“I am sure you are pretty confused with what you just have seen,” Aloysius said to Domenico as he served him a cup of tea. After witnessing the unexplainable event Aloysius had taken him to his own house, promising answers to all his questions.
“Confused doesn’t even begin to cover it,” Domenico was very shaken, “What the bloody hell was that?”
“That was an act of God.”
“You are shitting me…”
“No, I am telling you the truth: what you witnessed was just me doing the labour that Ubros, master of life, has bestowed upon me. The man you saw was possessed by a demon.”
“A demon? What the fuck does that mean?”
“You know what a demon is, don’t you?”
“Of course, but I thought it was the sort of bullshit tell old people told to children for them to behave.”
“Oh, demons are real, trust me. I have encountered quite a few in the past, including the one you saw last night. The act you witnessed was an exorcism. I freed that man from the torment he was suffering from being that demon’s vessel.”
“Holy… all right. What happened to the man? Is he dead?”
“Oh, no, quite the contrary, he is better than he was before. He is weakened from the exorcism but he doesn’t have the demon within him anymore. It was a very successful ritual.”
“Successful? So I take it sometimes is not as much?”
“Yes, unfortunately the exorcism goes wrong and the person dies or the demon escapes, sometimes even both.”
“Okay, let’s say I believe this nonsensical story. You said you were doing the labour God bestowed upon you?”
“Yes, that is right. If I remember correctly I never got to tell you the complete reality of Ubros, did I?”
“No, I believe you didn’t.”
“All right then, I will tell you. As you know Ubros is the god of life and illumination, he is the one who rules over our fate. He is a very powerful being that advocates for us, human beings, in the spiritual realm. When we die, our souls go back to him if we were loyal to his teachings. Unfortunately, he is not the only one who wants our souls. There is another deity, a more mysterious and evil one who lurks in the shadows waiting to snatch us. His name is Edur, the god of death and shadows. Behind the curtains of our world there is a battle going on between these two gods, fighting eternally for our souls. If we are loyal to Ubros we’ll return to him and our spiritual energy will serve him as fuel for him to conquer over Edur. That is why we have to spread his teachings, he has to win the fight.”
“Okay, all right, nice lesson in mythology, but any of that doesn’t explain what the hell happened last night.”
“Well you see, Edur has many ways to obtaining what he wants. He is devious and mischievous; he has plans to win the battle. The demons are his creation, they are beings whose only goal is to lure in human beings into darkness. If a person is possessed by a demon that means that he has been in darkness throughout his life, because they can only take over people who are leaning towards Edur, but that does not mean they can’t be saved. It is an exorcist’s job to return those people to the light. Several years ago I had a calling: the lord Ubros gave me a very special task: first to spread his teachings throughout the world so people can know about his existence and follow him, and second to fight the forces of evil and darkness in this world. That is what you saw last night, Domenico.”
Domenico remained silent. He wasn’t sure about what he had just heard. He didn’t know if he believed him or not. In the past all these stories would have sounded like bullshit to him, but after seeing what he had the night before he wasn’t sure any more about anything.
“It’s…” he finally managed to say, “very hard to swallow… that’s a lot of… information, I guess… I don’t know what to believe…”
“Oh, it is normal that you feel that way, most people go through a process after they see the unnatural for the first time. But I can assure you that if you saw it was for a reason: the lord Ubros put you in that alley that very night so you could witness what was happening.”
“No, that’s not true, I woke up because of a strange noise and I followed it.”
“Ubros wanted that to happen. Trust me, nothing happens by chance in this life. For what I can tell, which right now might not be much, is that you are meant for something big. Lord Ubros has chosen you.”
Before the sun was up Apollonia entered her husband’s chambers. She seldom used them anymore as they were supposed to be hers as well. She slept at another room nearby, but every morning before sunrise she entered the King’s chambers so Cunradus wouldn’t notice her absence. Perhaps if he woke up he wouldn’t notice it either despite her not being in the room. His illness made him forget about many details of life. Sometimes he thought he was some decades younger and that he was to lead the country to victory in a war, but he was too weak for even standing up from bed. The illness was slowly eating his mind and his body away. The chamber had become a nursery for him rather than a place to sleep in. Some may consider that Apollonia should stay all night inside in the case that the king stopped breathing while he slept, but she couldn’t stand a whole night inside that place. The sickness could be smelled in the air. She frankly didn’t care if the king died, because she knew for certain it was going to happen. She only cared for the when.
