The man Cahan followed wore a grey cowl, made of a thin wool, with a collar completely surrounding his neck, true to the Darthmûr style. His foot scuffed a loose stone, and he paused and twisted his neck to glance at the ground, revealing something as he did so. Woven in the fabric beneath his chin, a blue square told Cahan all he needed to know. He no longer harbored doubts. This was the man he sought.
Barely visible in the fading moonlight, the man rounded a corner and slipped down a short staircase. Cahan crept several yards behind, his feet gliding quietly over the cobble thanks to the cloth layer he had tied around his soles. He kept his distance from the man but did not fear losing him. The man's destination was obvious. The only occupied building in this corner of Lanor was the guardhouse, located in a turreted building a quarter mile away. Why in Nemeada's name the man had chosen this particular guardhouse, Cahan did not know. A half dozen others lay in more convenient areas throughout the city, none of which involved a lengthy trek through abandoned streets.
Cahan had been following the man for nearly an hour, ever since the man had entered the city. For the majority of that journey, Cahan had wondered if this truly was who he wanted to find. To his satisfaction, the blue square on his cowl affirmed his suspicions. The man was a courier of the Lord of Ashes, and he was in Lanor to confirm the request for a priest to covert the citizens. Cahan scoffed silently at the thought. The people of Lanor worshipped the Duror. They would not convert to a foreign god.
While Cahan had discerned the man's identity, he still could not understand why he chose this method of delivering his news. When reports of a courier nearing the city had reached Cahan's ears, he assumed the messenger would go straight for the keep and inform the Darthmûr official stationed there. Nevertheless, Cahan had decided to see him enter the city, but he had not expected to follow him through entirely empty neighborhoods.
The unexpected detour was serendipitous. It gave Cahan a perfect opportunity, one he had not expected to have.
While the man continued straight down the road, Cahan crossed to the other side and slipped down a shadowy alley. He swiftly slunk through it, stopping as it spilled into a broader street. He lurked against the right wall, pressing his right cheek flat against the rugged stone of the building behind him. Light footsteps scuffled down the avenue, the courier's pace still casual.
Cahan breathed in, closed his eyes, and withdrew a narrow dagger from within his cloak. It had a simple, smooth wooden hilt wrapped in leather straps and an oval crossguard at the base of the blade. He lowered his arm, rubbing his thumb over the hilt, and glanced at the street to his side.
The courier's hooded figure came into view and Cahan lunged. Despite his shorter stature, his weight carried the man across the street, throwing his body into a stone wall with a painful thud. The messenger shouted, his gargled voice echoing down the roads. Cahan, his left arm braced against the man's collarbone, glared into his face with a grimace. The courier's bushy eyebrows were arched in shock, his lips parted in fear. As Cahan drove his blade into the soft flesh beneath the sternum, he avoided the man's eyes.
The man's cry cut short, he stumbled forward as blood gurgled out of his mouth. Cahan leapt backward, allowing the man to collapse to the street, and then knelt down beside him. His hands slid up and down the man's body, searching for pockets and pouches. A wheeze emanated from the courier's mouth and he vainly tried to shuffle away, but he was dying, and both Cahan and he knew that. As his body shuddered fatally, Cahan located a pouch beneath his cowl and pulled out the contents.
A sturdy wooden scroll tube, painted grey and waxed shut with a blue film, lay within, and Cahan pocketed it grimly. He peered down at the courier's body, feeling a slight pang of remorse for leaving him to die on the cobbles, but knew he had to flee. The guards stationed in the nearby tower certainly heard the shout, and would be arriving in minutes. Giving the man one more glance, Cahan again avoided meeting his dying eyes. He did not want to see the life fade from them. He did not want to remember the courier's gaze.
Grasping the scroll inside his pocket, Cahan pivoted and raced for an alley, vanishing into the darkness before any Darthmûr soldiers arrived. He slunk through a chain of narrow streets before reaching a steep staircase. At the top, a stack of barrels rested against the side of a building. Breathing in the dank, odorous mildew, Cahan stepped onto the creaking wood cases and pulled himself onto the roof of the building.
