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Chapter 1: The Heist

 

The two Conduits’ footsteps echoed through the narrow corridor of the side passage. With hunting bands out to scour the dead lands outside the castle, it had been easy enough for the Reaper to lead the way inside. A group of four halberdiers straightened at her approach, squinting through the gloom before relaxing as they recognized her.

“Hail, Reaper!” their leader proclaimed, nodding briefly. “Who’s that with you?” His eyes widened. “Is that the—”

When the Reaper attacked, it was all in a single flash. Leaving her swords undrawn, she weaved from guard to guard, pummeling them with bloodied fists until they fell to the ground, armor clattering louder than she would have liked. She paused, breathing lightly, hoping the commotion hadn’t been enough to draw any attention. The guards lay slumped on the ground. Whether unconscious or dead, it meant nothing to the Reaper. She’d already left a trail of corpses throughout Sepulkre, carrying out the Twin Kings’ will. There would be no redemption for her.

Yet, if this act of treason went well, she would have her revenge.

The Hex approached, stepping gingerly over the fallen guards. Without comment, she took a turn where the passageway diverged. Lantern light flickered over her grayish skin, horns showing prominently from the front of her bald skull. Once, she had been entrusted as the Twin Kings’ private librarian, meek and silent, fading easily into the background. Yet, her time spent reading the forbidden texts had changed her. Once clad in unremarkable robes, she had seemed like any other servant. She now wore only the most basic leather underclothes with wispy shadowy magic enveloping her. Her right arm rippled with words and symbols beyond the Reaper’s understanding, the demonic tattoo seeming almost alive. 

The Reaper turned away from her at once, leaving the Hex to sneak into the treasure room. Already she could hear the Inquisitor’s words as she relayed the most recent progress made during the Cull. But, distracted as she was, the Inquisitor would scarcely notice a commotion at all, so long as the Hex was quick and efficient. If she wasn’t, and the alarm sounded?

The Reaper squeezed both pommels of her blades for comfort.

Then I will slice my way out, the Reaper vowed, and take my revenge once and for all.

“A few refugees were working their way northward,” the Inquisitor said as the Reaper strode into the throne room. “A Conduit among them. I tracked their movements, dispatched a squad of hunters, and now they are no more.” The Inquisitor paused, delight showing in her eyes as she glanced at the new arrival. “Ah, just reporting on a bit of cleanup work. Yet the success of the Cull is, after all, thanks primarily to your efforts.”

The Inquisitor addressed the Kings in her typical garb, a gilded violet dress that billowed outwards—signaling her status as one of Sepulkre’s elite. A large gold collar stretched upwards behind her, framing her face and long ginger hair that sprawled outwards in all directions, typical for a noblewoman in this part of the realm. Her crimson eyes flicked to the Reaper mockingly as if she knew her remark would irritate the Reaper.

The Reaper scowled under her half-faced mask, showing only eyes filled with contempt for the Inquisitor. She could disappear into the background almost anywhere due to her simple brown garments, a shade lighter than her eyes and hair. It was a skill that had served her well, though her real strength was tracking down Conduits—and her aptitude with the twin blades at her waist. Adjacent to her large daggers, she wore a dark red cloth belt to clean the blood from her swords. Some say the belt was once off-white, like the trimming of her tunic—a true testament to the butcher she had become under the King’s rule.

In contrast, the Inquisitor was more a torturer than a fighter. Though she bore a long rose-colored whip lined with thorns designed for ripping flesh off her victims, she was content to stay in her tower, listening for treason throughout the city of Sepulkre and feeding into the natural paranoia of the Twin Kings. It was the Reaper who was their true enforcer.

She is right. The Cull was my doing.

The Reaper felt remorse for her actions. She’d gone along with the desires of the Twin Kings for far too long, scourging whole districts and sending Sepulkre into flames - such that only a few managed to survive in the charred ruins stretching out from the castle walls. Her hard eyes flitted over to those who’d caused her to kill with such reckless abandon.

