Yawning heavily, Sebastion climbed the stairs to his studio. It had been another late one last night, but he was so close to finishing his latest piece, a few late nights wouldn't hurt. As he rounded the corner at the top he stopped dead in his tracks, the door was standing open. He frowned, he was sure he had locked it last night. This close to a deadline he became paranoid that someone would steal his work and often checked three or four times before leaving his studio. He approached the door cautiously, his brain running back to the night before trying to remember details but for some reason it was foggy. His hand dipped to the dagger at his belt as he listened for sounds, but other than the sound of floorboards creaking under his feet all was quiet. He peered around the corner into his studio, in the dimness everything seemed as he had left it last night. He shook his head and laughed nervously, maybe the late nights were starting to take their toll. Moving into the room he opened the window hangings letting early morning light flood the room and peered around again. His brushes and paints lay in their usual place on his workbench, his shelves of reference material were still neatly ordered and the large canvas stood in the centre of the room with it's paint splattered sheet covering it, all indeed seemed well. Maybe he had just forgotten to lock the door in his exhaustion.
He lit the brazier in the corner of the room, dipped some water from the barrel nearby and filled the small kettle which hung over the coals. Putting some leaves in his stained teapot, he then did his morning ritual of inspecting his brushes as he waited for the water to boil. One or two would soon need replacing but for now they would suffice. Once the Duke had paid him for this piece he would have enough gold to buy that fancy set he had seen at the market the other day. This was the first piece he had done for such an illustrious patron and hopefully would see his fortunes rise finally. Then his mother would be forced to realise he wasn't wasting his time instead of helping out with the family business. The sound of bubbling water, broke him from his thoughts and he set about making his tea, sweetened with just a hint of honey.
Mug in hand he stood in front of his easel at last, letting the aroma of the tea fill his nostrils, still far too hot to drink but the smell calmed him and put him in the right frame of mind. He pulled the sheet away gently. The sound of the mug hitting the floor and the hot water splashing against his legs went unnoticed as he stared open mouthed at the canvas before him. When had he painted this? The Duke's prized garden was there as he remembered it, but the figure now standing in it was entirely new. He reached out a trembling hand and traced familiar brush strokes, it was definitely his work, but how, and why would he paint something like this? Never in his worst nightmares could he imagine such a twisted visage as that which adorned the face of the creature upon the canvas. It radiated pure evil as it stared out motionless at him. He shivered uncontrollably as he tried to force his brain back to the events of the night before. No matter how he tried he could pull up no memory of painting this, and again that fog as he struggled to remember leaving the studio.
The sound of pealing bells shocked him back to the present, followed by the sounds of a commotion on the streets outside. Tearing his gaze from the canvas he hurried to the window and threw it open so he could stick his head out and see what was going on. Many townsfolk were gathered in the street talking loudly and animatedly with each other and the Gguard were moving moving hurriedly through the streets pushing protesting people out of their way.
"What's going on?" Sebastion shouted down to a group just under his window.
"They say the Duke is dead" said one
"Murdered in his garden last night" said another
Sebastion turned from the window to stare nervously at his canvas, reaching down to rub at his leg. Pain blossomed in his mind as he finally remembered the near boiling water he had just spilled down his leg. Lifting his loose trouser leg he winced at the sight of reddened skin and swelling blisters. He would need to get that seen to right away, with his condition he couldn't afford to let wounds go untreated. Cursing loudly he located his keys and moved toward the door, casting a last glance back at the canvas. The horrifying image was still there taunting him. He thought of taking a moment to cover it back up as was customary for him, but it was ruined now, there was no point. The pain in his leg sent him towards the door once more. Making sure this time to take care over locking it he then hurried down the stairs.
Behind him, in his studio, a bird flew into the room and perched on his work bench. Head tilting from side to side it looked at the painting, chirping softly. The face began to shift as the paint swirled, and when it settled a smile now spread across it's horrid features as it gazed out at the dead bird on the workbench.
The Duke was dead. Murdered on his watch! The captain would have his hide for this, he might even lose his position as Palace Guard. Then what would he do? Being a Guard was all he had known since signing up at the tender age of sixteen. Not to mention the fact that last night's events would be forever etched in his memory. How did one forget something like that? His dreams would be haunted for a long time after this.
These thoughts wracked Edmund's brain as he waited nervously outside the Captain's office with his three other companions. They all looked equally wrapped up in their own thoughts, tension and worry etched across their faces. The sound of raised voices from inside the closed room did not help matters. An argument with the Duke's sons was sure to put the Captain in a foul mood, which did not bode well for him and his fellows. The sound of the door clashing off the wall as it was flung open made them all jump, then hastily stand to attention as three young men strode angrily past them.
"Don't just stand out there lollygagging, get in here" The stern voice of their captain sent them all leaping into the room.
They snapped off sharp salutes, fists thumping off chests as they lined up in front of her large oak desk. She stood with her back to them, hands clasped behind her back as she stared out the window into the courtyard below. Several agonising moments passed in silence as they stood there stiffly, waiting for the inevitable explosion. However, when she spoke it was with a surprising steely calmness.
"I would like to know how someone managed to murder the Duke, in his private garden, while under the watch of four of my best guardsmen" Still with her back to them, she continued. "Murdered, i might add, in an up close and personal kind of way"
The calm delivery of the question gave them all pause. As they struggled to process this unexpected situation and form suitable answers, she turned to face them sharply, her bright green ponytail whipping round at the sudden movement. "Well?" Though her voice was still tightly calm, the sadness etched across her elven features gave Edmund pause again.
