I pulled the leather string and unravelled the stained scroll which had been my passage to both wealth and valour in the kingdom of men. Once it had contained many names, scrawled in the rich, irreversible ink of Gal’gathan, but only one remained.
Who he was and why he deserved to die went hand-in-hand. Very rarely did my killings feel like murder. Most often it felt like justice.
My carriage came to a stop, and exhaled as the overweight driver stepped down from his seat and came around my side. He opened the door and barred my exit.
“Here we are. Eighty gold pieces like we agreed.”
“I have no gold but I am here on a prosperous journey, and I promise you one-hundred and sixty gold pieces when I am finished, if you’ll only wait awhile.”
“You don’t have no gold?” The man asked, hand tightening around his waist-strapped cudgel.
“Now now, I’ll get your gold, just give me the day.”
“How’s a man like you going to get that kind of coin?” I could understand his skepticism. Dirty rags hung from my shoulders and I hadn’t shaved since the journey began, which would make it about twenty-five nights.
Pulling open the scroll, I held it in his face and tapped the figure beside Raskin’s name. Ten-thousand gold piece reward. The man’s eyes went wide and darted up to the King’s seal on the top left corner. Then they refocused on Raskin’s name and he swallowed.
I nod, the name that common folk had given Raskin was simple but accurate. Though, I doubted they understood the actual implications of that title.
The man stepped aside and I walked past him, stepping lightly and keeping alert. Now that I was in Stone-Tree Village, Raskin had to be found and bled, or I would be.
The village was named after the forest in which it was situated, Stone-Tree forest. The trees were literally coated in stone, an oddity which was explained away by historians as being a side effect of the wars the Old World fought. The village itself had made an industry from melting the rocks in great iron vats and re-moulding them into other things; swords, shields, horse hooves and the such. Tree rock was harder than most metal and stayed sharp, fetching a premium at most markets. The vats lined the eastern wall of the town, a good distance from homes and shops.
Down the muddy, main street my eye caught upon the only inn, The Singing Stone, and I burst through the front doors and into an empty common room. A thin, mousy bartender was the only attendant, sitting with feet up on the bar, eyes closed, a disinterested grin on his lips.
As I strode towards him, he opened his eyes and the lazy smile vanished. I slowed my approach for a moment before continuing. “Hello. I’m visiting an-“
“You don’t say. I thought you were here for years.”
“Is it a problem that you have a man here, willing to spend gold?”
“You don’t plan on spending gold, I know your type.” The man spits on the ground and I notice it is flecked with black. Foul. “No doubt you’re here looking for him.”
My heart tightened into a fist, and I leaned forward. “You know of him then. Where is he?”
“Who? At least say the man’s name if you’ll be asking him for help.”
I froze a moment as I took in this man’s oily grin. Help? Who would ask MindBlinder for help? The answer hit me. There were other Condemned, I knew that as well as anyone. Who was better for these novices to ask for help than MindBlinder, who had gone three-hundred years uncaught? The man who had torn down a royal family one by one, spreading insanity and confusion like wildfire. He’d tried to break us and failed but he was still free. It was only by torturing every other Condemned I’d caught that I learned where he was.
“Raskin Laudron. Yes, I seek his help. Where can he be found?”
The innkeeper bellowed laughter, much richer and deeper than I could imagine from that pixie of a man. Without a word, he stood and gestured for me to follow with a nod of his head, and so I did.
We emerged from the inn and walked to the North side of town, looking out into Stone-Tree Forest. Just down the road was a small, wooden cottage. The oddity of it struck me; to see something built of honest-to-goodness wood in this forest of cold stone. The small man pointed to it and then turned his back on me. “That’s where the demon sleeps.”
With that, the rude innkeeper returned to his inn. I stood there and examined the cottage, feeling like it had been too easy. Raskin was a spectre, no one had ever seen him, they’d only heard his messages through the mouths of others. A physical description had been impossible to gather.
Why would such a man have a home nearby the town? I turn and look at the people walking by, all of them pointedly avoiding my gaze. It was a trap. Perhaps Raskin waited within the door of the cottage, rivers of magic ready to break like a dam.
Regardless, I walked through the northern fence of Stone-Tree Village and over the hills of stone and gravel until I stood only ten feet away. A bright light burnt within the cottage, only a shade dimmer than a blazing sun. It certainly wasn’t candle light.
Shadows flickered through the windows revealing that there were people inside. I had done this long enough to know that there’s only one safe way to kill the Condemned. Firstly, you don’t fight them in a small enclosed space, like that cottage. Secondly, you don’t fight them in a wide open space, like a battlefield. It’s preferable that they don’t know there’s a fight at all, not until your knife slices open the wind pipe and you tear them apart.
My cloth shoes served me well as I came to a halt a few feet in front of the door. From the pack at my waist, I grabbed a boomer, one of the explosive weapons invented by a peasant girl I met in the waste of Cephalic. Squeezing the soft, gelatine orb, I rolled it to the foot of the trees just in front of the house, and then ran silently to the side and waited, legs bent.
