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Wychlaran part 2

When they explained what was to happen the boy had protested. He had argued, pleaded, begged even. To no avail. They had taken him outside, stripped him of the ceremonial robe he was wearing over his own clothes and bound him. Then they had proceeded to strip him of his reason for living. His dreams. His hopes and aspirations. His uniqueness. Once they were done with him he was lying on the ground, shaking. Not crying though. Too much pain to be crying. But shaking, shaking without being able to stop. The pain was inside,deep inside in the hollowness that They had left behind after they robbed him of what was his birthright, robbed him of it forever. They had told him that they did it to prevent him using it against them. But he knew better. He knew vengeance when he saw it. And even as he lay there, still shaking with the pain, his eyes sunken and hollow with despair, his hair lank and sweaty across his dry cheeks, even then he decided to make Them know it as well as he did.

Once he had made up his minds Edwin thought it best to set his plan in motion as quickly as possible. He spent the evening making careful inquiries among the servants and eventually found the man who had received the messenger bearing his Mother a letter. Apparently the messenger had insisted on it being delivered in person and refused to take no for an answer.

"What did she look like?” Edwin asked, trying not to sound too eager.

"That was the strange part, young Master", the servant answered, frowning. "She was just a little girl. A little on the chubby side. Wore a bright green dress, she did, and a yellow cloak with the hood pulled up, so I couldn't see much of her face. She had brown hair, though. As pretty curls as I ever saw."

Edwin felt like his head was spinning. A little girl? Had he misinterpreted the meaning of the letter? A little girl couldn't very well be an assassin, could she? "Anything else?" he asked. "Did you see where she went afterwards?"

"No", the servant said. "Towards the river, that's all. But there was one more thing."

"Yes?" Edwin eagerly asked.

"Well, her dress was fairly expensive. I could tell that. So I thought it was a little strange that she should be walking around barefoot. I saw her toes stick out under the hem of the dress and I wondered at that."

Edwin wondered the same thing. It didn't really seem to fit together. But there was nothing more to be learnt at this point so he thanked the man and left to think things over. The girl could be anywhere, true. But most likely the Ravens Nest would be somewhere in the Outer City, away from the grand mansions and broad streets. That's where he should try to look. And a little girl in a bright yellow cloak ought to stand out. If he didn't find her, well then he could always try to keep a close watch on the front door in case she showed up again. Having made up his mind Edwin hurried to his room.

Digging his book-bag out from under the bed he dumped all the books on the bed and stuffed the spellbook inside along with the scrollcase and the mysterious letter. He then carefully lifted a loose floorboard and extricated a couple of moderately dry apples and cookies that he kept there as emergency snacks. Into the bag they went. So far so good. Now for clothes. The Outer City was dangerous, he knew that from previous experience. He had better not look too wealthy. Happily enough there was something in his wardrobe that could help with that. Wrinkling his nose with distaste Edwin pulled out a pair of trousers and a tunic so torn, ripped and dirty that even a beggar child would have been ashamed to be caught in them. He'd been trying to keep them hidden from his Mother's eyes ever since the unfortunate incident a couple of months back that had involved an attempt at learning to ride a large dog. Now they would come in handy. When he'd put them on he looked at himself in the full-length mirror and smiled. A scruffy street-child looked back at him with an insolent grin and a wicked glint in his dark eyes. Perfect. Just perfect.

That night Edwin dreamed again and the dream was a different one. He was walking through the dark park again, hurrying to catch up with his teacher. But this time Dekaras didn't slow down to wait for him. He just kept walking without turning around, not seeming to notice the boy calling out for him. And somehow Edwin knew that there was a precipice somewhere ahead, a deadly cliff. He screamed and screamed until his voice gave out, but the dark figure in front of him disappeared into the shadows, apparently heedless of the danger. Then the sound of low laughter filled the air, the laughter of the old woman with the white hair. As Edwin sat up in bed with a jerk it was still ringing in his ears and he was breathing as heavily as if he had been running for real.

