Tales of Raetrethra Vol. 1

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Fantasy Realm


Here it is, the volume's ultimate showdown. Everyone's cards are revealed, but who has the greater deck?

Chapter 35 (v.1) - Chapter 27 - Jovial In Death's Face

Submitted: January 18, 2018

Reads: 122

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Submitted: January 18, 2018

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Dawn arrived with Norah not catching any sleep.

Standing there feeling like a fish out of water, she stared at herself before a full-body mirror, not recognizing the person staring back.

Kneeling on either side, two young women straightened the hem of a dress which didn’t belong to her. Another was manicuring her nails, and an oldest fourth brushed her oiled hair until it shone like black pearls. Their movements were deft, but their expressions blank.

At the doorway leading into the seraglio, four eunuchs stood vigil with heavy canes.

Hidden underneath clothes befitting a girl from an affluential Aszyrian family, were dozens of half-healed bruises. After hours of therapy, they no longer throbbed with agony. All that remained of her abuse were yellowed blotches, dull aches, and the stench of medicinal ointments; the later masked by soap and mild perfume.

The seraglio was part of a luxurious fourth-floor studio with numerous rooms. When Norah first arrived, she was washed in a spacious bath. Her injuries were then treated, and for hours afterwards her battered body was massaged.

But despite receiving such lavish treatment, Norah felt anything but relaxed; gut simmering and churning with unease.

She agonized over her father’s cryptic words throughout the night, wondering what awaits her when dawn arrives. She also knew asking the women tending her would be a futile effort, since they said naught throughout their time together, not even whispering to one another.

Once their tasks were completed, the older pair escorted the girl out and left her outside the seraglio. The four castrated guards moved to surround the girl, pressing their canes at her front, sides, and back. Using just those, they coaxed her into walking.

Norah had no idea where she was or where she was being taken. If she had to guess, they were in an apartment building owned by the guild, similar to the one she used to live with her now-deceased mother.

A tinge of anguish nudged the girl upon recalling her mother’s fate. It was paltry compared to her initial reaction the day before, diluted after a half-day mourn. Such a short recovery was abnormal by all accounts, but a decade of existing to deceive and murder had numbed and twisted her in every way possible.

To put it another way, death was no stranger to her and tears were finite; hers tapped out a long time ago. Even so, Norah could not pretend the dull ache in her chest did not exist.

Encountering a few passersby, the eunuchs led her through the sandstone apartment in silence. Once reaching the ground floor, they herded her into a side room and down a flight of creaking wooden stairs into a dark underground stone passage. After two torches were lit, the walk resumed.

Muffled voices and sounds of wheels rolling from above indicated they were underneath a busy street. Though unafraid of the dark, anxious anticipation crawled up Norah.

“Where are you taking me?”

She demanded and as expected, no reply was made.

Her answer arrived minutes later; after ascending a flight of cobblestone stairs, passing a doorway flanked by two guards in scale mail, and crossing familiar hallways. They were in the Guardian Commission building.

A few unfamiliar turns later, they entered a spacious yet plain waiting area, one side dominated by a massive wooden double-door. Two guards flanked the closed door, and between them stood a familiar person.

“Welcome, Shadow.”

Greeted the same woman from yesterday in her usual cold and perfunctory tone. Without waiting for a response or reaction from the girl, she waved at the two guards to open the heavy doors, revealing a short hallway leading to a massive hall.

“Our master is waiting.”

The women bade, gesturing through the open doors.

Swallowing once, Norah stepped forward; her slippered footsteps soundless on the gray and beige checkered tiles. The doors closed behind her with a soft click, and ten steps later she entered a spacious single-floored hall with a tall ceiling.

Two words surfaced in her mind at the sight. Lavish and extravagant.

The hall’s floor was composed of countless chips of marble, granite, limestone, and slate; all arranged in perfect composition to form identical, symmetrically aligned flowers surrounded by a white backdrop wounded by thin green vines. Each flower was composed of three rings of petals; each a different color, shape, and size.

And standing on the centremost flower in the hall was her father, Selim Al-Gaddaf.

“Good morning, Norah. I hope you are well-rested.”

Voice reverberating due to the tall domed ceiling, the guildmaster greeted with a charming smile, revealing clean white teeth.

