A Wolf prowled down a forest path, a shadow masked by taller, darker ones – that do not move and do not speak and hide things incomprehensible to even those who have already witnessed them. He was as much a son of the night as he was of the day.
A clearing came into view, a crossing of two roads splitting four ways and he paused, there, to sit like a trained dog in front of a store. His Master would come soon, tighten the leash, and then abandon him like he always did. Still, the Wolf waited.
He was rewarded by a light, wispy and translucent, in the shape of a raggedy man. It was not, however, a man – nor was it a light, not really. It was a little bit of both.
“Good day to you, sir! What have you to report?” the Wraith greeted with a kind, empty smile. Wraiths were polite creatures, either extremely kind or extremely cruel, and very reserved in their heart’s dealings.
The Wolf’s jaw moved as though he was about to spit in the other’s face “A great man has died today.” The animal said, with a voice of a man. Neither of them were human, but both of them had qualities of their very distant, several times removed, cousins.
The Wraith waited for an explanation, in a way that could have been called patient if the being didn’t literally have all the time in the world. It did not prompt, nor show any reaction. It waited, quiet and impassive, at the crossroads on the top of the hill.
“His name was Ruadh Barnabas, the last of his kind,” the Wolf conveyed, morosely, his ears flat against his skull “The man stopped a massacre, though he could not save everyone. He tried to rectify the damage one Demon that goes by the name of Orazio Pissari, real name unknown or not given, though who is to blame is to blame is unclear.”
There was mild surprise on that smooth, painted face “You do not suspect the Demon?”
The Wolf growled.
“I thought an indifferent thing such as you would not be prone to such assumptions. That place is filled with Vampires, Demons, Wraiths and all manner of races both humanoid and not.” the animal all but spat.
The transparent man smiled sheepishly. “Apologies, I did not mean to offend. I just want to know what happened?”
The Wolf’s scowl did not waver, nor did his teeth stop glinting in the midnight light. However, he prowled on regardless of his will to stop. “A woman came forward as the culprit of this crime. One of the contestants who calls herself Ella Ebner. I think it is supposed to be a cover-up, but by who I can’t say yet.
The Wolf sighed.
“The Blagojevich Family Guard, the Lord Walahfrid Aue of the Garden’s Alliance was injured, though he survived. The guard dog was not so lucky. It was a strange thing, that one. Erasmo Pontecorvo, Lady Aveolem had dubbed him– so very fond of odd names, as always. He died as well, in the presence of Ella Ebner no less. More than 2/3 of the Humans are dead, dying or unaccounted for.”
The Wraith looked at him, eyes half lidded and murky – somewhere between interested and lost in his own world. After some time passed, enough to be noticed by a being untouched by it, the Wraith nodded, smiled and bowed so he was face-to-face with the snarling Wolf at the other side of the crossroad.
“Listen.” the Wolf barked suddenly.
The Wraith blinked, slowly “Yes, Master Wolf?”
“Tell Pavle Serdar that his sister’s looking for him.”
Again, there was no reaction. It was like every step was foreseen and unimportant to this weightless, forgetful being. “Is that all?” it questioned, lightly.
“Yes.” snorted the Wolf, angry.
“Good. Very good, Master Wolf, you may return to your post.” he said, voice gentle and lilting like a lullaby.
“For how long?” the Wolf growled.
The Wraith paused, half-bent and half-standing up, as if frozen in a single moment in time. Then the tension seeped out of his presence and he straightened fully, though his stance was still hunched and far too relaxed for an occasion such as this. That was what made Wraiths such good messengers. Barely there, luminescent shadows. Impossible to kill, for how can you kill something that was never even alive? Cold on the inside as they were on the outside, astral projections of things that weren’t, wanderers by nature.
They were given a purpose with this job, a reason to exist and hold on to this reality.
The Wolf wondered if any of them even cared.
“For as long as there are sheep to guard.” The Wraith answered, impassively, and turned to walk down the road from which he’d come.
