“Impressive,” Hagren said as he tossed the bells up and down in his hand. Each silver ball – 20 in all – was attached to a leather cord about two feet long. “Then again, we don’t Test people we don’t believe in.”
“Thank you for the opportunity. I’m glad I didn’t disappoint you,” Emerson said. He was just 17 and a reed of a man.
The room was small and perfectly round. Behind Emerson, stairs led up to the main hall and the rest of the house. Beyond the pitch-garbed figure of Hagren, stairs went down to the undercroft. Inside the walls of the room, six pillars formed a kind-of inner circle. From each of these a single torch flickered casting shadows around the stones. It was from these shadows that six figures stepped forward.
None wore a uniform of any kind, but each moved with identical movements, silent and solid. One was dressed like Hagren in black and grey cloth cinched close to the body with no visible metal to caste the least bit of light off him. Another was dressed as a wealthy merchant, the one next to him a beggar. Emerson was certain he had seen the one dressed as a priest early that day. Professionals, he thought.
Hagren raised the bells up high as he spoke:
20 bells a-silver’d
Each to be deliver’d
What was hidden,
Now is found.
And all was done,
Without a sound.
“Congratulations – you have passed our test, as all members of our circle have for 200 years. By finding the bells and returning them without a single person knowing, we know initiate you into the guild. Now: make your pledge!”
Emerson bowed his head without a sound. The others followed. Each left the chamber wordlessly, embraced in Silence.
The Silence had an interesting reputation in those days. Although many tellers of tales spoke of a mysterious Thieves Guild working in the shadows to rob the rich and give to the poor, they were not such noble men. Nor were they as ignoble as the constables of Gerring’s Landing – their reputed home – would have you believe. While official policy was to deny the existence of the group, every seasoned watchmen had seen his share of trackless, seemingly meaningless burglaries pulled off with such precision that many suspected magic. There were doors, heavily bolted that had nonetheless been circumvented, and tales of shadow-men who could scale walls like insects.
Emerson walked down the streets of Gerring’s Landing as he thought about these things. It was part of the Silence’s façade to encourage both rumors, of course. If the small folk wanted to believe in courageous anti-heroes, it gave them hope and purpose, which could be used in the future: the will of the people was a powerful tool that the Silence well understood. As for supernatural boogey-men: fear worked as well as stealth to accomplish some tasks.
His initiation into the Silence two years ago had taught him many things, but none more important than this: among all the things a thief could steal, among all the treasures and riches of the world, none was more valuable than information. This was the greatest misconception about the Silence and one that they closely guarded. As accomplished as they were as burglars, money was of little concern. The real value came from the information they stole, and the secrets the kept. A silver bell is a precious thing, but the sound it makes is more precious still.
But this was no time for such reflection – the sun was shining, the morning merchants were calling their wares and Emerson had an important meeting to keep. He sauntered down the planks of the High Dock, following the long ramp down to the dingy Bayfront.
Stepping into the Last Light Tavern, the bartender waved at him with a hearty “Hullo, Dannal” and Emerson replied in turn. His face was known around town as a merchant specializing in exports of Sol goods. Dannal made a good living. Emerson made a better one.
He didn’t stop at the bar but long enough to grab a flagon of wine, before making his way to the curtained room in the rear. There he found Algernon dressed in priestly vestments, the only known Wodin in the Silence. There was no man outside the Silence and few within that knew he was a user. Algernon motioned for Emerson to sit down and then closed his eyes for a moment. Emerson felt a familiar but no-less chilling shutter run through him.
“There we go,” said Algernon. “Now the room is safe. Let us talk.”
“Yes, and back it up.” Algernon took a drink and Emerson remarked on the strangeness of seeing a Caliphate Priest knock back a glass of wine in one gulp. Emerson refilled the cup as Algernon spoke. “We’ve received some strange news and we want you to investigate.”
“Strange you say?”
“In two ways – first, the nature of the news and second that we had no prior knowledge of such an event.”
“Well, spit it out.”
“Last night, just after two bells, a Blood Hunter arrived in Gerring’s Landing.”
Emerson paused. Were they actually going to ask him to tale a Blood Hunter? “I see why you’re upset we didn’t hear about this. Do we know the target?”
