Blue waves of saltwater rose from the Valenfaer Ocean and then sprinted up Dargon’s beach to surround the ankles of two young boys. The sun reflected off the rollicking surface in flashes of bright light. The boys ran along the beach, weaving in and out of the surf and away from the ominous cave at their backs. Perry had just finished telling Dom of the terrible things that the Death Rattler delved into within that dark cave. The boys had run away from the cave in fear but then forgot about it and instead laughed as they enjoyed the warm day.
Perry suddenly stopped and pointed toward the surf. “What’s that over there?”
“Where?” Dom stopped running too. “What are you talking about?”
“Over there in the waves. It looks like a body,” Perry said.
“I don’t see nothing.” Dom stared into the waves where his friend was pointing for a breath or two. “Straight, now I see it. It does look like a body.”
“Help me drag it up on the beach.”
“I don’t know, we might get into trouble.”
“There’s nobody around,” Perry said. “Except for that one. Get it? No-body?” The boy started laughing.
“Ha, ha,” Dom said with absolutely no enthusiasm. “I don’t think that’s very funny. What if it’s got the plague or something?”
“But what if it’s got gold in its pockets?” Perry asked. “If you don’t want to help, I guess I’ll keep all the treasure for myself.”
“But …” It was clear that Dom did not want to touch the dead body. Perry felt a small twinge of fear but was more curious than anything. He thought Dom too much of a coward at times.
“Just wait till everyone else hears about this. I’ll have all the gold and you’ll just be a chicken.”
“Fine, but let’s get something to pull it with. Just don’t touch it.”
They found a piece of rotted rope to drag the body from the waves. After tying a loop in the rope, they snagged its foot as the wave surge brought it upon the beach. The corpse seemed to resist their pull and the boys grunted with exertion. Perry certainly pulled with all his might and Dom seemed to strain as well as they dragged it onto the beach.
“We need to get it high enough so the tide won’t pull it back out,” Dom said.
“After we search it, it won’t matter if it goes back out to sea or not,” Perry replied.
“Shouldn’t we tell someone about it? The Rattler is probably in his cave. We can tell him.”
“He scares me. I hear he pulls the teeth out of dead corpses and keeps them in that staff he carries around.”
“That’s just stupid. Why would anyone carry around teeth from a dead body?”
After a mene or so, the boys managed to pull the body high enough onto the beach and out of the surf so they could search it. Dom stayed back as Perry approached the body cautiously.
“Does it look like it’s got the plague or something?” Dom asked.
“I don’t know,” Perry said. “It just looks dead.”
Now that the body was out of the surf, Perry could tell it was the body of a man. The body lay facing down with its head turned to the side away from the boys. Perry knelt in the sand by the corpse and cautiously reached around to the front so he could search it. As he felt around, he found a small pouch tied to a belt. From inside the pouch came a light jingle.
“I think I found something.” Perry’s heart hammered against his chest. “Sounds like coins.”
Perry fumbled with the pouch strings. The strings were soaked with seawater and had swollen. He could not get the knot untied and was without a knife to cut it.
“Hurry up,” said Dom. “I don’t like this.”
“Shut up. Nobody ever comes around here but us. Just give me a mene and I’ll get this knot.”
Without warning, the body jerked to life and Perry fell back on his rear, cold terror striking through his entire body, eradicating his curiosity. Its right hand grabbed a handful of Perry’s hair and threw him bodily toward the surf. The boy landed in the sand, and scrambled onto his back. The dead man pulled itself up to its feet. Fear paralyzed Perry as it turned on him, each short step a rigid lurch. Once he got a good look at the corpse, his breath caught in his throat. Its face was stoic and its skin sagged. Its eyes were dim and leaking water. An odd blue lightly tinged its skin.
Perry screamed in terror as the towering dead man began lumbering towards him. Dom turned and ran up the beach, deserting his best friend.
The shadow cast by the dead man covered Perry and he felt trapped under those dead eyes. He began to shake and continued screaming. The corpse reached down and grasped Perry’s cheeks in one hand, squeezing enough to make him think his teeth would shatter. Next, it used its other hand to lift Perry from the beach and pull him close.
