Gren, Darkwood, Ralenor – Year 58

The heat of the kitchen made her sleepy. She leaned over the vat of stew that would remain uneaten until someone wandered in, which seemed unlikely on a such an ungodly humid day. Her eyes began to drift closed in an involuntary surrender to fatigue. Sweat poured down her face and into her heavy eyes, giving her no choice but to close them. It felt wonderful to welcome the dark, calm presence of sleep. Maybe just a few minutes in one of the freshly made beds upstairs. Her parents would never even know…

But as she pushed through the kitchen door, her eyes shot open and all prospects of dreaming away the heat evaporated. Lucian Squalo sat at the long, wooden counter, looking as expensive and authoritative as ever. “How long you been waitin’ there?” Kendra asked. How had she not heard him at the door? For a rich master of the town, he sure was stealthy.

“Long enough to question the quality of the service here, but I believe that may be beyond your control,” he said, leaving Kendra feeling more tired than before. “Where are your parents?”

Kendra wiped the sweat out of her eyes with the back of her hand. “They ain’t here,” she said. “Mom went out to the butcher, and Dad went out for more vegetables.” For a moment she thought she saw a smile cross Lucian’s lips, but she couldn’t be sure.

“No matter. I suppose we can close the inn for a few hours, if such action is necessary.”

Kendra’s eyebrow raised. Why would they have to close the inn? “Do I gotta go somewhere?” she asked.

“Yes, Kendra. I have a job for you.” Squalo pulled a sheet of parchment from the inside pocket of his tunic and handed it to her. On it was a sketch of a man’s face and a few scribbles of words she didn’t dare attempt to decipher. “This man is an enemy of the house. He has done unspeakable crimes and must be made example of.” He reached now into his belt and removed a dagger, such that Kendra had never seen. It was no dusty, broken relic of the unforge, no makeshift trinket or common kitchen knife. It was small, sharp, and perfectly shaped for throwing. As Squalo held it out to her, it seemed to gleam in the afternoon light. Kendra stared at it, all at once terrified and enthralled by its deadly beauty.

“What’s it I gotta do?” she asked, slowly reaching for the knife.

“It’s quite simple,” said Lucian. “You must find the man in question, and when the time is right, use that lovely skill of yours and throw this knife into his heart.”

Kendra’s gaze snapped back to Squalo and away from the knife. “What?” she nearly shouted. Looking around frantically for a second, she lowered her voice. “You mean I gotta kill him?”

Squalo’s lips split into a devilish smirk. “Precisely. And when the job is done, you shall return here, without being detected. A small, ragged creature like yourself would draw little attention, and I have no doubt of your ability to work swiftly.”

Kendra clenched her fists, much as her father had the previous week when he defended her against Squalo when he first proposed the idea. “No. I ain’t gonna kill nobody. It ain’t right.”

Lucian’s expression didn’t falter. He placed the knife on the table and stared directly at Kendra. She never felt comfortable under his gaze. His sharp blue eyes stung like frigid fire, like needles on steel in a storm of dust. Pain like no other fell upon her so hard it snapped her bones.”You must not think of it in that way, child,” he said with a tongue as smooth as a serpent. “Do you believe I would bring harm to a citizen of this land who did not deserve such a fate? I can assure you that, under the circumstances, killing this man is, in fact, the only right thing to do.” He released his gaze as he removed the spotless handkerchief from his pocket. “Besides,” he said. “It would be heartbreaking to have anything befall your family if this man were to live. I can only imagine you would feel the same.”

Kendra’s fists unclenched, but her rage had not yet dissipated. Despite his clear identity as someone who would always be better than her, Lucian Squalo was still somewhat of a mystery. Despite the fact that every muscle in her body screamed at her to grab the knife and slash and scream until he ran out of the inn, she knew that she had no choice but to accept the task in front of her. “Okay,” she said, biting her lip against the rage. “I’ll do it.”

“Excellent,” said Lucian, finally sliding the knife across the counter to her. “You can find this man in Darkforge. He is an overseer by trade, but he resides just behind the upper blade forge. I trust you can navigate Darkforge by the cover of darkness?” She nodded. “Very good,” he said. “Then you shall leave by sunset, and I shall await your return.”

