Too many have suspicious hearts
Where there is light, they see the dark.
Where there is light, they see the dark.
The night was clear and warm, the sky a deep sapphire blue, with only a few wispy clouds floating across the tops of the distant mountains to the north-west like blown silk. The night was still, and the grass by the side of the dusty track barely rippled in the breeze as Requar emerged from the forest and entered the town by the north road.
Requar marvelled at his surroundings. Too long, he had been cooped up in his valley in the Barlakk Mountains! Beautiful it was, but he had forgotten how extraordinary the rest of the world could be. Different birdsongs, different vegetation. Even the wind had a unique feel; gentler, without the sharp edge it acquired as it passed over the razor-edged mountain peaks.
It was all so alive, so vibrant. It made him feel energised in return. It wasn't quite enough to blow the cobwebs away: the core of his soul remained cold and dark, but he felt new in a way that he hadn't ever been. He closed his eyes, trying not to let those cold wisps of horror taint his new-found freedom. He had just saved a life, after all.
He opened his eyes to the sight of a bright, torch-lit little town before him. Quietly, he directed his steps off the side of the road and stopped in the shadow of a house. He had trailed the hunters at a distance, camouflaged of course. He was certain they would head for the nearest town, and – he glanced at the sign hanging on its post beside the road; it read 'Meadrun' – he had been correct. They would be likely to tell someone about the incident in the forest, and Requar wanted to see the reaction. Word of sorcery would spread quickly. He needed to be prepared.
He also needed to be tactful. More than a hundred years of superstition and distrust was not an easy thing to overcome. He did not want to stir up trouble.
With quiet steps, Requar continued through the torchlit town. Subtly, he bent the light around himself so that he blended into the background, his outline reduced to a vague disturbance in the air. Laughter and chatter could be heard from inside the roadside houses and taverns that had just opened for business. He kept to the shadows and people passed him by without a second glance.
Ahead of him, he caught sight of the two hunters again, just as they entered a tavern. The sign over the door read: The Bramble Barn.
Requar followed, slipping through the door that hadn't closed properly. To anyone watching, it would appear that the wind had stirred it.
The common room was filled with a variety of rough-looking locals, tired farmers mostly, unwinding after a long day's work. A large group of even rougher looking black-clad men and woman occupied one whole end of the room, lounging on the chairs and tables and against the walls. They were attired rather oddly, with all manner of random bits of metal adorning their clothing. All of them were bristling with weapons.
The black-clad group laughed and joked amongst themselves raucously, while the remaining townsfolk sat quiet and sombre, and appeared to be giving the group plenty of space.
"We've seen a sorcerer!" the woman hunter gasped at the barman, who, Requar noticed for the first time, was rather flamboyantly dressed. Both hunters had just downed a couple of stiff drinks.
"What?" the barman replied in surprise.
"It's true!" The male hunter exclaimed. "Out in the forest, we were hunting, and I was attacked.…"
They proceeded to tell the story of how blood moles in the forest had attacked the man and ripped open his leg. He'd lain unconscious, bleeding to death until some time in the night, a strange man had suddenly materialised out of the trees and miraculously healed him.
Everyone in the bar stared at them in astonishment and disbelief. One of the black clad men, a lithe young man with a shock of blond in his spiky hair, rose to his feet. When they had finished, a deathly silence settled over the room. Nothing moved save the lazy swirl of the smoke and the flicker of torchlight on the walls.
“The strange man used magic on you?” the young man with spiked hair asked.
“Aye!” the male hunter replied. “Never seen anything like it!”
“Cursed!” someone yelled suddenly from the opposite end of the common room. Everyone looked to see who had spoken.
“He's cursed for sure!” the old farmer went on. “No good can come of magic! It ain't natural! It taints; it destroys!” he pointed at the hunter. “One day, a week, a month, or years from now, somethin' bad'll happen to yer! You mark my words!”
A murmur passed around the room.
The hunters were frowning. “No,” the woman said, shaking her head, “It wasn't like that...”
But the murmurs were quickly increasing to noisy agreement.
Requar frowned as well. The blad-clad group of ruffians were subtly shifting position, bringing their weapons within reach and eyeing each other. The young man, who appeared to be their leader, was still standing, but said nothing. At his side, a wicked-looking knife twirled in his fingers, the blade catching the torchlight, dancing and twisting like a silver fish. He cast his dark eyes around the room, assessing the atmosphere.
Requar had noticed the change as well, and it wasn't a good sign.
“You stay away from us, Tael!” another man near the window said. “You don't come near any of us!'
