I’ve carved the hellish pieces out of wicked men until they begged for death. Certainly, I was meant for this. Had I the ability, I’d catch all of them. I’d go back and get the ones before me and I’d flay the evil from their bodies. I feel just and right in dismantling their bodies and minds. But I do not do it for some bastard god. Saren would be in my chair next if I could put him there. No, I do this for myself, because evil needs to be punished, and there is no one who understands that better than I do.
Kalen sat in a foyer before the duke’s chamber. Sweat fell down his temples and back, whether from nerves or the blistering heat of summer, he could not tell. He knew he was anxious, but how much of what had happened did he feel at fault for? How much would Lord Dargon blame him for?
Last night, Jayko Faas, a torturer, murderer, and cannibal, had escaped from the Old Guard House. Aerimon, Kalen’s friend and mentor in the art of self-defense, had gone after the bastard, only to come back empty-handed, claiming to have not found any clue of his whereabouts, although he had been gone for a while. Had he really been searching that whole time? Or had he found something and just didn’t want to tell Kalen?
Kalen disliked the mistrust that bubbled up inside him when he thought of Aerimon. Part of it stemmed from Aerimon’s alibi when it came to the gang that had tried to extort him for payment. However, much of it was a result of Jayko’s doing. That man had put Kalen on edge, and he’d likely forced many others to teetering on a thin rope, compromising their trust in others.
The duke had been informed about what Jayko had done and how he had escaped. Kalen could only speculate the level of the duke’s displeasure. This very morning Kalen had received a summons from the duke that called on his presence immediately. Such a thing did not bode well.
The door to the duke’s chambers opened and out came a young boy. “Lord Dargon will see you now, Captain,” he piped.
“Straight,” Kalen mumbled as he rose and walked to the boy, the satchel slung around his shoulder slapping his side. He was ushered from the small foyer and into the Clifton’s chambers. Potted plants stood here and there, in corners and along walls. High shutters were open, allowing sunlight to stream in and reflect off the polished, marble floor. Crimson curtains of thick silk sheltered those within from the scorching heat. Duke Clifton sat behind a desk, his personal guard standing against the wall at attention to either side of him.
Impulsively, Kalen looked over to the duke’s left arm, or the lack thereof. His sleeve, pinned at the elbow, hid the stump. Otherwise, Clifton Dargon II was a healthy, honest-looking man. The hard line of his mouth showed that he found no pleasure in what Kalen was here to speak with him about.
Clifton Dargon said, “Kalen, you look well. I’m glad of that.”
Kalen drifted forward and took a seat before the desk Clifton sat behind. “Thank you, milord. I hope all is well with you.”
“No, all is not well.” That simple statement made Kalen want to wince. He wasn’t sure what to say. He merely waited in silence for the duke to continue.
Clifton rubbed his eyes with his one hand then said, “Kalen, I’ve heard a lot about this Jayko person. Let’s not dance around this. He was caught murdering someone. And now he has escaped from *your* guard station.” The import that Clifton put on the word “your” was not lost on Kalen. He felt the sting of accusation and knew that the blame was well placed with him.
Clifton continued, “But there’s something else isn’t there?”
There was something terrible, something that Kalen had never seen before. Kalen decided on more careful words as he said, “Yes, milord. I went out to a house last night, sent there by Jayko on a promise that I’d find more people like him: cannibals and torturers. I didn’t find that though. Well, we found one man. And we found this.”
Slowly, Kalen removed the satchel from his shoulder and set it on the table. He carefully unfolded it, doing his best not to touch the evil within. Once the satchel was sprawled open, both Kalen and Lord Dargon were staring down upon a dagger, the blade slightly curved with a hitch near the hilt. What struck Kalen more than the layout of the blade, was the stark color of it. Although he had seen it several times, the jet black steel was still dazzling.
“What is that, Kalen? I’ve never seen a blade so dark. Gods.”
“I’ve spoken with the Esoterics. I know, I didn’t let them have it for long or do much with it. They told me that it was made by evil magic. Do you see this?” Kalen pointed to the hilt where two words had been inscribed. “This seems to be the name of the blade. Cerebral Syndicate. The Esoterics have never heard of it. This dagger kills, but its victims don’t stay dead. ”
Clifton Dargon finally tore his gaze away from the blade and looked up into Kalen’s eyes. “What do you mean, Kalen?” There was fear in the duke’s voice. “Did you see it used?”
Kalen had to steady himself, lest he let any of his emotions show through, before he spoke. “Yes. Garay. We got to the house. It must have been used for their terrible rituals as well. Someone came out and slammed this into Garay’s skull. My men killed him in a moment. But then … Garay got back up and starting sawing through the side of another guard. We finally stopped him by pulling the blade from his skull. He just became this torturous … thing.” Words couldn’t explain exactly what had become of Garay’s corpse.
“Gods,” Lord Dargon whispered, certainly feeling the sting of a good man’s death. “An artifact of such evil and power here in Dargon. Garay was a good man. He’d served you well over the years, hadn’t he?”
That felt like a little too much, even given the idea that this mess could be blamed on Kalen. Of course Garay had served the Town Guard well. Why was Lord Dargon making this such a personal matter? Kalen merely nodded in agreement, his eyes threatening to betray his emotion.
