The market had closed. Varajas and Ruan moved alone through the shadowy silhouettes of stalls and tents, the surf a tenebrous roar beyond them.
Varajas didn’t try to focus. He let the darkness wrap around him, relaxed his vision so his memories of that day could rise to the top of his mind. Ruan was a ghost ahead of him, just barely visible in the weak light of stars and crescent moon.
Ruan stopped and turned. Varajas could only just make out the motion of his shoulders as he took a deep breath, then his whole body canted and his stance changed and now he wasn’t Ruan anymore, but the wizard that had started them on this hunt. “He was standing here,” His voice, too, had softened, lifted in pitch as he took on the dreamy, lost quality that wizard had spoken with. “He turned as we approached.”
Varajas kept walking, playing the part of himself. “We saw him, but I didn’t think anything of it at first. He was an eye wizard in Whitecliff. No one of note.”
As Varajas passed Ruan, Ruan reached out and gripped his arm, just as the wizard had done. Varajas stopped, tried to pull his arm free, as he had tried that day, but Ruan’s grip—like the wizard’s had been—was solid. “Brother,” Ruan whispered.
“This was when I really saw him.” In the dark, it was easy for Varajas to conjure the memory and layer it onto Ruan. “His eyes were sunken, hollow. Like he hadn’t had a night of real sleep in ages. His hair hadn’t been washed in weeks, at least. He was half-starved.”
Ruan broke character long enough to lift his other hand and point to his collarbone, right where it met his shoulder. “He had a bruise, here. I saw it. And the shadow of another one under his hair.”
Now Ruan had brought it up, Varajas remembered. “What happened to him? How did he get like that? I was going to ask…”
Ruan had slipped back into his mimicry of the wizard and took up the narrative. “Help me. Help me.” He transferred his grip to Varajas’s shirt, and in the shadows of Ruan’s face, Varajas could almost see the haunted eyes that had stared up at him.
Ruan’s hands moved up, searching Varajas’s face. “Are you real? Is this… am I real?” His words came faster as he became more agitated. “Can’t see. I can’t—I don’t know. This isn’t, isn’t—can’t be. I can’t. I can’t!”
Ruan broke free, took a step back, and was himself again. “And then he ran.”
And in the time it had taken Varajas and Ruan to collect themselves and follow, he’d disappeared. “We assumed he fled into the market, or into town.” Varajas looked out at the beach, at the strip of sand that tapered to nothing and became rocks and sheer cliffs with the ocean crashing against them.
They were close to low tide. This was the best chance they were going to get. Varajas unbuckled his sword belt and his vambraces and tossed the bundle to Ruan, then waded into the water.
He moved along the cliff, one hand on the rock, bracing himself against the waves that were crashing in at waist-height. It was dark, but that was fine. He didn’t want to see. Not yet. Eyes were just opportunity for magic to deceive him.
He kept his mind focused, a knife of intent, locked against outside influence. It took three tries, splashing back and forth, before he found it. A crack in the rocks just wide enough to slip through that opened to a dark tunnel beyond.
Keeping a hand in the opening so he wouldn’t lose it, Varajas tapped his cross and whispered an entreaty for light. It began to glow, and Varajas called for Ruan.
The tunnel angled down, below the water line. There must have been more magic keeping it dry, as well as hidden. Re-armed, Varajas took the lead, trusting Ruan at his back to keep anyone from sneaking up on them.
Neither of them were ready for what they found.
A door at the end of the tunnel that Varajas kicked open, tapping his cross for light, then had to immediately stumble back as the smell hit him. The smell of death, of rotting flesh.
The wizard was here. What was left of him.
He’d been killed, his throat cut. From the state he was in, he’d suffered other tortures before he died.
This part of the cave had been finished, to a degree. There were beds, chairs, flooring. A flow of water at the far side was fresh, not salted, with dippers on the wall where it came in and buckets that smelled of elimination next to where it flowed out.
There were sigils and markings everywhere, signs of ritual magic that Varajas couldn’t begin to decipher.
Ruan swore as he stepped in, looking around, his lip pulling up with disgust as he caught the stench. “What happened here?”
Varajas had some suspicion, one he wasn’t ready to voice. The body—the wizard’s death looked recent, only beginning to decay—it was likely this had been a response to him and Ruan’s investigation.
As for what had been going on in here before the death—that was harder to discern. “Was he a prisoner?”
Ruan was examining the door, running his fingers around the edge. “It feels like magic.”
“This whole room feels like magic.” Sigils carved into the floor and the walls—some had been chipped, broken. He looked closer and saw faded marks that could have been other writing. “Someone trying to cover their tracks.”
Ruan walked over to the body, knelt down beside him. “Did we do this?”
“No.” Varajas’s answer was fast and certain. “Someone is a murderer, and that’s not because of us.”
“Still.” Ruan gently reached out to close one set of staring eyes. “If we could have gotten here faster. If we’d been quieter with our questions…”
Varajas had never been a fan of games of what if. “You didn’t make this happen, Ruan. Let it go. Focus on finding the person who did.”
The sigils were all over the room, on the flooring, the walls. The markings of ritual magic. Varajas couldn’t read them, but there were shapes and designs that were familiar. Every Blade had to study the broad strokes of magic symbology. Control and containment showed up over and over, but twisted in a strange way he’d never seen before.
Further in, Varajas found a place in the wall where an archway had been carved. This was clearer to read. “Someone’s used this as an anchor point for a gate.”
“So whoever did this could be anywhere.”
It was the ugly truth. “It’s time to get help. We need more Blades helping with this. Something is going on and it’s something big. The High Father needs to see this.”
Ruan nodded as he stood. “It’s time to make him listen.”