Soft light radiated from all around me to give the room a strange spectral atmosphere. Once my eyes adjusted to my surroundings I could make out that the room itself was circular and shaped of pale stone blocks. Stepping forward to stand amid the center of the chamber was a tall regal figure that I could never mistake anywhere, if even by his laugh alone. Maeredith hadn’t been joking when she had claimed I was meeting with Aethen Wyatt – the Anchor-Heart himself.
Aethen was one of the elder members of the royal family who had established himself in his teens as an extraordinary example. He was a young man who had driven himself to hone his mind and his body to the best of his ability and when called upon put his training to use. Within the first few years it had become clear that you didn’t dare stand on the opposite end of his sword or want to be the focus of his formidable mind. Aethen Wyatt had already started to show his skills as a strong strategic leader and a superior swordsman. Everyone who took to the field in a fight wanted to be by his side, his name alone seemed able to swing a battle.
That was at least twenty years ago, and Aethen had only built on his renown since then. Now he was the unchallenged go to man among the Wyatt line when they needed someone to shoulder a burden of responsibility. If an important matter demanded the personal attention of the throne, especially if it required discretion, deadly force or restraint there was no one better. Frankly, Aethen didn’t show up to speak empty words at foreign feasts. Instead he was more likely to quietly handle potential plans by rivals or lead SpellHound squads against sinister sorcerer uprising and the like.
He stood about even in height with me at a just an inch or two over a respectable six feet. However his broad shoulders carried far more muscle than me. It wasn’t the thick overly built body of someone mindlessly engaged in exercise for its own sake. His was the physique of a man well accustomed to a hard day’s labor and quite capable of keeping up with any experienced working man.
In the low light Aethen’s hair that had already been threatening its transition towards going grey looked even more enhanced. But even though he was in his late thirties and inside the castle grounds he was still wearing armor. It might have been a fashionable cut of blues and browns that tried to look more like something formal, but there was only so much its wearer would allow without limiting its designed purpose of protection.
Hanging from a belted baldric of thick leather at his side was his preferred weapon of choice; a slightly heavier version of a long sword with an oversized grip. Nobody dared refer to it by its more common name in front of Aethen, in his presence it was just his ‘hand and a half sword.’ Although in retrospect I had to repress a wry smile and a chuckle at the inherent humor that until he took up such a weapon everyone had always called them bastard swords.
It was a testament to Aethen’s hallmark philosophy, to his infamous fighting style; one of complete versatility. Such a weapon allowed him to make use of it in either hand alone or take it up into both. Basically it gave him options; he could change tactics in the middle of a fight in the most fundamental of aspects. Enabling him to use his off hand for other things and didn’t require him to divert his focus between two separate hands if he needed to concentrate all his attention.
Aethen wasn’t just some strong armed swordsman with a long run of good luck, despite what some might think. The man was incredibly well read and astonishingly well rounded in a variety of subjects. He truly took to heart the ideal of being prepared for almost anything. So it wasn’t much of a surprise that if something mysterious was in motion that Aethen was the one already addressing it.
Burning blue eyes like a sapphire orchid locked onto me as we both closed the gap between us and his merry mood trailed off to be replaced by seriousness. Among the SpellHounds Aethen had earned the nickname of Anchor-Heart not as a playful moniker to remark at how he was the core of any group he was a part of. But because if you needed to know nothing else about the man, the only thing to remember was that his heart anchored him in all matters more so than his mind. And if it was guiding him to set aside a jovial friendly disposition I had to assume it was worth me doing the same.
“What is this place, I wasn’t aware anything like it existed inside Castle Virtus,” I asked in an effort to start the conversation. There was no real way of knowing where it might lead but I figured I could at least allow my curiosity to get it going. Besides, I really did want to know where it was that we had found ourselves and it was better to deal with my curiosity than it was let my anxiety direct me.
Aethen gave me a gentle gesture and glanced around the room politely before addressing my query. His tone was one of a sympathetic tutor about to give the only answer a pupil required before moving ahead with a lesson. “All that needs to be said, is that this place is called the Cloak Citadel,” he told me. “And once you leave this place you can rest assured that you’ll never be able to find your way back here again. So, forget about it and try to focus on why you’re here.”
“Excellent point,” I couldn’t resist mentioning. “Why is it that I am here anyways?” The words leapt free from my lips more rapidly than a razor and unfortunately didn’t do a very good job of masking any resentment let alone displeasure. Part of me wanted to wince, but a bigger part decided it didn’t really care.