Perry kicked and thrashed but the dead man was strong and his strikes had no effect. The corpse let go of Perry’s face, reached down to its own belt, then slapped its hand onto Perry’s neck. The dead man held something cold in its hand and pressed it against his skin. Whatever it was, it caused a supernatural exhaustion to overcome Perry. It was as if his body had suddenly become too tired to respond to him. He attempted with all of his being to scream and thrash, but he could not move or make a sound. Terror, however, still gripped him. Had he not been so tired, Perry would have screamed and cried. As it was, he could barely even think.
Cepero patrolled Commercial Street wearily, not a single thing so far this day calling him to action. He slowly became aware of a building noise. It was a ragged scream that shook him from his drowsiness. He tried to pinpoint the sound and began jogging once he thought he had it.
The scream grew louder until Cepero was certain that whoever was screaming must be just around the bend he was coming to. It was a noise that caused tentacles to slide down his spine, setting his skin to tingling. A boy rounded the corner and nearly smashed right into Cepero, his scream dying as he sucked in a large breath.
Cepero caught the child’s shoulders. “Boy, what’s wrong? Calm down, you’re safe.”
“The dead man,” was all the kid said through hiccups and ragged breath.
“What dead man?”
“The dead man on the beach. He killed Perry. Perry’s dead!”
“Show me. Take me there right now.”
After a few breaths, the boy nodded his head and led Cepero towards the beach. Cepero continuously looked to the boy, seeing the creases of worry and fear in his face. He wasn’t too sure of the truth in the boy’s shocking statement, but he looked frazzled enough to warrant at least a quick investigation. They jogged out onto the sand and to the water where the boy suddenly stopped. From the tracks left in the sand, he could tell there had been a scuffle. There were footprints and drag marks leading off toward the docks to the south. There was no sign of blood.
“I don’t see a body here,” Cepero said.
The boy was in tears. “You have to find Perry. The dead man has Perry.”
Cepero looked at the young boy then back to tracks in the sand. He wondered if the boy was only playing him for a fool. Certainly this could be a joke that had been concocted by this boy and his “dead” friend. But then Cepero looked back to the boy and saw sincerity in his eyes. There didn’t seem to be any laughter there. Nor was there the excitement of a barely concealed secret. He’d dealt with shadow boys before that tried to use false circumstances and a pouty lip to their advantage. He knew he had learned the difference by this point. No, this boy was serious; something had happened.
“What’s your name, boy?”
The boy suddenly looked like he was going to run. He even backed away a step.
Cepero held up a hand and said, “Whoa now. I’m only trying to help. I just need to know your name.”
“It’s Dom.” A tear fell down Dom’s face and he wiped it away, smearing dirt across his cheek and under his eye.
“How old are you, Dom?”
“Straight. Let’s follow these tracks. Come on.”
Several menes passed before the two reached the end of the trail in the sand. The waves had reached up to pull the tracks into the Valenfaer. Cepero stood there, Dom at his side, staring at the slight rise and fall of the water as if his target would someone float up to the surface.
Dom’s small voice asked, “Why did we stop?”
Cepero looked down at the scared boy with concern and said, “The tracks end here. Dom, why did you think he was dead, the man who took Perry?”
There was sheer hopelessness in Dom’s eyes. “He was dead. He hadn’t been moving for a while, he didn’t move the whole time we pulled him out of the water. The way he looked … his face … I’ve never seen a man like that before. He was just … dead. And now he has Perry … what’s he going to do to Perry?”
Dom’s lips and chin quivered and Cepero felt a pang of annoyance. He believed that Dom was telling some form of truth, but his young imagination had likely confused him. Now, this case would be more complicated than it needed to be. Cepero needed to distract Dom from his misfortune to get some actual help from him.
“Dom, what can you tell me about Perry? Why would he be taken?”
The young boy remained quiet as he thought. His face scrunched up with frustration then he shook his head and cried harder. He spoke through his sobs. “I don’t know. Help, please. I just don’t know.”
Dom was obviously too rattled to coherently respond. He needed a few menes to calm down and think this through. “Come on, Dom. Let’s go to the Old Guard House.”
Through the sadness, Cepero saw a spark of curiosity. He urged the boy along with a gentle hand and they made their way through town. His attempts to brighten Dom’s mood had a minor effect that only lasted so long. Dom was quick to fall back into his state of depression.
