(Please note, not edited/checked/PR-ed. You may run into a questionable grammar or two. If you happen to spot them, please let me know in the comments below. Thank you!!)
“What happened to all the maidservants?”
Lizbeth kept a level voice as she asked Dawson. Rosy behind her was crouching slightly, ready to pounce. Their eyes were sharp, exuding a cold aura that was chilly enough to rival a Winter snowstorm.
“They are safe. Sleeping soundly and none the wiser. I did that in case they become unwanted intrusions, my lady.” Dawson replied unhurriedly. Then, gesturing towards the couch on the opposite side, he smiled and spoke. “Please, let us have a seat and chat like the civilized people that we are for a while, shall we? I assure you, I am a friend, not an enemy.”
Lizbeth silently observed the man in front of her. Having only heard a cursory description of Dawson, she wasn’t sure if he was indeed who he claimed to be. For one, he had a hideous scar running from the top of his bald head down to the right side of his face. The scar disfigured his lips and the cheek quite badly – not to mention that his right eye seemed to be blinded as well.
He wore a large black robe that hid most of his figure, so she couldn’t tell whether the damage extended toward the rest of his body. What was surprising to her, though, was that this man obviously suffered such a grievous injury yet had not gone about removing the visible reminders off his body. With Invocations, something like removing a permanent scar was a possible, if costly, procedure.
Tracing the gaze of the woman, Dawson slowly touched his own face, then chuckled wryly. “Oh, these? Well, these were not-so-friendly parting gifts our mutual acquaintances left behind, just for me. And yes, I’m itching to return the favor as soon as possible.”
“If you’re an Agent from the Bureau, do you have identification medallion on you? And do know this – I can sense forgeries immediately, so it’ll be of no use.”
Lizbeth readied herself from any sudden movements from the unwanted guest. Dawson looked at the both woman with a slightly bemused expression before sliding his hand under the robe. The women tensed up but relaxed a little when all he produced was a small wooden medallion the size of a child’s palm.
He held it up high so both Rosy and Lizbeth could see the emblem etched on it clearly. A winged shieldmaiden wielding a spear, but now with a blindfold on her face – the symbol of the Special Bureau. Dawson then injected a sliver of his Aeterna, causing the emblem to come to life.
The shieldmaiden shifted her stance and slowly thrust forward the spear, causing a gentle whoosh. Then Dawson’s name, written with multiple golden wisps of energy, drifted out gently from the wooden medallion before fading away.
Dawson chuckled as he stirred the contents of the teacup with his other hand. His mannerism was of someone enjoying a relaxing Sunday lunch. He acted as if there was no reason at all to even bother looking up at the two glaring women before him.
Rosy glanced over at Lizbeth, asking her with eyes silently for a confirmation of the medallion. Lizbeth nodded and whispered. “It’s real.”
Rosy then shifted her gaze outside. “I’ll go around the residence, just to make sure.”
Lizbeth nodded and focused all her attention on the stranger. She dared not sit down and stood still, ready to react to whatever this man might try his hands at. She acutely felt the extra weight on her tummy, making it difficult for her to move as swiftly as she’d like to. But since this wasn’t her first pregnancy, she knew already what to expect from her own body, agility-wise.
Dawson smiled bitterly at the sight of a tense but beautiful pregnant woman before him. “There is no need to act that way, Lady Lizbeth. Again, I assure you, I am a friend. Perhaps, only one you can place your absolute trust in at the moment.”
“That is an interesting position to take, Agent Dawson,” Lizbeth retorted coldly. “And why should I place my trust in you, sir? As far as I can see, you have intruded on a private property without permission. Is that not a punishable offense under the laws of this Empire?”
Dawson chuckled a bit and lightly shrugged his shoulders, before lifting the teacup to take a refined sip. After mulling the taste for a while, he sighed and placed the cup down, his face now quite serious.
“Well, you do have a point there, my lady. However, please – I have been on the road for a long while and could not defeat the temptation of a fine cup of tea. Thus, I broke in, fully knowing I’ve committed an offense to you.”
“Since you know, please leave. Right now.”
“I shall. But there are…. matters I must inform you of before my departure. Matters regarding your son’s death. And the men behind it. Their motivations, their end goals, their memberships…. So many urgent yet difficult matters to discuss.”
