The Knights of Obscurity must face their past demons to save Rune Midgard's future.
Beyond Black Doors: A Knights of Obscurity Tale
by Mai Bolivar & Leonard Anthony Arcilla
Author's Note: Here's the beginnings of a fanfic about my guild, Knights of Obscurity, on the pRO Loki server. It's co-written with my character's guild mistress. Ragnarok Online is a MMORPG from Korean-based Gravity Corp. that features the fantasy world of Rune Midgard--where Norse mythology mixes it up with pop culture.
One by one, the Black Doors open.
Ancient Laeveteinn stirs.
Choices made in their pasts catch up with Sevrin,
Fynn, and the rest of the Knights of Obscurity.
Will they conquer their own demons and defeat
this latest threat to Rune Midgard?
"Doctor, the device is ready."
She glanced up at the young blonde assistant researcher in the pristine white lab coat standing in front of her table. Kafra Corporation has always prided itself in hiring individuals with both beauty and brains. Even scientists are no exception.
She adjusted her glasses, nodded towards the assistant. "Thank you, Ms. Blossom. I'll be with you shortly," she said. The assistant beamed at her, nodded, and walked out of her office.
The doctor stood up to follow, but paused. Her eyes roamed over the chaos on her desk: a stack of tumbled paperwork, a cellular phone blinking solemnly with a single red signal light, a couple of open books on Soul Physics and Spirit Theory, and a small framed picture of a man in armor holding a baby. She stopped at the last.
He looks so happy there, she thought fondly and wished, not for the first time, that she could at least call her husband and son. But there was no signal this far off into Mt. Mjolnir, location of Kafra Corp.'s most secret research laboratory, and even if there was, their research required them to severe all contact with the outside world. There'll be time for that later. After this is over, I'll make it up to both of them.
She shrugged into a lab coat hanging by the door and walked off down quiet lamp-lit corridors towards the chamber where they studied the device. Most of the scientists in the research facility were inside the chamber, busy checking out energy readouts from various machines, all connected via long corrugated tubes towards the containment unit that dominated the center of the room. Young interns bustled about on a multitude of errands.
The containment unit squatted in the center, like a monstrous octopus whose tentacles ensnared the machines lining the walls of the circular room. Inside the spherical glass container, the device hung suspended in clear viscous liquid. She walked towards the device, her thoughts intent on its mysteries. Almost two years and we've found out nothing about you.
The object they referred to as the "device"--classified more formally as Unknown Device #2874SP--was unearthed a decade ago in the outskirts of Glastheim Ruins by a group of Kafra Corp. explorers. They were sent there to determine the feasibility of extending Kafra service to that far-off place, but instead came back with something else. The device was a scientific and magical anomaly: a featureless black cylinder that seemed to radiate energy and at the same time draw it from its surroundings. It seemed hollow and yet felt quite solid. And we don't know how to open it, if indeed it can be opened.
Stopping just in front of the containment unit, she peered at the device. It slowly turned inside, and her eyes seem to slide off its surface, as if protesting about the unnatural smoothness. It's obviously an energy source used by the Ancients. But for what? And how was it harnessed?
The blonde assistant that summoned her appeared at her side, holding out a pair of dark-tinted goggles. A similar pair hung about the assistant's neck. "The test is about to commence, doctor."
"Begin energy bombardment," she called out, as she removed her glasses and adjusted the goggles over her eyes.
Behind her, scientists began pulling a series of levers. A low whine started as the vacuum tubes on the machines lit up, crescendoed to a loud constant buzz. The smell of ozone filled the air. From several of the tubes came multi-colored radiances, flowing into the containment unit in a rainbow of colors.
The containment unit scintillated in prismatic chiaroscuro. A pulsing colorless glow emanated from it, joined with the energy they were feeding into the container. She gasped when she saw it: a seam has appeared along one side. The pinpoint line expanded. Unknown Device #2874SP was opening!
Finally! When this is all over, I'll go home to my husband and son in Prontera--
And then the containment unit exploded.
Chapter 0: Farewells
Someone knocked at her door.
Venris Dastonia irritably turned from her mirror, her ribbon in her hair still undone, clinging feebly to her long platinum tresses.
“Yes.” Her voice came out ice-cold, matching the glacial blue of her eyes and dress.
A maid opened the door slightly and shyly poked her head into Venris’ room.
“Lord Dastonia needs you in five minutes, Miss Venris. The guest is going to arrive any moment now.”
“Do you need me to do some errands while I’m on my way to the kitchens, Miss?”
