Jacqueline, Second Month 947, Town of Fess
“… I would like to visit an Alchemy Shop in a large town and compare it to Sieg’s store in Ris Village.” I nodded to my lady’s request, signaling her that I had understood the subtext. A little while later, after she had retired for the night, I lay awake and reminiscing. It was two years ago now, two years ago since I pledged myself to help my lady destroy the Order of Shadows that I had served for as long as I could remember.
The Order had taken my lady’s younger sister and would even now be in the process of training her. Like they had trained me. I shivered as memories rose unbidden, memories of the horrors I had experienced, and that the sweet child would be going through as I lay here in bed. Strange, that I would remember things like that now, after so long. It didn’t happen before I chose to walk my current path… Indeed, these recent recallings of the early days were a new occurrence.
Like all agents of the Order, I had prided myself on being emotionally unshakable, now I would often find myself lying awake in the dead of night lost in thought. It had all changed when I made that pledge. Resigning myself to be unable to sleep, I sat up in my cot and gaze across the room at my lady’s sleeping face. It was clear in the darkness to me thanks to the Dark Sight Talent I had been forced to acquire; locked in an airtight room with a combination lock and no light source, forced to strain my eyes until I acquired the talent, or died.
As I gazed at my lady, ever so briefly, I saw another face imposed on her. I could not remember having ever seen this face on any person, and yet at the same time, it was familiar to me. It had been showing up from time to time, usually superimposed over my lady, but in my dreams as well, always running away from me, occasionally becoming me to give chase. When I caught it and turned them around to ask who it was all the features would be melted into an indistinct blob of flesh.
I shook my head to clear the face off of my lady’s and gave her one last look before rising and heading out into the night city. A quick glance at the moon and stars told m that I had about four hours left before I needed to be back to prepare for my lady’s day. Right, first let’s kill some time by scouting out a route for tomorrow. After, if it’s still too early I suppose I could do some practice.
I ran across the rooftops, first from the hotel to the town square. Taking care to memorize the layout of the streets, thanks to my memory-boosting talents and skills I would have no trouble remembering them later. I next ran across the roofs on a path towards the adventurer’s guild. I had to take a bit of care here, lest I be spotted by the adventurers who were still active at the taverns and brothels in the area. Even if they were less skilled than the Kingdom’s Knights, Adventurers still had their own abilities and could be quite troublesome in their ability to sense potential threats.
Having memorized this route as well, I briefly paused and observed one adventurer, he seemed to be a bit apart from the others and was watching the doors and windows of the tavern with his back to the wall. As I studied him, his head snapped around and faced me, requiting me to break off my idle observations and hide. That’s what I mean about adventurers and their uncanny ability to sense threats. Sheesh. There’s no way he would have been able to see me, and I wasn’t letting off any bloodlust, yet he still picked up on the fact I was watching him.
After I followed the rooftops from the Adventurer’s Guild to the Alchemy Shop that my lady would be visiting, I again checked the time. Looks like I still have a couple of hours to kill, time for some practice. I dashed across the rooftops towards a place I had made note of as we entered Fess. Arriving at my destination, I looked down from my perch at the building below.
The place I had come to was a crime den. A black market of sorts, they would take commissions similar to the Adventurer’s Guild. Unlike the Guild, however, these commissions were not bound by any laws of the Kingdom. The organization behind the “Black Guild” was given tacit, and in some cases outright, approval to operate by the kingdom’s higher-ups in exchange for services rendered. Indeed, they would service me nicely as a form of practice. Making note of the positions of each of the guards, I dropped down from the roof. Stealing up to behind one of them, I stretched out with my dagger and cut his throat; I was not using grave oil, as it was incredibly rare so its use would invariably draw suspicion to myself. Due to this, he was able to make a strange gurgling wheezing noise as life left him. It is a popular misconception that throat-cutting leads to a silent death, and certainly, the victim cannot call for help, but they are still quite able to make noise as they pass on.