Kendra picked up the knife, which felt heavier than it looked. The metal hilt felt cool against her sweaty palms, and she saw a foggy outline of her reflection in the blade. Her face was an unrecognizable blur. She looked back at Squalo, who looked so pleased it made her stomach twist. “I’ll do it,” she said again, “but please, Mr. Squalo, don’t tell my parents.” The thought of the disappointment, sorrow, or even downright rage on her parents’ faces when they saw that she had fallen so low was enough to make she would be on the receiving end of the knife.

Squalo nodded, “It is done.”

As the sun began its weary descent into the ground, Kendra slipped out the door of the Lingering Vulture. Her boots made no sound as she slipped across the dirt road, her breath not even a whisper in the night air. Though she had made the trip to Darkforge more than she liked to admit, night had always meant danger. Her fist clamped tight around the dagger. “It’s okay,” she said to herself. “Ain’t nobody gonna hurt you. You the strongest one out here now.” The thought comforted her long enough for the image of her helpless mother struggling against her assailant to fade from her mind.

Gren was closing its doors for the day. As the merchants tucked themselves into their homes for the night, the only people that remained in the streets were Kendra and the odd straggler making his way toward the Night Shade Tavern for another drink. She knew the route well from her days of selling scrap metal to the alchemist. But as darkness spread across the land, the fear grew.

Soon the outskirts of Gren turned into the shadowy heart of Kaife. Instinct guided her forward, not even sparing a sideways glance as she passed her old hovel. Her brisk, even step gave way to a near-panicked sprint. Shady outlines of crooks, thugs, miscreants of all kinds surrounded her, as they did in her dreams. Every nightmare ended in capture, every dream ended in escape. It was left to fate which would befall her today, but Kendra never trusted fate. So for all she held dear, she ran.

It wasn’t until she reached the deserted, but familiar forgeplex that she realized just how small Kaife was. In her youth, the narrow stretch of squat, cramped shanties felt endless, but now… now she recognized it as the illusion of a home she thought she knew, but that everyone around her knew to be false.

She paused to catch her breath at the center of the forgeplex, where the last darkwood tree still stood, untouched. After her father signed their lives over to Lucian Squalo, she was sure she’d never see the tree again. It had always seemed out of place, standing there amid the fire and agony. Yet at the same time, it seemed to watch over the forge, as if to say, “My brothers gave their lives for you. Use them well.” Kendra reached out and touched the ashy gray bark, smooth like skin, but almost scaly to the touch. Somehow, she felt stronger.

The upper blade forge was one of the closest to the center, the shelter of its shadow only a few strides from the tree. Kendra closed the distance and pressed against its cool stone wall. As she inched her way around the wall, she peered around for the overseer’s house. From what she could remember, there were roughly twenty overseers who lived in Darkforge, divided into several houses. The younger ones shared a wooden floor in a larger shelter, while the older ones had rooms or even small houses of their own. This one must have been around for quite a while, Kendra guessed as she located the house in question. It was only slightly larger than her old hovel in Kaife, but with sturdy wooden walls and a door. No doubt he lived alone, since the space was too small to share. “I guess that’ll make runnin’ away easier,” she said to herself.

No light spilled from beneath the door, and no sound seeped through the walls, indicating that her quarry must be asleep. “Well, it’s now or never,” she said, pushing her body against the door. A gut-wrenching creak pierced the stillness of the house as the door swung open.

“Who’s there?” came a gruff, familiar voice accompanied by heavy footsteps. Kendra flung herself behind the open door as distant torchlight illuminated the floor and the approaching shadow. “Who’s in my house? Show yourself!” the voice drew even nearer. Kendra was sure she had heard it before, but the Overseers had never spoken to her. Except…

She drew back her knife and inched to the edge of the door. “Gotcha!” said the Overseer, grabbing Kendra’s idle arm and wrenching her into the light. Kendra gasped. From the bald head and full beard to the vengeful gleam in his eye, there was no mistaking this monster of a man. The only difference between him now and when she first saw him three years ago was the deep scar on the right side of his face. The perfect imprint of a knife wound, inflicted by a teenage trespasser. His expression shifted from predation to recognition, then slid into a mix of rage and delight. “You is it?” his voice grew quieter, but no less menacing. He chuckled under his breath as his grip on her arm tightened. “You’ve grown up a bit, have you? Well, I’ll be making sure you don’t get away this time.” He twisted her arm around her back until she let out a sharp cry and dropped the dagger, then he shoved her to the ground and slammed the door shut. The faint light of torchlight and stars disappeared. Kendra’s hands grew sweaty and weak as she stumbled to her feet. She was blind. She could see nothing in the dark. She only knew the Overseer was still there from the sound of his enraged chuckling and the crinkling of leather as he unfastened his belt.

