The Pulver Chronicles – 8. A Flickering Midnight Light


Everything was dark. It wasn’t the sort of darkness one would observe on a moonless night, or when locked in a room with no window. Not just obscurity, but a complete absence of light. A darkness so deep it took Jackson an eternity to grasp the fact that he was still conscious, and not in some sort of dreamless sleep. He then thought that his eyes were closed, and tried blinking. Somehow, he couldn’t. He tried to move his arms, wave his hands, shake his legs, wiggles his toes… nothing. He couldn’t even tell whether he still had a body to move. Don’t freak out, he told himself.

Something flashed before him. An image. It disappeared before Jackson could make it out. Another image flashed one moment later. It looked like… a forest? Another image. And another. Soon, an entire film started playing before Jackson’s eyes. A poorly edited film: it kept jumping from one scene to another. Then, the images became more than just animated stills. Jackson heard sounds, distorted and dissonant. There were smells, also. Before long, all five of his senses were involved.

No… Not his senses. Someone else’s. It took Jackson some time to properly comprehend it, but those things he was watching, hearing, smelling, and even touching were memories, and not his own. At first, he assumed they were Byron’s, but he was wrong. The person whose past he was experiencing was a woman. A Humanoid woman, at that. He saw her reflection when she peered down a river. She was washing her hands in the water, cleaning a red liquid that looked very much like blood from her long and sharp claws. Those hands were actually more like the paws of a canid: big, large, and covered in fur. That creature was evidently some kind of Beastfolk; her skin was dark as night, and fur framed her face, topped with ears similar to a wolf’s. One of those ears had a noticeable cut. Glowing red eyes completed that strange and fascinating portrait.

Jackson had never seen a creature such as she. Was she a Werewolf? No, she was bigger, taller, more muscular… more demonic, perhaps. But she was not a Demon either, or at least, not any kind of Demon Jackson had ever known -though, granted, he didn’t know many. Some sort of combination of the two was his best guess.

The images became more focused, the sounds more attuned. Now, Jackson could hear people speaking. The creature whose mind he was hijacking and another like her were talking. They were sitting on their knees inside a tent; a fire was roaring at the center, its smoke coming out of a hole in the ceiling.

“I don’t like that I’m making you do this,” the other creature said.

“You’re not,” Natial -Jackson somehow knew that was her name- said. “I volunteered, remember?”

The two women hugged each other tight.

“If I don’t make it back,” Natial said, “my pelts go to you. Don’t let your sister have them. She hasn’t earned them.”

“Thank you. Goodbye, Natial.”

“Goodbye, Alizana.”

The scene blurred, the decor changed. Now, the creature -Natial- was in a prairie, with blades of yellowed grass about four feet tall. She was crouching, her eyes peeled, her ears lowered, her claws quivering in anticipation. Although he couldn’t see anyone, Jackson instinctively knew that there were others like Natial spread out in the grass. They were a couple of feet away from a road, waiting in ambush. In the distance, Jackson heard the clop-clop-clop of horses trotting. There were ten… no, fifteen of them. Natial peered above the grass, and saw a troop of horsemen, moving along the path. There were Demons, clad in iron armor, dressed in red and yellow.

Time slew down as the Demon leading the convoy got within six feet of Natial. In a powerful jump, she propelled herself towards her target, slamming him hard enough to not only unhorse him, but to leave a noticeable dent in his armor. The Demon didn’t even have time to scream as he came crashing down; already, his beast-like attacker had pierced his throat with a quick, brutal thrust of her claws, the chainmail he wore around his neck doing almost nothing to protect him.

Seconds later, Natial’s comrades leaped into action. Among the horsemen, chaos and panic quickly spread out. They tried to defend themselves and counterattack, but their enemies had the advantage of both surprise and the terrain. The creatures attacked quickly, then retreated in the tall grass before the Demons could strike back. Eventually, one of them, clearly an officer of some kind, barked a few orders, and the remaining horsemen split into two groups. The officer turned tail and galloped away, followed by two of his soldiers, while the rest were left behind to hold the enemy back and protect their officer’s retreat. The runaways didn’t make it far before Natial and the others got to them.

Once again, everything became foggy, and it was like the memories were a movie put on fast-forward. A new scenery appeared. It was another ambush, this time in a rocky, hilly region. The weather was hot and dry, the environment rough. The ground was wrecked by multiple cracks and depression, as if an angry god had shattered it with a hammer. Once again, Natial was on the lookout for her target, along with her allies. Jackson could tell some time had passed since the previous memory.

A cloud of dust appeared in the horizon, growing bigger with every passing moment. This time, it was a cohort of footsoldiers and horsemen. Most of them were Demons, but there were also a sizable number of Humans, and a handful of Orcs. They outnumbered their ambushers about three to one, but that caused no worry to Natial. The creatures’ tactic had become a routine. They would attack the enemies at the front and the back of the troop simultaneously, almost encircling them, then let fear and discord do the rest. With a mighty roar, she leaped onto a horseman once more, signaling the attack.

The clash was, as always, powerful and bloody. Seven, maybe eight enemies died in the very first seconds of the ambush. But something was wrong. This time, the shock didn’t cause any awe. This time, the enemy reacted with discipline. Natial quickly understood: among these mere soldiers, disguised by ordinary armors and concealed by the numbers, were warriors of a very different sort. The creature growled to the one who appeared to lead them:

“You! I know you! You are his son. What are you doing here?!”