Lord Dargon continued, “Straight. And the man Garay attacked?”
“He is alive. He was hurt badly though.”
Lord Dargon nodded slowly, his eyes turning back to the terrible blade. “I’m going to keep this blade, Captain.”
“Of course, Lord Dargon.”
“So they deal in dark magic. And strong magic at that.”
“And there’s more. Jayko wanted to get Aerimon Clyde involved. When Jayko sent me to that house, he told me to bring Aerimon. It seems like he’s important to Jayko for some reason.”
“That man has made quite the impact in our town for the few months he’s been here. Anything significant in his being involved?”
“Aerimon hates the vile-hearted. To my knowledge, that’s all that would tie him to this; he would be Jayko’s ultimate enemy. In fact, I would think that Jayko would want Aerimon left out of this. You recall when his house was burned to the ground? I watched as he lost himself to fury and killed several of them. The way he did Garrity …” Kalen trailed off as he imagined Aerimon smashing the life from Garrity with his heel.
Duke Clifton nodded his head and then said, “Straight. I’ve trained with him before. He is quite good. Deadly efficient. I hear he’s done good things for the Guard. But you will need to watch him. Coincidences are not always just that, Kalen.”
Kalen nodded, thinking for the hundredth time that it must have been Aerimon who had killed those thugs those few months ago. Aerimon had a good alibi at the time though. He seemed truthful when he denied having anything to do with that night. Still, doubt sucked at his soul.
Now was not the time to contemplate that case again, like Kalen had already done so many times. “Lord, Jayko also worships and reveres Saren.”
“The God of Suffering. Of course he has a place in the Olean Pantheon, but what makes Jayko’s faith different?”
“People understand that the God of Suffering plays a role in their lives. We don’t worship Saren in the sense that we pray for his wrath upon others. We simply ask that he allow us the strength to endure suffering, and to know that it is a normal part of life that all people go through. Jayko, however, thinks he’s pleasing Saren by torturing others. He believes that the pain and torment he causes makes him special to Saren. And he claimed that he has a ‘family’ that are of like mind.”
“A cult, then?”
“If what he’s saying is truth, then yes. I know that he must have at least some followers. If there’s a cult, he’s certainly the leader of it.”
“Is that everything you know, Kalen?”
“Yes, milord. I’ve told you everything.”
Duke Dargon suddenly looked away from Kalen. He was contemplating something, but his anger was readily apparent. Without looking back, he said, “So now there’s a band of these whoresons hiding in the shadows of Dargon, kidnapping good people, torturing them, raping them, *eating them*!”
Kalen’s throat suddenly closed. He felt as though he was to blame for this. Why hadn’t the Guard caught onto this sooner? Why hadn’t their precautions been enough to keep Jayko locked away?
Clifton sighed then said, “You know, Kalen, sometimes I’d like to pull the few horrid people infesting Dargon out and drop them in a hole. It would make our town so much better. We wouldn’t have those bad parts of New Town. No more Liriss, no more damn Jayko or anyone else.”
Kalen nodded and said, “I know, milord.” But he didn’t know. He hadn’t gone that far in his thinking. He hadn’t been driven that far yet. When Kalen dealt with these kinds of things, he set his entire focus on fixing them. When Lord Dargon was made aware of them, he expected those entrusted with the city’s safety to handle it. He wasn’t at the front lines, taking care of things. It was probably worse for him, sitting behind a desk and hearing about it all, just waiting to learn that it had been dealt with.
Duke Dargon looked back to Kalen, fire in his eyes. “You do better, Kalen. You find Jayko, and anyone involved in his thrice damned cult, anyone who is torturing my people, and you farking kill them. When Jayko got out, you failed me, and you failed this city. Above all else, Kalen, do not fail me again. Is that clear?”
Nodding was all Kalen could manage for a moment. His whole body had gone cold, shocked by his lord’s vehemence and ashamed by his shortcomings thus far. Jayko would not be the one to take him down. Jayko would die, and Kalen would be damned before his city fell prey to that lunatic.
The walk home and the ferry ride across the Coldwell left Kalen dripping with sweat, the heat of the day pasting his shirt to his skin. His journey also gave Kalen too much time to think. He began to doubt his work, to lose faith in the effectiveness of the Guard, to agonize over the idea of losing his position because Lord Dargon saw him as being incompetent.
He was able to stem his self-pity though, devoting his effort instead to scanning every inch of the streets he passed. If something presented itself, he’d find it. His eyes would be open wide until Jayko was a dead man.
Once Kalen returned home, he allowed himself to deflate, feeling as though he was taking his first breath after being trapped beneath an ocean for bells. He entered his house and wanted nothing more than just to lie on the floor and fall asleep.
“Kalen, is that you?” It was Ilona, her voice coming from their room. His eyebrows rose, conveying his confusion; she was supposed to be on duty today.
“What are you doing home, hun?” Kalen asked as he lazily walked to their room. He came in to find her sitting on their bed, an open book to the side of her.
Her sweet eyes seemed so happy, and Kalen just had to kiss her. He crossed the room and planted a soft one on her, taking those thoughts plaguing him and stowing them for the time being. She moved her book and patted the bed, beckoning him to lie down.
