Shadow's Ascendance

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Chapter Thirty-seven

As I walked through the door, I was reminded of how the heroes burst in on the villains in the plays and coppertales: kicking down the door, or storming in with weapons drawn, or shouting out their challenge as if it were a contest of honor. Sounds heroic, and it looks good on paper or when actors portray it, but not very effective in real life. For one, actually kicking down a door –especially one that’s been locked or bolted- is nigh near impossible unless you have bolstered your strength in some fashion. Two, having your weapons out could mean potentially killing a hostage, such as the one that was being held by the Bastard. And finally, I’m an officer of the law. Bringing murderers to justice IS honorable, and a duel wouldn’t make it any more so.

So, I kept my hand crossbow loaded but pointing at the ground and my trigger finger resting on the side of the stock, my footsteps silent, and my voice unheard as I crept through the aisles. From what it sounded like when I heard Mama Crea’s cries, she was in the back room, probably in the massive bedroom she had on one side of the building, the other part being taken up by her storage for her merchandise. That was the part that had a back door, and hopefully that was where my partner was right now, just waiting for my signal.

Suddenly, the curtain to the bedroom was thrown open, and I ducked down behind some shelves, but not before I got a brief look at the person stomping out from behind it. From the brief description I had gotten from Madam Darya, I would say that this was the guy, the ‘bright man’, the Bastard. She had been right, he was very nondescript. Nothing about him, from his average cut brown hair to his plain brown suit that was just out of fashion, stood out. He could have walked by me on the street, and I would never had paid the slightest bit of attention to him.

Of course, that was before he swiveled his head around, searching for whomever had broken his cloaking spell, and I noticed his eyes. I barely sank back down before he noticed me. His eyes…his eyes, quite honestly, almost literally scared the piss out of me. They were pitch black, like a starless night out in the countryside, and conveyed that much warmth. And, when he opened his mouth to hiss in frustration, I could detect the faintest hint of sulfur. As he turned back towards the curtain, I finally heard him speak, and his voice had an odd after echo, like he was speaking through a cave.

“I don’t know who disrupted my cloaking spell, but it’s not going to save you, half-Giant! Once that cowardly detective shows his face, I can kill him and go back to my mission of killing every last one of the Ronan.” He bellowed his rage out, and even I was taken aback at his abject hatred. For just a brief second, I felt the room get hotter, and then it returned to normal.

What I wasn’t expecting, however, was Mama Crea’s response to it. She began to laugh through her hiccups and sobs. “I told you that you were gonna get what’s coming to you, Xir-bok, and I’m always right. That detective is going to put you down like the rabid dog you are!” Even though the word was in Draconus, I had never heard it before. Roughly translated, it meant “Blood-bond”, but more of a title than a description. I wasn’t aware of “blood-bonding”, and I considered myself very well read, as I’ve said before. Of course, I never claimed to know everything either, and if the half-Giant was a Psion like I suspected her to be, then she would know things that I wouldn’t. That’s just a given.

The Bastard began to chuckle. “So, you know what we are then. He said you looked at us like you knew, but I thought you were too much of a stupid cow to figure it out. No matter; I’ve grown weary of you, and I think that I’ll just slit your throat and find someone else to use as bait. Maybe that little half-Orc Ronan bitch that detective seems to have taken a fancy to. I’m sure he would rush to her defense, and after I dispatch him I could sacrifice her. Two birds with one stone!”

Mama Crea laughed weakly. “Since you’ve already admitted you’re going to kill me, can you at least tell me why you hate the Ronan so much? After all, it’s not like I’m going to be able to tell anyone else.” As she said this, I felt in my mind a faint whisper saying my name, and it sounded like it was the half-Giant’s voice. It didn’t say anything else, but maybe just knowing I was here was giving her the courage to carry on.

Throwing back his head, the Bastard guffawed. When he was finished, he took off his suit jacket and rolled up his sleeves. I spotted all this as I peeked my head out around the side of the shelf, and watched as he revealed his arms, covered in the same types of symbols that he used on the building’s walls and his victims. Since I knew that he could heal himself, I had to wonder what was strong enough to burn those symbols into his flesh and to prevent them from healing.

“We supposed it couldn’t hurt, taking this knowledge into the afterlife –or your next life, whatever you believe- so, fine. We will tell you.” I couldn’t help but notice that he kept switching pronouns, between “I” and “we”. Maybe he was being possessed? Possession was something I had heard of and read about but never seen in person. “After all,” he continued, “it’s been over a century, so why shouldn’t somebody know our history? Make yourself comfortable, if you will.” He laughed at his little joke, but Mama Crea didn’t even try to fake laughter.

