Shadow's Pursuit

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Chapter Twelve

WHEN RAINE AWOKE the next morning, she wondered for a fleeting moment of blind terror if she had returned to the strange, demonic world that she had somehow entered the night before.

Pain was racing up her body, pain so fierce that she couldn’t even scream or utter a cry- her jaw refused to move under the agony. Her bones were aching from an inner pressure that threatened to splinter them apart from the inside, and her muscles were melting.

She managed to pull herself onto her side and tucked her legs close to her stomach, lying helplessly on her bed and near-drowning in her own sweat.

What is this? she managed to think through the torment, her heart beating furiously in her chest and pushing the lava-hot blood around her system. She was staring at her walls; she was still in her room in Avendan, and no one else was there with her. She didn’t know what time it was, but light was streaming through her window. Is this a curse? A side-effect from that night, that vision?

She tried to calm herself but peace wouldn’t come- her Shadow mantras lay forgotten in the very back of her mind, useless in such suffering. She could barely breathe but she forced herself to do so, feeling her lungs sting with each intake of air. She was overheating; she was on fire.

She squeezed her eyes shut and tears rolled down her flushed face, and she managed a guttural groan from deep within her throat. Whatever this was, it was real. She was not in some bizarre place made solely of water, and there were no white, glowing demonettes with her.

This is…

Raine delved inside herself, searching for the source of her agony. She had experienced very minor versions of this torture before, back during her time in Treston as a mage- exhaustion, muscle ache, fever. They were all common signs of an over-exerted mana vital. It was what happened when one used too much of their magical source, but it was nowhere near this magnitude of pain.

She would have gasped had she been able to when she finally looked upon her mana vital. It was so disorganised and in such a frenzy that she wondered what it was at first- the eternal ocean that housed her water magic was chaotic. Rain was falling from the sky; tidal waves swept past, heading in no particular direction; whirlpools were forming and breaking apart with no pattern or structure. Raine had never seen or experienced anything like it before, but she knew just by looking at it that it was the cause of her pain. Her magical energy was raging inside of her, damaging her body as it did so with its uncontrolled fury.

And beneath it all, deep within its endless depths, was the same oddity she had discovered the other night. That dark thing, that strange sensation that did and did not belong at the same time.

And somehow, within her scattered and panicked mind, words drifted to the surface of her memory.

Could that be… my Bridge of Death?

The darkness resonated with her thoughts, glowing brighter within the watery abyss, and she knew that it had to be so. Even some of the pain subsided as she considered it, as if her mana vital had been a child demanding attention, and was now satisfied.

The realisation that she did indeed have a Death Bridge did not faze her; she was too focused on sitting upright and getting to her feet.

I have to get to Wetherdon, she thought. If anyone knows what to do about it, it’s him…

Her limbs seemed far heavier than they should have been and sweat was rolling down the sides of her face and neck as she lifted her arm to reach the door handle, pain continuing to flow through her blood. But at last, she managed to open the door, and she stumbled out into the hallway.

Barefoot and still clad in her sleeping clothes, Raine slowly made her way to the double doors of the female living quarters, clutching her chest and feeling as though each step was a huge achievement.

I’m never going to make it, she thought as she approached the doors, leaning on them with her body in an attempt to push them open.

Now that some of the agony had subsided, she was able to mentally recite her mantras of calm, controlling the pain as she left the building and entered the fiercely bright world outside. A few clumsy steps nearly had her falling down the stairs, and she barely registered the feeling of grass on her feet as she stumbled forward, vaguely remembering the location of the Death Guild in the back of her mind.

It must have been quite early still, for the area was deserted, and she realised that her breath was leaving her mouth as a fog. It must have been cold, but her skin was hot to the touch, pain replacing any sensation of temperature. She pushed away the thought, focusing on moving forward.

RAINE LOST ANY notion of time as she went, for it felt as though each step had taken her minutes. She was gasping for breath, thoroughly exhausted, sweat stinging her eyes and tasting of salt in her dry mouth. I must…keep going. I’ll die otherwise.