“You’re going to be responsible for putting me to sleep. I have to go back to work in a mene,” Kalen protested. Despite his weak defiance, he still lay down with his wife, placing his head on her shoulder.
“I know. I’ll make sure you leave. I had Cepero cover me today.”
Kalen craned his neck to look up at her. “Are you not feeling well?”
Ilona smiled ear to ear and Kalen was certain that there was some other reason entirely for her staying home. “Kalen, I feel fantastic. I saw a midwife today. I’m pregnant.”
A sudden surge of vitality popped Kalen up onto his knees. “You are?” he hollered. He leaned down and hugged her with measured force, blanketing her in his love. She giggled with joy.
“We’re going to be parents! I’m so happy!” he exclaimed enthusiastically.
“Me too, Kalen. We’ll bring a happy soul into our little world.”
Kalen was drunk with joy, but Ilona’s words suddenly sobered him ever so slightly, removing from him the smallest iota of his elation. They’d be bringing a baby into their world, a place where innocent people were snatched away by murderers and cannibals. Not unless Kalen could do something about it.
The urge to destroy this cult and every ounce of evil in Dargon suddenly overflowed from Kalen. Anger threatened to drown his happiness as he thought of how Jayko had already tarnished this most precious moment. If not for that bastard, he’d be gleaming with happiness and nothing else.
He knew that he’d be unable to focus on anything else until he’d purged his town of the vileness that crept through its shadows. He’d make sure Dargon was a better place for his child.
Three days had passed since Jayko had watched Aerimon dismantle Aban. Aerimon had done well, utilizing tools and techniques he’d never attempted before as he flayed skin and muscle and drove spikes through bone until Aban begged for his own death. Saren had been quite pleased, he knew.
For the second time today, Jayko had caught his reflection in a pool of water. He could scarcely make out color but certainly noticed his bright, blonde hair, recently dyed to help keep him from the clutches of the Town Guard. He spat at the water in disgust, but knew the disguise was a necessity.
A guard stood on a corner that Jayko would soon pass by, eyeing the populace suspiciously. It was amusing to him that he had caused such an uproar in Dargon. Not only had he forced the Town Guard to work ceaselessly, but soldiers had been sent by the duke as well. They meant to lockdown Dargon tightly until he and his family were found. Dargon wanted to end their worship of Saren, but they wouldn’t allow such a thing. There was still more to be done.
The case he held would surely prove quite interesting if the guard were to search it, but Jayko felt certain that he’d make it to his destination unmolested. They were looking for a man, not an item.
The guard suddenly locked eyes with Jayko, his face becoming a mess of hard lines. Had the guard figured out who he was despite his new appearance? A cold pang of excitement ran through him and he considered running. He’d probably be able to outrun the guard, but then his new hair color would become fact. He’d also be unable to continue with his job this day. He took a knee and messed with the laces of his boots as if he needed to tie them.
Jayko was very aware of the dagger pressed against his ankle from inside his boot, so very close to his hand and such a sharp weapon. It was meant for death, not torture. Its blade had been enchanted in a way far different than Cerebral Syndicate had been. Cerebral Syndicate had been used against Kalen’s men then taken by the Captain. It had killed one of his men then restructured his mind, flooding it with life and setting it upon a path of torture.
Jayko berated himself for the loss of the blade for a brief moment, only to reaffirm his intent for doing so. By allowing the blade to leave his hand and enter into the grasp of those who were good, righteous men, he’d planted a seed within them. The power of Cerebral Syndicate was great, and its ability would draw people to it, even if only to sell it for a handsome profit. It would cause strife and upheaval amongst the ranks of the guard, and someone would use it for its wicked purpose, of that he was sure. Besides, Jayko didn’t plan to inhabit this world for much longer. His legacy would continue after him though, and Saren would be grateful for it.
Now, Jayko had a dagger he called Blood Keen. As the dagger cut into flesh, it feasted on the blood within, sharpening it to a razor edge. Since the dagger’s creation, it had never once grown dull.
The opportunity was present, as was his ability, but the rationale was not. Killing only made sense when someone wanted death to release them from the agony of the world. And Jayko would get that satisfaction this very day, if he was patient.
Jayko finished retying his laces then stood to find that the guard was no longer eyeing him and hustled on his way. The tavern he was headed to wasn’t too far away. He found the Shattered Spear in a few menes, its business thriving in the daytime. Several guards and soldiers walked along the street outside the tavern, observing the people. Jayko bypassed them with a disarming smile and entered the Shattered Spear.
The raucous noises of inebriated people even during the middle of the day shook the floorboards and caused Jayko to want to stab someone in the neck. He knew that the sound would double if not triple once night fell. Impatience began causing him to shake as he scanned the room. Shortly, he found the man he sought, and calmness flooded him, ensuring him that he would have his reward soon enough if he only waited and played his part well.
A burly looking fellow with a sleeveless shirt and a bald head sat at a small table, his wide arms resting on the tabletop. Jayko hailed the man then walked over to him. “Good day, Leesan,” Jayko said as they shook hands.