They weren’t much to look at.

Oppius and Varus slouched in their thrones like usual, wine glasses near at hand. They had inherited their thrones at a young age, and despite assurances from supporters that they would mature into the roles, they never truly did. Despite their indulgent habits, they were tall and lean, hardly filling out their ornate red and gold robes yet still towering over their subjects. The twins were mirror images of each other, excluding the shock of white in their otherwise dark hair—left in Oppius’s, whereas Varus’s was on the right. Their pallid expressions were perpetually bored, though both perked up as the Reaper arrived. Varus even slapped his thigh and smiled, exposing wine-stained lips.

“Ah, Reaper! The Inquisitor here just told us how thorough the Cull is going. Not a dog nor a rat to be found for whole city blocks. Marvelous, simply marvelous!”

The Reaper inclined her head. “I do not deserve your praise.”

“Oh, but you do,” Oppius cut in, slurring his words. His bloodshot eyes fixed themselves on her. “I was just telling my brother how the Cull would not have been completed to our satisfaction were it not for your efforts. Indeed, he and I agree. You are the reason for its success.”

The Reaper’s eyes burned holes into the throne below Oppius. Then, unexpectedly, her vision seemed to swim. For so long, she’d been an uncaring instrument of destruction.

In the beginning, it had even seemed a worthy cause, hard-hearted though it might have been. An outbreak of the Red Plague had spread quickly, from the Church of Gwyn to the market square, and the Twin Kings had closed the castle gates in fright. As the disease raged outside, they decided to confront it head-on.

And so, I’d been entrusted with their dirty work.

The Reaper had cut a swathe through entire districts of Sepulkre, taking countless lives with her two blades, leading bands of hunters forward. Some had wavered, uncertain about killing their fellow citizens—she executed these few without mercy. She led the rest in hunting bands from dawn to dusk, burning and destroying the town more thoroughly than any invader could have accomplished. Still, it hadn’t been enough. She’d been tasked with ferreting out any survivors, led by the Inquisitor and her gift for hearing whispers in the distance. But it had been her, in the end, who had done the bloody butchery keeping the Twin Kings enthroned.

“No, it is all because of you,” Varus said, damning her with his praise. “You will be heralded for ages as the Reaper of Sepulkre—she who brought the Cull.”

And he was right.

She wavered on her feet, and it took her a moment to realize that a silence had fallen. The Reaper blinked, glancing up at the Twin Kings. “I’m sorry… did you—”

“Yes, we’re holding a feast in your honor,” Oppius declared. “Three days hence.”

The Reaper’s jaw dropped, and she felt a slight relief for having her mask still in place. After so much constant killing, destruction, and the continual haze of burning timbers, it felt strange not to wear it. “A feast… but it… I do not deserve this.”

“Oh, you do,” Varus said, raising a wine glass. “You do.” He tilted it forward, a bit of the red liquid overflowing and spattering on the ground like drops of blood. The Reaper studied it abstractly. Oppius frowned, sat beside his brother, holding an empty flagon of wine.

“Inquisitor, fetch me another flagon, would you?”

The Inquisitor frowned, staring into the distance - her attention drifting elsewhere. She brushed her long orange hair back, settling into place on her elegant green gown, exposing her ears. “Something seems amiss,” she muttered.

“My wine,” Oppius prompted.

The Inquisitor glanced over. “Of course,” she said, snatching up the empty flagon and hurrying back toward the store room in the back. A serving maid was usually present here, but the Inquisitor had flayed her alive for treason—or so she had claimed. Supposedly she had been mourning the loss of her family in the inferno outside the castle.

The Reaper couldn’t be sure what had alerted the Inquisitor, but it was clear there wasn’t much time. She adjusted one of her swords, tapping the point of one three times on the throne room’s floor.

There’s your signal, Hex. Get a move on!