“Culling some unruly dogs,” the man said.

Natial screamed in anger and threw herself at them. Jackson’s vision became troubled. Everything turned into a blur of rage, pain, and fear. When the confusion cleared up, blood-covered corpses littered the field. Natial was now crawling on the ground, her body covered in wounds, her legs too weak to stand. By its odd angle, Jackson could tell that one of her arms was dislocated, possibly broken too.

“One of them is still alive,” a voice said.

“Get the fetters.”

Someone approached her, a pair of shackles in hand. Natial tried to fend him off, but her claws only striked the air. Another soldier stepped closer, and pinned her down by piercing through her shoulder with a spear. Her vision turned to black, and the pain drowned the rest of her senses. The last thing she heard was a metal click.

Another blur. Another memory. Now, Natial was in a dark room, with walls of stone. Her wrists and her ankles were restrained by metal cuffs, and a heavy chain bonded a collar on her neck to a ring on the floor. A silhouette was standing before her. Jackson couldn’t see any of his features, but his voice was clearly masculine, deep and husky.

“This is your last chance, dog,” he said. “Where is your leader? Where is Shatters-the-Shields?”

Immediately, Jackson knew Shatters-the-Shields was a nickname for Alizana, because Natial knew that.

“I don’t know… where she is,” Natial said, muttering and trembling. “But… I know… where she will be.”

The man leaned towards her as her voice grew weaker.

“Where?”

“By… the beginning of summer… she’ll be…”

“Speak! Where will she be?”

“Crouching over your corpse, pissing inside your skull,” Natial spat out, her voice no longer weak.

An iron gloved fist met with her chin, shattering one of her fangs, but failing to kill her proud smile.

“This is pointless,” a different voice said.

Natial hadn’t noticed there was another person in the room -and neither had Jackson. She looked around, but didn’t see anyone.

“Fine,” the man said. “You can have her.”

The prisoner’s hair raised on her neck. She braced herself for more pain, knowing she wouldn’t be able to do much but to endure it, like she had for days now. But she wasn’t harmed by any fist, blade, or flame. Instead, she felt some sort of coldness growing in her core, climbing up her throat, before coming out of her mouth, her nose, her ears, and her eyes. Some sort of black substance poured out of her, swiveling in the air like horrid worms. Her body went numb, like she was going to sleep, or rather, like she was being emptied of all her energy. Dread overwhelmed her; she knew she was dead seconds before she breathed her last.

Jackson screamed out in terror. The world around him shattered, letting the darkness back in. Then, his whole body started shaking. He tried to retain control of it, but to no avail. His muscles contracted as if he was being electrocuted. His mouth filled with saliva, to the point where it came out of the corner of his lips in the form of foam.

The flashes started again. Bright spots appeared out of nowhere, slowly forming images. Dirt. Rock. A tunnel. A flame. A sword. Blood.

Jackson blinked. He was back in the cave. Looking around in confusion, he noticed he was no longer in the chief’s room. He was back in the main cavern, standing near the campfire, his sword in one hand and his ax in the other. A dead body was lying at his feet, two large wounds barring his stomach and the side of his neck.

“What the fuck?!”

“Good, you’re back.”

Byron appeared right next to him.

“What happened?” Jackson said.

“You lost consciousness when you touched that thing,” Byron said. “Which I explicitly told you not to do,” he added, edgy.

“Damn. How long was I out? Why am I here? That guy… Did I… No, wait, did you kill him?”

“I did. After you passed out, one of the Redthroats sounded the alarm. Some of your friends outside got sighted by a patrol, apparently. Three of them came to warn the chief, and found his corpse. Jowallan tried their best to hide themself and you, but eventually one of the bandits stumbled on your body. Whatever spell the Demon was casting stopped working then. I had to act.”

“So you… Jesus fuck, Byron! Did you control my body while I was out?”

“Yes. I had no choice.”

Jackson put his weapons away and dropped on his hands and knees. He felt violently sick, all of a sudden. His stomach was doing somersaults, his vision became unfocused, his brain was twisting inside his skull. He narrowly repressed the urge to vomit. Too much was happening for his mind to handle. First, the visions. Then, that strange fit he had. Now, this.

“Oh my God…”

“I did it to save your life, Jackson,” Byron said.

“Let’s… let’s talk about this later. I need a fucking drink. Or… a dozen drinks.”

He saw movement at the corner of his eyes, and jumped on his feet. Thankfully, it was Jowallan.

“We are done, here,” they said. “Do you still have it?”

“Huh?”

Byron tapped the young man’s belt. Jackson noticed a square-shaped bulge in one of his pouches.

“Good,” Jowallan said, following his gaze. They then turned on their heels and headed towards the exit.

The Children of Nayros were gathering in a clearing not too far from the cave’s entrance. Argyro was leaning back against a tree, cleaning her blood-stained war ax with a dirty cloth which seemed to have been one of the bandits’ shirt. Marrmad was sitting on a fallen tree, chewing on some kind of long, orange roll. Durnin was sitting on the ground, mumbling in pain as Enita, standing behind him, was trying to treat a wound over his eyebrow. The cut didn’t look deep, but it bled a lot, judging by how hard Enita’s hand pressed on it.

