The wintry wind tossed the tiny craft about as its lone occupant rowed vigorously towards the dock. Keed Pyr had long since given up the single sail of the boat to the unforgiving storm. Progress towards his destination had been painfully slow. If he had not had the strength of his faith to carry him, he would have turned around long ago. With each draw of the oars, more ice and rain fell, and the water now measured over his ankles. He could not take the time to bail; it would be futile anyway. If his strength held out, he would reach land soon. If not, bailing would little matter.
Little by little, he closed on his destination. As he neared the dock, Keed realized that there would be no easy way to get to shore. The mooring had long been abandoned to the storm, and without help, he could not safely tie up in the heaving waters. This was just as well for Keed; he knew the locals seldom welcomed his kind. It was always best to arrive quietly, however challenging that proved to be. With his physical strength on the wane, he knew he had only one chance. He struggled to get the boat as close to shore as he could and then, abandoning the oars and grabbing his equipment, he capsized the boat. This was easy, since the boat had wanted to do this for hours.
With his armor, shield and sword weighing him down, Keed sank quickly in the shallow depths of the riverbank. Fortunately for him, he had gotten close enough so that, when he got his footing, he was standing in waist-deep water. Carefully, he climbed up the riverbank to the end of the dock.
Turning to his boat again, he saw that the little craft had righted itself in the turbulent river, but had taken on too much water. Now, the whitecaps were cresting its gunnels and the craft would soon be taken to the bottom. Keed thanked the god of the river, Crystalis, for his assistance and then continued up the path led up the banks to the village of Grimwell. His immediate destination laid several dozen paces down the riverbank to his left, the walled enclave called the Final Rest Inn. The wall around the establishment was made from local stone, carved by masons whose great grandchildren were long since dead. It was higher than any wall Keed had seen around fortified towns, let alone around an inn.
As he entered the enclave, he identified four buildings he had been told about by his superiors. To the right was the innkeeper's house, a place for him to avoid. To the far right were the stables, a usual destination for his kind in a village such as this. To the left was the Inn. Finally, to the far left was the mausoleum. Even with sleet stinging his face, Keed's dark, deep-set eyes lingered over the old stone crypt a little longer than the other buildings, and then he headed towards the Inn.
Instead of going to the front door, he headed around the back of the Inn as he had been instructed. He eased passed the door to the kitchen without being noticed and arrived at an iron-studded door with no handle. This was it. He pounded twice and waited for a moment. He listened to his heartbeats, counting twenty and then repeated the knock.
A sword blade came out through the open doorway, followed by an older man. Cold and wet as he was, Keed observed the way the weapon was being held - more like a club than a sword. To Keed, this was no threat.
“I seek a man called Feriq who sympathizes with my cause. I am called Keed,” he said, ignoring the sword.
“A bit young for this work, aren't you?” Feriq replied. “I've been waiting for you for hours. Come in before you catch your death.”
With the sword lowered by his side but still in his hand, Feriq led Keed down a corridor a few paces. Dust and cobwebs were thick in this corridor, telling Keed that this was not a part of the Inn frequented by many.
Keed's appraisal of the old man was not much better than that of the corridor. Feriq's hair was gray and scars marked his face and hands. Though he was large and did not seem too flabby, he moved stiffly. Keed tried to stare into the man's eyes, but the commoner avoided him. Keed was used to this. No one wanted to stare into the eyes of a Konlar.
“You will be safe here as long as you need to stay. By the Gods, please make that as short a time as possible. My employer has little patience for the people of your Order.” Reaching out to the wall, Feriq pushed it and a narrow panel moved aside revealing a constricted staircase leading upward. After climbing a flight, they came upon a door that stood open. The room beyond was austerely decorated, with a bed, chest, table and a chair. Rain pattered against a small window.
There was dry wood stacked in a corner and Feriq crossed to get a fire started. “There's some cold meat, cheese and bread there on the table, and you'll find a tunic, breeches and boots in the chest.”
Keed put his things down on the bed, took the dry clothing from the chest and began to change. By the time he was out of the wet clothes, Feriq had started a fire and he was able to warm up and put some food in his belly.
