No one spoke to me again as Maeredith escorted me outside and nodded her own little farewell to send me on my way. With each step I thought I could almost detect an audible snickering from behind the safety of Castle Virtus’s walls, but I ruled it out as merely my imagination. Overhead the warm sun had passed behind a curtain of clouds, making the atmosphere above ground a reminder of being below again.
A light rain began to fall; bringing a soft series wet thumps to my attention as it struck my coat. The rain itself felt good, like the world around me was just a little more refreshed. Which I think both I and Emberhelm could use at the moment.
Taking a deep breath I opened up my senses and focused on everything around me. There was so many traces, so many tangled threads of traffic from passing people and ambient arcane forces. But beyond all that there was still an unmistakable element, which added a static of sorcery on the air that cluttered it all. This was still not going to be a straight forward task; I needed some trail to follow. What I needed was a scent, some trace that I could track. Be it a foot print of sorts or some identifying ingredient that might lead me towards whatever was behind it all.
And since no clue was going to sympathetically decide to show itself to me I would have to seek it out the old fashioned way. It was something I’d already put off long enough and I couldn’t postpone it any longer. Already my odds of finding some link that might connect to Lillian were getting lower and lower. If any evidence remained I couldn’t afford to have it vanish all together or be removed by anyone attempting to cover their tracks. It wasn’t as if who ever they were hadn’t been doing an impressive enough job of obscuring any efforts to investigate so far.
According to my information from Baylen, Lillian had been residing in a small apartment over in what some jokingly referred to as the ‘Domestic District.’ It was a lower end area commonly populated by working class men and women. As such it wasn’t nearly as downtrodden as Gutterside, but it didn’t provide an overwhelming amount of visible luxury. The streets were maintained enough to be kept at least functionally clear and you typically didn’t run into too many people sleeping within sight of them.
Where someone like me might be able to expect to pay about a Steel Shield a week in rent anyone living up in the Domestic District probably had to keep up with two to three at least. And that was probably a cautious estimate for an individual in my opinion. I didn’t want to try and figure how much it might cost a small family trying to get by. This is what Lillian, as I understood, had been attempting to do.
Baylen had explained to me that Lillian had been earning a steady income from her work at Howler’s Hall. Her parents had been burdened by poor health in recent years and she had moved in with them as part of a mutually beneficial arrangement. She had been trying to help her parents as much as she could while also looking after her nephew. Unfortunately they had lost her brother in an accident a few months back and the child’s mother had died in childbirth.
It was so much misfortune for one family that I didn’t relish potentially being the person to lay more of it at their door. But they were only one family dealing with the impact of this; there could be countless others in the days to come. I shuddered to even imagine if any of the guardians had been secretly keeping their assigned artifacts safe in homes of their own as well. Such thoughts weren’t going to do me any favors so I tried to push them aside and concentrate.
The Domestic District was a few blocks from here and my feet had already put themselves into motion to head that way. Luckily the rain at least wasn’t very heavy, being just enough to be a reminder that it was there with me while I walked. Between the rain and my mind I found myself distracted, only half noticing the number of others out and about as well.
Until a steel-tipped shaft shot over my shoulder suddenly, arousing both my adrenaline and my attention immediately. Nothing was more cowardly, more dishonorable and unskilled as someone who lacked the courage to face you if they aimed to take your life. Killing someone was never a glorious act in itself, but if you were going to engage it shouldn’t be cheapened and done without respect. Someone had just made a dangerous mistake; they had insulted me and I was still breathing.
A guttural growl bubbled up from my belly in unison with my drawn sword. Instinct born from the experience of being in the heat of battle automatically took over and all logical thought surrendered to step aside. Heedless of any idea of the size or strength of the forces assembled against me I sprinted into motion. Blind reflex sent me in what it screamed had to be the direction of the shooters location. And as luck would have it, someone was finally smiling on me. There was a pair of figures, both of them with crossbows still in hand.
One of the two was still fumbling with his weapon, panicking at being unable to cock it. His partner, the current mark my rage had trained itself towards, let his empty implement fall to the ground. Frantically and driven by a flood of fear he reached for his companion’s crossbow only to continue cursing. They hadn’t planned on missing, and now they weren’t prepared to deal with me directly.