“Blasted idiot,” Durnin grumbled, shaking his fist at some imaginary enemy.

“Stop moving so much,” Enita said.

“Our young hero returns,” Marrmad said, noticing Jackson.

“Hero?” Jackson said.

“Jowallan and Argyro told us you took on most of the Redthroats, in there,” Durnin said. “All on your own! And they barely even scratched you.”

Holy shit, Byron.

“Umm, yeah. Can’t say the same about you, though. What happened there?” Jackson pointed at his eyebrow.

“One of these pisscaudles got me with a rock after I disarmed him. Flea-bite! And I was going to spare him…”

Enita applied a makeshift bandage on his injury, then put on a dark green tincture that served as an adhesive. Jackson could smell it from afar. Marrmad stood from his seat and held out his hand.

“The box, please.”

Jackson gave it to him. The Goblin weighed it, looked at the sigil, then nodded.

“Didn’t try to pick the lock and take a look inside, did you?

“No,” Jackson said, a bit too quickly, making Marrmad raise a skeptical eyebrow. He added: “This thing doesn’t seem to have a lock, anyway.”

The Goblin seemed satisfied, and put the box away. Chasing a lie with the truth to make it easier to digest was a trick Jackson had learned growing up, and refined while in the army. He gave Jowallan a sideway glance, a chill running down his spine. The young man had for a moment forgotten that they knew the truth. Were they going to tell Marrmad? They stared at him for a while, but remained their usual, eerily quiet self. Jackson felt someone tapping -more like puching- him on the shoulder, and he flinched. It was Argyro, looking at him with a large smile.

“Impressive,” she said. “I owe you one.”

“Impressive indeed,” Marrmad said. “One more job like this and you’ll need a new name, Greenleaf. All right, you lot! We’ll camp out nearby for the night, and we’ll go back to town at dawn.”

“Camp? What about the cave?” Argyro suggested.

“There’s over a dozen corpses in there,” Durnin sniffed. “You’re welcome to sleep in their company if you like, but I don’t want to wake up cursed.”

“Not to mention how they’ll smell tomorrow,” Enita said.

Argyro shrugged, and decided to help the others lay out the camp. Jackson helped Enita start a fire by gathering rocks, wood, and some leaves, which she then lit up with a bolt of lightning. Argyro and Marrmad laid out the cots, while Durnin went to forage for fruits and berries.

Everyone ate with great appetite that evening, except for Jackson who still felt ill. He volunteered to keep watch for the first part of the night, knowing he wouldn’t be able to go to sleep anytime soon.

“We need to talk,” he said to Byron after he made sure the others were asleep.

“Yes, I agree,” Byron said.

“What happened after you… used me?”

“It was pretty straightforward: I fought my way out, with Jowallan at my back. We joined with the Orc in the main part of the cave. The Redthroats had us outnumbered, but with a bit of tactic and good use of the environment, we got the upper hand. One of them sneaked behind the Orc’s back and tried to slit her throat, but I took him. The whole thing lasted maybe twenty minutes.”

“How many did you kill?”

“I didn’t keep a tally. More than nine, but less than twelve.”

“Twelve?!” Jackson said, alarmed. “Fuck! And you’re talking about this like… like it’s nothing.”

“I have fought against seasoned, well-equipped soldiers. Those were just poorly armed bandits with minimal training -or no training at all, for some.”

Jackson sat down and put his head between his knees. He still wanted that dozen drinks, but Marrmad had been very clear about the necessity to remain sober while standing guard.

“Is it my turn to ask questions?” Byron said. “Because I have quite a few.”

“Not so fast,” Jackson said, raising his head. “Let’s go back to the part where you used my body like a puppet.”

“Look,” Byron rolled his eyes, “I didn’t have much of a choice.”

“Yeah, no, I get it. You did it to save my life –our lives. My question is: you can do that at will, now? The first time, you told me you did it without thinking. But it looks like it’s been getting easier for you everytime.”

“I believe this was made considerably easier this time by the fact that you were unconscious. But you’re right. Practice makes perfect, it seems.”

“Practice?” Jackson said, incensed. “We’re talking about possession here, not fucking baseball!”

“I was being sarcastic,” Byron said.

“Well, it’s not a good fucking time for sarcasm. I… Shit.” He rubbed his eyes. “Let’s not talk about it anymore.”

“May I ask my questions now?” Byron said.

“Whatever.”

“All right. Question number one: what happened to you while you were unconscious?”

“Hell if I know. I had… a dream. Well… No, it wasn’t a dream.”

““I had a dream, which was not at all a dream,” Byron said, seeming to quote something once again. “What was it, then? A hallucination?”

“More like a vision. And it… Ah… You wouldn’t believe me.”

“You’re talking to a man who traveled to a world where magic exists, died, and is somehow still around,” Byron said, deadpan. “I’m half-living proof that truth is stranger than fiction.”

“Good point. Okay, so… It was like I was watching someone’s memories.”

“Whose?”

“I don’t know. A female Humanoid. I remember her name was Natial.”