The Reaper eyed the Twin Kings. They were alone, chattering to each other about preparations for the upcoming feast, talking of jesters and game fowl. She could charge in, strike like lightning, and perhaps even work her way out. If she moved now—

“Is your work proceeding smoothly?” Varus cut in.

The Reaper let out a long breath, grasping the hilts of her swords. “For the first time today, I went on patrol and did not wet my blades in blood. I doubt any survivors yet linger outside the castle walls. The Red Plague is finished. Even a thorough…” she trailed off, glancing beyond the Twin Kings.

Armor clattered as a full squad of royal halberdiers approached. Feathers proclaimed their elite status on their caps, tilting jauntily to the left, though they wore plate mail from below the neck. Their faces were recognizable to the Reaper from years of service, and a few nodded in respect and recognition. The Inquisitor hurried to the front, setting the now-filled flagon of wine in place. Oppius quickly poured as Varus studied the guardsmen with faint curiosity.

“What is this? Have you heard more sounds of treachery?”

“My Kings… ah… I hear more what isn’t there,” the Inquisitor began, with more than a touch of uncertainty. “The passageway is quiet, though I hear creaking from below.”

“Below… from the treasure room?” Oppius squawked, pausing in mid-gulp.

“A rat, perhaps?” Varus murmured.

The Reaper tensed. It seemed as if time stood still. She contemplated the movements that would bring her forward, one blade disarming Oppius while the second sliced through Varus. Yet she knew the Twin Kings had learned much ancient magic, keeping their powers guarded. Unless her aim were true, she would quickly perish from their blows. And now the Inquisitor was staring at her, an inscrutable look in her eyes, while the guards pushed forward. Lit by the sconces all around them, the throne room gleamed, golden furniture and silvery gray armor shining all around. Then she relaxed, letting go of her tension.

It was time to go.

The Reaper leaned forward, giving every appearance of being concerned, and rapped her sword three times on the floor with her sword again. The Inquisitor shot her a curious look, then glanced back at the Twin Kings. “I’m not sure, but the safety of your Majesties is paramount. Perhaps a thorough sweep of the area might be in order, just in case there are interlopers about.”

“Hmm… yes, well… see to it then,” Varus said, raising a hand in the air and glancing worriedly at his brother. The Reaper felt her neck prickling as she sensed a powerful undercurrent of magical energies—an almost imperceptible set of defenses seemed to veil the Twin Kings. The Inquisitor rushed past, running headlong down the passageway.

“I wonder, could some schemer have survived the Cull?” Oppius murmured.

“An assassin perhaps, from jealous rivals in Gen’Qui?” Varus echoed. “No doubt they envy our position here. We cannot be too careful.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” the Reaper cut in, gesturing at the nearest guardsmen. “You two, with me. The rest of you, fan out.”

The nearest two guards trailed after her as she strode back into the passageway, retracing her steps. Voices of concern echoed behind her, but it was all the Reaper could do to remain moving at a steady, unhurried trot.

Hurry up, damn you. We need to get out of here now.

“Wait!”

The Reaper froze. Slowly, she turned around. The Twin Kings had called out in unison, both slowly rising from their thrones, a mixture of emotions showing on their faces. Everything in her called for her to continue, but there was no openly defying the Twin Kings. That would be a quick death sentence.

“Come,” Varus said, beckoning for her. “I want you by our side.”

The Reaper clenched her jaw tight. Finally, she nodded and stepped forward, though she heard shouting in the distance.

Get out while you still can!


 

***

 

The Hex trotted forward. The route was barely illuminated by a few sputtering lanterns attached to wall sconces, but she could have found her way even in the dark. For years she had been entrusted to watch over the Forbidden Library, which stood just a few paces beyond the locked entrance to the treasury room. As she came to a halt, she sent a lingering gaze toward it, feeling a strange hint of nostalgia.

It was there she had first learned the dark arts, conjured into existence a creature of the Void, and learned many truths the Kings wanted to be hidden forever.

