The Beast and the Wolf
She had served the House Sordheim before, however briefly. Alchemical supplies during the mysterious illness of the Countess, may the divines rest her soul - her business had been nearby at the time, and the exchanges were quite lucrative. She recalled the former Count of Blightwatch as a formal man, and she could have painted his features from memory even now. They were such drawn and weathered features, and his eyes had always left her leery. They were hungry eyes, agleam with a hint of malevolence.
Ah, yes, she had seen such eyes many times.
That was ten years ago, and she’d long since left the woebegone County for greener shores. In truth, she’d never intended on a return. She was mobile by trade and by choice, and the very inclination of setting down roots, even well past her thirtieth year of life, was troublesome. There were things she preferred left scrounging around by her flitting from place to place. There was too much she feared might catch up with her if she stood still for too long.
Yet she couldn’t turn down this invitation. She had heard of the misfortune which had befallen the House Sordheim: a series of dreadful tragedies exacerbated, no doubt, by the insidious rumors brewed in the courts. The title and land had fallen to the son now, the heir. She’d never met Malark Sordheim himself. As she recalled it, he’d been off studying somewhere during her liaisons with his parents. They must have recorded their transactions somewhere, because he remembered her regardless, and had written to her requesting her aid in the medical treatment of one of his servants.
That was how she found herself thus: on a long and winding road through the craggy planes of Blightwatch, the oppressively grey sky looming low overhead and the horizon spotted not by stars but by the occasional flickering half-light of torches. Villages were sparse. People were sparser. She passed a fellow traveler now and then, and she imagined she was giving them the same look they gave her - a sort of muted bewilderment, as though wondering why and how this other had found themselves on this lonely road.
She was never aggressed. That surprised her. She prepared for it, because tales of how infested Blightwatch was with crime were well circulated, even far from Highrock. Rivenspire in and of itself was not a cheery place, but this County in particular bore the taste of something tainted. Something haunted.
When finally she came upon Schloss Sordheim, looming beyond a gate hanging ajar, she hesitated. It looked abandoned. Half of the structure had caved in, and the rare light of the moon highlighted the rubble which had never been cleared away. It was derelict, a remnant of a bygone era passed down to a man who had given up.
No, she thought. It is unwise to make such assumptions.
She dismounted her horse. It was spooked already, and she had to keep that creeping feeling from crawling under her own skin. It was an old gelding, a well broken and reliable thing, and she didn’t bother tying it off. Besides, in the event that some pack of wolves came roaming towards it while she ventured into the castle, she preferred to give the beast a fighting chance to run away.
A final pat to its neck, and she strode forward. In spite of the unwelcoming atmosphere that Schloss Sordheim projected, she was bolstered by the fact that she had been there before. She bore with her the letter of invitation from the Count himself, assuring that she was welcome, assuring that she had been summoned.
She reached the great oaken doors and grasped the knocker, slamming it home three times.
Minutes ticked by, and when no answer came and no butler arrived to show her through, Evirea Velacel pushed against that unlocked door, and disappeared inside.
She remembered the Count when she had first set foot in this place, turning to look at her, smiling at her. Most people likely would have taken it as a friendly expression, but something about it made her leery. She was cordial to him of course - called him your Grace or my Lord as was due - it was unwise to act antagonistic towards one's host, after all, especially when they wore the mantle of political clout. He had a flare to him that suggested he wanted her to be impressed by the grandness of the hall, the richness of the fabrics in the tapestries and the cushions of his sofas. His servants milled about, their eyes downcast for the most part, muttering out their ma'am's and their may I help you's with all the dutiful meekness of a lesser. The whole display bore the taint of the excessive, the taste of something overripe. Indeed, the man that had once been the head of this House - the one who now lay dead in the ground somewhere - clearly preferred to drown himself in decadence.
Evidently his son was a different sort of apple.
The Great Hall, once bedecked in glittering things and pristine silks, was a desolate, grim animal. The furniture was caked in dust, the wood not having seen a varnish in what seemed like years. Many of the chairs were overturned, as though there was a massive argument at the last family dinner and no one had bothered to right everything again. Old stains of wine - or what she took to be wine, judging by the way the gilded goblets had fallen - had soaked into the wood, and now they resembled dried spatters of blood.
Evirea froze in place, her mind working quickly, and slowly turned her head. She stared.
Cobwebs lurked in the corners, in the eaves, high overhead. There was hardly a sound around her, save for that of the wind whistling its way through the open door still close at her back. There was no fire in the hearth to her left - no, more than that. There was nothing but cold, old ash there, and no kindling in sight that hinted a fire would soon be lit again. There was light, but it was from further ahead, beyond the dining table: strange flames, flickering over a round brazier, the work of illusory magics, perhaps. They cast the organ at the head of the room in a strange light, its black-and-ivory keys yellowed by time, glinting oddly, catching shadows.
Nothing moved. Nothing stirred. Nothing breathed, save herself, and somehow her own breathing seemed sacrilegious.
