Wagging Tongues Will - Part XXXI

Dusk was beginning to settle upon the land. Marin glanced down the road ahead expectantly. The city of Ellcaran stood not too far off, though it would be still some time before they reached their destination. He hoped that it would be in time to please his master, and worried ceaselessly that it would not be. Glancing back every few minutes, he saw that Thulin was still laying prone upon the mare’s back where Marin had tied him down. If only he would stir they could ride together and beat the sunset.

Looking out towards the west he could see the sun dipping beneath the grey layer of clouds that spanned the sky. The hills and trees blocked his view of the ocean itself, but Marin knew it was there. The scent of salt was vaguely discernable in the chill winter air. It would not be long before the bottom of the sun touched those lifeless boughs, painting them red. Many of the villagers who lived in the shanties lining the road had already closed their windows and doors. He wished he could spare the time to ask one for the loan of a cart, but he doubted that any would part with one.

Marin grimaced as he looked once more to his companion and fellow merchant. Thulin was still unconscious, arms dangling beneath the mare’s belly, rope tying them to his legs and fastening him to the saddle. If Marin pressed the horses any faster than a walk he could do serious harm to his friend, and that was something he did not wish. And he knew his master would be terribly angry with him if he did so. He sighed and continued his inevitable march against the sunset.

Zagrosek opened the door to his quarters slowly, so as not to alarm Agathe. Kaleas was waiting downstairs in the Main Hall with warm drink and food, and would alert him immediately should either Marin or Thulin return. There was little else he could do but wait, and so he would see how the trial was progressing.

“Did you find them?” Agathe asked as he stepped in and shut the door behind him.

“I found Kaleas, but not the others. Thulin has apparently led town on horseback, and Marin is chasing after him.”

“You should have put him in chains,” Agathe said in a reproachful tone. Her one eye though never wavered from the darkened mirror. A slight flickering could be seen in the empty socket though, the ugly red light growing in intensity, and then subsiding once more.

Zagrosek shrugged and crossed to the far wall. “You are probably right about that. If it cannot be tonight, then it can be tomorrow. Thulin will not be able to get far before the cards have him though.”

Agathe snorted. “You speak of it as if it were nothing. No one has attempted to use the Pillars in five hundred years.”

He laughed slowly at that. “I know. And then it was used to thwart our goal. Fate does have a sense of irony.”

“You are right about that. Listen to your friend the rat.”

Zagrosek paused and let the words coming from the mirror wash over him. The voice was one he knew instantly, even though it had changed from what it had been in his youth. But what he was speaking of brought another, more firmer laugh from the Sondecki. “He’s talking about me! Hah! I remember that incident now, though I’m afraid he is seriously overplaying my role in it.”

“Modesty?” Agathe said, her tone mocking. “From you? This is a first.”

Zagrosek shrugged and leaned back against the wall, still smiling. “We all have our burdens to bear.” Yet the Runecaster said nothing in return. And so Zagrosek listened to Charles describe their times long ago, laughing every now and then as he remembered them.

Misha smiled as Charles finished telling of his last time together with Zagrosek before he came to the Keep. After hearing of those stories he could not help but wish to meet this man. For surely Krenek Zagrosek was the sort he would love to count as an ally and as a friend. His resolute and firm commitment to justice was not easily matched, this the fox knew from his own experience.

And as the fox caught the gazes of all those in the room, he knew there was only one who believed the rat guilty, and that was Phil. He did not know how Malisa felt, but he was certain that she would not find Charles guilty of all that he’d been accused of. As for the rest, he knew they thought of his friend as completely innocent, and had also begun to believe that Zagrosek was too.

However, there were a few more things that needed to be asked, to put to rest the arguments that Phil had made. Leaning in a bit closer, he smiled once more. “Now, Matthias. Knowing what you do now, is there anything in the last year you would have done differently?”

Charles sat for a moment, raising his paws up a bit, before the chain caught them. “Mostly I suppose it would be to have insisted that my group watch over the Patriarch’s party more closely. I’m not sure we would have been able to change the outcome, but at least we would have done something aside from cleaning up the mess.”

“Is there anything else?”

“Probably accept your offer to join the Long Scouts sooner than I did.”

Misha could not help but feel a bit of pride in that. “Would you have revealed your Sondeckis nature sooner?”

