The Ægisan Elite

The Ægisan Elite

by Kyle Blackston

“Watch your words, pitiful wretch!” The heavily armored man cracked the suspect’s jaw with a solid strike. His gauntlet broke skin, and fresh blood coated the weathered stains. “You are speaking to an Ægisan Shieldmaster, and you will act accordingly!” Shieldmaster Brodis Mumf watched solemnly as the suspect cried out and complied with the Breaker’s orders. It was a nasty business any way you looked at it. “Now,” Brodis began, again, “I will start over one last time. Any further outbreaks, blasphemes of any sort, or unwillingness to cooperate, and your actions will be regarded as refusing the Sovereign’s Shield, at the least, and in your case, quite possibly direct impairment. I don’t believe I need to explain the consequences should you continue your insolence, but if you would like, I can go into detail. Questions?”

The Shieldmaster spoke meticulously, and with the aged sternness his position required. His threats were not idle, and his implications were quite clear. The suspect shook his head, and Brodis continued, “Last week and several days ago, there was a strange series of attacks in our north-eastern city of Hemyll. No less than eight well-to-do Syrdan citizens were led off the street and bludgeoned to death in the alleyways. This is a terrible misfortune, Syr’Edeln, and so the culprit must be found out. Agreed?” Brodis watched the suspect’s nervous reactions. Sergi, the Breaker, stood close by. The other four Ægisans accompanying the Shieldmaster were within sight, but remained relatively uninvolved in the interrogation. They were all huddled in the basement of a larger Syrdan home in Turavich, just a few dozen miles west of Hemyll.

The suspect was named Turin Edeln, and he was a fairly small man. After a long pause, Edeln frantically looked around him. Every one of the armed inquisitors was now staring directly at him. Brodis continued, startling the suspect back to attention, “We have information, Syr’ Edeln, what makes us believe you were either involved, or are somehow acquainted with the person or persons committing these atrocities. See, these victims were not the targets of registered, and therefore legal, bounties; not a one of them has any discoverable ties with the larger bands of criminal deviants we know of; and for all intents and purposes, the deaths seem like unrelated muggings. Of course, we would not be speaking to you if it were that simple. Rather, all of them were somehow led off the streets, bludgeoned from behind with no signs of a struggle, and their homes were all broken into shortly afterwords.” Again, Brodis paused to let the information sink in, and to reflect on the suspect’s reaction.

Edeln brushed his fingers through his short black hair. He still trembled from the blow he’d received, and his eyes told Brodis all he needed to know. He was scared, but not only of the Ægisans. Edeln’s nervousness intensified when he withdrew into thought, and Brodis could see the struggle inside. “Please, Turin. Tell me what you know. You will not receive a kinder request than that, I promise you.” Brodis was growing irritated with Edeln, but believed that something out of the man’s control might be happening. “I may suffer imprisonment, beatings or death if I don’t say anything, but I would suffer much, much more if I were to answer your questions. The situation we find ourselves in, Shieldmaster, is greater than either of us.”

There was something in the man’s voice that spoke of a desperate conviction, the sort he would not, and perhaps even could not be pried from. ‘Still,’ Brodis thought, “You know the next step we will take, Syr’ Edeln,” “Of course. Of course.” Edeln began to shake, his body anticipating what would happen next. “Sergi, get what you can from him. I must think.” “Certainly, and aye Syr,” said the Breaker as Brodis left the basement. Brodis noticed tears flowing from Edeln’s eyes. He showed true fear, and the wealth of information he must be withholding should certainly free him from the Ægisans’ scrutiny; every other suspect in such a state had at least provided enough for Brodis to reach the next conclusion. Upstairs, the Shieldmaster waited impatiently. ‘Edeln must be broken. We’ve reached a dead end.’ Hours went by.

Sergi came up with a confused look on his face. “He has fallen unconscious, Shieldmaster. I kept him awake as long as I could, but got nothing except screams and sobs.” When Brodis did nothing more than nod, Sergi continued in a perplexed tone of voice, “He did not beg, he did not pray, didn’t say a single thing the whole time!” “I understand, Sergi. Let him sleep it off, and leave me be.” A bit shocked, the Breaker pursed his lips, nodded and went back down the stairs.

