SHADOWS OVER LORNWATER
concluding episode of the prequel to the fantasy quest Wings of the Overlord.
Theirs is a world where meaning has no sense,
Where evil is black and good is not grey but white,
Where darkness succumbs to implacable cleansing light,
Somewhere concealed, clouded in mystery and rue.
Here be spirits lost and full of offence,
A place of unknowing where imagery is all,
And the intangible takes form, where trust takes a fall,
Obscured, treacherous places, hidden from direct view.
- A Life of Their Own, from The Collected Works of Nasalmn Feider (1216-1257)
Second Sabinma of Juvous
The streets leaned in on them, corners lit by torch flames. With Berstarm and Trellen flanking him, Ulran was on his way to see Fet-usa Fin, a trader in weapons and poisons. It was highly likely that the female assassin Aba-pet Fara acquired the tools of her trade there.
Out of the shadows leaped four men, all armed with swords and knives.
Berstram was taken unawares and fell with a fatal sword cut cleaving his chest.
Trellen dispatched his friend’s attacker immediately, and then was hard-pressed by another swordsman.
Two men closed on Ulran. One of them laughed. “Hey, Hun, he doesn’t carry a weapon!”
Hun replied, “Easy meat, Phal!”
Ulran crouched, waiting, hands extended, the edges like knives.
Hun swung his sword and gaped. Ulran had somersaulted out of the way, spun on the ground and used his rigid legs to topple Hun. As Hun dropped his knife in shock, Ulran regained his feet, ducked the swooping sword blade of Phal.
Ulran jumped on top of the disoriented Hun, gaining purchase on the man’s chest and dived at Phal. The move was totally unexpected. Phal stared and stumbled backwards, his weapons discarded, clanging on stone flags. The hilt of Hun’s knife protruded from Phal’s chest. As Phal’s back crashed to earth, Ulran jumped clear and pivoted, ready for another attack.
It was all over, though. A death-cut having sliced his belly open, Trellen sat beside his fallen comrade and squinted up at Ulran. “I despatched the other two, innman.”
Ulran knelt and gently rested a hand on Trellen’s shoulder. “You fought well.”
“But none live to tell you who bought them?”
Ulran shrugged. “It cannot be helped. Their attack was too sudden and vicious, without quarter. It was fight or die…” He let that thought linger, uncomfortably, as Trellen knew full well he was breathing his last. “I’m sorry, Trellen.” He made the sign of the Overlord and an instant later closed the man’s staring eyes.
“I see I arrived too late,” Welde Dep said, turning a corner. “Six assassins who won’t be collecting their fee, eh?”
Ulran cast a glance at the corpses. “Four assassins, Watchman. And two staunch men who worked and died for me.”eHe
Second Dekin of Juvous
Early in the morning, Den-orl Pin, the officer in charge of the royal stables, the man who organised the royal race meetings, was found dead by the stable lads.
By the time that Welde Dep arrived on the scene, whispers were filling the streets of the cities. Ulran joined him and observed, “Den-orl Pin was an inveterate gambler.”
“Really?” Dep nodded. “That might explain his death, I suppose.” He gestured at the corpse.
Den-orl Pin had choked on a mouth filled with coin of the realm. And his left eye and right ear were placed in his hands. ‘S2’ had been burned into his forehead.
“It’s our assassin all right,” Dep said, bagging the eye and ear. “Yet nobody saw anything, not so much as a glimmer of light.” The royal stables were shadowy places at night. The king refused to pay for torches. His argument was plain: “Nobody needs to go anywhere near my horses at night. Anyone caught doing so must be on nefarious business!”
“Den-orl Pin was killed in this empty stall,” Ulran said. “None of the horses were harmed? None are missing?”
“No. The purpose was to kill him, that’s all.”
“Another connection to the king.”
“Do you think the killer is telling us something?”
Ulran nodded. “Be careful if you work for King Saurosen IV.”
Phantoms are real in these places, in dim recesses.
Apparitions appear and vanish as the moon waxes and wanes.
Comely colours are dappled, blemished by their stains.
They darken faces in metaphor, and their feelings in grue.
Wherever you go, they will be there, ubiquitous, voracious,
Screened from the seemingly real world by false logic
And reason and excuses so untrue that it is tragic.
Pretending they are harmless, one day you will surely rue.
