The Arcane and the Black Blood
Shrew hunched up close to the wall beneath an open window. Reaching the villa that she had spied from the High Reach curtain wall had proved a harder task than she had anticipated. The grounds and approach to the building seemed to be crawling with guards. She smiled; surely someone very wealthy lived here!
She was crouched on a veranda overlooked by several windows. Their shutters were open, allowing a faint breeze, no more than a blown kiss, to tease the diaphanous curtains that were half open. Near to her was a door that gave access to the building from the veranda, but it was closed.
She cautiously raised her head to look through the window. An amber wisp lamp shed its light from somewhere inside the building. She could hear soft female voices. Their playful calls and giggles intrigued her. So, too, did a crystalline bowl of luscious ripe peaches that rested on the window sill. It had been a while since she had eaten. This was a real opportunity. She had appraised her surroundings and had established an escape route, should it be needed, so without further thought she peeped into the room.
Immediately, she saw the thigh and buttocks of a naked woman, and there was another similarly unclad off to the right. The women’s attention was drawn to someone lying on the largest bed she had ever seen. She sized up the situation instantly and snatched one of the peaches. Crouching back down, she sniffed the rose-coloured flesh and bit hard into the succulent fruit. Nothing had tasted better! A lascivious cry came from the room and Shrew smiled. Raising her head, she looked into the room again. Both women were now occupied, crouching cat-like on the bed as if to devour their victim. For a short while, Shrew watched the unfolding sex game with interest as she licked the juice of the peach from her fingers. Then she quickly decided to move on, for if the villa’s occupants were so preoccupied, this was the perfect time in which to explore the next veranda. Besides, she had started to feel the passion in the air and didn’t want to lower her guard with such distractions!
In the flicker of an eye, she had crossed to the adjoining veranda. Here, the window shutters were closed, but light from the moon allowed her to inspect them closely. Reaching into a pouch at her waist, she pulled forth a slim steel rod with a hooked end. She was about to insert it into the narrow gap between the shutters when voices drifted up from the gardens below. She froze as two figures passed by beneath the veranda. Holding her breath, she waited till they were gone and turned again to the task in hand. A familiar feminine voice inside her head interrupted her concentration by urging her to take more caution. Shrew cursed under her breath and tried to focus once more. She was seeking the latch on the inside and smiled with satisfaction when at last she found it. It was lower than she had expected, but she felt it move and faintly click as the shutters started to move open. Almost instantaneously, there was another sound, a faint twang as if someone had plucked a taut metallic wire. Gas and metal splinters blew out into the space before the shutters. She barely avoided the full blast, and as she rolled aside, she felt a stinging pain in her left arm. Cursing, she quickly reached for the source of the pain and pulled a sliver of metal from where it had penetrated her arm just below the elbow. Her action was just in time, for within seconds the metal splinter had dissolved, becoming no more than pungent smoke within her fingers! She reached quickly into one of the many small pockets in her belt and withdrew a pad of folded leaves, which she quickly pressed on to her wound. Leaning back against the wall, she felt the pain subside and sighed with relief. If the metal had dissolved inside her, she would have been in deep trouble! Looking up, she noticed the shutters wide open. There was no turning back now; she just needed to be more careful.
She glanced towards the moon. Valuable time had been lost. Reaching over her shoulder, she pulled forth her dagger from its sheath and watched as the deep-sight drew into focus and provided her with its strange perceptive view of the world. Immediately, the voice inside her head rebuked her for her foolishness!
“Very well,” she whispered under her breath. “I should have been more careful, so now show me what I need to see!” Taking a last glance over her shoulder, she climbed through the open window and stepped lightly into the room beyond.
Shrew’s eyes opened in surprise at the bewildering array of paraphernalia that greeted her, and even her deep-sight found it hard to unravel. The left side of the room seemed more like a library. Dusty spines of countless books protruded from sagging shelving, or lay stacked in piles, ragged pages poking out from their covers like broad yellowed tongues. In contrast, the right half of the room appeared to be an alchemist’s hovel. She recognised the tools of the alchemist’s trade resting upon a sturdy bench — an alembic, a distillation jar and a series of other less familiar crystalline vessels and receptacles. Stranger objects hung from arching beams or poked out of shady niches in the walls. She noticed the gaping jaws and glazed opalescent eyes of a large mummified snake and a peculiar coiled creature, encrusted with spines, which lay petrified in a stone. In the far corner of the room, the embers of a small furnace still glowed and illuminated a large glass vessel on a pedestal within which something moved!