Dom looked up at the Old Guard House as they walked up the steps to its front doors, his fear and sadness seemingly vanished from his face. Cepero smiled at the boy’s admiration; he obviously regarded the law highly. Cepero walked the halls slowly, allowing Dom to take in the sights of the place. He ensured that they did not go past any doors that led down to the dungeons.
Soon, they were in Cepero’s office, Dom seated before the desk. Cepero took his station behind his desk and said, “Interesting place, huh?”
Dom nodded and continued looking around the office.
Cepero said, “Dom, let’s talk about Perry some more. Can you tell me about his family?”
Redness crept across Dom’s cheeks at the mention of family. He was quiet for a moment before finally saying, “They’re going to be mad. I’m going to get in trouble. We never should have touched that dead man.”
“I understand that you’re scared. But I need to know this. Otherwise, I won’t be able to help Perry at all.” As Cepero waited for Dom to reply, he took in the clothing the boy wore. None of it was gaudy or too expensive. It was, however, more costly than most parents would buy for their kids. There were no obvious tears in the fitted, blue shirt or the brown vest atop it. Dom’s pants had been hemmed to fit him well and textured by thick lines of thread in square patterns. The bottoms of his pants were obviously wet and speckled by sand.
A short, silent moment passed and just as Cepero thought Dom had crept out of his shell of shyness, Ilona popped into his room.
Ilona looked at the back of Dom’s head and mouthed, “Shadow boy?”
Cepero shook his head.
Ilona then walked in and said, “Cepero, interrogating little boys now? Now what could he …” As she spoke, she walked around the chair Dom sat in. She came to a halt when she saw his tear-filled eyes and dirt-smudged face.
Dom looked away quickly, his cheeks turning rosy once more.
Cepero said, “Dom here is missing his best friend Perry.” Dom had his eyes plastered to his lap and Cepero knew that he was done talking now. “We were just leaving to go talk to Perry’s parents.”
Dom whimpered, then tears flowed anew from his eyes. Cepero stood, walked over to Ilona and whispered, “He’s convinced that it was a dead man that took Perry. They were playing on the beach, found a body, pulled it out of the waves, and then it got up and took Perry. I found the tracks. They ended at the shore a short distance away. I couldn’t tell if a boat had been moored there.”
While Cepero talked, Ilona kept her eyes stuck to Dom. It was common to see tragedies and Cepero was immune to most things. But Dom seemed so torn apart by what had happened and Cepero wasn’t emotionally dead just yet. He surmised Ilona felt some small amount of sympathy for the boy as well.
Ilona said, “I’ll take him. We’ll go fast. If anyone has contacted them about ransom or if they have any enemies, I’ll know.” Ilona stopped whispering to Cepero and instead began speaking to Dom, “Hey, Dom, my name is Ilona. I know this is really hard for you but you look like a strong boy. Can you take me to Perry’s parents so we can find him?”
Dom shook his head and Ilona looked back around at Cepero. She turned back and said, “Dom, you’re a strong boy right? I bet you miss Perry, huh?”
Slowly, Dom nodded his head.
“Straight. Well I’m going to need you to show me how strong you are. I promise you that you won’t get in trouble with anyone as long as you help me out. If you don’t, then I can’t get Perry back and then I won’t be able to help you. Do you understand?”
Dom straightened his back and nodded his head, his mouth a hard line as he tried his best to appear as strong as Ilona said he was.
“Thata boy. Come on, Dom. We’ll be back soon, Cepero.” Ilona’s hand urged Dom from his seat and then they were out of the office. Cepero knew that Ilona would do a thorough job at getting any information necessary for the search.
With an idea that seemed a bit farfetched, Cepero left his office, headed for the Esoterics’ chamber. The three wizards were both famous and infamous in Dargon for their help and their debacles. Vable, the eldest of them and most powerful, was still in terrible condition after a battle with another mage. Tanbry and Arvyn were in their quarters, seated at a desk while fidgeting with their geegaws and a few tomes.
Tanbry turned, her face coming from the pages of a book as if she’d just awoken from its reality to behold her own. “Sergeant Cepero, how are you this day?”