Charles grimaced for a moment. “To folks such as yourself, probably. I still would not have made it public knowledge.”

“And would you have spoken about Zagrosek to the rest of us?”

The rat thought a moment, and then shook his head. “Not at first no. The first time he had been seen, it could have been some terrible mistake. I would still have waited to know more before acting. After I had been told that Zagrosek was accused of killing the Patriarch, I think I may have spoken up and defended his name, but that is all.”

“So you do not feel that your silence has brought any harm to the Keep?”

Charles favoured Misha with an annoyed moue. “Aside from this trial, no, I do not think so.”

Misha nodded firmly then. “And what of the item that you kept, the one that Habakkuk spoke of. Would you have given it back earlier if you could have?”

The rat rubbed part of his right arm with one paw then, as if remembering something. He then shook his head. “No, I don’t think I would have. I was not ready to do so just then.”

“What finally made you decide to give it back?”

“A fellow Sonedcki telling me I should. A good friend pointing out how I had violated justice in keeping it. Only then was I able to see the error of my ways.”

Misha crossed his paws over each other. “And just who told you this?”

Charles smiled slightly then, his tail twitching behind him in amusement. “Krenek Zagrosek.”

Quite a few in the crowd started at that, some even laughed in triumph. Misha nodded, quite pleased to hear this. He’d hoped it had been that way, though he was disappointed that his own word had not been enough to convince Charles to give it back. He would have to speak to the rat about that later. At the moment, he was just glad for one more bit of information to prove his case.

Turning about, he looked to Malisa, his tail wagging despite himself. “I have no further questions for Matthias, Prime Minister.”

Malisa nodded and struck the gavel. “Return Charles to his booth.” The rat stood even as the two guards led him back to the far wall. “You may make your closing remarks now, Misha Brightleaf.”

The fox took a deep breath, bringing all of his thoughts together. There was so much he could say, but how much did he really need to impart? He did not know the answer to that question, but knew he had to say something. And so, taking one more breath, he at last spoke. “What have we been trying to discover here today? This is a very complicated puzzle, and we have been trying to understand the roles that Charles and his friend Krenek Zagrosek have played within it. I think that if you look at what others have seen of these two men, and what is definitively known about their mage clan the Sondeckis, then you have to conclude that neither could have done what they have been accused of.

“The Sondeckis are a clan that uphold justice, and we have heard how exemplary Krenek Zagrosek has been at this. How then are we to believe that the same man is also guilty of controlling Loriod and of killing the Patriarch? We are told that we must accept the testimony of witnesses who did not see him very well. Yet we also know that any appearance could easily be faked, and that there exists a clan rival to the Sondeckis who would be capable of fighting in the manner of a Sondeckis. Furthermore, this clan is dedicated to bringing chaos, something that would have directly resulted from Loriod’s ascendency, and something still likely to come in the wake of the Patriarch’s murder.

“This clan has the motive and the ability to frame the Sondeckis for these crimes. And we know that all of it is magically possible, especially with such dark forces as this censer being involved. Why should we ever believe that with such a powerful force as this censer that they would allow their human agents to be so openly known? These are very dangerous events, and we cannot proceed on an impulse, or a false lead that the enemy has planted for us. And accusing Zagrosek for these crimes is exactly the sort of false lead we need to avoid.

“Besides, after hearing what those who have seen both Charles and Zagrosek in action, we should not even be willing to entertain the notion that either is capable of true evil in any measure. Zagrosek distinguished himself during the siege in his tireless struggle to help the folks of Glen Avery. He only left when the battle had been won. He even went so far as to lend his healing abilities to the people of the Glen. How could this be the same man who had mercilessly slaughtered the Patriarch? It cannot.

“And we have also heard many tell of the good that Charles has done. He has served the Keep honourably and ably these last eight months. I am proud to have served at his side. His efforts as a Long Scout have been above reproach as you have heard. And you have also heard how gentle he can be. His soul is a tender one, one incapable of the malice ascribed to him. This is not a man who would kill the Patriarch or protect one who had killed the Patriarch.

“Yes, he has made mistakes. We all have. But he has shown time and again that he is able to recognize his mistakes, and correct them. And when it came to a matter of justice, Krenek Zagrosek himself was the one who corrected him and made him realize his error. But in every step, Charles has done what he felt was right. And it is for those reasons, that I ask you to find him innocent of all the charges laid against him, Prime Minister.”

