but it was to be expected. Traveling at night would have been preferable, if not better. Some exceptions had to be made though. Thankfully, the merchant promised to ask no questions and for a single gold coin, he was good to his word.
The trip was long enough as it was. Gellas pulled the hood of his cloak further down over his eyes, blocking the sun’s painful rays. He then checked the wraps covering his arms relieved that the veins spidering across his skin were still hidden.
While some might assume they were the result of practicing the Dread Art, a more educated person might guess differently. Not every race was accepting of things they didn’t understand, humans especially.
“I know I promised not to ask anything, but you’ve been so quiet this whole trip.”
Gellas adjusted the cloth mask covering the pits where his nose was on his face and looked up just enough to glimpse the man from under his hood. “Can’t a man enjoy quiet solitude on a long trip?”
“For a gold coin a man can enjoy whatever he wishes,” the merchant replied. “That accent of yours, it’s unusual. You don’t sound Banesian or Absonian and sometimes I think I catch a hint of Sharethian.”
So much for solitude. It was obvious where the conversation was going. “Really? I never thought about it before.”
“So tell me, where are you from?” he asked. “Or at least tell me your name.”
“Gellas, you can call me that. As for where I’m from, I guess everywhere and nowhere.”
“Romin,” the merchant replied. “If it wasn’t already obvious, I’m Absonian.”
Gellas smiled. Absonians did have a refined tone to their voices. It made them sound proper and highbrow, even when they were dirt poor. Sharethians had a certain ring to their speech, their words seemed to hang in the air. Banesians are quick, direct and loud as if they were speaking from the diaphragm.
Either way, he was probably right. Perhaps the trip had been too quiet.
“So, why Shyre?” Romin asked.
“Why does anyone travel to Shyre?”
“Trade, the Great Library, politics, citizenship, education, take your pick,” he replied.
Gellas sighed. “I suppose I simply want to lose myself there.”
“That will be easy to do,” Romin replied. “Shyre is a big place. If you really want to lose yourself, then you should sign onto one of their fleet ships.”
Only if I wanted to commit suicide. “I’m not fond water, the land is where I belong.”
Romin laughed. “You would not be a long in that, my friend.”
Gellas turned his attention toward the horizon. Shyre seemed so far off. “Do you often travel alone and without escort?”
Romin nodded. “I’ve traveled these roads for a decade now, I don’t anyone to be my nursemaid.”
Gellas laughed. “Spoken like a true Absonian!” It was so true, they were a stubborn people, but they knew how to fight. Absonian children were taught how to use a weapon from the moment they could hold it. “What’s your Favored?”
“Spatha,” Romin replied. “My father was a Legionnaire.”
It was curious, military traditions were huge in Absonian families. The sons were expected to follow in their father’s footsteps. “You didn’t follow in his path?”
“I did, but I didn’t make the cut as he expected,” Romin replied.
There was regret in the merchant’s eyes and ironically Gellas could empathize. Father’s always did seem to expect much from their sons. “It must have been hard.”
“For a time, but when my brother came of age, he redeemed the family,” Romin replied.
“At least that’s how my father saw it.”
“Do you still speak?”
Romin shook his head. “Not since the last year,” he said. “Father passed away from an illness.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Gellas replied.
“It’s ironic really, for two reasons,” Roman responded. “The first is that for all the herbs, healers, and druidic magic we could afford, sickness still claimed him.”
“My father would often say that the Keeper always gets what he is due.”
“So it would seem,” Romi replied.
Even though in true Absonian fashion Romin tried to appear stoic, Gellas could see he was still grieving. It was one of the many talents he had inherited. “What was the second irony?”
“It took my father dying to acknowledge me as a warrior,” Romin answered. “Mother said that as he lay there, he would often speak of how proud of me he was. In his words: Trade had become my battlefield and I had earned my place on it.”
Gellas sighed and looked toward the horizon. “I only wish I could have known such praise.” He turned away when Romin glance over at him.
“I take it you and your Father are not on the best of terms?” he asked.