But her task lay before her. It hadn’t been easy to secure the iron key to the treasure room, but the Reaper had managed it. Even now, the dead guard captain lay undiscovered in a bundle of hay not a hundred paces away.

The Hex jammed the key in, feeling the lock give way and sliding the door open as quick and silent as she could. But, even distracted, the Inquisitor’s powers of hearing were enough to pick up any whisper of treason, and if the Hex failed at any part of her assignment, the alarm would be sprung. So she kept her breath low and furtive, snatching a lantern and darting aside. As the light danced along the gloomy interior, the Hex took in the vast quantities of stacked aurum bars around her.

The sight took her aback for a moment.

She’d always known that the Twin Kings had a monumental supply of funds, but to see it up close was another thing entirely. Several ancient flags were displayed prominently along the walls, the symbols of some forgotten struggles from centuries ago. A rusted short sword had been bolted in place along the wall, and a sizeable ceremonial mace tipped with silver was strapped to the wall beside it. She refocused herself on the task at hand.

The Savant recruited me to take the Soulstealer Chalice. If I find it quickly, perhaps I’ll have enough time to revisit the Forbidden Library again.

The Hex pushed forward, rummaging through the cramped surroundings as she shoved aside crates laden with jewels and whitecloth—a rare material used to make magical spells for Conduits like herself. She was also tempted to steal the Whitecloth, but her time was limited; the Inquisitor could only be distracted for so long. She recalled the Conduit’s unrivaled hearing and stifled her breathing, making no more sound than was necessary. Her eyes flitted from shelf to shelf as she made her way farther along. She grimaced as she bumped into another shelf, barely managing to snatch a carved golden hawk statue as it fell. Still, a few coins jangled loose, bouncing on the floor below.

The Hex held her breath for a long moment.

Faintly, she heard three taps on the ceiling above.

Damn, she thought to herself, setting the small statue aside and rummaging through the treasury room in a hurry. They’re on to us.

She opted for speed over silence now, a few more coins falling loose as she quickly moved from one area to the next. The Hex forced open a solid lockbox and grinned as she finally found what she was looking for. The Soulstealer Chalice gleamed in the dim light, and the Hex felt the presence of powerful magical energy as she held it aloft. The aura seemed to ripple through her body.

Three more insistent taps echoed from above.

The Hex pocketed her prize, snatching up two handfuls of aurum and stowing them, though several fell loose. She turned and worked her way back to the door. Then, bursting outward, she glanced toward the Forbidden Library down the hall and bit her lip in dismay.

No time.

The sounds of heavy footfalls and jangling armor announced the guards were moving as if a beehive had been disturbed. But when the first arrival came, they padded along on silent feet and green silks.

“You,” the Inquisitor hissed, emerging from the darkness with her segmented whip readied. “To think you’d dare show your face here again.”

The Hex clenched her teeth—she would much rather have taken on a band of simple-minded guards. She raised her hands to cast a spell, but the whip lashed forward before she could summon a being of the Void into existence. The Hex cried out in pain as it cut her left arm to the bone, whipping upward and spraying the ceiling with her freshly spilled blood. She gasped, backing away, as the Inquisitor let out a barking laugh.

“But this is for the best,” she continued, pulling her whip back as she readied another blow. “I’ll make your death a painful one.”

Bleeding profusely, the Hex nevertheless thrust her hands forward again, crafting a small portal to the Void. A Faceless creature strode out, human-shaped in dark clothes, but before it could even shapeshift, the Hex’s whip slashed through it. The creature reeled back with an unearthly howl; its body now ripped in two. The Hex blanched as the portal faded away, blood pooling all around her. She turned and ran, evading yet another strike of the whip. Shattered stone fragments soared down the corridor as the Inquisitor, laughing all the while, trapped her in the treasure room.