“Let me think…” Venris looked back into the mirror, peering at her own reflection, looking for anything lacking on her person.
As she was inspecting her image, she noticed that for some reason she was getting the impression that she was…fading. Her face had a shade of weariness painted on it. Her skin looked paler than ever before. Whenever she tried to smile to scrutinize her look, it lacked even the faintest flicker of mirth.
She was not much of a beauty, in fact there were many peasant women more pleasant looking, and more amiable, than her. The one thing that made her so attractive though, was that she was unattainable; too ethereal for them to touch.
She was one of the famed ghosts of the fickle Alberta society; one of those people who could be seen one moment, and vanish the next without a trace. She slips in and out of gatherings, a wraith. But even if people didn’t see her very often, her face was quite well known, for she was one of the favorite subjects for portraits.
She was an icon.
And because people didn’t see her very often, and never knew much of her life, they made fables about her, about how her cold, glacial eyes sparkle with pleasure as thieves and merchants kill each other to gain her favor. How it took such extremes to make her feel emotion of any sort.
Of course, they were all urban legends spurred by her frosty, distant demeanor.
She noticed that her rouge was of the wrong shade. Too pale, she decided. Too… cold.
“Miss?” The maid carefully opened the door wider and let herself in the room, her back rigid against the doorframe, anxiously waiting for her mistress’ orders.
“Come here beside me,” Venris beckoned for Rumika with a slight gesture of her hand to the stool standing just beside the dresser where the mirror was mounted. “And sit there.”
The maid Rumika looked puzzled, but hurriedly complied and sat herself primly on the stool, letting herself get a full view of her mistress’ likeness. Her almost gaping expression as she stared seemed to say, Oh, beautiful.
Venris did not seem to notice. “I look very pale, do you not think so?” she asked, her voice completely void of its cold edge earlier. “Do you have anything that would make me look…warmer, perhaps?”
For want of a better term, she thought. But good enough.
The maid brightened up, being given a task where she, Rumika the Prettiest Maid in the Dastonia Household, the Keeper of the Albertan Merchant’s Hearts, excelled. She bounced off the chair and walked closely to Venris, examining her mistress’ visage all too closely.
“Hmm…” Rumika tapped her chin for a moment. Then she smiled. “What an astute observation, Miss!” She exclaimed, totally happy that she was able to use a--complicated--word successfully.
“The frosted look is very becoming on you, Miss Venris, but I think you should use a richer shade of pink instead of carnation for your lips.”
“Do you have a rouge in the shade you’re recommending me?”
Rumika nodded, proud that her pretty mistress was asking her, her, for beauty advice. And it seemed that she was going to borrow her things too.
“Why yes, Miss. It’s a bit…used, though…”
“That is no matter. May I borrow it?”
“Oh, but of course!”
Rumika scampered off, leaving Venris alone in the coldness of her room.
She faced her reflection in the mirror once more.
The Venris in the mirror seemed to taunt her. Why the sudden urge to change your appearance, Venris?
But she couldn’t finish.
Because? Because you couldn’t stand being the untouchable Venris Dastonia your stupid society wants you to be? Do you want out? Have you have had enough of the silly parties and gatherings your father makes you attend?
“Do I have any choice?” Venris asked, her voice tinged with utter tiredness. “Father…is the law.”
Don’t you see? He doesn’t care for you. He sees you as nothing more than a pawn. In fact, he could very well sell you off to the highest bidder if he so chooses.
“He may be the wealthiest and the most powerful merchant, but that’s too far even for him.”
You need to get out.
You know what you’re lacking, Venris? It’s hate. Hate your father. Hate the social circles. Hate everything that put you, here. Hate everything that made you lose the will to make your own path.
“I’m too tired.”
You’ve become what they want you to be, Venris. What a pity.
The pecopeco-drawn carriage rumbled through the busy afternoon streets of the port city, past the docks, past the vast marketplace where goods and zeny changed hands.
Inside, Diradem Tarkis slouched in the plush-cushion seat, absent-mindedly fingering one shiny zeny piece. He could hear the collective murmur of the market outside, the shout of his driver trying to guide the carriage through the crowded road, the return shouts of accosted passers-by, the cawing of the two pecopecos dragging the cab. He stared at the coin in his hand, watching the light streaming through a curtained window play upon it.
It's all different these days. So not like Morroc, he sighed. He rolled the coin over the knuckles of his left hand effortlessly, watched as it turned over and over. He should never have left Morroc, Jewel of the Sograt Desert. How long had it been--five, six years?