“Fine, Tanbry. How are you and your brother?”
“We’re grand!” Arvyn called, causing a look of chagrin to claim his sister’s face. “We’ve been researching this ritual that, if performed correctly, will allow a person to breathe under water for bells!”
Cepero shook his head and caught Tanbry’s eyes rolling.
Tanbry said, “Arvyn, don’t distract the sergeant.” She looked to Cepero. “Do you need our assistance, Cepero? Or rather, just mine?”
“Yeah. Is there anything you know of that can track a boat across the ocean? Not too far, not even a league probably.”
Tanbry thumbed through her book, picked up another, then passed through that one until she called, “Ah-hah! No!” She looked up at Cepero with a smile.
Arvyn sighed and shook his head then said, “You’re so literal, Tanbry. Have an imagination!”
“I’m a mage. Of course I have an imagination.”
“Well not a very good one. Cepero, is there someone on that boat?”
Cepero threw his shoulders up, then said, “Of course.”
Tanbry said, “Oh, well then yes! We’ve been researching something like this. There isn’t much in the way of fact to say that it’ll work. However, we think we can track a person through magic given the following: we need an item that is very important to the individual that will be destroyed in the ritual; we need a person who is very close to the same individual. They won’t be destroyed but they may be permanently attached to the person after. Meaning they may not be able to go a day without being near them … or something like that. That part isn’t too clear yet.”
There was some humor to be found in Tanbry’s blathering, but Cepero also found it to be annoying. He wondered if she understood how odd she sounded speaking her thoughts aloud.
Although the general attitude towards the Esoterics was one of resentment, they had their uses. Captain Koren had their usefulness in mind when he placed them in the Guard, although they seemed to screw up often. Cepero knew Koren was a smart man and certainly respected his judgment. However, he still believed that they didn’t belong in the Old Guard House. He said, “Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.”
With that, Cepero turned and left while the Esoterics went back to their exploits. Cepero hadn’t even been in his office for a bell when Ilona and Dom returned.
Ilona rushed in, Dom at her heels and said, “Cepero, we need to start looking for Perry now. We need to get a lot of the Guard moving too. Perry is the son of Levy Barel’s cousin! Levy is owed a favor or two by the duke and if we don’t do this, he’ll be livid. Levy is away but his cousin is sure that he would want us to do this. We need to get going.”
Levy Barel, while not being an extremely notable person, was a minor noble. He had once raised a ship containing a hefty amount of taxes due to the duke from the bottom of the Vallenfaer. Cepero recalled the event and the fame Levy enjoyed from it as people couldn’t keep his name from their mouths. He was certainly owed some favors.
“We don’t need to get the entire Guard going. We just need something important to Perry. Dom, can you think of anything like that?”
Dom stuck his head from around Ilona’s hip and said, “Well, his dad gave him an old sword last year. He said it has been passed down through his family.”
Cepero said, “I bet Perry loves that thing. Ilona, all we need is us and the Esoterics. I talked to them earlier, if we have that sword, and Dom, we can find Perry. I know it sounds farfetched. I didn’t much agree with it at first but they seem to be confident. Despite their reputation, they are the only thing that will give us an advantage in this case. Their magic could prove useful.”
“They won’t have free run. You tell them that they follow strict orders or there will be consequences.”
“Go get the Esoterics. I’ll send a guardsman with Dom to get that sword.” Ilona grabbed Dom’s hand as she spoke then turned and sped off. Cepero then hustled from his office.
Cepero came upon the Esoterics and it was as if they hadn’t moved. “Tanbry, Arvyn, we’ll need to track someone using that method you spoke of earlier. You two are going with us. Let’s move.”
Arvyn said, “On it, sergeant. Come on, Tanbry, get ready fast!”
Tanbry shared Arvyn’s excitement but in a less showy way. She still packed a bag quickly with several books and scrolls but she didn’t grin from ear to ear like Arvyn did. Cepero knew that they saw this as an opportunity to prove their worth and dispel the shared notion that they were nuisances.
Once the Esoterics were ready, they all made their way to the front doors of the Old Guard House to await Ilona. Garay and Celia were just walking out and Cepero called to them, “Celia, are you and Garay going out on patrol?”