The crossbow coward tried to raise his weapon in a last-ditch effort to defend himself and held it up as a makeshift shield. It collided with my sword with a satisfying crack that carried it backwards and into his nose. A mixture of blood and unintelligible speech erupted instantly. But it barely registered as I swept my sword into an arc that slammed the crossbow aside and followed it up with a lightning fast slash into his ribs. The sharp shattering sound was immorally sweet and I savored it as he collapsed to the ground.
With the shooter clearly removed to the ‘no longer a threat’ category I redirected my attention back to his partner. He was wide eyed and shaking as he stumbled into an awkward attempt to flee for his life. Normally I might have erred on the side of mercy and allowed him to escape, having already captured the other crossbowman. But being shot at has the terrible tendency to put me in a very bad mood. And this poor soul had been involved even if he hadn’t pulled a trigger.
Still riding atop my surging explosion of emotion I bounded into a brutal pursuit almost regretting my blunted blade. My momentum carried me within easy reach rather quickly and I immediately brought the weapon in my hand down with a fiery fury. I didn’t have the time to spare or the clear thought to control my aim. Instead I let loose my first impulse and struck savagely at just between his shoulders.
If I had aimed the attack only a little higher, even my dulled metal might have mangled his neck or head. Any lower and I could have crushed his spine to leave him confined in a prison of his own body. A fact that I wasn’t entirely sure that might upset me enough to make me lose much sleep. But my blow bashed the breath clear from his chest and sent him into a dizzying tumble. He hammered against a rough wall as his interrupted velocity violently changed his course from a horizontal one into something more vertical in nature.
Looking up at me was a similarly gibberish and groaning goon while I grabbed his collar and collected him up to drag him back to lie beside his match. Both of them were bleeding and my fleet-footed friend was still struggling to control his breathing. His partner clutched at his side with the same worried grip he had used to hold onto a weapon. Apparently he hadn’t yet realized that my swords absent edge hadn’t actually cut him. Once the shock and trauma wore off he might, but it still was little consolation to the broken ribs he had to handle hurting. Not to mention his badly broken nose.
I honestly couldn’t find any compassion in me for them. They had just tried to kill me, lacking any courage to do so like a man or with respect. And, while I hadn’t returned the favor with the intention to do the same, I couldn’t say that if they had been slain as part of the pursuit or later from their injuries I wouldn’t feel guilty. It was the kind of dark thinking that worried me about what I could do if I used a more lethal length of steel.
Glancing at the still sharp tip of my sword I found the conviction at my core that corrected me. It wasn’t the presence of sharpened steel or the absence of it that could make a man dangerous. That ability rested solely on the person holding it and how they used it. I could have made the decision to kill these two regardless of if I had a weapon in my hand or not. Still could do exactly that, in fact. But I hadn’t.
So I sheathed my sword with a sigh and felt some of my anger abate. It wasn’t going to do me any good outside of a fight and there was no way I could justify killing two unarmed men. Even if they had tried to kill me and I might want to, it wouldn’t make it right. Besides, I could use anything these two might be able to tell me far more than some short lived gratification.
“Who wants me dead,” I asked them. My voice had lost the energetic edge of someone speaking heatedly; in its place was a cold detachment. At first I thought my change in demeanor had frightened them further, their eyes having started to become blank stares. But then a horrible howling fought its way free of them and my vision blurred. It was like being in the most abysmal weather you could imagine. Assaulting all my senses at once; I could hardly see, hear or smell anything for a flurry of magical forces all around me.
By the time it started to lessen I could begin to make out two lifeless forms, now slumped against the ground and silent. Someone had used these two to try and kill me and when they failed both of them had been eliminated. There was still too much magic too single out exactly where the spell had come from to silence my suspects. And I didn’t have the time to wait around for the watch to show up and start asking me questions.
This was getting really frustrating and fast. My fist slammed into something rigid nearby in an effort to release some of that building stress. All it managed to do was send a shockwave of numbness and discomfort cascading back up my arm. It was about time I found a solid lead on this thing. And I was becoming decidedly determined to do just that.
I padded off to find Lillian’s place, now burdened by an overwhelming abundance of questions with no clear answers in sight to balance them. Whoever was behind this had no problem killing friend or foe alike. So I tried to keep on my toes but secretly hoped that I could avoid anymore attempts on my life. Whether I killed them or not, it was a safe bet that they would end up dead.