“A SpellHound is needed,” Aethen said so simply that it seemed like he honestly expected that no further explanation would be required. The voice inside me wasn’t bothering with subtle whispers anymore, instead it had moved on to making sure it was heard by becoming an almost full blown bellow. And what it said was mixture of laughter, sarcasm and some very vulgar things that my sense of self preservation alone prevented me from giving voice to.
“And you don’t have an ample number of them at your disposal,” I demanded with a dangerous degree of venom. “In case you missed it, I am no longer bound to the whims of the throne. There is no oath sworn that shackles me to charge at your command to wherever you direct me. I am not even beholden to you as a paying client – in short you have no right to even summon me here. You’re wasting both of our time by bringing me here is all you needed was a SpellHound.”
Apparently my remarks hadn’t earned me an early grave because instead of being met with fury or disapproval they warranted only a raised eyebrow along with a half smile. Had I missed something else? For a split second I almost expected to be let in on the joke.
Aethen shifted his stance and shuffled his feet, stopping to regard the floor beneath him for a half a second. I recognized the look of a man about to approach a subject that he didn’t enjoy and that was certainly the look of the man in front of me. “I am sure your escort has already cautioned you that this business isn’t something we care to make broadly known,” he said. I nodded in agreement and decided it wise to not interrupt; Aethen graciously accepted my attention then continued.
“The reason for this precaution is a painfully simple one; we don’t know how many among the serving SpellHounds we can trust.” Those very words hit me in the chest like a massive weight. I couldn’t even form a rational thought that made that statement make sense. Was it even possible for a SpellHound to act against the throne? I had never imagined that it could be done.
“Established some years back was a secret security detail made up of the most loyal and reliable members of the watch. These men and women were assigned the task of keeping some dangerous objects hidden. Items that in the wrong hands could lead to things best categorized as unimaginable. So precautions were taken to seal the various objects in special containers and hidden all over Emberhelm. Even their protectors identities were kept secret, no one could know that they were in the service of the throne. Instead they masqueraded as merchants, miners and craftsmen so that anyone seeking out their charges wouldn’t be able to single them out to try and get to them.
The whole plan had been working rather well until recently; when some of those very agents began to be found dead. Now, nobody could have hunted these people down without knowing exactly what they were tasked with. And the only explanation that makes any sense is that a SpellHound was involved. For whatever reason, someone had to have found a flaw in how these objects were hidden, or maybe one of the guardians became careless. But the result is still the same – dead men and women.
We cannot allow these objects to be unearthed and we cannot permit the death of those who gave their lives to go unchallenged. Once Aethen had finished speaking I could only sat there in silence as I absorbed everything. The impact of it all still hadn’t completely hit me yet, but I knew enough to realize some of the scope involved.
Truth be told I was getting a little scared at what it sounded like I was about to be asked to do. Trying to figure out what had been done to Lillian, to help her out in some form was easily enough for me to agree to. Even putting me on the trail of sniffing out some sinister sorcerer who was behind what happened to her was within reason. But if I was being given the job of slaughtering people in the streets or play vault keeper – well, that was just too much. A guy has to know where to draw the line, when too far is just simply too far.
“Where do I fit in then,” I asked with reservations aplenty. If there was ever going to be a punch line to this little inside joke fate had in mind, I was certain that I was about to hear it. And I think I both wanted to hear what Aethen was about to say as much as I just wanted to cut bait and run right out of there. Then Aethen told me exactly where it was that I fit into this grand scheme of things.
“Of all the SpellHounds on record, you my dear Nathanial are the only one who had such an abundance of conscience that you asked to be released. You were faultless in your pursuit of prey when you served and more importantly you questioned everything. I need someone I can trust more than anything and I need a SpellHound – you fit on both counts.”
I had to let that bit sink in as well. Aethen anticipated my next question straight away before I could marshal my thoughts into motion to ask it. “Don’t worry, I wasn’t going to ask you to hunt down and slay anything,” he offered kindly. “I remember your compulsions against needless bloodshed. What I requesting of you in this endeavor is to simply seek out who is behind this and do whatever you can to stop it. You’re authorized to take any action you consider necessary in the pursuit of that goal. And should it become imperative that you defend yourself or even take a life then I will leave that judgment in your hands.”
“So I take it this means you are unofficially hiring me then,” I said quietly. I think I could almost hear myself smile louder than the words I whispered. And there it was I thought to myself; there was the joke. “Seeing as how I am no longer a sword agent of the throne and you need me to work on this case, you need me to have some explainable cover as to why I am asking questions and the like. The only one that is easiest for people to buy is that I have been hired to look into the deaths or some such.”
