The Accursed Noble
Kalsath was a mess. A hasty reconstruction job over the past few years had left alone what noble houses still were standing and placed shoddy collections of buildings destined to be slums just around the corner from most of them. Few natives of the town could be called well-off now, and those nobles who retained their titles in name had lost the attendant respect of those who served them in the process. Many old houses now were inhabited by new occupants—freshly rich, or else members of old houses from elsewhere implanted by the city's new governance in a vain attempt to maintain a facade of peace and order. This was the station of Sir Edwin Vaersi, a young and still unmarried elf lord inexperienced in the management of a household, yet seemingly blessed with competent and cooperative help left behind by the manor's previous, far older and crueler master.
Today, Edwin would do something he never had before, in all three years since moving in: He would leave that place alone in the afternoon, near sunset, and turn down a "wrong" corner onto one of those streets doomed to poverty by the hasty, careless construction built on the ruins of a dead house's holdings. He stopped to catch his breath, heart racing, next to a tavern—just about to open up again for the night—and instead broke out into a coughing fit which worried even some of the rough and tumble soon-to-be patrons of that establishment. Waving them off, he carefully drew himself upright again—a tall, wiry, fair-skinned and blond-haired elf decked out in finery that ill befit this place. He pressed on, passing a building abandoned due to its half-collapse hardly a year after it was built and left that way since out of fear that any attempt to restore or demolish it would doom its neighbors to much the same fate and result in the entire street going down like so many dominoes.
Beyond that, he stopped and turned to the left, facing the door to a loan operation run by a few fae, which surely had little business considering the sort of collection methods such beings would likely employ. This was not the place he was interested in—rather, his eyes turned to signage surrounding the doorless entryway to the stairwell leading up to the same building's second story. The largest sign, just above the doorway, simply said "Varga", then "Detective" below that in just as large of text. Another to the left of the stairwell's entrance appeared to say "Welcome walk-ins" from a distance, but on closer inspection some smaller text added to this: "Nobody's Welcome, but walk-ins accepted anyway". This was evidently good enough for him nonetheless, as he hurried up the stairs and turned aside at the second story to a windowless door adorned with just a small rectangular bit of metal engraved with "Detective". The noble tried the handle and, finding it unlocked, burst in with no further announcement.
He turned to the right on the way in—as only a wall lay to the left—and began to speak, only to be interrupted by a woman's voice barking "Hey!" loudly and sternly enough to make him very nearly jump back outside. "Who taught you those manners, kid?" she continued in a low, husky growl while his eyes began to adjust to the room's dim light. "Actin' like that could get you killed in this part a' town." The right wall had a window behind it with the blinds drawn; the faint sunlight bleeding through afforded a view of a long desk with a large figure leaning over it. A pair of brightly gleaming yellow eyes were the first thing visible about her, and as his eyes adjusted he could make out short, near-shoulder-length hair with tall lupine ears folded back against it, matching the annoyance in her voice. She was also leaning forward, hands on the desk, seemingly ready to pounce right over it onto him and tear him apart. "You're lucky I wasn't expecting to be attacked today," she continued, sitting up and revealing more of her imposing stature. She had to be nearly as tall as he was, and far more built and muscular.
The noble elf cleared his throat, naturally terrified but steeling himself with a reminder that this was a matter of life and death. "My...humblest apologies for such rudeness, madam," he said, "but my matter is most urgent. I have need of your services—I can pay whatever you require," he added hastily.
"Easy, kid." She leaned back into her chair, her ears flipping upright as she relaxed a bit. It became clear that the left one was missing a chunk near the tip, and with his eyes fully adjusted to the light by now, Edwin could see a serious yet calm expression on her dark-tanned face, and the servicable if a bit frayed clothes she was wearing—loose enough to be comfortable, but tight enough to see some moderate curves and muscles to her figure. "Tell me about your case first." Her teeth were a set of razorlike fangs; one or two of them seemed to be chipped. "We can discuss payment if I decide to take it." She waved a hand at a chair opposite the desk, and the noble carefully slid over into it, not wanting to upset his hulking beast of a host further.
"I believe someone is murdering me," Edwin announced. "You may well save my life by learning who sufficiently quickly."
Varga gazed at him from behind the desk. "What gives you that idea?"