The roof was timber-framed, slanting slightly before coming to a flat top, its thin limestone shingles flaking beneath Cahan's feet as he rushed over them and bounded onto a neighboring building. Starlight lit his path and his height gave him view over the surrounding streets. He swung to the south, toward the wall, and crept along the sides that faced the wall to shelter himself from the view of the watchtower rising in the distance. He doubted any guards would be able to spot him, but he could not be too careful.
As he meandered over the city, his rooftop detour giving him a very indirect route, he watched the eastern sky gradually brightening. Cahan found this grey time between night and dawn liberating, at time when early risers still had not stirred, but night lurkers had retreated to their abodes. The solitude, the notion that he was the only one awake across the whole city, invigorated him.
Cahan perched on the windowsill of an abandoned bell tower, his feet dangling dozens of feet over the street below. He leaned his shoulder against the frame and lost himself in the sky as it melded from one color to the next, the sun still not visible over the distant hilltops. He ran his fingers across the rugged limestone exterior, sighing placidly. Watching the night transition into day had become a reoccurring ritual for him, one more spiritual than any he had ever experienced in a temple of the Duror. He frequently found himself seated somewhere high and quiet, and here, the Duror seemed to resonate within him. It was never entirely intentional, rather just naturally happening if he were awake.
His breathing steadied, his anger subsided, and his guilt waned. He knew the sensation, but it always surprised him. Was Nemeada satisfied with his work? Was she alleviating his strife because he had pleased her? He could never decide. The Avenger was a mysterious deity, known reclusiveness. Even her most pious followers rarely claimed to communicate with her. Anytime Cahan experienced this feeling, he pondered it but could never decide what it was. He had considered speaking with a duod about it, but they did not particularly respect those faithful to the Avenger. That did not matter, anyway, as no duods remained in Lanor. They had all been promptly executed after Darthmûr conquered the city.
"All to appease the Lord of Ashes," Cahan muttered grimly, concluding his rumination aloud. He fingered the tube he had taken from the courier, itching to read it, impeded by his lack of knowledge of Roruan. He would have to find a translator first. Thankfully, two members of the Resistance knew the language and could decipher the message, which he hoped would contain valuable information of the foreign priests.
The people of Lanor had never had the reputation of being the most dedicated to the Duror in the West, but the destruction of the temple and the loss of their duods had devastated them. Guideless, many felt abandoned by the gods. Cahan chuckled morbidly. It was hard not to feel abandoned, with their lord safe in the capital while they were stuck here, living under another nation's oppressive rule. Yet, still, he managed to be an exception to this trend, having grown more faithful since the city was taken. Faithful to the Avenger, at least.
Regardless of his religious status, the people still in Lanor were downtrodden, miserable, and damaged. That was why he had done what he did. That was why he killed the courier—to protect the people of Lanor, to allow them to retain what little identity they had left. The moment a priest of the Lord of Ashes entered the city would be the moment the vestiges of the Duror vanished.
He could not let that happen.
The sun now peeking over the hills, casting a vibrant orange glow across the sky of scattered clouds, Cahan could hear the noises of a waking city below him. They were faint, as the buildings he sat over were vacant, but they were there, signaling the end of his reflection. The day had begun, and he had matters to attend to.
He slipped through the window and placed his feet on the steps below, dust clouding up around his ankles, and clambered down the stairs. The bell tower extended from a chantry located on a broad road running from the wall. Cahan surveyed the scene in and around the chantry with a desensitized grimace. Dark splotches stained the cobble, a silver arm brace glistened on the floor, and a myriad of weapons were scattered about. A shredded golden cape billowed in the doorway, hooked on a jagged stone. A shattered statue of Rathashar lay on the ground. Cahan imagined how the Sons of Rathashar had fallen beside their god, broken and dying. Someone must have dragged their bodies away. He wondered when they had died. He knew some Sons had survived the purging of Lanor's temple, fighting to reclaim chantries about the city. He also knew it was in vain. There had been no word of success among the Sons, at least none permanent.