Garay turned, stood straight, and said, “Yes, sergeant.”
“Straight. Why don’t you come along with us instead? We’re looking for a little boy taken about a bell ago from the beach.”
Celia said, “Our pleasure.”
Cepero turned to Tanbry. “Have that spell ready to go.”
Tanbry nodded then set up shop on a nearby table. Arvyn assisted, setting up a few beakers of different contents.
After a few menes, Dom and another guard came striding through the threshold to the Old Guard House. A leather wrapped sword was in the guard’s hands.
Cepero pointed to the blade and asked, “Is that Perry’s blade?”
Dom nodded his head and the guard said, “Yes, sir.”
“Good. Give it here then.” Cepero took the blade from the guard, then handed it over to Arvyn. Before the guard departed, Cepero continued, “Go get Ilona from her office.” The guard nodded and hustled off. A few menes passed before Ilona joined them while Arvyn was appraising the blade.
The assembled men and women as well as a few onlookers gawked as Arvyn and Tanbry ran through their ritual.
Softly, Tanbry intoned words to a spell while Arvyn mixed three liquids into a single glass vial. The liquid bubbled and smoked in response to Tanbry’s words. Finally, Arvyn methodically scooped the blade from the table then held it over a pan. Tanbry suddenly stopped speaking and grabbed the vial of mixed liquid from the table. She then poured it over the blade and the liquid flowed down the length of the gorgeous weapon.
The molded steel sporting an artwork of vines along its length seemed to absorb the liquid. Finally, not a single drop remained in the vial, nor had any fallen into the pan. Tanbry muttered a string of words then the blade began to smoke. Pits formed in the steel and devoured the metal with jealousy. The weapon rapidly liquefied and splashed down into the pan, leaving only the hilt that Tanbry still held.
Arvyn looked around at the men and women, and then back to Tanbry and smiled wide. He grabbed the pan and, with Tanbry still holding the vial, slowly poured the new potion into the vial. He grabbed the vial from Tanbry then walked towards Dom.
As he closed on the boy, he said, “This is going to taste really bad, I bet. But it’s important that you don’t waste any of it. And I’m not sure exactly what might happen to you after. You might have to deal with something odd down the road. But this might be the only way to get Perry back. Do you understand?”
Ilona said, “Arvyn, that potion just dissolved steel. How do you know that it won’t do the same to his throat?”
Cepero was certain Dom was going to leap back from the vial now as he stared at it with eyes the size of coins.
Arvyn said, “The part of the spell that did that is over. It only absorbed the steel.”
“You’re sure? I don’t need this to turn into a bigger problem than it already is.”
Tanbry said, “If the spell works as it is supposed to, then Dom should be okay. But the procedure is going exactly as it should thus far.”
Ilona nodded her head in consent but still looked on with obvious intent. It would not do well for the Esoterics to make such an egregious error at this time.
Dom kept his gaze trained on the silver potion while the others talked. He looked to Ilona, who nodded her head, then nodded his own. Arvyn handed the vial to him and he grabbed it so lightly that Cepero thought it would slip through his fingers as if greased.
Everyone watched without talking as Dom slowly brought the vial to his lips. He sniffed the concoction, wrinkled his nose, then closed his eyes and tipped his head back.
“Bottoms up,” Arvyn said.
Dom swallowed the potion in one gulp then brought his head back forward violently. He coughed and hacked but didn’t vomit the potion. Cepero moved forward and held the boy’s shoulders. Soon, Dom stopped coughing and composed himself. Tears welled in his eyes and he looked at Cepero then said, “Tasted like gong!”
Cepero cracked a smile and the others laughed lightly. “What now, Arvyn?”
Tanbry took the lead and said, “Dom, do you feel anything?”
Dom scrunched his face and thought really hard. Finally he popped his shoulders up and said, “I don’t know.”
Cepero threw a caustic look at the Esoterics who cringed in return. Tanbry finally pleaded, “Dom, you have to think really hard about Perry. About his face, the size of his body, his clothes, how he smells. Everything and anything you can think about will help.”
Dom’s brow wrinkled as he struggled to come up with a direction. “How am I going to even know which way? I don’t understand how this …” Dom suddenly stopped speaking and his head snapped to the left. “That way!”