The next morning found Edwin making his way through the Outer City, carefully watching everybody he passed while trying to give the appearance that he was completely occupied with kicking a pebble along the street. That excuse also made it possible for him to stop at times or turn back without looking suspicious. His Mother had been very preoccupied this morning, making it possible for him to sneak out of the Mansion without great difficulty. The streets of the Outer City were dark and narrow, littered with garbage and teeming with rats. And not all rats were the four-legged kind either. Every now and then Edwin would see the other kind, sullen men with dead eyes watching from doorways or street-corners. Had he looked wealthy they would have robbed him without a second thought, perhaps killed him. As it was they paid him no attention. Edwin decided that it was a very good thing he had learnt from previous experiences and made himself inconspicuous. Not all the people he saw were criminals of course, but they all were poor. Outside the noisy taverns there were groups of thin and desperate looking women, calling out to passing men in hoarse voices. There were children as well, pale children with eyes too large for their faces, and those Edwin took special care to avoid. The last thing he wanted was to get into a fight. Those children might not look like much, but given a large enough gang they would probably eat him alive.

So far there had been no sign of the girl in the yellow cloak. Edwin thought about asking around for her, but he wasn’t sure about whom to dare approach. On the other hand he had come this far already, and he didn’t feel like giving up yet, even if it was afternoon by now. After some short and inconclusive conversations with various streetwalkers he went up to one of the women standing outside a tavern called ‘Bleeding Heart’. She probably wasn’t much older than his mother, Edwin thought, but she was too thin and dirty, and there were teeth missing in her mouth. Her brown hair was unkempt and peeked out beneath her shawl like a birdsnest. Still, she smiled at him when he introduced himself and told him that her name was Mirri.

“I’m looking for my sister”, Edwin said. “We were playing, but now I can’t find her.” He then went on to describe the mysterious girl, congratulating himself on having kept the lie a simple one.

Mirri didn’t seem to fall for it however. “Aye”, she said, a frown on her pretty but too weary face. “I know o’ that one. But if she’s yer sister, then I’m a highborn lady. Whatchoo want wi’ ‘er?”

Edwin’s face fell a little at being caught lying but he rallied quickly. “I’m sorry”, he said. “I won’t hurt her or anything. I just need to ask her a couple of questions, that’s all.”

Mirri gave him a strange look. “Oh, I’m not worried ‘bout you hurtin’ ‘er”, she said. “An’ besides, those folk keep themselves to themselves, as should you.”

“Please?” Edwin pleaded. “It’s really very important that I find her.”

“Fine then”, Mirri said in a reluctant voice. “I guess ye won’ give up till ye find out. Don’ know the house, but ye might wan’ to take a look around Bucket Square. And don’ say that I sent ye.”

Edwin thanked her politely and went on his way. It was fortunate that his teacher had forced him to learn every street of the city by heart after he had got lost in the Outer City some time ago. He knew exactly where he was going. Bucket Square was a small and squalid place close to the river. Tall, dark houses lined it, many of which seemed to be boarded up. It had been named for the wellspring that had once provided the neighborhood with fresh water, now long since dried up. There were a few stalls where things were sold that only the most optimistic or the most desperate would call food. Not many people were about, but now and then somebody went past. Edwin sat down on a staircase outside one of the houses, put his bag between his feet and took out a piece of string from his pocket. Twining it between his fingers in complicated patterns he pretended to be completely absorbed by his game while he was actually paying close attention to everything that went on around him. After another hour his patience was rewarded.

On the other side of the square Edwin could see a diminutive figure passing between two parked carts. It was too far off for him to make out any details particularly since the sky was darkening minute by minute, but the bright yellow cloak told him everything he needed to know. The little girl never turned around or looked behind her, she went straight up to one of the houses, knocked on the door and disappeared inside after speaking briefly with the person who had opened the door. Edwin didn’t hesitate long. As he walked across the square his legs felt like they were about to give out under him, but he never considered giving up. That house might or might not be the Ravens Nest. It didn’t look any different from the ones on either side of it, but he had hardly expected the Assassin’s Guild to be clearly identified as such. Either way, that girl was inside and Edwin fully intended to find her. He walked up to the door and knocked as firmly as he could, trying to look as if he knew exactly what he was doing. After a moment the door was pulled open and Edwin gawked at the person inside.