Unease crawled over Norah at his jovialness. Eyes darting about, she counted five guards armed with halberds. Two barring another closed double-door, one barring a side door, and two behind the guildmaster.

In addition to those, over two dozen individuals ranging from young teens to middle-aged adults stood watch from every side. Some were dressed in fine clothes, others in common attire, the rest in rags. Norah recognized several through their disguises. Members of the Assassin’s Guild.

Forcing herself to meet the guildmaster’s dark eyes, the herd’s black sheep demanded.

“Where are Dezmond and Sheera?”

A flash of surprise flickered over the Lord of Murder’s demeanor at her defiant tone. However, it soon passed and was replaced by a cold glare.

“Your Guardian friend is alive and well. As for the woman, I’m sure you can figure it yourself.”

Despite anticipating an answer of such nature, Norah’s gut lurched as heavy despair sank within her. At the sight of his daughter’s dismay, a thin smirk creased the guildmaster’s sleek face.

“On the contrary, you should be wondering why you are here, dressed in finery and groomed like a handmaiden, instead of rotting in a dungeon…”

After uttering that malice-filled statement, Selim Al-Gaddaf stepped forward. Black shoes tapping on the floor and hands linked behind his back, the guildmaster peered at his daughter with a quizzical head tilt. Like a bird of prey considering its quarry.

“Perhaps the more prudent question would be… what will you do?”

With that cryptic query, the Lord of Murder stepped back. Black eyes darting towards the guards near the closed double-doors, the guildmaster gave a tiny nod.

At the sound of door hinges groaning, followed by numerous footsteps entering, Norah turned-

And a sharp inhale ripped through her throat.

Because being herded into the hall were Dezmond, Roland, Elfred, Nemo, Aria, Jemma, and Irene.

***

Once the seven Guardian trainees – accompanied by an equal number of armed guards – were inside, the double-doors were shut. In addition to being unarmed, the seven were handcuffed in iron chains; some heavier than others.

At the sight of his daughter’s dumbstruck reaction, a soft chuckle escaped Selim Al-Gaddaf’s throat. It was a laugh containing equal amounts of amusement and contempt.

“What an emotional reunion. Someone should make a drama out of this!”

Harsh, mocking chuckles resounded around the hall.

“And within one day, we received so many foreign guests. Locals should wonder if this is actually a tourist location!”

The guildmaster continued, eliciting another wave of derogatory laugher.

“Of that you are mistaken!”

An indignant yet lighthearted voice called. Faster than an arrow could fly, the hall fell silent and all its occupants focused on the speaker, Nemo. Appearing at-ease despite being in chains, the lanky man berated without an ounce of trepidation on his unwashed face.

“Foreigners, we may be; guests, we are not. We are Guardians trainees here to meet the commissioner, I demand to know what is going on and who you might be!”

Norah’s mind went white from feeling faint. Does the idiot not realize the direness of this situation? Does he not understand the danger he is putting everyone in!?

On the contrary, Selim Al-Gaddaf seemed amused by his brazen outburst.

“Trainees? Considering your circumstances, I would consider all of you deserters.”

A wave of surprise washed over the six foreigners.

“Oh yes, I know who you are and why you are here. As for who I am… well to those in my employment, I am Selim Al-Gaddaf, master of the assassins guild and a member of several boards of directors. I also happen to be in direct control of your Commissioner, though I rarely involve myself with Guardian matters.”

Taking great delight in their growing shock and disbelief, the guildmaster indicated at Norah, who stood out like a sore thumb.

“And last of all, her father.”

Between her father’s toying tone and her teammates’ growing bewilderment, Norah had no clue what façade to wear. Shame would reveal another weakness to the vile man, yet she could not remain aloof and endure six demanding glares.

“Unfortunately, she is in a rebellious phase, an identity crisis to be specific.”

Selim Al-Gaddaf concluded, gaze shifting towards his daughter with a cold glint.

“It seems she’s become enchanted by petty Guardian ideals and is rejecting her true nature.”

The man’s mouth split into an ugly sneer.

“As if that can ever happen, given the number of lives taken by her hand. So tell us, my dear daughter, who are you?”

A heavy hush descended.  As for the girl in question, she swallowed, mind grappling for the right answer. Norah or Shadow? Guardian trainee or trained assassin? A victim of abuse or a cold-blooded murderer? Those identities chased each other within her in an endless loop, causing her pulse to accelerate-

“Don’t listen to him, Norah!”