Malisa took a heavy breath then as the fox finished speaking. She scanned the faces in the hall, though mostly Phil and Misha’s own. Finally she leaned forward, hands resting upon the wooden gavel. “I need time alone to consider all of this before I reach my verdict. I will return at sunset with my decision, and any action I deem necessary to carry out that decision.”

She then rose, and all in the hall rose with her as one. All eyes were upon her as she filed out the door she had come through, her black robe billowing about her slim proportions the entire way. Thomas watched her go with no envy in his eyes, but instead, a sort of regret that he could not lift the burden from her shoulders. Misha held his breath until the door was shut behind her. He then exhaled, and stepped back across the room towards Caroline, smiling hopefully. The otter returned the gesture, offering him her arms. He took them and they embraced in a tight hug.

Misha looked back to Charles then, who sat expectantly in his booth. The rat shrugged as he caught the fox’s glance, but smiled nonetheless. Misha knew well the look – it was out of their paws now, they simply had to wait and see. He had never wanted the sun to set so much as he did just then.

Marin bared his teeth in a grimace as he watched the sun head towards the horizon. Sunset could not be far off now. Thulin was shifting slightly on the mare’s back, but did not appear to be waking, rather he was suffering from some strange dream. But his fellow merchant did not wonder what it might be, only how long it would take before he would be able to ride in the saddle again.

Snarling in frustration he cried, “Wake up, damnit!” But Thulin did not stir, his face contorting in whatever nightmare landscape he faced. First it was a mix of fright, and then of rage, and finally some horrible melancholy that chilled Marin far more than the wind could.

He turned about in his saddle, staring at the road ahead. The city was not terribly far off now. He could begin to make out the crenellated battlements along the city walls. It would not be long before he would be ale to glimpse the watchman patrolling those walls, or the individual buildings rising above that cold masonry. Somewhere amongst those gambled roofs was his master, waiting expectantly for his return. Marin could not help but wonder how he would be received when that time finally came. Would it be as an honoured servant who’d done his job well, or as a fool who had disappointed his master?

Marin shook that thought from his head as he stared past the upright ears of his stallion along the dirt road. It was strewn with small rocks, and bits of snow between cracks in the dirt. Most of the rest of it had been cleared along the sides. The centre of the thoroughfare was raised, demonstrating the years of wagon or carriages that it had supported. It would not be long before he returned to the cobblestones. Perhaps the sound of horse hooves against stones would wake his friend?

A sudden scream jolted Marin out of his contemplation of the road. The horses lurched forward slightly, the stallion’s ears splaying to the side, as he let out a neigh of protest and fright. Marin snapped his head around as he tried to bring his horse back under control with the reins. The fields about were empty, even of trees, fallow land for leagues on either side of the road. But it did not take him long to realize that the scream had come from his fellow merchant.

The scream had not lasted more than a moment either. Marin turned about to find Thulin still laying there, his shriek ended, though face still contorted agonizingly. His arms twitched a bit, fingers balling into fists, and then relaxing helplessly. The rest of him shivered against some terrible cold. Marin had wrapped him warmly in blankets, so it must have been something from within his nightmares.

“Thulin?” Marin called out, his voice soft, as if he were afraid it might summon something unpleasant to his side, something awakened by his friend’s cry. But the merchant did not respond, but continued to lay there, eyes clenched shut tight. He gave a tender tug on the reins, and let the mare come up alongside his own steed. Leaning over, Marin gently shook his friend’s shoulders. Yet still he did not stir.

With a grimace, Marin let him rest upon the mare’s back. With a slight nudge to the stallion’s ribs, he edged him back out into the front of their group, letting the mare follow behind again. He could just see the cobblestones a minute’s ride ahead. Perhaps he would reach the city gates before sundown?

A man in loose fitting white robes paced back and forth through the corridor. The windows were all open, letting in the warm night air, starry sky shining bright over the moonlight waves. It was unseasonably warm this late in the season, a strange current brought in on the tides. As he paced, hands clutched firmly behind his back, the elder man could not help but consider it an ill wind.