"A few days ago, I fell uncharacteristically ill," said the noble, and paused to clear his throat. "I consulted with my regular healer immediately, of course, but she was unable to identify the cause—finding no mote of actual disease in me." He was interrupted by a brief coughing fit, and quickly produced a kerchief from his breast pocket to cover his mouth during it. "She referred me to a...Ramujan, stating that he had experience with unusual cases." Varga's expression changed slightly at this name, her ears folding back just a bit. "He, in turn, informed me he had discovered evidence of a potentially deadly curse, and suggested you may be able to learn who cast it, or at least how to dispel it."
"That man thinks I am a miracle worker," she said with a touch of annoyed disappointment, shaking her head slightly. "The sign on my door says 'detective'. I can track information or people down, but I'm not any expert on curses." After seeing the young noble's face fall, she added with an audible sigh: "I do know a guy, though."
"So—will you help me, then?" he said, leaning in.
"Ehh, sure," she shrugged and stood up, picking a long trenchcoat off of a rack in the corner of the room opposite the door and pulling it on. "Hate to see someone die so young. If it don't go away on its own, anyhow." It was well-made, wrought of thick leather, but also well-worn with a few holes, patches, and stitches throughout. "C'mon," she waved as she made her way around to the office door. After leading the way outside, she took a moment to lock up, and to hang a small wooden sign on the knob which simply stated "OUT".
Following behind her, he could see in the somewhat brighter light of the stairwell that her hair and fur was all the same dark shade of brown; the very tip of a long tail was also visible hanging limply out past the lower hem of the coat. Once outside, she outpaced him badly at first, taking both longer and more frequent strides. However, after a moment—and without ever looking back—she slowed enough for him to easily keep up, even with the curse keeping his body sore and his breath a bit short.
They turned down a few alleys, heading ever deeper into the poor part of town. Edwin got more than a few looks, but as soon as they saw who he was with they turned aside or stepped away, not necessarily looking intimidated so much as appearing to simply respect her—and whoever was with her by extension. Before long they reached some older, sturdier construction—buildings which had belonged to the lower-middle class before and which remained at least a better place to live than the newer slums they'd started out in. They came out into an open market square of sorts—vendors sitting on the ground with wares spread out on makeshift rugs and quilts of patchwork rags before them, likely not one of them licensed by the city to sell any of it—and Varga signaled to keep close to her as they approached the denser crowd.
It appeared the detective had a specific destination here in mind, and was making a beeline for it...at least until someone going the other way bumped into her. He was a short Lagomai, a man younger than Edwin by the looks of it. Varga didn't budge from the impact, and he more or less bounced back off of her before looking up toward her face in the middle of preparing to speak a brief apology. However, when he saw her face, his expression changed rather abruptly: His bright red eyes widened, his tall dark rabbit-like ears stood up straight past his auburn hair, and then everything immediately fell out of the shock and into a look of unbridled rage.
"You," he started emphatically, taking a step back and reaching a hand toward his hip. He had some old, loose, ragged-looking clothes on, but there was a clean hilt and sheath, about short-sword size, hanging from his side, which his hand was currently headed for. Varga was calm and mostly still in response to this, but made a slight signal to stand back which the noble hardly needed. People around them were already moving away, as though they could feel a pressure from the space surrounding the werewolf and Lago.
"You're one of the ones that murdered my parents!" The declaration came in a shaky voice, terrified yet emboldened by an intense rage, and he drew his sword as he said it, which instantly had people clear the space around the two yet more.
"You sure 'bout that?" Varga asked in the same casual, relaxed tone she'd used while agreeing to take the noble's case. "I haven't killed anyone in years."
This enraged her assailant further, enough for him to scream out, throwing the sword up over his head before bringing it down in a two-handed chop right at her. The werewolf blocked this with her left forearm; her hand was visibly covered in dark brown fur now and ended in long, spiky claws, and the sleeve of her coat over that arm was bound tightly around the bulge of added muscle and thick fur characteristic of a more lupine blade went clean through the coat sleeve but stopped short at the arm with a thunk reminiscent of metal hitting stone.