“By all the Gods, Raine- is that you?”

She heard the voice, but she didn’t have the energy to change direction to follow it. She simply took a few more steps, and then hands were gripping her bare arms tightly.

“What are you doing? Holy Gods- what happened to you?” Troy cried, his eyes wide in horror as he stared down at her. “What happened?”

Oh thank the Gods…

“Wetherdon…” she managed to say, her voice weak and cracking. “I need to…get to Wetherdon…”

“Wetherdon?” Troy repeated wildly. “Why do you need to go to him? What happened? Have you been cursed?”

“Please…” she whispered. “Take me to the Death Guild…”

“I- okay,” Troy said, bewildered, and promptly picked her up. “By Rendeis- you’re overheating, Raine. And why are you in your sleeping clothes? You should be freezing!”

She couldn’t say anything, opting to close her eyes and focus on her breathing as much as she could. Troy moved in a near-run, making her bounce painfully with each of his massive strides, but she didn’t have the energy to complain. He was still talking; he was completely and utterly shocked, but she couldn’t speak any more- her last plea had drained the remainder of her strength. Instead, relief was flooding her system as she realised that she would make it, after all.

TROY SMASHED OPEN the door of the Death Guild with one powerful kick, and Raine winced as she heard it slam painfully loudly against the stone wall. The Air Mage rushed in, not caring for discrepancy, and started shouting Wetherdon’s name at the top of his voice. She could hear his heartbeat racing furiously in his chest, reflecting her own. She would have tried to calm him, but she could barely keep herself conscious as it was.

Raine didn’t bother to open her eyes; her curiosity of seeing the place was shattered by her mind-numbing pain. Her mana vital was still a horrendous mess, threatening to tear her apart on the most basic of physical levels, and it was all she could think about.

A startled cry from nearby told her that Troy had alerted somebody, at least, of their predicament, and after another moment she could hear rapid footsteps.

“Of all that is holy and sacred-” she heard Wetherdon start, his voice uncharacteristically irate, but he was silenced as he took in the sight of them.

“Something’s wrong with her.” Troy said frantically. “She said to come to you. Fix her!”

At last, Raine forced her eyes to open and she looked over at Wetherdon, her vision blurry and clouded by her tears. “My… mana vital…” she managed to breathe, her voice barely above a whisper.

Wetherdon’s eyes were massive behind his small round glasses, and he only stared at her for a moment, his mind clearly racing to interpret what was happening in front of him.

“Help her!” Troy demanded, tone desperate, and the small Death Mage finally shuffled forward.

“Right, right, very well,” he muttered. “You said your mana vital, my dear?”

Raine nodded slightly, her head resting against Troy’s chest, and she felt another powerful spasm of pain shake through her as Wetherdon looked upon her with his Death Magic.

Then he swallowed, his jaw muscles clenching. “I see. Follow me.” he said to Troy, suddenly deadpan serious.

He’s seen it… she thought weakly, closing her eyes once more as Troy followed Wetherdon down a flight of stairs and into darkness. He can see what’s happened to it…

The next thing she knew, she was lying on a bed of cushions somewhere in the dark, pinpricks of light glowing in the peripheries of her vision. She was faintly aware that Troy was kneeling on her right and Wetherdon was on her left, and that they were both staring at her. She focused on her breathing, feeling nausea and vertigo rising with each breath she took.

“What’s wrong with her?” Troy demanded, his voice higher than usual. “Was she attacked?”

“I don’t think so.” Wetherdon muttered. His hands were outstretched, the sensation of Death Magic growing around her. “Her mana vital is greatly disturbed and out of control. It is damaging her.”

“Why?” Troy cried. “Why is it damaged? What do we do?”

You need to calm yourself,” Wetherdon said, his voice clipped, “and I will tend to her. I need you to go to the next room along this passageway, and retrieve as many bottles as you can from the shelf that is on the left-hand side of the door.”

“Oh- alright.” Troy muttered, getting to his feet. “Any?”

“Any.” Wetherdon said. “I will know which ones to use when I see them.”

