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The Sage's Lot - Prologue Pt1


Again he swallowed, and again the stinging ichor these westerners dared call wine made Xylin want to retch. Was he drunk? Surely not. One, two, three bottles wouldn’t do it. A little tipsy? Perhaps. But drunk? Never. Such foolishness was unthinkable, yet ever since reading those accursed letters, the unthinkable seemed all Xylin Jhaytaren could comprehend.

It had been such a simple assignment, hardly a strain to one of Xylin’s skill. He had only to slip into the villa and take the ledger, that was all. The quill-etched scribblings of the great house’s private dealings would be worth a mountain of coin to Xylin’s employer come the summer markets, and Xylin’s fee had likewise scraped the clouds. His entry wasn’t taxing, not for one with his particular gifts, and just as Xylin’s contact had promised, the toll of the midnight bell found this house’s drunkard of a steward stumbling from his office. Xylin slipped around the moonlit courtyard like a stalking panther, trailing his inebriated prey past inattentive guards and preoccupied servants. The steward, to his credit, studiously relocked every iron-barred gate he passed through, despite his ale-addled hands struggling to find the keyhole more than once. The mission would have ended there had the drunk’s shadow-skulking pursuer been a mere man. Alas, what were iron-barred gates to one of the Spectre’s bloodline? These damned westerners had no concept of the finer points of sagecraft, imprinting their city walls with great glyphs to resist those of The Blood and thinking that made them invulnerable. Back in Salpha, such vaunted homes would have had imprinted gateways, diverting illusions, and even sage-forged traps specifically designed to keep those of The Blood from prying where they were not welcome. But not here though. Not on this continent where sages were made to serve instead of rule. And it was that fact that snagged Xylin’s attention on the unusual fixture lurking at the rear of his bumbling subject’s final destination.

From the shadows, Xylin had seen the steward leave the ledger on his master’s desk, yet with all those gates, all those patrols, all the protection this high family heaped upon their precious records, why by the names of The Twelve had the man not then placed the book in the wagon-sized vault occupying the study’s far end? A vault that, even by the weak flicker of the steward’s candle, Xylin could see was imprinted with glyph after glyph after glyph. What unfathomable treasures must such a construct hold if even the prized ledgers were not worthy of a place? Xylin’s fascination should have ended there, but the Design was ever a fickle mistress. After fumbling with the paperwork strewn about his master’s desk, the flush-cheeked steward withdrew a bundle of letters from an inner-pocket of his silk-lined jacket and shambled over to the vault, opening it and placing them within almost reverentially. The great bronze cube was a marvel of modern clockwork, a technology these Marcher lords were getting rather adept at of late, and with the titan of a lockbox imprinted against sagecraft, Xylin had not a hope of liberating a single tantalising titbit from within. Fortunately, the maestro who fashioned such a pinnacle of workmanship likely hadn’t anticipated an inebriated steward’s need to enunciate each and every number he turned on the elaborate gear-driven dial like some schoolboy counting his fingers. Not to pry after such a providential invitation would have simply been impolite, and so as soon as the drunkard had tottered off back to his bottles, entirely oblivious to the shade lurking in his midst, Xylin had slipped from his darkened alcove and done the courteous thing. Now though he wished he had not. By the names of all twelve gods and the sinking void where his stomach once resided, Xylin wished he had not looked. But he had, had looked and found those letters bearing the seal of a rearing ram upon a blazing sun, had opened them, and now he knew. Knew what lay ahead. Knew the machinations these western devils thought to hatch. Knew something so dangerous, so powerful, that for but a few breaths all the skills Xylin had fashioned over his one hundred and twenty-three years fled his skull, leaving him a mewling babe trying to make sense of those ominous scratchings. And that, as the Design would have it, was exactly when one of the patrols had checked the room.

“What the fuck!” was the extent of the gruff guard’s introduction, to which Xylin respectfully replied with a half-step of razor-edged steal hurled end over end. The guard fell back through the doorway, uselessly pawing that torrent of blood jetting from his throat and unable to raise the alarm further. Unfortunately, he didn’t need to.