Dezmond’s steady voice cut through the silence, and her dilemma.

Stepping forward from the others, he only managed six steps before being forced to stop by blade tips inches from his face and torso. Even so, his unwavering gaze never left the girl’s, which were filled with uncertainty.

“Don’t let him or anyone else dictate who you are. Only you can!”

Norah blinked, flabbergasted by his assertion and anxious about the consequences of it. Before she can decide how to respond, her father uttered a short condescending huff. Eyes wide and mouth twisted into a sadistic grin, the man jeered.

“Immature Guardian mentality! Don’t make me laugh!”

Raising both arms, Selim Al-Gaddaf declared with fervent passion.

“This is reality! Where the weak live under the will and whims of their betters! You think Aszyria is the only place like this? Don’t be naïve, it’s the same everywhere! Even the Guardians are built on the back of countless sacrifices and political scheming! A fact many chose to ignore in favor of a fastidious farce about fairness and justice!”

The Lord of Murder’s impassioned speech came to an abrupt end when he jabbed a long, thin finger at the six foreigners.

“Guards! Assassins!”

Heeding his bloodlust-laced command, the guards surrounding the unarmed trainees readied themselves for slaughter. A slight disturbance ensued as Irene and Jemma were pushed to the center, shielding them from immediate danger. Further away, crossbows and pistols were drawn and aimed.

Norah’s horrified gaze switched between the monster called her father, and her team. However, she dared not speak out of fear of driving the man’s rage even further.

“Norah! No… Shadow!”

The guildmaster turned to bark at his daughter, making the girl jump. Retrieving a dark lighter-esque object from an inner jacket pocket, the Lord of Murder tossed it to her which she caught. A switchblade. Pointing at the lone and exposed Dezmond, he ordered in a tone brooking no disobedience.

“Kill that man, or I will have them all slain on the spot!”

Selim Al-Gaddaf’s ultimatum caused Norah’s heart to seize, draining all heat from her body. She stared at the folded knife, her wild-eyed father, and calm Dezmond, but did not move.

“Do it! Now!”

The guildmaster roared, voice echoing over and over as the veins on his neck and forehead throbbed. Even so, the girl remained rooted to the spot.

“Stop hesitating, Norah.”

Dezmond called, his expression calm, yet grave. Shocked by his suicidal statement, she stammered.

“W-what…? No-there must-”

“There isn’t. Now hurry, before it’s too late.”

The man interrupted, a tinge of urgency creeping into his voice. When Norah still refused to move, a thin yet kind smile creased his features. Spreading his arms to either side, he beckoned without words.

Left with no other choice, Norah steeled herself and approached. Each step forward made her heart pound harder, shaking her inner ear and threatening her balance. Her stomach clenched so tight that it was a miracle she hadn’t vomited. At last, she arrived an arm’s reach from the man, who regarded her with tender affection.

“Dezmond… I…!”

She whispered, lower lip trembling. This was not what she wanted. She-

“It’ll be fine, I promise.”

His soft whisper sent shivers into Norah. She stared into the man’s face and saw tiny reflections of herself in his eyes. There was no fear or doubt within his gaze. She could see it, a warmth within glowing only for her.

Drawing his left hand inward, Dezmond tapped the spot where his heart would be.

“Here, please. So it’ll be less painful.”

A flicker of amusement crossed his features at the double-meaning humor. Norah scowled, her chilled body flaring with unexplainable irritation. How could he remain jovial in death’s face?

“Quick, before it’s too late.”

He whispered so only she could hear.

She glanced back to see her father staring with impatient expectation. Everywhere else, the guards and assassins were poised to kill. Recognizing there was no other way, Norah resolved to carry out the deed.

With a mere click, the three-inch-long, half-inch-wide blade with a wicked sharp tip flicked out and locked into place.

Grabbing a hold of his shirt with one hand, Norah stepped closer and pulled the weapon back in an underarm grip.

“Don’t miss, please…”

Dezmond warned, his expression pleading.

Resisting the stiffness crawling into her body, Norah nodded. Inhaling sharply, she lunged and drove the short blade towards his heart. It stabbed into a soft but unyielding material that felt nothing like skin or cloth or muscle or bone, failing to penetrate.

