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Introduction:

Things get complicated between the knights and Harajin.
Fresh and sweet with skin red as a sunset and flesh like crisp frost, an utterly perfect specimen. For Sir Edward Holmes, it was exactly what his dry mouth needed after hours of snoring. The hands that plucked this apple must have been blessed. If only it could do something about the dryness of his eyes, seared by the light coming through the nearby window. It was midday, the sun’s radiance shining down upon a polished shield for sale across the street and reflecting, with almost a malicious intent, straight into his eyes in the corner of the bar.

The Knight’s Sheath was almost always busy at this time of year, but it had hit its daily lull. There were a few customers drinking, due to their loyalty to the girls, endless thirst, or need for peace. At the moment, Holmes was the last, while those out in the streets were either too busy to get their rocks off or looking for a place that served lunch. After the meeting in the castle, he had come to the Knight’s Sheath to nap in a quiet corner. Normally he would have gone home, but he was still technically on duty, at least until nightfall. Almost every knight in the city was being worked night and day to keep everything peaceful. There were only so many times he could patrol the same streets before his feet refused to carry him even further, and if anyone spotted him here, he could claim he was helping stop bar fights. It was time to get moving once more, or risk getting caught sleeping.

He got up and shuffled to the door. “Thanks, Lucius,” he said to the bartender.

“Sure thing, sir.”

Holmes stopped, rubbed his eyes and looked back to the man behind the counter. “Who are you?”

“Daniel, sir. I’m sitting in while Lucius gets some rest. I’m the new guy.”

Daniel was nervous, recognizing the silver insignia on his armor. It was bad enough to catch the attention of soldiers, a silver-ranked knight was several levels higher, both in authority and power.

“Oh, good. He’s a friend of mine, let’s me catch a bit of sleep when I’ve been out too long. Pour me a cup of tea, will you? With something sharp to help wake me up.”

There was a nearby stove where embers were always smoldering, and Daniel added some pieces of wood to resurrect the flames and heat the kettle. While waiting for the tea, Holmes picked up a joint from a nearby jar and looked around, seeing how others were smoking them. He lit the end with a nearby candle, breathed deeply, and sighed in misery.

“I’m guessing things are rough?” Daniel asked.

“Thirteen years of guarding this city, and the week before Knight’s Day is always the worst. They got me working almost nonstop, but with how rowdy this city is getting, I guess I can’t blame them. I just wish the bronze knights didn’t make it so hard.”

“Those are the new ones, right? Newly graduated?”

“Not really “new”. With ten years of active service, you automatically get promoted to silver, unless you earn it sooner. I was not one of those people interested in “soon”, and now I’m paying the price by being stuck with underlings just like me.”

Daniel laughed. “The best reward and worst torture is being surrounded by people like yourself.”

“Where did you hear that?”

“It was written on the wall of a bathroom I once woke up in. I spent a good hour on the floor, reading that over and over again.”

“Yeah, that sounds about right.”

The water came to a boil and Daniel poured a cup of tea. His earlier cravings had faded, so his hands were no longer trembling. With some booze added to put some fire in his belly, Holmes’s liquid lunch was served.

“These Red Revelries are the worst. All these punks stirring up shit just for the fun of it.”

“Hey, it’s worse if you’re a civilian. I was living out on the streets up until a couple days ago, and there are few things scarier than hearing swords hitting each other in the middle of the night when you’re sleeping in a rain barrel.”

“Yeah, but at least you don’t have to deal with them. Some little noble shit spit on me while I was arresting him, told me he could smell my gutter blood.”

“Ugh, I hate them so much. You know how many times I’ve been called a plebian since I got to Colbrand? A lot. Not enough to know exactly what it means or how to spell it, but still, it hurts. Every minute in this city, someone is yelling “my father will hear about this!” The fuckers are everywhere.”

Holmes chuckled and even snorted. “You haven’t heard anything until you’ve been to the dungeons. I was there before dawn, dropping off some riff-raff, and it sounded like a hundred cats all getting their tails stepped on. I’m toying with the idea of suggesting every applicant spending a week in a dungeon, make it required to join the academy. That ought to scare off the little shits.”

“Why yes, I have been in your dungeons. So lovely, so comfortable. You can really feel the love and hospitality growing on the walls with the algae. I spent six hours in stocks because some soldier tripped over me in the street.”

The two men continued to exchange gripes, arguing over whose life was more miserable. The complaints included more and more jokes, and soon, they were actively trying to make each other laugh.