They ordered their food and ale, ate and drank, and in time Jayko earned Leesan’s trust. Jayko paid for their meal and Leesan agreed to take him to see his ship, the Island, under the false pretense that he considered paying for an expensively long trip.
While they walked the streets of Dargon to the docks, Leesan said, “All these guards for one team of madmen. You put them in a room with my mates and we’d smash ‘em all up. They’re all good with a blade; I taught them myself. And I beat to a pulp those that don’t got enough discipline. Hard men ride the waves aboard the Island. It might be the only piece of solid ground they need, but it ain’t all fun the whole time. I run an efficient ship above all else.”
Jayko let Leesan prattle on, let him speak the very reasons why he was going to die this day. They made it to the docks after a few menes of mostly Leesan talking. Aboard, only two men could be seen, lounging on the deck of the Island in the shade of the main mast.
Leesan hollered, “This deck better be cleaner than any woman you’ve ever screwed in your dreams! Don’t let me find out otherwise.”
One of them called back, “Ship is tidy, Leesan. The others went ashore to enjoy themselves. We kept an eye over the Island.”
Leesan took a moment to look around then said, “Good mates. Ship looks good. Enjoy your time, men.”
They all nodded and smiled to their captain. They locked eyes with Jayko for a moment, sending their meaning through their gazes.
Jayko said, “The Island looks impressive, Leesan. Perhaps you can show me where I would be bunking.”
“Follow me, then.”
Leesan led Jayko below deck, the latter’s heart beginning to pound harder with anticipation. Jayko ducked a low opening and was in the belly of the ship, a good-sized, barren area before him. At its back, was a door chained shut by a lock. A pile of hammocks lay in the corner. “You’d just be using a hammock like the others. Not the fanciest sleeping but it works on the sea. What has you going to Quinnat?”
“I’m done listening to you, Leesan. Shut your mouth.”
Slowly, Leesan turned around and peered at Jayko. He was certainly surprised but more angry than anything. Jayko felt his anger, felt the pain that he knew would soon suffuse the air. “What did you say? You must be out of your damn mind, you whoreson. I’m going to make sure this hurts. And just in time.”
Jayko cast a glance over his shoulder to see the two men who were up top descending the steps. He knew them already, of course. Treras and Clenstine were their names. Jayko turned his back on them, sure that they were his men, and not Leesan’s.
Leesan confidently waved his men over, taunting, “No need to get him from behind, mates. Let’s teach him manners, huh?”
Treras and Clenstine stopped next to Jayko, and the former said, “Like you taught us, Leesan? You never should have beat us the way you did. You don’t know how vengeful that can make a man.”
Leesan suddenly turned white and he was unable to hide the despair that claimed his face. “Treras, what is this? Clenstine, you can’t turn on me too.”
Jayko decided to divulge his identity. He said, “Leesan, they found a new family. One that understands their wants. You see, I am Jayko, and I found them at the right time.”
Hopelessness visibly struck through Leesan, his bravado fleeing from his eyes and the set of his shoulders.
Jayko enjoyed that look. “You don’t have anything to say that will get you out of this, Leesan.” He began moving towards the big man, gliding across the wooden floor slowly. Leesan backed away looking from Jayko then to his men. He pulled a blade from his belt then lunged forward, stabbing at Jayko’s stomach.
Jayko leapt backwards, crouched down, and pulled Blood Keen from the sheath within his boot. He lunged forward and slashed upwards, slicing into Leesan’s wrist. Leesan hissed and Jayko backed away, saying, “Perfect.”
Blood gushed from the wound on Leesan’s wrist, splashing onto the floor. Jayko then pulled from the well of magic within himself and called to the crimson life flowing from Leesan. More blood leapt from his severed veins and came crawling across the floorboards towards Jayko. Leesan was immediately wobbling on his feet as if the Island were crashing over choppy waves. Soon after, he collapsed, already pale, but still mildly coherent. Jayko bent down and sheathed his blade, ending his spell while doing so to keep him from a quick death.
“I’m going to watch while both of you get your revenge on Leesan. Then, you are a hand of Saren. Do your best work, gentlemen. You deserve this.” Jayko grabbed his case, opened it, then set it on the floor. He pressed the hidden buttons that popped the inside of the case free then slid the boards out, revealing a plethora of torture devices.
Treras and Clenstine shot each other a determined look then moved to the case to select their tools. Footsteps sounded behind Jayko and he turned to see two sailors hustling down the steps. They were new faces to him, and likely loyal to Leesan. Both of them had knives in their hands and certainly had a mind to use them.
Saren’s influence resonated within Jayko, urging him to cast a dark spell. He waved his hands in certain patterns, commanding the blood saturating the floor to heed his call.
Both sailors came to rest their eyes on the carnage within and they pulled back their arms in the same instant. They tossed their knives at the same time that Jayko took hold of the blood. It leapt from the floor then flowed through the air and intercepted the knives, knocking one completely off line. The other continued through the veil of blood, obviously slowed and slightly off course now.
Jayko hesitated in his casting as the knife spearing through the blood sliced into his torso, sliding along the ribs on his right side then clattering to the floor behind him. He accepted the pain, allowed it to be a part of him without controlling him, and he continued his spell. He pulled more blood from the floor, from himself even, and guided it towards the sailors.