I stepped quickly back and into a shadow cast in the moonlight by a doorway. I was counting on the noise of his comrade’s death to draw the other guard over. Rewarding my patience, the other guard soon approached my hiding spot. As he saw the body, blood drained from his face and he opened his mouth to scream the alarm. I was waiting for this. Darting out of my doorway, I flicked my hand at him, tossing my dagger blade first into his conveniently opened mouth and severing the back of his throat.
I chose to leave the dagger rather than waste time retrieving it; it was just a cheap thing I had swiped off a drunkard earlier, and I had others. With both the guards dispatched, I slipped into the building to look for any more “employees”. Moving from room to room, I made sure to keep to the shadows as much as possible, however, the building was largely empty, much to my chagrin. Finally, in the last room, I found another person.
The man was sitting behind a desk waiting for me, the setting moon rendering him in silhouette through the window behind him. “I see you let yourself in… so… to what do I owe the pleasure King’s Dog?”
I said nothing, it didn’t matter to me if he knew what I used to be; he was going to die here tonight. I drew one of my daggers and lunged at him. The man let out a surprised grunt and knocked the edge of an ashtray, flipping it up and deflecting my strike. “Just like that huh!? Well, you won’t find me so eas-” His head rolled forwards and he fell onto the desk, blood beginning to pool on his shirt.
I pulled my sword out of the shadow I had stabbed it through; upon sliding out of his back, blood bubbled up and out of the hole. I was right to practice, I had wanted to do this whole exercise without falling back on my shadow’s tools. Still, it’s lucky that the moon was behind him casting a shadow with his chair back. If we had fought for real it would have been loud, he was actually quite skilled. I flicked the blood off my sword and made my way back to the inn, it was nearly time to wake my lady.
The morning was uneventful. My Lady had breakfast and our group set out to accomplish our errands. I lead my lady down the route I had scouted the day before, separating from my lady’s friend Sana as we passed by the street that lead to the temple. When we arrived at the adventurers guild, we entered so as to send a letter to my lady’s fiancée and his family.
Upon entering, I quickly took in the surroundings, making note of the exits, windows, and any people who might become a threat. I was immediately placed on guard. Sitting in the corner, in a position from which he could easily observe the surroundings, was the adventurer from the tavern I had encountered last night. It didn’t seem like he recognized me, but I would be sure to keep an eye on him as we mailed the letter.
As luck would have it, the adventurer in question would be the one to deliver the letter. As he was taking it from the guild master, his eyes met mine briefly. He stared at me for a moment, then narrowed his eyes and addressed my lady. “Francois and Ris eh? Guess they got what they wanted after all… poor girl.” He then left the guild to go about fulfilling his quest. Aaron huh? Thank you for warning me, I will be sure to look into it. I didn’t know how he figured it out, but that last line was clearly intended to warn me about an issue with my lady’s engagement.
“Jacqueline, do I know that Adventurer?” I wracked my memories for a moment before I realized; I had met him once before seeing him at the tavern, if however briefly.
“I believe he was the one who delivered the Count Francois’ letter to your father two years ago. I am surprised you remember his face, you only saw him but for a few moments.” My Lady nodded, and after a moment she commented on the adventurer’s parting remarks. Of course, you would notice what he said as well, don’t worry though, I’ll figure it out and protect you!
Leaving the Adventurer’s Guild, we made our way to the alchemy shop I had scouted last night. Once arrived, my lady wasted no time in entering the shop and beginning her perusals. In a different life, maybe you could have lived simply, happily opened your own shop, or taken over Sven’s. Grown old in the village surrounded by family and friends… instead, you were born cursed, caught up in political machinations you had no business with… I felt a pain in my heart at the sight of my lady so enthralled, but quickly pushed it down and slipped out; my lady may have had more than one objective in mind when she elected to visit the shop, but she was still doing it to give me some time away from her with which to conduct an investigation.
I slipped away from the shop at the earliest opportunity. I had to hurry; we had not discussed timing but I could guess that my lady would keep finding excuses to occupy herself until it was time to reunite with her friend. This would give me just over three hours with which to work. I could possibly have done this last night, however, the building I was heading to would have been far more dangerous then, and showing up while my charge was sleeping would have raised awkward questions.