Apollonia poured some water in a cup and drank it. She was tired. She had spent a lot of time looking after her husband’s health. It was as if she was a mother looking out after a sick baby rather than a wife, and much less than a queen. She had even contemplated the idea of suffocating Cunradus herself. It would only take putting a pillow over his head and wait for it to happen. But she was smarter than that. She knew that for some reason someone might walk in and find her in the act. And besides it was only a matter of time.
“Apollonia?” the old, weak and raspy voice of the king startled her. She turned around but saw that he was fast asleep. “Apollonia?” he repeated. He was talking in his dreams.
For a moment there she thought it was a sweet thing, and all the tiredness and hatred she had towards him almost disappeared, that was until he spoke the next word:
“Aythe? Aythe? Don’t go.”
Rage filled her heart and the desire to kill him returned. But she couldn’t, she had to calm herself. She knew it wouldn’t be wise to murder a king, and besides, as she had said to herself so many times in the past (perhaps even years), it was just a matter of time. The king had been in that state for almost a decade, and since then people were thinking that it would only take some time for him to leave this world. But the old king had fought. It had been a long and fierce battle, but it all pointed that it was reaching a conclusion, and that wasn’t favourable for Cunradus. But then again, people never knew when it was going to happen.
Apollonia left the room, just as she had done the previous day, in complete silence. When she closed the door and turned around she was surprised to see standing there, as if waiting for her to leave, her niece Libeste.
“Libeste! What are you doing here?”
“I came to see uncle. How is he?”
Apollonia gave her a sharp look as an unpleasant feeling reigned over her. There was no lost love between the two women, some may even say that they hated each other. In Apollonia’s eyes Libeste was just a pretentious little brat who thought she was important because she was the daughter of the brother of the King. On the other hand, Libeste saw Apollonia as an old woman full of malice that was not to be trusted.
“He is as he has always been,” Apollonia said annoyed, “he is fighting to recover. He does not want to be bothered.”
“I’d like to see him, nonetheless.”
“Why so early in the morning? The sun is barely up.”
“I like to check on him if he had any complications while he slept. After all, no one is with him through the night.” She said these words with bitterness, hoping they burnt into Apollonia. And they did.
“So you come here every morning? I have never seen you. But let me tell you this: it is not your place to check on him if he survived the night. When he was in perfect health you did nothing for him, but now that he is dying you try to look out for him. If you ask me you have a hidden interest.”
Libeste gave her one of her big fake smiles and answered:
“And what kind of motive can I have? Can’t I check on my uncle?”
“Listen to me, you little brat: you may think that the men in this castle are deceived by your smile and your charm, but that doesn’t work on me. I will tell you that there are eyes and ears in every wall of this place and they all whisper to me. I am aware of your intentions, and let me tell you they won’t work.”
“And what intentions may those be? I don’t have a bastard son that I want to sit in the throne.” Shock ran through Apollonia when she heard these words. Libeste then came close to her ear and said in a very low tone: “You are not the only one who can hear whispers.” With that she took a step back, smiled one more time and then walked into the king’s room.
Evrardus and Petronius met up with Johannes and Avelina shortly after their conversation at a small restaurant at the village. That was the first time their team gathered completely.
“Ok, kids, you all know me, and you know each other. You know we will be forming a team in order to complete a mission. I have already been given this mission so listen carefully as I explain the details.”
Evrardus was the only one paying attention: Johannes was looking around, he didn’t consider hearing to what Petronius had to say worth his time, and Avelina’s mind was, as always, elsewhere.
“As you’ve heard there have been several murders going on around the town the past few weeks. Four is the count so far, but we believe that number will rise. The targets are all known scientists. But here is a detail that has been kept from the news reports: all four scientists worked on similar projects. We are not sure if they were the same, though, but they certainly are linked. The details of the projects have not been revealed to us, but we know that they were of utmost secrecy. Our mission is not to find the killer. Our mission is to make a recognition of the zone of the forest that surrounds Azmar. We believe the killer might be around. Also, it is possible, though not confirmed, that he uses Seidr. The murders have all been through stab wounds, but there are hints that he uses it.”
