Awareness returned slowly. Although his eyes had yet to open, Aerimon began moving his arms and legs until he was tossing and turning. Soreness claimed his muscles and bones as if it were a natural part of him. Dim light flooded into his eyes once he managed to open them. His world consisted of blurred shapes and the muffled noises of him moving.
Severe tightness gripped his throat when he tried to clear it and Aerimon found himself coughing. His lurching body caused fresh stabs of pain to rip into his body and head. The pain caused his senses to reawaken with fiery intensity.
The taste of stale breath and the sensation of vertigo accosted him all at once. He heaved but nothing was expelled from his empty stomach. Once the fit passed, Aerimon fell back against the wall behind him and attempted to steady himself. Less than a mene passed before someone approached the cot he sat in.
“Aerimon, you’ve awakened. You are a warrior.”
Reluctantly, Aerimon opened his eyes to see a man kneeling before his bed. Looking around caused him to feel dizzy once again and he shut his eyes tight and groaned.
“You must be feeling nauseated. Here, you’ll be out again soon so I need you to drink some water and eat a little bread. You won’t keep any of it down, I’m sure, but you’ll at least absorb some of the nutrients from it. Here.”
The robed man placed a cup in Aerimon’s hand and helped him close his fingers around it. Aerimon slowly and painfully shimmied his way up the wall until he was sitting upright then brought the cup to his lips with a shaking hand, not opening his eyes and spilling some of the liquid down his chin. He slurped from the cup with control and managed not to cough when the water wetted his parched throat. After he drained the cup, it was taken from him and replaced by a thin biscuit.
Aerimon managed to eat half of it before his throat became too dry to continue swallowing. He attempted to ask for the cup of water but his voice came out in a croak. Even to him it was barely understandable, but the priest seemed to hear him right and handed him another cup. Aerimon drained that one then allowed himself to relax, only now realizing how terribly tired he really was.
Aerimon felt the priest’s hands take the cup and biscuit from him. He slid down the wall and lay down upon the cot, feeling and hearing his stomach protesting what he had just ingested. He didn’t think he’d be able to keep the food and water down for very long.
Worries drifted away with consciousness as sleep overcame Aerimon.
Today found Aerimon awake and even slightly productive. After eating a few biscuits, a priest took him from his bed to escort him to a bath. Three days had passed since he had been poisoned and he was finally able to keep down must of what he ate. This was not one of those occasions.
During the short trip, Aerimon puked on the stairs. The priest taking him to the bath took a moment to clean the mess with a rag then continued on.
After finishing the tough ascent to the top of the stairs, the priest took Aerimon into a small room with several baths in it. The baths were empty of people but from one of them came wavering streamers of steam. Aerimon wanted to dive into the bath but his body would have painfully protested such quick movements.
The priest began talking as Aerimon was undressing, “I heated the water right before I got you, just several menes ago. It’s probably still a little too hot so you might want to … or not.” As the priest spoke, Aerimon stepped into the bath, hissing as the hot water stung his feet, and then lowered himself completely down beneath the water.
The hot water set Aerimon’s entire body to tingling and he breathed deep of the steam. The pain clinging to his body dispersed for the briefest of moments and he smiled.
Although Aerimon’s eyes were closed, he could hear the smile in the priest’s voice as he said, “Nice to have one after being stuck in that bed for three days, huh?”
“You’ve no idea.”
“Go ahead and soak for a while. There’s a bar of soap on the floor to your right. Use it whenever you’re ready to. I’ll wait outside, just call for me when you’re ready to get out.”
Aerimon only nodded in reply and closed his eyes. The fantastic feeling of relaxation was unlike anything he ever felt. It was as if his muscles were being carefully separated from his body, massaged, then put back.
Sleep was creeping in on Aerimon when the door opened. He didn’t react to the sound of the opening door at all.
“Aerimon,” it was the priest speaking, “the Captain of the Guard is here to see you.”
Groggily, Aerimon opened his eyes and asked, “Kalen?”
“Yes. I told him you were bathing and he said he’d wait ’til you were done.”
“Straight. Please tell him I’ll be down in a moment.”
“Thank you,” Aerimon said to the priest’s back as he reached over the tub to find the bar of soap. It was nearing the end of its usefulness as it was only as big as his thumb at this point. Aerimon quickly used it to wash his body and hair then rinsed himself off.
The priest returned with a damp towel and a change of clean clothes. Aerimon discovered that the clothes were a bit big but did not complain; they were much cleaner than the clothes he had been wearing for the past three days.
