Enderal:Tales of the Wanderer: The Shadow Dancer
The Shadow Dancer
The guiding principle of eternal wandering is both a blessing and a curse: No one sees the world the way I do - in its rawest and most primal form, behind the countless veils covering her, with a gaze unobscured by hatred or gullibility. It can be as marvelous as it can be chilling. My fate as a wanderer began the moment I left my mother's womb; perhaps it had already been decided even before that point. The training which turned me into what I am now required the suppression of all feelings. It was harsh and exhausting, demanding complete concentration on a single task. And ever since I completed my education at the Masters' monastery I have been on the road in search of fighters worth chronicling. I am sure you are wondering what could be the point of collecting and compiling information on this world's combat styles. If only you knew... no one, not even I, can comprehend it. I am only certain that it serves a higher purpose. It is a life's work, one consisting of numerous adventurous stories. This is one of them, one of the first.
There was something unusual about that day. The ravens perched on the gables announced it with their coarse voices. The air pressed on my shoulders, heavy as a chain forged of solid steel. The sun had not yet risen; last night's frost was still coating everything in a cold shimmer. Wafts of mist drifted into Ark's harbor from the sea, slithering through the alleys as snake-like ghosts. The breaths of the bystanders rose up into the gloomy sky in small puffs of steam. They were gathered round the spot where it had happened. Most were dockers, one a beggar. No one else had appeared yet, though it would not take much longer for the alley to fill.
"Poor buggers. That's got to be the fifth murder this month. I'm beginning to take fright now. Just look at all that blood, and this one's skull - smashed like a ripe tomato! It's the work of a madman, I tell you," one of the dockers said.
"This one even had his personal guard with him... still didn't do him any good. It's got to be a damn strong madman, killing people like that," his comrade remarked. "My money's on the Rhâlata. Pathless vermin must've finally decided to try to crawl out of the sewers and take over the streets." He spat on the cobblestones to illustrate his disdain. "Just look at those scribblings on the walls."
I pulled back my hood. There was not much time left. Guards would appear soon, and I highly doubted that they would be inclined to let anyone near the dead. I could not let this opportunity slip past. I moved through the small group into the alleyway. There were three corpses in total. Bits and pieces of one still stuck to the wall his murderers had smashed him against, the twisted remainder lying below. The other two were spread farther along the alley. Bizarre symbols had been painted on the walls in white, likely as some form of deterrent. People were supposed to assume this was the work of some obscure secret society.
I crouched down by one of the dead. He lay sprawled on his back. The time of death was difficult to determine, the cold making an accurate estimate impossible. My eyes drifted over the body in search of anything of interest. The man was well-fed. The front of his fine garments was coated in blood, as was the amulet around his neck. With difficulty I managed to discern the symbol engraved in the medallion: a sickle cutting two stalks of grain. A rich merchant, member of the Golden Sickle. His throat had been cut clean through, leaving no doubt about the fate he had met. The killer must have come at the victim from behind and slit his throat with a very, very sharp blade. The cut was smooth, smoother than cuts from a razor blade, without any frayed or jagged edges. And yet the merchant's personal guards had died under the impact of enormous physical force. The circumstances of these deaths were vastly different from one another - too different. There was something suspicious about the situation. I angled the corpse's head toward me, pulled up the corner of his mouth and sniffed.
"What do you think you're doing, lad? He's dead, nothing will change that."
I gave no answer, staring puzzled at the dead merchant. The odor coming from the corpse's mouth... In the Third Chamber of Senses, back at the monastery, they had made me smell it over and over again, day after day, so I would always be able to recognize it. It was hardly noticeable anymore, not much longer and it would have completely dissipated: A foul mixture of rotten eggs and soot. I rose.
The laborers were muttering among themselves already. "Who is that?"
"What does he want here?"
"Maybe he is involved in the whole affair. You know, sometimes those freaks come back to look at their bloody deed."
"Wasn't that one here last week as well, nosing around?"