Dreams were treacherous things, a potent mix of delusions and reality – she didn’t know what to make of them.
The world was a desolate place or maybe she was just thinking that way because there didn't seem to be anything worth living for in it. For her, at least. Drina tasted bitterness in the back of her throat; it made her feel nauseous, weary and sick. But besides that, she felt almost nothing at all.
Drina wasn’t fond of people in general – fonder less of the fools who pretend to be Human. However, suffering meant suffering – in any sense and in every soul. This she could not ignore. This she couldn’t shut out.
This she couldn’t fix. She couldn’t even try – wouldn’t – because it was not a grief she could understand. She understood, however, that there was only one person Ella Eb – the Judge – wanted to see right now.
“Please...” at first it was merely a whisper, lost to the wind and the distant wail of wolves “Please... mein Gott, why... save him, Lady Aveolem, save him!”
That voice would haunt her dreams, Drina knew. She tried to purge her brain with useless information – spells, recipes, history, anything. Nothing worked. Her thoughts spun in circles, the slow turning of the clogs in her head was a steady, pulsating headache. Her eyes burned from time to time, if she thought too long or too hard. Thus, she submerged herself in nothingness.
She felt like something was missing once more.
The fire in the hearth became her world. The sight of it numbed her senses. Its heat did not reach her. Its ruddy smell did not cause anything but a sour taste in her mouth, like she’d washed her mouth with a handful of ashes. Ella must be choking on them.
“Please! Please! Anything! Anything in return! My name, my soul, my Humanity!”
The young woman was hysterical, desperate in a way that bordered panic. She did not seem to register those around her, save the person she’d fixed her wild, bulging eyes with. They were wet, tears running in thick rivulets down her dirty face. In that white dress, barefooted and ashen, she was a wraith-like silhouette in a pre-dawn hour.
“I will not force time to go backwards, child.”Aveolem’s voice made Drina jump. She’d been so caught up in that wretched expression on the Judge’s face, her world, too, had narrowed down to a pinprick.
Her attention suddenly divided, Drina didn’t know which way to turn.
“But you can!” yelled the Judge “You’ve made miracles before, make them again!”
“Miracles can only delay the inevitable for a short while.” Aveolem recited, her eyes glass marbles in a live doll, like she was tired of the phrase – like she was tired of this life.
The human’s face became twisted “But you said death had no place here!” the desperate pleaded “That this was a moment wrapped in forever!”
“Time breaks our promises...”
Hysteria. Her head was filled with it, like a polluted cloud. It was all jumbled, misty, dirty, without substance or a single ray of light.
“No... it just... it just... it isn’t fair!”
Chaos. Her whole body was pulsating, the blood in her veins coursing with an erratic tide, fuelled by a broken heart.
“I have your name.” she bargained “I have the names of all of you present. I will never say them out-loud, I will never write them down in any language or in any code, I will never imply their meaning or origin in return...”
Desperation. That was locked in her eyes, betrayal was clear in theirs.
“You’re the spy.” someone whispered. The Judge didn’t seem to care.
“I am Astrid Oliversson, also known as Astrid Ebner, also known as Ella A. Ebner.” the desperate woman declared. “Please... fix my mistakes.”
Grief really was an ugly thing.
The air was heavy with an early morning chill, like a silently falling snow. The world had not yet awoken, for it had never truly slept. By the time the thin, rosy fingers of dawn pulled the velvet cloth of night away, to bare the day like a new-born babe, there came a feeling of something being settled.
Drina stared at the crackling flames in the fire-place. Sometimes she would glance up at the other people in the room and regretted the action every time. She had not been directly involved in the “incident”. As far as she knew, anyway. Last night had been a complete, bloody stein in her mind. Had she been involved in the “incident”?
That was what everyone called it, like they’d called Edita Povalej’s death a tragic accident – like there was no one to blame for it. No one at all. An incident, an accident, a mistake – as if any of it could be corrected easily, fixed with the flick of a staff.