It was a boy, probably no older than twelve or thirteen, but to the six-and-a-half-year old Edwin he looked very grown up and very dangerous. He was tall for his age, with a great shock of violently red hair and a narrow freckled face. Small and close-set blue eyes gave Edwin a suspicious look.

“Yeah?” the boy grunted, obviously trying to make his voice sound deeper and more ominous than it actually was.

“I’m looking for someone”, Edwin said, and tried to sound confident. “A girl with a yellow cloak.”

“Nobody like that here”, the other boy and started pulling the door shut. But before he had the time to complete the action Edwin darted under his outstretched arm and into the house, taking him by complete surprise. A few seconds later Edwin wondered if he had just made the greatest mistake of his life as he found himself inside a dark and narrow hallway, the door closed behind him and the red-haired boy gripping his collar and pushing him up against the wall.

“Just what do you think you’re doing, you little shit?” the boy hissed. “And you better answer before I wring your scrawny neck. Who sent you? Out with it!”

Edwin frantically tried to think. If he told the truth this boy likely wouldn’t believe it. But what kind of lie would he believe? Who could possibly have sent Edwin here? And then the answer came to him and it was so obvious he wondered that he hadn’t thought of it at once.

“Let me down!” he commanded. “You’ll be sorry if he finds out about this!”

“Who?” the other boy sneered, “Your teddy bear?”

“No”, Edwin retorted, “the one who sent me.” He then proceeded to describe his teacher. “He said I should go here”, Edwin continued. “That he thought I was good enough to become his apprentice. You don’t want to argue with him, do you?”

The boy paled a little at this thought, but then he rallied. “I think you’re lying”, he said. “He doesn’t take apprentices. He hardly ever stays here since he works mainly uptown. And if he did I bet it wouldn’t be a snotty little brat like you. He wouldn’t even take me when I asked him, and I’m really good.” The boy grinned, showing an even row of strong but yellow teeth, some of which had been filed to points. It wasn’t a pleasant or friendly grin. “I’m called ‘the Badger’ by the way”, the boy said. “Do you know why that is?”

“I don’t know” Edwin sneered. “Do you eat bugs or is it just because you live in a hole in the ground?”

The Badger’s smile widened a little at this. “Oh, I’m going to enjoy offing you”, he whispered. “No, that’s not it. It’s because once a badger gets his teeth into you he doesn’t let go till he hears the bone crunch. Care to check it out?” His breath was hot and hurried as he leaned in towards his smaller captive. Edwin kicked furiously and felt his foot connect with something soft and yielding. The Badger let out a strangled scream and dropped to the ground, clutching his groin. Edwin tried to get past him but found his leg gripped by the other boy’s hand, those horrible yellow teeth dripping with fresh blood where they had bitten through the lower lip. “And now”, the Badger groaned, “you will find out the reason for my name.”

“No need, I can tell him that”, said another voice, somewhere behind Edwin. It was soft and light and definitely feminine. “It’s ‘cause you keep badgering people without being told to. Now let him go. I’ll handle this.”

To Edwin’s vast surprise the Badger released him, slowly got to his feet and gave a short and jerky bow. “Sorry”, he murmured. “Just doing my job.”

“Fine”, the voice said. “And I’m sure you’re a great doorman. Just remember that so far that’s all you are. As for you, kid. Come here.” Edwin turned around and instantly felt his heart plunge all the way down to his toes. It was the little girl he had been looking for all day, but now he knew why Mirri had scoffed at the idea of her being his lost little sister. That was because she actually wasn’t a little girl at all, even if her small size made the mistake an easy one. She was a young halfling woman, about Edwin’s height, with bouncing brown curls and red cheeks. Her dark brown eyes were merry and bright, but with a hard glint to them that made him decidedly uncomfortable. That predatory gleam reminded him of his tutor, even though he otherwise couldn’t have imagined two more different people. The cheerful yellow cloak did not hide the fact that she was twirling a small throwing dagger between her fingers.