He had been raised by his uncle, a thief called Abd who taught him the art: cutting purses from unwary folks, casing the merchant stalls, and general appraisal of the actual zeny value of things. His uncle had told him many times, "You're a natural, boy. Plus, it helps being taught by the best." But Abd was small-time crook, a hand-to-mouth footpad. Sure, he knew the trade but he lacked the talent.
Diradem flipped the coin, made a show of catching it with one hand, but actually palming it with the other. Anyone watching him would have been fooled by the trick. He opened the hand containing the zeny piece.
Zeny. It all came down to that. It made the world go round. His uncle had trouble with zeny those last days: always being visited by burly men with serious faces, faces only their mothers surely could love. His uncle seemed to acquire bruises as if by magic after those meetings, but said nothing about it when Diradem asked. And so, Diradem wasn't surprised when he walked into their home one night after a day of thieving and saw Abd sprawled over a table, face down in a pool of his own blood; what surprised him was the sudden bursting of the City Watch into the room. He barely escaped getting captured. That was when he fled the city, harried by the soldiers of the Watch...
He came to Alberta to begin anew. His talents attracted the attention of the Albertan Shadows, and he rose quickly through ranks of the thieves' guild in the six years he had stayed in the port city. The Shadows controlled crime in Alberta: everything, from the vast network of beggars and pickpockets that ply the streets day and night, to the white slavery trade on the waterfront. And then there was the protection racket siphoning off more zeny from the merchants.
Six years. Feels like a lifetime. Maybe it's been too long.
He took out the note from the pocket of his silk vest and reread it for perhaps the hundredth time since he got it the other night:
"Secure Lord Dastonia's alliance."
He knew what it meant, of course. It irked him, this new plan of the Shadows. He wasn't sure what it is exactly--only members of the Inner Circle was privy to that, and while he had a high rank in the guild, it wasn't high enough. He also knew now that it required the full cooperation of Lord Dastonia, perhaps the richest merchant-prince of Alberta. And Diradem was to "secure" that by marrying Dastonia's only daughter.
Diradem shifted in his seat and peered through the window. The carriage had left the bustle of downtown Alberta behind, and was now clattering over a winding road that passed through well-kept lawns of verdant green punctuated by elm and ash. In the distance, on top of the hill, his destination sprawled, proclaiming its owner's wealth. Lord Dastonia's Sea Side Villa.
Dropping the note and coin back into his vest pocket, he leaned back, watching the manor grow closer. It's all so different these days.
As soon as she was done putting on finishing touches to her appearance, she went down to the drawing room, where her father and the guest waited.
“I’m here, father.” She stood by the open doorway, a sight of brilliant, ghostly platinum. The only hue that made her more real was the warm shade of dark pink painted on her lips, but even that didn’t even seem to dispel the overall frosted appearance.
“Venris, you’re as beautiful as ever,” greeted her father with an odd cheer as he stood up from the chair by the fireplace, opening his arms to beckon his only daughter, his precious Venris, into his arms. The guest, who was seated at the chair opposite Lord Dastonia’s stood as well, and bowed. His piercing gaze bothered Venris slightly.
Like a dutiful daughter, Venris kept up the facade and stepped into her father’s embrace, but immediately removed herself and stepped back.
Her father continued to smile his sickly-sweet grin. “I’m so pleased to see my daughter looking so stunning today, especially at this very special moment.”
“What’s so special about today, father?”
“Well, Venris,” her father gestured to the guest, “Meet Diradem Tarkis.”
She regarded him with a slight nod of her head. “Nice to meet you, Sir Tarkis.”
I know him.
“My pleasure, Lady Venris,” Diradem replied, offering his hand which Venris gingerly shook. “And please, call me Diradem…” His voice trailed off, somehow distracted.
By what, Venris had no idea.
“Venris, Diradem,” Lord Dastonia clasped his hands gleefully. “You are to be married next week.”
Venris gaped at her father, forgetting all about her air. Diradem shifted about nervously.
No one spoke a word for a few moments. Venris stared at her father, who was smiling proudly, then at Diradem, who now couldn’t look her in the eye, and then back at her father, who either didn’t know about her daughter’s disbelief, or just feigned ignorance.
Her conscience’s voice replayed in her mind.
Don’t you see? He doesn’t care for you. He sees you as nothing more than a pawn. In fact, he could very well sell you off to the highest bidder if he so chooses.
“Am I to be married…to a thief?” she murmured numbly. Trembling ever so slightly that the two men didn’t notice it, she caught hold of the ornate mantle behind her for support.
