As my fingertips made contact with Rhys’ front door, I felt the wood retreat under my touch and silently ease open. I flashed an uneasy glance aside to Seren and she immediately reached for her mace, unclipping it from her belt as silently as she could. I reached for my axe and dagger as well and took a deep breath in and let it out before I made a move to enter the home. Gripping my dagger tightly, I pushed open the door with my knuckles and stepped over the threshold with Seren on my heels.
There was little light inside the spacious foyer so Seren and I moved slowly, stepping lightly on the stone floor so as not to announce our arrival to anyone who might still be inside. I had been here twice before for tea, so I already had general knowledge of the layout. I recognized the ornately framed painting of the goddess Lyssa hanging on the wall to my left. It had been painted by Rhys’ great grandmother who had a mastery of art rivaling the greats and Rhys was quite proud to hang the work of art on his wall. The two intertwining women on the silver and amethyst canvas watched me with their piercing violet eyes, each with a knowing smile, as if they could see deep into my soul. I abruptly broke my gaze from the piece.
From the foyer, everything appeared to be fine. Nothing was out of place and there were no visible damage done. However, with every step, the cold void I felt grew. I swallowed hard, trying to keep myself centered and focused. In the quiet encasing the home, I could very faintly hear a rapid heartbeat thundering in my head in addition to my own. I looked over to find Seren’s chest heaving quicker than usual. A sheen of sweat had begun to form on her forehead.
“I need you to stay focused, Seren,” I whispered, making solid eye contact with her.
The young guardian took in a deep breath and set her lips in a firm line. She then gave me a silent understanding nod.
I nodded to the dimly lit room to our right and whispered to Seren. “Check the library. I will take the sitting room.” I motioned to the room on our left.
Seren nodded again to me in reply while gripping her mace tightly, and edged into her assigned room as I did mine. Heavy dark violet curtains hung half-closed over the windows of the sitting room, letting in small beams of the morning light and revealing the overall state of the wreckage. Normally, this room was kept in a pristine manner, but now the richly-colored upholstered chairs and lounges had been knocked over and there were unusual scorch marks burned into the walls in various places. Tables were tossed and broken tea cups were strewn about over most of the wood paneled floor and decorative area rugs. In the middle of the sitting room, an ornately decorated tea pot lay shattered in a puddle of a floral smelling tea and had filled the room with its scent. I searched the room but found no one and no sign of the intruder or intruders. I turned my attention to the doorway off of the sitting room leading to Rhys’ office.
Thin, icy fingers seemed to grip my throat as I gently pushed open the now crooked wooden door into the room. I struggled to breathe and had to brace myself against the wall next to the door for only a moment until the feeling subsided. The windows were lined with the same heavy dark violet curtains as the sitting room, but a couple of them had been pulled completely free from the curtain rod and lay in a heap upon the floor. Morning light poured in and spilled across the wrecked office. The glass in one of the windows had been shattered, letting in the occasional morning breeze. His desk, identical to mine, had been pushed over on its side, its top facing me, and there were more unusual scorch marks on it like the ones I saw in the sitting room. Papers lay strewn about and his quill and ink pot lay in a puddle on the floor. My arms began to shake from the cold, but I knew what I was feeling was merely an illusion created from my senses. This room was especially chilly and felt painfully hollow. The whole room held the bitter fragrance of death.
“Oh Grenth,” I found myself uttering. “Please do not let it be.”
My heart racing, I forced my steps onward even though I dreaded to peer over the edge of the fallen desk for fear of what I might find. Peering over the large wooden desk as I slowly approached, I saw the tattered and bloodied edge of a dark blue and silver coat. My heart immediately sank deep into the pit of my stomach. I could feel my chin quiver as I rushed around the side of the desk to find my friend and fellow guild founder laying lifeless on the floor.
“No!” I cried, forgetting about the possibility of a lingering perpetrator still in the house. I dropped my weapons as I fell to my knees beside his body, gripping his broad shoulders with my hands. “Rhys?!” I reached out as far as I could with my senses, searching for any thread of life he might still be clinging to but I felt none.
He was gone.
Loud footsteps came rushing towards the room. I reflexively snatched my axe up from the floor and raised it, ready to defend myself and my friend’s body, but dropped it once I recognized Seren’s form pushing through the crooked door. The young guardian’s face fell when she saw me kneeling next to Rhys’ lifeless body. Still holding her mace in her hand, Seren looked down at the body and then back at me.