Gingerly stepping over the fragments of the Warrior, Cahan glanced at the figurine of Nemeada, lurking in her shadowy alcove, her face obscured by a cowl save for her eyes. Most depictions of Nemeada portrayed her as hooded. It made sense to Cahan. Vengeance had no identity. Everyone experienced its call, but none needed an introduction to recognize it, and so Nemeada remained anonymous. Still, Cahan yearned to see her face, to know her, to understand her.
With a curt but reverent nod, Cahan left the Avenger and the chantry behind him, darting down side streets and alleyways, hurtling over walls and staircases. He took an indirect path in the case of a follower, but mostly because he liked to explore the city. He thoroughly knew the layout of the city, but was just beginning to understand it. His most impressive feat had been when he had traveled nearly a mile without stepping foot on the street, but that journey had taken hours of navigating through dim corridors, dingy cellars, and empty rooftops, not to mention a violent encounter with two soldiers snooping around a dank storage cellar.
Cahan stoically recalled the fight as he passed through an overgrown garden between two empty houses, separated from the street by a waist-high stone wall. As he approached the barrier, he heard voices further down the road. His eyes widened and he paused. There were multiple people approaching, and they were speaking Roruan.
Ignoring his pugnacious desires, Cahan slipped behind a curtain of ivy and pressed himself against the wall. The soldiers were passing just beside the garden, and he held his breath, hoping they did not hear rustling leaves. Their thick accents were loud, and their footsteps had stopped. Cahan heard one lean against the garden wall. Their tone was casual, or at least he assumed, as it was hard to tell with Roruan, but his heartbeat still pounded. He did not know how long they would stay, but he knew could not hold out. Prickly vines tickled his face and a long legged spider crept up his shoulder, nearing his neck. He tried to peer at them through the ivy, but it was too thick.
Frustration and discomfort rapidly built up within Cahan and he felt dangerously close to leaping out of cover when one of the guards exclaimed something. Laughing gruffly, they continued their patrol, their voices quickly fading away down the road. Cahan grimaced and pushed out of the ivy, aggressively brushing the spider off his chin, and darted across the road, not even bothering to look for the soldiers. He knew seeing them would only anger him, and anger could be dangerous. It was better he focus on the task of getting the message to someone who could read it.
Cahan's journey did not take much longer. He hurried down a network of streets for perhaps five minutes before pacing down a straight road lined by tall facades. When he could view the peaked roof of a squat tower over the tops of the buildings, he thumped down a staircase and strode down a side street that banked to the right and then forked in four directions. Cahan took the fork on the right, where the road narrowed into a breezeway. A little ways down the road, which twisted and curved, it split at the corner of a rambling limestone brick building where the tower rose from. Cahan followed the split to the left and quickly ducked into a tight alley between a small square building standing alone and the brick building.
The windows on both the buildings were boarded up, but the small one was in greater disrepair. Cahan glanced over his shoulder as he approached the doorway to the building, and then gingerly twisted the knob. The door squealed as he opened it, the sound ricocheting down the street. He quickly shut the door behind him and purposefully loped through several small rooms, guided by the faint light dappling through the obstructed windows. In a room opposite the doorway, he approached a tall bookshelf, smooth and clean amidst a building coated with dust. He ran his hands alongside the inside and grabbed onto a handle, sliding the bookshelf back and revealing a narrow, descending passageway.
Cahan ducked into the passageway, slid the bookshelf closed behind him, and scowled at the thick darkness. At the bottom of the staircase, he could see the faint glow of a distant candle, but his own feet were hardly visible. Cursing under his breath, he felt his way down the steps, turned left at the bottom and entered a lengthy corridor lit by two candles fixed to the ragged stone wall.
The corridor was crooked, terminating at the base of another, broader staircase. Light and voices flooded down from the top of the stairway. Cahan breathed deeply, blinked, and ascended the staircase.
