Prologue — Some 16 years ago
The sun was on the verge of setting when the group left the trade station abutting the city’s west wall. The five figures turned down an alley bordering the main thoroughfare into the city. Walking slightly stooped and heads bowed as if weary supplicants to the newly built temple within the city walls, they nonetheless moved with a speed and grace that belied their attempts to appear nondescript.
Before going too far a cloaked figure stepped into the alley from the opposite end. Compared to the others this new arrival struggled every few steps to pull his cloak over his ample girth and the finery barely hidden. Stepping into a large puddle, the man swore as filthy water flowed up over his fine leather boots and down to crudely caress the delicate feet within.
“Couldn’t we simply have discussed this inside? The filth out here — -” said the heavy-set man before being interrupted by the tallest figure who had stopped an arms length away, the rest of the group arrayed behind him.
“Offends your delicate disposition? You know nothing of the true filth that infects this world’s darkest reaches.” The lilting voice nonetheless managed to covey an undercurrent of carefully controlled menace, a control that was rapidly losing patience, “The information you are here to deliver? The sooner we are on our way the sooner you may return to your tastelessly opulent trade station.” This last conveyed the speaker’s patience was at an end.
“Yes, yes, of course. My spy reported that the Duke will be in his private study for the rest of the evening, something about a meeting with some representative of the city-state of Ilumine.” Reaching under his cloak, he pulls out a folder piece of parchment. “Here is the layout of the castle. The Duke’s study is marked with an X.”
Taking the outstretched parchment, barely a glance was spared before it was passed to the others. Facing the overweight man again, the leader gave the barest of nods.
“We will be on our way then.”
Without another word, the group swept past towards the other end of the alley and the city beyond, again moving with an economy of movement much at odds with the stumbling steps of the man heading back towards the main thoroughfare. Coming to the mouth of the alley, he shed the stifling cloak revealing more fully the rich garb of a merchant, then shot one more glance over his shoulder. The others had vanished already.
“Damn shadow fey,” mumbled the merchant. He strode irritably back down the street to the factor house.
Had any passersby been near the wall at the late hour, they would have been struck with amazement, if not outright disbelief, at the swiftly moving shadows heading towards the outer wall of the Dukes castle. So fast were they moving they seemed to glide over the ground, until but several steps short they leaped one after the over midway up the wall and, finding some minute flaw in the stone, hauled themselves the rest of the way up.
Had any such passersby seen fit to linger a span of minutes more, they would have seen the plummeting objects pitched off the wall from above. Striking the ground with muffled clangs, if they had approached and stooped to examine the shrouded forms they would have quickly discovered the gruesome dismembered bodies of several sentries.
Then again had any passerby been present they would have been the first to feel the blades of the shadow fey.
Adelina paced around the Duke’s study, eyes captivated by the bookshelves lining the walls around the only furniture in the room, a dark wood desk stacked with parchments she assumed to be trade reports and diplomatic missives. Brushing her dark hair behind one ear, she bent over as her gaze caught on a rare copy of Adrian’s work on the Astrias Unification Wars. She carefully pulled the book from its place on the shelf.
Idly flipping through the pages of such a turbulent time, she again mused over the Duke’s family propensity to name their children in keeping with the traditions of the original legionnaires and their followers that invaded Engova several centuries ago.
“Duke Aurelius,” thinking of his most obvious feature “though I must admit in this instance the ‘golden’ is apt indeed,” she said, sliding the book back into its place on the shelf.
Hearing the door open behind her, Adelina turned to find the Duke striding into the room. A tall man, he possessed the easy strength of a warrior born, though it was tempered somewhat by the gathering gray mixed in with the golden blonde of his temples and beard, as well as the almost physical weight that he seemed to be carrying about his shoulders. Dressed elegantly yet simply in the black and gold of his house, he was the consummate Duke. Eyes briefly surveyed his study, and when they came to rest on Adelina a small smile creased his face.
“My Lady Bront, thank you for coming so promptly.”
“Of course your grace, what is it that your require?”
Stepping past her, Aurelius moved over to pick up a sheaf of parchment perched precariously on the corner of his desk. Turning he handed them to Adelina.