At that instant, Dezmond wrapped both arms around her small frame and pulled her straight down.

“Close your eyes!”

He half-grunted, half-hissed.

Moments after she did, a deafening explosion assaulted her ears, caused them to pop. The air around her trembled and the ground shook for several moments. At the same time, her vision flashed white despite having both eyes shut.

Confused voices shouted all about, besides the clanging of steel or wood or bodies against stone. Several accidentally discharged pistol shots rang out, adding to the chaos.

As quickly as it happened, the noise and whiteness faded. In the brief silence that ensued…

“Marvelous performance, Team Amethyst. Well done.”

Chimed an old man’s voice which should be thousands of miles away from here.

Eyes snapping open, Norah turned to see someone that made her question if all this was a dream or a figment of her imagination.

Because Gandalin Minstrel was standing beside her and Dezmond.

***

The wizened director tilted towards and gave her a reassuring smile, before turning to tap Dezmond’s handcuffs with a bony finger. A soft click later, the cuffs opened.

Gripped by sudden concern for the rest of her team, Norah whipped about and found them encircled by proctor Alsius and four other Guardians; all facing outwards with a colorful array of Shard Energy dancing on their palms like heat-less flames. Though still unarmed, the chains restraining their hands lay broken on the floor. A reflective shimmer around them marked the outline of a dome-shaped barrier, outside which lay a handful of unconscious guards.

Beyond them, a jagged hole remained of the twin-doors leading into the hall, from which sunlight shone through with blinding intensity. Several bodies and bits of ruin were strewn about.

“W-what is the meaning of this!? Who-!”

Selim Al-Gaddaf’s outburst ended in a choked gulp upon recognizing the tall, thin, white-bearded old-man with gray-white hair and calm blue eyes. Mouth hanging and eyes wide, the guildmaster backed away. His two bodyguards – both equally stunned as their employer – failed to react until he passed them; moving inwards to shield him from the intruders.

“H-h-how… W-what are you doing he-!?”

“Please have your agents stand down, guildmaster. You are under arrest for interfering in Guardian affairs.”

Gandalin uttered with light-hearted calmness, as if commenting on the day’s weather,

Now behind two armored bodies, the pale-faced Lord of Murder took stock of the situation. His remaining guards and assassins were still standing – albeit dazed and confused. In the distance, he could hear shouts, shrieks, smaller explosions, and other sounds of fighting.

Even as it dawned on him that they were under attack by Guardian forces, the guildmaster’s trembling lips curled into a sardonic sneer.

“Accusing me of interfering in your little club, while you and your lackeys worm their way into every government? You are a walking hypocrisy, Gandalin Minstral! You have no evidence or authority to arrest me, and the world will condemn you for this political farce!”

In the face of such vehemence, Gandalin’s white eyebrows rose.

“Witnessing someone who is not a Guardian barking about in an establishment of my ‘little club’ is evidence enough, wouldn’t you agree?”

Selim Al-Gaddaf’s smirk dissolved.

“In addition, whatever more evidence will be gathered afterwards. With your cooperation, of course. I offer once more, stand down.”

Though polite, its severe undertone was obvious. Selim Al-Gaddaf reddened with fury, face twisting into a mask of connivance. After glancing about the hall one more time…

“Kill them!”

A dozen crossbow and pistol triggers were squeezed at the order; shooting steel bolts with a twang and firing lead shots marked by blasts of black smoke.

Every bolt and bullet heading towards the Guardians met the same fate.

A few meters before reaching their targets, they visibly slowed for several feet before coming to a complete halt. If one desired, one could reach out and pluck warm, cheery-pit-sized lead balls from midair.

After firing their ranged weapons, the assassins charged; halberd-wielding guardsmen leading the attack. Those with throwing knives stayed back, hurling blades over their comrade’s shoulders.

Tasked with protecting the trainees, Alsius barked.

“Maria, Ivern! Hold the barrier!”

After receiving two affirmatives, Alsius and her two remaining subordinates counterattacked.

Chips of stone forming the floor mosaic were plucked out like leaves off a branch. With the force of a gale, they pelted the faces of assassins and guardsmen, forcing them to cover their eyes or risk losing them. Blinded by a storm of pebbles, the Aszyrians became easy targets for fist-sized chunks of stone, or standing piñatas for hefty pieces of wood. One after another, they were felled.