“Anyway, once upon a time –that is how these things start, isn’t it? Once upon a time, there lived a man. He was a simple man, running a butcher that he had inherited from his father after he and the man’s mother tragically passed away, leaving him all alone with no family. There wasn’t a lot going on in his life, but he didn’t know what was missing as he worked. Then one day, a Ronan caravan came to his city, and when he went out to see what all the fuss was about, he met a beautiful Ronan woman. She was kind and sweet and playful, and didn’t seem to care that he was very plain looking. The caravan stayed parked for over two weeks, and the man went out to see and court the Ronan woman every day. Eventually, they fell in love.”

He began to pace back and forth. “The Ronan woman knew that their caravan was about to leave, and so she asked the man to come see her sister, who was a fortune teller, so she could introduce them and ask for permission to leave the caravan. The man was very excited, and even though he never believed in any of that malarkey, he agreed to have his fortune told. But, something went wrong; instead of telling him something good, the witch told him that he was going to die alone, having made no mark upon this world. This angered the man, and as he raged against the woman’s words he saw in his beloved’s face that she wasn’t going to leave the caravan; he knew that the next night she would travel with her people, vanishing from his life as if she had never been, and he would be alone once more. Sadness and anger filled his heart.”

“As the man fled back to town, he met a blind wizened old man begging for coins by the side of the road. Normally, the man would have ignored the beggar, but having just had his world turned upside down, he stopped to put a few coppers into the beggar’s cup. The beggar thanked him, and asked the man why his heart was pounding like it was broken; he explained that by losing his sight, his other senses were heightened. Wanting to vent to someone, the man told the beggar all that had happened, finishing with how he wanted the power to show the fortune teller that she was wrong about his future. Upon hearing that, the beggar cocked his head to the side and asked what exactly the man was prepared to give for that kind of power.”

“’Hells, old man, I would give my very soul to get back at them for this!’ the man shouted out, and the beggar said that sounded like a good deal before spitting into his hand and holding it out. Bemused, the man spit into his own hand and reached out to take the beggar’s hand, thinking him a harmless fool and a trickster. He wasn’t prepared when the beggar leaned forward quicker than he should have been able to and drove a hidden dagger deep into the man’s heart. As the man slumped backwards, dying, the no longer feeble old man loomed over him and began to burn symbols into his arms using nothing more than his fingers. Although it should have been agonizing, the man felt no pain. He simply laid there and waited to die.”

“But he didn’t. Instead, before his very eyes, the old man turned into wispy smoke, vaguely humanoid shaped with glowing red orbs for eyes. Then, the smoke funneled itself into the man’s mouth, burrowing inside him like a mole through the dirt, until the smoke seemed to have infused itself into the man’s very core. That was when he was able to stand up, amazed that he was alive. Until, of course, the former old man told him what it was.”

Pausing for dramatic effect, he waited while Mama Crea leaned forward, intently listening in spite of herself. Even I was enthralled by his tale. Once he was satisfied that he had kept her –and myself, though he didn’t know that- waiting long enough, the Bastard continued. “It was a type of spirit called a daemon, and since the man had pledged his soul to it for ultimate power, it would grant that power to the man until he died, when his soul would then belong to the daemon. Upon hearing that, the man found it to be a fair trade. He went back to his shop and began to close it up, finding he had no more stomach for something as pedestrian as cutting up meat for others to purchase.” I frowned, having never heard of such a spirit before in my life.

I was amazed, since I could never have talked this long without needing something to wet my whistle; the Bastard didn’t even seem the slightest bit parched. “But, as he was closing up, the Ronan woman who he thought loved him came to him, asking to talk. Not knowing what she could say to him that would help ease the pain of her betrayal, the man agreed to go for a walk with her. It began to rain as they walked and talked, and as they turned down an alleyway, their talking became arguing and the argument became violent. Without even thinking of it, the man pulled out a knife that he hadn’t been aware he was carrying –one he hadn’t packed up, apparently- and plunged it into her chest. Both the daemon inside the man and the man were gleeful at how they had just punished one who was supposed to have loved the man.”

“They weren’t prepared for the death curse she released, however. Neither the daemon nor the man knew about that little aspect of Ronan culture, and her curse sealed their fates together. The man couldn’t die, and the daemon couldn’t take his soul. They were trapped together, forever. And so, every 20 Cycles, the man finds another Ronan woman who reminds him of his former beloved, and takes her life.”