"I'm going to get the guards..." One of them bolted away.
Time to go. Quietly I slipped around a corner while the remaining group watched their comrade hurry away in search of a patrol. I had already disappeared into the streets when they turned back around. Once I was safely back in my attic room in the inn I laid out my findings in the journal I kept: Five murders. Five high-ranking merchants of the Golden Sickle. This had ceased to be coincidental a long time ago. There was a reason the last one had taken guards with him. Someone was out for the blood of merchants. The possibility of a personal feud could not be dismissed - successful merchants made a lot of enemies throughout their lives. But such a mundane - if crude - conflict would simply mean a regular case for the city guard. What made it of interest to me, however, was this one clue I had come across: Magic. The suspicious odor. A clear indicator of the use of Entropy - the forbidden school of magic - encountered in all three cases I personally had had the chance to investigate since the series of murders began.
My old friend Belius Braungrind, an Apothecarius who worked for the Order, had contacted me immediately when the first victims appeared on his examination table. Although the entire city guard was on high alert, the murderer had been able to continue his gruesome crimes, utilizing new tricks every time. Still, I feared he would inevitably end up making a mistake and be captured. Before that happened and his head was sent to the chopping block, I had to witness this incomparably powerful killer in action. If my observation about the list of targets held, there was only one person who could be next: the Guildmaster of the Golden Sickle - Evan Dal'Volar.
I became Dal'Volar's shadow the following days. If one travels as much as I do, the arts of subterfuge and how to observe and follow the unsuspecting quickly become familiar. The Guildmaster was obviously aware of the danger he was in and did not take a single step without being accompanied by a band of heavily armed mercenaries. Even during the night they were posted around his residence to keep watch. Should the murderer appear - and he would, considering how recklessly he had behaved hitherto - his drive to eliminate every Golden Sickle member had to be strong indeed.
It was a cold and misty night. The mercenaries played cards and drank mulled wine to distract themselves from the chill in the air. Through a large, double-sided window on the first floor I could see Evan finish donning his nightdress and join his lover - a prostitute who appeared to favor rich customers. Everything exactly the same as on the previous evenings. Everything, except for a lone shadow darting across the rooftops. I noticed it, of course. After all, this was what - who - I had been waiting for. The black silhouette halted every now and then, remaining crouched in the cover of a chimney or an obscured edge of a roof for perhaps a second or so. He appeared to be scouting the area. The promise of murder was whispered by the crackling flames of the fire the card-playing sell-swords were sitting next to; the sweet smell of death lurking in the smoke.
The killer was on the ground now. He danced in the shadows of night, avoiding the moonlit areas. I could barely keep track of him when he moved. An extraordinary feat, as my eyes were excellently trained for such things. The mercenaries guarding the front door might as well not have been there at all, so quickly they were dispatched. Their throats had opened into gaping wounds and their life's blood was flowing from them in streams before they could so much as utter a word or reach for their blades. I had to be careful. One wrong step and I would end up like those pitiful men. With swift movements the assassin scaled the estate until he had hauled himself up to the first floor. As soon as he disappeared in the dark, I rushed forward, opening the lock with a spell scroll - there was no time for honest thieves' work.
It was deathly quiet in the hall. No sound of footsteps on the floor above, no voices, no struggle. Nothing. I hoped that I was not already too late. While I sneaked ahead, I suddenly felt a cold draft brush my cheek. The back door was ajar. But why...? I was not given the chance to complete the question in my own mind. Nor did I need to. From the darkness the answer already emerged: a huge creature was coming straight at me. I caught sight of two glowing yellow dots - eyes - before I had to throw myself to the side to get out of its path, landing hard on the staircase leading up to the first floor. I could hear rattling and slurping breaths, saw a mercenary's corpse getting dragged along across the deal boards as the enormous… thing passed me. It could not be human. But what was it then?