To deal with those further away, melee weapons that were dropped rose and surged towards them as if carried by unseen hands. The combination of fending off multiple weapons at once and the disconcertment of parrying levitating objects threw every murderer-for-hire into a panic.  Thus, despite dueling amateurs in melee combat – albeit remotely, every single professional killer was defeated.

As for Gandalin, he remained still as the two guards flanking the Lord of Murder charged him with lowered halberds. But at ten steps from the man, their boots slipped despite running on rough stone, causing them to tumble and flounder on the floor as if it were ice. A tingling sensation in their nostrils was all the warning they had before their minds dulled and movements became lethargic. They noted an apologetic smile creasing the old man's wrinkled face as their consciousness faded.

Once all threats on her side were neutralized, Alsius turned to witness the Lord of Murder fleeing towards the nearest exit. As she reached for another shard crystal tucked under her sleeve-

“That won’t be necessary, dear Alsius.”

A perplexed frown crossed her fine features at Gandalin’s bidding, but she relented and observed as the well-dressed man flung open the door-

And came soaring back as if being greeted by a battering ram on the other side. The guildmaster flew several meters before crashing into the mosaic floor with a choked croak, like a frog being squashed.

As Selim Al-Gaddaf groaned, barely clinging to consciousness, a male head with brown-hair tied into a tail poked through the doorway. Lazy eyes sweeping across the hall before resting on the Lord of Murder, Wynstal scratched his head with a disturbed grimace.

“Oops. Mayhaps… I over-endeavored?”

He apologized before entering while flexing the leg that sent the man flying.

Alsius sighed, fighting to keep a wry smile from worming into her features. Calling her subordinates, she ordered them to restrain those unconscious and stabilize those with major injuries.

In the meantime Gandalin approached the six non-Aszyrian members of Team Amethyst, leading Dezmond and Norah by the shoulder as if ushering children in a playpen. Though wearing a kind smile, his eyes regarded them with great severity.

“What an unexpected turn of events! To think a group of deserters would end up in Aszyria and become embroiled in affairs far beyond their stations! It is with great fortune indeed, that we have been investigating this nation’s commission. For now, your punishments will be postponed to assist investigations. I do hope everyone complies.”

At his slap-on-the-wrist-esque statement, eight trainees regarded each other, nonplussed. Witnessing their confusion caused Gandalin’s smile to stiffen.

“Under normal circumstances, deserters would be court-martialled and jailed. However, due to the… ah, circumstances, I am willing to bend the rules. I was hoping you would appreciate this gesture, given the gravity of your actions.”

With a perturbed frown, Roland cleared his throat.

 “Sir, I don’t-”

He was interrupted by Gandalin wagging a bony index finger.

“I am neither a knighted landowner nor bleed purple. Director if you please, though Mister Minstrel would do just fine. As a younger man, my colleagues would address me as ‘M and M’, cheeky fellows. I later tried to give myself the nickname Gandalf, but due to copyright infringe-”

A curt ‘ahem’ from Alsius nearby made the old man startle with a blink.

“Ah, but I digress! You were saying, Mister Ironheart…?”

In the face of such flippancy, all traces of Roland’s nervousness ebbed and was replaced by dubiety. Gathering his thoughts, the young Avalonian began.

“Director Minstral, it was you who allowed us to pursue Norah and Dezmond, isn’t it?”

Gandalin did not blink in the face of such a blatant allegation. Crossing her arms, Alsius inquired.

“This is a serious accusation, Mr. Ironheart. What is your evidence?”

Despite her overbearing posture and tone, Roland did not waver.

“The fact this letter reached our dormitory. Someone within the Guardians intended us to follow Norah and Dezmond.”

Retrieving and unfolding a letter from a trouser pocket, Roland offered it to the two highest-ranked Guardians who glanced over but did not accept it, their faces impassive. After sharing a look with Gandalin, Alsius countered.

“Supposing the letter is legitimate, it does not prove the director or I were involved. It could all be a ploy by someone else. Do you have any more evidence supporting your case?”

Roland turned to face Wynstal a short distance away, securing several incapacitated assassins.