“I’m Poppy”, the halfling said. “I believe you wanted to meet me. Now tell me why.”

The boy had thought they would leave him alone once they were finished with him. He was soon proven wrong. Still weak from the ordeal he didn’t have the strength to break free when they carried him into an empty tent and put a guard outside. Two of them came to speak to him, to tell him that they intended to bring him with them anyway, but as a prisoner rather than as an honored guest. Then they told him that he could still be useful, and for what. The leader smiled at him and said that he should consider himself lucky to still be able to serve his people. The boy never responded but simply stared at her, hating her and memorizing her every feature. In the end she was the first to look away. The boy felt a small surge of triumph at that, and at the brief expression of resentment that flickered across her normally serene face. Involuntary displays of emotion put you at a disadvantage. He promised himself to remember that.

After they had left him the boy lay still and thought for a while. His thoughts were dark, dark and poisonous but strangely clear. Briefly he wondered whether that was because of having been betrayed. Perhaps when your heart was ripped out of you the head grew stronger. It didn’t matter. He had to get out. If he didn’t, they would take him away at dawn, far away. They wouldn’t kill him, but he would be worse than dead. He felt like an animal in a trap, desperate enough to gnaw its own leg off rather than be caught. He had to get out. He had to. No matter what. And then he had an idea. It would be dangerous, but he had to try. Making his voice as small and weak as he could, he called out for the guard. She came reluctantly, but she came nevertheless. She couldn’t risk him getting sick and dying after all. Then he wouldn’t be valuable anymore. The boy huddled in a fetal position, groaning faintly as the woman approached. She prodded him sharply with a foot, but he didn’t respond. With a sharp and irritated sigh she bent to turn him over. And the boy moved like an uncoiling spring, snatching the small dagger she carried at her belt and pressing it against her throat, right over the throbbing artery. He knew what to do. He had been along on the hunts almost since he was old enough to walk. But this was another human being, not a rabbit or a deer. He didn’t know if he could do this. He didn’t know if he wanted to.
Don’t scream, he whispered. I’ll just knock you out and get away. Please don’t scream.

The woman hesitated, her eyes round and white against her face. Then she opened her mouth to scream, underestimating the power of despair that carried her opponent along on a crimson tide. As crimson as her lifeblood as it gushed out of her slit throat. The scream faltered on her lips and she was dead before she hit the floor. Her still open eyes looked very surprised. I’m sorry, the boy whispered. But you left me no choice. The hot blood on his face and hands was almost black in the darkness. The boy felt his stomach churn violently at the sight and feel of it and just barely managed to hold the vomit down. Eventually he felt a little better. Trying not to look at the dead woman he hurriedly wiped his hands on the cover of the bed where he had been lying then tucked the dagger inside his belt. He hoped he wouldn’t have to use it again soon, but he knew that he would if he had to. As he slipped silently away into the night one thought kept running through his mind. He had killed another person. And it had been easy, frighteningly so. He was very much afraid that he could soon get used to it.

Poppy motioned for Edwin to follow her and then walked off. Edwin nervously went along with the small halfling woman. While she wasn’t any bigger than he was he had no doubt that she was very dangerous. The dark hallway opened up into what looked like an ordinary living room, even if it was rather dusty and there wasn’t much furniture. Just a table, a few chairs and a couple of bookshelves. Poppy walked up to the leftmost of these and ran her small hand along the books. Edwin couldn’t see exactly what she did, but he was soon to be shown the reason for it. The shelf swung silently outward, revealing a dimly lit passage behind it. Poppy beckoned Edwin inside, and once more he had no choice but to follow.