“I would guess you were Ulonian by birth,” Feriq said. “Your dark skin and eyes give you away. Can't say I can place the white hair, though,” he said, pointing to the silvery shoulder-length, flaxen hair on Keed's head.
“That happened in the Academy,” Keed replied curtly.
“During your Trial?” Feriq asked excitedly.
Keed's cold, penetrating eyes stabbed out at the old man. “You seem to know a good deal about the Order,” Keed said sharply.
“Yes, well, I've been part of the network for a good many years. The hair is nothing to be ashamed of, really. I've seen many of your kind in the same condition. Of course, mine is natural,” he said, grabbing at the white, wiry tangle of hair atop his own head. “Well, being Ulonian would mean you come from one of the southern kingdoms. Did you know that?”
Keed pushed another piece of bread into his mouth. “It's unimportant,” Keed said. “I serve the Gods and they are everywhere.”
“You serve the Gods!” Feriq laughed. “When you have had comrades corrupted by Pestilence before your very eyes and you must kill them, then you can truly say you have served the Gods.”
Keed was about to chastise the insolent commoner for questioning a Konlar, but he held his temper. “Your service to the Gods is most appreciated,” Keed said smugly.
This only seemed to irritate Feriq more. “So naïve. How could your superiors have sent you to take care of such an important task? Do you have any idea what you will be up against?” he asked rhetorically.
“Keep your place, peasant! Our agent's report was quite explicit,” Keed replied calmly. “I will take care of this.”
Feriq face stretched into a very unpleasant smile. “I was told by my contacts that you are among the best they have seen in many years. Such praise is hard to come by with my friends.”
Keed merely nodded. No expression crossed his face. Pride was a cultivator of corruption.
Feriq pressed on. “Tell me what it's like to be the best Konlar, would you? I'm told that you would kill your own mother if you thought she was corrupted. Is that right?”
Keed felt his ire coming up. How dare he question Konlar! No, the voice in his head said. He has his uses to the Order.
“Of course, that would require that you know who your mother is,” Feriq said. “We are told that they steal you from your cribs just after you are weaned, and a gold coin is left where you once slept. Is that correct? Have you ever stolen babies from their cradles?”
Anger swept over Keed like a storm. None challenged Konlar, the only ones pure of spirit. All else were corrupted or corruptible. Much as he would like, however, he could not kill the man. His usefulness to the Order was paramount. Standing to face Feriq, he rasped out his words with all the control he could manage. “If I didn't have need of your assistance, you would be dead now. So, if you have something to say to me, I suggest you stay your tongue. My tolerance of you is wearing thin. Now leave me in peace.”
Feriq smiled. “You should take care to control that temper of yours. There aren't many warriors your age who can, but you have to if you will defeat your foe. He is very clever and uses deceit as a weapon.”
“I'm not in the habit of taking advice from commoners on how to defeat Pestilence's minions. Keep your place,” Keed said.
The older man nodded. “I will leave you now. Rest well. No one will bother you and I will knock loudly when I return. One thing: please do not leave this room until it is time. You will cause too much of a stir in Grimwell if you are seen, and I fear a few of our residents may not stand up well to your scrutiny.”
Keed did not bother to acknowledge the request. He would do as he pleased to accomplish his task. “I will need rope and enough dried food to last me a week,” Keed said to him. It was an order, not a request.
Feriq nodded. “You will have them tomorrow,” he said. “What about a horse?”
Keed shook his head. “No, it will only complicate my plans. If you hear of a righteous person losing a horse, however, please see to it that they are justly compensated.” Feriq nodded and left.
Keed rested through the next day and, as he watched dusk fall upon Grimwell through the tiny window, he readied himself to go. By the time night had fallen, he had dressed and slipped out the back door of the Inn. He did his best to stay in the shadows and avoid contact with the locals. As far as he knew, no one knew he was in town and he preferred it that way.
He made his way to the northeast of town, arriving an hour later at the Church of Holy Aspiration, a modest place of worship in passable repair. The pastor greeted Keed and, after receiving a gold coin, the priest was more than happy to bless him. After removing his sword, Keed prostrated himself before the altar and prayed to the Gods to cleanse his spirit and make him worthy to be their champion. The priest said mass and gave Keed the Blood of Crystalis, the holy sacrament to cleanse and invigorate his spirit. Once his prayers were through, Keed nodded to the priest and took his leave.