Blood whipped through the air, bearing down on one of them. The sailor staggered backward as blood rushed into his mouth, nose, and eyes. Leesan’s blood choked the sailor, sitting in his throat and blocking the air from finding its way into his lungs. The other sailor was stunned for a moment before he began to reach for a longer, thicker knife tucked into a belt circling his waist.
Jayko closed his open hand in a violent motion and the remaining crimson snaking through the air sped into the lungs of the sailor. The man fell to the floor, convulsing and trying to vomit as he drowned in Leesan’s blood.
The other sailor hesitated a moment when his fellow crashed to the floor. Jayko threw Blood Keen at him as he pulled his blade from his belt. He looked up just in time to see the dagger cutting through the air for him. The dagger bit deep into the other sailor’s chest, slicing neatly through flesh and bone. Jayko redirected the focus of his spell and the sailor fell to a knee, losing strength terribly fast, then ended up on his side. Blood flowed from him, sucked away from his extremities at great speed. It slid through the air then pooled around Jayko’s hand, an orb of crimson liquid surging in spirals, defying physics.
Jayko released his spell and the twisting sphere lost its shape and splashed to the floor. He stumbled to Blood Keen and then pulled the dagger from the dead man, wincing as each step caused a surge of pain in his side. A dozen stitches and he’d be alright. It was nothing more than pain and Jayko had come to accept it as part of life. He relished in the fact that Saren would be glad he was hurt.
Jayko sheathed the dagger as it drank the last of the blood sitting on its surface, the crimson disappearing into the steel and sharpening it.
“Is Leesan still alive?” he croaked, his voice ragged, surprising even him. Perhaps his use of magic had drained him more than he anticipated. The spell he used would leave him tired for quite some time, but the toll it would take on his body would be worse.
Each time Jayko used his magic, pollution infected his body. He knew that he wouldn’t live a long life and he had accepted that. These things came with a price, but when he died, Saren would welcome him into the afterlife for the things he had done and the ways he had done them. He wondered what kind of pain the pollution would inflict on him this time: black ichor that he would vomit, swaths of skin decaying to leave open sores in their wake, the loss of all his fingernails and teeth.
“Barely,” Clenstine said.
Saren would certainly already be satisfied with the suffering that had been caused today, but to provide him with endless pleasure was Jayko’s purpose. “Then make each cut count.”
Aerimon and Helena walked home together, hand in hand. Instructing had been especially difficult today as he had tried teaching how to effectively fight a mage. Given Jayko’s ability, Aerimon thought it a good idea.
Although Aerimon tried his best to train the men and women of the guard and the military properly, he wasn’t sure if his tactics were sound. He had even consulted with Arvyn and Tanbry, the Town Guard wizards, on how to effectively combat magic with blades. They had told him that magic would have the advantage from a distance but using too much or something too powerful would tax the user so much they’d most certainly end up out of the fight.
Crossbow training had been the focus of the day, but still Aerimon tried to give some guidance with close-ranged weapons, finding hidden targets and disposing of them quickly. It had been a frustrating day.
Thankfully, Helena had surprised him afterwards, changing his mood almost immediately.
Aerimon had finished explaining his frustration and Helena said, “I’m sorry, love. How about we stop at a tavern and eat before going home?”
Unwinding with some good food and a light-hearted atmosphere to eat it in was just what Aerimon needed. “Sounds perfect, Helena.”
The two shared a smile then walked in silence for a moment, simply enjoying each other’s company. Aerimon looked around the streets, his eyes passing by the guards and soldiers keeping Dargon under close watch. They all sought Jayko’s head, but Aerimon knew that they wouldn’t do enough to him if they did find him. They wouldn’t hurt him in the way he deserved.
As if she had read his thoughts, Helena said, “Jayko put this town in quite a stir. I’m glad you found that man who helped him. Aban, right?” Aerimon nodded his head, recalling the man who had pleaded for death. Aban’s terror-stricken eyes, blood-shot from screaming and rattling around in his head, came to life in Aerimon’s mind. “He got exactly what he deserved.”
“If only I had the same opportunity with Jayko.”
“You just might. You hear things in the Town Guard, Aerimon. You know Kalen well enough for him to tell you things. Jayko needs to suffer for what he’s done.”
“Well if he’s caught, the bonecrusher might see to that.”
“I don’t think they’d give him what he deserved. But maybe they will.”
The bonecrusher would certainly do terrible things to Jayko. Aerimon, though, had done well with Aban. He could do better. He could hurt Jayko much more and much longer than the bonecrusher could.
“I need this delivered to Kalen Darklen. Hand it off to anyone at the Old Guard House and they’ll make sure he gets it.”
Tamora nodded her head, accepting the parcel that Jayko handed her.
He continued, “Repackage it if any of the blood starts to leak through. I wrapped it well though, and not even a smell should come through. Just keep an eye on it.”
“You have nothing to worry about, Jayko. This will be done right.” Tamora squared her shoulders, drawing herself up to her full height, as she spoke.
