I started writing this story over two and a half years ago, but due to the fact that I'm so rarely in the mood to write, progress has been very slow. But, since I'm fairly near to the end now, I figured I'd follow the example of others and post the story in parts to get some initial feedback and give myself some motivation so I can finally finish the thing.
So, without further ado, I present Part 1. I hope you enjoy, and comments would be very appreciated.
What Lies Beneath: Part 1
She loved Illikon. Lynaia was reminded of this fact yet again as she took in the rows of buildings that lined both sides of the stone paved street that led to the Central District and Castle Illikon in the distance. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath. Even from her location at the city's main gate she could taste the sea-salt tinge in the air. It reminded her of home, it always did. Then again, Illikon was pretty much the closest thing to a fixed home she'd had in years. For though she'd traveled much of both the length and breadth of the Empire, and some distance beyond both north and south, sooner or later she always wound up back here.
Snapping herself from her reverie, she checked the sun's position, shading her sensitive eyes from the glare. It was nearly sunset, and she would prefer to get to the temple before dark. Wending her way through the crowds, her staff clicking on the stones, she made her way down the main street before turning right towards the city's Monument District.
The temple of Selene was not the biggest temple in Illikon, not by a long shot. Compared to the temples of Poseidon or Zeus, it was small, out of the way, and not particularly grand. To Lynaia, it was one of the most beautiful buildings in the Empire. She rapidly ascended the short flight of white marble steps that led to the temple's columned entrance, reaching it just as the final sliver of the sun's disc was crossing the west horizon.
A young acolyte met her just inside the entrance. She had never seen him before, he had likely joined the temple since she was last here.
"Welcome to the temple of Selene Miss....."
The boy stopped mid-sentence as she came in out of the glare and he got his first real look at her. It was almost cute, the way he tried to hide his confusion as he took in her appearance and dress: Her feet were clad in black leather boots, tipped with steel. She wore pants and a short-sleeved shirt both of midnight blue cloth. Over the shirt was a sturdy vest of dark brown leather. A midnight cloak was draped over her shoulders, pinned at her throat with a silver brooch in the shape of a crescent moon. A wide belt, woven from strands of copper, and whose buckle was set with a small white pearl, adorned her waist. Her right hand gripped a staff, shoulder height and made of a highly polished black wood. Its surface was scrawled with holy symbols from top to bottom and the ends were capped with silver. Greaves of bright steel protected her shins and knees, and a pair of plate mail gauntlets hung from her belt.
However unusual her dress was, the boy could have handled it. But then Lynaia drew back her hood, revealing her distinct features, unusual even for an elf. While she had the somewhat ethereal beauty typical of elves there was something more, underlying it like layer of steel. Physique was a big part of it: She was incredibly fit and toned and, unlike the slimmer build most elves tended towards, was strongly muscled, although her body still possessed a distinctly feminine shape. Her dark brown hair was all drawn back into a single large braid which normally fell to mid-back, but currently was looped over her right shoulder. Her skin was pale, not unusual for a vidralfar, though at five-feet eleven-inches she was unusually tall for a member of that race. However upon close inspection, and in the proper light, her skin possessed a slight but distinct blue-gray tinge which betrayed her mixed heritage to any knowledgeable in such things. Which, luckily for her, few humans were.
But it was her eyes that spooked the boy most of all. She almost laughed, people always stared at her eyes. And with good reason, for they were a mismatched set. While her right eye was a dark slate-gray color, her left —though also technically gray— was extremely pale, almost silver in color.
After a few silent moments had passed, she decided that this had gone on long enough. "I am Lynaia Argentis, Priestess of Selene, and I would like to enter the temple before the night gets any older."
She had spoken in the most imperious tone she could manage and enjoyed the slight jump the boy gave when she mentioned her title. The young acolyte looked almost panicked, unsure of what to do about such a strange visitor, when a voice spoke up from the entrance.
"Now now, Lynaia, it's not nice to scare the new acolytes."
"Kn-Knight-Captain....," the acolyte stuttered, looking past her, his eyes bulging even wider if that were possible. To Lynaia the acolyte's statement was unneeded, she had recognized the voice immediately.
"Veran!" she said, turning, her voice filled with joy and surprise.
Veran Luxus, Knight-Captain of the order of the Knights Templar stood in the open doorway. He was a tall man in his early 30's, and his face bore his typical easy-going grin. The last rays of the setting sun glinted off the steel and deepgold of his armor. His short chestnut-colored hair and neatly trimmed beard glowed like fire.