He proceeded to tell Byron the whole story of what he’d seen. His narration was confused at times, he rambled a lot, and he was pretty sure he used the wrong word at least once, but he did his best to make sure he didn’t forget any detail. Somehow, retelling those visions made the whole thing seem even crazier in Jackson’s mind; fortunately, Byron just listened to him in silence, his expression unchanged.

“That’s… interesting,” he simply commented when Jackson finished.

“Interesting? It’s weird as fuck, you mean.”

“We can only assume that this artifact, whatever it was, gave you those visions. Describe that Natial to me again.”

Jackson did so. Byron frowned and let out a “mmmh”.

“You ever seen anything like her?” Jackson said.

“No…” Byron said, shaking his head. “No, I don’t think so. Have you?”

“Me? I’ve been raised in the middle of Bumfuck, nowhere. My whole town was nothing but white Humans, except for the black family next door. The first Humanoid I met was a Kitsune stripper on my eighteenth birthday.”

“And you said there were others like her.”

“Yeah, a few. One of them was called Alizana, but her enemies know her as Shatter-the-Shields. She was their leader, I think.”

He squinted his eyes as he suddenly thought of something.

“Is she the one I’m supposed to find?” he muttered.

“What’s that?” Byron said.

“Oh, I forgot to tell you about that. It’s got to do with how I got the ring. Well, how I think I got the ring.”

“Ah, yes, I’ve been meaning to ask about that,” the veteran said, his arms crossed. “A fancy ring appears on your finger out of nowhere, and it just so happens to be the key to a locked box we were tasked to find?”

“Yeah… When you put it like that, it sounds super suspicious.”

“Is there any other way to put it?”

Jackson shrugged.

“Anyway, how did you get this ring?” Byron said.

“So last night, I was sleeping -don’t even remember falling asleep, guess I was really tired-, and I had this dream. Well, it was more like-”

“A vision?”

“Yeah. No. Well, yeah, I guess. But nothing like the other vision. I was still me. And it was… really real. I mean, it felt real. I only found out it was a dream -or whatever- when I woke up.”

Byron looked a bit annoyed by Jackson’s lack of storytelling skills, but once again, he just listened and made no comment. He didn’t even roll his eyes, which was unusual enough to be noted.

“Okay. So, I was in this tunnel, or crypt, or whatever. It was underground, I’m pretty sure. There were stone walls, and it was super dark. I had this torch in my hand. I was walking, I had no idea where I was going. The whole thing was a maze, and it was like the walls moved around once they were in the dark. At some point, I got to a deadend, and this message appeared: “the light is afraid”. No, wait, it said: “turn on the light”… No, wait. It said: “turn on the dark, I’m afraid of the light”.”

““Turn on the dark, I’m afraid of the light”?” Byron repeated, his eyebrows sharpening ever so slightly. “Those exact words?”

“Yeah. Why? Does it mean something to you?”

Byron shook his head briefly, then said: “Go on.”

“Right. Uh… So, I went back a little, and bam! New deadend. That’s when I knew the walls were moving. Then, I started thinking, and I threw away my torch. And the deadend -the first one- had disappeared!”

“Huh.”

“Yeah! So I kept moving, with my hand in front so I didn’t bang my head on a wall or something. It was totally dark, and I had no idea what I was doing. Then, out of nowhere, I felt this hand taking mine. And then, I felt some mouth kissing my fingers. And then, there was this tongue that licked my finger… This finger.” he said, pointing at his ring, only to realize he was no longer wearing it. “Hey, where the-”

“I put it in one of your pouches. Better if the others don’t know about this, I thought.”

“Probably right about that… And then I woke up.”

Byron opened his mouth, but Jackson interrupted him with an exclamation:

“No, wait! After the weird licking thing, I found my torch again, at the bottom of a wall. There was another message on it -on the wall, not on the torch-: “find her”.

““Find her”?”

“Yeah. That’s it. Just: “find her”. And then I woke up. It was all pretty freaky.”

Byron crossed his arms and remained quiet for a moment, his expression inscrutable as it often was when he was in deep thinking.

“This is bad,” he said after a while.

“Bad? I mean, it’s… weird, but…”

“Someone gave you that ring, knowing you’d find that box, or that you would eventually get your hands on it.”

“How is that bad? That someone is helping me. And I sure could use some help.”

“Don’t be naive, Jackson”, Byron said, his forehead wrinkled with weariness. “One of the first things you learn in… my previous line of work, is that there’s no such thing as a free meal. That mysterious benefactor wants something from you.”

“Right… To find that Alizana. But why?”

“That’s the question, isn’t it? And if I were you -which, apparently, I sort of am-, I’d make it one of my priorities to find out. You are being led. Who knows if it’s not to the slaughterhouse?”

“You think they want to kill me?” Jackson said, feeling a tremor in his lower back.

“No, I actually don’t. In all likelihood, they want to use you to their ends. Once you’ve served your purpose, however…”

He left his sentence unfinished.

“Great…” Jackson said.

“I think your shift is about over,” Byron said.

Indeed, Jowallan, who was designated to stand watch for the second part of the night, had begun shifting under their cover. They sat on top of their cot, and stared silently at Jackson.

“Let me guess,” Jackson said. “We need to talk.”

