Petronius received the news from his superiors Harloynus Gilo and Renard Gazonus, and from the wise head of Azmar Guido Lancellus. They had summoned him for a meeting with the purpose to tell him what had become of his good friend Halloran Davernas.
“Sit down, Petronius,” said Guido with a soft voice, “there is something we need to talk to you about.”
He did as he was told without saying a word. He knew that when he was called by the head of the village and by the two commanding officers no good news could come. He expected to hear that a war had just started or something along those lines. His friend was the last thing on his mind at the time.
“I understand you were friends with Halloran Davernas,” Harloynus Gilo, the commander of Azmar, said with a firm tone.
“Huh?” Petronius was surprised. Of all things he never expected that these people, military men basically, would mention the scientist.
“Are your or are you not?”
“Yes, yes I am. Did he do something wrong?”
“Petronius…” started the old man Lancellus, but Harloynus interrupted him.
“He was murdered last night. We found his body this morning.”
“What?” This caught him off guard. Of all people he would think could be murdered Halloran was the last. Who would want to murder a scientist in the middle of the night? It did not make any sense, unless…
“We believe it is the work of the killer,” said Renard, speaking for the first time, “the one your time has been sent to investigate. We understand your loss, I’m sure you were good friends. He was a good man and…”
“Enough!” snapped Harloynus, “We are not here to give Petronius our condolences. We are here to inform him of the situation. The killer has struck again, this time to someone close to you. Now you’ll be more motivated to find any information useful to catch him. Remember your orders: you and your team are to make a reconnaissance of the forest surrounding Azmar. We think he might hide there for there. Now, don’t waste your time crying for your friend and go assemble your team. Tears will not solve this problem. Dismissed.”
“Yes, sir!” Petronius stood up from his chair, turned around and exited the room.
“You didn’t have to be so hard on him,” said Renard when he had left, “he just lost a friend after all.”
“We cannot waste our time on sentimentalities. He has already killed five people. We have to stop him as soon as possible.”
A couple of hours later Petronius met up with his team. It was as usual: Evrardus’ compromise to the mission, Johannes’ cockiness and Avelina’s coldness. This way they wouldn’t be able to complete the mission, he thought.
“Listen up, kids, there has been a new development,” he started, “there was another killing last night. Another scientist. I knew him, he was a good friend. I’d like to stay for the funeral but we have a mission to complete. We surely can’t spend too much time waiting around for another murder. We will leave soon, tomorrow if possible. We’ll probably spend a few days in the forest so pack what’s necessary. And get ready.”
“At what time tomorrow and where will we meet?” said Evrardus.
“We’ll meet at the east entrance to the village. Be there before sunrise. And remember to get everything you may need. Any other question?”
“Are you completely sure that the strategy you outlined yesterday will work?” said Johannes, “there might be flaws in it.”
“I hope you are not trying to say something about me…” said Evrardus defensively.
“No, I’m not, but if you relate when I speak about flaws…”
And there they went again. Petronius knew that the key to the success of the mission was for them to work together. But that couldn’t be helped with words, they had to live with each other, stare at the face of danger as his father would say, to learn to work as a team. Instead trying to stop their fighting he spoke the most silent member of the team:
“Yes?” her blank expression remained.
“What do you make of all this? I have not heard your opinion.”
“I think that if we work together according to the plan we might succeed.”
“All right, that’s the smartest thing I’ve heard all day. Be here on time tomorrow.”
His mind was off as he walked around Naporia. Domenico Zilio kept thinking about what had been told to him the past few days. He had always been doubtful about all things regarding religion. He had never believed in a god, he had never gone to church as a child, and he had never considered himself as a man of faith. But what he had experienced since he arrived to the city –what he had seen on the very first night- scared him. All those tales of the supernatural, of ghosts and demons, of gods and the devil, of the magic that was practiced up to the northeast (what did they call it? Seidr?), he had never believed any of that. But then, all of a sudden, he came to a new town following a mission from the king and three days in and his set of beliefs had been turned offside down. He was a mercenary, no more, not a man of any god. Then why was he starting to believe? Was it what he had witnessed? No, that was not it. Sure, it had made an impression on him and it had certainly influenced what he thought, but the main reason to why he was starting to believe in all those tales was not that. The man Aloysius Donato was very convincing, but it weren’t his words that did the trick. There was something behind them that made them so… believable. Truth, that was what was behind them. Deep down him he knew that everything that had been told to him was true. He had never believed in anything, and yet nonetheless…
His internal philosophical ramblings met a halt suddenly when he, at the local market to which he had gone to buy some food for his supper, saw that woman. Helena, Aloysius’ wife. There was something disquieting about her, and yet it was so deliciously intoxicating that he couldn’t help be drawn to her. He wasn’t a man to believe in love, in sexual pleasure yes, but then again it wasn’t exactly that. There was something beyond human comprehension that drew him to her.