Lord Dastonia’s eyebrows shot up to her remark. “Now, now, my dear Venris, don’t be so unkind,” he said, trying to appease her. “Those were just mere rumors. Diradem here just happened to be…”
“That is alright, Lord Dastonia,” Diradem interrupted, hastily cutting off Lord Dastonia’s awkward explaining; his voice now firm. “Venris has a right to know about the identity of her future husband.”
Diradem ignored him. “Yes, you are correct, Lady Venris. I suppose you know about the Guild of the Albertan Shadows, though calling us mere thieves do us a great disservice. We prefer to call ourselves adjusters.
“We alter Alberta’s economy to the most favorable arrangement.”
Venris was not impressed. “A pretty long-winded explanation, Diradem Tarkis, but a thief is a thief,” she said coldly. She then turned to her father.
“I want to know what the Albertan Shadows has done for you, father. I want to know why you’re giving me away so…” her eyes narrowed. “…Eagerly,” she added nastily.
Her father, if he was just pretending to be in good spirits right from the start, just as easily turned into his true colors. “Do not use that tone on me Venris,” he said, clearly indicating where Venris got her demeanor. “You very well know that I am doing this for your own good. No parent would--”
“--wish harm upon his child,” Venris completed for him, her voice replete with venom. “You told me that almost a million times, father. Those words mean nothing when they come from your mouth.”
“Why, I should--” Lord Dastonia lifted his hand apparently to strike Venris, but Diradem caught his hand.
“It’s not right to strike a lady,” Diradem said, then roughly dropping Lord Dastonia’s hand down.
Lord Dastonia seemed to be a tad chastised after that. His face red with held-in anger, he started to walk out of the drawing room, but paused as his hand gripped the door handle.
“You will marry Diradem Tarkis whether you like it or not, Venris Dastonia,” he said, not facing his daughter. “Escape is impossible, all of the people in Rune-Midgard would gladly hand you over back here when they learn that your return will reward them with one billion zeny.”
With those words he left, closing the door behind him.
Venris covered her face with her hands and inhaled deeply, then composed herself. With a grace only she could muster, sat down on a nearby chair and crossed her legs, elbows planted on her knee. Her chin rested on her laced fingers as she regarded Diradem with hooded eyes.
“If you’ve got any decency, Tarkis, you’d know that it is not right to marry an unwilling woman,” she said quietly.
“I know.” Diradem sat himself on the windowsill, arms crossed. “I am willing to retract the engagement--”
It was Venris’ turn to cut him off. “That’s not necessary, Tarkis. My fiancé. My father is right. I have nowhere to go to if I try to escape this marriage. He has probably announced our imminent wedding,” She laughed mirthlessly. “Backing out would probably brand me as a scarlet woman. You know how society goes,” she remarked off-handedly with a wave of her hand.
“I’ll…take care of you. I promise,” Diradem said, gazing at the sprawling garden of the Sea Side Villa outside.
“That won’t be necessary either,” Venris answered. With her total disappointment, her being violated, and her numbness, she was getting the hang of contradicting people. It was so easy after all.
She took a rightful perverse pleasure from it.
“All I want, fiancé,” she called him with mock sweetness, “is that you leave me alone at daylight.” She cocked her head to one side and smiled her usual cold grin. “You only need me at night anyway. I shall do my wifely duties whenever you so wish, Tarkis, even nightly.”
Diradem snapped his head up, looking at Venris incredulously, his face reddening. “My Lady, I-I…”
Venris ignored him. “You may own the right to my body, Tarkis. I don’t care.” Despite her grin, tears started to well in her eyes. “Now that’s over and done with, I’ll leave you now.” she stood up from her chair and started to walk out of the room.
“I’m not like that, damn it!” Diradem tried to catch up with her, but seeing her tears he just stood there, rooted to the spot.
“I don’t care,” she repeated as she closed the door.
Old Man Spinner looked up from his book when Diradem burst into his room. His two guards were holding on to the man, but the struggling thief still managed to drag them to where Spinner lounged in a comfortable sitting chair.
"Let go of him and leave us," Spinner commanded his guards. He watched silently as the pair withdrew, bowed to him, and went quietly out of the room, casting uncertain glances at the spiky-haired thief dressed in fine clothes. He eyed the young thief and chuckled, "You look more a rich fop than a cutpurse, kid."
"Your new guards could use a lesson in respect for their superiors," muttered Diradem, irritably trying to smooth out the creases on his silk suit. Briefly, a hand strayed to his hair, checking if his spiky locks were still intact. He turned on Spinner with irritation in his eyes. "I want some answers."