In nearly the same movement she took a small step forward, her still-human right arm swinging in a hard hook to the Lago's left cheek which sent him flying, spinning and falling over before rolling along the ground a short ways, leaving his sword behind buried slightly into her coat and arm. The werewolf plucked the sword out by the blade and placed its hilt in her left hand as that arm shifted back to human form, and regarded the weapon for a moment, giving her attacker time to rebound and start to stand up. "This is a fine blade," she stated. "You oughta learn how to use it before swinging it around at folks." The weapon's metal was shiny and clean, with no blood where it had hit her; she flipped it around and held the hilt out toward its owner, who—now standing up—sported a clear black eye from the punch and some scratches and bruises, but wasn't too much the worse for wear. He growled, snapping the sword back from her, then turned and ran, disappearing into the crowd in a matter of seconds.
The violence was over as quickly as it began, and the crowd pressed back to its normal shape with only a few curious murmurs. The elvish noble moved closer to the werewolf, who was dusting off her coat and examining the cut in it with an expression that he might have given a mildly dusty table. He coughed heavily for a moment; the air around here wasn't particularly good for his ailing throat. "Did you...know that man?" he asked once it was over.
"Nope," she exhaled, dropping her arms and starting back on her course. "Don't think he really knows me, either. Could be right, though."
"You...might have killed his parents?" Edwin asked, astonished.
"In the war, kid," she said, not losing a step. "The enemy's lives don't mean enough to recognize every face."
"And...you were on our side?" All signs suggested that her attacker was a native, he thought. Anyway, werecreatures in general weren't very common in this region.
"Which one's that?" she asked rhetorically, finally arriving at the front door of a building just past the market.
Before he had any chance to answer, she raised her fist and banged on the door a few times. After a moment with no response she called: "Zyzax! Come on out here. I can smell your stench from halfway across the market." To the noble's surprise, the window next to the door opened, and the person she was calling flew out.
Zyzax was, evidently, an imp: No taller than a child, and in fact seemingly wearing a child's clothes, a striped shirt and some shorts. His wrinkly skin was a bright shade of purple, complete with horns spiking up from the corners of his forehead, a long tail ending in a spade-like tip and small wings which couldn't possibly be responsible for his floating a foot or three off the ground, high enough to be at a comparable eye level to everyone else.
"Varga. Pleasure as always," he said with obvious sarcasm, crossing his arms. His voice sounded a bit like that of an old man who'd inhaled some helium recently. "Can we make this quick? I'm kinda in the middle of something."
"Sure. Kid here's been cursed," she said, waving toward Edwin. "Any idea what kind?"
"Hmm." Zyzax floated uncomfortably close, the sickly green glow of his eyes making the elf take an involuntary step back. He'd never been so close to any kind of demon before in his life, and he had heard all kinds of terrifying stories about them. Imps were supposed to be...relatively harmless, more pranksters than killers, but this was an unnerving experience all the same.
"What's wrong, kid? You like just fine to me."
"I-I'm sick," he answered. "I can't stop coughing, or sneezing. My body's sore from head to toe. But there appears to be no natural cause, and a healer said.."
"Uh-huh." Zyzax's head tilted slightly for a second, then went upright again. "Posh noble, disease without disease. I'd put money on a Wasting Curse."
"Haven't heard of that one before," Varga commented, crossing her arms. Zyzax turned (thankfully) toward her to explain.
"Like I said: Disease without disease. A guaranteed kill if it's strong enough. You'd think assassins would use somethin' like it, but its requirements for use are too strict." The imp floated around toward the window, still facing both of them. "To inflict a Wasting Curse ya need three things: Time, proximity, and hatred. You gotta really hate someone's guts, and you gotta be close to them for long periods of time on the regular. And you gotta know the incantation. You whisper the incantation every time you start bein' in the target's presence, then you think about how much you hate 'em, and you whisper it again as you leave. You need three, four contiguous hours of presence a day for a week typically, for the curse ta take hold, and ya know it works when the person starts gettin' sick—unless they just are sick. Healthy bodies defend themselves from a curse like this the same's they would a disease, but the stronger the hate the stronger the Wasting Curse, and a strong enough curse wins out over any body's defenses in the end."
"Then—how do you dispel a Wasting Curse?" Edwin asked desperately.
"You don't," Zyzax said, pointing a small chubby finger his way. "You can't. Well—if one a' the gods takes favor on you, maybe they could overpower it. Maybe an old enough Ascendant? But the Wasting Curse is so nasty 'cause the only one who can easily dispel it outright is the caster. They gotta want to get rid of the curse too, a curse on someone they hate. So good luck with that. Kid. Anything else?" he added, snapping his head back in the werewolf's direction.