It was something in Edeln’s eyes that bothered Brodis, but he’d not had long to consider it further when the owner of the house returned. “I simply cannot keep my family on the streets any later tonight, Shieldmaster. Pray you understand, I have three young children and a wife, and we all need our sleep for tomorrow.” He would have continued on a long list of reasons if Brodis had not raised a hand to interrupt, and said, “It’s understandable, Syr’Fendel, and I don’t believe we have anything more to gain here, anyway. I will gather my men and leave with my prisoner.” His polite manner came as a shock to Fendel. Typically, when an Ægisan unit commandeered a location for any reason, it was with little to no consideration of the property owner. More times than not, hardworking men returned to find pantries ransacked, bottles of wine and barrels of ale drunk, tapped, spilled and broken. The Ægisans left with Edeln in tow, and the only mess to clean up was the accused man’s blood.

They took Edeln to a prison vault in town and the Ægisans were granted leave for the night through the next morning. They had been relentless in their searching for over a week, and it was late in the evening. That was a good excuse for the recess. The only true reason Brodis sent them off was to buy himself a quiet moment to think. The Shieldmaster considered having another round with the accused. ‘Bandaged, fed, and a bit rested, he may be more compliant with questioning.’ He tried to fool himself into believing that. ‘Even if he isn’t, perhaps the man’s large and expressive eyes will do my work for me.’ Brodis didn’t have much time to think before, “Shieldmaster,” interrupted his thoughts, and a few minutes later, he found himself heading toward Edeln’s cell. “That prisoner of yours wishes to speak with you,” a guard told him.

Edeln sat on a bench in his cell, still bloodied, and covered in clean cloth wraps. He looked terribly weary, but a calm smile played on his lips. He was chained to the wall when Brodis entered, and immediately he began, “I know we got off to a rough start, Shieldmaster, but I assu––” “Be quiet, Edeln, until I’ve asked you to speak.” “Yes, I underst––” Edeln started again, but was stopped mid-sentence with an abrupt “Silence!” The guard behind Brodis entered with a stool and was then dismissed. Ægisan workings are often confidential, and Brodis was already uncomfortable with being summoned by his own prisoner. “You should know better, Edeln. Guards have loose tongues, and I’ll not be dealing with a panic.” The smile was now gone from Edeln’s face. “Now, why don’t you tell me what I came to hear?”

Edeln bore a disdainful look, and his voice took on an air of confidence that Brodis didn’t expect, “I have been instructed by my provider to offer you a deal, but I should say, be careful.” Edeln spoke in an almost business-like manner. The Shieldmaster’s interest was piqued, and so Edeln continued, “I have extremely useful information pertaining to your investigation, as you well have guessed, Shieldmaster. If you accept my terms, I may share what information I have with you.” Brodis scrutinized the etched face before him, but he could not penetrate the newfound iron calm that confronted him now. Edeln had changed in almost all ways, from posture to speech, and more. “Who is this ‘provider,’ and when did you speak with him?” Brodis was in no mood to play negotiator tonight. “I swear I will not be toyed with.” “Not by me, anyway,” Edeln laughed with mischief in his voice. “My provider is one of my secrets, but not the one I’m offering to share.”

The Shieldmaster grew more impatient with every demeaning word that dripped from Edeln’s mouth. Though he wished to strangle the scoundrel, he satisfied himself with a crack on the top of his head, and two open-handed swings to the face. Edeln’s pain returned, his smirk disappeared, and he was once again reduced to sobbing.

Brodis left him like that, returned to his desk down the hall and became restless. Perhaps he should have consulted the other Ægisans, but he was Shieldmaster and the final decision was his to make. An hour or so before midday, and several hours before the rest were expected back, Brodis left his desk again, turned down the hall, and entered Edeln’s cell. He was asleep, still hanging pitifully against the wall. Brodis gripped him under the chin, waking him, and pinned his skull to the back cell wall. “I will hear your bargain, and if what you tell me is worth as much as you imply, I shall release you, but not until I am satisfied you have not lied through your teeth. Understood?” “Yes, yes Shieldmaster,” Edeln sputtered. “Of course. Of course!”

After several hard breaths, Edeln was turning pale. Brodis released his grip and knelt down to look the man in his eyes. “Now tell me what you know, you blasphemous thing.” He was disgusted by Edeln. “If you’re sure, Shieldmaster,” the man said with a smile. “Perhaps you should just lock me away and forget about this whole ordeal.” A few moments passed in silence. In truth, something told Brodis from within himself that this was a situation less-obvious than it seemed. ‘Perhaps I’m playing into this trickster’s game after-all,’ he thought. ‘Drown it. All my life has been an elaborate game, and to whatever end, this is my job.’ “Tell me,” he said, and Edeln could not have looked happier.