"Wine? It's real Al De Baran '76. Not the watered-down swill they push at the docks." Spinner gestured the small mahogany table at his side where a bottle of wine stood, flanked by two wineglasses. One wine glass was half-empty.
"I don't really like to drink. You know that." Diradem's voice froze the air between them.
Spinner appraised the young man standing in front of him. Diradem stood a couple of inches short of the average man's height. He reminded Spinner of a stalking mountain cat, lithe and explosive. He was damn proud of what the boy became, and now was the time he completed growing. He smiled at Diradem. "Sit, kid," he said, indicating the other chair across the room.
But Diradem remained standing, staring intently at him.
"Very well," he began. "Times change. People change. When the head of the Shadows was replaced last month, we began a new agenda. It seemed like business as usual at first. But then, the guildmaster dealt with the Black Circle." Diradem started at the mention of the infamous cabal of mad sorcerers.
"You've heard of them, kid?"
Spinner shook his head. "Good and evil have a lot of gray areas in between. The Albertan Shadows aren't a guild of thieves anymore. We're moving in a new direction." He reached for the wineglass and gulped its contents. "I'm not the most moral of persons on Rune Midgard, Dir, but this, what the Shadows is involved in, is definitely wrong. I should probably retire, find a nice house in Comodo and live the rest of my life there. I'm old, Dir, and tired."
"What are they planning really?" Diradem walked to the bay windows lining one side of the wall. It offered a pleasant view of Alberta Bay where a two-masted sailing ship was pushing out into the open sea. It would sail north up the coast to Izlude, or maybe across the sea to far-off Turtle Island, and briefly, Diradem wondered what it would be like to just sail away. And then, the realization: he will sail away, away from all this, maybe somehow find what he really wants--
Spinner's words brought him back. "... Venris as your wife, you'd be the main inheritor of the Astergarden estate..."
He looked back at Spinner, ran his hands through his hair. "I won't do it, Spinner. I quit."
The old man didn't reply. He knew the boy would never stay, knew it as fact since he saw the boy six years ago, hungry and afraid, a newcomer to Alberta, fleeing a past he wouldn't talk about.
Their eyes met in silent understanding. The old man nodded to the young. A smile creased Spinner's face, answering Diradem's brief one.
"It's been a good six years, Spinner. Thank you."
Diradem turned and walked away.
Spinner poured a shot of Al De Baran vintage with trembling hands raised it in toast.
"Goodbye, old friend," he said to an empty room.
The dressmaker fussed over Venris as he fitted the voluminous white wedding gown on her, sewing hemlines here and there as Venris stood for him as still as a statue. Mirrors surrounded them, giving Venris a rather full view of her wearing the filmy confection of chiffon and finest Payon lace.
It was also then that Venris noticed that she was paling more than ever, giving her a whitewashed look that was worsened with the pristine whiteness of the translucent fabric of the gown. Her complexion was not all that was worsened, but also her lack of energy. For the past two days since her father had announced her marriage to Diradem Tarkis, the thief, she refused neither to go out of her room nor to eat her food. It was only when she was fed up with the free-flowing messages of best wishes for her and her husband-to-be that she decided she was through with it and resorted to entreating her father to go here, to Payon of all places, to get her dress done by their Royal Dressmaker, just so she could get away from the rather grating well wishers for two days at least.
The empty dressmaker’s studio served as a temporary refuge from the chaos that was her impending doom. Venris was rather thankful that the Royal Dressmaker kept his mouth shut and did not poke his nose into the latest Dastonia affair, for which she felt very fortunate, since the whole Rune-Midgard added the Dastonia family to their list of favorite hobbies. There were the gossips, the stolen portraits, and Pronteran upper-class ladies copying Venris’ latest dresses…the list just went on and on.
Finally the Royal Dressmaker had taken the gown off her and lovingly wrapped it in crushed velour and put into a box. He handed the packaged wedding gown with a bow. “I am very much honored to create the gown for your very special day, Lady Dastonia,” he smiled, hands clasped together, apparently satisfied with his work.
Venris had a sudden great urge to spit on his face, but instead smiled prettily as she took the package from his arms, and walked out of the studio.
Poker-faced after she went through the door, she charged through the robust bustle of activity that filled Payon’s streets. Happy tourists from Prontera populated most of the Archer Village’s grounds, and gleeful squeals of children watching Payon archers strut their skills could be heard from many meters away. The gaiety of the surroundings irked Venris.
She hugged the package closer to her as she strode, as if it would protect her from possible prying of people who would recognize her. Eventually she caught sight of her carriage and she half-ran, half-walked towards it, grateful that she would be out of sight soonest.