Having served under Captain Jacinth for near twenty years now, Edmund was suddenly struck by the realisation that she would be grieving heavily right now. She had known the old Duke his whole life, and had been in charge of his safety for most of that time. His respect for his Captain climbed higher, if that was even possible, as he realised the effort it must be taking to compose herself.
"I'm sorry for your loss, Captain" The words fell from his lips before he had time to catch them.
The look she shot him was unreadable "I am not interested in your condolences Edmund, I am interested in knowing how you allowed my friend to be butchered right in front of your very eyes."
Edmund lowered his gaze as the others shifted uncomfortably beside him. "We..we don't know, Captain" he said through trembling lips
Now the explosion came. "You don't know? How can you not know?" She stalked from behind her desk, and stood right in front him glaring fiercely. "So help me God, if you lot deserted your posts i will have the skin flayed from each and every one of you"
"It's true Captain!" Elise exclaimed from beside him. "One minute we were watching the Duke as he sat beside his wife's grave, the next it was if i was waking from a deep slumber, though i was still standing, and there was blood everywhere. So much blood...so much" She was visibly choking down sobs.
The Captain turned her glare on each of them in turn "Is this true for all of you?"
"Yes, Captain!" was the chorus of nervous and rushed replies.
The anger on the Captain's face slowly faded to consternation as she took a moment to process this. Then her fierce grey eyes looked straight into Edmund's as she said with grim determination "Tell me everything, leave no detail out"
Edmund took a deep breath, composed himself, then began his tale as the bells pealed out over the town announcing the death of the Duke.
Idrene woke with a start and looked around in a moment of confusion. She had fallen asleep at her desk again, this was the third night in a row. Pulling a piece of parchment from her face she sat upright with a wince as stiff muscles stretched. Glancing at the parchment she sighed at the sight of the smudged script, that was going to have to be re-written. The sound of thuds in the next room announced that Castar had already arrived at work. Idrene sighed again, she was going to be cross with her for spending another night at the office. As chief researcher she held a higher position than Castar, but the two had worked together for long enough now for that not to matter. In fact the two had become firm friends. She got up and moved to the door which connected the two research rooms. Might as well get it over with now, besides Castar always made tea first thing upon arriving at work and she could definitely use a cup.
Castar turned to face her as she opened the door. Teapot in hand she scowled at Idrene, her bushy eyebrows furrowing deeply above her large purple eyes. As she opened her mouth to begin her scolding, Idrene held up a hand.
"I know what you are going say, Castar, and I'm sorry. It's just this translation i'm working on is utterly fascinating. Who knew the Jardesians had such a complex legal system, we always thought them primitive, but these new scrolls that have come to light show they were in fact quite advanced in certain areas" She hoped this tidbit of knowledge would distract Castar from her scolding, she was in no such luck.
"Hmpf, then I bet the Jardesians knew the the benefits of getting a good night's sleep in one's own bed" Although her tone was sharp, Idrene noticed a slight smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. "And have you looked in a mirror lately?"
Puzzled, Idrene walked back into her office and pulled out the small hand mirror she kept in her desk drawer. Peering into the mirror she couldn't help but chuckle at her appearance. Her usual neat bun was quite lopsided , her cheek was covered in smudges of ink, and was that jam on her chin? She remembered the hastily scoffed sandwich she had eaten for tea the night before. Yup, definitely jam. She put the mirror back and sheepishly went back to Castar's office.
"I'm going to go tidy up in the wash room. Best make that tea extra strong, I think I'm going to need it if we still plan on working on that new piece that came in last week" She said as she walked hurriedly through the office and opened the hallway door.
"Good idea" said Castar "I'll finish the tea and meet you in the sun room"
Idrene waved a hand in acknowledgement as she exited the room. Her long skirts swished around her ankles as strode to the washroom at the end of the hall. As she expertly fixed her hair she thought about the strange parchment that had been brought in last week. Pelan, the museum curator, had been quite excited about it. The donor had been anonymous, which was unusual , but not unheard of. The accompanying letter had stated that the parchment had been found during an exploration of some ruins out in the Gratok desert and that more pieces would be arriving soon. No one knew who still survived in the desert, it lay on the other side of the rift, and none had found a way to cross over: until now it seems. The parchment itself had been rather perturbing, depicting some kind of twisted creature, the surrounding text in a harsh, angular and unfamalliar script. It had given Idrene an uneasy feeling, but her burning curiosity still left her wanting to know more.
Several minutes later she was walking through dim wood panneled halls towards the sun room, the ink smudge had proven particularly stubborn and her cheek was still red from the scrubbing she had given it, but at least she felt more presentable now. As she approached the door to the sun room, named so because of the large windows in both walls and ceiling which allowed natural light to pour through, she heard a surprised cry from within. Hurrying the last few paces she pushed open the door, blinking as her eyes adjusted to the bright morning light. Caster was stood in front of one of the workbenches with a parchment laid out before her and a look of shock on her face. A quick glance around the spacious room revealed no other occupants.
"What is wrong?" said Idrene as she moved quickly towards her friend, concern painting her features.
"It's gone!" her friend replied in a hoarse almost whisper
Concern changed to confusion as Idrene reached the table and glanced down at the parchment in front her friend. The script on the worn and weathered parchment remained the same but the twisted figure that had adorned it's centre was now gone. As the two friends stared down at it in stunned silence, the sound of bells from outside barely registered amidst the whirring thoughts in Idrene's head.