An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

A Secret Meeting Avendor

The healer in residence at the House of Twilight was as skilled as any Avendor had ever encountered. Within half an hour of being invited into the house, the Captain had been stripped to the waist, laid out on a table and had his wounds cleansed with warm water and a foul smelling tincture. Then the healer set to work, starting with the larger laceration along Avendor’s back. The man’s hands moved quickly across the opened flesh, dancing in intricate patterns that were followed by a strange sense of cold. All the skin and muscle around the wound went numb.

Several minutes later, the healer announced that the wound was closed and that there would be only a minor scar.

“I could have done better if you’d been able to get here right away,” the healer said.

“I was occupied,” Avendor grunted.

“Understandably. Now let’s have a look at that arm.” Avendor kept his eyes averted as the entire process was repeated. He had no real issues with Flameborn healing. It was a convenience that he had been thankful for on several occasions. But that did not mean that he had to watch it happening.

“There we go,” said the healer. “Good as new—well, almost. The cut on your arm was not as clean, and while I’ve closed it up, there will be some residual bruising. It may be a bit tender for a few days. I could do something about it, but bruising always takes more time, and I gather you’re in a bit of a hurry.”

“You’ve done more than enough,” Avendor assured him. “Thank you.”

“You’re most welcome. I would try to avoid any further conflicts, though—at least for a few days.”

“I’ll do what I can.”

After the healer had departed, Avendor changed into the simple linen shirt that had been provided to him—his own garment having been torn and thoroughly bloodstained. He was just re-fastening his belt when Nix entered the room.

“I trust you are feeling better?” asked the gandjai.

“Much. How is Tiberius?”

“Sleeping. We gave him a rejuvenating tonic. It will speed his rest. He will wake in the span of two hours, but feel as though he had slept for four times that.”

“Again, I thank you. We’re in your debt.”

“There is no debt owed for common kindness.”

Not wanting to offend, Avendor resisted the temptation to shake his head in confusion. He simply could not understand the gandjai. They had always struck him as an irreconcilable dichotomy. They were men and women who were capable of unleashing tremendous violence, trained to kill in any number of ways. And yet, to some degree, they all shared a common humility and meekness that reminded Avendor more of Cathederal monks than assassins.

“But come,” said Nix. “If you feel well up to it, we will talk now. That was the reason for your coming, was it not?”

“You said there was somewhere secure for our conversation?”

“Indeed. The House of Twilight is safe, but it may not be without unwelcome ears.” Avendor furrowed his brow. He was not certain where else they could go in this part of the city. Everything was built so close together that it would be virtually impossible to be absolutely certain of privacy—especially for those who understood the art of espionage and covert information gathering. Navarius had eyes and ears everywhere in Relen’ayar. There was no reason to believe that this building would be exempt, even if it belong to the gandjai. Nix smiled as he approached and placed one hand on the Captain’s shoulder.

All at once, Avendor felt the entire world folded in on itself. It was as if he was being twisted, though the sensation came without any pain. His vision seemed to blur and he thought he was about to black out, until he realized that there was nothing wrong with his eyes. Somehow, it was the room itself that had turned shadowy and indistinct, as if suddenly filled with a dark mist. The unnerving sensation lasted for just a moment, and when it passed and, the sense of twisting passed with it. As the world re-congealed around him, Avendor found that they were no longer standing in the House of Twilight.

Instead, they were surrounded by a strange, alien landscape. The sky—if it could really be called that—was a mercurial blend of yellows and greens that shifted from one moment to the next. A smoky, black mist roiled all around them, making it impossible to see across any distance. There were no recognizable landmarks. No rocks or hills. No buildings or trees. Even the ground beneath their feet was oddly foreign. It was black and oily in appearance, but when Avendor lifted his foot, there was no residue on his boot.

It was also impossibly quiet. There were no voices speaking or animals calling, no birds singing or insects chirping. Despite the movement of the mists, there was not even the faintest whisper of a breeze. The quiet was so complete that it seemed almost oppressive, a malevolent hush that threatened to suffocate him beneath the fullness of its silence.

“Where are we?” he asked, if only to reassure himself that he had not been struck suddenly deaf.

“We are in the place between,” Nix said. “This is the Twilight Road.”

“I thought you said it was dangerous here,” Avendor replied.

“That it is. There is no one to hear us though. We can speak in privacy here, and the maelfar live further in.”

“What’s a maelfar?”

“They are the Banished Nine who prey on those who lose their way. I would speak no more of them, least we attract their attention. But I assure you, Virsha, we will be safe enough. Now, what was it you wanted to speak about?”

“There are two things actually. How much do you know about Prince Jayslen’s current absence?”

Nix lowered his head in sorrow. “We know that which the Queen has told us, and sworn us to silence.”

“Then you know he won’t be coming back.” Avendor went on to explain how Tiberius had been selected to lead the search for the Prince’s killer, and how the sage was planning a journey to Ronnex in search of information. He explained how they had been attacked earlier that night, and that he feared that the old man’s life might still be in danger. “At first, I was hoping that you could merely keep an eye on them and report back to me. Now, I would like to ask you to accompany the sage.”