“So in the dream, I’m kissing this blonde babe who used to babysit me when I was little kid, but I’m coming out of it, I know something feels wrong. I open my eyes, and I’m locking lips with a rat the size of a toddler!” Holmes released a loud snort and Daniel had lost all ability to tell the story with a straight face. “And believe me, this was an affectionate rat. I think I actually got tongue, and copped a feel. Rat teats, I was fucking fondling rat teats on the floor of a warehouse!” Both men were laughing so hard they could barely remain upright.

“‘Fondling rat teats’ might be the funniest three-word combination I’ve ever heard.”

“Someday I’ll write a book about my life and that will be the title.”

“Ah, it feels good to laugh. Thanks for that. Returning to work now won’t feel so awful. I’ll see you around.” He got up from his stool and paid for his drinks with an extra tip.

“You be careful out there,” said Daniel.

Back out in the streets, Holmes tossed the stub of his gonlief cigarette onto the ground and started walking. His armor felt so heavy, even after all of these years, but the rattling of the saber at his hip never changed. His eyes, still dry from fatigue despite his nap, scanned the crowds. After so many years patrolling these streets, he had learned to size people up with a glance and memorized countless faces. He felt the flow of the traffic like he was measuring the tide. By now, it was second nature to him, though he continued to complain under his breath as he walked. Thirty years old, but his personality had changed little since he was a child growing up in this city.

“Sir Holmes!”

It was Frigga, and she looked even more tired than Holmes.

“Hey.”

“Where have you been? I haven’t seen you in hours.”

“Just taking a break. Anything happen?”

“A couple small scuffles, nothing out of the ordinary.”

“Want to grab some food? I’m starving.”

“I’ve been pecking around here and there, but if you’re offering...”

“Fine, consider it a reward for your promotion, your ONLY reward.”

They found a food stall, where a merchant was selling ‘borc’, from the dwarven word for “random”. As its name suggested, it was a collection of meats from various animals cooked as shish kebabs, with everything from lizard to mountain lion. It was the randomness that made it popular, as a thick sauce hid the various scents of the meat and they couldn’t be identified until they were bit into. Holmes and Frigga ignored the line of customers and went straight to the cook. No one made a fuss, as it was the norm for nobles and knights to ignore the restrictions that commoners followed. Rather, it was uncommon for a citizen to protest such moves, as it was simply something they were used to. Today, the cook was fortunate, as these knights actually paid for the food.

Holmes and Frigga moved off to the side of the road and began feasting on their lunch. “I’m getting goat ... chicken ... some kind of fish ... and ... cat?”

“Ugh, damn seagull. I hate seagull with a fiery passion.”

“You have no passion, Holmes, remember?”

“I’m passionate about plenty of things, like how my shoulders are going to start bleeding if I have to wear this armor for another minute.”

“That one, I can agree with. Just until nightfall, then we can rest, and soon this war will be over.”

“You know that baker in the western district? His shop was robbed last night. I stopped by and it seemed like everything made of glass had been broken.”

“Good god! I hope he doesn’t go out of business for this; he makes the most delicious cakes.” The two of them started walking. “Oh, that reminds me, you know Delilah, right?”

“The palace florist? The one with the mole?”

“Yeah, she caught her husband with a female beastman.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Please, I’m a follower of Wassenschtal. You know I can’t tell a lie. She was the wife of a Viscount, and her husband didn’t even know what she was.”

“What you call honesty, everyone else calls gossiping.”

“Just keeping you informed. Last night I ran into a fowl little dwarf, who, after cursing me, vomited onto my shoes. He had eaten clams, Holmes. Clams.”

“So that’s what that smell was.” Holmes then came to a stop. “Helena, you see that?”

He pointed to a cloaked figure ducking out of the street. Robes and cloaks were not a strange garment, rather the clothing of choice for those who specialized in magic over physical combat, but the hood was pulled all the way down over their face, and they were limping. Grond, he disappeared into the empty courtyard behind a cathedral and sat down on a stone bench so that he could examine his leg. Even the Harajin, taught to ignore the pain, could not remove Noah’s arrow without hissing and cursing.

“Stop right there. Hands where we can see them.”

Frigga’s order came before he could apply a healing potion. He kept his face downcast to conceal his mask, but just from the rattling of her armor, he knew her to be a knight. The sound of a sword being drawn followed, no, two swords.

“Pull back your hood and show us your face,” demanded Holmes.

They were standing twenty feet away on the brick path winding through the courtyard, having snuck up on him while he was pulling out the arrow. His gloved hands raised, Grond pulled back his hood and showed them his mask, causing the two knights to tense up.

“So the Harajin really are in the city...” Frigga muttered.

“Remember what Sir Tarnas said. We need to try and open a dialogue.” They hesitantly sheathed their swords, much to Grond’s confusion. “Last night, one of your associates spoke of delivering a peace accord to the king and was in possession of a knight’s sword. He was later found dead with no such document and the sword was missing. If you know anything about this, speak now.”