The first thing visible as he climbed the stairs was a sprawling banner hanging from the ceiling a dozen feet above. The banner sported the flaming lion of Lanor against a white field. It filled the otherwise empty chamber that Cahan approached, lit by several burning braziers. The sigil, once used to signify the House Hayadar, Lord Eglard's maternal house, now represented the Resistance. A group of citizens fighting back against Darthmûr occupation, the Resistance placed depictions the flaming lion wherever they acted against their oppressors. To Cahan's chagrin, most of their actions were oriented toward sabotage—releasing prisoners, intercepting letters, and pilfering guardhouses. He desired a more combative approach that could oust the foreigners from their city. A handful others agreed with him, but the rest of the Resistance were adamant in avoiding street warfare between the people and the guards. Instead, the leaders claimed their movements were steps toward greater things, toward a method of deposing the Darthmûr rule.
Grimacing at the placidness of his fellows resistors, Cahan entered the chamber and glanced about. Two men leaned against the left wall, chatting with each other. One, a pasty man with shaggy hair, nodded at Cahan as he entered. The other was a handsome, his bronze face marred by scars, Bola man, who acknowledge him with a cordial greeting. Cahan greeted them solemnly and strode through a doorway on the right wall and ascended a staircase. He hurried down a short hallway lit by sunlight filtering through the boarded windows, scanning the open rooms on his left side. Following the corridor as it turned several times, Cahan found himself in a short hallway with four doors. Only one was open, candle light leaking out. He approached the doorframe and rapped his knuckles against the inside, a custom of Lanor when entering rooms where one intended to engage with others.
The room was crowded with stacks of letters, documents, and other reams and papers placed haphazardly on shelves or desks. Several books, open and closed, were strewn about the floor, with a towering stack of them balancing on a messy bed shoved against the wall. Against a wall to the left of the doorway, a man with shaggy blonde hair sat hunched at a desk, a feathered quill in his left hand.
"Hunka," Cahan greeted stoically, entering the room and brandishing the small container. "I have something for you."
The man bobbed his head and replied, "What is it?" His voice was heavily accented. Cahan did not know where he was from, but he could read Roruan and speak perfect Common. He, too, looked somewhat Roruan, with a broad brow, flattened nose, and wide mouth, but his accent was very dissimilar to others from there. He elongated his "i" sounds, and always rushed the last syllable of a sentence, so that it was barely audible.
"A letter," answered Cahan, approaching the man. The blonde man nonchalantly took it from Cahan and began to open it when they both heard footsteps coming from down the hall.
"Hunka, I need you to read something for me," a gruff voice said from outside the room. Moments later, a stern man entered, rubbing his patchy black beard with one hand and holding parchment in the other. His dutiful expression fell into one of confusion as he laid eyes on Cahan. "What are you doing in here?" Davol asked rather sharply.
Cahan narrowed his eyes. "I have something for Hunka to translate."
"What might that be?" His tone bit at Cahan.
He exhaled through his nose and gestured at the tube in Hunka's hand before crossing his arms. "I took it from a courier of the Lord of Ashes. It's a letter, about the arrival of a priest."
"A priest? Of the Lord of Ashes? When is he to arrive?" Davol's voice, although aggressive, was concerned. That soothed Cahan slightly. When he had stolen it, he had feared that others might not have found the news to be pressing.
"I don't know," retorted Cahan, his eyes narrowed. "You see, I can't read Roruan, which is why I came to Hunka."
The blonde man's face remained blank. Davol raised an eyebrow, snatched the tube in Hunka's hand, and then asked, "How did you get it? Who—where is this courier?"
A silence fell over the room. Cahan gritted his teeth and shifted his gaze to the floor. "Dead." His tone flat, he delivered the statement quickly and averted Davol's eyes.
For a moment, the man did nothing. Then he tilted his chin upward and said, "Out." Cahan did not move, but Davol repeated himself more forcefully. Glowering, Cahan dropped his arms and twisted past the bearded man, exiting into the corridor. He paused for a moment, unsure, and then continued down, moving at a slow pace. Part of him wanted to hurry away, but the other part knew it would not matter. Davol was one of the leaders of the Resistance and would not hesitate to wander through the building in order to find Cahan. The leader did not appreciate Cahan killing the courier.