I caught Aethen’s expression as I offered my own evaluation of what hadn’t been said and found in it a look of a patient instructor content that his student had stumbled into an expected conclusion. That sly old wolf had planned for this all along; I could just read it on his face. But at the same time he wasn’t wearing a smug smirk of pompous self worth about it either. This did happen to help me to not feel as bad about the whole thing.
“We are well aware that you have already been hired by Baylen Hereward to become involved in these matters. However, to increase your credibility I have arranged to provide you with a retainer and my own freely given word that should you faithfully supply me with your assistance in this matter you can expect an appropriate degree of compensation.”
He handed me an envelope of thick vellum whose weight alone was enough cause to send my curiosity into a tailspin. I’ve always been told that when you are offered a payment or anything of the sort and especially if the client doesn’t mention an amount that it was best to wait to count it until you were outside their presence. But once that package met my palm I already knew that manners could be thrown into a forge for all I cared; I was opening that thing.
The second I did, the entire world went dead around me. My heart seemed to stop along with my breathing before starting back up with a rapid rush. The reason for its mass was starring me straight in the face and I couldn’t believe it. Spaced evenly in a simple pattern were five Silver Sigils seated in front of a smooth plate of solid silver that had been stamped with the Wyatt crest. I didn’t need a wealth of light to make it out, having committed it to memory long ago I could picture it clearly enough in my mind as my fingertips traces along its lines. A simple shield of plain white with a diagonal bend crossing from the upper left down to its lower right that passed over the middle of five silver wolves arranged into a square with one at its center.
The amount of my retainer and how the coins were arranged I could have shrugged off as coincidence had they been the entirety of the envelope’s contents. But Aethen had considered that, I was certain. Why else would he also have included a piece of pure silver marked by the royal crest? Emblazoned on a wall or affixed to anything else it was an elegant work; the white field complementing the subtle silver of the wolves and the banner passing across it. However, even without its colors it still had a way of impacting me. As little more than an etched symbol placed into the metal it still felt like it demanded respect.
Perhaps that was the point. Maybe that was all that Aethen wanted to impart upon me before I left that I had once been a part of that and still was no matter how some might define me. I didn’t want to think that I owed the throne anything, but Emberhelm as a whole didn’t deserve to have people dropping dead on its streets. Without the benefit of a uniform or anything to identify them it wasn’t impossible that legitimate civilians might be harmed by mistake. If I could do something, I was obligated to do so I tried to ask myself. But my eyes refused to waiver away from the wealth I held in my hand. And I had to remind myself that it had been offered merely as a retainer. That meant more could follow when all this was over and I could certainly put it to good use. All I had to do was manage to live through it.
“I think you just hired yourself a SpellHound,” I told Aethen excitedly. “Actually,” he promptly proceeded to correct me. “I haven’t hired you for anything; neither has anyone affiliated with the throne. One of the merits of the scale of your retainer is that along with it comes the expectation of anonymity. I’m sure you can appreciate that much.”
The gears in my head started spinning once more and I tried to catch up as quickly as I could. Of course! There was little way I could explain away a sudden surge of wealth, especially if I started suddenly throwing it around. But if anyone did get curious the best story would be the simplest; a wealthy concerned party had hired me to investigate the potential concerns of the general public under the mandate of remaining nameless. Chaos in the street could cost someone considerable coin and even the feigning of compassion could be seen as a kindness. Yet, anyone with money to spare wouldn’t want to advertise any notion of a sympathetic nature for fear of being swarmed with solicitors or malcontents. It was a suitable means to account for everything and allow me credibility without involving the throne or royal family in anyway.
“Good luck, and happy hunting,” Aethen formally bid me complete with a bow. Just like that our business was concluded and my companion took his leave to disappear into some other unknown area. Everything felt so surreal all of a sudden as I stood there holding more money than I had ever expected to be paid and couldn’t begin to contemplate how long it would have taken me to earn it otherwise.
But there was work to be done and I didn’t have the time to spare lingering about. Maeredith was still stationed in the hallway like a statue, waiting to escort me back out of the castle. There were also plenty of others probably eagerly anticipating my exit so that they might announce their amusement at what they expected I encountered. I’d like to say that the joke was on them but the gravity of the situation was already beginning to temper the thrill of holding so much silver. Let them enjoy their merry moment, I conceded. Everyone deserved one now and again.