“Is that,” she asked quietly, motioning to the body with her mace. Her eyes wide, she raised her free hand to cover her mouth. There was something in her eyes at that moment, a pure innocence that reminded me just how young Seren really was. I had seen the same expression when I encountered Seren in the battle for Lion’s Arch against Scarlet. She was guarding a small group of children who had been abandoned, and her partner had been slain. A group of Aetherblades, Scarlet’s muscle, had pinned her down yet she held her own. I had been following an Aetherblade thug who thought he had given me the slip and made quick work of him. Through the cacophony of the battle, I heard their cries and made my way through the wreckage to their aid. She was only twenty then and had barely made Crusader status in the Vigil when I had brought her into our guild.
I silently nodded in reply to her inquiry, unable to speak and afraid if I did so, my sorrows would come pouring out. Bowing my head, I covered my mouth to stifle the sobs trying to surface as I watched Seren take the fallen curtain and gently spread it over Rhys’ body with shaking hands. Before she covered his face, I reached out to block her.
“Give me a moment,” I requested, my voice cracking slightly. “Search the rest of the house for anyone else. His mother often visits.”
Nodding solemnly, Seren left me and set to her task.
I sat quietly next to Rhys’ body, studying his face. His deep olive-toned skin had paled and there were bruises around his closed, narrow eyes. There was a large gash along the side of his head and blood had poured down and pooled underneath. My eyes welled up with tears as I reached out to touch his short, dark burgundy hair. I could see his black roots had grown in and wondered if he had decided to abandon this new color choice of his, as he did many others, and switch to another. Now, I would never know. As I traced my fingers along his long face, I felt my brow furrow intensely as my heart began to rage. Who had done this? Who had taken my dear friend from me? Why?
A strong gust of cool morning wind pushed through the open window, fluttering the heavy curtains. I looked up, the noise catching my attention, and noticed a mark mostly hidden behind the material on the wood paneled wall that looked like a letter. The curtain had been covering it up but the strong gust had managed to move the material back ever so slightly. I rose and stepped carefully around Rhys’ body towards the wall. I grabbed the soft but heavy material and pushed it aside to reveal words that had been haphazardly carved into the paneled wall with what I deduced was a blade. It was a list of three names.
Rhys Aers, Sir Fendall, and Nienna Valar.
A ragged line had been cut through Rhys’ name.
My breath stuck in my chest and I felt my heart leap into my throat. Was this the day the three of us had believed could come? We had agreed it was possible which is why we had taken the precautions that we did. We thought we would be safe. We thought we could rest and get on with our lives. I was not prepared for this. I was not ready to have to say goodbye. I did not want to face the reality of what had happened and what could now happen next but there was no escaping it. Events had already been set in motion and it was imperative that I kept my wits about me. There was already too much blood on my hands. I calmed my mind and breathing, directing my focus on the immediate task at hand.
I needed to get rid of our names on the wall for fear of people asking why they were there in the first place. I knelt down next to his desk and pressed the hidden button on the left leg, triggering a compartment on the underside of the desktop to open. I fished out a small stack of parchments, folded them as tightly as I could and stuffed them into a hidden loop on the backside of my wide metal belt for safe keeping. Mustering a substantial amount of energy, I retrieved my axe and set to work on the wall. I knew I had to be quick. As soon as I started making noise, Seren would be coming to see what it was. I swung my axe as hard as I could at the wall, taking my energy and forming it into sharp green bolts of force. They clawed at the wood paneling and after a few more swings, the names were completely gone and replaced by a jagged gaping hole ripped all the way down to the stone outer wall.
Heavy footsteps thundered their way back to me and Seren rushed into the room again, just as I had suspected she would. “Is everything okay? What was that noise?” she asked, wide-eyed and breathing heavily. Strands of her messy brown hair had fallen in front of Seren’s face and she pushed them back as she looked at the damage I had done to the wall.
“J..just letting off some steam,” I replied, clenching my jaw and looking away. I hated having to lie to her but it was necessary. These lies kept everyone safe. At least, that was what I kept telling myself. “Did you find anyone else?”
“Yes,” Seren replied gravely. “There were three more bodies in the kitchen. All dead. Two women, one older. Also, one man. The older woman was dressed in fine clothes the same color and design as Rhys’ coat.”
I bowed my head. Rhys’ mother and very likely the cook Lanie and their home attendant Victor.
She held out her hand. Resting on her palm was a small hexagon-shaped device that I recognized. “And I found this.”
“An Inquest sound deflector,” I revealed. “No wonder no-one heard the commotion.” Gently, I covered Rhys’ face with the heavy curtain, all the while wondering how Inquest technology ended up here. “We need to contact the Seraph immediately.”