NOTE: This story takes place about 10 and 14 years after the founding of the Underground Court, and 15 and 19 years after the end of the Generation War and the fall of Ellys'ghymn. Criminal activity in Crestil has been on the rise during the reign of the child king, Rickard, and Crestilan in particular has suffered an unusual outbreak of activity as the sons and daughters of the soldiers lost in the final stages of the war come of age without the various support systems set in place to help them during the war itself. With the magical bloodlines rapidly drying up and the glories of warfare finally far outweighed by the horrors of it, the disenchanted population is growing moody and unsettled. In this time when a powerful leader is so badly needed, young King Rickard can only turn to his advisors and do the best he can with the poor situation. It is deep into this dark, messy world we find ourselves diving in search of adventure...

Chapter One

28 Leafcull, YK 73

Rory felt as though someone had set a winch around his chest. It tightened painfully as he stared at the scene before him.

He knew this room so well, and yet…Rory's vision blurred and he blinked in surprise at the bleary moisture. The winch tightened just a bit more. The room looked the same as Rory remembered. Well-crafted and intricately carved furniture, polished wooden flooring, a sturdy bed with a thick mattress…and a single window, the dual panes wide open. There was only one thing missing from the room. The winch tugged even more.

Roland…where are you?

Rory paced the circumference of his younger brother's room. He had learned, four years ago, about his brother's less savory activities. He had encouraged Roland to disengage from the dark underworld he had grown tangled up in, and since Roland had never mentioned it again, Rory had always assumed he had.

But now?

Rory shook his head furiously as tears sprang to his eyes once more. He blinked them back in irritation. There were no signs of a struggle. Only the open window gave any indication that something was amiss. And yet, Roland hadn't been seen in four days now.

Something had happened here. Rory shook his head again. Roland was missing, and there was only one reason for that. Someone, somewhere, had taken the boy away.

Rory clenched his fists tightly as the winch squeezed harder still. And somehow, some way, he was going to find them.

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"Any leads?"

The Guard lieutenant looked up and blinked as Rory strode into his office. The man leapt to his feet, scattering a small stack of documents on his desk. "Sir!"

Rory waved the man back to his seat. "Sit down." He hooked a chair nearby and scooted it very close to the guardsman's desk before folding his lanky frame into it. "How is the investigation going?"

The lieutenant licked dry lips as he gathered up the papers he had sent into disarray at Rory's abrupt entrance. "It's…confusing, sir. We've had a few leads, but they take us only to dead ends. The facts are few and far between. We don't even know exactly when young Roland disappeared."

"Who did it?"

The lieutenant lifted both hands, palms up, in a helplessly apologetic gesture. "We've no idea."

"Has anything like this happened recently?"

"Yes."

Rory narrowed his eyes at the hapless man across from him. "Elaborate."

The guardsman swallowed hard and nodded, dropping his hands back onto his desk. "The pattern is uncommon but not unique, sir…no signs of struggle, no witnesses, just a missing person and an open window, with nothing else gone. No indication of a robbery, and no hint that the missing individual left on their own."

"How many times?"

"Four others in the last few weeks."

Rory considered. "Anything similar about the victims?"

The lieutenant hesitated, then made a placating gesture with one hand. "All four were in the Dwells, deep on the southwest side."

"Then why Roland?" Rory wondered aloud.

"We're unsure, sir. Two of the others were found to be members of a petty gang known as the Family."

Rory felt his blood run cold. So it was true. His green eyes flashed with anger, and the guardsman leaned back in his chair, clearly unsettled. Rory clenched his jaw and looked down, focusing on a knot in the heavy wood of the man's desk. He struggled for composure before he spoke again. "I am willing to bet the other two were as well. Or are. Is there any indication any of the victims have been killed?"

"No. No bodies and no reports of bodies or remains. Though, I can't imagine it would be all that hard to discreetly dispose of a body in the Dwells…"

The man kept speaking, but Rory rose and stalked the width of the office, then turned and paced back the other way.