When I made it to the outskirts of Fess, I quickly checked my surroundings to be sure I was clear of people. Confirming I was well and truly alone, I darted off the road and into an alleyway. From there, I activated shadow step and walked through the wall. This was the main entrance of an Order of Shadows safehouse, enterable only by walking through the shadows in the most literal sense. Once inside, I focused my senses and confirmed that the usual occupant was out.
Every major city and every town over a certain population had one of these safehouses, and every safehouse had at least one permanent resident. Ostensibly, their purpose was for gathering information; the Shadow’s network was much faster than waiting for traveling merchants or Knight Messengers. Of course, that didn’t mean that the resident agent couldn’t serve other purposes if, for example, the local lord developed aspirations beyond their station.
Still, this was the closest safe house to Ris Village, so any retrieval mission dispatched after Lady Rosial would have at one point stopped by in Fess. It was unlikely there were any traces left over, it had been two years, but I knew my lady would appreciate it if I were to look anyway. I spent roughly an hour in the safehouse, digging through various documents. Unfortunately, not only could I not find any traces of Lady Rosial, I could not find any information worth sharing with my lady whatsoever.
Not that I expected to find much, a small safe house like this wouldn’t store any sensitive records, and the most sensitive information will only be kept on a living record anyways… I shivered at the thought of those living records. Even before I began to feel following my betrayal, I had always found the living records creepy. Former Shadows whose Memorization Talent had evolved into Eidetic Memory, they would go insane from all the suddenly restored memories of our training and the life before.
Rather than waste their talent and the resources invested in them, they were instead locked away and forced to store sensitive information in their now perfect memories. A slave contract ensured that they would not betray the Order with their insanity. At the thought, I touched my neck, glad that no such contract had been placed on me. Field agents were not enslaved; doing so would restrict our ability to act independently and adapt to a changing situation. I imagine if word of my own actions leak, that policy might be revisited…
Out of time, I made sure everything was back in its original place and left the safehouse. Arriving back at the alchemy shop, I was just in time to seamlessly reunite with my lady, who was just finishing up her last order of business. Based on the boy’s expression of abject despair, it appeared that my lady’s endeavors had been fruitful. Later that night, I reported my lack of findings to my lady, and she confirmed that she had not been expecting me to find anything. Following our clandestine discussion, she fell asleep
I opened my bag and removed a small sphere; this was the magic tool used by field agents to send reports. After making my report and storing the ball I lay down in my cot. Thankfully this night I was not bothered by strange visions or dreams and was able to sleep soundly until it was time for me to wake in the morning.
Special Report, 10th day of the second month, Year 947
As stated in the previous special report, we are currently in the Town of Fess and will be departing on the morning of the 11th day. Nothing major to report regarding the actions of Primary Target while in Fess. Our party had breakfast at the inn, then spent the day in town.
Prior to our arrival in the capital, an adventurer named Aaron should arrive bearing a letter addressed to Count Francois. Contents of the letter are unimportant formalities. Following the dispatch of the letter, Primary Target passed the time in an alchemy shop, where she had a rousing discussion with the local alchemist regarding some of her inventions.
At approximately five o’clock, we reunited with Incidental Target Two and returned to the inn. After having a light dinner we retired to the room. At the time of writing this report, Primary Target and both Incidental Targets are sleeping undisturbed.
Expect the next Special Report on the Evening of the 11th day, following our arrival at the Royal Capital City of Drakas.
Jacqueline, 20th Day, Second Month 947, Royal Capital Drakas
I slipped out of the building I had been investigating. Another bust, unfortunately. Since arriving in the Royal Capital a week ago, I had been running errands on behalf of my lady. It worried me to be separated from her for so long, however, I could be assured of her safety. As she was engaged to marry into the house, the Francois family would not allow any harm to come to her; doing so would besmirch their honor as Drakas Nobility.
Even my attendant work was largely superfluous at this point. Nominally I was my lady’s head maid, but that title was largely meaningless in the face of Lucy and Frieda, the two maids provided to my lady by her fiancée’s family. Instead of attending to her, I had delegated most of my duties to the two newcomers, of course after I judged them as being competent, and had spent the week relearning the streets of the capital.