No one spoke but all thought, no one admitted but all accused – all unspoken in the quiet of unsettled hearts.
It was a strange kind of silence, a stillness more terrible than any individual action that had led to it.
“I was sent here to gather information by Alexis N. Laven,” Ella Astrid – the other Astrid – Oliversson informed them “ one of the key figures of the Grandharve Organization.”
“The anti-everything-that-isn’t-Human-one?” the old Asian man questioned, his accent too light-hearted to actually be part of this gloomy existence. It was airy, both fresh and stale like a well-practised phrase.
“Yes.” the Judge nodded, without a hint of interest “He wanted me to suss this place out, mark out weak points, just... make it easier for him to do whatever...”
“Whatever...?” the fox-man repeated, blinking “ You mean you didn’t know what he was planning?”
Ella shrugged “He hardly tells me anything.”
Silence reigned for a total of ten seconds, before Aveolem decided to break the fragile, peaceful nothing that had settled over most of the occupants.
“She’s not a spy, Hitotose.” she said, more in general than to the would-be-man who’s named she’d used.
“What makes you say that, Aveolem-san?” There was amusement in that tone, if only to mask the surprised undertone.
The Lady did not look at him “A truly wretched soul does not search for redemption.”
The other Astrid – Astrid, beloved god, other, judge, offspring of Oliver – bit her lip, as if some sliver of hesitation, of loyalty, had finally resounded in her frazzled head. She looked up, eyes more alert than before, and the intensity of her gaze startled Drina more than she cared to admit.
“If I do not go back, the position of spy will fall to you...”
“What?” it was the only thing she could think to say.
Ella shook her head “The Grandharve have taken in interest in you, Ms Serdar... I heard them talking. You were involved with some-kind of Prophet. I’m kind of unclear on the details. But you evaded a rather skilled team for a good while, slipped through their fingers like...” she trailed off, then, and Drina pretended not to notice how her fingers flexed in her lap.
The Judge sighed warily “Suffice to say, I think you’ll be better at the job than I ever was.”
Aveolem steps forward then, a shifting presence in the periphery of their future, and offers:
“If you want to stay here...”
“...All you have to do is die.” finished Ella. The last word was reverently spoken, in an opaquely mystified way – as though it was the key to the universe, as though it solved all of her problems.
Drina wondered just how long the Judge had wandered the twisting maze of time contained in this hallow earth. Some rooms you could spend years in with merely a few moments passing in actuality. Reversely, there were rooms in which years transferred into seconds. The witch wondered if there was a room in which time ran backwards.
Ella Ebner may have been thinking the same, besides her twitching fingers and ashes in her eyes.
“Besides, she has already been invited into the wolf’s den.” Zhu Zhang’s voice drifted across the warming air, like smoke from the fire-place. Some people died of carbon-monoxide, rather than dying from the cold.
Aveolem snorted. “As a lamb waiting to be devoured.”
“Then she will be a sheep in a wolf’s skin.” Hitotose waved her off with a carefully careless chortle.
Drina looked to the side, to where her Guide was sitting, sipping a glass of wine and massaging his temples in an absent gesture.
“Do they always talk like this?” Drina asked him, in no state of mind to remember her manners.
The Guide raised his head to look at her over the edge of his orange-tinted glasses “Ever since the day they met.” he answered, flatly.
Inexplicably, that made Drina grin. “Some things never change, do they?” She didn’t think it was inappropriate – she didn’t think at all. She felt empty and light, as though she might float away at any second. The grim humor seemed to invite a bit of reality back into this twisted dreamy life.
Her Guide raised his eyebrows, sagged his shoulders and though on it a while. Then, “Yes, I suppose so.”
He did not smile, nor make any other Human-like expression. Drina doubted the lopsided grin on her face could be called anything close to human.
Despite the complications, her heart still beat with a singular purpose. She could do this, she would do it – what comes afterwards was for the tyrants to decide. Drina would play her part and cut her strings the moment she could hit the ground running.