“Mister Domenico, it’s very nice to see you.” She said when she saw him.
“Mrs Donato, the same goes for you.” Upon looking at her eyes directly he got lost in that endless dark blue.
“OH, Helena, please. How has your time been at Naporia?”
“What? My time? I have enjoyed it so far,” he lied, “it’s only been three days but I am starting to like this town.”
“Good, good. And how are the talks with my husband going? Has he convinced you yet to join him?”
“Well actually I think he is not trying to convince me.”
“Oh, and how is that?”
“I don’t know how to explain it, but he doesn’t seem to be making an effort to convince me. He speaks to me as if I was already convinced, as if I already made part of his movement.”
“Ha, well that is Aloysius’ talent. He is a very smooth speaker. But is it working?”
“I… I’m not really sure. I think there is a part of me which is starting to believe…”
“And the other part?”
“You know, the other part which does not believe.”
“Well I guess that’s the part where common sense dominates.”
“You are not a very religious man, are you?”
“No, to be frank no, not really. I have always harboured doubt in my mind.”
“I see. I’d even say that you are not here from your own decision.”
“What? Why would…”
“Please spare me the act. It may fool Aloysius but not me. I know a man who doesn’t want to be where he is when I see one.”
“All right. The truth is that I was sent here against my own will. I have a goddamn job to do here. But it was curiosity which sparked and…”
“I told you to spare me the act. I know that you are here, in this movement, against your will. It is not curiosity which brought you here. But don’t worry, I won’t tell my husband. It’s not my business to do so, and besides I like you, you seem to be a good man.”
“Well, let’s hope you are right.”
Helena smiled and said “I always am.” She then started leaving but then she turned around and said: “Soon my husband will want to talk to you again. He’ll have a proposal for you and you will accept. Bye, mister Domenico.”
That conversation had been even stranger that the ones with Donato. She had known, she probably knew more than she let out. There was something disquieting about that woman.
The chambers of King Cunradus Marquart was unusually full of people when Hermannus Marquart, the king’s brother and successor to the throne, walked in. Inside were Apollonia, Caleb, Libeste and Ditmarus, all gathered together to check on the king’s health. A scare a couple of hours ago had everybody think that the time had come and their king was departing, but it had quieted down now and the king was in stable health. There was never more than two people in the room, and much less two people of high status. Usually it would be either two maids cleaning up, or Apollonia checking on her husband and a maid. But when the possibility that the king would die manifested all showed up. He didn’t die though, but they stayed for a while. And then came a man who never visited, who had not seen his brother in perhaps a good portion of a year. Everybody was surprised to see him, but it wasn’t a pleasant surprise. Apollonia frowned, Libeste clenched her teeth, Ditmarus cursed inside his mind and Caleb was confused. When the kind saw his brother he spoke loud and clear:
“Leave us.” It was the order of a king.
“But, Cunradus,” started Apollonia, “you are not back to full health and…”
“I will not ask again.”
“Uncle, she is right…” said Libeste.
“I said I will not ask again!” it seemed as if he had regained enough energy to bark at others.
They did not need to hear it one more time. They all stood up silently and walked outside of the room, not without giving a menacing look to Hermannus, but he wasn’t paying attention, his eyes were fixed on his brother. There was no compassion or love on his eyes, but neither was there hate nor anger. There was a plea, a plea shouted with a loud menacing voice.
“How are you holding?” Hermannus said when everybody had cleared the room.
“Death is breathing over my neck,” Cunradus answered, “but that old bitch cannot win against me. She’s tried in the past, but she has always failed.”