“Alright.” Troy said. He swept his hand through his hair as he got to his feet. “Alright.”

Then he left the room; she could feel the change in the air as he moved into a run.

“Raine, my dear,” Wetherdon muttered, leaning closer to her, “Your mana vital is responding to your Bridge of Death being activated. It is incredibly unstable, as I am certain you are well aware, and this is what is causing you this pain.”

Raine could barely speak so she moved her head into a small nod. Wetherdon swallowed.

“But rest assured, it is controllable and completely reversible. You will just need to relax whilst I use my own Death Magic to dampen the power of your Bridge.” he said quietly. “The concoctions that your friend is currently collecting will help stabilise you.”

Raine closed her eyes again. So I guess I do have one after all… she thought weakly. As much as I hate to admit it…

“I’m going to put you to sleep now, my dear,” she heard Wetherdon say softly, “so that you do not have to suffer any further.”

Raine felt his magical presence grow, and she embraced the gentle darkness that grew around her mind.

“I AM AFRAID that I have some news you will not like, my dear.” Wetherdon said, looking at her with the same concern that he had been for many hours now. “You will need to take up training with me.”

“Training?” Troy repeated, watching them fiercely. “Training with what?”

“Can’t you just teach me how to control it?” Raine asked him quietly, taking a sip of the warm tea in her hands. “Just to stop it from happening again?”

She had been awake for a couple of hours now, and the whole day had disappeared whilst she had been sleeping. The sun was slowly setting, casting vibrant colours across the sky.

Her mana vital was calmer now, but her chest still ached from its disturbance. Whatever Lloyd Wetherdon had done to her, it had worked.

She was sitting on the same pile of cushions that she had slept on, but now had a large black robe wrapped around her small frame, still clad in her sleeping clothes. She still felt embarrassed at her physical exposure, but tried to force the thoughts away- far more serious events were unfolding before her now. Troy had remained by her side the entire time, only leaving when Wetherdon had ordered him to.

According to them, their superiors had been notified of her illness and Preston had once again pardoned her from their training.

“I could, yes,” Wetherdon said, “but our company captain has ordered me to train you as an apprentice. Unfortunately, neither of us have a say in the matter.”

“Apprentice?” Troy repeated, eyes wide. “In what?”

“You told him.” she said quietly, and a spasm of guilt crossed Wetherdon’s face. “You told him about it.”

“Yes, as is my duty, my dear.” he said, sighing heavily. “They are incredibly rare, unfortunately, and such an opportunity cannot be wasted.”

“About what?” Troy demanded, his face now growing red. “Just what in the name of Rendeis himself is going on?”

“Troy…” Raine muttered, finally looking at his confused and curious face, “I have the Bridge of Death. They want to train me as a Death Mage.”

“What?” he said, frowning. “The Bridge of Death?”

He looked at Wetherdon, the corner of his lips curling into an uncertain smile. “No way,” he said, “you’re pulling my leg here. A Bridge of Death?”

“She speaks the truth, Master Claybrook.” Wetherdon said, voice even. “That is what caused the disruption that you have just witnessed. Her Death Bridge has activated, causing her mana vital much distress. Miss Raine does indeed have the ability to become a Death Mage.”

The seriousness in his tone caused Troy to look back at her, but Raine couldn’t think of anything to comfort him. He sat back on his haunches, looking stunned.

“Well, I’ll be damned.” he said after a moment. His weak smile slowly grew into a grin. “Well, if anyone can do it, it’s definitely you, Raine.”

“Thanks Troy,” she said, smiling despite the remnants of aching pain that moved through her, “but I don’t want to be a Death Mage in the slightest.”

She looked back at Wetherdon. “But you said that the captain has ordered it? Do I not get a say in the matter?”

“Unfortunately, you do not, my dear.” Wetherdon said, a touch of sympathy in his tone. “Captain Sedley requests that you are taught Death Magic.”

“And I’ll bet that you volunteered as my teacher,” she muttered, unusually bitter. The whole day, not to mention the night of the eclipse, had left her in a particularly dark mood. And now I don’t even have a choice about learning this Death Magic. By the Gods, how will I tell Chelstra?