“We were found by him and another senior Guardian en-route to the capitol. They claimed to have been tracking us by following our trail from Cambreford. The circumstances which they revealed themselves was suspicious, as if waiting for the right time to show themselves.”

“Perhaps they encountered unexpected complications. As you might understand, having had a run-in with a guild in Asher.”

Roland was not dissuaded by Alsius’s reasoning.

“But instead of taking us straight to the commission once we arrived at the capitol, he made us wait with his companion. And when he returned hours later, he gave us strange orders.”

“Indeed. They were quite peculiar, telling us to turn ourselves in and deny his existence…”

Nemo smoothly took over, one hand pinching his messy stubble.

“He also revealed our two teammates being imprisoned, and their companion gravely injured. We were also given something quite extraordinary…”

The lanky man paused to make a ‘give it to me’ gesture at Dezmond. With a shrug, the Aszyrian reached under his shirt and pulled out a square-foot-wide purple fabric that seemed like rubber pressed into shape. He passed it to the Atlantian, who laid it flat over a palm before turning to Norah.

“May I?”

Still flabbergasted over how Dezmond survived being stabbed in the heart by mere rubber, the Aszyrian girl handed the switchblade over without fuss. Wielding the small blade in an ice-pick grip, the Atlantian stabbed his other hand with all his might-

But failed to pierce through. Despite the curved tip landing squarely on his palm and pushing into the cloth-thin material, it failed to penetrate and sink into flesh, even as he forced one arm against the other. Point proved, he returned both articles to their temporary owners.

“I’ve never heard of such strong rubber. And if there’s one place which can invent such a thing, it would be Cambreford.”

“Strange, indeed. Perhaps the truth might be known after a few weeks’-”

Gandalin attempted to reason-

“There’s more, director.”

Blue eyes scrutinizing both high-ranked Guardians, Jemma interrupted.

“Irena sensed Guardian Signatures, including yours, since yesterday night.”

“She-what!?”

Alsius blurted, her calm demeanor shattered by the brunette’s statement.

“Impossible! We made sure our presences were shielded!”

“Alsius…?”

Gandalin murmured with an amused twinkle in his tone. The proctor jittered, coughed once and forced herself to continue in a controlled tone.

“Excuse me. Even ‘if’ we were there, we would make sure to remain undetected. For a mere trainee to detect us even by accident would be impossible.”

Jemma shrugged.

“I thought so too. But why don’t you ask her yourself? I’m sure she could tell you more.”

Everyone turned to Irene, who nodded with great enthusiasm.

“It’s true! At first, there was only Wynstal and another person who found and led us here. Then a few hours before morning, I sensed uncle Gandalin, Alsius, and sixteen Shard Energy users arriving. I even sensed everyone hiding nearby as we were in here.”

Again, Gandalin and Alsius shared a glance. This time there were traces of uncertainty between them.

“What’s going on, uncle? Alsius?”

Irene pressed, hers and seven other pairs of eyes fixed on the duo. Alsius shifted her weight, her infallible demeanor cracking. Gandalin’s brows furrowed as he focused on Irene with a thoughtful yet concerned gaze.

A slow rhythm of claps suddenly resounded from the side, breaking the tension and drawing their attention towards Wynstal, who approached to stand beside Gandalin with an aloof hum.

“Would it not be simpler to tell the truth? Mine head aches from overhearing this exchange.”

“Wynstal! This isn’t for you to decide!”

“Mayhaps not, but keeping them in the dark after manipulating them to this extent would leave a bitter stain on mine conscience. And, they’ve already guessed the truth by too much. You might as well brainwash them into believing your version of events.”

Alsius frowned, unable to refute his logic. She turned to Gandalin, whose blue eyes continued to regard Irene with concern. At last, the director gave several slow nods.

“Perhaps your suggestion holds greater merit, Wynstal. Very well, the truth it shall be. Alsius, would you kindly start?”

Despite still frowning with dissatisfaction, the woman nodded once. Pausing for a few seconds to gather her thoughts, the woman cleared her throat.

“All commission staff are composed of recognized officials of the respective nation. Despite having some authority, the director cannot dictate who can or can’t occupy the highest post of commissioner. He also cannot suspend or terminate a commissioner without first forwarding an investigation warrant to the local government.”