It is of shadows that we speak, intangible and caliginous.
Yet do not be fooled by children’s silly rigmarole,
For indeed shadows are evil and eat your soul.
Impalpable they be, but heed them, before they kill you.
- A Life of Their Own, from The Collected Works of Nasalmn Feider (1216-1257)
King Saurosen IV stormed into the treasurer’s room. Three walls comprised ceiling to floor shelves, all crammed with scrolls of parchment. The wizened grey-haired treasurer sat bent over a desk, scribbling numbers on a sheet of columns.
“Treasurer,” Saurosen snapped, “I have received cloaked demands from Lord Tanellor, Duke of Oxor. He requires funds for the mines.”
Hesitantly, the treasurer stood. “Cloaked, sire?”
“Only a fool would openly demand anything of a king, fool!”
“Sorry, sire. Of course. Forgive my stupidity. What is the Duke’s reason for asking?”
“He believes the mines are at risk. Require new supports, or something…”
“Are they faulty, sire?”
“I don’t know or care! I turned him away, and I told him to make sure his miners don’t slacken! Oh, sit down before you fall over!”
Obediently, the treasurer sat and hastily scrawled some figures on his parchment sheet, then glanced up. “But, sire, if there should be an accident, the revenue from the lost output would also be forfeit. As it is, there is no money in the coffers. Yet, a mining accident would not be good. Not good at all…”
“Yes, I can see that now.” Saurosen sucked air through his teeth. “So, you’re saying I should finance Tanellor’s mine maintenance?”
“It would be prudent, sire. As for funds, you could perhaps try your financier friend; he has agreed loans in the past. You can repay him at the next tax round, anyway…”
“Yes, Cor-aba Grie is usually most accommodating. Though he seems forever greedy for more land…”
“Greedy, yes. Aren’t all of his kind like that? Personally, sire, I abhor financial people, but they seem an evil we cannot do without.”
Dep and his men questioned the staff at the royal stables. Ulran told Dep that he was going to visit the financier, Cor-aba Grie. “He supplies Saurosen with funds and in return is given more land and power. I know that Den-orl Pin gambled too much and owed Cor-aba Grie money. Maybe that’s a connection.”
“That’s a good thought. I’ll join you.” Dep turned to Banstrike, told him, “I’m going to the Doltra Complex. If you find anything of value, send Cursh to me.”
Cor-aba Grie studied his separate towers of coins on the desk; the metal glinted in the light of a guttering torch. It tallied. He hated it when his accounting and the money didn’t add up. The king had already promised an entire street for his next loan, ostensibly to cover the maintenance of the Oxor mines. He smiled at the prospect of all those rent payments and then wondered how much would be siphoned off for the king’s own ends. No matter. Wealth and power accrued for me, regardless. He ran a hand over his white gold-braided burnoose made from the finest cotton of Lellul. This attire hid his abnormally large size, he had to admit. Not that he had many callers.
The torch flickered but he had no need to replace it, since his counting was complete. He got up and put a fresh one in the sconce, then shook his head, annoyed with himself. The cost of shagunblend had continued to increase, yet he had failed to invest in their manufacture.
Out of the corner of his eye he glimpsed his shadow. Odd. It was moving, but it couldn’t be caused by the flames from the torch as he hadn’t lit the new one. Rather, it seemed to slip out of sight, behind furniture. Very odd behaviour for a shadow. Fanciful. I need a drink, he thought, when abruptly he felt something tug at his left foot and ankle. He glanced down, expecting to see a neighbour’s cat – the damnable creature was constantly fouling his balcony.
His heart missed a beat. His foot was black, so dark he couldn’t discern the pale leather sandal. It was a blurry shape. He sensed a vague tingling in his calf, then his knee, and then his thigh. Now the same troubling sensation was starting in his other leg. By the gods, what was happening?
He stood up, and found he couldn’t control his legs. He stumbled back against the desk, his hip jarring, and the piles of coins toppled, spewing onto the tiled floor.
He lifted the hem of his burnoose and he gasped in dismay. Already, his legs up to his groin were blurred, black – like a shadow. Involuntarily, he dropped the material and gritted his teeth as the oppressive sensation moved up his body, beneath his clothing, constricting his vast belly, clamping onto his chest. Was he having a seizure, a heart-attack, was this a hallucination before death?