The other Ægisans returned to the prison vault and found a sleeping Brodis Mumf at his desk. Sergi woke him up, and asked, “Should I have another go at Edeln, Shieldmaster? While you rest? You look ragged.” “Don’t waste your time,” Brodis muttered, “I’ve gotten all we’re going to get from the damned fool, and if what he said proves true, I’ll release him in the morning.” Sergi cocked a brow, but said nothing. The other Ægisans all felt the same way, though they dared not show it. Something strange had certainly happened.

“You four, start heading to this clockmaker’s shop on the north side of town. It’s called Precious Seconds. Hold Lorven Denish for questioning–he’s the half-elf who runs the place. He should be there. Sergi, walk with me.” The four marched quickly down the street while Brodis and his Breaker slowly headed in the same direction. “What is wrong, Shieldmaster,” Sergi asked with much concern. Brodis struggled for words, but eventually said, “The events of Hemyll are scheduled to repeat themselves here in Turavich. It seems that Edeln’s a dreadful messenger, and the clockmaker is about to kill a fair number of citizens, here. I cannot let another series of deaths happen under my nose.”

Brodis and Sergi were still a few minutes off when Dern Hojak, one of the younger Ægisans, came running back. He stopped in front of Brodis, out of breath and gasping for air, “Come! Quick! The others are dead!” The three immediately began to run while Dern struggled to explain what happened. “We entered, and announced ourselves. We didn’t see anybody. Clocks were everywhere, but no elf.” His speech was broken with his breathlessness. “When we heard his voice, some sort of contraption was loosed. We heard something, but didn’t know what was happening until we saw it. Blades struck Temmen down, shot up through the floorboards! We tried to get out, but nobody else was close enough to the door.” They reached the clockmaker’s and carefully entered. No traps were sprung this time, and no voices were heard. In fact, Lorven Denish had already left, and was already stalking his first target.

“So now you know who to look for,” Edeln had said, “and perhaps you will catch him, but take heed, Shieldmaster; if you continue your investigation, your men will die. You might survive, if you’re smart enough, but you will sacrifice everyone.” Edeln’s deal had been cryptic, but his snide warning rang clear in Brodis Mumf’s mind. “Would you give the lives of your men to capture this man, Shieldmaster?” “Yes,” Brodis had replied instantly. “Of course I would, and they would give their lives willingly. We are Ægisans, and it’s our responsibility to protect the people.” Three of his best men, and two of them close friends, now lay dead on the floor. They were cut down before they’d had a chance to fight.

The elf-man took note of his watch. Almost time. He was several blocks away from the Ægisan troupe, gazing through a display window. The local general store was fairly busy, though not quite crowded. Lorven watched the reflections until a man with a letter appeared in them. The man walked and looked about very cautiously, but didn’t seem to see the elf come up behind him with a dagger. A single cut on the back of the neck and the man was struck stiff. People in the shop went on their way, and a couple walked past Lorven and the dying man. Lorven calmly took the letter, and from the man’s pocket Lorven palmed his keyring. Quietly, he said, “Thank you, Martin, for repaying your debt. You did so in such a timely fashion, too.” Lorven said no more as the poison quickly worked to Martin’s brain. He fell over after the clockmaker was well out of sight.

A search of Lorven’s shop turned up very little, at first, and the Ægisans were growing frustrated. Hojak was quite vocal about it. “There’s nothing here. No notes, orders, plans, letters. Nothing!” Hojak was still quite young, and while the Shieldmaster listened to the boy vent, he looked at the boy in a new light. He was a promising young Ægisan, feeling fear for the boy and a pang of guilt. As members of the Sovereign’s Shield, it was their duty to mete justice. Death was not supposed to be a consideration, but Brodis felt responsible for Temmen, Burch and Marek, who lay now at his feet. Brodis was still searching when a single alarm chime went off on one of the clocks.