"It's good to see you again," he said before turning to the acolyte. "Don't worry about her," he said, gesturing at Lynaia. "She's a regular visitor at this temple. I am here to see the High Priest, he's expecting me," he continued, his expression turning serious.
"Y-yes, of c-course, I'l go tell him!" The acolyte managed to stutter before taking off at a run.
Veran was grinning again when he turned back to face her. "I think you traumatized that boy for life."
"Come on Veran, I wasn't scaring him, I was educating him," she replied lightly with a grin of her own, eliciting an incredulous raised eyebrow from him.
"Educating?" he replied, his tone serious, though his expression was anything but.
"Yes, now he'll certainly recognize me the next time I visit."
"Ha! I expect he will at that," Veran laughed. "Did you see how he ran?"
"I think that had more to do with a Knight-Captain walking in and just casually asking to see the High Priest," she shot back, finding Veran's laughter infectious.
"Aye, that's probably true," he responded, before breaking down laughing again.
After a moment, they calmed themselves, Veran turning more serious again.
"It's been a while, hasn't it?"
"Three years," she responded. "A long three years."
"This city isn't quite like it was when you last left, things have-"
Lynaia and Veran both turned as the acolyte came back at a run, skidding to a stop in front of them.
"The High Priest will see you now, he's in the g-garden," the acolyte spoke, gesturing for Veran to follow him.
Veran sighed at the interruption. "I'll tell you later. Will you be here long?"
"A couple of hours," she responded.
"This meeting shouldn't take that long, I'll wait for you."
Lynaia was consumed by curiosity over Veran's statement as she watched the acolyte escort him away, but pushed it aside for the moment, and headed into the temple's central room.
The central chamber of the temple was a large room, perfectly circular in shape, and kept intentionally dim, with small candles along the wall providing the only artificial illumination. At its center was a pool of holy water surrounding a pedestal upon which was a statue of the goddess Selene, beautifully shaped from the purest white marble, Her lunate crown plated with burnished silver. The room's ceiling was a shallow dome in which was set twelve circular holes, able to be closed in inclement weather, that opened on the night sky. These holes were precisely aligned such that the full moon of each month would shine through one of them, illuminating the statue beneath.
Even though the full moon was still two nights off, much of its silvery light made its way into the room, allowing Lynaia to easily make her way amongst the other worshippers to kneel not far from the central pool. Bowing her head, she closed her eyes and took several slow deep breaths, letting all of her worries fall away for the moment. For the night was yet young, and there were prayers to be said.
The moon was high in the almost-cloudless sky when Lynaia exited the temple, lighthearted. Her heart wasn't the only thing lightened, her coin purse was as well, for she was always as generous as she could be when visiting her goddess' temples. After taking a moment to admire the beautiful night sky, she pulled her cloak around her shoulders to ward of the cool night air, and turned to where Veran stood leaning against one of the columns, his armor glinting with reflected light.
"Have you been waiting long?" she inquired.
"Not too long," he said, with a hint of a grin. "I assume you have a place to stay?"
"I'm staying at the Silver Stein," she replied.
"Ah, an excellent choice. Come on, I'll walk you there and we can talk on the way."
At this time of night the city's streets were almost empty, save for the occasional guard. Too empty, Lynaia realized after a few moments' reflection. While of course there was normally far less activity after dark, she couldn't recall ever having seen the streets this empty. There had always been at lest a few civilians going about, even if it was only a couple of drunks making their way home. But on this night, aside from her and Veran and the normal guards, there didn't seem to be a single soul out and about.
Growing a bit wary, as they walked Lynaia turned and examined her companion —who had been silent for the several minutes since they left the temple. While Veran appeared outwardly calm, she noticed he seemed unusually alert, his eyes continually flicking back and forth as though searching for something. His left hand never left its perch on the pommel of his sword, and his right hand had the torch he was carrying in a death grip. Another might not have noticed it, but she knew him well enough to know that something was bothering him.
"Veran, what's wrong?" she asked. "You're acting kind of nervous.," she said, indicating his grips on both sword and torch.
He turned to look at her quickly, as though startled for a moment, before sheepishly laughing. "Yeah, I guess I am, but with good reason."
"What's going on?"
Veran sighed, his face turning serious again. In the torchlight she could make out frown lines on his forehead. He hadn't had those three years ago.
"Very well," he started. "Things have been.... weird, these past few months. People have been vanishing off the streets at night. And not just in the Slums, we see some of that all the time there, the bodies are usually found in an alley or such not long after. But this has been happening in all parts of the city, and so far we haven't found so much as a single body."
Lynaia was shocked that something like this was happing in Illikon, one of the greatest cities in the Empire. "How many people have vanished?" she asked.