Grond said nothing, for nothing Holmes announced made sense. He came to Colbrand under the belief that no other Harajin would be there. Were they from another clan? There had been no rumors of peace talks back in Ezeria, but that wasn’t enough to refute the possibility. Did the elders know about his deal with Cyrilo and sent pursuers after him with this as a cover-up? The young man in the shadows, did he really work for Cyrilo? The kingdom? The Harajin? All he had was suspicions, no actual facts, and he could not think of any answer that would satisfy the knights and get him to safety.

‘It’s a trap.’

He remained silent, and Holmes and Frigga glanced at each other. They exchanged a small nod and slowly began to approach. It was a single moment, a brief instance for them to draw their swords, that moment was forced upon them, and it would reverberate long after this day. Had they not sheathed their swords, they could have defended themselves, deflected the blades hurled in their direction. They reached for their hilts upon seeing Grond’s sudden shift, but they were not drawn fast enough. A small dagger struck Frigga in the eye, drawing both blood and a scream, while another bounced off Holmes’s forehead while leaving a deep scar.

Grond closed this distance with surprising speed, considering his leg was spurting blood. From the way he struggled to maintain his balance, it appeared the price was more than he had expected. Holmes had just enough time to draw his sword and block the two daggers that Grond was wielding, one with the blade of his sword and the other by grabbing Grond’s wrist. It became a battle of strength, but both sides were handicapped, Holmes by his fatigue and Grond by his leg.

“Shit!” Holmes cursed in pain.

The daggers he thought Grond was wielding were actually sickles, two meat hooks with added razor edges, and the tip of one had been buried in his forearm to try and make him release Grond’s wrist. His greaves had stopped it from penetrating too deep, but blood was quick to flow and the pain was intense.

Holmes dared a glance to Frigga, on the ground and not moving. Was she dead or simply passed out? Grond didn’t miss the opportunity and disengaged from Holmes to try for another swipe with one of his sickles. Holmes avoided the attack and kicked Grond in the leg, right where he was wounded. The pain forced him to retreat before he could collapse. Both sides were at an impasse. Grond’s leg or the wounded Frigga, a health potion could solve either of these and turn the tide of the fight, or give the enemy the chance to attack or flee.

The two fighters realized that they each had only one choice: win the battle as quickly as possible. Holmes assumed a fencing stance with his armed side facing his opponent. Unlike the traditional longsword used by the knights, he wielded a one-handed sabre, and his armor was mostly mail to grant him better maneuverability. Grond put away one of his sickles and drew a handful of small throwing knives, like the two he used earlier. Because of his leg, he’d have to get Holmes to close the distance. He hurled three with as many throws, one aimed at Holmes and two at Frigga. Holmes knocked two out of the air with his sword, but the third struck his shoulder.

“Damn it,” he hissed as he charged.

A flurry of steel was unleashed, Holmes slashing and stabbing at Grond with every bit of strength he could draw from his exhausted body. Grond’s skill with his sickles was just as great, but he dared not move from where he was standing, lest his leg give out on him. Rather, he used his good leg as a pivot, keeping his foot glued to the ground and moving like the hand of a clock. Every time Holmes leaned in for a stab, Grond would parry the blade or dodge, and when he did manage to land a hit, the loose cloak would receive the cut, dispersing the energy with its billowing and keeping the blade from reaching his body. If not for the few hours of sleep he got earlier, Holmes likely would have died after the first minute.

The sound of blades striking was like the chirping of a chorus of birds, only to be drowned out by the grunts of exertion from the two fighters. Holmes soon stepped back out of Grond’s reach to catch his breath. He had managed to get a feel for Grond’s style and patterns, so it was time to take a risk. Holmes assumed another stance, but reversed from his earlier. Rather than his sword held directly in front to maximize its reach, he held it and positioned his arms as if it was instead a pool cue, and he was taking aim.

There was a shimmer around his blade, like a heat haze as it came alight with mana. In his exhausted state, the power was slow to react to his summoning, but it was gathered and compressed at the tip to make it glow like a welder’s spark, burning bright enough to cast Holmes’s shadow.

There was no time to waste, Holmes was low on mana before the fight even started. He lunged, keeping his arm extended, and Grond in turn leaned in with his blades crossed. He’d deflect Holmes’s sword with one and go for the throat with the other. At least, that was the plan. Holmes grabbed one of Grond’s wrists to stop his counter and the thrust was made, but with far greater speed than the assassin anticipated. The tip of Holmes’ sword snapped Grond’s other sickle like it was made of glass, then pierced his cheek and did the same to his jawbone. It had cut through the ceramic mask like a circular saw, leaving no cracks.