"What's the caster do to dispel it?" she said
"Eehhh, nothin' fancy. Just say something like 'I forgive you' or 'I hope you live' or whatever, and mean it."
"That's enough for now," she nodded.
"Good. Don't wanna miss my cue," the imp said, getting a devious grin and rubbing his tiny hands together before zipping back into the window and quickly shutting it again.
"Can you...trust that demon?" the elf asked hesitantly once he was fairly certian Zyzax was out of earshot.
"He owes me a life-debt. Couldn't lie to me if he wanted to," Varga said. "Anyway, our next course of action is clear, in't it? Go back to your mansion and find out who cursed you."
"I—have a manor, not a mansion," Edwin said, aware the difference probably didn't mean much to her. "But—I simply...I can't believe anyone who works for me could have done it. Everyone seems to get along with me quite well; I have had no new hires since I first moved here three years prior..."
"If you knew who did it, you wouldn't have to come to me," the detective stated. "Come on. I'll get you back to the office, and you can lead the way from there." She turned on her heel and began walking back the way they had come, the noble quickly picking himself up to follow behind.
The sun completed its setting, and by the time they made it out of the market it was properly nighttime. "If you really trust everyone who works for you, why'd you come to me yourself?"
"Well—this is hardly the sort of thing I feel should be delegated, regardless," he said. "Besides which, I was hoping you would simply, know somebody who could dispel the curse..."
"Had it been something simpler, maybe. Or Zyzax could've pointed us to the right sort of mage. Then again, a simple curse would just be replaced once they noticed it was gone. Better you get to the cause either way, kid."
"Why do you insist on calling me that?" the noble finally asked. "And introducing me as well?"
Varga shrugged. "You didn't object to it 'till now. Neither actually introduce yourself."
"I didn't?" he asked, and then thought back. "...I did not. How terribly rude of me; you must know that isn't my common behavior at all. I am...terribly out of sorts, is all. Sir Edwin Vaersi," he said.
"Varga," the werewolf nodded, continuing to walk. "But you know that from the signs, right?"
Once they were close to the building housing the detective's office, she asked: "Does anyone else know your illness is from a curse?"
"No," Edwin shook his head slightly. "After consulting with Mister Ramujan, I returned home to rest until sunset...as he advised me you may be otherwise occupied 'till then. I was...somewhat disturbed by the diagnosis of a likely curse, and held my tongue when it came to those results, citing a very real need to rest rather than converse at length. And when I left again, I merely said it was on business to any who asked."
"Good. We should keep it that way." Varga stopped, now, just in front of the office building, and the noble regarded her with a brief confused expression.
"Why would...oh. I see. Very clever," he nodded, understanding.
"I don't keep my job by being stupid." She gestured for him to lead the rest of the way.
As they passed the front gate of the manor grounds, Varga caught sight of a centaur busy trimming one of the bushes lining the path. He wore a tan vest and a gray head of gnarled, curly hair; his coat looked weathered with one or two scars visible on it. This centaur looked their way just long enough to perceive who was approaching, and gave little more than a short grunt in greeting before resuming his work.
"Er—our gardener, Mister Klaarznov," Edwin explained quietly. "He speaks little, but his work has always been excellent." The werewolf nodded, and produced a small notepad and pen from pockets in her trenchcoat and made a couple of notes on a blank page before putting both in her left hand, to stay for now. At the same time, she kept up behind him the rest of the way to the large, ornate double doors into the building proper.
One of the doors opened right away, and a petite Ovissan girl with a short muzzle and pure white fleece running from the top of her head down to her lower back appeared. She had on a maid's uniform, mostly black with white accents, and appeared equal parts relieved and delighted to see Edwin, and visibly concerned at his present company. "Sir Vaersi!" she called right away, in a squeaky, almost-shrill voice. "Welcome home! Are you all right?"
When he tried to respond, Edwin was hit with an inconvenient but brief cough, which he recovered into a throat-clearing. "About as well as before, I'm afraid. Alyssa, I'd appreciate if you could bring whoever's in at the moment to the front hall for a brief meeting."
"Of course, sir!" she said with a quick curtsy, leaving the door open as she dashed inside, eager to complete the task set out. Varga took another brief note on a new page as she followed him inside, then carefully shut the door behind them.