Lizbeth’s face hardened. She clenched her fist tightly and glared at Dawson, before recalling the conversation she had with Damien many months ago.
“My husband and you made a deal, did you not? You would track down a group of men in Lafayette who were trying to act out against the House of Baron Lomax. And in return, Baron would assist with your investigation. But before reporting on your progress, you vanished from this world. And now you’re here.”
“Yes, now I’m here,” Dawson nodded. “I did vanish, as you’ve put it succinctly. But that was not my intention. Rather, the circumstances forced me into hiding. Your enemies had become mine as well, so it couldn’t be helped.”
At this time, Rosy returned to the living room after going through Michelle’s residence once. “Other maids are fine. No one else is here, except him,” said Rosy.
“See, as I said, no need to be so tense. Well then, shall we speak freely now? Oh, and the young missy, thank you for not alerting the Count’s men outside. If you did, it would have been a bit troublesome. For me, that is.”
Dawson smiled affably but his eyes weren’t laughing. If anything, they were dead-still like a frozen lake. However, Rosy and Lizbeth didn’t sense any hostilities from him, which meant they weren’t 100% sure of how to act from this point onward.
Seeing them remaining vigilant, Dawson sighed. “Oh well, I guess the situation is too strange and unexpected to be resolved with mere words. Very well. I shall speak my piece and then let you ladies decide afterwards.”
With that Dawson fished around inside his robe until he pulled out a dagger. Rosy stiffened in alarm, but Lizbeth recognized the article almost immediately.
After all, it was the same dagger the would-be assassin of Kaleena wielded all those nights ago.
“This dagger isn’t the one from the assassin,” said Dawson. “It’s from a man named Alistair Patrona Warburton. He was one of the men I was pursuing back in Lafayette. After apprehending and questioning him and one of his accomplices for a short while, I was able to pry out some useful information.”
Lizbeth narrowed her eyes. “Alistair…. Warburton? That name is…. familiar. But…. from where?”
“It should be familiar to you. Because he is a member of the Western Reaches Knight Division. He had piled up various achievements in the past, so he is well known in the sociable circles. And let’s not forget, he has Sir Derrick and your village under his thrall.”
Lizbeth’s mind shook faintly before it stabilized again. “Wait. Sir Derrick is working as a proxy to my husband. How can he be… under this person’s influence? If you’re about to slander him, then I shall not tolerate it.”
“Forgive me, my lady. I didn’t mean to insinuate anything untoward Sir Derrick’s loyalty nor at capabilities. However…. that is the current situation in Riverfield. Alistair is, outwardly, an outstanding citizen of the Empire. He has many achievements, recognition, fame and fortune. It is all too easy to mistake his public persona as his real self. Privately he’s a fairly high-ranking member of a secret organization called The Children of The Amber.”
Lizbeth’s complexion went yet another change upon hearing the words The Children.
Damien said that the men responsible for her son’s death were members of a shady group called The Children, half of a name the information broker Mikael could uncover.
Lizbeth frowned, realizing that the name Dawson mentioned just now could not be a mere coincidence. Of course, it didn’t mean that she was ready to trust everything this man said to her. Not even close.
Dawson slowly fingered the hilt of the dagger, his eyes cold and still. “I haven’t uncovered the reason for their existence, nor have I track down the financial and political backers of the bastards. But one thing’s for sure…. the group is targeting you. Or, more specifically, your children.”
“Why?” Lizbeth questioned, her anger suddenly shooting up through the roof. “What could mere children do? What kind of threat could they possibly pose?”
“I’m not fully sure, but it apparently has something to do with the mingling of bloodlines. Yours and your husband’s,” replied Dawson. He stopped playing with the dagger and put it away. “Never mind the Lomax blood, I’ve been looking into your own household, Lady Lizbeth. I found that one of your ancestors was a famed Shieldmaiden of the Empire, Valeria of Hundred Battlefields.”
“Yes, so? She was an ancestor, among many. That was hundreds of years ago. How does that matter?”
Dawson shook his head. “I’m not an expert on genealogy. Even I don’t have a perfect answer. However, it’s possible that the intersection of respective bloodlines of Lomax, one of the Founding Fathers of the Empire, and that of Valeria’s is the cause of the abnormalities your children have exhibited so far.”