She froze and squeezed the hilt of her dagger tightly. Even her deep-sight failed to give form to the thing that moved under the mercurial sheen of the vessel.
A calm feminine voice spoke within her and broke her thoughts. “Keep your distance, child, a homunculus is contained within. It watches you!”
Shrew felt a cold sweat; a shiver passed up her spine and she shook her head to try and clear her thoughts. The voice was right; she could sense that something was watching her! She felt a sudden desire to leave the room as quickly as possible. Beyond the rack of shelving that strained under the weight of countless tomes, she could see a door. Without further thought, she moved quickly towards it. Surely this would lead to stairs and a means to escape this room and reach the top of the tall tower? It had been her plan all along to gain a bird’s-eye view of the High Reach estates. Maybe she would be able to spot the olive groves of the Commissar’s villa and nearby those familiar flower gardens that still haunted her dreams.
The door was set within an arched, stone alcove. As she approached it, her heart sank. Her deep-sight showed it to be reinforced by a lacework of metal that seemed to be burrowed deep into its timbers. Worse still, there was no obvious latch or lock. Motes of crimson light wavered back and forth across its surface and a murmur of warning interrupted her thoughts, leaving her in no doubt — the door was trapped!
Disappointment, followed by a feeling of nausea, overcame her and she felt unsteady for a moment — she reached out towards the shelving to steady herself and dislodged a thin book which fell to the floor in a cloud of dust. Glancing down, she noticed the faded crest of Highfall on its burnished cover. She recovered her balance and picked it up to examine it more closely, but barely had she lifted it from the floor when a sound came from the large vessel in the opposite corner of the room and the urge to leave became almost unbearable. Shrew turned and bolted to the window and leapt through the opening just as a high-pitched scream burst forth from the room behind her!
She landed clumsily on her left side, still clutching the book in her left hand. The pain in her arm had returned and as she sat up, she dropped the book and her dagger to reach swiftly into her belt for another bundle of folded leaves. As she quickly placed the pungent yellow herb on her arm, she could hear cries of alarm coming from several directions, including the room she had passed earlier. Her eyes darted left and right, and, reaching quickly into her belt pockets, she produced two dark objects. Their ovoid shape looked similar to that of a large beetle carapace, but at one time they had served as the seed pod for some exotic plant. Now they had another function. She took one and rubbed it vigorously between the palms of her hands until she could feel it heat up inside; then she threw it high over the veranda, in the direction of the loudest cries. The second one was accorded similar treatment and landed on the adjoining veranda. Quickly, she crammed the book into her backpack and sheathed her dagger. A long, mournful cry suddenly came from the open window, but it was silenced by an earth-jarring thump that resounded from the gardens below. A flash of yellow light momentarily banished the darkness and illuminated a row of trees. Without a backward glance, she threw herself over the balcony of the veranda, halting her fall for a brief moment with both hands before dropping to the ground in the shadows below. A loud retort announced the detonation of the second pod and grey smoke billowed out above her. As the echo of the last blast faded, the pre-dawn chorus of the birds resumed, but then was quickly drowned by the cries of men calling to arms and the screams of frightened women. Shrew smiled with satisfaction; she had sown the seeds of confusion. Under the cover of the smoke and darkness, she drew her dagger and crept into the undergrowth that surrounded the villa.
A few minutes later, with the aid of her deep-sight, she had reached the perimeter wall of the estate and could see the eerie ghost-like auras of the arcane wards protecting the brickwork. These wards would no doubt conjure a fate similar to that which she had encountered earlier. Whose estate was this that it should be guarded so? She pondered this for a moment until the baying of hounds and cries of men brought her back to reality. Her pursuers seemed to be getting closer; nevertheless, she needed to pause for a moment. The dizziness she had experienced earlier had returned. Although she had pulled the splinter from her arm before it had dissolved, it seemed that some of its poison had entered her body. She crouched down to apply the last of the fair-foil leaf to her arm as her inner voice chastised her again for her stupidity. Her expedition to the High Reach was turning into a disaster. It was time to leave — but she could see no avenue of escape. Earlier, she had managed to slip past unsuspecting guards at one of the gates in the wall, but no doubt they would not be so negligent now! She cursed her luck as she noticed that the dark veil of night was beginning to lift. Through the dark trees she could see the eastern sky was already proclaiming the dawn, and with the hounds on her trail, they were sure to find her soon!