In her eagerness she accidentally bumped into a hunter, who was lugging around his catch, a wolf. Her package spilled into his lap and the lupine carrion fell into her arms, and the dead weight caused her to lose balance and fall.
"Gah. Lady…” the hunter winced as he patted the rather ludicrous apple-o’-archer (speared with an Arrow of Shadow, no less) on his head, which was slightly squashed with the impact. “…Could you be more careful next time?”
“You’re the one to talk,” Venris muttered as she, with great effort, pushed off the dead wolf from her body and tried to stand. The hunter offered a hand to help her up, which she gingerly accepted. “I thought hunters and archers possess sight as sharp as a vulture’s.” She scoffed. “Apparently, I’m wrong.”
The hunter was about to mouth a retort, but for some reason he stopped himself, his eyes clearly indicating that he recognized her.
Venris inwardly groaned. Great. Now news will spread that Venris Dastonia is a damned klutz.
But instead of the awkward excuses and apologies Venris expected, the hunter looked scornfully at her. “And now I’m regretting that I helped you up,” he said. He then thrust the crushed package at her. “Your behavior is what I expect from most of you noble-borns…narrow-minded and prejudiced.” He picked up his quarry and hoisted it up his shoulders, looking at her with disdain. “All of you rich kids are the same. Go back to your purty life, Dastonia. You don’t belong here among us low-lifes.”
But he was not done yet. He paused and looked at her over his shoulder. “Oh right. I heard you’re going to be married to Diradem Tarkis. Congratulations,” he sneered. “A spoiled rich kid and a high-class thief. Figures.”
A brief spurt of laughter from the surrounding crowd followed the hunter’s outburst.
Stunned, Venris just stood there, biting her lip, trying not to cry. She clinched the package so hard that its fragile contents were almost bursting out of the cardboard material.
What gives you the right to talk to me like that? Do you even know me? She wanted to say those words to him, but her mouth felt dry.
It was then that she noticed people were staring at her, pausing from their business, murmuring amongst themselves, and at times laughing with covered mouths, eyes furtively staring at her. It filled Venris with indignation so harsh it raged inside of her.
This is enough.
“What are you all staring at?!” Venris shouted to all of the curious passers-by. “Is this the first time you’ve seen a woman trip and fall? Is this the first time you’ve seen me humiliated? Is this the first time all of you, yes, ALL OF YOU, ruined my life?”
The people looked at her blankly.
“I HATE all of you!” Venris screeched, now attracting the attention of all those within the crowded area. “You think you know me better than I do, you despicable idiots, when you’re not--”
“That’s enough, Venris,” a soft female voice behind her said, effectively cutting her off than any harsh retort.
Venris turned to look at the one who dared interrupt her outburst. Her furious blue eyes were met with identical, yet calm and emphatic blue orbs. She was about to snap at her, but the huntress gave off a look that told her that she was not one to be crossed.
The ash-blonde huntress looked reproachfully at the crowd. “What are you staring at? Venris Dastonia isn’t that special. Leave her alone. Shoo.”
She then threw daggers at the hunter who mocked Venris. “And you, we’re going to talk later.”
The hunter wordlessly raised his palms, a gesture of admitting defeat.
A gentle but firm hand held Venris’ shoulder. “Let’s go.”
It took a week to settle all his affairs in Alberta and prepare for his departure.
His last day in Alberta saw Diradem walking down the cobblestoned street to the docks, dressed in comfortable travelling clothes over which he wore a stylish leather jacket. He carried a light backpack slung over his right shoulder; it contained a few pieces of clothing and most of his savings. A pair of sturdy boots rounded out his outfit.
The custom-made dagger sheath strapped to his right arm and hidden by his jacket's sleeve carried the emveretarcon-sharpened dagger which would slide down into his hand with a casual flick of his arm. The dagger's twin lay tucked into his left boot.
A refreshing breeze blew in from the sea, carrying with it a salty smell and off-setting the fading heat from the vanished sun. The night was young, and Alberta's taverns are just starting to get into full swing. There was noone on the street before him, but a surreptitious glance behind him confirmed that they were still following him. The Albertan Shadows.
There were two of them, faces hidden by that annoying smiling mask that King Tristram was trying to push on the populace. He easily spotted them a few blocks ago, when they fell in some paces behind, trying to appear casual. Damn novices, he thought disdainfully, who trains these new guys?
Diradem continued making his way to the docks. The smiley pair weren't a problem. He can always find an abandoned alley somewhere ahead where he can spring an ambush. He turned at the next corner and stopped. Now that could be a problem.