After a few minutes they came out inside a large hall. Edwin looked around in wonder. He seemed to be inside a huge basement or cavern, brightly lit by many flickering torches. Here and there he could see other passageways like the one he had entered through. There were people everywhere. Most were humans, men and women, of different age and demeanor. But on occasion he spotted other, stranger beings. Over in one corner was a grizzled old dwarf who had set up a stall and was selling a vast array of nasty-looking weapons. Several interested customers were looking at the wares. As he passed, Edwin could hear one of them, an ordinary-looking blonde young man say: “Yes, that’s all well and good, but you know I prefer a clean kill. Have you got one without the poison?” Then Edwin spotted a frail old man with a long white beard who seemed to be selling various magical potions and poisons. The old man gave Edwin a sharp look as he saw him pass, evidently recognizing a strange face. When he saw the elven woman demonstrating archery to a few younger people Edwin couldn’t keep from staring. He had never seen a real elf before. The slender woman had a pale and slightly pointed face with deep blue eyes and dark hair from which the sharp points of her delicate ears rose. As she saw the small boy gaping at her the woman smiled at him and then let fly an arrow that hit the bullseye and split the arrow already stuck there in two.

“Don’t stare so much, kiddo”, Poppy said. “You’ll make people pay attention.” She led Edwin across the room and into another passageway. On one of the walls they passed Edwin saw a notice-board, covered with announcements. They seemed to be assassination assignments available. Some of them were: ‘Uptown priest. Preferably poison.’ ‘Heir apparent. Make it appear natural causes.’ ‘Wife-beater. As bloody as possible.’ ‘Political assignment. Sniper wanted. Extra high fee, high risk assignment.’ None of them mentioned names or addresses, but they all had a line at the bottom telling the interested assassin to inquire at the Seniors Lounge, whatever that was.

After a few more minutes of walking the halfling stopped outside a small rounded door, unlocked it and beckoned Edwin inside. An adult human would no doubt have found the room cramped, but to a small boy and a halfling it was just right. The room was warm and snug, with a small bed at one corner, a desk and a couple of comfy chairs next to a round table with a red and white checked tablecloth on top. But what amazed Edwin more than anything was the cats. Stuffed cats, porcelain cats, glass cats, wooden cats, ceramic cats, small, large and middle-sized cats, happy cats and hissing cats, cute cats and ugly cats. The only kind missing from the collection was a live cat.

“Wow!” Edwin said in a reverent voice. “You must really like cats.”

“So?” Poppy said a bit defensively as she seated herself in one of the chairs and poured two cups of tea from the pot standing on the table. “Any particular rule against an assassin being fond of cats?”

“No, no”, Edwin hurriedly assured the small woman. “I just thought it was a little unusual, that’s all.”

Poppy snorted and tossed her head. “Plenty of different kinds of assassins out there, kiddo”, she said. “Not all of us go in for the gloom-and-doom style favored by your friend Dekkie.”

Edwin’s tea spattered all over the pristine tablecloth. “Dekkie?” he choked, hardly noticing the halfling’s reproachful look.

“Now don’t you get any ideas about calling him that”, Poppy admonished. “He isn’t very fond of it and I’m only barely allowed to use it in private.” She grinned. “So of course I do it whenever I can, if only to tease him”, she said. “But I don’t recommend you trying that.”

“I won’t”, Edwin said in a faint voice. His mind boggled at the thought of his tutor’s probable reaction to a stunt like that. Then the rest of Poppy’s previous words registered in his mind. “You know who I am then?” he asked.

Another snort. “Of course I do”, Poppy said and handed Edwin a piece of gingerbread, after which she proceeded to stuff her own face. “The disguise is good for a beginner, but your face is much too clean for a street kid. Besides, Dekkie described you to me and I caught sight of you when I delivered his letter.” She paused. “As to what I said, <he is the right type for looking looming and intimidating”, she said. “And he knows it, so of course he takes full advantage of the fact. Me, I couldn’t loom if my life depended on it. I work differently.” She smiled, showing off her dimples. “Cute, eh?” she said. “It’s really easy to pass myself off as a little human girl most of the time. Even when people do see me for what I am they never suspect that little old me could be in any way dangerous. So what was it you wanted, anyway? Didn’t come all the way here just to chat, did you?”