“No. But the fact that this Hunter arrived without our knowing is uncommon to say the least. If he is here on the hunt – and we can assume he is – we need to know his target.”
“And how his movements have been kept from us.”
“I will find him.”
“Once he arrived, we were able to identify him. He’s called Gor the Dusker. Of course, he will be operating with an alias, but perhaps that will help.”
Emerson finished his wine, leaving the rest of the flagon to Algernon. The man had a propensity to drink when he could not openly use Stone. Emerson left the bar with a heavy mind.
When you wanted something found or kept, you went to the Silence. When you wanted something dead, you went to the Blood Hunters. Both organizations were officially legends, but those in power knew better. The two organization had no ties – the Silence having begun in Solgard, the Hunters in Zhûrasca. The two organizations had never “professionally” met until now. In all the world there were perhaps 100 Blood Hunters and 50 members of the Silence.
Being employed by the Silence directly and not, say, hired by some Lord or other was not unusual. The Silence had to keep an ear to the ground in all matters of importance in order to stay ahead of the truly valuable news. But the Blood Hunters were different – their work was purely contractual in nature. While the Silence had a vested interest in trade market and the economy of lies, Hunters offered a service, plan and simple. Contacting them was difficult and a privilege reserved for those that could afford it: the Hunters were careful who to divulge their existence to.
Their rites and rules were closely guarded secrets, the same as any cult and the particulars were of little interest to the Silence. Their most notorious trait, and the one the Silence most wanted to understand, was that once a Hunter killed his quarry, he ate its heart. When a body of an official turned up with a clean cut in his ribs and a missing organ, hushed whispers were all the investigation the matter was given. All of those whispers found their way to the Silence.
And now there is one in Gerring’s Landing, Emerson thought. The High Dock was packed with shady characters and Emerson had to steel his mind from becoming paranoid. The Silence knew everything there was know, so why hadn’t they seen this? The unspoken answer, the one Emerson was sure Algernon and the rest of the senior leadership had arrived at, was that the target was one of the Silence.
And why send a member of the guild that was just two-years into his inclusion in said guild? Why, because he was the target, of course.
Beat out the chaff. Jettison the rotten cargo. Pit the peach.
“Hell,” Emerson said out loud.
Gor the Dusker emerged from his meditation. As his eyes opened, the sound of the tavern below reached his ears. His mind pooled together from its disparate residences, until he was himself once more. The Mark had shown itself clearly in the North, and a bit to the East. He rose, leaving the food that had been sent up untouched, and exited the small room.
In the room below, the staff was busy catering to their customers. Cool yogurt drinks were drained to refresh the body, weary from a long sea voyage or the work of the field. Here, in the city center, merchant, sailor, pirate, soldier and servant drank and ate as one. Gerring’s Landing was one of the great cities of Sol, Gor remarked, for here was all of Sol in one place. The great harbor, rivaling any of the myriad ports his ancient sight had seen.
He was barely noticed by the patrons or the staff – an unremarkable man of perhaps 30, perhaps 50. He moved with heavy strides and wide movements yet never made a sound nor bumped into another patron, it seemed. The slightest attention was not drawn. If anyone had been looking for a heart-eating bounty hunter of legendary prowess and cruelty, Gor would have been the last man picked; perhaps the boasting mercenary captain in the back, or the shifty-eyed cut purse at the bar.
Gor stepped into the sun and gave a moment to adjust to the light. He didn’t watch the crowds, searching for his target – he didn’t need to. He could feel the mark, a warm but not unpleasant feeling in the front of his skull. He would close in and follow the target, watching his movements. When he came close enough, the mark would show like a halo and he would know for sure. He thumbed the docket in his pouch, the Proclamation that listed his targets.
A Blood Hunter was bound by the Law to hunt only his targets and no other. All Hunters could see and feel the mark, of course, but only the designated Hunter could make the kill. And as long as a Hunter lived, his target could not be given to another. Hunter and Prey, inexorably tied.