“I’m sorry, my dear,” Wetherdon said humbly, and she felt her anger subside.

He did just save my life just now. I suppose I do owe him something. And this would be helpful for my Shadow missions, after all…

She sighed heavily. “Alright.” she said, “I guess there’s no harm in trying it out and seeing what happens.”

“You have my support.” Troy said eagerly, and she smiled softly at him.

“Wonderful.” Wetherdon said, sitting back. Relief had washed over his features, his teal eyes glowing once again from behind his glasses. “You have no idea how happy I am to hear that, Miss Raine.”

“But first,” she said, pulling the robes tighter around her, “I need to get back to my quarters and wash.”

“Of course,” Wetherdon said, smiling. He slowly got to his feet. “I will speak to you tomorrow, then.”

“Do you need me to carry you again?” Troy asked, watching her cautiously as she slowly got to her feet, her limbs aching as though she had just run for miles.

“No,” she said, smiling at the tone of his voice. “I think I’ll be fine. I just don’t want to bump into anyone we know on the way back, though.”

“Leave it to me,” Troy said, grinning.

Wetherdon led them back through the long passageway and this time, Raine was able to observe her surroundings. The Death Guild seemed a desolate and abandoned place, for she had not heard or seen any others during their stay in the large, dark room filled with books, tables and cushions. The ground level held only two degraded armchairs and a small kitchen, with various old banners spread across the stone walls.

Wetherdon didn’t seem to mind though, so she decided to keep her opinions to herself. The Death Mage had been an immense help to her, and she knew that no one else would have been able to do what he had. Hell, Chelstra probably wouldn’t have even come near her had she sensed her newly activated Death Bridge.

Let’s just hope that Wetherdon was correct when he said that she probably can’t sense it at all, because of my Water Bridge… she thought wryly as she looked out onto the grounds surrounding the building.

“Thankyou, Lloyd,” she said, turning to look at him as they went to leave. “I don’t know who else I could have turned to.”

“You are most welcome, Miss Raine,” Wetherdon responded smoothly, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose with a finger. “I am simply honoured that you came to me.”

“Well, I found you…” Troy grumbled, and she smiled softly at him.

“And thanks too, Troy.” she said. “I’d probably be lying on the ground somewhere if you hadn’t.”

Troy grinned like a pleased child, and she almost laughed at him.

“Drop in whenever you can, Miss Raine,” Wetherdon said. “then we will discuss your future as a Death Mage Apprentice.”

“Sounds fancy.” Troy said, still grinning at her as she felt her good mood start to fade at the thought.

“Very well.” she said, suppressing a sigh.

Wetherdon watched them as they left, and Raine winced as she felt the grass beneath her feet, reminding her of her scantily dressed appearance.

“Sorry about that, Troy.” she muttered, feeling her cheeks start to burn. “By the Gods; how embarrassing.”

“That’s alright, Raine.” Troy said. “That’s what friends are for, right? I won’t tell anyone about it.”

“Hammond already knows,” she said softly, “but I don’t know how to tell Chelstra.”

“How about we leave that for another day, alright?” he said, smiling gently at her.

“Right.” she agreed.

Then she frowned. “What were you doing up so early, anyway?”

An awkward look crossed his features and he coughed slightly. “Well, you know how that Fire Mage lives on my level in our quarters, right?” he said, his voice uncharacteristically quiet.

“Do you mean to tell me that you couldn’t sleep because he was snoring?” Raine asked, incredulous.

“Well, yes.” Troy said, uncomfortable. “It is rather loud, you know.”

Raine couldn’t help the laugh that escaped her lips. By the Gods, it felt good.

DAMIEN STIFLED A yawn, refusing to grant anyone the thought that he was tired. The yawn was more from boredom than fatigue but he knew that the guard standing near him would not think that, even if he was as bored as him.