“That’s odd,” Sergi said, “Shouldn’t they all be going off?” “Find that sound,” Brodis barked. It was an odd time for a chime. It was between hours, as the rest of the clocks showed. ‘Maybe we’ll find something we overlooked before,’ Brodis thought. Sergi found the clock just as it ceased its ringing, but was confused. “Perhaps the thing just malfunctioned,” he offered, for indeed there was nothing obvious about the current time. Brodis took picked up the small clock and examined it closely. “No,” he muttered under his breath. “No!” There was a name printed in ink on the bottom of the clock: “Martin Thrumble.” By the time the chime had ended, Martin already laid dead.

There were four other clocks of similar size and shape nearby. Each had another name and an alarm set. “Take the names and times down, Sergi, and both of you try to find the next victim before our clockmaker does. I’m going to find this Thrumble’s house, and see if I don’t find half an elf lurking about.” Sergi pulled out a pocketbook while Brodis charged through the streets. It was nearby and easy to find; many people knew Martin Thrumble, if only by name. So it was that Lorven Denish spotted the large, heavily-armored Ægisan Shieldmaster barreling down the street.

Brodis found the door unlocked, drew an officer’s pistol and began moving through the house as quietly as his armor allowed. Martin must have been fairly well-off, given the nice things Brodis found inside. He heard the light-hearted chuckle and a soft voice from up the stairwell when he drew near. “I’ve already found what I came looking for. Thank you very much, Shield Man, but I will not be coming with you today.” Brodis crept up the stairs with wary eyes. It was pointless, though, since Lorven had evidently slipped out and away through an upstairs window. Brodis couldn’t see any signs of rough searching, so either the elf had plenty enough time to look, or knew exactly where to find what he needed. A messenger caught Brodis before he left Thrumble’s house; “Rodden Blint, 112 Kyrburn––we have him. Sergi,” it read. Finally a turn in events. Brodis headed off quickly.

Rodden was another wealthy Syrdan. His home was two stories high and extravagant, even on the outside. Irate, he sat bound in a chair near the dining room table, and he slung foul curses of the crudest sort until Brodis stepped into view. “What is the meaning of this? I have important affairs that I must attend to! Held against my will, no explanation, dah! I’m probably late already. What in the Sovereign’s name could I possibly be accused of?” Brodis let the man finish his fuming. He felt confident that the assassin would not have a try at Blint until he was left alone again. “Accused? Not so much. Your life is in peril, Syr’Blint, and I believe you can help us capture your would-be assassin.” The other Ægisans kept a careful watch of the streets, looking out of the windows periodically. Brodis kept Rodden’s rapt attention, for he was entirely caught off-guard by the Shieldmaster’s statement.

“Wha––wait, what? Why would someone want to kill, me?” Rodden Blint was a tinkerer who dealt chiefly in manufacturing equipment and specialized tools for local farmers. “I couldn’t think of anyone I could have offended to such extremes.” “Well,” Brodis started. He had trouble piecing together the last couple of days, but eventually asked Blint the only question he could think of, “Do you have anything in particular that someone may want? Something unusually valuable, here in your home?” “I, uh,” Blint stammered, “I have several fairly costly things hanging around, yes.” He looked around and grew uncomfortable. “I think that, if you want a response more detailed than that, you’ll have to come clean and tell me what in the Creator’s name is going on.”

The Shieldmaster explained how Martin Thrumble, a man whom Blint had only heard of, was presumed dead; how Lorven Denish, the clockmaker, was implicated in the crime and found at the deceased’s home earlier in the evening. Lastly, how Lorven had escaped the Shieldmaster, and most-likely continued along his own schedule of assassinations. “So you see, we’ve interrupted his schedule. What time was he set for, Sergi?” “Two aft, forty-five,” said the Breaker immediately. “But, that’s impossible. I was meeting with someone at that time, and it was certainly not, the––clockmaker.” His voice wavered and faltered, and his face grew wrought with concern and fear. Brodis nodded grimly. Wondering how much time they had before Lorven would realize he missed his mark, Brodis gazed around for a clock of any sort. ‘Two aft; forty-three,’ he read, and wondered if Lorven would attempt anything while Blint was in their custody. Blint was muttering to himself, now, but Brodis wasn’t paying attention to him.

Something was wrong. Those hairs that stand up straight and hail bad tidings bristled bitterly between the Shieldmaster’s armor and his skin. As he glanced away from the clock and from Rodden, he caught only the briefest glimpse of a slender arm move away from the window. “He’s here!” Hojak drew close to Rodden, and Sergi pressed up against the wall near one of the doors. Hojak’s sword and shield were ready to defend the target; Sergi held his mace ready, and aimed his pistol towards the other door. Brodis said, “He’s here for more than Syr’Blint. I’ll set up a patrol, and see if I can’t rout him from hiding.” The other two nodded, and they waited in a silence for many long minutes.