Cepero said, “Let’s go!”
Keeping Dom at his side, Cepero led the group out of the Old Guard House and down the street. Cepero checked with Dom often but never did the direction change. Soon, they found themselves at the docks.
Ilona popped up next to Dom and said, “What now, Dom?”
Dom pointed out over the waves and Cepero understood. “Whoever took Perry took a boat over the Valenfaer with him. It must have been a small one though; we can catch it in a ship.” Cepero kept his eyes trained on a familiar sight while he spoke.
Time was their biggest enemy now. Perhaps there were other ships he could commandeer but none of them had the reputation this one did. Before him, rocking gently on the waves, sat the Victory Chimes.
With the sight of the famous ship came a flood of memories, many of them blurred by the deep bells of night and ale. The captain of Victory Chimes was a man by the name of Victor Kent. He was originally a member of the ship’s crew. They had been friends then. Cepero recalled the day they had met on a fishing trip with mutual friends.
Originally, Cepero had seen Victor as nothing more than an acquaintance he could enjoy spending time with while out drinking. But, as time went by and nights faded away, Cepero and Victor found a brotherly love for each other, or so it had seemed.
Eventually, Victor became captain of the Victory Chimes. He faded away on trips that lasted months and when he was back, Cepero would only hear of the Victory Chimes spending sennights in the harbor before setting out again. Cepero was able to handle Victor’s absence while he was away with no qualms, but because the same absence existed even when they were within the same city, Cepero felt as though he’d been forgotten. Victor had become too busy for Cepero. His fame and success must have made him think he was too important for a guard.
Soon, months had passed and the two hadn’t seen one another. Then months turned to years and Cepero realized that he hadn’t thought of his once good friend in a long time. Cepero focused on being a good sergeant while Victor undoubtedly focused on commanding the Victory Chimes. Those few moments where the two had bonded and Cepero had felt a deep connection were certainly lies, he told himself. He had thought them brothers, but Victor seemed as though he didn’t.
With barely concealed regret, Cepero said, “I’ll be back in a moment. Perhaps we can get passage aboard the Victory Chimes.”
Ilona grabbed Cepero’s shoulder to stop him then said, “Of course we can. I’ll just flash the ducal seal and Kent will take us where we need to go. We’ll all go.”
Forcing Victor to take them wasn’t the method that Cepero wanted to use. He was already unsure how Victor would react to his marching across the deck of the Victory Chimes. Cepero himself had felt hurt that Victor had stopped contacting him, but then he became indifferent to it. He’d walk by the docks, see the Victory Chimes and even Victor standing on her deck oftentimes and not react in the slightest. That part of his life was just over. Regardless of what he had hoped for, his relationship with Victor had been based mostly on drinking and spending time in taverns, a part of him that didn’t exist much at all anymore.
Cepero nodded his head and said, “Straight.” Ilona gave him an odd look and he realized that he had shown his inner brooding although he had tried not to. “Nothing to worry about. I used to know Victor.”
Ilona nodded her head then said, “Let’s go.”
The group weaved through the populace and were only several strides from the plank that led to the deck when two men leapt in front of them. Cepero immediately recognized the pair as Jacer and Ratche, men that Cepero always suspected were up to no good. Suddenly Jacer hollered and Ratche wrapped his arms around his head.
“My foot! You blundering oaf!” Jacer saw that Ratche had hid his head and so punched him in the gut. Ratche doubled over and his arms fell to hold his stomach. “You’re lucky I don’t have a lead pipe!”
Cepero looked at the duo in disbelief. Ilona said, “What are you two doing? You’re standing in our way.”
Jacer seemed to suddenly remember something very important as he stood bolt straight and gently helped Ratche uncurl. Ratche shook Jacer off and said, “The lead pipe is coming for you next, you gong-headed dope!”
A nudging elbow from Jacer nearly had Ratche swinging for his head but then he also seemed to remember something important. They both looked at Ilona and composed themselves, then Jacer said, “The Rattler needs a boat. He saw you all coming towards the ship and asked us to stop you. He saw that dead guy take the kid on the beach.”