Lizbeth’s frown deepened. She was getting more than unsettled now. “If you’re referring to Kaleena, fine. Yes, she’s a prodigy. However, Kain was a normal child.”
Seeing this, Dawson tilted his head a little to look her in the eye. Then realizing that she had no idea, he began to chuckle.
“My lady, your boy Kain was a monster. Maybe even more so than Kaleena is. His Aeterna Pool vastly exceeded that of Kaleena’s and yours put together. And this was when he was barely a five-year-old child.”
Lizbeth stood there, stunned. Her mind reeled at this revelation all of a sudden. A total stranger knew something about her own child, something she didn’t even know about? That couldn’t be. It was impossible.
She shook her head to dispel the stupor and hastily opened her mouth, but then she couldn’t find the right words to say.
She tried to recall the memories of her son. They were plentiful, of course, but none gave her feelings of him being an Invocational genius the way Kaleena did. If anything, he seemed like a rather quiet, slightly subdued if whip-smart child. Sure, there were times when she saw him eavesdropping as she taught Kaleena, or when Derrick was teaching the girls. She put that down to a growing boy’s curiosity.
“How can you say such a thing so confidently? My son didn’t get his Affinities tested. No one knows what his results would have been.”
Lizbeth’s voice was uncertain even if she tried to disguise it. After combing through all her memories, she was sure that there was no indication Kain was another prodigy. She hadn’t seen it. Yet, why did she feel so…. shaken at Dawson’s words?
Dawson chuckled lightly. “Well, I practice a certain type of Invocation that allows me to discern a few…. tidbits of an individual. With it, I saw your son’s future potential. He could have been…. a wonderful asset to the Empire, had he been allowed to grow and develop.”
Lizbeth’s already boiling anger snapped after hearing the words objectifying her child. It only needed a small push thanks to the agitation she felt from the confusion and alarm, so a seemingly well-chosen word from him tipped her over quite easily.
Suddenly, the entire living room’s temperature dropped below freezing point. The tea in Dawson’s hand froze in an instant. Icicles formed all over the furniture’s edges.
Dawson’s eyes flickered momentarily before he stared calmly at Lizbeth. “My lady, if something I said offended you, I beg your pardon. Again, I did not mean to cause any further grief than what has already transpired. The slip of my tongue is due to the exhaustion from the long travel.”
His calm words did little to soothe Lizbeth’s chilly anger. She might be proficient in Light Element officially, but for whatever reason when she got ticked off, she’d sometimes bring forth a precipitous drop in the surrounding temperature. Damien knew this side of her very well, having been on the receiving end a few times before. But there was no way Dawson would know. It had never been recorded until now. As simple as that.
Coldness was not a single, regular Element like Light or Water, but a Hybrid Element that required a careful synthesis of three rather disparate Elements. It was also different from Ice Hybrid Element and was a lot tougher to reproduce as well. It needed an uber-master level Invoker who had Affinities with multiple Elements and years of training to pull off. Even then, it’d be difficult to cause the drop in the living room’s temperature this fast.
Seeing this new development, Dawson was, although outwardly remaining calm, inwardly found himself greatly shocked and nearly speechless. Because, Coldness Element was Valeria’s specialty, according to the historical records. Suddenly, one or two things began to make sense.
The weirdest thing was, he could not sense her Aeterna Pool weakening at all from utilizing this absurd Elemental power. This was even more shocking to him. To his knowledge, he had never, ever encountered a case where calling forth a phenomenon wouldn’t chew away a person’s Pool.
He felt a cold sweat dripping down his back, sensing this unusual power. How such an ability was not reported or witnessed until now, that was a mystery. And he was rightly curious as to how The Children of the Amber seemingly knew of this. This made little sense to him.
Since the blood of Valeria The Shieldmaiden flowed in Lizbeth’s veins, it was reasonable to assume that it also flowed in Kaleena’s and Kain’s. Only now, enhanced by the blood heritage of the Lomax Household.
To a layman, such a thing might not mean much, but for those in the high echelons of the society, or for someone like Dawson who held the necessary clearance, knew that it was not a simple matter like that.
The Founding Fathers were recipients of blessings, the heaven-defying fortunes that would allow their descendants to prosper as long as the main branches of the respective families didn’t die out. And according to the family registry, the Lucius Lomax branch only split from the main bloodline less than a generation ago. So the power of that blessing was still quite prominent in the family.