"Maybe two or three dozen. We aren't quite sure because we can't keep track of people in the Slums very well, but a total of 23 are known to have disappeared from other districts of the city so far."
"Is that the reason for....." she said, indicating the street, deserted except for the two of them.
"Yeah. We tried to keep it quiet, so as to avoid a panic, but the word's gotten around, most people don't go out anymore once it gets dark. The guard patrols have been increased across the city, and the Knights Templar have been helping out, but so far it hasn't done anything, people keep vanishing and no one has seen a thing."
"Gods be good," she whispered, before a thought struck her. "Wait, does this have anything to do with why you were seeing the High Priest today?"
He sighed again. "Yes, four of the vanished were acolytes at some of the temples, including one from the temple of Selene. They were sent out on errands late at night and never came back. The temples have contracted the Templar to find the culprits, but we haven't had any more luck than the city guard..... We're here."
Lynaia had been so wrapped up in the conversation that it took her a moment to realize that they had arrived at their destination, the Silver Stein inn. A hanging lantern illuminated the door and sign. She and Veran stopped before the closed door.
"How long are you staying in the city?" he asked.
"Three days," she replied. "Until after the full moon."
"Normally I would ask you to stay longer, but with things the way they are, well, maybe it's better that you only ever stay briefly."
"What can I say, Veran? I'm a wanderer at heart," she said, catching the undertone of regret in his voice. "And don't worry about me, I can handle myself, I'll be fine. Besides, I'm sure you'll catch whoever is responsible before long, I've never known you to fail."
"I wish I could have your confidence," he said quietly. "Anyway, goodnight Lynaia, hopefully I'll see you tomorrow."
"Goodnight Veran, and may Selene watch over you in the darkness."
Lynaia watched as he walked away until he was lost to sight around a bend in the street. Even after he was gone, she just stood there, trying to get her mind around what she had been told, to make some sense of it. After a minute or so she decided she would think better after some sleep and turned to knock on the inn door. Her knuckles were just about to impact the wood when she stopped short, her incredibly sharp hearing having caught something, the sound of someone running, seemingly coming from the unlit alley maybe half a dozen yards down the street.
She knew she should leave it be, or at least call for Veran, but she was consumed by curiosity, and quite confident in her ability to defend herself. Putting on her armored gauntlets, she gripped her staff tightly and entered the shadowy alley. The darkness in the alley was near-absolute. Looking up, she saw that a cloud, seemingly the only one in the sky, had drifted in front of the moon, reducing it to a barely visible pale disk. Even with her extremely night-sensitive eyes, she could only see maybe twenty feet. She took a few more steps into the alley. The running footsteps were coming closer, and she could hear what sounded like ragged breathing, but she couldn't see a thing yet.
"Who's there!?" she called, her heart starting to race a bit, thinking that this hadn't really been the best idea. A moment later, a pale figure came rushing out of the shadows, barreling blindly into her. Lynaia caught the man, for she saw it was a man, and held him at arms length. He was shirtless and covered in blood, some sort of symbol seemed to have been carved into the flesh of his chest. The man fought and clawed with the berserker-like fury of desperation, making it tough for her to hold him back, despite her strength.
"Veran!" she cried, as loud as she could, hoping that the templar was still near enough to hear. "I'm not going to hurt you!" she declared, shaking the man to get his attention. At the sound of her voice, the man stopped his attack, looking shocked and relieved.
"Thank the Gods! You're not one of them." The man spoke rapidly, and was clearly scared out of his mind. "Please let me go," he said, trying to push past her. "We have to get out of here they're coming-" he jerked, and slumped forwards. She instinctively moved back out of the way as he fell towards her to land face down on the alley floor. Even in the dim light she could make out a knife protruding from the dead man's back. Horrified, she stumbled back a step, and looked up to discover that she wasn't alone.
Four figures stood in the alley, right at the point where visibility faded into the darkness. They wore gloves and were hooded and cloaked, the shadows where their faces should have been visible were impenetrable, she couldn't have even guessed at a gender. Each held a knife. Without a word, they charged.
As they came, she quickly unfastened her cloak and threw it behind her, in a fight it would only get in the way. Grasping her staff with both hands, she faced the figures down. Luckily, the alley was narrow enough that they could only come at her one or two at a time. The attack was silent, completely silent, Lynaia realized with a start. She couldn't hear anything anymore, not even her own breathing, and the figures made not a sound as they ran towards her.
The first came at her head-on, leaping over the man's body and slashing at her with its knife. She parried the strike with one end of her staff, before levering the other end around to smash the silver-capped end into the figure's hooded face, knocking it into the alley wall where it slumped unmoving.