“So you like to get your hands dirty, don’t you?” Kendra flinched as she felt the cold sting of her own knife at her throat and the stifling heat of the Overseer’s lips at her ear. “Not to worry, little girl. You’ll get exactly what you deserve.”

Her heart pounded in her ears, her mind wrestling between accepting death and welcoming a fight. She thought of her father, wishing he was here to save her from the tall, strong man rubbing a greasy hand down her body while the other pressed the blade against her skin. As he reached her belt, she remembered what her father had said, “make the knife go somewhere else.” Without wasting another moment, she bit down on the hand holding the knife and jammed her elbow into the Overseer’s side. He grunted and stumbled slightly, just long enough for Kendra to whip around and shove his hand, with the knife, into his gut.

Kendra stared at her hands, pushing the knife in with as much force as she could muster. She yanked the dagger out, and Overseer dropped to his knees. Her eyes had adjusted to the dark enough to see the blood pouring out of his stomach and falling like raindrops onto the floor. She glanced from the knife to the man, shaking furiously. Sucking in a tortured breath, the Overseer grabbed her arm and pulled her to the ground in front of him. “That what you want, little girl? You wanna kill a man in cold blood?” he spat, convulsing in a heap on top of her while his wound bled furiously. “You’ll get what you deserve.” His voice faded with his strength and he collapsed, wide eyes still staring at her.

Her breath broke into short gasps as the air around her grew tighter. Pushing the dying Overseer off her, she scrambled to her feet and sprinted out of the house. The night was fully dark, and the streets were empty as her panic carried her back to the Lingering Vulture Inn. She crashed through the door and slammed it shut, closing her eyes for a brief sigh of relief. But as she opened her eyes, the lamplight gleamed against the blood soaking her hands and clothes. With a shriek, she began to wipe furiously at her hands. The more she tried to get rid of it, the more the red stain spread, all over her, consuming her.

A voice from behind her said, “So you have completed your task, I see. I suppose I should not have expected a subtle reaction at your first… assignment. But I never would have thought Kendra Kemp could be so hysterical.” Kendra said nothing, but continued to gasp as she stared at the blood. “Well, go and clean yourself up, then. Staring at it will not make it go away.” She turned and there was Lucian Squalo, sipping a cup of tea with an air of tasteful apathy, while a tub of water waited in the middle of the room.

Taking off her boots and belt only, she crawled into the tub. The water stung like ice against her skin, but as she dunked her hands under, the blood melted off. Finally catching her breath, she turned to Lucian and asked, “What’d he do? The man I killed. You said he was bad, so what’d he do?”

“He borrowed power, and in his lust for authority he forgot from whom he received it.”

Kendra shivered, though she wasn’t sure whether the chill running up her spine was from the water or from what seemed like a veiled warning. She cringed as she looked back at the water, now stained red with blood. “Where’re my folks? I don’t want ‘em to see me like this.”

He took his time draining the last of his tea, then dabbing at his lips with his handkerchief. “It is to my great dismay that I must assure you, you will not have to worry about them seeing you in this state, now or ever.”

Kendra rose from the tub. “What d’you mean?” her voice cracked.

Squalo didn’t look at Kendra. He merely made a show of wiping his hands and folding the handkerchief. “Farron and Mora Kemp have, most regrettably, passed from this life. No doubt they are looking down on you from the next with much sorrow.”

Dragging her soggy legs out of the bloodstained water, she asked, “You mean… they’re dead?”

He said no more, but tucked his handkerchief into his pocket and rose from his seat. “A tragedy, to be sure. But fear not, child, for if you can honor the deal your father made with me, I can personally ensure that you will want for nothing in the years to come.”

“I don’t understand,” she said, her head reeling.

“In time, you will,” said Squalo, placing his vulturous hat on his head and leaving the shop with no more than a nod.

Kendra’s body began to shake with grief and rage as her eyes spilled over. She sunk to her knees and screamed in agony, sobbing into the floorboards until sleep took her away to the land where nightmares are born.

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