It was time to force Kalen to retire for a while. Killing him would be difficult, and would piss off the Town Guard and Lord Dargon to such a degree that they’d rip this city apart. It wasn’t time for that yet. Kalen needed to be removed from the situation, and accomplishing such a thing required tact and patience. Information about Kalen and Ilona had been gathered by Jayko’s family and now he was going to put that knowledge to good use.
“You can go now, Tamora. Thank you.”
The woman nodded slowly then turned and left. Jayko sat in his small room, three shelves of books against the wall to the left, an oak desk stained burgundy before him, and a multitude of artifacts on the wall to his right.
He looked to the mask hanging there upon the wall, Saren’s Guise. It was fabled to provide communion between the god and the wearer. While it never had done so directly, however, Jayko believed that those moments of solitude in the mask, devoting himself to absolutely nothing other than discovering the will of Saren, had given him the clarity to discern his meaning.
He slid his eyes along a path that brought his gaze upon axes, knives, spikes, large swaths of parchment with obscene art displayed on them, and so much more. His stare lingered on the desk before him, and he began to ponder.
Aerimon was perfectly cooperative. Had circumstances been different, he believed that he could have coerced the man into joining his family. Along Aerimon’s path to apprehending Jayko, there would be much blood and even more suffering. Saren would be saturated with it and pleased beyond his content.
Kalen would be difficult. He wouldn’t ever fall into the scheme smoothly. Jayko would need to keep himself one step ahead of that man while Aerimon would fall into his hand so very easily each and every time. Proper planning would keep Kalen too distracted and rattled for Jayko to have to worry about being caught.
When it came to Kalen, he needed to make sure not to push too hard. With Aerimon though, there was no such thing as pushing too hard.
Satisfied in his plan and success, Jayko stood from his chair. He glided around the desk he sat at and walked for the door. A gnarled wooden staff suspended by brackets along the wall to his right caught his attention before he left.
Often, Jayko had found his thoughts commandeered by the memories of the man who had possessed that staff. That old man had taught him how to find a new high in life by inflicting pain on others. He explained how Saren was the breeder of that lifestyle and the god that made all pain possible.
That man had taught Jayko how to inflict pain in so many different and terrible ways. That man had also inflicted terrible pain on Jayko himself.
Jayko recalled waking up one morning away from his home, in a strange place with no recollection of how he had wound up there. He then felt the pain of so many torturous things, both magical and physical. He begged for life, pleading that he would do anything to live. That was when Jayko’s teacher had released him, and forced him to exact the same tortures on another man to buy his life back. He remembered how his own pain had suddenly vanished as he drove spikes and blades into flesh and bone. He was only fourteen then.
The memory was bittersweet, providing him with a feeling of good for knowing that his teacher would be proud of his achievements thus far, but also one of disdain for the hard life he had been drafted into while leaving his family behind to memory. Jayko was in the middle of a roaring river that would not release him from its grip. He’d been stuck on its current for such a time as to no longer be able to see the forgiving shore, nor did he long to find it. He had ago accepted his new role in life years ago, and would be damned before he would stray from it, regardless of the difficulties it brought upon him.
Still, a fondness swelled in him as he thought of his master. He walked to the staff and put his forehead against it, feeling some of the latent magic still left in it. “Saren will be fed the suffering souls of Makdiar. He will wolf down the pain of every life. And that agony shall be great.”
Jayko violently slid his head along the staff and a rough corner of it sliced his forehead open. The shallow cut began to bleed and Jayko felt thin lines of blood roll down his temples and nose. He turned and walked from his room to come to a landing atop a flight of stairs. Below were the sounds of invigorated voices.
In Jayko’s travels across Baranur, he had come into contact with several people that he was able to sway to his method of thinking. Those that learned of what he did and were not receptive, he killed. He and his family had only been in Dargon for a short time. With such a rich history and large population, it was a good place to corrupt.
His family grew very slowly, of that he made sure. Someone had to be perfect to join. Otherwise, he’d risk letting the weak into his fold and eventually be discovered.
Nearly a dozen pairs of eyes turned to look up at Jayko and his bleeding face, the voices falling silent. They smiled at him, marveled at what he represented to them. The stinging pain left his forehead and Jayko said, “Dargon will know the pain we have all suffered. We will live in the highest state as we spill its blood.”
Kalen woke earlier than normal, the sun’s rays not yet gracing Dargon this morning. He attempted to fall back into sleep, but it eluded him, much like it had done since his meeting with the duke. He consigned himself to another day with poor rest and swung himself out of his bed, doing his best not to disturb Ilona as she slept, carrying their baby within her womb.
Despite the fatigue that came with so little sleep, Kalen felt energized. He was able to stifle his exhaustion each time he thought of Jayko and his need to stop that murderer.
Kalen dressed quickly, planted a light kiss on Ilona’s forehead, then left his home. He walked with purpose as he made his way to the Old Guard House, casting greetings to the few townsfolk who were awake at this time. Kalen found himself inside the Old Guard House then immediately felt his stomach protest. He hadn’t eaten this morning, the need for food forgotten in his need to apprehend Jayko. He decided that he would see if anything notable had happened since he had gone home last night then make his way to a nearby bakery.
The guard stationed behind the desk was asleep. Kalen stopped in his tracks, his eyes stuck to the sleeping man. He whispered, “Ol’s balls. Incompetent.”