He shifted his weight from his heels to his toes, allowing his feet muscles to stretch for a moment before returning to his normal stance. His eyes wandered along the walls of the corridor that led up to the king’s quarters, looking without interest at the paintings that decorated them. Wall-bound sconces burned light upon the long, thin walkway and what was uncovered of the marble floor shimmered and reflected the firelight. Shadows stretched and danced over the artwork, giving them a sinister, dark flavour that no doubt differed from the artists’ original intentions.

The arched window at the end of the hall was slightly open, allowing a cool breeze to sweep through the private, upper levels of the castle.

His consciousness rose sharply as he heard movement behind the double-doors he stood in front of, but he paid it no attention. Unless the king was yelling out for them for any reason, he had no want or need to know what was occurring inside his spacious quarters.

He clenched and unclenched his fists. They were sitting comfortably at the small of his back, the sheath of one of his shortswords cold and familiar against his hands. He allowed his focus to drift again, letting his thoughts swirl and wander in an almost trance-like state, knowing perfectly well that the guard standing only a few paces away from him was far more relaxed than he was. It made little difference if the two men of the King’s Guard were standing at full attention or in this relaxed condition, because the only way to the king’s room was through the corridor before them.

DAMIEN WAS MENTALLY reciting the Mantra of Vigilance when he heard a door slam some way away, followed by rushed, heavy footsteps. He blinked, his focus returning, and his muscles tensed as the sounds increased in volume. He turned to the guard next to him, a man named Cowill, who was also looking down the hall with sudden interest, his eyebrows furrowed.

“I’ll see what it is.” Damien said quietly, having no intention of awakening or alarming His Majesty. Cowill nodded, eyes serious, but Damien was already moving down the corridor, deliberately stepping loudly and with purpose. He turned the corner as the doors at the end opened, the sound of voices breaking out into the silence.

His eyes narrowed as two men of the Royal Guard entered and approached him, talking to each other with concerned, uneasy looks on their faces. His hand slowly and casually moved around the hilt of one of his blades.

“What is it?” Damien asked, his deep and even voice cutting through their conversation. They rushed to meet him and gave slight bows in respect.

“There is a disturbance downstairs, my lord.” one said. Damien, now used to being called a lord, looked at him sharply.

“And why does it require His Majesty’s attention?” he asked.

“It’s Lord la Barre.” the other said quickly, eyes widening at the steel coldness in his tone. “He wishes to see His Majesty. He’s… quite distressed, my lord.”

“King Thomas is in his chambers, and is not to be disturbed.” Damien said. “You should know that.”

“Yes, my lord, but we thought that since the two are so close…” the first muttered, sweat trickling down his brow. Damien frowned.

“Has Lord la Barre expressed the nature of his request, or has he simply demanded an audience?” he said.

“No lord; he said it was an emergency and he needed to see His Majesty immediately.” he said.

As they spoke, Damien watched over their shoulders as the door opened again and a third figure entered the thin hallway. He hid the scowl that twitched on the corner of his lips as he felt unease grow in his gut.

“Delamere.” Keraan said, his voice low and soft but yet still able to reach him. He looked at him with an impassive, slightly irritated look on his face.

“You’re not needed here, Keraan.” Damien replied quickly as the Guards turned to look at the acolyte Illuminator with surprise.

“If His Majesty is outside of his private sleeping chambers, than I am.” Keraan replied. His tone was even, his Kreshnan accent strong, but the challenge was evident in the sharp glint in his eyes. The two Royal Guards moved to either side of the hallway as he moved forward with precise, smooth steps, stopping before him.

“Are you going to wake the king?” he asked quietly. Damien looked at him for a moment, and the Kreshnan tribesman met his gaze with discreet but undeniable defiance.

I could kill him right here, right now, before he even thinks to pull out that blade on his back.

“Very well.” he said eventually, and then looked over at the Royal Guards. “Stay here.”

He turned swiftly on his heels and returned to Cowill without hearing their response, Keraan moving silently a step behind him. Cowill looked at the acolyte Illuminator with interest as they approached.

“Lord la Barre is here.” Damien said, his voice barely above a whisper. “He wishes to see the king. An emergency of sorts, apparently.”