There were many nice things along the hallway walls. He looked at them nonchalantly as he prowled along the darker rooms of Rodden’s home. Pretty things. They were almost gaudy, but not entirely. A passing thought. He moved through the halls in anticipation, and he listened very carefully for other noises. He could hear the thudding of booted feet. He smiled, fingered the deadly little blade in his hand and watched Shieldmaster Brodis pass directly in front of him. He let out a soft laugh.

Brodis thought he saw something in the corner of his eye. He swore he heard something. He took a step backward and turned down the hall to his right. A door at the end of the hall was wide open, so Brodis stepped in slowly. He looked around the room; a window with parted curtains, a neatly-made bed, a closet and dresser set of dark, polished oak; there was another open door that led to the washroom. Brodis went to the window and peered out. He saw nothing. He turned around just in time to have missed Lorven slip out of the room. After a quick look around, Brodis returned to his patrol. He headed upstairs, satisfied that the first was clear.

Sergi was ready. His crossed arms gripped the sharp-pronged mace in his right hand, ready to swing, and the pistol was fully loaded; his finger kept a slight pressure on the trigger. Hojak held position, and as Rodden sobbed behind the young Ægisan, Lorven Denish crept noiselessly around them all. Sergi thought he saw something through the far door many times, but the motions were quick, and always when he had become partially distracted by something in the room. ‘He’s toying with me,’ the Breaker thought. He knew those sorts of games. He tried to focus, and listened more than he looked.

Still, he did not hear the dagger––that small throwing knife––fly through the air until it struck Rodden in the neck. Hojak dropped his sword and caught the dying man in his arms. Now, Sergi heard the assassin retreat. Instinctually, Sergi turned through the door and gave chase. Down a hall, into a large study, up the stairs––silence. Standing alone in the utter quiet gave Sergi the creeps, so he walked down the hall. He made the softest of sounds his booted feet could make, and he peered around each corner he came to. Around one particular corner, Sergi saw a larger room that was decorated with many pieces of art, several weapons and armor displays, and a strange-looking pedestal near the back of the room. There was breathing.

Sergi stopped cold, expecting the unavoidable confrontation. He steeled himself, readied his weapons and rounded the corner. He found a gun in his face and a very surprised Shieldmaster. A laugh at the other end of the room caught both of their attentions. The thin, gaunt half-elf stood near the odd pedestal Sergi had seen. From a wooden box atop the pedestal, Lorven drew a piece of parchment. It was an old piece of parchment of a weathered grey color, and Lorven began to read. Sergi was unfamiliar with the language, but Shieldmaster Brodis knew it well, “Price paid, debt reclaimed; life is mine, now, and then forever.” The devilish tongue was appalling to hear, as it harshly rang the ears with sharp sounds. The parchment immediately caught fire and the elf-man pointed to his watch, smiling.

“Say, oh say, who will find the next one first? Just who will find the next one first?” Brodis didn’t hesitate, and fired at the elf with his pistol. Lorven promptly shattered a window with one of his knives and leapt through it. “No! Not again you don’t,” Brodis shouted as he ran to the shattered portal. Lorven was already gone. The clockmaker had once again eluded the Ægisan troop and assassinated his target. “Harrod, a half-orc arms-dealer on the west side of town. We’d better hurry, ’cause he only has ten or fifteen minutes, at most,” Sergi said, knowing full well that they couldn’t outrun Lorven if they tried. They called for Hojak and left immediately, leaving Rodden Blint dead in his own home.

Sergi knew the area well. He’d grown up there, and he confidently led the other two to Harrod’s modest home. When they reached it, they saw Lorven leaving through a side-door. Dead already, they all knew. Lorven spotted them almost immediately and darted down the alley with surprising speed. Sergi knew they couldn’t match that kind of pace, so he worked through the streets in his mind. “Keep on his heels, and don’t lose him! Trust me, Shieldmaster,” he said as he veered off from the other two. Brodis nodded, and Sergi burst through the nearest door he came to. He ignored the shocked looks and startled noises of the family inside, shouldered through a window in the back, and into another house on the left. Luckily, the second door was unlocked. He ran to a window and hushed the old man sitting in the room. Sergi could see the elf-man running his way. Brodis and Hojak should be close enough to see him. Sergi backed up a bit, said, “Sorry o’pa,” and leapt through the glass with a running start. Arms wide open, he collided with Lorven and they tumbled to the ground. Sergi’s large left arm held Lorven down while the other pummeled him repeatedly. Shards of the glass were embedded into each of the grapplers.

