Shadows stretched and shivered behind the guard as he walked past the torchlight, shivering despite the thick coats he had layered around himself. Behind him, one of the shadows shifted along the wall and reached out, grabbing the guard by the shoulder with one hand as it slit his throat with the other. The body fell to the floor with a thud, blood pooling in lines as it snaked across the floor’s brick tiles. Rhul clicked in disapproval as he lifted the coat, made from feathers, off the corpse and wiped his dagger on the guard’s tunic. With a wave of his hand, four other Kenku joined him, the bandages wrapped around their claws allowing them to pass through the hall like phantoms.
“They’ve grown sloppy.” Nam tittered, Katch silencing him with a withering stare. Jev fiddled with her arcane sensors, nodding to the group when she was confident they could proceed in peace. Rhul’s brows furrowed, perhaps Nam was right, this did seem uncharacteristically careless. Katch clearly agreed, swiftly making the hand-sign for ‘caution’ as they moved further down the hall. Moonlight drifted through the wall-slits, cold air snaking its way through the warmth of the torches, such was the way of The Frost Range; the cold was simply a constant inevitability one inevitably learned to adapt to.
Double-doors of thick redwood stood at the end of the hall, the final gate before their goal, if the information was truly reliable; it had gotten them this far, had it not? Nam and Nys took their positions at either end of the door, Nam lifting an array of his throwing daggers while Nys cradled a crossbow in her arms. Jev hefted her staff and took position behind Katch, nodding to Rhul who sidled into the shadows once more, finding comfort in the familiar embrace of the darkness. Katch leaned down, pulling the lock pick from out of his coat, and began to pick the brass lock on the door. He paused, putting the lock pick back in his coat and instead sliding his rapier from its sheath. Rhul’s blood ran cold; he had been with the crew for just under a year now, and only seen Katch draw his rapier twice before.
“The door’s already open,” Katch muttered, standing up and resting a head against the frame. “Can’t hear anything inside.”
“A trap, has to be.” Nam hissed, whipping around as if guards were about to burst up from the floor without warning. Nys calmed him with a soft whistle, and looked at Katch, concern in her eyes. Rhul also looked at Katch, doing his best to remain calm and not bother the crew-leader with an obvious question. Katch closed his eyes and they stood there in silence for some time as he clicked with annoyance and weighed their options. Finally, he opened his eyes and regarded the assembled crew.
“We’ve come too far to turn back now,” He said with conviction. “We go in, assess the situation as fast as we can. If it’s here, we take it and get out. If not, we pull out right away, no questions. If there are guards hiding beyond this door, I want you all to focus solely on self-defence. Is everyone ready?” They nodded, though Rhul’s heart pounded so hard he feared it would somehow alert whoever might be on the other side. Before he could steady his emotions, Katch put a hand against the door, and threw it open with a sudden shove. Katch and Jev rushed inside, Nam and Nys flanking while Rhul covered the rear, but they skidded to a halt when they saw what was inside the room. Who was inside the room.
A lone Elf stood in the middle of the chamber, swords embedded in the ground around him, putting Rhul in mind of a graveyard. One of the Elf’s eyes was shut, two jagged lines of scar running from just below his right brow down to his cheek. The other eye regarded them all coolly, a drop of black in a pool of grey so bright it almost seemed white. His dirty-blonde hair had been tied back into a top-knot, and his scarlet coat was adorned with his badge of office, a black rose, marking him as an Accusator. Even without the pin, Rhul knew exactly who this Elf was, he had heard the stories of Nenjassik shared in hushed tones amongst his kinsfolk; the stories of Nenjassik, The Butcher of Shrykediell.
“I thought I heard vermin sneaking around the citadel.” Nenjassik said in a drawl, leaning against the pommel of one of the swords.
“I’ll distract him,” Katch said, stepping forward and raising his rapier. “The rest of you, run out of the citadel and don’t look back.” Rhul stepped forward to argue, but paused as he saw the others nodding and preparing to leave. Even with the stories, it was five against one, surely the odds were in their favour?
“Don’t be stupid, boy,” Nam said, putting a hand on his shoulder. “I know what you’re thinking, and we’re not a match, no matter what you believe.”
“He’s not wrong,” Nenjassik agreed. “Though your friend with the rapier is. Do you really think you can delay me long enough to let your little companions run free? Perhaps we can make a game of it.” The sword was suddenly in the Elf’s right hand, strangely gloved while his left remained bare, Rhul hadn’t even seen it be pulled free.
“If you can survive long enough for those four to reach the door on the other side of the hall, I’ll let them go. I swear it upon my honour.” Nenjassik said, placing a hand over his heart and smirking at Katch. The Kenku said nothing in reply, stepping forward and clicking angrily at Rhul and the others. With great trepidation, Rhul forced himself to look away from the duel and join the others as they began to run down the hall. He was barely five steps into the hall when he heard Katch let out a chilling scream that was cut short. He knew he shouldn’t look back, he mustn’t, he had to keep running but something inside of him needed to turn, needed to confirm that Katch was truly dead. He turned over his shoulder, and looked into The Eye of Nenjassik.
He felt the overwhelming weight of The Eye, tearing through his feeble mental defences as if he were an ant standing before a raging tempest. Cold clammy tendrils probed their way into his mind, it felt as if he had become weightless, a wisp tethered to his body by the faintest sliver of a cord. Rhul was no more, in his place was… Who was this, reaching into his mind and pulling at his string as if he were nothing more than a puppet? Who could wield such profane eldritch power with wanton abandon?
“Rhul, are you alright?” Nys asked, noticing him briefly stumble as he glanced back at the scream. The Kenku looked over at her, anguish in his eyes, and she knew Katch was no more. Perhaps he noticed her pity, as he blinked and the anguish was gone from his eyes. In their place was a hardness she had come to see in too many eyes in the last few years, a hardness she faced even in the mirror.
“I’m fine,” Rhul said in a strange voice. “You won’t have to worry about me.”
Nys turned back with a sigh; she wished she could believe him. Behind her, Nenjassik stood at the edge of the door, his right eye shut once more, raising a hand to his scarred brow in mock salute, a salute that was returned by Rhul with a knowing smile in his eyes.