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  • Writer's picturePatrick Deveney

5. The Scarlet Thief: The Depths of Guilt

I


Many months ago...

The wind howled through the barren streets and there was a chill in the air. The once proud and opulent city of Atana stood silent with bated breath as it sat atop Delsaren’s Hill, overlooking sprawling fields of white snow that glistened in the sunlight and the vast forests of deep shades of green that lay beyond. Fear had begun tightening its grip on the city and its people. It had been that way since dawn and the sun was now perched high above the clouds in a sky of floral-blues and accents of wispy streaks of white. They had come like a wave passing through the city, soldiers went street by street in their dozens, locking residents in their houses and clearing the streets before marching towards the city gates. They had received precious little information concerning the army that was amassing on the snowy fields just outside the city walls but if the rumours and whispers were to be believed it was none other than the king’s son, Pandros. The tension was almost palpable, the only thing worse than war was the anticipation of it.

Delicate footsteps glided across the snow and ice that covered the cobbled stone streets. He weaved between a labyrinth of ornate houses and high rising buildings of white sandstone and spruce as he pulled his scarlet hood tight against the rush of wind while his matching scarf flapped behind him, he could feel the cold penetrating his face as his breath turned to an icy mist as he ran. His thoughts were heavy but he knew the importance of the burden he carried and this pushed him on further, he turned to a darkened alley, he stopped.

A thin layer of black ice lay untouched upon the uneven cobblestone. The hooded figure traversed the ice with a graceful ease as he danced across the slippery surface before coming to a sudden halt on the far side where he propped himself against the cold hard stone of a house which towered over him. He peered through calming grey-blue eyes back down the way he had come to ensure he had not been followed, his curled auburn hair poked through his scarlet hood which cast a deep shadow across his soft face and olive-skin. Isaac calmed himself, he turned to the end of the alley which led out onto a narrow street drenched in sunlight. Isaac gave a quick glance both ways to ensure he was in fact alone before he gave out a low whistle. A distant whistle quietly chimed in reply from the far end of the street as expected, signalling that the coast was clear, stirring Isaac. The cobbled stone streets and towering houses basked in the sunlight as it shone bright over the city of Atana but the deathly silence clung to the very air, no signs of life accompanied him as he navigated through the once vibrant city. The low rustle of leather and cloth mixed with the sound of his clinking armour quietly sounded before being absorbed by the snow and ice. Isaac cautiously journeyed the narrow street, softly crunching the thin layer of snow which turned to slush beneath his feet. Isaac could sense the fear that gripped the city as he felt it too. The stillness before battle was agonising. In the stories and legends, battles were always glorified, a chance for those to prove themselves with honour and valour but there was naught to describe the horror, no mention of the ruin and devastation that war could bring. Isaac had faith but the rush of adrenaline did very little to combat the wave of anxiousness that was beginning to fill him, he had been in many situations like this before but this time there was now an intense pressure placed upon him and he did not intend to disappoint.

Something shimmered in the shadows towards the dead end of the street ahead of him, catching the rays of sunlight that beat down from above, he neared and a figure stepped forward, followed by the shapes of three others who were dwarfed by the one who led them. She was clad head-to-toe in thick steel plate as two piercing green eyes glared through the eye slits of her helmet, she towered over the small band of men who now stood shivering in the cold, a heavy greatsword lay resting on her shoulder as she steadied it with her left hand while she extended her right in anticipation, she gave a menacing yet welcoming smile.

“You certainly took your time.” she bellowed as she forcibly grabbed a hold of Isaac’s hand and gave a firm shake, Isaac could feel the tension and strength as his hand was slowly being crushed, he always hated shaking her hand.

“Well, I’m just being cautious, you know me Erid, unfortunately.” Isaac replied, muttering the last part.

“Ha, I’ve never known you to be cautious, frightened maybe.” Erid gave a cruel laugh as she aggressively patted him on the back, he always hated when she did that too.

“Anyway…we’ve got a problem. I got a good look at the gates and it’s not going to be easy, that place is locked up tighter than a miser’s purse, archers line the walls and legions of the king’s men are in the streets.” Isaac said, shifting the tone, Isaac could hear the nervousness in his own voice, he hoped Erid could not.

“Pandros gave us a job to do, without us he can’t take the city.” Erid reminded him but it sounded closer to a threat.

“Don’t you think I don’t know that, I have a plan.” Isaac snapped.

“Oh, you have a plan, I look forward to this.” Erid hissed mockingly.