He was met with loud, angry agreement.
Then a huge figure stepped forward from the shadowy corner at the end of the bar. His striking crimson beard was plaited and fell down to his waist. An enormous, double-headed battle axe rested on one shoulder.
“Wanna do somethin' about that curse, eh, Tael?” he asked jovially.
The other bar patrons leapt to their feet, actually cheering. Some at the back climbed up on tables and yelled taunts at the hunters.
The hunters quickly assumed defensive postures, pressing their backs against the counter and withdrawing their bows, fitting arrows to the strings. The blood had drained out of their faces. One side of the room was filled with jeering townsfolk, bloodlust in their eyes, the other, the heavily-armed black-clad group. Requar noticed that two of the latter had moved beside his hiding place to block the door. To his right, the man who had warned the hunters to stay away was shaking his fist at them and howling like the rest. Behind the counter, the colourful barman slouched with a smirk on his face, eating nuts from a bowl in his hand as though this were great entertainment.
Oh, Gods, Requar thought, sickened.
The huge man with the axe came forward. Long chains hung from his belt, jangling as he walked. The floorboards vibrated a little with each step. He withdrew the giant axe from his shoulder and held it across his chest with both hands, still grinning.
The hunters backed away. The woman brought her bow up to point at the man, drawing the string back…
The barman hit her on the head with the nut bowl, scattering nuts everywhere and sending the woman stumbling to the floor.
The entire crowd roared with laughter.
The red-bearded man swung his axe up and brought it down, hard…
Screaming, the male hunter tried to bring his bow around but was grabbed from behind…
A piercing shriek of metal filled the entire tavern, accompanied by a flash of blinding blue light. As one, everyone in the bar room ducked, covering their eyes.
A moment later, the light cleared to reveal the man with the axe bending over, still with his massive weapon in his hands: but it had been halted, impossibly, almost at the end of its swing by a very long, beautifully elegant silver blade.
Two snakes curled up from the hilt: one black, one white.
The room had fallen into shocked silence. All of the townsfolk crouched on the floor or behind tables. The black group had retreated defensively against the walls. The treacherous barman peered cautiously over the counter-top.
The red-bearded giant looked up.
Requar stared back.
They remained that way for a long while, frozen like statues in the middle of the room. The female hunter inched her way out from under the locked blades and scrambled to her feet, hurrying back to her partner, who embraced her tightly.
Requar held the gaze of the bearded man until finally, he lifted his weapon. Then slowly, a grin crept back on his face and he swung his axe at Requar's head.
Requar ducked easily and threw a white ball of light at his attacker with his left hand. The force of the magic hurled the huge man across the room, scattering his gang and smashed him into the stone wall of the tavern with an impact that cracked the stone and made the entire building shudder.
“Damn it!” Requar cursed, catching sight of the charred and smoking wound he'd left in the other man's chest. He'd used a little too much power. He was used to fending off magical attacks, not ordinary people.
Sighing in frustration, he strode over to the unconscious man and plunged his Sword into the man's chest. Closing his eyes, he summoned his magic and directed it down the blade until the wound had completely healed.
The bearded giant awoke, shaking his head, dazed.
Requar walked back to the hunters. The bar patrons had all fled while he'd been busy. The black gang were still there, looking wary and angry and confused, but no others attempted to approach him. The barkeeper cowered on the floor behind the counter. Requar glared down at him, and he cowered even further, putting his arms over his head.
“Thank you!” the male hunter named Tael approached him. He looked shaken, but relieved. “You have saved both of our lives!”
“Please,” his female companion fished a money pouch from her belt and shook several silver triangular coins on to her palm, and offered them to Requar. “Please, take this!”
Requar shook his head. “There is no need--”
“Please!” She pushed the fist of coins at him, her hand trembling. “Please!”
But again, Requar shook his head. Gently, he took the woman's hand in both of his and gave it back to her. “No, my lady. Just keep yourselves safe. That is all I ask of you. And take great care whom you speak to in future. “
The woman's eyes brimmed with tears, but finally she nodded her head.
Tael blinked away glimmers in his own grey eyes. “We are indebted to you… ah…?”
“My lord.” Tael bowed slightly.
“If you ever need our help...” the woman trailed off.
Requar nodded politely, then the two hunters turned and hurried out of the tavern.
He watched them go and then sighed, staring down at the Sword of Healing. He had been forced to expend quite a lot of power to stop the axe's killing blow. It was not much compared to Arzath's assaults, but his arms ached a little, and he felt mentally weary.