During the trip from the bathing room and back to his cot, Aerimon had to lean on the priest. His legs felt wobbly as if his bones had lost their structure from the hot bath. The two rounded a corner and Aerimon saw Kalen standing next to his cot.
A smile crossed both men’s faces and Kalen moved to meet Aerimon. Wordlessly, they embraced each other in a quick hug.
Kalen spoke as Aerimon went to sit on his cot, “How are you feeling?”
“Terrible.” Aerimon smiled at Kalen to let him know it wasn’t too bad. “I’m starting to keep food down. I can’t really get around too well without help.”
“I imagine it must be tough, but you’re alive at least.”
“Believe me, I’m glad of that.”
“I’ve come by several other times but you’ve been asleep each time. I wanted to get to the bottom of this as soon as possible.”
“Have you figured anything out yet?”
“Only what was obvious. I’m hoping you could help me out with where to begin. Let’s start simple. Did you eat or drink anything before you collapsed?”
“I had fixed myself a meal of lamb. That was it. Halfway through it I went out.”
“So nothing else could have done it? It was the lamb?”
“Straight. Who sold it to you?”
“A butcher that works under a big tent. I don’t know his name but he’s right between these two buildings next to Thockmarr Street. He’s a big man. Think you know who I’m talking about?”
“I’ll go figure that out right now. Why do you think he would have poisoned you? You haven’t made enemies already have you?”
“I did actually, but not by choice. I refused to pay some thugs for their ‘protection’ and then I end up poisoned.”
“Straight. That definitely gives me a lot to go on. Priests say when they think you’ll be back home?”
“A sennight maybe. I still feel quite sick. Once I can get around on my own, I’ll be back.”
“I’ll keep stopping in with information on the search. Anything I can do for you right now, Aerimon?”
“Actually, could you take my key and go to my home? I have a stash of coins next to my cot on the loft. Get a few Bits and bring them here to donate to the temple. Three or four. They’ve been great to me.”
“I’ll take care of it, friend. You hurry up and get better alright?”
“Will do, Kalen. Hey, you didn’t get my key yet. You plan on breaking into my home?”
“Don’t worry about it, Aerimon. I’ll take care of it. See you soon.”
Aerimon smiled but felt a little embarrassed. “Thank you, Kalen. I’ll repay you once I’m better.”
“A few free lessons would suffice.” Now it was Kalen’s turn to smile at Aerimon. “Farewell.”
“Goodbye, Kalen. Good luck with the investigation. And thank you; you’re a good friend. Without you and Derik, I’d be pretty alone in this town.”
“Think nothing of it, Aerimon. You’re a good man and I respect that.”
Kalen turned to go and Aerimon saw him fish through his pockets to pull out a coin purse. Then he was lost behind a corner.
Aerimon was lost in thought once Kalen was out of sight. The two men lacked the time and experience to form a strong bond but Kalen was an honest and respectable man.
Sure, Derik was a good man and he and Aerimon had formed a friendship first. But Kalen demanded respect, both with his demeanor and from his title as Captain of the Guard. Aerimon could feel Kalen’s determination to do what was right and admired him for it. Although the two weren’t very close, Aerimon was thankful for Kalen.
Kalen departed from Araminia’s temple and walked the few streets to Traders Avenue. The streets were bustling with people preparing for the Melrin festival that was to take place in just a few days. People with the coin available bartered with seamstresses to get a fancy outfit woven in time for the festivities. Butchers and farmers sold their goods for a pretty profit to those who planned on celebrating by cooking feasts for family and friends. Kids bolted this way and that, the anticipation of the grand event instilling wild, boundless energy in each one.
Priorities took over and Kalen cast the chaotic scene from his mind, focusing solely on his mission.
Traversing through the sea of people, Kalen finally found a large tent under which a butcher stood. Before the burly man was a wooden, bloody table. A dark, leather apron covered his front and a heavy cleaver was in his hand. He brought it down upon a slab of red meat, shearing a chunk free. He looked up to the customer before him with a smile that was immediately wiped from his face when he saw Kalen approaching.
Kalen cut in front of the two men who were still waiting then turned to them and said, “Shop’s closed, gentlemen.”
They recognized the Captain of the Guard and dispersed.
Kalen turned back to the butcher and beheld a man stricken with fear and nervousness. The butcher stood straight and still as a board. Not even his eyes moved in his head. It looked like the butcher thought that if he didn’t move, his fear wouldn’t show through. If that was the case, he was dead wrong.
“Whoa. Don’t look so tense. I just need to ask you a few questions. Now I’d like you to drop that cleaver.”