“I have a notion of a plan, yes, but we’ll need to get our hands on some guard uniforms and we’ll have to wait until the fighting starts, that’ll be our distra…” Isaac was cut off, Erid motioned Isaac to stop speaking as a wave of concern grew on her sullen face, Isaac heard it too.

It seemed to have come from the gates of the city, where Isaac had just been. The rumble was akin to that of distant thunder and as they turned their attention to the sky, the once vibrant shades of blue began to grey and darken while thick black clouds began to form and spread to blot out the sun. Suddenly, a blue flash of lightning streaked across the sky cracking and splintering into a thousand strands and branches but it did not seem natural. There was a moment of silence as the sun began to disappear behind darkness, swallowing the light, covering the city in shadow.

“What the…” Isaac began but he stopped himself, he could feel his heart sink as he slowly turned to face a new sound emanating from further down the street.

It was muffled at first but it grew louder as it neared, he could hear the succinct sound of footsteps in unison as if they were marching, although it was near impossible to tell how many but their heavy footsteps indicated they were fully armoured. Isaac scrambled to ready his men while a realisation and panic began to wash over them, Erid pushed forward in front of the small band, readying her greatsword.

“It appears you were followed.” Erid noted while she never broke eye contact towards the other end of the street.

“Erid, there's nowhere for us to run.” Isaac said knowingly, as if he had already accepted his fate.

“Good, I was beginning to get bored of all this sneaking around, let’s get these bastards.” Erid slammed her sword into the hard cobblestone as a metallic clang echoed down the street as the group of soldiers came into view.

There were easily around twenty of them to Isaac and Erid’s five. They took up the width of the narrow passage by marching four to a line, their blackened steel plate armour, emblazoned with the golden crown of the Azlarian king upon a crest of black and red contrasted the white sandstone buildings and the snow which covered them and the ground beneath their feet. They marched like a wave of darkness, their weapons already drawn and brandished while in their other hands were large kite shields made of blackened redwood.

Isaac placed his hands behind his back, grabbing for his dual kukris he had hidden just above his hips. He gripped the polished black handles, feeling for the familiar grooves that molded to his hands. Isaac could feel his heart begin to beat faster as he slowed his breathing in an effort to stop this but it was no use. He glanced down towards the knives; perhaps forty centimetres in length, they bore a particular recurve while the blades themselves were a deep black but there was something unsettling or unnerving about their appearance as they seemed to absorb all light, it was like looking into a deep dark abyss. A deep purple, almost black smoke emanated from the blades, a by-product of the metal they were made from. For a brief moment Isaac seemed at peace as he stared blankly at his knives, they were a gift, a gift from his prince and future king Pandros and he was reminded of the promise he had made.

Isaac readied himself but something was wrong. The approaching soldiers suddenly came to a halt mere feet away and an agonising silence filled the air. It was too late. A sharp searing pain shot through Isaac’s chest between his heart and shoulder as he stumbled back hitting the wall behind him. He could see the arrow protruding from his chest, his eyes followed the arrow shaft which pointed upwards and he could see shapes shifting on the rooftops. Time slowed for him as he looked to Erid as three arrows were pinned under the weak points in her armour, he could see the pain in her eyes as she shifted towards him, she grimaced as another arrow flew, striking her in the back, she collapsed to the floor. The others were already dead. Isaac fought to regain his footing but his sight began to blur and he fell to the ground. He saw the dark outlines of soldiers approaching, grabbing for Erid and dragging her away, one stopped. He hovered over Isaac as he extended a foot in the air. Everything went black.


II


Today...

“No, wait!” Isaac screamed as he woke, he abruptly sat up panting for breath, he could feel the sweat dripping from his forehead. His throat croaked and rasped before breaking out into a fit of coughs.

The room around him was dark. A stale scent hung in the air of dust and mildew while streaks of light crept through cracks in the boarded up windows but this did little to illuminate the room, not that he would be missing anything as the room lay barren, devoid of any furniture or belongings, save for a few boxes strewn around the room in an unkempt manner. It was only then that Isaac realised he felt two strong hands grabbing a hold of him which startled him but there was no aggression. His eyes blurred as he struggled to see the large shadowy figure that loomed over him.

“Isaac, it’s me, Rurik.” the voice growled, Isaac’s mind was a hazy blur but it did indeed sound like Rurik, the familiar low gruff voice echoed in his mind.

“Wha…? Where am…? Gramps? Oof, I must have taken something strong, it’s been a while since I’ve imagined you.” Isaac mumbled, his confusion very clear while his voice sounded tired and slightly slurred as he began to rub his head.