His eyes started. Some kind of dark latticework emerged from the hem of his clothing, from his sleeves, out of his chest opening, and engulfed him. He tried to move, to grip the desk for purchase, but whatever steps he took were ungainly, rigid, and terribly painful. He didn’t seem to be in control of his body!
Gradually, he found that without his own volition, he was moving around the desk, towards the open doors that led onto the balcony.
Together, Ulran and Dep left the royal stables and made their way through the throng of people to the Doltra Complex. The financier owned a luxurious apartment near the top of a tall building. The stairs numbered in the hundreds. But Ulran knew it wouldn’t bother the financier, who hardly ever left the building; he could afford others to do his bidding. Access using ropes and pulleys would be preferable, he thought, perhaps based on the same principle used at the Ren-kan crossing of the Manderranmeron Fault.
Ulran was in the peak of fitness, however, and ascended quickly, soon leaving Dep behind. “Go on, don’t mind me! I’ll catch up, probably tomorrow!”
Even so, Ulran arrived at the financier’s floor a little breathless. He stopped, suddenly cautious. The door was open, ajar. Not good.
Voices, far inside.
He slid in and crossed the lounge floor that was carpeted with a variety of Lellul rugs. The voices came from the balcony, outside the smaltglass window.
Soundlessly, he approached.
He eased the curtain aside.
There was only a single figure, standing on the parapet of the balcony wall. He’d seen Cor-aba Grie before, on those rare occasions when they attended rare royal functions. This was definitely him – but more gross. Some kind of dark lattice-work encased him, like an exo-skeleton. Cor-aba’s arms jerked spasmodically, as if he were fighting himself. His voice emerged as a strangulated croak: “No, you cannot force me. I have free will!”
Then, alarmingly, Cor-aba’s mouth twisted and a different voice emerged, deeper, sinister: “I take your essence and become whole! Your death serves me – and my mistress!”
Shadow flickered over Cor-aba’s entire body, as if sentient.
Night, the shadow of light… He’d heard that before. Night shadow consumed him. Was this the melog that Dep spoke about? He glanced behind, into the lounge, and saw unlit shagunblend torches in their sconces. He rushed inside, fished out his flint from his belt pouch and hastily lit the torch. Light dispels shadow.
As the torch burst into bright effulgent flame, Dep staggered in the doorway. “Made it…” His eyes widened. “What?” Then he noticed Cor-aba struggling with the shadow entity that imprisoned his own body. “By the gods!”
“Is that the melog?” Ulran demanded.
“I – I don’t know – I think so…”
“This torch light should banish it!” Ulran took a pace forward.
“No, wait! Stop!” Dep fidgeted with the evidence pouches on his belt.
“Throw the torch down here!” He pointed to the floor.
“If you scare off the melog, it will be free to kill again – and we don’t know who else. Maybe even the king!”
Ulran nodded and threw the torch onto a fawn and red furry rug.
“Get ready to catch hold of Cor-aba!” Dep instructed.
Moving towards the balcony, Ulran noticed that Cor-aba was unsteady, about to overbalance on the parapet. Abruptly, the financier raised a foot to step forward into space and tottered on one leg.
Ulran glanced over his shoulder. Dep had thrown the evidence pouches into the flames.
Cor-aba let out an eldritch yell.
Ulran lunged forward, grabbed the financier’s calf; it was cold, like stone. The shout transformed, became high-pitched, female perhaps. The latticework of dark shadow shimmered all around Cor-aba. Ulran held on tight, leaning over the balcony wall.
Suspended upside down, Cor-aba stared up with a single eye, since his other had been plucked out. ‘S3’ had been burned into his forehead. He was screaming in pain, while the black entity danced up and down his body; it seemed baulked by the presence of Ulran, couldn’t move up past him.
Finally, the dark shadow imploded and the financier split into several pieces and Ulran was left holding a single leg.
Scanning the building, Ulran was sure that no vestige of the shadow assassin had survived.
“Ulran, sudden death seems to haunt you wherever you go,” Welde Dep said, stepping onto the balcony.
“Yes, like a shadow.”
“Thank the gods the melog was somehow attached to those extracted body parts…”
“The torch might have been enough, but we’ll never know.”
“And,” Dep added, “I suppose we’ll never know who was behind the shadow assassin?”
“There are a few witches in Lornwater. And in every city beyond. It could have been any one of them… Who knows where their allegiances really lie?”