“She’ll win eventually. She always wins.”
“Is there something you wanted to talk about?”
“Yes, but I wanted to check on your health first.”
“We haven’t seen each other for about six months, perhaps even more, then there is a scare that I might be dead and you come before me. You are not alone though, all those bastards you saw here are just the same.”
“Those bastards include your wife, your unnatural son, and your nephew and niece, who are also my children. One of them is a bastard accurately.”
“So what? They don’t care about me. They just want to sit on my throne. They seldom ever come to see me, one jump scare and they are all here giving me shit.”
“That’s not true. I always see Apollonia come here in the mornings, and Libeste tells me she comes to visit you often.”
“They are a bunch of interested vultures.”
“Do you have to be an asshole even on your deathbed?”
“Wasn’t there something you wanted to talk to me about?”
In this moment Hermannus left all of his pride aside, and the menacing and commanding tone that had stained his voice quickly disappeared. He got near to Cunradus’ bed, a place which he had previously always kept at least two meters away from, and kneeled besides it to be on the same eye level as his brother.
“Cunradus… brother… it is no secret that you have few moons on this Earth left. Everybody knows it, and everybody wonders about the next king.”
“Would you go straight to the point?”
“By the ancient law I am to be our successor. I would become the next king in the case that you die. But people are already questioning if I would be a good ruler. Hell, I have not even stepped on the throne and people already think I will be bad. My own children seem to be plotting something. It’s like they do not think their own father will be a good king. But they are not the only ones. I concur with them. Being king isn’t something that I have ever wanted. I am happy with my investigations, but if I am to wear the crown all that would disappear. Brother, I am asking you, can’t you change the law? Can’t you make Caleb king?”
“The ancient law states that the king’s heir has to be related to the actual one in blood, you know that. Even if I wanted I could not change it. The elder council would not allow me to.”
“Then make Ditmarus king, he’d be a good one.”
“I don’t think the elders would allow that someone who is not either the king’s son or sibling sit on the throne. I think it is written in the ancient law that is has to be either of them.”
“Brother, please, isn’t there anything that you could do? I would be a lousy king. I am interested in alchemy, a practice which is pretty much banned in the kingdom.”
“Don’t give me that bullshit, young brother, you are to be king. We both know that you are much wiser than I ever was. There is nothing I can do. I didn’t want to be king either, but it was a position I had to take when I was thirteen.”
“Thirteen is very different than seventy two.”
“You’ll be wiser, perhaps not as strong as a young man, but you’ll know what’s best for the capital Hythe and for Royaume as a whole. There is nothing that can be done, the laws can’t change.”
“Then there is only one thing that I can ask of you.”
“And what may that be?”
“Do not die.”
The next day had come and the team had gathered where they have agreed. Petronius was the first to arrive, followed by Avelina, then Johannes and Lastly Evrardus. He had stayed up all night thinking about the mission, trying to figure out how to best use his abilities. But also he was being troubled by Johannes and his arrogance, but had come to the conclusion that it would be best for them to make peace and work together.
“Good morning, guys,” said Petronius when everybody had arrived, “good to see you are all here. Thank you for joining us Evrardus. Anyhow, we must depart for our mission now. It looks like you’ve gathered everything you need.”
Evrardus had brought his sword –that is, the sword that had belonged to his father years ago, before he had died-, which had not seen combat in years but had served as practice. Johannes carried two long blades on his satchel, and he was very skilled with them and knew how to make the most of Seidr using them. Lastly, Avelina had brought a bow and twenty arrows, as well as a dagger. These kids weren’t joking around, Petronius thought. That is one thing that the academy had thought them very well: always be prepared.
“Good, let’s get on the move.”
Johannes went straight ahead, being in the front of the team. Behind him went Petronius, strategically placed in case if they were attacked he could protect them, and Evrardus right behind him. In the back went Avelina, whose use of Earth type Seidr and Water type Seidr could be good defence on the rear.
After some time walking through the forest Petronius called for a stop.
“Guys, we must stop for a second. But this is not a break, this is a moment that I’d like to test your abilities.” They all gathered. “This will be simple: using the energy from this are show me your ability to control Seidr. I have seen the three of you in the past, but this is the opportunity for me to see your strengths before real combat. I waited for this moment so we could have already entered the forest and you could sense the energy here and use it to your benefit. Johannes, you go first. The sun is up and there is no sign that it will rain today so you won’t be able to use your lightning technique, but I understand you are very proficient with air techniques. Please show me that.”