Gellas nodded. “I left to find my way, to make sense of the world and he disapproved.”
“He didn’t approve I take it?”
Gellas shook his head. “Things are complicated where I come from, outsiders aren’t well received and neither is the world as a whole.”
“Small community then,” Romin observed. “Sounds like the Highlanders back home,” he added. “They don’t take the Absonian government setting foot into their mountains. I’m one of the few merchants fortunate enough to be given safe passage to trade with them.”
“We have had our share of problems,” Gellas replied. “Like anyone else, my people have their own traditions.”
“Ah…Tradition, the bane of any son,” Romin replied. “You have my sympathies.”
Gelas nodded. It was hard not to look up, but he knew that if their eyes met, Romin would see how inhuman his were. He felt foolish, traveling by day was too risky.
“Do you mind if I ask you something personal, Romin?”
“We have a long trip, ask whatever you wish,” he replied.
“I have heard Absonians aren’t fond of magic or other races, is it true?”
“We are a complicated people,” Romin answered. “If I had to sum us up, I would say that we take a strict adherence to the rule of law.”
“What if that law vilified a people who had done nothing wrong?” Gellas asked. “What if their only crime was existence?”
“You mean the Shaedzlen,” he commented.
Gellas nodded. “Among other things.”
“Had I not traveled to the lands around Absion, I might have once said: The law exists for a reason. Now, as I’ve gotten older, I realize that some laws can be wrong.”
Gellas paused and turned, and looked up at him. Romin didn’t flinch when their eyes met. There wasn’t even any fear in them either. Gellas tensed and quickly looked away, cursing himself. He gripped the seat mounted to the wagon’s cab feeling his claws slowly extending.
“I see,” Romin commented. His tone was odd, more matter-of-fact than judgemental or sounding as if he were disgusted. “Necromancy?”
Gella nodded. “Birthed from it in a way.”
“I understand,” Romin said. His tone was again, matter-of-fact.
“I’m not a monster, Romin.”
“You said a gold coin and no questions,” Romin replied. “I’m not here to ask them.”
Gellas found himself scrambling to things about his options. Father had always said the only good human was a dead one. It was the only way to ensure they couldn’t hurt the community.
It’s so ironic. The answer is simple and in my old life, I would have acted without hesitation. Gellas looked up, glancing at Romin again.
“You’ll need friends in Shyre if you intend to survive,” he said. “Don’t be so hasty.”
“But I wasn’t…”
“You were thinking it,” Romin replied. “I know what is panic is. Right now you’re so tense I can feel in the seat.”
“Nothing to forgive, I suspect your people have a way of keeping things quiet about who they are,” he said.
“We do, it’s the only way we know how to survive,” Gellas replied.
“Gellas, if you know nothing else about Absonians understand this: we keep our word.”
“Then did you mean what you said, about being a friend in Shyre?”
Romin nodded. “I did,” he replied. “Whatever kind of creature you are, matters little to me.”
“Will you swear my story then, and promise not to harm me?” It was frightening to think about, but idiotic. Gellas knew that there was no reason to be afraid. That was the paradox of becoming a Neshval. The memories gifted back to you didn’t make you that person. Even with any skill set gained, they only enabled you to understand who you had once been.
“Then tonight we should talk once we break camp.”
Romin was my first real friend in the world. I had taken such a great risk in revealing my true nature. He was merchant after all and selling me would bring him wealth beyond anything he would have known.
But Romin was a man of honor. That night and many nights after, we spoke much. I told about my people, of how we lived and our traditions. He was fascinated. It made leaving home more bearable and somehow seem shorter.
I hunted and was able to store food more easily, allow it to rot properly so it would taste better. Anything freshly killed is horrible, but preferable to the pallet over the slow madness of starvation.
I hadn’t truly come to appreciate Romin’s offer of friendship until we were before Shyre’s main gate on the eve of our fourth day. Seeing the city’s massive walls for the first time was intimidating. It was the ‘City of Cities’ as some could say. Others touted it as a neutral hub for the nations of the world.
To me, it was home and a fresh start.