“I don’t know how I’m going to write up this report.”
Ulran clapped Dep on the shoulder. “Blame Cor-aba, the financier, for the deaths, perhaps?”
“Do you think this is the end of it, then?”
“I don’t know. It depends on how easily a melog can be created. I would like to believe it is not so simple a task, even for a powerful witch.”
“Well, I think that Saurosen’s position has been seriously weakened. Those assassinated men were his backers.”
“Then the king better tread with care.”
Dep nodded. “My chief will inform him that the immediate threat is over.”
“And the cancelled carnival?”
Dep ran a hand over his face. “I suspect the king will not revoke the edict. He’ll feel threatened now that a number of his influential friends are no longer around…”
“The populace won’t take kindly to his edict, you know.”
“I know that, Ulran. We have to police thirty-three sectors of the Three Cities with too few watchmen as it is. We don’t need this.”
On his return to the inn, Ulran was met by Ranell and they embraced briefly. “News travels fast, Begetter. Whispers have already spread that the purse offered for your assassination has been withdrawn.”
“That’s good news. Until the next time, I suppose.”
“Do you think Badol paid them to assassinate you, Begetter?”
“Probably, but there’s no proof. I mentioned it to Watchman Welde and he says he’ll keep an eye on Badol Melomar for a few moons, just in case.”
“So, the deaths of those four assassins are the end of it?”
“For now. We can hope that the witch responsible will slip up in the future. We must see to the family of our two fallen men - Berstarm and Trellen.”
“Yes, Begetter, of course.”
“And then arrange for a recruitment drive – we need two good men to replace them.”
To be continued in WINGS OF THE OVERLORD
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Glossary - sample for this story
AC - Arisan Calendar. Recorded history began 0001AC. Originated and introduced during the fifth year of King Zal-aba Men’s reign. The Calendar was backdated to his first year on the throne. See below.
Bridansor – great-lord of Dark.
Brilansor – high-lord of Light.
Doltra Complex – Prestige building in Lornwater’s Second City, named after its architect.
Floreskand – Land contained between the manderon range of Tanalume Mountains, the Varteron Edge, the dunsaron range of Sonalume Mountains and the ranmeron Shomshurakand Barrier.
Gild – The vast majority of common people belong to some kind of gild, be it religious, merchant, or craft. Merchant gilds regulate trade monopoly. Gildsmen also take up vendettas on behalf of members’ families. The most infamous quasi-legal gild is the assassin’s gild.
Lamsor – black lesslord of winds.
Lornwater – also called the Three Cities, comprising The Old City, The Second City and The New City. Founded in 959AC.
Madurava – Compass. Florskandian compasses are enormous; there are no portable ones; they are kept in Madurava Houses, usually one per city. See diagram below.
Manderranmeron Fault – Geological fault running the length of Floreskand and containing the four fault volcanoes: Danumne, Astle, Altohey and Olarian.
Mussor – black lesslord of water.
Names – Surname is said first, then the chosen or personal name; thus Canishmel Bis refers to Bis (chosen) Canishmel (surname).
Orm – time measurement – 20 orms per day.
Paper – see reedpaper.
Parchment – common alternative to reedpaper.
Reedpaper – expensive paper, used exclusively by the affluent.
Shagunblend – combustible tar-like substance, a method of illumination.
Smalt – glass derived from the treatment of cobalt ore.
Storytellers – gild of tale tellers, graded in excellence by the pastel colours of their cloaks.
Tarakanda – the Ranmeron Empire.
Underpeople – people who are never seen or heard; feared, perhaps mythical, inhabitants of the waterlogged disused mines of Lornwater
Watchmen – city wall or palace wall sentries, wearing distinctive plaid cloaks; policemen.
The Arisan Calendar
There are 13 moons of 28-day periods in a year. Each moon is named after a constellation:
1 Sekous 2 Viratous
3 Danduous 4 Ramous
5 Centirous 6 Juvous
7 Fornious 8 Darous
9 Lamous 10 Sortious
11 Anticous 12 Petulous
Each moon is divided into quarters. There are 7 days and 7 nights in each quarter.
These days are numbered One to Four, depending on which Quarter they are in; thus the 16th day of the 4th month in 1470 would be written thus: Third Dekin of Ramous, 1470AC.