The man suddenly became animate. He started and looked at his hand as if it wasn’t his and the cleaver held in it had appeared from thin air. Then, he thrust the blade onto the table and pulled his hand away from it as if it was burning hot.
“What’s your name?”
“Full name please.”
“Straight. I see you have beef here and some chicken. And you sell lamb too right?”
Samuel was breathing hard now and had placed his hands on the table to steady himself even though they were soaking in a pool of blood.
“Okay. I’m going to be very blunt here. Aerimon Clyde came to you and bought lamb a few days ago. The lamb was poisoned, Samuel. Why did you do it?”
Beads of sweat began to cascade down Samuel’s forehead. He looked down at the table and squinted hard. Then he looked up with wide eyes and said, “I don’t know about any poison, but it could have been bad meat.”
“So you’re admitting to selling rotten meat? People could wind up dead for that, Samuel. Guess you’re done being a butcher then. And the fine that’s going to come along with this …” Kalen whistled once he had finished speaking.
“No! I mean, I don’t sell rotten meat. But it’s just that … um …” Samuel’s eyes became unfocused. Kalen could tell he was forcing his brain to work quickly. “Disease! Yeah the lamb could have been sick. There isn’t anything I can do about that. No way to know.”
“Couldn’t you tell if an animal is sick before you butcher it?”
“Sometimes, but sometimes you can’t.”
Kalen rolled his eyes then said, “Stop the bullshit, Samuel. Give me some real answers. I know it was poisoned. Now I don’t think you wanted to be a part of all that but if you don’t give me some answers then I’ll be forced to take you to the Old Guard House.”
“Dammit! Okay.” A huge weight seemed to lift off Samuel’s shoulders as he exhaled and the rigidity left his body. “Can I sit down?”
“I think you better before you faint.”
Samuel grabbed a stool and placed it before the table then sat on it.
“Okay, so this man … Aerimon right? Yeah, he came here a few times and I guess someone was watching him. I didn’t know the guy and didn’t get a name. One night, I was walking home and he put a knife to my back and told me not to turn around. Then he told me that if I didn’t put this stuff he gave me in Aerimon’s next order that he’d kill me.” Samuel forcibly whispered the last few words.
“Do you still have the poison?”
“No. I used it then tossed the bottle.”
“Alright. Anything else you can tell me?”
“No, captain. It was just like that. He didn’t talk to me long. I didn’t turn around ’til he was already gone and it was night anyway. I wish I could help more.”
“Straight. Now why didn’t you go to the authorities after? It must have been a day at least between the time when he talked to you and when you poisoned Aerimon.”
Samuel winced when Kalen said that.
“Well, he said he would kill me.”
“And you think that we couldn’t have helped you? That we don’t have ways to prevent this kind of thing? Do you believe that they are more organized than us? We are here to protect the citizens of Dargon but we can’t if you are too afraid to come to us. Criminal activity thrives because they know that a simple threat will keep anyone from seeking help.”
“Yes. I know you’re right. It was so stupid of me; I was just afraid.”
“It was. I apologize, Samuel, but I need you to come with me.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m sorry but what you did cannot go unpunished. What you did was wrong.”
“But all my meat …”
“You’re done butchering after today. You think I can let you sell anymore? Is this the first time you’ve been coerced to poison someone? Or have you done it before?”
Samuel’s slack-jawed face tightened up and a frown replaced it.
“Get up and turn around.”
The butcher did as he was told, although very slowly and with slumped shoulder. Kalen first untied the knot of his apron then flung the strap off his neck to let it fall to the earth. Then, he tied his wrists together with a strap of leather and began guiding him back to the Old Guard House.
Aerimon could hear his name being called through the veil that barely separated him from consciousness and sleep. He woke up completely when a hand began shaking him.
“Captain Darklen, please let him sleep! The more you bother him, the longer his healing will take!”
“Oh, he’s fine. Aren’t you, Aerimon?”
Aerimon could see Kalen standing before him and the priest at his side. Sleep caused his vision to blur and he wiped at his eyes until he could see clearly.
“Well I’m up now.” Aerimon stretched and groaned from the stiff pain it caused him. “Gods, sleeping the entire day is not doing my body any favors.”
The priest said, “Maybe not your muscles but certainly your insides. Do you need anything, Aerimon?”
“Some water would be nice. Thank you, Darius.”
The robed man departed and Kalen took a seat on the cot next to Aerimon’s. Aerimon sat up and placed his back against the wall.