“This one is special,” Atwallah Nazeem had said from behind his massive desk, littered with papers. Nazeem stroked his long black beard and rose with the grace of a dancer. He looked to be perhaps 60, but moved like a man half that age. He turned his back to Gor and scanned the towers of the city beyond the window.
“Information regarding Ro the Seven Crests was given to the Inquisition. He has been captured and killed.”
“Ro is dead?” Gor was astonished. It had been 50 years or more since a Hunter was killed.
“Of course he wasn’t going by Ro at the time, and thankfully he did not reveal himself under torture, but yes, they killed him. That Baron in Greysdown wasn’t worth it, it seems.” Nazeem returned his gaze to Gor, though the Dusker wished he hadn’t. He feared no man, but Nazeem was something else.
Gor predicted the next move. “I will find and kill the Inquisitor responsible.”
“No, you won’t. Others are working there. You have been chosen for better game: the head of the agent who sold the information.”
“But our laws …”
“…require us to kill those who kill our own. In my estimation, the killing could not have occurred without the sale of information. The knowledge of Ro the Seven Crests and his movements, even under the mask of his alias, is tantamount to turning the blade one’s self. It is my judgment, therefore, to issue Proclamation against Emerson Danvers of the Silence.”
At least the Mark had been placed. That made his job easy. If the legends of the Silence were true, then Emerson Danvers (whoever he was) and his ilk must already know of Gor’s arrival. He would go to ground if he was smart. He would try to fight if he was stupid.
Emerson inspected the slender blade before literally splitting a hair with its edge.
“Excellent, as ever.” He slid the longknife into the scabbard about his hip. Another dagger clung to his flank, strapped tight against his ribs.
A silent bow came from Jandice, reputed to be the best smith in Gerring’s Landing. She was a heavy woman who had taken up the trade after her husband’s untimely death. Ever a mediocre smith, folks were impressed when Balgrin’s widow ended up being a real master-in-the-shadows. These days one of her personally-forged blades could buy a wagon, the team to drive it and the cargo to fill it. Yet she bowed in silence and took no payment.
A wiser woman there never was, Emerson remarked. He would have to arrange for payment of some kind when this whole Blood Hunter matter had blown over. Properly prepared for combat, he tossed his fancy cloak over his garb and stepped into the street, Dannal once more.
He went to the trade house immediately, sending the inventory boys away and settling it to do some work. He checked the sun outside – nearly dusk. After locking the door to his office, he lay a large piece of parchment across his desk. Then, from his desk he drew out a small chest and from it, took three small runestones and a slender golden stylus. He carefully wrapped linen about his face and hands, closed the shutters and lengthened the wick on his lamp.
He carefully worked the stone as the seniors had taught him, singing the memory-rhyme to himself as he did to insure he followed the patterns exactly. In all, it took about three hours and by the end his head felt heavy and dull. He glance at his work and was satisfied.
The first stone was for the wind, to come rushing to him when called. The second contained a shadow under a tight stopper. The third summoned a corrosive agent that could eat through nearly everything, including steel prison bars, Emerson had found. The magic vessel stones, which at first had felt so powerful in his young hands, seemed suddenly more like bad street magic. What use was acid of the wind against a heart eater? Still, this was what he had: a good knife and some simple tricks.
No one saw him move through the alleys that night except the stray cat and the circling raven. The beggars did not reach for him, nor the late-vendors hold up their wares. The moon fell on Gerring’s Landing in islands of light as Emerson swam in the shadows.
He checked the docks but saw little. He watched from the Spire of Shaladria but there was nothing. East and West, Up and Down he watched the avenues and the secret streets. He slipped coins to the hands of Watchers and read the graffiti left by the Shadow Boys. Yet there was nothing.
Gor the Dusker raised his head from the indecipherable scribbling on the brick and watched the black ribbon glide through the streets. It was a good hunt, so far. His prey was fleet and able, armed with a fine long-knife, and with the smell of Stone clinging to him. If he was a caster, Gor was in for a treat but the boy – for he could not have been yet 20 – lacked the cocked-up chin of a caster. He was careful and relied on his body and his mind. A caster put his faith in the stone. Too bad. Still, he reflected, a good hunt:
The boy knew how to watch his back and how to run through water. When he was sure his position was not compromised, Emerson had stepped into the moonlight and approached a drunken bum who had the stiff shoulders of a stone-sober informant. It was then that Gor got his first good look at the face of his target. Freckles, bronze-red hair and fair skin, though none of these in excess. Not handsome, per se, but kind to the eyes to be sure. To see him move you would have thought of a dark and brooding shade of a man, yet here was, to all appearances, a successful young merchant. An up-and-comer.