“I don’t know what you think you’ll do in there,” the Inquisitor taunted. “You’ll just die like a rat. Perhaps—”

The Hex sprung out from the treasure room as the Inquisitor neared the doorframe, jabbing forward with the oversized ceremonial mace. It slammed into the Inquisitor’s jaw, taking her by surprise as she backed away, parrying the next swing with her bladed whip. The Hex’s arm throbbed and ached, but she forced as much strength as she had into each blow, driving the Inquisitor back. Panic showed in the Inquisitor’s eyes—and then they flashed a pure white as her hair rose, magic sparking through her body.

“Guards!” the Inquisitor shouted, her voice booming as it reverberated through the castle - loud enough that the Hex’s strike faltered as she grimaced from the noise. “Guards!”

The Hex roared, stabbing forward, and was rewarded by the Inquisitor’s grunt as it smashed into her ribs. The Inquisitor exhaled deeply, falling to one knee, and the Hex swung her mace upward, cracking the Inquisitor’s jaw. The strike knocked the Inquisitor out cold, and she toppled to the ground beside her fallen whip. The Hex struggled to catch her breath, blood trailing freely from her torn arm, vision swaying.

The mace clattered to the ground beside her.

The Hex turned, stumbling forward, clutching at her open wound. She tried to retrace her steps in the gloomy passageway, but her progress was slow, and the sounds of alarm rang out behind her. The steps came up suddenly, and she tottered on the first two, gasping in fright as she stumbled forward and toppled down the stairs.

 

***

 

The Reaper glanced over at the nearest royal halberdier. One of the Twin Kings’ elite guards, known as the headsmen, stared fervently into the gloom until finally noticing her gaze. He nodded into the distance.

“What do you think is going on down there?”

Before the Reaper could make a reply, the unmistakable sound of the Inquisitor’s voice echoed through the throne room, strangely amplified.

“Guards! Guards!”

“Something’s afoot,” Varus muttered excitedly, pacing around his throne.

Oppius stayed seated, but he waved at the guards nearby. “You lot, find out what’s happening! The rest of you stay here.”

The Reaper let out a soft breath, half crouching and grasping the sword’s hilt on her right. There was no use delaying it further. She unsheathed her weapon in a single decapitating strike, causing the Headsman to lurch to the side, his helmet clattering to the ground.

“You!” Varus roared, but already the Reaper was weaving through the nearest guardsmen. She ducked under a halberd’s swing, cutting through metal and leather, and drew her second sword, stabbing to her side. Within moments a half dozen of the royal halberdiers had fallen, but others were approaching now, cautious in their movements.

Most had seen the butchery rendered by the Reaper up close.

“Treason!” Oppius shrieked, rising to his feet as his brother snatched up a whitecloth scroll. “You, our Royal Executioner? A traitor?”

The Reaper caught a glimpse of motion as Varus thrust his hand forward, wispy green trails of magic curling around it. She masterfully dodged away as a powerful blast of energy soared through the air, taking the head of an unlucky guardsman with it. The blast pierced through the wall across from the Kings, exposing the open night sky as the castle rang with shouts. The Reaper snatched her blades up and ran forward, fleeing the scene as another blast of magic fired outwards through the broken wall.

Other forms emerged as she rushed through the stairs; guards and servants cringed at her appearance but made no move to block her. The Reaper had taken a different route in her haste, but the chaos was enough for her to loop back around to the treasury room unfettered. Figures emerged in front of her—two guards hauling the unconscious Inquisitor between them. One bore an open helm, and his panicked eyes met the Reaper’s.

“What’s going on?”

The Reaper made no reply. It would be the work of a moment to cut them down, but every moment counted. So instead, she vaulted past, hesitating at the entrance to the treasure room. Three more guards were present, peering around and examining the pool of blood below.

“She can’t have gone far,” one grunted, lighting a torch from the lantern on the wall. The others noted the Reaper’s arrival with little interest. She glanced at the floor as the soldier cast light in the room, and together they noted the footprints leading toward the stairs, which abruptly faded away.

“Kill the Reaper!” a reedy voice shouted in the distance.