Though it had stopped raining, the cloud cover was still quite thick, removing any moonlight that might reveal his presence. The rain had left the ground soaked, however, and, as Keed left the road to cross the fields as he moved west, he found it slow going. He skirted a farmhouse along the way and, in doing so, edged his way along the ruins of an old stone structure. At first he thought he would use the structure as cover, but as he closed on it, he began to feel anxious. The closer he came, the apprehensive he became. The reason came to him soon enough, however. Even at this distance, he could tell that the place was strong with Pestilence; either now or in the past, the place had been corrupted through horrific acts. He made a mental note of it; the place needed to be cleansed, but not now. He changed his path and circled around the ruins.
Two hours later, Keed slipped into the trees near to the eastern wall of the Grimwell Priory, home to the monks of the Order of Sontor; they were known in the vernacular as Scribes, producers of all documents written, from birth records to contracts to the beautifully illustrated manuscripts of the liturgy. After a stealthy surveillance, he found the wall unguarded. He removed his armor and tied one end of the rope around it. Climbing the tree closest to the wall, he easily made his way out along a branch and onto the wall. In the silence of the night, where his own breathing sounded loud enough to wake the dead, his drop onto the wall announced his presence like an explosion. He waited in a crouched position for some time, expecting someone to come running out of the Priory. But there was no one. Finally, he stood and, using the rope he had tied to the armor, he hauled it up the wall and put it back on.
The area within the Priory walls was large, with the `L' shaped Priory itself only occupying a quarter of the space. Much of the remaining area was covered with trellises that the monks used to grow a special strain of hops for their ale. This early in the season, the trellises stood empty, though some bore the dried out remains of last year's vines. From Keed's position on the wall, he could see into several of the windows of the Priory; though most at ground level were either covered over, he found one that was not.
Dropping down from the wall, he crossed the yard through the freestanding trellises and reached the outer wall of the Priory. Looking through the small window, he found the room beyond was dark. Using his dagger, he broke the lead seal around the window and quietly removed a section of the glass. Through the opening, he was able to undo the window's latch; moments later, he entered the room. He found himself in a monk's cell, though it appeared unoccupied. A single wooden cot and a desk with an empty inkwell made up the entire trappings of the room.
As quietly as possible, he moved the desk in front of the door, which bore no lock or other way to bar it. He removed his cloak and rolled it into his pack; from the same pack, he removed an iron medallion that hung from a chain of iron links and put it around his neck. The slightly rusted pendant was the symbol of the Konlar, which all Mortals knew and feared when they saw it. Keed knew the symbol, known as Alonsu, was also used to identify Pestilence and its servants. Though he did not fully understand why, he had been told that it was nature of Konlar, that they would not exist without their foe and thus, they were tied together.
He had arrived at the Priory under cover of darkness several hours before his work would begin. The information gathered by Konlar's network was that a minion of Pestilence would come to the great hall of the Priory as the monks were breaking their fasts this morning. So, he would wait. Still in his armor and sword in hand, he made himself as comfortable as he could on the bare wooden cot and closed his eyes. Anxious, rest was elusive as his mind danced between consciousness and nightmare. Finally, as the first rays of dawn were beginning to eek through the window, he rose.
Moving the desk back to its original location, he cracked the door slightly and looked out into the dimly lit corridor. There were no signs of movement. However, there were smells in the air. Mixed with the smoke from warming fires and the smell of freshly baked bread, Keed smelled a bitter scent, like that of urine or vinegar. It was not too potent but its presence was undeniable. It was the smell of Pestilence's influence, a trail to his quarry. The stronger the odor, the closer and more powerful his prey.
He jumped as the Prime bells rang a few moments later, calling the monks to prayers before the morning meal. A stream of men of all shapes, sizes and origins flowed out of their cells down the corridor. The bellies of a few of the monks flowed over their rope belts. Though their vows committed them to an ascetic life, some of the brothers had obviously been unable to strictly adhere to its Rule. Life in this Priory was better than most, largely due to donations by noble patrons in need of prayer; the Priory's success was also due in no small measure to their growing renown as makers of the finest ale in these parts. In Keed's mind, the Order house was ripe for corruption. It was no wonder he found himself here today.