Holmes had missed his target spot because of his fatigue, but the attack was still enough to put the fear of God into Grond. He pulled away as fast as his instincts could propel him, even wrenching his wrist from Holmes’s grip, and for a brief moment, he was able to ignore the pain in his leg and back up to open some space. Blood was pouring down the side of his neck and he could barely move his jaw.

Holmes stopped only to reform his stance, then shot forward once more for another thrust. He couldn’t allow Grond to draw another weapon, and this time, he was aiming for the knee of his good leg, a blow that would cripple him.

“Stop right there, knight,” he heard, coming from Frigga’s direction.

Holmes managed to halt himself before he could fully commit to the attack and looked back. Crouching beside Frigga was another Harajin, the troupe leader, and he was holding a sickle to her throat.

“You son of a bitch!” Holmes yelled.

“Don’t move. Just drop your sword and we can part ways without further bloodshed.”

“How do I know you won’t just kill us both?”

“Because at the moment, it would probably be in everyone’s best interest to keep the body count low. Drop the sword.”

Though he didn’t like it, it was an offer he was lucky to receive. He knew facing off against two Harajin would be suicide. “Very well.” He discarded his sword and kept his hands raised. “There, now let her go.”

“Not until my compatriot is beside me. Grond.”

Grond still wasn’t sure who could be trusted, but he too was blessed by this interruption. With a hand over his neck wound, he limped over to the other Harajin. “Klein,” he said, reading the runes on the fellow’s mask, though that was all he could say with his damaged jaw.

Once Grond was next to him, Klein stepped away from Frigga. Holmes remained where he was, running simulations over and over in his head. How quickly could he get to his sword? “Now tell me about this supposed peace accord and the knight’s sword your friend was carrying.”

“Just be grateful that your friend keeps her life.”

The two Harajin then fled the courtyard, leaving Holmes to rush to Frigga’s side. Klein had to help Grond stay on his feet, the man bleeding profusely from his leg and neck wounds. He pulled him into a dark alley, free of homeless, and set him down on the ground. It took all of Grond’s strength to open up a healing potion.

“My team and I have been sent here to find you, Grond.”

Grond, now healed, tightened his grasp on his sickle. “For termination?”

“Not today. Quite the opposite, in fact. Apparently, one of the healing potions Urandil gave you was actually something else. Our mission is to warn you before you take it and to return it to him.”

The dread that filled Grond, albeit nauseating, was not the first of its kind. He felt his stomach twist into knots in ways he never wished to feel again. “Did he say what it was?”

“No, only that it was something incredibly dangerous. He described it as worse than poison. Recovering is an absolute priority. Do you have it?”

“I lost it.”

“You incompetent—!”

Klein was cut off, both he and Grond sensing approaching footsteps. The two men each held their breath and disappeared from sight like a fading mirage. A soldier was passing through the alley in search of troublemakers. He passed right by the two Harajin without the slightest clue. Neither Klein nor Grond moved a muscle, even blinking, until the soldier finally left.

Once alone, they released their held breaths and reappeared. “How did you lose it?” Klein asked.

Grond was faced with a conundrum: whether to start stacking lies or see how long he could ride the truth until finally twisting it into a lie. Harajin were trained to handle no-win scenarios, but the stakes were skyrocketing. Either way, he had to get that potion back from Cyrilo before the others followed the trail.

‘At least he doesn’t know Urandil’s real involvement, small blessing.’ “Fighting last night with a reveler. It was knocked out of my hand and I was forced to retreat. They probably have it now.”

“Did you get a good look at them?”

“No, they were disguised, just like the others.”

“And your leg?”

“A soldier’s lucky shot just a little while ago.”

“One more thing. Last night, a member of my team was killed, throat slit. According to the knights, he claimed to be delivering a peace accord to the king and was carrying a knight’s sword. Do you know anything about this?”

“No. Those two knights said the same thing, but I thought they were lying. I didn’t even think there were other Harajin in Colbrand.”

“So you didn’t kill him?”

“Of course not. But what should we do?”

“The elders said nothing about it. No orders, so no involvement. We return to Ezeria and get the truth. But first, we have to find that potion.”

Noah passed through the double doors of the Knight’s Sheath and spotted Daniel at the counter, wrapping rolling gonlief cigarettes.

“Oh, look who survived Cyrilo’s impossible task! Thank the heavens that the brave hero has returned! My god! There is so much blood! How are you alive? It’s a miracle you’re still standing!”

“Don’t just announce my business. Didn’t we just talk about this?”

“I still smell like a human sewer! You should at least be limping!”

“Well the other guy is. Did you finish those chamber pots?”