A shrill shriek, followed by hollow rattling disrupted my shock-induced paralysis. I scrambled to my feet and stormed up the stairs, fervently hoping that whatever was down there and had killed the mercenary would at least have some difficulty ascending the steps. One of the doors on the landing was open, several lifeless mercenaries in front of it. All of them gruesomely disfigured. The end of the corridor looked like a bath tub's worth of blood had been emptied there. This door had to be the one giving access to the master bed chamber. I rushed through, my feet slipping on the bloody floor.
My breath caught in my throat at the scene I encountered: a huge creature, definitely larger than two grown men combined, had lifted Dal'Volar by his ankles. The Guildmaster of the Golden Sickle was floundering helplessly, his head down, arms mowing in the air. The creature holding him was truly monstrous. Abominable, hideous, deformed were all words that came to mind to describe it. It only distantly resembled a human. Its skin - a combination of ailing blue and violet - was covered with purulent red blisters, warts and tumors from which bones and distorted limbs grew. Its actual functioning limbs were deformed as well, with both arms as long as its entire body and thicker than its - by comparison - rather feeble legs. Only severe magically-induced mutations, only the Blue Death could bring forth such an abomination. I had seen such a thing just once before in my lifetime. The assassin, his face concealed under black garments, was standing next to the monstrosity. The contrast made him appear almost thin and malnourished, though he was small even without his horrific companion towering over him. The merchant's prostitute lay on her back on the bed, rivers of red meandering through the sheets.
"Please, I'll give you any gold you ask of me. Just let me live, please," Dal'Volar shrieked, attempting to free himself in vain.
The creature gripped him harder. A loud crack, and the merchant howled in pain. His leg must have been broken.
"Do you remember my face, Mysir Dal'Volar?" the assassin asked. He removed his hood, revealing the good-looking face of a young, blond man. The candles' flickering light danced on the long scar running from his right brow, across his eye, all the way down his cheek.
Evan choked. "No, and why would I?! I have never seen you before in my life! Whoever you are, let me go, I beg you."
"A shame," the assassin replied with a voice cold as ice. "I was still very small when you took everything I had. My father's name was Jorlinn. Jorlinn Drosselstein. Ever heard of him?" He made a throwaway gesture. "You've probably forgotten him as well, though you once called him "friend". Until you had him expelled from the Golden Sickle and ruined his business. Why, you ask? Because my father was a better merchant than you. He surpassed you in his success. He might even have become Guildmaster of the Sickle in your stead. So you betrayed him, disgraced him, and broke him. And my father was hardly the only one. Everyone who is in your way to success you deal the same fate. With the aid of your pack of corrupt followers you exterminate them all. But now," he hissed as he pulled a dagger from its sheath on his hip, "you will finally face justice for all you’ve done. My father took his own life after you ruined him. My mother followed shortly after. You made me an urchin, my dear Master Dal'Volar. The friends who helped you back then have already paid their due. Now it's your turn. For once your debt cannot be offset by gold. The only acceptable price..."
The assassin placed his dagger on the merchant's neck. "... is your death."
With a wild, hateful stroke the sharp blade cut through Dal'Volar's throat. Blood gushed from the wound, streaming down the man's face while that of the assassin shone with joy. Mouth curled into a smile, he wiped the blade clean on his cloak.
"Well done, Silvi," he told the creature still holding Dal'Volar's now lifeless body. She gave no response. "Now we can finally start the next phase of our plan. I've heard of a certain captain of the city guard, supposedly entangled in our story..." He fell silent mid-sentence.
I was still standing in the doorway, having observed everything unnoticed. Until now. Initially the assassin raised his dagger and looked like he was about to attack me. However, he then lowered the weapon again, stayed where he was. He did not attempt to flee either.
Taking his inaction as encouragement, I took a step forward. "You resurrected someone, am I right?" I asked, nodding towards his creature. "I can sense the dark magic you used. I found traces of it next to your victims. Its smell surrounded their bodies and it is undeniable right here in this room. It follows you wherever you go - because you are connected to this creature."