Lorven brought one of his knives up with a free hand. Sergi grabbed hard onto the elf-man’s wrist and pinned it to the ground, but Lorven smiled insidiously. Sergi could hear his fellows yelling his name, but the sound was odd. He pushed Lorven to the ground with all his strength, but realized the elf wasn’t struggling anymore. Then he saw the blood on Lorven’s knife. He tasted it on his lips. A clean cut was left under Sergi’s cheekbone, and the poison had already paralyzed his face. Sergi tried to choke the life out of the man in his hands, but Sergi’s strength was going fast. Lorven stuck the knife deep in Sergi’s stomach and easily slipped out of his grasp.

“Sergi! Sergi no!” Shieldmaster Brodis had seen it happen, fired several shots from his pistol and watched the target escape him once again. Sergi sputtered what he could while his body was shutting down. “I––I had him. I had,” his breathed the words awkwardly through his motionless mouth, “Brodis, I had him.”

As he watched Sergi fall face-first to the street, Brodis lost the closest thing to a friend he had, though his own cold, deadened face didn’t express the deep sorrow he felt. He knelt, grabbed out the pocketbook Sergi had wrote the times in, and then turned to Hojak. “Get him out of here. Take him to the vault, then meet me at 417 Ruppard Avenue. That’s the final target.” “Shieldmaster?” Brodis closed his eyes. “Go, and be quick about it.” Hojak nodded, hefted Sergi up over his shoulders and let the big man’s feet hang to the ground while he drug him down the street. Brodis headed to the next target. He had almost an hour.

‘Lorven had attacked and killed Rodden at exactly the right time. He must have known his target wouldn’t arrive at the right location. The scoundrel knew we were there, holding him. He was already watching the house!’ Brodis worked through the day’s events as he headed back to the north side of town. Lucia, a fine fabrics weaver, lived several blocks from Lorven’s own shop, and she was his next target. ‘A woman, making deals with devils,’ Brodis thought, remembering his own late night with Edeln. ‘This keeps getting worse.’

When Lucia opened the door, Brodis was surprised to see luggage packed by the small table in the room. She looked scared, but vicious, and the bite of her voice snapped strongly, “Lovely, an Ægisan. Come cracking down on me at last? Well, I think you’re just a little too late. Won’t get much service-time out of me!” She swung the door open and walked away, exasperating over the turn of events, mortality and the cruelest of practical jokes. Brodis could hardly follow her erratic speech. “I suppose you are aware of your situation, Syra’Fremm?” “Oh I know what I’ve done, but you’re not taking me anywhere! I’m leaving town, and heading south to Ilthace. Anyone can hide, there.”

She still thought he was here to arrest her, he figured. “You’ll scarcely get me to the vault, and I’ll be found dead in my cell! You won’t be able to transfer me to the courts, even. Not with a full confession and all the lovely little details on how I did it. Yes! I did it.” She was breaking down into tears, and at this point she couldn’t protest any more. She bawled into her hands like a spanked child until Brodis said, “I’m not here to arrest you, Syra’Fremm.” “Then what in ‘Doxion’s name do you want with me?” She snapped at him as quick as a snake. Brodis held out his hand to her, and beckoned her to take it.

Confused, she did take his hand, and as her mouth opened to question him further, Brodis gripped her wrist and twisted it, hard, bending her arm behind her back. He grabbed hold of her other arm just below the shoulder. “I guess I’m here to save you, for now,” he said, pushing her in front of him through the house. He found a windowless room with only two doors––more of a large hallway than a room. He roughly sat her onto a nice-sized bench lining one of the walls. He shut both of the doors while she rubbed her arms and muttered curses. When he drew out a metallic amulet from under his chest plate, she grew quietly curious.

He prayed and closed his eyes. He pressed a hand o one of the doors, held the amulet in his other hand, and for a brief moment, a white light pulsed from under his palm. He repeated this process on the other door and then turned to Lucia. “There isn’t much time. He’s in the house, and those wards won’t last forever. I know you have dealt with devils. There’s no hiding that from me. You must tell me which one owns your contract.” Lucia stared open-mouthed and blinking at Brodis. She was caught off-guard and terrified at the question. A great heave crashed against the door on one end of the hallway. The assassin had come.