The city proper was no issue, it had not changed all that much in the decade since I had last been here. The slums, however, were unrecognizable. Even on a year-to-year basis, the slums could change to the point of being a completely different environment, and it only got worse the further from the main roads you got. Still, through a great deal of effort, I was able to confidently say that I now had a good handle on the current layout. It had taken me a week, but my explorations paid off. After all, I was able to find this place.
The building I had just exited had not been used in some time. If I were to make a conservative estimate, I would say it had been abandoned for nearly two years. Which lines up with Lady Rosial’s disappearance perfectly… I had learned of this building following my visit to the Order of Shadow’s headquarters. That had been a nerve-wracking experience for me, given my change of loyalty.
Still, it was not something that I could avoid. Following extended field operations, it was standard for returning agents to undergo a debriefing at headquarters once they had the opportunity to return to the capital. My own debriefing had taken place the day after we arrived in the capital. I arrived at the headquarters building, an unassuming place in the noble’s quarter, just after the noon bell.
After announcing myself using the code phrase I had been given via my communication tool, I was quickly ushered inside the building and into an interior room. Unlike the safe houses, there was no need to shadow walk in order to get in. Due to the building’s location in the noble’s quarter security was a non-issue.
Nobles knew better than to invade each other’s property, and this building was designed in such a way so as not to stand out. As far as any onlooker was concerned, it may as well be the capital home of a well-off Baron or poor Count. Hardly anything worth sticking their nose into. Once you got inside, however, things quickly changed.
The interior was spartan. Not just simply decorated, it was devoid of decoration whatsoever. It gave the impression that the building’s entire budget had been spent on the exterior, and in a way that was correct. The Order would not waste money on such trivialities as priceless artworks that served no purpose other than to stroke the egos of their owner.
Towards the middle of the building were various offices, one of which was my current destination. Entering, I immediately caught my breath. The figure seated on the other side of the building had a hood up hiding his face completely, and I had to guess that the shadow it cast over his face would not be so easily dispelled by merely shining a light at it. But it was not his appearance that caused me to pause; it was his ring.
Trained agents could take in every detail the moment we saw something, and I had immediately felt my gaze drawn to his hands. On both hands, he lacked a pinky finger, leaving him with four digits. On one such digit, the ring finger of his right hand sat a ring. Set in this ring was a ruby roughly the size of a thumbnail. Engraved on this ruby the character “5” was faintly glowing, indicating the presence of magic of some kind. So I have entered the Dragon’s Den unprepared.
Of course, I had been theorizing about what questions I might be asked and what answers I should give. Playing word games in my head to practice telling half-truths that could avoid being picked up by lie detection magic. I had already learned how to speak like that during my own training of course, but interrogations from Shadow cannot be compared to an interrogation from a guard or city official. All of that preparation may as well have flown out the proverbial window though. After all, Five was one of the ones who taught those methods.
“Is something the matter, Jacqueline? As I recall, that is your current name.” I couldn’t see his face, but I imagined him raising an eyebrow from his tone and inflections. This is the man most likely responsible for stealing away Lady Rosial from my lady… For a brief moment, I entertained the idea of lunging at him and trying to end this here and now, however, I knew better than that.
There was no way I would be able to beat him in a head-on fight, and doing something so stupid as to tip my hand and fail would only expose my lady to needless danger. Her path would be hard enough without me making it thornier. There was also the question of where exactly Lady Rosial was. Even if I were to kill Five now, there was no way for me to be sure of finding her, and even with his death, another would come and take his place. We would have to find Lady Rosial before we could strike out against this man.
“No sir, there is no matter. I must confess, I was simply taken aback; I did not expect to be seeing you personally.” He nodded and gestured for me to have a seat.
“But of course, your most recent assignment has been most productive, and seeing as I have been handling the majority of your reports, I feel I am the one most qualified to conduct this debriefing. Now, sit.” I did as instructed and took a seat. Five watched me for a moment, most likely monitoring my bearings and trying to gauge my emotional state. I willed my heart to be still, I could not afford to appear unduly nervous, but nor could I appear perfectly calm. This is going to be exceedingly difficult.