The door slammed shut behind her. The sound echoed out into the room like a warning bell, and Evirea's heart sunk into her stomach.
A trap! This was a trap! The words exploded in her head. Yet in the next instant, a softer voice, perplexed, in the wake of those panicked words: But why?
She had never wronged the House Sordheim. No, she'd served them dutifully, and parted on good terms. She was not an intruder. She'd been summoned here.
Minutes ticked by as she stood by the door. If she fled, she'd risk giving offense. The wind was still howling, audible even though the door was now shut. The wind could just as easily have shut it as anything else, and nothing had accosted her. Indeed, there seemed nothing and no one to attack, even if they had the intention to do so. The place had all the appearance of something abandoned. Something that had been left behind after some sort of attack.
Thoughts of traps and phantoms were abruptly scrubbed from her mind. What if there had been an attack? Had someone laid siege to Schloss Sordheim as she'd traveled following the summons, and she was standing in the aftermath?
If so, there might still be someone here that needed her, someone wounded, hiding from -
There was a sound. Soft, almost drowned out by the storm that was surely picking up outside the front door. She froze again, tilting her head to the side, trying to find it. Her wooden legs found life again and she stepped forward, following it, trying to pinpoint what it was she'd heard. She stopped again at the head of the table, moving closer to those azure flames, straining to hear.
And there it was again. A child's cry. A babe, weeping.
"Little one?" she called. She kept her voice soft, hoping not to draw too much attention. The state of things indicated that whoever had attacked the castle was long gone, but there was no sense in taking unnecessary chances. She would die if a hoard of bandits came down upon her head, or something worse. "Little one, can you hear me?"
The weeping stopped, for a moment, a child startled. And then it started again, closer, coming from behind one of the tapestries flanking the organ.
She couldn't leave a child here. It simply was not an option. She moved forward, cautiously, keeping her side against the wall and her peripherals trained as much as she could both behind her and to the right. Her head constantly swiveled, her ears were keyed to the slightest sound of approaching boots scuffing over the floor. Her hand drifted down towards the knife at her side, silver-tipped, and clutched tightly to the hilt.
"It's alright, little one," she murmured. "I'm here to help you."
She reached the tapestry, and stepped through.
Beyond was a bedchamber. The bedchamber, where she'd sat by the ailing Countess's side, administering tonics. She'd been wasting away at the end, and even then Evirea knew her attentions were in futility. But Adelina Sordheim was a good woman, and she did not deserve to die alone, without compassion. Her husband was hardly a man dripping with empathy, so she wagered her own attentions would be better than nothing at all.
The master room was much like the main hall had been. Untouched, in want of dusting. The large bed was neatly made, however, and the mirror against the wall was polished to a dull gleaming. In the corner, by the dead hearth, she could see a crib - the crib was rocking languidly back and forth, and it was from there that the sobbing emanated, louder now that she was closer. A beckoning finger.
Instinct sent a chill down her spine. Something was not right. Stop.
She crept forward.
"Child," she whispered. Her hand gripped tighter the hilt of the dagger. On the floor by her feet she could see a cleaver, a butcher's knife. She didn't let her eyes linger there, didn't let them inspect it long enough to be able to tell if the stain on it was merely rust or something more sinister. She went around it and veered for the crib, her heart pounding against her ribs, hard and fast. "I need you to come with me, now. We must leave this place."
The rocking continued. The blankets in the crib began to move slightly, stirring, as though the babe within were waking.
Evirea reached out, her fingers curling into the fabric, making to draw it back.
There was a burst of motion, too fast for her to properly process. Something flew at her, at her face, at her throat. Claws began to dig into her flesh, and she stared into what seemed like black, impossibly dark eyes. Her fist swung without thinking, and she made contact with the thing, the dull thud cutting off the sobs sharply. She stumbled backwards, gasping, landing in a heap and then immediately scrambling back to her feet again.
A doll stared at her from the crib. Its eyes were black glass, and from them, some sort of bloody ichor dripped down its pallid porcelain cheeks. She could see her own blood on the strange claws protruding from its fingers, and watched as it coiled, poising to strike again.
She didn't give it the chance. Evirea exploded upwards and forwards, driving herself towards the tapestry, passing through it. She heard a whistling behind her and instinctively she ducked - there was a sharp pain, a cold pain, driven across her arm. The cleaver had flown through the air, it had followed her, and torn its way through the fabric in that pursuit. She cast only a glance at the gash left in her sleeve and flesh and dismissed it as superficial. She continued running, not sure if the knife could come to life again, not sure if a second strike wouldn't dig its way into her spine.
She did not think, she did not hesitate, she only acted.
When she reached the door again, she curled her hands around the knob and twisted violently. She pulled hard, then harder, listening to the wind on the other side, listening for the approach of something behind her, creeping, closing in with a cleaver already covered in her own blood.
The door would not move. She kicked at it, she tore at it with her hands, and still it did not move.
She was trapped.