Chapter 12: Hidden Within Darkness

Mioverold was a world of freedom, a realm in which anything prospered — be it evil or good, fire or ice, darkness or light. Regions were no exception. Noctemar was what historians and chroniclers referred to as the land of primordial darkness, a place shrouded in mist and ice. Unwary outsiders would often freeze moments within exploration; a region ruthless to those even well-prepared.

In the map, Noctemar fell under Godvildian reign — not that there was much to govern. Careful consideration led to the dwarves being dispatched with residential rights for the region’s protection, their natural resistance to cold making it a reasonable affair. And its governance? Well, at Noctemar’s highest peak stood Knavesmire Keep, hoisting a flag bearing Lord Heart’s coat of arms.

“Pardon my intrusion,” said one of the soldiers stationed at the stronghold. “But we have a guest with your seal of approval, General Magellan.”

Besides the title of General under Aaron Heart’s command, Magellan also held position as Keeper of Noctemar — the man responsible for the region’s economic prosperity. It was a position granted upon realization of the dwarf’s aptitude for politics.

“That was sooner than I had anticipated,” said Magellan. “Very well, prepare one of the chambers for us to converse in.”

***

Knavesmire Keep ranked as an impregnable fortress, a symbol of Godvildian power. Soldiers spread from the stronghold at the centre, leading to large, sturdy fences fortified with magic. It was to keep more than enemy soldiers from invading; the wall’s existence separated residential pockets from Snowfynds, territorial creatures driven by a crude desire for conquest.

Legends often spoke of the creatures of Noctemar — tall, with toughened skin and disproportionate bodies, appearing as silhouettes on blizzard-ravaged nights. Their roars masked hidden communication meant to corner, tease, and devour. Some older stories even spoke of settlements and ideas of growing intelligence amongst the Snowfynds. But behind the might of Godvildian fortifications, the dwarves within had little to worry about.

“Is that information meant to deter me?” thought Vincent, outside range of the nearest Godvildian watchtower. “He’s last on the list, after all.”

Watchful of the lights, the assassin ghosted toward his destination, camouflaged by the blizzard itself. He pressed his back against the wall, and circled to a guarded entrance. As planned, he extracted a small, wooden ball and set it ablaze, tossing it almost immediately after.

“Did someone start a fire?” asked one of the guards.

“This is troublesome,” another said. “Is it that hard to follow some rules around here?”

“To be honest, I don’t see what the problem is in starting a fire when it’s this cold out.”

“This is why I hate babysitting new recruits,” the guard said, visibly annoyed. “Have you studied anything related to Noctemar yet, the Snowfynds? Are you not aware of their obsession with fire?”

With the voices fading into the distance, Vincent strolled through the gates, melting the lock with elemental magic. He crouched with softened breaths, almost invisible within the domain of the shadows. His feet moved in inches, wary of the other guards on-duty past the gate. Nearer still, Vincent spotted orbs floating by the guards’ shoulders — magic devised to illuminate and warn against intruders.

“Life would be a lot simpler if I could just slaughter them right now,” thought Vincent unfeelingly. “But I’d then have to deal with heightened security; what an annoyance.”

Vincent released a gentle stream of energy through his fingertips, an experiment. One of the orbs trembled, threatened by the presence of something unwanted. At the sight, Vincent tilted his head, impressed by the orbs’ capacity for vigilance. He lowered the output of his energy, transforming its shape to resemble loose strands of hair. It swirled around its target, now unnoticeable, and tightened its hold, incapacitating the orb.

“Careful now,” thought Vincent, increasing his output once more.

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Trapped and with a sudden influx of foreign energy, the orb burst. From the shockwave that followed, the other orbs destabilized, popping in sequence until none remained. Vincent wasted little time and slithered past the guards, hearing them bicker over the incident as he did; not that it concerned him.

“Turrim Gelida, the first city to ever withstand Noctemar,” thought Vincent, an announcement for his own mind. “How time changes things.”

Within the protection of the walls, Turrim Gelida functioned as any other city under the Godvildian reign. Crystalized poles, imbued with elemental fire, served to illuminate while alchemic barriers warmed the air for comfort. It bustled with restless energy, a utopia amidst harsh outside conditions.

Vincent stealthily moved through the darker parts of the city, fearing discovery amidst a mostly dwarven population. But with the Keep merely a good sprint from access, the assassin detoured to enter a rundown warehouse. Cautious at first, Vincent proceeded only after having ascertained his safety within the structure. He walked past spoilt food reserves on floors soiled with urine and stale alcohol, the wood creaking under his weight.

Aspect of the Asura: Guiding Light, whispered Vincent, illuminating the warehouse. “Begin Retrace.

An almost translucent, lifelike figure walked by the assassin, and then more — all dwarven. They phased through scattered obstacles; their bodies simply memories of those related to the warehouse. One after the other, Vincent eliminated thoughts of those unnecessary, patient in his effort. He twitched through the process, pained by the price of peering through time.

The last of his redundancies eliminated, Vincent found his target — deep in conversation with another, farther back in time than the assassin had anticipated. He now stood witness to the dwarven General, years younger and inexperienced.

“General Magellan, it is imperative that you memorize all the access points to Knavesmire Keep,” the architect said. “You’ll thank the heavens for it should a time of misfortune ever arise.”

“Yes, Ser Corving,” said Magellan, genuinely attentive. “I’m aware of my duties as Keeper of Noctemar; let’s hope that I defend the region well enough for the need to never arise.”