After watching me in silence for what felt like several minutes, but in reality, was probably only a handful of seconds, Five slid a paper across the desk to me. Glancing down, I saw that it was a copy of a report I had sent, specifically the one from the fourth month of 945, the month of my betrayal. I skimmed the report, confirming that it was indeed what I had written, there were no alterations slipped into it to catch me off guard.
Report, 30th day of the fourth month, Year 945
Primary Target has finally made a recovery from her grief-induced stupor. Following what she told me in confidence was “A vision from the goddess Caina, telling me I must confront my future head-on, and cannot afford to waste away in self-pity.” Primary Target seems to understand the implications of such an Oracle, as she called me out into the woods, away from any prying eyes or ears before informing me. It seems I am the only one so informed, as Primary Target has not told even her parents or friend from the temple.
Under the pretext of “confronting her future”, Primary Target has once again begun studying various topics in great detail, requesting her parents find her a magic tutor, and to pull her out of the temple school. She plans to make up for the lack of schooling with private education through various tutors, financed using the royalties paid out after her numerous alchemical discoveries and inventions. The stated goal is to get a head start on the curriculum she will be learning at the Academy.
Secondary and Tertiary Targets are not raising much of a fuss over such a complete one-eighty; I speculate that they are simply happy to have their remaining daughter back in good spirits, and have otherwise become desensitized to strange things occurring in Primary Target’s surroundings.
After I read the report, I looked up at Five. From within the darkness of his hood, I could picture him still watching me intently. I cleared my throat. “This is the report I submitted following Primary Target’s recovery from her depression.” After a moment, Five nodded.
“Indeed. And what a remarkable recovery it was. Tell me Jacqueline, an Oracle in which one directly hears the words of one of the twelve, and the recipient is not even of the cloth. It is truly a remarkable occurrence, is it not?” I paused for a moment, unsure of where he was going with this line of questioning.
“…Yes, when I was first told, I did not quite believe her at first myself, but given everything else that has occurred through the Primary Target, I was able to be convinced of the veracity of her claim.”
“And yet, I should think that given how auspicious this occurrence is, it would warrant a complete retelling of events… would it not?” Damnit, I should have included more detail… The best lies contain as little fabricated detail as possible and just a pinch of truth, but in this case, I put too little… Outwardly, I nodded after a moment.
“Indeed, I suppose that I became desensitized to Primary Target constantly betraying all expectations and treated the occurrence as somewhat normal. I believe I should be reassigned.” This was an absolute gamble on my part, of course, I had no desire to be reassigned. I simply needed to show that I “acknowledged” my “mistake”, or risk falling under suspicion.
Five was quiet for a time, save the sound of his fingers tapping at his desk. “…No, I do not think that that is necessary, nor would it be a good idea. The target has come to trust you a great deal, removing you now and placing another agent on her would simply draw too much suspicion. That being said, be sure to make more thorough reports in the future, one can never be sure what small detail is most important. As for the rest of your debriefing, tell me exactly what Primary Target said to you regarding her oracle.”
I bowed my head in a show of acknowledgment, while furiously trying to come up with something plausible. My Lady and I had come up with only the bare minimum of details regarding what to tell someone if we were ever questioned, trusting that we would have no issues convincing anyone of our truthfulness. Instead, we were more worried that having too many details may make it difficult to keep the story straight. We had never accounted for the possibility of the mastermind seeking me out specifically though.
After delaying as long as I could without it becoming suspicious, I started to weave my concocted tale. “Primary Target woke me up with a shout from her room in the middle of the night. When I went to check on her, she smiled like I had not seen since the disappearance of her sister. When I asked her what was the matter, she appeared thoughtful for a moment, then asked me to take her into the woods, far enough away that there was absolutely no chance of us being overheard.” I waited, to see if Five would give any indication of whether or not he was buying into my story. When none was forthcoming, I continued.
“I was skeptical of the need for such secrecy, however when I brought her out into the woods, she described to me a dream, a dream in which she visited a forest locked in winter.” I heard five suck in breath audibly, it would seem that I had successfully managed to trick him thus far, using a similar description to what I had really been told was paying off.