The guards looked toward her, puzzled. She reacted in a flash, lopping off the guard’s hand and sending his torch falling. Then, as the torch fell, she slashed away in a fury, cutting through the gaps in their armor until the last of the royal halberdiers were driven to the ground, choking on their blood.

Good, the Reaper thought, seeing their blood obscure the footprints. She ground her heel down into the sputtering flames given out by the torch, finally plunging the corridor into darkness. That should confuse any pursuers.

The Reaper turned, concentrating on picking up the faint trail left by any Conduit like herself. She placed her feet carefully as she went down the stairs. She could make out the crumpled form at the bottom, even in the darkness. The Reaper gritted her teeth. She rushed down the stairs and grasped the woman coated in blood.

“Still alive, Hex?” the Reaper grunted. She got no response. They had never been close, even before all this. Even so, she could not let her newfound ally die. She thought for a second, then hefted the Hex onto her shoulder.

There’s only one place where she might stand a chance of living through the night.

Pacing steadily, the Reaper exited the hidden side passage that she’d taken. Sepulkre’s cloudy night didn’t provide much illumination, with only the torchlight along the wall lighting her path. A ramshackle cart leaned against the wall a few paces away, and from this angle, the Reaper could see an arm sticking out. She grimaced at the sight. They had relied more on speed than stealth in their intrusion. The Reaper had been forced to hack down the guard captain and a few of his men, but they paled in comparison to the corpses stacked farther along the wall.

The Reaper staggered forward, feeling the Hex’s fresh blood trail down her. The Hex’s light breathing was the only indication that she still clung to life. Pushing onwards, the Reaper tried not to dwell on the piles of corpses around her, or how she’d caused most of them. They were the latest evidence of the Cull, an operation that had been so intense that they’d run out of sufficient oil and kindling to burn the rest. It had started as a way to ensure the Red Plague couldn’t spread into the castle.

Somewhere along the line, the momentum of the killing had only increased.

This one won’t perish. Not if I can help it.

“Shh, stay with me,” the Reaper whispered. She said nothing more. The Inquisitor might soon be on the hunt once again, after all. She padded away from the castle grounds in silence, pausing to crouch behind a pile of corpses as a patrol came near. Leather creaked, lanterns lighting up the blackness, as a band of hunters passed by.

“Do you really think the Reaper is a traitor?” one crossbowman asked, not ten paces away.

“Who knows? Someone crazy enough to lead the Cull? There’s no understanding that one,” a spearman replied. The Reaper watched the band as they departed. Perhaps twelve in number, they were lightly armored and equipped like the groups of hunters she’d taken into the ruined city a hundred times. She let out a long breath, then shoved herself back up and weaved around the pile of corpses.

They’d gone through the gate in this section of the castle wall. It had been easy enough when the Reaper could simply stride through, her presence as the strong right hand of the Twin Kings granting her authority to go anywhere. If word about her had already spread to a patrol, then she no longer had that luxury. Still, the watchtower above them seemed lightly guarded enough. Against the near blackness of the night sky, she could spot one or two sentries pacing along the wall. Thin smoke drifted up from the watchtower. That would be good for her—the light blinding those within.

While most made use of the main gate, large enough for a troop of cavalrymen six abreast, few knew that a smaller side passage led outward. A heavy, reinforced steel and timber door was locked securely, but the Reaper had the key. She hunched down and opened the lock as quietly as possible. The door squeaked open, seemingly louder and louder as she pushed forward. She groaned along with it, but there was no alternative. The Reaper strode forward stealthily, emerging beyond the castle walls.

“What was that?” a voice called out from the watchtower. Before the Reaper could make out a reply, a horn blast echoed through the night. She took her chance and rushed forward, moving as quickly as possible with the Hex still slumped over her shoulders. If the moon had illuminated them, no doubt they would have been spotted at once, but luckily it was unusually cloudy. Though the Reaper stumbled on a few unseen obstacles, the path was clear.