Ten paces in one direction, and ten paces back, he kept up that rhythm as the minutes passed. Fanciful torches set in sconces along the wall opposite each wide window provided a hearty illumination. They outlined the wide doorway that stood mutely shut, flanked only by two guards dressed in tight orange jerkins. The man pulled his own bright robe closer about him, eyes unable to pry themselves from that door, wondering when next it would open.

His own retainer stood at the far wall between two of the open windows. The youth was rubbing his hands together nervously, eyes following his master with a keen sense of urgency. There could be no doubt in his posture what he feared, what they all feared that night. Even the sound of the waves crashing into the breakers held harsh misgivings. The man was so intent and distraught that he, born and raised all his life along the sea, could not determine what the tide was.

But his interminable waiting had its end, as they always must. After what felt like hours pacing in that hall, there came the sound of the lock being undone. The thick bountifruit door was pulled inwards, and the stout form of another younger man could be seen. He was in his late thirties, and already his hair was greying along the edges.

“Doctor,” the pacing man said as he came to a stop. “Is he?”

The physician frowned then, a sight that led all their hearts to sink. “I do not know, Minister. We must wait and see. I’ve done all that I can for him now.”

The minister nodded gravely, his hands balling into fists. He did not know what he could do with them, though he wished to break something, he was far too old to have any hope of breaking anything but his own bones. “Is he awake?”

His question was answered by a second figure, another youth that stood just within the doorway behind the doctor. “His majesty wishes to see you, Minister Niacles.”

Niacles nodded and gestured for his own retainer to follow him in. The guards stood aside, though after the two of them were through, they pulled the door shut again. The King’s servant locked the door behind them, and gestured to the canopied bed that occupied the centre of the chambers. The drapes had been drawn over the bed and all of the windows on the cliff-side wall, leaving the room with the foul musty odour of sickness.

Gesturing for his retainer to wait by the door, Niacles walked to the bed, and knelt beside it. “My King,” he said in a low voice. “I am here.”

The voice which answered him was weak, though the firmness he had known all his years remained. “Niacles, my old friend, you look well.” The face of his King was frail, though the hair was only just streaked with grey and black. Whatever illness had come upon him had taken a terrible toll indeed.

“I wish I could say the same of you.”

The King let out a short laugh, followed by a round of coughing that made the minister flinch. He was not a medical man, but he knew a cough of that sort could not bode well for any man. When he’d regained his breath, he said, “I have penned a message just now that I wish you to read.”

“Where is it?”

The King’s servant had already retrieved the document, rolled up in a scroll so that he might not read it. Niacles took it from his hands, and with the lamplight next to the bedside, read what words had been written. The writing itself was done neatly, though there were a few loose strokes of the pen here and there. The King had written this in his own hand, he could see that clearly.

When he finished reading, he rolled it back up and held onto it. “I think this is the right thing to do, your majesty.”

The King nodded against the pillow. “I knew you would. Fetch my seal and the wax.”

Niacles rose as instructed and saw both upon the mahogany table on the other side of the room. He quickly retrieved them and placed them besides the sick man’s arm. “Here they are, your majesty.”

With his servant’s help, the King sat up on his elbows. Niacles took the message, folded it properly, and placed a bit of warm wax over the crease. With a firm press, the King fixed his seal upon the wax, and set it all aside, laying back down with a look of clear relief. The Minister took the note, and set it on the bedside, allowing the wax a moment to cool. He then took the items and returned them to the table.

“Do you wish me to have this sent by dragon?” Niacles asked as he knelt beside the bed once more.

The King nodded, eyes closed. “Yes, my friend.”

“Rest, your majesty,” Niacles added, rising to his feet. Your kingdom will be safe.

“I know,” was all the aged ruler managed to say before sleep claimed him. He lay there, face ghostly pale, bundled beneath the thick blankets. Whatever ailed him was not going to strike him down without a terrible fight.

Niacles gestured to his own retainer walking back to the door with the letter in one hand. The servant was quick to unlock and open the door for them. Outside in the hall, the minister found that the doctor had begun to pace as well.

“Is he?”

“Sleeping,” Niacles answered. “Sleeping peacefully for now. You have done your job this night. Return again to his side in the morning.”

“Of course minister,” the doctor replied, inclining his head respectfully, before reluctantly walking down the passage.