“They’re cleaner than I am, though I have you to thank for that. Cyrilo wouldn’t let me inside until I washed myself off in the rain barrel.”

“While you were soaking, did you think about what I told you?”

“Yeah. I came to the conclusion that you’re an asshole.”

“But?”

A deep sigh. “But ... in this instance, you know what you’re talking about, so I’ll try to be more careful.”

“As long as you’ve learned your lesson, you and I are fine. I apologize for earlier.”

“Thanks. After work, I’m planning on going to see that harp-maker, ask how my guitar is coming along. You interested?”

“Nah, I got to go find greener pastures before I end up sleeping in the street. Is she here?”

“Yeah, in her room. Lucius just went up there to talk to her about something.”

Noah made the hike up the stairs to the top floor, and upon reaching Cyrilo’s door, he activated his invisibility and put his ear to the wood. He could hear them inside, talking about the price hike for dwarven beer. He summoned his clone and knocked on the door. “Cyrilo, it’s me. I have your potion.”

“Come in, Noah.”

He opened the door and let his clone enter first. No attack came, so he went in. On the far side of the room was a folding screen with movement behind, and a familiar dress hanging over the top. In the corner near the door sat Lucius, who raised a few couple fingers as a small greeting.

“If you really have the potion, be a dear and open it,” said Cyrilo. Noah uncorked the ceramic bottle and placed it on a low table. Cyrilo emerged from behind the screen in her cat form and approached the bottle. She took a few whiffs with her feline nose and glared at Noah. “This isn’t what I asked for. This isn’t the potion you were supposed to bring me. And whose blood is this? It had better not be Grond’s!”

The blank expression on Noah’s clone didn’t project Noah’s silent curse. He circled around behind Cyrilo and pulled out a dagger. This was one of the worst-case scenarios and it would probably lead to violence. Should he just kill them both now and be done with it? Perhaps he could even blame it on the Harajin. However, there was still a chance to get out unscathed.

“Well check it again, because that’s what your Harajin friend gave me. I passed your name along and he wouldn’t hand it over, even when I told him it was for you, so I had to get a little rough. He’ll be fine, but if there is a mistake, it’s on his end, or maybe he’s betrayed you.”

“I told you, you should have let me handle this,” said Lucius.

“Not after you and Grond started fighting last time,” said Cyrilo before smelling the bottle once more and swerving her yellow eyes back to Noah. “Forgive me for not believing the words of a sketchy adventurer. Are you trying to poison me? Are you really that foolish?”

“I performed my task according to your specifications and this is the potion I was supposed to give you. We had a deal and I expect you to uphold your end. I want to resolve this peacefully and you can make that happen.”

Cyrilo smelled the potion a third time and growled for a few moments, then it became a purr. It was kicking in, the herbs he bought from the apothecary. In this world, it was a wild mint used in medicinal teas. To Noah, it was known as catnip. He had ground it up to form a fine oil and smeared it around the mouth of the bottle. The smell of the potion was helping conceal the catnip’s aroma while attractant chemicals put Cyrilo into a good mood.

“Fine. You have my word that neither Lucius nor I will tell the knights of your actions. You were never here.”

“I don’t want you playing semantics later. If anyone finds out about this, I’m coming right back here.” A convincing bluff.

“I swear on the nature spirits, no one will ever know. However, consider yourself banned.”

“Fair enough.”

“No! You can’t kick him out!” The door burst open and in came Bella, naked and hysterical. Noah pulled his clone out of the way as she tried to pounce on it. He didn’t release his spells, but he joined with his clone and was ready to separate at any time.

“Bella, have you been listening in this whole time?” Cyrilo asked.

“I heard my darling’s voice downstairs and had to get my customer to finish as fast as I could! You can’t kick him out!”

“Bella, he broke the house rules and put not just me, but all of you girls and this establishment in danger. He’s banned.”

“But he didn’t know the rules! Give him another chance!”

“No.”

Bella lunged for Noah and wrapped herself around his arm. “If he leaves, then I’m going with him!”

“Not a chance,” Cyrilo said. “I second that motion. I’m joining the knight academy and I don’t need anyone to tag along.”

Bella slid down and began humping his leg. “Sure you do! I’ll live in your dorm room as your naughty bunny fuck slave!”

“Lucius, would you mind? I think she’s leaking semen onto my pants.”

Lucius sighed and got up from his chair. “Come on, Bella, let’s get you cleaned up and dressed. This is a brothel, not a barnyard. There has to be at least some professionalism.” He managed to pry the woman off Noah’s leg and step out of the room, leaving Noah and Cyrilo.

“I must be honest, I’ve never seen her take to a customer like that. In time, almost all my girls end up falling in love with a customer and retiring, but not after two days,” she said while continuing to sniff the bottle. She could no longer help herself.