At the end of the block, a dozen other thieves stood in a cluster. Most of them turned circular masked faces towards him. More Mr. Smiles, more Albertan Shadows. Somehow, Diradem didn't think they were here to wish him well on his journey.
A glance on the other side of the street showed light streaming through the glass windows of a open kit shop and he immediately veered towards it. That might buy him some time. If nothing else, he could always try to escape by the shop's backdoor.
The sign said "Von Prontera's Convenience - Open All Night"--a strange concept indeed. Diradem briefly wondered who would want to shop at night, but he supposed such a store really was convenient. At least, it was for him right now.
He peered into the window: a single storekeeper and no patrons. Behind him, Diradem saw the two thieves walk past the shop to join the larger group. He pushed on into the store.
The store was one big room, lined all around with shelves displaying an assortment of weapons, armor, and sundry goods. The storekeeper, a huge bearded middle-aged man, sat upon a long stool behind a counter filled with bulbous multicolored potion bottles. The whole store smelled faintly of pungent herbs and bitter-sweet oil.
Diradem turned and peeked out the door. The thieves began to spread out, covering the street. He shut the door, saw the triple door bolts set upon it, and bolted them, one by one. He would have to think of something fast.
"Oho! A customer!" came a voice from behind him. "Come to see Izlude's wares, have ye?"
"Oh? Are all of these from Izlude?" Diradem turned and walked towards the counter, glancing at the shelves to his left and right for inspiration. A two-handed sword lying naked beside its tooled leather scabbard, a large rounded shield made of steel, some hooded lanterns, a crossbow...
"What?" Confusion tinged the man's gravelly voice.
"I'm sorry, what?" asked Diradem, equally confused. He picked up the coil of silk rope he was fingering. He continued scanning the shelves for more inspiration.
"Ah! Izlude's wares, prospective customer! Not from Izlude. I am Izlude! These are my wares." The man had stood up from his stool and was at the moment gesturing grandly at the shelves with huge beefy arms.
Diradem paused an awkward moment to acknowledge the man's claim. "I see," he said.
A wide grin split Izlude's bearded face. Diradem went back to rummaging through the shelves. Quick glances through the window showed movement, but the thieves do not seem to be making an attempt to kick the shop's door down. At least, not yet.
There was a barrel filled with beef jerky--traveller's rations, Diradem thought, I'd better get used to that soon. Beside that were a pair of shields, smaller ones this time. One of those may come in handy tonight. He picked out a small round metal buckler that strapped to one's shield arm, leaving the hand free. He strapped it on and nodded. The weight was just right.
"Excellent choice!" Izlude exclaimed. Now that Diradem was a few paces away, the merchant noticed the excellent make of the thief's clothes. A rich kid, he'd be making lots of zeny tonight. "That's imported from the armor-smiths of Prontera, no less. We've got a spiked model out back. Good fer stabbin' without losin' protection. 'course, the metal spike'll cost you extra."
"These are fine, thank you." Diradem reached the counter and dropped the rope on the small space free of potion bottles. A glance through the shop's front window showed two smiley faces peering into the store from outside.
"This rope's made of the finest Payon silk, spun from Creamy cocoons. It'll bear the weight of five men as stout as meself, it will. I assume you're gonna use it for climbing and not for other...ah, exotic uses? May I recommend a grappling hook, then?"
"Please do," Diradem began counting out zeny from his pouch. He tossed the payment onto the counter.
Izlude pulled a black three-pronged grappling hook from behind the counter and carefully attached one end of the coil of rope to it. "There!" the merchant presented Diradem with the coil.
Diradem quickly inspected the knot then slung it across one shoulder. A knock sounded from the shop's front door.
"Sounds like your friends be tired of waitin'," remarked the merchant.
"They're not my friends."
"I know. Business here is bad enough without the Shadows muckin' it up." The merchant turned and opened a door behind him. "My storeroom's beyond here. There's another door there that'll let you out the back."
More knocks on the door.
Diradem nodded, "Thanks."
"Don't ye mention it. About time someone knocked some sense into those damned hooligans."
Diradem paused at the back door in hesitation.
"Hey, go on! I can take care of meself. Been so long since I've retired from active service. I'm actually itchin' fer a fight," said Izlude. He pulled out a large triangular shield emblazoned with the knights' crest of Prontera and grinned at Diradem.
Diradem nodded at the merchant again. Yeah, the man looks like he can take care of himself. Besides, if push comes to shove, the merchant looks like he can just sit down on his enemies.