He waited a little while longer, until he heard the many voices of the monks raised in song. It distracted him. It had been several years since he had heard such angelic sounds and he wondered how Pestilence could stand in the face of such beauty. Keed left the cell and walked slowly and silently down the corridor toward the song. Eventually, it opened into a great chamber that, from the looks of it, served many purposes for the Priory. In the center of the room was a long common table with benches. On the table were warm loaves of bread and bowls of something steaming. Standing two paces back from the table were the monks, their voices still raised in song.
To accomplish his task, Keed needed to isolate his foe, which he now realized would prove difficult. Though he had been told there were only fifty monks in this Priory, nearly twice that number now stood before him. As he began to work out a plan, the song ended and several monks approached the center of the table carrying a chest. The object of everyone's attention was small, less than a pace in length and half that in width and height, and it was made from silver and gold. Even in the dim light, it sparkled like a gift from the Gods.
A monk in a white robe stepped closer to the table and placed his hand on the chest. “As the Prior of this holy place,” he said, “I had no sadder day than the one in which the relics of our patron were stolen. The circle is now complete. Today is the happiest day of my life. On behalf of the Grimwell Priory,” the white robed monk said, “we welcome our guest who pays us the greatest honor of all - returning the relics of Saint Egult of Fafalle to his home. The Gods be praised.”
As the Prior spoke, Keed watched him closely. Even over the distance of twenty paces that stood between them, the Konlar could see the man's eyes. As the Prior's gave was turned in his direction for a second, Keed looked beyond his eyes. There, against the white tapestry that was the man's spirit was scored a dark stain. It told Keed two things: that the Prior was not his foe, but that the man had recently encountered a strong minion of Pestilence. He was not worried for the Prior. This was a pious man who would be able to cleanse his spirit with hard work and time.
“Now, Father Abbot, who has traveled all the way from Nythoria with our beloved Saint will address the humble servants of the Gods,” the Prior said, backing away from the Saint's relics.
Before Keed saw the eyes of the older man who now approached, he knew it was his foe. Dressed in white and supporting himself as he walked with a crooked staff, he appeared the very image of a saint. But Keed was not deluded. Still, before he passed judgment, he needed to see the man's eyes in order to confirm what he already knew to be true.
“Pray bow your heads,” the Abbot said as he spread his arms and raised the staff towards the reliquary. “May the Gods shine….”
As the Abbot looked in Keed's direction, the Konlar looked deeply into his spirit. He was not disappointed. Compared with the white tapestry of the Prior, here was a blackened one. Scorched to the shade of charcoal through repeated corruptions, this was a spirit that served Amulon's cause. He slipped his sword from its sheath and boldly struck out into the room and headed directly for the Abbot.
Several of the monks saw him coming into the room and screamed in fear. This was not an unexpected reaction from Mortals, as Keed knew. However, the Konlar measured his first miscalculation as the fear spread rapidly through the five score of monks. As the panic set in, they fled the room as fast as they could, many holy men stepping over others to get out. The Prior, the Abbot and a few other white robed monks remained, standing near the reliquary.
As Keed approached, the Prior stepped forward. “I demand to know the meaning of this,” he said, looking at the symbol around Keed's neck. “Konlar are excommunicated. I give you leave to depart here, but know this. You are in my Priory and I want you to leave now.”
“You stand as a servant of the Gods,” Keed said to the Prior, “or I would kill you now. Your recent associations with Pestilence have left a mark on your spirit, however.” The Prior's mouth dropped open and he stood before Keed speechless. Keed tapped the Prior on the shoulder with his sword. “I suggest you find a chapel and get yourself cleansed. I also suggest you get out of my way or you will find your head rolling on the floor.”