Dawson didn’t really have to imagine the results of the marriage of such powerful legacies. It was in front of him in the form of Kaleena and Kain, after all.
No wonder there were only monsters being conceived in this house. Through The All Seeing Eye spell, Dawson could easily see that the baby, a boy, growing in Lizbeth’s womb would be yet another monster as well. It was crazy as hell – three in a row. No way this could be chalked up to coincidence or pure luck.
The sound of air cracking up brought him out of the reverie. There were ice particles forming seemingly from nothing all around him. Dawson felt the incredibly cold and heavy pressure pushing him down, freezing his Aeterna Pool from operating properly. It felt like Aeterna itself was being suppressed here.
Rosy, whose whiskers were fast becoming the resting places for miniature icicles, hugged herself and whimpered painfully as she shivered heavily. “Lizbeth, please calm down. You know how much I hate cold weather….”
Lizbeth snapped out of her anger-induced state when she heard Rosy’s complaints. The temperature of the room stopped decreasing, and Dawson could sense that the heat in the atmosphere returning, albeit comparably slower than when it dropped like a chunk of falling rock.
Clearing his throat, Dawson took in a deep, cool breath. Normally, this was where he should wipe away a drop of perspiration on his brows, but since it had long been frozen over, there was no need. It tickled his scars, though. Which was a small annoyance.
Once his mind successfully compartmentalized his newly-gained understandings of the matter at hand and marked them for an analysis later, he decided to continue with what he wanted to say. “Alistair left one of his men, William Wincaster behind in Riverfield to act as an eye and an ear. And if the need arises, a blade as well.”
Lizbeth has fully emerged from her state of blinded anger and was now paying attention to what he was saying. She knew of William, as the man was mentioned in one of the monthly progress reports Derrick sent.
In it, it sounded like this fellow surnamed Wincaster was a detached but useful person. But now, Dawson was saying he couldn’t be trusted even with a ten-foot poll.
That wasn’t all.
“Because of the sweet, sweet incentive of the economic cooperation that would benefit the village greatly, Sir Derrick fails to see the danger posed by this man. Your husband, perhaps knowingly, walks into the den of wolves, seeking righteous retribution when he isn’t aware of the fact that his enemies are ready for him. And, dare I say this, you are not any better off, my lady. Wolves are surrounding your doorstep and you are still flailing about in the dark, unable to build a decent wall to keep out the invaders.”
Dawson then tapped on the bottom of the tea cup after hanging it upside down. Soon, a dark brown block of ice fell out and landed on the living room table with a solid thunk.
“Your most trustworthy defender had left you for a questionable assignment far away, and now you must rely on a whim of a stranger. Then there is the big matter of your baby. With it growing inside of you, your mobility has suffered greatly. There is only so far a single bodyguard can achieve. In the end, it’s a disadvantageous situation for you.”
Lizbeth felt that all this one-sided conversation sounded like him taunting her. She didn’t like it. It was as if he was saying there was nothing she could do to save herself and her family, even with powers she possessed.
As if reading her mind, Dawson confidently spoke out. “Your physical powers are indeed impressive, but in society, such power can only get you so far. What you need, in order to survive, are wealth, connections, and capable pawns to act out your plans. Without those, you might as well not play The Game.”
“….And what game are you referring to? The one where my family is putting their lives on the line? I’d say that’s not a game at all.” Lizbeth retorted, her voice icy. “Are you finished, Agent Dawson? If so, then please leave now. We have a lot to clean up, thanks to you. We’d rather not have any unwelcome visitors squatting in the premise during that time.”
Sighing rather theatrically, Dawson slowly got up. After silently straightening his black robe, he looked in Lizbeth’s eyes and nodded. “My deal with your husband remains in effect. I’ll fulfill my part in it. Just that, it has grown in its complications, is all. Rest assured, my lady – I shall watch over you from the shadows time to time. And I shall make the guilty pay for their…. indiscretions.”
“Oh? Then, what of your original assignment? Is it no longer important compared to satisfying your personal grudge?”
Dawson’s face revealed a cold smile as he looked at Lizbeth for a while longer. His hand slowly rose up and touched the scars on his face, an action performed without him consciously realizing it.