Niacles turned to his retainer then. “Andwin, take this note to Heraclitus the dragon. Instruct him that this message must be delivered to his highness Prince Philip at Metamor Keep.”

Andwin bowed and took the note in his hands, careful not to touch the wax holding it shut. “I will, Minister.” And the youth had to restrain himself from running down the hall in eagerness to fulfill this duty.

Niacles watched him until he turned down a corner. He then walked to one of the wide windows, and leaned out along the ledge. The night was dark overhead, stars twinkling unknowingly of what transpired beneath their gaze. He breathed in the salty sea air, and watched the waves crash upon the rocks far below.

The sun had reached the sea to the West, full and red, the sea shimmering brightly at its touch. Marin gritted his teeth as he watched lin by line of it sink beneath the horizon, dusk slowly but inexorably creeping upon him. How he wished he could just stop that rusty orb in its place, give him the time he needed to reach the city gates. Though he did not know how he knew, Marin was certain that he needed to find his master before night was upon them.

Thulin’s nightmares had subsided in the last few minutes, but he still occasionally twitched this way ort hat. If it weren’t for the ropes holding him to the mare, he would have flung himself off constantly. Marin glanced back over his shoulder to check upon him, and trembled slightly as he saw that his friend’s eyes were open and staring wildly about.

“Thulin!” Marin cried out, though not daring to stop the horses for even a moment. Yet the man did not answer, just continued to vacantly stare. “Thulin, it’s me, Marin. Thulin, are you awake?”

Still the man remained silent, staring up at his fellow merchant. But those eyes began to move, slowly, tracing down across Marin’s chest. The young man shivered at the sight, it felt as if his friend were gazing at him from another world. “Thulin, wake up!” he cried, giving the mare’s reins a tug. She drew up closer, close enough for him to reach his friend. He reached over and shook his shoulder, the head turning so that it could watch him.

Marin recoiled his hand at that, staring back into those eyes. There was something behind them, something unpleasant that he could not name. Thulin had been toiling around strangely in that deserted wood when he’d found him. Could something have happened to him there? Marin did not know the folklore of this area, but he did know that no region was without its mysteries. What ghastly emanations could have been haunting that wood, and what could have latched upon and tortured his friend so?

And then, Marin thought of how his master would react if he did not at least try to bring his friend up from this hateful state. Certainly his master would know how to quell evil spirits. If he could bring Thulin to his side, then all would be well. And so, Marin reached over again, this time feeling courage fill his heart, as he knew that he was going to please his master. Gripping that shoulder, he gave it a firm shake, daring those eyes to close.

Thulin blinked finally, and that unending gaze ebbed. Slowly, the body stirred beneath the cloths, face shaking back and forth as if dispelling some unpleasant dream. Marin felt a bit of exultation pass through him as he watched this. The long shadows of the sunset played across his features strangely, but they soon resolved themselves as he knew they must. Thulin tried to push himself up, but could not move his arms.

“What?” he asked, his voice still groggy.

“I had to tie you down so we could travel,” Marin said reassuringly, delighted to have his friend back with him at last.

Thulin looked about, his face twisting as if it wanted to panic, but finding itself unable to do so. “Where are we going?”

“Back to Ellcaran. I’m hoping we can beat the sunset, but we won’t be able to unless you ride.”

Thulin stared at the city that loomed not too far away, and just blinked a few times. He then stared down at his bonds and nodded. “Untie me.”

Marin jumped from his horse and pulled out his knife, cutting the ropes that held his friend together. Thulin slid around on the mare’s back then, until he was sitting properly in the saddle. He grabbed the reins even as Marin mounted the stallion, starring at them incredulously. The younger man could not help but wonder what was going through his partner’s head, but had little time to ponder.

“Let us ride. Sunset is only minutes away now.” Marin pointed with one finger towards the sun, halfway down into the sea already. He then kicked his heels into the stallion’s sides. The horse lunged forward, running at a full gallop along the cobblestones towards the city. Glancing back, he saw that Thulin was riding his mare hard as well towards the city gates.

Marin watched them grow closer and closer, and then looked and smiled back to his friend. Yes, they were going to be at the Inn in time. His master would be very pleased indeed.