“Isaac, listen to me, I’m real. I’m really here and I, eh, need your help.”

“Wait what? You’re… what the...” Isaac replied, sounding flustered. His eyes slowly adjusted to the light and he could begin to make out Rurik’s features, he looked old. It appeared the months since they had last met had not been kind to Rurik. His long greying hair was tied back and slightly dishevelled matching his beard that sat upon a scarred and rough face. A glint of tarnished bronze shimmered over his right shoulder coming from the sword he carried on his back while small reflections of light shimmered from his armour.

“Take it easy, you’ll be alright.” Rurik paused as he slowly sat down on the tattered mattress, he gave out a long sigh. “Look, I don’t have a whole lot of time to explain Isaac and I’m sorry for coming unannounced but I need your help tracking down four men who are either in the military or used to be. It’s important I find them as soon as possible.”

“Woah, easy there Gramps, we can talk business when I‘ve rejoined the world a bit more. Oh hey, are you not going to introduce me to your friend?” Isaac said as he stared blankly past Rurik to see a tall figure dressed in black with pale gaunt features, he had extended a single thin pale hand which was placed very gently upon Rurik’s shoulder.

“I came here alone.” Rurik answered, confused. The figure disappeared.

“Hmm? Cards on the table, I em...” Isaac’s voice was full of despair and began to trail off.

“I know. What happened, Isaac?” Rurik asked sincerely.

Isaac hated that he knew, he hated that anyone knew, as if it was to be expected of him or that they thought ‘once an addict always an addict’. A seriousness washed over Isaac for a second as flashes of the battle were seared in his mind, images of Erid full of arrows rushed to the forefront of his thoughts as a wave of guilt and grief grew to swallow him whole, Rurik could never understand.

“I don’t want to get into that right now Rurik, besides how do I know you won’t just up and leave without warning again, like you did after the battle.” Isaac retorted, sounding dazed.

“That's cold Isaac, but fair. I shouldn’t have left. Things still don’t seem right here, not yet anyway, I should have been here for all of you.” Rurik said while hanging his head.

“Oh so you’ve seen Pandros already.” Isaac sounded disheartened.

“I have. Has he been to see you?” Rurik asked curiously but there was concern in his voice.

“I haven’t let him, I don’t want him to see me like this.” Isaac said with regret.

“What about your father? Did you ever go see him like you always talked about?”

“Rurik, I said I don’t want to get into that right now.” Isaac sounded impatient.

“Let me help you, you need to get back out there. Just need to find a new outlet and get clean, I’ll be right behind you every step of the way.”

“I’ll think about it Gramps, that is a kind offer but I’ll be honest just now all I need is some rest.”

“I’ll leave you to it then.” Rurik fought hard not to sound disappointed as he turned to leave.

“Rurik, wait. There’s a building in the military district, a registry, it should hold the names and addresses of those in and no longer in the military. That’s where you’ll find what you’re looking for.”

“I appreciate it, Isaac.” Rurik gave a slight but genuine smile before turning to leave as silence once again filled the room, Isaac felt empty.

Isaac’s mind rushed, he was all over the place. He didn’t know what to think or do. He fought not to call Rurik back and gladly accept his help but he knew deep down he was not ready to be so open. Exhaustion tore at him as he proceeded to drag himself out of the makeshift bed in the corner that was really just an old mattress thrown on the floor. His head felt light and dizzy as he stood grasping in the dark for a wall for support.

Isaac didn’t know how to feel. He was somewhat glad he had seen Rurik but something stirred in the back of his mind. Rurik had unwittingly made him uneasy, emotions and thoughts he had believed were long buried came flooding back. The last thing he wanted was someone he knew seeing him like this, he hated what he had become but what other choice did he have. He felt as though he were drowning while shame and guilt festered in his very soul. He couldn't escape the images of Erid and the others, he questioned why he had lived while they had died, for what reason or purpose had he survived. When he could not find a satisfying answer in himself he chose to numb the world.

It was as if he were caught in a debilitating loop, he wanted to numb his pain but in doing so he had disappointed so many; his father, Pandros, even Rurik and this only led to him wanting to numb his pain even further, he was stuck in a place of guilt and disappointment. Perhaps Rurik was right, he needed something to distract him but what that could be, Isaac had no notion, in that moment he just wanted to rest.