Ratche suddenly jabbed Jacer in the side with an elbow. He said, “Shut your flapping lips! Varrus didn’t say to tell them anything!”
Cepero was suddenly very interested in these two. They then seemed to feel the weight of all the eyes upon them and became obviously uncomfortable. Jacer cleared his throat for far too long then said, “Um. Varrus and the Rattler are right there. They can tell you everything.”
All eyes followed Jacer’s pointing finger and turned to look upon the withered corpse of a man shuffling their way. A quick surge of dread sunk its claws deep into Cepero’s chest. The Rattler’s dead eyes seemed stuck to Cepero’s, urging him to turn and flee. It was his appearance, making it seem like he should have been dead sennights ago, that caused the pang of fear. Varrus walked alongside the unnaturally tall, skeletal man without displaying any discomfort.
The progress of the Rattler was slow and allowed Cepero the time to come to grips with the man’s presence. He accepted the sunken eyes and sallow, pockmarked skin. The Rattler was in charge of collecting the trash, and the dead, from Dargon’s streets; he dressed for the part too well.
Dom had moved to hide behind Cepero’s back and wouldn’t even poke an eye around to look at the Rattler. The staff that the old man leaned on had a gourd-shaped top and from that came a chattering noise.
Varrus said, “Lieutenant, sergeant, I hope you will grant the Rattler a moment to speak with you.”
Ilona said, “Make this quick, Varrus. Tell me what you know right now.”
Cepero watched as the Rattler began signing with one hand, his decrepit, overly-long fingers going through a plethora of signals quickly. Cepero had a limited understanding of signing and could not follow.
Varrus continued looking at the Rattler as he said, “He had seen the body on the beach earlier. I sent these two to retrieve it, but it wasn’t there any longer. He asked me to take him to the beach and then we continued to the docks. He wants to know if you have any information about the missing body.”
Ilona said, “Didn’t he see the dead man get up and take the boy? That’s what Jacer and Ratche said. They actually told us you came here looking for a ship to go after the boat.”
Varrus shot the two friends a wilting gaze. He then began signing with the Rattler. Translating only took a moment and then Varrus was speaking. “He saw it. He just wanted to help.”
Cepero was amazed at how quickly the two could sign and how easily Varrus handled his job of translating hand signals into spoken words.
Ilona said, “How would you help? You were going to go get the boy back? And how would you have tracked them across the ocean?”
Varrus stopped cold. He wasn’t signing to the Rattler immediately like he had done so far. Cepero believed he was thinking about how to cover his and the Rattler’s backside. That deathly looking man knew exactly what had happened and surely hadn’t seen it actually happen. He also had a way to track the boy … or the dead man. He wasn’t telling the truth, nor would he divulge all he knew.
Varrus didn’t sign with the Rattler, but rather said, “We came here in the hopes that someone had seen them and could track them for us. And, yes, we were going to get the boy back. But, more importantly, the dead man.”
Ilona scoffed then said, “Firstly, Why would we allow such a thing? And what makes him so sure the man was dead? So far, this just seems like a kidnapping by a sleeping man.”
“It’s obvious that you don’t have many people with you. We can help, well at least myself … and I guess Jacer and Ratche can lend some help too. The dead aren’t so predictable sometimes.”
“Varrus, you and the Rattler just don’t add up right now. We don’t need your help. Leave.” Ilona made to begin walking away as she finished speaking but the Rattler’s staff leapt forward and crossed in front of her. She bumped it and stopped, then turned a deadly gaze upon the Rattler.
The Rattler signed and then Varrus said, “People do sometimes get up from the grave, lieutenant. What will you do if you find who you’re looking for and he won’t stay dead? If that isn’t the case, then we’ll stay out of your way.”
Ilona seemed to deliberate for a brief moment, then she said, “I’m not sure why anyone would assume the man was dead. But you can come; we don’t have time to argue here. Be damn sure that you follow my command though.”
The Rattler nodded and Varrus said, “Straight. You lead, lieutenant.”
Cepero felt at odds with Ilona’s decision. The Death Rattler might have secret knowledge of the dead that could prove useful. But he was also withholding information, which made him a threat in Cepero’s mind. He slid his hand along the hilt of the sword at his waist then squeezed the pommel. He knew how to deal with threats.