Alsius’s gaze shifted to the group of tied-up assassins and guards being moved to a corner by her subordinates, and the Lord of Murder himself being treated for a fractured spine.

“Because of that, we are well aware of Aszyria’s commission being rife with corruption. Every year, more than half of the Aszyrian candidates are spies or guild agents, sent to infiltrate Cambreford and/or the Guardians. Fortunately, once they arrive, they are often weeded out one way or another and discharged. So far, we were content with that. However…”

Her gaze turned severe as it switched to Norah.

“Your arrival changed everything. A trained assassin sent to murder a certain Guardian individual was an offense we cannot ignore. There was debate whether to interrogate and use you to launch a proper investigation-”

“However, that would result in a loss of great talent, and risk shattering your team. Furthermore, there is no guarantee Miss Dust would cooperate…”

Gandalin gave the Aszyrian girl a soft wink before gesturing for Alsius to continue.

“The director appealed for Ms. Dust in person, granting her freedom from unnecessary persecution or observation. Thus, for months, we waited and considered alternatives. That alternative arrived in the form of a letter addressed to Mister Alcast.”

Alsius’s hazel eyes drifted towards Dezmond.

“All mails are screened before reaching the postroom to be sorted. Your letter was intercepted and brought to my attention. Upon revealing it to the director, a plan was formulated between us and put into motion-”

“You knew… and did nothing!?”

Dezmond gasped, shocked beyond belief.

“Alsius forgot to reveal a key point.”

Wynstal called in a profound tone. He then dropped a bombshell.

“I was the one who ‘bought’ the home and orphans. In disguise, of course.”

A second of silence passed…

A roar of ‘what!?’ exploded at Wynstal, making the man lean back with a disturbed grimace and wave both hands placatingly.

“I was carrying out orders…”

“Where are the children now? Are they safe!?”

Dezmond demanded, pale-faced with anxiety. Releasing a contemplative hum, Wynstal answered.

“They should have arrived in Cambreford by now, being shown their new lodgings.”

“Then Sheera…”

“I had nay idea you having allies within the Vultures. I suppose she did us a favor, convincing you to leave. Though as a result, she got caught up too. Nikos should have stormed the jail by now. If willing, she’ll be placed under Guardian protection. She deserves that much, at least.”

Wynstal turned to Gandalin for approval, which the old-man granted with a solemn nod.

 “Please continue, Alsius…”

The director murmured.

Taking another moment to collect herself, Alsius resumed.

“Our first goal was to coax Mr. Alcast into deserting. Should he have come to us instead, we would have dismissed him without a fair hearing. However, we knew he alone stood no chance of leaving Cambreford, to say less about achieving our goals.”

The proctor of archive and research turned to Norah.

“As such, we needed Ms. Dust to accompany him. Within the Gray Forest, Captain Nikos overheard Ms. Dust’s conversation with Irene, learning her motivation was fear for her maternal parent.”

Norah stiffened at the knowledge that her most guarded secret was exposed from the very beginning.

“We later confirmed Ms. Dust had mixed loyalties, leading us to guess that between assisting Mr. Alcast and carrying out her original mission, she would choose the former. Our guess was correct. Only a few individuals had full knowledge of this plan, ensuring by the time your absences were realized, you two would be outside Cambreford’s airspace.”

Both Aszyrians’ gut sank at the realization they were manipulated like puppets on strings. Putting on an apologetic grimace, Alsius moved on.

“This brings us to our second goal, which is to follow you two to the Aszyrian commission and uncover whatever corruption exists within. However, we cannot legally send Guardian agents into Aszyria. That is because despite being deserters, both of you are Aszyrians, thus, responsibility for your capture would fall to the nation’s commission.”

Alsius then turned to the six non-Aszyrian members of Team Amethyst.

“As a result, we needed non-Aszyrians to also be involved. That letter was indeed drafted by me under the director’s instruction, to coax all of you into going after them.”

Disbelief crashed into the six, some more drastic than others. Giving them a moment to absorb all this, Alsius eyed Wynstal, urging him to take over. The other Guardian obliged with a slow exhale.

“Mine next task was to rendezvous with Nikos, hunt down and ‘apprehend’ the deserters. T’was quite a chore trailing after you six.”

Shooting the lanky Atlantian a malcontent glance, he grumbled.