Kalen suddenly smacked his hand down on the sturdy desk and the man jolted awake, crying out in surprise. “Good morning! I’m sorry if I woke you but I just thought you’d like to *do your farking job today!*”
The guard blanched beneath Kalen’s booming voice but nodded fervently and stammered, “I’m so terribly sorry, sir.”
“Do it again and I’ll have Aerimon make you everyone’s practice dummy for a day.”
Kalen turned and walked away, removing that man from his thoughts and turning them to Jayko. He needed reports on last night’s activity.
The guard’s voice came at his back, “Captain Darklen, sir, there is a parcel here for you.”
Had there not been a legitimate reason for Kalen to hear that man’s voice, he would have backhanded him. “Bring it to me.”
Kalen waited in place, his arm stretched out as the man ran over. The parcel came down on Kalen’s palm and he gripped it. It was slightly bigger than his hand but still with considerable weight. He took it and left, not looking at the guard again.
The package was a neat cube of brown parchment with strings tied around it. Kalen scrutinized it as he walked to his office but resisted the urge to open in until he sat down at his desk.
Kalen undid the knot quickly and unwrapped the parcel to find a wooden box, a simple clasp keeping it closed. He began to think of who would be sending him any kind of package and couldn’t place a single person. He suddenly felt the need to proceed with caution, a terrible worm of trepidation gnawing its way into his guts.
Kalen opened the box slowly, and within, sat more folds of thick parchment and a small note. An odd, tangy odor came from the package, but it was quite faint. Kalen lifted the note from the box and the pit eating into his stomach suddenly sent a shockwave of the same stuff through his body, turning his fingers cold. One edge of the note was soaked in blood.
Slowly, avoiding the blood on the note, Kalen opened it. Neat words had been scribed onto the piece of paper. “You would have been a good father, but I’m still hungry.” The shockwave of cold turned into a phantom of terror and hellish things that possessed his entire body, setting his skin to crawling. He whispered, “Ilona,” then bolted from his seat. His knees crashed into the desk and knocked the entire thing over, spilling the rest of the contents of the box onto the floor.
A half-eaten human heart rolled across Kalen’s floor and he gawked at it for a brief moment. He then burst into motion, leaping over the toppled desk and sprinting from his office. He screamed for help as he ran, intent on running faster than ever he had done before to make it home.
Ilona recalled her husband kissing her lightly. She even remembered him leaving, the sound of their closing door coming to her as she fell back to sleep. She reassured herself that he would have woken her had she needed to get up as well.
But then, he did awaken her. He was behind her in their bed, his arm draped over her and his hand on her stomach, cradling their unborn child. He would not have come back just to lie with her. Not after he had already left for the Old Guard House.
The hand on her stomach suddenly felt too small and delicate to be Kalen’s strong, calloused hand. The breath hitting her neck smelled too rancid to be his, even after waking. The feeling of the body pressing against hers was simply wrong. She wrenched herself around, hoping to find her husband, hoping that her fears were irrational.
Dark, menacing eyes looked upon her, seeming so very smug and satisfied to not be her husband’s. Short, smooth, blond hair fell across the man’s forehead, a red line crossing it. Ilona began to scream and fight when the man’s fist suddenly cracked against her jaw, stalling her resistance. Next, a hand closed on her throat and she could not make a noise.
Ilona struggled violently against the man, tearing flesh from his arm with her nails, slamming the heel of her palm into his face twice. He rolled atop her and her strikes lost their strength. Blood flowed from his arm and his lower lip had split open but he did not relinquish her. In fact, through the blur of the attack, she saw him smiling despite the wounds.
“I have never tried the flesh of a pregnant woman. Perhaps it is different. Perhaps even, I can have more than just you, but also what is inside you.”
Renewed strength surged through Ilona. She thrashed against the control of the hand and raged. The man atop her lurched forward as she bucked and his head hit the wall above the bed. Still though, he kept his perch. She believed with every fiber of her being that her resistance would prevail and that she would kill this man. His hand, however, never slipped from her neck. His wounds and the pounding he took never deterred him. He brought his other hand towards her face and Ilona saw shadows, living and swirling in his palm.
Through her restricted throat, Ilona managed a ragged scream. Then the shadows engulfed her, and her consciousness guttered out.
Kalen came upon his home and seeing it caused the burning pain in his legs to flee. The three men behind him tried and failed to match his speed but stayed near nonetheless. Kalen barely slowed as he came to his door and slammed his foot into it. The door swung open, the lock holding it shut bursting through the frame.
“Ilona!” Kalen screamed as he sprinted for their room.
Blood painted the floor of the hallway to his bedroom and he knew that he would lose his mind if he found his wife dead to that bastard Jayko. The blood caused him to slip and crash down on the floor hard. He rolled to all fours and tried using the walls to help himself stand but they too were coated in blood. He struggled but eventually rose, seeing more crimson slicking the floor at the door of his room.
There was so much blood that Kalen couldn’t fathom the horror that had to have been committed to spill so much. “Ilona!” he roared again.