“While there, she met a figure of a young girl, who claimed to be the goddess Caina herself. This goddess told her that great change was coming and that she was meant to be at the front of it. To that end, she must confront and accept her fate in the capital. Primary Target then affirmed that she was done wallowing in her misery, and that going forward, she would endeavor to live for the memory of her sister.”
Following the conclusion of my story, Five was silent. After a moment, he nodded. “That will be all. Resume your assignment.” I could only blink as my brain failed to process what he had said.
“You heard me. You have given me much to think about, I only wish your reports had been so accurate two years ago. Go pick up your order and return to Primary Target.”
I felt a shiver, the fact that he knew I had placed a certain order was disconcerting, to say the least; it meant I was likely being tracked, if not directly observed. “Very well, Thank you, Sir.” I stood and gave a small bow. As a rule, Shadows did not differentiate between genders unless undercover. As I left the room, I heard a muffled mutter from Five. I was of course, smart enough not to indicate I had heard.
“Still, if … is making a mo …. what co…d …. mean?”
I had one stop to make before I left the headquarters building. I had to visit the records room and check the monthly reports from the months immediately before and after Lady Rosial’s kidnapping. I had originally been planning to come back later on, but now that I knew Five was on the move, I could not risk coming back without a summons. That meant that as dangerous as it was, I would have to look today before I left.
I was able to get into the records room without too much trouble, after all, nothing truly damning was stored here; that information was only recorded by living records. Besides that, when every member of an organization is trained in assassination and anti-personal combat, dedicated security becomes superfluous. As a field agent, I possessed clearance to enter this room, so if anyone had stopped me, I could simply say I was searching for something else to help with my currently assigned mission. The only real risk was Five’s presence in the building.
After checking through the files around the date I was searching for, I found a report that looked promising. It was recorded as a purchasing invoice for a number of supplies that would not seem overly suspicious if the document were to be misplaced or lost. Given that all of the Order’s documents were technically a matter of record, and therefore accessible to any high noble we had long used code phrases in place of actual items.
As I read the manifest, I found the line I had been looking for. Now, how do I tell my lady about this? I absolutely cannot tell her Five is in the capital, or that I was confronted by him at what was supposed to be a routine debriefing… Right, I found this document in a military supply depot, not the Order’s headquarters. …but I still need to warn her that I might be under suspicion… I’ll allude to me being left out of the loop, she should be able to figure it out from there.
As I made one more lap around the abandoned building, I once again confirmed it had not been used in some time. There were a few small traces that a large number of people had once been housed here, however as for wherever they had then gone, there was no clue whatsoever. Shrugging to myself, I left the structure and made for the upper city. As Five had alluded too I did indeed have an order to pick up.
I arrived on the street outside of the building and for the umpteenth time since I left headquarters, I confirmed that nobody was tailing me. So assured, I quickly clambered up onto the roofs and cut across them. Using the soon to be setting sun to my advantage, I occasionally darted through the shadow world to further confuse any potential trackers.
I arrived at my destination with only a handful of minutes to spare; the capital truly was massive, I had left the building in the slums at around four in the afternoon and it was now nearly seven in the evening. The building in question was a shop at which I had placed an order on behalf of my lady. I absolutely had to pick up the requested items before her social function tomorrow.
Entering through the front door, I was greeted by an elderly woman. “Took you long enough, I was just about to give up on you and close up for the day.”
I bowed my head contritely. “I apologize for my tardiness, some unexpected events came up. I have the money ready if you would like to quickly conclude our business.” The woman nodded and passed me a parcel.
I did not confirm the contents, doing so here would bring shame to my lady. I paid the woman and quickly left her store so that she could close shop for the night, then made for the Francois Estate. Only when I was safely back in my small quarters provided to me by Count Francois did I open the parcel and confirm its contents.
Holding them up to the light so I could confirm the quality of the work, I nodded to myself. I imagine she will do her damndest to avoid having to wear these, but it is for her own good in the end. Hopefully she won’t fight for too long and get used to them quickly. I put the newly made training bras away before making my way over to my lady’s room to prepare her outfit for tomorrow.