Davol's rough voice thanked Hunka from inside the room. Cahan rolled his eyes and sulked against the wall a few feet from the doorway, staring forward with a grim expression. The leader stopped outside the door and glowered at Cahan. "My office. I will meet you there shortly."
Davol's' steely gaze lingered for a moment, and then he slipped back into Hunka's room. Cahan briefly wondered if there was anywhere he could hide to escape Davol's lecture. The lion's den, as the Resistance had dubbed the building they inhabited, was a large complex, and there certainly were rooms untouched by them. Once the home and offices for the members of a trading guild and their families, it had fallen empty when the trading guild evacuated the city. After Darthmûr sacked Lanor, the Resistance organized among the hardened survivors, and several of them selected this place as their headquarters. Tucked away on back streets deep within the empty quarter of the city, the building was sizeable enough to house a constantly growing population of people labeled criminal by Darthmûr, yet expansive enough to hide from soldiers should they ever happen upon it. More than half the building, including the entire third floor, was vacant, but Cahan expected it would fill eventually. It seemed as if almost every day a new person permanently settled into a room in the lion's den, joining to escape Darthmûr's reign over the city and fight back against it. Cahan could hide in so many places, but he grudgingly realized he could not avoid Davol unless he completely left the city.
With a displeased sigh, Cahan unfolded his arms, bumped the wall with his fists, and sauntered away from Hunka's room and down several quiet hallways before reaching a staircase tucked in an alcove. He traipsed down the stairs into another small alcove along the side of a wide corridor, lined with tall openings leading to other rooms and halls. The ceiling vaulted nearly a dozen feet overhead and flames encased in metal braziers spilled light across the floor and walls. The floor was of smooth, polished stone and had a checkered design, burgundy and clouded grey squares alternating all down the corridor. At the end lay a broad, mahogany door elevated atop two steps. Cahan ambled toward it, pointedly ignoring the handful of people he passed.
The door was slightly ajar, but its front was lit by the torch that flickered against the left wall. On the wood was the faded sigil of the trading guild—a proud lion lying atop a mound of golden coins. At the bottom of the mound was a phrase in Vondrarian, but Cahan could not distinguish what it read.
He had always found the insignia pretentious, as if the merchants assumed they were more important than they actually were. The guild, the name of which Cahan did not even know, was local to Algabar, quite small and insignificant. It compared nothing to the guilds such as bountiful Iron Sea Trading Guild of Corotha that dominated the western coast, but based on the décor and embellishment of some of the places throughout the building, Cahan figured that the traders presumed they were of a high caliber union.
Glancing away from the sigil, he slipped through the doorway and entered an antechamber. To either side of the doorway, narrow staircases curved up the walls, heading to the higher floors of the squat tower. Directly before the doorway, an archway cut through a thick stone wall, leading into a dim corridor beyond. Cahan walked under the archway and into the hallway, where one heavy wooden door lay on either wall. A carpet ran the length of the corridor and several busts of irrelevant men sat on granite pedestals dispersed at even intervals along the wall. A brass chandelier hung from the shadowy ceiling, but no light issued from it. Instead, sunlight filtered through a narrow window on the back wall.
He shouldered open the door to the left and entered an office. Bookshelves, nearly devoid of books, lined both walls, each which had a gap in the middle leading to side rooms. An ornate chestnut desk, its legs carved to resemble lion claws, stood before the curving back wall, directly beneath a curtained window. A candle burned in a silver holder welded into a floral shape, casting a flickering light throughout the room. Cahan paced about the office, peering into the other two rooms. One, a makeshift bedroom, had a few mattresses lying atop each other, with blankets and pillows strewn about, barely visible in the weak light from the candle. The other was lit by a lamp hanging from rusted iron chains fixed to the ceiling. Its window was open, curtains pushed back, allowing a gentle breeze in to ruffle the stacks of paper atop a long, varnished table. Cahan wondered if there had been a meeting in the room, or if Davol simply used it to store papers pertaining to the Resistance.
His gaze drifted to the desk, which was much more organized than the table in the bordering room. A neat stack of paper and a rack of frayed quills and inkwells sandwiched an unfinished letter in the center of the desk. Davol must have been responding to something when he ran across a bit of Roruan he could not decipher.