“Any news, Kalen?”
“A little. Your butcher was the one who poisoned the lamb.”
Aerimon clenched his jaw as wrath surged through him. He let Kalen continue.
“Someone from the gang that tried to strong-arm you forced him to do it. He’s locked up now.”
“Why didn’t he go to the authorities after they told him to poison me? Or after he did it and they stopped watching him? He could have gotten me help before I ate the meat. Or something. He could have done something!” Aerimon was feeling thoroughly angered so he growled then said, “Prick!”
Kalen’s eyes went wide and he said, “First time I’ve seen you angry, Aerimon.”
“Yeah, well, I think I have a damn good reason to be. I’m not saying this to belittle you, Kalen, but does the legal system work here? It seems like people don’t have faith in it.”
“It works when people use it. Like with this guy, someone said that they’d kill him if he didn’t obey them and he becomes a sheep. Personally, if a guy said that to me, I’d find a way to stick my sword down his throat.”
Aerimon nodded but he was silent. What Kalen had said took the fault of the Town Guard and attributed it to the timid nature of the people. He didn’t know which was true, however. Was this a city where a man had to look out for himself and the Town Guard could only do so much? Or were Dargon’s citizens either too cowardly or too evil to care about standing up to villains?
“Aerimon, you alright?”
Realizing that he had let his focus waver, Aerimon shook his head and said, “Just still a little tired, that’s all.”
“Don’t worry, Aerimon. I’ll get this figured out. I’m going to try to get something more out of the butcher and go from there. You take your time here.”
Darius returned with the water and Aerimon downed it.
Kalen continued, “Listen to Darius here and you’ll be healthy in a few days. I’ll get this figured out but if you get back home before this case is closed then you might be contacted by them again.”
“What should I do if that happens?”
“Defend yourself if you have to. If they’re content to just talk then do that. If comes to violence though, then try not to kill anyone. But it could be that they send someone that isn’t really affiliated with the gang. Could be a middle man. Don’t take that guy out; it’ll be the same result as I got with the butcher. Just don’t worry right now. Give me some time to get a lead on this case.”
“Straight. I’ll be back home in a few days I think.”
“You better get there quick; I’m starting to miss your classes!”
Three days passed until Aerimon was healthy enough to return home. Kalen had come to him last night and told him that the trail he had on the case had gone cold. The butcher had no more information to give to Kalen.
The Melrin festival kept many of Aerimon’s students from attending class and he was somewhat grateful for that. He took the time to heal, both physically and emotionally. The festival wasn’t too different than how he had experienced it back at Aubrite Keep, just on a smaller scale. Aerimon had enjoyed the festivals when he was home. Now though, he wasn’t saddened at missing out on the fun; there were too many opportunities awaiting him within the crowds and revelry, too many unseen threats.
After returning home and finally feeling healthy, anger … no, hatred, claimed him whenever he took the time to reflect on the events he had survived. He had wanted nothing more than to line up each man who had a hand in his near-death and split the throat of each one.
Now, after he had his few days of relaxation, only interrupted when Kalen had brought him to a party at a friend’s home, Aerimon felt much less wrathful. Even while he was out with Kalen and his wife and friends, Aerimon was hard-pressed to enjoy himself; each drink he was served was suspect and incessantly he was forced to look over his shoulder.
Kalen’s premonition came true as Aerimon answered a knock at his door. Standing before him was a boy with a dirt-smudged face, disheveled hair, and raggedy clothing. The masses of people traversing the streets in bright outfits and smiles upon their faces may as well have been invisible to Aerimon. He immediately wondered if the boy had a home or if he slept in the dirt each night.
“They sent me here. It’s ten Bits to get them to stop right now. Then someone else will come to talk to you more. Here.” The boy put his hand out and waited.
Aerimon stared down at the kid in utter disbelief.
“So I pay you? And they come back wanting more coin? How do I even know that you’ll give the money to them?”
“Right now?” Aerimon looked around the street in search of a suspicious character. There was too much going on to pick anything out. “Who are they?”
“You gonna pay me?”
“No. Tell them that my answer is halfway down my blade and that they can come get it whenever they want. I’ll always be ready for them. You though, you need to find a better job, kid. Where do you live?”
“The streets are my home. I’m a shadow boy.”
“A shadow boy? First I’ve heard of you. If you ever want to make some honest coin, then come back here. I’ll find something for you to do. This path you’re on will lead you to be no better than the criminals you work for.”
The boy was silent for a moment. Thinking, Aerimon surmised.
“Hmm. Alright, mister. So, no coin?”