Nix cocked his head slightly to one side, regarding Avendor thoughtfully. “I believe this can be done,” he said after a moment. “We will need to discuss the matter with the Queen, of course, but I do not foresee any issues. There will still be several of us in the city should any need arise.”

“Of course,” replied Avendor. “Which brings me to my second request. One of the men who attacked us tonight is known as the Burnt Man.” A sour expression touched the gandjai’s face. “I take it you know him.”

“Only by reputation,” answered Nix. “He is said to be a brute. Violent and cruel.”

“That describes him pretty well. I’m concerned about his presence in the city. I suppose that it could be nothing more than coincidence—“

“But only a fool would dismiss it as such, and you are no fool, Virsha. I understand. What would you ask of us?”

“Merely to be watchful and vigilant throughout the course of the Queen’s Council. I’ll have the entire Winged Guard on high alert, but most of my men are simple soldiers. There’s only so much they can do against hired assassins. If you discover anything that might compromise the safety of the Queen or any of the Lords, I would ask that you report it to me.“

“And if there is not enough time?”

“Then do what needs to be done,” said Avendor grimly.

“Understood. I don’t believe that this will be a problem either, Virsha. We will discuss the matter amongst ourselves, of course, but I anticipate—“

Abruptly, Nix went completely silent. Whatever he was about to say was lost as the easy, friendly expression fell from his face. His chin shot up, like a fox catching some barely audible sound. When he looked back at Avendor, his almond eyes were filled with a intensity unlike anything Avendor had ever seen in the small man.

We are not alone, the gandjai mouthed silently.

The Captain started to reply, but Nix raised one hand to silence him. Then he fell into a low crouch, motioning for Avendor to do the same. They remained there for several moments, still and unmoving. Nix held himself on the balls of his feet, poised to leap into action. By the way he was gazing blankly at the black, oily ground, he appeared to be lost in distant thought—or listening intently for something. The only sound to reach Avendor’s ears was the rasp of his own breathing.

Then, without a word of warning, Nix broke into motion. Moving with a cat’s silence and an acrobat’s grace, he darted away, vanishing into the mists.

Avendor would never know how long he stood there, alone in the unsettling stillness of the Twilight Road. The lack of any sun, sound or anything else he might recognize made it impossible to read the passage of time. All he could do was crouch, listen and pray that whatever it was that had caught Nix’s attention was not about to emerge from the mists. While he had no qualms about facing his enemies in the world where things were solid and familiar, this place was strange to him. It made him feel vulnerable and exposed. It was not a feeling he cared for at all, and he found himself yearning for the hard, reliable steel of Peragon. Even his simple short sword would have offered a certain level of comfort.

His nerves felt raw and frayed by the time Nix returned. He came in much the same way as he had gone—appearing suddenly, like a wraith taking shape from the black mist. His movements were easy and controlled and his expression remained calm and passive, but somewhere in the depth of his eyes, Avendor caught a glimpse of frustrated anger.

“What happened?” the Captain asked.

“There was a stranger in the Twilight Road. Someone who should not have been here. I tried to apprehend them, but whoever it was, they were too fast. They slid out before I could catch them.”

“Was it another gandjai?”

“No,” Nix responded. He did not even pause to consider the possibility. “If it was they would have announced themselves. That this stranger remained hidden and fled from me is unusual. And most troubling.”

“Do you think they heard us talking?”

“It would be safest to assume they had.”

“A spy?”

“I have no answers. I would have thought such a thing impossible. I have never heard of anyone other than the gandjai knowing the mysteries of the Twilight Road. It may be that this stranger is here for reasons that have nothing to do with us. The only thing I can say for certain is that, given that this stranger slid out of the Roads very near to where we now stand, I believe that they are still somewhere in the city.”

“How can you tell?”

“Distances are shifting a mutable here, but there are limits. This stranger was close enough to us that when he slid out of the Road, it could only have taken him to somewhere within a certain distance of the House of Twilight. I cannot say where, exactly. Only that they are likely still within the city walls.”

Ashes and Embers! Assassins lose in the city, and now I need to worry about a stranger with the ability to slip in and out of this place, but who is not actually gandjai himself. 

“I am sorry, Virsha,” said Nix, as though reading the thoughts on Avendor’s face. “I know this troubles you. It is most unexpected.”

“Better to know now than to be surprised later,” Avendor said. “Is there anything we can do?”

“Perhaps. It may be possible to establish certain wards to either prevent sliding into a particular location or to alert us if anyone does, but I would expect these have their limitations. I am not an expert in such matters. There are others who would know more. Come, let us return now.”

Nix placed his hand on Avendor’s shoulder and the Captain felt himself fold again. There was the same sense of twisting and dimming. Then they were back in the House of Twilight, standing in the middle of the same room where Avendor had received his healing.

“Now,” said Nix, “we will speak with the One Who Hears. She must hear of what has transpired. Perhaps she will have some answers.”

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