III


The wind howled through the busy streets and there was a chill in the air. The dwindling sunlight stung Isaac’s eyes as he squinted in response while he weaved through small crowds, stumbling over his own feet. The evening sky erupted in beautiful shades of orange and red while vast clouds of pure white loomed over Atana. Delicate layers of snow covered the towering trees and plant life that was abundant in Atana’s streets as different shades of blue, red and yellow, even some purple protruded from beneath the snow adding life and colour to the vastness of white. There had been heavy snowfall, snow and ice amassed on the sides of the wide streets and courtyards he walked, collecting in large piles propped against rows upon rows of houses and buildings while the ground grew wet beneath his feet as the ice and snow turned to slush. It appeared that salt had been unloaded upon the main streets in an effort to combat the snow but most knew this to be a temporary solution.

A strangeness overcame Isaac, he had barely set foot outside in the few months since Pandros had taken his father’s throne and seeing the city alive again and even thriving fuelled a certain uneasiness within him. It was not that he was unhappy or angry but to Isaac the city seemed quick to move on from the events of the battle while they still plagued his mind, of course he was happy they had won but at what cost, he did not know what to feel. The city had changed, he knew that much.

The city was certainly on the rise, although it was not perfect. Pandros had opened the city to all this was true but in doing so poverty was slowly beginning to creep into the lesser parts of the city. Isaac began to pass sights he had never seen before in Atana, beggars sat shivering on street corners scrambling for coin as passers-by turned up their noses, children ran past in shoddy and tattered clothing barely wearing enough layers to combat the cold, Isaac hoped Pandros would not forget about them, in any case he pressed on.

There was an almost unnerving silence which was strange given the amount of people around him, groups of old friends passed him laughing while parents struggled to calm their excitable children, he passed bustling shops and crowded courtyards with markets and street performers but still a silence shadowed Isaac, perhaps it was all in his mind or perhaps it was simply that the snow absorbed the vibrancy of the city, he could not say.

Isaac had no idea where his feet were taking him but it seemed like he had been walking for hours, he looked to the sky, darkened shades of blue began turning to black while the small bright lights of the stars began to twinkle before greyed clouds moved to cover them. The journey had been a blur and so he was not entirely sure where he was, as he slowed to study his surroundings and gain some semblance of geography he stopped.

He had found himself in a small circular courtyard. Dimly lit candles flickered in their glass casings in street lamps dotted around the perimeter casting a faint orange glow across blankets of snow. Towards the centre stood an intricate water fountain of carved white sandstone with water spouting from a leaping fish but the water was frozen solid as if frozen in time itself. Beautiful ornate houses surrounded him, built with the signature architecture of Atana, it wasn’t particularly ostentatious but its mastery of stone and sandstone along with dark spruce begged to be admired. This was not even a particularly wealthy part of the city, in fact it was considered one of the poorer as the houses were only one story in height and Isaac knew this well, having grown up right where he stood.

He could see the familiar path and small garden encompassed by a stone brick wall that lay in front of his father’s house, memories flooded back to him but he grimaced at the thought as if his own mind did not wish to remember or perhaps he was not deserving of those happy memories.

There he stood mere feet from his father’s house but still he could not face him, he dared not to admit it to himself but he couldn’t even picture what he looked like, he could only envision a lonely old man whom he had abandoned. Isaac felt a cold delicate drop of snow on his face like a gentle kiss on his cheek, he looked up to see a soft flurry of snow begin to fall from the darkened sky. The cold silence was suddenly broken, first he heard the sound of a door opening, quickly followed by two distinct voices, Isaac’s heart sank, it came from his father’s house.

“You be safe getting home now.” an older voice sounded through the courtyard. It was unmistakable, suddenly Isaac was ten years old again, hearing his father’s voice had somehow sent him back to when they would exchange made-up stories or talk of their dreams, dreams which never came true.

“I will do. All the best Hughie. Oh, I nearly forgot, mark me down for tomorrow night. I hear Sonia has come down with a mild case of the flu so she can’t make it.” a young man’s voice replied. Isaac was confused, he did not recognise the young man nor understand why he was there, he tensed as he glared from across the courtyard.

“Say no more, I’ll write it into the diary so I won’t forget. Goodnight Andryk.” Hughie announced as he closed the door, leaving a bitter cold silence.

Isaac watched as the young man Andryk trudged his way through the snow as it crunched beneath his feet. He followed closely as the man made for a small darkened alley on the opposite side of the courtyard. It was a rather wide alley and it seemed to swallow Andryk as he passed into the shadow. Isaac hurried as he neared the entrance, quickly stepping to the corner, glancing down the alley, it appeared they were not alone. A dark figure stood on the far side of the alley. Isaac peered into the darkness, the street lamps did very little to light the street but as the clouds shifted moonlight poured down the alley illuminating his surroundings. Isaac could clearly see as Andryk passed the shadowy figure, he could see his hurried steps and cautious approach but still the figure moved to interact but Andryk blew right past him turning off of the alley, almost breaking into a sprint.