“Tell me!” Brodis yelled through thundering knocks that know hammered into the door. His voice was drowned out completely. The other door began shaking, too, and the hinges looked like they were ready to snap. Brodis counted the seconds.

The doors would burst open, and whatever fiend was trying to get in would gain entrance. If Brodis could keep the woman safe just long enough, perhaps he could end this chain of deaths. A single confrontation with the demon could end it. He drew out his sword and threw down his shield––he would end the fiend quickly, and at whatever cost.

The noises stopped. The room went still. Brodis heard Lucia whisper something barely audible, “Balmun.” She stood to one side of the room with her back against the wall, and she had gone indescribably pale. Brodis wasn’t fast enough. He brought down the full weight of his sword in an arc. It scraped along the wall and sliced into the large, clawed fingers tearing through it. The two hands groped for Lucia from a great blackness that spilled out behind her. One hand bled fire as the sword glanced over its knuckles, but the other buried its nails into the immobile woman and pulled her out of sight. The edge of Brodis’s blade remained red-hot for several moments, and the wall where Lucia had stood was blackened with soot. The hallway smelled of ash.

Brodis was exhausted, and the helpless feeling tightening in his chest was only compounded by Edeln’s maddening laughter. He left the house solemnly and deliberated his next move as he walked to Ruppard Street. The final target, some fellow named Valain, should have been waiting there with Hojak. Instead, when Brodis arrived at the house, Brodis found the place empty and in total disarray. There was still almost half an hour before Valain should have been attacked, so Brodis immediately feared for Hojak.

The young Ægisan may have not been fast enough to keep up with Valain, but he knew where to find him. Valain had wrestled free of Hojak’s restraints and bested him using a broken chair’s leg as a makeshift club. Valain, in panicked desperation, fled the Ægisan’s protection to search for his would-be assassin. He went to elf’s own shop, despite several shouted warnings from Hojak about the place. As Hojak now approached the clock-maker’s, memories of his fallen comrades struck him as the smell washed over him. It had been a fairly warm day, today. He heard Valain still screaming obscenities from inside, so he knew that Denish was still out. He paid a nearby youth to inform the Shieldmaster, telling the kid to wait at the Ruppard Street house.

Hojak entered Lorven’s shop. The clockwork traps were still apparent, and not somehow reset as Hojak initially feared. Valain was throwing time-pieces, kicking over the small tables and chairs, and then he picked up a metal rod to smash the clocks’ glass faces. It was a cacophony that Hojak found quite eerie, given the circumstances. “Syr’Valain! He’s not here! This isn’t a smart place to fight him, anyhow.” He gestured to the bodies of his fellow Ægisans, who still lay mangled by gears and skewered with metal.

Valain seemed to notice the dead bodies for the first time. He grew horrified and looked like he was about to vomit. He shut his eyes and screamed–he looked like he was going mad. “Valain! Move away from there! Ah! Open your eyes, fool!” Hojak had drawn his sword and started running towards Valain, who was half the way to the back of the shop. A thick, black smoke roiled beneath Valain’s feet, and Hojak saw the claws rise up from the floorboards. They dug into the wood as if to pull the creature out. Whatever it was, fear gripped Hojak and kept him in place.

Valain felt the ground shake, and opened his eyes as the claws found hold. The great fingers seemed to rap in anticipation. Before he could move much more, two large spires of metal shot up through his spine and out the back of his neck. Hojak had never seen anything like what then crawled out of the gate, but it was indescribably and incontestably vile. It was a horned beast of wrought iron and polished bone. Gears ground inside of it, and some complex, spherical mechanism protruded from its chest and shined with an infernal fire.

It rose on two legs, and Valain’s limp form loomed above the room like a blasphemous idol. The creature laughed. It stepped towards Hojak and the metal spires running through Valain began to separate, pulling the man apart. His blood coated the creature’s back and dripped from its shoulders, and with each thud of Valain hitting the floor, Hojak felt his heart sink further into his chest. Brodis charged through the door and called out to him, “Back away from him! Come to, Hojak!” Shocked to his senses by the unanticipated shout, Hojak raised his shield and backed away from the creature. “It’s a soulkeeper, Hojak. A fiend of Balmun.”