The second went around the body, aiming for her right side. She faded before the thrust, leaping back to avoid the blade. Grasping her staff with both hands at one end, as though it were a sword, she lashed out at the figure's weapon hand, striking it just above the wrist and sending the blade flying. Reversing direction, she then brought the staff up in a powerful upwards strike that struck the figure roughly where its chin should have been, knocking it backwards to the ground.
The third and fourth figures were smarter, coming at her simultaneously, one from each side. She blocked one figure's strike with the staff, moving to dodge the other. Not quite fast enough, as as the other moved far faster than expected and she felt a hot flash of pain in her left arm as the blade cut a shallow line across her bicep. Reacting instantly, she leapt back just as the third figure swung again, the blade missing her by mere inches. She was forced to retreat before the figures, as whenever she attacked or blocked one of them the other would move in to strike with inhuman speed, and she narrowly avoided several more cuts. She had only one thing left that she could try to end this quickly. She swept out in a wide strike with her staff, forcing the figures to leap back out of the way. With a momentary breathing space thus created, she raised her hand, calling upon her goddess.
A bright flash of silvery-white light filled the alley, though whether it came from from the moon breaking through the clouds for an instant or some other source could not be said. The two figures stumbled back, momentarily blinded, while Lynaia's eyes were unaffected. Being the devoted servant of a god had benefits few of the uninitiated really knew about. Taking advantage of the opening, she rushed forwards and smashed the center of her staff into the shrouded face of the third figure, knocking it back and stunning it momentarily. Before the fourth figure could recover its sight and bring its knife back up, she turned and struck it at the base of the neck, felling it instantly. Pivoting back, she evaded a blind swipe by the third figure and then brought her staff down in a furious two-handed blow on its head, feeling bone give way before the strike. It dropped like a puppet whose strings had been cut.
The fight had lasted less than a minute, but it felt much longer to her. Lynaia could feel her hands shaking slightly. Though no stranger to defending herself, everything about the incident disturbed her on an instinctual level, her body didn't seem quite convinced that the fight was over. With all of the figures down, she suddenly realized that she could hear again, her ragged breathing sounding like thunder to her ears after the silence. And someone was calling her name.
"Lynaia! Where are you!?"
"Veran!" she called, running from the alley to see him racing towards her, with two members of the city guard right behind him.
"Lynaia, I heard you cry out, what happened?"
She couldn't seem to quite put the words together. "I was attacked... men in the alley.... they killed someone!"
"Come on!" he yelled at the guards before rushing into the alley, with her right behind. The guards' torches pierced the darkness, lighting up the alley. Except for her cloak and some blood, it was empty. The body and the four figures were gone.
"The dead man was there," she said, pointing at the small patch of blood where the body had been. "He came running down the alley, panicked. He said someone was after him, then he got hit in the back with a knife. And there were four others, they attacked me, but I fought them off," she continued, indicating the cut on her arm with a shaking hand.
"Then where are they?" Veran inquired, looking utterly mystified.
"I don't know, it was only moments ago..." she replied, just as confused, and more than a little frightened. "I know how to fight, and the ways I hit them, they should have all been unconscious or dead. Certainly not able to just get up and run off in a matter of seconds while carrying someone else."
"Then how...?" Veran asked.
"I have no idea. They were fast, but.... Wait! There's something else. When they attacked, I couldn't hear a thing, it's like I was completely deaf, but once I knocked them all out my hearing came back. I think it was some form of magic.... I've seen some of my own kind do such things."
"Magic?" he replied, uttering the word with disgust. "If that's the case it could explain much about the recent vanishings, but it means the situation is much worse than we thought."
"I would say you were right on both accounts," a smooth voice spoke up from behind them at the alley entrance. Lynaia, Veran, and the guards turned to face two hooded men, one of whom had a distinctive facial tattoo, consisting of a black line across the eyes with three points dropping down from it, and the other of whom wore a mask of black metal. They were accompanied by several black-armored figures.
"Who are you?" Veran growled at them. "And what's your business here?"
"I am Inquisitor Jaryl Velken," the masked hooded figure responded. "And my business is the same as yours, if I'm not mistaken. Now if you would all please come with me, we have much to discuss."
"Not until you tell us what's going on!" Veran shot back, eying the Inquisitors with suspicion. Lynaia had heard some rumors about the Inquisition, few of them good, and shared Veran's reticence.
"These streets are not safe, as one of you already seems to have discovered" Jaryl replied, gesturing at Lynaia. "And I'm afraid I must insist."
Edited by Sareth, 18 October 2014 - 11:45 AM.