So much violence, so soon…
It wasn't any less than he expected, but still. Was every encounter going to be like this?
Shaking his head, he resheathed his Sword and headed for the door.
Half way there, he was intercepted by the young man with the spiked hair. The knife again twirled at his side; the metal ornaments on his coat glittering in the torchlight.
“Interesting!” the man said. He sounded obnoxiously cheerful and there was a spring in his step, as though witnessing one of his companions being thrown across the room and smashing into the wall was one of the happiest things he'd ever seen. “You got the better of Bloodmoon Grim! Impressive!”
Requar frowned darkly. “Hardly.”
“You attacked him,” the man went on, “and then saved his life.” He titled his head, curious. “Why?”
Requar glanced around at the group. “I came here to offer my services as a healer, only to discover--” he gestured, “a pack of howling animals!”
The young man and the rest of his gang laughed. They sat about on the tables, cackling like a murder of metal-garbed crows. Requar scowled at them, then turned back to the man in front of him and started forward again. “Excuse me...”
The other man held his place until the very last possible moment, then stepped aside, but Requar didn't hesitate. He had just reached the door when the young man spoke again.
“Oh, by the way… you wouldn't happen to know anything about a silver-eyed boy, by any chance?”
Requar froze, his hand on the wooden door. Slowly, he turned around. “What are you talking about?”
“A silver-eyed boy,” the man went on, moving back towards his gang. “Drags an unnatural Winter around with him wherever he goes, like a great vicious dog on a lead.” He reached the wall and leaned against it. “Friend of yours? Or a relation, maybe?”
''What do you know of this?” Requar asked, staring at him intensely.
“Me?” The cocky young man spread his arms in mock-ignorance. “What would I know? I'm just another howling animal!”
On cue, several of his gang imitated howling beasts.
Disgusted, Requar pushed through the door and stalked out into the summer night.
As soon as the sorcerer was gone, Eltorian Nightwalker called to one of his Bladeshifters, a small woman with short dark hair and a fringe that fell across her face. “Darkstar!” he snapped his fingers and pointed. “Tail him!'
With a quick nod, the young woman slipped around the tables and out through the tavern door, like a cat into the night.
Nightwalker let out a long breath and finally allowed himself to relax. Fishing inside his jacket, he withdraw some black leaves and rolled them up, then lit them with a piece of flint and the edge of his knife. “Grim,” he said, letting out a puff of smoke, “you alright?”
The big red-bearded man was standing near the cracked wall, gripping his axe and glaring at the door as though longing for another go at the sorcerer's head. “Aye,” he growled through clenched teeth.
Nightwalker rested his head back on the wall and closed his eyes. Where the hell did that guy COME from?! he thought, shocked, in the privacy of his own mind. The clothing he wore looked like it might have been fashionable about two hundred years ago. And why had he been trailing those pitiful hunters, trying to protect them? Why did he care?
He had said he was a healer, but something about him didn't measure up. He seemed too alert, his reflexes far too quick, as though he was used to fighting. Sure, his magic might give him superhuman senses, but…
He's killed people, Nightwalker thought. There was a dark shade to his blue eyes that no amount of magic could hide.
And he knows about the boy with silver eyes.
Eltorian's baiting had worked. This guy knew about the Winter. Perhaps that was the real reason he was in the area? Searching for Ferrian? Well, Nightwalker thought with a smirk, you just missed him.
For a moment, Nightwalker amused himself with the idea of letting the sorcerer go after Ferrian and the Freeroamers, just to see what would happen, but then dismissed the thought. Nightwalker didn't feel comfortable with this guy roaming around on Bladeshifter turf, especially if he was inclined to interfere in Bladeshifter affairs. He'd very nearly ruined the evening's entertainment, only redeeming himself by throwing Grim across the tavern, which was possibly the most hilarious thing that Nightwalker had ever seen.
He puffed on his weed, and coughed. No, something had to be done about that sorcerer. Magic or no, he'd harmed a Bladeshifter, and that meant he'd signed a contract for his own extermination.
Eltorian wasn't stupid, and he wasn't crazy, but what fun was life if you couldn't poke at the fire?
Of course, he wasn't going to be the one to do it…
Turning his head, he looked at one of his men, a short, stocky man standing by the window, staring out into the darkness as though trying to see where the sorcerer had gone. He wore a large, wide-brimmed hat on his head and an enormous crossbow on his back, which he had nicknamed the Justifier.
“Flint,” he said, smiling, as smoke curled up from his fingers, “how would you like to assassinate a sorcerer?”
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