My jaw shook from the blast, and I used that cover to pull myself onto the thatched roof and towards the chimney.
Flecks of stone and dust rained down from above. I could see from the roof that the corner of the cottage was on fire, and that a ten-foot radius of forest has been cleared. The door opened below with a whine, but there were no spoken words, just the soft crunching of feet. I lowered myself into the chimney, muscles tense as I held myself from falling into the fire below.
Sootily inching down, I gripped the red-hot top ledge of the fireplace and swung myself out and into the main room, but my robe caught fire, and I was forced to slap it out frantically.
The interior almost made me call out in surprise. The ceiling was almost one-hundred feet high and wrought of white marble flecked with gold. Queens of legend lined the walls, captured on extravagant canvasses in all of their glory. My eyes grew wide as I saw the same queens lounging about the huge room in the flesh, wearing sultry nightgowns and looking at me with curious eyes.
Nearly two hundred feet away, I could see the open door to the cottage, though there was no one standing nearby. My knife was drawn the instant the door slammed shut. The regal women stood and swayed toward me. “Dear adventurer, have you come to save us?” Queen Constance asked, her strikingly beautiful eyes pleading with me. I held the knife up in front of her and backed away, but another, warrior Queen Gwaine, reached out for me from behind and I screamed, backing away. They were all dead, for centuries, and yet here they were, looking vibrant.
“Do you not serve the house of Laschwind?” Santra Laschwind demanded of me, back straight as a board and eyes demanding obedience.
“I serve whoever sits upon the throne but – you are dead, as is your house.”
“Do we look dead?” Constance asked, as she touched my arm softly.
Gwaine ran a hand down my cheek and smiled. “Do we feel dead, great warrior?”
Raskin had brought back the most respected and renowned Queens, for what purpose I wished not to learn.
Pushing aside Constance, who made an angry grunt, I ran to the door and pulled it, only to stand back, aghast. Outside, the ground and trees sizzled as a torrent of green rain poured from the skies above. Acid rain. Corrosive, it burnt through stone like it was butter in the pan.
Turning, I felt my nerves fray as the queens approached me. Half of Laschwind’s gorgeous face was gone, fair skin replaced by filthy bone. Spinning a wine glass up from the table in slender fingers, she smashed it against the edge, creating a crude weapon. “Bow to your queen.” They all said in unison and I drew my daggers, I knew this game at least.
I ran towards them on leopard’s feet, and threw a dagger between Laschwind’s eyes where it landed with a sickening thunk and sent her coiling back to the marble floor. The blood that poured from her body was obsidian.
Constance screamed as she flipped a table stacked high with exotic food. As the bowls of rarities hit the ground, they rotted and turned to dust in a matter of moments. Running at me, skirt hiked up, I saw that her arms were skeletal, but that did not detract from the beauty of her face that had graced many tapestries and murals alike.
I side stepped her, and slid my knife into her throat, until it grated against bone. A gurgling sound escaped her lips as ink-blood spurted from the gash. The queen crumbled and hit the ground, a corpse once again.
Only Queen Gwaine remained, and as every disciple of the crown did, I remembered her admirable beauty and courage. The way she refused to be a plaything for a corrupt king, and how she saved the nation by taking his life. How she then cemented her rule, despite the lechery of the aristocrats, all of whom wanted to bed a queen, and remained pure, striking down opposition with a hammer fist.
Queen Gwaine was a symbol of righteous purity so I found it deeply disturbing to see her wearing a dress that revealed most of her cleavage. Her fair, youthful skin had not degraded the way the others had and she swayed towards me, finger caressing full lips. Blond hair formed an extravagant bun above her magnetic blue eyes.
“There is no need for violence my champion.” Her voice was passionate and tender all at once, and I found myself very aroused. There was something very desirable about the woman who was, at one time, more powerful than any man and just as untouchable. All that I needed to do was put down my knives.
My brain screaming protest, I lowered the daggers as she came closer, and I leaned in as she did, our tongues sliding over one another. A sickening smell corrupted the moment, and I opened my eyes only to find my tongue in the empty jaw of an eyeless, yellow-grey corpse. I screamed, pushing her back and down to the floor.
The corpse stood again and tilted her head, the exact same posture I had found so alluring only a moment before. Flexing, I threw a knife which struck her through the nose and she folded and was still.
Breathing deeply, I glanced around the cavernous cottage and groaned at the sound of acid rain as it hammered the roof. Raskin had snared me in this trap just as I’d been afraid of, he was obviously powerful beyond any other. The way he manipulated reality was frightening, and I felt off balance.
The more I thought about the queens, the more I felt sick. Why had he brought them back and dressed them like wenches? Dry heaving, I leaned forward and tried to empty my mind.
“Even more beautiful in person, aren’t they?”