The assassin regarded me, a calculating expression on his face.
"Judging from the strength of the connection between you and this mutated mage," I continued, "you must have been very close. Good friends? Lovers...?"
"Brother and sister," he supplied with a sullen stare.
There was a tense silence, which the assassin eventually broke. "Who are you? Are you after the bounty?"
"I am merely an interested observer. As for the judiciary - I am not affiliated with them, nor do I usually involve myself in such affairs." I regarded the creature from a safe distance.
"Why should I trust you?"
"Why should I stand by and watch you commit a murder if I were your foe? Considering what is known about you, I would be naïve to attempt an arrest," I pointed out.
Silence once more. Cautiously I moved to a small, ornately carved table and matching two chairs in a corner of the bedroom, where I sat and poured two cups of the Guildmaster's wine. Although I am not proud of it, I have to admit that I did not feel certain in that moment. Fear twisted inside me and I struggled to suppress the emotion quickly. The man before me was unpredictable. There was no telling how my gamble would pay off. "Sit. I would like to speak with you. I don't think we need to worry about time. You killed all the guards without waking so much as a single soul."
The assassin stared at me, visibly taken aback. It seemed I had sparked his interest with my bold gesture since - believe it or not - thus it was that I ended up at a table with a cold-blooded serial killer and his mutated deadly beast. We shared a long conversation on his method of killing, as well as other things.
"So that's the secret of this Oorbâya. You control what it - forgive me - what she does. Her soul is trapped inside her and therefore she does not realize what happens around her. She has no control over her own body either. I have never heard of such a case of resurrection or soul absorption. How did it happen?"
"She could not cope with the deaths of our parents. In her striving for arcane power to exact vengeance, she overreached. First came the fever, then the madness. I had to kill her before she would kill me. My resurrection spell binds her to the form she was left with after her mutation, but in this state she can't even speak. I am searching for the power that would allow me to transform her back to her old self, or at least return the ability to feel to her." Despite the subject of his sister's tragic fate, the assassin spoke so utterly without emotion he made me feel uneasy just listening to him.
The creature called Silvi grunted as if she were half asleep. With empty eyes she stared at the wall.
"You are very young, almost a child still," I said. "Yet you kill with a determination and audacity one would be hard-pressed to find in others of similar age. I am sorry for your sister, though I do not need to tell you that. You have disavowed all feeling long ago. I see the iron mantle around your heart."
"I live only for revenge. And for Silvi. People like you cannot understand it," the assassin replied in his cold voice.
"You err. I do understand. Though you and I may not have much in common, one thing unites us: Without our task, our existence would be meaningless. It would be of no more worth than a pebble stone by the road. Stripped of our cause, our death would be inevitable."
"Be careful whom you compare yourself with, Wanderer. In my case, comparisons bring you closer to the darkness than you might like."
"I no longer fear the darkness you speak of. I know it well enough."
"Then you never encountered true darkness. Believe me."
"I have. It sits before me, in human shape," I replied.
We sipped our wine. After a while the assassin spoke again. "Jasper."
I gave him a questioning look.
"In case you have to use a name in your notes. That makes the story more personal, don't you think? History should not remember me as a nameless murderer. Call me Jasper. Somehow I always liked that name."
I laughed and glanced through the window. Morning was about to arrive at last.
The assassin emptied his cup and straightened. "Night will be over soon. This place will be crawling with soldiers, come dawn. You should leave before they hang you for my crimes."
"I have a better name for you than Jasper," I called after him as he crossed the doorstep.
Silvi clumsily stomped ahead and looked no less monstrous with a little more distance between us.
"Jasper" paused and turned his head to the side, waiting. Once again the flickering candlelight highlighted the scar on his face.
"The shadow dancer."
He grinned mischievously. But to my eyes it was the forced grin of a small boy who had lost his entire family. "Poetic, in a way. I could get used to it."
Then he disappeared; by all accounts no living soul ever saw him again.