Aerimon shook his head.
“Okay. See ya soon.”
Sad thoughts fell upon Aerimon’s mind as a cold drizzle might fall on a decrepit city as he watched the boy walk away. These shadow boys must be a gang of a sort. And there were probably many of them if they had been given a title. He shook his head in pity and walked back inside his home.
With a calculating mind, he began to think of all the measures he would need to set in place to keep from being victimized by this gang. He was at war.
A roar filled the night, drowning the pitter patter of the light drizzle that had begun not too long ago. Waking to this noise, Aerimon rolled from his cot and off the second story, catching himself on the edge of the platform for just a moment to slow his descent. From the scent of burning wood and the continuous sound, Aerimon knew that his house was ablaze. He hit the floor with a jarring impact but quickly spun and sprinted for his door. He stopped before leaving, however.
Near the door were several large jugs of water and a dozen thick, cotton rugs. After unlocking his door and flinging it open, Aerimon grabbed several rugs and slung them over his shoulder then grabbed a jug and shambled from his home.
Intense heat accosted him as he stepped through the door. To his immediate left, a fire was raging, fueled by the wall of his home. Aerimon set the jug down, thrust the rugs into the jug, then pulled one out and dashed to the wall. The fire had spread up the wall a few feet above his reach. Aerimon slapped at the fire with the rug before pasting it to the wall and sliding it down to smother the flames.
He repeated this process before someone fled from their home and sprinted to Aerimon’s side. Aerimon saw the man and yelled, “Here. Keep at it and I’ll be back in a moment. I need a ladder.” Aerimon threw the rug he held at the man and bounded back into his home. He grabbed the ladder he used to get up to his cot and hustled back out of his home. The fire had nearly spread to his roof now.
Aerimon placed the ladder against his home then quickly moved up it. Once at the top, he had to leap up and grab the lip of the roof then pull himself up. He turned to see that another person had come to help combat the blaze.
“Throw me a rug, then one of you go back inside and get the rest of them and the water,” Aerimon screamed to be heard over the inferno.
The two men complied and Aerimon looked over to see the fire begin licking at the roof of his home. He took the rug and smothered the flame with it. The rain had begun to increase in volume and Aerimon silently praised the gods.
Between the three men slapping at the walls with the drenched rugs and the rain, the fire was snuffed out completely. Both Aerimon and his home sustained formidable damage though, the former with scorched hands and arms and the latter with deep holes and a blackened facade.
Aerimon came to find that one of the men was of the Town Guard and the other was a neighbor who had been awake and smelled the acrid smoke of Aerimon’s home burning. Aerimon thanked the two men in the pouring rain, gripping their shoulders despite the stinging pain that came with the gesture and looking them hard in the eye.
The guard replied, “Of course. It’s my job. Hey, but that wall is done with. That’ll be a big fix. Sorry for the loss there.”
“Thanks for your concern. This was a gang that did this. They might still be around.”
The guard looked at Aerimon askance before saying, “You know this is the work of a gang?”
“Yeah. I refused to pay their ‘protection’ fee. This is the second time they’ve tried to get to me. They poisoned me the first time.”
“Oh, I heard about that one. Straight, I’ll see if I can get a team together and we’ll scour the streets. If they’re out there, we’ll get them.”
“Thank you. And please make sure captain Darklen is informed about this soon as he gets in tomorrow. I’m certain he’ll want to hear about this.”
Aerimon bid the two men farewell and went back inside his home after absorbing the depressing sight of his decimated home. He stared at the street and night sky through the holes in his wall and for the first time, he felt defeated. His strong will was deflated as he grabbed a chair and slumped into it before the pitted wall. His head hung low, watching as a puddle began to coalesce on his floor.
“Oh goddamn hell! I’ve got to get over there now!” Kalen had only taken three steps inside the Old Guard House before Cepero had stopped him with the events of last night concerning Aerimon.
“Should I go with you?” Ilona asked, standing behind her husband and overhearing the conversation.
“Why don’t both of you come with me. Maybe we can get a new lead and settle this case now.”
In less than half a bell, the trio rounded a corner and down the street they beheld the ruin that was Aerimon’s home. Through the massive hole in the building they could see the instructor speaking with several men. A large pile of scorched wood lay before the house and workers were tending to it as well, picking pieces of it up and loading them into a cart while breaking the larger bits into smaller pieces.
Kalen quickened his pace and Ilona and Cepero were forced to do the same to keep up with him. Aerimon noticed them once they entered his house and left off talking to the men around him. He excused himself then stepped away from them to meet Kalen.