It seemed as though an endless, broken expanse stretched before her, as if she was approaching a plain marred only by a few rocky outcrops. Yet the Reaper knew it for what it was. The charred ruins of the once-great Kingsdom of Sepulkre littered the ground to the horizon, caused more by her own doing than any other. However, a few of the more fortunate, prosperous servants to the Twin Kings still subsisted along Castle Sepulkre's perimeter. The Reaper headed toward one in particular.

She could make out a trickle of torchlight through narrow windows, and smoke drifted upward through a chimney.

Good. She’s still awake.

“Keep your eyes peeled, lads. No one should be out at this hour,” a voice bellowed as the Reaper pushed forward. She spared a moment to glance over her shoulder. The nearest houses blocked the approaching patrol, but the spreading glow of lanterns announced their approach. The Reaper sucked in a breath and charged forward. There wouldn’t be much time to spare.

Her shoulder slammed into the door. The Hex began sliding off her right shoulder as the Reaper reached for a door knocker, her bloody fingers clasping the cold brass and slamming it against the wooden door three times. Time seemed to pass both in an instant and an eternity. Everything within her called for her to throw the Hex down and turn to confront the patrol.

But she could hear faint sounds of creaking within.

“Please,” the Reaper begged, reaching for the door knocker again.

The door lurched open, and a fair-skinned woman in a simple white cloak blinked at her in evident surprise. “You? What… what are you doing here?”

“She’s wounded.”

The Cleric, Royal Healer to the Twin Kings, pursed her lips for a moment. Then she nodded. “Take her inside.”

The door opened further, and the Reaper pushed her way inside. Scanning the room, she noticed a fainting couch beside the sputtering fireplace. She let the Hex down onto it, blood still flowing freely. The Cleric tutted, then handed the Reaper a cloth. She was a deeply devout woman, wearing a necklace with the insignia of Gwyn even as she prepared for sleep. She had even gone so far as to dye her hair violet as a means of a vow to service, combining two colors that held meaning in the church: Red, which symbolized devotion, and blue, representing compassion.

“Bring the wash bucket over. We need to—”

The door knocker slammed on the door three times again. The Reaper and the Cleric shot each other a long look. They’d known each other in passing for years, but they were far from close. And the way the Reaper stayed silent, fingers dancing along the hilts of her sword.

Don’t turn on us now. She’s dead if you do… and so are you.

The Cleric nodded, gesturing to the side room. The Reaper followed where she indicated, heading over to the darker corner of the cottage. She crouched low and stilled her breathing as the Cleric opened the door a fraction, brushing her long purple hair out of her face. “Yes?”

“Pardon, Cleric, but one of my men claims he saw some movement by your house. Oaf that he is, I would be remiss if I didn’t insist on—”

“I’ve had no visitors tonight,” she replied. “It is late, however, so if that is all…”

“Ah…” The patrol leader sighed. The Reaper frowned, faintly recognizing the man. He’d been a brutal killer during the Cull, like all who’d ascended to positions of leadership in the Twin Kings’ regime.

All besides the Cleric, that is.

“I see fresh blood on your doorstep, clear as day. Are you sure—”

“My business is treating the wounded,” the Cleric replied. “That was from this morning. Much earlier than all this commotion. What’s going on, anyway?”

“Mmm.” The silence lingered for a long moment. “Traitors attempted to attack the Twin Kings, evidently. They say it was the Reaper and another, if you can believe that.”

“Really…”

Armor and leather creaked just outside the door.

“Be on the lookout. Guard your door and sleep soundly. I’m sure there will be plenty of work for you in the morning.”

“Of course, Captain,” the Cleric replied, sliding the door shut. She sighed.

After a moment, the Reaper emerged. The two women stood in silence as the patrol's sounds faded.

“Well.” The Cleric pinched the bridge of her nose in thought. “Get a bucket of water boiling. Then I will see to your… accomplice.”

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