“I have heard of your planned departure to visit relatives in Ilumine and I was hoping you could be persuaded to play courier. In your hand you will find a proposal for a trade agreement, specifically their spices for our furs. The second sheet is a request for a formal ambassador that Engova might have official correspondence. Lastly is a general missive of eternal friendship between our two peoples, to be delivered to the ruling Council.” At this last his small smile bloomed into a full grin and he gave a slight shrug of his shoulders. “The demands of politics.”
Smiling in agreement Adelina slid the parchment into her belt. “Of course your grace, I’ll see they are delivered promptly upon my arrival.”
“Thank you my lady,” he pause as some of the tension in his shoulders receded, “How is your family? I hear that your boy is approaching his first birthday in a few months.”
Letting loose an easy laugh she said “Yes he is, a wonderful boy and surprisingly easy to manage. I had always feared raising children would be an arduous task from what I have seen of other families, but Cedric is making it so easy that I now half suspect the other mothers exaggerate.”
“My son is much the same, though the duties of state fill much of my free time so — -”
Before he can complete his sentence three armed guards burst into the room, two immediately moving to block the door with the nearest bookshelf, while the third doffed his helm and addressed the Duke.
“Your grace, assassins have been seen within the castle, several sentries and servants are dead already. I have dispatched squads to protect your wife and son.”
At this the core of the Duke’s character quickly asserted itself. Tapping some inner strength, he reaches behind his desk to lift free a previously hidden sword in a battered sheath. Drawing himself to his full height, he looked like a lion preparing to defend his territory.
“Thank you sergeant, you are to be commended for the diligence you have shown.”
“It is my honor to s — -”
Before he could finish, a massive concussion of sound rang out in a roar that was almost physical in its intensity. The room vanished in a debris cloud of shattered stone and shredded books.
Finding herself pressed into the corner of the room behind where she had been standing, it took several seconds for the ringing and disorientation to fade enough that Adelina could make sense of what had just happened. The room slowly came back into focus as the dust began to clear, she could just make out the vague forms of two men pressed to the walls on either side of the gaping hole where the door to the study had once stood. Resembling red stains more so than the proud members of the Ducal Guard they once were, there was barely enough body parts remaining un-pulped to make one body between them.
Hearing a moaning, her eyes are drawn back towards the middle of the floor, where the sergeant lay bruised and battered yet still alive, though as he rolled on the floor she noticed that one of his arms remains attached by only the thinnest pieces of skin and sinew. The Duke lay just behind him, cast by the blast to be knocked insensate by his contact with his well-founded wooden desk.
A loud snort of disgust made its way past the residual ringing in her ears, and her eyes are drawn back to the gaping hole where cloaked figures stepped into the room. The first removed his hood to reveal the dusky angular features and long tapered ears of one of the shadow fey. Revealed to be wearing tight black leathers under his cloak, with feathers weaved into his hair and whirling tattoos upon his arms, he was the picture of the bestial yet enigmatic elves. Stepping forward, he pulled a thin sword free from where it was sheathed at his side. Setting his stance he casually yet brutally beheaded the moaning guard on the floor, then moved toward the unconscious Duke.
“I thought a necromancer lord as powerful as you would have defensive measures in place beyond those of these abundant, yet ultimately disappointing guardsmen.” He casually flicked the blood off his blade. “However, I shall not complain as your ineptitude has ensured all of my brethren and I make the return trip. For that I thank you.”
Head bowed slightly to the Duke, the shadow fey abruptly lunged forward plunging the blade into his body. From where Adelina is lying, she can tell it has pierced the Duke’s heart. Hearing her inadvertent gasp, the killer turns to see her propped upright in the corner. Struggling to draw away from the fire revealed in his gaze, Adelina realized she could not feel her legs. Her struggles to move draw another snort of contempt from the elf.
“I won’t sully my blade with the blood of a female, not matter how deserving she may be for serving a necromancer. Crow, put an end to her misery.”
A slightly shorter shadow fey, face obscured but for golden eyes, hesitated before approaching her recumbent form. Before Adelina could take another breadth, the elf’s sword transfixed her breast. It was those eyes that held her however, those piercing almost luminescent eyes, at once mournful yet resolute, that held her gaze as her lifeblood fled her body.
Before the darkness closed in, Adelina could have sworn she saw a tear.