Prologue: Jack of Spades
Whispers of the night air were all that could be heard in the small city of Armatura. A mere quarter of an hour remained of the day; the sky was dark and clouded, puffs of purple and grey against black veiling the dim light of the crescent moon. The streets were near silent, the inhabitants of the city having mostly retired to bed. Among the few who were yet awake were groups of young men playing whist outside a deserted café, in the dim yellow glow of candles and hanging lights with lampshades. Horse drivers led their horses and carriages to their respective stations, eager to rest before resuming their work the following day. Dogs shuffled aimlessly through the streets, pausing and sniffing every now and again before returning to their wandering.
There was, in reality, little reason for the residents of Armatura to be awake at this hour save for those who undertook guard duty. Within the city lay an ancient artefact, a single member of a larger body. Named the Anguis Ring by historians of old, legends rumoured it to empower its wearer with various unearthly powers. Being perceived by those of times past to lead to no good, it was decided that it should be kept under utmost security. For this cause had the Anguis Guard been established in Armatura.
Easily the sturdiest, most secure structure in the city, the Clypeum Hall of Armatura stood boldly to house the Anguis Ring. When not in use as a meeting place for important figures of authority, it stored the most valuable treasures from across several lands. The strong, solid walls of the Hall were comprised of multiple layers of concrete and various types of stone, its underground divisions extending thousands of feet deep into the earth. Every piece of glass within the structure of the building was of the most durable kind, close to indestructible. As far as the people of many of the surrounding nations were concerned, the Clypeum Hall was impenetrable. Only a fool, or one too self-assured and full of arrogance, would dare attempt breaking into it.
Five minutes remained until the appointed time for the next group of guards to start their shift. One of the guards, whose appointed area was just beyond the small vault in which the ring was kept, stifled a yawn as he checked the time on his pocket watch and tucked it back into his waistcoat. An important duty it may have been, but it was far from interesting.
The sound of soft rustling caught the guard's attention. He glanced around, unnerved. There should not have been any detectable air movement in this constricted space, several hundred feet below ground. He walked around the small area, attempting to locate the source of the unusual breeze. As he stepped forward, he heard a scraping noise from beneath his shoe. Looking down, he saw a small rectangular card, elaborately patterned in the centre and with a plain white border, rather like a playing card. He stooped to pick it up.
Turning it over in his hand, he saw that it was indeed a playing card: the jack of spades. The depiction of the jack was rather unusual; its eyes were brilliant crimson and its mouth had been drawn in a devilish grin. Glancing over the card, the guard saw that at least a dozen others, identical to the one he held, lay on the floor while more cards continued to spill onto the white tiles, seemingly out of nowhere. It was too strange. He rose from the floor, his mind beginning to race. The Hall had utmost security; it was impossible that this should happen.
Somebody tapped his shoulder. Expecting his relief, he turned around to glimpse a pair of cold grey eyes before yet another card was pressed against his face, obscuring his vision. From what little he could see, the newcomer seemed to wear an elaborate, glittery band around his finger. If he was not mistaken, it was the Anguis Ring.
A chilling laugh rang through the air. Barely a moment later, each of the playing cards scattered about the space violently exploded into red and black flames. Drops of carmine splattered across the white tiles as the guard's disfigured person crumpled to the floor.
Several hours lapsed before the authorities could examine the scene of the crime, so high were the risks of entering a space after the offender had struck. The only evidence of the attack that remained was the crumbled walls, the bloodstains and burnt remains of the guard's corpse lying on the floor and a profuse quantity of ash. The acrid stench of melted flesh hung over the room.
"Officer, I believe I've found something," called out one of the investigators. He waved something thin and small between his gloved fingers as his partner approached. It was the charred remains of a jack of spades card. The seriousness radiated from his eyes.
His companion nodded. "It must be him. But it's quite unlike him to leave such comparatively small traces of his presence. He intends to be remembered, wherever he goes. There's a chance it might be a lesser thief attempting to emulate his particular manner in order to cover their tracks."
"Yes, that is a possibility. After all, if he is believed to be the perpetrator, all attention will be diverted to him rather than one of a lesser name. But we need more evidence. He always leaves something particularly outstanding to mark his actions."
The two officers watched as the body was removed from the space before the vault, to be taken for closer examination in autopsy. However, despite the absence of the corpse, the noxious odour of burnt flesh and the metallic scent of blood lingered.
"Gentlemen, we've made a discovery here also," announced another officer. The two turned to face him. "Unless we're mistaken, don't these bloodstains seem to form some sort of pattern? Perhaps even words, in a message."
They stepped back as far as the space would allow, trying to determine whether this speculation was indeed correct. The streams of red fluid certainly seemed to form letters – a graceful script, despite the medium – which then became words. They gasped in unison as they silently deciphered the message.
Forget me not.