The bright hall below their balcony had fallen silent as guards led Ared away, though it had taken much entreatment and bargaining to persuade the spirit to allow him his life – for now. It was broken only by the pained groans of the wounded and the nervous shuffling of servants uncertain what to do or whether they could reasonably flee from the apparition dominating the room with her malice toward Ared.
Sethian snorted as quietly as he could, trying to clear his nose of the guards’ heavy perfume – his breath had always been more laboured in thick smells. Far more palatable were the light scents of flowers drifting in through the windows, but those had sadly been overpowered with all the new arrivals.
The Keeper – for on closer inspection it was not a Collector but merely one of their dreary supplicants – eyed the scene and lifted his arm to perform a single swing of his hourglass, punctuated by the deep clang of a bell ringing out from beyond.
Sethian shuddered as the deafening sound passed through him. He could feel his grave beckoning him, a grave he had spent centuries escaping now demanding his presence. On the floor below several guards convulsed and let out their final breaths – their bodies too wounded to withstand the spell.
“Take the wounded and go. Leave the dead – I shall see to their passing myself.” Though the Keeper had no authority, the palace staff were more than happy to seize the command to escape.
“Shall we make our introductions?” Merala held out her arm for Sethian to escort her down the stairs.
Sethian glanced over the railing. The banshee was floating near the throne, staring at the corpse of the Prince Regent – the rune of possession still burning with astral fire on his forehead. The young girl, whom Sethian had thought a boy, was doing her best to avoid drawing attention as she hid behind the Keeper. The skeleton king was standing motionless – it appeared nothing more than a mindless golem of bone, yet the fools treated it as though it were Death itself.
Hooking his arm around hers, Sethian joined Merala in a slow descent of the stair. They were in no rush – indeed, it was to be hoped only the Keeper and his entourage would remain by the time they emerged into the throne room.
“I must admit I am impressed,” Merala’s tone was oddly conversational. “Not only did you manage a murder-by-proxy, but it was executed by one of the highest ranking and most esteemed members of the royal court.”
“It was not my intention the prince die, merely be gravely injured such that Ared be charged with attempted regicide.” Sethian rubbed his chest, the phantom pains of the bolt still lingering. “I had not expected so small a quarrel to penetrate my wards – what few I had – quite so effectively.”
“I wonder…” Merala trailed off as they stepped out through the decorated door and into the throne room proper.
Undaunted by the Keeper’s stare – an odd mixture of quizzical and judging – the pair made their way over to him. As they neared the girl suddenly let out an excited yelp, pointing at Merala.
“I am Mawlana Katrina of Urmor – you will refer to me as such and nothing else,” Merala whispered harshly. There was a sharpness in her voice so unlike her normal soft tone speech that it belied her calm demeanour. As Sethian glanced over at her, he saw a warm smile on her as she raised her free hand in greeting. “Miss Cathleen! Such a delight to see you safe.”
“Trina!” Cathleen beamed back and pulled the Keeper along over to them. “This is Aytaq, he- ehm, well… that-” She motioned at the skeleton, taking great care to avoid looking at it. “-saved me from drowning. What happened to the Locksmith?”
“Ill-mannered peasants…” Sethian muttered, as much to Merala as to himself, while throwing the girl an annoyed glare. There were clear rules for presentations in situations like this.
“Manners,” Merala softly remarked, causing the girl to quickly shut her mouth. Turning her gaze to gaze up at the apparition, though it was ignoring them entirely, Merala continued: “Your Highness, allow me to introduce to you His Sanguine Justice Sethian, Dark Lord of Arlath.”
Sethian forced a polite smile, ignoring the twin insults of the first introduction and his title. At least she had recognized him as higher ranked than herself, though why these commoners should warrant such formal address to begin with…
“Together with myself, Mawlana Katrina of Urmor,” She continued with a gentle bow. “And we are most pleased the efforts to corral Grand Chancellor Merrinath – by diverting his teleportation – proved so successful.”
“My lord,” she turned to Sethian and indicated the spectre with a respectful flourish. “You are in the presence of Her Majesty Queen Megaera Ravenwing, ruler of the Malqish Queendom, Charter Holder of the Guild Royal, and heir to the House of Sérêne.”