Emerson moved to a rooftop and rested in the lee of a chimney stack. He’s frustrated, Gor realized. He knows he’s being hunted and he can’t figure out by whom. Gor did not know the feeling but he had learned to cultivate it in others. With his wits strained and his mind running mazes he would tire himself out, bleeding his wits as a speared boar. Fear worked as well as steel to accomplish some tasks.
Gor was atop the roof with a supernatural speed and grace. A few leaps here and there and the brawny figure was not five paces from the chimney and his quarry. He drew forth the curved dagger and began the Incantations of Heartfeasting.
Nothing. How could there be nothing? There was always something: a scrap of parchment, an overheard whisper, a botched innuendo. Gods, but these Hunters were good. He had checked everywhere he knew how. Every alley swept, ever manifest checked, ever shadow searched. Every shadow, he mused as the moonlight played upon the rooftop, except his own.
He rolled forward and the knife bit bricks and shingles. Coming around with his knife drawn he beheld the mass of a heavy man clad in a black-enameled breastplate, matching bracers and dark cloth between. His face was somewhat ugly and sun-browned, with matted black hair against his face. Except for the armor (which was certainly extraordinary), he looked like every unspectacular sailor, trader or soldier he had ever known. How a many replete in steel had snuck up on a member of Silence across a poorly tiled roof was beyond him, and there was little time for such thought beside.
Through dumb luck more than any skill, Emerson dodged three blades that came whirling past his head. He had not even seen the man draw them. Emerson fled, sliding down the roof with a loud clatter. Knives cut the air around him but missed him. Thrown off balance at the last moment as he dodged a spinning blade, he plummeted off the roof. Heart jumped into his throat but his mind stayed sharp. He fumbled for the first stone and crushed it against his palm.
The wind rushed up the alley to meet him, setting him down less-than-gently into the alley. Emerson sheathed his dagger on his hip and started to run. He suppressed a shutter when above him, he heard no sounds of pursuit.
He dove into a boarded up building he had inspected on his way down the avenue, always prepared to have a place to fall back to. At the last possible moment he contorted his body, landing hard on his shoulder and loosing half his breath but missing the trip wire that had been strung up there. Gods, if this Hunter saw him inspect the house, then he had been tailed for nearly three blocks without knowing. How long had he been watched?
Instinctively he got to his feet and ran in a random direction, leaping through a window and onto the streets again. He began to run full-steam down the cobblestones. My training is failing me, he realized. I’m afraid and I’m running in broad moon-light. He felt his leg rip as a dull knot turned into searing pain. Twisting and falling he saw the feathers of a crossbow bolt had taken him in the calf. I’m screaming, he realized. I’m dying.
The Hunter leapt from a three-story building, landing with little sound and less effort in the street below. His size belied his stealth, and as he stalked forward low and leering he slid another bolt in place. He closed to within 20 paces – enough to see veins in the boy’s eyes. He could hear the blood in those veins, practically taste the sweat coming off the brow. Gor the Dusker savored these last moments of tremoring sublime before the kill. The boy was clutching something …
Suddenly, all was darkness. Emerson rolled out of the way hearing a bolt ricochet off the stone street from where he lay mere moments ago. With the shroud-stone broken, he’d bought some time to move. He could still be heard but he could neither see, nor be seen. He rolled and rolled, tumbling himself towards a storm drain and falling down into the sewers.
He landed with bent knee, as he was trained, but with only one good leg, his weight collapsed under him drawing forth a choked scream. Gor turned at the sound, following the burn of the mark through the haze of the shadowspell. Eight paces to the drain, a two-span drop and he was standing in ankle-deep water. He shouldered the crossbow. He glanced first this way then that as he took out matching black short swords, straight and narrow in the Zhûrascan style.