So. Roland had maintained his ties to the Family after all. And now, someone was preying on the criminal underbelly of Crestilan. On the one hand, Rory quietly approved of the vigilante, whoever it was. On the other hand, he wanted his brother back. Roland was a good kid, truly…their father's death had hit the younger son hard, and Roland had turned to the Family as a secondary support system. Rory couldn't help but feel that it was largely his fault. He was the one who should've taken care of Roland, after all. If he had done better at that, Roland wouldn't be missing or dead or in danger right now.

The lieutenant had stopped talking. Rory shot the man a quick glance. He was fidgeting nervously in his seat.

"I need a list of any other known Family members. I need it immediately."

The man leapt to his feet. "Yes, sir!" He fled the room, and Rory flopped back down in the chair. Perhaps the Family would know more about whoever hunted them than Rory and the Guard did.

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Another disappearance.

Seth drained his glass and set it back on the bar. The tavern keeper refilled it almost instantly.

Another disappearance…and this time, it struck a bit close to home. Seth had never worked with Roland before, but the boy's loss hit him and his people hard. Besides, Seth owed Roland his life, though the boy didn't know it. The thought of leaving that debt unpaid irritated Seth. He slammed down another shot, and the tavern keep filled his glass once more.

Still, there was no indication that whoever was snatching up Siblings was killing them. There was still time to act. Seth would have to move quickly, though. There was no telling the temperament or intentions of the person behind the disappearances.

Seth reached for his glass once more, but a pale, slender hand snaked around and covered the rim an instant before he touched it.

"Kali."

A pale, slender woman slid onto the stool beside Seth, drawing the glass away from him as she did. "Seth."

"What are you doing here?"

"I could ask you the same thing. You've clearly had more than enough to drink for tonight."

Seth scoffed and smacked her hand away, gently. He took the glass and drained it defiantly. "That's none of your business."

"Isn't it?" Kali watched him closely, her bright blue eyes flicking over his face. "We've already been over all the general reasons you shouldn't drink like this."

Seth rolled his eyes, watching the tavern keeper refill his glass yet again. "Aye. We have."

"So why don't we skip right to the part where you tell me what's really bothering you."

"It's not really your business."

Kali regarded him levelly, her eyes like chips of ice. Seth sighed, slammed down the last shot, and pushed his glass away.

"There's been another disappearance."

"And?" Kali prompted.

Seth grunted irritably. "It's Roland."

Kali was naturally pale. But when Seth shot her a sideways look, she was whiter than a virgin snowfield. The man chuckled softly, perversely pleased he had shocked her into silence. It was not an easy thing to do. But Kali recovered quickly, drawing in a deep breath through her nose.

"Do we know who it is yet?"

Seth shrugged one shoulder indifferently.

Kali considered for a moment. "Well, at least we know his secret was safe. Either that, or the man behind these disappearances is much less informed or competent than we believed."

Seth leaned back a bit, tilting his head to stare up at the smoky ceiling. "He's like a nighthawk. Swift as a sparrow, fierce as a falcon, silent as an owl, dark as Night Herself…who knows if we'll ever find him."

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The night was cold, damp and cold. Heavy clouds blocked out the moon and nearly all of the stars, casting the world into stark relief.

And deep in the heart of the Dwells, a shadow flitted from building to building, making rapid progress through the silent streets. He made not a sound as he slipped through the night like a fish through the water, and his booted feet raised no dust as they skimmed over the dirty, broken cobbles.

The midnight journey halted abruptly at the door to a small building, a dingy-looking boarding house that listed dangerously to one side. The shadow climbed the rough wooden wall with ease, manipulated the weak latch on a window, and vanished into the room beyond. No sound came from the room or its occupants, but the shadow emerged moments later, tucking a bloodied knife into his belt.

One down.