Floating a few feet from the ground, dressed in flowing black robes, was an unusually handsome man with a tight-skinned face, high cheekbones and razor-sharp brown eyes. His irises were strange because they were flecked with red. His lips had an inborn arrogance, and his expression was that of one who was smelling something foul.
A dagger left my hand in less than a second, and struck Raskin through the right eye. He began to laugh and it vanished. “You have no power here.” The amusement in his face grated against me, as if I was a rabbit to be toyed with before being stuck on a stick.
I ran towards him and he stood completely still but I made no ground at all. It didn’t matter how hard I pushed, he always remained ten feet in front of me, and his smile grew more and more condescending.
“I’m disappointed. I’ve heard about you, the king’s personal dog. Godslayer.” I stop running and look at him. “Well, how does it feel Godslayer, to look upon your desecrated idols? To face the man who dirtied them and be as useless as a flea?”
“I’m going to kill you.”
“Oh?” Raskin’s feet touched the ground and he tilted his head, offering his neck which he tapped with one finger. “Alright, go ahead then, Godslayer.”
I lunged forward, pulling daggers from my belt and buried one into his exposed neck, another into his belly, and a third across his shoulder, then jumped back, assessing. Raskin’s wounds closed before they bled and his eyes narrowed. “I’m getting bored of you.”
Raskin began to grow, taller and taller, until he was forced to crouch to stay below the ceiling. His laughter grew steadily deeper until it boomed like a shifting mountain.
Turning, I dove out of the way as his foot fell towards me with a thundering crash. I stood and ran for the door when a corpse yanked my foot, rotten face smiling. Raskin’s boot lowered towards me again, so I sliced off the queens hand and rolled out of the way. Sprinting to the nearest window, I gave no thought except to escape and dove through. The glass shattered as my body sailed outside and I was cut in many places.
The green rain vanished, and was replaced by the same overcast sky that hung above before I entered the cottage. Turning about in a pile of glass, I looked through the broken window and saw Raskin standing alone, in a small room which was certainly not the elegant hall I’d been in a moment ago. It’d all been an illusion.
His hands rose and I felt the heat even before it manifested. Jumping aside, I hid behind the door as a column of liquid flame burst through the window. The door was tossed out twenty feet and into the air as Raskin stalked through the threshold.
Gripping my second last dagger, which was in my boot, I threw it wildly, desperately at him. It spun randomly and finally stuck into Raskin’s ankle. Staggered, his eyes were full of disbelief as blood dripped onto the stone ground. I stood and pulled another boomer from my pack, squeezed it, and then threw it at him.
Spinning, I sprinted back towards the town when the explosion sent a hard gust of warm wind at my back. Throwing a glance over my shoulder, I saw no sign of Raskin, but I wasn’t foolish enough to think him dead.
Out of breath, I entered town and expected everyone to be up-in-arms about the noise and the violence, but instead they all stared at me. Every single person, child, and domestic animal. Then they begin to pack together tightly in a circle nearby the vats of hot stone.
I looked up at the man standing above the stone vat, his hand on the rope which worked the pulley that decided when the liquid-hot rock would pour. His eyes dug into mine, and a condescending smile came over his face. The rope was pulled and the vat of liquid rock was emptied on the people, silent except for the sizzling skin.
Falling to my knees, I emptied my stomach on the ground, mind reeling. I looked up and saw stone statues set below the vat.
The innkeeper approached me so I hefted my knife and held it at him, breathing deeply. “Look what you’ve done.” He screamed, hands shaking in rage. “You come here, and ask to speak to a monster with no regard for the people.”
“It wasn’t me, it was Raskin.”
The innkeeper looked into the woods, at the smoking remains of the cabin, little more than foundations. “It wouldn’t have happened if you never came here. Look at them.” He pointed to the statues, liquid barely dried. “You think he’ll let them die?”
There were many small stone people, barely reaching the knees of the others. Striding over to the field of man-shaped rocks, I pulled a hammer from a barrel nearby and raised it above my head. I brought it down on one stone person, an old man, and he broke into pieces and crumbled. I swung it through another, a pretty girl, and a hundred others, each unique.
“They will never suffer that fate.” I said when they all lay in dust and the innkeeper nodded slowly, teary eyed.
“Anything is better than that.”
“One more thing.”
The innkeeper turned into my dagger which I jammed under his chin and into his brain. Those eyes widened and his face shifted, losing it’s rodent shape and becoming fair. Cheekbones grew higher and his eyes changed, becoming brown with red specks.
“Seems you cut your foot, innkeeper.” I yanked the blade from Raskin’s skull and tossed him on the ground, where he groaned, feet kicking idly. Then I raised the hammer again and brought it down on his face until nothing was left but shattered bone soup.
Exhausted, I dropped the hammer and sat on the ground.
I pulled the scroll from my pack and unwound it, feeling pride mixed with disgust and anger. I took my quill, dipped it in that same, permanent ink and scratched off the last name. Raskin Laudron.