Here, below the shadow he could trust his sight once more. He peered around corners and down long tubes that took water and waste out to the sea. The Mark burned near, but somehow out of reach.
Emerson moved his breath carefully in and out, filling his lungs and willing his heart to slow. The pain in his leg was immense. He had failed, he knew. It was only a matter of time until whatever means the Hunter was using to track him caught up to him. Emerson cursed his stupidity as he used a bit of his cloak to staunch his bleeding. A useless foot. A failed spy. A spoiled child.
Gor the Dusker’s mind was growing full and blush in the warmth of the mark. He basked in it’s waves as he turned the corner finding, to no surprise, Emerson standing in shallow water with a blade in each hand. Gor’s smile faded to a deep gaze of respect in appreciation of the boy’s courage. At least he would die a man.
Emerson could not move. Literally, his foot was hardly good for standing let alone the complex footwork of a knife fight. He stood there, trying to make his leg stop twitching. The pain was intense. He did not cry. He did not speak.
Gor walked forward and lowered his blades in the Eastern tradition of dueling. Emerson’s eyes burned from the sting of his wound, as Gor’s mind burned from the mark. Emerson saw Gor’s weight shift and he tipped his long-blade just slightly in response. Gor brought back his shoulders and Emerson flipped his dagger into an underhanded grip. The Hunter lowered his weight onto bent knees. The Agent did not move.
Gor dove forward with blinding speed and Emerson screamed – not from surprise, for he had anticipated the sudden attack – but from the pain of his injured leg. He brought it up in a high kick, throwing putrid sewer water into the air. The weight of the water was slight but made him feel as though his shin would snap back. Gor saw the foot and, much too late, the small stone that had been balanced on it under the water.
The stone took him in the face and, as Emerson fell under the water dropping his blades, Gor screamed and clawed his face. The water was no help. He cried out with abandon, the muffled demon-scream coming to Emerson in thick tones under the sewage. He came to his knees and crawled for the steps set in the wall. He dragged himself up as the Hunter thrashed about like a shark struck by a harpoon. Emerson used what little strength he had to climb out of the manhole.
A city guardsman hauled him up the last steps and, for a moment Emerson felt fear run through him once more. I’m worse than dead, he thought. I’m caught!
“Mr. Dannal, is that you? What’s going on here?” the guard asked.
Emerson nearly let loose a sigh but held onto the visage of his fear long enough for the guard to soak it in. “Thank the Gods you’re here! I was attacked by a brigand of some manner! He dragged me into the sewers! He’s …”
He turned and gazed down the ladder but there was no one. “He’s gone now,” he finished. He pretended to shutter and sob as the guards escorted him to Dannal’s residence.
“The Rules forbid you from informing a target of our Mark,” Nazeem raged.
The heat outside the window was unbearable. Hagren cursed the entire country of Zhûrasca and these damned Hunters in one thought. “The Rules also require you to inform us of the chosen Hunter’s arrival and movements. We’re even.”
Nazeem pondered this, knowing he was beaten but no less angry. “This is not over. The Mark still stands. He has killed the Dusker, we will send another.”
“You’ll do no such thing.” Emerson could have had no idea that carrying out his orders for the Silence could lead him to gain a Hunter’s Mark. When Hagren had learned of the Mark, he had made a choice to see what the kid was made of. Now he was getting the chance to spit in the faces of this Heartfeaster himself.
“Oh? And are you now in command of the Hunters? Have I forgotten my place?”
Hagren couldn’t help it. He smiled. “No, but you have forgotten your own Laws, which you so love to quote: As long as a Hunter lives, his target may not be given to another.”
Somewhere in a dark, lightless tunnel on the other side of the world, Gor the Dusker returned from his meditation, collecting the pieces of his mind and building once more his waking self. His hand rose form it’s folded position in his lap and felt the deep boils and stiff ridges of his mangles face. He ran a finger inside the recesses where once there were ancient eyes. He touched the bumpy mound that once was an ear. His breath came through in short, painful stings through three small slits that might have once been a mouth and nostrils. Nearly deaf and totally blind, he could still feel the gentle burn of the Mark somewhere on the horizon.