“My original assignment of locating Lady Valette…. Indeed, I feel this extra work have become a dangerous obsession. But can you blame me, Lady Lizbeth? It has consumed your husband as well, after all. And I had to bury many young and capable Agents entrusted to me. If this is a grudge, then so be it – I’ll do whatever it takes to soothe the souls of the departed. Your son’s too, while I’m at it.”
“Thank you for volunteering, but rather, you should worry about yourself first, Agent Dawson.”
He didn’t reply but began to move toward the exit. As the two women watched him make his way, Lizbeth couldn’t help but ask.
“Why did you come here, Agent Dawson? You say you went into hiding because of our shared enemies. Yet, you ran the risk of exposure and came to see me. I do not understand your motivations at all.”
He stopped on his feet, standing still. He pondered briefly for a sec before turning to face her.
“I came to see you because…. I wanted you to know that I have not abandoned my mission. That I am a man of my words.”
Silently, Dawson exited the residence of Michelle Banovsky. Of course, he wasn’t stupid enough to use the front door – the Count’s men were watching.
They weren’t also a bunch of brain-dead fools either, as some of their members did rounds around the outer perimeters of the estate. All of it done inconspicuously, obviously.
However, as far as sneaking techniques went, they couldn’t even hold a candle to Dawson’s years of training and his Affinity to the Dark Element.
The learned few always maintained an opinion that Dark Element was not as useful in a straight up combat situation. The spells within this particular Element “tree” were indeed, a little lacking in the firepower department. In the hands of an old hand like Dawson, though…. Now that was another matter altogether.
Simply by throwing a veil of Darkness Element Aeterna over him, Dawson could minimize his presence to an unbelievable degree. Even during a broad daylight, it was hard to spot him with this technique. And by utilizing his walking technique, the one Kain had encountered previously way back in Lafayette’s SOIR branch where the boy thought he was walking on air, he left no sound or footsteps behind as well.
In other words, he was a medieval equivalent of the legendary shinobi.
Michelle’s residence had fairly low fences. It was also surrounded by other houses of similar sizes and configurations. Close proximity to the neighboring buildings allowed Dawson to slip in and out of the shadows rather easily, avoiding detection. And once he was out of the Academy’s residential area, his steps took him to the Market District.
Even on his way there, he shrunk his presence as much as possible. His black robe didn’t attract too much attention as there were a few others wearing all-too-similar outfits here and there. Still, he remained vigilant. It only took a single bump against a stranger and his anonymity might be lost.
After the Special Bureau’s secret base of operation was overrun by the members of The Children, he kept a very low profile. He didn’t even contact his immediate superiors, all because he feared that any one of them could be a traitor. He didn’t even board a Sky Ark to come to the Capital, fully knowing the journey taken on foot would take him months. It was less likely for him to be discovered by his enemies this way.
There was a trade off with the wasted time here, but he could not mind it in his current state. With no one to truly trust and all his subordinates dead, he had to keep his wits about him to not only survive but to track down and expose every single one of the traitorous scum infecting his beloved Empire. And dishonoring his reputation, too, something he had cultivated carefully for so long. That point alone made them completely unforgivable in his view.
The sun now was high up in the sky. The Market district was well organized, right down to the bricks lining the streets. There was a certain orderliness present here that was missing in the Capital only a proverbial stone’s throw away.
Perhaps it was because the people living here were a well-monied bunch to begin with. No lower class riff-raff here to contaminate the waters, so to speak.
As if to reinforce this view, to Dawson’s right, he saw a row of stores catering for well-heeled ladies who had made the trip from the noble districts in the Capital for the express purpose of shopping. Made sense, since many Invokers also moonlighted as capable artisans, either in their spare time or full time. People had to eat after all, regardless of whether Aeterna favored you or not.
Talking of eating, that cup of tea made Dawson a little peckish. He’d have to hold it until the arrival at his destination.
After walking for a couple of hours nonstop, he finally stood before an old outfitter’s workshop, located two avenues away from the main street. The whole five-story building looked very old and ancient. The sign board hanging out in front was written in the stylized arcane lettering that went out of fashion ages ago.
Rather than entering through the front door, he went behind the building, just how he did when he went to meet Lizbeth. On the narrow path between the tailor’s and its neighbor, Dawson lightly clambered over to the second floor and entered through the open window there.