Vincent followed the two ethereal figures to another room, a well-furnished study to manage the affairs of the warehouse. At a table attached to the wall, the architect revealed a mechanism hidden underneath it. Magellan knelt to investigate and later pushed a perfectly placed switch, prompting a soft click that urged both men to hurry to the centre of the room.

“A cellar door?” asked Magellan. “Is this part of the underground network that connects to Knavesmire Keep?”

“Yes, General Magellan,” said Corving. “Lord Heart’s instructions have the access points closet to each of the four exits at Noctemar.”

“And what’s the story behind this place?”

“Land disputes are common among the dwarven kind and they respect territory,” said the architect. “We’ll just need to pass notice about brothers being unable to settle ownership.”

“I do hate keeping information from my people,” said Magellan, sighing aloud. “But I suppose it must be done to hide this place in plain sight. Make sure the warehouse looks the story.”

With the information in hand, Vincent released the tether that bound him to the past. He paused a moment, breathless at having traced the entire conversation. Regaining composure, the assassin walked over to the table and replicated the architect’s demonstration. The room altered, dispelling the magic that had kept the door concealed.

“Not hidden well enough, I’m afraid,” whispered Vincent.

The door struggled to open, rusted by the edges, giving way to reveal nothing more than darkness. Vincent made a slow descent down the stairs and hit flat ground shortly after, ankle deep in water. He brushed the wall against his fingertips, coarse in its surface, and stopped at the touch of something familiar.

“Looks like a torch,” thought Vincent. “Now to check if it’s still dry.”

The assassin sparked a flame to light the torch ablaze. He waved his arm, swinging the torch with it, and nodded affirmatively — the fire steady still. Vincent walked along a straightforward path to reach a flight of stairs, aged and slippery. He climbed through and reached what appeared to be a dead end.

Vincent pressed his hand against the wall and released a low dose of energy, manoeuvring it through the gaps until one of the stones nudged. With another push, the wall lowered, scrapping against the floor as it did.

“And there you are,” thought Vincent. “Not as impregnable as I had imagined.

Walking ahead, the wall closed behind the assassin, leaving him trapped within the confines of a dimly lit room. He moved in silent steps, his ears ever vigilant. In time, hushed conversations broke to indicate life, while the sound of armoured boots — their rank as soldiers.

“Knavesmire Keep; just how well-guarded are you on the inside?” he wondered. “Aspect of the Asura: Shadowsnare.

Vincent trembled at the completion of his incantation. It started with the limbs and gradually moved to the rest of his body, a transformation that melded his existence into the shadows, now dark in its composition. In the state, he slipped through from underneath the door and into the hallway.

Vincent noticed soldiers stationed at almost every corner of the Keep, the important areas more heavily guarded than the rest. With patience, a lone guard emerged, set to retire for the night. His shadow wandered ever closer, unsuspecting of the assassin lying in wait. There was enough opportunity, and Vincent latched onto the dwarf’s shadow. He now followed the latter in silence.

With the moon rising, Vincent bided his time and struck when the guard had finally reached his chambers. Binding the dwarf entirely, the shadowy magic bent the soldier to the assassin’s will. He slowly moved out of bed once in control, testing the body’s mobility.

Everything seems to be in order,” thought Vincent after a quick assessment. “I wonder where Magellan might be now.

Part of Vincent’s ability enabled access to his victim’s memories; it made interaction with the other guards effortless. He engaged in idle gossip, extracting subtle bits of information — pieces to the whole truth.

“So, you’re saying that General Magellan is currently in discussion with a strange person?” asked Vincent excitedly, urging for more information. “At this time of the night with the blizzard as thick as it is?”

“That’s right,” said the soldier in conversation. “I found it rather strange myself. It could be a diplomatic endeavour; the person wasn’t Godvildian.”

“What could it possibly be about?”

“We can never tell,” admitted the soldier, mildly frustrated at the thought. “It could be about three months ago, when the Relictans broke the treaty at the Bridge of Souls, or even the Noxun for whatever reason.”

Vincent retreated a little later, the body of his host still compliant. At the higher floors, the guards wore different, more heavily armoured uniforms. A pair halted the assassin’s advance, curious in their expression.

“Do you have any reason to be up here, soldier?” asked one of them. “If so, do present your papers.”

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“There was some concern about a fire starting at the wall,” said Vincent. “I wanted to brief the Keeper about our investigation into the matter.”

“Shouldn’t you be briefing the Border Squadron about this?”

“It must be because I’m new here,” said Vincent innocently. “I was under the impression that matters regarding the Snowfynds require Keeper Magellan’s attention.”

“Only after the Border Squadron identifies the magnitude of the threat,” informed the guard politely. “Kindly report the matter to the Squadron Leader on duty.”

Vincent apologized and walked away, liberating the dwarf at a distance. Disoriented from the experience, the dwarven soldier returned to his chambers without much thought. But within the shadows once more, Vincent retraced his steps to find the two guards he had recently interacted with. He seized control in a matter of minutes, careful to avoid suspicion from those around them.

“Stop a moment,” said Vincent, settling into his new host’s mind. “I think we should report the matter about the fire to the Keeper anyway.”

“Let the child go through the appropriate channels, my friend,” the guard said, dismissive of the suggestion. “We can’t bother the Keeper with every trivial matter that comes our way; the chain of command exists for a reason.”

“It’s merely a precaution, Rollo,” said Vincent in a second attempt. “Information loses value with time.”

The assassin watched his host’s companion shrug, uncertain still. Another nudge, and the latter stood in uncomfortable agreement.

Almost there,” thought Vincent. “The gilded hero of the Godvildian race or assassin scum, I wonder who’ll be walking out of this alive.”


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