“All right, I will.”
Johannes left his pack on the ground and took a step forward. He stretched his right arm in front of him and concentrated for a moment. He closed his eyes and let the energy from the air move through his body. The key to Seidr use is to employ the energy of one’s surroundings. Usually a person has more sensibility towards an element than another. In Johannes case he was sensitive to both lightning and air, and what he was doing was letting all that energy enter his body. He would then channel all that energy into his arm, and then in a movement he would release it, creating a powerful attack. That is what he did: he swung his arm towards the trunk of a tree, and the result was that it was sliced in the middle, not completely though.
“Well done, Johannes. But you have to be quicker about it. When you are in battle the enemy won’t let you concentrate.”
“I know. I just did it so I could accumulate all the energy possible so I could show you my power. I did, however, stop halfway through that tree. I didn’t want it to fall down and make a mess.”
“That’s good thinking. Okay, Avelina, you are up.”
Without saying a word, as usual, Avelina gave a step forward. She as well closed her eyes and concentrated for a second. She had her left arm extended towards East, pointing at a lake that neither of them could see. A moment later a sort of water blade had formed surrounding her arm. She then pointed it towards another tree and let the water move quickly towards it. It did not slice it, but it did pierce a hole that went straight to the other side.
“Great job, Avelina, great water Seidr. Care to show us some earth one?”
“Ok.” She said without much excitement. She then placed her right hand on the ground. She spend the next few seconds feeling the energy that was being build up inside her arm. A moment later she released it and a rock five meters away was sent straight to the sky by a long mass of earth that erupted from the ground.
“Well done,” said Petronius impressed, “very well done. You kids sure know how to dominate this energy. Evrardus, you are up. Did you bring anything to ignite a fire?”
“Yes, yes I did.” Evrardus looked inside his pack and took out a bow of matches. “Okay, everybody take a step back, this might be dangerous.” It was no secret that he had difficulties controlling his Seidr, so they did as he said. He lit up a match and closed his eyes. He started concentrating, feeling the energy flowing from the match to his hand, then to his arm, then to his whole body. Of all the elements, fire was the one with the most energy that could be used. Perhaps only lightning matched it, the real difference is that the latter was much harder to control. But fire itself was very difficult to get a grasp on for all the energy that it released. A few seconds later Evrardus opened his eyes and the flame at the tip of the match grew bigger and stronger. He tried to direct it towards something but that poised a problem: they were in a forest, and anything he could direct it at would spread and burn. He decided to direct it upwards towards the sky, but when he took his decision the flame had shortened a lot, reaching even lower than when the match was first struck. He had let all the energy of the fire go away without being able to use it properly.
“Sorry, Evrardus, perhaps if you train harder,” said Petronius placing a hand on his arm, “I know fire is a very hard element to control.”
He looked around and saw Avelina’s expressionless face looking straight at him, and a little behind her Johannes condescendingly looked away.
“Damn it!” Evrardus murmured.
Domenico heard a knock on his door. He was lying on his bed, shirtless and with an empty bottle of spirits on his night table. A problem he thought he had sorted out in the past, he reflected, was returning now in a moment of uncertainty and confusion.
“Just a second,” he said, getting up and putting his shirt on.
When he opened the door he saw Aloysius Donato standing there. His kind expression was gone from his face, he looked rather concerned, and actually was a bit pale. With the voice of a preoccupied man he said:
“Mister Domenico, please come with me.”
They walked out of the hostel and started walking through the streets of Naporia, which were unusually crowded for the time of the day, a little before sunset. Aloysius ignored every question made by Domenico in the way. They finally arrived to the man’s house, but did not enter through the front door.
“Your house? That’s all the mystery?”
“Wait.” He said.
He directed him towards the back of the place where a big stone wall covered the way. Aloysius approached the wall and placed both of his hands on it. It seemed as if where he had placed them there was something engraved in an old language.
“Obnask!” Aloysius said with a very strong voice. The big stone wall then opened through the middle. Inside only darkness could be seen, except for a little pathway on the floor. “After you,” he said turning to Domenico.