Double checking that he wasn’t seen, he then went to the uppermost floor.
The whole building was quiet. Not even a cathedral would be this eerie. But Dawson liked it this way. It allowed him to observe the surroundings better. The smell, the sounds, even a slight variations in atmospheric pressure created by sudden movements – all of them were easier to pick up in a completely silent world. That’s why he preferred it like this. Also, a habit inherited from his master. Like teacher, like student, as one might incorrectly put it.
There was only one room, or an office, on the top floor. It was reserved for the boss of the outfitters, obviously. Dawson cleared his throat once and knocked on the door respectfully. He waited until there was an almost inaudible reply coming from within.
With that prompt, he opened the old but sturdy wooden door, revealing a packed artisan’s work space beyond. The room inside had all of its curtains drawn, letting a copious amount of sunlight in. Dawson could see the bright sky, white clouds dotting the blue canvas like an oil painting by a master artist.
There were wooden mannequins on either side of the room, wearing different outfits in various stages of completion. In front of one such doll, an old man in his late seventies, wearing a round magnifying lens on his right eye, was busily working on a leather surface of the outfit.
The old outfitter’s aura was of a master craftsman who has been using his hands for decades. His thin, ash-white hair was pulled back in order to not obscure his eyes. His face was of someone who possessed an unfathomable wisdom and experience.
His hands moved languidly, the needle with a dark thread attached dancing to a hypnotic rhythm as it darted in and out of the leather material. Dawson entered the room and stood to a side, watching and not saying a word. Waiting, as it were, for the old man outfitter to start the conversation first.
The soft sound of a seasoned veteran working on the material gently reverberated in the room like a ticking clock, mechanical and always rhythmical, never missing a single beat. Like this, the two men remained silent for nearly half an hour.
Without looking away from the leather material, the old outfitter murmured gently.
“Your face has aged somewhat, Marcus.”
Involuntarily, Dawson touched the scars on his face again, his brows tightening a little. Sighing, he replied. “Forgive me, master. I got careless and let the enemy get the better of me.”
The outfitter, bemused, cocked a thick eyebrow. The magnifying lens fell out of the eye socket and he caught it smoothly. He turned his head slowly to look at Dawson with interested eyes.
And tell Dawson did. He didn’t hold back. Every info and sliver of understanding he gained, he spat out unreservedly.
After listening to the story, the old outfitter slowly scratched his chin, his eyes closed.
“How interesting. The Children of The Amber… well, it’s not my first time hearing that name. However, to think there was such a happenstance within the Baron Lomax household.”
“Master. I came here for your assistance. I do not know who to trust in the chain of command, here in the Capital. Please, lend me your strength.”
The old outfitter chuckled. “I’ve retired from the espionage game a long time ago. What can an old man like myself do? However, I’ll make some… inquiries. Traitors, indeed, are not I wanted to see profaning the nation I helped to protect until now.”
Nodding with satisfaction, Dawson was about to leave. But the outfitter stopped him.
“Wait, Marcus. I am not questioning your due diligence, but are you certain it’s Count Martinus Beaufoy Trentham watching over Lady Lizbeth? Then I advise you not to involve yourself on that front anymore.”
Puzzled, Dawson didn’t say anything but waited for an explanation.
“Martinus’s mother is from the Imperial Household, even if it’s a distant relation. He’s too well protected, but more importantly, he’s also loyal to the cause of the Empire. If he’s sincere, then it’s likely he will keep Lady Lizbeth safe.”
The old outfitter picked up the needle with a thread on the end again and began working on the leather. As he did so, he never stopped the stream of his words.
“Instead, there is another matter, an incident that happened not too long ago that I need you to…. take a look at. It’s related to The Children. The Bureau can’t officially get entangled in the matter since the incident heavily involves SOIR, and their internal disciplinary committee is investigating it. But since it concerns the overall stability of the Empire, we need to act as well.”
Dawson hesitated for a moment but then nodded his consent. “Details are?”
“On my desk, second left drawer.”
Inside the drawer indicated, there was a scroll. Dawson perused the content. When he was finished, his expression was serious.
The old outfitter didn’t turn his head as his hands continued its rhythmical movements with the needle.
“Agent Dawson, in the name of his Empyrean Highness, I hereby assign you a new mission: locate and execute Grand Elder Grisham of SOIR.”