TDL BK I, CH 25: Learning New Things

Chapter Twenty-five: Learning New Things

Guillaume shivered as they walked into the entry chamber. He gripped his sword tighter, wide eyes scanning the room carefully. Adil’s Shields had traipsed through this place twice without so much as a stumble, so this room, in particular, should be safe. However, the goosebumps on his skin told him a different story. The tapping of water on stone was the only sound besides their footsteps to break the eerie silence. While his team busied themselves with the door, Guillaume stood watch over them, ready to confront the threat looming at the edge of his senses. 

The mouldy walls and crumbling stones seemed to whisper to him. They passed a warning, a plea to leave this place while he still could. Guillaume shook his head, hands growing tighter around his sword’s hilt. The air was already thick with death. A misstep would have his added to the mix. Even as the old rusted doors started to give, opening with an angry screech, Guillaume felt the tomb come alive. Distant screams resounded in his ears, all of them dying while a dark presence drank of their suffering. 

“Hey!” Howe said, breaking him loose from the vision. Guillaume gave a start as he turned to face the worried face of his friend. 

“You okay?” the other man asked softly, blue eyes staring into his own. “You looked out of it.”

Guillaume tried his best to steady his trembling hands, but it was too late. His men were watching. They would want answers.

“Forgive me!” he told them. “It’s Turner’s Mansion all over again.”

“Tsk!” It probably called out louder than he expected, given the way it echoed in the foyer, but Diarmuid simply crossed his arms at their looks, completely unashamed. “So, not a normal haunting, then?” 

“Likely not!”

“What did you see, boss?”

“Ah, hmmph!” Coughed Howe dramatically before giving a meaningful look upwards to remind them that there were people watching.

Guillaume nodded to show he understood; however, the men needed to hear something, even if only to calm their nerves.

“There’s something dark in the depths of this crypt. Something powerful and old… so old…” he said, trailing off as he tried to recall what he’d witnessed. 

Ceremonial bells at the head of a funerary procession. The ringing of metal. A sword? The screams of the dying. 

He shook his head to clear it. “It’s ancient, is what I’m saying. Unfortunately, we may have drawn its attention when we opened those doors.”

“Fuck!” Someone exclaimed. That sentiment was shared by everyone,

“Yeah! It’s not awake yet, but it is stirring, and it really doesn’t want visitors. I’m guessing the closer we get, the more it will try to send us packing. 10 gold says it wakes up before we reach it.”

Howe had already turned away. “Sucker’s bet!”

The others agreed with Diarmuid, even letting out a short laugh.

‘This is a trial’, Guillaume reminded himself. 

The Master of the Vast Heaven Palace had said as much. What kind of leader would he be if he cut and ran at the first sign of trouble? A failure, that’s what. 

Slowly, they edged into the next room, the one that looked like a ransacked temple. 

Whispers. Grinding of stone on stone. The statue turns to watch the intruders walk into their doom. 

Guillaume whipped around so fast he felt it in his neck, but when turned, the statue was as immobile as it had been before, resolutely staring towards the stairs from which they came. He wasn’t fooled. He stepped towards it, eyes fixed on the warrior’s features. 

“What is it?” Howe hissed, eyes searching the room as well. 

Only now did Guillaume remember his men, all of whom had stopped and drawn weapons at his actions. He pointed his sword at the statue.

“I think I know who we’ll find at the end of the tomb!”

“That’s it?” Howe asked. “That’s all you saw?”

“I mean, come on. I could have told you that”, he said with a laugh. “Who else would have a giant statue in a crypt.”

Guillaume frowned. It was more than that. ‘It was watching us’, he realised. ‘It was looking through its likeness to tell who was disturbing its rest.’ That implied a disturbing level of intelligence.

In the end, he held his tongue. The men were already on edge. He didn’t need to make it worse.

“My, that’s a rare talent!” exclaimed the representative of the Jade Dragon’s Row. 

Fernus –call me uncle– Noswith was the brother of Lord Noswith, head of the sixteen families that effectively owned the Jade Dragon’s Row. He was also the uncle of Dunstan’s betrothed.

Dunstan spared a glance at the giant screen hanging over the portal, taking note of the mercenaries face. “What is it, some sort of psychometry?”

The man shot him a look of surprise. “That’s exactly what it is! We’d need tests to determine what kind, but going by this showing, it’s some kind of clairaudience. He’s picking up traces from his environment that warn him of the dangers he will face.”

“With his ears?” now it was Dunstan’s turn to be surprised. “I didn’t know that was possible.”

“It is, but it’s a very rare trait”, ‘Uncle’ Fernus explained. “Useful, but passive. Hearing is not like sight. It is much more limited. In some people, like that man, it manifests strongly, but for most possessors, it is something that requires training to become useful.”

 “Interesting!” Dunstan stared right at the man when he spoke. 

True, the mercenary captain having a rare talent was unexpected, but it wasn’t lost on him that his soon to be in-law had seized on that to escape the question he’d asked about his betrothed. Something stunk!

“Say, Fernus!” he began jovially. “My Vast Heaven Palace is willing to give your Alliance one thousand escape tokens at a discounted price to help with your exploration of the mystic realm.”

“One t-th-THOUSAND?” the man spluttered. “That’s a hundred thousand essence stones.”

Dunstan’s eyes narrowed. The Jade Dragon Row controlled a significant portion of the internal trade in the region and had a virtual monopoly on many speciality goods. A hundred thousand wasn’t a sum that should be cause for concern. Still, he persisted.

“For you, our staunch allies? We’ll take twenty per cent off”, he added. 

“How generous of you”, acknowledged Fernus with a false smile. “However, those tokens will be wasted on us. We couldn’t possibly use half that many.”

“Oh!” Dunstan exclaimed with fake cheer. “How about a shop like we’re offering the Treasure Pavilion?”

The response to this was in the same line as the others. “Oh no! We couldn’t possibly accept that.” 

“But what if we gave you the mystic realm, free of charge?”

By this point, the man realised he was being had. He turned to face Dunstan with a frown.

“AH!” the young palace master exclaimed softly. “I was wondering when that mask would drop. Mind telling me why your sect is pulling away?” 

It was the only thing that made sense. Why else would one of their closest allies act this way?

“I like you, Dunstan! You’re a good lad, but right now, your Vast Heaven Palace might as well be poison. The Phantoms are strengthening their hold. That means harassing those they think are allied with you.” 

“…those they think…” Dunstan repeated in stunned disbelief. The mask really dropped. Further than he thought too.

The other man realised what he had said and grimaced before trying to backpedal. “I meant…”

Dunstan, meanwhile, was furious. He wasn’t the only one. A subtle pressure fell on the area, like ozone build-up before a storm.

Dunstan discarded all pretences of civility. “Is the Jade Dragon Row planning to break The Compact?” The threat hung in the air like a guillotine. Armed and ready.

‘Uncle’ Fernus panicked. “OF COURSE NOT!” He whisper-yelled, looking about him for the people he knew were watching, right hand clutching something in his robes. 

“I see!” Dunstan said. He sat back in his chair, staring the man down in a way only someone with power over his life and death could. 

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