Zagrosek paced back and forth in the room, staring out the open window along the snow-topped roofs of Ellcaran. He could not see the sun from this vantage, but he could watch the sky darken as the night grew closer. Soon it would be twilight proper. If he did not have all three of them soon dedicated, then they would have to delay the calling until the next night. That thought did not sit well with him, mostly because it would lead to another stream of berating from Agathe.

She sat silently on the bed, legs drawn close to her chest. Her hands smoothed over the purple of her robes, slender fingers that had not been marred by Wessex’s spells the way her face had. Nor did she say anything to him then, but kept her gaze upon the darkened mirror on the side oft he wall. Through the mirror came the sound of a chorus of voices, each subdued, but nothing intelligible could be discerned. The sun had to have passed behind the mountains there at Metamor by now. The Prime Minister must be agonizing over her decision more than any could have expected.

The Sondeckis turned to the window again and stared out, glaring at the simple homes that lined the cobblestoned streets. He watched as the smoke trailed upwards from their chimneys, drawn by an unseen wind towards the sky far overhead. He knew it would pool there far above, beyond even the clouds themselves. There was no question that the sword was eager for what must be done. Would it even want to wait another night if needed? Zagrosek shuddered at the thought of one of themselves being given over to its thirst. That blade was hungry.

The hairs on the back of his neck rose as he thought about it. Though it was still covered by his Sondeckis robe, he could feel it looking at him, if a sword could be said to look at anything. A slight depression made itself known in the middle of his back, as if it were stabbing him ever so gently. And then, as the sky grew darker, he could eel it pressing in more deeply, spreading a cold the likes of which he’d never felt before throughout his entire flesh. Zagrosek’s hands gripped the window ledge, and his mouth hung open in the piercing agony of that sensation, even though in his mind he knew that nothing was actually happening.

And then it was gone. With the last of daylight left, the pain disappeared. Twilight settled upon Ellcaran, the lights of lamps spreading across the city, lining the streets like some child’s puzzle. There were far too many clouds in the sky for him to see any stars, though he knew that somewhere up above they were emerging. And still he could feel the residue of where that sword had made its point known. Glancing back over his shoulder, he saw that his robes had not moved, they remained undisturbed upon the corner of the bed.

Before he quite realized what he was doing, Zagrosek crossed to the side of the bed, and leaned down over his robe. With one hand, he pushed them aside, revealing the golden pommel of the hilt. He stared over the nine sides, each carved with intricate chevrons, so small he could not discern the details. He gripped the hilt with his right hand, and lifted the blade free from the bed. With the lamplight he could see his own reflection come back to him, and he could swear he could hear some strange vibration, some subtle drumbeat that reverberated in the vaults of his mind, almost an echo of some other noise.

“What are you doing?” Agathe asked then, her voice breaking that beat, but not silencing it. Still closer Zagrosek brought the blade to his face, unable to resist the feeling welling inside of him. This was not how it was supposed to be, he knew that, but change it he could not.

However, he was able to find his own voice. “It wants,” he said, stopping as the echo became clearer, a pounding, as if something were trying to break free from his own skull. He swallowed and then opened his mouth again, his voice even more distant, as if being drowned out, “It wants to go through tonight.”

“You damn fool!” Agathe cried out, spitting the words through her lips and her cheeks. “You’ve woken it too early with your silly card games.”

Zagrosek could not deny that, but still could not stop that progression, the sword nearing his face, inch by excruciating inch. His heart trembled, beating faster and faster as his breath became ragged. He tried to resist, but to no avail. The drumbeat in his mind grew louder then, drowning out all other thoughts of his own. Even his own heart began to beat in the same rhythm, as if his own identity was being subsumed by that alien syncopation. He tried to repeat over and over to himself his name, and the rituals he’d learned as a Sondeckis, but each one was stamped out by that relentless march, that dooming sound that cracked his ears.

The blade was only a bare inch from his face then, and his lips pursed forward to kiss that golden shaft. His own conscious thought was gone, and Zagrosek’s mind was no more, only that beat, consistent and repetitive. Words became clear in that strange semblance, and words that only the shell of the Sondeckis could understand. “I am of Yajakali. And so too will you be.” Over and over they sounded, as the cold touch of the metal was the barest whisper from his lips.