“You really care for them, don’t you?”

“Of course. In life, you must find family wherever you can.”

“Good words to live by. But her feelings haven’t changed your mind, have they?”

“I’m afraid not, sorry.”

“You don’t need to apologize, I have no grudge against you. I made a mistake and these are the consequences. If anything, I applaud you for cornering me. Besides, I know you’re afraid, afraid for the women here, and you’re just doing what you have to in order to keep them safe. Do whatever you need to do.”

“Not the kind of answer I’d expect from someone like you. You’re not like the other boys that come in here.” Cyrilo left the table and jumped up onto a nearby bureau, where a folding fan lay. “This fan was a farewell present from one of my girls, Ariella. She’d dance on stage and use fans to tantalize customers. She was Ezerian, and spent several years here, saving up her money for her family back home. When she was finally ready, she gave me that fan and set sail with my blessing. A few years ago, I woke up in the middle of the night to find a Harajin in my bedroom. I assumed he was there to kill me, then realized he was holding a baby.”

“I think I know where this is going,” Noah said as he sat on a nearby couch.

“The Harajin are descended from diseased exiles, with every generation born disfigured. Under their masks and bandages, their flesh is molted and ugly, so they conceal themselves at all times to hide their shameful bodies from the gods, fearing the same revulsion their ancestors witnessed when they were cast into the desert. To keep the clans strong, they often kidnap healthy women and children to raise as their own or use as breeding slaves. Ariella ended up being one such woman and was owned by a man named Grond, but what was originally master and slave became husband and wife. The closest thing to love the Harajin can experience, he felt for her, and she for him.

She died soon after childbirth, having delivered a healthy boy, free of disease or deformity. It was her dying wish that their son not grow up to become one of the Harajin, to live a free and happy life, a life without masks and knives. Her family was no more, but there was one person in this world she knew she could trust: me. I myself could not raise the child, so I found him a loving home. Another one of my girls, having retired and married, was unable to bear children, so she and her husband took him in.

Grond broke the laws of the Harajin to give his son a better life, and the child was loved by his mother, just as I loved her. Every now and then, I check on the boy, even help support the family when money is tight. In exchange for my help, Grond got me in contact with an alchemist that works for the Harajin, one who specializes in mold and fungal concoctions. The potion you brought me was supposed to be derived from a special mushroom that grows in the desert. It has a small window for harvest and shelf life, and this was the only time it could be delivered to me.”

“I’m sorry the potion isn’t what you wanted. Your friend must have made a mistake.”

“Hmmm, what a pain. Do you swear that this really is the potion Grond gave you?”

“You have my word.”

Cyrilo closed her yellow eyes and breathed deeply. “Very well. You did perform the task I gave you, so I’ll amend your banned status, but your evening privileges are revoked until Knight’s Day passes. I don’t want you under my roof while Red Revelries are happening.”

“I appreciate it, Madam. Thank you.”

Adwith Tarnas entered the knight corps infirmary, a sunlit room built within what was once part of a cathedral. Most of the beds were empty, save for a few bronze knights receiving treatment. As a rule, knights could only use healing and mana potions in life or death situations, so nonlethal wounds were tended to with light magic. Those performing the spells were women dressed in white vestments, covering everything but their faces and hands. Seeing him, the healers turned away from their patients to bow and greet him.

In two beds were Frigga and Holmes, both sound asleep with bandages around their heads. By their side was Sir Elyot. “Glad you could make it,” he said as Tarnas approached.

“What happened? Was it the Harajin?”

“I believe so. They were both found unconscious.” On a table beside him, he picked up a glass jar with a small throwing knife inside. “This was pulled out of Lady Frigga’s eye. It’s laced with a paralyzing agent. I believe Holmes was likewise afflicted, but he got a smaller dose. Luckily, while they were removing the blade, one of the healers began tending to Holmes and discovered this on him first.” Elyot held up another jar with several bits of fungus inside. “As soon as they cast their light, this appeared in the wound and they asked for my help. It appears to be teller mold. There are spores mixed in with the poison, probably on purpose.”

“I thought that only grew on the inside of potion bottles?”

“Normally it does, feeding on the nourishing mana of health potions. This is a different kind and apparently can also feed on the mana of healing spells. It spread so fast, we almost had to amputate his arm. We carved a lot of flesh off, leaving just enough for the limb to be healed later. In Frigga’s case, the spores seem to be contained within her eye, but we can’t be sure, and should any attempt be made to heal her wound, it will flourish and spread to her brain. Holmes’s scratch is also too close for comfort.”

“Something this specialized probably didn’t occur naturally. It must have been cultivated by an alchemist.”