At this the ghost suddenly tore her gaze away from the dais to lock her otherworldly stare wordlessly at the pair.
“And her retinue,” Merala continued undaunted. “Keeper Aytaq of the Order of the Balanced Scale and Miss Cathleen, Seeker of the Malqish Guild of Hunters.”
The Keeper, Aytaq, gave a respectful nod and even the ghost of a smile, apparently impressed by her use of the Daerethian Order’s proper name.
Introductions out of the way, Sethian turned to his companion. “Meraah-” The name caught in his throat, his eyes glazing over and the world turning a blur. It felt like claws of red-hot iron raked through his head, digging out and bringing to mind his every secret and his every painful memory. It lasted but a fleeting moment before vanishing, but the point was made clear.
Sethian scoured his thoughts, drawing in the astral energies of his cane to flush out her presence. There was none – she had not been there, her magic had simply reached in to stir up the unpleasantness. It was not until she gently shook him by their still-hooked arms that he realized how she had managed to get even that past his wards.
Content that even touching she would be unable to read his thoughts, he offered an apologetic smile to the Keeper – ignoring the confused look of the peasant entirely. “It is the smells.” Sethian offered, pinching his nose briefly.
“Mawlana, if I may,” The Keeper turned his impassive face at Merala. “You mentioned House Seren?”
Sethian perked up. House Seren? Where had he heard that before…
“Indeed.” It was hard to say if Merala’s smile was amusement at Sethian’s reaction or if she was simply being friendly toward the priest.
“You must be mistaken. House Seren died out centuries ago – torn apart by civil war. Back when the Order still maintained a monastery on the Isle of the Dead.”
Merala offered an apologetic shrug. “I know only that according to the archives in Guild of Scribes, the Queen was descended to the Serenite lords who long ago ruled parts of the northern queendom. You say the Order had a monastery here?”
“Yes, we used to maintain this valley as a cemetery for the entire region. Though our numbers were few, our ferrymen would transport the dead from villages all along the river and its tributaries for burial here. Over time the ferrymen came to be viewed as harbingers of death, symbols of the Reapers, causing our numbers to dwindle until we had no choice but to leave. Our records from the time may not be Arlathian, but I assure you-”
“The assassin!” Sethian cut him off. “I knew I recognized the name Seren somewhere.”
Even the ghostly queen seemed to lean in with curiosity.
“While I was Arbiter of the Court Sanguine, one of my associates told me a far-fetched tale of a long-lost kingdom called Seren-”
“Sérêne!” The spirit hissed, an angry light coming into her eyes.
“Suh-rrae-nh,” Sethian did his best to mimic the rolling R she had used, feeling it only polite to appease her in her own court. “Located somewhere south of the sea. In essence, he had captured an assassin who had admirably refused any useful information. Being an accomplished blood mage, he had used the assassin’s blood to trace his lineage – hoping to find some leverage. Instead he found a whole family of assassins going back nearly a millennium.”
The spectre drifted closer, gaze intently locked upon him.
“After some persuasion – and a blood geas to force the assassin to kill his old employer – it was revealed to my associate that this family were the exiled remnants of House Seren – at some point long ago, one man had ruled all of Seerrr- uh, the entire region. His wife died in childbirth, he was murdered by his brothers and sisters, and the child was stillborn. Except it had been twins, and one was smuggled away by the midwife.”
“How fateful one of their descendants should marry into a prominent family of merchants named Ravenwing,” the Keeper mused, more to himself than anyone else.
“What happened to the child?” The girl inquired.
“Eh?” Sethian looked at her, having long forgotten she was still there. He waved dismissively at the question. “Oh, the usual – blood vow to reclaim their rightful throne, long line dedicated to destroying all other branches of the family, lifetimes spent training to be assassins… Proper assassins, I mean; none of that ‘assassin-by-name, warrior-by-deed’ like Ared.”
“None of that is really ‘usual’, but point taken,” Merala commented dryly.
“Quite like their young heir on the throne,” the Keeper chimed in, turning to look at the regal corpse.
“That usurper is no heir of mine,” the Queen scoffed. “And I demand it be removed from my throne immediately!”
The Keeper bowed politely and began a litany of strange words in a language so foreign Sethian could not even begin to identify it.
Shortly, the dead began to stir.