And then, a simple interruption broke all from him. Zagrosek reeled backwards, dropping the blade upon the bed. The Sondeckis fell down, collapsing on the floor, his face ashen white, and his flesh trembling uncontrollably. He curled tight into a ball, eyes snapping shut, hands pressing to his chest. He gasped for a breath of air, crying out at the pain as his mind recoiled, the echo subsiding so quickly it nearly ripped a whole in its exit. Dimly he was aware of hands upon his shoulders steadying him. But the only thing that resounded in his mind was his name, over and over again he repeated it, as if to reassure himself that he had not been blown out of existence altogether.

The repetition sounded again, and he shook, letting out a scream as he jerked backwards. The hands touching his shoulders let go for a moment, but they were back. A strange blue nimbus came to him then, and he felt his body slow, heart beat recede. The frenzied pace of his conscious self ebbed, just as the rest of him ebbed. After what seemed an interminably long time, he was breathing slowly agin, his body calm, and his eyes staring at the floor. Blinking, he glanced around, and saw that Agathe was hovering over him. “What happened?”

Agathe glanced up at the door. “There was a knock at the door. It saved you from kissing the blade.”

Zagrosek shook his head, and glanced over to the door. He did not dare look to the bed where the golden blade lay. “How long ago?”

“Only a few seconds,” Agathe added, crossing the room to one of the darker corners. She gestured to the door with one hand even as she pulled her cloak up over her face. The Sondeckis understood and rose to his feet. He found he had not lost any of his strength, though marvelled what felt an eternity could have only been so short a space of time.

He opened the door, and beheld three figures. Kaleas was standing at the back, beaming brightly, while Marin and Thulin stood to either side. Marin was also delighted, while the face of the other merchant was more wary, uncertain. Zagrosek breathed a heavy sigh of relief then. That was why the sword had let him go, the last of the merchants had arrived.

“Come in, all of you,” he gestured, stepping back. They did so, Thulin between the other two. His flesh was trembling, and his eyes flicked to and fro, but he did enter. Zagrosek shut the door behind them, and smiled to them all. His gaze finally settled upon the green clad merchant, the one who had fled them that day. “Kneel,” he said softly.

Thulin took one step towards the Sondeckis, his knees shivering, before finally buckling all together. He collapsed before Zagrosek, eyes staring down at the wooden floor beneath his feet. With a thrill of triumph at last, Zagrosek reached over to the bed. He gripped the blade in his hand, freely this time. No strange pounding echoed in his mind though, for the blade knew which was the more important of the two of them. Setting it point to the floor, he turned it so that the broad side was facing his newest slave. “Kiss the blade.”

The merchant nodded dumbly then, and leaned forward, pressing his lips to the blade, a blade that only moments before had nearly compelled Zagrosek to do the same. Like before, he felt a sudden electric charge surge through his arms. His flesh sizzled as he gripped the hilt, but he knew that no harm had been done to him. Thulin leaned back, eyes filled with a strange serenity then, the same serenity that had claimed Marin and Kaleas the day before.

“And now, you three will wait with us here. We have something special planned for this night, and we need your help.”

“Yes, my master,” all three of them intoned, their voices filled with awe.

Zagrosek set the sword back on the bed. He could not help but see a brighter glow to its gold. As he touched the hilt, he could feel a shuddering, a trembling even from the metal itself. He quickly drew his hand back. Had that been laughter?

Regaining his composure, Zagrosek gestured to the dark clad figure watching them from the corner. “And now greet your mistress, the Lady Agathe.”

All three turned towards her, bowing their heads low. “I greet you, my mistress,” they all intoned, their voices reverent.

Agathe stepped forward back into the light and tossed back her hood, revealing her face. The empty eye socket was glowing an even stronger red, as if it were studying them. They all cried out in shock at the sight of her, but as Zagrosek was pleased to note, not in horror. “What has been done to you, my mistress?” Marin cried, his voice agonized.

“Who did this to you,” Thulin stammered, his hands balling into fists.

“I will kill whoever it was!” Kaleas shouted, a point all three clearly felt.

Agathe shook her head. “I already have my vengeance. Do not trouble yourselves with it.” She then turned to Zagrosek and offered him a strangely sublime smile. “They will do nicely.”

He inclined his head slightly at that, even as he pulled his robes to cover the sword once more. “Thank you.” He glanced back to the window. Darkness was settling more heavily over the city already. How he yearned for midnight. He could not wait to relieve himself of that blade.

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