Shouts rang from the hallway beyond the study, leaving Xylin just enough time to pocket the letters, drawn his pair of wickedly curved long-knives, and surge through the doorway in a blur of black silks before the rushing slap-slap of leather on stone was given form in three more guards, weapons already drawn. Xylin’s employer hadn’t wanted bloodshed, hadn’t wanted anything more than a little edge when the harvest auctions came about, but the mission had changed. The stakes were now greater than some many-chinned merchant aiming to squeeze a few more silvers into an already heavy purse, greater still than any qualms Xylin had for ending the men before him. Even with the wrap about his face, any survivors would surely remember the dark hue of Xylin’s hands, entirely at odds with the pallet of pallid and pale tones that defined those native to this continent. No, there could be no witnesses. Nothing that might keep the information Xylin now held from reaching someone, anyone that might stand against it.

Xylin could have sundered the three men to red mist and scattered offal with a few choice twists of the Voice, but then it would be clear that a sage was the culprit. Best to keep things subtle, or as subtle as blades ever were. The thudding staccato of Xylin’s heart filled his ears, his every muscle infusing with a tiny fraction of a god’s power as he launched himself at his adversaries. The first man swung an iron-banded cudgel with surprising skill, flowing strikes that would have cracked bone and caved-in skulls on a lesser man, but Xylin was no lesser man. He slipped from each swing like a leaf on the breeze, weaving about the lamp-lit corridor until he saw an opening. Then, swift as a scorpion’s strike, the curved blade of Xylin’s long-knife flashed silver then red as it pierced first the man's boiled leathers then his heart. The man took one more step then crumpled like a marionette with its strings cut. The remaining two guards had a short sword and buckler a piece, the small shields deflecting Xylin’s first forays into their defences to the shriek and sparks of steel on steel. The men had clearly trained together, their small weapons perfect for the tight confines of the villa’s innards. They attacked in unison, common sword-forms drilled to perfection as their blades rose and fell, thrust and parried. It felt cruel to cheat victory from those that had clearly honed their craft to such a degree, but since when did spies play fair? Xylin cried a shimmering wave of the Voice that struck the two men like a kicking mule, throwing one from his feet and slamming the other against the wall. The floor-bound fighter righted himself just in time to see Xylin open his compatriot‘s throat in a spirting crimson crescent. In that moment all poise left the surviving guard, all that carefully mastered skill forgotten for blind rage, and it very nearly worked.

The guard threw his buckler, forcing Xylin to dance back and giving the man enough room to claim his fallen comrade’s blade. He fell upon Xylin in a fury of visceral roars as short swords met knives again and again. After a furious exchange that nearly had Xylin on the back foot, the rampaging guard brought both blades down as one, hoping to simply overpower the Xylin’s defence. Xylin raised both curved knives and funnelled the strikes together so that his own blades were crossed, catching the vicious short swords a mere finger’s length from his brow. The gambit left the guard open for an easy Voice cry, for Xylin to channel his diluted divinity into a hammer blow that would send the man cartwheeling away, and the guard knew it. Xylin saw it in his eyes, the hatred, the resignation to his fate, and then the tiniest flash over Xylin’s shoulder. Xylin’s eyes darted to his one knife that was not coated in scarlet, to the polished flat of the blade that caught the sputtering lamplight and the blurred form rushing from behind, the flash of a war axe’s steel head raised high. Xylin grinned the smile of a desert asp, graced the man before him with his most devilish wink, and then soul-shifted.

In a fraction of a breath, Xylin’s entire body became a muted mist, as pale and insubstantial as the daybreak fogs that bathed his sun-parched homeland. The guard before Xylin stumbled forwards, all the strength he had forced upon his blades now his undoing as he passed straight through his apparitional assailant and into the path of his reinforcement’s swinging axe. The axe-head buried itself in the guard’s skull with a meaty crunch, and the new combatant hadn’t even enough time to wrench it free before Xylin had slipped around him, reconstituted himself into solidity, and plunged both blades into the poor fool’s neck. Yes, the powers of the Spectre’s bloodline may allow one to commune with the dead, but it could also help add to their number.

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