“My thoughts exactly, but that is good for us. Only a fool would use poisoned weapons without carrying an antidote. If the Harajin who did this doesn’t have it, the maker surely does.”

“You planning a trip to Ezeria to find the maker?”

“Of course not, I’ll just make an antidote. If some alchemist in the desert can do it, so can I. On the low odds that I can’t, we should keep a lookout for any antidotes the Harajin carry. But that isn’t the biggest problem, is it?”

Tarnas released a deep sigh. “I guess this blows the peace accord theory out of the water.”

“You know...” Tarnas and Elyot turned to Holmes, slowly rising up in his bed. His arm was in a sling and wrapped in bloody bandages. “With all due respect, you two talk way too loud. This is the infirmary, after all.”

“Sir Holmes, glad you see you’re still with the living. How do you feel?”

“I can’t feel my arm, and everything is either numb or hurts.”

“Can you tell us what happened?”

“Well, you already know it was the Harajin that did this. Helena and I spotted someone suspicious duck behind the church and we decided to investigate. He was wounded. We asked him about this peace accord thing, but he appeared not very keen on the whole idea of peace. I had him cornered when his friend appeared with a blade to Helen’s throat. I dropped my sword and the two of them high-tailed it out of there.”

“Anything else?”

“The peace accord thing, I don’t think the first guy knew about it, but the second guy did, at least he knew what was going on. He spared Helena because he said both sides should keep the body count low. You might call that a peace agreement.”

“For a Harajin to actually spare someone, especially a witness, means he was spooked by something. I spoke with the king and he knew nothing of any peace talks. Gradius swears that he saw an official knight’s sword in the Harajin’s hands.”

“Keep in mind, this is a guy with fire shooting out of his helmet. Maybe you shouldn’t put so much faith on his visual prowess,” said Elyot. He then turned to Holmes. “As for you and Lady Frigga, until I come up with a cure for that fungus, you two are confined to your beds.”

Holmes laid back. “You’ll hear no complaints from me.”

There was a soft mumble, drawing all eyes to Frigga, stuck in a half-asleep state. “All you ever do is complain,” she said, before once more falling silent.

Tarnas and Elyot gave the knights their peace and left the infirmary, however, they did not separate and continued walking side by side, neither with a real destination in mind. “So, are you going to ask me or not?” Elyot inquired.

“I wasn’t sure I needed to. It’s clear that Valon is still missing. If he hasn’t contacted you by now, a fellow alchemist, then he doesn’t want to come back. Were you able to get any of his research?”

“Nothing. Whatever he didn’t take, he burned before leaving. Valia said he was working on some kind of mental magic, but I can’t find a single trace of it.”

“She seems to be holding up well.”

“Maybe on the outside. I just don’t know if she has what it takes to teach the cadets in her current condition. Even elves can run out of patience. Those princes alone will be a nightmare.”

“Watch yourself.”

“All I’m saying is that those two are deathly in need of attitude adjustments.”

“They can learn to be better men.”

“Speaking of which, I heard Gradius attacked Lady Opal. Your mad dog is at risk of being put down.”

“He’ll be fine once we get past Knight’s Day. He just doesn’t know any better.”

“Precisely my point, he doesn’t. He can’t be fixed. Besides, is that the standard you really want to set? That trying to kill a comrade can be simply excused because of some rough nights? The irony, an executioner who can’t tell right from wrong.”

“He’s too valuable of an asset to simply discard. He can be fully civilized, then he will be a godsend.”

“I still say you should have never brought him into the city. What could you of all people be so afraid of that you’d let him walk the streets?”

“Enemies both old and new. I don’t want to let his power go to waste. Anyway, I’ll be taking his place on patrol, see if I can rustle up some desert rats.”

Afternoon had turned into evening by the time Daniel left the Knight’s Sheath, though it was with little strength. The pay was decent, but the dawn-to-dusk workday was still a merciless vampire of his stamina. Along with performing various other chores, he had been rolling so many joints that he could taste the papyrus through his fingers. Regardless, the growling of his stomach and mind would not let him rest, both in need of nourishment. He bought some borc skewers to satisfy the former, while protecting the latter by not wondering what species the meats came from. The sauce, though, he wouldn’t mind learning.

Like the food, these streets were familiar to him. The world was getting less random and scary each day, now being padded with the safety of routine. It had been two months since he splashed into this society, and he was finally learning how to follow the current. Still, familiarity could not subdue his longing for his old world. To feel the soil of his homeland under his feet, to understand the words written all around him, to hear the music of his own culture; these were just a few of the desires incessantly pestering him.