The twin rubies that were Jowallan’s eyes gave what seemed to be a clever or mocking look, although it might just have been the campfire reflected in them combined with Jackson’s sudden nervosity.

“Thanks for not saying anything about… you know…” He mimed a sphere with his hands.

“I was watching you,” Jowallan suddenly said, the notes in his voice vibrating like guitar strings.

“You mean… right now?” Jackson said, gulping his saliva. Had he made sure to keep that conversation with Byron entirely in his head? He didn’t know.

“In the cave,” Jowallan said.

“Oh… Uh-huh? Ah, right. Yeah, you told me not to touch that thing, and I’m sorry I didn’t listen. I know, I’m like a kid,” he added, fake laughing, “you show me a shiny thing and I have to have it.”

As Jowallan continued to gaze at Jackson, he noticed their eyes didn’t even blink. Had Jackson not seen Jowallan close them before, he would have questioned whether they even had eyelids.

“You fought well,” Jowallan said.

“Oh, ah, thanks,” Jackson said, a little relieved.

“Much better than during your training the days before.”

It was a simple sentence, which Jowallan had pronounced without any inflection or change of tone. Yet Jackson sensed the mood changing to something slightly more glacial. The relief was gone just as quickly as it came.

“I mean… This wasn’t training, this time,” Jackson said. “When your life is in danger… well, you know.”

Jowallan frowned to the point that their eyes became slits. “It was not just your moves. Your temperament, as well. I watched you as you killed many of these bandits. Your face was as still as stone.”

Yeah, I’ll bet it was, he thought, giving Byron a side-glance.

“That’s what happens when I fight, you see,” Jackson said. “It’s like I become this other person entirely. Like I’m not myself.”

Jowallan nodded their head slowly. Jackson couldn’t help but think there was some sarcasm in that nod.

“Is that so?…” they said.

“Okay, we need to be careful about that one,” Byron said. “They seem to have figured something out about you -maybe about us.”

“But they kept our secret,” Jackson pointed out. “I guess we can trust them.”

“Unless they intend to hold that one over you.”

“You think they’d do that?… I mean, we’re both in the Children of Nayros. We’re brothers. Siblings. Whatever.”

“Well, let’s just hope that lofty ideal wasn’t just talk.”

While Jackson and Byron were having their aparté, Jowallan had come to sit closer to the young man, moving with such subtlety that Jackson hadn’t noticed, at first. Now, the two of them were sitting so close that Jackson could see the details of their skin, the features of their face, and the twists of their horns. Speaking of the latter, Jackson blinked when he saw them move. This time, it certainly wasn’t the flames or the shadows: they actually undulated slowly, like the branches of a tree, or the tentacles of some dark cephalopod.

“That was pretty cool, what you did,” Jackson said, hoping to divert the conversation away.

They raised an eyebrow.

“That invisibility trick? Really came in handy. Do you have any others like this?”

“Yes,” Jowallan simply answered.

“Cool, cool…”

Jackson was getting fidgety. He had to know what was going on in that person’s mind. And since he couldn’t think of any tactful way to find out, he simply asked:

“Why didn’t you tell the truth to Marrmad?”

This actually elicited a reaction from Jowallan, who titled his head back somewhat. Evidently, they weren’t expecting such directness.

“I’m guessing you’ve never heard of “leaving well enough alone”?” Byron groaned.

“It’s better to know for sure, don’t you think?”

Without waiting for an answer, Jackson continued talking to Jowallan: “You saw me open that box. You saw me touch that dark orb thing. But you didn’t tell Marrmad about that. Or anyone else, I bet. Why not?”

“Do you want me to tell them?” Jowallan said, an almost amused expression twisting the lower half of his face.

“No. I mean… I don’t know. Maybe I should trust them. But… They might ask some questions, and I’m not sure I’d be comfortable answering them.”

“Trust that instinct,” Byron commented.

“Questions about the ring?” Jowallan said.

Okay, yup, they know about the ring.

“Yeah. And questions like yours, too.”

Jowallan smiled. Jackson felt the urge to rub his eyes, but there was no mistaking it: they were actually smiling. It was a small, faint smile that curled up the corner of his lips by maybe a tenth of an inch, but a real smile nevertheless.

“Didn’t know you could do that,” Jackson said.

Oh shit. Was that out loud?

“Err… I don’t mean… No, it’s just… Like, you keep to yourself. And, uh, I respect that, but, huh…”

But nothing. Just shut the fuck up and go to sleep. Tired Jackson is even stupider than Drunk Jackson.

“I have my secrets,” Jowallan said. “You do too.”

“Careful,” Byron said suddenly. “I smell a honeypot.”

“A what? What are you talking about?

“Look at the way they’re leaning. How they’re turned towards you. The way they’re getting closer to you.

“Uh…”

Byron was right. Jowallan had moved to sit closer to Jackson, and had done so with such discretion that he wasn’t even aware of that until just then. Maybe that was another of their powers?

“Wait… Are they hitting on me?”

“Took you long enough,” Byron sighed.

Jackson felt light-headed all of a sudden. This might have been the biggest surprise of the day, and that included the weird visions. He looked at Jowallan again, and saw them in a very different light. Jowallan looked back, but there was no way to tell precisely what they were looking at, or whether they liked what they were seeing. Wait, what do I care about that? Jackson thought. I mean, better they like it than not, I guess. Ah, whatever.