Isaac rushed in an effort to catch up but as he too neared the end of the alley which opened out onto many different paths and routes it appeared the young man had vanished. Isaac angrily punched the air as the shadowy figure approached him, stepping out into the light. He was a frail man with discoloured, cracked teeth and dirty blonde stringy hair.

“You look tense brother, perhaps I could offer something to take the edge off, twenty gold pieces, best price you’ll find on the street.” he proposed, his voice was guttural and hoarse while a sinister smile grew on his face.

“What did you just say to me?” Isaac retorted, anger quickly filling him. In that instant this man was everything he hated and he focused all his pain on this stranger. It had all come surging back; abandoning his father, failing Pandros, losing Erid and turning back to his habit.

He wasn’t sure how it happened but a blind rage fuelled him and as he regained some composure he realised he had pinned the man against a nearby wall. The man fought hard to escape but he was too weakened to do so and so he just flailed beneath Isaac’s strong grip. He couldn’t explain it but he somehow focused all his pain and he knew what he could do, perhaps if he could help people then he might be able to help himself and he knew exactly where to begin.

“Your suppliers, where can I find them?” Isaac threatened.

“Woah take it easy man I ju…”

“Where!” Isaac raised a fist.

“Wait, I’ll talk. Just please don’t hurt me. I don’t know where the stuff comes from I swear, the drop off changes all the time. Ever since the city guard has been sniffing about.” the man pleaded, Isaac was hesitant but he believed him.

“The city guard are looking into it?”

“Yeah, they’ve nabbed me a few times. There’s a guy running the thing, goes by the name of… Maz...Mazlo… no that’s not it.”

“Mislav?” Isaac gave a deep sigh as he released the man.

“Yeah, that’s the one. How di... do you know him or something?”

“In a way. He’s an ex.” Isaac said as he turned back down the alley.


IV


“Name?” Mislav sounded tired, exasperated even. He leaned backwards on his chair, twiddling his thumbs as he peered towards the man sitting across the small table which sat in the centre of the compact room. Three candles flickered to one side, casting an orange glow on the two men sitting in the darkness.

“Darius Karimi.” the man replied, he too sounding weary. He leaned forward, emerging into the soft candlelight. He appeared to be a younger man, perhaps in his mid to late twenties, he bore a sly, almost mocking smile. His warm olive-skin was illuminated by the flickering orange candlelight while his thick, medium-length jet black hair cast dark shadows across his face where a bushy black beard sat.

“What can I help you with, Darius?” Mislav asked as he too leaned forward, grabbing for a quill and ink.

“Well, I’ve had some... shall I say, equipment stolen.” the man announced hesitantly as he squinted with an almost child-like grin while folding his arms.

“What kind of equipment?” Mislav asked, ink slowly dripping onto the piece parchment in front of him.

“Ha, well, funny you should ask. Explosives.” Darius replied, giving a small laugh but regret hung in his tone of voice.

“Excuse me.”

“Hmm… you see I’m an engineer and I also dabble in explosives.” Darius explained rather dubiously, trying his hardest to not sound guilty.

“You’re Darius of Cyronia aren’t you?” Mislav let out a deep sigh, dropping his quill onto the table before clasping his hands together. “Tell me how does one ‘dabble’ in explosives? It doesn’t seem like the type of thing you do casually but then again I must be old fashioned that way but I suppose as a member of the royal court you must afford some freedoms us normal folk never could.” Mislav replied with sarcastic reproach.

“Ah so you know who I am, that’s a relief because I just heard what I said in my head and pfft I did not come off great.” Darius replied with a charismatic honesty, as he seemed to relax, falling back into his chair.

“Indeed, so how much damage can these ‘explosives’ do?” Mislav leaned forward almost with excitement or as if something had piqued his interest.

“Quite a bit actually, I mean I designed them to break through walls during sieges but they can level buildings, you know.”

“Thank you Darius for bringing this to my attention.” Mislav stood up quickly as if in a rush or had great intent.

“Wait, where are you going? What about my equipment?”

“Oh that’s long gone. It’s just been used by one of the drug cartels to wipe out its last remaining rival. Completely decimating their apparent base of operations. I trust you can find your own way.” Mislav said as he rushed through the door.


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