“Gods, man, I cannot believe they had the stones to go so far.”
“Well they already tried to kill me once. I’m not too surprised that they tried what they did.”
Cepero said, “Yeah, but to do something like this. This is a public act of arson. They risked being seen by a lot of people. Either stones or stupidity … or both.”
“Exactly,” Kalen said. “Perhaps someone did see something. We should start asking around now.”
Aerimon nodded then said, “Thanks for your help, everyone.” He looked to Ilona. “Ilona, good to see you again.”
“You as well, Aerimon. And you don’t seem as wound up as you did when we went out. A nice change.”
Aerimon smiled back and said, “Now that they’ve come at me again, I can take today to not worry about it. I was becoming a bit obsessive. I have faith that you’ll get them though. I’m sure they’ve left some kind of evidence.”
Her features softened at that. “We’ll certainly do our best. Oh, and I meant to tell you; thanks for whooping his ass every once in a while for me. I don’t have to do it as much anymore.”
Aerimon and Cepero chuckled while Kalen just shook his head and smiled.
“Whooping his ass is my passion. Well I’ve got to get back to the carpenters. They’ve already knocked the section of wall down that they deem unsalvageable. We’re discussing the price and way we’re to go about rebuilding it.”
Kalen said, “Of course, Aerimon. If you need a little extra coin I’m sure that all your students wouldn’t mind paying a month or two in advance.”
“Thank you but I’ll manage. Once you finish your search come speak with me again if you’ve the time.”
“Oh I’ll be back. We still have a bit to discuss.”
Aerimon was helping the carpenters and their workers transport the new wood that would be used to fix his home when he spotted Kalen walking down the street towards him. He continued hefting the planks and sheets of wood until Kalen was within a few feet.
After placing a final plank into a wheelbarrow, Aerimon said, “Kalen, should we go inside to talk?”
“Yeah, we should.”
“Straight. It’s just you?”
“Yeah I sent Cepero and Ilona back to the Guard House. Come on, let these men do their job.”
As they walked into the house together and to the table, Aerimon said, “I like helping. This is my place after all; I feel obligated to help rebuild it.”
“I know you do. So what are you doing about this? Are you paying for all of it?”
“No. The owner whom I rent from seems to like that I pay my rent on time each month. That and I’m pretty damn persuasive when I want to be. He’s decided to cover half of the costs, most of which will be the upfront costs to get this project going. I’ll pay another fourth up front as well then make the rest up in payments.”
“Not too bad a deal.”
Aerimon was silent for a moment. He searched his mind for a way to solve his problem without giving in. While Kalen was out searching for clues, he had sincerely entertained the idea of just paying the gang to get them to leave him be.
A glimmer of hope presented itself and he asked, “What did you find in your search?”
Kalen sighed but replied with, “Not much. Enough though to hazard a guess or two as to which direction he might have come from. But that won’t do much. We didn’t even get any descriptions.”
There it was; the lifeline that would keep him from sinking into a realm where he had to bend to the demands of criminals. It wasn’t much but it was something. Had there been nothing to go on, Aerimon would have nothing to focus on but his anger that would quickly become uncontrollable. He’d either leave Dargon for good and go home or give in to the demands of the thugs. He did not want to do either but he had entertained each idea, the former more than the latter. Now, he could put his efforts into this small lead and stave off his hopelessness.
“Give me the information you have.”
“Aerimon, I can’t do that. This is a Town Guard matter. We’re going to keep looking and we’ll find something.”
Of course what Kalen proposed made sense to Aerimon. He believed that they could solve this case but he didn’t know if he could withstand another attack from this gang. They deserved to be punished and to be punished now.
Aerimon nodded but he had adopted a mask of quiet determination. Deadly thoughts began filling his brain.
As Aerimon believed would come to pass, Derik showed up that same day soon after Kalen left. He was dressed in the uniform of a Town Guard but he was still Aerimon’s student.
“Aerimon, I came as soon as Kalen told me what happened. Are you okay?”
“Just some burns. Otherwise, I’m mostly okay.”
“I’ll get you a healing salve to mend those burns. Is there anything else I can do?”
The look on Derik’s face was inspiring to Aerimon. He could see that Derik wanted to make this right; that he wanted to help in any way he could. That was good.
“There is actually. Listen, Derik, Kalen is having a lot of trouble finding these guys. I want to help but he doesn’t want to involve me in any of this for my own safety.”
“If anybody, you’d be the one capable of keeping yourself safe!”