Cowill frowned, also recognising the unusualness of the situation. To notify Thomas now would be a breach in protocol, but sending the noble away could cause alternative problems.

“He may still be awake; he only retired an hour or two ago. Should we summon the chamberlain, or should we knock on the door ourselves?” he said slowly.

“Protocol says to wake the chamberlain but if this is indeed an emergency, I doubt that His Majesty would mind who wakes him.” Damien said, giving the senior Guardsman the decision and saving himself the responsibility.

Keraan had clearly come to the same conclusion as he, as he now stood silently against the wall and watched them, simply waiting. Cowill nodded and turned around, tapping on the door gently.

“A thousand apologies for disturbing you, Your Majesty,” he said, voice low. “There is a disturbance that requires your attention.”

Damien was silent as he listened to the sounds of movement inside the room, and he stepped from the doors as the handle turned. King Thomas looked out at them, frowning, dressed in a nightgown of fine material.

“What is it?” he said, voice weary. Cowill looked over at Damien.

“Lord la Barre is here, sire.” Damien said smoothly. “He requests an audience with you regarding an undisclosed emergency.”

The king looked at him for a moment, eyes widening in well-controlled surprise. Damien could see that he was thinking rapidly. “Very well.” he said. “Give me a moment to dress.”

A few minutes later, Damien, Cowill and Keraan followed him from his chambers and down the stairs toward the main throne-room. The rest of the castle was quiet, guards bowing in respect with poorly concealed confusion on their faces as they swept past.

Thomas had put on a long tunic and a pair of pants and boots, and was currently adjusting his cloak around his neck.

“He said nothing?” he murmured, voice even despite his obvious alarm.

“No, sire.” Damien said. “The guard who spoke to him has not been informed and so neither have we.”

The king fell silent, rubbing his chin with the back of his hand. A guard in front of them pushed open the door, bowing his head as he let them through a side entrance into the throne-room.

Lord la Barre stood in the centre of the room. A couple of his attendants were behind him and Avendan guards in front, watching him curiously. Damien took in his appearance and demeanour in seconds and came to the conclusion that something serious and startling had befallen the man.

His hair was uncombed, his clothes clearly worn for more than a day. His skin was pale, his eyes wide, and as the door closed behind them, the lord fell to his knees.

“I’m so, so sorry, Your Majesty,” he said, his voice thick with uncontrolled distraught. Something about his helplessness and lack of dignity irked Damien as he watched him bow on the floor, but he kept his expression blank as Thomas moved to him. He waved his hands at the other guards in dismissal and they rapidly disappeared.

“Isaac, my friend, what horrors have befallen you?” he asked with clear concern, crouching down in front of him. “You were absent from our chess game, and now you come to me in the dead of night like this?”

“I know, Your Majesty, and I can only offer you a thousand and more apologies.” la Barre sniffed. “Something dreadful has happened at my house, and I have been at a loss at what to do.”

“You should have notified me sooner,” Thomas said, taking a gentle and soothing tone. “Rise, my friend; I cannot have you on the floor like this.” He then turned to Damien and Cowill. “Fetch us chairs and something to drink.”

Damian nodded, feeling his temper rise at such a menial order, but kept himself impassive as he retrieved a couple of wooden chairs from outside the door of the throne room.

Cowill quickly returned from the direction of the cellars as Damien brought the chairs before the lords. Keraan did nothing to help them, instead remaining by His Majesty’s side, and Damien suppressed the dislike and anger that grew in his gut.

Thomas poured them both goblets of wine, and sat down on a wooden chair before his friend. Cowill moved behind the chair as though it was his throne and Damien followed suit. It felt strange, and wrong, for the king to be sitting in a commoner’s chair.

“Calm yourself, friend.” he said. “You are safe here. Tell me what troubles you.”

la Barre nodded, taking a deep sip from his goblet. He swallowed, blinking rapidly, and cleared his voice.

“A maid of my estate…was found raped and killed in my main mansion.” he said. Thomas’ back straightened in his seat, his hand gripping his goblet tighter.

“That is most unfortunate, Isaac.” he said eventually. “I will do everything in my power to see that the culprit is found and hung.”