Unmoving out of shock, the Prior stood frozen in place. Keed saw a puddle forming at the Prior's feet and stepped around the man. Between him and the Abbot stood five monks; a quick look into the first man's eyes told Keed that he had made a second miscalculation. The Abbot's immediate circle was nearly as corrupted as he was. His third miscalculation revealed itself when two of the monks pulled back their robes to withdraw longswords. As they did so, he could see they were also wearing chainmail.
The first of the two monks launched an attack while the other moved around Keed. The first was skilled, but the Konlar realized that he was merely a diversion from the other. Keed switched his sword to his left hand and, as the first monk attacked, parried the attack. As the second monk closed, Keed brought his gloved hand back and struck the man as hard as he could in the throat. The monk dropped to the ground like a stone, wheezing and gasping for air.
Keed leapt away from the first monk who had moved to his blind side. As he did, he heard the monk's sword coming towards him. The blade struck his arm and glanced off his armor. Switching his sword back to his right hand, Keed raised the blade in time to block another attack. The Konlar tried to push the blade back but found the monk much stronger than he expected. As they pressed each other, the two fell to the ground. Swords were useless at this close range and they began wrestling with each other.
As if from nowhere, Keed's opponent suddenly had a dagger in his other hand and drove it into the Konlar's shoulder. As the monk tried to turn the blade inside the wound, Keed grabbed the man's hand and, with all the strength he could muster, pulled it out. Now in close proximity, Keed could look into the monk's eyes. The blackened tapestry was complete with this one. In fact, there was something else. A presence that was not Mortal.
For a moment, Keed was surprised and counted his fourth miscalculation. This monk and perhaps others were not simply corrupted - they were possessed by minions of Amulon. It was not possible to tell what minion had them in their grips, but there was no mistaking it. He knew his duty. He must destroy as many of them before they destroyed him.
Summoning all the loathing and bile he could, he smiled at his foe. “Die with me today,” he said through clenched teeth. “I go to sit at the table with my Gods. You will exist no more.” With a newfound strength, the dagger's point turned so that it was aimed at the monk's head. Dropping his sword, Keed suddenly grabbed the dagger with both hands and drove it into the monk's eye. After a moment, the body went limp.
Exhausted, Keed rose to his feet only to find one of the three remaining monks with a crossbow aimed at him. The Konlar looked around to find his sword.
“That would not be too prudent,” the Abbot said to him. “Of course, you will be dead sooner or later. Well, though you have finished the host body of my associate, at least you can watch as he acquires a new one.” The Abbot pointed to the body of the monk with the dagger in his eye and, as they watched, a bulge formed in the man's throat. A moment later, the bulge burst to reveal a reddish-black snake-like creature a half pace in length and no thicker than his thumb. Keed recognized it from his training. This was a Vogek, also called a Serpent or a Spirit-eater.
Keed felt a wave of nausea as he looked at the creature. The bitter smell that Keed had detected earlier was suddenly so strong that it made him nauseous. The Vogek slithered across the room towards the Prior. It moved so quickly, Keed did not have time to react before it reached the Prior's feet. It rose up and touched the skin of the Prior's leg. As it began to burrow into the skin, a dagger flew through its head and pinned it against a nearby wall.
The dagger had surprised Keed. He spun to see where it had come from. There, on the far side of the Abbot stood Feriq. He had opened his robe to reveal a belt of throwing daggers across his chest atop a coat of chainmail. Feriq had two more daggers in his hand and, in the blink of an eye, one was buried in the throat of the man holding the crossbow.
As the remaining monk blocked Feriq, the Abbot grabbed the crossbow. Keed grabbed his sword and looked towards Feriq. The older man smiled. “It is likely one of us will die now,” Feriq said. “But the other will kill this Pestilence and in so doing, go to the Gods. Five count.”
Keed also smiled and turned his attention to the Abbot. If Feriq threw his daggers, Keed need to be out of his line of attack. As he took up position to Feriq's right, he saw the older man nod. At first did not know what to make of it. With the second nod, he realized that Feriq was beginning the count. A count to five. He counted the rest and launched himself into the fray.
With his blade held high, Keed reached the monk who stood between him and the Abbot. A moment before the blade fell, the monk opened his mouth and a noxious red gas began to issue forth. It quickly filled the area near Keed, who held his breath the moment he saw it. However, the gas burned his nostrils and eyes. With tears flowing and clouding his vision, Keed brought his sword down upon the monk with all his might and severed the man's head from his body. Then Keed fell next to the headless corpse on the floor and began gasping for breath.