"They may be using poisoned blades."
"They would, would they, those bastards. No worries there. Got me a whole batch of green pots right 'ere." A large thumb jerked in the direction of a box of bottles filled with a bright emerald liquid.
There was a sudden crashing sound, the sound of a body slamming into the door.
"Go. I'll keep the smilin' lads busy."
Diradem turned and disappeared through the door. He had to move slowly through the piles of crates and sacks to avoid falling over and found the door set into the rear wall. After unbolting it, he opened it a crack and peered at the alley beyond. Noone there.
More crashes came from the storefront behind him. He heard the merchant shouting in his loud voice but couldn't make out the exact words. Silently, he let himself out into the alley. Faint illumination shone from a gas light at the mouth of the alley. More boxes and rubbish littered the dead-end alley. Muddy puddles from the previous day's rain huddled among the broken cobblestones. It smelled strongly of urine and rotting fruit.
He made his way down the narrow alley, taking care not to step on any of the trash.
"Diradem Tarkis, I'm afraid the Shadows have rejected your resignation, kid."
Diradem froze as he heard the familiar voice from behind him. Old Man Spinner.
He turned around.
Spinner stepped out from the shadows at the end of the alley. Through the old man's dark leather cloak, Diradem can barely make out shiny metal studs. Diradem couldn't remember when he last saw the man in studded leather armor.
For a moment, the two men regarded each other in the dimness of the deserted alley.
"I won't fight you, Spinner," Diradem finally said.
"But we've got no choice, kid. I was ordered to bring you back. Dead." Spinner pushed aside his cloak to reveal a naked blade in one hand.
Diradem extended his right arm and felt the mechanism of his custom sheath click, releasing the dagger into his hand. He twirled the dagger in his hand--once, twice. He dropped his backpack onto the ground. Spinner was the last man in the Albertan Shadows that Diradem wanted to fight. The man had saved him. Despite the age gap, they had become good friends.
"Let's begin this dance." Spinner dashed towards him, surprisingly fast for a man of almost sixty winters. Diradem barely had enough time to bring his buckler in line. Sparks flashed as Spinner's sabre skidded off the wooden shield.
Diradem leaped back, thinking fast. "Spinner, there must be way--"
But Spinner's face was a grim mask as he pressed on his attack. Thrice the sabre thrust with blinding speed towards Diradem's heart and thrice the young thief was hard-pressed to defend with his buckler. He stepped back with each strike, mind a-whirl, thinking.
And then Spinner paused, blade lowered slightly. "I'm an old man, Diradem," he said simply. "I should've retired last year. Got a hut in Comodo. Live my last years in peace."
"We can still do that. Come with me." Diradem began edging away, towards the alley mouth.
"No...I'm in too deep this time, kid." The old man once more raised his sabre, and began running towards him. Diradem tensed, ready to catch the blade on his shield-arm. But Spinner did not attack. Instead, the old thief launched himself into a somersault, cloak fluttering in the air. He landed behind him.
Diradem heard the blade whistling through the air. He couldn't see it in time, couldn't twist fast enough to block it. He dove down, rolling away from Spinner. Mud and refuse soiled his clothes. Spinner was upon him as he recovered his feet. Diradem quickly raised his dagger, and the old thief's long blade rang along the shorter, stopping at the hilt-guard. Diradem pushed him back.
"Damn it, kid. Fight me!"
"I can't do that, Spinner," Diradem cried, voice tinged with despair.
"You have no choice. Only one of us must leave this duel alive." The old thief said as lowered his sabre.There was soft click and a viscous greenish liquid ran down the slender blade, bathing its entire length. Argos venom, was Diradem's errant thought, a most potent poison.
"So which one shall it be, kid?"
Spinner raised the dripping blade towards Diradem. The moon peeked through the darkclouds overhead, lighting the grim scene in the abandoned alley. Their eyes met, Spinner's green with Diradem's dark blue. There was a plea in the old man's eyes that Diradem noted. But he could not deal with the implications of granting that request.
"Spinner, we're better than this."
"There's no honor among thieves, kid."
"I know. But this--?"
"It's your only way out, kid. You must do it."
Spinner stepped towards him, thrusting the poisoned sabre. This time, he did not grant the young thief any quarter. His long blade blurred as he kept on attacking, cloak whirling about him.
Chapter Zero cut here due to the 50k file limit
Please read Part 2 here: "Beyond Black Doors Ch. 0"
The story is being serialized here: http://beyondblackdoors.blogspot.com. It's updated daily with a new chapter! ^_^v