The noble shook his head. “Thankyou, Your Majesty, but there is more to it than that…” he said slowly. He looked up at the king, doubt and fear evident in his eyes. Damien felt an instinctive wave of unease trickle down his spine, the sensation so powerful and sudden that he almost shivered.

Thomas reached forward and placed his hand on his shoulder. “Tell me, Isaac.”

“The maid…She was found in my bed.” la Barre said.

“By the Gods!” Thomas cried with a sharp intake of air. Damien sensed Cowill jump, unable to contain his own shock, and his eyes narrowed as he looked upon the distressed noble. The man had put his head in his hands, almost spilling his drink on himself.

“What do I do, Your Majesty? The members of my household are suspicious; they all believe it was I but I swear to you and the Gods above that it was not! I am at a loss at what to do!” he cried.

Thomas quickly composed himself, covering his mouth with his hand and frowning deeply.

“I believe you, my friend.” he said softly and slowly. “I know you well, and I know you could not perform such a despicable act.”

“Thankyou sire, but everyone else does not believe me! This killer is trying to frame me!” la Barre cried. Thomas leaned forward again.

“I will personally vouch for you, Isaac. Do not worry.” he said. la Barre looked up at him through his fingers, and swallowed.

Damien then saw something in the man’s eyes that he could not describe, something that flickered and disappeared again so suddenly that he was unsure that he had even seen it.

“Thankyou, Thomas.” he said softly. “You are a fine man and friend.”

Cowill tensed at the clear breach in protocol but said nothing as the king put his hands on la Barre’s shoulders again.

“Think nothing of it. We will get to the bottom of this.” he said quietly. “Now, I shall have a meal prepared for you and you will rest here for the night. You look a right mess.”

la Barre chuckled, colour returning to his face. “I cannot turn down an invitation from you, Your Majesty.” he said, clearly relieved.

The head chef was awoken and a meal quickly prepared for the noble, which he ate in a smaller, private room usually reserved for after-dinner drinks with important guests. Thomas stayed with him during this time, trying to derive more information from la Barre as well as to further relax him. Damien and Cowill remained, of course, standing in trained silence as they conversed. Keraan was leaning against the wall away from them, his arms crossed and his dark hands contrasting against his white robes.

At least the setting’s different, Damien thought dryly, boredom slowly chewing on the edges of his mind, threatening to invade. He focused himself by utilising his Shadow training and instead watched la Barre, trying to determine whether or not the man was lying about his unlikely story.

The noble described in detail about how he had returned from a walk (that he had not informed his retainers about) to discover the dead girl on his bed, throat slit and underwear around her ankles. He had responded with panic and the girl had been removed from his mansion, now residing lifelessly in the mortuary of the city’s cemetery. No one had seen a man enter or leave the house, and la Barre insisted that he had possibly climbed through the window, since it was open when he returned.

Damien watched him as intently and discreetly as he could, trying to interpret the movement of his eyes, his lips, his jaw muscles, his hand and body movements. When he spoke, he listened fiercely to the tone of his voice, the rise and fall of pitch, the choice of words. la Barre underwent an interrogation without even knowing it, ignoring the presence of the two Guards with a casual arrogance common of nobility.

At long last, he finished his meal and Thomas stood up, insisting that the man went to bed, and Damien was still undecided on his personal verdict of the story. His mind told him that la Barre was telling the truth- he had passed all of the physical checkpoints, but there was something in his gut, not yet as strong as instinct, something not even worthy of words. He knew that he was highly skilled at reading others and detecting lies; the Guild had made sure of that, but he knew that he couldn’t let his pride get in the way of his interpretation.

All the markers are telling me that he’s telling the truth, but still… And I don’t even know if it’s in the Guild’s interests for me to follow this up.

la Barre thanked Thomas for the meal and followed him towards his room, the two guards close behind. Keraan followed them the entire way and said nothing as the doors clicked shut and he finally left, returning to his own quarters. Damien was too caught up in his thoughts to be irritated by his pedantic behaviour.

Something is not right.

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