Johannes had finally paid attention to what Petronius had said and then spoke up:
“Well, I don’t know if we are supposed to find him or not, but if we do certainly know that I won’t run away.”
“Johannes, in the case that we do encounter him I will face him alone. You are all still too inexperienced to fight a trained assassin.”
“But you might need help,” Evrardus said, “we are a team after all.”
“I don’t know if you’ll be able to help,” said Johannes acidly.
“What? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s nothing against you, but in the academy you could not control very well Seidr, remember? You might be a burden, even worst, a danger to us all.”
“Hey what’s your problem? We are a team and we are supposed to help each other.”
“Yeah, well as I said, you might not be of any help.”
Evrardus clenched his fist as anger boiled inside him.
“Who the hell do you think you are? Just because you were top of the class doesn’t mean that you can go around telling people if they are good or not!”
“I don’t say it because I was top of the class. I say it because I saw how you acted and how your Seidr works, and let me tell you there is much to be desired. I am just stating what every normal person would notice.”
Evrardus fist fell on the table as he was preparing to insult Johannes when Petronius with a firm, authoritarian voice said:
“Enough! Evrardus, Johannes, you are both members of the same team. You cannot be fighting each other. It is true Evrardus that you have had issues with your Seidr control, but it is not your place to rub them in his face Johannes. With practice you’ll get better, and with team work our mission might be successful. So please bear in mind that if there is tension within the team our objective will suffer. Stay together and you’ll achieve what you desire. So, if that is settled, I’d like to mention a few strategies that we might assume if we get into trouble.”
Throughout the whole meeting, Avelina did not once open her mouth.
The next morning Domenico’s doubts and angst had lessened, and yet an uneasy feeling that could not be shaken off still possessed him. He thought he would have that sensation forever. All that Aloysius had told him the previous night still lingered on his head, replaying like an endless roll of footage.
After having his breakfast at his hostel –a very badly cooked bacon with eggs and an orange juice which consisted in mostly water- he went to see Aloysius. Even if he did not understand he still needed to speak to him. However, he somehow doubted that all of his questions would be answered. But he had a mission to do, one which he had forgotten almost completely since the night before and had now abruptly sprung into his mind with no warning.
Aloysius’ house was a very big one. It looked like one of a lord or some sort of important fellow –Domenico was not too good identifying highly sailing people in aristocracy-. He was amazed by the house, though. It was clear that the following that the man was gathering was certainly paying off. Perhaps that entire story and the theatricals last night were no more than that… but then again, the scene he had witnessed first-hand was nothing that could be easily staged. And why would they want to trick him, a person who was nothing more than a curious individual who took an interest in their religion? They didn’t know his links with the king. Or did they? A little paranoid feeling started to creep on his back when suddenly he heard the voice of Aloysius from behind him.
“Ah, Mister Domenico. Very nice to see you this morning.”
Domenico turned around, trying to disguise what he had just felt, and shook Aloysius’ hand.
“Good morning. Mister Donato…”
“Oh, Aloysius, please. I don’t like when people call me Mister Donato.”
“Right, fine. Aloysius, I am having a very hard time trying to digest everything you said to me last night.”
“I’m sure you do. That is normal in most people who have the either good fortune or bad luck, depending on where you stand, to encounter what you did.”
“Do you really believe everything you said to me?”
“Absolutely. There is no doubt that troubles my mind.”
“Even what you said about me… being special and shit.”
“Of course I do. I believe that you were put in that alley for a reason. The Lord Ubros has big plans for you, my boy.”
“Yeah, about that, I don’t know. I am not a very religious man.”
“Well that doesn’t matter. You were brought here by your curiosity, which shows that you really have some sort of faith within you. And the fact that you stumbled upon with what you did, and may I add that nobody had before, means that you have a bigger part to play in all this. You see, only a few people are selected to know and participate of the exorcisms. Usually Ubros points them to me before anything happens, but you arrived just in the middle of one. If you don’t want to believe that you were meant to be there then that is a high amount of chance and coincidence if you ask me.”