He burst into his room and came upon a world of crimson and glistening wetness. Toppled jugs were here and there, not belonging to Kalen. A figure covered in blood stood on the other side of the room, arms held in an awkward position. Kalen recognized eyes, crazed and scared, within the mess of blood that coated the person but struggled to understand much else.
He was still deciding whether he needed to run a blade through whoever was walking towards him or help them when a muffled scream came from their mouth. Kalen immediately knew it was Ilona, soaked in blood, gagged, and with hands bound, stumbling towards him. He lunged for her and grabbed her in hands shaking beyond control.
His tremors were multiplied by her own and he began frantically tearing away the gag and bonds. Ilona screamed and sobbed once she could and said Kalen’s name over and over again. Kalen grabbed her face and used his thumbs to futilely wipe the blood from her cheeks.
Kalen pleaded, “Are you alright? What did he do?”
Ilona barely managed through her shakes, “There were shadows, Kalen! They went inside my mind! He touched me, covered me in all this! There’s so much! How can there be this much? I don’t know whose blood this is, Kalen! I need it off of me!” She screamed then tore herself away from his grip to begin beating at herself. She grabbed their blanket, turned it around to find the underside dry and began frantically wiping herself with it. Kalen leapt forward and began to help, sobbing just as she did.
The other guards came upon them and openly cursed at the horrible scene.
Kalen looked into his wife’s eyes as she cleaned herself and he saw a permanent stain there. She looked as though she had left her body and had yet to return fully. Suddenly, she blurted, “Aerimon! He said he was going to Aerimon next, Kalen!”
Aerimon pulled a shirt over his head then began fussing with the strings at its neck. Helena came behind him and grabbed his hands, stopping his progress. “Don’t you try to keep me home now. I just might give in.”
Helena giggled then kissed his neck. She slid around him and began tying his shirt for him. “I know you would. That’s why I won’t ask you to.”
Aerimon bent down and kissed her. “I love you.”
She smiled back, such admiration and sincerity in her eyes. “I love you too, Aerimon.” This was happiness. Aerimon was doing what he loved with his career and he was lucky enough to spend his days with a wonderful woman.
“Now come and eat before you end up being late. Kalen has a lot to deal with this day and all the others until Jayko and his family are caught. He’ll be busy and he’ll need your help.”
A chord of dissonance struck within Aerimon. It was as if someone had been playing a lovely song on a violin then suddenly hit a wrong note. “What did you say?” he asked.
Helena had been walking from the room when he spoke. She stopped within the doorway, spun around, and asked, “What do you mean?”
Aerimon wasn’t even sure of what he had meant when he first asked. Now he understood what had seemed so odd. “You said ‘his family’. Why would you call it that? It’s a cult.”
Her surprised visage changed to one of brooding. What was she thinking? Why did Aerimon suddenly feel uneasy? It was like he was in the presence of the gang that had tried to extort him before he killed them.
“Aerimon,” she began after a long moment, “that’s what you called them. Remember, when you told me about Aban. You said that he called them his ‘family’ or whatever. You look so worked up. What is it?” She moved to him and placed a hand on his stomach.
Was it? He thought back to that night and tried to remember if Aban had ever said that word. All he could remember was the blood, the screams, the torture. Maybe he had.
Aerimon shook his head then looked into Helena’s eyes. There was nothing in her eyes to make him uneasy. “Sorry. I’m just paranoid I guess. I’m just worried that something will happen soon. He’s been out long enough to try something.”
“It’s okay.” She raised herself up onto her toes and kissed his cheek. “Now come on before you’re late.” She led him out of the room and into the kitchen.
A plate of bread and dried meat was set up on the table for him. A cup of something steaming was next to the plate. Aerimon sat before it then said, “Thank you, Helena.”
“Oh, that isn’t even all of it, Aerimon. There’s more I have for you. Smell the tea and tell me what you think.”
Aerimon looked up to her and found that she had her back turned to him, her hands working at something. He imagined that it was some other food and grabbed the cup before him. He put his nose to it and sniffed the concoction. He suddenly felt as though his nose must be in disrepair. There was no odor. He frowned and looked down into the cup to find clear water.
“Helena, there is –” He was cut off as he looked up to behold a very different person before him.
A terrible woman stared at him with eyes too far apart and too low, a nose split in two right down the middle and pulled back against her cheeks, a gaping mouth twisted in pain, and all of it stark white. This wasn’t Helena. Something had taken her place. As he tried to lunge away from her, hands closed on his shoulders and stopped him. Next, a gloved hand full of writhing shadows fell upon Aerimon.
Before they completely enshrouded his face and vision, Aerimon looked over his shoulder to see the bearer of those shadows. It was Jayko. Realization dawned. The suspicions he’d had earlier became a reality even worse than he had imagined.
This woman that he had come to love had been planted in his life. She had never loved him. She was a part of that godsdamned cult. She was Jayko’s. She’d be responsible for the worst of his suffering since Gerald’s death. Every fiber of his being begged him to get up and rip them both to pieces but the shadows fell over him.
He felt the thick tendrils of darkness engulf him, blurring his mind. Before he fell into unconsciousness he thought of how he wanted nothing more than to plant Helena deep beneath the soil. Before he killed her though, he’d make that whore suffer worse than she ever thought possible.