“Why every 20 Cycles, you ask?” he paused, answering her unasked question. “Well, a soul actually gives daemons a lot of power –it’s their form of currency- and so the daemon doesn’t NEED to consume more than that. I mean, he would LOVE to consume more than that, but since we’re stuck together, and I call the shots around here” here I felt something like a growl that resonated in my chest emanating from the man, “he has to do what I say. Anyway, then he carves symbols into the woman, to sacrifice her soul to the daemon inside of him. It’s a working relationship in progress, but they’ve made due the best they can.”

Leaning through the curtain, I heard him speak softly to Mama Crea. “Here’s the best part. They recently found that the death curse can be broken, but only when every living blood relative of the original curser is killed by the cursed. So, you see, as enjoyable as it has been spending a century together, we’ve grown weary of each other’s company, and wish to be parted once and for all. Even death would be preferable to being stuck with one like HIM.”

A sound that, as weird as this sounds, reminded me of black ink being spilled off of a table, emanated from the Bastard, but not from his mouth. “And I look forward to finally being able to go back to the Hells and be free from your incessant whining, Robert. A century stuck with you has made eternal torment sound pleasant, and I would willingly put up with it if it meant I never had to see you again.” That voice made every hair on my arms and the back of my neck stand on end. Robert, huh. Even the Bastard’s name was bland and unassuming.

Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Dorf signaling me, that I should distract Robert so he could get Mama Crea out of here. Even though the man –or more importantly, the thing that was inside the man- turned my bowels to jelly, I stood up from where I was crouched and got his attention. “Hey, big man! Why don’t you pick on somebody your own size?”

Slowly turning around, the Bastard eyed me up and down and carefully walked up to me. I tried not to watch as Dorf crept around the corner and slid behind the curtain to Mama Crea’s bedroom. Robert finally stopped just out of reach, and the sulfur smell was very strong standing this close to him. Looking into my eyes, he sneered. “The great Detective Jonas. Are you here to read me my rights, arrest me for all the murders that I’ve done? You already heard my confession, after all. Naughty boy, eavesdropping on me like that.” He held up his finger and waved it back and forth while making a tsk tsk sound.

Swallowing loudly, I reflected his sneer with one of my own. Fake it until you make it, I always say. “Yes, that’s right. And your little assassins from the Blood Guild failed to take us out for you, so don’t be sending others to do your dirty work, Robert.”

For just a second, I saw the confusion in the Bastard’s eyes, and was startled to realize that he knew nothing of the Blood Guild coming after us. He recovered quickly, but it left me with a burning question. If he hadn’t hired them to try and kill us, then who did? And, why? Ignoring all that, Robert simply said. “No matter. You’re here now, Detective. So, let us begin.” I watched without watching behind his shoulder as my partner helped manhandle the weakened half-Giant through her bedroom curtain and started to help her into the back room.

After he spoke, the Bastard snapped his fingers. Horrified, I saw Dorf and Mama Crea freeze in place, although they were still able to turn their heads, trying to see what had just happened. Chuckling to himself, Robert turned away from me, as if I didn’t matter in the slightest, and went over to the frozen pair, walking slowly around them. “What do we have here? This must be your partner, isn’t that correct, Detective Jonas? And trying to rescue the fair fat damsel in distress. How delightful.” Laughing again, he came back to me. “Would you like to see something interesting?” Saying that, I watched in awe and horror as the daemon inside of him began to hum, a disjointed tune that set my teeth on edge with every note.

What it did to Dorf and Mama Crea was even worse. The sound seemed to be physically painful for both of them, and even though they were frozen in place, they both cried out in agony as the wordless song washed over them. I could only stare in horror as each refrain seemed to bruise them badly. And, Robert was still able to speak during all of this! He smiled at me, but the grin didn’t reach his pure black eyes. “You can watch as I kill the two of them, and then I’ll kill you too. Right before I go kill your little slut girlfriend.” Without realizing it, I raised my arm holding the readied crossbow and fired it directly into the center of his face.

Or rather, I tried to. Robert started humming a melody himself, and I was distraught to see that the bolt came to a stop an inch away from the Bastard’s nose. He smiled at me, reached up and pulled the bolt out of the air before throwing it behind him. “Sorry, fool me once and all that. Won’t let you make me bleed again. So, Detective Jonas,” he said with a sneering smirk on his face, “are you finally ready to admit defeat?”

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