Domenico remained silent for a few seconds. Everything he had heard since the night before was making him go crazy.
“So what part am I supposed to play?” he said finally.
“That is for you to find out. I will tell you when you are ready.”
“And when will I be ready?”
Aloysius was opening his mouth in order to reply when the voice of a woman coming from another room interrupted him.
“Aly? Aly is that you?”
A door closed and a few seconds later a woman a couple of years younger than Aloysius, beautiful and with grace, entered the room.
“Yes, Helena, I’m in here.”
The woman came close to him and gave him a kiss on the lips. She then took her overcoat and put it in a char besides.
“Helena, this is Domenico. Domenico, my wife Helena.”
“Hello…” Domenico started saying.
“How do you do?” she extended her hand so he would shake it. She fixed her deep green eyes on his black ones. Behind her beauty there was something mysterious, perhaps even sinister.
“Mister Domenico here,” said Aloysius, “is interested in our movement. He is thinking of joining our flanks pretty soon.”
“How wonderful!” she then spoke to him, “My husband has taken notice on you. That must mean you are special.” She then turned to the other man one more time. “I will go upstairs and take a bath. It was a long day. Care to join me?”
“As lovely as that may sound I have work to do. I promise to make it up tonight.”
“All right then.” She then turned to Domenico and smiled. “Don’t keep him too busy or he will go crazy.” And went upstairs.
Aloysius followed her with his gaze as she disappeared into a room above. He then kept his eyes down as his mind diverted from the spot.
“She is a beautiful woman.” Domenico said, mostly to take his host out of his trance.
“What? Oh yes, yes she is. Listen, as much as I would like to keep answering your questions there are other matters I have to attend. We’ll speak later.”
“Ok, sure, don’t worry.” And Domenico exited the house. It had been a weird, unexpected experience. He had never thought that Aloysius would be married. There was something bewitching about that woman.
In the archery field Ditmarus was concentrated in his practice. He was a very dedicated knight, even if he hadn’t seen real combat in his lifetime. Sure, he had fought in duels and championships, and he had fought off a burglar or another, but he had never been in an actual war. He still considered himself, and many did too, powerful and a good knight. He was sure he would be a good king. However, there were those who thought the contrary. He knew perfectly well that some people of the kingdom did not consider him the ideal king. He had heard rumours that some even supported Caleb, a bastard, over him. The reasons to this he ignored. All these whispers were brought to him by friends who mingled in the lower caste circles, and even if he could not bring himself to do so it was useful having people inside them. Perhaps that was the reason he was not liked.
“Hey Ditmarus!” a shout interrupted his inner monologue. He turned around to see that behind him was coming, with a bow and a pack of arrows, Wilhelmus Laurentze, his brother in law, husband of his dear sister.
“Son of a bitch…” he murmured.
“Ditmarus! How are you? I thought I’d find you here.”
“What do you want, Wilhelmus?”
“I thought I would join you in your archery practice.”
“Did my sister put you up to this so you could spy on me?”
“What? No. My wife doesn’t tell me what to do.”
“You are a horrible actor, Wilhelmus.”
“Hahaha. I don’t know what you are talking about. I just thought I could practice some archery with my brother in law.”
“Damn it, fine. Want to do a little competition?”
“Sure. What do you have in mind?”
“Five arrows. The one who hits closest to the centre of the target wins.”
“What are we betting on?”
“How does a pint of beer sounds to you?”
“You are on!”
“Great, you go first.”
Wilhelmus drew an arrow from his satchel and placed it on his bow. He tensed it for a couple of seconds and then let go. It hit in the outer region of the target. He was good, not great, but just good.
“So listen, Ditmarus…”
Ditmarus then got up and quickly drew an arrow, placed it and tensed the bow. He fired and the arrow landed nearly in the centre of the target.
“…my wife tells me that you might be having something worrying you lately…”
“I don’t wanna talk about my sister.”
Wilhelmus then repeated the process. This time the arrow landed a little nearer, but not as close as Ditmarus’.
“Well, she is worried about you. She thinks that you are concerned about your father’s mental health, pondering if he might be a good king or not.”
“I said I don’t want to talk about it.” His next arrow landed even nearer than the one before.