The gas quickly dissipated and, with his eyes still burning, Keed jumped to his feet. He watched as Feriq threw one of his two remaining daggers, and barely missed the Abbot. The corrupted man fired the crossbow and struck Feriq in the chest, taking him to the ground. Keed charged the Abbot and swung his sword. The Abbot used the crossbow to block the blade. Keed's sword dashed against the Abbot's bulky weapon several times before the crossbow fell to pieces, leaving the Abbot was defenseless.
Dropping to his knees, the Abbot said, “Mercy! Please, mercy.”
Keed laughed. “There is no mercy for Pestilence,” he said. With that, he swung the sword and decapitated the Abbot.
Rushing over to Feriq, he examined the wound. The crossbow bolt had penetrated the older man's armor, but it had gone into the shoulder, missing all the organs. He would recover with attention. As Feriq regained himself, he said, “Are they destroyed?”
Keed nodded as he helped the man sit up. “We have killed them all, now,” Keed replied.
“No, you fool, our work is never done,” Feriq said. With his remaining dagger still in his hand, he flung it. Keed turned quickly to see another Vogek slithering out of the headless monk towards the Prior. Feriq's dagger missed this time. Leaping to his feet, Keed dashed to intercept the Vogek, but he was too late. By the time got there, the Vogek had tunneled into the Prior's skin and disappeared.
Hopeful that he might be able to save the worthy Prior, Keed watched with horror as the Prior's expression changed. Where he had been glassy-eyed, the orbs burned brightly, malevolently. As he looked beyond the eyes to the Prior's spirit, he could see the corruption spreading. To Keed, there was no doubt that the Prior would lose his inner battle with the Vogek and his spirit would be consumed, forever lost. There was only one choice he had: he must free the Prior before the Vogek completed its corruption.
Raising his sword, he thought about the stroke he had used to kill the now headless monk. Severing the head had left the Vogek alive. Instead of swinging horizontally, he brought the blade down at an angle, cutting the man at the neck and deeply into his torso. Once the body had dropped, he hacked at it several times before he smelled the bitter, vinegary smell of the Vogek. By the time he was done, he was covered in blood.
He went to the other monks that lay about the room, some dead and some dying, and hacked them apart as well. Returning to Feriq, he found the man sitting with cloth stuffed in his wound. “I will be fine,” Feriq said, waving off Keed's attempts at helping him. “You must attend to your own wound,” he said, pointing to Keed's shoulder. “Besides, the people here will help me.”
“Help you?” Keed said, ripping off a clean piece of Feriq's monk robe and pushing it against his shoulder wound.
“Once I tell them that I chased off the insane man posing as a Konlar who killed all these people, they will honor me. It's unfortunate that I was unable to save the Abbot and Prior, but the remains of a Saint were saved,” Feriq said, gesturing to the chest and smiling. “There are many ways to serve the Gods.”
“But that is a lie. How can you perpetrate a lie?” Keed asked.
“It serves the greater purpose that we attend to,” Feriq said.
Keed smiled. “So you are Konlar, too? I thought as much.”
“You think too much, my young friend,” Feriq said, getting to his feet. “As I said, not everything is as it seems. By the looks of you,” he said, waving to Keed's blood-soaked clothes, “you figured out that the Vogek does not live in the head. Next time, swing at the base of the spine, just above the hips.”
“I will do as you say,” Keed said nodding.
“Now it is time for you to go. Take the horse tethered at the entrance to the Priory and ride west. I will tell them that you went east.”
Keed got down on one knee in front of Feriq. “I should like to have served with you longer. I ask for your forgiveness. How can I repay my debt of gratitude to you?”
“You owe me nothing,” Feriq said, raising Keed to his feet. “Ask Odan for forgiveness when she looks down at you. With any luck, you will serve a long time before the one-eyed Goddess judges you. Now, go with the Gods.”
“And may you be worthy to sit at their Table when your time comes,” Feriq replied. With a wave, he headed out the door and rode west.