Prologue

The dark robed figure stood in the shadows. Breathing steadily, it kept its face and features concealed within a deep cowl. It waited patiently as it always did. Hearing a stirring on the other side of the door, it opened its eyes, glowing blue slits of eldritch power. The quiet grating and snick of key entering lock, followed by a sharp click as the lock’s barrel turned, brought a twisted smile to the remains of its face. It could hear the man breathing, cursing quietly under his breath, his sleeve caught on the door handle as it often did. It watched as he closed the door behind him and strode across the room to a small cabinet that housed a selection of fine liqueurs.

 

The amber scent and the gentle play of syrupy dwarven spirits being poured was pleasant, if not intoxicating in its own right. The man took a deep sip and breathed out with a sigh. He moved to a nearby soft upholstered seat and settled himself, relaxing his gaunt frame into its welcoming grasp. A few moments passed in silence, the man breathing in the heady scent.

 

‘Are you comfortable, human?’ it said, its voice coming out as a sinister gravelly whisper.

 

The man stiffened, gripping his glass of spirits, his knuckles whitened, the hair rising on the back of his neck, a shiver running down his spine.

 

‘There is no need to offer, I can pour my own.’ it said, its voice mocking yet amused with itself as it observed the man’s sudden rigid posture.

 

‘I, I didn’t realise you had returned.’ the gaunt man said, clearly unsettled, a cold sweat beading on his brow.

 

He watched the imposing cloaked figure emerge from the shadows and stride across the room. He shivered again, a bandaged, clawed hand reached out and opened the cabinet the man frequented and lifted out the bottle of dwarven spirits. It took a healthy swig of the amber liqueur and chuckled to itself, a rough rattling sound from the chest.

 

The man watched, shifting in his seat with unease as it moved to place the bottle back away, ‘Please, take the bottle, surely you need some after such a long journey?’ he said, struggling to keep his voice steady.

 

A raspy chuckle resonated from the hood, ‘Do I hear a hint of concern in your voice, Chancellor Yildslir of the Enclave? Or do you fear one such as I has tainted your bottle?’ it chuckled again, ‘Your plan is unfolding at my bidding. I have delivered that item to your contact, though I do not find it amusing to have to do your job for you and be used as a simple errand-boy for your schemes. You forget who is in control here.’

 

Chancellor Yildslir slipped from the chair, kneeling, ‘I am sorry, it is only this one time, I could not see how to get it into the right hands on such short notice… Please, I beg of you, he still does have his hands, doesn’t he?’ the Chancellor asked hurriedly.

 

The glowing blue slits narrowed as another raspy chuckle escaped from the hood. It savoured the scent of fear in the room. Especially the fear of those who believe themselves above others. It left the question unanswered, amused as it watched the Chancellor squirm.

 

‘This woman is proving to be a thorn in your side, a thorn of your own making, is she not, Chancellor? Asking questions here and there, uncovering both truths and half-truths.’

 

‘She is, my lord.’ the Chancellor said with bowed head.

 

‘I am not your Lord, I am one you fear. I told you to cut her loose, let her leave with her children. You are a fool who did not listen. Why do you keep trying to have her killed, I am sure you have proven to yourself that it is a difficult task, quite beyond your means, I find it macabre pursuit that you spend such effort to rid yourself of a nuisance that wants to leave this place.’

 

‘Your word guides us, Lord.’

 

The blue eyes flared angrily in the dark of the hood, the Chancellor lowering his head in supplication, averting his eyes in the fear of being struck, ‘We, I underestimated her.’

 

‘You did, didn’t you?’ it said sharply, turning away from the kotowing Chancellor.

 

‘If…’ it heard the man say quietly.

 

‘You dare? Make sure you know what you are asking, Chancellor, the payment will be a hand, a leg or maybe that pathetic life of yours.’ it said with a sinister chuckle.

 

‘Either way, I find her to be an inquisitive specimen, I find her intriguing, how she thwarts your every move against her, innocently and without effort. It is an entertaining spectacle, watching her poke and prod at your exposed underbelly, unknowingly upsetting your plans. She reminds me of someone from my past.’ it turned its sharply glowing eyes on him, ‘You are becoming fixated on a minor distraction.’

 

‘But, we are running out of time. You are observing her? Then you can see that she will uncover our plans.’ a level of desperation in the Chancellor’s voice.

 

‘Let me correct you, Chancellor. You are running out of time. Time is of no consequence to me. Be it now, tomorrow, a thousand years from now, or never. You have this vested belief that I care for your deluded schemes of elevating this backwater empire into a world power. It is clear you do not understand the greater world around you.’

 

It looked down at him, ‘If you had let her go, and not insisted that she continued on the path, would you have this problem now?’

 

The Chancellor gritted his teeth in concealed anger as the blood-red cloaked figure walked back toward the shadows.

 

Suddenly the cloaked figure stopped, making a rough tutting sound, ‘Chancellor, remember, I can replace you. Maybe the one who vexes you so would be more suited to the task of courting the darkness, without a doubt at least she is more competent.’ it stopped and stood beside the desk, reaching into its cloak and bringing forth a pouch, tossing it onto the table.

 

‘At least she has knowledge and wisdom despite her age. She sets goals that she knows how to attain. Unlike your simplistic and consuming thirst for power over others.’ again the raspy chuckle.

 

‘I will be keeping an eye on your progress, Chancellor. Impress me, or I will place my faith elsewhere, or I might inform your benefactor of your extracurricular activities.’

 

Chancellor Yildslir looked up as silence descended on the room. He glanced around, he was alone. A cold runnel of sweat trickled from his brow, making him shiver. All warmth had been sucked out of the air, he quickly moved to the windows and opened them, letting the late summer warmth flood the room.

 

He steadied himself against the window’s ledge, breathing deeply, calming himself, he spoke to the silence, ‘Benefactor? She has mostly forgotten about us. Truthfully, I doubt she would care.’

 

Meeting with that nightmare was always an unsettling experience. Gathering himself, he stood tall. He briefly glanced at the soft, velvet bag that was left on the table.

 

He went to the door, wrenched it open and spoke with authority, ‘Elonus? The man I spoke to earlier, has he already left?’

 

A softly spoken, thin man came forward, ‘I do believe so, I directed him to the hall of study. They might be able to shed some light on his question and on that curious possession of his.’

 

‘Curious indeed.’ echoed the Chancellor.

 

Elonus bowed, handing him a sealed nondescript envelope, ‘Chancellor, the missive you were awaiting arrived earlier today.’

 

The Chancellor nodded, taking the letter absently, his thoughts on the words of his dark facilitator.

 

‘Elonus, have that man followed while he is here. Try to learn more about him without drawing attention.’

 

‘Chancellor, consider it done. Leave it in my hands.’ Elonus saluted and quickly left the chamber.

 

The Chancellor stood, absently breaking the seal and opening the letter. His eyes settled on the flowing script and the message within, a sadistic smile came to his lips. They had been paid and were readied and in place, finally he would rid himself of the one who vexed him so. He returned to his private chambers, dropping the letter onto his desk. He eyed the velvet bag with trepidation, tentatively picking it up and untying the drawstrings. Opening it slowly, he peered inside. All colour drained from his face as he recognised the contents. Inside, was a man’s right hand, cleanly cut and cauterised at the wrist. A small tattoo of a gear between thumb and forefinger that he instantly recognised as belonging to his contact. There was a small note tied to a finger.

 

He grimaced and retrieved the bloodied slip of paper, turning it over and reading it, ‘Payment for services rendered.’ he said aloud, shaking his head, ‘By the gods…’ 

 

 

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