“I’m just saying that you need to not think about this stuff… it is as if they are eating you from the inside, or so she tells me.” His arrow went even further from the target this time around.
Ditmarus was getting angry each time Wilhelmus opened his mouth. It was obvious that Libeste had put him up to this. She had sent her own husband, a fellow with little brains, to gather some information from him, to see if he was planning something or at least if he had something in mind. Libeste was smart and manipulative, not to mention resourceful, but he knew her a little too well. He knew how to deal with her plotting. In cases like this in which she used another human being to take advantage of a situation it was better a direct approach.
“Listen to me, Wilhelmus,” he said with anger in his voice, “I don’t give a shit about what my sister may think is happening to me, so whatever the hell she tells you to do you can just forget about it. She thinks that you can get information from me, well that’s too bad. I don’t have time for this bullshit so stay the fuck away.” He then fired one last arrow: this time it landed straight in the middle of the target. “You can keep your damn pint of beer.”
In a small canteen in Azmar Petronius and his friend Halloran were having a break from their respective works. Petronius from trying to juggle the tense relationships within his group and explaining the mission to an immature group of recently graduated students. On the other hand, Halloran was a scientist who researched into the origins of Seidr and alchemy. He had tried and failed several times to understand both crafts from their essence, but he always failed. It was, of course, a very hard job.
“Well you at least don’t have to deal with children the whole day,” said Petronius trying to cheer his friend up, “my group are three kids, of which two can’t stand each other and the third one doesn’t open her mouth, not even to say hi or to ask a question or to even go to the bloody bathroom.”
“Yes, that might be true, but at least you don’t see on a daily basis your whole work become useless. I am starting to think that my line of job is a waste of time and effort. I should have pursued the practical uses of Seidr like you do.”
“Don’t say that. We the normal people need the intellectuals just like you. You guys are the reason why we know what we know. A person might be strong and skilful, but if he doesn’t have intelligence then he is sure to fail.”
“Thank you for the kind words, my friend. But still, I don’t think that I have ever done something useful in my entire career. I mean it has all been useless experiments and researches into stuff we don’t know, much less understand.”
“Hey, but what about that project you had a few years ago. You were recruited by a team of scientists and you worked on it for like six months. You told me you were successful at least to some degree.”
“I can’t say anything about that, you know it.”
“Yeah, I guess I do. Won’t you ever tell me what was it that you science guys were doing back then?”
“Perhaps someday when I am free of all obligations as a man of science.”
“Haha, fair enough I guess. You sure have an awful lot of secrets when it comes to your practice, especially when it’s about this matter.”
“Maybe, but then again is not because I don’t want to share this information, it is because I am not allowed to. There are several details in the things we did that you better not know, my dear friend, or might stop liking me.”
“Haha, that might be true.”
“And besides, you have your young group of children to tend to. Perhaps they are young right now and perhaps they hate each other, but in the future they will all become excellent warriors that Azmar and the whole kingdom of Royaume can depend on, especially if they are under your tuition.”
“Well, I sure hope you are right.”
“I’m sure I am, never being wrong in the past.”
“I’d like to differ, but I guess I can’t.”
“That’s right, brother. Anyway, I have to go, or the wife will kill me. I’ll leave the money so you can pay.”
“All right, Halloran, take care.”
Halloran exited the canteen a little drunk, but not drunk enough to not be able to get home. He had to walk a few blocks and streets, but he enjoyed walking, at night even more. The weather at night was cool, instead of the terrible heat that attacked in the day during the time. A couple of blocks before arriving to his house he turned by an alley. It was nothing knew, he always took this route when he walked from the canteen to his place. But this time there was somebody waiting for him in the alley.
“Who wants to know?”
“Halloran, after everything that happened those many years ago, I thought you’d remember me.”
The man stepped from the shadows and in shock Halloran recognized a face he had so hard tried to forget. The man drew a knife out as he got closer to his victim. Halloran tried to run, but the man casted a concrete barrier in front of him, against which he stumbled onto.
“Shit, Seidr…” Halloran murmured scared.
“Time for you to answer for your sins.”
Halloran did not have time to run again. Before he could even get up the man had already stabbed him in the stomach.