“No fucking way I’m entering there…”
“Brenna,” he said without looking away and a set of torches got lit up. “Please.”
“Holy shit.” Domenico said before going in.
The pathway was long, the walls were damp and full of spider webs, and Aloysius remained silent. They finally arrived at a door with a circle painted in front. Aloysius then touched it with the tip of his fingers –Domenico could see that he put each one in a specific place- and said “Kveykva”. The circle then started giving off a very bright white light. The door then opened, revealing a small room.
“What the bloody hell is this place?”
“It’s a safe house. Please, I’ll explain everything inside.”
They went in and the door closed behind them. For a second the room went into complete darkness, but then Aloysius said once again “Kveykva”, and a small orb of light started hovering above them. It wasn’t big but it was enough to illuminate the whole place.
“All right, can you now tell me what the hell is going on?”
“This is the safest place in Naporia. No evil force can enter this place, it is protected by Lord Ubros himself. I brought you here because there is some information I need to tell you, but they cannot be heard by any other ears.”
“So you have to pull your creepy magic shit?”
“It’s not magic. You have to be more respectful towards the Lord when you are in here.”
“Fine. What is it?”
“There is a demon in the town. I’m not quite sure when he arrived or where is he hiding, but I assure you that there is. Lord Ubros told me himself. If what I sense is correct then this is no ordinary demon, but apparently it is Edur’s right hand man. He is on a special mission here. But that is not the important part: I don’t know exactly what it is, but I know that it involves you.”
“Me?! Why the hell would it involve me?”
“I told you I don’t know, but apparently you are important to some people in the spirit world. I did tell you that you were special in some sort of way.”
“Yeah, I can take your being special and the lord’s mission bullshit, but being chased by demons now?”
“There is something that I want to ask of you.”
“And what is that?”
“I want you to help me find this demon.”
“What? You want me to find the goddamn demon that is after me?”
“You either have two options: you can either hide away here where no force of evil can touch you and you’ll be safe, or you can fight off these things that want you. As of what I have learned of you in these past few days the first option won’t appeal much to you.”
He remained quiet for some time. He didn’t know what to make of the situation. He didn’t quite believe what he was being told, but after seeing what he had that day, how that magic hideout appeared, he sure knew there was something going on. The thought of demons scared him, but he didn’t want to stay in that creepy place for much longer time. He made a choice.
It was late at night and the old Hermannus Marquart was walking around in the castle. He was a little restless, as if something was after him. His talk with his brother that morning had not eased his fear and now the reality of becoming king was dawning upon him. Being king was such a nuisance, and since a very young age, when his father was killed with him being barely one year old, he had the notion that kings were killed. Of course he could not remember the exact moment, but as he grew up and people told him about his father and how he had died that idea started growing inside his head.
“Father?” he heard Libeste’s voice behind him.
“Oh, hi, dear. How are you?”
“You look tired father, are you okay? You may be sick.”
“No, no, don’t worry about me. I am only a bit tired and concerned for your uncle. He appears to be doing fine now. I think I’ll head back to the lab.”
“What’s this, a family reunion?” he cursed inside his head when he heard Ditmarus’ voice coming from the other side.
“Haha, no, I was just leaving,” he tried to get away but Libeste held his arm.
“I was telling father that he should rest,” she said to her brother, “he looks ill.”
“Yeah, he sort of does. Are you all right, papa?”
“Kids, don’t worry about me. Your father has to go back to the lab, the findings of alchemy are surely near to be discovered. If I am the one to dig out all of the secrets of this ancient craft I will become famous. I’m going now, see you tomorrow.”
He got away as fast as he could. He could not face his own children in that moment. He didn’t know what, but something was nagging on him. He was bordering on paranoid. He got to his lab and started the machine. He tried to concentrate on his experiment, distilling essences and mixing substance, but couldn’t. His mind was somewhere else, in that throne that never should be his. If he was to become king he would have to abandon all of his research. His passion for his beloved science would be gone. All the secrets like the essence of the universe and the formula for eternal life would be lost since he would see himself in the need to forget all of it. He was so absorbed by his concerns that he did not notice when something in his experiment went wrong and the whole lab exploded.