As he was processing this thought, he started detailing Jowallan’s body. When he had asked Enita about Jowallan’s gender, she had answered evasively. Marrmad seemed to think of them as a man, which didn’t seem to bother them. Jackson started looking for anything that might help him solve the enigma, so to speak. Jowallan had large hips, but a flat chest. Their shoulders were not particularly broad, and their silhouette was thin. If Jackson had to decide, he’d say Jowallan looked more feminine than masculine. Their facial traits were more feminine, but maybe Jackson was being biased.

Oh, what the hell, let’s just do this. Getting a little unnerved, he decided to take a peek downstairs. Maybe he hadn’t look hard enough, maybe it was the fact that Jowallan was sitting sideways, maybe it was the poor lightning, but even that didn’t solve his internal debate. He felt himself blush a little as he hoped Jowallan hadn’t caught that peek. The androgynous Demon-like creature was still staring at him, their smile still there.

“Shouldn’t you be keeping watch?” Jackson said.

“I am,” Jowallan said.

“Right, ‘cause it looks like you’re just watching me, not around.”

This time, Jackson caught Jowallan moving as they got closer still. There was less than a foot left between them.

“What do you see when you look at me?” Jowallan asked.

“Huh?” Jackson said stupidly.

“When I looked at you for the first time, back in the hideout, I saw someone in strange clothes, speaking in an accent I’ve never heard before. He was the size of a man, but had the enthusiasm and the confidence of a child. And during training, he could barely wield a sword.”

“Thanks?”

“Yet when I looked at you tonight, I saw a trained warrior, who slew men like the farmer reaps his crops. He had no qualms taking lives, but neither did he enjoy it. It was to him a chore like any other.”

“I…”

Jackson bit his lip, his stomach turning to ice. He tried to come up with an answer, but couldn’t.

“There is a mystery within you,” Jowallan said, a heated note in their voice. “And a mist of secrets protecting it. You are a riddle in the form of a man.”

“You’re one to talk,” Jackson blustered (Why was he blustering? Was he scared?). “All I know about you is your name. Actually, I probably don’t even know that, since we don’t use our real names in the Children of Nayros. So, I guess what I see when I look at you is a big question mark.”

A clever light twinkled in Jowallan’s eye. “True. Would you like to know something about me?”

Jackson made a mocking sound. “Let me guess. A secret for a secret?”

“Why not?” Jowallan said, arching their eyebrows.

“Because like I said: I don’t know a damn thing about you. You could tell me any old bullshit and pretend it’s a secret, and I wouldn’t know any better.”

Jowallan’s smile grew bigger. Jackson could now see their teeth. He expected two rows of shark-like jagged teeth, and wasn’t completely wrong. Their teeth were mostly Human -well, Humanoid-, save for two couple of fangs, one slightly bigger than the other, both located on the upper jaw. Jackson wasn’t very surprised to see that they were all darkish gray in color. I wonder what it’s like to kiss that. You’d have to be careful with your tongue. Jackson huffed and chased that intrusive thought away. What the hell’s wrong with me? Wait. Maybe it’s a spell.

“No…” Byron said, holding his forehead in his hand. “No, it’s not.”

“I like riddles,” Jowallan said.

“Yeah?” Jackson said weakly, trying not to look at their lips. Or their eyes. Or… just… anywhere.

“Yes. I like studying them, I like solving them… I love unraveling them.”

They were too close. Yet, Jackson couldn’t… well… didn’t move back. This is crazy. I’m crazy. I don’t even know what they ARE. Like, do they have a… or…?

“How about this, then?” Jowallan said. “I tell you one of my secrets, and tomorrow you will ask Enita to verify that it’s true. Then, you’ll owe me a secret.”

“Enita knows…”

“Many things about me, yes.”

Jackson’s gaze went to Enita, who was fast asleep on her cot, curled under her blanket. Ah, shit, Enita. He was now just thinking about her. They didn’t really have the time to discuss things, ever since the moments they shared in the park and in the back alley. Were the two of them an item, now? If so, what would she think of Jackson and Jowallan getting awfully chummy? Yikes. Am I cheating on someone who can create lightning with her mind?

“You have nothing to gain and a lot to lose from that bargain,” Byron said tensely. “Turn them down.”

“Yeah,” Jackson thought-said. “That’s the rational thing to do.”

But -damn- it was hard to be rational when a strange and alluring creature’s nose was so close to yours it was almost brushing it. Torn between his superego and his id, he decided to temporarily abandon his senses, and said:

“Okay.”

Another light sparkled in Jowallan’s eyes. Byron slapped his forehead and grunted.

“Excellent. What do you wish to know?” the horned creature said.

“Well… What are you? I mean, are you a Demon? Or a…?”

Jowallan’s horns swiveled like snakes. No, it was more like… they quivered? Jackson felt the impulse to touch them, grab them, get a feel of their texture. Were they oily? Rough? Warm? Cold? Before the young man could start coming up with rationalizations for not restraining himself, Jowallan whispered:

“I am a Cambion.”

“A Cambion?” Jackson said, puzzled. “What’s that? A kind of Demon?”