Edwin suddenly remembered his errand. “Where is Teacher Dekaras now?” he asked. “Is he here?”

Poppy shook her head. “Not right now”, she said and ate some more gingerbread. “He does have a room here, same as every member, but he doesn't come here very often. He’s been here on and off the past week, but never long. I haven’t seen him around since he asked me to deliver that letter for him.” She grinned again. “Probably on an assignment”, she said. “He tends to forget about worldly matters like eating and sleeping when he’s working on a difficult one. I’m sure he’ll turn up soon and act as if he’d never been away in the first place.” She then noticed Edwin’s crestfallen expression and gave him an encouraging smile. “Hey, what’s with the long face?” she asked. “Dekkie is a big boy, you know. He’ll be just fine.”

“I hope so”, Edwin said in a hesitant voice. “It’s just that…well…I think there’s something really bad going on. Really bad. I think my Mother knows something of what it is, but she won’t tell me either. I just…I just want to help, that’s all.”

“Go on then”, the halfling said. “Tell Auntie Poppy what’s wrong.” Edwin did so, starting out with the two strange women in the park and going on from there. As he told his story Poppy’s normally cheerful face darkened into a scowl and that hard glitter returned to her eyes.

“You’re right”, she said. “It does sound bad. What I do know is that Dekkie mentioned something about inns. He’s probably looking for those two ladies and by your description they sound like they’re probably staying uptown. We'll start there anyway. Now, I’m free at the moment, so what do you say to you and me going on a little walk up there to check things out? If we don’t run into him we might as least be able to learn something.”

Edwin felt a heavy weight drop from his heart and he gave Poppy a grateful smile. “I’d like that”, he admitted shyly. Then he remembered something. “Uh, I don’t have any money with me to pay you”, he said, feeling very simple. “But I’m almost a wizard now so I could try to cast a spell for you or something.”

Poppy made a dismissive gesture. “Save the mystic mumbo-jumbo for Dekkie”, she said. “He appreciates that sort of thing. And you don’t have to pay me. This one’s on the house. But obviously we have to wait until tomorrow morning. I'm not taking a kid like you into the Outer City at night. Dekkie would eat me alive if anything happened to you.”


"No way. Either you spend the night or I'm taking you home right now. Your Ma's going to be mad enough as it is I should think."

Edwin blanched a little at this. He hadn't really thought about what was going to happen when his Mother found out that he was gone as he had hoped to be home before then. "Could we at least send her a note?", he asked in a plaintive voice. "Let her know where I am?"

"Oh, sure. We'll just let her know that her darling baby boy will be spending the night at the Ravens Nest. That will be a great relief. Better to just let her know you're safe. I'll handle that. Don't you worry about a thing."

Before going to sleep that night Edwin decided to spend a little time with his spellbook. Poppy had fetched an extra cot for him to sleep on, but he didn't think he could go to sleep just yet. He felt the need to do something. Memorizing a spell actually turned out to be much easier than scribing it. After he had examined the page a few times he felt something shift and settle inside his mind. He could almost feel the spell there, ready to be used. Satisfied at last he fell asleep, clutching one of Poppy's stuffed cats close to him and a pleased smile on his face.

That night the nightmares came again. He was standing on an empty plain, gray dust swirling all around him, the sky dark with heavy clouds. He was all alone, and somehow he knew that something terrible was about to happen. He had to find his tutor. Only then could the terrible thing be prevented. But where could he look? Edwin desperately turned around in a circle, but the gray emptiness was everywhere. "I'm coming!" he screamed into the sky, "Please, wait for me!" The only answer was the howling of the cold and bitter wind. When he awoke with a gasp he could still feel it biting into his skin. Shuddering he pulled the cat closer to him and tried to go to sleep again. But it was a long while before he did.

Wychlaran part 3

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Last modified on , March 2 2003
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