“Exactly. Kalen has some information on where the gang might be. I need you to get that for me. Get that and anything else that might help me. I’m going to look for these guys myself. Can you do this for me?”
“Of course, Aerimon. Anything to help.”
Two nights passed before the scar of destruction marring Aerimon’s home was completely healed. Aerimon slept in short bouts as he spent most of each night sitting in a chair and keeping watch over his home, vigilant in overseeing that no invaders came to further damage his home or slip through the ugly void.
During the day, he would teach, sleep, or use what information Derik had given him to scour the streets in search of where this gang may be. Derik had brought him a map with possible locations to the gang’s hideout. Also, Derik had pinpointed which buildings around these locations were supposed to be empty.
Mild success greeted Aerimon as he was able to cross some places of the list of possible locations. But then, Aerimon stumbled upon a breakthrough. Three days after the attack on his home, he ran into the shadow boy that had asked him for the coin. After Aerimon paid the kid – whose name he learned was Gerald – a sizable amount of coin, the shadow boy told Aerimon where the gang operated from. It was a home not too far from Aerimon’s. He discovered it was actually near to the Old Guard House and leased as if by a law-abiding citizen.
Aerimon was intrigued by Gerald’s knowledge and asked him how he knew this. The boy told him that his gang knew a lot. They traded and sold secrets to one another and in turn sold them to those who needed it.
He also learned that the gang had decided to make Aerimon an example; they wouldn’t come to collect any coin again, they were going to either kill him, or run him out of Dargon.
On the third night, Aerimon sat in the same chair, staring at the repaired wall of his home, a sheathed sword and the armband that had been given to him by his instructor, Arrick, across his lap. To sleep or to kill, these were the thoughts running through his head. Could he allow them another opportunity to come and destroy his home, his place of business, his life?
No. They needed to pay the ultimate price. Their lives now belonged to Aerimon, and they were forfeit. Judgment lay at the tip of his blade and justice at the hilt.
Aerimon first slipped the arm band over his hand and slid it to his biceps. Whenever Arrick had worn it, he had meant business. It was a symbol of skill and determination that had originally come to Arrick as a gift from his father. It was a reminder to Aerimon what his goals were and that he would never give up on those goals without a fight, and he’d put up one hell of a fight. He had earned this band and he had also earned his place in Dargon.
He then strapped his sword to his hip, the blade a finely crafted weapon he had received as a gift from his father before departing Aubrite Keep to begin his new life here in Dargon. Lastly, he pulled a tunic on then donned a voluminous dark cloak.
The night was dark as Nochturon was completely obscured by the bloated clouds that had yet to pour their content over Dargon. Wind whipped through the streets, throwing leaves and pulling the heat from Aerimon’s body with icy fingers that reached into his soul. Thinking of his cause and end goal stoked the heat within his body again and warded against the chill.
Aerimon pulled the map from his cloak to gaze at it once more. He had marked a route to the home the shadow boy had given him. He committed the route to memory and began moving down the street.
Scant yellow light from street lamps beat at the darkness along the main thoroughfares. The light failed to reach into the alleys, however, and Aerimon was thrust into darkness as he moved between buildings.
A dozen menes passed until Aerimon came to where the shadow boy said he’d find the gang. The homes here were poorly maintained, shutters missing from their windows and holes showing in the walls.
Aerimon crept between the ramshackle buildings until he found his target. Wan candlelight poked out from under the doorway and hot fury burned the cold from Aerimon’s body. A break in the clouds allowed the light from Nocturne to fall upon Dargon and cast the world in a deep blue shade. Aerimon knocked on the door and waited.
Nearly a silent mene passed before a slat in the door slid away to reveal a set of dark eyes. “What?”
“You better damn well realize what! I’m Aerimon. I’m here to make a deal.”
The door suddenly became whole again and Aerimon listened as a quick conversation was held behind the wood that separated him and vengeance.
Just as quickly as before, the door had a set of eyes, only this one was different from the previous set. These were crystal green. They seemed oddly bright in the darkness and in his mind Aerimon named the owner of them Green Eyes. It closed again and a few words could be heard before the sound of grinding mechanisms replaced it. The door swung inward and Aerimon was suddenly face to face with a loaded crossbow.
The man holding it smiled as he said, “Come in, then.”
Aerimon entered the home and readied his mind for a fight. He allowed his rage to drain from him and instead replaced it with serenity. This calmness, he knew, was necessary to operate in complete efficiency. When he opened his eyes from the brief state of meditation, he began drinking in the layout of the home. He took stock of the items that he could use to his advantage, those that would impede him, walls he could duck behind, possible exits, hidden areas for unseen others to spring from, and so much more.