Brodis raised his own shield and stepped in front of Hojak. The soulkeeper, which had assumed the form of Lorven Denish, breathed heavily. Its deathly face lowered as it went on all fours, and it spoke in a metallic, grating voice, “The Shieldmaster. You’ve found me. I’m here. Now, give me what you owe.” It lifted one of its sharp fingers and pointed to Hojak. It spoke slowly–methodically–like it had all the time in the world for this. “Excuse me? I owe you nothing,” Brodis declared. He moved towards the soulkeeper. Hojak’s nerves nearly failed him, but he stood his ground.

The entire place reeked with death. “Not me,” the soulkeeper laughed again, “but to Balmun, yes. For my life, you offered the lives of your men. Turin bartered well.” Laughter echoed in the Shieldmaster’s ears–not the fiend’s, but Turin Edeln’s from back in the vault. Brodis now realized what the prisoner had meant. He gritted his teeth and charged the soulkeeper, which kicked off the ground with a hind leg. It crashed onto a staircase near the side wall and perched half on the wall like a large insect. It moved quickly, and even though Brodis put himself between it and Hojak, the soulkeeper avoided the Shieldmaster’s every lunge. Hojak maneuvered with Brodis, unsure what else he might do to stay alive.

The soulkeeper let Brodis maneuver it into a corner. It feigned helplessness, and enticed the Shieldmaster to close the distance. Brodis predicted the plot, and instead drew his pistol. He fired a shot at the fiend’s closest leg, which spouted flame and bled ash. A quick swing in retaliation connected with Brodis’s shield and knocked him to the ground. The soulkeeper pounced on Brodis, pinned him down and hissed a hollow scream, “You deny your contract! Suffer, your impudence!”

Brodis heard his pistol hit the floor and rattle away from him, knocked from his hand by the soulkeeper. He couldn’t reach his sword, which he’d dropped to free his hand, and the soulkeeper pressed his shield to the floor with one giant foot. He brought both of his hands up, clutched the fiend’s wrist, and started to push it off of his chest. It had become difficult even to breathe. A sudden relief washed over him as Balmun’s servant fell to its side and rolled off the Shieldmaster. Hojak’s sword was still stuck under the fiend’s arm. The wound was bright with flame and the creature screamed in agony. It swiped at the sword, trying to pry it free. Hojak picked up the Shieldmaster’s sword and continued the attack before Brodis could fully come to. Brodis watched as Hojak threw the whole of his weight into his shield, barreled into the thing and the two toppled over behind broken debris.

Brodis gained his feat and ran to aid Hojak. The soulkeeper was on its back with a second sword buried deep inside it. The pommel protruded slightly from under its chin. Hojak was atop it, and Brodis felt a swelling of pride in his young comrade. It looked as though the two had lost their balance and fallen together, with Hojak maintaining the upper hand. They writhed, still, but as Brodis made his way through the overturned clutter, he grew solemn and cross. The fiend’s teeth were sunk into Hojak’s back, just under his neck. His hand was burned black where it had struck down the creature. The fiend’s fires burned out while Brodis stood there. Hojak’s body went limp and ceased moving entirely. The macabre scene was coated in blood-stained soot, and Brodis stared silently for several minutes without moving.

“Cases in question, Hemyll murders–Cephtung, and the Turavich murders–Cephtung as well. The primary suspect, Turin Edeln, human mid-thirties, regrettably exonerated after giving pertinent information to the cases. He was not the murderer in question, but was associated with the guilty. We caught Edeln in Turavich, where a second series of murders was planned to take place, and Edeln’s information did lead to the guilty: Lorven Denish, half-elf mid-forties. Denish was a skilled assassin, and a servant of Balmun––an infernal lesser lord. Ægisans Temmen, Burch, Marek, Sergi and Hojak were killed in pursuit. Given the devilish nature of the guilty–a soulkeeper–no capture was attempted.

It is my professional opinion as a fourth-year Ægisan Shieldmaster that the Hemyll murders were perpetrated by a different entity. If such is true, then the fiends still have a strong foothold there which should be investigated. Nineteen deaths, not including the soulkeeper, must be accounted for and I urge the Sovereignty to act swiftly. There are terrible things among us, and they must be dealt with to avoid future atrocities. Shieldmaster Brodis Mumf of the Eastern Edge.”

 

Published by Punching Love Productions Ltd. © 2013

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