There was no real home for him to return to, no one waiting for him, but still, it was the life he had always known. Even a dredge of society like him was spoiled by the fruits of the modern world, and now, walking in these streets, he was reminded of how much he took for granted. How wonderful it would be to have a life where not everything had to be a process, to return to an “instant” world.

‘Buttons. Good God, I miss pressing buttons.’

His wandering brought him to the shop of the harp-maker. The door was locked, causing Daniel’s stomach to begin to twist. He started knocking and calling out for the old man, but no reply came. His breathing was unsteady as panic began to grip him. He needed to get in there. After the day he had, he couldn’t just go back with nothing.

Finally, the door opened, putting Daniel face to face with the sawdust-covered craftsman, obviously in no mood to talk. “Shop’s closed!”

“Sorry, I just need to see my guitar!”

“Your what? Oh, it’s you. It’s not done yet. Come back tomorrow.”

Daniel jammed his foot into the door. “Please, just let me see how far it is! I need this!”

“I don’t show half-finished work. You’re just going to have to wait like everybody else.”

“I’m begging you, I need to see it. I need it in my head or I’ll go crazy!”

Whether it was Daniel’s exhausted eyes, frantic words, or the whiteness of his knuckles as he gripped the door, something convinced the harp-maker. “Fine, you get a quick look, but that’s it. I got to make dinner.”

Daniel was let inside and the harp-maker brought him to the back of the shop, away from customer eyes. There, at a workbench decorated with weathered tools, lay the soundboard and neck of his new guitar, carved elegantly from a piece of redwood. To the left, the shell that would be used to give it a body, and to the right, his old guitar, now looking so old and decrepit, like it would crumble into dust and splinters from the slightest touch.

Daniel lifted the unfinished piece with humble hands, and a deep shuddering breath escaped him, as if he had just surfaced from a dark ocean. At the moment, it was just a slab of wood, lighter than he was used to, lacking strings for his fingers to run along, and sitting in his palm awkwardly compared to his old guitar, but he could already hear it, the music that it would soon make. The hissing, crinkling static ever-present in his mind, the chorus of angry sounds both inside and around him that brought him his suffering, they fell silent, quelled by notes unnamed and rhythms unwritten.

“So, is this what you had in mind?” the harp-maker asked, shaking Daniel from his thoughts.

“Oh, yeah, this is amazing, just right. You say you’ll have it done by tomorrow?”

“I should.”

Daniel mustered up all his strength and put the piece back down. “Thank you. I won’t take any more of your time.”

He left the shop and stepped back into the street. It was getting dark, and only the taverns were still open. The Knight’s Sheath would probably close its doors before it got too late and the Red Revelry began. He didn’t have to work that evening, meaning he could just collapse on his little cot and sleep like the dead.

“You!”

Daniel looked back and felt his heart sink. It was the adventurer from the previous evening, Ralph, the one who woke up while being dragged and attacked him. If not for Rita, he’d still be sporting a black eye, though it was now hurting as if the wound was fresh.

“Oh shit!”

Daniel took off, running for his life. He had to get to the Knight’s Sheath, or at least find someone to help him. There were still people out in the streets, though not enough for Daniel to disappear into a crowd. He could hear Ralph behind him, and while he had a head start, he felt it closing. Daniel was exhausted and out of shape, while Ralph was an active adventurer. To Daniel, it felt like he was running a marathon, yet he didn’t get far before he was tackled and dragged into an alley.

The last of the light faded, immersing Colbrand in darkness. In an abandoned home cleared of squatters, it was as black as the deepest mines of Vandheim, but the five Harajin were untroubled. As assassins, darkness was not a hindrance to them, rather it was their home.

“The potion is missing?” one of them asked.

“Yes, lost in battle,” said Grond.

“What do we do now?” a female Harajin, Tora, asked.

“Urandil and the elders were clear. It has to be recovered at any cost,” another said.

Klein didn’t immediately speak. The fact remained that Oritz’s killer was likely among them. He had not yet revealed information about the supposed peace accord, so Grond was the only other member who knew the situation. “Grond, I believe your original mission was to kill revelers so they could not join the knighthood, yes?”

“That is correct.” That was only his cover for coming to Colbrand, a common-enough assignment.

“Then that is what we will do. Grond was fighting against a reveler, so we’ll assume that they have the potion. We’ll move as a group and hunt all of the revelers down until we find it.”

“What about the knights?”

“We avoid them for now. If the revelers don’t bring any results, the knights might be our next target.”

Please comment! But enough of the spam, seriously.
3 comments

moooow2Report

2021-01-30 00:07:58
good story!

Grape ApeReport

2021-01-29 03:17:21
Love your work. I check back everyday hoping for a new installment. Please keep them coming

RaudhbjornReport

2021-01-28 14:18:22
Glad to see you're still posting the good stuff!

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