“If you were to ask someone of the Divine Church or the Inquisition, they would say that my kind are indeed Demons, masquerading as Humans. However, if you were to ask the Armilusians, the Saoshyanites, or just about anyone in the Hexacracy, they would vehemently deny it, and say we are related to Humans.”

“And which one is right? “

“Neither, although none of them is entirely wrong.”

“Thanks, that’s really helpful.”

“The true story of our genesis is a mystery,” Jowallan said, “but it is believed that we are the result of a union between Human and Demon, something thought by many to be unthinkable, and by all to be impossible.”

“So you’re mongrels?” Jackson said, wincing a bit at the last word.

“It is the term the Imperials use. The Archdemons call us “awvel”; it is the demonic word for “bastard”. Both they and the Empire disavow us. They have ostracized our kind ever since our birth, and forbade spreading the very knowledge of our existence.”

“Damn, that’s… harsh.”

“You have a way with words,” Byron said. Jackson resisted the urge to glare at him.

“So we took to hiding, away from any searching light and any inquisitive eyes. Shadows became our home, and illusions our weapons.”

As they said that, a differently colored smoke rose from the campfire, forming a column. In the column, a head appeared, with an impish smile and four horns. Jowallan blew softly, and the face disappeared. Jackson let out a little “wow”. When he turned back to face the Cambion, he involuntarily swallowed his saliva. Jowallan’s face was now so close his lips almost touched theirs.

“Okay, so… uh… What…” he sputtered, recoiling a little. He cleared his throat and tried again: “Are you, like, female, or…?”

Jowallan pressed their index finger on their smiling lips, and shook their head. “One secret, that’s it. You should go to sleep; we have a long journey tomorrow morning.”

“I know… But I’m not really tired.”

“Yes, you are,” Jowallan said, staring straight into his eyes.

And, indeed, as Jackson let himself drown in the two red pools of their gaze, his eyelids started feeling heavier, his muscles relaxed, his breathing slowed, and his mind became lighter.

“Cool trick,” he managed to say before the lights went out.

True to form, Jackson was the last to wake up. This time, at least, no one was kicking him awake. A variety of birds were singing and calling, in the trees around the group as they packed up their horses. Argyro made quick work of the campfire, stomping on it and making sure not to leave any embers.

During the trip back, Jackson kept throwing glances at Jowallan, expecting -or perhaps hoping”they would glance back and resume their conversation from yesterday. But Jowallan kept their gaze focused on the horizon, and had reverted to their habitual mutism. Jackson spent a good portion of the journey scrutinizing every aspect of their face in an effort to read their thoughts. As they got in sight of the city walls, Durnin, Enita, and Marrmad took to discussing their next move:

“I could use with a mead, a bath, and a girl or two,” Durnin said, cleaning out the specks of dirt and the blades of grass that got caught in his beard. “I’ll need more arrows, too.”

“And I need herbs,” Enita said. “You and Argyro go through my poultices faster than a sailor goes through saltwine.”

Argyro shrugged.

“As for myself,” Marrmad said, “I shall visit sir Nechido, return his possession, and claim our reward. I will return to our hideout as soon as I am done.”

“Aye, the sooner the better!” Durnin said, rubbing his hands. “There’s not one harlot in town who gives credit.”

“Volunteer to join Marrmad,” Byron said out of the blue.

“What? Why?”

“Just do it!”

Jackson grumbled, but nevertheless followed the suggestion: “Err, Marrmad, I’d like to come with you to see Nechido.”

The Goblin’s ears flickered in a way Jackson found amusing. “And why is that?”

“I, err, well, I’ve never seen a Prince Merchant before. Plus, erm, I contributed plenty to the mission, so I think I’ve earned it.”

“Oh! It’s not a matter of earning it,” Marrmad said. “You may join me if you wish. But you had better be on your best behavior. As well, talk as little and as cleanly as possible. The man may not be a proper noble, but he has enough wealth to drown a whale… let alone a ruffian who doesn’t know his place.”

“Message received,” Jackson said.

“Drowning in coins seems like an honorable way to go,” Durnin opined.

“Surely better than drowning in drunken vomit,” Enita said, “which is what you’re heading to.”

Durnin laughed happily. “Too bloody right!”

Once past the gatehouse, the Children of Nayros relinquished their horses, then separated.

“The Prince Merchants, like most of the wealthy in Atvello, reside in the Goldfoam borough,” Marrmad explained. “At the core of it is the Seacrest Castle, where the Gilded Council reside, along with the city authorities: magistrates, bailiffs, exchequers, and of course the militia’s captains and their commander.”

From Marrmad’s succinct description of it, Jackson imagined the Goldfoam borough with ostentatious buildings of white marble, pretentious sculptures dotting every corner, and of course gold-paved streets. For once, he wasn’t far off. The houses were tall -three floors seemed to be a minimum-, large, their walls made out of some kind of pink-orange stone with a polished look. There were several statues, although their style was nothing too razzle-dazzle; the opposite, in fact: they meshed quite well with the neighborhood’s style. As for the streets, they were of cobblestones, but some places -mostly the front of the richest houses- used decorated slabs of some marble-like material instead.