The crossbow never left his chest as he was ushered into a room that was furnished with splendid couches, a potted plant in a corner near a window, regal paintings on the walls and patterned rugs on the floor, and a blazing hearth that cast it all in flickering light. To Aerimon, it seemed as though the doorway into the shoddy building that he saw outside was actually a portal to another place where a collection of luxurious items, which did not mesh too well together, would have sat within a noble’s home. As well as the two men escorting Aerimon, three others stood in a tight line.
The man with the green eyes, the one without the crossbow, said, “Please, come stand here, Aerimon, in front of those three.”
Aerimon did as he was told and the two men stood in front of the hearth and looked upon them as if they were holding a friendly conference. Well, friendly despite the weapon trained on Aerimon’s chest.
“Aerimon, meet my friends. Make a bad move and they’ll kill you without a thought. Now, what could you have come here for? I was under the impression that you were stubborn enough to let me completely destroy your home before coming to your senses. Kudos to you for finally gaining some sense. However, you’ve become a good example. I was just discussing with my associate here how to wipe you from Dargon. Yet here you are. Either way you’ll be a good example. People will see that I’m not afraid to operate this close to the Old Guard House and you’ll be my example. But what example should I show people? That I’m merciless, or that I allowed you to live? I could turn you into a spokesperson for my operation.”
Aerimon did not recognize any of the men in the room as being any of the three who had entered his home. That didn’t mean they weren’t here though, in the corners of the house, or behind a wall. His plan was based mostly on his training and skill and partly on luck.
“I take it you have some form of payment with you now?”
Aerimon wanted to laugh at the irony of the man’s comment but instead said, “Yes I do. A heavy down payment.”
“Alright, good. You’ll have to remove that blade before anything else though. Hand it over to my associate here.”
And that is when his plan solidified.
The man standing next to Green Eyes kept the crossbow trained on Aerimon’s chest as he reached out for the blade. Aerimon fluidly unstrapped it from his waist and began holding it out with his left hand.
Continuing his motion, Aerimon batted the crossbow away. A thrum sounded as the bolt was fired from the crossbow, only it was aimed way left of Aerimon.
Now, he had cleared the blade of its sheath, holding the sheath in his left hand like he would a dagger. Without looking behind him, Aerimon thrust his sword backwards and felt satisfaction as the blade plunged into flesh.
The man before him swung the crossbow at Aerimon and he used the sheath in his left hand to block the strike. Blood erupted from the man’s back as Aerimon had pulled his blade free and rammed it through the man’s chest.
Green Eyes had pulled a blade from a nearby desk and swung it at Aerimon with all his might. Only Aerimon was not there anymore. Aerimon was on the far side of the couch opening one man’s throat as he fumbled with a weapon at his belt.
The third man that had just moments ago been standing behind Aerimon had a short blade in one hand but looked like the last thing he wanted to do was use it. He threw it at Aerimon, who effortlessly batted it from the air with the sheath of his blade, then ran from the home.
Jack saw his death approaching and slashed at it but again it wasn’t where it should have been.
The fire drew his attention for some reason. Why had its bright orange gotten so much deeper? Why was everything coated in a shade of red? Why was he having trouble keeping his eyes open? Why had his skin suddenly begun to burn so hot across his forehead and all down his throat?
Jack wanted to look elsewhere but he could not; his neck would not obey him. It couldn’t, he found. Something was holding it in place.
A cough bellowed from his throat and red spattered from him.
His vision began to fill with a man. This man had cold eyes that must have been made of steel. They were cruel. No. Not cruel. They were final. They were determining. He lost his sense of self in those eyes for a moment. Then he finally saw himself there, in those lightning green and steel grey pools.
There was something wrong with him. Why was a torrent of red spilling from his neck and forehead, filling his eyes and mouth? Why was there a shaft of sharp metal protruding from between his eyes?
The man before him shook as he twisted the blade.
His thoughts were completely ruined, obliterated as he became the epitome of otherworldly pain and wrongness. He felt himself pulled apart, the pieces of his body flung across the world then wrenched back together in this spot. He found himself in this unnatural place where he knew he was going to die.
When Jack could see again, it was only for a moment. The scene before him was a flash where every color lit up. The green plant became a sunburst of color, the fire exploded with white light, and the blood, so much blood, leapt from the floor and walls with vibrant energy. Then, it all dulled until permanent blackness settled in.