A loud clearing of the throat startled Cahan and he leaped back, his heart pounding as Davol came into the room. Internally, Cahan berated himself for being so skittish, and quickly calmed himself by displaying a grimace and breathing evenly. Davol held the tube Cahan had procured earlier in his right hand and a loose parchment in his left. He set both on his desk and braced his arms against the surface, glancing downward before raising his head toward Cahan.
"It seems you came across some very important information," he began, his gruff voice fluctuating mockingly. "Thank the Duror that we now know that the Ashen Church is sending a greycloak to Lanor." He paused for a moment, his facial expression troubled. With a shake of his head, he said, his voice vacillating, "Cahan, you killed a man for this letter."
Davol's sudden change from sarcasm to impassioned worry perturbed Cahan. He did not know what could be bad about this news. A greycloak in Lanor would be troublesome, and he had figured the Resistance would gladly accept information on one's arrival. "That's—that's vital information, isn't it?" he spluttered. "Shouldn't we be prepared for Darthmur agents? Shouldn't we be prepared for greycloaks?"
The leader crossed his arms and rubbed the bridge of his nose, his eyes cast toward the floor. "The Ashen Church sends greycloaks to every place that Darthmûr takes over, Cahan. This is nothing more than a reminder of that. This is not news to us."
Cahan's heart dropped. He frowned. Ignoring the thoughts drifting into his mind, he quickly replied, "Shouldn't we still be worried? It's an enemy official entering our city. That's concerning in—"
"It's nothing more significant than the Council Durorica sending a duod to Saradorn," Davol expounded. "They are sending a priest to convert people to their faith. It's a way of Darthmûr to cement their power over us, but it is not an immediate threat, so long as the people of Lanor stand firm in their faith in the Duror." Cahan prepared to interject, but Davol locked his jaw and held up a finger. "Which they will. And now a man is dead because you decided the information he carried was so utterly important that he no longer deserved to live."
"He's Darthmur, Davol. Killing him is a message saying that they should not be in Lanor and that we won't accept their rule. It had to be done." The words spilled out of Cahan's mouth before he had a chance to consider them.
Davol pounded his fists on the desk and exclaimed, "He was a messenger! He was not a soldier. He was not an assailant. He was a courier delivering something we already knew, a messenger sent by the Ashen Church. This will not go unnoticed, Cahan. The Ashen Church will hear of this, and that will only worsen this situation."
"He's an enemy," Cahan replied, his brows furrowed. "How can you defend him when he's here on orders from the people who attacked Lanor?"
"He's here for religious reasons, Cahan. It's the way Darthmur and the priests of the Lord of Ashes operate. They send greycloaks to convert people and strengthen loyalty to Darthmur. Last I checked, the people of Lanor aren't very interested in loyalty to invaders." Davol's voice was steady, but Cahan discerned the disappointment and ire hiding behind his strained calmness.
"Why was he heading toward a guardhouse in the empty quarter?" Cahan asked, the thought occurring to him suddenly.
"What?" Davol glanced at Cahan with a perplexed look.
"The courier was making for the guardhouse in the empty quarter. What reason would he have for going there if the news was trivial?" He locked eyes with Davol. "There has to be something more in that letter, some reason he was going out of his way to deliver it."
The leader glanced at the letter, scanning it rapidly, shrugged, and shook his head before replying, "There is nothing else in the letter but a brief statement. What relevance would his location have? They all report to the same commander, the news would—"
A knock on the door interrupted Davol's response. He craned his head toward the front of the room while Cahan whirled around as a Bola woman entered the room. She wore a skirted, patchy coat with slim trousers, a thick black belt looped around her waist. Her hair, chestnut brown, was pulled back into a tight bun, and her olive face wore a focused, fierce expression. Her eyes, a stark grey, flickered briefly toward Cahan before she purposefully straightened her posture, approached Davol, and said, "There's a visitor wandering the city." She blinked, her expression hesitant, before she continued.
"He's one of the Dhana, and he's searching for a boy named Arak."