“Nemo, is it? Chose a route so oblique that short of splitting, we couldn’t follow both parties. But since knowing all eight were bound for Asher, good ol’ Nikos went ahead, found the Aszyrian duo and… A penny for your thoughts, Sergeant?”

The lazy-eyed Guardian remarked, noticing Elfred straighten upon realizing something. After a brief moment, the up-till-now silent soldier gave a sharp nod.

“You two helped us escape Asher.”

More than one trainee blinked, perplexed by his declaration. One eyebrow arched up while the other tilted down, Aria voiced her confusion.

“El, what are you talking about? We all worked together and Gem destroyed the building, remember?”

“That’s not what he’s referring to, blondie. Don’t you remember what was outside when we got out of the building?”

Nemo prompted, causing the woman’s brows to scrunch with deep thought.

What is he talking about? There was no-one…

Something in her mind clicked, and she exclaimed.

“Right…! There was no-one outside, even though someone closed us in!”

Elfred and Nemo nodded; Irene and Jemma went ‘ooh’. All this being news, Dezmond and Norah listened with rapt attention. Seconds passed before Wynstal nudged Alsius with an elbow, prompting her to conclude.

“When Wynstal and Nikos relayed Juryah being Ms. Dust and Mr. Alcast’s next destination, the director summoned the organization’s most capable Shard Energy agents. We traveled here by airship with all haste and arrived several hours ago. After confirming we had enough evidence, we stormed the building.”

With everyone’s cards now on the table, silence ensued. More than half of Team Amethyst continued to process this in their minds.

Being the first to comprehend the full picture, Roland stared straight into the director’s blue eyes and summarized.

“In short, you manipulated all of us in your plan of exposing corruption in the Aszyrian commission. Is that accurate, director?”

For several heartbeats, Gandalin did not move, speak, or blink. The old man then closed both eyes and took a deep breath. When they opened, great guilt was revealed.

“Yes. That is entirely correct. However, phrasing it that way would undermine my intentions.”

Brows furrowing and demeanor darkening, more than one person bristled at the director’s presumed attempt at covering up his wrong-doing.

“Intentions? You risked our and other’s lives! Do you know how much everyone suffered!?”

Aria growled, hands curling into trembling fists.

“I can only imagine, and offer my sincerest apologies for every trespass I committed.”

Gandalin proclaimed, his tone sincere and gaze earnest yet bearing no hint of retracting his previous statement.

“However, there are times when subterfuge and deceit are needed to achieve one’s goal. And the few ways one can justify the ramifications of committing a crime… is to consider its intentions and end goals.”

Sensing little sympathy from his audience, the director’s gaze shifted into one that is understanding yet final.

“I realize my words may contradict your personal beliefs and even the Guardian code of conduct. But unfortunately, the world is not so simple where law and order alone can keep evil at bay. I do not expect to be forgiven; only hope for your understanding that I act in good faith.”

With that, the director’s kind aura shifted into a busy man with a long day ahead.

“Alsius, please go and take stock of the situation for me.”

“Yes, director.”

The woman replied. Casting one final apologetic glance at the eight trainees, she strode towards the door Wynstal came through, calling for her subordinates to follow. Gandalin fished out a sealed envelope from his jacket and turned to his son.

“I would like you to escort these trainees back to Cambreford using my airship. Please pass this to Bealus, its contents should keep everything running in my absence.”

The old man then turned to face the eight trainees one more time.

“Regretfully, this will be the last time we will be talking about this. I would be ever grateful if you would keep all this to yourselves. You will all be confined to your dorm until my return, after which your punishment for being absent without leave will be issued. With regards to that…”

The director hummed for a few seconds, tugging the tip of his beard between two fingers.

“I think restricted access to the city for a month would be adequate. Now, there is much to do and many to speak to. I look forward to meeting everyone for your ‘trial’ in my office.”

Winking once with an indiscernible smile, the director went after Alsius, leaving eight trainees and one son behind.

After releasing a massive yawn lasting five whole seconds, Wynstal turned to leave through the ruined main entrance with a dry remark.

“Come along, then. Urgh, thank goodness it’s so bright outside. I’m so sleep-deprived I could fall dead on the spot.”


© Copyright 2019 AJLKS. All rights reserved.

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