Marrmad stopped in front of a public bath house. He explained to Jackson that they were not going to show themselves to a prince merchant still dirty from the road. Jackson sniffed his armpit, and made no objections. The Goblin gave an employee a handful of coins, then both he and Jackson were led to a changing room and given a towel. Jackson noticed that the baths were segregated not only by gender, but also by race: Humans had their own baths, and did not bathe with Humanoids.

The pool in the Human male section wasn’t crowded when Jackson came in, possibly because it was near lunchtime. He found an empty corner and soaked for a while.

“Mind telling me why we’re doing this, now?” he said to Byron.

The latter sat on the pool’s border and dipped his hand in the water, letting out a small sigh when he still couldn’t feel anything.

“For one, I thought Nechido would like to recover his property,” Byron said.

“Yeah, but I already gave Marrmad… Oh, right, you meant the ring. Wait, I can’t just give it back to him!”

“Why not?”

“He’ll think I robbed him! I don’t want to go to jail! Especially not medieval jail.”

“Maybe. Or maybe not. But before that, I think he’ll be sure to ask you a few questions. Which is good, because we have some questions to ask him; that’s the second reason.”

“We do?”

“Think about it,” Byron said. “Somebody gave you that ring. Either Nechido is aware of this, or he is not. In both cases, that’s interesting.”

“You think he’s connected to whoever gave me the ring? But why would he do that?”

“You see? We do have some questions to ask him.”

Jackson tutted, ill-at-ease. “Can’t we just pawn that thing off somewhere? It’s got to be worth a pretty penny.”

“It’s also very unique. How long do you think it will take before someone recognizes it and informs its rightful owner that some young stranger with a distinctive accent has sold his ring?”

“Right…”

Jackson swam around for a while, enjoying the hot water, and wondering by what process the pool was heated. Byron suggested that they burned charcoal or something equivalent, but Jackson thought the method might be magical in nature. The veteran was skeptical, arguing that it would be a rather mundane and inefficient use of such power; Jackson was of the opinion that it wouldn’t be out of character for rich people.

Not wanting to keep Marrmad waiting, the young man hurried his bath, making sure to wash every hairy part of his body. No soap or lotion was available, but the water was perfumed with some kind of fruity aroma. Jackson didn’t resist the impulse to taste it, and regretted it: it was akin to drinking cologne.

Unlike Jackson, the Goblin didn’t mind taking his sweet time. It was past noon when he finally reappeared, his hair still damp on the back of his head.

“Would that there were time for a change of clothes,” he said, “but sir Nechido has made it clear he wants this business concluded quickly.” The Goblin sighed as pulled on his lapels. “Elsewise, I would have worn my lazuli coat, with my malachite trousers. Perhaps my regal blue flat cap… Bah! People there would say I’m dressing above my status. Then, possibly the lemon green overcoat…”

He ruminated in this manner the rest of the way to the castle. Seacrest Castle sat on a promontory that dominated most of the city, save for Faithful Hill. It was surrounded by a large garden, with trees and flowers that seemed to come from every corner of the world; about a dozen servants tended to them, while staying out of sight as much as they could. From up there, the view on the ocean and the coast took Jackson’s breath away. Standing over the ruckus of the city, all one could hear were the sounds of waves, and the rustling of the trees moved by the eastbound wind.

Seacrest Castle, predictably, was larger than any other building in Atvello, even the Sanctotum (although the latter was taller due to its spires). It somewhat resembled the Tower of London, which Jackson remembered seeing in a documentary on TV, but its four towers were bigger, and had a wavy shape that evoked the sea. The ocean was clearly the theme the architects of this place had in mind when they built it: from the various blue hues to the sculptures of dolphins topping a three-storied fountain at the center of the garden, everything served as a reminder that Atvello was a trading hub which made its fortune from the sea. A belvedere on the cliff’s edge was even decorated with seashells.

With confidence in his step, Marrmad went through the garden. He saluted a few people he crossed, who were all clearly not common rabble; some of them greeted him back, but some seemed to make a point to ignore him.

“You know these folks?” Jackson said.

“I know near everyone of importance in the city,” Marrmad said, raising his nose slightly. “I have lived there for years.”

They passed the main gate at the front, and went to a smaller one, further to the left. Marrmad bowed before the militiaman standing guard next to it.

“I am Marrmad, of the Children of Nayros. Sir Voldus Nechido is expecting us; would you announce us, please?”

“Sir Nechido is having lunch,” the guard said. “He’s not to be disturbed.”

“Just tell him my name.” The Goblin smiled with a mixture of affability and self-importance.

The guard pursed his lips with a grunt, but entered the door and went to relay the message. As they waited, Jackson sat on a rock in the garden’s grass, while Marrmad whistled a little song -Jackson noticed the Goblin had an impressive range, hitting both low and high notes with his lips without trouble. The guard came back, held the door open, and said:

“Sir Nechido would like to invite you to join him.”

Marrmad didn’t bother to hide his satisfaction as he walked past the guard and into the castle. They went through a long corridor, turned a corner, followed another corridor, climbed a few steps, and opened a door.

“You been here before?” Jackson asked Marrmad, noticing how the Goblin didn’t err or hesitate.

“A few times,” he said, poorly faking humility. “Now, I meant what I said: speak as little as possible.”

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